Dreams Less Sweet


Dreams Less Sweet




by



Ann Marie Olson





Story 1999 Ann Marie Olson










CHAPTER 1


      Feeling like everyone was staring at him, Vayer Arkayevich Azov looked down and pushed his noodles around on his plate. He hoped no one would notice he had hardly eaten any of them. Dinner at Azov was normally a rather noisy affair, what with his having two sisters and four brothers. Tonight was far worse than even usual, since the households of Fatima, Kirov and Sergei were also all gathered together.
      "Aren't you going to finish your dinner?" Sharm Lord Tyanir Sergeyevich Fatima asked him, rather nastily he thought.
      "Quit, Tyanir." Lord Nashen told him. Vayer had no idea how anyone could put up with Tyanir, much less his good friend Lord Nashen. Nashen had even taught him some of the basic sword dances, even as a child. Vayer thought Nashen was the neatest adult in all the world, what with his incredibly smooth way of moving and the great tricks he had taught him in the salle. He had even told Nashen his deepest darkest secret.
      "You'll never grow up to be like my half-brother, Arkay, if you don't eat." Tyanir dug the barbs in even deeper.
      "Stop it right now, Tyanir." his father, Sharm Lord Arkay Sergeyevich Azov, snapped. Thank you, otyet, he thought in gratitude. Vayer truly did love his parents, all three of them. Now, with his eyes flashing in anger, he could also understand why his blood father was the most feared man in all the Demenses. Vayer was very glad that anger was never turned towards any of his children, even when they had managed some truly spectacular mishap.
      "At your will, Sharm Lord Arkay." Tyanir snarled in parody of the renSime words of submission.
      "Enough!" his grandfather, Sharm Lord Vanya Sergeyevich Sergei, called out. "I will not have two of my sons bickering at the dinner table."
      His mother, Lord Karola Mardinova Azov laughed, "No different from any other night." This made his face hot at all the times he and his brothers had gotten into it over various meals. Vayer tried to force down more of the special dinner prepared for the occasion of the first thaw.
      "They are supposed to be grown men." his grandfather grumbled.
      "Men grow up?" Sharm Lord Kir Kirov put her tiny hand on her mate, Lord Valentine Ilyavich Kirov's wrist.
      "Some of them do." his mother gave his other father, Sharm Lord Avilan Turovich Azov, an arch look.
      At this exchange everyone laughed and relaxed again, all but Tyanir who gave him a hard look he couldn't figure out. Vayer looked down at his plate again, careful not to possibly provoke Tyanir into yet another outburst like the last. With a quick exchange of gestures with his older brother, Vanya, Vayer managed to divest himself of the last of the noodles on his plate. Vanya would probably want some kind of favor later, but anything was better than having to eat more.
      Usually he really liked the pasta with all kinds of butter, garlic, capers and hot-house vegetables which was served at first thaw, but tonight he didn't have any appetite. Unfortunately, he also knew why. "May I be excused?" he asked his parents.
      His mother gave him a curious look but said, "Certainly, go ahead. We'll keep some of your favorite lemon cake back for you if you want it later."
      "Thank you." he said politely and left with all the haste he could manage without looking like he was in a hurry.
     
      Vayer curled up until a pile of quilts he had absconded with from the rag bag. All his life, it seemed, everyone had expected him to be exactly like his father, including being the most powerful Sharm Lord alive. But Vayer had a secret, he knew, knew in his heart, he was going to turn out wrong, a lord not a sharm lord. No one will want me anymore he thought now that the horrible thing was really happening. For the longest time he had set up this little hiding place, between two unused suites buried over in an old unused part of the Azov town house.
      As soon as he had escaped Vayer noticed the way his arms were aching and the back of his neck. He had known it would be very soon, but he had hoped it would wait until everyone had left from the party. Vayer had made his way to his hiding place and was fretting over the way he had left so quickly. Would anyone think there was anything wrong other than Tyanir's nastiness? he hoped not.
      When no one showed up for a long time, Vayer relaxed some. No one knows where I am, I hope. he shivered under the blankets. As far as he could tell, everything was progressing normally, right down to loosing what little he had managed to eat at dinner into the basin he had brought for the purpose.
      A bright flash of silver-blue light flashed across his vision in the darkness and he cried out at the suddenness of it. "Oh lad." he heard Nashen's soft voice cry out. "I was afraid of this when you left so suddenly but I had to send Tyanir back to Fatima before I could even try to find you."
      "Go away" he pulled his arms to his chest. They burned and ached. Vayer didn't want to drag Nashen into the awful event.
      "No lad. I won't leave you here to die in the dark, alone."
      "I want to." Vayer cried. "No one will want me now. I was supposed to be grandfather's heir." he sobbed, biting his lower lip.
      "Hush, lad." he felt Nashen's arms around his tormented body. "I want you. Your parents want you."
      "Not like this." he held out his arms, looking at the red lines tracing their way up his forearms in disgust. "They want a sharm lord, not some dainty lord." he sobbed again, knowing he was acting like a spoiled child but unable to help himself.
      "If I were a one to take offense, that last would be very hurtful, young Vayer."
      He gulped, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean you."
      "I know. You are upset and I can understand why." his hand stroking his hair back, which had always felt hot to Vayer before, now felt normal. "But they, and I, want you, Vayer Arkayevich."
      Vayer couldn't really believe him, even though he wanted to. "I suppose they have Ilyan to take my place." he ducked his head.
      "Oh, you poor youngling." the silver-blue, which he now knew was his friend Nashen, grayed. "Come with me, lad. I'll show you."
      As the older man got up, Vayer cried out, "Don't go!" The stone wall he huddled against was cool in the darkness.
      "Please, come with me." Nashen's tried to draw him upright, but Vayer shrank down into the nest he had made where he would be safe.
      "No" he protested. "They don't want me." Torn between wanting to be alone to finish this in peace and wanting his friend with him, Vayer didn't know what to do.
      "I suppose that's somewhat better than no one wants me." Nashen said quietly as he returned to Vayer's side. "But lad, I can't give you first transfer." Nashen's arm around his shoulders made him want to put this whole mess in his friend's capable hands. A tentacle twined over his ear and it felt very good, making him almost smile. Vayer's mother had tickled his ears like that as a child and for an instant he thought he could smell her perfume.
      "Why not?" some hope returned to Vayer as he realized there was at least one person in the world who wanted him. Possibly, living through changeover wouldn't be the disaster he had thought it would.
      "Because then you wouldn't fulfill your potential as a lord, you know that, Vayer." Nashen gave him a little squeeze.
      "So" he turned his head away, looking at Nashen's fine boned hand on his upper arm. "I don't have any potential for anything as a lord."
      "Not from what I can zlin, young man."
      Vayer looked at him in shock, "What?"
      "Even from what I can tell at this stage, I think I would have a hard time giving you first transfer without you stripping me." Nashen stated calmly and Vayer caught a flash off Nashen's odd silver eyes in the dim light.
      "Oh" he thought about this. "Why?" intelligent questions were not Vayer's strong point at the moment.
      "Because you are probably going to end up needing more selyn, and faster than I could provide, even for a first transfer, my young friend."
      This made sense, "I don't want to hurt you. OK, I'll go with you."
     
      "You don't have to get up." he heard his blood father say from the doorway and Vayer immediately burrowed headfirst back under the quilts, away from everyone and everything. It was safe and warm there, away from the proof of his failure. A cool gray mist intruded into his hiding place and little dancing lights chased him in the darkness. He tried to get away from them. For a long time he huddled in the darkness. Then he panted, he had to get out from under all these stifling covers.
      As his head popped out, he met the very startled light blue eyes of his father. Trapped between wanting to get away, trying to catch his breath and not wanting to disappoint his father, he froze.
      "Vayer, lad. Why are you trying to hide?" his father's strong hand reached out towards him, beconing him.
      "B...b...because I want you to still love me." he hid his arms under the blankets, even though he could feel things moving around under the skin and it made him want to scrape it off.
      "Yes I still love you. I always will."
      "Now you won't." he pulled his arms out from under the blankets.
      His father bit back a sob, then with surprisingly gentle hands wrapped his fingers around Vayer's forearms. With his touch, Vayer's hands clenched into fists. "No!" he shouted, trying to draw back.
      "He thought you wouldn't want him anymore, Arkay." Nashen's voice was soft, but sad at the same time.
      "My son, my son. No. I still want you." but Arkay didn't say the one word Vayer longed to hear.
      "Even though I turned out bad." he hissed as his hands snapped open. Startled at the gesture, Vayer pulled back again.
      "Youngling, quiet." Nashen took his hands and stilled them. "Not yet."
      Before he could hear his father's response though, a cold, black, hungry place beckoned. It scared and fascinated Vayer at the same time. I might be safe there He let his awareness slide towards that place. The cool gray mist chased him again and he ran towards the dark. Lighting flashed in the distance. The hunger of the black place tore at him, but it was still better than the mist. The mist was going to choke him. It was bad.
      He ran and ran from the fog with a thousand sparkling motes. A shattering flash of lightning and a thunderclap made him freeze. "VAYER!" he heard his father scream in panic. There was a sharp tearing pain on his arms and he could suddenly sense a figure, which he knew was his father, wrap its great feathered wings around him. There were dancing lights along its soft feathers and he reached out to touch them to find out if they were real. The cool mist returned, but this time, held by the embracing wings he stood and faced it. Laced with the lightings now it tore into that black place.
      It felt so very good, he pulled at the mist, drawing it into him and rising on his own wings now he soared over the abyss. Drawing the winged figure with him, they filled and banished the cold, hungry dark place inside himself.
      Vayer opened his eyes to see his father stare back at him from only a few cents away. His eyes were almost gray with sorrow and there were tears on his face. "I did turn out bad." he pulled his hands back, trying to pull the horrible tentacles in as far as they would go. His hands were sticky and he grimaced at the disgusting feel of stuff stuck to them.
      "No" his father sobbed. "No, Vayer. I almost lost you. You are wonderful the way you are."
      "Thats not true. I'm a failure. I'm not a sharm lord." he cried and curled up in a little tiny ball as far away as he could. If only he loved me Eventually, he cried himself to sleep, blocking out hearing anything more his father had to say.
     
      Lord Nashen Fatimovich Fatima had never had much in the way of affection for children but young Vayer had managed to work his way into his heart and his affections like no other youngster ever had. Even his own daughters had never brought out in him the sort of care he had for this poor lost youngling.
      "What did I do wrong?" Sharm Lord Arkay cried when Vayer had turned away from them. Tentatively he put his hand on Arkay's shoulder. Nashen had always been closer to Arkay's partner, Avilan and even Lord Karola. Actually Arkay himself had always made him more than a little bit nervous. With the touch though, Arkay threw himself into Nashen's arms, crying hopelessly.
      He almost never gets this post. Helplessly, Nashen pulled himself as far into the real world as he could and concentrated on physically stroking the other man's broad back. "I don't think you did anything wrong, Arkay."
      "How can you say that?" pain and guilt tore at Lord Nashen. Shivering in reaction, Nashen bit back a gasp of shared pain.
      He had to do something, "Arkay, you're hurting me." It cut off and Nashen breathed a silent sigh of relief. "Thank you." Arkay was still crying in his arms, but at least he had blocked the worst of it from Nashen's senses. "I don't know how I can say I don't think you did anything wrong. Children are not my specialty." he reminded the older man, regretting every word.
      "You knew, didn't you?" Arkay looked at him with an openeness Nashen had never known the man to share with anyone not of his household.
      Nashen had to admit it, "Yes, he told me." Lying to Arkay would be as futile as trying to stop winter's snows in their entirety.
      "Why didn't you tell anyone?" there was a bit of a growl to Arkay's words and his eyes narrowed. Nashen felt him withdraw into the aloofness Arkay had always shown him before.
      "Because he told me not to." for some reason keeping his word to Vayer had been very important. After the way his changeover had gone, Nashen realized it was probably the only thing which had saved Vayer's life.
      "True enough, Nashen." Arkay opened up a bit again.
      What? he hadn't thought he had spoken out loud.
      "You didn't. I'm sorry. I don't usually respond to unspoken comments or question unless I am very upset." Arkay said heavily and then pulled away. Reluctantly, Nashen let him go. Having the preeminent Sharm Lord in Russia open his heart to him, was a bittersweet favor he would always remember.
      "Oh" was all Nashen could say. He had never, ever truly been this intimate with the tightly knit Azov household. True he had slept with them, particularly Avilan, but that was a different issue entirely. "I wish I knew what to say or do to make things better, particularly for Vayer. All I know is he felt you wouldn't want him or love him anymore if he didn't turn out like you, his father."
      The flitting fireflys of Arkay's field froze for an instant and then danced madly. "You don't think that do you?"
      "No, and I tried to convince young Vayer of it. Even before tonight, but he didn't trust me enough to believe me I guess." he said, and some of the faint lights calmed.
      "Well, where do we go from here?"
      "Perhaps it would be best if you brought everyone in on this discussion, including Vayer, this time." he flicked a tentacle toward the lad, now deeply asleep after all the excitement of coming into his new life.
      "This time." Arkay said heavily. "I think you're right, Nashen. None of us ever asked him what he wanted."
      "I think he wanted to make you proud of him, Arkay." Nashen said sadly. If only I had a son like Vayer.
      "I am." then he sighed. "I guess I just never told Vayer that."
      "I think he might also have not been listening." Nashen guessed.
      "Maybe so. Youngsters can occasionally have selective hearing." he reached out to Vayer. Even in his deep sleep though, the lad shrank away. Nashen let his own field shift and added his feel to Arkay's. Vayer relaxed with a sigh, uncurling from his tight knot into a more restful sleep. "I think, also, you will have to be in on this, Nashen. He seems to trust you like no one else."
      "Me?" his voice cracked, ignominiously. "I don't know anything about raising adolescents!" Although in the most hidden part of his heart, he was awestruck at getting his desire.
      Arkay's beautiful, deep chuckle made him worry this time. "You seem to have done quite well with him as a child. Better than his family."
      "But, but ..." He sputtered, then Arkay turned those gorgeous light blue eyes and fascinating, intricate energy patterns on Nashen with devastating effect. "I'll talk about it." he stroked the side of Vayer's face, still childishly soft before his first whiskers came in.


CHAPTER 2


      To say Vayer woke in a state of absolute confusion would be a huge understatement. There was a tame lighting storm delicately wrapped around what he thought was his body. Tentatively, he poked at one of the little tendrils. It twined around his thought for the briefest instant and then dissolved. ? he disturbed some more of them. They danced and played with his own grasping lights. For what seemed like a long time he watched, fascinated at the interplay. This is fun! his own tendrils of light spun at the thought.
      Eventually though, he got bored with the whole thing, as young people do and opened his eyes. He blinked. They had been open. The real world snapped into sharp focus completely displacing the world of dancing lights and energy. "What?!" he heard himself ask in surprise. He was in an entirely strange room, decorated in black and silver.
      "Its all right, lad. Like this." someone, the person with the lightings, showed him how to change between the two worlds and then held his mental hand as he wobbled, trying to sense both at the same time.
      Vayer only then realized he was in a strange bed with an adult, Lord Nashen, wrapped around him like a mare with a newborn colt. Somewhat shakily, "What is all of this, Lord Nashen?" He felt so very secure and safe here in his friend's arms.
      "You're a lord, youngster. Congratulations."
      He hadn't wanted this. Vayer had never wanted to be a lord. "Shouldn't that be condolences, m'Lord?"
      "Please youngling, you don't have to use my title anymore and I would prefer it if you didn't." Nashen corrected him. "Particularly in bed. I also meant what I said, congratulations."
      This was all very shocking and Vayer stiffened in Nashen's arms, "I'm sorry. I didn't ... I mean ..." His tentacles came out, it seemed of their own accord, and wrapped around his fingers. Distracted by their antics Vayer forgot to finish his sentence, or even manage to figure out what it was he was going to say. He flipped his wrist, like he had seem his fathers do with their bracelets, to try to get them to settle. It didn't work. Actually it stung a bit and he glared at his wrists, trying to figure out how to make his own tentacles behave.
      "You know. I don't think I have ever seen a lord try that gesture." Nashen laughed softly. "Like this."
      Vayer watched fascinated as Nashen reached over him and stroked the back of one of his dorsals. "That feels good." he grinned at the tiny thrill running up his arm from the contact. It tried to catch Nashen's extended tentacle. For a while, they twined tentacles, Vayer getting a feel for exactly how they worked by watching and zlinning Nashen.
      "Do you feel up to being about?" Nashen asked him when he thought he had finally figured out how his new appendages worked.
      He stuck one of them in his mouth and nibbled on the end of it, thinking. It tasted exactly like he remembered his mothers. Although feeling his own teeth nibbling at it was strangely calming.
      "Don't do that." Nashen pulled it away from him.
      "Mother does it all the time." he complained and tried it again.
      "I know." Nashen pulled it away, again, this time with a tracing of lightning surrounding the dorsal.
      Vayer giggled, "I take it you don't approve." It was strange to think of someone outside his family knowing something so close.
      "No" Nashen said with an emphatic flash. This was too interesting to resist and he wondered if he could make Nashen do it again. Before he could try his theory though, something dumped him back to the real world.
      "Oof" he shook his head.
      "I think its time to get up, lad. Before you get into trouble."
      "But I am already in trouble." he got to his feet anyways, only slightly wobbly, unlike he would have thought. In moments he noticed the silver sword on black banner hanging over the doorway. This time though it looked different. Fascinated he walked towards it. There was light streaming through the black and not through the silver, casting shadows in contrast with the colors. A tendril of the tame lightning pulled him back from his investigations.
      "No, you aren't. You are just very young." this last had the tone of someone reminding themselves of a fact. "Here" Nashen had come back out of the closet with a pair of clean trousers and a tunic. They were in black and Vayer put them on. This was completely different. He had never worn Demense colors before and the black of Fatima was shocking against his fair skin. Vayer looked around and caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror.
      He saw his dark blue eyes widen in surprise. The black of his hair matched the clothes exactly. Actually he thought, I look pretty good Vayer preened and the image echoed him. His high cheekbones and otherwise fine features looked back at him.
      "Yes, you are quite good looking, youngling." the reflected image of Nashen said.
      Vayer got confused between the image in the mirror and the image of Nashen in his mind Unable to figure out where to direct his response, he ended up turning all the way around and facing back towards the echo of his mentor, "I am so little."
      "Not for a lord, youngster." Lord Nashen's hands turned him around to face the older man. This was much better. Nashen's eyes danced with amusement and Vayer zlinned, fascinated as his lightning twined in rapid little spirals. "I didn't have anything in my closet in Azov green, so we'll have to settle for black for now."
      "I think it looks great." Vayer looked back over his shoulder at his image again, realizing he was being quite vain, but still fascinted by the effect of the silvered glass.
      Nashen laughed softly, "So do I, youngster, but looks aren't everything."
     
      Vayer backpedaled rapidly running right into Nashen. "Its all right." the lightings wrapped themselves around him protectively. Vayer was entirely unsure of this assessment. As soon as they had opened the door to what Vayer knew were his parents' private chambers a stunning wash of warm honey gold fire smacked him right in the face.
      He blinked in confusion. None of the children had ever been allowed into their parents' inner rooms once they had been old enough to sleep through the night. Vayer himself, had only vague memories of light and shadows from when he had been that young. The big chair sitting by the window and the large couch were familiar to him though. The warm gold presence reached out for him and he yelped. Embarassed by his reaction, he leaned back even harder against Nashen's tall, lanky body.
      The lightnings trickled over his arms and he looked again. His other father, Sharm Lord Avilan Azov, was looking at him quizzically. Are they the same person? he delicately reached out with his new senses and confirmed his guess. Hmmmm he zlinned around some more, there was an ever changing whirl of black, silver and gold over by the window. Tentatively he reached out to it, and it froze. "What?" he blinked. It was completely still, then after a pause it moved again, this time in impossible geometric figures. "Who?"
      "Your mother, Lord Karola." Nashen whispered in his ear.
      "It seems you have acquired a shadow, my old friend." the warm gold feel ran over them in a far more delicate gesture than the one they had been greeted with as the door opened. Then it too froze.
      Vayer gasped as his other father's field suddenly locked into place around his forearms with a diamond hard clarity. It stung and he tried to pull his arms out of the now solid feeling trap they were locked in. "Easy, youngling." Nashen whispered in his ear again. Vayer was incredibly greatful Nashen was being so good about not making him look like an idiot.
      His other father was staring, still locked onto his arms. Uncontrollably, Vayer whimpered. "I'm sorry, Vayer." his other father said softly, almost apologetically. "I didn't know, until now, you were a lord." The warm honey gold returned stroking his arms. It felt so very good, like the warmest, softest fur on a cold winter's night.
      "Ease off, Avilan." Nashen said from behind him.
      Vayer looked down to see all of his tentacles extended. Embarrassed at the horrible faux pas he retracted them and tried to rub the sticky stuff his laterals had left off with his hands. This only succeded in getting it all over his hands. Nashen handed him a soft hankerchief. "Thank you." he tried to clean himself off, mostly succeeding.
      "I didn't mean to get you all excited, my lad." now the warm gold feel was avoiding him. Feeling ignored, Vayer reached out for it.
      "Ow" Vayer got his first lesson in approaching another's transfer partner as a pinprick of pain stung at him.
      "Where is Arkay?" his mother asked, looking at him warily. Her hand was now firmly wrapped around his other father's wrist. The twined fields beckoned to him and he watched, fascinated as the honey gold twined around the sharp, angular darkness. Another, sharper sting returned him to the real world and he leaned back warily. "I don't mean to be so harsh, Vayer." she said gently. "But you have to learn not to reach out."
      "Its all right, mat'." he ducked his head and snuggled ever deeper into Nashen's strong arms, hiding himself away from temptation.
      "He hasn't been back here?" he heard Nashen ask in return.
      "No, I was talking the situation over with my father." the cool mist feel of Vayer's father washed over him. It was far fainter than he remembered though. He was accompanied by a far stronger feel of another with a very similar texture, but with a more fiery, less independently mobile sparks. Scared by all the sudden changes, Vayer twisted in Nashen's arms. An astonishing welter of conflicting energy patterns converged on him all at once.
      Now fiercely protective, Nashen's lightnings knocked all of it away from him. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Vayer blinked again as the world solidified into only the purely physical.
      Then he noticed the various garments strewn about over the backs of chairs and he giggled. No wonder they were always after me to clean up my room the normalness of it settled him some more.
      "Why didn't you tell us, Vayer?" his mother asked him suddenly.
      "Because I didn't want to disappoint you, mat'" Vayer whispered, ashamed and embarrassed beyond words at having done so.
     
      Lord Nashen was having an increasingly difficult time keeping up with Vayer's incredibly rapid shifts in attention and focus. Having three unrobed Sharm Lords in the room, two of them high field, with a new lord present was more than Nashen thought he could cope with. "Go put on your robes before we talk." he told them tersely and returned his attention to Vayer. Stroking the young man's arms, he tried to smooth out the tense muscles. Vayer was still shivering slightly, tense and nervous.
      He coaxed Vayer into sitting against him on the couch, where at least he wouldn't fall down if Nashen slipped again, like he had done when Sergei and Arkay had come into the room. He berated himself for letting the youngster get hit so hard. Now Vayer was looking around with enormous eyes at everything he could zlin and see. Even Karola had scurried off with his sharp order. Nashen caught Vayer's laterals extending to zlin better and he corrected the young lord's manners. Not incidentally teaching him to be wary of opening himself up so much when he wasn't in a safe place. Avilan's teasing of the poor young man had been so very sad to see. Vayer hadn't stood a chance of any sort of mature restraint with such a glorious field wrapped around his very arms.
      It was a much, much quieter group who returned. Nashen giggled a bit at the sight of Karola in one of what must have been one of Avilan's old kadors. It was very worn and threadbare, but it did the trick, dampening both her need and her nager down to a whisper of its normally rather sharp aggressiveness. He was a bit surprised at their taking of his rather perfunctory order, but grateful nonetheless. Normally, only his own people took Nashen's orders.
      Vayer got lost again in his zlinning of this new thing. Nashen nudged him back to being able to hear and see what was going on around him. It was far easier now that the fields were damped by the shielding kadors.
      "Thank you all." he said softly, trying to put all his gratitude into his words and not in his field so as not to shame Vayer. Right now Vayer was almost blind to the real world, he was so busy zlinning everything.
      "No problem." Karola said, making him giggle at the Russian phrase for making things work, no matter how improbable.
      "That tickles." Vayer squirmed in his arms but his field was dancing with laughter.
      "Now, we do have a bit of a problem, however, you young Vayer are not the cause of it." Karola said with a hard look at Arkay.
      "I didn't know either, love." he told his mate. "The only ones who knew were Vayer himself and Lord Fatima."
      "How did that happen?" Avilan said softly.
      Vayer was trembling in his arms again. He cuddled him closer, stroking the entire length of his taut body. Finally, Vayer stilled again and looked up. His huge, dark blue eyes held an unconditional love and faith in him, Nashen had never see in any other human being before in his life. "He thought you wouldn't want him as a lord." Now Nashen would willingly kill any human being he even thought might threaten this most precious youngster he held on his lap.
      "No, not at all." Karola protested. "We still love you, Vayer."
      "Even if." he held out his arms but looked at Sergei. Nashen gently wrapped his hands around Vayer's forearms, making sure the lad didn't zlin more than he could handle.
      "Even if, lad. We all still love you." Sergei's eyes were soft and kind to his wayward grandson.
      "But I can't be your successor now." Vayer protested. Finally Nashen figured out what all this had been about. Traditionally, Sergei followed the male Sharm Lord line, not the female Lord line of Fatima or the male Lord line of Kirov. Some Demense were more flexible than others, Lord Nashen himself was a prime example, but Sergei almost always followed tradition. Of course there had been no alternate for the position of Lord Fatima when Nashen couldn't stand silent behind his mother's abuse of her power any longer and had killed her in Challenge for the Demense.
      The thought of it dragged forth memories he had tried to bury, unsuccessfully, so very many times before.
     
      Shaking and sickened, a young Lord Nashen watched as lord after lord descended the steps of the Fatima dias with bruised wrists, bloody lips, even a few desperately clutching the arm of their sharm lord to stay upright, blinking against what must have been brutal headaches. Sharm Lord Tzanir, her silver hair pulled back tightly into a single, most functional braid, did nothing but sneer as her partner misused the children of Fatima so very badly.
      Sharm Lord Kieran was standing behind them, lips clenched into a single line. Even from here Nashen could see his jaws clench in anger. He was a good man, despite his love of power which had brought him to this point. Even he turned his face away as Aliana, Lord Fatima, backhanded lord Ildarin to the tiles.
      Ildarin's hair wrapped around his aged body as he tried to rise, in a tangled grey mass, as if to hide him from her irrational fury. Aliana stalked down off the dias. Before she could kick the old man, Nashen could take no more of this and stood in her way. She tried to slap him the way she had the poor, helpless, lord Ildarin.
      "No more" Nashen growled, deep in his throat, only for her ears and caught her upraised hand. At one time he had loved his mother, Lord Aliana. She had meant everything to him; beauty, love, laughter, light. He remembered her putting him on his first pony and her delight at his crowing laughter at the animal's calm acceptance of his weight. He remembered her joy at his zest for learning and fascination with Moskva's rivers and the traders who plied their goods along their watery pathways. There was no recognition now in her silver eyes, so very much like his own.
      Aliana's breath hissed between her teeth. Her eyes were wild, whites showing all along their rims. There was nothing of his beloved mother left, even in the contact he held in his hand. "How dare you?" she snarled, almost silently.
      "I dare because I love you, maya mat'." Nashen whispered, heartbroken yet steadfast, hoping to see one last glimpse of his mother. There was nothing. "I proclaim Challenge!" he called out at the top of his well trained lungs. The cry echoed from the rafters and the blood stained war banners hung from the walls of the great hall.
      For a moment there was absolute silence in the hall. Nashen heard the rustle of cloth and saw Kieran turn and walk away from the dias, never to be seen again. Tzanir stood still, looking unseeing over the crowd but did not join her daughter and half-sister. She has to know it's her death she courts Nashen tried to catch her eye.
      For a fraction of an instant, Tzanir's chin tipped down and she looked straight into his eyes. *Kill her* were the last words he ever heard in any way from his grandmother. Aliana snarled and tried to pull her hand back.
      Nashen let her go. Before she could even set herself again though, she was on him, possibly even forgetting this Challenge was to the death. He let he catch one wrist and quickly stepped to the side. She over balanced. Before she could fall, he spun her around facing away from him, still holding one arm captive. Aliana flailed for balance with the other. Nashen caught it as well, locking Aliana's arms behind her back.
      She writhed in his grasp, trying to free herself. However Nashen had all the leverage. With the speed he was famed for Nashen touched the back of her neck with his lips. The pain of pinched nerves combined with the first shock of his draw made her lock in place. Giving in to the predator bred to his body and blood, Nashen stripped the selyn from his mother's body.
      *I love you and thank you with all my heart and soul, Nashen. No mother could have a truer born son than I. Go with Allah and peace be unto you.* Aliana sent in one final burst of lucidity as her spirit left her tormented body with its diseased mind behind.
     
      "How do you feel about that, Vayer?" Nashen asked him softly, trying to recover from the wrenching memories of when he took the Fatima Demense.
      "I don't know, relieved I guess." the lad said, which Nashen could well understand. Taking a Demense meant killing, often someone beloved. To ask Vayer to kill his own beloved grandfather was cruelty of the highest order.
      Nashen could sense eyebrows raise all around the room at the youngster's admission. Hadn't they ever even asked? he thought in dismay. Didn't they ever think it through?
      "You don't want the Demense?" Arkay asked, quite kindly.
      "No!" Vayer snapped and tried to leap out of Nashen's arms. Whoops! he used his talent to block the attempt. Never before had he been quite so glad he was far quicker in motion than any normal human. "I never wanted the Demense. I only wanted to make you love me!" his youthful voice cracked and with astonishing speed he turned around in Nashen's arms and cried against his chest.
      Stroking Vayer's soft black hair, he waved everyone back as they tried to come over and comfort the lad. Nashen was getting the rhythm of Vayer's outbursts, and as he had guessed, it wasn't long before something else caught the lad's attention and he actually chirped at something. "What is it?"
      "They look like a line of birds on a tree branch." he laughed and turned back around.
      Indeed they did, all four of them standing in a row looking down at the two of them warily. "Go sit back down." he softened the words with a gesture with his field. This caught Vayer's attention again. For a moment he zlinned the youngster mimicking the wave with his own unique shafts of energy, like light through trees striking the forest floor. Then, for the first time, Vayer managed to come back to what was going on around him on his own. "Like that, youngster." he praised him and was rewarded with an astonishing rush of love and affection from Vayer.
      He stroked his cheek against Vayer's crown, "Now lad, if you don't want the Sergei Demense, what do you want?"
      "I don't know." he wailed, shivering again. Nashen realized Vayer was chilled and grabbed a quilt off the back of the couch and wrapped the two of them up in it. This also seemed to make him feel more secure, so he tucked the edges of it around him. Now only Vayer's eyes were peering out and his field zlinned far more sunstruck, which Nashen figured must mean he was happier.
      "Well, lets start with what has to be done, and let the future sort itself out." Avilan said, quite sensibly for him before transfer. Normally, Nashen knew quite well, Avilan could be rather irresponsible and more than a bit immature the last week or so of his cycle.
      "As I was saying earlier, we do have a bit of a problem, and I hadn't been talking about inheritance." this time Karola glared at Arkay sharply. There seemed to be a problem between the two of them at the moment.
      "Oh" he said and Nashen was treated to the amazing sight of Sharm Lord Arkay blushing the brilliant scarlet red of Kirov. "Yes, well, um ..." he trailed off and looked over at one of the Azov banners hanging on the wall.
      Nashen himself hadn't wanted to mention it, since it had seemed the three of them had not wanted it bandied about before but, "Congratulations."
      "Thank you." she said demurely. "Someone wanted a daughter of his own." she glared at Arkay again.
      "I thought you had ..." Sergei said and then realized what had happened. "Arkay!"
      "At least it isn't me in trouble this time." Avilan muttered, making Nashen grin. Vayer giggled at the comment.
      "You are going to have Avilan and Arkay both tied down again after this month, aren't you." Nashen wanted Vayer to hear all of why this was a problem.
      "Yes. I also won't be able to give Vayer his testing transfer, either." she told them, falling in with the impromptu lesson in biology.
      "Why not?" Vayer asked. Nashen could sense the voracious curiosity both of a new lord and that which he had obviously inherited from both of his genetic parents.
      "Because I will have to be saving my transfer nerves from as much irritation as possible before our daughter is born, Vayer. You would be coming up for your testing transfer right when I am due."
      "Oh. I think I understand. You will have a lot more selyn to finish the pregnancy and then right when my sister is born. Right?"
      "Exactly right." Nashen told him. "Now, who is going to be up for our young lord with both Arkay and Avilan out of the picture?"
      "Thats the tough one, isn't it." Sergei mused.
      "He almost stripped me for his first transfer." Arkay shrugged. Nashen zlinned him again and realized he had never seen Arkay so low field before. "Admittedly it was few days early for me, but still his next is going to be even faster and deeper."
      "There are the Inducted." Sergei proffered.
      Vayer flinched at his mother's flash of pure hate, even muffled by her shielding. "I don't think so." Nashen said in Vayer's ear, making him relax again. Vayer began investigating the feel of the intricate quilting with his tentacles. Nashen slid his hand between Vayer's tentacles and the blanket. Vayer twined his tentacles with Nashen's. He had no idea why she hated the idea so very much but tangling with Lord Karola had never been high on Nashen's list of priorities. It seemed her son had a very similar respect for his mother. Although he was now quivering with nerves, far more than Nashen account for from Karola's little outburst and he clamped down even harder on Nashen's hand.
      "What is it, youngling?" he asked softly, not wanting to leave Vayer out of planning for his future again.
      "How about Sharm Lord Tyanir?" he asked quietly, but Nashen could sense the spike of sheer terror at the idea run through him.
      "Perfect." Sergei said. "Absolutely perfect. Tyanir is the strongest of my children after Arkay and he would be next in line for Sergei."
      "Great idea, Vayer." Arkay said. "I'm incredibly proud of you for thinking of the best possible solution."
      "Yes, thank you, Vayer." Avilan said. "Would Sharm Lord Diomid Azov suit you as a replacement, Lord Fatima?"
      "Who?" he tried not to cry over the incredibly brave face Vayer was putting over his fear and loathing for Tyanir. He gently tucked Vayer's head under his chin, as if trying to shield the lad from his own relatives.
      "He's a bit younger than Karola, but very smooth." Avilan supplied. "And unattached."
      "Certainly. However I insist Vayer come back to Fatima with me for his training." he couldn't let this poor youngster face Tyanir's obnoxious manner alone, which he feared would happen if he left Vayer at Azov. Besides, he doubted if he could pry Vayer loose, not that he had any desire to do so.
      "Yes, I think that would be wise." Karola said with hooded, unreadable eyes. "Besides, I think Vayer trusts you far more than any of us."
      For good reason Nashen thought, rather bitterly, as they plotted and schemed out the rest of young Vayer's life, with a calculatedness more often associated with his own Demense of Fatima than either Azov or Sergei. Vayer huddled in his arms, obviously not hearing any of it, for which Nashen was very, very glad.


CHAPTER 3


      "Come on, lad!" Vayer heard Nashen call to him from the doorway. "Its too fine a day to be sitting about inside messing about with the ledgers." His heart lifted with Nashen's cheerful tone and much missed presence. Even though it had only been a day or so since he last saw him.
      He still felt a bit off, even after having gotten rid of the sick headache which was the legacy of his awful transfer with Tyanir. "I don't know, Nashen." but he put down his pen and got to his feet anyways. Carefully, he put the cap on the inkwell and blotted his last line in the book with a sprinkle of sand. The fine grains slid through his fingers and he zlinned the refraction patterns they formed in the black ink.
      "Trust me." Nashen's hand waved him toward the door. "Here, let me show you a trick." A faint trickle of lightning tracked across the floor and Vayer grinned at his playfulness.
      Nashen offered his now quite familiar lightning laced field to him as if to give him transfer yet again. He made a question with his own but twined tentacles with the older man and let him neatly give him more than a little bit of selyn into his public system. "Come on." he flitted to the doorway under normal augmentation.
      Vayer had seen him move even faster, or at least missed seeing him move as could be the case with Nashen, and followed his example. Oh! he thought as the augmentation burned out some of the logy feel from his mind. Of course his other teachers had shown him how to augment, but they hadn't told him of this application. Nashen raced down the hallway and then looked back, waving Vayer to come on with a blue-white flicker. "Whee!" he said as he caught up.
      For an instant he stopped, dead still, as the bright spring sunlight hit his eyes. Most of the snow was gone from the ground, except in the shadows, but the glare off the cleared cobblestones was stunning. Then they raced down to the docks, side by side. "That was fun!" Vayer danced in his excitement. Silver spring sunlight shattered off the ice lined river. The budding trees reflected in the water seemed to hold all the possible joy of the future in their new won greenery.
      Many of the Fatima renSimes looked at them, then went back to their industrious sanding and woodwork to ready the docks for the first traders to arrive. Unlike the Azov renSimes these people didn't seemed to be at all afraid of two lords appearing in their midst suddenly. Nashen laughed heartily and picked up some of the lines which had become dangerously frayed last year and hadn't been attended to yet. "Here, I'll show you how to splice rope and tie off a boat like a proper member of Fatima." That was another thing about Nashen which fascinated Vayer; after he had returned to Fatima, he almost seemed like a different person. Businesslike and confident yes, but also far more relaxed and open with his people than Vayer had ever seen as a child when he had come for a visit with his own family.
      Vayer looked at his relatively soft hands and momentarily worried about getting them all work hardened like a dock hand. He laughed at himself for being silly. "Please." he grinned. "I don't know anything at all about it, but I would love to learn."
      "Don let the ol' Lord be foolin ye, m'lord. It takes a much of time te lern it good." a rather grizzled old renSime came up to them.
      "Quiet, Vassily, I don't want to scare him off." Nashen grinned at the old man, with far more familiarity than Vayer had seen his parents ever use with the renSimes. "He taught me how to splice and knot when I was a lad." Nashen gave Vayer a wink.
      "Ye lerned it good, too." Vassily picked up another of the lines and showed Vayer how it was done. Although far faster than he ever thought he would be able to manage. Whistling cheerfully, Vassily went back to his wood work.
      Vayer looked around and noticed no one on the docks was wearing shoes of any kind. He had left so quickly he had forgotten his own, but now it seemed like a silly worry. They sat with their feet hanging over the end of the pier, like a couple of youngsters fishing in a lake. "Now, first you have to cut out the frayed portion ..." an incredibly sharp looking, very slim dagger appeared in Nashen's hand.
      "Where did that come from?" Vayer asked, astonished, not having noticed Vassily having used a knife of any kind when he had demonstrated how to splice a rope.
      "This?" it disappeared again, making Vayer giggle. "Right here." the sunlight flickered off the blade. Then Nashen turned over his arm and Vayer could see the slender sheath resting neatly between Nashen's ventrals. It was only slightly darker than his arm and barely visible unless you looked for it. Even the intricately laced straps holding it on were almost invisible. Vayer had only thought them a form of odd decoration.
      "May I?" he asked to look more closely.
      "Certainly." and Nashen held out both of his arms, and there was a matching knife in its sheath on the other. Vayer would have worried about possibly cutting himself in such a delicate location. His own tentacles retracted a bit at the idea. It seemed Nashen had no such concerns from his nonchalance.
      "Why?" he asked. No one else he knew ever wore, or even knew how to use weapons except for the spears the renSime guards carried.
      "Because I am Lord Fatima, my lad." he chuckled and began his work on the rope in his hands. "We, Fatima that is, are the primary traders for all the Demense. When we leave the city..."
      Vayer gasped, "Leave?" People don't leave Moskva! to do so was unthinkable.
      "Ah, but we do. How else would we get things like spices and silks. Not all of the traders who come here of their own accord necessarily bring everything we require. I, myself, have been as far as the great north sea," he pointed up the Volga with his knife before sheathing it again, "and all the way to the steppes in the east. Even made it as far as the far southern tribes one long summer in my youth."
      "Did you ever go west?"
      "No, we don't trade there. We let the southerners do that evil work." his hands and tentacles were busily making the two pieces of rope into one strong one again. Vayer watched him avidly, trying to remember all the tiny, strong maneuvers Nashen was making with his fingers and tentacles.
      "How so, evil?" Vayer had never heard a Lord use such a coarse term for anyone and he stumbled over the word.
      "They are evil, my lad. From what I have been told, they keep people, Gens, in pens and kill them to live." Nashen's silver eyes turned dark and grey with the thought as he looked directly at Vayer, as if to emphasise the horrible truth.
      A cold shiver ran up Vayer's spine at the idea, "I know it is possible to kill, but as a way of life?"
      "Death, I think of it. I'll have nothing to do with them. Kir comes from the west." Nashen looked over his shoulder in that direction.
      "I didn't know that." Vayer thought of the tiny, exotic Sharm Lord Kirov. She was an absolutely exquisite woman with an often understated, but quite funny sense of humor with people she knew well or children.
      "Not too many people really think of it much anymore. Val rescued her from Warsaw. From a farm where they raised humans to be killed." Nashen was staring across the watery interchange where the five great rivers met. "The southerners have enough faith in Allah to be able to tolerate their vicious practices. I don't, quite. I think I would be far too tempted to want to destroy all of them and their works."
      A shock, as if of electricity, ran through Vayer at the Name Nashen spoke so calmly. The past month at Fatima Vayer had heard whispered references to Allah, but everytime the speaker saw him, they looked away and became silent. Vayer took up one of the badly damaged lines and looked at it carefully, "Why don't we?"
      "Because it would mean war, my young friend. We have been at peace for centuries now and have no desire to ever return to the days where we had the barbarians howling at our doorsteps." Nashen handed Vayer his knife. "Val and I have talked about it occasionally, the few times we have been together in private after he returned from Warsaw and took the Demense of Kirov, but the cost would be too high. If they come to us, we are ready to deal with them. Otherwise we do well to keep to ourselves and our allies."
      "I think that is probably for the best. Although I wish we could help all those poor people trapped in such a system."
      "As do I, lad."
      "What are you two doing out here?!" Tyanir's voice boomed from behind him, almost making Vayer land in the river. He did drop the knife, but Nashen grabbed it out of the air and put it away before it could even move.
      He wanted to say, learning a trade, but Nashen cut him off before he could get the first word out, "What business is it of yours, Tyanir?"
      "Because lord Vayer," he slurred the title, making Vayer cringe at the insult, but still he stayed silent, "is absent from his lessons in the infirmary. If lord Vayer truly wished to support my claim to Sergei ..."
      "Silence!" Nashen snarled. "Enough of your vicious words, Sharm Lord Tyanir. You are out of line and unescorted."
      "So" he insolently crossed his arms, making his bracelets scrape over them. "My escort was out here lazing about in the sun when he should have been working in our chambers."
      "Vayer, tell me true, has Sharm Lord Tyanir been staying with you and treating you decently."
      He closed his eyes, frightened at being trapped between the two of them, but then he felt Nashen's so wonderful presence supporting him, "He has been staying with me, but I don't want him. He hurt me! I want him to go away!"
     
