The Rose Garden


     


by

     


Ann Marie Olson

     


     


Story © 2000 Ann Marie Olson
     



     

     



     


      A bit of warning from the author. This piece has no plot. Or rather it has lots of really short plots crammed together with a smidgen of glue. I may return from time to time to this rose garden to practice other writing tecniques.
     


      "What is that wonderful smell?" Sevrin asked suddenly, his face turning towards the east.
      Vanesa was confused, as she normally was when Sevrin went off on something like this. She looked around to try to see what he had spotted. "The roses, I think."
      "Those aren't roses." He cocked his head, walking forward. Vanesa had to tap his field with hers before he tripped over the retaining wall. His field twined out, searching for the obstacle.
      Good thing there isn't anyone out zlinning this. Many of the local renSimes still went into near hysterics when they zlinned Sevrin. "They are not trin roses."
      "I know that." His twit face made brief appearance, at least until she snorted at him in dismay. "Sorry." He was getting a lot better about it. "So, what are they?"
      "As I said, roses, original roses." She smiled, leading him forward. "I used to sneak out here and care for them when I had a spare moment." Her sigh was almost as sad as the litter and blown blossoms remaining on the canes. "I haven't had the time for them of late." Her hand cupped his far larger one, and she showed him one of the still vibrant red blooms.
      "So silky." He leaned forward and smelled it. "But this isn't quite it." Sevrin cocked his head, searching his surroundings. "This is." He turned and caressed a rather sorry looking specimen. "Ow."
      "They do have thorns, sweet."
      "Now you tell me." He grinned at her. "But smell."
      Vanesa leaned forward and smelled the one he pointed out. It did smell different, almost a spicy tone on top of the heady, rich rose fragrance. "It isn't very good looking." Being more than a bit lopsided and a rather dull, almost brown.
      "It is to me." His fingers caressed the petals delicately. "No one has been taking care of this garden, have they?"
      "No, not for a year or so now." She said sadly. "As I said, I've been busy."
      "Would you mind if I did?" His exquisite smile took her breath away. There was no way Vanesa could say no.
      "Not at all."
     
      Now this was probably not the brightest thing Vanesa could have done, but saying no to Sevrin was not the easiest either. She knew she had to save up her ammunition for those times it really mattered.
      "Did you know Sevrin is clearing out the old rose garden?" Riana asked, bouncing Viasha on her knee.
      "I know, believe me, I know." Vanesa still cringed every time he came back inside with his arms laced with tiny pinpricks left by their thorns.
      "Why don't you stop him?" Arkay asked, playing with Sivaya.
      "I can't stop the weather." She snorted, looking at Nashen.
      "Just because I can, doesn't mean I can do a thing about Sevrin." Nashen tickled Sivaya under the chin. Sometimes Vanesa wondered if those two had decided to live at Kaon over the winters just so they could play with the children.
      "Would I do such a thing?" Nashen's grin was infectious and Vanesa shook a tentacle at him.
      "I missed it again." Riana's field darkened in annoyance.
      "Only that your sister wondered if we moved in here over the winters to play with the children." Arkay filled in the blanks.
      "Oh yes you would." Riana accused. "I know you."
      "Knew me too." Nashen said with a wink.
      "You are a lewd man and no gentleman, my Alamir." Arkay gave him a swat with his field.
      "We all know that." Sevrin walked in. Vanesa sighed and held out her hands. Sevrin clucked at her with his tongue, but let her tease his body into healing itself.
      "You get yourself too badly scraped up and I'm going to end up going short." Vanesa examined his arms minutely.
      "In public?" Arkay looked a bit aghast.
      "This isn't public, this is family." Vanesa caressed them gently, stroking the long, fine hairs on his arms.
      "However that is far more lewd than my comment, which was only factual." Nashen actually blushed.
      "Oh, make him do that again." Riana pleaded.
      "It only works when I'm not expecting it." Nashen looked out the window, away from Vanesa's hands.
      "The real trick is to get Arkay to blush." Sevrin whispered in her ear.
      "I haven't done it yet." Nashen flicked a tentacle at his mate. "He's almost as tough as Avilan."
      "No one is that tough." Riana noted, a bit of color coming to her cheeks.
      "Probably because no one has told him it's good for the complexion." Gears churned in Sevrin's mind so loudly Vanesa could hear them.
      "Oh I did, many years ago." Arkay snorted. "Didn't do me a bit of good."
      "Aren't we going to Moskva this summer for a bit?" Sevrin asked, his field almost still with his plotting.
      "Now, now, Sevrin." Vanesa clucked. "I don't want you doing anything which might harm your father."
      "I won't, trust me."
     
      The last time Vanesa had been to Moskva, she hadn't gotten anywhere near the chance to sight see she had hoped. Leaving the children with the men, she and her sister decided to make the most of their temporary freedom. Bees hummed in the low bushes lining the walls of the tiny park. "What do you think Sevrin has in mind?"
      "I have no idea." Vanesa smiled at a pair of mockers arguing over a single branch on an otherwise unoccupied tree. "I usually don't." She waved forward the pair of renSimes who had been trailing them all day. "Here, make yourselves useful." She handed them the packages.
      "But m'Lord, we but not bein' unbusy." The guard protested, as Vanesa loaded her arms with parcels. Finally she had to hand her spear to her partner. "But"
      "What are you doing, Vanesa?" Sevrin seemed to have tracked down the two women with the unerring instinct of a bloodhound.
      "Shopping." Riana quipped. He glared at her.
      "Sharm lords succumb to the lure of shopping for itself." Sevrin did not look amused. The guard did, however, looking away sharply. "And what has you so happy, renSime?"
      "Glad te be seein' m'Lords so well, Sharm Lord Mir." Her light on snowfield nager danced with high good humor. Vanesa decided she liked this one. Most of the renSimes were far too subservient. This woman had some wit.
     
      *Can we take this one home with us?* Vanesa pointed to the renSime with her field.
      *Now you want a servant.* Sevrin sighed, feeling more than a bit like he was walking into a trap. "What is your name little one?" He had been trying to get Vanesa to hire more than Garin's wife for servants since they set up Mir West. Very carefully he scanned the renSime, noting she had already born her children. *Possibly.*
      "M'name's sargent renSime Tanya Mir nee Sergei, m'Lord." Tanya's field quickened even more, turning to mercury in motion. "P'raps we could be talkin' 'bout this a tech later." Her attention flickered across her partner.
      "Ye be havin' yer mate come wit us?" Riana dropped into dialect as easily as if she had been born to it.
      Before the sisters could get any more out of hand, Sevrin sent to his brother, *Sergeant renSime Tanya and her mate, status?*
      *Better manners than you, Sevrin.* Vayer sounded a bit annoyed, but then so did most people Sevrin mind spoke with. *And yes, you two can have any renSimes you want, just no breeding stock and not my chief!* For Vayer had winkled out another literate renSime from Kirov, of all places, and rescued her from the Hunt. The woman, Kylira, was no where near the philosopher Dorityan was, but instead had learned to read and write for the purposes of setting up her own trade empire from the leavings of Kirov.
      There had actually been a rather exciting little fight over the woman, but since Fatima had a chief, Vayer got her. She had immediately accepted the yoke of Vayer's rule when he set her to not only continue her work, but expand it to encompass Mir. Now she was Darya's second, and the primary interface between the Lords of Mir and her renSimes.
      *I've been trying to get Vanesa to accept servants since we moved.* Sevrin sent back the reply with more than a bit of acid. *Independent, self willed renSimes we have in plenty. Ones who want to serve are impossible to find.*
      *Just try not to steal too many others of the Dorityan-Tanya line, Sevrin.* Vayer sent back with a sigh. *I require at least a few to keep Mir going.*
      Sevrin had thought the woman felt familiar. "No, if you like, you can make your decision now, renSime, both of you."
      Her field went even brighter and she turned her attention to her partner, who must also obviously be her mate. He shied back a bit, and then gasped. "Really?"
      "Yes, and I've even been but hearin' te talk they can but be learnin' there." Tanya's low voice was clearly audible to him.
      "You will both be expected to learn English and High Simelan, although it does mean you can't return." Sevrin pointed out. "We will be leaving in less than a week, so if you have to, please think about it. Because of the odd nature of the situation, this is not an order." Vanesa bristled at him until he got to the last.
      *Easy love. They are both good people who serve well and willingly.* The smooth silkiness of their nagers made it more than apparent neither of them were at all uneasy in harness.
      *You make them sound like work animals.* Her distaste became even more apparent.
      *We are all work animals, love. Only some have more joy in their work than others.* Sevrin sent the sense of her fuming over her ledgers with the smell of ink and paper in the background.
      "Point." She chuckled softly.
      "Are you really thinking about taking these two home with us?" Riana's almost silent whisper was outraged.
      "Actually, yes." Vanesa sounded thoughtful.
      Good, finally, Sevrin was getting truly tired of the loneliness of hired help. He never got to know them, their wants, their concerns, their voices. Hired help disappeared at the end of the day. They were not people you got to know.
      "You are going to bring servants, practically slaves, into Kaon!" Riana choked. Sevrin heard a rustle of wrappings and then noted Tanya patting the young woman's back.
      "Na don't ye be frettin', m'lord." Tanya said. "Pyetr and me be takin' care of ye, don't ye zlin if we don't."
      "I hope you chose to take the position." Sevrin gave her a smile. "You'll probably not be standing guard duty as much as more domestic work."
      "And done, m'Lord!" Her partner said, and then there was a warm glow of embarrassment. "I be meanin' te say, at yer will, my Lord Kaon." I've always wanted to be around children, came through loud and clear.
      "You didn't apply to work as a nurse?" Sevrin asked him quietly.
      "I did, but me mate wanted her own childer." He said, equally quietly. "We were but be goin' te try at Mir, but there not be but much call fer such yet." Sand scraped on the paving stones.
      "Then welcome to Kaon, or Mir West as some call it here, both of you." Vanesa said, even though her dismay at Kaon being called an extension of Mir was painfully obvious to Sevrin. "If you know of two or three more couples who might suit us well, I would also like to speak with them."
      "We been but hearin of te ways ye be havin', m'Lord." Tanya said warily. "I don't but be knowin' o' te many who'd be wantin' such instability. Not te fault ye, m'Lord, but, well, te youngins not but be te happy wit out a strong hand at te hilt."
      "I would prefer older couples, like yourselves." Sevrin gave them both a wry grin. "Preferably those who would prefer a less structured household."
      "And not those who'd be but gettin' carried o' themselves away in sech a thing, m'Lord?" Pyetr asked, field dancing with good nature.
      Good, both of them are quick witted and very placid at the same time. "Yes, very much so Pyetr. RenSimes like you and Tanya." He let his field stroke the man.
      "Fer a treat like thet, ye be gettin' but half me friends, m'Lord." His response was a bit startling.
      "Yes, for ones who don't spook easily." Sevrin did it again, pleased as could be at Pyetr's immediate preening under the attention. Most renSimes were so skittish about Sharm Lords, Sevrin's attention was irritant and not balm.
      "We both but been workin' fer Sharm Lord Darya and she be but bein' te sweetest soul, m'Lords." Tanya's field tingled hopefully. Sevrin chuckled and petted her as well. "At yer will, m'Lord Kaon." Her nager melted into the delighted warmth of soft fur on a winter's night.
     
      By the time they left, they ended up with three couples, and one stowaway. "You come out of there right now!" Vanesa snarled.
      "Yes m'Lord." The rapidly rising field and cracking voice told Sevrin immediately the nature of their unwanted guest. Vanesa immediately shifted her public field to need.
      "No!" Sevrin shouted, but it was too late. The young man's field already had begun to respond.
      "That feels so good." He purred, his field rising in a dizzying spiral.
      "Oh shen." Sevrin put his head in his hands. "Why did you induce him?"
      "What?" Vanesa choked. "He's only a boy. Oh, he was." She sighed. "Sorry."
      "Why me?" Sevrin asked the bulkhead. "What did I ever do to deserve this?"
      "I didn't think he was that recently established."
      "I didn't know I had established." The young man's innocence was a plain as the sun in the sky. "I only wanted to see the neat things."
      "Well, you're along for the ride now." Riana chuckled. "What's your name, youngster?"
      "Dimitri, Domi for short." His field twined in desperate embarrassment. "I guess now it's renGen Domi."
      "No, lad." Sevrin corrected. "You are one of the inducted."
      "I what?" His voice cracked. "I wasn't supposed to be. I was supposed te turn out te be a cook." He wailed. "This adventure is not turnin' out the way it was supposed te."
      "They never do, Domi." Sevrin laughed at his suddenly wry and matter of fact tone. "Let Vanesa finish her job on your field and I'll find you something to wear."
      "I have clothes ... oh, a kador." His field was still twining and writhing with the artificial inducement of Vanesa's show of need.
      Where is the lad going to finish? An eyebrow raised as he felt it testing its new environment with ever increasing strength. "Don't you help, Riana." Sevrin warned. "We don't want Domi to run so high he outreaches every channel alive." Sometime the Rus would induct a Gen that hard, but not someone who was expected to remain stable for more than a decade. Finally Sevrin felt Domi's governors kick in, somewhere around twenty six or seven. Wow. He blinked. "Who are your parents?"
      "Maryam, oh, 'scuse me, Mir." The youngster blushed warmly again. "I know m'parents were Maryam, but beyond that, not a whole lot more." This was a fairly typical answer for someone raised entirely by the sharm. "Does this mean I get te learn te read?" His cheerful enthusiasm was infectious and Sevrin had to laugh.
      "Yes, m'lad, it does." *What is the status of the inducted in the West?* Sevrin realized he had never heard anything about them.
      *No different than any other Donor if they choose that path. Why?* Vanesa sent back the surprising information.
      *In Russia, the Inducted are second class citizens. They are considered too artificial.* He sent. Her field jittered. *No, zlin him very carefully* Sevrin pointed out the uncanny uniformity of Domi's nager. *Some of it will fade with age, but not all.* Sevrin heard a soft moan and a thump.
      *Now that you mention it.* Vanesa's field began to shy away from Domi's.
      "Awww, you went away." Disappointment laced through both his field and his voice.
      "I'll take care of you." Riana took over where Vanesa left off.
     
      "Did you ever manage to get Avilan to blush?" Vanesa asked, idly tracing Sevrin's bare flank with a feather.
      "No," He gave an annoyed snort. "Although I did try and if you don't stop teasing me I'm going to do something very lewd to you and make you blush."
      "Oh, like this." Delicately she brushed the very tip of the feather over the inside of Sevrin's elbow. The sensation sent shivers pure pleasure up her spine. Teasing a transfer partner had never really been something Vanesa had done before she ended up bonded to Sevrin, and now she wondered why. His field twined and spiraled into impossible geometric figures. When she reached his wrist, he gasped, trembling.
      "You tease, my love." He finally came back to his senses enough to talk, although his lips were already wet with wanting her.
      "I do." She purred. Leaning over him, her hair tracing over his flank, she nipped at the nerves she had so recently tickled. He trembled beneath her touch, muscles tensing with restraint. Easily, she caught his hand trying to pull her down. "Not yet, my sweet."
      Suddenly he yanked back. Instantly her tentacles lashed around his wrist. "Caught you." He growled, selyn dancing between them.
      Vanesa fought back the urge to grab his other wrist. "Only one of them." She forced her tentacles to loosen, sliding them over his arm in slow, lazy patterns. All of his hair was standing on end, teasing at her gentle touch, trying to call her back and grab. So very lightly she brushed the surface of the gleaming strands.
      His hand slid back, this time trying to tease her into another grasp. She let it go, twining only her tentacles about the very ends of his fingertips. Poised like that, she shifted the feather to her fingers and teased at the palm of his other hand with her tentacles. The very unevenness of the contact set up lighting fast harmonics in the growing bond between them. Intil is such a tame word for this delight. Vanesa noted quietly to herself.
      Very lightly, she let the feather drift across Sevrin's throat. He swallowed, heavily. The very faintest gleams of selyn made visible began to crawl over his forearms. Only Sevrin, of all the Sharm Lords she had known of, would throw off light as well as selyn when he was truly aroused. Vanesa leaned down and licked along one of the traces.
      Immediately his hand entwined in her hair, holding her. Chuckling evilly, she nipped at him again, hard. Sevrin howled, his field a tempest of fire trying to grab her and force her to take him. Its tendrils pulled at her, tugging at her body. Before he could think well enough to marshall his talents, Vanesa curled up against his side, facing away from him this time.
      Easily, gently, she focused on the hand she now had captured for her own as he curled up around her. Very tenderly, she started at the fingertips, slowly nipping and licking at each finger. Uh-oh This position might not have been the best idea.
      Sevrin was gently, but insistently, nipping along the edge of her shoulder. Each tiny kiss or lick, edged him closer and closer to the nape of her neck. His other hand burrowed down through the cushions. It then came up to surround her with its partner. "You couldn't have done better had I asked." His voice rumbled with need. Golden fire teased her tentacles from their sheaths as he clasped her hands.
      "You can't initiate ..." Broke off into an incoherent moan as his lips caressed the nape of her neck with the lightest touch imaginable.
      "Oh yes I can." His breath teased at the sensitive nerves. "But as you teased me so unkindly, I feel I must return the favor." With this he bit, hard. Pain shifted instantly to pleasure with the selyn surrounding her and she howled, writhing in his arms. "Lie still, my lass." He breathed, now licking the sensitized nerves.
      Vision returned, barely. Vanesa quivered with each soft, smooth, sweet touch of Sevrin's tongue. His fingers worked their way in and among her tentacle sheaths. Heat shimmered along her nerves. Startled, Vanesa looked down to see Sevrin just lightly brush his glistening finger towards one of her laterals. This time she moaned, giving into the fiery sensation.
      "Roniplin is wonderful stuff." Sevrin chuckled wickedly. "Wouldn't you say, my love?"
      "Oh, yes, whatever." At this point all she knew was Sevrin and his glorious field surrounding her in a halo of light.
      "Whatever? Then I should stop?" His breath cooled the back of her neck, sending yet more shivers up her spine. Then she realized what he said.
      "No!" She tried to grab him. So very easily he slid his wrists from her grasp. The slipping, sliding sensation only made her desires stronger.
      "Now, now, lets not be greedy." He moved his teeth to the other shoulder, this time being no where near as gentle. Their fiery cocoon darkened to a ruddy amber.
      "Lets." This time Vanesa lashed onto his with all her strength. Sevrin pulled back, almost sliding out of her grasp. She chuckled darkly at his struggles. He slumped against her back, defeated, field graying with remorse.
      Of course she released her hold some, she didn't want to hurt him. Instantly his hands were lose again. She snarled, frustrated. It had been a ruse.
      "That's right, my little Sime." His large hands landed right over her wrists, caging them. The threat of the gesture made her rear back. One breath more pressure. She whimpered at the thought. He struck, biting the back of her neck again.
      Selyn hammered at her, flaring around both of them. Her laterals reached out for it. As they brushed the palms of his hands, the wave crested, crashing down into her system with a demand that could not be denied. Selyn engulfed her, driving her under in its massive drive to live. Heat and life rushed along her nerves and body, filling them to the very edge of pain.
      Vanesa heard the vanishing echoes of her own cry of ecstasy as she fell back into the real world. Sevrin's entire body was trembling at her back. "I love thee, my sweet."
      "As I love thee." Vanesa purred, limp and soft in his arms. His hands slowly stroked the length of her arms. They were wet and slick with roniplin. Another sensation began to rise up within her. Slowly, smoothly, Sevrin began to rock against her. The rhythm called to her, making her close her eyes and concentrate on the delicious sensations coursing through her body.
     
      Soft, silky hair teased at Sevrin's toes as he slid his foot over Vanesa's calves. I am so glad she stopped shaving. It had originally been the silliest argument, and one he only won after a great deal of insistence and the use of his trump card. He absolutely hated using his blindness to talk anyone into anything, but Vanesa's shaving and excessive use of artificial fragrances had been points worth fighting over.
      Thinking of which, Sevrin breathed in deeply, savoring the incredible richness of scent. The sweet, top note of roniplin giving way to the darker harmonies of musk and the very faintest tang of Vanesa's incipient arousal played on Sevrin's nerves like nothing else in the world. Salt and the very slightest hint of copper teased at him as he licked the bite he had given her neck. I think I bit a little too hard. He caressed the slight injury with his cheek, willing it to completely heal.
      Vanesa moaned and pressed back against him. "Not quite yet, little one." He breathed, shifting his hips back to keep from getting bent. Sevrin was more than physically ready for her, but wanted to take his time. Taking a handful of his own hair, Sevrin stroked the length of her body. The silk on skin feel echoed between them.
      Hot, wet velvet twined about his fingertips. Desperately, Sevrin grasped Vanesa's hips for a moment, pulling her to him. She twisted in his hold. In the space of a breath, she had him captured between her thighs. You can't get me like this. Sevrin thought, far too innocently. Silky smooth curls tickled his questing hardness. The heat of her teased at him even more. His hand slid down to stroke her, easily parting her lips and coming to rest on her quivering heartbeat.
      Every lithe, gentle move Vanesa made stroked him as well. Sevrin could feel his wetness seep between his fingers to mingle with hers. The musky tang of her tempted him too much. For an moment, he let go of his hold on her to taste her fragrance on his fingertips. Vanesa's hips tilted just a cent to far and she caught him.
      He tried to pull back, but Vanesa's hold only made him more frantic to fill her. Caught between want and must, Sevrin froze. Vanesa chuckled, sending even more waves of must through his entire body. One small fraction at a time, she took him. As their bodies finally joined to the hilt, Sevrin lost all control.
      Frantically, he held her to him, filling her with his desperate release. Howling, he felt her grasp him with a hold of iron. Shuddering, he tried not to think of how he had failed.
      Then she moved on him, stroking his far too sensitive length as if they had just begun. Sevrin whimpered with the overwhelming sensations. Shivers of nearly painful pleasure wracked his body. Sweat streamed down between them. Slick, wet motion fired through all his senses. His hands tried to cup her entire body all at once, sliding over her silken skin with a heat which only fired his desires more.
      Her soft cries of pleasure rang in his ears. The perfect curves of her body filled his palms as he filled her grasp. Slowly this time, he stroked her, matching his touch to the movement of their bodies. "Yes, my love." She purred, now opening her mind to him as well as her body. In a dizzying spiral, the sensations of filling and being filled fed back on each other. Sweet fire surprised both of them as they came together one last time in loving release.
      "Oh, my sweet beautiful love." Sevrin murmured in Vanesa's ear. "Thank you, my mate, my love, my heart's desire."
      "Thank you, my love." Her hand reached back to caress him gently. "You were more than perfect."
      "Hardly." His kissed the back of her neck. "I got a little carried away." He gently licked some of the salt from her skin. The taste of her made him shiver again, uncontrollably. Or is it her shivers? He nuzzled her soft neck.
      "I liked." Her hand clenched at his hip momentarily. "I like to think I can make you lose control sometimes."
      "That you do, my love, that you do." He purred, beginning to drowse off. "You were wonderful." He hugged her even more tightly to him. Her entire body was so very limp in its relaxation, as if all her bones had melted and all that remained was strong, smooth silk cords. Her jaw popped in a huge yawn, and then she went even limper, slipping into sleep instantly. With one final burst of strength and awareness, Sevrin flicked a sheet over both of them and then joined her.
     
      "Are you sure they're going to be able to make it?" Vayer asked both Tzer and Mikhail.
      "Yes." Mikhail looked up at the gunmetal grey skies. "We've been working to make sure the weather would be reasonably stable for at least a week." Soft, white flakes of snow drifted through the air.
      "It doesn't look like it." He glared at Tzer.
      "I know it doesn't, Vayer." Tzer snorted. "But who is the weather worker here?"
      "You are." He replied automatically. "But it's snowing."
      "I does that in winter." Tzer flipped his silver hair back off his shoulders.
      "I know that Lord Fatima." Vayer couldn't help but growl. "How are they going to land in this?"
      "Easily." Mikhail sighed. "The problems are high winds, thick fog or unstable conditions."
      "This snow is nothing." Tzer smiled at him, shaking his head. "We should be dealing with fifty klick per hour gusting winds and over two meters of snow for this storm right now. If they come in, land and the plane leaves within an hour, there won't be any such thing." He looked up and waved his hand at the sky. "It's still waiting for my call to release, quite nicely actually. There's a lot of water in this storm."
      Actually the day was relatively warm, about minus ten or so, but still Vayer wasn't too comfortable with the idea of trying to bring in any kind of flying machine during the winter. Finally he heard the drone of the engines. "Are you sure leading them in with your talent and Nivanya's is such a good idea?"
      "Quit fussing or I'm going to send you home." Tzer growled and tapped him on the nose, giving him a good sized shock. Vayer twitched his nose.
      "All right, I'm just worried."
      "I know you are, but I can't help, Vayer." Mikhail told him wryly, going to place his hands on Tzer's shoulders.
      "I know, when you're working with Tzer, you have to focus on him. I've seen Nashen and Arkay work before." And it still bothered him sometimes. Arkay seemed to enjoy it well enough, but Mikhail positively reveled in Tzer's lightning storms.
      The two young men really were a perfect couple, even their talents interlacing to a great degree and Vayer offered thanks on a regular basis for allowing Arkay to talk him into taking Tzer out from under ban. Even though, thinking back on it, he realized much of his show of reluctance at Kaon was to drive the two of them together. Tzer, without Mikhail, truly had been a menace to those around him. Only Mikhail was strong enough and controlled enough to curb Tzer's abilities.
      "If you could hold this." Tzer handed Vayer his coat. I feel like a coat rack. Nivanya had already divested herself of hers. Ilyan snickered at him.
      "Hush." Vayer told him. "I'm not working this little pyrotechnics show."
      "And that's why you have two coats, four hats and many gloves in your arms." Ilyan winked. "Warm enough?"
      "Plenty." He grinned.
      "I could help." Nivanya winked and Vayer felt a trace of heat caress his face. She was nearly bare, only wearing her tunic, trousers and boots in the slow falling snow.
      "Please, don't. If you scorch my beard off Darya will never forgive me." Actually he was sweating under the pile of fur lined garments.
      "Ok, time to get to work folks."
      "Don't make the pilot wet his pants, you four." Vayer warned them, hearing the plane circle around for final approach.
      "We won't, even if it would be a lot of fun." Nivanya chuckled. "You first Tzer, I want you to set up the lines."
      "Here goes." Tzer said, leaning back into Mikhail's embrace. A crack of thunder matched the arcs of electricity he seemed to throw across the landing field. In two perfectly straight lines they burrowed through the snow, sending it flying into the air.
      "Perfect." Nivanya said. Ilyan rested his hands on her shoulders. Fire followed the lightning in a rolling cloud. Steam rose into the cold air, making the upwards blizzard of Tzer's work vanish in a heartbeat. A gentle breeze drifted across the field, wafting the runway clean.
      "Nice job you two." Vayer was truly impressed. A twenty meter wide track had opened up right down the center of the huge area they used as a runway. It was ruler straight. There were even two black lines marking off the wheel paths.
      "That was fun." Nivanya crowed.
      "Easy lass." Ilyan kissed her hair. "Easy."
      Tzer turned to him, still showing electrical fire tracing across his normally silver eyes, turning them bright blue. "Acceptable?"
      "Yes, Tzer." Vayer laughed. "Quite."
      "Good." His eyes rolled up in his head as Mikhail's hands caressed his arms. For a moment Vayer thought the young man was going to faint, then he zlinned Mikhail's ecstatic reaction to his own caress. Vayer had to turn away or blush furiously. His own talents were far less showy, and definitely less tied to his own body's reactions. Fatima was decidedly the worst; he caught both Nivanya and Ilyan turning away as well.
      Ilyan sent him, *I hope they're too well clothed to get too carried away.*
      Vayer just nodded yes. Even though Ilyan's hands had slid beneath Nivanya's loosely tied tunic and were completely out of sight. Eventually he had to turn back, as the deafening roar of airplane engines reached a new high. Mikhail had, thankfully, wrapped his cloak around Tzer completely, and while they were intertwined like vines on a stake, at least neither of them were now broadcasting open sensuality.
      A couple of relatively soft thumps and the plane was grounded. It rolled to a neat halt, about a hundred meters away. Its engines threw up huge gusts of snow and ice, but fortunately it hadn't snowed so much yet they touched the white surface. We forgot something. He looked at Tzer.
      "How are they going to take off again?" Vayer asked.
      "Uh-oh." Nivanya looked at him hopefully.
      Vayer could now see the pilot's expression. It was not very faith inspiring. The woman was as white as the snow. "All right, here's the plan." He sighed.
      "Sounds good to me." Tzer piped up. "Although too much more of this and I'm not going to want to wait to get back to Fatima afterwards. We only had transfer yesterday, Vayer."
      "Oh dear." He sighed again. "Well, do your best."
      "Mikhail always does his best." Tzer reached back and caressed his partner's face.
      "I recommend you get the pilot someplace she can't see what we are doing." Ilyan pointed out.
      "Good idea, I think she's about to faint as is." Vayer snorted and began walking towards the plane. Everyone was trying to pile out of the plane. It was a mess. "Hold on, everyone!"
      "Good idea." Arkay grabbed him in a huge hug.
      "That wasn't what I meant." He hugged him right back anyways, neatly divesting himself of the extra garments. Vayer really did miss Arkay during the winters, even if it was for the best he go someplace warmer usually. Then he saw the pilot at the top of the stairs as well. Vayer hurried forward and trapped her inside, asking inane questions about how various fittings worked.
      "But how did you get such a big area cleared off?" Her brown eyes were huge and her nager was quite spiky with worry.
      "Special shovels." He said, caressing her back. "No, how does ..."
      "How am I going to get out of here?" Her muscles quivered beneath his hand.
      "It will be taken care of. By the time we get everything and everyone unloaded, there will be large cleared areas for you to turn around in." A huge thunder crack made the plane tremble. The pilot bolted for the controls. Vayer ran after her. The breeze had picked up and by the time they got there, a large area had been cleared of snow. Even from here, Vayer could see Tzer kissing Mikhail quite enthusiastically before they turned their attention to the other end of the area.
      Of course it didn't help that he too had taken off his shirt and was now only wearing a tunic like Nivanya. "It is freezing out there." The pilot shivered.
      "They are part of the work crew." Vayer gently turned her around.
      "The young man and woman both?" She looked back over her shoulder.
      "Yes, they're working hard enough not to be cold." Not that it was all that cold outside.
      "They're fast." She gasped.
      "Yes, very. It's a form of augmentation." He lied smoothly. "They should have another area at the other end of the runway cleared soon." With that a much quieter thunder clap hit. That one felt like Nashen. Vayer noted the different harmonics. He looked out the open door to see Nashen kiss Arkay passionately. And those two are probably almost as post as the other two. "Will that do?" He pointed over the tail of the plane?"
      "Uh, yes, thanks." Now her field matched the snow as well as her face.
      "We didn't touch the plane, don't think about it." Vayer gave the woman a bit of a shove with his mind as well as his field. He felt Arkay join him, slipping a bit of a calming attitude into the young woman's mind. "Better?"
      "Yes, certainly." She brightened up, grinning. "I have no idea why I'm so worried. I've made the run to the mystics."
      "Then you've seen a lot more excitement than we have." Vayer felt silly for all the overreaction. The mystics were as old as the Tribes, and far more skilled in the esoterics of mental abilities.
      "That I have." Her head turned, following the porters rapidly unloading the plane. "Is all this going back?"
      "No, it's mostly trade goods." He eyed the markings on the crates. "Only a few actually belong to people. Now, if you'll excuse me."
      "Oh, certainly. I didn't mean to keep you." Her bow gave all the indication of someone very well traveled. Being entirely inoffensive to anyone and showing almost no particular cultural origin. "I would love to stay some time though. I never get to play tourist, only mule."
      Vayer laughed. "I'll see if I can talk your supervisor into letting you come play when we aren't meters deep in snow and ice."
      "She's a real stickler for schedules." The woman sighed. "Not that I blame her, the work has to be done. My name is Karla ambrav Kaon."
      "I know I can talk your Sectuib into it." He winked.
      "Who are you, anyways?" She cocked her head at him quizzically.
      "Other than being an occasional coat rack, I'm usually the leader of Mir."
      Karla looked totally aghast. "I've been standing around wasting your time, my Lord. I'm sorry."
      "Hush, little one." He grinned. "Talking with a pretty young renSime is never a waste of time. Besides, you brought something to my attention which has to be fixed."
      "I did?" She asked as they came to the door.
      "Yes, you did." He tapped her on the nose. "I have to make sure people like you, who want to, get the chance to sight see on stopovers. It makes everyone more comfortable when people are happy with their work."
      "It isn't the most efficient thing."
      "Hush." He said. "It is. You are more efficient when you're happy. Besides, it saves wear and tear on the equipment to have someone who doesn't pop out of their skin when the locals set off fireworks to create a runway."
      "Or at least on the furnishings." She laughed. "My first nighttime landing in Deli required the upholstery to be washed on the pilot's chair."
      "I bet it did." He laughed delightedly. "I would love to have you come visit this summer."
      "I look forward to it, m'Lord." The last crate and parcel had finally been taken off the plane.
      "See you then." Vayer skipped down the stairs and noted Arkay had handed the coats off to Sevrin. "Give them back, brother mine." He told Sevrin. Sevrin grinned and bundled up their father.
      "I'm not cold yet." He scowled. "Hey."
      Nashen had bundled him up like a bear already, with the extra garments Arkay looked nearly spherical. "I'm cold, therefore you have to wear the coats."
      "Let's get the slow moving members of this party into the sleigh." Vayer chivied them, Sevrin and Vanesa into the seats and made sure they were bundled up.
      "Warm." Vanesa burrowed into the furs until only her nose showed. "It's cold out here!" She looked like a furry rock her middle was so big compared to the rest of her.
      "I'll agree with you." Sevrin snuggled up next to her. "Let's go, lads." He clucked to the horses. Their breath steamed in the air and they moved off with a lurch before the driver got himself organized.
     
