What Price Immortality?

What Price Immortality



by


Ann Marie Olson



Story 1999 Ann Marie Olson





CHAPTER 1



      "Come in!" Kirina called out. Of course Diomid scurried under the blankets again, like some kind of oversized ferret. Even after over four years of sharing a bed and the leadership of Sergei, she still forgot how silly he could be about being undressed in front of other people. "Its just my older brother." she grumbled.
      Slowly, with the sheet wrapped carefully around him, he peered dubiously at their visitor. Sighing in frustration, she snipped "It isn't as if he hasn't seen you before."
      "Actually I haven't." Vayer pulled out a chair and sat on it backwards, leaning on the back of it. "I don't even think Nashen ever managed to get him out of all of his clothes."
      From the red of Diomid's face, Vayer was probably right and she raised an eyebrow at her mate. "What is this thing you have about clothes?"
      Diomid was looking carefully at the door frame from the direction of his gaze, "I'm built like a troll."
      Vayer snorted indelicately, "Then I'm surprised Nashen never got your shirt off."
      "Huh?" this made no sense to Kirina at all.
      "Have you seen our father, Arkay, lately?" Vayer snickered.
      Kirina couldn't help but laugh. Sharm Lord Arkay Azov-Fatima had put on over ten kilos since he had permanently partnered with Nashen. "It looks good on him. Karola always complained he was too thin." Then she shook her head, "Of course Avilan has been hitting the dinner table a lot better now that he no longer shares Karola in transfer. I wish there were as simple a fix for another Sharm Lord I could think of." she glared at Diomid for all the times she had to bully him into eating enough.
      "But, I ..." he tried to spread his hands in apology letting the sheet slip off his shoulders.
      Vayer whistled in appreciation. While Kirina could understand why, she zlinned Diomid almost have heart failure before he realized he was being ogled. His face was almost as hot as her hand as she gently made him look at her. "You are beautiful, love. I like looking at you."
      "I could have understood it if it were Kirina keeping you all covered up." Vayer added, not particularly helpfully to poor Diomid's composure. "What I want to know is how you have managed to hide all that under your robes." one of his black eyebrows raised in question as she looked back at him, hoping he would shut up and not embarrass Diomid further.
      "Most people probably think it is simply bulky cloth since I'm careful to never wear anything tight." his deep voice was awash with tension. Trying to keep him from jittering apart, she put her hand on the back of his neck and dug her fingers and tentacles into the tight muscles.
      "You have been cheating all of us poor Simes of the chance to drool over you. Bad man, very bad." Vayer shook his head, laughing. "I don't even prefer men in my bed and here I am staring at my sister's mate. Maybe I shouldn't have been so hasty in turning you down when I was younger." his eyebrows wavered lasciviously. Kirina knew he was joking about actually wanting Diomid, but even still, for a moment she felt a quiver of protectiveness.
      That was until Diomid straightened up letting the sheet fall the rest of the way, exposing his massively developed chest, "Really?"
      Vayer swallowed heavily and Kirina wanted to slap him silly. It wasn't as if he didn't have Darya and a toddler at home to keep him occupied. He cleared his throat, "Um, well ... oh my."
      "You aren't supposed to hide things from me." Vayer mock glared at her after getting himself back together.
      "Mine, my beloved brother." she glared right back at him and wrapped herself around Diomid. Making it very clear he was not available. Resting her chin on his shoulder she stroked the side of her face against his, ignoring the morning stubble to make her point. Actually it felt good and she nibbled at his ear. One of his
hands wrapped around her thigh and she almost forgot about their audience.
      "I'm certainly not going to forget that with the two of you making out in front of me." Vayer was grinning and she stuck her tongue out at him. "Save it for your mate, sis."
      Now she was blushing and tried to hide in Diomid's hair. This would have worked better if it were loose and not braided. "What brings you here when we are still in seclusion?" maybe business would drive him off so she could get back to more interesting things. They only had a few hours left before they could no longer legitimately beg off all non critical business.
      "The reports you asked for on the assay." at once, Vayer was all business. She set herself for possible bad news.
      "No written copy?" she blinked at the irregularity.
      "Not for highly sensitive information, love." Diomid reminded her. Kirina knew he had no way of knowing the specifics of the request, but coming from Vayer it could only have been from the veiled.
      "And this is. Not only the results of the assay but the demand." Vayer got out of the chair and sat at their side. "I don't know any way to make this any gentler, so I'll give it to you straight. There is no way, at this point, of telling conclusively who your sire is, Kirina. Possibly in the future, which brings us to the next point." he sighed heavily. "I have been required to demand you, Diomid, either set Kirina aside for another or at least sire a single viable child in the next five years."
      "What?" Diomid turned on Vayer. Kirina had to hold him back from striking out at her brother.
      "I'm sorry, Diomid. That was the price for the information. Kirina knew it when she asked."
      "But I didn't get an answer." Kirina snapped at him.
      "The closest probabilities they were willing to give were seventy-two percent Avilan, twenty-six percent Arkay and two percent Nashen."
      "Two percent Nashen?" she had to giggle over the unlikeliness of Nashen having even bedded Karola, much less on that fateful night she had been conceived.
      "Not very likely, admittedly, but I can see why they didn't rule him out entirely." Vayer shrugged. Kirina took stock again and realized she did have some traits in common with all three men, not just the two she had grown up calling father.
      "But why are they holding me hostage when they don't have an answer?" actually Kirina had hoped to get out of having to pay the devil's price by the very fact of the difficulty of the task.
      "Because in order for them to know for certain, they wanted to force both of your hands." Vayer said darkly. "At which point they will call the debt truly due and demand either a second child or you separate. I do not much care for their ruthlessness, but I can understand why."
      "I'm glad someone can." she growled.
      "As can I, love." Diomid took a deep breath. "They, the veiled, care little for the intransigence of those of us in the world and simply plan for the future as they see best. Regardless of the cost."
      "I wouldn't say regardless of the cost, but they have to keep the long term in mind." Vayer pointed out.
      "Like I don't!" Diomid growled. "Like I have been squandering my time and energy in running Sergei?"
      "Like it or not, Sergei is only one Demense. Those of us, and with that I include myself, whose responsibility is to Rodina as a whole, can't afford to loose anymore of our bloodlines." this was a side of Vayer Kirina had never seen before. Of course everyone knew he had taken the throne, but he sat in it even more rarely than Arkay had. "Damn it, Diomid. Rodina wants a strong line for Sergei again. With Vanya's squandering the line among over a dozen children and only once willingly taking a mate his equal we are stuck with a surplus of line Sergei who can't knit a bone or set a sprain any better than any lord. You know that as well as I do. Please, it isn't as if Kirina isn't old enough."
      "Silence." Diomid was as arrogant and short tempered as his half-brother Arkay for one brief instant. "I'm sorry, Vayer."
      "I think you two should talk about this." Vayer's eyes were shadowed as she looked into them closely. *You should have told him, Kirina*
      "Like hell!" Diomid snapped and Kirina realized he had overheard Vayer's sending. Vayer raised an eyebrow and then left silently.
     
      As soon as Vayer had gone, Diomid turned around to look at Kirina closely. "You wanted to force my hand."
      "No, Diomid." she protested.
      "Don't lie to me, Kirina." his stomach turned at the way she had abused his trust.
      "I love you, Diomid." her voice quavered.
      "Then why did you set it up to make me have to set you aside." he didn't want to bed anyone else. Diomid knew, though, it would be for the best. "I love you, Kirina and I hate to do this to you."
      "You aren't going to take someone else?" her tentacles lashed themselves around his arms with bruising force and he hissed at the sudden pain.
      "I have to, now you have given me no choice in the matter. If you had let things alone we wouldn't be in this predicament." he tried to pull away and only succeeded in panicking her further. She lunged at him. Diomid let her make lip contact but held the fields as steady as he could not to provoke her further. Kirina couldn't be in need this soon after transfer, but the shock had upset her so badly she was acting like she was.
      Sanity eventually returned to her field and she leaned back, dazed. "There is another solution, Diomid." she whispered. He gasped as an overwhelming mixture of lust and love washed over him.
      "We can't." his body shook as he tried to regain control of the situation. Diomid tried to back away from what he knew she was going to suggest but she held his arms fast.
      "I want to bear your child, Diomid. You've been refusing me for the last two years, beloved." a tear spilled down her cheek. He leaned forward and gently licked it away.
      "Because I don't want to risk you."
      "Don't I have any say in the matter, Diomid?" she snapped. "You kept saying next month, next month. I know its going to be rough. I know we are going to have to ..." her eyes closed briefly, "I know we are going to have to try more than once."
      "State it bluntly, Kirina. We are going to have to kill children so you can save face."
      "No, Diomid. Not to save face. For you." her lashes sparkled with tears. She release her hold on him and curled up into a tiny ball amid the pillows at the head of the bed.
      "Oh gods, Kirina. I'm sorry." he sobbed and pulled her into his arms, still all curled up. Her broken hearted weeping would have made a stone cry. "I don't know what to do. It can't be right to throw away human lives like flawed pottery to get one good one." Still she cried, almost silently in his arms. "I would do anything for you, my love, my mate."
      "Then please, give me this." she looked up at him with her eyes red from crying so hard and he gently kissed them, tears salty against his lips.
      "I don't know if I can, beloved. The cost is so high." he shrank in horror of a parade of broken children begging him for their lives. "I can't be blind to pain the way some could."
      "I'm sorry I asked." she shivered and pulled back into herself. "I guess, to you, it isn't worth the price. I'll go to someone else."
      "No!" he held her long, lithe body to his chest. The idea of someone else touching her, making love to her was anathema. "I can't let you go."
      "You do this every time we get backed into a corner, Diomid." she protested. "First you come up with some wild idea of noble sacrifice and then when I go along with it, you refuse. Make up your mind!" Kirina spat the last four words at him like knives as she glared up at him.
      Rather than answer her with words, he kissed her. Gently at first, he tasted the sweetness of her mouth, now salted with her own tears, and possibly his own. Fear made him shiver briefly. What am I doing? he fretted. Her hot return kiss banished his fears, at least for long enough.
     
      It had been seven and a half, long, tense months when Diomid woke to find Kirina sitting, shivering nervously, at the edge of the bed. "Its happened." he whispered, running his hand lightly down her back. So far, they had only met with disappointment. Diomid prayed like he never had before this would not turn out immeasurably worse.
      "Yes." she said simply and turned to him, eyes wide with fear. If Arkay is her father he knew fear for another like he never had before. Reaching out with his mind he gently caressed the spark of new life within her.
      "I think we should go talk with Arkay." he didn't even dare call him her father out loud.
     
      "Yes, what can I do for you?" Arkay said absently, not even looking up from his bookkeeping. Diomid had been astonished to see all the people going in and out of Arkay's office below while they had waited for a lull in the traffic. Eventually Kirina had grabbed him by the arm and simply inserted them into the flow of people.
      "Arkay!" he said in exasperation at the implied neglect.
      "I'm so sorry." he glanced over at a message an older renGen was waving at him from arms length away from Kirina. "No, I won't sign for half a ton of oranges until the storage rooms are empty enough to take them. Now get out of here." Arkay took the request and sailed it into a box of similar sheets for reuse. "Now, what brings you here?" Yet another, younger this time, renGen tried to get his attention. A bolder one from how close he was willing to get to Kirina.
      "Its, ummm ..." Diomid eyed the young man rocking from foot to foot in frustration. "Why don't you take care of your visitor first?"
      "Because as soon as I clean up one mess, another lands on my desk." but Arkay turned away momentarily and looked at the renGen. "Here." he held out his hand for the document, scribbled on it furiously in red ink and handed it back. "Get someone who can read and write next time." he scowled. Yet another person, a young woman, waltzed through the door.
      "Out!" Kirina barked and the renGen scurried away with almost Sime speed. She sighed and grasped his hand as he tried to back away at her sharp command. "Now, before you get caught again ..." she glared at someone who peered around the door frame who vanished without a peep. "As I was saying ..." she walked over to the door and opened it forcibly. The same young renGen from earlier fell into the room. Grabbing the unfortunate lass by the collar she turned her around, shoved her out the door and closed it firmly behind her. "Now ..." she took a deep breath and paused. Diomid was certain there would be another interruption. "Good, looks like it worked ... Diomid insisted I come to you for an examination."
      Eyes dancing with silent laughter, Arkay looked pointedly at the door, "And may I assume this has something to do with the fact you are pregnant?"
      "Well, yes ..." Diomid took comfort from Kirina's hand in his, "Actually it does. Even though it was against my better judgement."
      "I see." something in Arkay's tone was ominous and Diomid didn't know what to make of it. "You don't want your son?"
      Diomid gasped in shock. "Of course I do. I don't want to risk your daughter." Instinctively, he put his arm around her. She sighed and leaned against him. "What with ..." he didn't know who could possibly be listening and so spread his free hand in supplication.      "Is there someplace private we can talk?"
     

