The ragged trio reached Vanguard late in the morning, just as heat was beginning to spill down into the valley, making sweat trickle down their bodies and stain the horses' hides dark. This particular Sevidan city was a tangled sprawl of low-slung buildings, unwalled, with a free-standing garrison to the southwest, traditional approach of the enemy in days before the Killian nation had turned to trade and industry.
There were no checkpoints in Vanguard. When Eiri asked about the lack, Dorrado replied that Vanguard was peaceful enough, and far from the border. The garrison was a light one, a formality more than anything, and probably contained a mere handful of knights. They only enforced the peace if there was some kind of disruption or violation of the law.
Dorrado, Kelarion, and Eiri had been issued visitor's visas before passing through the far side of Guardian, and before they entered the city they made sure to affix these prominently to the outside of their clothing. The youko, especially, would not pass without comment so it was best to be sure there were no misunderstandings.
"We'll get provisions here," Dorrado told them, clicking to his horse to speed up the pace, "then avoid contact with any other towns until we hit the border town of Vigilant. Best to be safe, with Sevida Ron."
"Why do we have to pass through a border town?" Eiri wanted to know. "Can't we just slip over the border, if we're avoiding cities?"
"Idiot," Kelarion said. "We're inside their borders with visas. If we don't check those with the knights on the way out, we would be apprehended for evading customs if we ever sit foot in here again."
Eiri flushed with embarrassment, then anger. "Then why bother coming here again?" he returned coldly. "They're obviously hostile to youko."
"You are so naive," Kelarion told him with a maddening little smile, then urged his horse forward before Eiri could sputter a reply.
From the outskirts of Vanguard they garnered curious, even alarmed stares. Many people stopped what they were doing to look up at the visitors, then either stare or hastily avert their eyes and make a sketched warding sign with the fingers of one hand. Some dropped what they were doing to hurry away from the three riders.
It made Eiri squirm with a terrible kind of self-consciousness, even though he knew the stares were not directed at him.
Before, in Taksis, Kelarion had usually hidden himself beneath the hood of his cloak, even going so far as to tie his ears most of the time when they were in populated areas. Here in Sevida Ron, he had thrown his hood back and held himself upright, almost flaunting his alien beauty.
Dorrado rode with the same composure he normally exuded, but there was a sense of...awareness about him, for lack of a better term.
Though men had scrambled away upon sighting them, they proceeded through Vanguard unchallenged. Dorrado looked at street signs as they passed various establishments, clearly looking for a place to stay.
Vanguard seemed as large as Guardian to Eiri, perhaps larger, though it was unwalled. It might have seemed larger because it was unwalled, he thought. Eiri looked around with bright and curious eyes. He could read the signs, now, and he could tell that they were moving through a business district. The signs were all tradeshops, for weapons or armor or clothing.
The people of Sevida Ron did not wear the loose-fitting garb that was more typical of Taksis. Here they wore short tunics or jerkins open at the front in concession to the dry heat; even the women wore the same short, utilitarian tunic. Breeches and trousers were knee-length and nearly everyone wore sandals, strapped to their feet by a conveniently placed thong or two of leather or rope. The men wore their hair shorn to their ears or clipped even closer; the women wore their hair tied back or piled high on their head, in contrast to the tight braids Eiri was accustomed to seeing.
"I don't see any knights," Eiri commented. The two youko had been telling him about Sevida Ron in bits and pieces. One of the things the kingdom was known for was its trade in steel and glass; they were known for the quality of their weapons, as well as the glass ingots that they refined. They were also well-known for the calibre of their knights. One knight, Dorrado had told him, was worth ten average soldiers. That was why even though they were a small country, they could hold their own against the two enemies on their landlocked borders.
"Idiot," Kelarion said witheringly. He was so practiced at that sort of tone he could probably raise a blister on paint at ten paces. "Haven't you been listening, or paying attention? They stay at the garrison at the edge of town."
Eiri flushed. It was more out of angry frustration than embarrassment, though there was some of that mingled in there as well.