      "You have injured a young lord under my protection, Sharm Lord Tyanir." Nashen wanted to rip the man's throat out he was so furious. He had hoped, it seemed now wrongly, Tyanir would be able to behave himself with the lure of the Sergei Demense held in front of him. Nashen was also more than a bit digusted at his own failure to defend Vayer yet again from his kin.
      "The kid isn't injured, just a little coward. He'll get over it as soon as he grows up some." Tyanir looked at the shivering young lord Vayer scornfully. "Quit babying him and he might have a chance."
      "Look at me, Vayer." he said softly and the lad turned to him with those big eyes now almost a storm gray with his distress. Carefully he zlinned him and now noticed the transfer burns Tyanir had left, after what zlinned like at least two, if not more, aborts. "You'll be all right. You will never have to deal with Tyanir again, my lad. Be still here for a moment and I will take care of everything." This time he would make sure of it. Lords were not coddled or catered to if they were over delicate, but no one expected the same fortitude of a lord in the first few months as in one fully grown and adult.
      Nashen got to his feet with all the speed he was famous for, coming to rest glaring down at Tyanir from less than half a meter away. The Sharm Lord tried to step back when he finally saw Nashen had moved. "I have no desire to do this in public." he hissed. "You are all dismissed for the day. Be well and do your best." he raised his voice to the work crew, and told them politely.
      "At your will, Lord Fatima." they answered in antiphonal unison and scurried away from the impending collision. Nashen regretted having disturbed Fatima's renSimes' routine, but better a little disturbance than allowing Tyanir to possibly escape his crime.
      He waited till they were all out of earshot and zlinning range. "Now, I had explicitly ordered you to be careful and considerate of lord Vayer. I would have thought you would have had the decency to treat him as a kin, which he is." The violation of kinship was anathema to all the peoples of the Demenes, particularly the nobility and it disgusted Nashen beyond measure Tyanir could have misused his own nephew this way. Vayer seemed to have the demons of Hell in his corner where his family was concerned.
      "He's just another of that whore bred, Karola's brood." Tyanir whined. "There's more where he came from."
      This was entirely too much. Lord Nashen lashed out with the lighting he had at his command and physically drove Tyanir to his knees with them. He couldn't kill the Sharm Lord unless he had actually committed treason or permanently injured Vayer, but he could sure make him wish Nashen had. Real, physical, sparks rained down each time he hammered on Tyanir's shielding.
      "Look out!" Vayer shouted and Nashen saw flames blaze up from the dry tinder left from the earlier sanding. Nashen danced back from the rapidly spreading fire. He turned to Vayer just in time to see him collapse as great wash of water ran across the dock. Nashen grabbed him before he could fall in the still icy cold water of the river. He couldn't find any trace of Vayer's field and he reached out with all his will to try to bring it back. "*VAYER!*" he screamed with both his heart and mind.
      *Nashen?* he heard in response and sagged back against a supporting piling in relief as the youngster's presence returned.
      "I'm here lad, I'm here." he held Vayer tightly to him. For a long time he simply held him safe, more grateful than he could ever say he hadn't murdered the youngster with his own thoughtlessness. There was no way he could move the lad, alone, without causing him to wake up disoriented. "I'm so very sorry about all this. If I hadn't ..." Nashen babbled in his distress, gently stroking Vayer's still childishly long hair back from his forehead.
      At this point he looked up to see Arkay come pounding up on one of his great silver bay stallions. Nashen had always coveted a mare of that line and had never managed to talk Arkay out of one. "I heard your cry all the way out at Azov, Nashen. What happened?" he asked as he slid off the horse and landed running.
      "Oh hell, Arkay. Its all a mess." he smoothed Vayer's hair back from his forehead, again. "I found out, well I hadn't been paying enough attention, I, well, there was a fire because, no, it didn't start there, I ..."
      "You aren't making a whole lot of sense, Nashen." Arkay said kindly. "Do you mind?" he held out his hands.       Nashen tried to hand Vayer over to his father but instead Arkay shook his head, "Stay still." He felt Arkay's cool hand gently stroke the side of his face and all the memories of today starting with Lord Tyanir's appearance flashed through his mind. He had heard of Arkay's unusual abilities, but this was the first time he had ever experienced them first hand. Surprisingly, it actually felt quite good and he rubbed his face back against Arkay's hand. The rough calluses on Arkay's palm rasped against the stubble forming on Nashen's jaw. Then he stroked his son's hair gently. "My poor little Vayer. You try so very hard and keep ending up on the wrong end of the stick."
      "You are more than innocent of any wrong doing, Nashen. I'm sorry the person who was my brother has caused you such grief." Arkay's eyes were almost grey with regret. Nashen gasped in shock and surprise at Arkay's wording. "I would like to clean this up before I let you go." Arkay knelt at Tyanir's side and with a blast of power, drove him awake again.
      "Get to your feet." he commanded Tyanir. Nashen could feel the lash of Arkay's will driving the other man upright. When Tyanir was swaying on his feet he looked dubiously at his eldest brother.
      "I think Vayer should see this as well." Nashen said softly, hoping Vayer could take some comfort in knowing someone was doing something to try to right wrongs done to him. Particularly that his father would unname his own half-brother, for wrongs done to Vayer.
      "You're right. He has to see this for himself." Arkay agreed and very, very gently convinced his son it was time to come all the way back to them.
      As soon as he was fully awake, Vayer turned around in his arms. Nashen had no intention of letting him zlin this without as much support as he could give.
      "Do you have anything to say in your defense, Tyanir?" Nashen's eyes closed briefly at the start of the horrid ritual, begun by stripping the miscreant of all names and titles.
      "Yes, the little slut, Lord Nashen, wanted your son for a playmate. When I tried to protect Vayer he accused me of hurting the lad."
      "You lie!" Nashen screamed, with the cry of a hunting hawk. He was absolutely disgusted anyone could think such a thing of another human being.
      "You lie before the ultimate judge in Russia, Tyanir. Do you wish to retract your statement?"
      Tyanir's face went dead white at Arkay's statement of his authority. "My brother!" he cried out.
      "No, I have no brother Tyanir. I proclaim the person who was once Sharm Lord Tyanir Sergeyevich Fatima nee Sergei to be outlaw and kinless. Tyanir is dead. The man who was Tyanir may be killed without wrong or recourse in law." he pronounced a fate many, including Nashen, would have deemed far worse than death.
      For this reason alone Nashen left him standing there on the docks, to walk alongside Vayer mounted on Arkay's horse with Arkay on Vayer's other side. He wanted to be sure Vayer wouldn't slip, but it seemed the youngster, even as out of it as he was, was just as good a rider as his father. It was getting late by the time they returned and Arkay handed Kika over to the Fatima grooms. Said grooms looked at Kika quite nervously, but led him back to the stables with commendable consideration for the horse's reputation. Nashen made a note to himself to speak with the grooms for their tactful handling of the situation.
      "Don't you worry about someone you don't know very well, well, sliding a mare or two under him?" Nashen eyed the gorgeous stallion wistfully.
      "Are you suggesting you might have thought of such a thing, m'Lord Fatima?" Arkay asked with a lilt to his dancing lights, letting Nashen know he was teasing, but also possibly offering.
      "Would I have ever dreamed of being able to put one of my mares to Kika?" he asked coyly as they settled Vayer.
      "Yours are not up to my standards, I'm afraid." Arkay said sadly, but there was a tempting little flicker held out of reach.
      There were some things in life cash couldn't buy, good horses were one of them, Nashen thought sadly. He was not a very good rider, certainly not even close to Arkay, but he did enjoy the occasional outing off the water. "Perhaps Vayer would enjoy a mare he could ride over the summer."
      "I would rather someone be able to go with him." Arkay said with a beautiful ripple of laughter at their little game dancing through the foggy shrouds of his field.
      Vayer's looked back and forth cautiously, "What's so funny?" His presence had almost completely returned to normal already, surprising Nashen slightly, and then he realized Karola often did the same thing.
      "Would you like to have Mira, so you can ride?" Arkay asked his son. Nashen almost lost his trader's composure at the offer. Mira was one of the finest of Kika's get.
      "Yes!" Vayer said with the bluntness of the still very young.
      "But there is one requirement." Arkay said, "You'll have to take Lord Nashen out with you on Ilara"
      Nashen did lose his composure at this, gasping at the incredible offer. He had desperately wanted to get his hands on Ilara, one of the best mares ever produced at Kirov, for his own since she had been foaled.
      "You'll have to wait until she is checked in foal to Kika, but that will only be in a week or so." Arkay informed him. "I think you might want to come out and see them, tomorrow? Possibly stay for a few days, if you like?" he asked.
      "Certainly, Sharm Lord Arkay." he sputtered, quite uncharicteristically agape at this incredible offer.
      "So formal. One would think I were giving you the pride of our stables." Arkay winked.
      "You have already given into my keeping the pride of your house." he looked over fondly at Vayer, vowing again to do his utmost to raise this youngster as well as he could. No matter how poor that best may have been so far.


CHAPTER 4


      Vayer nervously readjusted his new tunic. It still seemed very odd to him to be dressed in black and not the motley of all hues he had worn as a child. Although it seemed more suited to him than the green kador he had tried to force himself to think of wearing when he had been a child. This morning had been wonderful fun, showing Nashen the stables, mews and kennels of Azov. They were not as impressive as those of Kirov, having far more work horses in the stables and large hawks for hunting for the sharm rather than sport, but they were still home. Then again they weren't really like the home he remembered from last fall. For some reason he felt as out of place here as he had at Fatima when he had first gone there. Now Fatima felt like home and Azov like someone else's.
      Fatima was so much closer, more intimate than Azov. The numerous endeavors, spinning, weaving, sewing, stock breeding, and raising crops of Azov were all so varied and different. Trading, Fatima's specialty, was so much more straightforward. Of course the nervous, obsequious renSimes of Azov bothered Vayer greatly after the far more affectionate, familiar renSimes of Fatima.
      "Feeling a bit lost, lad?" Nashen asked him softly as they waited for the doors to open for general court. His lacy blue-white streaked field stroked against his gently. For a moment he simply relaxed into Nashen's presence, trusting the older man to guard his delicate senses.
      "A little. This was, is, should be, something like that, home." he shook his head over trying to get his tenses organized.
      "You are no longer a child, youngling." he pointed out the obvious.
      "I know that." Vayer snipped and then laughed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be short with you."
      "Its quite all right, lad. You've changed a lot in the past month. A lot more things will be changing for you in the future."
      "More?" he squeaked, not wanting to think about his life getting even more hectic.
      The doors opened for them, only half way though, showing this was informal and not formal court. Nashen merely squeezed his hand gently and twined tentacles with his. Now at least he knew better than to zlin in an unknown situation and had the discipline not to. He did look around with incredible curiosity, this being his first time ever to be presented at court since that night. Vayer still couldn't really accept the fact entirely he was now a lord and no longer a child. This was despite the fact he sometimes had to work very hard not to be set off balance by other people's fields.
      Court at the Azov summer estates was often half the size of the one at the town house, but it seemed everyone who could show up today, did. There were well over a hundred people packed into the room. Vayer thought briefly of bolting back outside until Nashen pointed out everyone's curiosity and friendliness. Although Vayer realized also few of them recognized him.
      They reached the dias and Vayer felt horribly awkward making the formal obeisance of lord to Sharm Lord to his own father. His tentacles felt dangerously exposed in the position. Nashen merely bowed his head in respect to a Demense not his own. The cool gray mist of his father's field gestured for him to rise and he momentarily leaned towards the too tempting reminder of his first transfer. A small sharp jar, which seemed to be against his own wrist, reminded him of his position, as his father jangled his bracelets slightly. Briefly he bit at his lower lip in concentration and his other father grinned at his near slip.
      "We are more than a bit less formal outside the city, Vayer. But please don't act like you are going to attack me in court." his father's eyes danced with suppressed laughter as he whispered to his son.
      "I'll try not to, otyet." he looked down to make sure he was presentable and heard his mother snicker.
      "Get on with it Arkay, before the lad does loose it." she reminded him.
      "Turn around now." Vayer felt his face redden slightly at having to be reminded.
      He almost forgot and called Nashen back to his side as the older man moved up to stand on the dias with his parents as an equal in rank. Then his father's large, cool hands wrapped themselves over his shoulders and he quivered inside as their fields intertwined. "I give to you, people of the court of Azov, my son, lord Vayer Arkayevich Fatima nee Azov!"
      A mixed cheer and hiss of disbelief arose from the assembled crowd. Vayer raised his hands and let his tentacles wrap around his fingers as he showed the entire court, lord and sharm lord alike the proof of his father's statement. Inside though he was terrified. Too many people out there were hammering at him, telling him he was bad for turning out the way he had. The very instant he had to bolt his father clamped down on his shoulders and forced him to stay still. *hush* he heard in his mind.
      No, no, no... he kept repeating to himself in panic. Vayer couldn't even see as the terror rose up to the front of his mind. *hold on a moment* he heard and then his entire body froze, completely beyond his control. Struggling against the bonds, he finally managed to free himself to bolt across the hall and burrow behind a tapestry.
      "That was close." he heard the gold, honey feeling person he knew was his other father say, with a rather odd laugh. Vayer looked out from his hiding hole to find everyone had disappeared but his family and Lord Nashen.
      "Come on out, lad." Nashen told him, and dreadfully embarrassed at his lack of control, he slunk out from behind the heavy wall hanging. He looked sheepishly at his feet, I can't believe I did that. "At least you didn't fall on a Sharm Lord in formal court and get yourself ascended in the process." his friend laughed kindly.
      "No one's ever done such a thing, Nashen. Quit teasing the lad." his mother rebuked his friend.
      "Not true, m'Lord Karola." he said with a wink.
      "Then tell," his father was grinning as if he knew something none of the rest of them did.
      "Hey, thats not fair. You were there, Arkay." Nashen looked up at the rafters.
      "You didn't!" his other father exclaimed.
      "What?" Vayer was now dreadfully curious. "Who?"
      "This was a long time ago." Nashen demurred. "There was once a very young, very brash young lord who decided, all on his own, he was old enough to deal with full court ceremonials all on his own. Now at formal court, they require you to expose your laterals as well."
      Vayer shivered at the idea.
      "I hate it too, love." his mother said, her field twining briefly with his. Now he knew what it was and gave her a familiar stroke back, but not so forward as to threaten either of his fathers.
      "I think it's a holdover from wanting to make sure a lord has all of their equipment in good condition, as it were." his father said with unexpected use of euphemisms. Vayer realized his father had recently had transfer with his mother, and wondered how similar it had been to his own.
      "Whatever. There was this young lord. Now, not only was he very brash, he also came to court almost in hard need. This was outright stupid, but often youngsters don't think of such things." Nashen grinned.
      "He might have managed all right except for the fact there was this absolutely stunning young Sharm Lord standing towards the front of the dias. Things might also have turned out differently if she hadn't been as desperate for a transfer as our poor young lord." Nashen was now shaking his head sadly, but still grinning.
      "You didn't!" Vayer pieced it together.
      "Indeed I did. Right on the dias of Fatima. Almost ended up bedding her right there too." he shook his head ruefully. "Fortunately she had enough presence of mind to pull me back into the hallway behind the dias before I managed to get enough of her clothes off, but it was a close call."
      Avilan, he thought he would try to remember to start using their names, now that he felt more like he was being accepted as a young adult, was howling with laughter.
      "All I remember was seeing a lad of hardly more than Vayer's age very nervously bowing to Lord Aliana Fatima and then suddenly turning to the side with a look of absolute stunned amazement. I think Taina, was it?" Arkay asked.
      "Yes, she and I were together for quite a few years." a dark shadow crossed Nashen's field, as if a cloud had passed across the sun.
      "Yes, well, Taina let the lad's rush carry her back into the shadows behind the dias. The other people on the dias closed over the gap so quickly even I couldn't tell a whole lot more." Arkay was laughing and shaking his head. "A few of the young lords at court jumped in surprise at what was a truly impressive nageric flashover from transfer, but the rest of us just smiled and let it go. Surprising things sometimes happen when youngsters first have to face a large mixed group."
      Vayer relaxed a bit more as he realized he hadn't really done anything wrong, per se. "I remember a time when Sergei got himself taken on the dias." his mother, Karola he reminded himself, said in amused recollection.
      "Tell, tell." Nashen's lightings were dancing with excitement over hearing someone else's contrempts.
      "Yet again, another young lord decided to present themselves at court in need. She did a little better, actually managing to make it through the presentation before she turned on him. It was lord Familya I think. When the crowd cheered she lost it and grabbed him right then and there." she was shaking her head. "I remember zlinning the flashover but didn't think much of it until she wrapped her arms around him so tightly he barely managed to call out the adjournment before she started kissing him in earnest. I don't think he actually made it out of the hall on that one." she grinned wryly.
      "At least the really young ones aren't as likely to want to follow through." Arkay twitted him gently. "You did fine, love. Really. Considering the tone of the crowd."
      "What I want to know is why there were so many negative reactions." Avilan said darkly.
      "Me too." Nashen agreed. "It isn't normal, by the way, for there to be so many people to be disturbed when a lord is first presented to court."
      "It isn't?" Vayer asked. "I mean, since everyone expected me to turn out to be a sharm lord, maybe they were disappointed."
     
      Nashen had hoped he had managed to get Vayer over that bit of nonsense, but it seemed there was still more work to do in that department. He sighed a bit, making a note to work on it.
      "No love, there is more to it than that I am afraid." Karola grimaced. "There is something going on I don't like at all."
      "Fatima has nothing to do with it I know of." Nashen tried to reassure them. "Seriously, she has never had the time to plot and scheme during the spring." he grinned. "Politics are a winter sport." They all laughed and he sighed in relief. He would certainly do his own checking but he had a feeling, "I think you might want to check out Tyanir's supporters. I will certainly be doing so in Fatima, but he had always been more closely tied to Azov and Sergei."
      "I don't like the sounds of that, but I think you're right, Nashen. And I think it would be best if lord Vayer stayed with you for longer than the summer. I want to be sure we have this mess completely cleared out before he comes back." Arkay said, drumming his fingers against his thigh.
      Vayer was nervously edging his way back under Nashen's arm and trying to keep it from being noticed, "What say you, youngster?"
      "Its silly." he ducked his head. Nashen hated the way Vayer turned nervous and timid around the very people who should have given him the confidence to face his new life unafraid. It wasn't the lad's fault at all, but rather something had gone wrong somewhere in the way he was raised.
      "If it really is silly we can all laugh about it together, Deal?" he knelt down so he wouldn't tower over the lad. Even though he was already getting close to his mother's height.
      "Deal." Nashen noticed Vayer was going to he a heart-stopper when he discovered the joys of the bedroom as well as transfer. "Well," his dark blue eyes flickered towards his parents nervously and Nashen wrapped his lightnings around him protectively.
      "Go on." he said softly.
      "Let me become just another lord in the Fatima sharm." this all came out in a rush.
      "I think that is an excellent idea." he said forcibly, completely overriding Vayer's parents dismay with a brilliant flash of joy in having the lad with him. "If it looks like Arkay has let you find your own way in the world where won't be any more problems with the succession, right?" Nashen desperately hoped Arkay at least would get the hint.
      "Right!" Vayer chirped happily, not at all dismayed by his voice cracking yet again.
      Nashen did not look forward to the next meeting with the Azov household without Vayer.
     
      Laughing wholeheartedly, Nashen watched as Vayer and an equally young lord Kelyaren came up sputtering and coughing after trying to spar nagerically underwater. They had both gone after the same tow line at the same time. It was lord Taryana, however, who actually caught it. She received a kiss from the boatman for her trouble. Still too young to appreciate it, she fell back into the water in surprise and came up spitting out river water.
      Normally he didn't feel so great after a channel's transfer, but watching the three of them cheered him enormously. Vayer seemed to actually be doing better after his transfer from Lord Valentine. Of course after the disaster with Tyanir, I suppose Val would be pretty good. At least Val didn't make him cut his hair. Normally Nashen kept it no longer than waist length anyways, so perhaps Val hadn't thought it worth the bother. He had taken transfer from him to free up Diomid for Vayer next month.
      Although Nashen had gotten rather fond of the Azov Sharm Lord himself. After having to deal with Tyanir's nasty moods and horrible temperment, Diomid was an absolute love. Actually, Nashen qualified, there was only one other Sharm Lord Nashen would have rather had for his own and he was as unobtainable as the moon.
      He laughed again as he zlinned Vayer dive and pull Kelyaren under by his ankles. Then Vayer left like a shot to come up next to a boat waiting for a tow, with Kelyaren left trying to figure out where he had gone.
      Taryana was laughing so hard she had to grab a hold of one of the nets strung over the side of the pier for that purpose or go underwater. "That looks like a good one." Nashen pointed out a boatman preparing to pole his way out to the main part of the river complex.
      "Thanks." she chirped and headed towards the boat he had indicated.
      Nashen knew the other Demense often looked down on Fatima for her letting her youngsters work the docks and the markets. He thought it was good for them. If nothing else he had certainly enjoyed it, and the pocket change it had brought him, as a lad.
      "Put your backs into it!" he called out to half a dozen porters trying to drag an oversized container out of the way. Nashen himself grabbed the end of the rope and dug into the roughened footing with his toes. With his help they got it pulled all the way into the breakdown area for conversion to more wieldy parcels.
      Turning back around Nashen saw Vayer come boiling out of the water as if a demon were on his tail. "Vayer saw a pike!" Taryana sang, teasing him.
      "That was a fish?!" he shouted from his perch atop one of the pilings.
      "Vayer ran from a fish!" Kelyaren teased.
      Nashen laughed again as Vayer made a huge augmented dive back into the river to try to get both of them, particularly Taryana.
      "Up at the house they told me I could find Vayer with you." he heard Arkay say from behind him.
      "Sort of." he shrugged and pointed to the most likely eruption site. As if on cue, Vayer came flying out of the water, followed in hot pursuit by Taryana and then Kelyaren. "Hold on a moment Arkay."
      He bellowed verbally and nagerically, "We're supposed to be working here!" Nashen pointed nagerically to a boat waiting for a tow. Vayer made an incredible reverse under the water and made it to the boat first. After popping his head out of the water, he shook the excess out of his now renSime short black hair.
      "You were saying, Arkay?" he turned back around to see the man in question standing there with his mouth hanging open. "Lets pull back away from the pier so Vayer doesn't think you're a fish. He saw a pike earlier and almost managed to walk on water."
      "Oh, um, sure." they backed up a ways and Nashen positioned himself so he could still see what was going on. "Isn't the water still a bit cold?" Arkay asked finally.
      "They don't seem to notice or care, Arkay." Nashen shrugged. "I didn't when I was their age."
      "I didn't expect to come out here to find my son working like a common renSime, Lord Nashen." Arkay's sudden displeasure hit Nashen like a hammer.
      Still he refused to back down, "Your son, Sharm Lord Arkay, is having fun. I will remind you I am Lord Fatima, not simply Lord Nashen and you are on the Fatima docks." He let his mixture of fear of Arkay's power and anger for the way it seemed Arkay was trying to spoil any fun Vayer was likely to have fuel his lightnings to the point where they flickered faintly around his tentacle sheathes. For all Nashen's fascination with Sharm Lord Arkay, there were certain things he would never accept from the older man.
      "You couldn't take me on a warm day for Year's Turning, Nashen."
      That was undoubtedly true but, "For young Vayer I would try."
      "You would fight me for him to be able to play in the river?" Arkay actually looked down, as if a bit ashamed with himself.
      "To play in the river, to laugh in the sun, to ride through the forests; yes Arkay, I would." Nashen knew, with a sure and certain instinct, the one thing Vayer required more than anything else was the freedom to make his own mistakes when they were still small enough to be dealt with easily.
      "Am I so poor a father as all that, Nashen?" he suddenly slumped in on himself.
      "No Arkay, I think Vayer was simply wanting more freedom and room to be himself than he could get at Azov." he reached out towards Arkay and touched the back of the older man's hand.
      "He was always so quiet and self-possessed. After Kirina turned out to be such a handful I'm afraid Vayer got caught in the crush."
      "Excuse me a moment." Nashen said quickly. He strode to the end of the pier. Vayer was ... there he was. His foot had gotten caught in an old rope under water. *catch!* he flipped out a knife and thought it to the young man.
      Vayer snatched it out of the water in front of him. With a quick swipe he cut the rope. He came back up to the surface with a great rush and took a deep gasping breath. "Thanks!" he shouted and tossed back the knife only slightly more normally than Nashen had sent it.
      He watched Vayer happily speed off after yet another boat and absently grabbed the knife out of the air. Nashen cleaned it and reasheathed it. As he turned back around to Arkay he saw Arkay's eyes roll up in his head in a dead faint. Barely in time did Nashen manage to catch the falling body of Vayer's father.
     

CHAPTER 5


      "For today's practice we have a special treat for you youngsters." Vayer almost yawned as the instructor was going on about how they were going to be learning yet another block-strike combination. Unlike his friends, he had been working out in the salle since he could walk. He had done his best not to show how the basic drills bored him so as not to hurt their feelings, but when they found out, they had bullied him into teaching them special tricks.
      Now all three of them were terrors to most of their instructors, so far ...
      "Since you have all done so very well in learning the fundamentals, we have a guest instructor for your introduction to nageric combat." This was interesting to Vayer. So far all the drills had been purely physical. Surprisingly, now that he thought about it, he was looking forward to it. "I would like to introduce to you young lords, Sharm Lord Arkay Sergeyevich Azov."
      All three of them yelped and scurried backwards to end up crammed into a corner of the salle together.
      "This is your fault!" Taryana accused Vayer.
      "No its not." Vayer snapped.
      "Yes it is!" Kelyaren agreed with Taryana.
      Vayer poked Kelyaren in the ribs with an elbow. Kelyaren tried to hook one of Vayer's ankles. Taryana tried to push Vayer out towards his father. "Children!" Arkay bellowed and they froze, except for the shaking of their knees and nervously lashing tentacles. "Here!" he pointed to a spot on the floor not a meter away from him. This did not look good. Vayer looked to Taryana for courage and didn't find any. He looked to Kelyaren who was looking at Vayer for courage. "NOW!"
      Vayer jumped and scurried forward without even thinking about it. He had heard that voice too many times as a kid to disobey it now. His friends didn't want to be left alone and scooted right after him. They came to a halt in a line in front of Arkay, all head down and eyes up. "You will address me in the salle, when necessary and asked for, as my Lord. In here I don't care who you are or where you came from. The only thing I care about is how you fight. Have I made myself clear?"
      "Yes my Lord." Vayer said, to be echoed faintly by Kelyaren and Taryana.
      "Such enthusiasm." Arkay said ironically. "Lets get to it. Kelyaren first."
      With a great deal of nageric pushing and shoving, Vayer and Taryana sent forth their sacrifice. Then Vayer had a bright idea. He reached out to Taryana and pointed up. She acknowledged the gesture.
      As soon as Kelyaren set himself, Vayer saw him, mistakenly, loose track of the real world. Vayer corrected his friend's offset as Arkay sideslipped. Together, all three of them rushed the far larger Sharm Lord. Vayer tangled his father's legs at the same time Taryana managed a high spinning kick to Arkay's chest. He went down with Kelyaren on top of him, field flaring in absolute shock. Both of the others were now blind. It was up to Vayer. With a convulsive yank, pushing off Taryana for leverage, he pulled Arkay out from under Kelyaren. He flipped Arkay over. Taryana managed to get her wits back together and caught Arkay's hands behind his back, now with Kelyaren's help.
      "Point!" the marshal, Lord Nashen, called out.
      Vayer sat on his father's ankles in absolute stunned amazement. Arkay's field was completely flat with shock. Taryana crowed her triumph. Kelyaren laughed delightedly. Together, the three youngsters had managed to best one of the top Sharm Lords in the demense. Looking up, Vayer saw an enormous grin on Nashen's face.
      "Let him up, youngsters." Nashen told them. With broad smiles the three of them helped Arkay to his feet and solicitously brushed the sand off him, until he batted their hands away. They went back to standing in front of him, this time grinning from ear to ear.
      "Yes, well ..." Arkay raised an eyebrow dubiously. "This time lets try it one at a time, shall we?"
      "Yes my Lord." they said, brightly this time, almost in harmony.
      "You never said they couldn't work together, Sharm Lord Arkay." Nashen reminded him.
      "I know, Lord Fatima." now Vayer could see the grin peeking through his father's instructor's face. "Believe me, I know." he flexed his heavy shoulders. Nashen laughed.
     
      The rest of the practice went far more normally, at least from Vayer's past experience. None of them managed a point after the first one. Vayer had at least gotten a single hold on his father, which he had broken with hardly any effort. Walking in small circles to keep his muscles from tightening up before his shower, he was surprised to see Nashen still there after everyone else had left.
      They hadn't been talking much lately, Vayer had been so busy with his new friends and lessons. Although they regularly now shared at least a bit of time alone together, sometimes simply watching the sunset or sharing a cup of tea. For some reason this made Vayer feel far more wanted than anything else before in his life.
      "Feel up to another round or two?" a tendril of lightning pointed towards the weapons rack.
      "Yes!" he tossed his towel on one of the benches and zipped over to the locked case. Vayer hadn't gotten a chance to try any of the sword dances since before that night.
      Laughing, Nashen came over and opened it up. Inside were the racks of standard practice swords Vayer remembered from when he was younger. Now there were two of the special weapons, only to be used by the lords of Fatima, that differed from 'live' blades only in that they were not sharpened. They were still deadly.
      Vayer was stunned. Nashen handed him the heavier of the two weapons over his arm. "My lord Fatima." he offered formally.
      Forcing his hand to steadiness he took the hilt of the sword, "By your hand, my Lord Fatima, and at your orders." He knelt holding the blade upright.
      Lord Nashen took his own and crossed blades with Vayer, "On your feet, lad. Lets see what you can do now." He grinned, startling Vayer slightly after the formality of earlier.
      Resettling his hand on the hilt Vayer noted his tentacles landed neatly in the grips prepared for them. The more generic practice blades didn't have the smooth, curved, tentacle hooks so they could be used by anyone. "It will be a bit point heavy till you are done growing, but it is better to learn with your own blade and not change half way through." Vayer shivered again at this recognition he was adult and even more, no longer Azov. Vayer had truly taken Fatima into his heart and soul, but this was the first, almost public, reconition of the fact. "The first pattern, Vayer. I'll set the tempo."
      They tapped blades to begin the dance and for the first time Vayer felt the shock transmit itself up the sword and through his tentacles. As Nashen had said, it was a tiny bit blade heavy, but still it felt like an extension of his arm like it had never been before. Strike, block, back and forth through the now remembered moves of the pattern.
      Nashen set the speed up a notch and Vayer matched him blow for blow. Up again to full speed. "Second." Nashen called out and shifted to the second pattern. Vayer almost missed the third, low exchange and got tapped on his armored wrist for his lapse.
      "Point!" he called out and caught his breath. That had stung a bit, even through the steel reinforced lip of his bracer. He swapped hands for a moment and shook out his wrist. Returning to guard, "Second, fourth exchange?" he asked.
      "Move it to Third." Nashen told him and moved to the overhand strike of the highest of the sword dances Vayer had yet learned. Vayer stepped in for the counter. A little close he thought but with a quick back step managed to return to the correct spacing.
      "Up again." Nashen shifted to the lowest level of augmentation and Vayer followed him. The third pattern started over, but this time Nashen held out his off hand. Vayer let himself zlin and matched Nashen's lighting with his own controlled tentacle of light. The nageric duel mirrored the physical, till Vayer tired a bit and Nashen caught him with his lightning and the next thing Vayer knew was looking down to see the tip of Nashen's sword against his chest.
      "Point." he called out unnecessarily and panted.
      "And match, young Vayer. Excellent." Nashen was panting as well. He wiped the sweat off his brow with the inside of his elbow.
      That looked like and excellent idea but Vayer used his free hand to do it with.
      "I take it you want to continue with this?"
      "Please? I hadn't known there was a nageric component as well as the physical. I mean, of course, my .. I mean my father taught us all about unarmed combat but other than what you taught me, I hadn't had a chance to learn." Vayer realized this was mostly incoherent, but then at the moment he was about to land on his nose.
      "You picked up the nageric really quickly, I was impressed. It took me a couple of tries, on the first pattern to get it."
      "I think it was easier since we were already augmenting." Vayer carefully checked his sword and put it away.
      "Actually it can be harder for some to manage when they are already burning excess selyn. You did very well. Want to learn the fourth?" he asked after putting away his own sword.
      "Yes!"
     
      He's going to be a better swordsman than I am in a few years Nashen watched Vayer patiently reposition Taryana's recalcitrant feet yet again. He's already a better teacher The two youngsters raised their wooden practice swords for the first exchange of the first pattern.
      The clatter of wood hitting wood filled the salle. The tempo was a bit ragged, but before he could say anything, Vayer got Taryana back on track. Now even again, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four ... perfect. And end. They paused and Nashen asked Taryana if he could step in.
      "Certainly. I've had it for the day." she handed over the wooden blade and Nashen carefully set his grip.
      "You up for fifth?"
      "Once through at least, my Lord." Vayer grinned at him. The lad was so cheerful, even after turnover. Nashen felt like he had been run over by a carriage. Hopefully Diomid could do Vayer some good this month. He still worried about the fact Vayer seemed to want nothing to do with the opposite larity. Athough his growing comfort with Fatima herself was an absolute, unlookedfor, delight.
      With a clack their practice blades met and immediately they both jumped to a third level augmentation. Nashen well knew to the outside world their exchange was about to become a blur but to him it seemed as if they were still on normal time. In perfect rhythm they counted off the strokes, high, side, block, overhand, parry, his body knew the pattern and together they danced it. Nashen came back to reality with a crash of pain. "Point!" he called out and blinked. Vayer had managed to get him but good on his missed high block.
      "First point on my side." Vayer shook the sweat back from his eyes.
      "True enough m'lad. Want to try for match, no pattern this time?" he offered Vayer his first chance to apply what he had learned in the dances.
      His deep blue eyes blazed at the chance, but he was silent, as befit the solemnity of the occasion, and simply raised his blade in salute.
      Nashen matched him and took a deep breath. Nothing but silence for long moments, then with a loud crack, wood met wood. He blocked the first overhand strike and Nashen let Vayer's blade slide down his own. He tried pushing it to the side and Vayer used the momentum to come in for a second, low strike this time. Nashen danced back out of the way, and Vayer pressed his advantage. With a tap that made his ears ring, Vayer's sword connected with the top of his head. "Point!" he called out and shook his head. It had been absolutely perfect. "Ow." he said softly. He wouldn't have a knot, thanks to Vayer's excellent control, but it had stung.
      "And match." Vayer said softly and Nashen could see the wonder in his eyes at having defeated his own teacher. "Are you all right?" he laid the practice blade down on the floor gently and ran over to Nashen.
      "I'm fine. At least from the bout." he let his own tentacles extend completely to try to relieve some of the pressure which was irritating his laterals.
      "Come on, lets get a shower and I'll make you some tea. Its the least I can do for your letting me win a match"
      The lad's eyes were dancing and he had to grin back, "I did no such thing, Vayer. You won it fair and even."
      "I know," he teased. "I wanted to hear it though."
     
      Nashen had thought it would be a good idea to invite Sharm Lord Diomid to join them for tea. I should know better than to try to think this close to transfer Vayer hadn't said no, but then neither had he seemed particularly accepting of the idea, Nashen now realized.
      Vayer was sitting, very stiffly, on the edge of his chair. Every time Diomid moved, the youngster almost teleported across the room. "I thought it might be a good idea for you two to meet before your transfer, Vayer." Nashen looked over at Diomid, resisting the temptation to curl up with him himself.
      "Thank you, Lord Fatima." Vayer took a nervous sip of his tea. At least Diomid, when he figured out the situation, was sitting as silently and quietly as he could, which was very, very quietly. Nashen leaned towards his beautiful, wonderfully alive field and rested on it. He wanted to show Vayer how good it could be. Although now he was here, he didn't want to move.
      "I had wanted to get a chance to talk with my old friend Vayer." Diomid said quietly. "Do you remember the time Kirina got into the cabbage beds?"
      "Yes." Vayer's tentacles wrapped more tightly around his mug of tea.
      "What happened?" Nashen asked, trying to draw Vayer into seeing Diomid as the same man he had known before. There was also a bit of curiosity on Nashen's part. Diomid had been so very reticent about his past.
      "Well, someone,"
      "It was I." Vayer added softly.
      "Oh ... well, someone left the gate open to the cabbage patch and by the time anyone found her she had managed to get herself covered in mud, which she then promptly tracked through the entire foyer." Diomid sipped at his tea.
      "That sounds like Kirina." Nashen added. "She has been in one scrape and out of it again since before she was born." he laughed.
      "I like my baby sister." Vayer whispered.
      "So do I, lad. But that doesn't mean she isn't a handful." Diomid added.
      "Oh, like me." Vayer said bitterly. He set down his tea and put his head in his hands. Diomid's field reached out towards the youngster. Vayer's head snapped up as they met with a clash, making Nashen's own cringe away from the contact. "Like that." he said with a sob and bolted from the room.
      Wisely Diomid stayed behind as Nashen ran after Vayer. He let him get into his own room and slipped inside before Vayer could close the door. It's hardly larger than my closet he thought. Vayer leaped into his arms when he saw Nashen had joined him.
      Oh dear he stroked Vayer's back as the young man shook against him. "Diomid won't hurt you, Vayer. He only wanted to make you feel better."
      "Like Tyanir did?"
      "No, not at all." Damn Tyanir anyways. If he ruined Vayer I am going to hunt him down and ... I don't know what would be horrible enough to do to him. "You knew Diomid before, was he mean or hurtful then?"
      "No" Vayer admitted. "But its so icky the way his field came at me. Like slime. Like it was going to eat me."
      Nashen had never heard anyone's field described that way. "You can't live on Lord's transfer alone, youngster." he pointed out.
      "Why not? Val was great."
      "Because you would eventually become sick and die, Vayer."
      "Oh" he was even more crestfallen than before.
      Despite his earlier promise to himself not to come up with ideas before transfer, "Why don't we go to Kirov this time, rather than having Val come here? That way you can get a chance to meet some other young people and zlin some different sharm lords. Maybe one of them might be more attractive." Nashen could not understand not wanting Diomid, but different people had different tastes.
      "Really? I mean the only ones I have met have been either family or Diomid, who is almost family."
      "Really, and they probably won't know who your parents are, as long as we don't tell them." Nashen winked.
      Vayer laughed happily and snuggled deeper into his arms. Oh my beautiful son Nashen stroked Vayer's soft hair, not daring to say the words he felt out loud.
     

CHAPTER 6


      Vayer looked around for a safe place to hide, but the only thing he could zlin was the overlapping fields of the half dozen young sharm lords all vying for his attention. One of them tickled at him with too light a touch. Another clung to him and bound him like a child with sticky hands. A third clamored for his attention with the mental tones of out of pitch brass bells.
      Nashen and Val were sitting alongside Kir on the other side of the room. Wistfully he zlinned their peaceful, calm intertwined fields. Kir's brilliant, fiery presence gentling Nashen's lightning and Valentine's flames with practiced ease.
      Trying to do what his family wanted him to, he let himself zlin the conflicting and clashing fields surrounding him again. There was no peace on this side of the room. When Nashen had recommended this, it had sounded like a good idea. Now all he wanted to do was escape.
      He shuddered and blocked it all out again. There were too many people here, all trying to entice him. The nageric silence was replaced with a physical clamor no less annoying. "Have you seen ... Did you hear about ... Why, only last week ..." it all made no sense to Vayer. He tried to act polite, nodding at what he thought might be appropriate times, but if any of them fluttered their eyelashes at him again he would ...
      Who? he saw a figure in dark red walk into the room and whisper something to Kir. Shadows, cool, calm shadows followed in her wake, despite her heavy kador. She must have sensed his interest for she turned, making Vayer duck quickly behind one of his crowd of admirers in a sudden fit of shyness.
      A pool of spreading darkness crawled across the floor towards him. Vayer looked at it suspiciously and it jumped back. Automatically he stepped forward to zlin it better. This was like something out of a sharm tale. It retreated again. He reached out with his light. It slid around to the far side of a table and seemed to peer at him again, like a midnight black ferret wishing to play. Fields did not act like this, they simply reflected the emotions and trained actions of their wearers.
      Looking deliberately away he sidled towards the interesting phenomenon. With a sudden leap he pounced on it and came face to face with the most fascinating person he had ever met. He caught a glimpse of high, sharp cheekbones and the most aristocratic nose he had ever seen, all covered in dusky skin. "Yike!" he jumped back then realized she wasn't looking at him. She had been looking at Val! For an instant he simply looked at her. Her veil had been dropped to let her communicate with her leige lord better, but Vayer simple appreciated being able to see her face. Soft lips tempted him for the first time and he backed away, confused.
      Still she looked beyond him at Val. Vayer couldn't let her ignore him. Particulary as it seemed her field did act like this. Absolutely fascinated now by the coy and charming creature, he pressed his suit.
      "Hey!" this wasn't fair. The first time he zlinned someone interesting and they didn't even look at him when he appeared right in their face. Particularly a most beautiful young woman. Now the cool dark, calmness was washing over him. But impersonally, like water over stones. How can I get her attention again he licked his lips. This got a brief flicker and then calmness again. Nothing. He tried it again in curiosity and got no response. Reaching out to it only made it slide away from him without even the teasing this time, just like oil on a wet stone. Teased by the darkness' reticence, he forgot entirely where and who he was.
      Hmmm he retreated, trying to think of a plan. It followed him cautiously, creeping along the floor like fog with a mind of its own. He looked at the clock over the mantle, concentrating on trying to compare its time with his own, internal timesense. The coolness came and wrapped itself around his ankle. For a long time he focused his attention on the beautiful vase on the mantlepiece until his entire body was surrounded by the cool darkness and he could feel her breath on the back of his neck. Now how to catch this one. he created his plan. Slowly, so very slowly he took a step forward. Then another. She matched him step for step till he got her where he wanted her.
      As fast as he could, without bumping into her, he turned around. She turned to flee and saw Vayer's reflection in a mirror. She turned back and he grabbed her wrists with his hands only, as gently as catching a bird in the garden. Vayer dropped all pretext and let his need come to the fore. Well and truly caught, she gasped as his need hit her and she opened herself up to him. With this implicit permission he let his tentacles wrap around her arms. She leaned her head back and he took the contact off the base of her throat.
      With shining wings of light he pulled his night shadowed partner into the void with him. No longer at all reluctant he felt her cool, darkness fill the velvet black pit of need within him. Yesss! he spread his wings even wider, riding the high thermals with his new found mate.
     