CHAPTER 2



      Diomid had been increasingly difficult to live with since the interview with Vayer last winter. Now, when Kirina wanted to sing and dance with joy for being pregnant at last, every time she turned to him fear laced through his field, stinging her. She knew there might well be problems because of inbreeding, every child of a Lord or Sharm Lord faced that fact from an early age. Frustration with Diomid's inability to cope with the situation made her want to scream at him.
      "Now," Arkay leaned back in an overstuffed chair and laced his fingers over his knee propped up in front of him. "What seems to be the problem, other than the fact that you, Diomid, aren't entirely thrilled at the prospect of becoming a father?"
      Kirina couldn't repress a snarl of annoyance as Diomid jumped to his feet and began pacing. Her father gave her a questioning look. She spread her hands in a gesture of confusion. "You know why, Arkay. You know what the odds are against our having a healthy child."
      "No worse than Kirum siring healthy offspring and he has at least twenty so far." Arkay said blandly, almost making Kirina cheer. She caught his wink and had to cover her mouth against a giggle.
      "He's a horse!" Diomid glared at her father.
      "So." Arkay pointed out. "Maybe three or four hundred years ago it would have been a significant problem but we have been breeding so tightly for so long, most of the major defects were weeded out of the gene pool generations ago."
      "But what about Southerner's Syndrome or Null-Infant?" he referred to the two most common lethals remaining to the Rus.
      "I doubt we have to worry about the first, Diomid." Kirina said with exasperation. "Neither of our families come from the south."
      "That and Southerner's only kills after changeover, not at birth. Admittedly the latter is horrible and I have had to deal with it." Arkay grimaced. Kirina shuddered at the idea of bearing a child to birth to only have it declared non-viable because it couldn't process selyn. "But there is almost no evidence Null-Infant is genetically linked, Diomid. To put it bluntly, I can't think of a single defect which would pass detection past six months."
      "But I don't want to have to deal with even that."
      "Diomid!" Kirina couldn't sit back any longer and let him fume. "Grow up! Even if you don't want your son, I do." Her father's cool mist feeling field wrapped around her protectively. "If you can't cope," she couldn't think of what she would do.
      "We'll take you in, love." her father's voice was gentle.
      Shocked and stunned, Kirina watched her beloved walk out of the room before she could stop him. Running after him she felt herself caught up in someone's arms. Wailing her loss she tried to free herself. "Let me go!"
      "No love. He'll come back ..." her father said with a catch in his voice. "Or not. If you chase him you'll never know if he truly wants you and you'll always wonder if you forced him."
      "Otyet" her heart shattered at his too true words. "I love him"
      "I know sweet, but he has to be free." his hand, so very much like her lover's, gently stroked through her hair. "You do have choices to make, young one."
      "I want this child." she stated firmly, for the first time feeling free to openly zlin the barely started new life. In wonder, she closed her eyes and smiled softly, zlinning as closely as she could the brilliant spark of life.
      "Good. I knew you did and was afraid his fears would make you try to change for him." his field intertwined with hers in way she knew would upset Nashen if he were around.
      "No love, he has never had a problem with my comforting any of my children ... only strange Simes." his soft chuckle relaxed her even further. "Actually, now that Diomid has gone, do you mind if he comes in?"
      "I like Nashen." she grinned up at him. "I thought Diomid did too."
      "He does, but he has a strange sense of propriety and seems to avoid Nashen's company when he is with you." Arkay shook his head sadly. "I don't know how someone so neurotic can be such a good administrator."
      Kirina giggled, "Because when he wants to he can focus like no one else, is far more intelligent than anyone else I know, and ..."
      "Enough, sweet." Arkay laughed and led her back to the couch. "I know you are well smitten with him, still. I don't want to hear the list of his virtues again."
      She curled up in his lap as she had so many times as a child. She would have felt very lost and alone if it weren't for him. Diomid's abandonment of her and their child was distanced by Arkay's gentle touch. "Thank you, otyet."
      "You're welcome, love. Second question though, where do you want to live now?" he waved Nashen over to sit with them as soon as he arrived. Arkay must have summoned him through the strange link they shared. She shivered momentarily with the thought of being as tightly bonded to someone as Arkay and Nashen were.
      "Most of the time its wonderful, Kirina." Nashen turned his beautiful silver eyes to her and answered her unspoken commentary. "Except for when he wheedles eels out of Avilan's cook." Nashen grinned at his mate.
      "I like eels." Arkay protested, aiming a playful blow of his field at Nashen.
      "A hit, a hit, I shall die." Nashen pressed his hands to his chest and mimed falling over dead at the front of the couch. Kirina giggled at Nashen's silliness. Few people ever saw Nashen playing and she cherished the fact she was one of them. Arkay leaned over toward his partner and suddenly Nashen was kneeling, fully upright, facing Arkay. Before Arkay could recover, Nashen had captured Arkay's face and was kissing him enthusiastically. Their field flared as one single entity with the promise of their transfer yet to come lighting the room.
      Shyly, Kirina turned away, not wanting to intrude on their partnership.
      "Hush, little one." Nashen said softly. "I didn't mean to embarrass you."
      "You didn't. I didn't want to be in the way." she whispered.
      "Now, now, Kirina." Arkay tisked. "You wouldn't be blushing if you weren't embarrassed."
      "OK, so I am a little embarrassed, jealous too." she grimaced, but figured the entire truth would be best or her father would have it out anyways.
      "I can understand some jealousy after Diomid walked out the way he did."
      "What!?" blue-white fire flashed before her eyes, making her blink. "Diomid abandoned the mother of his son while she is pregnant." Nashen's forearms were laced with the lightnings of his fury. "I'll kill the bastard!"
      "No, don't. Please. I ..." she shivered at the literally murderous fury in Nashen's field. "I drove him away."
      "Where is he, Alahin?" Nashen snarled, obviously even more furious.
      "Wait Nashen." Arkay said softly, "My beloved Alamir, wait. Kirina is more important."
      "I'm so very sorry, Kirina." all his anger vanished as if it never had been. "Of course Arkay is right. My house is yours, for as long as you wish. Be welcome to the children of Fatima, daughter of my Alahin, as is your right."
      For a long moment she sat stunned, not sure of what to say to Nashen's impulsive promise. Then she realized Nashen almost never did things impulsively, only very quickly. "For now I accept. But ..."
      "But what, love?" his tentacles twined with hers.
      "Please don't hurt Diomid. I love him, truly I do." she pleaded, knowing full well Nashen and Fatima had ways of making things happen to people they hated.
      "For your sake, Kirina. Anyone would abandon a pregnant woman, no matter what their station, can not get my respect, though." he shook his head sadly. "Someone who would abandon a woman who loves him as much as you love Diomid, I suppose, deserves the reward of their own foolishness."
     
      Diomid couldn't even stand to stay in the same suite he and Kirina had shared. Besides, most of the past year he slept in his office, that is when he could sleep at all. "Come in!" he examined the intricate traces the wood made on the bare surface of his desk. Stifling a yawn, he looked up and gaped.
      "I wanted to see how you were doing." Kirina's voice was soft and shy. All her incredible grace hit him with the force of a hammer blow between the eyes. The only thing he could do was stare, drinking in the sight and feel of her. "I guess you don't want me here." she turned to leave.
      "No, don't go." he reached out for her across the desk, almost falling over it.
      "You said that once and I believed you, Diomid." she said softly. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
      "Kirina, love, please." he begged, stung to the core by her words.
      "I still love you will all my heart, Diomid." her hand reached down to her waist in the gesture he had seen so many pregnant women use. He strangled a sob as he noted the timing. The child she currently bore couldn't be his. "No, she's not."
      "Who?" he growled.
      "None of your damn business." her eyes went flat and hard. "You left me."
      "I was wrong." Then he knew, "How could you sleep with Nashen?" He vaulted the desk and shook her by the shoulders.
      "Stop it, right now." her will slammed him back into the heavy piece of furniture. "You have no right to tell me who I sleep with or who I choose to bear a child to. You gave up any rights you had over me the night you walked out on your responsibilities like a little boy who couldn't grow up."
      "Damn it, he could be your father." wood dented beneath his grasp.
      "Could be. Not is, Diomid." she leaned over him. "I refuse to live my life in fear. He is a sweet, kind, loving man. Far more so than you, with all your terrors and worries. If you like I'll give you something to worry about. He wanted to kill you when you walked out on me. Did you know that?"
      "No" more than anything he wanted to hold her, like he had done what seemed like yesterday. "Why didn't he?" maybe I would be better off he tasted the bitter fruit of his actions.
      "Because I talked him out of it." she stated bluntly.
      "You shouldn't have."
      Shaking her head, "You can't mean that."
      "I do." he turned around, bared the back of his neck to her, and put his hands together behind his back. "No more, Kirina." the fine grained wood blurred in his vision. Rather than her taking him, as he had hoped, he felt her arms wrap around his chest. "Don't tease me, please. Just do it. I'm sick of this farce."
      "No love, not when there is so much to live for." her lips against the back of his neck made him shiver.
      "Like what, Kirina? Day after day of books and duties." he tipped his head back so she couldn't tease him further.
      "Like love. Like friendship. Like children and the future."
      He scoffed, "Fine thing for you to say. You didn't ruin any chance for those things by cowardice."
      "Why don't you ever go out of your office, Diomid? I'm sure if you looked you could find someone else."
      "I want you, Kirina." he turned within her arms to look at her. Tentatively he held her in return. When she didn't push him away, as he more than expected, his heart skipped a beat with hope. He held her tightly for a moment, cherishing the feel of her and her daughter in his arms. Memories of their time together overwhelmed him.
      "I'm sorry, Diomid. I truly am." her arms were gently stroking his back. "I can't trust you."
      "I know you can't." he didn't care if she was repelled by his tears and for the first time since he was a child allowed himself the luxury of crying in someone's arms. Finally it stopped. "I'm sorry." he turned away letting her flee in disgust.
      "For?" her hand on his shoulder undid him and he leaned all of his weight on his hands, trying to stay upright. Unable to speak, he shook his head no. There's a full bottle of Halirin ...
      "You can't blackmail me this way, Diomid." there was steel in her tone. "If you want to suicide, it is your right. But remember, you'll leave Sergei leaderless and with no heir, he'll dissolve at your death."
      "Damn you!" he stormed, furious at her reminder.
      "Good. Grow a backbone." her blue eyes flashed in anger. "Grow up, Diomid. Finally. You are what, almost thirty five, and you still want someone to lead you by the hand. I won't do it anymore. I love you too much to cheat you of your self worth."
      "How dare you speak to me of being an adult? You aren't even twenty years old, lord Kirina." he took refuge in his comforting world of rules.
      "You haven't changed at all, Diomid." she shook her head sadly. "Maybe someday." her lips were soft against his and she was gone. Only her scent remained to prove she had ever been there at all.
     

CHAPTER 3



      After having lost Diomid's son at over five months, for no reason anyone could tell, Kirina had been thrown into such a state of depression, even Nashen's wicked sense of humor couldn't cheer her up. "Come on sweet. It wasn't your fault." his silver eyes were gentle and she stroked his long, pale hair.
      "I know that, Nashen." her hand kneaded at her soft middle where her son had lain beneath her heart. "I loved him." finally she could cry. "He was my only chance to bear a child."
      "You could go back to Diomid." Nashen said softly.
      Shaking her head sadly, "No, not after he left and never came back." Nashen's slender strength felt strange under her hands but in some ways he was more comforting than Arkay. There was nothing in Nashen to remind her of Diomid.
      "You could bear a child to another man."
      "Who would have me?" she snorted wryly. Her heart ached at the thought, though. More than anything, she wanted to fill the empty place within her.
      He chucked softly and said "I would." She looked at him in openmouthed surprise.
     
      "Get him out of here!" Kirina snarled as soon as she saw Diomid. Then another contraction hit and she hissed in surprise.
      "He's the best midwife in the Demenses after myself, love." Arkay was being far too reasonable. "Relax." his hand was gentle against her back. Early this morning, the contractions had begun. Kirina felt like she had been walking for hours by the time Arkay had decided it was time to call in an assistant.
      "I don't want the two best midwives in the world if one of them is him." she glared at her ex-lover. After their confrontation in his office, she had done her best to avoid all sight or sound of Diomid. Even his name in a passing reference was enough to make her furious.
      As if he didn't hear her, Diomid calmly walked over and put his hand on her bulging abdomen. Startled by his manner she stood still beneath his touch. Quizzically she looked him over carefully. He obviously hadn't found a transfer partner from the way his clothing hung on him like it had been made for someone even larger and the dark circles under his eyes. There was no sign of it though in his thorough examination. "How long?"
      "Slightly under five minutes, until now." Nashen said quietly, looking intently at Diomid as well.
      "Until now?" he looked up sharply. There was nothing but professionalism in his gaze.
      "Yes, this one has been over six and counting." she said softly.
      "Let Vayer handle the fields, Arkay. I'm in the way." there was only fact in his tone.
      "True" Arkay agreed. "Send him in."
      "Wait" her knees buckled as the delayed contraction hit. As soon as she caught her breath, she looked around to realize no one had moved a cent. "You can breathe." she grinned.
      Diomid took an exaggerated breath, puffing out his chest like a three year old who hasn't been taught to sing yet. She giggled as he crossed his eyes. With an explosive gasp he let it out. "Maybe I can't." his blue eyes twinkled with good humor. "What's the dilation, Arkay?"
      "I can't tell reliably anymore and Nashen is too riled up for me to be able to use his fingers." he spread his broad, now scarred and calloused hands.
      "Sorry" Nashen ducked his head at his mate. "I don't know why I can't relax right now."
      Kirina had to laugh. "Silly goose. Because she's your daughter about to be born."
      "Right, as if I had forgotten." his eyes were loving despite his teasing.
      "On the bed then, since I don't think Kirina is going to be any slower than her mother once she gets going." Diomid winked at Arkay.
      Arkay groaned, "I know she is a bit slower. None of Karola's children were born in bed."
      Kirina leaned back into Nashen's embrace. It felt so very good to not be walking anymore she almost dozed off until the next contraction.
      "A calm one. I would have never guessed." Diomid's familiar hands were gentle. "At least I know we don't have to worry about pelvic measurements." he grinned up at her.
      "You didn't!" she giggled.
      "Of course I did." he blew her a kiss.
      From the feel of them, Nashen and Arkay were enjoying the new Diomid almost as much as she was. "I have to get up." she waved towards the bathroom.
      "No you don't!" Arkay's hand pushed her back against Nashen. "Karola pulled that one on me once. Her daughter isn't getting the chance. Thats why we have towels dear." Diomid snickered. Nashen was confused and his field twisted, making her squirm. "The final contractions often feel like a desperate desire to use the bathroom, which is why so many children are born there."
      "Oh" Nashen's kiss was soft against her cheek.
      "Who's catching?" Diomid asked hastily.
      "Go ahead." Arkay's brow furrowed momentarily in concentration. Kirina felt like a glass wall had come between her and her ability to zlin. She sighed in relief at not having to fight the field gradients. "Better, love?" Arkay asked softly.
      "Much" now that she knew what was going on, she relaxed completely. Tipping her head, Nashen kissed her gently on the lips. "Mmm" she licked at him, asking for more. Lost in the so very sweet caress of his mouth on hers, she savored every moment, well knowing these would be their last and not regretting too much. He had been so very tender, but a bit too sugary for her taste.
      Wrapped up in what she was doing, Kirina was a bit taken by surprise when Diomid said, "Only a one or two more, love." Nashen's hands on her thighs relaxed her again.
      Taking a deep breath she pushed with all her might at the next contraction and felt their daughter's head slide out into Diomid's waiting hands. "Wait" he said suddenly.
      Her father's gentle touch in her mind made her body pant. Surprised and startled at his invasion she didn't think to resist.
      "All right" Diomid said softly, almost sadly.
      Confused for a moment Kirina made the mistake of looking into her father's face. It was dead white. "NO!" she howled with the final contraction.
     
      Cold wind chilled the sweat on his body as Diomid finished digging the tiny grave. So very many of them he looked at the neat rows of the nameless dead of Fatima. All of them with but two things, a single date and whether boy or girl. Yet another tiny, almost perfect, little girl would lie here beneath the sod tonight. That one small imperfection had murdered her. Unable to stand it anymore Diomid fell to his knees, tears watering the dark earth.
      "Don' ye be 'fraid to weep fer the living, m'Lord." an old woman said from behind him. He turned in astonishment to see a wizened old renSime looking down at him.
      "Don't you mean to cry for the dead?" he asked heavily.
      "No, they don care none, m'Lord. Ye'll be gettin back te yer lady. Love her, m'Lord. Make her ferget." she turned away and assiduously began raking among the tombstones.
      Diomid couldn't bring himself to condescend to offer the formal words of dismissal and so pretended they had never talked. But her words never left him.
     
