Swept: Chapter Two

by Talya Firedancer

Sunlight cut the darkness behind his eyelids to ribbons. Eiri stirred, yawning, his eyes still screwed shut. If it was morning, it meant it was no longer Sournedaye and he didn't want to wake; it meant another day of working in the fields. He stirred again, and froze. There was an arm around his waist.

"Wake up, little Mairisson."

A sweep of silk was tickling his face. Slowly, he opened his eyes. Above him, a man's face was blocking the sun -- a man's face but too beautiful to be real. Or even human. Right. Eiri focused on the man's foxy ears jutting up from his bed-mussed rich golden brown hair. This was Kelarion, and he wasn't human; he was youko. And he'd bought Eiri from his uncle yesterday morning.

"What time is it?" he asked blurrily, and was surprised for a second or two at the rusty sound of his own voice. Right. Last night Kelarion had locked him in, somehow without barring the door, and he'd tried to scream his way out.

"Earliest sun-mark of the longest days of summer," Kelarion said lazily, shifting, and Eiri realized how close the youko was to being on top of him.

Eiri's face burned. "Get off of me," he muttered. If Kelarion was going to treat him the way he had last night, Eiri didn't want any part of it. After a few hours, he couldn't bang on the door and scream any longer. No one had come to try the door or answer his cries before Kelarion had come stumbling back in after the mid-night mark, smelling like sweat and alcohol and something he couldn't identify.

That scared Eiri. If something bad was happening to him, did that mean no one would intervene? Was it because he'd been sold? ...Could they somehow tell, even without hearing his name, that he was a bastard?

He had the feeling he'd gone from a safe life, even if no one had particularly cared for him, to an unstable one, probably dangerous.

"That's not very nice," Kelarion murmured, bending his head a little more so that his hair swept over Eiri's throat. His golden eyes were intent. Then he pushed himself up and Eiri's face burned again as he felt the youko digging into him for a moment. In the next instant he was sitting, stretching his arms above his head, peering over one tanned shoulder. "Get up. We have to get moving."

"What you did to me last night wasn't nice, either," Eiri said hoarsely, looking everywhere but the youko. Across the room, the hearth still smoldered with a dying fire. The room was warm, even though the window was frosted over, permitting only weak sunlight to enter.

"What I did last night was make sure no one remembered the scrawny sunburned kid who came into the tavern with me," Kelarion snapped, getting up from the bed, yanking the fur coverlet with him.

He was about to open his mouth but distraction drained away the retort. The youko was naked and Eiri stared frankly. His body was graceful, very little fat on it with clear muscle definition, though not overly bulky. He was...perfect. Then he turned, and Eiri saw the paler stripes of skin criss-crossing his shoulder-blades, the arch of his honey-tan back, ugly white welts crawling low over the mounds of his buttocks.

"Stop it," Kelarion hissed, turning again until his back faced the wall, grabbing his breeches and glaring.

"I'm sorry," Eiri mumbled, not sure what he was apologizing for. Those were old scars, weren't they? Eiri had some here and there from scrapes and such, a few mishaps with farm tools, things like that. But Kelarion's were worse. Some of them were ridges of scar tissue, like the ridge Davis had gotten after Geir accidentally cut him up bad with a scythe. Was that what the youko had gotten for sleeping with the Queen's son? No, he'd done that just recently, so the scars must be from something further back...

"Just shut up and get dressed," Kelarion ordered. "I want to pay and be out of here before most of those trappers wake up from their drunk stupors. The less who see us leaving, the better. That damned Lars is shrewd enough to remember...you'll have to slip out the back."

"What?" Eiri clutched the heavy tunic Kelarion had tossed at him. He stared.

Kelarion laced up his tunic, cocking his head and giving him a narrow look. "Don't argue with me, little Mairisson. You're the reason I have to take extra precautions like this in the first place, so just do as I say and there won't be a problem."

Eiri wriggled into his breeches, sullen. He thought Kelarion might be exaggerating his own importance a little. If the Queen's Knights were out for his blood, they would have already caught him. Well, that was how it was to hear the Bransson and his oldest sons speak of the militant order.

"How did you lock me in last night?"

"What?" Kelarion paused, half into his cloak, slipping his boots on. He shook his head irritably. "I don't have time for this."

"The door wasn't barred," Eiri continued stubbornly, trying to control his painfully husky voice. "And it can only be barred from the inside. So how did you lock me into the room last night?"

Kelarion snorted and finished tying the scarf tight over his head, flattening his ears. He walked over to Eiri, reminding him strongly of a predator stalking a small helpless animal. It was the way he moved. "Mairisson, that" -- he took the boy's face between his hands "--is none of your business." Alien copper eyes stared down into his.

Eiri's breath was caught somewhere between his windpipe and his half-parted lips. "Yes it is. If you're locking me in, it is." He wanted to know why it had made his temples ache, the same way they did when the wind told him something or the rain whispered, or when he got one of his 'spells' that told bits of the future.

The youko loomed closer, as if daring Eiri to close his eyes. Eiri stared back into his face, resolve almost wavering as Kelarion's breath ghosted over his mouth. "And I'm telling you now," he said, a trace of a growl in his words, "I am not accountable to a beardless youth. So you'd better remember that." He leaned into those few centimeters of space bridging them and ran his tongue over Eiri's lips.

Eiri blinked. When he looked up, Kelarion was half out the door. The boy rubbed at his mouth, tasting youko and a faint residue of alcohol.

"Grab the saddlebags," Kelarion ordered. "I want you outside in ten minutes. You remember where the boy took my horse?"

"I remember." Eiri hurried to finish lacing his own tunic. He felt flushed again.

"Good." Kelarion looked him over impersonally, eyes hard. "You'd better be waiting there."

They got out of the trapping town with no difficulties, according to Kelarion half a sun-mark later. Despite the heavy tunic the youko had given him, Eiri was shivering shortly after their departure. Once again Kelarion tucked an arm around him, cloak falling around him in warm folds, but Eiri didn't feel nearly so comforted as he had yesterday afternoon. Kelarion was the only person he had to rely on now, and he was learning that even that much was suspect.

"Where are we going?" Eiri asked after a long moment. "You told Lars we were going to the capital, but that's in the direction we came from. We're not going towards the coast right now, either."

"That's to throw off anyone who might have been watching," Kelarion told him. He clucked to the chestnut and turned its head. Now they were heading for the coast. "I guess it's been long enough to throw off any early-rising trappers. I told Lars we were going by way of Tarriston, and that's the direction I was headed."

"Oh." Eiri watched the ground between the chestnut's ears for a long time. "So where are we really going?"

"One of the coastal towns," Kelarion said with a shrug. "I don't really care which, as long as I get off this continent and over to the northern one."

Eiri's eyes rounded. "We're taking a boat?"

"A ship," Kelarion corrected. His hand was absently stroking Eiri's belly again. "We're certainly not going to take the land bridge. It's miserable and wet, I've heard."

