A copyrighted work. Any distribution of this work for profit, or using whole or parts of this work in any other work, will result in legal action.
Gates of Transformation: Book Seven
Della Ann Boynton
Encased in expensive taffeta, lace, silks, and furs, and swirling in a kaleidoscope of color and rich embroidery, bodies sweated. Scents mingled as feet tread the measure of the drumbeat and the soft strains of a string accompaniment. Eyes met eyes. Silent signals passed between men and women as hands clasped hands and bodies wove a pattern. Whispered promises, muted laughter, fluttering eyelashes, and smiling lips; the rituals of courtship that were far older than the music.
“I invited you, because I thought this would make you happy,” Jaross complained as he settled into a chair along the wall next to Jhan. His black hair was damp, from dancing in the heat, and his face, that looked like Jhan’s, but in more manly lines, was morose.
“My leg still bothers me,” Jhan said in way of excuse, even though the leg she spoke of, that had been broken months ago, felt perfectly fine. “Besides, Kile is a better dancer than I am and he enjoys it more. It’s best that he find a partner more to his liking.”
Jaross took a towel from a servant, wiped at his face briefly, and then threw it back across the man’s arm. The man bowed and took it away. Jaross stared off into the milling crowd. “Lady Dreya Di Imagri, you mean?”
“Who?” Jhan replied tightly, looking down at the hands she held clasped in the lap of her blue gown.
“Big breasts, big hips, reputation like a slut from a pleasure house...,” Jaross trailed off and looked at Jhan sympathetically. “He’s danced with her five times tonight. She must be light on her feet.”
“What do you want me to say?”
Jaross leaned back, balancing one booted leg on the chair beside him as he leaned close to Jhan. “I don’t expect you to say anything to me. Saying something to Dreya, or even Kile, would be a better idea.”
Jhan crossed her arms across her breast, crushing delicate lace. “I trust Kile.”
Jaross leaned forward and snatched two goblets from the tray of another servant passing by. He deposited one of them into Jhan’s hand. She didn’t drink, turning it around and around in her small hands as she stared into it. Jaross tossed his off, with several appreciative gulps, and then gestured meaningfully at Jhan with the empty goblet.
“It isn’t any secret that you two are having troubles,” Jaross told Jhan seriously.
Jhan went wide eyed and furious. “Who told you that?”
Jaross raised eyebrows as he settled back into his chair. “Well, it isn’t a secret now.”
“Jaross!” Jhan was very angry now. “That’s between Kile and I. It isn’t any business of yours!”
Jaross looked away into the crowd again, shoulders slumping. “You’re right, of course. I just...” He paused and then decided to be explicit, snarling, “You should be happy now, after everything you went through! That your bastard husband would so quickly desert you for that-that imala in heat...” Jaross gave a jerk of his head as if he wanted to deny it himself. “It hardly seems possible!”
Jhan felt her heart constrict and her mouth set in a hard line as she stood, brushing down the wrinkles on her gown with furious flicks of one hand. “You don’t know that for a fact!” She glared at Jaross critically. “I think you’re drunk!”
“Maybe,” Jaross conceded, unperturbed by her outburst. “I had to have a few drinks before I could come and say this to you.”
“Say what?” Jhan demanded acidly. “Barracks gossip?”
“Kile risked a lot to save you, Jhan,” Jaross replied, looking as if he were in pain. “When you returned, Kile declared what you were to each other for everyone to hear, but now,” Jaross nodded towards the crowd. “A few months, and a pretty woman, have been enough to change all of that. I didn’t really invite you to this little dance for amusement,” he admitted, “I wanted you to see what everyone else already knows, Jhan.”
“Stop it!” Jhan shouted, and then looked swiftly around self- consciously. The music was too loud and the sound of stamping feet too pronounced. Her shout hadn’t been able to rise above it.
“I’m sorry,” Jaross told her and he did look ready to weep.
Jhan tossed her drink into his face. Jaross started and blinked the wine out of his eyes stupidly.
“You’re wrong!” Jhan snarled at him as she threw down the empty goblet. It clattered on the floor. “Even if you weren’t, you didn’t need to tell me! When will you ever think, Jaross?”
“What’s wrong now?” Kile appeared out of the crowd and slipped an arm about Jhan’s waist possessively. “Is Jaross being his usually irritating self? I honestly don’t know why you consider him your friend.”
Jhan gave Jaross a harsh look. “Maybe, I don’t either.”
“I AM right,” Jaross insisted.
Jaross was being very brave. Kile was a big man, muscled chest and arms straining the seams of his blue velvet and silk coat. His tree trunk legs were magnificent in black hose and tight calf boots. His gold hair, curly and shinning with sweat, was a sparkling fall about his chiseled features. He was a very imposing man and his sky blue eyes were leveled at Jaross in warning.
“If you’ve been disturbing Jhan-”
Jaross stood slowly and gave Kile a bow. Because he had been disowned by his family, Kile was above him in rank. Still, Jaross managed to make his bow servile and mocking at the same time. “I wouldn’t dream of disturbing your wife, Lord Kile. I beg forgiveness if I have upset her in any way.”
Jhan put a hand on Kile’s elbow to hold him back, not by her small strength, but by his concern for her. “My leg is bothering me, Kile,” she told him. “Could we please leave now? Forget about Jaross. He’s drunk.”
Kile looked down at her. The top of her head barely reached his chest. She was a light hundred pounds, her pale, porcelain features, and her mass of loosely curled black hair, making her look almost like an oversized doll. Her large, blue eyes, as deep as the blue of her gown, begged Kile.
Kile put one of his big hands over Jhan’s small one and patted it lightly. “All right. Forget about Jaross and let’s go home.” He turned her and began leading her away from Jaross without taking his leave; a calculated snub.
“You know I’m telling the truth, Jhan,” Jaross daringly called after her.
Kile kept on walking, taking a circular route around the larger crowds, but he leaned down so that Jhan could hear him. “What did he mean?”
“About what?” Jhan replied defensively.
Kile narrowed eyes at her and then shook his head and straightened. Jhan was glad that he didn’t pursue it further.
When they left the sweltering hall behind, and entered cooler corridors, they both breathed easier, but, walking in silence, Jhan’s thoughts were far from that. Jaross had touched a raw nerve. She and Kile WERE having troubles. It wasn’t just the way everyone had decided to ignore them, turning and walking away when ever they approached. It wasn’t even the terse letter from Sarvoy, informing Kile that his pervert ‘wife’ wasn’t welcome there any longer. That they could ignore, facing it together unflinchingly. It was their personal problems that defied any easy solution.
After settling into their old life once more, they had quickly found that things weren’t going to be as easy as they had imagined when they had been flushed with love and idealism in the desert. Reality, as usual, was crueler. Kile strove with all of his willpower to be patient, but Jhan found her fear and inexperience hindering them at every point. Having lost her virginity long ago, Jhan had never had to take the initiative and be anything other than a submissive vessel for a man’s passion.
Kile for his part, felt tongue tied and restrained. His brief, embarrassed ‘lessons’ fell short of satisfying either of them. He knew how to satisfy Jhan, but asking her to do what he needed was almost mortifying to him. He was too careful of frightening her, of opening up wounds that had been put there by rape and torture. He was too aware as well, of Jhan’s ability to give the ultimate pleasure, and that it was denied him by his own promise. Having known it, Kile was finding everything else a pale shadow of sensation compared to it.
Time had built a wall of misunderstanding and fear that neither of them could breach. That Jaross had felt the need to step in with his accusations... Jhan bit her lip. If she let herself think of it, begin to believe it, it would be the mortar, she felt, that would seal the wall between Kile and herself forever.
They paused in the large area of Pekarin fortress were the vendors had their shops. A few people milled about, but it was late, and things were deserted for the most part.
“Did you eat enough at the dance?” Kile wondered.
“Yes,” Jhan replied. “I don’t think there’s anything open now anyway.”
“No,” Kile agreed. “Doesn’t look like it.”
“If you want,” Jhan suggested. “I could-”
“Cook?” Kile made a face and then smiled at her teasingly. “I think I can wait until morning.”
Jhan managed a smile as well, but it was stiff and it didn’t reach her eyes. “Bheni has been teaching me a few things. I’m sure I can manage not to burn something.”
“That’s all right, Little Love.” Kile patted her hand again.
The silence hung between them again and it clung to them until they reached their apartment. It followed them through the door, but it felt good to close that door on the rest of the world and to be alone with each other.
They both sighed in relief as they began pulling off their heavy dance clothes. Half undressed to the waist, Jhan went to the one window of the small apartment and swung it open to let in a Spring breeze. Turning back to Kile, she saw that he was watching her.
The apartment was cozy; a wide bed along one wall, a thick, white fur to cover the floor, a gleaming wood table and chairs at the center, and a few paintings adorning the whitewashed walls. One door led to a large closet and another led to the bathroom with its primitive plumbing. Facing each other on opposite sides of the room, Jhan and Kile barely stood fifteen feet apart.
“I think I AM hungry,” Kile said suddenly and smiled gently at Jhan with the beginnings of smoldering passion in his eyes.
Jhan felt unaccountably nervous. She turned towards the bed and slipped out of the rest of her dress. She was wearing white hose tied with ribbons at the knee, and leather shoes with small heels. In the heat, she hadn’t worn the usual corset and underskirts that Pekarin women favored.
Kile was suddenly behind her, big hands caressing her bare hips. He leaned over her and she felt that he was naked from the waist down, his pants and boots having been quickly discarded already. What he wanted was obvious against Jhan’s skin and he didn’t leave any doubt as he gently led her onto the bed.
Cradling Jhan against his half clothed body, Kile indulged in playing with her, his lips and hands moving all over her. He was especially titillated by the white stockings.
Jhan was limp in Kile’s embrace, not doing anything. She could smell, faintly, a flowery perfume that wasn’t hers. It clung to Kile as if Lady Dreya was there with them in bed, laughing at Jhan over Kile’s shoulder.
Kile was beginning to be annoyed and impatient as Jhan continued to be limp and unresponsive. She could see his frustration. He needed release. He ached with it. His blue eyes, in the light of the lantern by the bed, were almost glassy with the overpowering urges within him. He was in pain, Jhan realized, anguish twisting her insides into knots, and she was the cause of it.
Suddenly determined, Jhan pushed her hips against Kile’s and wrapped her legs about him. When she began to maneuver in an obvious fashion, Kile almost allowed it, but then, the struggle clear on his face, he pulled away from her with a groan between clenched teeth.
“What are you doing?” Kile demanded breathlessly.
“Giving you what you want,” Jhan told him in a choked voice. “It’s what it was made for. Use it.”
“It was made to torture you!” Kile lashed back. He sat up, releasing her so abruptly, that Jhan almost rolled out of the bed. She clutched at the mattress and sat up as well, face pale. “Don’t-Don’t do that ever again,” Kile begged. “I’m only a man, Jhan. I have limits!”
“And you have needs,” Jhan replied, eyes hollow and face turning away. “I try, but I don’t know how to meet them, Kile, except in one way.”
Kile’s hands settled on Jhan’s shoulders. He gently massaged the tight muscles there. “What’s happened?” he asked after a time. “I thought that we trusted each other. I thought that we could work this out. You know that using you like a woman makes you ill, sometimes enough to almost die. I don’t want to loose you because of that. We should be able to find another way.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Jhan admitted, feeling ready to weep. “I’ve been hurt so many times that, when I reach out to you, I’m fighting with myself. I’m fighting with a part of me that just wants you to go away. It doesn’t even want to try. It’s too afraid, Kile. If you could just show me... show me what to do. I’ll do anything to make you happy.”
Kile pulled back his hands and rubbed them across his face in anguish. “If I show you, how will I know if you truly want to do it? How will I know if you’re just doing it out of pity for me, when what you really feel is disgust or-or fear?”
Jhan closed her eyes and laid down, turning her back to Kile and clenching tightly about her pain. “You can’t know, just as I’ll never know if what you do for me disgusts you or not. I used to be stronger, I know. Before, you never had to be afraid that I wouldn’t speak my mind.”
“Maybe it’s too soon,” Kile sighed and Jhan heard him settle down into the bed as well. “We have a lifetime together, Little Lady.” He reached out and turned down the lantern. “I can wait. Our love will be enough until you’re ready.”
Jhan wanted to believe him, but just before sleep overtook her, Jaross’s cruel words came back to her. At that moment, she believed Jaross more than she believed Kile.
When Jhan awoke the next morning, she found that rest had eased some of the
pain of the night before. She didn’t fool herself into thinking that it
could be forgotten, it was simply something she didn’t want to face yet.
Having relieved herself of the burden, she felt languid and relaxed, stretching
like a lazy cat as she yawned and slowly sat up in bed.
Kile was already up. Sitting at the table, and eating one hard boiled egg after another from a basket full of them, he stared moodily out of the open window. Bird song drifted in through that window along with a cool, morning breeze and yellow sunlight. That bright light was making a halo of Kile’s hair and sparkling on the gold buttons, and the gold captain braids, on the high collar of his red uniform. Kile looked very neat, polished, and handsome; the epitome of a soldier.
Jhan slipped from the bed and Kile smiled at her, letting her know that he was feeling better too. She smiled back. They understood each other and didn’t need to put their love into words. It was in their eyes and in their warm expressions. Their mutual agreement to put aside the difficulties of the night before was wordless too. Without any easy solution, it was only pain to bring it up now.
Barefoot, Jhan padded into the bathroom. Staring at her reflection in the very small mirror there, Jhan saw that she looked as relaxed as she felt. The smile stayed on her face as she brushed out her hair, tying it so that it flowed like a long tail down her back. Slipping into a simple, red dress, she put her feet into leather shoes and felt ready to face the day.
Returning to the main room, Jhan found Kile running a distracted hand through his curls. Adjusting the angle of the sword at his hip, he rose from his chair. He gave Jhan a light kiss on the lips tasting of eggs. “Have to go, Little Love,” he said apologetically. ”General Vek has called a meeting of his seniors. I have to train the recruits instead of Capion."
Kile was frowning slightly. Jhan wasn’t worried by it, knowing that he was only thinking about his duties and not the trouble of the night before. Jhan knew that Kile never dwelt on such things; One of the reasons why they had yet to resolve their difficulties. Jhan liked to agonize over her troubles until they festered, but Kile was always under the impression that, if left alone, things would eventually work themselves out. In Jhan’s case, they never did.
“Will you be back for the noon meal?” Jhan wondered.
“Probably not,” Kile lamented. ”Those new recruits are all thumbs! Why don’t you visit Rehn, Bheni, and the baby?” he suggested. “Aside from that awful dance last night, you haven’t stuck your nose out into Pekarin for far too long.”
Jhan caught herself hugging herself defensively at the thought of facing all of those curious, disgusted, and yes, even hateful stares of the Pekarin populace alone. She knew that she had to if she was ever going to get used to it, but she wondered if she would ever find the bravery for it. Not wanting to upset Kile, she forced herself to relax and smile again, replying jokingly, “As you will, my Lord.”
“I do,” Kile insisted. “You’re beginning to grow cobwebs!” He laughed, and gave her another kiss, before turning and going out of the room.
After Kile had closed the door behind him, the room seemed to grow larger, as if his great body had taken up all the room. It was then that Jhan noticed that he had left his dress cap and gloves on the table. Snatching them up, Jhan hurriedly opened the door and leaned out into the hallway.
Jhan saw Kile at once, but who he was with closed Jhan’s throat on the shout she had been about to utter.
Lady Dreya, dressed in a very tight, green gown with breasts straining at the laces, was facing Kile. Both of them were half turned away from Jhan and only a few lengths down the hallway. Dreya was smiling up at Kile, her hands clasped behind his neck and her pelvis planted against his. He was staring down at her with a scowl and pulling her hands away. She didn’t retreat. Instead, she leaned against the wall of the hallway and opened her legs suggestively. Her hands pulled up her dress as she bent slightly forward to show her large cleavage.
Jhan felt herself go bloodless. She was rooted, unable to retreat or go forward, her mind still denying what she was seeing. She waited for Kile to be outraged and walk away. He didn’t. He looked ashamed, his jaw clenching, but he was suddenly pushing her against the wall too, hands placed flat there, on each side of her head, as his body shoved between her legs. Dreya whispered something, laughed, maybe saying that she would keep watch, but she didn’t as her hands became busy with the buttons of Kile’s pants.
It was quick and mechanical, Kile’s face turned away and eyes closed as he banged Dreya’s body against the wall. Each thud was like a blow to Jhan’s heart and she flinched in time to it. When Kile, in no time at all, gasped and pushed himself away, Jhan was ready to fall to the floor in shock. She clutched at the doorframe, her face pressed against the wood, as she watched Kile button up his pants. His expression turned to shame again.
“Go away,” Kile grated; a lord dismissing a servant.
Dreya’s expression became brittle. She seemed familiar with Kile, used to this attitude. It was obvious that this wasn’t the first time. Still, her brittle expression held a hint of shrewdness as well. She stood on her toes and whispered something into Kile’s ear.
Kile went ramrod straight, hands turning into fists and face going as white as death. He stared at Dreya, lips mumbling as if in disbelief. She smiled and kissed his cheek, as if he had suddenly become her possession, and then she squeezed his hip lewdly and walked away. She took her time, letting him have a long view of her ample, swaying posterior before she turned a corner and was gone.
Kile swore explosively. His hands rose to cover his face and then he let them slide down as if he longed to claw his own skin open in self punishment. What ever Dreya had said to him had obviously shattered his world. Jhan thought he would stride away then, despite his upheaval, but he threw a distracted look back at their room instead, guilt clear for Jhan to read even at that distance.
It was like an electric shock of pain as their eyes met. Again, Kile’s world shattered. He raised a hand as if to explain, shaking his head and moaning like a wounded animal, but then he realized that Jhan had probably seen everything. There wasn’t any explanation. There wasn’t any excuse. He turned and ran down the corridor, a sob breaking from his lips.
After he had rounded the corner, Jhan turned and went back into the room. Closing the door behind her, she let the gloves and the cap drop to the floor as she ran and threw herself onto the bed, burying her nose into Kile’s pillow. His warm scent was mingled with a flowery perfume; Dreya’s perfume. It burned Jhan like acid and she threw the pillow away from her with a strangled, inarticulate sound of outrage.
Jhan didn’t weep, even though she felt hurt and betrayed. She wondered at it and then stopped wondering. She was too used to being a victim, she realized numbly. Besides, it wasn’t anything she hadn’t known already. Jaross’s revelation of the night before hadn’t even been one. Though she had denied it to herself, deep down, Jhan had been expecting it.
Denying Kile any comfort in bed, Jhan guessed bitterly, he had obviously sought to relieve his need and not trouble or pressure her with it. The shame and the guilt on his face had told her its own story. Dreya wasn’t a lover, she was only a vessel to quench himself in. His abrupt dismissal afterwards had been the proof of that.
Once, Jhan had asked Kile to do this very thing, to find comfort with a real woman. At the time, Jhan had only half meant it. Now that it had become a reality, Jhan felt an odd mixture of relief and depression. The pain that both of them had felt, the struggle to find a meeting place between their two bodies, and the struggle with Jhan’s dark memories, was put aside now. Still, Jhan could feel new pains in their place and she didn’t know how she felt about them.
A part of Jhan was glad that they could love each other now without sexual tension getting in the way. That part wanted to run to Kile and tell him that it was all right, that he didn’t need to be ashamed or guilty. The other part was darker. To that part of Jhan, every moment was precious, even the moments that were pain, frustration, and guilt. It didn’t want this confusion and it certainly didn’t want to share Kile with Dreya!
Jhan went into the bathroom to splash water onto her face. Drying with a towel, she took a deep breath, letting the tension leave her. Recovering from the shock somewhat, she realized at once what she had to do. Jhan knew that she had to find Kile. They had to talk this out so that she could reconcile the warring parts of herself. It was time to stop avoiding it. She loved Kile too much for there not to be a solution to their dilemma.
Leaving their room, and Pekarin Fortress, Jhan walked towards the soldier’s barracks, certain Kile would be there. The sun and a warm breeze soothed her roiling emotions, and Jhan began to think of Kile. Remembering the way he had looked, she started to feel anxious. There wasn’t any telling what the man might do in his grief and guilt.
The barracks sprawled along the road leading to Sarvoy. With the deep, green forest at its back, its wooden buildings seemed extensions of the trees. A stable of imala and baku was at a safe, smelling distance, and a ring of dirt, where the men practiced, seemed purposely put near a wall of the fortress where the women habitually lounged in an upper garden with their needlepoint.
Passing the small infirmary on the way to the soldier’s quarters, Jhan paused. When she needed advice, Evian Perazii, the Healer General of the King’s army was always there to give it. At that moment, Jhan felt in need of that advice more than ever.
Entering through the door, Jhan was, as always, struck by the neat, cleanliness of the place. It was as if Evian forced his apprentices to scrub the floor and walls, on their hands and knees, every hour of the day. A double row of cots, made with military perfection, lined the walls. An examination table, sink, and instrument table were positioned behind a half partition wall for the privacy of the patient and healer.
The room was empty. Jhan blinked as something moved in one of the beds. Almost empty. Cautiously approaching, Jhan saw that it was Captain Tevar Narin in the bed. He looked at her with a small smile that was sleepy and distant.
Jhan was startled to see that Tevar’s sharp, hawk like face, and keen, black eyes were marred with bruises. One arm was laying on the coverlet, wrapped in bandages, and braced with splints from elbow to wrist. Tevar looked as if he had been in a fight and lost.
“Is Evian around?” Jhan asked in a small, nervous voice.
“Gone out for a moment,” Tevar replied. His voice sounded sleepy. A furrow of concentration appeared between his eyes. “Do you need his talents, Princess Jhanian? Or is it Prince Jhanian now? Forgive me for not knowing how to address you, but Lord Kile has been very confusing on the subject.”
Jhan frowned. “Kile’s talked to you about us?”
Tevar laughed lightly. “He’s talked to everyone, your Highness. He was most determined, when he first returned from your journey, to inform everyone that he was a thekling. Nonsense, really!”
Jhan felt a flush go over her cheeks. “It is nonsense,” she agreed.
“Of course it is, your Highness!” Tevar winced as he inadvertently moved. “I’ve watched that man since he was a youngster. Where women are concerned, I’m surprised he kept his pants on long enough to train to be a captain!”
Jhan’s flush deepened. Tevar realized his indiscretion and his good humor melted.
“F-Forgive me, Highness,” Tevar stammered, mortified. “Evian gave me some sort of drug to cut the pain. It seems to be making my tongue unwise.”
“You’re only saying what’s true,” Jhan admitted bleakly and began to leave.
“Wait! I’ve hurt you!” Tevar reached out his good hand to Jhan and she stopped, looking back at him in a daze of inner pain. “Look, your Highness, Kile may be a... well, a slut if we’re telling truths, but since he’s been with you, he’s been a new man. I haven’t seen him-”
“That isn’t the truth!” Jhan snapped and her hands turned into fists. “I know-I know about him and Dreya.”
Tevar slumped into his bed, lowering his hand limply. He sought for an explanation to give her, but there wasn’t one and he knew it as well as she did. “I know he loves you,” he said at last. “Kile’s always been so careful of his honor and his appearance in front of the men. That he should run about, shouting that he was bedding a gelded man... and that he loved it, seemed almost a proof of madness to me. I’ve never loved anyone enough to do something like that!”
Jhan found a smile, but it trembled at the edges. “I guess I just wasn’t enough, in the end,” she said softly and then broke down. “I-I don’t know what to do.” It came out in a tumble, her longing to confide in someone who might understand, if even a little, outweighing her stubborn refusal to deal with the problem at all. “I want to please him, but-”
“You’re afraid, aren’t you?” Tevar guessed. When she said nothing, he went on. “You’re afraid, your Highness, that, if you reach out to him and do what he wants, he might become someone you don’t know, someone who might hurt you, or over power you with whatever you stir up. Am I right?”
“It’s foolish!” Jhan exclaimed and came to his bed side, glaring down at Tevar as if it were all his fault. “It doesn’t make any sense! Kile’s never hurt me intentionally. I’ve always trusted him, in everything. Why now? Why have things changed between us?”
“Give me your hand.” Tevar said steadily and held out his good hand. Jhan stared at it as if it were a poisonous snake. Tevar lowered it after a moment, nodding. “You’ve been raped. I’ve seen the signs before. It makes what you’re saying very understandable. Being used, controlled, subjugated to another man’s lusts, is never easy to get over.”
Jhan’s eyes went blind with tears. She wiped at them impatiently. “I know how to let Kile do what he wants. Spreading my legs and laying back, doesn’t require much bravery. I’m used to it. Now that we can’t do that anymore, I find my ignorance appalling and my fear to learn killing our love.”
“I don’t think you could ever kill that kind of love,” Tevar assured her and seemed a little jealous of it. He smiled. “You know, I’m somewhat of an expert in pleasing men. Your Highness, I could-”
“Stop talking,” Evian broke in as he passed Jhan by with a satchel of instruments. He went to the examination table and looked about to make certain everything was in order. Satisfied, he put the satchel aside and then went to wash his hands in the sink.
Jhan looked from Tevar to Evian. When Tevar shrugged and closed his eyes as if to sleep, Jhan slowly walked over to Evian. She stood behind the healer, nervous again, until the man dried his hands on a pristine towel and turned to her. In a red uniform, and looking as clean and polished as any soldier, it was hard to believe that Evian was a healer.
“You shouldn’t talk to theklings about a what a non- thekling man wants in bed,” Evian said bluntly. “The two are somewhat different.”
Jhan bit her lip and looked away. “You know my difficulty,” she replied. “It’s become a problem now.”
“Has it?” Evian motioned Jhan to sit on the examination table. Jhan did so and Evian frowned, arching an eyebrow. “Why did you do that?”
“What?” Jhan was startled and confused.
“Do as I just asked when you knew that I didn’t need to examine you?” Evian clarified.
“I-I,” Jhan stammered in a small voice, “I suppose I’m used to doing what I’m told.”
“That is your problem, not your physical attributes or... lack of them.”
“It isn’t that simple,” Jhan protested.
“You know it isn’t.” Jhan crossed her arms over her breast, but Evian reached out and pulled them down. He began unlacing the front of her gown. Jhan was alarmed. “Why are you-”
“Stop me,” Evian demanded coolly as he continued.
“I-” Jhan looked down as Evian reached her navel.
“Stop me!” Evian demanded again and pulled the front of Jhan’s dress open.
Jhan felt frozen, unable to move. When he grabbed her breasts in both of his hands and squeezed to the point of pain, she allowed it.
“Tell me again that this isn’t your problem,” Evian told her crossly. He released her suddenly, turning away to wash his hands. The sound of water covered Jhan’s in drawn sob as she did her dress up again with shaking fingers.
“You didn’t have to-”
“I did,” Evian cut in briskly. “You came to me for help, just as I suspected you would, but first you have to understand what the problem is. Now that you know, we can continue.”
“Continue what?” Jhan asked, fighting tears and beginning to be angry.
Evian confronted her, looking into her eyes. “I’ve been a healer of soldiers most of my life,” Evian told her. “Things happen.” He glanced over at Tevar, but the man seemed asleep. “People suffer. I sometimes find myself in the role of counselor far too often.”
“You can’t help me with this problem,” Jhan told him fiercely and began to get up. Evian lifted a hand and Jhan shrank back from it and sat down again.
“You see?” Evian asked pointedly. “You could snap my neck before I could blink, but my old, open hand makes you cower.”
Jhan’s face was stiff with pain and her words were full of it as she asked, “Can you heal that?”
“No,” Evian told her truthfully. “I don’t think you’re ever going to get over being afraid.” When Jhan looked stricken, he went on quickly and firmly, “but there are ways to live with it. One of them is making up your mind whether the love you have for Kile is worth leaving yourself open to hurt.”
“What do you mean?”
Evian nodded to Tevar. “That man!” he sighed despairingly. “Well, your Kile is one for women, but Tevar has always been one for men. He can never pass up a challenge. To be blunt, he thinks any man will forget what he has between his legs if he simply turns and shows his ass.” At Jhan’s shocked expression, he smiled grimly. “He runs into enough men to teach him otherwise, but it never stops him for long. The last man he propositioned put him in that bed there. In short, Tevar not only doesn’t mind leaving himself open to get hurt, he seems to actively seek it just on the chance that he’ll get some pleasure first!”
“So,” Jhan replied in a small voice. “You’re saying I should let Kile do that to me?”
Evian frowned. “Do you think he would? Someone your size... I wouldn’t recommend it. Kile would probably split you in two!”
Embarrassment and anger stung Jhan’s face. “I didn’t mean that and you know it! I meant... I don’t know what I meant!” Jhan half turned away in frustration.
“You know Kile wouldn’t hurt you,” Evian lectured her, suddenly gentle. “You know it and yet you’re still afraid. You’ll never overcome that fear. You simply have to bear with it. It’s sort of like, falling backwards into someone’s arms, knowing they could let you fall, but not caring if they do.”
“That’s cruel,” Jhan protested at once. “Love shouldn’t be that way. I shouldn’t EXPECT to get hurt.”
“But you must,” Evian replied firmly. “Expecting it takes the pressure off. Most of your fear comes from not knowing for sure. If you convince yourself of the fact, uncertainty goes away. You’ve stopped fighting, stopped loving, stopped reaching out, because of your fear of pain. Accept the pain. Accept the chance of being hurt. Suffer it. Dare, like Tevar, to court it. After what Dagara Ku Ni did to you, will you sit there and tell me that you couldn’t bear anything anyone else, mere amateurs, might do to you? It’s much easier to be surprised at NOT getting hurt, Jhan.”
“It doesn’t seem logical.”
“In most cases it isn’t, and it isn’t right,” Evian told her seriously. “But I know you want Kile, I know what you’ve been through, and I know what’s stopping you from having a happier life. I also know that Kile would never, truly hurt you.”
Evian reached out and began unbuttoning Jhan’s dress. Jhan felt an all too familiar quailing sensation inside of her, the inner jerk of her mind recoiling and preparing to hide from anticipated pain. As she watched his fingers busily undo the buttons, and then reach inside and take hold of her breasts again, Evian was clearly disappointed. Yet, his words had made an impact. What could Evian do to her that hadn’t been already done hundreds of times by crueler men? What pain could those old hands inflict that she hadn’t been taught to bear? In light of that, Jhan’s inaction suddenly seemed ludicrous to her.
With shaking hands, Jhan reached up and took hold of Evian’s wrists. His eyes narrowed at her as if he intended to be dangerous. Jhan met them, overcame another quailing sensation, and then purposefully pushed Evian’s hands away. It was hard, emotionally, and she flinched as soon as she had done it. When Evian freed his hand and smacked her on the cheek, albeit lightly, it still stung enough for Jhan to blink in pain.
“W-Why-” Jhan stammered.
“It’s what you expected,” Evian explained with a raised eyebrow. “I merely gave you what you expected. Was it terrible? Was it something you couldn’t bear with?”
Jhan touched her stinging cheek. “No, but don’t do that again.”
“Good. You’ve learned something important. Remember it. “ Evian told her approvingly and then his face went into grimmer lines. “Now, about your other troubles.”
Jhan was confused. “Which ones?”
“Jhan, I treat the camp whores,” Evian explained matter-of- factly. “To keep them from dropping babies all over Pekarin, I’ve had to teach them some alternative techniques for pleasing their customers that, I think, you might find useful. I know you’ve refused in the past, but I think you’re more receptive to the idea now. Am I right?”
Jhan shook her head and stood up as she buttoned her dress. “This is all too much! I need to talk to Kile. I’ll have time to talk about this later.”
“Trouble gone that far already?” Evian guessed sympathetically. “I think, Jhan, that you need to take the time now. Whatever you have to say to Kile, can wait. If you’re going to win him back, you have to have a few weapons at your disposal.”
Jhan let Evian talk. He spoke in a lecturing fashion, and he never seemed embarrassed, as he graphically described to Jhan what it was that men liked most and how to go about meeting those desires. The techniques he described were simple, and a few of them had been used on her by some of Dagara Ku Ni’s more inventive soldiers, yet none of it was beyond what she could imagine herself doing willingly.
“I feel...,” Jhan groped as Evian finally ceased speaking. “I feel naive. You know how old I am, Evian, but before I was this,” she touched her breast, “I was only with two men, and that was brief. I never considered any of the things you’ve just told me about, and, if Kile knew, he’s been too concerned about hurting me to suggest them.” Jhan felt tears at the corners of her eyes. “Things have gone so wrong so quickly and the solution, all along, was so simple.”
Evian was very serious. “Not so simple,” he warned. “You still have to have the courage to use them, to accept the possibility of hurt. Whatever you decide though, don’t go back to pretending your body is a woman’s. I don’t think it would survive for long if you did.”
“Kile and I both know that,” Jhan told him. “That’s why it’s been so hard. That part of me... Kile told me it was the greatest sensation he’d ever felt. He can’t forget about that. He never will.”
“Then, who ever he’s been using his battering ram on, can’t be giving him much joy!” Tevar spoke up from his bed. They looked at him and he grinned sleepily. “Do you think he’s desperate enough for me to have a chance? He said he was a thekling, but he almost attacked me when I cornered him in the arms shed and suggested we...” Tevar trailed off, chagrined. “Am I really saying all of that out loud?”
“Afraid so,” Evian replied sourly and then turned to Jhan. “Don’t mind him. He’s drugged. He might just be imagining he did that with Kile or that he-”
“The first part is true enough,” Jhan admitted angrily, “I just wish that everyone didn’t know about it.”
“I’m sorry,” Evian sympathized gently.
Jhan found herself shrugging. It was almost a wince. “Don’t be. I don’t even know how I feel about all of this. Somehow, I keep thinking I deserve it, that it’s my fault. How can it be easy for Kile, being what I am and having all the problems that come with me? He’s a simple man. He thinks with his body way too often. To expect him to suddenly become a different man, a man who can go months on end without... with only my frightened, half hearted attempts to please him, seems ridiculous."
“Yet you do blame him,” Evian cut in, understanding. “You want him to love you enough to do without, to sacrifice, to be content with just your company. I’m afraid that’s for fairy tales, Jhan. You married a soldier, a Duke’s son, but still a soldier. We’re all very basic men, most uncouth and unlearned. That Kile can’t say no to a woman parting her legs for him, despite how much he loves you, wouldn’t surprise anyone here. Knowing what you are, and the state of your marriage bed now, they would have been more shocked if he hadn’t.”
Jhan’s mouth set in a hard line as she pulled her dress into order and smoothed out the wrinkles with her hands. "I have to take him back,” Jhan said determinedly. “I have to give him something to stay home for, something to keep him with me. Is that what you’re trying to say?”
“Welcome to the ranks of most women, Jhan,” Evian said grimly.
“I’m going to find him,” Jhan said, “and, when I do, I’m going to make him glad that I’m his wife.”
Jhan strode from the infirmary. Only when she was several yards away did she realize that she hadn’t thanked Evian. He probably understood, Jhan thought. He knew that she had to steel herself for what was to come next. Evian knew that she had to accept a premise that seemed all wrong. She had to accept that Kile might hurt her. What was worse, she had to expect it, and not back down from it. She had to find a way through the fear and to find the lost part of her that had always dared to speak its mind and to do what it wanted; damning the consequences.
“He’s not here,” Vek said, startling Jhan as he stepped from the arms shed. A squat, swarthy man, he was the General of the King’s army and well qualified for the position.
“Kile?” Jhan affirmed.
“Who else would you be looking for?” Vek replied waspishly. “You’ve missed a months worth of practice sessions. You certainly didn’t come here for that!”
“I’m sorry,” Jhan told him impatiently.
“I doubt that,” Vek growled.
“Have you seen Kile?” Jhan asked, refusing to be sidetracked. That disappointed Vek. He obviously didn’t relish telling her something. “You’ve seen him,” Jhan guessed.
Vek gathered spit in his cheek and then let it fly aside into some bushes. Looking under his dark brows at Jhan, he said gruffly, “He asked me for an assignment, any assignment out of Pekarin. He saw a courier order on my desk and snatched it up. He demanded that I give him the duty. I told him that running away wouldn’t solve his troubles, but he wouldn’t hear me.”
Jhan’s heart went into her throat and she clutched her hands together, her nails digging into her palms. “Where did he go?”
“To the Silverwood,” Vek told her. “A month round trip and easy country in between. You don’t have to be afraid that he’ll get into any danger. We’re at peace with the Alamien who live there. We trade. They aren’t Human, but they are very interested in us. They’ll probably treat Kile as well as a king and then send him back fat and loaded with gifts.”
“A month?” Jhan almost sat down on the ground. Her legs felt weak. Vek new better than to reach out a hand to help her. He knew about her reflexes from grim experience. “When-When did he leave?”
Vek gauged the position of the sun, squinting. “Some time ago. Look, Jhan. You shouldn’t think of going after him. He’s on duty now. You’re a soldier’s bed mate. You know what that means. No matter what’s going on between you two, you can’t interfere when he’s carrying out orders. Let him ride off and stew for awhile. Kile isn’t much of a thinker and I’ve never seen him stay upset about anything for long. By the time he gets back... you’ll see. Just let it go for now. Let him go.” When he looked down, Jhan was already up and striding away.
Jhan went first to the stables. The stable master was chewing out a new hand, pointing to the muddy hooves of an imala. Jhan interrupted by stepping between them. The man glared.
“I want two imala, fast ones,” Jhan ordered, with a tone of confidence she didn’t feel. “One of them needs a pack saddle with enough supplies and gear for fifteen days. I’ll be back for them as soon as I gather my things.”
The stable master continued to glare. Jhan felt a slight tremor deep inside of her, but her heart was panicking and it gave her the anger and strength to face him down.
“I am Princess Jhanian of the Kevelt!” Jhan shouted like a whip. “My brother is the King of Karana! You will do as I say or you may not live to shovel manure another day!”
The man flinched and bowed. The upper class weren’t unknown for carrying out threats such as Jhan's. His automatic servility made Jhan ill, but she couldn’t waste time petitioning King Tekhal, or going back to Vek and begging for military mounts. Both, she doubted she would get.
“Your Highness, at once,” the stable master said respectfully, but Jhan was already striding away, leaving him as quickly as she had left Vek.
How long had Kile been gone? Jhan wondered. How long had she been in bed, struggling with depression? How long had she spoken with first, Tevar, and then Evian? Hours? Without clocks, the sun was the only timekeeper. It could only tell Jhan that it was drawing towards mid-afternoon.
Jhan entered Pekarin Fortress, grabbed a roll stuffed with meat from a vendor, and ate it hungrily as she made her way back to her room. Once there, she flipped off her dress and struggled through a closet to find the men’s clothing Kile had bought for her after they had returned from the desert. Eager to show off his new acceptance of her, Kile had insisted on the clothes. Jhan hadn’t had the heart to tell him then that she still preferred dresses. The clothing had quietly gone to the back of the closet without comment. Now, they reemerged, wrinkled and still smelling like new leather.
Jhan thought of going to Rehn and telling him that she was going, but she feared that it would waste time, and she still hoped to catch Kile on the road not far away. Struggling into her stiff clothes, she hurriedly tried to write a letter to Rehn in explanation. Her words were simple and to the point. She still didn’t have a good command of Pekarin letters.
Leaving the letter on the table, Jhan paused in the doorway with a bundle of her clothes, a brush, a few hair ribbons under her arm, and one of the maps Kile was so fond of collecting. She gave the room a long look, almost seeing the ghosts of old arguments, soft words of love, and warm embraces. Swallowing hard on her emotions, Jhan turned and closed the door solidly behind her.
(Snakes in the Grass)
After Jhan had collected her imala, she rode as fast as she could to Sarvoy, hoping that Kile would at least say goodbye to his children before he left. The pack imala slowed her. She was more used to handling the stockier, shorter baku. That she had bothered with them at all, only illustrated her pessimism that she wouldn’t be able to catch up to Kile any time soon.
Jhan rode into the stable yard of House Dor mid-afternoon, sweating and cursing as she struggled with her unfamiliar mounts. Her legs, softened by long months treading the smooth floors of Pekarin, trembled with fatigue as she slid from her mount and handed the reins to a gangly, dirty faced stable boy with a thatch of black hair.
“Water them,” Jhan ordered him, still trying to catch her breath, “but don’t give them any grain. I’m coming back soon.”
The boy recognized her. He had taken the reins gingerly, as if he hadn’t wanted to touch her. He was old enough to understand what she was and young enough to show open curiosity. His eyes were on the crotch of her pants, his face a little green, as he remembered to show her courtesy. “Yes, Highness.”
Jhan ground her teeth into her bottom lip to keep from saying something in anger. That pain steeled her to turn and face the house. She had been banned from it. If they found her there, they might throw her out or, worse, keep her until Khami, Kile’s mother, could order a fitting punishment for her transgression. Jhan knew that she had to move quickly and keep her presence hidden.
Traveling up a back stairway, Jhan walked hesitantly, not certain where to start looking first. She was just beginning to decide that Kile might have gone to get some of his clothes from his old room in the upper house, when she turned a corner and ran into Duke Dor, Kile’s father.