      Kirina stared ahead of her blankly as she walked down the leaf strewn path between Arkay and Nashen. Even when the wind blew her hair directly into her eyes, she didn't even blink. The tiny bundle she held in her arms was horrificly still. Finally they came to stand beside the grave site. Before Diomid could look away, Nashen uncovered the face of their daughter one last time. The memory of the life going out of the child's luminous silver eyes tore at Diomid's composure. There had been nothing anyone could have done, but he still wanted to blame something.
      Momentarily, he wanted to ask Nashen why he had done this to Kirina but couldn't intrude on the other man's overwhelming grief. In silence, other than the rustle of dry leaves and the whisper of the wind, they laid to rest yet another nameless child of Fatima. Still, Kirina didn't seem to respond, dumbly going through the motions of living. Unaware of anything but the rapidly darkening sky, Diomid finished refilling the grave.
      Setting his tools aside, hopefully forever, he looked up to see Nashen standing opposite him.
      "I have something to show you." Nashen's voice was hardly louder than the wind.
      Diomid shook his head in refusal. He couldn't deal with any more of this.
      "Come." Nashen's hand was irresistible. Stumbling slightly, he turned to follow. There was another tiny marker, from the same year Kirina had been born. Then another, a few years later. Again and again, six in all, four boys and now two girls. Diomid knew they could only have been Nashen's from the dates.
      "How can you do this?" Diomid cried at the waste of human lives. "You have what, three living children in how many attempts?"
      "Only two now." Nashen looked towards the main section of the graveyard briefly. "Of nine."
      "How, Nashen?" he couldn't think.
      "Love, Diomid. I loved them all." Nashen pointed him towards another stone. This one from this year.
      With a strangled cry, Diomid knelt before the marker and touched the date. My son great wracking sobs tore his throat. He had never even touched the child's mind for his own selfishness in abandoning Kirina. Not even the tiny comfort of having once known him was Diomid's. "What was he like?" he asked as soon as he could speak again.
      "He loved life, Diomid. Curious, cheerful." Nashen's voice broke.
      Shivering in the cold, Diomid looked up into Nashen's silver eyes, so very much like his daughter's. The similarity shook him. "Why?"
      "We don't know. Kirina woke one morning and he was gone." Nashen's hand burned on his shoulder it was so much hotter than his own bare skin. "We were afraid she was going to follow him. So I offered ..." he shook his head and pointed to the new grave.
      "If you knew the risk, how could you subject her to it?"
      "She knew it as well, Diomid." like a vise, Nashen's hand clamped on his shoulder. "There is an area like this within the walls of all the Demense. While Fatima's is largest because we remember those who die before birth, hers is not that much larger than the least."
     
      There was no recognition in Kirina's eyes as they returned to suite occupied by the Fatima household. Diomid shivered with more than cold as he recognized the danger Kirina was in. When her daughter had failed to make the final selyn draw from her mother, Diomid's only concern was to be certain it wasn't simply an accident because of the easy birth. When the little girl had died in his hands, Diomid had only thought of how horrible it was to loose a child so young.
      Now Kirina was hovering on the edge of attrition from all the events of the day and didn't even look at him as he tried to attract her attention with his field. Arkay looked up at him pleadingly. Because of his bond with Nashen, Arkay couldn't give transfer to anyone else, and even with Kirina in his arms was helpless to stop her descent.
      "I don't know what I can do, Arkay." he hurried over to take the young woman in his arms. It was like handling a large doll.
      "I had hoped the funeral would help bring her back." Arkay said softly, taking Nashen's hand.
      "Good thought, but I can't find her anywhere." carefully he arranged Kirina's limbs so he could get to her forearms.
      "Neither can I." Arkay said sadly. "Its like she's already gone but her body is still alive."
      This gave Diomid an idea. "Do either of you have a sharp knife?" Arkay hissed in surprise. Nashen handed him a tiny, razor sharp blade from the two he always seemed to carry with him. "Thank you."
      "If she's actually dead, it won't do any good." Arkay protested.
      "I know." Diomid said calmly, preparing himself. After a quick breath, he cut two long slices in the outside of his forearms. Kirina writhed madly in his arms, trying to get away! "NO!" he screamed and turning his hands over, cut his wrists to the bone. The knife clattered to the floor.

CHAPTER 4



      Still dazed from one of the best transfers of her life, Kirina heard Diomid whisper, "I love you." His eyes were almost grey before he closed them. Her handling tentacles were as wet and slick as at her changeover. Looking down she saw them covered in blood. Without thinking about it she clamped them around Diomid's arms. Bone and tendon showed through the gaping wounds on his wrists. The crimson flood slowed, but simple pressure couldn't close such massive cuts in time.
      Even projecting need at him couldn't overcome the damage fast enough, not as low field as he was after transfer and with so many months of poor diet and lack of sleep behind him. No more she couldn't lose him after she lost his son and Nashen's daughter. With a strength she hadn't know before, Kirina pulled the wounds closed with her will and knitted the broken flesh with the power of her mind alone.
      When she was done, he was white from blood loss and nearing shock, but no longer on the edge of death. Frantically she looked around for something to keep him warm besides her own aching body.
      "Here, love." Nashen held out his arms to take Diomid from her.
      "No. Can you get me a blanket?" then she saw one on the bed and savagely yanked it off and brought it to wrap around both of them. Nashen skittered out of the way of the animate bedding nervously.
      "You haven't been around Karola in a hurry much, have you?" Arkay asked softly.
      "No" Nashen eyed the blanket nervously.
      "Although we now know who your father is, Kirina." Arkay was looking at her strangely. "I am."
      "Oh" she gently stroked Diomid's face. He sighed as he came back from unconsciousness to simple slumber in her arms. "I healed him, didn't I? He didn't heal himself."
      "I carry Sergei as well, Arkay, through Tzanir's mother and her sire's father."
      "Avilan doesn't." Arkay snipped. She couldn't help but grin at the sheer annoyance in Arkay's tone. "Well, we have narrowed it down to two, one of whom is very unlikely. I wish there were a test for genotype as well as phenotype." he lamented.
      "What's the difference?" Nashen asked softly.
      Kirina stared at Nashen dumbly for a moment, completely stunned by his not knowing such an obvious thing. Arkay supplied the explanation, "Genotype is the actual genes an organism carries, phenotype is how those genes are expressed in the organism."
      Nashen snorted inelegantly, "I can test to see if someone carries the recessives for Fatima."
      "What?" Kirina and Arkay said in unison, loudly enough to wake up Diomid. Immediately her entire attention was on him. "Love, love. You shouldn't have ..." her mind shyed away from thinking of the horrible blackness waiting for her. Instead she held Diomid's wrists to her chest. "Why did you try to suicide?"
      "Because it was the only way I could reach you." his entire body shivered and she wrapped the blanket more tightly around them, trying to warm him better. "Better you than me." he said softly.
      "Don't start that." she tried to push him away in disgust, but her arms couldn't quite get the strength.
      "I'm sorry love." he said tensing his body, but not looking away. Without flinching he met her wondering gaze. Wanting to make sure it was really Diomid, she took his face in her hands. Rough stubble greeted her touch, the same she had felt every morning and evening for much of her life. This time though, he didn't try to pull away, even when she zlinned him thoroughly. Exhaustion and a ravenous hunger were shown by her ruthless probe, but none of the shifting slyness which had so marred Diomid's character.
      "Kirina." Nashen said sharply, probably at her bad manners.
      "Its fine, Nashen. I don't mind." Diomid said solidly, if obviously wearily.
      "Now, before you start acting any more like your older brother..." Nashen's eyes twinkled, "Which would you prefer first, bath or food?"
      "Me, act like Arkay?" Diomid sniffed loudly.
      "I think I've been insulted." Arkay said loftily, winking at his mate.
      "I know you've been insulted, maya otyet." Kirina forced her voice to cheerfulness, trying to override her growing physical discomfort. "For myself, I think bath."
      "You should eat as well, love." Diomid reminded her unnecessarily.
      "I'm not hungry." she hunched her shoulders, trying to ease her aching breasts.
      "I don't care." his nose was almost touching hers as he snapped out the words.
      "Oh..." she looked up at him from under her lashes, hoping he wouldn't get too forceful with her. "After bath?"
     
      Finally as clean as she figured it was as possible to get, she leaned back in Diomid's arms with a sigh. His familiar touch was reassured her at least one thing remained constant in her life. "I missed you."
      "Willing to give me another chance?" he asked softly.
      "Now" she held his hands around her ribs. Gently, she moved them up to help support her breasts, which were threatening to explode. Carefully not thinking about why she had this problem, she relaxed as he cupped them. "Thank you, love."
      "I'm sorry ..."
      "Don't" she shook her head. "Its still too fresh in my mind." she shivered as the memories of hopes and dreams she had for her children threatened to overwhelm her again. The imagined cry of an infant caused her to whimper as the blackness came for her again.
      "Who is that?" Diomid said suddenly.
      Kirina sat up at his words. The cry was repeated. She jumped to her feet and ran out of the room, not stopping for a towel. Stopping on the threshold, she felt Diomid place a warm towel around her shoulders.
      Her brother, Vayer, was standing there, holding a tiny infant in his arms. "Poor little one." he cooed to the child he held. The youngster was not to be distracted by a male and howled even louder. As if sleepwalking, she made her way to them with her hands out.
      Gathering the baby to her, she rocked the youngster gently. Diomid's arms encircled them and held them close. As she had seen her mother do so many times, she brushed the side of the child's face with her nipple. The youngster quieted and then enthusiastically latched on and began to suckle. Brilliant silver eyes looked up at her. "Who is this?" she whispered in shock.
      "My granddaughter, Tzanya." Nashen said softly.
      "Her mother?" Kirina didn't want to steal another woman's child, although for a moment she seriously contemplated the idea.
      "I've never seen her nurse so well." Nashen whispered in place of an answer.
      "Certainly not from her wet-nurse." Vayer said with more than a trace of disgust. Kirina looked up at him in surprise. Rarely did her brother let his feeling show in either his field or his voice. "She couldn't get rid of the mite fast enough when I finally tracked her down."
      Now Kirina understood. She knew Nashen had recently lost a daughter, but not why or how. It was considered bad luck to tell an expectant mother about a woman who had died giving birth. "She doesn't look very old." she let Diomid steer them to the couch. Without missing a beat, she sat down and shifted Tzanya to her other breast.
      "You do that like you've been nursing children for years." Arkay's voice had a cheerful lilt to it.
      "I watched mother." she waved her field at him since she didn't want to disturb Tzanya.
      "She's almost five months." Darya said quietly.
      Tzanya looked barely two, she was so tiny. "Poor little girl." she smiled softly at the youngster. "Did no one feed you?"
      "Only milk, not kindness." Vayer said heavily. "I'm going down tomorrow and making certain none of the other children in the care of the sharm have been neglected the way Tzanya had been."
      "From the look of her, do it tonight. I'll go with you." Arkay said darkly. With one broad finger he delicately stroked the side of Tzanya's face. The little girl was oblivious to all the attention but for the almost audible thrum of pure pleasure. "She wouldn't have survived much longer, Nashen. Maybe another month at the most."
      Kirina looked up again at the dark flare of Nashen's horror. "She would have died?"
      "Infants can die of neglect, Nashen. Even if they have plenty of food." Arkay repeated the words he had told her so long ago when she was a child.
      "Go" she hissed. "Go now!"
     
      "You want me to do what?" Diomid couldn't believe Sharm Lord Arkay Sergeyevich Azov-Fatima, the most influential, if not the most powerful anymore, man in Russia would make such a ridiculous request.
      "I want you to assist Kirina's lying in." he said calmly, propping one ankle up on its opposite knee. "It isn't a ridiculous request, Diomid. You've changed in the past months."
      Steepling his hands in front of him on the desk, "Even if I have, she'll have nothing to do with me." Diomid had given up any hope of ever convincing Kirina to return to him. But, as he had finally figured out, life does go on. Births and deaths, skinned knees and a renSime sneaking into the sharm, even Sergei wouldn't pause in his course, and so Diomid had learned to cope. "How is she?" he couldn't help but ask, the image of her joyous blue eyes haunted him.
      "Short with everyone and awkward, but thats to be expected." they shared the smile of all midwives when dealing with a woman late in term and her vagaries. "Although Kirina isn't at risk, particularly, she is bearing a Fatima daughter."
      "I haven't studied Fatima much. Is there something I should know?" Diomid didn't know why he was getting himself dug in even deeper, when he should be going back to work.
      "Like Kirov, Fatima has viability problems." Arkay's intent stare made him feel like a child who has not studied his lessons.
      Diomid braced himself, "How can I help?"
     
      Now the worst had happened and, Diomid hoped, was past. Tzanya should recover from the neglect she had suffered with attention and love. Both of which Kirina supplied with an unrestrained joy which was wonderful to watch. Tentatively he let his hand curl around Kirina's hand supporting Tzanya's head. Tentacles twined with his fingers, accepting his touch and holding him fast.
      "Greedy little girl." she murmured softly. "I might have a little more for you." but before she could get Tzanya transferred over, Tzanya yawned hugely, showing all six of her teeth and fell soundly asleep. He could feel Kirina's silent chuckle against his chest. "I wish my brother's family weren't so tidy."
      "Let me get you something more than a towel to wear." he nuzzled her neck.
      "You zlin like you don't want to move, love."
      "I don't" he suppressed a shiver with the chill of the room. Kirina was hot against his front and he soaked up her heat.
      "I'm starving." she said with some surprise.
      Diomid laughed softly, "Clothes and food." Gently, he disentangled himself and went to the closet.
      "You don't have to do them in order." her stomach growled loud enough he could hear it across the room.
      Without looking closely, he grabbed a heavy quilt off the shelf in the closet and wrapped it around Kirina's shoulders. "Would you please have dinner sent up, for eight?" he opened the door and asked the renSime guard.
      Her spear clattered to the floor and she stared. For a moment, Diomid couldn't figure out what was disturbing her. Eyes unfocused, she licked her lips like a cat begging for cream. "So sorry," he ducked mostly behind the door.
      The guard shook herself and backed up a step. "Food, right." she bent down to pick up her spear as her partner snickered loudly.
      "Don ye be mindin her, m'Lord. She's jes post as shen right now, an' ye comin' outa nowheres like ye did, without not a stitch on, made her ferget her duty fer her cunt." the older renSime actually managed to say this without a trace of embarrassment, even though Diomid saw him eyeing him speculatively as well.
      Trying to salvage at least some of his dignity, "Be well and do your duty."
      "At yer will, m'Lord." she said hurriedly and bolted. I hope she won't forget the food he closed the door to the other guard's wink.
      As soon as the latch snicked shut, Kirina laughed heartily. "The zlin of her field! I think if the other guard hadn't been there you might have gotten pounced on."
      "From the look of his trousers, she wasn't the only one who was post." Diomid chuckled and shook his head. "I can't help but feel a bit flattered though."
      "As you should be, sweet. You are a gorgeous man, when you aren't trying to hide behind every piece of furniture in the room." her field was rock steady and he knew she was telling the absolute truth as she saw it.
      "However, right now I am cold." he burrowed under part of the quilt, careful not to touch her with the part of his body which had gotten so chilled. She was having none of this and he gasped as it felt like her touch burned. Too many years of curling up with Kirina in winter tugged him back into old familiar patterns. Soon he was warm and dozing off, content as he had ever been.

