Innocence Shared


Innocence Shared




by



Ann Marie Olson





Story 2000 Ann Marie Olson








Chapter 1

      Trapped! Mikal ducked under the branch. They're going to catch me. Leaves crunched underfoot. His breath was loud, even to his own ears. Hiding behind an ancient, moss covered willow, he tried to silence his pounding heart so he could hear. The soft, slimy give of mud oozed between his toes, stinging in the cuts he had taken. A centipede tracked across his arch, tickling.
      Three riders, riding mangy animals with filthy tack trotted down the path. White foam lathered the animals' flanks. Even over the stench of the swamp, Mikal could smell the unwashed bodies of the riders and their mounts. The first stopped with a yank on the reins. Blood colored the foam at the horse's mouth as it gaped in protest. He tensed, unwilling to let any helpless creature be manhandled like this.
      The rider turned towards him, as if tracking on Mikal's presence, and Mikal looked into his own features.
     
      A scream shattered the silence of the night. Vayer desperately tried to get himself untangled from the blankets. "It's all right. You're safe." he murmured, taking Mikhail's face in his hands. Blank, blue eyes stared through him to infinity. Crouching over him, Vayer tried to catch his mind. The eyes went black with unseen terror. "Mikhail, Misha, come back to me." he crooned, caressing the other man's jaw. The rough stubble beneath his fingers reminded him again why Darya insisted he wear a beard.
      Mikhail took a deep breath and Vayer dropped him back to unconsciousness before he could scream again. With a sigh, Vayer augmented so he could catch Mikhail's body as it slumped. Damn. Vayer swore, hating to have to take over another's mind without just cause. *Otyet, I require your help* Vayer sent, hoping his father were still awake.
      After almost long enough for Mikhail to return to a true sleep, and not the unconsciousness Vayer had driven him to, his father, Arkay, answered. *It's the middle of the shenned night.* his mental voice was as bright and strong as steel.
      *Now, now, otyet, don't tell me you were sleeping.* Vayer sent, along with Mikhail's actions. They were all keeping a close watch on the foreigner in their midst, but for Vayer it had gone something beyond mere wariness to an almost tentative friendship. *I'm worried.*
      *As you should be. We'll be there in a few.* Arkay let Vayer see what was going on, which was he and Nashen up late playing chess, of all things.
      No wonder he didn't hear my call at first when Vayer's father concentrated on something, it was only disasters of his mother's proportions which would drag him out of it. Mikhail shivered in his arms and Vayer hurriedly stripped the soaked bedding from him. Over a month of hard work and riding had added quite a polish to the young Sharm Lord's body, giving it a glow of good health only disputed by the man's horrible nightmares. Kicking aside the soggy sheets, Vayer wrapped his own robe around Mikhail's trembling body. The heavy wool wouldn't chill him if he broke into a sweat again.
      He smoothed Mikhail's hair back from his forehead and kissed his temple. The smell of fear sweat was rank beneath the cedar and pine smell of the chest the robe had been stored in all day. At least Mikhail has no problem with regular bathing. Vayer snorted at the way the other two runners had reacted to daily washing ... as if they would melt. The sound disturbed Mikhail, and Vayer felt him return to awareness.
     
      Mikal waited as he tried to let his memories catch up with him. A shiver ran through him and he hugged his knees to his chest. A very warm body was wrapped around him from behind, holding him. "I'm sorry." he whispered, ashamed at having disturbed the very sleep he was supposed to defend. Then he saw the faint glow of firelight through canvas and stiffened. Now he knew where he was. "Oh, shen." he put his face in his hands, wanting to weep for being so weak, particularly as Vayer gasped in shock.
      "No, no, Mikhail." the softening of his name still seemed strange to him, although he supposed he would eventually get used to it, as no one here seemed able to pronounce his given name. "That word," Vayer shivered, "'Shen', is a gross vulgarity. None of us would normally use it unless we were very upset."
      "Then what would you say?" he clutched at the conversation, trying to forget his nightmares.
      "If it were me, I would most likely say 'hell' or 'damn', but then all of us children of Karola have a tendency to swear like renSimes." he chuckled softly, stroking Mikhail's back.
      As his muscles relaxed, so did his tongue, "Then what would the proper way to swear be?" he sighed, leaning back into the massage. Nothing could have ever prepared Mikhail for how much these people touched each other, and he still wasn't sure he liked it. Then Vayer dug his strong fingers and tentacles into the snarled muscles of his neck and Mikhail changed his mind. Oh, this feels good.
      Vayer murmured something in Russian he couldn't quite understand, but it certainly sounded like agreement. "If I were my other father, Avilan, I would say 'By the three horned consort of the queen of misrule', but then he has always gone in for elaborate curses." Vayer's voice softened into a relaxed chuckle. "Avilan practices his curses so he won't sound uneducated. Most of us simply settle for sounding ignorant when we are truly mad. Even though some people, particularly the Veiled, can be quite sophisticated in their vitriol."
      "How so?" he let his chin tip down towards his chest, letting the weight of his head stretch out the muscles. Admittedly he was in better shape now than he had ever been in his life, but the constant stress seemed to be taking a toll on his body as well as his mind. All the little aches and sprains of the past month were catching up with him all at once.
      "One of them accused me of, what were the words, oh yes ... 'You destroyed your first born son. You destroyed your own father. You have sown dissent and discord all the days of your life. You will not destroy our way of life with your and Fatima's diseased and sickly maundering of alien infidels!'." Arkay's voice was low and soft, despite the hatred of the quote. "The woman who accused me of such things was quite mad, I'm afraid."
      "What horrible things to say to someone." Mikal shuddered. I think I prefer vulgarity.
      "As do I, Mikhail." of course Nashen was also here. "Particularly considering the fact the woman who accused my Alahin of such things was my sister."
      "What happened to her?" Mikal couldn't think they had let someone get away with that.
      "She was killed, for attacking a Sharm Lord." Vayer's tone made Mikal's stomach turn over, or perhaps it was something else. Concentrating, he realized Vayer's hands had gone chill for an instant.
      "You knew the Sharm Lord?" he asked softly.
      "Yes, it was Darya." Vayer sighed.
      "Then I would think you were more than justified." he took Vayer's hand in his own.
      "Darya was the one who killed her." Vayer squeezed his fingers briefly. "It was not a good situation. She wanted me to take the throne."
      "But I thought you were the ruler of Russia." Mikal was confused.
      "It's a long story, but let us say she didn't get it the way she wanted it." Arkay sighed. "We transfer power by the heir killing the current holder of a title. It is a remnant of crueler times, but unfortunately it is not so easy to do away with."
      "Why not?" Mikal shook his head. "Can't you simply step down, if a normal opening doesn't arise?"
      As Nashen sat on the floor, he rested his chin on his intertwined hands, "It isn't so simple. I killed to take Fatima, as did Nivanya to take Kirov."
      "Why?" the pain in Nashen's voice was heartbreaking.
      "Because in my case my mother was a danger to herself and the Demense. If I had not killed her, she would have destroyed Fatima." Nashen's face showed the grief of the long ago events. "Nivanya killed Valentine, quite by accident."
      "Not strictly true, beloved." Arkay sighed, putting his arm around Nashen's shoulders. "Val was insane. Even Kir couldn't control him anymore. Nivanya struck back in first transfer to save her own life."
      "I killed my grandfather for Sergei." Vayer rested his chin on Mikal's shoulder. "He was old and ready to go. Even still, it hurt to send him on. We are certainly not perfect, Mikhail."
      "No one is." he tried to think of any good reason for this. "Is there no better way?"
      "I wish there were." Arkay said heavily. "Fatima would have ended up leaderless by now if Nashen had not been Healed."
      "Why couldn't you heal Valentine or Nashen's mother?"
      "Because we can't cure everything, Mikhail!" Arkay's eyes blazed in the dim light. "I'm sorry, you hit a nerve. Val was my son, in spirit if not in blood." he sighed heavily again, twining a bit of cloth between his fingers. "Certain forms of insanity and other congenital disorders are beyond our ability to cure. Most birth defects, we have weeded out, but unfortunately we tied the abilities such as Nashen and Nivanya carry to a neural degeneration which often causes dangerous insanity by the time the bearer is in their late forties, sometimes earlier. It was an enormous mistake, and I am praying Nivanya is clear of it because her mother was not Rus, but Tzer probably carries it."
      "I hope not." Nashen's eyes closed.
      "Does it track in all lines?" Mikal asked.
      "Only those in which the Lord carries the power of the Demense. The Azov line died of it, all but Alexandrya, and we are hoping to stabilize it again with her cross to the new Azov line through Valtanir." Arkay's voice was as calm as if he were discussing horse breeding. The surrealism of the situation did not escape Mikal one bit. "It would be fantastic to keep the animal control aspects of Azov with the stability and health of the Gen lines."
      "I'm sorry, Arkay. This is all very strange to me." Mikal felt so desperately alone, as if in some odd way he were the only real person here and all else were figments of his imagination. Although my creativity has never been this good. he looked at the finely woven wool robe covering him, patterned with cream threads woven amongst the black.
      "I understand, Mikal." the effort he made in pronunciation was obvious. "You are alone amongst strangers who have such a wildly different way of life you must feel as if you were the only real person in the world."
      Mikal gasped, scared.
      "Easy, Mikhail." Vayer whispered in his ear. "Arkay won't hurt you."
      "But ..." he stuttered. "He echoed what I was thinking."
      "Yes, I did. As could you if you knew how." Arkay held out his hand. "I know, through Vayer, you have been having troubled dreams. Do you wish for help?" Mikal shivered, staring at the proffered hand. It was a hand worn and scarred by many years of injuries and abuse. He could clearly see the traces of where some kind of fire had etched itself bone deep. The pain he knew Arkay must have suffered to bear such scars had to have been enormous. He raised his eyes to Arkay's, asking him silently for help. "I must have your word, for it may not be pleasant."
      The truth struck a chord deep within Mikal. "Yes, I would have your help." his hands shook as he reached for Arkay's grasp. As if to a lifeline, Arkay clasped his wrists and Mikal matched the gesture. The man's hold was amazingly strong, almost as strong as a Sime's. He blinked in surprise.
      "I know, Mikal." Vayer's voice was blurred, sounding as if there were more than one person present. "There is. I, Arkay, can not zlin by myself. My son has offered to assist."
      "No" he pulled back. I can't let Vayer see me like this.
      "So be it." Now the echo came from Nashen. "I must have a Lord to back me, although Nashen is no where near as suitable as Vayer."
      Thank you. he felt his shame at his weakness overwhelm him again. Why can't I do anything right? he thought, and then fell into a darkness as complete as the inside of his favorite childhood refuge.
     
      Vayer was stung to the core by Mikhail's rejection. I'm far to old to cry over something like this. he grimaced.
      *Hush, little one.* Arkay sent him a picture of himself as a babe in arms and Vayer had to grin. It was a favorite tactic of his father to cheer him up, and to this day it didn't fail. *Mikal, as he thinks of himself, is simply rejecting you out of fear for looking weak.*
      *I could hear that myself.* he sighed, stroking Mikal's hair as slumped, senseless in his arms again. *Why?*
      "Because he is very, very young, my son." Arkay said out loud, then kissed Mikhail's forehead. "This is his first time away from home and family. He's still an untried colt, not sure of his own power or his mind. Give him time and room to grow. This Techton of his shackles its follower's minds and hearts. He has never before had to choose his own path."
      "I was hoping he would suit Tzer." Vayer sighed. "Now ..."
      "Actually I think that would be very good for him. Give him another young man to run with." Arkay stroked Mikhail's wrists. "He still doesn't even know the needs or wants of his own body."
      "And you want him to practice on Tzer?" Nashen looked horrified. "What if he makes a mistake?"
      "They both will." Arkay's grin was rather off center. "As you two taught me, young men have to learn to deal with their own mistakes while they are still small enough to clean up after. Sort of like hounds."
      "Sure, use my own words against me." Nashen sighed. "It's so damn hard to be objective when they're your own children."
      "Don't I know it." Arkay shook his head. "This one will make Sharm Lord Kir look like a renGen when he comes into his own."
      Vayer gasped, stunned. "I didn't know he carried such power. I mean, I knew he was strong when we had transfer, but not that strong. Besides, selyn production isn't everything that goes into being a Sharm Lord."
      "No, it's not, as I well know." Arkay smiled. "I have no idea where his talents lie, but I have a feeling we will be wanting every last one of them for Tzer. Darya should never have born him. He's going to be able to flatten his fathers and I long before his mental maturity catches up with him."
      "I think perhaps some prayer might not be amiss in that case either." Nashen looked at the young man Vayer held.
      "It is never amiss to ask the blessings of Allah, my friend." Arkay said.
      There were still times when it surprised Vayer how pious his father had become with his conversion. Silently he asked Allah's blessing, not for himself, but for young man he held who would most likely never have the chance to truly find his own way with the winds of fate blowing him across the face of the globe.
     

Chapter 2

      Tzer turned to the south. He was still too young for formal prayers, but he figured any help wouldn't hurt. "Please bring my fathers home safe and sound. I miss them dreadfully. I want my otyet." Tzer had to hold back tears. "I love my mat', but I want my otyet home for my growing up." he sniffled. "It isn't that she can't do the job, but I want otyet Nashen to hold my hands, otyet Arkay to tell me I'm doing all right and otyet Vayer to show me how to be a Lord." His lip quivered. "I know I'm going to be a grown man soon, but since I'm still a child, please, Allah, I only want these things for You." He felt like he was forgetting something. "Oh yes, and take care of my little sister and brother while I'm learning to serve You as a grown up." he tacked on. "Thank you." Tzer was a good boy, and rarely forgot to say please and thank you, except when he was very excited.
      Like now, he bolted for the door, forgetting all about the kerchief in his pocket. He sniffled again. Running down the hall he ran right into a brick wall. Or at least that's what it felt like. "Woof." he fell back on his butt. Smack!
      Stunned, he shook his head. "Dori!" he shouted, leaping up and hugging the old renSime who had been a guard.
      "Come on lad, the troops are right behind me. Your fathers sent me ahead to collect you, your sibs and your mother." his long legs took him down the hall at an amazingly fast pace. The guards at his parent's door stiffened, looking straight ahead.
      Surprisingly, Tzer wasn't at all winded. Maybe I am growing up he looked down. The floor didn't look any further away. He reached for the door knob. Dori slapped his hand away.
      "Hey" Tzer protested. "What was that for?"
      "Manners, my lad." Dori looked very stern when he wanted to, what with his silvered black hair and darkened skin. Even his eyes and mouth had deep lines around them, as if someone had drawn them in with heavy black ink. Dori raised his hand to knock and almost fell into the room. Tzer giggled.
      "I had a runner out looking for the banners, Dorityan." his mother strode through the door, looking every bit as regal as a queen. "As soon as I collect Tzer ... oh, you found him." Her dark eyes were focused on him in a way Tzer didn't usually much like. It often meant he was in trouble.
      "You might say he ran into me." Dori's knowing chuckle made Tzer blush. Earlier this summer, while his friends had tanned, the very earliest sign of his near maturity had struck; Tzer had gotten his first sunburn. Now his skin was nearly as pale as his father's and he knew, just knew, he was blushing like a ripe tomato. It was down right embarrasing on its own. He studied his toes. One of his indoor boots was scuffed on the toe. nervously, he tried to cover it up with his other foot. "I didn't mean to tease, lad." Dori put his hand on Tzer's shoulder. Much to his surprise, he now looked the man straight in the eyes. Although he was much, much lighter, as shown by his earlier adventures after having run into him.
      "Tzer has been a bit skittish all summer." his mother smiled fondly. "Although if I didn't know better, I would swear he's been saving up all his bad behavior for his fathers."
      "Na, mat'. I wouldn't do anything like that." deliberately he added silently, trying to look innocent.
      "I know you wouldn't." she smiled, taking Dori's arm. "Come along." she called out to his sibs, already dressed and ready to go. "Do you wish to change?" she looked at Tzer's rainbow motley.
      "None of it is clean." he blushed again at having been caught out.
      "That, is your fault." she pointed out, quite unnecessarily. "You know where the laundry room is. You know where to leave your dirty clothes. You know ..."
      "Yes mat'." his blushes deepened. "I'm sorry."
      "Not my problem." she shrugged. "You are the one in scruffy clothes to greet your fathers' return."
      This only made it worse, with a whimper he ran back to his room.
     
      The door opened with a creak of unoiled hinges. "Come on wit' ye now, m'lad." Dori's voice was kind. "Ye'll not be fergivin' yerself iffen ye don't ge to met yer fathers."
      "But I look a mess, Dori." he hit the rather sorry, flat, pillow with his fist. "How can I go in front of the troops like this?"
      "Easy. Come on." Dori offered him a broad, strong hand. "I'll be good a gettin' yer motley te look as it should." Tzer took Dori's hand and let the man help him to his feet. "I've had many o'years te practice lookin' m'best wit out te help o' te laundry." With his eyes firmly fixed on his feet, Tzer stood. "Na then, tis not se bad." Dori took a rag and brushed the scuff marks off Tzer's boots. Then he dampened it at the basin and scrubbed at the stains on his trousers and tunic. "Off wit te tunic, lad." Tzer did as he was asked, not even thinking to protest. "Yer a good, strong lookin' boy." Dori noted. "Now, turn yer shirt around, so te stains don't be showin'."
      Other than a few damp spots, which were quickly drying, by the time Dori was done, Tzer managed to feel he was at least vaguely presentable. Nervously, he brushed off an imaginary piece of lint. "Now, we best be hurryin'."
      "At your will." Tzer scurried after him.
      "Na, na, lad. Yer still a child." Dori corrected him, and Tzer felt his face burn again. "Oh, ye poor thing. It'll be all right. You'll see." He gave Tzer a quick hug.
      "Thank you." Tzer hugged him back. Relieved at how Dori had turned disaster into at least acceptability.
      "You're quite welcome, youngster." Dori patted him on the back. "Now we really gotta scoot."
     
      They made it barely in time. With a gentle push, Dori sent him to stand with his mother, next to his sibs. Aliana pinched his flank. Tzer yelped.
      "Quiet." Darya snapped. Dimitri pinched him this time. Tzer yelped even louder. "Tzer." his mother growled. "Hush."
      "Sorry, mat'." he tried to ignore his sibs. This time they both pinched him at the same time.
      "If you can't behave, go home." she growled out of the corner of her mouth. His vision blurred as he tried to hold back tears. I love them. I really do. Tzer reminded himself forcibly. Aliana giggled.
      "And what have you two been doing behind my back?" Darya turned, glaring at all three of them.
      "Nothing, mat'." they said in unison. Tzer shrugged.
      "You look quite nice Tzer." she smiled and he grinned back, glad to at least have pleased her in one way. "I hope you remembered to thank Chief Dorityan."
      "Yes, mat'." That she even thought he might not have stung. His lip quivered again and he forced it to behave. "Chief Dorityan was more than kind. I will be writing him a note this evening."
      "You know not to let the other renSimes hear of his being able to read." she whispered, almost too silently to hear.
      Tzer was even more embarrassed. He had forgotten Dorityan's reading was a secret until his mother had reminded him. "Yes, mat'."
      "Tzer sounds like a parrot." Dimitri teased.
      "No he doesn't. He sounds like a mockingbird." Aliana chirped up.
      "Children!" his mother barked. "Enough."
      "I'll take Tzer with me, if you like, m'Lord Darya." Dorityan had gone and remounted. The black Trakh mare he was riding was gorgeous.
      "Is she from Kirov?" Tzer stared, taking in the beautiful lines of the mare.
      "Tzer." his mother corrected him again.
      "It's all right, m'Lord Darya. He's just curious." Dorityan smiled. "Yes, she's by Horin out of Chyorna, Kirov stud. I call her G'ina."
      "Chyorna was a gorgeous mare." Tzer breathed, wanting to get a closer look, he almost ended up leaning over his mother's shoulder.
      "Tzer, you're drooling on my shoulder." she stepped to the side and he almost fell on his nose. Now that he had an unobstructed view, he could see G'ina had magnificent legs, perfect almost.
      "Come on, lad." Dori's hand suddenly obstructed his view. Startled, he jumped backwards. His heels caught on the step. Hands flailing the air, Dori caught his hand in a grip like steel before he could fall.
      Tzer's heart pounded in his throat. "I've been so clumsy all summer." he blushed again.
      "I'm not surprised, m'lad." Dori said softly, kicking his foot free of the near stirrup. With a pull, he stepped up behind Dori.
      "Why for?" he asked, heartily tired of it all.
      "Because your body is growing faster than yer brain can keep up with." he chuckled. "Don't worry about it lad. I'll bet ye two o' yer mum's funnel cakes yer father was the same way."
      "You're on." Tzer said. "I know my father could never have been so clumsy."
      "I kin taste 'em now, m'lad." Dori laughed.
     
      Mikal gaped as he saw Dori cantering back to them, with a passenger behind him. The lad riding behind the old renSime was almost as tall as he was, all long legs and arms. This was the first time he had seen anyone not in some kind of uniform, and the mixture of colors all on one boy's body was stunning. It looked like he had fallen into a Zaor dye factory.
      "Tzer!" Nashen called out. Even before he could turn his horse, Arkay set his stallion into a gallop. In an astonishing feat of horsemanship, the lad vaulted from Dori's mare to Arkay's stallion as the older Sharm Lord galloped by the two of them on the way back.
      "You thief." Dori called out, turning his mare loose. Neck and neck, the two animals raced back. Arkay's stallion snapped at the much larger mare, and she slowed suddenly.
      "I won." Arkay crowed, pulling up.
      "You cheated." Vayer told him, laughing.
      "I did no such thing." he snapped back.
      "No, your horse did." Nashen grinned, grabbing the lads arm and smiling at him. "By Allah it's good to see you again."
      "And you, otyet." the youngster grinned. "I missed you all." his eyes wandered over the large group of people, still in ranks, but looking every mile they had traveled.
      "Tzer, I would like you to meet Sharm Lord Mikhail." Nashen gave him one of those unreadable looks as they neared. "Mikhail, this is my son, Tzer."
      "Pleased to meet you, Tzer." he held out his hand to the young man. At that moment, his horse decided this was a good time to grab a snack. Of course he had forgotten to keep at least one hand on the reins. Mikal almost slid down Yikara's neck as he made a grab for them. The quick motion startled her. "Ow!" he clapped his hand to his face, trying to decide if his nose was still in one piece. I felt flattened.
      Tzer giggled.
      "Hush, Tzer." everyone said in unison. The poor young man blushed redder than the sunset.
      Mikal grinned right back, and then laughed as Tzer did. "It was pretty silly, wasn't it."
      "Sort of like my whole summer." Tzer grinned. "I've been slipping, tripping, sliding and falling on my behind since spring."
      "I remember doing that." Nashen laughed.
      "Ye owe me funnel cakes, m'lad." Dori grinned.
      "And I'll be glad te pay ye." Tzer looked relieved. "I though I was the only person who ever turned clumsy with puberty."
      "Not at all." Mikal smiled, offering him his hand, this time keeping his mare's nose out of the long grass. "Although I had help."
      "You did?" Tzer's eyes, which seemed strangely light, as if they were fading in the sunlight, brightened even further.
      "Yes, I have two older sisters." he winked. "They were bound and determined to show just how clumsy a Gen could be."
      "No." Tzer looked shocked and his eyes flickered to Arkay. "A Sharm Lord, clumsy? Never happen."
      "Well, we don't call them the same thing, but where I come from, Gens are supposed to be clumsy." he struggled to fight down the memories of all the teasing he had suffered. "My growth spurt came late, after I established, and I was always tripping over things or running into things. All my Sime friends teased me."
      *Not here, little one* Arkay's mental voice was almost becoming something he thought he could deal with. *We'll show you just how graceful a Gen can be.* His grin was wicked, as he popped his knuckles loudly.
      "Didn't you get mad?" Tzer slid from Arkay's horse to Mikal's, startling everyone, including Yikara. The mare snorted. "Easy, lass." Tzer's arms came around him and brushed the reins. Immediately she settled back down.
      "Maybe we should switch places." Mikal had done some riding before, but nothing like these people who seemed to be half horse. "And yes, I did get mad. It got me in even more trouble. Where I come from, Gens are not supposed to bother Simes with their emotions." he played with the smooth cuff of his kador thoughtfully. If nothing else, the shielding clothes were the best thing since transfer Mikal had ever found.
      "We teach Simes not to zlin all the time." Arkay said softly. "It is far easier for them to not walk around with an open invitation to the world, than it is for us to watch our emotions at all hours of the day. The kadors are a compromise. They give Simes more freedom to zlin and us more freedom to be ourselves."
      "I would say that's a fair trade." the way these people would make compromises like that gave Mikal hope.
      "Where do you come from?" Tzer whispered in his ear.
      "Very far to the west, across the great ocean." he turned to see Tzer looking at him curiously.
      "Then how did you get here?" his eyes were fading, it wasn't the trick of the light. Even as Mikal looked, they were going to grey from what looked like a dark brown, almost black.
      "By boat." he grinned. "How else. Then by horse."
      "You've been around my dad, Nashen, too much." he giggled, covering his mouth.
      Worried a bit, Mikal turned around and caught Vayer's eyes. He nodded and looked at Nashen. "Goodness, seems we got home just in time." he walked up to them. "If you would, Tzer, could you look at me a moment?"
      "Certainly, otyet." he dropped his eyes.
      "Now, lad, I have to see your eyes." he said softly, gently tipping the lad's chin up to him. Tzer looked up shyly. Mikal could feel the tension in Tzer's body as he had to force himself not to turn away. "How long have you noticed this?"
      "Noticed what?" he asked. Tzer did pull away and shiver. Mikal put his hand over Tzer's, twining fingers with him. One of his nails had a snag and there was a smudge of dirt on his thumb.
      "I think Tzer is going into change over." Nashen smiled softly. "No?"
      "I think so, otyet." Tzer whispered against his back. "I wanted so much to wait for you to get home."
      "And you did, m'lad." Nashen look as proud as any father Mikal had ever seen, even his own.
      "Congratulations, Tzer." he murmured, wrapping Tzer's arms around his waist loosely. "Now I think it's time te get ye home."
      "I think its long past time we all went home." Arkay said, looking around. "Can you finish things up here, Dori?"
      "Certainly, m'Lord." he grinned. "Do ye mind if I tell the troops why yer rushin' off?"
      "Not at all." Nashen beamed. "Not at all."

Chapter 3

      Despite the warmth of the day, Tzer's shivers were almost violent long before they reached the edge of the city. "Come on, lad, we're almost home." he turned in his saddle.
      *We're still close to half an hour out.* Arkay looked grim. *He shouldn't have talked Dori into bringing him to us.*
      "Dori offered." Tzer's eyes opened. There was no pupil and they were now almost completely silver. "I didn't force him."
      "I know it lad, but now we have a problem." Nashen said softly, looking at Arkay.
      "Even if I were high field, I couldn't do it, love." Arkay looked at his hands. Mikal turned away from the affection between the two men. It still seemed somehow wrong to him.
      "I think I'm going to be sick." Tzer said in a tiny voice.
      "I'm not surprised, my young friend." Mikal patted his hands. A cool breeze had come up. Now even he was shivering. "You should get down first." A dark shadow slid across them.
      "Oh hell." Nashen looked up. So did everyone else. Thunder heads were gathering overhead.
      "By all the angels and demons of the earth and heavens." Arkay gaped. Oblivious, Tzer slid down and stumbled off the path. Mikal followed him. Then he realized what was wrong and looked up again. Clouds like dark serpents twined higher and higher. Lightning flickered across their bellies. All normal, but not the speed with which they appeared. As if to underscore the situation, his ears popped and he heard the first low rumble of distant thunder.
      Pay attention to the important things. he chided himself. Tzer had vanished behind a tree, but the sounds of his being quite sick were painfully easy to follow. When they didn't stop after his body had cleared itself, Mikal hurried to him. "Help me." his voice was weak, and then he doubled over again.
      "Poor little lad." he put his arms around him, holding him away from the forest floor. Clammy sweat covered Tzer's body. This can't be doing him any good. in frustration Mikal watched him heave again and again till he began spitting up blood. There is something dreadfully wrong Quickly, he stripped off his robe and put it around Tzer's shoulders. *Help!* he shouted with his mind, hoping not to disturb Tzer further.
      Wind whipped between the trees, sending leaves and twigs flying through the air. Mikal had to blink grit from his eyes. Grimly, he held onto Tzer, hoping at least some of his body heat would help. Then the heavens opened up. Ice sheeted down, soaking them both instantly. This is insane! Mikal looked around, now completely lost even while he knew he was only a few feet from everyone else. Even a hurricane doesn't strike like this.
      *Mikhail!* he heard Vayer's mind call. The howling of the wind drowned out his shout.
      *Here!* he shouted back, trying to think of where he was. Carefully, he gathered Tzer into his arms, bundling him up as best he could in the wool robe. Even in the freezing rain, the lad was sweating and hot. You don't want a chill Mikal held him close, making sure his airway stayed clear. His body was still rebelling against change over, fighting the process. "Don't fight, lad. Let your body change." he begged. "It will be all right." this he promised himself.
     
      Fire burned his entire body. Gasping, Tzer tried to put it out. Water he tried to pour water on it. The fire burned hotter, trying to drive him from his body. He struggled. Someone was holding him down. Gentle hands stroked his burning arms. Arguing with the holder. He twisted, trying to get free.
      The he was free. Icy air burned his lungs as he screamed. Someone murmured sweet words. He couldn't understand their meaning, but he felt their softness. Reaching for it, he was rewarded with comfort. Silken fur wrapped his torn nerves. Sobbing, he rested in the fur draped darkness.
     
