Chains Like Knives


Chains Like Knives




by



Ann Marie Olson





Story 2000 Ann Marie Olson









Prologue


      Absently, Sevrin waved up the lights. I can't see this last line he glared at the old book, trying to discern the faded handwriting. 'And in the time of the Bear and the Eagle, there shall come a great change. Guard ye well the line of the travelers, for therein lie both the seeds of destruction and the wellspring of the future.' Standard mystic gibberish, Sevrin sighed.
      He hoped Arkay might know something about this particular prophet. It had been almost two weeks since his other father had come home, and he missed him tremendously. Intellectually, if not personally, Sevrin well understood his father's fascination with and infatuation with the silver haired Lord Fatima. From his own researches, he had discovered one of the things which often went into a great pairing, on top of selyn compatibility, was complementary personalities, not similar personalities.
      When he had brought this theory up to his mother, Karola, she had stammered and stuttered as if he had caught her indulging her passions with Avilan, again. For some odd reason, the same hiding places Sevrin preferred to escape his other siblings, his parents also preferred for their trysts. It was annoying to say the least.
      Considering the state of the book again, Sevrin decided to give up on it for the time being. Idly he waved up the lights and began cleaning up his room. It was already quite neat, and only required a few final touches. As Sevrin had never had any intimations at all about going through change over, he had told his parents very early on it would probably be best if he concentrated his energies on those things which would make him a satisfactory Sharm Lord. This meant fine needle work, musicianship, dance, of course fighting and also scholarship. Only the last truly was all that interesting to him personally, but he knew if he was at least competent at the others, he could well get by.
      "By all the feathers of Azrael's wings." Sevrin swore as the skein of thread from his latest embroidery project skittered under his bed as it bounced off his fingertips. Kneeling down to get it, he had to wave the lights up so he could even faintly see beneath the piece of furniture. Still muttering under his breath, he turned to the door.
      "Sevrin, the physical ... It's bright in here." Arkay strode into the small room, looking confused.
      He looked around into the deep shadows, blinking. "I can hardly ... " he said and then stopped in mid-sentence. "I believe there is a problem here." Sevrin fought to sound as calm as humanly possible, indulging in hysterics would not improve the situation at all.
      "If you would come here, m'lad." Arkay said softly.
      Good, he is not going to get overexcited. Sevrin was relieved. "Certainly, my father." he walked toward the voice. Now he could barely see a thing, despite the heat of the sunlight coming in the windows and the lights at near full brightness. The last thing he remembered seeing in his life, was Arkay's kind, sad gaze as his father leaned down to kiss his now sightless eyes.
      "Establishment may have stolen my vision, but it hasn't stolen my mind or my life." he railed against the wails and sobs of his other parents. Both Karola and Avilan had fallen into quite excessive fits of hysteria.
      "I'm afraid it has stolen your life." Nashen's voice was ringing with a sadness Sevrin couldn't quite understand. It was not the elaborate emotionalism of his blood parents and he turned toward the sound.
      "I don't understand." he blinked, still trying to clear the darkness from his eyes, despite the futility of the gesture. Arkay had examined him thoroughly immediately after it happened, and determined that as his selyn production began, it destroyed all his optic nerves past regeneration. Sevrin had, at the time, simply decided that he would then learn to get by without. There was nothing else he could have done.
      "No one who bears a major congenital deformity may continue among the living." Nashen said. "My sister was one such."
      "Then who shall take care of this mess, for I certainly do not care to do it myself." Despite all his resistance to rampant emotionalism, Sevrin could not quite bring himself to easily say the words, 'kill myself'. It was not particularly rational, he knew it, was annoyed by it, but still could not bring himself to do it. A sigh escaped his lips. "Although I would much rather sit down for this discussion than be left standing like a miscreant child, if it is not too much of a burden, my Lord Fatima?"
      "Certainly, sit." he said. "Would you like a hand?"
      "Yes, please." Sevrin ruthlessly quashed the tremor which tried to invade his voice with its cracking. "I'm afraid Arkay rather left me standing in the middle of a room where I have no idea the location of any of the furniture." At this his mother howled and he could not stop from cringing. There were tones to it now which grated on his nerves like hot glass. "Actually I think it were best if we took this to another room." he turned his face towards his blood parents. "Much as I love them dearly, their cries are painful to hear."
      "I should have thought of that, thank you for the reminder." a chair creaked as its occupant stood. Long slender fingers took his hand.
      "Where is Arkay?" he asked, trying to decide how he was to deal with this situation.
      "I am right here behind you, Sevrin." he said, fortunately before his hands landed on Sevrin's shoulders, or he might have seriously embarrassed himself by acting startled. "I too would like to be consulted on your future, if you do not feel to uncomfortable discussing it with me as well."
      "I only wish my blood parents were capable of rational speech." he heard his voice rasp with annoyance.
      "Be easy on them Sevrin." Nashen's voice cracked like a whip. He had never gotten sharp with any of the children of the Azov household before and Sevrin turned towards him. "They may not have your intelligence or control, but they are good people." His anger was obvious from the harshness of his tone.
      "But am I not the one most affected by the situation." he tipped his chin up. "After all it is my life, or lack thereof, we are talking about." Sevrin felt himself hustled from the room. A door slammed behind them. Nashen's hand pulled him down the hallway and into another room.
      "Now, young man." he said, boot heel grating on the floor as he turned to face him. "You will not be so vicious to your own blood parents."
      "They are the ones in hysterics." Sevrin pointed out.
      A ringing slap came out of the darkness. "Damn you, Sevrin." Nashen growled. "They did nothing to deserve your scorn."
      Sevrin rubbed at the side of his mouth, feeling a trickle of blood trace from his mouth from where Nashen's hand had forced his lip back against a tooth. "You have no right to hit me." he said cooly.
      "I have the right to do whatever I think fit with one of my children so they learn to respect those who are deserving of it." Arkay's voice was low and threatening. "Your offhand comment about your own lack of future was not a kind thing to say in front of your blood parents."
      "Then what should I have said? That I was thrilled that the length of my own life is to be measured in hours, not years or decades." His jaw clenched with rising anger.
      "Did you ever think they might be upset because they love you and don't wish to see you die for something they probably feel responsible for?" Nashen growled.
      "That was obvious." He said.
      Another slap came out of the darkness. "You are the most self-centered, arrogant, child I have yet to meet, Sevrin. What did they ever do to deserve such unkindness from you?"
      "Nothing, other than falling apart when I might well have wished to speak with them and most likely say good bye." His eyes stung with pain and the beginnings of tears. "I love them Nashen, as I love Arkay and you." His voice cracked. "I love life, despite what has happened. Other than being unable to see, I feel more alive than I ever have before and do not wish to give it up so soon." Scalding hot tears escaped his control. He wished he knew which way to turn so as not to show his weakness so obviously, so instead he simply stared into the darkness, as if his emotions had not betrayed him. "I do not know what will happen to me as I step beyond the veil, and I had not wished to be so soon." He licked salty tears from his lips, ignoring the sting in the tiny cuts Nashen's blows had made.
      "I can well understand your hurt, Sevrin." Nashen said, tracing what had to be tentacles over his face. The feel was both familiar and not. The soft velvet over steel touch of them was reminiscent of his mother and yet the emotional contact implied was entirely new. "But can you see it is not right to take out your hurt on those who care for you?"
      "I will never see them again." the common words held so many more meanings now. Reaching up, he pressed Nashen's tentacles to the side of his face, wanting so much more contact. "I will never see anyone ever again." And with this his situation finally struck home. Unable to stop the dissolution of his emotional armor, he dropped his face to the side, wishing he could simply curl up in someone's arms. To face his own death was one thing, to do so alone was even more than Sevrin could cope with. He hugged his useless arms to his chest. Never to experience a lover's touch, never to experience a Sime's grasp, never to hold his own child in his arms, never to even get the chance to try to find his match-mate.
      "Sevrin." Arkay's large hand landed on his shoulder. "Would you like us to leave you?"
      "No" he sobbed despite himself. He flipped his head up, imagining he could see the stars overhead. "I'm so afraid, Arkay."
      "I can understand your being afraid and hurt." Nashen's voice was now soft. "It still doesn't give you the right to hurt others in your pain."
      "I know." he swallowed heavily past his tight throat. "Would you, both, hold me?" And with that two pairs of arms surrounded him, one hot, the other cool, wrapping him in their love and affection.
      When his own hysterics passed, Sevrin smiled sheepishly. "I'm sorry to have fallen apart on you."
      "If you hadn't eventually, I would have called for Diomid." Arkay said and his hand stroked the side of Sevrin's face. "You are barely fifteen, Sevrin."
      "I know." the thoughts of the things he would never know pounded on him with brutal force. "I don't want to die, Arkay!"
      "I don't want you to go." There was a catch in his voice as well. "I love you."
      "And I as well, young man." Nashen's voice was also very sad. "There is one option available to you."
      Hope leaped in his heart.
      "It may not be as joyous as you think, Sevrin." He swallowed heavily, and took a deep breath. "You do have a history of scholarship. The Veiled may accept you."
      "Not if I can't read or write." he shook his head, now crushed. To have been so close to any solution was more shattering than to have it never have been mentioned.
      "A moment." Arkay's hand went cold on his shoulder. "Yes, they will take you." He said finally. "You have an hour to present yourself at the Cathedral. They ask that you bring no more than three tokens of your past, and nothing irreplaceable or bracelets. Your clothes are incidental and will be returned to your family."
      "Before you rush off." Nashen held him tightly for a moment. "Think carefully on what you take with you. As soon as you pass the doors, you will be dead to all of us outside the veil."
      "I will." his whole body was shaking. "And, if there is any way at all possible, I would like to say good bye to my siblings as well as my parents."
      "I think that quite wise. Now go and comfort your blood parents while I get together some things I think you will wish to consider." Arkay said quickly. "Go, Nashen will lead you."
      And so it was done. Three things; a worn silver thimble from his father Avilan, for all the time they had spent beading and embroidering together; a tiny lap harp from his mother Karola, for the time she had taken to teach him his music; and from Arkay and Nashen, a ring of two bands intertwined for the memory of their boundless love.

Chapter 1

      "Um, excuse me." Vanesa was not feeling so very bold this morning. She knew her assigned transfer partner was going to be late, only showing up less than an hour before transfer, now she had found out the train was going to be late. "Could you tell me where to find someone by the name of Diomid?" So here she was taking her brother up on his advice. Perhaps this person could let her spend some time with their Donor.
      Even though she really wanted to find out if this Donor in front of her really did have as spectacular a nager as she imagined, first.
      "Yes" he turned. Her first impression was that of an eagle, with blue-grey eyes the color of frost.
      "So could I" and the channel sitting next to him and blinked big, innocent looking silver eyes at her.
      She waited and they continued to simply sit there and look at her. "I'm sorry, my manners are usually better. My name is Vanesa Tegue ambrav Kaon, Sectuib in Kaon."
      "So are ours." the silver eyed man smiled. "We were teasing you. My name is Nashen Fatimovich Fatima, Lord Fatima and this idiot next to me is Arkay Sergeyevich Fatima, Sharm Lord Fatima."
      "Who are you calling an idiot?" the big Donor's voice rumbled threateningly and Vanesa could have sworn she felt a chill breeze run down her back.
      "You" Nashen put an olive in Arkay's mouth. "You'll have to excuse us, we're both still a bit post."
      "I would certainly hope so or we're missing a great deal of selyn." Arkay said, his nager twinkling with his high emotions.
      "Now, you were looking for Diomid, correct?" Nashen said and the banter made even her smile.
      "Yes, actually I was." for all the odd clothes and harsh accents, these people seemed amazingly friendly.
      "He's right there." Nashen pointed with the piece of cheese he had been feeding Arkay. Arkay grabbed at it, licking Nashen's fingers in the process of removing it from Nashen's grasp.
      "Arkay, quit." he tapped the other man on the nose. "I don't think Vanesa is really in any condition to deal with our love play."
      "No, it's fine." she shook her head and looked the direction Nashen had pointed. Actually it was. The byplay seemed so natural and unforced, it didn't grate on her nerves at all.
      "If you wish to speak with me, it will have to be this morning, I'm afraid." Blue-grey eyes, the exact same shade as Arkay's seemed to look right through her.
      "If you'll excuse me then?" she nodded her head.
      "Quite all right, Vanesa." Arkay said and caressed her with his field. She had never felt such a thing, as if it had reached out and stroked her rather than simply conforming to his physical body.
      "Quit flirting, Arkay. Wait till she's post." Nashen's field seemed to reach out as well and interpose itself. Then his words hit.
      "No, not necessary at all." she stammered, trying to draw her dignity back around her.
      "Come here, little one." the man called Diomid said, holding out his hand as if he were a regular Donor, despite his unorthodox words. Gingerly she took it, bracing herself against any backlash, but all she felt was his large, gentle hand wrap around her own. "You are little." he got to his feet.
      She bristled, thinking about pulling her hand back.
      "I'm sorry." he raised her hand and kissed the back of her fingers. "I should know better about making referents to someone's size." He looked down at himself depreciatingly.
      "But you are not short." she immediately said, and then looked at their hands, still touching.
      "Compared to my fellows I am." he managed to somehow get her hand on his elbow and was leading her from the table. "Kirina, I believe I should speak with Vanesa in private."
      "I think that would be best." the woman he had addressed zlinned entirely unamazed to see her partner ask to take someone off to a private location. She seemed to smile a bit at some secret. "I'll take Kalin and Shanir out to run about in the yard while you are talking. Maybe then we can get some peace and quiet this afternoon when he is down for his nap."
      "You were the one who wanted another child." his smile was absolutely infatuated.
      "I know, you remind me every time he gets into another scrape." she sighed, giving him back the same infatuated smile. "I don't remember Miran being this difficult."
      "I think it's nature's way of making sure we don't turn coward after the first." his deep chuckle seemed to rumble through his body.
      "I won't keep him too long." Vanesa promised. "And promise to return him in one piece."
      "He'll know how long you require." and with that odd phrase, Kirina hefted a toddler onto each hip and headed out for the courtyard.
      "Don't be out too long. It's going to rain in about an hour." Nashen said, as if it were a certainty. Vanesa hadn't remembered a cloud in the sky.
      "How long is it going to last?" she turned to him, as if asking what color she should paint the walls.
      "Don't know. Depends on how long your nephew can hold out." he grinned at her. "Vanesa?"
      "Huh?" she blinked, staring, totally baffled.
      It must have been obvious how confused she was, since Nashen went on without her answer. "No idea, love. Probably no more than a few hours though."
      "All right, I'll bring 'em in when it starts and let you and Arkay babysit for a while." she glared.
      "Yeah!" Mikhail's son cheered. Shasha, Vanesa remembered. "I like my dads. When's Mikhail going to be back?"
      "Tonight, after it rains." she told him, quite seriously. "Think you can wait till then?"
      "Yes, mat'." his lip quivered. "I don't like this time of the month. Everyone's gone all the time."
      "That's not true. You get a chance to see all your friends at this time, don't you?" she asked the child.
      "Yeah, we get to go visiting." Kalin looked proud of himself for bringing it up.
      "That's true." he sighed. "But I just got to know Mikhail and now he's gone again." The little boy's tone was so sad, Vanesa was doubly grateful she hadn't followed through on taking him away from these people.
      Diomid whispered in her ear. "We, the leaders of the Demense, normally keep our cycles within the same week. That way we can trade off child care and, occasionally, partners if we must. Everything slows down for that week and then goes back to normal for the rest of the time."
      "Ah, like weekends." she looked at him. "You know, that is a good idea." Vanesa wondered if that might work for Kaon and then decided against it. Having her and her sister in hard need at the same time would not be a good idea.
      "It works for us." he put his hand on top of hers. "Now, would you prefer our room or is there somewhere else you would like to go."
      "I heard you made some changes." she looked up at him and he immediately led her off.
      "A few." he patted her hand. "There were some adjustments that had to be made for many of us to be comfortable." Soon he opened a door for her. Vanesa blinked in surprise, even though with his contact, need seemed to be as distanced as if he were a 4+ Donor. How did he know I wanted to come up here with him? she looked around curiously.
      There was a large pile of pillows and blankets in one corner, where the bed had been. She had wondered where all the extras had come from. The chairs and table had been covered with a brightly colored cloth, all in reds and golds. A basket of fruit and bread held it in place. "If you don't mind, I would like to eat a bit more." he said softly, still steering her into the room.
      "Only if I can join you." she said, much to her own surprise.
      "Be my guest, as I am yours." he handed her an apple. It was one of the tangy, sweet, winy, black skinned ones she loved. They were still quite uncommon, even though the propagation of them was progressing quite nicely in their new orchards.
      "Thank you." she looked to the chair. With a nod, he released her hand and sat across the table from her.
      Peeling a rather well stored orange, he began, "So, did you wish to simply talk or was there something in particular you had in mind?"
      "Mikhail said you were the best doctor in the world." she gave him a grin.
      "I am certain he was exaggerating." Diomid grinned wryly. "I do have some abilities as healer, but I am not a miracle worker."
      "Even though I had expected a channel." slipped out before she caught it.
      "Sometimes it is possible to expect such a thing, say when a woman is pregnant." he grinned, licking some of the orange juice from his fingers. "There is not a great deal a channel can do, I can not." he looked at her and then she had the strangest feeling she was sitting across from another Sime. Stunned, she zlinned. Diomid zlinned Sime, renSime eight days after turnover to be exact. Then he zlinned high field Donor again. "It is amazing what practice and a little talent can do for you."
      "I would say." she studied her memories and realized the zlinning was precise, without the echoing effects of it being a channel's secondary field. Then she was tongue tied, realizing he was waiting for her to speak.
      "Are your autumns normally this warm?" his unexpected question surprised her.
      "Actually this one had been a bit cool and damp." she replied automatically. "Mikal always used to love it when the weather cooled off."
      "I think late summer is my favorite time, when the watermelons get ripe." his grin was boyish, lighting his field with delight.
      "I love melons of all kinds." she shook out her hair. "Peaches too."
      "So you are a summer person as well." he continued and soon she was chattering with him as if she had known him all her life.
     
      Vanesa had been a much tougher nut to crack then her brother. Armored emotionally and nagerically with stone glass half a meter thick, it took Diomid almost an hour to get her to unbend enough to even near the topic he knew she was wanting to talk about. "And my Donor won't be here until tonight." she was curled up in his lap in the nest of pillows.
      "But is there someone you can stay with until then?" he tucked her head under his chin. She is so tiny. he stroked her tense body, trying to smooth out the knots. Vanesa kept snarling up as fast as he could work them out.
      "Riana is here. You said Mikhail would be out of seclusion this afternoon." she sighed. There was still something more she was hiding.
      "But even still, is there no one waiting for you afterwards?" he kissed the top of her head.
      "No, that's why ..." and she stopped and shivered.
      "Was there some reason you wished for Shanir's company so much?" he twitched a blanket over them. The promised rain had arrived and with the window cracked open, it could get a bit chill in the room.
      "I hadn't thought of it like that." she relaxed a tiny bit more as she thought hard. No I'm sure you didn't, little one. "He's such a wonderful child." her heavy sigh tore at his heart, even behind his healer's facade. Now I know. he kissed her again, holding her close and thinking.
      "Would you be willing to take an alternate?" he asked softly, planning for all he was worth. The crystallization of ignored hopes and self hidden dreams was stunning. Rarely had he felt the breakthrough this strongly and smiled, knowing full well what this young woman wanted.
      "Yes, I would." the plain words hid a field licking at him with absolutely fearless fascination.
      "There is someone I would like in on this." he said. "Do you mind?"
      "No, not at all." her mind flashed on the image of Vayer so clearly it stunned him. It was hard to hold back his chuckle. *Vayer* he sent out a tendril of thought.
      *Yeeessss?* came back the feel of curiosity, need, warmth and the sharp scent of intrigue. What a combination. Diomid thought to himself.
      *Vanesa?* he sent what he knew of her.
      *Who?* The question was sharp, wavering between Diomid and Darya.
      *Kirina* he sent, giving her all the information at once.
      *Do it, beloved.* she gave him a kiss. *The lads really are lonely without their mothers. I'll take off m'brother.*
      *Love you, sister mine* Vayer sent back with a total affirmation from him and Darya.
      "Come on with ye, m'lass." he picked Vanesa up. "I have something I would like you to see."
      "Put me down." she held him tightly, burying her face against his chest.
      "We're not going out of our wing, little one." he held her tightly. "Although before you worry, Kirina and I have an understanding. It will not upset her at all for you to take transfer from me." As slowly as melting ice, he began slipping the controls from his field, letting it twine about her with his arms. "Actually she had said this morning she wished to spend more time with the children." Diomid deftly slipped the suggestion into her mind she truly had heard Kirina say such a thing.
      "I want her to tell me herself." Vanesa looked up at him suspiciously. "I don't remember her saying anything like that."
      "She'll back up everything I've said." As long as you can't listen in, you suspicious little minx Diomid was actually rather fascinated by this strong willed young woman. If he didn't have such problems engendering healthy children, he would be seriously tempted to take Vayer's place later, but for Vanesa to be forced to deal with a still birth or a monster would be a disaster.
      "I'm sure she will." There was a tightness about Vanesa's lips that told volumes about her temperament. The Sharm Lord who finally caught this one for good would be in for a wild ride.
      "Really, zlin me." he smiled, opening his field to her completely.
      "I know quite well you can lie to me with your field, Diomid." her temper was rising into her own.
      "I wouldn't except to heal." he looked her straight in the eyes. "I swear to you on my honor, Sectuib Vanesa." Which was absolutely true, as far as it went.
      Her zlinning was so intense it almost scorched his toenails. He raised an eyebrow at the intensity of the examination. "Content?"
      "Yes" her demeanor softened. "I'm sorry to be so suspicious."
      "It is the way you are." he said. "You would be someone else otherwise."
      "You are so incredibly glib, Diomid." she said, shaking her head with a tiny smile playing about her lips.
      "It is who I am, Vanesa." after the long, deliberate detour, they finally came to the room Vayer, Darya and Shanir shared. He knocked. "Would you have me change?" he jested.
      With perfect timing, aided by all the sendings, Kirina opened the door. "Please, come in."
      Vanesa wanted to be put down, so Diomid set her lightly on her feet, still keeping the physical contact between them and shielding her very sensitive nerves with his own field. "I was about to begin, but Kirina convinced me to wait." Vayer stroked his sister's arm possessively. When they were together the similarities were stunning, despite the physical differences.
      "I wanted you to be here." Kirina told him, not even flicking her eyes towards Vanesa. "Vayer was good enough to honor my request for channel's transfer this month."
      "Why would you want that?" Vanesa stepped forward, Diomid right on her heels.
      "Because I would like to spend this evening with the children and not be tied down with an over strong post reaction." she lied like a professional and Diomid winked at her.
      "But what about Diomid?" she turned to him.
      He shrugged, looking out the window.
      "Well?" Vanesa demanded.
      "If he could find someone else, I think it would make him happier and perhaps then he wouldn't steal all the blankets tonight." Kirina snorted. "He is a horrible blanket thief, Vanesa."
      "But I still want to sleep with you tonight and I don't think anyone who would have me in transfer wouldn't let me go to you so easily afterwards." Diomid grimaced, looking to Vayer.
      As smoothly as glass he picked up his cue, "Well, they could take their post reaction with Darya and me."
      Vanesa tracked perfectly, looking at Vayer and licking at her lips. It was too perfect. "I think I might well be interested in such a situation. My Donor won't be here until well after my time for transfer, and, well, I really wouldn't feel comfortable sharing my post reaction with the person I have transfer with. It is just too easy to form a dependency."
      Diomid cut this one off right at the pass, before anyone else could say anything, "And it would be horrible for you to want to mate with someone who must live apart from you. I understand. You have your own life and work. It's fine."
      "Then it's settled." she said, giving Diomid a truly inscrutable look.

Below:

      Over the long, empty years, Sevrin had become accustomed to a life of scholarship and political intrigue. If it weren't for the never ending loneliness and isolation, it very well might have been the life he would have chosen for himself. The tremendous amplification of his gifts as a Sharm Lord by the Veiled had given him back a facsimile of vision, although not for anything so mundane as a woman's face, but at least satisfactory for his reading and studies.
      Letting his fingertips drift over the page, he took in the words as their owner had originally implied centuries ago, comparing them to the more general trends in food production and weather patterns. This particular book had been written before the rise of the Demense of Fatima, and Sevrin was studying the effects of weather control on the evolution of society. There did not seem to be any superficial damage done, but the secondary effects were intriguing.
      Patiently weeding through the minutiae of daily life occasionally punctuated by unexpected hail storms and periods of drought, gave an image of great uncertainty Russia did not entertain today. Speaking into the device always at his elbow, Sevrin recorded his thoughts and observations before turning to his next task.
      The massive influx of people from the West had not been entirely unexpected by the Veiled. Among them were more than a few who could see the future, albeit imperfectly. The book Sevrin had been reading on the day he had lost his sight had been one of those which had been smuggled out of the Cathedral and never recovered. Sevrin had returned it to its rightful place in the vaults containing such dangerous information. The only question then had been what to do about it.
      So far it seemed their plans had been bearing fruit, even though the sweetness of such fruit was often bitter as gall. The crippling of Nashen's heir had torn Sevrin's heart until he could hardly function. Only his mentor had been able to get him going again with the reminder it was not his place to care for individuals with whom he no longer had any ties. Even his own name had been denied him in this place, with the others only referring to him as Slopye, or 'the blind one'. After Tzarya's defection, all contact with the outside world had been denied the Veiled, but through their intermediaries, like Arkay and Vayer, and then it was only mental contact.
      Then they lost contact with both Arkay and Vayer. No one they could speak with above was present. They had all traveled to continue the corruption of the Techton before it could destroy Rodina in its childish madness. Soon they would return, hopefully with the fruits of their conquest well begun, but if not, there were always other seeds to plant. Weeding his fields of the mind, Sevrin continued his studies, quite unaware of the plans fate had in store for him.

Chapter 2

      Vanesa eyed Diomid carefully. She knew he, and all of them, were plotting something. Every single one of the channels had the junct signature, but there was nothing at all undisciplined or uncontrolled about any of them, unlike the Distecht. Then she turned her attention to Vayer. She had seen him in passing, but hadn't known exactly who he was, other than an incredibly powerful channel.
      "Then I think we should give my nephew's sister an example of Russian hospitality." Vayer said. There were so many overtones and implications to his words it made Vanesa's head spin. Here is a man who truly wields power. the voice and the carriage screamed the thought to her. Now she knew why Vayer was the ruler of these people, it was simply who he was, as Diomid would say. What would it be like to gain that trait for Kaon? she asked herself and smiled at the answer. There was one way she could make the attempt.
      "Please, I don't know a great deal about you." she said simply. Vayer nodded to her and winked, as if in acknowledgment of equal power.
      "I would be surprised if you did, Sectuib Kaon." Darya said, startling Vanesa no end. The woman was still curled up an a huge nest of cushions in the corner, her eyes bright against her dark skin, and Vanesa noted, dark nager as well. "We are not the most transparent people in the world." Her voice was a dusky purr against her field twining about her like smoke.
      "That is an understatement, my love." Vayer's field reached out towards Darya and stroked it. "We have been together for nearly seventeen years and are very familiar with each other, Vanesa."
      "Quit bragging, Vayer." Kirina elbowed him in the ribs. The look he gave her was so familiar Vanesa had to look away. The two of them together were so obviously siblings.
      "But why?" he returned the look. "If I can't brag with three beautiful women here then what good am I?"
      "I'm not beautiful, I'm your sister." she stood on her toes and kissed him on the nose.
      "You are beautiful to me." Diomid purred.
      "You flatter me, my love." she preened. "And I love every word of it."
      "Then I shall do it until you give in to my unnatural desires." Vayer bowed to her, all the way down to his knee.
      "Ah, sirrah, I'm afraid I'm an old married woman with four children and ne way te keep ye." Kirina hugged him and planted a big sloppy wet kiss on his forehead.
      "Ack!" he wiped it off. "Sister germs, baby sister germs." It was too much, Vanesa had to laugh, even though she stifled it against her hand.
      "Four children? Is there one you have hidden under the desk at home?" Diomid asked archly.
      "Yes, four," she turned to him. "Tzanya, Miran, Kirin and Diomid." Her face was absolutely deadpan.
      Vanesa howled with laughter at Diomid's totally offended look. Then he gave her the classic lost little Gen expression and she had to wipe tears of laughter from her eyes she was laughing so hard. "Good, you feel better now." he said softly into her ear. "Need should not be a thing of torment."
      Taking stock, she realized how very right he was. Need still made its presence known, but the warmth and humor dispelled the horrible ache she usually felt right before transfer. His arm around her shoulders felt so very perfect. "Thank you." she said, smiling up at him. "Too bad you're already taken."
      "Very much so, m'lass." he kissed her forehead. "But there'll be someone younger and newer for you. Be patient."
      "Sometimes it's hard to be patient, Diomid." she leaned against him, now feeling very much at home.
      "I know. I had to wait to grow up before I could see my love waiting for me." he tipped his head toward Kirina. "But she was patient with me through all of it and now we have three fine, strong, children."
      When she looked away from Diomid's arresting gaze, she finally noticed Vayer and Kirina had stopped playing around and were faced off, just beginning to prepare for transfer. Diomid led her around until they were sitting with Darya on the edge of the nest. He stripped off his robe and set it aside. As if they had planned it, both of them put their arms around her. It was almost suffocating being between the two high field Donors there was so much selyn in their bodies. Very faintly she could zlin the interaction between the siblings. She leaned forward to watch more closely. I can't have zlinned that.
      Vayer was now projecting Gen, but not a passive, quiet Gen. His field shimmered with vibrant life, dancing just out of Kirina's reach. Her field hardened, beginning to edge towards kill mode. He backed up a stride, watching her every move. A low throaty growl rose from her throat, raising the hackles on Vanesa's neck. She had never seen or zlinned a kill in her life, but had heard the stories.
      "Be still, little one." Diomid whispered.
      Then the fields froze. For a heartbeat, Kirina's head snapped up, then she went into kill mode. Vayer sidestepped, dodging her rush. No Gen could have done that. Vanesa's eyes widened. Kirina howled, pure predator. The dancing field teased at her again, laced with the very faintest tremor of fear. She snapped around and grabbed her brother. He rocked beneath the contact, but gave a yank backwards on her grasp. She fell on him, and he caught her, letting her make the final contact. A blazing flare of selyn shattered the ambient as she pulled at him.
      Then the most shocking thing, he pulled back, driving the ambient mad. Kirina snarled, breaking down the resistance and killing her brother.
      Or at least that's what it zlinned like. Vanesa blinked, looking at the two of them now hugging each other and pounding on each other's backs. "Goodness" she breathed, blinking some more. "I don't think I've ever seen a channel's transfer like that."
      "It won't work for more than a few months, but it does feel better than a splice, or so I've been told." Diomid murmured in her ear.
      "Thank you, brother mine." Kirina kissed his cheek, flush and happy with new life.
      "You are quite welcome, sister mine." he kissed her back. "And you were a delight, as always."
      "You just like to play the Gen." she tweaked his nose, looking at Darya and winking.
      She laughed, sending more ripples through the ambient. "Sometimes he likes to be caught." her field implied many, many things to the word caught, some of them quite obscene.
      "We'll see who gets caught later tonight." He licked his lips. His pink tongue behind the short black beard was a startling contrast.
      "I have to get going." Kirina said, winking at Diomid. "I'll see you this evening?"
      "I'll be waiting for you." he said, still holding on to Vanesa as Kirina left.
      "If I'm in the way ..." she looked at him.
      "You would be if you left me now." his heavy lidded gaze promised her things she wasn't quite ready to deal with and she leaned back. He shook his head sharply. "I'm sorry Vanesa. The little display was more than a bit arousing to me." Then she noted her heart was still pounding wildly, and it was not with fear. "Relax, I'm not going to leave you or force you into anything, Vanesa. If you wish to go, or would prefer a channel's transfer, we can arrange that as well. Nashen or Vayer should would be able to satisfy you."
      "No, no, I was simply surprised at the, well, enthusiasm." she shivered in remembered fear as she thought Kirina had actually killed.
      "It feels good and there is no harm done in it." Vayer wedged himself between her and Darya. "This feels good too." he leaned over and kissed Darya's neck. "Normally I would be more, well, romantic with a transfer partner, but Kirina and I have never felt comfortable with it. We were very close as children. The horseplay is another way to get us both excited enough to be able to really have a good transfer." The hot line of his body against hers was incredibly distracting, even before transfer, then she realized he was still sharing a bit in the post reaction he had given Kirina.
      "You have to get excited for transfer?" I've always been more than ready
      "Not an issue of have to really, but more want to." He smiled lazily at her, letting his own need come thrumming through his now almost empty secondary field. "Transfer should be a pleasure; it only comes once a month. Besides, I would not be much of a gentleman if I did not give my partner as much pleasure as I receive." His dark blue eyes were hooded. "It can not be said I am not a gentleman."
      "There are times when I like your being a rogue." Darya said huskily. "Come here and kiss me and quit flirting with Vanesa for a moment. I'm sure Diomid would like a turn."
      "Very much so." his voice rumbled and she turned back to him. Very softly, very gently, he traced the side of her face with his large hand. Her eyes closed as his field wrapped around her, a glowing, cool mist with a hundred eyes. The brilliant imagery was completely alien, but beautiful all the same. "Do you still wish for this, Vanesa?" he breathed, kissing her brow. His lips were soft and cool, promising her life.
      "I do." she opened her eyes and looked straight into his. He smiled, a slow, caring look full of concern and attention entirely for her. With only his fingertips, she felt her head tipped back. With that same, slow care, he kissed the base of her throat. His whiskers teased at the soft skin there, sending a shiver of warmth through the cold need at her core.
      One slow, soft kiss at a time he worked his way up to her lips. Every single contact tugged ever so gently at her need, drawing it out as if it were a timid animal and not a potentially raging beast. He licked at her lips. Startled, she licked back. Chuckling softly, he pressed her closer and kissed at them. Selyn spiraled around them as she opened her mouth to his. "Yes my pretty." he murmured, stroking her arms with his fingers. "Open to me."
      Dropping hyperconcious, she opened her field. The dark pit of need gaped at her feet. But it was not grabbing at her. Instead it waited, a tamed beast beneath the lash of Diomid's light. It cringed and cowered before the brightness shielding her. The cool mist draped about her shoulders and beckoned to the darkness.
      The velvet night began to rise, rearing out of the pit. Sustained by her guardian, she mocked it, throwing her joy at freedom in its ebony face. It snarled, calling for life. *Feed it* a heavy male voice told her. Throwing off the chains of need, Vanesa reached for the darkness within her. It came at her call, submissive to her hand and bowed at her feet. Reaching down, she grasped its soft chin in her hands. It whimpered, a low, piteous sound. Compassion called to her. Gently, she twined the mist about her hand and held it out to the darkness. Its tongue was cold and wet as it licked between her fingers.
      Lovingly, she watched the mist spiral down her arm. Slowly at first, the darkness breathed in the living fog. Then faster and faster till she and it were one, filling and filled with liquid fire, warming her entire body and soul. Heat and life renewed made her cry out to the now starry heavens in wonder.
     
      As gently as he had teased Vanesa into transfer, Diomid slid out of her grasp. He gave her one final soft kiss. "I am not for thee." he whispered so silently it was only a breath. "Thy companion awaits thee." he steered her towards Vayer, who was now also wildly post. Even before sense returned to her eyes, she had locked onto Vayer with the fervor of a convert.
      He caught Darya's eye. She was also wildly post, but encouraging Vayer with all her heart to go to Vanesa. "Later" a half smile teased at her lips and Diomid knew exactly what she had planned.
      "Good for you." he blew her a kiss. "He deserves another."
      "I know." she winked. Diomid let himself out, chuckling under his breath. Two someones were going to get a surprise from today's adventures.

Below:

      Thy companion awaits thee The words howled through Sevrin's sleeping mind, waking him in a pool of fear sweat. Until he had given up on his fantasies of companionship, those words tore him from restfulness on a nightly basis. The Veiled satisfied their bodies' needs with what he would guess were very powerful and complete transfers, but their emotional intimacy was only that necessary to gain the power they required for their talents. Never having known anything else, Sevrin, when he was younger, had fantasized about finding such emotional intimacy with another, but the iron strong traditions of the Veiled precluded all necessary prerequisites to such intimacy.
      Never had Sevrin spoken with a Lord in any way which would be in violation of the traditions of the Veiled. A few of his fellows, when he had first arrived had dared the bans. They had been destroyed shortly thereafter. It was said they were found unsuitable and their things they had brought from above destroyed with them. The ceremony had been chilling, with the persons found in error sealed in stone while the masters made the other young ones, like him at the time, be present while the bricks and mortar were emplaced. Sometimes a young one would simply be found unsuitable and given a similar end.
      The wet slapping sounds and clicks of stone sometimes still gave Sevrin nightmares, all these years later. Although he did admit to himself it was sufficient motivation to excel.
      Giving up on getting back to sleep, Sevrin untangled himself from his blankets and pulled his hair back into a knot at the nape of his neck. It had gotten quite long, never having been cut or subject to the vagaries of weather or wind. After a quick shower, he returned to his study. Work did not sooth him back to a restful state of mind and he debated with himself the marginal value of speaking with a mind healer. No, that would not be satisfactory. he decided.
      A knock came at his door.
      "Come in" he said and waited patiently.
      "Slopye, there is word from our travelers." a young male voice informed him, almost breathless. Sevrin really wished the sensitives would get their contact net in order soon.
      "We are in no rush here below. Time will fulfill its ordered course despite our demands on it." he said, narrowing his sightless eyes. "Speak clearly, young one and you will please me more than your rushed error."
      "At your will, Slopye." he could image the youngster turning his face away from his own visage. "All proceeds as planned."
      "Of course." Sevrin snapped, annoyed at the continued use of the hated name. "Is there anything of import you have to say?"
      "Only that Mikal has begun tightening the trade bonds quite satisfactorily."
      "How much better than expectations?" was his only question.
      "Approximately five percent over expected with the first tribe he contacted."
      "Which one." Sevrin snapped, annoyed at the youngster's indifference to detail.
      "Ummm ... I forgot to ask."
      "See that you don't in the future. Go on." he leaned forward, trying to give lie to his own blindness.
      "There will be another, more solid bond between the Rus and the Westerners as well." the young man almost chortled in glee.
      "I am not surprised." Sevrin lied smoothly. "Bring me the report when it is written up. Now be well and do your duty, young man." he opened the door of his study with his mind.
      "At your will, Sharm Lord." he scurried from the room, almost forgetting to close the door behind himself.
      Interesting, very interesting. Sevrin rested his chin on his steepled fingers. I wonder if my dream had anything to do with this? For dreams were the primary way they had of communicating across the globe in this day and age without repeater towers and satellites. It was how the sensitives worked, picking people's daily activities out of their sleeping minds.

Chapter 3

      Mikhail rolled over again, trying to get comfortable. It had been a wonderful couple of days, but he was itching to be up and about. Even having gone to get, and share, a quick shower and spend a couple of hours with Shanir didn't really help his restlessness.
      "Will you settle down." Tzer grumbled, and then he thrashed.
      "Easy" Mikhail grinned, untangling himself from the bedding. "Why don't we get going. I'm about to pop with energy."
      "Me too." he grinned right back and they both laughed. "Why don't we go for a run?"
      "I thought you'd never ask, come on." ignoring the chill in the air, Mikhail quickly got into a loose pair of pants and rather disreputable old shirt.
      "Ye look like m' gran'ther Avilan." Tzer snorted, looking at him from the door. He was only wearing a pair of shorts. Even though as he pulled at his ankles, Mikhail found them quite fetching.
      "Thank you." Mikhail bowed extravagantly as part of his stretching. "Aren't those going to be a bit, well, drafty?"
      "They're comfortable." he shrugged. "Besides, it's what, almost five out? Be serious."
      After slipping on one of the few things he had missed, running shoes, Mikhail ran past Tzer out the door. "Come catch me." and he headed for the stairs down at top speed.
      "No fair, you can go down stairs faster than I can." Tzer squawked, right after him. Eventually they made it to the road circling the extent of the old Kaon householding. As they ran, Mikhail pointed out old landmarks and places he had gone to play as a child. He's putting on a good pace Mikhail noted, watching his love's breath steam in the morning air.
      Finally they came back around to the beginning, but Mikhail still wasn't ready to call it quits. Sweat streamed down his flanks, but it felt so good. With a burst of speed, he headed for the stairs.
      "Great idea." Arkay bellowed, "Come on, Nashen." Mikhail heard from the hall behind them.
      "As soon as I finish getting dressed." Nashen snapped back. And soon they had company, eventually lots of company as almost everyone piled out into the hallways and ran the few stairs of the complex.
     
      The sound of running feet woke Vanesa from her sound sleep. What's wrong? she untangled herself from the bedding and bolted for the door. Opening the door she saw a whole crowd of people running up the stairs, her brother in the lead. "In here!" she shouted, waving him in, sure he was being chased.
      "What?" he looked stunned, and then a broad grin split his face as he slowed to a walk, everyone behind him coming to a crashing stand-still. The silly fool just stood there, chest heaving, as he looked at her as if she had grown a second head. "I'm fine." he panted, wiping at the sweat streaming down his face.
      "We're not done yet!" Arkay's voice bellowed from the rear.
      "My master calls." he tipped his head, laughed, and ran down the hallway. Tzer was right behind him and Vanesa stared at his broad back as he ran after her brother. Then the rest of the crowd passed by, Arkay and Nashen bringing up the end. Nashen was wearing even less than Tzer and the tiny, very tiny, shorts did not do a great deal for anyone's sense of modesty, or her blood pressure for that much matter.
      "You're drooling, little one." he stopped running and walked in little circles in front of her. She could see the long, strong, muscles of his thighs strain from the exercise.
      "And you're showing off." Arkay looked back and came to them. He was even more spectacular. "Come on, lover. We can talk later." he swatted Nashen's behind, making him yelp and run off. "No augmenting!" he shouted. Nashen's laughter echoed back down the hallway. "If you'll excuse me?" he tipped his head to her.
      "Certainly." she was so busy staring at his massive chest, he could have asked for the keys to the vault and she would have said yes. Then he ran off, putting on a burst of power to catch up, making her own breath catch. She leaned against the doorframe and stared. Pretty, pretty, pretty. she purred in the silence of her own mind.
      She turned, finding Vayer smiling at her with a very knowing look. "Like what you see?" he purred, sitting up and stretching. Her memory of all that sleek muscle beneath her fingertips made her knees quiver. "I think so." his eyes and field held a heat to dispel any chill. "Come back to bed." his request was kindly made, and it worked.
     
