Autumn Roses




by



Ann Marie Olson





Story (such as it is) © 2001 Ann Marie Olson



Warning: the following piece contains no plot. If you are looking for a plot, may I reccomend another work available on this site. Mary Lou does brilliant work as do Kaas, Jocelyn and others. All comments and complaints are welcome, however, other than those about the lack of plot in this piece, of course. Chapter headings are purely for the purposes of being able to find your place again when you have to duck out or let your boss see you're reading fiction at work ... again. They mean nothing more
     

Chapter 1


      Something was wrong. Nashen rolled over in the oversized bed. Arkay was gone! His eyes snapped open before he zlinned.
      "Oh lover," Arkay's weight made the poorly constructed bed creak alarmingly. Nashen zlinned it with a dismayed lateral.
      "Where are you going?" He sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Even here the chill of the early morning hour slapped his bare chest with an impious hand. For a moment he again envied Arkay's thick thatch of hair. The thought of which brought a smile to his face, with teeth.
      "Thinking wicked thoughts?" Arkay's tone less implied a question than a statement.
      "Thinking of tangling your fur in my tentacles and dragging you back to bed." He gazed right into his lover's fantastic gray blue eyes. No matter how many years passed together, they were as fascinating as the day they'd met. Nashen still remembered the first time he actually talked to Sharm Lord Arkay, then Sharm Lord Arkay Azov.
     
      "And just what are you doing here?"
      Nashen knew the voice of Lord and Ruler Arkay. He trembled right down to his bare toes. "Uh, um, ..." He licked his lips. Even with Taina at home, the Sharm Lord he loved more than anything or anyone else, Arkay struck him speechless.
      "Well?" Those light blue eyes tied his tongue in knots, not to mention his tentacles. Nashen couldn't say a word. He just stared ... and drooled. For Arkay wasn't wearing much more than his hair.
      He'd slept with Avilan, sharing a bed with Arkay before, but then Arkay'd been low field. Now his nager glimmered with a strength Nashen could never hope to encompass. With his Fatima sensitivity, he could zlin Arkay's wings spread behind him. They cupped the air, as if Arkay truly were an angel.
      "Lord Fatima?"
      "Oh, yes, right," he blinked, completely dumbfounded. "That is my name."
      This feeble attempt at wit actually worked. Arkay laughed, shaking his head. "Is there some reason you're drooling on your toes?"
      "You're naked," he pointed out, probably unnecessarily.
      "These are my rooms," Arkay gave him a raised eyebrow. "So, they aren't yours."
      "Uh, no, they're not," Nashen zlinned around for his own overtunic. Where had Avilan put the thing? It wasn't hanging up anywhere he could find it. What had happened last night? He rubbed at his temple ruefully. "I do have to get home."
      "I'm not stopping you." Arkay was still looking at him with disconcerting attention. Nashen tried to think of Taina, with her curvy little body and lithe nager. It didn't work. It was like comparing a sparrow hawk with an eagle.
      "No, you're not," he shook his head again. Then Arkay turned around. Ins'Allah, the backside on him. Avilan was beautiful, but Arkay was truly a work of art. He held his thoughts under the tightest shield he could imagine. "If you know where my overtunic went?"
      "Avilan probably hid it," Arkay looked over his shoulder. The posture made Nashen's mouth flood with roniplin filled saliva. He gulped, most likely loud enough to be heard in the sharm. But Arkay didn't seem to take much notice. "Particularly with the way you're drooling on the rug."
      "Oh, so I am," intelligent conversation was not Nashen's forte at the moment. He blinked, trying to force himself not to zlin. "He's probably a bit edgy about having to take this month off."
      "What's Taina doing?"
      "Has a friend," Nashen didn't want to admit it, but she was sliding away from him month by month. He colored, despite need.
      "Then stay with us, Lord Fatima." Arkay smiled. Nashen lost all sense.
      "I'd love to." He stepped forward, not quite offering Arkay his hand. He'd have done it if he didn't know Arkay'd never accept him. But this way, he'd at least be close to him.
     
      Arkay watched the expressions cross Nashen's face and field with a gentle smile. When they'd bonded, the frightfully skittish Lord Fatima would have never relaxed so far in anyone's presence. He waited patiently, still entranced at the beauty he'd missed seeing for so many years.
      Of course finding out they were perfectly suited for each other in personality hadn't harmed matters any. Nashen was so entirely Sime, there was never a breath of doubt of his need for Arkay. Except that fist time, of course.
     
      Arkay rose from his knees as folded his prayer rug, still looking towards the east. Here, in Jaffa, all those who followed the way of peace knelt to pray in that direction. Which was the entire city, or nearly all of it. There were infidels in the city, but they were few and far between. Up until a couple of weeks ago, Arkay'd been one of them.
      "Ins'Allah, my Alahin," Nashen's entire grace had not yet recovered completely from his ordeal in the desert, but there was a light in his eyes which fascinated Arkay utterly.
      He bowed his head to his bondmate, as he'd never done before in his life, "Ins'Allah, my Alamir." Nashen's fingers trembled as he fastened Arkay's veil. The significance of the gesture brought a lump to Arkay's throat. Thrown together by what some would call the whim of the One for all their lives, now they could embark on truly learning of one another. There was no other way.
      "Would you have it so, my Alahin?"
      "No," he looked up into Nashen's amazing silver eyes. There was a softness there, unlike any other Sime Arkay'd ever known. Certainly he'd bonded to Simes before, once to a mad man and once to wonderful woman whose only flaw was she was his best friend's handfasted wife. They'd taken him in when he'd been sick and hurt, giving him his life back. He loved both of them more than life itself, but it wasn't the same as being bound to only one Sime.
      "I've never done it." Nashen essayed a tremulous smile.
      "Never?" Arkay took his lover's hand into the sleeve of his heavy robes. He'd not been encumbered so drastically since he'd been a teenager, but it somehow seemed right to save all of himself for Nashen. As if saving something for his Alamir.
      "No," Nashen began walking slowly, heading towards the center of town. The sun had set a few hours ago, and it was cooling off rapidly. Not that it would ever be what Arkay would call cool. The evening breeze played with the bangles on his hood, making them tinkle musically. "Would you mock me if I ever were to tell you, you are the most exquisite Sharm Lord in the world?"
      "No, I wouldn't." Arkay walked at Nashen's side, wondering what all this was leading up to.
      "Oh, not much," Nashen's profile was set off by the brilliant desert moon. There were lights, mostly torches, along side the palm tree lined streets, but they were far less brilliant than Nashen's beauty. "You flatter me."
      "No, I don't," Arkay knew his smile was hidden by his veil, but still couldn't help himself. They were generally meandering through the streets of the ancient city, gradually describing a circle back to the town house. "You are as beautiful as Fatima's blade."
      "Such pretty words," Nashen stopped and turned to him for a moment. Arkay could hear the trickle of water somewhere nearby. He cocked his head, trying to hear better. "Why for the scowl? Already unhappy with me?"
      "No, never," he couldn't stand to see Nashen taken on the curb. Too many Sharm Lords had ridden Lord Fatima with barbed bits and razor sharp spurs for years. "Trying to find the shenned fountain." He muttered at last.
      Nashen threw back his head and laughed. Arkay's ears burned at his own foul language. He was not used to being so wrapped in cloth any more.
      "I like it." Nashen smiled so very shyly it was like a crocus peeking out from the last snows of thaw. "It's only until we get back."
      "But I also like pleasing you." Arkay's ears burned even more as he realized how very Gen the heavy robes and constant attention of the south made him feel. It was as if someone were always reminding him of how desirable he could be to Simes.
      "Do you really?" Nashen smile was quite crooked. He assisted Arkay into a seat carved into the rim of a huge fountain. Arkay couldn't see anyone and the gently splashing water seemed to create a bit of privacy in the teeming city. He knew there were people about, many, many of them, but here it was as if they were alone in the world.
      "Yes," he wondered again at the attention Nashen lavished on him. The sense of being more desirable than anything else in the world made his heart pound in his chest. "I do." Pleasing Nashen, he'd found, was simpler than anything he'd ever done before in his life.
      "You didn't ask for all of this." Nashen sat at his side, arranging the heavy folds of cloth blocking his nager from the zlin of Simes. "I would think you'd resent it."
      "No, not at all." As a matter of fact, he was basking in all the attention. No one, not even Karola had ever been so constantly considerate of his possible wants or needs. Arkay recaptured one of Nashen's hands to tuck beneath his robes. "Feel." He stroked Nashen's palm over the hair on his forearms standing up, begging for attention.
      "Feels wonderful," a single tentacles brushed over the sensitive nerves lining the inside of Arkay's wrist. After all the time spent shielded, Arkay's body went into immediate frantic desire. He shivered all over in anticipation. "Cold?"
      "Not at all," his own voice had dropped to a throaty purr. "But if it will get you to pet me more?"
      "Not here," Nashen's smile straightened out a bit, but he didn't recover his hand. "So, are you at least content enough as Sharm Lord Fatima?"
      "I'd be sharm lord Arkay for the rest of my life with you, Nashen." Arkay swallowed back the lump in his throat again. "You are worth any price."
      "You don't know me so very well."
      "Yet," Arkay added. "I look forward to learning."
      "I'm not an easy man to get along with." Nashen turned his face away. The bright stars seemed to glitter against the backdrop of his eyes. Again the beaked nose and arched forehead reminded Arkay of a great hawk ready to stoop. "I'm rather set in my ways, I'm afraid."
      "If those ways are cosseting and caring for your partner as you've shown so far, then I'll be well content."
      "Talk to Diomid some time." Nashen sighed heavily, as if there were truly something wrong. "We've gotten into a few discussions."
      "I'm sure you have." Arkay smiled wryly, thinking of how strong willed Diomid could be when he got his fingers into something. He wouldn't put up with temper tantrums in a Sime any more than he'd ever put up with tantrums in any child. But then Nashen could be so exquisite in a temper.
      "How can you think such a thing when I'd nearly killed you in a temper?"
      "I deserved it." Arkay let his hood fall forward over his eyes. Shame still ate at him for his despicable treatment of Nashen, his son Vayer and Vayer's mate, Darya. "You were right, I was wrong."
      "But that doesn't mean I didn't do it." Nashen sighed again. For a moment Arkay was lost in watching the easy grace of his field slowly darkening to match the sky above. Pulse after pulse, perfectly matching his own rising warmth, Nashen's body consumed the selyn he needed to live. And it also perfectly matched the selyn Arkay produced which would choke him to death if he didn't rid his body of it.
      Together, Alahin and Alamir, they were bound by their bodies. But it was Nashen's mind which truly fascinated Arkay. "True," he dared grasp Nashen's long, slender fingers in his own broad hand. They felt so very right together like this. "You did. I learned too."
      "Learned not to anger a Fatima Lord." Nashen bowed his head. It was as if he were a hawk drooping on his block.
      "I learned you are a man to be respected. Not a fool, not a tyrant, not a child." He wished he could explain. "Before then, I never saw you as a peer."
      "I am younger than you." Nashen's deliberate usage of the formal made Arkay's skin crawl.
      "Please don't," he put his arm around Nashen's shoulders. "Don't betray yourself to me, my Alamir."
      Nashen turned to him and rested his head against Arkay's chest. He had to have heard the pounding of Arkay's heart. It was about to leap out. Arkay held Nashen to him, kissing his scalp through his veil. The heat of his body went right through the heavy cloth, making Arkay's head spin. He'd hardly touched another human being, much less an entire Sime in the entire time he'd been in the South.
      "My Alahin," Nashen's voice was filled with wonder.
      "I am." Arkay held him, rocking him and crooning an ancient bonding song.
     
      "Good thoughts?" Nashen could sit and watch his beloved for hours. Arkay's expressive face, without cosmetics or enhancement of any sort was more fantastic than life itself. When he smiled Nashen's heart skipped a beat every time.
      "Thinking of the fountain in Jaffa." He smiled. Nashen's breath caught in his throat. Lined by years of hard use, Arkay's indomitable character shone through. His boots clattered to the floor.
      "If you want to go out." Nashen waved towards the door.
      "Not if you don't want me to." His strong neck arched in invitation to dalliance.
      "Not with you looking at me like that." More than his chest tightened in excitement. He stirred beneath the covers.
      "For me?" Arkay bit at his lower lip.
      "Oh yes," Nashen growled deep in his throat. He rolled over and crawled on hands and knees. "All for you."
      "Nothing for Pyoter or Gregori?"
      Nashen had to laugh. "If you like."
      "I like," Arkay's hand was cold! Nashen yelped.
      "Get back in here." He pulled Arkay under the blankets.
      "I'm still dressed."
      "Not for long," Nashen attacked the drawstring on Arkay's pants with his teeth. The smell of him went straight to Nashen's head. There was nothing else so arousing as the scent of his love. Unless it was his deep voice, thrumming with anticipation.
      "Cold nose," Arkay's nicely padded middle danced away.
      "Then I should warm it up." Nashen stuck it in Arkay's navel. Arkay's scream nearly brought down the bedcurtains. He grabbed Arkay around the waist and pinned him.
      Smack! Nashen squawked in outrage as Arkay's hand descended on his rear. That stung! He bit at Arkay's middle. Laughter echoed from the ceiling. "You bite!"
      "Only figured that out now?" Nashen relented and licked where he'd bitten. Crinkly, short hair gave beneath his tongue.
      "Bad aim, too," Arkay arched his back.
      "Patience," Nashen flipped a stray blanket over both of them. Soon it was warm and cozy beneath the covers. They'd finally gotten a featherbed as deep as he liked, well over a third of a meter. Together they sank into the warm softness of the bedding.
      "Is it just me, or do some Simes like to nest as well."
      "This one does," Nashen was contemplating moving south. No, he'd let Arkay squirm a bit. Then Arkay cheated. He slid over to begin investigating Nashen's thighs. His traitorous limbs fell open, as they always did.
      As Arkay's fingers rubbed at the warmth he'd left with his swat, Nashen squirmed. His lover's whisker roughened cheeks were brushing the insides of his legs. He captured Arkay's face before his lover could turn him into a mindless lump.
      "Hey!" Arkay's complaint fell of deaf ears. Nashen wet one of his tentacles and slid it between Arkay's legs. His lover moaned and quit struggling. This was much better. Nashen went back to his earlier contemplation of Arkay's wonderfully soft middle. This was utterly perfect.
      Gens should have soft middles. It made for infinite degrees of contemplation. His cheek stroked the soft fur he'd wet already. Warm, happy, and amorous, Nashen turned Arkay into a little quivering heap. Do unto others before they do unto you had been one of Nashen's mottos for many years.
     
      Arkay had been thinking of going out for a ride. Had was the operative word. Or perhaps what he'd been planning on riding. Not that he was complaining. Nashen's long, lean body was still resting on top of his. He sighed in utter bliss, hugging Nashen to him with all his might.
      Not that it was much at the moment. He'd gone rather limp. Purring to let Nashen know how he felt, Arkay let his fingers explore Nashen's warm back. He was so much better than a fireplace or a blanket.
      "I heard that." Nashen chuckled softly, sending little shudders of pleasure through Arkay's body. "You are wonderful, my love."
      "As are you." Arkay gave him another rib cracking hug. Once upon a time, he'd worried about being too rough with Nashen. His love had changed Arkay's mind.
     
      "I won't break." Nashen was utterly beautiful when he was pissed. Arkay sighed and rested his chin on his hand. "Have you heard one single word I've said?"
      "No," he murmured, watching the play of light and shadow across Nashen's bare chest. In the year or so they'd been together, Nashen had put on a bit of weight as well. Now he was just right. Arkay could only see the bottom three ribs peeking out from under the elastic muscle covering his ribcage.
      His fingers itched to touch again, to make sure it was all still real. How amazing it all was to be loved by so brilliant a Sime. Even Karola, with all her quicksilver beauty, did not have the exquisite elegance of Lord Fatima.
      "Arkay!" Nashen popped his field right under Arkay's nose. Arkay blinked and leaned back. "I'm not fragile."
      "You like it when I am."
      Nashen groaned, his tentacles flicking out as if to grab. Arkay stared at them, entranced. Karola's were heavier, not quite as limber as Nashen's wonderful digits. Nashen's even came out perfectly, with delicate sheaths to hide their treasures beneath his silky skin. "Lover, you're going to make me blush."
      "Oh, sorry," Arkay tried to pull himself out of his rapt contemplation of Nashen's arms. It didn't work very well. He squirmed a bit. Between transfer and turnover, Arkay rarely forgot about the sleek feel of his lover's body in his for more than a few hours at a time. "Being a teenager, I'm afraid."
      "Flatterer," Nashen chuckled. "Although I appreciate it. If only you wouldn't keep holding back!"
      "I'm not." Arkay cringed. "Have I done something wrong?"
      "I'm not going to break if you hold me." Nashen sat at his side. His arm around Arkay's shoulder was wonderfully reassuring. Together their fields matched perfectly, reminding Arkay to give thanks to Allah yet again for His wonderful gift.
      "My Alamir," he tipped his face up to Nashen.
      "My Alahin," Nashen captured it and gave him a feather light kiss. He wanted more. "Do you now?" Nashen's eyes were smokey dark, with a wickedness behind them Arkay'd not seen before. His heart fluttered, wanting to feel Nashen's great Sime strength. "We'll see about that."
      "Nashen!" Arkay leaned back. Nashen captured his face and this time plundered his mouth with a nearly violent kiss. Arkay groaned deep in his throat.
      "Give unto me." Nashen's command was irresistible.
      Arkay opened up his mouth, and everything else, to his lover. Nashen's arms came around him with bruising force. "Ins'Allah," Arkay prayed, giving over his body to Nashen's strength.
      "I love thee." Nashen said, half growl, half great pronouncement.
      "Yes," Arkay's body went limp as Nashen's demands deepened. His lover's hands were clasping at his flesh, controlling all of his with his deft touch. Or at least part of his body went limp. Even at nearly sixty, Nashen could get him hard with half a look.
      "What will you do for me?"
      Nashen's question made Arkay's heart pause. "Anything."
      "Is that so?" Nashen chuckled, his hands still demanding Arkay give to him. Arkay moaned, lost in the sensations those long fingers called forth. "You are my Alahin."
      "Forever," Arkay's head fell back as Nashen mouthed his throat.
      "Then prove it," he stopped! Arkay whimpered. "We do have work today." His tone was so playful Arkay thought for a moment he was teasing. He was. But in a different way than he wanted.
      "Get up." Nashen stood.
      "I am." Arkay looked up at his lover longingly. Hoping he wasn't about to walk out. "And ready for you."
      "Not quite," Nashen's eyes held a wicked twinkle. "Put this on." He came back with a massively heavy Sharm Lord's kador. It looked to be as heavy as one a Veiled Sharm Lord would wear. "Come on."
      Giving in to Nashen's sense of the perverse, Arkay slid out of bed. "So very, very exquisite," Nashen purred. The sensation of warmth caressing his nerves made Arkay's knees tremble. "But first," he set down the kador and pulled out a bit of silk.
      Arkay's eyes widened. What was he going to do?
      "Stand still," Nashen's delicate hands did nothing to cool Arkay's ardor. Particularly as he bound Arkay's loins and wrists with the strips of silky material. Arkay squirmed as the slippery sensations threatened to drive him crazy. He'd never wanted any Sime so much in his life. "Better," Nashen slid the kador over Arkay's head.
      He could do nothing to stop this sweet torment. His hormones were on fire, tieing his tongue in knots. His heart was pounding, as were other things. Then he realized there was nothing between his chest and the rough wool. "One more thing," Nashen reached into the drawer by the bed.
      "Nashen!" Arkay's eyes went wide as he recognized the spicy scent of clove oil. His protest did no good. Nashen's fingers danced into the side seams of his kador and liberally anointed his oversensitive nipples. This was too much. Then it got worse ... Nashen tightened down the laces on his kador. Every breath he took reminded him of how very much he wanted his lover.
      "Time to go," Nashen slid into his clothes with a speed Arkay could have wished were far slower. "I love thee." He leaned down and placed another of those feather light kisses on Arkay's lips. Arkay tried grabbing for him.
      With Fatima speed, Nashen flitted to arm's length. "No fair cheating." His hand fastened the veil across Arkay's face. Arkay let his hood come down so Nashen wouldn't see his pupils dilate with pure lust.
      "Oh, I can zlin it." Nashen purred, taking Arkay's hand. "Lets get to work."
     
      The rest of the day had been pure torment, if exquisitely sweet. Every time he shifted his weight or even breathed, Nashen's little decorations nearly drove him mad. Beneath the heavy wool kador, no one else knew what Nashen was doing to him, which made it even sweeter.
      "What are you thinking about?"
      "Your teaching me not to be so delicate." Arkay admitted with a wry grin. "I enjoyed the lesson."
      "As much as I enjoyed your teaching me the same?"
      "Probably," he curled up in Nashen's warm arms, content with the world. This was where he was meant to be. Nothing was better than this. He sighed and rested his head on Nashen's shoulder. "I love thee."
      "Really?" Nashen chuckled softly. "I love thee, fancy that."
      "I fancy you."
      "Still?"
      "Forever," he twined his fingers with Nashen's tentacles. "So, did you enjoy my tormenting you out of being so shy?"
      "Would have been a bit less exciting if you hadn't done it at high court." He kissed the top of Arkay's head.
      "Wouldn't have been anywhere near as much fun." Arkay looked up at him, still reveling in being shorter than his lover. He would have never thought so few cents would make such a difference, but there was more to Nashen's height than mere geometry. His pride and grace had a great deal to do with his sense of presence.
      But then Nashen had sometimes not quite managed such grace, even though as they grew to know each other, Arkay sometimes had wondered if it had simply been that he'd been unable to see Nashen's grace at times. His hand wandered down, stroking Nashen's wonderful flanks. How truly perfect he was, unmarred by the years, only refined and improved.
      "I'm getting soft, my love." Nashen was shaking his head.
      "For your Alahin, I hope." Arkay draped his leg over Nashen's.
      "Always," Nashen's fingers explored this new territory as if it were his first time. There was always a sense of wonder to Nashen's touch and so Arkay never tired of it. It was as if Nashen were always in awe of him in some small way.
      "I never forget how fantastic and amazing it is you accepted me." Nashen's smile lit the room.
      "You are an easy Sime to accept." Arkay scooted in even closer. "I'm simply amazed you haven't beaten me for ill temper more often."
      "You take that back." Nashen rolled him over and pinned him to the bed. "Or I'll, I'll, I'll kiss you." He suited action to words, nearly getting himself pinned to the bed this time. Arkay melted beneath his lover's deft touch.
      "This isn't getting us out of bed." Arkay laughed as they ended up in a grand tangle of hair and bedclothes.
      "Nope, it isn't." Nashen chuckled, still caressing Arkay's ribs, where he could find them through Arkay's hair. He'd meant to get it trimmed a bit, but that'd been nearly three years ago. Things had come up since then and he hadn't bothered. "Do you think anyone is going to come looking for us?"
      "Maybe," Arkay shrugged, not really caring. "Even though I would like to visit with our children some time today."
      "Vayer and Darya are currently wallowing in being able to sleep in, I'm certain." Nashen's voice turned thoughtful. "Although our grandchildren are probably fretting about having to do things."
      "Young people do," Arkay tugged a braid out from under his hip. It was digging in a bit. "Keeps us old farts going."
      "You keep me going." Nashen lipped Arkay's ear.
      "So you do." Arkay returned the favor. "Thank you for talking me into retiring."
      "I though you were going to work until the day you died." Nashen added a tiny nip for punctuation. Arkay gave him the expected yelp and swat. His behind was still so perfectly warm and firm. Arkay's fingers inspected the handprint he'd left behind. "That isn't work."
      "I'm retired." Arkay gave Nashen's ear a very wet lick.
      "Tiring is more like it." Nashen shook his head. "Thank you for finally giving in to me."
      "You were right, as usual."
      "Can I have that in writing?"
      Arkay laughed, "No."
      "Awwwww," Nashen made soft sniveling sounds.
      "Oh, all right," he gave in instantly as Nashen's field glimmered with good humor. "I haven't had so much fun in years."
      "More fun than when we got back from Jaffa?"
      "That was a true lats up." Nashen chuckled.
      "Only because you'd spoiled Diomid horribly."
      "Not true," Nashen's ears pinked. It was dreadfully cute.
      "You did," Arkay stroked Nashen's side again. "After you, any Sime isn't quite the same."
      "Even your own daughter?"
      "She's your daughter too." Arkay reminded him.
      "Not that I ever knew it." Nashen sighed. "But still, you flatter me."
      "It's only the truth." Arkay sometimes wondered if Kirina hadn't changed over when she had, the day they returned from the South, if he'd have had a fight on his hands. "You are the best."
      "You only say that because you are my Alahin." Nashen's brilliant smile shone for him alone this time. A shiver of pure pleasure tickled up Arkay's body.
      "I am. As Diomid is Kirina's." He reminded Nashen.
      "But I thought they were going to fuss around until Kirina attacked someone."
      "No, or at least she'd have never attacked the wrong one." Arkay chuckled. "Kirina always knew what she wanted ... Diomid."
      "She had a hard enough time convincing him of the fact." Nashen's chin came to rest on top of Arkay's head. "I just wish I could have made it easier for her."
      "Not without changing the way Diomid is put together. Which would have done neither of them any good." Arkay yawned, feeling quite sated, even though he knew they'd both have to get up soon. He did not want to. It was cold outside. In here under the covers with Nashen was toasty warm.
     
      Nashen stroked Arkay's long hair as he felt his lover drift off into sleep. This was fine. He really should have slept longer. Arkay always had said he only required four to six hours of sleep a night. But he felt better when Nashen bullied him into at least seven.
      Before Arkay'd come into his life, he'd have never thought to bully a Sharm Lord into anything. But then he'd always feared scaring away his Sharm Lord of the month. There never seemed to be as many Sharm Lords as Lords hunting them. A tenuous situation at best.
     
      "If you don't sit back down and finish your breakfast I'm going to take away all your kadors and make you stay home!" Nashen couldn't stand to see the horrible dark circles under Arkay's eyes one moment longer.
      "It's just turnover." He gave his remaining breakfast, most of it, a dirty look. "I'm not hungry."
      "I don't care." Nashen pushed Arkay's plate back in front of him.
      "I'll get fat." Arkay scowled at his orange.
      Nashen took it and peeled it for him. Arkay leaned back in his chair, gazing out the window. His face held a frighteningly unhealthy gray cast. Their turnover yesterday had been unpleasant, but not so much more so than normal.
      "I bite." Arkay growled as Nashen tried to hand him an orange segment. It smelled quite good. He ate one himself, in example. "Good, you eat it."
      "If you don't eat, I'm going to sit on you and force feed you." Nashen felt like he was talking to Tzer, and he was two! "This is ridiculous, Arkay. You have to eat."
      "I know." Arkay dropped his eyes. As he reached for a roll, Nashen saw his hand shake. "I'll be fine."
      "You are going to see Diomid." Nashen got to his feet. His joints popped and clicked in protest. How he hated winter, even though he knew Arkay's joints had to be on fire with the change in the seasons. He did not want to zlin. Sharing Arkay's pain would do no good whatsoever.
      "I am not!" Arkay glared at him. For a moment Nashen's shoulders fell. No, this would not do. He had a responsibility.
      Nashen took a deep breath. "You will. I am your Lord and you will do as I say."
      "I am Lord ..." Arkay bit at his lower lip. "Not any more, am I?"
      "No, you once said you'd be sharm lord Arkay for me." Nashen's entire body was trembling with fear. Never before had he demanded anything against the will of his Sharm Lord. But he also couldn't look away.
      "I did." Arkay's voice softened slightly. "But that wasn't for something like this!"
      "It is." Nashen could hear the tremor in his own voice. "Now, Arkay." He couldn't keep talking.
      "I don't want to."
      "You sound like Tzer, and he's a toddler." Nashen clamped his arms to his middle. His skin felt three sizes too small. Arkay finally turned on him, his great wings crimson in fury.
      "How dare you!" He came out of his chair in a rush. All Nashen could think of was his beauty. Ins'Allah Arkay was fantastically attractive. Nashen's heart was lodged somewhere up in his throat.
      "Because you are Sharm Lord Fatima and bound to Her Lord as Her child." Nashen gulped down his fear. "I am Lord Fatima and you will obey the rightful order of Her Lord."
      Arkay's face went dead white. There were spots of red high on his cheeks, as if he were running a fever. "I don't think it's necessary." His voice was strained and tight.
      "I do." Nashen yanked his shoulders back. All his instincts and training told him to submit. His heart knew Arkay required help. "Then are you going to go?"
      "Do I have any choice?" His jaw was clenched.
      "No," Nashen stared Arkay in the eyes, praising Allah for every cent of height he could command.
      "Then you get to come with me."
      "Fair enough." He slipped Arkay's warmest, softest kador over his shoulders. Nashen didn't want his lover to get a chill.
     
      Arkay dreamed of the first time Nashen had truly stood up to him. He'd woken up feeling horrible, as if he were over a hundred years old. All of his joints ached and his stomach was tied in knots.
      Nothing had smelled good, even the sweet oranges Nashen seemed to be able to conjure out of thin air. He'd been so fantastically beautiful in telling him to go see Diomid, Arkay couldn't refuse.
      "What seems to be the problem here?" Diomid's voice held the chirp of the recently well laid.
      Arkay snarled at him. "Nashen's being an ass."
      "Oh, because you are running a fever, are even more anorexic than usual and you tried to tell him to go to hell?"
      "How do you know?" Arkay shoved his hands deeper into his sleeves. Nashen's hand on his shoulder had never let go on the long walk to Sergei. As if he'd been afraid Arkay'd bolt on him.
      "Because I'm Sergei." Diomid pointed towards the examining table. "Sit."
      "I'm not a hound." Arkay looked to Nashen for reassurance.
      "Go on," his hand felt cool against Arkay's overheated face. It had to have been the warm kador. "Yes, he does have a fever."
      "You idiot." Diomid sighed.
      "You're just a kid!" Arkay could at least look down at Diomid. Nashen gave the back of Arkay's kador a yank.
      "Behave yourself."
      "No," Arkay crossed his arms again.
      "If you don't, Diomid will have more to deal with than your being sick. He'll have to cope with the aftereffects of a cracked skull!"
      "Oh," Arkay backed down. The fierce light in Nashen's eyes was more than a bit intimidating. Then a flash of blue electrical fire outlined his pupils. He slipped out of his kador quickly.
      "Better," Nashen handed him up onto the table with his extraordinary grace. It was as if he were handing Arkay into a carriage. He could see Nashen's chin quiver a bit as he tried to smile.
      "Hush," only now could Arkay feel the cold draft of Nashen's terror. What was scaring him so badly? He was about to wet his pants. "What is it?"
      "You're sick," was all he would say.
      "It will be all right, m'Lord Fatima." Diomid's broad hands slid over the back of Arkay's neck. Arkay dropped his head, realizing how knotted up those muscles were. "See, here," Nashen's hands joined Diomid's. Arkay felt his eyes roll up in his head at Nashen's gentle manipulations of nerves and muscles beneath the thin skin.
      The sweet feel of Nashen's tentacles joined his fingers. Warmth spread from the contact, loosening the tight muscles of Arkay's chest and arms.
      "Very good," Diomid's hands moved down, tracing over the main nerve trunk. Arkay was too distracted by Nashen's touch to follow much of what Diomid was doing. He leaned forward, landing with his head against Nashen's chest. His lover's strong arms came around him, still rubbing at his neck and shoulders.
      "Well, good news and bad news."
      "Bad news first," Nashen didn't even let Arkay say a single word. But then he was trying not to drool down Nashen's front.
      "Bad news is he really is sick." Diomid sighed. Arkay wished he had the will to protest. He'd get better on his own. All this nonsense wasn't going to make him well faster. But Nashen's hands kept him immobilized. "I could dump a bunch of drugs into his system to try to clear it up, but probably the only one which would do any good would be Tramazine."
      "That's a tranquilizer!" Arkay's head popped up. His neck cracked under the stress. Nashen's slender tentacles worked their way into the misaligned joint. He groaned, stretching against the tightness. His eyes crossed. Ins'Allah this felt good.
      "It is." Diomid's sigh of exasperation chilled Arkay's back.
      "So what he has to do is rest."
      "Yes," Diomid's presence moved over towards the medicine cabinet.
      "No drugs," Nashen told him.
      "Thank you," Arkay knew without them he could be back at work in a few days, a week at most.
      "I heard that." Diomid snapped.
      "Didn't mean you to." Arkay knew he was sick if he forgot about Diomid's ability to hear so much. He blanked his mind from more betraying thoughts.
      "So, how long does he have to rest and is there anything I can do to help."
      "One, get him in here more than every few years for an examination."
      "Would every quarter be better?"
      "Perfect, or every eleven weeks."
      "I'm not a cripple!" Such a schedule was for ancient Sharm Lords who were about to ask for peace. "I'm not near death."
      "And you aren't going to be," Nashen's hands distracted Arkay from his ire again. "You will come in for regular check ups, even if I have to tie you up."
      Diomid snickered.
      "Shut up," Arkay muttered. His hands were straying around Nashen, as if they wanted to return the gentle back rub.
      "You're fine." Nashen stepped in closer. "I like it."
      "You like being touched."
      "He does." Diomid added, quite unnecessarily.
      "So, as you know how to tranquilize a Sharm Lord with your hands. I would say do it when he gets into too much trouble."
      "You're just a kid!" Arkay tried to raise his head. Nashen's fingers dug in again, this time on the nerve points arching out to his shoulders. Arkay melted into a little puddle of sensation. Warmth returned to his limbs, chasing away the fever borne chill.
      "Relatively," Diomid's weight made the table creak as he sat on it. "So, regular check ups, good food and enough sleep. So far you've been missing out on all three. Right now you have managed to actually catch a fairly minor virus, from what I can tell. I don't want you back in here with pneumonia!"
      "How do I stop that?" Nashen asked over his head.
      "Make him rest. You certainly did well enough by me on occasion." Diomid's field was glittering with laughter. "No, I'm not mocking you, otyet. I love you too."
      Arkay had to look at him. Diomid's eyes flicked away briefly. "You called me father." Wonder, and doubt, made his eyes water some. He'd always wished Diomid'd been his son, at least in some ways.
      "Yes, well," Diomid's broad hands were busy flipping a stylus between his fingers. "I ... I want the best for both of you."
      "Thank you," Nashen pulled Arkay close again. "From both of us. So, what can I, specifically do? As your field seems to imply there is something exceptional about getting sick. I do nearly every winter, at least once or twice."
      "That's a symptom of bad transfers, not enough sleep, food or warmth. Anything which causes significant stress can weaken someone's immune system to the point where they fall ill. It isn't very common with well bonded partners." Diomid's explanation of the obvious made Arkay's ears burn. It wasn't as if he didn't want to be with Nashen enough.
      "Hush," Nashen's fingers went back to work on his neck. "So, how do I keep him out of trouble?"
      "I'd have to tranquilize him." Diomid's weight on the table made it creak slightly. "He's a lousy patient."
      "And you aren't?" Arkay had to mutter. Nashen redoubled his attack on Arkay's backbone. This was entirely unfair. Not that he wanted it to stop any time in the next week.
      "He's got you there, Diomid." Nashen's soft chuckle was only audible by contact. "You don't eat when you're stressed either."
      "Telling stories out of school again, my Nashen?"
      "Yes," Nashen's banter with his prior partner was so normal Arkay relaxed even more. "How does Kirina get you to eat?"
      "Didn't want to eat this morning." Arkay tried not to drool on Nashen's chest again. The deft manipulations of his nerve net were making him too relaxed.
      "Well, things will change." Nashen's arms came around him in a strong hug. "Won't they?"
      "If it means I get to go back to work sooner."
      "Wrong answer," Nashen glared down at him. "Try again."
      "We do have work to do." Arkay tried to remind him, feeling very small and very alone at the moment.
      "No work is worth your health." Nashen's silver eyes were as soft as when they'd just made love. "I love thee, my Alahin, and no prize is worth thy health." He added in Arabic.
      Arkay felt his ears warm in a blush. "I love thee, my Alamir. But I'll go crazy with no work!"
      "Then I'll distract thee with sweet music and honeyed words. I'll ply thy hunger with rose water scented dishes and candied oranges." His tenor rang as he spoke the ancient language. "Live with me and love me, my Alahin."
      "I do." He clasped Nashen's hands in his. "If this means so much to you?" Arkay couldn't imagine why Nashen would go to such lengths. It wasn't as if it were anything serious.
      "Your health means more to me than all the gold in the seas and all the light in the heavens." Nashen's eyes still held his. There were tears forming in them. "I love thee, my Arkay."
      "As I love thee." He couldn't let Nashen cry. With all his strength, he hugged him as close as he could. The heat of Nashen's body leeched the worst of the aches from his joints. "Don't cry, my Alamir. Don't cry."
      "Then I won't." His voice cracked as he rubbed his chin on the top of Arkay's head. "You are so very precious to me. More precious than any gems or gold. More precious than the stars in the midnight sky or the sun at noon. Live with me and be my love for all time, my Alahin."
      Arkay couldn't resist the pleading. "I ... anything, my Alamir." He gave in. "I'll rest, until you say otherwise."
      "I thank thee, from the bottom of my heart." He squeezed Arkay so hard his ribs creaked.
      And it did work out. That month, from turnover until three days after transfer, they stayed together in their suite. At first Arkay fretted every minute spent idle. Then he remembered the small things he'd once enjoyed.
      By the end of their time together, Nashen had a warm wool sweater to wear on those horrible late fall mornings when every thing was gray. Nashen, on the other hand, had given Arkay yet another bracelet, this time in braided platinum wire without an end, as a reminder of how infinite their love could be.
     

Chapter 2


      Arkay began stirring restlessly at Nashen's side. "Wake up, my beauty." Nashen lipped a strand of Arkay's hair. It was now all silver at the top, as silver as Nashen's own. "Come back to me, my pretty."
      "What a wonderful way to wake up." His face was still soft with sleep. There were few things more beautiful on this earth, at least in Nashen's opinion.
      "Good dreams?"
      "I was remembering the time you bullied me into going to Diomid when I was sick." A gentle smile lit his lined face. Nashen's heart tripped a beat. "You were even more trouble."
      "I was not." Nashen gave Arkay a hug. "We had an appointment the next week."
      "What's with this 'we' business. I had an appointment. You were being difficult."
      Nashen ducked his head. "It all worked out in the end."
      "Only because I insisted ... and had help." He sat up and stretched. There were numerous pops and clicks from abused joints, but nothing like the state he'd been in every winter before they began coming out to Kaon to stay warm. Nashen certainly appreciated the warmer winters.
      The last fall before they'd come to Kaon had been particularly bad.
     