He was delighted when they turned a corner and passed a particular sign that he could read. "Look, a bordello...Kelarion, you may not have to sleep alone tonight!" He was almost viciously pleased that he could strike back at the source of his frustration; he was so caught up in his little triumph that he didn't pause to think how unlike him it was to deliver such an insult.
Kelarion laid his ears back flat. "What makes you think you can get away with saying that when I won't even take it from him?" he hissed, jerking his head in Dorrado's direction.
Eiri stared at him. "Because you can't get me out of your head," the words escaped him, coming from he knew not where.
The youko stared back, and two bright spots of color rose in his cheeks. He muttered something unintelligible and brought his horse's head around sharply, moving away from Eiri and trailing them from several paces.
Dorrado was looking at him speculatively.
"What?" Eiri demanded, feeling unexpectedly belligerent.
"It would be unwise under any circumstances to indulge those particular instincts here in Sevida Ron," Dorrado said, and his expression was neutral with a hint of disapproval in the thin set of his mouth.
"Why is that?" Eiri prompted.
"Haven't you been listening?" the jeer came from behind them, Kelarion again.
Eiri did not deign to twist around and look at Kelarion's mocking expression.
"The Sevidans tolerate neither foreign magic nor interspecies breeding -- not even under the auspices of the Bond," Dorrado continued, not unkindly. "Youko are tolerated but not welcome here. If a man is found fraternizing with the youko, his penalty is banishment -- and the youko's may be death, for violating the terms of his visa."
"That's horrible!" Eiri cried.
"That's life," Kelarion's voice stung from behind like a persistent insect.
They rode for several more measures in silence. Eiri paid attention to the layout of the town, the sights and sounds of the people that they passed in the street, the signs of shops that they passed. They moved in a broad spiral, it seemed, rather than straight lines. As they moved from the quarter of shops into a more residential area, they passed through an inner gate with heavy double doors.
"Is the entire city built in a spiraling shape?" Eiri asked. Periodically, he had noticed, there were alleyways or broad causeways that cut from one section of the spiral they traveled to an outer section, though it was not large enough to be termed a 'street' and there were grates at each end of the alley in raised positions.
"Yes, most cities in Sevida Ron are built in this particular manner," Dorrado replied. "They consider it to be highly defensible, and I suppose they are right. Each section of the spiral can be locked off separately from the others, and they have built the alleyways so that they can be locked off as well -- or lock their enemies within a section and pour boiling substances upon them."
Eiri shuddered. "Do they fight a lot? You mentioned that Guardian had been razed to the ground."
"They have enemies on three fronts," Dorrado told him. "The fierce tribal warriors of Delegido to the northeast, the aggressive military state of Tarquinia on their eastern flank, and the power-hungry warmongers in Misra to the southwest. There has been peace for the past twenty years, but who is to say when one or more of those might take up arms once more?"
They passed through a residential district into another business area. For all that they might be hovering on the brink of war, the people seemed prosperous -- even if they stopped in their tracks to stare at Eiri and his companions, then quickly busied themselves or took themselves elsewhere.
Dorrado brought them to a halt before a huge three-tiered establishment bearing a sign that proclaimed it the "Red Lion Inn." The carved lion on its sign had been carefully painted in red so that those who could not read could still discern the device. Here they dismounted and gave over their horses to a groom whose face twisted in reluctance as he looked up at the youko, but he accepted the coins that Dorrado pressed into his palm.
"No foreigners here," was the verdict of the man behind the counter, a slim man with a thatch of dark hair tied back and a disdainful tilt to his nose. Though he was shorter than the youko he gave an impression of looking down at all of them.
"Excuse me?" Kelarion exclaimed, and might have put forth an argument if Dorrado had not interceded, putting a hand on his shoulder in a staying gesture.
The counter man put on a stubborn look. "No foreigners," he repeated as Dorrado stepped up to his counter.
"What you mean by 'no foreigners' couldn't possibly mean 'no youko,' could it?" Dorrado inquired in silken tones.
"If it does that's none of your concern," the man said curtly. "You're not patrons, just passing travelers we can't accommodate."
Eiri stared at the man and felt something sick shriveling through his guts. He would turn them away for a night's stay simply because of the two youko? Remembering previous instances of prejudice, it wasn't unthinkable but it was disgusting.