A shorter, fatter version of Kile, he frowned when he saw Jhan, but didn’t look displeased to see her. He took her hand in his, but only briefly, and said worriedly, “It is good to see you, Jhan, but you know my wife, the Duchess, is emphatic that you not come into our home. If she didn’t have my sons, and most of my relations behind her, I would say otherwise. I’m afraid that peace in my household is more important than my wishes.”
Jhan managed a smile, relieved that the Duke wasn’t going to have her thrown into the dungeon. Because of his love for his son, he had always been, if not accepting, at least tolerant of Kile’s eccentricities.
“Your wife, Khami, only seconded a decision that I had already made, Duke Dor.”
“I’ve told you before to dispense with formalities, Jhan,” the old Duke reminded her affectionately. “I’m afraid I won’t stoop to calling you daughter, but, it seems, you’re the only wife Kile will be having. We can at least be on a first name basis, I think, in light of that.”
The Duke scratched the gray stubble on his head, musing, ”I knew when Kile decided to become a soldier, and not marry that opportunistic Caliya, that he might have different, eh, ‘tastes’. Khami won’t hear of it, but it isn’t unknown in her family. Well, one can hardly blame her though. She’s from the borders and they are very narrow minded about such things. Me, I’ve been a soldier too. I’m certainly not an innocent. I’ve seen enough after a few patrols- hear me now, will you? Babbling on like an old fool.” The Duke smiled self-deprecatingly. “I suppose you make me nervous.”
“Nervous?” Jhan couldn’t help liking the Duke even now. “Because of my great beauty?” Jhan teased.
“Dressed so immodestly too,” The Duke chuckled. “I think my old face is turning red.” he became serious. “What’s this all about? Does it have something to do with Kile rushing in and out of her like death was on his heels? He said it was just a simple courier detail, but I wondered.”
“Then he was here?” Jhan’s heart sank.
“Just to kiss his children goodbye, to give his father a hug, and to glare at his mother, yes.” The Duke looked Jhan up and down. ”Something’s gone wrong, hasn’t it.? Are you chasing after him?”
“Yes,” Jhan replied sadly.
The Duke gripped Jhan’s shoulder and pressed it almost painfully. “Then get going and catch the foolish boy!” He urged. “Don’t loose him. You have the gift of making him completely miserable at times, I will admit, but when you make him happy... well, a parent couldn’t ask for more than to see their child smile like that!”
Jhan pressed the Duke’s hand and then backed away, feeling tears well up, frustration in having missed Kile and appreciation for the Duke’s understanding and support. “Thank you. I will catch up to him. I have to. He’s my life.”
“And I know that you are his life,” the Duke added with a sigh and expression that reflected his inner release of hopes and dreams for a promising son. What was, was, and he was too much of a straight forward, hardheaded soldier not to shoulder the weight of that realization. He bore it with fortitude.
Jhan left him there, sunk in his own thoughts, her desperation unable to make room for his troubles. Later, she promised herself, she would speak to him again; reassure him that it was all right. When she had convinced herself of the fact, she amended to herself sourly.
Returning stealthily to the courtyard, Jhan passed only the odd servant here and there who didn’t give her a second look. Whether it was out of preoccupation, or ignorance of her ban from House Dor, Jhan wasn’t sure. She was congratulating herself on getting out safely, passing under an archway into sunlight, when someone wrapped two, strong arms about her from behind, pining her arms to her sides. That someone was Khen, Kile’s brother.
“Where are you going in such a hurry?” Khen hissed in Jhan’s ear. “Did you remember that you weren’t supposed to come back into House Dor?”
Jhan was frantic. She looked over her shoulder into the cruel face of Khen. His short cropped, gold curls, and his blue eyes, so much like Kile’s, were twisted in anger.
“Please,” Jhan begged. “I have to go! Kile needs me!”
“Needs you?” Khen spat aside and tightened his grip until she gasped in pain. “You need him, is more truthful! Everyone knows you cling to him for protection; shaming the name of Dor, making a pervert out of my stupid, confused brother just to keep from being driven out of Pekarin as you deserve!”
Jhan struggled against his strength ineffectually. She was finding it hard to breathe. She gasped out, “I love him, Khen, but, even if you don’t believe that, please believe that he’s very upset and that he might do himself some harm!”
Khen was incredulous. “The only harm Kile has suffered has been from putting you on your back- or is that the way you two do it? What do you have under those clothes that makes a man like my brother want you instead of honest women? Maybe we’ll find out before I kill you.”
Jhan was stunned. She had been expecting some sort of rough treatment, but murder? Khen’s eyes didn’t leave her any doubt that he meant what he was saying. The cruel line between his brows was twitching and his blue eyes were cold.
“Y-You can’t mean that!” Jhan stammered, but he was already dragging her towards the stable.
Once inside, Jhan saw that the stable hands were gone, probably dismissed by Jhaven and Rhadel, Kile’s other two brothers. They stood close together, Jhaven leaning casually against a post and Rhadel looking tense and nervous.
When Rhadel saw Khen and Jhan, he grinned. “Now we can have some fun!”
Jhaven only looked irritated as he straightened. “Let’s get this over with,” he growled impatiently. “Beat the creature a few times and then put it on an imala out of Pekarin.”
Eyes a soft blue, gold curls falling long past his shoulders, and dressed in fine, dyed leathers of blue and green, Jhaven far outshone his other two brothers. Jhan fleetingly remembered a line from somewhere warning that evil often wore a fair face. She had found it true more than once.
Rhadel was Jhaven’s opposite. Rough in appearance, slouching, and twitchy, he gave the impression of a weasel so convincingly that Jhan almost expected him to go on all fours and search for chickens. His gold hair was darker than his brother’s and he seemed always to be grinning for the wrong reasons. This was one of them.
“Khen, you promised that we could have a little fun first, right?” Rhadel reminded his brother plaintively.
Jhan shuddered in horror, too stunned to move or utter the scream beating behind her lips. It had been too sudden, too shocking too find such violence within the family of the man she loved; the man who had always been so gentle and honorable. It was too much like a bad dream. Too much like being attacked by man- eating beasts on a quiet city street.
Jhaven was disgusted, spitting aside as if finding a bad taste in his mouth and starting to leave. “I’m not about to watch while you put it to a creature like that! You may be desperate, but I know enough women who’ll let me do that properly. I’m leaving!”
Khen motioned for him to stay. He looked tense and dangerous. It made Jhaven pause. “I’ve changed my mind about that,” Khen assured him. “There isn’t enough of this little pervert to go around. I’ll just smash its head in and-”
Jhaven went wide eyed, exclaiming, “What? You didn’t say anything about-” Khen shoved Jhan into Jhaven’s arms.
Mindful of her reputation, Jhaven hurriedly locked his arms hard about Jhan to pin her arms. Jhan cried out and Jhaven felt, not a steel muscled warrior that could kill in a flash, as he had heard about, but a body as fragile as spun glass and eggshell china. He loosened his grip in a panic as he felt bones grind together on the verge of snapping like twigs. Jhan panted in his arms, limp and sobbing with pain.
Unconcerned with his brother’s struggles, Khen had nonchalantly gone to pick up a thick club with a looped strap at the end. It looked as if it had seen a great deal of use. Khen tested its weight and gave an experimental swing.
“We kill misborn creatures all of the time,” Khen reasoned as he turned back to face them. “You’ve done it yourself, Jhaven. That pricey brood imala you keep going on about hasn’t dropped a sound offspring since her first breeding.”
“Jhan-Jhan isn’t misborn.” Jhaven was going pale and his hands on Jhan were suddenly ice cold. “She- It was cut by an evil man.”
“That doesn’t give it the right to be a pervert; to bed our brother as if it were a woman!” Rhadel jumped in furiously.
“Or to shame our family,” Khen added. “It’s made us the laughingstock of Pekarin. A quick, sure blow to the head seems too much mercy for doing that to us!”
Jhaven’s grip went slack. He had been ready to join in cruelty, but this intended violence of his brother went far beyond what he was capable of. His voice was shaky, almost pleading. “I won’t be a party to murder, Khen.”
Disgusted, Khen waved at his brother impatiently with the club. “Go then, if you don’t have the stomach for avenging our family honor!”
“Killing this little creature...,” Jhaven swallowed, obviously afraid of standing up to Khen, but determined to sway him in this. “Where’s the honor in that? I think you’ve convinced Jhan that you mean business. Now Jhan will run away. Wasn’t that the plan?”
“Kile finally had enough sense to leave it, but Jhan told me that it intends to ride after Kile and try to win him back,” Khen revealed. His face screwed up in revulsion. “It loves him, it said.”
Rhadel noticed that Jhaven wasn’t holding Jhan tightly. “Hold the pervert, you fool!” he shouted, twitching in fear. “Do you want it to kill us instead?”
“This piece of fluff? Kill us?” Jhaven’s laugh was tense and uneven.
“That piece of fluff has killed a number of unwary men who didn’t respect what it could do,” Khen warned, tightening his grip on the club.
Jhaven looked down at Jhan, perplexed. “If that’s true,” he said to her, “you could have done something just now. I wasn’t holding you.”
Jhan was beginning to weep. Her large, blue eyes met Jhaven’s and Jhaven was shaken by the emotion he saw there. “I love your father,” Jhan whispered in a dead tone. “I couldn’t do that to him; kill his sons.”
“Enough to let Khen kill you instead?” Jhaven was astonished, disbelieving.
“No, “ Jhan admitted. “I was trying to think of another way.”
Jhaven was moved despite himself. Jhan hadn’t shaken his resolve to avenge his honor completely, but he was suddenly willing to stand up to Khen on her behalf, giving her something back for her sacrifice. “I won’t let you kill Jhan,” Jhaven told Khen firmly. “We’re going to stick to the plan.”
“I won’t let it go after Kile,” Khen replied, standing his ground, but not liking Jhaven’s sudden rebellion. Khen was a man who needed followers. Alone, he didn’t have the courage to carry out his cruelty.
“We could break some of its bones instead,” Rhadel suggested eagerly, “and take it into the forest. Then, if it died, our hands would be clean.”
Khen considered it and then gave a grim, cruel smile. “Very good idea, brother. What say you, Jhaven? Can you stop being squeamish long enough for that?”
Jhaven met Jhan’s eyes again and said softly. “You have dishonored us. There must be a punishment.”
Jhaven slowly took hold of Jhan’s right arm, stretching it out while his other held her tightly against his chest. Jhan could feel him trembling. She was frozen in his grasp, unable to react, unwilling to kill, and unable to utter a word in her terror.
Khen was critical, lip lifting in a sneer. “An arm?”
“I won’t let you cripple Jhan either,” Jhaven vowed.
Jhan tensed for the blow. A broken arm? If that was all, then wasn’t it worth it in exchange for not having to kill Duke Dor’s sons? She braced herself for the coming pain, telling herself it was a small thing compared to the many others she had experienced. She closed her eyes and held her breath, waiting.
Jhaven’s fingers moved, squeezing slightly, maybe feeling the tiny bones and the thinness of Jhan’s arm. Perhaps he was comparing it to the club that would soon be breaking it. All in an instant, he changed his mind.
Jhan’s eyes flew open in surprise as Jhaven jerked her out of harm’s way. She saw the blur, and heard the whistle, as the club split the air where her arm had been. She didn’t have long to stand confused. Jhaven turned and heaved her through the doorway of the barn.
Sunlight broke across Jhan’s eyes as she heard Jhaven’s shouted, “Run, Jhan! I’ll hold them!” She didn’t look back or question. Like a rabbit feeling the wolves close by, instinct sent Jhan scrambling, her long spine giving her legs speed as she raced for her imala.
Still tied in the yard, the stable boy was idly raking dung out from under the beasts. The boy straightened, startled, as Jhan yanked their leads loose from the hitching post and threw herself into the saddle.
Glancing behind her at last, Jhan saw Khen flinging himself over the struggling Jhaven and Rhadel and begin racing towards her with the club still in his hand. Jhan kicked at the imala, but their packs made them slow to respond. As they gathered themselves and began a rough trot, Jhan knew that it wasn’t going to be fast enough.
It was the stable boy who saved Jhan. Without warning, but with enmity for Khen clear on his face, the boy reached out with his rake and trip the man up. Khen hit the pavement hard and slid face first into the pile of dung the stable boy had gathered together.
“Sorry, Lord Khen, it must have been the kick, that you gave me the other day, that made me so clumsy,” Jhan heard the stable boy grate out. Khen’s reply was lost as Jhan cleared the courtyard and took the streets at a gallop.
Scattering pedestrians, Jhan earned many curses, but her fear wouldn’t let her slow down until the hooves of her beasts were on the road to the Silverwood. Only then did she allow them to find their stride and do what imala were prized for, their mile eating lopes.
When Jhan had put a safe distance between her and her enemies, her panic subsided enough for her to think clearly. She dragged out her map and tried to read it. The jogging movement of her imala made that very difficult, and she felt the beginnings of queasiness, but she stubbornly refused to stop the beasts even long enough to read the map properly. Time was too precious if she wanted to catch up to Kile.
Jhan was on a narrow, grassy road that led straight into the heart of the woods. She was anxious to make certain that there weren’t any forks that would catch her unaware and make her loose her way. According to the map, there weren’t any. The one road stretched Eastward all the way to the Silverwood without even one marked spot of habitation inbetween. Trade between the Silverwood and Pekarin must have been very sparse indeed, Jhan thought. She couldn’t imagine a bandit bothering with such slim pickings and she relaxed, one fear at least gone for the moment.
Jhan had started late in the day, but it seemed far too short a time before the sun was dipping behind the trees and leaving her in complete darkness. Lighting the small lantern she had brought with her, Jhan dismounted and pressed on despite her bone aching weariness. The lantern hardly penetrated the blackness and she and the imala stumbled with every other step.
When one of the imala stumbled and nearly fell on Jhan, she had to admit defeat. Lowering her lantern, she began to turn to make camp. Out of the corner of her eye, she was startled to see the flicker of another light up ahead. Blinking and thinking it was a trick of the lantern or her eyes, Jhan turned it down until it was almost out and then waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. She tensed nervously when she saw the other light remain, peeping through the thick trees.
Jhan thought of running. She imagined a thousand horrors that could befall her if she were discovered alone by hard men. Her memory fed her fear. It seemed an eternity before Jhan could push through that fear long enough to wonder if the light up ahead might not be Kile’s campfire.
Love gave Jhan’s determination strength over her fear. She forced her reluctant feet to walk softly forward, chancing that the usually quiet imala would remain so and not give her away.
The strange light wasn’t far ahead. Where the road bent a little to the right, widening out as if purposefully made for a camping spot, someone had lit a campfire. That someone was sprawled on a blanket, not even bothering to wrap up in the oppressive heat.
Two imala stood on the camp’s perimeter, with slack hips, staring at Jhan in interest. They knew her and she knew them. They were Kile’s imala, the identical red and white splotch pattern on their hides making them easily recognizable.
Jhan shuddered in relief, whispering a thank you for small mercies, as she dropped the leads of her imala and went to stand over Kile. She began to speak, to wake him up and announce, angrily, her presence. The empty flask in Kile’s hand stopped her, that and Kile’s disheveled, obviously drunk, appearance. He looked as if he had passed out and the smell of alcohol was strong. Kile’s discolored, puffy face gave the impression that he had been weeping.
Jhan’s mouth twisted sourly, but then she sighed, killing the violent urge to kick the man. Instead, she went to unload and feed her imala. Tethering them with Kile’s beasts, she fed herself a meal of dried cakes, made out of meat and fruit, and tried to calm her emotions.
Kile didn’t stir, despite all the noise Jhan kept purposefully making. In the light of the lantern, he looked vulnerable. Finished with her meal, Jhan went to kneel beside him, brushing a lock of his gold hair out of his face. When he was like this, relaxed in sleep and incapable of anything, she trusted him more than anyone in the world and found it impossible to be angry.
Sighing, Jhan kissed Kile’s cheek lightly, wincing at the scent of the alcohol, and then curled up beside him on the blanket. She took his big arm and draped it over her. Tucking herself up against his broad chest, she fell asleep with a feeling of relief and a sense that, in his arms, she was where she belonged.
The smell of grain cakes and frying meat made Jhan’s mouth water. She stirred in her sleep and then moaned as she came fully awake to misery. A root was sticking into her side and, wherever her body had been pressed against the hard earth, she felt sore and stiff. Sitting up, she blinked dazedly, confused for a moment as to where she was. Seeing Kile seated across the fire, glowering at her over its flames, brought it all back in one painful instant.
“You have bruises on you,” Kile said, as if everything were perfectly normal. “Finger marks too. What happened?”
Jhan brought up her knees and rested her arms across them, not sure how to proceed, but giving Kile back his matter-of -fact tone as she replied. “Your brothers gave me a special welcome to House Dor. Jhaven, I was pleasantly surprised, decided to be a better man than I thought him to be. Khen was much worse. Rhadel, I discovered, is even more of an idiot than you are.”
“You shouldn’t have come!” Kile exploded suddenly, his face turning red.
“And you shouldn’t have run away!” Jhan lashed back.
Kile’s jaw worked for a moment and then he said, quieter. “I thought- I thought it was over between us.”
“Why?” Jhan demanded, tears springing to her eyes. “Are you in love with Dreya?”
“Of course not!” Kile exclaimed, as if the very idea were outrageous. “I just-I just lay with her because I had to!”
“Had to?” Jhan echoed furiously. “Did you ‘have to’ so close to our front door?”
Kile flushed. His hands pushed at the empty air as if he were trying to defend himself physically against her verbal attack. “That was... incredibly stupid,” he admitted with a defeated groan. His big hands covered his face, hiding behind them. “After the night before, after we tried and-and couldn’t, I felt ready to explode! When Dreya lifted up her dress, I couldn’t control myself!”
“When?” Jhan wondered sharply.
“When?” Kile echoed sickly.
“When did this start with Dreya?”
Kile shrugged dispiritedly. “A few months ago, but it wasn’t that often.” He came out of hiding, dropping his hands and staring into the fire. “We tried so hard, Jhan! I thought- I thought it would be better doing that than-”
“Than what?” Jhan demanded angrily. “Than having the courage to show me what you want? Than helping me to get through my memories to find a way to please you? Than-”
“Than seeing the look on your face when I did try to show you!” Kile shouted at her wildly. “I could see that, in your mind, what I was asking you to do was the same- the same as what Dagara Ku Ni and his men did to you to humiliate and torture you! The same as those bastards, Sael and Ahlen did to you! The same as all of those others who used you until you were reduced to believing that you were nothing! I would rather bed someone like Dreya a thousand times than to ask you to face those memories, and that fear, even once!”
There was a long silence. Jhan stared and then began, incredibly, to laugh. “I don’t think that last came out like you wanted it to!”
Kile stared back. He cracked a weak smile, but his eyes were full of his bleeding soul. “No, it didn’t,” he replied softly, “but you know what I meant, Jhan. I thought I could wait, but I couldn’t. Dreya didn’t mean anything to me. I just used her so that I wouldn’t get impatient and hurt you, make you do anything before you were ready. It’s impossible for you to understand. I knew that when I saw you. That’s why I ran, why I thought it was over between us.”
Jhan stood and walked around the fire. Kile watched her, his face tipping up to look at her as she came to stand beside him. “You look ill,” Jhan whispered. “Do you have a hangover?”
“Yes,” Kile replied.
“A very large headache?” Jhan wondered.
“Yes,” Kile sighed. “It’s like a dagger between my eyes. Every sound is very painful right now.”
Jhan leaned down and her lips parted ever so slightly. Kile’s eyes were captured by her luminescent eyes of deepest blue, her flawless skin, her blushing pink lips, and the perfect symmetry of her heart shaped face. Framed by her black curls, it seemed too perfect, almost inhuman. Only her soft expression gave it life and humanity. That expression was so full of longing for love and compassion, Kile wondered how anyone, once having seen it, could have the strength to harm her.
Kile was powerless, falling into the spell of her eyes; loving her utterly. He waited, frozen, every fiber of his being on fire for the touch of those moist, full lips on his. They approached with infinite slowness, promising delight and forgiveness. When they slid past his cheek at the last moment, Kile was completely unprepared.
Jhan leaned close to Kile’s ear. “I’m glad it hurts!” she shouted as loud as she could. “I hope it hurts so much that your head falls off!”
Kile recoiled with an anguished cry and tried to back away, slapping hands to his aching head and turning green. Jhan followed him, hands on hips and continuing to shout.
“Kile Helarion Dor! If you ever run away from me again! If you ever think, for one moment, that I’m going to ever, EVER, let you go, no matter how stupid you are-”
“Jhan!” Kile protested and caught Jhan around the waist. He brought her into his lap and held her, mouth opening as if he were going to shout in anger, but then he swallowed and sank his face into her hair, sobbing. “I thought I’d lost you!”
Jhan held him until he quieted, but then she demanded, “Tell me the rest of it.”
Kile stiffened. He knew what she meant. He stayed where he was, as if the next revelation would be too much, despite what Jhan had just said. He caressed her with his big hands and kissed her tenderly, fearing it would be the last time he would be able to do it.
“Dreya’s pregnant,” Kile admitted very quietly.
“You know it’s yours?” Jhan wondered skeptically.
“Nobody can know for sure,” Kile replied, “but the gold, curly hair runs strong in my family. I might know by that when its born.”
There was a long silence and then Jhan said absently, mind on something more tragic, “At least she lives in Pekarin Fortress. You won’t have to go far to be a father to it.”
Kile came out of Jhan’s hair and stared at her in disbelief, then he saw that her eyes were distant, her mind sunk into herself. He pulled away slowly and then stood up, leaving her sitting on the ground. He paced, agitated.
“I can’t believe that I’ve messed things up this much!” Kile finally exploded. “I thought I was protecting you, but I’ve only managed to turn a knife in your heart!”
“I love you, Kile, but you’ve never been good at thinking,” Jhan told him distantly. “Try not to think on your own from now on. We have to work our problems out together.”
“Can we work them out?” Kile wondered bitterly. “You know me now for what I am, Jhan. I can’t wait. I can’t be celibate and faithful to you. I won’t lie and tell you that I won’t do it again if things go on as they have.”
“Maybe we should redefine our marriage then,” Jhan suggested bleakly, blinked, and then came back from the painful place she had been in. “You need to bang a woman against a wall once in awhile and I don’t feel the need for that at all. I think we should stop trying. I don’t think our problems will ever be resolved. I simply can’t get over the past. Go and have your Dreyas as long as I can have your love.”
“That isn’t a marriage!” Kile protested.
“Maybe it has to be for us,” Jhan replied bitterly. “I’ve been told to accept some uncomfortable things, things I would never have considered a year ago. That trip to the desert... it destroyed what we had. We can’t ever have it back, Kile. We have to be as unconventional in our marriage as we are in our lives.”
“Then,” Kile groped in anguish. “You don’t ever want me to- to be with you again? Is that what you really want?”
“Kile,” Jhan stood as well now, facing him squarely. “I’m a man with the spirit of a woman. That Dreya should be pregnant, when I know that I can never have that... I think that hurt me more than just your infidelity. Do you understand me? You’ve just made it clear to me that, not only can’t I satisfy you as a real woman can, but I also can never hope to share a child with you, or to be anything other than a shameful shadow for you and your family. I can do without you in bed. Once everyone knows about it, maybe it will make our lives easier.”
“I’ve never had to separate the two,” Kile admitted. “I don’t think I can. I don’t want to be your friend, Jhan. My love is bigger than that. You deserve more than that.”
“It’s all I want from you right now,” Jhan told him resolutely. “I know you didn’t feel anything for Dreya, but it still hurts. I still have to think about it. I still have to come to terms with this change between us. I won’t lose you, but, I can’t be what you want either. You said it yourself, before you ran away, we need time. Putting you in someone else’s bed, until we figure this out, will give us that time.”
Kile looked as if he wanted to keep on arguing, but he knew the senselessness of it. He let his hands go limp at his sides as he shrugged and sighed. “Well, there won’t be anyone to bed for awhile. I still have to deliver messages to the Alamien. That duty hasn’t changed. Maybe some time apart-”
“Won’t help anything!” Jhan finished angrily. “I have supplies and two imala, Kile! you are not leaving me behind! Vek told me that it was an easy journey. There isn’t any reason I can’t come along.”
Kile wanted to think of one, that was clear, but his jaw clenched, knowing Jhan wasn’t going to listen. He smiled a little in defeat, but it was full of depression too. “As you will, Princess Jhan. I AM only a humble Duke’s son.”
“It will be all right, Kile, you’ll see.”
Kile didn’t look convinced, but he nodded and turned to saddle the beasts while Jhan ate breakfast.
The road through the forest had been cleared for wagons, making enough headroom
to ride, but the roots of the trees made footing treacherous. Jhan and Kile
had to watch the hooves of their imala constantly. It didn’t leave much
time for talk, but Jhan felt relaxed and easy with Kile, things at least resolved
to her satisfaction for the time being. Kile’s glum face made her feel
guilty though, and she could see that he was still suffering.
When they stopped at midday to rest and eat some food, Kile and Jhan sat on a fallen log side by side. After Kile had eaten his meal of dried meat chunks, he slipped an arm tentatively about Jhan’s waist and pulled her gently against his side. He was staring off into the forest, as if deep in thought about something else, but Jhan could tell that he was testing her, seeing how close she would allow him to come to her. When she snuggled against him, he sighed in relief.
“Kile!’ Jhan admonished. “I didn’t mean we shouldn’t ever touch or... or show affection!”
“I wondered,” Kile replied. “After what I did, I wouldn’t blame you.”
“If things were right between us,” Jhan told him truthfully. “If things were normal, I WOULD blame you and I’d probably hate you for it too, just like any other woman.”
“I feel,” Kile struggled, not used to talking about that sort of thing at all. “I feel like an animal. That I can’t control this part of me... It makes me ill. You’re beautiful, fiery, intelligent, and everything I’ve ever wanted in a woman. Why this should matter so much to me when I have all of that, I don’t know. When you- When I was with you as if you were a woman, I never looked at anyone else. You were more than enough for me.”
The solution was so simple and Jhan held it in her hands. Evian had given her a great gift, but she couldn’t bring herself to use it or to even mention it to Kile. It carried the weight of too many memories of pain and degradation. Even if she did as Evian had suggested, and bear with it all, she knew that Kile would see it in her face. He would know how much it was costing her. He wouldn’t love her for sacrificing so much and, in the end, she wouldn’t love him for having to do it.
Kile was thinking of other things. “There’s a man in the Silverwood,” he began slowly, not certain how she would respond. “His name is Darkai. He’s not Alamien, but he has been a counselor to the Alamien for a long time. Vek told me that I would have to deal with him and that the man was peculiar; an inventor of sorts with a vast knowledge of many things. Maybe... Maybe he can, if we ask him, figure out how we can be together without making you ill.”
“Tsarianna didn’t know how,” Jhan reminded him bitterly and stood up, breaking out of Kile’s grip. She wrapped her arms about herself and paced.
“He didn’t try,” Kile corrected her. “He returned you to the way you were. We never bothered asking him for more. We didn’t imagine we were going to have these problems.”
Jhan frowned, shaking her head. “No, Kile. He told me that he couldn’t make me a woman. Even with his great technology, he couldn’t give me what I never had to begin with.”
Kile stood as well, saying quickly, reassuring her, “No, Jhan, that’s not what I meant at all! I didn’t mean that I wanted Darkai to change you, you’ve had enough of that! I meant, maybe he has some herb or balm that could keep you from getting ill. He might know why it happens.”
Jhan was skeptical, but hurt as well. “I thought you wanted to spare me, because of why Dagara Ku Ni gave me that opening.”
Kile was very serious. “Jhan, if it’s the only way, and we can do it safely- You never said that it hurt you.”
“I did say,” Jhan corrected him acidly, furious that he had forgotten. “It was an incredible, tearing pain, like rubbing against open wounds, yet it was pleasure too. I don’t know if I can make you understand, but it was as if each side of my brain registered something different and couldn’t agree on what it was. That pleasure, mixed with pain, rose to a point where I thought I was going to die. It only stopped when my mind managed to shut it off, or you,” she shuddered, “or whoever, stopped. It was more of a mental explosion than a climax.”
“You always seemed to enjoy it,” Kile remembered lamely, face going pale.
“I did enjoy it!” Jhan shouted at him, hands clenched. “I enjoyed it so much that, even if it had killed me, I would have still wanted to feel it. It made me helpless. It took control away from me. It didn’t matter who was on top of me, don’t you see? I could have been raped by a kuna," Jhan named a particularly loathsome beast, “and I would have wrapped my legs around it and wanted it to keep doing that to me!”
“But I love you,” Kile insisted. “If there was a way, wouldn’t it be all right, to feel that with me, someone you know wouldn’t ever hurt you or-or do anything wrong while you were like that?”
Jhan wiped at the tears in her eyes, but she wouldn’t look at Kile. “Maybe,” she replied in a small voice. “I don’t know. Maybe I should tie you up, drug you, and see how much you’d enjoy being helpless while I-”
“Jhan!” Kile took her by the shoulders and leaned close. It sounded as if he were joking, but he was very serious. “I’m a man! That’s only getting me excited!”
“That’s your problem,” Jhan growled, not looking at him, “everything gets you excited, Kile, especially that place between my legs. Do you want that so bad that you’re willing to make any excuse to forget your promise to me?”
Kile’s hands tightened and then he bowed his head and took a step back, releasing her gently. “You’re questioning my love, Jhan. Don’t do that. It’s my love for you that makes me want you. I just want us to be the way we were; free of this pain and this fear. If we could at least be like a man and a woman, I could take the lead again. You wouldn’t have to try and please me.”
“When I do, it’s as if a hundred shadows stood between us,” Jhan told him with a hollow voice, “but you’re being simple if you think having you in complete control makes much of a difference. If that were true, I’d just let you do what you wanted to me to please yourself.”
“I wouldn’t do that!” Kile ran over her words with his own, frowning darkly. “What’s the difference between that and rape? I won’t force you Jhan and I won’t , even if Darkai could fix you, be with you when you don’t want me to.”
Jhan slipped into Kile’s arms and put her face against his chest, weeping bitterly. He held her lightly, chin touching the top of her head. “Don’t you understand, Kile? I will NEVER want you. Never!”
“So sure of yourself,” Kile muttered. “Never is a foolish thing to say. I’ve said it enough times in my past. It’s turned out not to be true more times than I can count. Never bedding a man, was one of those 'nevers'. Never falling in love with a man was another. Never doing without women, might prove untrue as well.”
“Why?” Jhan looked up at him, taking a shuddering breath and sniffling loudly. Her smile was shaky. “Are you thinking of asking this Darkai for an herb that will help you keep your pants buttoned?”
Kile didn’t smile back. “To keep you as my wife, to not hurt you, to be with you as long as we both live, I just might do that, Little Lady.”
“That’s too much to ask,” Jhan whispered back, stunned.
“You haven’t been asking for enough,” Kile told her firmly. “Not from me, not from anyone.”
Jhan shook her head and pulled away. “Wouldn’t we be a pair if you did do that? Two gelded men married to each other. Do you think we could manage to live happily ever after platonically?”
"Platonic- what does that mean?”
“Never mind,” Jhan sighed and wiped at her eyes.
“Enough talk or we’ll both be weeping.” Kile rubbed at his painful forehead. “I still have a hangover and I think I’ve stressed my poor head long enough.” He became serious again. “Let’s not talk about this again, Jhan, especially about gelding.” He shivered. “We have a long road. Things may change for the better by the time we get to the end of it.”
Kile was always the optimist. As they mounted their imala and took the road again, Jhan wished that she could have been even a little optimistic, but she knew that she didn’t have any reason to be.
They rode for a week, the forest endless and ancient, the weather mild, and the rainy season not as yet making an appearance. It was perfect. Jhan thoroughly distrusted it at first, unable to relax, but, as it continued unabated, she was able to take advantage of it and try to come to terms with her new relationship with Kile. Kile stubbornly refused to come to terms with it at all.
“Why did you have to bring such... immodest clothes?” Kile wondered one evening. Propped up on saddles covered in saddle blankets, and wrapped loosely about each other before the fire, Kile had disturbed the peace of the moment with his sour comment.
Jhan was draped over Kile’s wide chest, her head pillowed on the curve of his ribcage. Her arms and legs were wrapped about him with easy intimacy. He had one arm thrown behind him, his other cradling her. His legs were stretched out towards the fire, crossed at the ankles, and relaxed.
Jhan was wearing a white shirt with a vest over the top of it. It laced tightly in the front, but she had it open now, as were the buttons at the throat of her shirt. Her brown pants were tailored to her small frame and they hugged her as closely as Kile’s arm.
Her small, bare feet had been teasing his only a moment before.
“You picked them out for me,” Jhan reminded him. “It seemed more appropriate than those fashionable, long gowns I have. I don’t think I could have ridden in them. They’re hard enough to walk in.”
“We’re traveling alone now, but when we reach the Silverwood,” Kile grumbled, “I don’t relish having the Alamien men ogling you.”
“Are you intending to be jealous?” Jhan laughed, but it carried pain too.
“Vek told me that they find Humans exciting,” Kile explained, coloring in embarrassment. “I wouldn’t want any of them propositioning you and frightening you. It wouldn’t be diplomatic of a courier to start a fist fight as soon as he arrived.”
“I brought a cloak,” Jhan replied. “It’s hot, but I could just wrap it around me. Or, if you like, I could just lace my vest tighter and tell them I’m a man.”
“With very long hair,” Kile continued to grumble, suddenly realizing that Jhan was making fun of him. “I’ve heard that their own sex is pretty ambiguous. They might not notice.”
“Then we’ll fit right in,” Jhan chuckled. She rolled and sat up so that she was looking into Kile’s eyes. “It would be nice to be accepted for a change.”
Kile grew serious. “I said they find us ‘exciting’. I didn’t say they accepted us. We are inferior creatures to them. I’ve been told that they are very zealous about the purity of their bloodlines.”
Jhan blinked. “Then why are you afraid that they might want me?”
“They can’t breed with us, but they can mate.” Kile became even more embarrassed. “Other couriers and traders have told me stories about how their women can’t get enough of human men. I suppose their men must be the same way about our women, but I’ve never talked to a woman who went there and found out.”
Jhan frowned, only half joking as she retorted, “A perfect place for you to run away to!”
Kile frowned back. “I wasn’t thinking about THAT when I took the order, and you know it! It was the first one I picked up and- and, stop arguing with me Jhan! Why do you always make me feel like a-a-”
“Because you’ve been acting like one!” Jhan shot back, but she relented in the next moment, touching a hand to Kile’s cheek. “Don’t worry about me, Kile. I promise to be modest and to hide in your formidable shadow when we get there.”
“I just don’t want anyone hurting you, not ever again,” Kile told her softly. “Including me. If we can avoid a situation by taking a little precaution, all the better. ”
“Well, it would probably help if I knew something about them,” Jhan said as she leaned back against the saddle blankets and put her hands behind her head.
Kile was annoyed. “Why did you wait a week to ask ? I thought that you must have asked Vek. Did you just ride off after me completely ignorant?”
“I did bring a map,” Jhan bristled, “but actually getting to the Silverwood hadn’t been on my mind at the time.”
Kile took a moment to put his thoughts into order and then told Jhan what he knew, which wasn’t much, she was surprised to find out.
“I’ve only seen one of them,” Kile began thoughtfully. “An ambassador on a trade mission to the King. He was very tall, slim, and dressed in a robe embroidered with incredible workmanship. He had short, straight, gold hair, yellow-gold skin, a sharp face, like yours, but longer, and big, purple eyes. When he handed the King a parchment to read, his fingers were very long and thin and he had the nails enameled with something... sparkly red. We all laughed, in the guard detail, I mean. He seemed very... effeminate. Sexless. We had a bet whether he was male or female, so we asked his bath servant as a joke. I can still remember how pale the man was. He told me that the Alamien didn’t have anything but a horizontal slit, but that he was obviously male.”
“How obvious?” Jhan wondered with a raised eyebrow.
“They way he was built, I suppose,” Kile replied uncomfortably. “I didn’t ask. I was so sickened, I passed out. I was the joke then, in the barracks, for awhile. They kept calling me Lady Kile for a month!” Kile turned grim, taking hold of Jhan’s hand and smoothing it with his other. “I passed out when-when I saw what Dagara had done to you too.”
“I remember,” Jhan murmured, but then shook her head and took a breath to cast the memory away. “So, the men are odd, probably why you haven’t heard of any women talking about taking any of them to bed, though I suppose they must manage somehow with their women. I guess I don’t have anything to worry about after all.”
“Maybe. I don’t really want to think about that,” Kile replied.
“Well, tell me more about the Alamien in general then,” Jhan insisted.
“They all look alike,” Kile continued, relaxing again. “Vek told me that they pride themselves on it. They don’t like ‘Deviations’, as they call them, to the point where they’ll murder a baby if it doesn’t conform to their breeding standards.” ”That’s horrible!” Jhan exclaimed, wide eyed with disgust.
“No argument here,” Kile agreed. “They also take great pride in their unbroken chain of royal blood. The Telestar, they’re called. They’re supposed to have special powers of some sort, but Vek wasn’t clear on what they were.”
“Power?” Jhan echoed, but Kile corrected her.
“No, not like you have,” Kile assured her. “This is something else, I was told, something they can do with their mind. Anyway, they rule by bloodline, like we do, and they have a strict class system. We at least allow a man to change to different skills. The Alamien believe that, born a stable sweeper’s son, then a stable sweeper you shall always be. Not very fair, I suppose.”
“Pekarin’s way isn’t much better,” Jhan pointed out sourly.
“Not another argument or I’ll go to sleep,” Kile warned. Jhan looked rebellious and then settled again. “Okay, good,” Kile continued, satisfied, “Be quiet and let me finish. The Alamien have always been reclusive. They live long lives and there aren’t very many of them. We only made contact a generation ago and trading has been very slim. That’s why it’s very important that we make a good impression and keep calm. You can thank them for your flush privy and the water pipes, if you want an example of why we want to trade with them in spite of their condescending snobbery towards our people as a whole.”
“What do they get from us?” Jhan wondered.
“They live in a forest bordered by mountains and a large plain,” Kile explained. “None of it is good farm land. They’re desperate enough for something besides meat, nuts, and kapoka fruit to ignore our supposed shortcomings. We also trade in dyes, blue and red mostly, and altale liqueur. Doesn’t seem like much, and it isn’t, so you can imagine trading is pretty sporadic."
“You’re just delivering messages?”
“Yes.” Kile replied. “Nothing grand. Nothing dangerous. I don’t even get to see royalty. I just hand my pack over to someone in the right position and head for home.”
“A nice ride in beautiful country,” Jhan sighed. “Maybe we should consider it the honeymoon we never took?”
Kile tensed in the middle of a stretch, scowling. “I think you’re tired, or you wouldn’t have been so cruel just now.”
“The honeymoon is definitely over, “ Jhan agreed, fighting tears. “I’m sorry, Kile, for all of it.”
Kile shrugged as if passing off the hurt. “It will still be a nice ride.”
They left the trees after two more days and entered rocky terrain. Two arms of a mountain range lined up like a wall on either side of a narrow passage. That passage was hard going. Rocky and filled with thorn bushes, it was almost a maze. The trail twisted along like a snake, and it took far longer than the few miles warranted to follow it.
“I think it’s coming this way.” Jhan stood in her stirrups and stared with trepidation at the black clouds hanging low in the distance. A brisk wind was already beginning, picking up the strands of Jhan’s hair that had worked out of its tight braid, tossing them into her face.
Kile nodded in agreement. “These mountains are riddled with caves. That’s where we’ll find shelter.” He pointed to their left. “Let’s ride up over there and search for one.”
Jhan pointed to the slate roof of a shack poking up amid a sheltering tumble of boulders. “We could just stay there.”
Kile scowled in chagrin, but he was as eager as Jhan to begin trotting the imala towards it.
Rain drops were already splattering them by the time they reached the shack. As they dismounted, the roll and crack of thunder warned them that this wasn’t going to be a simple spring shower.
There was a covered paddock for the beasts. Jhan and Kile turned them loose inside and then began dragging all of their gear towards the front door of the sprawling building. The door was weathered wood and it looked scratched and warped from withstanding many winters, and, hopefully, fiercer storms than confronted them now.
“Knock?” Jhan wondered.
Kile snorted and pushed the door open. It creaked alarmingly.
Inside, they saw a neat and tidy room with a beamed ceiling, slate floors, a large fireplace, and well used tables and chairs that looked old and carefully repaired. A ladder led to a loft and an open door showed a privy and a rusted metal tub. That tub had a pipe that presumably led to a cistern of rainwater.
“Someone must live here,” Jhan said suspiciously. “It’s too clean.”
“You’re right,” Kile agreed edgily, hand on his sword. “It would smell musty if it were abandoned. Trade caravans don’t come through here often enough to account for it.”
“So, where’s the owner, do you suppose?” Jhan wondered, looking nervously around. “Hunting, maybe?”