      "I have him, Arkay." Mikal looked down at the young man sobbing against his chest. His fever had broken and now he was almost limp, but for the hiccuping sobs. The changes Tzer was going though would have scared the whey out of him if he had stopped to think about them. For now, he concentrated on feelings of safety and security. The forester's hut smelled of earth and resin. "Thank you for finding this place."
      "It is part of Fatima." Nashen sighed, looking down at his son. "I wish I had moved faster."
      As Mikal hadn't seen him move at all, he raised an eyebrow. Tzer whimpered. He returned his attention to the lad. Tzer's face looked as if the bones of his skull were trying to push through the skin, he was so white and drawn. Then Mikal though he saw a blue flicker trace over one of Tzer's high cheekbones.
      "Not yet, my lad." Nashen's hands covered his. "Oh God, wait." naked fear shone in his words.
      "Easy Nashen." Arkay murmured, pulling him away. "Relax and he will." The brilliant sun of earlier today was only a memory, by now. A blinding flash of lighning shone through the chinked walls, matched with a crash of thunder louder than any Mikal had ever heard before. "Go on outside and try to keep this storm from leveling the city.", or at least that's what he thought Arkay said. His ears still rang from the thunderclap. Still it made very little sense. Reluctantly, Nashen headed for the door, looking back at his son.
      "It will be a few hours yet, at least." Mikal guessed, completely unsure of how long change over was going to take. With some Ferris' it could be extremely short. Both of his sisters had taken their time about it. However, Nashen's nerves were not helping Tzer any. "Go take out your upset on the storm." he had no idea what Nashen was going to do about something like the weather, but figured following Arkay's lead would probably be a good idea. "Perhaps Vayer will be back with Darya before he is done."
      "I don't know what good that is going to do us." Nashen said darkly.
      "Nashen, love." Arkay protested. "This isn't like you."
      "I'm scared, Alahin." he admitted. "Take care of him, Mikhail. Call me if he responds badly."
      "I will." he said, stroking Tzer's pale face. The youngster nuzzled his hand. Mikal's heart clenched at the gesture. I will take care of you. he promised silently. Focusing all his trained attention on Tzer, Mikal traced the lines of his face with his thumbs. Tzer's eyes finally opened with sense in them. They were almost completely silver now, like Nashen's. Stunned, Mikal simply stared.
     
      Tzer turned his face away. The only thing he had wanted was for his fathers to be there for his change over, and now he had messed it all up. Shivering, he tried to pull the blankets closer. Thick, coarse, fur tickled the palms of his hands. When they snapped open, away from the contact, he jumped.
      "Easy, little one." the stranger, Mikhail told him. Tzer looked back to see soft, kind, blue eyes staring down at him. "You'll be all right."
      "I'm not so little now." he tried to grin. The air was freezing cold for the middle of summer. He shivered again, unable to stand touching the fur with his hands.
      "No you're not. You're growing up." Mikal grinned back. There was a trace of sadness in the man's eyes.
      "Is there something wrong?" he reached out with his mind. The ache in his head turned into a sheet of fire. Then it was gone as if never had been. Mikhail panted, leaning over him. "Did I hurt you?" Then Mikhail looked into his eyes again. They were now pitch black.
      "Oh shen." Arkay leaped for them.
      Before he could reach them, a door opened in his mind. *Come inside.* Tzer thought he heard. It sounded like Mikhail. Tzer reached for the warmth promised by the voice.
     
      Tzer stood in the middle of the room, looking across a desk at Mikhail. But this was no room he had ever been in before. The walls were plain, without more than one or two pictures of landscapes and a framed piece of parchment. Even the oak desk was plain, with no inlay or ornamentation. Was Mikhail so low ranked he didn't even have a decent office? Tzer knew his fathers had called him a Sharm Lord.
      "This is a good office." Mikhail smiled, pointing towards the window. "See, I have a view of the entire valley."
      Looking, Tzer shrank back. There were all kinds of metal boxes moving without horses out there, and the sky was brown with filth. It reminded him of some of the pictures he had been shown by his history tutor. Everything was dingy and greyed, as if someone had washed over the outside with dark watercolors.
      "What's wrong?" he asked, coming around the desk.
      "It isn't pretty and green." Tzer said, looking up at him. "Where are the horses, the trees, the birds?"
      "There they are." Mikhail pointed beyond the rows of yellowed boxes on the hill. "See."
      "But they aren't in the city itself." he looked away. "Is this where you live?"
      "It was." Mikhail smiled again, looking more than a bit hurt though. "Don't you like it?"
      "It is not what I am used to." he tried to cheer up the man. "Moskva is a very different city."
      "I look forward to seeing it, with you." Mikhail rested his hand on Tzer's shoulder. Timidly, he reached up and took it in his own.
     
      The chill little room returned with Tzer's touch. Mikhail blinked away the vision. Arkay was kneeling behind him, holding onto his wrists. He felt Arkay's lips leave a cool impression on the back of his neck. "I'm sorry if I had to intrude." Arkay's voice was so very soft, he knew Tzer couldn't hear it. "I'll get the fire on." The bedding shifted again as Arkay got up.
      Then it hit him. "Arkay." he breathed, staring at the man.
      Tzer turned to look as well and gasped. "Do you really look like that?"
      "Yes, to both of you." Huge wings suddenly appeared at his back, reaching for the ceiling. The sweet tang of apples filled the air. Mikhail sniffed and Arkay laughed. "You are sensing my humor as scent. Different." he grinned and then turned to the hearth. It had been banked for the warm summer day, but it was late enough to be needed at night, so it wasn't completely cold.
      "You mean to say I am zlinning." Mikhail was dreadfully confused. Storm clouds danced around the winged figure, veiling it from his sight but for the eyes. Cinnamon and cloves combined with the apples. He closed his eyes, concentrating. Blue-white traces of electricity scurried across the backs of his own hands. Startled, he focused on them for a moment. Tzer giggled.
      "You imp." he opened his eyes and touched Tzer on the tip of the nose. A big, fat, spark of static electricity jumped at the contact.
      "Ow" Tzer protested, rubbing his nose. "I suppose I should get used to that." he grinned.
      "You don't have to, if Mikhail is willing to learn to work with you." Arkay cleaned off his hands at the basin. "Nashen usually only bites me right after transfer, when it feels good." he winked. Mikhail blushed furiously, knowing quite well how randy those two could be.
      "I don't get it. How did you make him blush?" Tzer was sounding far more like a normal kid in the first stages of change over.
      "You'll find out." and faster than thought, a very strong wash of pure sensuality came over him and was gone. Mikhail gasped, trying to figure out what was going on.
      "I missed that." Tzer pouted.
      "Good." Arkay teased him. "Now, let me see your arms, m'lad." he sat on the edge of the bed and held out his hands. Together, their hands met at Arkay's and Mikhail giggled right along with Tzer. Relief at having things return to a more normal progression was making Mikhail light headed. *No, it's Tzer's hormones finally kicking in, thanks be to Allah.* Arkay told him silently. *He's not safe yet, but with your timely ascension and bonding, all should be well.*
      "I would say no more than an hour or two, now." Arkay murmured thoughtfully. "Quick for most of us, a bit long for Fatima."
      A sensation like tiny insects crawling over Mikhail's hands made him look down. "What happened to the time?" he asked, fascinated by the dancing blue lights creeping over Tzer's lower arms and through his hands. They really were like insects, inspecting their territory. One bit even crawled up as far as Mikhail's elbow before vanishing.
      "You two were talking with each other for quite a while." Arkay said patiently. "Both Nashen and Vayer are back, but I wanted you to experience your new senses with only Tzer and I to focus on first."
      "What I want to know is if I am imagining these or actually seeing them." he tried to indicate the lights. But whenever his hands moved, the slithered away from his attention.
      "Easy, Mikhail." A wash of rainbow light made them all vanish momentarily, like a wave on a sandy beach. "See, they respond to fields."
      "What are they?" he heard an echo from Tzer, as if the lad had asked the same question at the same time.
      "Technically, they are spillover from Tzer's talent, electricity." Arkay said calmly, as if this were an everyday occurrence. Perhaps here it was. "Not really, the Fatima talent is only found in direct line of the Demense and then not all the lords and sharm lords who are direct descendants of Fatima manifest it. Now focus on Tzer and I'll have the others come in."
     
      All the people, even though he knew he wanted them there, made Tzer squirm. He slithered down under the covers. Mikhail's strength was like a warm rock on a cool autumn day. As if he were a giant lizard, he slithered over and rested on it, belly down. Heat rose into him and he sighed.
      "This would be a good time for you to get comfortable, Mikhail." Nashen told the man holding him in his regard. But when Mikhail moved, Tzer grabbed for him.
      "Only a moment, my feet have fallen asleep." Mikhail touched him on the nose again, this time without the jolt.
      Tzer grinned at him. "If I run from you, we can't have you hobbled by numb feet."
      "And why would you want to run from me?" Mikhail chuckled, although there was a strange quiver behind the question as he stood up and slipped off his shirt. He looked almost as big as his father Arkay.
      A bit nervous, Tzer looked away. "Because you are a big, bad, scary Sharm Lord, of course." he explained. "Everyone knows Sharm Lords are dangerous." He leaned back into Mikhail's embrace as he sat down again. The Sharm Lord's long legs stretched out on either side of him now.
      "Quit teasing the man, Tzer." Vayer laughed, holding his mother. Everyone looked far calmer about all of this now.
      "Where I come from, people fear Simes." Mikhail smiled. "It is odd to have it reversed."
      "How strange." his mother said. "Everyone knows Gens are far stronger and more dangerous. Even a renGen can kill a Lord if they know how. I am a sorry excuse for a Sharm Lord in the salle and even I have killed." she grimaced, leaning against his father, Vayer. "But then I have these big, strong Lords to protect me with steel."
      Something tickled the back of Tzer's mind. Tracking it down was like trying to catch a minnow with his bare hands. He kept at it. Oh he caught the thread. It was from Mikhail. "Only Fatima Lords bear swords. It is traditional."
      "How can you stand to murder someone with a knife?"
      "Better by sword than by kill." Vayer said softly, looking straight at Tzer. "Isn't that so, m'lad?"
      "Yes, otyet." he looked at the raised skin on his forearms. They itched now, but he knew better than to scratch at them. Something else was bugging him. Ow he squirmed around, trying to get comfortable.
      "Quit wiggling." Mikhail shifted his weight. The much heaver man had his arms wrapped around Tzer from behind. He reached out an rested his hand on Mikhail's knee. The cloth of his pants was cold and clammy. "Ow." he hissed, moving away.
      "That's what I said." Tzer insisted.
      Arkay chuckled. "You two. Mikhail, Tzer is reacting to your pants binding you."
      "Oh" Mikhail said softly. "I can live with it."
      "Quit being a renSime." Nashen pointed at the two of them. "It's only going to get worse afterwards. Now it's quite warm enough in here to take a steam bath, so quit suffering."
      "Please" Tzer asked, leaning forward.
     
      "All right." nervously, Mikhail took off his pants. They fell to the floor with a wet smack. Steam seemed to rise from them to mingle with the scents of wet wool and leather. He sniffed, those weren't real odors. Looking around, he spied everyone staring at him.
      "Otyet, what happened to him?" Tzer pointed.
      This seemed like a good time to learn about prayer. Mikhail covered himself, not sure what had set the lad off.
      "Tzer, quit." Nashen snapped. "Don't make such comments until you know when is a good time."
      "But, otyet." he looked up at Mikhail, confusion clearly obvious.
      "Lad." Mikhail knelt at his side. "What is it that has you so curious?"
      "Your ... well, your penis is different." he blushed furiously. "This isn't the time to talk about it."
      "It's all right." he thought furiously, trying to figure out what Tzer had been looking at. "Ah, I see. You look like your fathers, don't you?"
      "Yes." Tzer said in a small voice, looking around.
      "Not me, Mikhail. But then Tzer has not been paying attention. Right now he's looking at everything." Arkay told him. "This is a good subject, if it doesn't make you too uncomfortable. Physical things will keep both of you from rushing into breakout."
      "Well, that is because they, Vayer and Nashen, have been circumcised when they were little, like you were."
      "I wasn't. I had it done as an adult." Vayer added. Mikhail was stunned.
      "That must have hurt." he couldn't help but cringe.
      "It did." he shrugged with a grin. "But I hadn't yet reached my fourth transfer, so I had it done right after transfer. It healed very quickly. There are some advantages to being Sime."
      Mikhail had to look down to make sure he was still all in one piece. Even before sexual maturity, it must have been agonizing.
      "We decorate our bodies a lot more than you do, it seems." he pointed out his earrings by playing with them. They traced a line in gold and silver around the arch of his ear.
      "It also seems you don't have quite as much of a problem with shedding blood." he slid in behind Tzer again. Admittedly, he was far more physically comfortable this way. The lad's body temperature was slowly rising to Sime normal. He could feel the beat of Tzer's heart against his chest, and it was surprisingly pleasant. Even his one time with Vayer hadn't really prepared him for how intimate these people were before transfer.
      "No. We don't like it, but we don't shy away from it in a panic either." Vayer crossed his ankle over his knee. "There are too many things we couldn't do if we refused to face life head on."
      And that seemed to sum up the differences between their two peoples so very neatly. The Techton danced around issues, trying to make everything perfect; the Rus played the cards they had been dealt as best they could. Resting his chin on Tzer's shoulder, he watched as the youngster's tentacle sheaths began thinning at the very openings with the pressure of the fluid behind them. Tzer's shoulders tensed slightly and Mikhail hugged him a bit. With a sigh, Tzer leaned back again. This was also the calmest change over Mikhail had attended, at least once the intial problems had been faced.
      "Yes, Tzer has been ready for us all summer. Haven't ye, m'lad." Arkay took off his shirt as well, showing quite a thatch of silvered hair. There was absolutely no sign the young man Mikhail held in his arms was effectively his grandson. Nashen took him in his arms possessively, then he too took off his shirt.
      "It is warm in here." he mopped at his face. "When the sun came back out after our little demonstration of Tzer's power earlier, it must have made up for the interruption." Soon all four of them were bare chested, even Darya.
      She must have caught him giving her a look. It was a look of appreciation. "As you are about to become family, I see no reason to swelter."
      "I was simply wishing for the words to describe your beauty." he borrowed from Dorityan's flowery language.
      "I doubt, after nursing three children, you have all that much interest in my rather worn body." she arched an eyebrow at him. Actually with her dark coloring and exotic features, he thought she was absolutely stunning and hoped he wouldn't embarrass himself when he was post.
      "Not at all true." he murmured in English, trying to think of a non-flirting way to tell her she was gorgeous.
      "How sweet." she blinked. Uh-oh Mikhail realized she knew English as well.
      Tzer giggled. "You stay out of this." Mikhail whispered in his ear.
      "Why?" Tzer asked.
      "Because I already stuck my foot in my mouth and don't want any help chewing on it." he tentatively let himself kiss Tzer's ear.
      "That feels good." he leaned back, still resting his hands on his knees. "Do it some more." Arkay nodded, and Mikhail felt his support fall away. For the first time in his life he actually saw a Sime's need. A dark maelstrom waited for him. His whole body and mind sang with the need to give.
      "Good." Arkay whispered, kneeling beside them. "You'll want him to turn before breakout, but he's still relaxed enough as is."
      Softly, he let his tongue trace the curve of Tzer's ear. With a crack, his voice dropped from treble to low tenor as he hummed in response. Still there was none of the fear or tension he had felt in so many change over victims.
      "What an odd thing to call it." Arkay blinked. "Victims?"
      "A revenant of our history." he sighed, letting his hands trace over Tzer's upper arms. "I think a thing to discuss later." Still, Tzer's heart beat and breathing were fairly calm, if slowly speeding up. Relaxing into the caress, he could feel the echo of Tzer's sensations. It felt as if his own tentacles were resting calmly in their warm home, waiting for the time they could be free. Even the furious itching was somehow familiar and welcomed.
      "I think I would like to free them soon." Tzer's voice cracked dramatically between treble and tenor. Mikhail gently nuzzled the back of his neck. Normally he did this with his hands, but it seemed a much kinder thing to do it with a kiss. Tzer took a deep breath, as if stepping of a cliff, and Mikhail could feel him dive hyperconcious. All the nerve complex at the nape of the neck sang in response to his own field and Mikhail followed Tzer hyper.
     
      "It is time." Arkay said softly, not wanting to startle either of them. Even though right now Tzer probably couldn't hear a thing. Then Mikhail turned to him blindly and he realized neither of them were in the real world. Stroking both of them with his field, as if shaping clay, he turned Tzer to face Mikhail.
      "Good." he whispered, backing out of the net of energy surrounding both of them. Safely away, he watched in awe as a shimmering sphere of electrical fire surrounded the two. "By Allah that is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen." he bowed his head in thanks momentarily.
      "I agree, my Alahin." Nashen's familiar touch was more than a bit shaky. "Do we look like that?" he asked.
      "No." Vayer said. "Mikhail has potentiated Tzer's abilities." A low hum broke the near silence. Arkay could see through the blue glow, barely. He held his breath as Tzer's hands snapped open. The hum rose, sounding as if someone had loosed a beehive in the room. Spots grew before his eyes.
      "Breath, both of you." Darya hissed, breathless herself.
      Nashen gasped beside him. The two combined to remind him he would do no good if he fainted. He could almost hear Mikhail murmuring encouragement to Tzer. A shout of triumph shattered the drone. Arkay clasped Nashen's hand, thinking of the tiny little boy he had rested on Darya's belly those years ago, thinking of how close he had come to letting Tzer die before birth for his own stubbornness, thinking of simply how incredible it was to see his first grandchild reach maturity.
      He swallowed back tears of joy as Tzer wrapped his new tentacles around Mikhail's arms. The sphere had collapsed with breakout, and he could see Mikhail's incredible love for the young Sime. "Yes!" he shouted as a blaze of lightning rose up again and cocooned the two of them in a blinding flash of light and heat. It is all over too soon. Arkay smiled through his tears.

Chapter 4

      Tzer looked down. They really are mine. he grinned, trying to figure out how his tentacles worked. Mikhail's arms felt so very good. He could feel every single hair beneath his fingertips. Trying to chuckle, his voice cracked all over the place. "I feel so good I want to sing and I can't." As soon as he stopped thinking about it, his tentacles retracted. "Ick, sticky."
      "You'll probably be tired in a bit." Mikhail murmured, grinning from ear to ear. "But I know what you mean. Thank you, Tzer, and congratulations." Fortunately, Arkay came to his rescue with the sticky arms and began cleaning up some of the mess. It felt like a cat's tongue and he giggled. Then he remembered something very important.
      "Thank you, Mikhail and Arkay." he said and then his jaw popped in a huge yawn. "I can't be tired. I've been in bed most of today." his eyelids tried to sag.
      "It is always a good thing to thank your partner, m'lad." his father, Nashen's hand on his bare knee felt normal now, not warm as it always had before. "Although aren't you forgetting to thank someone else?"
      "Oh" he bit at his lip. He turned his head. Where am I? he asked himself. The world spread beneath his senses, as if he could see an entire map before his eyes. But it isn't a map I can read. he wailed, trying to figure it out.
      "South is that way." Nashen pointed.
      "Thank you." he ducked his head and turned towards the door. "I thank you, Allah, most merciful, most loving, most kind, for this great gift you have given to me. I will guard it and cherish it for all of my life, as you Will." Then he yawned again, much to Tzer's embarrassment.
      "Most youngsters nap for a bit after growing up." Mikhail whispered. "It's all right." his attention and care was like a beacon to Tzer's spirit. "I'll be here with you."
     
      Tzer crashed. Mikhail caught him as sleep overwhelmed the young man between one huge yawn and the next. "Thank you for the wash cloth, Arkay." he grinned, trying to get some of the worst of the sticky mess off his and Tzer's arms. The young man hardly twitched as he inspected his tentacles. "Perfect." he noted, wondering if there were any sort of formal paper work he had to fill out.
      "Are you sure you aren't from hell." Nashen laughed, trading him a clean wash cloth for the dirty one. "Only in hell do people live by paper work."
      "Put that way, perhaps I do come from such a place." he grinned. Tzer's prayer had been so sweet. Never before had Mikhail ever seen anyone do such a thing. To give thanks is a good thing. he thought, musing on it. The Church of the Purity was nothing at all like what Tzer had been thinking of. "Who is Allah?" he asked timidly.
      "You have asked a difficult question." Nashen smiled. "And not a one to be answered lightly. He is all things and all people and none of either." he sighed at Mikhail's look of utter confusion. "Some would call him God."
      Mikhail still didn't understand. "I'm afraid we have nothing like that where I come from." Tzer's heavy sleep was making him muzzy. He wished fervidly he could simply curl up with Tzer and take a nap. I'm almost twenty years old. I don't require naps. he told himself firmly. "There they have two churches, both of them about Simes and Gens, with God only being mentioned as a side note."
      "The Way of Peace is older than the mutation my young friend." Nashen murmured. "If you wish, you could accompany Tzer as he learns what he must know as an adult."
      "I think I would like that." his eyes closed against his will. With a start, he forced himself back awake. "I would like to know of something that happened before the mutation."
      "We have held a great deal of knowledge of that time, Mikhail. Between us and the tribes, our memories go back well over a thousand years, two for many things." Arkay's voice was soft and hypnotic. "Rest now and there will be time for such things later. Rest."
      Despite his momentary excitement at possibly being able to see something from before the mutation, he couldn't resist Arkay's compulsion. The dark waters of sleep rolled him under before he could get a word in edgewise.
     
      "Easy lad." Arkay's roughened hand on his shoulder was now as familiar as the feel of silk against his skin or the smell of horses, that is to say, not as much as Mikhail might wish, but far better than nothing. A hard, rather bony, body snuggled up against his front and sniffled slightly. The memory of yet another nightmare flitted through the darkness behind his eyes. They had not been waking him, that he knew of, since he accepted Arkay's help, but he remembered suffering them when he woke in the morning afterwards. "If I banish them completely, you would go mad." Arkay whispered. "They show you things which must be dealt with if you are to be healthy."
      "Then I think I will learn what they have to teach." he sighed, trying not to feel horribly overwhelmed.
      "Work on one thing at a time, I think." Arkay murmured. The bedding sighed as he sat. "I have given you that time to work through your immediate problems. The rest is in Allah's hands. Perhaps He will free you from your shackles."
      Talking philosophy and religion while barely awake was not Mikhail's strongest point. "Shackles?"
      "You'll know when you must." Arkay said. "As I said, you have to give it time. Now, for things we can not be putting off."
      Mikhail's eyes snapped open with a start. He must have jumped, since Tzer muttered something rather irritated in his sleep. *Calm him again.* Arkay's voice came to him. Easily, he thought of the relaxation he wished he could truly feel himself. Tzer settled back into his interrupted slumber. When Arkay said nothing for a long while, Mikhail sighed and began stroking his free hand along Tzer's side. He knew Vayer liked this, and hoped Tzer would as well. The scent of fresh bread with sweet butter twined about him. Mikhail chuckled softly and kissed the back of Tzer's neck. *There you go. You are quite good at that.*
      "Thank you." he murmured as quietly as he could. It felt strange to be complemented for something any Donor should be able to do.
      "Now, for the things you have to be able to do that I haven't seen you do." Arkay went on. "You have to be able to keep a fairly tight leash on Tzer and I don't know if you've ever worked with a new lord."
      "Probably not in any way you would recognize." he sighed, feeling so very alien and alone. Aghast, he found he had to try to hold back tears. Stars spangled his vision, blurring the fine, dark hair tickling his nose and turning the silver hairs amidst the black into a uniform grey.
      "Oh, lad." Arkay's sympathy was painfully obvious through the contact. "It is all right to have emotions. You're probably pretty post, correct?"
      "Gens don't get post." he recited from memory, trying to hide from the waves of heartache and loneliness. Tzer stirred again in his arms and he focused on being a support for the new Sime.
      "Like hell we don't." Arkay snorted, a particularly wry grin on his face. "Let me take the lad for a moment and you can relax for a bit."
      Mikhail wanted to say Tzer was his, but then stopped himself. Arkay is his grandfather. he reminded himself. By this time though, Tzer had latched onto him with all his newfound strength. "I'm afraid he's not going anywhere." Mikhail felt like a rock attacked by an abalone. He sighed, stroking Tzer's soft hair.
      "No, I don't think so." Arkay smiled softly. "Relax, Mikhail, let it out now and not in your dreams."
      But Mikhail couldn't. That was until Tzer took Mikhail's hand and placed it against the side of his still smooth face. The barest hint of new whiskers tickled at his palm and Mikhail sobbed in memory of his own youth. No one had held him at his establishment, they had only sent him away to learn control.
      "Oh God, Mikhail." Arkay's hand tightened on his shoulder. "I'm so sorry. My own establishment was far kinder for all my problems. If you wish, I would tell you of it."
      "Story time?" Vayer said kindly, as he came into the darkened room.
      "Perhaps." Arkay tipped his head.
      "I would like to hear it too." Tzer murmured in his arms.
      "As would I." Nashen sat at Arkay's feet.
      "Any one else?" he smiled, looking at them.
      Darya paddled in, twining her hair back into a knot at the base of her neck. "I would."
      "We are all suckers for stories, if you haven't noticed." Vayer said with a grin. Then he slid into the bed Mikhail shared with Tzer. When Darya bracketed Nashen however, Mikhail must have looked at them quizzically.
      "You looked like you could use the company." she said simply.
      "Yes, I would like to hear it." he told Arkay. It was definitely a bit on the warm side between the two Simes, but they also warmed the cold, lonely place in Mikhail's heart.
     
      Arkay began his story, and soon Mikhail was drawn into it ...
     
      I ran down the stairs. It was less than a week until Year's Turning and I really wanted to make my otyet proud of me. I had gotten to sing the part of the Firebird. Since she was the symbol of my Demense, Sergei, I really had to do a great job. Besides, the music written by Riyana Krasnaya was so perfect for my range. I didn't dare think she had written it for me, but the reclusive Gen had simply left it on the lectern in time for rehearsals to start less than three months ago.
      "You're late." The conductor glared at me. Sharm lord Marin was old, over fifty, and I hadn't thought he liked me much.
      "I'm sorry." I looked at the shiny, worn toes of my now grey boots. They had been white, once.
      "You're also a mess." His well trained voice dropped even lower. "Get up there with you."
      "Yes, m'lord." I scurried for my spot at the front of the choir. A quiver in my middle as I slowed my breathing made me worry. I hadn't been hungry this morning, but I had choked down a cup of tea and a sweet roll any ways. Now I wondered if I were coming down with something as it sat like lead in my stomach. Tentatively, I hummed a few bars of the opening. I can't be sick for Year's Turning, I can't. I vowed.
      "If you are ready, treble Arkay." Marin clicked his baton on the podium.
      "At your will." I responded, not thinking about it.
      A choked gasp echoed in the hall. I blushed furiously, realizing my slip. "I meant, when you are, sharm lord Marin." Now at least my rebellous stomach had good reason for its nervousness.
      He gave the beat. Two, three ... and over a hundred voices came in on four. It was wonderful. The twelve part harmony lifted me up to the angels. Imagining I had wings, I took a deep breath. My entrance was coming up. I opened my mouth to sing, the conductor gave his cue ... and nothing came out but a strangled squawk. The whole choir came to a literal crashing halt.
      My gut twisted. I was almost seventeen, but still, One more week, I begged. Shivering, I looked up again. "If you would, lord Halin?"
      "Certainly." as the creaky old lord stepped out of the crowd, something wrenched at me. Helplessly, I threw up, right there in front of everyone. It was awful. Everyone was chattering. Tears in my eyes, I thought about running away. "Is all right, m'lad. Yer jus a bit sick with all the changes in yer body." he murmured softly, handing me a kerchief. "We'll get this cleaned up. Don' ye be worryin' about it." Then he turned to Morin, "I'm afraid you'll have to get his understudy."
      And Morin simply smiled softly and said, "Congratulations, Sharm Lord Arkay."
      For not only had I established, my strength of will in trying to fit the role of the Firebird had ascended me. Everyone there had seen my wings manifest, even the sharm lords. Halin put his arms around me. "Come on, lad. I think ye should have some peace and quiet." He led me from the room.
      I was horribly sick through Year's Turning. All my powers as a Sharm Lord had twisted my body until I couldn't really eat or drink anything for close to a week. Halin stayed by my side, coaxing me to sip at some water occasionally and try to eat. I was a rake. I had never been heavy as a child, and being ill only made it worse.
      Finally he held out his hands to me. "I think you're as high as you're going to get without being able to eat." I could see the tremor in his fingers before they came to rest on my arms. It was like a key clicking into a lock when his tentacles wrapped around my wrists.
      "You're far, far higher than I ever will be, so take it easy on me." he smiled and then tugged back. The gesture opened that lock and all the fire and light I had tangled up inside me suddenly twined around both of us. "Easy, lad." he whispered, and leaned forward. I held my breath, waiting for the contact.
      At first the light simply dimmed, restful but little more, then I heard him in my mind, *Now* and something snapped loose. It was like nothing else in the world. A great rushing joy and wonder filled my heart as the sweetest pleasure rasped loose the fire which had been burning me up. A cool sweetness beckoned, and I drank my fill, reveling in the taste of it, like the freshest spring water.
      Finally, as all things must, it slowed and stopped. The room dimmed to a darkness I realized had been there all along. Only now all I had were my eyes to see with. Halin's lips softened in a gentle kiss. I was too young to understand the raging passion he must have felt after such a transfer, but he kindly broke it off and then kissed me on the forehead. "Thank you, Arkay." he gave me a hug.
      Unthinkingly, I hugged him back as hard as I could. It had felt so good, I wished I could have more. "That is for later, my friend, with someone your own age." he said, but didn't push me away. I don't know how he did it, but he stayed up with me all night as I alternately cried for missing Year's Turning and laughed with joy for the pleasure we had shared. I must have babbled like an idiot, but he never gave a sign of boredom with my nonsense.
     