      "No, you aren't going to Year's Turning." Nashen rounded on Arkay even as his heart was sinking into the soles of his shoes. Tzer was still alive, barely. They'd had to send his Sharm Lord, Mikal Tegue, back to the West to heal the Year's Turning before last. Ever since, he'd watched his only son's health fail month by month.
      "Tzer can't do it, Nashen." Arkay's skin was tinged with gray. "I ..." he doubled over, coughing again.
      "Lover," Nashen knelt at Arkay's feet. "Oh, please, please, my love." He wished he knew what he could do. As lightly as he could, he gathered Arkay's hands in his own. They were burning hot.
      "Stay with me here, where it's warm." He looked up into Arkay's pain ridden face. "Don't travel half way across town to stand around in that great unheated barn."
      "Fatima needs us."
      Nashen damned the will of fate which had yanked away their freedom at the last moment. Tzer had shown such amazing promise before he'd accidentally injured Mikhail so badly. Now there was no Lord for Fatima but Nashen himself. It had been so for the last thirty years, but to have come so close to being able to hand over the Demense was heartbreaking.
      "I can go by myself." He'd done so nearly all of his life.
      "No, give it to Vayer and Darya." Arkay's concession spoke volumes of the pain he was suffering.
      "Vayer isn't Fatima." Nashen knew Fatima's children would accept him for most things. But Year's Turning wasn't one of them. "I have to go."
      "Then so do I." Arkay straightened up, provoking another coughing fit. "Shen!"
      "Arkay, beloved," he stroked his face against Arkay's hands, wishing against hope he could heal his love. But Arkay was nearly as old as his father had been at his death. And Arkay'd had a harder life. "Ins'Allah I love thee, my Alahin. Don't destroy yourself over a show of face."
      "It isn't," he managed to lever himself upright. The deep lines in his face turned it into a mask of utter agony. His breath hissed between his teeth as he tried to move. Nashen got to his feet and helped Arkay to a chair.
      "Sit, I'll get your robes." He turned toward the closet so Arkay couldn't see the tears coming to his eyes. Arkay wouldn't be able to survive too many more winters like this. Sharm Lord Vanya Sergei had never been in such pain, even at the time of his death.
      "He did not have a Lord to live for." Arkay's remark on Nashen's unspoken commentary brought him up short.
      "But I don't want your entire life to be defined by pain." Nashen wouldn't wish such a thing on his worst enemy, most of whom he'd now outlived. "Tell me if it gets too bad, my love."
      "Not with you by my side."
      "I can't stop you from hurting." Which was the cruelest cut of all. Good transfers and medical care had done wonders for the older Sharm Lord. But nothing could stop the march of time. Tzer's crime had aged Arkay years overnight.
      "Because of how it affected you." Arkay stood with more creaks. "And I do care for the lad, greatly. It was a horrible, horrible accident."
      "Then why didn't you protest the ban?"
      "Because he'd be dead now without it." Arkay's hand landed on Nashen's shoulder. "It was the only way I could give him a chance."
      "He's dying by centimeters." Nashen's chest cramped with the pain of his own loss again. To watch Tzer tormented by the ban was worse than having to have said goodbye. "I hate it, Arkay. I truly do. Did you see the way Mikhail pleaded for him?"
      "I did." Arkay's arms came around him, as if to keep him safe. "I did." He tucked Nashen's head under his chin. "Our son made a horrible error."
      "But he doesn't deserve to die for it!" Why was everyone around him dying by cents? It wasn't fair. Life should never be so cruel. Without Tzer, without Arkay, Nashen didn't want to go on. Never again could he stand to be alone. Fatima had to go on.
      "And without you, Fatima will die, my beloved." Arkay's flawed heartbeat faltered again. Nashen could feel it skip deep within his own chest. "I love Fatima. She gave me back my life and my own blood son. She gave me hope."
      "I can't let Fatima die." Nashen straightened his spine. "Tonight, I'll do it alone."
      "I don't want you to." Arkay caught his eyes. "I can't let Her die anymore than you can. She needs Her Sharm Lord as much as she needs Her Lord."
      "She didn't have a Sharm Lord for over a decade."
      "She also struggled to survive without one." Arkay fought to straighten his shoulders. Nashen heard the catch in his breathing before he collapsed into wracking coughs again. Fluid was collecting in the bottom of his lungs, as Diomid had warned him about as the first sign of systemic failure in Sharm Lords.
      "Then do as I say, please, my love." Nashen couldn't deny Arkay this time. Particularly if it was his last.
     
      The covered litter had at least been warm. The day had been nearly nonexistent, with only a few moments of light gleaming on the southern horizon. Now it was evening, standard dusk, and the cold air ate through Nashen's heavy cloak and coat as if they weren't even there.
      "Bring him inside." If it had been snowing, he would have at least been warmer. As it was, the sky was perfectly clear with brilliant stars overhead.
      "I want to see." Arkay protested, pushing aside the curtains of the carry litter.
      "Put your veil up." Nashen did not want Arkay to get too much of the bitter cold air into his fragile lungs.
      "Yes, my Alamir," he stepped out onto the grainy snow and ice. The heavy kador he'd chosen to wear was a perfect complement to the night sky. The outer layer was shimmering black silk with thousands of tiny diamonds woven into the heavy cloth. It glittered against the backdrop of frost and ancient stone, even as Arkay's nager glistened in the night air. "I'm glad I got to see this."
      The renSime guards turned their faces away from the knife sharp edges to Arkay's field. Nashen trembled inside at the finality in Arkay's tone.
      "You'll see more, my beloved." He prayed more to Allah than he truly could know.
      "I'll try." The lack of self confidence in Arkay's field shattered Nashen's hopes to dust. Both Fatima guards bowed their heads, their nagers graying with stress and remorse. "Be well and do your best." He addressed them both.
      "If you will." The younger looked straight at Arkay, naked pleading in her eyes.
      "I'll do my best, little one." His eyes softened as he looked at her. "I truly will."
      "We'd be but doin' what we can." The elder reset his gloved hands on his spear. "Only be but tellin us?"
      "I will." Arkay's field shimmered with gold. "I promise."
      "At yer will, m'Lords." He bowed all the way to the earth.
      "At your will, Sharm Lord Fatima and Lord Fatima." She matched her partner's gesture.
      As soon as they passed out of zlinning range, Arkay turned to him and murmured. "I didn't know they cared so much."
      "All of Fatima's children do, my Alahin." Nashen stripped off his gloves and put his hand over Arkay's. They were the last to arrive. Vayer was already signaling for the guards to open the Kirov doors. "Wait a moment." He waved to Vayer.
      "Hold," Vayer called to them. The guards froze in place. "What in shen are you doing here?"
      "We had to come." Arkay's voice was a bit thready for Nashen's peace of mind. He prayed his lover hadn't gotten a chill. "Particularly if ..."
      "No, otyet," Vayer's eyes went wide. "Let's not argue in the hall. This winter is going to be quick. We are all under a lot of stress and I have a long evening ahead."
      "Why?" Arkay straightened up, warmth coming back to his field with his curiosity.
      Vayer smiled faintly. "Do you want to come with?"
      "Where?"
      "Kaon." Vayer's grin broadened to a toothy smile.
      "Yes," Arkay's great wings spread to their full extent for the first time since Mikhail's injury. "We will go."
      "Don't you want to ask Nashen?"
      "Oh," he ducked his head, turning to give Nashen a shy smile. "I suppose ..."
      "Yes, as long as we can take Tzer."
      "I don't know if Mikhail would appreciate having to face his rapist again."
      "He loves Tzer." Nashen stepped forward. "You have to give him the chance to make things right."
      "He can't." Vayer's paternity was more obvious at this moment than nearly any other time Nashen had known him. But Nashen well knew how to get Arkay to give in. Vayer couldn't be that much tougher.
      "Then give Mikhail the chance to see justice done." Nashen had to give Arkay a nudge in the ribs for his snort of disbelief. Good thing Vayer wasn't as sensitive as his father. Even though he did narrow his eyes.
      "You have something up your sheathes, Lord Fatima."
      "I always do ... my tentacles." He took Arkay's arm and led his partner to the Fatima dias. When they'd reached the relative security of Fatima's children, Arkay's laughter burbled over.
      "You stuck that one right up his ..."
      "Hush, Arkay," he put his hand over his lover's. The ambient twinkled with laughter. "You wanted to give Tzer a chance."
      "So I did." Arkay's fingers twined with Nashen's tentacles inside the sleeve of Arkay's kador. Together they faced the upcoming year, and upcoming trip, together.
     
      "May I come in?" Nashen had dismissed the knock on the door as wind against the shutters.
      "Of course!" Arkay called out, before he could. "Ow," he glared at the brush Nashen wielded.
      "If you wouldn't neglect yourself so badly, this wouldn't happen." Nashen stripped out another mat of Arkay's silvered hair.
      "Otyet?" Tzer's voice had hardly changed, what with his being put under ban the day he came into his physical maturity.
      "Yes, youngster," Nashen wanted to weep for the emptiness he saw in Tzer's eyes. They were so like his own, but now shadowed with the torment of two years of torturous transfers. "Come sit here with me."
      "I'm no longer a child." His throat moved as he gulped for air.
      "Sit," Arkay's nager had to have been irresistible, even with the platinum ring distorting the ambient. Tzer nearly crashed to the floor at Arkay's feet. "Oh, little one."
      "I'm not." His head sagged, as if he were a puppet with his strings cut. "I never meant to hurt anyone."
      "I know." Nashen stroked Tzer's fine, short hair possessively. He'd never been able to grow it out as he'd been condemned to impersonal transfers since his fourth. "I love thee, my only son."
      "Even if?" Tzer's shoulders shook with his dry sobs. "Anyone else. Why did it have to be Mikhail?"
      "Because neither of you knew." Arkay's voice had dropped to its lowest register. "Why didn't you ask for help?"
      "Pride," Tzer started to sag against Arkay's knee and then jerked away.
      "You can rest against me, little one." At last Arkay allowed their son to come close again. Nashen wanted to cheer in relief. It had been two years since he'd even once hugged the young man.
      "I'm evil." He turned his wrist so the ban could catch the light. "Evil and condemned to death."
      "Only the ban, Tzer. Not death. Not yet." Arkay looked between them. "You did not kill."
      "No," Tzer pulled away this time. "Do I have to go?" He'd nearly collapsed again when Vayer had announced who was going. All the leaders of the Demense, except for moribund Maryam, were going ... and Tzer. The latter had been added as an afterthought, obviously at Nashen's prodding before the ceremony.
      "Don't you want to?" Nashen couldn't imagine why he wouldn't. It would be a chance to regain so much of what he'd lost.
      "I do and I don't." He turned his face up towards them. It was deeply lined with the torment he'd suffered for so very long. Few Lords could have survived so long under ban. "What if he hates me?"
      "Then you can ask for peace." Nashen's heart lay like lead in his chest. "I would give it to you then."
      "But ...?" He looked towards Arkay.
      "Yes, I would allow it and to shen with my son." It had been Arkay's hand which had actually barred Tzer from death in the first place, but this was not the time or place to mention such a thing. "If Mikhail still hates you."
      "He never did." Tzer shook with the force of his walled off emotions. "He never did. He said he loved me when you sent him away."
      "He required time to heal."
      "Two years?"
      "Two or twenty, we knew and know so little about him." Arkay was stroking Tzer's hair with his broad hand. "Perhaps he has forgotten about us."
      "I doubt it." Tzer's face fell. "I nearly murdered him when I only wanted to love him."
      "You forcibly raped him, Tzer." Arkay reminded him, probably a bit too harshly. Tzer shrank in on himself.
      "I did. It was wrong. Is there no forgiveness in the world for a wrong truly regretted?" The words of the Koran stung Nashen to his very soul.
      "Allah has forgiveness for all wrongs truly repented, but we do not live in paradise but in the world of men. You may have to wait for absolution." Nashen wished there were something he could do.
      "Wait until after death?" His cry would have shattered rocks.
      "Yes," Arkay sighed, slumping himself. "I don't know, Tzer. You were wrong. You should have waited until Nashen or I could have watched over you two. It would have only taken a moment to ask for help."
      "I know, now." Tzer rubbed at his reddened eyes like the child he so nearly was. He was too young for this. No adolescent should be punished so cruelly for an accident, but the law was for everyone. "Do I have a chance, otyet?"
      "What does the Koran say, child of Fatima?" Nashen's voice nearly broke.
      "Strive for what is righteous, not for the praise of your fellow man." It was not a verse Nashen would have chosen. "It is right. As Allah is righteous."
      "Yes," Arkay pulled forward a lock of sadly tangled hair. "Do you think you can do something with this?" It had been weeks since he'd taken it all down ... and it showed.
      "Yes, I can." Tzer accepted the gift in the sense it was presented, as Arkay's acceptance of their son back into both of their hearts.
     
      Not that Tzer's reunion with Mikhail had gone at all smoothly.
      "You may not accost the man in his office the minute we get here!" Vayer was so furious Nashen could see his nager twisting about his arms.
      "Lord and Ruler Vayer!" Tzer protested.
      "Yes, I am." Vayer's eyes turned slate hard. "Give it some time, Tzer."
      "I can sense him." His fine features turned towards another part of the town. Nashen quivered with nerves at this sign their bonding had been true. If Mikhail rejected Tzer now, no one would be able to glue the pieces of him back together again. "He's so close."
      "Get everything unpacked, Tzer, first."
      "I'm not your servant." Tzer turned towards the door.
      "Let him go." Nashen put his hand on Vayer's wrist. A shock of selyn turned physical made Nashen's fingers go numb. Rarely did Vayer get so out of control he bit with his nager. "Vayer." The young man might be ruler of Russia, but he was still Nashen's oath son and closest friend after Arkay.
      "Tzer," this time Vayer pleaded with the young man.
      "I have to go." Tzer's hand paused on the door handle. "Please, I beg of you. I must see him. I must."
      "Wait until he knows you're here. Don't corner him in his office. Don't come at him as a revanant of his past. It would be the height of cruelty."
      "I love him, Vayer." Tzer's luminous silver eyes closed. When they reopened, the pupils were outlined in electrical fire. "I can't live without him."
      "You will." Vayer advanced on the young man. "You are under ban, Tzer. You will not rape again. If you so much as touch Mikhail, no matter how innocently, I will have you put to death."
      "Otyet!" He cried out, his field a nightmare of shadows reaching for all of them. "I can't be near him and not touch him."
      "Then you should have never come with us." Vayer grabbed the young man by the shoulder.
      "Stop this nonsense, Vayer." Arkay flashed his nager into the visible. Nashen was blinded for a moment. When he could see again, Tzer had fled.
      "I'm going to kill him personally." Vayer headed for the interbuilding communications device.
      "No," Nashen put his hand over the speaker button. "You owe him the chance."
      "I owe him nothing." Vayer had his head stuck so far up his ass he had to ship in daylight. "You still think he is innocent."
      "No," Nashen stared down at Vayer. Arkay came over behind him, backing him to the hilt. "He was and is guilty. I did not protest the ban. But he's had two years under ban for a crime he did not intend."
      "Intent has no place in justice." Vayer's neck was so stiff it'd break in a summer breeze. "He did wrong. He will continue to be punished."
      "Until when, Vayer?" Arkay rested his hand on Nashen's wrist, showing his support unequivocally. "Until he dies?"
      "If necessary," Vayer was not backing down a cent.
      "But he does not deserve death." Arkay's fingers wrapped around Nashen's tentacle sheathes, reaffirming their bonding. "If you do not let him try, then you actively condemn him to death and are as cruel a tyrant as any we've suffered."
      "You no longer wanted the scepter and orb, Arkay." Vayer's use of his father's bare name in such a harsh tone made Nashen's breath hiss between his teeth. "You are no longer Lord and Ruler Arkay."
      "No, but I could well Challenge you for the position and win."
      Nashen could feel Arkay's eyes bore into his son's. "Back away, Vayer."
      "This time," Vayer snarled. His boot heels thudded dully on the poorly joined floor. The slam of the door was entirely unnecessary.
      Nashen leaned over and talked into the odd device. "Lord and Ruler Vayer is distraught from the long flight. If you would be so kind as to allow a period of reflection before allowing him to speak with Mikal Tegue, I would honestly appreciate it."
      "Who is it talking?" The voice came through the device crackling, but comprehendible.
      "Lord Fatima."
      "And Sharm Lord Fatima." Arkay added on, earning himself a huge smile from Nashen. This was heaven to work tentacle in sheath with his love.
     
      Nashen's collapse had come about within a week of their return to Moskva. The months of mediocre food, hyperactive young men bent on cramming two years into three months, and the excitement of siring an unlooked for child had all been too much.
      "Nashen!" Arkay caught him on the way down. "Court is dismissed!" He shouted at the top of his lungs. Half of Fatima's children headed for the dias. The other half seemed to be headed for Sergei.
      Nashen protested Arkay's hands exploring him so intimately in front of the entire court. But he had to get Nashen's laterals out. "Not here."
      "I'm not going to move you until I know what's wrong." He leaned forward and made the fifth contact in what they'd come to call, jokingly, Techton style. The impersonal contact was about as attractive as kissing a fish, if only more so because it was Nashen. All he could sense was absolute and utter exhaustion. "Why have you been hiding this from me?"
      "Hiding what?" Nashen's eyes were dazed still as he looked up. "What am I doing here?"
      "You fainted." Arkay scooped Nashen's lanky form off the floor. He'd lost a frightening amount of weight. Where had it all gone? Arkay knew he'd lost a few kilos over the winter, but he'd had it to spare.
      "Is he all right?"
      "Is there anything I can do?"
      Arkay looked at their son and son in law, in that order. At least Mikhail had gotten it half right. "Could you go sort out the mob in search of Diomid?"
      "Stay here," Mikhail's often abrupt orders to Tzer would have rubbed Arkay raw in minutes.
      Tzer seemed to love it. "With them?"
      Mikhail winked and headed for the door. Eddies of lords danced away from his towering field. In a temper, Mikhail was frightening. He had a control over his nager no Russian could comprehend, and it got higher than anyone but Tzer could contain.
      "Come along, otyet." Tzer gave his blood father a worried look. His tentacles were knotted all the way up in their sheathes. "Please?"
      "Since you ask so nicely." Arkay followed the young man back to his suite. Nashen struggled futilely in his arms. "Hold still."
      "Let me down." His eyes were still slightly unfocused. "It's just turnover."
      "Early," Arkay narrowed his eyes at him. "You shouldn't have keeled over until later."
      "So I'm anticipating," from the lack of honest nageric protest, Arkay knew Nashen had to be feeling like hell. A deep gusting sigh came from him, then his eyes fluttered closed.
      "You poor little Lord," he murmured, glad Tzer and Mikhail's rooms were closer as he stepped inside. The normal stark Fatima silver and black had been relieved with accents of brilliant red. Nashen nuzzled his shoulder. "We're here, sleepy." He sat on the oversized couch the young men had given pride of place in their sitting room.
      "Why did you recover this thing?" Nashen blinked at the back towering over both of them.
      "I remembered it in the third Kirov drawing room ..."
      "I know where I hid it." Nashen shook his head and his nager curled slowly around both of them, badly out of sync. "Ugh." He closed his eyes.
      "Then don't faint on me again." Arkay skin tightened with a sudden chill. He could have so easily lost Nashen out there today. Where had the time gone? Until now, he'd seemed nearly immortal, even as Arkay knew in his mind Nashen was living on borrowed time. No Fatima Lord had lived so many years sane as his Nashen in centuries.
      "He's on his way." Tzer's silver eyes were slightly unfocused. "Oh, don't do that." He cringed.
      "What is it?" The bond between the young men was so strong, Arkay sometimes wondered if they ever even managed to use the bathroom alone.
      "Not really," Tzer's elaborate smile was a brilliant reflection of his father's. "Anyway," he went on, "Mikhail is bringing Diomid back here, by the simple expedient of selyn litter."
      "He doesn't have to do that!" Nashen sat up too fast. Before he could fall out of the couch, Arkay caught him. His lover's dizziness was beginning to make his head spin. Selyn litters were incredibly wasteful of selyn, as they required four renSimes augmenting at their maximum. Although it was fast and Mikhail did have the selyn to burn.
      "The little idiot," Nashen grumbled.
      "I wouldn't say that in front of Tzer." Arkay reminded him, even as Tzer's eyes glittered with amusement.
      "If he's well enough to bitch, I'll take it." He perched on one of the huge arms. This couch was a refugee from a demon's cave. Two and a half meters high, about four long and a meter deep, Arkay could not figure out what other sort of creature it could have been made for! "It is a conversation piece." Tzer tipped his head towards the back.
      "Mikhail asked me to find an example of old Fatima needlepoint in red, silver and black." Tzer shook his head. "So I took him to see this old thing and he had to have it."
      "It is comfortable." Arkay leaned back into the embrace of one of the arms.
      "Mostly why I never burned it." Nashen rolled his eyes at the back looming over them. It was curved over their heads like some kind of fantastic wave. But in the nooks by the arms, it supported Arkay's back perfectly as he curled around Nashen. "I'd occasionally clean it off and read draped all over it."
      "I like hanging over the edge," Tzer flipped a tentacle towards the far end. "Mikhail rests his head on my back."
      "Monkey furniture," Arkay had to chuckle. Turnover would be any time now, and afterwards his laughter was never as free.
      "More or less," Tzer hooked his hand over the back and pulled. The frame never creaked once. "Nothing like this thing at Kaon."
      "What did Mikhail say when he saw it?" Arkay was bemused as Tzer slithered up onto the back and peered down at them. Only a Sime would crawl all over a couch like this.
      "I couldn't say a thing," Mikhail gazed up at his lover with a look of utter bemusement. "If you fall off that thing, I don't know if I'm going to be able to catch you."
      "That's fine." Tzer rested his chin on his hands. "It feels good to be able to move again."
      "I bet it does." Nashen had jumped a bit when he realized where his son had gone. "Although you look silly up there." Tzer's cheeks pinked and he looked to Mikhail.
      "You're fine, Tzer." Mikhail helped Diomid take off his outdoor kador. It was still fairly cold this early in spring at night, particularly after three months in the far warmer environs of Kaon. "Just don't tip it over."
      "I won't." Arkay had the impression this was a long running, or at least as long as it could be, discussion between the two young men. "Is he going to be all right?"
      "I have to examine him first, Tzer." Diomid sat next to Arkay on the couch. "If your other father will let me." He narrowed his eyes at Arkay.
      "Oh, yes, of course," Arkay tried to get his field to let go of Nashen's. This close to turnover, it wasn't budging. His wings had clamped around Nashen with the immovability of stone. He sighed and closed his eyes. Arkay could feel the ebb and flow of Nashen's field down to the tiniest fraction, but none of it was leaking out past that barrier.
      "Then let me in." Diomid's hand came to rest on Arkay's forearm.
      "I'm trying." Arkay scowled. He flexed his shoulders, forming the image of his wings releasing his lover. They still didn't move. "Help?"
      Diomid shifted even closer. When he reached for Nashen directly, Arkay's field shattered the ambient with the crack of visible light. "This isn't working."
      "I can zlin that." Tzer's commentary was entirely unnecessary. Arkay glared up at him. Mikhail snickered softly. Mikhail came to rest at their feet, his own field meshing with Arkay's. "Ooooh, pretty."
      "Indeed," Nashen's eyes widened. One of his laterals flicked out, as if to taste the ambient like a snake. "Warm, too."
      "Very much so," Diomid smiled softly. "Why don't you focus on him, Arkay."
      "Good idea," Arkay fell into studying the young man's nager. He was safely though his own turnover, and his field was spiraling upwards in a geometric array of heartstopping beauty. There was a patterning to his nager which no Russian would ever tolerate, but it was attractive. Although there was also a dark core to his field no time would ever erase, most likely.
      "From being barred from my Alamir." He looked upwards towards Tzer. His face was not classically beautiful, even though there was a strength to it he'd not had when he'd first lived here, in these very rooms. Mikhail's blue eyes were not those of any Demense, being lighter than any modern Azov and yet far deeper than his own Sergei blue gray.
      "You can quit wool gathering." Diomid's voice brought him back from his distraction. "What's your diagnosis?"
      "Exhaustion, compounded by the onset of turnover."
      "Close, I would have called exhaustion, magnified by his little display with Riana. I wasn't there, but I could feel the stresses on Nashen's field for a week afterward." Diomid met his eyes plainly. "In simple words, my Lord Nashen, you are going to bed."
      "But I ..."
      Arkay put his hand over Nashen's mouth, only to get bit for his trouble. "Ow," he shook his hand.
      "I have work to do."
      "No," Arkay turned Nashen to face him. "Your turn, my Alamir."
      "For?" He paled, looking among them.
      "Your heir is of sound mind and body."
      "It's too soon. He's too young!"
      "Nashen, listen to me." Arkay held Nashen's eyes with his own. "It's long past time we both retired."
      "I'm not that old!"
      "You're older than any Fatima Lord in the past four centuries." Arkay told him bluntly. "Let Fatima go on."
      "She," Nashen looked around the room. "Arkay, I can't."
      "Yes you can, my Nashen." Arkay cupped Nashen's beautiful face in his hands. "You've served Her unstintingly for decades. Let Her grow again, as all the Demense are growing now. It is the time for such change, we are of the past, my love, we can not let our children be bound to our tunic strings forever."
      "But only a few more years." He looked up towards Tzer. Arkay looked as well to see Tzer smiling down on both of them. He slithered down and knelt before them, alongside his Alahin, as was right.
      "Look at them, my Nashen." Arkay knew this was the time. If they waited, they'd never be free. Neither Tzer nor Mikhail would grow into their places as the new heads of Fatima, but would be stunted by having to follow into their fathers' footsteps.
      "We won't be moving." For Nashen to leave the suite of rooms he'd called home for so much of his life would murder him at this point. Simes needed security and stability, much the way cats did. Uprooting them was a needless cruelty, particularly for older Simes. "They can still come to us with questions. Hopefully not too early in the morning." Mikhail grinned at him.
      "We won't." He put his arm around Tzer possessively. "Will we?" He gave his lover a squeeze.
      "No," Tzer said simply. "I know about waking up either of you too early in the morning."
      "I'm not that bad." Nashen's field glittered slightly. It was still muted, but headed in the right direction.
      "Yes you are." Mikhail gave both of them an inscrutable look. "Particularly when you have plans for pinning Arkay to the sheets ... again!"
      Nashen swatted him with newborn strength. Arkay laughed. It was good to see him recovering like this. He'd feared for the worst earlier, when Nashen had been so slow to respond to Arkay's suggestion of retirement. "Brute, beast," he looked up at Arkay again.
      "I'm greedy Nashen. I want you all to myself." He gave his final reason. With both of their health beginning to show signs of stress, he didn't want anything barring their enjoyment of these years left to them.
      "Then yes," he smiled, his field breaking free of Arkay's into its usual, fantastic display of light. Nashen sat up straighter. Then he scooted to the edge of the couch. "Give me yourself, my son." He held out his hands and all of his tentacles.
      Tzer bowed his head, and submitted himself to his Lord and father for the last time. "I love thee, father." He looked up briefly.
      In Arabic, Nashen continued, "I give unto thee, my son and heir, the Lady Fatima and her children to guide and nurture, cherish and protect, feed, clothe and house. Guide her feet along the mossy banks of Moskva's rivers, steer her path through flower spotted meadows, stay true to the ideals of peace and guard well her children in time of war.
      "I love thee, Lord Tzer Fatimovich Fatima. By Her hand you've grown straight and strong in the love of the One and the One's Prophet and his daughter Before this day I searched to find the last time Fatima had passed in the way of peace to Her heir, and could find no record. May this occasion be the start of Her traditions anew!"
      "So mote it be." Mikhail bowed his head as well, his nager a glittering cape guarding his partner. Arkay's vision blurred and he had to reach for a handkerchief. Diomid sniffled softly and rubbed his own eyes.
      "So mote it be." Tzer helped his blood father to stand. Nashen's hands shook as he unbelted his sword. Arkay had to catch his pants. Neither of them had been prepared for this moment. Nashen winked at him, even as he fought to catch his breath.
      "I give unto thee, Fatima's Lord, Her sword to guard Her steps." Nashen belted what had been his burden for over thirty years around his son's hips. "Take him and blood him that he may know thee." Nashen stepped back.
      For the first time in his life, Tzer drew his father's sword. His tentacles laced through the hooks as if he'd been born wielding such a weapon. "I name thee," he fell silent for long moments, then his field flared in silence. Arkay knew enough of swords to know it had been done. Tzer would never repeat the name he'd given his soul.
      Nashen shivered violently, watching his son lower the blade towards his own hand. Mikhail's eyes widened. Arkay waved him back. *Don't interfere* he warned the young man. The muscles in Mikhail's neck corded and Arkay knew he'd be in serious trouble if he ever tried to challenge the next Lord and Ruler of Russia.
      The blade touched the back of Tzer's hand and a line of crimson sprang up. "I've blooded the maiden Fatima!" Tzer wiped clean the blade and returned it to its sheath, all without looking.
      "Then be bride to the mother Fatima." Nashen's voice cracked as he handed over the last of his power as Lord Fatima.
      Arkay had to prompt Mikhail silently, "And I shall guard the crone Fatima." And with that, it was done.
      The evening devolved into an enormous party as soon as Kirina, Avilan, Karola, Vayer and Darya arrived. Nashen, who normally didn't drink, had to be poured over a straw filled pallet to sleep it off, Arkay nearly collapsed on top of him and the singing and merriment went on long past dawn.
     
      A few pellets of hard snow stung Arkay's bare cheeks, but that was it. What Kaon called winter could hardly be called more than a brief chill. It was only cold enough to be able to truly appreciate a warm fire or warmer Sime.
      Their horses' bare hooves crunched in the remaining frost on the ground.
      "Thank you for coming out with us today." Jarmin was not much of a rider, but he had far more sense than anyone else out here today. He was riding a brick ugly, hammer headed, shaggy beast who could care less about anything other than food. Arkay's own mount was shying at every shadow.
      "Would you settle down!" Arkay longed for Kika, now getting a quite elderly, but still with gaits like spun glass and smarter than some humans. Not like this little twit. He kneed her out of smashing his leg against a tree and then swatted her on the butt for bucking in protest.
      She snorted and flipped her nose. "I did not jab you in the mouth."
      "She lies?" Nashen grinned at him, his own mount not a whole lot different from Jarmin's. It seemed horses came in two types here, pretty and ridable. Aliana clucked at her mare, trying to keep her attention focused on her rider.
      "She does," Arkay gave Hali a dirty look. She went back to trying to pull the reins through his hands. "I miss my Tekes."
      "I want to see them sometime." Jarmin was obviously watching his own mate, as her mount sidled all over the place in protest at having to work. "This looks like a lot more trouble than I remember."
      "You rode?"
      "Yes, grew up on horseback, actually." He shrugged. "Most Simes won't allow Gens to ride much here, other than when it'd been necessary. Even then they'd never been allowed to ride for pleasure. Too dangerous, don't you know." His wry smile as he watched Aliana's mount dancing all over the place spoke volumes.
      "It all depends on the horse." Arkay had to admit, his granddaughter could stick on the back of a horse like a burr. Aliana's mare finally settled down to a stiff legged, jarring walk like gait. "Some are better than others."
      "True," she tugged at her mare's mane. "You are an idiot."
      "I think she knows it." Nashen looked over at Arkay curiously. "There's no correct side."
      "Oh," Arkay laughed. "Go on the off side anyways."
      "It's not the same," Nashen had to lean over to get next to him. "I prefer it when you ride aside, my love."
      "None of my saddles would fit any of these nags." Arkay reminded him. "They were all made for Tekes, not Trakhs."
      "True," Nashen admitted. "Too bad we can't bring any horses over here."
      "Not on an airplane." Arkay was adamant. He was not going to risk dozens of generations of careful breeding on one of those horrible mechanical contrivances. It was bad enough flying on one himself. But at least he would be with Nashen if anything happened. But to risk Kika would be unbearable.
      "You could bring over other stock." Jarmin tipped his head towards Aliana. The suggestion was so deft Arkay nearly fell for it.
      "Not without huge trade concessions, Jarmin." Nashen's hand landed on Arkay's wrist. "Our horses are one of the bases for our power. We aren't giving it up cheaply again."
      "Again?"
      "Ancient history," Aliana's lips tightened into a hard line. "Not something to be spoken of here." She turned her face towards the surrounding trees.
      "Ah," Jarmin nodded his understanding, even though by his field he didn't. Arkay waved him in close.
      "We know a great deal more of the time before and surrounding the mutation than the West. It is not public knowledge here." He met Jarmin's sable dark eyes squarely.
      "Quite honestly, I leave such curiosity to Frihill."
      "Good man," Arkay squeezed his hand briefly. "Don't be afraid to ask, but most of it is deadly dull."
      "You wouldn't happen to know the origin of the mutation would you."
      Arkay laughed so loudly ice slithered down out of the trees. "I was wondering when you'd ask. No, we don't. And we really don't care." He waived his hand around them. "We enjoy the world as it is. I'd not be anything but Gen to Nashen's Sime. There is nothing more precious than larity, no matter how it came about."
      "A very different attitude than ours." Jarmin stroked his gelding's neck in contemplation for a bit. "And I think a far more mature one."
      "Most likely," Arkay tried to sense if there was anyone else around. He couldn't tell. His sensitivity had been going to hell for years now.
      "There's no one here, grandfather." Aliana's supplied.
      "Hush," Arkay wrinkled his nose at her. "We are far more mature. Centuries ago we were where you are now, socially and intellectually. We chose a different path. Maybe not a better one, we don't know and can't change now, at least not without destroying ourselves. Grow and change for us, you people of the West. We will provide a haven for those who choose otherwise."
      "My own people are very much like yours, I have to think." Jarmin's face turned towards the westering sun.
      "Did you know them well?" Arkay couldn't think of why else he would have stated it so oddly.
      "No, not very. I left at maturity and have never been able to contact them again." His face was drawn into heavy lines.
      "Do you wish to?" Nashen asked softly.
      "Yes and no," his equivocal answer did nothing to still the ambient. "I'd like to know if they are safe and well."
      "Then let me find them." Nashen offered.
      "How?"
      "Fatima has Her ways and while I am no longer Her Lord, I am still Her child." Nashen's field twinkled even in the bright sunlight.
      "I'll give you names and descriptions when we go back inside." Jarmin's free hand twined with Aliana's. "I'd like for them to know to expect a grandchild as well."
      "I think it can be done, and I'll give them the option to contact you through my means as well." Nashen wasn't usually so shy about saying who he'd be dealing with. Arkay gave him a suspicious look. He gave Arkay a later signal with one tentacles.
      "I'd appreciate it greatly." Jarmin's gaze was suddenly arrested by something going on with Aliana. "Is that really her?"
      "Yes," Aliana grinned, placing Jarmin's hand on her belly briefly. "It is."
      "So soon?"
      "That they know they are alive? Yes, it seems so." Aliana's smile broadened. "Our daughter."
      "I know." He leaned over and kissed her until Aliana's mare decided to throw another fit. They all laughed at Aliana's explicit and vulgar description of her mare's parentage.
     
      Nashen had to give Kaon's stable master a second zlin. It wasn't polite to zlin utter strangers, but he figured his age would give someone pause long enough for him to duck. Lissa, Liza, something like that was whistling as she curried a winter shaggy pony.
      "What has you so busy this fine winter afternoon?" He leaned over the stall partition. Arkay, curious as always joined him as soon as he'd put up Nashen's borrowed gelding.
      "Making sure they're all still healthy under their coats." She rubbed the little dapple's ears absently. She zlinned a bit like Lexi, but not quite as strongly.
      "You don't ride her?"
      "Why not?" Arkay was taken aback.
      "Of course I do." Her smile transformed her pixie like features into something far more mature. "Gala here is Vi's, and would be far too much for her to handle if I didn't keep her in training." She patted the mare on the neck and turned her loose.
      Nashen had to back up a step. He'd never seen anyone but Kir who was so short. He arched his neck to look down at her. Then he caught what had been bothering him and accidentally zlinned her a bit more than he should have.
      "Does Aliana know?"
      "Know what?" Arkay tipped his head to the side. His eyes unfocused briefly, and then he laughed. "Oh dear," his blue gray eyes twinkled with amusement.
      "Yes," Liza put her hand over her middle. If you knew exactly what to look for, it was obvious she was pregnant. The gesture, as always, made Nashen want to cuddle her under his arm. "How did you know?"
      "Nosy old man," he offered her one wing. "I probably shouldn't have said anything."
      "I mean how do you know about?" She flipped her nager, entirely untaught, in the direction of Aliana and Jarmin necking in a nearby stall. Those two seemed to have the cycle time of mink where sex was concerned. Not that Nashen had been any different as a young man, particularly when he had Taina to chase around the bedroom.
     
      Taina had her ankles crossed over her back. "And just what are you thinking of, m'Lord?"
      "Your backside," he caressed the wonderfully smooth curves made to fit his hand. She'd not been his first partner, but her enthusiasm so far outshone any other he could hardly remember them ... when she was around.
      "What about my backside?" She rolled part way over. Now he could see all her wonderfully soft Gen curves, front and back. His recently donned pants grew constrictingly tight.
      "It's beautiful." His fingers dug in, kneading at her soft flesh like a clawless cat. She purred, stretching beneath his attention. Taina had captured his youthful eye with her nager, but her body kept him on his knees at her feet. "You are all so incredibly beautiful." He met her sable dark eyes.
      "You flatter me." She sat up. As she tipped her shoulders back, all Nashen could do was stare at her generous breasts capped with soft, tender peaks. He watched as they crinkled under his unwavering attention. "Nashen!" She swatted at his reaching hand.
      "I only wanted to touch." He pulled his hand away and held it to his chest. Her rejection stung like salt on an open wound. "Not to grab." He'd learned long ago she hated to be, what she called, pawed over.
      "You'd better not." She threw a shawl over her shoulders. It was pure white and over her dusky skin only showed off even more of her beauty.
      "Truly," his eyes were burning again. He hadn't meant to drive her away. Was there any way to please her? "Your skin is so wonderfully soft, Taina."
      "Only because I'm fat."
      "No, never," his fingers itched with wanting to stroke her silky skin. "You're not fat."
      "You're only a pervert." She swept to her feet. Her fury charged the air between them. "Admit it Nashen. You like fat Gens."
      "No I don't." He hated to see her run herself down this way. "You aren't fat, you're Gen. There's a difference."
      "I have dimples on my butt."
      "You do." Thought of those perfect little marks made all the blood rush from his head. His palms were sweating again with how badly he wanted to brush his fingers across the velvet expanse of her lower back. She turned away from him. Nashen nearly fainted with lack of blood to his brain. Her rear formed such a perfect heart.
      "There, you see!"
      "Yes, I do." Nashen had to lick his lips clean of saliva. He wanted her like nothing else in the world. Tiny, curvy, smooth, perfect. Then he realized she was looking back over her shoulder. He stepped forward.
      "Don't you dare." She pinned him with a glare.
      "Why not?" His heart was pounding in his throat ... and other places. Awareness of how very cramped he was made him pause. "Excuse me."
      "No, I won't." Her eyes blazed as she turned on him. "I'm not going to stand here while you jerk off."
      "I wasn't going to." He lowered his eyes as other things fell. Nashen hadn't meant to offend her so badly. All his body had done was show its appreciation. He couldn't help the fact it was all pointed in her direction. Nashen certainly wasn't going to force himself on her. Even if he'd been physically able of such a heinous crime, he'd never want to hurt her."It's gone now."
      "See, I am fat."
      "No you're not." He jumped forward and grabbed her upper arms. She'd rounded on him more than once when she'd been upset like this. At the moment, there was no way his heart could take it. "You're more beautiful than any angel."
      "A cherub, morelike," she refused to look at him, but rather at his hands. "Besides, you love Fatima more than anything else."
      "I will be Fatima's Lord."
      "When you kill your mother." Her words hit too close to home. He flinched away, dropping her as if her touch burned. "Nashen, it isn't like you have a whole lot of choice in the matter."
      "I know." He looked out the window at the leafless trees. Valentine had been gone for months now, never to be heard of once he'd passed Rodina's skirts. His mother, Aliana, would not make another Year's Turning. With or without his friend, Nashen had to make his choice.
      "Don't hurt yourself." Taina's hands caught his as his nails dug into his own wrists. It was a habit he'd picked up years ago and every time he was under stress it came out.
      "I won't." He looked down at their entwined hands. How he wished she'd accept his bond, even a simple private bonding. Every month he feared she'd turn to another, leaving him bereft and alone. All he wanted was the very slightest bit of security. The knowledge he'd not be left without at least some warning. As it was, he could wake up any morning and find her gone. "Not right now."
      "Don't try to blackmail me, Nashen." She threw his hands back at him, as she'd thrown every protestation of his love. He fought to keep his chin from quivering. She hated it when he lost control of his emotions, saying it was only a way to make her feel sorry for him. "And don't just stand there and wallow in self pity, either."
      "I won't." He turned away, clutching his arms to his chest. They ached with unfulfilled desire, even as his groin ached so badly he felt his testicles would fall off. She'd been tempting him for days this time, with only their transfer consummation to whet his appetite for her body.
      "Nashen," her hand landed on his shoulder.
      "Stop torturing me like this!" He turned on her, pain making his temper flare. "I hurt, Taina. I know you don't care, but I do. I love my mother. I don't look forward to taking her place. Why can't you understand that?"
      "I know it."
      He cut her off. "You know it, you don't understand it. She's my mother, damn you to shen. She was everything to me growing up. I had no father, only my Aunt Tzanir. They raised me together. She's going to die too. Can't you understand what they both mean to me?" He wailed his heartbreak into unlistening ears.
      "Grow up, Lord Nashen. You're going to have to do it sometime." The door slamming behind her sounded final. It wasn't. Nashen knew she'd be back, as soon as she'd had a chance to laugh about his foibles with her paramour of the week. He'd smelled another Sime's scent on her skin when she'd come back to him after one of these fights. And not always the same one.
     
