The streets of Guardian were colorful and wildly distracting, a complete reversal from the shuttered, blocky gray exterior of the city. Around Guardian, a wall ran the length of the city that was taller than the height of three men put together. The road that led up to Guardian was broad and as they intersected it from a hilly plain, Eiri could see the strings of travelers on the road, a caravan in the distance, and a scattering of lone riders here and there making for the city.
"Finally," Kelarion said, exuding relief. "Civilization."
"If it pleases you to think so," Dorrado said, accent thickening, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. "Any kingdom that places such restrictions on youko..."
"Any place that allows me a bath is civilized by my count," Kelarion retorted, nettled.
Eiri ignored them and looked around with the undisguised wonder and interest of a country bumpkin. There were more people going to and from the city than the grand total of people who lived in Dickenston, and it was still new and different for him. There were men wearing armor like the Queen's Knights, only the cut was different and they wore some kind of jacket over the metal plate. Unlike the Queen's Knights, whose armor was burnished and gleamed in the sun, these knights had armor of different colors, and it looked dull and heavy.
There were strings of wagons along the road, too, some with children laughing and playing around the slow-moving conveyances. One looked bright and colorful, like the player's troupe he and Kelarion and Dorrado had hitched a ride with; the rest were wooden wagons with a rider in chain mail beside each one.
He looked around at the people. They were less...different, for lack of a better word, from the people at the coastal city where he had met Dorrado. Here, almost everyone had skin as pale as Eiri's or Kelarion's, unless they were tanned dark by the sun. There were people as dour as the barkeep at Dickenston, and those as burly as some of his cousins. There were people of the like he'd never seen before, with pale skin and vivid eyes. But none of them were as exotic-looking as the coastal people.
"We are coming to the gate soon," Dorrado informed them calmly, and Eiri felt right then that his stare was meant particularly for Kelarion. "As long as no one panics and everyone remembers what we are here for, this should go smoothly."
"We're not safe until we're past Taksis' borders," Kelarion said, a hint of nervousness in his voice.
"That's why it's important not to panic," Dorrado repeated. "Once we make it past these gates, then the other one on the far side of Guardian, we will be in Sevida Ron and the Queen's people cannot pursue us any longer."
"Don't be naive like the boy," Kelarion flared. "That only means her Knights can no longer follow. Knowing Her gracious Majesty, she's already sent an assassin or three."
"You must really have angered her greatly," Dorrado said, seeming amused.
"Go chew your tail!" Kelarion snapped, drawing his hood up again.
The gate loomed above them, taller than Eiri could fathom. All he knew was it was larger than the biggest tree he'd ever seen, and boggled at the thought. How had they built such a large wall? It must have taken hundreds of years.
"Hold," one of the gate soldiers said peremptorily, causing their party to stop and wait. The soldiers finished quizzing a pair of riders and waved them on through, then began sizing up Eiri and the others.
"You, boy," the foremost man said, a dark-haired man with a reddish-brown beard.
"Ser?" Eiri replied, looking at him cautiously. His horse began to sidle and Eiri tried to control him.
The soldier laughed. "Boy, why are you traveling with two youko?"
Eiri blinked, glancing at one cloaked back, then the other. Neither of them turned to look at him. Why was he traveling with two youko? That drove home the point that he wasn't really sure why he was doing this. Kelarion had swept him away and he hadn't the slightest idea what all of this was for. Because they had offered him a better life? He hadn't even known youko existed until a little over a week ago, and now he knew his father had been a halfling.
"Because I'm kin to them, sir," Eiri asserted.
Both men looked startled. They looked him up and down, then one guffawed.
"Shoulda known. He's too pretty to be all man."
This remark threw Eiri into quiet confusion, but the soldiers had already moved to inspect Kelarion and Dorrado. Kelarion still had his hood drawn up and remained uncharacteristically silent.
"Your kind usually avoids Sevida Ron," the other man was saying to Dorrado, not particularly hostile, but not friendly either.
"We have business on the other side of it, and through Sevida Ron is the fastest route," Dorrado replied, his accent thickening. It must have been deliberate.
"The only thing on the other side of Sevida Ron is waste, and those bloodthirsty Tarquinia," the soldier said, seeming suspicious.
Whatever reply Dorrado made was lost as the first soldier, the one who had questioned Eiri, threw back Kelarion's hood.
"What're you so quiet for?" the man demanded, staring at him.
Kelarion's shoulders were hunched. "I have nothing to say, sir." His tone was meek and flat.
"Your name?" the solder demanded.
"Moriah of Abia," Kelarion told him, revealing yet another name as he presented a subservient posture to the soldier.
"All of you know if you enter Sevida Ron you need to hold to their rules?" the other soldier demanded, looking over all of them with a peremptory eye.
"We are aware of the consequences," Dorrado replied.
"No magic, no breeding with the locals," the first soldier said, eyes dwelling on Kelarion.
"We'll be fine, thank you," Kelarion said quietly, turning his head.
The two soldiers stared at them a moment longer, then waved them through. The one with the reddish beard looked over Eiri as he passed, and in his expression was mingled curiosity and disgust.
Boy, why are you traveling with two youko?
As they passed through the enormous gates, Eiri was beginning to wonder the same thing. Belated anxiety sprang up inside of him as they entered the broad streets and the throng beyond the soldier's station. Just what had he gotten himself into?
Walking their horses, they traveled through the brilliant streets of Guardian. Inside the massive stone walls, the paved streets and orderly houses seemed clean and new. There were people traveling in all directions, many who had the appearance of travelers -- those who wore stained, weathered clothing, or moved with an entourage of baggage -- and those who moved on foot. The people of the city wore clothing of many colors, most attractively fit and tailored to their bodies unlike the loose-fitting clothes Eiri was accustomed to seeing. There were many different styles and all kinds of people and the riot of new things set him awhirl.
Eiri kept his horse even with Kelarion, swept with the sudden fear that if he did not stay close to one or both of the youko he would be lost. Dorrado moved abreast of Kelarion, to his right.