CHAPTER 5



      Kirina waved the lights down to a dull glimmer. Resisting Diomid's snoozing trying to draw her under as well, she yawned so hard her jaw cracked. Realizing the effort was futile, she rested Tzanya against her chest carefully and leaned back into Diomid's embrace.
      The next thing she knew was muzzily protesting as someone tried to steal her child. "No" she rubbed her cheek against Tzanya's. "Mine" her tentacles fended off the grasping hands.
      "Wake up, Kirina." the warm honey gold field she knew as Avilan's tickled at her gently. "Karola isn't going to steal your daughter."
      "She isn't really mine." Kirina reluctantly let her mother take Tzanya. With all the noise and fuss, Tzanya woke up. She took one look at Karola and squirmed, reaching back for Kirina. Frustrated at not getting what she wanted, Tzanya howled loudly enough to break glass. Diomid snorted and was jarred awake, his field in such disarray at the sudden noise everyone else flashed into fight mode momentarily.
      As Karola handed the infant back quickly, she looked in surprise at Tzanya, "She's too old. What happened?"
      When Kirina's hands touched the youngster, she quieted instantly. In the background she heard Arkay explain to her other parents what had happened today. Not wanting to think about it, she focused on Tzanya. The little girl tried to grab one of Kirina's tentacles and stuff it in her mouth. "No teeth" she pulled the appendage away and tapped Tzanya on the nose gently with another. Silver eyes widened in surprise at the correction. Then, far more gently, Tzanya grasped a tentacle and tried swinging it around. "Imp" she grinned, weakly pulling at Tzanya's hand, being sure the child could still hold on. Sniffing the air, "I think I had better get up. Tzanya wants to be changed and I think I might smell food somewhere it can't run away from me."
      "Here, I'll take her." Nashen offered his hands and Kirina gave him the child.
      "Why doesn't she get upset when you take her?" Karola looked decidedly annoyed.
      "She's actually my granddaughter, not Kirina's daughter." Nashen shrugged. "Often infants who show the Fatima complex as strongly as Tzanya does, don't take well to those who are not of the line."
      "Does that mean I am actually your daughter?" Kirina asked. Diomid's arms tightened around her.
      "Probably, but I would still like to test you first." Nashen shook his head. "I knew there was a chance you were, but I didn't think ..."
      "It's past Nashen." Diomid said unexpectedly. "Although it does explain the problems you have been having, love."
      "True enough." particularly after the time she had spent here at Fatima, with her reticence to talk about such things and her very strong protectiveness towards all children. "What is the test?"
      Nashen handed off Tzanya to Vayer. This seemed to be close enough for her, although she looked back at Kirina briefly, as if to be sure mom was still nearby. "I don't want you touching Diomid, since I know he isn't Fatima." he held out his hands to her.
      Nervous at this precaution, she took his hands. They twined tentacles as if for transfer, but rather than extending his laterals, she felt the crawling feeling of electricity trace over her arms. "Relax" he whispered. As soon as she did so, she moaned as the itching almost painful sensation transformed to a glorious flash of heat and light. Reaching out for more of it, she felt herself gently shunted aside. "No, love. No more, my daughter." he told her. She whimpered in denial of the incredible potential he had shown her. "Easy sweet." Kirina looked up to see blue fire fade from Nashen's eyes.
      "Now I know why you don't test indiscriminately." now she yearned for the thing she could never have.
      "Most people don't feel a thing or it stings." his tentacles left traces of static as they slid across her arms. "Arkay, if you would?"
      "I can." Diomid said softly, making Nashen look at him curiously. "I did live as your partner for over a year, Nashen." Then Diomid's hands grasped her firmly by the upper arms. There was a tiny pop and the hair on her body finally decided to settle down again.
      "At least we finally settled that question." Arkay said with a wry smile. "Congratulations, Nashen. Now are Kirina's eyes going to shift back to blue or will they stay silvered?"
      "You and your curiosity, Alahin." Nashen laughed. "They'll probably change back, unless she grabbed me even harder than I think she did."
      "Do you mean I might have enough of the Fatima complex to control lightning?" Kirina was startled at the thought she might have been changed to such a degree by the simple test.
      "Not to control it love. If you were desperate you might be able call lightning, but you don't have enough for complete control. Thats why you weren't born with silver eyes." Nashen helped her to her feet and put a robe around her. "The change is caused before birth by the unusual way the Fatima nervous system deals with selyn and electrical energy. You probably will be able to help Tzanya when she reaches adolescence, though."
      "Aren't you going to want her to stay at Fatima?" she didn't want to give her up, but also didn't want to separate Nashen from his granddaughter.
      "She should stay with her mother, Kirina." Nashen said as Kirina picked up the child again.
      Kissing her and nuzzling her tiny little nose, Kirina was lost again in the wonder of Tzanya's bright response to her. Laughing as the little girl pulled her even closer, she rubbed her cheek against Tzanya's face. Tzanya chirped brightly, grabbing Kirina's hair. "Don't pull" she gave Tzanya a finger to play with instead.
      "You should eat too, love." Diomid's hand against her back brought her back to awareness there were other people around.
      "I think in peace." Avilan laughed.
      "No, please stay." Kirina tickled Tzanya under the chin. "I don't want to get too attached to her."
      "Too late, love." Arkay said lightly.
      "Then when I have to give her back ..." she didn't want to think about it.
      "From the looks of you two, you are as much her mother as if you bore her, Kirina." Nashen said softly. "Please, if you are willing, keep her and raise her as your own."
      "Yes, oh yes," she bounced Tzanya in her arms and the child laughed as delightedly as her new mother.
     
      Diomid wasn't entirely certain, at first, about taking over a month off from running Sergei. After a week of child care, for they had also ended up with Tzer and Aliana as well as Tzanya, he didn't want to go back.
      "You look happy." Kirina laughed as he felt Tzer playfully tugging at Diomid's hair to get his attention.
      Kneeling down so Tzer could whisper in his ear, "Are you going to stay with us like Arkay did?"
      "No little one." he had to hug the lad at his crestfallen look. "But we will visit a lot."
      Aliana ran over and glued herself around his arm, "Please stay?" In desperation for ideas, Diomid looked up at Kirina. *I don't want to tell them no*
      *Softy* she grinned. With Tzanya on her hip she knelt down with the other children. Diomid marveled again at her incredible grace. Tzanya giggled at the ride. He crossed his eyes at the baby and she laughed, high and shrill. She was an absolutely delightful child. Never before had Diomid spent anywhere near this much time with an infant, and even with his lack of experience, he knew Tzanya was unique. "We'll be staying for another whole three weeks, Aliana. Then maybe, you can talk your parents into coming and visiting with us for a while."
      *You are bad, setting them against their parents* he laughed silently, overjoyed at her implied promise to stay with him when he went back to Sergei.
      "Now you two scoot," she looked towards the door and he saw their afternoon tutors waiting patiently. "I want to hear all about your lessons when you come back."
      "Math is soooo boring." Tzer complained.
      "I don't want to learn to read and write and figure. The renSimes don't got to do things like that." Aliana looked up at him stubbornly.
      "They don't get to learn those things, Aliana. Its a special privilege to be Vayer's daughter and you have to work to deserve the good things that come with it." Diomid told her.
      "I'm not Vayer's, why do I have to put up with it. Algebra, yuck!" Tzer groused. "I want to learn how to fight and to trade like my dad, Nashen."
      "My dad's better than your dad." Aliana gave her half brother a big juicy raspberry, making Tzanya squeal with glee and clap her hands together.
      "You stay out of this," Kirina laughed at Tzanya. "Now Tzer and Aliana, you both have to learn the same things."
      "Vayer knows how to fight and trade just as well as Nashen. And I know he had to learn all of his math, I taught it to him." Diomid ruffled Tzer's silver laced black hair.
      "That don't mean I have to learn to read." Aliana complained, stomping her foot. "I don't care what happened years and years and years ago. Its boring!"
      "Do you like sharm tales?" Kirina asked unexpectedly.
      "Yes!" they both caroled.
      "Well, history is just written down sharm tales that really happened."
      "But they have all that icky, smooching stuff." Vayer looked up at both of them dubiously. "Like you two do when you think we aren't looking." Diomid felt his face grow hot in a blush and saw Kirina's cheeks turn Kirov red.
      "Besides, I don't wanna go with them. I wanna stay here with you!" Aliana looked up at him determinedly, so very like Vayer had done at her age. Although his Russian had always been impeccable, unlike Aliana's occasional slips into sharm grammar.
      "You teach me my algebra." Tzer looked at him challengingly, as if to dare him.
      "Not if you are going to make demands in such a rude tone." Diomid narrowed his eyes at the lad, letting Tzer know he had overstepped his bounds.
      "Please, mat'. I would like to learn to read from you." Aliana curtseyed as elegantly as her still very short legs would allow. The entire effect was spoiled by the glare she gave her brother afterwards.
      "Spoiled little boys and girls don't deserve special teaching." one of the tutors sniffed.
      Tzer stiffened then hung his head. In unfeigned reluctance he turned towards the younger lord who was twining her tentacles in impatience. Aliana let him go and looked up at the old, wizened sharm lord who looked like he had been sucking on a lemon for the past twenty years. Even Tzanya looked at the newcomers dubiously and then hid her face against Kirina's side. *I think its unanimous, I don't like them either* she sent acerbically.
      "Out!" Diomid commanded, so irritated he forgot to moderate his field. The woman bounced off the door frame in her attempt to escape.
      The older man looked at him reprovingly. "Arrogant bastard." he muttered under his breath as he turned to leave. "Going to spoil those children."
      "If you're going to insult me, do it to my face." Kirina growled and suddenly the sharm lord found himself facing Kirina in a fury and not two small children. Even holding Tzanya, she was an impressive woman. Or perhaps even more with the little girl, since Tzanya was cheering her mother on, obviously thrilled at the excitement.
      "If there were not children present I would tell you what I think of your high handed dismissal of myself and my partner." he looked down his nose at Tzanya.
      "You say one explicit wrong word about any of the children of Fatima and I'll have your hide in the salle, sharm lord Fatima."
      "I'm not one of these barbarians of Fatima with their superstitious nonsense. Sharm Lord Darya herself asked me to move from Kirov to teach her children the rudiments of real history and Russian tradition while she was gone. I'll be having words with her this evening about your casual dismissal."
      "Do that." Diomid glared at him, holding the two youngsters to himself.
      However, as the door slammed shut behind the arrogant twit, all three of the children set up such a racket he couldn't make heads or tails of what they were saying. "One at a time!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs. Even Tzanya stopped and stared at him. "Now..." he said into the ringing silence, feeling a bit self concious with the way everyone was staring at him. Kirina mimed cleaning out one of her ears, making everyone laugh. "Kirina is as good at math as I am."
      "Better, actually." she grinned, giving Tzanya a tentacle to play with before she got excited again.
      "And I am a fairly decent story teller."
      Kirina snorted in disagreement, "Hardly, you're one of the best in Russia." Both Tzer and Aliana looked up at him with big, pleading eyes.
     
      Diomid had forgotten how wonderful afternoon naps could be. He cracked one eye open to see Kirina and Tzer cheerfully debating whether or not a number divided by zero was infinity or meaningless. Aliana was curled up into a little tiny ball against his chest. When she had gotten cranky over her lessons, Kirina had set both of them to nap, much to Diomid's surprise. Careful not to disturb the sleeping child, he slithered out from behind her and tucked a blanked about her. Tzanya was actually sleeping quietly for once, despite her mother's heated argument with her nephew right over her head.
      "Feeling better?" Kirina turned to him after he kissed her soft skin. He would miss it when her hair grew so long he couldn't easily access the nape of her neck.
      "Much" Diomid stretched, luxuriating in the feel of his muscles tensing and then relaxing. A few joints popped here and there.
      "Will I look like that?" Tzer's eyes were huge.
      Kirina chuckled, "I'm afraid not, Tzer. Neither of your parents are very big."
      Tzer looked disappointed, "But he's so pretty."
      "The word is handsome." Kirina grinned at Tzer. "Your uncle Avilan and aunt Karola are pretty."
      "As are you, beloved." he thought she was even more beautiful when her eyes had returned to their normal, gentle sky blue. The brief period in which they had been silver had greatly disturbed him.
      *You're besotted, love* Kirina sent with a mental caress.
      *With you* he stroked her back.
      "Mushy stuff." Tzer grimaced. "You're as bad as my dads."
      "You'll learn eventually." Diomid told the boy.
      "Just as long as I don't have to do it." the look of disgust on Tzer's face was priceless. Diomid couldn't help but laugh, setting off Kirina. Of course, Tzanya woke up at the noise, starving as usual. Before she could get together the sense to howl and wake up Aliana, Kirina offered her a breast. Tzanya fell to as if she had never eaten before in her life.
      Absolutely fascinated, Tzer tentatively reached out to mother and child. "I only dimly remember mother with Aliana." he whispered. When Kirina readjusted Tzanya so she could get a better hold, Tzer yanked his hand back.
      "Its all right, just don't startle her." Kirina said softly. Slowly and carefully, Tzer stroked the side of Tzanya's face. Her eyes followed his hand, even while she enthusiastically applied herself to her meal.
      "She's so soft and tiny." his voice was breathy. "Neat" he grinned and Tzanya's eyes lit in an answering smile before they closed to concentrate on eating. There were few things more beautiful to Diomid than a nursing child, other than the tender smile on their mother's face.
      "Someday you'll have at least one of your own." Diomid told the lad.
      "I think I would like that, even if it does mean I have to touch a girl." the way he said the last word made both Diomid and Kirina chuckle.