      "What is it, my Alamir?" Arkay's question bounced him out of his introspection. Liza was looking up at him as well, her green eyes soft and concerned even though she couldn't understand Arkay's question, as it was in Russian.
      "Thinking of Taina." He tipped his chin up to keep his tears from spilling over. Nashen rarely thought of her anymore, except when something reminded him of her. And almost never did he remember how cutting she could be to him.
      "She could be a vicious bitch." Arkay's hand on his wrist took some of the sting from his words. "Sometimes I wondered what you saw in her."
      "Her beauty." Nashen got himself under control. "A young man's lust." He flicked a tentacle towards the young lovers.
      "You don't mean to imply?"
      "No, of course not," he shook his head. "Jarmin is nothing like Taina, nor is Aliana. Taina was never innocent."
      "True," Arkay's eyes narrowed. "She was a slut from her fourth."
      "Arkay!" Nashen had never heard his lover speak so of anyone. "She never cheated on me in transfer."
      "They why were you free so many months for Avilan."
      "She asked." Nashen couldn't face Arkay. "She, we, never were bonded."
      "Nothing?"
      "Not even hands." He dreaded the disgust he'd see in Arkay's eyes, but had to look at him anyway. He had to know. But there was only pity in their depths. One he'd seen before, but never recognized before they'd bonded.
      "I was the one who refused to let her in Azov's main suite." Arkay's voice was subdued. Nashen could hear the steady dripping of melting ice outside the barn.
      "Why?"
      "Because she wasn't good for you."
      "What right did you have to decide what was good for me?" Nashen was so flattered though, his question held no bite beyond the words.
      "I suppose I could have said it was because I didn't want Karola or our children exposed to her." His eyes twinkled with suppressed amusement.
      "But you would have lied."
      "Not entirely," he took Nashen's arm. "Why don't I tell you how it happened?"
      "Do you require anything else?" Liza asked suddenly.
      "Yes, an audience," Arkay swept her up with them. "Come on, you're part of Mir West. You get to sit around and listen to old people talk occasionally. It's part of your job."
      Liza laughed and gave in to Arkay with good grace. How he wished he'd been a fly on the wall as Arkay told his housemates he'd have Lord Fatima, but not Sharm Lord Fatima. It would have been interesting, in the Fatima sense of the word, as something to be avoided on a personal level.
     
      As Arkay related the story to Nashen and young Liza, he relived it.
     
      "You are not allowing that bitch into our rooms!" Arkay pounded his fist on the table in punctuation. One vase, three glass pens, an inkwell and four books bounced into the air. He caught the ink before it could overturn.
      "Thanks," Avilan took it back, even as he stared at Arkay.
      "I've never heard you so dead set against anyone." Karola stared at him as well. "Scratch Fatima, Avilan."
      "No, not Fatima," for some reason Arkay couldn't get Lord Fatima's fey countenance out of his mind's eye. Normally Arkay had a very poor memory for faces, rather relying on his memory for nagers, but there was something more to young Lord Fatima than met the wrists. He wanted to find out what.
      "We can't invite Nashen without Taina." Avilan's eyes widened.
      "Give her and her latest paramour a few thousand at the Gray Cat." He shrugged. "They'd never know."
      "Arkay!" Karola was blushing Kirov red. He was surprised she'd heard the name of the most outre of Moskva's brothels. It was named for the fact that in the dark, all cats were gray. This was not a particularly arousing thought for Arkay, but different people had different tastes. Quite a few of them he didn't share. Promiscuity was one of them.
      "Don't tell Nashen I said this, but Sharm Lord Taina is a whore, Karola. She's sold her nager to the highest bidder, Lord Fatima. Whether or not he wises up on his own is his problem. But I have no desire to deal with her at a dinner party." Arkay considered Taina's overblown charms to be physically attractive, but not worth the barbed hook contained in that silky flesh.
      "I heard that." Avilan leaned away from him. "What about me?"
      "You are a sybarite, my old friend." He patted Avilan on the back. "You enjoy yourself and are sure your partner does. You don't set the hook and then play the poor fish for every last minute they have. I've been watching Nashen and Taina for a number of years now." Ever since he'd shown even more than the normal Fatima wit in stealing a kiss from Avilan at Karola's challenge. That had been well done.
      "Enjoy Lord Nashen with all your heart, or other parts. He's not a one to betray you. Sharm Lord Fatima would rip your heart out and have you eating it out of her hand." He particularly worried about Karola. She did not have any experience with someone like Taina.
      "Oh, I could zlin something off about her. But then I don't have testicles to get in my way." Karola's impish grin was wicked. Arkay couldn't meet her eyes. He too had been more than stupid for his hormones with his long term infatuation with Sharm Lord Katrina Kirov. The only one who'd managed to avoid stepping on his dick with any force was Avilan, and that was because he cheated. It was always up and out of the way!
      "She's pretty, Arkay." Avilan admitted, still a bit dubious by the crackling of his nager. "But if you say so, I'll not force her company on you."
      "Set her up with someone, Avilan. Give her another boy toy. Maybe we can get Nashen weaned away from her. Why don't you see if Lord Chavyer is available, or ..."
      "Lord Zharev?" Avilan raised an eyebrow. "He's richer than even Nashen and Valentine combined, personally. If she truly is a money grubber, she'll drop Nashen in a heartbeat." Then he locked eyes with Arkay. "If she does, and you're right, then I'm going to have to apologize, but right now I have to warn you what you are doing is highly unethical."
      "Running temptation in front of Sharm Lord Fatima? I don't think so. She's nailed my ass to the barn door so many times I don't even want to think about it. Besides, if she's honest, no harm will be done." As Arkay said the words, his heart fell. He knew what he was doing was wrong, no matter how he dressed it up.
      "Besides, as Lord and Ruler, it is my responsibility to be certain no leader of a Demense is working against Rodina's best interests."
      "You don't have to play lawyer with me, Arkay." Karola's smile widened. "Do it. My call as Lord Azov. There's something wrong with Taina. I want to know what it is. She's too slick. As you say, if she doesn't take the bait, no harm done. And if she does, again, in the long run, no harm done.
      "Lord Fatima may knock you on your ass eventually for messing up his love life, but I don't want to stand at Taina's side if she's only after him for his station. He's a sweet man." Her eyes grew soft for a moment. "Pretty good in bed, too."
     
      "You know something, I'd forgotten that line of hers." Arkay had to laugh at himself. The evidence of Kirina's parentage had been buried in his mind all these years.
      Nashen was laughing along with him. "You three. Thank you, all of you. I didn't know what was going on. You did good, my love."
      "I'm glad it worked out for the best. Twenty years ago you'd have been mad at me."
      "No, but I don't know if I would have truly understood, either." He tipped his head to the side. "She was so damn flattering to my ego." Nashen sighed heavily. "And so beautiful."
      "Was she really so good in bed?"
      "Yes and no," his shoulders sagged. "Usually when it didn't work, she blamed me. Now, I don't know. Sometimes yes. I was incredibly green. Only my time with Avilan really taught me much about making love rather than having sex. He never only had sex."
      "True," Arkay rolled his eyes in agreement. "He's really the only Gen I've had all that much interest in after my infatuation with Katrina. He's so physical, it's as if his larity doesn't matter."
      "Now that you mention it, you're right." Nashen had a thoughtful look on his face. "When you're with him, it's as if you're the center of his universe."
      "Sounds like a lot of fun. Even though Jarmin is very much like that." Liza was still tucked under Nashen's arm. Arkay'd nearly forgotten her presence.
      "So you admit having tripped him." Nashen teased her gently.
      "Well, yes," she blushed furiously. "I saw him, and well, I wanted to be a mother."
      "I know how that can go." Arkay had seen the same thing many, many times before. Never, except for once, with him, unfortunately, or not as the case may be, but certainly with men like Jarmin.
      "Aliana helped." She admitted.
      "I'm sure she did." Arkay couldn't help adding. Liza sputtered and stammered a bit. "We have very different ideas about parenting. I would, I admit, feel better if you had a partner of some variety helping you out, but when it comes right down to cases, it's your choice."
      "Thank you," she put her hand over her middle again. Nashen, of course, zlinned the child she carried. No matter how many times he saw it, the way any healthy Sime would automatically zlin a child still warmed Arkay's heart and at the same time raised the hairs on the back of his neck. It was such a primal gesture, to verify the new life growing within a woman.
     
      "You want to do what?" Nashen couldn't believe his ears.
      "I want to go shopping in Norleans." Arkay blinked as if this were a perfectly normal sort of plan.
      "It's more than a day's ride!"
      "Not by car."
      "Oh no you don't." Nashen felt his heart pound in his chest. "I'm too old to die in one of those little metal boxes. I heard about Jarmin and Aliana's little adventure in getting to Kaon."
      "Not all motorists are as insane as Vanesa's courier, Iter." Arkay still was acting as if this were acceptable. "We'll be fine." He headed for the door!
      "Now wait one minute, Arkay." Nashen jumped between him and the door.
      "Yes?" Arkay looked up at him with a bemused expression. Nashen debated dragging him back to bed for a moment with himself. Arkay's lips were so very

close, and so wonderfully kissable. "I was thinking of going clothes shopping."
      "Clothes?" Nashen didn't care for much the Techton made, but some of the exotic materials they produced could be exquisite, if handled correctly.
      "Yes, clothes." Arkay's wry grin broadened. "I forgot to pack a few things."
      "Like underwear?" Nashen had noticed the lack of variety in Arkay's underthings over the past couple of weeks. Normally he sported all kinds of varying pants and shirts under his loose robes. Even though he'd come to occasionally wear his underwear outdoors here!
      "Well, I was thinking of some more suitable breeches and shirts to wear around Kaon."
      The idea of being able to zlin Arkay any time he wanted warred with Nashen's instinctive desire to keep him covered up. He bit at his lower lip, trying to think. It was tough with Arkay not at arm's reach. His lover's nager was curling around his lower spine, shorting out his brains. "What's wrong with your robes?"
      "I'd like to go out with Jarmin to a nightclub he knows of." Arkay wouldn't meet his eyes.
      "And let me guess, they aren't exactly the sort of place you can take Aliana or me." Nashen knew his face fell.
      "Ribs?"
      "Oh, well, in that case." Nashen backpedaled mentally. "I can zlin it. They don't know how to make a ventilation system around here."
      "I thought you might feel that way." Arkay's nager glittered with amusement. "So, do you want me to stand out in a crowd of strange Gens?"
      "You will, no matter what you wear." Nashen moved closer, using his height to fold his own nager around Arkay's great wings. "You are too fantastically beautiful to hide in any crowd."
      "You are smitten, my love." Arkay's arms came around him. "One night?"
      "I would love to go walk on the beach with you sometime." Nashen put out his suggestion for repayment.
      "Then come with, my love." Arkay's cool hand cupped his face. "We won't be gone so very long."
      "It's so far!" Nashen quivered inside again. He hated the idea of riding in one of those death traps. All it would take was one thrown shoe, well, broken wheel and they'd both be dead. "Besides, you don't know how to drive."
      "That's easy enough to fix."
      Nashen had been afraid Arkay would say such a thing.
     
      "So, first I pull this lever here?"
      "Actually you pull the little knob on the dash." Jarmin reached over and suited actions to words. "This is the advance."
      "Like the advance on money?" Nashen leaning over his shoulder didn't help. Arkay studied the various dials and knobs in front of him again. This hadn't looked so difficult when he'd seen someone else do it. Like say Mikhail.
      "Something like, I think." Jarmin looked over at Aliana.
      "Yes, exactly, maybe," she was blinking rather oddly. "But then I don't know much about these things. No interest, none whatsoever." Her shudder of dismay was quite plain. "Give me a good horse any day."
      "I'm started to think the same thing." But he'd be damned before he let some machine win over him. The fact it was selyn powered only made it worse. He'd used selyn powered equipment, even if it was far more sophisticated and he had even less of an idea exactly how it worked. So, the advance was out. Arkay could faintly sense selyn trickling into the condenser coil.
      He pulled the clutch lever back and stomped the starter as Jarmin had told him to do. The car lurched forward, bucked twice, and then came to a crashing halt. The engine wheezed with a tired groan as it died again. "What did I do wrong?"
      "What gear were you in?"
      "I had the clutch back!"
      "But when you're starting it, the drive shaft has to be in neutral as well."
      "Oh," Arkay'd forgotten. He studied the pedals beneath his feet. Grumbling a bit, he popped it out of second. "Let's try this again."
      "Do we have to?" Nashen was dead white. Aliana looked as if she were reconsidering the concept of morning sickness. Jarmin was merely smirking.
      "Yes," Arkay checked the advance again. It had fallen back into normal. He advanced the selyn flow again. This time as the coil heated up, he cranked it over. It rattled a few times and then purred nicely for him. Jarmin had said something about this being a rather old car, and that a newer one would be easier to drive. But Arkay didn't want to spend good selyn on something he'd only use a few times.
      Gingerly, Arkay put it into gear and began releasing the clutch. It lurched to another of those teethgrinding halts.
      "You have to give it selyn to get it to go forward." Jarmin reminded him, quite unnecessarily. Arkay'd figured that out as soon as he'd stalled the blasted car again.
      "Sound familiar?" He gave Nashen a wink.
      "Hush," Nashen rolled his eyes.
      "Very," Jarmin had to duck a half hearted blow from his lady. "Hey, I didn't deserve that!"
      "Then store it up for the next time you deserve a swat." She leaned on the back of the seat. "I'm glad you say this is the safest spot."
      "As long as you stay buckled in." Jarmin gave her a kiss before shooing her back. "Now, advance, clutch, selyn and then go."
      This was getting more complicated by the minute. Arkay sighed and went through the routine again. This time when he pressed down the shift pedal, he remembered to give the car some selyn. It lurched a bit, but they had forward motion. Arkay caroled his triumph over technology.
      They bumped through a snow hidden pothole. The speedometer read fifteen! Wow, this is really neat! This thing, unlike his horses, could do this all day without tiring. Arkay whistled cheerfully as he made his way around the cow pasture where the old car had been stored in a shed.
      At last they made their way to the gate. "You're going to have to drive faster when you get onto the streets, Arkay." Jarmin told him.
      "Faster?" He blinked in surprise. They'd get where they were going soon enough.
      "Yes, it will take you all day to get there at this rate." Jarmin got back in the car after closed the gate behind them. "Are you sure you don't want me to drive."
      "I can do it." Arkay ran his hands over the odd steering device. It was certainly simple, but nothing like the control he had over any horse. All the stupid thing did was follow the front tires. Oh well, it didn't get tired. "Get back in here." He waved him in. "I want to take you with us."
      "Hey," Aliana protested. "I thought you wanted some time on your own."
      "We can do that too." Nashen joined in the fun. "Let's go."
      "What about Vayer and Darya?" Jarmin fastened his seatbelt, a bit too blatantly in Arkay's opinion.
      "They will just have to spend the day on their own." Arkay winked at Aliana.
      "Good plan." She looked out the window. Arkay could see her slightly pensive expression in the rear view mirror. "They do deserve some time with no one to bother them."
      "They've been so busy all their lives, I'd be surprised to find them not working." Arkay often regretted having driven his firstborn into having grown up so fast.
      "Oh, they've always been good at finding time for themselves. Vayer changed over with a silver day in his tentacles and Darya with a pen. Neither of them are happy when they don't get enough work." Nashen's smile reassured him. "Just you try to keep them from working when they can find it."
      "Then maybe it is for the best that we are vanishing." Aliana leaned back against the seat. Now they were up to over twenty.
      "Arkay, it's the pedal on your right!" Jarmin grimaced at him. But then so were other drivers. Some of them even honking and waving fists at him. Arkay scowled and put his foot down. The little car leaped ahead. His reflexes had hardly slowed with the years.
      Soon he was zooming along faster than he'd ever done on his own before in his life. He looked over and pumped the window down a bit. Wind streamed into the car, banishing the slightly musty odor it'd held. Arkay rested his free elbow on the sill.
      Jarmin leaned back in his seat as well. Now Arkay could see how all the little cars were moving together. He slid into a spot, just like a fish in a school. There was safety in numbers. This way if someone got into trouble, it would be one of the outside fish, well, cars.
      "This does work." Nashen nodded sagely. At least this mirror in the middle of the window did some good. Arkay winked at his love and actually learned to rather enjoy this new experience. Now that he'd figured it out, more or less, he realized he didn't have a very good idea of exactly where they were going.
     

Chapter 3


      By the time they'd reached Norleans, Nashen was sure this had been a bad idea. His knees wobbled as he extricated himself from the little metal box. Then the smell of water reached his nose. There was very little brine to it, but still it took him back to his first shopping expedition with Arkay.
     
      Nashen could zlin Arkay's field light with enthusiasm. So could every Sime in the vicinity. "If you don't want to get us in trouble?" Nashen clasped Arkay's gloved hand in his own.
      "I don't." Still his field tried to escape the heavy kador his new partner had donned under extreme protest. What had gotten him so excited? Nashen looked around to try to find what had attracted Arkay's attention. They'd had the most incredible transfer Nashen had ever known the day before yesterday and his own head was still spinning.
      Forcing himself to zlin closer through his own veil, Nashen finally found what had Arkay so fascinated. A plant. Why was he staring at a plant? Not entirely unused to the odd ways of some Gens, he tagged along as Arkay set forth to dicker.
      The shopkeeper took one zlin at his partner, yelped and ducked behind a thick curtain. Arkay's field flamed red with what must have been shock and embarrassment. "Hey," he squeezed Arkay's hand as it went cold. "What was it?"
      "Nothing," Arkay's shoulders slumped beneath his heavy robes.
      "No, not for my Alahin." He reached beneath Arkay's veil and tipped his chin up. "What about the plant?"
      "Oh, I thought I saw some thread I could take back for Avilan." Arkay wouldn't meet his eyes.
      "Then tell me what you want and I'll get it for you." Nashen dropped his veil. The sunlight knifed through his skull. "Come on." He gave a gentle tug. Behind a spreading palm, he could now see the shopkeeper's wares. Trays of brilliantly dyed floss were arrayed beneath the shop's awnings.
      "I don't know." Arkay said so softly Nashen could barely hear him. "Where did she go?"
      "The shopkeeper?"
      "Yes," Arkay was studying a tray of metallic thread. This one had a heavy glass shield to protect them from stray fingers.
      "She's felahin." Nashen snorted softly. "Of course she was going to bolt the instant she zlinned you. Don't worry it so." He lifted the lid so Arkay could see better. None of the work here was all that exceptional. The bangles on Arkay's hood tinkled as he shook his head no.
      "Then is there someplace we can go, where, well ..."
      "The tribes might deal with us." Nashen still wasn't too sure what their new status was there. He and Arkay were something of mythic figures after their bonding in the desert.
      "Lets go," Arkay turned his face to the curtain. "Allah's blessing on you and yours."
      "Be gone with you, sand worm." The irritated snarl came through loud and clear. Arkay's fingernails dug into the back of Nashen's hand. "And peace be upon the Prophet," was added as an afterthought.
      Nashen refastened his veil as they went back out into the blinding sun. The white washed plaster of homes behind shops threw back the awful light multiplied a hundredfold. Shimmers of heated air rose off the cobbled streets. "Shenned felahin." He muttered under his breath.
      "Oh?" Arkay snorted. "I know the term means city dweller."
      "It also means rude." Nashen spat out, in Arabic. "Hope she gets sand in her sheathes."
      "Ow," Arkay's fingers explored his gently. "That would hurt!"
      "It does." He hoped he could remember where Talash had moved after their altercation with Zharmis. There were a few carts lined up near one of the sheltered souks. Nashen whistled and soon a rather energetic looking young man had brought one over to him.
      "We're looking for Talash." Nashen let a silver day flash between his tentacles. The ren gaped at it, and then his tentacles flicked towards Arkay. Nashen let his field whip out between the stranger and his Alahin. The young man licked his lips nervously.
      "I can take you," his eyes narrowed. "Twenty."
      "Robbery," Nashen glared down at him.
      "Fast, fast, no worries about sun." He said hastily. "Wait for when you're done. Take you where you want to go. All day."
      This was more like it. "Plus tip." Nashen lit his field glitter as he counted out half the fee. The renSime bowed over his hand and waved towards the door. Arkay, fortunately took the hint quietly and let Nashen hand him up. Talash had moved.
      It took them half an hour, even with the lad's quick pace to reach the south east corner of the city. A veritable forest of tents had gone up near the great expanse of date palms. Nashen had to suck his tentacles back into their sheathes hastily as a gust of sand swirled by.
      "Awful stuff," Arkay brushed some of the worst of it from his lap. Of course exposing his hands. Their driver nearly stumbled. Nashen quickly covered Arkay's hands with his own. "Sorry, I forgot."
      "I'm paying him enough to ignore any provocation." Nashen reassured him quietly. "At twenty for the day, you should be able to walk naked in front of him and he'd ignore you." He hated getting taken this way, but Arkay was not used to hiding his nager the way Southerners expected. Darya did far better at keeping covered up.
      "I'm sorry." Arkay looked up at him. "I don't mean it."
      "I know, lover." He caressed Arkay's hands. "It isn't as if I don't have the days."
      "Still," he turned his face away. Veiled, Nashen couldn't tell what Arkay was thinking anywhere near as clearly as he liked.
      "It's fine, Arkay."
      "Are you those two?" The lad looked back over his shoulder.
      "Yes," Nashen easily interpreted the lad's awestruck expression. "I have truly been blessed by Allah."
      "I shouldn't have asked for so much." He flushed under his already dark skin.
      "You'll earn it." Nashen leaned back and put his arm around Arkay's shoulders. "Trust me."
      At last they reached the souk where Talash had set up their own merchants.
      "This is far more to my taste." Arkay looked around at the gathered tribesmen. A bare handful of veiled figures mingled with the rest of the Simes. Arkay blew out a sigh of relief worthy of Kika. Then he must have spotted the goods. Gold, silver, gems and brightly dyed cloth shone in the afternoon sun. He took off before Nashen was ready.
      "Get yourself something to drink." Nashen flipped the lad a few hours and chased after his Alahin. Arkay was entranced. Going from one stall to another, his nager outshone the blinding sun. Everything from hawk furniture to horse tack caught his eyes.
      But still he didn't buy anything. A bit frustrated, Nashen pointed him towards a gold smith's tent. As they entered, the proprietor braced himself, but didn't bolt. "What can I do for you?"
      "Looking," Arkay bent over a tray of exquisitely filigreed hood bangles. They were so fine, they looked as if they were made of lace. A strand of blue beaded hand shaped wards caught Nashen's eye.
      "Go ahead," the renSime backed up a step, leaving them to their browsing. Nashen couldn't resist. He opened the glass cover and pulled out the decoration. The hair fine fringe had been nearly invisible even against the black cloth backing.
      "It's too expensive." Arkay's blue eyes were sorrowful as Nashen held it up to him.
      "Hush," they beads nearly matched his Alahin's eyes, but not quite. Reluctantly, Nashen replaced it. "Do you have anything, more, well, personal?"
      "I think I know what you mean." The man pulled out a few more trays from behind the counter. Arkay gasped as he opened the first of them. This was more what Nashen had been after. Sharm Lord bracelets, in all colors of the rainbow.
      It wasn't as if he didn't have pounds of them at home. But none of them were here! "I thought you usually didn't sell these to outsiders."
      "You are of the Faith." A slight smile came to the smith's face. "Besides, I've recently been a bit unlucky in my business dealings. Perhaps you might be so kind as to not take all my goods and leave me with a pittance, hardly able to go on in my craft." Nashen had heard this line a thousand times. From the good cheer coming from Arkay, so had he.
      Then Arkay's breath caught.
      "Oh my," Nashen couldn't keep his trader's nager on. With shaking fingers, he pulled out a magnificent piece of work. It was abstract, as were all of them, but the centimeter wide bangle was amazing. Gems had been inset into the metal to form an elaborate mosaic, which almost looked like filigree.
      He zlinned it to be certain. Some was lacquer work, and relatively simple, but the foundation was cut stones. Then he read the wording, "From Allah's blessing to Allah's blessed." This was a handfasting piece. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Arkay's hand flash over something. After Arkay's comment about price, Nashen's heart froze.
      Nashen glanced up to see the shopkeeper's eyes twinkle. He'd seen the gesture as well. Good. The penalty for theft was not to be thought about. Perhaps before the mutation, the loss of a hand would not have meant death. But now it did. Very ostentatiously, Nashen returned his attention to the trays in front of him.
      He could hear Arkay humming to himself over something which pleased him, but that was it. Then Nashen spotted another bracelet. This one made the first look like a child's toy. Nearly the mass of the half bracers the desert peoples wore, it was actually blasphemous as it so closely resembled the work of Allah.
      If he zlinned carefully, it echoed perfectly a set of tentacles laced around a Gen's arm. His ears burned in a frantic blush. The sizing on them was exactly the same as his own slender digits, far more slender than most Simes. Of course they came out for comparison.
      Nashen had to have this. If he couldn't keep his own tentacles on Arkay's arms, these, perhaps might be enough. Then he saw the same wording. Who had ever designed a handfasting bracelet so explicit?
      "I did." The ren winked at him. "You like it?"
      "Very much," Nashen's voice was still a bit breathy with shock. But then he thought about it a moment. Under the heavier robes of the southerners, no one but the Gen's partner would ever see this bit of adornment.
      "A good fit, I think." The shopkeepers grin widened. Nashen realized his tentacles were still fondling the jewelry and tried to pull them back. They didn't want to go. The metal had warmed in his hand and the casting was so perfect, the surface of the piece had the same slight roughness as his own tentacles. "So, would you like some Arilith?"
      "Perhaps," Arkay's field was still alight with amusement, of some sort anyway. What had he found? Nashen couldn't think it was any more intimate than the bracelet.
      "Or would you like to look some more?" He looked at Nashen's partner so forwardly, his own field flickered out to protect Arkay. "Ah, yes, I zlin." He gave Nashen a wave forward. "The bottom two." Now Nashen couldn't see a thing Arkay was doing. "Don't zlin." He sat and poured the heavy, sweet bitter drink into three cups. "He'll make his own decision."
      "He always does." Nashen leaned back against the cushions.
      "So I've heard." He sipped at his drink even as his eyes flicked over Nashen's shoulder occasionally.
      Then Arkay gasped. Nashen had to look. "No you don't." The man's field glimmered with amusement, even as Arkay painted the stall with the crimson of Arkay's own blushes.
      "These, I think," his voice was sounding a bit choked, but it also thrummed with prurient interest.
      "Those will have to be fitted."
      "They will fit." Arkay purred. "Trust me."
      "Yes, well," the shopkeeper licked his lips.
      Arkay then sat at his side. Nashen had no idea what he was hiding in his hand, but it wasn't very big. The dickering went fairly quickly, even though whatever it was he was buying was quite expensive. It was hard bargaining for something Nashen had no idea what it was.
      "Well, lets see if they fit." The man leaned back against the cushions.
      "I think so," Arkay's eyes went hot for an instant. He opened his hand. There were eight, fine, thin, smooth platinum rings on his palm. Nashen had never seen such a thing before. He looked at them closely. Only then did he realize they were too small for any fingers.
      "Ins'Allah," he breathed. His tentacles caught around his fingers. One by one, Arkay slid the jewelry down the length of Nashen's tentacles. For a few minutes, all Nashen could do was try to still his racing pulse. They nestled down at the very base of each handling tentacle, now deep within their sheathes.
      "I like this." Arkay's fingers traced over them. As his field caught around the metal, Nashen's heart tripped over a beat. Nothing, ever, had aroused him like this. Particularly not so near transfer. His mouth was dryer than the sand outside. He licked his lips. "My Alamir." Arkay's eyes caught his.
      "Yes, my Alahin." With each heartbeat, he could feel his tentacles brush against the tiny rings. He'd never thought to feel quite so Sime. A shiver of pleasure washed up and down his spine. Even his roniplin glands reacted, trying to engorge while still post.
      Only then did he remember his own gift. He reached up and closed Arkay's eyes. Arkay's sleeves had fallen back in the privacy of the bargaining area at the back of the stall. Nashen could clearly see where he'd moved his bracelets around a bit as he'd dickered with the proprietor. The bracelet he'd chosen slid into place with the others on Arkay's left wrist.
      Then Arkay opened his eyes. He blushed again, looking up at Nashen through long blond lashes. "You know this is going to get me aroused at the drop of a veil." Fortunately he spoke in Russian.
      "I know," Nashen gave him a wicked smile, slightly off center as his tentacles slid within the rings Arkay'd given him.
     
      "Sometimes I like shopping," Nashen reached up and stroked Arkay's cheek. Arkay cheated and brushed his fingertips over the tiny rings Nashen still wore. "I don't think we're going to find anything so exotic here, my love."
      "True enough," Arkay sighed, looking around. The collection of little stores held few items of interest. All the goods were of poor quality, at best.
      "I've heard there is another shopping area, down by the water." Jarmin's eyes swept over the area. Another Sime zlinning them made Nashen want to snap. The feel of ghostly fingers invading his privacy was disgusting.
      "You don't get used to it." Aliana told him bluntly, glaring at one of the worst offenders. The woman quickly looked away, still zlinning. Arkay's arm came around his shoulders protectively.
      "I can sense them as well." His field was spiky with irritation.
      "That's the first time I've seen you act like a Companion." Jarmin's smile was a bit off center.
      "Only because people here are so rude." Arkay led them back to the car. Nashen's opinion of the little box had improved tremendously. He got in with a sigh of relief. Small though it might have been, at least it was some protection. "So, where is this other place?" He managed to start the car on the first try.
      "I've never been there." Jarmin's face darkened a bit more than usual. He looked towards Aliana sheepishly. "Too expensive."
      "You don't know what I paid for some of the clothes we both wear." Her grin was wicked. "Don't worry yourself over such things. We Fatimas have our ways."
      "Indeed we do." Nashen had noticed the fine wool and silk his daughter had managed to find for her partner. He'd have had to be blind to miss it.
      Arkay winked at him in the rear view mirror. Sometimes he wondered exactly why Arkay had never complained about Fatima kadors. Every other Sharm Lord he'd had certainly had made their displeasure known, often volubly.
     
      "I am not wearing that thing." Sharm Lord Yitarin thrust the kador back at him. Nashen lowered his eyes respectfully.
      "I'm afraid I can't make exceptions." His ears burned with his blushes.
      "You're Lord Fatima. Of course you can." Yitarin gave the unoffending garment a glare which nearly set it on fire. Nashen ran his hand gently over the fine embroidery on the placket. He'd always liked this one, with its stylized representation of snow in the moonlit sky.
      "No, I can't." He tried to meet Yitarin's eyes, even as he wanted to crawl into a deep hole. Their transfer yesterday had finally worked, after two aborts. No worse than average with anyone but Avilan. Even Taina had given him more than a few aborts after their first few months together. He was used to the pain of his aching head and chest. "The rules are for everyone."
      "No other Sharm Lords have to wear such heavy kadors." Yitarin's field threatened his growing headache, making it throb. Nashen swallowed back another wave of nausea. Ins'Allah how he hated making do with one strange Sharm Lord after another.
      "All Fatima Sharm Lords do." He managed to croak out. Nashen had work to do today. The sun was long since up and the docks were working around the clock this time of year.
      "Then I'll not be staying, Lord Fatima." Yitarin gathered his dignity and nager to him. "Good day, Lord Fatima." He spat as he stalked out of the suite. Nashen sat on the edge of the bed.
      His head in his hands, he wanted to cry. But the dry burning in his chest allowed no such thing. Next month would be better, he promised himself. He'd beg another transfer off Avilan next month. Nashen would survive until then.
      The summer sun streamed in through the open windows, sending knives of pain through his skull. He rubbed at his sore eyes, wishing it would all go away. The pain, the loneliness, the emptiness of living for his work. But then there were Fatima's children, and Rodina's. They needed him. As long as he was needed, Nashen could go on.
      He rehanged the beautiful kador on its padded stand. Setting it among the others, Nashen wondered if he'd ever find a partner. So far he'd had little luck finding anyone to share transfer with, much less his bed or his life. Yitarin had slept in the other room, saying he'd not wanted to burden Nashen with his own headache.
     
      "What were you thinking of, lover?" Arkay murmured in his ear.
      "When?" He looked out over the dark waves lapping at the shore.
      "In the car." Somewhere, Arkay'd managed to find a cloak of the type Lords usually wore. He flipped it over Nashen's shoulders with a deft gesture. The similarity to his wings holding Nashen safe wasn't lost on him. Beneath the cover of the concealing garment, he slid his arm around Arkay's waist.
      "Sharm Lord Yitarin." He wasn't really sure he wanted to get into it. Aliana and Jarmin had decided to hole up in their rooms in the multistory hotel they'd settled on after shopping. He'd wanted to see the ocean.
      "Who?"
      "You never met him." Nashen reached down to slip off his shoes. The sand was too tempting.
      "Good idea," Arkay joined him. His strong feet were soon gripping the soft sand alongside Nashen's. There were few other people out in the damp evening. Sea birds called out to the dying sunlight. "So, what about him?" They walked side by side again.
      "He refused to wear a Fatima kador." Nashen skated a pebble out into the waves. They were stronger than the ones of the middle sea by a great deal, but otherwise not too different. "Like more than a few others."
      "Why?"
      "Why do you tolerate them so well? Even Diomid complained." Nashen stopped to pick up a shell he'd zlinned. For some reason it reminded him of Arkay, rather rough on the outside but with a beautiful gleam to the inside. He began the gesture of tossing it back into the waves.
      Arkay's hand caught his. "Because they're for you."
      "Come now, Arkay." His tentacles came out to tie them together, as they always did. Somehow this never bothered him either. "They are hot and heavy."
      "And they remind me of how desirable I can be, if I try." Arkay gave the tug to set Nashen's tentacles in place. The gesture was as old as larity, the show of absolute trust between partners.
      "You don't have to try, beloved." Nashen had to smile at him. "You are more desirable than the moon, sun or stars all on your own."
      "To my Alamir." Then he blushed a bit. "But I would like to think you prefer hiding me away from other Simes."
      "Like today," Nashen grinned wryly. "I am sorry for overreacting."
      "I'm not," Arkay hugged him close. "Sit, sit," there was a pile of driftwood nearby, gathered in a small hollow near the high tide line. Nashen zlinned around to be sure there was no one else near.
      He lit the wood with a touch of his power. It blazed up against the darkening hills. But there was no other vegetation near to catch, Nashen had checked. Arkay cuddled up against him this time.
      "It always amazes me you are so gentle for all your power." Arkay said at last.
      "Why for?" Arkay'd so rarely been willing to talk about his own past, Nashen tried to encourage it.
      "Long after Ilya's death, his brutality haunted my life." Arkay shivered in the cool breeze. Nashen made sure he wouldn't get a chill by the simple expedient of wrapping his body around Arkay's. He rested his chin on Arkay's shoulder.
      "I'm listening." He lipped Arkay's ear gently.
      "Which you do very well."
     
      Rain beat down on the deck of the ship with unending fury. Nashen's hair whipped wildly around his body where it had come undone with the force of the wind. But Arkay couldn't look away.
      His mind went back to a time when he'd been damned to a madman's hell.
     
      "You will submit to me!" Ilya roared. His hands were wreathed with fire. Arkay well knew the touch of those lethal tentacles.
      "Yes," he bowed his head, wishing it would all be over this time. The scars on his arms itched at the reminder of last month. Or had it been five weeks ago. He knew Ilya'd been extending his transfer cycle with shunts to torment him. "What do you wish, my master?" His throat closed on the words.
      "You," Ilya's boot heels clicked twice as he crossed over to the rug Arkay knelt on. "I want you."
      "You have me." Arkay couldn't keep the tremor out of his voice. Then the cramping pain of withdrawal joined the throbbing hiss of denied need. He clutched at his chest, willing one or the other to stop, but they only magnified each other.
      "No, you only think of yourself." Ilya paced around him. "I want your attention Arkay. Sharm Lord Kirov. Lord and Ruler Arkay. Is it too much to ask?"
      "No," Arkay'd say whatever he had to. All he could think of was release, any kind of release. Even the release of the grave.
      "Your little toy ran away." Ilya's hand smashed down on the back of his neck. Arkay fell forward, unable to catch himself. "He should see what happens to those who disobey their rightful Lord."
      "You are no one's rightful Lord." Arkay barely ducked the killing blow coming for his skull. He rolled to his feet. Ilya snarled, his eyes white rimmed with madness. Saliva marred his once beautiful face. "Die, Lord Kirov." He leapt for him, no longer caring if he himself lived or died.
      "Not yet," Ilya danced out of the way easily. Fire scorched Arkay's side, burning through his cheap tunic. Arkay'd learned long ago to never wear anything he cared about into Ilya's presence near need. He hissed in pain, smelling the gagging odor of his own burned flesh yet again. Then his body's needs drove him to his knees.
      Blinded by pain, Arkay groveled at Ilya's feet. Only the movement of the air told him to duck. Ilya's boot heel caught him on the cheek. He sprawled, stunned. "Try it again, bastard."
      Unable to speak, Arkay fought for breath. Ilya's weight came to rest on his chest. The pain spread to his arms. His vision was gone. All he could think of was air. Then his intestines knotted. No, he would not soil himself. There was nothing in him to loose.
      Blessed numbness spread from his limbs inward. The familiar sensation of falling took over from the pain. "I don't think so." Ilya's hand yanked him upright. The shift made his entire body convulse. It was too much. Reality faded into the dark, welcome night of unconsciousness.
     
      "Was that the night before Karola's challenge?" Nashen had to ask. He'd known Arkay'd been very ill around that time.
      "Yes," his eyes were shadowed with more than the darkness surrounding them. Even the light of the fire seemed dimmed reflected in their depths. "It was also the dream which woke me the on the boat."
      "Because I'd had to steer the storm?"
      "Yes," he seemed to shrink in on himself. "I didn't know how far I could trust."
      "You seemed to do all right with just me."
      "Never just you." Arkay's wings mantled in the air. The gesture of protest brought a smile to Nashen's lips. He remembered it well.
     
      Nashen wet a cloth and stroked Arkay's brow. On the way back from Jaffa, their newborn relationship was being tested to the limit. He knew Arkay was still uneasy with Nashen's powers, but it had been particularly bad today.
      The storm had not wanted to pass them by, weighted by too many kilometers of open sea to be easily deterred. Only when he'd put all his might behind his will had the winds relented, but then it was too late. As soon as he could see again, he knew Arkay'd been drawn into the maelstrom of sea and sky.
      There was little he could do at the time but try to show he'd never hurt Arkay again, but the damage had been done. Nashen could see the fear lying in wait behind Arkay's quickly raised facade of blithe imperturbability. Now it was all coming out.
      "You'll be fine." He let his love for the man show in his voice and field as he'd have never dared with Arkay awake. Nashen realized he'd always loved Arkay, even when he'd nearly killed him. Somehow it seemed Arkay brought out both the best and the worst in him.
      "Come back to me safe from the land of dreams." He prayed to Allah for the return of his Alahin. Then he also knew to interrupt even the worst dream could be more damaging than letting it play out. Arkay moaned deep in his throat, a sound of utter and absolute terror.
      His nager was darkened with unspeakable fear, as if demons were tormenting his soul. Nashen ached for his partner's pain, wishing there were something he could do. Then his eyes opened, wide with madness. He screamed, a hollow, gasping cry.
      Nashen stroked his face, hoping this would be the end of it. Then he slumped back into the sweat soaked bedding. "I'm sorry."
      "Please," Nashen lifted him up so he could place a warm, dry blanket around Arkay's broad shoulders. "Not all of my dreams are so very pleasant either."
      "You shouldn't be exposed to this nonsense." Arkay's entire body was shuddering. "I'll be fine."
      "Yes, you will be, eventually." He tugged off Arkay's loose shirt without removing the blanket. The stuffy air in the cabin did neither of them any good. Without thinking of what he was doing, Nashen opened the tiny porthole. The fresh air tore right through his own hastily donned shirt. He was wearing nothing else.
      "Let me get up and walk around a bit." He was looking a bit green, as if he'd had a particularly bad turnover, which was over a week ago. But even as he tried to stand, his knees gave way. This time he fell. Nashen caught him before his head hit the floor.
      "Silly Sharm Lord," he sat behind him. The rough floor bit into his bare behind, but such things didn't matter. He could get the splinters out later. "I would like it if you could bring yourself to talk to me."
     
      Arkay remembered the scene in their cabin on the trip back from Jaffa as well.
     