      Mikhail was left to explain this morning's little adventure to his sister. He didn't think this was particularly fair, but it could be a great deal of fun. "What in the world are you eating?" she looked at his breakfast with an expression of total disgust.
      "Um," he looked at it, not seeing what was the problem. "Fried potatoes, eggs, onions, tomatoes, cheese and a bit of red sauce." Nothing seemed to be amiss. He looked under the mass to see if there was a problem he couldn't see with a single glance.
      "All together." she backed up a step.
      "Why not?" Tzer swiped a slice of darkly fried potato. "Ooh, that red stuff is good." he stole another.
      "Get your own." Mikhail poked him with a fork. "Mine."
      "I think I will." Tzer grabbed the bottle of highly spiced flavoring.
      "That stuff is hot." Vanesa warned.
      "I know." he grinned back. "Good." He proceeded to just about drown his breakfast. Mikhail could feel the heat of it himself as Tzer indulged.
      "We'll be bringing back a few bottles." he whispered to his lover.
      "How about a few barrels. The Southerners would love this stuff."
      "Good idea." he returned his attention to his sister. "Now, you look like your tail is on fire. Is it from overuse or temperament?"
      Her face burned as red as the rooster sauce and Mikhail crowed with laughter. "Don't tease." she bit at her lip. Tzer waved her to a seat, making a point of putting a large, soft cushion on it. "Either of you." but she did sit down a bit gingerly.
      "If I can't tease my own sister, who can I tease?" he reached over and ruffled her short hair.
      She snarled and slapped at his hand.
      "Oh, ow, you hit a Gen." he looked at his hand with a pout.
      "Do it again." Tzer told her. "He deserves it."
      "Don't help Tzer." Mikhail told him, poking at him with his fork again.
      "Promise to fork me again?" he looked up through long, thick, eyelashes, batting them.
      "Really now." she laughed, sounding far more carefree than Mikhail had ever heard her. He knew quite well his oldest sister had a tendency to want to control everyone and everything around her. It was good for Kaon, but not for her heart.
      "Did you have a good time, Vanesa?" he asked, twining his love for his sib around her with his field.
      "Yes, I did." her smile was dreamy. "You were right, Diomid is the best."
      "At some things." he gave Tzer a very possessive glance. "But as a healer, in all ways, I would agree with you completely." There was no way, in words, he could tell her how happy he was to see her like this.
      But what words couldn't do, the bond between siblings could. He took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "I love you, sister mine."
      "And I love you, my brother." Her tentacles came out and bound their hands together. "Now, what was this with everyone charging through the halls like a herd of horses first thing in the morning? All after your sorry behind?"
     
      "Exercise? You were all running through the building like a bunch of demented children for exercise?" she couldn't believe it. Someone had set a plate full of food in front of her. Not paying any attention to what she was doing, Vanesa found herself shoveling it in like a Gen. The remains of grits with sweet syrup, fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, even half a loaf of bread and two tomatoes stared back up at her from her now clean plate.
      "Hungry, I see." Diomid sat down beside her, putting his arm around her shoulders.
      "Starving, it seems." Vanesa hadn't eaten like that since change over.
      "Must have been the exercise." he tapped her on the nose. "It's good for all of us."
      "Simes don't have to exercise." she gave him a quizzical glance.
      "Then why do you feel so good this morning, little one?"
      "I'm post." she said, but felt her confusion come through. "But I usually don't eat like this after transfer." She debated nibbling on another piece of bread with herself.
      "Simes require physical exercise the same way Gens do." he handed her the bread, after drizzling a bit of honey over it. "It is simply harder for them to get it."
      "How so? We can augment." The tasty, moist, warm, bread was wonderful. In her earlier ravening she had hardly noticed it.
      "And that is the problem. If all you ever do is augment, and not use your muscles properly, your entire body suffers for it. You lose your appetite, both for selyn and food, eventually, you lose muscle tone and skin tone, and fertility goes to almost nothing." he said calmly, putting honey and cheese together in a way she would have never thought of and popped it in her mouth. Chewing at the wonderful mixture of tastes and textures, she thought about what he said. Then she looked around.
      "We insist Simes eat at least one meal a day." even to her it sounded like a feeble excuse, zlinning the incredible good health of the people surrounding her. "Even when they don't want to. Simes live on selyn, not calories."
      "You live on selyn for energy." he hugged her close. "And you have to eat for the building blocks of your bodies. If you don't work your body, certainly, you don't have to eat. But that is not healthy. Physical exercise keeps the physical components of your body working correctly, as selyn gives you the energy to move that body around." He sighed, smiling at her like a father trying to convince a recalcitrant child. "Vanesa, cells in your body are dying and being made all the time."
      "I know that."
      "Good, I don't know what you do and don't know." he fed her something incredibly sweet and wonderful. It seemed to have all kinds of things in it her body desperately craved. "That is a date, by the way." He went on. "If someone, either larity, doesn't exercise their body enough, all those dead cells simply collect, poisoning the healthy ones. Energy can put together new ones, but without clearing out the old, and having the materials present from eating well, you won't be at your best.
      "Here, I'll show you." he said, looking around. "Nivanya!" he shouted over her head.
      "Yes, Diomid?" she shouted right back. It was strange the way none of the Simes used the huge nageric fluctuations in the ambient, almost as if they didn't zlin. Then she realized all of them only flickered into duo-consciousness for split seconds, and that rarely. Intrigued at the possibilities, Vanesa tried to copy the tecnique. At first it was like learning to stay duo-conscious, awkward and uncomfortable. But as she stuck with it, she realized it gave her an incredible freedom as well.
      "Better, little one?" Diomid whispered in her ear.
      "Much." she sighed and realized he had removed the protective barrier between her and everyone else. Now, when she did zlin, it was as clear as she was used to, but nothing seemed to bother her.
      "Now you feel Rus." her brother patted her hand. "Nice, isn't it?"
      "I've never been this free of my body." she blinked, realizing the truth of the matter. "Even being Tegue isn't like this."
      "Zlinning is useful, but it is not a panacea." A young woman appeared, taking a seat at Diomid's other side. "We teach our youngsters not to zlin all the time by setting them to work in the stables. Horses don't care about zlinning or Sime strength."
      "Fatima teaches hers by throwing them in the river." Tzer told her, with a wry grin. "I was not very good at it."
      "You almost drowned." Mikhail put his arm around Tzer's shoulders. "I had to drag you out and teach you to swim in the strong currents."
      "Yes, and my third best work Kador is still at the bottom of the river." Arkay tossed an olive pit at Mikhail.
      "You could have thrown me an uneaten one, Arkay." Mikhail lobbed it right back.
      "It is freeing for them too." the young woman said, taking one of the dates and nibbling on it. Her hair was a brilliant, flaming red and she had even more freckles tracing over her nose and cheeks than Vanesa herself. Bright green eyes looked up at her and Vanesa realized this woman was even shorter than she was. "My name is Nivanya Kironova Kirov, Lord Kirov."
      "Vanesa Tegue ambrav Kaon, Sectuib Kaon." she held out her finger and tentacle tips. Nivanya took her hand and shook it firmly, as if she were from Out-Territory, but letting her tentacles twine with Vanesa's. Of course in some ways, she really is from Out-Territory.
      "Now why did you drag me away from Ilyan?" she asked Diomid, and in that instant, Vanesa knew this young woman had a temper to match her own.
      "You are the closest in build to Vanesa." he said calmly, seeming completely unfazed by Nivanya's look of disbelief. "Seriously, we have been discussion the requirements of the Sime body for physical exercise."
      "Well, it feels good, for one." she smiled broadly. "I feel like hell if I go for more than a few days without a good run or bout in the salle. I don't want to eat, don't want to even get out of bed. Ick." she shivered in disgust. "For me I suppose that's enough. I'm not much of a theoretician, Vanesa. I'm a worker bee, despite being Lord Kirov."
      "You put yourself down too much, little one." Diomid kissed her forehead. "You've done a great job pulling Kirov together again after Val's last years."
      "Kirov is used to it." she grimaced. "Oh well, that's old water under the bridge." And with that, she began taking off her clothes.
      "Won't you be cold?" Vanesa asked, trying to give her an out for undressing in front of a complete stranger and all these other people.
      "I'm Kirov." she said, as if that answered everything. Perhaps it does Vanesa eyed the other woman's rather luxuriant hair, not all of it on her head. Nivanya was slender, true, but sleek like a cat, with only two ribs barely showing and the very faintest traces of the lines of muscle crossing her abdomen. A twinge of jealousy snapped at her as she noticed Nivanya's pregnancy. "Yes, two months." she said, beginning to put her clothes back on.
      "And why didn't you tell me?" Diomid looked down his nose at her.
      "Because it was none of your business." she snapped back.
      "Nivanya!" a man who must be her spouse, from the tone of familiar irritation, snapped out.
      "Yes, love." she turned to him.
      "You didn't go to Diomid like you said you would?" A tall young man came up and grasped her by the shoulders.
      "I hadn't gotten around to it." she said, snuggling into his arms.
      "I'm sorry, Sharm Lord Sergei." Ilyan stroked his hand through Nivanya's hair, almost completely covering her head with his large hand. "I thought she had gone to you for her first examination already."
      "I was going to." she snapped at him.
      "When, after he's born?" Ilyan growled back, still holding her as gently as he would a bird, completely at odds with his sharp words.
      "Before." she said, and Vanesa could see the grin beginning to peek out.
      "How long before, a week?" he asked, now teasing her back.
      "At least, maybe even a month." she said, hugging him tightly. "Oh I love you, Ilyan."
      "Good thing." he said, earning him a smack on the butt. "You hit." he sniffled mightily.
      "And you lie." she replied.
      "Not when I say I love you, Nivanya." he said softly.
      "You're forgiven." she purred, melting into his arms.
      "And you'll be forgiven as soon as Diomid takes a look at your skinny little carcass." he kissed the top of her head.
      "You're the carnivore." she snapped at his fingers in play.
      "Not last night." he said with a wicked grin and Nivanya blushed to match her hair.

Below:

      It was confirmed. That wily young snake Vayer had managed to seed the only viable leader the Techton had. Sevrin chortled in absolutely unaffected glee. He was even more spectacular as Ruler for Russia than his father had been. It would have truly been a shame if the Veiled had been so lax as to let either one of them be killed by Tzarya.
      As his siblings, as Sevrin still thought of them in the silence of his own mind, paired off, one by one, Sevrin actually had felt more connected with the world and not less. The lines of his parents were strong and healthy with the one exception of himself, having bred extraordinary fertility and viability into their children. Then he read down further and laughed out loud. Vayer's mate was even more tricky than he was.
      "It will be a good thing to have more than one of that sire's line available in Russia." he recorded into his own notes. "I was never happy with the line having only one representative, female at that." Females were never as strong for dissemination of critical bloodlines, as their limited fertility was a definite hindrance. They were excellent for strengthening a line in a back cross, however. "Perhaps we should investigate a reinforcement for the Vayer-Darya cross in the next generation or two. Creating a line of strong rulers might well be a good idea at this time. This particular cross might carry the strengths of leadership as talent as well as environment."
      Sevrin leaned back in his chair. It was a very, very good thing having placed Darya with Vayer. The out cross was worth the risk they had taken with her initially non-functional endocrinal system. It was not a genetic problem in origin, so they had arraigned for her to be healed of the flaw. Otherwise she would be down here with us. Tzer was massively powerful and did not share the insanity flaw. Bringing in the outsider Sharm Lord Kir and Darya's mother had been a stroke of genius. Nivanya was also free of the insanity flaw, although she was a carrier for it.
      He studied Nivanya's genotype again. There the damn thing is he glared at the strings of misarranged codons. She only had them from her father, but they were in the recessive form and not the dominant, unlike so many generations of Kirov. Ilya, Valentine's father, had been doubled up on the damn thing. Unfortunately many of them were cheek and jowl with the pyrokinetic and meteorological genes.
      Flipping through his records, Sevrin examined the current make up for Maryam. "Less than two generations and it will be done." Maryam was to die. She had outlived her usefulness to the Rus generations ago, and the additional stress of dealing with the Techton would be her death knell. "We should replace Maryam with the Vayer-Darya line, if we can. Even if the only trait we can stabilize for the new line is Darya's ability to determine larity and gender at conception, it would be a satisfactory replacement. Particularly as we managed to save the old Azov line through Alexandrya."
      That had been a stroke of good luck and a piece of Arkay's best work. Having Alexander Azovich beget at daughter on that animal sensitive lord had been an extraordinary bit of finagling. Too bad the back cross between Lord Nashen and Lord Kirina hadn't worked out. Thinking hard about it for a moment, he realized there was no way even the veiled could manage to get a back cross between Tzer and Darya. Even though that might well bury the damned necessary meteorological talents. Sevrin grimaced, realizing the dead end nature of that particular path.
      All of his wool gathering had at least managed to put Sevrin's mind back into its proper track. Reaching back into his pile, he went back to his calculations of the necessity of the timing for the occurrence of the next Fatima back cross. His research into the effects of weather control had led him to the decision that Fatima was necessary to the continued health of Russia without question.

Chapter 4

      "And just where have you been all night?" a strident female voice broke into the cheerful mood like a wet blanket.
      Vanesa turned towards the door. "I've been here, with our visitors." She said calmly, trying to steady the ambient. Soon she had more help in that department than she would have wished, with both Diomid and Arkay piling in to 'help'. "Don't help." she muttered under her breath. Both to Diomid and Arkay who was only now descending the stairs with his partner, the beautiful Nashen.
      "Sorry, Sectuib." Diomid murmured in her ear, backing off. Arkay did as well, but she could feel his reluctance.
      "Now, what can I do for you, Jina?" she asked, waving her erstwhile Donor to a seat.
      "I was two hours late and couldn't find you. What do you think I want?" Her growl set Vanesa's tentacles twining from their sheathes in protest.
      "But I had transfer." she decided to try to bull her way through this rather sticky mess.
      "Not with someone on the rolls." Jina looked around. "There isn't anyone within a hundred miles who could give you transfer except your brother and I know he is on controller's restriction." Her eyes narrowed at him.
      "If I may help?" Mikhail looked her straight in the eyes, and then winked.
      Be my guest. she waved him to the floor.
      "You are probably rather put out that your partner for this month has been satisfied, leaving you high and dry with no transfer in sight. Am I correct?" a smile was playing over his lips behind his light beard.
      "Yes" Jina glared at her. "And without it being on the rolls I can't get a reassignment."
      "Then what I recommend you do, as we are owed selyn from some place to make up for the shortfall, is that you give your excess to one of our channels." He sounded as if he expected the suggestion to go over well. What are you doing, brother mine?
      Jina obviously did not find it any more appealing than Vanesa would have in her position. "Do you think I'm some kind of shidoni fool?" she snapped. Every single one of the Russians leaned back from her with identical looks of distaste.
      "Please, Jina. My friends here find the words for a transfer abort to be particularly distasteful." Mikhail still had that knowing smile. "They also have some transfer techniques which are quite acceptable substitutes for direct transfer, for the short term, at least. Wouldn't you say, Vanesa?"
      As she had been busy day dreaming about the wonderful transfer she had with Diomid, she had to stop and regroup her thoughts. "Oh, yes, different, definitely."
      "But that's for Simes." she turned to Mikhail with a truly pitiful look. "You understand, don't you?"
      "Yes, I do. Gens get post too." he hugged Tzer to him. "Trust me on this." The look in his clear blue eyes was probably only truly comprehendible to another Donor, but Vanesa could catch the very edges of it.
      "Yes, I think you well might." Jina showed the first hint of a smile. "Then who would you recommend?"
      "Either Vayer or Nashen." He looked thoughtful for a moment, cocking his head and narrowing his eyes at her as if he could zlin. "You are too high field for anyone else but Tzer."
      "What about Kirina?" Vanesa figure that since she had been quite well satisfied by Diomid, his normal partner would certainly be all right.
      "No, Kirina is almost fifteen percent beneath Nashen and a hair more than that below Vayer."
      "What?" Vanesa felt her heart pound. "You mean I could have killed Diomid?"
      "No, no, sweet." he kissed her cheek fondly. "You couldn't have killed me unless I were ill or you took me from behind. I simply induced a splice-transfer."
      "A what?" she turned to look at him.
      "I spliced a bit of your secondary into your primary at the initiation of transfer before you truly began to draw from my own field." His light blue eyes seemed completely at home with his totally unfamiliar words.
      "Let me see if I have this straight." This sounded way too much like a Zaor technique for her peace of mind. "You siphoned off some of the selyn I hold for transfer to renSimes as part of our personal transfer?"
      "Yes" he shrugged, as if it were no big deal. "You weren't wanting a full transfer, which for us means involvement of all the selyn channels, including those which carry what we call talent, so a splice-transfer would not have been particularly any detriment."
      This was incomprehensible, but she thought she had the edges of it. "You mean to say as you did not give me a junct style transfer, this splice-transfer wouldn't be a problem."
      "Exactly, I think." And then he grinned that amazing smile at her and she forgot to fret about it. Other than having to adjust the records. She now noted the missing selyn in her secondary field.
      "So, as you can see, we do have a few tricks up our sleeves." Diomid held out his hands, showing them to Jina. "Mostly our unusual techniques come from making transfer feel better for the participants, both of them."
      "I would agree with that." A gentleman with the purest sapphire blue eyes Vanesa had ever seen chimed in. He was also the most stunningly beautiful man she had ever seen in her life.
      "I know you would, Avilan." His partner, a woman with silvered black hair and violet eyes quipped. "Avilan has a reputation to maintain."
      "Yes, for being the most randy gentleman in any company." Nashen piped up.
      "Not true. At least not with you and Arkay around." he licked his lips, making them glisten with moisture. What am I thinking about? Vanesa pulled herself away from contemplation of the gesture with a start.
      "That is just Avilan being an idiot. Don't mind him." Diomid whispered in her ear. "It's all for show."
      "Really, I was just playing, Vanesa." His silken voice was full of good humor. "I have my hands full these days with Karola and like it that way. So, as you can see Jina, we do have some skills which could make you more comfortable."
      "Who would you recommend?" she asked, sounding intrigued.
      "Well, what I would do is look at both of them and if I couldn't decide, try them both." His smile held shades of wickedness Vanesa did not want to deal with.
      "Avilan, quit." Mikhail lobbed an olive at him. "Personally I prefer Nashen, but then his son is my partner. Some people are put off by the tight bonding between him and Arkay, which might make you feel like Arkay is breathing down your neck waiting for you to slip and touch Nashen's personal field. Vayer is very smooth, very gentle and can be blazingly strong if you wish. His partner, Darya is a great deal more easy going and less likely to make you feel as if you were intruding." He pointed to the people in question.
      "Goodness." Jina looked and zlinned completely overwhelmed. "Um, do I have to make a decision right now?"
      "No" Vayer said gently. "Your choice. If you don't wish to, we won't hold it against you either."
      "Certainly not." Nashen added. "Just as our women choose who they will bear children to, our sharm lords chose who they would like to have transfer with."
      "Like to?" she pounced on the phrase.
      "Sometimes there is a bit of, um, persuasion involved." Avilan grinned, shedding his years with an ease Vanesa knew she would envy very shortly. "Not all transfer partners wish to be caught and sometimes there is a bit of pursuit involved."
      "Too bad you aren't a channel." Jina smiled back.
      "I would be more than willing, as I am barely below Nashen." Avilan's partner joined in. "My name is Karola, by the way."
      "Nice to meet you." Jina eyed her with more than a bit of interest. "Does Avilan come with the package?"
      "If you like." she grinned. "I don't mind at all. However you would most likely not get anything more of it than a bit of exercise."
      "I hadn't planned on anything else." she blushed furiously, but still looked up at them with a great deal of interest.
      "Why don't you come talk with us for a bit, Jina." Karola said, smiling softly. "I would like to know a bit more about you."
      "I'm only a Donor, First, but still." she grimaced, as if having to admit the fact were distasteful, and in these surroundings, Vanesa truly did feel sorry for the fact she felt the necessity to say such a thing.
      "You are a person, Jina." Vanesa told her. "Not a piece of property and certainly not just a Donor. I would certainly hope you have a mind and a will of your own."
      "Well, yes." her lips twitched with a repressed smile. "Put that way, I suppose so, although I did not expect it from a channel."
      "I think there will be a lot of changes made even to Kaon, Jina." She echoed the gesture she had seen so many Donors use and put her hand on Jina's shoulder in support. "There are, I believe, a great many things I must think about, but I don't believe it is right to deny your ability to choose when it is offered. The Techton may say otherwise, but at the moment you are on Kaon property and I am still Sectuib in Kaon."
      Jina's jaw dropped. "I can't believe you just said that."
      "I did. Believe it." She gave Jina's shoulder a delicate squeeze and looked straight into her eyes.
      "Are there any openings in the household?"
      "Later, after transfer." and after I find out more about her background. Vanesa added silently. Jina zlinned promising, but Kaon couldn't afford to take in everyone who came to their doors anymore.
      "And after you look at my records." Jina added, smiling brightly.
      Vanesa laughed, "Yes, after I take a look at them." Very promising.

Below:

      Something was distorting Sevrin's smooth concentration. He focused on the glitch. Ah he checked his internal calendar. So soon? he consulted the physical calender on his desk for conformation. There really was no requirement for him to do so, since as soon as he focused on his body it whined at him like a small abused animal, but he did so all the same. Sevrin was not going to make the mistake of arriving early.
      It was time. After neatly arraigning the books on his desk so he could easily find them when he returned, Sevrin ran his hands over his clothes. He determined they were satisfactory, without unnecessary stains or damage. Even though there were times when he truly did wonder what they looked like and if someone with a truly vile sense of humor ever replaced any of the stark black of the Veiled with any colors in an attempt to make him look the fool.
      At last satisfied, Sevrin braced himself for the monthly ordeal by reminding himself he was at least fortunate to be able to give transfer at all. A few of his fellows were here because they never could. Guided by his own internal sense of direction and by the reflections of his own field off the walls, he came to one of the transfer chambers.
      "You aren't blindfolded." a startlingly young voice gasped.
      "There is no requirement for me to be so." Sevrin looked down at the youngster with a glare of disapproval. "You should not be talking." He took his seat across from her. Placing his arms in the rests, he grasped the restraining bar with a quiver of distaste for the whole procedure.
      "I ... I just got done healing." the voice quavered with need and shame.
      "There is no necessity for shame." he told her, letting his field relax to a state where perhaps she might be willing to end this babble of her own accord. "What use has a corpse for shame or sorrow?" He asked rhetorically.
      "None." her response was as obvious as to have been entirely unnecessary to invoke with words.
      "Silence." His irritation with this snippet of a Sime burned through both of them. Finally he felt her hot forearms land on the backs of his hands. They shivered with nerves. This will never do. Sevrin locked her body with his own mind. Eventually the impulses ran smoothly again and he released her.
      Her laterals made the contacts fairly smoothly, although he had to reach out and adjust one of them so it would truly parallel the other three. Clamping down on the grips, he leaned forward to make the final contact. Her lips were hot and more than a bit damp. You'll learn he sighed, giving into his body's need to rid itself of the selyn he produced.
      The transfer scoured clean his worn and tired nerves, leaving them refreshed and well able to face his return to work. "Thank you." he said, letting her retract her laterals at her own pace in reward.
      She sniffled.
      "Your initiation partner should be here for you shortly." he said even as he heard the door open.
      "I'll take her from you, Slopye." one of the more experienced Lords gave him a mental wink. "Are you certain you do not wish for release?"
      "No, I'll take my release in my rooms this afternoon." he slid to his feet. Not wishing for a partner was odd, but no more so than drinking his starka plain without citron or pepper. When he had first come below, he had tried both men and women, receiving and giving, Simes and Gens. None of it had ever done more for him than the purely mechanical release he could give himself. Idly, he wondered why some people were so insistent on the rather messy business of inserting one body part into another, but it truly was not a problem to concern him.
      His body was being quite irritating in its demands today. There were few things he wished for more than it to simply shut up and leave him alone, but he had determined it was often quicker and easier to cater to it once a month than deal with its whining all the time. "Now if you'll excuse me?" He headed for the door.
      "Certainly, Slopye." Her soft soled shoe slid on the stone and Sevrin knew she had turned away from him, as so many did. Although his was certainly not the most horrific of the defects among the Veiled, it often produced uncanny reactions among the newer of them. Refusing to look at him was one such. He walked out of the room, leaving the two Simes behind with the snicking of the door and without a second thought.

Chapter 5

      Vayer watched the young woman, Vanesa as she played with her brother and his son. He knew a smile was on his face, but doubted too many people knew where it came from.
      "Neat work." His father sat down beside him and Vayer laughed out loud.
      "I never could hide a thing from you, could I?"
      "You almost managed to hide your larity." he snorted, looking amused at it after all this time.
      "That was different." he looked at the people playing in the yard. Vanesa looked far better now, glowing with good health, and not all of it from selyn and exercise. "She is actually rather pretty, don't you think?"
      "I would say so, but then I have always had a taste for female Simes."
      "You just like Simes." Nashen put his arm around Arkay. "Or would you like some privacy?"
      "No, it's fine." Arkay put his hand over Nashen's. "Stay."
      He sat and managed to wiggle his way into Arkay's grasp. "So, what are we talking about?"
      "Politics, what else?" Vayer grinned at them. "Even though some of the means are a bit odd."
      "Don't say you don't enjoy it." Arkay told him. "Even though I am glad to be shed of the worst of it."
      "Sometimes it's better than others, that is certainly true." he sighed and thought of what he had done to Tzer. Now he and Mikhail were almost a close pair as Arkay and Nashen. "Although I am glad he did not take the Veil."
      "That was some of why I pushed things so hard for the ban." Arkay grimaced. "If he were under ban he could be returned to us. Not so if he took the Veil."
      "I thought the Veiled wouldn't take him?" Nashen wasn't always as deeply involved with them as himself and Arkay.
      "They would have, if he were irredeemable." Vayer said with a sigh. "Which is probably why they refused. Sometimes I don't understand what is going on inside those walled off minds."
      "You and me both." Arkay turned his face towards the high pitched shriek of a pair of excited children. The both took off running, leaving Mikhail and his sister to chase after them. Soon all four were playing tag around the fountain in the middle of the courtyard, having a wonderful time. "She no longer sounds like a wounded cow after half a klick."
      "That's mean, Arkay." Nashen glared at him. "How could you say such a thing?"
      "True though." Vayer snorted. "You should have heard her puffing in bed."
      "Vayer!" Nashen squawked.
      He shrugged with a grin, "Sorry, but it's true."
      "Just because it's true doesn't mean you have to say it." He really did look offended.
      "I'm certainly not going to be talking about you in such a fashion." Vayer rested his hand on Nashen's.
      "It's still rude." Nashen looked away.
      "Nashen, sweet." Arkay hugged him. "She has improved tremendously."
      "Yes, now she can go a klick without gasping for breath and groaning." Nashen said with an impish grin.
      "So, what else has to be done before we can go home?" Arkay looked around at their dingy surroundings with a sigh. "I really do not like it here, although the weather certainly does agree with me." It was far, far warmer here than Moskva, by a huge margin.
      "Well, we have to get the trade compacts solid. I don't want to get back a find some sort of loophole where Kaon can bypass our shipping routes to the East. If the tribes get too wily, we could find ourselves shunted into the background on silk and certain dyes. We had to give them cinnamon and cloves, and hopefully they will be content with those and the other products we also buy from them." He ran down his mental inventory. "I really want Russia to get the exclusive on chocolate. Sugar can go either way, hopefully we can split that one fairly even if we don't get the exclusive."
      "It's too bulky." Nashen pointed out. "It is also too fragile. Let the tribes take the lion's share and we can bargain for the coffee Mikhail found."
      "We have the exclusive on the top quality coffee, but that is only a few tons a year. Let's see what else we can find before we commit ourselves to too many markets." He tapped at his lips thoughtfully with a tentacle. "Rubber I want all of. We can't produce enough elastomeric materials for the occult sciences as it stands, much less for consumer goods."
      "Are you sure you want to release that technology?" Arkay asked, narrowing his eyes. The reminder of the steel grip on such things by the Veiled brought Vayer up short.
      "True enough." He thought long and hard. "But if we are careful not to put it in critical uses, only luxury goods, I don't think they will put natural rubber behind the Veil. Vulcanization certainly, but not the soft goods like soles for shoes and waterproofing for gloves."
      "I think you're right. But I don't know if they will want large quantities of it available for the use of the tribes." Arkay pointed out. "If some clever felahin figures out vulcanization on his own, we will have a problem."
      "You are quite right." A shiver of fear ran little cold feet up Vayer's spine. "We'll not pay more than half of the going rate. That should choke the supply to the point where it is strictly used for luxury goods and absolute necessities. We've been getting by quite well without it." Then he thought some more. "I've changed my mind; actually, I think we'll want to keep it entirely occult. With the addition of a superior sealing material, there will no longer be the incentive towards tight workmanship and craftsmanship."
      "Yes, I think so too." Nashen leaned forward. "Although you are going to have a really hard time getting Mikhail out of his running shoes."
      "I know." he looked at Nashen furtively. "Do you think you could manage to edge him towards going barefoot again more?"
      "I'll have Tzer work on it." Nashen winked.
      "Now, what else?" He asked with a heavy sigh.
      "What about all the occult mechanicals and electronics they've been trying to fob off on us, free, no less?" Nashen glared at rooftree, where the power lines entered all the buildings like the leavings of the world's largest and messiest spiders.
      "Absolutely not." Vayer stated. "If we have to, we'll drop them out of the damned airplane on the flight back. The Veiled would not allow it, I will not allow it, and our people will not be subjected to such abomination."
      "Wait a minute Vayer." Arkay said, holding up his hand. "Perhaps we should take some of the best of it. Particularly as we are not paying for it in cash or trade."
      Vayer opened his mouth to interrupt, but Arkay ran right over the top of him.
      "I think we, actually the Veiled, would rather have a way to overhear the communications of the Techton without having to strain, don't you think?" he gave a toothy smile. "Know thy enemy."
      "Indeed." And Vayer knew his smile quite well matched his father's.
     
      Vanesa bounced out of bed. She had been sleeping through the night with an ease that absolutely astonished her. This works. Despite all the hard mental work and stress of expanding Kaon's financial and trading businesses by over twenty times in the space of weeks and not years, which it should have taken, she was ready to go every morning after nearly six hours of sleep, entirely alone. She didn't know if it would hold through turnover, but later today she should find out. After slipping into the rather ragged, loose cotton pants and half top, she laced up her shoes and was ready to go.
      "You should stretch a bit first." Diomid was already at her door. "Here, let me show you."
      She knew he had already put in a couple of miles and shook her head at his bright eyed enthusiasm as he contorted her body in some rather odd positions. "Are you sure this is absolutely necessary?"
      "Yes" his tone brooked no more back talk, even with his hands gently pressing on her lower back to ease her towards her knee.
      "Ow" she complained softly.
      "That is because you are as limber as a brick, Vanesa." a twinkle of sparkling humor was dancing through his field.
      "Your cheer isn't at my discomfort." she looked up at him.
      "You'll find out." he had a grin on his face like a little boy who had a great big secret trying to get out. Playing with Shasha and Kirin had taught Vanesa a great deal about little boys.
      "I will, will I?" her curiosity began eating at her. "Come on, tell."
      "If you can catch me, without augmenting, I'll tell you." and with that he took off running. Still, she was often startled by how fast these Donors could move, so he was well out of arm's reach by the time she realized he was gone. Leaping to her feet, she took off after his mocking laughter. She knew better than to try to augment on the sly. Vanesa had done that once. The sheer and utter humiliation of having Arkay run her around the courtyard at maximum augmentation without her being able to lay a finger on him was as fresh in her mind now as when it had happened.
      Vanesa headed out to the regular track. It was now well worn into the hard earth with the regular use. "Over here." Diomid shouted, well off to her left.
      "What?" she squawked, almost collecting a tree as she got confused about where she was going and where he was.
      "Thought you were going to try to catch me." he danced in place and then took off through the trees.
      "I'm gonna get you if it's the last thing I do!" she shouted, heading after him across country. Soon her thighs burned with the strain of fighting not to trip over all the roots and loose rocks. Even though Diomid stayed just out of reach. Except for those times when he ran ahead with one of those bursts of speed so he could turn and watch her for a bit. One time he even tapped his toe on the ground, as if impatient and she lunged for him, falling flat on her face after tripping on a rock.
      His nageric concern wrapped her in warmth until she got back up, and then he was gone again. I'm gonna get him, I swear it. she would have said this out loud, if should could have gotten the breath for it. Finally they came to an area she recognized. Smiling to herself, she ducked behind a tree and came out right in front of him. "Gotcha!" she shouted.
      Thud. He crashed right into her, as he was looking backwards. Vanesa was too tired to do a great deal more than yelp as Diomid managed to land between her and the ground. His large frame took most of the impact. She was so exhausted she just lay they when the finally came to rest, flat.
      "So you did." he chuckled, hugging her with far more energy than she could dream of having. "My dirty, sweaty, pregnant, little Sime."
     
      She just went limper as soon as he said the words. "I didn't think it would be too much of a surprise, but I thought it would be more than this." he murmured into her hair.
      "It wasn't." she nuzzled at his chest. "I certainly did nothing to prevent it."
      "Come on, we should walk back."
      "But I'm so comfortable right here." her bones seemed to begin melting, despite her panting to catch her breath.
      "Up you go." He stood up, still with his arms wrapped around her. It was like trying to maneuver a wet bath towel. A soaking wet bath towel. "Come on, sweetheart." Diomid set her on her feet. He felt her knees buckle. "You can stand up." he cooed, trying to get her going again.
      "No I can't." she protested.
      "I think you overdid it a bit, little one." he let the faintest trickle of augmentation clear the edge of her exhaustion out. Some of her bones firmed up some and soon she was actually standing on her own two feet, although she was still leaning a bit. "You have to walk a bit." And with a trace of judicious mental shoving and propping up, he got her headed towards home.
      It didn't take long till he was working to keep up with her. "How did you know?" she asked, now almost completely recovered.
      This is what I like to see. Her breathing was now coming easily with her rather long strided walk. "What kind of healer would I be if I couldn't tell you were pregnant?" he teased her gently. Anyone could see the woman was pregnant from a klick away if they knew what to look for. Darya was the one who was sneaky. He had only spotted her for certain at the end of last week.
      "Even I wasn't sure." she said quietly, looking down.
      "I am." he put his hand on her back. "Very sure. A fine, healthy daughter. I take it you wished for a child?" The question was obligatory and he knew it would make her pleased to speak of her daughter.
      "Yes, Diomid." she turned to him with a glorious smile. "Oh yes. A daughter." The wonder in her voice was incredible. "How do you know I am carrying a daughter?" she asked again, suspicious as always.
      "Because I do." he hugged her close.
      "You sound like a Ferris." she snapped, hugging him any ways.
      "I ... I ... I am offended." he made a big show of being about to faint. "Such harsh words. Oh ... dear ... I don't know if I can stand it. I, a poor little Gen being accused of such dastardly behavior." He put his hand to he forehead.
      "Diomid, quit." she laughed. "Really. Such histrionics."
      "Don't you know Gens are supposed to be the ones who are delicate and have to be protected from our baser natures." He fluttered his eyelashes at her. "I mean we're likely to just attack any poor little defenseless Sime we can get our Nagers on. We really can't help it." He gave her the poor little Gen look.
      "How so attack a Sime?" There were times when Vanesa still managed to throw him for a loop.
      "Don't you know it's Gens who want transfer so badly they'll lock up Simes and use them for thrills?" He thought of some of the nests they had run into on their way to Warsaw. It was certainly not to Diomid's taste, but many of them seemed to do well enough.
      "What?" she stopped and stared at him. "Gens have to be protected so Simes won't kill them."
      Stunned to hear her say something Vayer had complained about Rels harping on, Diomid stared right back. "How very, very odd, Vanesa." He took her elbow and they went back to walking. "Truly. Admittedly, a Sime, if they surprise an unprepared Gen badly enough, might be able to get away with not getting killed, but it is a rarity. Gen kills are so much faster than any Sime's draw could ever be, even a renSime's."
      "That sounds an awful lot like the Distecht." she shivered.
      "What is that?" he asked, putting his arm around her shoulders.
      "The opposite of the Techton. They believe the Gen is responsible for not getting killed." she spat in the dirt by the side of the path. The primitive gesture in a woman so sophisticated was dreadfully odd.
      "No, that is not our way." he said, stopping her and turning her to look at him. "We keep our renGens isolated so they won't kill. RenSimes are too vulnerable to manipulation. We don't expect common people to take the risks of direct transfer." She still looked disbelieving. "What are your kill rates like?"
      She looked to the side. "We don't talk about that."
      "I would bet you don't. There are so many people who have free contact with the opposite larity, I would bet it is staggeringly high." Even as he thought about it he knew the truth of it and shivered himself. "How many?"
      "I don't know." she looked back up at him. "But better than the Distecht, if they even still exist."
      "Sergei, my Demense, has had three in the past five years. One of those I killed in execution for a kill. One was justified and the sharm lord was ascended. We have had more deaths from injuries in the stables in that same time." He let the truth of it ring on his field. "Can you say as much for Kaon?"
      "No" Her jaw clenched in anger. "Then you are saying your way is better."
      "For us, it is." He caressed the tight muscle. "But we have been at it longer than you have. Also, we do not allow killers to try to live. Every single renSime and lord knows, to the very bottom of their soul, that if they kill for any reason other than being told to do so, under a Sharm Lord's orders, they will die, and that death will not be pleasant."
      "But a Sime can't help themselves under the influence of Gen pain."
      "It is always a choice, Vanesa." He said, trying to get through to her. "We do not have the concept of being unable to make that choice." Her alien thought patterns were driving knives of pain and confusion through his own mind. "If the knowledge of retribution is certain enough and immediate enough, even the lowest, stupidest renSime will not violate that line.
      "We took Warsaw with renSime troops. There were renGens running through the ranks in panic." He grabbed her shoulders. "We had a total, for the entire campaign, of three kills. One of which long after the attack." And that one had been a total fluke when a renGen had tried to give direct transfer to a renSime and panicked right on termination.
      "But we can't keep the renSimes under that kind of an iron fist. We can't wall off the renGens to live in near pens below ground. Our ways are not yours." And with that her resistance crumpled. "We are just too different."
      "Then let us go our way and you go yours." He caressed her back as she clung to him. "Our way has its flaws as well, Vanesa. We are bound by tradition and history in ways you could never comprehend or tolerate. You will go to the stars, Vanesa, you or your children. We will simply stay behind and live as we always have."
      "How can you live with no future. There is so much out there to explore and look forward to." she looked up at him, confused and uncertain. "The future is waiting for all of us."
      "No, Vanesa." He smiled back. "It is waiting for you. You are the future of humanity, not us. We are content with things as they are and do not wish for change. Change is for the young, Vanesa."
      "But you aren't that old." She shook her head. "Tzer is not even five years past change over."
      "But he is of the Rus." he smoothed her hair back. "Ask him some time. He will tell you the same thing. It would be a good thing, I think, to have some place where those who are not content may go, but that is not for me to decide."
      "What happens to them now?" Her eyes were wide with terror and her field shocked him with its disturbance.
      "They bow to the yoke or die, Vanesa." His words disturbed her even more. "Let me explain." He said before she could interrupt. "Very, very rarely do we get a one who rebels. RenSime Dorityan was one such. Nashen bent him to the yoke so very smoothly he thanked Nashen for it. We have great patience and skill in such matters."
      "That is awful." She sobbed.
      "It is life, Vanesa. A tree can not grow in the air and a bird can not fly in the sea." He rested his chin on the top of her head. "There are horrible things in life, but necessity dictates we deal with the fates we are given."
      "I hate that." She snapped. "It's wrong. People aren't like that. We are free to chose who we are and what we do."
      "You are, Vanesa, because you were taught that as a truth while you were still very young." Even Diomid, if he were not talented as he was, would not have been able to comprehend what she was talking about. "We are taught differently as children."
      She struggled free of his arms. "I hate you, Diomid, I hate you for crippling children like that. Freedom is what makes life worth while."
      "Stop Vanesa and listen for one last moment." He held out his hand to her.
      "I'm waiting." Her fury wrapped around her like a fire storm ready to break loose.
      "This is something Dorityan said, when he finally accepted Nashen's yoke." He spoke very plainly.
      "Go on." She softened a bit. "I remember your saying he was one of your rebels."
      "He said, "The renSimes desire freedom. They desire to be free from the specters of hunger and attrition. They do not desire the freedom to fear, or to hunger, or to need." I think you should contemplate the nature of freedom, Vanesa." He concluded.
      "I think I will." She turned and walked away from him, deep in thought. Silently, Diomid followed her back, making sure she arrived safely despite her distractions.

Below:

      After dealing with his immediate physical requirements, Sevrin cleaned himself and took up the small lap harp he had brought from home. The wood was silky smooth with the many hours he had spent playing the instrument. He caressed the strings lightly, testing for their tuning. His large standing harp in the corner had a better tone and was far more flexible an instrument, but often when he was unsettled he preferred the one which had once belonged to his mother.
      To this day he could remember the image of her playing it, her violet eyes closed in concentration and her black hair falling loose to the floor beneath her, echoing the lines of the strings of the harp itself. He had sat on the floor with his other siblings. Those older than he had left by the time disaster struck and sometimes he wondered if any of them knew where the harp had gone.
      Its light, sweet tone often didn't quite suit the pieces he had composed to play on it, many of them dark and bitter with his exile from the world above, but as no one had ever heard any of them, there was no harm done. Soon he had the instrument in tune and idly began limbering his fingers. Finally he was ready to begin in earnest, but nothing came to him, so he simply teased more and more complex harmonies out of the strings. Eventually one of his own songs came to him, and he sang into the perpetual darkness which surrounded him.
      "Thee are an exquisite harpist, Sevrin." A voice startled him out of his reverie and his fingers jangled the strings most unmusically. Then he realized he had been called by his birth name.
      "At your will, Master Tzakiran." He bowed his head reverently, stilling the strings. "What may I do for you." The submissive wording of child to master reminded him of his place more firmly with every breath.
      "Thee have begun to question the rightness of what we do, Slopye." His accusation stung all the more for its truthfulness. "It is not permitted."
      "I can not control my heart to such an extent Master." He bowed his head over the harp. "I have tried."
      "It is not for thee to try but to do, Slopye." His voice cracked like a whip. "Do it."
      "If I can't?" He turned his head towards his master's voice.
      "Then thee shall be removed from our company." And all he left behind was the scent of his robes and the fear of being entombed in solid stone until all air was gone.