      Vanesa had never worn a coat before. Certainly she had seen Gens wearing them, but the idea of having something over her tentacles had always seemed awful before. "I can keep warm by augmenting." She eyed the garment with absolute distaste. "What about a cape?"
      "Not warm enough alone. I am not going to let you get frostbite on your tentacles." Sevrin held out the coat. The cuffs seemed like they wouldn't bind, but still she wasn't sure.
      "Do we really want to do this?" Suddenly it didn't seem like so much fun.
      "Yes, we do." He kissed her nose. "Come on, for me?"
      "For you." She chuckled softly and slid into the warm, ankle length coat. From the elbow down, the sleeves and cuffs were lined with a fur so soft it almost felt like mist. Then he placed a cape over her shoulders.
      He shrugged into his own and they dashed outside before they sweated themselves to death. "Oh, my goodness." Vanesa looked up at the stars overhead. They were as brilliant as diamonds in the clear night sky. "Now I know why you wanted to walk."
      "I thought you would like it." He murmured in her ear.
      "It's absolutely beautiful." She breathed, holding his arm. "Thank you."
      "I can sense their beauty through you, my pretty one, thank you for showing them to me." He said as he began to lead her through the narrow paths cleared down the centers of the streets. Steel cleats on the bottoms of their shoes bit into the thick layer of ice on the cobbles.
      Vanesa could hear snatches of song from many of the houses along the way. "What do people do during the winters, at least those who aren't working?"
      "Many of them sing, or play games, or visit with their friends. Some of the Demense work almost as hard in the winter as they do in the summer, such as Azov and Kirov." He turned his face towards one particularly beautiful snippet of song. "Azov does most of his spinning and weaving during the winters and Kirov does a lot of his gem carving and very fine metal work at this time of year. Perhaps we can hear some of the songs the Azov sharm sings while we are visiting."
      "The entire sharm?"
      "Actually the spinners and weavers have songs they've made to go with the rhythms of their work. Or the storytellers perform for the workers." His smile was very fond, as if remembering times spent listening to such things. "It makes the work go more like play."
      "That is a big thing here, isn't it?" She realized her tentacles had been sliding through the soft fur of her cuffs only when one of them hit the frigid air and slithered back in to safety.
      "Yes." He smiled at her. "We don't have the split between work and play you do."
      "I can zlin that now." She had to stop as a voice of breathtaking purity indulged in a wild display of aural acrobatics. "You don't work so fast or so hard as we do either. I wouldn't have believed it without zlinning it."
      "There is no need to." He said softly, stopping with her to listen to the vocalist. "I use the word need deliberately, as long as we have what we want, there we stop."
      "Sometimes I wonder if I wouldn't be happier here." She sighed as the singer stopped.
      "Na I have te be finishin' te dinner lads, se get busy wit te choppin'" The same voice rang out loudly enough to be heard from the street.
      "That was a cook?" Vanesa looked at Sevrin, stunned.
      "Sounds like." He grinned back at her and kissed her on the nose. "Wonder if she cooks as well as she sings."
      "I have no idea." They walked on together, arm in arm.
      "No, I think I would probably get bored after a few years here." Vanesa sighed. "I want to go on and do new things."
      "As do I, little one." He echoed her sigh. "I love working with Kaon, the sheer vitality and growth is incredibly intoxicating sometimes."
      "When it isn't downright maddening." Vanesa looked around. "I am so glad though this place will be here though for the future as well. It is so incredibly beautiful."
      "I'm glad for the diversity." Sevrin gave her one of his brilliant smiles. "To only have one way in the world is truly the height of folly."
      "And again we find ourselves in agreement." Vanesa twitted him. "I love you, Sevrin."
      "I'm glad." He grinned and then kissed her thoroughly. "I love you, Vanesa."
      Breathless, she simply looked up at him. "Thank you." She brought his hand over to caress her vanished waistline. Their son stirred restlessly beneath their joined hands.
     
      "What took you so long?" Avilan asked, thrilled again to see Sevrin looking so vibrant and alive. His nose and cheeks were red from the cold outside as he handed the servants their ice cleats.
      "We walked." Vanesa grinned up at him, shedding her outer clothes into the hands of the servants. She turned around, startled. Avilan chuckled at her surprise. Shyly, she acknowledged the bows of the renSimes.
      "Be well and do your best, little ones." Sevrin told them softly.
      "At yer will, m'Lords." They spoke in chorus and then scurried off.
      "You walked, when it's less then twenty five below out?" He shivered a bit at the thought. Normally he didn't like to be cooped up, but taking a stroll on a clear night in the dead of winter was a bit much.
      "I wanted Vanesa to see the stars for me." Sevrin winked. *She had to get out. The indoor air and closeness were starting to unnerve her.*
      *I can understand that, but what if she slipped and fell?* Even with the spikes on their shoes, the ice could be treacherous.
      *I would have caught her.* Sevrin's assurance was so glib Avilan could only shake his head. "Did you enjoy the people singing?"
      "Oh yes." Her smile transformed her rather ordinary face into quite stunning beauty. "Sevrin says the weavers and spinners sing as well."
      "Would you like to hear them?" He asked, taking her other elbow. There was a flicker of resistance. Making the shift to sense fields, Avilan found Vanesa's entire body cradled in a nearly physical web of power.
      "Yes, I would, if they're still working."
      Avilan chuckled softly. "It isn't even official dusk, little one."
      "I'm still a bit confused with the way it gets dark so early." She shook her head. "My time sense is one thing, but when it's dark out, the rest of me still expects it to be later. Lead on, otyet."
      "Certainly" He kissed her dark hair at the wonderful complement. "Any thing you want."
      "Any thing?" Her zlinning him up and down almost undid him. It was as if she had wrapped her field around him and petted him far more intimately than he would have expected. "You know I'm going to have to find someone else to have transfer with to make certain Sevrin will be at his highest for the delivery of our son."
      "Well, yes, of course." Not that Avilan had thought things through. He rarely did. Usually he let Karola deal with that end of things. She was much better at it and he knew it.
      "We would like you to be the one to step in." Her hand caressed his bracelets, making them jangle even more.
      "Me?" Came out in a strangled squawk. "I am flattered. Really, I am." He tried to think. Vanesa's tentacles twining between his bracelets were not helping. "I have to ask Karola."
      "We already did." Sevrin said. "Actually Karola was the one who recommended we ask you."
      "She did?" This came out even more strangled. "Oh," he looked at the two of them carefully. "If you don't mind my asking, why me?"
      "Because I would like to know you." Vanesa said, giving the term know all of its possible connotations.
      "Uh," Avilan stuttered, turning bright red, knowing she must have misstated herself. "If I don't hold back on transfer at all you're likely to get to know me a bit better than you might have expected." He couldn't believe she was coming on to him like this. The wall was nice and cool against his back. Both Mikhail and Riana were more than a bit prudish about such things.
      "Even though I'm pregnant?"
      She really didn't have to remind him. Gently, so as not to startle her, Avilan asked to caress their son. Vanesa nodded to him. With the ease of a great deal of practice, Avilan allowed his awareness to feel the young child. The youngster reached back, as if he could grasp Avilan's caress. "Particularly because you're pregnant, Vanesa." He admitted, blushing furiously, all the way down to his toes it seemed.
      "You're blushing, otyet." Sevrin pointed out.
      "So I am." He dropped his eyes. "You've found my secret. I think pregnant women are the most beautiful creations on earth and I'm afraid I don't quite have the control around them I do otherwise."
      "I'm huge and ungainly, Avilan." Vanesa protested. "And, well, neither of us quite know what is safe."
      "You poor youngsters." He gathered them into a big hug. "I'm surprised Sevrin didn't know." Avilan twitted his son.
      "I know, technically." Sevrin shrugged. "But, on the practical side of things, well, that is another matter. I didn't want to take any unnecessary risks."
      "Ask." He said.
      "I did." Vanesa snorted. "My own physician just about ran from the room wailing about my being unnatural and an unfit mother."
      "You poor youngling." He kissed her forehead. "It isn't. As long as you are comfortable, and you don't get too acrobatic, you both will be fine."
      "I suppose you would know." She chuckled softly. "Personally, I've been getting rather frustrated."
      "I can understand that." He grinned. "As long as neither of you have a problem with my age or the fact I really am Sevrin's father."
      "You will never be old, otyet." Sevrin snorted again. "You may garner years, but I doubt they will ever make you grow up in some ways."
      "I hope not." He tapped Sevrin's nose. "And you, little one?" Avilan asked Vanesa.
      "I never really knew you as Sevrin's father until long after I met you. To me, you feel safe, as if you would protect me, no matter what." Her trust warmed him more than he would have thought possible.
      "You hardly know me, little one." But the temptation was so strong to not say anything and just do whatever she wanted it burned.
      "I know you're a good person, Avilan." Her smile was very kind. "You did everything you could to make my sister happy when you didn't know either of us."
      Avilan still regretted how that whole mess had turned out. "If only ..."
      "If only nothing. You went against your better judgement and it didn't turn out. These things happen." Her hand caressed the side of his face. "You never breathed a word of reproach to anyone."
      "I talked about it with Diomid." He admitted, still a bit torn by the whole thing. Riana had been so thrilled and then to have it not work out had been so hard on her.
      "I thought you had enough sense to talk it out." Sevrin chided him. "Unlike some of us."
      "Yes, well. You always did have a hard head." Avilan got himself back under control. "Thank you, both."
      "Then you'll stand in for me?" Sevrin asked, his fingertips brushing lightly over Avilan's face, matching Vanesa's gesture. The reminder of Sevrin's blindness didn't really sting anymore, only a bit of a dull ache. "If you don't want to, I'm sure we can ..."
      "Hush, m'lad." He said, taking their hands in his. "Yes, I'll be very glad to do it, as long as I am not the one to find Karola a replacement."
      "She was going to try to catch Arkay one last time." Sevrin chuckled. "I wished her luck."
      "She's going to require it." Avilan shook his head. "Although he is the only other Sharm Lord who can truly satisfy her who isn't too closely related."
      "I think it was just that she misses him." Vanesa said, with rather unexpected insight.
      "You're probably right."
     
      "Arkay, my Alahin, why are thee so restless?" Nashen asked softly, worried. It wasn't at all like him to pace the room like a caged beast.
      "I don't want to hurt thee, my Alamir." He sat heavily at Nashen's feet, resting his head against Nashen's leg, bare beneath his light robe. Gently, Nashen stroked Arkay's long hair, now loose and trailing around him like a silver waterfall. His light blue eyes were wide with distress and his field sharp with dismay. "I would never hurt thee if I could help it."
      "I know, beloved." He let his tentacles twine in the heavy weight of Arkay's hair. "But you love her as well."
      "If ..."
      "Hush, my friend." Nashen rested his fingertip on Arkay's lips. "There is no fault in thee for loving. If thy heart were so stingy as to only be able to love but one, thee would not be my Alahin."
      "Thy words do bring shame to my heart, beloved." His soft smile made Nashen's heart beat faster, even still. "I am no where near as pure of heart and soul as thee."
      Nashen chuckled softly. "Thy words flatter me beyond all reason. I am but as human as thee." He kissed Arkay gently. "My love for thee is so boundless I have no fear for thy abandonment of me. For as long as we both shall live, my heart shall be thine, no matter who thee may touch, or in what manner."
      "Thou art a poet as well, my beloved Alamir." He sighed. "Why do you put up with my moods and my foolishness?"
      "I had only thought to have thee once, and that but for the needs of the moment." He thought of that night so long ago in Jaffa. "Every moment since has been beyond price and beyond my wildest hopes. I've never done aught but count my good fortune in your love and given thanks for every heartbeat you've shared with me."
      "I love you, Nashen Fatimovich Fatima, with every fibre of my being and every moment of my life. Your faith and love brought me back from despair and the darkest reaches of hell. Your humor and light showed me life as it could be, not the shadows I had been living. All I could bring thee was distress and pain, yet thee loved me still." His hand reached up to twine with Nashen's. The cool, rough skin was almost more familiar than his own now.
      "No, I can't cut in." Karola said from the doorway with a small grin. "I love you Arkay, but it can't be."
      "Do you mean I don't get Vayer this month?" Nashen finally played his trump card. Certainly he was nervous about having transfer with anyone but Arkay, it had been so long, but he still wanted to know Vayer's touch.
      "What?!" They said in chorus, both looking completely startled.
      "You never ... ." Arkay gasped.
      "Why didn't you ... ?" Karola blinked.
      "Because I didn't want to try to force either of your hands." Nashen gave them a grin. It was true, as far as it went. Truly he would have rather they didn't worry about him at all. He wanted to give Arkay a gift, free and clear.
      "Hush, Nashen." Karola came over and echoed Arkay's position. "You think too little of yourself."
      "As I often think too much of myself." Arkay snorted.
      "Yes, you are a good pair." Karola kissed Nashen's knee. "Too good sometimes. I would have liked to have known you had someone else set up, Nashen."
      "I didn't think it all that important." He said, stroking her hair as well.
      "I knew he did, but not whom or why." Arkay rolled his eyes. "Why do you always play your cards so close, beloved?"
      "Because I enjoy it." He made one of those funny, scrunched up faces Arkay loved so well, making his lover chuckle. "Also, I wanted there to be an out if something went wrong. I'm a little cautious where you're concerned, my Alahin."
      "Good, someone should be." Karola grimaced. "Everyone knows it isn't Arkay."
      "Too true there." Vayer chimed in. "What is it, too much exposure to Simes and Sharm Lords start trying to drown in the rain too?" He set his sword belt on the hook by the door.
      "I think so." Nashen let his tentacles twine about Arkay's ear, distracting him from answering. He actually managed to distract him so much, Arkay nodded yes. Karola chuckled. Arkay blinked, field zlinning more than a bit confused. "Got you." He grinned.
      "So you did." Arkay's eyes were unfocused and rather dreamy. Nashen zlinned the ambient. All three of them were showing need. No wonder Arkay was a bit distracted. Arkay's eyes finally closed and his wings zlinned into being.
      "Come and sit on the floor with us, Nashen." Vayer sat and offered his hands.
      "I should put more wood on the fire first." He protested, getting to his feet.
      "Quit, Nashen." Karola snapped. A rather large log added itself to the fire.
      "You win." He sat.
      "Congratulations, Karola." Arkay said, coming out of his distraction a bit. "I never win an argument with him."
      "I know how to pick my fights." She stroked his hands with her tentacles. Nashen and Vayer simply cradled Karola's and Arkay's hands in theirs. For an instant Nashen shivered in dread as her tentacles moved up to Arkay's wrists. "Easy love." Karola said, retreating slightly. "Nothing either of you are uncomfortable with."
      "I know." He said, taking a deep breath. "It's hard though. Let me try something."
      "Go ahead." Arkay's field was a bit unsteady as well.
      "Come on." He got up and waved everyone to the bed. "The floor is a bit hard for some of us skinny old Simes."
      "Cold for the lone Gen here too." Arkay concurred. "Even with the fire."
      Soon he had them all the way he wanted them. Nashen rested his chin on Karola's shoulder. "Now, let's try this again." Vayer grinned at him from behind his father. This time Nashen could tease out Arkay's reluctant field, twining his own about Karola's. Arkay's eyes went black as he finally locked in on Karola. "Yes." He whispered, holding them both close. Before he could lose his nerve, Vayer reached around Arkay and caught Nashen's hands.
      The lifeline reassured him and he held on to his need. Then Karola bound him to her wrists with her tentacles. Vayer chuckled softly. "Catch." He said.
      The next thing Nashen knew was the feel of Arkay's field rising up before him. He moaned, reaching for it, forgetting all about what he was doing. Nashen grabbed him, almost at the elbow, above his bracelets. Cool, wonderful fog with Arkay's so signature firefly lights teased at the darkness within him.
      Leaning forward, he hesitated.
      Feathered wings wrapped his soul in their embrace and Nashen felt himself borne up in their glory yet again. Love and life renewed coursed through him, with a softness he had only dreamed of. He sighed, feeling the warmth of Arkay's care banish the night. Slowly he opened his eyes, more than a bit dismayed. This wasn't what I planned. Only to find himself looking into Vayer's eyes. He blinked, stunned.
      "Caught you, father of my heart." Vayer kissed him gently. "Thank you."
      "Thank you, son of my heart." He grinned wryly, realizing what had happened. "You did a wonderful job." Karola's deep moan distracted him. As gently as he could, Nashen tried to extricate himself from the tangle of tentacles and hands before she and Arkay got too carried away. "I don't think they noticed."
      "I don't think so." Vayer chuckled, gingerly pulling himself loose as well. It did not bother Nashen at all when, as soon as he and Vayer had gotten free, Arkay pulled Karola onto his lap, quite forcefully. "I think this is my cue to exit." He winked, nodding to his parents
      "I think so." He chuckled, feeling more than a bit inclined to join in their sporting. "Thank you again, Vayer. That was excellently done."
      "Avilan is my father too." He pointed out, put on his sword belt and let himself out, whistling a quite bawdy song.
      Freed of Vayer's inhibiting influence, Nashen realized he was very post. Tentatively, he teased the laces of Karola's shirt open.
      "I'm not exactly untouched, my old friend." Karola said softly, capturing his hands on her ribs.
      "Neither am I, sweet." He kissed her neck, opposite Arkay. Her soft skin teased at him like no woman since Darya. "I don't much care for maidens who look like half starved hounds." Actually he had always enjoyed looking at Karola.
      "That I'm not." She released his hands. "I only hope you aren't too disappointed."
      "Hush." He let his hands slide downwards, as it seemed she was uneasy with his earlier endeavors. Her strong, full body made his breath catch. Annoyed, his hands ran into a rather tightly bound corselet. "Silly woman." He growled.
      "Huh?" Arkay looked at him questioningly. Nashen took advantage of Arkay's distraction to remove Karola's shirt. He almost snapped the laces on her corselet in his irritation getting it off.
      When Karola took a deep gasping breath Nashen did snarl. "Foolishness." His hands traced over the angry red lines on her skin. "You are beautiful woman, silly." He kissed at the lines where the boning had cut into her fair skin.
      "See, someone else agrees with me and Avilan." Arkay chided her.
      "You win." She laughed, stretching her arms over her head. Nashen had to refrain from doing something horribly rude, like pulling her onto his lap. Instead he settled for sliding his hands up Karola's exquisite body. He met Arkay half way, on Arkay's way down. Easily they changed course, with Nashen reaching around to cup Karola's wonderfully soft breasts and Arkay pulling her to his chest by cupping her buttocks beneath her pants. "Oh my, I'd forgotten what it's like to have two men at the same time."
      "Then let us help you remember." Arkay murmured in her ear. "I love you, Karola."

     She stiffened in surprise. "I love you, Arkay, ever since I met you."
      "As it should be, both of you." Nashen encouraged.
      Then Arkay chuckled softly. "I see someone was prepared."
      Karola blushed furiously. "I had hoped." It was only then Nashen realized the lacing pattern on Karola's pants did not go all the way from front to back for show. "I got tired of either Arkay or Avilan tearing my pants when we got stuck in this position."
      Nashen had to laugh. "You are a delight, Karola." He pulled the bit of cord from the back. Impishly, he looped it around Arkay's back and pulled his love in for a kiss.
      "And you two are absolutely stunning together." She replied.
      "He's the beautiful one." They said in chorus, and then laughed. "You are silly, beloved." Again they spoke together, this time making Karola laugh as well.
      "Hmmmm." Nashen nipped at her neck. Her sliding about was definitely getting his interest up. As if they had choreographed it, Arkay mirrored his gesture. Relaxing into it, they let the bond between them dictate their movements. Karola moaned, spurring them on.
      They chuckled together. Pressing her between them, they rose on their knees. Nashen felt Arkay's kiss as if he had parted Karola's lips himself. All her muscles gave way as she focused entirely on Arkay's kiss. With a wicked grin, Nashen nipped the back of her neck at the same time. Responsive Nashen noted as she shivered between them.
      Very Arkay replied.
      "There's more than room for two." Karola murmured. ? Nashen nuzzled her neck.
      "Patience, my sweet." Arkay purred, lifting her even higher between them. Nashen felt him slide into her. He groaned at the sensation. Then, ever so slowly, Arkay let her slide down even more, trapping him as well, one slow bit at a time.
      "Oh my." Nashen clenched at her hips, slowing her movement to catch his breath. Arkay slid against him, within her hold. "Oh my goodness." He bit at her shoulder. She howled, grasping at both of them. The nearly crushing pressure gave lie to her protestations of size.
      Gently, Arkay began moving her between them. All Nashen could do was try to hold back. His hands grabbed Arkay even closer. "Yes, my Alamir." He purred, rocking his hips in time with the motion. Again and again, Karola called out her passions.
      Finally he could stay still no longer. He began driving himself into her. Together, their rhythm sped up. Arkay's deep growl drove him over the edge. "Yesss!" He hissed, biting at Karola's shoulder and filling her with his release. She screamed as Arkay struck at the same time, also filling her. White hot passion blinded all three of them as they came together completely.
      It was a very, very limp Karola between them. Nashen kissed at the bite mark he had left on her shoulder. She shivered again, gasping. Arkay chuckled and sent him Karola's completely sated expression.
      "Thank you, beautiful lady." He murmured in her ear, licking at it gently. Her quiver reached all the way down to her toes.
      "Yes, thank you, my beloved Karola." Arkay murmured in the other ear. She melted, trying to slide out of their grasp.
      "Hmmm, soggy spot." She murmured as they all slowly disengaged.
      "It's a big bed." Nashen steered them to the other side.
      "Good thing." Her body offered absolutely no resistance. "Nap time?"
      "Nap time, love." Arkay kissed her brow.
      She looked back over her shoulder. Her eyes were nearly closed and heavy lidded with contentment. Nashen kissed her softly. Then was taken aback by a yawn himself. "Like?" She grinned at him.
      "Thank you, yes, very much." He caressed the line of her shoulder lightly. "From both of us."
      "Had both of you too." She pulled him down to curl up around her. "Happy, happy." Karola purred, sounding very young.
      Arkay chuckled as he curled up around her and caught Nashen's hand. "Happy?"
      "Yes, thank you too, my love." He grasped Arkay's wrist with his tentacles.
      "You were the one who made it possible." Arkay said softly.
      "So." He shrugged, grinning. "I don't really care. All I care about is that my family is content."
      "There are worse things in the world to focus on." Karola's hand wrapped around their clasp.
      "Very, very true." Arkay smiled, as young looking and carefree as Nashen occasionally imagined him being as a youth. It was more than plenty.
     
      Sevrin stuck himself with a needle again trying to darn a sock. "Would you quit that." Vanesa snapped, finally loosing patience with him. He growled and headed for the door. "Don't you dare run off on me again." Last time he had gotten himself well and truly lost in the sham.
      "Then what should I do?" He snarled, lights already tracing along his hands again. It had been getting worse and worse with each day since their missed transfer.
      "Easy love." She got up with a lurch and went to him. "It won't be long."
      "It's already been over ninety three hours and forty two minutes!" A wind blew all his hair about in a mad snarl. "I can't take this any more." He put his face in his hands, sobbing dryly. "I can't!" He wailed.
      *Avilan, help!* She called out and took Sevrin's hands in hers. They were burning hot, with thick, almost viscous, shimmers of energy tracing up his arms. "Easy love." She tried to get his attention.
      "No!" He howled, sounding like a wounded animal. "It hurts." His hands clenched on hers. "I love you Vanesa, but it hurts." She had never zlinned anything like this. Even underdraw didn't hit this fast or hard. Sevrin slid down her front to kneel at her feet, clutching at her desperately.
      Carefully, Vanesa knelt down with him. She tipped his face towards the light. His pupils were completely dilated to black. Normally they didn't respond at all to light, and she worried about him even more. "Avilan will know what to do, love." She made very sure she was showing no traces of need. "Wait until he gets here." Normally she could barely carry a tune in a bucket, but this time she managed a very soft lullaby he had taught her for Sivaya.
      "Pretty song." He caressed their child. "Pretty."
      *Would you hurry up!* She mind shouted to Avilan. "I love you Sevrin and I don't want to hurt you." Vanesa stroked his hair, gently untangling the snarls with her fingers. For what seemed like forever, she held him as closely as she could, singing to him.
      "I'm here, little one." Diomid walked in and knelt with them. "Yes, I can see you have a bit of a problem." He caressed the side of Sevrin's face. "You aren't dealing well with underdraw, I see."
      "That's an understatement." Vanesa glared at him. "I think there's something more here as well."
      "Ah, yes." His fingers delicately probed Sevrin's forearms. Sevrin howled like a lost thing and grabbed at him. "Easy m'lad.
      "How much have you been tossing things around with your mind, little one?" He asked.
      "Too much." Vanesa told him. "Each time he gets stressed, he gets more active as well."
      "Like this?" Diomid pointed out the tracings of energy crawling along Sevrin's arms.
      "Yes." She nodded, restraining herself from brushing at them. "If I touch them it makes it worse as well."
      "That's what I thought." He looked far more grim than Vanesa had ever seen him. "Shen, I hate doing this."
      "What?" She asked, picking at her lower lip with her teeth.
      "His body can not tolerate underdraw at all." Diomid caressed Sevrin's face. "Have you ever gone over twenty eight before this?"
      "No, never." He shivered again, even though his skin was burning hot.
      "Do any of the Veiled Sharm Lords?" Diomid asked.
      "No, not if they can tolerate regular transfers." His teeth chattered even with sweat dripping down his face. "I didn't know why, only that it was so. Please, I want be there for our son's birth, please." He grasped Diomid's wrist. "Anything."
      "Finally." Diomid glared at the newly arrived crowd. Vanesa zlinned him examine their son again. "Do you really mean anything, Sevrin?"
      "Yes, please."
      "You are a good man." Diomid smiled, pressing Sevrin's hand to his face. "Here's what's going to happen, if you three Lords feel up to it. I want you to take shifts, taking him down to about six hours under twenty eight every six hours. I get the feeling Vanesa is going to be relatively quick when she gets around to finally delivering, but I don't want Sevrin too frazzled."
      "Yes, certainly, m'Lord Sergei." Tzer piped up, even though he eyed Sevrin warily. "Although won't he get a little worn with all the exercise?"
      "Probably, as well as you three." Diomid sighed. "Go ahead and drop him down to twelve under this time though, give him a chance to pull himself together before we really give him a workout. I don't think Vanesa is going to surprise us."
      "I hope not." She blinked, startled. "Isn't this a bit drastic? Can't you just put him into a partial dormancy?"
      "Yes, it is drastic, but I don't know what else to do." He sighed. "A partial dormancy might damage his governors worse if you ripped him out of it. They've already been modified by some of the things done to him by the Veiled."
      "Who would you like first, Sevrin?" Nashen asked softly.
      "Your choice." Vayer added.
      "Actually, if you don't mind, I would like Tzer." He had an impish grin on his face, despite all the obvious discomfort of his rebelling body. "If I have to be treated like one of the inducted, I'd like to satisfy my curiosity first."
      "Besides, I'm the greenest of the three of us." Tzer knelt down with them, offering his hands.
      "Hush, m'lad." Sevrin said. "You are also the bond mate of my beloved's brother."
      Mikhail rested his hand on Tzer's shoulder. "How, exactly, do you want us to do this, Diomid?"
      "Do you know how to do a hard strip?" Diomid asked.
      "I've never really yanked as hard as I can with anyone but Mikhail." Tzer replied, and then narrowed his eyes at Sevrin, zlinning. "He zlins even tougher."
      "He's a bit quicker, with a lot more of a rasp." Vanesa supplied. "I've taken transfer from my brother."
      "You did?" Sevrin cringed. "Yuck."
      "It wasn't a complete transfer, love." She kissed his cheek. "We definitely didn't consummate it."
      "I'm glad." Mikhail shook his head. "We were both much younger and very well indoctrinated with the idea one should not have sex with one's transfer partner."
      "Good thing at the time." Diomid shook his head. "Do you have the mark, Tzer?"
      "How far over is he?" Tzer asked, zlinning between her and Sevrin.
      "About a hundred hours? Is that right?" Diomid asked.
      "Probably close to one hundred and eight, I think I've been overproducing." He sighed. "I can probably make up for a few hours off if you miss, Tzer."
      "Which is the other reason you wanted me to go first." He chuckled softly to let Sevrin know he was kidding. Vanesa smiled at him in thanks. Too many people forgot Sevrin couldn't see and didn't add audible cues to their visual ones.
      "Quit being so harsh on yourself, love." Mikhail chided. "You'll do fine."
      "I'm probably going to lunge for you as soon as you set your tentacles, Tzer." Sevrin warned. "Be ready for it."
      "Thanks for the warning."
      Smart lad. Vanesa noted as Tzer made the lip contact first. Sevrin's eyes closed as he relaxed into it. Tzer's tentacles came out, and hovered over Sevrin's arms, like a bird of prey looking to strike. Very clever. Finally they danced into just the right position and froze for an instant. Faster than Vanesa could see, they struck, clasping his arms all at once. Selyn flared with a harsh, blue-white flashover and then stopped.
      "Very well done, Tzer." Diomid breathed as Tzer undid the contacts, kissing Sevrin gently.
      "Yes, excellent." Sevrin said. "I feel much better, in need though still." He shivered all over. "I never thought I would say that."
      "I hope I was quick enough." Tzer said shyly.
      "You were delightful." Sevrin said. "Mikhail is a very lucky man."
      "I had to lever off him to get the momentum up." Tzer chuckled. "I hope I didn't bruise you, my love."
      "Not at all, but it was an interesting experience." Mikhail caressed Tzer's face. "It was more than a bit like being used as a trampoline."
      "How did you know where to place your tentacles like that?" Nashen asked.
      "How did you move so quickly?" Vayer joined in.
      "Enough tech talk you three." Diomid laughed. "We can get it all settled out as we go along. Right now I think someone here requires a bath."
      "Yes," Sevrin sighed. "I stink."
      "No you don't, you smell delightful." Vanesa purred. "If a bit strong."
      "Ok, to everyone else I stink." He gave in.
     