CHAPTER 6



      Whole hours now passed when Kirina managed to forget Tzanya was not truly hers and what had happened to her own children. She valued Nashen's gift of his own grandchild far more than she could ever hope to repay. But while Tzanya was far more wonderful than she could have imagined, there were still times in the dead of night when cried for what could have been. Never again she vowed Tzanya would be her only child, as she would never dare bear again.
      "What is it little one?" Nashen's lightning struck field was dimmed as he came into the darkened room she shared with Diomid and Tzanya.
      "Nothing, otyet" her calling Nashen father after having tried to bear him a child seemed decidedly odd to her, but it was yet another thing she was coming to grips with in her life.
      "Liars will be stuffed with lemon pastries till they pop, Kirina." he jested with her. "Seriously though, I know you still hurt and have not had someone to talk with. Would you rather Arkay?"
      "No, no, don't wake him." she protested.
      "He is not asleep, but I think you know that." his weight on the edge of the bed caused it to creak. "Would you not talk with your mate?"
      "How do you know I haven't?"
      "Because I know you, daughter of my Alahin and my blood." his shift into Arabic caught her by surprise. Usually only when they were alone did the household of Fatima speak anything but Russian. For some reason though, being able to speak without anyone but family being able to understand helped her relax.
      "Because he isn't truly my mate?" she responded in the same language, realizing the truth of the issue as soon as she said it.
      "Not yet, but will be?" the was a note of hopefulness to Nashen's tone.
      "Why do you hope for such a thing?" the question to follow question format relaxed her mind from its wild spinning. She had learned it so early at Arkay's knee, the memory brought back the safety of her own childhood.
      "Why would you refuse to take his hand?"
      "Do you think he could change from the one who walked out on his son?" she asked with a bitterness which surprised even herself.
      "Do you still think he has not become a man from the frightened youth he was but two years ago?" Nashen's questions cut her to the quick, tearing away the false defenses she had set for herself.
      "I don't know what to think." she reverted to Russian and threw herself in Nashen's arms. "I'm so afraid and alone."
      "Your family is here for you, love. Your parents, your child, your mate, your brothers and sisters." he still spoke in Arabic and the meanings behind his words in the other language made her look at those things in a new light.
      "But Diomid is not truly my mate. No man can be, for I dare not give Tzanya a brother or sister." in Arabic her oath made her shiver with dread.
      "Diomid could give you others," Nashen contradicted her gently. "It is fear which binds your heart to the stone of the world, Kirina."
      "Yes, I am afraid, Nashen. To lose another would be beyond my bearing." the darkness which she had been avoiding threatened in the cold night.
      "If you do not face your demons they will devour you, my heart."
      "My demons have stolen my children." she tried to pull away from him but he held her despite her struggles. "Release me." she demanded.
      "No, Kirina. Not until you can face the darkness of your loss and walk away from it."
      "I want it to all go away." she struggled even harder as she felt Arkay's cool presence come into the room.
      "It is real, little one. It will not go away and you can not hide from it. For it is part of you." his words battered at her self control.
      "I loved them, Nashen and I killed them." now she held him to her with all the strength in her body. "I loved my children and I couldn't bring them to life."
      "They live so long as you do not forget." Arkay's voice was soft and gentle.
      "I do forget them though. When Tzanya smiles at me or she laughs at my games. I forget."
      "You no longer obsess, child of my heart." Nashen's words finally sank in.
      "I'll never bear again." she sobbed for the wonderful, amazing feel of new life growing within her, she would never be able to enjoy again but in memory.
      "Never name the well from which you won't drink, Kirina." Arkay reminded her of the old proverb.
      "Not if I ..." she reached within herself, determined to solve her problems once and for all.
      Arkay stayed her mind, "Think, Kirina. If you do this thing, you can not undo it. Will Diomid thank you? Will the other children you might have born thank you, when you see them on the other side of the veil?"
      "Do you truly believe in such things?" she had never thought of Arkay as being anything other than purely mundane.
      Nashen chuckled softly, "Let us simply say he was convinced otherwise, by One who could not be denied."
      "I think, then, I will wait." although her curiosity was now eating her alive. She squirmed around to look at Arkay. Only the Fatima household knew the entire story of how Nashen had come back from a trading venture in the south so strongly bonded to Arkay the two were inseparable. "If nothing else as a bargaining chip to get your story out of you."
      "You do not have to trade such a thing for a simple story, Kirina." Arkay laughed softly. "We do not tell of it because it would compromise Fatima."
      Tzanya stirred restlessly in her nest on the bed. Before she could awaken completely, Kirina picked her up and held her close. "She is still nursing every two to three hours." she worried about the youngster, although she had grown tremendously in the past weeks.
      "May I?" Arkay held out his hands for the child.
      As she handed Tzanya to Arkay she zlinned, fascinated, as Arkay's field shifted to match what must be her own. Tendrils of sickly darkness intertwined with ribbons of bright gold and silver. "She can't zlin."
      "But what you zlin reflects your mind, and infants can tell such things from my experience." Arkay didn't look at all like he was examining the child, playing keep away with her hands. She giggled at him. "See how comfortable she is with me?"
      "Thats because all children adore you." Nashen grinned, tentacles twining towards the child.
      "I'm done, you can touch." he looked over fondly at his mate. Immediately Nashen began playing peek-a-boo with Tzanya.
      "You have an unnatural advantage." Kirina giggled, watching Nashen make his tentacles look like they were disappearing and reappearing with his talent. Tzanya crowed with laughter, loud enough to wake the dead, much less Diomid.
     
      At least she wakes us up with happy noises Diomid shook the cobwebs out of his mind. When Tzanya woke them for a problem it was far more plaintive and nowhere near as loud. She shrieked in excitement. We must have company for while she would laugh like that with Kirina, they usually tried to keep it down while he tried to sleep. Infinitely grateful Kirina had him on a regular schedule of naps as well as Aliana, he found Arkay and Nashen, both playing enthusiastically with Tzanya.
      "You don't have to keep the noise level down, since I think everyone in the building is awake now." he had been sarcastic. Nashen took this as an invitation and got Tzanya even more excited.
      "Easy with the teeth, little one." Nashen kept slipping fingers and tentacles out of her grasp, while she kept trying to stuff them in her mouth. Tzanya was shrieking at the top of her quite effective lungs every time she managed to grab one of them. Eventually, even Diomid had to give up pretending to be annoyed and laughed at her manic attempts to hold on to her grandfather.
      Finally she settled and was eagerly trying to suckle on one of Nashen's tentacles. "What did people do before the mutation to occupy a baby's mouth?" Nashen asked no one in particular as he shifted Tzanya to Kirina.
      "Same thing I do, fingers." Arkay shrugged. "Although I do admit, I can understand a child preferring to suck on a tentacle to a finger."
      "Why not, you do." Nashen said archly with an extremely lewd flip to his field.
      Diomid fell over backwards howling with laughter at Arkay's look of outraged sensibility.
      After a glare at Nashen, Arkay said calmly, "Tzanya is a very healthy little girl, now, Kirina. She's still making up for lost meals and attention, though. In a month or two she should settle down to a bit more normal nursing schedule for her age."
      "Good, I had worried a bit as well, but I don't have your experience." Diomid recovered from his hysterical laughter. Kirina turned unreadable eyes to him. "I didn't want to worry you with baseless speculation, love."
      "You don't have to try to protect me." her tone was sharp enough Tzanya paused her eating.
      "Easy, love." he caressed Tzanya around Kirina's hand until she went back to what she had been doing. For a moment he thought of pulling back to let them be. No he held them tighter, holding Kirina close to his body. He saw Nashen nod in approval out of the edge of his vision. Encouraged by this, despite Kirina's initial resistance, he let his field display his passionate love and devotion to her, and now, their child, Tzanya.
      Wide open, he sensed Nashen having to hide within Arkay's nageric wings; Arkay's brilliant echo for his own mate; Tzanya's surprise and glee as Kirina's milk let down even more with her reaction; and last but not least, Kirina's astonished and magnificent acceptance of his love. "Diomid." she murmured, leaning back into his embrace.
      "Such enthusiasm." he grinned at Tzanya's blissful reaction to even more food.
      "You were probably the much same at one time," Arkay twitted him.
      "Darya had a hard time keeping up with Tzer." Nashen chuckled.
      Diomid felt a bit abashed, "I've been eating and sleeping the same way she does, as an adult."
      "Good!" Kirina said firmly. "You were wasted to a shadow."
      "You were pretty run down, Diomid." Nashen concurred.
      "I was surprised you weren't having heart problems." Arkay added.
      "Being a healer does have some advantages." he had had to work at it though.
      "I'm sure you did." Arkay was looking directly at him, measuring him. "I would say at least another twenty or thirty kilos though."
      "I've never been that heavy." he protested.
      "I would like that." Kirina purred.
      "Then as m'lord desires." Diomid made an elaborate gesture of submission with his field. "How much would you prefer?"
      She was silent for a moment, "Start with thirty and see where we go from there."
      "I would be fat!" he tried to shrink his body in on itself.
      "Am I?" Arkay let his robe fall open to show his very well muscled torso. Admittedly he had a bit of padding, but not so much as to detract, but rather enhance his figure.
      Diomid was amused as Kirina whistled softly in appreciation. She must have seen him unclothed while she had lived with the Fatima household, but still her commentary was heartening. Nashen clamped Arkay to his side and covered him back up. "Mine" Nashen muttered, looking pointedly at Kirina.
      "I'm not going to poach." Kirina's chuckle rocked her body. "I was only looking with my eyes. Very, very nice, otyet. If I hadn't been raised with you as my father I might well think of at least making a try for you after that display."
      "Do you really think so?" Diomid had to ask.
      "Yes" she said plainly. "When I was younger I couldn't really understand why mother was so intrigued by Arkay physically. He was much thinner, too much so."
      "I always had a problem with underdraw before Nashen and I ended up together." Arkay shrugged. "For some reason Nashen keeps feeding me."
      "Because I like to be able to ..." Nashen blushed furiously. "Don't follow that thought." he added, much too late.
      Diomid knew Nashen's tastes quite well and snickered at the brilliant image of grasping hands accompanying his words. For this first time in his life, Diomid didn't feel self concious about his size. Nashen was as finicky in bed as he was in transfer, so if he preferred some padding on Arkay, perhaps Kirina really did mean it when she said she wanted him the same way.
      "Yes, I really do, Diomid." she shifted Tzanya to her other breast. "I don't know what it is about some people who like bruises from bony bedmates, but I don't."
      He hadn't thought of it that way. Although his own preference was for Simes, of either gender, so he supposed he did prefer thinner people than someone who would prefer Gens.
     
      Diomid eyed his breakfast dubiously. Up until now a bit of bread and maybe a piece of fruit had been plenty to keep him satisfied until well after mid-day. Sometimes, for a day or two after transfer, he might have extended the concept of food in the morning to include a little cheese. This morning Arkay had dragged him off to the communal sharm dining room for what he called a proper breakfast.
      "Eat" Arkay pointed to the eggs, smoked fish, cheese, fried potatoes, bread, two apples and a handful of cherries on Diomid's plate. Although the coffee, only served at Fatima, was absolutely wonderful after having to do without at Sergei.
      Once he got started though, it all seemed to vanish with amazing ease. After years of denial to try to slim down, Diomid was astonished to find himself cleaning the last bit of egg off his plate with a piece of the tasty dark bread and then looking around for more.
      "Better?" Arkay's eyes gleamed with good humor.
      "Yes, much." Diomid leaned back with a sigh. "I hadn't realized how much effort I had been putting in to keep from getting fat."
      "The other half of the game is even more fun. Why don't you follow me around for the day and we let our mates indulge in some Sime talk?" his grin was infectious.
      "I would love to get to spend some time with my brother." Diomid's few contacts with his kin had never really been what one could call friendly, as Arkay was the only one of them who knew Diomid's parentage.
      "As would I."
     
      A day spent with Arkay was neither relaxing nor restful in any way whatsoever. Whatever the man's faults might have been, laziness was not one of them. Diomid's entire body hurt. Not only had they gone through about three days of backlogged paperwork, before lunch they had spend over an hour in the sharm gym and then an hour and a half sparring in the salle before dinner.
      "Good morning." Arkay chimed brightly from the doorway.
      Diomid groaned and pulled the blankets back over his head.

CHAPTER 7



      Kirina hadn't felt this all over sore since she was a child. Thinking back over yesterday she couldn't come up with a single reason why she ached so much. Then she realized it was all coming from Diomid. He and Arkay had come straggling back in last night just after midnight, and it wasn't even official dawn yet.
      "Good morning!" her all too enthusiastic in the morning father called out. When Diomid pulled the blankets off her to hide in, his pain rasped through the ambient.
      "Go away." she told Arkay. "What did you do to him?"
      "Which do you want?" Arkay chuckled, coming to sit on the edge of the bed.
      "I'm obviously not going to get the former." she grumped, trying to retrieve some of the blankets. Diomid wasn't letting go.
      "A little exercise, a little work, a little food." Arkay shrugged, giving the top quilt a good tug and pulling it out of Diomid's grasp. "Here you go. Have a blanket."
      Diomid shivered and Kirina wrapped herself around him protectively. "You hurt him." she applied herself to trying to work out some of the knots in his muscles. Every time she hit one of his numerous bruises she flinched, but persevered anyways.
      "Let me help." Arkay said, as apologetic as he ever got. As he dug his strong fingers into Diomid's chest muscles, the younger man cried out with a mixture of pain and pleasure. It sang on Kirina's nerves. She tried to ignore the effect on her own body, now edging towards need.
      "I'll do his legs if you get his arms." Kirina didn't want to tempt herself too much.
      "I'm fine." Diomid protested, mostly incoherently through his murmuring and sighing over all the attention.
      Kirina ignored his comment and worked her fingers into the knotted muscles of his thighs. Figuring she might as well get some use of it, she rubbed her hands on her forearms and used some of the excess roniplin to lubricate her fingers.
      "Don't stop." he moaned desperately. "That feels so good." Trying to miss the bruises on his shins, she slid her hands around his calves and worked on them for a while. Almost all the muscles of his legs were like steel cables. Snarled and tangled cables at that. "Oh yesss" she saw him rock his head back as if she were making love to him.
      "Is he usually like this in bed?" Arkay asked, grinning.
      "Only after transfer, usually." she shook her head at Diomid's babbling commentary in amusement. Diomid was oblivious to anything but the hands on his body from his utter lack of response to their words. Careful to keep her contacts asymmetrical, she gently kissed the top of his thigh. "Better, love?"
      "Much, much, much better. Thank you, thank you." he was still babbling. She nipped him lightly and he shivered. Kirina would have described his response as orgasmic if it had been any other time of the month. "Oh gods I had hurt." he finally said as his field finally came back into focus. Its many eyes still zlinned more than a bit dazed, however. "I still hurt, but not as bad." Diomid rolled his shoulders as he slowly sat up. "Thank you, both."
      "If you're going to keep up with me for another day, you might want to get a shower first." Arkay said heartlessly.
      "Thats mean." Kirina glared at her father.
      "No, no, love. If I don't get up and get moving I'll be even worse off tomorrow." Diomid turned his head from side to side, stretching out more muscles.
      "It must be a Gen thing." she said in disgust. Both of them looked at her askance. "Sorry, I meant Sharm Lord." she was not one bit repentant for the insult.
      "You were the one who made me smell like a changeover case." Diomid winked. "Creative."
      "It was handy." she looked at her now swollen roniplin glands. In irritation, she rubbed at them.
      Diomid gently held her hands, "Don't do that." Like no one else could, he calmed her body's excessive reaction to need. "I think after today we go into seclusion."
      "I don't want to leave Fatima so soon." yesterday had been wonderful fun, chatting with Nashen over clothes and music. It had been so long since she had simply been free to talk with another Sime about something other than work, she had forgotten how much she enjoyed the company of her own larity.
      "I think Vayer and Darya wouldn't be too upset at holding Sergei through another month or even two." Arkay told them.
      "Those two are having far too much fun with a Demense of their own to run." Diomid's field was dancing with humor, "I don't know if they'll give it back before spring."
      "As soon as the ice clears, they'll be wanting to go back to work here." Arkay laughed. "Fatima is quite dull over the winter, since most of her work is in trade."
      "Yesterday was dull?" Diomid's eyes got big.
      "For Fatima." Arkay shrugged.
      "You, my dear brother, have to get organized." Diomid shook his head. "You spend far too much of your time chasing trivial business and not enough time with your family."
      "Its how I've always worked." Arkay cocked his head in curiosity. "There's a better way?"
      Diomid got that bargaining look on his face. Kirina had to cover her grin, knowing full well Arkay was about to be taken for a ride. "There is something you know how to do I could be convinced to trade for."
      "Tell me more." Arkay's field was focused entirely on Diomid, his incredible curiosity overwhelming anything else.
      Diomid tipped his head toward Kirina, "Later." He winked.
      "Tell!" Kirina demanded.
      "You'll see, if Arkay is willing." Diomid's grin was definitely of the plotting variety.
      "Anything but the Fatima sword dances. I'm not allowed to teach those." Arkay's hands were grasping at air, as if to pull the information out of it.
      "No, not the formal sword dances." Diomid laughed, "Trust me." Kirina sensed the rapid exchange of information between the two men even though she couldn't catch a single concept of it.
      Arkay laughed, "Done!" They clasped hands on the deal. Nothing Kirina could do would convince either of them to tell her what the deal had been. All they would tell her is "You'll see."
     
