Fire's Shadow


Fire's Shadow




by



Ann Marie Olson





Story 1999 Ann Marie Olson









INTRO


      Lord Karola Mardinova Sergei couldn't move a single muscle and she really wanted to blink. No she didn't, her eyes were glued to Sharm Lord Avilan Turovich Azov fighting to the death with Sharm Lord Arkay Kirov. No! she screamed in the silence of her mind as Arkay aimed a killing blow at her lover's head and blinked in relief as Avilan blocked it. If I can move this much ... she wrestled against the hold Arkay had put on her to no avail.
      She stared at the sword lying on the floor not more than a meter from her feet. It moved. Suddenly it jumped into her hand, as if of its own accord and she was free. Without a thought she saw her chance. Arkay had his back to Avilan. Karola swung the sword at his unprotected throat. She had no intention of touching Arkay if she had a choice in the matter.
      Avilan's hand snaked out and caught it by the blade, defending Arkay! She could only zlin their fields intertwine, warm honey gold and cool dancing mist at the sudden shock. Mesmerized by the incredible merging of the two very high field Sharm Lords, she helplessly stood motionless, zlinning. Oh my, the warm gold feel she knew as Avilan flared with protectiveness and love for the man he had only moments before been fighting.
      Stunned, she released her hold on the weapon and it clattered to the floor. The noise jarred her enough she could see again. Arkay's hand was extended towards her. Karola nodded and he stepped forward. *So very beautiful* she heard his eerily familiar mental voice say. His light blue eyes were soft now as she looked up at him.
      Indeed you are, Arkay popped into her mind and she realized it was true. Not in the same sense as Avilan with his indescribable physical beauty, but that of the soul.
      *Hush. That is like short=vertically challenged.* his hand was warm against her face from his earlier exertion.
      She wanted to grin at his comment but he had tipped her head and leaned forward for a kiss. For a very brief instant she thought of refusing him but then realized Avilan loved this stranger, which was enough for her. His lips were soft against hers at first, as if asking permission. Yes, she leaned into him and he kissed her with all the passion and desire anyone could ever ask for.
      *Till we meet in Heaven, my dearest friend* he sent to Avilan, although she could hear it as well. With the physical contact though, she learned too well the heartache and pain Arkay carried with him. His Lord was hopelessly mad and all Arkay yearned for was the release he would receive with Ilya's death.
      Karola wanted to howl with the torment Arkay carried with him but suddenly it was smoothed away as if it never had been. *Peace, young one. I go willingly. Take care of Avilan, please.* and he cut off the contact. "Challenge conceded!" she heard him say and then watched him walk away from them.
     
      Avilan turned and headed for Arkay.
      "No, Avilan." she grabbed him about the waist. He was still breathing a bit hard from the exertion. "He knows and accepts his fate. Don't make it any harder for him." she said to Avilan and to herself.
      "Is everyone going to leave me?" his sorrow and grief were almost too much to bear after Arkay's.
      "Never, my love, never will I leave you. Lets go home." she dropped her arms from around him and took his hand. Zlinning back, Arkay had already left the room.
     
      Arkay looks like one of the Angels damned to Hell. Avilan thought as he engraved the last images of his old friend in his mind. Arkay was standing behind his Lord Ilya. His eyes were wild with the barely contained madness of his Lord as a final, very young lord walked up to the dias followed by an older sharm lord, who moved more like one of the veiled. This did not look good at all.
      The youngster was shaking with fear as he extended his arms to his Lord in fealty. Unable to watch any more of this farce Avilan turned his face away briefly.
      "Avilan, look!" Karola hissed at him. From somewhere, lord Valentine Kirov had arrived to interpose himself between the young man and his own fathers.
      In shock he watched Val Challenge his father for the Demense. "He's too young to face Arkay!" he whimpered, knowing far too well how this would turn out. Ilya lunged for his son with the full fury of his insanity clearly evident on his features. Arkay reached for him then mindlessly snarled as he tried to fight against his bondmate's lust to kill and his own tie to his Lord.
      "Arkay, no." he cried, torn to see his friend like this. He couldn't watch any more and tried to pull Karola to him. He still had her and Sharm Lord Sergei, her reminded himself. Blinded by tears he barely saw a tiny woman run into the hall and throw back her hood. She had the flaming red hair Avilan had only seen on one woman before in his life, Sharm Lord Katrina Kirov. Hissing his recognition he got to his feet, forgetting entirely Katrina had been dead for over sixteen years now.
      Everyone in the hall froze for an instant with recognition. Blinking to clear his vision Avilan noted two more people enter the hall, this time to either side of the Kirov dias. Krasna and Yosef, from their way of moving, he guessed. Arkay dropped like a stone as they reached him. Avilan howled his pain and loss of the man who had been his beloved.
      From his knees he looked up suddenly at the green wood cracking sound only one thing made, a broken neck. Valentine, now Lord Valentine Kirov stood over his dead father. "I claim the Kirov Demense!" he called out then collapsed to his knees over the corpse, crying.
      Arkay is dead the tears streamed down his face.
      "I am so very sorry." Karola took him into her arms, tears wet on her face. "I only met him the once, but still, I wish things could have been different."
     
      "What kind of sick joke is this!" Avilan stormed into the throne room of Kirov. From his position in the shadows, Arkay watched silently as Karola charged in on Avilan's heels before he could do anything to stop them.
      "How dare you!" her violet eyes flashed with indignation. "Isn't it enough for you to have murdered him, now you have to rub our noses in it."
      Before Valentine could open his mouth, Arkay stepped forward. "I assure you both, Ilya's death was well timed." Karola fainted. He rushed forward to catch her before she could hit the floor. Sliding under her falling body he looked up into Avilan's so beloved sapphire blue eyes, wide with shock. "Sit down before you fall down, Avilan." he recommended. Oops Avilan crashed to the floor, sitting, but with his mouth wide open in surprise.
      "But ... I thought ... You let me think ... the younger man stuttered incoherently.
      "Nothing, Avilan. Until very recently they wouldn't let me out of bed." Arkay said softly. "I'm sorry to have put you through this, but until I was sure I would, well, be truly well again I didn't dare let the information out of Kirov."
      "Oh." he closed his mouth on the syllable.
      "Karola, however, shouldn't have been exposed to the shock in her condition." he looked at Avilan dubiously. "Congratulation on your quick work, however." he winked.
      "Trying to stop Karola is like trying to stop the weather." Avilan snorted and brushed his mate's black hair back from her face.
      She opened her eyes and looked up at him, "Arkay?"
      "Hush, they're all right. You are the one who fainted." he grinned.
      "They!?" she looked even more stunned.
      "You didn't know?" Arkay couldn't believe she hadn't managed to zlin herself thoroughly enough to determine the fact she was carrying twins and do something about it before now. He flinched inwardly at having to tell her she had to abort.
      "No." Avilan said.
      "To which, not knowing or ..." Arkay left it unsaid. "Without another Sharm Lord at least equal in power to Avilan you would be drained before you could give birth, Karola. You know that. You were trained at Sergei."
      "Would you be willing to come with us to Azov?" Karola asked.
      I hadn't even contemplated that solution. Arkay thought.
      "Please." Avilan's heart was in his eyes at the threat to his beloved and something else he couldn't have even hoped for, concern for Arkay himself.
      "If you will have me, both of you." he wanted to be very sure he would not be intruding. Arkay found himself suddenly surrounded by two pairs of arms.
      "Yes, oh yes." she caroled.
      *Welcome to Azov, beloved* Avilan sent him, with no trace of regret or hesitation.

CHAPTER 1

      For the third morning in a row, Karola woke up early. What is going on? she thought in exasperation. This time though rather than pulling Avilan closer and going back to sleep she lay awake, staring into the darkness.
      Muttering something to himself in his sleep, Avilan rolled part way over and began snoring. So much for trying to get back to sleep she looked at him fondly before slithering out of bed. You've been working far too hard, my love she didn't want to complete the thought but it came unbidden into her mind anyways, for far too little gain.
      To cut the chill in the air she pulled one of Avilan's old heavy tunics on and stepped into a pair of thick fuzzy slippers. Better then a draft drifted up her bare legs, slightly
      Karola was not at all accustomed to the variable weather of living above yet. She looked around the edge of the drapes and peered out the window. It was as dark outside as it was inside, so the only thing this accomplished was to let her know it was yet another dark and cold night in Moskva, i.e. not a whole lot. Although the chill blast off the window almost sent her right back to bed.
      Yawning she shuffled over to the bathroom. Before she opened the door, however, she noted a very faint light glimmering through the keyhole. Who? then she remembered Arkay had chosen the suite opposite theirs, which shared the oversized bathroom. Timidly, she lightly scratched at the door.
      "A moment." he said and she could only hear the sound of running water. Something set off her caution warning though. Finally he said, "Come in."
      She slipped through the door, careful to not let any more of the light than necessary enter the bedroom. Not incidentally she let the door fall locked behind herself and pocketed the key.
      Using that peculiar power she had only gotten under her control at that horrible challenge last fall, she tripped the tumblers in the far door, locking it as well. Arkay's back was to her. He grabbed the edge of the sink so hard his fingers were dead white with the stress. All she could zlin was an absolutely blank grey facade. Without prying she wasn't going to find out anything more without Arkay's express permission.
      "Sorry to be taking so long." he finally said then swallowed heavily before turning to face her. In the low light he looked as if a corpse had risen from its grave to walk the earth again. His eyes were sunk deep within his head and surrounded by black circles, which only contrasted horribly with his chalk pale, almost translucent skin. "I'll be going now and get out of your way." he was almost formally polite, which was definitely odd for three in the morning. He swallowed again and then blinked owlishly, even in the near darkness. She could see the muscles in his neck tense and a drop of sweat run down his face, although the room was quite cool. Arkay hurriedly reached for the door handle.
      "It's locked." then she recognized what she saw and grabbed him, bodily placing him in front of the basin where he heaved up what little water he had managed to drink. Helpless to stop him, she held him till the spasms subsided. With a damp cloth she wiped the sweat from his brow.
      Irritably he batted at her hands and tried to shift away from her. "I thought you were the one who was supposed to be doing this."
      Karola tried not to shiver with fear as she saw a bit of blood at the corner of his mouth before he took the cloth and wiped it away. "Not so far, at least." she tried to force a grin on her face. "I think they are happy to be safe inside where its nice and warm." this handily explained away her earlier shudder.
      "I think I'll sit here for a moment, now you know." he leaned back against the wall carefully. She knew nowhere near as much as she wanted to. Worried about him she rummaged through the cabinet on the wall and managed to make a facsimile of the potion Avilan had given her that bad turnover after they had first met. Sniffing it cautiously she couldn't detect anything which would be inimical to a Gen, although it had a great deal of Larilin in it, which should make Arkay a great deal more tractable. She handed the glass to Arkay.
      He eyed it with a great expression of doubt but sipped it cautiously anyways. Sitting down she tried to put her arm around him again but he waved her away. Knowing better than to force attentions on a relatively unknown Sharm Lord, she sat back on her heels and watched him carefully. Eventually he finished it all and leaned back with a breathy whimper. Karola caught the glass as it slipped from his hand. "This stuff should only be given in unbreakable vessels" she thought of herself dropping the glass afterwards as well.
      Arkay actually chuckled softly, "It contains a very powerful muscle relaxant as well as the anti-nausea agent, which I couldn't quite recognize. Avilan must have been warned you would drop the glass." Closing his eyes he rested his head back against the wall.
      She set the glass aside then saw the pulse in his neck slow from its frantic pace. Wondering if he was going to fall asleep on he, she was startled when he asked, "Why didn't you tell Avilan you were bearing twins?"
      "How did you know I knew? I could have missed it." her breath caught in even greater surprise.
      "Come now, Karola. Admittedly I've only been here for a few days but I already know you don't miss much. Look at the way you mouse trapped me so very neatly."
      Lifting her chin firmly, "I couldn't murder them." Absently she placed her hand on her own belly and zlinned them to be certain they were well.
      "Even to save your own life?" she felt his hand gently cover hers.
      "Even if." she trapped his fingers. "Besides, I knew every thing would turn out for the best."
      He actually managed to grin, "Karola ..."
      "... you are a treasure." Avilan finished from behind the locked door. "Now are you two going to leave me looking through the keyhole or are you going to let me in?"
      Karola and Arkay looked at each other in astonishment. She reached out and unlocked the door with a thought, not bothering to get up and use the key.
      "Useful too." Arkay looked at her with a raised eyebrow. "I hadn't thought I had locked the door."
      "Applied stubbornness." Avilan said for her. She stuck out her tongue at him. "Thats what put you into this position in the first place." he looked pointedly at the glass and then the two of them sitting on the floor.
      "It wasn't Karola who was sick." Arkay said then looked at his own nose. "What did Vanya put in that?"
      "Sergei said it was for muscle cramps and nausea. Although he warned me to make sure to catch the glass before it hit the floor. Who's Vanya?"
      "Sharm Lord Vanya Sergeyevich Sergei, my father." he mumbled looking like he was contemplating the idea of prying himself off the floor.
      "Your father!" Avilan looked at Arkay in surprise. Karola had guessed but it was always nice to have one's guesses confirmed.
      "You don't look surprised, Karola."
      "I'm not, particularly. You zlin quite a bit like him and you, well sound like him." she said a bit smugly. "The handful of times you've let me zlin you." she frowned.
      Arkay grimaced again, "If you don't let me out of here soon you'll get to zlin more than you want to." He managed to hand walk himself up the wall. "If you would, m'Lord. The key is on the other side."
      She pointedly handed the key to Avilan. "No, Arkay. I'm not going to let you go back to bed alone. I'm worried about you." she tisked at him and raised her eyebrows. "Right now you couldn't fight your way out of a hole in the ground."
      He closed his eyes heavily, "You don't want to do this, Karola."
      "Don't argue with her. It doesn't work." Avilan said with complete conviction. "At least when she is right." he pocketed the key.
      "I'll say what I will and won't do Arkay." she held out her hand and he gingerly took the tips of her fingers. Why wont he touch me? she led him backwards out of the bedroom. Before he could protest she stripped him and pushed him backwards onto the bed. By all the Gods in Heaven! she swore as she saw him without heavy clothes for the first time. All of his ribs were prominently visible, the flesh had sunk back around the collarbones and both his hips and his rib cage were protruding from the hollow of his abdomen. Knowing he would be horribly upset if she said anything she silently pulled her own clothes off and pulled the blankets over both of them.
      "Thank you, for not saying anything." he murmured almost silently.
      "There is always later." she couldn't help but saying.
      He chuckled softly and slipped off to sleep in her arms. Then she realized why he hadn't wanted her to touch him, Arkay was almost as warm as she was, although now cooling down to Gen normal. In sleep he had relaxed enough she could zlin him and did so without any remorse whatsoever. What she found was almost enough to make her want to go back in time and kill Ilya herself; repeated, unhealed transfer burns, the worst case of underdraw she had ever seen and worst of all, almost three years worth of near starvation and physical abuse. There was something else she couldn't quite track down, but the potion she had given him was interfering. How could anyone treat another human being like this? she gently kissed the back of his neck and he murmured in his sleep and cuddled up against her even more tightly.
     
      "Where do we go from here?" he said quietly, looking at his tea. Arkay knew he should be eating something but the idea of food turned his stomach. After waking up to find himself firmly wedged between the two lovers he decided he might as well start packing now they knew he was damaged goods.
      "First priority is to get you back to a normal field and transfer schedule." Karola frowned at him in annoyance at the hassle. Before he could say anything though, "It isn't a hassle, Arkay."
      "We want to help, Arkay." Avilan added.
      He couldn't believe what he was hearing and shook his head. The tea was actually quite good but when he put it down Karola reached over and added a bit of honey to it. "Drink!"
      "I don't like honey in my tea." he raised an eyebrow at her.
      "I don't care. If you like I'll put the honey on your tongue instead." she threatened.
      Yike! he hadn't even thought she would get this aggressive and sipped his tea instead. It wasn't too bad as the honey was quite nicely flavored. He ducked his head and looked up at her. She tapped her fingers on the table waiting for him to drink some more. Doing so he was rewarded with one of her so beautiful smiles.
      "Better. Now, as I was saying, first thing is to get some of the selyn out of your system so you aren't burning yourself out." she touched the back of his hand and he looked at her again.
      Avilan was looking at him too and he flushed at all the attention. Her tentacles twined with his fingers and the old burns flared up again. He hissed in remembered pain before he could suppress the reaction.
      "This is going to be a problem." she said and he tried to pull his hand away from her. Avilan put his hand over theirs, holding them together. "If you don't mind me asking, how have you managed in the past?"
      "I don't mind but you may not want to hear it." Arkay's mouth tightened at the memories.
      "Well, then actually the first thing is going to change to trying to get some food into you." she pulled off a bit of the bread with her free hand. "Open." she demanded and he did it without thinking. Karola neatly popped it into his mouth, reflexively he chewed and swallowed.
      He realized his own eyes were wide with shock at her ordering him around, "But ..." He tried to say and got rewarded with another bit of bread.
      Avilan laughed at the look on his face. He tried to tell his old friend to shut up then realized any time he opened his mouth Karola would put another tiny bit of food into it. This was entirely unfair. I can't get a word in edgewise!
      "Where do you think she learned the trick?" Avilan grinned at him.
      Arkay freed up a hand and shook his finger at them. Karola leaned back with a wicked look, "OK, you can talk again."
      "That was mean, Karola." he tried to sound fierce but even to himself it came out more amused.
      "So." she shrugged. "It worked." He had to laugh. She had well and truly trapped him into doing exactly what she wanted. "Avilan does it to me all the time when he wants me to shut up. Why do you think I am so fat?"
      "I thought it was something else he had done to you." he arched his neck and batted his eyelashes.
      "Arkay!" she giggled, like the very young woman she actually was. Avilan preened. They are such a gorgeous couple. I hope I don't mess things up worse than I already have.
      "You haven't messed anything up, Arkay. You are giving our children a chance." her violet eyes blazed with her convictions. He couldn't help but be swayed but her, particularly now that Avilan realized the risk she had been taking.
      "Karola, you mean he was right? If we had tried to do this alone, your life would have been in danger?"
      He answered for her, "Yes. I would have placed her chances of surviving with a single Sharm Lord to be as low as ten to fifteen percent. I would not have given your children any odds."
      "What about shunts or transfers from other sharm lords?" his eyes were white around the entire iris with the shock of the information.
      "Not for a Lord, not with twins; the drain is going to be enormous and too many transfers, too fast would burn her out before she could deliver. I'm sorry Avilan, but its the truth." he hated having to rub his hands in the facts but better now than later. "You could still find another Sharm Lord, my father perhaps?" more than anything he didn't want them to feel he was their only option.
      "He wouldn't risk it before I got pregnant. Now, I doubt it even more." she looked at him. "Don't you want this?"
      "I do, but I also don't want you to feel trapped into accepting someone who is, well, damaged goods." his hands clenched into fists, making his bracelets jingle.
      Karola stilled them with a light touch, "I, we, want you, Arkay. Not some stranger, not someone who wants the power of being in the household of Azov, but Avilan's old friend and love. For myself, I want the chance to know you. Avilan has told me so much about you. Please?"
      "Please, my old friend. Truly, we both do want you here. For yourself, not just for what you can do for us." Avilan pleaded with him and Arkay couldn't remember a time when he could resist Avilan's deep sapphire blue eyes.
      "You have convinced me again. On with the story telling," he closed his eyes but before he could begin Karola came around the table to him.
      "Why don't we sit some place more comfortable now that you no longer have to hide." she held out her hands to him. "Come on," she coaxed him back to sitting against the headboard of the bed. Avilan got in on the other side of him.
      "Are you sure?" he asked cautiously, "If I get upset I don't want to upset your field, Karola."
      She grinned at him, "Avilan fell apart into hysterics in my lap once. It didn't upset me then. I don't think you will do any worse, sweet."
      Arkay tensed slightly at the pet name but he felt Avilan's arms around his shoulders protectively, anyways. "She's right, I was a crying disaster area but she didn't turn a hair over it."
      "You have a wonderful Lord, Avilan." Arkay said it and meant it wholeheartedly. He had spent most of his life trying not to offend the delicate sensibilities of the opposite larity.
      "She only falls apart when it isn't important." he grinned and got a pinch from Karola for his comment. "Ow." he said, playfully.
      "To get on with the story ..."
     