      "By the way, I forgot to ask. What's your name?" Vayer stroked the dusky skin of her hip possessively. After the incredible transfer all he could remember was the incredible feel of her body, both inside and out. He wanted all of her. Even simply thinking of it brought about a reaction. So this is what everyone has been trying to tell me.
      "You know something, I haven't a clue what yours is either." she laughed, causing all kinds of fascinating motions along her sleek body. There was not a flaw on her, from her beautiful delicate toes to her thick, dark hair. Every bit of her seemed to fit perfectly, with not a harsh line to be found. Rounded, graceful curves, smoothly flowing into each other made her body a work of art which now fascinated Vayer as much as her field had earlier.
      "I'm lord Vayer Fatima." he deliberately left out his patronymic, as so many lesser lords were want to do.
      She raised an eyebrow at the lack, but replied, "and I am Darya Kirov. Unless you had any plans to possibly change that?"
      He wanted to know something first, "Why were you wearing mourning colors?"
      "Because I was to take the veil at the end of the month." she stated calmly.
      "What!?" he paused in his appreciation. "You are so young and beautiful and ... I can't let you do it."
      "No?" she asked archly, but took his hand. Gently, he slid his tentacles between her fingers, luxuriating in the cool, dark feel of her field twining around them.
      "I won't let you." he looked into her almost midnight dark, slate gray eyes. Vayer had never seen anyone's eyes this dark, even his own. She flipped her blue-black hair out of her eyes.
      "How so you won't let me?" she laughed and the ripple over her deep shadows distracted him for a bit too long.
      "Because I am Vayer Arkayevich and ..." he was going to add 'because I say it shall be so' and then realized he had slipped.
      "Hush, sweet. Its all right. I thought as much. I suppose you could say my curiosity got the better of me." her beautiful smile was more than enough reward. "Actually I was going to take the veil because no one would have me."
      "Idiots. You are wonderful." Vayer couldn't get over all his new discoveries today. How could anyone not want Darya's beauty and peace? he wondered.
      "And because my father was Ilya Kirovich Kirov."
      "Oh" then he broke up laughing over the improbability of the situation. "The one sharm lord in all of Kirov who catches my attention and she only came about because of my father's obsession with breeding."       Vayer knew she was the lady for him when she howled with laughter as well over the sheer unlikeliness of it all and then said, "It seems he made a good cross."
      "I would certainly agree." he pulled her into his arms for yet another of those wonderful kisses. Her body seemed to fit his like it was made for it, with her curves fitting so very perfectly against his more angular planes.
     
      After a far more leisurely session of getting to know each other better, Vayer noticed something strange. "Where did everyone go?"
      "As soon as we started our little dance, the Lords Kirov shooed everyone else out and then left us alone except for Lord Fatima. Somehow he managed to vanish after I caught you."
      "Nashen does that." Vayer grinned. "Hey, I caught you!" he protested.
      "I think we caught each other.
      "I think you did, youngsters." Lord Nashen strolled back into the room.
      "Yike!" Vayer tried to hide Darya from another lord, hide himself, hide his current state of nudity and look mature and responsible for his actions all at the same time. It didn't work. Actually none of it worked.
      Then Vayer had a flash of insight, His coming back now is yet another part of this learning thing. I probably would have tried to, quite foolishly, cover everything up, otherwise. He settled for trying to look aloof. Then he turned back to Darya and sighed, She is so beautiful.
      Nashen pulled up a chair and sat down facing backwards on it.
      Vayer put himself between Darya and the other Sime. A hiss of warning came from him.
      "None of that, lad." Nashen warned and Vayer felt the small sting of a warning slap from Nashen's field.
      "Oh" he stopped to think for a moment. Darya's wonderful cool darkness danced over his skin. Vayer looked at his friend sitting calmly with his arms over the back of the chair. "What is going on?" his mind finally cleared of its haze. Did I really hissed at Nashen like a cat? Vayer was taken aback by his own actions.
      Closing his eyes briefly, as in relief, Nashen said, "Good, you're thinking again. You know I won't try to get between you and Darya now, right?"
      "Now I do." Vayer sat down on the floor in front of her. Darya's hand was cool and soft as she rested it on his shoulder. He stroked the side of his face against it.
      "Exactly so, younger." Nashen got up and came over to them. Vayer moved over to make room, or at least he tried to. Problem was, Darya had the grip of death on his shoulder.
      "What is it sweet?"
      "You can't expect Lord Fatima to sit on the floor with you. It wouldn't be proper. Particularly, well, like this." she gulped audibly and her wonderful field tried to hide.
      "Its all right lass. You aren't going to hurt me with it." Nashen sat and turned his upper body towards her. "You have wonderful control for a sharm lord. Relax."
      "Yes, Lord Fatima." she said stiffly, still clutching her field to her body.
      "He isn't going to separate us, sweet." Vayer lipped at her fingers, tasting the salt on them.
     
      "Really, I'm not. Actually I am quite pleased Vayer has found someone he likes," actually he was about to fall on his knees in gratitude for their luck in weaning Vayer away from the tendency he had shown to almost be creating a phobia of sharm lords. When he was obviously going to refuse every single likely young sharm lord in Kirov, in desperation, Val had sent for young Darya. He had explained it would be unlikely, as every lord ever presented to her, if they had a choice in the matter, had drawn their laterals back. Although from the look of it at the time, they would have had a hard time getting any transfer into Vayer from the way he was retreating into himself with the other sharm lord's, admittedly, quite forward chase of him.
      At a first zlin, Nashen had shivered in the almost deathly stillness and cold of her field but Vayer had locked on to her like a magnet. Then he noticed while still very dark and cool there was an indescribable texture to her field and a calmness he hand never sensed in anyone else. No sudden shifts, nothing cloying or burning, but a smooth, dreaminess like the energy of a cloudy night sky in fall.
      Actually Vayer had locked onto her so hard he hadn't even noticed when everyone else had left the room. Nashen wanted to wait to be sure the two of them would be all right before he left, so he got to see the most amazing little courting dance he had ever had the privilege of witnessing. Every time Vayer had even so much as zlinned Darya her field jumped away. But when he ignored it, it came back, as if of its own accord to tease him. Nashen had almost laughed out loud when he saw Vayer physically jump onto a place where it had been drifting along the floor.
      He had almost been as surprised as Darya and her animate field when Vayer had tricked them with the mirror. As soon as they had made physical contact though, she had instantly shifted to promise. Nashen had breathed a sigh of relief at that point and worked his way towards the door. Their transfer had gone amazingly smoothly for her lack of experience and Vayer's youth and nerviness. When he had zlinned how deep and how fast it was he had then realized those two would be so post they wouldn't notice the roof caving in he left as soon as it terminated rather than playing the voyeur to the final, inevitable conclusion without worrying about them noticing his departure.
      It had been Val who had to remind him to go back in afterwards to ward off Vayer's natural Sime possessiveness while it was still easy to do. Sometimes people forgot and there was quite a mess to deal with. Any Sime could latch on to a partner with a fury that was horrific to behold, and parents and guardians of youngsters were very careful to make sure it didn't happen. Vayer had actually taken it far better than many he had heard of. When his mother had come to him afterwards he had actually struck out at her trying to keep her from Taina. One sick headache later, he never did it again. Nashen had only had to verbally reprimand Vayer to back down, despite what he could zlin as a very strong bonding between them already.
      Thinking of which, "Likes so much you are going to get yourself a big belly out of today's endeavor if you aren't careful." Vayer was still much too young for children, even if Darya wasn't. "And if you please, call me Nashen. It has never been to my taste for very beautiful, very post, young women to call me Lord Fatima. Particularly when they haven't a stitch of clothes on."
      She giggled at this and he felt her cool, restful field to shift over both of them. Now that he was accustomed to it, it felt like the most wonderful, cool, shower in summer. This was much better than the tight, cramped hiding she had first displayed when Nashen had walked back into the room.
      "I'll take care of things, Nashen." He was very glad to hear only a brief hesitation before the name. "You really don't think I'm ugly?"
      Nashen looked her over again and realized he hadn't been at all gallant in calling her beautiful, "To tell the truth, when you first walked in I didn't think so. Whoever put you in that particular cut of kador had awful taste."
      She ducked her head shyly, "I thought it would make me look thinner."
      "It did. I don't much care for women who look like boys. Personally, I far and away prefer males in my bed, but when I do look at women I want them to look like women, not twigs." With Vayer's nod of permission he let his hand stroke over her smooth hip in one gentle wave from waist to knee. "Lord Karola is not a little tiny woman either, and Sharm Lord Taina, my first love was definitely not tucked up like a hound."
      "Oh" her eyes were big and actually now that he looked carefully, an exquisite dark slate gray and not the very dark brown he had thought initially.
      "I find myself agreeing completely," Vayer, however, let his hand slide considerably further around behind Darya than Nashen had.
      "You win." she laughed and now both of them were quite appreciative of the effect this had on her body.
      Nashen realized he should probably get out of here soon before he offered young Darya a bit more than she might otherwise want. "One further thing." he waved out the lights.
      Purely nagerically he cued Vayer and together they ran their fields firmly over Darya's. She closed her eyes and leaned back with a sigh, "That feels so very, very good." While she was distracted by her body's inherent ability to sense selyn fields, he shifted himself across the room with his talent and noted she tracked him exactly, even when nothing had changed but his physical location.
      "Congratulations, Sharm Lord Darya." he told her and she looked at him, startled. Exactly so he noted her eyes were tracking completely true, she was seeing by means of the fields and not working with how her own body felt. This was the second test for a Sharm Lord, the first being, obviously, a kill. Vayer was dreadfully curious, so he explained his little test and he nodded his understanding. Their fields were deeply intertwined, already. "Now, one last question."
      "Yes," Vayer said, still more than a bit distracted, it seemed by the events of the day. Hormones, too. Nashen reminded himself with a grin.
      "Would you prefer to return with us to Fatima, Darya?"
      "Ummm" she said dreamily.
      Maybe I shouldn't have turned out the lights he silently snickered as he zlinned Vayer turn all the way around towards Darya in a very convenient position.
      "Yes, definitely." she murmured absently.
      Vayer lifted his head momentarily. "Tomorrow," he insisted.
      "Good idea." she said and then gasped as he put his position to excellent effect.
      Nashen let himself back out again.
     
      Darya let out a deep breath and gently ran her fingers through Vayer's crest of hair. His body relaxed even more against her side and he fell into a doze. From his still disproportionate hands and feet, Vayer was obviously very young. His excess of enthusiasm would also imply his age as well. Darya smiled fondly at the hound lean young Sime curled up against her.
      Although his eyes and presense were those of a man who had seen far more than his years might otherwise imply. His skillful and yes, inventive approach in this, what must have been his sexual initiation were also at odds with his physical age.
      It had been as much an initiation for Darya as well. Her one, prior experience with a man had been far more an exercise in tolerance than anything else. He certainly hadn't meant to hurt her and had been so post as to be unable to zlin the pain of his undesired intrusion. Darya had never mentioned it to him. Certainly it was not his fault no lord whom Darya had had a chance to attract would be able to satisfy her.
      Valentine was the only other man who could have satisfied her and he never had transfer with anyone but Kir. One of the veiled had come close at her testing, but they were beyond her reach until she took refuge with them. She had so strongly desired to flee the presence of Simes who only teased at her, she had applied to take the veil as soon as she reached her majority.
      Vayer had changed all that. His need had called to her so strongly, at first she had thought his presence was some sort of cruel jest. Lord Valentine and his mate, Kir, were not known for such cruelty, however. She had had no idea who the silver haired Lord in black had been, other than obviously Lord Fatima.
      Other young sharm lords of Kirov were busy chattering at the strange, black haired youth. Darya had thought she hadn't a chance looking at Felina and Terin playing the coquettes. They were both far more comely than she could ever hope to be, physically or nagerically. Disappointed she couldn't even manage to get near him, she tried to at least catch his eye to remember him by.
      As soon as their eyes met though, it felt like the world had stopped. His midnight blue eyes filled her vision. He was so very beautiful as well as the sheer depth of his need lureing her out of her self imposed isolation. Darya had wanted him like she had wanted no other lord in her life. Afraid of rejection though, she had tried to flee and Lord Fatima had looked at her with such pleading, she looked back over her shoulder at Vayer. "Go to him." she thought she heard Lord Fatima whisper insistantly.
      "He couldn't want me." she turned her body around though and stepped forward. I should at least try she thought to herself, knowing she would forever regret not making the attempt if she didn't.
     
      Darya kissed the top of Vayer's head and felt him come instantly back to full wakefulness with the startling rapidity of an immature lord.
      "I've hurt you." he whispered, laying his long fingered hand on her belly.
      "Its nothing sweet." she caught his hand, already calloused from what must obviously be hard work.
      Vayer shook his head, "Lets see if I have been doing well at my lessons." He grinned and she felt the soreness left from their rather enthusastic coupling smooth away as if it had never been. "That's better."
      "You didn't have to ..." she said and his finger touched her lips. Playfully, she licked it.
      "Not again!" he said in mock annoyance.
      She nibbled at the end of his finger. "Not really, I simply like the taste of you."
      "The feeling is quite mutual, I assure you." he said, sounding very adult.
      "Then come here, my sweet." she kissed him, tasting her own sweetness on his lips. "Do you mind if I ... well ..."
      "What, Darya?" his hand was hot as he stroked the curve of her hip. "Such a pretty name"
      She hoped he wouldn't be upset, "Do you mind if I turn on the lights part way?"
      "As much as you'll let me." he suited actions to words until it was almost as bright as day outside. "Suits?"
      "Very much so," she took in his slender grace with hungry eyes. Vayer was already sleek with muscle and had wonderful, tanned skin. He cocked his head in what seemed like a question. Darya ran her hand down his ribs to his hip, pulling him towards her. His eyes flashed black as his body responded again to her nearness. I hope this isn't only youth and hormones.
      "Anything you like, my beautiful one." he breathed.
      She laughed deeply. "Anything?" Darya dug her fingers into the hard muscle under her hand. Vayer hissed but stayed still.
      "Anything" his eyes were hot but he didn't push at her at all. Obviouly he wanted her again but was waiting on her pleasure this time. His free hand came up to stroke her face and she caught one of his tentacles in her mouth. "Oh, my" he sighed. The soft velvet over steel feel of it seemed to reach instantly into the deepest part of her. Darya ran her foot up Vayer's leg.
      His head fell back and he moaned, but made no other advances. Spurred on by his acceptance of her initial gestures she wrapped her leg around him. Vayer's hips automatically tried to move towards her, but she gently held them back. "Not yet, sweet." she rolled him on his back.
      "Yes" his deep voice rasped, almost making her forget all the plans she had dreamed of if she ever had the chance to do as she wished in bed. Kneeling over him, Darya did as she pleased, not incidentally pleasuring Vayer as much as herself.
     
      Nashen pulled one of Sharm Lord Taina's old kadors out of the closet. Breathing in deeply, Nashen realized some of her scent still clung to the folds of the garment even after these many years. Sometimes he wondered if she still thought of him fondly, even after their rather acrimonious separation. The image of her rounded face with her honeyed skin formed behind his eyes yet again.
      She had decided she had had enough of affairs of state keeping them up till all hours of the night and then rising well before dawn to catch the merchants before they opened their shops. It had been, and still was, Nashen's lifeblood. The pulse of politics and commerce had been bred into him body and soul. It had not been so for Taina.
      I truly hope you are happy with Lord Zharev he wiped a stray tear from his eye. Now, after having known Vayer, Nashen wished she had given him a son. Taina had always told him, tomorrow. However, tomorrow had come for Zharev and not himself. After she had heard about the problems Fatima had bearing healthy children, she had not dared even once.
      Neither of Nashen's surviving daughters had shown any great promise, either at their birth or since. He had gone down to see them after Vayer had come into his life as a child and when he had found they hardly even knew him as anyone other than the Lord of their Demense he had excused himself rather than disturb their otherwise content lives. Being female, they didn't even share his name and to them he was nothing more than a shadowy figure their mothers might have mentioned once or twice.
      Certainly Nashen had not forced his attentions on either woman, but they had both come to his bed simply out of being post and a temporary attraction. When children had resulted, Nashen had set them up for life with Fatima. Occasionally, since, he had looked at a woman with more than simple fondness, but nothing had ever come of it. Mostly he had been content with things as they stood until young Vayer had come tearing into his life with such incredible energy and enthusiasm for everything. Even transfer, once he had found an partner to his taste. Too bad there is no possible way to leave Fatima to him when I am gone. he sorely regretted the fact Lord Fatima had to have the ability to control the weather the way Nashen could.
     
      "Lord Fatima." one of the many, far too obsequious in his opinion, renSime guards had entered his outer sitting room.
      Nashen made sure of his composure before turning around, "Yes"
      "Is m'Lord going to want to accepts guests?"
      It took him a moment to parse this question. There were times when Nashen did not much care for the way renSimes were restricted in education and social contacts. If nothing else the damage they did to the Russian language because of it was abominable. "Certainly," he hoped the woman would be able to understand some long words. When she looked at him blankly, "Show them in."
      "Yes, m'Lord Fatima." she bowed again and then scurried away before he could properly dismiss her. I am so glad I am Lord Fatima and not Lord Kirov. such fawning disgusted Nashen. He stepped through the doorway and closed the door on his private quarters.
      The gentle rising sun feel of Avilan Turovich proceeded him through the wooden door by just enough to warn Nashen to brace himself. As usual when they met informally, Avilan threw himself into Nashen's arms with great enthusiasm and a wonderful kiss. The rest of the Azov household followed him at a more sedate pace. Avilan was still as beautiful as he always had been, a bit of silver in his hair and a few more kilos of muscle were the only evidence of his aging. Their first meeting had been rather inauspicious, with Nashen challenging Karola's right to freedom for the sole purpose of stealing one of those kisses. At the time, Nashen had had no idea all he had to do was ask.
      Karola was also beautiful and now heavily pregnant. She had always carried well and this time seemed to be no exception. Laughing at her mate's antics, she had her hand laid gently on Arkay's arm. "Where's Vayer?" she looked around.
      "He's ... otherwise occupied at the moment." Nashen laid a finger alongside his nose. "One of Arkay's projects seems to have born, rather unexpected fruit." he grinned. "Sit, sit" he told them, waving to the couch with his free hand. The other was still quite well occupied with Avilan.
      "Oh?" Arkay asked with a raised eyebrow and then eased Karola back onto the couch. Sitting next to her with his arm around her shoulders, "How so?"
      With another brief, sweet, kiss, Nashen release Avilan. He sat at their feet with his hand on Karola's knee. "I would love to hear."
      Nashen sat down on a handy chair and leaned against its back, "One of Ilya's get happened to have turned out rather strangely. Her nager is indescribable, but lets leave it to say she suits Vayer as if she were made for him."
      Arkay thought for a moment, "You must be talking about the one out of Salya. She had the darkest, almost negative, nager I had ever sensed."
      "Exactly, its almost as if she were pulling rather than pushing when she reaches out with her field." Nashen confirmed. "Where was Salya from?" he had thought Darya was a product of the Demense.
      "From beyond the southern tribes, actually. They had brought her intending to offer her as tribute to Kirov in return for expanding their trade privileges in furs. We don't deal in human lives but I couldn't let them take Salya back with them, so I took her and told them to never come back until they had pledged to recognize the treaty with have with the other tribes. They swore to do so, but I haven't seen them this far north since." Arkay explained.
      "They probably chose not to recognize the treaty." Karola shrugged.
      "True enough." Arkay agreed. "Anyways, Salya was always an odd woman. Incredibly submissive but I had always thought if she had been raised differently she wouldn't have been." he shrugged.
      "Her daughter is not particularly submissive, a bit timid right now, but I think that's because she has been the black swan among bright yellow ducklings." Nashen told them then looked up. "Speaking of which..." Vayer had poked his head around the door. "Come in, youngsters."
      Vayer was at least wearing a pair of pants, even if they had certainly seen better days. Darya had simply grabbed whatever was handy and it was more than a bit small on her. "We were hoping to sneak through to the shower." Vayer said.
      "Then get. We'll be talking here for a while." the two scooted through the room and soon Nashen could hear them laughing and playing in the bath.
      "Wow!" Karola's nose twitched. Nashen sniffed and realized what had brought about the comment. They had been a very fragrant pair of young people. He grinned.
      "I would assume the quite, um, mature looking, young woman is Darya?" Avilan asked looking towards the doorway they had vanished through with interest.
      "Most likely so, given what Salya looked like." Arkay was looking in the same direction as Avilan.
      "Gentlemen." Karola said sharply, although she looked intrigued as well.
      Nashen had to laugh, all three of them were staring intently like a trio of cats who had spotted a bird. "A word of advice. Don't hide your appreciation when they return. Darya seems to think she is fat."
      "Silly girl." Avilan said emphatically, which got him a gentle swat from Karola.
      "I agree with you completely, Avilan." Nashen concurred.
      "It seems Vayer thinks so as well, at least from the grin on his face." Arkay laughed. "I'm glad to see him looking so well, particularly after the incident in the river." he glared darkly at Nashen.
      "What incident, Arkay?" Karola asked.
      "You didn't tell them you keeled over on me?" Nashen stared back at Arkay.
      "No" Arkay looked away.
      Nashen described what had happened and shrugged, "It wasn't a big deal until someone here fell on their nose."
      "But he could have died, Nashen!" Arkay protested.
      "Thats why I keep an eye on 'em. And wear these," he showed them the knives he almost always wore, "in case someone does get trapped. Theres a lot of junk lying about on the bottom of the channel. The kids aren't always as careful about staying clear of a lot of the old trash."
      "Arkay came home and told us you had taught Vayer how to really swim." Karola glared at Arkay. So did Avilan.
      "A pike almost taught him how to walk on water." he grinned. "He was born to work the river. As soon as he saw the others in the water he joined them and hasn't looked back since. Did Arkay happen to mention the time Vayer and his buddies, Taryana and Kelyaren, managed to take him in the salle?"
      "No, he didn't." Avilan said darkly, "But I would have loved to hear about it."
      "Me too." Karola chimed in. "He clobbers me far to often to not want to hear about him ending up on the bottom."
      So he told them the story with elaborate embellishment. By the end of it both Avilan and Karola were howling with laughter. Arkay was grinning sheepishly.


CHAPTER 7


      "I think this is for you, sweet." Vayer held out the kador Nashen had left lying on the bed. He wasn't looking forward to her being all shielded again but then he also was not too secure yet in letting others zlin Darya either. He had already gotten dressed and was enjoying watching her combing her hair. Vayer wasn't too sure yet of what he was doing to be able to finish the job. The soft wool with its bright embroidery of stars lay across his hands, far lighter and far more well crafted than the kador she had left behind.
      "Are you sure?" she asked dubiously.
      "Why else would he have gotten it out?" he stroked the beautiful fabric, watching his own field shift and distort through the metal woven into it.
      "I suppose there is that." she grinned and held out her hands.
      "Here, let me." he put it on her, not incidentally taking the opportunity to appreciate her loveliness yet again. The thin, soft underclothes she wore were hardly but a whisper against his palms as he slid his hands over her curves in the process of helping her dress.
      She shook out her now damp hair, "It feels strange not to be wearing a hood or veil."
      Vayer thought she looked magnificent with the black of Fatima setting off her only slightly lighter eyes and dusky skin. This robe, unlike the one she had been wearing earlier was also of a very different cut.
      She turned to look in the mirror and her eyes widened, "Oh my goodness." Her hands went to her cheeks and then ran down the length of her body.
      "No one will ever mistake you for a twig now, or a boy for that matter." somehow the designer of the garment had managed to turn what was normally a shapeless bag into something that outlined her figure without it being obvious or vulgar.
      "I would say not." she laughed. "Do you really like the way I look?"
      "Haven't I shown you already." he put his arms around her and pulled her against him, proving his words.
      She laughed gaily, "Not again. I won't be able to walk!"
      "I can see certain advantages there." he tipped her chin up so he could kiss her.
      "Your parents are waiting for us, Vayer." she reminded him softly when they were done.
      "A moment." he readjusted himself so as not to be so obvious. "Shall we go?" he offered her his arm.
      "Certainly, m'lord." she took it.
     
      As soon as they entered the sitting room again, this time far more decorously, Vayer saw all three of his parents immediately track on Darya with rather appreciative looks. Nashen turned his head and actually whistled, "Very nice, m'Lord Darya."
      She turned her head the side shyly but everyone present could sense her field ring with delight. "Thank you." she curtseyed with a graceful sweep of dark wings.
      "Very nice, indeed." Karola's eyebrows rose. "Welcome to the family, young Darya."
      "Welcome, Darya." Arkay added, "You are far more beautiful than Salya and she was exquisite."
      Avilan simply reached out gently to stroke his warm honey-gold field over hers and she preened at the attention.
      Vayer held her hand possessively and they sat on the smaller couch against the north wall, completing the triangle. He put his arm around her and rested his chin on her shoulder, basking in her coolness.
      "We do have some information for you, lord Vayer Fatima." Karola said.
      Straightening up, he looked at her curiously, and then as the formal address hit he realized some of it at least would be bad news.
      "To begin with, the good news. Your brother Vanya established last month, and your sister, Arkyana went through changeover almost a week ago."
      "Congratulations on both." Nashen told them.
      "The bad news. Sharm Lord Vanya Sergei is training them as his replacements and will be stepping down this fall. He does not wish to have to go through another winter, now that there is someone who can take his place." there were tears running down her face by the time she finished.
      Vayer couldn't say anything he was crying so hard. Darya held him but even that was small comfort.
      Nashen said quietly. "I wish I could have known him better." He too was crying.
      "Young Arkyana will be taking her ascention at the fall equinox." too well, Vayer knew what she meant. Guilt at leaving his sister to face the task he shirked made him cringe.
      "My father is very old now and his health has been failing him more and more every winter." Arkay blinked back tears, "He is of the opinion, and rightly I think, better to step down now while it is his choice."
     
      Life does go on Vayer thought, No matter the vicissitudes of fate. He looked out over the prow of the boat to try to find a good landing place. Nashen had taken him and, surprisingly, Darya with him on this summer's trading venture to the eastern tribes. He had been trying to negotiate the sale of three mares for over a year now and it hadn't been working over the distance. It was to be a relatively short venture. A good experience for the young people, Nashen had told them before they left Moskva.
      "There's a storm coming in I can't steer, lad. Step right along." Nashen pointed to a likely looking stretch of shoreline.
      It did look like a good spot. Throwing off his tunic and stepping out of his trousers, Vayer dove into the water with the tow rope. He went ashore and using a rather scrubby looking tree for leverage pulled their craft onto the sand. The other crew members led the horses ashore and helped set up the night's camp.
     
      "We would have had to strike off across land fairly soon anyways." Nashen said over the rush of water sheeting off their tent.
      Diomid had also come with them and was looking around curiously, "I haven't been outside the city in my entire life."
      "You keep saying that, m'Lord, and I'll swat you one." Vayer grinned at the older man, not too seriously. Vayer had always like Diomid, personally. He had grown up with him as almost another father and mentor.
      "No, don't do that. I've seen you in the salle." Diomid leaned back in mock terror. Of course Vayer had also faced him in the salle as a child. Now would be another matter entirely.
      Darya laughed, "You don't have to spar with him." She had improved tremendously since she had come to Fatima but she was at best an indifferent fighter. It seems her true passion in life was learning. Vayer had found out shortly after they came together, if he wanted her attention, hide her books.
      "I love it out here." Nashen stretched towards the center of the peaked roof. Diomid actually was relaxed enough now with them to look at his partner with gentle eyes, suprising Vayer. He had never seen Diomid be this personable with anyone. From the time Vayer was fairly young, he could only remember Diomid being alone with no permanant partner. There had been rumors of some great tradgedy in Diomid's past, but no one would speak of it if they even knew.
      "Its so much quieter." Vayer noted, only to be contradicted as some idiot tried to make a dash through the rain and trip over a tent peg with a loud wet smack as he hit the ground. Darya giggled. "I didn't intend to lie." he grinned at the curses the unknown male was making over his predicament.
      "Creative." Nashen noted.
      "Very" Darya grinned, "I don't think even Avilan could quite manage such inventiveness."
      "He practices in secret." Vayer told her in a stage whisper, making everyone laugh. He and Nashen then took their swords down off the cross piece of the tent frame to inspect them.
      "I hope we won't have to use these." Nashen said grimly as he pulled the blade and checked the sheen of oil along its length.
      Vayer moved back a bit and drew his own. The light shimmered over the damascene patterning. There was a spot he wanted to touch up and he got out a soft cloth. It felt the same, physically, as his practice weapon, but when he zlinned it, the layers of metal refracted the fields into shifting rainbows of light. The balance was almost perfect now, he noted. Darya sat and watched him, fascinated as she always was when she watched Vayer and Nashen at practice. "I hope so as well, Nashen." he said softly and now, without even looking, returned it to its sheath.
      "How did you know Arkay would give me the use of his sword?" for the one he carried now was the one which had lived for centuries, as far as Vayer knew, on the throne of Russia. It had been replaced for a long time with a replica, which had now formally taken its place since the original had a bearer.
      "One of those Fatima hints." Nashen grinned, referring to the Demense tradition of encouraging things to turn out the way she wished by subtle manipulation of politics. "Seriously though, I think it was simply a case of a sword made for someone of your build, which happened to end up on the throne. To my own superstitious mind," he finished wiping the excess oil off his own blade and reasheathed it, "live blades should not be left alone. I am far happier with the sword on the throne being a practice weapon. Particularly since we have not had a swordsman as ruler since ..."
      "Lord Gartiry Fatima in the third century after founding." Darya supplied.
      "Thank you. Yes, since the third century." he looked at Darya pointedly. "You would think I would have known that."
      She shrugged, "Some people know things, others do them. I couldn't manage a sword unless my life depended on it." Working together, they had managed to teach Darya the basics but she was right. It was not a passion for her like it was for Nashen and Vayer.
      "Then I shall always be there to defend you, my love." Vayer said extravagantly. Darya looked back at him with adoration.
     
      "Pfaugh! You bring a beardless boy to our tents. What kind of fool do you think I am?" Salin Ibram Dari spat on the rocky soil. "He even carries a sword. Did you want to insult us this way?"
      Needless to say, the negotiations were not going well. They had begun favorably, thanks mostly to Arkay having loaned him the use of Kirum, an entire male son of Kika, as a mount. The moment they saw Vayer, mounted on his mare, they had a fit. "He is my son, learning my trade, honored Salin."
      "On a mare? Besides, he can be no son of yours. I well know you have none." this had always been a problem with this tribe. A man's strength was judged by the stallion he rode and the sons he had sired. They had been seated but Nashen sweated the fact they had not yet been offered bread and salt.
      "May I?" one of Vayer's tentacles flicked the question.
      Don't get us murdered. he thought but gave assent.
      "My most esteemed blood father, Sharm Lord Arkay Sergeyevich," Vayer began in flawless Arabic. Nashen hadn't even known the lad was fluent in any other tongue than Russian. His audience shifted restlessly at Arkay's name and Nashen's eyes narrowed. "has given me over to the teaching of Lord Nashen Fatima as if he were my father. If you wish the proof of blood, I will show you."
      For a moment Nashen relaxed and then a young man from the tribe came up to them, "I demand proof." Oh hell, he just wants the chance to score points. "Blood proof!"
      "My son shall have his proof, infidel. To the death or dismounting!" Ibram called out to his tribe and they screeched and yodeled their battle cry.
      Under its cover, Vayer asked, "May I have the use of Kirum?"
      "Yes, yes. Anything." Nashen was terrified. Vayer had never used a sword from horseback and as far as he knew didn't stand a chance of even controlling the difficult young silver bay stallion Arkay had loaned him. Kirum had dumped him in the dirt half a dozen times so far on this venture and come close to it more times than he wanted to think about.
      "Thank you." Vayer stood. "I accept your ignorant challenge!" at least his voice had settled to a decent baritone Nashen thought. "For the honor of Arkay Sergeyevich and Nashen Fatimovich I shall prove my right as their son when you eat the sand of the arena." What are you doing, Vayer?! he wanted to yell.
      Nashen went with him to reset the stirrups on his saddle and before Vayer mounted, "I do not look forward to going to back to Moskva and having to tell your parents I let you get murdered."
      "You won't." he replied with the most wicked grin Nashen had ever seen in his life and he had seen more than a few of them. Vayer mounted Kirum with an ease of long practice, looking like light in motion as he came to rest on the horse's back. "Stand back." he muttered under his breath and Nashen barely got out of the way before Kirum reared to his full high, standing on his hind legs and waving his forelegs in the air.
      Another stallion screamed in response to the challenge across the gravel strewn area.
      "Will you face me or cower in the shadows of the tents, bint Ibram?!" Vayer called out in response to the horse's challenge. Nashen knew he had gone dead white at Vayer calling the Salin's son his daughter. He heard both Darya and Diomid come up behind him. They were fully veiled, that being the local custom for all adult non-Simes, but he could still zlin Darya's field jitter nervously. Or maybe it was his own.
      "I am Ishan ibn Ibram and I shall water our soil with your blood!" the Salin's son cried out in response and, mounted on a gold bay, came galloping into the open area.
      Before Kirum's front feet had come all the way to the ground, Vayer had drawn his sword and was charging. Nashen didn't want to look but couldn't turn away either. It was almost over before it had begun. When they met Kirum almost managed to drive the lighter gold to his knees.
      Ishan pulled his horse to his feet in an astonishing display of horsemanship. Vayer drove them back, step after step. Never letting Ishan go on the offensive. Nashen saw a flash of light as Vayer shifted his sword to his off hand. With a last parry, he disarmed Ishan off-hand, and then slid alongside him. Vayer leaned over and with his dagger cut the gold's saddle girth. The smaller horse bolted leaving the Salin's son sitting in the dirt. Kirum reared directly over him.
      "I yield!" Ibram screamed and Kirum backed away, still on his hind legs.
      Vayer looked down from his three meter advantage with an expression of sheer contempt on his still youthful face. "Good." Nashen barely heard him and Kirum came down from his rear. The silver bay tossed his head in contemtously.
      He saw Vayer check his sword and resheath it. Invisible from the tribesmen as he walked back, Vayer's sword hand stroked Kirum on the neck lovingly. As he reached them Vayer explained, "Kirum was to be my horse when I established. I grew up with him and trained him, including to fight, with my father's help. I didn't think sword fighting from horseback would be all that different than on foot." He reached forward and rubbed the stallion between his ears with his tentacles. "It wasn't." he shrugged and dismounted.
      "For half-horses like you or your blood father, maybe." Nashen pointed out.
      "I thought it was Avilan who was called Zherebets." Diomid teased.
      "Thats for things other than his riding of horses, sweet." Nashen reminded him and could zlin Darya blush furiously, even behind her veil.
     
      "Come, you will take bread and salt with us?" Salin Ibram was suddenly obsequious.
      Vayer, who had been looking directly over the other man's head, looked down his nose, "We could be convinced." He had his hand on Kirum's crest, still, even after untacking and picketing him. The stallion flattened his black tipped ears back against his skull.
      "We shall talk of gifts to the house of the most honorable Fatima."
      "You should have thought of such before you called for proof, Ibram. Your son was foolish in his pride and made a poor showing."
      Kirum's ears relaxed slightly as Ibram said, "I shall speak with him." Vayer let him lead them away from Kirum.
      Nashen followed along in amazement. He had never seen these people act like this to any outsider.
      "I would certainly hope you would do more than talk, Salin. Such a son does no honor to his family by actions like his." Vayer said darkly, using his Arabic as he had his sword, to bind and trap Salin's weapon.
      "Sit." he waved to the rugs in the open tent. Waiting a fraction of a second behind him, Vayer crossed his legs and came to rest. After Darya sat behind him properly, he waved her forward. Fortunately Diomid got the hint and sat beside Nashen. Vayer took her hand out from the concealment of her robes in what could be seen as a quite obscene display of nager. This time there was bread and salt before them. "Please, eat with us our bread and salt that you may be considered our brother."
      Vayer took the salt and sprinkled a very tiny bit of it to the four directions. Ibram did the same. Then, in a very shocking move, Vayer took a piece of the bread and after biting off a bit offered the rest to Darya. She lowered her veil and accepted it.
      "She is your Alahin, lord Vayer?"
      "She is, and will speak as well."
      "Bring us Arilith!" Ibram called out after they had all eaten of the bread and salt. The sweet, thick, hot beverage was not his favorite, but Vayer drank it as if it had been his mother's milk. Nashen leaned back in wonder as he watched the two young people together manage to almost trade the Salin out of his tent.
      They ended up going back with four mares, all of them in foal, and a iridescent black colt Vayer had picked out of all the Salin's herds. All for half the price Nashen had originally offered. The ride was far better in another way on the return as well, Vayer rode Kirum.


CHAPTER 8


      "Where did you learn to bargain like that?" Nashen asked him as they sat with their feet hanging over the side of the boat and watching the river go by. He had been far quieter on the way back up river, but then he had far more to do with keeping the sails filled so they didn't have to row all the way home.
      Vayer leaned back with his hands wrapped around his now propped up shin, "At my father's knee, where else?" he grinned. "Arkay taught all of us High Simelan, Arabic and English as very young children, when it was far easier. Particularly as I was not expected to go through first year."
      Darya came up behind them and her arms were gentle comfort around his chest. "I learned Arabic from my mother, Nashen. She took the veil after I established and I had been looking forward to talking with her again if she is still alive."
      "If you like, I can find out and see if it would be possible for you to talk with her for a very brief while, Darya." Nashen offered.
      "I think, in some ways, I would rather not, actually. It is one thing to be able to talk with her for an instant and quite another to be able to be close to her again." she sighed. "I would like to know if she is still alive though and if she is content."
      "That would be far simpler to do, actually. I will try." Nashen looked out over the water to the far shore. "I can make no promises though."
      "If you don't mind me asking ..." Vayer was dreadfully curious. He knew his father could, when necessary talk with the veiled, but not with specific individuals.
      "Not at all, however this is not to go beyond Fatima." he warned them.
      "Of course not, now that you have asked." Darya looked and felt as curious as Vayer did.
      "Certainly I would not let such information out." Vayer said as Nashen waited for his response.
      "My sister took the veil when it was found out, well, that she was not entirely female or human." he said softly. "Occasionally she is allowed contact with the outside world, since not only is she veiled, she is a Lord."
      Vayer's tentacles retracted hard at the thought of what was done to make a Lord into one of the veiled, excision of all eight handling tentacles so there would be no way they could actually kill. He was going to say, I'm sorry, but something in Nashen's field held him back.
      "She seems largely content with her life as she finds it now. Tzarya had always been far more interested in her books and histories than the real world, so I suppose it suits her."
      "I can understand why." Darya said softly. "Truthfully, much of why I had wished to take the veil was because I couldn't tolerate being around lords at all and not be able to have transfer. But there also was an element of wanting to learn and study for the rest of my life as well."
      "They might well have accepted you then." Nashen said, "They don't take everyone who offers themselves." Vayer hadn't known that, but then he had never even met one of the veiled who lived in the catacombs beneath the Cathedral of the Ascention.
      "They had already accepted my petition but said I had to wait until I reached my majority." Darya said.
      "I'm glad I got there first." Vayer twined his tentacles with her fingers.
      "Me too." Darya squeezed them.
      "And I as well, Darya." Nashen leaned against them and somehow Darya managed to get both of them in her arms.
     
      "To go back to our earlier topic, Arkay taught all of us the fundamentals. However he also took me down to the horse market and the Southerner's market as well. Some of it I'm sure was to gain a bargaining advantage by taking along his son who could ride almost anything on four legs, particularly when he was selling." Vayer grinned. "But I think it was also to prepare me to take over the Demense of Sergei when I established." he shrugged.
      "Your father is one of the shrewdest traders in horseflesh in Russia. That doesn't quite explain how you managed to get Ibram to back off so completely though." Nashen commented.
      "Oh, that. I saw many of the younger horsemasters try to pull the same stunt on my father." he grinned. "It didn't work with Arkay, but I thought it would be worth a try. Basically when dealing with horse people, speak horse, by using horse body language."
      Darya laughed, "When you looked over Salin's head you were telling him, I'm a bigger, tougher stallion than you are, and you aren't even worth looking in the eye."
      "Exactly so." Vayer laughed. "And when you came up to me you were showing yourself as the lead mare, which, while Ibram would probably not acknowledge it consciously, is the animal who actually leads the herd."
      "Skillfully done. I wish I could learn 'horse'."
      "It is fairly easy, watch them closely when they are in a herd. Arkay pointed out some of it to me, but I spent so much time on horseback and with horses as a child, it is actually more natural for me to use their body language rather than human." He leaned his head back and nibbled on Darya's ear, "I learned a few other things from working with horses so much as well."
      "Is that why you ..." she blushed splendidly, "knew what you were doing so well." Darya finished lamely.
      Nashen laughed loudly, "I had wondered. Most young men haven't a clue and you seemed to be quite self assured, relatively."
      "The same can be said of young stallions. You would not believe how many of them try to breed the head, the flank, the chest, the ..." he laughed gaily. "A lot of people, particularly the older renSimes of Azov were shocked Arkay would bring a child in to help in the breeding shed. His attitude was, if you are going to do something, like be a horseman, you don't do it half way, and that includes breeding. I never did a whole lot more than hold buckets and rags and keep out from underfoot, but I certainly learned some useful things. Including the relative merits of size." he really wanted to make Darya blush.
      It worked magnificently, "Vayer!" She nipped at his shoulder in annoyance.
      To his surprise, Nashen also blushed furiously. "Oh-ho. Two with one comment." Vayer crowed.
     