"I see you've finally decided to behave yourself," Dorrado said to Kelarion, his words chiding but his tone weary.
Glancing sidelong, Eiri could see Kelarion's expressive face go through many changes -- anger, disdain, defiance -- before it settled on resignation. The other youko replied, "I'm tired of fighting."
"Good," Dorrado said, "because we cannot be at cross-purposes if we're to travel through Sevida Ron. We must present a united front to avoid imprisonment or worse."
A shudder, barely noticeable, traveled through Kelarion's body but Eiri caught it, and thought that Dorrado did as well. "So I go from one terrible fear and flight to another. What was the point in bringing us here?"
"The way around Sevida Ron was much further. You would have been caught." Dorrado's tone was matter-of-fact. "I have no taste for creating a cross-country incident for the sole purpose of helping you escape the Queen's vigorous pursuit of your person."
Eiri was watching Kelarion's face in that moment, not quite out of the corner of his eye but not being obvious about it, either. He was learning the value of subtlety. And so he saw Kelarion's face twist in a clear look of hatred.
"I make no apologies for the profession I practiced there," Kelarion shot at him, words tumbling over each other and snarled together in a choked sort of hiss. "There's no need to cast it up to me!"
Dorrado gave him an undecipherable look. "I cast nothing up to you," the pale-haired youko said with every evidence of surprise. "I have no issue with you, Youko Kelarion, nor whatever profession you worked at. But I will have nothing to do with the results of mistakes or bad decisions you have made -- that is for you to resolve, not I."
"What do you know about it," Kelarion growled, and it seemed as if there was fight in him yet, but then he slumped in his saddle, tugging his hood up over his ears until it shadowed his strained beautiful face. He returned to a state of aggressive inattention, and his horse kept pace between them.
Dorrado's pale-gold ears were laid flat against his bright hair, and he made a visible effort to calm himself before he met Eiri's eyes across the hunched-over figure of the youko between them. "We will find lodgings within the city," he said, and he spoke across Kelarion to Eiri directly. "I think we have been traveling long enough."
"More than long enough," Eiri agreed fervently, eager for both the chance to get off of the horse and the possibility of exploring the city. Kelarion had kept him shut up, perhaps not knowing how to deal with being responsible for a person besides himself, let alone a youth. Dorrado, he had a feeling, would seek to remedy that situation.
They traveled for a goodly distance inside the city, perhaps another quarter-hour. Dorrado had fallen silent and appeared to be scrutinizing the signs as they passed. Eiri amused himself with watching the people in the streets, catching snatches of conversation and observing the variety of the city-folk.
Dorrado chose their inn for the evening in a quiet district of Guardian near the outside wall. As they rode into the quarter Eiri spotted more and more of the loose-fitting plains clothing he was accustomed to seeing. Kelarion roused somewhat as they dismounted and gathered their luggage, giving their horses over to a groom, but he merely shambled along behind them with his hood up as they rented their room for the night.
"Now," Dorrado said, casting down his luggage and cloak on top of that and looking around with a trace of renewed energy, "I think baths are in order for all of us. And new clothing."
"I don't have any other clothes," Eiri put in.
Dorrado stared at Kelarion in astonishment, and the tawny-haired youko flushed and turned away. "You think we had time for that, on the run?"
"Some things, you make time for," Dorrado said firmly, and looked right at Eiri. "Can you put off your bath for a little longer, child?"
"I'm not a child," Eiri protested, but he was excited by the prospect of getting out on foot. "Yes, let's go!"
Kelarion collapsed on one of the beds, making it very clear he wouldn't be participating in their outing.
"Don't forget to bathe," Dorrado warned darkly on their way out.
Kelarion flipped a hand at him in a limp and rather insulting gesture. "I couldn't possibly. I will as soon as I'm able to move again."
"Spotlight princess," Dorrado muttered under his breath, as he shut and locked the door behind them.
"What does that mean?" Eiri asked him, unsurprised by the hint of irritation in the golden youko's voice. Kelarion had long past worn out the generous tolerance of the other youko, and he had spent Eiri's good graces as well.
"I'm sorry," Dorrado murmured, putting on a smooth, unflappable look. "I didn't mean for you to hear that. It means he commands the attention of his audience past the point he should, more or less. It is a term from theatre, from drama, when a principal player attempts to prolong their role."
That elicited a laugh. "Ah, all right."
They left the inn, which Dorrado had told him was named "The Laughing Pony" -- a ridiculous name if Eiri ever heard one -- and moved through the bright throng and the clean streets of Guardian in search of clothing stores. As they walked, Eiri mentioned this observation to Dorrado, the fact that the streets were neater than the few places he had been to.
"Guardian is still a young city, and it hasn't had time to get polluted by the masses of people," Dorrado told him, putting a hand on his shoulder to steer him through the crowd.
Eiri felt a moment of indignance -- he wasn't a child, after all, and Dorrado had been treating him like one -- then it dissolved as the youko kept the arm loosely around his shoulders. It was a friendly, comfortable touch, and he had almost forgotten what that felt like.
"Guardian as a city has a long history, but it was razed in the most recent of the wars between Misra and Taksis," Dorrado told him, revealing more of the world's history of which Eiri had been unaware. "The fighting spilled over even here, in Sevida Ron."
"I've never even heard of Misra," Eiri admitted with a frown.
Dorrado looked down at him with an odd, indulgent sort of expression. "Then we shall have to teach you to read, and history lessons will follow."
They wound up in a two-level clothing shop in the corner of a large building that seemed to have several shops housed within it, not merely the clothing store. It seemed like a novel way to do business. Inside, there was more new clothing than Eiri had seen in his entire life.
The building proper was made of stone, but the inside of the shop was constructed of wood and still smelled faintly of raw timber. Near the back of the shop a staircase led up to another level and racks upon racks of shirts, coats, and other clothing; it wrapped around the whole store. On the lower level, lines of clothes were strung out along with walls, and scattered over the floor where they were strung taut between carved wooden frames. The clothing hung on wooden hooks that formed a kind of bell shape, to hang the tunics out for display. Eiri was most impressed.