      Sevrin was, to put it bluntly, overwhelmed. "Thank you, all of you. I really and honestly don't know what to say." The feeling as if his skin were sloughing off his body was completely gone. Only the memory of the frantic, crawling pain remained. "Tzer, again, you were wonderful. Don't be so hard on yourself. I never even had the chance to strike out at you and it was quite fast enough to strip out the awful cloying feeling of excess selyn."
      "I'll try not to be so hard on myself in the future." Tzer said clearly. "I respect you a great deal Sevrin and to hear such praise coming from you means something to me."
      "And not from me?" Mikhail gave a soft chuckle.
      "You're my mate, that's different." Tzer replied and Sevrin gave them a smile. It was so like some of the discussions he had had with Vanesa. Sevrin caressed her face and found a matching smile.
      "Yes, thank you." Vanesa echoed. "I'm not sure where you all want to sleep, but if memory serves me correctly, there are two suites adjoining this one."
      "Hush, silly." Arkay told them. "We were all sitting around gossiping in the main Kirov suite when Diomid called us. Why don't you join us?"
      "Because neither of us really know any of the people you are bad mouthing." Sevrin grimaced. "We didn't want to intrude."
      "Sevrin, hush." Tzer said, quite unexpectedly. "Neither do I or Mikhail, but we have fun anyways. Come on, get cleaned up and we'll see you there."
      "All right, you've convinced me." Vanesa told them. Sevrin still wasn't too sure, but didn't want to be any more of a problem than he already was.
     
      One quick shower later and Sevrin felt at least close to human again. "Are you sure I look all right?" He ran his hands over the soft indoor kador his father had loaned him.
      "You look and zlin wonderful Sevrin." Her hands slithered up inside the sleeves of the robe. "Dark red isn't quite Kaon colors, but it does look gorgeous on you."
      "What?" He squawked. "I thought I was wearing green." This was one thing which never failed to annoy him. Not being able to even visualize colors, it was very difficult for him to trust others to dress him. At Kaon he had finally had to submit to Danyel's reportedly excellent taste in clothes. Admittedly the garments he picked out were not the horrid slick synthetics, and had the smooth textures and hand of good cotton, but he always worried someone was going to dress him in child's motley because they could get away with it.
      "No, sweet." She pulled him down for a kiss. "Your father is as much of a clothes horse as Danyel. He wouldn't put you in anything less than gorgeous. Trust me Sevrin, I wouldn't let anyone make a fool of you."
      "I know love." He hugged her back, trying to wrap himself around her completely. "It's just that I can't see. To have to rely on other people for something as basic as clothes is hard."
      "What did you do as one of the Veiled?"
      "Worried," he admitted. "I was always fretting someone had gotten into my closet and replaced some of the black for something else. I can tell if there are holes or stains in my clothes, but not what color they are, or even worse, what colors go together." Hearing himself say the words made it seem so ridiculous. "I mean, what I look like, I know, isn't that important, but ..."
      "Hush" Vanesa touched his lips with a velvet tentacle. Sevrin automatically licked at it, reveling in the touch against his tongue. Now his need for her was purely of the heart, and in some ways even deeper. "Yes, you are beautiful, no matter what you wear, but I know you don't wish to look the fool. I would never let you do so, my love, for I know it would hurt you."
      "I know you wouldn't." He said softly. "I do trust you, but, I wish I could do something so very simple for myself."
      "Something so simple, like tuning a harp?" She tapped him on the nose.
      He chuckled. "True." For while Vanesa was not tone deaf, her sense of pitch was very poor. "You win." And he realized it didn't really matter all that much. Just as he had enjoyed Vanesa's singing, for all her creativity in the endeavor, what he wore was not going to harm his reputation so much as to be worth worrying about.
     
      Arkay could sense Vanesa's restlessness, but he wasn't quite sure what to do about it. Unlike most women, she had become rather quiet and passive as her time neared. Her rather sharp features were often drawn into an almost plaintive look. Of all the odd things, someone, probably Nashen, had scared up some dice and everyone was sitting around playing. The forfeits were often quite amusing, with everyone ganging up on Sevrin for a song occasionally, or Arkay himself, for a short tale.
      Vanesa sighed and began pacing again.
      He got up and went to her after excusing himself. "What is it little one?"
      She smiled up at him. "I don't know. I'm just tired of all of this." Her hand waved towards the window, draped in heavy cloth.
      "You are far more used to being out and about at all seasons, correct?" He caressed the side of her face.
      "Well, yes." She sighed, peeking out the window. "It's so cold and grey outside." A shiver passed through her slight frame. "And, of course, I have to excuse myself again."
      "Certainly." He took her arm and tried to lead her off.
      "You don't have to be so solicitous." She growled, sounding far more normal.
      "I want to." He caressed the inside of her elbow. "Would you deny an old man the chance to escort a beautiful young woman?"
      "Darya is busy trying to get Vayer so indebted to her he owes her another bracelet." Her eyes shifted back to the covered window. "Nivanya is also trying to get another earring out of Ilyan."
      "Hush" He urged her towards the restroom again. "You are beautiful, Vanesa."
      "But you aren't old, Arkay." This time she gave in to his direction.
      "I am, my little one." He shook his head. "I've seen far more years to my life than I had ever expected to."
      "That still doesn't make you old."
      "It does some times." He sighed. "I've outlived most of my peers and all of my elders. Losing Valentine in the way he died, was not a kindly thing."
      "No one ever did tell me Nivanya's story." She said as she came back to him.
      "Then let us ask her."
     
      "I was always a reckless child." Nivanya began. "Constantly getting into things and causing more trouble than any of my sibs. Admittedly my oldest brother, Itanir Sergeyevich, was something of a stick in the mud and my sisters were not much more active. Finally, completely driven to distraction, my parents decided to foster me with the Azov Horde.
      "This was much more to my liking. Valtanir is only a month younger than I am and we got into all kinds of trouble." She chuckled softly and stroked Ilyan's hand. "I'm afraid I was rather difficult to Ilyan here, having quite firmly set my sights on Valtanir even as a young woman."
     
      "I don't want Ilyan breathing down my neck." Nivanya snarled. "He's a great big lump, just like Itanir."
      "Nivanya, your parents gave you into our keeping." Avilan sighed heavily. "No matter what you might think, you are still a child and you are not going to the market alone."
      "But otyet." She stomped her foot against the tile floor.
      "Exactly, Nivanya." His dark blue eyes narrowed. "I am acting as your father and you will do as I say."
      "Just because my father's crazy."
      "You will not speak so of your blood father, Nivanya." Avilan's hand snaked out and grabbed her wrist. "Do you hear me?"
      "I hear you." She might have heard him, but it didn't make it any less true. Her rebellion must have shown on her face, for Avilan pulled her across his lap and swatted her, quite firmly on the behind, three times. "Yes, otyet." Now she really meant it as he set her back on her feet. "I didn't mean to do wrong."
      "You never do Nivanya, but you have to learn to think before you open your mouth." He shook his head. "Now, do you still wish to go to the market, or would you rather stay here this afternoon?"
      "I would like to go, otyet." Even if I have to put up with the lump.
     
      "Why do I have to go with this little tag along?" Ilyan growled, swinging his hands around so wildly he almost hit her. "Get Valtanir to do it. He's a big boy now."
      "He's busy working in the stables, leaning his adult responsibilities." Arkay's voice was more than a bit ominous.
      Nivanya hissed between her teeth, "If you don't go with me, I can't go."
      "Good." He turned and tried to walk away.
      Arkay grabbed him by the back of the collar so hard he fell, smack, right into a mud puddle. Admittedly it wasn't very big or very dirty, but it was probably cold. Ilyan yelped and glared at her.
      "I didn't do it." She protested, pointing at Arkay.
      "It's your fault." He still glared at her, dragging himself to his feet.
      "No it isn't." She snapped. "Arkay grabbed you."
      "Because you were being rude to your foster sib." Arkay shook him. "Now, apologize."
      "I'm sorry." It was a very insincere apology, as Ilyan's eyes slid towards a rather young renSime carrying milk from the dairy to the main house through the yard.
      "Ilyan." Arkay shook him again. "Have you been playing around with her?"
      "No" His lie was so obvious even Nivanya could tell it.
      "You are going to be the death of me, Ilyan." And much to Nivanya's surprise, he sat down on a bench, lifted Ilyan's robes and paddled him firmly. "If you're going to act like a spoiled child I'm going to treat you like one."
      "Yes, otyet." He was blushing furiously, probably more ashamed than hurt.
      "Now, enough of this childish nonsense." Arkay growled. "You are going to take care of Nivanya this afternoon and if I hear one word of complaint from her, I'm going to do far worse than embarrass you."
      "Yes, otyet." Ilyan said, quite meekly. "May I get changed?"
      "Ask Nivanya. I don't know what she has planned or how long it will take." Arkay's bracelets jangled on his wrists in punctuation, as if he were washing his hands of the entire matter.
      "I'll meet you down here in half an hour." She tried to give him a smile. Nivanya really hadn't wanted to get Ilyan in trouble with his father.
     
      It actually ended up closer to an hour, but at last they were off. Nivanya had hoped to find an earring for Valtanir, for when they were old enough, but every time she tried to stop and look at any of the jeweler's wares, Ilyan hissed and sighed so much, she couldn't really pay them any attention.
      "Would you quit fussing?" She finally growled at the overgrown, overbearing nuisance she had been saddled with.
      "I'm bored." He said, looking off into the distance.
      "Aren't you going to want to find a partner some day?" She asked, looking up at him.
      "No, I have my friends." He looked down his nose at her. "I don't want to be stuck with some Lord running my life."
      "So instead you play around, like with that little renSime." She hissed between her teeth.
      "There's no harm done." He shrugged. "I certainly didn't force myself on her."
      "No, but I bet you can't talk with her either."
      "What I want has nothing to do with talking." He looked down at his spread hand.
      "You are a rude creature, Ilyan Arkayevich." She rolled her eyes at his nonsense. "I hope you don't force any of them."
      "I don't have to." He boasted, looking far too smug.
      "If you're so good, why are you playing with the renSimes?" She accused.
      "None of your business." He glared at her. "Why don't you finish your shopping so we can go home?"
      "Because you're being such a pain I can't concentrate." She snapped back. "Why don't you go sit by the fountain and leave me alone for a bit?"
      "Because I'm supposed to take care of you." He snarled back. "You're the reason I haven't had a decent transfer in the last three months and I'm not going to let you out of my sight until it's over with."
      "What are you talking about?" She gaped up at him. "Valtanir changed over three months ago, not me."
      "They've been holding me in reserve for you ever since."
      "That's foolishness." She groused. "I'm going to be a Sharm Lord, like my mother and my older sibs."
      Ilyan snorted. "Like shen you are." His blue eyes seemed to flare with irritation. "Don't you ever listen to anything?"
      "Yes, I listened to Avilan forcing me to drag you along today." Finally the Kirov stall opened near the gates. Nivanya headed for it, her eye caught by a brilliant ruby and platinum bracelet.
      "I meant your own body." He growled in her ear. "You're far too slight and small to establish now, Nivanya."
      She had been slimming down from her rather chunky childhood, but, "Kir is not very big."
      "So, she's still built like a Gen." Then he leaned down and delivered the final blow, "You're probably going to change over in no more than a day or two. Your body has already begun to change, I can feel it."
      "No!" She shouted, running for the open gates. The guards crossed their spears. Easily she ducked beneath them.
      Furious, Ilyan snarled, "Get back here, Nivanya!" The guards must have managed to stop him. She bolted for the sharm. Showing her bare arms, she easily managed to make it through the blast doors. Panting, she tried to remember where she could hide. Ilyan was probably right behind her.
      There, Nivanya ducked into a side passage. The lights refused to respond. Carefully, she made her way through the darkness, brushing cobwebs from her face. She tripped on a loose floor tile. A yelp escaped as she banged her forearm. That hurts, she rubbed at it gently.
      Finally she got back to her feet. The corridor continued to narrow. The ceiling lowered until she was finally crawling through what must be one of the old ventilation ducts. Even though from the thick coating of dust on everything, it was one no longer in use. It dead ended.
      Frustrated, Nivanya pounded on the wall. A panel loosened and fell away. It clattered on the floor. She reached through the opening and waved up the lights. Nearly blinded, Nivanya could only blink. Finally she could see again. Poking her head through the opening, she saw a clean, nearly bare room with only a simple cot and chest of drawers. This looks promising. She let herself down onto the bed.
      I'm filthy. She looked around. There was only one door. Gingerly, she listened at it. No one seemed to be on the other side, so she opened it. A clean, but purely functional bathroom greeted her. The door on the far side was locked from the other direction.
      "I seem to have a problem." Now that she thought about it. "One thing at a time." as her foster parents often said. "First thing is getting cleaned up."
      Taking a quick shower did help a great deal, as did finding some clean clothes. The trousers were even close to her size and she only had to roll up the cuffs a few cents. They were very light, but then most sharm lords didn't wear much under their kadors. Sometimes Nivanya tried to imagine what it would be like, being able to give of oneself to another in that way. For all of the arguments over the years, she had always looked up to Avilan and Arkay a great deal, and not just literally.
      It was strange, being so completely alone. She couldn't even hear anyone else around. Nivanya rubbed at the back of her neck. I must have cramped it up crawling through the air duct. She tried to loosen it up some with her fingers.
      The gesture reminded her of Ilyan sometimes. No, I won't think of that. She snarled, pushing the image from her mind. "He's a pain and a lump, just like my brother Itanir." Nivanya told the dresser. It didn't answer. Not that she thought it would. The silence was unnerving.
      Her restless shifting on the bare cot was loud in her ears. Finally she couldn't stand it anymore and went to the locked door. "This is a really silly arrangement." She glared at it. It didn't answer either and it stayed locked.
      She bent down and looked through the keyhole. The other room seemed to be very much like hers, but less occupied. "Of course they couldn't have left the key in the lock." Many of the sharm tales she had been told dealt with ways to get through locked doors, but they usually required a key in the lock at some point or another.
      "You were dumb, Nivanya." She told herself. "Ilyan didn't want to be a lump, he was just born that way."
      Her answer from herself wasn't a great deal more illuminating than from the furniture.
     
      "Actually I would like to step in here, if you don't mind, love." Ilyan said suddenly, breaking into the story.
      "Go right ahead, there are some things I always wondered about as well." She caressed his hand, now smiling up at him. Arkay remembered the very headstrong and rather whimsical child Nivanya had been. Her storytelling, with all of her whimsy made the rather grim story far more charming that he could have thought possible.
     
      Nivanya bolted across the court. For the past hour or so, Ilyan had felt her begin to shift from child to Sime. Keep a close eye on her, Ilyan. Avilan's voice reminded him. She's likely to bolt on you the instant she feels change over come on. Simes do that, particularly very high talent ones.
      "Now I remember." He muttered to himself, running for the door. The renSimes' spears appeared in front of his nose. "I have to catch her." He reached between the shafts, almost cutting his own arm off on the crossed blades.
      "Na then, Azov. Where ye be goin?" The guard's eyes narrowed.
      "That was Nivanya Kiranova ..."
      "Ye, right, an me mum's te queen o' Rus."
      "I but be seein' a childer bein' chased by a sharm lord." The other guard glared at him. "Are ye te lord we been but hearin' about chasin' after any skirt te cetch yer fancy?"
      "No, no, I have to go catch her."
      "A child?" They said, their spears bracketing his throat. Ilyan stood as straight as he could, not daring to move.
      "I was supposed to be taking care of her."
      "Yer fer te Sargent." The woman said and shifted her spear to prodding him in the back.
      "But I have to get Nivanya." He protested.
      "She'll not be but leavin as quick as she come in, not wit how she been runnin' from ye." The guard's spear plucked at the back of his kador. "Get movin'"
      Frustrated and worried, Ilyan let his field get the better of him. The guard shrank back. He bolted for the sharm. Ilyan almost dove down the first set of stairs, the guard right on his heels. At the first sharp turn, he left his pursuer to collect a wall. Finally he made it to the blast doors. Good thing I remembered where they were. Not even hesitating a moment, he shouted, "RenSime!"
      The doors slammed behind him with a heavy crash. Ilyan threw the floor and ceiling bolts himself and then panted, leaning against the cold steel. Where could she have gone? It would probably be hours until the Lords Kirov could be found to reopen the sharm. Unlike Azov and Sergei, later Demense, Kirov only had the single entrance and exit for the sharm. With Ilyan throwing the main bolts, the only way out was blocked until both the inside and the outside cam systems were activated at the same time.
      There was no one in the ante room inside the sharm. A thick layer of dust covered the desk and a few tattered outdoor kadors hung limply from the rack beside the door. This was not healthy. Ilyan took another deep breath and sneezed. The main Kirov sharm was far outside the city, but this one should at least be lightly populated, at least by the handful of sharm lords who preferred to live below.
      Thinking things through, Ilyan decided to exchange his green of Azov for one of the rather worn kadors. They were so threadbare, they wouldn't be too warm. He hid his own under one of the remaining ones. Not entirely sure of the reason for his subterfuge, he figured better safe than sorry.
      As he made his way down into the heart of the sharm, he noticed there were very few people about and almost none of them took note of him. It was as if they were trying to ignore him. Some of them even skittered back into the shadows. Lights were low or flickering in half the less used corridors. The hem of his kador stirred up more dust, pounded from the sand normally spread on the floors of the sharm.
      His sense of unease grew as he looked into the communal dining room. It was empty. Only a handful of the baskets on the sideboard were filled with bread and fruit, none of it looking very fresh. There are problems here. Ilyan knew Valentine and Kir had fostered out all of their children, the youngest only a year or so ago, but this was uncanny. He made his way to the nursery. It was empty as well.
      Panic began to make his heart pound. A broken doll lay abandoned on the chair in the corner. Ilyan knelt before the chair. It was too sad. He tried to at least make the doll look less like someone had simply left it to rot. Gently, he straightened out the figure's red hair and made it sit upright.
      Sighing, he resumed his search, now carefully looking in the dust for any tracks. Most of the prints were left by either indoor shoes or bare feet. One slow meter at a time, he searched through each and every corridor of the Kirov sharm finding no trace of Nivanya.
     
      "What in hell are you doing here, Ilyan?" Valentine snarled at him.
      Ilyan woke from the short nap he had stolen in the small resting room near the blast doors. He looked up to see a man's face, twisted into harsh lines and wide staring eyes.
      "Val, don't." Kir's face was so white Ilyan thought he was looking at a ghost.
      "Nivanya ran in here." He said as softly as he could, trying not to upset Valentine any more.
      "She's here?" He bolted.
      "No, don't." Kir grabbed Ilyan's arm before he could follow. "It's not safe."
      "But there are still a few people here." He put his hand over hers. She hissed in pain. "I'm sorry." He looked at her hand and saw weeping blisters tracing over her arms. "What happened to you?" It looked like someone had poured boiling oil over her forearms.
      "It's nothing." She shifted her sleeves down to cover her hands.
      A thundering crash sent clouds of dust through the air. Kir turned towards the end of the hallway. "Val, NO!" She screamed and began running.
      Ilyan thought he could figure out where the sound came from and soon overtook her. He ran for it. Fortunately, it was a fairly straight shot. When he got there he almost screamed as well. He held Kir back.
      "VAL!" She wailed, trying to force her way into the room. Val turned on her and snarled. Nivanya was trying to get past him.
      "Ilyan." She reached for him, tentacles at full extension. The sound called Val's attention back to her.
      "Mine." Valentine's low growl was completely inhuman. Fire lashed around Nivanya's wrists. The smell of burning flesh made Ilyan gag. Kir whimpered, reaching for her mate.
      Nivanya collapsed to her knees, still reaching for him. Suddenly her tentacles were bathed in more fire. She howled.
      "No Val." Kir said. Val turned to her. Nivanya came up off her knees in a single leap and landed on her father. "No!" Kir shouted again and slipped from Ilyan. She pulled at Val's shoulders.
      Val, caught between the two of them, hesitated. Nivanya grabbed his wrists. Ilyan tried to get to them. Fire roared up between them, engulfing Val and Kir entirely. Nivanya's hair seemed to echo the raging blaze as she reached into the heart of it. The wrenching sensation of transfer hit. Ilyan had to look away.
      Finally the heat lowered to the point where he dared look back. Nivanya stood alone. Ash spilled from her fingers. The rug smoldered beneath her now bare feet. Her eyes were still black, unseeing. Slowly, Ilyan stepped forward. Nivanya took a step towards him and then she looked down. The room twisted around them and Ilyan closed his eyes for a moment. A black whirlpool of night reached out to him.
      He held out his hands, offering himself. Nivanya shook her head and looked down, denying him. "No, not after ..."
      "Come to me, Nivanya." He said softly. "I won't condemn thee."
      "I killed them."
      "Yes, you did." Finally he was within reach and stroked her soft hair. "You had no choice."
      "I killed my parents." Need denied her even her emotions and she spoke the words as if they had no meaning. "I am condemned to death, Ilyan. Let me go."
      "No, love." He dared say the word for the first time. "You are now Lord Kirov."
      "No one could love me, Ilyan." She turned her back on him. "Please, I want to be alone."
      "I do love you, Nivanya." He wrapped his arms around her. "And, while I know you don't care for me and would rather have Valtanir, I am here and he is not." Then he thought of the broken doll and sighed. "You would do well to work together to restore Kirov."
      "No, I don't want it, not at this price." She leaned back against him. "I'm a monster Ilyan. Look." She turned suddenly, pointing to where her parents had stood.
      "No, Kir knew, even if Val didn't."
      "How can you say that?" She looked up at him.
      "Why do you think she sent you and your sibs away to fosterage?" He asked grimly, now realizing what had happened. "It wasn't because they didn't love you, far from it. They were both afraid you might come to harm."
      Her chuckle was brittle and harsh, "So I killed them." The muscles in her jaw clenched and released.
      "You gave them peace." He let his fingers stroke her forearms. The new, delicate tentacles came out and wrapped around his arms automatically. Nivanya gagged and pulled away. "No, little one, no, my fire heart." he tried to wrap her in his field. "You're still in need."
      "I can't, Ilyan." Her body tried to revolt again.
      "Easy, Nivanya, easy." He caressed her back. "I'm here for you. You can't hurt me."
      "Yes I can." She clenched her arms to her chest. "I'm evil."
      "No, beloved." He stroked the insides of her wrists with his fingertips. "You are only human."
      "Avilan likes to say that." Her field finally began to open up to him.
      "Because it's true." He finally managed to get her tentacles out again. "Trust me, Nivanya."
      "I should have before I ran off." Her wry grin made him smile.
      "True, but I should have kept my eye on you better." He kissed her on the forehead. "Now, you are in need and I think we should do something about this, what say you?"
      "Yes, I think so."
     
      "It wasn't anything like a normal first transfer, since I was only low field because of the firestorm, but still it was very sweet. Many months went by until I realized Ilyan really did mean what he said that day, when he told me he loved me." She caressed Ilyan's face gently with her tentacles. "I could be more than a bit dense when I was younger."
      "You are still occasionally a bit reckless, but I love you all the same." Ilyan kissed her hand.
     