      "For most of the past years, Ilya had been progressively losing his mind. Not in the way of Maryam where she has become an imbecile or the old Lords of Azov where they faded away, but dangerously so. At first I had thought it was simply a high temper or there was something irritating him at any particular time. Eventually though I began to see a pattern. If there was any chance someone might be a potential threat to him or even question his judgement he would fly into a horrible rage.
      "More and more I had to take over the management of the Demense. Ilya was not at all functional in any practical sense by about three years ago. To make a long story short, I had to take over the internal workings of his mind in order to make it look like there was a Lord Kirov
      "The worst of it was trying to get through our transfers without him killing me inadvertently. I couldn't control him at the same time I had transfer with him, so instead I had to deal with whatever fancy struck him at the time. Usually it wasn't too bad as long as he saw me as passive and non-threatening. Whenever I tried to initiate a full transfer though, not a passive one, he would strike out, often physically, sometimes nagerically." he looked at his hands and saw the pale lines of scars running from wrist to elbow.
      "He was a fire starter, as well. Which meant, well, often as not I was left with external burns as well as internal ones. Eventually, all the pain added up and I couldn't react in any way he would see as provocative. I became completely passive to him, all but at the very end of transfer, enough to keep both of us alive, if you could call it living."
     
      He took a deep breath and leaned back against their arms. "I don't know if it is enough information to help but right now, well, I don't think I can get into it any further. If there were another mind healer alive, they might be able to do something. I know I can't work on myself."
      They were silent for so very long Arkay feared they were thinking of sending him away and he didn't dare reach out to find the truth. Finally Karola said quietly, "Thank you for telling us. It must have been hell on earth, for you Arkay."
      But for the emotion deadening effects of denied need, Arkay would have collapsed into a crying heap at the release of her words. Instead he gasped with the shock of grief blocked of any expression. Twisted by the conflicting impulses he wrapped his arms around his knees and hugged them to his chest.
      "Come back to us. Please, Arkay." he heard Avilan say and looked up to see Karola kneeling in front of him.
      She reached her hands towards him, tentacles extended. Without thinking about it he uncurled and lunged for her. Not to hurt but to fulfill the bottomless black void of need he could sense behind her gesture.
      He flinched as she wrapped her handling tentacles around his wrists. No, fire laced along his nerves briefly and then he realized she hadn't tightened down her hold on him. Shuddering, he opened his eyes to see her calmly waiting, tentacles loosely laced over his bracelets.
      "Come to me, sweet." she whispered and he felt her open up to him again. He wanted her, but ... Tentatively he leaned forward and kissed her softly on the lips. Night black need sang against the sweet desire to give. Still she waited, teasing him. Slowly, very slowly, she deepened the velvet starless dark he wanted so badly to his senses.
      He leaned back slightly and watched her eyes go black in the so familiar look of a Lord in deepest need. This time though, there was only the cool darkness and no fire to burn him away from what he desired so badly. Her tentacles tightened down this time, only enough to seat her laterals and the wetness against his arms drove him to make the fifth contact point.
      Slowly, so very slowly at first he could feel her resistance to his drive. Rearing up in his mind with great feathered wings he wrapped himself around her and strove to reach the cool darkness ever receding from his senses. Selyn finally flowed with a flare of cold darkness absorbing everything he had to give and more. Spiraling ever upwards on his wings his spirit soared with release into the smooth light where once there had only been shadows.
      The world of selyn and spirit finally receded from his vision. With a great wracking sob he fell into their arms, free at last of the horrors of too many years of denial.
     
      Avilan had woken up when Karola first went into the bathroom but he had simply figured she was finally showing yet another sign of her advancing pregnancy. Considering the way she had reacted to his cosseting before when she wasn't feeling well he waited for her to return to bed. When she didn't, he grew concerned and got up as well. It wasn't too cold in the room so he grabbed a handy robe and went to the door. It was locked.
      Looking down he saw a dim light on. Karola doesn't require a light in the bathroom any more than I want to trip over the furniture in the dark. something was definitely out of sorts. Bending down to look through the keyhole he saw her holding Arkay as he retched repeatedly into the basin. He is even more sick than I thought. Avilan knew his friend had been deathly ill with the death of Ilya but for it to last this long there had to be something more than the breaking of a bond.
      He waited for a bit longer then asked for admission. He looks like death walking, or at least leaning against the wall. Avilan tried to give Arkay an out by acting like he had assumed it was Karola who was ill but Arkay said not. Shrugging internally, he let it slide. Finding out Arkay was one of Sergei's sons was a shock but thinking back over things, Avilan realized he should have known. It was only that he hadn't thought much about it before.
      For a bit they chatted back and forth until he could manage to help Karola convince Arkay to come to their bed with them. He wasn't entirely sure Arkay was yet willing to give up his self imposed isolation but Arkay went along with her plans. Of course Karola could talk the river into flowing upstream if she really tried he grinned ruefully.
      As adroitly as he had ever seen she bullied and cajoled Arkay into accepting their help. She had been learning the care and feeding of Sharm Lords from Avilan, but he was still surprised a bit at how well she managed Arkay. He was not the easiest man to get along with but she had him literally eating out of her hand.
      Avilan had been horrified to hear of Arkay's description of the risks Karola had taken with her pregnancy. Not having known she was bearing twins at all before Arkay let the information slip, Avilan had avoided thinking about it at all. How much else has she been hiding from me? he fretted. Now worried about both of them, Avilan could only try not to let them see how disturbed he was by Arkay's flat recitation of his relationship with Ilya. It was impossible for Avilan to even imagine surviving being treated the way Arkay had been. No wonder it is taking him so long to recover he figured.
      Finally after Arkay's descriptions of abuse and neglect, the older man had curled in on himself despite all Karola and Avilan could do to bring him out of his knot. Only when Karola had so very recklessly used Avilan's field to do an internal shunt, without his permission and too fast for him to say anything, and then tempted Arkay into a transfer with every single trick in the sharm for seducing a Sharm Lord had Avilan caught up with all that was going on.
      Confused and upset by all the shifts happening in rapid succession, when Arkay's hysterics finally slowed to his crying softly on Karola's shoulder, Avilan delicately eased himself out of their embrace. Looking over at them sadly he saw they had taken no notice of his leaving. Before he could break up the comforting Arkay so desperately required, Avilan got dressed and left the room.
      Why didn't she tell me? Avilan asked himself as he walked down the snowy lane to the park by the Moskva river. There were more than a few street vendors out in the relatively mild weather, selling everything from ice cream to grilled vegetables on a skewer. It wasn't particularly cold, although the grey sky left no long shadows on the ground this day. The dim sky was a perfect reflector of his mood as he looked at the ice and snow covered trees along side the street.
      Finding no answer for his question he strolled along and finally came to the bank of the river and sat down on the snowy slope, watching people ice skate. "Why did Karola use me like that this morning?" he asked himself, as there was no one nearby to hear. Other than the occasional jittery movement of an augmenting Sime, the scene looked no different than the images of Moskva he had seen from before the mutation. Everyone was bundled up to the point where he couldn't tell Sime from Gen. Particularly since most people had a cloth over their face to protect their lungs from the chill air, even though he knew there could not be this many sharm lords on holiday all at the same time.
      A child squealed with glee as she slid down the long slope and out onto the slick ice on her sled. He grinned at her until she flipped her head back and he noted it was a young woman, with black hair showing under her hat, like Karola's. He sat there, wrapped in his misery, watching the children, and even a fair number of adults, playing in the snow. "I could simply walk away from everything and not go back." he mused. "No, Azov requires me, even if Karola no longer does. Although Arkay could certainly do no worse holding the reins of Azov than I have been doing."
      For the record books hadn't been kept up to any reasonable standards for the last six months and Avilan still couldn't manage to reconcile all the balance sheets, even for the first. He sighed, "Arkay could do a far better job than I ever could. He held the reins of Kirov, by himself." The shadowless light was beginning to fade and Avilan pulled himself out of the snow bank he had sunk into slightly. He turned back towards home and almost fell over a young man huddled behind a tree.
      "Excuse me." the lad skittered away, then tripped over a buried root in the ground.
      "No apology necessary. I wasn't looking where I was going." Avilan reached out to help him to his feet. The young man was bundled up to the nose, as if he were more used to being in the sharm where it was far warmer than above on a winter's day. Avilan wondered what he was doing outside.
      "Have you seen Fina?" the lads eyes slid from side to side nervously.
      "I don't know anyone by that name." Avilan looked dubiously at him. Someone with a bare first name was either freeholder or criminal to his way of thinking, particularly when referencing them to a stranger. From the look of the youngster, Avilan would guess the latter.
      "There she is. Thank you." he scurried off, not looking back at all.
      Avilan watched them from behind another convenient tree. To his surprise actually, it wasn't an illegal transfer but he gave her a great deal of money, for which she gave him a small wrapped bundle. He could not figure this out until he almost got home. Drugs. he grimaced. Various psychoactives and other chemicals were used for recreation in the sharms, particularly during the long, boring winters but the Lords of the Demenses tried to keep their abuse to a minimum. From the looks of the transaction, it seemed as if someone or someones were working on getting to that point. Avilan hoped it wasn't in Azov, as he would like to think he would recognize at least the faces of all the people who were part of the Demense.
     

CHAPTER 2

      Karola had never before even had a nightmare anywhere near as bad as it seems Arkay had survived in real life. Arkay was gripping her so tightly she could scarcely breathe. She stroked his long hair and tried to murmur anything reassuring she could think of. He had almost died twice when she had tried to coax him into completing transfer and she still shuddered to think of how close she had come to losing him. Avilan was a loving protective presence around both of them and she wished she could tell him how much she appreciated his being there.
      What seemed like an eternity later, Arkay finally loosened his hold on her and she tentatively essayed a deep breath. No cracked ribs, probably only because he is more than half starved. she thought wryly.
      "I'm sorry," his voice cracked. He tried to pull away.
      "No you don't." she made sure he couldn't. Handing him a handkerchief, she held him tightly with her legs. From what Avilan had said, Arkay could be very introspective and would hide when he was upset. Right now he was still very upset and she had no intention of letting him scurry off and lick his wounds in private.
      Very briefly he struggled to get lose. He gave her a very bemused half smile over her choice of tactics, "Do you really want me between your legs that much, m'lady?"
      This time Karola knew better than to rise to the bait, "I have you here, don't I." She wiggled her eyebrows at him, making him give out a startled laugh.
      "Quick, very quick." he leaned forward and playfully kissed her on the nose. "I'm sorry ..."
      She cut him off by placing her finger on his lips, "I don't want to hear that though."
      He tried to look at her finger. Karola giggled at the way he had to cross his eyes to do it. The it hit her, "Where's Avilan?" She was out of bed before even finishing the question.
      "I don't know." he didn't look too worried, but she could hear him strain to make himself heard, even in the quiet bedroom. "He left after, well, after you seduced me." Arkay raised an eyebrow at her. "You hadn't been anywhere close to need last night, Karola." he noted.
      "True enough," she shrugged and then saw he was trying to get up to help her look. Trapped between wanting to keep him in bed and find Avilan she did neither, instead managing to flail about looking through the closet for anything close to her size in winter weight while he grabbed a robe and put it over her shoulders.
      "No, little one. He is a grown man, he'll be all right."
      Turning around she realized Arkay wasn't though, at least the latter, she had some doubts about the former as well, and steered him towards a chair before he fell down.
      "Avilan's well being is despite the point at the moment. You almost got yourself killed this morning. He can take care of himself, I'm not so sure about you."
      She felt like one of her old tutors had returned from the sharm to berate her lack of manners at the dinner table. "It worked." she muttered and jutted her chin at him. "I couldn't let you die in my arms and not try, Arkay." He was shivering and she put the robe around him. "I have enough selyn to power a small town thanks mostly to you. You can't afford the calories right now."
      "It wasn't that bad, Karola." he denied, teeth beginning to chatter. He took off the robe anyways.
      Looking carefully at his eyes, she realized they were dilated far more than the low lighting could account for. "It was. I almost lost you twice, Arkay. Now this." She couldn't zlin anything more of him than the grey wall he normally had up, but there was more to observation than zlinning. "What are you taking?" all the clues came together at once.
      "Nothing." he shook his head, looking down at the floor. "Just shock." he shivered. "Let me go get some of my things from my room."
      "Only if I go with you. I don't want you to fall." she had her suspicions.
      "No." he wrapped his arms around himself. "I won't fall, I promise." Arkay tried to grin but she saw his pupils pin with the stress of trying to act normal.
      "Arkay, you will do as I say." she snaked her hand out at her highest augmentation and forced him to look straight at her. With the physical contact she could feel the cramps hit again and he tried not to flinch. "Who in hell put you on Halirin, Arkay?"
      "You swear like a renSime, Karola." then he hissed as his body rebelled against all the abuse.
      "You didn't answer my question." she demanded.
      "Myself." he finally answered. "I left instructions if I were to survive Ilya's death. They didn't follow all of them. I am obviously still here."
      Halirin was the most powerful painkiller in the pharmacological arsenal, unfortunately it was also extremely addictive. For a terminal patient, its most common usage, this wasn't an issue, however. "You meant to suicide?" she wanted confirmation.
      "Yes, Val decided I had miswritten the instructions and countermanded them." he tried to look away.
      "I'm glad he did." she stroked his cheek. "Where is it?"
      "You can't mean to ..." his voice trailed off.
      "I do. We'll have time to deal with getting it cleared out of your system if I can get you healthier otherwise." she didn't like the situation but if nothing else, Karola was more than slightly practical in her outlook on life.
      "I had been tapering it off but, well, you saw the effects of that last night."
      "From what I zlinned," he looked away, "it might well have saved your life after your bond was broken. It gave your body a chance to form some scar tissue over the worst of the damage you had sustained." she shrugged. "Now, where is it?" Azov didn't have any substantial amounts in the infirmary and the only other place she could reliably get any was at Sergei across the city. Leaving Halirin where too many people could get at it was a very bad idea, to her way of thinking.
      "In the locked drawer, next to the bed. You'll require a key." he maundered on. "I'll have to get up with you, since I put it ... oh, never mind."
      Very glad he had been so careful with it, she hurried off and got it. She barely managed not to whistle at the size of the vial and how much was left in it. Karola had never seen this much of the potent drug except in the vault at Sergei. They must have been hoarding it apart from the regular supply.
      "I bought it myself, when I knew what was going to happen at Year's End." he answered her unspoken commentary. Karola still wasn't sure if she liked that part of her relationship with Avilan and now Arkay as well. She figured there should be some things she should be able to keep to herself.
      "I always knew there was a underground supply of a lot of drugs, but I didn't know Halirin was one of them." Karola frowned.
      "Its one of the most popular, unfortunately." he grimaced.
      Arkay raised two fingers when she looked at him for the dosage. She hissed in shock. That was enough to murder some people. "Not unless you let me zlin you first." she wanted to be very sure his tolerance was really as high as he thought it was.
      "No. Trust me, it is." his voice was breathy with trying not to succumb to the pain of withdrawal and she realized he had to be telling the truth.
      "All right," she measured out the dose. He held out his hand. It was shaking so badly she was actually glad he wouldn't let her zlin him. "No, Arkay." Karola did it herself, noting the extensive lines of needle tracks. "Its been longer than Year's End. You lied about the instructions, Arkay. You've been doing this for a long time."
      "I didn't lie about the instructions, Karola. I simply didn't tell you how high a dose I had told them to give me." he relaxed against the back of the chair as it hit with a sigh.
      "You told me you bought it before Year's End, Arkay." she put every thing away, this time in the table next to the bed she shared with Avilan, for which he had the key. "Why are you lying to me?"
      "Because I didn't want you to know!" his normally light blue eyes were completely black as he got to his feet and stared down at her. "Why are you prying into my life like this?"
      "Because I give a damn, Arkay!" she glared up at him.
           