      "Less than a year later Halin asked for his final peace." Arkay sighed. "He asked for me specifically, not my father." His head tipped back and he looked at the ceiling. When he looked down again, tears were running down his face. "We did it in his room, where he had taught me so many things in that one short week.
      "I still remember his kindness and love. He was the first man I had to kill, and to this day I will never forget the joy he saw as I freed him from a body grown too feeble and pain ridden." And with this, Arkay put his face in his hands and cried.
      Mikhail cried as well. Cried as if his heart were breaking. He remembered his own great-grandfather, wasting away in a hospital bed with Channels and Donors standing watch and watch on him so his ragged breathing didn't have a chance to stop. He remembered his great, great aunt tormented by years of bad transfers and increasingly painful 'treatments' to heal her, when all that was wrong was simply age. He remembered seeing her turn to him, her eyes still so very bright and alive, but her body strapped to the sterile, hospital bed, with a pleading look on her face. She could no longer talk for the tubes they fed her through, and the oxygen mask through which she breathed, but now he knew what she had asked for.
      "What a sad, happy story." Tzer said stroking Mikhail's hands, but he couldn't manage to bring himself out of his downward spiral.
      "If you would go with Nashen for a bit, Tzer?" Vayer asked.
      "Thank you, otyet," he slipped out of bed. "I knew he was hurting, but I didn't know what to do about it." Tzer took Nashen's hand and they went outside.
      Relieved of having to worry about any Sime but Vayer, Mikhail lost all control. Great heaving sobs wracked his body and he clenched his knees to his chest. He bit at them. "No, no, little one." Vayer gently pulled his head back. "Don't take it out on yourself."
      "My, great grandfather ... his mother's sister ..." the words were wrenched out of him. I can't let them see me like this. he struck out, blinded by pain and grief.
      "Easy, Mikhail." Arkay's hands held his. "I know, I heard."
      "I could have saved them. I should have saved them." his limbs were trapped in what felt like ice and they wouldn't move. The sweet, salty taste of blood filled his mouth as he bit his own lip.
      Arkay's hands moved to the sides of his face. "It is past. Grieve, yes, but don't torment yourself for what has gone before." His light blue eyes seemed to hold his own, even as he tried to look away. "We all make decisions, some of them right, some of them wrong but we have to go on.
     
      "Halin showed me how to love, Mikhail. I gave him the greatest gift it is possible to give another, a peaceful, painless death when life had become too painful." he tried to coax Mikhail into accepting his helping his relatives.
      "But I couldn't help them." he said and Arkay was thunderstruck. For a moment he lost control over Mikhail's body and the young man's fingernails bit deep into his own hands.
      "But could you have helped them?" he asked softly, not sure if he wanted to know the answer.
      "I could have." he wailed, but Arkay caught a chink in his whirling, chaotic thoughts.
      "Did you know how to, Mikhail? How to give them peace without hurting them?" he clasped Mikhail's face in his hands, trying to will the information through Mikhail's grief.
      "No" he said and collapsed completely. No longer self destructive, he let Vayer cuddle him.
     
      Leaning back, Arkay wiped some of the sweat off his brow. He was soaked. It was warm enough in here, even though fall was already underway, but it was not physical heat which made him sweat like a foundered horse. *I'm getting too old for this* he sent Darya. Then all in mental speech, he sent to Vayer and Nashen as well, "I believe we should have a conference with Diomid on this one."
      "Agreed." the echo of the three of them came back, overlain by a strong scent of pine and water from Nashen.
      "We are investigating a nearby pond. This should keep Tzer occupied for a good long while." Nashen sent an image of Tzer trying to zlin the fish in the water and almost falling in, repeatedly. "Water and new Simes are a great combination."
      "He's going to get wet." Arkay sent the feel of laugter with it. Nashen shrugged.
      "I'll link up with Diomid. I think I probably know him best." Nashen did sound concerned about Mikhail though.
      There was a long pause, and then Diomid's presence joined the link. "And just what is going on? First you steal the best Master Sargent Sergei has ever had, then you steal my troops, then you drag me out of ... Oh, it's the middle of the morning, isn't it."
      "Yes, love." Kirina sent them all a kiss and then backed out of the network.
      "So, what has you so hot to contact me when you are barely a thirty minute ride away. It wouldn't happen to have anything to do with our little surprise ice storm yesterday, would it?" Diomid sent an image of Tzer embracing a question mark with his new tentacles.
      "Actually yes and no, the problem is with the question mark." Arkay sent back a gestalt of all he had learned about Mikhail from his contact with the young man.
      The contact faltered as Diomid nearly dropped his end of the link. "Oh my little kittens and puppies. You do have a problem." There was one of those long, pregnant pauses. "Could you open up a link from him to me?"
      "He is really, really post, probably for the first time in his life." Arkay sent, disapprovingly.
      "I could have guessed that, yes." Diomid sent an image of him smacking Arkay over the head with a pillow. "Now, if you can do it, please do."
      Instead, Vayer opened up the contact to Mikhail's mind. Arkay was blown out of the link almost as fast as everyone else. Mikhail's eyes went dead black and he screamed. It was a horrible, grating sound, as if all the lost souls in hell were trying to get loose. Covering his ears, Arkay realized the sound rang on the nageric level as well as the physical. It went on and on until he thought he was going to lose his mind.
      Then there was silence except for the harsh sobbing breaths of both Vayer and Mikhail. Tentatively, Arkay reached out for his son. "I'm all right" his sending was laced with pain, but amazingly clear for all of it.
      Then the multiple linkage was back. "I'm sorry I had to hurt him, and I'll apologize in person, but I think you should get him to us as soon as you can. His ego has been crippled by many years of neglect, but I think he'll be all right with time and a chance to grow up." Diomid sounded worried though.
      "Those were my thoughts as well." Arkay added. "Even though I think it would be best if he spent some time talking with you." Diomid's assent was perfectly clear and he added a number of constructs for Arkay to use to try to help the young man hold together long enough to heal. "Thank you." Arkay sent, picking through them.
      "How long is he going to be with us?" Diomid asked, sounding rather worn, but optimistic.
      "I hope at least until thaw. If we can, I think it would be best if we could keep him here as an envoy for as long as humanly possible." Arkay sent some of the more amusing images of the other Techton people they had met. Diomid snorted, the concept coming through the mental linkage with more than a bit of the feel of wiping slime off one's hands. "He also seems to suit Tzer fairly well."
      "I couldn't agree more." Darya added. "I would not mind Mikhail for a son." This last had more levels of meaning than Arkay wanted to think about at the moment. But he did look askance at her, as did the other two Fatima Lords.
      Nashen simply sent, "Ins'Allah."
      "Yes, I think so." he was still staring at Darya as the link disintegrated completely.

Chapter 5

      Mikhail rubbed at his eyes. They were gummy with tears and sleep. "How are you feeling?" Arkay asked, patiently darning a sock. He was still not used to seeing men being so domestic, but since Darya also was patching a torn sleeve on a kador, he figured here it must be a Gen thing. I hope they don't expect me to be able to sew.
      "Much better, actually." his voice rasped. Startled, he clutched at his throat. "What happened?" he remembered Arkay's sad, sad story, but after that, nothing.
      "You got a bit upset." Vayer stroked his hand over Mikhail's flank. "It is nothing to worry about." The touch felt wonderful and he leaned back into Vayer. A stirring deep in his groin reminded him he really had to use the restroom, or perhaps it was something more, but that he didn't want to think about at all. "Through the far door." Vayer pointed.
      Shakily, Mikhail got to his feet and padded out of the room. The cool wood felt good beneath his feet. The facilities were nothing more than two boards with a hole in them over a very deep pit, and he wondered again at how primitive so many things seemed. Gingerly, he prodded at his emotions as he waited for the pressure to subside a bit. It was as if someone had packed cotton in all the sore places in his mind.
      Finally he could relieve the other pressure and the release felt far better than it should. Everything seemed in strange contrast, sharper and somehow more in focus. His thoughts slid away from the dark empty place in his mind.
      For some reason, he stood there, staring at the wall for almost a minute. What am I doing? he found himself thinking of Darya's generous body. She is the mother of my transfer partner. Mikhail reminded his wayward hand. Annoyed with himself, he quickly washed up with the shockingly cold water. It at least solved one of his problems. Shivering slightly, he draped the bit of toweling about his hips. Mikhail's embarrassment at Tzer's question last night was still fresh in his mind.
      At Vayer's insistence, Mikhail had been letting his hair grow out. It wasn't very long yet, but still he thought it looked rather scruffy. He ran his fingers through it. It proceeded to resemble a porcupine. This was no improvement at all. Scowling into the bit of metal someone had tacked on the wall for a mirror, he slicked it back with some more water.
      Wandering back out into the other room, "Does anyone have a razor?"
      "Go ahead and use mine." Vayer laughed, leaning up against Darya. They were both a bit flushed. Arkay was looking out the window.
      Oops. he bolted back into the bathroom.
      "Use mine." Arkay said. "It's next to the basin." He heard before closing the door.
      While Mikhail had grown up in a rather close household, this was ridiculous. Long after he had finished shaving, he wondered if it were safe to go back out there. His errant thoughts kept returning to the bright gleam in Darya's eyes as she looked at Vayer. You have no business looking at another man's wife. he told himself firmly.
      The firm part he got, the rest was another matter entirely. With a sigh he tried reaching out with those new senses of his. A whiff of musk and amber simply added to his confusion. He was not at all sure what was coming from where. Telling his body to behave, he decided he could simply get dressed and go find Tzer if Vayer was not yet done with his reunion with his wife.
      He opened the door a crack. Peering out, he didn't see anything untoward. But then he didn't see anyone, nor could he see the bed. Putting on his best, 'I'm a professional Donor and nothing is going to startle me' face, he walked boldly into the other room.
      And stopped dead in his tracks. And stared. And stared some more. I didn't know that was anatomically possible. a small corner of his mind noted. His towel tried to fall off. Not that anyone else in the room cared or even noticed. He wouldn't have but for the fact it simply hung there like a coat on a rack. Arkay was gone, probably to find Tzer and Nashen.
      Now what do I do? he thought about looking for his clothes. This would have worked if he could have taken his eyes from the scene in front of him.
      "Would you like to join us?" Darya asked, sounding as if she were asking if he wanted some tea. He yelped. The towel managed to find its way to the floor. His hand reached for it and missed; it grabbed something else instead. "Or would you simply like to watch?" she said and then gasped.
      Stop that he removed his hand and grabbed anything that looked like clothes. Bolting for the door, he almost thought he could hear her laugh behind him, or perhaps it was simply his imagination.
      After only half a dozen strides on the rough ground, Mikhail had enough pine needles and bits of bark dug into the soles of his feet he could almost forget the scene he left behind. Gingerly, he examined his booty: one sock, possibly from the persons unknown from whom they had borrowed the cabin, as it was extraordinarily shabby and looked like nothing more than a rather ill-groomed, oversized caterpillar; one garment of indeterminate origin and function, most likely Darya's; a paisley shirt, four sizes too small, probably Tzer's as it was blue, green and purple; a handful of straps, probably a part of one of the harnesses for a knife from the scabbard still attached; (he pulled out the knife and almost cut himself with it, the thing was so sharp) and, a-hah! a pair of pants, black, much patched, but probably Arkay's. Sliding into them, he realized silk against bare skin was probably not the best idea at the moment.
      Looking around furtively, he realized he couldn't see or hear anyone. He slunk around the bole of a tree. There was a split in it, barely big enough for his body. Wedging himself into it, he managed to get himself fairly well hidden. Safe he breathed. After brushing the forest floor off his feet, he leaned back into the tree's embrace. The sun had warmed the wood and the heady scent reminded him of the fleeting days of summer. Relaxing, he found himself thinking of Darya's invitation to dalliance again.
      "Stop that" he told himself again, then looked around. Maybe not he gave into temptation.
     
      Feeling much better, Mikhail sauntered back to the cabin. The cool breeze fluttered the drapes at the window. Someone had embroidered bright red roses on the cotton, and he smiled at how cheery it looked. Blue and green patterns had been painted on the white lintel. Whistling an old song he had written as a child, he walked up to the door.
      "Has anyone seen my corselet?" Darya's voice came from the open window.
      "Is this it?" he asked sheepishly, holding up the unknown garment as he walked in.
      "Yes, thank you, Mikhail." she said, holding out her hand. Not seeming at all abashed, she wrapped it about her waist and turned around. "If you wouldn't mind." she pulled her hair to the side.
      "Um, I am not particularly familiar with women's garments." his fingers trembled as he took the laces. It seemed fairly obvious, so he began threading the laces through the eyelets. Every time his skin touched hers though, it seemed as though a shock ran through them. He was panting as if he had run a race by the time he reached the top.
      "Go ahead and snug it up some." she said, looking back over her shoulder. Mikhail could see right down her cleavage. Not that he was intending to, simply that she leaned back. Or at least that's what he told himself. His fingers slipped as he tried to tug on the silk cord. Darya giggled. This was even more interesting. Sweating now, he tugged at the laces, evening them out and finally tying the top. He was proud of himself, he had only managed to snarl them once. "Now give me a kiss, since you decided not to give me anything else earlier." she turned in his arms.
      Her soft, warm arms wrapped around his neck. Mikhail thought he was going to faint. All the blood had rushed from his head to parts south. His earlier exercise didn't seem to be doing any good at that particular moment. She pressed against him, smelling of lavender and honey. Unable to resist, he leaned down and tried to put a brotherly kiss on her cheek.
      Darya was having none of this. Most emphatically she corrected his aim. Her tongue parted his lips and touched the tip of his. The sweet taste of her overrode his normally excellent manners. He grasped her hips and pulled her against him. She moaned, running her leg up the back of his thighs. This is going way too far. he had no idea where Vayer was, and had no idea what he would do if he found Mikhail manhandling his wife. Reluctantly, he broke off the kiss. She sighed and kissed him lightly again, returning her foot to the ground. "Perhaps later." she winked, turning and going to the rest of the pile of clothes.
      Then he saw Vayer lounging on the bed. He looked as if he were a cat who had gotten into a pint of cream. "I have no problems with it, Mikhail. Darya is her own person."
      Mikhail was stunned speechless.
     
      Tzer shivered. The breeze was awfully cold. "Like this, m'lad." Nashen put his hand on Tzer's shoulder and he caught something on the edge of his thoughts. Warmth spread through his body. "Yes." he grinned. "Now if you hadn't fallen into the water, you wouldn't be cold."
      For some reason his father Nashen thought stating the obvious was funny. Tzer simply gave his now soaking wet clothes a dirty look. Not that they required it, already being quite filthy. Deciding to humor him, "Is there any way to dry these out?" They were almost back to the others, and Tzer didn't want Mikhail to see him like this.
      "The sun." the silver eyes looking at him were half lidded.
      I know that. Tzer bit back his snapping reply, knowing it would only amuse Nashen further. "Ow!" he shook his wrist. Something had stung one of his new tentacles. Tzer looked at them. There was the faintest traces of lightning surrounding all his tentacle sheathes, but from his own guess, no more than normal.
      "You have to learn to control your temper, Tzer." Nashen's eyes were unwontedly serious. "Please."
      "And if I don't?" he simply wanted to know. "Arkay doesn't."
      "Actually, I normally do." he gave Tzer a wry grin. "Only someone here gives me a reputation for being hot tempered."
      "You have always been hot tempered. But then you are not Fatima." Nashen looked at his partner. Tzer had always liked Arkay. He felt safe and protected in his company, as if something had brought them together before he had been born. "Trust me on this, Tzer, Fatima Lords can not afford to lose their tempers."
      "I do trust you, otyet, but I don't understand." Tzer knew he didn't want to miss anything so important as to make his father Nashen serious.
      "Perhaps you might wish to show him." Arkay stepped back. "We are still outside so if your little demonstration gets out of control, you won't break anything or anyone." Even he looked serious.
      Tzer tried to step back as well. Nashen shook his head no. "All right. Watch and zlin, Tzer." As Nashen had already showing him how to do that with the fish in the pond, Tzer carefully balanced his way to be able to do both. An even colder wind wrapped around both of them. The hairs on Tzer's arms tried to stand on end. His attention flickered downwards. Nashen looked as if he had dipped his hands in light paint.
      "Go ahead and touch." Nashen offered his glowing hand. "Only Fatima can touch this. For anyone else it would be deadly." A quiver of fear made Tzer want to step back. "It is all right, youngster. Would I ever ask you to do anything which would harm you?"
      "No" he said and clasped his father's hand. It was like the time he had stood almost in the river as a lightning bolt struck it, but good. Almost as good as transfer. Light teased at his body, strumming his nerves like the vibration of a giant, soundless chime. He could hear himself hum with the cool power tickling his senses. This feels so good he purred, wrapping himself in its comfort.
     
      By the time the call for help had ended, Vayer was alread outside. Mikhail was hot on his heels. Darya barely made out the door. Even though it didn't matter. Vayer turned to him. "Damn it, I can't do anything." Both Nashen and his son were wrapped in glowing blue lace. It was beautiful, and quit obviously deadly.
      Then there was a flicker of movement. Tzer turned to him, pleading. Mikhail stepped forward. The crackle and hum of power seethed around him, at first rejecting him. Thinking of the peace which let him enjoy transfer and not merely suffer it, the power slid around him, now welcoming him into its embrace.
      It almost felt as silken as Darya's touch and he let it fill him. A deep hissing sigh escaped his throat. A thousand needles traced his skin, teasing him with promises of pleasures yet to be fulfilled. Reaching into the heart of the storm, Mikhail put his hand across the contact between Nashen and Tzer, breaking it.
      Thunder smashed him to the ground, Tzer in his arms. He ducked his head, letting the fire course down his back. It felt so very good, warming him and his heart to white hot. His spine bowed backwards and he howled with the release of feelings he never knew he could even bear.
     
      Thrown clear of the linkage, Nashen struggled to keep the darkness at bay. Panting, he looked up at the sky. It was as clear and calm as he didn't feel. He slumped, relieved at the minor reprieve. Then he heard Mikhail's howl and his heart stopped.
      It sounded like a kill. Purely by force of will he tried to get to his feet. "Tzer is fine." Arkay murmured in his ear, as his knees refused to support him. "How are you?" his familiar touch was almost as welcome as his words.
      "How is Mikhail?" he let his head fall. It felt like it would fall off, but he knew he couldn't be so fortunate.
      Arkay snorted, "Orgasmic."
      "What?" that was not an adjective Nashen expected. He blinked his vision clear. Mikhail was murmuring to and cuddling Tzer as if he were the last Lord on earth. "Looks like he has overcome his reluctance to open his heart."
      "But is he going to be able to open up anything else?" Arkay's field was snarled in knots.
      "I think we should deal with the immediate problems first, Alahin." he sighed, not wanting to think about anything else. "I can't control him."
      "I noticed." Arkay snorted in that so elegant way he had. Again Nashen fell in love with him all over again. Gazing into those ice blue eyes which so easily turned to the heat of summer lightning, all thoughts of headaches and heartaches fled. "I love you, Arkay." he whispered, resting his head against Arkay's broad chest. The slight lisp to his heartbeat was as familiar as his own clear rhythm.
      "As I love thee, my Alamir." he wrapped Nashen in his strong arms and healing attention. Out of the corner of his attention, he felt a shift in the fields.
      "Look" he whispered, pointing at Tzer and Mikhail.
      "I see." Arkay simply said and bowed his head, hiding a chuckle Nashen could only feel, despite their nearness. "Perhaps young men sometimes do learn from example."
      "If I had never been one, I might be tempted to agree with you." he looked up into Arkay's lowered face. "Although it does seem to be working. Want to give them more of an example?"
      "Any time, my beloved." Arkay let himself be pulled closer, tipping his head. The open invitation made Nashen's pulse race as fast and furious as it had over a decade ago. Their lips touched and he gave himself over completely to the kiss. Melting into Arkay's embrace, Nashen tasted the so sweet tip of Arkay's tongue. Like the honey it resembled, the taste warmed the chill of fear from his heart with a flare of heat unlike any other.
      "I'm scared, Arkay." he admitted when they were done. "I don't want Tzer to have to die because I couldn't keep him safe."
      "You won't." Arkay promised, and for some reason Nashen believed him. "Perhaps we will be able to learn things from Mikhail as well as him learning from us."
      "As long as Tzer is safe." Nashen would do anything.
     
      Mikhail was still shivering in aftermath of the feelings running through his body. He was spent, emotionally, and he realized with a grimace of disgust, physically as well.
      "I goofed." Tzer looked away. "I'm sorry, Mikhail."
      "Ye did nothin' bad, m'lad." Mikhail locked his disquiet into a box within his mind and threw away the key. It clattered in pile of them, some rusted and bent, other shiny with frantic fondling. "Yer m'bright lad an' I'll not be hearin' ye run yerself down." he rubbed Tzer's nose with his.
      Tzer laughed, "You sound like Dori."
      "I'll bet I do, since I but been learnin' m'Russian frem te renSimes." he laughed at the look of utter dismay on Tzer's face. "At least you don't turn green."
      "Only because I have better control." he winked. "I think you might want to work on cleaning it up some."
      "But why, I so like sounding like an ignorant farm boy." or at least that's what Mikhail figured he sounded like. He wasn't really sure and it was hard for him to tell the difference between his own Russian and everybody else's. Then he caught his hands stroking Tzer's arms idly. They stopped. He placed them more appropriately on Tzer's hands.
      Tzer sighed, looking down. "I'm ugly to you, aren't I? Too pale ... too something."
      "No, Tzer." the heartbreak in the young man's voice was painfully obvious. Tentatively, he let his fingertips return to Tzer's arms. "You are beautiful." and in this he didn't lie. Never before had a Sime simply let Mikhail touch them so intimately, when transfer was not involved. The skin was so very soft, he gasped at the feel of it.
      "You've never done this before, have you?"
      "Neither have you." he stroked one of the sheathed dorsals. He could feel it begin to extend and the sensation tugged at some inner core of his being. Mikhail shifted his fingertip to the orifice, and as Tzer's tentacle slid out his breath quickened.
      "I'm not hurting you, am I?" he certainly hoped not as he did not want to stop.
      "No" Tzer's voice shivered. "It feels gooooood." the last was drawn out in a long breathy sigh. It sounded so very sexual Mikhail flinched. He did not want to corrupt Tzer's innocence. "Please, don't stop." The pleading tone convinced him. As gently as he could, he wrapped his entire hands around Tzer's wrists. All of his tentacles came out and twined with his fingers. The warmth of Tzer's grasp was undeniable. Mikhail leaned forward and gently kissed his forehead.
      Tzer's eyes rolled up in his head and for a moment Mikhail thought he had fainted. Concerned, he tried to free his hands. They couldn't move an inch, Tzer had such a tight hold on him. Then Tzer sighed and snuggled against his chest, holding Mikhail's arms again after a bit of rearranging. Not thinking of a thing, Mikhail simply enjoyed Tzer's explorations. It felt so right, not to have to push him away. "I like it when you touch me." Tzer murmured and Mikhail began to stroke him back. At first simply tracing the twining lines of his tentacles and then, more boldly, the faint lines of his tentacle sheathes. "Do that some more." Tzer purred, leaning his head against Mikhail's chest.
      Encouraged by Tzer's acceptance, Mikhail did what he had always wanted to do, and let his fingertips brush the lateral sheathes. Tzer gasped, quivering. "Yes" he murmured, licking his lips. As if it were something he did all the time, Mikhail stroked the warm glands above each of them. They warmed even more beneath his touch, swelling slightly in response.
      The very tips of Tzer's laterals peeked from their hiding places. They were so very beautiful Mikhail wanted to weep. The scent of roniplin was suddenly heavy in the air. There was no sense of a desire for transfer, simply pleasure in the contact of their fields and touch intertwining. Mikhail felt as if he were making love with Tzer, only not sexually but nagerically. Making very sure not to actually touch them, Mikhail brushed his hands over Tzer's exposed laterals.
      Instead they reached out to touch him. Their hot wetness made him cry out. The very faintest flicker of selyn stroked his nerves. Tzer's voice joined his, as high and sweet as a bird's.
     
      Darya grinned up at Vayer. He tapped the tip of her nose with a tentacle. They had occasionally made love nagerically, particularly when she was too heavy in pregnancy to enjoy the other. To see her son do so was incredibly sweet. She was not too sure yet of Mikhail, but he certainly got her going physically. He looked so very much like what she imagined Arkay must have at his age.
      "I noticed." Vayer laughed in her ear, then nibbled on it. Darya shivered as the sensation caused her nipples to crinkle painfully in her loose bodice. "I am noticing something else, too." his breath was warm and sweet on her neck. Vayer's hand slid up to cup her breast. "But is it me you're thinking about?"
      "Vayer!" she wasn't sure if it was his words or his gesture which made her face flame. Admittedly she had seduced him earlier in hopes Mikhail would join them, but not in front of Tzer.
      "Oh-ho." he laughed delightedly, and she blushed even worse. "I had wondered why ye were so enthusiastic te use the bed." For last night they had made do with the floor in the only other room in the tiny cottage.
      "I wanted ye te have a good welcome home." she lied, grinning at him again.
      He knew it was a lie and laughed again. "I can well understand your wanting me so badly after the months without, my beautiful dark lady, as I wanted you, but ye were a bit indiscreet."
      "What about Mikhail?" she knew he had been sleeping with the young Sharm Lord.
      "He, well, he turned me down." Vayer sighed. "I think it was because he was taught men should not be physically intimate with other men."
      "Poor lad." she didn't know if her pity was for Vayer or Mikhail. "Why not?"
      "The place he comes from doesn't think a whole lot of people like him." Vayer sighed, looking at the young men exploring each other's bodies. It looked like this was Mikhail's first time. "It probably is, Darya."
      "How horrible." she pulled Vayer closer, wanting to feel the heat and strength of his body.
      "It gets even worse. From what I could get him to tell me, which wasn't much, they treated him like a bio-generator. Pull 'em out when needed, otherwise shove 'em in a closet." He shook his head and then tucked a loose strand of hair behind his ear. "Not literally, but mentally and emotionally. Even his youth was awful. When he established, they sent him away to school and he has hardly seen his family since. He has two sisters, and his two parents are still alive, but it has been years since they have all been together."
      "They sent him away as a child." her lip quivered.
      "Not quite. They gave him three days to pack and then expected him to be an adult." her love sighed again. "I can't blame him for being a bit odd, with such a background, but I do wish ..."
      "None of that, lover mine." she kissed him firmly. "We'll take care of him."
      "You and what army?" he looked so depressed about the whole thing. Vayer had never been able to see anyone neglected or abused. His entire attitude was either punish them and get it over with, or leave them alone. The sort of constant degradation he described Mikhail suffering would have struck all those nerves which made him such a good leader of men, particularly as Mikhail wasn't even a true adult yet. Certainly he would order a long term punishiment, like a ban, if necessary, but only for the worst possible offenses short of killing or treason, such as rape or child abuse.
      "I think Arkay and I are a bit small for an army." she could count his ribs under her fingers. "And the first thing this general is going to do is feed her staff."
      "Didn't you forget a preposition in there?" he tweaked her nose.
      "Vayer" she could still taste the faintest hint of his sweetness on her tongue. "I'm going to bite you if you keep this up."
      "Now that sentence is even more confused. But if it's a promise ..."
      "Vayer!" She squawked. He began nibbling his way up her neck. Darya forgot entirely what she was going to say. Clasping his head to her, she murmured, "You are post." Somewhere this might have been an insult.
      "As are you, my delightful, fragrant, tasty, lover." his voice sent chills of delight up her spine. "I missed you so."
      "I can tell." She rubbed against him, feeling very much like a cat in heat. "But we should probably not be doing this in front of the children." Despite the fact I'm so wet I'm about to soak through my robes.
      "I'm certainly not going to be able to ride in this state." his heavy lidded gaze was dark and smokey with desire. "Feel." he grasped her hand and placed on the difficulty. The touch undid her reserve. Leading him by this rather appropriate handle, she dragged him back into the cabin and firmly slammed the door behind them.
     
      Arkay's head whipped around at the sound of the door slamming. What? Then the door shook as something large and rather heavy was slammed against it, at about waist height. The squeal that followed made him laugh. The deep growl made Nashen laugh. Soon they were propped against each other, both snickering at the rather varied and enthusiastic repetoir indulged in by the lovers.
      "You know something?" Arkay said, as soon as he caught his breath.
      "Hmmm?" Nashen was still snickering.
      "I get the feeling they think we can't hear them." He mimed cleaning out his ear. "They were no where near as noisy last night."
      "Noisy enough to get you going." Nashen poked him in the ribs. He looked towards the young men. They were still so involved in each other, they hadn't even looked up. "Isn't that sweet."
      "Very" he sighed. "What a relief."
      "I agree." Nashen grinned. "Lets get the horses ready to go. If Darya can walk after Vayer is done with her, I think it's time we went home."