Chapter 6

      "Where are Vanesa and Vayer?" Mikhail leaned over and asked Tzer. Riana was here, as were Nashen and Arkay, but his sister was supposed to arrive five minutes ago and Mikhail couldn't remember the last time she was late.
      Diomid walked up to him and whispered in his ear. "If it is at all possible, Vanesa should be under my care for the rest of the afternoon."
      "Is there something wrong?" he thought about this afternoon's agenda, realizing there was nothing on it which truly required the Sectuib's signature, although her attendance would have good.
      "Turnover." Diomid's field held far more depth to it than even normal, implying far more than the simple word. Vayer turned to look at him. *Later*
      "I think we can postpone all of this until tomorrow." he looked at the representative of Talash.
      "If your sister is ill, we will certainly be willing to return." the woman's hand tipped toward Nashen. "Although if it is all right with you, we would be discussing some additional ..."
      "No, Miram." Nashen's eyes twinkled. "I think we will simply have some tea and speak of a few, more personal things to the children of Peace." He dropped into Arabic for the final phrase.
      "It would be good to discuss our mutual background." She relented. "If you could show us to some place, a bit more familiar?"
      "Is there one such?" he turned over his hand, showing it empty.
      "There is." she admitted. "It is not for the empty, however." Mikhail had lived in this city for most of his life and hadn't known there was a mosque. Amazed at the ingenuity of the Faithful, he almost wished he could go along.
      "That would be more than pleasant." Arkay bowed his head. "We would appreciate knowing of such a thing, and perhaps there could be some gain to all of us in it."
      "It would be a good thing, I think, for the children of Freedom to know of the home of Peace." Unfortunately all of Mikhail's Arabic had a tendency to sound like something out of a melodrama, but it did get his point across.
      "It has been said a child of Freedom is also a child of Peace. Can such be true?" Miram placed her hand down on the table in a gesture of denial.
      "There is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger." Mikhail told her, in Arabic.
      "Then I think there will be little necessity for involved negotiations. We will trust you to speak for us with Vanesa." She stood, gathering her robes about her. "My sword master will leave the list of goods with Riana and when we return, we will take bread and salt together. There is now no rush. We will await your decision."
      "Thank you, I do want to find out what has caused her incapacitation. She is so rarely ill, this has come to a complete surprise to me." Mikhail gave back in trade the reason for the problem.
      "Then if she is ill, you should be with your sister and not talking with a withered old caliph who has seen far better days." Miram let Arkay take her arm, leading her in front of Nashen.
      Mikhail turned and hurried from the chamber, trailed by Diomid and Tzer. Finally they made it into the safety of the corridor. Even though he could still hear Riana's chuckle of glee at the list Miram had left her. "Now, what is wrong?" he asked, not stopping in his rush to get to her.
      "Not something critical, but I don't want it to be either." Diomid said, keeping up easily.
      "I'm surprised you didn't simply cancel this meeting when you knew it was going to fall on Vanesa's turnover." Tzer commented.
      "Why would I?" Mikhail looked at him strangely. "She never has stopped work for turnover before."
      "But this is her first, or so I thought." Tzer was not making a great deal of sense.
      "Her first what?" he stopped and looked at him. Tzer's turnover yesterday had gone almost better than Mikhail's. He had been gasping like a landed fish while Tzer cosseted him. It had been down right embarrassing in some ways, but the queasy, unstable feeling had been horrible. Like he couldn't get enough air, and yet had somehow hyperventilated. Tzer had said he would get used to it, and Mikhail certainly hoped so.
      "Her first child." Tzer said, blinking. "Haven't you noticed?"
      "I've noticed Vayer looking like a rooster about to crow half the time, but I figured that was because Darya was pregnant." he took off running. "Why didn't anyone tell me!"
      "Hold on, youngling." Diomid caught the back of his robes. "Easy. Don't spook her. She's a little quivery and I simply wanted to be careful. As soon as this turnover is done, the greatest risk of abortion is over. It won't be for another hour or two, but I wanted to hold her through it."
      "Won't you be going through turnover at the same time?" Mikhail asked, still astonished at the news.
      "Yes, but mine will be almost unnoticeable, as I did not have a complete transfer with your sister." Diomid reassured him. "Your niece is quite healthy and growing well, but I am a paranoid sort and Vanesa was not in the best of health at her conception."
      "A little girl." Mikhail grinned at Tzer. "My sister is going to have a little girl."
      "We all know, lover." Tzer's silver eyes shone. "I thought you did too."
      "No, not at all." he hugged Tzer tightly. "Is there anything we can do?"
      "Certainly." Diomid told them. "We were all going to nest up together for the afternoon, as we are short a Sharm Lord."
      The cold, drizzling rain made this a very pleasant prospect, particularly after a draft wafted down the hallway. "I would love to cuddle up with an excess of nice, warm Simes."
      "My idea exactly." Diomid shivered a bit. "It is much warmer here than at home, but warmer still does not mean warm."
     
      Vanesa looked at Vayer again and then turned away. "What is it, sweet?" Darya asked, quite unexpectedly.
      "How can you be so calm about this, he is your husband?" She snapped.
      "So?" she grinned. "Sauce for the goose ..."
      "Is sauce for the gander." Vayer finished what had to be a set phrase. Talk of saucing animals did nothing for Vanesa's nerves.
      "Which is supposed to mean?" She still couldn't quite bring herself to believe Darya was not in some way put out by her spouse having gotten another woman pregnant.
      "If it is good enough for me, then it is good enough for him." Darya said, putting up her darning. "I think you are simply a bit nervous about your turnover, true?"
      "No" she protested, "I mean, he cheated on you."
      "No" Darya grinned. "How could he have? I was right there."
      "But he's yours." She heard a wail try to muscle into her voice.
      "I might have bejeweled him, but I don't own him." She took Vanesa's hand in her own soft, cool, wonderfully Gen fingers. "Besides, I am thrilled."
      "What?" She choked. "You are pleased?"
      "Yes" Darya squeezed her fingers. "You are a fine woman, one I would have chosen for him myself."
      "You make me sound like a breeding stallion." Vayer laughed, his dark eyes shining with good humor.
      "You have been preening like one for the past two weeks." Darya twitted him.
      "I just hadn't expected you to take advantage of me at the same time." He put his arm around her shoulders, looking down at her with a love that was undeniable. "I thank thee, love of my heart."
      "And I thank thee, my fine, dark stallion." she kissed the end of his nose. "And like that same stallion, breeding two mares does not lessen either one."
      "Then let us see if this stallion, as you insist on calling me, can keep his mares safe." Vayer looked at her. "Would you like?" He offered her his hand again.
      Timidly, she reached for him. True she had wanted a child, a daughter by preference, but still she had expected to be entirely on her own through the gestation.
      "Come here, my little one." Vayer slowly coaxed her under his arm. "There, isn't that better." His warmth felt so good with this chilly air coming in the partially open window. The heady smells of fresh rain were certainly better than the musty, stale air elsewhere, but it was still an effort to stay warm. Then she realized he was stroking her field with his own.
      "I'm not in need yet." she didn't protest too much.
      "But you will be soon and should relax." His voice dropped into a gentle purr.
      "But what about Darya." she stiffened against him, looking to the other woman.
      "Then perhaps we should all go somewhere more comfortable." She gestured towards the nest in the corner.
      "If you are really sure." Vanesa really didn't want to put anyone out. "Besides, I'll have to leave shortly."
      "No" Vayer told her in a voice which would have quieted anyone else.
      "I have work to do." She tried to squirm free, but something was making her muscles not work quite right.
      "Yes, growing a healthy daughter." Darya's dark grey eyes held hers. She couldn't look away. "Do you trust Diomid?"
      "Yes, of course." was her automatic response, then she wondered at it. He has done everything in his power, which is quite substantial, to make all this come about. For a moment she felt a tremor of fear at realizing she had been manipulated and then it faded, as if a hand had smoothed it away. This is not like me! She struggled against the imposition.
      "Easy, Vanesa." Diomid's cool, gentle field suddenly wrapped her in comfort. "Easy, little one." She could move and then fell into his grey-blue eyes. Peace descended on her like a wet, clammy blanket.
      "No" she shook her head. "I won't." Her words of protest sounded feeble even in her own ears. "I won't submit."
      "I know you won't for yourself, but will you not for your daughter?" Diomid's words trapped her in a steel snare.
      "Of course." she sighed, giving in. "I just don't like being manipulated against my will."
      "But it is not against your will, as your will is to have a healthy daughter, is it not?" His remorseless logic bound her tighter. "Besides, did you not come to me for healing?"
      "Yes" She sighed. "And the doctor knows best?"
      "This one does." Vayer told her. "Let him care for you Vanesa. Let us care for you."
      "But he belongs to another as well." And then she saw Kirina behind him and looked down at her tentacles twining about her fingers. "I didn't mean to steal your husband as well."
      "I am the wife of a healer and the daughter of a two healers." She stepped forward. "I have no desire to choke Diomid with chains. He will stay with me. Healers go where they must. It is as much a part of them as need or breath."
      "Two?" her curiosity ambushed her.
      "Yes, both Karola and Arkay are healers as well." Kirina smiled at her. "Although in his own, odd, way, so is Avilan."
      "But I thought Nashen was your father." Vanesa was confused.
      "Blood only. I never knew him as a father." Even though there was the faintest tremor to her field at this. If I were a Ferris I would be fascinated at the prevarication. so of course Vanesa let it slide.
      "That is a lot of parents." Vanesa counted them up. "Four? Most people only have two."
      "I'm lucky." Kirina grinned back. "Come on with you now. We managed to drag Tzer and your brother into this little get together as well."
      "Congratulations." Mikhail said brightly. "We survived turnover yesterday, but thought you might like the company."
      "All together?" she looked towards the large pile of cushions and bedding.
      "Certainly." Vayer nuzzled her ear. "None of us are in any condition to offer offense."
      The idea of going through the first stages of turnover with all these people was oddly comforting. Then Vayer tugged loose the opening on her coveralls. "Hey, no one said anything about being undressed."
      "It feels good." His midnight dark eyes were reassuring. "No harm will come of it, I promise."
      "But in front of my brother?" Certainly they had all gone swimming together without clothes, but this was far more intimate.
      "Not after turnover." He shook his head with a wry grin. "I could care less about anything other than larity."
      "But you're ..." She stopped in mid sentence.
      "You should have zlinned me yesterday." He said. "I was a mess."
      "He's right." Tzer's voice held a great deal of amusement. "He fell apart into little quivering pieces all over the floor."
      "Some Sharm Lords, like your brother, it seems, react badly to the step up in selyn production at turnover." Vayer murmured in her ear. "They become unstable and sometimes, if it is really bad, can loose touch with themselves"
      "Who's taking care of the boys?" Her final protest was for form.
      "Avilan and Karola." Kirina said. "They like getting to play with the little ones."
      "Probably because neither of them have ever truly grown up." Diomid said with a snort. "Come now, little one, are you done?"
      "Yes" She shook her head laughing and feeling very caught out. "I'm done."

Below:

      "I would prefer to be informed of decisions countering my recommendations." Sevrin held the offending document despite the way it made his field shrink away with its import. "Time is not to be used so recklessly."
      "Thee has fallen into the error of kinship, yet again, Slopye." Tzakiran's voice edged towards threat.
      "You are incorrect." Merely stating the words of disagreement made Sevrin's heart beat faster, despite the correctitude of his statement. "Such haste will lead to resistance among the nobility at their perception of our manipulations in their affairs."
      "I am not such a fool as thee, Slopye." Tzakiran's tone held the grating of mortar crushed between stones. "Do thee think me to be?"
      "Certainly not, Master." He lied smoothly, with a great deal of practice. "I would only know your will so I may provide you better assistance in the future."
      "Thee were led astray, again, by thy over familiarity with those who had been thy kin." Tzakiran told him. "I am not pleased with thee, Slopye, particularly in thy disturbance of my work with thy nonsense."
      "It is my place to observe and correlate the data regarding the lineages and breeding of the Rus." He said simply. "If there are to be changes made in the chronological order in which power shifts hands, I must know of it to prepare the participants for acceptance of breeding."
      "You are correct, Sevrin." Tzakiran actually sounded pleased, and then the formal 'you' rocked him back onto his heels. "We will be using the prophecies to move Maryam from Demense status to purely religious status at mid-summer. Vayer will be given the remains of Maryam, as well as Faithful from the other Demense who wish to go elsewhere than Fatima. We decided closer ties with the way of Peace will strengthen our stance with the Southerners so we can provide a more united front with the Tribes against the Westerners."
      "Then we will have a Demense for the Vayer-Darya line." He wanted confirmation so he could set up the breeding charts for the renSimes and Gens.
      "Yes, we are reviving Mir." His chair protested his shifting weight with a squeal of castors. Sometimes Sevrin wondered exactly why it was Tzakiran was here, but to ask was unforgivable. "I would like to see if we can get the Dorityan-Tanya line of renSimes for the new head of the cadre."
      "A very good thought." Sevrin clicked with his tongue. "Perhaps we can also bring in some more of the new blood which has been serving us so well from a few of the Freeholders."
      "Ah, take some of the new renGens we recovered from Warsaw?" Tzakiran's trap was as obvious as a three year old's mud pies.
      "Not at all." Sevrin shook his head no, feeling like an imposter for the physical gesture, but knowing it often reassured others. "We will use them to replace the renGens we strip out of Fatima. She has not wanted to take many of the Westerners."
      "They are not of the Faith." Tzakiran pointed out, quite unnecessarily.
      "If we are to expand our stance as allies of the tribes, we will have to prove to them we are making a sufficient effort to allow conversion to their faith." Sevrin thought the whole concept of religious belief was ridiculous beyond words, but it was a convenient handle on peoples' minds. "If we allow Fatima to refuse the dubious honor of the spoils of war, then we lose that marker. Sergei is glutted with them and Azov has almost been overrun. Only Kirov has managed with moderate success in integrating the aliens."
      "That is because Kirov has a sufficiently heavy hand." Tzakiran's weight shifted again. "You think we are becoming soft, do you not?"
      "Actually, my master, I think we are." His agreement strengthened as he spoke the words. "The Azov Hegemony has the flaw of emotionalism to an excessive degree."
      "As well thee should know, given thy own lineage." His return to the informal stung like acid.
      "Then is it not well taken if I am the one to point it out?" Sevrin struggled to return to his master's good graces.
      "Excellently done, Sevrin." Tzakiran's chuckle rumbled through the room. "I see you have learned your lessons well."
      Too well, sometimes. Sevrin thought silently in the back of his mind, where only he could hear it.

Chapter 7

      Vayer knew he was acting like a rooster in a henhouse, but he was still so thrilled about all of it he couldn't quite manage to keep it all contained. A son and a daughter rang in his mind, over and over. He loved his children, the ones Darya had chosen the sire for no less than his own daughter, and to be expecting two at the same time was stunning. Particularly Vanesa's willingness to let him care for her as well.
      Even going towards hard need, joy kept tickling him at odd times. "You look so smug I'm surprised Darya hasn't hit you yet." Arkay whispered in his ear as Riana and Nashen were indulging in a fit of screaming. Nashen said it was called the give and take of trade, but Arkay's partner could indulge in some of the most fanciful histrionics Vayer had ever seen, and all for show. It seemed he had met his match in Vanesa's lieutenant.
      "Probably because she is acting almost as smug about the whole thing as I am." he let his tentacles jangle Arkay's bracelets. Nashen stopped in mid-sentence and glared at him so hard he thought his skin was going to burn off. He moved his hand up towards Arkay's elbow. "Sorry" he apologized, blushing a bit.
      "Not in public." Nashen reminded him.
      "I know." he said, shrugging. "I'm a little preoccupied these days." Everything around him seemed to glow with a special sort of light, above and beyond the ambient.
      "I'm not surprised." Nashen just shook his head and chuckled. "Now Riana ..." and he was off again, talking about beads this time.
      For a bit Vayer listened in, but when they went haring off at top speed over chocolate, again, he tuned them out. "No, Darya hasn't threatened to hit me, yet." He grinned at his father. "But she does keep calling me zherebets whenever she's feeling playful." Which is most of the time.
      "Like father like son." Arkay jangled his bracelets in amusement.
      "No one has called you that." Slipped out. "Oh, Avilan."
      "Yes" Arkay shook his head. "Your other father."
      "Avilan and I were never really all that close." Vayer said, sometimes rather regretting it. "He was always closer to Kirina of the two of us."
      "I've occasionally wondered over the years why that was." Arkay's field gusted in a sigh. "Things might have turned out a bit more smoothly if he had more of a hand in raising you."
      "I think because he did not wish to interfere between you and your firstborn." Vayer pointed out. "He was a great deal less experienced with children when I was very young than when Ilyan came along."
      "True enough." Arkay's attention momentarily flickered towards where Ilyan and Nivanya were talking with Jina and yet another Kaon channel. They were putting the negotiations between Kaon and the Rus into the gaps between talks with the Tribes, and right now they were waiting on Talash to get back to them with their second counteroffer. "Also, the death of your brother had a profound effect on Avilan. He was never really the same afterwards."
      "I think he realized how fragile life could be, even more so than the deaths of T'aszo and Lukian." Vayer pointed out. When he allowed himself to think about it, he missed his brother. For all of Sevrin's stiff neck and often annoying mannerisms, he had been the brightest of the family and had shown incredible promise as a leader.
      "Yes, most likely." Arkay's eyes darkened with memory. "Avilan's previous lovers had been adults; Sevrin never had a chance to spread his wings and fly."
      "What are you two talking about to make you so sad?" Vanesa gingerly sat at Vayer's side. She was still a bit skittish about accepting his caresses, so Vayer was very careful not to be at all aggressive about them. Delicately, he let his tentacles twine with hers, all the while very aware of her warmth and sweet scent as the line of her body pressed against his chest and flank.
      "My brother." He said softly, letting his breath stir her fine, dark hair. "He died, at establishment."
      "What?" Her eyes held both confusion and sympathy. "I didn't know establishment could be dangerous."
      "Not directly." Vayer's throat still tightened up as he tried to force the words out. "He carried a flaw in his nervous system. Some of his nerves could not tolerate the passage of the large quantities of selyn an adult's body carries. When he was a child, it wasn't a problem, but later, well, there was nothing we could do."
      "I'm so sorry to hear about it." Vanesa actually reached out to him, and touched his face. It was the first time she had actually opened up to him willingly and he savored the gesture.
      Gently, he reached up and put his hand over hers. "It was a long time ago." He told her. "And it is too bad, as you and he might well have suited each other."
      "I take it he could be a bit stubborn?" she asked, obviously trying to cheer him up.
      "A bit." He snorted, thinking of how Sevrin's high handed ways would have met their match in this very strong willed young woman.
      "Then I wish I could have met him." she sighed. "It would be interesting, I think, to meet with a brother of yours who was not married."
      With Vayer's emotions running so high, the comment wrenched a bitter tear from him despite need. "Interesting, yes."
     
      "Diomid?" He heard Vanesa tap on his door timidly.
      "Yes, m'lass." He said, looking up from the ledgers he had been trying to bludgeon into sense. "Come in." He added, when he realized she was still standing at the door. She opened it and slid inside, as if she weren't sure about being here. "You are most welcome to come and speak with me at any time, Vanesa."
      "But it isn't about me." She looked down at his ink stained hands. "We do have better pens." Her lip curled as she saw the quill he was using.
      "I do have a glass one I brought, but this works well enough." Diomid deliberately misinterpreted her.
      "We have pens which hold their own ink." She came in and sat down across the table from him.
      "But I like doing it this way." Examining the quill, he noted it required a bit of sharpening, so he took out his pen knife and got to work. "It is what I am used to. I looked at your pens, but they are not to my taste."
      "But that is so inefficient." She protested and he had to hide a smile.
      "So it is." He shrugged. "But the goose had no further use for this." He tickled her nose, making her grin at him. "See it is useful."
      "Foo!" she batted at it.
      "Can't do this with one of your plastic things." Actually he hated the feel of them, they were greasy and dead.
      "No, I suppose not." She shook her head and looked down. He tapped her under the chin with it, making her smile again. "But they don't catch on the paper, and don't require bottles of ink, and are far easier to carry around."
      "And leak in your pocket, and mean then you have to sign something rather than taking it to look it over, and lead to poor handwriting, and ..." he broke off at her chuckle. "I'll keep my quills and you can have your sticks."
      "You win."
      "No, we both win." He tapped her on the nose again. "Now why did you come interrupt my work."
      "If there is a better time."
      "Hush" he put up his ink, blotted the page one last time to be sure, and set up his pen. "Now, I'm no longer busy with anything but you." Vanesa's field twined in embarrassment. "You have a question you aren't sure of the reception on. Am I right?" He knew he was by her jolt of guilty recognition, but to ask was to invite.
      "Yes" her tentacles twined with her fingers. "It's about Riana."
      "She no longer wishes to work so closely with us?" He knew his question was wrong, but wanted her to be talking.
      "No, not at all." Her fingers whitened under the strain. "She, actually, she has become very fond of Avilan and was wondering if he might be willing, like Vayer, to, well ..."
      "And what did Avilan say to this proposal?" For he knew exactly what the problem was.
      "She asked him, point blank, and he weaseled out of it." Vanesa's response made him have to choke back a laugh. Only a Tegue, as he was coming to learn, would simply step up and ask such a question.
      "I am not violating a confidence in this, so you know. Avilan would have said as much if he felt Riana had a necessity to know, but he will sire no more children after Sevrin's death." Diomid took her hands in his. "I don't think it is fair or right, but he is afraid, and for that I can't blame him."
      "I think I can understand." She sighed. "That was what I thought as well, but didn't want to say as much to Riana. She adores him."
      "As much as Nashen?" He teased her.
      "She asked him first and he turned her down flat, saying his bonding to Arkay would make such a thing too difficult." Then her field flared in anger. "But he lied to her. She didn't catch it, but even when she came to me to talk about it, I could zlin it in her memory. Why, Diomid?"
      He sighed, staring up at the ceiling for a long moment, then he looked at her again. "Because some of us, including me, have a difficult time siring healthy children." The shock that ripped through her field was that of grief, and unfortunately sympathy.
      "But you have three children." She looked at him in sorrow. "How?"
      "Out of at least a dozen attempts." He told her bluntly. "Nashen has two living children out of even more. It is not a thing we talk about lightly."
      "But why?" Her question stung like a viper, but as it was honestly asked, he had to answer in the same honesty.
      "Because we have bred certain traits into some of our lines."
      "I know that Diomid. It would be obvious to a renSime." She interrupted.
      "Then, as you know with any breeding program, there are certain drawbacks." He stroked her hands gently. "One of which is a very high incidence of stillbirths and defects in tightly bred lines."
      "It sounds like you are talking about horses or cattle, Diomid." Her revulsion was stomach churning.
      "Very much so, although humans are not as easy to manipulate." He tried to calm her nerves, despite how badly his own were twisting. "Any ways, now you know."
      "Yes, I do." She looked thoughtful for a long moment. "What, exactly happened to Sevrin? Perhaps, even in the worst case, we could do something about it you can't."
      "Actually you could, that is some of what is so heartbreaking about it for Avilan." Diomid told her and she gasped.
      "You mean if Sevrin were here, he would still be alive?"
      "Yes and no." He snorted darkly. "Actually, to tell the entire, honest truth, it is not known if Sevrin is physically dead."
      "Wait a minute." Vanesa glared at him. "Is he or isn't he?"
      "No one saw him physically die. When he established, certain nerves could not tolerate selyn transmission."
      "You already said as much." Her habit of interrupting him was getting a bit annoying.
      "Hush a moment, little one." He put a finger to her lips. "This is very hard for me and not something I speak of easily." She nodded assent. "Thank you.
      "To go on. The nerves that were destroyed were the optic nerves. He has no way to visualize his senses, either of fields or light." Diomid sighed. "He was accepted into the Veiled. They are the final refuge for such as he."
      "We wouldn't do anything like that." Her mouth twisted in disgust.
      "I know, and so does Avilan." He caressed her face, trying to smooth away her shock. "It makes it harder for him, not easier. Can you understand that? When he and I saw the blind renSime come in for his transfer, it took me hours to try to put Avilan back together again. First he felt the guilt of siring a child condemned to death and then he saw that it was unnecessary."
      "And it is." she insisted. "We will take them."
      "No, you won't." He countered. "They have their work and their lives to fulfill as do we, Vanesa. Perhaps it is the hand of fate, but they, the Veiled, do work no one else can do. They keep all our records, our history, our past. Is there any way I can tell you how much that means to us?"
      "Let someone else do it." She squeezed her hands so much it hurt. "Let them be free."
      "No, Vanesa. They are free. Speak with Darya sometime if you wish, or Nashen. Darya's mother is among the Veiled, as was Nashen's sister." He pleaded. "They chose such a life."
      "Because they were cripples in your eyes?"
      "Darya's mother wanted peace. Nashen's sister was not entirely human. Among the Veiled they found companionship of their kind." Diomid tried to display his own feelings of rightness and truth as best he could.
      "Their kind, like some sort of rejects?" She went on.
      "No, Vanesa." He insisted. "It was their choice."
      "Either live apart from other humans or die?" She snapped. "Not much of a choice."
      "The Veiled are human, Vanesa." This was harder for him to portray the truth of, for Diomid was not entirely certain of the matter himself. "We don't know much of their society, but the few times I have spoken with one of them, they seemed content with their lives."
      "Content, not happy, not fulfilled, simply content." She was almost spitting she was so angry and he felt his bones begin to bend under her grasp. "You force people to leave their families, call them dead and then say they are content!"
      Diomid had to worm his way into her mind before she broke any of his bones, even though he knew he would have spectacular set of bruises. "Not I, but them."
      "Then when I come to Moskva this summer, I will have to speak with one of them myself." Her will was like adamantine and nothing Diomid could do would dissuade her.

Below:

      "Did thee get the latest report from Diomid?" A report clattered onto his nearly clean desk. At least they got the sensitives in contact with the travelers and now they had complete reports from them.
      "Yes" Sevrin told his intruder coldly. "Was there something you expected me to do about it?" He cursed the distance between them which had let the man slip his leash.
      "Fix it." Tzakiran snapped. "Thee were the one with the bright idea to leash Vanesa with a child, not me."
      "She is a most persistent and difficult woman, Master." If he had been entire, he might well have wanted to make a play for her. Her strength of will and absolute honesty called to the deepest part of his self. "There is very little I can do to control her outbursts, and would most likely have difficulties if she were present in Moskva."
      "Then teach thy tools better in the future. Now what are thou going to do about the current problem."
      "Let her see one of us when she arrives." He knew a smile of pure glee had risen onto his face.
      "What are thee smiling about. This is thy failure!"
      "No, this is my success, Tzakiran." he said softly. "When she comes, she will see me, happy and content as one of the Veiled. She will leave convinced we have a quite satisfactory solution to the difficulty of those who do not fit into their society with sufficient ease to be comfortable in it. Particularly if I play up how difficult it would be for me to live above."
      "You have gained my respect, Sevrin." Tzakiran's voice rang with dark triumphant. "You shall be rewarded for your excellent work."
      "Thank you." and then the door clicked shut. "Thank you very, very much for permission to go above, without reins, bits or spurs." He whispered and now he knew his smile was that of one of the great pike swimming the river Moskva.

Chapter 8

      "What is it now?" Vanesa fumbled her way out of bed and dragged on a pair of trousers Nivanya had loaned her. They were even Kaon red. The loose silk shirt was even a bit bright for Vanesa's taste, but it felt so good against her skin she loathed to give it back.
      "Controller Hiklan is here and he wants your hide." Riana leaned against the doorframe, still wearing her rather smug look she had since her last transfer. The little talk Vanesa had with Diomid seemed to have managed to worm its way through to Avilan, and at least from Riana's expression, it had been worth it. Even though there was a tremor of unease whenever Diomid looked at Riana now. As if something had gone wrong that neither Riana nor Vanesa were aware of yet. The Russians seemed to delight in all of this convoluted maneuvering in a way Vanesa could never understand, but it did work. "Now, Vanesa."
      "If he's so shenned impatient, then he can come find me himself." She muttered under her breath, not wanting any such thing to happen. "If I didn't have so much other work to do, I'd take his position and cram it down his throat." In a fit of pique, she tied the ribbons of the sleeves around her tentacle sheathes and over the backs of her hands the way Nivanya and the others did. "What do you think?" She held out her forearms to her sister.
      "How can you stand that?" She eyed the adornment with a look of utter distaste.
      "Actually it feels pretty good once you get used to it." Vanesa stroked the silky soft material. "It makes me feel more Sime."
      "As if you require it." Jina quipped from the bed. Transfer had only been a couple of days ago, and since last month had been so messed up, Jina had been able to stay through this one. After her involvement with Karola and Avilan she had marched into Vanesa's room and set up to sleep there. Vanesa had not complained at all.
      "Hush" she turned and grinned. It had been fun. It seemed Karola had shown the young Donor a few very non-Techton tricks, which both of them had taken advantage of shamelessly afterwards.
      "At your will." Jina quipped back, grinning.
      "If you don't want the thundering horde to drag you out of bed naked, you'd better get dressed before they get here." Vanesa pointed out.
      Jina groaned at the reminder and hid her head under a pillow.
      "I'm sure Avilan would love to watch." Riana pointed out.
      "I'm moving, I'm moving."
      Actually Vanesa regretted having to miss her morning run, for a stupid interview with that idiot Hiklan, no less. "Lets get this over with."
      "I think I would like to tag along, if you don't mind." Diomid, as always, seemed to be in the right place at the right time to stick his nose into things. Vanesa wondered how he managed to do it. He was even dressed in a quite fanciful white robe with cherry trees in blossom embroidered into it.
      "Actually, I think that would be a good idea." Her eyes narrowed in thought. "Do you think you could manage to get Vayer in on this as well?"
      "I was hoping you would invite me." Vayer stepped around the corner, looking like a cat who had gotten to the cream. Although he was even more splendidly dressed, all in heavy black silk, perfectly tailored to show his magnificent body. Even though he was also wearing what looked to be a sword. She blinked, staring at it for a moment.
      "Um, certainly." She couldn't take her eyes away from the weapon. The hilt had some sort of odd hooks on it, and had a ruby worth a fortune on the end. Thinking back, she realized he always had been wearing it, but the fancy clothes seemed to set it off to the point where she truly noticed what a fine piece of work it was.
      "Oh" He looked down. "You hadn't really looked at my sword before, had you?"
      "No, not really." Her tentacles itched to examine it. Are those hooks really made for tentacles?
      "I normally keep the hilt covered, as the hooks have a bad tendency to catch on things." He grinned at her. "I can draw it covered, but for show, I prefer to leave the hilt bare. Would you like to zlin?"
      What an odd thing to say about a piece of metal. "Yes, please." Her enthusiasm spilled into her voice, and Vanesa knew it made her sound very young, but she had always been fascinated by the metal crafter's trade, despite the fact she couldn't stand the mass production of metal trinkets for trade under the Kaon name. It wasn't that they were poorly made, simply they lacked the soul of the old, hand made goods.
      "Vanesa" Riana gave her the 'Lets get going' look.
      "He'll wait." My curiosity won't.
      Vayer chuckled softly, "A woman after my own soul." They all stepped back into Vanesa's room. It wasn't very large, but having a large knife exposed in the hall way did not seem like a good idea to anyone. He drew it, and now Vanesa knew what he had meant by zlinning it. Selyn diffracted along the length of the blade into fiery rainbows of light.
      "Oh my." She breathed, fascinated. Even to normal sight, it was gorgeous, with the lines of the folded steel clearly evident along its length with a wavering temper mark showing its hardening. Vayer's hand and tentacles wrapped around the hilt. Those hooks are for tentacles Vanesa studied the way his tentacles balanced the blade.
      "This sword was made, probably, somewhere around eight hundred years ago, when Fatima first came to power. The blade is from the South, what you call the Middle East, before they regained the ability to easily produce enough brass cartridges to return firearms to their being primary weapons for the Tribes." And then as casually as if he had been discussing the weather, "Would you like to hold it?"
      Stunned, all she could say was, "Yes." Her hand shook as he transferred the weapon to her, showing her how to fit her tentacles into the grips made for them. The metal hooks were silky smooth and warmed by Vayer's touch. The wire wrapped around the hilt held her hand firmly in place. Then she noted it quivering with her own attention.
      "Yes," he breathed, "because it was created for a Sime, it is very sensitive to every move you make." Riana shifted fretfully in the background and Vanesa found the blade rising up as if to fend off an attack. "Yes, your tentacles contract and it shifts the balance in your hand." To her it felt as if the piece of metal were an extension of her arm. It was one of the most incredible things she had ever sensed. "Now, one thing before we put it up, as you are bearing my child, you may be the one to blood it if you wish."
      Her heart hammered in her throat and then she actually felt the soul deep reverence Vayer held for his sword. Eight hundred years the thought rang in her mind. History had never been a major fascination for her, but such a length of time was almost incomprehensible to her. "How?"
      "Very easily." His dark blue eyes seemed to absorb the early morning light. "You simply nick the back of your hand very lightly with the blade. It is not done to return it to its sheath unblooded." Carefully, she let it come down and simply touch her skin. The blade was so sharp it was hardly more than a breath of pressure and a tiny cut opened up. "That is all."
     
      Hiklan was fuming. Finally fed up with waiting around, he stalked up to Vanesa's private quarters. Her shenned secretary had said she was sending for her, but it had already been over twelve minutes and thirty two seconds. Even the Sectuib in Kaon can't keep me cooling my heels all morning. Hiklan had far more important things to do with his time.
      He knocked and walked in. Serve her right if I get her out of bed He had been hearing rumors of odd goings on in Kaon, and while the households were still fairly autonomous, some of those rumors had been of transfer irregularities, which was purely a Techton prerogative now.
      Then he stopped dead in his tracks. "Is that a sword?" Fear clenched at him. Vanesa looked at him from behind the length of what looked like very sharp steel. It was upright, as if she were warding him off.
      "Yes, it is." A tall man in black said plainly, looking almost amused behind a shocking amount of hair. He hasn't shaved in months. "Mine as a matter of fact." He put his hand over Vanesa's, rather possessively. Calmly, he took the weapon from her, wiped it off with a square of black material, and then without even looking down sheathed it. Then Hiklan saw the bleeding cut on Vanesa's hand. He stared, mouth open, trying not to zlin the pain of her injury.
      She looked at her hand, shrugged, and looked back at him as if to ask, 'What about it?'.
      He was stunned. Then he saw the things around her tentacles. It looked like more blood. His vision greyed on the edges.
      "Here, sit, little one." Another of those heavily accented voices spoke. A hand caught his elbow and sat him in a chair. "Put your head down." a large Gen hand convinced him to lean forward. The greyness receded. "Better?" he asked, still stroking Hiklan's back. "You were about to faint."
      "I know that." His protest came out a bit shaky as he looked at his hands between his knees. "Thank you, though."
      "Certainly." The deep voice rumbled. "It is my job, after all, to keep silly Simes from falling on their noses because they do Sime things."
      There was still a slight tang to the ambient, but nothing like the amount of pain Vanesa's injuries must be causing her. Hiklan looked up. He flushed as he realized how tiny the cut on her hand was and that the red lines on her arms were cloth. I've just made an utter and total fool of myself. He looked back down.
      "Now, Hiklan. Was there some reason you came barging into my private quarters without permission when were about to come down and meet with you?" the ripple of amusement in Vanesa's field put some more backbone in him.
      "I really have to go, Vanesa." a young Donor told her.
      "Get on with you, Jina. I think the horde is going to be running the perimeter again." She turned and waved the young woman through the press of people. The room was really too tiny for so many. Jina was dressed in almost more outlandish clothes than the two strange zlinning people in the room. Her loose pants and top had almost more holes than fabric and the only thing saving them from indecency was the number of layers to them. She grinned and hurried out the door. "Now, back to business." Vanesa waved everyone to find chairs. "We might as well do it here. I have work to do as well."
      Caught off balance by her haste, Hiklan stepped right into the middle of the problem. "There have been rumors of transfers with non-Techton Donors."
      "I can, absolutely assure you, no one in Kaon, with my knowledge or consent, has ever had transfer with a Distecht Gen of any sort." Her dark eyes were calm as rocks and there was no trace of prevarication in her field at all. Even though she was a higher proficiency Channel, he knew she was telling the truth.
      "What about without your knowledge?" He had to ask, but already felt himself relaxing.
      "That I can't do anything about, really." She shrugged. The seating was a bit unusual, with the strangers sitting on either side of her and Riana standing behind her, but nothing truly amiss. "I would like to think I know about what my people do, but I am no ogre to chase down every little misdemeanor. Kaon's virtue is freedom, and I prefer to give Kaon's people as much of that freedom as humanly possible."
      "I'm relieved, Vanesa." He leaned back with a sigh. "Thank you for being so forthcoming. I had worried."
      "I know you did." She smiled, resting her hand on the black clad stranger's knee. "I would prefer it if you didn't go through Kaon's private records, as there is a great deal of sensitive trade information contained in them, but I can well understand it if you feel you must."
      "No, no." He shook his head, smiling back. "Not at all. You know how rumors are?"
      "Yes indeed." She laughed openly. "Someone starts a simple little story, like the tale of Sime killed by a Gen and it runs like wildfire until every single renSime is spooking at the Donors. They pass with time and truth."
      "That they do." He said. "And I'm sure this one will pass as well." Hiklan rose to his feet.
      "Let me escort you to your Donor." Riana told him.
      "It was good to talk with you, Hajene Vanesa." He nodded, allowing Riana to come to his side.
      "And it was good to get this cleared up so easily, Controller Hiklan." She stood and nodded to him. "Next time knock first, though."
      "I will." He grinned back and let Riana escort him out.

Below:

      This time Sevrin received a copy of the transcript first. The manipulation of Hiklan had sent Sevrin greying out for a period with pain at the distances involved, but it had been worth it. The Tegue woman's amazingly slick manipulation of the little fool brought a chuckle to his lips.
      Sevrin referred to the notes on the factions among the foreigners again.
     
      Techton: Form, bureaucracy; Public Goals, prevent kills of renGens, promote unlimited growth of technology, particularly selyn, mechanical and electrical;
     
      Good thing they are incompetent in the life sciences. Sevrin noted. Other than transfer, they seemed entirely oblivious to all other life processes.
     
      True Goals, as public, concentrate focus of all channels on transfer to the exclusion of all other interests, including self and family,
     
      That is truly stupid. Sevrin knew, as well as anyone else, in order to keep anyone healthy and functional, they must have some sort of release in their lives from their work. Even among the Veiled he himself had his music.
     
      restrict access between renSimes and renGens (note: renGens are not restricted)
     
      That is not truly stupid, simply inane. He shook his head in disbelief. How any group could hope to survive by putting their most precious members more at risk was beyond him. Biology itself supported the restriction of renGens. Without them no renSimes would live. RenGens could well survive the other way around. Foolishness. Seemed to be becoming his favorite term in reference to these people.
     
      limit power of all Gens;
     
      He nodded of course. Gens are the more powerful larity, and it was not simply his own body speaking. This was one of the few things this Techton did which made sense, as it was a Sime oriented political body.
     
      Effectivity, poor due to squeamish nature of leadership, manner of choosing leaders,
     
      Sevrin snorted again at this foolishness. Selecting leaders by a popularity contest, particularly for an unpopular position, was indeed foolishness of the highest degree.
     
      and squandering of necessary resources on non-goal functions; Caution, very young, fanatic organization, prone to the excesses and random nature of youth, extremely rapid growth rate and extant signs of extensive cultural manipulation by exterior forces at critical points in history!
     
      He eyed this last warily. It truly was a caution to be heeded. The clues were obvious. The spectacular successes of certain of their historical figures, Risa Tegue and Sergi ambrav Kaon, Rimon, Klyd and Digen Ferris were entirely unnatural. In the normal course of events, none of these people would have survived their conflicts. Well, perhaps the Sergi gentleman, but then Sergei's have always been survivors. Sevrin tapped his fingernail against his teeth in thought. Any conjunction of the Russian mission and any individual so marked by synchronicity had to be avoided at all costs.
      Various theoreticians among the Veiled had proposed such occurrences were actually evidence of the existence of a deity or deities. Certainly everyone else scoffed and maintained they were the mark of one of the other occult communities, like some of the Romany had. Sevrin, personally, could care less beyond the fact he did not desire to go up against such a force in this or any other life, if such a thing existed of course. The evidence of manipulation was clear in those cases though, and there were numerous pinpricks of similar manipulations all over the continent. Fortunately the only major one, at this time, was this Digen character. He was currently well occupied with his role as one of those popular leaders and would not be returning to North America until late summer, after the Tegue woman was to come to Moskva.
     
      Distecht: Form, theocracy, philosophical
     
      "I'd forgotten about that unusual bit of trivia." Sevrin made a note to himself so he would not do so again.
     
      God(s)
     
      He grinned in amusement at the deliberate misprinting of Goal(s).
     
      Direct transfer for everyone.
     
      Oh yes, this one. he still couldn't help but shake his head in disbelief. It was such incredible foolishness to think that renSimes and Gens had more sense than rocks when it came to transfer. It had taken the Rus centuries for the nobility to overcome the difficulties inherent in general direct transfer, and they had controls no ren could ever manage. No wonder the two factions are at each other's wrists One has their head implanted so firmly up their own rectum they have to ship daylight in by train and the other has their head so far up in the clouds, they couldn't find their own rectum with both hands and a topological map depicting every single hair and wart.
      No large society, in this day and age, in all the centuries of records maintained by the Rus had ever managed mass, general transfers. There were a few tiny communities of relative primitives living in isolation, but they were not world powers and never could be. If nothing else such a society would rapidly degenerate into clusters of individuals and not maintain its coalescence as a untied entity.
     
      Private goals, survival; effectivity, nonexistent, opportunity cost of membership is too high, primary value is supplying unifying enemy for Techton.
     
      Again Sevrin applauded the Tegue woman's wit. Her firmly placing the Rus in opposition to the Distecht had been a stroke of genius. Her daughter by Vayer promised to be absolutely magnificent. Even though Sevrin would be more optimistic as soon as he saw her gene chart. Mikhail's held a large number of unusual traits, no longer prevalent among the Rus, some of which for excellent reasons, being lethals. But then that had been the same for both Kir and Salya and their offspring were extraordinary. Sevrin returned his attention to the final entry.
     
      Households: Form, corporation; three (3) major, Kaon (Freedom), Zaor (Excellence), Rior (Distecht)
     
      No wonder the Kaon woman keeps bucking in harness Sevrin made a note to be certain to use even more of a carrot. He wasn't sure what, they didn't have a Sharm Lord to spare at the moment, but perhaps by this summer he could come up with something. All of the synchronicity events also happened around those three households. "We were very lucky to have caught Kaon between events." Sevrin noted. "Use extreme caution in all future, open, direct contacts with Kaon." This wasn't too much of a problem, since once all the trade pacts were formed, the Rus would retreat beneath the notice of synchronicity, even if they were very active, as long as they did not call attention to themselves. The events in the past had a very, very high threshold for violation, for which Sevrin was relieved of some concern.
     
      Goals, advancement and continued, unlimited, growth of material innovation.
     
      Sevrin felt the erector pillae on his arms and legs contract in sheer horror. This is what made the West so truly dangerous. They were tiny children setting off nuclear bombs to watch the pretty colors. They had no idea where they were going or what they were doing to their own children or the children of future generations. Unlimited growth had been tried before in world history.
      The Russian memory went back to such a time. It had nearly destroyed Rodina and she had barely managed to recover. There were still scars though, on her fair skin, which would not fade for millennia yet.
      Never again Sevrin vowed, with all this heart and mind, as had countless generations of Rus before him, Veiled, noble, freeholder and ren.

Chapter 9

      Vanesa looked around the paper littered room with disbelief. Three months. It had seemed more like three hundred. Maps, lists, sketches and diagrams covered most of the walls. Even the floor was covered by slips of paper, drifts ankle deep in a couple corners.
      This last month had been the worst. The winter storms had cleared out early and a mob of representatives from the lesser tribes had descended on Kaon with all the enthusiasm of Freeband raiders on an undefended Genfarm.
      They had finally had to resort to an auction type situation with Vayer at her elbow and Nashen at Riana's translating and buffering the two women at ever rising levels of augmentation. Finally the bell had rung, signaling the end of all trades. Everyone had cleared out but them.
      "Oh God, my head hurts." she finally rested it on the table in front of her, on top of yet another stack of papers. If she had cared, Vanesa would have been glad to note none of them still held damp ink.
      Wonderful, strong, fingers were digging into the cable tight muscles of her neck. "You do too much of that and my head will fall off and roll under the table."
      "It'll have company." Riana said. Vanesa turned her face to the side and found herself nose to nose with her sister. "We did it." she smiled weakly.
      "You did it." Vayer kissed the back of Vanesa's neck gently. A shiver of exhausted pleasure tried to make her quiver, but Vayer's hands were too skillful. Her eyes rolled up in her head as she gave in to his caresses.
      "We all did." Vanesa insisted.
      "Ah, not quite." Nashen said. "Vayer and I were merely assistants since we know Arabic."
      "At one percent." Riana snorted. "I know you've made a killing as assistants."
      Trust Riana to remember the profit motive. "How did we do?" Vanesa asked.
      "Kaon is now the kingpin for all the trade in the world, literally." Vayer murmured into her hair, as if he were speaking love words. Although after having gotten to know him, Vanesa figured they probably were. Not that this bothered Vanesa a great deal, quite the contrary, being of much the same bent herself. Then the meaning sank in.
      Her eyes opened. I hope I don't look that stunned. Her sister looked like someone had Genslammed her. I probably do.
      "The world?" Vanesa managed to choke out.
      "Yes." Nashen's tired grin was infectious and she grinned back. "Ninety plus percent of trade between the Americas and elsewhere in the world will be going under Kaon's aegis. Congratulations."
      Tears spangled her vision. Risa would be proud of us. Vanesa jerked her head up before her watering eyes could splotch the pages under her cheek. "I can't be crying." she sniffed and laughed at the same time. "I'm almost in hard need."
      "You are also pregnant, sweetheart." Vayer gathered her into his strong arms. "Besides, tears of joy care not for the frailties of human bodies."
     