"We will get you two outfits to start," Dorrado said in a businesslike fashion. "This shouldn't take long."
Eiri, as it turned out, had a thing for clothes. More than just a thing. He loved them -- he liked the feel of the fabric, he wanted to try all of them on, he liked holding up each new tunic or trousers against himself and picturing how it would look. Dorrado simply laughed, saying something about not denying him the small pleasures, and let him take as much time as he wanted. Eiri didn't want to settle merely for two outfits, but of course he had no money to pay for them. At last he selected two, one that involved a green tunic and tan pants in the close-fitting style that seemed to be peculiarly Sevidian, the other a russet-brown shirt with tough traveling pants made of cured hide.
Dorrado called him a "clothes-line," laughed, and went to pay for the outfits.
Lounging on the bench near the door, Eiri swung his legs and felt small and grubby. He was very much looking forward to a bath. He wondered if Kelarion had bathed...and quickly tried to shunt his mind in a different direction; that made him feel too flustered. He was angry with Kelarion, he decided. Kelarion had been horrid to both of them, and it looked as if his attitude would get no better.
"What are you talking about, you look brilliant in red," said a nearby voice, a man with dark curls. He was dressed nondescriptly in plain gray and black.
What made Eiri look twice was the youko beside him. The youko was striking, taller than the tall man beside him, slender and beautiful and it was difficult to tell in that instant if he was a male or female but he turned and displayed a flat chest beneath his amber-colored tunic. He had the most gorgeous hair, a fall of very dark red, almost black, but when he moved the red highlights caught light and glinted like jewels.
"I don't particularly like red, Orando," the youko replied in a deep, melodious voice.
"But you look so good in it," the man replied, stepping closer to the youko and sliding his hands over his waist, drawing his body toward him and resting hands low, very low.
Eiri's cheeks burned but he couldn't look away.
The youko's eyes flicked to him and they were pale, very bright green, like a translucent leaf. The color was so bright as to be impossible, but he was looking straight at Eiri.
The man looked, as well, and he laughed but kept his grip on the youko, stretching forward to whisper something into his companion's ear. The youko's chiming laugh joined his and he accepted the red tunic from the man's hand; they turned and moved toward one of the changing-rooms.
That left Eiri behind, wondering why the sight of the man and the youko so close, seeming so happy, had unsettled him so.
A hand touched his shoulder and Eiri looked up, startled, into golden eyes so like his own. "Dorrado?" he said, inexplicably shaky.
"Yes?" the youko replied mildly.
"That youko had green eyes..." It was the first thing that came to his lips. He was aware that two youko didn't make a majority, but had somehow assumed that his own tawny eyes, as well as Kelarion's copper-colored ones and Dorrado's pale gold ones, were some sort of racial trait. The shades of gold had made a deep impression on him, almost a kind of recognition.
"Ah," Dorrado said, a soft curious sound. "That's very, very rare. He must be from the south."
Tilting his head up to look at the tall youko, Eiri noticed his look shift from speculation to something closed-off and unreadable. He reached up to tug at Dorrado's fingers where they rested on his shoulder. "What's next? Do we go back to the inn?" Suddenly he felt very tired.
"First we need shoes and a cloak for you, and then we are finished with shopping," Dorrado told him calmly.
They left the clothing shop and sought out another building, this time a small store inside of a stone building that had a great many stores inside of it, lined up on either side as if it were an indoor market. Here Dorrado sought out the shoe tradesman, an older gentleman with wispy white hair and a kindly face, who measured Eiri's feet and then clucked softly to himself as he sought out an already-made pair of boots that would suit him. Eiri was unused to seeing such ready-made merchandise; it was quite the concept to have clothing and shoes ready to hand in several different sizes, instead of having everything made from stratch.
The soft pair of leather boots that he left with were quite splendid, and there was a spring in Eiri's step as Dorrado took them to yet a third store. There, they found a bell-sleeved cloak with a supposedly weather-proof outer lining and a warm fur lining on the inside. Eiri cuddled it around him and promptly grew attached to it; Dorrado debated with the tradesman over the price and managed to get it for quite a bit lower than the listed one.
With these prizes, they adjourned to the Laughing Pony and their room. Kelarion was absent, which brought a brief sour taste to Eiri's enjoyment of the afternoon, but his bags were still heaped in the corner.
"You remember where the baths are?" Dorrado prompted him, turning to his own bags.
Eiri nodded. "At the end of the hall, soap and towels included, hang the wet ones on the line," he recited, snatching up the parcel that contained his green tunic and tan pants. He practically rushed down the hall. Scrubbing down in a standing basin was hardship; reclining in a warm bath to soak was luxury.
He opened the door and banged his nose on a skinny chest. "Sorry!" he apologized swiftly, rubbing his nose and looking up.
It was Kelarion, looking lazy and relaxed, a towel slung over his narrow hips. He was all angles, thin enough for his ribs to show, and he gave Eiri a heavy-lidded glance. His hair was still damp from the bath. "Your turn?" he inquired, making a sweeping gesture with his hand to indicate the baths within.
"Uh -- mmh," Eiri murmured assent, blinking up at him. The youko was so thin it looked painful.
Kelarion's look shifted into something softer, sensual, his expression making something twist in Eiri's guts. "Want company?"
"N-no! I'm fine!" Eiri blurted without thinking, edging past the taller youko, who made no room for him. Their thighs brushed and the sensation sizzled through Eiri, unexpected and electric.
Kelarion laughed at him. "Haven't you ever had someone wash your back before?" He remained in the doorway lounging up against the frame with a foot holding the door open as Eiri hurried for one of the baths on the far side of the room.
Eiri gave him a brief, almost angry glance -- was he going to just wait there while he stripped? He looked around the baths but they were empty, save for Kelarion standing in the doorway. All of a sudden he was painfully aware of the fact that he'd never been naked in front of Kelarion, and while it hadn't meant anything in front of his score of cousins, nudity meant something different now.