“Maybe.” Kile lowered their gear to the floor. The loud sound of rain on the roof, and the crack of thunder, made him raise his voice as he went to light the fireplace. “I don’t think we have to be too alarmed. This house sits on a known trading trail. He , who ever he is, isn’t adverse to visitors.”
There was a bolt on the door. Kile went to it and shot it home.
“Locking the owner out in that storm won’t help make us friends,” Jhan commented critically.
Kile shrugged. “I don’t like surprises. I want to know when he comes home.”
Kile made them supper over the fire while Jhan tested the tub. She made a face at the rust, but the water that came from the pipe wasn’t cold, even if it wasn’t hot either. Taking a short bath to get the smell of imala and trail dust off of her, Jhan sighed, letting travel weary muscles relax.
Jhan was smiling contentedly when she finally left the tub. Naked, she padded gingerly over cold, slate floors back into the main room, settling in front of the fire on the blankets Kile had spread out there.
Kile had a bowl of some reconstituted stew in his hands, the wooden spoon half raised to his mouth. He scowled at Jhan, lowering the spoon. “What are you doing?”
Jhan blinked at him, startled by his tone. “Drying off,” she replied uncertainly. “We don’t have any towels.”
“What do you think I’m made of, Jhan?” Kile groaned. He tossed spoon and bowl aside and they clattered as they slid up against the side of the fireplace. He turned away from her, jaw clenched. “It’s bad enough that you’ve spent more than a week in my arms, close to me, sleeping with me, but this-”
“I trust you,” Jhan told him, swallowing hard as she began reaching for her clothes.
“Trust me?” Kile echoed bitterly. “If you trusted me, we’d be doing more right now than being tied up in knots!”
“But it isn’t because of you!” Jhan argued as she slipped on a white shirt. “It’s me! It’s always been me! When I think of reaching out to you, all I can remember is-is one of those times when Dagara’s men made me-made me do that very same thing! Suddenly they’re in my arms instead of you!” Her eyes were full of tears. She couldn’t see to button her shirt. “Laying back, spreading my legs, closing my eyes, and letting you do what you wanted, was just a way of hiding from it. It’s what I’ve always done, hide from it. That’s just what I did with Dagara; make my mind go away for a little while, until it was done. That isn’t love making. That’s just enduring!”
“And in the desert,” Kile said in a choked voice. “When I showed you what you could feel with me, did you hide then? Was that a lie too?”
“No,” Jhan replied softly, “but what good is that to you? After Dreya, I don’t think you can try and tell me that would be enough for you. It hasn’t been.” Jhan paused to take a shuddering breath, wiping at her eyes. “You didn’t want to talk about this. I don’t want to either.”
“You keep bringing it up,” Kile told her angrily, “just by being near me and,” he motioned to her half naked body without looking, "by doing these sorts of things. If we’re going to be married friends, then I should tell you that I’ve never had a friend of mine take off his clothes and flaunt his breasts at me.”
“That’s not what Tevar told me,” Jhan found herself saying without thought, only wanting to sting him in her anger.
She wasn’t prepared for Kile to throw her onto her back and straddle her body, knees and hands propping him like an avalanche ready to fall. Kile’s blue eyes were like lightning, his face twisted in pain and humiliation. “Why say that to me? Why taunt me? Is this some sort of game you’re playing? Are you trying to get your revenge because of Dreya? You have an evil temper, sometimes, Jhan. You’ve hurt me more than a few times because of it. Are you trying to hurt me now?”
“No,” Jhan whispered, but she wasn’t afraid. She did trust Kile. She knew she was utterly safe under his great body, despite his anger and confusion. “I just didn’t think,” Jhan told him. They froze like that, their breaths hard and quick. Finally, after a long minute, Jhan asked softly. “What are you going to do?”
“A little penance," Kile replied, just as soft, “but at least it’s sweet and not something I’m reluctant to do. After, I’ll have to be alone for a time, if you don’t mind. I at least can do that for myself.”
Kile’s fingers opened Jhan’s shirt. When his lips lowered and began to show her what he’d meant by sweet, Jhan wanted to protest. Instead, she found her hands touching his hair instead, winding in the locks there. When he moved down her body, languid and slow, and parted her legs, he bowed his head and began a dance between them with his lips and tongue.
Kile wanted more. It was obvious in every shivering muscle of his body. He fought against a great urge that went bone deep, a biological imperative that seared his senses and bade him go further and take what he needed for release. Jhan saw it, felt a tremor of apprehension, and tried to push Kile away. He shrugged her off, refusing her sympathy, and continued trying to please her.
Jhan lost the mood. She tensed and braced herself to endure, waiting for Kile to stop. It made her want to cry again. She began to feel helpless, the very thing she had feared the most. When Kile looked up her body and saw her face, he sat bolt upright as if Jhan had slapped him.
“I-I, Jhan, Little Love! I’m sorry! I didn’t know-”
Jhan grabbed her blanket and wrapped it about her tightly as if it were a shield. “Now you do. Now you know just how bad it is. I won’t make the mistake again, Kile. I’ll-I’ll keep my clothes on and keep my distance.”
“Then we don’t have a marriage at all!” Kile exploded. Standing up with a hard thrust of his legs, he strode into the bathroom to dash water onto his face.
Jhan wanted distance between herself and Kile. She needed it so that she could recover and stop the fearful beating of her heart, and she needed it so that she could become calm enough to salvage something from the disaster of the last few minutes.
Jhan’s eyes lit on the ladder to the loft. Looking upwards, she saw a patch of darkness above and wondered if there might be a bed up there. Lighting a lantern from the fireplace, Jhan took a last look at Kile before beginning to climb the ladder. He had both hands on the washbasin and his knuckles were white, his jaw clenched as he glared very hard at nothing.
The loft was very dark and the bed, what there was of one, was only a wood slat frame that someone had piled blankets and furs on top of. That someone, Jhan saw as she topped the ladder and stood on sturdy floor boards, was sleeping in them.
Jhan cried out in alarm and almost dropped her lantern. Kile, trained to react quickly, flew up the ladder. Shoving Jhan behind him to protect her, he snatched the lantern out of her shaking hand. Holding it up high, the light flickered on the knife in his other hand.
The sleeper wasn’t disturbed by all of the noise. As Kile slowly approached, Jhan creeping behind him and peering from behind his body, they saw why. The sleeper was ill, very ill. Covered in sweat, he had the coverings half tossed off of him, upper torso white as milk in the lantern light. The face was... Jhan blinked in shock. The face looked very much like her’s, heart shaped, pointed, and the closed eyes large and almost owlish. The mass of black, curly hair, though shorter, was the same as Jhan’s as well.
“A boy,” Jhan said softly, hands twisted into the back of Kile’s shirt.
Kile lifted up the blanket. He stared in consternation for a moment and then raised an eyebrow as he lowered the blanket again. “Unless he’s been treated to the same mutilation as yourself, Jhan, I think he, or she, is an Alamien.”
Jhan was confused. “But you said-you said they all look alike, prided themselves on it. That doesn’t look like what you described to me.”
“It might explain why he, or she, is out here alone.” Kile put the lantern down on a side table. “Looking like that, he’s probably an outcaste.”
“Or she?” Jhan wondered. “Isn’t there any way of telling?”
“Now I understand what Vek said to me just before I left Pekarin,” Kile mused, embarrassed.
“What did he say?” Jhan prodded.
“Straight up and down, not lying down,” Kile repeated carefully.
“Well,” Kile continued, “If the Alamien the bath servant saw was a man, and his slit was horizontal, ‘lying down’, then a female Alamien must be vertical, ‘straight up and down’, if you see what I mean?”
Jhan scowled and let go of Kile, furious. “I can see that Vek was helping you betray our marriage vows!”
Kile shrugged. “He’s a soldier used to briefing soldiers. He wouldn’t want to have me offend someone in my ignorance and... he knows me well enough to suspect that I might try and -”
“Is this a girl or a boy, then?” Jhan cut him off angrily, wanting to change the subject and get back to the problem at hand.
“Girl,” Kile replied promptly. “So you had better take care of her. I wouldn’t want to frighten her if she should suddenly wake up.”
“What should I do?” Jhan wondered, suddenly at a loss.
Kile’s eyes flicked her up and down and his jaw set hard, recalling their argument again. “Get dressed first and then get some cool water to bathe her fever down. I’ll brew some broth and some herbs I brought along. There isn’t any telling when she last ate or drank something. Her lips are cracked. She probably needs cleaning up too, though I don’t smell anything.”
“What will we do with her?” Jhan asked.
“You may be taking her back with you to Pekarin,” Kile replied thoughtfully. “If she’s run from the Alamien, it wouldn’t be very wise to take her back with us.”
“I won’t-” Jhan began to argue.
Kile ran over her with his words, firm and furious. “You will do what has to be done!” His voice was like the crack of a whip. “I am a soldier and I have my orders! As a soldier’s wife, you have to abide by them too!”
Jhan recoiled, staring wide eyed. Shock closed her throat. Kile was right. She knew that, but hated admitting it even to herself. She could see what was necessary as well as he could. It didn’t make her need to stay with him any less or the hurt that he could so easily consider sending her back to the Silverwood.
Kile was glaring at the Alamien in the bed, jaw tight, maybe feeling guilty that he had shouted at Jhan. He didn’t apologize, though, and he didn’t look sorry, Jhan thought. He was a man bent on doing his duty to the exclusion of all else. She wanted to shout at him, argue hotly, at least make him apologize for treating her so roughly. Jhan didn’t do any of those things.
Jhan was shaking as she went down the ladder, almost falling in her eagerness to get away from Kile. Self knowledge stung sharper than any scorpion sting. That she feared too much to even argue with him brought home to her at last the realization of just how deep the scars from the desert were. They went to the bone.
Kile didn’t follow her right away. Jhan had time to dress and to gather things before he came down the ladder. He didn’t say anything to her, just settled by the fire and began making the broth. His silent, single minded concentration, still managed to convey his displeasure. When Jhan passed him to go up the ladder again, she heard him mutter, “Spend the night up there with her."
Jhan flinched as if from a blow. His comment could have meant simply that he wished the Alamien well taken care of, or it could have meant that he didn’t want to see Jhan again that night. Was he so angry? Jhan felt tears gathering, but she fought them back as she topped the ladder and cautiously approached the bed. This creature needed her help. There wasn’t time to weep.
As Jhan placed the lantern on the bedside table, she was glad to see that it was bright enough for her to make out the Alamien in the bed very well. That would make her job easier. Setting her other things down, Jhan sorted them out with a conscientious manner that would have pleased Healer Evian. She had been his patient enough times to have picked up some of his minor skills. She hoped they would be enough as she tentatively rolled back the blankets and the furs that were covering the Alamien.
The Alamien didn’t look like a woman, or a man for that matter. She looked like an undeveloped child. Still, the body, though slim, was all hard muscle, long in the waist, and broader than Jhan's. There was strength in those arms and a scar or two to show that this female was used to a hard life. Lax now in illness, it was still capable of looking ready to spring into action.
Jhan dipped her rag into her small container of water and nervously bathed the Alamien, glad that there wasn’t anything more unpleasant than skin coated with salt caused by her fever. At the touch of the cold water, the Alamien sighed in relief, moved, and then opened her eyes.
Jhan started, clutching the rag in her hand so hard it squirted water. The Alamien’s eyes weren’t the purple Kile had said they would be. These were completely black, lacking any whites to them at all! They blinked at the lantern light, as if they were sensitive, and then focused on Jhan. A frown line started between those eyes and the girl began to be afraid.
“It’s-It’s all right!” Jhan stammered, regaining control of her tongue. “I’m helping you. You don’t have to be afraid.”
“Human,” the girl said, still apprehensive. “You are Human?”
The girl’s voice was light, sexless; a soft accent giving her words a musical lilt. Jhan nodded, swallowing hard as she attempted to reclaim some composure. “Yes,” she replied. “We-We took shelter here from a storm. We didn’t know you were living here.”
“We?” The girl moved her head in trepidation, but she looked very weary and her eyes blinked as if to stay alert.
“My husband, Lord Kile,” Jhan explained to calm her.
“What is ‘ husband’ ?” The girl asked.
The girl eyed Jhan nervously, her long fingered hands moving in the blankets as if she would try and get up. “The man is in Readiness, or has it already passed?”
“I don’t understand.” Jhan shook her head in confusion. “You don’t have to be afraid of him. He’s a soldier from Pekarin. He’s on a courier mission to the Silverwood.”
“You are his Intended?”
Jhan didn’t understand that question either, but the idea seemed to calm the Alamien so Jhan decided to nod, yes, and to let it go at that. “How long have you been here?” Jhan asked softly.
The Alamien shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. I feel that I have been sleeping awhile. My body is mending well. With food and water, I shall be able to fully recover shortly.” She looked at the things that Jhan had with her. “Are you intending to help me do this?”
The last sentence was filled with such depression and cynicism that Jhan felt as if she had been slapped. The girl clearly didn’t expect Jhan to help her. “That’s what I’m doing now,” Jhan told her reassuringly. “My- Kile is making a broth for you right now.”
The girl’s black in black eyes narrowed, suspicious. “I have nothing a Human would want. Why would you help a Deviation?
“You are ignorant,” the girl confirmed. “That is good. I will not be the one to enlighten you.”
“All right,” Jhan replied with raised eyebrows. She didn’t want to continue the strange conversation anyway. She had enough problems of her own. Deep down, Jhan was hoping that the girl wasn’t as ill as she looked and that she would be able to walk out of her and Kile’s lives as quickly as possible. There were too many things that had to be resolved on their journey to have to deal with an outsider as well.
“Your name,” the girl demanded, “and your Intended's."
The girl sounded as if she were used to commanding, but being obeyed was another thing entirely. The corners of her eyes were tense, betraying her uncertainty.
“I am Jhan and-”
“Full name and titles,” the girl objected at once. “I wish to know with whom I am dealing with.”
Jhan was stunned and then she replied sourly. “All right. My ‘Intended’ is Lord Kile Helarion Dor, son of Duke Dor of Sarvoy. He is also a Captain of the Pekarin guard. I’m Jhan Dor.”
The Alamien seemed reassured by all of Kile’s titles, maybe believing that someone from an upper class might treat her better, but Jhan’s offhanded dismissal of anything but the two names most important to her made the girl blink and frown.
“How can you be his Intended when your bloodlines clearly don’t match?” The girl wondered. “He is a lord, you are no one.”
“Don’t say that again,” that was Kile’s voice from the top of the stairs. “We are Retie, I think your people say.”
“Sterile companions?” The girl grew more confident, as if that admission somehow made them far worse than her own label of ‘Deviation’.
Jhan felt a flush of embarrassment as she glared at Kile. Kile explained to her tersely, “Alamien don’t have marriage. They make permanent bonds or, Retie, only after they are passed being able to bear or quicken children. It’ll save us a great deal of talk about our bloodlines if we claim it, Jhan. Please, don’t be angry.”
“Angry?” Jhan snapped back, very angry. “It’s only the truth, isn’t it?”
Kile gritted his teeth, but wouldn’t be drawn into the fight. He looked at the Alamien instead. “What are you called? What is your bloodline?”
The girl’s face went drawn and unpleasant. “I am Princess Avrilla Tia Alia, only child of Nurana and Ferilla Telestar of the royal Telestar of the Alamien.”
“That’s a mouthful,” Jhan replied with uneasy astonishment. “Is there anything simpler we can call you?”
“What?!” Kile broke in, his face pale and his mouth open. “You are THE Avrilla? What are you doing here? Where’s your escort? Where were you going to?”
“I was going away from the Silverwood, Lord Kile!” The girl retorted arrogantly, but with a heavy tone of pain as well. “I am Deviation! What does anyone care where I go?”
“The Telestar certainly do!” Kile lashed back. “You’re their only child, Deviation or not! I’ve heard all about you, but I never heard that they had rejected you. You must go back, your Highness!”
“I will not.” Avrilla grew quieter as her strength began to give out, but the fire was bright in her black eyes. “They are very cruel to me. They hate me. I will not submit to any more of their healers who think that they have ways of making me breed true.”
“Breed true?” Jhan shivered. “That sounds terrible!”
“It is,” Avrilla agreed, swallowing at remembered humiliation.
It was enough for Jhan. She touched Kile’s big arm in entreaty. “Let me take her back to Pekarin. I know we have problems to work out, but she needs our help.”
“No,” Kile was very firm, his gold brows drawn down hard over his blue eyes. “The Princess Avrilla must return to the Alamien. If we try and help her, it could mean war.”
Jhan took a breath to argue, but Kile cut her off. “You don’t know anything about them, Jhan! You’re listening to her and thinking Human, not Alamien. Alamien go into rut and breed. They choose their studs and their dams carefully and they prefer certain traits, which they diligently breed for. The Princess isn’t objecting to any of that, she’s objecting to the healers. Alamien don’t care for them. They think it weakens their bloodlines to save those unable to save themselves. They also don’t believe in helping nature along with conceiving or birthing. That weakens bloodlines as well.”
“But, she’s afraid!” Jhan finally broke in.
Yes, she’s afraid,” Kile agreed, but he didn’t soften. “She’s misborn; the wrong color. She can thank her royal blood for still being alive. She should also be thanking her parents, instead of running away from them, for even bothering to salvage a child out of her. She certainly wouldn’t be allowed to have one else!”
Cold and cruel, Kile looked just then, and Jhan felt that she didn’t know him at all at that moment. She didn’t often get to see the soldier side of Kile; the man who took orders and carried them out no matter what the cost. Avrilla was going to pay the cost this time, Jhan knew, and she was finding it hard to accept.
“I will not go back!” Avrilla cried with the petulance of a spoiled child, or a princess.
“You will,” Kile told her. Turning to Jhan stiffly, he said, “Take care of her Jhan. Feed her that broth and stay with her through the night in case she needs something else.”
He was ordering her, Jhan realized, as if she were some soldier under his command. She bit back an angry shout. His orders weren’t any different from what she had been going to do anyway. It was only the tone, and his easy dismissal of her, that hurt. She watched him swing down the ladder, leaving her with the princess. Jhan’s heart felt like a leaden weight.
Avrilla whispered, half asleep, “He is insufferable and doesn’t know his place.”
“He knows it, too well,” Jhan replied, quickly defending him despite her feelings. “I’m the one that can’t accept it.”
“Beautiful,” Avrilla murmured, and Jhan looked at her in confusion. “Too beautiful for you two to breed. It is good you are Retie, else I would question the keeper of your bloodlines. It would have been a... a ... mistake.” Avrilla drifted into sleep and sank into the furs.
Jhan scowled. “I help you and you insult me! Kile was right. You are a spoiled little princess after all.”
Jhan put her things near to hand, put aside the broth until Avrilla should wake up again, and curled up on her own blankets to sleep. Straining her ears, she could hear Kile humming a tune to himself below, as if nothing were wrong. Jhan felt a sting of anger. Sometimes, Kile could be very insensitive when she least expected it.
Jhan tried to be fair, but it was hard. Perhaps, she corrected herself, it was only that Kile never dwelt on things that couldn’t be mended right away. He always waited patiently for trouble to work itself out. And his gruffness of a moment before? Jhan hardened her heart to that. He may have been upset by having a princess of the Alamien suddenly dumped into his lap, but Jhan refused to excuse his treatment of her. In the morning, she promised, she would tell him so.
Avrilla was better by morning, moving to take care of her own needs and eating
whatever Jhan gave her. She wore a bleak expression for the most part, but carried
herself with an arrogant tilt of her chin and a tone to her voice that made
her somewhat ridiculous. If not for the lean look to her body, and the scars
she carried, most of them on her back, Jhan would have continued to think that
she was spoiled. Instead, Jhan began to believe that she was just afraid and
as uncertain as any child would be, and that her attitude was her defense.
“How did you become ill?” Jhan wondered, watching the girl use her brush to untangle her matted black curls.
Sitting in bed, the blankets and furs strewn to one side, Avrilla was unconcerned with her nakedness. With nothing to show that she was even a girl, Jhan could understand why. “I ate some bad meat,” Avrilla explained, “I knew better, but I didn’t have anything else. The worst of the sickness passed before yesterday. Before then, I could hardly move.”
“Did you walk all this way?”
“No, I have a horse. He is trained to stay near me. He won’t be far from this place.”
It took Jhan a moment to register what the girl had said. Shocked, she struggled through confusion to ask, “Horse? You have horses?”
“Not many,” Avrilla told her with a shrug. “They were brought here by the same Gate that brought us, but they are not native to our land. We use them mostly for food, but they can be ridden, with patience.”
“Gate?” Jhan recalled Tsarianna telling her that he had been brought to that world by a gate of energy, and that he had thought that she might have come that way herself. Jhan’s next question didn’t seem so ludicrous in light of that. “You aren’t from this land?”
“Of course not!” Avrilla snorted indignantly. “We are a proud, accomplished race from the world of Ysuiya. Coming here was a great tragedy. We have been trying to return for generations, striving to keep our bloodlines and our traditions untainted until then.”
Jhan puzzled for a moment and then asked, “How did you know to call them horses?”
“They didn’t come by themselves,” Avrilla explained impatiently, as if Jhan were being simple. “There were Humans with them. They died after the crossing. Their minds couldn’t take the stresses, but the beasts were simple enough and the Alamien were advanced enough to survive it.”
“Oh.” Jhan clasped her hands tightly together. Tsarianna’s words hadn’t really sunk in with Jhan when he had told her his origins. She had only half believed him. Now that it was all confirmed, she found herself deeply disturbed. It was better to believe that the world was unchanging and predictable. To know that it was, instead, completely the opposite, was frightening.
“Does-Do these Gates open often?” Jhan wondered anxiously.
Avrilla shook her head. “No, and they don’t stay in one place either, or my people would have left this world long ago. The plains are the most dangerous places. In your land, it is relatively safe because the mountains and the forests seem to create buffer zones of weather and geography that don’t promote their formation. On the plains, where your Lord Kile proposes to go, the Gates are more common. I didn’t see one in my passing, but, as I said, they are infrequent even there.”
“So much for an easy journey,” Jhan muttered.
Avrilla was staring frankly at Jhan. Jhan was uncomfortable under that regard. It wasn’t the way someone would look at another intelligent person. It was more like an intelligent person watching an animal they had suddenly become intrigued by.
“We look much alike,” Avrilla commented after a time, just when Jhan had begun to be angry enough to object, “but you look far more... pleasing. Are all of your people so varied in appearance? I’ve not had the opportunity to see many, but I have been told that they are like the horses, of all colors and Deviations.”
“It makes our bloodlines stronger, those deviations,” Jhan replied, not sure whether or not she was being insulted.
“How do you know whom to breed to?”
Jhan stood up and began cleaning up some of the items she had used the night before, stacking bowls and clattering spoons as she replied, “There isn’t any rhyme or reason. We just avoid uh, breeding with anyone too closely related to us.”
“Will you and this Lord Kile breed, without any rhyme or reason; not knowing how your children will look or how healthy they will be?” Avrilla was incredulous, but her cheeks tinged with color, as if she also found it shockingly daring.
Jhan felt a shiver of anger and embarrassment, but she controlled it, keeping her voice steady. “Kile and I won’t be breeding, Avrilla, so you don’t have to be outraged about that.”
“He did say you were Retie,” Avrilla recalled, “but I wondered if it was true from your reaction.”
“I don’t know,” Jhan replied, arms full and half turned towards the ladder. She felt a bite of anguish. “I don’t know what we are and I don’t feel like explaining it either.”
“If you are unable to birth, I fail to see why he acts so possessively towards you,” Avrilla continued. She paused and then went on, softer. “That wouldn’t matter to me. I won’t be able to birth either. I am, effectively, Retie."
“I’m sorry. I know how that hurts,” Jhan told her, the ache of her own loss closing a fist over her heart.
“You’re wrong. It doesn’t,” Avrilla replied sharply. She shook her head in a sharp, dismissive gesture, tossing her loose hair back over one shoulder. “I never wanted to birth. That’s one of my Deviations as well. It’s why I ran away. I didn’t want them to find a safe way for me to do it.”
Jhan was still tied up in her own pain, saying distantly, “Some women choose not to have children.”
“Alamien don’t have a choice,” Avrilla informed Jhan bitterly. “We become mating ready three times in our lives. If we don’t mate, the hormonal shifts can kill. I am past the age of Readiness. It could be that I will never be ready. I was taking that chance when I ran away.”
Jhan turned to her in surprise. “I thought- I thought you were a child.”
“We don’t show our gender as Humans do, or animals,” Avrilla replied condescendingly.
“No, only go into rut like animals,” Jhan shot back.
“It is a better way of ensuring offspring than always being in Readiness,” Avrilla argued. “When an Alamien mates, there is always a child after.”
“So, you’ll run away and your parents will have another heir?”
Avrilla shook her head, her face going dark with emotion. “I was a difficult birth. I ruined my mother for birthing again. She has never forgiven me for that.” Her hand went unconsciously to the scars on her body.
“Did she do that to you?” Jhan wondered sharply, beginning to be outraged on Avrilla’s behalf, but then she sucked in a sharp breath and began to apologize, “I’m sorry! None of this is my business!”
“It is your business,” Avrilla insisted. “ I want you to know why I don’t wish to return to my home.” She touched the marks on her body. “Yes, my mother did give me these scars. She tried to kill me several times. She can’t birth. My father has passed his last stage of Readiness. There aren’t any more Telestar. My mother blames me. She knows that our bloodline will die with me.”
“All the more reason for you to return,” Kile broke in as he mounted the top of the ladder. He gave Jhan a look that was a warning to keep out of it, as he straightened and faced Avrilla. “When do you think you can travel?”
“I will not go back.” Avrilla was adamant, chin tilted up and dark eyes set resolutely on nothing.
“You seem well enough,” Kile replied for her. “Your skin is getting its gold tone back. I think the weather will hold and, if we ride slow, you won’t be taxed too much. If we have to, I’m sure I can rig a litter.”
“Kile!” Jhan rounded on him, blue eyes bewildered and shocked at Kile’s callousness. “Why do we have to hurry? Surely one more day-”
“One more day will be one to many!” Kile snapped back, as if Jhan were a soldier stepping out of line. “I told you before, Jhan, if she’s found with us, without a clear indication of which direction we’re going in, we will be blamed! There will be war! I don’t want any argument. Do as I say! Get her dressed. Get our things together. I’m going to get the imala ready and then we are going to leave, today!”
Kile swung back down the ladder and Jhan heard his boots hit hard on the wooden floor as he jumped past the last rungs and strode away. Hands shaking, Jhan put her things down and went to help Avrilla dress.
Avrilla was angry. “Why does he treat you that way?” Her long fingered hand closed on Jhan’s shaking one and Jhan found herself looking into Avrilla’s black in black eyes. There was compassion there and Jhan found herself choking on a sob. When Avrilla unexpectedly pulled her close to comfort her, Jhan’s pent up sorrow broke loose and she wept.
“It is well,” Avrilla murmured as she stroked Jhan’s hair and kissed her gently on the face. “It WILL be well,” she promised, suddenly fierce.
Jhan broke away, wiping her eyes and feeling embarrassed. Avrilla released her reluctantly. “I’m sorry,” Jhan sniffled. “It’s just that, so much has happened lately, and I haven’t had anyone... not anyone to talk to. I guess it broke a damn somewhere after- after that last bit of shouting from Kile. He’s not usually like that. I think he’s afraid. I keep making it more difficult for him.”
Avrilla smiled tentatively and Jhan found herself suddenly liking the princess. In Pekarin, the only woman friend Jhan had made had been Bheni, but Bheni, in many respects, had been much like a man. Avrilla, though outwardly not feminine, had shown she was capable of a woman’s gentle concern. It warmed a lonely place in Jhan and Jhan found a shaky smile to give back to her.
“We have to go,” Jhan told Avrilla apologetically.
Jhan tried to help Avrilla, but the woman was rising from her bed already, long, slim body unfolding until she was head and shoulders above Jhan. Those dark eyes were surprisingly expressive as she met Jhan’s eyes.
“You’re so tall!” Jhan exclaimed. It was disorienting, as if Jhan had suddenly shrunk in size. Jhan stammered, “I-I didn’t guess from the way you were curled up in bed.”
Avrilla’s smile was warm and friendly now, the bleakness gone for the time being. “I , in turn, didn’t guess that you were so small. It is different, but I don’t find it displeasing. In fact, the more I see of you, the more I find you infinitely fascinating.” Her smile quirked. “If we were speaking of bloodlines, you would have been culled immediately from the books, but then, so would I. I suppose, being what I am, I don’t have to worry about being scandalous by associating with you.”
“Thanks, I guess,” Jhan replied, confused, but not angry.
Avrilla dressed in a long, blue gown of a silk- like material. It was embroidered in an intricate design that twined about the waist. Leaves, birds, rays of sunlight, branches and flowers; Jhan was in awe at the workmanship. It was split, front and back, for riding. Avrilla slipped on a rather ragged pair of socks and a worn pair of butter colored riding boots. A gauzy scarf went about her face and draped low over her eyes, almost like a veil. The material was sheer and a brilliant mixture of crimson and shimmering, gold thread.
“I will need help descending the ladder,” Avrilla told Jhan, proffering her arm. “I am not that strong yet.”
“Of course.” Jhan took Avrilla by the elbow and they slowly climbed down together. It was awkward, Avrilla being so much taller, but Jhan managed to get her down to the first floor without mishap.
Scrambling back up the ladder, Jhan retrieved all of Avrilla’s things; most still stuffed into a worn leather pack, and brought it and her own things down the ladder with a dangerous balancing act. Packing everything hurriedly, she dragged their packs to the front door.
The front door was open and Kile was busy outside. Bright sunlight streamed in. Avrilla winced at it and pulled her scarf lower over her face. “My eyes are sensitive,” she explained.
“My skin is sensitive,” Jhan replied in sympathy. “I think we’re both going to be miserable once we reach the plains.”
“Misery loves company,” Avrilla sighed and Jhan started, turning to her.
“My people say that too,” Jhan told her.
“It’s true for any race, I suppose,” Avrilla surmised gloomily as she knotted her scarf under her chin.
Hearing something so familiar made Jhan warm to Avrilla even more. That feeling was a sharp counterpoint to the one Kile evinced when they reached the out door beast enclosure and confronted his scowling face.
“You’re beast won’t let me near it!” Kile complained furiously. He was already beginning to sweat and he raked his sweat drenched, gold curls out of his eyes impatiently.
“He is trained to my hand only,” Avrilla explained arrogantly. There was an edge to her voice. She clearly didn’t like Kile.
Avrilla turned away from the shack and whistled. A horse neighed from a distance and then came galloping up. Rangy, too long and scooped in the nose, big eyed, hideous, shaggy dun coat, and splayed hooves; it was the most beautiful sight Jhan had seen in a long while. It’s every line was familiar and spoke of home.
The horse came to a nervous halt by Avrilla, ears pricked forward and nostrils flaring. Kile was disgusted. “Nasty looking beast,” he said in disgust. “It’s obvious that your people don’t care much about the bloodlines of your animals.”
“We eat them for food,” Avrilla explained testily as she rubbed a spot between the beasts eyes. “Riding one is considered... eccentric. Shalla here, was going to be butchered for my birthday feast three years ago. I had decided, even then, to leave the Silverwood. I asked for him as a gift and trained him for this day.”
Kile rubbed at his face wearily, as if he hadn’t slept last night. “I have the feeling that you’re going to try and run away when ever an opportunity presents itself.”
Avrilla looked at Jhan and smiled. “No, I won’t. I’ve found a reason to return home, at least for now.” Jhan found herself smiling back.
Kile looked from Jhan to Avrilla, but didn’t look pleased. “I’m glad that you’re seeing reason, your Highness. I’m certain that you wouldn’t want the blood of hundreds of men on your hands, should the Alamien declare war.”
“If my people declared war, Lord Dor, it wouldn’t be Alamien that would die,” Avrilla replied confidently. She led her horse to the paddock and began saddling it.
“At least she isn’t a soft princess,” Kile muttered with grudging approval. “She’s used to doing for herself.”
“But she shouldn’t!” Jhan retorted, facing Kile with hands on hips. “She’s still ill.”
Kile glared at Jhan as if she were his worst enemy. It hurt. Jhan trembled, her stance going limp. She bit her lip as she turned, eager to get away from Kile before she began to fear him. She found herself going to Avrilla, unwilling to hear Kile’s beginning speech on how she should stay out of it and let him do his duty.
“Let me- Let me help you, Avrilla. I’ve ridden horses before.” It was hardly true, but Jhan needed an excuse to keep her back to Kile, not wanting to give him the opening to start speaking again.
Jhan touched the rough coat of the horse, hardly believing that it was real and standing before her. It turned its head to look at her and Jhan touched the soft nose instead, thrilling in the familiarity of it. Avrilla leaned close, her lips very near Jhan’s cheek and ear.
“You are most kind, Jhan Dor,” Avrilla breathed. “I am not used to it, I assure you.”
That made Jhan feel good, displacing some of the pain Kile had given her. Busying herself with the straps and buckles of the saddle and bridle, she also had time to pull her emotions back together and to wonder why Kile was so angry with her. Was it just the tenseness of the situation? Had she done something, undermined him, or jeopardized his orders in a way she wasn’t aware? If so, why wouldn’t he tell her so? Was it because of Avrilla? Jhan had never had Kile treat her that way before, no matter how angry he had been.
Kile was leading the imala out of the paddock, saddled and loaded with their supplies. He was still scowling, blue eyes checking the clouds for weather. Jhan tried to remember all of their words last night. She had said terrible things and, perhaps, Kile couldn’t forgive them. With a twisting in Jhan’s gut, she realized that she wouldn’t have forgiven them either. What had she expected, after all?
They rode away from the shack and Avrilla sighed as they settled into an easy walk along the narrow trail. Jhan looked at her and she shrugged deprecatingly.
“I thought that I was going to a new life,” Avrilla told Jhan. “It was exciting, adventurous. When I found that shack, I thought, for a time, that I would make that my home, until I realized that I was on a trading trail. By that time, I had become sick and couldn’t leave.”
“I’m sorry,” was all Jhan could find to say.
“I’m not,” Kile grumbled behind them and they both fell silent under his anger.
(Sea of Grass)
After long days, the trail opened out and left the mountains behind. The grass before them was long, about three feet tall, and seemingly endless. It stretched all the way to the horizon on every side, waving in a gentle breeze and making a desolate swishing sound as it moved.
“Put this on.” Kile, riding beside Jhan, handed her a corked jar of ointment to put on her skin. “You keep forgetting.”
Jhan’s skin was already red from the journey through the mountains, now it was beginning to burn. As she rubbed in the ointment, she gave Kile a long, measured look. “Are you ever going to talk to me?”
“I have been talking,” Kile replied, but his eyes were on the horizon and his jaw was set hard.
“You've been ordering, shouting, and complaining,” Jhan corrected him. “I can’t apologize if I don’t know what I’ve done wrong.”
“Why do you think you’ve done something wrong?” Kile wondered, his eyebrows drawing down. “I could just be acting like a bastard for no reason.”
“That’s not like you,” Jhan shot back, feeling tears gathering in her eyes.
“No, it’s like you,” Kile retorted. “Or like you use to be. Now you just apologize and pretend nothing is wrong with not wanting your husband to touch you. I see that I have to be the one to be angry for the both of us. It doesn’t bother you at all.”
“You didn’t seem very upset that night in the shack,” Jhan accused. “You were whistling, as I recall.”
“I tried not to think about it,” Kile admitted, “but I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about it and, the more I thought, the angrier I became.”
Jhan looked down at the reins in her hands, twisting them about her fingers. “What do you want to do?” she asked in a small voice.
“Not go on like this,” Kile growled back, “but we don’t have any choice. Now we have in attendance, the Princess Avrilla of the Telestar, and a mission I have to complete. It’s all become a very delicate matter. We don’t have time for us, and we won’t have the time.”
“It wouldn’t matter if we did,” Jhan whispered.
Kile flinched as if from a blow, but his eyes begged her to both understand and obey him. “I need you to do as I say,” he said sternly. “Don’t argue. Don’t get angry. I have to be in command of this situation. Take care of the Princess. Keep her happy. Keep her wanting to return to the Silverwood. I’ll worry about getting us there safely.”
Avrilla was a little way ahead and Kile’s voice was too low for her to hear his words. Jhan wished that SHE had been too far to hear them. “Okay, Kile. I’ll do what you say,” Jhan replied, and then to hurt him as he was hurting her, ”It is what I’ve been taught; to do as I’m told.”
It was a blow straight to Kile’s heart, but the soldier Kile wasn’t going to be defeated even by that pain. He was too used to making hard decisions. He only went a little pale, gave her a sharp nod, and then rode ahead.
They day was long and very hot. They all drooped in their saddles, rocking with the motion of their beasts. Avrilla took shelter under her veil and, when Jhan rode up close beside her, she saw that Avrilla’s eyes were closed.
“Are you all right?” Jhan asked, reaching over the space between their beasts to touch Avrilla’s hand in concern. “Should I ask Kile to stop and let you rest?”
Avrilla opened her eyes and smiled through her veil. “I thank you, for your concern, but on my horse or afoot, I’m afraid I would still feel as miserable. Perhaps we should talk. It will help distract me from it.”
“All right.” Jhan thought for a moment as she released Avrilla’s hand and sat back in her saddle, but, she found, she couldn’t think of any idle conversation. Her mind was still on Kile. Avrilla saw her difficulty and came to her rescue, beginning the conversation herself.
“I am most curious about your people,” Avrilla said and then asked questions that were so frank and odd that Jhan found herself floundering to answer, while struggling not be embarrassed or angry. It became clear that Avrilla considered Humans inferior. With her questions, she seemed to be trying to bolster that belief. Her nods to Jhan’s answers were critical and superior.
“Avrilla, “ Jhan finally said in exasperation. “I know that our ways seem strange and disorderly to you, but that doesn’t make them inferior, or us, for that matter. We’re just different. They way we breed, live, and do things works for us. If I was to be critical of you, I would wonder how your race could have survived so long with your arrangements. Only three children. Interbreeding to the point where you all look alike. Shunning anyone outside of your bloodlines. Secluding yourself away from everyone. Killing children because they don’t conform to your standards. I think there’s a lot of room for judgment on both sides.”
“If I were you, I wouldn’t say that when we reach the Silverwood,” Avrilla warned Jhan, but she wasn’t angry, only amused in a condescending way. “And I don’t think you will again after you’ve seen it.”
Avrilla turned to simpler things then, commenting on Jhan’s clothes and wondering about Pekarin fashions. After awhile of this, Jhan noticed that the conversation wasn’t so much about the clothes themselves, but how Jhan looked in them. Did she wear this or that? Did she ever wear her hair up or put combs in it or ribbons? Jhan answered as best she could and wondered at the way Avrilla’s smile grew warmer and warmer.
“When we reach the Silverwood, you won’t be allowed to wear those rags to court,” Avrilla said after a time. “I’ll find some soft gowns to put you in. Some blue stitching will look best, I think, with your eyes.”
Jhan felt an uncomfortable flush. “Thank you, but Kile told me that we wouldn’t be seeing any of the court.”
“You will now,” Avrilla replied with certainty. “I’ll take you there myself.”
Jhan didn’t know what to say to that, she supposed she WOULD get to see the court now, or Kile would, she amended. Once the Alamien realized that they had their princess, it probably couldn’t be avoided.
“Stop!” Kile barked.
Avrilla’s horse shied, but the imala only shivered and swiveled its ears. Kile rode back to them, face serious.
“Don’t move until I come back,” Kile ordered as he drew his sword and rode ahead into the tall grass.
“What can have made him even angrier than he usually is?” Avrilla wondered acidly.
“I don’t know,” Jhan replied fearfully. She squinted after Kile, but could only see the top half of him as he entered a part of the grass that was nearly five feet tall and interspersed with things that looked like cattails.
Time seemed to crawl by. Jhan felt sweat running down her sides as she stood in her stirrups and watched Kile make a very large circle about something. She hardly heard when Avrilla wrinkled her nose and said, “What is that smell?”
Jhan caught it at the same time. She knew what it was and she sat back in her saddle and gathered up the reins in preparation to flee. When Kile returned, face looking grim, she relaxed, but only slightly.
“There ‘s a dead man up ahead,” Kile announced. “Two days dead, maybe. Human. A soldier of some kind, though I don’t recognize his uniform. It’s purple, with a tree and a quartered circle of crimson on the breast.”
Avrilla tensed. “I know that design! I must see him.”
Kile gave a firm shake of his head. “Someone wasn’t respectful of the body, Princess Avrilla. I doubt you could recognize the face.”
Avrilla looked distraught and tears were in her voice. “Did- Did he have hair on his face... like an animal pelt... black?”
Kile nodded. “I could see that much.”
Avrilla bowed her head. “It can only be Tek Hurval. He was my personal guard. He-He must have been searching for me.”
“A Human was your guard?” Kile was astonished.
“The Alamien despise what I am,” Avrilla explained in a hollow voice. “Only a Human would associate so closely with me.”
“He was dear to you,” Kile guessed and Avrilla nodded. “Perhaps, now you understand the cost of your foolishness?”
“Kile!” Jhan protested, but Avrilla accepted Kile’s criticism.