      Vayer sometimes forgot how tiny Vanesa was. Her head fitted so neatly under his chin it was surprising how much life her body carried. Even almost completely dark with need, her field scintillated with all the colors of the rainbow.
      Riana was very post and was throwing abandoned trading slips into the air to let them flutter down like confetti, laughing maniacally. Nashen caught her in a big hug and she immediately flashed into the most stunning display of lust Vayer had zlinned in a long time.
      For a moment he grimaced at the necessity of Diomid having had to abort her at seventy-two hours with Riana's last attempt, then he zlinned Nashen's answering reaction. *Over eighty percent* he warned, even though with Nashen's current mind set it was heading towards one-hundred. Particularly as Riana was still holding onto her follicle.
      *Fuck you, Vayer* The response was a shocking for its crudity as the humor Nashen sent along with it. *Want!* rang through the ambient from both of them so hard Vayer staggered under it. Sheltering Vanesa with all his strength, Vayer turned his mind from his best friend's deep kiss of the woman he held in his arms.
      At that moment, Vanesa straightened up and peered over his shoulder.
     
      Vanesa looked up to see Nashen's hair come loose and cloak Riana in a silver veil. She blinked in surprise. Not only were his long fingered hands just about to work her sister out of her pants, but they seemed to shimmer with an eerie blue glow.
      He looked up momentarily from trying to devour Riana with his hungry kisses. His silver eyes glowed with a fire like heat lightning. Nashen winked at her.
      Vanesa buried her face against Vayer's shoulder again. "Is there any way we can get out of here?"
      "They're between us and the door." Vayer whispered in her ear, nibbling on it lightly.
      Seems he's also being effected by this. Vanesa's need was coiling up inside her looking for selyn with the hot ambient.
      "Oh shen." Energy crackled through the room. "Lets just do it." she got up and headed for the door at top speed. Vayer was right after her.
      They got out. She closed the door behind them and leaned on it. The bond between her and her sister betrayed her even through the heavy door. She felt Nashen's tentacles penetrate Riana. Vanesa yelped and jumped away from the door, right into Vayer.
      They ended up against the far wall. Vanesa's heart was pounding. Her roniplin glands were throbbing with her heartbeat. "Goodness." she tried to shake some of the rocks out of her head and get herself back under control. Vayer's arms felt so good under her ... Stop that. She let go of him.
      "Yes, well, ahem." Vayer grinned down at her. "I take it Riana, when post, reacts to a successful business deal the same way Nashen does?" The twinkle in his eye was unmistakable. He zlinned as if he would not have minded at all if she had simply taken him here in the hallway.
      "Well, yes, obviously." Vanesa shook her head again. A high pitched squeal followed by a truly wicked chuckle came through the door, making Vanesa jump. "Besides, she's wanted Nashen since she first laid eyes on him."
      "Laid is exactly what she's getting." Vayer snickered.
      "Uh oh." She remembered Diomid's warning and headed for the door.
      "Wait." Vayer grabbed her.
      "I can't." she struggled to get free. "Diomid warned me but I never ..."
      "Hold on, Vanesa." Vayer turned her around. "I reminded him of his fertility."
      "But what about Riana?"
      "He'll warn her or play safe." Vayer stroked her hair.
      Vanesa slumped in relief. Riana had been nearly devastated by the failure of her earlier attempt, even with all the reassurance anyone could give her such things were normal.
      "He also said, and I quote, 'Fuck you, Vayer'." Vayer shrugged, "Normally Nashen is never vulgar so I would assume he has a plan."
     
      Nashen wished with all his might he could come up with a plan. Normally finishing off a major deal, while post, would fire his passions to white heat and he would go find Arkay for a good romp. Never before had he zlinned a woman react the same way.
      He had known Riana was attracted to him, but it had been easy to turn down her request. Now, with his tentacles in her up to the wrist and himself straining his breeches to the breaking point, it was far more difficult. It was even difficult to think of anything but fulfilling those desires they now shared.
      A groan escaped his lips as her tiny, sharp, teeth nipped at his neck, firing every single nerve in his body. "Riana." He breathed, trying to get some control back.
      "Yes?" She looked up at him, eyes hooded and probably as hot as his own.
      "I can't."
      "I don't find a problem here." Her hot hand stroked his length, blinding him momentarily with his own desire to simply take her.
      "There's a risk." He finally managed to gasp out.
      "How much?" the shrewd, fascinating, trader came out, driving him to the very brink of insanity.
      "Healthy, about one in three." He looked straight into her eyes. "Anything at all, about four in five."
      Her dark eyes narrowed. "Before or after birth?"
      "Long before."
      "Better than Ferris. I'll take it."
     
      There was the murmur of voices, then a deep, rumbling growl, as if of distant thunder. Vanesa had no idea what the weather outside was like, but with that, Vayer let out a great peal of laughter.
      "What's so funny?" She glared up at him, still worried sick.
      "My, honest, guess." He wiped tears of laughter from his eyes. "Nashen gave her the odds, she went all business, exciting both of them more," He paused for breath and waited for another of those rolls of thunder to pass by. "and she said yes, most emphatically."
      "Do either of you know what has Nashen so worked up?" Arkay was grinning from ear to ear. Another of those squeals, she couldn't tell the gender this time at all, made her laugh.
      "We finished off the trade agreements today, you see, and ..." she had to laugh again.
      "Riana has the same reaction to a hot business deal ..." Vayer leaned against her, laughing.
      "Nashen does." Arkay finished and howled with laughter. "I swear that man would bed anything that wiggled their hips at him after a good deal. A woman who shared his proclivities would be impaled before he even stopped to think." Then he shot the door a concerned look.
      "Nashen warned her." Vayer said plainly.
      How do they communicate like that? Vanesa wondered. Occasionally, not often, only when they thought she wasn't paying attention, they informed each other of things which had not been spoken of and could not have been spoken of. It was very, very odd.
      "How did you know your partner was bedding Riana?" she pounced on Arkay.
      "We are match-mates." He back-pedaled.
      "No orhuen bond confers that degree of communication over a distance." She didn't want him to get away this time.
      "Ours does." He struggled against her.
      "Then how did Vayer know, for certain, that Nashen explained things to Riana?" She stepped towards him, ending up touching Arkay. Arkay had definitely, directly, been affected by Nashen's sporting. The evidence was poking her in the diaphragm. "You are all telepaths."
      "Shen" Vayer swore, she knew, viciously. "Sorry, it slipped out."
      "Yes, your little secret did." She moved her glare from father to son. "Now, you're going to tell me the rest of your little secrets."
      Vayer cringed.
      "I'm carrying your daughter, Vayer. I think I have the right to know what to expect."
      "Yes, you do." Vayer said plainly. "I'm sorry." His eyes closed and he sighed, rubbing at his temples with his tentacles. "Before you get any more upset, let me give you the reason for our secrecy."
      Vanesa wasn't upset, she was furious. "I'm waiting."
      A deafening crack of thunder struck. Lighting framed the window at the end of the hallway, shattering the glass inwards. St. Elmo's Fire rippled around and across the oak door. Dust sifted down from overhead.
      "Wow!" Arkay proclaimed, looking towards the door.
      "Ins'Allah." Vayer shook the sand out of his hair. "To go on."
      Vanesa knew her eyes were wide as saucers and most of her hair was standing on end. "Yes?" She tried to rub it all down, but it was like having walked across a wool carpet at Rialite during the winter. Arkay touched the back of her hand and a fat spark of static jumped the gap. At least that settled my hair if not my nerves.
      Vayer still looked a bit stunned, but went on, "Yes, well, since I would bet five hundred your sister is now pregnant by Lord Fatima, you both have to hear the whole story."

Below:

      Sevrin was furious. How did she ... ? the thought trailed off into incoherency. Fuming, he slapped the report down on his desk. He changed into his exercise clothes and stalked out of the room.
      After his decision to go above had been approved by the council, and since he was sound of wind and limb, he had been encouraged to make extensive use of the exercise facilities. Much to his own concealed delight, Sevrin had found the physical exertion often helped clear his thought processes.
      Sound body, sound mind. He snorted at himself in disgust as he lay back on the bench. A truly sound body was something Sevrin could never achieve, however, strengthening the rest of his body was decidedly pleasant. No longer did he grimace with disgust as his own fingers prodded soft, doughy, flesh draped over his waistband.
      He reached back over his head and set the machine to nearly the highest level. Both Avilan and Karola had ceeded to him genes giving him a tendency towards much greater strength and stamina than human norms, but this was the first time in Sevrin's life he truly appreciated their gift. Weights clanked as he took the slack off, feeling the pressure in his arms and chest relieved the pressure in his mind.
     
      Breathing easily, he settled into his routine, lifting the hundred and twenty kilos of lead with an ease astonishing the people surrounding him. He knew they were there, he simply ignored them. What he didn't know was their respect for having accomplished so much with his body in so little time.
     
      That Vanesa person. Fury began sliding into admiration as sweat dripped down his face and burning the excess calories from his body burned his mind clear as well. She actually managed slip one right up Vayer. Sevrin smiled at the image of his brother bent over and spread. He could still visualize things from memory, and was forever grateful for at least that one small favor. Nothing new could make it through the barrier, but old things and imagined things could. Sevrin simply couldn't visualize his own senses in the here and now.
      His older brother, Vayer was the shrewdest political operator the Rus had produced since the wily old Lord Gartiry. There had been no necessity for such a thing in the intervening centuries. Now there was an a tiny little lord who managed to trip him up. Vayer had even managed to send a message of apology to the sensitive receiving the daily reports.
     
      "Vanesa's and Riana's children will be as much children of the Rus as they will be of their mothers. Withholding this critical information, at this time, not only would destroy our current mission, but would be seriously detrimental to the welfare of those children.
      I could not, in all conscience, abandon my own child, or Lord Fatima's, to such a fate any more than Rodina could abandon her own children.
     
     
      At you will, and by the Will of Rodina, our Mother,
     
     
      Lord and Ruler Vayer Arkayevich Fatima"
     
     
     
      And then there was Vanesa's sister. How did she manage to get Nashen between her legs? Lord Fatima's preference for males in his bed was well established, as was his preference for rather padded Gens. Riana was neither.
      It had been encouraged. The Fatima nobility had a very thin mind/body barrier and with their risky fertility, it was far easier to limit the number of high risk pregnancies that way. If a Fatima Lord were aroused enough, it was not a problem, and from the degree for pyrotechnics displayed, it had been.
      Sevrin wiped the sweat away from his stinging eyes and got up. Making his way to the track, he continued his ruminations. The steady rhythm of his pounding feet reminded him of another facet of his improving health. I do wonder if that petite, lavender and honeysuckle scented Lord will be available for a bit of sport this month? Sevrin did not care to think of how close that description came to Vanesa Tegue.

Chapter 10

      Green mist covered the hills beyond the city as spring began in earnest. The heavy rains of this winter had given way to a perfect spring. When Vanesa realized why, she gave another little shudder. The tremendous power both Nashen and Tzer held at their fingertips was frightening.
      When Riana had been told of Nashen's power, she had simply smiled in that so content way she had and said, "It seems the heavens and earth really did move."
      Everyone had laughed, even Nashen himself, despite his looking more than a bit dazed still. But Vanesa was not entirely comfortable with all of it, even now, over a week later. Her own transfer with Vayer had been sweeter than any she had ever taken off another channel, and the memory of the consummation of it still sent a quiver of excitement up her spine.
      "Cold, sweet?" Vayer had an arm around both her and Darya. She wasn't sure who he was talking to until he hugged her a bit more tightly.
      "Simes don't ..." she broke off and giggled. "You would think I would learn not to say such things. No, only thinking about yesterday."
      "Other shivers, then." Darya gave her one of those wicked looks. Her slate grey eyes and dark field were two of the most fascinating things Vanesa had ever seen and zlinned. "I wish we had had a chance to get together."
      "Me too." she stroked Darya's back around Vayer. "Perhaps some day."
      "I would like that, I think." Darya slipped around Vayer. Giving in to the inevitable, quite willingly, Vanesa gave her a gentle kiss. "Hmmm, yes. I think I would."
      Vayer looked down at the two of them, "If you don't wish for any more excitement than a kiss out here on the tarmac, I highly recommend you let go of me before you continue this discussion."
      "As you say." Darya winked, let go of him, and gave Vanesa a very warm hug. Vanesa noted, yet again, how much of a wonderful armful of Gen Darya was. The soft sweetness of Darya's lips promised Vanesa things no Sime ever could, no matter how male.
      "Are you ready to go yet?" Arkay asked.
      "No" Nashen snapped, catching Riana up and tossing her in the air. She squealed in delight and batted at his hands playfully. "You are a delightful little bundle of energy." He kissed her enthusiastically. "Now don't get in too much trouble."
      "How could I, I'm already pregnant." She stuck out her tongue at him. Nashen promptly kissed it, making Riana melt against him.
      "Hmmm, yes." she finally murmured, holding him tightly. "You are very bad, m'Lord Fatima."
      "I thought you would have found me quite good." He kissed the top of her head. "You are tiny."
      "Always have been."
      "Not for too many more months." He tapped her on the nose.
      "I'm going to look like a house!" Riana looked down, zlinning herself yet again. Diomid had pronounced her daughter completely healthy, freeing the Russians to return to their home. Now the time had come and Vanesa was getting a serious case of nerves. Fatima children could be problems in utero, and no matter how many times Diomid reassured both of them this was the healthiest Fatima he had ever sensed, neither of them really wanted to be left alone to deal with any complications.
      "You're still concerned, aren't you, little one?" Diomid said, kissing the top of Vanesa's head. This was a habit she had gotten used to, but not really happy with and she glared up at him.
      They are all so tall. Except for Nivanya, every single one of the Russians towered over her and Riana. Nashen himself was well over a foot taller than her sister.
      "I shouldn't do that, I'm sorry." He tipped her chin up and kissed her properly. "I used to hate it like poison when people would do it to me."
      "You didn't get your final growth until after you established?"
      "Years afterwards. My body insisted on growing out first." He grinned. "I really looked like a troll as an adolescent."
      "You don't now." Kirina put her arm around him.
      "Only because you convinced me to put on some more padding." He rubbed his head against her chin. "Even though there are some times I like being shorter than you are." Diomid grinned up at her, then neatly nipped at her neck. Her eyes closed and she sagged against him briefly, as a flash of ruddy desire rippled through the ambient.
      "Are we going to stand around and court each other all day, or are we going to wait until Nashen's wonderful weather has worn off." Arkay had put his arms around both Nashen and Riana.
      "It was Tzer's work this time." Mikhail joined them.
      "You helped." Tzer told him, stroking his hand. They zlin wonderful together. Vanesa zlinned her brother and his partner closely. All the darkness and sluggishness from Mikal's field were gone, replaced with a deftness that was as quicksilver as the Fatima Lords themselves. No, Mikal is no more. Her lip quivered as she realized her little brother had grown up and was going away.
      When he had been sent off to school, she had missed him horribly, but knew he would come back from time to time on visits. Now he was going half way around the world and never coming back. "I'm going to miss you, little brother." Her voice cracked.
      "I'm going to miss all of you." This time, unlike when he had been sent to Rialite, he let his emotions ring clear and true on his field. The bittersweet beauty of them broke Vanesa's reserve. She ran over and hugged him, finding Riana doing the same. He knelt, taking both of them in his arms at the same time. "I'll visit, I promise. It isn't like I'm banished to some Sime center."
      Vanesa smiled through her tears at him, "True. No fussy controllers to deal with."
      "No picky channels who treat me like a walking meal tray." He kissed her forehead.
      "Did you really feel that way, Mikhail?" Riana asked.
      "Often, yes." His open display on his field backed his words, coloring them with the shame and lack of self worth he had felt at the time. "It was not pleasant."
      "I will always remember that, brother mine." Vanesa told him. "It's so hard though when you never get to know your partners."
      "Then simply talk to them. We all have our likes and dislikes Vanesa." He brushed her hair back from her face. "We are people too."
      "I know that now, far better than I ever did before." She kissed his hand, gently ringing his bracelets with a ventral. The clear, sweet tone of them echoed his now luminous field. "Even if it's only letting them get their own tea."
      "Even if." He shook his head. "Things like that meant a lot to me. The life of a Techton Donor was so very lonely many ways, to compound it with a lack of trust was painful beyond words. We were trained not to show it, but that doesn't mean I didn't feel it."
      "Thank you, for coming back and being willing to talk about it." Riana said. "Even though I think I'll simply start showing up early myself and making the tea for both of us."
      Mikhail chuckled softly, "Even better in some ways. To show we aren't simply servants to carry the selyn around for you until you need it."
      "Was it really that bad?" Riana flinched.
      "Yes, most of the time." His eyes matched the clear blue of the sky so perfectly it was uncanny. "The worst thing of all was having the Channel come in late and simply attack like a leech. How would you feel if total stranger came up to you and wrapped their tentacles around yours?"
      "Violated." Vanesa agreed with him. "No, neither of us, and eventually, no one of Kaon will ever do such a thing again willingly. Even if it means making up for it afterwards, Kaon will not be violating the bodies of its Donors in that way."
      "Yes, even staying around for a few minutes afterwards and sharing with your Donor, not just dumping on them would be heaven." His eyes closed and his field twined with dark storm clouds. Even Mikhail's field now resembled those of the other Russian Gens, with their fantastic imagery showing through the normally rather plain energy patterns.
      "What a small thing to make such a difference." Riana mused.
      "It would, as water to a dying plant or selyn to a Sime in attrition. We, all of us who willingly give our selyn directly to Simes, do it out of love, to have that love ignored and trampled is excruciating."
      "No, Kaon will be making certain changes, even if we have to keep it all under the rosebush." Vanesa reassured him.
      "Thank you, sister mine." The relief in his field was staggering, it was as if a sun came out from behind the clouds and shone on her alone.
      "I like this new way of your Nager behaving." She grinned at him. "It's so refreshing."
      "Not like oatmeal." Riana agreed fervidly. "I hate oatmeal."
      "I noticed." His laughter rang in the cool morning air, and made the sunlight feel of his nager dance. "Although we do have to be going. It won't be so long."
      "This time." She stood.
      "At any time. There will be a lot of travel between Moskva and Navean, Vanesa." Mikhail told her. "One of the very few good things about Techton advancement is air travel."
      "Speak for yourself, Mikhail." Darya was turning a frightening shade of green. "I was sick the whole way over, and now, having to go back on that thing is already making my stomach turn."
     
      Darya's nausea was also getting to Vayer. An idea came to him. "Maya otyet?"
      "Yes, Vayer." A twinkle danced across Arkay's field.
      "Of all of us pairs, Darya and I are the most extraneous, correct?" He repressed his smile at the hope lighting Vanesa's eyes. Darya clamped his hand tightly. Agreement rippled through her field, like moonlight on water.
      "I would say so, yes." Nashen's eyes shone with good humor. "I suppose Rodina could live without you two for a few months, say until mid-summer."
      "We had planned on flying over there about then." Vanesa's eyes narrowed at him. "I know you, Vayer."
      "Did, too." He grinned, looking at her middle.
      A field strike smacked him on the side of the head. She was getting good at that. It made his ears ring. He tapped the side of his head as if to clear it. Vayer knew how uncomfortable Vanesa had been with being left alone to deal with her own pregnancy, and now with Riana pregnant by Nashen, her nerves were far too unsteady for Vayer's tastes.
      "Then what do you say, my mate?" He smiled at Darya. She was so very, very beautiful, his heart still pounded every time he thought of how lucky he was to have won her hand. The lapis and onyx bracelet he had given her for their hand fasting winked in the sunlight.
      "I don't have to ride in that thing for another three whole months?" She grinned at him, obviously teasing. "I'll take it."
      With a wild whoop of glee, Vanesa jumped into his arms, almost knocking him over. "Thank you." She kissed him. "Thank you, sweet. Both of you." She pulled Darya into the embrace.
      Riana sidled up, looking at him out of the corner of her eye. He snaked his arm out and pulled her into the hug. She laughed, giving in and hugging them all back. "Thank you, Vayer."
      "You are more than welcome, both of you." He winked. "I didn't want to get on the plane either."
      Someone pinched him on the behind and he yelped.
      "Hmmm, very firm." Riana licked her lips.
      "I like them that way." Darya grinned.
      "So you think you can cope with three pregnant women all at the same time?" Diomid was grinning from ear to ear.
      "I think I can." He let his awareness sink into all three of them, reveling in the life surrounding him. It was like nothing he had ever felt, a burgeoning of life to rival spring herself. "Oh my." He breathed, eyes wide as he came out of it.
      "Amazing, isn't it?" Diomid smiled at him.
      "Now I know why you and Arkay specialized in this." He bowed his head in respect to the incredible gift of life Allah had shown him through these women. "It is incredible."

Below:

      Sevrin's eyes filled with tears. "Damn you to the nethermost reaches of the foulest Hell, Vayer!" He screamed, throwing the report across the room. It shattered against the far wall with a crash of plastic and glass. He howled, feeling the jealousy of his brother's experience shred his heart, till it lay still and bleeding within his chest. Crumpling, he put his face in his hands and cried as he had not done since his own death.
      No one came at the sound, no one came to comfort him, no one's touch stilled the wracking sobs crushing his heart and lungs with a fist of steel. Wings of darkness were no comfort, even to another of the dead. Sevrin ached to feel the touch of anyone who cared, and there was no one for him. Vayer had three. The feel of the three women pressed against his body made Sevrin scream in agony of his own loss.
      Darkness cloaked his own world, its ashen touch chill as Lady Death herself, with her sweet lips and sweeter kiss. The blazing heat of life growing within Vanesa was a mocking reminder of Sevrin's own impotence. "NO!" He howled into the eternal night, denying its monstrous hold on his soul. His nails dug into the wood of his desk as he fought the agony in his heart, driving splinters beneath them in a pain unnoticeable beneath the pain in his heart.
      Finally he staggered to his feet and curled up on his tiny cot. There was no softness there, merely a single, thin, blanket, but still he hugged it to his chest as if it were a living thing. It crinkled in his fists, folding into numerous sharp corners. The slick material shed his tears until they pooled beneath his cheek on the headrest. Eventually, exhausted, he dropped into a heavy, nightmare ridden, sleep.
     
      The air was cool against his cheek as he walked between Arkay and Nashen, clutching his mother's harp to his chest. Their hands rested on his shoulders. He wished he could feel the touch of Nashen's tentacles one last time, and somehow Nashen knew and caressed his face with them. The soft, velvet touch of them brushed away tears yet again, and settled to twine about his ear.
      "Remember we will always love you, Sevrin." Nashen murmured in his ear, his breath warm and sweet. "Please remember that."
      "I will, otyet." His throat was tight, choking him.
      "Always, Sevrin." Arkay reinforced. "If there were any other way ..."
      A breeze played with his hair, teasing at it. "I know, otyet." He reached up and stroked Arkay's hand.
      "Was this Sevrin Azovich?" An alien, echoing, voice asked when they finally stopped. The heavy scents of incense and beeswax teased at him, almost making him sneeze.
      "I am Sevrin Azovich Azov." He turned his face towards the stranger.
      "Thy name is no more in this place." The man said. Nashen's tentacles retracted. Their loss left his ear cold and chilled. He heard Nashen bite back a sob. Sevrin turned to him, reaching out. A hand like a steel claw clamped onto his wrist. "Never again." The voice hissed, dragging him away. "You almost missed your chance." And the door slammed shut behind him with a sound like the slamming of the doors of hell.
     
      They were the doors of hell. Sevrin woke with a start. "I love you, otyet." he sobbed, feeling his losses pile up, crushing his soul beneath their inhuman weight. Never again had Sevrin felt the touch of a Sime's handling tentacles, never again had Sevrin felt the loving touch of another human being, never again had Sevrin felt the reassurance of another's warm breath on his skin.

Chapter 11

      Vanesa woke with a start. Tears were streaming down her face. A sense of overwhelming grief was crushing her in the dark of the night.
      "What is it, little one?" Vayer murmured, stroking her face.
      "I don't know." She tried to shake off the feeling. All four of them were sleeping together, entwined like a basket of kittens. Normally she adored it. Now she was crying. "I don't know." Sobs made her voice catch.
      His arms around her seemed to only make it worse, as if someone were reaching out for her touch and trying to burn away Vayer's. She shivered in a sudden chill. "Easy, Vanesa." he cooed, picking her up and carrying her to a large chair. "Hush now."
      "I can't." She cried, now clutching him to her. Vanesa buried her face against his chest. "I'm so alone." She wailed into the night.
     
      Vanesa's cry made Vayer's laterals retract and knot in terror. It was not her voice. Checking his time sense, he realized yesterday's report would have reached the Veiled by now. As gently as he could, he tried to interpose his own mind between the intruder and Vanesa.
      *DAMN YOU TO HELL, VAYER* Sevrin's mind voice ripped through his mind with a brutality Vayer never could have imagined and then the presence was gone.
      *I love thee, my brother* He tried to send back through the blinding pain of the headache and tearing nausea accompanying it, but he was too far away. Sobbing, Vayer echoed the loneliness which had awakened Vanesa. He missed his brother, and to find out, in this way, he was still alive, was horrible. Vanesa was shivering with reaction in his arms and he wrapped a soft throw around both of them. Since he and Darya had chosen to stay behind, Vanesa had some of her craftsman open up a few doors between rooms to make a proper suite.
      Finally her shivers stilled and she relaxed against him, falling back into a deep, dreamless slumber. Vayer held her close. Tentatively, he reached out for the sensitive's contact. It was tracking Darya this evening. Very, very carefully he tickled at the tracer. As if trying to catch a passager, he let out tiny morsels of interest in it. After nearly half an hour had gone by, its attention began to slither onto him. He didn't want it to be as sharp as the message he sent last time.
      Schooling his mind, Vayer set his thoughts to one thing, 'what Vanesa feels like in my arms'. Even when she settled more comfortably in his lap, he kept the hold on it being 'mine' and not 'Vayer's'. Gradually he came back to himself to find the messenger had gone. He slumped, letting the stress leak out of him. It had been brutally difficult, but he hoped Sevrin got the message.
      The final part of the message had been cut for everyone but Sevrin. He had demanded everything be sent to him, including the trivia, and he smiled at the effect of it. No one else cared if Vayer and Darya ate sharp cheese or mild, but Sevrin had insisted on all of it. Now he was glad of it beyond words.
      Again he played the last part of the message, feeling the warm, heavy weight of Vanesa's body in his own arms, trusting him completely in her sleep. He could hear every breath, feel every twitch of her muscles, even feel the child stirring restlessly within her. His own hand stroked her belly, and the child kicked at it, irritated at the intrusion. A soft breeze coming in through the window stirred her hair and he brushed a strand of it away from her eyes before it could disturb her sleep. Her silken skin was as smooth as sunlight. Even the way her hair tickled his arm around her shoulders was exquisite.
      Finally it ended again and he placed it reverently in the locked drawer of his desk. Sevrin didn't know if he would ever have the nerve to review it again, but it was a gift beyond price. "Thank you, my brother." Never could he tell Vayer the true value of his gift, even if they were to ever speak again, but the care with which Vayer had removed all traces of his own personality from the recording, had made it so Sevrin himself could feel those things he had thought forever beyond his grasp.

     
      "I'm late." Vanesa stuffed another date in her mouth and bolted for the door.
      "Here, don't forget your cape." Darya put the short garment around her shoulders.
      "Thank you, love." She kissed Darya's lips, getting sticky all over them. Darya licked them.
      "I think dates are a Sime thing." She winked. "Now get on with you." And with that, she was off. Jogging across the courtyard, she waved to a rather startled group of renSimes repaving the entrance to the old stables, now the motor pool. Vanesa felt better than she ever had before in her life, but some people didn't seem to want to agree with her own assessment.
      Not even out of breath, she pounded up the stairs to the examination room. Her own heavy footfalls made her smile. The only effect of her increasing girth seemed to be a complete disappearance of the gliding gait many Simes used as a matter of course.
      "Goodness, Hajene, I could hear you halfway up the stairs." Sosectu Garin, her Donor this month, leaned out of a doorway.
      "I've gotten a little fat." She grinned back.
      "So I see." His startled laughter rang with delight. "Do you think you could help me loose a few pounds?"
      "Shift 'em to your sweetie, make her fat like me." She teased right back.
      "She'd kill me if I got her pregnant." His teasing her right back was wonderful. "Really, she would."
      "Then who would she have to annoy in the middle of the night?" Vanesa let her hand stroke the back of his. He sighed and his field flared in the soft warmth of utter bliss.
      "No one." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "But then I would have to deal with her waking me at all hours of the night."
      "True enough." She gave his hand a gentle squeeze.
      "Thank you, Sectuib." He murmured, field twining in pure happiness. "I'll be seeing you later, perhaps?"
      Vanesa quickly reviewed her schedule and realized if she dumped the stupid weekly report meeting, she would have all evening free for him. "If you wouldn't mind coming up to the suite I'm sharing with Vayer and Darya?"
      "Not at all." He beamed, literally. "I would like to get a chance to meet them. I've been so busy ..."
      Vanesa hushed him with a tentacle on his lips. Startled, he kissed it. "There's always a way to make time, my friend."
     
      The following examination was far less pleasant. "I saw you bolting across the courtyard this morning. What did you think you were doing?"
      "Running." She said, stealing a page from Nashen's book. Hajene Marya did not look anywhere nearly as amused as Vanesa felt.
      "Why?" Marya looked grim and wrote a note on her page.
      "Because I wanted to." This is fun. Vanesa sat down calmly on the single chair in front of the desk. Normally she didn't have to put up with nonsense like this, but far too many people were worried about her health, at least in Vanesa's opinion.
      "Because you wanted too." Marya clicked her tongue disapprovingly. "You know you don't have to run. If you really have to get somewhere quickly, just augment. But right now you'd better have a good reason for wasting selyn."
      Having heard this lecture from far too many physicians already, Vanesa tuned it out and saw a sparrow alight on a branch outside the window. It began to sing, calling for its mate and she smiled. Even the tiny little, rather drab bird, seemed wonderful to her today.
      "Have you heard a single word I've said?" Marya's voice rasped through her distraction.
      "No" Vanesa said and then almost hurt herself trying not to laugh at Marya's look of utter disgust. She returned her attention to the sparrow, but now there were a number of them, all preening and singing their little hearts out.
      "If you would stand in front of the screen, Vanesa." the irritating voice distracted her again. She couldn't hide her sigh. "If it's too much trouble then I can go elsewhere. I do have a lot of work to do."
      "I'm sure you do." She said, walking over to the black wall hanging. Hip shot, she looked up towards the ceiling.
      "I can't zlin you properly like that. Stand up straight." Comparing this woman's manner with Diomid's almost made her laugh out loud again, which would have been a bad idea. Suddenly, as usual, she had to return to the shenned bathroom. Uneasily, she waited impatiently for the woman to finish. As her weight shifted, her daughter decided to use mother's ribs for fighting practice, pushing off Vanesa's bladder for leverage.
      "All right ..."
      Vanesa didn't wait around. She bolted for the bathroom, barely making it in time. "You, are a troublemaker, my lass." She moved a stray foot from where it was digging in a bit hard. "Now I know why Vayer and Darya recommended skirts." Vanesa made sure she would remember tomorrow. They would be far quicker to hike up, and far less embarrassing if there were an incident, if she selected the sort of heavy wool ones Darya preferred. Clever woman. Vanesa thought, thinking about the dark patterns Darya had picked out, which looked like water staining already.
     
      Actually if Vayer and Darya had not been there to help, Vanesa would have been wildly out of her depth. "Now, how did you say this thing is supposed to tie?" She pinned the loose robe with a doubtful eye. It looked comfortable on Darya, but getting into it was another matter.
      "Like this." Darya placed it over her head and proceeded to lace up the sides. It had been cut down from one of hers, so of course it was black, but the fabric had a soft hand like woven mist. Unlike the horrid 'maternity' overalls the Techton provided, this garment didn't bind her and make her look like a land yacht. "Now, hold up your breasts." Darya said.
      "What?" Vanesa squawked, but complied any ways. With a few deft tugs Darya tightened the laces up firmly on her lower chest. Then set them in such a way as to hold, without cutting into, her horribly tender breasts. "Oh my goodness." She relaxed into the lacing after Darya tied it off. Somehow, some clever designer, had constructed it so it even managed to conceal the fact she was packaged into the top of the garment like a buckwheat sausage. "This is wonderful, thank you." She breathed, and surprisingly enough she could do so, despite the constriction on her ribs.
      "You are quite welcome." Darya grinned, brushing Vanesa's dark hair back off her shoulders.
      "Do you mind my entertaining tonight?" She asked, concerned.
      "Not at all, although we would like to meet him, if at all possible." Vayer commented, looking up from his writing and making a very appreciative smile. "You look stunning, Vanesa." He slid to his feet with all the grace Vanesa now missed.
      "Are you sure that shouldn't be stunned?" All her good humor suddenly drained out of her. Vanesa's cycle was so messed up she had no idea if she could cry or not, but she sure felt like she could. She bit at her lip, trying to keep it from quivering.
     
      Vayer felt the tears take over the laughter in Vanesa's countenance almost before she did. "Go ahead and cry if you like, Vanesa." He hugged her, wishing he could as easily rub her lower back as he did Darya's. She was already beginning to sway and it must ache fiercely.
      "I look like a duck, a black duck." she wailed.
      That's different, they usually say they look like a house. "Would it help if I said you look like a beautiful black swan?" He bent his knees so he could manage to get to her lower back.
      Vanesa giggled and then sighed as the massage took over, "Don't relax me too much."
      He lifted an eyebrow and saw Darya point to the bathroom. Vayer grinned and picked Vanesa up. She yelped and put her arms around his neck, almost choking him. He gave out an exaggerated, strangled, squawk.
      Vanesa giggled again and then said, "Uh-oh."
      "On the way, sweet."
     
      Afterwards she looked up at him with those big dark eyes, looking completely lost. "What am I doing wrong, Vayer?"
      "Nothing I know of." he stroked her black hair. "Why do you ask?"
      "Because I keep falling apart, and I have to pee all the time, and I sound like an elephant on the stairs, and I don't know what's going to come out of my mouth next." Her eyes crossed she was so frustrated.
      "Lets take these things one at a time, shall we?" he kept his voice low and soft. Physically Vanesa was doing quite well, the mood shifts, however, kept bashing her about so badly she couldn't find her balance. Which of course only made them worse.
      "First, the physical. You are quite healthy." He held up a hand to fend off her interruption. "Between Darya and I, how many glasses of water are you drinking a day?" The concrete question soothed some of the turmoil from her field.
      "At least ten."
      "And our daughter is right on top of your bladder, compressing it constantly, correct?"
      "Yes," she grinned, "but ..."
      "I'm getting to that." he pulled her into his lap, where he could better touch her. "You think that since Darya isn't skittering all over the place emotionally you shouldn't be, correct?"
      "Well yes." She blushed furiously. "I'm being such a butterfly-brain."
      "If you don't mind a couple of pieces of advice?" Darya pitched her voice very soft, forcing Vanesa to quiet so she could hear her. Vayer winked at his mate in appreciation of her tactic and she gave him a tiny grin back.
      "Please." Vanesa begged, sounding completely heartbroken.
      "First thing is this is my fifth child and I am quite a bit older than you are." Darya's beautiful face certainly held its share of lines, and Vayer appreciated every single one of them. She blew him a silent kiss for what must have been his obvious adoration, and he lowered his eyes shyly, still as astonished and amazed at her acceptance of him, warts and all, as he had been those many years ago. "Don't compare yourself to me, little one. You are a unique, wonderful, individual doing something very special.
      "Second, cherish each and every moment of this experience. Even if you bear another child, it will be completely different. Even the aching back and tired feet are special. Live for now, Vanesa. Wallow in it and make it all yours. Don't fight the ups and downs, revel in them. Make Vayer feel useful," She winked at him, "go ahead and get his tunics all soggy. It won't hurt them and it will make you feel better."
      "You're right, Darya." She straightened up with newfound confidence. "Thank you, very, very much." And Vayer could almost hear the chains fall from her heart into dust.
      There was a knock on the door. Vanesa gasped. "I invited Garin for dinner." She yelped and hid her face against Vayer's chest. "I'm sorry. I forgot to tell you."
      "We have plenty, Vanesa." He patted her back, chuckling.
      "Come in, Garin." Darya called out, making Vanesa burrow even deeper into Vayer's lap.
      "I can't let him see me like this. I look like an idiot. I look like a house. I'm fat." and on and on.
      "Hush." Vayer nipped her on the ear, lightly. She jumped and looked at him with huge, startled eyes, and then broke up laughing. "As you can see, we are very informal in our suite. Please, come in and make yourself at home, Garin." He told the quite nice looking young man trying, almost successfully, to strangle back an almost overwhelming curiosity. "My name is Vayer, my mate's is Darya, and I think you know Vanesa here."
      "We've met." He said, quite unselfconsciously sitting on the floor at their feet. He reminded Vayer of someone, and he couldn't quite place who.
      Vanesa giggled. "I would certainly hope so, Sosectu."
      "No formality." Darya tapped her on the nose playfully.
      "So sorry, didn't mean to offend." Vanesa stuck her nose in the air, making a big show of sniffing the air.
      "Offend or be offensive?" Garin asked with a wicked grin.
      "Oh, bad Donor, no tea." She mock glared at him.
      "Even though I smell coffee, somewhere, around here, maybe?" He looked directly up at Vayer and now he recognized Garin and almost howled with laughter. Only at the last instant did he manage to choke it back. It was painful.
      "Yes, I think we could find a cup around here." He said finally. "Let me get up."
      "Not if it's a problem." Garin looked down. Then Vayer remembered the little discussion Vanesa had had with her brother.
      "The pot is on the hotplate in the other room, I would appreciate it if you would bring me a cup as well." Vayer was rewarded with a brilliant smile. "I'm afraid we have an infidel in our midst who doesn't appreciate the drink."
      "Yuck." Vanesa's nose twitched. "You can have it." She missed Vayer's hidden message completely. Garin didn't and stared at him for a long moment.
      "I'll go with you and show you where everything is." Darya's field danced with laughter. She got it.
      Garin had been at the first party the Rus had put on here, and not in the coveralls of the Techton. He had danced for his lady, a gorgeous young renSime who probably never appeared on a single transfer roll. As was proper, most of his nager had been hidden, but those almost black eyes with light skin were a dead giveaway.
      Vanesa had to scurry off as usual, and Vayer caught Garin's hand. The sharm lord looked at him warily. "I am of Fatima, and of the Faithful. You don't have to fear me. But I do have to ask, how did you hide that nager under a dancing costume?"
      "By being low field and wildly post." He grinned back. "Salia is my mate, a renSime. She cornered me one day when I was out looking for a place to eat. Well, she showed me one and soon we were talking like old friends. One thing led to another, and soon we were walking beneath the swords. Her tribe isn't ecstatic about my profession, or the fact I took a renSime to wife, but we are well enough content here in the West."
      "I'm glad to hear it." And Vayer truly was. This was a good thing, to his way of thinking, that such a love match had a place to thrive. "I take it you give her transfer?"
      "Yes" he grinned, sipping at his coffee. "The Techton never notices the tiny amount she takes out of my reserves. I try to keep my schedule fairly close to hers, so we are both post at the same time."
      "Good for you." Darya stroked his hand. "I think Salia is a lucky woman."
      "I know I'm a lucky man." He raised his cup, "Ins'Allah, Vayer and Darya."
      "Ins'Allah." And in this case Allah's will was certainly most kindly.

Below:

      As usual, everything had been left to the last minute. Mid-summer was tomorrow, and Vayer and Darya were expected to arrive today. Maryam was in complete disarray, with only Arkyana's 'miraculous' ability to nurse the twins of the dead Sharm Lord Maryam keeping the entire situation from dissolving into total and utter chaos. Sevrin was already sweating beneath the heavy robes and razor lined gloves covering his arms from fingertip to armpit. He bumped one of them against his side and swore again as one of the edges caught his sensitive wrist bones.
      As long as he didn't put any pressure on them, anywhere, they were comfortable enough, but each time he made an injudicious move, they nicked at him, reminding him of his position. The damned things were almost a fiendly as the practice of removing a Lord's handling tentacles. Too much time in them, and he would never be able to give transfer again from the scarring.
      "It is time, my Lord." a voice told him and he moved to the very center of the chamber. "On the count of three."
      Sevrin took a deep breath, bracing himself. The return would be just as bad, but at least that direction he would be able to throw up afterwards.
      "Three, two, one, now." And the world dissolved into sickening, twisting chaos. Just as he felt his self control weaken, the solidity of reality congealed around him. He took a deep breath, breathing the fresh air of the outside world for the first time in nearly fifteen years. It revived him like nothing else could. A breeze tugged at his garments, almost sending him into a swoon of ecstacy with the pleasure of feeling its delicate hand yet again. Even in his perpetual darkness, the warm sun was a remembered light surpassing all glory of power or honor. For what seemed like an eternity, Sevrin simply stood there on the landing area, soaking up the sensations bombarding him.