Chapter 6

      Darya mounted her horse rather delicately. Mikhail looked at her closely. Nashen snickered. Vayer turned bright red. "What's so funny?" asked Tzer.
      "You'll find out in a few months." Arkay gave his partner an arch look. "Did you put tacks on that saddle?" Darya was still fidgeting around, and soon her horse was as well.
      "No, actually I gave her, your sheepskin cover." Nashen pointed it out. "I thought she might be a bit tender."
      "Nashen!" she blushed furiously. "Why ever would you think such a thing?"
      "Well, the door is still standing." he gave Arkay a leg up. Mikhail was getting used to the way these people touched each other all the time, and thought it was actually rather sweet the way Nashen was so attentive to his partner. Then he turned to his horse.
      Or at least he thought it was his horse. It was standing right next to him. "Uh-oh" he investigated the forest of curves at the front of the saddle.
      "Dori told me you were short a horse and gave me Kilan to bring with me, already tacked up." Darya looked a bit taken aback.
      "I wouldn't suppose this is for Tzer." his heart sank into his boots. So far he had managed to talk everyone out of trying to get him onto one of those sidesaddles all the other Gens rode on, but it looked like his luck had run out. They looked horribly unstable.
      "He did look a bit put out, as if someone had been doing something he didn't approve of." She added, quite unnecessarily.
      "Dorityan did not much care for the fact I refused to risk my neck on one of those things." he glared at the saddle.
      "He is of the opinion, like many Simes, that since we are physically weaker we really should not be riding astride." Arkay leaned on his knee. The bay gelding nudged at Mikhail's elbow, as if to ask what the problem was. "Although I see he gave you the sweetest horse in the stables. There are times I regret having gelded him."
      "His legs aren't very good." Tzer said in a very disapproving voice.
      "Legs aren't everything, m'lad." Arkay remonstrated him. "A good heart and mind can make up for a multitude of other sins."
      "Yes, otyet." Tzer lowered his eyes.
      "The same can be said for people." Vayer added. "A good heart goes a lot further than mere beauty or power."
      "Beautifully said, m'Lord." Mikhail told him. The sentiment almost brought tears to his eyes.
      "Out here, and among family, I am no one's Lord, Mikhail." the correction was given with a smile. "Now that we have had our lessons for today, how about one final one."
      "What would that be?" Tzer asked, almost bouncing in his eagerness. Then he turned to Mikhail. "Oh, I think I see."
      "And what do you see, Tzer?" Nashen asked, resting against Arkay's side. Arkay was gently stroking the other man's hair. It was and it wasn't possessive, more like reassuring themselves the other was still there.
      "I see a problem." he bit at his lip. "Mikhail wasn't riding aside yesterday, was he?"
      "No I wasn't." he couldn't keep the heat out of his voice, or his field from the way Tzer backed away. As he tried to pull his field back, Nashen held up a hand and stopped him. Mikhail froze.
      "Tzer has to learn not to zlin all the time." he looked at his son. "You were, weren't you."
      "Yes, otyet." he said sheepishly, coming back to Mikhail. "I wanted to find out what the problem was."
      "You will get further with your eyes and your ears than your laterals." Nashen said firmly. It sounded like a proverb. "Mikhail, go ahead and let your field loose when we are private. If Tzer gets thumped a few times, I think he'll live." This seemed incredibly harsh and Mikhail started to protest.
      "It doesn't really hurt, Mikhail." Tzer said. "More like," he paused, obviously thinking it over, "more like when my tutors would correct my more sloppy mistakes by smacking the backs of my hands. Not really painful, but memorable."
      "I think I know what is causing your confusion Mikhail. Many channels in the west are more like Rels than like, say Vayer, correct?" Arkay asked.
      "Yes, but ..."
      "I think we are a much tougher lot." he interrupted. "If you would, I would like to demonstrate something."
      "Certainly." Mikhail always felt better with a demonstration of some sort, rather than simply taking someone's word for it. Arkay waved everyone away but Vayer.
      "Now, open up your senses, Mikhail." Arkay told him. Taking a deep breath, Mikhail let his awareness of the fields come back to him. It was so sharp and clear, he still wondered how he had ever managed before. "On three, Vayer." and he counted down. When he hit "now" a blinding flash of light and heat engulfed Vayer completely, the sound like a thunder crack in the still air. Then he realized all the fireworks were purely nageric. Mikhail blinked, a bit confused.
      Vayer was still standing there, smiling up at his father. "Is that the best you can do?" he asked impishly, and another of those huge cracks shattered the ambient. This one caught Mikhail even more by surprise, and he jumped. His horse gave him a snort, as if to ask what the problem was. Then with a couple of clever tugs on the reins, almost managed to get a mouthful of grass.
      "Ow, you hit hard." Arkay complained, rubbing the side of his head. Nashen came running back and glared at Vayer.
      "You just wanted to get Nashen to cosset you." Vayer grinned from ear to ear. "I know you."
      There was brief spate of some other language that Mikhail had no idea what it was. Although from the tone it sounded like pure mush. While they babbled, Mikhail thought over what Arkay had just shown him.
      "You will help me grow up big and strong like my fathers, won't you?" Tzer asked timidly. At that moment he sounded very much like a child and not at all like an adult. Before Mikhail could correct him though, he thought of the way some of the out-Territory Gens treated their grown children and he bit back his hasty words.
      What is the age of consent here, anyway? thinking back, he realized everyone had been treating him like an adolescent as well. Huh? Putting his arm around Tzer's shoulders, he told him, "Of course I will. As much as I can."
      "Good." he grinned. "We'll have lots of fun in the mean time. Good thing you're not a stuffy adult like some other Sharm Lord I could have gotten stuck with." Tzer sounded frightfully young. But then maybe he was a bit put off by the display earlier.
      "I'll also have to ask a lot of questions. Do you mind?" he asked, giving Tzer a squeeze.
      "No, not at all." he chirped. "Go ahead."
      "Well, first, because I am curious, how old is adult?" Mikhail really hoped this one would get through the culture barrier.
      "Well, it depends." he looked to Nashen for support. Nashen nodded, as if to say 'go ahead'. "For someone like Dori, about sixteen or so."
      Interesting, they go from natal age. Mikhail thought to himself, then Tzer dropped the bomb.
      "For someone like you, a Sharm Lord, about twenty-five." Then his world turned upside down even more as another one of those shocks shattered the ambient.
      "Pay attention, Tzer." Nashen growled. "You scared him. Now fix it."
      "No, no, I'll be fine." he clutched at one of the protuberances on the saddle. It least it was good for something. Twenty five! I've been an adult for almost six years! Dismay rocked him on his foundations. Something in his head told him to relax and go with it. It was a voice he had never heard before, but somehow he knew to trust it. Taking a deep breath, he found Tzer stroking his hair back from his face. It didn't require it, but it felt good all the same.
      "I've seen Nashen do this to Arkay." Tzer whispered. "I hope it feels good to you." he tipped his chin forward, as if unsure of his reception.
      "It does." he traced his fingers of the back of Tzer's hand. "Thank you."
      "I like it when things feel good to you." Tzer grinned, and the gave him a kiss, right on the lips. Mikhail was so startled he even forgot to pull back. Tzer's eyes got really big.
      "No, you simply startled me. Another of those things about where I come from." he leaned forward and gave Tzer a soft kiss back. The sense of Sime was so much stronger than that of male, Mikhail found himself responding physically. This didn't happen with Vayer. he thought, and then realized he was lying to himself. He hadn't wanted his body to respond to Vayer's presence as a Sime, only as a male. "You see, I have a lot of things to learn."
      "So do I." Tzer told him. "Shall we do it together?"
      "Sounds good to me." Mikhail felt far more relaxed now, as if being given the chance to return to childhood was not entirely a bad thing.
      *It is not, Mikhail. Too many of us must grow old too fast. Take this chance with Tzer in both hands and run with it.* Arkay sent him, with the scent of sweet, greening spring breezes and the feel of cherry blossoms against his cheek.
      I think I will and with that, Mikhail released the bindings on his heart. It fluttered free, like a dove loosed from captivity. I will make mistakes and not be perfect, but perhaps, this time, I can find my own way.
      *Beautifully said, Mikhail.* Nashen sent. *You have the soul of a poet*
     
      "Now," Mikhail spoke out loud again. "About this saddle."
      "Yes?" Arkay's grin showed a great deal of fang.
      He thought about the easy way Nashen had helped Arkay into place. "Am I correct in guessing it is traditional for a Lord to help their partner into the saddle." There was no way he was going to manage on his own.
      "It is." Darya had returned, and was grinning down at him. "Arkay can do it, but I have to use a mounting block or get a leg up."
      "So, would someone here like to give Tzer and I our first lesson in etiquette, as I haven't the foggiest how to get up there." he pointed to the seat of the saddle.
      "Well, Kilan does know to kneel, but I think you have a great idea. If you would, Nashen?" Arkay watched with great amusement written all over him.
      "Why me?"
      "They're your children." Arkay pointed out.
      "That isn't my fault." Nashen looked at Darya with a huge grin.
      "You certainly helped." she laughed. "Come now, what's the worst that can happen."
     
      Mikhail really wished she hadn't said that. All kinds of disasters ran through his mind. "Ok, Kilan. Please take pity on me." Normally he liked horses well enough, and enjoyed riding, but this was another matter entirely.
      "He is a wonderful horse, Mikhail." Arkay said. "Kilan, stand." he said in Russian. The horse froze as if he had turned into a statue. "Now, turn so you are facing the same direction as the horse."
      "Who's giving this lesson?" Nashen asked. Arkay shut up. "First what I want you to do, Tzer, is take Kilan's reins. He's not going to move, but with another horse you don't know that. If he moves out from under Mikhail as he tries to mount, you have a problem." A problem seemed such a minor way of putting it. Images of Mikhail flat on his back under the horse's belly went through his mind. Vayer snickered. Mikhail stuck his tongue out at him. Darya laughed. "Enough, all of you." Tzer was still looking quite attentive.
      "Now, what you are going to do, is lift Mikhail up high enough he can swing his right leg around and over the fixed head, the one that hooks over your right thigh, Mikhail." Nashen added at Mikhail's look of utter confusion. Oh he re-examined the saddle. Arkay was kind enough to lift the drape of his skirt-like garment to show how he had hooked his legs around the projections.
      "How do I manage to lift him?" Tzer looked at Mikhail quizzically, obviously measuring him with his eyes. Mikhail grinned back and soon both of them were giggling.
      "Boys!" Nashen barked. Kilan looked at him. No one else did. He and Tzer were still too busy giggling together. "You augment, of course."
      "I what?" Tzer blinked. Of course Mikhail knew it was done, but not how to do it.
      "You have to be careful of your balance." Nashen closed his eyes. Mikhail could see his lips move. It looked like prayer. "Let me show you."
      "We've already had one demonstration." Mikhail pointed to Arkay. Actually it was the fact that once he got on top, he had absolutely no clue how he was going to get back down off the horse.
      "Really, it's tricky enough as is, Mikhail." Nashen sighed. He leaned down, forming a cup with his hands. "Put your knee in my hands. As I lift," he suited actions to words and Mikhail found himself almost three feet in the air. He clutched at Nashen. "No, no, not like that." Mikhail looked down over Nashen's head. He does have a cute back side. he noted with his new found curiosity about everything. Arkay laughed so hard tears streamed down his face.
      "Shut up, Arkay." Nashen muttered into something like the middle of Mikhail's torso. "You were supposed to turn the other way, toward your mount."
      Arkay howled with laughter.
      "I meant, the horse." he managed to extricate himself from Mikhail's clutching hands and set him back on the ground. "Shall we try this again?" even though now that Mikhail looked, there was also a sense of devilment about Nashen as well with this whole procedure.
      "Which the mounting or the lesson?" He quipped, and was rewarded with Darya joining in on the laughter. Then he saw the look on Tzer's face. "Come here, Tzer." he held out his hand. "We were simply playing."
      "But I didn't get it." he said softly.
      "Do you know how we made each other feel good earlier today?" Mikhail asked gently.
      "Yes" Tzer gave him one of those incredibly bright grins.
      "We were teasing each other about another way people can make each other feel good." Mikhail explained. "Sometimes we use the euphemism 'mounting' to describe it."
      "Oh, like a stallion mounts a mare and eleven months later we get a foal?" he gave Nashen a purely inscrutable look.
      "Exactly." Mikhail said, glad of the more rural upbringing of these people. Youngsters who had no clue about sex were a very sad thing to see when they reached maturity all at once.
      "Then when a stallion mounts another stallion, the result must be a thunderstorm." he gave both Nashen and Arkay an arch look and everyone broke up laughing.

Chapter 7

      When everyone had settled back down, Tzer walked up to Mikhail boldly. "I think we can figure this out." He winked, as if to dare Mikhail to go along with him. Carefully, he set his knee in Tzer's cupped hands.
      As smoothly as if he were on an elevator, Tzer lifted him up to the level of the saddle. Mikhail reached for the fixed head. Nashen braced Tzer as he wobbled a bit with the shift in weight. Sensing slow and steady was better than rushing, Mikhail paused.
      Awkwardly, he hooked his knee over the head, almost smashing his own hand. Good thing Tzer isn't Ferris Mikhail shook out his hand.
      Tzer's support began to slide away. All would have ben well if Mikhail's butt had been on the saddle. As it was, he slid, slowly, gradually, down Kilan's side. This wouldn't have been so bad if his knee hadn't already been hooked on something.
      A firm hand placed itself under his behind. However, leverage was not kind to the owner of said hand. Mikhail's downward progress was only slowed and not stopped.
      "Kilan, stand." Arkay snapped out.
      Oh please be good, Kilan. Please Mikhail begged silently. Finally another hand joined the first. It groped him in quite an intimate fashion. Mikhail yelped and pulled himself upright. Amazing what encouragement will do for you he noted, panting now that he was safe.
      Tzer grinned like he had won the biggest prize at Arensti.
      "Now, put his foot in the stirrup." Nashen's voice bubbled with amusement. Tzer placed his free hand on Mikhail's right knee. "His other foot, the one you already have in your hand."
      "Oh." Tzer bit his lip and blushed, but a grin peeked out any ways.
      "Now this is your excuse to grope his leg under his habit." Nashen pointed out by example, grinning all the while.
      "Hmmmmm." Tzer's hand slid all the way up the back of Mikhail's leg. But it was not his hand which managed to slid around a bit far. Mikhail gave Nashen a blown kiss. Nashen just laughed and patted his thigh. All the cloth turned the gesture far more intimate than Mikhail would have expected. He soon discovered the same advantage to riding aside as countless generations of male Gens before him. Arkay winked.
      "Um, yes." he said, and cleared his throat. "Thank you both, Tzer, Nashen." Even though he figured Nashen had already collected his payment.
      "My pleasure." Nashen said, only to be echoed a heartbeat later by Tzer. Now that is absolutely undeniable. Mikhail thought, and Nashen winked at him.
      "Now, as you should have the reins in you left hand," Nashen waited patiently for this to be true, "present them to your Sharm Lord."
      They had been quite neat in Tzer's hands. The instant Mikhail touched them they snarled into a mass of straps going every which way.
      "How many of these things are there?" Mikhail hadn't noticed there being a dozen reins. Before he could even get started sorting them all out, all he was left holding were the very ends of them. Kilan had decided this was the perfect time for a snack. Either that or he was expressing his overwhelming boredom with the entire proceedings.
      "Four." Arkay said calmly. "Now," his horse sidestepped neatly over to Mikhail's off side. "Kilan, up." and Arkay proceeded to untangle the reins and show Mikhail how to deal with them. He had known Arkay's horsemanship was far beyond anything Mikhail had ever seen before in his life, but it seemed the man was also a natural teacher for it. Mikhail's entire experience as a rider was kick means go, pull means slow down. Soon Arkay had him and Kilan describing large patterns in a nearby meadow.
      "I think you will manage." he said finally. Much to Mikhail's surprise, he found the odd saddle to be incredibly secure.
      "Thank you." he said.
      "Take care of Tzer for us." he patted Mikhail's knee fondly. "You both deserve it."
      And with that cryptic comment, they returned, as everyone else was mounted and well ready to go home.
     
      Tzer sighed, They are so beautiful. He looked around, No one is watching the world dissolved into light and heat. The throbbing pulse of Mikhail's production thrilled along his nerves. He could zlin Mikhail concentrating, turning his nager into a brilliant white snowflake made of selyn surrounding a warm core.
      A brush of blue light tickled at his awareness. He welcomed it into his world. It twined towards the grey white swirling figure reaching towards the wash of sky. Content, Tzer zlinned the fields interacting, although he noted the pure white one always seemed to face him in some indescribable way. As if he were the center of its universe, rather than the other way around.
      Coming back to the real world, Tzer wondered what it was going to be like after his fourth transfer. The teasing and horseplay of his parents and Mikhail had made him curious. Normally Tzer was not overly curious, that being a trait more likely found in Sergei, at least so Tzer thought. Mikhail was now moving with his horse. They looked so very beautiful together. The two strong animals working together rather than fighting each other.
      "You could learn from that, Tzer." Nashen pointed out.
      "But who is the rider and who is the horse?" he asked.
      "Yes" Nashen chuckled. "It is a partnership."
      "Do you have that kind of partnership with Arkay?"
      "Usually." he ruffled Tzer's hair. Tzer usually didn't much care for the gesture, as it really messed up his hair, but this time it felt good."Sometimes we get into arguments, but we work it out."
      "Sounds like a lot of work." he sighed.
      "It is, but it's worth it too." Nashen went back to looking at the two Sharm Lords. This gave Tzer a great excuse to simply watch as well. "Neither Arkay nor I will ever be alone again."
      "But what if something happens to either of you?" while the concept of never being alone again sounded like a good idea, there did seem to be some down side to it as well.
      "Then the other will follow him." he sounded sad. "The way Kir followed Valentine."
      "I never did understand what happened to them." Tzer knew better than to ask.
      "Perhaps it would be best if Nivanya told her story to you and Mikhail." his hand was almost cold on Tzer's. "Val was a good friend of mine, and Arkay's son." Tzer already knew this, but he also knew this was not a good time to remind his father of the fact.
      "Why does it happen that way?" he asked.
      "If you and Mikhail continue to deepen and strengthen your bond, I think you will also know." Nashen's field wrapped around Tzer in a warm hug. "But for right now, I will simply say that I can not take transfer from anyone else, at least a direct transfer. I could survive for a month or so on shunts, but I wouldn't wish to."
      "So it is purely physical?"
      "Not at all." the hug tightened and Tzer leaned back into it. "I love Arkay more than I could ever say and without being near him, my heart would break."
      "Mushy stuff." Tzer was a bit uncomfortable with the direction the conversation had taken and couldn't think of a polite way to get out of it.
      "True enough, m'lad." Nashen chuckled. "You'll find out soon enough."
      Tzer wasn't so sure of this, but kept silent.
     
      Kilan's gaits were like silk. The other horse Mikhail had been riding had been nothing like this. Carefully, he gathered all the reins into one hand and stroked Kilan's neck. It too had the slick feel of polished silk. Surprised, he stroked it again. The animal's coat seemed to shimmer in the rich sunlight, with hints of blue and green to the dark brown. "He almost feels like a Sime."
      "Don't they." Arkay smiled back. "I do believe that was one of the reasons my ancestors stole theirs."
      The other horse Mikhail had been riding, had also felt more horselike, rough and jarring, particularly near the end of the days march.
      "Come on, lets canter." Arkay said and somehow both horses moved into the gait, Kilan one step after Kika. It was like stepping up a riser and Mikhail whooped with glee. Now he knew why some people liked riding horses so much. Kilan flattened his black ears back and bolted up the slight rise. The sheer power of him was intoxicating.
      "Wait up." Arkay shouted. Mikhail wasn't listening. The wind whistling in his ears and rushing through his hair chased all sensible thoughts from his head. They came to the top of the hill. Kilan's head and neck came up as he stopped suddenly. It was the most natural thing in the world for Mikhail to lean forward into the motion.
      As one, at the top of the hill, they stood upright and Mikhail caught his first glimpse of Moskva. Stunned, he stared even as Kilan's forefeet returned to the ground. "It's beautiful." he breathed, mouth agape.
      The city looked nothing so much as if someone had strewn the contents of a jewelry box into a basin lined with emerald green velvet. All colors of the rainbow, gilt and silvered glistened in the sunlight. Silver-blue ribbons twined in and among the brightly painted buildings and golden spires rose far above the city streets.
      "Yes, it is." Tzer rested his hand on Mikhail's knee. He hadn't heard him come up and was a bit surprised to find him so near. "Didn't mean to startle you."
      "I know." for a moment he quavered, Nashen's admonition not to hold back warring with his habit of control.
      "Ick." Tzer stiffened.
      Nashen's words finally won.
      "Better." Tzer said.
      "How so?" he wouldn't have thought letting a shock run through his field would be better than dampening it.
      "Before you were vibrating. When you relax it stings and then is over." he said, looking down at his own hands. "Am I making any sense?"
      "I think so." Mikhail said. "If I am to hurt you by accident, you would rather it were over quickly?"
      "Yes, that's it." he squeezed Mikhail's knee gently.
      "But what if I don't hurt you at all?
      "Then I was being an adult and not zlinning when I shouldn't have been." Tzer's grin was infectious, but his words were more than a bit disturbing. Even after seeing Arkay and Vayer take a few swings at each other, Mikhail still wasn't sure about all of this. It was so diametrically opposed to everything he had ever been taught. "What's wrong?"
      "Only that at home Gens were not supposed to disturb the Simes around them by inappropriate displays of emotion in their nagers." he sighed.
      "Who defined inappropriate?" Arkay asked.
      "The Sime in question." he responded automatically.
      "That doesn't seem fair." Tzer said, almost pouting. "Why do only the Simes decide?"
      "Because Simes are the ones who can be tempted to kill." he looked at his own defenseless arms, without tentacles.
      "Oh-ho." Arkay smiled. It was not a smile of pure amusement, but had a darker look to it as well. "I think I understand. Where you come from, Gens do not kill, do they?"
      "Well, there are myths of it happening, but that was in the past." he thought of some of the great Companions, including his many times great-grandfather Sergi. "Besides, only Simes can ... oh, Gens can zlin too." he blushed, looking around at his surroundings with his new senses. The very faintest glimmer of life surrounded even the grasses beneath their feet. The other humans all glowed from within, showing their fields like a haze of light surrounding them.
      "Here, Sharm Lords are the most feared men and women in the Demense because we can kill, and have the right to kill any we choose to." Arkay looked rather sad. Tzer's hand shivered on his own.
      "You aren't afraid, are you?" Mikhail asked the young man.
      "A little, now that Arkay mentioned it." his silver eyes were wide. "I hadn't thought about it."
      "I'm sure you hadn't. You grew up around Sharm Lords. We don't seem so scary to you." Arkay moved a bit closer.
      "But why?" he didn't quite know what he was asking.
      "Because it is a thing that must be." Arkay shrugged, as if that ended the discussion. This was one of those things that often annoyed Mikhail no end.
      "Just because something has always been done one way is no reason not to change." his field must have lashed out, for Tzer flinched. This time he quenched it instantly and sent the peace and calm to the young man as he had been trained to do.
      "No, Mikhail." Tzer straightened, eyes blazing. "Don't take my strength from me."
      The refusal was stunning. "You want this?"
      "Yes." he tipped his chin up, looking amazingly stubborn. "As a Sime I may be dependent on Gens for my life, but I don't wish to force that dependency down your throat."
      "Tzer." he protested. "It isn't like that at all."
      "If I can't stand on my own it is." a cool breeze twined around both of them, teasing at Mikhail's hair. "Don't wrap me in cotton."
      "I wasn't." he dropped his eyes. "I want you to feel good."
      "Then let me grow up straight and strong, like my father." the faintest traces of light tracked up Tzer's forearms. "I can't learn to control this," he raised his right hand towards the sky and lightning escaped his grasp to strike the sky. It was a faint echo of the storm Tzer had conjured at his changeover, but the similarity was obvious. "If I can't even stand on my own with my Sharm Lord."
      "Then I will do my best to learn how to stand with you."
      "With me, not behind and not ahead." at Tzer's touch the residual static traced up Mikhail's arms. It felt so wonderful he hissed through his teeth and felt his eyes widen momentarily.
      "With you." he promised, not letting go of Tzer's hand.
     
      Arkay let the two young men go ahead. Nashen leaned over and whispered, "How are they doing?"
      "Well enough for one who has just changed over and one who has been used as a doormat all his life." he could feel the tension make his voice harsh.
      "How are you doing?" Nashen stroked Arkay's hand.
      "Wishing I still had the resilience of youth." he sighed. "Did you see Tzer's little display?"
      "How could I miss it?" his fingers dug into the bones of Arkay's hand. They were often stiff these days, particularly when the weather was being unstable.
      "That feels good." he stretched his fingers out. Joints popped with Nashen's minstrations. "Do you think we can hold him back long enough to get the rest of the grain harvested?"
      "I sure hope so." he looked at the renSimes scurrying about trying to recover from yesterday's near disaster. It looked like only a few of the outlying hectares of wheat and rye had been flattened, and everyone was trying to gather it up before it began to rot. "It'll make decent hay if we get it under cover soon enough." he looked up. "I think I can keep it clear for another week, if I can get enough selyn to hold off the low pressure system coming in."
      "Maryam really should pay her fair share to Fatima." he snorted in disgust at the parsimonious fools.
      "She pays her cut to Kirov and he passes it on to Fatima." Nashen shrugged, as if it were a matter of indifference. "Maybe I should take Tzer out and dump the storm before it gets here."
      "That would be a good idea. Give him a chance to cut loose before he comes into his full power." Arkay mused. "Teach Mikhail at the same time."
      "After the way he shut down Tzer earlier today, I wouldn't dream of doing anything different." he looked at his arms. "He almost had me, Arkay."
      "I know it." Arkay put his arm around Nashen's shoulders and hugged him tight for a moment. "He had me a bit scared."
      "You never really have recovered entirely from my pounding you into the floor." Nashen looked almost ashamed.
      "It isn't a thing easily forgotten." Arkay grinned wryly. "Particularly not for one as proud of themselves as I am." he tried to make it into a joke.
      "Pshaw, Arkay." a single zing of electricity tickled his thumb. "I hurt you. I don't expect you to ever forget something like that."
      "I deserved it." he looked back at his son, talking brightly with his mate. "I couldn't see what was in front of my face."
      "Not when your blood was up." Nashen pointed out.
      "I never could once I got going." he still felt remorse for how close he had come to destroying the lives of all three of his housemates.
      "I don't think Mikhail shares that flaw." Nashen said softly.
      "No, not at all." Arkay shook his head. "In fact I think rather the opposite. He gets excited or upset and then blames himself for it."
      "Ties in far too neatly with the way his Techton tried to teach him he was responsible for the reactions of Simes around him." Nashen pointed out with rather unexpected perspicacity.
      "Tzer said that was unfair." Arkay told him.
      Nashen snorted, "He would." His long, slender fingers twined about the reins of his horse whitened a bit. "What are we going to do about that?"
      "He'll learn soon enough the world isn't fair." he said. "Let him be on the issue for now. I think he has enough sense to see what is worth fighting for. Besides, on the point of not wishing for Gens to be doormats, I entirely agree with him."
      "You would, no matter how much you might enjoy being on the bottom." Nashen's grin was wicked.
      "And you don't?" this was one of the few arguments they still had between them, and it was far more for entertainment than any real heat.
      "Actually I agree with you completely, no one should be another's doormat."
      "Does that mean you are volunteering to be on top when we get home?" Arkay laughed, hoping to have caught Nashen out for once. Nashen actually blushed, making Arkay crow with delight. "I promise you I'll be good."
      "You always are, my love." and his kiss was sweeter and headier than mead.