Determined not to show this, Eiri stripped down quickly, wasting no time on it, folding his clothes and setting them on top of his old patched half-boots. He did not meet the eyes of the youko in the door, but didn't need to. He felt him watching.
He slipped into the bath and finally looked up. Kelarion's eyes were burning, riveted on him with a peculiar look the likes of which Eiri had never seen before.
"What?" Eiri finally mustered the voice to ask.
Kelarion laughed again, but it was an abrupt, strained sound. He broke away from the door and let it fall shut with a clack.
Eiri drew a deep, shuddering breath, relaxing back into the bath. The warm water soon soothed away the knots and tension of the trip, and of the long day he had been through.
The sight of Kelarion's molten-copper eyes took much longer to leave him.
When Eiri returned to their shared room Kelarion was gone, and he didn't know if this was cause for relief or further aggravation. Dorrado blinked at him serenely from a cross-legged position on one of the room's two beds, then climbed to his feet and reached for his own fresh clothing.
"We're going to eat here in the inn tonight, as soon as I'm finished," Dorrado told him, and Eiri nodded. "But we leave at first light. I need something from a store down the street, would you get it for me?"
Eiri nodded, dropping his armful of clothing on the pack Dorrado had given him.
Dorrado pressed a small pouch of money on him. "It's down the street in the direction we went to get your clothes, just past the first cross street. It's called the Amber-Eyed Kitsune--"
"I can't read," Eiri interrupted him.
"Very well," Dorrado said, frowning. "The sign it bears is of a fox with many tails. Its eye is made of amber set into the sign so that the light glints through it."
"I remember that one," Eiri said with a nod, moving toward the door.
"Eiri...we shall have to teach you to read," Dorrado told him in that serious voice. "By the time you return I should be waiting for you in the common room."
"What would you like me to get?" Eiri asked him.
Dorrado gave him a list. "The shop owner should know what to do with this," he replied. "And while you're there...buy a book. It doesn't matter which one."
Eiri gave him a quick, almost subdued smile, then opened the door.
Outside, the streets of Guardian were still bright although the flow of people had thinned somewhat. He looked around with great interest as he walked up the street to the shop with the sign of the fox, the one he vaguely remembered glancing at before and looking twice because the fox had a few too many tails.
It was still late afternoon in Guardian but when Eiri pushed his way into the Amber-Eyed Kitsune, dusk seemed to prevail in the interior of the store. It was woven through with veils of crimson and things that gave forth amber and orange gleams in the light of the candles that had been placed here and there. The shop smelled exotic, spicy, a scent that Eiri couldn't identify yet it smelled tantalizingly familiar. He moved deeper into the maze of bookcases and crimson drapery.
There was a murmur of voices from deep within the store, and in this direction Eiri headed.
He came into an open area that seemed less a store and more someone's common room, lined with bookcases that were crammed full with books and curios, cups and statues and many different things. There were a few reclining-couches and chairs, and a table in the center of them, placed neatly on a woven rug of intricate design.
Off to the back, to Eiri's left, there was a counter, and there he was unsurprised to see a youko leaning against it, both hands placed firmly on the surface. The youko was of indeterminate gender but beautiful, almost handsome, with a cascade of silvery-white hair and small, white-tufted ears. The youko's eyes were very large and honey-brown.
He was surprised, however, to see who the youko's customer was; it was the young man from the clothing store, the tall man with dark curly hair. He, too, was leaning against the counter.
"--try to pull that kind of kark on me, Siobhan, I know what kind of goods come through Guardian and I know you're trying to sell it for half its worth," the man was saying, and his words were harsh but his tone was light and amused more than anything.
Eiri glanced to the side, and the red-haired youko from before was draped on one of the couches, watching the interchange with a glint of interest in his pale green eyes. He was dressed in very tight-fitting, attractive clothing, Eiri noticed now.
"You must understand my position, Orando," the youko replied in a sweet, clear voice like a bell. Eiri started. This was a female youko; hadn't Dorrado or Kelarion mentioned how rare they were? "I'm on the edge of two hostile territories. How many youko do you think come through Guardian? Not many, you know. I'm offering you a fair price for this market, and I need to make a profit, too."
"I understand that once I sell this item to you, you'll probably take it up to Queensdale and sell it for more than it's worth," Orando said, leaning back, and now his tone was serious. "So why don't I take it to an outgoing merchant and see what kind of a deal he can give me?"
"Now, that's not fair, Orando," the youko called Siobhan said in shocked tones. "You shouldn't let a human buy it."
Orando's shoulders lifted and dropped in a quick shrug. "I'm human, Siobhan," he pointed out.
"That's different," she replied, looking to the reclining youko waiting for Orando to finish his deliberations. "You're Bonded to Toreiverr, here, to one of us." She looked over Orando's shoulder and her honey eyes widened.
Orando craned a glance over his own shoulder and grinned. "Hullo."
Eiri blinked and lifted a hand.
"I'll be with you in a moment, child," Siobhan informed him with a pretty smile.
Eiri gritted his teeth. He wasn't a child, he thought resentfully. Then he caught the eye of the redhaired youko, who was waving a hand at him.
"They might be awhile," the redhead told him in a deep husky voice. "Why don't you have a seat and we can chat while they amuse themselves?"
Eiri smiled and joined the youko, sitting on the couch cross-corner from him.
"I am Toreiverr Renard of the city-state Sur-Renard," the red-haired youko introduced himself. He smiled. "I saw you earlier today, didn't I?"
"Eiri Mairisson, formerly of Dickenston in Taksis," Eiri replied. "Yes...I'm with two youko, passing through to Stronghold."
"Ah, the hidden fortress in the Wasteland," red-haired Toreiverr said, radiant green eyes expressing recognition. "We have been there, Orando and I. It's a hard route you've picked, you three. Sevida Ron does not look kindly on youko within its borders -- or rather, one might say, is looking far too vigilantly on youko. But I suppose passing through Sevida Ron is preferable to taking the road through Misra."