      "What, exactly, happened in the Kirov sharm?" Vanesa asked quietly, after everyone else had gone on to listen to Sevrin sing. "Where had everyone gone?" Arkay had never heard Ilyan's part of the tale before, and was still shaken by it.
      Trying to distance himself from the rawness of the reopened loss of Valentine, he took refuge in the logistics of the situation. "Val," he had to take a deep breath, "sent everyone he could from the town house. The only people left were a handful of guards and servants. Almost the entirety of Kirov was held in trust by Krasna and Yosef at the main sharm and the Kirov summer house."
      "So he knew what was going to happen?" Vanesa twined her fingers through his. They were so fine and small, and so very much like Val's. The image of Val's laughing, changing grey eyes flashed into his mind.
      "Yes, he did." Arkay's voice cracked and he looked towards the red draped window. "Both of them knew. We all knew what was happening." He remembered holding Valentine as a tiny infant in this very room, wondering at how brilliantly alive he had been. "There was nothing any of us could do but to wait and hope one of their children could take the Demense from him. When Nivanya's older sister established, we lost hope of being able to save him the descent into madness."
      "He didn't go as far as Ilya, love." Avilan and Karola had arrived. They sat at their feet. "You were the one who bore the brunt of Ilya's depredations."
      "I only wish I'd had the wisdom to do what Val did." Regret tore at him. "Instead I turned son against father in hopes of some salvation."
      "Valentine left a diary of his last years, Arkay." Nivanya added.
      "He did!"
      "Yes, the Veiled hold it." Sevrin turned his face towards them. "If you wish, you could ask to see it. However I wouldn't recommend it."
      "I read it, Arkay." Nivanya sighed. "He left it for his heir. It was not pleasant reading. Much of his madness he took out on paper when he began to fail. His diary helped him maintain a facade of sanity, but the venom in his writing became its escape.
      "Although, he did say he wished he could somehow convey to you, Arkay, just how much your strength and example made it possible for him to let loose the reins of Kirov before he could no longer control himself."
      "Thank you, Nivanya." He tried to smile. "It does mean a lot to me."
      "What happened to Krasna and Yosef?" Vanesa asked quietly, as if afraid to interrupt.
      "They took the veil shortly after Nivanya and Ilyan settled in to running Kirov." Sevrin said.
      "I didn't know that." Ilyan looked at him oddly. "I always thought they went to one of the other Demense."
      "That was the fiction they desired immediately after they took the veil. They are together in the womb of Rodina." Sevrin's hands teased an odd chord from his harp. "They will not return to the light of day."
      Vanesa shivered in his arms and he hugged her tightly to him. "What is it, little one?"
      "Only my own time there." She said, tipping her chin up. "It was a unique experience. I am glad they are content though."
      "As am I." Arkay sighed, remembering the quartet of wild young people, now all gone. Krasna with her so well hidden desire for Arkay as a young woman. Yosef, the tremendous fighter, dancing with energy and strength. Kir, with her often wicked sense of humor and shyness, always veiled except in the sharm or absolute privacy. And Valentine, with his fine autumn gold hair and boundless love for his people and his family, even in the depths of madness able to shield them from himself.
      Images of Valentine, learning to dance by trying to lead Arkay himself in a simple waltz and ending up laughing so hard at Arkay's obstructions he cried. Images of an even younger Val on his first pony, fighting to get the animal's head up out of the grass and ending up sliding down its neck and landing on the grass himself. Images of agate hard eyes as Arkay turned Val away from home and family in hopes he would take the Demense. Images of a toddler's first steps, lunging for Arkay's hands. All of the images blurred together in his mind as he blinked back tears.
      "If you'll excuse me." His voice cracked again and he tried to get up.
      "No Arkay." Avilan's hand was joined by Karola's. Nashen came over behind him and rested his hands on his shoulders. "Not this time."
      "I'm simply being a foolish old man." He protested, thinking of how silly it was. Valentine had a good life, even as short as it had been. "I have a great grandchild." And Val never even saw all his children reach maturity.
      "Actually you will soon have two, my beloved." Nivanya smiled up at him.
      "So soon?" He gasped, now grinning from ear to ear.
      "Well, I have to keep up with the rest of the Azov Horde. I was raised with them." She stroked Ilyan's hand possessively. "Besides, I should probably make the best use of the fine breeding stock you've given me."
      Arkay laughed, delighted.
      "He is the second strongest Sharm Lord in Russia, after all." She continued impishly.
      Ilyan blinked, looking around the room. "Ok, I admit it, I haven't been keeping up with rank around here. Who took my slot? It can't be Sevrin."
      "No." Sevrin grinned, striking a proud major chord in punctuation. "Guess again. I'm not truly of Russia anymore and I cheated."
      Arkay scanned the room and then had to laugh again. "Oh my goodness, you're right, Nivanya. I hadn't been keeping up either."
      "Mrmph?" Mikhail said, holding a hank of Tzer's hair in his mouth while working on a rather elaborate bit of braiding in Tzer's silver hair.
      "Yes, you." Arkay grinned, pointing a finger.
      Mikhail blinked and dropped the hair he was holding. "Me?"
      Tzer zlinned the room and chuckled, "Yes, you, silly."
      "But Arkay can flatten me in the salle." His blue eyes got huge. "I thought that status went to the best fighter as well as the highest field."
      "You share my power, Ilyan doesn't share Nivanya's." Tzer told his partner, stroking his hand with the very faintest flickers of light. "In unlimited combat, you would be more powerful."
      "Oh" Mikhail looked even more startled. "Because I can do this?" A faint grin played across his face as he stroked Tzer back the same way. Tzer's eyes rolled up in his head and he purred, audibly and nagerically.
      "Boys." Arkay reminded them they were not alone.
      Tzer looked up at Mikhail with hooded eyes and sighed. "You are wonderful, Mikhail and I love you more than I can say."
      "As I love thee, my Tzer." Mikhail's hand caressed Tzer's face. They are so cute. Arkay grinned, enjoying their obvious and quite deep love for each other. Absently, he kissed Nashen's hand on his shoulder, rubbing his face against it. Someone painted little cartoon hearts and flowers on the ambient. Arkay chuckled.
      "Does anyone have a cure for sugar sickness?" Sevrin teased the first few bars of "Love's Lament" from his harp, a horribly overdone ballad of two lovers speaking of their affections for each other.
      "Speaking of sugar sickness." Kirina and Diomid wedged their way into the room, accompanied by Alexandrya and Valtanir.
      Everyone seems to have decided Kirov is the place to be right now. Arkay looked around at the gathering of family. "This usually happens at least a few times each winter." He whispered in Vanesa's ear. "Everyone gets together at one of the Demense for conversation and play."
      "Welcome to Kirov." Nivanya called out as ruler of the Demense. "Our home is yours, our hearth and our light in this the darkest part of the year. Be warm and warmed in our regard and our home."
      "Where are all the children?" Vanesa asked quietly, caressing her middle.
      "With their nurses and friends, usually all together." He replied. "They get bored and rowdy with the talk of adults. At other times we have gatherings where the focus is on them." Briefly, Arkay caressed her son and had to hide a grin. *Very, very soon.* He warned Diomid and Sevrin.
      *I know* Both of them replied, Diomid rather smug and Sevrin with a quiver of nervousness.
      "Thank you, Nivanya." Alexandrya's sea green eyes lit with pleasure at being invited. She was nearly as new to all of this as Vanesa, having been quite reclusive until very recently.
      "So, Arkay my father." Kirina grinned. "You never did tell me the tale of how you and Nashen got together."
      "Tell, tell." Everyone chanted, even Vanesa, getting into the spirit of things.
      He felt himself blush for the first time in years and looked back up at his partner. Nashen's eyes were bright with good humor and he nodded yes. *Are you certain, my beloved?*
      *Yes, I think these young ones should know.* He wedged himself in behind Arkay. For a moment Arkay simply enjoyed the feel of being well trapped between two Simes. *I don't want you to get a chill.* Nashen nipped at his ear gently. He shivered, much to Nashen's delight. *A good shiver I hope?*
      *Almost the best.* He sent back an image of himself this morning, shivering for yet another reason, albeit not cold either. Nashen's tongue flicked across the back of his ear and it took Arkay a moment to regroup his wits. "Ah, yes. Nashen and I."
     
      While Nashen, Vayer and Darya were gone to Mecca, I was left alone in the Jaffa townhouse. It was the first time in years I had been truly alone for any length of time and never before without the company of at least a few Simes. For a few hours a day, I had the company of a young renSime by the name of Surya, but it wasn't the same. She was not entire and really, while very sweet, not very bright.
      This gave me a lot of time to think. I spent hours walking in the gardens, talking to the birds. I don't think, either before or since, I had ever been that lonely either. So there I was, bored out of my mind and lonely. I tried all the usual things, including even entertaining myself like an adolescent. None of it worked. My thoughts kept returning to the same few things; how very badly I had treated Vayer and Darya, the aimless path my own life had taken on and my growing physical discomfort, not only with the situation at the time, but also in not having my own Lord. Not that I didn't love Avilan and Karola with all my heart, but the stresses of having to share in transfer, on top of not having someone who could easily and naturally fulfil my body's needs, were taking their toll.
      I read and read. Most of the books in the townhouse were in Arabic which wasn't a problem as far as the language went, but rather their implications. I had been exposed to Islam, through the horse market and other traders I had dealt with, but it wasn't the accounts of daily life I found in those books. The simple peace and faith I found written down by generations of common people were fascinating.
      Tentatively, I made my way into the Gen Quarter of Jaffa. No one seemed to take any notice of my height or coloring, so I began looking around. It was very strange, not being able to sense a single Sime, as if half my senses had become stunted or numb. Although sooner than I would have thought possible, I did get used to it.
      Then the Muzzein called out for prayer. I was petrified. I didn't want to look like any more of an alien in the midst of all these people than my coloring would account for. Figuring Allah wouldn't mind this one little subterfuge, I ducked into a tiny little mosque and tried to go through the motions of prayer as Darya had done. Actually it didn't work out that way at all. When I actually bowed my head to Mecca, with all those people around me, it was no longer going through the motions for the sake of camouflage. Which probably explained my next predicament.
      As I came out of the mosque, more than a bit dazed, an older woman caught my elbow. "I didn't know you were Muslim, Sharm Lord Arkay."
      "There is no God but God, and Muhammed is his prophet." Automatically tripped from my tongue, as I had heard so many people say. I was aghast at myself. I knew that by saying those words in front of witnesses, technically, I had become a Muslim. It was dreadfully confusing.
      "Here, let my buy you a cup of coffee. You look like you could use one." She led me to one of the tiny little stalls where one could buy coffee and a few sweets if one wished. Still in a bit of a daze, I actually let her. I probably should have protested, insisted on buying for her, but I wasn't really sure of what I was doing at that point. As we sat on a bench hidden back in a tiny garden along side the street, she said, "My name is now Fatima bint Fatima, but I was born Falyana Ivanova Fatima and for a brief while, sharm lord Falyana Fatima."
      "Oh" I said, feeling like a fool. Only then did I realize her dark skin was purely from the sun and I had seen her before. "You are the primary caretaker for the Gen quarters of the Fatima townhouse. I should have recognized you."
      "Most of the Fatima Gens pray at that particular mosque. It is very near the townhouse." She pointed to the back gate a few meters away "I hadn't seen you there before."
      "Because I am a recent adherent to the Faith." I sipped at my coffee, thinking, Yes, recent, as in a few minutes.
      "Come now, m'Lord." Her wry grin made her face wrinkle up like windfallen apple, although it was full of good humor. "How recent?"
      "Just now, actually." I chuckled, quite taken in by her obvious good nature. "I had only wanted to not look out of place, and, well, things happened."
      "If you prefer, I won't say a word. Truly, it is between you and Allah." She sipped at her coffee. "No one here would say anything if you hadn't prayed with us."
      "I don't know Fatima." I sighed, looking around at all the people going about their daily business, laughing and stopping to talk with shopkeepers on their way. Even compared to Moskva, the pace seemed far more relaxed. "At first, yes, it was simply to fit in, now, well, I really am not sure of where I stand."
      "You should talk with Nashen when he returns."
      "I can't do that." Butterflies, hundreds of them, took up residence in my middle. "He's, well, we've had our differences. I'm afraid he would scoff."
      "No, never." She chuckled. "He found me, scared out of my mind, in the Fatima sharm many years ago. I am extremely claustrophobic. I had been coping, more or less, by accepting any duties which brought me out of the sharm, but still, it was hard.
      "One day, it was too much, and he found me huddled in a corner in my rooms, crying and shivering. It was the middle of winter and there was no chance for me to be in the open. Very gently, he bundled me up in some warm clothes and carried me out to the courtyard himself. When the weak winter sun hit my face, I reached up to it as if I could take a piece of it back with me to keep me safe."
      He said, "No, this place is not for you, my brave one."
      "I didn't feel very brave, having gone into hysterics over such a minor thing. But he only smiled and told me to get packed. Next thing I knew, he had arranged for me to finish out the winter on the top floor of the Fatima townhouse and then I came here, where I've stayed ever since." She finished off her coffee. "He's a very good man, the best I've ever known. Give him a chance, Arkay."
     
      Her words stuck with me. I realized I never had given Nashen a chance. Thinking back on things, I remembered all those times he had tried to reach out to me and I had been oblivious. Even sharing a bed with him, while Avilan and Karola were present, I hadn't been willing to see his interest in me. I figured I was too cranky, too old, too difficult for him. The face he had shown us was always so shallow in so many ways until Vayer entered his life.
      Then he became the defender, against me, unfortunately. It was a bad situation from the start. I couldn't let go of Vayer to let him find his own way, and I couldn't reach out to him to even show him I cared. Nashen took my place and even that made me ashamed of my own failures, which only compounded them. I think, if I hadn't had all the time to think about everything, I might never have been able to dig myself out of the hole I had created for myself. I was a mess.
      Eventually even Surya become annoyed with me. She told me to stop feeling sorry for myself and get on with my life. Her bravery in the face of all the things which had happened to her, including her past as a child prostitute and her mutilation, made me feel even more the fool.
      Finally, I decided, even if Nashen would never have me as a true partner, I could at least make him happy for one night. I mean, how could he accept me as a mate? He was so incredibly true to who and what he was. I envied his honesty and forthrightness like nothing else. I had lived most of my life by manipulation and deceit.
      Having made this decision, I decided to go all out. I had the idea Nashen would be coming back far earlier than Vayer and Darya, so early in the morning on the day of their expected return I got busy. The first thing I did was wash my hair. Now this was an experience. It had been years since I tried to wash it by myself. Finally, I decided, as a symbol of my new resolve, to cut it.
     
      Everyone in the room gasped and Arkay grinned at them.
     
      It was only about twenty five cents off the ends, and it evened them up beautifully. I took a large, heavy, sheet out to the garden and spread my hair out to dry in the sun. Even so it took hours, with but Surya and I working at it, we got that business taken care of. Together we braided up enough of it so it wouldn't drag on the ground and we got to work on the rest of my rather worn carcass.
      We had a lot of fun that day. She was teasing me about my primping and fussing about with great glee. Even though when I had her help me oil the parts of my body I couldn't reach, she blushed furiously. Of course then she returned the favor by polishing my bracelets and buffing my fingernails till they gleamed in the sun. With every moment, I thought of how I could make amends to Nashen for all the kind things he had done for me and mine.
      The waiting at the end of the day was the hardest. I must have tried to read the same paragraph in the book I had in front of me fifteen times at one point. Eventually I put on a robe long enough to protect my hair and let it down. The heavy weight of it and the cloying sensation of selyn straining to be free of my body drove my anticipation even higher.
      Then the sense of his presence came into the foyer. As if I were there, I could feel the cool water of the fountain trace over his skin as he washed the salt and sand from his forearms. When he paused to chat with the gatekeeper, my heart pounded. What if he wants to wait? I asked myself, quivering from head to foot.
      As he entered the private quarters, he turned back to say one last thing to the doorkeeper. For the first time, I realized how exquisitely beautiful Nashen truly was. In profile, his high cheekbones and fine arching nose seemed to dominate everything else. He was as beautiful as one of the woods folk who lead travelers to their doom with their charms, but there was no darkness to him at all. A strand of silver hair had fallen loose from his braid and I realized he too, had cut his hair, almost as much as I had.
      Then those fantastic, expressive silver eyes turned to me and I couldn't hold back.
      "Nashen!" I shouted, grabbing him up. His hot, slender Sime body in my grasp went straight to my arms. I wanted to devour him, right then and there. He looked down at me and the difference in our heights made me feel so incredibly wanted and protected I couldn't help but kiss him. I had meant it to be a simple, soft, gentle kiss of welcome, but as he opened to me I found myself tasting far more of him than I intended. It was wonderful beyond words, the hot, sweet, honey of his tongue against mine, promising me all the joys I could ever want.
      "Arkay, if we don't want to surprise the kids?" Nashen quivered, sounding more than a bit taken aback.
      Forcefully, I tried to get myself under control again. "It isn't as if they haven't seen transfer before." I was looking for any excuse, or at least my body was. His incredibly strong arms came up and wrapped around my neck as I picked him up. "But I suppose we shouldn't block the door." The solid weight of him called to my deepest desires. I came so close to raping him right there in the hallway I still shudder to think about it. I had to try to settle myself down, despite Nashen's need crying out to me.
      "Are you sure you want to do this right now?" This was the silliest question I had ever heard and would have laughed if I hadn't been so desperate for transfer.
      For right now and always. I thoug

t to myself, despite knowing quite well this was going to be a one time occurrence. That reminder finally got through to my forearms, and their burning finally calmed to something I could cope with. I wanted all of him. Without even asking, I began unbraiding his hair. I knew he would probably slap me for taking such liberties, but I wanted to feel it twine around us as we made love. I wanted this one time to be as perfect as I could make it. "Tonight," I insisted, trying not to overwhelm Nashen to the point where he spooked off. I had sensed him almost shen out on Avilan too many times in the past to not worry about it. And more than once he had. It was another sobering reminder Nashen was not a Lord to be trifled with.
      Then I felt Nashen back off and zlin me from head to toe. I almost drooled on him. This was too embarrassing. Get control of yourself, you overenthusiastic idiot. I frantically tried not to let too much of my enthusiasm show. Finally I figured out what had him so distracted.
      "Surya" I said to his curiosity about what had dragged me down to be an even closer match with him. At least a Gen's arousal is less obvious than a Sime's. I noted gratefully. If I had been Sime, my laterals would have given me away long before now and I would have already oozed a puddle of roniplin on the bed.
      Very gently, so as not to spook him, I let my attention turn to his arms. "Yes," Nashen hissed as my fingertips traced over the smooth lines of his tentacle sheathes. They were so very perfect, with their silken smooth skin over the hard tentacles still shyly hiding within them.
      "Simes should have tentacles." I murmured, fascinated yet again by how very erotic those whipcord strong digits were. I leaned down to kiss one of Nashen's dorsal sheathes. His tentacle began to respond to my teasing. My tongue flicked out, tasting the musky sweetness of a mature Sime as if it were the very first time. Very gently, I traced the barely open sphincter. Nashen shivered under my hands, need twining its darkness around both of us curiously.
      The very softness of his response almost made me go mad. Finally I managed to tease his tentacles out. Their velvet touch only deepened my own need for him. The sweet smell of roniplin tugged at me. Nearly panting, I sensed Nashen's laterals timidly begin to investigate their surroundings.
      I brushed my tongue over one of them with only a breath of pressure. Nashen howled. The lateral I had touched so very gently reached for me. Pleasure ran through my arms like fire.
      "I hope you have good soundproofing." I said wickedly, wanting to slow the pace a bit. Personally I could have cared less if half the city heard our love play. As it turned out, that was almost literally true.
      Nashen gasped a bit, quivering under my touch like a tiny bird. "Very," he said absently. All of his attention was on me, which was exactly what I wanted.
      "Good" I said and then licked at his brave lateral. This time no where near as gently, reveling in the incredibly rich taste of roniplin and sensuous feel of his bare lateral on my tongue. There are few things more wonderful than those two.
      Even Avilan doesn't usually get this creative. Nashen's thought came through so loud I almost believed he said it out loud.
      "Who do you think taught him?" I asked archly, thinking of the times we had played together as youths.
      "Oh" he murmured and his attention began to stray. This was the risk with Nashen I realized; he would get distracted and lose his focus which made him very vulnerable to shenning out. I had to do something to refocus him. With my hands, I stroked all of his roniplin glands at the same time, feeling for the very edge of pain. They were as hot and full as I could have wished. Nashen howled as they gave into my caress, releasing even more of the wonderful, slick fluid into my hands.
      "Yes, I want to see you respond to me." I leaned over an blew out the single lamp. I wanted to force him to zlin and not see. The faintest flickers of blue light traced over Nashen's forearms. Our last transfer he had shown no sign of losing control like this. Surprisingly, it felt exquisite. Shivers ran up and down my spine. "More," I growled and reached for the dark core of Nashen's need. I wanted to feel those lights caress my entire body.
      Blue fire blazed, turning the room as bright as it had been with the lamp. "Want," I heard Nashen say, almost backing off again now the immediate peaking had ended.
      "Oh yes, I want to hear it." I went back to another of his laterals with my mouth, this time almost nipping at it.
      "Want you!" He screamed.
      "Oh yes, Nashen." My voice dropped into its lowest register. I wanted him so very badly the only thing holding me back was the asymmetrical contacts.
      Although even almost mindless with desire, Nashen had to ask, "Arkay, afterwards?" I almost screamed in frustration. After all of this, he can still think about such things.
      "I mean to make you howl again." And I made sure he wasn't going to ask any more stupid questions. I ran my teeth all the way down his lateral sheath and his lateral. The scream he gave out probably woke most of our neighbors. I didn't care. One after another I licked at all of his tentacles.
      I wanted Nashen so aroused, he wouldn't even hesitate when I offered him my arms for real or anything else. Time and time again, I teased at him. Drawing out his need with my field and then dancing it away again. Soon it was leaping and snarling the very instant I let the faintest intimation of selyn flicker through the darkness. My hands were absolutely covered with roniplin as caressed his forearms with my fingers and tongue.
      Every touch was magnified by the selyn conductor, drawing me out more and more as well. I could feel Nashen's responses as if they were my own, our need deepening and strengthening with each feather light caress or nipping bite. Soon he was nipping at my shoulders and neck each time I went back to stroking him with my hands.
      Even his laterals began trying to caress my arms, tracing their own fiery paths across my skin. Carefully, not wanting him to hit a dead spot, I tried to convince them to move to my upper arms. Nashen snarled, deep in his throat, pure predator intent on his prey. It was too much, I howled, letting my head fall back. Now he was in charge. His gentle nips turned to hard bites.
      Pain flashed instantly to exquisite pleasure. I froze, desperate for him to take me. He chuckled deeply, the sound of a great cat sensing its prey. "Mine," he growled, wrapping himself around me. I knew what was coming and wanted it more than anything else I had ever desired. His handling tentacles clamped down on my wrists, binding them in shackles of hardened steel.
      I yanked back against him instinctively, seating his tentacles even harder. Before they could slip, they tightened. "Yes," I breathed, wallowing in the feel of hard tentacles against my wrists. With anyone else, in any other circumstance, I would have moved them to a safer position, but at that point I wanted him so badly I was willing to take the risk. I'd missed being able to give transfer from the forearms so dreadfully much, since even Karola would often take the safer upper arms because of my scarring.
      Not that I blamed her at all, as to hit a dead spot was excruciatingly painful to both myself and my partner when it caused us both to shen out. Somehow, Nashen, for all his lack of experience with my peculiarities, managed to find a perfectly balanced set of contacts on his first try at my forearms. Before he had been willing to suffer through going off my shoulders because that was the safest of all.
      Then he surprised me again. Even with the lateral contacts in place, he slowly, gently, began making love to my mouth. At first with the lightest of licks and nibbles, he played with my lips, teasing at them. Each touch, each caress, was another peak. He held back, teasing me out to the point where I melted against him, open to any thing he could have wanted.
      Finally the first faintest traces of selyn trickled out of me. It was so very slow I could feel each and every pulse pass between us, as if it were the tiniest spring tracing down over stones. Drop, drop, drop faster and faster until the spring became a thundering torrent. Fire replaced water as I drove into him, raising us both on wings of the soul as we came together at last.
      I was so post I didn't know what I was doing. My hands finally slid around behind his back and crushed him to me. I had to have him. Hunger as deep as the sea rose up and consumed me. I could still taste him on my tongue, and it drove me to desperation. Silky smooth skin gave to my caresses as hard muscle played beneath my fingertips.
      "Nashen, sweet." I finally managed to pull back enough to be sure. My hand caressed his face, wanting to see those magnificent silver eyes. It trembled as I stroked his cheek.
      "Take me, this once, please." Those eyes were as open and honest as the sky.
     
      "And so I did. How we came together nagerically is another story, and not as interesting." Arkay gave a half smile. "It was actually yet more the result of my own stupidity."
      "Hush, beloved." Nashen told him gently. "It is simply no where near as fascinatingly romantic. I'd never heard your side of that night."
      "It seemed rather a great deal of introspection and rather pointless maundering about the nature of our relationship." He chuckled softly.
      "I thought it was very sweet, Arkay." Karola stroked his knee. "I knew I couldn't, quite, satisfy you and was thrilled when you found a Lord of your own."
      "If nothing else so I wouldn't drive you crazy when I had to go over twenty eight days." Now that he had spoken of all of it, he was trying to figure out if his own embarrassment was for telling such a racy story or for the emotional content. Normally Arkay wasn't given to such erotic story telling. "I'm a horrible blanket kicker."
      Karola laughed, "Yes, I steal them while you try to shove them off the bed."
      "I'd just rather cuddle up with a person than a blanket." He tried to cover up his still rather too explicit little adventure. But talking about it had brought up all the feelings and sensations that had overwhelmed him at the time. Nashen shifted his weight against Arkay's back and he realized he had been way too explicit. He blushed furiously at the reminder.
      "For me?" Nashen whispered in his ear.
      "Well, yes." He chuckled rather abashedly. "I didn't mean to be so blatantly erotic."
      "I'm thrilled, my love." He murmured, "Thank you for telling your side of the story. There is nothing to be ashamed of in loving another. I'm quite flattered actually. I never thought I could even attract your attention at all, much less your love, so I tried not to bother you with it."
      "Bother me as much as you like, my love." Arkay grasped Nashen's hand.
     
      "Um, excuse me, but I'm afraid I have to get up," Vanesa sighed, "again." They were surrounded by people, many of them between her and the bathroom. Avilan stood and offered her a hand. "This is getting really old, Avilan."
      "I know sweet, but it won't be for much longer." His blue eyes were kind. "Trust me."
      "I know, but it seems like forever, and I'm already late." She looked up at him, trying to smile.
      "Children come when they chose." He grinned back. "Even though all of Karola's were early."
     
      "And were they." Karola groused. "I remember Valtanir's birth far too well, sometimes."
      "Story, story!" The crowd cheered.
      "Wait till I'm done." Vanesa told them and hurried, as well as she could.
      "I will, Vanesa." Karola chuckled, "Although Avilan's take on it would probably be far more entertaining."
      "You win, my love." His voice sounded quite amused through the bathroom door. "I'll tell it."
      This time, when Vanesa came back out, everyone had left her a place with Sevrin who had finally abandoned his harp for a spot on one of the couches. She curled up in his arms. "I think something is finally happening." She whispered in his ear.
      "Relax and enjoy the stories, Vanesa." He gave her one of his delightful grins and hugged her close. "We have time."
     
      That was exactly the problem. All three of us thought we had plenty of time. Our first four came so quickly together, we decided to take a bit of a break before trying again. Then along came Sevrin and Ilyan. We were content, until Karola decided she wanted one more. Valtanir was supposed to be the last, so we were all enjoying what we thought was going to be Karola's last pregnancy.
      Up until that point, we had been very cautious about making sure everything was ready for the child's birth. Well, for Valtanir, things kept sliding.
      "No, I don't think we have to call Vanya in yet." Karola paced the floor, as she often did very late in pregnancy, the last few days as a matter of fact. I felt my eyes narrow at this. "Really, Avilan. It isn't like we haven't done this before."
      "I know love, I just like to worry about you." I tried to quiet my misgivings. Arkay gave me one of those raised eyebrows and I knew he was thinking the same thing I was. With all of our children except Vayer, Karola had been so quick, if Vanya hadn't been living in the suite next to ours, he would have missed all the excitement. I really didn't feel up to trying to handle the fields while concentrating on Karola but Arkay would be busy playing catcher.
      "Then go worry someplace else." She looked like she was finally going to wear a hole in the rugs with this one. "I'm still three weeks out."
      "Yes, but he's already dropped, Karola." Arkay warned.
      "So" She shrugged, amazingly nonchalant. "They can't show up this early."
      "Oh yes they can." Arkay told her. "Your field doesn't crash in the last week or so of pregnancy like most Simes, so there's no real way of telling for certain."
      "Why not?" She snapped.
      "Don't ask me." He laughed. "I'm not your body."
      This really made me feel insecure. I mean, there I was, trying to act like I knew what I was doing and Arkay, the top midwife was admitting he didn't know something. I wondered if helping Karola wear holes in the rugs would help. At the last minute I realized it would probably only make her fret more. Not that she was really fretting as much as I would have liked.
      "Go take a walk, Avilan." Arkay said. "You look like a chained tiger."
      "Actually I think I would like a glass of wine." I did not want to let Karola out of my sight for any reason whatsoever. This might well have been prophetic. "Anyone care to join me?"
      "I think that would be a good idea." Arkay said, looking at Karola pointedly.
      "Oh, of course, if you don't think it will cause a problem." She finally sat down. This did amazing things for my own nerves.
      "No, not at all. If our son is thinking about being a touch early, it should calm things down there as well." Arkay said. I should have listened to him more closely. But then I should always listen to Arkay more closely, he usually has more sense in his little finger than I do in my entire body.
      Well, stress and alcohol do not mix. Not to say any of us got drunk, but we were feeling rather relaxed after a few glasses of wine and some swapping of rather silly stories. Karola got up, quite calmly to use the restroom. I didn't think anything about it.
      "Arkay!" She called out. We collided on the way.
      "After you." I told him.
      "No, after you." This was silly. I got up and bolted for the bathroom. We ended up hitting the doorway at the exact same instant. I pulled back. He pushed forward. This did not help. We ended up getting jammed in there even tighter.
      "Do I have to get a corkscrew for you two?" She giggled. "There's one on the table."
      Finally we managed to get ourselves unstuck. I fell on my butt. Arkay landed on the sink. A glass tumbled from the counter with the impact. Quite neatly, Karola caught it. Or at least I thought she had. Arkay lunged for it. The glass squirted out of her grasp. I saw it describe a lofty arc. I lunged for it, on my belly, no less.
      It landed on my shoulder. This would have worked, but for the fact Arkay made a grab for it. I sat up, trying to help. It rolled, quite neatly down my spine depositing what felt like nearly half a liter of ice cold water between my buttocks where it came to rest. I screamed in shock. That water was cold!
      Of course, Karola was now giggling uncontrollably. Arkay finally managed to retrieve the glass. Then I saw it slip from his grasp again. Karola was completely incapacitated by this time with her giggles. "Damn glass." It hit the floor. It bounced!
      I put my face in my hands, now giggling as well. I had entirely forgotten we had replaced all the breakable glasses with an artificial glass, which wouldn't break. So there I was, trying not to think of how cold that water had been, while my testicles were still trying to escape up into my body.
      Arkay glared at both of us, and then tried not to giggle. "So, what is it little one?"
      "I think we should call Vanya."
      We both bolted for the door. I have no idea why we didn't try to mind call. Possibly because we were so rattled by the glass we weren't thinking very straight. Needless to say, we got stuck again. Karola howled with laughter. I sat down. Smack. Right on my wet behind. I felt like I was about three. This unstuck Arkay, who promptly fell flat on his face.
      Karola handed me a glass of water. I had to do it. I couldn't help it. Even though it wasn't as cold, upending it on Arkay was far too much entertainment to pass up. Now we both looked like we were having a hard time with bathroom training. He yelped. Maybe it was cold enough.
      "I'm gonna get you." He turned around and tried to tackle me. We both got stuck in the door again.
     
      "Now I know why the door to your bathroom is so wide." Nashen was giggling like a loon.
      "Yes" Avilan said plainly.
     