"I see," Dorrado said simply, and backed away from the counter.
Beside Eiri, Kelarion was a crackling force of rage. It would take only a single word to make him snap.
"It concerns me," interjected a new voice from off to the side, a deep, smoky masculine voice. "I'm a patron. And I happen to be a foreigner. Does that mean my money's not good enough for you, either?"
Eiri and his party glanced quickly to the side.
A big man was standing, and when he stood he hulked above even the tall youko, immense in build and muscular physique. He was not dressed in the fitted tunic and breeches of the Sevidan folk; rather he wore a dark top that resembled a sleeveless robe cinched at the waist with a belt of colorfully embroidered stiff fabric. As he stepped toward the counter his trouser-like garment appeared to be all one piece, looking like a white skirt with multiple pleats creasing up the center. The strange garment might have been amusing if it had been on a person less physically imposing.
"After all, if the money of a foreigner is no good here, then that means my people and I are not welcome either." The big man spoke the language fluently with almost no trace of an accent, but there was something liquid and interchangeable about his 'r's and 'l's.
The counter attendant blanched as he looked to the big man who had risen. The hauteur slid from his face and chagrin took its place. "Sirra...most honorable Sirra Jin...I meant no disrespect to you or--"
"I think you meant disrespect to these people," Jin countered flatly, gesturing toward Eiri and the two youko. "If this is the kind of business you run here, then why should I stay under this roof with my people?"
Eiri was watching the counter man closely, even gleefully, and he saw desperate calculation flit over the man's face, masked quickly with a look of appeasement.
"Good Sirra...I was in the wrong," he said humbly.
The man known as Jin had an expression on his face that could have been carved out of stone.
The counter attendant regrouped, turned to Dorrado and the others, and bowed. "My apologies," he said, hesitated, then glanced at the open register on the counter. "You'll need a room or two, then?" A hint of the hauteur returned as he scrutinized their appearance, as if to imply they would not be able to pay.
Nevertheless Dorrado paid calmly and registered them for a room, a single. Kelarion draped over his shoulder and made an irritant of himself until he was banished to Eiri's side, grumbling something about straitlaced country folk.
They finished at the counter and turned. Dorrado bent his head to the tall, strangely dressed Jin and Eiri followed suit while Kelarion surveyed the man with narrowed golden eyes.
"My thanks for your intervention," Dorrado told him.
"Think nothing of it," Jin replied, passing a hand over his shaved scalp. "It was the right thing to do." His brown eyes regarded them forthrightly.
Dorrado hesitated a split second, then said, "I am Esperanza no Dorrado," he said, with a deeper, more stiffly formal sort of bow.
Kelarion straightened from his slouch and performed a similar, albeit more shallow bow. "Koten no Kelarion," he said, and his voice was different somehow, slightly accented, almost like that of the big man.
Eiri glanced sidewise at them both. He felt as if he was seeing a part of both youko previously unrevealed to him. It was baffling, almost frustrating. Was this Kelarion's real name at last? Was he traveling with two strangers? He might as well be, for all they told him or even cared for him. Then Kelarion was nudging him in the ribs and he opened his mouth. "Eiri Mairisson," he said, not even attempting a bow. He was sure he'd look ridiculous.
Jin's sharp brown eyes appraised all of them. "Suggi no Jin Riddoki," he introduced himself, "Shidai of Tarukinnya. It has been a long time since I've seen kitsune."
"Oh? Are we welcome in your land now?" Kelarion asked keenly.
Jin's brows lowered. "You are not unwelcome," he replied obliquely. "Beauty is appreciated in Tarukinnya."
"How charming!" Kelarion exclaimed, and might have said more.
Dorrado cut in, "We are not here to cause disruption or question possible wrongs of the past," he said, shooting a significant look at Kelarion. "We appreciate the intervention. Clearly the words of the Shidai command respect in Sevida Ron."
Jin Riddoki made a dismissive gesture. "I travel with no entourage save for that of my immediate house," he replied. "Perhaps you would care to share a meal with us later?"
