To Catch a Lord


To Catch a Lord




by



Ann Marie Olson





Story 1999 Ann Marie Olson






     
     
      "Are you really sure this is acceptable to you?" Sharm Lord Avilan Turovich Azov asked the old Sharm Lord Sergei for the third time.
      "Yes, I already said so." Sergei said before he rose to his feet and paced across the floor. "But if you ask me one more time, I might change my mind!" he said and Avilan looked up at him from his sprawl across the large comfortable chair. He was clad in the hoodless green kador of an Azov Sharm Lord. Avilan was picking out one of his long blond braids and redoing it. I haven't cut it since before that day in the forest with Lord T'aszo, he mused.
      "I have no idea how you are going to manage to hide all that under a sharm lord's kador, though." the older man told him.
      "I did say I could manage, even if I don't look as good in white." Avilan said, frowning at the image he would present. White was the traditional color of Sergei for, as he proposed, he would dress as a mere sharm lord to try to find a Lord to take the place of the now dead Lord Lukian Azov, who had been, as well as being his mate, a wonderful person. Sweet, kind, soft spoken, everything Avilan could ask for in a partner.
      "That wasn't what I meant, you idiot." Sergei snapped.
      Avilan sat bolt upright in his chair, startled out of his reverie, "What do you mean, 'you idiot?'"
      "Your field, stupid." Sergei shook his head.
      No, Sharm Lord Sergei is nothing like Lukian had been, Avilan thought, I just hope anyone I can find here would be less ... aggressive than their Lord.
      "Anyone with the power to make a decent Lord would be able to zlin exactly what you are, even through a sharm lord's kador." the older man frowned. "Don't tell me you haven't been able to make up your mind among your own court?"
      "Then I won't tell you." he tied off the end of the long braid and threw it back over his shoulder. "Besides, there isn't any one there who has the strength of will to take Lukian's place."
      Sergei snorted, "You mean you haven't been able to make up your mind, as usual."
      "What do you mean by that remark." Avilan was getting annoyed, slightly, at the implication he was dithering about trying to find a suitable partner.
      "What if what I have isn't, shall we say, suitable?" Sergei narrowed his eyes. He returned to his chair and leaned back.
      Ruefully, Avilan admitted, "After Lukian ..."
      "No one else is good enough?" Sergei said with a kind smile.
      "Not true." he snapped out then flushed at his own sharp tone. "That was kindly meant and I apologize for snapping at you."
      "Apology accepted, lad."
      "I only meant to say, well, admit no lord of Azov would have me." he looked at his hands, clenched into fists.
      "I doubt that seriously." Sergei tisked. "Or do you mean to say they would have Sharm Lord Azov but not Avilan Turovich?"
      Avilan flinched as Sergei's words hit home.
      "My turn to apologize, that was unkind of me."
      "Of course I accept your apology."
      "Why don't you wait a while and see who shows up?" Sergei suggested.
      "I don't think that would be a good idea." Avilan stated blandly, thinking of the three long months it had been since his own last transfer, which had not been very good. Avilan stood abruptly, annoyed at the shaking in his hands at the reminder. If he didn't manage to find a successor, he would follow his dead Lord and he knew it too well. "Azov requires a new Lord and soon, or there will be challenges from the young lords of other Demense." Avilan reminded Sergei.
      "Let them and pick the best of the lot." Sergei shrugged.
      "I don't want someone coming after the position with their laterals and not their brains, Sergei."
      "You, my young friend are a hopeless romantic."
      There wasn't a whole lot Avilan could say to this accusation so he shrugged and went on to his next argument. "On top of that, Fatima currently is headed by a Lord and two Sharm Lords so they are looking for a fourth." he sighed wearily over all the politics.
      "True enough, a Fatima lord for Azov is not something I want to have to deal with, and I am not entirely sure you would be willing to kill simply because the prospect was inappropriate." the disgust at the idea was obvious from Sergei's expression. Avilan had no doubts though he could manage the feat. Of himself he doubted it.
      "If there is someone suitable, you had better get to them before Fatima does." Sergei agreed with Avilan on at least this much. "If there are any who are suitable, I'm sure Fatima is actively hunting for them."
      If there was anyone in Sergei's court who was good enough to become the next Lord Azov, neither man wanted them to go to Fatima. With a full household, a Demense gained a great deal of status and prestige because of the increased stability in the leadership. With four powerful leaders Fatima might even have the nerve to challenge for control of Kirov which, if successful would be a disaster for the other three Demense. Avilan knew quite well, the leadership of Kirov rested entirely in the hands of a man who had once been his closest friend, Sharm Lord Arkay Kirov. While Arkay was the most powerful Sharm Lord in the Demense, he couldn't stand alone against a complete Fatima household.
      "How do you manage?" Avilan asked. Sergei hadn't had a Lord in over twenty years.
      "I get by, here and there." Sergei looked out at the city through the heavy leaded glass window. "I never had a match, much less a Lord I wanted underfoot all the time, so I guess I don't know what I am missing."
      "Well, I do know what I am missing and don't want to do it any more." Avilan said as he stalked back and forth across the floor.
      "Quit pacing. You'll wear out the rugs." Sergei turned to him and grinned. "I think I might be able to find something heavy enough to conceal even your nager."
      Avilan followed Sergei into the other room off his office up top, out of the sharm. Curious, Avilan watched Sergei dig through to the back of his closet and pull out a rather old fashioned kador of rich white wool, woven with gold and silver, and embroidered in a motif of firebirds. Casually, Sergei tossed it to him, and he almost dropped it when he tried to catch it. The thing must have weighed forty kilos!
      "That was my original kador before I ascended to become Sharm Lord Sergei. Lets see if it will fit you." Sergei said and looked him in the eyes. "We are, well I was, almost your size." Avilan was fairly large, even after loosing so much weight, and quite tall. Sergei had been shortened by age and cares, but he could still see the heavyset, tall young man he must have once been.
      He took off the green kador of Azov, blushing at the state of his underclothes, patches and tears in unlikely places. Avilan hadn't expected to undress himself in public on this little jaunt. Of course he realized his underclothes were never up to public scrutiny. The tailor's children ... he thought, since Azov was the primary producer of cloth and food in the Demense.
      "Hold on a moment," Sergei said and searched through his closet some more, and then looked closely at Avilan. "You have to have more than just the kador if you are going to zlin like a sharm lord." he said critically. Sergei pulled out a set of silk undergarments, long white silk gloves and a pair of tall white boots. "Try those on for size, first."
      Avilan rapidly pulled off his old worn clothes and most of his jewelry placing them on the couch in the corner. The new clothes fit perfectly. He looked in the mirror, noticing he stood straighter in the smooth silk and leather of the sharm courting garments Sergei had given him. They were clothes intended for showing off to a lover in. Avilan put his showing off into the embroidery on his outer garments. Neither Lukian or T'aszo had cared what he was wearing underneath. He looked dubiously at the white kador.
      "I'll put your bracelets and rings in the sharm locker later this evening." Sergei said as Avilan reached for them. Other gens never wore the heavy, glittering, jangling bracelets of a Sharm Lord, for to do so was to invite unwanted attention. "I don't think the earrings and other jewelry will be a problem, but these will have to be stored away." Sergei said and looked at him carefully again, "Well, get on with it."
      Avilan sighed and struggled his way into the much heavier than he was accustomed to kador. Finally managing to get the thing on straight, he complained, "How do any of us manage to get through life wearing all this." The weight was pressing down on his shoulders and he looked for a place to sit down where he had a chance of getting back up.
      "Hold still." Sergei snapped and rearranged a few folds of the garment, finally making sure all of Avilan's hair was neatly tucked down the back, he attached the veil and pulled the hood up. "Good enough, I suppose. Remember to keep your hands covered!" he reminded the younger gen.
      Muttering to himself, Avilan carefully followed Sergei down the stairs. Sweating as he reached the bottom, he swore this was a stupid stunt and as soon as he could find any likely youngster he wanted out of all this fabric.
     
      It had not been a good day, so far, for lord Karola Mardinova Sergei. It looked as if it were to take a drastic turn for the worse as well. Schooling her expression and nager to one of polite civility Karola made one last check to be sure she was showing no more signs of need than she could help. It would definitely not do to have roniplin on her arms at court. Blast sharm lord Fiyoric for a fool anyways, she cursed the man who had left her the morning before their transfer and then pulled her tentacles back as they lashed out in annoyance. The idea of having to deal with Ikanir again scared her spitless.
      Concentrating on keeping her composure, she entered the great hall of Sergei through the half open doors, signifying the informal court session. All but one of the people in the hall were familiar to her. Making sure her head didn't turn she carefully zlinned the stranger and got only a faint, indistinct impression through the heaviest kador she had ever run across. What is he doing at court if he has to wear such heavy shielding? she asked herself and then got back to business. Although she did also notice he had collected quite a crowd of lords, for such an unprepossessing character.
      Karola knelt to Sharm Lord Sergei and forced her tentacles out as she held her arms out to him looking carefully at the white marble steps of the dias. She always felt naked and defenseless in this position, which she figured was the point. Want! her body cried as he let his field touch hers when he brought her to her feet. The cool, spark dancing feel of him teased at her discipline and she firmly reminded herself she was in public. Once, too long ago, she had him and her body remembered it far too well, particularly as the metal of his bracelets slid down his arms to ring at his wrists. Embarrassed beyond words she noted her laterals trying to peek out.
      "I beg of you, again, to reconsider." she pleaded, trying to cover up her slip. She wanted him to find her any other partner than Ikanir, or if he couldn't, to take her for his own. Once he had promised to find someone for her, but she hoped he could manage to find a sharm lord. Karola desperately prayed he wouldn't try to set her up with a Sharm Lord, that would be almost as bad as dealing with the Inducted. They can't kill me, a Sharm Lord could she shuddered at the idea.
      "Again, I refuse." Sergei responded heavily and she could zlin his Nager still and darken, "There are plenty of sharm lords for you. Sergei doesn't require a Lord by my side." At least he didn't think to have me go to Azov where she knew quite well there was more than one Sharm Lord.
      Not a decent one will have me! All I have dealt with are the Inducted she wanted to scream in frustration but merely glared at Sergei. Suddenly a very large, weighty object sent her crashing to the floor. There were hands, at least two of them, in places she didn't want to think about right now.
      "I'm so sorry," the accosting stranger told her and she could see the insincerity in his deep, sapphire blue eyes. She couldn't zlin a thing about him, even with him lying on top of her, just a random haze of distortion.
      Suddenly nervous at having a strange sharm lord near her she spat, "I don't remember inviting you to grope me like a cabbage in the town market." Karola tried to sound mature and like she was far more annoyed at the attention than she really was.
      "I'd like to grope more than her cabbage." it was Fiyoric! She wanted to beat him soundly but tried to keep some dignity and settled for attempting to glare at the person looking down at her. This didn't work very well either due to their relative positions.
      With incredible grace and poise for a mere sharm lord, blue eyes got to his feet and offered her a hand up.
      Karola didn't want to take it, even covered in silk, for fear of disgracing herself further and got up on her own. Amazingly, other than her disarranged clothes she had not a single bruise from her adventure.
      "I'd rather have bedded Katrina Kirov than one of her bitches." lord Dian'r sniped, referring to the notorious Katrina, who had been as well known for her sadism as her incredible Nager, the fire-storm red glory of a perfect sunset. She felt the stranger's hand, sympathetic on her shoulder and couldn't bring herself to shrug it off.
      "You will go with sharm lord Avilan for transfer and I don't want to see either of you back here until you have learned to get along like civilized people and not barbarians of the steppes." Sergei doomed her to yet another of his diceing buddies. Why does he have to keep handing me over to these idiots every time he looses another night's round? she grumbled to herself. Oh well, he couldn't be worse than the sadist she would otherwise be condemned to, again.
     
      Avilan licked his lips and rubbed his forearms under the concealment of his robes as he followed Karola out of the court and down to a transfer room in the sharm. The only thing he could think of was getting her all to himself. It had been far too long since he had had a good transfer and this one promised to be wonderful. Lost in his thoughts of what he would like to do with her, he ran right into her as she stopped her headlong flight.
      "Oof!", the comment was knocked out of him by hitting her unyielding body. He could feel the heat rise off her and was not thinking straight. Avilan reached out to hold her shoulder to make sure she wasn't going anywhere unexpected. He really didn't want her to get away.
      "Get your filthy gen hands off me, you lech!" she snarled and turned on him in the deserted corridor, referring to him as one of the gens who could never give direct transfer to a sime.
      Shocked by the dismissal, Avilan stared at her, stunned. No one had ever treated him like this before in his life. What is she talking about? All I did was run into her.
      "I have no idea what you had in mind with your little stunt in the throne room but I want to get one thing perfectly clear. I have no plans on playing whatever little game you have set up with Sharm Lord Sergei." she said looking up at him.
      "I have no idea what you mean, my lord." Avilan managed to croak out. His head was spinning with her nearness. Only barely in time had he managed to remember to not call her by name. It was such a pretty name, Karola.
      "I mean my being stuck with a great oaf like you." she snarled, "You are as stupid and ignorant as you are clumsy, I'm sure of it."
      Taken upon the curb at this, Avilan tried to think through the haze of desire. It didn't work. She was so very beautiful with her flashing violet eyes and midnight black hair.
      "Look at you, bundled up like some kind of capon at a feast!" she snapped.
      This was going too far. he thought. But then again, it has gotten me this far as well. Avilan put on what he thought was his most fetching expression, quite hampered by the fact the only thing showing was his eyes.
      "You must be some kind of incompetent if Sharm Lord Sergei has assigned you to me for the next two months!" she stalked off down the hall.
      Avilan could hear the arrogance in her words but underneath it all he knew there was more to it than this. "Slow down." he called to her.
      "What do you want, now?" she growled.
      "What I don't want is to run into you again." he snapped back when she stopped to wait for him.
      "Then hurry up. I have work to do and no time to wait on fools like you." she said and stalked off again.
      Avilan was puffing as he hurried after her long strides.
     