      Late at night, after they had tied up and everyone else had gone to bed, Vayer went down to the hold of the ship to spend some time with his still unnamed colt. "Chernye" he called out for a lack of anything better. Unfortunately it seemed to have stuck. The young animal whickered at him plaintively. All the other horses had been taken ashore for the night, but unfortunately Chernye was so wild they couldn't tie him. It had taken Vayer over half an hour to get him on board in the first place and before then he had never been quite so glad he had turned out the way he had.
      They did turn him loose at night though and for the first time the colt came up to him willingly. Chernye immediately began investigating his pockets. He reached out to scratch the animal's ears and Chernye tried to pull them away while still sticking his nose in every possible location for a treat. Vayer pulled out a small piece of bread to feed him and this time the colt let him touch his ears.
      He had seen this yearling still running with the bachelor band as soon as they had arrived at the nomad's camp and hadn't even dared think of taking him back with them. When he managed to land Ibram's son so easily on the ground, the first thing he thought of was seeing if he could manage to trade for him. True, lords never rode stallions in Moskva, but at least outside the city he would be able to ride this lad when he had grown to bear a saddle.
      Vayer went to go get a brush to see if he could get this half wild colt to stand for a bit of grooming. As he made his way back to where the tack was stored Chernye followed him tentatively. Then he snorted and stomped a foot. Someone is here he tried to zlin and got nothing. Tracking on the colt's attention he figured the person was crouched in a corner of one of the now cleaned out stalls. Chernye danced backwards. Good lad he thought, not sure if the person was friend or foe.
      Whistling to mask any extraneous noise he tried to tempt whoever it was out. As soon as he reached down to pick up a brush, they let go of their field and charged. "Tyanir!" he shouted, recognizing the red tinged silver gray feel of him, but it was far, far stronger than he remembered. Vayer dropped to the floor and spun to the side letting the other man overreach and run into the bulkhead. Pain sheeted across his vision from the outlaw hitting his head. Despite it, Vayer jumped for him and pinned him face down on the floor. His own breath caught as he cracked one of the other man's ribs in the process.
      Tyanir screamed in pain and frustration. Without thinking about it, Vayer wrenched Tyanir's arms behind his back. Never before had he felt the sheeting and tempting pain caused by pinching someone's nerves through their shoulders. Want! his body screamed at him. His tentacles lashed themselves around Tyanir's arms, including his laterals. The other man's fear though, drove him to make the fifth contact point. The red silver which had once so badly hurt him was now Vayer's. He pulled the red-silver as hard as he could, driven on by its pain and fear until it was all gone, burned to ash. Vayer screamed his triumph over his enemy into the dark night.
     
      Nashen opened his eyes to hear something he had never wanted to hear again, Tyanir. He rolled out of his bedroll and grabbed his sword off the crosspiece. Then his eyes closed and he shivered as the death scream of a kill rang over the encampment to be followed by Vayer's howl of triumph. Oh hell he put his sword back up and walked towards the boat, where all the noise had come from. There were a number of other people stirring and he told them to go back to sleep.
      You're too young, lad. Vayer's eyes blazed at him out of the darkness, still hot after his kill. Nashen stopped at the doorway. "Proud of yourself for killing a fellow human being, Vayer?" he added as much scorn as possible to his voice.
      "He was outlaw and mine!" Vayer hissed in absolute mindless fury.
      "He was human!" Nashen bore down on him and the darkness was relived slightly by the eerie blue-white glare of lightning.
      "NO!" Vayer screamed like a hawk, "NO!"
      At least he isn't moving Nashen cautiously walked forward. "No matter what he had done, he is dead Vayer. You can never take that back!" he glared down into the younger man's eyes.
      "I wouldn't want ..." he snarled then looked down at Tyanir's still form and paused for a long moment. "I wouldn't want to." he said calmly, sanely.
      Nashen closed his eyes in relief and dismissed his lightnings. Thank you, Allah. he prayed fervidly then knelt beside Vayer. "I wouldn't want you to either, but you had to acknowledge he was human and realize you had taken a life, however rightfully, Lord Vayer."
      The young man sobbed heavily and threw himself into Nashen's arms. The colt came over to them and nuzzled Vayer's hair gently. "Don't nip, Chernye." he gently pushed the young animal's mouth away when it had become too familiar with one of Vayer's ears. Nashen had to chuckle softly at the exchange. Even in such extremes as these, Vayer was still a horseman.
      Finally finished crying over what he had done, Vayer looked up at him. "That was horrible, now that I can think about it."
      "It was. Would you do it again?" this was the hardest question of all.
      Vayer was silent for a long time then said one simple word, "Yes."
      "I will have to report this to your father and his decision will be final, but despite your age, I think he will agree with me." Nashen took a deep breath, "You are now truly adult. There is nothing more I can teach you except as a peer and a friend."
      "I would like very much for those to stay true, my dearest friend." Vayer's hand was rough against his cheek and he leaned into his touch.
      "As would I, Vayer, my closest friend."
     
      In the dark of night, they tied rocks to Tyanir's ankles and dropped him into the deepest part of the river. "And done." Vayer stated. "I will report the kill myself, so Arkay no longer has to worry about Tyanir showing up unexpectedly somewhere."
      Nashen was more than proud of Vayer, standing straight and tall now. "We will tell him together."
      After having asked the guards, Nashen had found out Tyanir killed one of their number to get through their line. With a little more investigation they had found his abandoned tent where he had obviously been living for the past months. Glad to have at least that one loose thread cleared up, Nashen looked forward to yet the next disaster with a sort of grim wariness.
     
      Throwing off his blankets with a snarl for the recalcitrant weather, Nashen got out of his bedroll. They were hardly even a day outside Moskva. He had wanted to be home before his next transfer with Diomid and now this. Early this afternoon Nashen had felt the barometer drop like a rock and had barely enough time to get all the horses ashore. Vayer had stepped in and sent all non-essential personnel home ahead of them. Good man he had managed to appreciate the wisdom of the decision as soon as everyone had packed up and ran ahead of the rain for the safety of the city.
      Now it was the four of them plus a handful of renSime guards. Together, he and Vayer could easily manage the boat alone as soon as the damn storm cleared. Vayer stirred restlessly in his sleep and wrapped himself even more tightly around Darya. Enough he didn't bother with a shirt over his loose trousers and went outside. It was as if he stepped into a shower, a very cold shower. Actually it felt good running over his swollen, hot roniplin glands. Natural lightning flickered across the heavy clouds overhead.
      Reaching out with his innate ability to manipulate the weather Nashen submerged his awareness into the towering clouds. Damn storm it seemed to have settled entirely into the river valley and looked as if it were going to stay here, unless I do something about it. I'm too close to need for this to be entirely sensible, but I don't want to stay here until the end of the week either. He reached up with hands and mind toward the storm overhead and lashed the belly of the storm with his own lightning. From ground to earth, again and again, he played his lightning over the rain swollen clouds until the storm stopped responding to his prodding. With an enormous crack a bolt of natural lightning returned to the ground not ten meters away.
      The rain was now coming down in sheets, blinding anyone trying to use their eyes to see with. He caught a stray lightning bolt coming down in the wrong place and directed it to an old oak tree next to the river. Need forgotten in the sheer power coursing through his body, Nashen waited out the worst of the storm to be sure the lightning didn't hit the tents or the boat. Eventually both the rain and the lightning tapered off. The rest of the clouds began sliding off towards the south-east, following the river. A few flickers of light playing across the bottom of the storm was all that remained of the earlier firestorm between the heavens and earth.
      As soon as he released control over the storm, the black void of need opened beneath Nashen's previous denial. Not yet! he forced himself back to the real world, concentrating on trying to wring some of the water out his white-blond hair. It was still raining, but nothing like it had been before. He looked up and noted all the clouds would be gone by morning. Stiffly, focusing on every step and the very physical feel of the damp turf beneath his feet, he walked back to the tent. Some of the clouds had parted enough to even allow some light to shine down from the quarter moon.
      He looked up from the ground beneath him to see Darya standing in the now gentle drizzle and holding her hands out to him. She backed up a step and he followed. "Come on, come back to the tent." she purred. Not her, not Vayer's mate. he promised himself Diomid. Still focusing on his own physical body so as not to fall on her so very tempting ... Nashen cut off the thought. Darya had retreated entirely into the tent and he followed her.
      With a hiss of shock he zlinned around for the warm smooth feel of Diomid! He wasn't here. "Where is he?" Nashen turned back to the door flap to see Vayer standing there, calmly. Behind him he could feel the incredible, smooth feel of Darya as she relaxed her controls, zlinning almost like the moon outside.
      "Go on." Vayer said lovingly and waved him towards Darya.
      "Please." Darya said and enticed him even more.
      Wavering between should and want he stood, stock still. Vayer walked up to him and he felt the younger man's hot, fiery field touch his need and bring it forth. He handed it to the cool dimness which was now in front of him. For a moment he dropped back to the physical world and kissed Darya passionately, well aware of Vayer's hand hot against his back in approval.
      The smooth cool darkness tempted the black void of his need, drawing it out. He reached out for the teasing energy just out of reach until his need reared up inside him with its uncontrollable desire to take. The moonstruck storm cloud feel drove into him, overwhelming his need with a great rush. YES the animal darkness was vanquished as they twined their souls together.


CHAPTER 9


      Vayer woke with a start at the first flash of lightning and enormous thunderclap. So did everyone else in the tent. Then the rain poured down even harder, drowning out all but the loudest of conversation.
      "Where is Nashen?" Diomid asked loudly from his pile of blankets. The air had cooled a great deal from the sultry warmth of the late summer afternoon. He blinked sleepily, not entirely awake.
      Reaching out through the pouring water, Vayer found him. "He's driving the storm so it will pass." he almost shouted.
      "He's almost in hard need." Darya reminded them.
      Nashen had told all of them the basics of how his weather talent worked.
      "He's going to come back almost in attrition from the sounds of things." Diomid pointed with his field to the raging lightning and thunder tearing down outside the tent.
      "Vayer?" Darya said under the cover of all the noise for his ears only.
      "Yes sweet?" Vayer asked, wondering why she was so nervous all of a sudden.
      "Would you mind if ..." she paused.
      "Mind if?"
      "I would like to give Nashen a son." she said in a rush.
      Stunned for a moment, Vayer held her closely. Then thinking about the way he had been acting lately, particularly with the way the nomads had treated him for his lack, he nodded. "So would I, Darya."
      "Diomid?"
      "Yes Vayer?" the older man shook himself out of his concentration for Nashen's return.
      "How attached are you to having transfer with Nashen this month?" he did not want to push Diomid aside lightly. Vayer himself was working off his kill and wouldn't be wanting Darya for at least another three weeks, which was certainly close enough for a shunt.
      "Not very, actually." Vayer could zlin his field hiccup in a shrug, "I would guess Darya would like to take Nashen this time?" he almost grinned at Diomid's rather obscene word for take.
      "I wouldn't have put it that way, but yes." she said, rather primly.
      "Thank you both. I really like him too and I think you are doing the right thing." Diomid said almost inaudibly.
      Vayer hadn't been aware of how fond Diomid had been for the older man. Usually Diomid hid his feelings very deeply behind his facade of smooth manners and glib tongue. "You're welcome." Vayer said simply.
      "I think I will be able to find a nice warm corner of another tent." Diomid stood, "Good luck." he vanished into the night.
     
      Nashen's long, almost white, hair was shocking against Darya's dark skin. Absolutely stunning to look at Vayer thought absently as he stroked his hand over Nashen's back. His own body ached with wanting release, but Vayer didn't want to confuse the issue.
      He slowed and then came to a stop, "I'm sorry, I can't ..." Nashen slumped against her. They had managed once, barely. Unable to stay his hand any longer, Vayer leaned over and bit at he top of Nashen's shoulder. "Vayer, unless ..." Nashen's voice trailed off in a hiss as Vayer dug his hand into the sleek muscle of the older man's back. "Don't tease." he moaned.
      "I'm not." Vayer growled, deep in his throat.
      The second time was definitely a success, for all three of them.
     
      "Good morning, sleepy." Vayer murmured against Nashen's broad back when he finally woke. Last night had certainly been interesting, but not something Vayer had any great desire to repeat. The gentle presence of his friend was far more to his taste than the hot desire of last night.
      "Mmmm... Good morning." Nashen said drowsily and Vayer could feel him pull Darya closer.
      "Good morning, loves." she said, far too brightly for both their tastes as Nashen cringed slightly and Vayer flinched.
      Vayer could feel Nashen resettle himself so he would be a bit more comfortable, "Are you sure Arkay is your father and not Avilan?"
      "Entirely." he laughed softly. "From what I have heard, I am built nothing like Avilan in certain regards." There was nothing Vayer could do about waking up in such a condition.
      "No, but you do share a certain, enthusiasm." at which Darya chuckled wickedly. "Greedy lass" he stroked her hip.
      "Yes" she said plainly, making them both laugh softly. "However, this morning, I think we might want to think about getting home."
      "Unfortunately you are quite right." Nashen yawned and stretched out his handling tentacles. "Are you going to take care of things, or shall I?" he stroked her belly.
      "Neither, love." she held his hand still.
      He stiffened in complete and utter shock. "Hush, Nashen." Vayer whispered in his ear.
      "You can't ... you couldn't possibly ..." Vayer could feel his entire body shake.
      "We want to, love. Please?" Darya asked quietly.
      "Both of us do." Vayer added softly, holding Nashen to him.
      Then Nashen was crying in his arms, but his field was the purest joy and wonder Vayer had ever sensed.
     
      Even as they returned to the Fatima docks, Nashen still had a tendency to look over at Darya occasionally in surprise and wonder. Diomid had had to hide his grin behind his hand the first time he saw Nashen give her one of those looks. Vayer knew he was the one who looked like the one who had caught Darya, but in an odd way he supposed that was true. They had actually stayed around for another day to simply regroup and rest for a bit before returning home.
      As far as any one could tell this early, their trick had worked. It would be another week or so before they could be sure, though. With a sigh he watched a young woman leap out from the pier to catch up their tow rope. Never again he realized.
      "I miss it too, sometimes." Nashen put one arm around his shoulders with Darya safely under his other arm.
      "What do the youngsters do in winter?"
      "Don't have anywhere near as much fun." Nashen grinned. "They get to keep the ski trails and snowshoe paths clear through the local forests."
      "Such hardship." Darya laughed.
      "Really." Vayer agreed.
      Then he saw Arkay waiting for them by the boat house. For the first time in his life, Vayer realized his father was getting old. Even at this distance he could see the heavy lines drawn on his father's countenance by the years and shivered at their implication.
      They disembarked and went up to him.
      "We were waiting on your return." Arkay said softly. "There is a problem with Arkyana's ascention."
      Vayer had been afraid of this. His elder sister had never been particularly strong willed or aggressive, both traits required as a Lord, he now knew far too well. "We have work to do." he tried to delay the inevitable.
      "This evening, Lord Vayer?" Arkay leaned on his new title, despite the fact no one had told him.
      I don't suppose Sharm Lord Arkay would miss something that significant, "Very well." Vayer bowed his head to necessity.
     
      Nashen tried to hide himself entirely in both Darya's and Diomid's fields. Father and son had been screaming at each other in fury for over half an hour already. "Why in hell can't you find anyone else!" Vayer was actually, physically pushing at Arkay's chest he was so angry.
      "Because Vanya had been getting rid of every single Lord who could take the Demense for the last thirty years." Arkay's field lashed at Vayer's shielding.
      "There are other Lords in Russia." Vayer pointed out.
      "Yes, Lord Kirov, Lord Fatima,"
      "Leave me out of this Arkay, I don't want it." Nashen interjected, just to be ignored entirely.
      "Lord Azov, and Lord Maryam. Right now we barely have enough people to fill the leadership positions which aren't open. There are currently only two Lords alive who have any real power who aren't the heads of a Demense, you and Lord Krasna Kirov! She is required to keep Kirov going." Arkay glared at his son in fury.
      "What happened to the plan of ascending Arkyana?" Nashen asked quietly and got glared at by both of them.
      "My beloved sister has the will of a butterfly on her good days." Vayer said bitterly, but not without a touch of fondness, nonetheless.
      "Essentially true. There is no way she is going to be able to manage the ascention, much less the Demense. Even with Vanya at her side." Arkay told him succinctly.
      "Avilan found Karola at Sergei." Vayer started their fight back up again.
      "After that incident, my beloved father sent away to either Maryam or Azov, anyone with the least trace of power beyond that of a lord." Arkay snorted in disgust. "Probably why, despite the fact I have over a dozen half-sibs, none of them turned out with the strength to be able to set a broken bone, much less be able to heal a broken mind."
      "I can't leave Darya." Vayer repeated himself. Nashen closed his eyes in sorrow of this evidence of Vayer beginning to lose the fight with his father. Arkay had insisted Vayer leave her for a woman bearing the Sergei genes. Nashen knew, with that stipulation, he would never have Vayer willingly go to Sergei.
      "Certainly you can leave Sharm Lord Fatima. Particularly now that she is bearing Lord Fatima's son." Arkay hammered with all his might at Vayer's reluctance with a particularly low blow. Nashen had no idea how he could be so certain this soon but knew Arkay had never been wrong in the past on such matters.
      "Her son is mine as well, Sharm Lord Arkay!" Vayer screamed at the top of his lungs and his light storm lashed at Arkay's shields. Darya was shivering in dread at Nashen's side and he leaned against her to try to comfort her.
      "It will be all right love." he murmured in her ear, not at all sure though. He stroked her back and felt Diomid add his gentle warmth and care to Nashen's trying to sooth Darya.
      "Not by the laws of the Demense, young Lord. She became Sharm Lord Fatima when she took his hand in transfer, her bearing his child makes it irrevocable till the child is born."
      "I don't give a damn about the law or the traditions. I love Darya and will not leave her." he punctuated each of these words with yet another field strike.
      "I am the law of the Demense and you will do as I say!" Arkay hammered right back. Nashen wouldn't have been able to survive even a single one of the blows Arkay rained down on his own son.
      "If you continue to abuse your power in this fashion I will challenge your right to rule, father or no." Vayer's voice went as hard and flat as steel. His power reared up in a visible threat behind him, like a great shining sword aimed at Arkay's bare throat.
      He couldn't let this go any further, "Vayer, no. You can't kill your own father over this. I will keep Darya safe until the day you can step down from Sergei. Arkay has a son and a daughter who have yet to mature. If not them, search until you find a replacement." Darya was crying broken heartedly against his chest and he stroked her back. Her field was rock solid though, she agreed with him. Vayer could not be allowed to challenge for the throne.
      "If you, my beloved friend, say so." tears were streaming down Vayer's face. "You may have once been a one I would have willingly called father. No longer, after your blackmail and threats. I deny and revoke the use of the name Arkayevich for myself from this day forward. Now OUT!" he shouted at his father and opened the door with his will. Arkay had no choice but to take his ashen victory and leave.
     
      Vayer had made certain Darya was going to be all right and then disappeared so as not to possibly hurt either of them. Nashen knew quite well where he was likely to find him. The lights were almost out in the salle, but Nashen could clearly see Vayer kneeling at its center. His sword was bare in front of him and Nashen could see the tiny cuts Vayer had made on the backs of his hands. There was a faint trace of blood on the blade and Nashen knew there would be another on the other side.
      In a purely physical move of incredible grace Vayer took the sword into his hand and swept to his feet. For a single heartbeat he was a statue of black, silver and red. With breathtaking ease he slid into the first sword dance and the first level of augmentation. Shadows danced against the walls. Finishing the first, Vayer slid into the second without a pause and upped his level of augmentation. Again and again he went through the dances with heart stopping beauty, peaking with the tenth dance, the one Nashen had only been able to describe to him, for he couldn't manage either the augmentation or the moves.
      Then he repeated it adding the nageric moves to fit the physical. Nashen was literally in awe of Vayer's flawless execution of the seemingly impossible dance of nager and steel. When he had finished the tenth pattern again he slowed and repeated the ninth, this time with Vayer's field matching and complementing his blade work. Down through the levels until he replaced his sword in front of him by the force of his mind and came to rest kneeling. The room was again silent.
     
      Vayer cleaned the blade of his own blood, sheathed it and tried to return it to Nashen. "It is yours. I will not take it from you." he refused.
      "Only Fatima may bear a sword." Vayer reminded him.
      "You are correct. If you wish, since you are now fatherless, I would call you Vayer Fatimovich."
      "I am not of your blood." he protested.
      "You are of the blood of the sword, the river, the horse and the trader. No matter your sire or dam, you are a true son of Fatima."
      "Then I shall be known from this day forward as Vayer Fatimovich, as Allah wills."
      Nashen almost stumbled at Vayer's addition. Only Fatima held to the true faith and he had never told Vayer her deepest secret. To the other Demense, religion was a tool to control the masses, to Fatima religion was far more and she would have been persecuted and ridiculed if it had ever become known.
      "Ins'Allah, Vayer Fatimovich, for now until the gates of Paradise open for you."
      "Ins'Allah, Nashen Fatimovich, may our faith and our truth bring us together again this side of Paradise."
     
      From that time forward, Nashen did not see Vayer again until he became Lord Sergei. However he and Darya spent dark lonely nights talking with each other for hours on end. When he found out Darya also shared their faith, he had to ask, "Did you know about Vayer?"
      She actually giggled for the first time since he had left, "It was rather obvious, Nashen."
      "How so?" he propped himself up on one elbow and looked down at her.
      "Didn't you notice?" she blushed and waved her hand around.
      "Notice what?" he was getting into the spirit of the game, but he still couldn't quite figure out what she was talking about.
      "He had been cut." she stammered. Oh a light dawned. Arkay wasn't and neither was Avilan. And neither had he been before he had come to Fatima. Nashen realized this as he reviewed his memories of the few times Vayer had come to Fatima as a child and gone swimming in some of the shallow pools along the river. However when he had been towing the boats after truly escaping Azov he had been.
      My son, why have you been reft from me? he wailed in his mind. Even Darya couldn't call him back from his overwhelming sorrow after that.


CHAPTER 10


      Vayer began to take off his knives in their harnesses in preparation for donning the white of Sergei. No he stopped and refastened the single release he had undone. I will wear white for the love I bear my grandfather, but no one shall take my steel. With ceremonious care he took off his black and reverently put it away in the bottom of his tiny chest. I would have lived this way if I had not been born to Azov. he looked around the tiny cubicle so much like the one his mother had described living in beneath Sergei. He had refused to live above until after the ceremony.
      Wanting nothing more to do with Arkay's machinations, Vayer now lived as any other young lord. Until today, when Sergei himself had asked, Vayer had also still worn the black of Fatima. Chernye had stayed behind with the Fatima bachelor herd in their pastures to the north west of the city, but that was probably only because no one had thought to mention him. Kirum had gone back to Azov even before his final confrontation with Arkay.
      He had to give Arkay one thing, he hadn't taken back the two mares he had given Nashen. There was a knock at the door and Vayer turned away from it before whoever it was opened it. Grabbing a pair of loose trousers, he put them on hurriedly, "Yes?"
      "I would speak with you, Lord Vayer." Sergei said from behind him.
      With a start he turned around rapidly and waved the other man to sit on the bed. It was the only reasonably comfortable seat in the room. Sergei took it with a sigh, "You did not want any of this, did you lad?"
      Vayer shook his wrist to resettle the harness he had loosened, "At one time it was my heart's desire, grandfather."
      "No more."
      "No, not any longer." he shook his head sadly. "Before I went to Fatima, perhaps. Not now."
      "Do you truly care for Darya and Nashen so very much?"
      "Darya, Nashen, Kelyaren, Taryana, Vassily, the river, Fatima herself," he had to stop as tears choked him again.
      "And?"
      "Yes and that as well." he realized Sergei had noticed what he had had done when he accepted Fatima into his heart and soul.
      "You are a fool, youngster." Sergei said sadly. "There is no future for you with Fatima. She is a fickle mistress, my lad."
      "So is the river and the weather, she is master of both." Vayer blazed.
      "You are not a master of the weather, Vayer. Without that you can never be Lord Fatima." Sergei still had a will of iron.
      "My son can be." he looked Sergei straight in the eyes, secure in his own mind.
      "The child Darya bears is no son of yours." Sergei insisted. All his birth family but Avilan continually maintained his love of Darya was merely a youthful infatuation.
      "She is my bond mate and my love. No words of yours or anyone's can change that fact." continually he worried about her. When Arkay had stated she did bear a son, he had a vision of Darya dying in childbed.
      "So strong, so young, my beloved grandson." Sergei's voice had softened and Vayer looked at him in astonishment. "Yes, I was testing you apart from Arkay. My son can be vindictive and harsh, almost as harsh to others as he can be to himself. I will not last another winter, we both know that. Take Sergei for me until you find another heir and return to Fatima with my blessing, Vayer Fatimovich. Perhaps Sergei can protect Darya from your vision in return to your service to him."
      "If only such dreams could come true," Vayer went and sat at his grandfather's feet as he had so very many times as a child.
      "Dreams can come true, but are you willing to pay their blood price, my beloved with the soul of steel?"
      "For love, I will pay the price and gladly."
      "Never say gladly, for such dreams are often as bitter as gall when given." with these words, Sergei got up and left. Vayer never spoke with him again.
     
      In the short time Vayer had left to him before taking on the Demense of Sergei he had managed to get out once and find a sword belt and sheath in white. It had cost him dearly, but he was not going to leave his soul behind on a peg. He ran the soft black cloth over the blade one more time. The patterns folded into the steel refracted the light and selyn into a million rainbows. He put away the cloth, making sure it didn't show against his white clothes, then sheathed his sword. I'm as ready as I'll ever be he took a deep breath, a flicker of memory almost made him stumble. I seriously doubt I will want to hide behind a tapestry today, despite being in hard need.
      He stepped out into the hall and heard the whispers of shock at his bearing steel at such an occasion. Ignoring them, he stared into his grandfather's luminous gray-blue eyes. Unable to afford any distractions he dared not look around to see who was saying what. Sharm Lord Vanya Sergei's silver hair was a frozen waterfall across the multicolored firebird of Sergei on his long white train.
      Vayer knelt before Sergei and extended all his tentacles, holding iron control over his desire to rise up and take the glorious sparkling grey mist before him. The mist reached down and caressed them, drawing him back to his feet. "I accept Lord Vayer Fatimovich Fatima as regent in my place until such time as the next Sharm Lord Sergei shall be selected."
      Arkay and most of the court hissed their displeasure at Sergei's words and Vayer lashed out at them with his field, silencing them instantly. "I shall ward Sergei against all challengers until such time as I select your rightful heir, Sharm Lord Vanya Sergeyevich Sergei."
      "It shall be noted and made law. Lord Vayer Fatimovich shall be regent and not Lord Sergei." Vayer almost jumped at the strange, almost alien voice coming from an entirely veiled figure standing beside Arkay. "Proceed"
      *I love you, grandfather* Vayer sent as he accepted Sergei's arms into the grasp of his tentacles.
      *I love you, my grandson, and I can not thank you enough for your love and your service to Sergei* he heard and then the silver, sparkling mist filled his mind and his senses. Vayer's need opened beneath them and with great spreading wings of light he drew the mist with him to fill the void, matching his draw to Sergei's ability to give exactly. It went on and on until at last, he freed his grandfather's spirit from his aging, pain-ridden body and gently sent it winging its way to eternity.
      Vayer opened his eyes to see his beloved grandfather's last smile fade from his face in death. *Good bye and may Allah give you the peace and eternal rest you so rightly deserve* he sent the thought after Sergei into the light.
      As he turned toward the assembled crowd he caught a glimpse of Nashen and Darya. For a moment he had more sorrow than he could bear as their drawn, tired countenances etched themselves into his mind. *please don't go* he sent them with all his longing to be with them again a grasping claw at his already tender heart.
      "I am Lord Vayer Fatimovich and Sergei is mine until such time as I chose his rightful Lord!" Vayer proclaimed. A thrown dagger came winging out of the crowd. Vayer threw one of his back along its path. He picked the one coming toward him out of the air. "Who dares try to assassinate their rightful Lord?" he called out in fury.
      The crowd vanished as if made of mist, leaving the assailant lying still on the floor with Vayer's dagger through his eye. A spreading pool of crimson stained the white marble.
      Vayer looked at the dagger he held in his hand. It held the crest of Azov on its hilt while the figure on the floor was wearing the white of Sergei.
     
      After over sixty years of residence, Vanya Sergei had so adapted his suite and offices to his own taste, it was decided to move the main suite of Sergei to a different location and leave the last in memorial. Nashen could not remember where they had been moved to. He asked one of the guards, "Could you please direct us to Lord Vayer's rooms?"
      He stammered and stuttered. Then he saw Darya and fled in panic. At least Nashen had been able to get a direction from his almost incoherent pointing with his field. "What was that all about?" she asked in wonder.
      "I don't know, but I don't like the looks of it." he said darkly and began walking off in the direction the guard had indicated. Eventually they came to a suite located on the far side of the main building, facing the practice yard of course. I should have guessed They had waited until Vayer had proclaimed his Lordship and then watched in amazement at the exchange of daggers. Even Nashen's sister had been silent.
      At that point everyone but themselves and Vayer had left the hall, including the Azov household. Silently, Vayer had retrieved his dagger. Wanting to give him a moment of peace, they offered to meet him at his suite and left when he had assented.
      The door was open and Nashen heard Arkay's voice raised in anger, "How dare you disrespect my father's memory by refusing to hold the Demense in his line!"
      "What in hell is wrong with you Arkay?" Karola yelled right back in his face. "First you ignore Vayer almost to death and then when he finally does what you want you scream at him for it."
      Nashen could tell Karola was seriously upset when her language reverted that of the sharm. Darya made a bee line to Vayer sitting on the corner of the couch obviously trying to hold back his grief over his grandfather's death.
      "He killed his own grandfather for you. Isn't that enough for one lifetime?" Avilan cried.
      "He is not Lord Sergei, Avilan." Arkay said darkly.
      "No he isn't. He's Vayer. He isn't even your son any more." Nashen had had enough of Arkay's hystrionics, no matter how much he wanted the man otherwise. "Anymore I don't care what you think or what power you hold. You have hurt your own blood far more than Tyanir ever did. For years I stood back and watched you try to make Vayer into a little copy of yourself. No more, Arkay! He is free and adult." Nashen closed his eyes briefly to try to get control of himself and then opened them to see Darya and Vayer huddled in a tiny little knot together as if trying to share the same skin.
      "Look at what you have done to them, Arkay." he pointed. "Look, damn you!"
      Arkay refused to turn from Nashen until Karola slapped him across the face and then with the back hand forced his head around. Arkay's eyes blazed with fury, "I told you to keep her away from him!"
      "Never!" Nashen screamed his rage. "Darya has as much right to love as Vayer. It doesn't matter who her parents were or that you had any part of their coming together to create her. I love them both, Arkay, and I won't let you destroy them or what they have together."
      "What do you know of love?" Arkay turned on him scornfully. "You whose daughters hardly know their father's name. The Lord who jumps from bed to bed as long as there's a pretty male in it. The man who had to seduce a child to get what he wanted!"
      "You go too far, Arkay. Yes, Vayer taught me to love. Because you threw him away!" lightning arced across the room to shatter into a million sparks. "He came to me lost and alone and afraid, asking for nothing more than acceptance and love, which you denied him!" In blind fury he tore at Arkay with bolt after bolt, "I never seduced a child, Arkay. He came to me in pain and hurt and taught me love. He gave me the greatest gift I have ever received in my life and you accuse me of seducing him!" Nashen drove Arkay to his knees on the now smoldering rug, "Vayer and Darya are giving me a son of my own blood, a gift beyond price to a child of Fatima, and you can't even swallow your pride long enough to allow yourself to see either of them as human!" he howled in anguish as with one final blow, smashed Arkay to the floor.
     
      Tears ran down his face as he stood there for what seemed like an eternity with all the demons of hell eating at his heart. Shaking and sick with emotion he finally opened his eyes again. Karola was crouched over Arkay, who was lying flat on the floor. "He's still alive, barely." she said, her field heavy with sorrow. Avilan had gone to the two youngsters and was wrapped around them protectively.
      "I hadn't meant to almost kill him" Nashen dispelled the last traces of lightning still tracing over his arms.
      "You were simply furious with his actions beyond any control." Karola said softly. "With both your hot tempers, I'm surprised it hadn't come to blows before now."
      On very shaky legs, Nashen walked over to Vayer and Darya. He collapsed to a sitting position at their feet and leaned against the couch. After taking yet another deep, shuddering breath, "Are you all right?"
      "I think, now, we will be." Darya said softly.
      "I want to go home." Vayer said, his nager shattering and shifting in his grief.
      "I can hold Sergei for you when you are at Fatima, youngsters." Avilan offered.
      "As can I." Karola seconded after she had stabilized Arkay. "However, I don't think Arkay will ever be the same after this. You hurt him very badly, Nashen." she held up her hand to stave off his protest. "It was justified. His treatment of both Vayer and Darya was inexcusable. I didn't know how bad it was until just now. Both Avilan and I will be looking into his treatment of our other children, but I think most of it was aimed exclusively at Vayer."
      "From what I know of the situation, I would guess as much." Nashen said.
      Vayer nodded his agreement, "I was firstborn and his heir." He swallowed heavily, "He treated me very differently than the other children."
      "At least there is that." Avilan closed his eyes wearily. "If there is anything we can do, for any of you, let us know."
      "I will." Nashen coaxed Vayer and Darya to their feet. "Lets go home."
     
      "A moment, Nashen." Karola said suddenly.
      "Yes?" he felt like he had been dragged by that stallion of Vayer's, again.
      "You're in hard need. You can't walk across town like that."
      So I am "I can do a shunt." although it was distanced, as if he were sensing it through glass.
      "No you can't, you don't have anything in your public to do a shunt with." Karola said sharply, "You must have stripped it out and then almost killed yourself in your attack on Arkay."
      He leaned against Darya's wonderful, cool field.
      The warm sunlight was beyond her darkness. Nashen heard Avilan say, "Come to me, Nashen." For the first time since Nashen had known him, Avilan was offering himself without reserve.
      "Thank you, no. I will not abandon Darya." he shook his head to try to get rid of some of the cobwebs. "She will need me in a week or so. I can find some way to get by till then."
      Both Karola and Avilan's fields rang with shock at his words. He flinched away from the tumult further into Darya's shade. "I'll be all right, go to him, Nashen."
      "No, love. Not while you're pregnant. Not until our son starts drawing you down." Nashen took a deep breath again. "I'll be fine."
      "You really did mean what you said earlier, didn't you, Nashen." Karola said in wonder. "Every word of it. To walk away from Avilan for the sake of Darya and your son is one of the most loving things I have ever seen in my life."
      "Let me walk you home then." Avilan said softly, no long offering himself and showing only his diamond slick shielding. "I think I may have a way, but it would be best to do it at Fatima."
      "As long as there is no risk to our son or Darya, Avilan." Nashen tipped his chin up forcefully and had to cover for the gesture causing him to loose his balance.
      "Or you, love. Or you." Vayer insisted.
      "No more than the stress of a partial or a shunt, Nashen, I promise. And none to Darya or your child." Avilan said.
      Nashen finally assented, Avilan was one of the most creative people he had ever known when it came to experimentation with transfer. I suppose there is some advantage to being a sybarite. he thought wryly of two of Avilan's great joys in life, transfer and sex. However he also knew Avilan's family came in far ahead of those two and would never come to any harm by Avilan's pursuit of pleasure. It seemed, after having shared his bed off and on for almost ten years, Avilan had finally decided Nashen was family.
      "Yes, you and Darya are as much a part of our family as Vayer, Nashen." Avilan said softly as they were leaving the room. "No matter what Arkay may say about it. Both Karola and I agree on this." Nashen turned to see her nod.
      "I am looking forward to the birth of our first grandson, Nashen." Karola could not have included Nashen into the family any more clearly than this.

      Avilan had never seen this side of Nashen before. Up till now their relationship had been mostly a matter of Nashen's filling in as an occasional fourth to the Azov triad. Nashen stumbled heavily on the stairs and Avilan caught his shoulder carefully. *Nashen, you are worse off than you want to say* he sent.
      *~not~* Nashen's sending was so distorted it blurred his own physical vision.
      "You've made your stand, Nashen. Don't push it, please." Darya said. "Its not so far, but I would feel better if you would let us help."
      "Go on ahead, we'll catch up." Nashen's words were almost slurred, as if he were drunk.
      Vayer looked at them carefully, *Take him, on my orders as Lord Sergei*
      Nashen tried to protest, obviously having overheard Vayer's orders. Avilan was stunned at the ease with which Vayer, quite rightly, could change from dependant youth to leader.
      "At your orders, my Lord Sergei." Avilan bowed his head. "Go on. I'll bring him home first." They left, which made Avilan's work easier. Nashen's need screamed at him it was so deep but he simply interposed his field so the younger man could think.
      "Thank you." Nashen straightened up. "I think we had better get back to Fatima."
      "I think so." Avilan neatly picked up Nashen. "Hush" he said before Nashen could protest the treatment. "Sergei may be lower ranked than Fatima at most times, but not where health is concerned."
      "You win. I concede." Nashen's entire body was trembling with the stresses he was fighting.
     
      "Who will take Darya this month?" Nashen pulled back before Avilan could make the final contact. Avilan had thought he had Nashen focused on him.
      "Karola" although it was only after he said it did he realize it was perfect. Arkay certainly wouldn't be up for her.
      "Ahh" Nashen sighed as Avilan tipped Nashen's head back and nipped at his neck. "Yesss" Nashen hissed and pulled at him again. There we go the stubble on Nashen's jaw was harsh under his tongue, driving Avilan on. "Are you sure you ...?"
      Avilan almost screamed in frustration. Instead he bit Nashen's shoulder, hard. Flaring his field for all he was worth he tried to draw Nashen out. "Will you pay attention to me!" Avilan growled in irritation. He needed this transfer to be good. Nashen's field rang in shock and surprise. Avilan grabbed it and pulled.
      Nashen stiffened in his arms and need opened up to him. "Yes" he purred against Nashen's neck. Running his hands up Nashen's arms, Avilan let his bracelets slide up his forearms. Eyes now completely black as Avilan looked into them, Avilan pulled his own field back again, watching and feeling for Nashen's reactions. Gently making sure Nashen couldn't make lateral contact yet, Avilan kissed him. Behind Nashen's sweet lips, need opened up more.
      For the briefest instant, Avilan felt Nashen's focus start to waver and he grabbed Nashen's upper arms with all his strength. Hard need flared back and hot to Avilan's senses. He let his hands slide down. The familiar, wonderful feel of living steel clamping down on his forearms made him gasp. Leaning back slightly, he made Nashen lunge for him. Their lips met and Avilan danced his promise away, just out of reach. Give! his body sang. Not yet he answered, waiting for Nashen's response to his teasing.
      Almost as he was sure Nashen was going to shen out, need reared up in all its dark glory demanding satisfaction. Now he gave. Fire flared across his vision as he drove selyn into the hungry void. Harder and faster he fed the ravening beast he had created. Voraciously it took all it thought he had to give. Need snarled at him one final time and he tempted it out again. Avilan sated it with one final, brilliant flare of energy.
      Nashen gasped heavily, after only a brief kiss. "What is it, sweet?" Avilan worried at Nashen's pulling back when was so obviously incredibly post. For that matter Avilan ached with wanting Nashen as well.
      "Darya ... Vayer?"
      "Are fine, sweet. They are across the bathroom in the opposite suite." Avilan wondered at the incredible regard which Nashen held the two young people.
      "I want..." Nashen's body trembled with holding back. "I want to see them."
      Avilan figured it was no use fighting something this strong. He released Nashen from his arms. In only the briefest of time, Nashen was back, "They're asleep."
      "I told you they were all right." Avilan smiled kindly. He held out his arms, "Now, will you settle yourself?"
      "Have I been so inconsider..."
      Nashen's lips were hot against his finger as Avilan quieted him. There is such a thing as too good of manners in bed Avilan complained to himself. With his free hand, he pulled Nashen's long lean body against him. "Come here you difficult Lord." he said and then ran his teeth down Nashen's flank. Nashen arched against him, pulling at his hair. With the practice of many years, Avilan neatly divested Nashen of his far too restricting clothes.
      Not willing to hear another intelligible word, Avilan made sure Nashen lost all ability to think clearly for a good, long time.
     
      Avilan woke up suddenly as Nashen bolted from the bed. "What?" Oh he heard what must have been Darya being quite ill. He had heard about so many women who had such problems with pregnancy, but Karola was not one of them. It was quite chill in the early morning and Avilan got up. He muttered slightly about excessively neat housekeeping as he fished around in the closet for something vaguely robe like. Finally successful, he put one on and grabbed three more, figuring no one else was yet organized either.
      He was shocked to see Darya's normally dark skin almost ash grey and he hurriedly put the robe he had already warmed around her shoulders. "Here you go, sweet." he pulled Vayer closer to her to try to warm her up. Nashen's tentacles were lashing with stress as he gave the young woman a tin cup of water. She took a bit into her mouth, but seemed completely unable to swallow it. "Easy, lass." Avilan stroked her back. Darya was shaking like an aspen leaf.
      She spit out what little water she had taken and dropped the cup from nerveless fingers. Avilan caught it before it could spill. Her teeth began to chatter. Nashen knelt and Avilan moved out of his way so the two Lords could try to help Darya out. "I'm s..s..sorry for all the b..bother." she stammered.
      "Please don't apologize, love." Nashen's voice was none too steady. For some unknown reason, Vayer had closed the door to the other suite. He opened it briefly and found out why. The two youngsters had ordered up breakfast and the food must have set Darya off.
      "May I?" Avilan knelt to pick her up. Vayer nodded assent. As gently as he could manage, he bundled her up in his arms and carried her into the room he had shared with Nashen. After tossing a stray pair of breeches out of the way, he set her down on the bed. "Come on lass," he got in beside her and tried to warm her up. *Grab the basin off the dresser* he sent Vayer. Avilan didn't want the poor girl to get another chill if she was sick the next time she woke up.
      Finally all four of them settled back down, with Darya in the middle. She sighed softly and dropped off into a deep, and seemingly natural sleep. Avilan reached over Nashen to stroke her soft shoulder. "Poor little lass."
      Nashen nodded yes. "I wish I knew what to do." he murmured.
      "I think we all do." Vayer added.