“He’s right, about this at least. This is my fault.” Avrilla looked up then, scanning the tall grass all about them “But who could have done such a thing?”
“Someone who doesn’t want the heir of the Telestar found?” Kile wondered.
“Who would dare?” Avrilla’s chin rose arrogantly.
“I don’t know,” Kile grumbled as he turned his beast’s head sharply. “I hope we don’t find out. Come on, there’s still daylight to travel in. I don’t want to camp in smelling distance of your guard.”
Avrilla flinched and hung her head again.
They skirted a low, marshy spot of land. The smell was strongest there and Jhan turned her face away as they passed it, not wanting to see what lay there.
The grasslands continued to be marshy, as if it had been raining there for some time. Small pools of water broke up the trail and they slogged through and around them. The water should have cooled the air, but the sun turned it to steamy humidity, making them doubly miserable.
When they finally stopped for the night, Kile chose a small rise of land in that otherwise flat plain, and settled by a small, clear pool of water not more than a few yards across.
Avrilla dismounted and went to the water. It looked inviting and she began taking off her dress without any consideration for Kile being there. He turned red, stammered something in consternation, and then turned his back abruptly.
“I’ll- I’ll scout the area while you set up camp, Jhan,” Kile announced stiffly and strode out into the grass.
Taking off her boots and socks, Avrilla slipped into the water and sighed. “Warm, but very nice!” she called to Jhan. “Come! Join me!”
Jhan was shyer. “I have things to do,” she replied evasively. “I have to take care of the beasts.”
“Let them care for themselves for a few moments!” Avrilla protested. “Come, Jhan! Surely, Lord Kile will not begrudge you a bath?”
Jhan did want to wash the heat and the sweat off of her skin. She hesitated for another moment, but then shrugged mentally. Avrilla was as neuter as she was. What was there to be afraid of?
Slipping out of her clothes and boots, Jhan stood on the water’s edge. Avrilla was watching her. Jhan felt uncomfortable at the scrutiny, until she remembered Avrilla’s ignorance of Humans. She wouldn’t know about the subtle differences between Jhan and a true woman.
“Very like Alamien,” Avrilla commented as Jhan entered the water. “I have seen male Humans, but never female. Except for the way your breasts are swollen, I would have taken you for one like myself, Alamien, but a Deviation.”
“I suppose that’s a compliment, coming from you,” Jhan replied as she took a slow, lazy swim around the pond. “A real female Human would be insulted.”
“Real?” Avrilla caught Jhan’s slip, but Jhan closed her mouth and didn’t explain.
Jhan finished her swim and sat on the bank of the pond, letting the air dry her off. Kile was still gone, but Jhan wasn’t worrying yet. She was soothed by a soft breeze. She leaned back on her hands and closed her eyes to enjoy it.
“Let me brush this out for you,” Avrilla offered and Jhan felt her take hold of her wet, curly mass of hair.
Jhan started and sat up, looking back and seeing that Avrilla had her brush in her free hand. “I wouldn’t want you to trouble yourself,” Jhan protested to cover her trepidation as she began to move away.
Avrilla didn’t release Jhan’s hair and Jhan was forced to sit still. “No trouble,” Avrilla replied soothingly and began to brush. “Having hair like yours, I know how difficult it can be without a servant to help.”
Jhan took a deep breath to calm herself, telling herself that she was being foolish to be afraid of Avrilla. She gathered courage and gave Avrilla her back, making it easier for Avrilla to brush her hair.
“At times, you don’t seem much like a princess,” Jhan commented softly.
Avrilla’s hands paused and then continued. “I haven’t had much chance to be one. I was raised by Darkai, away from my mother’s hate. I hunted the forests, helped Darkai with his experiments, tended his nut trees and tuber farm, and milked and helped birth his hanjany herd. When my mother discovered that she couldn’t birth again, only then was I taken back into the Telestar.”
“You sound as if you were happier milking, what did you call them, hanjany,” Jhan observed.
“I think I was,” Avrilla admitted with a strained chuckle. Her hands finished with Jhan’s hair, but they didn’t go away. Jhan felt fingers touch her skin. “So soft and small, you are,” Avrilla observed quietly. “I can’t imagine that huge brute of a Human Male trying to breed you. It is not a good match.”
Jhan shivered with the emotions she had been trying to suppress. Avrilla was stirring them up with her simple comment, reminding Jhan how truly impossible her relationship with Kile had become. Bleakly, she replied, “It has been hard.”
Avrilla’s hand smoothed along Jhan’s side as if she would let it drop entirely, but, before Jhan could react, Avrilla reached in front of Jhan, between her legs, and inserted long fingers. She felt there; unabashedly curious. Jhan jerked as if to get up, but muscles inside of her grabbed Avrilla’s fingers and pulled them in, beginning an awful rhythm that Jhan was all too familiar with.
Jhan’s legs opened despite herself as sensations of pain and pleasure washed over her. Those sensations were intense, overwhelming, and unrelenting. She wanted them with all that was in her, arching her back against the surprised Avrilla and groaning.
“We are more alike than I imagined,” Avrilla whispered and her other hand reached around to feel Jhan’s breast. “As soft as feathers. Strange, yet welcoming to my hand. I don’t find you- Jhan, I don’t find you inferior to my senses at all!”
Avrilla’s mouth sought Jhan’s, kissed her lightly, passionless, but friendly, and then trailed her kisses along Jhan’s shoulder as if she were delighting in the feel of Jhan’s skin. Jhan threw back her head. Avrilla wasn’t moving her hand, Jhan’s body was moving it for her, and Avrilla kept it there as if she were trapped both physically and emotionally.
“So beautiful,” Avrilla murmured in Jhan’s ear. “I would keep you, Jhan. It is a good life, being a princess’s Aterei."
“Get off of her!” Kile’s hand grabbed a handful of Avrilla’s hair and yanked her away from Jhan. Avrilla cried out as she was thrown, naked, almost back into the pond.
Jhan fell backwards without Avrilla’s support and sprawled on the sandy bank, panting and blind with the sensations coursing through her. Kile didn’t touch her, he simply stared down at her in anguish as if he didn’t know what to think or what to do.
“What right do you have?” Avrilla was shouting as she stood up and faced Kile, furious. “I am a Princess of the Blood! I claim your Retie! She will be my Aterei!"
“Thekling!” Kile shouted at her, blue eyes blazing. “Deviation and thekling! I can’t understand why you’re still alive! How can the Telestar hope to salvage anything from you?”
“An Aterei is a companion!” Avrilla informed him. She straightened and looked down her nose at Kile, her fury chilling to arrogance, “You are more ignorant than I thought!”
“Will you deny what I just saw with my own eyes?” Kile seethed.
“I was only curious,” Avrilla defended herself, her arrogance deflating as she suddenly became uncertain. “Is it against your custom? Is that why you are so angry? Jhan was enjoying my touch. She has been so unhappy, I thought to give her some joy in exchange for her care of me.”
“It IS against custom, but, not only that, you were harming her!” Kile crouched by Jhan. She looked up at him through her vibrating senses. She wanted to reach up to him, pull him down, make him help her keep the sensations going, but she felt too weak in their grip. “She’s bleeding!” Kile realized, his voice trembling.
Avrilla was quickly contrite, turning one hand into a fist. “My nails. I should have thought.”
Kile shook his head sharply in anguish. “Don’t say anything else! I have to think what to do.”
The sensations slowed and then ceased. Jhan managed to sit up, but she couldn’t look at any of them. Instead, she hid her face against her raised knees and wrapped her arms around them tightly.
“Maybe some boiling water?” Kile suggested, at a loss as he crouched by Jhan. “We could wash you out. If Avrilla had anything on her fingers, you could become ill.”
Jhan was silent. She was too humiliated to speak. Her silence made a wall between Kile and herself. It was Avrilla who dared to try and breech it.
“Jhan, forgive me if I’ve hurt you. I was only curious. I didn’t realize-” Avrilla paused and then went on when Jhan wrapped herself up even tighter. “I meant what I said. I wish you for my companion, my Aterei. I’ve never had one before. I never wanted one until you showed me such kindness.”
Jhan sprang to her feet, snatched up her clothes, and put them on with shaking hands. There was pain. It added to her humiliation. She stalked to the edge of camp and sat there, back turned to Kile and Avrilla.
Kile wouldn’t leave it alone. He followed Jhan and stood behind her uncertainly. “Jhan, if you’re bleeding...”
“She scratched me, I think,” Jhan replied in a low, tight voice. “She didn’t do anything, but show me how helpless that part of me makes me. Love used to be enough to bear it. For you, I did.” Jhan choked on a sob. “She was just brushing my hair, Kile! That’s all! Brushing my hair! Why would I expect her to- but she did and I-I was helpless! If there was a way to sew that part of me up for ever, I would do it, now, in an instant! It used to make me feel like a woman. I was glad, despite everything, that Dagara gave it to me. Not any more! It’s as much a lie as everything else I am!”
Kile groaned as if he were at his wits end. Jhan heard him stride to Avrilla. “Don’t go near her again! Don’t talk to her. Don’t touch her! If you do, I will forget that you are a princess.”
“You’ve already forgotten it!” Avrilla retorted in outrage. “When we reach the Silverwood, you will be sorry that you spoke to me this way, that you stood between Jhan and I!”
“I think,” Kile lashed back viciously, “that you will be far too busy explaining this little adventure of yours to be thinking of revenge on me!”
Jhan lay on her side and put her hands over her ears. She refused to eat when Kile brought her supper, and she refused to look at him when he bedded down next to her to sleep. Patiently, he gathered her into his arms and held her close, despite her stiff resistance.
“I know I have been harsh,” Kile said in her ear, “but you must know how important this journey has become. I wish-I wish that you hadn’t come. It might have been better to have some time apart, rather than straining things even further like this. Avrilla, she isn’t Human, please remember that, Jhan. I forgot it when I saw what she was doing with you. Alamien don’t have gender unless they are breeding. Of course Avrilla was curious by us, who do. It wasn’t sexual Jhan, but I should have realized that she was showing an interest in you. I’ve been so wrapped up in this dangerous situation I was blind to it, and now you’re hurt even more and there isn’t anything I can do to help.”
Jhan was angry with him, angry at herself, angry at Avrilla. She didn’t want anyone touching her. She squirmed out of Kile’s grip and he let her go reluctantly. Standing, he took his blankets and moved away.
“How do you feel?”
“Are you going to ask me that every hour?” Jhan demanded, glaring at him.
Kile’s jaw worked. He was staring straight ahead, the hands on his imala’s reins working in agitation. They had ridden in relative silence that day, except for Kile’s persistent question. “You haven’t answered me yet.”
“I’m feeling humiliated!" Jhan shouted so loudly that Avrilla, riding ahead, pulled up her horse and looked back, startled. Jhan could tell that she wanted to speak to her, longed to apologize or explain again that she had only been curious and hadn’t meant to hurt her. Kile’s piercing, blue eyes warned her off.
“Don’t do that!” Jhan shouted at Kile again. “Stop punishing her for something she didn’t know anything about!”
“I thought you were angry with her,” Kile simmered. “Are you only angry at me then? Why?”
“I’m angry at myself,” Jhan replied, looking away at the flat expanse of grass all about them. "I'm angry at my body. It betrays me, again and again. It steals any happiness I find and turns it into horror!”
“This mission won’t take very long,” Kile promised. He tried to reach out to Jhan, but she avoided him. He lowered his hand with a sigh. “I’ll drop off my messages and we’ll ride quickly back home. We’ll be able to sort this out then.”
It was a dismissal. Jhan was shocked.
Kile grimaced, knowing he had said the wrong thing. “It doesn’t help to keep on about the same problems,” Kile attempted to explain. “We’ve already decided that they can’t be fixed here and now. Avrilla brought them up again with a vengeance and your... treatment of me in that abandoned house, didn’t help matters with me at all.”
“I didn’t realize that this was about you,” Jhan retorted coldly.
Kile groaned and pulled at his gold hair in exasperation. He struck the pommel of his saddle with his fist. “Jhan! You know I’m not good with words! You know I love you! You know I would do anything for you!”
“Not anything,” Jhan reminded him. “You’ve already proven that.”
Kile’s next words were like a sharp blade, straight to Jhan’s heart. “I will never love anyone as much as I love you,” Kile said, “You know that too. My body may be foolish and beyond my control, but my heart will always be yours.”
“I do know it,” Jhan whispered, but she couldn’t look at him. Knowing it only made the pain worse. “If I can have that,” she concluded at last. “The rest will only matter to you, not me.”
They rode in silence then and that silence stretched over the days until they saw the line of trees that marked the Silverwood. Avrilla went very bleak at the sight of it. She had been as silent as they, but for her own reasons. It was clear that she wasn’t expecting a welcome home from anyone. In fact, she looked somewhat afraid.
“You will stay by me?” Avrilla asked Jhan when they stopped for a noon meal. Kile had moved off to relieve himself and it was the first words Avrilla had dared after Kile’s warning to her.
Jhan’s jaw clenched and she knew that she looked angry, though she wasn’t sure how she really felt at that moment towards the princess. “Do you expect me to help you some how?” Jhan wondered.
“My people will be angry,” Avrilla told her, her gold skin paling and her wide black eyes cold with trepidation. “I might have to face my mother. She might hold her hand if there were Human witnesses. She wouldn’t want to look... unseemly or less than superior to your people.”
After so much cruelty done to her, Jhan always found it unbearable to see anyone else unhappy. This plea from Avrilla sliced through her humiliation and anger at the girl and touched her compassion all in an instant. The memory of seeing Avrilla’s scars was still fresh enough that Jhan didn’t have any doubt what might happen to the girl when she returned.
“I don’t know what Kile intends,” Jhan told her carefully, not wanting to give the girl a false promise. “This is his mission and I- I have to follow his orders. I will ask, though. That’s all I can do.”
Avrilla began to reach out to Jhan, to touch her arm, froze, and then lowered it. “Thank you, for that. It’s more than I deserve after my carelessness. Kile explained to me how delicate you can be. He said that you have nearly died several times... Are you well, Jhan? I haven’t made you ill, have I?”
“No,” Jhan replied, but she was surprised too. “Kile spoke to you about me?”
“And other things.” Avrilla didn’t see the importance of it. “You sleep early and he and I sleep late. We grew tired of simply staring at each other, or at the night, until we were ready for sleep. He isn’t as terrible as I thought him, but he defends you fiercely. He wouldn’t relent when I asked to speak with you.”
“And yet you do anyway,” Kile grumbled as he joined them again.
“I obeyed out of guilt,” Avrilla admitted, but she was steel too. “I am a Princess, Lord Kile. I WILL do as I please, without your consent. I don’t see why you object to two women finding comfort in each other’s company.”
“Jhan isn’t a woman, Princess Avrilla,” Kile told her matter- of- factly. “Jhan is a man, which is why I said that we were Retie earlier. It is the truth.”
Avrilla’s face went through a myriad of emotions. Shock, loss, embarrassment, and then, lastly, calculation. Jhan’s face revealed only one emotion; fury. She rounded on Kile.
“Why did you tell her that?”
“So that she wouldn’t find it out, to her royal embarrassment, later,” Kile replied evenly. “I also don’t want her near you. What’s wrong? I thought that we were telling truths from now on? I thought we were supposed to be beyond hiding what we were?”
Jhan couldn’t explain it to Kile. She couldn’t make him understand that facing up to her sex still hurt, still made her cringe. With Avrilla, she had been allowing herself to forget it, to pretend again that she was a woman. Kile had stripped that away as if he had suddenly pulled off her clothes. She deserved it too, Jhan thought. They HAD promised to give that pretense up. It was only Kile’s reasons that continued to make her angry. He was not only ordering her again, he was also trying to order her life.
She should have been outraged or at least defiant. The old Jhan would have exploded into a shouting match. The new Jhan could only bite her lip and look away, brows drawn in anguish. She had spent too long locking up her emotions. They built and built now, and were rarely allowed an outlet.
Kile looked disappointed. Jhan saw it out of the corner of her eye. Had he expected her to argue? Had he wanted it? She couldn’t know for certain. By the fire on the outskirts of Sarvoy on that first night, steeped in the pain of betrayal, Jhan had been able to muster some of that old temper. It had died too quickly and she had rolled over, just as she was doing now, allowing Kile to do as he pleased. To do otherwise invited in the fear of reprisal that she had been taught on that long trek to the desert.
There was a sound. Jhan heard it and idly turned her head towards it, just as Kile looked up like a startled hound. He motioned silence and, while Avrilla and Jhan watched him in surprise, he leapt to the saddle of his imala and stood cautiously in the stirrups. It didn’t take him long to see what was wrong.
“Riders, coming our way; a good number of them,” Kile reported tensely. “I don’t want to take any chances. Jhan, ride as fast as you can for the forest with Avrilla. I’ll keep the baggage imala and try and stall them as long as I can.”
“No,” Jhan argued a she swung up on her imala. Avrilla was only a heartbeat behind her getting on her horse. “I won’t leave you!” Jhan protested. “What if they are the ones who killed that man?”
“Then best you are far away!” Kile barked. “I told you to go! I meant it! I’m just a Pekarin soldier. A nobody. You and the Princess are the ones in danger!”
“No!” Jhan repeated. Her anxiety for Kile made her strong and stubborn.
Kile rode his imala up on the side of her imala so tightly, that Jhan felt her leg smashed between them. Kile reached out a big hand and fisted it into Jhan’s vest. He shook her viciously despite her cry of pain, his face a mask of desperation and fear for her. “You will go! Do you know what they’ll do to you if they mean us ill? Me, they’ll kill outright! You and the Princess... They’ll spread your legs and have you, until they find out what you are, Jhan, and then they’ll kill you!”
Kile’s words were calculated to cause Jhan to flee. Jhan went white, but she was as desperate as Kile now and undaunted. Kile was all that she had left in the world. She couldn’t lose him.
Without warning, Jhan reached out and snagged one hand on Kile’s shoulder and another on the back of his imala’s saddle. She heaved herself over the small space between them, straddling the imala behind Kile. Her own beast, feeling the rein go slack, plunged away with the pack beasts.
Kile began to whirl, shouting furiously. Those shouts were cut off in midstream as Jhan wrapped her arms about Kile’s waist and squeezed. Her muscles and extra joints made her arms a vise. The air whooshed out of Kile’s lungs and he bent over, trying to breathe. Jhan kicked the imala into a gallop.
“Come on!” Jhan shouted to Avrilla, but Avrilla wasn’t slow to understand what she was doing. With a fierce smile, Avrilla lashed her horse into a gallop. The beast was faster than Jhan’s imala and it easily took the lead, racing towards the edge of the forest.
Kile was becoming limp, running out of air. Jhan loosened her hold on him and he gasped, bent over the pommel of the saddle. Jhan was too small to keep him from falling, but Kile had spent his life in the saddle. His knees were locked and his hand jerked the reins out of Jhan’s hands. He didn’t stop the beast or slide off to fight their pursuers on foot, as Jhan had half feared. Instead, he continued to bend low, eyes on the flying rump of Avrilla’s horse.
The first line of trees were tantalizingly close. Dark storm clouds, roiling up from behind the forest, promised concealment as well if they could only get so far. Jhan began to doubt that they could. To her, it seemed that they were frozen, or worse, running in place. Jhan began to fear that the beasts would collapse long before they reached the forest. Panic rising, she tried to twist to look behind them.
Jhan didn’t see anything at first, the violent motions of the imala jerking her back and forth and making her sight unsteady, but then she made out the forms of men riding swiftly behind them, beasts breasting the tall grass in a relentless rhythm. They weren’t close, at least not close enough to make out well. Jhan began to regain hope.
There was a whir and a thunk! and something hit Jhan so hard in the side of her arm that she rocked, nearly thrown from the saddle. She couldn’t comprehend what had happened at first and then, looking down as the first jolt of pain hit her, Jhan saw the feathered butt end of an arrow lodged in her just above her elbow. Another embedded itself into the saddle just under where her hand was holding onto the pack straps, and yet another whizzed right passed Kile’s ear, stinging his cheek. He ducked and swore.
Jhan tried to move her wounded arm, to protect it from the rocking beast and her own rocking body. It wouldn’t move. Jhan felt the blood drain from her face. Her vision went dark with horror as she realized that the arrow had gone through her arm and into her side, the barb buried deep.
The dark clouds gathered low just as they surged into the trees. Avrilla’s horse whinnied, recognizing home, and flew through the tangled roots and low branches despite the darkness that enveloped them. The forest canopy cut out almost all of the light and the storm clouds made it seem almost like night time.
The imala was slower. With eyes mostly on the sides of its head, instead of near the front like the horse, it had trouble seeing its feet. It was up to Kile to guide it and the gloom was making that almost impossible.
“Keep as low as you can!" Kile shouted in warning to Jhan. “We can’t slow down until we’ve made sure we’ve lost them!”
They did loose them. They weren’t following any trail and the trees were a maze. They hardly knew where they were going themselves. Finally, Kile called ahead to Avrilla to stop. The beasts were almost floundering, sides heaving and sweat foaming on their sides.
Kile slid from the imala in a swift motion, jerking the reins to keep it walking. “We’ll walk them until they cool off,” he panted and then absently to Jhan, “Stay on Jhan, you’re light enough.”
Avrilla dismounted as well and Kile turned to her worriedly.
“I hope you know where we are,” Kile told her wearily, raking his sweat soaked curls out of his face. “All of our supplies are lost with the pack beasts.”
“I know where we are,” Avrilla replied with a superior tone. “I’ve hunted this forest since I could walk.”
“Then lead on before those men find out where we’ve gone.” Kile growled back.
Avrilla turned and took the lead as they began to walk. Jhan tried to protest, tried to say that she was hurt, a groan escaping her lips as she bent over her wound, but Kile snarled over her.
“What were you thinking, Jhan?” Kile demanded, not a shout, but in a low tight tone of fury. “You endangered yourself and the Princess! They could have caught us while you were playing the fool!”
Kile’s voice wavered in Jhan’s ears. There was a humming in her head, a rushing pounding that must have been her heart struggling to beat through the pain that was rising to the point where Jhan’s vision was turning white. She twice tried to speak, but Kile didn’t want to hear her. Drained from the effort, Jhan went limp over the high back of the saddle in front of her.
“You’re not even listening to me!” Kile’s hand closed on Jhan’s leg hard and he shook at it. The blood had run down Jhan’s side, along her leg, and was now spilling into her boot. Kile felt the wetness and, unable to see the arrow standing a mere three inches out of Jhan’s arm, he concluded something completely different.
“You were that frightened, Jhan?” Kile’s tone held disgust as he wiped his hand on the saddle blanket. “Why didn’t you run then? Why didn’t you do as I told you? I keep trying to make you understand that I am a soldier with orders! The Princess is of utmost importance... and, besides that, I- Jhan, if something had happened to you, I would have died too! You must not disobey me again!”
Avrilla had paused to get her bearings. Kile came up even with her impatiently. They were shadows in the gloom, but Jhan’s eyes were beyond seeing them. It was Avrilla’s voice that flooded her with relief. It was Avrilla who saved her.
“I smell blood, Lord Kile. I think it’s coming from your imala.”
“What?” Kile could be heard sniffing. “I don’t smell anything but rain coming and leaf rot.”
Avrilla moved to the imala. Her hand searched, found the arrow in the saddle so close to Jhan. She searched underneath, but saw that it hadn’t pierced anything. She searched the beast further, looking for wounds. When she didn’t find any, she seemed to steel herself to ask the anxious question, “Jhan, are you hurt?”
Kile’s hand snapped out and touched Jhan’s wet leg. He must have brought it to his nose. Jhan heard him sniff. “Gods! Gods!” Kile exclaimed as if he were weeping. His hands ran up Jhan’s body, found her in a near faint, and then touched the feathers of the arrow shaft in her arm and side. He pulled her down and into his arms all in an instant.
The rest was confusion. Jhan hiccuped cries of pain as unconsciousness fought to pull her under. Hands were all over her, helpless voices shouting back and forth over her body as Kile and Avrilla tried to staunch the flow of blood.
“By the size of the fetching, this isn’t a crossbow bolt!” Kile groaned. “That means at least a foot of this is buried in Jhan’s side.”
"Long bow," Avrilla said. “They can go a great distance and pierce just about anything.” She paused and then added, “My people use them.”
“Barbed tips?” Kile asked, hoping against hope.
“Barbed tips, yes,” Avrilla replied, dashing that hope.
Kile’s hands stilled and then tightened on Jhan until it was a new pain. Jhan felt his face against hers. Her skin was growing cold and his face was hot with weeping. “Can’t get that out, not that deep. Jhan... Little Love, you’re going to die.”
“No,” Avrilla protested softly. “We must hurry. Darkai will know what to do. Jhan will not die saving me!”
“Useless,” Kile moaned. “Go. Leave us here. Take your wretched life, that costs so dear, and go!”
“Human!” Avrilla shouted. “Stop this! Darkai knows many things! He can cure this! Trust me! Will you give up so easily?”
Jhan wasn’t ready to give up. She struggled to breathe, struggled to hold onto the dull spark that was her life. It was torture. The arrow had passed downward through intestines, angling close enough to her lung to make every breath an agony. Her eyes were blind, she felt a numbness that warned her that death was very close. Still, she managed to whisper in Kile’s ear, near to her lips.
“Oaf! S-save me!”
Kile clutched at her. Jhan felt herself lifted. The awful motion of an imala at a dangerous gallop was enough to rob her of her small hold on consciousness. She fainted, screaming her pain against Kile’s chest.
Jhan remembered a spot of sunlight peeping through the heavy black curtains of Dagara Ku Ni’s bedroom. Sprawled on the black, silken sheets of the bed, head lolled to one side and blank eyes and mind registering nothing else, that spot called to her.
She ached. The never ending pain between her legs, empty now of the unwanted bits of manhood she had so despised, crested to the point of unbearable as she rolled, letting herself slide from the bed to the floor.
Dagara, well satisfied with his new creation and weary from the creating of it, had left her like a discarded doll after playtime. The blood still covered the sheets. The bits of flesh he had sliced from her he had taken away, for what purpose he hadn’t said. Naked, reborn with the cut of knives, Jhan felt cold; frozen to the bone.
The spot of sunlight was warm, despite the cold of the snow outside. Jhan crawled into it and went limp. She closed her eyes against the unaccustomed light, but her skin shivered with the pleasure of a beaten dog suddenly petted on the head by a kind hand.
Dream melted into reality, intertwined, and became one and the same. A face blocked out the light, whitely furious. “Who did this?” A voice shouted, Dagara’s, someone else’s? Both faces were dark, both voices were one in the same, but the dream Dagara’s continued when the other stopped. “Who let in this light! Did you, my gelded general of armies? Can nothing cut the rebellion from you, even now? Good! Good! I was beginning to think that you might be becoming boring.”
Jhan saw then, what Dagara intended; the things he had in his hands. There was more to do, it seemed, than simply cutting off the exterior. Jhan struggled, when, in reality, she hadn’t struggled at all. She cried out and tried to run.
Hands pulled her down. The dream shattered. Voices shouted. Reality was a cold, wood floor, blood flying from reopened wounds, and a tearing pain that sent Jhan into convulsions. She couldn’t breathe. Her heart faltered and tried its best to stop. The hands wouldn’t allow it. Competent, cool against fevered skin, they beat it back into life and then kept it going with relentless motions. When a mouth closed over hers and made her breathe as well, it was too much. The darkness swooped and took her back into its embrace once more.
Jhan opened her eyes. It was a marvel in itself. The rest of her was a leaden
weight, unresponsive amid thin coverlets and a soft pillow on a soft bed. The
taste of sickness was on her tongue and her eyes felt sticky with the salt of
Jhan’s eyes focused slowly in the dim light coming from a low window. They touched on a cluttered side table covered with bottles, rags, and instruments she couldn’t identify. Past that, she saw a small room. The four walls were of polished wood, a woven rug was on the floor, a few spartan looking chairs were arranged near the bed, and a tidy stack of wood had been placed near a fireplace.
Another bed was against the opposite wall from Jhan. Even though it was as narrow as hers, two men were asleep on it, wrapped up in a blanket and each other. The one closest to Jhan was, perhaps, in his late forties. His skin was pale and his face was angular and covered in a black beard and mustache. The hair was black as well, short cropped and untainted with gray. He frowned in his sleep, arms crossed across his breast as if he were holding himself against a chill.
The other man was younger, in his early thirties, and his face was round and pleasant. His hair was a riot of soft brown curls that fell to his shoulders. He had a small smile on his face, even in sleep, and he looked like the kind of man who never went long without one.
Jhan moved. Something jingled. Bells were attached to her blanket to warn the sleepers of that very thing. The younger man started, blinked, and then peered at Jhan. When he saw that her eyes were open and that she was watching him in turn, the round face became excited.
“Old Man!” The young man kissed the other man on the cheek and shook at his shoulder. “The sleeper awakes at last!”
“Old man, indeed!” The older man jerked awake, scowling, and began fending the other man away at once, rising and pulling away with a distasteful flapping of his arms. “I’ve told you about that, Polli! I don’t care if you're used to sleeping with ten brothers and sisters at night, I do not like company! Why Tek thought that you would be any sort of replacement for him, I can’t guess.”
The man called Polli went somber. “It’s hard to believe that he’s dead, my Lord Darkai.”
“Men die,” Darkai replied with a heavy shrug, “I’ve seen a great deal of them do that. Tek... Tek I will miss.” He shrugged again and stood up. Polli climbed from the blankets and came up behind him, trying to hug him from behind.
“We can grieve together,” Polli suggested.
They were both wearing only shorts, an undyed cotton- like material, with drawstring tops. When Darkai pulled away and straightened in an attempt to look dignified, he failed miserably because of it.
“I don’t need to grieve, Polli!” Darkai admonished. “I need you to get back to work!” he made an exasperated sound. “Tek told me you were a competent match for me, but I have yet to see it.”
“He told you I had what you liked, as I recall,” Polli grinned.
“He was being incorrigible!" Darkai snapped. “I assure you I don’t-”
Polli smirked, “I meant in my skills as an assistant! What a filthy mind you have, my Lord. Maybe I shouldn’t sleep with you anymore. No telling what might happen...”
“Get out!” Darkai roared, but he seemed more embarrassed than truly angry. Polli didn’t drop his smile, only bowed and left the room.
Darkai muttered to himself under his breath as he grabbed a chair and pulled it closer to the bed. Sitting down heavily, he wiped a hand across his face as he tried to shake the last bit of sleep from his mind.
Jhan didn’t have the strength to speak, nor did she have the frame of mind to think of a coherent question. Everything was hazy on the edges and Jhan felt numb, until the man lifted the cover over her and began undoing a bandage. The arcing pain was so intense, that Jhan shuddered and squeezed tears from her eyes as she shut them hard.
“Sorry,” the man muttered automatically, but he didn’t pause in his ministrations.
The world faded when he began to clean Jhan’s wounds and didn’t return until he had her bandaged again. Darkai was still hovering near, tossing soiled linen into a wooden bucket and settling clean pads under Jhan’s lower body. He saw her eyes open, but didn’t give her much credit for awareness. When Jhan’s fingers moved slightly and gave him a whisper touch on a hand, only then did he bring his full attention to her.
“You are a remarkable healer,” Darkai told her as he replaced the coverlet and smoothed it out with competent hands. Sitting back in his chair, he crossed his arms over his chest and regarded Jhan with black eyes under black brows. “Anyone else in your condition, at your weight, and with your problems, would have died long before now. After rolling out of bed last week... I didn’t give you much chance to survive. You’re stubborn though.”
Jhan frowned to show him that she didn’t understand. He sighed and looked away, maybe out of the nearby window. “I had to cut you, from one side of your torso to the other, to get the arrow out. I didn’t understand why you hadn’t bled to death, until I saw that your veins constrict when they’re cut. A very odd ability for a Human. Without it, even with my instruments, you would have died. Still, it might be touch and go yet. The arrow passed neatly enough through your arm, but it sliced a lot of intestine and took a nip out of your rib. If it had hit a liver or a lung...., but you’re lucky it seems.”
Darkai looked at her again, curious. “I hope you do make it, boy, then you can explain to me exactly what someone’s been doing to you. Extra joints, extra muscles, elongated backbone, arrested development, removal of genitalia. I can’t even imagine how it all works or why it was done. I had a little peek inside, but, with your permission, I’d like to run a scope through you.” at Jhan’s widening eyes, he sighed. “I’ll explain what that is later. Rest now. Get strong.”
That was an order that Jhan was unable to disobey.
When Jhan opened her eyes again, she found Polli bending over her, washing her face with a cool rag. He smiled, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. The emotion there was grim concern sunk in a shadow of sleeplessness.
“Fever again,” Polli told her gently. “We had to put a tube down into your stomach to feed you. It will make your throat very sore, I’m afraid.”
“How is our sleeping beauty?” Darkai peered over Polli’s shoulder. “Hmm, that protein mixture is working well. I actually see some weight on those little bones.”
“I’ve never seen a man so small,” Polli mused. His rag touched a spot of pain behind Jhan’s shoulder. “Gods, another bedsore!”
"Unavoidable," Darkai murmured and then, louder. “He wasn’t born that small. I ran a scanner over his bones. Something shrunk them, if you can believe it, shrunk them, cut them, broke them over and over again. This young man is a patchwork of genius coupled with folly and inexperience.”
“An experiment?” Polli wondered darkly and shivered. “I’ve seen you work on animals that way, but to do it with people! That’s horrible!”
“But not beyond belief,” Darkai replied angrily. “I’ll have to ask that Pekarin soldier what he knows about it.”
“Do you think he had something to do with it?”
“I haven’t had a chance to speak with Princess Avrilla since she had the boy brought here,” Darkai told him, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. “The Pekarin soldier that was with her, told me a fantastic story of this boy being his wife and a Princess of the Kevelt! Utterly mad, of course. Because of that, I thought it best to keep him out until I could question this young man.”
“Do you suppose that the boy is a slave?” Polli suggested, and then hesitantly, “Maybe after the, who ever it was, finished experimenting, he sold him off. That soldier could have bought him, kept him as his bed slave, and imagined these fantasies-”
“Sounds like you’re the one cornering the market on fantasies,” Darkai cut in sourly, “but I agree. With that face, and the obvious operations that were performed, the boy was butchered to be someone’s bed mate. No harm in being careful. We’ll continue to keep the soldier out. I don’t like anxious people hovering anyway. Doesn’t do the patient or the healer any good.”
Polli looked into Jhan’s eyes, giving her a genuine smile now. “Sorry to ignore you. You’ve been out for so long... well, as you can hear, we have everything under control. Nobody is going to get in to hurt you, especially not who ever did this terrible thing to you.”
Jhan licked dry and cracked lips, wanting to beg them to let Kile in, but the world whirled away with the effort.
“Look! See, just as I said!”
“Amazing! If I didn’t know better, I would have mistaken him for a female Alamien! Its all very similar, isn’t it?”
“Same opening, same belly cavity, same contractions in the lower intestine. Who ever did this must have known Alamien physiology, not Human. Of course, it all doesn’t work. That’s the tragedy of it! No Alamien hormones. He’d reject implantation even if the barbed penis of an Alamien male didn’t kill him first.”
“So, you think who ever did this was trying to make him into an Alamien?”
“To begin with, yes, but there was also a botched attempt to create ovaries that I had to remove along with the arrow barb. As disgusting as it sounds, someone wanted this young man pregnant and wanted to cover all options to do it.”
“I think I’m going to vomit!”
“There’s a bucket over there.”
There was the sound of someone being violently ill. Jhan’s eyes focused and then blinked against sunlight. She was lying in her bed, but someone had moved it nearer to the window. The pane was open and a light breeze, along with the smell of evergreens, drifted through it. Bird song captured all of Jhan’s attention, until she realized that she was naked and uncovered, and that something was planted deep inside of her that was giving her exquisite pleasure/ torture.
“Don’t be frightened,” Darkai came into view. “I’ll have it out in a moment.”
The feeling was deep, throbbing. Weakened to the point of death, it didn’t have the power to make Jhan writhe, but her eyes half closed and she let out a rasping groan as her body fought to keep it in, the contractions powerful and insistent.
Darkai won, pulling a long, flexible metal tube out. He wiped it down with cloths and looked around for Polli. “If you’re through being ill, Polli?”
Polli appeared and took the tube from Darkai. His face was green and he wiped at his mouth, refusing to look at Jhan. “Sorry, my Lord.”
“Understandable,” Darkai replied absently, his attention on Jhan. “Forgive the intrusion, but, I’m afraid, our curiosity lost patience. I also thought that I could better heal you if I knew more about you. I have some serious questions to put to you that can’t wait. Nod or shake your head to them, if you can.”
Jhan felt cold even in the sunlight. The sensations had died quickly, telling her how very weak she was, but her mind was clearer than it had been. The shock of what these men had just done to her so casually was waking her mind to the world again. They didn’t even look guilty or ashamed, only regretful that she had caught them at it.
“That tube allows me to see inside of you,” Darkai continued. “I won’t bother explaining how it works. Call it magic, if you like. Anyway, it’s shown me that unspeakable crimes have been committed against you. I want to know, did that soldier, Kile Helarion Dor, have anything to do with it?”
Jhan shook her head no, frowning at how much energy it took and how lax and unresponsive her muscles were.
“Is he your enemy? Should we protect you against him?”
Again Jhan shook her head, no.
“Are you truly his wife?” Polli asked.
Jhan nodded, yes.
It was Darkai’s turn to look ill. “That will have to wait for a fuller explanation I think, but I wonder that, with all of those unprotected nerves and blood vessels inside of you, that he hasn’t killed you yet.”
Darkai straightened and chewed on his mustache before continuing. “Whoever did this didn’t expect you to live long, or they were too ignorant to know how badly they had failed to make you a woman. If you like, since you will not be leaving that bed for some weeks, I can try to mend some of that. You won’t live many years, either way, but at least you will spend what’s left to you in better comfort.”
Jhan spared a moment from her outrage to blink stupidly at Darkai, her question clear on her pale face.
Darkai sighed. “You didn’t know?” He paced the room, frowning now and obviously angry at himself for accidentally revealing such a tragedy to Jhan in her weakened state. “Your metabolism is very fast,” he explained. “You have the ability to heal quickly, digest equally rapidly... your heart rate is phenomenal for someone your size, and your lungs expand at a speed that would make anyone else hyperventilate. All of that is at a cost. Think of a racing imala. It has great endurance, but running it too long can cause it to collapse. You will also collapse. A Human body was never made to bear stresses like that. A year or two yet, I assure you, and the end will come suddenly and, probably, without any warning. Your body will just burn itself out.”
Darkai stopped pacing and faced Jhan. “Tell me,” he asked, “Tell me why this was done to you.”
Jhan closed her eyes, body clenched in emotional pain. Bitterly she managed to say one word. “Revenge.”
“Revenge?” Polli repeated in outrage. “What-What could you have possibly done-”
Darkai cut him off and his words were an echo of Jhan’s own bitter experience. “Men often don’t need reasons to do what they do, Polli. This young man doesn’t need to answer. Whatever it was, if anything, the punishment was horrific and unjustifiable."
“If we knew his name,” Polli persisted, “we could bring him to justice!”
“Later,” Darkai admonished. “We have what we need for now. All else can wait until this young man’s body decides whether it wants to go on living or not. Until then, still no visitors and quiet as much as possible.”
“Should I start working on his muscles yet?” Polli wondered. “If I don’t begin soon, he may NEVER leave that bed.”
“Yes, start, but gently,” Darkai told him. “Stay aware of his heart rate. You might try some semi solid food as well, but watch for belly pains. I had to clip out some intestine. It should be healed, but caution never hurts.”
“Of course, my Lord,” Polli murmured in response.
Darkai left the room, but Polli paused. Jhan didn’t open her eyes to look at him, but his voice was full of pity and concern for her. “You’re in the best of hands,” he said. “There isn’t a better healer in the world, than my Lord Darkai. He has the old knowledge and he’s built incredible machines. All you need is the will to live. He will do the rest.”
Polli’s words made Jhan flinch. She wondered if Polli knew how hard that was going to be for her; finding the will to go on living.
Jhan found herself alone. After weeks of unrelenting therapy, nauseating mixtures,
and the never ending questions of Darkai and Polli, the quiet solitude of the
sun filled room was more of a healing balm than anything else.
Jhan had refused to say more than a few words to her doctors. Sickness kept her silent at first, but after that healed, she found herself too angry to speak. At what, it wasn’t too difficult to say.
Though Polli was ever cheerful even in the face of Jhan’s blackest moods, Darkai was abrasive and forgetful in that his patient had free will and the right to make choices. Several times Jhan had awakened to find operations performed and experiments carried out with only an absent apology from Darkai. They were necessary, was the only explanation he was granting Jhan, so, in turn, she kept her own silence, refusing him the information he most wanted.
Jhan pushed back the blanket and very slowly sat up. Her muscles held her, but she gripped the mattress of the bed hard and felt her head spin a little. She had been allowed to sit, and stand occasionally, but her body let her know that it wasn’t completely healed.