Chapter 12

      Vayer stepped down off the plane, Darya on one arm, Vanesa on the other and bracing himself in case Riana tripped behind him. It was harrowing to say the least, but finally everyone was safe on the ground again. If he never had to endure another airplane ride again in his life, he would be more than happy. The bumping, jostling motion with the total and utter lack of orientation had made him dreadfully ill.
      As his feet touched the green turf, he thought about kissing it for a moment. Darya did kneel down and dig her fingers into the thick grasses. "I am so happy to be home." She sighed.
      "Me too, beloved."
      "It's beautiful." Vanesa breathed, wide eyed and staring at the city. Summer was always Moskva's best season, despite the heat, which after Navean in the late spring was as nothing. In the summer all the winter storm damage had been cleared away, and the lush greenery was at its height.
      "Are those deer?" Riana turned towards the forest.
      Vayer grinned, "Yes, they are. There are also bears, boar, wolves, birds and all kinds of other wildlife." He didn't have the proper names for them in Simelan and knew the women wouldn't have understood them in Russian. "They've come down after the plane has quieted and are curious." He could very faintly sense their tremulous thoughts. "Shoo." he waved his hand. "Hunting season is soon, young ones, you would not wish to be here then."
      The bounded off into the forest.
      "You hunt such gorgeous animals?" Vanesa looked astonished.
      "Of course, otherwise too many would starve in the winters, which are not kind." He took her hand. "I have hunted the deer at least a few times each fall for many years. It is both sport and necessity."
      "But they're so cute." Riana protested.
      "Better a hunters knife and cleanly dead, than starvation and the ravening of hungry wolves while still alive." Vayer gave her a swift hug. "Now lets ..." He stopped dead and stared. Coming down the hill behind the assembled crowd was a figure all in black. "Hush, little ones. With me, Darya." He gave the orders crisply and stepped forward. Fortunately both Vanesa and Riana knew quite well when it was time to talk and when it was time to go along. He took Darya's hand and placed in on his elbow. As if in the great court, he stepped towards the dark figure.
      His family parted down the middle as an unseen force convinced them to step aside.
      "The time of fulfillment is nigh. The twin has suckled twins. Maryam shall die tomorrow and peace shall replace her hold." A hollow, echoing voice rang across the crowd.
      Vayer stepped forward, drew his sword, and knelt before the Veiled one, resting his blade across his upraised knee. "How may I best serve you, Veiled one?" The figure didn't look down and Vayer sucked in a deep breath, recognizing him, despite the distorted voice.
      "Bow thy head, child of Rodina." The voice thundered with anger and he did so, trying not to weep for the horror his brother had become. "Thou shall take up the banner of peace and raise it again beside the banner of Russia."
      "At your will, voice and son of Rodina." He hoped his ploy to tell Sevrin he still cared for him as kin would not be taken wrongly. Then the words sank in and he looked up. "Mir shall rise again, at the right hand of Fatima."
      "As it had been, now shall be, tomorrow." And with those words Sevrin was gone.
     
      Vanesa blinked in surprise. Vayer had told her of the powers some of the rulers of the Demense held, but teleportation had not been one of them. The tall figure, dressed all in black from head to toe, including a veil completely covering his face, both scared her half to death and fascinated her at the same time. "He's gone." Vayer had resheathed his sword. "Come on, you know most of these people." He waved her forward.
      "Who was that?" She asked, when she got close enough.
      "That had been Sevrin." Vayer told her, eyes dark with old pain. "He is dead."
      This made very little sense to Vanesa. The man hadn't looked or zlinned like a ghost, not that she had ever met one before.
      "He is dead to us, Vanesa. His name no longer belongs to him unless he forfeits his Veil." Arkay took her elbow and began introducing the handful of strangers present. "In which case he will die the true death."
      "Why?" she looked at him, pleading for understanding. "He did nothing wrong."
      "I know, but it is the way we are." And with that he slammed that same damned mental door in her face these people had been doing since they first came to Kaon.
      "I am not going to take that from you, Arkay." She shouted into his face. "Sevrin did nothing to be punished with banishment, nothing."
      He stepped back, cringing. She could tell he wanted to smack her one, but her sanctity as a pregnant woman held his hand. And I am going to use it. "Well, answer me. Why did you condemn a man to a living death for something that wasn't his fault?"
      "Fault had nothing to do with it, Vanesa." Arkay strangled back his rage. "Sevrin is blind. He can't live above with us. He had to go."
      "No he didn't." She stomped forward. "He certainly didn't seem to have any problems getting around just now." She waved her arms around wildly as she had seen Vayer do in a snit. Actually it felt pretty good and she shook her finger under Arkay's nose. "Sevrin isn't dead, you just locked him in a cage because you couldn't deal with the fact one of you is imperfect." She finally had Arkay's back up against a tree.
      "It is our way. We can't change it." He looked like he was trying to crawl backwards up the tree. Leaves shivered overhead he was leaning back so hard. "We can't."
      "He speaks truly, Vanesa." This time the voice held no echo, she spun, slipping and falling to one knee. "Let me help you up." The figure held out a heavily gloved hand. Gingerly she took it, letting the Veiled one help her to her feet. "Do not chastise Arkay for our sins, he is not free to speak on the matter."
      "And you are, I suppose." She didn't let go of the hard leather, warmed by the man's hand. Selyn distorted in sickening patterns all along his arms, traced with the tiniest flickers of pain, as if the gloves were eating at his skin. "Those things are awful." Her gorge rose as she couldn't help but examine them. Finally it was too much, "Excuse me." Everything but her toenails came up in revulsion of what she had zlinned. Even with the brief periods of time she spent zlinning now, it had been too much.
      "Is this better?" He asked, holding out his hands, which were now, blessedly, bare, although there were nearly a hundred very small cuts on them, the simple pain was nothing compared to the horrible distortion. Vanesa spotted the damned gloves and spat on them in commentary. "I think so." A chuckle slipped out from behind that black veil.
      "Much better." She tried to leverage herself back to her feet. It was much harder this time. Finally she sighed in frustration and pounded on the ground with her fist. "I'm a bloody duck."
      "No, you're a house." She thought she heard Sevrin say. She snarled and got to her feet in a lunge.
      "That wasn't a very nice thing to say." She snorted, looking him up and down.
      "It got you off your knees." the arrogance of him was absolutely astonishing.
      "You could have helped." Vanesa stomped forward, forgetting entirely he was blind. Soon she found herself just about running him down. He wind milled his arms, falling right on his behind, with a rather solid thump. He's definitely corporeal. His loud bray of laughter at her thought, made her blush furiously. "Here, let me give you a hand."
      "No, without the gloves I am forbidden to touch." He said wistfully. Despite the harshness of the words, her heart went out to him.
      "I'm not going to kill you like one of your junct family might." She snorted again. He laughed so hard at this she thought he was going to choke. "What was so shenned funny?"
      He throttled back his laughter and rather gracefully, actually, got to his feet. "They aren't to protect me, little one, they're to protect you."
      "How so?" she asked, tentacles twining about her hands, itching to smooth all those little sores away by showing him need.
      "As you well know, Sharm Lords can kill." He said, quite condescendingly. "Well, I am stronger than any Sharm Lord by virtue of extensive training unavailable to them. My touch could quite easily be your death."
      "Then they should have trained you to control yourself as well. I know Arkay, for example, has a very light kill trigger, people touch him all the time." She shrugged, then remembered to punctuate her words with an audible cue as well and sighed. "You can learn."
      "I have no desire to." He did shrug. Even under the heavy cloth, it showed an amazing breadth of shoulder. Figuring she had nothing to loose, she examined every inch of his body she could see. Broad shoulders, nice chest, really nice arms, from what I saw of them, hmmm ... I wonder if the back side of him matches the front. The memory of his body against hers was quite pleasant. Thinking of which.
      "I've already touched you and am still breathing." She reached out her hand, desperately wanting to even just brush his bare fingertips.
      "I had my gloves on." He scoffed.
      "Not the rest of you when I ran into you." And with a burst of augmentation she reached for his hand and captured it. It quivered, like a tiny bird for all its size in her grasp. "Besides, I know you, like every other male here, would not kill or deliberately injure a pregnant woman." She tenderly stroked the very soft, delicate palm of his hand with her fingertips.
      "Damn you, Vanesa." He growled under his breath. "How do you manage to ruin every single ploy I attempt?"
      "If you told me the truth up front, we wouldn't have to go through this routine, now would we?" Her tentacles slid between his fingers and he let out the most desperate groan she had ever heard. It was not a sound of pain, but of almost orgasmic pleasure, and it and the sensations running up her arm from their touch made her whole body ache with unfulfilled desire.
      "No, we wouldn't." His voice softened. "But that is neither ... oh, my."
      Vanesa had let one of her tentacles catch around his wrist and when he began getting all snotty on her again, she tugged on it.
      "Please don't." He sighed, sounding as if he were in pain. "Don't tease me."
      Feeling very tiny and ashamed of herself, she released his hand, all but for the single dorsal he captured before she could get it away. "Better?" she asked, wiggling it.
      "Much, thank you." He breathed. "Now, you were wanting to ask how it was I could tolerate living below, were you not?"
      "Yes, actually." She brightened, despite the definite distraction of her single tentacle being the entire focus of this man's being. He stroked it and petted it as if it were the most precious thing he had ever felt. It was actually a bit embarrassing, as if he were making love to it.
      "If I'm making you uncomfortable, tell me." He said. Vanesa began to try to image what he looked like behind his veil. It didn't work, at all, to distract her. Images of Avilan's incredible beauty combined with the few descriptions she had of Valtanir made her only want to see him more. "I'm not at all comfortable with this situation."
      "Which situation? Your fondling of one of my tentacles or being out in the open? I really would like to talk with you more though." She babbled on as she had ever since she found that it made her feel far better while pregnant. Darya's advice had been some of the best she had ever used.
      "Um, yes, no, both. I don't know." He snapped at her. "What kind of fool question was that?"
      "One I felt like asking." She gave his palm a tiny caress.
      "Then how do you expect me to answer it?" He asked and she couldn't tell if he was laughing or crying.
      "Yes" She said, feeling particularly impish, knowing it made absolutely no sense.
      "Argh!" He yelled. "You are the most infuriating young woman I have ever had the misfortune to meet."
      "Thank you." She deviled him even more. Vanesa was having a great time.
      "Someone should have taken you over their knee and paddled you a good one a long time ago, Vanesa." He snarled.
      "Right now I'm a bit big for such sports, but if you wait a few months, I'll be happy to play." She quipped, remembering some of the wild, rowdy, discussions Arkay and Nashen would indulge in. One time Nashen actually did needle Arkay so much, Arkay did throw Nashen across his lap, pull his pants down and spank him in front of everyone. What had been even funnier was the way Nashen ran after him when Arkay promised to be in their rooms waiting for him.
      "I think not!" He squawked, so offended he even pulled his hand back. Her tentacle felt rather cold and lonely as it slowly retreated back into its sheath.
      "I was only playing." She said softly. "I'm sorry if I hurt you." Tears welled up in her eyes and she sniffled.
      "Oh, Vanesa." He held out his hands towards her. "What's wrong?"
      "They've locked you in a cage and called you dead for fifteen years and you ask me what's wrong?" She was aghast.
      "I'm more than happy with who and what I am, Vanesa." He said.
      Not with the way you fell on my touch like a starving man, you aren't. "Prove it."
     
      Sevrin knew Vanesa had just condemned him to true death in an airless box as soon as Tzakiran caught up with him, then he smiled behind his veil with absolute glee. If I'm going to die, then I might as well earn it. "Three months."
      "No, six." She countered, as if she knew exactly what he was thinking. "I want to stay here until my sister is delivered as well."
      "Very well, six months it is." He took her hand. Sevrin knew he should have expected it, but when her tentacles lashed around his wrist he moaned at the waves of lust washing through his entire body. His knees shook and he had to fight to remain standing. Of course you're standing. He addressed his unruly body. It had been decided to send him out here post, and now he knew how very stupid that decision had been. Even underdraw would have been preferable to ... No it wouldn't have been. Then he would have tried to force his selyn on her and not his member. Why can't the damned woman be Gen? He asked the uncaring gods.
     
      I see he got something else from his father as well as his amazing voice. Vanesa carefully placed her body between Sevrin's obvious display of enthusiasm and everyone else. "You might wish to readjust yourself before everyone else also knows exactly how post you are, and how much you resemble Avilan." She whispered to him. Riana and Jina had done more than a bit of bragging about their individual romps with the man. Even though the idea of wearing any jewelry through that particular body part sounded painful.
      "Am I that obvious." He muttered, trying to come up with some way to manage to get things into a better position in the bulky robes.
      "Sorry to say, but yes." She tried not to snicker. "If you were at all better padded or simply had less to hide, you would not resemble a man with a rather large rutabaga trying to escape his pants."
      "Oh, Gods, Vanesa!" He howled, laughing so hard he forgot all about his problem. Which of course solved it.
      "See, fixed." She said calmly, "Next time, you might wish to dress 'up', like your father does. It can help."
      "Thank you." He sighed, sounding tremendously relieved. "I can't even truly visualize things, although I can imagine them. Unfortunately trying to correlate things by size in that one particular fashion is beyond my abilities now."
      "You can do it for fitting things in to other things, but not for ... ?" She tried to think.
      "I can't tell what something would look like at all." He actually seemed to relax as they talked about it.
      "What, technically happened, if you don't mind my asking?" As good a subject as any. She shrugged.
      "Actually Arkay knows more of the actual events, as it were, but in the end, all of my optical nerves were completely gone, including the optical cortex in the brain." He sounded almost cheerful about it.
      "Do you mind if I zlin?" She asked, curious as to his state of mind as well as the more obvious physical curiosity.
      "No, not at all." He said calmly. "As I will not be going below for many months, I would not be known as one of the Veiled."
      Vanesa almost stopped him when she realized he was going to remove his veil and then knew exactly what his concession to her entailed. If you think I'm going to let you go back down under this city to end up dead, you are wrong, Sevrin. She smiled her best trading smile and prepared for the fight of her life. For while Vanesa might just have met this man, she knew quite well, he was just as stubborn, just as bright and just as mule headed as she knew herself to be and it was going to take everything she had to keep him from acting like it.
      Sevrin slowly reached up to find the catches on his veil. She could see his hand shake. "I know, Sevrin, let me help." Easily she found the releases where Vayer had shown her one time on Darya's one set of veiled kadors she had worn occasionally to feel comfortable. After that experience with Darya completely enrobed in the shielding material, Vanesa could well understand why a Gen would want possession of such a thing. It was a way to be completely free of concern for their field while at the same time enjoying human companionship.
      These were much heavier and stiffer, as if to slow someone down in removal. Either that or they had rusted shut. Finally they gave and the heavy material fell away from Sevrin's face. She couldn't quite see at first as he immediately pushed back the hood.
      "Oh my God." She gasped, completely stunned. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen in her life, with high, sharp cheekbones, an incredibly strong looking (stubborn as well, she noted) jaw, gold blond hair and the most amazing indigo blue eyes. It was if a master artist had combined the best of both Avilan and Karola into one set of features. Delicately, she reached up and touched his face, almost afraid that perfection might shatter at her touch.
      His hand reached up and pressed her palm against his face. "I'm sorry if I'm not very nice to look at." He grimace and turned his face to the side, as if to hide it, still holding her hand.

Chapter 13

      Sevrin was ashamed. He knew Vanesa might well be shocked at seeing him unveiled, but still wished she hadn't reacted so badly.
      "No, Sevrin. You are very, very beautiful. More so than I could ever possibly describe." Her voice was soft and breathy, as if she were truly agape looking at him.
      "No, tell me true, Vanesa." He still clutched at her hand.
      "I do." She said. Simply that and he almost dared to believe her.
      "Let me touch you?" He asked, wishing to know her face in the way she had his. And with that he could feel her field tickle his fingertips.
      "Certainly." The quiver of laughter was back in her tone, and he wondered why. Then she pressed his hand to her face at the same time she traced his own with her fingertips. The sensations fed back on each other until he could tell her admiration was genuine. Even though as he explored her features with his fingers, he also knew the beauty of her. Perhaps she might not be physically beautiful, but to his touch, her soft lips, the perfect curve to her face, the high arch of her brows, all felt so very right in his hand.
      "I am no where near the beauty you are, Sevrin." Her lashes fluttered against his skin like the tracing of snowflakes he had felt as a child.
      "You lie, my beauty." He leaned forward, and as he had wished these many months, kissed her so very gently on the lips it was as if the touch never truly began or ended.
     
      Vayer held Avilan back with his hand. "No, otyet." He barred father from son. "This is Sevrin's final choice. Don't destroy it for him."
      "But I can't see him call his own death down on his head again." Avilan strained to go to him, to stop Vanesa from removing his veil.
      "If Vanesa can manage it, I believe she might well be able to steal him away from here, alive." Vayer told him.
      "How?" Avilan quivered with tension.
      "If she can get him on that plane with her when she leaves, she'll have him trapped." Vayer looked at Avilan. "And she is the wiliest damned manipulator I've ever seen. She bested me, repeatedly."
      "You!" Avilan stared at him. "No, she couldn't have."
      "She did, old friend." Arkay backed him up. "Got us both in a corner and made us eat shoe leather. If any one has a chance of stealing one of the Veiled out from under their noses, she does."
      "You know ... Well I would suppose you would know they are listening." Avilan shook his head. "I've never even thought to challenge them, nor would I, even at this late date. Sometimes I wonder if that made me an evil person where Sevrin is concerned."
      "No, I don't think so." Arkay sighed. "If he had tried to stay above, despite the ban, he would have gotten himself or someone else killed. Our entire culture relies too much on uniformity. Hers does not. Besides, most of the Veiled truly are happy as they are."
      "I've heard that, but never truly believed it." Avilan said.
      "Believe it." Nashen told him. "Before Tzarya went mad, she was quite content among the Veiled. It was only later she had problems. Very, very few wish to come above, as many of the Veiled are not functional in society due to their defects. I would have guessed Sevrin would have been one of them."
      "He was always a fighter, Nashen." Arkay said.
      "I would agree with that." Vayer remembered many a scrape with his hard headed sibling. "He was also too damn independent minded and solitary for his own good."
      "Neither trait really likely to make him content among the Veiled. Usually their society is very tight, with many close ties among themselves." Nashen added. Vayer had never really known that much about them, but with Nashen's sister having been one of them, he supposed Nashen would know.
      Then Vayer remembered another thing about his brother and felt himself decidedly scruffy. All the children of Avilan and Karola had shared their good looks to one extent or another, but Sevrin had always promised to be the best looking of them all. It seemed that promise had been fulfilled. He twitched the hem of his tunic straight.
      "Who is that?" Riana asked, breathless.
      "My brother, Sevrin." Vayer told her. "I feel like the ugly duckling who grew up to find himself to be the ugliest duck." He muttered to Darya.
      "I can understand that, yes." Darya was drooling. "Although I find you far more pleasant to look at, my love." She caressed his cheek. "You do not have the stunning perfection to make me feel as if I were even uglier than I am."
      "Oh, hardly, my beautiful mate. It is simply your glory outshines they moon and the stars with such ease they feel jealous and paint themselves to try to hide it." He stroked her face in return, staring into her wonderful eyes.
      "Flattery will get you everywhere, my Vayer." She laughed and kissed him.
      Even though as they came closer, Vayer could hear the bickering and snickered. "Listen to them a moment."
     
      "Now tell me again why you think its right to lock people up, who, because of accident of birth, aren't the same as everyone else?" Vanesa snapped. "It isn't like everyone isn't unique."
      "Let me give you an example, all right?" He was ready to smack her one. For some reason she absolutely refused to believe him when he said he preferred to live among the Veiled. Even though as they came out into the sunlight he turned his face towards it momentarily to feel the warm caress on his skin. It had felt so good. Then she jumped on it, leading to their current discussion.
      "All right, however, I don't want to hear about your situation again."
      "Fine." He said. "Take someone whose deformity is immediately visible, such as Tzarya Fatima. In the robes of the Veiled, she looked normal. Out of them it was impossible to tell if she was male of female. When she reached puberty, her body did not respond normally and did not develop further. She gained the height of an adult, but that was all."
      "People should learn to accept what is different." Vanesa growled. "Can't you understand that? It wasn't her fault."
      "But below no one cared or thought anything of it. She could learn and teach others, giving her own gift to future generations of knowledge, even though she could not give of her body." Sevrin tried to get through to her. "She didn't want to have to deal with being treated like a freak."
      "Then people shouldn't have done so." Vanesa's voice raised with her anger.
      "But why if Tzarya herself didn't want to deal with them?" Sevrin pleaded.
      "I don't know, Sevrin." She gave in finally. "I don't know. All I know is that it is wrong for people to die just to make others more comfortable with themselves. You died to your family so people would be more comfortable in the perfect little world."
      "Yes, and now they must live with my return when they know I must leave again. How is that any better?" He finally had it with her and let his voice drop to a growl.
      Her finger poked him in the chest and she said, "It isn't. And it isn't right, either. You shouldn't have been condemned in the first place."
      "I certainly wish it had never happened, but it did, Vanesa." He grabbed her hand before it bruised his breastbone even further. "I wouldn't have wanted to live with people staring at me, pointing fingers, calling me a freak, calling me the spawn of the devil. That would have hurt my parents, my brothers and sisters, everyone in my family. Even if you could convince everyone I would have come in contact with on daily basis I was no such thing, there would have still been those who didn't believe it and condemned me in ways far crueler than simply letting me live in peace, alone, comfortable with those who do care for me and do not condemn me for being different."
      "If you were so content below, then why did you cling to me like a drowning man when I first touched you?" Again her words stung him right to the quick.
      "Because I was lonely, damn you." He snarled, stalking off towards the others. Not paying any attention to what he was doing, he ran right into a tree. Physical pain added to his mental and emotional pain. Giving up, he hugged the tree and slid to the ground. I will not cry, I will not. The rough bark beneath his fingers teased at the last remaining, rational, part of his brain. What kind of tree is this? It wasn't pine, it didn't smell right. It wasn't oak. Oh, hell, I don't know. He gave in and cried.
     
      Vanesa watched Sevrin stalk off in a fury. Sighing, she shrugged at the rest of the crowd and began to walk in their direction, making sure she didn't trip on anything. Vayer gave her a disgusted look and pointed off the way Sevrin had gone. "Go get him, you idiot!"
      "He's a thick headed, obnoxious twit." She told him, hands on her hips and glaring up at him.
      "So are you, but at least you don't run into trees." Vayer sighed. "Please, for me?"
      "What?" She zlinned the way he had pointed. Immediately she took off running. Admittedly, it had become a rather lumbering sort of thing, but at least it got her there faster than walking. "I'm sorry, Sevrin." She tried to kneel down next to him, almost falling on him and eventually ending up on her behind again. "Really I am."
      "And I'm sorry for getting mad at you." His smile tugged at her heart. He had scraped his forehead quite badly when he ran into the maple tree. Bloody thieves. She recognized the transplant with a grin.
      "Let me help you, Sevrin." She reached for the injury. "All you have to do is hold still and relax for a moment."
      "This once." He leaned back against the trunk. Easily she set her secondary to show need and his field reached for hers like a starving trout. Startled, she eased off until the barest whisper of need convinced his body to heal itself. It was like working with the most delicate Ferris imaginable, his responses were so overwhelming. "Thank you." He said, giving her another of those magnificent smiles.
      "You are incredibly strong." She murmured, sagging against him in reaction. The ultra-fine control had taken more out of her than she wanted to think about. "It is, rather intoxicating."
      "I imagine it would be." He caressed her face again. "As it seems I can not find my way out of here with both hands and a map, do you mind another favor?"
      "You have to find your own ass?" She quipped and this time he laughed at her sally, voice ringing with good humor. "I'm more than willing to help, as mine seems to be only good for falling on these days."
      "You are a delight, an occasionally maddening one, but a delight nonetheless, Vanesa." led by his touch, he leaned forward and kissed her so very gently again. Tease. Vanesa thought, and leaned forward to kiss him with far more enthusiasm. "Later, little one. I truly do not wish to be entirely unpresentable again."
      "I can understand that." She gave in on the idea. "Although I do plan on holding you to the later part."
      "We have only just met." He licked at his lips. The gesture almost made Vanesa unpresentable, or would have without Darya's skillful binding of her breasts.
      "But I feel like I have known you for months, if not my entire life, Sevrin." And with this, she spoke the absolute truth.
     
      Vayer watched the two of them return, together, with a sense of accomplishment. He had known Sevrin could be a total ass, and his time among the Veiled would have only made it worse, but Vanesa had been outdoing even her normally rather roughshod manner as well. It was as if they potentiated each other's madness.
      "Often true pairings are like that." Nashen murmured in his ear. "Remember Arkay and I?"
      "Yes" Arkay grimaced. "You tried to murder me, admittedly it was for cause, but still."
      "I almost clobbered Avilan when I first met him." Karola laughed. "It is simply good to see Sevrin alive again."
      "Very true." Vayer sighed. "For as long as he is with us."
      This time they were laughing together rather than fighting. It was decidedly odd, the way Sevrin was constantly touching Vanesa's face, and then he realized his brother was tracking her expressions.
      "Now as long as you know the Gen is always the boss, we'll get along just fine." Sevrin said with a laugh.
      "Hey, don't laugh. I know you're serious." She kissed his finger. "Besides, I know when I'm outgunned."
      "Don't do that." He looked a bit dazed and Vayer realized she had licked that same finger. The man is seriously post. The wild fluctuations in his field were dizzying even with the rest of his robes on and being, from what Vayer could guess, fairly low field.
      "Welcome home, Sevrin." Vayer told him, putting his warmth and his care into his field.
      "I never had a chance to learn your field, Vayer. It is gorgeous." He rubbed at his arms, as if wishing to savor the sensation.
      Tentatively, he stepped forward, not at all sure of what to expect. He brushed the back of Sevrin's hand, testing to see if he would pull away. At first he did, startled at the contact. Then he opened his hand towards Vayer, as if asking for more. Gently, Vayer brushed Sevrin's palm with his fingertips. Then Vanesa gave Sevrin a shove. He yelped and fell right into Vayer's arms, almost knocking Vayer over backwards.
      Soon they were hugging each other and pounding each other's backs. It felt so good to hug him again. The absolutely rock solid child had grown into an impressive man. "I missed you, Sevrin." He told his brother.
      "I missed all of you, in some ways, this most of all." He have a great squeeze and Vayer felt his ribs creak.
      "What, abusing your older brother till he cries uncle?" Vayer chuckled when he got his breath back.
      "That too." Sevrin grinned down at him and he realized just how tall the man was.
      "Everyone is here, Sevrin." Vayer said, "Darya, Nashen, Arkay ..." And soon there were hugs and kisses all around. Everyone wanted to get in on the family reunion. Even Riana joined in at Nashen's side. Then Vayer noted Vanesa was standing off to the side. He slid out of the press and went to her.
      "He's so lonely and you were being so tentative, I was a afraid you would never hug." She had that impish look on her face, but there was something else as well, a rightness when he thought of her with Sevrin which normally only came from the Veiled.
      "Oh, we would have, it would have taken longer, is all." He was still furiously thinking as he caught the tendril of interference muddle with his mind again he latched onto it.
      *What?!* A dark, rumbling mind voice roared.
      *Got you. Now, what is up your sleeves. If you're planning on messing with Vanesa before she returns to her own, forget it.* He told the Master, heart pounding. *Every single time you've manipulated the people around her it's been turned around to her advantage.*
      *true* And an image of Vanesa and Sevrin together came into his mind, as well as a pulse of the purest love Vayer had ever felt.
      *You love him?* Vayer was stunned.
      *Of course. He was one of us. He is brilliant and beautiful.* Then the voice dimmed and greyed with sorrow. *But he was not content. We chose to free him now that there is a place for him beyond our sphere.*
      Vayer was so stunned he gaped. *I did not know.*
      *As was intended, but the probability matrices do not hold around Vanesa. We would have told you this evening, when you were alone. Be well and do your best, Lord and Ruler Vayer.*
      *At your will, Master Tzakiran* And with that the stunning communication cut off. Vayer reorganized his wits, realizing for the first time in his life as an adult, he was entirely alone. Tzakiran had also sent the regret that the Veiled could no longer guide with any degree of accuracy due to Vanesa's interference. A chill ran down his spine at the thought. Only the guidance of the Veiled ones had made the difference between disaster and triumph so many times in Rodina's history they could not be counted.
      Now they were alone in the world and Vayer did not like it one bit.

Chapter 14

      Vanesa touched Vayer's arm. He had been standing there, staring blankly for far too long. Now that she knew what was going on, she knew the occasional moments of distraction he showed were his communicating with someone at a distance, but this scared her. "Vayer."
      "I'm sorry Vanesa." His field came back to life and wrapped her in its support. "I was talking with an old friend."
      "You zlin worried." Actually he zlinned terrified, but Vanesa did have some tact left. She only hoped it didn't vanish as well as she neared term.
      "I am. The destruction of one Demense and reincarnation of another is not an event to be taken lightly." He took her hand in his and led her back to the family reunion. She hung back.
      You know all those people, silly, why are you so skittish? She asked herself. Not getting a response, she dug her heels in deeper.
      "Sevrin really has to get in out of the sun, soon, or he's going to burn, badly." Vayer told her. Abandoning him entirely, she rushed to Sevrin's side.
      "I think I would like to find some place to sit down." She looked up at him, noting his nose just beginning to turn bright red with exposure. It hadn't been very long, but he was very fair and not at all accustomed to being outside. Which might well explain some of his reactions. At first she had simply been upset by the way he basked in the sunlight with such joy. Even though, Vanesa's conscience reminded her, there were some health problems where people couldn't tolerate sunlight.
      "That is an excellent idea." Darya gave her a wink. "I'm about to fall on my nose and would if there weren't something rather large in my way."
      "Who's closest?" She asked, returning her attention to the city. It really was stunning, as if someone had built a fairy tale.
      "We are." Diomid told her. "Which is good, because all three of you rather plump women are going to get examined before we get too involved in talking."
      Vanesa groaned, "Not again."
      "It's for your own good." Sevrin's lips twitched into a smile. His fingertips had returned to her face, and the contact was like a lifeline she never knew she had wanted.
      "That's what they said to the tom cat before they cut off his testicles." She snorted in disgust and every single male, young and old, flinched. It was so universal Vanesa giggled at them.
      "You are certainly a lot more cheerful than when we left." Diomid laughed.
      "I don't have a lot of choice. It's either say the first thing that pops into my mind or go mad." She grimaced, holding her hand over her daughter. "Someone here has been playing havoc with my hormones."
      "Then you picked an excellent way to deal with it, Vanesa." Diomid told her. "Seriously, it is a good way to cope."
      "If occasionally quite embarrassing." She grinned at him wryly. "Most of my staff at home was ready to throw me out a window."
      "A first floor one, I hope." Sevrin's fingers trembled.
      She put her hand over his. "No, but they were not at all serious."
      "I'm glad." He sighed. "Simes don't fly very well."
      "Neither do Gens." She kissed at one of his fingers.
      "Some do, some don't. It depends on the height of the window how long they stay aloft." Sevrin teased.
      She chuckled at his sally. They had finally come to the nearest houses. "This is where many of the Sergei renSimes live." Vayer told her. "We are in the Sergei quarter, and have been since you arrived. The field you landed in has been mostly barren since the mutation, as it had been an ancient airport and badly damaged by poisons still in the ground."
      "Even after all this time?" She asked. Certainly she had seen ancient ruins where very little grew, but Frihil usually dug them up and returned them to their natural states afterwards, or at least as much as they could.
      "Even now." Sevrin said. "There are deep, poisoned holes surrounding the city where weapons had been abandoned to dust. It will be many millennia more before they will ever support natural life again. We have walled them off, but we can not clean them out without creating a greater mess elsewhere."
      "I will tell you of the sea of Azov, at some point, Vanesa." Avilan said softly. "Azov was named for it that we may never forget the wrongs our ancestors did to Rodina."
      The grimness of his tone was frightening. "You speak of Rodina as a person."
      "To many of us, she is a living, breathing being." Sevrin spoke again. "We live as her children now, breathing her air, drinking her life," He waved his hand towards one of the many rivers she had seen on the flight in. "and sharing her bounty. It is not right to torment her in return for such things."
      "No it wouldn't be." Vanesa looked around at the small, but absolutely clean and perfectly maintained homes. They were of stone, with wood only for decoration. Although the bright colors many people had painted their homes clashed, to her way of thinking, they were almost aggressively cheerful. Even the cobbled streets beneath her feet were nearly spotless. She finally spied a crew of street cleaners in an alleyway, on their hands and knees, scrubbing at them with brushes.
      "This is amazing." She wondered how they could get the labor to keep all of this up.
      "Everyone works, Vanesa." Sevrin told her. "Even if all they can do is scrub the streets or churn butter."
      "But you don't have to do all of this." That all of this was done by hand was even more amazing.
      "We want to." He said. "It was our choice to go down this path. Our people are content with what they have and do not strive to make more work for themselves. Do you not find it beautiful?" Sevrin waved towards a songbird trilling his heart out on a nearby tree.
      "I do, but the cost must be astronomical." There was not a single loose leaf below the brilliantly green tree, and the grass beneath it was as lush and even as any carpet. Then she looked down a narrow pathway and saw an entire, tiny, garden with bright flowers and a single bench beneath a huge spreading oak tree. It was tucked in between the buildings like a precious gem.
      "What is cost?" Sevrin's lips twitched into a smile. "Money is merely selyn made transportable and easily exchangeable. We choose to live among beauty and life. What is the monetary value of such things?"
      "I don't really know, Sevrin, and as I think about it, I find I know even less." She zlinned her daughter, finally resting peacefully, for once. "But you must have people working constantly on these things."
      "And we do. What else would they be doing?" He asked, quite plainly.
      "Spending the time with their families, going to events, watching television or listening to the radio, reading books, ..." She trailed off in thought. "They have none of those things."
      "No they don't Vanesa, and never know any different." His voice was soft. "True, they do spend time with their family and friends, but then they work with them. Public events are for everyone, and all enjoy, even those working at them. We have no mass entertainment, people talk with each other, sing, play games."
      "You have stunted all these people. Why?" She railed at him. The chains on the renSimes infuriated her, even if they weren't physical chains. "To restrict human minds like that is horrible."
      "Because we have the power and choose to use it wisely." And then he put up his veil again. "Call one of them to me, Diomid." He pointed towards a group of renSimes washing down the facade of a tall, brick building.
      "At your will." Immediately, without thinking, Diomid scurried off and summoned the leader of the washing team. The woman was shaking all over, she was so terrified, shrinking away from Diomid as if he were going to hurt her. Then she saw Sevrin and fell to her knees in front of him, holding out all her tentacles, even her laterals.
      "I had not been doing naught bad, Veiled one." Her field writhed in the most abject fear imaginable.
      "Easy, littlest one. I do not come to harm thee." His voice echoed as it had when he had first appeared. "I only come to ask thee if thou art content with thy life."
      A stunning wash of relief came from the woman. She retracted her tentacles and looked up at him with an expression of the purest adoration Vanesa had ever zlinned. "The very angels of Heaven be but watchin' m' sleep and m' dreams of night are yer will of love, Veiled one. M' days are but warm wit yer care and I am free from all pain. I love ye and yer way. I'd not but be livin' te life of any other."
      The woman's subjection was abhorrent to Vanesa, but her love for her tormentors was so unfeigned and obviously unforced, she didn't know what to think.
      "Be well and do your best, renSime."
      "At your will, Veiled one." She backed away slowly, still on her knees, until Kirina touched her shoulder and leaned down to whisper something to her. The young renSime smiled brightly, as if she hadn't recently been terrified nearly speechless. Then she got up and ran to her team. Immediately they went back to work with a will, this time singing some totally incomprehendable song.
      Sevrin laughed softly. "The song they are singing is an old work ballad, called The Luck of Vassily, about a renSime who does everything imaginable wrong and it always turns out for the best. At the end he finally is so lucky, he saves a young renGen and marries her, only to find out she'd set everything up all along to snare him."
      Vanesa grinned despite her misgivings. The song was quite cheerful and the harmonies they workers made as they sang were exquisite. It was far better done than most of the professional performances Vanesa had sat through where she could only fidget until she could escape. "Why was she so afraid of Diomid and you at first?"
      "Because, no matter how much we might wish to do away with it, there must also be the potential for punishment." He sighed. "Sharm Lords are the ultimate demon as well as the ultimate benefactor. Humans are not perfect Vanesa, some shirk and err no matter how we encourage.
      "Diomid is Sharm Lord Sergei. Those are his people. Their fear hurts him inside, even though he knows it is necessary. Please do not drive the knives of it in any deeper." Sevrin's voice was for her ears only.
      "I won't." She promised, mostly willingly. The look on Diomid's face as the renSime had shrunk from him had more than told her of his own conflict over the issue. "But I will be talking about it with you."
      "As I would only expect, Vanesa." He began walking forward again, forcing everyone to move with him. "And it is what I am here for."
     
      Sevrin was a soaking mess under his robes by the time they reached the Sergei town house. He remembered it being a huge, sprawling affair, far larger than any other but Kirov, and had no idea where the baths were. Kirina and Diomid had vanished, pleading business concerns as soon as they walked in the door.
      *Those robes are not summer weight, are they?* Vayer asked, concern coloring his mind tone with an astringency Sevrin did not much care for.
      *They were the only ones which would fit.* He sent back.
      *Look in my closet, there should be at least one or two Sharm Lord kadors which might fit.* Diomid butted in. The man was an infernally strong mind speaker and Sevrin reminded himself yet again to not use mind speech unless he were willing for Diomid to hear the contents.
      *I don't think white would be appropriate.* He sent back.
      *I think it's going to be white or naked if you want a bath, Sevrin.* Diomid shot back, rocking him onto his heels. *You are going to take a bath, and you are going to wear one of my kadors. Your robes must be cleaned before you wear them tomorrow.* The finality of this was like a door slamming.
      "I'll find you something." Avilan's tone was more than a bit amused. "Don't use up all of the hot water getting rinsed off."
      "Um, yes." Sevrin searched for Vanesa's field. It was right next to him and we was very glad he still had his veil up or everyone would have seen his annoyance at searching for something so nearby. "We'll meet you there."
      "Where are we going, now?" He could hear her toe tap on the floor.
      "Some place a great deal wetter." *If someone will remember to lead us there.*
      "I still remember where everything is in Sergei." Karola chimed in. "As long as Diomid hasn't moved anything."
      "We never move anything, we just build additions." Avilan chuckled. "Lead on, I'll catch up to you after I've gathered clothes."
     
      The hot water was the most wonderful thing Vanesa had felt in a long time. "Do you think Kaon could afford something like this?" Riana asked, waving at the white tiled walls, dripping moisture.
      "With the money we're making now, I think we can afford almost anything we want." She lifted her hand and let water trickle through her fingers. "Although I don't know if it's really practical."
      "After listening to your grumbling about your aching back, I think a case could be made for practical." Riana grinned at her.
      "I can't wait for you to be in the same position." she flicked water at her sister.
      "We did it on the table." Riana splashed back.
      "And on the floor, and on a chair, and ..." Vanesa was interrupted by so much water in her face she had to stop. Sputtering, she splashed back even harder. Water went everywhere.
      "Girls, girls." Vayer laughed. They didn't stop. Then there was an even bigger splash. Vanesa found herself dunked. She came up blinking to find he had done the exact same thing to Riana. She grinned at her sister. Together they pounced on Vayer, dunking him completely. He came up sputtering and laughing at the same time.
      "Haven't I seen this somewhere before?" Nashen laughed, handing Darya in gently.
      "Possibly." Darya tapped him on the nose. "But this time we left the towels outside."
      "Good thinking." Nashen shook his head. Vanesa gave him a blank look. "Many years ago, Vayer, Darya and I got into a water fight in the bathtub. All we had dry afterwards were a couple of hand towels."
      "Oh" she shook her head. "Riana and I brought ours in with us."
      "I rescued them before jumping in here." Vayer said. "Now, where is Sevrin?"
      "I don't know." She looked and zlinned around. The tile walls were backed with too much stone. Concerned, she began to get out of the tub.
      "Wait a moment. Perhaps he had something to take care of." Vayer rested his hand on her wrist. "Give him some time."
     
      Sevrin swatted at himself in disgust. He was at least clean, but he could not present himself to all those people, much less Vanesa in this state. Even the very thought of her made it worse. Frustrated and more than a bit annoyed, he asked the wall in front of him, "Why me? I'm almost thirty. You would think I wouldn't be subject to such annoyances anymore." He felt like he was still sixteen, even though at that age it had been easier to deal with.
      A door opened and he grabbed for a towel.
      "You missed." Avilan noted. "Although if there were any doubt as to your paternity, it is gone now."
      Sevrin moved the towel. It didn't help. The friction made his unruliness even worse.
      "I'm the same way, Sevrin." Avilan put his hand on his shoulder. "Even still."
      He groaned and sat against the wall. "Help."
      "Well, there are two ways of coping." Avilan knelt with him, still touching his shoulder. His voice was so soft Sevrin felt himself reaching out for that help with all his heart. "First, and this doesn't really work very well, is to take care of things yourself. Second, ignore it. If you do, they will."
      "I can't do that." he wailed, putting his face in his hands. "Everyone will stare."

Chapter 15

      Avilan looked down and noted yet another problem. Why me? he asked silently before forging ahead. He remembered giving this little talk to all of his boys when they were still young, but somehow Sevrin seemed to have forgotten. "However, if you don't clean yourself better, first, I'm not going to defend you if someone says something about the way you smell."
      Sevrin blushed furiously. "I didn't want to make things worse." Or get caught was almost painfully obvious. "With the background of running water, I can't hear if someone comes in."
      "So what if they do?" He took Sevrin's chin in his hand and tipped his head up. The young man's eyes were the most brilliant indigo color imaginable, even darker and deeper than they had been as a child. Although even sightless, they still held the same stubbornness. "It is their problem, not yours."
      "No one else does such a thing."
      "Not true, Sevrin." He let out a chuckle. "I've ended up indulging myself more times than I can count in the shower, with and without company. It is nothing to be ashamed of."
      "But there's no necessity for it." That stubborn chin came through like a bull through a fence and Avilan almost laughed in Sevrin's face.
      "Lad, my lad, there is no necessity for many of the things people do, they do them because they feel good." He said with a sigh. "As long as there is no harm done, then what is the problem?"
      Avilan could almost hear the gears churn as Sevrin tried to slither out of that trap.
      "You win, where's the soap?"
      He looked up and noted the cleaner was up on a shelf where Sevrin would have never found it. "No wonder you're in such a state." Avilan helped him to his feet. "I would guess you have been doing without cleaner and having to use soap?"
      "I didn't want to make a fuss." He hung his head. "It isn't important."
      "Your health is important, Sevrin." Avilan kissed the end of his nose. "Besides, how well do you function if you're itching."
      "I've learned to ignore it." Too damn stubborn for his own good. Avilan noted.
      "Well, stop." Avilan told him. "Vanesa would have every right to kick you out of her bed in the state you're in." Or dump him in the shower herself. "Here" He placed the cleaner in Sevrin's hands and turned on the shower. Finally he had to give the younger man a hand himself, he was so filthy. Yuck It was more like cleaning out a horse's sheath.
      "Better?" Sevrin asked finally, grinning wryly.
      "You can't tell?" Avilan still itched from the memory of it. Irritated, he decided to scrub himself down again after that little adventure.
      "I feel a lot better." He finally said.
      "I would certainly hope so." Avilan shivered in remembered disgust. "And I would certainly hope you will take better care of yourself in the future."
     