Chapter 8

      "GOOD MORNING!" Nashen yelled in his ear. Mikhail promptly fell out of bed. This wasn't too bad, considering. Or at least it wasn't until someone turned on the lights. Frantically, he waved around for the lamp. The light was knifing straight into his brain. He whimpered.
      "Quit shouting." Tzer hissed, sounding like a train about to explode. Which was exactly what his head was doing at the moment.
      "Hush." he told both of them. Mikhail's head seemed to fall off with this and roll under the bed. Although that probably would have been quite pleasant, except for the fact that then perhaps the rest of the family of dead rodents would probably also take residence in his mouth."Shen and shidoni."
      "Please, Mikhail." Nashen's voice ripped through the stillness like thunder. "Such vulgarity." He actually sounded outraged.
      Good, revenge Mikhail thought very, very softly.
      "I think I'm going to be sick." Tzer's voice was tinny, as if he were far away.
      "Probably." Arkay shouted, "As you are greener than your grandfather's kador."
      "Please stop shouting." Mikhail put his hands over his ears. Then he sat up. Or at least he would have sat up if his horse hadn't been sitting on his chest.
      A cool, damp, lead cloth was placed over his closed eyelids. Then someone, Bless them, stuffed oil soaked cotton in his ears. "Better." and then someone put a rather well shaped rock under his head. "I think I'll lie here for a moment."
      "You do that." Nashen's voice came from far away and delightfully muffled.
      Then he remembered, "How's Tzer?" the shenned horse was still on his chest.
      "Lie still, Mikhail." the horse told him, sounding surprisingly like Arkay. "Tzer will be all right, he's just a bit hung over."
      "This is no hang over, this is a nightmare." What in the world had I been drinking? Mikhail tried to sort through his rather vague memories of last night. He remembered meeting way too many people, all of whom seemed to be tall, blond and blue-eyed. All except for those who were not. "What were we drinking?" he finally asked. "I've been hung over before, but not like this."
      "I haven't." Tzer whimpered. "I hurt."
      The cry of pain did what his own could not. He shrugged off Arkay's weight and sat up. The cloth slid down his nose. It seemed to snag on every singly pore of his skin, but finally landed in a soggy mass on his lap. He turned to the bed. Nashen had set a basin on the nearby table and was taking his son into his arms. By sheer force of will, Mikhail slithered onto the bed. "I'll take him." he wrapped his arms around Tzer's trembling shoulders. "You'll be all right. I promise." he murmured.
      "No I won't." Tzer shivered. Mikhail wrapped a blanket around both of them. "I want to die." he snuffled on Mikhail's shoulder.
      "I had said you two should probably not have drunk so much Starka." A corner of Nashen's mouth turned up. "And that you would regret it in the morning."
      "But everyone else was." he hugged Tzer to his chest, cuddling him as he would have a much younger child.
      "Does that mean you should?" Arkay asked.
      "I think I learned my lesson, otyet." Tzer sniffled again. "My head hurts." Mikhail stroked his jaw along Tzer's crown, feeling better with the simple contact. Tzer squirmed a bit until they were tied into a knot of arms and legs. His warmth was returning and the heat baked the ache out of Mikhail's body like nothing else ever had.
      "Was that a lesson?" Mikhail couldn't really get up the energy to be dismayed at how he must have failed the test.
      "It was and it wasn't." Nashen told them. "You get one free ride to learn your limits. The next time we will not be so gentle by warning you beforehand and you will be expected to take care of yourselves if you make the same mistake."
      "Sounds fair." he said in unison with Tzer and Tzer looked up at him. He was grinning. It was a pained grin and his eyes were bloodshot, but at least he seemed a bit more cheerful. "Going to live?"
      "I think so." he swallowed tentatively. "I think I'm also hungry."
      Mikhail took inventory, even the wild shiltpron party at the Rialite dorms had been nothing like this. Most of his body parts still seemed to be present, and he said, "I know I'm starving." For him that was part of the problem with being hungover, he woke up so hungry it only made his headache worse.
      "What would you like for breakfast?"
      Facetiously, Mikhail quipped, "Steak, eggs, fried potatoes, coffee, toast, strawberry jam, fried mushrooms, oh yes, and two tomatoes."
      "And you, Tzer?" Nashen asked, not even batting an eyelash.
      "Same?"
      "Forgot something, m'lad." he tapped his son on the nose.
      "Oh, yes. No jam and no steak." he seemed deep in thought for a bit. "Cheese on the potatoes?"
      "Sounds good to me too." Nashen rubbed the side of his nose with a tentacle. "How 'bout we just send for the kitchen."
      "Sure." Arkay said without blinking. "How do you like your steak done? Still mooing or charcoal?"
      "I was kidding." Mikhail did blink.
      "I wasn't." Arkay shrugged. "Just because these guys are herbivores," he gripped Nashen on the shoulder, "doesn't mean we are."
      "Doesn't it offend them?"
      "Only when it wiggles." Nashen grinned. "Seriously, Mikhail. Eat what you like. If something doesn't agree with you, let us know. We probably eat a lot of things you are unfamiliar with and prepare things differently. I know to stay near the down-draft on the ventilation system when Arkay is eating or smoking something particularly vile and it isn't a problem."
      "Is that why you and Vayer always sit together at dinner?" Tzer looked up curiously. Mikhail followed his glance and only saw what looked like white painted tiles interspersed with a pattern of dark ones.
      "There are a couple of places in each of these rooms where the air currents are designed to isolate odors and chemicals." Nashen grinned wickedly. "I'll show you the physical plant and plans some time if you swear not to pass them on to your Techton."
      "Why not?" and then he quickly added, "I mean, what can more or better knowledge hurt?"
      Both Arkay's and Nashen's fields darkened, locking together with a click. "When I feel you know the answer to that question, only then will I show you certain of our tecniques." It was as if they slammed a door in his face. The look on Nashen's face was warning enough, however. This was not a topic to be trifled with.
      "When I think I know, I'll come ask." Mikhail said softly.
      "When you know, you won't have to ask." Arkay said.
      "In that case." Mikhail took a deep breath and regrouped himself, "I would like my eggs, two of them, fried over hard and the steak cooked, but barely."
      Arkay headed for the door. Mikhail added, "Oh yes, easy on the seasonings."
      "Must not be feeling well yet." Nashen pontificated. Actually it was simply that Mikhail was not used to the combinations and quantity of spices sometimes found in the food and was not up for it first thing in the morning. "And you?" he asked Tzer.
      "Lots of garlic and onions, 'specially on the potatoes."
      Nashen chuckled, "Got you. Lots of food on the food."
      "Huh?" Mikhail asked as Arkay asked the guards outside to fetch breakfast. Having servants was handy, but Mikhail still wasn't really comfortable with it and tried not to think about it too hard.
      "A running joke." he sat, lacing his hands over his knee. "Onions, cabbage, garlic, beets, bread and potatoes; otherwise known as 'food'. The largest part of our diet is based on those things."
      "I like all of them." Tzer said.
      "Good thing, or you'd starve." Nashen tapped him gently on the nose. "You're hearing better?"
      "As soon as I eat I'll be fine." Mikhail said, trying not to listen to the growling of his stomach either.
      "Just don't look in a mirror." Arkay told him.
      "I have to shave."
      Arkay shook his head no, "Look at your hands, Mikhail." He looked down. They were shaking even against Tzer's body. "I think I'll help."
      "Good idea. I don't want to cut myself and send Tzer through the roof." he stroked Tzer's back. It felt so good to simply have the close physical contact, Mikhail wondered how he had lived without it.
      "I don't think I would like that either, this morning. Although will you teach me how to shave when you feel better?" he asked against Mikhail's shoulder.
      "You don't want to grow a beard?" Nashen teased.
      "No, not yet." Tzer sniffed. "It would probably look rather ratty at first."
      "Smart decision, Tzer." Arkay said. "I tried it once and almost ended up scratching my face off."
      "You know something?" Mikhail asked rhetorically. "I've never tried it."
      "You should." Nashen insisted. "All men, at least once in their life, should give it a try. Once Vayer tried it, he decided he liked it so much he kept it."
      "No one back there wears a beard." the idea was growing on him.
      "Actually it was that Darya liked it so much he never got a chance to shave it off." Arkay pointed out.
      "I think I'll try it." he said. Attracting Darya's attention was sounding better and better.
     
      Nothing in his life could have prepared Mikhail for this. Last week out learning with Tzer to herd storm clouds around the sky had been fun, this physical was a downright nightmare. "Now, on the scale." the sharm lord pointed to a flat box on the floor. He didn't even ask but went over to look at it. His behind hung out of the drafty cover and he quickly tried to close it.
      Some things never change. he cursed the garment.
      "Well, don't just stand there, stand on it." his persecutor pointed towards the box. It looked like the sort of box a shirt would come in, barely big enough for both of his feet. Gingerly he stepped onto it. It made a high pitched sound like stepped on cat. Mikhail yelped and danced backwards.
      "I hurt it." he looked at it closely, closing his eyes slightly to use his other senses better. It almost wasn't alive, but there were the very faintest traces that maybe it once had been. Did I murder it? Mikhail eyed the thing suspiciously.
      "I thought you said you had worked in an infirmary?" the Gen tapped his stylus on the wax covered tablet he carried. For some reason there seemed to be absolutely no paper anywhere. Parchment and the wax tablets yes, but no paper. Even though when he had pointed this out, Nashen had given him one of those looks of 'when you know, then I'll tell you.' Sometimes being thought a youth was a pain.
      "Not one like this." he stared around again.

Chapter 9

      "I can not deal with this!" sharm lord Gregori glared at him in disgust, turned away and stalked out the door. The slam was punctuated with an annoyed kick.
      Mikhail looked at the door. I think I messed up. he thought, all the while knowing he had. He touched the box with his toe. It was silent. Ever so slowly he put more and more of his weight on it. It made another of those noises. Mikhail danced backwards. He skittered right into something warm. The something hadn't been there before. It would have felt human if it didn't feel more like a warm brick wall.
      Fear and something a great deal warmer and wetter leaked from him at the wholly unexpected contact. He spun around and landed in the fighting crouch Arkay had been trying to beat into him for the last month and a half.
      Sheepishly, he finally realized he was face to face with someone he really knew he should have recognized. He dug through his brain trying to remember the Gen's name. Finally his thighs began to tremble. Huh? ... Oh Mikhail finally straightened up.
      He found himself towering almost half a foot over the other person. His shoulders slumped.
      "Stand up straight, silly." the stranger's light blue eyes laughed at him, not unkindly though.
      Rather self consciously he did so, trying to smooth out the ridiculous gown. "I see you are ready for the urine sample." A pale, silvered eyebrow rose towards the man's high forehead. "I am not completely surprised you don't remember me. You were rather well lubricated the last time we met." He handed Mikhail a cup. "You were playing draughts with Avilan if I remember correctly."
      Mikhail blushed furiously, trying to figure out what exactly it was he was supposed to do with the implement this person had handed him. "Probably. I don't remember much of my first night here."
      "I'm not surprised at all. Avilan has the constitution and capacity of an ox." he laughed. "My name is Diomid, Sharm Lord Sergei if we are being formal." And with that he caught Mikhail in a big hug belying his lack of stature completely. The man was massive under his white kador.
      "Being formal would be rather ridiculous with my behind hanging out of this silly garment." he looked over he shoulder, trying to figure out if the draft was because he was uncovered or simply the nature of the beast.
      "Well, first things first, I would like the sample please." he pointed toward the curtained off alcove.
      Uh-oh. Mikhail looked at the urinal. Now he knew what was up. This was so primitive. Don't they just have a channel who can zlin? he wondered.
      "We like to know more than selyn production rates and capacity." Diomid leaned against the doorframe, as if waiting.
      Mikhail reached for the curtain. Diomid shook his head no. I can't he looked down. His bladder was near to bursting, but have a near stranger watch him was not allowing Mikhail to relax to the point where he could do anything about it. "Easy, lad." Diomid's hand on his shoulder made him tense even more. Slowly, Diomid's large hand massaged Mikhail's entire neck and the base of his skull. Finally he sighed, giving in to the caress.
      "See, that wasn't so bad." Diomid eyed the result critically. "You really should be drinking more." he sniffed and gave him another of those glances. "Now, what was the problem? You sent my lieutenant out of here muttering something about the scale."
      "Ummm, it doesn't look anything like what I know of as a scale." he eyed the box suspiciously. "And it made a noise."
      "It measures your weight, nothing more." Diomid waved him toward the device.
      "The ones I am accustomed to have counter weights and are about so high." he held out his hand.
      "Ah, but those only measure mass. This one also sense body fat. For modern humans the latter is far more critical." Diomid slipped off his kador, hanged it with Mikhail's on the back of the door, and took off his shoes. Fearlessly, he stepped on the box. After another of those noises, he looked down. "One thirty two and eight percent. Decent.
      "Now your turn." he stepped back and waved Mikhail to the device. After the example, he could hardly refuse. Gingerly he stepped onto it.
      "One oh two and, oh dear, two percent." He jotted down some more notes on one of those ubiquitous wax covered tablets. "You, my young friend, are going to be eating through the rest of this exam." He handed Mikhail an apple. "The greatest health risk to Sharm Lords is starvation, leading to heart, liver and kidney damage. Eventually resulting in early death, if ignored." Mikhail stared at him, aghast. "Eat!" Diomid commanded.
      "Yes, m'Lord." he bit into the fruit. Its winy tang was wonderful. As soon as it was gone, Diomid handed him a chunk of bread. Mikhail had wondered about the baskets of bread and fruit maintained in many of the rooms shared by the Fatima household, and know he knew what they were for.
      "It's a start." Diomid said archly. "I want you to eat something every time you get a chance to sit down. If you aren't up to four percent in a month, I'll tell Arkay to feed you up."
      "I have been eating." Actually he had been eating everything in sight. It had been rather embarrassing, eating six meals a day and feeling like he had been starving to death.
      "Unusual." Diomid tapped on the tablet with his stylus. "Strip please." Mikhail didn't even hesitate. Soon he was standing in front of a large black screen. Diomid looked him over thoroughly, seeming to count every single one of Mikhail's ribs. Then his eyes unfocused as if he were going hyperconcious. Mikhail tried to follow him with his own senses.
      "Stop that." Diomid waved at him irritably. Mikhail thought he heard himself being compared rather unfavorably with Arkay. "Hmmm ... I don't see anything." his brows knitted. "If you would bend over the table please?"
      This did not sound promising. Feeling horribly exposed and afraid, Mikhail clutched at the warm, padded table. At least it isn't cold and steel Mikhail gave thanks for small favors. He shivered all over as Diomid rested his hand on Mikhail's lower back. "Your last transfer was less then two weeks ago, correct?"
      "Yes" he answered timidly. The leather was slick beneath his cheek and chest.
      "Good." Diomid said. "Now, just relax." his voice softened. "How old are you?"
      Mikhail tried to focus on the questioning and not on Diomid's other hand. "Five, um, nineteen natal." he gulped.
      "You are a virgin?" he asked, sounding a bit surprised.
      "No, well, um, maybe, I suppose." his voice shook. Actually his whole body was shaking.
      "Relax, Mikhail." Diomid said. "I'm not going to hurt you. I had meant for recieving."
      "Then yes." he felt his blush travel from the roots of his hair all the way to his feet.
      "I'm not going to force you, little one, but I would like to be able to examine you." Diomid's delicate touch was teasing at something Mikhail really didn't want to think about. I have to he forced his body to relax, trying not to let his fear rule him.
      "This shouldn't hurt." he said, and a another quiver ran through Mikhail's body. The problem wasn't pain, it was that it felt too good. It was as if Diomid's touch were tied directly to his groin, bypassing his mind entirely. He was as hard as a rock and couldn't do a thing about it. No matter how he tried, it only made him stiffen more.
      On the verge of tears for his lack of control, Mikhail slid further onto the table, trying to hide his embarrassing display. This was not a good idea. "Almost done." Diomid stroked his back. Mikhail cried out, arching up against Diomid's hand and shuddering in release. "You're fine. It's all right." Diomid told him. "You haven't done anything wrong."
      Ashamed of his carnal reaction to a mere physical examination, Mikhail bit at his hand, stifling his tears. "No, no, lad. Don't hurt yourself." Diomid pulled his hand away. "Let me get cleaned up and we'll talk about it." And then there was the sound of running water. I didn't want it to stop, either. he cried beneath the cover of white noise. Very slowly, he slid his legs up onto the table. Finally he managed to curl up into a little ball, hugging his knees to his chest.
      The water stopped. A warm blanket slid over him. "Would you like to get cleaned up some, or would you like to talk first?" Diomid asked, sitting down so Mikhail could look him straight in the face.
     
      The tears and look of utter confusion on Mikhail's face were heart breaking. Diomid stroked his fine, thistledown soft hair. His eyes were the perfect blue of a summer's sky and were huge with his distress. A shiver ran through his body, causing yet another tear to trickle down the side of his face. "What I did was to examine a gland and cluster of nerves related to your sexuality. I thought you might be repressing that part of yourself, and by stimulating those nerves, I could tell if they were functioning correctly."
      "Are they?" he whispered, slowly beginning to come out of his trembling.
      "Yes, physically, you are a normal, healthy, adolescent male. The nerve complex is well formed and responsive." he continued to stroke Mikhail's hair. "If you had not responded the way you did, I would be concerned." Diomid was not going to mention the horrible congestion and conflict he found. Those things were being cleared by the changes occuring in Mikhail's body even as they spoke.
      "Then it was not wrong for it to feel good." His fair skin showed bright red. "I mean, I didn't mean to assume you, well, I didn't think you were molesting me."
      "But it probably felt a bit like it, didn't it?" he asked gently. "I am sorry, but by the time I realized you were troubled by it, I thought it better to get it over with than string it out."
      "Thank you." his eyes closed and he sighed. "And it did and it didn't. If I had known what it would feel like I probably would not have reacted the way I did." Diomid heard his unspoken continuance, 'and now I will want to feel that again.'
      "Do you read High Simelan as well as you speak it?" he asked, thinking of something.
      "Yes. Actually I don't read Russian at all." which was something Diomid would have guessed, from the heavy renSime accent he still carried.
      "Then I have something I think you should look at." he let a smile reach his face. "Wait here a moment. If you like, feel free to clean up and get dressed or not, your choice. I think it would be best if you rested instead."
     
      Mikhail watched Diomid throw on his kador and hurry from the room. He knew he should get cleaned up and dressed. Remnants of the exam still clung to his skin, sending odd sensations through a part of his body he normally tried to ignore. There was an ache deep in his belly.
      But when he tried to rise, his body seemed to rebel, collapsing on itself in a limp heap. He yawned, feeling his eyes roll up in his head. For some reason he had been on the verge of sleep almost every afternoon since he got here. The only thing normally keeping him going was trying to keep up with Tzer's boundless energy. In the warm silence of the empty room, sleep finally ambushed him, dragging him down into its depths despite Mikhail's protests.
     
      Much better Diomid settled Mikhail on the couch in his private office. He had hoped even the mechanical release he had given the young man would be enough to drive him into sleep for a bit, and was well rewarded when he came back to the examining room by a blissfully snoring young man. He looks so young long, golden eyelashes trailed over high cheekbones dusted with freckles only a shade darker than his light tan.
      *I'll be unavailable for the rest of the day.* he sent his wife, Kirina. *Send them to Gregori or Tamira if they require anything urgent you can't deal with.*
      *What's up?* her mind voice was as curious as any other Sergei. She walked into the room on the tail end of her sending.
      He put his finger to his lips, asking for silence. "Remember the young Sharm Lord at Fatima's return." he sent as easily as he spoke. For Diomid the two were so interchangeable he often forgot whether or not he was speaking out loud.
      Kirina replied the same way, "The one with Tzer?"
      "Yes" he pointed to the couch. "He's not too well wrapped and Arkay asked if I would help him out."
      "If Arkay is asking you for an assist, it must be serious." she knelt awkwardly next to the couch. Grumbling out loud, she tugged at the hem of her tunic.
      "Easy, my love." he put his arm around her shoulders. Kirina had only barely begun to show, but even still her balance had already been distorted. "Yes and no." he sighed. "I still think he is simply young for his age, even for a Sharm Lord. Arkay says the people who raised him tried to cripple him. I want to do a complete mental examination as well as physical. The results of some of the physical exam have me concerned."
      She tipped her head in question.
      "First off, he's eating everything in sight and running two percent. Second, when I did a forced seminal emission, he reacted as if he hadn't been with a sexual partner of any type in years. Third, he is a virgin with men."
      Kirina snorted. "And we both know when Tzer hits his forth, he's going to be all over Mikhail like an octopus on a clam."
      "And if he can't get in nicely, Tzer is likely to try to force the clam open. Exactly, beloved." he kissed her brow. "We can't have that. It would be traumatic to both of them. Particularly as it seems they are quite close already."
      "Well." she nibbled on the end of one tentacle. "My fist evaluation would be overproduction, caused by insufficient expression of post reaction."
      Diomid shuddered. "What a cold way of putting it."
      "I'm sorry." she rubbed her face against the top of his head.
      "But I think you're right." he sighed. "I had thought to show him one of Chernoye's early pillow books."
      Kirina giggled wickedly, then covered her mouth. "Oh, my." she breathed, shifting her weight from side to side. "The one about Sasha and Domi?"
      He blushed furiously. Diomid had met Mikhail Chernoye briefly when he had been much younger and the book in question was about Diomid and his first male lover. "Yes"
      "I think he will enjoy it." she kissed him on the cheek. "I know I did."
      "Let me do the mental exam, and then I'll let him wake and he and I'll go through it together." he gave her a gentle pat on the behind.
      "Save some for me when you get done." she winked.
      "I will." he returned his attention to Mikhail after watching her sway towards the door. Kirina always looked so much more feminine when she was pregnant. Even though it was still too early for them to talk about it. They had gone through so much to be blessed with Miran, he wondered at her strength to try again. This was their sixth attempt in the past two years and Diomid was about to call it quits if this one didn't work out.
      With a sigh, he began his work. First he stroked away the surface knots of fear and indecision. They were fairly minor, but might well fester into something darker later. Gingerly, he worked his way in deeper. Layer after layer of scar tissue buried an ego almost shattered past recognition.
      After verifying the depth of Mikhail's slumber, he continued his work. He found a conscience hypertrophied to the point where it was choking off the rest of the mind and normal, healthy, instincts starved to near extinction. With the delicate skill of a surgeon, Diomid began placing mental constructs and channels throughout Mikhail's mind.
      The first building blocks were there. Mikhail had had a good, strong, healthy childhood. Diomid gave a huge sigh of relief. Without a good childhood, there was often little even he could do to recover a damaged soul.
      Deftly, Diomid interwove images of Mikhail's idolized ancestor, which he had picked from the young man's mind, with Mikhail's own incredible heart and courage. Oddly enough the man's name was Sergi. Diomid grinned slightly at the coincidence. Then he set up drainage for the worst of the poisons of self-depreciation and fear of inadequacy. And last, but not least, he tried to instill the sense that no matter what he did or did not do, Mikhail Tegue was a worthwhile human being.
     
      Mikhail was stunned. His mouth fell open. He couldn't believe this. Blinking he tried to tear his eyes away from the drawing in the book on his lap. When he had woken up, he had found himself in a pleasant, wood paneled room as far from the coldly sterile examination room as it was possible to get. With a wrench, he looked up to see Diomid's heavy golden oak desk. The leaves and acorns carved into the legs twined in his vision with the images in his head.
      He looked back down. There were two men, a Sime and a Gen, intertwined. This wouldn't have been so stunning but for the caption. "The beginning" They were both completely nude, and the younger, heavier Gen looked as if he were trying to get away, but his face showed the barest hint of a smile.
      Then Diomid turned the page. There was very little text, but the pictures were stunning. "The capture" showed a scene straight out of nightmare. The Sime had pinned the Gen against the bedpost. The muscle tension in the Gen's body was so skillfully depicted Mikhail could almost feel the terror rising from him.
      "Look closer." Diomid instructed. Then Mikhail could see it. The very tip of the Gen's tongue was showing at the corner of his mouth, and his lips shone. It was as if he had just licked them. Mikhail's heartbeat sped up. The gesture was as symbolic of the Gen desire for transfer as swollen roniplin glands were for Simes.
      Then he turned to the next page. "The escape" This image showed the Sime backing away, looking towards the reader. Green eyes managed to portray the longing the poor little Sime must have been feeling. The Gen was crawling across the bed, the lines of the drawing showing the resemblance he must have shown to a cat. Mikhail licked his lips, drawn into the story. He could feel the cool need of the Sime trying to get away from him.
      Next was "The temptation" Now the Sime was backed up against the wall. Dark hair covered the young man's face, but Mikhail could feel the heat of his gaze on his own back as the Gen lowered his face to the Sime's arms.
      "The touch" whoever had drawn the images had been a master. As a pink tongue reached out to brush an equally pink lateral, Mikhail gasped. He had thought of doing such a thing, but was too afraid he might injure someone.
      "You have roniplin in your saliva, Mikhail." Diomid told him gently. "As long as you are very careful with your teeth and make sure your lips are wet, it can feel very good."
      "For the Sime or for both of us?" he asked, tracing the lines with his fingertip.
      "Both of you." Diomid said. Then he turned the page again. "The transfer" Both figures were wrapped about each other in an impossible knot. Mikhail could see the Sime's tentacles spread all across the Gen's shoulders. Each man had his mouth on the other's shoulder. The Gen glanced up out of the picture, as if to invite the viewer into the scene. At that, Mikhail could feel the hot tightness of Sime pressed against his chest, striking straight to his heart, making it pound like thunder. He had never dreamed of being so close to his partner in transfer. Mikhail could almost feel the all over touch of skin on skin.
      Diomid turned the page. "There's more?" Mikhail tried to calm his heartbeat.
      "Certainly." he voice was soft. "You don't think transfer ends with selyn?"
      Actually he had, at least for Gens. Then he saw the picture. "The kiss" The Sime's laterals had retracted, but Mikhail could feel the strength in those steely tentacles as it looked as if he were trying to devour the Gen with his mouth, crushing their bodies together. Not only had Mikhail never been with another man, but he had never dared indulge his imagined desires with a Sime.
      He thought about the few experimental attempts he had made with the other young women at school. They were all as timid and shy about it as he was. Since Gens didn't get post, it wasn't really considered a good idea for them to be fooling around after hours. Someone might have gotten pregnant. Even after schooling, Mikhail had been too shy and busy to try to overcome his ignorance. Now the pictures Diomid was showing him were those of the most forbidden desire imaginable.
      "The nip" showed the Sime's teeth, partially concealed by his dark hair, about to lightly bite at the incredibly sensitive nerve juncture of the Gen's wrist. A single, plain, silver bracelet turned the image from interesting to exquisitely erotic. The book shifted. Annoyed by the distraction, Mikhail removed the disturbance. Not thinking at all about what he was doing, he held it there. The page turned.
      "The gasp" this was a larger view of the earlier scene. The Gen's head was thrown back, his mouth wide open as if he were unable to hold it upright. Now Mikhail could see the back ground for the earlier picture, it was the Gen's shaft standing straight upright from his lap, with a handful of dark hairs draped over it. Mikhail's own vision blurred as he felt the silken strands tease at him.
      Then the page turned again. This time the Sime was not addressing the Gen's wrist, but rather the head of his shaft. "Another kiss." Mikhail could feel the warm breath caressing his own, now fully rampant, desires. He had, inadvertently, seen Vayer addressing Darya in such a fashion, and had wondered at the time if there were anything similar for men. The only thing truly visible was the faintest glimmer of tongue and a single dot of light from a reflection in liquid through the veil of the Sime's hair, but Mikhail's imagination filled in the rest. There was no mistaking the Gen's fingers entwined in his lover's hair or the expression of absolute, enraptured desire. Even the Sime's fingers and tentacles holding his lover's slender hips gave the impression of unbridled passion.
      "The caress" this picture was so blatant, it brought a shocked gasp to Mikhail's lips. Two of the Sime's ventrals had buried themselves almost to the wrist in the dark, hidden cleft of that most vulnerable of places. His hand was spread across the back of the Gen's pelvis, as if bracing. The Gen's head was thrown back again, his shoulders flushed almost crimson against the tracing of his fair hair. A burning, longing for those velvet tentacles within himself made Mikhail squirm, trying to burrow himself deeper into the cushions. His hips rocked slowly, trying to find some kind of answering pressure. A single bottle of gleaming yellow oil twinkled in sharp relief in the foreground.
      "I'm afraid I can't." Mikhail's breath was coming faster and faster. He held Diomid's hand. "I just ... earlier ... I can't be ... again." he gulped, trying to still the raging throbbing running through his entire body. His eyes escaped the pull of the book. They closed again. That very same bottle stood on the shelf behind Diomid's desk. "I mean ... I don't know what I mean."
      "Then shall we stop?" he asked, his voice deep and rumbling. "Some young men feel better for banking their desires two or sometimes three times a day."
      "No ... I want." his panted for a moment, getting himself under control. I can't believe what he just said Mikhail thought to himself. This is normal? the obvious answer to that question was more of a relief to him than anything else could have been. "I want to find out what happens next." He returned his gaze to the pages avidly.
      Diomid gave a soft chuckle. "Yes lad, you are healthy. If you were not aroused by the images, or were aroused between turnover and transfer, then I would worry. If it is any consolation, I also am stirred." He turned the page before Mikhail could respond to this revelation.
      "The acceptance" was just that. The artist had so skillfully drawn the two figures, there was nothing truly obscene about it. But the upward arch of the Sime's back so perfectly mirrored the complex sway to his partner's, Mikhail could feel the presence smoothly sliding into his own depths. Sweat trickled through the short growth of hair on his jaw. "Come here, my lad." Diomid set the book aside carefully. Mikhail didn't require a second invitation.
      "You knew this might happen." he breathed, trying to take in all the sensations bombarding him. The smell, the strength, the obvious longing in his eyes all threatened to overwhelm him.
      "I had thought it might." His voice was a deep chuckle. "Now hush." and with incredibly skillful hands, Diomid showed him even more than the book, how two men could please each other.

Chapter 10

      Tzer pulled down the hem of his tunic self-consciously. His next transfer, his fourth, would be barely a week before Year's Turning. This was his last chance for his formal acceptance by the Fatima court. As it was, Tzer knew he was taking a big risk in facing the large mixed crowd. It was only eight days before Year's Turning.
      His cheek still burned where Mikhail had kissed him and he touched the spot, as if to reassure himself of his friend's concern. Mikhail had gone ahead with the Fatima household, his status as special foreign envoy and Sharm Lord having protected him from such a presentation.
      Odd feelings had begun coursing through his body since his last transfer and sometimes he would lay awake at night simply listening to Mikhail's heart beating. It hadn't even been quite three months, but Tzer couldn't imagine life without Mikhail's warm, loving strength beside him.
      He ran his hand, already beginning to show the heavy callouses of his sword training, through his short, silver hair. Dori had cut it so short after his testing transfer there was absolutely no black to it at all.
      Finally the single door opened again.
      Dark need sang on his nerves, turning the clamor of the crowd into a screaming tumult. My will shall prevail he forced his feet to bring him smoothly into the hall.
     