"Perhaps," Dorrado said politely, stating the word firmly over Kelarion's inhalation.
"Then, please excuse us," Kelarion inserted, making a show of slapping at his travel-stained clothing. "It's been a long journey and I feel the need to bathe."
They parted company with Jin Riddoki after another round of bows. As they moved past the common room to the stairwell, Eiri glanced at the Shidai's party, a mixed group, all of them dressed in exotic clothing in a style similar to Jin's. A slender, dark-haired boy looked up, met Eiri's eyes, then glanced away quickly. He was beautiful like a girl, but his hands and the line of his jaw were masculine, as was the flatness of his chest. There was a tall, rawboned woman also seated at the table, her dark hair piled on her head in an elaborate arrangement. Her clothing was intricately patterned. Beside her there was a girl with light blonde hair, not pulled back but loose around her shoulders; she wore clothing similar to the woman's but less extravagant. She had very pale skin like the boy and she met Eiri's eyes directly, without looking away.
It was Eiri who broke eye contact first, flushing a little. There was something challenging in the girl's stare, something he wasn't prepared to deal with.
The room upstairs was one of the smallest yet, though it had two beds crammed together in the narrow space.
"How about it?" Kelarion said, flinging his arms wide. "Dorrado, want to bathe with me? Scrub my back?" His expression was intent, almost predatory.
"Don't be ridiculous," Dorrado said, ignoring him while he rummaged in his packs.
Kelarion turned his luminous copper eyes toward Eiri, who was holding his breath.
"Don't even think about it!" Eiri said in a rush. His stomach was roiling. Thoughts chased through his head like brainless swallows; Kelarion did not want to Bond with him, men could have sex with other men, Kelarion had been a courtesan, the youko had stolen him away from his home but didn't want anything to do with him, Eiri couldn't think about anything but Kelarion in association with sex.
"Who said I was going to ask you?" Kelarion replied snidely, opening his own pack and searching for fresh, or at least reasonably clean clothing.
"You're the one who was looking at me!" Eiri exclaimed, then added, "You're always looking, every time I look at you you're looking back."
Kelarion shot at him, "Can't be helped -- I'm amazed by the stupidity that comes from your mouth! Like right now. So you fancy yourself something to look at?"
Crimson, Eiri raised his voice. "You're the one who told me I was!"
"Children," Dorrado interjected, obviously intending to deliver some calming statement.
"Why did you even bother taking me from that farm?" Eiri rushed onward before Dorrado could, all of his frustration and hurt boiling out. Questions he'd wanted to ask for a long time came tumbling from his lips. "What's wrong with you? Why did you take me with you, when you still love that prince? You act like you can't stand us anyway, why don't you just go off on your own like you threaten to?" He bit off his last question and inhaled, aware that he might have gone too far.
"You want me to leave?" Kelarion shot back, all but shouting. "Bad for you, huh? If you don't like what you see, don't look!"
"Take your own advice!" Eiri flung at him, clenching his fists. "If I b-bother you so much..."
"What, leave?" Kelarion said, tone dropping into dangerous levels. "Why don't you leave, if you're so sick of me you can't stand it anymore?"
"I will, then!" Eiri yelled, snatching up his pack. Before he could pause to breathe or think he had stormed out of the tiny room and slammed the door behind him.
He stood in the hallway, trembling. He had no idea what to do, but he knew he couldn't go back into that room and face Kelarion's smirking face, not one instant more. So, before Dorrado could emerge to coax him into exactly that, he scrambled down the hall and down the stairs. His head was pounding and strangely empty of thought.
Eiri made his way past the Shidai's party in the common room and even got all the way out of the inn before his legs collapsed. He sat on the porch and looked at traffic passing in the street, feeling blank.
"Boy," said an imperious female voice, "come here."
As soon as the door slammed shut, Dorrado turned to Kelarion, remarking with every evidence of composure, "I think that's the most callous I've seen you behave toward him since I found him locked into that hotel room and bound with magic, as well." His eyes, swirling with searing gold as they pinned Kelarion, betrayed the calm.