      "Haven't you two forgotten something?" Karola finally managed to get out, leveraging herself to her feet.
      "Oh, baby." I wasn't so swift at the moment. I suppose I could blame it on the wine, but probably it was my own lack of swiftness in the first place.
      "Yes, baby. Yours, as a matter of fact." She pointed out, still grinning from ear to ear. "Oh dear." Her knees seemed to give way and she mostly fell into a squatting position. Arkay and I got ourselves unstuck again.
      "I have to wash my hands." Arkay said heading for the sink.
      "No you don't." She told him. I could feel her bear down and managed to slither around behind her. She landed in my rather cold, soggy lap. It soon became a great deal soggier, if nowhere near as cold.
      He turned around, this time splashing both of us with cold water. Did you really mean to throw the contents of the sink on us? I asked myself. "Wait!" He shouted, for this first time I had ever seen him, panicked at a situation like this.
      "He isn't." Karola warned.
      He rummaged through the cabinets. Nothing had been cleaned yet. A roll of gauze draped itself over my forehead. I blew it out of my way and right across Karola's face. She giggled again. I giggled with her. We were having a wonderful time. Arkay was not. Finally he managed to find what he was looking for and proceeded to try to wash it, in cold water.
      "That isn't going to do any good, Arkay." Karola warned. "I'm gonna hit you if you get close to me with that thing." Her field tried to rear up in threat. It was lopsided. I hadn't thought we had given her that much to drink.
      I had no idea what it was, but hitting Arkay for acting like an idiot seemed rather self defeating at the moment. Then I realized we had an even more immediate problem. All the water was getting to me. "I have to get up." The toilet was so very close.
      "Stay put." She grabbed my arms. I squirmed. I really had to get up. "Quit wiggling." I looked at the green marble fixture with longing.
      "I can't." I whimpered. Karola wiggled, settling even harder on my bladder. If I reached out I could touch the toilet with my fingers.
      "Don't think about it." Arkay grabbed the fields. He made a splashing sound as he knelt. I realized someone had forgotten to turn off the water.
      "Turn off the tap." I pointed to the waterfall heading over the edge of the sink. The steady fall of water was excruciating. When I noticed how warm it was, it only got worse. Arkay got the faucet. Now the steady dripping sound was enough to make anyone nearly wet their pants. My back teeth were floating.
      "You're driving me crazy, both of you." She was panting. I knew what that meant. She was holding back. Arkay stood up. I gave up, in both directions, offering her support and concern and forgetting about everything else. If nothing else, no one would notice with all the other water on the floor. Our son slid out onto my very warm, soggy lap while Arkay's back was turned. I let my field soar and Karola latched onto it with all the grace of a ferret with wings. It was sort of a transfer, if a rather stuttering, silly one.
      Arkay turned back around. "Whoops!" He knelt and took the relatively content little boy into his arms. His hands must have been freezing cold, for the instant Arkay touched him he howled in offended dignity. Finally he had to take a cord from his hair to tie off the infant's cord. Although using his teeth to cut it almost made me lose my lunch, or possibly that was Karola's reaction.
      At last, we managed to get everyone arranged. "Since you did all the work Avilan, I think I can safely say you have a fine, healthy son." We were all sitting, propped up against the tub in a soggy heap.
      "I name thee, Valtanir Azovich Azov. And may thee never have anywhere near this much excitement again in your life." And even then, he gave me a rather bemused look, as if in complete comprehension of how silly the whole thing had been and was asking for the same gift.
     
      "Two weeks later, we had the door to the bathroom widened." Avilan knew he was grinning like a maniac. Although Valtanir had to wipe tears of laughter from his eyes.
      "I didn't mean to be so much hassle." Valtanir chuckled. "Although it sounds like you had far too much fun with the water glass."
      "We actually had a great time." Karola grinned at her son. "No one was hurt, only everyone's dignity except for yours."
      "I don't know, he still has a thing about cold hands." Alexandrya twitted him.
     
      Vanesa felt a twinge deep in her groin. Diomid flashed her a quick look. *Comfortable?*
      *Yes, actually.* She smiled shyly back at him.
      *Then just stay put.* His calm reassurance was more precious than diamonds. She sighed and leaned back into Sevrin's arms.
      "Speaking of cold hands, or other body parts." Mikhail spoke up, surprising her.
      "No, not the river story." Tzer wailed.
      "Story, story." Everyone called out, even Vanesa getting into the game.
      Mikhail looked thoughtful for a moment, "Ok, not the river story, since everyone has heard that one." He chucked softly and Tzer turned white.
      "You wouldn't." Tzer gasped.
      "Why not?" Mikhail chuckled even as Tzer tried to put his hands over Mikhail's mouth. Finally they settled back down.
     
      My first entire winter in Russia, I didn't know what to do with myself. Finally I decided, if I weren't to go completely crazy, I should probably learn get around in this stuff called snow. Now, where I come from, we don't really get snow. Ice yes, mud lots, but almost no snow, or at least not like here. There is a big difference between six inches of snow, and three meters of snow. I should have known better when Tzer looked at me like I'd gone crazy.
      Of course having grown up with two older sisters I figured I could handle myself in a mixed crowd. I was wrong. Tzer enlisted most of the Azov Horde in a day of playing in the snow. I figured nothing would get too out of hand as we were all well between transfer and turnover. Silly me. First they bundled all us Sharm Lords up till we couldn't even see our own toes. Every time I tried to take something off, Tzer protested, saying he was cold, therefore I had to wear a coat.
      Now this seemed more than a bit unfair. He was running around in next to nothing, as was Nivanya. It couldn't be that cold out, even with Sime augmentation.
      "Tzer, if you're cold, put on some clothes." I finally managed to get out of the worst of it. There was a growing pile of discarded garments as Ilyan, Alexandrya and I managed to sneak out of ours. Even though Darya was the smart one, she stayed inside. A very shaggy coated deer like creature thought they looked edible until Alexa shooed him off. Personally I thought this wasn't too bad an idea.
      They were all trying to teach me to ski. Now, if only one of them had made the attempt, it probably would have worked better. "No, first you have to ...", "No, you have to do the bindings first ...", "You're both wrong, you have to make sure they're the right ...".
      "Enough!" I shouted finally, and stomped off into the woods. They were stunningly gorgeous. Even in snow past my knees in places, I was so busy looking at the trees and icicles, I didn't care.
      "Come on, sweet." Tzer said finally as he caught up with me. "We don't mean to be difficult."
      "I know love." I finally relented. "Why don't you teach me?"
      "Ok." This went a lot better. Soon we were all having a wonderful time, playing chase through the trails littering the Azov estates. Even, eventually, Darya showed up and joined us. Even though she cheated, making the ice even harder beneath our poles when we really had to get them to bite in and messing with the snow melt.
      Finally we all ganged up on her, with Nivanya melting the snow beneath her skis down to the dirt. She laughed and made a snowball, smacking Nivanya right in the face with the soggy thing. Soon we were all involved in an eight way snowball fight. It was everyone against everyone else. No one was paying any attention to the discarded clothes.
      The snow flew, from the ground up. Soon we had two forts, with Fatima and Mir against Kirov and Azov. Tzer and Nivanya were on defense with Vayer and Ilyan on offense. Snowballs were ducking around corners and melting in midair. I was making snowballs as fast as I could with Darya to fuel Vayer's attacks.
      Finally a whole heard of the shaggy deer like creatures came bursting through the battlefield. They were even shaggier than the first. "That's my coat!" I shouted, pointing to the garment on one of the creature's antlers.
      "Get back here with my hat!" Ilyan shouted. Vayer nailed him with a snowball.
      "You weren't supposed steal all of our clothes!" Alexa told them. I got her with a snowball. She sputtered and sneezed.
      "Charge!" I screamed, leading the mad dash across the clearing. I myself shoved snow down Valtanir's shirt. For some reason he took offense at this and tossed me into a snow bank. I shook the snow out of my ears. Tzer's revenge was fantastic, he actually managed to get snow down Alexa's pants. She howled and took off after him.
      Finally our conquest was complete. Then the clouds began to part and a breeze appeared. I shivered. It was cold out. "Brrrr" I found my clothes, which had been soggy from melting snow, rapidly freezing solid. Frantically, I found Tzer and wrapped myself around him.
      "You're cold." He complained, capturing my hands in his. This didn't help a whole lot. I stuffed my hands inside his shirt. He screamed. Ice fell from nearby trees.
      "Ooo, warm Sime, good warm Sime." I tried to come up with some way to crawl in his skin. Now all four Simes were wearing their partners. We looked like oversized coats. I looked around for my fur one. Then I remembered where they went. "Lexa?"
      "Hmmm?" She peeked out of Valtanir's shirt. Somehow she had managed to get into it, with him.
      "Which way did our coats go?"
      "Probably north." She laughed, pointing. "I think we might want to get inside."
      "Good idea." Darya's teeth were chattering. Vayer yelped as her hands grabbed his flanks. I sneezed.
      "Come on all you delicate little Gens." Nivanya chuckled. Timidly I went forward with the other three. Steam began rising from what little we had left on. "You know I'm going to expect to get paid for this." Heat began to warm my entire body. It felt wonderful.
      At the time I didn't worry about payment but only agreed with whatever she said. We ran for Azov. Now, you know something, I probably should have asked for what coin Nivanya was asking for. I probably could have had Tzer do something similar for me, but I wasn't thinking too straight at the time. I mean seriously, what could be so difficult? Right.
      I found out later. You see Nivanya is a bit odd, she only likes certain people in her bed. Male and Gen to be precise. I didn't know this. After we had all managed to take over one of the smaller bathing rooms at Azov, which of course everyone but me and Tzer knew about, she asked for payment.
      Now by this time, exposure to four, nude, Simes had already begun to have an even greater effect on my ability to think straight. Usually clothing wasn't as big a deal, but all four of them were neither relatives nor entirely out of my age range. I am in trouble. I thought to myself, sinking down into the water. Now Nivanya simply took her payment in a kiss from both Lexa and Darya. I thought, This seems fairly safe. Then Tzer's hand began to wander.
      "Stop that." I hissed, trying not to get completely indecent.
      "Why?" He asked, nibbling on my neck. Now this was a dumb question.
      "Do you think I want to perform in front of everyone?" I asked an even dumber question.
      "I don't think you're going to have too much choice, my love." Tzer moved up to my ear. Then his words penetrated the haze in my brain.
      "She wouldn't." I licked my lips, not entirely sure what I thought of this idea. Certainly I had seen how lightly many people here took sex. The toys were a definite hint. I had no idea what the long, thin, curved one was for, but it looked intimidating.
      "You said you would pay her." Tzer's tentacles were doing truly evil things to my powers of concentration.
      "Do you wish to come over here or should I go over there?" Her green eyes seemed to glow in the dimly lit room.
      After a moment to try to think, I finally said, "I don't think I'm going very far at the moment."
     
      "Well, needless to say, things got extremely rambunctious at that point." Mikhail chuckled, giving Nivanya a fond glance. "We all had a lot of fun that day."
      "I remember it quite well." Nivanya grinned. "Thank you again."
      "Is that why we can't get into that one particular bathing room?" Karola chuckled.
      "Well, we, the young adults of Azov have sort of taken over that one." Valtanir smiled knowingly. "There are a number of tools stored in there which might be a bit awkward to explain in other circumstances."
      The idea of her baby brother participating in what could only be called an orgy stunned Vanesa down to her toenails. This is the rather strait-laced, prudish, uptight young man who used to chide me for taking a different lover every six months or so? Before she had met Sevrin she had not been promiscuous, but she certainly had been far more adventurous than Mikal. Then she saw him stroke Tzer's arms beneath a soft throw placed over their bodies and she realized here, promiscuous was for transfer and not sex.
      "Yes, very much so, Vanesa." Sevrin murmured in her ear. "Sex is cheap. It doesn't take away from someone's partner much, if at all. Only transfer is dear, as it is once a month and must be taken far more seriously."
      "I think I like that, actually." She played with the end of his braid which he had thrown over her shoulder. The room had chilled off and all of them were bundled under blankets with their partners. There was a soft murmur of voices under the sounds of the rising wind beginning to wail outside. People finally began dispersing until only Diomid, Arkay and Nashen were left besides the two of them. "Aren't you going to end up overfield?" Her fingers traced over his arms, lightly tracing the lines of muscle and nerve beneath her fingertips.
      "Not by much, I think." His breath was warm and sweet in her ear. She sighed, relaxing even more, trying not to doze off.
      "Rest if you wish, little one." Diomid sat up against the couch. Arkay put another few logs on the fire. Much to her surprise, Vanesa did find herself snoozing in Sevrin's arms.
     
      *How long, Sevrin?* Diomid asked as Vanesa drifted off into a very light slumber.
      *Since we were playing dice.* He replied with a quiet grin. *I've been keeping an ear on her.*
      *I wish I could manage what you're doing with her.* Arkay joined in.
      *I can't do it with any one but her.* He kissed her temple lightly. She shifted around in his arms, trying to curl up. "She's fairly far under now."
      "I can see that." Nashen stroked the back of her hand. In her sleep, her fingers tried to curl around theirs.
      "In another hour or so, she's going to have to walk some, I think." Diomid told him and he sent a breath of question. "She's been a little too still this afternoon."
      Patiently, they waited as Vanesa napped. Even Sevrin found himself dozing a bit with her, drawn under by their tight bond. Even though as her contractions came closer and closer together, threads of worry began to intrude. "Easy, Sevrin." Diomid murmured.
      He fought back his worries, fueled by the memory of having thought he had lost her the last time. "Relax, Sevrin." Arkay said, quite plainly. The voice of his father, plain spoken and simple, eased his concerns. "Actually I think I am simply going to get the warm towels I set up earlier in the bathroom. Your son is settling down quite nicely."
      "Here?" He asked, grinning, now trying not to get excited.
      "If you're both comfortable." Diomid shrugged. "I don't think that couch is unwashable."
      "Don' wanna move." Vanesa said drowsily. He caressed her face, easing out the very faintest lines of stress beginning to form between her brows.
      "You don't have to, my love."
      "Havta' get up again." She shook her head.
      "No, not this time sweet." He kissed her cheek. With a faint whisper of power, he eased her mind. "I love thee."
      "I love thee, Sevrin." She murmured, nuzzling his hand. "I thought this was supposed to feel bad."
      "Not if you are relaxed, Vanesa." Diomid told her helpfully.
      "Oh" she laughed softly. "I feel like wet noodles."
      "Perfect." Arkay said and Sevrin felt him rearrange things. "Stay that way and it will all be very easy for you."
      "Good idea with the towels." She sighed and he could feel her relax even more. "Now I don't have to get up."
      "That's my clever girl." Arkay chuckled. Sevrin made sure his hand was warm and he stroked her swollen abdomen, wanting to feel for himself.
      "Feels good." She sighed, breathing easily with the contractions. The room had warmed back up nicely and Sevrin debated slipping off his robes. Vanesa leaned forward and he took the cue. At the same time, Diomid slipped off hers. Now they were skin to skin and it felt so much better. "Just like when we made him."
      Sevrin chuckled and kissed her soft neck. "Just like." *Almost ten, Diomid* Sevrin warned before he checked with his fingers.
      *Thank you* Diomid sent back with a soft chuckle. *I think I'll just sit back and have a cup of tea.*
      Ready for it, Sevrin buffered Vanesa from transition. With an ease which made Diomid exclaim mentally, Vanesa took a deep breath and bore down. "Yes, my love." He purred in her ear, caressing her and their child with his mind.
      "I love thee with all my heart." Her breathing came steady and even, despite the heavy contractions now buffeting her. Sevrin kissed her ear, caressing the earpiece of their bonding with his tongue. Her other muscles trembled on the edge of snarls. He smoothed them back to calmness. She sighed and went limp but for the hard physical labor she had to do. "Thank you." She captured his hand in hers.
      *Warm your hands.* Sevrin warned Diomid.
      *Um, yes.* There was a soft rustle of cloth as Diomid got into position.
      "I think I'm ready, love." Vanesa said and then the strongest contraction yet hit. With her entirely, he felt her body strain to its utmost. And then the worst was over.
      "One more, beloved." Sevrin murmured in her ear. Quietly and reverently, Diomid placed their son on his hands atop Vanesa's belly. For all the child's peacefulness, Sevrin could feel the life course through him like a raging bonfire. "A good strong son, my utmost thanks, Vanesa."
      "He's mine too." Her spirit matched that of their son for its heat. Soon Arkay had him bundled up and placed at Vanesa's breast. In a state of absolute adoration, Sevrin stroked his hand over hers cradling their child.
      He's so tiny. Sevrin thought, totally agape at what they had managed.
      "What is his name?" Diomid asked quietly.
      What? Oh, who? me? Sevrin was still busy stroking the perfectly incredible child they had created together.
      *Yes you, silly.* Diomid sent with a chuckle. *You've forgotten one other thing as well.*
      "I name thee, Nikolai," He got out before Vanesa interrupted him. He kissed her in thanks. "I name thee, Nikolai Sevrevich Tegue ambrav Kaon."
      "I wanted a new name amidst all these V's." Vanesa sighed. "Thank you, my love."
      "Thank you for the patronymic." Sevrin nuzzled her neck, lipping away a few sweaty strands. Something cool began looming near the back of his mind.
      "Although I have no idea how to shorten it. I hate Niki." There was a softness to her voice, as if she were fading out although now Sevrin wasn't doing anything.
      "Kolya, of course." His eyes tried to blink closed.
      "Sevrin, if you don't get some selyn into Vanesa, she's going to be too shocky to nurse Kolya." Arkay told him bluntly. Oh, yes, that's probably what Diomid was talking about. He realized how muzzy he had gotten. "Here, let me take Kolya for a moment." Arkay's deft hands interposed themselves. Kolya let out his first full throated wail and then he settled almost immediately.
      Vanesa jumped at the intrusion and then need rose up, as cold as the wind outside. Fire seemed to sear his arms. Her tentacles lashed around his wrists, promising him his too long denied release. Eagerly, he gave in to her demand, now desperately trying to get rid of all the selyn his body had produced.
      Despite raw nerves, she took from him with all her usual, wonderful speed and strength. More, his body demanded, now throwing it at her. She rose to the challenge after only the slightest stutter. Finally, clean again and free of the weight of too much heat, he let the transfer come to an end. He shivered at the final fillip of release.
      Gently, he kissed her, tasting her sweetness with only a shadow of his usual raging desire for her after transfer.
      "I'm sorry love. I'm usually better than that." Vanesa murmured against his lips.
      "Oh, love, it's more than all right." He caressed her arms gently, trying to soothe away the even greater irritation he'd caused. They were way too warm, with traces of fever heat along the lines of her nerves. "I think I singed you a bit."
      "You did beautifully, both of you." Diomid said gently. "Partuitional transfers are usually rather off compared to normal ones. Even though you managed to cram poor Vanesa to the point where I'm surprised she isn't waddling."
      "I was a little high field. I'm sorry, love." More than a bit of shame made his ears warm. "I really, really needed a transfer."
      "I could zlin. It's fine." Then she chuckled softly. "With all the excess, I'm probably going to be bouncing off the walls in a few hours though."
      "Which is all to the good." Arkay said, handing them back Kolya. "Now get to know him while he's still quiet. I get the feeling he's going to be a handful in a day or so."
     
      Arkay's words were quite prophetic. "Now what do I do?" Vanesa had desperately wanted a shower.
      "Take him with you." Darya said, calmly knitting yet more socks. For some reason she didn't much care for fancy work, but socks and underwear seemed to be her specialties.
      "Into the shower?" She was aghast. More than a bit frustrated as well. Sivaya had been a much quieter child, for all the excitement surrounding the time of her birth. Kolya had come into the world calm and then woken up. Every time Vanesa tried to set him down, it seemed there was something else he wanted, even though half the time she couldn't figure out what it was.
      "No" Darya sighed and put up her knitting. Sevrin had crashed on the well used couch and was blissfully snoring his contentment at having finally gotten his transfer. After spending well over a week with him mostly unable to sleep or eat, Vanesa was not going to disturb him. "Let me." She held out her hands.
      Kolya began to howl again. "No, no little one." Darya played with his hands. "He's quite well developed. Let me show you a trick."
      "Please." Vanesa begged. "Show me all the ones you have. I had a horrible time with Sivaya." All the nights being woken up and having to fuss with the cradle. Trying to figure out what to do with her when Sevrin wasn't available. Even where to put her down when she had to have both hands.
      "You didn't learn from your family, even your own mother?" Darya gave her a smile.
      "No, we don't run to large families in the West, too many women have too hard a time conceiving or bearing children." She shook her head sadly. "More than two is extraordinary. My mother is a wonderful person, but she didn't have a whole lot of advice for making it easier, just how to get by."
      "Well, since I doubt Kolya is going to be your last, you will have plenty of experience to pass on." She rocked Kolya in her arms until he fell asleep again. "Good, you nap while mat' gets a shower. Go on with you, Vanesa. Lessons start when you're clean."
      She didn't require a second invitation. Vanesa had heard of some new drugs and techniques in the West for making childbirth easier, but she couldn't imagine anything better than what Sevrin had done. After that huge quantity of selyn she had managed to choke down, a good sized chunk of it ending up in her secondary system, her body healed almost instantly, even though many of her muscles were a bit tender still. Drying her hair, she walked back out into the other room.
      "Oh, how cute." She cooed as she saw Kolya bundled up and placed on Sevrin's chest. Even with his snoring, Kolya was sound asleep. Darya had her head against Sevrin's chest. "So he doesn't move?"
      "Yes." Darya nodded. "I can tell if he's going to try to turn over in his sleep before he can do so. The snoring actually seems to calm some of the littlest ones, or at least the motion does."
      "I can see that." They both looked entirely too content. "I was afraid something would happen."
      "Stuff does." Darya chuckled. "Just make sure if it does, it isn't too bad. Even if Sevrin managed to move too quickly, Kolya is bundled up so he wouldn't be injured."
      "Aren't those a bit tight?" Vanesa asked, after Darya showed her how she had wrapped Kolya up like a well padded sausage.
      "Not right now. He has to feel secure for a bit." Darya grinned at her. "You really don't know much, do you."
      "No, I don't." She sighed. "I wish there were books on this stuff."
      "There are, or at least there were and all of them are different." Darya took her hand. "Lets start at the beginning."
      "Thank you." She kissed Darya's hand in absolute gratitude. "Thank you."
     
      Darya had known Vanesa was probably still very ignorant of many of the tricks of dealing with infants, but this was appalling. Then she realized Sevrin probably wasn't paying all that much attention when he had been a child either and so would have been relatively little help.
      "How did you manage with Sivaya?" She finally had to ask, having returned to her knitting with Vanesa far more comfortably ensconced up against Sevrin with Kolya now in a sling against her chest.
      "With great difficulty until Arkay arrived." She chuckled softly. "But by that time she was a bit older. When she was very tiny, I just tried to remember all the things my mother had told me and tried to follow my physician's instructions."
      "I'm surprised you didn't end up bottle feeding." Darya thought the practice was awful. Babies had to have the time with their mothers. That was just the way things were.
      "Sivaya would have none of it." Vanesa chuckled again. "She thought the things were vile, even with my milk in them. Then I discovered how much easier it was when I went back to work, even though I had to constantly lug around a carrier with me all day, I didn't have to lug around twenty pounds of baggage as well."
      "Well, now it will be even easier." She pointed to the large shawl Vanesa had Kolya in. "When you're in your office, just put him in a drawer."
      "Should I file him under Kolya or Nikolai?" Vanesa shook her head. This was working much better in Darya's opinion as well. Kolya was now much happier being close to his parents.
      "Either." Darya grinned. "See, he's a great deal more content. Did anyone tell you what Sevrin was like as an infant?"
      "Yes, Karola took me aside and gave me the rundown." She looked dubious. "I don't know how much of it I can use. She said he was a very insecure infant and required a lot of physical contact. Not that he has changed a great deal."
      "Most people maintain some traits and pass them along." Darya thought of how much Vayer and Aliana were said to be alike as tiny children. "Particularly when they are the same larity. Visarin is much more like me than Vayer."
      "I noticed there is a slight trend towards male Sharm Lords and female Lords. Is that really true?"
      Sevrin yawned and came back to the world of the living. "Actually yes." Darya could hear his stomach growl from across the room and tossed him an apple. It landed right where she had aimed it. He picked it up and began munching on it. Sevrin was far too thin in Darya's opinion. "We split the gene pool a long time ago. Now, the rens are not truly cross fertile with the nobility. This created a bit of a strain on female Sharm Lords in childbirth, as all of their children are noble. The result was a slight skew in the gender/larity relationship."
      Vanesa blinked. "Would you mind translating that?"
      "Oh" Sevrin chuckled. "Sorry, I am still a bit asleep. Because more female Lords, on average, had many more children than female Sharm Lords, and there is a genetic component to the gender/larity relationship, there were more female Lords who passed on their genes to their children. The extreme post reactions many of us show was also a byproduct of our breeding program. People who responded more strongly, reproductively, to transfer, had more children."
      "Huh? I thought the latter was simply a lack of inhibitions from the culture." Darya's curiosity rose up and bit her again.
      "I had wondered." Vanesa mused. "Although, like Darya, I thought it was a cultural artifact."
      "No, not really." He kissed Vanesa while his hand wandered down over the sling and finally found Kolya. "Certainly there was the drive in post reaction to consummate the transfer sexually, but the Veiled reinforced it, both culturally and by selection. People who showed a weakened response, were not used as heavily in the early part of the breeding program. Also people, like Riana, who were prone to delayed or incomplete fertility even with the proper physical stimulus of transfer, were not encouraged to have as many children."
      "I didn't know that about Riana." Vanesa snapped at him, waking Kolya instantly. His eyes popped open and he took a deep breath, preparing to yell about it. Sevrin caressed Kolya's face and the child settled back down a bit, other than trying to nurse on his fingers. "I don't know how much I have for you, little one." Vanesa said sadly, fumbling with the ties on her shirt.
      "Here, let me help you with that." Darya went to them and got everything arranged. "Don't worry about it if you don't have a lot of milk at first, he won't starve. Just relax."
      "Thank you, Darya." There was such relief in Vanesa's field it was stunning. "I was so worried with Sivaya, but no one seemed to want to say anything."
      "Enjoy his company, Vanesa." Darya told her. "It will be all right."
      "Thank you, Darya, I didn't know what to do either." Sevrin smiled at her. "Really, I didn't."
      "I'll mark it down in my calendar you admitted to not knowing something." She chuckled to let him know she was teasing, mostly.
      "To go back," Sevrin's face was so gentle as he caressed his son it almost brought tears to Darya's eyes. I am so glad I thought to stick around. She thought, watching the three of them together.
      "Riana tends to hang on ovulation." Sevrin said. "Not a great fault, unless one is trying to control fertility. Most of us, who have been under the breeding program for a dozen generations or more, have a twelve to eighteen hour window after transfer for being fertile. Mine is very short, less than four, whereas Riana could go for days and still run the risk of unwanted pregnancy."
      There was a dark bitterness to Sevrin's tone and Darya pounced on it. "I take it she is no longer fertile?"
      "No" Vanesa said quietly. "We, all three of us, decided Viasha would be her only child. If she had been in the West for the birth, she would have died."
      Darya shivered. "Why? It couldn't be because of her irregular cycle? I can't see you or Riana accepting that part of our program."
      "It was because she had such a hard time. She ran through enough selyn for three, complete, transfers at Viasha's birth. Her body couldn't take it a second time." Vanesa smiled sadly. "We, and Riana in particular, decided it would be best to not risk it again. Particularly as it seems I don't have anywhere near as difficult a time."
      "Actually you have a very easy time with childbirth." Sevrin kissed her gently.
      "It's only afterwards I have problems."
      "Relax, Vanesa." Darya told her. "You don't have a problem now." She caressed Kolya's soft face as he finally managed to get a snack. "He'll be fine."
      "I don't want him to go hungry." Vanesa protested.
      "He won't, trust me." Darya said. "Really, as long as you relax and don't fret, it will all work itself out in time." Vanesa sighed and finally managed to loose the tension which had been holding her back. Kolya's eyes got huge as her milk finally let down. Darya chuckled at his astonished expression. "There you go, little one." An expression of complete and utter bliss came onto his face as he ate hungrily.
      "Now I see." Vanesa held him with Sevrin's help, an almost matching expression of bliss on her face. Darya guided Sevrin's other hand to Vanesa's face to show him.
      "Ah," he kissed the top of Vanesa's head.
     
      Vanesa was getting more than a bit nervous about her abilities to deal with little boys as Shanir crowed with glee. Mikhail was trying to wipe the mud off his face. Tzer was holding his sides, laughing his head off. "The mud man's gonna get you." Mikhail raised his hands and shambled after Shanir. Shanir squealed even louder and headed off under a nearby bush.
      A renGen looked on disapprovingly and then went back to his knitting. This place, which Avilan had called the Azov conservatory was more fantastic than Vanesa could have ever imagined. Acres of soil and plants had been moved far underground to create a fairy tale word of greenery and life never to be touched by the light of the sun. Even though the light here certainly felt like it. Vanesa had to shield her eyes from the brightness of the circle of light representing the sun.
      Shanir dashed under the bench she was sitting on. Mikhail went over it and tackled him. The renGen got up and left in a huff. Vanesa giggled. "Boys," she yelled at them, thinking they were being a bit too rowdy.
      "Let them play." Sevrin chuckled as Tzer joined in, tickling Mikhail. All three of them tumbled into the pond, again. A number of long legged water birds stalked out of the way, looking as disgruntled as the renGen had. A hummingbird investigated her shoulder, with its brightly colored shawl holding Kolya.
      "They're making a muddy mess." This was horribly redundant, but Vanesa didn't care.
      "I can tell what they're doing." Sevrin shook his head. "Of course they're playing in the mud. They're boys."
      "Did you fall in the pond when you were a boy?" She asked, dismayed at his lack of concern. This place had been so peaceful until Shanir got all excited.
      "Regularly," he chuckled. "We all did, even Kirina. But then she was a bit more of a boy than a girl when she was little."
      "Oh, a tom boy."
      "Precisely." Sevrin said. "A good term that."
      "I was a bit of one as a child." She remembered wanting a pet snake as a child and getting in trouble with Mikal and his buddies being a great deal more fun than playing house with Riana. "But neither Mikhail or Tzer are children."
      "Mikhail is just past the edge of being truly adult, Tzer as well. Let them play." He nuzzled her ear. "They were both badly set back by their separation. No one would fault them for playing a brief while longer."
      "Both of them are well past puberty." Vanesa realized she had tripped on another of those cultural differences.
      "True, and they are both about a year or so into technical adulthood, but there is no pressing requirement for them to be mature all the time." He rested his chin on her shoulder as if he could see. "They do quite well with Fatima and the docks haven't opened yet. Besides, half the fun of having children is getting to do childish things with them."
      Offended dignity tried to quash the idea it might be fun to play with a child's lack of care, and then Vanesa realized how silly that was. "Clever love," her brother and his family finally managed to extricate themselves from the thick, sticky, black mud. They were covered in it. She laughed at them and they all looked at each other.
      "No you don't." She said warily. "I have a baby in my arms." Sevrin swiped Kolya, shawl and all, neatly. "I don't want to get my own clothes filthy." The gleam in their eyes was unmistakable, despite the covering of mud. It also was getting rather fragrant as they neared. "Don't you dare." She told her brother, glaring at him. He grinned.
      "Are you just going to sit there and let them do this?" She squawked as Shanir grabbed her ankles.
      "Actually, yes." Sevrin told her as Mikhail grabbed her and tossed her over his shoulders. She couldn't get away because every time she tried, he tickled her with his field and she collapsed against him. It was totally humiliating.
      "You jerk," she pounded on her brother's shoulders, trying to get him to let go. He did. Right into the muddy water.
      Then she looked up. Tzer had managed to end up behind Mikhail. He pushed.
      "I didn't want to go back in." Mikhail snarled and pulled Tzer's feet out from under him when he finally surfaced. There was a huge splash as Tzer joined them in the pond. Shanir was laughing maniacally from the edge. Then Vanesa saw Sevrin.
      Silently, he snuck up on Shanir. Shanir yelped as Sevrin grabbed him by the collar and seat. Sevrin tossed him into the middle of the pond. Half the water birds took off flying, as did a great deal of water. "Practicing." He told them calmly and then went back to the bench, playing with Kolya.
     