      Arkay held out his arm and realized he should have only held out the back of his hand. The pinprick of the needle was nothing compared the cramping in his middle. "Its been longer than Year's End. You lied about the instructions, Arkay. You've been doing this for a long time."
      The far too familiar, hated rush of pleasure wiping over the pain finally came and he leaned back, "I didn't lie about the instructions, Karola." He hadn't, although there were times when he wondered and worried about what Val had thought when he saw them. "I simply didn't tell you how high a dose I had told them to give me." which was also true, and over ten times what it had been with Ilya at his worst. Near the end, it had seemed Ilya had become easier to manage, or maybe it had simply been he had become more like Ilya.
      "You told me you bought it before Year's End, Arkay." he heard her putting everything away in the table next to the bed. His eyes snapped open as he realized he had no way of getting to it without a key, which he did not currently possess. Fury raised its black head and hissed at her actions. "Why are you lying to me?" she asked.
      His anger at her accusation answered, "Because I didn't want you to know." This was also undoubtedly true. Ashamed at letting this poor innocent young woman see him like this was more than he could bear. Trying to drive her away, he asked "Why are you prying into my life like this?"
      "Because I give a damn, Arkay!" she shouted, violet eyes blazing. At first he automatically thought she was angry with him for letting this happen then he reached out an realized she really did care, about him.
      "You don't know me yet." he turned and headed for the door. Arkay definitely didn't want to say or do anything to ruin what little trust she had in him. Although after the scene in the bathroom, almost killing her and then letting her see him twisted by his horrible dependance on the drug he wondered at her judgement. Suddenly she was standing between him and door. He raised his hand to strike at her and the door opened behind her.
      Avilan's hand grabbed his wrist before he could connect. "What do you think you are doing?" he shouted.
      Karola pulled the door closed before she answered for him, "Acting like the addict he is, Avilan."
      "What?" Avilan yelled at even greater volume. "Arkay, is it true?" he looked carefully into Arkay's eyes, not releasing his grasp.
      "What do you want me to answer? Yes, Avilan, I am an addict and so I almost hit your bond mate." he seethed in fury. Avilan was almost as much of an innocent as Karola. "Of course not. She saw some things about me and exaggerated them after transfer." he added a false sigh of exasperation for young Lords.
      "Then why did you try to hit her, Arkay?" his voice lowered, but he could still tell Avilan was furious over the incident.
      "Because I was in his way." she told her mate. "I would bet he has more stashed in his room, Avilan. Find it. I want all of the Halirin in this building under my control. There may also be some in the sharm, I want to know who is using it right now and how much so I can keep track of it. Don't bother them unless they are using more than a half a day, but I want to know. Move!"
      He dropped Arkay's wrist with a dark glare and left the room without a word.
      "Now, you are going to do as I tell you this time." she was suddenly behind him. His shoulders strained as she locked his elbows behind his back. "Correct?" The pain of the over stressed nerves in his arms overrode his ability to resist Nagerically.
      "Certainly, my Lord Azov." he lied smoothly. Karola could have no way of knowing what he was going to do.
      "Right words, wrong answer." she turned him to face the wall and he realized what was happening. This far too young, far too inexperienced, Lord had him locked into position where even he could be killed. "I can tell you recognize it, Arkay. I saved your life, I can take it as well."
      The stone was cold against the side of his face as she leaned into him even more. "Now, are you going to do as I ask?"
      "Yes, m'Lord." he answered and this time it was the truth. "I give you my word, for what it is worth anymore." Arkay felt her lips hot against the back of his neck and he waited for her decision. At this point it was out of his hands.
      "Good, remember this, Arkay. I don't want to have to do it for real." she said against his neck and then released him. It had certainly seemed real enough to him.
      Turning around slowly his knees almost buckled. Karola was calmly pouring tea as if nothing had happened. "Please, sit." she waved him at a chair. Gingerly he sat on the edge of it and looked her over carefully. She seemed completely calm and collected while he was shaking inside like a dry aspen leaf. Arkay didn't even try to protest when she added honey to his tea this time.
      "Now," she sipped her tea, "you are going to tell me how long, how much and if you really want to quit or are going to be wasting our time."
      He blinked. The last was certainly to the point. "To the best of my memory, which may or may not be entirely accurate, at least a year and a half to answer how long." Arkay quietly took a sip of his tea, too cowed to put up a fuss any more. "How much varied, at its worst, my best guess is about three and a half to four." she whistled in quiet astonishment. "That was when Ilya was burning me more often than once a month, more like every other day. The pain was, well, lets say it was rather intense."
      "Understandable," she nodded.
      Her demeanor soothed him and he settled back into the chair. "And no, I would certainly hope not to be a waste of your time, but only you and Avilan can truly answer that question."
      "How so?"
      "Because it comes down to whether you think I am worth the effort." he didn't want to think of possibly failing again and this time failing the two of them as well.
      "No, it is if you want to do it. Neither of us can answer that question. You are evading my question, Arkay." she grabbed his hand. It was hot and smooth against his own. Karola twined her tentacles around his fingers. It had been so long since he had even experienced the feel of tentacles delicate against his palm he savored the sensation for a moment with his eyes closed. "Answer me." she commanded with a gentle squeeze to his fingers for comfort.
      "Yes, Karola." he looked her in the eyes. "I do want to quit." Arkay hated having anything or anyone control him as he had Ilya, for any reason.
      "Then these are the rules. One, you will never be out of my sight or Avilan's for any reason whatsoever."
      "But what about ..." he was going to ask about the bathroom but she knew it.
      "I doubt if there will be any surprises to either of us, Arkay."
      He blushed at the accuracy of her perceptions. How does she keep doing that?
      "To go on, Two, you will let me zlin you at any time, no questions asked."
      This was a lot harder. Arkay had spent so many years hiding behind his skills and his talents for deception he didn't know if he could do as she asked. "Um, Karola. Not intending to go back on my word, but I may not always be able to drop my barriers that easily."
      "All I do is ask. As long as you don't protest and you make an honest effort, I won't hold it against you." she smiled softly and his heart ached to see the care and attention she had for him. "I will also do my best to be sure it is not in public where anyone else can zlin you. That would not be fair for you or them."
      "Thank you." he looked down at his tea. "Thank you for all of this, I mean ..."
      "I'm not done yet. Third and final, you will stay busy. If not with something important, than with something trivial. But I don't want to see you sitting around and twiddling your thumbs." she looked so very fierce, all for him.
      "May I read?" he asked meekly, feeling a bit like a schoolboy again. All this from a young scrap of a Lord he could have taken apart without even trying if she hadn't so neatly cornered him so many times already.
      Karola laughed, "Of course, sweet. But I really would rather it be something more active. Such as research or writing. Something to keep your mind occupied and out of trouble." She had such a beautiful laugh he wished he could make her do it more often. "It seems Avilan is going to be about his errands for a while longer. "I'm going to have some food brought up but I think before food even, I'm going to wash you."
      "I'm not a horse, Karola. You don't have to wash me like one. I can, oh, yes, I remember." he sighed, remembering mournfully a time when he would have enjoyed the opportunity to share a shower with a young woman.
      "And you will again, Arkay. Who knows, you may enjoy it now." she set her tea down and brought him to his feet.
      He set his down on the table as well and then squawked, quite unintentionally, as she picked him up in her arms. "Let me down," he put his arms around her anyways to help her keep her balance.
      "You aren't protesting too hard." she grinned and held him tighter. "Definitely shower time." her nose twitched.
     
      Avilan finally returned to the suite, his head spinning with all the various discoveries he had made in his investigation. He heard the sound of splashing water from the open bathroom door and figured Karola must have dumped Arkay into the tub. For some reason only known to women or Simes, she always insisted on sharing the shower after transfer. Although he did have to admit it made washing his long hair far easier.
      He had been shocked to see Arkay take a swing at Karola when he had come in earlier. Of course Karola's explanation made sense, but Arkay? Avilan would never have thought his friend would do such a thing. Arkay had always seemed to be one of those people who required no one and no thing to make his way in the world. It did explain, however, how he had managed to seem to be so many people, all at the same time. Shaking his head sadly, he finally managed to get out of the rest of his heavy clothes.
      Whistling cheerfully to warn them he was coming in he stood in the doorway in stunned amazement for a second. This morning he had noted Arkay was underweight and didn't look well. Now, under the lights he finally saw what had become of him and forced himself not to flinch away. It was so very hard to do, since he remembered him as a much younger man and to see him so wasted was physically painful.
      "Your turn next, Avilan." Karola said cheerfully, but he could see her face and she was telling him to make no mention of Arkay's appearance.
      "It looks like there's room for one more." Arkay said unexpectedly. It looked like he and Karola had a serious meeting of minds while he was gone.
      Karola backed up the invitation with her eyes and Avilan quickly stripped down the rest of the way, unbraided his hair and got in with them. "If you are willing to deal with wet hair, do mine too." he grinned. "I think we have enough towels for all of it."
      "Barely. Maybe, if you don't take three for your hair alone, Avilan." she teased him. It was far easier for him to use all the towels than deal with her complaining about clammy hair in the morning. "It will be so much fun when mine grows out as well." she tossed her head back, still able to swing it around that way.
      "Oh boy, how much fun. A truly damp bed in the morning." Arkay jested with them.
      "Arkay! Obscene jokes in the shower." Karola giggled. Avilan blushed at the reference, for the first time in many years caught out by an off color comment.
      "Ah but they are so much easier to wash away here," he grabbed the soap and liberally lathered her up, finding her very ticklish ribs in the process. "Oh my, this is fun." he made her laugh some more.
      Avilan joined in the fun, this time trying to find out if Arkay had any ticklish spots. He had never managed to find any before, but enjoying the effort anyways. Although he had to work hard not to think about just how thin Arkay was.
      "Enough, both of you." Karola finally said. "Avilan, get over here."
      He went over to stand in front of her. It always felt so good when she washed his hair he had no complaints about having to stand and not be able to see her at the same time. Arkay looked on sadly and Avilan reached out to him and pulled him close. Loosely, he held Arkay in his arms while Karola worked. It had been a while since Avilan had another man in his shower and he simply let his hands wander as Karola's fingers worked their way down through his thick hair.
      As soon as she was done with the top, Avilan pulled Arkay more tightly against himself. "I don't know if you want to be doing this, Avilan." he murmured.
      "Why not?" he asked back quietly, not sure of exactly what Arkay was worried about.
      "Do you really want Karola to know we were lovers at one time?"
      "She knows." he said and felt Arkay stiffen in his arms. "Should I have not told her?"
      "No, no. Nothing like that. Simply, well, she might think I am trying to get between you two."
      "And if you are?," he chuckled deep in his throat to give the question its alternate meaning.
      "Avilan!" Arkay laughed quietly. "I didn't mean it like that."
      "I did."
      "You are as randy as ever you were, Avilan. Some things never change." finally Arkay relaxed into the caresses.
      "Except now I am not a whole lot of good after turnover." for which comment Karola swatted him on the rear.
      "Hardly! Thats just because I'm not interested after turnover. Your hands still work." she quipped. "Speaking of hands, mine are about worn out. If you two are done with your gossiping, lets see how many towels we can use up among three people." They rinsed off and managed to use every single one they could find. "The laundry is not going to be happy with us in the morning." Karola commented.
      Avilan shrugged, "Keeps 'em busy."
     
      Avilan could see Arkay's eyes light up as he spotted his favorite delicacy, eels. "How did you know, Karola? Has someone been telling sharm tales again?"
      She laughed and pointed at Avilan, "His fault. I figured it would probably be a good idea to get some protein into you somehow and the cook is very fond of them as well, so he keeps them in a tank down in the kitchen. I'm not entirely calm about the idea of watching someone eat live eels in front of me but at least they don't smell like dead meat."
      Shaking his head over Arkay's love of fresh eels, Avilan could only grin at the older man as he neatly picked one up by the tail and with a after a couple of quick chomps swallowed the critter. Karola turned a bit green around the edges but managed not to react too badly, even when it wiggled. This time though Avilan was far more sensitive and almost lost it as the sensation transmitted itself to him. He had never managed to get down the idea of eating live food and usually preferred a far more vegetarian diet, or at least immobile. Arkay obviously had no such problems, reaching for another of the little animals.
      "Sit, sit." she waved at the table. Fortunately there were also a lot of Avilan's favorites as well, apples and cherries from last fall's harvest, nuts, bread, cheeses, even a couple of different kinds of honey. Slowly and steadily, Karola managed to bully Arkay into slowly working his way through quite a bit of what was on the table. Although she hadn't had to convince him at all to finish off the eels.
     
      After dinner Karola decided Avilan had been working too hard and declared a night off. He didn't protest too hard, although he still fretted over the unfinished account books.
      "Now, what did you find?" she asked him directly and he saw Arkay carefully look down at his hands.
      Avilan quietly laid out the items he had found in Arkay's room. He didn't want to even be close to them and shuddered at how much he had found. "We currently don't have any Halirin in the infirmary and I could only catch rumors of its use in the sharm, nothing substantial, but indicating a dangerously high level of abuse. Karola, we have to clean it out before someone dies."
      "No Avilan. Its their choice." she shook her head sadly.
      "But still. We can't let it run like wildfire through the Demense." he still was not entirely convinced about Arkay but knew the dangers of this particular drug. "There were also a lot of rumors of abuse of a number of other substances." Shaking his head, "Why?"
      "Can I see your account books?" Arkay asked unexpectedly.
      Avilan backpedaled, "No, no. They are fine. I don't think the economics of the Demense has anything to do with it."
      "Avilan. Come now. Everything comes down to economics of one sort or another. If you don't want me to see them I won't push it, but in that case we don't have a lot to work with." the older man was shaking his head. "When things are unsettled above, the sharm usually reflects it." He sighed, "Under Katrina's influence the Kirov sharm was a reflection of hell. There was more abuse of all kinds than you could imagine."
      "I didn't know that." Karola said quietly. "I haven't been above for very long, all I know is life in the sharm, for the most part."
      "The Sergei sharm is very well run. You wouldn't have seen what can happen when it isn't."
      Karola shuddered briefly, "If what I went through is under a well run sharm, I don't want to think about the alternatives."
      "Quite honestly, there are some things about Sergei which are unusual however and you probably ran afoul of them. It is the only Demense which takes care of the mentally unstable."
      "Truth there." she grinned. "I would certainly have called Ikanir mentally unstable."
      "There you have it. Although to get back to our earlier topic, are you sure you won't release the books to me?" he asked again, this time staring intently into Avilan's eyes.
      He couldn't slide out from under the intense ice blue gaze. Desperately he wanted to be anywhere but here. If Arkay finds out ...
      *ah* Arkay blinked and Avilan jumped at receiving the single syllable of understanding. "Perhaps later then."
      "Avilan? Is there something wrong with you now?" Karola was sounding a bit frayed herself.
      "No, simply not wishing to get back to work after your having declared a night off." he temporized.
      "Karola, so you know. Avilan did not find all of what I had in my room." Arkay said heavily.
      "I was waiting to see if you would freely admit to it, or if I would have to ask." she said, making Avilan tense at her aggressive tone. He didn't think it was at all warranted.
      Actually Avilan thought she was being entirely unfair and said as much, "Karola, why are you pushing him so hard?" He wanted to hold the other man and protect him, not thump on him this way.
      "We'll leave it be for now, but I'll want to get it in the morning. Thank you for telling us." she said softly to Arkay and he rested his head on her shoulder. This was more like what he thought she should have done. "Avilan, you still don't really believe what I said earlier, do you?" she looked up.
      "I don't know, Karola. After finding what I did in his room, I still don't really know." his voice was harsh with the conflict between not wanting to believe and the evidence of his eyes. "Still, why are you hammering on him?" he said forcibly. "If it is true you should be supporting him, not hitting him."
      "No, Avilan. Karola's right in what she's doing." Arkay whispered, barely loud enough for him to hear. "You don't know what its like!" he said suddenly flaring in agitation. Avilan could see his eyes suddenly blaze and turn black for an instant.
      "Arkay, stop, right now." Karola shook him. Avilan could catch the flashover as she hit him with one of the hardest field blows he had ever felt and he wasn't on the receiving end. "You will give in." she grabbed his upper arms and pinned him to the back of the couch they had been sharing, before he could get up. All of a sudden it was over as fast as it had begun and Avilan saw the other man close his eyes and relax again with a shudder.
      As quickly she was holding him again in the same position they had been in earlier. Avilan went over to them and sat at their feet. "I'm sorry, Arkay. I didn't mean to upset you." he said quietly stroking their intertwined hands.
      "You don't have to apologize, Avilan. You didn't know what kind of response you would get from me. I am sorry for exposing you to this."
      Karola closed her eyes and sighed, "Much as I hate to do this to both of you, I think you have to show Avilan something." She turned over Arkay's hands and Avilan could see all the small scars tracking up and down the inside of the older man's elbows. Arkay's fists clenched but he didn't pull away. "These are going to be the rules around here for a while..." she stated and listed them off to Avilan. By the end of it Arkay was shaking with reaction and nerves.
      Almost convinced, but not quite, Avilan asked, "Do you have to be so harsh? I mean, I trust him."
      "I don't trust me, Avilan. You saw what just happened, you've seen the tracks on my arms and you still don't know what it means, do you?" but this time he didn't explode and Karola held him tightly to her, kissing his brow.
      "I'm sorry Arkay, but I don't think Avilan truly is going to believe without seeing." he could see her eyes unfocus briefly as she zlinned him. She got up and Avilan could feel Arkay's hand go cold in his own.
      "Karola, no." Arkay whimpered. "Please."
      Avilan hissed as he saw what she was doing, "This isn't necessary, Karola." Adamantly she returned and handed the materials to Arkay.
      As if in his sleep, he automatically measured out the dose and with what was obviously a much practiced skill injected the drug into his veins. Avilan now believed.
     