      Karola flung the door open, letting it bang against the stop and close behind her. Avilan hesitated for a moment, having second thoughts about this whole thing and contemplating the possibility of walking out right now. He watched himself reach for the door handle. Shrugging, he made up his mind and figured he might as well go through with it. Sergei would never let him live this down as long as he lived if he couldn't take care of a single lord on his own. Even one as abrasive as this one. Besides, I'm desperate, Avilan thought with a wry grin.
      He opened the door and watched her pace back and forth, tentacles lashing the air as she waited impatiently. This, at least, I know how to deal with, Avilan thought, Its not as if I couldn't stop her if I wanted to. As soon as he had removed off his gloves and veil she was on him. He barely had time to catch his balance before she had her tentacles hot against his arms. She didn't hesitate at all before making the fifth contact point. The only thing that saved her from his reflexes to kill an attacker was absolute shock at her abruptness and his overwhelming need for a transfer as soon as he felt her touch.

      Karola was absolutely furious with Sergei. How dare he send me off with this clod, she flung the door open and stepped through, Thats twice he's run into me, already. The door slammed shut behind her. Figuring she should open it before he ran into it and she had to deal with a sharm lord with a headache on top of her own she reached for the handle.
      It opened before she could grab it and she turned away. Stalking across the room she tried to convince herself it wouldn't be too bad by talking to herself with her tentacles. "First, he has to have some kind of decent field or there would be no reason for him to wear such a heavy kador. Second, he can't really be that clumsy from the way he got up off the floor. Third, he really does have the most wonderful blue ..."
      Hot, honey-gold fire flared across all thoughts she might otherwise have been entertaining. The room dissolved into light and shadows created by the blazing energy. Instinctively, she grabbed the core of it and helplessly watched herself take it with a mindlessness she would never have thought possible before. The world dimmed and then went flat again. Ashamed beyond words, Karola dropped his arms and wanted to go hide in the corner of her little tiny room, far away. I have never fallen on someone like that before. What am I doing?
      "Get back here you thrice fathered daughter of a muleskinner and her wares!" Avilan bellowed before she could escape.
      Oh my goodness, he has a gorgeous voice. "I'll not spread my legs for the likes of you as long as I live," she snapped. What am I saying?! she backpedaled mentally as an overwhelming wave of pure lust ran into her deathly embarrassment, Of course I would.
      "That wasn't what I was talking about, you bitch." he snapped.
      Bitch in heat is more like it. part of her mind commented as his bare hand landed on her shoulder and she really couldn't think. "Then what? You fleabitten, mangy excuse for a whore's son!" he mouth ran on, confused and completely beyond Karola's control.
      He had the deepest, bluest eyes she had ever seen. She wanted to touch the place where their lips had met but decided it would probably be best to keep her hands to herself right now, after her little display earlier. "Well?" she wanted to know where he wanted to go from here. Every other sharm lord who had touched her couldn't wait to get away from her as soon as they possibly could, and she didn't want to think of what the Ikanir had wanted of her after transfer.
      "How dare you treat me like that?" he asked, grabbing her shoulder even harder.
      "Like what?" her tongue slipped again. "An inducted gen who can only get his thrills knocking around a lord like me?" she thought of Ikanir and his horrible viciousness to anyone who he thought was weaker than himself.
      She wanted to tell Avilan she wasn't thinking about him but before she could get the words out he said, "You're stuck with me until next month at least."
      "Not if I challenge your right to be out of the sharm." she threatened, trying to prove she was still worth something, to herself if no one else. Karola had no idea what she was talking about, as it had absolutely nothing to do with what was running through what was left of her mind, which was not very much.
      "You wouldn't stand a chance."
      The arrogance of him. now fury warred with embarrassment and lust. If she had eaten anything in the past day it would certainly be returning now. "Tomorrow!" she growled and fled the room to be sick by herself.
     
      "Not if I challenge your right to be out of the sharm." the young woman said. How dare she threaten me with banishment? he shuddered at the idea of being locked inside solid stone for the rest of his life. Avilan had never dealt well with being closed up, a severe handicap in Russia, to his way of thinking.
      "You wouldn't stand a chance." he snapped then wished he could take the words back. Lukian and he had sometimes sat and held each other for hours, both before and after transfer. This young woman had the temerity to treat him like some kind of convenience and then threaten him with his worst nightmare. He couldn't say no to her though. The idea of trying to stop this thundercloud was beyond him.
      "Tomorrow!" she growled and stalked out of the room in fury.
      He let her go then sat down and put his head in his hands. Avilan could still stop her from this nonsense. No, asking Sergei to rein her in wouldn't be a good idea. The older man would probably laugh at him and tell him to just thump her and teach her a lesson she wouldn't forget. Avilan didn't want to hurt her the way she had hurt him, it wouldn't be fair. For some reason what was fair to her was very important to him right now. Why?, he had no idea.
      "What would Lukian tell me to do?" he asked himself in the silence of the now too empty room. It seemed so much smaller without Karola being there.
      "Probably tell me to stop being a fool and let me pet his tentacles." tears trickled down his face at the thought of his lost Lord.
      "Why did you leave me?" he cried to empty air, sobbing his pain.
     
      After a long, mostly sleepless night, Avilan reluctantly put on the loose pants and wrapped shirt traditional for a challenge match in the salle. At least I won't get my good clothes damaged. he thought of the one challenge he had fought to stay with Lukian when he had split one of his favorite pairs of breeches. Lukian didn't let me live that one down for years, he looked up to keep from crying again.
      "Maybe I should throw the match." he said to the ceiling then dismissed it as being unkind to Karola. She at least deserved a fair trial and handing it to her would not be dignified.
      "I could not show up?" he ran through other options. No, she would win the challenge automatically then and it would be as unfair as if he had thrown the bout. I should have refused her challenge last night, he finally admitted to himself, now it's too late
      For Lukian's memory he had to keep the honor of Azov, if nothing else.
     
      After entering the salle to find Karola waiting for him, talking quietly with the marshal, he took a deep breath and centered himself. The familiar scents of sweat, pine and leather surrounded him. Good, the sand on the wood floor was thin but even. Without it, the greater strength of an augmenting Sime could overwhelm some sharm lords. Of course it didn't apply to him but he liked to see the attention to detail implied by such careful stewardship.
      Karola held out her forearms, already in their protective bracers for inspection. Avilan tried to pick up anything of her mood but her wonderful violet eyes were shadowed. He made very sure there was nothing ill fitting which might pinch a delicate lateral in the complex armor but it seemed all was as it should be. The marshall nodded his approval and they all parted without a word said. Avilan didn't want to be doing this, not on less than three hours of sleep, not with the woman he just had transfer with and certainly not for his own freedom but couldn't tell her she was being a fool and make her loose face by refusing her challenge.
     
      Someone else had come into the salle. Karola's head jerked up. "Ikanir send his greetings, Karola."
      "What does he want now, Torun?" she zlinned the smug little Gen who currently shared Ikanir's bed. "Don't you think there might be a better time for this?" Torun had been a regular thorn in her side since he established.
      "None better, Karola." he smirked as she felt Avilan's hand rest on her shoulder. "Your little boy toy there has annoyed him and so he had to find someone else to play with this month."
      Suddenly scared for whoever Ikanir had gotten his filthy hands on Karola reached out and slapped Torun hard enough to drive him to the floor, "Who did he take?" Anyone who willingly associated with Ikanir deserved to be knocked around a bit, or at least she knew they enjoyed it.
      "Now why should I be telling you something like that?" he rubbed his jaw carefully. "I mean after you hit me and all. You didn't have to knock me around. Although I bet you were looking forward to a little roll on the floor with pretty boy."
      "Tell me you little bastard. Where is he?" restraining the urge to kick Torun, she looked down at him.
      "Not somewhere with a good a view as this." he looked directly at her crotch, licking his lips. Maybe I should have kicked him then she zlinned, cool, dark, damp He must be on the bottom level. Shen, some of those rooms haven't been used in ages. she thought as she ran for the door.
      "I'll get back to you, later." she heard Avilan say from behind her. All her attention was on getting to Ikanir before he used up whoever he had managed to get his hands on this time. I hope they aren't someone I know, well, knew. Down three flights of stairs and through one of the old blast doors. Finally coming to the end of the corridor she could faintly zlin Ikanir and horrible pain behind the wooden door. It was locked but not barred when she tried the handle. Avilan was running down the hallway after her and she saw he wasn't going to stop. He'll have a better chance than I ever could. she slapped the spot on the door where he could take it down and pulled her tentacles carefully inside her bracers.
      With an enormous crash he hit the door with a flying kick and then landed on top of it on his feet. Graceful she absently noted of Avilan. There he is! Karola flashed into the room and managed to catch the whip around her bracer before it could connect again with whoever he had nailed to the old wood butcher block. She pulled on the whip, spinning Ikanir around to face her. Shattering pain from the young renSime on the table almost brought her to her knees.
      Karola slammed into Ikanir driving him into the wall. "Give me one good reason I shouldn't kill you this time, you sick bastard."
      "Because you know you really like it, my pretty." his hand left a trail of cooling blood on her cheek with his parody of a caress. "I was so hurt when I found you abandoned me for Sharm Lord Avilan. I had to find another friend." his voice was lyric and smooth but his field was as slick and unmoving as stone. It was also far lower than it should have been.
      She made the mistake of looking at the renSime on the table and almost threw up. There was blood everywhere, trailing down the sides of the table. Ikanir must have been at his little game since last night. The youngster's hands had been nailed together over his head and his feet were tied to the legs of the table. She couldn't see or zlin who it was. "Get him off the table first." she told Avilan, who didn't hear her. He had already managed to get the young man's laterals seated.
      "Take the back, pretty boy." Ikanir laughed.
      There was no skin left on the lad's back from where Ikanir had torn it off with his whip, driving the renSime's field down by torture. Instead Avilan took the spot at the base of the neck, trying not to injure him any more than he already had been.
      "Now don't you want to have some fun?" Ikanir looked at her from behind lowered eyelids. "You know you like to play after transfer." he rocked his pelvis towards her and she could see how much he wanted her. "Admittedly, he wasn't as good as you are, but so many more times."
      Karola couldn't deal with him anymore. "Enough!" she slammed him into the wall again. "Shut up, you bastard." hoping she could keep from killing him before she managed to silence him       "Oh please, yes. Or are you just teasing me again, sweet Karola?" his eyes lit with unholy fire.
      Without thinking about it she turned him around and locked his arms behind his back. She pressed his face against the stone wall. "Do you want me to do it this time, Ikanir?" she threatened now she had him in a killing position.
      "Oh yes, even though I would really like to see your death for killing me even more." he gloated.
      Avilan growled. "My name is Sharm Lord Avilan Turovich Azov. I have the right to order the death of Ikanir. Kill him!" The formal phrases for ordering an execution were hurried but obviously, to all her senses, valid.
      Karola was momentarily shocked to find out Ikanir hadn't lied about Avilan's rank. Fury overwhelmed everything else though. She had dreamed of doing this for so very long.
      Suddenly Ikanir was trembling in her hands. "Is there something you wanted to say to me, Ikanir?" she said sweetly, then slammed him into the wall again. "Or do you not want to say good bye?" His pain felt good but she wanted ... no she didn't.
      "Damn you to hell, both of you."
      "I think the same could be said of you, Ikanir. Although I don't think my curses are going to make one bit of difference in where you go." she opened herself up to the murderous fury consuming her. This was far cleaner than anything she had ever received from Ikanir, unlike feeding on pain and fear.
      "Good bye, Ikanir." she bit down on the back of his neck to make the fifth contact point after seating her laterals and gave in to all her hate of the man and killed him, slowly and lovingly.
      As the red haze slowly receded from her vision, she eventually dropped the burned out corpse from her hands. One more thing before I have hysterics. she turned around, wobbling a bit.
      Karola brushed the hair back from the young man's face and had to grip the slick, wet table for balance. "Oh gods, Dori." she kissed his cheek. He was still alive, barely. Ikanir had been good at one thing, keeping someone alive long enough for his purposes.
      "Kari, issat you?" he whispered.
      "Yes sweetheart, I'm here with a friend." she murmured in his ear. Looking up at Avilan, "Can you get that nail out?"
      "No, not without augmenting. I can control the pain to a certain extent or send him unconscious again."
      "Sleep, please. I don' wanta wake up again."
      "Dori, no. You will be well again. I promise." Karola wanted to cry, but knew it wouldn't do her friend any good. "If he is unconscious you won't be able to help him heal as well. Lets get this over with." She reached up and pulled the deeply seated nail out as fast as she could. Dori screamed but then turned on Avilan, who let him draw for all he was worth. Even so soon after transfer, he still had plenty for a renSime, but Karola nervously zlinned them as it seemed to go on and on.
      "Shift him to me, Avilan." she hoped he would hear her. Watching the two of them it almost seemed like Dori was loosing selyn almost as fast as he was taking it in. Karola set her field to the most enticing Gen she could think of, only partially aware she had mimicked Avilan. Dori finally released Avilan and passed out, mercifully unconscious.
      Dori was healing rapidly and Karola zlinned him thoroughly. "Other than massive blood loss and soft tissue trauma, of the physical aspects he isn't in as bad a condition as I would have expected." She looked up and only then noted Avilan was dead white and was about to faint on her.
      "Sit down!" she said, but it was too late. She caught him on the way to the floor. With the physical contact she realized it was only mental and emotional shock. If nothing else I had better keep him around so I have a witness who will defend the killing of Ikanir. she temporized. Carefully she carried him over to a relatively clean area where she could set him against the wall.
      Then it hit her. She had assaulted a Sharm Lord. Her hands shook as she reached for his arms to do a thorough examination as if he were any other man. Karola snatched them back. Sharm Lords can kill, why didn't he when I attacked him last night. It wasn't as if I were any better than Ikanir in the way I treated him.
      "Now," she looked at her own hands and twined her tentacles around her fingers, "what is going to happen to me? I have killed, legally." her whole body shook as she realized she was a Lord without a partner. Unless I get a mate in the next few months I'll be dead.

      "Other than massive blood loss and soft tissue trauma, of the physical aspects he isn't in as bad a condition as I would have expected." Karola said after examining the young man she had called Dori. The sickening sweet, copper smell of blood finally reached Avilan's consciousness. Her clinical recitation only added to his disorientation and a cold sweat broke out on his forehead.
      "Sit down!" he heard her say, as if from a distance and he looked down to see the pool of red he was standing in. The room faded out to black.