      Avilan blinked, astonished. Vanesa, her brother, Shanir and Tzer were covered in mud from head to toe. "You, are a mess."
      "Well, yes." Tzer winked, grinning, showing white teeth through a rather thick layer of black goo. "Who fell in first?"
      "You did." Mikhail pointed out.
      "He had help." Shanir piped up, trying to spit out the last bit of pond water.
      A dollop of goo dripped from Mikhail's chin. Fortunately, it looked like he had been wearing only his underclothes, although the pond muck was only distinguishable from Fatima black by its texture. "I can see that." Avilan tried to put on his best stern face. "We were planning a party this evening."
      "More people?" Vanesa turned white beneath her coating of muck. She picked a strand of water weed from behind her ear and studied it thoroughly.
      "It isn't edible." Avilan told her, trying not to grin. It was hard. "No, this one is for all the kids."
      "Oh, yeah." Shanir yelled. "But we're a bit dirty." He cleaned more than a few grams of mud out of his ear.
      "I noticed." Avilan rubbed his face. "You know something, I had thought once Valtanir grew out of playing in the mud, I wouldn't have to deal with this anymore."
      "The joys of being a grandfather?" Sevrin asked, snickering.
      "How did you manage to miss out?"
      "I was holding the baby." Sevrin gave him a shrug.
      "How did you get Kolya away from Vanesa." Avilan knew there had to be more to it than this.
      "I stole him." Sevrin made disgusting noises at his son, who enjoyed them tremendously. "It's the only way I get to hold him."
      "Yes, well, I do know how that goes." Avilan shook his head. "Don't tell me you let these hooligans get Vanesa all muddy so you could hold Kolya more."
      "Ok, I won't." He went back to playing with the little one, tickling him. Avilan sighed and looked back at the muddy quartet. "Under the waterfall you four." He pointed to the stream of running water near one edge of the pond.
      "Yes, otyet." Vanesa tried to wring some of the silt out of her hair.
      "It won't work, little one." He told her. Then he had an idea. Deftly, with the benefit of many years of practice, he swiped the baby.
      "Hey!" Sevrin protested. "He's mine."
      "Um-hm." Avilan rubbed noses with Kolya. "Go help Vanesa get cleaned up."
      "Yes, otyet." Sevrin grumbled, but quietly. "He is ours."
      "Would you like to go for a trip into the pond?"
      "No, no, not at all, otyet." Grumbles changed to enthusiasm. "Come on youngsters." Sevrin gingerly walked towards the pond. Avilan couldn't help it. The rather tattered old clothes he wore wouldn't be harmed. Vanesa was mouthing 'Get him' at Avilan. He gave Sevrin a firm shove on the rear with his foot.
      Sevrin made a quite satisfactory splash. Avilan went back to playing with Kolya, despite the screeches of outrage from Avilan's son. Good thing he knows enough of his manners not to hit back. Kolya cooed at him and soon Avilan was completely absorbed in the youngster.
     
      "How many children are there?" Vanesa was stunned. There were children everywhere, from Kolya, the youngest, through Aliana at over sixteen, the oldest. The weather had turned even colder outside, but here in the heart of the main Kirov sharm, it was plenty warm.
      "Let's see, there's Shanir and Kirin." Arkay pointed at the two little boys who were still, obviously, very close playmates, chasing each other around one of the tables. "My great grandchild, Arlin." A little red headed boy was investigating the peas and carrots his mother was making into fancy designs on his plate. "Dimitri and Miran are getting into the cake. Get away from that!" He shouted.
      "Yes, otyet." They looked at him slyly.
      "I mean it." Arkay glared at him. They slunk off, looking as if they were still planning mischief. "Boys," he sighed. "To go on, Raphina, Lexi and Valtanir's oldest, is the little girl talking with Avilan in the corner. Their son, Damin, is the one on Lexi's back in the carrier." A tow headed lad was peering over his mother's shoulder at the ferrets she had on her lap. "And of course you know the rest, Sivaya, Viasha and Visarin." Riana had the three age mates on the floor with a whole army of toy soldiers. Then Vanesa looked more closely and realized how magnificently carved they were, with beautifully engraved details and bright colors.
      Tzer leaned forward and placed another one in the collection. Not yet painted, Vanesa could already tell it was carved to represent Mikhail in robes and veiled. Visarin picked it up and looked at Mikhail. "Me!" He clutched at it.
      "In a few years, lad." Mikhail's eyes and field were brighter than Vanesa had ever zlinned. Pure joy seemed to radiate from him. "You have some growing up to do first."
      A cat yawned on the hearth, showing all her teeth. She waddled over and sniffed at one of the figur

s, knocking it over. "Bad," Sivaya raised her hand.
      "No, no, baby." Riana caught it. "The kitty doesn't know the game you're playing." Her other hand reached out and stroked the cat's fur. The tabby purred and butted her head back against her sister's hand. Soon all three of the tiny ones were petting the cat under Riana's watchful eye. Visarin got a bit rough and the cat swiped at his hand. He howled.
      "Serves you right, Visa." Darya looked down at him.
      "Hurts." He glared at the queen, who decided to groom her back at him. "Bad kitty."
      "You hurt her first." Darya reminded him.
      "I'm sorry, kitty cat." He held out his hand to her again. She relented and licked his fingers. He laughed, tickling her nose. Soon she had crammed her hindquarters into his lap and was purring even louder. Then she sat upright, ears pricked towards the door. Even the two ferrets on Alexandrya's lap looked towards the door. The cat bolted. Visarin wailed. Then the doors opened.
      A whole pack of long legged, big footed, puppies came barreling into the room. Riana and Darya warded them off the tiniest ones. Shanir and Kirin crowed delightedly and ran for them. Arlin bounced on Nivanya's lap. "Go on with you." She set him on the floor and he took off after the puppies. The gold animals seemed to find her sister and Darya too irresistible and they were subduing them with big licks. Vanesa waded into the fray with Arkay at her side.
      A cold, sloppy, wet tongue slid between her fingers. "Ack" Vanesa laughed, shaking her hand.
      Finally, looking far more dignified than their offspring, three bitches and a dog were led into the room by Ilyan. Arkay whistled, looking at them. "We seem to have gotten a little over numbered in the Kirov kennels." Ilyan said, a smile playing about his lips. His field sparkled in amusement.
      "Kamir" Arlin held up his hands and headed for the dog Ilyan held on the leash. The animal looked away from the child, as if too good for the youngster. But when Arlin threw his short arms around that heavy gold neck, Kamir relented and licked Arlin from chin to forehead before returning to his haughty expression. The three bitches looked down their long muzzles at the lad as they sat neatly at Ilyan's feet.
      "As you can see, they are quite good with children." Ilyan sighed. "Part of why I kept Kamir here entire."
      "Softy," Arkay winked at his son. "Do we really require full sized lap dogs." He waved at one of the tiny little animals curled up on Vayer's lap. It too had the fine look of a sight hound, but was nearly as small as a cat.
      "No, but I've only bred him to these three." Ilyan tipped his attention down to the three at his feet. "They are quite good hunters, but not at all aggressive."
      "Looks like a good match." Avilan also eyed the adults with fascination. "Lighter than ours."
      "They were bred for lighter game, originally." Arkay gave one of those odd grimaces, his field darkening momentarily.
      "I forgot." Avilan sighed. "Do you even have a full pack for a great Hunt?"
      "We had one last year." Ilyan's jaw clenched so tightly, Vanesa could hear his teeth grind.
      "I had tried to forget." Arkay grimaced. "If you would, I think the children should hear the story." Arkay's voice was harsh and tight, but the purpose behind his field was undeniable.
      "Are you sure?" Nivanya looked at the youngest, now playing with the puppies.
      "Yes, this is something they have to learn young." Arkay sighed. "Better now than more Hunts and with the hounds here, this is a good way to show them both sides of the issue." Then he leaned closer to her and whispered, "If you don't wish Sivaya and Viasha to hear this, you should leave now."
      "I don't think a story will hurt them." She looked up into Arkay's worried eyes. "But if you think they should."
      "No, no, not at all." He shook his head. "This is part of life here as well. I'll call down for the sharm children as well. They also should hear this."
      "Yes, otyet," Ilyan looked around and then headed for a large, almost throne, near one of the great hearths against the wall. Nearly fifty other children, of all ages, joined them and everyone sat in a big circle around Ilyan. Ilyan was so pale it looked as if he were about to faint.
      "No, youngster, I'll do it." Arkay waved Ilyan out from his seat. The relief Ilyan broadcast on his nager was stunning. "Although if you are willing to leave the hounds, I would not mind."
      "Thank you, otyet." The great relief didn't color his voice, but all the adults could clearly sense it.
      Arkay took the seat and let the dog, Kamir, rest his jaw on Arkay's knee. The three bitches arranged themselves on Arkay's feet. Arkay took a deep breath and looked up, catching Vanesa's eyes. "I have a story to tell you."
      "What kind of a story?" The children called back, in what was obviously a set of taught responses.
      "It is a scary story." Arkay looked down at them, still stroking Kamir's head. The hound licked, showing an extremely impressive set of teeth. "Are you ready to listen to a scary story?"
      "Yes, yes!" They shouted, even their childish nagers showing their excitement.
      "Then here it is ..."
     
      I was visiting my son and his lady, the Lords Kirov, when the great doors of the hall were flung open. My heart fell into my feet. It had been years since anyone had killed. For an instant, I hoped with everything I had I was wrong, but I know what was happening.
      "There has been a kill in Kirov!" The door guard shouted. Disaster, I thought. It had been nearly forty years since there had been a Hunt, and I hoped there would never be the requirement for another. Possibly we could simply... , I started to think, but then they threw the renSime at our feet. She snarled and turned on the guards. Their spears blocked her path out.
      Like a baited bull, her head swung back and forth, looking for an opening. "RenSime!" I called out, realizing neither Ilyan or Nivanya quite knew what to do. If they botched this, forcing a Hunt, I would never forgive myself.
      She snarled and turned on me. Then, unfortunately, she straightened and flicked dust motes from her tunic. "Yes?" Arrogance was written in every move she made. "That is what I am."
      "You have killed." I stepped forward, trying to cow her with my field and body.
      "So." Her lips turned up in a sneer. "What are you going to do about it? Kill me? Go ahead." Her field was as calm as if she had planned this. I touched her face, reaching for her mind. The images of the nearly twelve men and women she had killed panned across my mind.
      I'm afraid I lost control of myself. Wanton destruction of human life is never acceptable. "There will be a Hunt!" I called out, raising my fist to the sky. Finally she shrank back from me, the first trembling of fear making her eyes white. "And I'm going to be the hunt master." I whispered for her ears alone beneath the susurrus of the Kirov court.
      Panic nearly shattered her mind and the stink of ammonia hit my nose. "Yes, little renSime, Sharm Lord Arkay is going to make sure no one follows in your footsteps other than my hounds and my horses." I looked at the guards. They were nearly as panicked as the killer. Realizing I had to do this all myself, it was at least for the best I could spare my children some of the worst.
      Mine was the hand wielding the whip. It took sixty eight lashes with the barbed whip to draw her down into hard need. Even when bone showed through the tattered flesh of her back, she hung on, healing it until her field stayed down.
     
      The day of the Hunt arrived clear and crisp. The scent would be quite good. Nearly all the hunt staff were new. Only a couple of old renSimes working the kennels remembered the last. Fortunately the hounds and the horses did not know the difference between a great Hunt and any other. To them they were all the same.
      Horns called, shattering the silence. The hounds looked up at me, the hunt master. We were all there, myself, my grown children, my grown grandchildren. Even Mikhail and Diomid, not great hunters themselves, showed up to provide a sense of unity. The renSime was tied to the back of the ancient, swaybacked Trakh gelding. She had tried to escape twice already today. "Gonna try to cheat the Hunt like ye cheated yer kills." One of the guards snarled in pure hatred. I couldn't bring myself to correct him.
      Her eyes were full of hate as she glared at me from the crippled up old nag she was sitting on. "Strike off the bonds." I waved Nashen back. He shouldn't have had to deal with this. Kika, my wonderful stallion, pranced forward, obviously feeling full of himself and ready for a run. I didn't have the heart to tell him how rough this was going to be for his rider.
      Even before the guards had finished releasing their prisoner, I set my field to attract the renSime. Nashen hissed behind me, flinching away from the harsh, fear ridden parody of my normal field. *Take care of him, Diomid.* I sent my half brother. Then my beloved's concern was cut off and I was alone with the killer.
      Her tentacles writhed about her arms as she tried to resist. I let fear for my children spike my field. She lunged for me. I took the impact on my arms, grabbing the saddle for all I was worth. Kika was nearly driven back by the force of her attack. Her lips met mine with bruising force. Anger at the vile thing she was forcing me to do, let me drive the transfer into her with all my heart behind it.
      As the transfer terminated, I ripped my arms from her loosening tentacles. With a whip of pure hate, I lashed out at her in mindless fury. "Run," I hissed at her under my breath.
      Now her eyes were wide with fear. Unable to zlin for the depth of the transfer I had driven into her, she bolted for the far side of the wood lot. I kept my hand up, holding back the hunt to give her a good lead. With a crash of bracelets, I let my arm drop. In hesitant unison, the horns blared. The hounds glanced at me a split second in confusion, then gave tongue and headed for the line.
     
      I have no idea how we managed that day. She was a canny renSime. Not only doubling back and using every tunnel and half frozen pond within a hundred klicks of Moskva, but repeatedly running through the pack and scaring the whey out of the hunt. We were all exhausted by late afternoon and still hadn't brought her to bay.
      "I'm surprised to find you two here." I looked at Diomid and Mikhail. They were disheveled and tattered, but still mounted. Nashen had given up around noon, unable to keep the pace any longer. Even Tzer looked ready to collapse, only Vayer's example probably keeping him going.
      "We'll see this thing through." Diomid tipped his chin up, looking me straight in the eyes. "It is a responsibility."
      "That it is." I sighed, looking at the sun overhead. The hounds gave tongue again. "Hold hard!" I called out. The huntsman rounded up the hounds. The renSime bolted for the field again. I ran Kika right in front of her.
      She crashed into us. The hounds fell on her. A scream shattered their slavering. The shredding of flesh in their sharp teeth was like wet cloth being torn by knives. She screamed again and it was cut off, quite literally. I swallowed heavily. "It is done."
      Shivering and cold, I sat Kika's back as the hunt dispersed. This was my place. Even after the huntsmen had came and gathered the hounds to take them back to their kennels we stood, silent. The earth near our feet was slick and red with blood on the frost killed grass.
      Finally they had all gone. I slid from Kika's back. "Stand," I told him. The sun was still cents from the horizon. This one we hadn't run to death. My knees shook. Slowly, I made my way to a nearby stream. There were trees here, conifers and white birch. They would hide me.
      I washed my face in the icy cold water. The reflection on the water showed an old, old man. His face was lined to the bone. I knew, in the back of my mind, it was my own, but at the time, I couldn't think of why. Bile rose in my throat at the horrible thing I had done, again.
      Finally it all came out, as I knew it would have to. I screamed at the uncaring sun, still shining down on the earth. None of the renGens the renSime had killed deserved to die. They were people with families. I had met most of them. We might not have been friends, but I had failed them. I had failed to keep them safe. That was and is my job. That is the job of all of us Lords and Sharm Lords.
     
      Arkay spread his hands, as if releasing a bird to fly free.
      "Nashen and Vayer had to drag me back home. I was sick for a week afterwards." He smiled up at them. The children were all talking quietly among themselves, or sitting silently, obviously lost in thought. Vanesa also was lost in thought. One of the bitches had also rested her chin on Arkay's leg. He scratched behind her ears and she yawned, showing far more razor sharp teeth than any dog should ever have in Vanesa's opinion. He smiled at her, chuckling. "You don't know any better, do you darling?" Her amber eyes gazed up at him affectionately.
      "Don't you know her name?" Vanesa asked as she sat at Arkay's feet, really wishing to feel a bit protected herself at the moment. Sevrin stood behind her, but it had not been his story which had disturbed her so greatly.
      "Yes, but her crime was such she has no name now." Arkay sighed. "These stories are formulaic, Vanesa." His voice was so low she had to strain to hear. "The renSime is never named, they open with the court scene, then the transfer, at least one pause and then the death. It is not as spontaneous as other sorts of stories."
      "What are we going to do when there is no one left who remembers a live Hunt?" Sevrin asked, still gently holding her shoulder. One of his hands reached out and scratched another of the bitches behind the ears. She also yawned, but wrapped her pink tongue around his wrist before returning to her nap at Arkay's feet. Vanesa chuckled and solidly scratched one of the bitches along the ribs. She moaned and stretched out, nearly pushing the dog away from Arkay's leg.
      "Make them up the way we do other stories, I hope."
     
      Sevrin had wanted to get back to his roses and Vanesa truly had missed Kaon. The two puppies they had ended up with were causing more havoc than even the little human girls. Both Vinasha and Sivaya were giggling madly as they got licked, all over. "What a mob." Sevrin put his arm around her shoulders.
      Kolya blinked up at her and yawned, waving his chubby hands in the air. Diomid looked over her shoulder, "May I?"
      Reluctantly, she handed Kolya to him. The sun was bright off the snow still more than shoulder deep in many places, even though all the Russians were emphatic about saying it was spring. To Vanesa at least, it was still freezing and she shivered. "You should keep him a bit better covered with all the light." Diomid said softly as he handed her back her son.
      "I didn't know." Vanesa cringed, realizing how very bright it was out here.
      "I didn't think so." Diomid smiled at her. "Don't fret so, Vanesa. I only mentioned it as something to be aware of. Now, as soon as you get home, be sure to let Tanya and all the other renSimes who work closely with you play with Kolya. Just like with your daughter, it will make them feel more secure that they are not going to be displaced by the new arrival."
      "Are they servants or children?"
      Sevrin chuckled softly, "Some of each, actually. You didn't grow up with servants, but the ones who work closest with the Demense Households are often more family than anything else."
      "Is that why you wanted servants?" She caressed his face and gave him a soft chuckle to let him know she was joking. "You were lonely."
      "Yes." He said, far more forcefully than she would have guessed, then blushed. "Not your fault, you have work to do, as do I, but I prefer having people around."
      "Now, I can understand that."
      "Before you couldn't?" The question was obvious from the lilt to his voice.
      "No, not really." She felt Kolya's gentle squirming before he could yell this time and tried to get her tunic open in time. She didn't make it. His offended howl nearly shivered the new leaves off the trees.
      "Good strong lungs on him." Karola mimed cleaning her ear out. "Reminds me of someone." She looked at Sevrin pointedly and placed her hand on his shoulder. When she touched him though, he blushed even darker and grinned sheepishly. "Won't hurt him." This seemed to be Karola's favorite saying about children and Vanesa chuckled as with Karola's deft help, she managed to get Kolya more interested in food than screaming.
      "You always say that." Vanesa knew she was grinning from ear to ear, but a lazy sense of peace and rightness always came over her when she was nursing Kolya.
      "Because it's true." Karola said quite calmly. "I should know." This got a chuckle out of nearly everyone within earshot. She waved her hand around at the assorted leaders of the Demense. The plane back was late, but no one seemed to mind at all. Least of all Vanesa. She sometimes wished she could stay here, but then her restless heart would remind her of the long dull afternoons in winter with no natural light and no place to take her excess energy. "They don't break very easily or none of us would reach maturity."
      Avilan put his arm around Karola's shoulders possessively. "Some of them are far noisier than others though." Sevrin echoed his father's gesture. The welcome weight of his arm holding her tight nearly made her feel more secure than the warmth of his field caressing her.
      Finally though, the plane decided to make its appearance. Getting the entire mob to back away was less than entirely successful. Karola's eyes narrowed at her and her sister thoughtfully. Vanesa could almost hear the silent conversation between her and her partner. Avilan laughed, throwing his head back. "Yes." He shook his head. "Let me guess, our things are already on the plane."
      "Right there." She pointed toward the three large cases being loaded into the luggage compartment. Vanesa felt a now quite familiar sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. "That is if Lord Vanesa and our son think they can cope with a couple of grandparents who want to dote on their grandchildren some more." Put like this, Vanesa had no choice.
      Diomid laughed uproariously at Karola, shaking his finger. "You will come to an evil end, Karola."
      "I know." She grinned, years falling away from her age lined face with the sheer exuberance of her personality. "But I'll have fun getting there."
      "Mother, you are the most exasperating person sometimes." Sevrin's soft chuckle reassured Vanesa he was not quite as annoyed as he pretended to be. "You don't have to blackmail us to come for a visit."
      "She likes having everything organized." Avilan kissed Karola's temple. "Including me."
      "Yes, you can visit and stay for as long as you wish. Although our summers are very warm and sticky." She felt she had to warn them. Particularly after Sevrin's complaints his first summer at home.
      "Let me guess, Sevrin's gave you an earful." Avilan twitted his son with a snap of his nager for emphasis.
      "I wasn't that bad." Sevrin's attention was on Kolya entirely, now his favorite way to hide his moods when he felt like it.
      "Yes you were." Vanesa gave him a shove with her own field. "You were awful."
      "Just because I was drowning in sweat half the time."
      "Yes and the other half you were pacing our rooms naked with all your hair on top of your head." This wouldn't have embarrassed anyone until Vanesa had to add. "He was very distracting."
      "I bet." Riana gave Sevrin an appraising look. "Not that I wouldn't mind having a tall, strong, beautiful Sharm Lord pacing in my rooms."
      "What about Dimitri?" Vanesa asked innocently. She knew Riana had talked with the young man more than a few times, setting up special meals for visiting dignitaries. Dimitri wasn't so gorgeous he took your breath away, but he was far from hard on the eyes and had an incredible sense of humor.
      "Sevrin!" Riana blushed furiously. "He's just a boy." Her tentacles twined nervously about her fingers.
      "I like Domi." Viasha caroled, causing her mother even more embarrassment. "He always brings me treats and is fun to play with. He makes my mat' happy." Viasha's mixture of languages was as idiosyncratic as a mockingbird's.
      "He's an adult at home." Vanesa was now enjoying her sister's discomfiture. It was petty, but it was also a great deal of fun.
      Sevrin whispered in her ear, "He's inducted, Vanesa."
      "Doesn't matter to us." She reminded him. "Besides, I don't want to lose my best cook."
      With a chuckle, Sevrin relented, "They are cute together. Domi nearly worships the ground your sister walks on."
     
      The sticky muggy heat of summer seemed to throttle anything approaching enthusiasm, even first thing in the morning. Tanya and Pyetr's fields, outside their rooms, were lazy with the heat. Vanesa carefully made certain not to startle either of them. Only once had she made that mistake. It had cost her a nasty cut on her shoulder. Pyetr had been mortified until Vanesa could reassure him it was an accident. The limp he sported the next day, most likely from Tanya's chastisement, she ignored completely.
      Utterly silently, Vanesa skipped the creaking stair and made her way down to the courtyard. She was so busy zlinning for the next creaking stair, as she couldn't remember if it were the tenth or the twelfth, the next thing she knew was a broad expanse of extraordinarily Gen chest nearly brushing her nose.
      "I had wondered when you would stop." Avilan's voice, deeper and slightly less true than his son's, seemed to rumble through the soles of her feet. The thick pelt of silver hair on his chest tickled her nose and she had to fight not to sneeze. He chuckled, only making the situation worse. Vanesa looked down.
      The speed with which her eyes tracked upward must have been dreadfully amusing to Avilan as he laughed at her startlement. She tried to step backwards. "Hold on there, little one." He tried to catch her. "Getting a bit slow in my old age, I see."
      This was an even worse position. Vanesa had managed not to fall, but only by ending up crouched at Avilan's feet. Without even turning around she felt Sevrin's presence behind her. "This was not where I expected to find you." His voice and field rang with suppressed laughter. Unfortunately, the only view she had was of Avilan's extraordinarily well muscled thighs. If he had been any less fascinating to look at, Vanesa wouldn't have had a problem. As it was, and with her very recent transfer, she found herself in a bit of a quandary.
      Then she found herself in more of a quandary. I'm not entirely sure I can get up from here without bumping into anything and I know I don't want to look up to make sure. Since the last time she looked there had defiantly been the beginnings of a rather prominent obstacle.
      "Is there some particular reason you are studying my father so intently?" Oh, no, he's getting closer. Vanesa heard Sevrin's footsteps as he hit the creaking step with all his weight. With this there was a clatter at their door. He woke up Tanya and Pyetr. Vanesa nearly groaned. Soon the interest of the two renSimes was painfully obvious.
      Defeated, Vanesa leaned against Avilan's legs. They were wonderfully cool compared to near sauna surrounding them. "Vanesa seems a bit confused." Avilan's gentle hand stroked the top of her head. His muscles flexed and she managed to close her eyes as he knelt in front of her. "Are you all right?" His big, blue eyes were guileless.
      "I'm fine." Vanesa managed to say in a tiny little voice. "Hold still." She cringed as she saw a gold blur head for all five of them.
      "Oof." Avilan fell on top of her, neatly protecting her back from the stairs. Sasha and Susi went on, blithely unaware of having nearly trampled their master's parents. Vanesa looked up into Sevrin's face.
      Sevrin bit his lip. He was turning a frightening shade of red. Vanesa couldn't tell if he was choking or laughing. "Do you really want Avilan so badly you're going to take him on the stairs?"
      "No," She snapped, trying to ignore her own tentacles trying to trace the lines of Avilan's back and shoulders. They weren't helping any. It seemed they weren't helping Avilan any either. "What were you doing on the stairs without a stitch of clothes on?"
      "I could ask you the same thing." Avilan chuckled, giving her a sweeping caress with his field. It was dimmed from his usual brilliant warmed gold and she realized he was nearly as post as she was. Of course there was now other evidence of that fact poking her with rather unpaternal mindlessness. He sighed and looked up at Sevrin. Vanesa looked up at as well.
      "Is everyone going to stand around blocking the staircase wearing only their hair?" Karola's rich alto came from the head of the stairs. Craning her neck around, she managed to see Karola joining them, in all ways. Sweat was trickling between her breasts and down her flanks.
      "I don't know about anyone else, but until Avilan gets off me, I'm sort of stuck." Vanesa gave in and laughed. It was a ridiculous situation.
      "They why are you holding her down, Avilan?" Karola peered over Sevrin's shoulder.
      "Because I'm trying not to wiggle." He said in a choked voice.
      "Any particular reason?" Sevrin asked, tapping his toe. The reminder about wiggling made Vanesa realize exactly how much her ribs itched as the sweat beaded on her skin.
      She reached to scratch them. "Don't do that, Vanesa." Avilan murmured in her ear.
      "I'm not pregnant now." She reminded him.
      "So?" He said simply. "You smell very, very Sime, Vanesa." Avilan almost sounded annoyed. With a heavy sigh, he added, "So much for my shower."
      "The fountain?" She asked.
      "Yes," he chuckled, "and you?"
      "Same." She grinned up at him. "Let's go."
      "I am decidedly unpresentable." He growled.
      "I can tell."
      "I figured you could." Even though the calm conversation was making it less of an issue. "Maybe if we ignore it our audience will."
      "Good plan," she slithered out from under him. "Anyone else want a shower?"
      With that, all four of them tromped down to the courtyard, not caring who got an eyeful. The cool water was wonderful in the muggy warmth and they splashed and played like a bunch of kids.
     