"Why did you buy me?" Eiri blurted suddenly. Kelarion's odd behavior had been on his mind ever since the youko had slammed the door on him the night before. "Do you...I mean, what do you want from me?"

"I bought you to get you out of there," Kelarion said after the horse had ambled down the incline for a measure or two. "That's all. Don't expect anything from me."

This was frustrating, and humiliating. Eiri tried again. "Then why -- why am I traveling with you?"

Kelarion laughed, a barking, humorless sound. "Did you want me to leave you with the trappers, perhaps? A rough bunch, but they'd surely appreciate you. There was a distinct shortage of women in their little town."

Eiri shrank in on himself. The youko's tone had been ugly. "I -- I don't understand."

"No, you wouldn't."

They were silent again. The air was still crisp and cold but they were reaching the end of the snow line.

"What are you going to do with me?" Eiri asked at last, voice very small. What was a safe question?

"You'll know, when something better comes along." The cryptic statement was delivered in a sullen tone.

"I -- I don't--"

"I know you don't understand," Kelarion interrupted flatly, "and I can't explain it to you. If you don't already know, if you weren't raised knowing, then if I tell you now it will inhibit you."

That only confused Eiri even more. "Well, what can you tell me?"

Kelarion considered it. "I can tell you more about youko."

"Yes, please," Eiri muttered, trying to make himself comfortable in the saddle. It was awkward. He was spooned against Kelarion's body, and his rear was sore.

"There aren't very many of us on this continent anymore," Kelarion began, hooking the chestnut's reins on the pommel and lacing his hands over Eiri's stomach. It was almost...nice. "I hear there are a lot more youko in the North, and that they have more protections than we do. But down here in the South, it looks like some countries are aiming for another Massacre."

Eiri blinked. "Massacre?"

"That's right...you wouldn't even know that much," Kelarion said thoughtfully. His voice was pained when he continued. "Over a thousand years ago the humans tried to kill us. They hated us, you know, and a lot of them still do -- like your uncle, the Bransson. They hate us and they envy us, and they fear us."

"Was it around the time of the Flooding?" Eiri asked, curious. He shivered again, but not for the cold. This time, like the other day in Cory's tavern, he thought he saw things rising up in the air, images clear and ghostly, and these ones were awful.

"No..." Kelarion said slowly. "It was after the Flooding, but it might have been only shortly after the Recession of the Waters. Some of the humans tried to kill us, and others protected us. Before that happened...we didn't need the humans, but even back then, I hear, females were rare."

"I don't understand," Eiri said. "Need the humans? What do you mean?"

"To reproduce," Kelarion clarified. "There are some scholars who say that youko weren't able to have children with humans at all, before the Massacre."

The bloody images rose up again. "What happened?" Eiri asked faintly, trying to push away the sight of children, twins, with silvery ears and tails and blood-spattered faces, their bellies dark with gore, their innards... Eiri gagged.

"I'm sorry." Kelarion chuckled, and it was a dark sound. "I think I'm telling you a little more than you need to know." The images vanished and Eiri felt as if something had been walled off. A faint pressure in his temples was gone; he hadn't even realized he had felt it.

"But then youko started being with humans?" This was very confusing.

"Oh, you don't know the half of it," Kelarion's voice wrapped around him, faintly menacing.

They broke out of the trees and onto a road, more a dusty rut over grass and between trees than anything. The chestnut picked up the pace.

"I don't understand," Eiri pressed, then coughed a little as his voice caught.

Kelarion sighed. "Never mind. I'm no good at explaining. All you need to know is that youko can be with humans, and because there are so few of us, we often are with humans these days. I'm not sure how it is in the North."

Eiri blinked. "But if there are so few of you...I don't understand. You slept with the Queen's son, and then you...well, you kissed me...so..." He broke off.

Kelarion was laughing.

"What's so funny?" Eiri demanded, injured.

"Sorry," Kelarion apologized, still breathless with chuckles. "I forget you know hardly anything."

Eiri's mouth thinned and he stared between the horse's ears as if wishing the grass on fire.

When the youko's laughter had died down enough to speak again, he explained. "Eiri, you're human. We're not. Youko females are in scarce supply, but that doesn't matter so much. Youko males can have kits with human females...and human males, too." That hand was stroking his belly again, over his tunic but still blood-warm through the cloth.

For a moment Eiri was uncomprehending. Then his first reaction was squeamishness. "Oh," he gulped. "Eww."

Kelarion laughed at him again. "The males can breed their child true because of the Bond, but there are some halflings scattered around, too. Humans don't much like that either." His tone turned brooding again.

"The Bond?" Eiri picked up on that. The way Kelarion had said it gave the word peculiar emphasis. "What's the Bond?"

"Stop asking so damned many questions," Kelarion said savagely. "Never mind. Just...never mind. You don't need to know that yet."

Eiri could feel the wrongness of the lie hanging in the air between them.


By the time Kelarion called a halt for the day, they had passed a scattered handful of trapping villages and, as they got closer to the sea, some isolated farm communities. The sun was hanging low in the sky. And Eiri was ready to fall out of the saddle from a combination of being saddlesore and exhausted.

"Be glad you're sleeping in a bed again," Kelarion told him with a grim chuckle as Eiri staggered from his hands to the ground, lowered from the saddle.

"You mean we weren't going to?" Eiri gasped, dismayed. He tried walking around and felt terribly stiff. He was mortally sure he'd have to pry his cheeks apart if he wanted to make use of the latrine any time this evening.

"It's not safe to stay in the inns like this," Kelarion said, frowning. "In fact, tonight we're going in separately."

"I don't--"

Kelarion cut him off. "You don't have to understand, just do as I say. I'll go in first and rent the room. I don't want the owner or whoever's in charge getting a good look at you. You'll stay outside, then I'll come and get you when I'm ready."

Eiri looked at him, wary. He had visions of being left outside with the youko's luggage in his arms as the evening grew cold and the moon climbed high in the sky.

"Stop looking at me like that," Kelarion said, irritated. "This is the best I can do."

"All right," Eiri sighed. Kelarion tossed the saddlebags to the ground near the tavern and indicated he could sit on them.

"No, thank you." Eiri rubbed his arms, looking around at this new trapper's town. "I don't think I'll be able to sit for awhile." Kelarion laughed at him and went inside.

The town looked a lot like the one last night, only this one had no snow and less dogs. Bearded men were everywhere, striding up the street, most of them wearing leather, many of them reedy and lean-muscled. Most of them had greasy, unwashed hair and the ones who passed close moved in a strong field of odor.

He hoped they wouldn't stay here long. He hoped no one tried to talk to him. Above all, he decided he hated beards. They looked like dark untidy haystacks beside the smooth-skinned Kelarion.