      Images flashed behind his closed eyelids. Karola standing over Torun, threatening him to find out where Ikanir was. Going through the door and seeing a young renSime beaten bloody and bound to a wood table. Trying to keep contact with the young man's laterals and still find a fifth contact point which wasn't raw meat. Ikanir making lewd suggestions to Karola while bragging about what he had been doing.
      The absolute hatred and fury Karola showed when he released her to kill Ikanir brought him out of the darkness with his heart pounding. His memory fed him Ikanir's dying scream over and over again. Avilan's eyes opened to see his own hands covered in blood. He scraped at them, trying to get it off. Someone was howling or crying, he couldn't tell which.
      Karola grabbed his hands, stilling them, "Quiet, you'll hurt yourself." Then he realized it was himself making the horrible noise and he stopped. There was a bloody hand print on her cheek. "We are both a mess." she smiled and he could feel her try to bring him back to himself.
      Good thing I am as low field as I ever get or I would be driving her hysterical as well. Avilan noted as he managed to reorient himself, carefully avoiding looking around. "Is Dori, you called him, going to be all right?" he asked and was surprised at how shaky his own voice was.
      "Physically yes. Otherwise, I don't know yet." she got up and managed to find some water and a rag somewhere. Avilan closed his eyes again and concentrated on her cleaning his hands off. "He may be so traumatized he aborts out of his next transfer, or not. He certainly seemed to accept you but then, well ..." her voice trailed off.
      Avilan took the rag from her and gently wiped the horrid hand print off her cheek. "Well, what, sweet?"
      "You're different." she looked at his hand holding the cloth.
      "I would certainly hope I am nothing like ..." he tipped his head at Ikanir's corpse. He sniffed indignantly and then gagged slightly. "I have no idea how you can stand this but I can't anymore." Avilan levered himself to his feet.
      She shrugged, "I usually work in the infirmary. Admittedly it isn't usually this bad but I am somewhat used to it. Really, I didn't mean to compare you to Ikanir but, well, I haven't known a whole lot else either."
      A lot of things clicked together for Avilan at this point. "You've never cut your hair, have you." he stroked it.
      Checking over Dori carefully before she picked him up, "No." She put him over her shoulder so the healing skin on his back wouldn't be rubbed and then looked at Avilan strangely, "You are going to keep him from getting disoriented?"
      "Of course." he couldn't understand why someone wouldn't, then her earlier answer made sense. She was barely out of schooling. He had thought she was quite a bit older. "Why wouldn't I?"
      "Because it is extra effort for a renSime." she shrugged her unladen shoulder. "I don't suppose we have to do anything about the door." she grinned wryly.
      "Firewood, maybe." it was dry enough for the purpose. "It was a failure on someone's part he got hurt. Of course I am going to help as much as I can." he frowned. "You don't really think I am like Ikanir, do you?" Avilan had to ask as they went up the stairs.
      She stopped and looked him in the eyes although he could see the slight tremor in her frame as she said, "I hope not."
     
      "There has been a kill in Sergei!" the old Sharm Lord's voice rang out to his court and the formal doors of his great hall slammed open with a crash. Avilan had tried to convince Sergei to at least let Karola clean up first but to no avail. In a fit of pique, quite unusual for Avilan, he refused to clean up until afterwards as well. She was still wearing her armor and simple shirt and pants, now blood stained. Standing up straight and tall she walked into the hall, head held high, alone.
      "I have killed, Sharm Lord Sergei." her voice carried over the hush of the absolute silence of the court. Karola sank to the floor onto her knees, hands flat on the marble tiles in front of her. Avilan could see where Dori's blood was still outlining some of her fingernails and swallowed heavily.
      "It was justified!" Avilan strode from his position on the dias to stand behind her when he got himself back under control. As he got nearer he could see she was shaking like a leaf, even though it hadn't been visible from up front. He did his level best to support her but didn't dare do too much, as he wasn't too tightly wrapped at the moment himself. "Ikanir is rightfully dead for willful wrongs sufficient to merit death." he hoped Sergei wouldn't push Karola any more. If nothing else I don't want to go into the gory details. his stomach churned at the unfortunate choice of words and he made his mind go blank and still.
      "The court of Sergei will hear the words of Lord Karola, herself." Sergei demanded, gesturing her to rise to her feet.
      She muffled her gasp at his use of her new title and stood. "Ikanir abused his power over Dorityan Sergei, torturing him for purposes of illegal transfer. Sharm Lord Avilan's was the judgement, mine was the execution." Karola stated clearly, looking up at Sergei who approached them.
      Avilan's jaw clenched as he watched Sharm Lord Sergei reach out to touch Karola's face. Without thinking about it he held her shoulders protectively. Sergei had precedence, though. Before he made contact however, he looked at Avilan and raised an eyebrow. "So be it." he whispered to them.
      Sergei turned back to his court, "Judgement and execution sustained!"
      Karola almost fell out of his grasp as she fainted dead away.
     
      Someone was gently washing her back. Who? she wondered and then realized she wasn't where she last remembered being, although she had no other sensations of psychospatial disorientation. She was sitting in an unfamiliar bath with large cool hands washing her and she could see his long legs stretched out around her, holding her in place. Blond, obviously, not that this was a great deal of help in identifying the stranger as half the nobility of the Demense were blond.
      "Avilan!" slipped out as her memories of the last hectic twenty four hours caught up with her.
      "Yes, sweet." he said and kissed the back of her neck.
      Goose bumps ran up her arms at the touch as she remembered killing Ikanir using the same point for transfer. Avilan's field was soft and protective though, the faintly remembered feel of warm honey smoothed her nervousness.
      "Sorry about the reminder." he murmured and let her sit up on her own. She didn't want to and somehow he picked up on it and pulled her back against him. "I thought you would feel better to finally get cleaned up. I know I did." his chuckle vibrated through her body.
      This was an entirely new thing for Karola. Tentatively she essayed a tiny little purr to let him know her appreciation. Hot, molten gold filled her mind as he responded by relaxing his field all the way. Karola knew he was low field but it certainly didn't feel like it right now.
      "Lets get your hair washed and we'll be done." She didn't want it to end yet, so she held onto his knees before he could move. "I'm not going anywhere." he murmured and gently pushed her forward. "Come on, sweet."
      Eventually she gave in, still more than a bit dazed. When he was done, Avilan let her turn around and look at him. Karola cocked her head, "You didn't do your hair." It was all coiled up and carefully set on top of his head.
      "Too much work right now." he said with half a grin.
      "No." she almost bit her lip at trying to order a Sharm Lord around. But seriously, she didn't think he was going to do anything to her when they were sharing the same bath tub. Would be messy, or at least Karola guessed and reached for the pins holding his hair out of the water. It all fell down as she removed them to form a very large spreading mass of gold silk. Carefully he stood up and held out his hands to her. Looking up at him was a delightful experience.
      After enjoying the view for a moment she stood up and noticed Avilan was grinning at her, "Like what you see, little one?"
      Karola blushed furiously. Looking down she realized how far her blush extended, which made it even worse. The very ends of his hair were almost brushing the water and she realized Avilan had been a Sharm Lord for at least fifteen years possibly twenty, for it to be so long. What am I doing here? she skittered, briefly thinking of running and hiding again. Then she realized that would make things even worse. Calm, normal ... relax she reminded herself taking a deep breath.
      While she was looking down, Avilan slowly turned around. "You volunteered." he shook out his hair.
      Karola couldn't even imagine how heavy all of that must be, but when she picked it up she found out. Particularly when it was wet. "Now I know why you wanted to put this off." she muttered, trying to distract herself from noticing the way the water was clinging to his body. Firmly reminding herself to behave she managed to get through washing his long blond hair and not embarrass herself even further by comparing it to washing out a horse's tail; a very long, silken ... it wasn't working. She finally gave up and wrapped her arms around his chest and sighed against his shoulder when she had finished. "Sorry," she tried to pull away when she realized what she had done, "I didn't mean ..." His shoulders were so very broad and comfortable to lean on.
      However Avilan had managed to hold onto her hands before she could remove them and pulled her even more tightly to him. Smart Karola, now you've done it. You're trapped here wrapped around the most gorgeous man you have ever seen in your life who could kill you as easily as kiss you. Really intelligent. she hoped he wouldn't be too upset at her forwardness. "Hmmmm..." oh my, what was this? something warm and wet was gently nibbling on one of her tentacles.
     
      Slow down, Avilan! he reminded himself. It felt so very, very good to have her arms around him but he knew he could scare her off with one wrong move.
      "Sorry," her hands slipped a bit and he held them to him, "I didn't mean ..." He didn't want to hear her say she wasn't sure of what she wanted, so he held her tighter, not wanting her to go away. Leaning down, he managed to catch one of her dorsals in his mouth. It was hot and so velvet soft in texture, he played with it a bit, nibbling the end. Very carefully he relaxed some more of the controls on his field, showing her his care and concern. She murmured something unintelligible against his back.
      She wrapped one of her legs around his and started to slide it up their length. He held his breath and realized her daren't let it get too high, or he might give her more of a surprise than she was looking for. After one last caress of his tongue on her tentacle he stretched forward with one foot to pull the stopper out on the tub, not incidentally displacing her wandering calf. She sighed in relief as the move shifted them apart a bit.
      Trying to get himself under some kind of control again, he took a deep breath and told his body to behave. Fortunately he was no longer sixteen and managed at least a modicum of presentability by the time he turned around to face her again. "Are you willing to finish the job you started?" Avilan pulled his wet hair around and looked at it mournfully.
      "C...Certainly." she stuttered. Karola seemed even more nervous than he would have thought. Her face was flushed and she was intently looking at his feet.
      Even wet, his hair provided some level of modesty. He was quite grateful for this fact, for her sake if nothing else. "Have you never been with a man before, little one?" Avilan couldn't tell if her blushes were for his sake or her own.
      "Well, yes, but no, well ... um, not like this." she waved one hand at the tub and then returned it to her side. She was so agitated it looked like her tentacles were trying to knot themselves around her fingers, permanently.
      That was certainly an indefinite answer. he prayed to what ever Gods might exist she was not truly a virgin. Of course given Ikanir had been so familiar with her, as if he had been one of her partners. his stomach gave a little jump. Her black hair had fallen forward over her shoulders and he brushed it back gently and then tipped her chin up to look at him. "Was Ikanir?" he asked, as softly as he could.
      "No." her eyes slid to the side and his heart gave a lurch as he realized she was lying.
      "You don't have to lie to me, little one." he murmured dropping his hand. Karola flinched as if Avilan had hit her. For a brief instant he wished he could bring Ikanir back so he could kill him.
      "I was post and he was ... well, there." she stammered.
      "Quiet, little one. You don't have to explain." he wanted so badly to be able to hold her and tell her everything would be all right, although he knew it wouldn't. Avilan slowly held out his hands towards her but she shook her head no and ran from the room. Sighing heavily Avilan picked up a couple of towels and got his hair out of the way. After drying off he grabbed another one and took it into the bedroom.
      Karola was curled up in the middle of the bed, crying hard enough to make even more of a soggy mess out of the sheets. Silently he walked across the room, reaching out in front of him with his field so as not to startle her. She looked up at him, her wonderful violet eyes full of tears. With a great sob she launched herself into his arms after he sat on the edge of the bed.
      Huh? he had thought she wouldn't want him now. To cover his confusion he dried her off and gently stroked her soft back until she was done crying on his shoulder.
      "You came to find me." she sniffled and he handed her a handkerchief from the bedside table. She sniffled again and looked at it dubiously.
      He had to grin as she finally figured out to use the handkerchief to blow her nose. "Of course I came out here. It is my bedroom after all."
      She looked around with wide eyes, "I suppose Thats true. It wasn't for me."
      "Yes it was!" he was even more confused now. Avilan had not had a great deal of experience with women in his life and certainly not young women.
      Karola leaned back to look at him again as if he were speaking English and not Russian, "You are just upset with me because I got your bed soggy."
      This went by way too fast for his comprehension. What language are we speaking? he asked himself in exasperation. "I didn't say I was upset, sweet." he tickled her now quite red nose.
      "But you ran off on me." she sniffed again.
      He almost said, I did what? but then thought the better of it. "You ran off on me." this seemed more logical to Avilan.
      "I did no such thing!" her eyes blazed and he knew he had stepped in it again.
      Now Avilan wanted to cry. He knew it wouldn't help any but thought it might make him feel better. What is this, I have a beautiful woman in my lap and I want to cry? he thought. Sighing and lacking any better response to her accusation he tucked her head under his chin and began counting silently to himself. Eventually she relaxed again. However this time she was in a far better position to make him truly uncomfortable and he yelped as the tip of her tongue flicked across one of his nipples.
      She leaned back, startled and cocked her head, looking intently at his chest. Uh-oh He put his hand on the back of her head and unfortunately Karola took this as an invitation. Squirming to try to get her into a more comfortable position on his lap did not help at all. Avilan bit at his lower lip to try to keep his mind off what her sharp little teeth were doing. Eventually she gave up and he sighed, silently, in heart felt relief.
      Avilan's yaw actually popped as he gave an enormous yawn. It had been a very long and far too exciting day, for his taste at least. Karola looked up and touched his lower lip, where he had bit at it, before he could get his mouth closed again. She cocked her head in a silent question.
      "Long day and didn't really sleep last night." he explained.
      This didn't seem to be the answer to her question, "You bit at your lip?"
      "You, little minx, are a tease." he winked at her to let her know he was jesting with her.
      After a big yawn on her part, "I didn't sleep at all last night, actually."
      He was getting the hang of this, "To bed, then, m'Lord?" He waved his hand at the non-damp part of the bedding.
      "How so a tease?" she asked. Maybe he wasn't getting this. Karola stood up and stretched, from the tips of her toes to the ends of her tentacles, right in front of his nose. He draped the convenient towel a bit more artistically across his lap. She's too naive, she doesn't know what she is doing, she couldn't want me, I don't dare push her any harder, he reminded himself of all the reasons he should be very careful with the absolutely stunning woman whose every muscle was moving and sliding about under her satin smooth skin not ten cents away from him. I want her! his body screamed at him.
      "To sleep?" she asked, not waiting for his answer to her earlier question.
     