"I don't understand," Eiri admitted, aware he had a sketchy grasp of geography and the countries around his homeland.
Toreiverr looked at him, and his expression of comprehension was completely unlike the pity Eiri had sensed from Dorrado, or the pity from Kelarion. There was only curiosity. "You said you came from Taksis?"
"Yes, it was a little town a couple days' ride from any of the bigger cities," Eiri replied, ducking his head. "I grew up on the Bransson's, my uncle's farm."
"Ah." Toreiverr made a soft noise of enlightenment. "And one of your youko found you."
Eiri shook his head. "I wouldn't call him my youko," he denied at once, though there was an uncomfortable squirm of sensation within him. He still remembered the feel of Kelarion's eyes on him as he undressed.
Toreiverr tilted his head to the side, dark red hair framing his face with the movement. "I see," he said, and his green eyes were dancing.
"Where do you come from, Toreiverr?" Eiri asked, determined to turn the conversation around. He wanted to know more about this mysterious youko with the green eyes. "Dorrado said that green eyes are very rare."
"Not so much, where I come from," the youko replied straightforwardly enough. "There, we are just as likely to have blue or green eyes as the gold that seems most common in our northern kin."
Now that Eiri had spoken with him at length, he could hear a trace of a faint, rolling accent in Toreiverr's words, a hint of slur when it came to certain sounds. He seemed to bite back some of his words, as if holding the last of it within his throat. It was like, yet unlike, to Dorrado's far-north accented speech.
"I see," Eiri said, but he was unable, quite, to achieve the same degree of mischief that had been in Toreiverr's tone.
Behind him, the young man, Orando, made an anguished noise. "Siobhan, are you trying to steal the food from the mouths of our kits?"
Siobhan objected, "You don't have any kits, Orando."
"But I might, some day."
Siobhan favored him with a cascade of tinkling laughter.
Toreiverr leaned on his arm of the couch, eyes flicking briefly to the young man, then back to Eiri. "And the haggling continues," he said, expression amused. "I honestly think Orando enjoys driving the bargain more than he enjoys the results."
"I heard that," Orando said, not even turning from the counter. "And we won't be able to afford kits, some day, if Siobhan beggars me before I can get us established!"
Toreiverr smothered a snort.
This was the perfect opportunity to ask something that had been bothering Eiri for weeks. Now he had an unbiased source to tap -- this was the first time he had met Toreiverr, and he was actually Bonded... "Toreiverr, may I ask you something?"
The red-headed youko looked to him once more. "Yes?" he prompted with a receptive expression.
"What is the Bond? What does it mean?"
Toreiverr frowned at him, not so much in displeasure as it was in concentration. "There are many kinds of Bonds," he said at last, slowly. "Shall I take it as given you mean that between a youko and a man? Not merely any human, but male."
That complex answer startled Eiri, a bit. "You mean there are different types of Bonds?" he pressed.
The youko gave him a reassuring smile. "Of course there are...I am sorry, we youko tend to forget that most of you know nothing of our traditions, and we speak as if you do. It must have been the case for those with you."
"Yes," Eiri replied, thinking of Kelarion's reticence and Dorrado's sense of...of waiting for the right moment.
"Yes, Eiri, there are different types of Bonds...for example, the Bond between two youko is considered a different form than that which takes place between a youko male and a human woman, or even a youko male and a half, one who is part-youko and part-human," Toreiverr elaborated, pushing his hair back from his shoulders and settling himself in a different position on the couch. He smiled. "The most interesting kind, in my opinion, is that between a youko male and a human man. But of course, I am not impartial to a certain bias."
Eiri smiled, hoping it would prompt Toreiverr to speak more.
"The Bond is our way of locating, and keeping, a suitable mate. Our Northern kin have shrouded it in mystery, possibly because they do not remember the origins themselves, but it is a mechanism we instilled in our race, by our own power," Toreiverr continued.
"How?" Eiri broke in, shocked. "I mean...that's not possible, is it?"
Toreiverr waved his hand. "Of course it is! We still have oral records of that time, in the south. Youko do not possess the kind of raw power we had in those days, but even now it would be possible to effect that kind of change if we were patient, and coordinated our use of power."
Eiri shook his head. It was simply too much to process.
"Initially all of the youko females had been killed off," Toreiverr related, head tilted, eyes faraway as if he was translating the tale he spoke of...and he probably was, given his accent and distant origins. "In those days, our number was few and scattered. The options were to find some other way of reproducing, or let our fledgling race die."
"And?" Eiri said, getting caught up in his words.
"And Wolf de Checageux, a leader of our people, found a way to continue our race. It was he who forged the first Bond with another youko, just as it was he who led our people to transform their bodies in defiance of the humans, who called us demons."
"But what is the Bond?" Eiri persisted. "I mean, what does it do? Kelarion says it's nothing more than instinct..."
"Instinct," Toreiverr repeated thoughtfully. "There is instinct involved, to be certain, and that is one of the keys for triggering the Bond, but it goes much deeper than that."
Eiri bit his tongue, rather than speak up and say 'How?'
"The Bond alters both who join in it, no matter what two halves make up the pairing," Toreiverr told him. "The Bond is just that, a mechanism...a...a rite, if you will, by which the couple is bound together. But it is more than just a rite; it is the method by which they are bound."
Eiri furrowed his brow. This explanation raised a host of more questions.
Toreiverr raised a hand, as if sensing this. "Follow through with me," he said, chuckling. "It is on many levels, physical, mental-emotional, and sexual. The Bond affects all of these, creating subtle changes in both partners. If they began as suitable for one another, once the Bond is through they are eminently suitable, partnered."
"I understand...I think," Eiri said, though he was still frowning.
Toreiverr lifted up a finger. "Think of it as finding a diamond...you don't find polished, cut stones, you know." He looked over Eiri's shoulder at Orando, and there was both fondness and exasperation in his eyes. "The Bond polishes the edges from the stone, and shapes the metal of the ring, so that the two can fit together and create something beautiful."