The window was open. A light rain was coming in through it along with a chill breeze to counteract the stifling heat. The opposing temperatures made Jhan’s bones ache. She started to call out for Polli to close it, but then paused. It was past time, she thought, when should be trying to do things herself.
Gritting her teeth, Jhan measured the four steps to the window. She had walked further, but only with help. If she fell, she would be taking a chance whether Polli or Darkai were close enough to answer her call for help. If they weren’t, she might end up on the floor in the rain.
“I can do it,” Jhan whispered fiercely. Though she had spent weeks in that room, she had yet to look out that window. She made it the prize, the goad to make her slide her feet over the edge of the bed and place them on the floor. She was wearing only a plain linen robe. The breeze slipped fingers through the material and chilled Jhan, spurring her onwards to get the window closed.
Jhan stood up shakily, swaying back to place her hands on the head board to steady herself. Taking a deep breath, Jhan pushed herself off and stood unsupported. She gained confidence when she didn’t immediately fall down. Taking a step was another matter. Very slowly, she slid her feet forward.
The rain was making little shinny jewels of water on the wood floor. Jhan’s bare feet cringed at the cold touch, but she didn’t chance edging around them. She made straight for the window sill and smiled when she placed her hands on it triumphantly.
Rain sprinkled onto Jhan’s face as she tentatively looked outside. Despite the drizzle, the sun was shinning down through a space carved out of the canopy of the great forest all around. Jhan’s room was far off of the ground, but not quiet a story. Built above the ground on the stumps of the felled trees, it afforded a view of a large pool of water, obviously man made, and a steaming pool of water built slightly above that. Surrounded by ferns and a gray brick deck, it looked peaceful and welcoming, even in the rain.
It was the figure in the steaming pool of water that startled Jhan. It was Kile, looking down at his chest and glaring at nothing, arms out and resting on the sides of the pool as if he could barely keep himself from slipping beneath the surface. His clothes and weapons were in a pile off to one side, forgotten and quickly growing wet.
By the look of the discarded things all about him, it seemed that Kile had spent some time in that spot.
Jhan’s hands went white on the windowsill. She loved that man. It was a tremendous ache, devoid of physical longing, but not lacking in its own sort of passion nonetheless. Her soul jumped and laughed for joy. Her mind was ecstatic at the mere sight of Kile. Those two parts of her wanted him with every ounce of her being.
To have been so long apart , when Jhan now knew that time was so short, was a loss of tremendous proportions. She could never have it back. It made her shiver and want to weep, but that also was a waste of time. So too had been her reluctance to love him as he needed. That reluctance parted them, put a wall between them, and made what should have been a time to cherish Kile, a thing of misery.
To be with Kile, to savor every second, was worth the cost of reliving the past, the fear of pain, and the knowledge of being helpless in his, or in any one else’s arms. It was a small price to pay, it seemed, and now, she felt, she could easily bear with it. Waiting for the time to heal and to deal with it properly; vainly hoping it would go away, wasn’t an option any longer.
Jhan had been standing too long. Her knees weakened and gave way without warning. Jhan scrambled to brace herself on the windowsill to stop herself from falling. Her hands slipped in the water there and she overbalanced, her body smacking painfully against the sill. Then, to her horror, she slowly tumbled out of the window.
Jhan shrieked hoarsely as she hit the lower pool of water head first. It was cold and shocking as the water closed over her. She immediately fought to break the surface, but her robe hampered her, a leaden weight about her weak body that threatened to drown her.
A strong arm circled Jhan’s waist. It squeezed her painfully as it brought her up and out of the water. Scraping her knees against brick, feeling skin leave a kneecap, and the tingling numbness of jamming her elbow against the side of the pool, was all lost in the gasping need to take air into her lungs.
“Jhan! Are you mad?” Kile’s voice shouted in her ear. He was dragging her away from the water and under a canopy of branches to protect them from the rain. There, he pushed the wet mass of Jhan’s hair from her face and kissed her tenderly while his hands searched her for hurts.
Jhan’s eyes cleared and her breathing slowed. She pulled at her wet robe, blinked stupidly, and then looked up at Kile. “I slipped,” she said dazedly. “I-I didn’t mean to do that at all!”
Kile was naked. That dazed Jhan even more. Pekarin’s were prudish about showing skin in public. For Kile to have been bathing out in the open was very out of character. He smiled wanly at her.
“I’ve been keeping watch on Darkai’s house,” Kile explained to her softly. “I was afraid that they might move you without telling me. It was bad enough that they accused me of-of cutting you and using you as my... They put me in prison for a week, until they decided to believe me.” Kile’s face trembled. His eyes were ringed with darkness and his cheeks were hollow from emotional pain. “They wouldn’t let me see you. They said... They said that you nearly died more than once.”
Jhan wanted to speak, but the long days of stubbornness against Darkai, and the fall from the window, made it hard. Seeing her frown with the effort, Kile interpreted it another way.
“I know that this is all my fault,” he said. “You wouldn’t have been hurt if I hadn’t bedded Dreya and felt compelled to follow me. I’ve ruined everything we had between us and put you in danger.” Kile took Jhan’s hands in his, pleading with her though she still hadn’t responded in any way. “Please, say you don’t hate me. Please, say we can work this out. “Kile choked on a sob. “I can’t live without you, Little Lady. I can’t!” Kile released Jhan’s hands and bent his head, afraid to look at her. Afraid of her answer.
Jhan had hurt this man so much and it was all because of foolish fear. He would never hurt her, Jhan knew in her heart. She had trusted him completely in the past, had never cringed or drawn away, knowing that she was safe in those big arms. Why should she let memories destroy that?
Very slowly, Jhan inched forward on her hands and knees. At last resolute, she knew what to do. She had hundreds of memories of just how to please. Did it matter so much how she had been taught to do them? Those men were either dead or fled. They couldn’t hurt her. Yet, they did. The memories were potent and not to be denied. With each move forward, the memories grew stronger, making Jhan grit her teeth to bite back groans of horror. To press on was an agony of the mind.
It didn’t matter. Jhan wasn’t going to let them win. She was going to push them to the back of her mind as she had always pushed her own mind into hiding when those men, and Dagara, had attacked her. She concentrated with all of her might and it worked, just. The memories clambered, fought, and howled for attention, but Jhan turned her mind away from them, cringing inwardly as if they were clawing the unprotected skin of her back.
It was one battle won. The next had to do with fear and helplessness. She had to submit herself to it, expect it; knowing that with Kile, she would never truly come to harm. It took bravery to set her hands on his knees and gently push them apart. Kile started at the touch, raised his eyes, and then started again when Jhan lowered her head between his thighs.
“Jhan? What-” Kile put a hand on Jhan’s head, as if preparing to push her away, but when her warm mouth took him in, he came all to attention in more ways than one. His hand stayed on her head, not forcing as Jhan had been used to, but simply resting there and winding itself in her hair as passion rose and gathered.
Jhan shuddered. The memories ebbed and flowed. She found herself in a filthy barracks, forced from one man to the next; cruel hands and stinking bodies all eager for her attention. She wanted to shove herself back, feeling tears on her cheeks, but she rode through the memory and found herself back with Kile, her mouth and tongue finding his most sensitive spots; his groans and his arching body telling her that she was doing very well.
Kile pulled away. Jhan was left, cold and cringing. Kile crouched over her, hard and frighteningly large. His hands touched her pale, cold skin and his eyes looked into her drawn and shaking face. He was going to stop, Jhan knew. He saw how much it was costing her.
Jhan took hold of him in her hand, tight, insistent, and lay on her back. She pulled him forward; guiding him between her legs. She closed them on his warmth, making her thighs as tight as a vise. When she brought her knees against her chest, he understood.
This carried its own horrible memories. Jhan stared into Kile’s face and tried not to see the fat, bloated monster of a cell keeper that had often used this maneuver on her to satisfy his own boundless depravities. It wasn’t his hands crushing her thighs together against her will. He wasn’t pinning her down and sticking an obscene tongue into her mouth. This was Kile. Gentle Kile, who moved atop her with passion filled eyes and kissed her with tender, loving need.
Kile’s thrusts drove into Jhan’ belly, but she was healed there and the pain wasn’t much. When he moved his weight down to thrust more wildly, Jhan felt the helplessness, the grip of his arms and the stifling closeness taking away any chance for her to be in control or to stop it if she could. This was the animal side that Jhan feared, the uncontrollable moment that she could never feel. Anything could happen.
Stopping it would have been like stopping a speeding train.
Kile exploded in wet heat across Jhan’s belly. He let out a howl of pleasure and gripped her so hard she thought her arms would break. His face screwed up and his eyes saw nothing as his body jerked and shuddered. It was over then and he moved aside, pulling her into the warmth of his arms as his lips kissed the curve of her neck.
Jhan felt weak and as light as air. When Kile reached to give her pleasure in return, she fended off his hand, but didn’t push him away entirely. She turned on her side and looked into his puzzled, blue eyes.
“Why?” Kile asked softly. “Why now?”
Jhan tried to answer, shivering in the wet and the chill, but another voice spoke over hers.
“I think I would like an explanation as well.”
Kile sat up, the heat of his embarrassment scalding Jhan as he gripped her close defensively. Jhan was too weary to be more than startled. She leaned her cheek against him and refused to look at Darkai.
“How did you get down here?” Darkai demanded. “You can barely walk! Did this man kidnap you?”
“She fell from the window,” Kile replied numbly and then found his anger. “How long have you been watching us?”
“I just arrived!” Darkai retorted, face full of disgust, “but, I think that I can draw an accurate conclusion as to what you’ve been doing by your state of dress.” Darkai’s shadow hovered over them. “This young man is fresh from his death bed! By your account, he’s just fallen from a window! At what point did it seem good to you to perform perverted sex acts, naked, in the rain?”
“Jhan is my wife!” Kile thundered, forgetting dignity and surging to his feet. Jhan was left with only his bare leg for warmth as he confronted Darkai. “You may not understand that or like it, but it is a fact! We love each other. You’ve parted us long enough! I won’t let you get between us again!”
Darkai pointed a shaking finger at Jhan, black eyes snapping with righteous anger. “That is a man; a man mutilated and tortured unspeakably. I doubt he is even in his right mind or capable of making any coherent decisions. Alamien law is strict. We don’t allow anyone to abuse anyone else! “
“Your own Princess Avrilla would disagree with you, I think,” Kile barked back, “Or don’t you know about the scars on her back?”
“I will not stand here and argue while this young man-”
“Jhan,” Kile corrected him sharply.
“While Jhan, then, dies at our feet of exposure and whatever you just did to him!” Darkai drew himself up. “I’m calling the guard. They will take you away. I forbid you to come near Jhan again until this matter is explained to my satisfaction.”
“No!’ Jhan managed to stand, using Kile’s body like a ladder as he dipped an arm down to support her. Her legs shook and her body felt as if it were on the edge of melting away like the water around their feet. Her voice was harsh and raspy, but it was strong enough not to leave any doubt that she was in her right mind. “I will not leave Kile.”
“You’re ill, weak, and in a strange land,” Darkai replied as if she were a confused child. “It’s natural that you might cling to the one man you do know, despite what he might have done to you.”
“He hasn’t done anything to me except love me,” Jhan replied. “I’m not leaving him again.”
“He imagines that you are his wife,” Darkai told her as if she might not know, and then when Jhan didn’t change her expression, he demanded, ”Have you indeed filled that role for him? Have you turned to that because of what you’ve become?” he reached out a slender hand as if to gather her to him; suddenly all compassion. “Leave him and leave that life, if that’s so. It doesn’t have to be. I can help you back to a semblance of manhood, if you will only come with me.”
“You don’t understand,” Kile interjected angrily, holding onto Jhan possessively. “Jhan doesn’t want to be a man. Even when she was one, she hated it. Jhan is a woman inside. That’s who I married, not her physical body, but her soul.”
“That sounds very pretty,” Darkai snarled mockingly as he lowered his spurned hand, “but reality is crueler. Jhan is a man. You wed a man. You are copulating with a man who was butchered to please men. That is an outrage! I’m sure the Alamien will see it as I do.”
“They imprisoned me,” Kile admitted, but added with satisfaction, “but they let me go after I explained. We are Retie. They understand that.”
Darkai seethed, but his words were clear and to the point. “There is only one person in this land that can keep your Jhan alive. That is me. The more you talk, the slimmer the chance that I can keep him alive!”
Kile was feeling his nakedness in more ways than one. Pulling Jhan into his arms, he felt her shivering and saw the pain in her eyes. He was cornered neatly by Darkai’s logic and he couldn’t escape it. His love for Jhan allowed him to admit defeat even as he wanted to weep and howl that he had to willingly let her go away from him again. “He’s right, Little Love. You have to be healed. Go... Go with him. When you are well enough, we will be together and we will leave this place, even if I have to tear Darkai’s house apart!”
Jhan gripped his body desperately for a moment, but she could feel her strength leaving her. It was impossible for her to protest or struggle when Kile placed her into Darkai’s arms.
Darkai allowed himself a grim smile of triumph. When he felt Jhan’s trembling hand close on his throat, he froze in consternation. She leaned close and spoke in his ear. “You once asked why I was made as I am. I think you know why now. I was made beautiful and feminine to make men complacent. I was made quick, light, and deadly so that I could murder them. All the extra joints in my wrist make my hand a vise. I can crush your throat without any exertion. Do as I say and it won’t come to that. I will go with you, because I want to live, but Kile is coming with us.”
Darkai swallowed hard, but he didn’t show any expression of fear. Jhan saw only annoyance and complete disgust. “You would kill me to have him with you?”
“You and a great many others,” Jhan promised.
Jhan saw thoughts flow across Darkai’s face and then he nodded, once and briskly. He straightened with her in his arms . “Get your clothes on barbarian and come along!” he ordered Kile.
Surprised, Kile scrambled to do just that, and then followed Darkai up a winding staircase that led back into the house. Darkai swept Jhan into her room, sat her on the edge of her bed while he undressed her, and then began drying her off with a towel.
“Madness,” Darkai muttered, his black eyebrows drawn down in a scowl and his ministering hands rough, but efficient. “Madness, plain and simple.”
Dry now, Darkai helped Jhan sink down into the soft mattress of the bed. He lay a blanket over her, pulling it up under her chin. Jhan’s shaking subsided after that, but she still felt very weak and that frightened her. Had her foolishness endangered what little life she had left to her? Fearfully, Jhan reached out for Kile’s hand, but Darkai prevented it.
“Dry off first,” Darkai told Kile acidly. “I’ll find you a pair of shorts.”
Kile took off his wet clothes while Darkai rummaged inside of a dresser. He produced a pair of shorts, like the ones he had on, and handed them to Kile. Kile held them up dubiously.
“Everyone wears them in the heat of Summer,” Darkai explained impatiently. “Alamien don’t possess the modesty of your people.”
Kile put them on slowly and pulled the string tie at the top. He looked odd, Jhan thought, all muscled legs and towering torso squeezed into a scrap of thin cloth. He might as well have been naked. It showed him in sharp outline, leaving nothing to the imagination.
“Now,” Darkai said with chilling calmness that was only a veil over dangerous anger. “My patient, finally choosing to speak, has threatened my life. Before I turn the both of you over to the Alamien guards I’ll give you a chance to explain fully.” Kile began to speak, but Darkai cut him off with a sharp hand motion. “No, the boy will give me a full accounting of this bizarre, unnatural story. I want to hear from his own lips that you,” he meant Kile, “are blameless in all of this.”
“Don’t call Jhan that,” Kile interjected, the words were a reflex, a habit formed enduring the taunts and ridicule of the Pekarin people, but mostly his own family.
“What?” Darkai crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Kile, as if he couldn’t believe that Kile would dare after his threat.
“He, him. Don’t call Jhan that,” Kile insisted doggedly, warming to the loving smile Jhan gave him. “The body may once have been male, but it isn’t any longer. Besides, the person inside that mutilated body is most definitely a woman. You’re speaking to a woman when you speak to Jhan. You should address her as such.”
“I need my explanation,” Darkai demanded without concession and sat down heavily in a chair. He nodded to Jhan. “Begin.”
Jhan told him everything. She didn’t want to. She didn’t like his arrogance, his easy condescension, and his attitude of possession where she was concerned. She had kept silent all of that time out of anger, but now, forced to it, she made her raspy, weak voice recount the tale in its entirety. By the time she was done, Darkai’s eyes were wide, and so were Kile's. She had, in her dazed weakness, probably said things she had never told him before.
“I am a woman,” Jhan ended, her voice worn out and barely able to whisper. “This body was a Prince of the Kevelt, strong, intelligent, respected, and feared. He took his life in the dungeon of Dagara Ku Ni and I found myself in his body. He’s dead. All that made him a man died under the knife and the cruel Power of Dagara. Now, this is only flesh without gender, a shell I have to live in that doesn’t remember even a iota of the man it once was. It yearns for nothing. It needs nothing.”
Jhan took a shuddering breath to give her strength as she continued. “I’m not a man or a woman. I have to be something else. Kile married me, but he knows he didn’t marry a woman. He knows he’s not making love to a woman. He’s not a thekling, but neither am I. Confusing, I know. We still haven’t figured it out and our problems are without end. Yet, they are our problems, not yours. You may hate what we are and what we do, but it is, in the end, none of your affair!”
“Do you welcome what was done to you?” Darkai wondered. “You say that you are a woman trapped inside this body. Did you think so when it was truly a man or are you making this fantasy to keep your sanity?”
“I was never Jhanian Kevelt. I have always been a woman,” Jhan told him. “You’re like most men, cherishing your manhood too much to understand. It makes you ill, what I am, and I’m not about to lie to make you feel better. I’m not a man and I never want to be one. I didn’t welcome what was done to me, but it did take away a nightmare. That nightmare was being a man. I would rather be the neuter, sexless thing that I am now than to go back to that.”
Darkai gripped the arms of his chair until his knuckles were white, but he kept his eyes leveled on Jhan’s as if weighing her every word, judging their sanity, or insanity. He suddenly shook his head sharply and straightened. “I-I didn’t realize that you felt this way, how could I? You refused to speak. I operated on you, for mercy’s sake, I thought, to make life easier for you. I grafted skin over the nerves in your pelvic opening to seal off the blood vessels exposed there and to stop the pain you must have been feeling. I-I made other modifications... one to help you urinate better. To keep infection out of your body, I stitched the opening closed. I thought it was best to wait until you were stronger to operate there further. As for the rest,” Darkai seemed nervous and uncertain of his words. He shrugged. “I don’t think you have the knowledge for me to explain all that I have done. You must understand, I never thought that you wished to remain as you were! I wanted to help you.”
“It’s done and, I think, you did the right thing,” Kile spoke up at last, face pale and set hard. “That opening did endanger Jhan’s life,” he turned a little red, uncomfortable with speaking about such things to Darkai, a stranger, ”We had already decided not to-to use it ever again. Jhan’s told me that she wished it were gone completely. You did her a favor in that respect at least.”
Darkai ran hands over his face and stood up. “I thought to offer Jhan a chance to regain manhood. I have machines that could, if not allow Jhan to father children, at least give Jhan the semblance of a man. I didn’t realize that he- she, whatever, was so unbalanced. This changes everything!” he turned to Jhan, anxious. “if you could allow me to explain, to convince you to continue with the work I’ve started-”
“You didn’t ask!” Jhan raged, cutting him off. She had been listening in disbelief, the darkness of horror gathering about her sight as tears ran down her face. “How could you have done those things without asking me? What am I now? What have you made me?”
Darkai lost patience, his arrogance becoming supreme as he drew himself up indignantly. “Are you complaining that I saved your life and helped heal some of the mayhem that was done to your body?” Sick disgust dripped from his words as he realized another explanation for her attitude. “Or is that you are so unbalanced, so perverted, that you’re worried about pleasing your man? If that’s the cause of this ingratitude, then I’ll give you instruction. Lacking one opening, you can do as other perverts and give your soldier your backside instead, or is that what you were doing out there in the dirt?”
Kile lunged for him with hands outstretched, bellowing with outrage. Darkai took a step back, but he didn’t flee. He held one, long finger up and pointed it at Kile. It was an unexpected move, and Kile stopped, confused. “I am the most important man in the Silverwood!” Darkai warned him. “Harm me and I can have you both killed!”
Kile’s jaw clenched and jumped with the pressure of self control. “I am a Duke’s son,” he said through gritted teeth. “Whatever else Jhan is, she is of royal blood. You will not speak to us in this manner. You will not make of our love a cheap, filthy thing with your words. She is my heart and my soul. Next to that, bodies mean nothing. You will not harm her’s again. I’m taking her out of here.”
Darkai laughed, short and sharp. “Then you are a fool! Where will you go where I can’t send guards to get you?”
“With me, Foster Father.”
They all turned. Avrilla stood in the doorway, dressed in riding leathers and an oiled cape speckled with raindrops. She tossed back the hood of the cape and her black in black eyes were livid with anger.
“Still up to your old tricks, I see,” Avrilla snarled. “Still forgetting that we simple mortals are due respect. I won’t let you harm my Aterei, Foster Father."
"Aterei?" Darkai snorted, but his attitude towards Avrilla was friendly and indulgent despite her angry stance. “The Queen won’t allow you to have a Human Aterei and you know it. I think you’re in enough trouble already without making more for yourself.”
“A fourth of the palace is mine,” Avrilla argued stiffly. “I’ll do as I please there.”
“Jhan needs care.” Darkai protested, but he sounded like a man who already knew that he had lost the battle. “My ‘alterations’ to Jhan’s body might not go well.”
“You’ve done all that you can already,” Avrilla countered, and then accusingly, “You only want to keep Jhan here to study her longer.”
“She? You call him that too?”
Avrilla shrugged impatiently, “What does it matter? Like an Alamien before Readiness, she is neither.”
“That’s not precisely true. You’re anatomy does foretell your coming sex,” Darkai sighed, “or haven’t you bothered to look?”
“Why bother when nothing will come of it?” Avrilla lashed back. “In the end, the Queen will have to deny me placement in the Bloodlines.”
“Then you’ll be cast out for certain... or killed.” Darkai was clearly distressed, pleading with Avrilla, “Have patience until my plans are completed. Don’t make your father or mother angry. Don’t cause them to act rashly. I assure you, with my machines, I can make certain that the implanted egg carries your Mother’s characteristics.”
“They will never agree to this!” Avrilla countered.
“So you believe,” Darkai replied, “but they owe me many favors, child. This would not be even a partial payment for all I have done for the Alamien people.” His eyes slitted accusingly. “Convincing them would be far easier if you would only allow me to breed you-”
“I will not submit!" Avrilla raged, flatly refusing. “What you’re asking is unnatural and wrong! I am Deviation! Nature has made it clear that I am not to breed. If you cannot convince my royal parents to let you execute your plan, then the line of the Telestar will come to an end!”
“Because of your stubbornness, your close minded-"
Avrilla cut him off. “Stick to your plan, Foster Father, and don’t try to convince me that I should allow your machines to violate me. Use your arts of persuasion on the two who matter most. Without the consent of the King and Queen of the Alamien, your plans are worthless. Without their consent , they will reject any child you bring to them, no matter who’s blood it carries.”
Avrilla threw up the hood of her cape in preparation to leave. “I will not speak of this further!” she told Darkai. “I am taking my Aterei. She will be safe and well cared for in the palace.”
“And her ‘husband’?”
“He is her Retie. I will honor that above my own claim.”
“Does he even know what it means, 'Aterei'?" Darkai looked at Kile’s anxious face. “It’s like a pet,” he told Kile mockingly, “above a servant or a slave, but still a cherished animal. The Alamien don’t consider your people as anything more than that. So you see, you might wish to run into her care and protection, but I at least realize that you’re worthy of the same consideration as myself.”
“You have a strange way of showing it!” Jhan grated harshly, weary of trying to understand what they had been saying. “We disgust you, remember? You told me that I’m a sickening pervert!”
Darkai shrugged, but it was more of a tick than anything else. “Because I don’t agree with, or like what you are, doesn’t preclude me from making certain you are treated well and live. If you would only stay and see reason, I could continue working on your body. If you would just let me show you what, with my machines, I’m able to accomplish, I’m sure you would-”
Jhan shook her head emphatically. “I don’t want what you’re offering me! I’d rather take my chances as Avrilla’s pet than to stay here and give you the chance to cut me up again.”
Avrilla was in agreement. She motioned to Kile. “Come, then. Take only a blanket to wrap Jhan in. I will provide all else.”
Kile slipped into his uniform, scowling at its cold wetness, and belted on his sword and his knife. Lifting Jhan from the bed, still wrapped in her blanket, he balanced her easily and nodded to Avrilla.
“You will regret this,” Darkai warned. “The Queen will not allow it.”
Avrilla paused at the doorway, Kile close on her heels. She gave Darkai a cool look. “Come to my rooms, if you wish, to care further for Jhan, but don’t bring any of your machines with you. You’ve done what’s necessary already. I won’t let you endlessly tamper with her as you did me.”
“I don’t see that it’s done you any harm,” Darkai replied sourly.
“Then you are even more insensitive than I thought,” Avrilla snapped back and went out the door with Kile and Jhan following nervously behind her.
The world turned into a blur for Jhan. She didn’t see where they went, but it took a long time. She was intermittently cold and wet several times before they reached their destination. Even then, time crawled as they went down one hallway after another, stopping many times for Avrilla to confront guards or to explain what she was doing. There were many angry grumbles and protestations, but Avrilla won through and she was soon settling them into a spacious suit of rooms.
“I have many of these,” Avrilla explained as Kile dried Jhan off and slipped her under the covers of a luxurious bed. “They are for the friends and associates I’m required to cultivate because of my position. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, no one wishes to associate with a Deviation, no matter how royal.”
Avrilla watched Kile drying himself off, rubbing a towel over his wet, golden hair. “You may stay as long as you wish. I want to make that clear. Darkai was wrong when he said that I considered you to be ‘pets’. That was cruel. I am not cruel.”
Kile found his manners with difficulty. He was worried about Jhan and he hardly spared a short bow in response for the honor Avrilla was paying them. It made Avrilla uncomfortable, the intensity of his concern. Perhaps it even made her jealous.
“You may call on the servants and ask for anything you wish,” Avrilla continued. “Darkai can be sent for if you think that Jhan has need of him. Despite what I think of him personally, he is the best healer there is.”
“He’s done enough,” Kile growled, but, when he turned to elaborate, he found Avrilla already gone and the door closing softly behind her.
Jhan felt the world become steady again. The warmth of the rich blankets was a soft cocoon and the low light of a lantern was easy on her senses. When Kile locked the door, undressed, and then slipped under the blankets to wrap her in his arms, she was hardly even disturbed.
Kile didn’t ask her any questions. He simply kissed her forehead and they both slept, not caring that it was only midday, but renewing their closeness and recovering their strength after their ordeal at the same time. The soft rain on the windowpane was a lullaby and Kile’s heart was a gentle, soothing accompaniment. For the space of a few hours, their lives hovered in a blissful oblivion, devoid of even dreams.
Jhan awoke first, feeling content and well. Kile was breathing softly in her ear, his arms lax and his body half turned towards her in sleep. She felt his stiffness against her and almost drew back automatically. It took a great effort not to. She wasn’t going to retreat now that she had cleared the field of terrors. They hovered at the borders, threatening, but she was stronger than they were, for now.
Jhan reached out and put her hand on Kile. She touched strength and warmth, running her hand along an impressive length and even inspecting the smallest of openings at the tip with a curious finger. Steely hardness sheathed in the softest skin imaginable; it quivered. Kile made a small sound of pleasure in his sleep.
It wasn’t so frightening when there wasn’t a mind behind it, Jhan thought. It was almost intriguing. The one her body had owned, before Dagara had removed it, had been a small, shrunken thing barely larger than a child’s. It had never stirred or wanted anything. This that Kile had was all man, all needy, and capable of pain or pleasure.
Jhan turned in the bed so that she was facing Kile’s feet.. Her bones ached and her muscles protested weariness, but she ignored them. Laying the length of Kile, she slipped her hands around him. Gripping his backside, she began to use her warm mouth to advantage.
That sensation woke Kile up with a start. His hand grabbed for Jhan reflexively, fear for his manhood making him panic. When he groggily realized what Jhan was doing, his eyes went wide with shock. He shook his head to clear it, his gold curls whipping about his face, and then he sat halfway up and simply stared in a stupor.
Kile’s sudden grip on her had made Jhan inwardly cringe, but he relaxed almost at once and she ignored the momentary surged of dark memories in which she had been forced to do this. Continuing stubbornly, she kept her mind, instead on her love for him and his unfailing love for her.
Kile parted Jhan’s legs. His fingers searched there, inspecting what Darkai had done to her. The opening was a mere slit, closed off now by neat stitching an inch inside. The part of her that was left of the man she had been, hadn’t been left alone either. Kile tensed. It was still a mutilated, cut off thing, but the opening had been curled to make more of a penis and it lengthened, under Kile’s insistent, patient fingers, to three inches standing eagerly away from Jhan’s body, not hidden in the fold of her slit as it had been.
Jhan didn’t look, but she felt that the piece of flesh that Kile was holding was obscene; a violation of her body as surely as anything Dagara had cut away. It made her tremble, raise her head from what she had been doing, and look at Kile’s pale face.
“He didn’t have any right!” Kile swore explosively.
“No, he didn’t,” Jhan agreed softly, “but I know why he did it. Closing up one opening, he had to make another.”
Kile’s face went even paler. “Then, you need this,” his said, voice hoarse with anguish. “It can’t be undone.”
Jhan didn’t answer, but everything inside of her clenched, braced for rejection. Kile refused to with her when she had been a man. Her body had taken a step backward to that, perhaps a step too far for Kile to accept.
Kile became thoughtful and silent for some time, his fingers examining Jhan intently. When he finally spoke again, he surprised Jhan, and not for the first time, in how much he was willing to accept for love of her.
“I love you,” Kile said forcefully, his eyes meeting Jhan’s and matching the intensity of his words. “It-It doesn’t matter what you are, I still love you. This is just-just something to get used to. If you can face your fears and be with me, then can I do any less?”
Jhan felt a stab of pain in the vicinity of her heart. “Is that what we’ll become? Forced lovers? Repulsed by each other either because of memories and fear or by body parts that aren’t what we desire?”
Kile was looking at that part of her as if it were a poisonous snake, but he swallowed and shook his head. “I am not repulsed by you, Little Lady. I cherish every part of you. This-This is just a stranger I have to get to know.”
“Can you?” Jhan wondered plaintively.
Kile was going green, but he nodded stiffly, closed his eyes, and put his mouth to it. Jhan felt his tongue, lips, and the very faint touch of teeth. It was pleasurable, something she hadn’t expected. He had done something similar in the desert, but then the sensations had been faint to nonexistent. Now, Jhan felt a pulsing throb start deep inside of her, the origin of it the piece of flesh that Kile was teasing with slow, deliberate motions.
Kile rolled and Jhan found herself on top of him. Straddling Kile now, she was suddenly reassured. It was as close to being in control as she could hope for. Kile was in the position of submission, doing what no one in Jhan’s terrible memories had wanted to do; please her. When the orgasm came, she moaned between gritted teeth, the world dissolving in a pleasure she had never thought to feel again.
Kile’s need rose to urgency. He placed Jhan on her hands and knees, the softness of the mattress making the position perilous as Kile crouched behind her. His hands smoothed her back, caressed her thighs. His stiffness went between them and Jhan pressed her legs as tightly together as her extra muscles would allow as Kile gripped her thighs hard and plunged in and out of them.
Kile kept back and off of Jhan, careful not to dominate her with his passion and make her feel helpless. It made his balance uncertain, but Kile wasn’t willing to endanger the fragile, emotional bond they were making between them; a compromise and an acknowledgement that neither of them would ever be totally comfortable with what they had, but that love had to be enough to bridge the gap.
Kile exploded in hot gouts, collapsing on his knees and kissing Jhan’s back tenderly. He ended it with a playful nip on her hip and then lay back, stretching like a golden lion. Jhan turned and sat up, facing him. Her smile was shaky, but she meant it. His smile wasn’t any steadier.
“I guess I am a pervert, just as everyone’s been saying,” Kile chuckled unevenly. “I liked doing that. I won’t lie and say it didn’t bother me too, but, seeing you truly enjoy it without pain or dread... it was thrilling somehow, knowing that I could give you that.” He reached out and put a hand between Jhan’s legs casually, touching the still erect bit of flesh. He stroked it idly. It made Jhan shiver with pleasure even though the very thing he held made her bitter at the same time.
“I’ll have to learn to be a man again,” Jhan said in a very small voice.
Kile almost smirked, not able to help an ingrained superiority that went along with bodies like his. “I would hardly call this something to brag about. I don’t think you have to worry about joining the ranks of men , Little Love. You’re still something else, neither, both, I would rather keep calling you ‘she’.”
“Does it help?” Jhan wondered, the bitterness settling in completely now. “I could have Darkai cut that off and open me up again.”
“To what purpose?” Kile said with a frown. “I could tell that you felt pleasure. I could see that it was better, much better this time than when we were together in the desert. Whatever else he did, he’s helped you to feel. My squeamishness shouldn’t cause you to purposefully mutilate yourself.”
“Are you satisfied?” Jhan countered skeptically. “Is what we did enough for you?”
“For what it costs you to do it, I would be a monster to say no,” Kile replied evasively. “Are the memories that bad?”
“They’re there,” Jhan admitted. She twisted her hands in her lap and looked down at them, not wanting Kile to see the darkness in her eyes. “They will always be there, but I realized that you were more important than wallowing in them. That would be letting them win, you see, and I won’t do that.” She had decided already not to tell him that her time was short and that knowing it had made up her mind for her. She couldn’t bear to see anymore hurt in his eyes.
“It’s what we have, “ Kile said firmly, face resolute. “And it is enough. I certainly won’t be doing what Darkai suggested. That’s worse than-,” he gritted his teeth and then went on. “I guess I can’t talk about disgusting perversions anymore, but it is something I don’t want to do.”
“Good,” Jhan snapped back. “Perazii was of the opinion that you would probably split me in half!”
Kile’s fair cheeks went red and he spluttered in embarrassment, “You spoke about that with Perazii?”
“He gave me some tips about how to please you,” Jhan admitted, still not looking up “but, I’d already been taught most of them. I forgot, or tried to forget, pushing it from my mind. That was the trouble, you see, all along; not wanting to remember. It was horrifying, even considering bringing those skills, that I had been brutally forced to learn, into the love that we had. I’ve managed to separate the horror, the memory, from them now. Seeing how much they please you, makes it worth fighting that darkness for them."
Kile smiled, but he wasn’t making light of her pain, he was only trying to reassure her. “They do please me. They’re a gift. Maybe, in time, you can give it without the memories haunting you.”
“It’s better already,” Jhan lied and swallowed hard after. Kile didn’t need to know how those memories raked at her mind. She had decided to endure it.
Jhan wasn’t certain Kile was fooled. He looked troubled, but not willing to pursue the matter any further. Relaxing, he stretched languidly. Kile was aroused again and smelling strongly of sex, but he didn’t reach for Jhan to quench it. He pulled her into his arms and put the blanket back over them, letting her rest in the curve of his arm. He kissed her face and then closed his eyes contentedly.
All was right with the world again for Kile. He had always been a man that intertwined sex with love. He simply couldn’t have one without the other. It seemed he could accept a great deal to have that back again. Jhan was the one who was restless. She had secrets from him. She knew too many truths and thought too deeply to ever be content. Still, Jhan relaxed in Kile’s embrace and found herself holding him possessively. She vowed to let nothing, especially the darkness of her memories, steal away what time they had left.
It was like a pleasant dream, Jhan thought, when she awoke in Kile’s arms and spent a lazy day doing nothing; discovering each other again. Servants disturbed them at last, entering without knocking. They replaced Kile’s wet clothes with dry ones, brought Jhan some that had been hastily cut down to her height, and tried to wait on them hand and foot. It was more than even Kile, a duke’s son, was used to.
“I’m like to dress myself,” Kile assured the servants, “and bathing myself as well.” He stood at the center of the room, turning around and around with a soldier’s nervousness as he tried to keep an eye on all the bustling servants. “We could use some food-”
Kile’s request was forestalled by a servant leading a troop of other servants. They carried in trays filled with enough food to feed three times their number.
“Jhan needs softer food-,” Kile began again, but the head servant lifted a lid to a tray and showed Kile a myriad of soft dishes that would be easy on Jhan’s digestion.
“Ah, good. “Kile ran a hand through his gold curls, not sure what to say to get rid of them all. Some began pouring a hot bath in the bathing room and laying out towels and sweet smelling soaps. A tall Alamien, a male perhaps, was limbering up his hands while another servant set up a table.
“The Aterei Jhan will want to have overtaxed muscles loosened,” the servant explained. “I am a master of the art.”
“I’ve already performed that duty,” Kile replied stiffly and Jhan found a grin despite her nervousness.
The servant wasn’t willing to be dismissed. His stance told them that he considered his person, and his opinion, far superior to theirs. “The Princess Avrilla has ordered it. It is a therapy that will help the Aterei Jhan regain muscle tone.”
“She doesn’t like to be touched by strangers,” Kile told him, bristling as he confronted the servant, glad that someone was finally standing still long enough to be confronted.
“I am not a stranger. I am a servant, Lord Kile.” The man motioned to the table, fully expecting to be obeyed. “If you please, Aterei Jhan. You may remain robed, but it will make it less satisfactory.”
That was too much for Kile. “Get out!” Kile thundered, losing his temper all in an instant. “All of you, get out. If I need you, I will call!”
The servants scuttled, indignant and fearful, as if Kile had just shown himself to be some unreasoning wild beast. When the door closed behind them, Kile grunted, satisfied with himself, and turned to Jhan.
“Something to eat, Love?”
Jhan laughed. Wrapped in a colorful robe of iridescent blue and green, and feet snug in warm slippers, she felt comfortable and capable of appreciating humor. She even felt hungry, sampling some of the food cautiously. She found it good, eating while Kile made inroads into the rest of it with his usual insatiable appetite.
After finishing with the meal, Kile explored the bathing room. “Decadent!” he declared happily. He turned back to Jhan. “Coming?”
Jhan’s legs were already growing weak and she didn’t trust herself to walk even that short distance. She hated it, that ever present frailty, and wondered how long it would last. When she reached out a hand, signaling for Kile’s help, he was beside her at once, concerned and solicitous as he picked her up bodily and carried her into the bathing room.
It WAS decadent. The tub was sunken marble, steaming with bath salts and a scent like flowers. A few petals of pink had been cast into the froth. Kile took off Jhan’s robe and helped her down the two steps into the tub. Gingerly, he lowered himself in beside her, hissing softly as his more sensitive parts went beneath the steaming water.
A window of clear glass let in light. Bathed in its warmth, along with the warmth of the water, Jhan sighed in pleasure. She leaned against Kile and he in turn propped himself up against the wall of the tub to support them both.
“Not a bad place to spend a few weeks, if I forget how we came here,” Kile murmured. “You’ve had the worst of it, of course. I can’t expect you to forget.”
“Shhh,” Jhan told him. “I’m forcing myself to forget it. We’ll start again and make this a vacation. I want to stay until Avrilla’s people throw us out.”
Kile was quiet, not wanting the break the mood, but then he said carefully, “We’ll stay until you’re better, but then, I think, we should get out of here before we become embroiled in the politics of this place.”
Jhan frowned. “You’re just a courier. Now that we’re free of Darkai, why would anyone else care about us?”
“Avrilla has declared you Aterei to anyone who will listen," Kile explained, “We also saved the Princess from death and brought her back safely. That’s two reasons that people might want to draw us into their politics.”
“Then we should stay in these rooms and ignore everyone,” Jhan suggested, knowing that she was being overly simple, but not wanting to face reality when life had become so pleasant.
“Unfortunately, we can’t,” Kile replied regretfully, never one for indulging in fantasies. “It would be unforgivably rude to refuse any invitations. I am an ambassador of sorts. I can’t offend them, Jhan.”
Jhan frowned, disappointed and feeling a sting of temper. “So, I’m to stay holed up here until I heal, while you run off and attend parties?”
“I’ll be hating every minute of it.”
“I’ve never seen you hate a party yet, Kile,” Jhan only half joked. “You’re usually the center of attention where the women are concerned.”
Kile flinched. Jhan was immediately contrite. She turned to see Kile’s face gone bleak and bloodless. His eyes were wells of pain as he said, “I suppose you won’t ever forgive me for what I did, will you?” He paused and then added as he looked away. “Why should you? I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself.”
Jhan went very serious, her hand caressing his cheek to soften her words. “Maybe I can’t forgive,” she replied, loving him enough to give him the truth, “but I can forget, and I intend to. Just.... don’t do it again, my love. My mind knew it was necessary, but my heart can’t bear it.”
“I won’t need to do that ever again,” Kile avowed. “We’re together, as we should be.” He kissed her long and deep. Breaking away reluctantly, he finished, “You are all that I’ve ever needed.”
"Retie," Jhan sighed.
Kile was puzzled. Jhan turned completely and straddled him, her arms about Kile’s neck as she faced him, eye to eye. She could see him brace for a mood. He was well used to them.