      "I have to get up." His body remembered the cramping sensations of withdrawal far too well in his dreams. He fought doubling over in pain. Whenever he failed to eat regularly, his body rebelled.
      "There is a reason we have chamber pots." Nashen narrowed his eyes at him. Arkay flushed, feeling a bit caught out. His partner shouldn't be exposed to such things. "Hush." Nashen stroked his hands over Arkay's trembling legs. "I have the selyn, thanks to you."
      The praise struck him as wildly inappropriate, but there was nothing Arkay could do as Nashen augmented to pick him up. Burning with shame, Arkay let him help.
      "Is there anything I can do to help you feel better." He'd already replaced the sticky sheets on the bed and even given him a very quick swab off with a damp cloth. No one had ever cossetted him like this. "Because I care, Arkay."
      "So does Karola."
      "But you can't hide from me as easily." The way he could strike so close to home often made Arkay shiver a bit. This time, weakened by his dream and his chill, he shuddered all over. "Hush, my Alahin." His chest was burning hot against Arkay's back.
      "I'm rather damaged goods." Arkay realized he had to show Nashen. Making sure of the light, he turned his arms over.
      "I don't see what you're pointing to."
      Arkay's skin shrank over his bones. He felt hundreds of years old. Nashen was too innocent for this. He couldn't go on.
      "I'm not entirely naive, my Alahin." Nashen said so softly Arkay could barely hear him over the sounds of the ship. Then he turned his own wrists over. Beneath where his knife sheaths normally lay were dozens of tiny white scars, some reaching from tentacle sheath to tentacle sheath. Atavistic fear made Arkay's teeth chatter.
      "It was no enemy." Nashen balled his hands into fists. The smooth play of muscle and sinew was painfully marred by those thin lines. If he could have, Arkay would have cried for such beauty so cruelly marked. "I'm not perfect, as Diomid reminded me."
      "He makes me feel a bit small sometimes." Arkay knew he was trying to change the subject.
      "So, what is your deepest secret?"
      "These," he traced the needle tracks marring his own arms.
      "Which one?" There was none of the expected censure in Nashen's tone, only a calm acceptance. "I know you could not have survived Ilya's madness without assistance."
      "Without damnation." Arkay growled, his hands forming fists of their own accord. "I still want it."
      "Halirin?"
      "Yes," he admitted, staring at the dark ceiling with unseeing eyes. "Years of it."
      "And now?"
      "None, not since before the twins were born." Somehow the night seemed to give freedom to his voice. Or perhaps it was simply the fact Nashen made no great sounds of dismay, much less disgust.
      "I'm glad." Nashen's warm lips brushed the back of Arkay's neck. "I'd hate to see another go through my grandmother's torment."
      "Tzanir!" He had to turn and look Nashen in the eyes.
      "Yes," Nashen held his gaze. "We all knew it. Even Taina. She tried to blackmail me with it at one point." His smile turned darkly bitter. "If I'd been wiser, I'd have ..."
      "If you'd been wiser, you'd have been far older." Arkay could now meet Nashen's eyes squarely of his own accord. "We were all young once."
      "Even Vayer?"
      "In his own way." Arkay saw the moon glimmer between rain heavy clouds. Another gust of wind rattled through the sparse furnishings of their cabin. "He is still an adolescent."
      "But are you willing to let him grow now?"
      "Yes," he held Nashen's sharply angled jaw in his hand. "I far and away prefer things like this between us."
      "To great fights?" Now his eyes were cast downward. Now that it no longer was so bitter.
      "Please?" Arkay didn't know what he was asking. Nashen's long sliver lashes flicked upward. "I have no right to ask."
      "You are my Alahin."
      "Is that all?" His heart fluttered in his chest. There was so much left unsaid between the two of them. Part of him recognized the fey and beautiful Lord Fatima as if he were a part of his very soul separated centuries ago. Another part shrank back in fear of ruining the fantastic beauty he'd missed for so very long. His fingers trembled as he traced down Nashen's neck.
      "Is it enough?" Nashen swallowed heavily, as if greatly distressed. Even his nager twined back in on itself, burying its glory in the darkness of rising need.
      "Of course," Arkay reached forth to bring it back. Nashen gasped, breaking the near silence of their low voiced conversation. The sound played on Arkay's already unsteady nerves. His field flared into brilliant life, dimming the lantern with its show of feathered wings. Nashen's hand reached towards them.
      "Yes, go ahead," he let one come forward to be touched. It wasn't truly touch, but to Arkay it felt as if Nashen's fingers did stroke the solid leading edge of his wing. He'd never learned exactly how a Sharm Lord's manifestation worked and often wondered exactly how it came into being.
      "I've always wanted to touch them." Now wonder colored Nashen's field with rainbows.
      "All you ever had to do was ask."
      "I didn't want to presume." He stroked one primary with the back of a knuckle. Arkay could nearly hear the whispering rustle so unique to feathers rubbing against each other. The look of entrancement on Nashen's face transformed him into a creature too fantastic for words. The childlike joy he showed, in such a simple thing, reminded Arkay of how very much he himself often missed in life.
      Wanting to please, Arkay spread his wings and then wrapped them around Nashen entirely. His Alamir laughed, days out from need and stuck in a dark boat with a man he'd nearly murdered.
      "I love thee." There were no other words for the delight he could now see in the world around them. No longer were their surroundings dingy with the last tatters of an autumn storm, but gleamed with the warmth he held in his pinions.
      Nashen stopped what he was doing and stared for so long, Arkay almost looked away. "I love thee." His eyes were glowing so brilliantly Arkay couldn't look away. This time he reached towards the light, not away. Post, he'd felt. Now he could see. His fears fell from him like an outgrown cloak. Nashen's brilliant smile removed the last of his doubts.
      Then Nashen bowed his face into the simple caress. Both human, and Sime, the gesture dispelled whatever chill blew in through the window.
     
      "I so clearly remember the first time you said you loved me." Arkay's great wings wrapped around them as they had that stormy night. "Thank you."
      "For?"
      "Loving me in return," he'd managed to change places with Nashen and now he held his lover between his legs. "I'm not easy."
      "Hush, beloved," Nashen tugged Arkay's arms around him tighter. He rested his chin on Nashen's shoulder. "You are so much easier than many of my partners."
      "How so?"
     
      Nashen watched with an odd sort of amusement as Arkay raided his closet. They'd gotten Kirina settled in with Diomid early this morning, and had only managed a few hours sleep.
      He was still yawning fit to crack his head open. Arkay was as bright eyed as a kid the morning after Year's Turning. "I like this one." He turned around, holding out one of the heaviest kadors in Nashen's closet.
      "You were the one complaining about the heavy kadors of the South." Nashen wasn't going to let Arkay be weighed down more than necessary. Even though a very primitive part of his mind was chuckling in glee. He squashed such greedy thoughts back into their box.
      "It's cooler here." Which was not at all obvious from the scanty underclothes he sported at the moment. Nashen sighed and rested his chin on his tentacles. Arkay was still painfully thin, but his solid Genininity shone through in his nearly transparent shirt and trousers. "Wouldn't you like it?"
      "How do you want me to answer that?" Nashen bit his tongue. He did not mean to get short with Arkay, of all people. "Sorry."
      "Hey," Arkay set the kador on a stand and knelt at Nashen's feet. He'd not yet put on his boots. Arkay cheated and began rubbing his stockinged feet.
      "You aren't my servant, Arkay." He managed to get out when he'd caught his breath.
      "No, and you would never presume." Arkay's fingers dug into the bones of his feet. Nashen bit back a groan of pure pleasure. "So I like to give." Then he pulled. Nashen's ankle popped loudly. "There we go."
      "I can get a servant to rub my feet." Little hearts and flowers were forming in the ambient. They blossomed as Arkay moved his deft fingers upward. This time he did groan out loud.
      "What if I want to?"
      "Go right ahead." He certainly wasn't going to say no. "But do you, really?"
      "Yes," Arkay's smile lit the foggy morning. "I like making you happy."
      "Is that all there is to ...?" He waved his hand towards the kador.
      "No, not quite," Arkay's ears pinked a bit.
      "Then what?" Nashen had to know.
      "I like being wanted." Now Arkay's cheeks were flaming. What had him so flustered? Nashen still couldn't read Arkay's field very well. There was so much depth to it, all his past experience did little to help. Even Diomid was far less complex.
      "I do want you." Nashen felt safe saying this much.
      "But you seem to want me more when only you can zlin."
      Now it was Nashen's turn to blush furiously. He adored the thought of having a Sharm Lord all to his greedy little self. But he never would have asked. To bundle up a Sharm Lord like a Gen was the height of hubris. He bit at his lower lip, trying to still his blushes. Then Arkay winked at him. They burned all the way down his body.
      "I think perhaps so?" Arkay's field held the glitter of snow in the moonlight. "Maybe?"
      "Yes," Nashen admitted. "You don't have to."
      "What if I want to?" He asked again.
      Trapped, Nashen's pulse pounded in his ears. "Ins'Allah," he breathed, unable to do more than pray. "I, um," he was struck speechless as Arkay's field bowed to his in utter submission. His laterals licked out to taste the rich promise so loosely held in check. He couldn't stop them.
      "Exactly," Arkay purred, his eyes half lidded. "I like it."
      Nashen couldn't say a word. All he could do was try to slow his frantically racing heartbeat. It wasn't listening. His roniplin glands went into overdrive.
      "For me?" Arkay's fingertips brushed the dampness from his arms. Then he licked his fingers. The world fell away into dizzying swirls of selyn. Need rose up within him, demanding fulfillment. "Not yet, my Sime," Arkay's words rattled around in his empty skull. He had to take. "Settle," this time Arkay's hands calmed him, stroking back his overenthusiasm with the deftest touch he'd ever known.
      "Yes, for you," he managed to gasp out as soon as he could see again. Arkay's eyes were dark with need as well, if in a bit better control. Then he licked his lips. "Ins'Allah, Arkay."
      "Imagine what it will be like when we are ripe." His smile showed teeth. "Imagine what is hiding under my kador as we work side by side. Remember only you can zlin, when we are private." His voice grew softer and deeper with each word. "Know I am waiting for you beneath such concealment. Only for you."
      It was too much. Nashen oozed off the chair and into Arkay's lap. Only his laterals were stiff, his bones were mush. He buried his face in Arkay's chest, breathing deeply of the sweet scent of his Alahin.
      "Your lover as well, I hope." Arkay's wings came around him, protecting him from all threats, real or imagined.
      "Yes," in Arkay's arms, he dared claim him.
      "Then claim me to the world." Arkay's arms tightened. "I want to be known as Sharm Lord Fatima."
      "As part of me?" He couldn't believe his ears. No one could want such a thing.
      "I want freedom, Nashen." Arkay shook his head. "Freedom from as much responsibility as I can get."
      "As Sharm Lord Fatima?"
      "Yes," Arkay said. "As Sharm Lord Fatima. As Sharm Lord of a Demense where Her children know who and what they are. Fatima's rules are strict, but they are fair. No one ever goes without security at her skirts. I would join her children. I've had enough of living for masses of people or as an outsider. I would live for thee, my Lord Fatima."
      Nashen thought long and hard about Arkay's words. He knew the man was tired of his responsibilities, but Nashen had a responsibility to Fatima's children as well.
      "No, I'll never abandon them. But I would follow thy lead, my Lord Fatima."
      "Do you truly wish such subservience, Lord and Ruler Arkay?"
      "Yes." He said simply, looking Nashen in the eyes. "I rarely act as ruler. It is a form of security for Russia as a whole. I would live my life as Sharm Lord Fatima."
      Nashen cried. No one had ever wanted such a thing. If he was being honest, and as far as Nashen could zlin, he was, Arkay did. Tears of both joy and wonder spilled down his cheeks. He smiled through them, wondering at how Allah had indeed blessed both of them. "Then yes, be my Sharm Lord. Follow my lead. I'll not lead thee to harm, anymore than I could any other child of Fatima's."
      "And that is what I want most after your love, my Lord Fatima." Arkay's smile wavered. Then tears began forming in his eyes. "Oh please, Nashen. Lift at least some of this burden from my shoulders." His pleading struck straight through to Nashen's heart.
      "Yes," he took on Arkay's burden. It wasn't very heavy, not compared the weight of Fatima he'd borne for so many years.
      "And in return, I would support thy life and heath with my entire soul." Arkay's fingers wrapped around Nashen's wrist. "Trust thy life to thy Alahin. He shall guard thee from harm while thou guard him from the world." The quote from the modern surah made Nashen's eyes widen.
      "I did a great deal of reading in the townhouse." A corner of his mouth twitched upwards.
      "It sounds like it." Nashen took a deep breath, feeling freer than he had in years. To not worry about his selyn lifted an enormous burden from Nashen's arms. He wanted to laugh and cry at the same time with how light he now felt!
      "Yes," Arkay tipped back his head. "Exactly why. I am thine. No one else's. I will be here for thee for all our lives. Lay down thy burden at my feet as I lay down mine at thine." Then he met Nashen's eyes again. He blinked clear his own tears. "I love thee, my Nashen."
      "As I love thee," he couldn't help but catch Arkay up in a great rib cracking hug. "Wear whatever you like, my Alahin."
      "I will." Arkay thumped Nashen's back. "Just remember what I have on under it all."
      "Oh, I can't forget." He swore, realizing work would never be truly boring again. Not with knowing how very much was kept back for him alone. Greed might be a sin, but not when something was freely given.
     
      "Do you remember Avilan's expression the first time he saw you in a Fatima kador?"
      "How could I ever forget." Arkay's chuckle was nearly swallowed by the hiss of waves against the beach. "I think he nearly fell over in a dead faint."
      "Too true," Nashen shook his head at the memory. "What was it like for you?"
      "Awkward," he sighed. "Do you want to hear how it was?"
      "Please," Nashen never tired of hearing his lover's sweet voice, even roughened by the years. It only held more character. Nor did he ever tire of hearing of Arkay's thoughts and feelings. Supposedly only Gens cared about such things, but Arkay fascinated him as much this moment as at their first meeting.
     
      "Sit down before you fall down." Arkay dashed forward to catch his oldest friend. Nashen beat him to it.
      "Avilan, pretty one, it's all right." He cooed, even though now Arkay could tell there was a distance between him and Avilan. This wasn't right.
      Arkay let his hood fall forward to block more of his field. He'd gotten out of practice with the Russian style kadors, but it seemed to work, more or less.
      "He's a Sharm Lord." Avilan finally managed to choke out.
      "So I am," Arkay winked behind his veil. "Comfortable too."
      "But, but, you're veiled!"
      "I want to be." He set Avilan down in his favorite chair. It was worn shiny with years of hard use.
      Nashen looked at him uneasily. Arkay did the expedient thing, he took Avilan's hand and placed it over Nashen's. "What's gotten into you?" Avilan asked, sounding a bit more like his old self.
      "He did." Arkay leered.
      "Arkay!" Nashen blushed. This was fun.
      "So you finally managed to pin Sharm Lord iron thighs to the bedsheets?" Avilan's field made rude suggestions in the ambient. Now it was Arkay's turn to blush.
      "Only because I ride so much."
      "Horses," Avilan wasn't giving in.
      "And others," he tried to keep up.
      "Like Lord Fatima?"
      "Yes," Arkay won. Avilan sputtered. "Why didn't you tell me he was so good?" With this he got both of them.
      "I didn't think you were interested." Avilan tried to cover up his goof.
      "In getting laid?" Arkay dug in the barbs.
      "I wouldn't have guessed." Nashen was staring at him too.
      "Sharm Lord 'convince me sex is more interesting than work' talking about getting laid. You must have done something special for him." Avilan was shaking his head dubiously.
      "This," Arkay dropped his veil, slipped back his hood and let his field free. Avilan's eyes widened.
      "By all the gods of heaven and earth." Avilan was agape. "You are matchmates."
      "Yes," Nashen's voice was soft. "We are."
      "Congratulations, however it came about." There was something behind Avilan's eyes Arkay couldn't recognize. "Take care of him this time."
      "I will." It seemed Nashen could figure it out. Usually Arkay wasn't so thick skulled. "Would you give him away?"
      "We aren't going to toss Arkay out on his rear, no matter how heavily padded it is." Karola's vibrant tones cut right through the conversation. Then she gasped. "What in hell did you do to him, Arkay?"
      It was his turn to blush. "I bonded him."
      "I mean his field, you idiot." When Karola used such language, Arkay knew he was in trouble. "How did you get him so fat?"
      "Not the same way I've gotten you fat." He tried to get some of his own back. It almost worked.
      "I doubt that." Karola looked pointedly at Arkay's belt line.
      "I promised I'd take care of him." Nashen butted in. Arkay gave him a hard look. He shrugged, as if innocent. If he'd learned one thing in the past months, Nashen was not innocent.
      "Not by stealing him." Her field was twinkling with high spirits. "And then wrapping him up in that blanket. Shame on you Nashen. How could you do such a thing."
      "I volunteered for the kador."
      "He picked it out of the closet." Their words stumbled over each others. Karola laughed. Avilan snickered rudely.
      "You look wonderful, Arkay." Karola took him by the arms and gazed up into his face. "Better than I've ever seen you. He suits."
      "And you are healthier than I've ever known you, Nashen." Avilan's smile of acceptance made the last chill in Arkay's heart dissipate. He knew Avilan cared deeply for Lord Fatima. He'd done so for years.
     
      "Don't you dare kick him out of here even before he can zlin!" Avilan's fist appeared beneath Arkay's nose.
      "I'd never do such a thing." Arkay kept his voice down in deference to the two Lords sleeping tangled together on their huge bed. "Really I wouldn't." Nashen had been so very sweet to Avilan, there was little he would do for him. Nashen murmured something in his sleep and wrapped himself more firmly around Karola. They were stunningly beautiful together. Dark and bright, like shadow and light together.
      "You're drooling on your toes, Arkay." Avilan gave him a gentle swat on the behind. "You can have him if you want, I'm certain of that."
      "No," he looked into the mirror. In reflection, the two Lords looked the part of a fantastic vision. "He's afraid of me."
      "Only because you keep him at arm's reach." Avilan sighed. "He's very, very gentle, Arkay."
      "And I'm afraid I won't be." Arkay had seen Nashen hesitate before committing himself to transfer. If he'd done such a thing to Arkay, he feared he'd accidentally harm the fragile seeming Lord. Besides, he was days behind Arkay.
      "I doubt it." Avilan's hand came to rest on Arkay's wrist. "I know you, my friend."
      "And have as well." He grinned back. Rarely did they do more than play around with each other, as Avilan was built a bit large for Arkay's taste, but they knew each other's bodies as well as their own.
      "Don't be afraid to touch him, Arkay."
      "I'm not." he couldn't pull his eyes away from the image in the mirror.
      "Go out to them, my friend." Avilan turned him around. "Go on with you. They won't mind your company."
      "But what if I ..." he dropped his head, even while watching them both. Black hair and silver twined about sleek Sime bodies. The image was one he'd have given nearly anything to be able to keep with him for all time.
      "I think so," Avilan chuckled. "Wait here a moment." He slipped from the room. Soon he was back. A wizened old freeholder laughed at Arkay silently with knowing black eyes.
      "Oh my yes," his voice was a breathy whisper. "Hold still for me a moment, my pretties." Arkay couldn't tell if he was Sime or Gen for a long while. His field was frozen as he scribbled madly on a bit of parchment. "Don't ye be lookin'." He muttered as Arkay tried to get a glimpse.
      "There. I'll be seein ye in a week or so." He cackled gleefully. "The usual?"
      "Yes," Avilan rolled his eyes. "The usual." He held out his hands. Much to Arkay's surprise, five tentacles lashed around Avilan's wrists, three on one side, two on the other. Avilan threw himself backwards. The mad artist only yanked harder. In a flash it was done.
      "Very good. Very, very good." The renSime licked his lips. "Three copies."
      "Yes," Avilan looked him over. "One large one and two lockets. You can use the image as well."
      "Very, very good." He rubbed his hands together. "Oh, the stories I can tell. Oh, happy day. Very happy day." He dashed out of the room, adding a click of his heels as he went.
      "Who was that?"
      "Mikhail Chernoye." Avilan grinned from ear to ear. "Want one?"
      "Yes!" Arkay'd never thought to meet the eccentric, and fanatically reclusive artist. "How did you get to know him?"
      "I have my ways." He flipped his hands out. "He's very fond of me for some reason."
      "Because you're more beautiful than any other model he could get." Arkay caressed Avilan's face.
      "More beautiful than them?" He grinned.
      "You're Gen, they're Sime," Arkay sighed, looking towards the bed again. With a flash of smooth skin, both Simes burrowed deeper into the bedding. A breeze had drifted through the bedroom. It was now trying to slither up the inside of Arkay's tunic. He shivered.
      "Go warm up." Avilan gave him a gentle shove towards the bed. "I have some cleaning up to do." It didn't take too big a brick for Arkay to give in. He dashed over to the bed and slithered among the covers. Soon he was nicely warm with all the body heat given off by the two Lords.
     
      "But you never did take him." Avilan was still looking at him askance.
      "No," Arkay smiled softly. "I was mistaken."
      "I'll have to find my calendar." Karola gave him another arch look. "Thank you, Nashen."
      "For?" He was sliding ever closer to Arkay. Arkay'd never had any Lord chase him around the way Nashen did. Not that he was complaining. Soon he had the slender Lord Fatima back under his arm. How Nashen managed to fit must have been one of those Sime mysteries.
      "For bringing him back, safe and sound." Her violet eyes seemed to shine with unshed tears. She sniffled softly. Avilan handed her a handkerchief.
      "Yes, thank you." Avilan's smile trembled. "You are beautiful together."
      "Only because you like the way I look in black." Arkay's throat tightened up. He didn't want to say goodbye. He'd loved and lived with the Azov household for years now. It was home. He looked around at the green and gold tapestries lining the walls.
      The gold blurred in his vision.
      "Yes, I will give you away, my dearest friend." Avilan's voice cracked. "I love thee, Arkay Sergeyevich."
      "As I love thee." Arkay couldn't look away this time. Avilan held out his hands. Nashen gave him a shove. He fell into Avilan's arms, pounding his dearest friend on the back. He'd gained weight in the last months, becoming even more solid.
      "Aren't they cute together?" Karola's tone was as warm as her well remembered solidity in his bed. How he'd miss her too. "Oh, you can't get out of being a father so easily, my old."
      "I suppose not." He grinned at her over Avilan's shoulder. "Where are the little horrors?"
      "Off taking their naps at the moment." She stood at Nashen's side, even more beautiful than that morning so long ago. Age had certainly improved her figure. "Falyana is going to be a handful."
      "And Ivanya isn't?" Avilan was steering them all into the bedroom.
      "We're off cycle." Arkay questioned what was going on.
      "Doesn't mean we can't all get comfortable." Somehow Avilan had known Arkay wouldn't want to get out of his kador anywhere the guards might look in. Sometimes Avilan's insight was nearly Sergei in its perspicacity. He breathed a sigh of relief as they entered the room.
      Then he saw the two cradles. Ivanya was nearly big enough for a proper bed, but still he was glad they'd not sent her out of the bedroom yet. After slipping off his kador, he went over to her. As always, his heart went out to the little girl lying curled up on her side. She was such a tiny thing.
      Yes, I know thee, his heart told him. His only daughter, he wondered what her lot in life would be. Arkay longed to brush her silken cheek again. But there'd be time. He didn't want to think of leaving her, or taking her from her sibs either. All their other children were old enough to understand.
      "I don't want to leave her." He turned to his new partner.
      "We aren't so far away, my love." Nashen spoke in Arabic, as if shy of showing his feelings in front of Avilan and Karola.
      "I know." He sighed. Ivanya stirred in her sleep restlessly. Then her thumb made its way into her mouth.
      Then Nashen gasped. Arkay spun to see him gaping at the other cradle. He looked over to see Tzer nested in with Falyana. He was so tiny compared to any of Karola's children, even the younger girl. But it didn't seem to matter to them.
      "Don't wake him." Arkay made sure Nashen didn't commit the prime sin of child rearing. Once you got them asleep, you left them that way.
      "I have to touch." One of Nashen's dorsals brushed the little boy's cheek. He smiled in his sleep. Nashen's smile outshone the sun. "He's gotten so big!"
      "You were gone for a number of months." Karola reminded him. "They grow fast at his age."
      "Never again, my lad," Nashen's smile quavered. "Never again will I leave like that."
      "Not until he's older." Arkay added a bit of common sense to the mixture. "He'll be fine once he gets to know you again."
      Nashen gave him a look of utter horror.
      "They forget so easily at his age." He smiled sadly. "Don't fret it. He's happy here." Arkay wondered if it wouldn't be better to leave Tzer with the rest of the Azov horde. He'd been a bit fretful as a tiny infant, from what he could remember and seemed so much more content now.
      "Do you really think so?"
      "Ask Darya," he reminded Nashen she was the one to make all such decisions. "But I think he might be better off spending some time here with others his own age." Even the twins'd had the company of other toddlers once they'd begun their very first simple lessons. Tzer'd be alone at Fatima.
      "Yes, I will." Nashen defied all logic and reason. He tried to pick Tzer up. Even Karola wasn't quick enough to stop him. Tzer's eyes blinked open in shock at the sudden gesture. Then he grinned, gape mouthed.
      His words were still a little primitive, but his little chubby arms went around his father's neck in a flash. He didn't need words. Falyana's eyes widened at the theft of her bed partner. Arkay nearly cracked skulls with Avilan trying to head off her howls of protest.
      But Avilan got to his own daughter first. He caught her up with a practiced swoop. Her howl changed to a chirp of glee. With all the fuss, Arkay realized he'd better get to Ivanya before she woke up as well.
      She was too old to howl on waking, but her shout of "Otyet!" could have been heard in the courtyard.
      "Bad Nashen," Arkay tickled his daughter into writhing submission. She giggled frantically, batting at his hands.
      "Why?" His silver eyes were utterly innocent.
      "He woke up the baby." Ivanya's guiless blue eyes met his. They were entirely serious.
      "Yes he did."
      "Is mat' going to swat him?"
      "I just may." Karola gave all three of them a dirty look. "You get to hold them."
      "Yes, m'Lord." They said in unison.
     
      Moments after Arkay finished his story, he rested his head on Nashen's shoulder and dozed off. He'd begun doing so years ago, scaring Nashen nearly out of his wits the first time. Now he simply wrapped Arkay's cloak more firmly around both of them and supported his snoozing lover.
      Diomid had reassured him it was simply a facet of age and Arkay's tendency to run his nager ragged. His body couldn't keep up with the sort of schedule Arkay'd kept to as a younger man and now insisted on these little naps. Nashen didn't mind at all. It gave him a chance to rest a bit too.
      Watching Arkay doze was not a bad thing either. Arkay murmured something in his sleep. Good from the way his field wrapped around Nashen. He stroked Arkay's field in response, soothing his partner into a deeper nap. The waves lapping the beach gave rhythm to Arkay's sleeping nager.
      Before he'd come here, Nashen'd never realized how comforting the constantly shifting nagers of all the sharm lords or greater was. Arkay's field was in constant motion, very much like the waves on the beach. All of the traditional Techton donors had fields like glass, smooth and still.
      Of course the constant ebb and flow of a great Sharm Lord's field might well irritate what the Westerners called channels. It had certainly been a bit uncomfortable to Nashen at first.
     
      "Would you hold still for a moment!" Nashen opened his eyes as wide as they would go. He knew he shouldn't be zlinning, but his laterals weren't listening.
      "Grow up, Nashen." Tzanir scowled at him, her nager crackling through the ambient. Nashen's stomach clenched on nothing.
      "Hush, my little one." Aliana took a deep gasping breath. Her eyes blazed blue for a split second and then returned to silver. "Get out."
      "Yes, mat'." Nashen bolted for the door. All his hair stood on end as a crack of light shattered against the frame. The temptation to reach for the brilliant warmth was nearly irresistible. Then it reddened. He ran in fear.
      Down, down, down to the blast doors. Nashen trembled as the renSime guards crossed their spears in his path. He panted, afraid to even wipe the sweat trickling down his cheek.
      "Let him in." A kind voice said.
      Nashen turned to look. A slender, tall sharm lord stood behind him. His knees shook.
      "Let us both go in." A Geninine ha

d appeared from the black, trailing sleeve. Nashen reached for it, very slowly. "You're fine." Together they passed by the guards. Nashen gazed up towards the crescent and star overhead, as he always did on the way by. He wondered if peace, or Mir, would ever be reborn among the Rus.
      "We have peace." The still veiled figure answered his unspoken commentary. Nashen shuddered violently. "Easy, lad," the sharm lord tugged him back into a sheltered alcove. A tall fig had been planted in a pot here, sheltering the bench beneath it even further.
      "You're Aliana's lad, aren't you?" He dropped his veil to show strong, regular, very composed features. Nashen wondered if he'd ever look quite so peaceful.
      "Yes," he admitted, careful not to zlin the bare faced sharm lord. Such would be a horrible breach of propriety. He'd had one such already this morning. His cheeks reddened at the memory. He'd only been curious about the violet-red glimmers he'd seen lacing Tzanir's nager. They'd been so pretty.
      "You may zlin." The stranger's hand caressed his cheek. Nashen's eyes burned with unsheddable tears. He'd not been touched like this in years. "Go ahead." So he did.
      The stranger was so very beautiful. Nashen gasped as pulse after pulse of warmth washed along his nerves and receded. It felt so good. As if the sharm lord were washing clean any residue of selyn from his nerves as he used it. Nashen dared let his own field show how very much he liked this.
      "You are a bright youngster." He put his arm around Nashen's shoulders. "When was your first?"
      "Three weeks ago," he bit at his lower lip. "I think."
      "Oh, lad," the man tickled him under the chin. "Don't look so glum."
      "Why not?" The depression everyone said would come with need hammered him into the floor. "I'm lonely."
      "I'm here." Cool, smooth Gen hands began rubbing at the back of his neck. "Relax here with old Gartiry. Don't know if I'll ever live up to the name, but I'll be enough for you at least a few months."
      "Are you offering your hand in transfer?" Nashen then blushed down to his toenails. "Dumb, dumb, kid. I'm sorry."
      "I am." Gartiry chuckled. "It's cute. You're quite cute. So, what do you say?"
      "Don't you have a regular partner?" The taste of shoe leather didn't become any more palatable with repetition.
      "It is very polite of you to ask to be certain you aren't interfering with a pairing." Gartiry's black eyes were soft and warm. Nashen could lose himself in them for hours.
      "Oh," he said finally, after having pulled himself out of the rapt contemplation of Gartiry's field.
      "Come along with you." He tugged Nashen to his feet.
      It was time. Nashen turned his face to the south.
      "Let me show you some things," Gartiry winked. Sharm lords, Gens and lords gathered in the corridors and then made their way down the hall. It opened into a huge, vaulting blue tiled room. People laid rugs on the floor and waited.
      Nashen's heart pounded in his throat. He washed with the others. Then knelt at Gartiry's side. The familiar prayers, for the first time in his life, spoken aloud, stilled his doubts and confusions. At least for the moment. Nashen trusted to Allah, giving over his ignorance that he might learn.
      For the next two months, he lived in the sharm. Nashen missed the world above horribly, but Gartiry could not stand the openness of life above. He missed the older man dreadfully when he had to go face his mother again. But he remembered his first time praying with the other children of Fatima no less and no more than first transfer.
     
      Arkay fell into a deeper sleep. "It's time to wake up, my love." Nashen insinuated a tendril of thought into Arkay's sleeping mind. He was about to fall asleep himself under his lover's influence.
      "Don wanna." He complained, curling up into a ball. Well, this was doable. Nashen set himself and picked Arkay up. Arkay's arms went about his neck as Arkay fell back asleep. Good enough. They were so tightly bound now, Nashen could move Arkay freely without having to worry about disorienting him.
      Very few Sharm Lords ever got disoriented from being moved asleep or unconscious. Arkay was normally one of them. His half-brother, Diomid, the other, of course. Nashen didn't know of any others right now. Dimitri would probably.
      Nashen actually rather enjoyed the fact he was getting to help raise Diomid's firstborn. Not that Diomid hadn't been a pain in the rear in producing such a child. Even though given odds between Darya and anyone, Nashen would pick Darya every time. Vayer might be Lord and Ruler, but Darya ran their household, as a Sharm Lord should.
      Even though Nashen running up against the curb with Arkay had been quite exciting.
     
      They'd managed to settle most of their major differences last winter, or so Nashen'd thought. "Where are you going?" Nashen grabbed his lightweight cape on the way out the door. Arkay was nearly naked!
      "Catch me if you can!" He caroled, vaulting onto Kika. How he'd managed to have his horse ready Nashen would never know. The stallion's hooves struck sparks from the flagstones as he danced in place.
      "We can't do this!" Nashen zlinned around the courtyard nervously. There was no one around. "Get back here."
      "No," Arkay turned Kika for the forest. "See you later." He laughed maniacally. His field threw great washes of light through the ambient, blocking all rational thought. Nashen took off after him. He almost managed to brush Kika's tail before Arkay kneed the horse into a canter.
      "Think you can catch us before attrition?"
      "I'd better." Fear clutched Nashen's heart with icy talons, even as he tried to run. It stole his breath.
      "I think so." Arkay's field reached for the sky. Good thing there weren't any renSimes around. They'd have had heart failure. Then Kika took off running flat out.
      Nashen couldn't keep up the pace. Even under augmentation, he couldn't run as fast for nearly as long as a horse. And he couldn't see ahead to jump. Arkay whistled cheerfully over a klick ahead. What had gotten into him. Nashen had been looking forward to a nice, calm, friendly transfer.
      Then he recognized Arkay's tune. "The Wily RenSime"! Nashen was incensed. He jumped to the far edge of the next clearing. A flash of silver caught his eye. Fire teased as he zlinned. The world fell away into a great shimmering waves of heat. All but the earth beneath his feet was warm with life.
      His prey flickered between columns of darkness. He could still hear the rustle of spring leaves, softer and lighter than the leaves of last fall the first time he run in the forest with Arkay. The soil was soft beneath his feet with the last melt off of winter's snows.
      Hoofprints led between the towering birch trees. Nashen's vision returned to let him see where Arkay had passed. Birds fell silent as he ran along the ancient paths. Now silent with need, he hunted.
      Then he could hear. The hoofbeats slowed to a trot. Nashen raised his eyes from the trail. Kika snorted at him, sounding dreadfully amused. But there was no Arkay. He'd been left, tackless to find his own way home!
      Nashen howled his frustration. How could Arkay have done this to him. He needed Arkay. They needed each other. The bitter cold of need wrenched at his soul. He wanted to fall to his knees. All his reserves had gone into the futile chase.
      "Giving up so soon?" Arkay's voice came from behind him.
      Without looking, Nashen jumped. He reappeared on target, within arm's reach of his mate. Arkay gasped and tried to get away. Nashen lunged for him, unwilling to risk loosing him again.
      White hot and brighter than the sun, selyn poured into his starving body. Ravenous with the long chase, Nashen's need tore loose every last thought of civilized behavior. His soul reveled in the untrammeled satisfaction of taking without hesitation. At last he felt Arkay's great wings wrap around both of them, holding him safe for another month.
      Echoes of Arkay's cry of satisfaction echoed back from the trees. Nashen blushed furiously, realizing he'd ravished his Alahin without a thought for anything but his own desires. Then Arkay looked into his eyes and he was lost. He swooped down on Arkay's mouth, desperate to feel his lover open to him in all ways.
      "Yes," Arkay's hands were cold! Nashen yelped and bit at Arkay's neck. "Take me!"
      He required no second invitation. Frantic with his body's demands, Nashen didn't even try to untie the many laces of Arkay's clothes. He snapped them without a thought. The cool air nearly brought him to his senses.
      "Don't you dare stop." Arkay growled, biting down on Nashen's shoulder hard enough to hurt. Orders were orders.
      "I'm not going to last long." He warned.
      "Quit talking." Arkay shoved him up against a tree. A few drops of ice cold water rained down on them. Nashen was surprised they didn't turn to steam. Then, somehow, Arkay managed to take him. Nashen moaned, lost in the sensations of being held in all ways by his lover.
      "Yes, oh yes," Arkay purred, riding him as he'd ridden Kika. All Nashen could do was try not to collapse. It felt so good. His knees trembled under the load. As gently as possible, he lowered both of them to the ground. All this did was improve Arkay's leverage. His knees gave out.
      "My Sime," Arkay bit at Nashen's shoulders. He moaned, lost to the sensations of his body. "Give to me, my hunter."
      "Not yet," Nashen held back.
      "Give!" Arkay demanded, clamping down on him. Nashen screamed, pleasure ripping through him with the force of violence. He sobbed with relief as warmth filled his body in the aftermath of his spending. "Oh yes, my Nashen," Arkay held him close. Then he shuddered, still holding Nashen so very intimately.
      Nashen whimpered softly, still utterly incoherent. His hands caressed Arkay's broad back, tracing the lines of muscle beneath the delicate surface. There was now a bit of softness to him, smoothing what had once been too harsh. He breathed deeply of his lover's scent, now fresh again with life renewed.
      "I love thee." Arkay nuzzled his neck.
      "I love thee." Now Nashen was embarrassed. He'd fallen on Arkay like a ravening wolf.
      "Indeed you did." He purred, shivering a bit. Nashen had managed to keep some of his clothes and after tugging it out from under them, wrapped Arkay in his cloak. "Not cold."
      "No?" Nashen asked, looking through his lashes.
      "Happy," his eyes were still grayed, as they so often were when he was amorous. "Thank you."
      "Enough?" Nashen knew it hadn't been.
      "For now," Arkay's smile lit the entire area. "For right here." Something warm and damp breathed down the back of Nashen's neck. "Don't ... just don't."
      Nashen turned his head to see Kika investigating him from cents away. Then the horse snorted, spraying both of them. It wasn't pleasant. Nashen sneezed back in retaliation. Kika didn't care and began lipping Nashen's hair.
      "Go away!" Arkay glared at his horse. Nashen had rarely seen this work with Kika. It didn't this time either. "Go on." He gave Kika a shove. This worked a little bit better, they had a few seconds to try to get themselves back together again.
      Arkay's clothes were an utter loss. Nashen had done far more damage than snap a few ties. He'd shredded Arkay's shirt to the elbows in grabbing him. "What happened?"
      Arkay muttered something unintelligible as he tried to talk through his shirt.
      "What was that?" Nashen yawned fit to split his head open. Kika yawned too, showing an impressive set of teeth. This got Arkay going. It was a bit before anyone could talk. Kika tried yawning again. Nashen ignored it. Or at least he tried to. Arkay chuckled as Nashen yawned again. "Don't." He looked at Arkay.
      "Wasn't thinking of it." Arkay tied what was left of the sleeves around Kika's neck. The horse looked at it dubiously. His tunic, leaving his arms and most of his chest bare did nothing to hide Arkay's tremendous good looks. Nashen gaped. "Insofar as what happened," he stopped to yawn, glaring at Kika afterwards, "you caught me."
      "Not very politely," Nashen drew little circles in the forest loam with his toe.
      "I know." Arkay leered. That was the only word for it Nashen could think of. "I like it when you aren't polite."
      "Not all the time." But there was no way he could have been ruder. To take a Sharm Lord against their will, or at least without asking politely first, was the height of folly. But he'd been unable to stop himself.
      "Which I enjoyed tremendously, Nashen." Then Arkay's ears turned a frightening shade of pink. "I hope you did."
      "I wouldn't be so embarrassed if I hadn't." He ducked his head to the side.
      "I've never done this before." His voice was so soft Nashen could barely hear him.
      "Never?"
      "No," Arkay tipped Nashen's chin up with his fingertips. "I've never known anyone who would chase me."
      "Would you chase me?" Nashen gave his lover a shy smile. His heartbeat was so loud Diomid back at Sergei could probably hear it.
      "If you could trust me enough." Arkay's jaw clenched.
      "Yes," Nashen grasped Arkay's wrists again in his tentacles. There were warm lines around them where Nashen's tentacles had bruised the delicate flesh. "I'm sorry." He couldn't even set his public field to display need and try to heal the injury.
      "It felt good." Arkay tugged back against Nashen's hold. His tentacles clamped down in automatic reaction. "Yessss," Arkay hissed, leaning against the pull. "I like this."
      "I trust thee absolutely, Arkay." Nashen tugged him in closer. Arkay's eyes rolled up in his head. Afraid he'd faint, Nashen slid his hands upward to support Arkay's weight.
      Arkay purred deep in his throat, leaning on Nashen. "My Sime." His look of adoration made Nashen feel a bit queasy. "Take care of me?"
      "Yes, always," he took Arkay into his arms, holding him safe from all harm. This was his Sharm Lord. No one else's. As gently as he could, Nashen picked Arkay up. Arkay threw his arms around Nashen's neck, giving himself over entirely to Nashen's protection.
      This was how things should be. Taking stock of how far they'd come from the city, Nashen realized it was going to be a long walk.
      "Kika, down," Arkay pointed towards his horse. Kika knelt. Nashen had never seen horse training like this. In awe, he straddled Kika's back. He'd never ridden a horse like this either, he realized as Kika rose to his feet with a lurch.
      A bit nervous, Nashen thought about how to ask Kika to walk. It was enough of a cue. Soon they were walking back through the forest. Arkay nuzzled Nashen's chest through his loose shirt. A black tipped ear flicked backwards.
      "Ignore it," Nashen had no idea what to do if Kika decided to get difficult. He prayed to Allah the silver bay would remain under control.
      "What's taking so long?"
      "I'm not going to canter." Nashen snorted softly. "We'll get there."
      "Yes, we will." Arkay went back to his investigations. The sharp backbone beneath his seat was not helping matters any. Maybe a canter wouldn't be so bad. Again the horse seemed to respond to his thoughts.
      This was actually a great deal of fun. At this pace, it didn't take long to return home and Kika wasn't even blowing hard. He'd been kept in pretty good shape over the winter. Even though Nashen also knew he was getting quite a bit of exercise in the breeding shed as well right now.
      Careful of his dignity, Nashen slid down off Kika's back. Arkay didn't seem to care. Nashen's shirt was mostly off by now, something had happened to the buttons down the placket on the front. Probably Arkay's teeth. His head was disappearing into the created opening.
      Nashen realized Arkay was oblivious to their surroundings.
      "You are making me quite unpresentable." He was tenting his pants as soon as he'd gotten off Kika's bony back.
      "Really?" Arkay nipped. Nashen purred before he got his mind out of his trousers. It didn't make it very far. Arkay's tongue was far too soft and sleek against his chest.
      He bolted for their rooms. The instant the door closed behind them, Arkay had him undressed this time. "My Sime," he pinned Nashen to the bed.
      "Yes," he answered simply.
     