      Sevrin finally arrived. Vanesa jumped out of the tub, slipped on a puddle, and almost landed at his feet. I am getting really tired of this. She looked up at him. It was quite a nice view, she had to admit. "Hello." She laughed at the silliness of it all.
      "I see you are as graceful as ever." Vayer, who had kept her from landing too hard on her backside, helped her to her feet.
      "You even outdo Karola, Vanesa." Avilan shook his head. "She didn't quite manage slapstick when she was pregnant."
      "Once I stopped fighting it, I found I simply would do silly things and not get hurt." She chuckled. "It's like I have a guardian idiot sitting on my shoulder making sure I don't, quite, get into trouble."
      "I'm not so sure I like being called an idiot." Vayer sounded more than a bit offended.
      "No, you're the one he uses to keep me from getting hurt." She gave him a quick kiss. Then she turned back to Sevrin. "Welcome." She reached up and touched his face.
      "I wanted to be with you." His thumb traced over her lips. "Even though I was afraid I would make a fool out of myself."
      "I do plenty for both of us, you don't have to worry." She kissed his thumb.
      "That wasn't what I meant." He grinned wryly.
      "I know what you meant." She stood on her toes and kissed his lips very lightly. "And no one cares."
      "Thank you." He murmured back. "It means a lot to me."
      "I'm sure it does." She let her hand trace over the top of his shoulder. "Now, would you like to join us whales in the tub?"
      "There are no whales in there." He looked offended.
      "Only one at the moment." Darya quipped. "The other one is standing in the way of my view."
      "You could always look at your spouse." Vayer shot back over his shoulder.
      "I know what he looks like. I want to ogle the new one." She gave Vanesa a wink.
      "Fickle, very fickle." Vayer gave her a raspberry.
      "No it was pickle which got me in this state, not a fickle." She gave him one right back. Vanesa could zlin Sevrin's field finally soften and relax with the horseplay. "Your pickle as a matter of fact."
      "Which makes her even less fickle." Nashen pointed out.
      "I know, it was amazing, Sharm Lord Darya pregnant by her own mate." Arkay teased and then gave out a big yelp as Darya pinched him. "Hey, I didn't deserve that."
      "Yes you did." She wrinkled her nose at him. "You always deserve it."
      "Not always." Nashen preened. "Sometimes I can talk him into dishing it out."
      "Oh, like the time you talked him into paddling you in front of all of us?" Vanesa joined in the fun.
      "Yes, like that." He said brightly. "Hey, not so hard." Vanesa had no idea what that was about, although with the way the room was lit, it was nearly impossible to see below the surface of the water, and she did know she probably didn't want to find out.
      "You like hard things." Arkay nipped him on the neck.
      "Some hard things." He sighed, looking a bit dazed. "Yes."
      Sevrin chuckled softly at the byplay. "Come on." She took his hand from Avilan's arm. Karola scooted over to make room, and they both got in. The water temperature had been lowered from normal in deference to the various pregnancies, but it was still nicely warm. Once below the concealment of the water, she let her tentacles twine with Sevrin's fingers.
      "Now there are whales in the tub." Darya proclaimed.
      "Who are you calling a whale?" Vanesa stuck her tongue out.
      "You." She grinned. "A very small whale."
      "Oh well, better a whale than a duck." She leaned against Sevrin's arm. He shied away and she grimaced. Every nerve seemed to be far to aware of him, his touch, even the hairs on the back of his hand. "Sevrin, no one can see below the water." She whispered in his ear.
      "Oh" He said, then grinned at her. "I didn't know that." he pulled her close.
      "If you were a duck you would be on top of the water." Vayer pointed out as he got back in next to Darya.
      "Some parts of me float." Which felt exquisite.
      "I can see that, yes." He stared at them for a moment, making everyone laugh. One of Sevrin's fingers traced the underside of one breast and she almost slid down into the water it felt so good. Anymore she had no idea if she were post or not, since everything felt wonderful. Darya winked at her. Vanesa wrinkled her nose at Darya.
      "Only because they are as big as a Gen's right now." She finally came up with a comeback.
      "Anything bigger than a mouthful is a waste." Vayer proclaimed, getting a big raspberry from everyone for the triteness of the comment. "Hey, I have a distraction." He looked at Darya.
      "Is that what you call it." She must have squeezed as his eyes rolled up in his head.
      "As good a name as any." Sevrin finally joined in. "Better than Pyoter."
      "Hey, I have a brother named Pyoter." Arkay complained.
      "You have more brothers and sisters than I can count." Avilan quipped.
      "Only because I have more than eleven." Arkay glared at him.
      "I can count past eleven, I have toes." Avilan stuck them out of the water briefly. Karola used this excuse to dunk him. He came up sputtering and laughing.
      Only then did Vanesa figure out why eleven and not ten and she howled laughing. "Are you sure that only counts as one?"
      "Don't know, let me check." Karola said impishly, and Avilan slid back under the water for a moment.
      "You don't know by now?" Sevrin asked, trying to look innocent.
      "I wanted to make sure." Karola gave Avilan a teasing look when he finally had to surface for air.
      "Make sure all you like, my love." He kissed her thoroughly, making more than a few waves.
      "Hmmm... maybe I should do that some more." She winked at him.
      "We'll all drown if that whale gets loose in the tub." Arkay pointed at Avilan.
      "It's not a whale." He protested.
      "Then what is it?" Nashen asked.
      "A flounder, it only has one eye." Avilan settled back down next to Karola. She promptly slid onto his lap. He hugged her tightly.
      "But it isn't flat." Karola chimed in.
      "Not after what you've been doing to it." He kissed her again.
      "I haven't done anything to your fish."
      "Then where are your hands?" Arkay asked, grinning.
      "Right here." She lifted them out of the water. "See."
      "Yes, but you're sitting on his lap." Vanesa pointed out.
      "My behind was getting numb from the hard seat." She wiggled it, making Avilan close his eyes at something.
      "It doesn't seem to be numb now." He breathed.
      "No, instead I seem to be sitting on a large, pointy rock." She looked back over her shoulder. "Could you have anything to do with that?"
      "I'll see if I can find a better place to put that rock."
      "I can think of quite a few places to put a large, pointy rock." Darya tapped her lips with her fingertip. "Although sitting on one can have its appeal."
      "It seems this tub is infested with the things." Riana finally joined in the fun. "Do you think we could find an exterminator."
      "I've heard if you rub them the right way, you can make them go away." Sevrin pontificated. "Although I wouldn't know, not having had much experience with rock infested tubs of water."
      "I wonder if it's some sort of solution which causes rock crystallization in hot water." Vanesa tried to look thoughtful, which was tough. Sevrin's hand had come lose from hers and was exploring her now submerged breasts with great enthusiasm.
      "Most solutions crystallize when the water cools off. It seems to be warming up in here." Darya seemed to be having much the same difficulty.
      "Perhaps then they will dissolve back into solution." Riana made a very false frown.
      Arkay and Nashen had been silent for quite a while. Vanesa looked over their direction and blushed furiously. Neither of them cared a whit for hiding what they were doing under false banter. She looked away.
      "You're blushing." Sevrin stroked her face.
      "Yes, well, Arkay and Nashen got a bit carried away." She murmured into his hand.
      "What did they say? I wasn't listening." His fingers traced down her neck.
      "It wasn't what they said." She tried not to squirm as the image of Nashen's ecstatic expression flashed through her mind again. "They are entertaining each other, enthusiastically."
      "In front of everyone?" He gasped. "Here?"
      "Well, yes." She blushed again. "Shyness does not seem to be a large part of their makeup."
      "I would say not." He hid his face against her neck. "I don't think I could be so bold."
      "Neither do I." She whispered.
      "Thank you." He gave a sigh of relief. "Vanesa?"
      "Yes, sweet?" She lipped his ear and he moaned.
      "Do you think, perhaps later?" He quivered with tension. "I mean I, I don't mean to rush you, but I would rather like, If you would rather, Um, I mean, Tonight?"
     
      Sevrin cursed at himself for his amazingly clumsy proposal. Now she's going to laugh in my face.
      "I would love to, but," Here it comes. "I don't know how much good I'm going to do you." He caressed her face and felt a tear join the warm water already on her skin. "I'm not exactly the most svelte woman in the world right now."
      "If you don't want me, I can understand." He went on, not really hearing her. "I'm not exactly the most adept at these things."
      "It isn't that I don't want you, Sevrin, only that I don't want to disappoint you." Her lip quivered beneath his fingertips.
      *Knock it off, Sevrin, and listen to her.* Diomid's mind voice made his head ring with its vehemence. Sevrin replayed the conversation.
      "I want you, Vanesa." He kissed her brow. "I wouldn't do anything to harm my brother's child."
      "Then you'll wait for me?" Her fingertips played over his skin, making it sing like an entire choir of angels.
      "Until you want me, Vanesa." He said softly, "Only until then."
      "I do want you, Sevrin." Her eyelashes fluttered closed. "But I doubt you want a woman who resembles a small whale."
      "You are beautiful." He caressed her belly, letting himself caress the child growing within her as well. Her daughter had been lulled to sleep by all the warmth and was resting quite peacefully. "Both of you."
      "Flatterer." She accused.
      "Never, actually." He said quite plainly. "I've been cursed most often in my life for a quite excessively blunt tongue."
      "You and me both." Her return to good cheer made him sigh in relief. "I'd much rather be straightforward and honest with none of this beating about the bush."
      "You." He chuckled. "You, who managed to corner Vayer and Arkay at the same time?"
      "How do you know about that?" She stiffened.
      "I was one of the Veiled, Vanesa." He smiled wryly. "We know a great deal of what goes on."
      "You're a spy."
      "No, not really." He tried to calm her. "We care. We are the ones who make sure things turn out right."
      "You spy and then you manipulate people into doing what you want. You can't just tell them up front?" Her entire body quivered with anger.
      "How often have people you've known done things when they were told they should?" His own voice started to rise again.
      "At least they have a choice then." She snapped. "If you trick them into it, they don't." And with that she was gone.
      He slapped at the water, frustrated.

Chapter 16

      Diomid was worried. He made his way up the back stairs from the infirmary. It was such a pain not being able to mind speak with Vanesa directly. He had had to ask Vayer where she had run off to. Finally he found her, in the suite right next to the Azov suite, of course. Which is where I would have put her. Since he knew, if Sevrin didn't make a total hash of things, he would also be spending most of his time with her.
      He knocked. There was no answer. Slowly, he opened the door. There was no one in the sitting room, so he let himself in. Absolutely silently, he made his way to the bedroom. He peeked in. She was lying on the bed, all curled up into a tiny little ball, shivering.
      "Oh, you poor little one." He went forward and gathered her into his arms. Vanesa was frighteningly limp, not even really responding to him.
      "You were right, Diomid." She said finally. "Damn you."
      "Easy lass." He stroked her back. "What was I right about?" He was afraid he knew.
      "Sevrin has no business with the rest of us." And she broke down crying again. "That creature is vile, Diomid. He doesn't care, he doesn't think of what anyone else wants, only his plots and his schemes to control everyone matter to him."
      "I know, sweet." He petted her. "I tried to warn you."
      "I know you did. It only makes it worse." She sobbed, crumpling in his arms even more. "It's like I've found a part of myself I never knew I was missing and at the same time that part is this horrible monster who does these awful things and smiles about them."
      "The Veiled are not like us, Vanesa."
      "I know that now!" She shouted. "Why didn't you tell me that before I met him?"
      "I did, and you weren't listening. You thought you knew better." He tried to make his voice sound as reasonable as possible.
      "I did know better." She railed, then sighed. "Then. Now what do I do?"
      "I can't answer that question, Vanesa." Even though he wished he could. "You have to answer it."
      "What are my options?" She looked up at him, eyes dead as stone.
      "You can return him to the Veil, you can love him despite his flaws, or you can turn your back on him and walk away." He responded in much the same way.
      "I can't try to change him?"
      "No" he said. "It never works and only causes more pain. If he decides to change on his own, it is one thing, but no one can make that decision for him. Now is not the best time to make your choice, Vanesa. You are tired after a long flight and a more than a few fights with him. Sleep on it and let your body rest." With that he went into her body and forced it to sleep. Soon she was sleeping quietly in his arms. Softly, he crooned a lullaby to her, giving her time to recover from all the stress. Finally it ended and he went to put her under the covers in the huge bed. A hand landed on his shoulder.
      I didn't sense anyone come in Which meant it could only be one person.
      "I wanted to say good bye." Sevrin murmured.
      "Don't." Diomid told him. "Not yet."
      "It won't work, Diomid." Sevrin sighed. "We come from two completely different worlds."
      "And you've bound yourself in chains like knives to ever prevent yourself from reaching out to another human being." Diomid told him.
      "It was done to me." Sevrin growled. "It wasn't my choice."
      "Yes it was." Diomid jerked his chin up. "You had a choice. People offered you companionship and love in your travail and you rejected them, Sevrin. You rejected them for pride."
      "I wanted to be free, Diomid." He scowled. "They locked me in a cage."
      "And handed you the keys." Diomid retorted. "You could have walked out at any time."
      "Among cripples." Sevrin drew himself up to his full height.
      "Among people who didn't care what you looked like and cared only about who and what you were. They gave you everything you ever wanted on a silver platter, Sevrin and you threw it back in their face." He let his own voice raise with anger. "I know, they consulted me on your training."
      "Then how could you let them murder those people. Walling them off to die of asphyxiation."
      "You wanted the reassurance you were better. You wanted an excuse not to fail. You wanted something to fear to justify your own, internal, fears." He told the man. "No one died, Sevrin."
      "It was all a lie." He snarled and light blossomed around his hands.
      "For your own good, Sevrin." Diomid looked down into Vanesa's wide open eyes. "For your own good. Now go."
     
      Vanesa came out of a dream of peace to hear Diomid telling Sevrin of the lies which had been told him. She turned her face into the pillow, smelling the sweet scent of lavender. It was so homelike she hugged it to her chest and began crying again.
      "Vanesa, sweet." Diomid's hand pressed against her lower back. "He's gone."
      "No he's not." She shivered, still feeling his presence in the room.
      Diomid's weight shifted. "Get out of here, Sevrin."
      "No, don't go." She said into the pillow.
      "Are you sure?" Diomid asked.
      "No"
      "Then what are you sure of?" His deep voice called to her gently.
      "That I don't want to be alone again." She hiccuped. Then her daughter hiccuped. Not again. She sighed, tired of fighting.
      "He's gone, sweet." Sevrin's honeyed voice wrapped around her like a warm blanket. "After giving me an even longer lecture on my shortcomings, ending with, 'Don't talk business.'."
      Vanesa grinned despite all the problems and turned to him. "We get along great until we talk about anything important."
      "He said, and I quote, 'If you say one word about anything other than how beautiful she is, I'll strangle you myself'. end quote."
      She chuckled, since she could image Diomid saying exactly that. Then she hiccuped again.
      "Easy, little one." He rested his large hand on her even larger middle. Her daughter hiccuped. "Both of you?"
      "I'm afraid so." She grimaced and then hiccuped again. "I hate this." Vanesa hit the pillow. Actually that was quite satisfying and she had a random thought. She took it and smacked Sevrin over the head with it. "That's for being such a jerk earlier."
      He managed to wrench it out of her hands and hit her right back. She crawled deeper into the bed and grabbed another one. It was like trying to move through a sea of feathers, but she managed just as he swatted her on the behind with his. She turned, flailing at him. He fell onto the bed and it curved up around him. She tried to wrap him up in the blanket, but he struggled loose before she could tie it.
      He laughed and simply swatted her again. Eventually one of the pillows broke a blizzard of goose down surrounded them. Spitting out feathers, he shook his head. She threw them back into the air, letting them drift about the two of them.
      "That is an impressive kiss and makeup." Vayer lounged against the doorway. "Diomid wanted to make sure he wasn't going to have to try to wring Sevrin's stiff neck."
      "No, I don't think so." She leaned against Sevrin, still giggling. He put his arm around her.
      "I'm being good." He leaned over and she made sure his aim was good. Even though the kiss was as light as the feathers still drifting down.
      "No you're not." She grabbed the back of his head and this time kissed him properly. "That's better." She licked at his lips. He jumped back a bit. "Easy." Vanesa let her hand drift over his arm.
      "I'm just a bit nervous." He said softly. "I don't know, quite, what to do." Then he turned and glared at Vayer. "And I don't require your help."
      "Only giving suggestions." Vayer spread his hands in a display of complete and utterly false innocence.
      "Get out of here, Vayer." Vanesa snapped, throwing a pillow at him. He laughed and left. "Now, I don't know about you, but Diomid recommended I sleep."
      "Honestly, I've had a very long and tiring day myself." His wry smile tugged at her heart in a way no one else's ever had. "Lets call a truce?"
      "Sounds good to me." She nuzzled his cheek and then yawned. He echoed it and then grinned at her. "Let me help you with your clothes."
      "You don't have to." He said defensively. "I can manage at least that much myself."
      "I want to." She slid her hands up inside his robes. "You didn't really get dressed, did you?"
      "I wanted to see you again." He told her. "I figured the rest of my clothes could wait."
      "Then it makes this easy." She slid them off him. His hands reached for her shirt and she let him slide it off, his hands stroking her ribs all the way up. "Feels good." She sighed.
      "You didn't get completely dressed either." He kissed the tip of her nose.
      "I was too upset." She grimaced, "Which is most of the time these days."
      "Only because you're too beautiful for words, sweet." And with that they finally managed to not kill each other for an entire day.
     
      After his usual six hours, Sevrin awoke. The room spun around him. He clutched at the presence curled up so trustingly against him. A warm, firm body pressed up against his chest and abdomen. What? Soft, slightly nappy fabric was smooth beneath his cheek. He moved his head slightly and its resting place gave gently under his rough cheek.
      Where am I? He reached out with his senses, finding himself high above the city, in the Sergei quarter. It was the quietest part of morning, and he reached out to the communion of his fellow Veiled.
      A door slammed shut in his face. *FORSWORN* echoed through the broken silence. The warm presences in the night shied away, all but the one he held in his arms as he returned to his body.
      Vanesa's hand was pressed against his cheek. "You're crying."
      "I know." He growled, unable to stop himself. "I'm sorry."
      "For crying or snapping at me?" Her thumb smoothed away the tears from his face.
      "Yes" Sevrin tried to give her a smile.
      "What happened?" she asked.
      "The shut me out." speaking the words drove the knives in deeper. "They proclaimed me forsworn."
      "Who are they?" her simple question seemed so unanswerable.
      "The Veiled, my friends, my fellows, my kind." He gasped. "I don't know how to answer, maybe my life." The emptiness of his banishment ate at him like cancer.
      "You truly do want to return to them, don't you?" Her field cooled with her reluctance.
      "They are my family, Vanesa." He smiled again, trying not to cry. It was so silly to cry about such a thing. "Diomid was right. The did give me everything I ever asked for and more." Sevrin reached again for those feathery presences in the night sky. They skittered away from his questing touch like mercury. "Now they've banished me from their unity."
      "I don't understand Sevrin. How? Why now?" Her hand burned against his face.
      As gently as he possibly could, he reached inside her mind. A simply, flimsy barricade, as if made by an unlettered child, tried to bar her from her birthright. Vanesa's mind was chained by this construct of cracked plastic and rotting wood. He touched it and her heartbeat stopped.
      With a horrified rush of power he tried to restart it. It worked. With an even lighter touch, he swept through her body to be certain he had done no lasting harm. When he was reassured of the fact she would not even have felt it, he returned to his own mind.
      "I can't show you." And all the fear he had repressed when he had nearly killed her rushed through him in one instant. "Oh God, Vanesa, I almost killed you." He pulled her against his chest. Even when she struggled, he held her, feeling her wonderfully alive body in his arms.
      "I do have to breathe you great big idiot." Her words finally made it through his confused mind and he loosened his arms slightly. She turned around. "Now hold me like that again."
      With a grateful smile, he clutched at her with all his might. "Alive." He murmured into her hair.
      "Very much so, thank you." her tone was acidic. "What has you so worked up now?"
      "Who crippled you, little one?" He lipped at her soft hair. "How could anyone do such a thing?"
      "Sevrin, I honestly don't know what on earth you are talking about." Her confusion whined like nails on slate.
      "A moment." He told her. She nodded assent. *Mikhail!* He send hard enough to wake the dead.
      The young man woke with a snort and a sputter. *What?!* His annoyance at the rude awakening was burning hot. Tzer woke with an irritated flash of static across half the city.
      *Who in hell crippled your sister?* His own ire drove his mind voice into an enormous bellow.
      *Tone down, Sevrin.* Diomid jumped into the fray, only half awake himself.
      He did, still fuming. *One or both of you had better have a good explanation*
      *I have no idea what you are talking about* Mikhail snarled. *Now do you mind if I try to go back to sleep?*
      *I know.* Diomid sent, with a bitterness of deepest sorrow.
      All of Sevrin's fury ran out of him with this. *I am truly sorry, Mikhail. My concern is entirely for Vanesa. Please accept my most heartfelt apologies.*
      *I can understand doing foolish things for one's mate, apology accepted.* Mikhail sent and let the contact fade.
      Sevrin turned his face towards Diomid's presence in the room. "Now what is all the fuss about?"
      "This block head thinks there's something wrong with me." She snorted. "You didn't have to wake up Diomid."
      "Actually he woke up your brother first." Diomid made a tisking sound. "You really do have to learn some manners, Sevrin."
      "But this is horrible." His hand gently stroked Vanesa's lithe body. "They crippled her. How could they do that?"
     
      Vanesa was getting heartily tired of this refrain. "I am fine, Sevrin. And I still have no idea what you are talking about."
      "Diomid says he knows." Sevrin snarled, as if the older man were at fault.
      "Take it easy, Sevrin." She stroked his hand on her thigh. "Diomid didn't do it, whatever it is."
      "You know about the various powers the Lords and Sharm Lords wield, Vanesa." Diomid somehow caused the lights to come on very low, and with the line of sun light around the thick curtains, it made it so she could see him. She nodded in assent. "Well, at some time in your past, when your body and mind were still very impressionable after change over, someone placed a construct in your mind. That construct blocks the flow of energy through those pathways used to control and initiate our powers. Your brother was not so treated. The worst thing, is that any tampering with the construct is likely to kill you."
      And with that she knew what he was talking about. "You are talking about my anti-kill conditioning." She stared at him in shock. "All the Lords are junct, those pathways you are talking about are open."
      "Yes, that must be it." Sevrin's voice cracked. "Poor little one. To have such beauty and intimacy taken away from you."
      "But it makes me safe. I means I can't accidentally kill some one." She tried to explain. "It is a way of freeing channels from even the possibility of killing someone." Her words slowed as she realized what she was saying.
      "Now you understand us better as well as yourself." Diomid said softly and left with hardly a whisper of sound.
      "You were going to ascend me so you could show me your friends, weren't you, Sevrin?" She now had to swallow back her own tears.
      "Yes" he breathed. "I wanted to show you how very beautiful our world truly is." He licked his lips. "Now, well, I know what it is to be blind because I was once sighted. I suppose it may be better for you as you do not know what you miss."
      "Ah, but now I know how both our chains not only bind but also cut."

Chapter 17

      Finally irritated enough she could no longer ignore it, she pulled the blankets over her face.
      "Something wrong sweet?" He asked, spitting out a moutful of bedding.
      "Yes, the lights." She grumped, wishing she could instead concentrate on his body curled up around hers so perfectly. "Diomid turned them on and I have no idea how to turn them back off again."
      "Oh," He chuckled. "Like this."
      Suddenly it was a bright as day and she yelped.
      "Sorry, wrong way." This time she saw him waive his hand, as if flipping off a light switch in midair. "Out of practice." This time darkness returned.
      "Sokay." intrigued, Vanesa tried it. Nothing happened. She sniffed in annoyance.
      "Are you wanting to play with the lights?" He sounded far too amused.
      "They're ignoring me."
      "Can't have that." and the lights came on, but dimly this time. "The lights have to see your gesture."
      Vanesa looked up and couldn't see a thing but bed curtains. Tentatively she reached out and waved her hand. "It doesn't believe me."
      "You have to believe you." His hand traced down over her arm to finally reach her hand. It felt so good she simply purred with the pleasure of it for a moment. Her fingers came to rest on the backs of his. He flicked them, and this time she could feel the slight resistance in the gesture, as if there were a physical switch present. "Now you try it."
      She did, flipping her fingers up. The lights almost blinded her. "Ack" She waved the other way frantically and they turned off.
      "Will you quit playing with the lights, Vanesa!" Diomid shouted through the closed door.
      "How could he tell?" She whispered to Sevrin.
      "Because you probably set them so high he could see the light come in under the door." He breathed against the back of her neck, sending goose bumps up her spine.
      "Oh" she left them off. "How do they work?"
      "The actual technology behind them is a bit advanced, I'm afraid." Sevrin told her.
      "The Techton has the most advanced technology in the world." She insisted. "You are still riding around on horses and shoveling the stables out after oxen. We have airplanes which can fly half way around the world."
      "Yes, and how sick were you?" He asked, quite unfairly.
      "That's beside the point, we got here far more quickly than we could have even two years ago." She pointed out.
      "Why is speed so important?" His questions were so incredibly annoying sometimes.
      "So we can get more done."
      "So speaks the young and impetuous." He chuckled, quite condescendingly. "We use our technology for those few things we can not do any other way. Many of our people live far below ground all their lives, where it is warmer and safer. We had to create lights which could exactly replicate the light of the sun. Our heating, cooling and plumbing systems are the same way. We had to develop means to deal with those issues which did no harm to our environment while allowing us to survive."
      "But you could do so much more with science and technology. Give it to us and we will do wonderful things with it." She pleaded. The lights were like magic, how much more could the Techton do with such knowledge?
      "Would you give a child a gun, Vanesa?"
      "No, but I am not a child."
      "Would the Techton stay its hand if it had a way to murder every junct?" He asked, as if such a thing were possible.
      "Maybe, probably not. It would be a good thing. We don't have to keep killers alive so they can kill again." But she slowed as she said the words. "But that would mean people like Vayer and Darya, wouldn't it?"
      "It would, and many, many other good people who have never done wrong. There are always consequences, Vanesa, unseen and unfortold consequences to any great action. We, the Veiled, work with such forces, shaping them so they do the least harm." His hand caressed her face. "Great power requires great maturity to not destroy wantonly. Our ancestors never learned that lesson."
      "And the Rus have?" She began to scoff, then thought of the sheer age and wear she had seen in the buildings. Places where centuries of footsteps had worn shallow paths across stone floors. Wooden doors black with age. Granite facades worn marble smooth with the centuries of weather and cleaning.
      "In some ways, at least we have learned to live at peace with ourselves and not strive to attain the impossible at any cost." His voice was soft and gentle.
      "What gives you the right to try to tell us what to do?"
      "Have we done any such thing?"
      "You are trying to run my life, Sevrin. You've manipulated and lied to us."
     
      Inside, Sevrin shied away from necessity, but he knew what he had to do. "To you, the woman Vanesa, or to the Sectuib in Kaon?"
      "The woman." she sighed. "The Sectuib knows what you have done and applauds it. Soon, if not already, the Techton as a whole will be so dependant on trade with Russia and her allies it will not be able to take any effective action against you for fear of rebellion."
      "Your Techton already treads the fine line of revolution, Vanesa. It is neither harsh enough to rule by force, nor charismatic enough to maintain power by persuasion. The strengthening of Kaon, bringing wealth through all strata of society, will only bolster its power by removing incentive for rebellion." He pointed out to her. "Does the peaceful solution to both our problems offend you so greatly as to bring you to destroy it?"
      "It's blackmail of the worst kind, Veiled one." A shiver ran through her entire body. "It's war by other means. All your kindness, my child and Riana's, Kaon's growth into the most powerful trading house in the world, all a means to an end."
      "And is that end so wrong, Vanesa?" He put his hand upon her face again so he could tell her emotions. "Were we so wrong to fight back to save our lives? No organism desires to be destroyed and have its ashes scattered to dust. Rels threatened Rodina with exactly that. All we want is to be free to live our lives in peace, Vanesa."
      "You speak of freedom while holding most of your people in absolute bondage of body, mind and soul." Her face closed in on itself in her distress. "Your path is the absolute denial of freedom to all but a very few."
      "Is it so much worse than the squalor and meanness which so many of your people live in?" His hand quivered at the memory of Vayer's reactions to the slums of the western cities he had been in. "None of the children of Rodina go hungry, go cold, suffer attrition."
      "But they are not free to achieve either. They are stifled and crippled by the very system which gives them only the necessities." Her misplaced empathy was so very cruel.
      "What it achievement? We all have beauty, pleasure, warmth, laughter in our lives, from the lowest renSime to Lord and Ruler Vayer. Why should we be discontent so we will desire more?" His own childhood memories returned to him, of playing with his brothers and sisters in the snow, of riding their horses through the woods, of playing tag and king of the hill with the children of the sharm, even sitting around in the evenings and listening to some of the old renGens spinning sharm tales while the snow piled up meters deep overhead. "There was no discontent while I was a child." He told her of his memories, trying to show her how wonderful his life had been.
      "But what about making a better tomorrow? You childhood sounds wonderful, but there is more to life than the pleasures of a child."
      "But if we, the Veiled, do our job well, tomorrow will be as today and the same as yesterday. Why try to make tomorrow different when today is wonderful?" He kissed the back of her neck, realizing his speaking of these things only made them clearer to himself. Never before had he truly thought about them in such a light. "I've experienced the restlessness you speak of. It was what drove me to be unhappy with my life among the Veiled."
      "You talk about it in the past tense." She shook her head. "Do you want to go back?"
      "If I could." He hugged her tightly. "Although when you return, I may very well be able to."
      "Even after they proclaimed you forsworn?" She asked, blinking.
      "Even after." He said. "There is truly no place for me here above. I don't think I could stand to live as merely an accessory to one of my brothers or sisters."
      "Why couldn't you find a mate yourself and live your own life?" Her question stung like a whip.
      "Because I am not entire, Vanesa. I would not take the risk of being the focus of someone's pity or need alone." His pride wrapped him in its prickly arms. "I am certainly not the most soft spoken Sharm Lord and no Lord would ever have such as mate."
      "I would have you as friend, Sevrin." Her tentacles came out and twined about his wrists, sending shivers of the purest pleasure through his body he had ever known.
      "But I could never give you selyn or a child, little one." He stroked his hand over her daughter again, reveling in the glory of new life. "I would kill you if I tried the former, and I would never wish to sire another such as myself." Admittedly the chance of the latter was small, and he knew the markers such that none would come to term, but such would be far to hard to ask any woman to deal with. "Riana almost didn't survive it."
      "Is that what was wrong with her child by Avilan?" She asked, shivering.
      "Yes." He said simply. "I gave Diomid the codes to be aware of. Her son carried them, as well as two other lethals. He would not have survived beyond three."
      "You can read the genetic code?" She shivered even more, teeth chattering. "How?"
      "I can, Diomid can, Vayer, Arkay, Ilyan and a few others." He told her, pulling a blanket over both of them. "It is a difficult thing but necessary. The Veiled track the genetics of all the Rus, even the rens and the freeholders so we do not have any more problems with such things than we have to. The mutation created huge variances across the human spectrum, many of which are detrimental in the wrong combinations."
      "Then why are there so many Veiled?"
      "Not all of us, or even most of us, were forced to take the Veil because of physical problems, Vanesa." He smiled sadly, realizing now the truth of what he had worked so hard to ignore. "Many simply choose the freedom of the life of the mind, rather than the life of the body and the world.
      "I think, for myself, I would have gone mad if I had known what it was to feel the incredible touch of an entire Sime's tentacles and known them, body and soul without being able to truly consummate that in the creation of new life. I, like my father, am actually a quite emotionally driven person, and to have only that one part of the whole withheld, would have been too much."
      "Entire Sime?" Her tentacles retracted so fast Sevrin felt almost as if they had burned his skin.
      "Yes, Veiled Lords have their handling tentacles removed." He said plainly.
      "That's awful." Her stomach started to contract and he smoothed it out with a touch of his power before continuing.
      "No more so than what was done to you, Vanesa." He said plainly. "They removed your ability to kill as well, but they crippled you far more effectively than the Veiled Lords. They are given a choice, they may stay as lords, or if they wish to take up their powers, they must allow their handling tentacles to be removed. With a Sharm Lord who knows what they are doing, transfer is almost identical, from what I can guess."
      "You don't know?"
      "I've never had transfer with an entire Sime." He kissed the back of her neck again. "From what I can extrapolate, handling tentacles are far more arousing to Gens than they are to Simes."
      "What?"
      He chuckled. "The feel of your tentacles against my wrists is extraordinarily erotic. Far more so than I would have ever imagined." He had to swallow the excess, sweet, saliva this thought brought to mind. "My mouth waters even thinking about it."
      "You are still post." She let one of them trace over the back of his hand, making his breath catch.
      "It makes no never mind. My body reacts even so. I image it will be quite unbearable when I am in need." Actually he didn't even want to think of what it would be like, and to be unable to quench that need with this absolutely fascinating little lord. "I do admit to wanting to ascend you for that very purpose."
      "I only thought they were for holding a Gen so they couldn't get away." Her innocence was entirely too charming sometimes.
      "As some people would say intercourse is only for engendering children, Vanesa." Such thoughts were making his body far too enthusiastic again. "I would guess you don't get excited by tentacles about your wrists."
      "No, they're just another means to hold things, like extra fingers except in transfer." The she chuckled, "I can zlin your reactions though, Sevrin. Feel them as well. One of them is poking me in the back, most emphatically."
      "So sorry." He tried to shift his hips back, away from her. The bed did not cooperate. It was far too giving and simply pressed them back together again. "Excuse me." He put the offending object against himself, out of the way. "Would you quit?"
      She giggled again. He hadn't realized he had said that last out loud. "Ahem, well, yes, as you can tell, I am still post."
      "Resembling a post, I would say."
      "You aren't helping any, talking about it." He nipped the back of her neck. This was exactly the wrong thing to do. Her tentacles twined about his wrists, grabbing them. "Vanesa. I do have a great deal of self control." Yes, right, Sevrin, then why are you poking her in the back? "But if you continue as you are, I will make no claims to my continued ability to control certain parts of my body."
      "Promise?" She wiggled.
      "Vanesa, I have no idea what part of your cycle you are in, nor do I have any plans on taking advantage of you." He tried to sound as definite as possible. "You are a beautiful, brilliant young woman who deserves far better than a block headed twit with a raging set of hormones and a decided lack of sense. I have had very little experience with Simes, or females, in my bed and have no desire to take out my lack of same upon your fair young body."
      "Sevrin, when you aren't being a twit, I find you absolutely fascinating. You speak your mind without subterfuge or you simply tell me I'm too young to know and you aren't going to tell me. Quite honestly I prefer that answer. I do require some time to think about the many things you've said, but again honestly, to you they are right and I can't see that I'm in any position to throw stones. Perhaps tomorrow, after the ceremony, things might be different, but I can accost you then." She sighed. "Tonight, well, my own transfer was less than a week ago. Who knows when I'm going to hit turnover. My daughter is going to be a channel, it is the way the Tegue mutation works, so it may be tomorrow or it maybe nearly a week, I don't care. Right now, all I know is that I am lonely and would very much like to be made less so."
      This little speech made Sevrin feel very small. "I'm sorry if I made you feel like a child, Vanesa, and myself the vengeful elder. I would do anything I could to make you feel less lonely, for I too am feeling rather bashed about by fate and circumstance myself."
      "Then hold me and make love with me Sevrin. Even if it's only for the pleasures of the moment, I would feel you inside me this once."
      Her direct words seemed to go straight from his ears to his loins, bypassing what little brains he had life. Unfortunately, this also disengaged his brain from his mouth and he heard himself say, "But I don't know how."
      "I didn't think you were a virgin."
      "I'm not, but you're pregnant and I don't want to hurt you and I don't know what would and ..." He gulped. Would you just quit? Now he was scrambling after his words as well as his body. Even though with his complete and utter embarrassment, his body had decided it didn't want to play anymore. "I'm going to the bathroom."
      "Sevrin, no, wait." He heard a thump behind him and felt a flash of startled pain. Immediately he turned back to her. "Shenned lights." She muttered under her breath. He waved them up slightly. "Thank you." This was enough speech to lead him to her, on the floor, near the bed. He knelt, brushing along her length to be certain he wouldn't do something else equally rude.
      "I really do have to go." He gave a small smile. "I am sorry I'm such a twit, I, well, it seems my body decided it thinks I'm a twit as well."
      She laughed, not unkindly. "You probably just confused the poor thing to death with your flowery prose."
      "You weren't doing so bad yourself." This time he did smile fully.
      "It's contagious." She put her hand in his. "If you don't mind sharing, I'm afraid I have much the same requirement as you do, most of the time these days, as a matter of fact."

Below:

      Master Tzakiran leaned back in his chair with a heavy sigh. "Those two are going to be the death of me." He could hear his own heart pound with exertion. He had never been a healthy man, and now, over a hundred kilos later, it was often difficult to simply get around.
      He used an old cloth to mop some of the sweat from his forehead. Every single time he tried to get Sevrin to go one way, the little idiot immediately went flying off the other. Except for those times when he told Sevrin to do the opposite of what Tzakiran really wanted. Then he followed Tzakiran's words to the letter.
      Now he was exhausted. The little discussion between Sevrin and Vanesa had taken far more out of him than he really had to spare, and on top of it trying to keep them from indulging their physical curiosity too soon had flattened him.
      The image of himself flat made him snort in disgust.
      "Master Tzakiran, the precog is predicting a total and utter debacle at today's ceremony." His new second, Lord Nilina, waved the paper about so vigorously, it made him even more tired just watching her.
      "Would thee settle down, Lina?" He waved a fleshy hand towards the single chair in his office. She bounced over to it and sat, bright eyed with far too much energy. "Now give me their words exactly."
      She fumbled the papers, tried to grab at them, missed, and they sprayed all over the floor. "Lina, calm down."
      "Yes, master." Her blue eyes shone with tears.
      "When was thy last transfer, little one?" Tzakiran knew, but wanted her to remind herself.
      "Two days ago." Her lower lip trembled. "You aren't mad at me, are you?"
      "No, little one. Just exhausted watching you bubble." He smiled, placing his hands on his belly. "Now, what did they have to say."
      "Only that the travelers are nigh and the time for change has come. A great peace will descend from the mother of God and our future shall rest with the son of the moon and star." She tried to organize the rather crumpled papers into a neat stack.
      "Now that doesn't sound so bad, does it, little one?"
      "There's more." She fluttered. "They also said 'The dark one shall lead the fall and all shall be sundered.'."
      "I'm not surprised." He closed his eyes in thought. "Now, if thee would leave those sheets upon my desk, I shall review them before noon. Be well and do your best, Nilina."
      "At your will, Master Tzakiran." She bowed and went out.

Chapter 18

      An excited squeal rang from an overhead window and Vanesa looked up to see a fluttering cloth disappear into its depths.
      "Give me that back!" A young man jumped up and tried to swipe at it.
      "Only if you can give me a kiss." An equally young woman leaned out the window, waving the bit of blue gauze in her tentacles. He stood on his toes, but try as he might, all the could do was kiss her hands.
      "I gave you a kiss." He grinned, reaching for it.
      "So you did, even if it wasn't a very good one." Then Vanesa saw the young woman's trick as her friend lowered her most of the way out the window so she could kiss the young man properly and give him back his veil. "Better luck next time, m'lad." She draped it around his shoulders.
      "My turn." Her friend chimed out.
      "Now, now, you two." Diomid called out. "Nothing past the waist." He shook his field at the renSimes.
      "At your will, Sharm Lord Sergei." She blushed furiously and skittered back into the house.
      "What ..." three young women went running by, waving their veils over their head and laughing like maniacs. "Is going on?"
      "Midsummer festival." Diomid was still shaking his head. "All renSimes are locked up for the two days and the sharms open the blast doors. Any renSime who manages to capture a veil may demand a kiss for its return. However, they may not extend their bodies out of their homes past the waist. Some Demense have an exception for windows above the first floor, I don't want to encourage anyone to 'accidentally' fall out of a window." He ducked around a young man playing a guitar and singing to another young man leaning out of the window over his head and playing with a white veil. Vanesa smiled, the scene was so cute.
      They passed by another building, a bit too close. Vanesa zlinned the renSime make a grab for the ribbons Diomid had placed over his gold hair in substitution for a veil. The renSime zlinned her and froze warily. Vanesa winked. The woman snatched at the white ribbon, neatly capturing it. Diomid yelped. Kirina laughed delightedly.
      "Aren't you the bold one!" He shouted up at her. All the eyes in his field were twinkling merrily.
      "Iffn' I do be sayin' so meself." She crowed, playing with the bit of cloth. "Ye be givin' one o' yer own a kiss."
      "Any time m'lass." He leaned up against the wall and met her kiss with great enthusiasm. Kirina hooted with laughter. The renSime draped the ribbon over her Lord's shoulders and smiled broadly.
      "Yer quite good at that m'Lord."
      "As are you, m'lass. Be well and have a merry Midsummer."
      "Already but be havin te best part." She blew him a kiss.
      He just shook his head a blew her one back with a gentle breeze of his field. She giggled and retreated back into her home.
      "Do you even have any problems with illicit transfers?" Vanesa asked Kirina under her breath.
      "Lots, but no harm is done by them. All the renGens are given very firm lectures about behaving themselves beyond a kiss, but about a quarter of them manage to find a renSime to sport with before the forty eight hours are over." She giggled. "With the rules, if a renGen gets at all scared, all they have to do is back away and they are free. A renSime can't get a hold of them and force them into anything they don't want."
      "I can see that." She watched a young woman kissing an older one quite enthusiastically, letting the renSime twine her tentacles about her ears. Vanesa looked away from the rather bawdy scene.
      "We do not encourage the renGens to approach anyone who has left their first floor windows open." Diomid pointed out that they were all barred. "From the second floor, mostly all they get is a kiss and a bit of fun."
      Vanesa thought this was absolutely wonderful fun. Everyone was so excited with the festival atmosphere and the bright ambient. Then a flash of fear shattered the illusion. She turned towards it.
      A young man was shaking his fist at another below him, "Do ye call that a kiss?"
      "Now, now. Is that any way to treat a pretty young lad like the one standing below you." Kirina yelled at the renSime.
      "No, m'Lord." He blushed, backing away.
      The young renGen looked up at the embarrassed man above him. "I'm sorry."
      "Then give me a kiss and we'll not be talkin' more of it." He waived the veil enticeingly. "Ye have far te cute a nager te be mopin about at Midsummer."
      The renGen laughed and stood on his toes for his kiss. This time they kissed lightly and laughed about it. "Although I'd not be mindin iffn' ye came back later."
      "Only in the dark." The renGen laughed and ran off.
      "And that's why we do this at midsummer, it never does get dark." Diomid grinned. "That is the traditional line, sort of like saying 'when it's warm at Year's Turning.'."
      "It doesn't?" Vanesa started.
      "Nope, for the few weeks in the middle of summer, it doesn't get dark." Kirina pointed out the sun already high overhead, even though it was still midmorning. "We're too far north."
      "But then at midwinter ..."
      "Yes, the sun doesn't come up." Diomid finished. "Which may be why so many children are born in the fall."
      "Oh" Vanesa laughed. "Like me?"
      "You're a little early, but yes." Diomid shook his head. "From about the time you are due to when Riana is due, I deliver over seventy percent of the children born to the Demense. Winters are quite long and very dull in Moskva."
      "Other than between the sheets, it seems." Vanesa realized just how skewed that statistic was.
      "Particularly those children who are not of both their mated parents." Diomid winked at Kirina.
      "Hush" She wrinkled her nose at her mate. "He's just teasing me about the fact Nashen is my father."
      "What?" Vanesa squawked. "I thought you were Sevrin's sister." But as she looked more closely she could see the family resemblance.
      "Half sister, we share the same mother, Karola." Kirina shook her head. "Avilan got bored one winter and there was a wild party. Quite a few children were born nine months later."
      "How does everyone cope with that?" Vanesa asked, realizing why things were so complicated with paternity around here.
      "Fairly well." Diomid said clinically. "We, the highest rank of the nobility, often have problems with siring or bearing healthy children, so we accept all of those who are healthy and cherish them alike. It also helps bond the families together."
      "How do you make sure there isn't any incest?" His eyes turned grey and cold for a brief instant and Vanesa stepped back. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to touch a delicate subject."
      "You didn't mean it, lass." He warmed back up again. "It is simply a bit close to home."
      "You don't have to go on, Diomid." She brushed her hand over his bracelets as she had seen the others do for comfort.
      He smiled at her, letting them ring. "It's all right. I can talk about it now, although I used to be far more ashamed of it. I, myself, am a result of such a union, as was Nashen's mother. The Veiled select such close crosses to reinforce certain traits in a line."
      "You let them do such a thing?" She couldn't help but grimace.
      "It is for the best, when all is said and done, Vanesa." He smiled wryly. "My three sons, Dimitri, Miran and Kirin all will wield nearly the same power I do. Sergei had almost died out because it had become too heterozygous."
      "Arkay has many of the same traits you do." Vanesa had become quite familiar with the families after spending a great deal of time talking about the subject with Vayer.
      "But out of nearly twenty children by the time of his death, only Arkay and I shared our father's power." Diomid said. "And it is a one the Demense can not do without. I am the only one who shares them in full."
      "What exactly does it entail?"
      "It is what makes me a healer, my wisdom is not my own, as it were." He smiled. "I know what to say,"
      "About other people's relationships." Kirina interjected.
      "Hush." He hugged her to his side, "As I was saying, I know the exact right words to use to get people to react emotionally in a way that is most healing. It isn't something I learned, but rather a thing I was born with and only developed as my other healing talents did. I was a seriously messed up adolescent."
      "And it went on for so long." Kirina twitted. Then she yelped and swatted at his hand. "You pinch."
      "That's right, I do." He licked the very end of her nose.
      "Ewwww" she wiped it off. "Gen slime."
      "Is that any better than Sime slime?" He caressed her arm. One of the renGens whistled, quite lewdly.
      "Not in public." Kirina blushed furiously, looking around and batting at his hand ineffectively.
      "Where can I find one like that?" Another of the appreciative renGens asked.
      "Over that way." Diomid pointed off to the south west. "On the other side of the city."
      "Long live the Azov Hegemony!" A rather well lubricated soul toasted. There were cheers all around.
      Kirina blushed and looked at Diomid fondly. "I love you, my sweet troll."
      "And I love you, my overtall imp." With this, Kirina swiped his ribbon and ran off into the crowd, ducking behind one of the renGens. Diomid chased after her. She used the laughing man between them as a shield.
      Then the renGen got clever, turned around and stole a kiss himself. "Hey!" Kirina squawked. "You're not Diomid!"
      "No I'm not, but I got a kiss any ways." He laughed and ducked out of the way. Diomid almost went over him and caught Kirina. He kissed her thoroughly, making her forget all about keeping the ribbon which he neatly picked out of her hand.
      "Mine." He said, twining it back into his hair.
      "Yes, I am." She smiled and kissed him again.
     