“You have two children by Caliya,” Jhan told him. “You now have one by Dreya. Prince Jhanian Kevelt has a son in Karana. It should be enough. I shouldn’t feel the need, or the lack, of having a child, but, sometimes, I wish we could have that Kile.”
Kile frowned. “Jhan, you know that you couldn’t care for a baby. Each day we struggle to cope with nightmares, moods, tempers, and yes, inadequacies. I may be a Duke’s son, but I’m not the heir or even the second born. A soldier’s life is what I want and it makes it hard to raise families. They’ve given me leave from patrols, but sooner or later, journeys and missions like this will be all too common.”
Jhan smiled, but it was pained. “You argue as if it could come to pass and we had a choice. We don’t. It won’t ever happen. Retie, just as you said. I say it so that you know where my real pain lies, not in doing what I begged you to do anyway, but in that Dreya, that whore, could give you so easily what I will never be able to.”
“I’m sorry,” Kile said from the bottom of his heart, “but it’s for the best, Jhan. Even if you could have a child, wouldn’t it still be Jhanian Kevelt’s?”
Jhan frowned, not wanting to think about that.
Kile persisted. “I have my children, Jhan. Jhanian has his. What you want, can’t ever be.”
“It doesn’t make the pain less,” Jhan told him softly. “It just makes me feel more of a fool for feeling it.”
“I’m sorry,” Kile repeated.
Jhan smiled, pushing shadows and regrets aside. “As I said before, forget all of it. We will start new. We will make a life and we will be happy from now on. Swear it!”
“On my heart!” Kile laughed.
“Which is mine forever?” Jhan demanded.
“Forever!” Kile vowed and kissed her again to seal it.
They were allowed to rest for a week, with nothing much to do, but wander their rooms and relax in each others arms. In that time, Kile regained his old self, solid, simple, and overflowing with his love for Jhan. Though still hesitant and unsure where Jhan’s body was concerned, that love helped him to resign himself to it, to control an instinctive reluctance, and to grow more bold in his lovemaking.
“It’s not like making love to a woman anymore,” Kile admitted quietly as they sat on a balcony in the evening and stared up through a canopy of leaves at the stars overhead, “but, it isn’t enough like loving a man either, thank goodness, to make me ill about it. Now that I can’t just thrust myself into you and loose myself in the passion of the moment, we have to plan, position, and invent. It forces me to take my time and love every inch of you. It’s something I enjoy. It was always too quick before. You always wanted it over with.”
It WAS different now and Jhan wasn’t certain whether she liked it or not. Like Kile, she had to learn to accept it. Even though she found herself enjoying the pleasure that new part of her gave, even forgetting enough to look forward to it, she was still bitter about its existence. That it only made its presence known under the most intense and persistence coaxing from Kile, hardly lessened that bitterness. It was still a violation of her body, a harsh reminder of the man she had been and wanted to forget.
Kile saw her frown, but he didn’t pursue it. He knew she would forever be fighting with her inner demons and that, mostly, it didn’t do either of them any good to talk about them. When Jhan stood and leaned on the balcony rail, looking down, he didn’t rise and go with her; giving her freedom to think and to, hopefully, escape the darkness that was always ready to engulf her.
“I can’t see anything,” Jhan said after a long time. “There’s just branches and leaves.”
“Privacy,” Kile replied. “The Alamien don’t make much of that, but I suppose they don’t want the common people gawking at the royals.” “We are in the palace then?”
“Yes, you didn’t see that when we arrived here?”
“Too tired,” Jhan replied. “I heard arguing though.”
“Everyone was outraged,” Kile told her grimly. “They tried to stop Avrilla. They don’t respect her here. Mere servants were asking her what her business was.”
“Shocking,” Jhan mocked and then turned to Kile. She started and straightened. Avrilla was standing in the doorway that led into their rooms, scowling and clenching her hands.
Kile stood up quickly and bowed, the familiarity of their journey cast aside; a lord’s son bowing to a princess. “I didn’t mean to offend you, Highness!”
Avrilla shook her head and her frown smoothed out. “You haven’t,” she assured them. “I’m angry about other things.” She was wearing a long gown of unrelieved black and her hair was pulled back in a severe braid, making her look very thin and ascetic.
“If we’ve made things difficult for you-,” Kile began, but Avrilla dismissed that with an arrogant wave of her hand.
“I’ve asked for very little privilege as a princess of the Telestar,” Avrilla explained tersely. “It simply takes time for them to get used to it when I do. My Mother has asked to interview you, to make certain that you are worthy to be Aterei to me,” Avrilla told Jhan sullenly. “It seems that she doesn’t trust my judgment in choosing a Human.”
“Then she is the offended one,” Kile surmised anxiously. “We SHOULD go. I’m certain that I could get us a room with the Pekarin ambassador, Princess Avrilla. It wouldn’t be wise for us to be the cause of any of the Queen’s discomfort.”
Avrilla’s eyes snapped fire at Kile’s presumption, but her words were level and reasonable. “Jhan needs great care now, Lord Kile. I will not see her leave here only to fall ill again.” Her expression went very dark and closed as she rubbed at a shoulder as if it pained her. “I’ve paid for my foolish journey already. I don’t intend to pay any more. In this, I will win.”
Kile had stood up to Avrilla on their journey, forced by his need to return her to her people. Now, he was uncertain in the face of her royal presence. With a word, Jhan knew, she could order them both killed or worse. Ingrained from birth to know his station in life, Kile was finding it hard to say what he had to say.
Jhan said it for him. “Avrilla, I can’t stay here. As soon as I’m strong enough, Kile and I have to return to Pekarin. We have a life there.”
Avrilla’s jaw tightened. “You are my Aterei."
“I’m not your anything,” Jhan replied as calmly as she could. “I don’t belong to you. Was Darkai right? Do you just consider me a pet?”
Avrilla’s face twisted bitterly. “What did he do to you while he had you in his power?” she wondered acidly. “He cut me open when I didn’t have any sign of sex. He sliced extra fingers off of my hands and cut away a birthmark that marred my arm. So that I wouldn’t be killed, he told me. For my own good and the good of the Alamien. What did he do to you? Did he tell you that it was for your own good too?”
“He took a part of me away that was agony for both Kile and I,” Jhan replied, looking down and knotting her hands in the material of her dress. “He gave me a way to enjoy again what was becoming a fading memory.”
“At what cost?” Avrilla pressed.
Jhan went pale, searching for words to explain. In the end she said lamely, “I’m not-not something Kile can want completely now. There will always be shame, hesitation, a need to overcome.”
“Jhan,” Kile stopped her, deeply embarrassed, “That’s between us.” He gathered his courage and had enough outrage to glare warningly at Avrilla. “What is your point, your Highness?”
“Don’t use what Darkai says against me,” Avrilla snapped, and then more calmly, “You know what sort of man he is. He lives for his machines, his inventions, and his experiments. He will ask permission only if it is convenient to the moment, otherwise, he does it anyway. In your best interest, he always says, as if no one but himself could know what that is.”
“That doesn’t change what I told you to begin with,” Jhan persisted, looking up again firmly. “You don’t own me. I will go when I please to.”
“I am a princess,” Avrilla reminded her with her best, arrogant tone.
Jhan smiled, but it was brittle. “I am princess of the Kevelt. In that, we’re even.”
“Hardly,” Avrilla snorted. “You are only Human.”
“I thought you wanted me to be your friend,” Jhan hissed, barely able to keep her temper under control. “This is just cruelty.”
Tears started in Avrilla’s black eyes. She half turned and swallowed hard. “I... I only want you to stay.”
“I will stay, for now,” Jhan promised her, but, though Avrilla’s tears caused her anguish, she wouldn’t lie to make her feel better. “Eventually, I’ll have to go. You won’t be able to stop me.”
Avrilla wiped at her tears as if she were dashing them to the ground and she regained her composure in a heartbeat, making Jhan wonder if it had all been an act to get her sympathy. “I won’t have to,” she told Jhan, giving back truth or truth. “My Mother will stop you, as well as the law of the Alamien.”
“What are you saying?” Kile broke in cautiously.
Avrilla smiled, but it was sickly and pale as she explained, “I told my mother that you, Lord Kile, were my Intended.”
Kile cocked his head in astonishment, blue eyes wide, as if he thought he had heard her wrong. ” What?”
Avrilla shrugged nervously. “I’ve never chosen anyone-I can’t, not from the Bloodlines. That being the case, I can choose anyone I wish, since any child I have won’t be allowed to live anyway. By choosing you, Lord Kile, I have bound you to me. Our laws state that, once an Intended is claimed, that one cannot be far from the claimant if that one is near Readiness. We die if we don’t mate, Lord Kile. An Alamien man must have an Alamien woman, but an Alamien woman can have anyone.”
Kile shook his head sharply and ran his fingers through his gold hair as if he would pull it out. “This is ridiculous! I’ve heard that it’s the Alamien male that carries everything that makes a child. They implant it into an Alamien female by using,” he went a little pale, “by using a spike at the end of their... I can’t give you children, Avrilla!”
“I’ve never felt the need to have any,” Avrilla admitted and then lifted her chin and quickly went on to drown out argument. “I am near Readiness, but I may never reach it. We may wait years, you and I, Lord Kile, before that is confirmed. While you wait, Jhan will be forced to wait with you.”
Kile surprised Jhan by remaining calm. “Your mother won’t allow this!” he said confidently. “The shame-”
“Isn’t any greater than having a Deviation for an only daughter!” Avrilla snapped, her pain coming out in a rush of harsh words. “She will welcome, as much as I, a halt to attempts by the council, my father, and Darkai to use me for breeding. She would rather let her line die out than see it continue in such an unnatural way.”
Avrilla turned to go, but she threw over her shoulder. “If you attempt to leave, by Alamien law, you can be put to death, Lord Kile. It is murder, to leave someone near Readiness without a mate.”
Jhan and Kile stood together, watching Avrilla leave, slamming the door behind her. They continued to stand, the darkness growing as the sun set; a reflection of their growing depression.
Slowly, Jhan reached out and took Kile’s hand in hers.
“Easy trip,” Jhan muttered. “There and back in a month. I should have known better, did know better, actually. Nothing is ever easy for me. Now we’re captive of a mad princess who’s fallen in love with me.”
Kile grunted sourly. “You're not the one she’s trying to mate with.”
“But I’m the one she wants.” Jhan replied. “I’m beginning to think you were right when we were out there on the plains. Avrilla wants more from me than friendship. “
“She wants a way out of her troubles.” Kile retorted, rejecting Jhan’s view of the situation. “She’s just using the both of us to make herself completely unworthy of all the attempts to keep her alive and a viable breeder for the Telestar.”
“If she wanted to do that,” Jhan reminded him. “She could have easily found a way to get away from us and not return to the Silverwood. We weren’t the best of guards.”
“Alamien breed,” Kile told her patiently, “but, outside of that, they’re like you. They don’t need. They feel pleasure, at least the women do, but as for taking a sexual interest... I don’t think they’re capable of that.”
Jhan eyed him now, suddenly suspicious and finding it unpleasant on top of everything else. “How do you know so much? You didn’t before.”
Jhan couldn’t see Kile blush in the gloom, but she could feel his palm become damp and tighten on her. “The women often came to the pool beside Darkai’s house. They- uh, bathe nude there for pleasure, and have picnics and such. It’s considered very daring to stray outside of the city or to mingle with a Human man. They talked to me. Told me all about themselves. They were very interested in how I was male all of the time. They said it was hideous, like an animal, but they were intrigued too. A few wanted to put me through my paces to see what it would feel like.”
Jhan wanted to bite her lip in anger, but she surprised herself by laughing instead, seeing Kile, in her mind’s eye, beset with golden versions of Avrilla, but as sexless as children and wanting to try out, what was to them, his gross maleness.
“I didn’t find it funny,” Kile told her quietly, squeezing her hand reassuringly. “They kept grabbing me and trying to make me- They wouldn’t take no for an answer and some of them were of a higher class than myself.”
“Poor Kile,” Jhan sobered, but she was still amused. “Did you have to?”
“I couldn’t,” Kile admitted, his hand getting sweaty. “They just frightened me more than anything else. All of them were so perfectly strange. Tall, very tall, and shinning like pure gold. Those big, purple eyes made me cringe. I thought that they were going to hold me down and rape me at one point, but then they just laughed at me and said that I must not be in Human Readiness.”
“You weren’t even tempted?” Jhan wondered, skeptical.
“They told me that their bodies could do something that made Human men die for wanting them. That only frightened me more.” Kile let Jhan’s hand go, or tried to. Jhan wouldn’t relinquish it. She pulled him closer, leaning against him as her knees weakened.
“Avrilla won’t win,” Jhan promised him. “If a haughty princess can escape this place, then so can we.”
Kile lifted her in his arms and carried her back inside, saying nothing.
Queen Ferilla Jillan Telestar didn’t take Jhan’s ill health into consideration when she summoned her. A servant appeared at their door, looked down his long height at them, and ordered Jhan into the royal presence. He didn’t allow Jhan to change her clothes, but demanded that she go with him immediately. Wearing a simple, cream colored dress, her hair a loose tangle all about her and still drying from her bath, Jhan was reluctant to obey.
Kile made the decision for her. He wasn’t invited, but he put on the red coat of his uniform and positioned himself as Jhan’s guard, earning him a scathing look from the servant, but not an immediate dismissal as he took Jhan by the elbow and led her after the servant.
Jhan was soon glad that Kile had insisted. After the fourth flight of stairs, and the fifth long hallway, she was breathing hard and forced to lean on Kile’s arm. When the servant left them for nearly an hour in an ornate ante room without any chairs, she needed Kile’s support to keep from collapsing to the floor.
Queen Ferilla swept in without servant or guard. She closed the door firmly behind her and faced them, drawing herself up to her full, tremendous height. Her expression was both frigid and arrogant.
The Queen didn’t appear to be any older than Avrilla, but she was taller, thinner, and more sexless. Her hair was braided in a hundred golden plaits tipped with gold beads. A blue jewel blazed on a golden chain between her luminous, purple eyes and her sweeping robe was a fall of green silk embroidered with a fantastical bird much like a peacock. She wore a crown of silver, sparkling with white jewels, shaped into the form of intertwining branches and leaves. She looked every inch a queen.
The woman ignored Kile’s deep bow of respect and his murmured, nervous greeting. Jhan was too startled, and too weak, to do anything but stand and stare as the Queen stared back. The woman said nothing.
Very slowly, Queen Ferilla walked around them, her eyes never blinking and her cold expression never softening or growing angry. It was plain that she thought of them as beneath conversation. Intelligent apes, maybe, that might either do a trick or disgrace themselves on the floor.
Kile gripped Jhan’s elbow hard, his posture begging her not to do or say anything. He himself kept his eyes forward, not willing to turn about like a fool to follow the Queen.
At last Ferilla halted. Her chin lifted and a liquid, bell-like voice came from her long throat. “Avrilla has chosen you as Intended,” she said to Kile. “Since she is outside of the Bloodlines, I cannot interfere. I find her choice satisfactory. Choosing an Intended who cannot breed her with child was most wise, more than I gave her credit for.”
Queen Ferilla lowered her great eyes to Jhan and her expression firmed distastefully. “How alike in look you are to my ill-fated daughter. I am certain that is why she chose you for Aterei, to anger me and to shame me. You do not suite. You I will not allow.”
Jhan began to agree, to say something, but the Queen’s eyes seemed suddenly to grow larger. They pulsed, was the only way Jhan could describe it. That pulse seemed to travel the distance between the Queen and herself. Jhan blinked, and the Queen was gone, closing the door behind her.
“Well, we have half of what we wanted,” Kile was saying irritably, but Jhan could hardly hear him.
A pain had started behind Jhan’s eyes. The dull throb had sound, a drumming beat that followed the pulse and ebb of her blood. Lights danced behind her eyes like fireflies as the pain transformed itself into a stinging collection of sharper pains that spread throughout her head. Jhan fell and only Kile’s strong arms kept her from banging herself against the polished floor.
The pain turned into fire. Jhan gasped, panted, cried out against it as it slowly, agonizingly, felt its way to the center of her mind. What it intended was crystal clear to Jhan. Queen Ferilla had said it. She didn’t suit. Somehow, Ferilla had set something into motion within Jhan to kill her, brushing away Jhan’s undesirable life as one would swat a bug.
It was nearly there, that strange, groping, painful presence. Jhan tensed as it paused, a second from being able to stop her heart, her lungs, everything within her that kept her alive. Why it paused was obvious.
At the center of Jhan’s mind, there was already an occupant; Jhan’s Power. Locked and constrained behind mental doors, it was a chained beast; a piece of the sun. Jhan’s rising fear weakened those doors, let the Power seep through the cracks. That other presence, the wisp of Queen Ferilla’s mind that was attacking Jhan, recoiled and fled. Jhan felt fear. Queen Ferilla’s fear.
The pain lessened and then went away. The Power subsided, but it was a solid, dangerous presence that didn’t need to be completely free to terrify. Jhan thought that it must be a dream, a nightmare surely, but deep down, she couldn’t dismiss it as such. Jhan knew that, somehow, the Queen had tried to kill her!
Jhan felt the sour tang of familiarity as she slowly opened her eyes. She found herself back in her room, in the palace, and Darkai bending over her. She wanted to recoil from him, try to escape his hands on her, but her arms and legs felt like leaden weights and her stomach wanted to turn itself inside out with queasiness. Surmounting it all was a throbbing headache.
“Don’t touch me,” Jhan managed to say softly, yet distinctly.
“Then I should let you die?” Darkai growled as he straightened and glared. Jhan wondered distantly if Avrilla unconsciously copied his style of dress. Darkai wore an unadorned, black robe and had his hair pulled back in a severe braid.
Jhan took stock of herself, intimately knowledgeable about her own body and its failings and strengths. She frowned back at Darkai. “I’m not going to die.”
“Not yet, anyway,” Darkai replied in exasperation, “but, If I let you go on as you have, you might much sooner than you expected.”
Kile was there suddenly, clasping Jhan’s hand in his and looking at her in concern. “I didn’t know what was wrong! I’m sorry for bringing him. He’s done little enough to warrant upsetting you.”
“Fools!” Darkai retorted, looking from one to the other of them furiously. “Why won’t you listen to me?”
Jhan remembered the ante room, the Queen, and the pain. There was only one conclusion. “Queen Ferilla tried to kill me.”
“Execute you,” Darkai corrected tersely, as if it were unimportant to the point he was trying to make. “Alamien royalty have very strong mental powers. None of the other Alamien have them. That’s why their bloodline is so precious. The Telestar can kill with a thought.”
“She said I didn’t suite,” Jhan recalled angrily. She tried to sit up, but failed in the attempt miserably. She asked indignantly, “Do people get executed here because of that?”
“All of the time,” Darkai affirmed grimly. “You should be honored that Ferilla tried to do the job herself. I suppose she didn’t want any public scandal." He eyed her. “What I would like to know is, how did you manage to survive?”
“I don’t think I stopped her,” Jhan replied thoughtfully as she sank back into the mattress in defeat. “I think I just scared her. I’m not like everyone else. She wasn’t prepared for that.”
“Besides the obvious, how are you not like everyone else?” Darkai persisted with an arched eyebrow.
Kile straightened, but still held Jhan’s hand as he forcefully said, “Enough. She needs rest.”
“He, sorry, SHE doesn’t!” Darkai protested acidly, waving a hand to indicate Jhan’s weakened state. “She needs the exact opposite. You’ve been coddling her far too long!”
“I haven’t been-” Kile began, but Darkai leaned forward and twitched the blanket away from Jhan’s naked body. Jhan’s hand tightened on Kile's as she gasped in shock.
“Hardly any muscle tone,” Darkai observed contemptuously. He smoothed hands down Jhan’s body and quickly and efficiently checked her most intimate places before either of them could react.
“I don’t want you to touch me!” Jhan choked out, shoving wildly at Darkai’s hands.
“What are you doing?” Kile demanded. He thrust Darkai away and covered Jhan with the blanket before confronting the healer in a red rage.
“Her stitches are still in place,” Darkai observed with professional calmness, seemingly unperturbed by Kile as he glared at him and said, “I see you haven’t been trying to breech the other gate either. Maybe you care for this cut up boy after all.”
“I’m not a boy!” Jhan snapped and tried to sit up again. The room spun and she lay back down with a groan, almost fainting.
“A sick boy,” Darkai persisted, “however your man would wish me to call you otherwise. You need exercise, sick boy. You need to stretch your muscles, including your heart, or they may never stretch again. You need to push yourself, make yourself hurt and sweat. It won’t be easy and it won’t be soon, but you can recover if you do as I say.”
“We’re not listening to you any longer. I want you to go!” Kile insisted.
“No,” Jhan said quickly, growing afraid at her weakness and desperate to know the truth. “I feel terrible; disconnected and dizzy. Did the Queen hurt me?”
“No,” Darkai told her, edging cautiously around Kile and coming closer to her. “That is a small miracle and one that may not last long. I’m certain she will think about you for awhile, figure you out, and then try again, unless her opinion of you has changed.”
“Then I’m still in danger?”
“Not for now.” Darkai narrowed his eyes speculatively. “I fail to see why you insist on trying to alienate me. I am the one person, even above Avrilla, who can guarantee that you stay alive. I am very respected by the Alamien. If I tell the King that I need you, say for experiments that might help his daughter...”
“No!” Kile erupted and looked as if he were about to throw Darkai out bodily.
“No?” Darkai mocked. “Didn’t your Jhan enjoy the modifications I made to her body, or haven’t you tested them yet? Somehow, I think you have, as disgusting as that seems to me. If you allow me, I could take it further, in exchange, of course, for helping me. After I have finished, I could make your Jhan a woman entirely, or, if you prefer, a complete boy.”
Kile fisted both hands into Darkai’s robe and shook him once and hard. “ I don’t love boys! I love only Jhan! What you did was necessary. No more! Don’t say it again! Don’t mention it ever! It isn’t what we want! How such a perversion could help Avrilla-”
“But it can!” Darkai protested, pulling Kile’s hands away easily and stepping back. “It will help all of the Alamien people. If you will allow me to explain, to show you how, with my machines, I can accomplish wonders-”
Jhan gathered her wits and cut him off, speaking as calmly as she could. “I suppose I have to thank you for some of what you’ve done, but, Kile’s right. I don’t want to have myself cut and stitched any more. Kile and I disgust you. You think we’re perverts, but we love each other. Not as man and man, or man and boy, but as something different. I can’t change any more. I won’t. This is where it stops. This is the body we will both have to accept.”
“I can hardly keep from vomiting when I think of what you two are,” Darkai admitted, “but I’m willing to put all of that aside to help you. Why be stubborn when just a little more work will make you normal.”
Jhan laughed, bitter and sharp. Darkai’s eyes widened, disconcerted by the darkness in her voice. “Normal? I will NEVER be ‘normal’. Even if I could believe in your vaunted skill-”
“Believe in it,” Darkai urged. “I won’t pretend that I could make you a Human woman with all that entails, but I can make you an Alamien female. They are merely vessels for an Alamien male’s seed and egg. Simple. You would function. You wouldn’t be harmed by your man using you. Half of it has already been done by whoever mutilated you to begin with.”
“No,” Kile said, strongly, not even considering it for a moment.
“Then you are a pervert to want her as she is!” Darkai lashed back.
“You can’t understand,” Jhan broke in, putting her hand on Kile’s arm to hold him from attacking Darkai. “I’ve been put through enough. I won’t slice and add on to this body; do to myself what’s already been done to torture and humiliate me. Dagara didn’t ask. You didn’t ask. Now I’m telling you... no more, not even to please the man I love. This is what I am. It will have to be enough.”
“You are condemning a family to extinction by your unreasonable obstinacy!" Darkai thundered.
“What do you mean by that?” Kile shouted back. “How does making Jhan suffer through more changes help save the Telestar?”
“I, make Jhan suffer?” Darkai was incredulous. “You, Lord Kile are the one using this boy like a woman. Treating him like a woman. Supporting this fantasy of his of BEING a woman inside. You are the one making him think that love of you should make him bow to your desires. Keep him perverted. Keep him mutilated. Then he has only you to cling to, isn’t that right?”
“No, that isn’t right!” Jhan exploded and her head pounded with pain. A moan escaped her lips. She had to take a deep breath before being able to continue, “I can’t listen to him any more, Kile! Get rid of him. He doesn’t care about me at all. He’s so wrapped up in his own self interest, and his own disgust for us, that he almost sounds like your mother!”
“No wonder he’s been making me so angry,” Kile growled in agreement.
“I will go,” Darkai told them as he backed towards the door. He gave Jhan a hard, level look. “Think about my words. Don’t let this man deny you a chance to be as you were again.”
“I’m not denying Jhan anything,” Kile snapped. “She doesn’t want what you’re offering.”
“Then you should know that, because of your decision, I don’t have any reason to help you any longer. The Queen is probably, at this moment, instructing her guards on the mode of your execution. I won’t speak for you.” He paused and it was a long, heavy moment before he spoke again, “At least, I won’t speak for you unless you agree to return to me and allow me-”
“You can keep your threats,” Kile said, cutting off Darkai’s words with a sharp chop of one hand. “Jhan won’t be forced to do what you want. THAT I won’t allow.”
Darkai went red with fury. He spun and left them in a swirl of black robe, slamming the door closed behind him. Kile stared after him with a deep, golden scowl for some time before turning back to the bed. “I am truly sorry about that, Love. If I had known-”
Jhan held up a hand. “I don’t blame you,” she said, but then lowered her hand and twisted it into the blanket, looking down. She said firmly, yet with a touch of fear, “I won’t do what he wants.”
“I wouldn’t expect or want you to,” Kile told her adamantly.
“That’s why I love you,” Jhan said with a smile as she looked up, confident again, “Your heart is as big as the world.”
Jhan stretched, muscle by muscle, until she was balanced on her toes and her
fingers were reaching high towards the ceiling. They protested. They quivered.
They obeyed. Slowly arching backwards, Jhan rested her hands on the rich carpet.
Locking her elbows, she took a deep breath, and did a cautious backflip. Coming
up on her feet, she staggered, caught her balance, but then sat down on the
“Again,” Kile said from his easy stance not far away. In black boots, black pants, white dress shirt, and his red uniform coat, he look every inch the drill instructor.
“Mercy,” Jhan breathed as she leaned back and pleaded with her blue eyes. In only a thin night shirt, she looked enticing and warm.
Kile licked his lips appreciatively, but he dragged his eyes back to hardness and commanded, “Again!”
Jhan sighed and stood up. It was only a few days since Queen Ferilla’s attempted murder. Jhan’s mind had recovered from it quickly, but her body was still stubborn in its weakness. Kile had been waiting patiently. The way he was looking at her now, Jhan could see what he wanted. There were other kinds of exercise, she thought. Walking sensually; keeping control of her weakness, battling with the barbs of memory that still tore and shrieked warnings, Jhan approached with obvious intent.
“Again,” Kile insisted and crossed his arms over his chest.
Jhan stopped, scowling.
“I can wait. This can’t,” Kile explained.
It was a change, Jhan thought, and almost smiled. Before, she would have been glad to avoid it. Now, she was piqued. The pleasure had been her reward and she had begun to look forward to it. Still scowling, she sprang backwards with the agility of a cat, doing two backflips in a row. It made her head spin and her breath go quick, but she landed on her feet and kept her knees from buckling.
“Now?” Jhan wondered with a smile.
“No,” Kile persisted and tossed her the towel he had been holding in one hand. “That was foolish,” he continued. “Do you want to strain a muscle and ruin all of our careful work?”
“Are you punishing me?”
Kile looked at her critically from under gold eyebrows and the loose curls of gold hair that managed to always hang in his handsome face. “I’m glad that you consider it a punishment.”
Kile motioned to a chair. Jhan sat in it thankfully with the towel hung around her sweating neck. Kile kneeled, propped her foot on his shoulder, and worked the muscles of her leg with his big hands. Jhan sighed and half closed her eyes contentedly.
“You can do that forever,” Jhan moaned.
“Not in my presence, I hope,” Avrilla’s cool voice said nearby.
Kile started, but Jhan’s foot held him down. “Princess!’ Kile exclaimed.
Avrilla wore a long gown of black, sprinkled with white bead work like a waterfall over one shoulder. Her curly hair had been tamed and clasped behind her neck by a white ribbon of silk. It made her long features stark and her black eyes huge.
“I was exercising,” Jhan explained, but found herself blushing anyway. “Kile was massaging my tired muscles.”
Avrilla didn’t look convinced. Jhan lowered her foot and leaned back in her chair wearily. She wiped her sweating forehead as Kile stood up and gave the princess the proper bow of respect.
“You are angry,” Avrilla observed.
Jhan glared. “I can’t pretend that your mother didn’t try to kill me. I can’t pretend that I’m not still in danger. We’re trying to strengthen my muscles enough so that we can leave here before she tries to kill me again!”
“She will not,” Avrilla assured her and she tried unsuccessfully to hide her sadness . “I have taken back my claim. You are not Aterei to me any longer.”
“Good.” Jhan sighed, without thinking.
“Is it?” Avrilla was angry now, black eyes snapping. “I thought- I thought we were friends! I thought that I had honored you.”
Avrilla had such a look of angry loneliness that Jhan relented. “I’m sorry, Avrilla. It was an honor and I am your friend. I don’t have to be your Aterei to still be one.”
Avrilla was dubious. “After what my Mother did to you, why would you want to be my friend?” she looked away and seemed to be fighting tears. “I have never had a friend, you see, or anyone who didn’t cling to me for gain; hiding their loathing for the power they thought I could give them. That’s why all of these rooms have stayed empty. I won’t except false companionship.”
“That’s good,” Jhan told her sincerely, “because I don’t give it.”
Avrilla paced, hands knotting in the material of her gown. Kile considered his words very carefully, hating to sadden the princess further, but knowing it had to be said. “I was honored as well, Princess Avrilla, to be chosen as your Intended, but you know I am Retie with Jhan. Surely there is someone else-”
Avrilla glared and stopped, facing them. Her chin lifted arrogantly, but the pain in her face was sharp. “There isn’t anyone, Lord Kile. I am Deviation. All of the approved bloodlines are closed to me. Lesser blood won’t even consider it. They WANT me to die, you see. When I come into Readiness, they and my Mother, will be most pleased to finally see an end to me.”
“I thought that Darkai said that your father, the king-” Jhan began, but Avrilla cut her off dismissively.
“My father is proud,” Avrilla said, “but not as proud as my Mother. He has been convinced to let me live, but nothing more. Darkai’s great powers of persuasion have not yet convinced my father to allow him to save the Telestar with his unnatural machines."
Kile was puzzling over Avrilla’s earlier words. “If the Queen wants you to die when you come into Readiness, then, why did she approve of my being your Intended?” Kile wondered.
Avrilla laughed, dark and bitter. “She’s taken your measure, Human! Read your innermost thoughts! She is that sure that you will never breed me.”
“I won’t,” Kile affirmed strongly, without any consideration.
Avrilla wasn’t bothered by his callousness. She was used to that. “I didn’t choose you because I thought you would breed me, Lord Kile. I chose you to keep Jhan with me. Where I am, you must be.”
Jhan had a thought and she went cold. “What happens when you come into Readiness?”
Avrilla flushed, as if that were an embarrassing subject. She had difficulty replying. “I will ripen. My inner flesh with swell and send out scent to let males know that I am ready to breed. I will grow wild as my body ripens. I will become almost animal... we do not like to speak of it. Suffice to say that I must breed then or the stresses to my body can kill.”
“Am I alike enough with an Alamien male to breed you?” Kile wondered, embarrassed too, but wanting to know. “I’ve heard that the males are like you, nothing outside-”
“Until they go into Readiness,” Avrilla corrected him. “It is triggered by my scent. Or mine by theirs if they should reach it first. We may do this only three times in our lives. Three chances to make life. An Alamien male, excited by me, would extrude his genitals and mount me. His organ would swell and lengthen until it entered my inner cavity. Reaching the wall of it, he would then rip a creche into it with the hook at the end of his organ."
Jhan felt herself go pale. “Hook?”
“A protrusion of cartilage," Avrilla clarified. “It is to make certain that implantation occurs. Once the creche is made, the male would then ejaculate the egg and plant it deeply within. That accomplished, he would then spend a great deal of time fertilizing it. It takes hours, a day even, locked together with me.” That didn’t embarrass Avrilla at all, but her next words did. “We are in rut at that time, mad, unreasonable, a danger if anyone should part us.”
“That bothers you,” Jhan said.
Avrilla nodded and looked down. “We are advanced, accomplished beings. This animal side of us is shameful, but to be endured if we are to continue.”
“All of that,” Kile said, puzzled. “How could I do any of that for you?”
“You can’t.” Avrilla lifted her head, “but you don’t have to. Men must implant their egg or they die. Females are different. We must only be mated to calm the urge. If you were to be my true Intended, you would only have to spend a day breeding me. It would suffice to save my life.”
“I don’t understand,” Jhan cut in. “If the male has egg and seed, how does the woman fit in?”
“The egg takes in genetic material from the flesh of the woman,” Avrilla explained.
Kile shook his head. “It’s all too strange! I can’t do that for you, Avrilla! I’m sorry. The very thought of being with an Alamien woman makes me cringe. I don’t know why.”
“You sense we aren’t Human,” Avrilla surmised. “Your body knows it. It knows we are not the right blood. As I said, I didn’t expect you to breed me.”
“But, if he doesn’t?” Jhan persisted. “If your law says that he can be killed for leaving you, then what will it do if the time comes and he doesn’t... breed you?”
“It doesn’t fault him for being unable to find Readiness with me,” Avrilla explained with a shrug. “He merely must be there.”
“You want me to watch you die?” Kile exclaimed in disbelief.
“That is your choice,” Avrilla replied with a shrug.
“This is insane!” Jhan exploded. “You’re saying that Kile could be here for days, weeks, or even years waiting for you to go into Readiness!”
“Yes, that is what I am saying,” Avrilla said and smiled. “I will keep you in all comfort. Anything you wish shall be yours. As the Intended’s Retie you are entitled to the same respect and honor as he is.”
“The same respect and honor they give you?” Jhan snapped back. “I get enough of that kind of treatment at home!”
Avrilla’s expression darkened. “They will respect you and be glad of you. They will all be relieved that they weren’t the one I chose.”
Kile bowed very low. “Please, your Highness, reconsider. I have children at home that will be missing me. I have duties. I have to go home.”
“Only if Jhan stays here and you go alone,” Avrilla told him.
“That isn’t an option, ever!” Kile thundered back, bit his lip, and regained control with an effort. “Jhan still needs to recover. Perhaps, when she’s ready to travel, we can speak of this again?”
“My mind won’t change,” Avrilla warned him. She straightened and waved the conversation away with a haughty hand. “Enough of this argument. There are duties, as a royal Intended, that you must perform, functions that must be attended, and lords and ladies to be introduced to.” Avrilla trembled just a bit. “There is also my Father you must meet.”
Kile went even paler. He looked at Jhan. “Will you be all right.?”
Jhan nodded. “I can manage. Go ahead. Play her game for awhile. Maybe, when she sees what a truly foul tempered person I can be, she’ll change her mind.”
Kile marshaled a smile, but Avrilla only frowned and led him out of the apartment.
Alone, Jhan stood on shaky legs and went into the bathing room. The water she had drawn earlier was growing cold, but she needed that coolness anyway. Undressing, she slipped into it. The water was soothing on her heated skin and she floated, holding onto the edge; letting her body be relieved of the weight on her muscles.
It had been pleasant staying in royal comfort, Jhan guiltily admitted to herself. Secluded from the world, she and Kile had been able to relax, love, and enjoy life. Though the servants were as arrogant as Avrilla, and cold to freezing in their attitudes, they didn’t stoop to judgment or to do any less than their best. They had made life a warm cocoon of comfort and leisure.
Kile chafed at it, Jhan knew. He had become a soldier to be in the midst of action. He hadn’t wanted a soft lord’s life. Though he was thoroughly enjoying his time with Jhan, she could see how it would soon begin to strangle him. Seeing his impatient, bored face, stifled any of Jhan’s guilty, furtive thoughts that staying, even by force, might not be such a bad thing.
And what was it, in the end? A cage, however soft and safe, was still a cage. Jhan’s face soured. She couldn’t chose the cage anymore than Kile could. Avrilla wanted to own her, keep her against her will. It wasn’t any different from what Dagara had done, Ahlen, Sael, any of them. It was only gilded and camouflaged in peace.
The slit twitched and burned. Jhan put a hand to it. It seemed to be doing that a lot lately. The sutures Darkai had put there were reacting badly with her skin. Jhan ran a finger along the suture line, wincing at outraged flesh. It had been a long time. Perhaps they needed to come out?
It was definitely something best done alone. Jhan left the bath and wrapped herself in a fresh towel. Padding back into the main room, she fished out one of Kile’s knives from a pile of his weapons that he had left behind.
The knife was small and very sharp. Jhan cleaned it carefully and then crouched. Feeling with her fingers, she sliced through the sutures and, hissing at the small snippets of pain, she worked them out carefully. It didn’t take long. There weren’t many stitches.
Returning to the bathing room, Jhan cleaned the slit and gingerly searched the opening with her fingers. She expected to touch a barrier. Her fingers met nothing. The opening was still there! Besides the outraged flesh, Jhan didn’t feel any hint that Darkai had attempted to adhere flesh to flesh. Everything was smooth and unscarred.
Jhan’s fingers didn’t elicit any sensations. She probed deeper, and still felt nothing. The opening was numb, unresponsive. Even when muscles clamped on her fingers and tried to pull them in, she still felt nothing.
Confused, Jhan pulled on a light robe and went to sit on the bed. What was Darkai’s game? Why hadn’t he closed off the opening? She recalled that he had closed off the nerves there and grafted skin to make it proof against infection, but did any of that make sense if he had intended to close it off all along? Had he planned something else?
Darkai had offered her the chance to be a man again, had thought that it would be what she wanted, yet that opening was below the small thing that had been her penis. If he had intended to give her genitalia again, what went there was obvious, yet the size of the opening didn’t make sense. It didn’t fit. Had he planned all along to change her into an Alamien? If so, why?
Jhan shook her head sharply, feeling disgust. She felt the need to bathe again, as if she had spread sickness over her skin. She was ruined, violated, used. The thought of Darkai doing mysterious things to her while she lay unconscious, making plans to use her as his guinea pig, caused Jhan to choke on sobs.
Jhan wanted to leave. Every fiber of her being ached to throw on clothes and run as far and as fast as she could. At that moment, it didn’t even matter whether Kile went with her or not. That she had for him now, what they had both longed for, didn’t even occur to her. Jhan was too far gone in shock, a shock that was late in coming from the moment she had awakened to find Darkai implanting his probe. It wasn’t any less for the time it had taken to finally hit her.
It took hours for Jhan to regain control enough of herself to stop looking in closets for enough clothes to run away in. Avrilla had been generous, but everything was thin, gauzy, and totally unsuitable to travel in. After raging and crying over it, Jhan finally sunk into a soft chair and forced herself to think.
Darkai was the one Jhan had to avoid. Even Avrilla had admitted that he would do what he wished with or without permission. The princess was against that wholeheartedly. While Jhan and Kile were trapped in the palace, Avrilla would have to be their protector. As much as Jhan hated it, she was going to have to accept Avrilla’s possessiveness of her. Escaping from it, was something to be worked out later. Keeping Darkai from ever touching her again was paramount.
That decided, there was only Kile to face. Jhan waited for him impatiently. It wasn’t until the sun was slanting towards evening, that he finally came through the door, looking worn to the bone. By that time, Jhan had made another decision. She had decided not to tell him.
It was for the best, Jhan felt. Too much had changed between them. They had found a balancing point now, and another disappointment, she thought, could tip it towards ruin. Jhan simply couldn’t bring herself to take the chance that things might not be as they seemed. If there was pain, infection, or incompatibility hiding within her, the disappointment would be too much. It was better to forget it and to go on as they had been.
“Is everything all right?” Kile wondered as he tossed aside his red coat and sat in a chair.
Jhan eased the tension in her face as she came to sit on the arm of Kile’s chair. She managed a small smile and kissed him lightly. He drew her into the circle of his arm and held her close.
“They do all look alike,” Kile sighed. “I must have met over a hundred and yet I couldn’t pick out one face from another.”
“They all wanted to meet you?” Jhan asked curiously. “I thought we were beneath consideration. Animals.”
Kile blushed and loosened the collar of his shirt. “It was because I’m so obviously an animal that they wanted to ogle me. The women were particularly interested. They were the epitome of politeness to each other, but to me they spoke as if to a child; a definite inferior. They asked me questions I’m certain they wouldn’t have dared to ask anyone else.”
Kile looked away and his jaw clenched. “Darkai, I suppose, must have told them all that I was keeping a boy as my bed mate. They wanted to know what we did together and why. It seems that Alamien don’t have needs outside of breeding, so they were particularly curious about my being always in ‘heat’. One of them piped up that she had a friend who had tried a Human male once, and though not of any pleasure to herself, she had found his struggles most .... gross and brutish, though titillating in a way she couldn’t understand.”