CHAPTER 3

      Now Karola was not a one usually given to deep introspection. As a matter of fact, thinking things through was an entirely alien process to the usual workings of her mind. This time however, she had so many things to think about she couldn't help but examine at least a few of them.
      Avilan and Arkay had gone off briefly, returning with at least a dozen of what she recognized as the Azov record books. They were currently sitting at the table, shoulder to shoulder muttering and mumbling to each other over items therein. She supposed if she wanted to, she could listen more closely to what they were actually saying but didn't have the energy left to apply to the task.
      With a last flicker of effort, however, she prodded Arkay into remembering to eat a bit of the bread and cheese they had left on the table. She could zlin the ripple of momentary resistance to the idea but he reached out and pulled off a piece of bread and began nibbling on it anyways. Or at least he did so, no matter what she had done, for Avilan also was eating at the bread as the two men talked.
      Karola curled up more tightly in the corner of the large overstuffed couch and tried to pull her knees to her chest, not entirely succeeding. Already, her sense of balance had been affected by her pregnancy and she was more than a bit off put by not being able to rest her chin on her knees. Grumbling a bit at the inconvenience, she twisted around so she could do so.
      It wouldn't take too long before Arkay would recover enough of his strength to the point where he would be a great danger to herself, Avilan and their children. Karola knew enough of Arkay's past to be certain he would never, ever, willingly harm a child or a pregnant woman. Under the influence of the drug he was taking not even his love of children might stop him from accidentally harming one.
      After having worked in the infirmary, Karola had seen the effects of addiction to other drugs, but they had almost always been far less destructive ones to the people around the addict. Halirin was the worst, for not only did it override all of someone's ability to recognize pain when under stress, it removed most of the normal inhibitions which allowed people to stop and think before they acted.
      There was no way of telling Avilan explicitly of what he was dealing with since she daren't leave Arkay alone for any reason to tell her mate what he might expect. She only hoped, now that Avilan truly believed in his heart, the evidence of his senses that his old friend was in the grip of a life threatening drug, he would at least not resist her care of Arkay.
      Normally Karola could care less about the various pharmacological substances which wandered about the sharm in various guises. Most of them were relatively harmless in their effects on others and she didn't worry about what someone did to themselves. Karola figured what someone did to them self was their problem and not hers. Now she wondered, however, if she should try to crack down on the use of drugs in the sharm. No, she figured the almost unbearably dull lives of most of the sharm inhabitants would only be made even worse if she used her power as Lord Azov to try to clean out all the use of various intoxicants.
      But would Avilan try to stop the general use of such things in his misguided belief in protecting his people? Karola had no definite answer to this question and worried at it like a bitch with an old rag. He could do so much harm in an attempt to drive the sharm residents into healthier lifestyles rather than leading them by example and giving them other things to do, rather than self-destructive behaviors. Look at Arkay she thought, he is in the claws of Halirin yet while working he has almost managed to entirely forget about it.
      Very softly she stroked her awareness over Arkay's field and noted he had finally relaxed enough she could zlin clearly the cool grey mist feel of him with the overlay of firefly lights dancing in its depths. The dancing lights moved to investigate her gentle probe but he didn't clamp down behind that horrible grey wall he had been projecting. She could tell he knew she was there when his field shifted slightly to pet her in return with a loving caress.
      Avilan shifted nervously in his seat. Karola and Arkay returned their attention to their respective endeavors.
      Karola had hated having to force Avilan to watch Arkay take his drugs but she had also known if Avilan hadn't seen it, he would still have cherished the hope his friend was not an addict. It could be so hard, even when someone wanted to quit, to do so. It was far harder still, if their friends and loved ones denied the fact of their addiction. Arkay's smooth skill had dispelled even the slightest remaining doubt Karola had cherished, particularly the mindless, driven way he had done it. As if given the materials in his hands he had no other option than to use them. From Karola's experience this signaled someone who was entirely out of control insofar as being able to reject a substance consciously.
      At least Arkay had admitted he had a problem and honestly wanted to quit. Even if she had to threaten to kill him before he would back down. Karola didn't know the man well enough yet to know if this was simply he was so strong willed he automatically rejected any implication he might have failed in some way, if it was an effect of the Halirin, or if she had so badly wanted to help him she drove him to it. Hoping desperately it wasn't the latter, she began nibbling on the end of a tentacle.
      What if it is? she worried. What if she had driven Arkay to accepting her help to quit? The uncomfortable question rattled around in her mind. Most of the time she hadn't a chance of telling if he were shading the truth or even outright lying to her. Only when she was in her odd hunting mode could Karola reliably leap to correct conclusions with blazing speed. Sitting here thinking about it, she knew how unreliable her decisions could sometimes be. Arkay looked calm enough sitting there talking quietly with Avilan over the intricacies of Demense accounting but what if he actually resented her interference in his life.
      Realizing her wool gathering had led her down a very thorny path, she investigated her surroundings. He will resent many of the things I will have to do to him. she told herself with her usual brutal honesty. This was not at all appealing but she continued anyways. Am I sure enough of what I am doing to be able to bring him out the other side without his permanently harming anyone, including himself? this was an even more uncomfortable question. Although for this one she did have an answer, as long as Avilan still loved her and cared for her, Karola had faith she could do it in the end.
      Removing her now rather soggy tentacle from her mouth, Karola looked at it cross eyed. She heard a chortle from Avilan.
     
      "It's wrinkled." Avilan grinned at her and stroked her rather damp tentacle. He and Arkay had finished going through the books and while Arkay was concerned at their general state of disorganization, he didn't think they were in any condition he couldn't deal with. Karola had taken no notice of them until now. "Been thinking, love?"
      Arkay wished he could join in their love play as he sat silently with Avilan at Karola's feet. She extended her other hand to him and he greedily took it, desperate for the human contact he had so long been denied.
      "Well, yes, from the state of my tentacle." she grinned back. Arkay had felt the dark shadows cross her thoughts as she had sat in silent contemplation but had not wanted to intrude on her meditations.
      "You shouldn't be sticking them in your mouth like you were in first year, Karola." Avilan gently teased her, still trying to stroke out the wrinkles she had left in hers.
      Concentrating on trying to pet as much of her hand and tentacles as he could, it took a moment before Avilan's comment sank in. Arkay looked at Karola again and finally realized how very young she was. He wouldn't have thought Avilan would have been a one to steal from the sharm, but now that he looked more closely he realized Karola, despite her obviously being a fully functional adult, was probably not more than a year outside her training. She still had more than a bit of the unfinished look of an adolescent and he recoiled at what his friend had done.
      Karola laughed gaily and tried to catch Avilan's fingers in her tentacles by spiraling them around his wiggling digits.
      They laughed and played while Arkay tried to get his thoughts under control. Katrina had been very young when she went to Ilya the first time but they had all been young in those days. Sometimes Arkay wondered if Katrina would have turned out differently if she had been more mature when she had bonded to Ilya. Of course if he had been more mature at the time he may well have never gotten tangled up with the two of them.
      Avilan had always been the more serious, more reserved and far more conservative of the two of them. How did he end up juncting and then bonding with someone so unlike himself? Arkay wondered. Particularly since it had been so rapid a courtship, so unlike the younger Avilan he had known. All Arkay knew of the story he had heard in bits and pieces from the general gossip of the sharm.
      The first Arkay had heard of it was the message from Fatima of her attempt to claim an unattached Lord. Curious, despite all the other things which had been going on at the time, he had taken Ilya with him and gone to keep track of Sharm Lord Tzanir's often twisted political maneuvering. Sending Ilya out to display Kirov's presence at the proceedings he had been shocked to find his old friend Avilan, now Sharm Lord Azov, with no Lord Azov at his side laying claim to a beautiful, female, Lord.
      Never before had Avilan expressed much interest in women and Arkay had thought him content with the sole leadership of the Azov Demense after the death of Lord Lukian. Arkay had a hand in the political decision which had allowed the Azov line to die out due to its fragility and failing viability, but this was an unexpected development. Watching silently from the shadows, he had seen the strength of their bond, but for the good of Rodina he had wanted to be absolutely certain the new Azov line would be able to firmly hold the reins for a good long time to come. They had exceeded all of his wildest hopes in both their ability to work together and the potential he saw for their children.
      At the end, he had wished to give them his blessing, so he arranged to be able to meet with them in the circle together. Avilan had worked beautifully to his cues and so he had managed to tell him of his approval of the match. Karola, on the other hand, almost murdered him. Her agility and strength would have been deadly if she had known to snap the blade rather than simply swinging it like a stick.
      Still maundering on in his thoughts, Arkay caught one of Karola's tentacles in his mouth and unthinkingly nibbled on it.
      Amazed at the quickness and resilience of her, Arkay had decided to try to find out more about the new Lord Azov in the short time he had thought he had left. From his sources there hadn't been a whole lot. He knew she was born to Sergei, but unlike himself, not of the line of Sergei. This had surprised him, as there hadn't been many who had gone from obscurity to ascention in the well documented history of the Demenses. Her parents, he had found out, had been originally of a line which had been mostly discarded, except for outcrossing purposes, for a lack of sensitivity.
      Karola hadn't shown any signs of not being able to manage the fine Nageric discernment necessary for her work in the infirmary, so Arkay figured she hadn't shared the flaw of her line. Her incredible resilience however, was much of why her kind had been maintained as a distinct type, and so he was enormously pleased she had bonded to Avilan and would hopefully manage to breed on her strengths. Particularly since Avilan had incredible sensitivity, now he had finally come into his true power as a Sharm Lord, with a very elastic strength Arkay thought would nick well with Karola.
      The only other thing he had managed to find out about her was she was reputed to have an extremely quick temper and rarely considered the consequences of her actions. Arkay had dismissed most of this out of hand as his sources had mostly come from the sharm and so not the best source of information on the temperament of a Sime.
      With first hand experience now, Arkay tried to put together all the information he had. First, Karola was obviously younger than he had originally thought, although after thinking about it some, he realized she couldn't be any where near as naive or innocent as her age would imply. Her incredibly adroit handling of himself earlier was incontrovertible proof of this fact. If she hadn't done everything absolutely as she had, one of them would be dead. From trapping him in the bathroom, transfer this morning and then bludgeoning him into facing his problem with Halirin if she had faltered in any way, it would have been a disaster. Arkay didn't even want to think about how close they had come to the edge, but it was not in him to ever shy from the truth when his mind was at all reasonably his own.
      Second, she and Avilan obviously loved each other to distraction. They were still making cooing and courting gestures at each other, even with Arkay sitting here lost in his own thoughts. He watched them for a moment, thinking. Karola had uncurled and wrapped her legs around Avilan's shoulders while he was resting his chin on the edge of the couch looking up at her. They were nattering on about trivialities, but Arkay could feel the deep bonding between them, drawing them together no matter what words they spoke. Avilan stroked the side of his face against her thigh.
      Third, and hardest to face, was Arkay's own place in this entire situation. He was an outsider. A guest who had come to the table late and then wished to stay the night. Arkay still loved Avilan, despite all the years and distance which had come between them. Theirs had been the friendship of youth, but seeing him again and being with him again had brought it all back as if it had been yesterday they had parted. It had not been a unamicable parting of the ways, but rather their separate duties had left them with less and less time to be together until they no longer saw each other except at state functions.
      Karola was the most fascinating and beautiful woman he had ever known. He figured he could use that term after this morning's transfer, as he certainly had known her in one way after it. A slight smile crossed his face at the memory. Despite the near aborts and, now that he thought about it, the fact it had been a shunt transfer, it had been one of the best he could ever remember. No one else could have brought him out of his emotional dormancy of so many years of bad transfers with such incredible skill and grace, that he could think of. There was a small, selfish part of him which wished to challenge Avilan for her and take her away with him, but he firmly quashed it. Arkay actually wanted both of them but knew it could never be. They would certainly not want him past his usefulness to Azov and their children.
      Karola's tentacle wiggled in his mouth like one of his eels and Arkay suddenly realized he had nipped it a bit hard. "Ow." she said, but didn't pull it away. He realized what he had been doing and released it.
      "Sorry, sweet." he gently stroked the now wrinkled dorsal.
     
      "It seems someone else around here likes to think with a tentacle in their mouth." Avilan grinned at the two of them. He had seen and felt Arkay turn his attention inwards. Often when they had been younger, Arkay would sit and think for hours over his problems. This looked like the same thing, so Avilan held his peace and played with Karola while his friend was lost in thought.
      "Works for me." Karola giggled.
      He watched Arkay try to smooth out the wrinkles in her tentacle from it having gotten too soggy for too long. Going over the records with the older man, Avilan had realized just how little he really did know of Demense management compared to Arkay. Suddenly he yawned and noticed how late it had gotten.
      "You look like you are about to fall asleep as you sit here, Avilan." Arkay said, concern in his light blue eyes.
      "Aren't you tired?" Avilan asked.
      "Not really. I, well, there are some other side effects of what I have been doing." Karola stroked Arkay's face softly. "I'll probably be up for at least another few hours." he looked away.
      Avilan wished he knew more about the effects of Halirin beyond the very basic information he had gleaned in brief stint working with young lords in the infirmary. All he knew was that it was dreadfully addictive and usually only given to terminal patients. He yawned again, despite wanting to stay up with them.
      "Go to bed, Avilan." Karola told him gently. "We won't be going anywhere."
      "Go on, Avilan." Arkay gave a brief, beautiful smile. Avilan had almost forgotten how much Arkay's smile could transform his face. Normally it was too harsh, too severe for what most people would call beauty, but when he smiled Avilan's heart tripped a beat at the magnificent splendor of Arkay's undeniable masculinity.
      "You win. Don't stay up too late, Karola." he got up and stretched.
      "With that for enticement, I won't." she grinned at him. Her brilliant violet eyes danced with amusement at his display. Deliberately, he pulled off all his clothes and tossed them across the back of a chair. Looking back over his shoulder he could see both of their rapt attention.
      "Good night, love." he blew her a kiss and could feel her stroke his field with her own. Avilan climbed into bed but before he could pull the bed curtains closed Karola had waved the lights all the way off. Since Arkay could see in the dark almost as well as Karola, he figured this was for the best so now they wouldn't wake him when they came to bed.
      Briefly curious, Avilan reached out and sensed Arkay take the exact same position he had been sitting in, between Karola's legs in front of her on the couch. He turned his attention away from them, to give them some privacy and found now he was in bed he was feeling restless and out of sorts. Burrowing deeper into the blankets, he heard the murmur of their voices as they began talking quietly.
      Avilan had never preferred sleeping alone and missed Karola's warm presence next to him. Their presence in the room soothed him slightly, but he really would have rather they were with him.
      Arkay had changed a lot since they had last been together for any length of time. But then Avilan supposed so had he. His entire life had changed so very much since last fall he still wasn't quite caught up with himself. Karola was a delight and a wonder in his life. Sometimes he wondered what he had been doing with himself before the day he literally ran into her.
      Avilan was ashamed at his own ineptitude. Karola had handled the situation with Arkay with her usual exquisite grace while he had sat with his bracelets muted. He was still upset with himself for not having realized how deeply Ilya must have injured Arkay in those years of his madness while Avilan had played at being Sharm Lord Azov. His mate must have figured it out within moments. What kind of friend does that make me. he asked himself.
      A very poor one was his answer, he believed. Avilan pulled the blankets over his head, trying to hide from his conscience. They still smelled like Karola and he took some comfort in the fact.
      Thinking back on the day Avilan realized his self doubt was more than justified. Too many of the people he had wanted to talk to after the first few were suddenly unavailable or otherwise occupied. While Lord Lukian had been alive he had never had problems like this. Of course while Lukian was the nominal head of Azov the records had been kept in far better order by lord Piyetrov. He had been a supremely talented administrator, who had vanished shortly after Lukian's death. Avilan wondered what had happened to the man, but had no way to find out for certain.
      Those disgusting, filthy, record books. Avilan knew Arkay had seen through his reticence to discuss them in front of Karola. She must already think I am some kind of incompetent he really didn't want to prove to her he was. At least Arkay hadn't exposed him to that potential embarrassment.
      Actually, other than behaviors Avilan now knew were the product of Halirin and not Arkay's own mind, his friend had been the epitome of a civilized gentleman and peer.
      Pulling a pillow over his head, he futilely tried to shut out his thoughts. Arkay is far more of what a Sharm Lord should be than I could ever hope for. came the thought, despite the bedding. He was clever as it was possible to be, attractive as sin, at least in Avilan's opinion, the current holder of the throne, on those rare occasions when he took his place as the most powerful Sharm Lord in Russia and it was so very obvious Karola was as attracted to Arkay as he was to her.
      This was the central point of the whole issue, Avilan realized. Arkay would be far better for Azov and for Karola than Avilan himself could ever be.
      Pulling his head out from under all the bedclothes, Avilan couldn't help but sense and hear what was going on, which had only previously been nagging at the back of his mind. For a moment he was caught up in their lovemaking as the both welcomed the sense of his awareness with open generosity. Confused and surprised at the suddenness of it Avilan pulled back gently, sending his apologies wordlessly. Wrapping his field and his feelings around himself as tightly as he could, he turned away.