      "Don't do this, Tzer." His mother had pleaded with him.
      Mikhail's hand had landed on his shoulder. The sweet feel of his attention had held need at bay, despite Darya's stridency. "I'm sure Tzer has thought this through. I trust him."
     
      Tzer fixed his eyes on the dias. Mikhail stood to one side of the Fatima household, his blazing field a kaleidoscope of reflections. As lightly as a leaf, Tzer knelt at his father's feet. There was not even a tremble as he extended his tentacles and bowed his head.
      A gasp rose from the crowd. Tzer felt Mikhail's attention wrap him in a shimmering rainbow for a brief instant, and then was gone. Ins'Allah he prayed, putting his trust and faith in God to allow himself to remain at peace, despite the nageric turbulence. Calmness descended, wrapping his soul in quiet.
      Nashen raised him to his feet. As if watching his own body, he saw himself turn to face the court. "I give you my son, lord Tzer Fatimovich Fatima." Their cheers were tinny and distant in his ears. As he twined fingers and tentacles with his father over their heads, a hollow roaring chased the peace from his mind. Blackness descended, crushing Tzer beneath its heavy heel.
     
      As everyone else was watching the corona of lightning arcing across the ceiling, Mikhail was the only one who saw Tzer crumple in his father's grasp. Mikhail bolted forward to catch him before his head hit the black marble tiles of the floor. *Get him out of here!* Arkay's voice screamed in his mind. As if they had practiced it, Mikhail caught Tzer's limp body and ran for the door behind the dias. Vayer passed them through it then it slammed shut behind them.
      In the peace of the corridor, Mikhail examined Tzer closely. "He needs the shenned transfer right now." fear for the young man made his heart pound even faster. Now carefully making sure he didn't disorient Tzer, Mikhail carried him to their rooms.
      Even with the extraordinary heating system of the Fatima townhouse, it was nearly freezing, literally, in their rooms. Tzer's hands had gone cold with shock, while his were burning up with the need to give. Ruthlessly, he stripped off both their clothes and then burrowed them under the covers, holding Tzer in his arms.
      Finally he warmed in Mikhail's grasp. "Mikhail?" Tzer's voice trembled.
      "I'm here." he promised, still rubbing his hands on Tzer's arms.
      "I don't know if I'll be able to stop ... afterwards." his need darkened and spread like cold ink in the warmth between them.
      "I won't want you to." his hands slid down to caress Tzer's flank and hip. "I've been waiting for you since I met you." His own heat strained to warm the darkness questing for him.
      Tzer's only answer was a low, rumbling growl like distant thunder. He turned in Mikhail's arms. Mikhail gasped and felt his entire being open up as he saw the blue glow ghost through Tzer's sightless eyes. "I want you." Tzer's voice cupped his nager in tendrils of light.
      "Then take me." Mikhail rolled over onto his chest.
     
      The only thing that save Mikhail's life was the fact he did not put his hands behind his back.
     
      Tzer's tentacles grabbed Mikhail's shoulder's with bruising force. Mikhail screamed in sudden pain and shock. Teeth bit into the nape of his neck. Howling, Mikhail writhed beneath his tormentor. Life was ripped from him without warning. At the very last instant, he relaxed, giving.
      Another growl ripped the night. Tzer shuddered and moaned against him. Mikhail felt him stiffen. No his fingers clawed at the sheets. Not like this he begged silently. Soft, gentle licks finally began calling him out of his fear and pain.
      Then sheeting fire ripped him in two. Mikhail struggled to get lose, only driving the acid spike of his impalement deeper. He screamed again, a harsh, desperate sound born of his utter agony.
     
      Arkay's head whipped around towards the back door. Tzer Nashen's heart froze in his chest. "It has been a long and exciting evening. We shall see you all again at Year's Turning." he grasped Arkay's ice cold hand and led him from the hall. When Mikhail had taken Tzer from the hall, he had hoped everything would be all right.
      "We'll close court." Vayer told him in passing.
      "Thank you." The ducked through the back door. Arkay immediately took off running.
      "Where?" he asked, then heard the horrible scream. With a thought he was at Tzer's door. He opened it. A scene out of nightmare assaulted him.
      Nashen waved up the lights in defense. Under them it seemed less real. Tzer was reared up over Mikhail, blood stained shaft still erect before him. He turned to both of them and then howled with the most heartrending sound Nashen had ever heard. Allah, most merciful, what do you test us this way? he prayed as he moved forward. Mikhail was dreadfully still, but alive even as blood and selyn drained from his shattered body.
      Arkay was right on Nashen's heels. He reached for Mikhail. "Let me try to help him." Arkay begged as Tzer took his broken lover in his arms.
      "I killed him. I tortured him and killed him." Tzer crooned mindlessly over and over again. Then "I love him and I killed him." and he sobbed over Mikhail's form.
      "Please Tzer." Nashen begged, "Let us help."
      "You can't bring him back." Tzer howled again, rasing the hairs on Nashen's neck it was so much like the death shriek of someone who had been killed.
      "He's not dead, Tzer." Arkay pleaded. "I have to touch him to help him."
      Nashen could zlin life retreating from Mikhail's limbs. "Hurry Tzer."
      The young man dropped his resistance. Instantly Arkay joing the fray. Nashen offered his senses, but instead Arkay rode Tzer's
      Tzer's head came up, his face contorted with regret and remorse. Then, slowly, he crumpled, still holding onto Mikhail.
      On the shortest day of the year, Tzer leaned down to kiss Mikhail one last time. It had been decided to return him to his home, to try to recover from the brutal rape he had suffered. Tears stung Tzer's eyes. "Cry for him, little one." Diomid told him. "You will never cry again."
      The platinum ring of his punishment glittered in the wan sunlight. With it in place, Tzer knew he was condemned to never feel his emotions again once these two weeks were up. Never to feel the untrammeled rush of selyn into his systems or glory in life freely given, as Tzer had taken without permission.
      Mikhail's skin was soft beneath his lips and salty with Tzer's tears. "I love you, my Alahin." he said, voice breaking on the last word. "Be well, my beloved." and with those words he slipped the bracelet onto Mikhail's wrist he would have given the man for their bonding.
      "Tzer" Mikhail's voice cracked. "Don't go."
      "I must." he said, turning away.
      "Tzer!" Mikhail shouted. Tzer simply shook his head. He couldn't face another trial. He had failed the one person he should have never failed. There was a faint wash of power and Tzer could sense Mikhail slipping back into unconsciousness at Diomid's hand.
      The plane left, returning its broken passenger to a place where he could be healed by family and friends, taking Tzer's heart with it.

Chapter 11

      Mikal looked up from the letter he was writing to his sister, begging her to give him something else to do. "Get out!" he shouted. His heart pounded in his throat. A tall, silver haired man stood just inside the door. It snicked shut behind him. He knew the man, despite the dark lines around his mouth and eyes, too dark for someone barely sixteen.
      "I am no hazard to you, Mikhail." the voice came ripping out of his past with all the force of a sledgehammer to Mikhail's heart. He held out one arm, tipping it so Mikhail could see the outer lateral sheath. There was a slender silver ring through the lip of the orifice.
      By all the holy names of God. Mikhail slumped in his chair, unable to take his eyes from the nearly incidental looking torture device. With the small piece of metal in place, any selyn flow through that lateral would be horribly distorted, destroying any chance for a normal transfer.
      "Indeed." Tzer's silver eyes held a distance Mikhail couldn't remember. It was as if a machine were looking through those eyes which had once held such love.
      "What in hell are you doing here?" with all his heart he wished he could simply cross the distance between them and take the man in his arms.
      "It was decided I should assist in the efforts to dissuade the Techton from destroying our culture." those glorious silver eyes hardly even blinked.
      "Who decided? What happened to you?" he moved out from around his desk, wanting to at least be near the man. Mikal had been sick and lost for nearly three months after returning from Russia. Not due to the accident that night, but the shattering of the bond between him and Tzer. "Why did you send me away?" he finally screamed into the silence.
      "Because it was decided my death should be a reminder to others of the error of forcing my need on another." the muscles in his jaw clenched. Still he looked straight ahead, as if looking out the window, but Mikhail could feel the heat of Tzer's attention.
      "I had a hand in it too, Tzer." he said, holding his anger at what had been done to the young man in the most tenuous bounds imaginable. "It was my fault as well as yours."
      "Fault or blame has nothing to do with justice." he turned towards the door. "Thank you for taking the time with me. I will see to it that my presence does not disturb you further."
      "Damn it Tzer, look at me." Mikhail raged, lunging for him.
      Tzer looked back over his shoulder, his presence turned to ice. Mikhail shivered under the cold stare. "You still fear. I broke you that night."
      "No you didn't, Tzer." Mikal stepped towards him. "It was all a horrible accident." What he couldn't forgive was being sent away without even the chance to try to make up for it, and now, after so long, he knew Tzer had not been to blame for that.
      "Our justice recognizes neither intent nor coincidence." the rigid posture made Mikhail want scream again.
      "Justice must see both or it is mere tyranny." the hammer blow of his will shattered against Tzer's armor. "Look at me." he pleaded, holding out his hands. "What in heaven's name have I done to deserve this?"
      "I will not harm you again, Mikhail." Tzer said softly and Mikhail realized exactly what he was seeing, a revenant.
     
      Tzer railed in his mind at the steel bonds on his heart. The pain in Mikhail's eyes as he looked up had been the cruelest blow yet. Anger and hatred he could have dealt with, but not sympathy. "It has been nearly two years since I have felt my own emotions, Mikhail." His words fell like stones into a still pond, sending waves of selyn dancing in the ambient. "Without the release of post reaction, I can not be what you want." Not that I ever could not after having harmed Mikhail so badly.
      Mikhail snorted, a bitter, dark sound as out of place from him as the artificial looking garments or the short cropped hair. "As if I didn't know what it was like."
      "What?" he turned, stunned and finally zlinned him. Dark shadows of denial and self loathing twisted through Mikhail's field beneath its artificial calm. A behemoth beneath the waters, waiting to reach up and torment him with its hatred. "What have they done to you?" a crack traced Tzer's imposed calm and he turned to face Mikhail fully.
      "They decided, as I was too badly damaged, to never put me on the transfer rolls again." His knuckles whitened as his hands writhed within each others grasp.
      "I destroyed you." the long deadened desire for human contact ripped at Tzer's mind. "I should have killed you."
      "You should have." Mikhail said softly, turning away. "Now go."
      Tzer left, but as he passed through the door, he thought he heard Mikhail say, "At least then we would have been together."
     
      For almost an hour, Mikhail sat and shook. The nearness of Tzer, his feel, his scent, the heat of his attention had roused long deadened feeling within him. Before he had gone to Russia, his life had lain in front of him, a straight path. Afterwards, it had turned to shards of impossibility. He looked at the watch he still carried. It was long past time for prayer, but still he washed and bowed to the east. Peace did not come this time, though. Only a sense of emptyness and loss.
      Then the unique scents of amber and dragon's blood returned and he looked up. Only Tzer carried those scents, in the folds of cloth he wore and even in his skin, at least to Mikhail. 'Alahin and Alamir are one in the blessing of the One. And as the One, they are not two. Bessed be to Allah for his blessing on this one who was once two.' The Arabic prayer which would have been spoken the morning after his first consummated transfer with Tzer rang in his mind over and over.
      "Never again." Mikhail swore. "Fate and man may have separated us once, but never again." Now his prayers brought sweet peace to soothe his ragged nerves, if only for a moment.
     
      "Mikal, there are visitors waiting for you." the intercom squawked. Why did she use the damn override? Mikal swore at the interruption. Normally it was silenced.
      He jammed his thumb down on the return button. "And what makes you think this is an emergency?" he snarled into the device before he could get a grip on his ire.
      "I said it was." Vayer's voice coming through the electronics was still recognizable. "Do not fault your servant for my actions."
      "As you blamed Tzer for mine." he snapped back. "At your will, Lord and Ruler Vayer." Mikhail hit the disconnect, not wanting to be dragged back into the twisted maneuvering of the Russian court, but finding no way out. Not if he ever wanted to see Tzer again. He grabbed the heavy, floor length, cape he had Zaor artisans make for him. It was a dull mottled grey and had very little to recommend it other than its ability to shield him.
     
      The only place they could have installed a large group of foreigners was the west wing of the old Kaon householding, and Mikal strode through the streets, intent on getting to the bottom of this entire mess. When he had been in the east, the Rus had told him they only wished to be left alone. Now they were here and he had no idea why. It certainly could not have been simply to bring Tzer to him. From the looks of it, Tzer was being punished even more by being brought along.
      A horn blared, startling him out of his reverie. He glared at the driver. Any other time he might have noted the young Gen was actually quite pretty, but not today.
      "So sorry, sosectu." she nodded her head.
      "Only Mikal." he corrected, waving her on. Her eyes got wide and she sped off, as fast as traffic would allow. Even the young ones know of my disgrace. he pulled up his hood. Now people jostled him in the streets, but at least they didn't stop and stare.
     
      Vayer paced the room. He was not happy. The stench and filth of this city, Lavean, was grotesque, and it was far, far smaller than many he had seen on the flight over. He couldn't even imagine what a city the size of Moskva or Kiro would be like here. Kiro was filthy, but at least the yearly floods kept the worst of the detritus to a minimum.
      And there were people everywhere, spawning and sprawling without a thought for the land or the water. That was not to mention the sky dark with soot and fumes from the heavy industry spewing its waste into the air. All of this so people could get from one place to another faster or so they could talk to each other over the kilometers without having to get out of their individual hovels.
      "Vayer, calm yourself." Darya said, her head bent over her child. The youngster was nursing again, as if to hide from all the changes in the familiar comfort of his mother.
      The image was enough to bring a smile to his lips. She was so very beautiful, her long black hair falling loose around her in dark waves like night come to day. Darya refused to tie or braid her hair back like the other Sharm Lords and Vayer was silently thankful.
      At that moment Mikhail knocked on the door. The man we have come for. Vayer had one last hope they could salvage the Rus from being swallowed up by the Techton, and unfortunately the only chance they had was to try to appeal to a man who one of their own had savaged so viciously.
      "Come in." she said, looking up.
     
      Mikhail stepped through the doorway. A toddler was nursing at Darya's breast. A blond haired, blue eyes youngster with none of the look of Vayer about him at all. His heart stopped. It recognized the lad.
      "Papa!" the lad cried out, squirming to get out of his mother's arms.
      "Ins'Allah." Mikhail breathed, kneeling to catch the youngster as he raced for him.
      "His name is Shanir. Shasha is what he insists on." Darya told him, but he had only eyes for the small warm body snuggled in his arms. He wuffled Shasha's hair and the lad crowed, laughing.
      "His hair is short." he tugged at Mikhail's crop, trying to stand on his knee.
      "Easy lad." he held the youngster up.
      "Fly!" he said, waiving his arms. For the first time in far too long, Mikhail laughed. He tossed the lad in the air and then caught him up with a swoop. "Papa. My papa!" he shouted, as Mikhail did it again.
      "Yes, your papa." he snuggled him for a bit. Tears of pure joy turned Shasha's hair into a riot of gold.
      "You're crying." a tiny hand reached up and brushed his face.
      "Because I'm happy to see you." he said, smiling through his tears.
     
      Mikhail watched his son run off with Kirin, the young son of Diomid and Kirina, to play. The small courtyard of the west wing was blocked off with straw bales, making it safe for the children to play without fear they would wander off. Or at least so Kirina told him. He still kept a close eye on Shasha.
      "How did ... I mean where did Shasha come from?" he asked, still a bit stunned.
      "You don't know where babies come from, Mikhail?" Darya asked with one of her delightful laughs.
      "I do, but it was only once and well, I didn't think you, I thought you were taking care of things." he sputtered on lamely, still watching the children.
      "She did." Vayer laughed, resting his arm around her shoulders. "This was your last, correct?"
      "I think so." she sighed. "I love them dearly, but they are also a lot of work."
      "Good, I am getting a bit old to deal with you presenting me with yet another cookoo." he tapped at her nose, grinning, not looking at all put out about the situation. Any other man Mikal had ever known would have been furious.
      "Pshaw, you're not the one getting old." she kissed his finger. "Besides, you can always go plant a few of your own."
      "Not with you in my bed, beloved." he cuddled her close. She looked thoughtful for a moment, and then another grin crossed her face. It was truly a wicked grin and Mikhail knew exactly what she was thinking.
      A pair of hot, Sime hands suddenly blocked his vision. "Guess who?" his sister, Riana asked. He had to go along with the game, lest he give away the abilities he had acquired in Moskva.
      "Ethel? Betsi? Suzi?" with each wild guess her laughter grew, then it stopped suddenly. He could sense her freeze. "Mikal!" she barked, "What have you done?"
      "Riana." he pulled her hands down. Her tentacles were twined about her fingers in distress. Unthinkingly, he kissed at them, stroking their length with his field until they retracted. The two boys had stopped their attempt to scale the straw bales and were staring at the adults.
      "Papa!" Shasha came running full tilt across the yard. No hiding this he caught the lad. He used the momentum to swing him around and around. Finally they came to a halt, Shasha laughing again. "That was fun papa, do it again." instead Mikhail wuffled his stomach. "I'm to big for playing like that." he said, looking towards Darya.
      "I'm not." Mikhail did it again. Shasha crowed with laughter.
      "Who's that?" he pointed over Mikhail's shoulder.
      "That's my sister." he turned, still holding Shasha against his hip. "Shanir Fatimovich Fatima, I would like you to meet my sister, Hajene Riana Tegue ambrav Kaon. Riana, my son, Shanir, Shasha for short."
     
      Riana had always known her baby brother had a reckless streak, as evidenced by his outlandish behaviour both in going half way around the world on a whim and his actions after having been returned to them, but this was beyond the pale. "How could you?" she gasped, knowing full well Vayer not only was some sort of sectuib for his people, but married to the mother of this child.
      "Well," he looked down at the young man he still held in his arms. "I was post and ..."
      "Gens don't get post." she scoffed. The ambient shattered into chaos. Stars appeared behind her eyes, merging with the blackness trying to drag her down. Finally she clawed her way back to hypoconciousness. Her idiot brother was looking embarrassed. As he well should be she thought.
      "I beg to differ with you, Riana." Vayer's wife, Darya, Riana remembered, was smiling at Mikal. "He had a bit of help."
      "I would say so." he grinned at Vayer. "You pushed me into her arms."
      "I did no such thing." Vayer winked. "I only did what any reasonable mate would do, and gave Darya a gift."
      "Yes, me." Mikal laughed. "All post and ready to bed a sheep. Not that Darya in any way resembles anything but the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life." He added quickly. Riana had never her seen her brother like this. Ever since his establishment he had been moody and uncommunicative. Now his field shown with vibrant good humor.
      "I'm an old married woman." Darya held out her arm.
      The long line of bracelets on the Donor's arm sent a shiver of atavistic fear up Riana's spine.
      "Congratulations." Mikal said. "You finally managed to drag him to the altar?"
      "She did." Vayer laughed, holding back his hair. Riana cringed. Mikal had come back with a gold ring in his ear. On Vayer's, there was a complex piece of jewelry, an abstract of twining lines inset with gems all colors of the rainbow. The problem was it went through his ear in at least six places. "It was originally Gartiry's, the last Fatima Ruler." His grin though showed no discomfort with the piece of metal. "It seems Nashen rifled through the Fatima vaults to find a the remaining jewelry left of that time."
      "How long ago was that?" Riana asked, curiosity overcoming revulsion. The beauty of the piece was actually stunning, if she ignored the pain it must have caused to be able to put it in place.
      "Four, five hundred years ago?" his voice held a question.
      "Almost five." Darya said firmly. "We had to reset some of the gemstones."
      "They are both magnificent." Mikal said, leaning forward to look more closely. "Do we have any of the fancy work of Sergi's? I think they might like to see them."
      "Nothing like ... that." she pointed to Vayer's ear. "But I think we might have some of the rings and arm bands he created. I think we also have one of the ... Wait a minute." Riana thought long and hard. "Yes" she pulled out the starred cross she had been given at her changeover. "This was made by him." she held the charm in her hand, taking some peace from the familiar weight of it.

Chapter 12

      Arkay leaned forward to examine the piece of jewelry. His entire body ached, with age he lied to himself. Nashen had never been the same since Tzer's crippling and it showed. It was worn almost smooth with the many bearers it had had, but the carving was still there and exquisite. The symbology also brought a small smile to his lips. Many of the Romany carried such jewelry, but few in Russia would know such trivia.
      Darya gave him a wink, letting him know she spotted it as well. "Beautiful work." she said, tracing the metal and gems with her field. It winked against the velvet night of her field and Riana's jittered again. It was tiring dealing with these Westerners, he sighed and leaned back into Nashen's arm.
      "Are you all right, my Alahin?" he murmured in Arabic.
      "As well as may be, Alamir." Arkay replied in the same language. "I am simply weary and in pain." Mikhail's head whipped around towards them.
      "Then you should rest, otyet." the young man's Russian was obviously rusty, but comprehendible. His sister's field flared in shock. Arkay sighed, fighting back the tears of exhaustion at dealing with her stress.
      "Please, Riana. Let us be for a while. Members of the delegation are tired and should be allowed to rest." he said, blocking off Riana's reactions from the rest of them.
      "You know the sectuib must be told of Shanir." she said, her eyes going cold and flat.
      "I know. I'll tell her." he said, bowing his head to authority. "Although he will stay with his mother."
      "Let sectuib decide that." Riana showed all the stubbornness of a child left to their own devices for far too long. Arkay tried to struggle out of the weariness engulfing him.
      "No Riana. Shanir is Darya's child. Darya is married to Vayer. He is part of their family and not ours." determination blazed from the young man with stunning force. "Now leave us, Hajene Riana."
      "You aren't even a Donor anymore, Mikal." she glared up at him. Pain made Arkay's vision grey as he stood. He couldn't let this little lord bully anyone like this. Who does she think she is?
      "But I am the Chief of Operations for Kaon Incorporated. This is purely a business deal." The cold anger in Mikal's voice was stunning. "After seeing the jewelry they wear, do you wish for another Household to get the trade rights."
      "You're right." she snarled. "But if you weren't so shenned good at what you do, you'd be on the dole along with thousands of other donors." She spat. The casual obscenity was disgusting, but the words were worse.
      "I wouldn't know what I was missing, since the damned Techton won't have me as a Donor anymore." Mikal glared at her. "I haven't had a personal transfer in nearly two years, Riana, and nothing else they can do to me could be any worse."
      Arkay sat again, clenching Nashen's hand. Two years? he wanted to cry for the pain in Mikhail's voice. Two years without a post reaction was enough to drive most people mad. The only thing holding Tzer together was Diomid's skill as a mind healer.
      "It isn't like you'll suffer coital deprivation." the flick of her tentacles was obscene.
      "Go fuck your current toy and leave us alone." Mikhail's head bowed, caressing his son with his face. The sorrow at his sister's selfish words would have been obvious to a stone.
      She stalked off, taking what little dignity she could with her. Shasha reached up and patted his father's cheek, as if to cheer him up. "It's all right, little one. I sent the bad woman away."
      "Sister." Shasha said, looking up at him.
      "We get into fights sometimes. Just like you probably do with Kirin, right?" he grinned, looking far more aged than he should.
      "Right." Shasha laughed. "We hit each other 'till mat' decides we're too dirty. Then we get to play in the river."
      He looked at Nashen, concerned. "It's all right. There's a small, shallow pond away from the docks where we take the children to learn to swim."
      "Yeah. And there's tadpoles, and frogs, and big puffy weeds, and long legged birds, and ..." Shasha told his father all about the wonders of the pond just as generations of children had told their fathers. The sight made Arkay smile.
     
      Kirina turned as Diomid came out into the courtyard. She started to smile until she could zlin the remorse in his field. *A bad one?*
      *Very* he sent back. Tzer was right behind him, looking like a puppet with half its strings frayed and cut. The sight made her laterals clench in their sheathes. Diomid was doing his best to keep Tzer going and sometimes she wondered if it was worth it. When even the Veiled wouldn't take the young man, the only option they had left was to cripple him, and Kirina hated it. Even though they had offered him death, as was only fitting for a son of Fatima, he had refused it. Now it was too late, as he was no longer competent to chose.
     
      Mikhail looked up from his son to see no sign of recognition in Tzer's eyes. "Run along and play. I have to talk with a friend." he said, again wondering in the immediate trust the child had shown him.
      "Da, otyet." he chirped. Mikhail set him on his feet and he went back to exploring the yard with his friend. Now they were playing hide and seek with the pieces of outdoor furniture strewn about the area.
      "I see you've found your son." Tzer's voice was hollow and echoing. "Congratulations."
      "Thank you." an unexpected flush of warmth made his heart contract. "He's a wonderful child, as his parents have raised him to be."
      "Or at least the parents who could be with him." Tzer's words stung far more than his sister's, and Mikhail rubbed at his forearms, making his bracelets jangle. Since he couldn't give direct transfer anymore, Mikal had seen no use in taking them off.
      "If I had known ..." he trailed off, knowing he could have done nothing. The heavy platinum and jet band Tzer had given him at the last seemed to burn with scorn. His heart skipped another beat, making Mikhail's breath catch.
      "Your field is running out of control." Tzer turned those lambent silver eyes on him. "I can feel it burning you up."
      "It is nothing." Mikal looked into those once warm eyes and saw nothing but ice. "I'm used to it. I'll get a channel to take me into dormancy again. It is a process I have become quite accustomed to."
      "If you like, I could strip you hard enough to send you post." Nashen offered, holding out his hand. "It wouldn't be a true transfer, but better than a living death."
      "No" he shook his head. It was beginning to throb with his faultering heart making his blood pressure fluctuate. "I would rather it be Tzer."
      "He is under ban." Vayer stated.
      "As am I." Mikhail's jaw stiffened. "What difference does it make?"
      "If I strip you then I'll only want more." Tzer said, taking half a step forward. Longing cracking through his imposed reserve.
      "Isn't it my choice?" no matter how bad the mistake, Mikal knew there should be a second chance.
      "No" Vayer said, coming between them. "Tzer is a rapist. We do not treat such as he kindly."
      "It was I who was injured." Mikhail reached towards him. "I never accused him of wrong."
      "It makes no difference." Vayer's anger blazed, creating a flaming wall between Mikhail and Tzer. "He did wrong and shall be punished to the end of his days."
      A corona of electrical fire breached the wall, reaching for Mikhail. He grasped it, pulling it towards him.
      "NO!" Vayer shouted, driving his wedge through the contact. "You shall not, Tzer. If you do, you will die at my hand." he turned, drawing his sword. The blade came to rest against Tzer's throat. Mikhail could see his beloved's pulse cause the blade to draw a trickle of blood.
      "I will not cause his death." Mikhail fell to his knees. "I beg of you, Lord and Ruler Vayer, do not kill my Alamir."
      "Then you shall not touch him." Vayer said with an implacability as ancient as the stones beneath their feet.
     
      Nashen smoothed Mikhail's hair. It was spiky and unkempt. After Vayer's ultimatum, Mikhail had consented to being stripped and now he was crying helplessly into a rather soggy pillow. "Won't you let me hold you?" he asked for what felt like the hundredth time.
      "I want Tzer." he wailed, clutching the pillow to his chest. "I love him."
      "I know you do, little one." he stroked Mikhail's heaving shoulders. "But I am here and he is not."
      With a cry, Mikhail let Nashen hold him. Gently, he caressed the young man's back. "Isn't this better than the pillow?" he bit back his own tears. The contact only made the Sharm Lord's grief and pain horribly immediate. On top of his own it was shattering. But at least now it was shared. Nashen had not agreed to Tzer's punishment. It was too harsh for an accident, but even Arkay had overruled him.
      "I love him too, Mikhail." he stroked the young man's arms. "He is my son, my only son." he shifted into the Arabic he knew Mikhail found so beautiful.
      "Why did he send me away?" Mikhail cried with deafening volume, both physically and nagerically. "Why did no one let me speak for myself?"
      "We sent you back to your family to heal." he shivered at the magnitude of that error from the damage compounded by the heartless system Mikhail was trapped in. "And your injuries spoke for themselves. You were torn and bleeding so badly we had to give you almost a liter of blood by the time we were done."
      "I had asked Tzer to take me, it was just too fast, I didn't ... I wasn't ready." he shivered, with no fear, only regret. "He couldn't hear me."
      "I know. When I found him he was deaf and blind to anything but his own madness." Nashen sighed, not wishing to relive that scene yet unable to forget it either. "He couldn't even zlin."
      "I know." Mikhail sniffled. "If he had been able to zlin, he would have stopped before injuring me."
      Nashen snorted. "He might have hurt you, but not badly, I agree."
      "Is there anything we can do to reverse Vayer's decision?" he asked with a sigh. "I would have him as my Alamir though hell bar the way."
      "In a way it does." Arkay's weight on the bed made the stupid, hard, thing creak. Nashen was not overly enamored of the facilities in this place. Even in Jaffa or Kiro the Fatima quarters at least had featherbeds and were clean. Here, nothing was clean, with a film of grime all over everything. Of course not having true servants might have had something to do with it. Hired people were never as industrious as those for whom their work was their home.
      "How so?" Mikhail raised his head from Nashen's shoulder. "I would do anything."
      "Even give him to the Veiled?" he asked, his field grey and dense as stone. Only when he was hiding something did Arkay get this way. Nashen began to suspect he had a plan. "I was one of the ones who called for Tzer's death." he said.
      Mikhail gasped. "If he takes the Veil, then I will never see him again, correct?"
      "Yes, it would be as if he had died." Arkay said, still maintaining the blank wall.
      "Even still, I would rather him alive and healthy than half dead." he bit at his lip. "At least then he could be at peace."
      "I will see if I can influence my heard headed son." Arkay smiled, his pleasure rising through the greyness like the morning sun.
      "You should know about his being difficult, you put it there." Nashen smiled for the first time since the disaster and Arkay beamed. "Please, save my son for his Alahin."
      "It will have to be their doing." he said. "I know Vayer and I know he would not give in before the tides, but he will for love."
      "I tried." Mikhail slumped, twining his hands together. "I want Tzer so badly I ache all over for him every time he moves, every time he stumbles I want to catch him."
      "Then do so." Arkay said. "I will keep Vayer from killing him."
     