Eiri hovered by the luggage and wondered what would happen if he tried to run away from Kelarion. He didn't think the youko would much care, considering his remarks about how Eiri was complicating his escape to the coast. Then again, Kelarion was hard to predict. He might get really mad. Eiri rubbed his arms, trying not to shiver. He might beat him.

Eiri shifted from foot to foot, hugging himself. He didn't like the way some of the men were glancing at him as they passed in the street -- sidelong, furtive glances the way Geir or sometimes Shane had glared at him. He felt uneasy, knowing something of what they had in mind. It was the same thing Kelarion felt like he wanted, sometimes, but he had a feeling the youko would be a great deal more considerate.

"Hey, boy, need someone to keep you company?"

A skinny black-haired man paused by the tavern opening, looking Eiri up and down. He had a somewhat patchy black beard and Eiri could tell he was still relatively young. His long hair was caught back in a tail that snaked down his back, and he wore brown leather, his chaps trimmed with fur around the ankles. He didn't have the same powerful odor as the other trappers, but he wasn't particularly appealing either.

"No, thank you," Eiri said stiffly, taking a step back towards the saddlebags.

The trapper shrugged and moved on, flashing him a grin that was very white in the middle of black beard. "Catch you next time."

Eiri kept his arms folded and his eyes averted after the man had passed. Another pair of trappers passed, going into the tavern.

"Pretty li'l thing," one of them commented.

"Nahh," a deeper voice drawled. "Kid looks like he wouldn't last one good hard ride, let alone all night. Give me Beladonna any time."

Eiri's ears burned. He lowered his head. Oh, gods, any minute he could get kidnapped and worse...

The other man laughed. "Beladonna would just as soon cut you as kiss you, Tabor." They moved inside the tavern as they began to argue.

"You still alive?" Kelarion's cheerful voice reached him like warm sunlight.

Eiri's head snapped up. "I can't believe you just left me out here!" he cried out furiously. "Any one of these guys..."

"Any one of these guys," Kelarion cut in, "would leave you alone the moment you said you're not interested. Did any of them bother you? I mean, really bother you? This is a tight community; the trappers police themselves, because they can't afford to get out of hand. It's all business here."

Eiri flushed. "No one bothered me," he mumbled. "They just...said stuff."

"Your poor, virgin ears," Kelarion mocked, scooping up the saddlebags in his corded arms. "Go inside. The rooms are in the back, on the left side -- our room is the third on the left." He turned.

"Wh-wait a minute!" Eiri said, flabbergasted. "What about you?"

"What about me?" There was movement under that tan cloak and Eiri intuited the swish of a silky tail. "I told you, we're going in separately."

"Well...what are you going to do?" Eiri said, reluctant.

"I am going," Kelarion drawled, "to get supplies we need. So quit bitching and get your ass inside."

"I wasn't bitching," Eiri objected, and flushed again. He headed for the tavern entrance. Kelarion smacked him on the rear; Eiri yelped and scuttled inside.

This tavern was different, from the crudely-lettered sign that had hung outside to the dim interior that was filled with smoke. It smelled odd, more herbal than tobacco, and it was powerful. Eiri coughed. The tavern was dim inside and the bar girls were clad every bit as scantily as the ones he'd seen the night before. On the far side, there was a table full of trappers and Eiri was going to have to pass them to get to the rooms.

He clutched his fists and threaded his way through the cramped tables. Most of the trappers were watching one of the bar girls, a blond, as she bent and cleaned a pine table. One or two of them glanced at Eiri as he approached, and they kept looking.

"Hey," one of them said to him. With his tenor voice Eiri thought it might have been one of the men who'd commented at him outside.

"Um." Eiri glanced at him, then down. The floor here was packed dirt, too. "Um, hi."

The man laughed. "You're such a pretty boy."

Eiri blinked, startled. "Umm..." He wasn't sure how to respond to that. Kelarion had said they'd leave him alone if he said he wasn't interested, right? He began to squeeze past the table, his back nearly to the log wall.

"You wanna visit the back rooms with me, boy?" the man said intently. A hand touched his thigh.

"I'm sorry, I've already got one!" Eiri's voice cracked twice in the middle and he shot past the table. All of the men at the table laughed.

"Just your luck, Kellar, he's got a boyfriend!" a deep voice said, then laughed some more.

"Pretty thing like that, of course he does..."

The voices faded as Eiri hurried up the hallway and found the third door on the left. He threw the bolt as soon as he got inside. His face was burning. He'd never been propositioned before. He scrubbed his hands over his face and flakes of skin sifted away. Eiri grimaced. Still peeling.

Unlike last night's tavern, there was a wash basin in the corner and Eiri made use of it, sponging off his dusty, dry face and arms, then using the towel to help him get rid of more itchy dead skin. He caught sight of himself in the round, half-tarnished little mirror and examined himself critically. It was a long time since he'd made use of a mirror.

With the exception of skin still livid with sunburn, Eiri was pleasantly surprised at what he saw. Unlike the Bransson girls and half the young men, he hadn't spotted badly. His teeth had come in evenly, his nose was straight, mouth full and a bit wide, and his cheekbones weren't high but a bit pronounced. He smiled, and his reflection smiled back. His chin was a little too pointy, he decided, but overall he looked like a...well, a pretty boy.

He still didn't understand why Kelarion had called him 'beautiful.'

Maybe youko tastes were different. Eiri flung himself on the bed and stretched out. He hoped the tavern owner, or bartender or whatever, hadn't really noticed him coming in. His own attention had been fixed on avoiding the tableful of trappers, and he hadn't even done that well. Eiri squirmed until his head rested on a downy-soft rabbit fur pillow, and he mused on Kelarion's odd behavior.

Males having children with males? That simply wasn't possible.

Curiously, Eiri rested a hand on his own belly. Men were different from women. They couldn't bear children; they put their seed in the women, who could. Where would a man carry a child? Where would one come out?

Eiri shuddered and closed his eyes. Behind his eyelids he saw golden eyes, not Kelarion's but larger, pupils contracted, the whole an intense striated amber color like a wolf's. Eyes still closed, he frowned. In his mind, he reached out for the eyes, barely aware that he reached not with a physical hand, but with a mental one.

Though his own eyes were closed, Eiri could see clearly that the eyes lifted, widening in startlement, fixed on him. Eiri got the impression of long, pale hair. What are you doing? The mellifluous voice spoke directly into his skull.

Eiri heard a pounding noise and shook himself free, even as the other was reaching for him, leaving the impression of a fine-boned hand slipping just shy of his wrist, and those large wolf eyes narrowing, then snapping shut.

"Open the door!"

Someone was banging a fist against the wood, making a meaty thumping sound.

"Open the fucking door!"

It was Kelarion.

"I'm coming!" Eiri yelled, a bit of temper flaring. "You don't have to scream the house down." He slid off the bed and unbarred the door.

Kelarion stormed inside like a winter flurry, heaving the saddlebags to an unused chair, flinging the door shut behind him. His glance towards Eiri was icy. "What in the seven hells did you think you were doing, boy?"