Understanding dawned. "Like puzzle pieces."
"Yes," Toreiverr gave him a nod. "The Bond is the glue that binds those puzzle pieces together for good. You'll learn more about it, the more you stay with us." He gave Eiri a direct look and there was more than amusement in his eyes now, something that seemed to look into the very heart of him.
Eiri looked away, shaken. "How...how is it different for a youko male and a human man?"
"Ah," Toreiverr said, giving the syllable an interested inflection. "That delves into certain areas of youko culture, one of the basic reasons behind the creation of the Bond..."
Green eyes twinkled at him. "I'm sorry, but though you are traveling with two youko, you are not yet Bonded...I am afraid I cannot divulge that information, Eiri."
"Dorrado said the same thing," Eiri said in disgust.
"Hmm, then there must be a reason."
Eiri couldn't even summon up a proper irritation; the redheaded youko's smile was melting and positively infectious. "But I'm part-youko..." he tried that last tack.
Toreiverr's smile widened. "But not raised as one of us," he countered. "It will come, Eiri. Cherish the time during which others do all the worrying, and you need do none."
A fist banged on the table, and Eiri jumped, craning his neck to peer at the scene behind them. Orando cried out, "Fine, rob the very bread from our mouths! You're a hard, cruel lady, Serra Siobhan."
Siobhan replied primly, pushing coins across the table, "I have to think of my future kits as well, Ser Orando. You understand how it is."
Orando broke character and laughed as he scooped her coins into a pouch. "Very good, thank you."
"And you." Siobhan smiled. "You're quite the amusing fellow, Orando, are all men from Killian so entertaining?"
"I'm one of the few with a sense of humor, Siobhan, which is probably how Toreiverr" -- he hooked a thumb over his shoulder -- "puts up with me."
"Ah." The slender youko female took the packages he offered, turning and stashing them on a shelf. She bowed, a quick fluid gesture. "Thank you for coming. I wish a safe journey for both of you."
Orando bowed his head in response, then turned and held up a crooked finger in an obviously triumphant gesture. Eiri judged from this that he'd profited well on the bargain. He moved over to the couch where Toreiverr lay reclined, and leaned over the back of it to place an upside-down kiss on the youko. His lips tracked over the bridge of Toreiverr's nose before he captured the youko male's mouth.
Such a display of very personal affection made Eiri squirm. Or, just maybe, it was other reasons that made him restless. He stood and looked to Siobhan, who beckoned.
"Come, child, let me attend to your needs," she told him, leaning on the counter. She and Eiri were roughly of a height, that is to say, not very tall.
"I'm not a child," Eiri replied, setting his list on the counter. He looked her over, marveling a little. Siobhan, for all her delicate bone structure, was more masculine of feature than all three of the youko males he had met, who were more beautiful than most women. Yet Siobhan was undeniably attractive.
Siobhan blinked her large, honey-colored eyes at him. "I apologize," she said in her clear voice. "I did not mean to seem patronizing, it's simply a convenient form of address when I do not know your name. How may I help you?"
This extremely civilized reply made Eiri feel as if he'd overreacted. Silently he pushed his list across the counter.
Siobhan perused the list, her pale brows contracting. "Give me a moment," she said, and at Eiri's nod, she vanished behind the door beyond the counter.
Eiri turned, looking from bookcase to bookcase. Toreiverr had finally gotten up, and he and Orando stood overly close to one another. The dark-haired man was turned against him as if whispering something into his ear. Toreiverr's green eyes fixed on Eiri.
"It was a pleasure to meet you," the youko told him sincerely. "I think we are to be leaving now."
Orando gave him a jaunty wave as he took Toreiverr by the hand and led them out of the heart of the dark, exotic-smelling shop. "Take care, kid."
While he waited, he moved to the nearest bookcase and studied the incomprehensible scrollwork of titles, gilded and plain. He wished he had asked for Toreiverr's opinion on a book while the youko had still been here to ask. He pulled out a book and leafed through it; it was all plain text and he moved to the next one, and the next. At last he settled on one with brightly-colored pictures, chapters that began with detailed illustrations, and plenty of text besides.
As he returned to the counter, Siobhan opened the door again, returning with her arms full. She gave him a brief smile as she set the articles on the counter, then moved around it to select a few items from around the shop. "That should take care of it," she said, taking up a paper sack from beside the counter and beginning to pile the items into it. As she did so, she totted up figures on a piece of paper. Once she was done with both, she told Eiri the sum.
Eiri passed over the pouch Dorrado had given him, and Siobhan counted out coins and gave him the rest, adding a slightly puzzled smile. "You should learn to count," she told him. "I am honest, but many human merchants would not be."
"I don't think Dorrado would have sent me to a human merchant by myself," Eiri replied forthrightly.
"No criticism intended," Siobhan said with a nod. She looked him up and down.
Eiri stared back, growing uncertain with each passing second.
"Be careful," she told him at last. "This may seem an adventure to you, but its effects are more far-reaching than you could dream of as you are now."
Ignoring his startled query, Siobhan accorded him that same fluid bow she had given to Orando earlier. "I wish a safe journey for you and your kin."
"Thank you," Eiri said, adding on impulse, "and may your business thrive and your profits bring you more than monetary reward."
Siobhan's eyes glinted at him in something like approval as he took up the sack and turned to go.
The day was fast fading as Eiri walked up the street from the Amber-Eyed Kitsune to the inn, the Laughing Pony. Most of the folk on the street walked quickly, with purpose, individual or grouped figures muffled in cloaks as the weather turned cool.
Eiri pushed his way into the common room of the inn, which was a great deal busier than it had been when he'd left. It took only a brief scan of the room to spot the bright heads of the youko, their distinctive ears making them easy to pinpoint. Even from a distance, it looked as if Dorrado was arguing with Kelarion, and the latter was laying his ears back, attention fixed on his tankard. He broke off as Eiri approached their table.