      "One condition." Arkay drummed his fingers on the now clear surface of his desk.
      Diomid looked surprised at this sudden reticence on Arkay's part, "And that would be?" Arkay had made mention of a better teacher than even himself and Diomid was dying of curiosity.
      The older man took a deep breath, "Do you know about Fatima?" The implication was obvious.
      "The banner over the final blast doors is rather obvious." Diomid grinned wryly at the memory of the first time he had made the connection between the crescent and star on a green background banner of the old Demense of Mir and the topic it seemed no one had wanted to talk about.
      "Good." Arkay sighed. "You know almost all of the inner sharm is religious."
      "I have been down there." Diomid grinned. "I would have been a fool to miss it."
      Arkay cocked his head, "Not everyone is allowed so far in. I'm surprised Nashen allowed it."
      Diomid shrugged, "Her way is not mine, but I'm no fanatic about it. I think Nashen forgot I wasn't Fatima after a few months."
      "Nashen doesn't miss or forget anything. He's worse than Avilan." Arkay chuckled. "I think he was testing you for a permanent position as Sharm Lord Fatima."
      "Possibly. If so, I failed." emotionally he couldn't understand why someone would want to give up so much control over their life to an abstract. Intellectually was another matter, and so while he himself had no desire to convert, he also had no desire to stop anyone else from following their heart in such matters.
      "I wouldn't say failed, Diomid." Arkay got to his feet. "Simply never felt the call. A very different thing I think."
     
      "Do I look acceptable?" it had been years since Diomid had worn any kind of cosmetics. Last month's transfer with Kirina had been far less than satisfactory. Diomid figured tonight was his best chance to really dig in and try to win her back. Either that or let her go he shivered at the idea of never being able to touch her again.
      "Here" Arkay turned Diomid's face to the light to look critically at Diomid's handiwork. "Too light" the older man muttered and after a few deft touches with a brush looked carefully again. "There" Arkay turned him to face the mirror again.
      Diomid backed up a step from his image. Huge, dark outlined eyes, prominent, sweeping cheekbones and sensuous lips startled him on his own visage.
      "Hold still a moment." Arkay said. Diomid yelped in surprise as he felt Arkay tweak his nipples after applying a bit of rouge. "Better"
      By this time, Diomid knew he required no blush to make his cheeks red. "What if I can't control myself?"
      "During or afterwards." Arkay rebraided part of his hair into the rest.
      "Both" need sang on his already taut nerves.
      "I doubt anyone would even notice if you ascended Kirina after all these years. Afterwards," Arkay's grin was wicked, "I don't know about you, but I certainly have plans for Nashen."
     
      Kirina idly ran her hand down over Silian's flank. The young renGen pleaded with his eyes for her to do far more than simply pet him. She was too far into need to have any physical desire for the lad, despite having gotten him so post he was pressed up against her like a queen in heat. Karola was having no such similar difficulties with the young female renGen she and Avilan were currently sharing, having arrived already post. Now Kirina knew why there were no children over a year old present, what with the way Darya had teased Vayer into a slightly early transfer the likes of which she had never seen before. Although for some reason transfer was all they had so far.
      Other than herself, the only other Sime in need present now was Nashen. "Patience, little one." he kissed the palm of her hand gently. "They save the best for last."
      The musicians slowed and eventually stopped. The lights, already low, dimmed even further. Absolute silence finally descended over the entire room as everyone focused on the open area before them, waiting. A single tabla began, its beat like a sleeping heart. Nashen's hand suddenly clamped onto hers as Arkay paced out into the center of the room, arrogance and barely restrained power in his every move. His brilliant blue eyes looked out over them, as if he didn't even see them.
      Dark lashes rested on his cheeks as closed his eyes and began rocking his hips in time with the single drum beat. Arkay's field twined in impossible patterns.
      Playing off his link with Nashen, he teased at every Sime in the room, post or not. The lure of the unobtainable gave his display an even sharper edge. Even knowing she couldn't take him, Kirina reached out for his elusive promise.
      The high pitched wail of a flute added itself to the drums. Her eyes opened to see Diomid. For a moment all she could do was stare. His thick gold hair spilled over his shoulders and wrapped itself around his barely covered hips. Licking his dark red lips at her, Diomid gave her a sultry wink. The remembered feel of his cool skin under her fingers contrasted wildly with this hot stranger in front of her. Cool, sparkling mist yanked her to her feet.
      Suddenly something had come between her and her prey. Stung by its escape she turned on the interloper. Cool fog, looking at her, slid away from her grasp to twine with the field out of reach. Silver bracelets rang their seductive song to the rhythm of the music.       For a moment she could see again. Diomid's eyes were smoky dark with desire as he let his field reach out with his hand towards her. Another shock went through her as Arkay's hand clamped down on Diomid's wrist, holding him back. They both turned, looking over their shoulders. Arkay's long silver and gold hair almost trailed on the floor.
      In one smooth lunge, Kirina was between them and the door. Nashen was at her side, facing Arkay. With a predator's snarl she stalked the mocking eyes. Selyn flared in surprise and fear, pulling at Kirina's deepest instincts to hunt. Careful not to make him run to soon and possibly loose him, she slid around towards his side, away from Arkay. She and Nashen were bracketing the two men, neatly trapping them. With a rush, she charged in, meeting Nashen. They are gone! she dropped Nashen's hands in disgust.
      Where did they go? every sense was heightened. Delicious fear trickled from the center of the room. Checking with her eyes she saw both Diomid and Arkay standing back to back, surrounded by a pillar of light. Chuckling softly at their foolishness in trying to keep them at bay by blinding themselves, she returned to her stalk. This time not forgetting to look as well as zlin, she slunk in low, under their line of sight. Every time they moved she froze, not wanting to be seen too soon.
      Almost on her belly, she slithered in between the gap they could not cover together with their vision. Terror peaked as she grabbed Diomid's wrist and used it to pull herself up into position in one singe move. With a shout of triumph she pulled his legs out from under him with a foot and rode his fall to the floor. He tried to pull away from her tentacles wrapped around his arms and only succeeded in yanking her into lip contact.
      With a blazing rush selyn flowed into her system then slowed to a mere trickle, tickling at her voracious need. Her desire only whetted by the initial flare, she pulled at the resistance with all her might. Brilliant sparks of energy showered at his denial. She had to have him. Reaching down to her uttermost depths, she shattered his refusal with the absolute blackness of desperate need. Triumphant, she took his very life. Faster and faster it rushed into her. Then when she had almost reached her peak, selyn flared again, filling her to the very brim and beyond.
     
      Diomid's ecstatic moan called up the most overwhelming physical desire she had ever felt. The salt of his sweat was sweet against her tongue as she ran her mouth down the side of his neck. "Yes" he shouted and she heard the ties on her loose shirt give way. His hands on her breasts made her arch her back as she straddled him.
      Frustrated by the cloth of his pants in the way she snarled her irritation as he slid against her, firing her desire even more by being so close. He chuckled wickedly deep in his throat and flipped her over on her back, holding her to him with one arm. In one smooth stroke he entered her and she screamed her pleasure in his ear. Wrapping her legs around him, she pulled him even harder against her. She bit his shoulder and he twisted in her grasp, thrusting even harder. In one final blazing flash of passion they came together, locked in shuddering ecstasy.
     
      Kirina came to realizing she was lying on a rather hard, wooden floor. In a daze, she stroked Diomid's broad, sweaty back trying to piece together exactly what had happened and where she was. He nuzzled her neck and she murmured her appreciation as her desire began to arise again.
      "Oh no!" she looked around to notice they were still in the middle of the dance floor.
      Diomid chuckled gently against her throat, "Look to our right." His sweeping lick almost distracted her from any concerns about an audience. Then she looked over to see Nashen enthusiastically having his way with a very willing Arkay against a rather helpful Avilan.
      "Oh" she giggled. "Boys night on the town?" Although what Karola was doing to Avilan did give Kirina an idea. "Lets go somewhere a bit more padded."
     
      Thinking Kirina had implied they also go somewhere a bit more private, he reluctantly slid off her delicious body and reached for his discarded pants. "No, no." she tugged him towards the piled cushions with everyone else. Bemused he let her lead him over to them. With Diomid still on his knees, she swooped down on him, taking him into her mouth. He stiffened with a gasp of shock. Trying not to push at her too hard he quivered with tension.
      One of her delicate hands reached around him. "Please" he begged her. Her soft chuckle teased at his self control. As he opened up to her searching tentacles, he could no longer stay upright.
      Before he could collapse completely though, he heard Vayer ask, "Do you share, my sib?"
      "Only in this." she slid up his front to kneel over him. Before he could say anything at all about the situation, Kirina sat down on him at the same time Vayer entered him. Caught by the two, all he could do was howl.

CHAPTER 8



      "I swear Tzanya went from crawl to run in less than a week." Kirina caught the little girl before she could zoom off and get into even more mischief. Tzanya laughed at her favorite game, try to get away from mom. She ducked under Kirina's arm and took off towards the door.
      "Where y'goin?" Nashen swept the child up into the air as he stepped through the door. Tzanya's voice hadn't moderated much however and she squealed so loudly one of the cats on the cold hearth glared at her.
      "Where did you come from?" Diomid looked up from his mad dash on his hands and knees trying to beat the youngster to the doorway.
      "Thats an interesting position." Nashen noted, grinning. "Fatima of course."
      "I know that, Nashen." Kirina laughed. "What are you doing here?"
      "Playing with Tzanya" he tossed the child into the air and caught her, making her shriek even louder. The cat got up and left in disgust.
      "I can see that, Nashen." Diomid leaned back and sat up. "Why did you come here?" he asked and Kirina hoped this wouldn't be another case of Nashen leading everyone around with obvious answers for the next half hour.
      "Because I wanted to." he wuffled Tzanya's belly. Shaking his head at her ear-piercing shriek, "I really shouldn't do things like that when I am close to her mouth." He freed a hand and cleaned out his ear. "Noisy baby." he told Tzanya, rubbing her nose with his. She laughed delightedly and pulled at his ears.
      "I had figured you wouldn't come here if you didn't want to." Kirina covered her eyes with her hands and shook her head at Nashen's obtuseness.
      "Of course I wouldn't." he made a really disgusting noise at Tzanya. For a brief instant she was stunned silent.
      Then Tzanya crowed loudly, "Grampa!" and wrapped her arms around his neck.
      "I think she likes me." with his gliding walk he slipped into a chair.
      "Whee!" Tzanya caroled at the ride.
      Kirina shook her head, "I do wonder if she will ever stop shouting everything."
      "Possibly by the time she is no longer a child. Maybe." Nashen bounced Tzanya on his knee. "I did."
      "I can't imagine you being a wild and noisy child the way Tzanya is." Diomid raised an eyebrow.
      "From what Tzanir used to beat me over the head with, I only shut up for meals and sleep." Nashen was playing peek-a-boo with Tzanya peeking through his fingers and tentacles. When one of them looked like it had gotten knotted up, Tzanya shrieked in glee again. "Although I probably wasn't as shrill."
      "Yes you were." Arkay laughed. "I remember when you were tiny and Aliana made the mistake of trying to hide you with the renGens behind their curtains so she didn't have to leave you behind for an informal court. Of course hiding you in the sharm might not have been enough to keep you from being heard at court."
      "See what I have to live with." Nashen protested with a smile. "He remembers all the peccadillos from my youth and drags them out every time he has an excuse."
      "Not true. Just because you are a sprout and I am a dignified, older Sharm Lord." Arkay stuck his nose in the air as he sat at Nashen's feet.
      "Do you have to deal with this?" Nashen asked plaintively.
      "Yes" Kirina said with absolute conviction. "Every time Tzanya gets into a mess, Diomid reminds me of when I did the same thing."
      "She just does it louder, love." Diomid's arm wrapped around her shoulders in an apologetic hug. "Now that Arkay is here, maybe, just maybe, we can find out why you are here."
      "Possibly," Arkay shrugged infuriatingly.
      "Why did you come here?" Kirina asked but before either one could answer, "And don't say because you wanted to!"
      "I already did that one." Nashen grinned as Arkay looked back up at him in question. "Because Darya wanted to know, in advance, if Diomid would assist Arkay at her lying in."
      Kirina shivered in fear of having to face that part of life again. She had known Darya was pregnant, but had been studiously avoiding thinking about it.
      *If you don't want me to ... ?* Diomid sent for her mind only, but with a heavy tone of possible regret underlying it if she refused.
      *I won't hold you back, love* she overlaid her sending with the implication she would not want to go along.
      "I'm sorry to have ..." Diomid's field was grey with regret and sorrow.
      "No, love." Kirina set herself. "Go on."
      "Not without you." he shook his head sadly.
      "Then I'll go as well." she made a concious effort to let go of her fears for Darya and found they were no where near as strong as she had thought they would be. Realizing the monster which had been haunting her had faded to a mere shadow of its earlier, overwhelming power, "I would love to."
     
      "Each one is bigger than the last." Darya complained as she waddled over to take Kirina in a rather sideways hug.
      "Thats because ..." Vayer said only to be cut off.
      "Hush, love." Darya swatted at him with her attenuated field. "He has a big mouth, don't you pay him much attention."
      Kirina laughed, "Don't I know it." She gave her brother a hard look for the way he was working so hard not to blurt something out. Vayer gave her a shrug and discretely spread his hands as if to say, it wasn't his decision.
      "Down!" Tzanya insisted.
      "What do you add to be polite?" Kirina despaired of ever teaching this youngster any manners.
      Tzanya thought about it for a moment, "Down, NOW!"
      Vayer snickered. He wasn't helping. "The word is please, Tzanya." Kirina reminded her.
      "Down, Now, PLEASE!" oh well, closer she couldn't help but laugh as lowered Tzanya from her hip. The youngster charged off towards something on the far wall, running right into Nashen's hands.
      "Good catch." Kirina shook her head and tried to retrieve her child.
      Tzanya was reaching for the tassels hanging on one of the tapestries. Nashen held her up so she could grab one of them. Soon she was trying to tie them in knots with Nashen's tentacles getting in her way. Laughing at full volume, she batted at them while trying to still get into mischief.
      "Why is it Nashen keeps swiping Tzanya?" Arkay laughed at the two of them.
      "Because he's faster than I am." Kirina pointed out.
      "He's faster than anyone." Tzer piped up.
      "He is not!" Aliana chimed in, probably to be contrary.
      Soon the two of them were tussling on the rug. "Kids." Diomid sighed and tried to separate them. Tzer came up swinging to defend his sister and almost managed to land a blow on Diomid. "I thought you were fighting Aliana." Diomid caught the hand.
      "You made me stop." with the logic of an eight year old, trying to hit someone who was stopping him from beating up on his little sister probably made sense.
      "You let him go." Aliana tried to pull Diomid's hand away from Tzer's wrist and ended up hanging from Diomid's arm.
      *Help?* Diomid asked plaintively.
      Kirina waded into to the fray and pried Aliana off Diomid's arm. Tzer glared at her and she glared right back. Finally he lowered his eyes. "Don't hit your sister." Kirina reminded him.
      "I was just wrestling with her. 'Sides, she's quicker 'n I am." Tzer crossed his arms and looked sideways at Aliana. Aliana stuck out her tongue at him.
      "Thats rude, Aliana." Diomid gave her a stern look.
      "So?" Aliana shrugged. "So is screeching like a cat." she looked at Tzanya pointedly.
      "Tzanya is much younger than you are."
      "I know that." Aliana tipped her chin up arrogantly.
      "I'm surprised." Kirina put on a big show of startlement. "You aren't acting like it. Neither of you are."
      Both of them hung their heads in embarrassment over this accusation. "Sorry, mat'" they both looked up at her from under their eye lashes.
      "Forgiven, youngsters." she thought quickly. "Why don't you go see what we are having for dinner."
      "Yea!" they both ran out of the room together.
      "Mat'?" Tzanya was tugging on the hem of her tunic.
      "What is it, little one?" Kirina sat on one of the low chairs so Tzanya could easily crawl up into her lap.
      "Hungry!"
      "Come here sweet," she gathered the child into her arms. She probably wants the contact more than a snack although when Kirina offered her the breast, Tzanya took it eagerly.
      "Now, as we were saying..."
     