Eiri blinked. "I don't...I don't know?" he offered hesitantly. He'd been lying on the bed, that was all; he said as much aloud.

"No, of course you wouldn't know," Kelarion said in disgust. He tossed his cloak to the chair atop his bags, exposing a green tunic and tan breeches. What absolutely fascinated Eiri was the tawny tail that dangled from his nethers. It twitched, as if sensing his scrutiny. Kelarion was tearing his scarf off, as usual, rubbing at the base of his ears. "You have no idea how much that hurts," the youko told him.

"Your ears?" Eiri said timidly.

Kelarion snorted, looking down at him with inscrutable copper-gold eyes. "Yeah, that too."

He wondered if the youko was talking about the wolf eyes he'd seen. But how would Kelarion know about that? It had been inside of his head, right? He had the feeling that he hadn't imagined it, exactly, but it hadn't really felt real, either. "What did I do wrong?" This time, his resigned tone seemed to add.

"You--" Kelarion started, checked himself, and glanced him over. "If the Queen's Knights have a mage with them, I am so much dead meat. They'll hang me by my tail."

They wouldn't! was on the tip of his tongue, but Eiri stayed silent, seating himself on the bed, wrapping arms around his knees.

"What were you pushing at with your mind?" Kelarion asked abruptly, tossing himself onto the coverlet. The bed, and Eiri, bounced.

Eiri pushed himself upright, sitting cross-legged. Was that what he'd been doing? Suddenly the disjointed images made a little more sense. "I -- I'm not sure," he said, hesitant. "I think it was a youko."

"Thank the gods," Kelarion said feelingly. "He might have been able to shield the contact. It was a he, right?"

"Yes..." Eiri said slowly.

Kelarion propped his chin on his hands and stared at him broodingly. "What did he look like?"

"I'm not sure," Eiri demurred. He leaned on his knees and stared right back. "Why won't you tell me anything? Why did you really take me from Dickenston? How can men have babies? Why did you kiss me last night?"

Kelarion laughed, a short abrupt sound, and his tail flicked from side to side. "I can't tell you everything because you don't know it."

"That doesn't make any sense! And if I don't know anything, it's because you won't tell me," Eiri objected. He was getting tired of Kelarion's secretive behavior, but still wary of his swift and unpredictable moods. "Will you at least answer one of my questions?"

Now Kelarion's laughter was low and intimate, silky as the rabbit's pelt Eiri had so recently rubbed his cheek against. "All right. I'll answer you one."

Eiri looked at him warily.

"Men don't have babies," Kelarion told him. He grinned. "Not the way you're probably thinking. We, the youko, use their seed, combine it with our own, and then..."

"And then?"

"None of your business," Kelarion told him, and rolled off the bed. He stood in a fluid motion and moved to the wash basin in the corner.

"What?" Eiri was stunned. "But...you said you were going to answer the question!"

"I did," Kelarion said calmly. "I told you men don't have babies. That's all you need to know."

Eiri's brows knitted in a frustrated scowl. "Well, do the youko have the babies?" He didn't see how that was possible, either, unless there was something Kelarion wasn't telling him.

"Youko females carry babies," Kelarion said, infuriatingly serene.

"But youko males don't?" Eiri pressed.

Kelarion turned, lifting a finger, opened his mouth...

"None of your business."

Eiri clenched his fists. "You keep saying that!" he snapped, temper fraying.

"Yes, and that's all the answer you're going to get...for now."

Eiri started to retort, recognized his cause as hopeless, and glared silently. He was frustrated. Everything about Kelarion frustrated him. Ever since yesterday all he had was more questions, not less. The youko moved around the fringe of the room, opening saddlebags and rifling through them, changing into fresh breeches, taking a comb through his tangled golden-brown hair.

"Why am I here?"

Kelarion dropped his comb onto the saddlebag and turned, expression unsympathetic. "You ask too many questions."

"You don't tell me enough!" Eiri flared, pressing his fists against his knees. He looked down at the coverlet. "I...I don't know what's going to happen next."

"Yeah, well, that makes two of us."

Still looking down, Eiri could feel the youko's eyes on him for a moment longer. Then he turned and opened another saddlebag.

"There's food in this one," Kelarion told him. "You already have water in the corner there. Don't let the fire get too hot, okay?" He straightened, brushing out creases in his tunic, moving to check his appearance in the little mirror above the wash-basin.

"You're leaving?" Eiri blinked and looked up.

Kelarion turned to give him another look. This one said 'don't be such a child.'

"Please don't lock me in again," Eiri said quietly, rubbing at the worn knees of his breeches in a quick, nervous gesture.

Kelarion lifted a brow. "Please don't ask for something futile," he returned, tone gently mocking.

Eiri glanced at the door. "There's no lock on this one, either, you know," he said, then looked up steadily into Kelarion's copper-gold eyes. "How did you lock the door last night? How will you lock it now? And why didn't anyone hear me screaming and pounding on the door?" That was less of a question, as Eiri had been and still was half-certain that none of the trappers would go poking into the affairs of a stranger.

"You ask too many questions," Kelarion said again, whirling, grabbing his cloak and settling it on his shoulders.


"How, why, what, when," Kelarion recited with a hint of growl, grabbing Eiri's shoulders and shaking him. "You want to know how? Magic. Now drop it." He backed away, eyes fixed on Eiri. His expression was alien and unreadable. The youko rubbed his hands together, then rubbed them on his pants as if brushing away dirt.

"This one doesn't even have a window," Eiri said, desperate, scrambling off the bed as the youko moved for the door. "Please!"

"You can't come out with me," Kelarion said, growling in earnest now, and he was opening the door and slipping through. His wrist slipped through Eiri's fingers, fluid and impossibly swift. The door slammed shut.

"Wait! Kelarion, wait! Please! Please!" Helplessly, Eiri beat his fists against the door, winced, and stopped. The edges of his hands were still bruised from beating on the door last night. A more reasoned part of him said there was no use in objecting, screaming, or battering the unyielding wood of the door. The more primal part of his brain wasn't budged by logic, and Eiri found himself tucked by the door, knees to his chest, face to the rough grain of the wood.

"Open the door, please don't leave me here alone, open the door..." After awhile he whispered it because his voice felt raw again. He started to feel dizzy. It had been a long time since they had eaten a noon meal, not even pausing but eating from the saddlebags on horseback.

Why are you crying?

"I'm not crying," Eiri said automatically, making a quick scrub at his cheeks to make sure he wasn't lying. He glanced around, mouth falling open. "What...?"

Eiri's eyes were drawn to the fire. Moments ago, before Kelarion had left the room, the hearth had held barely more than a few smoldering coals and a steadily-burning log. Now the fire crackled cheerfully, tongues of flame licking up from the air. He pushed himself to his hands and knees, crawling closer to the hearth. What was going on? In the depths of the fire, the tongues of flame shot up from the log, forming a pointed reddish-gold face with fiery ears. Fox-ears...and a fox's face, dominated by burning white-gold eyes.