CHAPTER 11


      Vayer couldn't think of anyone ever telling of a Year's Turning as grim and dark as this one. Maryam had been entirely absent, her last Lord having committed suicide the week before the solstice and no one to replace her. Sergei had been grim and silent, with only a handful of his Lords coming to the ceremony at all. Over the past several months, Vayer and Karola had gone through the sharm ruthlessly, stripping out the worst of abuses which had accumulated under the last years of his grandfather's reign, and it seemed there were many who did not appreciate the return to order.
      Arkay and Avilan had been left to represent Azov, but Arkay might well not have been there for all the attention he seemed able to commit to the event. Avilan had tried to cheer some of their people, but it was with a distant shadow of his usual good nature.
      Fatima had been closest to her usual self, but even there Vayer could sense her children's concern over the obvious struggle Sharm Lord Darya was having with her pregnancy. For after Vayer had taken regency of Sergei, Darya had been mostly unable to keep any food down for longer than minutes. Even with both Nashen and Vayer trying to keep her field solid Darya was already showing the first signs of her pregnancy draining her, after barely more than three and a half months.
      Kirov was the worst, however. Both Lord Valentine and his partner, Sharm Lord Kir were absent. Some were saying Val was showing the first signs of his father's madness and yet others rumors had Kir at death's skirts from yet another miscarriage. Lord Krasna and Sharm Lord Yosef had tried to carry on, but they had pleaded exhaustion and left after only accepting less than half of the Demense.
      Stepping forward to give the benediction, Arkay's steps faltered as he looked around at the wrack and ruin amongst the Demense. Despite all Arkay had done to him, Vayer's heart went out to the man standing broken in front of them. After the fight with Nashen last fall, from what Karola had told him, Arkay had turned in on himself, hardly talking with anyone. Doing far more work with far less consideration than was at all reasonable.
      Arkay let his great feathered wings rise over his head, then they shattered into shards of light as he collapsed. Augmenting wildly, Vayer ran for him. Nashen was already there, though, and had caught Arkay's body before it could hit the floor. "I never meant for this to happen, Arkay." Nashen said sadly.
      Vayer could zlin Arkay's heart had stopped. "Put him on the floor." he told Nashen as Karola finally arrived. With a carefully controlled hammer of power, Vayer tried to restart the man's heart. One, two, three times until finally it caught the rhythm and picked back up on its own. For the first time since he had learned many of the medical skills of Sergei he zlinned Arkay's body. "Was he like this before?" he asked his mother.
      "Some of the heart and liver damage. The rest is mostly overwork and too much stress on top of it." she reached out to stroke Arkay's face. "He has never been perfectly healthy since Ilya's death and since the fight, he refused to talk with Avilan or myself, except about work."
      Finally Avilan and Darya came up the them. She was shivering and Vayer could sense her field falter again. He pulled her between himself and Nashen where they could keep her at least warm. The clouds had been so heavy today there had been no hint of sunlight at all. Even in the heated hall it was still quite chill.
      "Lets get him below where its much warmer." Vayer suggested, not only for Arkay's sake but for the other Sharm Lords as well. Everything had happened so quickly though, no one had left. He stood, and for the first time took his father's place as Lord of all the Demenses of Russia, "From now, till next year, till the year after, and for all time to come; the Lords of Russia shall defend Rodina's honor and life. As your people come to you at Year's Turning and take back heat and light, we come to Rodina bringing her our warmth and light. As we are the past, present and future of our mother, so is she our everlasting life." Vayer raised his own wings of fire over his head in a final great display.
     
      For what seemed like forever after they had taken over the Fatima suite at Kirov with everyone in tow, they waited for Arkay to regain consciousness. It was much harder to compensate for the far more elusive orientation of a Sharm Lord for those who did have a sense of spatial position. Arkay was one of these who did. Moving him more than a klick or so would have been farther than any of them would dare after his collapse.
      Darya had fallen into a restless doze some time around official dawn, and Vayer was relived slightly to zlin her field respond to the three Lords in the room. He didn't want to think of how drawn and ashen she looked, even in her sleep. She hadn't even been able to manage any of the tea Nashen had offered as soon as they had arrived.
      "Has she been like this for long?" Karola asked, almost inaudibly.
      Muttering, Darya grabbed onto Nashen even harder in her sleep. After waiting for her to settle again, Vayer answered in a hushed whisper, "Yes, since I took Sergei. Its been steadily getting worse as well."
      Avilan, who had been holding Arkay's limp hand looked up, "She looks like she hasn't eaten in over a month."
      *Almost a month + two weeks* Nashen sent, so as not to disturb her with his voice.
      "She isn't going to survive, then." Arkay rasped and his eyes opened. "You are going to have to get her to eat." he said, however his voice was soft with concern.
      Darya awoke with a gasp and then retched heavily. Nashen had already grabbed a basin for her, but nothing came up. "I'm sorry, I ..." she slumped back against him crying.
      "Its OK, love. Really." Nashen stroked her back.
      Vayer knelt and took her soft hand between his. Her field was plummeting with the insult to her system and he threw himself into trying to draw it back up. Finally they had her stabilized again and she drifted back to sleep, this time a heavy, unnatural one. He held her now limp fingers to his face and rubbed them against his cheek. No one left at Sergei even could guess at what was ailing Darya so badly and all anyone could tell him was to make her abort. "I love you Darya, my mate, my beloved." his tears wet her hand.
      "She can't go on like this, Vayer. I'm going to have to insist this time." Nashen was crying as well. "Nothing is worth her life."
      "You're right." he sobbed. One last time he reached out to the beautiful, glowing presence of their son.
      "Stop." Arkay said suddenly.
      He did. Vayer caressed their son's brilliant, wonderful promise with grief tearing at his heart. "There is no other way to save her. Everyone at Sergei said as much. I had hoped they were wrong, but she won't survive another attack like this one, much less childbirth."
      *You hadn't told me your love was so strong, Vayer*
      *You never heard me, Arkay* he wept. "Now it is too late."
      "No, not yet. She should never try to bear another child, but I think we may be able to save this one." he got out of bed over Avilan's protests and knelt beside Vayer. "Give me her hand." he said softly.
      How can I trust him again and with Darya's life? he wondered at himself as he let Arkay take it from him. Nashen was staring at him in wide eyed wonder, but trusting in Vayer's judgement from the way he let Arkay take control of the fields.
      "Nashen, I know you have no reason to trust or even care for me, but for the love your bear for Vayer and Darya, please do as I ask, just this once?" Arkay asked heavily, stroking Darya's limp hand.
      "As the one you have hurt so very badly is willing to give you yet another chance, so shall I. All I ask is you save Darya." Nashen's normally clear voice was harsh with stress and sorrow. "For their sake, ask what you will."
      "Take her into transfer position from behind and give your will over to me. I have to be able to ride your power as a Lord to do what has to be done." he explained his extraordinary request for Nashen's giving over all control of himself to another, much less to one he had almost fought to the death.
      For a brief instant his field flared in shock and horror at the request. *For Darya and our son, Nashen, beloved* Vayer sent with all his love for them, but over it was the faintest beginnings of his renewed trust and faith in the man who had sired him.
     
      Nashen watched as Arkay slowly got to his feet and then sat heavily on the bed. "Are you up for this, Arkay?" Karola asked warily. "You almost died last night." she reminded him.
      "When the demons drive, beloved." Arkay told her. "Zlin her and tell me she will last another dawn and we shall wait."
      "I can't." she shook her head sadly.
      Avilan took Vayer into his arms protectively. "If something goes wrong, I want to be able to say good bye." Vayer said sadly.
      "If it is the worst, I will release you." Avilan reassured him.
      With a final, desperate prayer, Nashen moved behind Darya and took her wrists in his tentacles. By your will, Allah he touched his lips to the back of her neck and handed himself over to Arkay gentle hands over his laterals.
      With a great rush he felt his very soul set gently to the side. Never before had Nashen been so completely under another's control. He watched as Arkay's incredible healing power sank into Darya's body. There were tiny flares of power as Arkay reset and adjusted things within her body Nashen had no idea even existed. It seemed like it took forever as there were literally almost a hundred things Arkay changed. Blood, bone, nerves, even as he watched Arkay go beyond his senses, her mind it seemed. Will she be Darya after all this? he asked himself.
      I will not be changing her soul or her spirit Arkay told him in their merge.
      Nashen tried to shiver at the thought Arkay could actually manipulate those things. It didn't work in the non place Arkay had set him. Finally it was over and Arkay released Nashen from his control. Experimentally he opened his eyes to make sure everything was working as it should and realized they were open. He was looking at Darya's black hair and he lipped it gently. That worked he thought in relief. Everyone was looking at him and he realized he still had his tentacles out.
      Yuck he did not like the feel of his laterals going back in after so much exposure to the air. Arkay's light blue eyes were gentle as he looked at the older man. "Thank you, I have no way to repay you for your help." Darya was already stirring and Nashen could sense her ravenous hunger.
      "My grandson will live, thanks to your trust." Arkay said softly.
      "It was Vayer's. Without his forgiveness I would never have been able to do it."
      "Do what?" Darya asked softly. "I'm starving."
      Vayer tried to hand her a mug of tea. Karola intercepted it and added some honey to it. Darya made a face at it, but took it anyways. "Slowly, lass." Karola said.
      *She will have gaps in her memory of being so very ill. I had to make her forget or her mind would make her sick again* Arkay sent everyone but Darya.
      "I don't like honey in my tea." she complained but drank it anyways.
      "Would you rather I put it on your tongue?" Karola asked archly, making Avilan and Arkay laugh at some inside joke.
      *She did the same thing to me, many years ago* Arkay explained to Nashen and Vayer. They both giggled at the idea of Karola doing exactly that to Arkay.
      "Why are you all sitting around me? Arkay was the one who dropped like a felled tree."
      "Because we all wanted to bask in your magnificent beauty." Vayer said expansively, making her grin.
      "You fainted and I wanted to make sure you and your child were well." Arkay lied so smoothly, if Nashen hadn't known the truth he would have believed him. He felt a flare of power with the words though and looked at everyone else. Both Avilan and Karola zlinned belief. Allah! The sheer power of him. he thought in wonder. Vayer didn't seem to be affected and Arkay looked at him curiously. Instantly Vayer also zlinned belief, but it was self willed and not imposed from without. Nashen carefully made sure he also zlinned correctly but wondered why Arkay hadn't also controlled him.
      *Because I would like the chance to get to know you, Nashen. If I had made you forget you would have no reason to ever speak with me again.*
      *I would. Vayer is willing.*
     
      After finally managing to convince Darya she couldn't possibly manage to eat another bite, Nashen said, "I don't know about you all, but I am exhausted." With a wink, "I don't have the resilience of youth anymore."
      "You aren't the only one, Nashen." Arkay said with a yawn. Nashen wondered how he had managed to keep going this long.
      "Because he is a pig headed fool who overworked himself into cardiac arrest and is trying to do it again. To bed with you!" Karola pointed sternly, the effect was ruined by her own tired blinking.
      Before this Nashen had only heard the effects of the silent byplay within the Azov household. Being on the receiving end of it was more than slightly disturbing.
      "I'm sorry, Nashen. I'm tired and not watching my tongue." Karola said and then started. "That wasn't much of an effective apology, given its origin." she shrugged. "As matriarch of the lot of you, to bed, everyone."
      Nashen had to smile at her autocratic manner but noticed that everyone, including himself, automatically obeyed her.
      "How else can you manage to get seven children to all go to bed?" she asked archly.
      "Yes, m'Lord" he teased. Following the example of the Azov household, he threw his clothes over the back of a convenient chair and got into bed. Arkay looked at Vayer with a raised eyebrow as the young man divested himself of his knives. Then he started when the young man took off his pants. He looked at Nashen quizzically. Shrugging in feigned innocence, Nashen turned and wrapped himself around Darya, who had somehow managed to get cold feet already. Vayer settled into her arms and together they managed to get her feet warmed up before she got too playful with them.
      *Fatima and Islam have my greatest respect, Lord Nashen. They have nothing to fear from me* Arkay sent softly as he collected Karola into his arms.
      Avilan got into bed, making it rather crowded, but actually very comforting as well. For a moment, Nashen couldn't think of what to say *All things are by the will of Allah, Arkay. In His lovingmost kindness, may his blessings rain down on you and yours*
      *With the possible return of my son, they have.*
     
      Somehow, somewhere, Vayer had managed to find the makings for Arilith. Nashen had thought he had managed to get the young man over that habit. He burrowed back under the covers in disgust. Darya was gone. Her so distinctive field was over with Vayer, Arkay and Karola. Only Avilan's sunstruck presence remained in the bed with him. Debating the merits of dealing with Darya drinking Arilith in his immediate vicinity and remaining in bed, Avilan won.
      Eventually though, he had to get up. He was relieved to see at least Karola was drinking tea. After taking care of morning, well evening, necessities he sat at the table next to Karola, "Can I have something decent to drink?" he glared at the Arilith.
      Arkay laughed, "I see not all the children of Fatima are complete heathens to the Way of the Rus." He referred to the formal name given to the manufactured religion of the renSimes and many of the sharm residents.
      "I never learned to like the stuff." he wondered how they could sit so calmly after drinking at least two or three pots of the strong drink. Nashen would be shaking like a leaf after so much of the potent stimulant it contained. Vayer poured him a mug of tea. His hand was rock steady.
      "Practice" he shrugged. "Although the first time after changeover was definitely a bit exciting." Vayer grinned. "I had forgotten about the different effects of cavene on Simes and almost didn't sleep for a week. I think sharm lord Sulamin hurt something laughing so hard at my predicament."
      Nashen thought of Sulamin's wicked sense of humor, "He probably set you up."
      "Right in one." Vayer saluted with his cup. "We were up late, talking." he paused, "and he offered me some. I loved it as a child so I accepted. Not really wise."
      Sulamin was the primary religious instructor for the Fatima sharm, so Nashen could well guess what they had been talking about. "Not." Arkay said decisively. "The peoples who drink it are very careful with youngsters after changeover and Arilith. If they drink too much of it at first they won't sleep and get sick."
      "I drink any of it and I get sick." Nashen said in annoyance, making the three consumers of the beverage laugh.
      "You drank some at Ibram's tent." Vayer cocked his head in question.
      "That was business. This is waking up." Nashen said loftily, making them laugh so hard Avilan woke up grumbling at them.
     

CHAPTER 12


      For a long time after everyone else had fallen asleep, Vayer lay awake, thinking about everything that had gone on during the tumultuous night past. He had been able to watch Arkay working with his innate talents for this first time in his life. What he had seen made him even more grateful he had only taken on Sergei as regent and not Lord.
      There was no way he could have ever managed the delicate manipulations Arkay had done to her body, much less her mind. Sergei had to have a leader who suited him. Vayer knew, now, even more than before, he was not the one. Karola had had to be the one to go into the infirmary and work with the staff to get it working smoothly again. He hadn't had any idea of where to begin with that task.
      Certainly he had been able to return the renSime guard cadre to some approximation of confidence in their position. All he had had to do was show them there was a firm hand at the helm again ...
     
      Vayer looked over the ordered square of renSime guards gathered in the practice yard. "I am Lord Vayer Fatimovich Sergei. By the power vested in me by the Gods of Rus and the forces of nature I am your rightful overlord." he had hated the feeling of abandoning the true faith for the artificial beliefs created by Maryam, but Vayer also knew he had to speak to the troops in their own language.
      "As you do your duty to Sergei and Rodina remember they are watching you and will judge you in your last days. I, as Lord Vayer," a nageric ripple went through the formation at this unexpected complication, "pledge to you, Sergei's final line of defense, the safety of your home and hearth. In return I expect your loyalty and discipline to Sergei." More than one of the renSime's fields flared in stuttering defiance. As well Vayer had expected, given their demoralized stance when he had first arrived.
      "Master Sargent RenSime Dorityan Sergei, stand forth and be judged." Vayer called out one of the most headstrong of the first rank. Although he did not cast the term judgement harshly, but rather with simple questioning.
      Dorityan marched from his place in line, and with perfect parade ground precision came to stand before Vayer. His spear was worn perfectly smooth with age and the loving care of a devoted guard. There was defiance still in his Nager, but now there was fear and question as well.
      "Speak with us, renSime Dorityan. Has Sergei failed you so badly as to no longer deserve your respect?" he said in a voice to carry over the square.
      "Yes, m'Lord Vayer." he told the truth automatically and then blanched as he realized what he had said. "Forgive me Lord Vayer. Please be forgiving me."
      "Forgiveness is not necessary for truth, Dorityan, only lies and dishonor." as he said these words the entire formation's collective nager shattered in shock and disbelief. "Do you not believe the words of your rightful Lord?" Vayer called out to them. The silent answer he received was no, although none of them were willing to verbalize it.
      "Words be cheap, m'Lord Vayer. Selyn be dear." Dorityan actually looked him in the eyes with these words. Vayer zlinned the group again and realized far too many of their fields showed signs of transfer burns and other neglect. Some of them were even in hard need standing here on the practice ground, blinking repeatedly to keep the real world in focus. "Who is third rank, fourth file, Master Sargent?" he asked under his breath.
      "That be renSime Pyotr, m'Lord." Dorityan's eyes were wide with surprise.
      "Private renSime Pyotr Sergei, stand forth and be judged." Vayer called out and waved Dorityan back a step. Pyotr was quite young and shouldn't have even been out here today given his state of need. He was also extraordinarily disciplined, coming to a halt and saluting precisely, despite the pain the gesture must have cost him by his laterals hitting the stops in his bracers. Vayer returned the salute and made a show of examining the young private. "I have found Private Pyotr satisfactory in all regards but one." actually the poor youngster had been burned a few months ago, but that was not germain to his point. "Present yourself, Private." Vayer held out his hands with his handling tentacles extended.
      Timidly, showing the first quaver of his discipline failing, Pyotr stepped into his grasp. Then, driven beyond any reasonable expectation when Vayer released the catches on Pyotr's bracers, the young man lunged for him. Vayer met him smoothly, expecting this, and drove the fast, sharp but incredibly sweet transfer into him. Ringing with completion and satisfaction, the youngster forgot where he was and melted into his arms for a kiss. Gently, Vayer kissed him back softly then pulled away. "Open your eyes, lad." he whispered.
      In shock at what he had done, Pyotr almost jumped out of his hands too fast for Vayer to reseat the lad's bracers. "Be well and do your best, renSime Pyotr." Vayer told him and the rest of the formation.
      "At your will, Lord Vayer." rang out across the practice yard. And across the entire quarter of the city Vayer thought wryly.
      "I will see anyone within three days of hard need in my office, at any time. Dismissed to quarters!"
     
      The officers of the renSime cadre were another story entirely. "What d'ye mean we gotta give 'em good transfers? D'ye think Lords like yerself grow on trees?"
      "No but I think as lords and officers, you will obey my orders to the best of your abilities." Vayer looked over the half dozen lords he had gathered in the salle. "And you will show proper respect to your commander, lord Stephan."
      The older man's defiance was plain from the look on his face, "A scrap of a Lord like yerself given us orders. The renSimes'll do well enough as they are."
      "That is not a satisfactory response, lord Stephan. Is it that you truly are mutinous or simply stupid?" Vayer, personally, thought it was the latter. The rest of the officer cadre, quite intelligently backed away from Stephan so as not to get tangled between the two men. Smart he could see they wouldn't give him any problems if he could manage to break lord Stephan to his will.
      Stephan licked his lips nervously, "Not wantin' te be disrespectful, Lord Vayer, but I can't see why it matters none to you what happens to the renSimes."
      "Because we ask them to risk their lives and futures for Sergei. They deserve respect in return." of course much of it was show to keep them in line, but Vayer wasn't going to say that. "You certainly can't expect respect when the troops are fitter and better suited to being soldiers than you are, lord Stephan." the man's physical condition disgusted Vayer, if nothing else. His nageric condition was far worse, as mushy and soft as any Gen in the sharm.
      This is inane he thought as it seemed lord Stephan had decided this was too insulting and made a rush for him. Bored and irritated with the man at the same time, Vayer let Stephan wear himself out chasing shadows around the salle. A couple of times he had to sidestep one of Stephan's charges, but mostly he didn't even bother and sideslipped the man, making him miss. Vayer flipped out one of his daggers and began trimming his nails with it. They didn't require it, but he wanted to put on a show of disinterest for the other officers watching Stephan's little performance.
      Crashing to a halt, Stephan stared at the knife in Vayer's hand, like a Gen at a Lord. "Yes, lord Stephan. Are you quite done?" negligently he flipped the knife into the air and then caught it again. Almost blowing the little show by laughing at the man's obvious terror of the tool, Vayer smiled, "Something tells me you don't much care for weapons."
      He threw it hard enough to sink into the wood at Stephan's feet. It shaved a tiny bit of leather off the sole of his boot in the process. Vayer got out his other knife, "Is there some problem you have with my orders, lord Stephan."
      "No my Lord!" Vayer could see the spreading stain on the man's breeches at his obvious phobia of live steel. "No, Lord Vayer Fatimovich." he stuttered.
      How had this fool ever managed to deal with the renSime guards who all carried spears. Vayer wondered and walked up to the now shivering man. He reached out for his mind and found out. The idiot had never even seen the inside of the practice ground, rather he sat back in his office, gave orders and played with the sharm lords. "You are dismissed from your position, lord Stephan. See Lord Karola about your new status at official dawn tomorrow."
      "I would talk with lord Briela." he informed the remaining officers after turning his back on lord Stephan.
      "At your orders, Lord Vayer." he could see her eyes slide over Stephan in disgust, but other than that her response was quite acceptable.
      "Now ..." and they got down to honest planning of how to revive the renSime cadre as Stephan scurried out in complete disgrace. Vayer hoped his mother could find some truly disgusting job for Stephan to do for a long time.
     
      Safe and content, for the first time in far too long, Vayer snuggled even more deeply into Darya's arms and fell asleep at last.
     
      Usually Nashen forgot just how young Vayer and Darya truly were. Not this morning. There was an incredible racket coming from the direction of the bathroom, including far too much giggling and splashing to let him get back to sleep.
      He crawled out of bed with a yawn and padded across the room on silent feet. Opening the door to the bathroom the rest of the way he immediately got hit in the face with a dripping wet washcloth. The entire room was a disaster. It seems the two of them had decided to turn it into a war zone. There was water everywhere, including on most of the towels. Nashen caught the cloth before it could hit the floor. Not that it would add appreciably to the mess. he noted.
      They were both staring at him. Then they looked around. Vayer blushed furiously. So did Darya. Nashen had to hold back a grin at the consternation. "I'm sorry. Things got a little out of hand." Vayer was trying to look dignified, it seemed.
      Not that it worked. "He started it." Darya complained.
      "Did not!" Vayer snapped back and splashed water at her. She giggled and returned the favor.
      That actually looks like fun. Nashen threw the cloth between them splashing them both.
      They sputtered and stared at him again. He grinned back and got in the huge bath with them, sloshing even more water on the floor. "My turn!" he grabbed Vayer's ankles and slid him under the water.
      He came up sputtering and spitting out water. Darya was laughing uproariously. This was too much for Vayer. He grabbed the wet washcloth and threw it at her. It landed with a wet smack right in the middle of her chest.
      By the time they were done, there wasn't a dry towel in the entire room and they had to make do with the two tiny ones saved from the disaster having been left in the bedroom. The housekeepers were not amused.
     
      In the middle of winter, Fatima slept, waiting for the return of her traders with spring. With the rest of the Demenses in such disarray, she didn't even have her usual sport of politics to keep her entertained. After her children had finally been convinced Darya was now going to be able to carry their Lord's child safely to term, Nashen and Darya decided to join Vayer at Sergei, along with Diomid.
      Arkay had taken over the position of Sharm Lord for Sergei and had thrown himself into the work with such fervor, Vayer worried for his health. "If you don't sit down and stop pacing the floor I'm going to tie you to a chair." Vayer said hotly.
      "There still a lot of work to be done." Arkay made his bracelets crash down onto his wrists.
      Nashen jumped at the shock, far too close to need to deal with an irate Arkay. He sat back between Darya and Diomid again when Arkay said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you jump, Nashen."
      While he couldn't have transfer from Darya, he still liked being near her. She leaned against him. Diomid had been absolutely wonderful through all the goings on, rock solid no matter what the disaster. "Why are you being so difficult about having to take some time off before transfer, Arkay?" Diomid asked. "You are acting like Avilan after five weeks since his last transfer. Do you think if you run away hard enough no one will be able to tell you want to ask forgiveness of your son?" he continued, startling everyone with his insight.
      "Of course not." Arkay's temper flared. "I'm not running away from anything."
      "But you are, Arkay." Diomid insisted, but he remained calm.
      Vayer did not, "He'll never do it, Diomid. No matter what I do, or how hard I try to please him, he'll never accept me for myself. I didn't turn out the way he wanted and unfortunately there is nothing I can do about it."
      Arkay stared at his son, silenced by the harsh words. Then he turned to look out the window overlooking the practice yard. He leaned his forehead against the heavy glass, "I only wanted the best for you."
      "To force me to take a place I was never suited to? To take away my mate and my love? To take me away from my family?" Vayer cried out.
      "You wanted the Demense of Sergei!" Arkay blazed.
      "As a child. A child who only wanted to please his father." Vayer rasped.
      "I wanted you to be free to take a mate would be your equal." then Arkay hit the most sensitive nerve of all, "I was your family, Vayer!"
      In murderous fury Vayer lunged for Arkay. "No, Arkay." Diomid said sharply and held back Vayer with his field. Briefly Vayer writhed in Diomid's mind grip and then stopped and looked at the previously silent man in shock. "No, Fatima is Vayer's family, not you, not Azov and not Sergei." his voice was soft in the now silent room.
      "How do you know? You're just a jumped up sharm lord." Arkay hissed.
      Even this didn't disturb Diomid's outward calm. "Yes, I am, Arkay." he said plainly. Nashen was stunned. "I have watched and waited for years for you to open your eyes. I saw Vayer grow and change into the magnificent Lord he is today, thanks to Nashen and Darya."
      "They stole him from me." Arkay was still furious.
      "No, Arkay. No one can steal another's heart." Diomid shook his head sadly. Nashen had never even guessed at the depths of this man, who had been so quiet and submissive before. "Let Vayer go with them, I'll take Sergei."
      "You!" Arkay croaked a parody of a laugh. "Sharm Lord Diomid Ivanovich Fatima, with the patronymic of a bastard and no idea who your mother is?"
      "I know, Arkay." Diomid said softly. "But it makes me no less a man, to be the only one alive who knows any more." Under all Diomid's control, Nashen could sense the faintest thread of heart rending sorrow with the words.
      "The veiled know." Nashen reminded him.
      "They are silent on the issue." Diomid told him, "As they are regarding Aliana's parentage."
      Nashen was horrified to think Diomid knew that secret.
      "Yes, I know." Diomid responded to the thought. "It was necessary." he referred to the occasional, extremely tight, inbreeding required by Fatima to maintain her line of weather witches. Nashen shivered at the thought of anyone outside Fatima and the veiled knowing that fact. *I share your shame, Lord Nashen.* Diomid showed him his own lines, crossing and recrossing to Sergei. It looked more like a race horse's pedigree than a human's, there were so many close matches.
      *Why hadn't you come forward before?* Nashen had to ask.
      *I didn't want it known* Diomid sent sadly. "My father was Sharm Lord Vanya Sergeyevich Sergei, my mother was Lord Gitanya Arianova Sergei, by Sharm Lord Vanya Sergeyevich Sergei." shocked silence filled the room with his words. "Neither of them knew what had been done. Until my father's death I had been sworn to silence on the fact. Now, it seems it is necessary to speak. The line had lost its ability to pass itself on. Out of over a dozen children only two shared in Vanya's power."
      "Myself and ..." Arkay paused, "and you."
      "Yes" Diomid said simply. "We were going to wait to see if one of your other children would be suitable for Sergei, but I couldn't let you continue to tear into Vayer."
      "Thank you." Nashen said with all the sincerity he could manage.
      *You still owe me at least one transfer* Diomid sent back, with his so unique sense of humor.
      *Deal* he laughed silently


CHAPTER 13


      "Why, Arkay? Why do you keep attacking me this way?" Vayer asked, holding out his hands to his sire. "What have I ever done to deserve this? For a while it seemed like you accepted my choices and now today ... this?"
      "Because you fight me at every turn, Vayer. Every time I try to reach out to you again, you reject me. What do I have to do to regain your trust?" Arkay answered sadly.
      "Because you are too damn much alike." Nashen said wryly.
      They turned to look at him in unison. Vayer realized Nashen was right. His father had spoken in the past tense. The words, I was your family, now tore at his heart. "You no longer consider me your child in any way, do you?"
      "No, you no longer even bear my name, Vayer Fatimovich." he said roughly, as if emotion were choking him. Arkay's great sorrow darkened his misty fog and his normally active firefly lights were stilled.
      For the first time since he had been a young child, Vayer willingly took his father into his arms. "I'm so very sorry for what I have done. I didn't mean to hurt you this way."
      "No, lad. I was not willing to let you fly free and trust you would return. I truly only wanted the best for you." Vayer felt his father tentatively return the hug. "I couldn't see past my own pride and ambition."
      "And young Vayer couldn't know his own wants and desires. That time is past, both of you." Diomid said, only confirming in Vayer's mind the wisdom of him taking Sergei. Sharm Lord Sergei had always been the solid rock foundation beneath the other Demense.
      "I truly am a child of Fatima, otyet." Vayer said heavily.
      "I know that now, my son, if you would have me again." Arkay sighed against him. "But as Darya's son is yours, would you be willing to give me the same?"
      "Yes" he accepted Arkay's offer. Then they both found themselves surrounded by the other people in the room. Vayer had almost forgotten Nashen, Darya and Diomid. Now he and his father found themselves embraced by everyone else. "And if we get in another fight, Nashen?"
      "Yes?" his silver eyes were bright with curiosity.
      "Smack me, hard, will you?" Vayer grinned.
      "You or him, one of the two." Nashen grinned back. "Although I might lose the next confrontation I make the mistake of getting into with Arkay."
      "I let you win." Arkay lifted his chin but winked. "And you were not mistaken, Nashen. I think if you had not pounded me into the floor I would never have gotten the chance to get my son back."
      "I would like to think my words might have had something to do with it." Nashen said pointedly.
      "True enough." Vayer felt his father's arms tighten around him. "Thank you, Nashen."
     
      Given the fact that Vayer tended to spend all of his spare time either in the salle or with Nashen and Darya, he was not surprised to look up one afternoon to find Arkay watching him from the visitor's railing. He had been working out a new sword dance and so was not using his practice blade. "I'm impressed." Arkay said softly and Vayer looked at him in surprise.
      "Come in." he began wiping off the blade where he had blooded it in respect. Any more, he didn't think about the small cuts he used to provide the blood for the ritual, but Arkay looked at them in shock. Vayer looked at the backs of his hands and noted the very fine tracings left from all the times he had done it. "Its all right, I ..." he didn't know how to explain any of this. He finished his work and reasheathed the blade.
      "Please don't take this wrong but why do you have all the little cuts on the back of your hands?" Arkay asked and Vayer could sense his father's animate lights dancing in desperate curiosity.
      He tried to explain it as simply as he could, "Its a way to show respect. To give a part of myself to it."
      "I have never known another sword master who would talk with me about it, Vayer."
      "We don't, usually. Its too," he paused, searching for the correct words, "intimate, I would say. Particularly given how most regard faith and ritual in the Demense." He looked into his father's gentle eyes, having expected the automatic scorn most people had for such things and finding none.
      "Oh, there are things I do as well, Vayer. To this day, when I am offered salt I give some to the four directions or even when a colt is born I leave a bit of bread for the birds at dawn." he shrugged and Vayer actually felt far more intimate with his father now than when they had shared transfer a few days ago. "There is nothing wrong with showing respect to those things which are important to you."
      "I have shown you very little respect over the past year, father." Vayer said softly.
      "I have done little to earn it. You have taught me a great deal though." Arkay replied.
      "How so?" Vayer couldn't help but ask and feeling far safer simply talking with Arkay than he could ever remember.
      "You and Nashen and Darya have taught me a great deal about life, my son." Then he grinned, "Kirina mentioned it to me."
      "She would." Vayer grinned back. "How is she?"
      "Into trouble and already setting her skirts for Diomid."
      Vayer had to laugh, "Already knows she is going to be a lord?"
      "Yes and bragging about it to everyone." Arkay sighed. "I wish you had felt free to tell us."
      "So do I. If nothing else so I wouldn't have had to sit through all of dinner." he teased Arkay gently.
      "If nothing else." Arkay smiled sadly. "Actually I came down here to ask you a favor."
      "I don't know if I can fulfill it, but go ahead and ask." Vayer had absolutely no idea what Arkay had in mind.
      "Actually I have two questions. The first," he straightened up and looked Vayer directly in the eyes, "are you of the True Faith?"
      Vayer, at first thought to pawn off this question as a jest, so as not to compromise Fatima and then, with the look in his father's eyes told him the truth, "Yes. As is most of Fatima."
      "I knew the latter, I did not know the former. Thank you for telling me the truth, Vayer. I know the habit of Fatima's children in hiding their faith and I know how hard it can be to tell an outsider. I wanted to be able to tell you congratulations on finding your home and your faith, but I wanted to be certain."
      "I, I don't know what to say, other than thank you. I had feared you would react with scorn."
      "As would most of the Demenses, Vayer. However I have spent more than a few afternoons at the horse market." he winked. "If I had not been friendly to Islam I would have been tossed out on my ear, most likely half dead or worse."
      Vayer grinned, "Very true. I think perhaps that may be so much of why Fatima felt like home to me at first. The foods and the smells are far closer to those of the tribes than the Rus in some ways."
      "Maybe I shouldn't have taken you with me so much." Arkay said, but Vayer could well tell he was joking.
      "I am certainly glad you did." Vayer said and then told him the tale of bartering with the Salin.
      "That was very well done. What happened to the young colt you picked up?" Arkay asked.
      Oops "He is with the Fatima bachelor band." might as well brazen it out
      "The youngster with no white, looks to end up about 160 cents?"
      "Yes, he ended up getting named Chernye." Vayer shrugged.
      "Awful name, Vayer. However he is a magnificent colt. I saw him running with the others and had wondered who had stolen him." Arkay laughed. Trying to get stud quality colts out of the easterners was as tough as trying to get asil mares out of the southerners.
      "Didn't steal him. Traded for him." Vayer grinned. "All four mares are still healthy and definitely in foal. Fatima will be able to rival Kirov if we keep going like this." he bragged.
      "Perhaps not Kirov, but you'll put my small operation to shame." Arkay said depreciatingly, "First you steal two of my best mares, then you talk me into giving you Kirum, now this."
      What? then Vayer recovered his balance, "Are you going to stand Kirum before he comes back to Fatima?"
      "If I could. There are a couple of mares I would like to put him to." Arkay winked. For a while, like all horse people, they talked horses and horse breeding. Then Arkay landed the final one on Vayer, "Actually, I did have another question."
      "Yes?"
      "I never, having been of Sergei, had the chance to, well," Vayer had never heard his father this diffident, over anything, "since in a way, well, I am sort of related to Fatima and ..." he trailed off, looking down.
      Vayer caught the direction of his gaze, "I think, as my mother always said, your curiosity will be the death of you. Yes, I will teach you the basics of swordsmanship, however, I would have to have Lord Fatima's permission first."
     
      "No, actually you don't anymore, Vayer." Nashen said and he could see both of them jump. He had only caught the final exchange and had to cover his grin at Arkay's unexpected diffidence. "Now that you have passed on Sergei, you are part of the household of Fatima and have discretion over who will be taught. I think it would be wonderful for you to teach your father something, after he has taught you so much. Besides, you are the master swordsman of Russia, Vayer."
      "I thought you were?" Arkay asked quizzically.
      "No more. Vayer surpassed me late last summer, actually." he shrugged. "I probably couldn't get a point in five on him, even restricting augmentation."
      "Oh" he looked at his son in surprise. "I hadn't known."
      "Neither had I, really." Vayer grinned, with more than a bit of deserved pride. "Is that why you wouldn't spar with me past ninth?"
      "I can't." he said, then laughed at Vayer's consternation. "Sheer power and speed won't get you everything, Vayer." he stated the old Fatima maxim, usually regarding shady dealings though.
      "Sometimes its old age and treachery?" Arkay was openly grinning.
      "Yes indeed. Now, lets see if between us we can manage to teach you a few new tricks." Nashen said and zlinned Arkay's field light. He had heard of the older man's insatiable curiosity, but had rarely seen it this strong.
      Vayer reverently placed his own sword to the side and picked up two of the wooden practice blades. He tossed one of them to Nashen and then looked at him quizzically. "Where are the others?"
      "Behind the cabinet."
      "Oh" he reached around and pulled out one of the far heavier ones with the odd hilt to be used for a hand without tentacles. "Here" he tossed it to Arkay. Who, startled, almost dropped it.
      "Yes, I know, it looks like a stick. Doesn't work like one, though." Vayer smiled and showed Arkay how to grip it properly. "Now, the swing isn't from the shoulder primarily, its from the wrist." he went on to walk Arkay through the first of the sword dances.
      Arkay was a quick learner and all the practice at unarmed combat seemed to help. This was until he faced off against Vayer to step through the pattern. "Quarter speed, I'll set the tempo." Vayer told him and the steady clack of wood on wood rang through the salle. Then Arkay tried to get creative.
      "Ow!" he yelled and rubbed at the spot where Vayer had smacked him a good one on the ribs.
      "You're supposed to call, point." Vayer reminded him, smiling broadly. Nashen had to try not to laugh. This was the primarily problem with skilled fighters learning another form.
      "That hurt." Arkay complained.
      "It was supposed to." Vayer said sternly, all teacher. "Now, back to the beginning." and they tried it again, this time with more success. "Half speed." this also went cleanly. "Full speed" Vayer called out but on the first exchange Arkay tried something out of pattern again and this time Vayer smacked him hard, on the wrist. Nashen flinched at the hit on such a delicate part of the body. "Keep the pattern." Vayer reminded him and kept going over Arkay's protests. They tried it again and this time Arkay paid strict attention to keeping the pattern and the timing. "Good, excellent." Vayer was as free with his praise as any good instructor should be, Nashen noted.
      They stopped. Arkay swapped hands and shook out his wrist. "I didn't know you would be sending me home with bruises, Karola is going to think we got into another fight."
      Vayer laughed, "You gave me enough of them, when you were teaching me to fight."
      "True enough. I suppose better bruises now than dead later." Arkay said wisely. He stretched his shoulders, "I think this is enough for one night. You two make it look far easier than it really is."
      "Vayer is the one who makes it look easy." Nashen said. "Actually I had come down here looking to spar." he looked hopefully at Vayer.
      "I would love to watch." Arkay said.
      "Sure, let me put on my bracers." Nashen only then noticed Vayer had not been wearing his. Yes, he is truly the master now. To face even the wooden practice blades with bare arms is more than I want to do.
     
      It had been an excellent bout. Nashen hadn't realized how much he had missed having someone to spar with until Vayer had taken up the sword and now it was even better. He was learning again. Arkay stood, mesmerized, watching from the rail. "We're done, Arkay." or at least Nashen was. Even Vayer looked a little bit tired. Although he hadn't gotten a single point until almost the end, it had been wonderful fun.
      "That was amazing. I don't think I had ever seen you actually use a sword, before, Nashen." Arkay said, handing both of them towels.
      "No one would face me with one in my hand." he reminded the older man. "I draw it and they concede." he grinned.
      "True enough. For some reason I tend to feel the same way. Particularly after watching you and Vayer together." Arkay shook his head.
      "Oh, there are a lot of ways to overcome someone with a sword, particularly in open combat." Vayer threw the towel around his neck and put up the practice swords. "Although anymore, I feel undressed without mine."
      "I had noticed you rarely take it off, at least when you aren't in your private quarters." Arkay said with a questioning look.
      Vayer looked like he was having a hard time explaining, so Nashen did, "Its because, with live weapons, they become part of yourself. Would you forget to put on your bracelets if you took them off?"
      "Goodness no." Arkay automatically jangled them, as almost every Sharm Lord did when reminded of their presence. Even Darya had begun to do so, now that she had gotten used to hers. "Oh, I see. Is it the same thing with your knives?"
      "Exactly so." Vayer said. "I feel naked without them, now that I have gotten used to them."
      "That must have incredibly irritating at first." Arkay noted.
      "It was." Vayer laughed.
      "You should have seen me reminding him not to fuss with their harnesses, Arkay." Nashen smiled in memory, "He kept trying to readjust them every time I turned around."
      "I was a growing lad." Vayer said loftily.
      "You said they were rubbing." Nashen pointed out.
      "They did." he pointed out the lines where the skin had hardened under where the straps normally rested, since Vayer had taken them off to put on his bracers.
      "Interesting." Arkay looked at them carefully. "Can I see before you put them back on?" he asked.
      "Certainly." Vayer held out his forearms. This was far more how Nashen expected father and son to behave. "I won't be putting them back on until after I get a shower."
      "If you like, come up with us and visit for a while." Nashen offered.
      "Only if I can borrow your shower as well."
      "No problem." he said and they both grinned.