      This is not one of my best mornings Karola thought as her memory caught up with her. Cautiously and silently she unwrapped Avilan's arms from around her body and crawled out of bed. He had felt wonderful curled up around her but she knew he would not thank her for being about when he woke up. She had no idea what she had done wrong last night that he hadn't wanted her.
      Frowning, she zlinned about trying to locate something she could use for clothes to get back to her room. Ah, there. she spotted a rather tattered old bathrobe lying over the back of a chair and hurriedly put it on. Good enough in the dark she was grateful Sergei practiced the old tradition of turning out all the lights in the sharm during the middle of the night. Safely in the hallway with the door closed behind her she stopped for a moment and kneaded some of the knots out of her lower abdomen. Definitely am not at my best at the moment she took a deep breath.
      On with the day, she took one last look around her tiny cubicle to see if she had left anything lying out she shouldn't have. Giving her hair a quick swipe, she threw the brush on her cot and went up to the infirmary.
      "Kari!" Dori called out as she walked in the door. "Or shoulda it be, Lord Karola now?" he asked her playfully.
      She was thrilled to see him looking so good after what Ikanir had done to him. Checking his chart at the foot of the bed, Karola noted with stunned amazement the vast quantities of selyn they had had to drive into him for him to be able to heal the worst of his injuries. "You are sounding chipper this morning." she grinned. "Of course you don't have to call me by my title, Dori ... it still squeaks when I turn around too fast."
      He looked away nervously anyways. "Thank you, my Lord." he looked at his bandaged hands. "I mean, if you hadn't of come for me, I wouldn't not be here."
      "Oh, Dori. You were always my friend. Even when I was a grass green youngster trying to impress everyone."
      "You sure impressed Fatima." he grimaced. "I don't not know what she haddin mind for you, but it sure wouln'ta been good for you."
      This was the first she had heard of any of this. "What do you mean about Fatima?" of course she knew it was the second most powerful of the Demense but she had no idea who would be interested in anything having to do with herself.
      "Well, the was thisun message I was sent. It was from Sharm Lord Tzanir Fatima, it was." he squirmed about on the bed and she delicately scratched his itching back with her field. "Thank you, m'Lord. To go on ... It was saying if I wanted to do you a help I would stop by the sharm here fore I went home. Thats when Ikanir grabbed me and took me off below. I am gussin you know the resta the tale." he shrugged.
      "I can put together most of it now. Although she might have wanted to simply cause trouble in general, rather than being specifically after me." Karola couldn't figure why anyone would be interested in her. She was, well had been, only one of many of the lords of Sergei. She certainly didn't have any great powers, like those she had heard of being wielded by some people.
      "Thisun here note specially mentioned you by name, m'Lord." Dori nodded his head rapidly and then shyly looked up at her. "I means if'n its important and all, m'Lord."
      "I'm glad you're safe, Dori." she smiled and forcibly maintained the fields cheerful. "Be well, my old friend."
      "I'm not so old as all that, m'Lord. Lookin forward to gettin back to my work, I am." he grinned. "Was hopin to make squad boss over practice this winter. Don't look like it now, though." he looked sadly at his hands. "Don't know as how I'm gonna make all this back either." his tentacles licked out timidly in reference to the selyn debt by which almost all renSimes were held to the Demense.
      Karola was getting heartily tired of all his formality.
      Before she could say anything though, Avilan said from behind her, "Don't worry about it, Dorityan. I'll make good on it personally if there is a problem with Sergei making up the deficit."
      Dori looked back and forth timidly between the two of them, "Thank you, my Lords, thank you. I don't know how I can ever ..."
      "Be well and do your best. Thats all we ever ask." Avilan spoke the polite formulas with more than the usual amount of sincerity behind them.
      Another young renSime, a woman this time with a tiny babe in arms came in to the room. She nodded shyly at Dori's visitors but bustled over to him anyways. Avilan hustled Karola out of the room as she glanced over at the infant with longing to hold the child, I wish someday I could...
     
      "What did you think you were doing, disturbing him at this hour of the morning?" Avilan growled at her as soon as he had closed the door behind them. It was as black as the inside of the penal mines in the Sergei sharm at this hour of the night. Avilan couldn't see a thing and hoped she was still standing where he had placed her. He had only found her by guessing and a lot of close calls with his nose.
      "He is, well was, my friend, Avilan." she said from in front of him and slightly to his left.
      Avilan shifted to face where her voice was coming from then heard her start to move off. He grabbed for her and caught the back of her shirt. "Stand still when I am trying to talk with you. I can't see a thing." he muttered.
      She turned and he could hear her tap her toe on the stone floor. "Well, I'm standing."
      When he had woken up to find her gone he couldn't believe it at first. Why had she run off again? and now this. "Your place is not stressing the poor man any more than has already been done to him."
      "I thought he might like some company." her voice was muted and downcast. "Besides, my work is here."
      "Not anymore, Lord Karola." Sergei's voice came out of the darkness. "What are you two doing arguing in the hallway in the middle of the night? Don't you have anything better to do?"
      Avilan could hear the annoyance in the older man's voice and could almost see where he was. Although he almost choked at Sergei's second question. "We were discussing Karola's running off on me ... again." he couldn't quite keep the exasperation out of his voice.
      "I did no such thing." she snapped

      Sergei chuckled quietly, as if to himself. Karola stomped her foot hard enough to almost cover it and Avilan grabbed her before she could move. *clever* he heard in his head, even though it sounded like Sergei's voice. Avilan jumped at the unexpected comment, almost releasing Karola. "Why don't you two come up to my rooms. I have a few things to discuss with Avilan and you, Lord Karola." he leaned lightly on her new title.
      No one thought to turn on a light, so Avilan placed his hand on Karola's shoulder praying she wouldn't run him into anything. Suddenly he stopped and peered into the darkness, which wasn't quite as total as it once had been. There were ghostly shadows where he figured the two other people he knew were. He sucked in his breath with a hiss of surprise and the outline of what he knew had to be Karola turned to him, it seemed. "Is there something wrong?" she asked quietly.
      "Did someone turn on a very faint light?" he asked, not sure of what was going on.
      "No." Sergei laughed at him. "It seems I was right." he said cryptically.
      Avilan knew it was no use to ask the older man questions when he wasn't in the mood to explain himself. Karola knew no such thing, "You were right about what, my Lord?"
      "Young one, you no longer have to use my title." he said to her by way of an answer.
      This didn't seem to satisfy her at all but Avilan gripped her shoulder a bit tighter and she gave it up. This was setting a record for Karola in doing as he asked.
      "Come along." he led them up the stairs. Avilan was still bemused a bit at what he thought he was seeing. They seated themselves in Sergei's sitting room and Avilan was proud of the fact he managed to coax Karola into the circle of his arm on the back of the couch. "I have received a message from Sharm Lord Tzanir Fatimanova Fatima demanding the right to claim you as an unattached Lord. I refused but she called Challenge."
      "How so, unattached?" Avilan held her tightly to his side, making sure not to let her slip away again.
      "She was not ascended by a Sharm Lord, but rather by a kill." Sergei looked at him pointedly.
      Karola gasped, "I know, Lord Sergei ..."
      "Please, Karola."
      "Sorry," she gulped, "I meant, um, Sergei," she tripped slightly over using his bare name, "I don't think I am a so great a prize as to be worth fighting over."
      "But you are, young one." he said quietly. Avilan could feel her quivering with tension against him. "Whoever you have transfer with next can either claim you or destroy you as they chose. I don't have the field for you at this point in my life and am not going to be improving any either." he grinned wryly. "I'm afraid you picked a bad time and method to become a Lord."
      "It wasn't exactly something I planned on, Sergei." Avilan thought his heart would burst with pride at her refusal to shove off the responsibility on either of them.
      "The threat you represent is to the balance of power, I'm afraid." Sergei continued. "The important thing though is you, my young one, as an unattached Lord represent a prize to whoever can manage to catch you, a very valuable prize. None of us, and by us, I mean the heads of the Demense, have any idea which or even if you carry any powers beyond those normally associated with being a Lord."
      "I had thought those were merely sharm tales, L ... sorry, Sergei." he could feel her settle back against him, her mind occupied by all the new information.
      *tales* Avilan suddenly heard in his mind, like before. By the way he felt Karola tense up she heard it as well. "I take it Sharm Lords have such abilities as well?" Avilan asked for confirmation. "Lord Lukian had never mentioned anything like this at all."
      "Some of us do, some don't. Just like the Lords. Lukian would not have known as the line of Azov had become so frangible we decided to let it fade out." he spread his hands wide in a gesture of apology.
      "We!" Avilan suddenly was furious. "Who is this we who decides who lives and dies."
      "Did you not when you condemned Ikanir?" Sergei asked him, voice sharp as a knife.
      Avilan closed his eyes for a moment and saw far too vividly the image of Dori on the table and then him with his wife and son. "I did." he lifted his chin and knew Sergei saw his acceptance into his full responsibility. "What are we going to do?"
      "It all depends on Karola." Sergei said and both men looked at her; Avilan, quite possessively. "It is entirely her decision."
      "Can I chose now?" she asked calmly. Avilan could now directly sense she was working from the same place which had let her make all the right decisions yesterday with incredible ease. He hoped she would chose him but was not at all sure.
      "No." he grimaced. "You have to go before the assembled courts of the Demense before the month is out and present yourself. Anyone can bow out, but you only have one you can refuse to face. Myself, I recommend Tzanir."
      "That will leave her to face Arkay." Avilan blanched at the idea of Karola trying to deal with Sharm Lord Arkay Kirov in physical combat.
      "True enough. He may or may not chose to press suit. Although if he does, honestly Karola, you would fall to him." Sergei spread his hands again. "You have a choice, youngster. Most likely either Tzanir or Arkay."
      "I am afraid I am unfamiliar with the situation. What are the rules regarding the challenges." Avilan referred to the standards under which it would be fought.
      "None."
      Now Avilan knew why Sergei had said Karola couldn't stand against Arkay. He was undefeated in open combat and he had heard stories of Arkay forcing raiders to cut their own throats by the power of his field alone. Against someone with Karola's lack of experience and skill, he would not even have to lift a finger.
      "Can't I simply take her?" to Avilan this seemed the easiest solution.
      "No. If you hadn't been the last one to have transfer with her, you could. As it stands, all you can do is back her up and act as her second."
      "Again I plead unfamiliarity. Act as second?"
      "You may choose to stand in for her if she is challenged by a Lord. If he or she manages to strip you it is over and Karola goes to their household." Sergei took a sip of his tea. "I highly recommend, Karola, you let Avilan take as many of them as he can. You will have enough work to do in the evening as it stands. That is if you want him."
      Avilan could feel her turn to look at him. He looked down and saw how terrified she was of the whole situation. "I didn't know, Karola." he said quietly and heard Sergei leave the two of them alone. "I'm truly sorry for putting you in this mess."
      She reached up and stroked his cheek, "You didn't know. Besides, it was my choice to chase after Ikanir in the first place. I never did know when to stop and think before I did something. All I thought of was wanting him dead so he couldn't harm anyone else."
      Her wry grin almost broke his heart. "Dorityan would have died if you had waited, sweet." he held her hand to his face. Avilan didn't know why or how this so very hot tempered young woman had him so besotted so quickly. He kissed the palm of her hand gently.
      Karola gasped at the sensation, "I think that's the first time you kissed me."
      Avilan, how could you have been so crude? the poor girl is right. he castigated himself. No wonder she keeps running away from you, you big fool! You are no better than Ikanir.
     
      Goose bumps ran up her spine as Avilan left a kiss in her hand. Karola was scared as she had never been before in her life. Me?! To face all comers in the Demense. To face Sharm Lord Arkay Kirov!! I thought having to face Avilan had been scary up until so very recently. He really had been so very sweet to her. "I think thats the first time you kissed me." she hoped he would do it again. Last night had been fun, if frustrating in the end but she was feeling very lost and alone at the moment. "You are nothing like Ikanir!" Karola found herself saying.
      "Sweet, I didn't say that out loud." he had turned to look her in the eyes.
      She shivered at the implications of his statement. It hadn't sounded at all like when Sergei had sent his message, "I, uh, It slipped out. I didn't hear anything. Its true though." She wanted to melt into his big, blue eyes, almost completely black with pupil in the darkened room. Karola put her hand on his cheek again and almost giggled as she realized she hadn't even given him a chance to shave.
      "No, I'm not going to grow a beard." he laughed and then stared at her. His palm was rough against her cheek as he tipped her head to the side. Avilan leaned forward and she felt his lips touch hers. It was nothing like the impersonal contact of transfer and she was startled at how soft they were.
      Karola closed her eyes to concentrate on the wonderful new sensations coursing through her body. His tongue touched her lips and she jumped back, startled. Her eyes flew open and she looked into his, from so very close. He leaned back a bit, "Oh, poor little one. Has no one ever cared for you in your life?"
      She looked at his arm, covered in fine gold hair, sparkling in the reflected light from the window. "My parents." she raised her eyes to his again. Karola wasn't sure what he was driving at. Of course she knew about sex but this seemed to be something different. "I mean, I ..." she didn't know what to say.
      "No one who wanted you for yourself?" his voice was deep and quiet.
      "People seem to want me for what I can do for them. I mean I haven't had any complaints." she hoped this would answer his questions. Karola had no real idea what he was talking about. His hand was shaking as she answered him. "Now with this latest ..."
      He leaned forward again and this time when their lips meet she leaned into him. He held her back, so she wouldn't hurt herself and his tongue was oh so sweet against hers. Her heart was pounding and she wanted to push herself on him but he held back gently. With his encouragement the kiss stayed soft and sweet. Karola had never felt anything like this at all, no force, no pressure just a simple kiss. Her eyes were still closed when it ended and she took a deep breath.
      She felt her own hand shake as she let it drift down the side of his neck. The muscles were tense under tips of her tentacles as they traced their way down to his shoulder. Karola knew what the other men in her life had wanted but this one was different, she finally realized. "I don't know what you want of me, if it isn't ...?" she tipped her hand towards the rest of the couch. Karola hoped he wouldn't send her away for the stupid question but felt he probably would.
      Avilan's whole body was shaking as she zlinned him closely. His entire field was a confusion of conflicting currents and she pulled away from the contact. "Avilan, what's wrong? Did I say something wrong?" he was scaring her again and she didn't know what to do.
      "You haven't done or said anything wrong, sweet. I ... I don't know what I can say or do to show you how badly I feel for what I and it seems others have done to you." a single tear tracked down his cheek.
      Karola brushed it away gently, "Kiss me again?"
     