      There was obviously something everyone but Kirina was hiding from him but Diomid didn't have any idea what it could possibly be. He thought of confronting Arkay with it and then thought better of the idea. Trying to wheedle information out of Arkay was like trying to get blood from a stone. Darya had Vayer so thoroughly cowed he wasn't letting slip a thing after his initial attempt.
      The delivery of Darya's second son went as smoothly as anyone could have hoped for. Diomid was busy holding the fields steady this time, so he couldn't see the look on Arkay's face when he caught the newborn. "Yours, I believe?" Arkay asked as he started to hand the child to him. For the first time in his life Diomid fainted.
     
      "Good thing I was there to step in." Nashen laughed at the whole situation. "I think, next time, warn the man, Arkay."
      "It was a lot more fun this way." Arkay shook his head in silent laughter. "Seriously though, Diomid. We weren't entirely sure. It could have been either you or Vayer. Remember last winter?"
      "We always seem to get in trouble a month or two after Year's Turning." Diomid couldn't be at all angry about it anymore. When he had first come to from his faint, he had been more hurt than mad. Kirina held his hand, twining her fingers with his.
      "As I should well know." she gave Nashen a hard look. "At least there is no confusion now about Dimitri's parentage."
      "None whatsoever." Arkay stated firmly. "Dimitri's father is Sergei. Very prepotent Sergei. Vayer doesn't carry more than a very small portion of the Sergei complex of genes, much less the phenotype of Sergei. Dimitri already shows the Sergei phenotype. So no chance of a mistake. I don't carry enough of the Sergei complex to sire a child who shows it as strongly as Dimitri does at birth."
      Diomid looked over at the surprisingly large, blond little boy sleeping peacefully in his mother's dark arms. Vayer's eyes held a challenge, however. "Our women bear to whom they chose, Vayer." he reminded the young man.
      "Are you ...?" Vayer asked nervously.
      Before he could finish the obvious question Diomid pointed out, "Certainly not. Dimitri is your son, everywhere but in the genealogical records. However impolite it may be though, I would like to know why." He looked at Darya questioningly.
      "I've always liked you Diomid." she stated, making him blush slightly. "You were so sweet to me when I first came to Fatima. You showed me the tricks of how to make my book learning apply to real life and taught me how to deal with all the exposure and openness of being a Sharm Lord after spending my life hiding in the back of the Kirov sharm. When I found about Kirina's decision to not try to bear another child after what had happened to her, not that I blame her at all, I began looking for a chance to catch you so post you wouldn't notice. Well, the little dance party was a perfect opportunity and I took it." she shrugged. "I'm happy with the way he came out."
      "As you both should be." Diomid gestured for Vayer to pay more attention to Darya and he got the hint. "You are Dimitri's parents. I am simply, well, an unintended secondary father."
      "You have also fulfilled your obligation to produce a successor to the Sergei line." Kirina's hand went cold in his.
      "Which means I won't have to set you aside to produce an heir within the time limit." Diomid reminded her.
      "True enough. Although now you don't have to at all, regardless of time limits." she was looking longingly at Dimitri.
      "Have to and want to are different things, love." he squeezed her hand. "I don't fault you for not wishing to expose yourself to the risk again."
      "If we don't risk, we don't live."

CHAPTER 9



      Kirina wasn't certain if she should be scared out of her mind or thrilled beyond words. Her cycle had still not returned to normal because of nursing Tzanya so she hadn't even thought to check before now. Faint, familiar movement had startled her out of a sound sleep and she had zlinned a perfectly heathy seeming, over three months along child stirring within her. "Diomid?" her voice quivered with shock.
      "What is it?" he asked, concern and love holding her tight until he could get his body organized. She took his hand and placed it on her abdomen. "Oh my ..." he whispered in apprehension. "Are you all right?"
      "No" she shivered and he wrapped another blanket around both of them. "I mean I ..." she took a deep breath. "I didn't know."
      "Oh, love." his arms around her were at least solid and secure. "I hadn't intended on catching you so soon. I thought you were taking care of things."
      "I thought you were!" she giggled quietly. "I'm sorry, but its such a cliche. I didn't intend to trap you into another child, Diomid."
      "Do you really think I don't want him?" the lurking eyes in his field were wide with astonishment.
      "I had to trick you. Darya had to slide herself under you. I didn't think you wanted children."
      "At one time I didn't." his hands gently stroked her entire body. "Now, things are different. With spending time with Tzer and Aliana, not to mention Tzanya I have a different perspective. Can you forgive me for my earlier reluctance."
      "I was afraid too, Diomid. Now I am even more afraid."
      "Hush love, hush." he held her tightly. "We will love him for as long as he is with us. I know its hard, but I think if we have hope things will work out for the best."
      "Fewer than half of all Fatima males conceived survive even to birth, Diomid!" she was trying not to panic.
      "I know sweet, I know it. Give him a chance though." his steady reassurance calmed her slightly.
      "I don't want to lose him."
     
      "Neither do I, Kirina." he was desperately trying to get her calmed down again. "I love you and I love our children. Tzanya is absolutely delightful. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to be her father."
      She shivered one last time and went limp against him, "Oh, Diomid. Do you really think he'll be all right?"
      "I don't want to try to jolly you along love." no matter how much he wished for it in his heart. "You know the risk as well as I do. But Nashen and Tzer survived the odds." he pointed out. One last salvo, "He has survived this long quite healthy and content."
      She giggled softly and he finally relaxed a bit, "You're right, like you usually are." Kirina was still nervously zlinning their son every few moments, but it had lost the panicked franticness of when she had first woken him up.
      "May I catch a ride?" while he could sense generalities with his own innate talents, he had to ride along with a Lord to be able to truly zlin. He and Kirina had worked together this way many times before, but never in a situation like this.
      Rather than a verbal answer she simply invited him in. Unlike the times they had zlinned a pregnant woman and her child before, Diomid was fascinated by the incredible brilliance of the web of light surrounding their son. He was hardly bigger than the palm of Kirina's hand but already very much alive and responsive to their observation of him.
      Gently Diomid tugged on one of the strands forming the net of energies supporting their child's life. Immediately, mother and child restored the integrity of the structure with a fierce protectiveness. For a brief moment he stroked the awareness of their son with a delicate touch, calming him back down after Diomid's rather rude prodding. Unlike most children at his level of development though, their son actually leaned back against his mental touch.
      "I think I would like to compare notes with Arkay," he looked into her very worried blue eyes. "But as far as I can tell, I've never zlinned a healthier child, particularly with what I can interpolate about Fatima women."
     
      At least I don't have physical problems with pregnancy Kirina blessed her mother's fecundity as she maneuvered her ever expanding waistline through the series of exercises Karola had developed over the years to substitute for the awkwardness of the traditional combat dances most Lords went through in the salle to stay in condition. Diomid caught her elbow again as she overbalanced on the final series of moves so she wouldn't fall against him. "Sorry love." Kirina got her feet under her again. Even though by now she couldn't see them unless she made a special effort. "I am so clumsy." she complained.
      Diomid howled with laughter, far more than Kirina could account for by her comment. "What tickled you so much?"
      "You sound exactly like Karola." he snickered. "She constantly complained about losing her balance in pregnancy."
      "Better my balance than my breakfast." Kirina had heard of women who had problems with morning sickness, but the only effect pregnancy ever had on her appetite was to make her eat more. "Speaking of which, I'm starving."
      "You just ate." he grinned. Her stomach rumbled. "All right, I get the hint. Shower first?" As Kirina thought about the alternatives, he laughed at her again. "Quick shower."
      "Wash my feet?" she also hated the fact she couldn't bend over anymore without falling on her nose.
      "If you'll scrub my back."
      "You're on."
     
      "By the way, I never remembered to tell you how much I like the change in your eating habits." she looked at the remains of the rather large lunch they had shared.
      He grabbed a peach out of the basket on the table and looked at it for a moment, "As long as you don't mind ..." He pinched at the nice, soft bit of extra flesh he had added to his waistline.
      "No, not at all!" she took him in her arms, purring to let him know just how much she appreciated the way he felt. "You are so much more wonderful to cuddle with now. Thank you." she grabbed him and pulled him against her even harder. "Much, much better."
      "As long as you like it." he stood on his toes and rested his chin on her shoulder.
      "I do."
     
      "Willing to say that in front of Vayer?" this was not how Diomid had ever imagined proposing to Kirina. Inwardly he groaned at his own ineptitude.
      "Yes!" she tugged him by the hand towards the door. *VAYER, I Caught Him!!!* she sent across the city to every receptive mind in Moskva. Diomid was about to die of embarrassment.
      *Congratulations Kirina! Tonight?* her brother sent back from somewhere near the port.
      This was going way to fast for Diomid but before he could say anything, Kirina sent announced to the world, *Tonight at true dusk, the main hall of Sergei* and his fate was sealed.
     
      Unable to wear the garments he had originally courted Kirina in, due to his expanded waistline, Diomid was digging through his closet in desperation to find something he could wear. Robes were easy, he had a lot of those, but tunics and breeches were a problem. Muttering vile imprecations on his ancestors for all being so tall and relatively svelte he finally came to the back of the closet with no luck.
      "Can I help?" Avilan's tenor was far too amused for Diomid's taste.
      "Get me out of this!" Diomid snarled, not at all sincere.
      Avilan's laughter was far too knowing. He was the only other Sharm Lord who was actually handfasted to his mate, so Diomid couldn't exactly take out all his frustration on him. Although looking up at his relative slenderness, Diomid fumed. "All right, lets see what we can do in the time we have." Avilan looked him over like a horse in the market. "Strip."
      "What?" Diomid tugged at his loose shirt selfconsciously.
      "You heard me, take off your clothes. I haven't seen you naked in over six months." Avilan was standing hipshot, leaning against the door frame. "I can't tell exactly how you are built wearing those." he sniffed.
      Nervously, Diomid took off his shirt and trousers. He stopped in the middle of tossing them towards the laundry pile. Avilan was staring at him intently. Before Diomid could cover himself back up, Avilan blinked a bit and then went back to leaning against the door frame. "I do wish you didn't have a thing about Simes." he sighed, still looking Diomid over carefully.
      Deliberately, Diomid tossed his clothes in the hamper and paced over to Avilan. "Do you think you can do something, with this?" he tried to keep his muscles from tensing as he turned around under Avilan's gaze.
      "What I would want to do has absolutely nothing to do with dressing you." Avilan licked his lips. All the attention was getting to Diomid and he preened. "Don't do that." Avilan hissed. "I had transfer four days ago."
      Diomid blinked a bit at the fact Avilan wasn't coming right off transfer and was still ogling him. "So, clothes." he turned back to the rack of tunics. One of them had caught his eye originally, but he had dismissed it as being too small. The clatter of hangers on the wooden rod broke the silence. "How about ..."
      Avilan had wrapped his arms around Diomid in a brief hug from behind. "I had to touch." Avilan said softly and began to pull away. His interest was quite obvious. Diomid petted Avilan's hands on his chest, keeping him from backing away entirely.
      "I'm not upset, Avilan. I'm not post though."
      "I know. I like to touch." his voice was soft and low. "As long as you don't hit me."
      "I'm not going to hit you for touching me." Diomid reassured him. "Do you really like the way I look?"
      Avilan's only answer was a deep chuckle and a quick nip on Diomid's shoulder. "Now, clothes." his breath ruffled Diomid's hair. "It is warm enough ..."
      The image of Diomid wearing only his dancing costume flashed through his mind from Avilan. "No, I think that would be a bit excessive."
      "Gorgeous though." Avilan's hands were straying a bit far afield and Diomid put them back up on his chest. "Sorry" he didn't sound at all repentant.
      "Can you do anything with this?" Diomid finally found the tunic he had originally wished he could wear. He eyed it dubiously, thinking it would probably be a bit small.
      Avilan rested his chin on Diomid's shoulder, "No, I think too plain. Keep going." One by one, Diomid went through his closet again. Finally, almost at the back again, Avilan stopped him. "That one."
      Diomid stared at it. It was a gorgeous piece of work, with diamond chips and silver thread creating the illusion of smoke down the back and the Sergei firebird worked in all the colors of the rainbow with her tail trailing down to the floor on the long front. The problem was there was very little to it other than the embroidery. "I suppose if I wear a loose shirt under it."
      "No" Avilan shook his head. "It would ruin the lines. I think I can find an appropriate shirt, breeches shouldn't be too much of a problem."
      "I've gained a bit there as well." Diomid looked at the beadwork on the tails of the tunic.
      "You wouldn't let me measure your legs with my hands." Avilan suited actions to words. "No, I think the oversized ones you used to wear should fit perfectly now."
      "They'll look like they were painted on." Diomid retrieved Avilan's wandering hands before they could get into too much trouble.
      Avilan chuckled, "They will." Then Diomid felt Avilan shake his head, "Haven't you ever learned the value of display?"
      "I'm not the peacock some people are." Diomid squeezed Avilan's hand to make sure Avilan knew he didn't have a problem with it. "I never thought of showing off myself. I mean, what is there to show off? You are gorgeous, tall, slim, deep blue eyes, almost metallic gold hair. I am rather short and quite heavy. I don't even have Arkay's incredible charisma or Nashen's grace."
      "Foolish lad." Avilan forcibly turned him around. Before he could protest, Avilan kissed him thoroughly, sending Diomid images of how Avilan saw him: images of his broad, strong hands holding Tzanya as delicately as a baby bird, his easily pulling Kirina off her feet and into his arms, even the wistful imagined thought of Avilan's hands digging into Diomid's massive shoulders and how good it would feel as Avilan took him. "Sorry about that last." Avilan blushed. "I'm not very good at controlling what I send." he shifted away nervously.
      "Its all right." Diomid chuckled. He had no idea Avilan wanted him so much. "I'm sorry I'm not interested."
      "Me too!" Avilan tightened his hold briefly and then released him. "Kirina is a very lucky woman."
     