      But Vayer was adamant. "Tzer raped him. There is no redemption for him." his nostrils flared. "Mikhail is infatuated. He has been retarded in his growth. You saw him with his sister."
      "Yes, I saw him stand up to her as well." Arkay growled, feeling better than he had in years. His conceding to Nashen had patched the rift between them and their bond was stronger than it ever had been.
      "Of course he would stand up to her for his son." Vayer's tentacles lashed the air. "Anyone would."
      "Not someone who has been trained their whole life to defer to any Sime." he pounded his fist on the crude table. It rocked beneath the blow, threatening to topple. Arkay gave it a jaundiced eye.
      Vayer snorted in dark amusement. "Look at this place." he waved his hand to the ceiling. "It's held together with bird spit and weeds."
      As Arkay had seen the lines of nests beneath the eaves, he had to agree. "But that doesn't mean they can't make someone's life a living hell. We sure have." He let the image of Tzer crumpled in yet another seizure come to the front of his mind.
      "Tzer deserves it." Vayer sent him the image of Mikhail in surgery for repair of the rupture caused by Tzer's forced entry.
      "It was an accident." Arkay sighed. "Mikhail asked Tzer to take him and then turned his back to him. You know as well as I do what that gesture means to a half trained lord."
      "Yes, it means to kill." Vayer finally rubbed at his temples with his tentacles. "I don't know, otyet. I can't just let him off."
      "He's had two years of living hell on top of his remorse." Arkay reached for his son's hand. "He's grieved for his loss every day of that hell. Revenge is not justice."
      Vayer's tentacles stroked the back of Arkay's scarred hand. "What is justice?" he looked up. "I didn't want to damn him to hell for a mistake, but I couldn't let him do it again, either. Would it be justice if I freed him and he did kill Mikhail this time? Or worse, someone else?"
      "But would it be justice to continue to torture both of them for the sake of what might be?" he asked, clenching at Vayer's tentacles. "Give it time. Mikhail won't be able to give Tzer transfer for another month. By that time we will know if their bonding is true enough to withstand their past."
      "Strike off the ban." Vayer said and sent to all the Rus with them. All but Tzer.

Chapter 13

      Mikhail was quivering he was so excited. Vayer had relented. They were being given a chance. He knocked at Tzer's door.
     
      Tzer stared at the dark ceiling. His mind imagined cobwebs with great, big spiders ready to fall on his unprotected body. The lack of bed curtains made him feel horribly exposed on this tiny, flat, hard pallet. There was not gentle breeze of fresh air, only the musty scents of rooms closed to a world only slightly more fresh. Even the sheets were scentless, harsh against his cheek.
      Snarling, he tried to get comfortable. Every night he tried to get at least a couple of hours of sleep and usually ended up tossing and turning till dawn. On the rock hard excuse for a bed, he always fell out at least once and couldn't even manage a single short nap. A knock like thunder disturbed his squirming. Of course, again, he fell out of the damned bed. With a curse, he pulled all the bedding off onto the floor, not that there was much of it, and went to the door.
      He rubbed at his eyes, not wanting to zlin who it was. Even in this cheerless place there was at least some amusement to be garnered in the small joys of surprising the housekeepers with his nude body. He opened it and Mikhail rushed into his arms. The other man was bubbling with such infectious joy, Tzer's heart lightened despite his concern. "Oh you feel so good." Mikhail murmured in his ear, kissing and nipping at his neck. "My sweet, beautiful Tzer."
      Stunned, all he could do was clasp Mikhail to his chest, basking the in the light and heat flashing about both of them. "You shouldn't be here." his voice broke as it had so often when they had been together. "Vayer will kill you if he knows you've touched me." The threat against his own life was nothing. "Please, I can't risk your life."
      Then he watched as Mikhail led him to the pile of bedding. Mikhail looked down and grinned. "You know everyone else has migrated to the floor but Arkay and Nashen. And I think they took half the unused ones and strapped them together to make one large bed." His chattering was so normal, as if he hadn't heard Tzer's concern. Then his fingers caressed Tzer's lateral sheath, the one with the ban on it.
      His breath whined in his throat as his head fell back. Forbidden pleasure knifed through the darkness like magnesium fire. "You can't." he felt Mikhail's fingers touch the ring.
      "Vayer has lifted the ban." Mikhail said, opening the ring, catching the ball before it could get lost. The metal sliding through skin made Tzer's heart pound. Then it was out. The clatter as Mikhail placed the hated things on the bedside table was louder than thunder. Tzer was high field, but he had to do it. He extended all of his tentacles to their limits.
      Mikhail's breath was cool on the tormented lateral, and then he kissed it so very softly Tzer shivered in the ultimate pleasure freedom could bring. "I love thee, Tzer." he said, looking up. "For all time and all ways. I know thee will never harm me again." The complete trust showing in Mikhail's field stilled Tzer's final reservations.
      "As I love thee and will not live without thee again." he clasped Mikhail's face in his hands and tentacles, laterals stroking the soft hair of his beard and sending shivers of delight through their now balanced response.
      "Avilan taught me a small trick." Mikhail's voice was soft. "Would you like me to balance your fields? It wouldn't make you truly post, but you would no longer feel as if you were after turnover."
      "I would probably want your body then." he looked into Mikhail's glorious blue eyes. "Do you trust me so far? I have not wanted either a man or a woman since I was put under ban." Actually he hadn't even wanted transfer, only Diomid's skills had kept him from rejecting all life entirely.
      "As I want yours." those eyes turned dark with a desire Tzer never thought to see.
      "Then do as you wish." he said, tracing his hands down to Mikhail's arms. "I would like to know you." he put his longing to know his beloved carnally into both his field and his words.
     
      Avilan had given Mikhail some rather particular instructions. He had blushed furiously at some of the man's very explicit directions, but as everyone bowed to his knowledge of such arts, Mikhail did not think to try to go against them. His sapphire blue eyes still held all the brightness of youth, and even Arkay bowed to Avilan's skill at both transfer and sensuality.
      Thinking back on it, he also seemed entirely unable to blush at anything. His demonstrations had left nothing to the imagination. "Then let us begin." he said, taking a deep breath.
      "If you're afraid." Tzer looked down at his hands.
      "No, I was thinking of Avilan's instructions." he licked at his lips. "I have to get you relaxed first."
      "Sounds like Avilan." Tzer's almost silent chuckle stirred at feelings long buried and thought lost. "He is truly the master of the bower."
      "Karola is a lucky woman." Mikhail twitched the bedding into a reasonable nest after pulling the mattress off onto the floor. It would make at least one somewhat softer spot, or if nothing else an oversized head rest.
      "Why do you think she ended up with nine children?" Tzer stroked Mikhail's back tentatively. The soft touch made his breath catch.
      "Indeed." he fumbled the small bottle of sweet almond oil out of his pocket. "Now, lie down." he waved with his field. First oil yourself some Avilan's voice came to him out of memory. He did so, feeling more than a bit self conscious, but fortunately Tzer wasn't looking too closely at him.
      "At your will." Tzer's bow held the faintest hint of his returning good humor and he lay down on his chest.
      Slowly, gently, Mikhail began working the knots and tension out of Tzer's back. He had no idea why Avilan insisted on a massage, all over, with explicit pointers on how not to miss anything, but Mikhail was not going to question him.
      Soon Tzer was moaning under his hands, stretching out the heavy muscles built by physical labor rather than augmentation. It felt so wonderful to have his smooth skin warm beneath his hands, Mikhail simply worked over every inch of his back until all the muscles were as soft as warmed putty. Even though when he reached that most hidden part of his lover, Tzer had simply opened to him, completely relaxed.
      Smiling a bit at Avilan's duplicity, Mikhail concentrated on his caresses. He could feel the heat rising in Tzer's body as it responded to his touch. Then after one final stroke, he convinced him to roll over. Tzer moaned, his arm thrown across his eyes.
      The beauty of him made Mikhail stop and stare. Broad, heavy shoulders traced to slender hips and long, fine boned legs. The Fatima Lords were slightly modified by their talents, but often it wasn't as obvious as the figure before him. To Mikhail he was magnificent, the long slender lines of bone beneath pale skin.
      Then he worked his way up Tzer's body, giving particular care to those parts begging for his attention. Finally he ran his hands over Tzer's lower arms, stroking and caressing the tentacle sheathes as the tentacles themselves twined about his arms in lazy patterns.
      "Now for me." he said softly, still stroking Tzer's arms. Avilan had said Tzer was to start on his front, and Mikhail grinned slightly. He knew how this was going to finish and this time was not going to turn out like the last.
      Tzer blinked heavily, coming slightly out of his sensual daze. "I would love to get my hands on your body." he purred, looking at Mikhail through heavy lidded eyes. Then they looked downward and Mikhail caught that same flash of actinic blue. His whole body shivered as he reacted to the gesture. Tzer gasped, and then smiled. "Yes, I would like my turn." light traced over his tentacle sheathes, teasing at Mikhail with the fiery touch.
     
      For a moment Tzer's heart tried to stop with fear, then Mikhail's eyes opened and they were dark with longing, his field a ruddy amber of desire. "Yes, I would like my turn." the words sliding like silk between them.
      "Please." Mikhail lay down, arms stretched over his head. His back arched and heavy chest damp with the sweet smell of him. Tzer's hands shook as he spread oil on them. Carefully, he knelt over Mikhail's chest and reached forward to rub at his forearms. Lightning trickled over his fingertips, tracing the muscles beneath Mikhail's skin. "Yes" Mikhail breathed.
      Tzer shivered as the breath tickled at his flanks. Schooling himself to patience, he slowly worked his way to Mikhail's shoulders. Muscles twitched beneath his touch and then smoothed into relaxation as his fingers followed the blue fire.
      He had to move down to be able to work on Mikhail's neck and chest. Not thinking about it much, he simply slid backwards. Going back to his massage, his hips rocked slowly with the rhythm. Mikhail's hands slid down and began tracing over his thighs and hips. Light shown bright and clear as he kneaded his hands into the muscles of Mikhail's chest.
      A pressure began building inside him. Tzer's eyes closed and he felt his body respond. For a moment, he lay down, resting against Mikhail's chest. He could hear his heart pounding madly and Tzer's tripped over a beat. An ache thrilled up and down his spine.
      Reacting to the sweet burning, he pressed backwards, trying to rub at it. It was a maddening itch, rising up and clenching at his heart. It was so very much like when Mikhail had stroked him with his fingers, but now it was stronger, demanding. The perfect object presented itself. Arching his back, Tzer began to drive himself back in ernest. Easily, smoothly, he felt Mikhail almost enter and begin to ease the desperate need.
      "Oh, God, Tzer." Mikhail clutched him to his chest. His hips twitched, teasing at the very edges of the itch.
      Slick with sweat and oil, Tzer could do nothing more than rock on the very edge of insanity. He was hard as on that night, and the tension between their bodies stroked him, trying to force him to open even further. He wanted to howl with frustration. Finally he cried out, shivering with desperation. Mikhail's hold loosened.
      With a shout of triumph, Tzer slid onto him. He felt his whole being opened to his beloved, and howled for how very good it felt. "Yes" his eyes rolled up in his head, and he screamed into the night, driving himself till he felt Mikhail all the way inside him.
      "Tzer, beloved." Mikhail held his head to his chest. "Easy."
      All he could do was writhe, caught again in Mikhail's grasp. Soon he stilled again, feeling the delicious feeling of being filled and wanted spreading through the warmth of desire. Mikhail's hands slid down his body, running over his shoulders and eventually catching at his buttocks. His strong fingers parted them even more, driving himself in deeper. Tzer groaned and shivered with the renewed wash of pleasure.
      "I can't go on too much longer." he murmured, clutching at him with fingers of steel.
      "Then don't." Tzer reared up and then looked down at him. With a slow, lazy, satisfied grin, he began rocking his hips against his impalement. Every movement teased at him, driving him further and further into ecstacy. Then Mikhail's fingers loosened and Tzer began sliding up and down, every stroke making him burn hotter. Light began to weave between them as his control slipped.
      "Yes" Mikhail hissed, arching upwards. Tzer's hands pressed against Mikhail's chest and lightning flared through the night as he felt Mikhail throb inside him. Now frantic, he rode the fire rising inside him. With a final blazing crash, Tzer found release, giving in to the too long pent desires of his body.
     
      "Do we really have to do this?" Arkay asked him archly as yet another spectacular cry pierced the silence.
      "I'm afraid so." he sighed. "It's been too long in coming for both of them and I don't want Tzer to get any bad habits after what happened earlier. Neither Vayer nor the Techton would be amused if he went rogue because we didn't do something so simple."
      "But they are so noisy." Arkay looked out the window again. Another flash of heat lightning traced the sky overhead. It was definitely the wrong season for it and Nashen grinned.
      "What are you grinning about?" Arkay asked with a huff.
      "Only wondering how many people are going to wonder what is causing the light show tonight." he chuckled.
      "You mean this isn't natural?" Arkay blinked. "How do you know what's normal for this area? Oh, stupid question that last, never mind." Another light flickered across the sky.
      "Good stamina for a pair of young men." Nashen noted clinically, deliberately deviling his mate.
      "How do you know they aren't done yet?" he asked, refusing to rise to the bait.
      "I'll know, as will probably everyone else in the complex." Nashen gave his parner a smug look. "If the light show is any indication, it'll probably knock half the bird's nests loose on this place."
      "Riana is going to have kittens." Arkay snickered. "You know she didn't want Mikhail to find a mate."
      "No, I don't think so. I think she is just concerned about her family." Nashen corrected. Then the finale arrived, a deafening crack of lightning and thunder hit the rooftree, causing dust to shimmer down from the rafters overhead. "Good thing they had a lightning rod." he stripped off his clothes. Arkay did the same, laughing.
      "Are young Fatima lords usually so noisy?" he asked.
      "Usually." Nashen shrugged. "Why do you think the townhouse is so well grounded?"
      "I thought it was for temper tantrums of the grown ones." he opened the door and looked out. "No one here."
      "What a pain." Nashen grimaced. "Besides, I don't have temper tantrums, I'm simply practicing ... you indulge in temper tantrums." A sharp pain in his left flank greeted this rebuttal as Arkay pinched him, hard. Nashen yelped and batted at his hand. "Neither of us is truly presentable, but I suppose that is for the best." he sighed. "Here's to luck."
      "I'm right at your back." Arkay said and then Nashen opened the door and hoped it wasn't to hell.
     
      Traditionally this was a Lord's job, but Arkay didn't want Nashen going in there without backup. The only one who could really ever control Tzer in full cry was Mikhail, and there was not likely to be a whole lot of help there tonight. Much to his surprise, he found Tzer having accepted Mikhail. I would have sworn it would have been the other way around from what he knew of the personalities of the two.
      "Hello, otyet." Tzer said in a perfectly calm, rational, if dreamy, tone. Then he purred and slumped completely bonelessly atop his lover. Mikhail just sighed and stroked his back.
      "We were wondering if you two were all right." Nashen said calmly, his hand on the back of a nearby chair.
      "Sure." Mikhail sighed. "We're wonderful." It sounded like he had just smoked a pipeful of the world's best hashish. Arkay snickered softly. After all of Nashen's warnings, this was a definite anti-climax.
      *I heard that pun* Nashen bopped him with his field.
      Arkay mimed great injury. Tzer snickered and slowly, as if he had been sharing that pipe, slid off Mikhail to land with a rather lazy thud next to him. "Are you sure you're a Sime." Arkay had to laugh it was so silly.
      "Nope" Tzer giggled. "I do know I'm a boy though." he snuggled next to Mikhail, clutching at his arm. Mikhail turned to him, stroking Tzer's hair.
      *Here goes* Nashen sent him and then crouched next to the two men and reached out his hand. "Do you mind?" he asked Tzer.
      "Go ahead." he said, still not at all responding as either of them would have expected.
      As Nashen's hand stroked Mikhail's arm, he shivered all over, obviously still orgasmic, but neither of the youngsters flared fear or possessiveness. "Would you like?" Mikhail looked back over his shoulder with the most come hither look Arkay had ever seen in his life.
      "Would you?" Tzer tipped his head back. "I'm afraid I'm done for a while at least. That felt so good!"
      "No, thank you." Nashen said and Arkay could sense his complete bafflement through their link.
      "Awwww, I would like to watch." Tzer's field spiraled in a beautiful display of pure sated lust.
      Nashen laughed and sat down on his butt, still stroking Mikhail's arm. "Come on, Arkay." he waved him over.
      Arkay shook his head, smiling, and set next to his Alamir.
      "We were afraid you might be a bit possessive." Nashen stated bluntly.
      "Oh" Tzer still had the dreamy look on his face. "No"
      "I can see that." Nashen laughed some more. "Some Simes get a little upset about another Sime touching their mate."
      Tzer's eyes unfocused completely. For a moment, Arkay thought he was going to faint he was so unfocused, then he grinned from ear to ear. "I know Mikhail won't do anything like that." Then he snuggled up to Mikhail and slipped into a deep, deep sleep.
      The next thing they knew, Mikhail had gathered Tzer's sleeping body into his arms and also passed out. Arkay smelled the distinctive note of almond oil above the scents of musk and sweat. "Avilan did good." he whispered, standing and helping Nashen to his feet.
      Nashen covered the two young men with a light blanket. "He is a good man."
      "One of the best, just like you." Arkay put his arm around Nashen's waist. "Lets go."
      "Want to see if we can put on a show too?" he grinned.
      "You're on." he steered Nashen for the door. Then he turned and blew the youngsters a kiss. "Good luck, you two."
      "Indeed, I know another very good man." Nashen cuddled up to him. "Lets get back to our room without scaring the whey out of some night wandering stranger."
      "Why not?" Arkay laughed.
      "Because I want to do lewd things to your body without someone hammering on the door asking for our hides." he said, closing the door behind them.
      "Sounds good to me."

Chapter 14

      Diomid was the first to see the two young men come down the stairs, arm in arm. Both of them had such silly looks on their faces it would have been obvious to an ancient they had consummated their relationship last night. Avilan looked as proud as a new father. Although in a certain way he was, having just gained yet another grandson. "Thank you for the oil." he leaned over and whispered.
      "Oh" Diomid cracked up laughing. Neither Tzer or Mikhail seemed to notice. Even from here Diomid could sense their fields locked so tightly together they resembled one person. He had wondered why Avilan, of all people, would have wanted such a thing, but after having a few of his own delicate questions answered by the man, he didn't even ask. The cooked grain mixture they served for breakfast here was edible, barely, and only with sufficient sweetening. And even there the honey they had was bland, tasteless stuff. The bread was inedible.
      Neither Tzer or Mikhail seemed to notice a single thing other than each other, even though they were both eating the gruel as if they had never tasted anything better. Tzer even took a slice of the foam-like bread and ate it. Diomid shuddered at the very thought of letting the vile, tasteless, packing material past his lips.
      Frustrated and starving, Diomid put down his spoon. They had brought some food, but basics, like bread, no one had thought to pack and it didn't last more than a day or two anyways.
      "What is it, love." Kirina stroked his arm.
      "I'm hungry." he growled, for her ears alone, or so he thought.
      "Me too." Avilan sighed, putting down his spoon and glaring at the so called food.
      Mikhail suddenly looked at his bowl. "I hate oatmeal." he said as if it weren't his second bowl. Then he looked thoughtful until Tzer stroked his arm. "Yes, love." he bowed his head.
      "I would like some real food, too." a corner of Tzer's mouth twitched upwards. "At least some bread." then he looked at the slice he held in his hand and made the most disgusted face. "Was I eating this?"
      "Yes, you were, Tzer." Diomid laughed.
      Then Mikhail got up and went somewhere. Soon he came back with a rather dubious looking character wearing a white cape and slightly faded black trousers and shirt. Diomid blinked. The stranger was wearing a rather wicked knife against the small of his back. "Danyel, I would like you to meet some friends of mine. This is Tzer, Diomid, Kirina, Vayer, Darya, Avilan, Karola, Nivanya, Ilyan, Nashen and Arkay." he pointed them out in turn. "The little ones are Kirin and Shasha."
      "Nice to meet you." his field flickered through a number of uncanny states. "Just so you know, as you look like strangers, I am Ferris." Nashen cringed.
      "Really, we aren't all that bad." the man laughed. "Only wanted te warn ye in case somethin happened. We have a reputation to maintain fer being difficult." he winked.
      "You are as different from Rels Ferris as is imaginable." Arkay's field spiraled in delight.
      "I would certainly hope so." his field actually managed to turn the exact color of someone who was seasick and Diomid laughed delightedly. "Now what's the problem the young man here is wanting help with?"
      "Food." Diomid jangled his bracelets against his wrists in disgust. Danyel jumped half a meter into the air and landed behind Mikhail. Then he peeked around the side of the much larger Sharm Lord.
      Breathing a heavy sigh of relief, he stepped back out into the open. "You gave me a bit of a shock, m'friend." he eyed the jewelry nervously.
      "I'm sorry." he muted them against his body. "We all have a habit of using them for punctuation."
      "Not the Simes surely." he raised a dark eyebrow towards his heavy thatch of black hair.
      "No, only our partners." Nashen pointed out Arkay's almost forty.
      "How do you get yer tentacles in there?" he peered at them curiously.
      "Carefully." Nashen grinned. "Very carefully."
      "I can see that, yes." he leaned back again. There were lines around the young man's mouth and eyes, as if he had not always seen the best side of life. "Now, ye all were wanting food, I believe it was." Danyel looked at the dishes on the table with disbelief.
      "Bread?" Shasha tugged at Danyel's pant leg. "Please."
      Diomid could see Danyel's heart melt at the plaintive tone. "Now what kind of bread would you like?" he knelt down in front of the little boy.
      "Tasty bread." Shasha said with a stomp of his foot. "Not bread that tastes like air."
      "I think I know what you are all looking for." he looked them over carefully. "You are not from Gulf or Nivet are you."
      "No, we come from Russia." Mikhail said.
      "I know you were born here, Mikal." Danyel gave him a scathing look.
      "My name is Mikhail Tegue Fatima, Sharm Lord Mikhail." he told the man in utter sincerity.
      "I see." Danyel's smile was far more knowing than his years. "Then I would guess you would appreciate anything from Europe or the Middle East?"
      "Middle East, what we call the South, would be wonderful." Mikhail's eyes lit with relief. "I would absolutely adore a cup of coffee."
      "We did bring that." Arkay said, holding up his cup. "We just didn't and couldn't bring bread."
      "Bless you, Arkay." Mikhail said. "Now, lets us all go get breakfast."
      And en masse, they descended on one very startled shop keeper and bought out almost all of his wares, including another bottle of almond oil which Mikhail presented to Avilan over his arm, as if it were a sword.
      Avilan handed it to Diomid and he raised it in salute to the brave young man, who was now truly one of them. Mikhail smiled back and twined his fingers with Tzer's tentacles. "Thank you" he mouthed over the chaos of getting everything back to where they were staying.
      "You are quite welcome, my young friend."

Chapter 15

      Riana was furious. Her brother, her baby brother no less, was getting way too above himself. Fuming, she flung the door open. The sudden smell of roasted meat made her gag. He had called her here, saying it was vital to the future of Kaon. Now where is he?
      "What is going on here?" she bellowed, cursing her lack of height yet again. Her calves threatened to cramp as she tried to peer over the bodies lined up in front of her.
      This is a down right hazard although Riana couldn't zlin any Gens other than the Russians. One of the hooded figures turned at her pounding on his back. He was veiled. Only then did she realize the figure was Gen.
      The dark eyes blinked in shock and he babbled something. Suddenly a path cut through the crowd. They all turned away from her, hiding even their eyes.
      "Ah, Hajene Riana." A bearded, strangely garbed man raised his cup to her as he sat on a cushion on the ground. "Come, take bread and salt with us."
      "Do what he says, big sister." Mikhail's voice whispered in her ear as he took her by the elbow and steered her towards the stranger.
      Stunned by the certainty in his voice, she went with him. "And if I don't?"
      "Then Kaon will miss out on some of the finest Sime luxury goods since prime kills." only his gentle squeeze let reassured her he was jesting about the analogy.
      The strange dark man was sitting between the two silver haired Russians. The young one sprinkled salt on a piece of odd, flat bread and held it out to her as she knelt on a cushion. Coming from a long line of traders, Riana could smell a deal, and this one smelled really good. She ate the morsel and saw the other Russian do the same for the bearded man.
      "My name is Amir ben Ismel. We are brothers. Come eat with us and we shall talk of business to trade the infidel out of his robes." he waved to the seat beside him. "Run along with you to your Alahin, Tzer. I'm sure he grows lonely for your company."
      "Only as long as yours has not corrupted his virtue." the young man rose and bowed her to take his seat.
      "Ah, my Alahin has many ways of ..." he trailed off into that other tongue. Tzer blushed so red Riana thought he was going to burst a blood vessel and the heat of his nager was stunning. Everyone else laughed uproariously and from the fields, many of the suggestions they then gave him were highly suggestive. My little brother ... and Tzer?! Then she watched Tzer making a bee line for a large robed figure before she turned her entire attention to Amir with a sigh of relief.
      "I think you will like these." The remaining Russian handed her an odd, brown, wrinkled, and she found, much to her dismay, sticky, thing. She caught his eye as she licked it tentatively. Riana shuddered with a rush of pleasure at the sweet, indescribably wonderful taste. Even after turnover and no Donor in zlinning range, she greedily at it and looked for more. He held out another, this time making her take it from his tentacles with her mouth. "My people sometimes call these 'Sime fruit' for the effect they have on us." His silver eyes were kind, but she could zlin the shrewd trader hiding behind their brilliant facade. "They are otherwise known as dates."
      "Would you like another?" Amir asked, waving at the tray. "They are but one of many things my people have to trade."
      "I think we might be able to find some room in our currently bulging warehouses." she gave a depreciating wash to her field. The man smiled knowingly.
      "I know what it is to make a great harvest and have no buyers. But right now I'm afraid we only have a very few things to sell as the harvests have not been so good of late." his dark eyes and slick field disclosed nothing of truth or falsehood in his words.
      Then she saw the Russian shake his head no, so very slightly. Immediately she suppressed her bubble of laughter, but not before his silver eyes reflected it. And so the trading went.
      When I catch up to that brother of mine, he's going to have to answer a few questions. her gaze flickered across the courtyard. Finally she spotted Tzer again, now entwined in the arms of the robed figure and feeding him olives with his fingers beneath the veil. The scene was stunningly intimate. Then she noted the eyes above the veil. They were the same blue as her brother's.
     