      He did as she asked, nibbling gently on her lower lip. She moaned so softly he could only feel it, not really hear it. As if teasing a passager to his hand, Avilan patiently taught her all he know about kissing. Before this he wouldn't have believed someone, who he knew was no virgin, would have never been kissed. Karola's mouth was so very sweet and tempting. With great delicacy he taught her how to keep from hurting herself with her teeth, teasing her and pulling back when she got too aggressive.
      Avilan ran his hands down her ribs, gently. She giggled. Ticklish, are we? He did it a bit more deliberately and was rewarded with a laugh. Karola had a beautiful laugh, joyous and unfettered. Realizing she had very little laughter in her life, Avilan smiled wickedly and tried to tickle her into submission, careful to make sure she could breathe enough.
      Before he could stop her, she figured out his ticklish spot and he jumped as her fingers reached the backs of his knees. "No, don't!" he laughed to make sure she knew he was playing. With great glee Karola attacked him, making him almost give up in great gales of laughter.
      "Will you two take your raucous love play elsewhere?" Sergei was laughing as he threw open the door. For a brief instant Avilan could see the scene the two of them were presenting, Karola upside down on the couch with her tentacles wrapped around Avilan's knees and his hands on her ribs inside her thin shirt, both of them laughing like maniacs. Her violet eyes were huge at the surprise and he leaned down and kissed her upturned face. She hummed and he had a hard time pulling back.
      "In a moment, Sergei." he kissed her again, far more thoroughly.
      "Out!" he pointed towards the door. "I can't get a bit of work done with the two of you playing around in here."
      Suddenly serious, Karola pulled her hands back and said, "Yes, Sergei." Avilan tickled her again and she giggled, "Stop that." She slapped at his hands ineffectively.
      "I'm afraid its all my fault, Sergei." he said with a wink.
      "Indeed it is, now out!" he pointed toward the door.
      Still giggling slightly, Avilan led Karola to the door and closed it behind them. "Is there anything you want from your quarters?" he wanted to help her make a clean break with her past. There was so little time before the end of the month and now he wanted as much of it to himself as he could get.
      "There are my clothes and a couple of books and my, well ... lets not get into those things." she was blushing furiously at the end of this recitation. It came into his mind she was talking about contraception and he was having none of that!
      "Lets go get your books. Unless you have some clothes you are particularly fond of, leave them. The other ..." he finished his recommendations with another kiss. Avilan wished with all his heart he could manage to get her pregnant to have someone to remember him by but now it was too late. He had no illusions about his own abilities in challenge combat and knew he didn't stand a chance against some of the Lords of the Demense.
      Karola reached for a small bundle in her clothes press but he held her hand and she left it behind after looking at him warily. "Are you sure?" she asked timidly.
      "Quite sure, little one. You will never require such things again." he wished it would be himself who could take advantage of it, though. Any child of a Lord or Sharm Lord was more than welcome in the Demense, no matter how they were conceived.
      The only thing she took was her rather worn old hairbrush from where she had left it on her tiny cot. Avilan looked around at the plainness of the small room. There were no small tapestries or other art work on the walls and the simple cot, chest and chair were devoid of any type of personalization. It was as if she had never lived there at all after she took the one item. There wasn't even a single rug on the bare stone floor.
      "Do you have anything from your parents? Or even friends from school?" Avilan didn't want to think she had nothing of her past life to remember.
      "No, nothing. My parents ... well, they left me at the sharm when I was ten and never looked back." ten was the usual age for one who was not bred of the Demense to enter the sharm but the coldness of it struck him. Usually, most parents at least wanted their children to have something to remember them by and kept in touch with their youngsters as best they could. "My friends, well, most of them are like Dori. They have families of their own now and not a whole lot of time for other things in their lives." this was also undoubtedly true. RenSimes were strongly discouraged from any associations outside their work groups and families. It was easier for them to stay with their own kind and not run afoul of all the restrictions and limitations imposed on them by their status. "The ones who aren't like Dori, well they didn't much care for my attitude or the way I kept beating them in the salle or the classroom." she looked around one last time.
      Avilan carefully took her in his arms and she sobbed against his shoulder in sudden release. "No one wants me, Avilan." she wailed. He didn't contradict the inherent illogic of this statement. Softly, he stroked her back as she cried herself out. She looked up with tears sparkling in her dark eyelashes, "I mmmeant, no one who ..."
      "Quiet, little one. Its all right. I knew what you meant, sweet." and he found he had. She hadn't meant him. She had been talking about the people in her past. He brushed the tears from her face and kissed her again. Her skin was so very soft in his hands. "Lets go." he picked her up and she giggled against his chest.
      "You don't have to carry me." she batted at him halfheartedly.
      "I want to." he rubbed his chin on the top of her head.
      "It isn't like you are taking home a wife or something."
      "Quiet, little one." he had been thinking exactly that. Although the Lords of the Demense rarely married, the few who did took it very seriously. As they entered the hallway, Avilan blinked in the bright lights. "What time is it?" he had gotten his internal clock seriously messed up over the last couple of days.
      She giggled again, "About a quarter past standard dawn."
      Quarter after six in the morning, urgh. Now Avilan, at one time, had been a one to greet true dawn with great joy. However, he did appreciate being able to see the sun rise far later than the lights normally came on in the winter. "Lets go get dressed, get something to eat and watch the sun rise." he said cheerfully.
      Avilan nodded pleasantly to the rather scandalized look he got from a young man passing them in the hallway. Karola carefully hid her face till he was gone. "You mean you don't want to be seen with me with my hair down, wearing only what I could pull on at a moment's notice?" he didn't blame her at all. He knew he must look a sight, not even wearing any shoes. The shirt had been green, many, many washings ago and the pants might have been blue. Avilan had no idea how he had ended up with anything in blue. The only thing that matched was the collection of ineradicable stains on both items of clothing. He tipped his head back and realized his hair was still so wet it was bunched up into only a dozen or so heavy strands. "I don't blame you for hiding your face."
      They passed another person in the hallway before they reached the sanctuary of his rooms. This time it was a woman and Karola called out to her, "Good morning, Sika."
      "I can see why you would call it good, Kari. Nice catch." the other young woman looked at him appraisingly. He blushed furiously and this only made both women laugh. "Although it looks like he caught you, not the other way 'round." she winked and passed by.
      His ears were still burning and Karola reached up and ran her hand smoothly over the gold rings in one of them. "So very many earrings for a sharm lord. I wonder I didn't guess earlier."
      "Not a whole lot of a chance, little one." they reached the safety of the Azov suite. For a moment he tried to compare it to her room. There was no comparison. As he set her on her feet after carrying her across the threshold he waved up the lights. They glimmered on the gold in the bright green and gold tapestries lining the walls. Everywhere he could see there were things that reminded him of home and absent friends. The portrait he had commissioned of Lord T'aszo, showing him with his favorite merlin out hunting. Another of a very young Arkay and himself at Sergei standing on a log over a stream in the forest nearby holding hands facing each other. He finally looked sadly at the painting of Lord Lukian, so frail and delicate, with the heavy formal garb of his final Year's End appearance bowing his slight shoulders. He sighed heavily.
      "What is it, sweet?" Karola asked gently.
      Quivering a bit at her use of his favorite pet name, "Memories, little one. Nothing to concern you." He put his arm around her shoulders again.
      She slipped out of his grasp and went directly over to the portrait of Lukian, "He looks so fragile."
      "He was." his throat tightened and he looked away.
      "Who was he?"
      Avilan couldn't answer her for trying not to sob. He could hear her turn to face him and he tried to turn around. Before he could do so, she caught him and forced him to stay still. "He was the last Lord of Azov, my last transfer partner and my f ... friend." he stuttered the last and his knees gave out on him. I miss you so very much, my friend. Why did you leave me? he wanted to say through his tears but nothing came out. Karola's arms were around him and he tried to pull himself together, so as not to disturb this young Lord who already had far too many horses in her stable.
      "Avilan, you aren't hurting me. Relax, sweet." she stroked his back and he gave in to her, collapsing completely as his grief over Lukian's death hit him with full force for the first time since it happened. Eventually even this came to an end and he looked down to see Karola gently offering him a handkerchief.
      His head hurt as he blew his nose and looked up at her, "I must look and zlin a sight. Sorry about the disturbance."
      She held him even tighter, "It is only fair after my turning into a water faucet on you earlier. Feeling better?"
      Astonished at her ability to learn and recover so quickly from all the events and upsets he was silent for a moment. "Yes, thank you. I just, I mean, I have never seen a Lord who could not be completely torn apart by having a Sharm Lord fall apart emotionally in their very lap!"
      "It seems you don't know everything." she grinned and kissed him quickly. He was startled at her growing forwardness but liked it very much. "I have never, or well at least since very early on, been easily upset or put off balance by things that happened quickly. I mean, well, at least, usually." she looked at him carefully as if disclosing a big secret. "It isn't as if I lack sensitivity, just that it doesn't startle or hurt me when things get exciting in a bad way." she murmured.
      "Thats wonderful, little one." he stroked her hair back from her face. "It isn't something to be ashamed of or try to hide."
      "Really?" she brightened and he smiled at her encouragingly. "They used to tease me. Call me stupid or slow because I didn't react the same way the other young people in training did. Of course I wasn't slow that first night, stupid maybe, but not slow."
      Thinking back on the incident, Avilan finally realized what had happened, "I had the most tempting field you had ever zlinned in your life and shoved it in your face with no warning, didn't I?"
      "Well, um, yes, actually." she looked away. "I am sorry about attacking you like that."
      "You just wanted to get away afterwards. Poor little one, you were embarrassed. I only thought you were using me."
      "No, Avilan. I mean, yes, I wanted to get away. I used you horribly and didn't want to have to face you after falling on you like some kind of ravening demon." she tried to pull away again but this time he held her close.
      "And I apologize for forcing myself on you so badly then blaming you for what happened. I should have known better." he stroked her hands, which he held captive. "I also would like to apologize for backing you into a corner you couldn't get out of." His stomach rumbled reminding both of them of their earlier plans. "Give me a chance to prove myself, please?" he asked.
      "Yes, oh yes." she chirped and he laughed the relief and joy in her face. "Lets go eat!" she said suddenly and he laughed even harder at her lighting quick changes in demeanor.
     
      False dawn was beginning to light the sky as they got to the outskirts of this city. Avilan had managed to talk her into one of, what she felt, were the fancier outfits he had stashed away in his closet. She looked nervously down at the elaborate embroidery on the backs of the gloves and ran one tentacle over the gold wheat sheave peeking out from her fur cuffs. The unfamiliar mare tossed her head at Karola's tension. It was bitterly cold out here by her standards and she pulled her great cloak around herself tightly.
      "Cold, little one?" he sidestepped his dappled gold stallion over to her and flipped the edge of his cloak around her. The horses breathing was visible in the chill but at least her left leg was warmer where it was between the animals. As they left the cleared area she could see the last stars wink out overhead. She knew he was the one who would be more likely to feel the chill but Karola wasn't used to being outside at all.
      "Thank you." she leaned against Avilan's side. "I don't usually go outside much in winter." actually she rarely left the sharm, even during the warm summer months. There was too much work for her to do and not enough time. They were exactly the same height mounted and he leaned over and gave her a quick kiss.
      His lips were cold from the morning air but it felt wonderful all the same. She returned the kiss with interest, causing his horse to jitter and breaking them apart. "Quiet, Tiro. It isn't spring yet, youngster." he corrected his horse.
      "Perhaps not for him." she grinned and reached for his free hand. It was too cold to extend her tentacles far from the soft, fur lined sleeves of her heavy winter weight coat but she managed to touch his arm briefly anyways.
      Ice outlined the leafless trees and the dim light threw long black shadows across the bone white ground. The big storms of winter had yet to arrive, but there was frost on everything, sparkling as the dawn began to light the horizon. Karola oriented herself, facing more south than east as the first crimson glow spread across the sky. They stood, side by side, watching the sunrise paint the sky. First the deepest violet-red, then orange and yellow as the sun slid along the horizon to finally flash over the mountains with a brilliant shaft of light, making the frost dazzle their eyes with its brilliance.
      "That was beautiful." she whispered into the crackle of the frost breaking off the trees. "Thank you for bringing me out here."
      "My pleasure," they kissed again to the background of dripping water melted by the first rays of the morning sun.
     