      Finally, with a great deal of laughing and playing, they made it to the great square in the center of the city. Vanesa had seen it from overhead, but to be standing in it was another matter. Huge buildings lined the square, with one painted in all colors topped with the most fanciful, gilded towers catching her eye immediately. There were huge crowds of people, but they all seemed so tiny with the looming bulk of stone and gilt in the background.
      "The Cathedral of the Ascension, otherwise known as St. Basil's." Diomid told her. "Beneath it is where the Veiled live."
      "It is gorgeous." She breathed, awestruck. "How old is it?"
      "All these building were standing long before the mutation." Kirina said, taking her elbow and leading her through the press. "We had to restore some of them, and there were additions made right before it which did not survive the intervening years before we took the city back from squatters which tried to take it over. The buildings from immediately before the mutation we finished destroying, but the older ones are the same as they had been for the ancients."
      "How did they survive?" Vanesa was truly in awe now. Nothing in the west had survived the mutation in anything other than ruins.
      "You should see the construction." Diomid smiled. "The stone used is meters thick. Many of the furnishings were destroyed, but it would have taken an incredible amount of damage to even begin to harm the buildings themselves."
      There were a huge pair of doors on one side of the yard. To one side was a huge mural of a man on horseback spearing some sort of reptilian creature, and on the other there was a two headed gold bird with its wings spread on a Kaon red background. Diomid pointed to the odd bird. "The eagle is Kirov. The other is the crest for the city, St. George slaying the dragon. They are also unchanged since before the mutation."
      "How do you know so much of that time? We only have the tiniest bits and pieces." The sense of antiquity on the red paved yard was enormous.
      "Some of it is because many of these buildings were locked off from looters and kept safe. Some of it is reconstruction. Some of it is simply Russian stubbornness." Diomid grinned. "We have always had a tendency towards tradition, and people passed things down through the generations until civilization returned."
      "I am absolutely amazed, Diomid." She couldn't help but stare around her. "We have nothing like this in the west. Everything was destroyed, everything. We've had to reconstruct even the simplest things, like lighting and heating."
      "We had a head start." Kirina pointed out. "Most of these buildings were created before technology arose the first time. They were designed to be heated by burning wood and lit with candles. It made it very easy to live in them until we came up with more advanced solutions."
      "I can see where that would be an advantage. It meant you had a safe place to live that wouldn't fall down around your ears in the first winter storm." She shivered. "And from the way all of you were running around in next to nothing in our winter, I can imagine what winter here is like."
      "Very cold. Most of us hole up like bears through most of it." Kirina nodded. "I do a lot of my planning and organizing at that time."
      "You also sit on your behind and read a lot." Diomid kissed at her.
      "We all do." She grinned. "It is deadly dull, but it does give us a chance to enjoy each other's company without one disaster after another."
      "As long as no one is making them." Diomid said quite loudly. "Oh, hello Avilan."
      "Hush, youngster." Avilan swatted him with his field. "I had come to rescue lord Vanesa."
      Vanesa started to say she didn't require rescuing but saw Avilan pointing towards a group of people all in blue, one of whom had the brilliantly gold hair of Sevrin. "If I may be excused?"
      "Go cuddle up with Sevrin, lass." Diomid winked. "Let us old married types enjoy the day without the kids."
      "I'm carrying mine with me, can't leave her at home just yet." She gave him a kiss, much to the delight of their audience. Even Kirina applauded.
      "Get on with you, Vanesa." He kissed her on the nose.
     
      Sevrin knew it had only been a few hours since he had last been with Vanesa, but he missed her dreadfully. Every time someone else came up to the new Mir household, he listened carefully to try to catch her rather odd step or her way of shifting her weight so her clothes rustled just so. Then he heard Avilan begin to walk off and turned to him suddenly.
      "Don't worry, I'm going to fetch her. She's busy gawking at all the pretties and probably hasn't zlinned you yet." Avilan told him, then he leaned in close. "Now you can kiss her properly for midsummer without embarrassing yourself."
      He felt himself blush down to his toenails, but leaned back and said, "Thank you, otyet." Avilan had given him some very specific, very useful, pointers on how to dress this morning.
      "You are quite welcome, my beloved son." He felt Avilan's tender kiss on his cheek and he held it to him. Everyone had been so incredibly considerate, Sevrin still didn't quite know what to make of it all. Avilan left before Sevrin thought to ask him one last question.
      Finally he heard Vanesa's footsteps. Checking where everyone was, he stepped forward and she jumped into his arms. "Oh, Sevrin." Her weight shifted. Leaning down, he caught her lips in a long, deep, loving kiss. He moaned, pressing his body against hers. She was so incredibly sweet, for all her fire otherwise. The scents of lavender and honeysuckle filled his nostrils. He drank deeply of their so wonderful reminder of her splendor.
      "That was quite a welcome." She purred, clinging to him.
      "I missed you." His lips brushed her brow.
      "I missed you, my favorite twit." She teased.
      "You are a delight, Vanesa." He let his hand cup her behind and slide down the back of her thigh. She sighed and licked her lips.
      "I am going to turn into a small puddle of Sime if you keep carrying on the way you are." Her tentacles twined around and over his ear.
      "And if you keep teasing me I'm going to break this rather strong bit of cloth my father convinced me to wear and then all the world will know how much I love you." He stroked the side of his face against her hand.
      Vanesa chuckled softly and with one last caress, turned so she was beneath his arm.
      "By the way, as I forgot to ask anyone else, what color am I wearing?" He raised an eyebrow. "No one thought to tell me which Demense I am nominally part of."
      She chuckled softly. "Same as myself, Vayer and Darya, midnight blue. Although I don't remember that being one of the Demense colors. I thought Maryam was a lighter blue."
      "She was." Sevrin said. "Vayer chose the darker blue to make the split to Mir, one, because it can be done with an over dye, and two, because the old Demense colors of Mir, gold on green, are too close to Azov, which is a more modern Demense than Mir was."
      "You look absolutely stunning in the color, by the way." She stroked his hand resting on her arm. "Probably a great deal better than I do."
      "You would look stunning no matter what you wore, Vanesa." He gave her a gentle squeeze.
      "Kaon's color is red, but since my ties to Kirov are very tenuous, I guess they decided to toss me in with Mir, because of my tie to Vayer." Her easy acceptance of all the intricacies of the Rus truly was amazing to Sevrin. The Rus had certainly brought in outsiders before, but most of them integrated fully, like Mikhail, or never tried to understand. Her ability to walk the tightrope between the two was wonderful.
      "Vanesa." Nivanya called out from behind them. They turned. Sevrin caught her rapid breathing and the twisting of her field.
      "What's wrong?" He asked.
      "There's a hajene Hiklan asking to speak with Sectuib Kaon." She said quickly.
      "Is it an emergency?" Vanesa asked, sounding more than a bit annoyed.
      "He said it was, but I heard what he's like too." Nivanya gave a soft chuckle. "Although he threatened to get someone called the World Controller on the line if you didn't think it important enough to speak with him."
      "Go, Vanesa." Sevrin said quickly. He couldn't remember who was the current World Controller, but he feared it was Digen Ferris and that would be a disaster.
      "You're coming with me." She headed after Nivanya's retreating footsteps.
      "I'm not going to argue with you now." He said, annoyed. Sevrin really didn't want any risk of synchronicity, and slowing Vanesa down would do just that.
      "No you're going to do it later." She snapped.
      "Probably." He prodded her to move faster. They moved out of the sunlight. "Move, Vanesa." He heard Nivanya run. "I can keep up if you don't stop suddenly." She bolted, with Sevrin right on her heels. Up three flights of stairs, down two long hallways and the across the building they finally came to the room where Kirov had set up the radio. After the first set of stairs, Sevrin knew where they were going, and concentrated on not tripping on anything, like the hem of his robes.
      He was badly winded with the stair running and had to wave Vanesa into the room. Even pregnant she was in far better shape than he was. Finally he caught his breath and stepped into the room where he could hear.
      "I'm telling you again, Hiklan, Jina and Garin have my complete confidence. If you really want to install a channel as my second in my absence, you're going to have to go through them and they still are in charge of the business end of Kaon." She released the send button. "Shenned fool doesn't think Gens have the brains of a turnip. Garin is the only person I have who speaks Arabic."
      "I would feel better about it, Sectuib Kaon." He heard the hollow voice of that Hiklan idiot.
      "You would feel better about having a cat as leader of Kaon in my absence as long as she wasn't Gen." Vanesa snapped. "Listen to me. I am Sectuib in Kaon. Her responsibilities to her people are being taken care of and are none of your business. They are mine. I am in regular communication with my people and I don't require your butting in where you don't belong. And don't give me this load of stable sweepings about my responsibilities as a channel. The Techton makes all of those decisions now any ways."
      There was a long silence from the other end. Sevrin blinked, a bit stunned at how sharp Vanesa's tone had been. "You are quite right, Sectuib Vanesa. Gulf certainly does have the channels to cover your and your sisters absence. If you don't mind though, I would like to consult with your mother on a few things."
      "As long as they don't involve this last winter's trade conference, as she knows next to nothing about recent decisions made by myself as Sectuib, go ahead if it makes you feel better." She snorted, as if in disgust before she release the send button.
      "Ah, yes, I don't think that will be necessary."
      "Go through proper form next time, Hiklan. You are making me miss the largest party I've ever seen in my life." She released the button with a flourish Sevrin could hear.
      "Please accept my apologies, Sectuib Kaon. I'll be sure to simply pass on my concerns through Garin next time." The man's groveling was more than a bit amusing to Sevrin.
      "Apologies accepted as long as it doesn't happen again. Now, I, for one, am going to go play. Good bye, Controller Hiklan." She clicked off and he could hear her shift in her seat.
      "Good bye, Sectuib Kaon."
      "Good riddance." She sighed. "Why do fools like that end up in power?"
      "Because they got elected there in your case." Sevrin said with a grin. "Although as an example of the least common denominator Hiklan is exceptional."
      "That is the truth." She stood and groaned. Sevrin stepped forward and found her arching her back. Gently he rubbed at the sore muscles he could find under her fingers. "Now I know why everyone else was so much better at stair running than I was, no matter how hard I tried."
      "You should try it in the sharm some time." Sevrin smiled. "There are many, many stars in the sharms to slow down Simes."
      "How so?"
      "Simes can't run down stairs as fast as Gens because Gens are heavier and gravity counts more than strength when going down." He pointed out.
      "How clever." She snorted. "I suppose that's why the floors are sanded as well."
      "Yes" He took her arm. "A slippery surface is more of a handicap to a Sime than a Gen."
      "I can zlin that." They walked back out into the square, arm in arm.
      "By the way, I think you did an excellent job handling Hiklan." He tried to put all of his admiration into his field.
      "Thank you, although I really would prefer not to have to deal with such idiots, I'd rather deal with a stupid foe than a clever one."
      "And which am I, Vanesa?" He caressed her face as they stopped in a warm sunbeam.
      "The cleverest, although I am still not entirely sure if you are friend or foe." Her wry smile twitched beneath his fingertips.
      "I would rather be your love, than either friend or foe." He kissed her gently.
      "Give me time, Sevrin." She said. "I agree with you entirely, but I truly do wish to know you better as well."
      "As do I, Vanesa." This time his kiss was more than simply gentle, as he tried to show how very badly he wished to know her better.

Chapter 19

      Vanesa eyed the young children, napping with their nurses in the shade of the high north walls, somewhat enviously. She was exhausted. It had been a very long, tiring day and a nap looked like a splendid idea.
      "Come here and sit with me a while, Vanesa." Sevrin said softly. "It is still well over an hour until midnight."
      "I know that." She clenched her teeth on another yawn.
      "You've had a long day. Sit by my side and rest." He pleaded. "Simply tell me of the things you saw and what you thought of them. We will while away the time talking and then you won't feel ashamed to nap like some others."
      She looked around and had to stifle a giggle. Darya had neatly pulled her hood down over her eyes and was snoring very softly, but quite audibly nonetheless, in the circle of Vayer's arms. Vayer winked at her and nodded her towards Sevrin. Even Diomid was dozing against Kirina, who was weaving ribbons and flowers into a fantastic wreath.
      "Hoods and veils are useful for catching short naps, aren't they?" She grinned, settling in next to him.
      "Very much so." He chuckled. "No one can see the fact your eyes are closed and you are sleeping through lectures when garbed so."
      "Don't give away all our secrets." Avilan whispered, careful not to disturb the person he held in his arms. Then Vanesa noticed the fine-boned hand wearing a number of quite distinctive rings trailing from one sleeve and chuckled. Karola was sound asleep, all bundled up in a sharm lord's kador. Avilan covered her hand back up and grinned. "She doesn't want to get caught like a child napping on midsummer so I loan her one of my old ones I had brought along for the purpose."
      "Does she do this every year?" Vanesa asked.
      "Usually." Avilan looked down at his mate fondly. "She gets so excited in the day that by about ten in the evening she is ready to fall on her nose. She's ready to go again by midnight, so there's no harm done."
      "I can understand her being tired." Vanesa yawned again.
      "Your being pregnant probably doesn't help a great deal either." Avilan said. "Cuddle up with Sevrin for a bit and recharge yourself. We have time."
      The sun was still in the sky, if nearing the horizon and Vanesa could tell it would not disappear completely. All the pavilions were set so their occupants were in shadow and could escape its light, at least partially. She pushed one errant, tiny, fist down from where it had gotten caught on her ribs. Sevrin rubbed her back.
      "You're hired." She murmured, trying to stretch forward to give him better access.
      "Am I, m'lass?" He chuckled. "And what am I hired to do."
      "Rub my aching back and feet." She groaned as he dug his fingers into the tight muscles. "Yes, there, like that."
      "Are you making love to her or rubbing her back, Sevrin?" Avilan asked.
      "Yes" Vanesa replied.
      "So, tell me about what you saw today." Sevrin murmured in her ear.
      "You were there." She protested, not wishing to succumb quite yet to his lulling her to sleep.
      "I was, but I did not see with your innocence." He kissed the back of her neck gently.
     
      Through Vanesa's eyes, Midsummer Festival came alive for Sevrin in colors and sights even more brilliant than he had remembered it being as a child.
     
      The brightly colored stalls of the vendors caught Vanesa's eye as soon as she had shaken off her annoyance with Hiklan's attempted interference. A hundreds scents and sights overwhelmed her senses. Almost in a daze, she walked down into the press of people on Sevrin's arm.
      "Bright amber to adorn your mate, my lord." Vanesa looked to see a very fair Gen waving his hand towards trays of gems the color of sunlight pressed into stone. "Only the finest for the fairest of lords." He lowered his voice and eyed Sevrin furtively. "If you wish, I have more behind the counter."
      "Maybe later." She laughed, flicking a tentacle at Sevrin beneath the cover of her hand.
      "At your will, my lord." He winked and descended upon another likely customer.
      They walked on. An incredible scent, spicy, sweet and alien hit her nose. She stopped and tried to find where it was coming from. Lead by her nose, she came across a tiny stall, set between two larger ones. The only things she could see were simply strung coarse brown beads on pegs, but as she closed her eyes and breathed in deeply the scents were amazing. "I find my goods have called another customer to my stall."
      The man was as dark and wizened looking as ancient oak, but as he looked up at her from his seat she gasped.
      "I find my special wants are well fulfilled by my trade." His eyelids closed over milky white orbs. "Do not feel pity for me, m'lord." He reached out his hand and twined half a dozen of the strands about his fingers and tentacles. "Smell."
      She leaned forward and was transported into a fantastic world.
      "Myrrh, Frankincense, Cinnamon, Amber, Sandalwood." He rattled off the names.
      "You forgot the copal and verdigris, friend merchant." Sevrin said. "Or the lavender buds and orange peel you have beneath your counter."
      "Ah, another initiate into our august fellowship." the gentleman smiled so broadly his eyes disappeared into the folds of his face. "Welcome."
      "Ins'Allah, friend merchant." Sevrin said softly.
      "As brothers we are, we shall be as well." His look turned wary. "Such as you do not come out very often."
      "No, we are far better suited to our own, but m'lord had other ideas." Sevrin brushed his fingertips over her arm, making her sigh in appreciation of his touch.
      "Then you should adorn her as befits our kind." The merchant shifted the beads he held, bringing forth another wave of the wonderful perfume. "Although you have made a fine start."
      Before Vanesa could protest the mistake, Sevrin brushed his thumb over her lateral sheath, taking all her breath and thoughts away. "I think the myrrh would be most appropriate to my lord's often astringent sweetness."
      "Ah, but for you?" the man asked as he stood and draped a strand of the beads about Vanesa's neck.
      "That one." Vanesa stroked a sweet, tantalizing drape of beads.
      "The lord has excellent taste." He grinned. "I think the sandalwood would quite well suit a one of your nature."
      "Ah, you are saying I should have more sweetness." Sevrin's voice held the faintest ring.
      "More that your warmth would show their scent at its height." He handed Vanesa the thickest strand of beads. It was far lighter than she would have expected, but the wood was polished to a silky smoothness. She placed it about Sevrin's neck, and let it slide beneath his robes.
      "Thank you, friend merchant." She let her hand slide across his. "Now as to payment."
      He looked thoughtful. "For you, kind would be as pleasant as cash." His field shifted to display a figure which made her blink.
      "I'm afraid that might be a bit much." She said reluctantly, fingering the beads she already wore.
      "In kind, perhaps half of that." A smile played about his lips. "Of course there are other merchants."
      "No, I think in kind I can well manage." She realized the man's ploy and how easily she had fallen for it. "Do I pay you, or?"
      "If your mate would assist, I would love to accept payment." His soft chuckle was almost wicked in his glee at having caught her out. She shook her head and held out her hands. Still holding the beads, he caught her hands and their tentacles twined through the fragrant decorations. Sevrin's attention held the ambient at bay with a glittering brightness of amusement. Tickled by all of this, Vanesa's payment held more than a shade of the gentle burble of laughter.
      "Thank you, m'lord." He said as they broke off the contact. "May you and your mate find many more years of such love and laughter."
      "And may you find many more such deals, friend merchant."
      "I plan on it." He chuckled and sat back down, again whittling on yet another of the tiny beads which made up his wares.
     
      Finally they made it back to the amber merchant. There had been others, but none of them nearly so good. Vanesa fingered a gorgeous piece of work, trying to figure out how one wore it. There were nearly thirty teardrop pieces of perfectly clear, ruddy gold amber dripping from an incredibly delicate chain strung between five posts with clasps on the back of each of them.
      "Do you like it?" The merchant asked.
      "I have no idea how to wear it." She finally said. "It is gorgeous."
      Sevrin's fingers stroked over the piece, as if caressing her hand. "It is quite beautiful." The he looked over his shoulder. "Vayer." he called out to his brother.
      "Yes?" He came over and looked over Vanesa's shoulder. She felt like she was standing in a hole, as usual. "Your work?" Vayer asked the merchant.
      "No, actually it is my mate's." He pointed towards a half open flap at the back of the stall. Vanesa could zlin fascinated interest peeking through the parted fabric.
      "Come out, little one." Vayer waved his hand towards her. A very heavily pregnant young woman came out from behind the curtains, zlinning about warily.
      "I'm too close to need for the festival." She said shyly.
      "A bit close to term as well." Vayer chuckled. "Eight months?"
      "Any day now." Her smile widened as she slid beneath her mate's arm. "We came so we could afford for me to deliver at Sergei."
      "I think something can be arranged." Vayer tickled her under the chin. "You're a bit early for the mad rush this fall, so perhaps you would like Diomid?"
      "Sharm Lord Sergei himself." She gasped, eyes wide. "I would love to, I mean, if it wouldn't be too much trouble." Her almond shaped eyes turned up to her partner.
      "No, little one. I think we can afford a few baubles for the health of our son." He kissed her on the nose. "If dealing with a Sharm Lord would not make you nervous."
      "Not Sharm Lord Sergei." She wrinkled her nose at him. "Don't you know anything?"
      "Not compared to you, my beloved." He made an excellent save and Vanesa hid her grin behind a small cough. Vayer caught her eye, he was grinning too. She wiggled her eyebrows at him. He broke up laughing.
      "You two are silly." Sevrin chided.
      "Well, yes, today is a day for such frivolity. We will all be serious as rocks after tomorrow." Vayer put his nose in the air and sniffed.
      "Deal, my Lord and Ruler Vayer." The merchant turned back to them.
      Vanesa added in the bracelet she had been eyeing in tentacle speech. The merchant's eyes narrowed as his lady translated. It was a fantastic piece of work, well beyond her normal means.
      "Unlimited selyn reserves for her length of confinement." Vayer added in. She gasped and nodded yes vigorously. "Although if you wish to return to the Demense, there are numerous positions available for such as yourselves in Mir."
      "As a pair?" the young woman gasped.
      "Outside of Moskva, yes." Vayer told them. "Mir is looking for independent merchants who can travel away from Moskva for extended periods of time, which means pairs, bachelor Gens or nests."
      "I will be putting out the word among the merchants who might well be interested in such a situation. How may I contact you after the festival?" His glass blue eyes were thoughtful.
      "I will be holding open court every afternoon for the next few months, until the end of the trading season, I'm sure." Vayer gave a wry grin. "There is a great deal of work to do before the winter snows arrive."
      "Who is Mir?" The young woman asked.
      "What was once Maryam." Vayer told her and they both stared at him. "Tonight, Maryam will be no more and Mir will take her place."
      "When the twin suckles twins." The merchant's mate said. Vayer gave Sevrin a dirty look.
      "Yes, well, it was time." Vayer said simply. "Now back to our bargaining. For the goods we desire, Diomid himself as midwife and unlimited selyn for the confinement."
      "Deal, the earpiece and the dragon." The merchant winked at Vanesa.
      "Done." Vayer clasped the man's wrist, binding them together momentarily with his tentacles.
     
      Vanesa did finally get to find out how the jewelry was placed. Vayer asked the man, "Do you have the needles?"
      "Yes, and you can do it in the back of the stall, if the Sharm Lord does not wish to do it himself."
      "I am not familiar with the style, precisely. I would rather Vayer did it." Sevrin said quietly, caressing Vanesa's ear. This sounded a bit ominous. Needles, plural?
      Her knees quivered and her laterals hid all the way up in their sheathes. But the beauty of the jewelry was undeniable. Trembling slightly, she let Vayer lead her and Sevrin back into the darkness of the curtained off part of the stall. The merchant's mate offered to assist, but Vayer told her to go to her partner.
      "It will be all right, little one." Sevrin purred, his voice as warm as the sunlight outside. Her shivers stopped as she leaned back against him. Vayer took her face in his hand and tipped it to the side.
      "Now, what I'm going to do is place the needle through your ear and then heal the wound with it still inside. That is how we make the holes. Each one will only take a moment, but I want you to be very careful not to use your private system for the healing." Vayer told her gently. "You've been using your laterals a bit more than I like to see at this point in your pregnancy. Take it easy on them, Vanesa. You're going to have to use those nerves even more before our daughter is born."
      "Yes, m'Lord." She grinned up at him. "But there were so many wonderful things to buy."
      "And half the merchants probably wanted payment in kind, I know, but there are more important things than a few baubles, Vanesa." He spoke as he worked and Vanesa hardly even noticed the sting of the needle going in.
      "But the honey was so good." She protested, thinking of the wonderful tang of the thick, dark stuff one of the old women had. "I've never had honey like that."
      "I wouldn't think you had, from what we ate at Kaon." He chuckled. "How did you manage to make honey flavorless?"
      "It's clarified and purified so people don't get upset about the occasional bit of wax or other debris." She grinned. "Now that I know what I am missing, Kaon will be buying a lot more honey from Russia, for our own table if nothing else." Another small sting and she shivered slightly.
      "Hold still." Vayer said, caressing her face. "Did you taste some of the rose mead?"
      "Oh, yes." She purred, leaning back against Sevrin. "It was wonderful."
      "I bought up a case of it for Mir." He cleaned off the last of the needles. "When you and Darya are delivered, we'll be having another party."
      "Not as big as this one, I hope." She chuckled. "I think once a year is plenty."
      "No where near as big, but our family is pretty good sized." He placed the last hole.
      "Ow" She twined her tentacles about Sevrin's wrists. His fingers caressed hers, holding them close.
      "All done." Vayer said. "Now, I'm going to let Sevrin place this, as is his right."
      "You were the one who did the bargaining." Sevrin protested.
      "Then it is my choice, Sevrin." Vayer told him. "She is your mate, not mine."
      "I can't give her transfer." Sevrin sighed.
      "No, but you can give her the care and affection she needs." Vayer's field twined about both of them. "I am going to be far too busy with Darya and Mir to care for Vanesa as well. I would appreciate it greatly if you would act in my stead, my brother."
      "I would be honored to care for Vanesa and your daughter, Vayer." Sevrin's hand came up to take the earpiece.
      "Our daughter, brother mine." Vayer smiled.
      "All of ours." Vanesa added, wondering how any of her ancestors had ever managed with only one person looking out for them in pregnancy.
     
      Vanesa had finally collapsed into a deep, boneless sleep. She would awaken well in time for the ceremony, so he held her close and enjoyed her company. Even asleep her strength of mind and spirit was a blazing warmth, like a great hearth fire warming a winter's night.
      Basking her presence, Sevrin didn't notice when he slipped off into sleep as well, still caressing the warm amber bracelet carved into the form of a dragon on his wrist.

Below:

      Tzakiran twitched at his robes irritably. I look like a house. He eyed the expanse of billowing fabric with more than a touch of jaundice. He really wished Sevrin had not bolted quite so precipitously, or at least waited until after tonight's endeavor. With a grunt, he leveraged himself out of his chair. It got harder every year to move around, and sometimes he wondered if the game were at all worth the candle.
      His stomach growled at him. He sighed and told it to behave. Tzakiran was not going to feed his voracious appetite immediately before a jump. Even he would be subject to enough nausea at the event he did not wish to tempt fate by jumping on a full stomach. His niece, Tzarya, had never complained of any such effects, although Tzakiran still wondered if that had merely been a ploy to visit the outside world as often as she did.
      Laboriously, Tzakiran waddled into the center of the circle. One of the teleports eyed his girth quite disrespectfully. "If thee have something to say, open thy mouth and speak."
      "Nothing, Master Tzakiran. I was only debating the merits of adding the efforts of our newest teleport to smooth your jump." Her words were respectful enough, as far as they went.
      "Teleportation is never pleasant, even under the best of conditions. I would appreciate it if thee made all appropriate efforts to improve those conditions." At least this way he would get a few more moments reprieve. The young woman flushed at having been caught out in her lie. "Be that as it may, it is soon time. Remember this, young one."
      "I will, Master Tzakiran." She bowed her head, quite respectfully this time. "If you would." Her hand indicated the inlaid circle. He sensed beneath him and realized he was not quite in the geometric center of the design on the floor. He moved over, as gracefully as he could and raised his veil into place.
      "On the mark of three." She stepped back with her partner. The other two pairs took their places. "Three, two, one, Now."
      Wrenching nausea bit at him. He clenched his throat against the gorge rising from his empty stomach, and then it was gone. At least it was a short jump He looked out over the crowd, now gasping and pointing at him. "It is time!" He called out, raising his gloved hands over his head. The bell tower rang out the hour, midnight.

Chapter 20

      "It is time, little one." Vayer's hand stroked the side of her face gently. She blinked, not entirely aware she had dozed off. Sevrin's arms were draped around her and he was snoring very softly in her ear. Vanesa reached back and caressed his cheek. He sniffed and something about being awake.
      "Then why were you snoring, sweet?" She asked softly.
      "Wasn't. Was only resting." He rubbed back against her. "Soft, so very soft." His field was a warm, gentle caress of sunlight and smooth fur. Her eyes closed again.
      "Time to wake up." Vayer told them, a bit more brightly this time. Someone had forgotten to turn out the lights. Vanesa turned around and buried her face against Sevrin's chest. His slow, lazy heartbeat called to her own. "If you don't wake up you'll miss all the excitement."
      "Had lots today." She grumbled, but worked on pulling herself together any ways. Sevrin kissed the top of her head and she sighed in utter contentment. Why can't he be so sweet when he's really awake?
      He chuckled, the sound rumbling through his deep chest. "If nothing else you'll want to see who they sent up to take my place."
      "Take your place?" She leaned back, looking him in the face. The dusting of golden whiskers across his cheeks only made him look more fantastically beautiful. He rubbed at them, scowling. This did not improve his looks at all.
      "Yes, I am forsworn. They would not have me take up the veil again in public unless I were to return to them in humility."
      Vanesa snorted. "Humble, you?"
      "Occasionally."
      "And I'm certain someone has recorded the dates it occurred." Reluctantly, Vanesa pried herself loose from Sevrin's embrace.
      "All three of them, I'm sure." He grinned, still a bit sleepy. "Does anyone have a razor?"
      "Yes." Avilan told him. "I had no desire to look like a blond version of Vayer tonight."
      Vayer sniffed. "Just because you don't like to be warm in the winter."
      "I don't want to hear the complaints from Karola about the ..." He looked down at her. "Lets just say she doesn't like it."
      Karola swatted him with her field. "Avilan, not in front of the children."
      "They're all big boys and girls here." He grinned. "I'm sure they know exactly what I'm talking about."
      Vanesa wasn't, quite. With Avilan it could be anything. "I'll take you up on that, otyet." Sevrin got to his feet and stretched. This was definitely a show. Every single Sime in zlinning distance seemed to think so as well. Vanesa looked around to note at least half a dozen people all staring at him, even Karola.
      "He is quite pretty." She shrugged, grinning. "I wouldn't have transfer with him, but I like to look."
      "Was everyone watching me stretch?" Sevrin blinked.
      "No, just the Simes." Vanesa pointed out. He turned his face to her, rather sheepishly actually. "We were all enjoying the show."
      "Oh" He took his bearings and slowly made it to the back of the tent. His field had more than a slight red cast to it, as if something had embarrassed him.
      "You don't have to feel ashamed for being ogled, Sevrin." Vanesa told him when he returned.
      "I know, it feels odd though." He turned to face her and rested his hand on her cheek. "As if I were on display."
      "In a way you were." She rubbed back against his hand. "You are an exquisitely gorgeous man, Sevrin, and there is no shame in playing the peacock." This was a lesson Vayer had taught her, while showing off for Darya one evening. "What harm is there in it?"
      "None, just, well, I am rather unaccustomed to it."
      "Your father certainly has no problem with people looking at him." She pointed out.
      "My father has no shame in him." Sevrin grinned. "Sometimes I wonder what it would be like."
      "Not to bad a way of life, to a certain extent." She watched Avilan trying to decide which of the ribbons he preferred for his hair. Vanesa had never in her life seen such vanity in a male, but it actually rather suited him. For all his show of still being the young, rather rowdy, boy, his love for Karola and their children always came first. "Karola certainly seems to enjoy it."
      "Yes, she and Arkay both have a tendency to be a bit too serious sometimes. Avilan was the kingpin who kept them both from burning out with it for many years." He put his arm around her shoulder and led her toward the half circle forming in front of the huge doors. "Almost my entire childhood, actually."
      "What was it like having two fathers?" Vanesa asked, curious. In some ways it sounded absolutely wonderful and in others she had no idea.
      "Other than when we were bent on getting in trouble, it was great." He steered her towards the front. "I'm still in blue, right?"
      "Yes." She confirmed. There were very few people here in that color, and none other than Vayer and Darya in the same shade of blue.
      "Mostly it was wonderful, particularly since Avilan never lost his ability to play. Nashen too sometimes, since he was my father's other lover during that time." He turned his face towards the crowd, listening. "There they are."
      "Wasn't it at all confusing?" She asked.
      "No, not to a child." He rested his hand on her lower back. "All I knew was there were all these people who cared about me and wanted me to be happy. Not that I always obliged them." He snorted. "I would often escape with a book to some dusty old corner of the townhouse to read."
      "I used to do that too, run off with a book and hide." She grinned. "Particularly when there was some work to be done I didn't want to do."
      "What kind of work?"
      "Oh, things like straightening out my room, doing my schoolwork, folding laundry." She made an annoyed face and Sevrin laughed.
      "Your face squinches up when you do that."
      "I know, I thought you might enjoy it." She caressed the back of his hand.
      "We, the Azov horde as many called us, didn't have chores like that, although I was never overly fond of my riding lessons or my lessons in the salle."
      "Let me guess, you would have much rather been ensconced in the library with a book."
      "Yes, exactly." He smiled. "Although for good behavior Arkay would often bribe me with ones from his library. Books are quite precious here, as we do not allow paper technology above."
      At first the restriction made her cringe. Then the question 'Why not?' died on her tongue at Sevrin's shrinking from her reaction. "It isn't so there is too much temptation for the renSimes to read, is it?"
      "That is one reason, the other is it is a messy process which would produce a great deal of waste." He smiled and his relief at her thinking reaction made her more than a bit ashamed at her earlier attacks. "People waste a great deal of paper if it is available, the resources and energy which go into making it are also quite wasteful. Besides, without large quantities of paper, there are no forms in triplicate to fill out." He tweaked her nose.
      "You have me there, Sevrin." She smiled broadly. "The number of times I've cursed paperwork are countless."
      "I know." He caressed her face again. "We have plenty of parchment to write down the things which must be remembered in text, but no mass production of texts. It forces people to talk to each other, rather than going to a book. There are hundreds of reasons we don't have paper Vanesa. There are reasons for many of the things we do which seem strange or primitive. Give us a chance. All we ask is that ..."
      She put her finger on his lips. "I know, you only want to be left alone."
      "Yes" He sighed. "That is all."
     
      Such a simple thing, but so hard to implement. Sevrin thought of the ultimate goal of the entire campaign against the Techton. Truly it was a fantastic thing to attempt, to win a war between great powers by peaceful means, but the will to do such a thing was exhausting on both body and soul. Particularly when one of the opponents must never know they had been attacked.
      At first Sevrin had thought of Vanesa as a mere pawn on the enormous chessboard of the world. A figure to be set aside after her usefulness was ended. Only later did he realize she was actually the queen, with strengths not unlike his own. But would my little queen ever desire to allow another to share her keep? Sevrin doubted it. Much as he found himself smitten with the fascinating young woman he held under his arm, he knew, quite well, there was no way either of them could bend enough to make a life between them.
      He heard the crowd shift again. Straightening up, he let his hand fall to Vanesa's shoulder. He couldn't tell her expressions from there, but it was certainly less obvious that there was something wrong with him than to continually caress her face. The rest of the crowd fell back. Sevrin barred Vanesa from doing the same.
      Vayer's hand must have brushed the hilt of his sword by the metal of his rings clicking against the wire wound hilt. He and Darya were in front of himself and Vanesa. The bells struck midnight. Everyone gasped, and Vanesa flinched back.
      "What is it?" He asked under his breath.
      "The Veiled one appeared on the steps, out of nowhere."
      "I know, I felt the energy shift. Why is everyone so excited?" For there was a low rumble through the crowd.
      "Because he's, well, he's obviously not normal."
      "Who did they send?" Sevrin tried to sense the presence on the stairs, but there was too much clutter. "Who?"
      "It is the time of the midnight son. The twin has suckled twins and the time for peace is nigh." A voice Sevrin never thought to hear again proclaimed with the overtones of all the Veiled acting as one. Involuntarily, his heart reached out for that unity again, only to be brushed aside like a gnat. "Come forth and be judged, he who was the son of the Daughter of the Prophet and born to be the wielder of the banner of Peace."
      Vayer's bootheels rang on the paving stones, with Darya's smooth soled shoes marking a hushed whisper at his side. "I stand before your judgement Veiled one. I, Lord and Ruler Vayer Arkayevich Fatima come before you, entirely sound of body and mind to accept your justice as you see fit."
      "Thou are no longer Vayer Fatima but Vayer Mir, father and creator of Mir, reborn from the ashes of the mother of God. Maryam has well served her great time and purpose. She shall be remembered forevermore in the Way of the Rus. How shall Mir be remembered?" Master Tzakiran asked.
      "By being the cradle and banner of the greatest era of peace this world has ever known. In the name of peace, I give you, my fellow children of Rodina, the bond between east and west, not in swords or spears, but in the life of a child." Vayer's voice rang true and clear above the crowd. Vanesa gasped. Her body quivered until Sevrin's fingertips. "Kaon's children, by Fatima and Mir, shall be a symbol of life renewed and everlasting between our peoples."
      "How shall Rodina repay Kaon for this great gift?" Tzakiran called out.
      "By the eternal bonds of kinship and blood unspilled embodied in my brother, the Sharm Lord Sevrin Azovich Kaon!" Vayer shouted. The crowd roared in delight and wonder. Damn you to hell, Vayer Arkayevich! Sevrin swore as he caught Vanesa's fainting body before it hit the paving stones.
     
      Vayer walked right into the middle of one of the most spectacular fights he had ever had the misfortune to witness.
      "How do you think it makes me feel, Sevrin?" Vanesa snarled. "To be auctioned off like some sort of mystical broodmare in front of half a country."
      "He sold me off like some kind of 'prime kill' to use the Techton term." Sevrin stormed. "I'm not a selyn generator to be sold to the highest bidder like an animal."
      "How could you do that to your own brother, Vayer?" Vanesa turned on him. "He's a living, breathing human being."
      "How dare you force Vanesa to accept me into Kaon without so much as a 'by your leave'." Sevrin joined in. "Her position as Sectuib is as valid as any Lord of a Demense."
      "I thought you would both like to know Master Tzakiran should survive tonight's little display of bad temper on your part, Sevrin." Vayer glared at both of them.
      "What?" Sevrin asked, hands and arms still blazing with his fury.
      "It was all your fault, Vayer." Vanesa accused.
      "Hardly." He scoffed, driving their emotions even higher before they had a chance to think. "You pledged yourselves to each other before the Ruler of the Demense."
      "Those laws no longer hold, Vayer." Sevrin snarled.
      "They do if I chose to make them hold." Vayer smiled, letting his fangs show. "You exchanged the earring and the bracelet, in front of me. That makes it as binding under law as any ceremony before the entire court."
      "Why did you let him do it, Sevrin?" Vanesa shouted. "I didn't know."
      "And I helped Sevrin forget." Vayer smiled even more broadly. "Mir is now the sole access point between Rodina and the West. If Kaon wishes to deal with Rodina, she must go through me."
      "Damn you rot within the feathers of Azrael's black wings for eternity, Vayer!" Sevrin shouted and smashed at him with what would have been a killing blow if Vayer had not been entirely prepared for it. "How could you do this to us?"
      Spectacular Vayer blinked at the sparks raining down around him from the strike. Of course the curse was rather well done also. "Easily, I wanted to and I had the power to." Vayer stepped forward, not having to feign all of his annoyance with his brother. The strike against Master Tzakiran had been entirely uncalled for. "Now you listen to me, Sevrin, and you as well Vanesa. I am Lord and Ruler here, no matter how rarely I use the power. I have said you, Sevrin, will go with Vanesa this winter to her home and stay there. Beyond that, I don't care. If you chose to become one of the Techton Donors and grovel beneath the heel of every single channel in the West, that is your business.
      "I would prefer it if you two learned to get along. You are far better suited to each other than any other matched pair I've ever zlinned in my life, but if you continue to choose to be miserable about life, that certainly isn't my fault."
      "We aren't a matched pair." Sevrin looked at Vanesa, startled.
      "He isn't my lortuen mate." Vanesa looked at Sevrin.
      "The only pair who are closer are Arkay and Nashen. Now get used to being together or not, as you choose, but hear me out." Vayer glared at them. This is getting really hard to keep up, so I better cut it short. "As soon as Vanesa's anti-kill is removed, you will be within seconds of each other over the course of the month. You would both be absolute fools to keep picking at each other out of spite because I was the one who tied you together. If you're going to be throwing away something many people never have the chance to even taste, much less live, I don't want to hear about. Wait until you get back to the West before you do it." And with that, Vayer did the bravest thing yet. He turned his back on both of them and walked out. As he slammed the door behind himself, it rocked with a shattering blast of energy strong enough to make his hair stand on end. "Goodness." He looked backwards.
      "I would say." Diomid blinked in surprise. "I would also say you got your little brother a bit riled up."
      "I wouldn't." Vayer blinked at another massive blow against the door. "I would say I infuriated him, both of them, actually."

Chapter 21

      "Sevrin, stop." Vanesa shouted, hoping to be heard above Sevrin's murderous fury.
      "Why?" He snarled, aiming another of those blows at the door. It ratttled on its hinges, but held firm.
      "Because I don't want you to give Vayer the satisfaction of having won." Vanesa glared at the door. "If we go out there, together, after his hide, he'll have won."
      "You're right." Sevrin's voice still rang with fury. "Do you have any ideas?"
      "Yes, I think I do." Her eyes narrowed in thought. "Vayer thinks he can force us together by making us both so furious with him at the same time we work together."
      Sevrin nodded yes, crossing his arms over his chest. The gesture, with his forearms rubbing together, made her heart pound even faster, but she quashed her body's reaction before it could get out of control again. I'm not letting some barbarian tell me how to run Kaon or my love life.
      "Then here is what we do ..."
     