      Of course Arkay could be quite insistent in his sleep as well. "If you could show us to our rooms. I'm afraid I've quite forgotten where they are." Nashen gulped back a shiver as Arkay's cold nose contacted Nashen's shoulder beneath his shirt.
      As if they were at home, the renSime gave a yelp and bolted. Nashen sighed. Why, world over, were renSimes so skittish? He peered over the counter. It didn't help. His own High Simelan was not very good. Not that he'd ever admitted it to anyone but Arkay.
     
      "What do you mean you can't make it?"
      A trickle of sweat dripped down the back of Nashen's neck. He thought he'd read the note right. More importantly, he'd thought he'd written a reasonable response. "Don't you remember? We have a dinner party at Azov on the third."
      Arkay blinked. Uh-oh. Nashen looked at the note again. Yes, his own handwriting was on the bottom. But this time the circumflex was over the upstroke. Nashen's ears burned.
      "We aren't busy on the twelfth, lover." Arkay's gray blue eyes tried to meet his. The table should have been waxed a week ago. Nashen could see numerous fine lines in the finish. "Admittedly, I don't really want to do a physical inventory of the joint warehouse we share with Kirov, but ..."
      "No, no, it's fine," Nashen panicked. He knew it. Now Arkay knew his secret! He'd tell everyone.
      "Hey," Arkay's hand landed on Nashen's shoulder. "It's not such a big deal. I can do it on my own."
      "No, no, it's fine. I can go. Just ... um ...," oh shen! All of Kirov's records were kept in High Simelan, not Russian or Arabic. Nashen's fingers rubbed over his own forearms. "We can go." He tried to stall for time. Maybe if he took a scribe. Who could he trust?
      "Easy," Arkay's hands covered his. So close to transfer, his tentacles lashed them together and pulled. Much as he liked having his lover close, it was still early. "Breathe, my love."
      "I am." Nashen panted. His mouth was stuffed with cotton, despite his roniplin glands working overtime. "Let me zlin if Hamid is available." Nashen prayed the brilliant young sharm lord could write High Simelan as well as he could speak it. He himself always shenned up the accents. Without those, the written form of High Simelan was unintelligible.
      "It isn't as if we have to do the inventory this year." Arkay brushed his hand over his freshly braided hair.
      "We don't?" Fell out of Nashen's mouth. Then he realized what he'd said.
      "What did you think this note said?" Arkay had trapped him. Nashen's hands trembled over Arkay's arms. They were still bound by his tentacles, even harder with Nashen's shock. However Arkay's arms felt burning hot now.
      Nashen's entire body trembled with having to flee. He couldn't let Arkay see him like this. Arkay was brilliant. He deserved better than a half-wit like Nashen.
      "Relax, my pretty one." Arkay's hands caressed Nashen's arms gently. How was he supposed to think at all like this. "You haven't done anything wrong. Not that I can see. Did you think Val was asking us to do the inventory this year?"
      "Yes," he admitted, unable to draw his gaze away from their intertwined arms. The erotic imagery only exacerbated Nashen's shame. Only an idiot would think of transfer at a time like this. Of course the lack of blood supply to his brain wasn't helping matters any. Then he heard what he'd said and tried to pull away. His tentacles weren't letting go.
      "Val has a bad habit of misplacing his grave and shifting it to the secondary, Nashen. If you didn't know that, I'm not surprised you misinterpreted." Arkay's explanation stilled the worst of his panic. "But didn't you think it odd the secondary, which should have been acute, was shifted to the inferred noun?"
      Nashen moaned deep in his throat. He had no idea what Arkay was talking about. It was all gibberish to him. Still caught on Arkay's arms, Nashen put his face in his hands. It was painfully awkward, but he couldn't keep on like this. Arkay slid his hands around so he could cup Nashen's face.
      "It's all right, lover." Nashen couldn't look away. "Really it is. No matter what it is."
      "I'm stupid." Nashen finally admitted. "I couldn't read Val's note, so I guessed. I guessed wrong. Now you're going to hate me."
      "No, no, never," Arkay pulled Nashen closer. "Oh lover, it's all right. This is no big deal."
      "Lord Fatima can't even read a simple note!" He wailed, wishing he could cry. "I'm stupid!"
      "No, you aren't," Arkay extricated one arm and wrapped it around Nashen's shoulders. "How long has this been going on?"
      "What?"
      "Trying to make other people think you can read High Simelan?" Arkay'd managed to tuck Nashen's head under his chin.
      "Ever since I failed to learn it."
      "I would have guessed as much, lover." Arkay chuckled so softly it didn't grate at all. "As a child?"
      "Yes," Nashen burrowed his face into his lover's sweet scented kador. He knew Arkay kept his kadors in the same closet with Nashen's clothes, but somehow they always smelled better. Maybe it was Arkay's unique scent.
      "High Simelan is very difficult for a child to learn."
      "Diomid did." Nashen had watched the young Sharm Lord write in the language with an ease Nashen could only envy.
      "Diomid is brilliant, Nashen." Arkay's voice took on a chiding tone. "Never compare yourself to one of the most intelligent people in your generation. He has and had his own problems."
      "Sasha?" Nashen'd heard Diomid cry out for his beloved in his sleep too many times to not wonder about the man.
      "Yes," Arkay's hand dug in between Nashen's shoulderblades. It was impossible to stay tense with Arkay's deft massage. "He was not brilliant either."
      "Possibly why Diomid put up with me."
      "Diomid loves you, Nashen." Arkay worked his way up to Nashen's shoulders. "Don't forget it."
      "I wonder if he has." Nashen sighed. After his last encounter with Sasha, Diomid had changed. It was as if he'd lost a part of himself that night in the rain.
      "No," Arkay sighed heavily. "I think he did break a part of himself though. Give it time Nashen. Memory is an odd thing, and he did something to change his own memories, I think. He's a brilliant healer, and has all of the Sergei talents, the primary of which is the ability to manipulate time. He may have gone beyond the bounds of what is permitted and so warped some of what had been for him."
      For some reason, this was entirely comprehendible to Nashen. "Ins'Allah." He breathed quietly, realizing how much power Diomid wielded.
      "Indeed," Arkay chuckled. "So, now you know. He's an odd creature, and sometimes I'm not always sure he's entirely human. And before you try, don't bother comparing yourself to Karola either. You can keep up with her quite well where it matters."
      "Not in education."
      "You could probably trade her out of her own children, and have." Arkay's barb sunk in too deeply to be ignored. Nashen cringed. It hurt.
      "True," he admitted, realizing he'd managed to weasel a son out of her. Not the easiest thing in the world to do.
      "So, if you can't read the most awkward language ever created by humans, I'm not going to hold it against you." Arkay's soft laughter was even more reassuring than his words. "I have to check to be sure I haven't messed it up. Particularly with Val's writing. He's sloppy."
      "So I zlin." Nashen began feeling as if he'd live to transfer. His tentacles loosened on Arkay's other wrist.
      "And I promise not to tell another soul, my love." Arkay's breath warmed Nashen's ear. "Truly."
      "You don't have to." Nashen again vowed to learn to read and write the shenned language properly.
      "I want to." Arkay lipped his ear. "There are far more interesting things I'd rather have you working on."
      "Like?" Nashen's brains were trying to dribble down his arms again.
      "Me," he nipped the side of Nashen's neck. Nashen shivered as desire swamped all rational thought. "I like having my Simes dependent on me for something."
      "Like your selyn?" Nashen could only zlin as Arkay's sun bright field surrounded both of them.
      "More intimate than selyn." He breathed against Nashen's neck.
      "Your mind and soul?"
      "Yes," Arkay growled, grabbing at Nashen with all his not inconsiderable strength. "Any inducted can deliver selyn. I want to give you everything I am. If it includes reading and writing for you, then that is simply one more way I can show you how very much I love you."
      "What can I do for you?" Nashen wanted to wail, even as his knees gave out. Whatever it was Arkay was doing to his neck, made his body frantic for transfer.
      "Take me, my love. Ravish me without restraint as our souls twine in paradise."
      Nashen shivered as the quote resonated with passion. "I will, my beloved, blessing of Allah." He shifted into the Arabic he loved the best. "We shall drink the milk of paradise side by side and feast on honey and sweet apples on the green sward of eternity."
     
      Needless to say, there were still times when being unable to read High Simlan was a handicap. Like right now. Up side down it was as illegible as right side up.
      "What can I do for you, Hajene?" One of those horribly naked renGens appeared from out of nowhere. Nashen yelped as her field bounced off of his own.
      "So sorry," her groveling didn't improve matters any. Arkay stirred restlessly in his arms.
      "Where are our rooms?" He slipped up and said in Russian. She blinked at him, absolutely dumbfounded. "Please be excusing me. It is late."
      "For a channel?" Her disbelief was painfully apparent.
      "I'm tired and want to go to bed." This hotel was not going to go on his recommended list.
      "Are you together?" She gazed at the scribbles in a book.
      "What do you think?" Nashen had had enough.
      "Oh," a faint smile curved her lips. "Room 1214." She took a key off a peg. "Follow me."
      "I'm not going to be leading you." Arkay was getting heavier by the minute. For some reason both Gens and cats had selective mass. They got heavier the longer you held them.
      The renGen chuckled and headed for the far side of the lobby. Oh, no, not another elevator. No wonder Nashen had forgotten where they were staying. He hated the things. His knees threatened to give out the moment the little box moved upward.
      At last it was over. Without another word, she opened the door for them.
      "Thank you," Nashen wished he knew how to show his appreciation for her help in more than words.
      "You are quite welcome," without invitation, she stepped inside and turned down one of the beds. It was small! Even smaller than the ones they'd been given at Kaon their first winter here. "Is there something wrong?"
      "No," he shook his head and sighed. It would only be for one night. Arkay refused to let go as he placed his lover on the cot. Nashen fumbled for a coin or two. Not looking, he handed her one.
      Her field flared in shock. "If there is anything at all I can do for you, let me know." Oh, shen, he'd overpayed her badly.
      "A larger bed?"
      She cocked her head to the side. Nashen could nearly hear the thoughts running through her mind.
      "What was I thinking, this is room 1204." She winked. "Let's go down the hall a bit."
      This was more like it. The new room held a proper sitting room, with a group of small chairs around a low table. Beyond this, was a bedroom, with a huge bed. Not as large as the one at home, but plenty for both of them.
      "Thank you so very much ... ?"
      "Natalya," her smile was truly unforced now. "I hope you enjoy your stay."
      "We will, now," Arkay slithered out of his grasp and burrowed into the bedding. "Thank you so very much for all you've done."
      "It's a slow time of year." Talya let herself out. Nashen yawned hard enough to crack his jaws. He too was no longer used to late nights. After stripping off his clothes, he crawled in beside Arkay.
      Waving off the lights did no good whatsoever. A shirt against the light switch did the trick though.
     
      As usual, Arkay woke long before Nashen. At home, this was a blessing. Arguing with Nashen over the bathroom, while occasionally entertaining, often led to neither of them getting going until nearly noon.
     
      "Aren't you done in there yet?"
      Arkay looked up from his book. Where had the time gone? He checked his timesense. "Almost!" He tried to hide the book under the sink.
      "Reading ... in the bathroom." Nashen leaned against the door frame. "Why?"
      "I was taking my time." Arkay hoped he wouldn't look at what he'd been reading.
      "The Vanishing Kador." Nashen blinked a few times. "Arkay!"
      "I like Nivanya's stories." He blushed all the way down. Usually he hid them better.
      "I bet you do!" Nashen's ears turned a bit red as well. "Not that I would know what they are like."
      "Of course not," Arkay realized nothing was hidden from Nashen's intent gaze at the moment.
      "Just because I have three of them hidden in the headboard of our bed."
      "You do!" Arkay's eyes widened in shock. Where in the world had Nashen gotten a hold of such a thing?
      "Paid for them dearly, too." He grinned. "So, care to share?"
      "Oh, yes, of course," Arkay had a wicked thought. "Together?"
      "Um, yes," Nashen grinned. "After I'm done in the bathroom."
      "After you," Arkay finished up as quickly as he could.
     
      Sometimes they didn't get out of bed. Arkay wrapped himself around Nashen after having taken care of things. He'd gotten a bit of a chill, even in the warmed room. This was much better without clothes.
      Warm, with Nashen in his arms, and no particular place to be, Arkay dozed.
     
      After Arkay's mention of Zharev, Nashen's memory threw his last encounter with Taina back in his face.
     
      "I'm leaving," Taina's almond shaped eyes were as hard as agate.
      "Taina," Nashen's fingers tightened over his arm. The pain of his own grip was nothing compared to the knot in his chest and throat.
      "There's nothing more to say." She placed the silver threaded kador he'd had made specifically for her on a stand. In only her gauzy underclothes, Nashen inadvertently zlinned her.
      "I zlin." His voice cracked. She was pregnant. She'd refused consummating their last two transfers for fear of pregnancy. He'd offered the option of contraception and had been turned down even still. "Shen you to hell, Taina." Even in need, fury choked his voice.
      "Because you're impotent?"
      Crack. For the first time in his life, Nashen struck a Gen. Taina's eyes blazed brighter than the crimson handprint he'd left on her face. "How dare you."
      "It's true." Her nostrils flared. "Unless I wave my arms under your nose for hours on end, you can't do a thing." Taina slipped into a lightweight, blue and red kador. He could still zlin the child she'd denied him though it, the fabric was so light.
      "Did you even think it might be because of something in you?" Nashen was beyond rational thought.
      "It's not." Her tone was as flat as ice, and nearly as cold. "Goodbye, Lord Fatima." The door slammed behind her.
     
      "He's in here." A painfully familiar voice roused Nashen from his stupor.
      "Go away," Nashen pulled his wrists lower in the water. The movement reawakened the crimson flowers spreading from them.
      "No, I won't." The door closed. "I won't tell, Nashen, but please don't do this." Avilan's deep blue eyes caught his.
      "I want to." A chill wracked his body. It wouldn't be too long now. "Please?"
      "Then let me do it right." Avilan held out his broad, strong hands.
      "I can't." He couldn't drag someone else into this mess. Nashen'd thought he could go on alone. He couldn't.
      "What of Fatima?"
      "Damn you." His head fell back against the tiles. Nashen swallowed heavily against dizziness and nausea.
      "What of those who care for you?"
      "She's gone." Nashen watched clean water replace dark. "She decided to go with Lord Zharev."
      "Then you will leave Fatima without a father?"
      "Because I can't be one!" Nashen clawed at his arms again, reopening the nearly closed wounds. "She's pregnant, Avilan!" He screamed at the top of his lungs. "She refused me and took him."
      "Hush," Avilan took Nashen into his arms. "Hush, my little Sime."
      "No, no," he sobbed, again and again. "No one's."
      "You are Fatima's." Avilan's hand stroked over Nashen's throbbing skull. "I care for you. Karola does. So does Arkay. All of Fatima's children love you. Don't abandon them ... and us."
      "I'm evil. I'm no one. She's better without me. She'd be better with a real Lord. I can't ... I can't do it." Water and blood both dripped down his arms, splashing back into the pool.
      "Then don't go this way." Avilan's hands slid down his arms and cupped his wrists. "This is no way to gain peace." His beautiful voice was ragged. "I would not have another Sime die in torment because I was too afraid to give them peace they truly desired." His head bowed over Nashen's hands. "Please, oh Gods, please Nashen, don't do this to me."
      He couldn't say a word.
      "Don't do this to Arkay." He looked up. Tears traced over his high cheekbones, even though Nashen could zlin his field blazing with the heat of a Sharm Lord's hardest need. "At least say good bye first."
      The memory of Nivanya's leave taking broke the last fragment of Nashen's will. "No." He cupped Avilan's face in his hands. "I won't do that to you."
      "Then why?" As Avilan's thumbs brushed over his wrists, the bone deep cuts healed beneath the promise of selyn. Attrition locked his limbs in ice. He shivered violently, unable to speak. "Then take me, Nashen."
      "Not like this." He managed to force himself upright. His vision grayed under the loss of blood pressure. Only Avilan's hand under his elbow kept him upright. Swaying on his feet, Nashen rinsed off under the shower head. "I'm not so old or fragile to have earned such peace."
      Nashen's hand shook violently as he reached for a robe.
      "No, my friend," Avilan took a warmed towel from the rack and dried Nashen as gently as he would one of his children. "This time is for you."
      "That wouldn't be fair to anyone." Nashen stumbled on the threshold to the bedroom. Before he could fall, Avilan caught him. "Let me down. I'll be fine."
      "With a shunt, right?" Avilan's nose was hardly a cent from the end of Nashen's.
      "Of course," he couldn't quite manage to look away. "You don't have to do this."
      "What if I want to?"
      Taina's parting jab burned in Nashen's memory. "Not with me." Never again. Somehow he'd survive. No Sharm Lord in their right mind would ever touch him. How could they? No Sharm Lord wanted a Lord so indifferent to their desires.
      "Stop it, Nashen." Avilan shook him. "Listen to me."
      "I am." He raised his eyes from inspecting his own hands. As always now, his laterals were tucked neatly into their sheathes, utterly indifferent to his need for selyn, even as he starved in attrition. It was as if they didn't care about the rest of his body.
      "Don't do that." Avilan's hands wrapped around the delicate sheathes, even as Nashen realized he'd begun tearing at them again. The feel of Avilan's very Gen hands didn't even do anything for him this time. Avilan could have been a cat for all Nashen's body cared. "I can force them out."
      "Don't," Nashen's skin tightened in shame. "I'll be all right."
      "You are dying of attrition, Nashen." Avilan's blunt statement made Nashen stiffen in shock. "I give you another hour, two at the most. Don't fade away on me!" His wail surprised Nashen out of his introspection.
      "Please, I've watched three Lords die of attrition. I can't stand to watch another one." His hands tightened to the very edge of pain. In protest, Nashen's laterals slid from their homes. "I give you one chance to say no."
      "Yes."
      Avilan paused. The tension of the moment broke. "You idiot! What was that supposed to mean?"
      "I'm willing to go on, if you are willing to help." Nashen gulped at the air. "Besides, you need someone." His body was trapped. Now that Nashen's laterals were set on Avilan's hands, need arose with deafening clamor. "Help me?"
      "Yes," Avilan swooped down on him. Selyn poured into his body with Avilan's signature of warmed honey, but this time magnified a hundred fold. Nashen could do nothing but bask in the heat and light soothing the icy frost of deathly need. Down into the deepest reaches of Nashen's soul, Avilan's prodigious compassion chased away the demons haunting him.
     
      "How did you know?" Nashen had to ask. Their initial consummation had been far more enthusiastic than successful. The second had been more than wonderful. Even if parts of Nashen's body were still a bit sore. Much as he enjoyed accepting Avilan as a bed partner, he was large.
      "That you needed help?" Avilan's voice rumbled sweetly beneath his ear.
      "Yes," he admitted, realizing how far down the road he'd gone towards death. The knowledge of how close he'd come to leaving Fatima leaderless chilled his soul. She didn't deserve abandonment, even if he'd been left. Without Nashen, Fatima's children would have been scattered to the winds, there to die. Russia was not entirely hospitable to most of Fatima's children.
      "I can hear your thoughts, Nashen." Avilan's hand cupped his buttocks, curling him even closer. "Rest here a moment."
      It was impossible to argue with Avilan while his heart beat beneath Nashen's ear. There was a warmth to him, even though physically he was much cooler. Nashen didn't try to understand such things. It was not in him at all to question Allah's great gift of larity.
      Even though their fields would never match, this close to transfer, there was little enough difference to matter. By turnover, Avilan would have outproduced Nashen by a couple of days. Now the thrum of his production was as soothing as his heartbeat.
      "That's better." Avilan's hand stroked his body, as Nashen would pet a cat. The slight calluses, from needle, loom and thread, only emphasized Avilan's deft touch. And like that cat, Nashen couldn't help but purr. His tentacles came out and kneaded Avilan's sides. "Feels good."
      "Was that a question or a comment?" Nashen found himself resting entirely on top of Avilan. How did he get here? Avilan's strong hands began taking apart his spine. "Ooooooh," he drooled on Avilan's chest. This felt way too good. Even his tentacles went limp, out of their sheathes. "A comment, I think." Avilan's chin rubbed the top of his head.
      "Insofar as how I knew, Arkay woke up screaming your name at the top of his lungs."
      Nashen's entire body tensed up. How could he have known? Nashen hadn't even really known his own plans.
      "Arkay cares, Nashen. Don't ever think otherwise." Avilan went on so softly Nashen could barely hear him over the pounding of his own heart. "I think he loves you."
      "I don't." They were days apart, years in experience and wisdom.
      "You cheapen yourself, Nashen." Avilan lipped at his hair. "Please don't. You are a lovable and loving person."
      "Then why did she leave me?" The truth fell out. "Because I'm not Sime enough." Nashen answered his own question.
      "No," Avilan said simply. "There is no way you could be any more Sime." For a long time, all Avilan did was rub Nashen's back. Nashen couldn't help but relax again. Avilan was so perfectly Gen, eventually Nashen fell into an utter daze, helpless with repletion and warmth. "That's better, my little Sime."
      "Do you call Karola your little Sime?"
      "She bites me for it too." Avilan chuckled softly. "Taina left because you couldn't give her what she thought she wanted, a life of no responsibilities and effortless wealth."
      "Wealth isn't measured by months in the bank." He'd said as much to Taina more times than he could recall. Then his ears burned as he realized he'd said this to the least wealthy of all the Demense leaders. Azov was a virtual pauper by the standards of many freeholders. Reminding Avilan of his own poverty was not kind.
      "Hush," Avilan gave Nashen's rear a pinch. "You don't have to preach to the choir."
      "Oh," now he was confused.
      "I would say you are poor, pretty one." Avilan's field grayed. "You have no lover, no children, and were so poor as to have lost even hope."
      "True," tears burned his eyes. He fought not to sob helplessly. "But I have friends."
      "Yes, you do."
      "And Fatima is my lover and her children are mine." He gripped Avilan with all his strength. "I will not lose her."
      "No, because she loves you." Avilan's words of reassurance rang with truth. "She always will, as I am Azov's lover."
      "Yes," he sighed, coming to rest at last. Taina had been leaving him for a long time. Only he'd been unable to see. Her refusal of him had been more a refusal of Fatima. The former was unbearable, the latter was fair. If she couldn't accept her place as second to Nashen's first love, then her love was not true.
      "Indeed," Avilan's nager glimmered brighter than the northern lights. "Love Her. She will never betray you, Nashen. I know. Trust me in this."
      "I do." Exhausted, Nashen dropped into a sound sleep between one heartbeat and the next. When he woke, Avilan had left a note. It was in Russian, but the words were as pure as if they'd been written in Arabic.
      "Love without fear, Nashen. Do not refuse Fatima's embrace. She will sustain thee and love thee without reserve. In time, thou will find the love of the body and heart as well as the soul. Have patience and faith in the love of thy Lady.
      Avilan Turovich Azov, Sharm Lord Azov."
      Nashen still had the note, with the single lock of Avilan's golden hair coiled into the folded parchment. It was tucked away in one of the many hidden drawers in the headboard of his bed.
      "Do you remember when you warned Avilan of my attempt at suicide?" He had to ask. Perhaps guarded by years, it would not hurt Arkay to answer.
      "No," he said softly. "I never knew until now."
      "I thought he came because of your warning?"
      "It was not one I was aware of making. All I knew was Karola warming me as Avilan left during the first few hours of seclusion with her."
      "He left Karola for me?" Nashen was dumbfounded. He'd thought Avilan was taking a strip the month he'd come to him.
      "Yes," Arkay's lips twitched into a smile. "She was rather upset by it at first."
      "Oh," Nashen hid his face against Arkay's chest. The lisp to his lover's heartbeat had grown no greater over the years, but it was still there. "I don't know what to say."
      "He never said a word." Arkay's breath stirred a few hairs to tickle Nashen's ear. "Even when we asked all he would say was Sharm Lord's Privilege. I'd wondered who he'd given peace to." The phrase was almost always a euphemism for such a thing.
      "Me," Nashen admitted. "If not in the traditional way."
      "I was horrified it had been you, and I would have never gotten the chance to see you again."
      "I never thought you cared so for me." He looked up into Arkay's gray blue eyes.
      "Perhaps not consciously." Arkay's smile became lopsided. "But then the heart is Avilan's purview."
      "True," Nashen had never known anyone so perceptive as Avilan, except perhaps his son Valtanir.
      "Except when their own feelings are at stake." Arkay reminded him with a chuckle.
      "Very true," Nashen laughed outright. "Ins'Allah he can be impossible when he gets his own emotions riled up."
      "Like his own twenty fifth anniversary?"
      "I was thinking of the first time you had me over for dinner after I broke up with Taina!"
     
      Arkay was ready to pound Avilan into the floor! Karola beat him to it.
      "Sit down. Shut up. Stay put!" Her words would have done nothing if she hadn't stepped on his kador, knocked him off balance and then sat on him.
      "Is that the door?" He leaned forward. This did no good. Karola elbowed him in the solar plexus. The breath whooshed out of him. He fell back, gasping a bit.
      "Do I have to find a gag?"
      "No," he bit at his lower lip. None of them were in really good shape. Arkay had been so fretful last month when he'd had to step in for Avilan unexpectedly, not knowing where in hell Avilan even was, he'd nearly shenned out.
      Now, while he knew Nashen was alive, having seen him from a distance across the open fields at harvest festival, he knew little else. An entire tank of eels had taken up residence in his middle and were squirming around madly. Problem was, he wasn't exactly sure why.
      Nashen had been a true friend over the years they'd known him. Arkay would admit as much. He was also a brilliant trader, one Arkay wouldn't want to meet across a table, and utterly unscrupulous where his Demense was concerned. This was all to the good from Arkay's point of view.
      But there was something about the tall, slender Lord Fatima which made Arkay decidedly uneasy. Perhaps he should excuse himself until later.
      "No you don't!" Karola glared at him. Within hours of transfer, there was no way Arkay was going anywhere when she looked at him like that. He stayed put.
      Then, without warning, he was there. For the first time, Arkay realized there was far more to Nashen's beauty than his exquisite Simininity. Unable to take his eyes away from Nashen's slender form, Arkay studied it.
      His extraordinary looks were far more than his elegant body, now wrapped in the most wonderful black silk and leather. Admittedly the skin tight silk breeches, fitted boots, silver shirt and heavily embroidered tunic looked wonderful on him.
      Nashen's grace always reminded Arkay of a great cat. He could see the heavy muscles of Nashen's thighs shift easily beneath his breeches, as if they were painted on, not mere cloth. Even the Sime's balance, with such power so easily held in check took Arkay's breath away for a moment.
      Then Nashen looked at him. Avilan and Karola hadn't noticed him yet and were still trying to fit into the same chair. Nashen was utterly silent, even as a faint smile touched his expressive lips. Arkay wondered what those lips would feel like against his own.
      Nashen blushed furiously, backing up half a step. His waist length silver hair came forward, as if to hide him. "Don't go," Arkay wanted to say, but didn't want to break the silence, so he pleaded with his nager alone.
      He stepped forward, wishing he could show how very much he wished to close the distance between them. Nashen's eyes widened. His fear trickled down Arkay's back like ice water. Arkay stopped in place, realizing how very fragile Nashen was at the moment. He had asked for peace last month. Arkay lowered his eyes respectfully.
      A brush of a single warm tentacle brought his chin up. Now it was Arkay's turn to be confused. His heart was pounding in his throat, trying to escape his chest entirely. He looked into Nashen's silver eyes. They were far warmer than he would have ever guessed they could be. Such color wasn't natural, particularly not with Nashen's hooked nose and almond shaped eyes. But on him, they were utterly right.
      Arkay's mouth was as dry as desert sand. But he couldn't bring himself to lick his lips. It would look too much like an invitation. He had to do something though. With his chin held in only one of Nashen's silken tentacles, Arkay couldn't look away. He found himself falling into those bottomless silver eyes. Nashen blinked slowly, ending the spell he'd cast.
      Arkay looked away, unsure of himself. He couldn't tease Nashen enough to get a transfer into him. Arkay knew this much. But at this very moment there was a small part of him begging to try. No. Nashen could never be interested enough in Arkay to take him. Arkay could never make himself attractive enough to get Nashen's libido up enough to take him. No matter how much he might want.
      "Someday, perhaps," he thought he heard Nashen say. Then after the lightest brush of lips against his own, Nashen was gone. He turned to see Nashen put his hands over Avilan's eyes. "Guess who?"
      "Nashen!" Avilan managed to twist around without unseating Karola. Then he fell into a long, deep kiss. Karola winked at him, grinning. They were beautiful together, Arkay had to admit. But another part of him brought his hand up to touch where Nashen had kissed him. For some reason the light brush seemed even more intimate than Avilan's wide open acceptance.
      "I want both of you." Karola waved him over. On benumbed feet, Arkay approached the three of them. There was no way he could cut in. Avilan had Nashen firmly wrapped around his nager. Then Nashen leaned back. His lips were reddened from Avilan's desperate kisses. "Go on."
      Arkay couldn't refuse Karola's push. He leaned forward, willing to accept a token kiss to please her. From the look on Nashen's face, he was thinking the same thing. Good enough.
      What started out token, soon ran out of control. From a simple, dry kiss, Nashen's lips parted to his. The heat of need was matched by the heat of Nashen's sweet mouth opening under his. The chair creaked under his weight as he leaned against the back. Nashen's slender fingers twined in his hair. Soon he was arched back, with Nashen ravishing his mouth.
      No one had ever taken him like this. There was no twisted darkness such as when Ilya had dominated him so evilly, but only a desire so overwhelming as to command all selyn before it. Arkay was lost in Nashen's need calling to his own. Nashen's demands on his mouth only fired his need hotter. A silent moan bound their fields together in living fire.
      Arkay could do nothing but give himself over to Nashen's strength. He'd never dreamed anyone could call forth Arkay's want of submission so easily, or so softly. For all his demands, Nashen used no force at all. Arkay was lost. He collapsed into Nashen's arms, giving over all he had. "I think you like." Nashen murmured against his lips.
      "I do." He dared say, overcome by the moment. Then it was over. With Avilan at his side, Arkay couldn't go on. From the shocked look on Nashen's face, neither could he. As deftly as he could, he tried to relinquish his grasp on Nashen's field.
      "Go on," Avilan shook his head. "What's stopping you?"
      Arkay couldn't stutter out a word. All his blood was in his wrists. He was ready for anyone. Nashen not only had his fingers tangled in Arkay's hair, but his tentacles as well. Never, not even as an adolescent, had Arkay been caught out so badly. It wouldn't have been so bad if he hadn't known how much Avilan was looking forward to taking Lord Fatima this month.
      "I'm not quite ready yet." At last Nashen managed to extricate his hand. From the sweet scent of roniplin, his words were a lie. Nashen was as ready as Arkay was, physically if nothing else. Then Avilan did it. He placed the end of Arkay's braid in Nashen's hand. Before either of them could say anything else, both Avilan and Karola had vanished.
      "I think this is a hint." Nashen's need darkened nager twinkled with amusement.
      "I think you're right." Arkay realized he had no choice in the matter now. "Are you going to take it?" His heart was pounding in his throat. He'd never have dared take the initiative with Nashen. But their single kiss had tempted him like little else ever had.
      "I would like to." Nashen's fingers trembled as he plucked at the thread tying off Arkay's hair. "If I can get this untied."
      "We have time." Arkay's hand met Nashen's. "You know I have a light trigger."
      "Have you ever killed when you didn't intend?"
      "Not entirely," Arkay turned his face away. "Testing transfers, on lords unable to find a partner because of roughness."
      "How many?" Nashen's voice held none of the scorn Arkay would have expected. He jerked his head up. "None of my business."
      "It is." Arkay took a deep breath. "Four, one survived."
      "Here or at Kirov?" Nashen's hand had stilled. This was what he'd been afraid of.
      "Call Avilan back." Arkay couldn't take the risk. Particularly with a friend. He knew Nashen was frightfully delicate.
      "Where?"
      "The survivor was here." Arkay watched in utter astonishment as Nashen untied the end of his braid. Kinked by braiding, gold and now silver strands spilled over Nashen's hand.
      "In friendship," Nashen accepted Arkay's hand in transfer. "We can call them back in if it would make you feel more secure?"
      "I think so." He admitted his fears.
      "You aren't nineteen anymore, Arkay." Avilan sat at their feet. Karola stood behind Nashen, guarding him.
      "No, I'm not." He looked up into her violet eyes. His one kiss with Nashen had teased at feelings Arkay knew he didn't want to deal with. There was something to Nashen's touch which made him feel exposed and vulnerable. As if in Nashen's purity, he could clearly zlin all the grubby spots on Arkay's soul too clearly.
      "I understand," Karola rested her hands on Nashen's shoulders. "My first time with someone I don't know is always a bit awkward."
      "I don't want to hurt you, Nashen." Arkay tried to explain himself.
      "It's fine." The ambient had cooled. Arkay looked down at his hair tangling in Nashen's slender fingers. This wasn't going to work. The fire which had blazed so brightly between them had vanished without a trace. Feeling horribly impotent, Arkay watched helplessly as Nashen let Arkay's hair spill from his hands.
      He must have felt it too. This wasn't going to work. Arkay met Nashen's eyes as boldly as he could. There was a warmth there, entirely unrelated to transfer. "It's all right, Arkay. This is not the time. Not when we are both unsettled in ourselves."
      Arkay could hear the words Nashen left unspoken. How he was feeling unsettled and unsure of himself. With creaking joints, Arkay stood to let Avilan take his place. "I'm sorry." He whispered.
      "Don't be." Nashen's acceptance only made Arkay's guilt worse. He longed to take it back. To try to somehow be good enough for Nashen. But no, Avilan was good enough. Arkay would never be.
     

Chapter 4


      "How did you manage to change so radically?" Nashen couldn't help but wonder at the shift Arkay had taken in his perspective of him. It was so different than the picture he'd always painted. Nashen had never really been sure if that one kiss had really happened at all.
      "Oh, it happened," Arkay's profile was set off by the sun streaming through the scratched windows. "Believe me, it happened." His smile caught at Nashen's heartstrings again. "I spent many hours thinking about that one kiss."
      "So did I." Nashen admitted. "But how, why?"
      "I think the turning point was seeing you as an adult; someone capable of truly making their own decisions. Only then did I realize you were more than ..."
      "More than one of Avilan's passing fancies?" Nashen asked wryly.
      "No," he shook his head. "More than a glamorous paramour, actually. I always feared I wouldn't be able to reach past your reserve."
      "You did." Nashen chuckled.
      "True enough," Arkay rolled his eyes. "Maybe your nearly killing me taught me a lesson."
      "That I was a dangerous a man as you?"
      "I think that was a large part of it, actually." Arkay sighed and began dressing.
      "We have time." Nashen stopped his hand. "At least another couple of hours, actually."
      "Do you really think it will take them that long to get going?"
      "Get stopped is more like it." Nashen arranged the pillows against the headboard so they could cuddle some more. "So, my pounding you into the floor taught you I was dangerous?"
      "More that you were actually a peer." Arkay slithered into his lap. Nashen always loved this part of having a true partner. Particularly as so few of those he had transfer with could be considered partners for more than seclusion. "Admittedly, you got me hot and bothered. But I couldn't see beyond your pretty face and gorgeous body."
      "I have a face like a hawk and a body like a rail, Arkay."
      "Hush," Arkay pinched him hard enough to evoke a yelp. "Let me tell you what was going through my mind our very first transfer." This, Nashen had to hear.
     