"I'm back." Eiri handed over both bag and purse. He looked around with interest. "Are we eating?"
Kelarion pushed back from the table, looking anywhere but him. "Go right ahead." Then he stood and left them.
Eiri looked after him for a moment as his back disappeared into the press of people, then jerked a thumb toward his breastbone. "What did I do this time?"
"You? Nothing." Dorrado put his head in his hands, then ruffled his hair and sat up straight. "He fights himself. Come, I will order for you. We may as well eat well tonight, for we're to rise early tomorrow."
Eiri mulled this over as Dorrado took up a board of paper, a menu.
"I think..." Dorrado began, looking up at him.
"Dorrado, does Kelarion want to Bond with me?" Eiri interrupted, turning over all of the pieces in his head. They seemed to fit, or so it looked to him.
The youko's wide eyes blinked slowly, and his face went still. "No...Kelarion does not want to Bond with you, Eiri," he replied cautiously. "Why would you ask that?"
"No reason." Eiri kicked the seat that Kelarion had deserted. Every reason.
"Don't worry about it," Dorrado advised him, golden eyes flickering as if a hand had been passed before a candle. "Now let's eat."
As they waited for the food, Eiri thought about the kiss that had passed between Orando and Toreiverr. They had seemed so tender, in that instant, though much that had passed between them had been in jest. They had seemed...well-suited.
He wondered if all youko Bonded, or just the lucky ones.
Dawn striped the horizon in layered clouds and azure bands of sky, pink and gold and all the shades of early morning. The landscape on the far side of Guardian was rocky and harsh, with projections and crags jutting up from the soil. The rolling hills of Taksis had given way to a place of sparse growth and gradations of rock and dirt, as if simply by crossing through Guardian they had passed into a completely alien environment.
"Just think, it only gets worse," Kelarion said with a kind of grim relish when Eiri commented on the arid landscape.
They had risen early, with Dorrado shaking him awake in the dark, and discovered as they made preparations to leave that Kelarion had rejoined them sometime during the night. For whatever reason, he chose to remain with them as traveling companions even though he complained about their presence, their route, their accommodations, and whatever else seemed to cross his mind.
Breakfast had been taken on horseback, because Dorrado had said they would need to push their pace to carry them across Sevida Ron as quickly as possible. Even Kelarion did not protest the necessity of this.
Eiri thought wistfully of a life that did not involve saddles. If he had thought their course was difficult before, Sevida Ron was worse -- they traveled through canyons and grottoes, up sharp inclines and down into steep valleys. By the time they came to a stop that first night, Eiri realized that he had not been nearly as toughened as he needed to be for this kind of riding. His thighs ached.
They camped in the open, because their route for now was through the sparsely-populated regions of Sevida Ron. The reasons for this lack of humanity were readily apparent; the landscape did not exactly lend itself to farming or cities of commerce and industry. There was no level land in sight.
"How much longer will we be traveling?" Eiri groaned, settling himself beside the firepit Dorrado had carefully dug for their small fire. The grass, the youko had explained, was very dry on the ridges of hills they were traveling across, and if it caught fire it would spread for as far as the eye could see and more.
Kelarion snorted at him.
"A few more weeks," Dorrado replied. "Once we get to Sevida Ron, we must travel through the Wastelands...that is a three-day journey of itself. If all goes well, we may arrive at the end of next week, or the beginning of the one after."
Once they had eaten, Dorrado did something unexpected. He handed over the book that Eiri had bought to Kelarion with the terse instruction, "Teach him." As Kelarion glared at the other youko, and Eiri regarded him with a mixture of puzzlement and upset, Dorrado stood and took himself to the far side of the camp. There he pulled certain items from Siobhan's shop out of his pack and turned his concentration to some esoteric task with those.
"I hate you," Kelarion muttered in the other youko's direction, but it was without any heat. He looked over at Eiri, brushing aside his shaggy gold-threaded brown hair to peer at him. He looked at the book in his hands and sighed. "Come here."
Eiri did, scrambling close beside the youko with a little thrill of excitement.
"We will start with the alphabet," Kelarion told him, and began to inscribe symbols into the dirt.
Eiri frowned at him. "I thought you were going to teach me to read that book!" he objected.
"You need to learn how to bite before you can hunt," the youko replied cryptically.
So it was that Eiri began to learn how to read. Defying Kelarion's expectations -- the youko said spitefully that he expected Eiri to be dull-witted and slow like most of his race -- the young man picked it up quickly, naturally, as if all he had needed was the key to unlock the treasure of the printed word that he'd been exposed to. They held sessions during the evenings when they stopped to make camp, and continued until the sun's last embers were extinguished beyond the horizon. Kelarion would not let him read by the fire-light.
The youko quizzed him on his letters in the mornings. Dorrado supplied them with a small amount of rough paper, and soon Kelarion was stringing together cards with words on them, flashing them at him as they rode. Eiri's mind was retentive enough that Kelarion actually began to take the initiative in teaching him, instead of performing the task resentfully as a job that had been sloughed off on him.
With increased proximity came increased tension.
In the evenings, when they sat together studying while Dorrado busied himself with dinner or mending tack or any of a dozen other homely chores, they were close enough to touch and occasionally did. Kelarion oscillated between irritated and absorbed, while Eiri swung confused in attempts to pay attention to the reading, and inadvertant fascination with Kelarion's proximity. Lessons usually ended in Kelarion snapping something curt or hurtful and taking himself to a pointed distance from the campside. Sometimes, they ended with praise and Kelarion transfixed Eiri with a honeyed smile and sweeter words.
During the long days on the road, with no civilization in sight, Eiri laid in his bedroll with his eyes turned up to the glittering field of stars above and tried to figure out what was going on. He had been swept along with little knowledge of what he was doing, but now he continued because he wanted to. It wasn't just the fact that he had no other options. He felt bound somehow to the youko, he felt a kind of kinship with both of them. With the only other youko he had met it had been the same; there was an immediacy to their presence that he had not felt with anyone since his mother had died.