      Vanesa fanned herself as she sat beneath a great spreading oak tree. The second day of midsummer festival was much quieter than the first. A rather scruffy child came up and offered her a tall mug of what smelled like fruit juice. She reached for her money. The child shook her head. "It's from m'Lord Mir." She pointed. Vayer was smiled at both of them, looking far too splendid in his midnight blue for Vanesa's peace of mind.
      "Then this is for you." Vanesa pressed a tiny silver coin in the urchin's hand. It was worth far more than the drink.
      "Thank ye, m'lord, thank ye." She ducked her head and scurried away.
      "You didn't have to pay her." Vayer said as he walked up.
      "I did it for the child."
      "Then she got the best of both of us." Vayer grinned wryly, although the tension in him sang on Vanesa's nerves. "Where's Sevrin?"
      "Oh, about somewhere." Vanesa shrugged and took a sip of her drink, reinforcing the image she could care less where he was. The drink was sweet and tart at the same time, with almost a hint of flowers. "This is quite good, thank you." She kept her voice and field soft, as if she really didn't want to throttle this blue eyed mischief maker standing in front of her.
      "You are quite welcome, Vanesa." He made a sweeping bow, tentacles and all. "If I sit next to you, would you hit me?" His grin tried to turn it into a jest, but his braced field spoke volumes.
      "No, not at all." Her lack of resistance made him stumble nagerically, again. This is almost fun. "Please do."
      I don't remember saying you could put your arm around my shoulders though. Vanesa had to hold back the sudden urge to squirm away. It was quite a warm day out, and Vayer's warmth only made it worse.
      "I'm surprised you're not still mad at me." Like shen I'm not. she kept the thought under the tightest wraps imaginable.
      "Oh, Sevrin and I talked about everything for quite a while last night." She forced herself to cuddle up to Vayer's over warm presence. "We finally decided you were right. He'll be coming back with me to Kaon and then going on to work for the Techton." Vayer made a choking sound. "There are a number of firsts who would probably love to have him on their transfer cards." Take that, Lord 'I know what's best for everyone'.
      "He won't be with you?" Vayer's field was in such turmoil, Vanesa was surprise he could form a complete sentence.
      "I decided it wasn't worth the risk to try to remove my anti-kill conditioning." She shrugged again. "I'm better off with it, any ways." Yes, like the moon really is made of green cheese. She and Sevrin had spent over an hour last night going over all the health problems associated with blocking off any part of someone's selyn system. The problems ranged from Ferris type allergies, to severe heart damage. The risks were particularly acute for females because of the stresses of child bearing.
      "How can you say that?" Vayer took her hands in his. "If there's any way at all ..."
      "No, I'm safer with it." She squeezed his hands gently, rather than squashing them as she would have preferred. "Sevrin says there's probably a way to clear it, but I didn't want to bother." And therein lies the other reason for all of these stable sweepings.
     
      Sevrin knew Vanesa was canny, but this scheme was a work of art. Freedom He breathed within his mind. The freedom to visit unknown places, the freedom to wake and sleep when he wanted to, the freedom to laugh or sing or dance or cry as he wished, without concern for someone else being annoyed or irritated by it. The very thought was more intoxicating than the strongest starka.
      He schooled his mind and his field to peace. Sevrin knocked on the door.
      "Come in, Slopye." The hated name made him cringe inside, but he quashed the reaction before it could escape and be sensed.
      "At you will, Master." He knelt at the man's bedside, useless eyes lowered in subservience.
      "Be well, Slopye." The beloved/hated voice told him.
      "I was concerned for you, my Master."
      "Your master no longer." The low rumbling voice told him. "Young Vayer stole you out from under our noses." As if you hadn't proclaimed me forsworn. Sevrin thought to himself.
      "Not for a number of months." He put on a hopeful look and raised his eyes.
      "Thee are as transparent as glass, Slopye." Tzakiran's words almost made Sevrin's heart stop, then he went on. "Thee are welcome to rejoin us until thee must leave for good."
      "I would only dare ask for a single month." He focused his will on his tightly clenched hands.
      "Nay, stay with us until the equinox. I think thee should spend some time with thy new Lord before thee tries to deal with her world."
      "At your will, Master Tzakiran." Sevrin bowed with his forehead touching the stone floor. Perfect. He gloated in the very inner reaches of his mind.
     
      Vayer was dreadfully confused. He had expected Vanesa to rail and fume at him like a demon. "Isn't it adorable." She pointed at a trained monkey taking coins from the audience of a puppet show.
      She's as adorable as a Rakshasa. Vayer knew something was up, but could not place it. With Vanesa it could be anything and she had no great reason to be kind to him at the moment. "Come with me." He heard the haunting introduction to one of his favorite pieces of music. It was not a piece many knew, but he had always been very fond of it.
      "Anywhere." She simpered. Vayer wouldn't have thought Vanesa could have done any such thing. The she gave him one of her gamin grins. "Practicing flirting with everyone but my husband." The words burned like acid until Vayer remembered Vanesa's often harsh wit. He laughed weakly, hoping she was kidding.
      "Got ye, m'Lord." She winked.
      "Indeed you did." He tried to shake of his sense of unease over Vanesa's barbed wit. Finally he tracked down the harpist.
      He had already gathered quite a crowd and not a few coins in his hat. His exquisite voice was like liquid amber, shimmering and warmer than even the rich sunlight. A single bracelet twined about his wrist, shifting with each movement of his fingertips and making his field glitter around it.
      The English of the song was archaic and probably not understood by most of the crowd, but Vayer knew the song quite well. Although the musician's nager displayed the meaning without words being necessary as anything other than a vehicle for his voice.
     
      "Alas my love you do me wrong
      To cast me off so discourteously
      And I have loved you oh so long
      Delighting in your company.
     
      Greensleeves was my delight
      Greensleeves my heart of gold
      Greensleeves was my heart of joy
      And who but my Lady Greensleeves."
     
      "Thank you gentles all." The man said after the last silence at the end of the song had passed. "My hat overflows with your generosity." He made a show of trying to peer through his veil. "Or at least I hope it does." His remark was rewarded by yet another shower of coins, with not a pin in the lot.
      "Now for something a bit less cheerful." Strong fingers caressed the strings into an eerie minor key. More and more people came to sit at the man's feet, although none came between Vayer and the harpist. The small lap harp he played was worn with years of use and ill suited to the darkness of the music, but the harpist's skill was such it was hardly noticeable. Something about the instrument itself teased at Vayer's memory.
     
      "Till summer's sky fades into night
      My love will bide yet at your side
      Till winter's night fades into light
      My love will bide yet by thy side.
     
      Dream of me truly in that night
      Love with me only for one night
      Drink of my mead with love's delight
      Die with me here for love's delight."
     
      The harpist let the strings fall silent of their own accord. Even the leaves of the trees overhead seemed to fall silent. The crowd was still. Even the many coins were muted in the musician's hat. Vayer walked forward and let fall a handful of gold to join the silver and copper. "Gold, for the color of my brother's hair."
      "Your brother Sevrin is dead, my Lord and Ruler."
      "Not so long as I breathe, Master Harpist."
      "Sevrin is no more, only Slopye remains."
      Now Vayer recognized the instrument. It had been his mothers. It was the one which she had given Sevrin.
      "Until the fall, Lord and Ruler Vayer Arkayevich."
     
      Vanesa thought Sevrin had been a bit too harsh with his brother. Vayer turned back to her, eyes grey and dead. He walked past her, as if he didn't see her. True Sevrin had gotten the message through that he would return before the equinox, but his cruelty in baiting Vayer had been entirely uncalled for. Sevrin's hand flicked across the strings, a chord of regret and sorrow. All of our tempers are a bit too sharp at times. She nodded to him and left to track down Vayer.
      "No more, Vanesa." Vayer looked up from his huddle in the corner of one of the pavilions. "No more. I can't take your biting wit or cruel tongue any longer. Leave me alone." He put his tear stained face back in his hands. Darya glared up at her from his side.
      "Haven't you done enough, Vanesa?" Darya asked, her dark field roiling with hatred. "You've broken his heart, you and Sevrin. All he ever wanted was your happiness and perhaps a little consideration. He's given both of you everything humanly possible. He gave you the chance to be free, together. He even gave you a child, free and clear, both of you. Now this." She held Vayer in her arms, rocking him as she would a child. "Go away, your world is too bitter and cruel for us."
      "I'm sorry." She wept, wishing she could do something to apologize. "You're right, Darya. I, we, were wrong." Vanesa turned and left them. Blinded by tears, she looked up at the great towering form of the cathedral. Gold and gem bright colors glittered in a kaleidoscope of shattered light. Her feet took her into the darkened interior. Candles gleamed in front of painted icons. The echoes of her bootheels were hollow and distant in the immense room.
      As if in a dream, she walked forward towards the altar. The sweet scents surrounding her only made her cry more. She fingered the string of myrrh beads, releasing their scent to mingle with the others. Even through her sniffles, the perfumes were heady and strong. Finally she knelt before the great, gleaming altar with its alien winged figures seeming to promise her fantastic joys beyond any the world could ever know.
      "You shall know this world of beauty and laughter, little one." She told her daughter. "I am far to worn to ever find such joy in servitude." Vanesa raised her face to the light streaming in from behind the altar. A captive sun seemed to shine down on her, bathing her in a promise of a better future.
      "No, this place is not mine." Thoughts of the dingy meanness of even the most fanciful artworks of the West wrenched at her heart. "And never will be."
     
      "What have you done to her?" Riana stormed in, trailed by Arkay and Nashen. "What have you done?"
      "I have no idea what you're talking about, Riana." Diomid said, with a sinking feeling in his heart.
      "She's gone." Riana waved a sheet of parchment in the air. "Kaon requires her presence, if not all the time, at least eventually."
      "What is that you are waiving about?" He walked forward, waving back his court with his field.
      "A note." She snarled, glaring up at him.
      "Let me." He held out his hand. Riana gave it to him, but as he looked into Arkay and Nashen's faces, he knew he would not like what it had to say.
     
      "We have taken the one known as Vanesa Kaon for healing.
     
      Master Tzakiran for the Veiled."
     
      The parchment drifted to the tiles, a cream accusation of failure amidst the pure white marble.

Chapter 22

      It was harder to return to the Veil than Sevrin ever dreamed it could be. His attention wandered from the charts and notes he had made only days before with an irritating insistence on returning to trivial issues. Although he finally got to review both Vanesa's and Riana's gene charts.
      They were absolutely fascinating, both the larity-sex linkage in the family, as well as an entire array of plieotropic genes he had never known could exist. Mikhail had not displayed anywhere near as elaborate a confluence of traits, although from his studies, Sevrin knew much of that was because of the sex linkage in the line.
      Sergei shared many of the sex linked traits, but in a far cleaner form. It was a very good thing neither of them desired Diomid for their child. As Diomid could never sire a healthy daughter or a Sime. Working his way through the rather arcane math, Sevrin finally managed to loose himself in his work again. Tracing and splicing in his mind, he held the arrays of thousands of genes clearly in his head, interweaving them in an echo of life itself.
      His mind pulled in other charts, comparing them and linking them up in an even more dizzying array of probabilities. Three, four, five, finally ten and fifteen charts arrayed themselves in his mind, all of them with thousands of genes each. He ate and drank without being aware he did so. Freed of the necessity to visualize his manipulations, Sevrin accomplished the work it had taken the ancients tremendous computers and hundreds of thousands of man hours in less than a day.
      The result was even more astonishing. Sevrin ran his fingers over the completed calculations, not quite believing them himself. "Someone has tinkered with the shenned gene charts!" He snarled, heading for Master Tzakiran's office.
     
      Vanesa awoke to absolute darkness. Her eyes were sore with the tears she had shed. An emptiness filled her heart with a longing for any contact with another human being. A hard, slick surface supported her head. She was warm enough, but still a chill caught her by surprise and she shivered.
      A heartbeat, her own, echoed in the tiny room. Vanesa caressed the bright presence of her daughter, again amazed at the life she held beneath her heart. The solitude began to calm her, as she sat up and zlinned around. The walls absorbed her contact, only telling her the size of her confinement. A single table holding one of the ubiquitous baskets of fruit and bread was the only other furnishing in the room other than the shelf she had been sleeping on.
      She stood, and immediately had to use the restroom. There was a sense of emptiness beyond a curtain. A sink, a basin and a very simple, tiny shower was tucked into a hardly larger room. Silence echoed in the darkness. Disturbed, Vanesa finally thought to wave up the lights. Nothing happened. The darkness mocked her, even as she felt the tiny catch of the light sensors against her fingertips.
      "What is going on?" She asked, and the room simply reflected the sound of her own voice, turning it into harsh, incoherent echoes. Her stomach growled, reminding her it had been a long time since she had eaten. Days as a matter of fact. "I shouldn't be hungry after turnover." She stared around the room, laterals straining for any hint of the Donor supporting her enough to all her to feel hungry in need. But there was no one, only the soft darkness and the sense of her own heartbeat.
      "They're going to have to do something before I hit hard need." Vanesa reminded herself, hoping this was not intended to be a death sentence for her daughter. She reached into the basket and found some cheese as well as the bread and fruit. Exactly what Vanesa had come to learn these people considered an entire meal. As she nibbled on a juicy, very ripe peach, she spotted a book on the table.
      "That hadn't been there before." She glared at it. Careful not to drip on the artifact, Vanesa opened it. A sheet of parchment drifted out. Vanesa caught it in her free hand.
     
      "Do not fear for your daughter. You will both be well cared for until it comes time for you to be separate. Read, eat, sleep as you please. No one will bother you in your confinement. Be welcomed into the very heart of Rodina's restful womb.
      Master Tzakiran for the Veiled."
     
      "I did ask for peace." She told the room. "But this is a bit much." Vanesa's sigh echoed with all of her annoyance. Finally giving in, she began to read the book by the light of her own field. "This is going to become far more difficult really soon." She muttered. Then she fell into the tale of great heroes of the past, battling impossible odds to win their lady love. "This is what is considered valuable enough to be written onto parchment?"
      But soon realized this was no sharm tale, but rather a very skillfully written history, with names and places she had heard Darya and Arkay mention in their interminable discussion of Russian history. Fascinated, the hours passed like minutes, and then entire days, as history after history appeared on her tiny table.
      Even need faded into the background until one day she woke feeling fulfilled and rested. Fresh selyn coursed through her system. "They have even freed me of even that one thing." Vanesa spoke in awe. Certainly she was post, but not with any great emotional upheaval, but simply contentment and well being. Even entran was banished by the skillful echoes teasing her fields smooth before they could knot into painful cramps.
      For some reason she cried, fingering the strand of beads around her neck. Even with all her body's wishes fulfilled, there was still an emptiness in her heart. Sevrin's exquisitely beautiful face appeared in her mind, with his mocking smile now soft and caring. "No, that is not him." She shook her head and returned to her reading, now sharing the story with her daughter by reading aloud in the echoing room. Eventually she even forgot him, freed of both wants and desires.
     
      No, the gene codes hadn't been tinkered with. Sevrin was a close to a perfect match to Vanesa as any he had ever examined. He sat in his tiny room, wishing with all his heart he could call to her. It had been months since they had parted, nearly three, long, lonely months. He hadn't truly know what it was to be alone until he had met her.
      Tomorrow he would return above, but he didn't know if she would be there. The unity of the Veiled had lost her, lost her to an echoing darkness like those who had been entombed in stone for eternity. Only her child shone in the web of warmth uniting all of those who lived here below. His fingers stroked the smooth sandalwood beads she had given him, paid for with her very life.
      A child's howl of discontent shattered the web. Her first breath cried out for a life as strong as any Sevrin had ever heard. *I am for you, littlest one.* He caressed the brilliant spark of life with his mind, leaping to his feet.
      The door opened and now the cry was physical and present. "Vanesa." He shouted, leaping forward.
      "No, she is gone behind the Veil, Sevrin." Master Tzakiran's voice was heavy with grief. "Her daughter cries for you."
      "NO!" Sevrin wailed, as outraged as the tiny infant. "She can't be." But still he held out his arms. A tiny, tiny child was placed in them, swaddled tightly in the softest blankets he had ever felt. He caressed the perfect little face, her skin so very soft and fragile beneath his grief clumsy fingertips. "Did Vanesa name her?"
      "Yes, Sivaya." Tzakiran's voice broke. "Take her to Darya. She will be able to feed her."
      "At your will, Master Tzakiran." Sevrin spoke the words for the last time in his life.
     
      Riana looked up from the beadwork Vayer was showing her. They were large, thick beads, well suited to a child's tiny hand. Sevrin stood before them. His face was twisted with unutterable grief. In his arms was a newborn. He fell to his knees, still holding the child safely.
      She and Vayer ran forward. Darya had given birth to Visarin yesterday, after a very easy delivery, but had pleaded exhaustion to be able to spend more time with him. Sevrin's wracking sobs carried through the now silent room with horrifying clarity.
      "Vanesa?" Riana had to ask.
      "Gone." Sevrin said, handing Vayer the infant. With that he crumpled completely, crying his loss and sorrow beyond any consolation.
      "You have to stay for her daughter, Sevrin. Don't abandon both of them." Vayer cried. "Don't leave us too."
      Sevrin looked up at them, unseeing eyes black with grief. "Until change over." He promised.
      "No, Vayer." Riana said, looking at the brothers. "Let him go if he chooses."
      "I would be with her." Sevrin's gorgeous voice shattered beyond recognition.
      "Then go." Vayer cried, holding the infant. "I would not hold you two apart."
      "I love you, my brother. Be well. Take care of Sivaya for us." Sevrin said, and then his heart stopped, freeing him to be with his beloved Vanesa, for eternity.
      "I love you beyond words, Sevrin. Be free." Vayer said, holding their child in his arms and weeping as if he would never stop.
      "No" Tzakiran snarled, reaching for all the power and strength he possessed as the Master of the Veiled. Time itself warped and twisted at their command. "Watch, Vanesa." He stood before her, holding the image of Sevrin's death in his hand.
      "It can't be true." She reached for the light. "No, not Sevrin. Not for me."
      "He cared Vanesa, deeply and truly. You thought to abandon him." Tzakiran panted as he struggled to keep Sevrin's spirit from escaping.
      "No, I thought to give him his freedom, it was his choice." She wailed trying to touch the figure he held in his hand. "He chose to be alone so he could do what he wanted. He was going to free me as well, we made a deal."
      "You made a deal with hell, Vanesa and now your lover lies dying." Tzakiran felt himself grey out as he poured more and more power into holding Sevrin back. "You have now tasted the ultimate freedom here in this room of no responsibilities and no consequences, choose Vanesa, one last time. Will you take up your chains or continue to live free?"

     
      "I choose chains." Vanesa shouted, betraying every thing she had ever believed for one single moment more with her beloved. There was a flash of blinding light. Her abused and still protesting stomach muscles locked in wracking nausea. Then her vision cleared. "Sevrin, my Sevrin." She clutched him to her chest, reaching for any trace of life. His field and heart were still beneath her own.
      "Like this." Vayer said suddenly. Vanesa looked up to see him hand an infant to her sister. A hammer blow of sheer power struck Sevrin in the chest. The flash over made her own hands tingle where they rested on his wrists. "Yes, do it." Vayer shouted as she grabbed at them with her tentacles. "Now!" He told her and another of those incredible blows struck at Sevrin's chest, at the same instant she made the fifth contact and drew. She yanked the fire hot selyn through Sevrin's body, forcing the channels to work.
      "Shen it," Vayer snarled, "Again. This time put some roniplin into it, Vanesa." Vayer struck again, this time Vanesa pulled with all her might. Selyn flared and then slowed to a trickle of energy draining into the tiles beneath them. With all her heart and soul, she pulled at it, willing Sevrin to respond.
      At first she only thought she imagined it, and then a dam burst loose inside her mind. Energy rushed into her, filling the darkness of need with a fire she had never imagined. Faster and even hotter it searched for release. Overwhelmed, she resisted.
      "NO!" Vayer screamed, "Do it!"
      His cry of agony, in a voice so very much like Sevrin's, broke down her resistance and she yielded to the questing fire. It spilled over into pathways starved and shriveled with denial. Pain cascaded into agony. Vanesa screamed into the white hot blaze of energy ravishing her body. Then it transmuted into ecstacy, bathing her entire being in a pleasure she had never once dreamed existing. Her cries turned to triumph as Sevrin's mind wrapped hers in a love beyond any price, of freedom or of chains.

Afterwards:

      Sevrin awoke. This very fact was more than a touch startling. His chest hurt as if someone had been pounding on it with a sledgehammer. This fact informed him he was probably alive. A baby's cry brought him fully awake. He tried to turn away, only to breathe in a mouthful of hair. He snorted.
      The scents of myrrh and lavender combined only to remind him of ... "Vanesa?"
      "Yes, my beloved."
      "You're alive." He breathed, clutching at her, trying to touch all of her body at the same time. His hands flickered over her now slender flanks and they twitched.
      "Yes, and being tickled." Her voice was lighter than he had ever heard it. "By my mate."
      The air was cold and dry. "Where are we?" The ground was farther away than he could have ever imagined and shifting beneath them with a speed he could barely comprehend.
      "On our way back." She said softly. "Vayer decided it would be best if we went home. You nearly died, Sevrin."
      "I was told you had." He caressed her face with his hand.
      "The Veiled gave me absolute freedom. There was nothing I wanted which was not given to me, in one way or another. It was the most uncanny, unnerving experience of my life." She shivered briefly. "I have to feed our daughter."
      "I want to hold her too." He said, gently caressing Vanesa's hands as she took Sivaya in her arms and put her to the breast. Sevrin wrapped his arms around both of them, feeling the brilliant life awaken in Sivaya as she suckled greedily.
      "Well, after you tried to kill yourself, Tzakiran came to me and gave me a choice, to remain free or take up my chains." Her voice trembled.
      "And you chose to give up your freedom." He said in wonder. "Why? It was the most precious thing in the world to you."
      "It had been." She shook her head and stroked Sivaya's face with a fingertip. "I realized that absolute freedom had a price I was not willing to pay. I couldn't go on without you or our daughter."
      "But you gave her up first." He had to know.
      "Yes, that is the way you are, Sevrin." Her soft chuckle called to the strings she had wrapped so neatly about his heart. "I could leave her, knowing she was cared for and loved by another, but I couldn't leave you to die."
      "Then I blackmailed you." He grimaced. "I had no intent to do so. I only wished to be with you."
      "I know, Sevrin, beloved." She caressed his ever questing hands. "But no freedom, even ideal freedom, was worth that cost."
     
      Fortunately, no one had been warned in advance of their arrival. "I'll have someone come pick up our things." Vanesa looked at the pair of harps which had shared their accommodations on the way over.
      "What things?" Sevrin asked, breathing deeply of the morning air as the walked down the stairs.
      "Your brother managed to, somehow, get his hands on what have to be your harps. I recognize the smaller one when I zlinned through the case, but the other has to be yours as well. It certainly isn't mine." She turned to see him bolt back up the stairs.
      His head turned in that way he had when he was scanning his environment. Slowly, he walked towards them. Reverently, with a fantastic smile, he slid his hands over the plain wood case of the smaller harp. "Yes, this is mine." Then his face turned toward the other. "This one isn't." His field hardened.
      "What?" She asked.
      Instead he lifted the cover and ran his hand over the elaborately gilt and ornamented arch supporting the strings. "This was Avilan's." He breathed. "I can't believe it." He delicately brushed the strings. Even detuned for travel, Vanesa could hear the incredible tone of the instrument.
      "There's a note." Vanesa spied the curl of parchment twined between the longest strings. Sevrin's fingers read it.
      "It's from my father, he says since Karola's harp has been with me for all these many years, he wanted his to get in on my playing as well." The note sounded so much like Avilan Vanesa had to smile.
      "Are you two going to stand around in this tin box ... Oh my." Danyel's normally rather ebullient voice trailed off to a hushed whisper. "That, is no shiltpron."
      "No, it isn't." Sevrin turned and faced the young channel, putting on his best, 'I'm a twit' face. Vanesa headed him off before he could get in too much trouble.
      "Danyel, this is ..." Or at least she tried.
      "I don't care." Danyel stepped forward, letting his hand trace over the large harp, zlinning it for all he was worth. "She is fantastic."
      "Yes." Sevrin's stiff neck bent. "I'll be tuning her this evening if you would like to hear her played."
      "I'm willing to help." Danyel grinned, looking up at Sevrin.
      "Don't think I won't take you up on your offer." He sighed. "Much as I love the harp as an instrument, there are times, like when one has to be tuned, I really wish I had chosen to play another instrument, say a guitar."
      "I can understand that." Danyel laughed. "Now, is anyone going to make any introductions?"
      "You were too busy drooling over the harp, Danyel." Vanesa laughed. "The master harpist you're talking with is Sevrin Azovich ..."
      "Ambrav Kaon, your match-mate. I know that much. Who's the little one?" He bubbled on. Then he looked at Sevrin again. Sevrin bristled. "Ow, spiky nager, bad Gen, no haircut."
      This was even too much for Sevrin's reserve and he laughed delightedly, making the ambient thrill with his joy. "Ooh, forget I said that."
      "Mine." Vanesa said sharply.
      "I can zlin." Danyel skipped out of Sevrin's physical reach.
      "Who is this little imp?" Sevrin asked finally.
      "That, my beloved, is Danyel Ferris." Vanesa told him. "Troublemaker, musician, thief, and occasionally even a channel."
      "You wrong me, Sectuib. You truly do." Danyel preened for Sevrin. "She lies."
      "Are you calling my partner a liar?" Sevrin's field danced with amusement.
      "Well, yes. You see, I haven't stolen anything for days." Danyel's Ferris quick nager winked.
      "And I know you aren't going to be tempted to abscond with either of my harps, as you would find yourself hunted to the ends of the earth if you did any such thing." Sevrin said calmly, all the while threatening to hammer Danyel into the floor with his field.
      "Would you please tell him to be careful with that thing?" Danyel shrank away.
      "Please, Sevrin, Ferris' are a bit delicate." She stroked Sevrin's field with her own.
      "You have learned some new tricks." Danyel straightened out his rather faded shirt. Then his eyes narrowed and his field hardened to glass. "You're junct, Sectuib."
      "Yes, I know." She grinned wryly. "And just who are you going to be telling it to?"
      "No one at all." His answer rang with absolute truth. "It is truly none of my business, although any Ferris would zlin the marker."
      "I know, or at least I had been afraid of that." Vanesa grimaced. "Do you have any suggestions?"
      Danyel looked back and forth between them carefully, then he zlinned. "You're now too high up in the First range for anyone other than a Ferris to catch it. You could simply brazen your way through."
      "I don't really want to." She sighed. "I'd rather not take the risk of teaching someone else to want something they can never have."
      "You aren't worried about an accidental kill?" Danyel asked, curiosity at full steam now.
      "No, I'll never have direct transfer with anyone other than Sevrin again in my life." She squirmed her way under his arm. Immediately he caressed her face.
      "I can zlin two problems here now." Danyel's field twined as he thought. "I think it would be best if you had been 'injured' during delivery of the little one you hold in your arms, who you still haven't introduced me to." He glared jokingly.
      "This is Sivaya Miranova ambrav Kaon." Vanesa said proudly, showing off her daughter. Danyel made all kinds of disgusting noises, waking Sivaya up. The little one grabbed one of his tentacles and promptly tried to stuff it in her mouth. Finally Vanesa talked Danyel into letting her nurse. "I get the feeling you like children."
      "Yes, very much so. Although I will never have any of my own if I can help it." He said, sadness dimming his field. "I would not curse a child with being Ferris."
      "Then you can help us, with ours." Vanesa told him.
      "Ours?" Sevrin's field danced like a skittish horse.
      "Yes, ours." She elbowed him in the ribs. "Sivaya is ours, and I would expect at least one other, eventually."
      *Later* Sevrin sent, full of outraged dignity.
      *Exactly what I said, in a few years or so.* She sent back with a snap of command.
     
      Vanesa's 'injury' might have limited her from working as a channel, but her other work took up far too much of her time, at least in Sevrin's opinion. "And that's final." She snarled, slamming the door behind her.
      "What is it, sweet?" He left of his idle playing.
      "There's just so much to do and so little time to do it in." She came and sat at his feet. "The only reason I get any time off at all is because I have to nurse Sivaya."
      "I hope you're going to be able to get the time for our transfer." He tried not to sound as worried as he felt. Butterflies were already gathering in his stomach at the thought. I've never done this before. All the transfers he had so far were with someone right at hand if something went wrong, and never with a Sime he couldn't simply pull away from.
      "You're worried." Vanesa said. "Why?"
      "Because, well, I don't know if I will be able to keep from hurting you." He said shyly, teasing an odd, tremulous chord from the harp between his knees.
      "We have another week." She rested her head on his knee. "I just don't know how much of that time I'll be able to spend with you."
      "You're running yourself ragged, love." He caressed her with his field. "I worry about that too."
      "If I only had another five bookkeepers, I'd have more than enough time." She growled.
      "That's an easy problem to solve." Sevrin snorted. "Double entry?"
      "Well, yes." He could sense her confusion.
      "Get me a lord who can augment continually to do the writing, and I'll do it." He chuckled at her disbelief. "I can't write, love, but I can read and I can correlate data far faster than any normal human. I used to do the work of a whole army of bookkeepers on a daily basis. I'm going mad with so little to occupy my mind."
      "I'll show you a new little tool you are going to love."
     
      The new computers were selyn driven. Sevrin wrapped his field around and through the circuitry curiously. It was a very crude simulacra of the devices he had used as one of the veiled, but he could manipulate it directly. It was also wonderful. He felt his field tremble.
      "Can you use this beastie?" Vanesa asked, after having shooed the normal operators out of the room.
      "Oh my, yes." He threaded his way through the device, calling up the records he was looking for. Delicately, he asked the machine to display it on the glass and plastic screen in front of Vanesa. She gasped. As fast as thought, he sorted through the files. Information fed his voracious mind. Twenty centimeters of paper records lay at his hand. He scanned through them, feeding more data into the computer.
      "Any more?" He asked impishly, pointing towards the output.
      "We have room fulls of these records to be input and correlated." Her tentacles caressed his ear. He leaned into the gesture, humming his delight. "It takes most people hours to even input a stack like you just did in minutes."
      "Then let me get to work." He pleaded.
      "You don't have to." She told him.
      "I want to."
     
      Vanesa paced the room nervously. Sevrin was almost late. Her tentacles lashed the air.
      "It's done." He said, walking into the room.
      "All of it?" She turned to him, drinking in the incredible richness of his field.
      "Yes, and I found five embezzlers, two crooked gamblers, over a dozen ordinary thieves, three fences, four terminally stupid Kaon merchants and many, many simple errors." His soft chuckle thrummed on her nerves. "Who has been correlating all the Kaon data?"
      "Well, the Sectuib normally." She made a clicking sound with her tongue. "Didn't do too good a job, did I?"
      "Not at all love, it was simply too much information for one normal mind to deal with." His field softened as he came to her, wrapping her in his warmth.
      "And you still don't think of yourself as normal, do you?" She asked, sighing.
      "I'm not, Vanesa." A tremble ran through his field. "I can't see."
      "But you can do my job better than I ever could." She turned her face away from his questing touch.
      "Only because I'm not normal." He told her, his field still soft and gentle. "If I could see, I couldn't do what I do."
      "Truly?" Vanesa thought he was jesting with her again.
      "Truly." He said with the ring of truth. "Because I'm not hampered by having to visualize information, I can manipulate it directly. It was what I did as one of the Veiled."
      "What did you do?" She asked, beginning to believe him.
      "Correlated data, extremely large quantities of it." His hand slipped across her face. "I predicted, mathematically, the outcomes of social manipulations on the highest scale. The consequences of minutiae on society."
      "So Kaon's records really are minuscule compared to what you worked with." Sometimes Sevrin made Vanesa feel entirely too much like an idiot. She knew she wasn't stupid, but compared to him it ...
      "Hush." He interrupted her train of thought. "I can't work with individuals to save my life."
      "Oh" she chuckled. "Like the time Hiklan accidentally cornered you in the computer room?"
      "Yes, exactly." He sighed, and then laughed. "That was a complete lats up."
      "You really didn't have to tell him he had the brains of a turnip and the sense of a cow." Even though the situation was funny now.
      "Yes, well, I tend to speak the truth no matter what." He rubbed his face against her hair. "Such as how very beautiful my mate is."
      "You flatter me." She grinned at him.
      "Remember what I said about speaking the truth?" He chuckled softly.
      "Yes, I do." She caressed his wrist with her fingertips.
      "And to tell you true, I don't know how well I'm going to be able to wait for you tonight." His hand trembled against her cheek. "Your need tugs at my heart with a yearning so strong as to be nearly undeniable."
      "You do quite well with this individual." She let her tentacles come out and stroke through the soft golden hair on the back of his hand.
      "Vanesa." He moaned, sagging against her. His field flared in the wildest display of promise she had ever zlinned, warming the entire room with its heat.
      "Come here, with me, my love." She led him by the fingertips to the nest she had made this afternoon for them in their quarters.
      "There is no bed in here." He had been squirming about on the hard mattresses since he got here.
      "But there is a large pile of soft cushions." She told him.
      "Bless you." He breathed. "I hadn't wanted to complain."
      "But I knew. After featherbeds and down pillows, I didn't much care for sleeping on my old bed either." She drew him downward towards the pillows. His hand reached out to stroke them and he gave her one of those brilliant smiles.
      He sniffed the air. "You stole these from my brother."
      "Yes." She laughed. "Everyone migrated to nests of pillows and blankets after a large party we had here. I think many of your people were mightily offended at the bedding Kaon provided. Even Arkay and Nashen made a nest on about five beds they had strapped together."
      "Arkay is getting quite stiff and sore with age. I wouldn't think he would be up for sleeping on the floor, no matter how well padded." Sevrin said, confirming a number of the things Vanesa had seen.
      "I know, I zlinned it too. I left their room as it is in case they ever return." She wished she could come up with some way to chivy the two of them into living here over the winters.
      "You are a delightful woman, Vanesa." His caress trailed all the way down her arm this time. "I have a small gift for you as well, for afterwards."
      "Other than your delight?" She began to tease loose the laces on his tunic. At first he had complained about having to wear such revealing garments, but the looks he got from people soon changed his tune. Now he even occasionally preened when he spotted someone zlinning him.
      "Other than." His soft, gentle tongue flicked against her unadorned ear as he neatly finished unlacing her robes. "Zlin my harp case."
      She blinked, finally noticing his lap harp was out, resting safely out of harm's way on its stand but its case was still in the room. Zlinning, she found a bottle with two crystal glasses in the case, with ice carefully wrapped so nothing would get wet. The bottle was one of the odd shaped cobalt blue ones, with a bee and a rose imprinted on the wax of the cork.
      "Vayer sent us a second case he found collecting dust in Maryam's cellars." Sevrin kissed her brow.
      "Thank you, my love." She corrected his aim and kissed him fervidly.
      "You do too much of that and I will be taking you like a mad thing." His eyes turned even darker blue. "I want you, Vanesa, I want to know you, I want all of you, heart, soul and mind."
      "As I want you, my beloved Sevrin, I want to feel your selyn course through my nerves, I want to taste the sweetness of your lips against mine, I want the brush of your breath against my skin, I want to feel you within me." Vanesa was proud of herself, she'd practiced that line for hours.
      Sevrin laughed delightedly. "You are my wonderful love, Vanesa, don't change a thing."
      "But I like the pretty words you speak to me." She chuckled. I should have known I couldn't get anything by him.
      "Then I shall speak them to thee with love's sweet tenderness for all our lives to come." His teeth nipped at her ear and she gasped. "Come to me my love, taste with me the fruits of love made mortal in my arms." Lured by Sevrin's beautiful voice and his even sweeter words, Vanesa slid into his warmth as easily as later he slid into hers.

      Vayer held what would probably be the last child Nashen would ever sire. Both he and Arkay were getting more and more worn with every winter which came down on Moskva like the furies of hell. The same aches and pains which had so crippled Vanya Sergei, Arkay and Diomid's father, were now eating at Arkay. Riana smiled up at him, reaching for her daughter.
      "And what shall be her name, Riana ambrav Kaon?" Arkay proclaimed the child healthy, much to the enormous relief of everyone present.
      "Viasha Fatimanova ambrav Kaon." Riana's field shone through her weariness with the incredible brilliance all new mothers had. "Although, there is a tradition I would also like to share with you." Her labor had been far longer than any of them ever liked to see, but she was recovering quite well after having stripped out both Vayer and Nashen almost to their private fields.
      "And that would be?" Arkay's hand trembled slightly as he caressed Nashen's daughter. The swollen joints looked horribly hot and painful to Vayer. Zlinning, they glowed with the ruddy fire of pain so familiar from Vanya Sergei, and Vayer flinched.
      "That the mother of a child also gives the father a gift." Riana winked at Vayer. Vayer had felt far more comfortable with Vanesa's sister after Vanesa's precipitate departure with Sevrin and their daughter.
      "And that would be?" Nashen's field trembled with hope as he stroked Arkay's silvered hair.
      "That you, and Arkay, come live at Kaon over the winters." She said, a tiny smile playing over her lips. "I would give you more years of health to enjoy with your mate, my Lord Fatima."
      "I think Tzer and Mikhail can cope with Fatima over the winters, wouldn't you say, Riana?" Vayer grinned at her from behind Nashen's and Arkay's backs, making a gesture of triumph.
      "Yes, I think that would be an excellent way to ease them into running the Demense all year long." She looked up towards the men now standing at her. "What do you say, m'Lords Fatima?"
      "If you think I am going to reject this chance to go someplace far warmer for the winter than Moskva, you must think I'm mad." Arkay's field lit with joy.
      "Don't I have any say in this?" Nashen teased.
      "No." Arkay said, hugging him. "I would spend all eternity with thee, my love, and any way I can extend my time with thee here on earth, I am going to take with both hands and wring every last moment from."
     
      Vanesa stood at the side of the landing field, after having been warned of her sister's immanent arrival at only the last moment. "Shen" She gasped, looking past Sevrin.
      "What, who?" He turned. "That didn't help. Who are you talking about?"
      "The man with the black lined cape." She tried to hide in Sevrin's field.
      "Yes?" He asked, "Not that your description helps any, Vanesa."
      "Sorry, the one with the completely unstable Nager." He nodded. "That, is a Ferris." She snarled.
      "I've met Danyel." He said, still obviously not understanding. Then Vanesa had a wicked idea.
      "Danyel is not a typical Ferris, he has some sense." Vanesa unbuttoned her blouse. "Hand me Sivaya."
      "Sure." His uncharacteristic lack of reluctance to let go of their daughter for any reason whatsoever told Vanesa just how rattled he was at her upset. The youngster blinked at her for a moment and then latched on as if she were starving. There you go, my wonderful little girl. She stroked the side of Sivaya's face. A look of utter bliss came over her face as she suckled. You are such a wonderful little piglet. Vanesa saw the Ferris, in Zaor blue no less, immediately turn around and leave lest he see a bare breast. She chuckled under her breath.
      "What was that all about?" Sevrin asked, stroking Sivaya as he always did when she was nursing. He said it was because he liked to be able to feel her reactions and Vanesa didn't blame him one bit.
      "He's one of the few people who could read the junct signature on my Nager." Vanesa chortled in glee.
      "Why are you so amused then?" Sevrin asked.
      "Because he's also an incredible prude, like so many Ferris'."
      "You scared him off by nursing Sivaya?" He chuckled.
      "Yes indeed." She laughed. "Tomorrow I will simply have to be a bit indisposed, I'm afraid. Their tempers are amazingly short as well, so it shouldn't be to long before he gives up and goes away."
      Their lives had been horribly circumscribed in some ways, by Vanesa's lack of anti-kill and Sevrin's blindness, but in others it had been wonderfully free, with days of love and laughter with their daughter and Vanesa being able to put all her attentions on Kaon. She would never function as a Techton channel again in her life, but being able to focus all her energies on her family and Kaon were more than a fair trade. So were her nights discovering just how sensitive Sevrin's hands, lips and tongue were.
      "Look" Sevrin pointed. Vanesa turned her attention from Sivaya to zlin her sister coming down the ramp. "No, inside the plane." Then she zlinned the two men and let out a whoop of glee. Sivaya started.
      "No teeth, little one." She really didn't have any yet, but Vanesa did not want her to get any bad habits. The annoying Ferris had fled, probably to deal with his allergies, so she convinced Sivaya her snack was over with.
      "It's all right." Arkay called out. "Go ahead and let her eat."
      Of course he could care less. Vanesa noted. Taking advantage of the interruption, she shifted her daughter to the other breast.
      "We're moving as fast as we can." Nashen yelled.
      "Hardly." Sevrin shouted back. "I know you."
      "Some people are slower." Nashen's voice lowered as they approached. Riana looked and zlinned fantastic, although from her fields it must have been a difficult delivery.
      "It was, but everyone is fine now." Arkay said. "I see the rumors were right."
      "Yes, I had to be ascended to save Sevrin." Vanesa grinned wryly. "It's been a mixed blessing, to say the least."
      "As are they all, beloved." Sevrin hugged her.
      "What are you two doing here?" Vanesa asked as they walked back to the wing of the old Kaon householding she and Sevrin had taken over for themselves.
      "Your sister gave Nashen a gift." Arkay said. Oh no, now he's doing it.
      "It was a really good one." Nashen said plainly.
      "And what was that gift?" Sevrin joined in.
      "A birthing gift." Nashen said.
      "What kind of birthing gift?" Vanesa gave in and joined in the silliness.
      "A really good one, I told you." Nashen grinned.
      "How good?" Vanesa tried not to sigh.
      "Fantastic." Nashen beamed.
      "How was it good?" Sevrin tried.
      "By being amazingly appropriate." Nashen said. Riana made strangling gestures, hampered by her own daughter nuzzling around looking for breakfast. She rolled her eyes and fumbled with a shawl.
      "Don't worry about it, Riana." Vanesa kissed Sivaya on the forehead. "No one here cares."
      Nashen gave her a skilled hand and soon both youngsters were eating.
      "Now, what, exactly, did Riana give you?" Vanesa tried another tack.
      It worked this time, or maybe Nashen was so distracted by his daughter he forgot to play his little game. "Riana invited Arkay and I to spend the winters here with you." He flicked a tentacle towards Arkay's hands. Vanesa looked down and noted the swollen, stiff joints. Ah. Comprehension dawned.
      "That was a very good gift, although I would have preferred to have been warned first." She told her sister.
      "You aren't going to be upset, are you?" Riana asked.
      "Goodness no, I would have only wanted to throw an even bigger party. I hope Vayer sent along more of that wonderful mead." Vanesa grinned.
      "As he did remember to send both of my harps with me." Sevrin grinned and everyone hurried home.

Below:

      Tzakiran leaned back in his chair with a sigh. His entire body ached now, never letting up on him. Knowing all was well seemed to make it even harder to get going each morning. The Techton had been bound. It would not be coming after anyone else with their fanatics to force their way of life on people who had done no wrong. With Vanesa's anti-kill gone, she had to maintain a low profile, which suited everyone's purposes far better than he would have ever expected.
      His eyes closed. The brilliant love of Sevrin and Vanesa had been a force to seal the fate of entire nations. Even the bonds between Galina and Dorityan, Mikhail and Tzer had only been the prelude to the seal of peace being placed on the ties between nations which were now inviolable. War had been waged and won, by means other than swords and spears. The adamantine chains binding trade partners would now force peaceful resolution on what would have otherwise been bloody enemies to tear the world apart.
      And most would never know it had been done. His life's work done, Master Tzakiran, child of Fatima and leader of the Veiled, slipped into his final rest.