      A few drops of rain spatted on the planking by Arkay's feet. It was time for truth. He was kilometers from home, with a Sime who needed him. There was no one else for Nashen so far from home. No one else on board their ship could take Nashen's hand in transfer.
      Wood creaked under his elbows as he leaned over the rail. Sea birds dipped towards the dark waves. Tiny white horses chased each other towards shore. They were making excellent time. Soon they'd be in waters entirely unknown to Arkay. Not that he was so very familiar with the Black Sea.
      He turned his face towards the wind. Rigging clattered overhead. The sun was westering, throwing great spears of orange and red across the sky through the lowering clouds.
      "Only a shower." Nashen's voice startled him so badly he yelped.
      "Don't fall." He grabbed the back of Arkay's kador. He'd taken to wearing his heaviest these last few days, not wanting to disturb the rens who sailed the vessel.
      "I'd sink." He turned. Dark circles marred Nashen's normally quite cheerful looking face. He'd only managed to eat a few crumbs this past week. Between sea sickness and need, he'd lost a great deal of weight.
      "In that, you would." Nashen attempted a grin, mostly successfully.
      "I feel more comfortable here in Fatima black."
      "They're heavy." Nashen shifted his weight from foot to foot. "I can do a shunt."
      "No," Arkay closed his eyes. The swaying of the deck amplified the knocking of his knees. "I'm scared, Nashen."
      "I know." His shadowed eyes were soft before he came to stand at Arkay's side. "I can be none other than I am."
      "I'd not expect otherwise." Arkay spoke to the midnight dark sea as well. As the sun vanished below the horizon, a great green flash spread across the sky. He smiled at the vision. "I wouldn't want anything else."
      "Are you sure?" Nashen's slender fingers were wrapped around the dark railing. They seemed to nearly glow in the low light. Even as need sapped the last of his selyn reserves. It wouldn't be long until need became the entire focus of both their lives. Arkay'd lived with need every month since he'd established shortly before his eighteenth birthday and often wondered exactly what it was like for Simes. For him it was a sensation of burning up from the inside out.
      "For me it is a chill wrapping my soul in ice. As if I am about to freeze to death."
      "But freezing to death is not the most painful way to go."
      "Not the early stages." His arms wrapped around his own waist. "I won't rape you, Arkay."
      "I volunteered."
      "Why?"
      "I wanted to." There were many things he had to do. Making amends with Nashen and his son were the least of them, but at least he'd do his best.
      "I don't want your guilt in my bed, Arkay." He turned with the same anger Arkay'd only seen once before.
      "I can understand that." Arkay couldn't face him. He'd done wrong with no way to repay. "I'm sorry."
      "You said as much once before."
      "When you kissed me?"
      "Yes," he admitted, still watching the waves in their endless rush to shore. "I didn't mean to tease."
      "No?" One of Nashen's hands impinged on the corner of Arkay's vision. Before it could get away, Arkay captured it in his own. A shock, very much like Nashen's lightning traveled up his arm. "We can't consummate our transfer."
      "Why not?"
      "In front of Vayer and Darya?" Nashen sounded aghast, even though he didn't take back his hand.
      "They can go find another cabin."
      "There are no other cabins." Nashen reminded him. Their entwined hands were not helping Arkay's ability to think.
      "Then let us watch the storm for a bit."
      "It isn't much of one." But he did take Arkay over to the shelter of the deck cabin, when they'd watched the last storm Nashen had steered away from their ship. "Unless you want some lightning and thunder."
      He couldn't believe Nashen was joking at a time like this. Arkay looked up at him out of the corner of his eye. One corner of his mouth twitched upwards, giving him away. He was.
      He sat, letting Nashen choose where he'd come to rest. Startling Arkay rather badly, he arranged himself on Arkay's lap. This was not what he'd expected. Then the rain took over from the wind. "Better?"
      "You didn't?"
      "Not much." Nashen's eyes were bright with the last light of the sun. "A little."
      "I'm flattered." Arkay wrapped his arms around Nashen's lean body. Even in need, the warmth felt good with the chill air.
      "Thank you for cosseting me when I was sick." Nashen's words were barely audible over the rain on the deck.
      "You are quite welcome, even though no thanks are necessary." Arkay settled his seatbones a bit more solidly against the hard wood. Nashen rested his head on Arkay's shoulder. No Sime had ever made Arkay feel quite so protective. He brushed Nashen's damp hair back away from his face. The feel of his smooth, warm skin went straight to Arkay's arms.
      "I still thank you." His nose was a bit cold as he nuzzled Arkay's temple. He didn't want Nashen to get a chill, so he unlaced his kador and brought Nashen's hands inside. They too were cold. Arkay warmed them gently against his side. "You smell good."
      "After nearly a week without more than a salt water bath?" Arkay doubted this.
      "Yes," Nashen breathed in heavily. "You smell very Gen."
      Arkay was flattered. Karola often made him feel, most likely quite inadvertently, as if she could go on indefinitely without Gen help. Nashen's warm weight on his lap made him feel as if he could satisfy any Sime in the world, just by his being Gen. "Thank you."
      "It's only the truth." Nashen's hands burrowed deeper into his borrowed kador. Arkay realized this one also had shoulder laces. After a bit of rearranging, he managed to open it far enough Nashen could nearly crawl inside. "I like this."
      "You like watching the storms you raise?"
      "Yes. Isn't that silly?"
      "Not really," Arkay stroked Nashen's back inside the warm tent he'd made for the two of them. Outside was cold and wet, inside was warm. "I used to like watching storms as well."
      "No longer?" Nashen's shoulders tensed.
      "I rarely have time for such things anymore. Not since I was a youth." He admitted.
      "You should take time, Arkay. We only have so much of it to spend." Nashen's play on the literal meaning of money made him smile. Trust a Fatima to joke about money. "Is all this you?" Nashen's fingers twined in the hair of Arkay's chest.
      "Afraid so," Arkay really wished Nashen weren't quite so fascinated with Arkay's hair. He was edging quite close to certain places which were rather sensitive. Arkay's breath caught suddenly as one of Nashen's fingertips brushed over the bare spot beneath his pectoral muscle.
      "Hurt?"
      "No," he blinked away a bit of his shock. Then a shiver ran through his body as Nashen brushed a kiss over Arkay's heart.
      "I can hear your heartbeat." Nashen's lips moved against his tingling skin. "It isn't perfect."
      "No, it's not." Arkay well knew he carried scars in his heart, weakening it badly. As long as he stayed fit, and unstressed, he was fine. But as he'd proven the winter before Tzer was born, it was flawed.
      "Who?"
      "Ilya," he pressed Nashen close for a moment, wanting him still.
      "The monster," Nashen growled. Warmth trickled over his breast in a spray of eerily familiar tendrils. Arkay gasped, aroused and frightened at the sensation.
      "I'm sorry." Nashen's head tipped down. "I didn't mean it."
      "Oh, don't," Arkay shook his head. "Please don't. You didn't hurt."
      "But you've been hurt before."
      "Yes, and I healed."
      "Not completely," Nashen's voice was fierce. "Shenned madman."
      "Hush," Arkay rocked him, as he would a child. "It is past and gone now, Nashen."
      "I hurt you as well."
      "You did, when I deserved it." Arkay wrapped his arms around Nashen's entire body as he curled up into a ball. Like a hound, he could fold into an amazingly small package. "But not just now."
      "Then?"
      "It felt good." He admitted, knowing the truth of the matter. "We can stay here as long as you wish, Nashen."
      "Isn't your butt getting numb?"
      "Not really," he figured a little lie would go unnoticed. Nashen slithered out of the protection of the garment they shared and glared at him. Arkay blushed. He'd been caught out.
      "Stand up," Nashen waved, obviously irritated. Arkay wasn't going to quibble. He'd seen the first signs of age in Lord Fatima. Irritating him further, over something so trivial, would not improve matters any.
      Nashen bustled around a bit, resettling Arkay on folds of his own kador. "Better," he burrowed back into the rearranged kador. Now they were nestled up against an inside corner of the cabin, looking out into the rain. He had to admit this was far more comfortable.
      Even though he realized Nashen had divested himself of his overtunic and both of them of their boots. Beneath the folds of cloth, it was now far warmer as well. Arkay ducked his head inside to see Nashen settling back in against his chest.
      "Now I see a real reason for oversized kadors."
      "Uh-huh," Nashen mumbled, nuzzling Arkay's chest again. "Where were we?"
      "You were teasing me." His hands explored Nashen's lean body with renewed interest. He could count every single rib from top to bottom. This wasn't good. As soon as he could, Arkay was going to feed this poor Sime up. Diomid hadn't been doing much of a job.
      "He had an uphill battle, Arkay." Nashen responded to the unspoken thought, as he sometimes did when very relaxed. Arkay took this as a good sign. If he didn't want Nashen shenning out on him, he had a long evening ahead of himself.
      "Do you mind?"
      "No," Arkay said quickly. "I like foreplay."
      "Good, so do I." Nashen's field twinkled with the last glimmers of selyn left to him. "A lot."
      "Greedy," he teased gently, stroking his hand over Nashen's back.
      "For some things," Nashen stretched against Arkay's touch. "I like being touched as well."
      "More than other Simes?"
      "Yes," his field flickered pink. He hadn't meant to embarrass him. "Oh, I'm just a bit Fatima sometimes."
      "What do you mean by that, Nashen?" His hands continued their explorations. Down over long, lean, well muscled thighs and then down tight calves to trailing feet. Arkay had never felt, personally, a Fatima lord and found Nashen's body almost a parody of what it was to be Sime. Sleek and slender, no one would ever mistake him for a Gen.
      "Hard to start, but once started, harder to stop." His field reddened even more. "More momentum, I suppose."
      "Will you want to stop?" Arkay knew he could be a bit aggressive about consummating his transfers, particularly with someone so very Sime.
      "I can." Nashen's face turned up to look at him.
      "But will you want to?"
      "Probably not," his eyes fell from Arkay's.
      "I mean to get you post, Nashen."
      "If you want to."
      "Why wouldn't I?"
      "Because this is only a temporary obligation."
      "You've owed me a good transfer for many years, Nashen." Arkay reminded him with a grin. "I mean to collect, in all ways."
      Nashen gasped, grabbing him with fingers and tentacles both. The solid grip made Arkay's heart trip over a beat. There were few things he liked more than having his partner take over ... at least some of the time.
      "You can't mean it."
      "I do." He hugged Nashen close again. How he wished he could remember how he'd managed to fire Nashen's interest that one time. Arkay rummaged through his memory.
      Trying to think of what had happened, Arkay divested Nashen of his undershirt. He'd seen Nashen's body before, but had never quite gotten to explore him thoroughly. Nashen arched his neck, entirely the tender Sime being exposed to his older Gen. The imagery made Arkay's mouth water. Arkay's fingers traced the lines of muscle playing beneath Nashen's Sime thin skin.
      There wasn't a spare gram on him anywhere. Beneath his fingertips, Arkay could even feel the striations of Nashen's muscles. Then Arkay's shirt fell away before Nashen's deft explorations.
      "I've always wanted to do this." His voice was so low Arkay thought he imagined it for a moment. Arkay's fingers traced the line of Nashen's bowed neck. It was so very perfect, like a horse giving to the bit. His hand trembled. "Cold?"
      "No," his voice dropped a bit. "Not at all." He cupped Nashen's chin and tipped it up. Nashen's eyes were dark but for the tiniest gleam of light at their center. His lips parted and his tongue flicked out. The sound carried even over the rain.
      All the hair on Arkay's arms stood on end. Without thinking about what he was doing, Arkay brushed his lips over Nashen's. This time the lightning was far from faint. He moaned, loosing track of everything but Nashen's lips opening to his.
      The sweet scent of roniplin filled his nostrils to overflowing. Nashen's warm breath teased at him even more. He had to take. His fingers tangled in Nashen's hair, pulling his head back even further. Nashen groaned. Need opened beneath his senses.
      "Give unto me." Arkay demanded, crushing Nashen to his chest with all his might.
      "Yes," Nashen breathed, entirely passive. "Oh yes," his eyes lit with fire from within. "I want."
      "Then you will have." Arkay tipped Nashen head to better taste him. Sweet fire caressed his nerves, driving his desires even hotter. Nothing had ever prepared him for this. He plundered Nashen's mouth with his own, demanding he open to him.
      Their tongues danced, tasting each other. Arkay couldn't hold back. His fingers dug into Nashen's arms. Tentacles lashed around his own shoulders with bruising force. Pain changed to pleasure with the force of his desires.
      Selyn flared into light, blinding him through closed eyelids. Giving over himself, choking fire poured from him into the velvet night he held in his hands. With a snap, his wings opened above the burgeoning plains beneath his feet. At his side another rose, twined about him glorying in his own freedom.
     
      In shock, Arkay realized what he'd done. Nashen moaned. "Are you all right?" He hadn't even gotten his breath back. Arkay'd never accosted any Sime like that, much less one he knew was fragile.
      "Oh yes," Nashen's eyes fluttered open. "Ins'Allah," he breathed. His nager was spiraling out of control. Arkay'd never sensed anything like this as well. He didn't dare breathe. Then Nashen stretched, hissing. Fear clamped Arkay's heart in a vise.
      Then he saw the look in Nashen's eyes. There was no real physical desire in them. Shen, Arkay swore to himself. But then he'd been so quick, his body was still completely confused. "I'm sorry I ..." he couldn't say he'd raped him, even though it was utterly true.
      "Don't be," Nashen's field flicked dark for an instant. "Wait a moment."
      Arkay froze. Nashen shuddered all over and then his nager resettled. "Wow."
      "Oh?" This was not what he'd expected.
      "You are amazing." Now he sounded drunk. Startling Arkay even more, Nashen threw his arms around Arkay's shoulders and kissed his face, all over. Sloppy, wet kisses. His maniacal laughter echoed off the woodwork behind them. "Why did I wait so long!"
      "Nashen, little one," Arkay couldn't help but laugh with him. "What is it?"
      "Happy!" He caroled, wildly without regard for pitch or scale. "Oh, wheeee!"
      "Silly," Arkay kissed him right back, infected by Nashen's incredible glee. He'd sensed Simes coming out of first transfer less cheerful.
      "I want to sing, I want to fly, I want to cheer." He burbled. "Oh, Arkay, thank you, thank you."
      "For?" Arkay couldn't help his chuckles.
      "I'm born anew." His eyes gleamed with their own light. "Never let anyone tell you, you aren't great in transfer. I've never felt anything like that."
      "I have to ask, what was so good about it?" Arkay knew he'd ravished Nashen without regard for any of the niceties. He'd opened up so fast, Arkay had been out of control.
      "Freeeee." He sang. "Like dancing with the wind or flying with an angel."
      "You flatter me." His smile was about to crack his face in two. "Not that I don't appreciate it."
      "Then let me flatter you more." Nashen's hands were exploring Arkay's face as if he'd never known a Gen before. "Your nager is liquid fire, filling my soul with life. Your spirit is an angel, bringing blessings from on high. Your selyn courses through my body, enlivening it with the elixir of eternity."
      "You are post." Arkay laughed.
      "Yes," his smile lit the dark corner they'd settled in. "I am." A softness replaced the maniacal gaiety. "And you?"
      "Very," even though his carnal desires were still banked. Arkay'd never known such peace except at his own first transfer. It was as if he'd been returned to the purity of youth. "Although ..."
      "I feel it too." Nashen sighed. "I'd only feared I wasn't enough for you."
      "No," Arkay held Nashen to him. Listening to the rain, he rocked Nashen in his arms to the rhythm of the waves against the ship. "You took me so easily I thought I'd found my match."
     
      "And so you did, my love." Nashen's smile echoed that he'd shown that night so long ago. "And so you did."
      "I do wonder what happened that night on the ship." Arkay held Nashen close. "I'd never had a transfer like that except my first."
      "Me either." Nashen nuzzled Arkay's neck. "I do wonder how it was we were joined, sometimes late at night."
      "The Will of Allah," once upon a time Arkay would have never said such a thing. But times change, as do people. "Although I wonder how much of a finger Diomid had in it."
      "Don't know," Nashen resettled himself a bit. "Do you?"
      "Some, I'm sure," Arkay cupped his hand around Nashen's backside. It was chilled. He tossed a blanket over the two of them. "He's incredibly powerful."
      "If occasionally an idiot."
      "Occasionally," Arkay returned to petting his lover. "I am glad he recovered his memories of Sasha."
      "Me too."
      "Any particular reason why?"
      "Completion, I think," Nashen's insight sometimes startled him. "He was incomplete without those memories. Now he knows how he came to be the way he is."
      "True," Arkay rested his chin on Nashen's head. "Do you still think of your first love?"
      "Yes," he responded instantly. "Not always well, however. It still sometimes bothers me what she did."
      "Abandon you for the highest bidder?"
      "Yes," he snorted. "Live and learn, I suppose."
      "Better than not living," Arkay reminded him. "I sometimes remember Katrina."
      "Well?"
      "Yes, actually," he sighed. "Even though now, with the perspective of time, I do wonder what I ever saw in her."
      "I don't remember her at all."
      "Good, I think," Arkay pushed away all his memories of that time. "She looked and zlinned like Kir, but I think she was mad, now. As if she'd been infected with the Kirov madness by contamination."
      "Poor Kir," Nashen clutched at Arkay's side. "I miss her and Val."
      "Me too," he sighed. "So many gone, my lover."
      "I'll never leave thee."
      "You said so many years ago." Arkay took in another deep breath. "Do you remember that night in Jaffa?"
      "All of them." Nashen's field twinkled brightly. "Which were you thinking of?"
      "The first time we truly shared transfer."
      "I was such an idiot, Arkay." Nashen pinched him. He yelped and batted at Nashen's erring hand. "How could you stand me?"
      "Easily," he reassured him. "You are a very easy Sime to love, my Nashen."
      "Hush," he looked up. "I raped you, Arkay."
      "Hardly," he shook his head. "You showed enthusiasm. I hadn't had a Sime come after me with such intent since I was a youth! It was overwhelming."
      "Only because you'd been bundled up in a Southerner's kador for months by that point."
      "I do admit it helped." He chuckled. "Why don't you tell me how you saw that night?" He'd always been curious as to Nashen's state of mind that tumultuous evening.
     
      Nashen wiped his hands off on his thighs, again. Here at the shore, the air was sticky with humidity, even as sand drifted through the streets blasted by the sun during the day. He couldn't wait too much longer.
      He'd never known such a depth of need before. Enriched by Allah's largess, Nashen's personal system begged for more selyn than it had ever held. His belly tightened as need yawned beneath his senses.
      "Easy," Arkay's hand cupped his elbow.
      "I'll be all right." Nashen blinked torchlight from his eyes. He swayed on his feet as another wave of dizziness passed through him.
      "We are going straight home." Arkay tipped his face upwards. His field reached out towards the stars overhead. A stranger hissed their annoyance. "Quit that." He snapped in Russian.
      "He can't understand you, Arkay." Nashen reminded him.
      "Good," Arkay muttered, blowing at his heavy veil again. "This way." He steered Nashen through the winding streets of the ancient city. If it hadn't been for two walled off alleys, a tent, and three misplaced carts, they would have been back sooner than if Nashen had led the way. But he wasn't saying a word.
      "Good," Arkay repeated. The broad facade of the Fatima town house welcomed them home. Then he tried to walk right through the passway.
      "Halt and be recognized."
      Arkay snarled and tried to push his way through.
      "Go away." Nashen hissed under his breath. He'd zlinned Arkay in a mood before. He tended to run over things, like rens, Lords and small houses. Nashen wasn't getting in his way.
      "Good idea," with a clatter, she bolted.
      "Hold on." Nashen tugged on Arkay's sleeve. Salt and sand made his arms itch fiercely. With a sigh of relief, Nashen washed clean his forearms.
      "Feels good." Arkay's eyes were dark behind his veil.
      "Want a swim?" Nashen wasn't entirely sure of himself, now that the moment of truth was at hand. Perhaps a bit of diversion wouldn't be such a bad idea.
      "Where?"
      "Gen quarters," Nashen gave his lover a wicked grin. "I know exactly where."
      "Lead on." Arkay stepped behind him so quickly Nashen nearly got a chill from the breeze. On the way by, Nashen collected a few lengths of toweling.
      By the time they reached the beach, the moon had risen. There were a few other people, couples mostly, enjoying the privacy of the late night. He spread their towels out in a secluded cove along the shore well above the tide line.
      "This is beautiful." Arkay's face was turned towards the sea.
      Feeling quite awkward, Nashen slid off his loose robes. He rarely exposed his body to anyone. Even in bed, he never quite felt comfortable with it, often keeping on some sort of loose shirt. Out here under the light of the moon, there was no where to hide.
      "You are even more beautiful."
      Nashen turned to see Arkay stare at him. Maybe he was desirable, a little. His long limbs seemed gangly and strange to himself. "Let me help." Nashen reached up for Arkay's veil.
      "If you like," Arkay's lashes described silver feathers tracing his cheekbones in the light of the moon. If he didn't know better, he'd have said Arkay was feeling a bit odd as well. The metal threaded veil fell away. Nashen's knees trembled.
      Even this little bit of exposure made roniplin trickle down his arms. What would it be like with Arkay exposed entirely. Unwilling to wait, he undid the laces of Arkay's kador with Fatima speed.
      Nashen gaped in awe. The delicate underclothes Arkay wore only accentuated his magnificent nager. Only his bracelets blocked Nashen's ability to zlin the incredible Sharm Lord before him. Avilan was beautiful, but didn't have half the pure strength of Arkay.
      "You're staring." Arkay said quietly, only deepening the spell.
      "Yes, I am." Nashen couldn't take his attention away. "Truly Allah's blessing." His arms were already throbbing with unsatisfied longing. "I ..." Nashen didn't know how to express even half the feelings coursing through his body. Certainly he was lightheaded with lust, but also his heart seemed to overflow with warmth, even as cold need accentuated his longing to warm himself at Arkay's fire.
      "I'm going to blush."
      "Do," Nashen teased gently. "I would be flattered." His fingertips reached out to brush over Arkay's bracelets. "You are beautiful, Arkay." He caught Arkay's face in his hands. After so long being denied the zlin of his partner, the gesture held tremendous strength. Arkay was his partner, not to be zlinned or seen by any other Sime.
      His face warmed between Nashen's hands.
      "I'm only a man, Nashen." His chin trembled a bit as a faint smile played hide and seek with his blushes.
      "But you are also my Alahin." Nashen wished he could express half the longing he held for Arkay. It was not time yet, to talk of love and the future. "I'd dreamed of finding a partner, never even admitting truly to myself how much I wished for that partner to be you." His throat knotted up, rendering him speechless.
      "Why me?" Arkay's hands were trembling as they unlaced Nashen's undershirt. Why was he so nervous? "Because I've never had a true partner, Nashen."
      "Never?" He was a aghast.
      "Not even as much as you and Taina." A single tear tracked down his cheek, even as it was lined with need. "You don't know how much I envied you even the illusion of love."
      "But what of you and Avilan?"
      "He's Gen, like me." Arkay's fingers brushed Nashen's arms as he slipped the shirt from Nashen's shoulders. The deft touch made Nashen's breath catch. For a long moment, all Nashen could do was try to still his racing pulse. He could zlin each pulse of selyn coursing through Arkay's body. It was not yet time, but he could zlin Arkay's production slowing in preparation for hard need.
      "What of Karola? She's born you children."
      "True," Arkay tipped his head. "I love her dearly, but she is my closest friend's handfasted partner. I ...," he took a deep, gulping breath. "I'd have tried for her first, but Avilan beat me to it."
      "I can understand why." Nashen said, trying to put his feelings into his tone. "In some ways, I can see it being almost lonelier, to be the third in such a household."
      "Yes," as he tipped his head back, the moonlight spilled over his cheekbones. "I love them, Nashen. But still their pairing sometimes means I'm left watching."
      "I can't say I understand. Not precisely. I've never been there." He stepped even closer and nearly swooned as he entered the core of Arkay's tremendous nager.
      "Are you all right?"
      "Yes," he said quickly, trying to blink his vision back to the real world. The infinite dance of selyn and night lingered behind his eyes. "I'm not used to this." He said at last, hoping his voice wouldn't crack like an adolescent.
      Nashen's knees did buckle when Arkay put his arms around him. It was too much. Against the cooling night, Arkay's field was a bonfire reaching for heaven. "Nashen, come back to me."
      "I'm fine." He shivered in Arkay's arms. "Give me a moment."
      "You aren't facing attrition yet?"
      "But I'm deeper in need than I've ever been before in my life." He felt like such a fool reminding Arkay of the obvious.
      "Don't berate yourself, Nashen."
      His brain ran in little circles. Then what was he supposed to do?
      "Hush," Arkay licked his nose! Argh! Nashen tried to lick him back. It didn't work. Arkay leaned back out of range. "I turn into an idiot in need too. I just don't do so as spectacularly as Avilan."
      "Oh," Nashen finally realized what was going on. "I think I would like to swim for a bit."
      "That sounds delightful."
      Nashen really wished Arkay hadn't let him go. But he could watch. As each translucent garment fell to the sand, his heartbeat sped up. Never before had he dared watch so openly. Certainly he'd caught glimpses, even seen Arkay fully nude, but never for him.
      He slipped his own trousers off and kicked them into the pile. "You are beautiful." Arkay's words stopped Nashen in his tracks. He'd turned to head towards the sea, and now wasn't quite sure what to do. "I've watched you for years."
      "Because?"
      "I like to look at beautiful creatures, even those I can never touch or have." Arkay's toes spread into the soft sand beneath their feet. Even his strongly arched, beautifully defined feet were magnificent. Then Nashen zlinned what had been done to them.
      "Ins'Allah, Arkay," he knelt in the sand, touching them.
      "Ilya," he said quickly. "You don't have to kneel."
      Now that it had been pointed out, Nashen couldn't help but zlin the dead spots and distortions left behind by Ilya Kirovich. "What a monster."
      "Yes," he tugged Nashen to his feet with his field. "There is nothing to be done at this point."
      "Yes there is." He set his jaw. "I can be sure to warm you well in winter, rub sweet oil into your skin and sooth the worst of your aches with cloves and amber."
      "Oh Nashen," Arkay's arms came around him and picked him up off the sand. "You don't have to do any such thing. I'll be all right. I've survived so far."
      "I would have you prosper and thrive." Nashen's feet were dangling in the air. Not even Diomid had given him such an impression of being cherished simply in their physical presence.
      "You would." Arkay's eyes were softer than he'd ever seen them. "Let's swim." Together, they waded into the warm water. Arkay's nager glittered with pleasure at the soft feel of the sea. He reached down and brought a bit to his lips. "I've never tasted the ocean before."
      "Salty, isn't it?" Nashen dove out of reach before Arkay could swat him for such a silly answer. Here, even Nashen could float a bit if he really tried. In fresh water he sank like a rock. He turned back to zlin Arkay shaking his head.
      "I'm a lousy swimmer, Nashen." His awkward flailing at the water proved his words immediately.
      "Relax," Nashen slid beneath him, showing him how to let the water take his weight. "Don't fight it."
      "I'm not." He sputtered as more water got up his nose.
      "Easy," Nashen supported him for a bit. He'd never known the feel of any Gen in the ocean before. The salt water was an excellent conductor of selyn. Arkay's nager was lighting the ambient below water farther than he could see. Curious, Nashen let his laterals flick out.
      "Wow!" Arkay stopped thrashing around, finally moving with the aid of the water, not against it. He ducked his head under water for an instant and came up sputtering. "Did not help."
      "I wouldn't have thought so." Nashen laughed all the while making very sure he kept Arkay afloat.
      "Let me zlin again."
      "All right," Nashen shook his head. There wasn't a significant amount of sand in the water, so Nashen let his laterals slide out and stay out. The water was warm enough not to shock them. His true vision faded to the fantastic imagery of zlinning.
      With the amplification of the sea, Nashen could zlin all the myriad creatures living in the warm water. From infinitesimal crustaceans to huge fish, all woven on the warp of the ocean. Even the soft plant like creatures opening up to the night currents were fascinating in their primitive hunger.
      Holding his breath, as only a Sime could do, Nashen dove for the bottom. Even more creatures lived and breathed here. As long as he could, Nashen zlinned the web of life supporting so many living things.
      On his return to the surface, Nashen could zlin Arkay tentatively opening up to him. Not wanting to intrude, he only caught the faintest glimpse of wistful longing before he shied away. He surfaced only to find Arkay looking away. His face was even more heavily lined than earlier.
      "What is it?"
      "I'd not hide from you."
      "Oh," Nashen was thunderstruck. "We are bound to each other, with or without our wills. I'd not force you into anything more." This was better discussed on dry land. Besides, he could zlin Arkay's body beginning to protest the fairly strenuous exercise. Too much would be even worse than not enough exercise.
      "Are you going to start clucking now?"
      "Karola told us to take care of you." He picked up a bit of clean toweling and began drying Arkay off.
      "I'm not a horse."
      "I want to touch." Nashen admitted.
      "Oh," Arkay's eyes went wide. "Go ahead." He ducked his head, his cheeks reddening again. Nashen's fingers caressed each smooth sweep of delicate Gen muscle, one by one. From his strong feet and calves all the way up to his broad shoulders. And then down. Cent by cent, Nashen caressed each bare millimeter of Arkay's arms.
      As he explored, Nashen realized how very unusual Arkay's arms were. His mouth watered as he found his fingertips tracing over and between the lines of scar tissue marring Arkay's forearms. Ashamed, Nashen fought his fingers to a standstill.
      "You don't have to stop." Arkay's voice had dropped over an octave. "I'd really prefer it if you didn't, actually."
      "So formal," one of Nashen's ventrals traced over a single line of bright energy it'd found near the surface. Arkay bit at his lower lip. Afraid he'd done wrong, Nashen froze.
      "No, don't stop." His eyes were black with more than the dim night.
      "You like?" Nashen had a hard time believing this. He shivered all over with a sudden chill.
      "Here, my Alamir," Arkay scooped up another towel and removed the last few damp spots from Nashen's skin. But in symbolism, he couldn't believe Arkay would do such a thing. "You don't have to stop."
      Tentatively, Nashen reached for Arkay's hand. He only brushed the back of it. Warmth greeted the contact. Emboldened, Nashen curled his fingers around Arkay's. His broad hand clasped his. "So timid?"
      "I don't wish to give offense." His tentacles tried to grab. Nashen yanked them back into their sheathes.
      "Sit with me." Arkay tugged him down to sit on the towels he'd set out. This was it. Fear or lust made Nashen's pulse race, he wasn't sure which. It was up to him, now. Before Arkay'd led their transfers. What if he couldn't perform? What if he offended Arkay? There was no going back. Bonded by Allah, there was no other for him again. "I don't bite."
      "I do." Nashen watched the gentle waves hiss against the beach. The echo of Arkay's ever shifting field brought his attention back.
      "I like." Arkay leaned against him. Without thinking of what he was doing, Nashen put his arm over Arkay's shoulders. "This is good."
      Nashen'd never known Arkay to speak so plainly. He glanced over at him in question, but Arkay was looking out towards the water. Allowing himself to zlin, he gaped. There were no barriers between them. No one, ever, had opened to him like this. Was it only Allah's doing? He was not complaining, but he did wish it could have been for him, personally.
      "It is." Arkay's voice barely carried over the waves. "For you alone, my Alamir. I trust you."
      "So far?" Nashen doubted he was worthy of such faith.
      "You are truly a kind man. I know you would never harm me."
      "I did." He still regretted having battered Arkay into the floor. It had all been so shenned stupid. Arkay hadn't earned such punishment.
      "Oh, I had." He turned and rested his head against Nashen's shoulder. "I had. I was wrong, very wrong. It was only your chastisement which taught me."
      "I should have only said something."
      "I wasn't listening to words, my Alamir." He sighed heavily. "Will you always hold my error against me?"
      "Never," Nashen was a aghast. As soon as it had been over, he'd wanted to make amends.
      "Exactly. You are a better person than I." Somehow he'd managed to end up in Nashen's lap. "I wish I could be more like you, Nashen."
      "Why?" Nashen knew he was nothing particularly special. Certainly he had the ability to control the weather, but that was the luck of genetics and generations of work by the veiled. It had nothing to do with him personally.
      "Because you are good. I'm, at best, indifferent." His nager grayed, proving out his words. "Only the extra at the feast, hoping for scraps left by others."
      "You are Lord and Ruler." Nashen couldn't understand where all this was coming from.
      "My father informed me of my place while Valentine lay still wet in his arms. He used Val to force me into the position. At one and the same time, I gave Val his name and lost mine." Arkay's shoulders bowed, as if beneath a great weight. "I never wanted the throne, Nashen. My love lay dead, my oath son still protesting his violent birth and my father no longer claimed me as his own son. What was I to do?"
      "Love again, my Alahin." It was the only thing Nashen could say. He rocked Arkay in time with the slowly lapping waves. "There is no greater glory than love."
      Arkay's arms held him with the force of a drowning man. He held him up, speaking the words of a lullaby Aliana had used on him, when he'd been upset and out of sorts. It wasn't truly for a child, but rather for those times when life got too hard and painful. "In time, all these things grow to fruition. As others die so still others may live. Don't fret for yesterday's sorrows or tomorrow's joys. Live with me and let time heal your wounds."
      "Bless you, Nashen." Arkay said at last, rubbing at his eyes. "You don't know how precious such words are to me."
      "They are simply the truth." He brushed his thumbs over Arkay's cheeks. Nashen's hands trembled again as he cupped Arkay's face. How he'd wished to be here, so very many times. Now it was all true, and he didn't know what to do.
      Arkay's lips twitched into a knowing smile. "I could say the same thing." Long lashes traced over high cheekbones as his eyes closed. Nashen got this hint. He tipped Arkay's face so very gently and breathed a delicate kiss against his lips. Fire shot from the simple contact straight to his wrists.
      Nashen gasped with the force of it. Stunned, all he could do was try not to grab. He needed Arkay, now! All twelve of his tentacles lashed out into the night air, even the delicate laterals. Arkay's mouth opened to his, demanding even more. He didn't know if he could give it, but couldn't refuse.
      His hands clenched as his body locked in protest. But Arkay's giving softness beneath his lips was irresistible. Tentacles twined in floor length hair as he ravished Arkay's mouth with his own. He didn't care if said hair was wet, or if there was sand in the way, he needed.
      Desire wiped all rational thought from his mind. He demanded Arkay open to him, even while fighting his own tentacles trying to find their grip. At last he managed to get them moved. They explored the length of Arkay's arms with mindless fascination.
      Soft flesh gave beneath their impetuous questing. Arkay's moan drove Nashen's desire to an even more fevered pitch. Light traced a webwork of fire to Nashen's senses. Unlike any other Gen, the selyn patterns were broken and occluded, tempting his laterals to seek out their home. The temptation to hunt only spurred him on.
      "You don't have to do ..." Arkay's words broke off as Nashen's tentacles found their place. "Oh, my." He breathed, pulling back.
      Instinct choked reason. With bruising force, his tentacles clamped down. He tried to pull them back.
      "Do it!" Arkay hissed, leaning against the pull. Then night dissolved into light. Blue white fire filled his senses as Arkay's struggles demanded response.
      "I will not rape." Nashen managed to get control of half his tentacles and struggled to release the other half.
      "Then I will." Arkay lunged. Shocked out of his mind, Nashen could only freeze. Selyn stopped on the brink of release. The screeching pain of shen threatened. He'd take it before he ever harmed Arkay again. Nashen waited for the abort to catch up to him.
      "No!" Arkay barked, his fingers driving into every nerve juncture of Nashen's lower arms. He screamed his desperate surprise. What was Arkay doing? Then Arkay's fingers moved. Slicked by the roniplin he'd expressed, Arkay's hands were stroking Nashen's arms.
      He moaned, lost to the temptation so very near his laterals. They came out, brushing Arkay's hands with each stroke. But they couldn't hold. Arkay's hands were moving too quickly.
      With maniacal strength, his handling tentacles captured Arkay's arms. Beneath their sensitive touch, Nashen could feel the ebb and flow of Arkay's field beneath the irregularities. The uneven surface drew him in. His tentacles reset, landing along those very sensitive lines between the dulled.
      Arkay's howl shattered the peace of the night. Nashen didn't care. He'd caught him. Selyn glittered against the stars. A solid yank on his tentacles seated them even harder. Nashen growled low in his throat, desperate for the prey evading his capture.
      Four perfect niches met his laterals. All he needed was the last contact. His mouth watered to overflowing. He wasn't going to miss. This time he took the easy spot, clasping his mouth over the brightest pulse of life.
      Selyn raged through his body, demanding his surrender. Nashen spread his wings and flew over the rapids of new life. Deeper and faster than he'd ever known, he met his mate, spiraling ever higher on the rising currents. Together they twined their souls in hope.
     
      Nashen opened his eyes slowly. He couldn't believe what he'd done. Arkay's final cry still echoed from the stones and sand surrounding them. Certainly other couples did use this area for the occasional outdoor adventure, but not quite so loudly!
      Then Arkay fingers slid up his arms. Oh no. He wasn't going to repeat his earlier impetuosity. As they eased around the back of his neck, his loins tightened instantly. Then he did it, Arkay tugged Nashen's head back and bit. Nashen moaned, unable to keep his libido under control again!
      "Thank you," Arkay purred, all the while nibbling on Nashen's neck. Each little bite transmitted straight past his brain to carbonate his hormones further. The memory of last month didn't help. Fired by the satiation of need, all Nashen could think of was the how very good it had felt as Arkay had given to him.
      "For?" Nashen couldn't think of a single reason Arkay would be thanking him. He could think of dozens why he should be thanking Arkay. First on the list would be not throwing him back in the water for being so rude.
      "Taking me."
      "I'm about to." Nashen muttered, trying to get unbent. Somehow, his body had managed to land Arkay on his lap. This was an awkward situation.
      "Really?" Arkay's grin seemed entirely out of place. Idiot that he was, Nashen had forgotten to bring along anything to make this situation easier. The fact he was so hard he ached did nothing to solve his problem.
      Something very wet and slick stroked him. Nashen shuddered at the overwhelming sensation. "This works." Arkay's hiss of pleasure at taking him did nothing to improve Nashen's blood pressure. Now held, with the sensation magnifying effects of roniplin added to the mixture, all Nashen could do was hold back.
      "I never think of using roniplin." Nashen tried conversation to get his passions back under control.
      "Because you're Sime." Arkay's reminder only made things worse. "My Sime."
      "Hold still." Nashen grabbed him close. Arkay wiggled. "Don't do that." He shivered all over.
      "Feels good." Arkay's teeth came down on his shoulder this time. Nashen howled, unable to stop himself. "More." Arkay growled, demanding assent.
      "I don't want to hurt you again." Nashen tried to pry his fingers out of Arkay's rear. He was going to leave enough bruises as it was. Particularly on Arkay's wrists. He didn't require claw marks on his butt.
      "Then quit fooling around!"
      "I'm not." The pressure of too much teasing built at a frantic pace. He had to take. He would not. Then Arkay's hands found his rear. Sharper than any Sime's, his nails drove themselves in with all of Arkay's strength behind them.
      Lightning shattered the midnight sky. Nashen screamed as he grasped Arkay to him with everything he had. Caressing his mate in living fire, he filled him with his passions. Blinded with release, Nashen clutched at him, unable to hold back a single fraction.
     
      "Thank you," Nashen murmured, wishing there were something he could say to make the entire situation any less awkward.
      "Thank you," Arkay shuddered again. "No wonder Avilan kept you to himself."
      "How so?" This was too outrageous. Avilan could have any Sime he wanted. All he had to do was wave his nager around their wrists. Allah knew Nashen was not immune to Avilan's blandishments.
      "You are wonderful in bed, Nashen." With another shiver, Arkay went limp. "Excellent, extraordinary, incredible, fantastic ..."
      Nashen pinched him. He twitched, finally mumbling something unintelligible. "You are a flatterer of the first order, Arkay."
      "You are good, Nashen." He leaned back. Nashen couldn't zlin to save his life at the moment, but as far as he could tell, Arkay was telling the entire truth, as he saw it. "I like a bit of spice with my sugar, my Alamir." His cheeks reddened in a blush. "Your lightnings are better than cinnamon and cloves."
      "Oh," there wasn't much Nashen could say, but he did manage to outdo Arkay's blushes. Then he thought of Diomid's words to the same effect regarding Arkay and his ears burned more. On top of it all, thinking of Diomid brought back Nashen's enthusiasm, at a gallop.
      "I seem to have found another radish!"
      Nashen laughed.
      "I hope I didn't spook it."
      "I want something more effective than roniplin, Arkay." Nashen was still giggling.
      "Works."
      "After a fashion." He hoped Arkay's enthusiasm would survive the walk back to the town house. Then he thought of Vayer and Darya. Nashen slid out from under Arkay to look around. There was no one at all in the vicinity ... other than what sounded like a six person orgy on the far side of the wall next to them.
      On silent feet, Nashen walked over to the partition. Peering over the stone work, he spied the noise generators. He grabbed a bottle of oil and went back to Arkay.
      "Who?"
      "Guess," Nashen couldn't stop giggling. Tears were streaming down his face he was trying to hard not to howl with laughter.
      "Vayer and Darya."
      "Yup."
      Arkay didn't bother to hide his howls of laughter, or his later moans of pleasure as he took Nashen. Neither did he hide anymore. It was not worth the effort compared to being able to enjoy his lover unfettered, at least by the fear of an audience.
     
      "You tell stories very well, Nashen." Arkay was amazed at how diffident Nashen had been, even still. "Although I do something wonder how you managed to hide from so many Sharm Lords for so long."
      "How so?" Now, with time, his smile was easy and unforced, at least with him. Around others, he could still be rather diffident and shy.
      "I'm still surprised you never were bonded."
      "I bonded Diomid."
      "As a friend."
      "Oh, we had wild sex, Arkay." It was so cute when he blushed, Arkay kept making him.
      "As good as ours?" Now he could brag a bit, at least in private. In the back of his mind, Arkay still thought Nashen exaggerated Arkay's prowess enormously, but then his was the judgement, so he wasn't going to quibble.
      "Of course not." Nashen pinched him again. Feeling a bit rowdy after Nashen's rather erotic story, Arkay decided to get revenge. Growling, he stuck his nose in Nashen's armpit. Nashen's screech of offended dignity nearly shattered the windows.
      A flurry of blankets and pillows rose from the bed. "I'm gonna get you." Arkay grabbed a loose sheet. It was just the right size. Looping around Nashen's arms, he pinned him to the bed.
      "Oh, please, Sharm Lord Arkay. Don't beat me. Please don't beat me. I'll be good. Really I will." Nashen's silver eyes were impossibly wide.
      "You like it when I beat you." Arkay laughed maniacally. "Maybe I shouldn't."
      "Don't you dare!" Nashen squawked, for real this time.
      "Like this?" Arkay tickled both his pits at the same time. Nashen screamed in protest at the top of his lungs. Arkay wuffled Nashen's middle. Great disgusting noises filled the air.
      Nashen's whooped with glee, or being tickled, Arkay wasn't sure which. Careful to let him breathe, Arkay nipped at Nashen's flank. Nashen sucked in a deep breath. Arkay tightened down the sheet on his legs. He couldn't tie his arms, but ankles were more than fair game.
      With a quick knot, Arkay bound Nashen's ankles firmly together. "Now I have you, my pretty!"
      "Oh, please master, please don't abuse me?"
      "I shouldn't tie your ankles to the bed post and lick you from wrist to shoulder?"
      "Don't do that!"
      "Get away from the Gen." A strange voice bellowed from the doorway. Arkay hissed in fury. No stranger was going to take his Sime. Red sheeted his vision as he lunged for the door.
      "Don't kill!" Nashen screamed. The terror in his tone drove Arkay further down the path to madness. Only the fact it was his Alamir begging him stayed Arkay's lips. Even so, he held the intruder face down between his knees.
      "What in hell are you doing here?" Arkay breathed against the woman's neck. It would only take a cent and he'd be done with her.
      "There was screaming reported. Someone was torturing a Gen."
      "Oh?" Arkay shook his head, trying to figure out what was going on. His initial blood lust was being replaced with a horrible queasiness rising in his belly. "Not really."
      "Arkay, Alahin, back away." Nashen's hand against the back of his neck was where it should be.
      "I don't trust her."
      "Who's the Gen around here?"
      Arkay blinked, realizing a bit more of what was going on. "You came up here to protect a renGen?"
      "Yes, of course." Her struggles did nothing to help his unease. If she'd only lie still a moment, he'd be able to think. "Let me up!"
      "Not until I'm sure of your motives." But he did change his hold down to her hands. The elbow grip could be excruciatingly painful for any length of time, as Arkay well knew. "Are you planning on taking my partner away from me?"
      "If your partner, as you call him, will be safe." Then her face turned pasty white from its earlier anger red. "You're Gen!"
      "Well, yes. I have been for many years, young lady."
      "He's Sime!"
      "What a gift for the obvious." Nashen's dry wit made Arkay snort with laughter. "Anything else about us you'd like to inform us? Besides the fact neither of us are children."
      "No," her nager flared the brilliant crimson of mortal embarrassment. "You two are locked in a dependency, aren't you."
      "One way to put it." Arkay leaned back. The change in altitude, along with his adrenaline fading away, blackened his vision.
      "Arkay!" Nashen's voice came from far away. "If you've hurt him ..."
      "No," he tried to suck in a deep breath. The room swayed around him. The Sime he held twisted between his knees. He clamped onto her. That he could do. A chill wrapped his hands in ice. His heart hammered futilely against the load.
      "I'm a channel, let me help."
      "Shut up," Nashen's field strike sent the stranger's field into shock. Arkay couldn't let this go on. He tried to draw her back. A hiss of fury stunned him again. "Mine!"
      "Wait," Arkay tried to say. Nothing came out. He shivered violently. Taloned claws were grasping at his heart.
      "Love, Alahin, come back to me." Nashen's pleading burst through trailing streamers of fire. Arkay gasped in air, trying to stop his own collapse. "Yes, my Alahin. My love." His croon held Arkay's spirit safe.
     