CHAPTER 14


      Vayer looked around the table at the gathered households of all the Demenses, this time for first thaw. His older brother and sister had taken over Maryam last month and so it just happened that the usual family gathering was also that of the Demenses. He looked to the head of the table and realized the Azov household had managed to insinuate at least one member into the controlling household of each of the Demense. Even Diomid, after long consultation with Arkay, had taken the patronymic Azovich with Avilan's blessing, so as not to invite unwanted speculation into his heritage.
      After Diomid's taking over Sergei, all of them were agreed it was the right decision. He had fit into the leadership like tentacles into bracers. He might not have the sheer power of Arkay, but unlike his half brother, Diomid had the indefinable quality of mind which was so very much a part of Sergei. Although he still insisted on having transfer every month with Nashen, about which no one was complaining.
      Valentine and Kir had brought their youngest, born only last month. They had begged off their absence at Year's Turning with the excuse it had been far too cold to want to go for the ceremony. Everyone knew it was because both of them were the most sensitive of all the leaders, and Kir had not wanted to risk their final attempt to bear a daughter. She was adorable, even more so than Ivanya, Vayer's youngest sister, born last summer. Darya said she wanted to practice and Kir had let her hold the very tiny infant. Vayer and Nashen were trying to catch little Taina's attention with their tentacles, making both Darya and Kir giggle.
      Their own son protested Tiana's weight resting on him, making her howl in protest. "Hush, little one." Vayer tickled her under her chin with a tentacles, as he had seen his own mother do so many times with his youngest sibs. She grabbed one of his dorsals and tried to stuff it into her mouth. He let her play with it a bit. "I think someone is hungry." he noted. Reluctantly, Darya handed Tiana's back to her mother.
      "You'll have your own soon enough." Karola smiled. Then she relented to Darya's wistful expression watching Tiana nurse and handed over Ivanya. "My arms get tired after a while." Karola grinned, making an excuse for having divested herself of the younger.
      "Then why do you keep having them?" Valentine asked archly.
      "Because two someones keep getting me pregnant." she looked at Vayer's fathers in mock annoyance. They laughed, but Vayer caught Avilan's soft look at Ivanya.
      "You better watch out, or Avilan looks like he's going to get you again." Nashen crowed.
      "One more. Thats it. I'm done." Karola said, rather unexpectedly.
      Avilan kissed her quite thoroughly and then said, "At least I asked." He gave Arkay a pointed look.
      "More or less." Arkay grinned and held out his hands for his daughter. Vayer could zlin Darya's arms finally beginning to tire from the weight of the child and convinced her to give Ivanya back.
      "Go on. She looks like she is wanting to get down eventually anyways." Vayer whispered into her ear.
      As soon as she handed Ivanya over, that was exactly what happened. "Lets all move this to the sitting room so the young ones have room to spread out." Arkay said, as Ivanya squirmed in his arms. "Hold on youngster, I'll put you down in a moment."
      "Can we go outside and play?" Valtanir, Vayer's youngest brother asked.
      "Please, please?" Ilyan chimed in.
      "Me too!" Sevrin added. Then the various older children of the other Demense all began pleading at once. It was a mob.
      "If you can talk at least one of the adults into going with you." Arkay looked around at the gathering.
      Vanya prodded him in the ribs with his nager and Vayer looked at him sternly. He might have established, but he didn't think a whole lot of Vanya's maturity. "Yes, Vanya?" he pointedly said the words out loud. His brother didn't say anything, only made their childhood gesture of a favor coming due.
      Strangely enough Kirina hadn't said a thing. He looked at his sister and cocked his head in question. She looked longingly at Diomid. Vayer grinned, "Actually I think we might all enjoy a chance to get out. It is actually not too cold yet."
      Kir looked aghast until Karola said, "They don't freeze that easily, Kir. Otherwise none of our brood would have survived. Both Avilan and Arkay do not like to live below and all of our children were occasionally exposed to the weather as infants."
      Kirina looked charmed. Vayer definitely got the idea Diomid was not going to get away from her with any great ease, if he even wanted to. Diomid had always seemed to be around whenever Kirina had gotten into one of her scrapes, so maybe there was something there. Everyone gave a hand and soon they had all migrated to the courtyard. Vayer leaned over to one of the guards, "Could we have some of the fire stands?"
      "Yessum, m'Lord."
      "Thank you." he said, and the guard jumped in surprise.
      "Yer welcome, my Lord Vayer." the man said with great respect for the small kindness. "I'll be gettin them right on." he said as he left.
      "Good idea." Nashen laid his hand on Vayer's shoulder. "And well done."
      "We are all people. You showed me that." Vayer rubbed his cheek against Nashen's hand.
      "I think Vassily might have had something to do with it as well." Nashen grinned.
      "Oh like the time he threw me in the river for trying to act like a snob about cleaning out the bilges on a boat?" Vayer laughed at the memory.
      "Who is Vassily?" Karola asked them.
      "He is one of Fatima's dock masters." Nashen said smoothly.
      "Oh? Then why would it be unexpected for him to discipline another member of Fatima?" Karola was simply curious, Vayer noted from her field.
      Because of this he explained, "I tried to tell him since I was a lord and he a mere renSime, he had to do the work." Then he laughed, "Instead, he knocked me down, dragged me through the filthy water in the bilges of the boat and then threw me overboard to clean me off. Never again did I even think of trying to trade on my rank."
      "A renSime!" Avilan was aghast. "You make a renSime think like that?"
      Karola actually zlinned intrigued.
      "Fatima has different ways, love. You know that." Arkay said glibly.
      "On a boat or on the docks, there has to be a single person in charge. When I'm not there, Vassily takes over." Nashen explained. "He is the one who taught me about the rivers and their foibles." he shrugged.
      "Did you meet Dorityan when you were at Sergei, Vayer?" his mother asked into the following silence from Nashen's comments.
      "Yes I did. Master Sergeant Dorityan, now. He seems to be doing quite well." Vayer described his turning around the renSime guards of Sergei.
      "Thank you for that, Vayer." Diomid said. "I think." He laughed, "I still get one or two younger ones a month in my office looking for a transfer from you. They seem to find me quite acceptable as a substitute. Although lord Stephan is truly a nuisance. Do you think you could have dropped him in the river to clean up his attitude?"
      "It might poison the fish and Darya would never forgive me if I did that." Vayer said and got an elbow in the ribs for his jest from her.
      "You seemed to have a problem with fish, once upon a time, from a comment I remember Nashen making." Arkay said with a raised eyebrow.
      "Well, it was a very large fish, with a lot of very sharp teeth." Vayer laughed. "Am I never going to live that down?"
      "Probably not." Nashen grinned. "Taryana still makes jokes about it."
      One of the children squealed with delight as they slid down the long slope made by one of the deep snow banks on the north face of the courtyard. Vayer noticed someone had cut steps into one side of it and had created a perfect slide. "One of Kirina's projects this winter." Karola commented as they looked on at the slide.
      Even Arkay looked wistfully at the wonderful opportunity given by the arrangement. "Come on." Vayer said, taking his father's reluctant hand. Before Arkay had taken two strides, though, he was no longer hanging back and was laughing.
      All the men, it seemed, had decided this looked like a great game and had joined them. And of course, Darya had to try it once or twice as well.
     
      Arkay grabbed his collar as he tried to leave the bedroom, "Where do you think you're going, Nashen?
      "To get out of the way?" he asked. Darya had entered labor late last night, but it had been going very slowly and so Vayer had waited until this morning to call in the midwife. Much to Nashen's surprise, said midwife was Arkay.
      "Wrong answer. Get back in here. You started this." Arkay said darkly, but there was a brilliant twinkle of humor to his field.
      "No, actually I did." Darya grinned. She was so very beautiful to Nashen, particularly now.
      "Be that as it may, you have to finish it." Arkay insisted. Timidly, Nashen re-entered the room. Vayer was holding one of her hands, and he could see her squeeze it hard as another contraction hit. "Now, you two, up!" he commanded, helping the very unwieldy Darya to her feet with Vayer's help. At Arkay's orders they each took one of Darya's arms and helped her walk.
      "Thats better." he could zlin Arkay's examination of their son, protesting this rude treatment. Before the walking, he hadn't wanted to settle down to business. Darya seemed to be doing better now as well. She was less distressed, although she leaned on both of them heavily each time a contraction hit. "Do you have everything ready?"
      "What everything?" Nashen asked in confusion.
      Arkay closed his eyes and sighed, "Where were you when your daughters were born?"
      Nashen couldn't bring himself to say in both cases he had been absent, either on a trading mission, or working on the docks.
      "Oh, I didn't mean to embarrass you." Arkay said softly. "I think I can manage."
      Eventually, after what seemed like hours to Nashen, Darya looked down in sudden surprise to see her robe now soaking wet after yet another, even harder contraction. "What's the timing?" Arkay asked.
      Fortunately Vayer knew what he was talking about and said, "Four, thirty five."
      "Perfect. I think we can let the young woman lie down again, both of you."
      "Thank you." Darya gasped with heartfelt relief. "Walking across Moskva would have been shorter."
      Everyone chuckled at her wry comment. Nashen had felt it had been more like walking to Mecca. When he tried to sit next to her though, Arkay had another surprise for him.
      "Not like that, youngster." Arkay said with a grin and showed him where he wanted Nashen. It had been years since anyone had called him youngster, but actually he was quite flattered by the comment. After a great deal of fussing and rearranging of bedding, he now had Darya sitting in front of him. She was leaning back against his chest and he nuzzled her ear.
      Vayer was looking confused again until Arkay told him, "You're going to have to work the fields, since," he paused "Vanya is no longer with us."
      "I will, if you tell me what you want." Vayer said nervously.
      "Primarily keep Nashen from being taken under by Darya's efforts. She's going to have to pull selyn from him at the final stage, so when I tell you to clear, do it immediately." Arkay told them. "And Nashen, you're going to have to push it into her. I'll tell you both, honestly, it hurts. It is necessary though."
      He breathed a huge sigh of relief as Vayer blocked out almost all of Nashen's ability to zlin. Not having been quite fully aware of how much Darya had been affecting him, its absence was a definite improvement.
      "Relax, Darya. Not yet." Arkay said after some rather peculiar examination with his hands. She leaned back against Nashen and sighed.
      "Easy love." Nashen echoed and gently stroked her belly. "Didn't I tell you, you would get like this if you weren't careful?" he teased.
      He could feel her try to laugh, "But I was careful. I caught you quite carefully."
      "Indeed you did." he kissed her neck. With Vayer's shielding in place he appreciated even more than usual her wonderful, soft skin.
      Time crawled by, but as long as he could see Arkay was unworried, Nashen stayed calm, as did everyone else. Finally, after what seemed like the thousandth contraction and far too many examinations, Arkay said, "OK, Darya. You're ready."
      "I've been ready since this morning." she muttered and then howled as the next contraction hit.
      "Not like that love." Arkay took her hands from Nashen. As the next one hit, his eyes bore into hers and Nashen knew he was showing her something. This time her entire body seemed to strain. "Yes, like that." Arkay gently set her legs over Nashen's thighs. Although this would have been extraordinarily awkward at any other time, it seemed to work now. "Go ahead and rub them, Nashen.
      This seemed to help her relax even more. Darya murmured softly and leaned her head back against his shoulder. He kissed her cheek gently, then she turned her head towards him and gave him a proper kiss. "Yes, like that." Arkay said gently.
      Sweat dripped down between them after not very long. Gently, at Arkay's bidding, he placed his hands on the top of her belly and pressed down with each contraction. More for moral support, than any thing else, he figured. Vayer had the presence of mind to wipe clear Darya's brow with a damp cloth. "Thanks." Nashen told him.
      "Soon." Arkay warned them.
      "I hope so." Darya snapped between contractions. Everyone had to laugh at her feisty comment. A few minutes later, Arkay nodded to him. Nashen set his tentacles on her arms and touched his lips to the back of her neck.
      "On my mark, three, two, one ... mark!"
      The black void of a need like he had never known before opened in front of him. Tearing at him with a last desperate grasp. Darya! he drove selyn into that dark, fearsome, desperate need and fire ripped through his arms and chest. Then it stopped and he gasped at the shock of it. A baby's high wail brought him back to the real world. Darya was resting all her weight against his chest but still concious.
      He looked down to see the burn marks he had left on her arms. "I'm sorry." he whispered.
      "He's worth it." she said softly.
      Arkay looked around and Vayer handed him one of his knives, "Thank you." There was something symbolic about using one of Vayer's knives to cut the cord and he realized they all shared that feeling.
      There was still something odd going on in Darya's body he couldn't quite place. "We'll be done here momentarily." Arkay told them. After a few more, lesser contractions, she passed the afterbirth. You would think I would have remembered that, what with all the foals I have delivered
      Nashen hardly noticed anything else Arkay did after that, all he saw was their tiny son, now wrapped and cradled in Vayer's arms. Darya held out her arms to them and Vayer gave into them their child. He's going to be white blond, like me. Nashen absently noted. The infant opened his eyes and he saw that he had, already, dark silver eyes, not blue like most newborns. Yes, he is a true child of Fatima a tear ran down his face in wonder and joy.
      "What is his name?" Arkay formally pronounced him healthy.
      Nashen swallowed heavily and looked up at Vayer, then he looked down again. The baby was trying to figure out how this food thing worked and was nuzzling Darya's breast with great interest. She helped him out and immediately he suckled. "I name thee, our beloved son, first heir to Fatima, Tzer Fatimovich Fatima."
      "Gift" Darya repeated his name in wonder.
      "Yes, the most wonderful gift you three could have ever given me." Nashen said softly. Arkay looked at him, startled. "Yes, all three of you."


CHAPTER 15


      "You want to leave Avilan and myself up to our eyebrows in babies to run off with Fatima on a trading mission?" Karola did not look particularly pleased at the idea. Vayer had been looking forward to getting out again, since last summer they had stayed home to play with Tzer. He looked over fondly at the youngster, just taking his first steps. Nashen was delighted with him, hardly having left him alone since his birth. Since it looked like it would be another long summer, Vayer had propose that he go south. Darya had immediately thought this was a good idea and wanted to go along. Well, of course this meant Nashen wanted to go too.
      Of all things, Arkay had volunteered to go with them, Diomid obviously being unavailable to go away for an almost four month expedition. Vayer had worried about this putting a possible crimp in some of their plans, as all the people on this expedition would be from Fatima for an unscheduled side trip. He had insisted though, and as Falyana had only recently been born, Karola would certainly have enough milk until Tzer had to be weaned. Giving some thought to the idea, it did seem eminently sensible to Vayer.
      "There are some people I would like to meet with in the south, Karola. I can't go by myself and it will be a few years, at least, before Fatima can field another trip." Arkay said.
      "At least. We only go south about every seven to ten years." Nashen confirmed. "Its too long a trip to go more often."
      "Besides, you don't want me to run out of Arilith, do you?" Arkay grinned.
      "No, no ... get him out of here. I don't want to have to deal with him if he runs out." Avilan waved his hands furiously, making everyone laugh. Of course you could buy it in the city, but it was no where near as good and far more expensive than what you could find in the south.
      "Men!" Karola waved her hands in the air and then looked at Darya sternly. "Why are you going along with this?"
      "Because I can." she laughed. "I hate being cooped up inside and at Fatima unless I am actually traveling or with Nashen or Vayer, I can't go outside at all." Fatima's sharm rules were the strictest in the Demenses. "Besides, I know you will take excellent care of Tzer." she smiled winsomely and not even Karola could quite resist this. Vayer knew he would do anything she asked, when she looked at him like that.
      Tzer fell down again with a thump. He looked around, startled at his change in elevation. Then, on all fours he made a direct line, at top speed, for Karola's knees. "Hold on there youngster." she caught him before he could hurt himself. Tzer looked up at her and grinned. The child's silver eyes were still very startling against his darker skin, even this young. Karola smiled when he held out his chubby little arms to her. "All right, my lad. Come here." and with the practice of many children she scooped him up off the floor and managed to arrange both him and Falyana into comfortable positions. "The twins taught me how to juggle toddlers." she laughed. "I suppose we can survive the summer without you, Arkay. However, if you don't bring him back to me safe and all in one piece, I'm keeping Tzer!" she threatened.
      "If something happens to him, I wouldn't want to come back." Nashen grinned.
      "Understatement of the century, there." Vayer agreed. "Besides, if something happened to Arkay it would only be because we had fallen first." he said quite seriously.
      "Thank you." she said, her field soft and loving. "Now get going before I change my mind." Karola was all matriarch of a very large family again.
      "Yes, my Lord." Arkay said with a grin and kissed her thoroughly. "Are you sure you don't ..." he was breathing heavily by the end of it.
      "Yes, nine is final!" she said this so forcefully, Falyana woke with a start and Tzer stared at her in wonder. The rest of them laughed.
     
      Actually it had taken them a few days to make all their final preparations. His mother took him aside briefly, "Vayer, keep a close eye on your father for me. He has been having more and more heart problems as he ages and I do worry about him. Actually I think the trip will be good for him, get him away from work for a while."
      Vayer showed her his heavily calloused hands from all the work he had been doing on the docks in readying everything.
      "You know what I mean, love. Don't let him try to do the work of three men and stay up all night drinking Arilith and talking." she laughed. "He doesn't know the first thing about boats, so you should be safe there." she took him in her arms and he could zlin the dark overlay of her concern.
      "We will all do our best. Keeping him tied down is not something I think I can promise." he told her, stroking her back.
      "I know he can be a hard man to deal with. All I ask is you try." she said softly.
      "We will." Nashen said softly from behind her.
      She turned to him in surprise, "I didn't know you were there."
      "I hadn't been. Now, what is this about trying?" Nashen said.
      "You promised without even knowing what it was?" she said
      He nodded, "As my lady desires, so shall I try."
      "I had asked Vayer to keep an eye on his father. Arkay's heart has been bothering him and I wanted to Vayer to try to keep him as quiet as reasonably possible." she told him.
      "Ah, I think I may have a solution. Darya's primary hobby is history. I think if I recommend to her she speak with Arkay on the subject, we will manage to keep both of them out of trouble." Nashen said smoothly.
      Vayer thought this was a great idea, "Yes, that would work quite well. Get either of them going on the subject and they'll be happy as can be. And out from underfoot."
     
      This time they started out on horseback and would be transferring to ships once they reached the headwaters of the Dnepr river. Kirum arched his neck and pranced, as glad as Vayer to be off again. He laughed in delight as Kirum decided to get a bit more playful and toss in a few bucks for good measure. "Settle yourself, lad." he told the silver bay stallion.
     
      Arkay had looked at him very strangely, when he had come out with Kirum. He had looked at them all even more oddly when he saw Darya riding Mira, aside no less.
      "I had to train Mira to accept a sidesaddle, but they do look grand together, don't they?" Vayer asked Arkay.
      "Yes, but ..." he trailed off. "I'm glad to see you still follow some traditions, Nashen." Arkay said to him, riding Ilara.
      "I tried riding that horse of Vayer's last time we went out together." Nashen complained, "I think I may still have some mental trauma from the experience. I'll stick with mares, thank you."
      Then all of Arkay's firefly lights huddled in a little ball, as if conferring with each other. "Do you think I could get away with riding astride?" he asked wistfully.
      Vayer had to laugh, "Yes, I think in this company, you can. Everyone will be so busy looking at me on Kirum I don't they they'll even notice. As soon as we get outside the city, you can even go to breeches and boots until we get to the river."
      "Thank you." he said in heartfelt relief. "Riding any distance aside anymore makes me as stiff as old leather."
     
      The company did look decidedly odd, but they made very good time. Even Darya kept up easily, despite her relative lack of horsemanship. After slightly less than a week, they made the Fatima trading post on the river. It did, however, have the crescent and star of Islam flying overhead as well as the banners of Fatima and Russia. Vayer saw his father take note of it and say nothing.
      The first time he heard the muzzein call out the faithful to prayer, however, Vayer jumped almost out of his skin. Still a bit unsure of himself, he followed Nashen's example and found this to be as wonderful as he had hoped. Only deep within the sharm of Fatima were the faithful free to practice their belief in Russia and even there it was muted and hidden. Here, in the open, it was incredible and he found himself filled with a peace he had never known before.
     
      Nashen had watched Arkay closely when they had reached the Fatima trading post, where he well knew there was an active mosque. When the muzzein called out, Arkay stood back, silent and respectful as anyone could wish. Originally Nashen had worried more than a bit about bringing Arkay along for this very reason, but it seemed he did have no problem with the true faith.
      Vayer looked probably as thunderstruck as Nashen had, the first time he had been able to pray openly. "Content?" he asked softly.
      "Yes, more than I could ever say." Vayer said, in an awed voice.
      "Now you know the other reason Fatima has so many of her people out of the city." he thought of all those lucky people who could live their lives in peace outside Moskva. But then he also thought of all the people living as savages without the strength of numbers Rodina gave her children and figured it was a wash.
     
      "Why do Fatima's children continue to hide, even after all these centuries?" Arkay asked them when they returned.
      "You are the historian, Arkay." Nashen said sadly.
      Darya shook her head, "I know what it is like to grow up outside Fatima but of the faith. It is horrible. Even in the Kirov sharm, which is very well run, there is no acceptance for anything but the Way of the Rus. To even show a glimmer of anything else is to invite beatings or worse."
      "It is far worse for the renSimes. Outside Fatima they have no freedom and are treated more like animals than humans. You know what the penalty for a renSime talking out of order is as well as I do, Arkay." he hated the practice of whipping them into attrition, although they did not die of it, it was horribly painful.
      "I do." he said sadly. "But without controls they would overrun us, Nashen."
      "For mere speech?" he asked hotly.
      "I don't know, Nashen. There were so many rebellions and killings early in our history, maybe we do go too far now."
      "It is too ingrained, father." Vayer said quietly. "We have been living so long under our the shadow of our own making I don't think Russia as a whole could change."
      "Most do seem content." Darya shrugged. "Before I left Kirov I had never even met a renSime, so all I know is of Fatima, and she restricts contact between the larities far more than the other Demense."
      Nashen looked up at the gleaming spire of the mosque, "Perhaps there is no final answer other than faith that the future will somehow be better than today. I don't know."
      "All things have their price." Vayer said sadly.
      He looked at Arkay and Darya, now heavily burdened with the completely shielding kador of the faithful. "Yes, all things do."
     
      Nashen had forgotten how seasick he could get, even on the relatively calm waters of the Black Sea. He groaned and rolled over in his bunk, trying to escape his upset stomach. Boats on rivers didn't affect him this way, but ships on the sea certainly did. The room, thankfully, was empty as far as he could tell.
      Hearing footsteps, he told his body to behave and tried to get up. This was a serious mistake. At the same time he lunged for the basin, someone opened the door.
      "Hush now." Arkay told him in a soft voice, holding him gently as he tried to heave up his toenails, it seemed. "Hush." the steady cool fog washed through his now aching body. Nashen felt vaguely better now that he didn't have anything in his stomach.
      He was shaking as he leaned against Arkay's cool side, under his arm. "You would think, after all the times I've gone on pilgrimage." he grumbled and Arkay handed him a damp cloth. Nashen spit trying to get the nasty taste out of his mouth and then wiped his lips with it. Then he realized what he had said.
      "I had figured as much, Nashen." Arkay's deep voice rumbled. "Here." a glass of water appeared in front of him. Nashen took it gingerly and tried to decide if the knotting in his middle was seasickness or fear of rejection. He took some of into his mouth, swished it around and spit it back out. The idea of actually drinking anything was disgusting.
      "Where are the youngsters?" he tried to distract Arkay from his too perspective self.
      "On deck, acting like a couple of young adults on their first pilgrimage."
      It obviously hadn't worked. Time to grab the stallion by the lead shank, "You don't have a problem with our destination?"
      "No, Nashen, I don't. I never did." Arkay's hand was gentle on his arm. "Even though I was surprised at first to see my own son at prayer, it does suit him, and you, well."
      "You knew from the beginning where we were going?" he said in surprise.
      "Of course, particularly when I noted there was no one other than myself who was not of Fatima and many of her more reclusive children as well." Arkay's arm tightened in a hug. "Feeling better?"
      "After the talk or managing to look like a kid on their first sea voyage?" at the reminder his stomach turned over again.
      "The talk of course, unfortunately I know of no cure for seasickness in Simes. Sip a bit of the water, I don't want you dry." Arkay said gently.
      He obeyed without thinking, although it came back up only minutes later. "I hate this." he complained, then he thought a bit. "You mean there is a cure for non-Simes?" he wasn't so out of it he was going to say Gens, the rather insulting term for one couldn't give direct transfer, although he thought it in his annoyance.
      "Actually, there is." Arkay shrugged, "If it makes you feel any better, Darya woke up in a worse state than you did."
      "No, actually it doesn't." Nashen complained, feeling rather petty at the moment. "It isn't fair."
      "Some things aren't. Now, you are going back to bed for a bit." Arkay told him.
      Grumbling all the way, Nashen let Arkay carry him after he found his shaky knees wouldn't support him.
      "Hush now." Arkay whispered and his hand was cool against Nashen's brow. He slipped back into a deep sleep to the sound of the older man singing an ancient lullaby, telling the tale of Mohammed's first trek to Mecca. No, I would say he doesn't mind at all
     
      "Look at that!" Vayer pointed, no less excitedly for this having been at least the tenth time he had said as much this afternoon. Darya was equally as excited, leaning so far over the railing Nashen had to pull her back for fear she would fall into the water. There were, it seemed, hundreds of ships of all kinds at dock and making their way both in and out of the great port. Nashen well knew there were actually far fewer, but it was a magnificent sight, nonetheless.
      Even the laborious passage through the ancient canal to the Red Sea had been relatively interesting with the young people seeing it all for the first time. Even Arkay was leaning over the railing enjoying the sights.
      "You've never been this far south before?" Nashen asked him quietly.
      "No" he turned to him and Nashen could see his eyes light in a grin. "I've never been further south than the Caucas." he explained and then Nashen had to grab the back of his kador for fear he would get
wet.
      "No swimming!" he told the two Sharm Lords loudly.
      "I hadn't planned on it, Nashen." Arkay chuckled and rearranged his robes.
      "You almost did, Arkay." he said darkly. "I don't even know if you can swim."
      "Actually I never really learned how to do it very well. I can paddle around in a pond but thats about it." he shook his head and chuckled. "Not like Vayer."
      "Vayer swims like a fish." he said loudly enough to attract the young man's attention.
      Vayer groaned and then laughed. Darya chuckled. Arkay laughed so hard tears came from his eyes.


CHAPTER 16


      The sun beat down on the top of Vayer's head like a hammer. He felt Nashen try to get his attention, but all of it was on the city in front of him. Vayer could see the outlines from where this had once been a far lager city, like Moskva. This was the last stop before fulfilling a dream few could ever manage in this day and age.
      "Vayer." he heard, but Vayer was still fascinated by the sprawl of white faced buildings beyond the port. Off in the distance, he could see the heat shimmer and dance over the sandy, rocky soil. This is where it all began he rested his chin on his hands on the railing.
      "Vayer!" someone yelled and he turned to see Nashen, seemingly all wrapped up in robes, from head to toe, not even his eyes showing. That looks even hotter he thought dubiously. His shirt was already soaked and he figured he would require Darya's help to peel his breeches off.
      "Since I'm probably not going to manage to talk you into going below to change ... strip." Nashen ordered him. He was carrying a rather large bundle of cloth which Vayer eyed dubiously. Less clothes would be better, if only for a moment he figured and did as he was told. Besides, Nashen had been here before.
      As soon as he finally got out of them, his friend bundled him back up again. Even including wrapping more cloth around his head and neck!
      "There, now Arkay won't have to deal with you falling over with heat stroke." Nashen said in a satisfied tone.
      At first, Vayer couldn't see how more clothes were going to keep him from getting too overheated, then he noticed something. He did feel cooler. "Oh my, yes. This is much better." the robes were wool, like a sharm lord's, but under the harsh sun, even in the humidity of Jaffa, they felt cooler. "Thank you."
      "The first time I came here I refused to change and ended up fainting. Tzanir wasn't going to waste any effort on some young Lord and I ended up spending my first week in the south trying to get my sense of orientation back." his lightings shimmered in a grin. "I have to keep my eyes covered, or I'll end up with a sick headache. Watch yourself, lad. This is a beautiful land in its way, but only the tribes can travel it."
      "People live out there?" he turned away to look over the expanse of what seemed like nothing going on forever.
      "Indeed they do and haven't changed their ways substantially for millennia."
      "Even through the mutation?" Arkay asked quietly, with Darya looking on in curiosity. Vayer's mate seemed almost as fascinated as he was.
      "From what few records survived, yes." Nashen's field hiccuped in a shrug. "Actually while most of this area tore itself apart. Make no mistake, everything but Mecca and Medina were razed to the ground. Some of the tribes, somehow, simply shrugged it off as the Will of Allah, gave thanks for no longer being bombed, and went on with their lives. They live in the wadi's and oasis out beyond what we now call civilization."
      "This city of Jaffa once held over a million people at its height." Darya added.
      "Moskva once housed over ten million, in only slightly larger than twice its current geographic area." Arkay, it seemed, couldn't let Darya get away with the trivia contest which had been occupying them for most of the voyage.
      "I couldn't imagine so many people all packed together." Vayer wondered. The current population off all Russia was less than two percent of the number Arkay said had lived in Moskva alone. "How did they even have enough room to breathe?"
      "They must have taken turns." Nashen said, making them all laugh.
     
      By the time they were allowed to disembark, Vayer was about ready to melt into a little tiny puddle on the deck of the ship. Then he thought that might not have been such a bad idea. The smells and closeness when they finally got into the city proper were overwhelming.
      "The Fatima house is on the city divide. We're almost there." Nashen pointed. It was not enormous, but it looked like it would be dark inside, which was all to the good in Vayer's opinion.
      "Why is it backed up to the wall that seems to go across the city?" Arkay asked hesitantly.
      "Because Fatima paid an excessive sum to have direct access to the Gen district." Nashen winked. "Some, long ago ancestor of mind had an Alahin who insisted or he would go mad with isolation."
      "Probably Sharm Lord Falkarin in the sixth century." Darya gave a smug lilt to her words.
      "You are not going to know the answer one of these days and I will probably keel over with shock." Nashen tapped her on the nose gently.
      She giggled, "Hasn't happened yet, has it?"
      "Don't tempt me." Arkay's eyebrows rose.
      "I want to hear this." Vayer said. Then he sighed in relief as they entered the darkened passageway to the private quarters, he hoped. The heavily plastered walls seemed far cooler than any snow bank he had jumped into as a child.
      "Later. This evening." Nashen told them. "Now, I don't know about you all but I am going to take a nap."
      This seemed like a splendid idea to Vayer. Why didn't I think of that then he realized he was probably too sunstruck to think of much at all.
      "Drink some water, you two Lords. I know Darya has some sense, she isn't a Sime." Arkay told them and as he removed his veil and hood, Vayer leaned back from the vehemence in his field.
      "Yes, otyet." the younger men said in unison, making Arkay laugh.
     
      Jaffa had come alive with the setting of the fierce desert sun. Because of the humidity, it didn't cool off very much, but at least he could see. Vayer shook his wrists again, trying to get rid of the irritating sand which kept trying to invade his tentacle sheathes. Nashen had even gone so far as to put on his bracers in an attempt to evade the annoying grit.
      "Whatever you do, don't extend your laterals." Nashen had warned him and now he know why. The horrid stuff would have stuck to them. On his handling tentacles it was bad enough.
      Other than actual sparring or fencing Vayer never wore his bracers anymore. He hated the way he always seemed to immediately start sweating under them as soon as he put them on. Also, he didn't like being out without his steel. In the sticky heat they would have been unbearable. Vayer saw something curious up ahead. There was a fountain and that looks like a great idea. As they walked by he deftly, as he saw other people do, let the water run over his forearms, rinsing off the worst of the stuff, or at least the salt which made it stick so horribly. Some people didn't do it, and Vayer saw they were wearing a strange sort of half bracer, only covering the tentacle orifices and along the laterals. Interesting
      "Better?" Nashen asked him softly.
      "Much" he replied. Under his breath, "I don't see or zlin a single Sharm Lord." Most of the time, there was at least one or two around in any large group in Russia. Their nagers were so distinctive, the lack was very obvious. "Are only Simes allowed out in public?"
      "Mostly, only foreigners and Alahin of the tribes are allowed to walk the streets, and then only with an escort and completely veiled." Nashen told him softly.
      Finally they were almost outside the city and into the area where one of the tribes had set up camp. He had seen belled and gemmed harness for horses, braided and tassled halters and blankets for camels, even elaborately decorated hawk furniture, but nothing resembling either the sort of jewelry he had wanted to find for Darya or anyone selling any kind of armor or weapons. Before he could ask though, they were confronted by what looked like a rather irate lord.
      "What business have you in the encampment of Talash?" she asked in a high pitched, carrying tone.
      Stung by her incivility, "None for those who do not wish to receive the gold and news of Fatima's children." Perhaps he could have been more polite about it, but Vayer was still trying to get rid of the itching sand. She had on some of those bracers he now really wanted. Actually it seemed, all the tribesmen wore them. Or at least all of those who had gathered behind her, attracted by her words.
      "No felahin is a true child of Fatima, city-dweller." she snorted. "You even dare wear steel like you could possibly know how to use it."
      This even got Nashen riled up, "How dare you spit on the name of the daughter of the Prophet, peace be unto him?"
      "Come now children," a much older sounding male voice said from behind a heavy veil. There was also a very familiar ringing sound coming from his wrists. "You have been accosting complete strangers for days, trying to find someone foolish enough to accept your challenge so you could take Mahilin as Alahin. Silaya bint Ali, you aren't going to find anyone your match with the blade, much less one who could best you to prove your humility before Allah. You should have thought about this before you became a sword master in Talash."
      "A deal, Silaya?" Vayer said with a wicked grin, making Nashen groan almost silently behind him.
      "What?" she asked suspiciously, looking at Vayer's obviously well worn sword belt and swordsman's stance.
      "If I can best you, bracers and bracelets, tell me where to find them."
      The older man laughed uproariously, "You'll not get either here, except from the tribes, young peacock. I like your brass however, to ask for access in such a fashion. Unless you are a good as you are bold, you'll not be getting what you want. In return, your forfeit would be to tell of how you came and where you are from. From your eyes you are not of the south, despite your Arabic."
      Vayer would have been willing to give the information without it being a forfeit, so this was an extraordinary deal and made very sure his field didn't give him away. "So be it." he drew his blade, the steel flashing in the torchlight and Nashen relieved him smoothly of his sword belt and outer robes.
      Silaya looked a bit nervous at his odd clothes and her eyes narrowed, "To first blood. To compensate for your arms being bare."
      She hadn't had to remind him of this fact. As first blood could well be fatal for Simes, Vayer realized he faced his first true duel of honor. This time my steel shall be anointed with my opponent's blood he promised the blade. The older man held the position of Silaya's second, and Vayer realized he must be some sort of relative, from how intently he was watching the young woman.
      The onlookers drew back into a neat circle. Silaya wielded one of the heavier, more curved swords of the south, and Vayer reminded himself to watch how it would tend to slide inside his guard more easily. As formally as any fencing match in the salle they tapped blades to begin. After the first block and strike combination, Vayer realized he easily outmatched his opponent.
      Beyond the torchlight, he caught the faintest flicker of concern from a pair of almost invisible black eyes. That must be Mahilin. a faint grin tried to come onto his face. Vayer drew out the duel, again and again making it look like Silaya was actually pressing him. Even once going so far as to drop to one knee beneath her blade, before letting it ring down his own in a controlled slide. Finally he got her so riled up over his teasing of her abilities, she let loose with every skill she possessed. This is what she must do to prove she can lose with grace. Silaya was still no real match for him, but the older man finally nodded his approval.
      Good after two more combinations, Vayer delicately let his blade touch her between her dorsal sheathes, the hardest legitimate target to hit. Blood flowed freely and the older man called, "Point and satisfaction." Vayer did not lower his guard one whit. Silaya almost overran the command, blowing the whole thing until Vayer flicked his blade sideways, flashing the light into her eyes.
      She froze and then blinked at him, "Thank you and thanks be to Allah for the lesson I have learned this night."
      "Thanks be unto Allah for the Peace of the Tribes." Vayer hoped this would be an acceptable response, as he had no idea what the proper one was.
      The older man's eyes danced with laughter, "Very creative, young Caliph. You are now free of your obligation as sword master to Talash, Silaya. Go to your Alahin and may you have many children and long life together."
      "As Allah wills, Ali ben Akbar." she bowed formally and then ran off into the shadows where Vayer had spotted the hidden person.
      There was a flash of what felt like a sharm lord's nager and Vayer had to grin as he knew she had stolen a kiss from her lover.
      "Come, we will talk with you of trade. There is Arilith at my tent." Ali said smoothly and interposed his body between Vayer and where Silaya had gone.
      "We are more than pleased to be accepted into the guest tent of Talash, honored Ali." Nashen said smoothly. Although Vayer could almost hear his complaint about having to drink Arilith. Vayer was looking forward to it.
     

      Arkay was bored. As a matter of fact he was extremely bored. Nashen, Darya and Vayer had left early this morning with all of the other children of Fatima who had come with them. Nashen would be back in plenty of time for transfer but Arkay had never before in is life been this isolated from Simes after turnover.
      Normally having numerous books around he had never before read would have been more than sufficient to keep him occupied. Vayer had even teased him about how much he would enjoy getting to read without interruptions.
      Before this trip, Arkay had not really had the opportunity to simply spend time with the young man after they had both decided to try to patch up their relationship. There was a core of strength to Vayer he had not had as a child. Perhaps it was growing up so fast, less than six months between his changeover and his ascention. Possibly it was, no matter how much he joked and played around, he was aware of everything going on around him. Certainly he could get distracted, but if it was important Vayer was on top of it.
      If Vayer had been another man's son, Arkay would have been jealous. Why had I been so hard on him? he asked himself. He was the most promising Lord Arkay had ever known. I know I didn't tell him I wanted him to grow up to be a Sharm Lord. he though, but then he realized in so very many ways he had always simply assumed he would be. From teaching him to train horses with Kirum to never even asking him if he felt he would go through changeover.
      Arkay sat beneath a palm tree in the courtyard to think for a while. It wasn't as if Arkay's father had treated him any differently, and Vanya had certainly not been harsh or unkind. Although he had been more absent than present in Arkay's life.
      I wish I were stupid enough to dare Shari'a and go out on my own like some idiot in a sharm tale he hoped the author of this part of his life was not going to introduce some disaster that would draw him out. Arkay had not managed to survive this long without a healthy respect for the necessity of obedience to common sense.
      Lord Nashen Fatima, now there was an enigma. Before this trip Arkay had never had transfer with him and had always deferred to Avilan's obvious interest in the man. Arkay had never had all that much interest in other men once he had become an adult, other than Avilan of course. Although that may simply have been a result of the fact Avilan took such great enjoyment in life's pleasures. Not to mention he wallows in them with completely uninhibited glee Arkay heard his bracelets jangle and he had to remind himself to stop rubbing his own arms like some kind of adolescent.
      Nashen could be so self-effacing and reserved it was frightening. The way he had kept Vayer's impending changeover to himself disturbed Arkay. Once Taina had left him, Nashen had withdrawn so far Avilan had had to seek him out repeatedly so he would not retreat so far into his own Demense she would loose her ties to the rest of Russia. Fatima had always been the most alien of the five, even including her rival Maryam. Odd that the two feminine Demense with Islamic names were so at odds, but such was history.
      Arkay had found himself quite unexpectedly learning to enjoy Nashen's quiet good nature and often wicked sense of humor. Even though he still occasionally got headaches from the terrible pounding Nashen had given that horrible night Nashen had forced him to face what he had done to Vayer. Never before had Arkay seen the full manifestation of a Fatima Lord in a towering fury. He certainly had no desire to repeat the experience. There were still times when woke in the dead of night in a cold sweat and could feel the searing pain of raw electricity tearing through his body. Twice on this trip Nashen had had to steer storm away from the ship and both times Arkay had been in awe of the sheer power the man controlled, it seemed, so effortlessly.
      The image of Nashen standing at the prow of the ship, his silver white hair almost matching the blue white fire wrapped around him was one Arkay would never forget. When he had turned around momentarily with his normally silver eyes now effecting the eerie blue blaze of electrical fire Arkay had actually been afraid of a Lord for the first time in many years. Afterwards Nashen had come to him where he had been watching the storm on a far corner of the deck. Silently, the younger man had simply held him, as if he knew he had accidentally frightened Arkay and was trying to make amends. There was no way he could have known, as Arkay had been very careful not to disturb Nashen while doing such dangerous work. As if words might have spoiled things, for a long time they simply enjoyed watching the rain together. Later though, Arkay realized he no longer worried about Nashen striking out at him again, as long as Arkay himself didn't provoke him.
      There was an odd though, Arkay afraid of Nashen.
      With a growl of disgust, Arkay firmly sat on his hands to keep them from his own arms.
      Even at twenty four days Arkay could easily satisfy Nashen's need, so it certainly wasn't that. Possibly it was his sheer level headed practicality. Arkay knew, without a shadow of a doubt, if anything threatened Fatima, Nashen would deal with it, decisively and finally, whether he was physically capable or not.
      Nashen's absolute loyalty to Fatima and his faith fascinated Arkay. Even after telling Nashen, Arkay had still had to prove he would not interfere with their open practice of their beliefs. Certainly Arkay had seen the faithful at prayer, even in the southerner's market in Moskva.
      At first, to see Vayer praying as he had only seen foreigners do had disturbed him. Arkay had, for a brief moment, thought how horrible it was for his own son to follow some barbarian superstition. When he had taken that thought out and examined it though, it had disgusted him even more. Vayer was a man, well grown, who could certainly chose his own beliefs. The look of peace on his face afterwards had been wonderful to behold. This, it seemed, was something Vayer had truly desired and if Arkay had continued to deny it, would have destroyed the young man.
      Up until Vayer had responded to the call to prayer, Arkay realized, he had been denying it. No adult male ever had themselves circumcised except in such a case. Some infants were, particularly those who were entirely raised by the sharm for reasons of hygiene, so it wasn't that notable in and of itself. Arkay hadn't even thought of it at all with the times Nashen had been with himself, Avilan and Karola.
      Giving up on trying to get his hands to behave, Arkay found some convenient almond oil and let them have their way with his arms. "Dry skin" he muttered, trying to convince himself of the fact.
      Then there was Darya. At first Arkay had been horrified and disgusted, Vayer would take up with such a dark, negative feeling person. He had figured it was a youthful infatuation with the exotic and would pass. Salya had been even darker, but she had not had the same shifting, almost animate feel to her field, as if it were alive apart from her will.
      It was only upon waking up after restructuring large parts of he endocrinal system so she could safely bear children had Arkay gotten a chance to really talk with her. To see her as a person, not simply her rather unusual field. His chest had still hurt horribly after his overwork and underdraw induced cardiac arrest, but Darya had made his sides hurt almost as much with laughter at her pithy comments and incredibly witty repartee.
      Her knowledge of history was absolutely astonishing as well. Arkay could count the number of times she had pulled some obscure name out of her capacious hood. No one had challenged him by their knowledge of Russia's past the way Darya had. As he relaxed with her and got to know her better he realized how very wrong he had been in his initial dismissal of her as simply a failure in his own breeding program.
      Even her field became acceptable after a while. At first, the way it would dance away from him was horrible.
      One time however, as they were sitting around talking, a few days after transfer, the subject had come up in conversation.
     