CHAPTER 4

      Karola woke up to a tangled knot of arms, legs and hair. She wasn't entirely sure of what belonged to whom. However it was very obvious whoever was immediately behind her was definitely male.
      Probably Arkay, she figured, given the degree of enthusiasm said male was showing. Avilan would be no where near this definite at this point in his cycle. Being nothing like the morning person it seemed either of them were, she gently unentangled herself and got out of bed.
      Grinning, she turned to see Avilan wrap himself positively around the only remaining warm object in the bed. She had fretted over Avilan's turning them down last night. Relieved to find him in a more accepting mind this morning, she left to pull herself together for the day.
      After making a cup of tea and settling herself on the couch, she picked up one of the volumes of history Arkay had brought with him from Kirov. Winters were long and slow in Moskva. One of the few entertainments she had was her reading. This was a book she hadn't read before. It wasn't long until she was completely involved in the machinations of the forth century after founding.
      Disappointed to find her tea gone, she got up to get some more. She glanced over at the bed. Giggling a bit, she thought, Definitely in a more receptive mood This time she took the tea pot and heater back with her.
      Ensconced on the couch with her book and tea, she barely noticed the passage of time until she caught a flicker of movement in the room. She looked over the top of her book to see Avilan stand up and stretch. Oh my, but he has a gorgeous body she appreciated the view. It seemed Arkay did as well, from the look on his face as he reached out to caress Avilan's thigh. Karola wished she were an artist as she saw Arkay glide to his feet and give Avilan a last hug and kiss. They looked so wonderful together, Karola momentarily regretted having gotten out of bed. But the I wouldn't be enjoying the scenery in quite the same way
      "You're drooling." Avilan noted archly, but with a smile.
      Karola closed her mouth.
      Arkay chuckled wickedly.
      She returned to her book, "Its cold in here, Put on some clothes before I freeze."
      They laughed and ran into the bathroom instead. Karola could hear them bickering playfully over who got to use what first. "Boys." she muttered, covered up by the sound of splashing water.
      Eventually they returned and sat at her feet. She felt like a queen of old being attended to by her court as they turned their faces to her. For a moment she sat and appreciated them both, Avilan for his incredible physical beauty and sweet loving kindness, Arkay for harsh, very masculine looks and his amazing intelligence and strength. They both preened under her long look and she blushed to be caught out again by them. "Has anyone thought about food, other than me?" she asked coyly, knowing full well they had been otherwise occupied.
      They both looked away.
      "I thought so." she grinned. "I thought you two were the ones who were supposed to remind me to eat occasionally."
      "Well ..." Avilan blushed.
      "Solid food, you two." Karola laughed. Arkay actually looked a bit embarrassed as well.
      "A hit, I do declare a hit." Avilan caroled at Arkay's discomfiture.
      This was obviously a long standing competition between the two men. Then she looked a bit more closely at Arkay and sighed. "Arkay." she said to him directly. He wouldn't meet her eyes. "Look at me." she commanded.
      "Later." his walls started sliding closed again.
      "Now." she said. Avilan tensed, noting the change in their tone.
      "I don't have to yet." he said, but didn't challenge her quite as much.
      "Thats why I am insisting. Do it." she reached out to take his face in her hand. "Its better this way, trust me. I don't want you to get so far gone you lose control." he had dropped his blank wall, but she could still sense his hesitation. "This won't work if you won't give over your trust." she reminded him.
      Finally he bowed his head to her will. Inwardly she sighed in relief. With a practiced flick of her mind, she unlocked the drawer of the bedside table. Arkay got to his feet, but this time with almost none of his usual grace. Damn, I let him go too long. she frowned. Before he was halfway across the room she could sense his attitude change to the mindlessness she hated so very much.
      Avilan turned his face away and pressed it against her leg. She stroked his thick hair in sympathy, also wishing she didn't have to watch. Observing Arkay's every move, suddenly, "No."
      His head raised and he snarled his defiance.
      "Too much." she flared her field around her in threat. Avilan was shaking against her thigh.
      Arkay froze.
      "Less an eighth." she wanted him going down, not up. He blinked at her, awareness momentarily returning to his field, and he did as she told him. "Thank you." she said, but the walls had closed in again and there was no response to her words.
      The rest went off as well as could be expected, except this time when it hit he leaned his head back with a long hiss of pleasure. Karola had to look away. This was obscene. Shuddering in horror at the sound, poor Avilan clung to her so tightly he left bruises. I was right to try to shelter him. Never again will I make that mistake again. she swore to herself as she tried to comfort Avilan as best she could.
     
      One more time, his demon whispered in the back of his mind. Arkay watched his own hands move at its bidding.
      "No."
      It reared up and hissed at her. Hearing it come out of his mouth as a snarl of hate, Arkay tried to get control of his own mind and body back.
      "Less an eighth." she commanded.
      With what little will remained, Arkay obeyed, then was slammed aside. His hands did his demon's work and white hot, evil joy flooded his mind as it fed in horrid glee.
      After what seemed like an eternity, Arkay looked down to see the needle left in his arm. Oh Gods. he whimpered and ripped it out. I didn't want them to see that. He wanted to crush the hated thing. Clearly, he saw the trickle of blood run down his arm. Instead he cleaned and put everything away, forcing himself to do it, now that the demon had gone.
      Arkay curled up on his side, crying in shame and guilt over having failed, yet again.
     
      Awareness slowly returned. He found himself held from both sides and Arkay wondered at how they could even stand to touch him. "Go away." he cried, "I'll hurt you."
      "Hush, love." Karola's hand was gently stroking his hair back from his face. "You'll be well again. It takes time."
      "I don't have time!" he sobbed. "I want it over. No more."
      "No, love. We don't want to risk you." Avilan tensed at her words.
      "I won't die, I promise." Arkay tried to reassure the younger man.
      "What do you mean? Tell me this time." Avilan demanded.
      "Not now, sweet." Karola put him off.
      Arkay couldn't force himself to say the words past, "There is a risk in everything, Avilan." Avilan backed down, but Arkay could still tell he was agitated. "Karola, I want to quit. Let me."
      "My way, Arkay. Its been too long, you have too many other injuries, you wouldn't survive it. Please, Arkay, trust me." she said, with enormous certainty.
      Taking comfort in her solidness, he sighed, "I will try, Karola."
      "Don't try, do it." she tightened her arms around him. "I won't lose you again, Arkay."
      "Not if I have any say in the matter either, Arkay." Avilan added.
     
      Eventually Arkay looked around and noted someone had called for food before they drew the bedcurtians closed. With an attempt to sound positive, "Breakfast anyone?"
      It worked, sort of. "Yes." Karola chimed.
      Avilan looked dubious.
      "Let me guess, you usually don't eat much after turnover." Arkay stroked the back of Avilan's hand.
      He shrugged, "Not usually. I don't feel like it."
      "I often have more of an appetite the week before transfer than he does." Karola informed him.
      "Understandable, but you do have to eat, Avilan." he said gently. "Believe me, I do understand, love."
      "I don't doubt you, Arkay." Avilan replied heavily.
      "I didn't think you did. But doubt or not, you still have to eat." he didn't like pushing the point so hard, but it was necessary. Arkay set the drapes aside. "Come on. Lets get up." he drew Avilan to his feet as he stood. This darkness is so unlike him, "What's bothering you, Avilan?"
      "nothing" he muttered.
      "It isn't nothing, love." Karola looked at him in concern. "You're upset. That isn't nothing to me."
      "But are you going to explain it? Like you explain everything else to me!" Avilan suddenly turned on her.
      "Avilan, love, what's wrong?" she tried to reach out to him.
      Arkay stood back, silent, trying not to make things worse than he already had today.
     
      Stalking over to pick out some clothes, "You and him. You both know what's to be done. What's best for everyone." Avilan threw on whatever he could find, not caring at all if it matched. "And you don't tell me anything!" he stomped out, hearing the door slam shut behind himself.
      He shivered momentarily in the cool breezed drafting down the hallway. Why is she making him string things out like this? Avilan almost returned to ask the question, then thought better of it. Figuring she wouldn't tell him anyways, he made his way down to the sharm. As he walked down the stairs, he hurriedly braided his hair out of the way and tied off the end with a bit of thread from one rather frayed cuff. The guards of the sharm nodded at him respectfully, but Avilan could sense their curiosity at their Lord's state of disarray in public.
      "Lord Karola decided she wanted sharp cheese for breakfast, and not the mild cheese." he grinned in the shared dismay shown by the mates of all pregnant women he had ever seen.
      "Thas allright Lord Avilan. Most women get a bit teched in the head when theyre that way. At least she aren't askin for pears nor peaches." the older man gave him a conspiratorial wink and reset his handling tentacles on his spear. "Now my missus, she were wanting ice cream in the middle of summer. Made sense te me, but harder n'hell to get."
      They opened the doors for him and let him through with the usual ceremony. "We'll be offn the shift by the time ye get back. But give me best te Lord Azov, would ye?" the younger man asked, with a nervous flick of a tentacle.
      For an instant Avilan's heart stopped as he realized he couldn't remember either one's name, then they came to him, "Thank you for not making an issue of it," he gestured towards his clothes, making the man smile even wider, "renSime Pyotir, renSime Ivan. Be well and do your best." He walked between the steel doors.
      "At your will, Sharm Lord Avilan." they said in unison and closed the heavy doors behind him.
      The bolt clanged shut with a thump, only echoed by the rapid beating of his heart. "That was a close call, stupid." he muttered to himself. It would not have done at all to show any weakness at the heart of Azov to her renSimes. They depended on solid leadership for reassurance and security. To abuse their trust was not acceptable. Next time he came down, he would remember to go by the private stairs, which were not usually manned in peacetime. Of course the fact they come out in the middle of the lord's quarters above, might have something to do with it he thought wryly.
      Figuring since he really had nothing better to do anyways, he actually did go down to the dining hall. The lights were dimmed, echoing the natural sunlight patterns so people didn't get confused about the seasons when they spent months at a time living underground. Avilan got himself a cup of tea and picked out a likely looking sweet roll. He still wasn't hungry, but he knew he should eat, despite his lack of appetite.
      There were very few people around, and the few who were present talked in hushed tones or sat alone, silently. Things were always slow in winter, but usually there was more activity than this. Where is everyone? Avilan asked himself, taking a tiny nibble of his breakfast. He wandered out of the dining hall, and sauntered through the hallways. The few people who crossed his path, simply minded their own business and went on their way. I suppose running across Sharm Lord Azov wandering through the halls in near rags holding his breakfast in his hands, is enough to make anyone doubt their senses.
      Eventually he wandered into his favorite part of the sharm, the conservatory. It was heated, over and above the consistant twenty two or so normally maintained this deeply underground. Avilan found a vacant bench under a towering emerald green fern and applied himself industriously to his roll. Leaning back, relaxing, he crossed his ankles in front of him. Tiny, very brightly colored birds flitted from tree to tree. Only Azov had a conservatory with ornamental, as well as functional, plants in the sharm and Avilan reveled in the indulgence.
      It seemed many of the other inhabitants of the sharm did as well. He watched young couples, walking hand in hand along the paths, laughing and giggling together. There was an oldster with a whole troop of children circling her as she told them a funny tale. There was a couple, his own age, sitting on another bench and feeding the birds which came to their hand, they were so tame. A squirrel ran up to them and begged. They laughed and tossed it a couple of nuts. It got confused and tried to carry both of them at the same time, failing miserably. Eventually it got them both stashed away and came down to beg some more.
      As he was getting ready to leave, a young woman sat down beside him, startling him badly.
      "I'm sorry." she said, "I didn't mean to surprise you." She smiled at him. Avilan couldn't help but notice she had a beautiful smile. It wasn't as spectacular as Karola's, but it was here. He found himself leaning towards her. "Really, if I am a bother, I'll leave." she emphasized herself with a gesture of her tentacles.
      "No, no bother. I was about to leave." he said, then had the urge to take her hand.
      "Please, don't go." the young woman said. "I mean, I certainly don't want it said I chased Sharm Lord Azov from his hiding spot under the fern." she grinned.
      "No one could think a beautiful young lord like yourself would ever chase away an old Sharm Lord like me." he took her hand gently and kissed the back of it.
      "You are hardly old, m'Lord Azov." she blushed prettily and stroked his face with her tentacles. The touch went through him like lightning and Avilan realized she was close to hard need.
      "I doubt if could keep up with you, m'lord." he turned her hand over and gave it a tiny lick.
      "You flatter me, Avilan." her breath caught in her throat at the attention. The rasping sound she gave his name made him nip at her palm. Her hand grasped his face gently, then she let it fall down the side of his neck, laterals leaving wet traces following her touch.
      "It isn't flattery when its the truth, lord Kila." he finally remembered her name. Surprising, given his sudden desire to take her here and now. Giving in, he leaned over and kissed her softly.
      Kila's return kiss was anything but gentle, but there was still a softness he had never felt with Karola. With a soft moan she opened herself up to him. The velvet night of need drew at him, making him forget all thoughts of the past few hectic days.
      He scooped her up in his arms and carried her back in among a secret place he had found among the ferns and flowering greenery. She did anything but protest as Avilan laid her back against the soft moss. They had their way with each other amidst the warm mist and fragrant blossoms of the eternal summer in the Azov conservatory.

CHAPTER 5

      For a day which had begun with so much promise it was surprising how badly it turned out in the end. As soon as the door banged shut behind Avilan, Karola found he had taken her appetite with him, Since the day after their first transfer, they had never been truly apart for any length of time.
      Well aware of having to eat to feed her growing children, she managed to force herself to consume a few pieces of the apple Arkay had cut up for her and a little of the fresh bread with her favorite soft cheese spread on it. However, none of it stayed down for long.
      Arkay held her gently until she was done, his cool supportive presence was more than welcome. She sipped cautiously at the glass of water he had handed her. "Do other women go through this?" she asked in wry disgust.
      "Often." he pushed her sweat dampened hair away from her face. "More commonly in the first trimester, though." he didn't seem particularly concerned.
      "I was considered too young to work in the maternity ward at Sergei." she commented, taking another sip, since the first had stayed put.
      "Instead they dumped you into the detox center."
      Looking at him in astonishment, "How did ...?" she paused, "Oh. I'm not thinking really well right now, sorry."
      "I would be surprised if you were, sweet." his hand was cool and tender on her back.
      "No one else wanted the slot, so I took what I could get. Sergei hadn't even wanted to let me work in the infirmary at all until I reached my majority." she leaned into his caress.
      "That sounds like my father. He was furious with me when I left at eighteen."
      She whistled her astonishment. A male Sharm Lord was only considered to truly be an adult at twenty five.
      "Katrina and Ilya were also quite young at the time, although they were both, barely, adults." she could sense his field hiccup in a nageric shrug. "We were all kids though, really."
      "Like the current Kirov household." she turned and grinned at him.
      "Some people grow up faster than others." she watched his finger come up and then it tapped the end of her nose, gently.
      "Good, you're tracking true again." he took the now empty glass from her and helped her to her feet. Actually she felt better now than at any time since Avilan had stormed out. Karola hadn't been aware her tracking, the alignment between her body and her nager, had been off. Although that would explain her being sick.
      "Huh, no wonder I used to get so physically ill every turnover." One of life's little mysteries explained.
      He walked her back to the table. This time it actually smelled good again and she fell to with a vengeance.
      "Indeed. I'm surprised you didn't know about it. he absently nibbled at a piece of cheese which he had dribbled honey over.
      "How did you learn?" she tried again with the bread and cheese.
      He chuckled, "Since I was from Sergei, the old midwife at Kirov thought I would make a good successor. Before Ilya began taking up all my time and attention I was the primary obstetrician and gynecologist at Kirov."
      "A male Sharm Lord?" she gaped. "The most feared single person in all of Russia?" slipped out and she blushed at her gaffe.
      "It's all right, little one." she purred a bit at the pet name, but still. "I really like women and children. It gave me a chance to be close to both." his urchin grin pulled years from his face. She answered it shyly, then they both laughed.
      "I suppose thats one way to get to spend time with women. But wouldn't you rather have been there first?" she teased him.
      He leaned back in his chair and wrapped his hands around his upraised knee, "No, actually."
      "Why not?" she was surprised at his answer. "Dealing with pregnant women so much, you must have wanted to see more," she searched for a politic word, "svelte ladies, occasionally."
      This time he laughed wholeheartedly, "Oh Karola, there are few things more beautiful in this world of ours than a pregnant woman."
      Suspiciously, she zlinned him as thoroughly as she could. He even held out his arms to her to let her zlin better. There was absolutely no sign he was telling her anything other than the complete truth as he saw it.
      Stunned at this revelation, she took a handful of cherries out of the bowl. They hadn't fared too badly in storage, it seemed. Leaning back in her chair she ate them, neatly spitting the pits in a long arc to land in a bowl at the center of the table.
      Something intruded into her thoughts, something that tickled. What is that? the other two legs of her chair returned to the floor with a thump. She looked around, then she zlinned. "Stop that!" she laughed. Arkay had been so amused by her antics with the cherries his field was tickling her. However, figuring this out only made her laugh harder.
      "You are the only person in the world who would use their talent to lob cherry pits."
      "Why not?" she grinned, "It works."
      "It is wasteful of selyn, Karola." he was obviously trying to sound serious. The effect was completely spoiled by his still dancing nager.
      "Azov produces selyn to burn, Arkay." she said, unfortunately prophetically.
     
      There was a knock at the door and Karola called out, "Come in." She stood and turned towards the door.
      "For you, m'Lord Azov." the servant handed her a slip of parchment and scurried out of the room.
      After the door closed, "I really do have to learn their names." The note told her lord Kila would not be making her appointment for her testing transfer. Probably wants to do it next month Young lords normally had to take one transfer from either a lord or a Lord before their first year was half over for evaluation. Preferably the latter, if one was available. This would otherwise have been Kila's fourth. I wonder who caught her. Usually young lords found a suitable, equally young, sharm lord and made a pair of it for the first time, both transfer and sex on their forth month.
      "You look like you are thinking of something lascivious, sweet." Arkay wrapped himself around her and she felt his hands slide down to caress her expanding waistline.
      "Only my forth transfer, love." she stroked her head along his arm.
      "Ah yes, I remember it well. What a disaster." he laughed. "Good thing she was as incompetent as I was."
      "I know what you mean. It was one of my few good transfers before Avilan and he was sweet, but just as insecure as I was."
      They stood for a long moment, each reminiscing over the past follies and tribulations of their youth. "We should probably get to work." he finally sighed, giving her one last pet.
      "I suppose." she really didn't want to.
     
      Eventually they got all the record books for the past three years set out on the table and worked their way through them. They were an absolute mess. From the time someone by the name lord Piyetrov Ivanovich Azov took them over till now. It took them almost till midnight till they had pieced together even part of the puzzle and there was still no sign of Avilan.
      "No wonder Avilan couldn't sort this out." Karola said heavily.
      "No wonder what?" Avilan asked belligerently from the doorway.
      "You're back!" she leaped to her feet and ran towards him. Only to be stopped in her tracks as she sneezed. Her delicate nose had been overwhelmed by an overpowering wave of the mixed scents of sex and starka. There was something else she couldn't quite place.
      "You're not going to this time either, are you Karola?" he swayed on his feet.
      "You fucking bastard, Avilan." Arkay growled as he got to his feet.
      "Yes, on both accounts, you overbred whore." Avilan snarled right back, obviously looking for a fight.
      "Stop it, both of you!" Karola demanded. They both turned to glare at her. "Who ...? By all the Gods in Heaven!" What she had scented had been the faintest whiff of blood. "You fucking bastard!" she unconsciously echoed Arkay.
      Avilan actually smirked. Yes, he was drawn down exactly as much as she had been scheduled to give Kila. Karola rounded on him in absolute, unmitigated fury, "How dare you have transfer with and then fuck a four month lord!"
     