"What's going on?" Eiri cried out, scrambling back.

The fox-face tilted to the side, then shook its head. You were the one who was crying. You tell me.

"I wasn't!" He stared at the pale flames of the fox's eyes and blinked. The fox blinked back.

You're very noisy, you know.

"It's not my fault," Eiri whispered. "Kelarion locked me in. But no matter how I shout, no one comes."

The fox snorted. The people outside can't hear you. Anyhow, I didn't mean you were noisy in that sense.

"What sense?" Eiri said, confused.

The fox lowered his head and seemed to smile. How am I speaking to you right now?

Because I'm crazy, the answer hovered on the tip of Eiri's tongue. Magic, Kelarion had said. That was crazy. Eiri had never heard of magic, real magic, as anything but a fairy tale. "You're talking to me in my head?" Eiri guessed. If he was deluded, he decided, he would go along with his own delusions. It was better than thinking about how he'd been locked in.

That's right! The fox 'grinned' at him, tongue lolling from the corner of his mouth. So let's do something about that, shall we? We need to keep you from being so noisy, or you really will get him caught...

"Umm...?" Eiri replied, off his guard and confused.

Mental discipline, kitling.


"So who's the good-looking kid?"

A fire smoldered on the hearth of the darkened, windowless room, casting long black shadows everywhere. In the small room, two figures lay entangled on the fur-covered bed, centerpiece of the cramped quarters.

The casual question made Kelarion sit up straight, shoving at the heavy weight pressing into his side. "What, am I not enough for you?" he returned, a little more sharply than he intended.

The trapper stirred against him, chest rumbling as he chuckled. "Now, now, pretty, don't get your tail in a knot. I appreciate you just fine."

"That's right," Kelarion said lazily, all but purring as he turned and melted against the man and hooked his hands around the trapper's neck, suppressing a grimace. That neck was none too clean. "Who cares about some kid when you've got the real prize here in your bed? Not many youko in these parts."

"Not many youko in any parts," the man replied.

There's a reason for that, Kelarion thought at him with savagery, but it wasn't this man's fault that some of his kind were barbarians. "I'm surprised you caught me," Kelarion told him, being honest for a change, ears flicking with suppressed tension. "But I certainly hope I'm making it worth your while."

"Don't worry, I won't say anything to my buddies," the trapper assured him. He leered experimentally at the youko. "You did say you were coming back to these parts, right?"

"Of course," Kelarion murmured, tucking himself against the trapper's hair-matted skinny chest. He had forgotten the man's name, but that could be picked easily from the forefront of his mind if he needed it. "As soon as I sell my little prize at Capespuerte."

"Long way to go to sell a boy," the trapper observed.

Kelarion's hands began a downward track, a distraction tactic that never failed him. "This one's something special," he murmured, then engaged the man's mouth as well.

The trapper did not bring up Eiri again.

This was a singularly unprofitable night, Kelarion reflected afterwards, as the man dozed in the warm glow of the night's bedding and the remnants of the fire. He'd been recognized for what he was for the second time during his flight, and this man, like the Bransson, proved to have dense natural shielding resistant to mental 'suggestions.' Kelarion was running dangerously low on money. It was impossible to steal from trappers and besides, he was trying to pass through as quietly as possible.

It was time for a new plan.

Grimacing, feeling filthy as he slithered out of the trapper's embrace and the fur-covered bed, Kelarion gathered up the few love-trinkets the man thought he'd employed to lure him into bed. They were all but worthless, barely enough to fund a meal apiece. The main reason he'd allowed himself to be lured was to plant sweet misleading lies in the man's ear. He had to get back to Eiri and make sure the boy hadn't 'screamed' the house down.

It was for the boy's own good. He felt bad, but it was the only thing he had the wits and the power levels left to do. Kelarion couldn't keep an eye on him all the time; he had to recoup his losses after leaving damned near everything he owned in Valhalla. Eiri was hardly suited to the type of earnings Kelarion been forced to resort to, and Kelarion was at the end of his patience and sanity and couldn't explain the things Eiri needed to have explained. Not the way the boy needed to have it expounded, at any rate.

He was doing his best until Eiri's 'something better' came along.

Letting out a quiet sigh, the door snicked shut behind him and he drew his cloak over him again. He was scared senseless that his best wouldn't be enough for little Mairisson, but right now he had very little left to give.


The air was warmer as Kelarion's horse ambled down the pathway that led out of the mountains, broadening as it left the dense forest and their surroundings changed abruptly from dry piney forest to broad low vegetation of a type Eiri had never seen before. The air began to feel moist as well as warm, and there was the first hint of salt in the air.

"Are we getting close to the coast?" Eiri asked, looking back and upwards at Kelarion, who had pushed his hood back but kept the scarf over his bright hair and dead-giveaway ears.

The youko glanced down at him and for a moment Eiri thought he wouldn't answer. He had been in a brooding sort of mood all morning, prone to answer any question or attempt at conversation with uncommunicative grunts.

"Very close," he said. "Can't you smell the salt?"

"Yes, I can," Eiri said, pleased that his instincts had been correct. He could also feel, very distantly, the sense of something large and immense and deep that nibbled at the fringes of his mind with faint murmuring, a soughing sound like wheat whispering in the breeze. He drew his mind tight like a closed fist.

Whether he was crazy or not, the fox's face in the fire last night had run him through a repetitive exercise over and over until he was reeling with exhaustion. At that point the fox had told him to eat something and go to bed, which he'd done. Eiri had been so fully asleep he didn't remember Kelarion returning. He had forgotten the locked door. When he awoke, he remembered the burning white-gold eyes that had regarded him thoughtfully from the flames.

Kelarion had looked at him strangely, and said nothing. He'd said very little all morning.

Eiri looked between the chestnut's ears and wondered what the sea would be like. The white-gold eyes had been the same as his vision earlier last night, and despite the fact that he was exercising what the fox had taught him to keep his mind closed up, he could feel that they were getting closer. Eiri's stomach dropped. He was more afraid than he'd ever been since leaving the Bransson farmstead.

Things were changing.

"Getting closer to what?" Kelarion asked abruptly, breaking the silence. His hands were on the reins, resting on the saddle's pommel. But for hauling Eiri into the saddle that morning, he hadn't touched him -- not with his hands, at least.

Eiri had noticed the difference.

"What?" Eiri said with a guilty start, hand groping for his medallion and seeking to close his mind tighter. He knew he hadn't said that aloud.

Kelarion's hands were white-knuckled on the reins before him. "Nothing," he said after a beat, sounding sour. One hand loosened and let go of the reins after a moment, turning Eiri's palm up, making the tarnished old silver medallion glitter feebly in the sunlight. "What's this?"