Kile shrugged and ran a hand over his face as he continued. “The other women were embarrassed. Showing breeding interest outside of Readiness is considered... perverted, animalistic. That’s one of the reason they consider Humans beneath them. I didn’t want to explain about us. I just said that Humans were different and we bred wherever we wished. It didn’t have to be for the getting of children.”
“You must have been dying of shame,” Jhan murmured sympathetically.
“I was,” Kile replied grimly, “but Avrilla rescued me. They had been asking her the same questions, she told me, and were only satisfying their own prurient interests by making me repeat the answers. It intrigued them, she told me, and I would have to get used to them staring at my crotch and imagining me walking about always in Readiness. They secretly envied her, she told me. I was scandalous, but that made me only more desirable.”
“Did you meet the King?”
Kile nodded. “He didn’t seem pleased or displeased. He glared at Avrilla, measured me with his eyes, and then nodded to her. He left without saying one word. I was beneath royal conversation.”
“At least he didn’t try to fry your brain like Queen Ferilla did to me,” Jhan growled.
Kile was puzzled. “If the King has plans to let Darkai use his skill on her, I can’t understand why he would approve her choice of me as her Intended.”
“Maybe he changed his mind?”
Kile shrugged. He smiled at Jhan, wanting to put it all aside. “Have you eaten?”
“Can it wait?”
Jhan arched an eyebrow. “I suppose.”
“Then do a handstand.”
Jhan frowned now as she stood up and slid out of his embrace. “Why?’
“Just do it,” Kile insisted. “Let’s see how strong your arms have become.”
Jhan shook her head. “I don’t really-”
Jhan made an exasperated sound, but then relented. “All right, my merciless Captain.”
Jhan slowly bent and did a handstand. Her dress fell down about her face and the rest of her was bare for Kile’s inspection. When he grabbed her about the hips, supporting her in that position, Jhan was startled.
“Kile! What are you doing?”
“I’ve been looking at impossibly tall, long faced, purple eyed Alamien women all day long,” Kile explained with a laugh. “They made me talk about the one thing I’ve been in sore need of. Now, I want to feast on your perfection.”
“Perfection?” Jhan strangled on a laugh, finding it difficult in that position. “Is it perfection up there?”
“Everywhere!” Kile replied huskily. “Every line, every curve, every soft place of you is perfection itself!”
When Kile’s mouth began feasting on what he considered perfection, Jhan trembled and let herself rest limply in his embrace. He abused her erect bit of flesh with pleasure until she was aching with it. He wanted release for her, quickly and out of the way. Jhan hadn’t any choice but to oblige, feeling a rolling climax like a wave rolling into the surf, crashing at the end, but continuing on until she moaned and twisted in his arms for him to relent.
Kile’s mouth released her, that pleasantly tormented bit of flesh throbbing, but retreating with satisfaction. It’s what Kile wanted, for it to go away so that he could have the female side of Jhan all to himself. He didn’t want the disturbing maleness of Jhan pricking at aversion.
Kile righted Jhan easily and she straddled his hips as he carried her in to the bed. He didn’t ask for her to confront her demons. His need was too urgent. He wanted nothing from her but acquiescence as he let his pants drop. He toyed with her where she was, still straddling him as he stood. His hands caressed her hips and he rubbed himself there as if he were threatening. Jhan tensed to protest, but then simply put her arms around his neck and buried her face against his chest. She couldn’t deny him anything. Not now.
Kile wasn’t so minded. He stood her up, turned her towards the bed, and bent her over the side. Facing away from him, Jhan was wrapped in Kile’s passionate embrace as he found a warm nest between her thighs. Jhan made them a vice until he rode her to climax, groaning joyfully.
Laying side by side on the bed afterwards, they both stared up at the ornate carvings of birds on the ceiling.
“I’m sorry if I went too fast,” Kile said at last. He turned on his side and regarded Jhan tenderly.
“You’ve been patient,” Jhan said in way of reply.
Kile traced the curve of Jhan’s hip with a fingertip, not straying to the inside of her thigh, but waiting for permission.
“It’s all right, if you want to,” Jhan said softly.
Kile withdrew his hand, hurt. “I guess that means that you don’t want to.”
“I never do,” Jhan retorted and then winced, feeling the cruelty of her words herself. She quickly amended. “It pleases me greatly, Kile, you know that.”
Jhan sat up, drawing her knees to her chest and clasping them. “I know that you don’t want that part of me. I can do without Kile. I will never feel the difference.”
Kile reached between Jhan’s legs and fingered that part of her. She looked down, watching for the first time. It made her tighten and tremble as his fingers drew it out. It WAS longer than it had been, thicker than a child’s and capped at the tip. Darkai had fashioned it to look more like a penis than she had imagined. She could imagine now what it was costing Kile to face it.
“Every line of you is perfect,” Kile murmured, his eyes on what he was doing. “Dagara Ku Ni made a masterpiece of you. When I first looked at you in that garden in Pekarin Fortress, I melted, I wanted, I felt I would die if I didn’t have you. I nearly threw you on the grass and had you then and there. It was only your temper, and my own sense of honor, that saved you that day.”
Kile sighed. “When I discovered that you were a boy, I was ashamed, horrified, hate filled, yet, deep down, I still wanted you; and not only for your beauty. That day, when we were traveling with Thaos back to Pekarin. When you undressed before me to wash yourself, and I promised not to look, I looked... long and I- I wanted you, not just your body, which I couldn’t think what to do with, but yourself. I wanted YOU, without a doubt. Only my own confusion kept me from mounting you then, if a soldier can be blunt, and an aversion for where I would have had to... I knew that I loved you, admitted it to myself, but then I-I just couldn’t face it.”
Jhan looked up into Kile’s stiff face, his flushed cheeks, his glazed, haunted expression. “I never- You never said.”
“It’s still hard to admit to,” Kile replied, “but you need to hear it now. I should have said it long before. When you were changed, I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with that. I thought I wouldn’t have to reveal it.”
Kile’s hand tightened on her, stroked her to aching stiffness. “This is what I’ve been avoiding. It shames me, disgusts me, but deep down I still find you perfect, beautiful.” Kile trailed off. “I am a pervert. I was making a joke of it before, but, you see, it is true. As much as I cringe and try to deny it. I do love even this part of you. Darkai isn’t an artist like Dagara was, but, It is as perfect as all the rest of you and I find that, outraged manhood aside, I can’t hate it.”
It was so brave an admission that Jhan felt tears. She put her arms about Kile and kissed him softly on the mouth. “You know I hate it,” she said. “I will always hate this body that you cherish so much.”
“Yes, I know,” Kile said, “It’s a puff of wind, a frail shell, not adequate for a long life. I’ve always known that much. I don’t think-,” Kile hesitated, swallowed. “I don’t think that we shall grow old together, Little Love. I think too much was done to you, taken away, remade. It’s why I’ve tried so hard to do whatever you wanted, to keep us together no matter what happened or what changed. Every moment is precious.”
Jhan did cry then, burrowing into Kile’s arms. “I didn’t want you to know. I couldn’t bear it!”
Kile’s hand moved from its gentle torment and joined with his other to hold her tight. “This journey was hard, painful for you, and it hasn’t ended yet, but we can thank it for bringing us closer together. We wouldn’t have been able to in Pekarin.”
“Too many people so sure we would fail,” Jhan agreed.
The shock of what Darkai had done to her was gone, Jhan realized. Kile had healed it as he had healed everything else. To know that, even in the beginning, he had loved her and accepted her was an enormous gift. To share with him now, how brief their time together might be, and to know, that like her, he was willing to surmount any obstacle to stay with her, was enough to make her brave.
Jhan pushed Kile onto his back and straddled his hips. He smiled up at her as she stroked him to life. Memory didn’t interject itself now. She kept her eyes on Kile as if she were drinking in his soul. Nothing was between them. The shadows were all fled. Pain, humiliation, and degradation didn’t have any relation to what Jhan was doing now. She had never done it for anyone else. She had never given entirely everything that she was with every ounce of love along with it.
Very carefully, Jhan brought herself down on Kile’s passion and let it enter her in three, quick pushes of her hips. He was large, the opening small, but there wasn’t any pain; not any sensation at all.
“Jhan-How,” Kile’s hands had gone to Jhan’s hips, perplexed, suspecting where he might be with a grimace, and then finding the truth of where he was planted deep with an in drawn breath. “I thought Darkai had closed that! We can’t do this Jhan! You’ll be hurt!”
Jhan looked down at Kile and smiled, free and easy. It surprised him. In their love making he was too use to her tight expressions of pain and endurance. “It doesn’t hurt,” she told him. “He covered the nerves over. I can’t feel anything.”
Kile bit his lip and groaned. “I-I can!” Her insides were pulsing, drawing him in with a steady rhythm. Jhan didn’t feel any sensation, even when Kile bucked up against her involuntarily.
“I think,” Jhan said softly. “I think it is all right, Kile. I don’t know why Darkai did this, pretend to close it. I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t taken out the stitches. I can only guess that he meant to do something else later.”
Kile was beyond listening. Jhan fell silent. He was writhing beneath her, fingers digging into her hips. When he rolled to come on top and began wildly thrusting, Jhan was the calm in the storm, watching his contorted face. Was this what the Alamien women had meant? Feeling nothing, all she had to do was watch and wait for Kile to finish, marveling at the way the muscles of his neck corded and trembled, the way his hips bunched and released, and listen to the grunts he emitted in his passion. It was animalistic, base, but strangely empowering knowing that she was the one driving him to this extreme; making him loose his self control.
When Kile exploded into her, he bucked, convulsed, and jerked as he strangled on an inarticulate scream, mouth hanging open as he sobbed and collapsed beside her, kissing, stammering endearments. Jhan couldn’t understand why he was weeping.
“Thank you!” Kile said between kisses. “Thank you! I-I have missed that- It’s like nothing- Dreya, anyone else, nothing like it! Nothing! Nothing!”
Jhan held him until he quieted and then she looked into his eyes with a smile. “You must truly love me. You did without that even when you could have had it.”
“Not if it meant hurting you, maybe killing you,” Kile breathed, eyes half closed with his spent passion. “In the end, you are more important. You still are. If you become ill, if this hurts you in any way, I will stop again.“ The very prospect made him tremble, but he was resolute.
Jhan wrapped her legs around him, holding him tighter. “Again we have to thank Darkai,” she mused, but it made her bitter. “Maybe that’s what he wanted, for us to be so in his debt that we would do anything for him. I still won’t. I don’t think we should even tell him about this. Let him go on thinking I’m still sewn up tight and ignorant. It will make him believe that he still has something we want. This business with Avrilla might be all over, and us long gone, before he realizes that he doesn’t have anything to force us to do what he wants.”
Kile’s response was a snore. Jhan rolled him and curled up beside him contentedly, pulling the blanket over them both. Her finger traced the long, thin scar of the arrow wound on her belly. It tingled and itched. The wound had been great, but Jhan considered it a small price to pay for what she had now. Together, at last, without pain, without memories, without fear of death. Jhan determined to keep it that way, whatever the cost. There wasn’t going to be any more changes.
Jhan spun, leapt, kicked out, flipped, and landed on her feet. She came upright
facing Rehn and Jaross. Startled, she almost fell backwards, but Kile was rising
and steadying her by the elbow.
“You should have knocked!” Kile growled.
“Is that any way to greet old friends?” Jaross replied, bristling as he took a long look around their rooms, marveling at their opulence. “Besides, we didn’t know these were living quarters. Alamien like a lot of space.”
Rehn was uncomfortable, looking shyly at Kile and then at Jhan. “When you didn’t return, we didn’t know what to think,” he said. “Vek sent Jaross to find out and I-I went along. Bheni wanted to go as well, but I told her definitely not. The baby is still suckling, after all.”
Jhan was only wearing a thin shirt and pair of trousers. It was plastered to her by her own sweat. Breathing hard still, she snagged a robe from a chair back and put it on. It was hard to decipher her own feelings. She had been happy the last weeks, relaxing with Kile as if they had taken some fabulous vacation at a resort. To be reminded of their old life, their real life, so suddenly, made her stomach go sour.
Jaross was wearing the red coat of a Pekarin soldier and his hand was rubbing nervously on the hilt of his sword. He frowned at Jhan and his face, so much like her own, but with brown eyes, was frank. “Did you want to be lost and forgotten? After seeing this place, I can understand. The Alamien must like you.”
“We saved the life of their princess,” Kile explained tightly, maybe not liking this reminder of their real life either. “She claimed me as her Intended. I don’t know if you understand that, but, I can’t leave her side until... until certain things happen.”
“Certain things?” Jaross put down a pack he had been carrying and sat in the chair Kile had vacated. He stretched out boots, dusty from the road, and looked at Kile from under his lowered, black eyebrows. “Have you caused someone else to be in the family way, Kile Helarion Dor? Not the Princess, I hope?” His voice dripped anger and outrage.
Kile clenched his big hands into fists. Jhan put a hand on his arm to stop him from being dangerous. “It’s very complicated, but I’m afraid I’m the one to blame this time,” Jhan admitted. “Princess Avrilla has taken a liking to me. She doesn’t want me to leave. She made Kile her Intended, sort of a husband in waiting, so that I would be forced to stay with him. It’s death here to leave your Intended.”
“For how long?” Rehn wondered, shocked.
Jhan picked up a towel from a low table and wiped her perspiring face. She turned from them with a shrug. “Can’t say. Could be hours, could be years, could be never.”
Rehn was very perceptive. “You’ve been ill. What happened?”
Jaross stood in a quick motion, looking Jhan over anxiously. “Ill? You ARE far paler than usual. Your face is thin too, and your eyes seem sunken. Why did Kile have you turning cartwheels if you’re ill?”
Jhan scowled and tossed her towel aside. “Kile didn’t HAVE me doing anything, Jaross. We had some trouble on the way here. I-I took an arrow in the side. I’m still recovering from it. I have to exercise or the scar on my muscles won’t stretch.”
“An arrow?” Rehn reached out in concern to grip Jhan’s arms. “You shouldn’t have gone alone! Why did you run after Kile? You know him... angry one second, but give him time to cool off, and all’s forgotten.”
“I don’t think Kile was the one who was angry,” Jaross lashed out, furious. “Which makes the way you chased after him all the harder to understand, Jhan. Why didn’t you just say, ‘good riddance’, and forget about him?”
“Jaross Ke Nava!” Kile erupted, pushing Jaross away from Jhan. He was taller and broader than the thin, ex-nobleman, but Jaross was undaunted. He stood toe to toe with Kile and dared him.
“Stop!” Jhan snapped. She squeezed between them. That caused them to separate, concerned with hurting her. “I don’t need this!” Jhan exploded. “My life is my own, Jaross. Kile and I have worked out our problems. We don’t need you to leap into our lives and tell us how wrong we are for being together.”
Jaross glowered and stepped back a few paces more. “If he loved you, he wouldn’t have-”
“There you are!” Captain Tevar Narin staggered through the door with two heavy packs. He was looking irritated. “Did you have to leave me to explain to that creature what our business was? I think he ran to fetch the guard!”
Tevar saw the tense situation then and frowned as he put his packs down. “Jaross,” he sighed, aggrieved. “Are you making trouble again?”
Jaross stiffened, almost coming to attention. “No, Sir. I was merely explaining to Lord Kile, and the Princess Jhanian, why we came.”
“I’ll handle that. You are just a foot soldier, Jaross, and I am your commanding officer.”
“Sir,” Jaross replied just as stiff and formal.
Tevar smiled and brushed past Jaross. “Captain Kile, I hope everything is all right? We became so worried when you didn’t return. When the Princess Jhanian disappeared, Vek told us to mount up and find out what had happened to the both of you.”
Tevar had two stripes on his sleeve to Kile’s one. He was the more experienced officer and Kile had to defer to him. Kile gave a short bow, but his eyes were still pools of blue anger as he glared at Jaross.
“We are guests of her Highness, Avrilla of the Telestar,” Kile explained. “Jhan was wounded by an arrow. She is still recovering. A few more weeks and she should be able to travel. Unfortunately, I must remain here and deal with a matter between myself and the Princess Avrilla. She has made me her Intended.”
Tevar’s eyes went wide. “Intended. How? Why would a Deviation be allowed to breed, and with a Human at that?”
Kile was surprised. “You know about Avrilla?”
“I’ve come here a time or two myself,” Tevar told him and then shook his head. “This is all very awkward. I will need a full report from you Kile. If you’ve been taking liberties again and embroiling yourself in a love affair with Princess Avrilla-”
“It’s not like that at all!” Kile exploded. “It’s Jhan she’s interested in! I’m just the excuse to keep Jhan from leaving!”
Tevar eyed Jhan. “You’ve been... forgive me, Princess Jhanian, but,” Tevar looked Jhan’s slim body up and down. Her robe had fallen open and her clinging shirt and trousers made the shape of her obvious. “You are still a-” Tevar colored. “I’m not certain how to ask you this without offending you, but Pekarin’s relations with the Alamien seem to be imperiled.
Jhan’s mouth went into a thin line and then she half turned away, disgusted. “I am not having an affair, in any way, with the Princess Avrilla.”
“If you knew anything about Jhan, you would know that your question was completely preposterous!” Kile snarled.
“Just making it clear,” Tevar replied, unapologetic. “I’m the one who has to face General Vek and explain all of this.”
“So, you’ll be leaving now?” Jhan was quick to jump in.
“With you, Princess,” Tevar clarified, “and Kile if I can manage it.”
“I’m not leaving Kile.” Jhan was outraged at the very idea. “I don’t know why you think that you can make me.”
Tevar sighed and looked distractedly about the room. “I am only a Captain, it’s true, and you are a Princess, but I hope that you can see that it will be best for all if you return.”
“Best for whom?”
“Me, since I have to account for this mess,” Tevar told her grimly. “For General Vek, your Highness, who will have to explain it to King Tekhal. The King, who will , in turn, have to explain to King Thaos of Karana why his broth- sister, forgive me, has seen fit to run away, and after a husband who dishonored her no less.”
Kile bowed his head and his jaw worked, clenching and unclenching convulsively. “Thaos hasn’t cared, one way or the other, since he left Jhan almost two years ago. I don’t think my father has to be afraid of a blood feud, or King Tekhal of a war. Jhanian’s son is Thaos’s heir after all. He hasn’t managed to sire anything but daughters and women can’t inherit in Karana. As for King Tekhal, Jhan has always been an embarrassment to him. He won’t miss her, or me, for that matter.”
“Yet there is still the matter of this botched courier mission,” Tevar retorted. “It is my opinion that getting the two of you out of this situation as quickly as possible, and out of the Silverwood all together, is what is best for Pekarin. If you choose to run elsewhere besides home, that is your affair, but let me remind you, Captain Kile, you would be breaking orders and leaving the service of the King without permission. I don’t have to tell you how serious that is.”
“Jhan can’t travel,” Kile repeated. “She-”
“Was turning flips as we came through the door.,” Jaross reminded him acidly. “You are stalling, Lord Kile.”
“Wait!” Rehn stepped forward at last. Always timid in the company of lords, and what he considered his betters, he was always fierce in Jhan’s defense. “Jhan can kill armed men on her deathbed. That’s not any indication at all of how well she is. That’s the way Dagara made her. Traveling is something else. She’s never been sturdy where that’s concerned.”
Jhan walked away. She was the object of all their concerns, but literally an object. None of them cared to hear how she felt about it. They intended to make the decisions and she was expected to comply. Jhan’s stomach knotted.
Going into the bathing room, Jhan didn’t even care that there wasn’t a door. She dropped her robe, and her sweat soaked clothing, and stepped into the cool embrace of the water. She washed with scented soap, staring blankly at the beautiful tile and the border of painted flowers along the top of the wall. It had been so peaceful the last few weeks, but she had always known that it wouldn’t last.
The talk flew back and forth in the other room as if none of them had noticed her absence. Kile finally brought it all to an end and gave them one of the echoing empty suites next to theirs to stay in.
“The Princess Avrilla won’t notice,” Kile told them when they seemed shocked by his boldness. “She’s hardly seen us this entire time.”
“Gather your thoughts, Captain Kile,” Tevar told him. “I will want a full report later.”
“She really is all right, isn’t she Kile?” Rehn asked, concerned.
“More than all right,” Kile assured him. “Her health is returning, but it was a close thing, Rehn. I almost lost her.”
“She doesn’t seem to want us here,” Jaross commented sourly.
“You were never good company, Jaross,” Kile snapped back. “She considers you her friend, but I won’t tolerate you, or your nonsense. She still needs calm, rest. These past weeks have been very good for her, for us. Don’t spoil it or I’ll toss you off of a balcony!”
“Jhan is more than my friend, Lord Kile,” Jaross replied hotly. “If you hadn’t had the good grace to wed her, I would have.”
“Would you have?” Kile was sarcastic, disbelieving. “Could you have withstood what I have? Somehow I can’t imagine, Jaross Ke Nava, holding his head up while everyone calls him a boy lover! You’re far too self centered.”
“Jhan isn’t a boy,” Jaross seethed. “You know that! She isn’t anything.”
“No one else sees it that way, Jaross, and it isn’t even true anymore.”
“What do you mean?” Rehn asked, puzzled.
Kile became uncomfortable and Jhan tensed at the roughness of his tone. “A man, well respected by the Alamien, tampered with Jhan while he was healing her. He-He believed that Jhan would want to be a man again. He tried... He made Jhan... well, that’s between us now. “
Kile was regretting his revelation, trying to call it back. His anger at Jaross had forced it from him and his desire to make Jaross squirm and leave them alone. Instead, he had managed to shock himself.
Jhan could hear Rehn treading on eggshells as he tried to smooth the moment over. “It is between the two of you. I don’t want to think about what you just tried to say. I think I’ll forget I heard it.”
Jaross was as shocked as Kile could have wished. “Then you are a... Lord Kile, I hardly know what to say. If you’re saying that you accept this... change, then, maybe, I was too harsh in my judgment of you.”
“Judge Kile?” Tevar had been listening quietly, not overly interested in the foibles of men and women. Kile’s small revelation had brought him back to attention. “You’re still a foolish boy, soldier Jaross! Kile married a mighty Prince of Karana who was emasculated by our mutual enemy. Kile made him happy that it was done to him, if any man can understand that! Not only are none of us fit to judge him, I don’t think there is room for judgment at all!”
“You would say that,” Jaross muttered.
“Did you say something, soldier Jaross?” Tevar snapped.
“No, Sir,” Jaross grumbled.
“Then let’s get out of Captain Kile’s rooms and settle in ours,” Tevar ordered briskly. “There will be enough time for explanations later.”
They did leave then, Jaross still grumbling. Jhan felt Kile at her back, heard him leaning heavily against the archway to the bathing room. He sighed heavily. “Now we have to make an accounting,” he said bleakly.
“Forgetting, even for a little while, was wonderful.” Jhan turned and climbed out of the water. Kile’s eyes quietly appreciated her body, but they shied away before they reached her middle. He looked deeply disturbed, embarrassed even.
“What is it?” Jhan asked. She knew, but she needed to hear it from Kile himself.
“Jaross...,” Kile finally ground out.
“Maddening, I know,” Jhan replied defensively. “He is a true friend, Kile, what ever you think. We’re far too short of friends not to put up with his stupidity.”
Kile shook his head, not forgiving in the least. “It’s easier when there aren’t men around to - to say things,” he said, struggling to put it all into words. He had never been good at that. “I can enjoy myself... you, completely, until they make me think, make me consider what it is we are together. Then my old self rears its ugly head, the part that can’t understand what we are and never will.”
Jhan nodded, understanding and willing herself not to be hurt. “It’s hard for me too.”
Kile raised golden eyebrows. “Why?”
“They, especially Jaross, keep reminding me what a complete idiot you are and how much you don’t deserve me.” Jhan kept her face straight as Kile’s darkened. “It’s hard to tell myself you’re worth it, what with you being a slut and a perverted thekling.”
Kile’s mouth opened and then he shut it abruptly and smiled. “If I’m a slut, it’s only too you I’ll sell my charms, Little Love. As for being a thekling, that’s between you and me as well. Being a pervert is a little harder to live down, but a definite advantage in our relationship.”
Jhan stepped forward and pressed herself against Kile, smiling as well. “A definite advantage,” she agreed, and then seriously. “I’m not leaving you here. They won’t make me.”
“Of course not,” Kile retorted. “No one is ever going to come between us again.”
In the evening, Kile went to speak with Tevar. Rehn and Jaross ate dinner with Jhan, marveling at the servants, the food, and the way Jhan was treated royally. Rehn was wide eyed and very quiet. Jaross was gentle and engaging, almost making up for his rudeness of before.
“I know you worry about me, “ Jhan told Jaross as he and Rehn were preparing to leave, “but Kile and I do love each other. We had some difficulties, but they were all my fault. I don’t want to embarrass you, or make you angry, but my darkness, my memories, were shadowing everything we tried to be with each other. It almost destroyed us. Kile didn’t go to other women because he stopped loving me. In his own brainless manner, he was trying to spare me pain by getting rid of the needs that were tying us both in knots. “
Jaross soured. ”It doesn’t seem honorable. He should be able to... control himself. Men aren’t animals, Jhan.”
“I know that, but Kile...,” Jhan felt as if she were making weak excuses, a pathetic attempt to forgive the unforgivable in most situations. She and Kile didn’t have a normal situation.
“Kile has the urges of a randy imala stallion in a herd of brood mares in heat,” Rehn finished with an embarrassed flush. He stared down at his toes. “That’s why it’s so hard to think that... Are you much like a man now. Is that what Kile meant?”
Jhan flushed now too. “Kile shouldn’t have said that. I don’t know why he did. Everything’s still messed up for me, Rehn, but Darkai, the man who healed me, he changed things. I’m not nothing anymore. I’m, maybe, both.” Jhan fisted her hands and brought them up to her eyes, wanting to block out the sight of their wincing expressions. “It never stops, does it? Always one more change when I thought it would never happen again.”
Jhan lowered her hands. “Don’t-Don’t blame Kile. Don’t make his life a misery, Jaross. Maybe that’s why he said it, so that you could understand that no one but him will ever want what I am. Certainly, no one could ever touch me as he does. I should hate Darkai, but he actually made things better for us. Like Dagara, he gave me an unintentional gift. Kile and I can be together. We couldn’t-couldn’t before, and that’s as plain as I’ll get.”
Jaross was looking green, imagining horrors, Jhan was sure. He had been the first to see what Dagara had done to her. Jhan knew the sight of that would mark him for the rest of his life.
“None of this is any of our business,” Jaross finally said after taking a steadying breath. “That you should have to explain... I’m sorry. I’m hard headed and too concerned for you. I’ve been making your life miserable, more miserable than anything Kile has done to you.”
“We’ve been happy here,” Jhan told him quietly. “I almost don’t want to leave. The Alamien, while they don’t think of us as equals, at least don’t bother us or seek to condemn us. I know we have to return to Pekarin. Kile has children there and a career. What I have is my friends. Don’t stop being that for me. I need you to keep me sane.”
Jaross wiped at one eye as if he feared to weep. Rehn swallowed hard and then smiled. They longed to hold her, she thought, but they knew how nervous that would make her. She had to reach out to them, touch them lightly on their shoulders, and smile in return as she watched them go through the door. When she closed it behind them, she leaned against its ornate surface for a long time.
There was a sound. Jhan stiffened and frowned. It had come from the balcony. Jhan slowly left the door and walked cautiously to the double doors that were slightly open to an evening breeze. The darkness of night had fallen and only the light from the room was illuminating anything outside. It showed her the sweeping curve of the wooden railing and the gently blowing leaves of the trees in the distance.
There was that noise again. A scrabbling like an animal skittering against the wood. Jhan stepped between the two doors, large eyes trying to see into the shadows.
They were on Jhan all at once. Small, cat-like, she thought there were three, but they were clawing and ripping at her in such a fury that it was all she could do to defend her face and eyes. One lodged on her back, all four paws clamped on her as it attempted to grab her by the jugular. Another was on her arm, seeking the veins of her wrist. Another, or maybe it was two, were wildly trying to distract her until the others had done their murderous work, slashing at her face and vulnerable eyes from their swinging perch on the front of her dress.
None of Jhan’s skill had anything to do with killing small creatures, only men. She thrashed madly and slammed against the railing, trying to crush the beast on her back. The railing was low. As the others surged up her body, she lost her balance, doing a slow tumble into darkness. This time, there wasn’t a pool of water to break her fall.
Jhan’s arms and legs tangled in vines. She spun, cart wheeled, slid, and then hung for an instant while the creatures, startled by the fall, made good their escape. The shoves of their heavy bodies as they leapt, sent Jhan breaking through the vines. She fell again, red lights exploding behind her eyes as the breath was knocked out of her by something hard and excruciating slamming into her back.
“That’s not Avrilla,” a voice said, muffled yet clear enough to understand.
“Who, then?” Another voice, perplexed.
“Don’t know. Beautiful like her, though. A pity.”
“Close, maybe. Who could survive a fall like that?”
“We’ll have to try again.”
“No, we need another plan. Something surer to the mark.”
There was pain. Jhan didn’t want to wake to it. It was like fire all
along her back. Her head pounded with it and one elbow throbbed in time to the
beating of her heart. She should have been dead. She remembered the clawing,
biting animals, the fall, and the non too gentle landing. She didn’t want
to see what that fall had left of her. Her bravery was long gone.
“It’s all right, Jhan,” Kile’s voice said in her ear, maybe guessing at her reluctance and it’s cause. “You have some scratches, and a nasty bruise along your back and elbow, but you are all right.”
“How could that be?’ Jhan muttered, winced, and opened her eyes; curiosity compelling her at last.
Kile was looking down at Jhan, very close. Daylight streamed through the open doors of the balcony and it made a halo of his gold curls. He smiled at her and it was as bright as the sun.
Jhan reached up and touched a stray curl, smiling in return, never having thought to see him in this world again. “Do you know how handsome you are?”
“I am vanity itself, and you know it,” Kile chuckled, but there was a strain of concern in his voice as well. “How do you feel?”
“Like I fell off of a balcony,” Jhan retorted and let the lock of hair fall. She gripped the blanket covering her with both hands and wriggled her toes. Relief flooded her when they moved. “I see that I didn’t break my back. Any idea how I survived?”
“First tell me how it happened,” Kile replied.
Jhan shivered and reached out, clasping his hand in hers. “I heard a noise. I went out on the balcony to see what it was. These... creatures, I don’t what they were, but they were determined to make a meal of me. They were all over me before I could move and then... I guess I fell over the railing.”
“There are vines under the balcony,” Kile told her and his hand tightened hard on hers, betraying how much he had been afraid for her. “You fell into them, I think, and they broke your fall nearly to the ground. The palace guard found you. There was confusion as to who you were.”
“I remember...” Jhan frowned. “Someone thought I was Avrilla. I heard a voice.” Jhan went very pale. “Kile! I think someone was trying to kill Avrilla! They must have thought, in the dark, that I was her. Those creatures were set on me deliberately!”
“You know this?” Avrilla was suddenly in Jhan’s range of sight. Her dark hair was caught back at the nape of her neck, making her face look very long and very grim. She wore a plain, black dress and it swished in a long trail behind her as she approached the bed. She looked tired, very stark, and very bitter.
“Yes, I know,” Jhan replied as she recovered from her start of surprise. “There were two voices. One said that they would have to try and kill you in another way.”
“You didn’t recognize them?”
Jhan scowled. “I haven’t exactly been invited to any gatherings, Avrilla. Besides the servants, the only Alamien I’ve heard speak is you and your mother.”
Avrilla ignored Jhan’s petulance. She scowled back at her, but her thoughts were suddenly elsewhere. “One doesn’t have to look far for enemies here. The Saviane Bloodline stands closest to the throne. They’ve been demanding my death and the end of Telestar since my birth. They are at least cousins, but they don’t have the mental abilities of the Telestar line.”
“All Alamien are cousins,” Kile muttered.
“True,” Avrilla nodded. “We had to interbreed fiercely to save us when we first came to this land. That’s why we still have so many Deviations, and why we try so hard to root them out. The mental abilities go with the Telestar line. That’s why I was allowed to live. The Alamien think it’s too important to let it die out if there is a chance to save it.”
Jhan remembered the attack of the Queen vividly. “Maybe it should die out,” she said angrily. “Being able to kill with your mind... what’s it good for?”
Avrilla raised eyebrows, surprised by Jhan’s ignorance. “It’s not only that, it’s also a body sense. It allows a Telestar to look within and see the matrix of a person. It allows us to see whether someone’s Intended is a viable mate for another Alamien. It keeps our bloodlines strong. The Alamien would have weakened and died out without it, might still if I don’t breed. We are still precariously balanced on the edge of extinction, even after all of these years. There are simply not enough of us.”
“There might be if you didn’t insist on such stringent physical characteristics,” Jhan pointed out. “Who cares if someone’s hair is brown or gold?”
“Alamien care,” Avrilla replied and her bitterness deepened. “They are fanatic that we must remain as we began, so that when we return, our people will welcome us back.”
“Fanatic enough to want you to die,” Kile said. “Well, you won’t be able to breed with me as your Intended. Why doesn’t that make them happy?”
“They know it’s a lie,” Avrilla replied. She raised her chin and looked down her long height at both Kile and Jhan. “They know Darkai has almost convinced my father to allow him to use his machines on me. He wanted you as an example, but he may have convinced my father without you. My mother is another matter. She too would be willing for the mental power to die out to keep the Bloodline pure. She may be behind this plot to kill me as well.”
“That’s sad,” Jhan said softly, suddenly sympathetic. “Your own mother...”
Avrilla tossed her head, not wanting sympathy and casting it aside. “She’s hardly been that.”
There was a silence and then Jhan tried once more to make Avrilla see reason. “We’re going home, Avrilla. You have to stop this madness of having Kile as your Intended. People have tried to kill me twice. That means I saved your life twice. That should mean something. That should be enough to win my freedom and Kile's."
“No,” Avrilla replied coldly.
Jhan felt whitely furious. It made her head pound like an anvil. “Why not? You wanted me to stay here and be your friend, but you’ve hardly come here more than a few times in the past three weeks! Even then you were on business, wanting to take Kile somewhere. Was I wrong? Are you interested in Kile after all and not me?’
Avrilla’s face went very still. Her black eyes were flat pools. “I am Alamien. Humans are interesting, but the interest you speak of, I’m incapable of feeling. Your Kile is not Alamien. He cannot stir me with his Readiness. I am also not as shameless as others who take male humans to bed to slake their curiosity. You, on the other hand, touch a deeper part of me. It is enough that you are here. Duty keeps me from you, but your very presence is a comfort. If you were Alamien, we might have claimed Retie and become companions.”
Jhan wanted to weep for frustration. It was Kile who kept her from screaming a reply. He bowed to Avrilla, all courtesy, but edged with frigid coldness. “Jhan needs to rest, Princess. Perhaps if you visited later...?”
“Of course.” Avrilla was gracious, but she left with a clear anger.
“The others I could keep out, but I don’t have any way to command a princess,” Kile lamented.
“I think you just did,” Jhan replied.
Jhan struggled to sit up and was surprised that she could with Kile’s hand under her elbow helping her. Aside from the feeling that there was a very large, bone deep bruise on her back, a shooting pain in her other arm, and a throbbing headache, everything else seemed to be unharmed. The scratches were a sharper pain, but none of them were more than a startled cat might make. They had been too intent on finding a vein and killing her outright.
“Every time I leave you alone, something happens,” Kile grumbled, but he was only joking and Jhan managed a smile.
“At least there isn’t any permanent harm.” Jhan pushed the covers back and winced as she saw the scratches and the bruises on her bare flesh. Kile ran a finger over a particularly large scratch. “Do you think they trained those creatures to attack me?”
Kile shrugged. “Are you certain you didn’t just imagine-”
“No, I didn’t imagine it,” Jhan snapped back, smile dropping. “I heard them, Kile. They were trying to kill Avrilla.”
“The guards who found you said that those creatures are known for attacking anything that stands still long enough,” Kile told her thoughtfully. “They mostly confine themselves to birds, but attacking Alamien and Human isn’t unknown.”
“Kile... I know what I heard,” Jhan insisted again.
“All right,” Kile relented, but looked very troubled. “I need to get you out of this somehow. Maybe you should go back with Captain Narin.”
“No!” Jhan said it hard and final. “We’ll stick this out together.” She held out her arms and Kile slid onto the bed and into them. Jhan held him close.
“You’re stronger in more ways than one,” Kile said suddenly. “You’re willing to stand up and argue. You haven’t done that since...”
“Since the desert,” Jhan finished in a small voice. “”You’re worth fighting for Kile. You’re worth facing fears and nightmares. I’ll face murderers and arrogant, selfish princesses too if I have to.”
“Good,” Kile replied and kissed the top of her head. “I didn’t really want you to go.”
There was a knock on the door. Kile sighed irritably. “Time to face the others. They’ve been patient long enough, I suppose.”
Kile rose and headed for the door. Jhan pulled her covers up over her again and was greeted by the relieved smiles of Rehn, Jaross, and Tevar as Kile let them in.
Jaross, for once, wasn’t rude to Kile, but he brushed past him to come to Jhan’s bedside. “How do you feel?”
“Terrible headache, but otherwise just shaken up,” Jhan replied. “Amazing isn’t it?”
“Incredible!” Rehn exclaimed, coming to the bedside as well. “You always say you haven’t any luck, Little Lady, but you seem to survive the most perilous situations!”
“Indeed,” Tevar agreed soberly. He looked at Kile. “Care to tell me what happened? Has Jhan been able to throw some light on the situation?”
Jaross was wide eyed, turning to look at Tevar and then Kile. “It wasn’t an accident?”
“I’m not clumsy, Jaross. You should know that,” Jhan told him crossly. “After I fell, I heard two men talking over me. They had mistaken me for Avrilla. They had been trying to kill her- are still trying to kill her.”
Tevar went very grim. “Captain Kile, we have to resolve this situation, and soon. We can’t become embroiled in Alamien politics. We must be seen as a neutral party. You must speak with Princess Avrilla, make her understand how important it is for you to leave this place.”
“Already tried,” Kile grumbled. “She wasn’t hearing us. She thinks there is some sort of bond between her and Jhan. She won’t give it up.”
“Perhaps, if I speak to her...”
“You can try,” Jhan said, but without much hope. “but I don’t think she’s telling the whole truth. I think she wants me to stay here for reasons other than companionship. Maybe she needs me to be her decoy, draw off her would be assassins?”
Kile considered it and took it seriously. “It would explain her sudden interest in returning home after we found her. She was quite taken with the fact that, though you are smaller, you are like her in coloring.”
"Th-That’s horrible!" Rehn spluttered, his open face astonished and outraged. He stood closer to Jhan as if he would protect her. “We have to get you and Kile away from here. There must be a way!”
“It’s death if Kile leaves,” Jhan replied helplessly. “They don’t seem to be taking Avrilla’s claim of Intended seriously, she certainly doesn’t, but their law might see it differently. They might pursue us.”
“And we might give such an insult to the royal family,” Kile interjected, “that they may declare embargo, or even war, on Pekarin. I can’t chance that either. My duty is clear in this matter.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Tevar said and he meant it. “I’m sure you’ve discussed with Jhan that your duty comes before wife, children, and certainly self. You took an oath to serve your king.”
Kile bristled. “I’m not a child for you to remind me of it, Captain Narin.”
“I guess that means that we have to stay,” Jhan sighed.
“But we’re here to protect you now,” Jaross assured her. “We’ll keep guard.”
“Keep guard on my gilded cage,” Jhan mused bleakly.
“A cage for all of us, until this is sorted out,” Kile agreed. “We can only hope that it does sort itself out, and soon.”
Rehn looked about appreciatively. “I don’t want to make light of the situation, but Bheni is going to be very angry that she missed this. I told her it was going to be a very boring trip, just to get you and bring you back.”
“You should know by now,” Jhan replied irritably, “that nothing that concerns me is ever lacking in disaster.”
“Too true,” Narin agreed and then , “Have you seen a healer?”
“They don’t know anything about Humans, I was told,” Kile replied tightly. “They acted as if I’d asked them to treat my imala.”
“I know something about it,” Narin confessed, but his face went grim on old memories. “I’ve been in a bad way a few times... more than a few times.” He didn’t even glance at Kile, but Kile reddened uncomfortably. “I’ve picked up some things from Perazii. If you’ll allow me, Princess?”
Jhan drew into herself. “I-” she looked at Kile to help her.
“I looked,” Kile told her. “I didn’t see anything broken. I’m sure you’re all right.”
“Then, no,” Jhan replied to Tevar’s question. “I trust Kile-”
“And not me,” Tevar finished. “That is most unwise. Some hurts aren’t so easy to see.”
Jhan could see both Rehn and Jaross frozen in morbid curiosity. They wanted her to agree with Tevar. They wanted to see what they only suspected. It made Jhan furious. It made her feel like a freak. Kile wasn’t even willing to help, caught by embarrassment because of Tevar and a doubt of his own ability.