      Arkay didn't even stop to think. Avilan had done the unimaginable. He should never, ever have had transfer with anyone still in first year, much less bed them afterwards. From Karola's outrage and the girl's age, she must have been a virgin as well. With all his body behind it, he aimed his fist directly at Avilan's jaw.
      The younger man smacked it aside with relative ease. "Getting old, Arkay." his return blow almost landed.
      "Not too old to know better than to mess with kids." he was going to murder the sick bastard.
      Avilan caught his foot, "Now, now Arkay. Temper." He pulled.
      Arkay went to the floor with a crash, but managed to take Avilan with him. "Yes, damn you." he managed a glancing strike at the other man's knee. There was no resulting flash of pain and Arkay realized Avilan was too drunk to feel much of anything. Oh hell. he ducked a wicked kick to his head.
      "I'm not the one with a demon on his back." Avilan struck back, verbally and physically. This time managing to land a strike on Arkay's shoulder.
      "Better one on my back then one in my pants." he snarled, managing to return the favor by catching Avilan on the chin. Before Avilan could recover, Arkay managed to get another one in on the other man's ribs.
      Somehow Avilan ended up turned around and Karola neatly dropped him with a kick to the solar plexus.
      Arkay knelt on the floor and panted for a bit, "Get him off the rug."
      Karola, rather unkindly, dragged him into the bathroom, just in time before Avilan threw up all the starka he had drunk. She left him there.
      Feeling Karola's gentle arms around him, he sagged in relief. "Thanks love. I must be getting old if a drunk almost gets the better of me."
      "Now hush. You lost your temper. I can't say I didn't do the same, you were quicker off the mark is all." her hands worked their way over his bruises, gently convincing his body to heal them. "Are you going to be all right?" her attention felt absolutely wonderful, and he basked in it.
      "Sure. Have certainly had worse in practice." he shook his head. "I think we both forgot something though, with all the work on the books."
      "Was my plan." she lipped his hair. "Go on."
      This time the demon didn't return at all and he sighed in relief as he put everything away. She was wrapped around him afterwards and he nuzzled her cheek. "Thank you." for understanding, for being there for him.
      "I suppose we should deal with the mess in the bathroom." grimacing, she nodded her head in the direction of the room in question.
      "Which one, the one on the floor, or the one with all the hair." Arkay was not feeling particularly well disposed towards Avilan at the moment.
      She actually giggled and Arkay felt a momentary flash of guilty pleasure over it, "Both, actually."
      "Lets get to it." he exaggerated his sigh, which got him another grin.
      Cleaning up after a sick drunk was not a pleasant chore, but at least he isn't after my throat anymore. Although it was made marginally less awful by the fact he obviously hadn't had a whole lot to eat today. Karola seemed almost oblivious to the fact it was her mate who was in such a state, then Arkay realized she was almost in shock over the incident. He knew if he made any mention of it, she would probably collapse. He remained silent until they had Avilan wrapped up in some old blankets to sleep it off on the floor in the other room on a pile of rushes gathered from the hallway.
      Still keeping her unnatural silence, Arkay watched her prepare for bed. No, I can't let her do this. He gathered her into his arms, but she stood, stiffly, not even looking at him. Instead she stared towards the other room. Continually, her tentacles rubbed up and down her arms in agitation. This is really bad. when he couldn't even get her attention with his field. He tried wrapping his imaginary wings around her and didn't even get a flicker of response. Instead she shivered and he realized her body temperature was dropping rapidly.
      My body temperature isn't going to do a thing but chill her even more. he swore at the fact of biology. Picking her up, he carried her into the bathroom and did the only thing he could think of. He ran the tub as hot as he could stand and got into it with her still in his arms. It felt like it was going to sear his hide off, but eventually she stopped shivering and gradually reaction returned to her field. Sweating as if it were the middle of summer, he held her as close as he dare and not mitigate the effects of the hot water.
      "What am I going to do?" she wailed and turned around to cry in his arms.
      "I don't know, sweet." Maybe I should have challenged him for her the thought insinuated itself into his mind.
      "I love both of you."
      He stroked her back, "We both love you, sweet. Usually these things work themselves out." Usually all three have their act together. he reminded himself. This time one's an addict, another has violated all rules of decency, and the third is barely an adult.
      "Why did he do that?" she sobbed into his chest.
      "Why do any of us do stupid things, love?" he asked, as he had no easy answer for her, unfortunately.
      "Because they seem like the right thing to do at the time." tears sparkled in her lashed as she looked up at him.
      He had to grin. Kissing her nose, "That could be the eulogy for the human race, sweet."
      "I know, Arkay. Its just everything is such a mess. Makes me think sometimes there really are demons and angels like the preachers say." she sounded so much like a lost little girl when she said things like that.
      "Well, one thing I have learned in my life, is to start at the beginning." he rested his chin on her head. "Right now the first priority, I think, is making up for dinner."
      "That isn't the beginning." she playfully swatted at him.
      "It is something we can do to make things better though, sweet. Really, trust me."
      She thought about what he had said for a long while. "One thing at a time." she stated the old axiom.
      "One thing at a time, love."
     
      Avilan woke up with a splitting headache. His mouth tasted like something small and furry had crawled in there to die, about six months ago. Never before in his life had he had a hangover of such monumental proportions. Groaning, as quietly as he could, he rolled over. This was a mistake. His stomach revolted at the movement and he lost all control. The dark waters of unconsciousness reclaimed him.
      Trying a second time to wake up was marginally more successful. He managed to try to waive the lights down and then realized they were off. Did the sun actually come out? he wondered at the light stabbing into the back of his brain. No, its yet another grey day out he put his arm across his eyes to block out even that dim light.
      What happened? he tried to sort through his memories. Being upset with Karola for keeping things from him yesterday. Stomping off to the sharm. Getting breakfast. He groaned again at the thought of food. Sitting in the conservatory watching the people. The sweet release of transfer soothing his strained nerves. Kila, dear sweet Kila, so unlike Karola with her sharp tongue and abrasive wit. Kila slender and slim under his hands. Teasing her, arousing her till he tried to slide inside. She had moaned, her head back against the cool green moss of the glade. Gradually, slowly she had opened to him.
      Then he had realized what he had done. Oh Gods, no, not again. He relived her pulling him into her, so very tight. Barely had he managed to give her release before his regret and remorse came over him. He sent her away with a smile and a laugh, but inside he was screaming in horror of what had happened. As soon as she had been out of zlinning range, he had collapsed in an agony of self accusation and disgust. How could I have ever mistaken Kila for anything but a virgin? he had realized she must not be more than four or five months past changeover.
      Then the drinking binge. Finding a full bottle of starka some nameless Gen had left in their cubicle an eternity ago. Making his way through the sharm in a drunken stupor. Looking for yet more starka to wipe away his memory of what he had done. Eventually making his way back to find Karola and Arkay talking about him over the record books. Those thrice damned records. he wished them to burn in hell for eternity, completely forgetting his superimposed sophistication for his childhood faith in his choice of maledicta.
      All his inward hate had turned outwards with Arkay's words. The only thing he had wanted was to make someone else hurt as much as he did. A tear trickled down Avilan's face. How could I ever have been so drunk as to say the things I did to him?
      Eventually, even Avilan's ability to feel sorry for himself managed to come to an end. Although the sun finally going down might have helped. He muttered something about fools and their ability to find trouble where none had existed before.
      In the blessed darkness, he staggered his way into the bathroom and managed to collect himself into something vaguely resembling a human being. There was a faint shaft of light coming in under the door to the other room. His hand reached for the handle and then stopped. The knob turned under his hand and Avilan yelped as the light reached his eyes.
      The noise he himself had made didn't help any. Trying to flee both sight and sound, someone caught him by the collar. Oh no, its Arkay he realized his old friend had absolutely no cause whatsoever to feel any fondness for him at the moment. He struggled harder to get away, greatly hampered by his headache.
      "No you don't."
      Avilan whimpered at the knives this sent through his skull.
      "You are going to stay put this time if I have to sit on you." Arkay said firmly and marched him back into the other room. However Avilan silently blessed him to the heavens when he waved off the lights. The faint glimmers he got when not using his eyes to see with were far preferable to any other form of illumination whatsoever. "I've been hung over a time or two in my life as well, lad." Arkay whispered in his ear.
      "Avilan, you are a mess." Karola shouted in his other ear.
      "Quietly, or you are going to have to pick up little pieces of him off the floor."
      "Oh, sorry." she whispered and Avilan realized she hadn't really been yelling, it had only seemed like it.
      "Now, what happened, Avilan?" Arkay asked gently, handing him a cup of tea. He sipped at it.
      "Well..." he didn't know what part of the disaster to start with, so he drank some more tea instead, trying to settle himself.
      "Start at the beginning."
      "All right. At the beginning, yesterday morning." he sighed. "Karola, again, wouldn't tell me what was going on and I got upset about it."
      "Whoa." Arkay said softly. "Wait a minute. Is that what this is all about, Avilan?"
      "Yes." he told his tea.
      "There wasn't time, Avilan. I would have told you later."
      "You lie." he suddenly snarled. Avilan's other senses had been wide open in the dark and he had caught every nuance of what she was saying.
      "I caught it too, Karola." Arkay said darkly. "Whatever you do, don't lie, sweet. It doesn't work."
      "I didn't want him hurt." she protested, honestly this time.
      "Then tell me what's going on." Avilan demanded putting down his tea and trying to get to his feet.
      Arkay made him sit back down before he fell down. "I have told you everything I know. Wait a minute," he paused, "the point at which you got upset yesterday was over my wanting to quit all at once, wasn't it."
      Avilan nodded, and then momentarily got confused as at first he thought Arkay wouldn't be able to see him, then castigating himself for forgetting the other man very well could see him.
      "Oh lad, you're a mess. If it weren't so important for your own self-esteem to be told, even I would put it off." Avilan watched fascinated as the glow he knew as Arkay jittered oddly, almost like a hiccup, and he realized it was a shrug. "So be it, the fact of the matter is, there are three main ways to get over Halirin addiction; all at once, tapering off, or shifting to another substance. The first is easiest, relatively, since basically you strap the patient down firmly and pray."
      Avilan knew there had to be more to it than this, "Why pray?"
      "The longer and stronger the addiction the more likely the patient is to die, Avilan." Arkay spoke as if he were talking about someone else entirely.
      Thinking about this, Avilan suddenly took Arkay in his arms and firmly told him, "No. I won't let you. Yours is very strong, isn't it, love."
      "Yes." Avilan could feel Arkay's body shake with the admission.
      "Then you are going to do whatever Karola tells you, aren't you?"
      "When she's right."
      "No, Arkay. You are going to do what she tells you to." Avilan had an instinctive grasp of what Karola had only learned through training.
      "Yes." no qualifications, no hesitations this time.

CHAPTER 6

      "You fucked her!?" Karola asked incredulously, under her breath.
      "I can understand why." Arkay said speculatively.
      "Shut up, both of you." Avilan was doing his level best not to blush, but Karola could zlin his field contort with the effort under his outer display of equanimity. The far too obvious mutterings of zherebets or 'stallion', were not making it any easier on him.
      Karola had heard the reference before in regards to Avilan, but not quite so openly before. Personally she rather agreed with their assessment, but that was one fact she was never going to tell him. *laugh-agree* she got from Arkay.
      Avilan stepped forward to bring the young woman to her feet. Kila was a very slender, actually rather elegant looking young woman. With dark chestnut hair and hazel eyes. The problem was, unlike it seemed both of the men, Karola could tell the young lady had far more beauty than brains. Men, she watched both of them put on a little show of admiration for Kila. Her sharm lord, an equally young man, was glaring at both Sharm Lords but quite manfully restraining his urge to tell Kila to quit being a tease.
      Suddenly the imp of the perverse struck Karola. She stepped forward and held out her hand to Kila's partner. Very smoothly he took it and bowed to her, gently touching the back of her hand to his forehead. His Nager was a smooth and silken as his manners.
      Eyes bright with wicked good humor, "My Lord Azov. You flatter me with you attention."
      "I would have thought by now you would be quite used to attention, sharm lord ..."
      "Sharm lord Diomid." he supplied graciously, then continued. "Certainly not from a Lord as lovely as you."
      "Now you are flattering me, after I forgot your name, as well." she held his gaze with her eyes. Karola could hear Avilan and Arkay come up behind her, completely forgetting about Kila.
      Diomid didn't even miss a beat, "My Lord can certainly not be expected to remember the name of a mere sharm lord like myself. She would most definitely have others on her mind."
      Oh my but this was a beautiful opening, "I would think I would be able to remember your most silken nager, however, much less your impeccable manners." Their glare was trying to burn through the back of her tunic. A titter arose from those nearby hearing the exchange.
      "Perhaps at another time we might have more of a chance to explore our mutual observations." his veil was soft over her arm as this time he kissed the palm of her hand under its concealment.
      "Without such an audience." she stroked his cheek with one tentacle.
     
      They had decided, once Avilan had a few days to recover from his little adventure, to finally present Arkay to the Azov court. He had been holding back and putting it off for as long as he had been here. Karola finally put her foot down. "Arkay, the Azov court is nothing like the Kirov court."
      "I know that." he paced across the floor.
      "Then why are you so nervous?" she well knew the reason, but wanted Arkay to admit it himself.
      "Because I don't like having people run from me." he sulked. Avilan laughed, making Arkay glare at him. "It isn't funny, Avilan. I walk down the hallway and it empties of everyone including the mice."
      "Now Arkay, really, you exaggerate. Of course the renSime servants scatter. They do it when I walk down the halls." Avilan pointed out. "How many generations have we reinforced the idea that Sharm Lords are dangerous?" he asked rhetorically.
      "At least thirty." Arkay still grumbled, but showed his submission by finally actually looking at the formal robes Avilan had laid out for him. "That doesn't explain why lords go skittering off at the sight of me."
      Karola had to laugh now, "It works on us too, sweet. I almost wet my pants when I realized what Avilan was."
      "Just because our introduction was a little on the rough side, love." he then explained to Arkay their disastrous first transfer.
      "Only because he came on to me with all the subtlety of a stallion on his hind legs."
      "You didn't!" Arkay tisked at Avilan, then ran his hand over the beautiful embroidery on the robes. The gold thread and tiny diamonds worked into the pattern of frost covered trees sparkled even in the low light.
      Avilan tried to deny it, but Karola couldn't let him get away with it, "On his hind legs and rampant."
      Arkay laughed at Avilan's sputtering, "Really Karola, now you are exaggerating."
      "Not by much." she said, coyly.
      "Is this your work?" Arkay asked Avilan as he finally began getting ready.
      "Yes, actually." Avilan adjusted the drape of the fabric so it would hang properly. He had already gotten dressed earlier.
      "It fits almost perfectly." Arkay observed.
      "It should. I originally made it for you." Avilan admitted. Arkay was stunned at the admission and stared at Avilan. "I was hoping someday you would be able to wear it, Arkay. It should be an exact fit as soon as you get back to your normal weight."
      "I don't know what to say, Avilan."
      Karola well knew, looking at extensive work done on the robes, Avilan must have spent months on the design. Even zlinning, the metal and gems cast patterns of ice and sprays of frost over the feel of winter dormant aspen and oak trees. Avilan was wearing one of his plainer pieces, a simple geometric of silver snowflakes against the green of Azov, so as not to detract from Arkay in any way. He wasn't even wearing a trace of makeup, which was almost unheard of for Avilan.
      "I am simply glad you can finally wear it, Arkay." he turned the older man around so he could give him a soft kiss. "Thank you."
      Getting to her feet, Karola gave her far simpler tunic and breeches a last look. Good, no wrinkles. she was no where near the clothes horse Avilan could be. She bent over and picked up the end of Arkay's braid. As she worked her way up, she realized just how much of it there was. With the very heavy silver and gold mass of it twining between her fingers, she rubbed her cheek against its silky feel. When she had washed it, he had been so fragile and worn, Karola hadn't really noticed what she had been doing.
      With a sigh, she stepped back, letting it slide out of her hands over the train of the robe.
      Avilan, with a far more practiced hand, pulled a bit of the sides back, clipping them away from Arkay's face. "There."
      Protected from rubbing on the floor by the robes, Arkay obviously felt free to let it hang lose. He looked back over his shoulder at her, "Do I look all right?"
      "I could never give you the truest answer, for I haven't the words to describe how wonderful you look, Arkay." she bowed to him, as gracefully and respectfully as she could.
     
      Arkay had been stunned when he first saw the robe Avilan had pulled out of the closet. He didn't want to embarrass Avilan in any way by causing a ruckus while wearing one of the most beautiful pieces of embroidery work he had ever seen. The winter forest had always been a favorite motif of his.
      They had all gone together down to the great hall of Azov. He looked around cautiously, but everything seemed to be as they had said. No one took too much more attention of him than they did to Avilan. A few did, here and there, but they were mostly older people. The younger ones, of whom there were far more, ranged from curiosity to outright acquisitiveness, albeit somewhat wary acquisitiveness. He stood up straighter and Karola squeezed his hand.
      The initial presentation was so very formulaic, Arkay spent most of his time letting his senses wander over the audience. There was a feeling of high good humor and fun to this court he had never sensed at either Kirov or Sergei. The people here wanted to see their new Sharm Lord and were welcoming him into their Demense with an openness he could only wonder at.
      "I give you Sharm Lord Arkay Sergeyevich Azov!" Avilan said and Arkay turned to face the almost one hundred assembled lords and sharm lords of Azov. They cheered him and in response he made his favorite presentation of great feathered wings rising over his back, mantling as they cheered him louder. He drank in their affection and joy with a rising hope for all their futures.
     