It might have something to do with their magic, Eiri reasoned, and the fact that his heritage was bound up in youko magic too. That was the best explanation he could come up with.
What didn't occur to Eiri was the fact that the youko communicated on basic emotional levels with greater facility than humans did. Their presence was more accessible to him because he possessed the same ability, to sense and feel the emotions of another, and respond, in a way that most humans could not.
Another thing Eiri worried at was his body's basic response to Kelarion. He'd never thought much about sex, but that had been changing as he grew older. Still he had thought of it only in the abstract sense; livestock did it, some of his cousins did it, other people did it. Since tasting Kelarion's mouth that evening so long ago it was like a door had opened, this time a path in his mind that led to sex.
Dorrado seemed avuncular, even asexual to him...he was a kindly, parental figure. Eiri had considered whether it had anything to do with the nature of youko and the fact that Dorrado didn't attract him punctured the theory. He'd never been attracted to men before, or any of his cousins male or female...
Increasingly, Eiri associated the thought of sex with Kelarion. Since he was always with Kelarion, and he thought more and more of sex, the two became inextricably linked. His body sang with tension when he was near the youko. He could no longer ignore or pretend not to understand.
Kelarion does not want to Bond with you, Eiri.
The youko's increasingly harsh and critical behavior seemed to back that up.
Eiri lay awake at nights and wrestled with the issue. Once they reached Stronghold, he had no doubt that Kelarion would be gone. That was a strangely disturbing fact. It should be a relief, he thought, to separate Kelarion from this growing sexual awareness and discover what he really wanted.
Instead, it made him want to die. Disappear. Whatever kind of obliteration, he didn't care so long as he didn't have to deal with the whole thorny mess of his twisted-up thoughts and emotions.
"Tomorrow we stop in Vanguard."
Dorrado's quiet, slightly-accented voice broke into the pause in Eiri's stumbling monotonal reading as Kelarion turned the page for him. The youko knelt forward, looking across the firepit at them as he placed wrapped food into the hot ashes.
"Thank the Aspects," Kelarion said with feeling, putting the book into Eiri's hands and shoving at his thigh to place some distance between them.
"Oh, who bit your tail?" Eiri shot back, overly self-conscious and stung by the implied rejection.
Kelarion's ears flattened and his mouth went thin. "You aren't my father or my lover, so keep your hands out of my pockets." By that, Eiri had learned, he meant for Eiri to stay out of his business.
Eiri pretended to ignore him and flipped open the book to the place he had left. He studied the picture. It was an old, old story, if not an old book, of tales centering around the Cataclysm and the bloody years after that and the years of the floods, followed by the years of water-recession. Eiri had heard bits and pieces of the tales from his mother and Father Leary and even Fiona, but this was different -- the book was written by youko, not humans.
He slanted a thin look at Kelarion as he opened the book to a new chapter and read aloud, "On Bonding. One of the many traditions central to youko life--"
Kelarion made a long arm to snatch the book out of his hands. "Give me that," he said impatiently, scowling.
Eiri held it in his right hand, out of Kelarion's reach. "No."
The youko growled and sprawled across him, taking him by surprise, scrabbling for the volume.
"Hey!" Eiri's voice broke on an upward spiral. "Get off of me!" Panic pumped into his veins and he pushed at the sudden weight of Kelarion, trying to skid out from under him.
"Don't be such a child," Kelarion said scornfully, pinning him to the ground and starting to climb across him to pluck the book out of Eiri's hand.
Child? Mortified, maddened, Eiri heaved up against the body sprawled over him. He was stronger than he looked -- and Kelarion was lighter than he seemed.
Kelarion's face plowed into the dirt next to Eiri's head.
Sputtering, he picked himself up and pinned Eiri again, hands on his shoulders, knees on Eiri's thighs. "Oh, you'll pay for that," he glowered, hovering over Eiri with an angry look.
Eiri very nearly groaned. What a time for this to kick in; Kelarion was on top of him, they were both sweaty and disheveled from the day's ride and the lack of bathing water, but the youko was pissed enough for his hair to stand on end. Still, he couldn't help the fact that he was acutely aware of the weight of Kelarion on his stomach, pressing him down leg to leg, hands fisted in the fabric of his now very dirty tunic. If he moved just a little he would be able to feel...
An odd look crossed Kelarion's beautiful features. He looked unfocused for an instant, then he gave his head a shake and glared into Eiri's golden eyes once more. "You're getting off easy, little bastard." Then he rolled off to the side, taking advantage of Eiri's distraction and snagging the book from his hand.
"I am a bastard," Eiri replied, unfazed by that one. He'd grown up with that insult cast in his teeth and it didn't carry much currency with him anymore. "You'll have to find a different one if you want to upset me."
"Who cares that much?" Kelarion said snidely. Though the evening wasn't cold, he stalked over to his bedroll, pulled his cloak over himself, and effectively removed himself from their presence in the grayish-yellow tent he created.
A moment later the book was tossed to the grass just outside of his cloak. "You idiot, this book doesn't say anything about Bonding."
Eiri scrambled to retrieve it, feeling wounded. It was the only book he had; it wasn't as if they could drop by another Amber-Eyed Kitsune and pick up a replacement. He retreated to his own bedroll to sulk.
"What's so important about civilization, anyway?" Eiri said, casting the question out in general but pitching it for Kelarion's ears. "This is Sevida Ron. You can't just sleep with anything that jingles its purse at you."
The dun cloak-hood flipped down, and a piercing eye regarded him from under the wild fringe of Kelarion's hair. "Where did you get such a nasty mouth?" he demanded in icy tones.
Eiri held his unnerving stare. "I learned it from you," he replied, feeling a queer thrill of satisfaction.
That bled the tension away, somehow; Kelarion looked away and muttered something noncommital, and Eiri turned his attention back to his precious book. Tomorrow they would enter a city; not neutral ground like Guardian, but a real Sevidan town.
For perhaps that very reason, sleep was a long time coming.