      It was nearly getting to the point where Vanesa had absolutely no idea who was going to step off the plane each winter. There was always, of course, Nashen and Arkay, but one winter, the winter after Jarmin and Aliana showed up on her doorstep actually, Vayer and Darya came over for a visit.
      Not expecting Lord and Ruler Vayer Arkayevich, the father of her firstborn and the leader of Russia to land on her doorstep, Vanesa was entirely unprepared for him or his lady. Fortunately, Darya was also rather put out with Vayer's high handedness from long before the airplane landed. "And just how do you think Sectuib Kaon is going to manage to deal with us dropping into her lap unexpectedly.
      "You really should have called beforehand, Vayer." This last line made Vanesa bite her lip to keep from laughing. Vayer's daughter, Aliana had dragged her Sharm Lord through hell and half the continent because, like a typical teenager, she didn't think to call. Like father like daughter, it seemed. "I doubt Vanesa will even be here."
      "She always meets us, Darya." Arkay's voice was sounding dreadfully amused and then Vanesa saw him appear at the top of the stairs. "See."
      "Yes, well." Darya snorted loudly enough even Vanesa could hear her. "She doesn't know we were going to have half our luggage shipped to us later."
      "Vayer!" Sevrin shouted.
      "Yes?" Vayer's now silvered black hair was mussed, but his dark beard were as neat and trim as ever. In a wildly chattering horde the four descended the stairs.
      "Don't tell me you don't have any clothes."
      "Then I won't, brother mine." Next to Sevrin, Vayer looked nearly delicate, but Vanesa well knew Vayer was solid as oak beneath his midnight blue tunic and breeches. "Besides, we're on vacation."
      "Who's minding the store?" Vanesa asked, more than a bit concerned.
      "Mikhail," Vayer said simply. She groaned.
      "He's not experienced enough for the job." Images of her brother getting himself flattened in the rough and tumble of Russian politics chilled her to the bone.
      "Oh yes he is, Vanesa." Vayer gave her a crooked grin. "One swat with that nager of his backed by Tzer and he even had Nivanya on the run."
      "How so?" Sevrin asked, but it was Vanesa who couldn't image her little brother managing to cow the brilliant, but quite whimsical and astonishingly erratic Lord Kirov. Once Nivanya got her tentacles on an idea, it took a force of nature to drag her away from it. Even Nivanya's partner, Sharm Lord Ilyan, Arkay's other son, often could do little more than minimize the collateral damage from one of her rampages.
      "Well, Nivanya had the clever idea to create a few steam boats to speed travel along the great rivers." Arkay said as they began walking towards the main Kaon complex. "About three centuries ago, another Lord Kirov had the same idea and got flattened by her advisors and the Veiled. We don't want such filthy machinery dirtying the air over the city. It gets bad enough in winter as is. Well, to go on with the story, no one was very amused.
      "Nivanya approached Mikhail, figuring he would certainly support the idea, being from the West, where such things are common. After nearly two hours of charts, graphs, business plans, and other miscellanea, she finally asked him for an opinion." Arkay's lips twisted upwards into a rather odd smile. "All he said was 'no', and had Tzer show her the door."
      "That wasn't the end of the story." Nashen opened the door for the party, over Danyel's shaking his finger at him for doing any work whatsoever. Danyel had become quite protective of the rather elderly couple. Vanesa thought it was quite cute. "After Mikhail turned her down so flat, she began to start some rumors. The rumors started with how Mikhail was going to turn the Rus over to the Techton and went down hill from there. We all knew she was being an idiot, but none of us could get her to stop.
      "Well, the next thing we knew, Mikhail had gotten a hold of Vayer."
      "I'll take it from here, otyet." Vayer butted in as the made their way to the surprise Vanesa had waiting for them. "Well, Nivanya came to me, after Mikhail did, of course." His deep blue eyes seemed to sparkle with glee. "I told her she could get stuffed. I wasn't having any of her nonsense. Much as I like Ilyan, there are some days I certainly don't envy him having to deal with that woman."
      "So, it was back to Nivanya versus Mikhail." Nashen picked up the thread of the narrative. "There was a dance, at Fatima. Usually Fatima dances are relatively small, simple endeavors primarily for the children of Fatima only, with perhaps a few guests. This time Mikhail and Tzer decided to throw a major party. They swiped cooks from Azov and even a troupe of dancers from Mir. It was a spectacular."
      "Everyone was invited." Arkay's eyes widened as Vanesa lead them into the new room. "Oh my." He breathed, momentarily loosing track of the story.
      "Well, everyone was there. Mikhail led off the dancing with Tzer. Fortunately Tzer is a master dancer." Nashen rolled his eyes. Vanesa knew it would take a master to get Mikhail to dance at all. "After a great deal of wine had been drunk, Nivanya stood in the middle of the dance floor."
      "Everything came to a screeching halt. Ilyan tried to drag her off stage with his nager, but she was having none of it. Finally she lost her temper entirely and said if she weren't Lord Kirov already, she'd Challenge Tzer. Everyone knew this was pure foolishness. Nivanya couldn't take Fatima even if she didn't already have a Demense to run." Nashen looked appreciatively at the cushions piled in the deep conversation pit opposite a huge open fireplace. With a sigh, he sat and pulled Arkay down with him. "Well, Mikhail wasn't going to let her off the hook."
      "'Then I will Challenge you.' He stood before his people and raised his hands. You could have heard a pin drop." Arkay shook his head. "Well, Nivanya, who had obviously had more than her share of the wine that night, raised her hands and accepted." A chill ran up Vanesa's spine. Sevrin had told her, traditionally, Challenges for position were to the death.
      "How could a Sharm Lord Challenge for a Lord's position?" Vanesa asked.
      "They can't, really." Vayer had that grin back as he cuddled Darya to his side.
      "That was what was so clever about Mikhail's challenge." Darya chuckled. "The only thing she possibly could do was strip him and cause him to lose his position in Fatima. Not that Tzer would set Mikhail aside for anything. Mikhail had nothing to lose, really."
      "Well, the Challenge was a farce." Nashen snickered. "Nivanya was not well wrapped at the time and Ilyan was having none of her nonsense. Tzer backed Mikhail to the hilt. They looked like they were having fun."
      "Anyways, after chasing her around the Fatima great hall a few times and nearly singing her hair off, I do believe she might have a bald spot or two remaining, Mikhail had her on her knees. She actually begged him to forgive her and promised him her undying loyalty." Vayer shook his head. "All Mikhail did was look at her, accept a chair from Tzer, turn Nivanya over his knees and proceed to spank her. Everyone howled with laughter. Mikhail had managed to turn a rather ticklish situation into high farce. We all loved it, particularly the Children of Fatima, who were the ones who had been slandered. They all knew Mikhail was absolutely loyal to their Lord, but his humiliation of Kirov, who is often a thorn in Fatima's side, only strengthened Mikhail's standing in their eyes."
      "Isn't Nivanya going to be a problem?" Vanesa asked.
      "Well, no." Arkay chuckled, a wicked gleam in his eye. "Afterwards, when Ilyan retrieved her from Mikhail, Tzer whispered, loudly enough for everyone to hear, 'Would you like a turn, my Lord Kirov?' Ilyan's response brought down the house, it was a simple 'yes'."
      "I didn't think my brother would be so mean." Vanesa grimaced.
      "He wasn't really." Vayer's eyes softened. "She had to learn you don't pull a Sharm Lord's tail, any Sharm Lord. Mikhail's treatment of her was far kinder than she would have gotten from any other Sharm Lord."
      "I don't know, Vayer. It seems so crude."
      "So were the rumors she was spreading, Vanesa." Arkay's fingers threaded with Nashen's tentacles. "I would have pounded her into the floor."
      "I was about to." Darya shook her head. "What Mikhail did was lower Nivanya's gossip to the level of the sharm. Only those restricted to the sharm, very minor lords and children are ever spanked. I doubt if he hurt her at all, but he had to take her down, publicly, or people would begin to believe Nivanya's rumors."
      "Afterwards, Nivanya relented and publicly apologized for having used such underhanded means to try to sway Mikhail's opinion. He returned the favor and apologized for having humiliated her in public." Then Vayer smirked. "From what I hear, their private reconciliation was far more spectacular and there are rumors floating about that Nashen may become a grandfather here very shortly."
      "She's spacing ..." Vanesa chopped off the rest of her sentence at Arkay's pained grimace. "How likely do you think those rumors are, Vayer?" She changed the subject slightly.
      "Pretty likely, considering the purveyor of that rumor was Diomid." Vayer sent her a grateful glance. "We'll know in a few months."
      "It wasn't anything more than wishful thinking, spring before last, Vanesa." Arkay snorted. "Nivanya and Ilyan are not particularly good at judging such things." Vanesa well knew Arkay or Diomid would have clarified Nivanya's misperception during her last visit, but Vanesa knew they were trying to make her feel better. Themselves as well, perhaps.
      "I haven't had a chance to tell you yet, but this is wonderful." Arkay waved his hand towards the rest of the room. "You didn't have to do this for us."
      "I got tired of sitting on the edge of people's beds when I wanted to talk with friends." Vanesa chuckled and leaned back into Sevrin's embrace. "This is a lot more comfortable."
      "I agree." Nashen sighed, snuggling up against his own partner. "Cozy too." The fire reflected in his silver eyes as he looked towards it.
      "I set it up so there would be a good draft up the chimney so you Gen type people could eat near the fire and not offend us Sime type people." Vanesa squeezed Sevrin's hand.
      "Speaking of which." Vayer took a deep breath. "Are we going to get a chance to meet our daughter's lover?"
      Vanesa knew this was coming from the moment she heard Darya's voice. "Yes, Aliana and Jarmin will be joining us for Year's Turning."
     
      Jarmin eyed the great stone fronted building with more than a touch of trepidation. "Are you sure you want to do this?" Jarmin knew his knees were shaking. "Right now?"
      "Yes, love." Aliana's long, delicate fingers wrapped around his arm. Her guitar case, covered in stickers, bumped against her other thigh. Jarmin realized the image they portrayed together was quite odd, but he couldn't seem to quite manage to care anymore. The floppy felt hat she wore was battered and water stained, with a bit of holly stuck through the grosgrain hat band. It hardly matched her thigh length tunic embroidered in bright colors, the tight, gray leather breeches or the now rather badly worn boots up to her knees. Even though her loose silk shirt was fairly simple, merely being collared and cuffed with bright red ribbons.
      He himself was in a quite conservative charcoal gray suit with a narrow tie and gold cufflinks. Aliana said he looked like a banker, but when she followed up on her observation with a fantastic transfer and almost better lovemaking, Jarmin decided to humor her quirks. In her midnight dark eyes he felt nearly seven feet tall and able to take on the world. He would do anything to keep that attention on him. And if it took dressing like a banker or a prosperous businessman he figured there were worse ways to keep her happy.
      "Do you think I look all right?" He murmured in her ear as they crossed the courtyard.
      "Yes, love." She stopped and turned to him with her delightful style. "You've already met Nashen and Arkay."
      "But I thought you said Vayer and Darya would be here."
      "I said they might." She reminded him with a gentle kiss on the nose. "They might not be able to get away."
      "I hope not." He muttered, feeling the quiver rise from his knees to his middle. With anyone around other than Aliana, Jarmin would have kept a firm grip on his nerves, but she hated it when he did that.
      "Don't fret so, love." She improved her aim, this time kissing him softly on the lips. He hummed back against her and she opened to him, her mouth and field tasting so very sweet against his own. They had put off their transfer until they made it to Kaon, and now Jarmin wasn't so sure this was a good idea. The starry night of her need sang its siren song on his nerves as he pulled her to him and plundered her mouth with his own in a momentary utter lack of control. She hummed back and sagged against him, calloused fingertips rough against the back of his neck.
      "And you must be Jarmin Maris." A completely unknown voice broke into his concentration. Jarmin didn't want to stop, but he somehow managed. Aliana's lips were reddened with the force of their kiss and it was a moment before she opened her dark eyes, now even darker with longing. In their black depths, Jarmin saw the reflection of a quite tall, rather elegantly silvered gentleman with exactly the same accent Aliana sported. His wildly pounding heart tried to stop.
      "Ow," the stranger, who Jarmin was afraid he recognized, said softly. "I didn't mean to interrupt, but I do think you'll be more comfortable inside."
      "Let me finish, otyet." Aliana purred and Jarmin felt himself dragged into a longer, even more luxurious kiss. He gave himself over to the sweet, hot feel of his channel in his arms, nibbling on her lower lip and then tracing his way down her neck with gentle kisses.
      "Well done." The gentleman chuckled as Aliana finally let Jarmin turn around.
      "I'm glad you approve, otyet." The honorific still sounded strange to Jarmin's ears, although the approval he saw in Vayer's eyes was unmistakable.
      "Welcome to the family." Vayer held out his arm. Quite deliberately, Jarmin placed himself between Vayer, obviously projecting Gen and his partner. "Oh, protective. Good pick, Aliana." Vayer chuckled.
      "I thought so." Her field, dark though it currently was, shone with gleaming good health.
      "You, both of you, are to seclusion." Jarmin's mouth watered at Vayer's suggestion.
      "That was why we waited to get here, otyet." Jarmin looked at Aliana's father pointedly. "My last contract ended three days ago, but I did not want to simply have sex with your daughter but rather take my time and make love with her." Jarmin was proud of himself for getting out the line he had practiced so assiduously on the train trip. Vayer laughed, making Jarmin sag with relief at having not zlinned the idiot.
      "Very clever, my son." He winked. "Your rooms are the same as last winter, or so Vanesa told me when I was dispatched to meet you."
      "Mat'" Aliana caroled and went running down the hallway. Jarmin bristled momentarily as he watched his love wrap himself around another Donor.
      "Easy, Jarmin." Vayer's arm went around his shoulders. The similarity of gesture between father and daughter only drove home the difference in social distances between East and West. With Aliana, Jarmin had learned to be far closer, physically, than even he had been used to as a First order Donor. Her father, like Nashen, Arkay and Sevrin, held him even closer than any Westerner Jarmin had known.
      "I don't get this possessive." He tried not to let his jittering nerves get the best of him. A cool, dark mist seemed to caress his strained nerves and he looked at Vayer curiously. "You don't have to do that."
      "I want to." Vayer's wry grin gleamed through his short, silvered beard. "Doesn't it feel good?"
      "Well, yes." He leaned against Vayer as he had had so many channels in his life lean on him. Oh my this feels good. Jarmin wallowed in the release of tension as his body stopped throbbing with excess selyn yearning to be free.
      "How often have you had Aliana go haring off and hug another Sharm Lord right in front of your eyes, in hard need, no less?" Vayer snorted at him.
      "Oh," Jarmin felt terribly foolish. "Never, I suppose." He chuckled softly. With the distancing effects of Vayer's projected need wrapped around him, he could smile at Aliana's obviously thrilled reunion with her mother.
      "Aliana," Darya's voice was even more heavily accented than Vayer's. "How could you leave your mate, in need no less, to the tender mercies of your father. What were you thinking of?" Darya gave her daughter a solid shove, right into Jarmin's arms.
      "She doesn't seem to be very stressed by need." He lipped her long, dark hair.
      "I wasn't thinking of her." Darya snapped back. "I was thinking of you."
      "Oh," Jarmin returned his attention to Aliana's slender arms beneath his hands. His fingers tingled as the very faintest trace of roniplin trickled from Aliana's tentacle sheathes.
      "You, are going into seclusion, right now." Vayer's tone brooked no dissent, but Jarmin was far more interested in Aliana's darkness opening up to his sense. "Now, Jarmin."
      "He isn't hearing a thing, otyet." The dark sense of his lover seemed to try to slide away from him. Completely focused on it, he began stalking the pool of night tugging at the heat threatening to burn away his soul. Unaware of the outside world, Jarmin felt himself sink into the world of spirit with a rush.
      His wonderful Aliana, with her huge dark feathered wings, waited for him. Avidly, he ran to her. Jarmin stroked this stiff satin of the leading edge of her wings. They had always fascinated him and now he knew how very much she enjoyed his grooming of them.
      They rustled as Aliana spread them to their fullest extent. They towered over her, taller than the moon on the distant horizon. The trailing edges caressed his back, tickling the base of his spine and warming his soul. Gently, he crushed Aliana to his chest, stroking the strong muscles of her back. Night descended as Aliana's wings blanked even the faint light of moon and stars.
      In a blazing rush of glory, Jarmin lit the darkness with the heat burning in his heart. A brilliant cry echoed from horizon as light laced the veins and pins of each and every one of Aliana's black feathers. Her wings caressed the energy spilling from him, gathering it and driving it towards the sky in a towering whirlwind of fire.
     
      "Did I do something embarrassing?" Jarmin idly caressed Aliana's flank. For some reason he seemed to remember having rather precipitously abandoned Aliana's parents sometime around yesterday.
      "Not really." Her wry grin told him far more than her words he had.
      He groaned, shaking his head. "I'm sorry love."
      "Not your fault, beloved." She chuckled softly. "I pushed you a bit too hard, I'm afraid." Her foot traced over the outside of his calf.
      He still felt bad. "Do you think they'll forgive me?"
      "There's nothing to forgive, Jarmin." Her strong arms wrapped around him so protectively he nearly believed her. "Really. Sharm Lords can get a bit overwrought when denied transfer."
      "And channels can't?" Jarmin was not yet entirely comfortable with Aliana's seemingly backwards world view.
      "Oh, we can get aggressive, but not in quite the same way." She sighed, tracing his back idly with her hands. "For us it is sharper, when we let it be. Need isn't as all consuming in some ways. It isn't our entire bodies involved, it's more focused." She shook her head. "Am I making any sense?"
      "Some," he breathed in the taste and smell of her even more deeply. "When I'm high field and you're in need, I can't keep myself separate. It's like I have to get rid of my selyn or burn up with it."
      "For me, need is like any other hunger." She pressed herself closer suggestively and he chuckled. "Certainly I feel the darkness eating at me and I know I'll die if I don't get transfer, but if I have to, I can stand back and wait."
      "I wish I had." Visions of having forced himself on Aliana came to the front of his mind.
      "Don't worry so, lover." She kissed his brow. Then, as she kissed her way along the side of his face, she continued, "I got us in here, safe and sound before you lost control."
      "Thank you," he breathed in relief. "All I remember is your telling your father I couldn't hear anything. I could hear it, but I couldn't comprehend it."
      "I know. It was actually rather sad and sweet at the same time." She lipped at his ear. "You were a lot deeper into hard need than I was this time, lover."
      "I knew my control was fraying, but I had thought we had at least another hour or two."
      "I did, you didn't." Her sharp nip at his earlobe made his eyes roll up in his head. "Let me know beforehand next time, Jarmin."
      "I'm still not really good at judging my own state of need, Aliana." Even the words still seemed wrong somehow. As if he were claiming something he had no right to.
      "You do have the right to your own need, Jarmin." Aliana pressed his face to her neck. The soft skin against his lips reminded him of how very much he desired her. With a gentle lick, he tasted the sweet, salt of sweat on its surface.
      "I know I do, but I'm still not comfortable with it." He still remembered quite clearly the irritation of too many channels who blamed their own lack of emotional control on need. "It seems too much like an excuse."
      "It's a reason, love." Aliana's hands continued their exploration of Jarmin's skin. "Only if you let it stop you is it an excuse." She leaned back and gave him a grin. "I'll tell you if you overdo it."
      "Just so you see you do." He grinned back and pressed her against him. "Are you sure this won't hurt her?"
      "I'm sure."
     
      Arkay watched the easy sway of Aliana's body as she came into the room on Jarmin's arm. Oh my, he dropped into the familiar link with Nashen to zlin her more thoroughly. Nashen's gleeful chuckle nearly matched his own desire to shout in triumph. "Congratulations," he knew his voice rang with his discovery.
      Aliana hesitated and Jarmin stared at him, wrapping his now scintillating cloak around her protectively. "Thank you," her wry grin was almost demure. Jarmin gaped at him then shook his head slowly.
      "Thank you," he echoed. "Anything more you'd like to tell us?"
      "Healthy, daughter, channel, Mir," he turned to Nashen. "Anything you'd like to add?"
      "No, other than my own congratulations." Nashen's brilliant eyes seemed to gleam with his joy. "Is it always this exciting?" He added under his breath, the very tip of his pink tongue showing.
      "Yes." Arkay waved the young couple over. "Would you like a more thorough examination, Aliana?"
      Jarmin bristled slightly, placing his field between them and fogging the ambient. Arkay couldn't help but chuckle. Jarmin had come such a long ways from the self destructively diffident young man he had once been. "Perhaps later," she gave Jarmin a knowing smile.
      "I don't mean to be so over protective." His field did not match his words though, still throwing off an amazing amount of interference for how low field he was.
      "You are doing exactly as you should, Jarmin." Arkay reassured him. "She is your partner. I am an intruder. Your body is trying to defend your property. As long as you don't get violent, it is as it should be." He patted the cushions next to them and they sat.
      "I like it." Aliana tucked her feet underneath her loose tunic and leaned against Jarmin. Jarmin then flipped the edge of his robe over her, echoing his nager in protecting his mate from prying eyes as well as prying nagers. "It makes me feel safe." She looked up at him and gave him a gentle kiss.
      "I would bet it does." Arkay reassured both of them some more. "That was one of the reasons Karola loved being pregnant so often. She adored having either Avilan, myself or both of us at her beck and call every moment. Even though much of it is a learned behavior. Who taught you, Jarmin?"
      "No one, actually." He nuzzled her cheek. "It is simply what my body does when it thinks Aliana is being pushed around." His eyes got a bit wide. "I didn't mean to say you were pushing her around."
      Arkay chuckled. "Bodies aren't very clever. More what I meant by learned was your field not getting too aggressive. It's fending off my probes and fuzzing the ambient, but not striking out." In his mind's eye he watched as they both relaxed, still with Jarmin's field running interference. It was like watching a lap dog defending a tiger, not particularly effective, but certainly enthusiastic. "Although there is one further question you are going to have to answer. Where are you going to deliver?"
      "We have a friend at Rialite who won't be able to shake himself loose." Aliana stroked Jarmin's wrists possessively.
      "What are you going to do for a secondary transfer partner, Aliana?" Nashen hit the nail on the head.
      "I don't know." She looked down at her hands. "I don't want anyone but Jarmin but I know I'm going to have to accept at least one other partner as his field won't be able to keep up with our daughter's draw near the end."
      "Why won't your friend be able to get a leave of absence?" Nashen pinned down the difficulty with his usual ease. This is why I love him so. Arkay couldn't help but give Nashen a kiss for being so entirely wonderful.
      "Because he is one of the primary instructors there." Jarmin supplied. "We would both really like Jon, and if we could track her down, Hana, to be with us."
      "Didn't Hana finally qualify low first?" Aliana looked up at Jarmin.
      "Yes, actually I think she did, right around where Jon is." His grin seemed to light the room. "You are an incorrigible match maker, my love."
      "I know." She wrinkled her nose at him. "I like to see my friends happy."
      "Any pairs have a hard time here, you know." Jarmin seemed to be continuing a long running debate between them.
      "I know, but it's worth it." She sniffed.
      "Do you think Jon would be willing to take an educational sabbatical?" Vayer's addition nearly startled Arkay out of his clothes. Everyone jumped. Nashen even went so far as to end up with one of his knives in his hand.
      "So sorry." It vanished as quickly as it appeared.
      "Me too." Vayer blinked, realized he had done the same thing, and returned his weapon to its sheath.
      "I see startling people around here is a bad idea." Jarmin said clearly into the resulting silence.
      "Yes." Aliana clarified, chuckling. "Both Vayer and Nashen are almost always armed and both of them are a little protective of their partners." Darya had come in with Vayer and was now scolding him with her field. He ducked his head sheepishly at her. Vayer's eyes flicked towards Arkay.
      "Don't look at me. I'm not going to defend your stupidity." Arkay chuckled, tracing his fingers over Nashen's still vibrating nerves. Finally Nashen sighed and relaxed again. "There you go, my love. Sorry about being so startled."
      "Vayer was an idiot." Nashen growled with a flick of his tentacles. "Kids." The mutter was so similar to Arkay's own occasional commentary about his children and grandchildren, now, he had to chuckle. "So, where did you come in with this whole thing?"
      "Somewhere around a couple of people named Jon and Hana." Vayer, strangely enough, wrapped himself around Darya.
      "And you offered a learning sabbatical to Jon without knowing any more?" Jarmin's naivety was still quite surprising at times.
      "Jon is a friend of yours. If you want him around, for whatever it is you're planning," Vayer's tentacles waved about indefinitely, "then why not ship the miscreants to Mir. Easier to keep track of 'em if you're matchmaking."
      Aliana choked on her own laughter.
      "Matchmaking, did someone say matchmaking?" Sevrin bounded into the room. "Sorry, Vanesa is going to be tied up for a few hours with the books." He stepped forward and then stopped, cocking his head. "Congratulations, Aliana."
      "What?" Darya sat bolt upright and peered at her daughter. "Yes, congratulations, both of you."
      "From me as well." Vayer tipped his head. He made a clucking sound, as if to a horse. Sevrin chuckled and sat next to him. "This seems to be working fairly well for you?" Vayer's low voice question carried.
      "Quite." Sevrin nodded his head. "I don't have to think about it."
      "Perfect." Vayer raised his hands. "As everyone here but Jarmin knows about horses, Sevrin and I have come up with a way to give him a bit more subtle clues to where people are. You all probably heard me cluck to him."
      "Like a mare." Sevrin twitted his brother.
      "Foo" Vayer gave him a very brotherly swat with his field. "Anyways, don't hesitate to use the little sounds all of us horse people use around them. It seems to be working."
      "Pretty well, actually." Sevrin shrugged. "Even Vanesa is getting the hang of it, although our children picked it up right away."
      "Probably because you already have the girls riding ponies." Arkay interjected, proud to the bursting point with his children, grandchildren and soon to be great grandchildren. The thought made his head spin.
      "So, back to matchmaking?" Sevrin settled in against his brother's shoulder. Somehow Vayer managed to stretch himself far enough to encompass both rather substantial Sharm Lords in his concern.
      "Actually, the original topic was where is Aliana going to get a back up." Arkay reminded all of them.
      "We can get her the selyn." Sevrin put on the table. "I think Vanesa has the drive for her."
      "Pretty rough on her though." Nashen sighed. "I don't like zlinning a prima having to make do with channel's transfer, even a Lord's."
      "I know, it isn't for the best." Arkay was still bemused at how easily and enthusiastically Nashen had embraced Arkay's practice of midwifery. He had even gone so far as to study it in the few books written on the subject Arkay had stashed away in his own personal library. "Is there anyone else living here in the West intimately familiar with Lords other than Sevrin and Jarmin?" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jarmin blush slightly at being included with Sevrin.
      "Jon tried, but didn't have the ... how shall I put it?" Aliana's tentacles twined about her fingers as if looking to pull something out of thin air. "He didn't have the solidity for me to get a hold of. It was like trying to grasp mist."
      "Like this?" Jarmin's presence suddenly shifted to a rather bland, amorphous drifting. Arkay cringed away from contact with the nebulous presence where once there had been a shining, healthy person.
      "Yes." Aliana glared at him and Jarmin returned with a rush. "Thank you. I was beginning to feel a bit nauseous."
      "Sorry love." With a surprisingly deft touch, Jarmin's field twined with hers, stretching out any possible cramps or knots.
      "Jon and Hana might like to learn that trick." Arkay leaned forward, watching the couple carefully.
      "True." Jarmin rested his chin on Aliana's shoulder. "It is far better than the Techton exercises for getting rid of Entran."
      "What's Entran?" Nashen sat up a bit straighter. Jarmin blinked at them.
      Aliana rolled her eyes. "Because Techton 'Donors' are so passive, Techton channels get cramps in their systems because they are always fighting to maintain their balance on their own."
      "There is more to it than that, love." Jarmin's gentle nip of reproach on Aliana's ear sent a warm shiver through the ambient. "It is because they have to stay so focused on serving transfer, that hard focus causes their field controls to become very brittle. When you add the stress of having to do all their own field manipulations, as most Techton Donors can't actively manipulate fields, that same brittle control goes unstable, causing the symptoms of Entran."
      "They passively manipulate fields?" Sevrin's question echoed Arkay's own silent one. How would one passively shape selyn fields? Gingerly he tried doing so. Nashen squirmed in his arms.
      "Sorry." He stopped messing around. Nashen nipped him lightly on the shoulder. Feels good. A quick shiver of pleasure traced his skin.
      "Yes," Jarmin's crooked grin had obviously been learned from Aliana. "It doesn't work well with you folk, but let me try to show you anyways." He gave Aliana a nudge and she curled up next to Nashen. Now Arkay had two people in his arms. Two Lords. This was absolutely delightful in his opinion. Feeling more than a touch greedy, the gathered them in closer. Their warm, taut bodies seemed to bake the perpetual aches from his very bones.
      Jarmin stood and brushed his hands together. "Lets see if I can still do this." A look of concentration came over his face, blanking his now normally very expressive face. It was as if he put a dark, oaken mask over his features. When he dropped entirely from Arkay's non-physical senses, both Aliana and Nashen hissed in shock. "Easy, little ones." He could feel Nashen tremble against his chest. Then Jarmin moved.
      This was even worse. It was as if a large stone were rumbling through the room. A large, black stone sucking all the life from the normally vibrant interactions of the fields which had surrounded Arkay since he was seventeen. "There." Jarmin looked at him. The fields were uncannily still, as if someone had pegged them to the ground beneath their feet.
      "Yes, I see." Arkay shivered himself.
      "Interesting." Vayer's response was muted and dim, as if only voice could pass through Jarmin's interference. As Arkay closed his eyes, he realized he couldn't sense his own son. It was as if Vayer, Darya and Sevrin were on the far side of the globe. "I found Mikhail doing work like this when I first met him."
      The reminded pulled a number of incidents early on when they had first met the Techton from the far reaches of Arkay's mind. I am getting old. He realized his ability to recall information was not what it once had been. "You are quite right."
      "If you would, Jarmin." Aliana's voice was strained and rough. Nashen caressed her hand gently.
     

"Certainly." He stepped backwards and slowly the room returned to normal. Arkay took a deep breath, trying to get his muscles to relax. "Better?"
      "Much." Darya gasped. "I don't like that."
      "I could feel that." Jarmin's small, gentle smile turned on Aliana's mother. Darya grinned back at him. "Curiosity satisfied?"
      "For the rest of my life." She chuckled, her field reaching out to Jarmin and stroking him. He looked at it, his own field trying to capture a bit of her so unique darkness. For a few moments, they sparred, each trying to hold onto the mists of each other. "I never felt Mikhail work fields passively. By the time I knew him, he had learned to be more active." Her eyes crossed as she tried to focus even harder on her and Jarmin's fields now twining about each other. It was as if two ferrets were trying to go down the same rabbit hole at the same time.
      "I've never felt it do anything like that." Jarmin eyed the odd diffraction patterns appearing in the ambient.
      "Is yours usually so animate?" Darya tapped her finger against her lips.
      "Not usually, except for when he's singing or playing." Aliana provided. "I had heard about yours, mat', but this is the first time I've had a good chance to zlin it."
      "This is more active than I've zlinned it in years." Vayer eyed Darya with a bemused glance. "Getting bored with me, my love?"
      "Never." She chuckled. "I think Jarmin's little display got it all excited." The way Darya would sometimes talk about her field in third person made Arkay shift about uncomfortably. "Like you never talk about any part of your body in the third person." She looked down, quite pointedly.
      "Of course ... " Arkay felt his blush nearly burn though his cloths. "Oh, not any more." He focused his entire attention on Nashen's long silver hair. Aliana's giggles, however, were a definite distraction. "Quit that." He swatted her gently with his field.
      "You don't?" Nashen looked at him, both eyebrows raised. "Like hell you don't."
      Vayer howled with laughter. "She's got you there, otyet." He wiped tears from his eye, rather ostentatiously, Arkay thought.
      "Why did you tell her?" Someone had to have spilled the information.
      "All men do." Darya's words dropped into the middle of the room with a nearly audible thud. "At least I haven't named any part of my anatomy." She flipped her black hair from her face.
      "Neither have I." Arkay thought the whole thing rather silly.
      "They why are you blushing so hard?" Nashen was far too amused. "Anyways, I thought the name Nani was incredibly cute."
      "Oh God, Nashen." Arkay hid his face against his lover's neck. He burrowed himself in and among the silver strands. When he realized Nashen's skin felt cool, he cringed.
      "Not that I have any idea where you got that name, it isn't Russian." Nashen's hand caressed his tight scalp. "Oh love." He turned, exposing Arkay's face. A gentle hand beneath his chin tipped his burning face upwards. Sheepishly, he looked into Nashen's fantastic silver eyes. "I love you, Arkay."
      "I love you too." He tried to repress his automatic smile at Nashen's so gentle attention. His heart tripped over a beat from its frantic pounding as he fell into those silver pools of warmth. "You are the inspiration for the name." He whispered.
      "Oh, lover." Nashen arms came around him and hugged him tightly. "I didn't mean to embarrass you so badly."
      "I know." Arkay smiled at him. "I did it to myself."
      "You had help from Darya." His sweet, soft chuckle teased loose the knotted tension from Arkay's shoulders. "Here, turn around lover." Nashen's hands moved him so he was face down on the cushions after slipping off his loose shirt. As his lover's strong fingers and tentacles began digging into the muscles of his neck, Arkay forgot all about his embarrassment and moaned loudly.
      "Yes, there." He wrapped his arms around a particularly convenient pillow. "Oh, yes." Arkay mumbled into the smooth fabric. "Like that." Sharp, near pain warmed to exquisite pleasure as Nashen's skilled hands worked on his back. "There," he squirmed up a bit. Nashen dug the heels of his hands in under his shoulder blades.
      Nashen's warm chuckle vibrated Arkay's bones as he sat straddling Arkay's waist. "Like this?"
      "Yes, oh ...," he moaned as Nashen rubbed along the muscles of his spine, "yes, there." He felt his eyes roll up in his head.
      "Are you rubbing his back or making love to him?" Darya's question didn't even really make any sense at this point. Arkay moaned again, shifting a pillow around to make himself a bit more comfortable.
      "Yes," Nashen's hot lips dropped a soft kiss on Arkay's spine. He arched his back, rubbing up against Nashen's chest.
     