      After the little hoo-haw with Kila and her sharm lord, Arkay relaxed and actually enjoyed his time in court for the first time in so long he couldn't remember when. A half dozen young lords even worked up their courage enough to flirt with him. They were outrageous once they got going, all of them trying to play off the others. Their fields flickered and sparred in counterpoint to their verbal banter.
      He was laughing so hard at their antics, Karola and Avilan wandered over to see what was going on. She joined in on the side of the lords and Avilan stood by him. In no time at all, it seemed, most of the quarter of the room was involved in an elaborate dance of wit and flirtation.
      "Ah, but I have the trump card." Karola's eyes were alight with the spirit of their fun, "I got there first!" she crowed.
      "And you are the most beautiful," Avilan kissed her enthusiastically.
      "And the most wonderful," Arkay broke in and took his turn.
      "Lord in all the Demense." one wit, probably Diomid, finished. Arkay was going to have to keep an eye on that lad. He was far too clever, and far too likely to get himself ascended before he was ready.
     
      He put up the gorgeous green kador with great care for the workmanship which had been put into it. Then he had to sit down. It had been a long, long court session, with an even longer evening of dancing and music afterwards. At Kirov he had never joined in the dances in the evening. Even when Ilya had been well, he had no taste for one of Arkay's passions.
      Both Karola and Avilan were exquisite dancers and had called for dance after dance, until long after midnight. Arkay's feet hurt and he pulled off his shoes to stretch out his toes. Even after the dance musicians had called it an evening, a few of the youngest of the remaining crowd had taken up their instruments. He couldn't resist when they had played the opening bars of one of his favorite ballads, so he went to sing with them. Karola and Avilan had cheered him as loudly as the rest when he had finished.
      "Come on," he waved them over. No one had claimed the great standing harp, so he took it and played a simple arpeggio, testing out the tune of the instrument. It was an old, but very well cared for harp, and its tone was actually magnificent for this sort of smaller group. He began a lively, fun round. Karola started off the song in a very nice alto, however it was Avilan which almost made him fall off the stool. He had forgotten Avilan's incredible deep, rich tenor. Arkay joined in on the third part and the three of them sang together in wonderful harmony.
      Arkay looked up at the clock, then realized he should have wanted to come back far sooner than now. It was almost official dawn. Karola and Avilan came in and each of them took one of his feet in their hands. He leaned back in the chair and moaned his appreciation of their foot rub.
      "You are quite the dancer, Arkay." Karola commented.
      "Avilan is better than I am." Arkay said softly.
      "Not true, sweet." Avilan chided. "Who was it who didn't even get a single dance to sit out all night to catch their breath?" Thinking about it for a moment, he realized Avilan was right. Every time he had tried to sit down, another partner had claimed his hand and he was off again. "Who has more blisters on their feet than ... ? than I don't know what at this hour of the morning." Avilan's jaw popped as he yawned mightily. "Now you know why we don't hold court more than once a week."
      "I had wondered." Arkay echoed Avilan's yawn. He wondered if it truly would be worth the effort to get up out of the chair. It was a fairly comfortable one, he nodded off a bit despite his own jangling of his bracelets trying to shake off the too familiar feel of insects beginning to crawl up his arms.
      "Come on, love." Karola gently picked him up and he automatically wrapped his arms around her neck. He nuzzled her ear absently, playing with her earring. "You can't be feeling amorous after today, sweet."
      Avilan gingerly walked after them, obviously favoring his feet as well. Arkay heard the lock on the table click and twitched at the sound. Then he let out a deep breath and relaxed completely against Karola. "Could you get me some bandages from the bathroom, Avilan."
      "Thank you, love." he whispered in her ear before she poured him into bed.
      "No problem."
      He had to giggle, despite his tiredness and rising irritability. Then his demon rose up and smashed him to the floor. Arkay felt his body twist in Karola's grasp. In the last moment he had, Arkay wrapped himself around that part of his mind where his power as Sharm Lord lay and with all his will gave over control of it and himself to Karola.
     
      Avilan heard Arkay scream, a high wailing sound. Dropping everything in his haste, he bolted back into the other room. Without a thought, he threw himself into the fray. Karola couldn't compete against Arkay's mass, but Avilan could. When he touched Arkay's body though, there was no sign of him to Avilan's senses. It was as if he held an animate corpse in his hands.
      He pinned the body anyways as Karola set up the injection. "Hold his arm!" she shouted. All Avilan could do was to use one knee on the hand to at least try to still it some. She wrapped her tentacles hard around the upper arm, then faster than Avilan could see managed the stick.
      "I can't keep it here a whole lot longer." Avilan couldn't think to call this demented creature he. This wasn't Arkay in his hands, it was something else. He only hoped Arkay would return.
      She finished and called, "Clear." Avilan guessed this was some kind of medical term, but got the point anyways and jumped back, releasing his hold. With one final arching spasm, the convulsions stopped. Avilan took a deep breath. He closed his eyes and prayed, as he never had before.
      Behind his closed eyelids he saw Karola reach out to the still body. It was too still. Not again! he whimpered, but stood behind her, offering her anything she wanted.
      About the time Avilan was ready to completely panic, Karola slid herself in behind Arkay's body. Arkay had been lying there not moving for what had seemed to him like an eternity, even though he knew it had only been two or three seconds.
      Karola made the awkward looking, to Avilan at least, brow and temple contact points with her laterals. Avilan could hear her mental voice call out Arkay's name, but she didn't have it quite right. As fast as he could he took Arkay's limp arms in his hands and made the traditional lip to lip contact.
      *Arkay!* he added his call to Karola's.
      With a gasp of returning breath, Avilan felt Arkay's awareness return to his body. He was unconscious, bat at least his friend was back! Oh love he took both of them in his arms. Karola was sobbing uncontrollably against Arkay's back.
      "I almost lost him." she berated herself.
      "You didn't love. You didn't" he reassured her.
      "I had to draw you into this mess to pull him through."
      "He is my love as well, sweet." he stroked her back.
      She hiccuped, then looked at him, "I should have told you beforehand what to do. If you hadn't jumped clear he would have badly burned your mind, even after he had manage to lock down his powers and hand himself and them to me."
      He felt her tremble against his palms, "Lets get Arkay settled and then you tell me everything you can think of I might ever want to know."
      Even after getting Arkay tucked into bed, Avilan refused to release his hand for fear he would vanish again if not watched constantly. Karola seemed to share some of the same worry and took Arkay's other hand.
      Beginning by saying, "No Sime can ever truly know what Halirin addiction is like from the inside because of our different physiology, but from my experience working in the detox ward at Sergei ..."
      For over an hour she explained all the effects and implications of Halirin addiction; from the violent mood shifts and insane behavior of an addict who had recently had their fix to all the signs and symptoms of someone going into withdrawal. The thing that chilled him to the core was the fact, as he had well seen, that an addict could go from relatively normal acting to acute withdrawal in less than minutes.
      "By the way, that last is unique to Halirin. No other drug produces the same effect."
      "Wouldn't it help if I reminded him to keep on schedule?" Avilan stroked his free hand over Arkay's deep chest, wanting the reassurance of feeling him breathe again.
      "I hadn't wanted to force you Avilan, but yes, it would." she looked grim for a moment. "But then there is something else I would have to show you."
      "Yes" he put all his dedication and faith in both of them into the simple word.
      "So be it." she released Arkay's hand and when she was fishing around in the drawer Avilan knew what the something else was. He would have to learn the physical details.
      Looking away briefly he saw Arkay's pale, lined face against the pillows and realized this was a small price to pay to be able to help. "Anything, Karola."
      "Thank you." she said softly. Then she explained, using the examples she had in front of her, dosage, sterility, how to find a vein, and what to do if there was a problem.
      "One last thing." she swallowed heavily and turned away, hiding what she was doing with her hands. "I think it would be best if you accepted." Karola held a loaded syringe out to him.
      Pure terror raced through his mind. Then he saw Arkay's drawn face again. Karola would never, ever do anything which would harm me His hand reached out, shaking violently. Then it stilled. As if watching himself, he went through the motions he had observed Arkay make with such overwhelming fear he had had to turn away before the end. Arkay's obscene hissing rasp of pleasure rang through his mind, again and again. After pushing the plunger home, Karola took it away from him and swiftly put everything away.
      Avilan gasped in shock as it hit. A brief flash of the sweetest, most tempting, most unholy pleasure washed across all his senses. It was the satisfaction of the most forbidden lust he had ever had. Then it was gone as if it never had been. He sat there and shook, thinking about the experience for long minutes afterwards.
     

CHAPTER 7

      Karola sat perfectly still, watching Avilan's reaction as closely as she could. It was disturbing, to say the least. She had given him the smallest possible effective dose, but there could still be complications.
      One of Karola's old teachers on the detox ward had always given every sharm lord who worked with them this option; to try it, once, under controlled circumstances. The best of them, the ones who truly cared, were the ones who took the risk. They were the ones who wanted to know, as Avilan had asked, so many times. Arkay probably would have never been allowed to get into this state if both of them had looking after him.
      Eventually his shaking stopped and he turned to look at her. She was more than a bit startled to see Avilan's eyes the pure black of an addict coming off a high, but then they shifted back briefly and she remembered to breathe. His eyes should be blue, not my face
      He blinked at the unfamiliar sensation, making them pin He'll probably be doing that for another hour or two at any unexpected stimulus
      The first grey light of true dawn was shown at the window when Arkay finally stirred. Avilan spun around with unnatural speed to take his friend's hands.
      Arkay woke and then shouted "No!" as he looked into Avilan's eyes.
      "Hush." she told him. Holding his head down, "Hush now."
      "Not you, Not you, Avilan." he cried.
      "Tell him, Avilan."
      "Hush, love. Hush." he held Arkay's hands down. "Karola told me everything. Then she ... Then I ... Now I know what its like."
      Arkay was staring, horrified.
      "It was less than a sixteenth, Arkay. That little will wear off completely by this afternoon." she explained. Then to Avilan, to be sure he remembered, "You will probably feel a bit achy later, but that should be the extent of it."
      "I already feel as though I have been pounded flat and left out to dry." Avilan complained.
      "Figures, since you haven't been to sleep yet." she said dryly.
      "I don't feel tired, just off." he grumbled.
      "Normal." Arkay said briefly.
      "What is?" Avilan snapped.
      Karola could feel Arkay's incredible power start to reach out to Avilan but she signaled him to stop. "Avilan, stop and think." she said sharply.
      His head reared back in fury then he froze in wide eyed amazement.
      "Exactly so, Avilan." Arkay squeezed Avilan's hands. "Exactly so."
      "If you don't mind me asking, how do you manage?" Avilan was concentrating so hard on his words this almost came out in a singing tone.
      Arkay's chuckle rasped, "A fair bit of practice and a strong reputation for having a hot temper."
      Avilan grinned, "You always did have a temper, Arkay."
      "Exactly so. No one noticed the change."
      "Karola did." Avilan rebutted.
      "She didn't know me before."
      "Avilan told me so much about you, particularly after we thought you had died, well ... I could see the difference." she shrugged.
      "That and Karola notices everything." Avilan bragged
      "Indeed she does." Arkay gave her a dark look, but a smile lifted the corner of his lips. She grinned back, making him smile fully. Karola really liked making Arkay smile.
      Arkay slid himself into a sitting position, with a great deal of muttering and grumbling about his aching body. She knew it was from the morning and said as much to Avilan's worried look.
      She left the two of them to compare notes. This time Avilan talking freely and candidly to Arkay. Giving the older man the emotional support he had to have to survive. Every once in a while she heard Arkay give Avilan a sharp correction as his emotions ran a bit too high, but other than that, the only other thing she heard was the gentle murmur of male voices. Brewing up the morning tea and generally putting things away she realized she was finally, truly relaxed for the first time since the first night Arkay had joined them. Why is that? she wondered.
      Karola made up three mugs of tea, putting honey in Arkay's, which he now insisted on. She grinned at the memory of his initial protest. Now he demands it she shrugged. Then she realized Arkay would probably always be a bit contrary.
      Handing them their tea, they thanked her then returned to their discussion. Zlinning their fields, she noticed the warm sunlight twining about cool mist feel of them intertwining in incredibly complex patterns. Sitting there sipping her tea, she zlinned the show happily.
     
      The three of them decided it would be for the best to give Arkay a truly spectacular transfer before Karola started short cycling. She wondered if it had already begun, she wanted him so badly already. Forcing herself to sit and stop pacing, she fidgeted.
      "Would you either pace or sit still, love?" Arkay asked her tightly.
      She leapt to her feet and paced the floor again. Avilan had asked both their permission to absent himself for a brief period this morning, and she had consented. Now she wished she hadn't. With a heavy thump she came to rest at Arkay's feet.
      "Sorry about the gracelessness of crashing at your feet." she grumbled about her increasing awkwardness.
      "Your sense of balance isn't keeping up with your body, sweet. Its normal."
      "I'm sick of hearing about normal." she growled.
      "Be glad that's all you're hearing. If this pregnancy hadn't been progressing completely normally, you would be in dire straits by now." his hand stroked her hair.
      His cool touch felt so very wonderful, "How so?"
      "I have tried to deliver twins to a lord before, love." he sighed and his field danced with a flash of sorrow.
      "They didn't survive, did they?"
      "None of them did."
      "Then why did you give Avilan the figures you stated?" she stroked the soft hair on his leg.
      "Because there is always hope, sweet. And because you were so very determined. Both of you. Far more than the previous case I mentioned. She also had some other problems, including not having even a single stable sharm lord to support her." his cool mist gentled her slowly growing desire. "Come to me, love."
      She didn't require a second invitation. Crawling up into his lap, she only complained once about not being able to curl up properly.
      "Hush. Don't wake the babies."
      Automatically, as she did so many times a day, she checked on them again. They were asleep and definitely healthy.
      He snorted at her antics. "Do you do that every time you think about them?"
      "Usually" she did it again.
      This time he actually laughed a tiny bit. "I think you are going to make a fine mother. Most women spend a great deal of their time complaining about all the fuss and hassle, you only grumble about the fact you can't curl up properly anymore."
      "And have gotten clumsy." she sniffed.
      "And have gotten clumsy, relatively." he countered and kissed her head.
      This was decidedly bad aim from her point of view. She tipped her head back and he took the invitation, kissing her as thoroughly and as deeply as he had that first time. Karola hummed in response and tried to shift around to a better position. Holding her still, Arkay kissed and nibbled down the side of her neck. Her head fell back and he nipped at the base of her throat.
      The first she knew of Avilan's return was his warm honey-gold field surrounding the two of them. They both stopped what they were doing and looked at him closely. "How did you get low field, Avilan." she asked him pointedly.
      "Found a stray lord." he grinned.
      "I've heard that before." she frowned, thinking she had been in the same position before.
      "He's off with his friend, another lord." Avilan preened.
      "You didn't." Arkay gasped.
      "Yup, both of them." Avilan chortled gleefully. Then he stretched his arms over his head, bracelets jingling merrily. "It worked."
      "You are bad, Avilan." Karola twitted him.
      "No, I want to enjoy this afternoon with both of you." he said, his deep blue eyes showing his longing to be with them.
      "I love you, sweet." Karola gave in. "Now go entertain yourself for a while."
     
      For the first time in longer than he wanted to think about, Arkay was looking forward to transfer. He let his awareness shift until the world went away and all he knew was Karola in his arms. Watching her dark need reach out for him, he let his own field wrap around her, holding her safe. Drifting between want and wait they balanced there for long moments, simply enjoying their anticipation.
      His body shifted around uncomfortably and he reached out to find out what was off. Something was edging at his mind. It jittered at him and he looked to see Avilan, tense and unsettled. "Avilan, quiet." he told the younger man. "Either that or get out for a bit." Arkay was not feeling particularly politic at the moment.
      Avilan got to his feet, then paced back and forth across the room. Realizing what was eating at him, Arkay gently brought Karola out of her preoccupation. She blinked as her senses tried to return to the real world and he gave her another nudge. This time she made it and looked over at Avilan.
      Arkay didn't want her to get away, so he got up when she did. Not letting her get out of reach was very, very important right now. As long as she didn't protest, he was safe. Karola reached out with her darkness and Arkay had to hold back a growl as his Lord tempted another. He shook his head. It is Avilan he reminded himself not to let his instincts get the better of him.
      "Karola, don't hurt him." Avilan gently reminded her of where her focus should be.
      She reached out to Avilan anyways and gave him a gentle kiss. Arkay felt their contact pull at him. They were so beautiful together, he noticed. Then he had an idea. An idea almost worthy of Avilan's perpetual experimenting with transfer techniques.
      Still maintaining the physical and nageric contact, Arkay slid around them and then ran his hands down Avilan's arms. The warm, soft feel of his friend flared, despite being low field and he automatically reached
for Karola's arms. Deliberately, Arkay let his bracelets jangle against Avilan's, driving Karola into opening up to both of them.
      A white flash of shock flickered across Karola's field. Arkay answered it with his own promise. Avilan, both post, and now, between them, echoing Arkay's need, quivered. Bending down carefully, Avilan kissed her passionately, with need and physical desire combined. Karola's tentacles were trying to figure out where to go. Eventually she managed to seat her laterals on Arkay's arms.
      Perfect Arkay thought as Avilan put his hands, very delicately, over Karola's exposed laterals. The direct contact from both sides threw Karola into the sharpest need Arkay had ever sensed. Before she could draw, Arkay touched his lips to the back of Avilan's neck and flared his field as hard as he could, throwing it to Karola through Avilan.
      With a combination of sheer power and talent, Arkay initiated the transfer, allowing Avilan to share in it by virtue of his being the conductor. Karola drew with voracious speed, only to be urged on by both men giving her the selyn she needed with just enough resistance to drive her higher and higher. Soaring on great wings of the soul, the three of them, together, met over the bottomless black void of need and conquered it.
     