Jhan jerked her covers off, startling everyone, including herself. They gawked, mouths open. “Seen enough?” Jhan asked after a moment. “Should I charge you for the privilege?”
Tevar was the first to recover. He closed his mouth and gave Jhan an admonishing look. “You didn’t need to do that.” He picked her covers up from the floor and began to put them back. Jaross knotted his hands in them and prevented him. His eyes were running up and down Jhan’s body as if he had seen a revelation.
“I never suspected,” Jaross said in a half strangled voice. “I saw only one thing when you were a prisoner of Dagara. I never really looked at the rest of you. Kile was right.”
Jhan shivered. “About what?”
“Dagara made you perfect. Every line smooth. Every part of you in proportion." Jaross’s eyes came to Jhan’s middle. There was hardly anything to see, but it was enough to cause Jaross to put the covers over her himself. Rehn was looking green as well, but he hid it in outrage, more at Jhan than at Jaross.
“Why did you do that?” Rehn demanded.
“So that you could stop imaging something gross,” Jhan retorted. “I want you to stop staring! I want you to stop tormenting Kile with those looks in your eyes. Now you know. It was worth a little pain and humiliation.”
“Get out.” That was Kile, voice coming from deep within him like a volcano about to erupt. He ran his hands over his face as if he could barely keep from clawing himself or attacking them.
“There is still-” Tevar began, but Kile wasn’t hearing him.
“I know that Jhan is all right. I won’t have anyone touching her. This-This was terrible enough!” Kile went to the door and opened it wide. He stood by it stiffly, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “She is my wife! She is my love!” he said it furiously, almost as if he were shouting at himself. “She doesn’t deserve this dishonor!”
“We didn’t mean any,” Tevar replied quietly.
Rehn was guilty. “We’re friends, Kile, but we’re also human. We can’t help being curious. We didn’t want this though.” He didn’t open his mouth to blame Jhan and her temper for her own humiliation. He knew better. Kile wasn’t in the mood to hear criticism of his beloved.
“We came to see how she was,” Jaross was angry enough to defend himself. “I certainly didn’t ask-”
“Go!” Kile roared.
Jaross scowled, but he went. The others followed, Rehn with a quick apology as he exited last. Kile slammed the door behind them and threw the bolt. He leaned against the door then and met Jhan’s eyes.
“May I ask,” Kile demanded. “What made you do such a thing?”
Jhan’s smile was more of a snarl. “Pure temper. You saw the way they kept trying to see what I had. They would have like nothing better than to have Tevar strip and examine me right in front of their eyes. Sometimes, I wonder why I even like them.”
“You know why.”
“No one else will have us around.”
“There is that,” Jhan agreed, “but I hardly think that excuses boorishness.”
“Men will always be men,” Kile lamented and left the door to come to Jhan’s bedside. “I think Jaross has fallen in love with you again.”
Jhan snorted. “With part of me maybe.”
Jhan shivered. She was regretting her temper now, feeling embarrassed and hurt. ”You wouldn’t think,” she said, “that after all I’d been through, I would have done that. I should have been cowering in terror at the mere prospect.”
Kile grunted, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “I was as shocked as the rest of them. I am your husband, you understand. I should have challenged them all to avenge our dishonor.”
“Even though I’m the one who did the dishonoring?” Jhan raised eyebrows mockingly.
“They shouldn’t have looked,” Kile replied carefully.
Jhan found the power to smile. “I would have looked too. I am a freak, after all.”
“A lovely freak,” Kile agreed and smiled in return. “The most beautiful freak I have ever had the pleasure to fall in love with.”
Jhan bristled, on the edge of temper. “You’re a freak, too, beloved. A freak of a man who loves riding simmering volcanoes."
“Simmering?” Kile laughed. "Erupting, exploding, fiery-” he paused and gentled, but he still smiled. “I have missed that, Little Lady. I have missed your arguments, your anger, and your stubbornness." He thought for a moment. “Your fearlessness most of all.”
Jhan considered, remembering. “Perazii gave me good advice. It took awhile to sink in, for me to really believe it. He said that I had to expect to get hurt and not be afraid of it. After all, what could they do that hasn’t been done worse? I-I had to believe that about you as well.” When Kile went grim and hurt, Jhan rushed on. “Not that I thought you would ever hurt me, but I had- I had to expect it. I had to overcome the fear. I had to find a way to make what we were different from what those others were. It was easy enough once I stopped being afraid. I could see then, that I was giving my love with my body, not just allowing you to use it as you wanted.”
Kile nodded, trying to understand. “I do that,” he said at last.
“Love you with my body. I told you, I couldn’t separate the two. They are my whole self. I’m giving myself to you, giving you love and pleasure.” Kile frowned, searching for words. "When it gave you such pain before, I couldn’t bear it. When you feared it, it was like you were rejecting me, everything that I was. I couldn’t get past that, no matter how much I tried.”
Kile stiffened, outraged. “Sorry? Why should you have to be sorry? You were the one tortured, raped, kidnapped.... If you had never wanted to touch so much as my fingertips, I should have been accepting, happy. I wasn’t. My needs are too strong. They conquer even my love for you.”
Jhan gripped his hand and kissed it. “We have to hold together, Kile. We have to get through this. This peace we’ve found, I can’t regret now the things that gave it to us. This place is healing me, healing us, giving us the time and the privacy we’ve always needed. I can put up with Avrilla, our irritating friends, and even an assassin or two, if we can keep what we’ve gained.”
“We will keep it.” Kile promised. “They can’t make me feel guilty for what we have, what we are. They can be as shocked as they want, they can say whatever they want.” His hand slid beneath the covers and played between her legs, smiling, accepting all that she was. “If they only knew what joy you could give, what love, what passion, they would envy me.”
Jhan half closed her eyes in pleasure, opening for him, trusting as he began undressing and kissing her as he slipped under the covers with her. He made love to her as if he were claiming her; possessive, gentle, and confidence itself. She ignored her aches and pains and allowed it, her hands gripping his back and her lips kissing his shoulder tenderly. He was hers too, and he knew it thoroughly. He was a prisoner of love as well as passion, her body and soul a drug he couldn’t get enough, even though it was barbed with the thorns of her temper and stubbornness. He liked the fierceness of her, he liked the contention, and the battle of wills. Having her at the end of it, made him feel more a man; mate and mate, instead of dominant and submissive.
When Kile lay beside Jhan afterwards, sweat making his hair curl tighter and his skin glisten, she marveled at his great body and his large passion, reddened with heat, lax, and sated.
Kile was a man’s man. He made Jhan feel like a woman, even when he reached for that part of her that was not anything like a woman and teased her there until she climaxed. She was as delicate as glass and completely feminine in those burly arms. What she had didn’t compare at all to the pulsing, stallion like, manhood of Kile. Nested in golden hair that climbed up his belly, and hung with two, rather large, gold dusted weights, he was obscenely equipped for innumerable female conquests. What Jhan had, compared to that, was a laughable shadow; a mockery, no more.
Jhan found herself easily considering herself something different, not the mutilated boy fit only for disgust and humiliation for Kile and herself, but , maybe, something she could accept. She would always be Jhanian Kevelt, a man, but cruel hands had made her into something more, or less... more if she allowed herself to accept and to stop fighting against it.
“You’re thinking,” Kile murmured into her hair. “That’s never good.”
“This time,” Jhan assured him, “It is.”
(Conspiracy of Shadows)
“They could have come and asked us personally,” Kile snarled as he paced the room.
“Why?” Tevar countered. “I’m your commanding officer. They know I have the power to order you.”
Kile confronted Tevar abruptly. “But you won’t.”
Tevar didn’t reply, only frowned and stared down at the arms he had crossed over his chest. He was standing stiffly, facing Kile, Jhan, Rehn, and Jaross. Finally, he said carefully, “The King of the Alamien requested, and I stress, requested, that we escort Princes Avrilla and Darkai Li Embroideries, on an important journey. He told me that it must be done under utmost secrecy, so much so, that he couldn’t entrust Alamien soldiers to the mission.”
“Where are they going?” Jaross asked. He was sitting in a chair, booted feet stretched out and hands lax on the chair arms. He looked perfectly at ease and ready for any challenge.
“I haven’t been privy to that bit of information” Tevar replied, obviously angry about that. “Darkai will lead the company. I’ve been told that we are to follow and obey all of his commands.”
Kile ran a hand distractedly through his gold curls. He turned to Jhan. Jhan was anxious, sitting ramrod straight on a cushioned stool. “I have to go, Little Love. If the King ‘requests’, then that’s as good as a command. I’ll have to leave you here with Rehn-”
“I’m afraid not,” Tevar cut in, eyes coming up at last. “The King wishes Jhan to accompany Avrilla. He’s heard that Jhan is nobly born; he thought her a fitting companion, and servant, for his daughter, since she will not be able to bring any Alamien women on the journey.”
Jhan said through gritted teeth. “I’m not anyone’s servant!”
“You are a princess,” Tevar agreed, “but it isn’t meant as an insult. They way Alamien think of Humans, he actually considers it an honor.”
“Not the way they think of Avrilla,” Kile retorted. “The King probably couldn’t get anyone else to do it.”
Tevar scowled. “Be that as it may, Jhan has still been requested to attend Princess Avrilla. You can decline, Jhan,” Tevar told her seriously, “but it will be chancing an insult to the royal family. Besides, if you accept, you’ll be able to stay with Kile. This journey will probably not be too difficult. I can’t see the King endangering his only heir needlessly.”
“No! I’m not going to let her do it!” Kile shook his head emphatically. “Jhan has been through enough! She still hasn’t recovered all of her strength.”
Rehn’s eyes were on Jhan. “I know that look on your face,” he said to her with a sigh. “You’re going to go, aren’t you, Jhan?”
Jhan threw up her hands angrily. “What else am I supposed to do?”
Kile confronted her. “You can trust me to get done quickly and come back. This won’t be the only time that we’ll have to be apart, Jhan. You are a soldier’s wife. You are going to have to get used to-”
“Not now, I won’t!" Jhan retorted. "This stinks to high heaven! Avrilla and Darkai are planning something and it includes you and me, Kile. I’m not going to sit here, in the lap of luxury, while you go off and face them alone. If I have to play at Avrilla’s maid, I will.”
“No!” Kile repeated once again. “You have suffered enough, Jhan! I won’t chance anything happening to you!”
“It’s my choice!” Jhan stood and lifted her chin, finding some of her old fire and welcoming it’s sting. “Avrilla doesn’t own me and neither do you, Kile Helarion Dor. I am going, and you don’t have any say in it at all!”
“You are my wife,” Kile retorted, his voice low and tight and his blue eyes intense. “In this, you will do as I say.”
Jhan stared back defiantly. “I will go where I please.”
Kile half turned to Tevar, suddenly the perfect soldier. “Sir, Jaross and I will gather our things. How long do we have to prepare?”
Tevar stared from Jhan to Kile as if he were waiting for an explosion. “Midnight, Captain Kile. We will meet with Darkai on the Southern road leading out of the Silverwood.”
“Good,” Kile replied with a nod. “That will give me time to make sure that my wife is still welcome to stay here and, if not, perhaps welcome with the Pekarin ambassador.”
“You can’t tell anyone of our departure,” Tevar warned quickly. “The King didn’t explain, but I suppose it has something to do with the attempts on Avrilla’s life. He must not want her assassins following us.”
“I understand, sir,” Kile replied. “I will be discrete."
Rehn smiled as if Kile were being completely foolish. He looked at Jhan from under his mop of brown, sun streaked hair, and arched an inquiring eyebrow. “Shall I help you with your things, Jhan? I hope you have some other clothes to wear besides those fancy gowns?”
Jhan bit her lip uncertainly and then smiled too. “I do have some other things to wear. They found our pack beasts wandering the forest a few days ago. All of our packs were still on them, untouched.”
“Well,” Rehn continued confidently, “between all of us, we should be able to keep you safe.”
“Rehn!” Kile warned.
Jaross stood, frowning at Kile incredulously. “You don’t really believe that you’re going to win this one, do you, Kile?”
“I don’t see that you’re helping me to!” Kile snarled back.
“I won’t help either,” Tevar told him. “It’s in the best interest of Pekarin that Jhan come with us.”
“Cheer up, Kile,” Jaross told him. “You never had a chance, but conceding defeat has a sweet penalty.” He grinned at Jhan.
“Be ready then to leave at midnight,” Tevar told them. “Come with Jaross and I, Rehn. If you intend to go with us, I’ll have to brief you on soldier etiquette. Jaross can put together our packs while I do that.” He eyed Kile’s angry face and Jhan’s downcast eyes. “Besides, I think Kile and Jhan are about to have some more words and I don’t want to be seared by their heat.”
They left, closing the door firmly behind them. Kile paced, not trusting himself to speak. Finally, he fetched up in front of Jhan, furious. “Do you want to die?”
Jhan looked up then, expression stiff, but determined. “No, I don’t want that, Kile.”
“Then, stay here!” Kile begged.
Jhan’s expression turned bitter. “That’s laughable! You actually think I’m going to be safer here than with you and my friends! They hate what I am, Kile. The Alamien despise me for being Human and the Humans despise me for being a freak and a pervert. If you think even the Pekarin ambassador is going to treat me well after you’re gone... I won’t be safe here, Kile, or anywhere else. I’ve been hiding in your formidable shadow up until now. Once you’re gone, the threat of retaliation from an indifferent brother and a Human king won’t keep them in check for long. Even returning to Pekarin, well, we found out how safe that journey was.”
“You aren’t well,” Kile persisted as if he were choking back tears.
Jhan flexed her arm, the one the arrow had gone through, just missing delicate bones. She touched the scar on her belly, eyes never leaving Kile’s face. “They ache now and then, but I have my strength back. I won’t stay behind, Kile.”
“And if you can’t keep up?”
“Avrilla won’t let them leave me behind,” Jhan was certain.
Kile shook his head and walked away. He stopped after a few paces, but didn’t turn to face Jhan. “If we only knew what this was all about! Why the secrecy?”
“That’s obvious,” Jhan told him. “Darkai intends to take Avrilla somewhere quiet where he can use his machines on her without Alamien interference. Where we fit in, I’m not sure.”
“Do we fit in?” Kile wondered. “Maybe we’re just a convenient guard and you’re just an after thought.”
Jhan shook her head. “I wish I could believe that, but I can’t. Something’s going on. Avrilla confesses that she can’t do without me, yet she’s hardly visited me. Darkai, I think, is probably still eager to get his hands on me. He’s used to getting what he wants. Figuring out what he wants is harder. He almost demanded that I be changed back into a man. When I refused, he went to the other extreme, as if he had wanted to make sure of my mind, or to assuage some guilt.”
“Guilt?” Kile snorted. “That man thinks he’s right, and has a right, to do what he wants. I can’t imagine him feeling guilty about it. I think he just wanted you in his hands badly enough to make you into whatever you wished. Why, though, is the question. If he simply wanted to show the King his skill, he had enough proof saving your life from that arrow wound. There is something else, Jhan. Can’t you see that, to avoid these plots concerning you, it would be better if you stayed behind?”
“And leave you to face their scheming?” Jhan went to Kile and took his hands in hers. She looked up into his eyes and held them. “They’ll make me go, Kile. You know they will. It’s gone too far already, haven’t you felt it? A least if I seem to go willingly, they might be careless enough to let something slip.”
Kile pulled her close, pressing his cheek against the top of her head. “If something happens to you-”
“I have you, Rehn, Jaross, and Tevar Narin,” Jhan said, smiling with a bravery she didn’t feel. “What can happen?”
“Something always does,” Kile lamented.
“Maybe, not this time.”
“When I get you safely back to Pekarin, I’m going to lock you in our room and never let you out,” Kile breathed in misery.
“I may let you if this goes wrong,” Jhan replied softly and then buried her face against his chest to hide her fear.
They gathered an hour before midnight, all of their things packed and orderly. Jhan yawned and tried not to reveal how tired she was. She had grown lazy in the past month, she thought, going to bed early and sleeping late. Now, she could barely think. Dressed once again in her traveling leathers, she sat limply in a chair and waited for someone to decide it was time to leave.
Tevar was efficiency itself. He rechecked every pack, speaking in low tones to Kile and Jaross as he made certain nothing was out of order. Rehn was rubbing his eyes wearily and seemed just as tired as Jhan was. Only once or twice did Tevar question him, and that was about Jhan’s packs.
At last, they stood and filed out of the rooms and into the hallway. Jhan gave the place a long, last look. Meeting Kile’s eyes briefly, she saw her own expression of regret mirrored there. Not knowing what was going to happen in the future, the memory of their time there was going to be something they would cherish.
The palace seemed empty. A lone servant, curious, but not enough to pause or question, was the only life they saw other than the intermittent guards that were as silent as statues at their posts.
Their footsteps were muffled on rich carpets, and they refrained from speaking. They were like ghosts, and the guards were as unconcerned as the servant had been. It seemed anyone was all right, as long as they were Human and LEAVING the palace.
An ornate archway, bracketed by hanging lanterns, opened out into the street. There, as in the palace, it was unnaturally quiet and very beautiful. Jhan’s tired eyes widened and she fleetingly wondered if she were dreaming. It was all too perfect, too manicured, and too still to be believable.
The wide thoroughfare was paved with a blue stone, much like lapis lazuli. It wound in and out of residential, and trading establishments, like a flowing river. The buildings themselves were works of high art, stately elevations adorned with mosaics and carved with an almost art nouveau splendor. Their widows had glass; a type of glass that shimmered like colorful prisms in the light of the wrought iron lanterns that hung from every free point. Trees sprouted out of the pavement everywhere, but the canopy was thin, thin enough to let in moonlight.
Jhan looked back at the castle and swallowed. It was like something out of a fairy tale. It was made out of a white, pristine stone, but it didn’t have any visible mortar points and it seemed to glitter as the light struck it. Towers were pointed at their roofs and balconies spilled with vines and flowers like so many waterfalls. Towering over the archway they had just passed through, were the statues of two Alamien, a man and a woman, faces still and blank, arms intertwined. They wore plaited crowns on their heads carved with leaves and berries.
“The ancestors of the Telestar,” Kile murmured in Jhan’s ear and then was taking her elbow lightly and urging her to follow them.
Even deep within the Alamien city, everything continued to be clean, neat, and tidy beyond belief. In Pekarin, there had always been noises of one kind or another, pets, late night workers coming home, arguments, carousers; the constant sounds that had always seemed like the heartbeat of the place, accepted and ignored. In this Alamien city, all of that was absent. It was as if a collective mind had gone to sleep in unison.
Jhan followed the others through that silent city. She waited for the pavement to end and the soft loam of a forest to begin, but the road wound onwards and then curved back around to follow the flow of the city. Bordering it was a waist high wall of white stone. They stopped long before they reached it.
Puzzled, Jhan watched Kile approach a very wide, wooden box. It was gated in wrought iron, twisted to look like a vine, and one guard, a tall, bored Alamien, only asked Kile a few perfunctory questions in an undertone that Jhan couldn’t hear. Whatever Kile answered, the man seemed satisfied. He opened the gate and Kile motioned them all inside.
“What-” Jhan began to ask, but Kile shook his head and put a finger to his lips as he drew her close to him to allow the others to squeeze in with their packs.
Tevar closed the gate and the guard threw a lever. Jhan was startled by the soft whir of machinery and she clutched at Kile as the box began to lower slowly. It dipped below the level of the white wall and then all went dark as it passed a very thick foundation. Jhan wasn’t able to see again until Rehn lit a very small lantern in his hand. He shielded it with his body, turning inwards as if he feared someone might see it.
“What’s going on?” Jhan whispered.
Kile suddenly understood. “That’s right!” he whispered back and then chuckled. “You were unconscious when you arrived. You don’t know that the city is built in the trees!”
“In the trees?” Jhan was astounded. “I- I would never have known! It was all so perfect! Why would they do a crazy thing like that? For defense?”
Jaross retorted, “Remind me never to let you command a defense, Jhan. The last thing anyone would want to do is try and defend themselves in a tree! What’s to stop anyone from burning it down?”
“They did it to get some sunlight without having to chop all of the trees down,” Tevar told Jhan. “This wood is like iron and the trees grow to incredible heights. Can you imagine the danger of having the city on the ground for a huge tree or a branch to fall on?”
Jhan swatted at a biting insect, “It still seems ridiculous. I would have cleared the trees and used them to build with.”
“Alamien have always worried more about aesthetics, than practicality,” Tevar said. “We wouldn’t be going through this if they just accepted that Avrilla is a different color, but otherwise normal.”
“Is she?” Jhan replied. “She said a few things that makes me wonder about that. Her odd coloring may be only a small symptom of deeper genetic problems. Maybe we’re judging them too harshly?”
“And maybe not,” Jaross growled. “The Kevelt like their blue eyes. They pride themselves on them. The gold hair in Kile’s family is prized. De Oro’s and Bheni’s dark skin is much admired. The Alamien wouldn’t be alone in encouraging certain traits.”
“There’s a difference between encouraging traits people consider beautiful,” Jhan replied, “and zealously, and violently, weeding out undesirables to meet a stringent genetic standard. To think that they would go to such extremes for aesthetics sake... I don’t buy that at all. There must be some other reason.”
“Like the power of the Telestar?” Kile wondered.
“I don’t know," Jhan replied with a weary shrug, “but they aren’t Human and I don’t think we should make the mistake of treating them as if they were.”
“I would think,” Rehn said quietly, “that you would be well aware of how little reason people need to do something cruel, Jhan.”
Jhan was quiet, but not convinced.
The box touched the ground lightly. Kile swung open the gate and nodded to the guard nearby. The man said nothing as they walked by him, perhaps confident that the other guard above had done all that was necessary.
The forest about them was impenetrable darkness. Jhan shrank against Kile and he took her hand as he shouldered his pack. Rehn unshielded his lantern and walked ahead. Even then, it was an infinitesimal challenger to the velvet blackness, and Jhan wondered how they would find their way.
“There,” Kile said suddenly and Rehn’s lantern picked out a low fence. It curved off to their left and seemed designed to the level where a tall Alamien could set their hand easily and use it as a guide.
Kile was using it to lead them now, going faster and urging Jhan to be silent when she would have asked a question. She chewed on her bottom lip instead and stumbled along, wondering how far they would have to walk and if their imala would be at the end of it. She prayed that they would be. Her body wasn’t made for that kind of endurance and she feared, if they were meant to walk the entire way, she would have to stay behind.
The walk was totally silent, but for their labored breathing. It threw Jhan back into memory, her captivity at the heart of a mountain by Selaya. It made her shiver. Kile felt it through his hand. He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze to the point of pain. It gave Jhan something to think about other than the silence.
They were among beasts and men before Jhan realized it. She started violently, struggling against Kile’s grip, until she heard Avrilla’s voice ask something and Tevar’s quick reply. She calmed then, but her heart was racing and the sweat of fear beaded her forehead.
“Here,” Kile told Jhan and guided her to an imala. “We can’t chance any more light until we’re well away.”
Jhan felt for the stirrup and then mounted. She settled her light weight and took up the reins of the imala. It was placid beneath her, reluctant to move, even when its stable mates began to move away. Jhan switched the beast gently and it gave an alarming honk that echoed through the trees as it began to amble.
Rehn’s lantern was extinguished. They moved along in silence, only the soft plods of beast hooves sounding on soft forest loam. Jhan couldn’t imagine how they were finding their way. She had to rely on her imala to follow, trusting to its sharper senses. Still, its huge, warm body was a comfort, and the fear didn’t return. Jhan felt, instead, a muted excitement.
The way was difficult and twisting. Unable to go straight on, they had to weave in and out of the huge tree trunks, avoiding roots by feel alone. Once or twice, Jhan heard a beast stumble, and once, she heard one fall, it’s rider cursing loudly. He was silenced by a gruff reprimand, and everything was quickly sorted out, both rider and animal safe.
The time between midnight and dawn seemed eternal. Jhan caught herself nodding in the saddle, lulled by the beasts rocking gait, but Kile, now and then reaching out to touch her in concern, kept Jhan from falling asleep completely and maybe falling from the saddle altogether.
When they broke from the trees, they found the morning sun well on its way into the sky. A plain of softly waving grass stretched out before them to the horizon. Jhan blinked at it, trying to adjust her eyes to the sudden light. She shielded them with one hand and looked about her to see who her mysterious companions were.
Jhan didn’t know whether to be afraid or relieved. Twenty two humans were mounted on imala all about her. They weren’t in uniforms. They wore plain, leather riding clothes, and were as rough looking a their rangy mounts. Avrilla and Darkai sat horses off to one side, aloof and eyes on the distance. Next to them, on a black imala, sat a strange Alamien. When he snapped a command to two of the humans, Jhan could tell that he was their leader by the way they obeyed without question.
Jhan was tightly ringed by Tevar, Rehn, Kile, and Jaross. They were all stiffly alert, hands on their swords. It was for Tevar to ask questions, but he had trouble asking them without a tone of distrust.
“Princess Avrilla.” Tevar gave her a short bow in the saddle. “May I ask what is going on? Your father, the King, led me to believe that we would be your escort. With so many, I fail to see why it was important for me and my men to attend you.”
Darkai spoke, waspish and short. “You attend us, because the King wishes it, Captain!”
Tevar frowned, but he was too much of a soldier to be insolent. He gave a nod that was more of an angry jerk. “We are ready to do our duty.”
“Good.” Darkai looked past him at Jhan. He smiled, pleased. “Jhan Dor, you honor us with your presence. If you will attend the Princess Avrilla?”
Jhan didn’t want to leave the safety of her husband and her friends, but she didn’t want to look like a coward either. She urged her imala out of their circle and joined Avrilla. Avrilla reached out and touched her hand briefly, but didn’t keep it there. Jhan’s angry face told her where she stood.
“You will guard the princess and Jhan Dor,” Darkai commanded Tevar. “That is your paramount duty, do you understand? If we are attacked, you will ignore our lives and use your weapons to protect them.”
“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Kile muttered, but Tevar motioned him to silence.
“And these others?” Tevar asked. “Am I under their command or are they under mine?”
“Neither,” Darkai told him. "Alidae, here,” he motioned to the strange Alamien, “will command his mercenaries in all of our defense. He and his men will engage any enemy we are faced with, while you and yours do your duty. All of you are under my express command and no other.”
Alidae and Tevar sized each other up. Tevar was dark and hawk lean. Alidae had the impressive Alamien height and their beauty, though it was worn, weathered, and covered by his old leathers and weapons. With his short, gold hair, and frowning expression, only his purple eyes marked him out as something other than Human. He nodded to Tevar and Tevar returned the courtesy. They had found each other, in a silent exchange of words, acceptable.
Tevar turned his attention back to Darkai. “May I know where we are going now?”
Darkai grunted, “No, now let’s get going.”
Tevar gritted his teeth, but he didn’t complain. He motioned Rehn and his men to form a loose circle about Avrilla and Jhan, and kept that formation as they followed the others out onto the plain. They headed Southwest.
“Towards the Bhuntay clans,” Jaross observed. “That’s strange. What could they want out there? Those Humans barely know enough to rub two sticks together to make fire!”
“You’re exaggerating,” Kile broke in. “There’s a few settlements, though, as you say, they are rough.”
Jhan looked at Avrilla. Avrilla was draping a scarf over her head to escape the painful light. “Is Alidae your real Intended?”
“He is an outcast,” Avrilla replied sharply. “He isn’t even in the bloodlines. His mother went wild in her Readiness and ran through the streets. She incited a dozen men to Readiness with her and they fought and killed each other to breed her. One managed it, but he’ll bear scars. For punishment, she was exiled. There isn’t a greater punishment save death, than being forced among inferiors to bear a child seeded in such a manner. He doesn’t even have a name. Alidae. It means, ‘shame’, in Alamien.
“That wasn’t an answer,” Jhan noted, but Avrilla didn’t offer anything more.
The mercenaries were a varied lot. To an Alamien, they would have been horrifying, of every color from pale ivory to deepest bronze, they seemed made up from many countries. All of their gear looked well worn, and they had a casual air about them that told Jhan that they had been together a long time.
One of the men, the youngest, had a shock of flaming red hair and eyes as green as leaves. He had a long scar that ran from ear to ear and wore a brown bird feather knotted in his hair at the temple. Two others were the eldest, grizzled, gray veterans so alike they must have been twins. They were as dark as tanned leather and they both had faces furrowed with sun and experience. One man reminded Jhan sharply of Sael Ruon. He had the same coloring and build. Triple scars ran over each of his cheeks, deliberate, and proudly shown. He wore a scarf in his long braid, purple with a yellow slash. The others were plainer and harder to pick out, one from the other. They could have been anyone from Pekarin, not brash enough to look like soldiers, but not simple enough pass for common folk either. They all had the same, hardened, alert, look to them.
Jhan thought of cruelty, disgust, and maybe violence from these men, but then reminded herself that she was with her husband and her friends. She firmly reminded herself that she was with a formidable man and the princess heir of the Alamien. She finished by looking down at herself in her riding leathers. That had been a mistake, she thought, but even with men’s clothes on they surely wouldn’t be able to guess what she was? She felt her throat tighten. Unless someone had already told them.
“I won’t expect you to wait on me like a servant,” Avrilla suddenly said.
Jhan said through gritted teeth, “Good.”
“I only wished your companionship among all of these men.”
Jhan glared at her. She said, low and tight. “I’m not a man or a woman, or have you forgotten?”
Avrilla brushed that away. “I’m not either, at the moment, and neither is Alidae. His men are used to that. We don’t have to fear coarseness from them.”
That relieved Jhan, but she didn’t stop being angry. “Darkai has probably already told them that I’m Kile’s boy,” she growled sourly. “He’s told everyone else that.”
“Unfeeling. Cruel,” Avrilla agreed bitterly, “but he is necessary.”
Avrilla wrapped her veil tighter about her, a nervous gesture. “I have bowed to necessity, but under my terms. Machines won’t be used on me.”
Jhan wanted to ask more about that, but she shrugged, letting it go for later. “So, here I am, dragged along on your secret trip. When are you going to tell me why I’m really here?”
“You are very suspicious.”
“If you knew my life,” Jhan replied, “you wouldn’t wonder at it.”
“I need you. I need Alidae.”
“Does Alidae know that?”
Avrilla nodded. “He has accepted.”
“Then he is your Intended,” Jhan pressed.
“No,” Avrilla replied haughtily. “You need not ask again. You won’t be told until we reach our destination. If you knew, you might reveal it to the wrong people. The people who want my life, won’t lose our trail for long.”
“Then Jhan is your decoy,” Kile snarled, livid. “You wanted her to come because she looks like you!”
Avrilla smiled, but it wasn’t in humor. “I hadn’t thought of that, but it could be most effective.” She said impatiently, “You are blaming the wrong person for this injustice to Jhan, Lord Kile. It wasn’t I who asked that she come. It’s not my plan that includes her in our affairs. Left to myself, I would want only that, to be left to myself. The last thing that I wanted was to be the last gasp of the Telestar or to bring grief and pain to anyone, least of all Jhan. For that, you must lay the blame where it belongs; with my father and Darkai.”
“I can only follow orders,” Kile replied, blue eyes cold, “I’ll do that, whether I like those orders or not. Jhan is another matter. Where she is concerned... I hope you won’t get to find out how fiercely I’ll protect her from your plans.”
“She won’t be harmed in any way, that I’ll tell you at least,” Avrilla replied. “She will only be my companion, something not unbearable, I hope.” Her black in black eyes leveled with Kile’s, wanting him to believe her words. “Darkai has assured me that it will be a simple journey, there and back.”
Kile exchanged looks with Jaross, Rehn, and Tevar. Jhan didn’t miss it and sighed. They didn’t believe it and neither did she. She wondered if it were too late to turn back, but then looked at Kile and firmed her resolve. Avrilla had plans for him too, maybe something more than as her guard and a carrot on a stick to Jhan. To stay in safety, left to wonder when and if Kile would return to her, would have been torture. She firmed her resolve and looked again at her husband and friends. They were with her. They wouldn’t let anything happen to her. Jhan drew that false naivete around herself and found some comfort in it.
( Eye of the Storm)
The plains seemed hotter than before. The air shimmered in the distance, making the grass dissolve into mirage lakes. Jhan bowed her head and tried to persevere. They were all quiet, tired from the midnight march, and tense with the fear that someone might have followed.
Kile eyed the sun and the plains as if picking out landmarks or looking for ambushes. Tevar was more relaxed, almost nodding in the saddle. Rehn was mending a shirt with expert fingers. Jaross was murmuring some tune under his breath. Avrilla was as still as a statue.
Darkai rode ahead with the mercenaries. He spoke continuously with Alidae. Alidae was frowning under the onslaught of the sun, but he was also clearly annoyed at Darkai. His men, riding behind him, were grumbling. They looked as unwilling as everyone else to be going on that journey.
Their voices drifted back to Jhan. She tried to catch some of it. She could see that Kile was eager for that himself. Unfortunately, the wind picked up and muffled it too much. Kile looked over at Jhan with a frustrated growl.
“No, I didn’t hear anything either,” Jhan told him.
“You could still go back,” Kile told her, trying one last time.
“You could still desert and not go either,” Jhan retorted.
Kile went red. “You know I can’t do that.”
“And you know that I won’t be parted from you,” Jhan replied. “You are my life, Kile.”
“As you are mine,” Kile added, grudgingly relenting. “One can only try, though.”
“Don’t,” Jhan told him seriously. “Not again. I don’t want to be angry at you. That just wastes time. We don’t have enough of that.”
“Is that why you insisted?” Kile wondered, fear for her leaping into his eyes. “Is there something you’re not telling me? Is there a reason why you’re so anxious to be with me?” He swallowed. “Time isn’t shorter than I think it is, is it?”
“No,” Jhan reassured him quickly, reaching over the gulf between their horses to touch him on the arm. "I don’t know how long I have, Kile, but we both know it isn’t years. You warned me that you would be going away, bivouacking on border patrols, and doing courier and guard details outside of Pekarin. You told me that I would have to accept that. I don’t think I can. If I have to, I might even join the Pekarin army to go with you.”
“I would make certain that you didn’t,” Tevar warned Jhan quickly. His face was hard, but his eyes were sympathetic. “There’s nothing worse than putting two dear friends together in a mission or detail. They only think about each other, then, and making sure that neither of them gets hurt. You can’t do that when you are a soldier. Duty is always first. I wouldn’t let you follow Kile about either. I would dismiss Kile from duty if I thought that might happen.”
“You’re grasping, Jhan,” Jaross suddenly interjected firmly. “You’re afraid of loosing Kile. I can understand that, but you can’t smother him. This journey is different. You have to come or chance insulting the King of the Alamien. Other missions, other duties though, you simply can’t. You have to be like everyone else. You have to let go and hope your love comes back.”
Jhan was angry at their interference. It didn’t help her mood to know that they were right. She didn’t want to be wrong. She wanted to cling to Kile with all of her strength. She never wanted him out of her sight. She wanted to spend every moment she had left to her in his loving presence. It was impossible, stifling, and something Kile might grow to hate her for, but she couldn’t stop feeling that way.
Jhan slipped off of her imala with a shrug that said that she was on personal business. They hadn’t stopped for a noon rest and her bladder was ready to burst. She strode out into the tall grass, hearing her companions stop to wait for her and their low voices talking.
They hadn’t even questioned the revelation that her life wasn’t going to be long. It seemed to be something they had all guessed already. Only Jhan had been expert enough to keep it from herself. Light bones, thin blood, sensitive skin, a fast metabolism unregulated by important glands and hormones. It should have collapsed already, Jhan thought bitterly, and her bones should have weakened and broken into a millions pieces. Only some unknown trick of Dagara’s, or perhaps some aspect of Selaya’s healing, was keeping her in one piece. It couldn’t last. Jhan knew that she was burning it up, a wick lit at both ends, consuming itself on these journeys chosen and unchosen.
Jhan stopped and opened her pants. She was full enough to be swollen and she couldn’t wait to undress any further. Relief was instant and she couldn’t help a small sigh as she watered the grass for a long while.
Finished, Jhan buttoned her pants, straightened her clothes, and then began to turn back. She came face to face with the red haired mercenary. Green eyes were startled as they tried to puzzle out what they had just seen. They lit on the outline of Jhan’s small breasts and then traveled down to her crotch. Without saying anything, the young man finally turned and began relieving himself.
Jhan felt her face turn red, but her anger was without an outlet. He wasn’t saying anything. He hadn’t followed her for any purpose. He was just out there to do what she had been doing. If the mercenaries hadn’t known about her before, they would soon. This man wasn’t going to stay silent. Jhan could see it in the tenseness of his shoulders, his eagerness to return and tell the tale to his comrades.
Jhan walked up to the young man’s back. “What’s your name?”
The man started, almost urinating on himself. He finished, jerked, and buttoned his pants before he turned. “Trey.”
One name. That meant he was either disowned by his family or a no man’s bastard. “I’m Jhan Dor,” Jhan replied and plastered on a tight smile. “I’m also the brother of King Thaos of Karana, the second son of the Kevelt, a princess of Pekarin by decree of King Tekhal, wife of Kile Helarion Dor, a duke’s son, and now the friend of Princess Avrilla of the Telestar. If you think you’re going to make trouble for me, you had better reconsider it.”
The young man stared, his skin going paler and freckles standing out sharply. Questions were locked behind his lips. He was a roil of confusion. He was also petrified with respect by Jhan’s long list of titles.
“I-I never intended any such thing, Prince- princess? Jhan Dor, “the young man stammered.
Jhan hated his fear, hated being the cause of it, but she didn’t have any choice. “Is there anything you want to say?”
“No,” the man relied quickly. “M-May I go?”
Jhan nodded and the man scrambled away, the feather in his hair bobbing. Jhan took a deep breath to steady herself. She heard Kile call her name, perhaps having seen Trey’s nervous exit from the tall grass. That, and the rising smell of urine, shook her out of herself enough to begin walking back.
Jhan mounted her imala. Her face must have revealed something. Kile scowled. “What happened?”
Trey was up ahead, leaning towards a companion and whispering quickly. Jhan saw the man he was speaking to start and give a surreptitious glance backwards. When he saw Jhan’s eyes on him, he turned quickly back around and made a sharp hand motion to Trey.
“I think Trey just learned that some women can pass water standing up,” Tevar chuckled. “Am I right, Princess Jhanian?”
Jaross and Rehn both looked uncomfortable. Kile put a hand on his knife hilt and caressed it as if expecting to have to use it soon. Avrilla blinked at Jhan and then chuckled as well, but it was dark and not in the least bit humorous. “Is that what Darkai did to you? Made you into some sort of half creature? Now, maybe, you can fully understand why I don’t want him to have a free rein with me.”
“I never wondered at it,” Jhan seethed, “but I can’t understand why you won’t let me do the same. Like you, I want to be far away from Darkai and his machines.”
“I told you,” Avrilla replied, going grim. “It wasn’t my choice that you become embroiled in all of this. I would have left you with your man, safe and sound in the comfort of the palace. I would have had everything done there, among my people. Darkai and my father wished it otherwise.”
“You’re the one that kept us from leaving,” Jhan pointed out acidly.
“I still would keep you from leaving,” Avrilla admitted. “I’m sorry that you have been forced to submit to Darkai, but I’m not sorry that you are here, with me.”
“I’m not submitting to Darkai,” Jhan bit back.
“He gets what he wants,” Avrilla told her bitterly, “always.”
“Not this time.”
“Think that, if it comforts you,” Avrilla sighed and turned her face away.
“What’s that?” Rehn piped up suddenly. He had folded his shirt and put it away. Now, left with nothing to do, his eyes had been scanning the horizon. He pointed a finger and everyone followed it. The mercenaries had already stopped, seeing it too.
Jhan felt her throat go dry and her heart begin to pound hard. Her hands gripped the reins of her imala like iron and the beast rolled its eyes and began trembling. It too saw the gigantic funnel cloud bearing down on them.
Not for an instant did Jhan believe that it was a tornado. Though similar in shape, in all other aspects it was completely different. It was tumbling lightning, blue clouds of swirling, blue, neon phosphorescence rolled about a core of twisted space. Out of that incomprehensible mass, things were both falling and being drawn in at the same time like a magnet out of control.
It was wide. It covered the plains and rushed faster than any imala could run. Jhan knew that there wasn’t any chance of escape. She looked at Kile and saw the same realization in his eyes. He smiled at her, gentle and full of pain.
“Want to at least try?” Kile asked softly.
Jhan saw the others already spurring their beasts forward. Rehn stayed, rooted and eyes wide on their coming deaths. Alidae was shouting orders and riding rear guard on his men, trying to save them as they raced away with Avrilla and Darkai. Tevar had ridden a few paces ahead and then reined in sharply, Jaross beside him, not sure where to ride to. Where was safety? The answer was, nowhere.
Jhan shook her head and climbed from her imala onto Kile's. She sat in his lap, her back against is chest, as he put his big arms around her. They both watched their coming doom. Nothing needed to be said. Their hearts and their souls were one. They were about to die together. They couldn’t have asked for a better fate. That was in both of their minds as the wind picked up and then the gate descended towards them.