      Arkay tried to draw Darya's field out to try to examine it. It was like trying to pin a live eel to a plate with a single fork. Every time he thought he had it cornered it slithered away again. Finally he gave up.
      As soon as he returned his attention to the discussion, however, he found himself reaching out, subconsciously to pet this cool dark, incredibly soothing something which had tentatively wrapped itself around his leg.
      Startled beyond words he jumped in place. Darya had laughed delightedly, "Its gotten braver."
      "If you don't mind me asking, as it seems too shy for me to examine. Why does your field behave as if it has a mind of its own?" he wondered.
      "Why does Vayer's ...?"
      "Darya!" Vayer squawked and turned Kirov red. Arkay and Nashen were entirely unable to control their laughter at this reminder of their own bodies' unruliness as young men.
      "You have a lascivious mind, love." she neatly reached over and nipped at his neck gently. The field flare of instant arousal was unmistakable. "I was going to say... Vayer's father's fireflies." she grinned wickedly, obviously having come up with the substitute to twit Vayer.
     
      Akray knew he really had to tell them he had lied about Darya not being able to bear more children. But how? he was so ashamed of his own duplicity in how he had dealt with her.
     
      Hot, strong Sime fingers stroking his forearms interrupted Arkay's long reverie. He leaned his head back and moaned with how very good it felt. What is a Sime doing here? finally intruded into his consciousness.
      "Who?" he asked as some of the need induced muzzyness wandered out of his mind.
      "If my lord so desires?" her voice was sweet and he saw a very pretty, dark, young renSime kneeling in front of him.
      Her need, while a faint shadow of the Lords he usually interacted with, was a sweet temptation. Then he saw why she was using her fingers, she had no handling tentacles. Trapped between desire and disgust, Arkay had no idea what to say.
      She tried to pull away but Arkay caught her fingertips, "Don't go, little one."
      "You looked lonely out here." she glanced aside at the oil. He blushed at the idea of someone seeing him treating his loneliness by playing with himself. "My master thought I might divert."
      "What is your name?" he had to get some kind of hold on this situation.
      "Surya, if it please you?" she turned her eyes away from him. Her laterals were quivering in the cooling air. I must have been teasing the poor lass for a good half hour.
      "Come here, Surya." Arkay gently drew her into his lap. With catlike grace she accepted. Arkay sighed as the hot, sleek feel of her body teased at his senses. He wrapped his field around her to distance her need temporarily. "Do you still want me?" he asked. Arkay didn't even want to think of forcing himself on this mutilated little renSime. No matter what local traditions were.
      "Yes, I do." her eyes were wide and her hand was gentle against his cheek.
      He gave her a grin, "Would you happen to play chess, by any chance?"
      She giggled, sounding completely carefree now that she was no longer desperate for his selyn, "Actually, I am a far better story teller."
      Close enough


      How incredible it had been. Tribesmen, city dwellers and far travelers like Fatima's children all gathered together in peace. The waxing moon shone across the sands as they made their way back to Jaffa.
      Nashen had offered to let Darya and Vayer stay behind and come back with the others. They had wanted to travel at night as well though, or so they had said. For the duration of their stay in Mecca, the two had been separated. He grinned as he caught a flash of Darya's field when Vayer stole a quick kiss. No wonder they didn't want to stay behind Actually they had all been so focused it hadn't been an issue. Now, however, Nashen wanted to get back to Arkay with an ache so fierce it almost overrode all other concerns. He hadn't liked having to leave his transfer partner after turnover, particularly in a city where said partner couldn't go out alone in most of the area. Nashen knew Arkay wouldn't have done anything foolish, like "Vayer! Quit helping Darya flash the landscape."
      "Yes, otyet" he said, not at all meekly. The mixed languages with no accent to either sounded very strange to Nashen's ears.
      "I want to go on ahead, faster than you or Darya can manage. Do you think you can get back to the town house without Darya getting fined for indecent exposure?" this he wasn't too sure of. Although some few of the other night travelers were a bit indiscrete as well from a flash or two he could zlin. Darya's field at least didn't light up the night like a regular Fatima Sharm Lord's.
      "Go back to Arkay. I'm sure he misses you." Vayer waved his field in the direction of Jaffa.
      "I don't know if he would be missing me or simply any Sime company." Nashen knew he could never truly satisfy Arkay in transfer, but figured better something than nothing. He usually had to do a shunt-transfer with Avilan to satisfy him. Arkay's normal peak was even higher.
      "I think not, Nashen." Darya said softly. "Underneath all his aggressive posturing, Arkay really does care about you."
      Nashen tried to demur, it was simply a temporary arrangement so Diomid could stay behind. Vayer shook his head in the negative, "He has changed, Nashen. There is more to him than most people ever see."
      "Thank you both for letting me go on ahead." he didn't want this to go on. The idea of Arkay actually wanting him was too far fetched for further discussion.
      "Certainly." Vayer has a small smile on his face, as if he knew of Nashen's desires. Although given his parents, he well might know.
      Taking stock of his resources Nashen realized if he pushed it a bit he could get back almost on the edge of hard need and give Arkay at least a decent transfer. Zlinning around carefully he spotted a point where he could land and not make a jump in the ambient. He made the familiar twist in his mind and willed himself to the rocky outcropping. His next jump landed him beside a very startled, very fragrant camel. Before the owner of said animal could investigate the camel's disturbance, Nashen jumped on ahead.
      Other than one very occupied prostitute in a convenient alley and aforementioned camel no one even saw him, much less took note of his passing. Which is as it should be Nashen did not care to flaunt his abilities. It seemed crude and rather arrogant to him.
      He let himself into the house. After removing his bracers and quickly washing off a bit at the fountain in the front courtyard dedicated to that purpose, he silently made his way to the private quarters. Nashen didn't want any of the staff to have to upset their routine because of his own impatience. The doorkeeper to the private quarters spotted him, however. "Darya and Vayer will be along later." he told the renSime. She was entire and so could not go into the private quarters but she did an excellent job as gatekeeper for them.
      "I will be waiting for them with care, my Lord." she said.
      At least the southern renSimes were taught to speak Arabic correctly. "Thank you" courtesy cost nothing and was pleasing to Allah.
      "You're welcome. Surya says Arkay has been frantic for you."
      By the time this information sank in, Nashen had closed the inner door or the private quarters behind himself.
      "Nashen!" all 110 kilos of Arkay flattened him against the heavy wooden door. He looked down in surprise and Arkay took this as an invitation to a long, luxurious kiss. Nashen's knees buckled at Arkay's overwhelming display of need. Wow! Every single nerve in his body felt like it was wrapped in Arkay's cool, pre-dawn feeling field.
      "Arkay, if we don't want to surprise the kids?" Nashen didn't want any spectators.
      "It isn't as if they haven't seen transfer before." Arkay chuckled wickedly and Nashen felt his feet come off the ground. Automatically he wrapped his arms around Arkay's neck for balance. "But I suppose we shouldn't block the door."
      Fortunately Arkay had toned down his welcome a bit, letting Nashen do something approximating thought. "Are you sure you want to do this right now?" Arkay already had his hair down and after setting him down on the bed was rapidly working on Nashen's.
      "Tonight." Arkay insisted, almost growling. Nashen was not going to question his good fortune. Something had seriously worked the older man into a state. Out of a last bit of curiosity Nashen zlinned Arkay clinically and noted someone had drawn him down to were they would be an even closer match in addition to it being early.
      "Surya" Arkay answered his unspoken question. Surya might have been cut, but she must have teased Arkay almost mad with not being able to get any more than an echo of her satisfaction.
      "Yes" Nashen hissed as Arkay's incredibly skilled hands and field twined with his own tentacles.
      "Simes should have tentacles." Arkay murmured and leaned down to kiss one of Nashen's dorsal sheathes. When Arkay gently licked the orifice he shivered at the incredibly arousing gesture. Need had rarely felt this good.
      Then he felt Arkay's tongue brush gently over one of his now extended laterals and Nashen howled in an pleasure so intense it was almost pain.
      "I hope you have good soundproofing." Arkay said wickedly.
      Nashen gasped a bit, trying to pull himself together. "Very" he said absently. He would have said anything so as not to give Arkay any thoughts about stopping.
      "Good" he heard then his whole body was engulfed in the most exquisite fire imaginable as Arkay licked down the entire length of that lateral.
      Even Avilan doesn't usually get this creative
      "Who do you think taught him?" Arkay asked archly.
      "Oh" he murmured. Then as Arkay, just on the wonderful side of rough, ran his hands over his now very hot, and very swollen roniplin glands, he howled again.
      "Yes, I want to see you respond to me." Arkay leaned over an blew out the single lamp. The faintest flickers of blue light traced over Nashen's forearms. "More" Arkay growled and pulled at Nashen with his field.
      The combination of promise and withdrawal drove Nashen's desire to even greater heights. "Want" he heard himself actually say out loud.
      "Oh yes" Arkay's eyes were wide and black, "I want to hear it."
      The the tongue went back to another of his laterals, this time with the faintest sensation of teeth. "Want you!" he screamed.
      "Oh yes, Nashen." hearing his own name in Arkay's deep voice, rough with need, was more than Nashen had ever dared dream.
      Although even almost mindless with desire, Nashen had to ask, "Arkay, afterwards?"
      "I mean to make you howl again." and with those words Nashen gave himself over completely to Arkay's questing hands, mouth and field.
     
      Karola is one lucky woman Nashen mused over the events of last night. Normally Sharm Lords only drove the transfer with their bond mate. Last night Arkay had definitely taken matters into hand, as it were.
      Nashen had no idea when Darya and Vayer had come in last night. He could hear them already up and talking in their room next door. Then he realized if he could hear them, the entire household and half the neighborhood must have heard him.
      He felt the blood drain from his face. Arkay sleepily asked, "Is there something wrong? Did their talking wake you up?"
      "Arkay, if we can hear them..."
      "They probably heard us already so there's no use in shutting the barn door now." Arkay pulled Nashen's upper body more firmly against his back. The broad planes of muscle covering Arkay's shoulders did nothing to help Nashen try not disgrace himself. It was definitely not helping. Tentatively, so as not to surprise the other man, Nashen lightly licked one of his shoulder blades. Surprisingly Arkay didn't shift away. Figuring he was relatively safe and Arkay would assume it was simply the normal effects of waking up, Nashen let the rest of his body conform around Arkay's magnificent length.
      This is not conductive to clear thought Nashen noted. His head was spinning with trying to keep from shifting about unnecessarily.
      "Relax" Arkay murmured
      A good idea in theory Nashen bit back a groan.
      "This isn't theoretical" Arkay rolled over so he was face down. Involuntarily, Nashen's free hand reached up to stroke down the length of Arkay's upraised arm. The heavy muscles developed over more than forty years of dance, martial arts and riding, tensed and released as his fingers dug into them.
      He was more than a bit confused, but Arkay's obvious invitation had the inevitable effect and there was no way to hide it. For a while Nashen simply enjoyed being able to freely touch and zlin Arkay's incredible body. Arkay's skin was cool and smooth under his hands but there was something missing. As he reached out with his field there was the lightest edge of dancing laughter to Arkay's countenance. He dug his tentacles in harder alongside the muscling of Arkay's ribs but it was still there.
      Nashen wanted to growl with frustration at not being able to truly get Arkay's focus on him. This only made the laughing, teasing sensation worse. When dealing with a horseman, act like a horse Vayer's words came back to him. His blood up now, Nashen wanted Arkay, but how?
      Even in the darkness, Nashen caught Arkay's eyes. Thinking of all the stallions he had seen showing off for their mares, Nashen arched his neck and stared even more intently into Arkay's gaze. Oh ho he thought, catching his breath as Arkay looked to the side. The other man's breath caught as well. Nashen had to work to keep from loosing his temporary advantage. Keeping his line of sight where it was he brought his hand over and worked his fingers and tentacles into the back of Arkay's neck. Arkay hummed and sank down into the bed further.
      The muscles under his hands tensed and then released. With a feather touch, Nashen leaned down and licked along the very edge of Arkay's ear. "Yes" Arkay whispered, making Nashen nip him lightly. Arkay hissed and softened even further. The taste of his skin was salty and sweet at the same time. "Don't tease" Arkay said softly, his field telling Nashen the exact opposite.
      "Why not?" Nashen asked wickedly and nipped at the back of Arkay's neck. The answer he got was not in words but rather a wonderful hissing moan. "I shouldn't do that again?" he didn't wait for an answer but instead bit, hard, at the muscles of Arkay's neck. Nashen was rewarded with a low, almost howling moan. He had never wanted anyone this much. The laughter was gone now, replaced by slowly rising cool fire. "Speak to me." he commanded and then made it impossible by biting at Arkay's shoulder, eliciting another wordless moan.
      Nashen teased and nipped at Arkay until the other man howled out his desire. "Oh yes" Nashen whispered and straddled Arkay, holding him tightly between his knees as he would a mare. In this position, Arkay actually managed to move back until he was sitting on his own feet, carrying Nashen. He let his hands run over Arkay's chest. Arkay's head dropped and he gasped. A good spot Nashen let his fingers dig into Arkay's pectoral muscles. Arkay's back arched underneath him, presenting him with the perfect opportunity to bite Arkay's neck again. The other man's whole body shivered beneath Nashen. Then it relaxed entirely, field and all, accepting Nashen without words.
     
      "Thank you" Arkay whispered when they were done.
      "I should be the one giving thanks, truly." he gently stroked his tentacles over Arkay's hip and thigh. So wonderful he noted the planes and angles of the other man's body. And he gave them to me, if only for a night.
      "You were so very loving and gentle, I had to say it." Then he chuckled softly, "and nowhere near, how shall I put it, as excessive as Avilan."
      "True enough." Nashen grinned in the lifting darkness. "I am overwhelmed though. Your consideration and kindness this night past was incredible. I certainly would never have asked for ..."
      Arkay cut him off, "I well know you wouldn't have asked, nor accepted, unless I made the first moves and then followed through on them."
      Nashen felt his face grow hot at this, too true appraisal, "I don't want you to think I coerced you or made you feel obligated to ..."
      "Hush" his large hand was cool against Nashen's side. "I wanted you, Nashen. I've had a lot of time to think while you were gone. I realized through all of this with my father, Vayer and Darya we have all taken you for granted."
      "Darya was willing to give me a son. I can't say that was taking me for granted." he protested.
      "When was the last time you got teased so hard you howled or bedded so thoroughly you wrapped your lover in your lightning storm, Nashen?"
      "Last night." he tried to buy himself time to think of when.
      "Before tonight" Arkay insisted, but his light blue eyes were gentle.
      Nashen shook his head sadly, "I don't remember. With Taina, possibly."
      "That was what, five, six years ago?"
      "Almost seven" he felt a tear run down his face.
      "I didn't mean to make you cry." Arkay's arms were strong and safe around him.
      Now hitting the bottom as hard as he had reached the top, Nashen sobbed helplessly against Arkay's broad chest. "She couldn't live with Fatima." he wailed his loss.
      For a moment Arkay's field shifted in surprise, "Oh Nashen, Even in this you first think of your Demense." He sighed, "I think perhaps, you might want to think of the lesson Avilan taught me; we only live, truly in the moment, if you withdraw yourself from the pleasures of that moment you hurt yourself and the people who love you."
      "But what of the future? What of family?" he gratefully took the handkerchief Arkay handed him
      "How can you do your best for either of them if you do not allow yourself to enjoy what the moment brings?" Arkay asked softly.
      Protected and safe in Arkay's arms Nashen thought about this for a long while. There was no uneasiness or any sense of urgency from Arkay for an answer, so he simply enjoyed the moment to think his own thoughts.
     

CHAPTER 17


      Vayer was astonished. Arkay's back looked like someone had painted multiple, overlapping willow trees in red ink all up and down it. For some reason, he also had his hair all tied away from it and was not wearing a shirt, which was very unlike him. "What happened?" he reached out to zlin and got stung a bit, as if somehow Arkay had managed to get a bad sunburn in that peculiar pattern.
      Then his father turned and Vayer understood, for there were even more of the odd marks on his chest. Vayer had seen one or two of them on Diomid after transfer with Nashen, but nothing like this. Nashen was very busy investigating the bread basket but Vayer could zlin his mortified embarrassment. Darya giggled next to him, then looked at her plate intently, obviously trying not to laugh any louder, although her silent laughter was raucous beyond words. Nashen almost turned to go.
      "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to tease." Darya said soberly.
      "Come here, Nashen, please?" Arkay held out his hand. "I'm not upset. I've had worse damage from being bitten by Karola."
      "But it wasn't burn marks." Nashen whispered but sat next to Arkay delicately, so as not to hurt him more.
      "Look at my arms." Arkay held them out in the bright morning sunlight. Vayer hissed as he saw the faint lines of old scars running all the way from Arkay's hands over his shoulders, white against the red of the newly irritated skin.
      Nashen flinched at the evidence of horrible burns in the obvious patterns of a fire starter's rage. "Ilya?" he asked softly.
      Vayer had heard of Arkay's transfer partner and Darya's sire, Ilya Kirov, but this was the first time he had seen the results what the old Lord Kirov had done.
      "Yes" Arkay nodded. "And it was not done in passion, unless you call insane fury and hatred a form of passion. I am actually very flattered I could be so desirable as to be marked in such a fashion." The absolute truth of this was blatantly obvious. Nashen sighed and traced his finger's over the new marks. "They'll be gone in a day or two. Truly, no worse than what I get every spring when we go to the Azov estates and I spend too much time in short sleeves in the sun. I no longer go with bare arms at any time in the city, because of the old scars, so I always end up as red as your ears are right now." He grinned, "Besides, it felt great at the time."
      "If you don't mind?" Nashen asked quietly. Vayer was pleased to see Nashen actually opening up to someone, after being so isolated, in so many ways, by his duty to Fatima. He put his arm around Darya, feeling very tender at the moment and wanting her close.
      "No, Nashen. I don't mind." Arkay leaned over and kissed him softly. The damped, but still present, flare of arousal showed Vayer, just how post both of them were.
     
      The plan had been for Vayer and Darya to stay home this evening for transfer, while Nashen took Arkay down to Talash. After the other pair's blatant example of how poorly soundproofed the house was, Vayer was glad they would be gone. It had been more than a bit embarrassing to overhear the two men in their love play. There was a note on the table, "I have gone out for a bit with Nashen, Love, Darya." Vayer grumped about the vagaries of women, but decided some coffee would make the wait till they got back a bit more bearable.
      He stumped out the main room and made himself a cup. The sun was about half an hour from going down and it was still very warm, but even so Vayer was not going to pass up the good southern coffee while it was still easy to get.
      "Could you make me a cup?" Arkay asked from behind him.
      "Sure" he almost dropped it though, when he saw Nashen behind Arkay, staring at him with wide eyes.
      "I thought Darya was with you?" Nashen asked quickly.
      "I thought she was with you." Vayer insisted. The first flickers of need rocked his control, he zlinned and neither man seemed like they knew where she was.
      "A moment." Arkay said and Vayer could feel his mind reach out to make contact with a familiar person. "East, by South-East, not fully concious so I can't get anymore. Sound familiar?"
      "Talash" Vayer and Nashen said in unison.
      Vayer was suddenly furious and the greenery seemed to shrink away from him as his mind pushed against it. "Shut it down, Vayer." Arkay's voice was harsh. With a whip crack of power he struck out at what he perceived as interference. At the edges of his awareness he felt Nashen try to say something but he was beyond hearing. "No!" Arkay barked and suddenly Vayer was held, as if trapped in amber. Easily he snapped the bonds and lunged for his own father.
      Lightning blasted his sight and he pulled up short. This won't help Darya he looked into his father's ice blue eyes, only holding concern, despite the fact Vayer had almost tried to kill him. Vayer shook his head as if to shake off flies. "We'll get her back" Arkay promised.
      Vayer closed his eyes and sighed, "Thank you both for stopping me. I think we'd better get going though."
     
      Turning his head towards the sound of galloping hoofbeats on the cobblestones, Vayer saw two of the gray southern mares coming towards him at a dead run. They were followed by Silaya on a third. Vayer, in a couple of strides, mounted one and his father caught up the other.
      "What happened to Darya?" Vayer shouted as he turned back to Silaya. Talash couldn't have taken her or Silaya wouldn't have come for us.
      "Zharmis lured her out. Darya killed caliph Turis al-Zharmis and then fled to us. We must have been the closest refuge she could think of."
      "Fatima calls blood feud on Zharmis!" Nashen called out hotly.
      "You'll have to wait your turn." Silaya snarled. "Ali was wounded when some of the Zharmis guards fired their rifles after her, trying to murder her."
      "Sheik Ali ben Akbar of Talash?" Arkay asked.
      When she nodded, Vayer set his gray at a dead run back the way Silaya had come. She passed him almost instantly. "What about Nashen?"
      Vayer glanced back, "He'll meet us at the camp." He pushed the pace to keep her from asking any more zlinning questions. Arkay was right on his heels. He caught a glimpse of a pure black robe, not a faded on in an alleyway and knew Nashen would probably get there first.
      As soon as they reached the camp, Vayer pulled up his mare. When she didn't rear after the exciting run he almost lost his balance like a tyro.
      Arkay didn't even stop. He simply bailed off at the gallop and hit the ground running. He must be in there. Arkay ran between the two motionless guards in the tent.
      Trying to follow him, the guards came alive. "Stop!"
      "Let him through." Silaya ordered before Vayer simply brushed them aside.
      "Vayer, get your ass in here." his father shouted.
      "Where do you want me?" he noted Nashen had managed to get here first. This may have explained the befuddled reactions of the guards.
      "You're in need. Use it." Arkay snapped. Darya made room for him at Ali's side. Her wonderful cool, gentle field distanced his own perception of need, even while displaying it to Ali.
      They had to get Ali's production rate up before Arkay could get to work. "Nashen, please give me an assist." Vayer asked.
      "They're naked!" Silaya protested as Arkay threw back his hood and veil. Darya wasn't wearing anything more than shirt and pants.
      "I don't know what you require." Nashen said softly as the four ignored Silaya's comment.
      Vayer checked the fields, "You're doing great. Keep on like you are."
      Arkay looked around, "Out! Everybody out."
      "Get out. Move!" Silaya had to order before anyone would move. After they had left, she leaned back against one of the solidly planted tent posts. "I'm staying."
      "Stay out of the way or your father will suffer for it." Vayer flinched at Arkay's exposing himself to a witchcraft charge even more than Nashen had in jumping here. There was no way otherwise Arkay could have known of their relationship.
      "Is that a threat." she stood up straighter.
      "No, a fact." Vayer said. He zlinned where the lead slug had broken the humerus and then ricocheted away from Ali's body. It was very messy and not treatable with standard modalities.
      "Can you give to me?" Arkay asked. "Or do I have to ask Nashen?"
      Vayer hesitated for a moment. Shocked grief laced Arkay's field and both Nashen and Silaya cried out in pain. Realizing no one else could do as well as Vayer could, *At your will* he handed himself over to Arkay.
      *Thank you* Arkay sent gratefully. Then Vayer stood back in his mind and watched, fascinated, as with tentacles, field and will his body reconstructed Ali's arm. From the inside to the outside, father and son working together, reknit bone, nerve, muscle, tendon and ligament. "Slowly release the tourniquet, Darya." Vayer heard his mouth say, but it was Arkay's voice. He could see Silaya edge towards the tent flap.
      "Catch her, Nashen." Vayer momentarily overrode Arkay's control.
      !!! Arkay was absolutely astonished and almost lost his grip on what he was doing as Vayer passed control back to him. There were a few bleeders, but nothing major and they finished up quickly.
      "Good, I think that will do for now." Arkay said using Vayer's voice.
      "Witchcraft." Silaya hissed, trying to get away from Nashen.
      Vayer pointed at Ali, now resting peacefully after Arkay gently pushed him deeper into true healing sleep. "It would be impious to repay the healer of your father by hanging him." he knew an emotional response would probably only make it worse.
      She knelt and kissed Ali's forehead. "Very well. As I am the only witness other than Allah, there shall be no charges."
      "Thank you." Arkay grinned wryly.
      Silaya smiled back timidly, "That sounded horrid. I'm sorry. Thank you for saving my father's life."
     
      Another kill shattered the ambient. Good, Vayer is still holding himself together There had been two right as Zharmis came tearing through Talash's perimeter. No Sime was allowed to kill here, so both Vayer and Arkay had joined the massed troops of Talash. Nashen would never have kept his seat for more than moments in the midst of the wild melee. Vayer had refused transfer from Darya and so had gone into the fight in hard need.
      Amateurs Nashen snorted at the lack of discipline in the action in front of him. He had volunteered to lead the signal corp between the invaders and the Talash camp. The two earlier kills had both been by members of Zharmis. Nashen wasn't sure this was a blessing. They had done a frightful amount of damage before they could be cut down. One of them by Nashen himself, almost to the tents.
      "Send 'em off." Nashen called out as Zharmis finally routed. A final flurry of rifle shots rang out. Only one struck home. A robed figure slumped and crashed to the rocky ground. One of Zharmis'. As soon as they had separated beyond even wild rifle range he called out "Return and stand down!" Hopefully this was close enough to the expected signal.
      Nashen zlinned the returning Talash. Good, no major injuries other than the deaths, of course. But there were far fewer bodies being carried back for final rites by their tribesmates than Zharmis had left behind.
     
      "I said I could take care of it." he heard in Russian and then had to look to make sure it was Vayer. The voice was so harsh with need and battle stress. He walked his mare towards them.
      Very carefully Nashen tried to send *I'll take care of him* White hot rage came back at him and Nashen missed Arkay's next words.
      "Some one else can give me transfer." Oh hell Nashen thought at Vayer's words. Before the call to battle had come in he and Darya had been in the midst of a screaming fight.
      "You are not going to refuse your Alahin." Arkay insisted.
      "Who are you to give me orders?" Vayer shouted right back. Nashen was just glad they had reverted to Russian if they were going to fight each other instead of Zharmis.
      "He's right, is what he is." Nashen backed up Arkay. "You are a fool to go into a fight in hard need and now you are acting like an absolute moron." he cleaned off his sword and reasheathed it. "Here" he tossed Vayer his water skin so the young man could clean his blade. Nashen wanted Vayer's sword put away before he thought to use it on a friend rather than a foe. He and his father had been in the midst of the heaviest fighting and sometimes it could take a younger person a while to come down off the rush of combat.
      "What is the problem between you and Darya." Arkay asked, quite sensibly. Although Nashen would have waited a bit longer.
      "None of your shenned business." Vayer growled. After cleaning it, he reasheathed his sword and tried to remove some the worst of the blood off his sword arm. His sleave had been soaked up to the elbow and water ran crimson into the dry ground.
      Nashen almost wanted hit Vayer himself for his disgusting language, "It is the business of Fatima, Vayer. You will tell me." he ordered.
      "Very well then. First she runs off on me. Then she starts a blood feud between Talash and Zharmis..."
      Interrupting, Nashen interjected, "Which had been going on for the last three generations, at least, Vayer."
      "So be it. She dragged Fatima into it." Vayer said hotly.
      "She was dragged into the feud because of Fatima's association with Talash." Nashen pointed at the Talash bracers Vayer now wore.
      "I had wondered." Arkay said quietly. Both Nashen and Vayer glared at him. "Don't let me ruin a perfectly good fight. I already had mine today." Arkay laced his fingers together and popped his knuckles. At the same time he flipped his right leg over his mare's neck, slid to the ground, and began hand walking her. He hadn't even bothered to stop her in the process. If I tried that I would fall on my face.
      "Anyways, then she almost gets Sheik Ali murdered ..." Vayer continued after following Arkay's example.
      "Zharmis almost murdered Ali. Darya saved his life." Nashen pointed out from on top his far less tired mare.
      "After he got shot." Vayer insisted. "Then she comes up with some ridiculous story about a renSime with no handling tentacles like a veiled Lord ..."
      "They do that here, Vayer." Arkay pointed out, jangling his bracelets nervously. Nashen thought of how upset Arkay had been as he told Nashen about Surya.
      Vayer turned green. He stumbled away from his mare. After falling to his knees he threw up the water he had drunk after the battle. Nashen tried to dismount and go to him, but his robes caught up on the cantle.
      "They can't..." Nashen could hear Vayer heave again.
      "Yes Vayer, any renSime who has contact with Gens of any kind is altered so they can't easily kill." Nashen said sadly, putting his hand on Vayer's shoulder. "If its any consolation, I didn't make it all the way to the bathroom when I found out."
      "How ...? I don't want to know." Vayer's whole body was shaking. Arkay cocked his head from where he knelt next to Vayer. *Why such a strong reaction? Its horrible ... but?*
      Nashen thought for a moment, *Imagine being physically impotent but absolutely no reduction in drive ... while at the same time your life depends on being able to. Take that and square it. Now ...*
      Arkay cut him off *I see* He turned almost as pale as Vayer.
      *Don't you start* Nashen was having a hard enough time keeping his stomach under control. Trying to get Vayer's mind on a different subject, "What else?"
      Left completely defenseless by his revulsion, "I don't want to get her pregnant."
      "There's the truth." Nashen grimaced. Why couldn't it have been something easy, like most of my problems when I was his age "Oh hell, I don't know what to do, Vayer." This far into need and at his age Vayer would flip so fast from transfer to sex even Nashen wouldn't be able to intercept.
      For some reason Darya picked this moment to show up. The three mares snorted in surprise and tried to skitter off. Fortunately she had brought a few others with her who took care of the gray ladies. "Vayer!" she ran to him.
      Vayer stood up and stumbled backwards, away from her. Darya's field flared with promise.
      "No!" Vayer shouted and ran. Nashen let him go a ways off and then caught him. He wanted to be well away from anyone else who would be hurt by what he planned.
      "Hold on, love." Nashen quieted Vayer's struggles to get further away. After taking a deep breath to still his nerves, "Take me, quickly." He could zlin Darya and Arkay almost halfway to them already.
      Now into attrition from his augmentation, Vayer didn't even hesitate as Nashen let his field light up the night with his desire to give, consciously echoing Arkay's spectacular welcome only a few days ago. Vayer yanked him into transfer position. Their lips met and Nashen was almost instantly towed under by Vayer's initial draw. How he had wished for this since that day so long ago when he had caught a very young Vayer swinging a stick at trees pretending it was a sword. The reality was something else entirely, though.
      Faster and harder came the demand, pulling at Nashen's very being. For the love he bore Vayer, Nashen dropped all his barriers. For what seemed like forever, yet no where near long enough they soared together, souls entwined in love and life renewed.

      Nashen looked down to see his own lifeless body crumple in Vayer's grip. He wanted to go to him; tell him all would be well. Love Darya for me. Take care of Arkay and Tzer. he wished he could tell Vayer. The call of the stars was strong but he wished he could have these few last words.
      I am pleased with thee, son of my daughter a sourceless voice surrounded him. Nashen knew who it had to be. His bodyless awareness trembled in awe. Choose, peace or love?
      *It is no choice* he reached for the three kneeling with his body.
      Go then, with Allah's blessing


CHAPTER 18


      Vayer opened his eyes after the most incredible transfer of his life to see the light fade from his beloved friend Nashen's glorious silver eyes. He caught the limp, still body before it could hit the ground. No he denied what had happened. "NO!" he screamed into the starry night. Holding Nashen's body against his chest, he rocked it as he did Tzer. "He can't be gone. I can't have killed him." he cried his loss. Everywhere he tried to find his spirit, though, it was not there.
      "Let him go, Vayer." Arkay's voice was almost inaudible through his tears. Darya knelt at his side and lifted Nashen's hand to her cheek. "If you would have a life for a life, take mine. Nashen's ..." his voice broke entirely, "Nashen's death is my fault alone."
      Suddenly Vayer knew the entire truth, Arkay had held back the fact Darya wouldn't be endangered by another child. He couldn't hate anymore. Not with his first love dead in his arms. "I forgive you father. You had no way of knowing, tonight, I would ..." he collapsed in helpless tears. *all so unnecessary* Vayer had no idea whose thought this was.
      "If ... if" Arkay sobbed and collapsed to his knees. "If there is truly any God in this universe, my will is yours, take me in his stead. I beg of You!" Shattering pain and grief filled the empty firmament and crashed against the hills.
     
      Go then, with Allah's blessing rang from the farthest stars.
      The body in Vayer's arms stirred and Nashen's presence returned with a rush. Faint and painridden, but present. Most merciful, most loving Allah, thank you for this wondrous gift Vayer prayed with all his heart and mind. Nashen's heart faltered again. Vayer reached for it and steadied its rhythm. Again and again, until almost half the night was gone. They watched over him and guarded him. Members of Talash came and reverently brought blankets. They set up a tent.
      "For he who has touched Allah and returned" one woman said quietly.
      Finally Nashen stabilized enough they could move him the five meters into the tent. Every time another field interacted with his, Nashen's faltered in pain and shock. Fortunately Vayer hadn't torn more than halfway through Nashen's personal levels, or they would have had to try to get a transfer into him as well.
      Arkay was silent and grim the entire time. Vayer couldn't stand it any more, "Arkay, Nashen is alive. Help him."
      "I can't" Arkay whispered. "Every time I get close to him I have to reach for him." His hand seemed to move towards Nashen of its own accord. Arkay stared at it as if it were a snake and pulled it back.
      "Do it, Arkay. Go to him." Darya told him gently.
      "I killed him, Darya. As sure as if it had been my own hands" but his body overrode his words. With a cry of pain, Arkay put his arms around Nashen.
      It felt as if a joint had been put back into place, with a tremendous nageric crack Arkay's and Nashen's fields locked together. In perfect sync, the two men zlinned as one stable whole, neither increasing or decreasing in selyn level. Vayer had never zlinned anything like this.
      From the confusion in Darya's nager, neither had she. "Isn't Arkay four days faster than Nashen?" she asked softly as she worked her way into the circle of Vayer's arm.
      "Almost five, or had been." Vayer said in wonder. Arkay's production had picked up some, but in an arc to bring the two together zlinning at midpoint for Arkay's normal turnover.
     
      Screaming seemed like a good idea. Nashen's entire body was on fire. As if from a distance, he heard his own voice croak. Cool, wonderful water soothed his torn throat. His head was pounding like a ten drum dancing circle.
      Cold fire rasped across his abraded nerves. Sheeting pain drove him back into unconsciousness.
     
      This time when he awoke the pain was almost bearable, about the level of fifty lashes with a steel barbed whip rather than one hundred. Nashen moaned and the sound drove knives through his skull. Whimpering was a better idea, smaller knives.
      The cold fire returned but now there was some comfort to go with the pain. Nashen tried to reach out for his sense of orientation.
      "Don't" Arkay's whisper hammered the dull knives in further. He tried to move but it felt like someone had removed his skin and then lain him on shards of glass. The impression of a soft hand on his chest stilled him. *sleep* the irresistible command slipped him back under the silent waters of unconsciousness.
     
      Nashen was starving. His sword and Vayer's were hanging from the crosspiece of the tent. It was shortly after three in the morning ... over a week since ...
      "Welcome back." Arkay whispered. Vayer and Darya were deeply asleep, tangled together like a pair of hounds, as they usually slept together. "They're fine, now."
      "You look like hell." Nashen was still too out of it to be politic.
      "For someone risen from the dead, you look pretty good but that isn't saying much." Arkay's teasing smile was gentle. "Hungry, my Alamir?"
      "Famished." he tried to sit up. It didn't work. Nashen was a weak as a newborn kitten. Arkay's arm was gentle around his shoulder as he slid some pillows behind his back so he could at least be propped up. As Arkay handed him a glass of watered orange juice he stopped for a moment, "What did you call me?" That couldn't have been right.
      "Alamir" Arkay steadied the glass in his shaking hands.
      Thats what I thought I heard Nashen was dreadfully confused.
      "What is the literal meaning of Alahin?" he could feel Arkay's love as if it were the very warmth of the sun with his words.
      "Allah's blessing" Nashen responded automatically. Oh he remembered Mohammed's parting words.
      "Exactly so."
      "How do you know what He said?" he sipped carefully at the sweet drink. Even watered it was still almost too thick and cloying to drink easily.
      "Every Muslim from here to Moskva must have heard His last words, Nashen." Arkay smiled gently.
      "Oh" he blinked in astonishment. "Then how did you hear it?" someone must have slipped me boor pills while I was asleep he regretted his obnoxious question instantly.
      "There is no God but God, and Muhammed is his Prophet." Arkay zlinned dead serious as he spoke the formal words of acceptance.
      Nashen gasped in shock. "I didn't ask, I mean ... I didn't intent to force you ... You don't have to ..."
      "Hush, Nashen." Arkay's fingertip was gentle and cool against his lips. "That night, I offered myself in your stead. As He gave you back to us it was only right for me to recognize Him." His wry grin almost made Nashen chuckle despite the seriousness of the situation, "Besides, as your Alahin it would not do for me to refuse to submit to the One."
      Arkay had always struck Nashen as the most purely practical, stolidly agnostic and perfect representative of the Russian nobility's steadfast refusal to accept anything which had even the taint of religion. To hear him speak of such things, even in such a practical tone was making his head spin. "But, you didn't ... I mean before ... "
      "I would be a fool to have had a miracle occur before me and still refuse to acknowledge the power of faith. I would be a fool twice over to refuse my Alamir the solace of sharing that faith." Arkay shook his head sadly. "Truthfully, I have been a fool many times in my life"
      "I wouldn't say so." Nashen had always admired Arkay's incredible strength and independence. To hear him speak of his own folly was very disturbing. Even in his errors with Vayer, they had been kindly meant.
      "The road to hell is paved with good intentions, Nashen." the empty glass dropped from his fingers as Arkay intercepted his unspoken thoughts.
      Will I even get used to that? Nashen wondered.
      "Most likely. As you relax some, you will probably receive as well, from me at least. Certainly from Avilan." Arkay shrugged. If he hadn't been so enervated he would have jumped.
      This was confusing, "Why Avilan?" What did he have to do with this?
      Arkay chuckled softly, "Avilan is the strongest empath anyone has ever recorded the existence of in all the Demense or outside them as far as the veiled can tell."
      "Oh" thinking of such things was clearing Nashen's mind far more quickly than he would have thought possible. "Is that why he is such a hedonist." it isn't smoothing out my tongue any he groused.
      Laughing wholeheartedly, then looking to make sure he hadn't woken Darya and Vayer, "Yes. Thats why he tends to focus on two things, transfer and sex. Now that he has the children to focus on, he has improved tremendously. Besides, there are worse things in the world to wallow in."
      "True enough." Nashen chuckled. "I hope I haven't offended you with my blunt words tonight. I really don't mean to offend." he had to say something to excuse his inexecrable manners.
      "Nashen, hush." Arkay smiled. "I actually prefer your telling the unvarnished truth. I hear it anyways and when your words don't match your thoughts, it is discomfiting."
      Vayer muttered something in his sleep and wrapped himself into an even more impossible position around Darya. They both let the young people resettle themselves in silence.
      "I have no idea how they manage not to end up waking up with stiff joints." Nashen said. Huh? Arkay hadn't said anything. So this is what its like
      *Yes* Arkay sent, quite clearly different from simply picking up on the underlying murmur of subconscious information.
      "I think this will take some getting used to." Nashen shook his head. "Darya can have more children!?" he sat bolt upright.
      "Yes. I lied." Arkay offered his hand. "I didn't mean ..."
      Nashen stroked his cheek against Arkay's proffered hand in forgiveness. "Do they know?" he looked at the nesting couple.
      "Yes" Arkay's eyes were wide with wonder.
      "Then you are forgiven. As long as they can be happy and no longer have to run from each other, thats all I care about."
      "You are a far better man than I ever hope to be. I don't think I could ever forgive my own killer." there were tears on Arkay's face. They were hot against his tentacles as he stroked them away.
      "It wasn't permanent." Nashen grinned. "Besides, I had wanted to be able to give Vayer transfer at some point in my life."
      Arkay shook his head, "Nashen, Alamir, I don't know if I will ever understand you. I don't even know how you managed to let him draw you down so far without shenning out. While I may not be the transfer innovator Avilan is, I would have said it were impossible if I hadn't sensed it myself."
      "I love him, Arkay, with all my heart and soul. As if he were a son of my body as well as my spirit." his eyes closed as he remembered how incredible it had been to be able to give himself to Vayer.
      "And I failed him, repeatedly." Arkay said sadly.
      "No Arkay, I think there was only one point and it was out of love. You only wanted the best for him and didn't know how to stand back and let him go." Nashen smiled, "Besides, I think you ended up with a cookoo in Vayer. None of his sibs are like him, are they?"
      "None of them. True enough." Arkay gave him a wan smile. "I didn't know how to talk with him. Every time I tried he turned away." He sighed, "Or fought me like a demon."
      "Come here, Alahin" Nashen thought the very word was beautiful. His strength was coming back in leaps and bounds now that he was over the worst of it. Timidly, Arkay settled into his arms. Nashen stroked his back and felt more than heard Arkay sob in heartbreak, as Vayer had done so often early on. "You and Vayer can also be so very much alike." he kissed the top of Arkay's head. "Get either of you excited and you strike out at anyone and everyone nearby."
      "Not true." his words protested, but not his heart.
      "Your voice lies, my Alahin." Nashen murmured but held Arkay tighter to take the sting from his words. He had no idea how, but it was true. Their cycles were now perfectly matched. Truly the blessing of Allah.
      "I suppose it is." Arkay hiccuped. Nashen smiled at this wonderful, magnificent man relaxing enough in his arms to be able give vent to his true emotions.
      "I know it is. Vayer was horrid when he first came to Fatima." Nashen chuckled to let Arkay know in words as well as feelings what his attitude was. "He would fly into a rage over the smallest things until Vassily threw him in the river a few times. The first time with all his clothes on." he grinned.
      "He didn't?!" Arkay chuckled. "Oh my, I wish I had seen that."
      "Oh, Vayer came out madder than a wet hen. There was still ice along the banks and the water was cold!" a brief shiver ran through him at the memory. "The problem was when he tried to repay the favor, Vassily did it again. Finally Vayer decided manners might be a good idea, at least if he didn't want to get an involuntary bath. Between his temper and his sensitivity, which no one at Fatima could even near, we were hard pressed to keep him in line until he got together with the other youngsters. They let him know, even better than the adults could, when he had overstepped the bounds and thumped him solidly for it."
      "I remember seeing him working in the river like some kind of trained otter." Arkay shook his head.
      "I remember my time towing the boats as pure fun. We, there were three of us that summer, had a great time playing in the water, and even occasionally working." Nashen laughed softly.
      "They let the heir to Fatima swim naked in the river towing boats?" Arkay asked, pure astonishment in his field.
      "No one but Fatima knew I was the heir." he looked into Arkay's eyes. "Very few people know the visual markers for the Fatima line, the lack of brown and red pigments to the hair and eyes."
      Arkay tipped his head, "I didn't even know that. Now that you mention it though, all the people I have seen who actually manifested the Fatima talents did have those characteristics."
      "Its only convenient in that we know who will manifest and can take care not to let them fry themselves the first time they come into their power." Nashen chuckled softly. "Now, I don't exactly know what I can do and will have to go through all the tedious exercises again to recalibrate so I don't hurt myself or someone else."
      "Could you tell me what to look for?" Arkay asked. Nashen had to laugh at Arkay's undying curiosity.
      "Certainly, as I will have to go through the whole routine before we can return. If I have to steer a storm away from our ship and certainly so we don't have to row all the way up the Dnepr river." he took his normal inventory and found gaping holes in the mental constructs he used to control his talents. "Urgh, I'm even going to have to reorganize before I can even send something."
      "What?" Arkay asked, even more afire with curiosity. This sent Nashen into helpless giggles.
      Finally he manage to stop laughing. "Here, let me show you." he found a number of loose hairs and twisted them into a tiny bundle. "Watch" he tried to jump it only two cents across his palm and almost managed, instead it landed on the ends of his fingertips. "Not even close," he muttered. Annoyed he sent them out the partially open doorflap. They probably landed halfway to Jaffa "I'm not going to try anything with lightning indoors."
      "Good idea." Arkay whispered, obviously in awe. "Who taught you?"
      "My mother, Aliana." he still missed her. When Nashen had been very young, she had been so incredibly kind and loving.
      "I'm so very sorry about her. I also knew her when she was young." Arkay looked at him in absolute shock. "Let me check something."
      "Sure." Nashen had no idea what had so intrigued Arkay, but he saw no harm in it. Arkay held out his hands and shook his bracelets back, obviously asking for a transfer position. A touch nervously, Nashen gave it to him. Their lips met and for what seemed like a very long time, Arkay rummaged around through what felt like every corner of Nashen's mind.
      "Congratulations, and I think it was worth it." Arkay said in breathless wonder. "I think you will be the first Fatima Lord in centuries who will die of old age."
     