      It was nearly midnight by the time everyone else went back home. The mild sun of afternoon had given way to a bitter chill later in the eveing, but no one seemed to want the festivities to end. Mikhail pulled Tzer's hands into the sleeves of his robes. They were as warm as a furnace and felt far better as they traced the muscles of his arms.
      "You can kiss me now." Tzer said huskily, crawling into his lap.
      "Thanks be to Allah." he dropped his veil with a sigh. Their lips met and Tzer's hands slid around his shoulders. With a groan, he pulled his Alamir tightly against his chest.
      "What do you think you are doing?" Riana snarled.
      Mikhail didn't even pause tasting the sweetness of Tzer's mouth, plundering it.
      "You are past turnover Tzer." she pointed out, quite unecessarily.
      Their spirits twined in promise for their long delayed transfer. Finally, as even all good things must, they broke off their kiss.
      Tzer's gaze was heavy lidded and Mikhail could feel the faint traces of electrical heat trace his nerves. "Soon Alamir." he promised, holding Tzer's heart in his hands.
      "Soon, my Alahin." he came to light in Mikhail's web.
      "Now, you had something you wished to speak with me about?" Mikhail was exhausted and only wanted to got to bed, with Tzer. It had been a rough three weeks of negotiations to get everything lined up for the party and only then had he found out no one had invited Riana, the head buyer for Kaon. "Although I would like to thank you for being able to make it with no notice."
      "I had to cancel three other appointments." then her field sang with glee. "But we're going to make millions."
      "Is that only with this tribe?" he asked softly, tucking Tzer's now dozing head under his chin.
      She glanced at Tzer curiously and answered with another question, "There are others?"
      "At least half a dozen major ones, like this one and" Tzer yawned, "dozens of minors. That isn't counting us, the mystics, the silk men or the sea people." Mikhail had to translate, for in his tiredness, Tzer had forgotten to speak Simelan.
      "Silk? Real silk?" her eyes shone with excitement. "Not the fake Zaor stuff?"
      "Yes" Mikhail grinned at her enthusiasm. "In trade for cotton, indigo, chocolate, sugar and rubber, particularly. If Kaon can get an exclusive on just chocolate and sugar, it'll be a financial powerhouse to take you back to the stars. Now that there is a universal currency in the form of selyn, it'll be easy for one power to take the lead." He sighed, stroking Tzer's silken hair. "All we, Rodina and the tribes ask, is to be left in peace."
      "Without the Techton." her nostrils flared in sudden distaste.
      "Without the Techton." he confirmed. "We don't kill or lure others to the kill. The Rus and the tribes will never tolerate the Distecht." Mikhail kissed Tzer's temple and he snuggled closer in his sleep.
      "I can't make a decision for the World Controller." her eyes narrowed.
      Mikhail snorted in disgust, then soothed Tzer back into his nap before continuing. "There is no such thing, Riana. If the Techton tried to take the Rus or the Faithful it would be a bloodbath of hideous proportions."
      "Like Warsaw?" she asked.
      "Worse. Far worse." he sighed and looked her straight in the eyes. "Warsaw was a mistake. The Techton displaced too many people too quickly and that idiot Rels lit a match beneath a powder keg.
      "If the Techton tries to take Moskva by force we will burn it to the ground rather than submit." He knew it was the absolute truth and that the truth of it rang in his field.
      "What of the tribes?" she asked in a small voice, looking around the courtyard, obviously a bit cowed at Mikhail's strong words.
      "They will never submit to following an infidel again. They remember being hounded and slaughtered before the mutation. They will fight to the last child to stay free this time." He could see her look of disbelief returning.
      "Imagine the speed and viciousness of Freeband raiders with the cunning and firepower of the Genrunners." Mikhail thought of the fantasia some of the tribesmen had demonstrated in the horse seller's market in Moskva. "They are not to be trifled with." he warned.
      "I can zlin that. How is it you managed to convince them to trade with Kaon?" her tentacles begant to loosen from their fear tightened nervousness.
      "Because I am one of the Faithful." He bowed his head, thinking of the great gift Allah had given him in his Alamir. "and a member of an ally, Russia."
      "You are ambrav Kaon." her voice was harsh with surprise.
      "Not with the acceptance of Tzer as my Alamir, you would say, my orhuen partner." he shook his head sadly, wishing it could be otherwise, but he could not serve so many masters, no matter how kindly.
      "We'll see what sectuib says about that." she turned and walked away, her boot heels clicking on the paving stones, a staccato echo of her own unsettled field.
      I only hope she remembers what Risa Tegue used to say about making changes by trade pacts and not death. Stiffly, Mikhail dragged himself to his feet. It had been a very long day. One step at a time
      Finally he elbowed the door open and slid inside. Someone had opened the window a crack and set a lit brazier in the room, with dragon's blood on it no less. Bless you, a hundred times, bless you. he had no idea who had done this, but the sweet scent of the incense and fresh air with the heat from the brazier was wonderful.
      He kicked off his shoes. Then he looked down. Someone, it must have been after the party, had replaced the awful bed with a huge nest of pillows. He set Tzer in the middle of it as soon as Mikhail got him undressed. He burrowed into the bedding like a fish disappearing into deep water. It was absolutely adorable.
      Still smiling, Mikhail stripped off his own clothes and was soon curled up around his mate, purring his own contentment as he finally made it to sleep.
     
      There was a bit of a chill in the air as Tzer stuck his nose out of the blankets. The brazier he'd had set up last night had gone out, but it had done its job. The weather here felt like early fall, but Tzer still liked to be warm when he slept. Soft was definitely pleasant as well. As soon as he had spotted the huge pillows made for the party, Tzer had made plans to make off with them afterwards. Same with the braziers.
      Mikhail's expanse of soft skin tempted him back to nap. Then his stomach growled. It felt so good to be hungry again, he waited until he was afraid it would wake Mikhail. Yawning, he dragged himself out of the nest. Then he spied the large basket of fruit and bread on the table. Quickly, before his skin picked up the chill, he grabbed it and carried his loot back to the blankets. Investigating more closely, he found apples, figs, cheese, dark rolls and bless you even dates and a carafe of still hot coffee with two cups.
      Mikhail sniffed and stirred as Tzer poured a cup, so he filled the other as well. Finally his mate broached the covers. Well knowing Mikhail's proclivities, Tzer handed him the cup of coffee.
      "Bless you" he said, sipping at it. "What a way to wake up."
      "You are quite welcome." Tzer said, smiling at Mikhail's blissful look. Tzer sipped at his own. It had a richness he had never tasted before, far more robust than he was accustomed to. He sighed in absolute bliss.
      "Like?" Mikhail's field stroked his own, sending quivers of additional pleasure through him.
      "Oh my, yes." he breathed, sending ripples across the surface of the black liquid.
      "I found half a ton of these, green, for trade with a firm in New Washington." Mikhail sipped and then reached for an apple. "They were going for thirty a hundred weight."
      "That's robbery." Tzer snorted, taking one of the dates. He loved the things, just like almost every other Sime he had ever met.
      "That's what I thought, so I bought 'em at thirty five and found the supplier. Fatima will be getting the entire crop for twenty five and I figure we can sell for at least eighty." he munched thoughtfully on his apple. "Even with shipping at ten, that's a fair profit."
      Tzer laughed, "Ah ye are a man after my own heart. Trade and coffee for breakfast. By the way, where do these come from and why won't the farmers come beat us up for stealing them blind."
      "Because right now the only buyer they have is Kaon at twelve and most of their crop goes to waste. They come from an odd island off the coast, where they have some truly odd beliefs about horses and spirits of the dead. Most people aren't willing to trade with them." Mikhail shrugged it off as if it were no matter.
      "Should we be dealing with them?" Infidels were one thing, sorcerers and witches were quite another.
      "Oh, I assure you I made sure. I won't deal with killers." his look was unfathomable. "Besides it being a stain on our souls, it's a challenge to the Techton which could bring it down on our heads."
      "I am so glad to hear you say that, my Alahin." he snuggled closer.
      "Besides, if anyone's hands are to be red with blood money, I want it to be the Techton." his grin showed a great deal of fang. "That way we can point fingers at their brutality."
      Tzer whooped with glee, almost spilling his coffee. "You are a delightfully Fatima Sharm Lord, my Alahin."
      "As you delight my heart with your lightning, my Alamir."
     
      Sectuib Vanesa's appearance could not have come at a worse time. Two hours short of seclusion, Mikhail could think of no valid way to get out of talking with her until afterwards. She's your sister, silly. She won't hurt you Yet the need clenching his gut wouldn't loosen its claws for mere logic.
      "I'll be all right." Tzer straightened his tunic yet again.
      "I don't know if I will be." his voice trembled. Mikhail had already thrown up once this morning with need and nerves. He prayed with all his heart he wouldn't have to again in front of his sister. "Are you sure you want to be with me for this?"
      "For now and for always." his lips touched Mikhail's in a gentle kiss. A faint trace of fire lit the contact with a promise of things to come. "But just in case, I made sure I would be ready for anything." He pointed to the bottle of oil on the table.
      "By Allah I love thee, Tzer." With that one bit of foresight, Mikhail knew he was safe, no matter what. Even if he ended up taken over his sister's desk, at least it would feel good. He hugged Tzer with all his remaining strength.
      "As I love thee and will not hurt thee for the world and all the bright and wonderful things in it." Tzer's eyes were darkening with the first stages of desire, sending a thrill of longing up Mikhail's spine.
      "Then lets get this over with so we can hole up and love each other properly." he checked on the food set out for their two whole days of seclusion. Nothing was going to cheat him of the entire forty eight hours.
     
      Sectuib Vanesa stood to better zlin the miscreants before her desk. "Get Hajene, Tzer, is it?, to a deferment suite immediately." She could zlin the junct signature crackling through his nager, threatening her brother so clearly she was shocked he was walking around like this. The man should be in a Last Year House
      "Cancel that." Mikal snarled, leaping to his feet. "You lay one dorsal on any of the Russians and you'll have to answer to Lord and Ruler Vayer personally." he towered over her, field beating at her wildly.
      "Control yourself sosectu Mikal." she hissed, forcing herself to withstand his momentary lack of discipline. But he didn't, continuing to hammer at her with his unrestrained ire until she withdrew, sweating and hypoconcious to return to her seat. A tiny smile played over Tzer's lips, as if he had been immune to the thundering ambient.
      "Cancel the order for Hajene Tzer's confinement." she breathed into the microphone, still eyeing her brother warily.
      "Order canceled, sectuib." her ever faithful secretary answered.
      "Thank you." Mikhail said and sat down calmly, as if he had not just threatened her.
      "Now," Vanesa nibbled on the end of a tentacle in thought. Both Mikal and Tzer gave each other identical grins and then turned their attention back to her. What was that all about? she wondered. Returning to her earlier train of thought, "What is this I hear about your leaving Kaon?"
      "I will be returning with Tzer to Moskva when our time here is done. We are a bonded pair and will not be separated." his chin jutted out, as if he expected her to fight him. After the little display earlier, Vanesa was certain the Techton would never let him work as a Donor again.
      "But then why do you wish to leave Kaon?" she asked blandly, enjoying the look of utter shock on her brother's face.
      "I don't, sectuib." he said and Tzer clenched at his hand. They spoke for a bit in some other language, although it sounded like reassurance, despite the roughness of the sounds. "But I will stay with my mate."
      "I don't see why you can't do both." Vanesa could clearly see the stress of this situation tearing him apart. "Kaon's virtue is freedom. I'm not going to bar you from that freedom." He let out a huge sigh of relief.
      "However, as the Tegue line must remain with Kaon, and both Riana and I are unlikely to ever have children, I must insist on Shanir remaining behind."
      Vanesa never saw Mikal's body come flying over the desk. Her head cracked into the floor. Before she could orient herself, she was face down. "Mikhail, NO!"
     
      He hesitated. Strong Sime hands wrenched at his shoulders. "Not my son!" he snarled, lunging for the threat. It rolled out from under him.
      "Mikal, Mikhail, it's me, Vanesa, your sister." finally her words made it through his fury. He turned and threw himself into Tzer's arms. "Take him, Tzer. The Techton won't have him ever again after he attacked a channel to kill." Her fear sang on his taut nerves, making them itch to force himself on her. "Kaon won't take Shanir away from you. I know now how much you love the child, only, please, Mikhail, take care of him and yourself. If there is no Tegue heir for Kaon, please don't abandon us."
      At last, Mikhail could understand her fear. "There will be an heir for Kaon. Neither you nor our sister are incapable. Talk to our people. Diomid is a better healer than anyone else in the world."
      "I will take your advice, Mikhail, and, always remember we are family." Her voice was soft and gentle. "Now, get out of here, both of you." Vanesa paused for breath. "I have to reorganize my desk."
      Mikhail managed a dry chuckle at her long standing excuse to be alone and think as Tzer led him back to their room.

Chapter 16

      To say Tzer was a bit nervous would have been like saying Year's Turning was often a bit chill. He paced the room again. For some daft reason, Mikhail had one last errand to run. Tock, tock, tock his boot heels clicked on the floor. Not even the proper click of stone he looked down at the faded wood floor and snorted. There were gaps between the joists. Not large ones, but still large enough to be seen.
      "I'm back." Mikhail informed him, quite unnecessarily as his field twined through the room. "I thought you might like some music beforehand." his field brightened with a bit of a twinkle.
      "Another of Avilan's suggestions?" He asked, coming to rest on one of the chairs, sitting backwards on it. It wobbled slightly and Tzer sighed.
      "No, actually, Arkay." he said and placed a quite ungainly object on the table.
      "I saw something like that from the siege of Warsaw." he looked at the collection of wood, strings and of all things, tines, closely. "What is it?"
      "A musical instrument of course." Mikhail's field twisted in question and humor.
      "What kind of musical instrument?" sometimes Tzer wasn't entirely sure who was born to Fatima, Mikhail could be so much like Tzer's father Nashen.
      "A shiltpron." now he simply felt curious.
      "I have no idea what that is." Tzer said, stroking a finger along the wood inlay.
      "A musical instrument, I told you." the damn humor was back. Tzer sighed and decided to indulge his lover's bad behavior. This is probably why Nashen has gotten so bad about it. Arkay indulges him.
      "What kind of shiltpron is it?" he asked, hoping to duck around yet another stupid answer.
      "Mine." he said simply, field throwing off rainbows across the walls with laughter. Tzer thought of strangling him, but then he would never get his questions answered.
      "Why don't you show me how it works." he hoped this might get things going forward.
      "Because I would like to get mostly undressed first." he said, unlacing his tunic.
      "Why didn't you do so earlier?" Tzer gave him a hand, not incidentally touching him as much as humanly possible.
      "Because I was telling you about my shiltpron." and with this, Tzer had had it. He pinched Mikhail on the flank. Mikhail yelped, startled. Tzer hummed, licking his lips. That felt good he let his eyes narrow as if he were going to hunt Mikhail. "Perhaps later." His field shifted to the ambers and gold of desire for a brief instant then cooled again, taking Tzer with it.
      "I would like that." Tzer said, smiling lazily, remembering.
      "What has you smiling so happily?" Mikhail sat and took the odd instrument into his lap.
      "Remembering all the times I caught glimpses of my parents playing while in seclusion." he finally pulled off his boots, and leaned back. The images were as fresh today as they were as a young child. Of course most of them also included being startled silly.
      "I thought couples in seclusion stayed in their rooms?" he bent over the shiltpron and did arcane things to it.
      "No, not at all." Tzer chuckled. "Particularly not long standing couples. The adult version of hide and seek is wild, from what little of it I saw."
      "Oh?" he looked up, eyes wide. "Sime hunts Gen?"
      "I've seen Arkay and Nashen do it the other way around." a shudder crawled up his spine. "I think it will be a while before I'm that bold. Even though finding one's parents in the heating ducts, snow fortresses, even, one time, the bottom of a pond, does give a child the idea that maturity is not the end of fun."
      "Who was hiding on the bottom of a pond?" Mikhail laughed, looking a bit startled.
      "I found Darya there, she was burrowed down into the mud with a long straw to the surface. I saw Vayer go flashing by at full speed and by that age I knew what was going on, so I climbed a tree to watch." He shook his head at the memory. "He missed her completely. In absolute silence, she came up out of the water and slid back into the trees. I'd never seen someone move that quietly in the forest and was amazed. She didn't make a single sound. Then she climbed a tree like she was my age at the time, about ten or eleven.
      "It was only then I noticed she wasn't wearing anything and neither had Vayer been. I decided I probably didn't want to be around when she got caught and I took off for home." he chuckled at his own naivete. "I do know they had been at it since morning and it was almost dusk by the time I got home."
      "Does anyone get hurt?" Mikhail asked, seeming both curious and wary at the same time.
      "Oh, sometimes someone gets dinged up, things like skinned knees or hands during the summer when they play in the forest. One time Vayer broke a finger when trying to grab Darya and she dove through a covered stone culvert" He shrugged. "Usually I get more bruises and cuts in the salle. I think there have been a few cases of renSimes getting run into in the winter."
      "I can see that." Mikhail looked absolutely aghast at the idea, even though his field showed curiosity. "Are there any rules?"
      "Yes." he said, thinking of the lectures they had all been given on as children about sex and transfer. "No innocent bystanders, meaning you can't use anyone else as a deliberate shield. Incidental yes, but you can't touch or manipulate by field or talent anyone who is not playing. If you catch in public, try to at least pull your partner someplace a bit secluded; in other words, don't scare the children and renSimes with public transfer or sex. And last, never, ever, take from behind." he grinned wryly and more than a bit sadly at Mikhail's shocked look. "It's too dangerous. When a Sime goes for an actual kill they strike from behind at the nape of the neck and pull the arms back to pinch the nerves.
      "I didn't know." he said softly, looking down at his hands. "Here, the tradition is to grab from the front."
      "Let me show you something." Tzer smiled back, and watched Mikhail get to his feet. "If I grab you like this, I am vulnerable from a number of directions." he wrapped his tentacles around Mikhail's wrists loosely.
      "I know that, Tzer." he leaned forward and kissed Tzer softly. It was all Tzer could do not to let his hold tighten and take, but the very softness of it made him relax a fraction.
      "Also, you can push me away, as well as murder or kill me."
      "That is not a great revelation."
      "But I think this will be." he took a deep breath and turned Mikhail so there was nothing in the way. Then he flared his field all the way into the visible. Mikhail stepped back, right into Tzer's hooking foot. He started to go down. Tzer pulled his arm. With all the leverage, Mikhail fell exactly as planned, face down. Tzer caught his other arm and held his hands together.
      After putting one hand behind his back, he leaned down and gently kissed the back of Mikhail's neck. "See." he gave a small tug on the captured hands, turning his thoughts away from the flash of pain before it could capture him.
      "Yes, I see." Mikhail quivered between his knees, fear rising from him, a dark, seductive fog.
      "How many hands do I have on you?" Tzer's breath hissed between his teeth at the temptation.
      "One" Mikhail slumped, now laughing at his fear. "Oh God, Tzer." He sighed, nager dancing with his so wonderful kaleidoscope of colors. "You scared me."
      "I'm sure I did." he let go. I scared me too. He could still feel Mikhail's fear in his memory, a demon teasing at his very soul. Tzer had had so many nightmares about exactly that situation.
     
      Mikhail rolled over slowly, thinking of the risk Tzer had taken. He was shivering, dead white even for his normal pale skin. "Oh, poor love." he held out his arms. "Come to me."
      With a tug, Tzer pulled his other hand out from under his belt.
      "Aren't you the clever one." he took the hand and kissed it, feeling the chill of shock. "Here" he held out his arms and his heart. "No one was hurt." he nuzzled Tzer's fine hair.
      "Only my pride." Tzer sighed.
      "How so?" he lipped Tzer's ear, feeling the light begin to twine between them.
      "I couldn't control myself." he leaned into the caress.
      "You did." Mikhail chuckled, making Tzer quiver.
      "But I scared myself."
      "Yes and you scared me, and we both are now resting here talking about it calmly." he played with the single gold ring he had give Tzer after first transfer. "You feel good." Mikhail let himself sink into the realm of light, sensing Tzer's attention.
      "I can't argue with you when you say such things." his light traced Mikhail's face, a glowing net of contact.
      "I know." he sighed, stroking Tzer's face with his fingertips. "You are so very beautiful."
      "You are only saying that while you can't see." amusement made his field dance and sing.
      "I can see your heart." he murmured, licking at Tzer's ear.
      "Because you hold it in your hands." he sighed, stroking Mikhail's wrists with tentacles and fingers alike.
      "You know, I've never done this before." he admitted.
      "Then how did you do it?" Tzer's astonishment was like a cool draft on a warm summer day. "I know you went into seclusion with me."
      "But I knew you were too young to consummate it." and Mikhail had been relieved. They had also been much shorter, only twelve hours and not fourty eight.
      "What are transfers like in the Techton?" Tzer's question also sent questing tendrils through Mikhail's memory. When he didn't shy from the dark places, embracing them and soothing them, Mikhail spoke.
      "The first thing I would do, after receiving a transfer assignment, was look up the records on the channel, if I didn't know them already. Find out their likes and dislikes. If they wanted tea or not."
      "You didn't meet them first?"
      "No, not usually. Often I was sent to them." he twined his fingers with Tzer's. "You see it was decided that since it was the channels who served the renSimes in transfer and took donations, they shouldn't have to go somewhere just to put up with a fussy Donor." He could see his own field dim with bitterness, a taste like bitter leaf mold on the back of his tongue. "Besides, the Techton thinks if a Donor and a channel share transfer too often they will end up with a dependency."
      "And this is a bad thing?" Tzer nipped at his shoulder lightly, cheering him greatly.
      "According to them." he pointed out. "They don't like it when people are tied to family or transfer partners. It makes it much harder to fill in holes in the scedule if channels and Donors are treated like people and not chess pieces." Then he sighed, "To be honest though, like so many things, they do have an altruistic motive. If something happened to you, I wouldn't want to go on and would follow you."
      "As I think it should be, for me at least as well." he licked Mikhail's shoulder. "What does that have to do with an altruistic motive?"
      "Because it prevents a death." Mikhail snorted in absolute disgust.
      "How awful." Tzer shuddered, clutching at him.
      "I think so now, not then." he caressed Tzer's shoulders, drawing him closer. "Remember, I had never seen or sensed anything different. It can be so hard for some people to accept death as a part of life and try to keep it at bay at any cost."
      "I will miss my father horribly and know he could have lived longer if he hadn't bonded to Arkay, but the extra years would not have been worth the cost." Tzer curled up, lying completely on top of Mikhail now.
      "Exactly so. It is a choice." he stroked his hands over the length of him.
      "To go on. After finding out about their likes and dislikes and then traveling to wherever they were, I would then try to keep them out of trouble." he chuckled softly. "Often it was a simple as keeping them from getting smacked by nervous donors and making sure they ate. Sometimes it was more exciting, like when a change over, ahem, 'victim', arrived."
      Tzer snickered and Mikhail joined in his amusement. "The first time Arkay pointed out that little linguistic nuance I never used it again." he chuckled. "Children go through change over to become adults, they do not suffer change over like victim of a disease. That's like saying a pregnancy victim."
      "That's awful Mikhail." Tzer's whole body shook with supressed laughter. "And don't you ever let Karola hear you say that. Mostly because she would tease both Arkay and Avilan mercilessly with it for months."
      "Maybe I should." he lied, enjoying the laughter between them.
      "Arkay will swat you one." Tzer warned.
      "Better Arkay than ... Oh, you're right, never mind." What was I thinking of? an image of himself flying across the salle to land on his chin was one of Arkay's less enthusiastic lessons. Of course it hadn't been helped by Mikhail rushing him in frustration at not being able to lay a finger on him. "So, after baby-sitting my channel for anywhere from three weeks to not at all, we come to transfer."
      "You mean you sometimes went straight into seclusion?" Tzer was so stunned his field froze for an instant.
      "I'm getting there, hold on." he gave him a hug. "So, the first thing I would do was set out things for tea. I wasn't allowed to put on the water, a Sime had to do that. Gens are clumsy don't you know."
      Tzer howled with laughter at this sally. "Since when? Even Darya, who wouldn't remove her nose from a book if she never had to, puts most Simes in the shade on the dance floor, if not in the salle."
      "Have you seen a single person here do anything like dance or fight?" Mikhail pointed out. "I was very clumsy when I first went to Russia. Remember me trying to get onto the side saddle for the first time?"
      "Yes" Tzer shook his head. "I just thought it was because you were so, um, worn out."
      "No." he told him. "And that was after over a month of having Arkay working on me. I'm still way behind everyone but Darya. And the morning runs ... you should have seen me the first morning Arkay invited me out for a little exercise."
      "I do remember the first time we all went stair running." Tzer snickered.
      Mikhail swatted his butt. "Just because Arkay had to carry me back up out of the sharm."
      "Hey, you were so sore the next morning you made my hair ache." he squirmed.
      "Well, to get back to our little adventure in the life of a Techton Donor ..."
      "Why are all the Simes here, so, well, skinny." Tzer interrupted.
      "Because they don't exercise either, sweet." he sighed. "They think augmentation is the be all and end all for Simes. Since they don't work the actual muscles, they don't ever build up."
      "They must go through a lot of selyn." Tzer noted.
      "No, mostly they sit on their behinds a lot." Mikhail dug his fingers into the smooth, strong muscles of Tzer's back. True there was no fat at all to him, but the compact flesh was alive with good health. "The only reason most Donors are at all fit is because they tend to run after their channels a lot."
      "Good thing you never went back on the rolls." Tzer rolled his shoulders under the caress.
      "How so?"
      "I can't see you bothering to baby sit a grown Sime any more." he began to melt under the massage. "Particularly not after the way you stood up to your sister."
      "You have a point." Mikhail was enjoying this discussion so much. To just lie here and talk was like a bit of heaven.
      "Very true, my beloved." Tzer answered the unspoken words. "So, the tea is ready to go. Speaking of which?"
      "Sure." Mikhail extricated himself from Tzer's caress. Tzer simply lay there, watching him with lazy, relaxed eyes as Mikhail put the water on the hot plate they had borrowed for their seclusion. It was so incredible to be trusted with such a small thing. "So, we have tea." he sat back down, bringing two cups of the black, heavily sweetened tea. "Not like this though."
      "Oh, like the awful stuff they served us when we first got here?" Tzer shook his head and sipped at the drink. "They didn't even let it steep, much less settle." The practice of making tea early, letting it simmer down and then thinning it with hot water was a purely Russian practice, Mikhail had noted.
      "So, tea." he took a sip of his own, letting the strong bitterness burn through his need deadened tastebuds. "At this point the channel comes into the room. They might acknowledge my presence, they might not. They would almost always check the tea though and zlin me." He sighed.
      "It made you feel like a piece of furniture, didn't it?" Tzer asked.
      "It did." he looked down at his tea. "So, then they would wave me to the couch, as I only rarely worked as a Donor therapist."
      "One of those awful transfer lounges?" Tzer's face twisted into a look of utter disgust. "You should have seen the look on Arkay's face when our tour guide explained how it made collections so easy since the person on the couch couldn't resist. At the time it hurt when Arkay said, 'How convenient, shackles for a rapist'." he looked into his cup of tea.
      "Hey" Mikhail turned Tzer's face to him and looked into his eyes. "It's past."
      "I'll never forget, Mikhail." His silver eyes were greyed with remorse.
      "Neither will I, but I do forgive you." he said, putting his faith and his love into his words.
      "Thank you." he smiled softly.
      "You are quite welcome." Mikhail said, most truthfully. "Now, I'm on one of those couches. The channel would take my arms in his tentacles and lean forward ..."
      "Is that it?"
      "Pretty much. The channel would let me make the fifth contact when I was ready and then I was to relax completely." He shrugged. "Afterwards I usually got to hear all about their latest heartbreaks and struggles, while handing them tissues and making sympathetic noises. Not very exciting."
     
      "Sounds like rape to me." Tzer's anger threatened to burn though his control. "How could anyone treat another human being like that?" It was too close to home. Mikhail limp and unresisting beneath his own hands.
      "Easy Tzer." Mikhail's wonderful blue eyes were calm, as if it were nothing. "Easy." he took the tea from Tzer's nerveless fingers and began caressing his hands, still looking him in the eyes. "I never knew anything else, beloved. Sometimes I would get post enough to be interested in finding another young woman to share it with, but rarely. It wasn't painful, simply bland, sort of like oatmeal." His wry grin tugged at Tzer's heart. It wasn't a grimace of pain, merely good humor at having been so very innocent.
      "Thank you for telling me of this." He echoed the grin. While neither of them would ever have such innocence again, to have shared it was truly a special thing. "Why don't you show me how to play that collection of strings and things you brought up here?"
      "I would love to." Mikhail said and then kissed Tzer gently. "Thank you for listening to me."
      "What are friends for?" he stroked Mikhail's face. "But to listen."
      "And to share." Mikhail echoed the gesture.
     
      Late into the night, they sang and talked and laughed together, sharing their hopes for the future and fears from their pasts. Early the next morning, with the sun still low on the horizon, they shared their lives, pledging their hearts to each other for all time. Still in their living embrace, their bodies joined, fulfilling all the promises broken by their untimely separation.

Afterward: One Month Later

      Mikhail's breath steamed in the frozen air. Tzer had said it was positively balmy out. As ice cracked and fell from the shivering branch down the back of Mikhail's shirt; he had to disagree. Rough bark beneath his fingers scraped at the dirt embedded in his palms. He hid behind a nearly bare willow, trying not to breathe and give away his position.
      Slowly, ever so slowly, he slid towards the ground. A branch broke, in the distance to the south. He slid beneath the tangle if withies, careful not to disturb them or the newly softening ground beneath his feet. As silently as he could, Mikhail slithered around behind an outcropping. Listening again, he smiled as someone fell into the trap. The snap of a breaking rope and a yelp as his hunter fell into the pit Mikhail had dug last week, made it safe for him to run full out again.
      Dodging through the trees, he finally made it to the small creek he had once called a river. Mikhail danced nimbly across the ice, leaping over the unstable section in the middle. Looking back, he saw he had left a footprint and swore viciously under his breath. Then he smiled.
      Running half a klick upstream, he recrossed and ducked into a sandstone cave. This time he left no betraying prints. After pulling down a screen of dead roots and old leaves tangled in them, he backed further into the cave. Soon he had to shift to seeing by his own field. It was as bright as a new star with his excitement and being high field.
      A truck rumbled by overhead, sending a trickle of sand down to mingle with the melt on his back. Mikhail knew exactly where this cave ended out, or at least where it had three days ago. Sliding by the old opening into the Kaon basement, he smiled gleefully. Slinking through the total physical darkness, a rat skittered over his foot and he yelped.
      "Gotcha!" Selyn flared as bright as the sun and burning hot tentacles lashed around his wrists. Mikhail screamed in shock. Lips touched his own. Fire burned through his nerves, sending him into an ecstacy he had never known. Still shuddering in release, hands slammed him backwards over a padded porstan barrel. With brutal force, those same hands stripped his pants off with a snarl of shredding cloth.
      "Yes" Mikhail hissed.
      "You want this don't you?" the velvet voice out of the darkness made him quiver all over. With every syllable Mikhail felt himself open up.
      "Take me." he turned.
      "Only if you beg." the wicked chuckle was a silk glove stroking his very nerves. "Beg for me, my Mikhail."
      Trapped in exactly the position he wanted to be in, Mikhail leaned forward, "Take me, Tzer."
      This time there was no pain, only the coming together of two meant for each other, no matter the distance between them.