"Nothing!" Eiri tried to close his hand over it again, but Kelarion was stronger and pried the medallion from his grip, holding it up on its thong and making it tug at Eiri's neck. Eiri looked at the medallion, panicked. No one had ever noticed it before; Kelarion was the first.

The fox in the fire had told him to use something as a focus for his thoughts, and right away he'd thought of the medallion around his neck. He'd had it for as long as he could remember; it was the last thing his mother Mairi had given to him. It was the only thing in the world that belonged to Eiri, and it had come, she said, from his father.

Kelarion was holding it upside down. One of the youko's fingers rubbed the edge of the mottled metallic-gray circle and rusty bits flaked away.

"Please, don't," Eiri said, tone more angry than pleading. It was his, the only thing he could lay claim to. He made a grab for the medallion.

The youko let it drop into his hands. "I thought so."

"You thought what?" Eiri said sulkily, clutching the metal piece to his chest. It was warm now. He was expecting another evasion from the youko behind him, or maybe an outright lie.

"You've got a bit of youko in you," Kelarion said calmly.

That didn't quite register all at once. "I've got what?" Eiri said, examining the medallion. There was nothing particularly telling about it. He couldn't quite make out the design but it looked like a pattern of some sort, maybe an exaggerated flame or flower or something. He'd had it all his life, and it had come from his father.

"Your father must have been a half," Kelarion told him, as if picking up on that thought. "You're very pretty, you know. Unusually so for someone in that backwater, inbred village I found you in. And your features...they're not as pronounced as they could be, but they have an exotic cast compared to your relatives."

"How can that be possible?" Eiri objected. "My father, a half-youko?"

There was a smile in Kelarion's voice when he spoke, and his arm dropped into a comfortable loop around Eiri's waist. "Why are you called 'Mairisson?'" he replied obliquely.

"Because my mother is Mairi, and no one knows who my father is," Eiri said, and made the connection. "All right...I know my father could have been anybody. But why do you think he was half-youko?" He held his breath, expecting the door on his answers to be shut in his face again.

"This medallion design, that's why," Kelarion replied, surprising him again. "I thought I was seeing things the first time I caught sight of it around your neck. It's a design that we youko...well, let's say it only comes from one place." He bit off the last sentence like a portcullis clanging down.

Now Eiri could sense that the wall was firmly in place again. He couldn't get a single image from Kelarion to let him know what the youko meant. He wanted to ask why Kelarion thought he was only part-youko himself, and not half, but had the pragmatism not to test the waters again.

He changed the subject. "What are we going to do once we reach the coast?" This question might prove to be equally thorny, but he had to ask, and his urgency, if not his courage, grew with each passing measure.

Kelarion's grip on him loosened. "We'll see." He paused. "I'm going to the northern continent."

Eiri couldn't fail to miss the emphasis. He knew he wasn't very well-informed, but neither was he stupid. "What are you going to do about me?"

"We'll see," Kelarion repeated, anger stirring in his voice. "You're getting closer, right? I told you not to depend on me. Something better will come along for you. When it does, don't look back. Just go with it."

The auburn-haired boy blinked, absorbing this, trying to ignore the sudden tightening of his throat. It was true that Kelarion had indicated he shouldn't rely on him. Still, he couldn't help feeling as if the youko was trying to cast him adrift. He had only known him for two days and he'd thought...it was a useless thought, though. Kelarion would probably be glad to be rid of him.

"Are you hungry?" Kelarion asked him, lazy movement of his hand suddenly distracting against Eiri's stomach.

He shivered, though the air was warmer now that they had come down out of the mountains and the sea breeze hadn't reached them yet. "Yes, I guess so."

"Good. Today we'll stop for lunch."

The youko's sudden good mood, Eiri mused bitterly, was probably because he was relieved that he'd be getting rid of him soon. Still, he kept his resentful thoughts shielded as they found a place by a clear-running stream to break for lunch. His rear would be glad for the brief respite. He thought he'd be happy if he never saw a horse again.

When the time came, maybe he'd be happy if he never saw Kelarion again.

Unbeknownst to the boy, Kelarion regarded the top of Eiri's head with a peculiarly complex expression. His copper-gold eyes were fierce and puzzled at the same time.


They passed over three small towns along the coast and kept traveling well into the evening. Kelarion's demeanor had altered after the almost pleasant lunch; he had become tense and withdrawn, and snapped at any questions Eiri put to him.

Eiri fell into a fuming silence. Instead, he paid attention to the feel of the ocean touching the edges of his mind; it was several miles more to the coast but the breeze carried the sense of it to him the way winds had carried the gull to him a few days before.

After awhile, he felt Kelarion tugging on his hair.

"Stop that," the youko said irritably.

"Don't pull my hair!" Eiri shot back, outraged, jerking away from Kelarion in the saddle. He couldn't get very far. He glanced around and realized how dark it had gotten. "When are we stopping? D'you know when the next town is?"

"We're not staying in a town tonight," Kelarion replied. "And I wouldn't have to pull your hair if you'd keep yourself under control."

Eiri stared at the darkening path ahead of the chestnut, rage and frustration fusing inside of him into a helpless mass of misery. "How am I supposed to keep myself under control if no one will show me?" he demanded.

"Oh, I'm sure your little visitor last night gave you a great start," Kelarion said nastily.

For a moment Eiri was stunned, unable to form a reply. Then he began to struggle his way out of the saddle; his legs tangled in the stirrups and the horse sidled uneasily. Frustrated, above all hurt and angry, Eiri tried to simply drop out of the saddle. He couldn't stand it anymore. All he could think of was getting away.

"Hey -- what d'you think you're doing?" Kelarion demanded, surprised, and grabbed him by the arms.

Eiri twisted, trying to make himself as much deadweight as possible. The horse sidled again, tossing his head. Kelarion was frighteningly strong as he seized him with fingers that felt like pinchers, uprighted him in the saddle, and kept him pinned against the taller body behind him with one iron-hard arm around him. With his other, he took up the reins and clucked soothingly to the chestnut.

"You stupid boy!" Kelarion said with muted fury, obviously trying not to scare the horse further. "What did you think you were doing?"

"Trying to get away from you," Eiri said flatly, squirming. The arm tightened around him and he wheezed.

"Little idiot, you'd break your neck just to get away from me?"

Eiri remained silent, breathing hard. He thought fiercely at the youko that he'd had enough of the mood swings, of the unequal treatment, of being locked into rooms like an erring child that needed punishment. If this was what getting sold to get away from Dickenston meant, then he thought he would rather have run away on his own.

After a moment Kelarion snorted. "Mairisson, you wouldn't last half a sun-mark in the city. You'd best stick by me until I can" -- now his voice was full of strain -- "make alternate arrangements for you."

"Fine," Eiri snapped, imitating the youko's own tone. He expected some kind of retaliation for that and got silence.

A long silence.

They entered another thicket before the youko spoke again.

"I wasn't pulling your hair very hard," Kelarion said in a quiet voice. Eiri could tell it was meant as an apology of sorts.