      This is really happening. It really is true, he is a Sharm Lord. she looked at the bracelets he had handed her after retrieving them from the safe. They jingled and rang as she turned them over in her hands. It hadn't actually sunk in before he asked for Karola's help in putting them back on his wrists. Certainly Sergei had been wearing his the one time they had been together but this was different.
      She had no idea what order they went on and she looked at him helplessly. He was sitting in his favorite chair and she was sitting on her feet facing him. His eyes seemed even more blue as he looked down at her and she sat mesmerized by them. Holding out his hand he pointed to one made of plain beaten silver, "That one first. It was from T'aszo for our first transfer." Avilan had a small smile on his face at the memory so she figured it must have been wonderful. She slid it carefully over his hand. It was a very tight fit, but she managed without catching his thumb too badly. The next one went on the other wrist and was another plain piece of work, this one stamped with the wheat sheaves and shears of Azov.
      Avilan reached over and pulled one out of the stack as they were almost done. "Not this one, little one." he set it aside. She looked at him in question.
      "It was from Lukian and I, well, that part of my life is over now." he sighed.
      Karola kissed the palm of his hand and his fingers curled around her face with the gesture. Perhaps another part is beginning? she wanted to ask.
      "I think so." he leaned down and kissed her properly.
      However she heard what he did not say, which was his wondering if it could possibly be for more than a month. After she had finished with the bracelets he straightened out his arms with the peculiar twist she had seen Sergei use to get the attention of his court and she almost jumped to her feet in shock.
      The sensation of metal hitting his wrists was completely undamped by any kind of shielding, unlike when Sergei had done it in his court robes. Then he raised his hands and all of them slid up his forearms. The warm honey gold feel of his Nager shattered through the metal into brilliant shafts of shifting energy. Fire laced through her own forearms and she quivered in reaction to the unfamiliar combination of threat and promise. Her tentacles twined in protest as it felt to her like the metal was on her own arms.
      He tried to calm them by putting his hands over her arms but they kept flinching away from contact with his wrists. "Quiet, little one." he whispered and she took a deep breath. Closing her eyes she let herself zlin the distortions she couldn't help but sense. Suddenly it changed. Something had moved. That was interesting. she timidly extended a lateral slightly to zlin better. Hmmmm more some things moved, breaking up and shifting the patterns. Artistically she rearranged the bracelets to her satisfaction. This is fun! she did it some more. Karola was finally lost in her little world of shifting selyn patterns and sparkling interference distortions.
      "Ow!" something pinched. She looked and noticed she had gotten one of her laterals grazed between two of his bracelets. "Why did you let me pinch myself?" she asked him, more disturbed at the end to her entertainment than anything else.
      "Because the first time I let someone play with my bracelets with their tentacles they always get themselves pinched." he shrugged. Karola wanted to swat him for his nonchalance. "Besides, you were having so much fun I didn't want to stop you." Avilan grinned at her. She wanted to swat him even harder for not warning her.
      "Thats not fair. You should have said something." she inspected the offended tentacle. It seemed all right, as much of it as she could check.
      "Would you have listened?" he raised a fair eyebrow at her.
      "Probably not but you still should have said something." she wanted to be upset with something. Karola eyed his jewelry dubiously now. Avilan was laughing at her. This was entirely too unfair from her perspective. Seized by a sudden imp of the perverse she, very carefully this time, grasped all of his bracelets in her tentacles at once and slid them up his forearms.
      "Don't do that." he gasped looking at her with suddenly darkened eyes.
      One by one she slid them back down, slowly. As each one moved down upon the last it settled with a tiny clink. "Why not?" Karola asked in her best innocent tone. She knew exactly what she was doing to him. The hair on his arms was soft under her hands as she got up to kneel in front of him on the chair between his legs.
      "Because it is very distracting." he finally murmured after catching his breath.
      "Distracting from what, m'Lord?" she had his arms pinned to the chair and was looking down at him. "Did you have some plans for this afternoon?"
      "We need, excuse me, we have to see if we can manage to bring your skills up to, hmmm, bad choice of words, improve your skills at combat before ..." she interrupted this train of thought by gently letting her weight rest on him. This did not improve Avilan's powers of concentration. "We have an appointment to work with Sergei after lunch."
      "How long after lunch?" she murmured in his ear.
      "Two hours." he rested his head against the back of the chair.
      This time he wasn't getting away from her. Karola had had enough of this back and fill. She straddled his lap and sat down firmly. Avilan was now decidedly pinned to the chair. "We have time."
     
      Avilan hoped his grin didn't look as silly as Karola's. They both had barely made it down to the salle on time and he really hadn't wanted to be late. So much for lunch he thought.
      Sharm Lord Sergei broke up into gales of laughter when he walked through the doors of the salle. Eventually he ended up sitting on the floor laughing at them. "You two!" he flipped his wrists at them, making his bracelets jangle as soon as he could talk coherently. The marshal looked on in complete confusion.
      "Out." he relived the young lord, who could only get hurt in the type of practice they had planned. She scurried off, not even looking back.
      "Karola, you look like a cat who has been locked in the buttery all night." Sergei pointed at her. Wisely she said nothing, although Avilan could feel her smug good humor through their physical contact. Avilan realized he had no chance of retrieving his hand from hers any time in the near future. He shrugged at Sergei which only made the older man laugh at them again. "And you, Avilan, look like you have been graced by one of Arkay's better efforts in the salle!" he was grinning from ear to ear.
      I hope I don't look that much like a poleaxed ox! he made the mistake of looking in one of the mirrors lining the walls. I do. he almost whimpered. This was not being a good day for Avilan. Well, parts of it anyways he looked over fondly at Karola. At least this time Sergei managed not to laugh again.
      "To get on to more serious matters, this is good." he came up to them and all three of them sat on the wood floor. "If you wish to get through all of this alive," Sergei looked at Avilan, "and in control of your own person," he looked at Karola, "the tighter your bonding the more likely you are to succeed." Karola's bracers were still slightly damp from their hurried cleaning and Sergei pointed to them, "You will be allowed to wear your armor for this but chances are you won't require it."
      "Why is that, m'L ... excuse me, Sergei?" she cocked her head at him. Avilan was glad she had asked, for he didn't know either.
      "Chances are, at this level, either it is over with a single hold or it is purely Nageric combat." he said quite seriously. "All of the people you will be facing won't give you a second chance, particularly as it is unrestricted insofar as what weapons may be used."
      "Weapons?" Avilan asked, suddenly even more concerned. He had never had to face a physical weapon in the salle and wasn't sure of the protocol.
      "Mostly hand to hand and mental. However, Lord Nashen is also a master swordsman and may chose to use it in the circle." he warned them. "The main difference in protocol is against an armed opponent you may both stand in the circle together, if you chose. If Lord Nashen is armed, do it."
      "Why would he take the penalty of facing both of us in return for being able to use his sword?" Karola asked, quite intelligently Avilan thought. He would never have come up with the idea of it being a penalty.
      "Because he is Lord Nashen Fatima." Sergei said and Karola hissed at the name. Avilan squeezed her hand gently. "Quite honestly I have no idea why Fatima acts as she does but she has always been the most unpredictable of the Demense and the same can be said of her Lords." he shrugged. "To go on, the signals for surrender are the same as for the standard combat. Although death of your opponent is also sufficient for them to be considered vanquished."
      "I would hope so!" Karola laughed at the bit of black humor. "You mean one of us could be killed or murdered in the circle?" she said as it suddenly hit her. Normally killing was forbidden except for combat to take control of a Demense.
      "More likely Avilan than you, unfortunately. You can also choose to not give the signal to surrender when overwhelmed and fight it out to the death. Your choice. The marshal can not stop the bout for anything but overstepping the line and then only until you return to the circle." Sergei looked grim as he recited the final pieces of information.
      "How do you know all this, Sergei?" Avilan had to ask. If nothing else he didn't want to die with his curiosity unfulfilled.
      "Because I have been though it myself." his ice blue eyes dimmed with the memory. Avilan reached out with his free hand and rested it on Sergei's knee. "Be that as it may, it was a long time ago. I had hoped the tradition would be forgotten."
      "The Rus forget a tradition?" Karola said with a wry grin. "It will be a warm, sunny day for Year's Turning before that happens."
      "True enough. Although some things have been forgotten. Like my first name." he winked at them and grinned.
      "Its ... Its ..." Karola looked at him sideways. "I never knew it." she suddenly laughed. "True enough, otyet." she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. Avilan was startled beyond words to hear Karola call Sergei father. She obviously wasn't his genetic descendant but he still warmed to hear her so comfortable with another for when, well, he wasn't going to get into that thought.
      "To work, young ones." he got to his feet with the grace of a far younger man. They both stood and Avilan felt as ungainly and awkward as when he had first been allowed to practice with the other sharm lords at Azov. *relax* he heard from Sergei and he centered himself.
     
      Avilan was exhausted by the time Sergei called an end to their practice. He hadn't been run through even the most basic of the dance-drills this hard since he spent the summer at Kirov with Arkay a long time ago. Karola pushed back a sweat dampened lock of hair from her eyes. "At least I managed to stay on my feet the last time." she sighed.
      "I let you, young one." Sergei said, not a hair out of place. "You were wanting some encouragement. Tomorrow at the same time?"
      They both nodded then Avilan put an arm around Karola protectively, "It will turn out all right."
      "After a shower!" she said, making both men laugh at her spirit. Avilan only hoped it would be enough.
     
      Trying to stifle another yawn, Avilan failed miserably. Normally he was far more awake by this hour of the morning but, well, he hadn't exactly been getting his usual amount of sleep. Karola sat, demurely for once, at his side eating yet another bowl of cherries in yoghurt. "You don't seem to have any problem remembering to eat now." he referred to the many missed meals of their first days together.
      "I have to keep my strength up." she had bit of the creamy stuff at the corner of her mouth.
      He really wished she wouldn't say things like that in public. Looking around, he made sure no one was paying attention to the two of them sitting off in a quiet corner of the communal dining area. Avilan leaned over and licked the bit of yoghurt off her lips.
      "It seems you changed your mind, Karola." the second voice from their initial meeting in the throne room commented.
      "No one said I couldn't, Dian'r." she turned slightly to face the speaker over his shoulder. Under the table he felt her tentacles twine through his fingers. A hot hand came to rest on his other shoulder and Avilan realized he was now trapped between the two of them.
      "Too bad it was so quick. But then some people are." Dian'r said with an edge to his voice.
      Oh no, caught in the middle "I wouldn't say that is always a bad thing." Avilan tried to help.
      "Some people prefer to take their time." a tentacle slowly slid up to Avilan's ear.
      "Quality or quantity, Dian'r?" Karola was now a warm presence flattened against his side.
      "Both of course. Mind if I sit?" it seemed he didn't have any say in the matter as now he had them both pressed against him. Usually Avilan rather enjoyed the attention of two lords, however he did not want to end up in the middle of a cat fight.
      "Myself I like both." he said to his bowl of fruit.
      "Quantity can be good, I prefer style." Karola licked the back of her spoon. This was very interesting to watch, as she did it quite slowly and with great attention to detail.
      The room was getting warmer by the moment. "Depends on what you mean by quantity, my dear Karola." Dian'r slid his hand partway up the water glass before picking it up.
      "There comes a time when the room is full." she rested her teeth for a moment on the tip of the spoon.
      "Depends on the size of the furniture." Dian'r purred.
      "This is getting a bit out of hand." Avilan told to the two of them. They weren't listening to him.
      "If all you have is a cot and a chest, then I suppose you don't have to worry about room." she took a deep breath.
      "Some people have an entire suite to fill." Dian'r took his first bite of cereal.
      Karola had managed to gracefully wrap a single tentacle around the last cherry in her bowl. She offered it to Avilan and he took it graciously, fondling the tentacle with his tongue to try to distract her from her line of competition with Dian'r. "Some people have the furniture no matter the size of the room. It all depends on the wood. I find golden oak to be one of my favorites."
      Avilan was doing his level best not to blush at the innuendoes but this one almost undid him. Desperately he wanted to shut both of them up.
      "It seems you do." Dian'r finally gave up in defeat and stalked off with the mostly untouched remains of his breakfast.
     
      This is not to say things went smoothly in all regards. With the heavy practice schedule certain things which should have been watched more carefully had been forgotten.
      One morning, about a week and a half later Karola woke up feeling decidedly unwell. She barely made it into the bathroom before her stomach revolted entirely. Heaving up my innards is not a pleasant way to start the day she thought as she finally managed to sit back down on the cold marble tile floor. She wiped the cold sweat off her brow and tried to decide if she was done or not when the cramps hit. Whimpering slightly she rested her forehead on the high side of the shower and tried to knead some of the muscle spasms out of her abused middle. This is definitely not a good morning she complained to herself.
      Zlinning Avilan in the doorway she snapped, "Get out of here!" Karola definitely didn't want him to see her knotted up in a heap on the bathroom floor. He was the kindest, sweetest, most considerate person she had ever known, but he was still a male Gen. This was a female Sime problem!
      Instead he went to the sink and fussed about with something in the cabinets.
      "Didn't you hear me? Go AWAY!" she shouted and then regretted it mightily as another cramp hit.
      "I heard you. Now drink this."
      He was being far too reasonable. "No." even to Karola her refusal sounded like a whine.
      Avilan knelt beside her and held out the glass.
      She wanted to slap it out of his hands but took it anyways and sipped at it nervously. Karola had no idea what it was, but it seemed to help her stomach settle itself some and removed the nasty taste from her mouth. Then the horrible falling sensation of turnover hit and she dimly saw Avilan neatly catch the glass before it hit the floor.
      "Whoops." he commented and wrapped himself around her.
      "Don't be so blamed competent, Avilan." she finally muttered as his field distanced all the horrible physical sensations in her body. It felt so good to have him here but she could manage on her own. For all they had been through, Karola still couldn't bring herself to let him see her like this.
      His only response was to hold her tighter. He wasn't doing anything she told him to. Weakly she struggled to get free, this time he let her go. As soon as she managed to stand up however, the room spun and he caught her on the way back down to the floor as her knees gave way. This was almost as embarrassing as their first night together.
      "That wasn't particularly effective, little one." he said and got to his feet with Karola in his arms.
      "Let me go!"
      "No." he repeated and tried to silence her by rubbing his whiskered cheek against her face.
      "I'll get blood on the sheets." she protested, trying to come up with some way to spook him off. Don't most men get upset about stuff like this?
      "So. They wash." he wasn't spooking.
      "They're white!" Karola didn't want help, she didn't want the laundry to have to deal with her messes and she didn't want him fussing over her. Not right now, not like this.
      "Then we'll sit on the chair." this wasn't any better.
      Karola could feel his breath in her sleep tousled hair and she finally gave in and relaxed against him as he held her gently in his lap.
      "Good." he murmured and started to hum an ancient lullaby.
      "I'm not a child." she muttered irritably.
      He stopped briefly and said, "No, you're not. But you are having a bad turnover and I want to help you feel better. Is that so bad?"
      "No, it isn't." she finally admitted this was far better than suffering on her own. His presence and touch was very comforting, making all the pain and ache go away. Eventually she dozed a bit, giving in to the song.
     