      Nashen pulled Arkay into his arms. Fear knotted his chest. He couldn't let something so stupid take his mate. "Come live with me, my love. Don't go."
      "I'm fine," Arkay's eyes were blank, as if he couldn't see at all. His field was a shimmering morass of shock, but at least it wasn't draining away. Thinking back on all the things Diomid had told him, at last he tried to zlin.
      "No you're not," Nashen thought he'd found the problem. As deftly as he could, he tried to reach for the knot of selyn behind the chest wall to untangle it. But it wasn't there. Panic made his hands shake. What could it be? What had gone wrong? He brushed Arkay's temple with his lips, trying to feel for what had gone wrong.
      A great darkness lay in wait, sucking down the energy Arkay required to live. Thinking of Tzer's birth, Nashen set himself to give selyn back to him.
      "Don't do that. Don't." Arkay's voice had regained a fraction of its normal strength, but it was better. "I'll be all right. Don't fry me, my love."
      With Arkay's returning strength, Nashen nearly fainted. "Are you sure?"
      "Yes," he chuckled softly. "Just too much stress."
      This Nashen could understand. He found Arkay's heart laboring frantically against the false load. Nashen rested his hand over Arkay's chest. Thinking of smoothing a summer squall, he tried to convince his lover's body to calm.
      "You are frantic, Nashen." Arkay's hand over his broke his concentration. "Hush, little Sime, hush."
      "I'm scared!" He wailed at last.
      "I know, lover." Arkay's smile was on crooked, but at least it was there. The horrid blue tinge to his lips was fading rapidly. The intruder groaned on the floor. Nashen turned to see her shake her head. Arkay's body tensed.
      "No," Nashen grabbed him, wrapping him in his nager. He was not going to let Arkay hurt himself again.
      "You hit her a little hard, lover." There was a definite tone of censure in Arkay's voice.
      "I did." He admitted, realizing what had happened. "Um, well, uh, I was excited."
      Arkay laughed.
      "It isn't funny." His skin tightened with embarrassment at having accosted a complete stranger who had only been trying to help. "I didn't mean to nearly kill her."
      "I know." Arkay sighed. "I am flattered, by the way." He tried to stand. Nashen caught him on the way back down. "Bad idea."
      "The worst," Nashen realized now what was happening. "When was the last time you ate?"
      "Oh, well, um ..." Arkay's cheeks reddened. "I don't remember?"
      "You don't remember." Nashen chided him. "Goofy Gen. Of course you're about to faint on me. You do have to eat occasionally."
      "I forget." He hanged his head. "I'm sorry."
      "You always are, Arkay." He kissed Arkay's brow. "You, what's your name?" Nashen still felt far less than charitable with their uninvited visitor.
      "Channel Third, Basla." Her eyes were still shocky. He wasn't getting any help there. "Can I help you?"
      "Persistent," Nashen wanted to crawl under a rug. If nothing else, these Techton trained lords never did give up. "No, not unless you can get room service up here faster than you arrived."
      "Fosebine?"
      "If you like." He grimaced, having only once even smelled the stuff. It was utterly vile. Then he patted his nonexistent pockets. This did no good whatsoever. "On the sink, I'm sure." He had yet to find any bathroom here which didn't have a supply of the stuff. It was nearly as common here as Jarli at home.
      "Hold on," Nashen reached for his overtunic the instant the channel staggered off to the bathroom. In the background, he could hear her fussing with stuff.
      "I don't require Jarli, Nashen." Arkay glared at the tiny vial Nashen always carried with him.
      "It has a lot of sugar in it." He glared at his lover.
      "So does an apple."
      "But I can't pour an apple down your throat."
      "You don't have to force me."
      "Yes I do." He sniffed. "So, are you going to eat?"
      "Eventually."
      "Wrong answer," Nashen flipped the lid off and reached for Arkay's nose. He well knew how to dose a hound or a horse. This couldn't be too much more difficult.
      "I gib, I gib," Arkay's nager flattened in utter submission. "Dod't bake be take that stuff."
      "Why not?" He held his hand for a moment.
      "I dod't like it." His blue gray eyes were hard, even as his field began glittering with amusement. "I'b dot a ho'd." Nashen let go of Arkay's nose. "Thank you." Arkay's amazing lights danced. Then the sound of retching came from the bathroom. "Although don't cap it."
      "Right," Nashen had to laugh. The whole situation was so ridiculous. "Do you realize we both nearly killed a girl young enough to be our granddaughter?"
      "Yes," Arkay rolled his eyes. "Silly Sime. Should have knocked first."
      "True," Nashen picked Arkay up. Their erstwhile tormenter wandered out of the bathroom, greener than when she'd gone in.
      "Here," Arkay handed her the vial he'd palmed off of Nashen. How he managed that particular trick was something Nashen had never been able to figure out. "Drink it." His nageric nudge rocked the youngster back on her heels.
      "Don't argue." Nashen told her. "He always wins."
      "Not

rue," Arkay's hand shook dramatically as he reached for an apple. "What's this?"
      "A banana," she eyed the vial with even greater trepidation. Her nager was a mess.
      Arkay picked up the oddly shaped fruit and sniffed it. "Smells like some kind of weird chemicals."
      "Peel it." She warned before he could take a bite. One silver eyebrow raised towards his hairline. After a bit of investigation, he managed to get the thing open. Nashen was not at all sure of this. Although him licking the outside was decidedly interesting. The imagery was quite familiar.
      "Stop that." He muttered at himself. Arkay's long licks were not going to Nashen's benefit any time soon. Arkay snickered rudely. His lips circling it were no help. Nashen scooted further under the table. Even if he'd have been dressed, no clothes would have hid his reaction.
      "Good," Arkay tipped his head. "Are these safe for Simes?"
      Meanwhile, Basla had downed the dose of Jarli. The vial dropped to the carpeted floor with a soft tap. She swayed on her feet.
      "Sit," Arkay pulled out a chair for her. She fell into it, with a much louder thump.
      She blinked at the two of them, resembling a newly awakened owlet. "Yes, Simes can eat those. We don't have things out Simes or Gens can't eat."
      Arkay snorted again. "Foolishness." He'd devoured the banana in record time. Nashen replaced it with an orange. Too bad there wasn't any bread. He was starving watching Arkay eat. His stomach growled in protest.
      Basla's field had centered. "What did you give me?"
      "Jarli," Arkay mumbled around an orange segment. "Here, eat." One landed in Nashen's hand. It wasn't what he wanted, but he ate it anyways, hoping it wouldn't turn his stomach acid. He'd had problems with fruit on an empty stomach before.
      "Is there anywhere around here we can get breakfast?"
      The tiny morsel had roused Nashen's hunger. He eyed another of the bananas. Maybe it would settle well. For some reason he was always starving here. Maybe because these people didn't believe in feeding Simes real food, trying to get them to make do on sugar water like a feather bee.
      "Yes, call for room service." Basla was still staring at him. "Are you really that hungry?"
      "Yes," he growled, echoing his empty stomach. He nibbled tentatively on the end of the banana. His tongue went numb immediately and he spit the piece out. Some Simes might be able to eat one of these things. He handed it to Arkay.
      "Poison?" His eyes widened.
      "Close enough." He wished there were water on the table, as if this were a civilized guest house. "Either that or I'm allergic."
      "How does one go about getting food sent up?" Arkay asked over his shoulder.
      "Let me get you some." Basla tried to get up. Arkay's swat send her right back to her seat.
      "After assaulting you, the least we can do is feed you." He drummed his fingers on the table. "That is if you accept our apology."
      "Of course," her field came back into a bit more focus. It was still fuzzy around the edges, but it would stay so for hours with the dose Arkay'd given her ... enough to stun a Sharm Lord into compliance. "Oh, yes, food." She blinked a few more times. "Call."
      This was particularly uninformative. Arkay sighed heavily. "You, my dear, are intoxicated."
      "So it seems," she leaned back in her chair. Rubbing her face with her tentacles, Nashen could tell she was trying to become coherent. From the rest of her body language, it wasn't working. "I can't zlin!"
      "Not under the influence of Jarli. At least not aggressively." Then in an undertone, in Russian, "I wonder if I could dose the water supply with the stuff."
      Nashen swatted Arkay on the rear.
      "Hey! I wasn't seriously thinking about it."
      He contemplated the idea for a moment. "Maybe you should."
      "Bad Sime, no dates."
      "Hey!" Nashen squawked. "I like dates."
      "I know you do." He winked. Then he leaned forward as if to get up.
      "No you don't." Nashen held him down. "I'll do it." He hated using the communication devices they had here, but without servants, he would have had to run all the way down to the kitchens otherwise. Which would have been even more annoying. "What's wrong with hiring rens for honest work?"
      "Nothing," Arkay matched Nashen's earlier snort. "But tell these idiots that."
      Basla's field degenerated in utter confusion.
      "We're just bickering, little one." He kissed the top of her head in passing. "Don't worry about us old men."
      "You aren't old." She shook her head and nearly fell off the chair.
      "I'm ancient, little one." Arkay preened under the complement even still. Nashen really wished she weren't Sime. It was one thing to have her sit at their table, quite another for her to flirt with his partner. Particularly as most people here were fanatically possessive of what they called Donors.
      "Quit being a flirt." He growled in her ear. "He's mine."
      "So I zlin." She said quickly, leaning away from Arkay. "I'm not going to touch him. But I like to look."
      "Looking is fine, don't zlin."
     
      Arkay didn't quite catch the low voiced conversation, as his ears were still ringing a bit, but he could well sense Nashen's hackles up. Arkay'd never touch a child like Basla, but she did flatter his ego. Particularly after their introduction.
      "What is available to eat?"
      "I'm not hungry." She shook her head again.
      "Yes you are." He handed her a slice of apple. White, even teeth nipped out tiny bits of the creamy flesh. "Eat, Basla." Sometimes Arkay felt as if he'd been telling Simes to eat most of his life.
      "While you forget to do the same." Nashen butted in.
      Arkay gave him a raspberry, nearly startling Basla out of her skin again.
      "You are as jumpy as a four month lord in a whorehouse, Basla."
      Her shock crackled through the ambient.
      "Bad Gen. Teasing her. She's not even Aliana's age!"
      "I know." Arkay blew him a kiss. "They're more fun to play with before they grow teeth."
      "Don't listen to him, Basla. He's a dirty old man."
      "I am." Arkay preened again, even as he kept his field neatly to himself. When Nashen got jealous, Arkay was not going to encourage him. Nashen never got jealous over incidental strangers, only people who might hurt his Alahin. Which was fine by Arkay. It made for much more peaceful evenings at home. The one time he hadn't listened, had been enough to teach him the lesson.
     
      "You know she only wants to bed you for your semen."
      "What!?" Arkay was aghast. "How do you know?" Fear made his balls try to crawl up and hide. The young lord Makira had been so very sweet yesterday before his seclusion with Nashen. She'd promised to show Arkay a grove deep in the heavy growth surrounding the Fatima docks. But Nashen's words of warning struck home instantly.
      "I don't want you going to her blind, Arkay." Nashen's silver eyes were unwontedly serious. "She's been trying to get a child for years now."
      "Why me?" Arkay glanced in the mirror. He hadn't changed outwardly. Or at least much. Only a few kilos so far.
      "Silly question, Arkay," Nashen shook his head even as a wicked grin played over his lips. But still his smile didn't quite reach his eyes. "You're probably going to say I'm just jealous, but I don't want you going to her."
      "You don't want me to sire another child?" He wouldn't have thought Nashen so selfish, particularly as Makira was one of Fatima's children.
      "I don't think she'd care for it." His words drifted down like flakes of snow on ice. Arkay shivered in dread. There was far more than Nashen's mild words giving Arkay pause now. "She had her chance."
      "With you?"
      "No, with Vayer," Nashen's jaw clenched. "He told me about her. She had been pregnant, briefly." Arkay's trepidation worsened. "She 'lost' it when you showed up."
      Arkay's stomach churned. A child was precious. Not something to be done away with because of a change of whim. "She didn't try with you?"
      "Oh yes," Nashen's eyes narrowed. "She tried, and failed. Don't do it, Arkay."
      "I won't." As soon as he said the words, Arkay realized he'd given his word on the slightest of data. "Let me go tell her myself."
      "I'll go with you." He belted on his sword with more than his usual speed.
      The vine draped arch where he was to meet her now seemed cramped and dark. What had happened so quickly? Before he could catch his breath, Makira slid out of the shadows and under his veil. Her lips met his, demanding that which he could no longer give.
      "What have you done, Makira?"
      "I want you, Arkay." Her dark eyes were bright with excitement. "Please, there is a place I wish to show you."
      "For what purpose?" Arkay wondered if Nashen's warning were mere jealousy. It was not unheard of, albeit quite rare.
      "Where we can be alone." Her voice was as sweet as honey warmed by the late summer sun. "It will be fun."
      "Is this what you offered my son?" He had to know.
      "He's a child, Arkay." Her smile grew even more cloying. "Why would I want the child when I can have the sire?"
      "Because you are worth more to yourself than to the highest bidder." Arkay's brief infatuation was rapidly turning to dust. He'd wished for only an afternoon's simple dalliance, without strings or repercussions. It seemed such was not to be had at Fatima.
      "Get out of here, Makira." Nashen came up behind him.
      "I told you not to bring him." Her voice turned flat.
      "He is my Alamir, Makira." Arkay wanted to weep in his arms. Disappointment ground glass into his heart. She'd seemed so sweet and at least compliant. "If you want me, then you accept him."
      "Not like this," her nager threw off great sparks into the ambient. "I threw away my prey for this?"
      He wanted to slap her. Instead he buried his face in Nashen's chest.
      "Get out of here, Makira." Nashen's order did little to soothe him. "I'm sorry, Arkay."
      "So am I." He murmured, wishing things could have been otherwise. Her Sime quick footsteps soon retreated from earshot. "All I wanted was a simple afternoon's companionship." That didn't come out right. He had Nashen's love and companionship. Why would he want someone else's? It was stupid.
      "Don't beat yourself over the head, Arkay." Nashen's deft hands rubbed his back even though his heavy kador. "We all make mistakes."
      "You should be enough for me." Arkay tugged at Nashen's tunic. How he wanted this to be true. He wanted to not long for the feel of a woman's softness beneath his hands. But no matter how much he loved Nashen, he still missed a woman's touch sometimes. He sighed, trying not to think of what he'd given up.
      "Why do you think I occasionally vanish down in the sharm?"
      "But those are Gens!" Arkay spoke without thinking.
      "So they are." His Alamir chuckled. "Would you like to find a nice, female, lord to pass the afternoon?"
      "I tried!" He blurted out. "I'm sorry, Nashen. It's stupid. I'm stupid."
      "Hush," Nashen shook him. "Quit fussing." He leaned back and Arkay found himself looking up into those spectacular silver eyes. This should well be enough for him. He loved Nashen with all his heart and soul. There shouldn't be time or energy left to desire anyone else.
      "Arkay, quit!" Nashen's pinch on his backside made him straighten up instantly. "Tell you what." A soft scarf landed over his eyes!
      "Wait a minute." Arkay's heart leaped into his throat. What was going on here? This couldn't be happening.
      "Minute's over." Nashen's voice in his ear was the only thing keeping him from panicking. "Come along."
      It hadn't been a true minute, more like forty three seconds, but Arkay was too stunned to protest. Numbly, he let Nashen lead him through an impossible maze. The only thing he knew was they'd gone deep into the oldest part of the city. The myriad sounds and smells of humanity overwhelmed Arkay's remaining senses.
      "A step," Nashen's hand under his elbow told him how high. The raucous sounds of the market faded to a hissing susurrus and then vanished as they entered a stone walled room. His boots sank into deep carpets.
      "If you would take off your footwear, gentleman." A rich contralto immediately caught Arkay's attention. Now there was a voice to please any male. He wondered if the owner of said voice was as beautiful as those tones. A chuckle greeted his introspection.
      "Not quite," her voice was a silken purr bringing parts of his body to immediate, quivering, interest. "I don't have to ask what brings you here." As Nashen's delicate fingers pulled Arkay's hood back, the woman laughed. It was not an accusatory laugh, but rather a delighted chortle of pure glee. He smiled, unable to help himself.
      "Oh, so very handsome, my Lord is," her voice took on the rhythms of the deep South, thousands of kilometers away. Arkay imagined a woman of dark amber skin and laughing black eyes.
      "He is." Nashen's hand stroked the side of Arkay's face. "Have fun."
      "Not without you," this was what had been missing earlier. No matter how much he wanted a woman's touch, he wanted one who would accept Nashen as well.
      "Oh, I'll be fine, I assure you." His lips met Arkay's. Not wanting him to go, Arkay put his heart into their kiss, wallowing in the wonderful feel of Nashen's warm tongue dancing against his own. "You tempt me to stay."
      "I want you too."
      "This can be arranged."
      Arkay's eyes widened behind his blindfold. Where in the world had Nashen taken him? "Please?" He dared ask, thinking he well knew the answer.
      "If you would." Nashen's tenor had taken an even more vibrant tone.
      "Then if you would be following me, I would be pleased to lead you." The easy motion of her slowly darkening nager fascinated Arkay utterly. Now here was a Sime who never let need get the best of her. Nashen's field threw off tiny sparks of laughter.
      If he'd had the mind to do so, Arkay would have asked what was so amusing. As it was, all he could do was try to imagine what this Sime looked like. He'd seen women in the south with lush curves belying their dexterous tentacles twining about their fingers.
      "Shall I send up my daughter?"
      "Stay with us." Arkay pleaded, unwilling to miss getting to see who exactly it was who held such a magnificent voice.
      "I'm old, m'Lord." Her brilliant nager dimmed.
      "So am I." led by his other senses, Arkay stretched out his hand and brushed the back of hers. Her warm skin held the softness of age, teasing him even further. Nashen chuckled, a sound wicked and delighted at the same time.
      "He's got you there, Halima."
      "So he does," soft, feminine Sime fingers untied his blindfold. Arkay was stunned. After Karola, the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen stood before him. He'd been right. She did have black eyes and sun kissed skin. Laugh lines etched by the sun crinkled in amusement. "So do you still want me, old and wrinkled as I am."
      "You are beautiful, Halima." He arched his neck, feeling as frisky as Kika on a spring morning.
      "I've been saying so for years." With a sigh of cloth, Arkay heard Nashen sit behind him. "Go on, silly man."
      "Would you happen to know a young Gen to keep my Alamir amused?" Arkay knew exactly what was going on now. He'd heard of places like this, but never had the fantastic prices those like Halima commanded.
      "I think I could find someone." Her dark eyes twinkled with eternal amusement. "He's been a bit absent of late, but Lord Fatima has been known to visit us here occasionally."
      Arkay had to look back over his shoulder. Nashen was grinning from ear to ear. He winked as he crossed his ankle over the opposite knee. "Don't let me stop you."
      "Ignore him. He's a bully and an ingrate." Halima's brilliant smile gave lie to her words, letting Arkay know she was teasing. "Only comes here to drink my starka and chase my girls ragged."
      "I never drink." Nashen winked at them. "I'm not going to say a thing about the latter."
      "You better not." Halima's hand brushed the side of Arkay's face. He nearly fainted with the blood rushing from his brain. "I see it has been a while."
      "More or less," he did not want Nashen to feel as if he'd been inadequate. But there was something indescribable about a woman's touch. His mouth was suddenly as dry as the sand in the great desert. What if Nashen were offended?
      "It has." Nashen clucked his tongue. "He nearly got caught by a little whore of a lord today."
      "I could take offense, m'Lord Fatima." Her soft, rich chuckle make Arkay's pulse pound.
      "You are no whore, madame Halima." It all came together. Only one woman in all of Moskva went by the title madame. The proprietress of the most luxuriant brothel in the entire city.
      "I'm glad you think so." Her fingers had managed to slide inside the laces of Arkay's kador with an ease he would have gawked at in anyone else. He'd heard she was not taking in new clients.
      "You aren't new, m'Lord Fatima." This time she looked straight up into his eyes. The promise inherent in her hot gaze made Arkay's knees shake. "I do not entertain children or unweaned puppies."
      "I'm glad you think I am neither." He stepped closer to her, reveling in being able to look down into her rounded features. Like so many women of the south, her eyes dominated her face, capturing his attention with ease. In perfect invitation, her chin tilted so very slightly Arkay only reacted.
      As he did for the rest of the evening in her wonderfully rounded arms.
     
      "You know something?"
      "Hmmm," Nashen's grin curved wickedly upwards.
      "I still don't know what happened with you after Halima kissed me." Arkay blushed furiously. He slid down in his chair, trying to hide his reaction to the memories of that first night he'd managed to capture the attention of the most exquisitely skilled Sime he'd ever bedded.
      "She did call up one of her 'daughters' and we enjoyed watching you so thoroughly pleasure Halima we hardly had time for ourselves." Nashen, fortunately, decided to spare Arkay's blushes some and speak Arabic. "Do you know, she never charged me any more than her base rate for you?"
      "Oh?" Arkay was inordinately flattered.
      "Yes, I think she found you quite delightful."
      "I'm glad." Arkay ducked his head. "I did my best to pleasure her as well as myself."
      "Which was why I took you to her. Even Lord Fatima couldn't afford her rates on a regular basis if he wasn't a gentleman. Madame Halima charged all the traffic would bear for boors and oafs, namely a pound of flesh and the blood to go with it."
      "Where does that saying come from?" Arkay dropped back into High Simelan and then explained the quote.
      "I have no idea, as I've never heard it before." Basla seemed inordinately indifferent to the various emotions Arkay had to be spreading around the ambient. Perhaps the idea of dosing the water supply with Jarli wasn't such a bad idea. No, he wasn't of the veiled. Such decisions were not for him. Only they had the right to determine the direction of entire civilizations.
      "Ah, here's breakfast." Nashen jumped to the door. Arkay hid his grin behind his hand. Only when he was truly distracted did he jump from place to place rather than walk. Seems he was thinking of their favorite refuge from work as well.
      "You can't answer the door like that!"
      "Why not?" He opened it anyway. Arkay wasn't so sure about the wisdom of Nashen's move either. Neither of them were wearing more than their hair and Nashen's was not long enough to cover him at all. Not that it would have done any good from the way he was tenting his nonexistent trousers. Simes, Arkay figured, sometimes were utterly clueless about the niceties of civilization.
      A startled flash of selyn greeted Nashen's appearance at the doorway. Arkay snickered. But he had to give the renSime credit for bravery, she didn't drop anything. "Thank you very much for your quick service. I was about to eat something I really shouldn't."
      The renSime's nager flamed with embarrassment. Nashen blinked, as if startled. He looked down and promptly took a step sideways to hide behind the doorframe.
      "You don't have to run away."
      Nashen opened his mouth and then closed it again. Arkay's face hurt he was working so hard not to laugh. "Be well and do your best."
      "How cute!" Even as underweight as all Western Simes were, she had a nice bounce. "Thank you. I'll bring it right in." Arkay could see Nashen's entire back redden. This was far too much fun. Without waiting for an answer, she pushed a little cart into the room. The smells of food distracted Arkay immediately from his desire to twit his lover.
      "Smells good." He thought he could detect the aroma of freshly baked bread along with the rich aromas of butter fried potatoes and the sweet corn breakfast dish they served here. He was starving. Without thinking about it, he helped her remove the cover.
      "Mine," Nashen's hand appeared right in front of his nose. It grabbed the large bowl of corn porridge and vanished.
      "Hey!" He was left with one of the little ones. "There's bread." Arkay caroled, threatening to keep it all for himself. Nashen licked his lips, obviously torn. "Share?"
      "He swiped yours."
      "He does." Arkay'd learned years ago how to get food out of Nashen. It took skill, as Nashen was faster than any normal human being. But then Arkay'd learned in his time with Fatima, treachery will put food on your plate when kindness starves. He sucked in his cheeks and looked wistfully at his lover.
      "All right," Nashen rolled his eyes in surrender. "Let me doctor it."
      Arkay watched avidly as he poured half the tiny pitcher of cream over it and then some more butter. His mouth watered. He tried opening his mouth. Well trained Sime that he was, Nashen filled it. "Greedy."
      "I am." Arkay licked his lips clear. This was something he was going to take back with them. In payment, Arkay broke the bread and drizzled honey on it. It wasn't the same as the honey at home, but it was sweet. In between bites, Nashen begged bread off him.
      One of the tiny bowls of porridge joined the large one. Why people starved Simes here was beyond Arkay's ability to comprehend. They bit when you didn't feed them. Nashen winked as he fed Arkay another mouthful. It was gone far too quickly.
      "You really should order for two Gens here." He found Jarmin leaning against the door frame.
      "I didn't know that." Nashen looked over at Basla. She'd only managed to nibble her way through half of her portion, even as she sipped delicately at her weak tea. "If I ate like that, I'd starve."
      "They tried to feed me like a rabbit when I got here." Aliana's field glittered with amusement. "I did not much care for it."
      "Particularly as you hadn't changed over yet." Arkay realized all of the meals he'd ever had here except at Kaon had been tiny. "What is it with these people and food?"
      "Not usually hungry," Basla seemed to be still affected by the Jarli from her forwardness. All the channels Arkay'd run into before had been closed mouthed to the point of ridiculousness. It was as if there were some great guild secret to moving selyn around. He did it every day, without thinking about it.
      "Skinny," Arkay wrinkled his nose. He did not like bony animals. Even hounds, while lean, should be well fleshed. "You should eat anyways."
      "I try." She was looking at a small apple, so of course Arkay put it in her hand. It was automatic. Feeding Simes had been a part of his life for far too long to stop now. Feeding himself was a bit trickier. "Oh, thank you."
      "You are quite welcome." Arkay watched until she began nibbling on it. "So, is there anything more we can do for you?" He had the feeling his granddaughter and her partner were ready to go.
      "No, not really," she blinked, her field flickering with astonishment. "Although I would like to say thank you for breakfast."
      "You are quite welcome. Particularly if you knock first before you go crashing through any more doors."
      "Good idea," she nodded, biting at the fruit with a bit of intent finally. "I suppose I should get back to work, even though no one has come running for me yet."
      "Pleasant to meet you, even if our introduction was less than formal." Nashen's sense of humor was working overtime. Arkay smirked, hiding the expression behind his napkin. Nashen's field brightened in response. "We'll find out own way out."
      After gathering clothes and various items strewn about the room, they made their departure.
     

Chapter 5


      "Otyet?"
      "Yes?" He and Arkay said in unison. Jarmin snorted. Nashen grinned at Arkay's quick wink.
      "Close enough," Aliana chuckled softly. "I, well, I hadn't been paying a great deal of attention to Dimitri when he was born and, um."
      "Yes, dear?" Nashen's face was about to crack as he fought not to grin wildly at his daughter's discomfiture.
      "And then when Shanir was tiny, he got stolen so fast I didn't get much of a chance to watch him. And, um, I never knew Visarin at all." This last came out in a wail. "What have I done?"
      "Gotten pregnant."
      Nashen swatted his lover with his field.
      "Hey, not while I'm driving." Arkay's return blow made him see stars for a moment.
      "You hit hard." Nashen rubbed at his ear. Usually Arkay was a bit more delicate with his field.
      "Sorry," the return caress was worth it. Nashen preened. Aliana chuckled at him.
      "You do it just for the pets." Her accusation was too true. Nashen sputtered at Arkay's grin. "So, I know a little bit about tiny babies. Shanir was around long enough before Mikhail stole him."
      "He did no such thing." Nashen defended his son in law. "Shanir is Mikhail's. Your mother gave Shanir to his fathers because he was so much happier with them."
      "Tzer spoils him horribly."
      "Now, now, Aliana," Arkay's glower was enough to make Nashen back off.
      "What? He does. Those two let that little boy run wild." She didn't.
      "Yes, as Tzer did, and you did, and Dimitri and ..."
      "Oh," it seemed she finally felt the curb. "I don't remember."
      "I would guess not." Jarmin's eyebrow kept climbing. "I've raised a few youngsters in my day. Or at least younger cousins and what not. I didn't run away from home until I was nearly sixteen."
      Nashen though it was nice to have his guesses confirmed. Arkay's field glittered with what he knew was a wink, but no one else would have recognized it.
      "Do you want to hear about Nashen and Tzer?"
      "No, no, no," Nashen wanted nothing to do with this. He'd made an utter and complete fool of himself over Tzer.
      "Hush," Arkay glanced in the mirror and his heartstopping smile worked its magic.
      "I want to hear." Jarmin's grin told Nashen far too much about his other son in law's sense of humor. Nearly as dark as his skin, that was.
     
      Arkay turned his face to the cool breeze coming in from the north.
      "Otyet, otyet, up!" Tzer's high pitched voice carried over the crowd easily.
      "Argh!" Nashen grabbed his son and tossed him high in the air. The lad's squeals of glee were deafening.
      "He's going to get worn out." Arkay pointed out, having to pick up Ivanya at her foster sib's bad example. Her little arms around his neck were too warm to resist, however. He wuffled her shoulder, getting another squeal, right in his ear.
      "Not too soon," Nashen ruffled the boy's hair. The two were inseparable. Tzer crowed, tugging on his father's ears.
      "You're a bit young for that." Arkay noted, holding Ivanya against his hip. Falyana held up her hands as well. "Where's your papa?" He scooped her up as well, balancing her on the other hip.
      "Off with the cows." She pointed, hiding her face against Arkay's chest. "Don't want me."
      "Oh, he does. He's just busy right now." Arkay looked over the crowd, trying to spot Avilan's usually flamboyant nager or hair. But all he could see was a mob of people.
      "Lets go up front." Nashen, trailed by Valtanir and Ilyan headed for trouble.
      "Yeah!" Tzer waved his hands around.
      "Hold on, Tzer." It always made Arkay worry a bit the way Nashen would carry Tzer on his shoulders.
      "There he is!" Tzer pointed. Arkay couldn't see a thing.
      "Where is he?" Ilyan tugged at one of Arkay's sleeves.
      "Where's your brother?" He looked around for Sevrin.
      "Lost." Valtanir observed, unhelpful as usual. He licked a bit of spun sugar from his fingers, getting it all over his face.
      "Messy," Ilyan scowled at his brother. "I'm neat." The smudges of dirt went unnoticed, it seemed.
      "No you're not." Sevrin sauntered out of the crowd, sniffing. "Wipe off that dirt and pay attention to Val."
      "Bossy," Falyana's favorite word fit for once.
      "Hush," Arkay told her, wondering how Nashen had managed to talk him into child duty at harvest festival this year. Usually he managed to pawn it off on Karola, even if she was a Sime.
      "Don wanna," she stuck out her lip in a very unattractive pout.
      "She makes faces." Tzer complained, pointing.
      "Don't point." Arkay chided him.
      "He does!" Tzer pointed at Sevrin.
      "Stop it, Tzer." Nashen tickled one of his bare feet. Tzer giggled ... loudly. "I do wonder if my hearing is going to recover."
      "It doesn't." Arkay resettled Ivanya on his hip. At last they came to the rope barricade. Nashen grabbed the back of Sevrin's tunic before he could bolt into the clearing.
      "Don't," was all he said. Sevrin glared. "You know better."
      "So?" Sevrin didn't even blink. Arkay sighed, wishing he dare put down one of the girls.
      "Let me," Kir came to his rescue, with Tiana. The three little girls were soon playing tag around the ankles of the adults.
      "I wanna play!" Tzer leaned down so far he tumbled off Nashen's shoulders. With Fatima speed, he caught the lad and handed him down. A matronly sharm lord shrieked his displeasure as the quartet tried to dash between his legs.
      "Get back here!" Arkay shouted.
      "Selective hearing." Sevrin noted.
      "I don't require any help." Arkay couldn't help but grin at the foursome, now five as Valtanir had joined the younger ones, dashed through the crowd. "They are cute." He grinned up at Nashen.
      "They have way too much energy." He knelt to kiss better a scrape Valtanir'd gotten on his elbow. "How did I end up with this lot? I thought I only had one."
      "You married into it." Arkay scanned the horde with a practiced eye. "Ilyan!"
      "I weren't doin nothing." He held his hands behind his back.
      "Give," Arkay held out his hand.
      "I'm good."
      "Yes, at getting into trouble. Give." Arkay insisted. Ilyan's blue eyes gave him away. They widened perceptibly. "I'm gonna get you!" In a practiced gesture, he caught the lad's ankles and turned him upside down. Squealing in laughter, he waved his arms around frantically. A rat squeaked and dashed away.
      "Ilyan!" Nashen put his face in his hands. "You could have been hurt."
      "So," he cocked his head from his upside down position. He looked like a chicken ready to be plucked. "Its one of Val's pets."
      "They why did you bring it out here?" Sure enough, the little animal was sniffing at Val's ankle.
      "I didn't. He did." Ilyan refused to take any responsibility for stealing his sib's pet.
      "Did you see what he did to Tata!" Val came charging over, stroking the little fuzzy animal's head. "Nearly scared her to death." His chin quivered.
      "She'll be fine." Arkay finally released Ilyan, not really caring about how he dropped him. Of course he landed on his feet and went charging off again. He was old enough to know better. "Keep her safe next time." He knelt before the youngster. Val sniffed, obviously still upset.
      "Here," he held open Val's coat and helped Tata find the pocket the youngster had made for her. "Now she'll be safe."
      "Thanks, otyet!" All worries forgotten, Val charged back into the fray.
      "How do you cope?" Nashen's eyes never left Tzer.
      "Don't really know." He scanned the lot again with a practiced eye. "Don't pull his hair, Falyana!" Arkay shouted just as one grubby hand approached a Sharm Lord's braid.
      "Yes, otyet." She backed away, as if she'd only been testing him. Knowing Falyana, she had been. Another, colder breeze drifted down, bringing with it the sweet scent of woodsmoke.
      "Amazing." Nashen muttered under his breath. "I have a hard enough time with one of them."
      "Practice," Arkay saw the sun vanish below the horizon. "Azov on me!" He gave the familiar battle cry and began counting noses. "Get over here Sevrin!" He rounded up the last stray.
      "Do I have to?"
      "Yes," he didn't wait for further argument but gave the lad a swat. "You know better." Tzer was asking to be picked up again.
      This time Arkay did the honors. Actually he was a very sweet child, if tiny compared to the rest of the horde. Darkness came quickly, as did the cold. Tzer shivered a bit.
      "Here," he put up his hood over both of them.
      "Cute," Nashen's eyes were alight even as the last rays of the sun vanished.
      "You are." He lost one. "Valtanir!"
      "Right here," a tiny voice came from between his legs.
      "Get out of there." Only the littlest ones should still be clinging to his kador, but Val'd always been a bit more dependant than the rest.
      "Come stand by me." Nashen offered his hand.
      "Warm," Val looked up in adoration. "When I establish, do I get a warm Sime too?"
      "If you do." Arkay smiled, warmed himself by Nashen's hot glance. "Otherwise you get to keep a Gen warm."
      "Nah, I want a Sime." He insisted, Avilan's stubbornness writ on every line of his childish face.
      "Never name the well from which you won't drink, lad." Nashen held the boy's shoulder.
      "Why not?"
      "Because it is called tempting fate. The instant you do so, well, then that is what will happen to you." Nashen's explanation for life was one of the best Arkay'd ever heard.
      "Why?" Val blinked, obviously confused.
      "Because when you say such proud things, you are challenging the path the veiled have in store for you." Nashen's field twisted slightly with the partial truth.
      "Because we think it is wrong to try to force the hand of God." Arkay helped his lover out of the bind. "But many would say the veiled."
      "I think I understand." Val's face was quite serious. "Is that why you felt funny in my head a moment ago?"
      "Yes, I don't know what your parents want you to know yet." Now Nashen's field was back to normal.
      "The truth," Arkay supplied. "Always. We'll worry about the consequences as they come up."
      "A good thing, I think." Sevrin sniffed.
      "You're going to come to a bad end, m'lad." Arkay narrowed his eyes.
      "I know." He turned his face towards the hill at the end of the field. "Soon, I think."
      "Yes, very soon." Arkay checked his own timesense. Not that it would do any good. This was the first year in way too many Avilan would be able to run with the cattle as the hunter.
      Two brilliant bonfires blazed up at once. Tzer trilled his excitement. He was also damp. Oh well. His shirt would wash.
      "Do you want me to take him?" Nashen asked quietly.
      "He just got too excited, as I'd warned you." Arkay winked. "Don't worry it."
      "Then I won't." Nashen put Falyana up on his shoulders to see.
      Then the gleam of eyes came from out of the darkness. Arkay's heart raced at the spectacle. Tzer was quivering. Then the entire herd thundered down out of the darkness. Sparks shot up into the crystal clear night sky.
      Ilyan crammed himself up against Arkay's thigh. Even Sevrin backed up a step. "Come to me, come to me, come to me!" Avilan's shout raised the hackles on the back of Arkay's neck. "From our mother to yours!"
      Arkay nearly stepped out of the crowd. Barelegged and nearly barechested, Avilan charged out of the running herd as they passed between the fires. Nashen gasped as Avilan bolted to the front. So did every other Sime in the audience.
      Then, trapped between the people and the fire, the cattle milled around for a lethal instant. A hand raised toward the moon, red with blood and holding a knife. The cattle bawled, trying to get away. At last they cleared the center. Avilan knelt, the bull he'd killed still bleeding out its life into the frost killed grass.
      Then he stood, panting and streaming blood and sweat. No longer a young man, but still obviously in his prime, he approached the people waiting for the hunter. "From last year's blood to next year's life." He brushed his fingertips over Arkay's brow.
      "From Azov's fields to Fatima's rivers." His eyes were still mad with the hunt.
      "From Azov's blessing to Rodina's!" He shouted, pacing around the herd. The remaining cattle shied away from the scent of blood and death. "Long live Rodina!"
     
      Arkay still remembered that last harvest festival as Lord and Ruler.
      "Did you know Avilan never was the hunter again after that year?" Nashen's question brought him out of his daze.
      "No, I hadn't realized that." He thought back on it. "It wasn't as exciting later on."
      "Fatima never did much with harvest or thaw until you came to Her." Nashen's fond smile reassured him. "Although I am glad we went that year."
      "For Tzer?"
      "Yes," he chuckled. "It wouldn't do for Fatima's Lord to be entirely unaware of the Way of the Rus."
      "I suppose not." He hadn't even thought of that. "Why, particularly?" He didn't think it was to show how bad it was.
      "Because it isn't primarily religious other than some of the trappings." Nashen rested his chin on his hand. "Actually it is fairly secular."
      "I never saw it that way." Not that he'd ever really believed in much of the rather primitive religion espoused by the now defunct Maryam. It had seemed far too much a tool to control the masses of rens.
      "It creates a binding force for all of us to Rodina, more than any God, per se." Nashen tapped one tentacle against his lips. "And I don't see anything wrong with giving her, her due on the quarters."
      "You like the parties." Arkay winked.
      "There are celebrations at the quarters?" Jarmin's question made him glance over at him.
      "Yes, Year's Turning, when we all pledge to the Demense is on the winter solstice, about ten days before the western Year's Turning. First Thaw lands somewhere near the spring solstice and is rather self explanatory."
      "From the way you run around in nearly nothing all winter here, I would say so."
      "Oh, by the time of first thaw, we're all a little crazy." He grinned. "So, midsummer is wild. It is our day for reversing the rules. All the renGens get to run around wild if they wish and we lock up the renSimes. And then Harvest Festival, where the fattest bull is slaughtered and given to all the pregnant, and wanting to be pregnant, Gens."
      "I can see why Avilan would be a good hunter." Aliana gave him an amused look.
      "Well, it looks like his children are as fertile as he is."
      "So are Karola's." She winked. "Were you ever the hunter?"
      "No," he said quickly. "I'd hunted too often by that point." For a moment those memories came back with stunning force. "I don't have Avilan's innocence." He admitted, wanting to come clean at least this little bit.
      "You do still enjoy hunting." Nashen reminded him.
      "For sport alone now, and not even as much of that." He clenched his hands on the steering wheel. "It has too many painful memories as well as kind. And besides, Kika is far too old now to hunt."
      "Why haven't you picked his successor?" Nashen's question hit a bit close to home and he flinched.
      "Because I didn't know if I'd be able to raise him." Arkay answered honestly.
      "Then we'll find one this spring." Nashen's hand came to rest on his shoulder. "Even if you never hunt again, I think you should never stop doing what you truly enjoy."
      "Even though I'm old."
      "Old is what you think it is." Nashen squeezed in emphasis. "As long as we're together, what do the years matter?"
      "They don't." He brushed his cheek against Nashen's hand. "Thank you."
      "For?" Nashen asked.
      "Loving me."
      Arkay squirmed uneasily on the hard chair. Jarmin was laughing at something the waitress had said, but he could hardly hear himself think over the noise. A band in the corner was belting out some sort of racket, which only added to the confusion. His hand reached out to his side again.
      "Miss him?" Darya gave him an odd half smile.
      "Yes," he admitted with a sigh, feeling the cold of Nashen's absence in the well heated room.
      "A problem?" Jarmin leaned over the table. "I hope it isn't the food."
      "No, it was great." He took another deep draft of his beer. The sweet bitter liquid seemed to catch a bit in his throat. Not that it was bad, but he missed sharing. Even though Nashen rarely drank, when he did the results could be spectacular.
     