Eiri lay against him in the saddle, too exhausted to protest or fight anymore. They had been riding for what felt like weeks of work in the fields. "All right." For the first time, he wanted to be around other people -- without Kelarion. People who didn't know that he was a bastard, who would treat him based on who he was and how he acted. "Why aren't we staying in town tonight?"

"Because I don't have any money," Kelarion said in an oddly subdued tone.

"Oh." Eiri turned this bit of news over in his mind. "I'm sorry." It was his fault, then, and that would explain a little bit of why the youko had been short with him.

"Don't be," Kelarion said with a chuckle. "Are you worried about the money I gave your uncle? There's no need. It was counterfeit."

Eiri's brows drew together. He pushed at Kelarion's arm, implying that he was fine now and didn't need to be held in the saddle like a child; the youko released him with another laugh. "If you're being chased by the Queen's Knights, why the hell would you give the Bransson counterfeit coins?"

"Oh, listen and learn..." Kelarion sounded smugly amused now. "Your uncle is a greedy man, Mairisson. If the Queen's Knights come by -- they may not; it's why I chose the route I did -- then yes, those counterfeit coins would be reason by themselves to get me jailed. Bransson, however, doesn't know they're counterfeit. It's an imitation silver alloy, same weight as silver, so he'd have trouble verifying it unless he took the coins to a chemist...and a chemist would want to melt a few down."

"All right..." Eiri said slowly, willing to go along with what he'd said so far.

"He's a greedy man," Kelarion repeated. "And the Queen's Knights would want to confiscate that money, counterfeit or not, as proof of my misdeeds. Your uncle would know that, and keep his mouth shut."

"Even though he knows you're a youko?" Eiri said dubiously.

"Even though," Kelarion agreed. "That much he'd ignore because men like your uncle are convinced I'll bring myself to a bad end, anyhow." His tone turned bitter.

An image hung suspended in front of Eiri's widened eyes; Kelarion, naked as he'd seen him the other day but with his back covered in blood. Behind him, hands reached--

The sudden blow staggered Eiri and he blinked, trying to re-focus his eyes. It had been a pressure inside his head. "What was that?" he demanded, confident now that Kelarion was the source of the images, and also the one who cut them off so abruptly.

Kelarion said grimly, "That is something you don't need to know." He twitched the horse's reins, coaxing the animal to pick up speed. "We're staying outdoors tonight. It might get cold, so we'll stop late and wake early."

"Can't we work at one of the towns and make a little money?" Eiri asked.

"Not with you," Kelarion said, in such a way as to discourage further questions.

"I'm not stupid," Eiri said willfully. "I can work. It's what I've been doing for ten years, after all."

Kelarion clucked to the horse again, seeming to ignore him. He spoke after they'd broken free of the thicket. Night had dropped its velvet cape all around them, and the stars blazed down along with the light of a crescent moon. "That's not the kind of work people would hire you for if you're only in town a night or two."

"I..." Eiri fell silent. He wished he didn't understand that remark, but he thought he did. And what it meant... "I'm sorry."

"Shut up," Kelarion said savagely. "Just shut up for awhile, will you? Take a nap, if you can. We'll be riding for awhile yet."

The youko refused to say anything more after that.


The night turned cold and clear. As they bedded down for a brief sleep, Kelarion curled up behind him -- for warmth, he said -- and covered them both with his cloak. Eiri lay awake long after the youko's breathing had evened out, wondering at a new difference. Kelarion's body had been against his in the saddle all day and through the evening, but it hadn't felt like this. There was a certain...charge, now; an awareness, at least on Eiri's part, that hadn't been there before. Or perhaps it had been buried under the details of their journey. Kelarion wasn't exactly easy to get along with when he was awake.

Eiri laid against the softly-breathing length of youko behind him, and his thoughts ran in useless circles. What would happen once they reached the place Kelarion was headed for? Would he just leave him there?

Would he sell him?

There was a tenseness congesting Eiri's chest, clouding his thoughts and making it impossible to think. He wanted to trust Kelarion but he couldn't. He didn't know how to survive on his own, that much was clear from the youko's remarks. If he tried to strike out by himself...the boy shuddered as he thought of the trapper touching his thigh the night before. And what about the youko with white-gold eyes?

At length he fell asleep, Kelarion's arm around him, steady breathing making a rhythm in his ears, giving him an illusion of peace. He dreamed.

It was the usual jumble of fragmented, nonsensical landscapes and situations at first. In one of them his mother was still alive, a laughing woman with long dark hair and green eyes. She smelled sweet as she pulled him into a hug, and her long hair fell around his shoulders like a veil. In the corner of the room, a man looked at them both with a strange and tender expression. He had sharply beautiful features, golden eyes, and the tips of pointed ears poked through his fine red hair. He held out a hand with an old tarnished medallion, bearing the foreign symbol that was neither flame nor flower but something else.

Eiri opened the door of the room they'd been in, pulling away from his parents and entering another room. He was still smiling, still flushed with the joy of meeting his mother and the man who must be his father. He froze after a few steps, taking in the unfamiliar surroundings.

The floor was cool and polished beneath his bare feet. He had never seen anyplace like this before...the furniture was wood and some kind of stone and all of it gleamed brightly; all of it looked expensive.

There were paintings on the walls. They were remarkable likenesses of people Eiri had never seen before. Some of them seemed almost ready to move or speak -- he had never seen a painting, and had never known they could be so detailed. Rich fabric covered the walls, some of it woven with sparkling thread that flashed and reflected the light.

Towards the rear of the room, there was a bed. It was huge, it was big enough for five people, maybe more if the weather was cold, and it had four poles that rose up from each of its corners. More of the rich fabric hung from the bed, draped from pole to pole; filmy material enclosed the bed in a partly-opaque screen.

A tanned hand lifted to part the material. Kelarion stepped out of the bed.

Eiri stared frankly. This was Kelarion as he'd never seen him before; the hardness was gone from his face and his face was heavy-lidded and sleepy. His clothes, if one could call them that, consisted of little more than a drape of cloth over his hips, arranged to accommodate his tail. Sexuality exuded from him and Eiri could sense it as a kind of aura. He took a step back.

Kelarion looked right through him.

"I'm sorry, but my mother is starting to suspect."

The voice startled Eiri and he looked around. Another figure emerged from the curtains surrounding the bed; a tall, pale young man moved towards Kelarion, who slipped out of reach, expression playful.

"You told me you couldn't resist me, Tori," Kelarion said, teasing, but there was something desperate hovering in his words.

"I can't." The young man he'd called 'Tori' took another step forward, hand lifting, then falling to his side. He clenched his fists. "That's why you can't...I can't see you anymore. If she finds out I'm sleeping with one of the Castle courtesans..." He fell silent, turned his face, and looked ashamed.