CHAPTER 19


      Vayer looked out at the rain misting down on Moskva in the early dawn. They had been back for well over a month and already he missed the sun blasted streets and whitewashed buildings of the south. He sighed and rested his chin on his hands against the window frame.
      Moskva was preparing for winter. Soon the docks would close as the last of the traders either returned to their homes or found lodgings till spring thaw. He kissed Darya's soft cheek. She hadn't meant to be such trouble in Jaffa. The renSime Zharmis had bribed to lure Darya out was now dead.
      Himself, he couldn't understand risking everything to bear another child. Darya had though and he was still bemused at how much she showed she loved him by her reckless act. Arkay isn't the only one for grand gestures he thought in amusement. She smiled in her sleep at his attention. Careful not to wake her, he let himself out of the room they shared.
      The docks were empty and silent, with no requirement to start work at first light despite said light being rather late in the day. At midsummer the docks worked almost the clock around, since there were only a couple hours of near darkness that time of year. Now the sun was a lighter region in the heavy cloud cover. He could hear some of the boat crews mutter and complain as they prepared for their day. The rain tried to trickle down the back of his neck, so he pulled his hood up more.
      "Good morn, m'Lord Fatima." Vassily said in his weather roughened voice.
      Vayer shook his head and turned, "Sorry to disappoint you, Vassily. Its just me."
      Vassily snorted, "Good enough fer me. He ain't not been here more'n much a'tall of late, he hasn't."
      Grinning internally at the string of negatives, Vayer was very glad he could zlin the meaning behind what the older man had said, "Lord Fatima's been getting everything settled after our trip last summer."
      "Yep, and me mum's the bride of djinn." he shook the water from his close cropped, gray hair. "Yer here and he ain't. Lets get them boats lighter." his whistle rang high and shrill in the cool foggy morning.
     
      Soon Vayer was too busy to even worry about the weather, much less the absence of his closest friend.
      "Kirina, catch that line before it catches you!" his little sister had insisted on working the tail end of the season. It was odd, to say the least, to see her catching tow lines and chasing her new friends through the water.
      Two boats tried for the same slip. "Kirun to slip five. Horus to slip four." Vayer willed them not to crash into each other. Kirina tossed him Kirun's tow rope and Vayer deftly grabbed the rough wood of the pier with his toes and pulled the boat into her final mooring. He snubbed it down and waved to Kirum's skipper to begin unloading.
      Horus made it into place fine but Vassily had to tie her off when a young renSime got caught zlinning and was shoved into the icy water for her inattention. "Keep yer eyes open." Vassily snarled.
      She sputtered. Vayer gave her a hand back up onto the pier. "Get the next one lass. He'll forgive."
      Nodding gratefully, "Thank ye, m'Lord."
      "There's one." he turned her in the proper direction. With the incredibly quick reflexes of a renSime she caught the rope before it could slide back into the water. She grinned at him and tied it off perfectly.
      The young lords were squabbling in the water like so many ducks. "Get back to work!" Vayer wondered how Nashen had managed. They scattered like so much oil on red hot steel. There were four of them out there, although one was old enough to have been at this all summer. Some people don't know when to quit Vayer grinned.
      "Catch her up right quickly." he pointed to one boat who had dropped oars too soon and was drifting in the midst of the river complex aimlessly. Kirina was too busy trying to drown Fallen. Torun, the older lad, headed off at top speed to help the becalmed boat. Looks like it'll be a good tip. Vayer noted how glad the boat master was to see the youth.
      Itrian snuck up behind Kirina and dunked her thoroughly. Vayer had to hid his grin at his sister's use of some of Avilan's more colorful phrases when she finally resurfaced and tried to catch Itrian with Fallen hot on her wake. "Just because you're around sailors doesn't mean you have to sound like them, Kirina!" he shouted to her.
      Fallen finally caught up with her and dragged her under by her feet. She came up glaring at Vayer. Again, like most of the Demenes, Vayer wondered who her sire had been. Her honey blond hair and blue eyes gave absolutely no clue. Kirina's nager was so quicksilver and geometric like Karola's it was no help.
      While they were occupied, Itrian caught up the next boat waiting for a tow. "Like that!" Vayer pointed out Itrian's example. His sister and Fallen actually got back to work, surprising Vayer.
      With a moment to catch his breath, Vayer looked around. Everything was running smoothly. Oops he caught a crate which had begun to slide off a poorly piled stack towards the mud. "Who stacked this?"
      "I did, m'Lord." Ivan, an older renSime, looked down at his toes.
      "You should know better. Ten demerits, five waved for coming clean."
      Ivan stumbled backwards and gaped at him in fear.
      Five lashes with a simple whip shouldn't cause this kind of response, but ... he zlinned honest terror. Vayer whispered for Ivan's ears alone, "Make it right on your own time and it'll be two."
      He ducked his head respectfully, "Yes, m'Lord. Thank ye, m'Lord. At yer will." His renewed enthusiasm and determination to do the job right told Vayer he had made the correct decision.
      Zlinning the river, Vayer found all four young lords actually working at the same time. Will wonders never cease?
      Kirina got herself kissed and neatly dropped a water weed down the overly affectionate boatman's shirt for his impertinence. Vayer barely managed to turn around before he lost control and howled with laughter.
      *What's so funny* she had been able to send and receive since changeover.
      *You're an imp!* he should have known she would have caught him.
     
      It was exhausting work in the rain and the fog keeping all the boats, freight and people from piling up in the wrong places. From the time Vassily had whistled the start to the light beginning to fade, Vayer hadn't had but more than a few moments to try to catch his breath. "Thank you all." he said to all the hard working children of Fatima. "Be well and return with her blessings upon your labor." he couldn't bring himself to use the colder, more formal benediction for labor so well and willingly done.
      "At her will, my Lord." they said in rough chorus then trooped off to their warm homes surrounding the docks and warehouses. A warm feeling of pleasure washed through him at the universal acceptance of Fatima among her children.
      Vayer leaned against one of the pilings for a moment. Kirina and the three other lords were chattering up a storm as they dried off and got back into their clothes which had been kept warm by the oven in the office. He could overhear Darya's voice, "Now I don't want to see you get so low again, Kirina. If its too cold, get out of the water."
      "But Darya!" her high young voice was just beginning to smooth into a woman's richer tones.
      "No buts, lass. Either get out, or get some more selyn so you don't freeze. I don't want Vayer to have to go in and fish you out of the river because you got hypothermic." he grinned as he heard Darya slam a record book on the desk for emphasis. "We let you augment to keep warm, do it."
      "Yes Darya." Vayer's eyebrows rose at the meekness to his sister's tone.
      "The rest of you as well."
      "Yes Sharm Lord Darya." they said in chorus, led by Torev, who had more sense than the other three combined.
      "Get on with you." he could hear them running back towards the town house.
      The mist hadn't lifted all day. Vayer had briefly wished for Nashen's weather working abilities to clear away the fog and then realized it wouldn't have been a good idea. Changing the weather for no good cause was certainly hubristic. Besides, other than barely managing to get back safely, Nashen still wasn't fully comfortable with his new strength. He rubbed his temples with his tentacles. Not for any real headache, but for the imaginary one from straining to see through the fog.
      Other than the hiss of the light rain on the pewter water of the river complex all was silent. Finally he turned around and almost ran right into Nashen and Darya.
      "Beautiful, isn't it?" Nashen asked softly.
      Vayer simply nodded. Darya was neatly under his arm shielded by Nashen's cloak. After taking off his own, Vayer went to Nashen's other side. It was warm and comforting to stand there in the rain looking out over the water. Wood creaked slightly as one boat shifted at her anchor, but the peace was magnificent.
      For all the frantic pace and backbreaking labor, Vayer loved working on the river. She was fickle and sometimes dangerous, but still wonderful. Tonight all the great rivers running through Moskva were extraordinarily beautiful. Together, the Lords of Fatima stood and watched night spread her black cloak over it all.
     
      "Vayer, why don't you take a lieutenant next spring?" Nashen asked out of idle curiosity. These last two months with Arkay had been absolute heaven. He hadn't realized the hereditary insanity of Fatima had already begun to eat at his mind until it was no longer there.
      "Why did you leave me to work the docks alone so much?" Vayer snapped. Darya hushed him, but it was an honest question.
      Arkay chuckled softly, "Because he was busy wallowing in Avilan's favorite pastimes."
      Nashen swatted his hand gently with the brush and then returned his attention to Arkay's hair spread all over his lap and the bed. "Because you had to learn you could manage on your own, my friends." he nodded to the young couple. Darya had been magnificent, far better at managing the paperwork than any assistant Nashen had ever managed to acquire. "Despite my reprieve, I realized I will not be here forever. Perhaps this was part of the failings of the Fatima line, or simply my own willfulness, I don't know. Be that is it may, you have learned a great deal these past months, have you not?" he asked both of them.
      "True enough." Darya looked over at the brush and Nashen grinned as Vayer got the unsubtle hint. This was one of his favorite things in life, sitting around with friends after the docks had closed and before the court season began, gossiping.
      "I missed you, Nashen." Vayer said, gently brushing Darya's black hair. Nashen looked forward to the day when it was long enough to cloak her. The image of a woman dressed only in their hair, which had to be long enough for modesty, had always been an appealing one to his sense of aesthetics. Arkay's was almost to the point of excess.
      "I missed you, I missed the river, I missed Fatima. But I did have to go away to learn how to control myself again around other people." Nashen quivered a bit as he thought of the back wash he took from a storm he had tried to steer on the way back. He was used to living in the middle of electrical energy, but a direct hit from a raging thunderhead was more exciting than fun.
      "You mean there was a reason other than escaping the Azov horde for us to go camping in the foggy woods outside Moskva?" Arkay teased.
      "Yes, you wanted to learn how my talent worked and you had to know how to bring me out of a trance without getting zapped." Nashen spread out another length of Arkay's hair across his lap and continued his work.
      "Right, blame me for spending a week, while post no less, in the middle of nowhere."
      "You are noisy." Vayer teased.
      "And you aren't?" Darya laughed.
      "Not like Nashen." Arkay tried to start braiding some of his own hair.
      Nashen tapped Arkay's hand, "Mine." He liked the soothing task of brushing out and braiding long hair, It let him think about things while keeping his tentacles occupied.
      Tzer looked up from toy boats and wooden figures he had spread out on the rug in front of him. "Mine" he echoed, grabbing a robed figurine which might have been meant to be a Sharm Lord three generations of small children ago. The youngster carefully toddered to his feet and then gave it to Arkay. "You" he said firmly and then held up his hands.
      Arkay reached down and gathered Tzer into his arms.
      "They grow so fast." Nashen had been shocked at how much Tzer had changed while they had been gone this summer. Never again would he leave the lad until he was old enough to join them in their journeys. Although Tzer spent almost as much time with Ivanya and Tiana as at home. Azov had turned into the general nursery for all the children of the Demense leaders.
      "Indeed they do" Arkay agreed. Tzer was industriously trying to find the end of a lock of Arkay's hair. Arkay had to rescue it though, when Tzer got bored and tried to put it in his mouth, "No, no, baby. Don't eat the hair."
      "Not?" Tzer hadn't quite gotten beyond monosyllables unless he was really trying to impress.
      Darya, as always, was prepared and handed Tzer a hard biscuit, "This tastes better." For a while he concentrated on trying to cram the whole thing in his mouth.
           
      "Do you think Torev would be a good choice?" Vayer asked making Nashen have to review their conversation to figure out what he was talking about. Tzer had finally nodded off in Arkay's lap and so the adults were free to go back to their interrupted conversation.
      "He's far more stable than the other youngsters." Darya added. "He almost has the sense to come out of the water when he's running low in his public field."
      Vayer snorted, "No, he comes to me. Cold, wet tentacles and all."
      "I'm glad the water had warmed up some when you were working the docks." Nashen teased. "At least simply wet is better than freezing and wet."
      "I had wondered how they managed to work so hard. The water must be two or three degrees this time of year." Arkay shook his head. He rearranged Tzer's weight a bit more evenly across his lap.
      "They're supposed to show up in the morning as full up in their public field as possible. Thats why only lords actually work in the water." Nashen couldn't quite get over the way Arkay was interested in everything. "Some of the renSimes get tossed in occasionally, particularly when they are young and still learning to look rather than zlin but we can't afford to let them augment the way we do with the lords. The youngsters aren't supposed to take from the Lord on dock while still in the water though."
      "I didn't know that." Vayer looked at one of the tapestries on the wall.
      Nashen snorted, "Yes you did. You just took advantage is all." He set down his brush and began the long process of braiding up Arkay's hair.
      "Just do a simple nine part and loop back. I'll be wanting to wash at least the top before too long." Arkay said.
      "Spoil sport." Nashen had hoped to get to play with it more. The silky feel of Arkay's thick hair was always wonderful in his hands. Almost as wonderful as the way their fields intertwined so perfectly.
      "The opening session of winter court is before our transfer Nashen." Arkay emphasized the word before. "I want to be somewhat presentable, even if you do tend to look like some kind of woods spirit half the time."
      "Only because I can let my hair down without it dragging the ground." he had never let it get below the level of his knees and anymore rarely let it get below the level of his waist. When they had been alone Nashen hadn't even braided it up at all. "Its too much bother to let it get really long, since some of us have to work occasionally."
      "Oh, we'll be working. Year's Turning promises to be very interesting this year." Arkay grimaced.


CHAPTER 20


      "Fatima accepts the fealty transfer of lord Torev." Vayer announced after giving the brief, symbolic addition to Torev's public field. Torev had been very post and his kiss, rather than the more formal touching of lips had almost made Vayer stumble over the display.
      "At your orders and with your blessing for the coming year, my Lord Vayer." Torev, despite his distraction sailed on smoothly.
      I vaguely remember being that young Vayer and Darya stepped back. Torev had been the last of the young lords of Fatima and now it was Nashen's turn with the older nobles.
      There was a general susurrus of good natured amusement as Arkay left Azov to be with Nashen.
      "Enough of this farce!" a harsh voice called out from behind and to Vayer's right. He turned to look at the throne. One of the veiled was seated in it, the orb in one hand and the scepter in the other.
      "You have no right to tell me what to do. You gave up your power as an individual when you took the veil." Arkay's bracelets rang loud in punctuation to his words.
      "Fatima has violated all decency by pandering to her foreign superstitions. Fatima has corrupted the heart of Rodina in her wanton seduction of Russia's rightful leader, Arkay." a hiss of in drawn breath could be heard throughout the hall at the Veiled one's omission of all of Arkay's titles and even his patronymic. Vayer could zlin Arkay's field form into his feathered wings. They mantled in protest over this unwarranted attack.
      "By this attack you have forfeited all protection, Tzarya!" Nashen ripped her concealing veil off.
      "How dare you?" she clawed at his hands.
      "With my backing." Arkay stated walking forward to be with Nashen and placing his hand on Nashen's off shoulder.
      "You destroyed your first born son. You destroyed your own father. You have sown dissent and discord all the days of your life. You will not destroy our way of life with your and Fatima's diseased and sickly maundering of alien infidels!" lightning washed over the two men, leaving them entirely unharmed despite its blinding fury.
      "My beloved sister, no. You can't do this." he countered Tzarya's storm with his own. The room echoed with thunder at their clash.
      "You are no brother of mine, spineless worm who submits to any pretty cock." her silver eyes were almost lost in the black of dilated pupil and wide white rims.
      Nashen flinched back at her denial, "Tzarya, please."
      She would have been beautiful at one time, with Nashen's angular features and fascinating metallic colored eyes. As it was the fury and hatred which twisted her countenance distorted it into a mask of pure evil.
      "You are mad." Arkay stated plainly, looking directly into her eyes. Vayer couldn't even bring himself to look at Tzarya at all after her horrible words to her own brother.
      "As well you should know, bastard child of a bloody sire." she sneered.
      The steel comfort of his sword hilt rested in Vayer's hand, "How dare you speak of my grandfather this way?"
      "The puppy thinks it has teeth." Tzarya laughed. "You deny your sire yet claim his misbegotten father. How amusing. Perhaps you are worth something to me."
      Tzarya's mind ripped at his, trying to force his legs to walk to her. "Never." Vayer straightened up against the pain.
      "Your little black pet will." Tzarya crooked her bone white finger at Darya. "See, some animals know who is human." Darya stumbled as she leaned back away from Tzarya, yet she still move towards her, Finally running and then falling to her knees at Tzarya's feet.
      Fire burned Vayer's nerves through his link with Darya. He opened himself up to her, giving her a place to hide from Tzarya's hideous form of mind control. Slate gray eyes were blank as she turned her head to Vayer, Tzarya's long fingers smoothing out her tangled hair. A single drop of sweat ran down the side of Darya's face, despite the chill in the hall, from her struggle to free herself. *Wait, beloved. Trust me.* Vayer sent for Darya alone.
      "You once had pledged yourself to the veil, Darya. We ask only for the fulfillment of your word." Tzarya threatened. "Salya certainly would wish to speak with her beloved daughter of her grandson."
      "I will not play your sick games, Tzarya. You no longer speak for the veiled." Darya then bit her lip against the pain of Tzarya's will clenching down on her. Blood ran red down Darya's chin.
      "Silence, animal." Tzarya wrenched Darya's head around by her long, black hair.
      "What is your price to free Darya?" Vayer asked heavily. I hope she falls for this.
      "I want you, Vayer. Without your strength, Fatima will fall. My brother is too much the fool to hold her in her current wayward course without your connivance." she let go of Darya's hair.
      Bootnails clicking on the marble floor, Vayer walked over to stand before Tzarya. "What would you have me do?"
      "Take the throne, Vayer. It has been kept for you since your birth. Arkay had abandoned his responsibilities to play with mewling children and effeminate boys." Tzarya's eyes narrowed. "You were taught to rule from the day we knew you would become a Lord."
      "Then why did you try to have me murdered?" Vayer wanted to stretch out this villain exposes their plots so they could find all of it. Good thing she's insane or this little melodrama would be far to inane for a woman of her intelligence.
      "So you did see through our little play." Tzarya laughed, sounding for all the world like an actor on the summer faire stage. "Our replacement for the throne couldn't well be still tied to his father's apron strings, now could he?"
      *Hold on to your wits, Nashen* Vayer warned. "Then all I have to do is kill Arkay, correct?"
      Tzarya smiled, "Or murder him. Do either and Darya goes free of harm. I'll even let you keep what's left of Nashen. His mind will be gone, but his so pretty body might make a pleasant toy."
      Throwing up on Tzarya's hem seemed like a really good response to her last pronouncement. However it probably wouldn't get Vayer what he wanted, which was the woman away from Darya. "I want you in the circle with me. I could take Arkay alone, but with your brother at his side, I wouldn't stand a chance."
      "Good enough. However I won't be coming within reach of your sword. Accidents do happen and I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of your steel in quite that way."
      Vayer's stomach heaved at her obvious double entendre. He blinked to get himself back under control. This woman has a really sick mind "Very well." he turned and looked down at the two other men. Now, however, there was a crowd standing at the foot of the dias. Diomid and Kirina were together behind Nashen, despite her very young physical age. Avilan and Karola stood behind Arkay, as they had for so many years as the Lords of Azov. Valentine and Kir were arm in arm, with Yosef and Krasna looming over them from behind, as Vayer had so often seen the Lords of Kirov to stand with Valentine's oath father, Arkay. Even the twins had come forward to stand with their parents.
      "What is the meaning of this?" Tzarya snarled. "You can't all mean to try to defend Sharm Lord Arkay from his own son. It is not lawful to intrude on a challenge rightfully given." She pulled Darya to her feet and held a knife at her throat, "Give the challenge, Vayer."
      Bad melodrama in spades Vayer was disgusted at the idiotic situation. "I challenge you, Sharm Lord Arkay Sergeyevich Azov-Fatima for lordship and dominion of Russia." he drew his sword as he stepped forward to make his intentions clear to Nashen, that it would be both of them.
      "Lord Vayer Sergeyevich has rightfully challenged for dominion. There shall be no further interference until only two remain in the circle." Tzarya's voice rang out in triumph.
      "I would have a second." Vayer was thinking furiously, "I ask for Sharm Lord Avilan Turovich Azov to stand by my side at his discretion." *Follow my lead* he sent his other father.
      *I've done this one before* Avilan's sending had the bright, coppery feel of high amusement at the situation.
      I'm going to have to ask about that when this is all over Vayer wondered at Avilan's laughter. Avilan did step forward to stand with him against Arkay and Nashen. *Other side* Avilan had stood to his sword hand.
      *sorry* Avilan shifted position and they walked down the steps together. Vayer zlinned Tzarya still holding the knife at Darya's soft throat.
      Vayer was annoyed, Damn, she just isn't giving up. Isn't the villain supposed to do something stupid at this point, like sneeze?
      Nashen drew his sword and raised it, *Tenth?*
      "Begin" Tzarya said suddenly.
      Praying Nashen would catch the transition, Vayer lunged in the first move of the tenth dance, already at his highest level of augmentation before he finished the move. Nashen caught it perfectly and steel rang on steel as the pattern began. Avilan had already caught Arkay's first move and Vayer hoped they were doing the exact same thing. Parry, strike ... the trained sequence took over the workings of his body as his mind looked for any opening.
      Darya's cool field had wrapped around the metal blade. He had an idea. *On three* he sent, hoping they could manage to count together, despite the time dilation of augmentation. *Three, two, one ... now!* the other three men funneled their power through Vayer. At this phase in the pattern he was facing the two women and he sent Darya all he was given. Tzarya howled as the knife in her hand shattered into dust as the chill of Darya's field became manifest as extreme cold in the real world.
      Vayer stumbled backwards out of the circle into Karola's arms as Darya promised to give Tzarya all the transfer she could want to heal her hand. Tzarya lunged for the temptation. With a cracking flash of light Tzarya tried the impossible, transfer with an unwilling Sharm Lord and received her reward, death.
     
      Tzer was pointing out bright butterflies and singing birds to his father as they rode along the oak tree lined path. Ilara twitched an ear back occasionally at the lad's high pitched voice, but otherwise made no complaint of her double load. Certainly Vayer had been riding on his own at three, but Tzer still preferred to ride in front of someone else when they went outside the safe arenas and close in paths by the Azov estates. Besides, Nashen loved having the child sitting safely in front of him and not off on some maniac like Vayer's.
      "Down, Chernye." Vayer laughed. Nashen turned to see the young black stallion walking on his hind legs again. The black flipped his nose and kept going. Vayer reached up and scratched the horse's head. Chernye relented and came back to earth, not without an explosive buck for punctuation. "Idiot!" Vayer noted. Nashen could hear the thump of Vayer's heels against the horse's sides. This made Chernye snort in surprise and scoot forward.
      Nashen really like riding Ilara. She was so sensible and well mannered. Kirum flattened his ears back as Chernye passed them. Darya smacked Kirum on the neck for his rude comment. Darya had turned out to be quite the rider after Arkay and Vayer had worked with her for a year or so. Nashen had no plans on turning himself over to their tutelage, however. He was content on his nice safe mares. Trail rides were much calmer before Chernye grew to bear a rider Nashen noted.
      Chernye then snaked his head out at Kika. Arkay just laughed and let Kika snap his teeth at the younger stallion. With huge black eyes, Chernye dipped his head to Kika and actually opened his mouth like a foal in submission. "Behave, youngster." Vayer scratched his horse's crest. Nashen could clearly see Chernye's eye and ear turn back towards Kika as if to think of challenging him again. Kika didn't even wait, he snapped again and Chernye's tail dropped and he slid back along the line of walking horses.
      Kirum took exception at Chernye slowing down into him and nipped the black's croup. Trapped, Chernye sidled off into the brush alongside the trail. "To think I used to enjoy starting babies." Vayer said in disgust as Chernye worked to extricate himself from the undergrowth.
      "They grow up." Arkay said looking back at Vayer.
      "Some of them do." Vayer ran his finger across his throat as if wanting to cut someone's neck. With a snort and a scramble Chernye managed to get back onto the trail. He was actually a bit subdued, for a klick or so.
     
      Nashen leaned back on his elbows in the grass as he watched Vayer working Chernye out in the broad meadow. "They are beautiful together." he loved the way their black hair matched, and while he couldn't have even managed to sit through the least of Chernye's acrobatics, the power and grace of them was unmistakable.
      "I just hope he doesn't break his neck before our daughter is born." Darya commented as Chernye went sideways at a high rate of speed. The horse wasn't afraid of a thing and was being a twit today.
      "In this meadow the only problem we'll have is trying to catch Chernye if the stud does land him on the ground." Nashen idly chewed on a grass stem.
      "Not with Ilara here." Arkay pointed out the mare's obvious attention to all three of the stallions.
      "Oh no, I don't want to have to deal with her being in heat on the way back." Nashen groaned.
      "You are the one who likes to ride mares." Arkay pointed out. "Besides, he isn't coming off." he knocked on the wood of one of the saddle trees for luck.
      "Superstitious old man." Darya teased.
      "Sometimes" Arkay raised an eyebrow.
      Nashen watched Chernye manage to get all four feet off the ground and twist in the air in irritation at Vayer's demands. Finally, snorting and protesting the whole way, Chernye managed a decent trot across the meadow.
      "Going to try a canter?" Arkay shouted with a big grin.
      "Sure!" Vayer yelled back, making Chernye buck again. The transition from the trot to the canter included a number a false starts and very creative footwork, but finally Vayer had the young stallion in a big smooth circle. The changed direction with an enormous kick into the air, but managing the maneuver without any more spectacular fireworks. Eventually they dropped back to a walk. Chernye was puffing a bit, so Vayer walked him for a while.
     
      "Actually I had wanted to get all three of you together, away from the city, for a reason." Arkay looked down at his own hands. "I, like everyone else, have gotten older and I don't know ..." he trailed off, acting almost ashamed of something. Nashen thought Arkay looked better now than the entire time he had known the man. Despite the heavy lines on Arkay's face and the now silver hair, he had a bit of padding finally and moved even more smoothly, despite the now regular creaking of abused joints.
      "What is it, otyet?" Darya put her hand over Arkay's.
      Arkay smiled at her, making Nashen's heart miss a beat over how wonderful it still was to be able to have transfer with a man as incredible as Arkay. Shaking his head, "I don't know where to start." He looked out across the meadow.
      "A long time ago you said the best place to start any task was at the beginning, otyet." Vayer took Arkay's other hand.
      "True enough." Arkay grinned. "I think in one way Tzarya was right."
      "No" Nashen protested.
      "Yes" Arkay sighed, "I have neglected my responsibilities to play with my children, and while I would not call either Avilan or Nashen effeminate, I have probably spent far more time with them than I well should have."
      The muscles of Arkay's neck were as tight as sisal cables. Nashen tried to loosen them up some with his hands, "Is there truly something wrong with spending time with your family?"
      "I don't know for certain." Arkay paused for a moment, "If it hurts Rodina, then yes."
      Vayer chuckled softly, "Arkay, your family -is- Rodina at this point, or at least her nobility."
      "After I destroyed you, do you actually think I have done or even will do any better by her?" Arkay stretched his head down despite his self condemning words with Nashen's ministrations.
      "No, beloved father. You didn't destroy me." Vayer sighed. "I was as wild and headstrong as young Chernye. There is no great blame to be placed at your feet."
      "A moment, Vayer." Nashen shivered briefly as Arkay's self destructive sorrow over his past treatment of Vayer came through their bonding. After taking a deep breath, "I think perhaps the best solution would for Arkay to abdicate."
     

CHAPTER 21


      Relief and the most amazing sense of freedom came from his father at Nashen's unexpectedly cruel words. Arkay has always held the throne, even in his absence, his presence had led Rodina for the last thirty years. Vayer's eyes closed as he realized what this meant. "You want to be free of it, don't you?"
      "Yes" Arkay whispered and tipped his head back. His scarred and worn hands were clenched into fists.
      "You are human, Arkay." Nashen's voice was soft and gentle.
      Vayer stretched out Arkay's hand and rubbed the callused palm with his fingers, "I will take it."
     
      Vayer forced himself to look down the long aisle of the great hall of all the Demense. Memories of facing Vanya Sergei in such a similar situation tore at him. Oh most benevolent Allah Nashen was standing behind Arkay. Vayer had wanted Nashen sedated and with Darya so he at least had a small chance of survival.
      His eyes met Nashen's silver ones. *I couldn't leave* Nashen's fingers wrapped over Arkay's shoulder. Vayer flinched as he realized both men were also wildly post. Their fields were so intertwined there was no zlinning where one ended and the other began.
      He forced his feet to walk down the red and gold carpet towards the throne, and his father. I wish he would hold me one more time Vayer didn't know if he was thinking of Arkay or Nashen. Almost crushed beneath overwhelming revulsion for what he knew he had to do, Vayer stumbled on the bottom stair.
      Arkay's hand reached out and he caught it for balance. A sob, despite his need, tried to escape Vayer's throat. I can't! he cried to himself, looking up into his father's light blue eyes. His body obeyed though, and once he recovered from his stumble, Vayer knelt before them. Cool, lightning laced fog filled his senses as he forced his reluctant laterals out. They screamed at him in painful protest. Even when Arkay took his hands to raise him back to his feet, they tried to return to their sheathes.
      Hands shaking with stress other than need, Vayer closed his eyes as Arkay gently squeezed his fingertips. His dorsals stroked over Arkay's wrists. All his handling tentacles refused to do more than lightly caress his father's arms. "Vayer?" Nashen's voice was a harsh rasp and clipped.
      Light winked off the malachite, onyx and silver bracelet Nashen had given Arkay for their bonding. Vayer couldn't even try to speak. Arkay and Nashen's combined field would have been high enough to attract his body under other circumstances. Now it clawed at his need with teeth of steel.
      Pain flashed at him as Arkay drove his own fingernails into his palms. Vayer's tentacles retreated entirely at the shock. His mind knew Arkay had been trying to tempt him, but his heart couldn't tolerate any more. Clenching his arms to his chest, Vayer collapsed at his father's feet.
     
      Cool, comforting shadows soothed his mind. Darya he reached for her. Wrong pain shattered her promise of life. Someone screamed. Vayer's nerves caught fire. He ran within his mind from everyone and everything.
      There's something I have to do he willed himself to stand fast. Concentrating on his body, he felt the hard marble of a step bite into his hip. It was also cool. Vayer placed his palm against the tile and pushed himself up. He opened his eyes to see Arkay's cool blue gaze return his own. A lock of black hair obscured his vision and he tried to shake it back. The room spun.
      "Vayer?" Arkay's deep voice was soft.
      "I can get up." Vayer hoped. Carefully he moved his feet under him. With a lurch he managed to stand. Arkay rose from where he had been kneeling. Cool, foggy promise wrapped around him. With absolute concentration he managed to get his father's arms in his tentacles. He took a deep gasping breath, driving back the pain. He flipped his head back to clear the hair out of his face again. Nashen's eyes were filled with tears.
      "NO!" Vayer screamed at the top of his lungs. Overwhelmed entirely, he let his need take him back into unconsciousness.
     
      "Shedoni and I can't do a damn thing about it." he heard his mother's voice.
      I'm safe here he retreated farther. Black, tearing need was his friend. He relaxed into its painful embrace. A winged figure appeared in the distance, wrapped in blue fire. Vayer ran, farther and faster into his own pain. If he can't find me I can't kill him
      *Vayer!* the winged figure was before him.
      *I can't!* he shrank back, crumpling away from them to the indistinct floor of this place. Vayer felt himself be drawn under the black his hands rested on. yes he let it take him.
     
      Through his link with Arkay, Nashen felt Vayer's heart stop. This had been far worse than Vayer's first transfer. They hadn't even been able to get close to him. "Vayer, my son." Arkay sobbed, tears streaming down his face.
      "I'm ..." Nashen couldn't say it. Vayer had been as much a son to him as he had been to Arkay.
      "I did destroy my son." Arkay fell into his arms. "He couldn't say ... I didn't want him to ... I love him."
      Nashen had never before heard Arkay say he loved his firstborn. All he could do was hold Arkay in his desolation. "Why did you never tell him?"
      Arkay simply shook his head in rejection. Darya knelt beside them and took Vayer's hand and placed it over her belly, as if it were a talisman. "He's still here." she whispered.
      "What?!" Nashen zlinned carefully. She was right, Vayer's sense of self was the faintest echo of his usual presence, but it was still there. After she took his wrists in her hands and made contact with Vayer's lips, he watched her cautiously reach out her own dark field to Vayer with a determination he had never seen in it. Almost beyond his own senses he zlinned it wrap around and enclose something. As soon as it did so, Vayer's tentacles lashed around her wrists.
      In absolute horror, Nashen zlinned Vayer shen out again. "No!" Arkay insisted, Nashen formed their figure again and they caught Vayer before he could flee. *Stay* they pleaded from their knees, wingtips streaming out behind them.
      *WONT!* Vayer's presence reached for the void.
      *I love you, Vayer* Arkay's voice said alone. *Be free* In dread, Nashen watched as Arkay placed himself between Vayer and what he well knew was death incarnate.
      *No you don't!* Nashen grabbed Arkay. Vayer hesitated at the byplay and got caught up in Darya's grasp entirely.
     
      "I'm sorry I couldn't pay the price." Vayer turned his drawn and pale face to the wall. "I know you dream of freedom." Nashen looked around at the bedroom in the Fatima suite at Kirov again.
      "Not at that price." Arkay took one of Vayer's hands. "I love you, Vayer." Darya was still holding Vayer's other hand.
      Tentatively, Vayer's tentacles came out to twine with his father's fingers, "I'm not a failure, again?"
      "No, love. You were never a failure." Arkay pulled an unresisting Vayer into his arms and stroked Vayer's black hair. "You have succeeded wildly in everything you have put your hands to and I asked far more of you than could ever be humanly expected to manage."
      "Even, well, I couldn't..." Nashen felt Vayer's body tremble under his hand with his words.
      "I had no right to ask, Vayer. Vanya was old and tired and in pain; I was selfish and didn't want to deal with life. There is no comparison." Arkay shook his head and Nashen was surprised as their eyes met. "And I certainly had no right to take Nashen with me."
      "I wouldn't have gone." Nashen tried to lie.
      Arkay smiled and shook his head, "Yes and I'm Lord of the Romany. I'm afraid we're stuck with each other, Nashen."
      "I couldn't let you go, either." Nashen looked away at Darya.
      "Thank you, Nashen." Darya whispered.
      "You can't ..." Arkay reared back to look at her. "After everything I have done to the men in your life, you can't possibly ..."
      "I can, Arkay." She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, "You still owe me a chance to win back my forfeit for not knowing who Kirina's sire was."
      "You didn't?!" Nashen blushed, knowing quite well it was a trick question from having been present at her rather rowdy, and crowded, conception.
      "He didn't what?" Darya asked dangerously. Arkay was blushing like Nashen had never even thought he could. Vayer snickered.
      "What did you answer?" Vayer asked.
      Darya looked at Arkay out of the corner of her eye, "It was you."
      Helplessly, Arkay shrugged, "Actually we have absolutely no idea."
      "You said it was Avilan when I first guessed it was you!"
      "Actually I could also have been the culprit ... or Vanya, or Val, or possibly even Dominic." Nashen grinned. "I think Raphi was too occupied with Ivanya ..."
      Arkay blushed even harder, "Oh. Maybe not. Who was the sire of Ivanya's son anyways?"
      "We have as much idea with him as we do with Kirina. He might well be mine, Azov has always treated him as being by a Sharm Lord, as chances are he is."
      "What happened?" Darya asked forcefully.
      "Avilan got bored one winter." Nashen looked at Arkay.
      "... and things got a bit out of hand." Arkay coughed. "Vayer, here, was about six months old and we didn't think Karola was likely to catch while she was still nursing him so heavily."
      "That isn't the whole story, otyet." Vayer grinned.
      "Yes, well ..." he paused, "Avilan got bored, broke his ankle, Karola was annoyed with him and so asked him to find her a transfer partner. I think we were all a bit bored that winter ..."
      "... since Avilan ended up setting up a seven way cascade which ended up in a rather spectacular orgy." Nashen snickered. "How many children were born nine months later?"
      "Lets see, Kir's son by Vanya, Kirina, Ivanya's son, didn't Krasna catch too?"
      "Yes, and ..." he couldn't finish. Nashen well knew who had sired her ill-fated son.
      "He was yours?" Arkay asked softly.
      "Fatima sons rarely survive to birth." Nashen's hands were shaking again. "It was not unexpected."
      "I'm so very sorry, Nashen." Arkay's field flattened in sorrow.
      "It was a long time ago, love." he felt Arkay wrap his feathered wings around all of them.
     
      Vayer sighed, "Where do we go from here?"
      "I honestly don't know." Arkay took Vayer's face in his hand. "What do you want?"
      Nashen wanted to cheer at Arkay's final acceptance of his son as someone who could make his own decisions. "I want two contradictory things;" Vayer straightened up, "To free you of the throne, and for you to be healthy and happy."
      "Can't you just step down, Arkay?" Darya asked bluntly.
      "Its never been done bef..."
      "Lord Yitrian Kirov took the throne from his grandmother, Sharm Lord Chit'ana Ostrian Grosnaya by simply taking the responsibilities and accoutrements of the throne in the second century Before Founding." Darya stated with an impish tilt to her head.
      Arkay surprised everyone with a loud bray of laughter, "You win, you win." He held out his hands to her. Nashen had no idea what the forfeit was. Darya cocked her head, stared intently at Arkay's wrists, and then ran her hands slowly over his bracelets making at least Nashen suck in his breath hard. Even with all the terror of earlier, the feel of her manipulations was almost painfully arousing.
      "This one." her fingers rested on a worn smooth, copper band.
      Vayer had to catch Arkay's attention again, "What is it?"
      He slipped bracelets off his wrist to access the one in question absently, "It is said, this was worn by Lord and Ruler Gartiry Fatima's Alahin, Dimitria." He handed it to her. "He was the last child of Fatima to hold the throne. So as not to loose another bracelet, it ended up with Sergei through their daughter, Sharm Lord Riyana Sergei, the founder of the Demense of Sergei."
      "I didn't know that." Darya said absently, then looked up with wide eyes. "Trade?" she laughed.
      "You owe me one." Arkay looked acquisitively at her wrists. "I think perhaps I'll wait until you are up to your elbows in silver and children."
      "The deal was for a bracelet, no children." she settled her new acquisition in with a jangle.
      "We already have one of each of his, love." Nashen pointed out.
      Vayer shook his head no, "I can no longer refuse my sire's name."
      "Yes!" Nashen couldn't help but crow. "Be free to return to Arkayevich, Vayer." he said in a rush.
      "I will always be a child of Fatima, but yes." Vayer tipped his head up determinedly and held out his hands to Arkay.
      Arkay met them and with almost Nashen's speed, Vayer's tentacles clasped his father's wrists. Their lips met and Nashen's nerves crawled as someone else took selyn from his Alahin. He had to restrain himself from trying to pull Vayer away, but it was over quickly.
      "I proclaim myself Lord and Ruler Vayer Arkayevich Fatima, freeing Sharm Lord Arkay Sergeyevich Azov-Fatima from all responsibilities and privileges of the throne of Russia." Vayer retracted his tentacles, "I love you, father."
      "You are the most wonderful son I could have ever dreamed of, my beloved Vayer."