      "Watch this!" Nashen held up his hands for everyone's attention. Arkay wanted to crawl under the table.
      "No fair," Nashen's hand dragged him back up by his collar. "Bet ye haven't seen thish un before." Vayer had to rescue his own coffee. The mixture of caffeine and alcohol was making him even more wild than he usually got at harvest festival.
      "I want to see!" Darya raised her mug high and then stared at it. "Who stole my beer! I wanna see him. Beer thief!" Her mournful look at the bottom made him grin.
      "You did." Avilan looked as neat and trim as ever. "Here, lets have another round." He poured, nearly pouring beer into Vayer's coffee before he yanked the cup out of the way. "No fair. You get some too." He swiped Vayer's cup and replaced it with a foaming mug. "Can't refuse yer father's beer."
      Vayer opened his mouth and then shut it without saying a word.
      Diomid and Kirina was oblivious to the world on the couch. Not that anyone really cared.
      "Lets play draughts." Karola reached into her belt pouch. "No you don't." She shoved Nashen's dice back at him. "Not with your dice."
      "With mine?" Vayer flipped an ivory cube into the air. It landed in his coffee. "Who did that?" He glared at Karola.
      "Too drunk." Hers went skittering across the table, landing in a bit of spilled beer. "Hmmm, anyone beat a nine?"
      "I can." Avilan straddled a chair.
      "Don't cheat." Arkay put his hands over her eyes.
      "Hey!" Her protest nearly spilled her beer. "Not fair!"
      "Never said I was." He realized he'd made a mistake. Darya swiped his mug and drained half of it at once. "What are you doing?"
      "Drinking your beer." She licked the foam from her lips. Vayer stared, tentacles wandering into his own ale.
      "A ten!" Avilan crowed. "Beat that!"
      "I will." Nashen tried to grab the dice and missed. Then he fumbled around in his pants.
      "Those aren't dice." Arkay winced.
      "Fuzzy," he winked. "Here they are."
      "I'm not playing with Fatima dice." Karola managed to get free, as she always did. Arkay rescued what was left of his beer and hid it in a safe spot, his stomach. Then he swiped Darya's.
      "They don't have too many sixes." He rolled them on the table with all the grace of a confirmed gambler. "Twelve." Nashen smirked.
      "Then you get to take a drink." Avilan's blue eyes were alight with mischief.
      "That's not the way the game works." Nashen squawked.
      "It does here." Avilan cheated and batted those big blue eyes. No one's nager was under control, not that it mattered at this point. Nashen drank. "Good lad." He grinned, rolling the dice again.
      "I didn't get a turn." Vayer protested, grabbing for them.
      "I didn't see what I got." Avilan grabbed and missed.
      "You lost." Vayer rolled a perfect twelve.
      "Then I get yours?" Avilan didn't miss his grab for Vayer's mug. Even though Arkay was the only one who saw him spike Vayer's coffee at the same time.
      Arkay grabbed his son's coffee cup and took a swig. What had Avilan put in this? He eyed the cup with renewed respect as the heat traveled down to join the beer with a thud.
      "Let me see those dice." Darya grabbed them. "Nashen!" She howled, turning them over. "They are all sixes."
      "I know." He smirked again, taking another big drink. "Want some like them?"
      "I'm not that Fatima." Her eyes crossed. "Here, someone's been stealing my beer again." She held out her mug.
      "Gotta get up again." Karola lurched to her feet. "How windy is it out there?" She stopped by the window on the way by.
      "Not very." Avilan refilled her mug while she was out. The sounds of raucous singing came from the bathroom.
      "Good idea." Nashen tried to sing. This didn't work very well. Soon everyone was singing. This helped. It drowned out Nashen's attempts.
      Arkay put his arm around his lover's shoulders. They swayed in time with the nonexistent wind. This was good.
      "I've got some more beer." Avilan's voice couldn't overcome Arkay's fascination with Nashen's strong neck. It was a wonderful, warm, firm Sime neck. He nibbled at the line of muscle showing at the very edge.
      "Are you amorous?" Nashen's hands slid in through the side of Arkay's loosened tunic.
      "What do you think?" He lipped the wonderful curve of Nashen's ear.
      "I think yer drunk." His tentacles slid even lower.
      "I think I'm post and drunk." He didn't disagree. "Like everyone else here."
      "And what do you think you're doing?" Avilan tapped his shoulder.
      "You can't cut in. We're still dancing." Arkay bit at Avilan's intruding finger.
      "Don't bite." Nashen nipped at Arkay's ear. His knees wobbled even more. "Oh, all right." He shifted his weight.
      Before he knew it, he found Karola had taken Nashen's place in his arms. "You're familiar." He grinned, burying his face in her dark hair.
      "I should hope so." She chuckled, wrapping one leg around both of his. "Want to dance some more, stranger?"
      "Anywhere warm," the traditional harvest response seemed even more appropriate than usual.
      "Anywhere warm," Nashen had his head back as Avilan burrowed into his shirt. The image made Arkay's breath catch, even as Karola caught his hair and tugged.
      "Oh, yes," her warm hands were working their usual magic.
      "Dibs on the bed!" Avilan shouted around a mouthful of Nashen's hair.
      "Hey!" But Vayer had already been caught by an overenthusiastic Diomid and wasn't going anywhere. Kirina looked around long enough to figure out the couch was not going to work indefinitely.
      Darya came to her rescue and unfolded a the cushions into a large nest, shoving the table out of the way.
     
      "Arkay!" Darya brought him out of his memories with a crash.
      "Yes?" He blinked, at bit dazed still at having come from thoughts of a gentle orgy to his current lack of Sime companionship.
      "This isn't working." Her lips brushed his ear as she spoke.
      "I know." He sighed, catching Jarmin's eye. "I think we would like to call it an early evening."
      He looked around, frowning. "Yes, I think so." Jarmin placed a number of bills on the table. "Let's go." He helped both Darya and Arkay into their coats, waving away the proprietor who was hovering nervously behind them.
      "No, no, the food was wonderful." Arkay slipped him a ten for his trouble. It was worth it not to cause a scene. And besides, he wanted out of here.
      The cold night air felt wonderful. It wasn't so cold as to immediately burn his lungs and so he breathed deeply as he missed doing at home during winter. There he'd have hurt himself in such light clothes.
      Snow crunched beneath their feet as they made their way back to the car. "Its so much warmer here. Almost like autumn." Darya held his arm, as if she were trying to be Sime to his Gen.
      "I'm fine." He patted her hand, glad to be rid of the heavy gloves of winter back home as well.
      "What's the matter?" Jarmin held his door for him, and then helped Darya into her seat.
      "Miss him," Arkay rested his chin on the back of the front seat. His hand still kept searching for its mate. He wished he could at least pull it inside his sleeves, but all clothes here lacked even wrist length sleeves, only coming down to his elbows.
      The nageric exposure no longer bothered him so much, even though he watched Darya keep trying to hide her hands. But to have his scarred wrists bare often made him fretful. He did not want to answer anyone's questions about how he'd come to be so damaged.
      "Nashen?" Jarmin glanced in the rear view mirror before pulling the little car out into traffic.
      "Yes," he leaned back, putting his arm over the back of the seat. It felt empty without Nashen's warm, slender body at his side.
      "I missed Aliana." He admitted with half a grin. "I was hoping you would want to go back early."
      "As I missed Vayer." Darya sighed, resting her chin on her hand. "Dancing isn't the same without him."
      "I know." He held her shoulder briefly and she patted his hand. "You certainly seemed to enjoy dancing for him earlier this month." Her blush was spectacular.
      "You liked it?" She looked back over her shoulder.
      "I'm not dead." Arkay gave a little squeeze with his hand.
      "Far from it." She leaned back against the seat. "I want to be with him."
      "Me too." He couldn't wait to get back.
     
      Nashen looked out the window again.
      "Sit," even Sevrin's masterful harp playing couldn't keep his restless feet still. "You have at least a day to turnover, otyet."
      "I know." He let the drapes fall. "I'm going out." He grabbed his coat off the rack.
      "How can you stand to have your wrists bound?" Vanesa looked at the fur lined cuffs in dismay.
      "I feel the cold more now." He couldn't wait. "I'll be all right." The door closed with a loud snick behind him. The clear sky waited for the storm he felt coming in from the south east patiently. Through the heavy air, the stars twinkled like rare gems.
      Snow crunching beneath his thinly booted feet, he made his way into the nearby grove. Leafless branches cast long shadows before he left the lights of Kaon behind. His breath steamed in the cool air. It felt good to be outside, even as his hand reached for Arkay's again.
      At last he came to the tiny paddock where Kaon kept his few broodmares. They raised their shaggy heads and came swaying over to him. "I don't have any carrots for you." He searched his pockets and grinned.
      Arkay'd left a bag of sugar lumps. "But I do have treats." He handed them out to the ladies. One squealed and threatened to kick her neighbor. "None a that, lass." He tapped her with a finger.
      Her ears came forward immediately, even as she kept one hind foot cocked. "Here you go." He gave the smallest two, as she seemed to be the one the rest picked on.
      Their warm breath took the chill from his bare hands easily before he stuffed them back in his pockets. "No more." He said sadly, turning to walk the fenceline.
      The paint was peeling a bit down near the creek which flowed through the broodmare paddock and he stared at it for a moment. Nothing was ever quite right here, he sighed, looking at the ice covered water. His reflection gazed back up at him.
      Why Arkay still put up with him was sometimes a mystery to Nashen. He was no longer Lord Fatima, head of the wealthiest of the five Russian Demense, but rather an old man who'd outlived his time by decades.
      How had Lord Gartiry Fatima felt when he'd faced his son in mortal Challenge so many centuries ago? The tradition of Challenge to the death to transfer the Demense had started so long before even his time.
      Careful of his footing, Nashen skipped over the ice and continued following the fence. His hands felt the smooth amber stem of Arkay's pipe. Plucking it out with a bit of chamois, he stared at the nearly black bowl. He'd seen Arkay smoking this very pipe as a tiny child.
      But then so often when he'd seen Arkay as a child, he'd been smoking, even borrowing pipes from some of the renSimes. After seeing so many people light a pipe, Nashen figured it couldn't be so hard. And what would it hurt at this late date?
      Tentatively, he filled the bowl and lit it with the finely crafted starter he'd given Arkay for their tenth anniversary. The rich musky smell of hashish filled his nose, smelling far better than he ever remembered it.
      Where had Arkay found this? Nashen leaned on the fence to think, not incidentally watching the road into Kaon. A warm buzz soothed his harpstring taut nerves. This was good, he realized, gazing at the cherry red coal deep in the bowl of the pipe.
      Now he could wait. It wasn't so hard. Even as he breathed deeply of those scents so reminiscent of Arkay.
     
      "Stop the car." Arkay thought he saw something.
      "What?" Jarmin jammed on the brakes. The car slid a bit as it fought to stop on the slick road. Fortunately there were no other cars around.
      "I'm getting out." He spotted a wonderfully familiar figure leaning on the fence. Darya looked and then smiled as well. Her hand reached back and opened the door.
      "We'll be waiting for you, otyet." The door closed behind him and the car moved off.
      The mild winter had still iced the thin layer of snow left on the ground and Arkay watched his step carefully. Not wearing his own coat, he had nothing for the broodmares who came to beg treats from him. "Sorry, m'ladies. I'll bring you treats in the morning." He stroked the boldest one's cheek before sidling up to the Sime leaning on the fence.
      "Care to share?" He held out his hand.
      "Always," Nashen placed the pipe in Arkay's hand. It was nicely warm, as if he'd already smoked more than one bowl. Arkay drew the rich smoke deeply into his lungs. "Not bad."
      "I like it." He leaned against Nashen's side as the familiar warmth of hashish smoothed away the throbbing headache he'd gotten from the club. Or perhaps it was Nashen's warmth soothing away his unease.
      "So do I."
      Arkay nearly dropped his pipe. "You do?" He had to look. Nashen's eyes were dilated with more than the low light and a lazy smile came to his face.
      "Live and learn," he tipped his head in invitation. Arkay was still a bit shocked, but wasn't going to pass up his chance. He rose up a bit and kissed those wonderful, smooth, perfectly Sime lips. They opened to his slowly, as if savoring the taste Arkay knew could not be entirely pleasant.
      "I haven't brushed my teeth." His heart was pounding in his throat.
      "I don't care." Nashen demanded more than the delicate kiss Arkay'd given at first. He moaned, feeling Nashen's great strength demanding he give. Arkay quickly stuffed his pipe in his borrowed coat and melted into Nashen's hungry demands. "You feel so good." His hips rocked into Arkay's, making his head spin with more than hashish.
      "I'm glad to see you too." He burrowed his way into his own coat, along with Nashen. "But whatever made you decide to try smoking?" Nashen had always growled at him whenever he'd smoked before.
      "Missed you," he mumbled against Arkay's cheek. "Missed you so much!"
      "I can tell." The evidence was digging into him with amazing insistence. "We aren't very post, lover."
      "Don't care." Nashen's hands let in a cold draft.
      "Lets go inside." He caressed Nashen's face, wondering at how soft it had gone. The tension lines around his eyes were gone entirely, having vanished without a trace.
      "Wherever you go." His voice dropped, as if he were frantic for Arkay's touch.
      "I wasn't gone so very long." He made sure Nashen didn't slip on the ice. He wasn't paying attention to anything but getting into Arkay's clothes. "You aren't twenty!"
      "You make me feel like I am." He patted Arkay's nearly naked rear end.
      "Flatterer," he dashed ahead. Nashen cheated, jumping right behind him. They fell into a snow drift barely deep enough to keep them from hitting ground. But even still he laughed, tussling with Nashen's invasive hands.
      "Its the truth." Nashen ended up kneeling over him. His eyes were bright in the moonlight. "You do make me feel twenty."
      "I don't know if that was your best age."
      "Then what was it?" Nashen's wicked grin pulled Arkay back to his first concious memory of Nashen as an adult.
     
      As usual, Aliana was no where to be found. Neither was Tzanir. Arkay clutched at the ache in his gut, waiting for it to pass. Ilya, bound in chains of Arkay's forging stood for Kirov on the dias.
      "Not now, not now," he fought doubling over in pain. The only thing holding him together was the prayer this young Lord coming before him tonight could take Val's place.
      Cold sweat stung his eyes as he fought his body for control. At last it left, leaving him shaking and sick. But he had to go on. Ilya'd gone too far last night, abusing Arkay's mind past all control. Now he stood, a mindless thrall to Arkay's rapidly waning strength.
      Unattached Lords came up for challenge only a few times in a generation, and Arkay had to try to claim him or her for Kirov. He required a new Lord, one who might be healthy for long enough to rebuild his lost strength as well. Kirov was failing even more rapidly than Arkay could have imagined.
      He swallowed heavily and blinked away the darkness in his vision. At last Aliana and Tzanir made their way onto the Fatima dias. But wait. Arkay peered out of the shadows.
      A tall, slender Lord stood behind the two women. He had a sword belted around his hips. Had Nashen made Lord so young? It couldn't be. But as he stepped into the light, Arkay couldn't think of anyone else with such looks who'd be bearing a sword.
      Fatima's weapon was unique to her children, and to try to bear a sword without her permission would have been the height of hubris on her dias. Too bad he wasn't coming up for challenge.
      Even though from the blank stare on Aliana's face, young Lord Nashen was going to have his tentacles full very soon. Arkay remembered Aliana as a beautiful, intelligent, wily young woman full of life and light. Now all that remained was a shriveled husk, not unlike Ilya.
      Nashen's face turned to his mother, and then he looked away. Only Kieran seemed to care for her at all, and he shrank back into the shadows uneasily as the doors opened to let in the new Lord.
      Arkay too hid in the shadows, unwilling to give away his presence until the last moment. But his gasp of shock nearly exposed him. She was beautiful.
      Tall, graceful, and very heavy for a Sime, Lord Karola strode into the room as if she owned it already. Arkay was utterly captivated. His wrists ached to feel the touch of her tentacles. She flicked her head to the side, clearing away her raven black hair.
      Then his jaw hit the floor. Behind her was his old friend and one time lover, Avilan Turovich, now Sharm Lord Azov. What was he doing here? Didn't he have a Lord at home? What was his name? Lukin, Lukian, something like that.
      Then he remembered something his father had said at harvest about Lord Azov's unfortunate death and how he'd worried for Avilan's health. But here he was, his nager wrapped firmly around this dark haired young woman. Arkay knew Avilan had a tendency to only bond well with males, but it seemed Karola was Lord enough to keep his attention at least this long.
      As he watched silently, he saw the two of them work tentacle in sheath. It was what he'd always wanted and never achieved. No, he couldn't take Karola from Avilan, not for Kirov. She deserved better.
      The first challenger was, surprisingly, Lord Nashen. Arkay's interest picked up immediately. He'd never seen any Sime move so well.
      Most renSimes flitted when they moved, but Nashen was like quicksilver. He didn't glide or run, he simply appeared where he wanted to be. Arkay's mouth watered frantically. He wanted this Sime ... right now.
      Then he saw Aliana's blank stare into the hall. No. It wouldn't be right. Fatima didn't deserve death. Not for Arkay's lusts.
      Avilan held Nashen's wrist. Arkay flinched from the thought of those fingers crushing the delicate laterals beneath their strength. But all Nashen did was steal a single kiss. Avilan's expression was priceless. He looked like he'd swallowed a fish!
      Arkay heard Nashen give his thanks and then conceded. Now there was a young man to look out for in a few years.
     
      "I'm surprised you remember Karola's challenge and not Nivanya's peace." Nashen stroked his fingers through Arkay's long hair, reveling in the silken strands twining in his grasp.
      "There are very few things I remember from those last years as Sharm Lord Kirov." Arkay's voice rumbled up from his chest. "I remember Nivanya's love for Val," his voice cracked dramatically. "Damn," he pounded on the bed.
      "I know." Nashen grabbed his lover's hand. "I miss them as well."
      "It isn't that. Nivanya was old."
      "She should have had more time with Val." Nashen could remember the scene far too well.
      "Yes," Arkay's hands clenched into fists.
      "It wasn't your fault." He knew these moods in his love. "None of it was your fault."
      "Oh, parts of it were, Nashen." Arkay curled up in a ball. "If only ..."
      "Hush," he put a tentacle to Arkay's lips. "You did the best you could."
      "It could have ..."
      "No," Nashen silenced him again.
      "You've been talking with Diomid." Some of Arkay's glittering lights returned.
      "I have." Nashen pulled another blanket to cover them. "Do you mind?" Sometimes he wondered if Arkay were jealous of his relationship with his previous partner.
      "Only Diomid's insight ... sometimes." Arkay sighed. "Not the price he paid for it though."
      "No, even though I know so little of it." Nashen sometimes wondered just what had shattered Diomid so very badly he'd taken to hurting himself. Not that Nashen was the one to talk. He turned over his hands to see the nearly invisible scars on his own arms.
      "Ask him." Arkay's hands came to rest on his wrists.
      "Are you sure?" He let his tentacles bind them.
      "As any Sergeyevich." Arkay smiled through the tears drying on his face. "Thank you."
      "For?" Nashen rubbed his tentacles over the play of Arkay's nager in his wrists. He never tired of the unique feel of him. Metal and fire had combined inadvertently to create an utterly fascinating work of art in Arkay's arms.
      "Teasing me out of my funk." Arkay's hands captured his. "Although I do wonder about you sometimes."
      "Me?" One tentacle was following a particularly interesting line of light beneath Arkay's skin with all the enthusiasm of a hound on a scent.
      "How have you managed to never shen off because of my scars?" Arkay's blunt question drew him up short.
      Nashen stuttered and stammered something utterly incoherent, thinking back to how very fascinated he'd been the first time Arkay'd let him play with his arms.
     
      Nashen was utterly amazed. For all the work they'd been doing, he was far from ready to sleep, but Arkay was snoring quite contentedly on the tiny bed they shared.
      The creaking of the ship gave an odd counterpoint to Arkay's snores. It was as if noises were making it so Arkay wasn't waking at every little sound. Even still, Nashen was very careful not to startle him as he came to bed.
      Hours out from transfer, he knew he should try to nap, but need crawled along his nerves with burning little feet.
      The narrow bed really wasn't big enough for both of them. Not want to disturb him, Nashen tried to filch a blanket so he could doze on the floor.
      "No," Arkay grabbed his hand and pulled. The swaying of the ship caught him off balance. In an utterly disgraceful tumble, he landed right on his partner. "Good." Arkay rolled over and pinned him to the pallet.
      Then he went back to sleep. Nashen felt like an overlarge rag doll. Rarely did any Sharm Lord Genhandle him the way Arkay did. The only other one who had was Arkay's half brother, Diomid. He wasn't complaining.
      After tugging a stray braid out from under his hip, Nashen settled into Arkay's grasp a bit more contentedly. The steady rocking of the ship no longer tied Nashen's stomach into knots, and had become rather comforting actually.
      It was as if Arkay were rocking him in his arms. Not that Arkay couldn't do such a thing. While he wasn't as heavy or strong as Diomid, he still outmassed Nashen by quite a few kilos.
      Thinking of which made Nashen's fingers and tentacles itch to explore. Now even more restless, he delicately brushed his fingers over Arkay's shoulder. Soft, beautifully Gen skin dimpled slightly beneath his touch. Nothing in life was more wonderful than the softness of Gens.
      Arkay's thigh came over his, pinning him even more firmly against the wall. Nashen was surrounded by Arkay's field. But he didn't really want to zlin yet. He knew far too well he'd be unable to think at all the instant he opened up to Arkay.
      Right now he wanted to explore. So far, Arkay had been quite diffident about letting Nashen touch his wrists at all. Nashen knew quite well they were badly scarred, but he still wished to know Arkay in every way he could.
      Transfer in the dark was not his preferred means of making love. Nashen had always wanted to see and zlin his partners. It had taken months to bully Diomid out of being so shy and he hoped his brother would be a bit easier to tame.
      Not that Arkay would ever truly be tame. No, the glorious spirit contained in such fragile flesh would never break to another's will, and Nashen wouldn't have wanted anything else.
      He loved Arkay's tremendous strength of will. Sometimes it was misguided, but never in such a way as to want to harm.
      Nashen brushed a soft kiss over Arkay's heart. Somehow he'd ended up crammed against Arkay's chest. Turning his head to the side, he could hear the odd lisping rhythm he was coming to know as normal for his lover. Then one of Arkay's hands came between them.
      He couldn't believe his good fortune. Before it could get away, Nashen captured it in both of his. It fluttered a bit before coming to rest in the cage of his tentacles. Enough light spilled in through the unshuttered portal Nashen could clearly see each tiny line crossing and recrossing Arkay's hand.
      One at a time, he traced paths of light and shadow through a glittering dance of firefly lights. Each one twined around and through the others in a brilliant array.
      With a single tentacle, Nashen traced one gleaming line until it fractured into dozens of even brighter tendrils. Each one pulsed softly in time to his own growing need. Then they froze for the slightest instant.
      "Go ahead, if you like." A shimmer of ice washed over the lights, driving them into hiding.
      Nashen looked up into Arkay's light blue eyes.
      "If you don't want to, I understand."
      He held his breath, not wanting to do anything which might seem like rejection. The lines of Arkay's face were dark with need, but there were even more shadows deep within his glorious eyes. "I want." His tentacles bound Arkay's hand as firmly as he dared.
      "I know." Arkay blinked suddenly and squared his shoulders. "If you want me early."
      "No," all his attention was still on the hand fluttering between his. "This is what I want." His tongue flicked out to brush the tip of one of Arkay's fingers.
      "Are you sure?" With a jangle of bracelets, Arkay's other hand came up to caress Nashen's neck.
      "Here, let me." Nashen squirmed around a bit to free Arkay's pinned arm. When he resettled himself, he found he was nearly lying on Arkay's broad chest. This wasn't where he wanted to be. By dint of a bit more squirming, he managed to catch both of Arkay's hands. "This is better." He studied both of them at close range.
      "It will be a while until we are both ripe." Arkay's hands had gone cold in his.
      "If you don't want me to touch," at least he could look. Another bold tentacle, however, had squirmed its way around to caress yet another of those fascinating lines. This one soon dipped beneath a dark shadow, hiding from his inspection. One lateral peeked out to zlin where it had gone.
      "What are you zlinning so intently?"
      "What, who, me?" Nashen tried to yank it back in. It wasn't going, having nearly found the reappearance of that one trace.
      "There aren't any other Simes in my bed at the moment." All the wonderful lights returned with renewed force. His lateral found what it had been zlinning for and touched the spot. Nashen shivered at the brief contact sending a wash of new desire through his body.
      "I can't zlin any." Nashen forgot about his manners entirely as the twining paths joined and split all the way past Arkay's elbows. He had to find where they went. His handling tentacles gathered up Arkay's bracelets so he could zlin beneath them.
      They jingled musically in his grasp as all of his laterals peeked out to zlin. Never before had Nashen zlinned anything like this. Even a child knew metal blocked selyn, but on Arkay's arms, his metal bracelets created fantastic rainbow sprays of light.
      Careful not to drop any of them on his exposed laterals, Nashen let his handling tentacles slide Arkay's many bracelets up and down his wrists.
      He shivered all over, moaning so deeply in his throat Nashen thought he imagined it. Then Arkay said, "Don't stop what you're doing."
      "Really?" Nashen's own need darkened field glittered.
      "At least not if you want me sane." His voice was lower than Nashen had ever heard it. "I haven't had anyone play with my bracelets since I won them."
      "Then I shall have to see if I can make up for lost opportunities." Nashen wet one tentacle and brushed it between Arkay's bracelets and his skin. His hands flexed and then snapped open like he was going through change over. With the gesture, light pulsed even brighter to Nashen's zlinning.
      One at a time, Nashen studied Arkay's bracelets. They glittered in the light of the morning with a beauty he'd never before noticed. Unlike many Sharm Lord's, Arkay's were incredibly varied. From a simple piece of beaten copper to a heavy band of platinum bearing a fire stone.
      The only other person he'd ever seen bearing any fire stones was Diomid and he wasn't going to ask where either'd gotten theirs. Even Fatima's great wealth couldn't buy the fantastic manmade gems which refracted selyn into the visible range.
      A drop of roniplin slid down his own arm to drip onto the bedding. Nashen suddenly realized he was oozing the selyn conductor all over the place. "I'm making a mess."
      "Good," Arkay's head was thrown back as if Nashen were doing far more than caressing his arms. He swallowed heavily and then looked down. "You stopped."
      "I'm trying to stop making puddles on the bed." Wiping up the slippery stuff with his own tentacles was doing no good whatsoever, only spreading it around and making his own arms tingle with nageric longing.
      "Let me help." Arkay's broad hands stroked the length of Nashen's forearms. His howl could probably be heard on land, kilometers away. "Poor little Sime." Deft fingers stroked his now fully engorged glands into producing even more roniplin.
      Soon it was everywhere. Arkay even leaned down to lick a bit off his fingers. His smile was heartstopping. Particularly as his nager picked it up and sprayed the beauty of it all over the tiny room. Nashen lost control of his sight, falling into a world of light and beauty.
      Great tendrils of selyn twined and writhed beneath his tentacles. Interspersed were dark bands of night like great shadows setting off a living fire stone. Brilliant specks of flittering illumination filled the mystical warmth of Arkay's tremendous nager.
      Lost in a sea of selyn, Nashen tried to come back to reality. At last, gasping, he caught a single dark band. Metal broke his own attempt at a fourth contact. It had been too close.
      Nashen distracted his need with sliding Arkay's bracelets up and down his arms. Now slick with roniplin, gems and precious metal slid easily even over Arkay's forearms.
      They were corded as Arkay clenched his fists and selyn seemed to thunder in Nashen's own wrists as it struggled to free itself of physical restraint. Finally under control, Nashen smiled wickedly to himself.
      Now Arkay was limp beneath his command, lost to his own need to give. Nashen rolled him onto his back and straddled his hips. "You are mine." He growled, giving in to the predator bred into him selyn and bone.
      "Yesssss," Arkay's head rocked on the pillow. "Nashen, take me." His sightless eyes stared through him.
      "Not yet," Nashen let his tentacles twine through Arkay's bracelets. He caught Arkay's elbows to his sides, pinning the far larger Sharm Lord.
      "You tease." Arkay growled, writhing between Nashen knees.
      "Yes," he held on tighter. Arkay bucked beneath him, as if trying to get away. A wash of pure pleasure rushed up and down Nashen's spine. He knew Arkay wasn't really trying to free himself from the way his nager spread into the ambient, offering itself to him.
      Thinking wicked thoughts, Nashen used one of the linen sheets to tie Arkay's shoulders to the bed.
      Arkay's great blue gray eyes snapped open in shock.
      "Didn't think I'd do it?" He quickly bound Arkay's feet as well.
      "NASHEN!" Arkay screamed, struggling against his binding with all his strength. Good thing he'd had Diomid teach him the knots he'd used on Nashen. He smirked appreciatively.
      "Yes," he arched his neck, tracing one tentacle lightly over Arkay's forearm. They were flushed a brilliant red where the skin was still smooth and unflawed. Nashen'd had known a Gen's forearms would become engorged with blood when they were aroused, but he'd never seen such an amazing response to him, personally.
      A bit taken aback, he lightly traced the warm lines hiding beneath the cool. Each delicate ridge hid treasures uncounted beneath its shield. Nashen rubbed at one of them, drawing out the warmth hiding beneath it.
      Arkay moaned, his body still straining to be free.
      "I'll take care of everything." Keeping his tentacles safely in their sheathes, Nashen stroked the heated flesh of Arkay's forearms. With each caress they warmed even further, soon turning burning hot even to his own Sime warmth.
      "You can't do this!"
      "Why not?" Nashen leaned down and licked a spiraling path from Arkay's fingers all the way to the inside of his elbow. With each cent, Arkay's pulse of selyn production fluttered against the sensitive surface of his tongue. Then Nashen nipped lightly at the tender skin over Arkay's pulse. His harsh scream nearly brought down the roof on both of them. Someone even stomped on the floor over their heads. But Nashen didn't care. If they wanted their own Sharm Lord like Arkay, they could be jealous.
      "I'm having fun." He blew on the dampness he'd left behind. Selyn danced and shivered beneath the fine, wonderfully adorned skin of Arkay's arms. Never before had Nashen had such a chance to explore any Gen's arms, much less a Sharm Lord's. And this wasn't any Sharm Lord, but Arkay.
      As he looked, he could see each and every hair struggling to stand. Some were so dampened they were slicked to Arkay's skin. This couldn't be comfortable. With both tentacles and fingers, he brushed them free.
      Arkay's deep moans rang in his ears like the music of angels. "Do you want to know what I think?"
      "Anything," Arkay panted, shivering all over. Nashen gently tucked a soft blanket around them so his wonderful lover wouldn't get a chill. "Tell me, talk to me, I want to hear your voice." His pleading brought forth another hot spurt of roniplin from Nashen's lateral sheathes. He put it to good use, lubricating Arkay's bracelets so he could play with them more.
      "I think you like being tied up." Nashen blessed Diomid yet again as Arkay's eyes rolled up in his head. "I think you like being wanted so badly your own Sime is willing to stroke you to madness. I think you like being so cherished your very own lover will take all choice out of your hands and pleasure you senseless." He dug his tentacles into Arkay's wrists, hard.
      Arkay's field slammed outwards, demanding Nashen's acquiescence.
      "No, I think I'll wait still." Nashen teased, even as he sweated dodging another strike like the last. To head it off, he began suckling gently on Arkay's fingers. His field writhed madly out of control, but it settled softly under Nashen's caresses. "You wouldn't want me early?" Even as he noted in surprise hours had passed with their pleasures and it soon would be time.
      "Don't care. I want you!" Arkay's tongue traced his lips. "Anything!"
      "Oh?" Nashen went back to stroking Arkay's forearms with his tentacles. He'd known other Sharm Lords who'd let him touch their arms, but nothing like this. They became oversensitive far too soon and had opened to him irresistibly. Now he was the one in control and was reveling in every moment. For the first time in his life, Nashen was grateful for his own slowness to respond to nageric teasing.
      "Anything?" He nipped at the most delicate skin on Arkay's body, the little patch of hairless skin covering the tiny bones inside his wrist. Arkay's hand flexed again, trying to catch Nashen's hair! "No you don't." He pulled back, using his thumbs to press apart those little bones. Arkay's groan thrummed all the way up Nashen's body.
      "Oh, don't stop. Please don't stop. That feels so good." Arkay's pleas only made Nashen work harder on his hands. Another flash of selyn whited the ambient as Nashen managed to pop loose one of Arkay's wrists. This was fun. Taking his time, Nashen gradually worked loose every catch and stiff spot in Arkay's hands.
      At last he folded those magnificent hands and had another wicked thought. It was cool enough. Glad the cabin was small, he tugged out a fur muff he'd forgotten and stashed at the bottom of his trunk. Pushing Arkay's hands together with his knees, Nashen placed the soft fur over them.
      "Like this?" He slid the sable over Arkay's hands and wrists.
      "Oh yes, oh yes," Arkay was incoherently rocking back and forth between his knees. Nashen could zlin his fingers twining with the dark fur. It was as brilliant as moonlight on snow.
      "Want to be sure you don't get a chill." Even though it seemed like every hair on Arkay's body was standing straight up ... and quivering. There was only one more thing he wanted to do. Did he dare?
      Nashen zlinned his lover deeply. A tremendous pool of selyn waited for him, gleaming with new life. But he wanted more. Yes, he was going to do it.
      He tugged one of Arkay's hands from the soft fur. If he really didn't want this, Arkay could stop him. Watching carefully for the first sign of protest, Nashen slid the first of Arkay's bracelets to his hand.
      "Yes," Arkay folded his hand, holding Nashen's eyes as a snake would a hawk. His mouth gone suddenly dry, Nashen removed each of Arkay's bracelets one at a time. "I was eighteen when I put on the first of them."
      "Then I shall zlin you as untouched and pure." His hands caressed Arkay's bare arms as he would have never dared with any other Sharm Lord.
      "I'm not." His voice trembled.
      "To me you are more beautiful as you are, gloriously nude." Nashen's hands trembled as they passed over where Arkay's bracelets normally rode. Nothing could have prepared him for this. "Ins'Allah, Arkay," he breathed, his fingers and tentacles caressing each fraction of skin, no longer hampered by anything at all.
      He could zlin the play of selyn dance beneath Arkay's skin as the first Lord must have caressed her Sharm Lord. There was nothing in the way, no metal bands blocking his laterals, no Gen need taking this moment from him, nothing.
      "Have you even seen a Sharm Lord naked before?" Arkay's question held a wonder Nashen would have never expected.
      "Once, for a moment," he thought of Diomid's bare arms as he decided on which of his few bracelets to put on first. "For lovemaking, never." He met Arkay's gaze squarely, even as he longed to see the tender skin his hands stroked.
      "I've never taken them all off at once, before." Arkay's fingers curled around to brush Nashen's arms. The trust shown made a lump lodge somewhere behind Nashen's breast bone.
      "So no one has seen you nude since adolescence." Nashen's tentacles traced the lines left in Arkay's flesh by so many years of wearing the jewelry.
      "No one but you." There was a softness to his eyes Nashen would have bet his lady Fatima few had ever seen either. Then his tentacles twined around Arkay's wrists and set themselves. Arkay's breath caught and his eyes turned black with unfulfilled need.
      "Not quite yet," Nashen leaned down, trapping their hands between them. Arkay arched backwards against his binding. "Oh, my beloved," he captured both his mouth and his wrists at the same time. "You are mine, Arkay," he reached for all his power as Sime to Arkay's Gen.
      "Then take my life into you and let it make you whole." Arkay's field reached out to him, this time absolutely undeniably. Nashen opened his heart to Arkay's need, taking him without reserve and without restraint. Living fire rose up in his heart and banished death to the darkest reaches of hell.
      At his side, an angel arose, no longer fettered with man's chains, but free of all binding. It pulled him up with it. Sun warm on both their backs, together they soared side by side in the thermals of new life flooding what had once been a barren plain with new greenery.
     
      "Why have you never removed my bracelets since?" Arkay smiled at Nashen's stammering incoherence.
      "Didn't want to presume." Then he grinned, the years falling from his face. "Besides, you had a hard time getting them back on straight."
      "Only because you kept wanting to play with them." He chuckled at the memory of Nashen, tentacles and hands full of his bracelets. "Turnover is tonight." He grasped the first of them in his fingers. Nashen's eyes widened. "No one but Darya would know and she'd be too embarrassed to say anything."
      "What of Sevrin?" Nashen's fascination was painfully apparent from his rapt gaze.
      "Everyone knows he's a twit." Arkay slid the first over his hand. "Besides, what business is it of his if I walk around naked. He's my son for heaven's sake."
      "You're going to walk around naked, in front of your own adult Sime child!" Nashen was gaping.
      "Yes," he grinned, continuing to remove his bracelets. "Vayer would never approach me. He's far too entranced with Darya." With each band slipping from his wrists, he felt a weight lift from his heart. "There are sharm lords who go through their whole lives without bracelets."
      "But they wear heavy kadors." His spoken protests were nothing to the gleaming fascination in his eyes. "Ins'Allah, Arkay, my Alahin," Nashen's fingers stroked the now bare skin of Arkay's forearms.
      "Feels good," he rubbed his own arms. The silence accompanying the gesture was a bit unsettling. His bracelets glittered in a pile on the bedside table. "There are an awful lot of them." He noted.
      "I've given you a few." Nashen's ears pinked delicately. Arkay chuckled, counting the amazing pieces Nashen had given him over the years. At any excuse, he'd come up with yet another.
      "So I wouldn't feel bad when I lost another to Darya."
      "I couldn't give her any beyond the one I gifted her at Tzer's birth." His ears turned redder.
      "So it was entirely for Darya's sake." Arkay teased, pulling

Nashen into his arms. "Not for me."
      "Entirely for you," Nashen's hands were still rubbing his arms. "How long are you going to leave them off?"
      "I was thinking until after transfer." He stroked Nashen's silky, waist length hair.
      "Arkay!" Nashen reared back in shock.
      "What?" He laughed, feeling like he'd given over his last great burden. "I love thee, Nashen, with all my heart and soul. No gems, no jewelry, no fetters and no chains. I am thine to do with as thou will." Arkay fell into the measured archaisms of High Simelan poetry with an ease he'd never known with any other.
      "Thou are my heart's desire and my soul's fulfillment. Allah brought us together as one and time has grown our bond to one outlasting the stars." He brushed Nashen's silver hair back with one trembling hand. "No greater glory lies in store than knowing thou are by my side and in my heart."
      "Arkay," Nashen drew in a deep breath. "I am not the poet thou are, as thy beauty stills my tongue and ties my tentacles in their sheathes, but I do know I love thee beyond all measure and time.
      "Thy beauty outshines all the stars in heaven and growing things on earth. Thy spirit is greater than all the winged creatures in the skies and all the finned swimming the waters. And yet still thou love me. This is yet the greatest wonder of all. Surpassing even the wonder of the heavens and the glory of this earthly paradise.
      "I love thee, Arkay. I have not the words to speak of so great a thing." Tears glittered in his silver eyes. "Ins'Allah, Arkay," his strong Sime arms came around him and clutched him with fantastic power. "May Allah's blessing and Allah's blessed stand as one beneath the One."
      "Together Allah's love is eternal." Arkay finished the quote as Nashen cried tears of joy against his chest. His own dampened his Alamir's hair.

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