      Avilan had almost missed the warning signs of Karola setting off on yet another rampage but this time he had caught them. Poor little Lord. he kissed her brow and she snuggled more tightly against him in her sleep. He hadn't known her turnover would hit her so hard but after all the stresses this month he berated himself for not guessing. Probably why she struck out again as well. he sighed.
      Life with Lord Karola is never boring. he grinned slightly. Avilan was not feeling all that well this morning either and wished they could go back to bed until all of this was over. There was a small knock at the door. Who could it be at this unholy hour? he looked around for something he could use to cover up with to get it. *bother*, "It must be Sergei." he muttered as the very same person walked in the door, closing it softly behind himself.
      "I thought she might have problems with her turnover and it seems I was right." the older man said almost inaudibly. "Do you want help?" he offered.
      "Please. I don't know, quite, what I'm doing and she, well, was a bit off this morning." Avilan looked down at her fondly.
      Sergei chuckled quietly, "I can imagine. You don't look like you are too well tied together today either, my friend."
      "What am I doing wrong, Sergei? I mean, first she goes off one direction then another. I know she is young and inexperienced but this is more than I am used to dealing with."
      "You have mostly been partnered with other men, true?"
      "Well, yes. She most certainly isn't male." Avilan lipped her hair gently.
      "There are differences between men and women, Avilan."
      "Well, yes, I do know that." he sniffed in annoyance at Sergei's pointing out the obvious. "This is one of them."
      "Oh lad." he shook his head and smiled. "I don't think there is a man ever born who has truly understood women but patience goes a long ways. She was probably dreadfully embarrassed at having you trying to help her. Most young women are like that."
      "Oh dear." he stroked his cheek on her head, "I did it to you again, sweet. I'm sorry."
      "You'll learn, Avilan. It takes time is all. She is as wild as any young mare but she'll settle." Sergei drove her deeper into sleep and he bridled a bit at the other Lords intrusion.
      "Hush, Avilan." he chided. "I'm not going to steal her. Breed her a few times and she'll settle down nicely." he grinned, expanding on his analogy.
      Avilan blushed furiously at this comment but wasn't going to let Sergei get the better of him. Of course if anyone should know it would be Sergei. He had enough children to field at least two polo teams that Avilan had heard of. Realizing there was no way he was going to manage to get her back over to the bed in his condition and he finally let Sergei take Karola out of his arms. For a moment he closed his eyes and could faintly sense the older man tuck her back into bed. Then he did something with the fields and Avilan tried to get to Karola to protect her. She is mine! he wanted to shout as his knees buckled and he ended up sitting down again. He had never felt anything like this before in his life.
      *hush* "I'm just helping her feel better, Avilan. Behave yourself."
      Not having a whole lot of choice in the matter, he waited till Sergei was done and Karola fell into a deep, peaceful sleep. She was so very beautiful, with her black hair spread across the pillow and her delicate hand curled up under her chin.
      "Now you, young man." Sergei looked at him sternly. "Whats with all the ruckus over my helping her?" he raised an eyebrow.
      Feeling about a meter tall, Avilan ducked his head, "Honestly, I don't know. I mean it isn't like I have known her that long and well, she can be a bit difficult." He looked over to the bed and wished he were wrapped around her to comfort her.
      "Your heart is in your eyes, Avilan. Jealous?" Sergei asked.
      "Of course not." it was unthinkable and he straightened up.
      The older man chuckled softly, "I think so. She is not a hawk to be kept in a hood and jesses, Avilan."
      "I know that Sergei," he grumbled, "She is just so beautiful and daring and sweet and ... I don't know what I'm saying, my old friend. Karola is about as sweet as the lemons you are so fond of."
      "You are well and truly smitten with her, despite her sharp edges." he grinned.
      "No, yes, I, well, as usual you are right." Avilan put his head in his hands. "I've only known her for two weeks. It doesn't work like this!" he complained.
      "Sometimes it does, Avilan. Sometimes it does." he felt Sergei pull his hands away from his face.
      Looking into the pale blue eyes of his, now, closest friend, "But she can't know her mind this quickly."
      "I don't think Karola has ever had a problem coming to a decision in her life. I think she chose you as soon as you gave up your ridiculous plans for finding a copy of Lukian." he was shaking his head. "I told you it wasn't a wise course of action, Avilan."
      "But if I hadn't caught her attention in the throne room she would have never noticed me."
      "Not true. It might have taken longer but I think the end result would have been the same." Sergei disagreed.
      "How do I keep her from flying off after the next pretty face she sees?" Avilan had no illusions about his own looks. "She goes haring off after everything else!"
      "As you are doing this morning, Avilan." Sergei chuckled again. "To answer your question though, love her, Avilan."
      "It can't be truly love. I don't know her that well."
      "Haven't we gone over this point before?" he got another raised eyebrow from Sergei.
      "Well, yes. Maybe she has rubbed off on me a bit." Avilan looked down at the floor. "But still, there are times when she irritates me so much I want to scream at her."
      "Do so. She'll scream right back. Then you can kiss and make up." Sergei shrugged.
      Avilan had the feeling Sergei had given this little talk to more than a few younger men in his life. "Besides, how do I keep her from running into one disaster after another?" he sighed, knowing there was no way to keep Karola from getting herself into trouble.
      "Kiss her. Its always worked for me with women." Sergei winked and let himself out of the suite.
      Avilan sat and thought about all they had talked about for a good long while. He shivered a bit. Realizing he had gotten cold and stiff sitting in the chair he finally pried himself lose from its embrace. The room spun around him. This is not fun he recognized the feelings of turnover in himself but it had never been anywhere near this bad before. Eventually it stopped and he made his way over to the bed.
      He tried to sit down softly so as not to disturb Karola but she murmured in her sleep anyways. Feeling her hand tugging at the end of his hair, he gave in to the demand and lay down. Before he could get himself situated though, she had curled up around him and gone back to sleep. Good enough he yawned and realized Sergei had left him a suggestion to sleep as well as he drifted off.
     
      Opening one eye slowly he saw Karola calmly sitting at the table sipping at a cup of tea. She was wrapped up in one of his more disreputable old robes. On her it was huge, even though they were almost of a height. "Good afternoon, sleepy one."
      Avilan grumbled something unintelligible, even to himself.
      "I noticed Sergei's handiwork in your field and figured it would be best to let you sleep yourself out." taking another sip of her tea. It didn't quite smell right to him then her realized she had added some Khamil to it and shuddered at the potential taste of the mixture. "I'm afraid I made quite a mess of the bed." she frowned at him pointedly.
      He mumbled something else about the tea. He figured it was the more politic thing to do to ignore the comment about the sheets. Avilan was eventually learning the rules.
      Smiling she got up to make a second cup, "It isn't too bad. I left the rest unadulterated."
      "Good. If I am going to become even vaguely human I'm going to require some." he finally managed a sentence in Russian. "How are you feeling?"
      "Have been better, you look worse." she handed him the tea, black this time.
      "Thanks for the tea," he sipped at it, thankful she hadn't put the milk in it like he usually preferred it. Milk would have been bad at this point. Anything food like was not sounding appealing. "I'm not so sure of your appraisal of my condition, though."
      Sitting down next to him, "You zlin like someone ran over you with a six horse carriage, Avilan."
      "Turnover." he muttered at the tea.
      "I'm supposed to be the one who has problems with it." he felt her pull him closer.
      Feeling a bit more like living between the combination of tea and physical contact he managed to figure out Karola's last comment. "You did." he hoped this made some sense to someone.
      She shrugged, "I'm usually over the worst of it in an hour or two. Normally I just deal with it and then go back to sleep for a bit."
      The tea was very interesting, then her comment wandered into his muzzy brain, "A couple of hours!" He hadn't meant that to come out so sharply.
      "Usually." her attention felt warm and relaxing.
      He sighed and leaned against her warm body.
      "Why are you falling apart at the seams?" this rather undiplomatic question didn't even phase him at this point.
      "Not sure. Usually it is only a bit uncomfortable, like right before I hit my second wind when running." he shook his head, trying to clear it. This was a mistake, it almost fell off and rolled under the bed.
      Avilan felt her catch it somehow and put it back in place. He blinked as the world tried to return to focus. "This is awful." he blamed the tea.
      "You aren't zlinning it." somehow he could feel her grimace. "Lets see if I have learned anything from Sergei in our lessons." The mug, with the tea still in it, was moved to the table. This was interesting, he watched her hand come back. "Lie down." she told him. He didn't feel like lying back down. Avilan mumbled something incoherent to the effect he wanted his tea back. His disorientation was getting worse and not better.
      The bed suddenly reached up and pulled him down on his back. Huh? was the only thing he could think of. "This is not good, Avilan." he heard Karola say from somewhere off in the distance. He had thought she was in the room with him. How did you get away again! he tried to lunge for the receding image of Karola in his mind.
      With a sharp crack everything returned to normal and he stared into her eyes from what seemed to be a transfer position. He leaned his head back so he could focus his eyes on her and let her retract her laterals from his arms. "What was that all about?" he blinked at her.
      "I have no idea. But it seemed to work." she looked at him closely and he could see her eyes unfocus a bit as she zlinned him with more thoroughness than usual. "As far as I could tell, when you woke up you had lost your center. It kept getting worse and worse until I went in brought you back to it."
      Avilan thought about this for a bit and poked around a bit in his own mind trying to figure out what had happened. Tentatively, he closed his eyes again. Quickly he ran though the training patterns with his field.
      "That tickles!" Karola squawked.
      "Sorry, love." he murmured, finding everything back to where it should be, although sharper and clearer than it had been.
      "What did you call me?" her eyes were wide with astonishment as he opened his again.
      "I love you, Karola." he admitted to himself as well as her, realizing Sergei had been right, as usual.
      "You finally admitted it! I love you, Avilan." this was not the most romantic way he could have imagined her putting it. But then she was his wonderful, quirky, occasionally random, Karola he had in his arms and that was more than enough for Avilan.
     
      "How can you be so calm." Karola snapped and then paced across the room, yet again. Need was singing its siren song on her nerves, which were not particularly steady to begin with. Avilan was sitting in his favorite arm chair muttering at his knotted threads.
      "I'm not!" he scowled at his recalcitrant embroidery.
      "Oh." she paused with one foot in the air. Karola put it on the floor and turned to him.
      Sticking the needle a bit too firmly into the cloth after unsnarling his latest knot he hit his finger, "Ow!" Avilan began muttering a series of words even Karola was uncertain of the meaning of.
      She took the bundle of fabric from his hands and placed it all on the table. With a thought she healed the pin prick, "You shouldn't be messing with sharp objects." Karola probably shouldn't have tried to explain the obvious to Avilan.
      "I never stick myself with the needle." he lied.
      "You just did, Avilan." she muttered.
      "So I did. Then what should I do with my hands." they reached for his needlework again.
      Karola slapped the backs of his hands, "No!" She felt like she was trying to train a particularly dense hound. Desperate for anything to keep him occupied she held out her hands. "Here." automatically he grabbed for them and she twined her tentacles with his fingers.
      Dreamily he petted and stroked them, "This isn't going to help you any."
      "Its better than you sticking needles into your fingers." she was trying not to think too much of her own rising desire at the touch of his hands.
      Gently he kissed her and pulled his hands free. "Not before tonight, love." he promised her.
      She sighed and the realized he had meant with someone else. "Who are you going to be with?" panic clenched at her laterals.
      "Lukian, I'm afraid." he sighed.
      "No, love. I won't let you." she promised.
      "You many not have a lot of choice in the matter, Karola." he pulled her into his arms.
      This is not going to be the last time he holds me "There are always choices, Avilan. If you go, I go with you."
      His arms tensed in their embrace, "No, love, please. I couldn't stand for that. If you don't promise me not to follow if I fall. I won't go tonight."
      "Thats blackmail!" she struggled against him but he had all the leverage.
      "You're right. Please say you will do as I ask."
      Karola thought about it for a moment and the realized the loophole he had missed in his need induced depression. "I promise." we are going to win. she finished silently.
     