      Nashen's rubbing Arkay's back was making Aliana feel more than a bit unsettled. Nervously, she scooted even closer to Jarmin. "Did you bring your guitar?"
      "It's still in our rooms." She caressed his hand, quite inadvertently rubbing her tentacles between her fingers.
      "Lover, if you keep doing that we'll be even more outrageous than Nashen and Arkay." He leaned forward.
      Taking this as an invitation, she tipped his head to the side and kissed him very lightly. His eyes turned completely dark as he opened his mouth. As delicately as she could, she traced his lips with the very tip of her tongue.
     
      A while later, Aliana and Jarmin returned. The fire was now low, with only a few blue flickers of light playing among the remaining coals. Flushed and happy, she pulled Jarmin down beside her on the cushions. Arkay and Nashen were spooned against each other under a light cover. Aliana couldn't remember a time when those two weren't inseparable and often still wondered at how she herself had gotten so lucky as to have landed a lover nearly as good as Arkay and Nashen had found in each other.
      With practiced hands, she pulled her now rather worn guitar from its case and tuned it.
      "I'm glad to see Sharm Lord Yitria's guitar so loved." Nashen looked back over his shoulder at her. "Instruments should be played."
      "I've had to replace the strings with plastic." She slid her fingers along the sounding board. "Gut strings are dreadfully expensive here."
      "That guitar was designed for plastic, actually." Arkay winked at her. "All our instruments are over braced for gut."
      "Oh," she chuckled, strumming idle chords from the instrument. Sevrin's field lit across the room as he heard her. "I had worried a bit."
      "Don't." Sevrin gave her a grin. "I still use gut, but then I have a lot more money to play with and I prefer the tone." He unfolded himself from Vayer's embrace and sat up. "Hold on a moment." Sevrin left.
      Not thinking of a great deal other than her own happiness, she smiled at Jarmin and plucked out the first few chords of "Sable and Silk", the first, rather overblown, love song she had written for him. He hummed the first bit of the chorus. As she sieged into "A Pint and a Half" he chuckled softly.
      Finally Sevrin returned, carrying his lap harp. She winked at him. It didn't take him long and he had his instrument in tune. Arkay sat up, seeming to shed the Sime he had grown on his back. Nashen still curled around Arkay's backside. Vayer's eyes sparkled in the low light as he hugged Darya to his side.
      Aliana began a very simple piece, one she normally started her sets with, "A Half and Half" about a race between a very clever tortoise and a not so clever hare. Vayer scurried out quickly during the first chorus and returned, bearing a couple of tablas and rather worn violin.
      Soon they were all playing and singing together. A young, dark haired and dark eyed channel showed up half way through the second piece bearing a rather odd instrument which only vaguely resembled what Jarmin had pointed out to her as a shiltpron. He tuned it and joined in on the last chorus of "Traveler's Road", a piece Jarmin had taught her last year at Rialite.
      I can zlin why shiltpron is so popular. The instrument seemed to play on the nageric level as well as the audible. Darya played a high wailing run on the violin, reminding Aliana of a tune she had been working on weeks ago during the fading edge of fall. "Specter's Lullaby", the tentative name of the tune came to her fingers. It all seemed to come together and she led her impromptu orchestra through its paces.
      Arkay surprised her after the end with a high, trilling call, like that of the desert peoples. Nashen echoed it, following with the opening of a piece Arkay had taught her as a child telling of merchant's travels and travails. Even though it was in Arabic, Jarmin followed her easily, neatly picking the words from her mind moments before she sang them.
      During a short break, listening to Sevrin teasing an ancient English song from his harp and singing so very beautifully she felt the stones should weep, Aliana realized someone had left a mug of mulled wine near her feet. She looked at Jarmin quizzically but he was utterly fascinated by her uncle's singing. Then she spotted Vanesa giving her a wink from her seat at Sevrin's feet.
     
      Vanesa heard the singing long before she returned on very tired feet from her office. There were no lights on, but the warmth she felt from the old stone building was heartening to her aching rear. Tanya was still on duty at the doors and she glared at the renSime.
      "What are you doing standing duty tonight?" She looked down pointedly at Tanya's bulging middle.
      Tanya looked out of the corner of her eye at Pyetr.
      "Don't look to him for an answer. I asked you." Vanesa shook her finger at Tanya.
      "But, m'Lord, I'm not but bein' te well wit sitting about." She lowered her eyes. Vanesa could clearly zlin her unborn son stir restlessly at his mother's discomfort. When they had brought Tanya over, Sevrin had tried to warn Vanesa the renSime would probably get pregnant again at the very first chance she had. Vanesa hadn't listened.
      "Then why don't you go down to the kitchen and get us all something warm to drink and things to eat." She relented, as she always did. "I'll meet you inside."
      "At your will, m'Lord." Tanya handed her spear to her partner and headed off in a stately waddle.
      "Could ye do somethin' te keep her still, m'Lord?" Pyetr's normal reticence seemed to slip in the face of trying to keep a leash on his rather duty driven partner.
      "I'll try, renSime Pyetr." She looked towards Tanya. "Can't say as I'll manage."
      "I but be knowing what ye mean, m'Lord." He sighed, looking the exact same direction.
      Finally, when Tanya returned, she managed to talk the pair of guards into sitting near the inside door to the conversation area. Tanya's field would have stripped paint from the walls if she hadn't been drawn down so much by her son. Vanesa tried to count on her fingers and tentacles to figure out how far Tanya was along and suddenly realized it could be any time. She stuck her head in the room and waved at Arkay.
      He excused himself and quietly stepped out. "Yes?"
      "Could you check Tanya for me?" She sighed, trying to not act too embarrassed about the situation. Arkay's silent chuckle made her want to swat him though.
      "Certainly." He placed his large, cool hand on her shoulder and gazed intently at Tanya for a moment. Tanya preened under the attention, showing off her big belly proudly. "I think I'm going to want you two inside with us." This sounded a bit ominous to Vanesa and she stared at him. *Tonight or tomorrow morning.* He sent. *It's already begun.* An extraordinarily complex image teased at the edge of her understanding.
      "I think you'll enjoy the music." He took Tanya's arm and led her inside over her wide eyed protests. "Now, more comfortable?" He leaned her spear against the wall across Pyetr's. Pyetr's dark eyes were bright with understanding. Sevrin winked at Vanesa and continued his soft music.
      "Yes, m'Lord." She ducked her head shyly. Looking around, she seemed to drink in the warm room, relaxing back into the cushions with a sigh. Arkay placed a light cover over her and sat next to her.
      Vanesa sat at her usual place at Sevrin's feet, as always, wondering at how very beautiful the music he created was. Aliana reached down and took a sip of the mulled wine Tanya's little errand had produced. Domi and Riana showed up with a huge basket full of Domi's special treats, from the smells drifting from the wicker container.
      Eagerly she dove in and rescued some of her favorite cheese puffs. So he wouldn't get his fingers greasy, she popped one into Sevrin's open mouth as he begged for one. After a sip of wine, he took off playing one of Vanesa's favorite songs, "Fairfield's Ballad". Even she tried to sing. At first tentatively, but when Arkay gave her a rather indelicate nageric shove, she threw her heart into it.
      Sevrin's brilliant blue eyes reflected the glow of the coals on the hearth nearly as brightly as his nager shone with his joy in song. His entire attention focused on her alone as he sang the words of love in the piece. The song's reply was nearly the words Vanesa herself would have spoken and she felt them deep in her soul as she responded.
      "Beautifully done." Aliana said softly into the silence afterwards. Vanesa felt her face heat a bit as she knew she was not a brilliant musician, as it seemed her entire adopted family was. "No, really, you did an excellent job." She leaned over her guitar and changed the tuning a bit. An odd, unsettling chord made Vanesa shift uneasily.
     
      Caught in a sea of mirrors,
      deep in a well of light.
      Trapped by pool of fears,
      and scared of the darkened night.
     
      The refrain came entirely from Jarmin. His deep rich voice seeming to echo the insane loneliness he must have felt trapped, mute and immobile, in his own body.
     
      Feathers will I give thee,
      tokens of deepest hopes.
      Love with I ever give thee,
      proof of my deepest hopes.
     
      Aliana's response was backed by her indomitable strength of will. It rang and triumphed over all adversity. By the end of the song, there was not a dry eye in the house.
      "Pretty song." Tanya sighed, rubbing her eyes.
      "Very." Pyetr gently caressed his partner's face.
      "I think I would like to dance." Darya placed her violin to the side. One of Vayer's tentacles flicked towards the two renSimes.
      *They are only involved in each other, Vayer.* Vanesa reassured him. The conditioning of the Russian renSimes to channel's transfer was far stronger than anyone had managed here in the west. It seemed to go bone deep. They wouldn't even zlin a renGen unless directly invited and she had never zlinned one of them zlinning a Gen for transfer, much less a kill.
      He nodded to Darya and she slipped off the far too large kador she had borrowed from Arkay. "You came prepared I zlin." Vayer flicked a riff from the tabla he had brought. The clothes she wore beneath were obviously not borrowed from Arkay. Sheer, loose pants tied at the ankles with bright ribbons, a wide belt low on her hips and a brief corselet, only holding up her substantial breasts were not what Darya normally wore under her kador.
      "Let me." Arkay reached for it. Vayer raised an eyebrow, but handed it over. "Don't want the skin to get damp." The cryptic comment was followed by a Vayer giving his father a huge raspberry. Vanesa's glance at Vayer's arms nearly made her laugh. If he isn't in hard need, I'll eat my shirt. Unlike the people she had grown up with, herself included, it seemed the Russian Lords could go for hours past hard need and even well into attrition with no ill effects and they would do so simply to wait for an idyllic opportunity for transfer.
      "Oh, no, not bells." Vayer's complaint did not sound at all sincere as his gaze locked on Darya tying strings of small chimes to her ankles, and as Vanesa watched, her wrists. Danyel's attention was nearly as rapt as Vayer's. Good, he's just zlinning. Vanesa noted Danyel was no where near hard need.
      "I've never done this before." Aliana whispered to Nashen.
      "You've seen renGens dance, haven't you?" Nashen looked somewhat scandalized.
      "Well, yes, but I was a child." A dorsal plucked a single note from her guitar.
      "Then go into the real world only." He winked. "Not as much fun, but it should keep you from being distracted."
      Sevrin set aside his harp and promptly began flailing about. "It's to your left." Vayer added, even though Vanesa could zlin his field already sharpening with the beginnings of active need. Sevrin took the other tabla and tried a pattering riff on it. Its tone was much sharper than the other one. Darya made a kissing sound, which he returned easily. This is working. Vanesa noted.
      Arkay began with a slow, measured beat. Sevrin nodded and worked a fairly light counterpoint to the heavy rhythm. Darya paced to the center of the room, bells chiming in time with the two drums. The was a very faint knock on the door.
      With a muttered grumble, Vanesa got up to see who it was. Her wayward First order Donor, with his renSime partner were standing at the door. "Yes?"
      "Dancing?" Garin peeked around the portal.
      His lady elbowed him in the ribs. "We saw Tanya and Pyetr were taken off guard and wanted to be sure they were all right." Salia looked up at Garin with her exotic almond shaped eyes rather dismissive.
      "They are fine. Arkay only wanted to keep an eye on Tanya for a bit." She winked at Garin. It was Salia who brightened though, clutching at her husband's arm. "Come on in."
      "I'm not dressed for it." Garin plucked at his robes. When Kaon had loosened its dress code, Garin had been the first to take advantage of it. No one ever saw him in the Techton coveralls except on the rare occasions of a general inspection. Now he wore the extremely heavy kador of the Middle East daily.
      "I'd like to zlin." Salia's lips curved into an absolutely delightful smile.
      "Anything you want, my love." He kissed her brow. Vanesa let them in and Salia's nageric sigh was nearly audible. "I like this." Garin seemed to grow even taller than his normal six foot plus.
      "I thought you would." She watched as they found seats near Tanya and Pyetr. As quietly as she could, she returned to Sevrin's side. Darya raised her hands over her head. Their easy sway seemed to echo the way tentacles would reach and grasp. The memory of Vanesa's one transfer with Darya came to the fore with a pounding rush.
      Somehow, Aliana had managed to get her guitar to mimic the odd tones and patterns of the desert instruments. But what really had enraptured Vanesa, was Danyel's gliding, haunting shiltpron playing. There was a rustle of fabric and Vanesa saw Nashen get to his feet out of the corner of her eye. Both drums sped up. Darya's field reached for the now familiar lightning struck field of Nashen. She's teasing Vayer. Vanesa cringed at a clash between the two extremely powerful channels over Darya's enticement.
      Vayer chuckled deep in his throat, a low, primitive sound and he slid to his feet. Darya's eyes glittered with amusement as she bowed herself backwards, leaving center stage for the two Simes. Nashen wasn't in need, but he wasn't obviously post either and Vanesa realized Vayer was probable going to zlin him as a challenger. They faced off. The tension in their bodies echoed in the ambient, sending flickers of heat lightning across her inner vision.
      This is shenned dangerous. She watched the two channels nervously, they were both junct, both endowed and squared off as if to fight over Darya. There was a flicker of motion. Nashen had reached for Darya. Sevrin seemed to spur them on, ticking off a mocking riff on his drum. Arkay prodded from below, changing the tempo. Vayer's hand swept towards Nashen's wrist.
      Vanesa held her breath. Nashen's hand flicked out of the way. Vayer pressed his advantage, trying to back down the much older Lord. I thought they were like father and son. But Vanesa well knew Simes in need could be deadly predators, even to their nearest and dearest. Darya let out a trilling call. Garin echoed her.
      "Can you do this?" Nashen mocked, going into a brief series of spectacular kicking moves.
      "Better than you." Vayer did him one better, adding a rather fantastic leaping prance at the end. Nashen snorted back and seemed to float in the air as he traced a circle around Vayer. "I can do better than that." Vayer danced for Darya, a gleaming knife now entwined in his tentacles.
      Light shimmered from the sharpened steel. "Oh ho, the Lord has teeth." One of Nashen's own knives appeared, reflecting the dim light of the fire. Vanesa finally remembered to breath before she passed out. The shiltpron had gone silent and she saw Danyel staring, his mouth gaping open like a fish. Both drums however, played off each other as well. Vanesa caught her lower lip between her teeth. She wasn't sure if Vayer and Nashen were fighting or dancing.
      Faster and faster the drums pounded. Her heart was racing. They can't keep upping the pace. Vanesa knew Vayer couldn't keep going longer. They were both augmenting now, only flickers of light and shadow like strobes appeared even to zlinning. There was a heart stopping crash of pain.
      Both drums stopped. Silence fell. A crimson trickle of blood threaded down the back of Nashen's hand. Only the heavy breathing of the two Lords broke the silence. Nashen bowed his head then seemed to crumple to his knees at Vayer's feet. Vanesa nearly sobbed. "Get up, my beloved father." Vayer's voice grated with a depth of need Vanesa had never zlinned in one of the Russians.
      "At your will." Nashen's field still burned with pain, but it also twined with more than a touch of amusement.
      "You let me win." The low whisper carried astonishingly far.
      "Never." Nashen's head snapped up. "I'd have made you beg for her." Vayer's eyes narrowed as his tentacles lashed the air, then his head fell back in hot, dark laughter the likes of which Vanesa had never heard.
      Vayer recovered finally and offered Nashen his hand. As their touch met, the blood sealed their handclasp. "As you are my father in heart and soul, now we are bound by blood shed between us."
      "Good thing it's my right hand." Nashen's mutter was clearly audible.
      "Did you think I'd aim for your left?" Vayer seemed to tremble. His eyes now kept flicking towards Darya, still watching the two of them with a very pleased smile.
      "I'd think you'd take what you could get." Nashen stepped back, breaking off the contact.
      "I'd do anything to win the approval of Darya."
      "Exactly as I said." Nashen chuckled and went to Arkay.
      "You got yourself hurt." Arkay chided, wrapping his field and attention around Nashen's injury. "How could you do that to me?" Now Nashen truly looked cowed.
      "I thought I could best him." Nashen's silver hair came forward to hide his face. "It was only to first blood."
      "Your blood, spilling out all over the place." Arkay sounded nearly hysterical even while his field remained nearly placid. "I don't like it when you get yourself hurt. Did you ever think of how it would hurt me?"
      "Yes." Nashen said, quite meekly. "But I would have given Darya as a gift to you. Maybe you could have gotten another bracelet from her."
      "Not if it meant your nearly getting yourself murdered, by our son, no less." Arkay tisked at him. Vanesa was about to break this off when she felt Sevrin's hand on her knee. She leaned against the restraint. "How do you think Vayer would have felt if he had seriously injured you?"
      "He wouldn't have." Nashen's tone was nearly a whine. "We were dancing, for a Sharm Lord's favor."
      "Well, OK." Arkay finally relented, hugging Nashen close. "I can understand, lover." Nashen's face turned towards Vanesa for a brief instant and he winked at her. *You are clever. You get the cosseting either way.* She sent as narrowly as she could.
      *What Fatima is known for ... coming out on top no matter the throw of the dice.* He snuggled in against Arkay with a great sigh of content.
      *Uh-oh* Vanesa saw Garin get up and take off his kador. This time he was not low field at all. The scruffy, rather worn clothes he wore beneath it only seemed to show off his nager and did nothing to conceal most of his body. Vayer's head snapped around. Darya hissed. Even though now it was Salia who took the heavier of the two drums.
      "One way or the other Hajene Travis is going to get a thrill tomorrow." Garin's nearly black eyes seemed to glow against his nager and his almost luminescently pale skin. "I think I would like this little Caliph." He put his hand possessively on Vayer's head. Vanesa got a wicked idea. She waved to Pyetr.
      He came over, "Your will, m'Lord?"
      "Go yank lord Travis out of collections. It should be dead by this time of night." She whispered. He trotted off, zlinning over his shoulder and obviously not wanting to miss any of the show.
      "You've gotten good at this servant thing." Sevrin murmured in her ear.
      "They why is Tanya about to give birth to her third child?" Vanesa sighed.
      "Fourth actually." Sevrin corrected her with a soft chuckle. "She and Pyetr had three in Russia. They are the absolute top of the Russian renSimes."
      "I thought you said Russian renSimes only were allowed to have two children."
      "The best are allowed three."
      "But four is excessive." She grimaced against his hand caressing her face.
      "Not here. Their son is wanted. If he grows to be a renSime, he'll have a place for life. As a renGen as well." Sevrin tapped out a light cadence on his drum. "The restriction is because the Rus can't afford population growth. Now, watch the show." His attention flickered towards the two Sharm Lords now glaring at each other over Vayer's head.
      Hajene Travis appeared at the door, now with renSime Pyetr in tow. He froze, obviously taking in the scene. Vanesa waved him over. "Good evening Hajene Travis." She said, making sure it was loud enough for Garin to overhear.
      Garin's head whipped around and his field reached for his erstwhile partner. Travis' attention was entirely on Darya in her rather scanty outfit, however. "Oh my, this is going to get interesting."
      "I like him." Darya purred, getting to her feet and pointing towards Travis. A loud gulp and Travis burrowed into Vanesa's side. When Vayer glared at him, he shivered. "Yes, tender, young, sweet." Her field tried to interpose itself between Garin and the newcomer.
      "If you want him, you can have him." Garin shrugged.
      "Darya." Vayer wailed. His field was darker than the farthest reaches of the room and colder than Vanesa's one visit to Moskva in winter. Garin's attention returned entirely to Vayer, as did Darya's.
      "Oh my." Darya seemed to shudder with pleasure at Vayer's display of need. Garin's eyes widened and he licked his lips. As the two refocused on Vayer, Travis straightened up.
      "I can zlin why they would both want him." Travis waved a tentacle at Vayer. "Although I have no complaints about turning into a consolation prize."
      "Smart man," Sevrin chuckled softly. "Why don't you see if you can encourage them."
      "Sevrin," Vanesa chided him as Travis ducked inside Sevrin's proffered shelter. Both Gens tightened their attention on Vayer to the point where his laterals licked from their sheathes and the rich scent of roniplin filled the air. They're going to rip him apart. Vanesa watched Vayer's field drop into the hardest need she'd ever zlinned.
      Darya's eyes blazed as she stepped nearer Vayer. Garin matched her movement. The ambient writhed sickeningly before Vanesa could back away from it. Salia tapped her drum, rousing Garin. Sevrin chuckled, earning him a dark glare from Vanesa. *Oh, Vayer's going to enjoy this transfer.* His sending shocked Vanesa to her laterals. As a rippling beat came from Sevrin's drum, Darya grabbed Garin's reaching hand.
      "Don't touch." Her voice held a bite Vanesa had rarely heard. It was kin to a growling tone she had only heard once from a desperate channel, but far, far darker.
      "It would only be fair." Garin's voice held the same tone. Vanesa realized she was seeing selyn clash, centered on Vayer. Garin's light met Darya's darkness in swirls of fantastic patterns reaching into the visible.
      "Point." Nashen was solidly burrowed into Arkay's side, his healed hand cradled in Arkay's.
      "Conceded." Darya jerked her chin up and released Garin's hand. As Garin's fingertips brushed Vayer's shoulder, the channel let out a shrieking wail. Vanesa couldn't take it any more and hid in Sevrin's nager. "Come to me, my mate." Darya purred.
      "His choice." Garin let his hand caress Vayer's bearded chin. There was only madness in Vayer's eyes. Vanesa bit her lip. *They're torturing him.* She protested to Sevrin.
      "But it is very sweet torture." Sevrin's field seemed to blaze with a kind of atavistic sadism Vanesa had rarely seen in him. "He'll live and enjoy every moment of it. All this pain will not damage him and will be repaid at least fivefold."
      "Although I'm not so sure about having transfer with the loser." Travis shrank in on himself.
      "I've had both and they are very good, Travis. Neither will harm you." Vanesa reassured him. He was older than she was by a good many years, but those years did not seem to provide any immunity to the torment going on before him. "Although you might want to be ready." She waved a tentacle towards the combatants.
      "Um, yes." He sat up straighter. "Whoever is going to come bounding over here with their arms on fire." Travis ran his tentacles nervously through his hair, leaving streaks of roniplin among the silvered strands.
      The gesture must have distracted Garin. With a flick of her nager, Darya pounded him away from Vayer. Vayer lunged for her, driving her to the floor with the weight of his body. Garin screamed in frustration as Darya drove the transfer into Vayer.
      "Go," Sevrin cracked his field behind Travis, launching him out of his protected nook. Nearly flattening poor Travis, Garin collided with him. Fear, from the channel, crackled through the ambient. Garin hissed, leaning back from it.
      "Do it." Vanesa grabbed the fields, giving Travis a split second of thinking room. He flipped hyper and tentacles lashed around Garin's arms. Garin's eyes rolled up in his head as Travis finally made the fifth contact point. Another searing flash of selyn and it was over.
      "I didn't hurt him, did I?" Travis' voice shook as he caught Garin in his arms.
      "No, not at all." Garin's purred, leaning on Travis bonelessly. "Oh, my, that was good." His entire body shivered as he took a deep gasping breath.
      "Come with my, my love." Salia chuckled, laying aside her tabla and standing. Her hand was outstretched.
      "If you don't mind?" Garin looked at his transfer partner sheepishly.
      "Other than scaring me half out of my mind, that was wonderful." Travis shook his head. "Any time you want to play chicken again, look me up." He handed Travis over to Salia with a wistful look. Vanesa could nearly hear his thought of, 'I wish it were me.'
      Salia grinned up at Garin. "Yes, if you like, you are welcome to come with us." He offered Travis his hand.
      Travis looked at Vanesa briefly. She nodded for him to go ahead. He would be leaving Kaon in a week or so anyway.
      "So, now we've had our excitement." Arkay gave Nashen a dark look.
      "Where did ... ?" Vanesa said. Sevrin pointed towards the far door. "Oh," she bit her tongue, trying not to grin quite so broadly. There was nothing behind said door but a rather large unlit broom closet, but Vanesa doubted either Darya or Vayer really cared at the moment. "They'll be back out, eventually."
      "Maybe," he put his arm around her shoulders. "Someone else's turn." He held out the tabla.
      No one accepted it, so he placed it behind himself and took up his harp again. Even single handed, his playing was delightful. Vanesa released his other hand so he could play as he was accustomed to. He grinned at her and handed her his harp.
      "Yes, play for us." Aliana was far too kind. Vanesa picked out the first simple chord she could think of. "That's a good piece." Aliana plucked out a snippet of a simple child's tune. It was one of the first she had learned and some of the butterflies got scared away.
      "Thank you." Sevrin's hand brushed her hair.
      "It wasn't very good." She looked down at the tawny wood in front of her.
      "Here." Aliana handed Nashen her guitar.
      "Urk," He accepted it before she let go, barely. "I barely know how to play this thing." Nashen fiddled with the strings, striking such a dissonant chord Arkay glared at him.
      "Like this." Arkay reached over and moved Nashen's hand.
      "Thank you," Nashen still didn't sound pleased, or very good. Danyel gave his shiltpron to Sevrin.
      "I have no idea how to play this." His fingers traced the metal and wood of the instrument. They flickered and jumped across the strings. When they brushed the tines though, Vanesa cringed as his field burned through her nerves with the amplification.
      "I can tell." Danyel blinked. "Like this," he put his hands over Sevrin's, placing them correctly.
      "Thank you," Sevrin hardly sounded more thrilled than Nashen and Vanesa chuckled.
      "Everyone know "Three Sheep"?" Jarmin asked.
      "I do." Tanya scooted up on her pillows.
      "When did you learn it?" The child's ditty was a Techton rhyme.
      "Wit' te childer." She patted her own bulging middle. "Been lernin' m' English."
      "So I hear." Vanesa kept the pained smile from her face by force of will alone. Her heart jumped into her throat as she realized Sevrin had never taught her the song. What do I do? She focused on the harp. Gingerly, she placed her hands on the strings. Her tentacles tangled among them.
      "Let me help." Aliana came over and then looked down. "Not that I'm really sure about playing the harp with tentacles."
      "Why don't I try it first." Vanesa concentrated, trying to feel the very familiar song in her fingers. After a number of false starts, she managed to pick out the melody. Sweating, she managed. The second time all the way through was easier, by the end of the third, Vanesa noted she had company.
      Laughing, Vanesa tried to sing along. Sevrin usually made it look so easy. Only now he had his tongue stuck out the corner of his mouth in concentration. Even Nashen was cross-eyed with the effort of dealing with an unfamiliar instrument.
      Danyel's raspy voice joined in to make a round. Vanesa got a tentacle stuck between two strings. She giggled at the tickle. Nashen pinched one and swore in Arabic under his breath. Even Tanya and Pyetr joined in, singing.
     
      Shortly before dawn the next morning, Tanya's son came into the world. It was a very easy delivery, although Vanesa knew it was because of Arkay's deft touch. Far too soon, it was spring again. Leaves appeared, green and new on the trees. "I wish you didn't have to go." She looked up into Arkay's light blue eyes.
      "We'll be back, and you'll see us even sooner." He held her hands.
      "No, we have to stay. Take care of Aliana and Jarmin for us, will you." She caressed his age worn fingers.
      "We'll work it out." Nashen winked, putting his arm around Arkay's shoulders. "Just see if we don't."
      Vanesa groaned, "Oh no." She rolled her eyes.
      "Yes, they will." Sevrin held her tight. "Something will make it so we can be there."
      "Or we'll come here."
      She wasn't sure if this was a threat or a promise, but all she could do was laugh. "As long as you realized you don't have to raid any nearby grocers for bread."
      "No, we gave you a cook." Vayer gave her a tap with his field.
      "We stole him square and fair." Riana protested, holding Domi possessively.
      "They did too." His bright brown eyes looked innocent if you couldn't sense fields.
      "You got yourself stolen, m'lad." Darya shook her finger at him.
      "I hadn't planned on it." He gave one of those elegantly characteristic Russian shrugs. "Come back soon, I miss having more than Sevrin and myself to cook for."
      "We will," and yet another season had ended.
     
      Vanesa breathed in the scent of Sevrin's latest creation. The rich spicy smell underlying the classic rose fragrance seemed to hold a note of longing. "It is beautiful, my love."
      "You don't really think so, do you?" His field shyed away from hers.
      "I do," for all it was rather uneven and a muddy brownish red, the fragrance was exquisite. They walked, arm in arm through the rose garden. "They are all beautiful."
      "Yes, they are. Happy or sad, family is beautiful." He sighed, now caressing her with his field. "But to the eye?"
      "The eye is not the heart." She reassured him. "You are beautiful beyond words to the eye, but your inner beauty is far more." Vanesa raised his hand to her lips and kissed the back of it. "Stay with me?"
      "For all the rose gardens in the world."

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