      Kirina's jaw dropped as she saw Diomid appear at the doors to Sergei's great hall on Arkay's arm. *You're drooling.* Vayer sent. She didn't care. Somehow Avilan had managed to talk Diomid into wearing what she could only think of was paint. Other than the heavily embroidered tunic and his boots, everything Diomid was wearing was thin enough and tight enough it looked like a second skin. If the tunic weren't so long you could tell he wasn't Fatima by birth. Kirina thought irreverently.
      Vayer snickered. Kirina waved at him to hush and kept looking. It seemed everyone else in Sergei was as fascinated as she was by their Sharm Lord, for the hall was absolutely silent. Some of the talented members of the court even forgot themselves so much as to broadcast their images of wanting to get their hands or tentacles on Diomid. There was a brief mental flurry as various people got themselves back under control. Valtanir's eyes were wide as saucers with all the new information coming at him. Avilan pulled the young man a little closer. He had only changed over a few months ago and was still a bit nervy in crowds.
      *He's almost there* Karola, unnecessarily, reminded her. *Good healthy fish on your line* she sent a very obscene image with her message as Diomid paralleled her position. Kirina's son kicked her firmly in the ribs as she tried not to laugh, blush and threaten to hit her mother all at the same time.
      *Was your handfasting this bad?* Kirina sent Avilan in desperation.
      *Only before it* Avilan sent back the image of him jumping into the air and landing in attack position when someone tripped over a chair. *I was a little bit nervous. As a reminder, don't touch Diomid unexpectedly right now or he might do something rather random. He isn't too tightly wrapped at the moment.*
      *Other than in leather and silk* she sent back with a wink. *Thank you, otyet.*
      Avilan winked back, *No thanks required, I managed to get my hands on him in the process*
      Kirina had to close her eyes and concentrate so she wouldn't laugh out loud at Avilan's very smug tone. When she opened them, Diomid was standing before her, looking up at her with all his love and devotion written on his face. For a moment she almost regretted the way she had bullied him into this ceremony so quickly.
      *I would have put it off, love. No regrets* his sending was laced with joy and love, despite how nervous he zlinned. She knelt before him, offering her tentacles. His hands stroked their length as he raised her to her feet and she gasped slightly.     
      "I pledge to thee, my Honor and my Love," she began.
      "I pledge to thee, my Demense and my Life," he replied.
      "For all time to come,"
      "For all our future to live."
      "May your future find happiness and joy." Arkay wished.
      "May your children grow strong and straight." Vayer blessed with more than a bit of a catch to his voice as he caressed their son with his field.
      "As above." she said and as he held out the earring she stopped him for a moment.
      When in place, it would look like she had a miniature firebird chasing after her cherries around the rim of her ear, all created from gems inlaid in platinum. Arkay's breath caught, *that was my mother's* Diomid hesitated when she released his hand. *please* Arkay tipped his chin to indicate Diomid was to put it in place and so he did.
      "So below." he said shakily and she slid into place his new bracelet. Kirina had found it years ago as a child and had bullied Arkay into buying it for her. Now, finally, she could place it on Diomid's arm.
      "As within." Arkay said and wrapped the multicolored cloth around their hands symbolizing all the Demense.
      "So without." Vayer put his hands on their shoulders.
      "Under all the stars in Heaven, may these two find their dreams of eternity." the Sergei court cheered in unison.
      Under the cover of the cloth on their hands, Kirina twined her tentacles with Diomid's fingers. "I love you, my Diomid." she whispered as she leaned forward to kiss him.
      "As I love you with all my heart," at first his kiss was gentle and sweet, as befit a Sharm Lord before his court. Kirina was having none of this and let her need and love come to the fore. With a groan he leaned into it. After calculating her state of need relative to Diomid's field, she gave in to temptation. Beneath the bare concealment of the strip of multicolored silk, Kirina's laterals came out. As soon as Diomid felt them on his arms he lost all control and flared his field at her in wild invitation. This was good enough for her and she pulled, drawing his selyn into her with a great rush. Light filled the darkness within her and she wrapped her very soul around her loving mate.
     

CHAPTER 10



      "At least Karola waited till we were in private." Avilan took her hand possessively. They were all sitting around talking in the sitting room of the Sergei suite after immediate necessities had been taken care of.
      "Some people are patient." Diomid laughed, caressing Kirina gently.
      "I think I've been insulted." Karola grinned. "Thats the first time in my life I've even been called patient."
      Diomid looked at Kirina's satisfied grin. She liked her lips like a cat licking their whiskers and he laughed again. "You are an imp, my love."
      "A very content, pregnant imp." she shifted her weight uncomfortably. He checked again to be certain their son was well and got Kirina kicked for his intrusion. Irritably she shifted his foot out from where it had gotten lodged. "You are an imp too!" she addressed her son who shifted around to be more comfortable. With another little almost sigh, he stuck his thumb in his mouth and went back to sleep. "Better."
      "He's a bright one." Arkay commented. "Are you sure you don't carry Fatima, Diomid?"
      "Absolutely, I don't think I have a single Fatima ancestor for over five generations." he called up the image of his own pedigree in his mind. "Nope. I have two lines to Mir on the top and one to Maryam on the bottom, but that's it. And those are way back there. For some reason I ended up almost exclusively variants on Sergei with a little Azov. No Kirov either."
      "I didn't know Vanya carried the lines to Mir." Arkay's curiosity, as always, had ambushed him.
      "Through Lord Gartiry's mate, their daughter was the founder of Sergei." Diomid reminded him.
      "Oh, of course. I should have known." Arkay looked disgusted. "I always forget she was Mir and not Fatima."
      Darya crowed, "Now I don't owe you a bracelet."
      "I had hoped you would forget." Arkay looked at Vayer's mate.
      Looking quite disgusted, Darya snipped "I don't forget things that easily. Unless of course I want to."
      "Women" Avilan looked up at the ceiling as if praying.
      "It isn't as if you don't remember every little thing." Karola leaned against him.
      "Thats different." he stroked her hand.
      "So, who do you want for your lying in?" Arkay asked into the brief silence.
      "I, well, we hadn't been thinking about it." Kirina shivered a bit and Diomid flipped the end of a quilt around her to be sure she didn't catch a chill.
      "For myself, I want at least another Sharm Lord besides myself." Arkay looked at him intently.
      "What about ..." Diomid stopped in mid sentence. "Oh, I don't suppose I am going to be much good, am I."
      "No" Arkay laughed, "and Nashen doesn't have the brute force to override you."
      "Hmmm..." he looked around the room. "What about Avilan?"
      "Me!?" Avilan looked like Diomid had stuck him with a pin. "I don't know the first thing about ..." he looked down at Karola fondly, "Well I suppose I have had a bit of practice."
      "A little." she kissed his cheek.
      "Although I think I also want Darya there. She is actually stronger than Avilan." Arkay was ticking off points on his fingers.
      "Anyone else?" Kirina asked with a disturbed look on her face.
      "No, lets see, Avilan, me, Darya, Nashen, Vayer, Diomid ... "
      "Don't I have to be there?" Kirina almost shouted.
      "Well, yes." Arkay blinked at her in surprise. "Is there something wrong?"
      "I don't want half the Demense standing around in our bedroom while I give birth." she muttered. "It isn't big enough."
      "Oh" Arkay looked abashed.
      "Lets cut it back some, shall we?" Diomid held Kirina protectively. "I think we can manage without Darya and Vayer. I can understand your wanting Nashen there. He can back up for Avilan's lack of experience."
      "I would like Nashen as well." Kirina mumbled softly against his shoulder.
      "Then its settled." he glared at his brother while holding Kirina protectively. She had been getting more and more volatile as her pregnancy had advanced. He didn't want too many things disturbing her. Arkay simply looked stunned.
     
      "I'm fat!" Kirina threw the paperweight at Diomid. He caught it easily, making her even more furious and then he caught her in his arms.
      "No you're not, love. You're pregnant." his arms around her felt wonderful, but she still wanted to hit something.
      Giving up on self control, she pounded on his chest in frustration, "I'm fat and clumsy and ugly and you don't love me any more."
      "I love you with all my heart and soul, Kirina." his words were backed by the absolute faithfulness of his field.
      "I'm still ugly and clumsy." she kicked at him.
      After wrapping his leg around hers to prevent a repeat, "You are beautiful Kirina."
      "When I'm not fat!" she wailed and cried on his chest.
      "You are pregnant, love. You're not fat. I love you, our son loves you, your parents love you." he emphasized each one with a pulse of affection and caring.
      "You can't even give me transfer." she wailed, missing his nageric touch dreadfully.
      "I have to be high field when you deliver."
      "You don't have to be so damned logical!" she tried to hit him again.
      He chuckled softly, "Someone around here should be."
      "It doesn't have to be you." she growled but relented and pulled him around her middle. "I love you, Diomid. Even if you did make me fat."
      "Hush love." his hands stroking her back made her give up.
      "I don't know why I snapped at you like that." she hid her face against his chest in embarrassment.
      "Because you are pregnant, Kirina."
      "I didn't get so upset, last time." she gulped nervously, not wanting to think about it.
      "This time is different." he lipped at her hair.
      Thunderstruck, she stopped everything she was doing. "It is, isn't it?" she said in wonder. Zlinning within herself, she noted their son grumbling about his increasingly cramped quarters. "He's making me cranky."
      Diomid's rumbling chuckle was soft against her ear, "So he is." Together they caressed him till he settled back down to a more calm mindset. "Eager lad." his hand against her belly felt wonderful.
      "Do that some more." she went limp in his arms.
      He laughed softly as he caught her weight easily.
     
      Kirina tried to roll over. Grumbling about her ungainliness she gave up and shook Diomid's shoulder to wake him up. "Could you give me a hand."
      "Sure" he muttered and then stared at her. Surprise and elation lit his field.
      "What has you so excited?" she held out her hands to him so she could get up. Kirina really had to go use the bathroom. He just stared at her and jittered.
      "If you don't hurry up I'm going to leave a puddle on the bed." she glared at him. Although as Diomid helped her sit up she felt a gush of warm fluid drench her thighs. "Too late." she giggled.
      "Lets keep this quiet." he whispered in her ear.
      Kirina giggled again, "Good idea." Together they quietly snuck into the bathroom, gathered up a collection of towels and other things they would require. Now she was fully awake, she recognized the contractions for what they were. Managing to make their escape, they quietly shut the door behind them and Kirina flipped the lock shut with a snick.
      Diomid giggled behind his hand. "I got the feeling you didn't want an audience." he whispered.
      "Gods no!" she whispered back. "When Arkay started talking about bringing in a horde I wanted to hide under the rug."
      She settled back against the headboard of the bed. "Let me check how far along you are." his hands were gentle and loving. "As soon as you are both ready." he murmured.
      "So soon?" she panted a bit to steady herself through the next contraction. The feel of him sliding up against her to be able to hold her at the same time he kept an eye on how things were going was wonderful.
      "You've been working at this since shortly after you went to sleep, love." his hand caressing her thigh relaxed her muscles even more. "I wasn't sure if you were going to wake up in time." he grinned.
      "Just like my mother." she giggled and then took a deep gasping breath. The urge to bear down was irresistible.
      "Yes, my love." his kisses on her neck trailed down to her chest. Encouraged by his loving support, she gave in to the next contraction. Their son complained loudly at the crushing pressure.
      With a final enormous effort, she felt their son slide out into Diomid's waiting hand. Panting and desperate for his selyn, she tried to reach for him. Before she could move, he met her grasping tentacles and drove his life into her over the rasp of overused transport nerves. The wonderful feel of her mate smoothed over the faint pain and stilled it.
      After a very quick kiss and caress, he returned to their son, now wailing over the neglect. "Hush little one." she heard him say. The youngster was having none of this and cried even louder. Obviously desperate, Diomid placed him on Kirina's chest. The infant looked up at her with bright, if unfocused eyes and immediately began searching for food. She laughed softly and helped him get one of her nipples in his mouth.
      He almost gulped in air he was so eager. "Easy, little one." she stroked his tiny back.
      Diomid flipped a corner of the blanket over both of them and sat back on his heels breathing heavily. "I think there is no doubt he's healthy." he laughed softly after cleaning everything up.
      Kirina looked down at the very intent youngster trying to eat way too fast. "Easy" she stroked him softly, trying to calm him down. He looked up at her and almost glared. "Oh, you are going to give us the run around, aren't you, my strong lad." she petted him some more. Finally he settled into a slightly calmer pattern of suckling.
      "What say you to letting everyone else know what happened?" Diomid asked her with an impish grin.
      "Breakfast is soon enough. I'm exhausted." she had to stick a tentacle in between her breast and their son to get him to let go long enough to swap him to the other side. "Don't bite." she told him sharply and got a hard look for her interruption. "I'm very, very glad he doesn't have teeth yet."
      Diomid's hand almost completely covered the infant as he stroked their son. The little boy finally relaxed at his father's touch and closed his eyes to concentrate on eating. When he was finished, he didn't even let go but fell asleep at Kirina's breast. She gently rearranged him so he could sleep against her chest. "I don't know about you, but I think he has the right idea."
     
      With a huge yawn, Diomid realized they were both right. Rearranging the bedding, since he had never managed to get the youngster bundled up, he made sure they were warm enough and curled up against them. For a while they dozed, content as could be.
      A gentle tapping on the door woke him from the strangest dream of delivering their son all by himself. Diomid smiled as he looked over to see it was no dream. Kirina was sound asleep again, with their son asleep and well fed on her chest. *Go 'way* he sent to whoever was at the door.
      *!?!* Avilan sent back and then the bright sensation of laughter came to him. *I'll keep them at bay* he sent the image of fighting off everyone with a stick, making Diomid laugh silently. Again he curled up against Kirina's side and went back to his light napping.
     
      He only fully woke when Kirina stirred and caressed the youngster in a drowsy gesture. The lad roused instantly and was hungry. Before he could get up the impetus to cry, Diomid shifted him back to Kirina's breast. "Thanks love." she stroked his hand.
      "No problem." he grinned and slid himself out of bed. Finally after getting the two of them settled by the expedient of sliding a diaper under their otherwise very preoccupied son and draping the two of them with a shawl, he grabbed a robe and looked out the door to the sitting room. Everyone there but Avilan glared at him in irritation.
      Avilan was grinning like a cat in the buttery, "I thought you might take matters in hand."
      "May we come in?" Arkay grumbled, "Finally."
      Nashen laughed softly, "Relax Arkay. I don't think they did it to annoy you."
      "I don't know about that." Arkay grumped.
      "He's eating." Diomid warned them. "Although it seems he is not the sort to let little things, like noisy parades or explosions to distract him from food." he added as he opened the door the rest of the way. Kirina looked up with a grin to match Avilan's.
      Full of outraged dignity Arkay swept by him with Nashen in tow. Avilan whispered to Diomid in passing, "He is not amused."
      "So" Diomid shrugged, making Avilan snicker.
      As Arkay touched the youngster, Kirina had to remind their son, "Don't bite."
      "Fierce." Arkay grinned, stroking the child under the shawl. "Wet too."
      "Yes well, someone has been far more interested in food than propriety today." Diomid grinned. "We'll get him sorted out eventually."
      "What is his name?" Arkay asked finally and Diomid closed his eyes in relief. This was the one thing he couldn't have done, since he was the one to name the child.
      After getting back into bed with Kirina, he firmly convinced their son he would not starve to death if he had to forgo breakfast for a few moments and took the lad in his arms. "I name thee, son of my heart and my beloved mate Kirina, Miran Sergeyevich Sergei." Bright blue eyes looked up at him in wonder. While Miran was still distracted by the goings on, Diomid managed to get him quickly into a clean diaper. "There." he handed the child back to Kirina before he could find something to make him remember he was still hungry.
      "Much better." she tucked a baby blanket around Miran as he voraciously latched on to her other breast. "You are going to give yourself a belly ache if you keep eating like this." her slow stroking to slow him down finally worked. "If nothing else my nipples aren't going to hold out."
      "A small price to pay, my love." he held his hand over hers.
      "Indeed." her eyes held the most incredible joy he had ever seen. "A small price for immortality."