      A shattering physical and nageric thunderclap crashed across the gathered Lords of the Demense. Karola looked up to see a figure dressed entirely in unrelieved black from head to toe take its place on the dias. The apparition raised its arms and Karola shuddered to see the mutilated arms of a veiled Lord. The chalk white forearms were laced with heavy scar tissue where its handling tentacles had once been. "I call to order the claiming of Lord Karola Mardinova!"
      "... Azov." Karola muttered under her breath, to be rewarded by a nudge from Avilan. "I call Challenge right! Only the one who can take Lord Karola may have her." it felt strange referring to herself in the third person but Sergei had told her that was how it was to be done.
      "She has no right to call Challenge!" an older woman in the black of Fatima called out who Karola figured must be Sharm Lord Tzanir Fatima.
      "Young Lord Karola has outsmarted your plans for her future, Fatima." a voice came from Kirov and a middle aged Lord who must be Ilya, in bright red stepped forward. There was no sign of anyone else from Kirov other than the renSime guards, which relieved Karola enormously.
      "She had help. Unwanted help." another Sharm Lord of Fatima spoke up.
      Avilan whispered in her ear, "Sharm Lord Kieran ... newly ascended."
      "It was not unwanted to me." Karola heard herself say. There was a titter from behind her and to her left.
      "So be it." the figure in black called out. "First in order, Maryam."
      For a brief instant there was silence from the location of the titter and Karola hoped there would be no response. "I call challenge!" it was Fiyoric. What is he doing challenging from Maryam? She turned to look towards him.
      "You were inducted, you may not challenge." the apparition barred his claim.
      He was dressed in the blue of Maryam and a Sharm Lord's kador. "He is now Sharm Lord Fiyoric Ivanovich Maryam." Lord Maryam placed her hand on his shoulder, although Karola could sense something off about the Lord, as if there were an echo to her words.
      Figures he has the patronymic of a bastard Karola thought.
      "Lord Maryam is not speaking, this is the voice of the bastard Fiyoric." nothing was getting by the figure in black. Who is that up there? Karola wondered. "Challenge denied Maryam for deliberate perjury before the Demense!"
      *I was Lord Nashen's sister, little one* Karola looked at the apparition who seemed to wink at her from behind her veil. *Be calm. There shall be no false witness.* and the contact cut off.
      There was a muted murmuring among the gathered leaders as Maryam was denied all further opportunity. "Next in order, Sergei."
      "There is no challenge from Sergei." the old Sharm Lord called out loud and clear. Karola caught Dori's wink from his place of honor in Sergei's guard and grinned at him very briefly.
      "Next in order, Azov."
      "I am Sharm Lord Avilan Turovich Azov and I claim Lord Karola Mardinova Azov as mate and Lord!" Avilan was improvising. Karola wanted to stomp on his foot for possibly upsetting the ritual and turning the black clad figure against them. Then she realized he had called her mate as well as Lord and her heart melted. This was one impressive marriage proposal but he really should have asked her in private first.
      "You are out of pattern, Azov." *but forgiven for love* "You may stand as Lord Karola's second against all comers." she finished. Karola was deeply impressed. This was her first experience facing a veiled Lord and had had no idea of what they were possible of or how well versed in lore before now. The muttering was louder as the figure allowed the breach of ritual after slapping down Maryam. "*Silence!*" this made Karola's ears ring, both mental and physical. She saw a few other heads shaking at the bellow but there was no more noise. She thought some people might have stopped breathing for a bit, she sure did.
      "Next in order, Fatima." all hell broke loose. A very tall figure in the black of Fatima, wearing a silver hilted sword which could have been made from the pattern of the Fatima arms, stepped forward.
      "I call challenge." he drew the sword and set it point first on the black marble tile in front of himself. This must be Lord Nashen she thought and was given a quick pulse of confirmation from his sister.
      "If armed with steel, you may face both. How do you chose, Lord Nashen Fatimovich Fatima?"
      He looked at the two of them closely and Karola could see his eyes light as he looked Avilan from head to toe, as if sizing up a particularly tasty radish. "Unarmed." he handed the sword to Lord Fatima behind him and stepped forward. Karola's nerves rattled as she realized he moved like quicksilver across the tiled floor, with no hint of even potential normal human bobble.
      "I accept for Lord Karola." Avilan stepped forward to meet him in the center of the circle.
      Her mouth was dry as she tried to swallow back her fear. Then she noted how very beautiful the two men were together and simply looked for a bit. Avilan graceful and smooth with his thick blond hair and sapphire blue eyes. Lord Nashen as spare as his blade with waist length, fine silver hair and eyes. "Begin." the marshal called out and they stood perfectly still for what seemed to her like a very long moment and then Nashen was face to face with Avilan, actually looking down on him. Karola hadn't even seen him move. Obviously Avilan hadn't either but he had been prepared. Zlinning, Karola noticed Avilan's field had turned diamond hard and she watch Nashen impotently try to force his way past the adamantine barrier. With a final snarl of frustration, Nashen raised a hand and Avilan grabbed his wrist, right over his lateral sheathes. Flinching in sympathy, Karola watched the young Lord signal his defeat before Avilan could clamp down his hand.
      "Challenge defeated!" the black clad figure called out. In stunned amazement Karola saw Lord Nashen give Avilan a very quick kiss on the lips. What was that all about? she wondered, so did some other people from the titters she heard behind her.
      Avilan returned to her side and she looked at him out of the corner of her eye. "I think he only wanted to get a chance to get close to me." Avilan actually blushed a bit at the admission. Nashen took back his sword, sheathed it and turned to give Karola a quick wink. I think that was a thank you. she wondered at the young Lord of Fatima.
      "I call challenge." Sharm Lord Tzanir stepped forward and there was a brief dance on the dias of Fatima as Kieran took her place at Lord Fatima's right hand.
      "Lord Fatima is not stable enough to be left alone in a situation like this." Avilan whispered to her. She wasn't really sure what he meant but she nodded anyways.
      "Challenge is rightful. Take your places in the circle." the apparition prodded them. With the appearance of Lord Ilya and no Sharm Lord Arkay Karola realized their previous strategy had been smashed beyond recognizability. She couldn't let Avilan face Lord Ilya. Karola stepped forward into the circle despite Avilan's hiss to refuse.
      Her palms were sweaty although she was glad she had decided to wear her armor after Avilan's little display with Nashen. "Begin." the marshall called out and retreated quickly.
      Tzanir looked her up and down insolently. "Oh come now, little Lord. You expect me to take this seriously." she looked at Karola's old worn bracers.
      Rather than respond Karola slipped into her own peculiar hunting mode and struck without even thinking about it. A flash of sparks rained down on the tiles from the flashover. Tzanir tried to respond by moving towards her but Karola lashed out again, this time at the older woman's feet. She stumbled heavily at the unexpected direction of attack. Karola snap kicked her chin and Tzanir's eyes blazed at the arrogance of a physical attack.
      Suddenly Karola felt as if her muscles had been cast in lead. She slowed and saw Tzanir get up and walk over to her. *NO!* she heard Avilan scream in her mind and Tzanir collapsed to the floor, twitching.
      "Challenge defeated!" the black clad figure called out, startling Karola. She had thought he couldn't help her in the circle. She whirled to face the veiled Lord, as did everyone else but Tzanir. "It is rightful for a bond mate to work through their bond to assist." she explained into the dead silence. Karola almost fainted with relief.
      Her knees were shaking as she returned to Avilan. He placed his hand on her shoulder and she rubbed her cheek along it. *sweet* she heard and suppressed sticking her tongue out at the figure in black, which got her a silent chuckle.
      There was silence as Tzanir was carried out of the room. The rest of Fatima followed her.
      A tall Sharm Lord in the red of Kirov stepped out of the shadows on the Kirov dias. His hair was now silvered on top and very long but Karola recognized him from the picture in the Azov suite, Sharm Lord Arkay Kirov, the most feared and most powerful person in all the Demense. Why now? After we have defeated Fatima! Karola backed a step, right onto Avilan's toes. She could feel him shake with terror as he realized Arkay's ruse to force one of them to have to fight Kirov.
      "Next in order, Kirov."
      "I call challenge." Lord Ilya Kirov called out in a clear voice.
      Before Avilan could move, Karola responded "I refuse challenge." He hissed at her but couldn't take back her words. From his reputation, Ilya would have killed Avilan for the sheer joy of being able to do so and could have done so easily.
      "The refusal is rightful. Challenge refused." the figure confirmed before Avilan could protest.
      "I call challenge." With incredible grace Sharm Lord Kirov walked over to the sword placed across the empty throne at the front of the hall and raised it over his head. "Both of them!" his ice blue eyes blazed as turned and lowered the sword to look down at them over the length of steel.
     
      Avilan saw the lights shimmer on the temper pattern of the sword as he looked down its length at the man who had once been his closest friend. Memories of long, warm sunlit days of summers spent in Arkay's company flashed through his mind. He desperately wanted to kiss Karola one last time.
      Realizing now it made no difference he leaned down and did so. She leaned into it and their fields merged as all he thought of was to make the best of his last chance. Need met desire and for a brief instant all he knew was the most beautiful, courageous woman in the world, whom he held in his arms. All things must come to an end and so Avilan finally looked up to see Arkay standing as still as a statue, still looking at them. Avilan wanted to scream his frustration and horror at knowing he was facing his own death looking down polished steel with impassive ice blue eyes. Eyes which had at one time held only love and friendship for him.
      "Challenge is rightful, Azov. You will take your places in the circle." the black draperies seemed to move of their own accord with their wearers impatience to be on with it.
      Arkay did something very surprising as he entered the circle and Avilan stared at him for a moment. He had put down the sword as soon as he had crossed the line. Avilan hadn't been aware Arkay even knew how to use a sword until tonight and was now even more unsure of Arkay's intentions. With his still new awareness Avilan tentatively reached out to Arkay.
      *indeed* came the response, actually full of good humor.
      What is going on here? there was something very off about this whole situation.
      *gagagamesmesmes, Avilan* Arkay took the unique stance which only started one particular combat-challenge pattern dance. Automatically Avilan made the counter and the marshall called "Begin".
      With the smallest part of his awareness Avilan realized Arkay had locked Karola's muscles under his own control. She would not be able to do anything unless he could somehow distract the other man. Right Avilan, you distract Arkay ... I have this horse I want to sell you as well. he barely managed to keep the pattern with his wool gathering and almost got clobbered by the side sweep kick aimed at his ribs. Concentrate! he reminded himself. So far, Arkay hadn't deviated a mil from the dance pattern. He doubted anyone in the audience would recognize it, as Sergei had created it.
      *Wrong, I did* Avilan quickly thought back sorry and ducked to catch the blow aimed at his head. In the heat of the moment Avilan could not remember who finished out on top. Then for an instant Avilan almost laughed, realizing what was happening. This is all for show!
      *Correct. If young-Karola had not sacrificed all to protect you from Ilya, or if you had not come to her defense despite all you knew of the challenge I might have tried to take her. As it is, well, you obviously love each other beyond measure and I will not interfere.* Avilan had no idea how Arkay managed to keep the pattern and 'talk' to him at the same time. He was panting with effort to try to keep up with him.
      A split second before Avilan managed to get his arm around Arkay's neck in the final move of the dance he saw a flash of light on metal. Without thinking, he put out his hand and grabbed the blade of the sword cents from Arkay's unprotected throat. Good thing its as sharp as Maryam's wit and not Karola's tongue! he would have a nasty set of bruises, but it didn't cut.
      Outwardly they were silent, but Avilan could hear Arkay's howl of laughter at his unspoken commentary. They stood frozen but for the heavy breathing as the men tried to catch their breath. Karola's eyes were midnight black and Avilan realized she didn't know what had happened as she couldn't see for being hyperconcious.
      Avilan slowly brushed Arkay's hair aside and kissed him on the back of the neck. Karola's hands dropped the sword hilt and Avilan let the weapon slide to the floor. He could hear her boots click on the marble floor as she stepped towards them. *May I?* Avilan released Arkay's hand.
      Arkay reached forward and gently took Karola's face in his hand. *So very beautiful* he stepped out of Avilan's hold and bent down to her upturned face. He kissed her with all the longings of those days so long ago when the two men had dreamed of finding their perfect mate. *Till we meet in Heaven, my dearest friend.* Arkay broke off the kiss and raised his hands, "Challenge conceded!"
     
      By the time Arkay's last comment registered with Avilan he had already left. Wait! he wanted to shout as he realized Arkay knew he would be dead at the end of the year along with Ilya.
      "No, Avilan." Karola pulled him back. "He knows and accepts his fate. Don't make it any harder for him."
      "Is everyone going to leave me?" he cried.
      "Never, my love, never will I leave you. Lets go home." she took his hand and he only looked back once over his shoulder at the door behind the Kirov dias.
     
      ---Afterward---
     
      "Are you really sure this is acceptable to you?" Avilan asked Sharm Lord Sergei for the third time.
      "Yes, I already said so." Sergei said before he turned to Avilan and tapped his finger on the younger man's nose. "But if you ask me one more time, I might change my mind!"
      Avilan looked down at his one set of fancy green courting garments and straightened out a seam carefully. He would have much rather waited until after transfer for all this nonsense but had well learned the value of discretion over the last month of chasing after his wild young Lord Karola. If she wanted to do the handfasting before their transfer, he decided it would be better to humor her.
      "Very wise, for someone with your degree of experience with women." Sergei grinned at him, answering his unspoken commentary as he often did. "Just do what she tells you to, forget to say 'I told you so' afterwards and you'll be fine."
      Not quite sure what to make of this advice, Avilan filed it for future reference. Fidgeting, he straightened out the seams on his sleeves again and had almost decided they hadn't been quite sewn straight when Sergei cleared his throat. Avilan almost jumped half a meter into the air at this interruption.
      "Nervous?"
      "What, who, me? No, I never get ... " someone tipped over chair over with a thump in the background, "... Yike! What was that!" he spun in the direction of the sudden noise.
      "No, Avilan. You are never nervous. And of course someone who jumps in the air over my clearing my throat and then tries to attack a wall when some poor clod trips over the furniture is the world's best example of equanimity."
      Sergei was having far too much fun with this situation in Avilan's opinion. "Lets go." he decided to abandon the crooked seam to its own devices.
      "Aw, making them wait is the best part, Avilan." the older man snickered.
      "How do you know? You've never done this."
      "Thats right. I'm smarter than you are."
      "Almost everyone is, so?" Avilan also had no illusions about his level of intelligence but figure he would get by fine as things stood.
      The older man laughed and held out his arm. Avilan took it and watched his hand shake. Must be need. he figured. He and Karola were due for transfer in less than two hours and he was counting off the minutes.
     
      There was a black robed figure standing on the dias of Azov, looking very out of place against all the green and white marble. It looks like the same veiled Lord from last night! Avilan looked more carefully at it.
      *I am the same one, Avilan* the figure told him silently. In awe of its willingness to perform a simple handfasting, he bowed his head towards it in respect. *Thank you* it said for both the opportunity and the respect, then was silent.
      Avilan looked up to see Karola moved to take her place in front of what would become her seat. She was dressed in the white of Sergei for the last time. Her face was pale under the brilliant light of the noon sun streaming through the windows, but it only accented the pure colors of her black hair and beautiful eyes. Those same eyes sparkled with excitement and joy as they met his own. With his hand on Sergei's arm, the two Sharm Lords walked forward to take their places in front of the assembled court of Azov.
      After the last generations of turmoil and changing leaders more than every ten years, the court of Azov had been thrilled to hear of their new Lord. Young, healthy and so very much beloved by their Sharm Lord. Avilan raised his free hand before the beginning of the ceremony and they cheered his choice loud and long until Karola rased her hand and the cheers rang in the rafters. He could hear the shadowy figure laugh quietly at this display of joy for their leaders. "No kisses till the ceremony is over." it warned with a chuckle as Avilan thought of doing just that.
      "Then get on with it." he mumbled without moving his lips.
      "As soon as they are quiet again."
      As he closed his hand, the room fell absolutely silent within a heartbeat. *Impressive!* he got a double echo from both the veiled Lord and Sergei. They all know I'll thump anyone who makes me late for transfer Avilan thought.
      Karola giggled a bit at his unspoken comment then they turned to face each other, then took a deep breath.
      "I pledge to thee, my Honor and my Love," she began, with the slightly modified vows for the unusual situation.
      "I pledge to thee, my Demense and my Life," he replied.
      "For all time to come,"
      "For all our future to live."
      "May your future find happiness and joy." Sergei wished.
      "May your children grow strong and straight." the veiled Lord blessed.
      "As above." she said and he placed her first earring through the newly healed holes.
      "So below." he said and she slid into place his new bracelet.
      "As within." Sergei said and wrapped the multicolored cloth around their hands symbolizing all the Demense.
      "So without." the veiled Lord put its hands on their shoulders.
      "Under all the stars in Heaven, may these two find their dreams of eternity." *Now you can kiss the bride, Avilan.* the dark clad figure concluded.
      For once, Avilan had plans of a nice, decorous kiss, but Karola had other ideas, as usual. She kissed him long and hard, showing him in return all the skills and love he had shown her that very first time. His knees almost buckled by the time she finally let him come up for air. Their court of Azov cheered even louder as Avilan picked her up and carried her out of the room. His newly won Lord had caught him.