      "Wow" Karola said when they were done. A definite understatement from his point of view. Avilan's neck was far too tempting and Arkay nipped at it, tipping the balance from the incredible transfer to another sort of need entirely.
      Karola's wet laterals retreating between his wrists and Avilan's hands only inflamed Arkay more. With a savage snarl, he tore the tunic from Avilan's body. Freed for an instant Avilan set Karola against a convenient bedpost and entered her in one smooth stroke.
      They shuddered and were still. For a brief moment Arkay was horribly disappointed, then they started up again. Oh yes, this is Avilan here. Seems you've met your match, my old friend. Arkay dropped his robe to the floor and stepped up behind them. Avilan was already soaked almost to the knees.
      He nuzzled Avilan's neck again. Automatically, the younger man yielded a bit to his presentation. Avilan moaned deep in his throat. Its been a while. he slowed the motion of Avilan's hips with his hands. A little bit at a time, teasing him, Arkay worked his way in. With a final thrust he was in up to the hilt and Avilan screamed in ecstasy. "Oh yes, my old friend," Arkay moaned, now driving them both.
      Arkay set the pace now, pulling almost all the way out and then slowly back in. Reaching around Avilan, he grabbed Karola's hips. Holding her open, Arkay pulled her down, trapping Avilan between them even harder. She cried out in yet another orgasm. Arkay moved her body on Avilan, as if Arkay were inside her.
      Avilan was now calling out each time the came together. The voices of his loves spurred Arkay on. Harder and faster they moved together. Until, in one final blazing flash, Arkay stiffened in release, setting them off again to echo him.
     
      Panting, Arkay tried to wipe the sweat out of his face against Avilan's shoulder. This met with a notable lack of success, since Avilan's entire back was slick with his own sweat. Avilan sighed as Arkay softened and slid out. Karola put her feet back down on the floor and she leaned against Avilan's chest, quivering.
      He licked Avilan's shoulder, making the other man shudder again. For a lack of the ability to think of anything better, Arkay let Avilan slide bonelessly to sit on the floor and joined him. Karola's shaky knees got the better of her and she sat with them. They all moved around so they were leaning against the side of the bed together.
      In a tangled heap of arms and legs they individually tried to gather their scattered wits. Avilan leaned his head back and stared across the room with sightless eyes. Arkay wondered if he looked as dazed as Avilan and then saw Karola's beatific smile, probably.
      Then Karola looked down. Arkay quailed. "Me next?" At first he tried to demur, again? Then his groin tightened again and he realized his body had other ideas.
      "After a shower?" he offered.
      "Good idea." she chirped.
      Arkay wondered where she got the energy.
      "From us." Avilan noted. "Shower sounds like a good idea." he commented with a hot look.
     
      Arkay had forgotten entirely how much Avilan resembled a stallion. There were far too many parts of his body, many of which he didn't want to think about, which ached. Someone neatly turned his arm over. Oh yes he thought absently. He hardly even noticed what, it must have been Avilan from the body temperature, did. Most of the aches went away before they could get to a crisis this time. "Thank you." he sighed.
      "No problem." Avilan said, making Arkay giggle. His eyes drifted open and he turned to see Karola sprawled across most of the large bed, dead to the world asleep.
      Out of curiosity, Arkay picked up one of her hands. It was completely limp. "I think we wore her out. As a matter of fact I don't think I have ever seen a Sime so deeply asleep, particularly a pregnant one."
      Avilan yawned, "Looks like a good idea to me." He moved parts of Karola's body over to make room.
      "Does she usually relax this much?"
      "I try for at least once a month." Avilan said with a wicked grin. "Its good for her, I think."
      "From her general state of health, I would agree." Arkay pulled the blankets around them, a bit chilled after all the exertions of earlier. A yawn snuck up on him. He was also completely and totally sated.
      "Good night, love." Avilan waved off the lights.
      "Good night." Arkay kissed Avilan softly. They then curled up together and drifted off to sleep.

      "Now if only I knew who sharm lord Timofey Kitranovich or lord Piyetrov Ivanovich were I could figure out where all the cash went." Arkay growled at the newly reorganized record books.
      Avilan looked up from the quilt he was finishing off for the babies, "Timofey is the loom master at the tertiary estate to the East. Piyetrov was the primary record keeper for Azov. He vanished shortly after Lord Lukian's death. They were transfer partners for a few months." He returned to his needlework. The fine stitching was going quite nicely.
      "What?" Arkay said loudly and Avilan looked up again. Karola even looked up from her book. Arkay's eyes narrowed and he leaned back a bit at the display. "Hmmm... who is, renSime Guard Famir Iltanovich?"
      Without thinking about it Avilan answered, "Young for his position, about five years past changeover. Newly promoted to active duty with the rank of private, has a daughter, about six months old now." He cocked his head at Arkay. "Why do you ask?"
      "Do you know the names of everyone in Azov?" Arkay blinked.
      "Mostly." he shrugged. "Some of the field hands and weavers I might have missed."
      "How did you forget about lord Kila's age?" Karola asked archly.
      Avilan felt his face grow hot and Arkay laughed. "Need" Arkay stated succinctly. Now Avilan's ears were burning. He had done his level best to forget his little slip, although no harm seemed to have come from it.
      "Oh" Karola giggled.
      "Could you come here for a moment, Avilan?" Arkay asked.
      He set down the quilt and walked over to look over Arkay's shoulder at the book in front of him. "Is there something I can help with?"
      "Yes, tell me who these people are." Arkay pointed to a diagram of various names with lines drawn between them.
      Avilan rattled off their names and various relationships.
      "That explains what has happened. Piyetrov was stealing Azov blind of hard cash. Most of these people had contacts with him at one time or another, but without knowing their backgrounds, I couldn't manage to figure out how the whole thing worked. I think we might even be able to track down lord Piyetrov now, thanks to your memory."
      "Oh" Avilan had never thought he had any great intellectual gifts, certainly not like Arkay or Karola with their blazing intelligence and quickness. "I didn't think being able to remember names and faces was all that useful. It wasn't like I didn't make a hash out of the records when I tried to keep them."
      "Actually, you didn't really stand a chance, Avilan." Karola said gently. "Piyetrov deliberately mangled them so his successor couldn't find him when he left."
      He sat down heavily. This was what they had meant when I came back that night so totally drunk I couldn't see straight. "Can we clean it all up now?"
      "With your help." Arkay moved the book between them, "Here ..."
      And for most of the day they worked together to tie off all the loose ends Piyetrov had left to find Azov was actually overproducing selyn by about forty percent over requirements while her weavers and spinners were idle because there was no cash to repair worn out equipment. Karola padded over in her stockinged feet to help them organize a way to get everything put back to rights.
      "I'm going to be busy for the next month or two," she stretched and Avilan reached out a hand to steady her before she overbalanced.
      "No you're not, love." Arkay corrected her, looking quite pointedly at her now vanished waistline.
      "Oh, I forgot." she giggled again. Avilan always liked it when she giggled and tried to get her to do it more often.
      "You forgot you are well over seven months pregnant?" Arkay looked at her dubiously.
      She shrugged, "Well, yes. Other than trying not to fall on my face in the salle, the only other thing I really feel is healthy."
      Avilan caught her zlinning their children again and covered his grin. She was so cute when she did that.
      Arkay shook his head, "Not even any soreness or tenderness with the increasing transfer schedule?"
      "Nope. None." she held out her arms. "See"
      "Is this unusual?" Avilan had to ask. Arkay gave him such a look of shock he didn't know what was going on. "Did I ask the wrong question?"
      "How much do you know about pregnancy and partuition?" Arkay chewed on the end of his pen. This was obviously a much practiced gesture from the state of the instrument.
      "Not a whole lot. Usually I was setting up the new dyes and weaving patterns for the year during the spring." he watched Karola take the pen from between Arkay's teeth, in yet another of those obviously practiced gestures.
      "You didn't tell him?" Arkay yelped at Karola.
      "This is my first time. The only thing they taught us was how not to get pregnant." Karola shrugged and zlinned their children again, making Avilan giggle.
      "Oh dear." he sighed. "Time for Uncle Arkay's lessons on how to breathe," he looked at Karola, "and how not to panic." he looked at Avilan. Arkay then explained, in far greater detail than Avilan had ever wanted to know previously, exactly how it was babies were born. "Do either of you mind if I call Vanya in for an assist?" he asked when he was done.
      "Not at all." Sergei, as Avilan still thought of him, was one of his dearest friends.
      "Certainly not." Karola chimed in.
      "Lets go ask him." Arkay got to his feet.
      "Right now?" Avilan then remembered Sergei tended to keep the oddest hours and headed for the closet.
      "Like this?" Karola put her hands around her bulging middle. Avilan thought she was absolutely stunning. Obviously Karola didn't share their opinion.
      "You're beautiful, love." Arkay told her softly. "My father would most certainly agree."
      "I do." Avilan held her to him for a moment, sensing their unborn son kick at his hands in protest at the disturbance.
      "All right, but I'm not walking." she grinned.
      "Yes you are. The exercise would be good for you. I don't think anyone will bother us on a summer night." Arkay hugged her from the other direction and kissed her softly. Then they all got dressed, at least insofar as Avilan was concerned.
      "You're naked!" Karola protested.
      "Its still warm out, love. I'm not going to bundle up in heavy robes to walk across the city when its still almost twenty-seven degrees out." Avilan looked at her mournfully, exaggerating a bit for effect.
      "No one is going to bother a pair of Sharm Lords escorting a Lord through the streets, love. I refuse to sweat for the sole purpose of keeping some insomniac from getting a show." Arkay told her emphatically.
     
      Although when the stepped outside the town house, where they were staying this year until their children were born, Avilan noticed quite a few people had the same idea. He had never seen so many unrobed sharm lords out of the sharm in his life. They were all well escorted, so he didn't worry about it particularly.
      The moon was bright and almost as full as Karola's belly. Arm in arm they strolled across town. At first Karola shrank away when they passed another household. Avilan preened a bit as he heard yet another jealous comment from another sharm lord about the lucky men. It seems Karola heard some of the comments as well, for by the time they reached Sergei, her head was high and she was looking as proudly around as either himself or Arkay.

CHAPTER 8

      Karola awoke, yet again, in the middle of the night. Both of them are snoring loud enough to shake the walls. she thought in disgust. I must have been really asleep to have not noticed.
      She really had to use the bathroom, again. Grumbling under her breath Karola waddled her way into the room. A contraction hit and she felt a warm gush of water run down her legs. At least it wasn't on the rug, she grabbed the edge of the sink for support. She zlinned her overenthusiastic son's protest at the muscle pressure starting to force him into the outside world. "You're two weeks early," she told him in irritation. Only then did she remember to take a deep breath.
      The far door of the bathroom opened and Sergei poked his head in. "I see you finally woke up." he stated blandly, but with a twinkle in his eye. "When I checked on you earlier I figured you would have woken much sooner than this."
      "They're early." Karola protested. "I'm not ready." she had planned on being able to simply enjoy lazing about with her family for a another couple of weeks. She hissed as yet another contraction hit.
      "How long?" Sergei's hand and field were reassuring against her lower back as he checked the positioning of both children.
      "Three forty two." she was so distracted she forgot to round off so as not to rub her time sense in Sergei's nose.
      Avilan then came bursting into the bathroom dragging Arkay along behind him. His eyes were wide with near panic but at least he kept control over his nager. He was sputtering unintelligibly and finally Arkay clapped his hand over Avilan's mouth to shut him up.
      "Thank you, Arkay." she sighed in relief.
      "You're welcome. Avilan, I taught you the breathing exercises for a good reason as well. Now use them and settle down. She's giving birth, not dying." Arkay's eyes looked a little white as well, though.
      "I recommend if you don't want to deliver here in the bathroom, we'd better move right quickly." Sergei said calmly after Karola recovered from another contraction.
      "But I have to use the bathroom still." Karola protested.
      "Primas" Arkay looked at the ceiling. "No you don't love. It only feels like it." he reassured her.
      "But I do!" she insisted and tried to stomp her foot, but ended up having to settle for tapping her toe so as not to fall over. "Turn around, all of you." for some reason having three men watch her do something so intimate was dreadfully embarrassing at the moment. Particularly, given the current circumstances, it was downright silly. They did as she demanded though, thankfully.
     
      Arkay pulled out the supplies they would require and washed his hands carefully. His father did so as well. *You thinking what I am* Arkay sent.
      *Exactly*
      He whirled to pick up Karola as she bore down and almost threw her into Avilan's arms, "Here we go."
      Vanya, behind him, was balancing the fields with the practiced ease of many, many deliveries. This left Arkay free to concentrate on the purely physical side. "Nine cents already." he called out after checking with his fingers. Whoops, I forgot these were twins the baby's head was crowning.
      Gently he made sure the perineum was all the way back so there wouldn't be any tearing. He checked to make sure Karola wasn't drawing down too much. Good she was leaning hard on Avilan's field but not crashing the way too many lords did. "One more." he told her.
      With a convulsive effort on Karola's part, her and Avilan's son slithered out into his hands. "Now" he told them and while he took care of the cord and handed the infant to his father, Avilan managed to tempt Karola into a good, solid, if not spectacular, transfer.
      "Perfect" Arkay sensed their daughter slide into position with the next contraction. "Almost over, love." He could hear their son make his first wailing cry of protest at being launched into the world so rudely. Now their daughter's head was crowning. "Remember to breathe." he told Karola, noting the slightly higher draw. Karola took a deep gasping breath and then with a grunt of effort their daughter slid into his waiting hands. This one he cleaned off himself after dealing with the cord. He panted at the sheer speed with which everything had occurred. This was like delivering a foal! he took care of the afterbirths and made sure there were no tears or problems with it with such a rapid delivery and was a bit startled to find himself trying to find the hippomane!
     
      After everyone had caught their breath, everything and everyone got cleaned up. Avilan saw to it Karola was ensconced on the bed with a child at each breast. "You did warn me about delivering in the bathroom." she grinned wryly through a rather bemused smile. Avilan thought this was the most incredible experience he had ever had in his life. He so badly wanted to hold one of them but was afraid he might hurt them. They looked so tiny and delicate.
      "I see you listen to my father as well as you listen to either one of us." Arkay said making said individual howl with laughter.
      "You did a great job children. All of you." Sergei told them. "What are their names?" and with that simple question he, as senior medical practitioner present, declared them healthy. For the Rus did not name their children till that time, by tradition.
      Avilan looked down at his daughter, sucking contentedly. He didn't want to take her away from her breakfast. As he watched though, she stopped and closed her eyes in contentment. She was so very, very beautiful. Arkay came over to give him a hand, but instead he let his friend take the child. Although he watched very closely how Arkay managed. Arkay's eyes were wide with surprise, but he gently wrapped the little girl's blanket around her a bit more neatly. "I name thee, beloved daughter, Arkyana Azovanova Azov." Avilan could hear Arkay's breath catch in surprise and then he leaned down and kissed the infant on her forehead.
      Then he took his son, exactly the same way Arkay had, albeit without anywhere near the same confidence and handed him to Sharm Lord Vanya Sergei. "I name thee, beloved son, Vanya Azovich Azov. First in the new line of Azov." He could see the elder Vanya's eyes close over tears of joy at the honor.
      Looking around at all the smiling faces, he suddenly realized something, "I don't know about any of you, but I'm starving."
      Karola laughed and then held her strained abdominal muscles, "Ow"
      "I think the only people who have eaten today are the tiny children." Sergei gave one last fond look to his namesake and handing him back to Avilan. This time he had a shade more confidence. "I'll go down and find the rest of us something to eat." he left the room.
      Young Vanya was so tiny and fragile looking. Surreptitiously he watched Arkay hold Arkyana and mimicked his friend's gestures. Avilan, despite all of Arkay's patient instructions, still was a bit unnerved at how fast everything had gone this morning. "Are most deliveries that, um, exciting?"
      Laughing, Arkay sat to one side of Karola, "Not usually with primas, women who have never born a child before. Most of them get themselves all excited and it takes a while."
      "How did you guess Karola would be so quick?" he sat at Karola's other side, still gingerly trying to really figure out how to hold young Vanya.
      "I didn't." he grinned and tickled Arkyana's chin.
      Avilan laughed, "Good thing I was so wound up when you tossed Karola into my arms. I almost dropped her anyways. Why didn't you tell me how incredible the whole things would be, I mean holding Karola in my arms when she delivered our children?"
      "Because I didn't, and don't, know, firsthand, Avilan." he said heavily.
      "You've never sired a child?" Karola asked in amazement.
      "No" Avilan could see the tears run down Arkay's lined face with the admission. He looked down to see young Vanya's miniature, perfect little fist waving at him. Avilan let him wrap his little hand around his fingertip instead.
      "Next time?" Karola offered and Arkay's head snapped up.
      "You don't have to." he protested.
      "We want to." Avilan seconded Karola. At this point Sergei returned and Avilan figured this would be the perfect time. "Would you stand as witness, otyet?" Avilan called Sergei father for this.
      "I would love to." he replied.
      After a moment, Karola began, "Our home and our hearth are yours, Arkay Sergeyevich."
      "Our love and our lives are yours, Sharm Lord Arkay." Avilan pledged.
      Arkay took a deep breath, "May our futures hold love and laughter, dancing and singing, children and hope." his voice cracked a bit. "For now and tomorrow and all time to come." he completed. Then he managed to free one arm and pull Karola to him. He kissed her soundly. Avilan was afraid he would drop the baby if he tried that trick but Sergei came to his rescue and reclaimed the infant. He leaned forward over Karola when the two of them had finished and gave Arkay a long, tender, passionate kiss with all the hope and promise he could put into it.
     

EPILOGUE

      "Lets eat!" Sergei said, glad he had brought up food intended for a celebration. He was ecstatic to see his eldest son finally find his true home. Vanya had sensed the demon which had taken over his son's life, both the living and the chemical. Death had taken the former after far too long a delay, but he had been helpless to mitigate the effects of either one and could only watch Arkay's decline from a distance. It seemed the wild, headstrong, young Karola had managed a feat which he would have deemed hopeless. There was now no lingering trace to be found in Arkay's body of the drug which had once possessed him and the injuries which he had suffered at Ilya's hand were faded to scars.
      Avilan had also matured enormously from the pleasure bound young man he had once been. Vanya Sergei watched the three of them laugh and play together, both men taking turns feeding Karola choice bits from their own breakfasts. He had seen the scars, both external and internal, which his son would carry for the rest of his life. They were a mere shadow, however, of the fire which had come so close to taking him from Vanya so many times.