Kelarion was utterly still. "She'd what?" From the tone of his voice he already knew. "She'd throw me out? Dock my pay? Chastise me? Chastise you?"

Tori's face lifted. "She'd have you punished, and you know it." The prince's tone hardened. "She won't give you to me. You know she won't; you're too useful to her. You can't see me again, or you have to go."

Eiri held his breath. He was like a ghost in the chambers, or rather, he had never been there and he was seeing something now that he was never meant to. He turned and found the door he'd used was gone.

"Then I'll go."

Turning, Eiri saw that Kelarion had presented his back to the prince, and to Eiri. The skin was smooth and unscarred. Eiri's brow wrinkled in confusion. There was something... odd...about it.

He took a step forward unconsciously and the skin across Kelarion's back rippled. Eiri gasped. There was another set of skin beneath the smooth flesh he could see, and it was criss-crossed with old welts, pale scars crawling down the otherwise perfect back. How?

"Oh gods..." His voice was small and hoarse and out of place in the beautiful room, in the scene that was taking place. It jarred him and the entire room wavered and vanished.

Eiri was elsewhere now. Out of grayness the landscape began to gain features, until Eiri recognized the coastal hills they'd been traveling in all day. Off to his left, there was a bluish hazy line along the horizon. The sea.

Flames sprouted up from the ground, burning merrily, just as the fire had begun in the room's hearth the night before. This fire came straight up out of the ground, though, until it formed a fox made of yellow flames with the same fiery white-gold eyes he remembered.

"What are you?" Eiri demanded.

The fox sat back on its haunches, opened up its mouth...and laughed.

"Stop that!" Eiri said, aggravated. "All right, it was a stupid question. Why are you here?"

"You weren't supposed to see that," the fox said, molten-yellow tail flicking back and forth, then curling over its paws. "Don't tell him."

"All right," Eiri said slowly, looking around. He hadn't seen the sea yet, so he hadn't been to this place...the sea was only a smudged blur in the distance, but he knew that that was what it must be. "Is this really a dream?"

"You are sleeping," the fox said calmly. "It is not a dream you would normally have. You'll understand later."

"I want to understand now!" Eiri shouted. "Kelarion thinks I'm stupid and he won't tell me anything! Why..."

The fox pinned him with a reproachful luminous-gold stare.

Eiri reached his hand forward, an apology on his lips. Of course the fox wasn't doing this without cause, the thought leapt into his mind. The fox was only trying to help him.

He cried out and shut his eyes tightly as a column of flame burst upwards. The fox had vanished, and the flames turned red as blood. He opened his eyes, backing away, but the flame burned on bare earth, consuming nothing. It was sustained by...by what? Eiri's brow wrinkled and he stared at the fire. Its pattern was...familiar. In fact, it looked less and less flamelike now; he could sense something in its depths.

It looked like a crimson vine climbing up on a short, sturdy stalk. Eiri moved close, puzzled by what he sensed. At the top, a pair of blood-red flowers bloomed and grew fruit. The vine and the stalk creaked under the weight of the burgeoning fruit.

He turned, and exclaimed something wordless as he realized he was surrounded with the strange plants.

"Would you like to try one?" Kelarion's low, husky voice was in his ear.

Eiri whirled. He stared at one of the pulsating fruits, which had grown enormous. The youko was a silent presence at his side.

Moving forward, Kelarion stood beside the stalk and the vine, holding his arm out. Eiri tried to take a step and found himself moving slow as honey. The youko held a knife over his arm. It glittered and bright red blood ran down his arm, dripping at the base of the plant and pooling there. Eiri watched in fascination as it seeped into the ground. He glanced at the fruit. It was moving.

He thought he screamed when a hand split through the fruit husk, grabbing at the air. He knew his eyes flew open, not in the dream but jerking him out of it.

Eiri lay awake now, breathing hard, staring forward into the darkness. His heart was racing. The dream didn't make any sense, but the end of it had scared him. Carefully, trying not to disturb the sleeping youko, he brought a hand up to the medallion under his shirt. He turned it in his fingers, squinting at it in the pale light of the moon and stars.

Neither flame nor flower.

Breath tickled his ear. "Go back to sleep, little Mairisson."

Eiri closed his eyes and swallowed. His eyelids popped open in the next instant. "I can't." His tone was bleak. If he closed his eyes, he would see the blood running down Kelarion's arm again. What did it mean? Had it been one of his 'spells?'

The arm around him tightened, and Kelarion pressed against him. "Bad dream?" the youko said, yawning, voice ragged with sleep.


"Tell me about it," Kelarion invited.

Eiri remembered the fox made of flame, and shook his head fractionally. "I don't remember it," he lied. He spoke without thinking. "Tell me about the Bond."

Kelarion stiffened. "What?" he hissed.

Shifting uncomfortably, the auburn-haired boy tried to lessen the damage. He didn't know where that had come from; he barely even remembered what the 'Bond' was other than the fact Kelarion had refused to tell him. "I'm sorry, I don't know...I barely remember..."

"It's all right." Kelarion relaxed inexplicably. "I think I know where that came from."

"So you'll tell me?" Eiri asked eagerly.

The youko shifted behind him. "I'll tell you what I can," he said, sounding quiet, almost reflective. "I'll tell you the things that are common knowledge, even though you don't know them. Good enough?"

"Yes. Finally." Eiri shifted, flopping onto his stomach and scooting onto his other side so that he and Kelarion were face to face. The youko's eyes glimmered with a faint golden sheen in the darkness, under the light of the stars. It was eerie.

"The Bond," Kelarion began, tone low and level, "is a term that most of my race use when describing a partnership with their lover, whether youko or human. It implies the highest level of intimacy, of perfect compatibility regardless of how well the two people get along when they first meet. So even if they don't love each other, even if they dislike each other, they're meant to be together and the youko initiates the Bond. You follow?"

Eiri nodded. "You said 'most of my race,'" he noted.

Kelarion glanced into his eyes, then away at a point over his shoulder. "I don't think it has anything to do with how compatible the two people are," he muttered. "I think it's just some stupid racial compulsion to bind oneself to someone who can provide you with children and stability, male or female. Anyone who says otherwise is full of romantic crap."

"Oh," Eiri said, frowning. Kelarion's face was tense and conflicted. He didn't fully believe what he was saying, but he didn't want to believe in the alternative. "What about love?"

"Love is an illusion," Kelarion said bitterly, heaving himself onto his back. "For youko or for humans, I don't think it really exists. The only thing you can count on is yourself." He folded his arms under his head and looked up at the stars, expression unreadable.

He was working himself into a foul mood. Fine. Eiri turned away, putting his back to the youko again.

I don't believe him, he thought. Eiri's mother had loved him. Distantly, he thought of the dream, and the way the man who must've been his father had looked. He had probably loved Eiri's mother, and would have loved Eiri too if given the chance. He thought of what he'd seen in the prince's bedchamber.

No matter what he said about it right now, Kelarion had loved Tori, too.