"Magic is overstating it," Kelarion said with a sullen look, throwing himself on one of the tiny beds and glaring up at Dorrado through a fringe of blond and brown-streaked hair, striped like tiger's-eye. "You think his crack on the street didn't deserve as much?"
Dorrado's inflexible expression gentled somewhat. "How are you doing?" he asked, with a solicitousness that was at odds with his earlier anger.
Kelarion certainly seemed to think it was strange. He cast a peculiar look at Dorrado. "Why should you care?" he muttered.
"You're acting like--"
"I'm not!" Kelarion snapped before Dorrado could complete the sentence or, perhaps, before the former courtesan could complete the thought in his own head.
"Oh?" Dorrado said blandly, moving about the small room. He cast a glance over his shoulder as he sorted through the items in his packs. "He is right, you know. You can't keep your eyes off him." Seeming indifferent, he began to unpack several wrinkled garments, shaking them out with an assessing eye.
Kelarion's eyes sparked with amber fire. "What, just because I admire someone good-looking it means..." He bit off his harsh-toned words, tanned face puzzled. "You're wrong. All right? I could leave you at any time, you know, but we're in Sevida Ron so I may as well go all the way."
One of Dorrado's thin, pale-blond brows rose in an incredulous nuance. "You don't really have much say in the matter, you know. When the time comes nothing can stop it. Besides, if it is 'genetic compulsion' as you said in your own words, that doesn't make it any more avoidable."
He didn't wait around for Kelarion's retort. He got up, casting one last enigmatic glance at the other youko before leaving his sorted clothes on the bed to walk out the door. He shut the door behind him gently, ever so gently, counterpoint to the furious slam Eiri had given it moments before. It was in and of itself like a chastisement, the soft click, then the silence that followed.
Kelarion, in his turn, stared at the door with troubled copper eyes and lay on his belly for a long, considering moment, trying to still the fire that burned inside of him.
Eiri looked up from his position on the stoop, widening his coin-gold eyes in the dusky evening light.
"Yes, you," confirmed the imperious little voice.
It was the girl from before, the one who had been with Jin Riddoki's party. Now that Eiri could see her outside instead of in the dim interior of the inn, he could tell that the robe-like costume she wore was richly patterned in bold, harmonious colors. It emphasized her pale skin and drew attention to the flowerlike face above the line of the robe.
She was speaking in the common tongue, but she didn't have an accent. Not like the Shidai's. It was faint, but not foreign.
"Are you from Tarquinia?" Eiri asked her. "Who are you?"
The girl folded her robe around her in a delicate and graceful move as she knelt, tucking the embroidered outer robe so that it did not touch the floor. She looked at him intently, no, she stared. "I'm Caette."
When it was apparent the girl wasn't going to speak again, he said, "Don't you have a last name?"
Caette frowned at him. "Patronymic? No. I'm from Gwen Palen."
"That means absolutely nothing to me," Eiri confessed. "I'm from Taksis."
"Don't you know your geography?" she asked, and seemed unaware that the question was rude. She simply looked curious.
"No, I just learned to read," Eiri said, frowning at her. He felt the same kind of curiosity though he didn't know why. "The only maps I've seen are of Taksis, and they weren't very good."
"What's your name?" she asked abruptly.
"Eiri Mairisson," he replied, charmed by her straightforward attitude. This, he could relate to. For some reason she reminded him of Briony, his cousin. They even had the same pale-gilt hair.
"Mairisson..." she said slowly. "That means you're the son of Mairi, right?"
"Yes," Eiri said.
"Where I come from, we identify ourselves by clan," Caette told him. "Only now I have no clan. I travel with the Shidai and his wife and concubine."
"Oh, that's--" Eiri began, and got sidetracked. He had opened his mouth to ask what Caette's role was, that is, what she was doing with them when he got stuck on: "His concubine?"
Caette nodded solemnly, resting her fists on embroidered knees. "Sylfaen, the boy who sat next to me at the table." She leaned forward, squinting at him. "You look surprised. Aren't you the concubine of the two fox-spirits?"
Blood was rushing to Eiri's face. "It's not like that," he protested feebly. He realized, glancing over at the door of the inn, that he was doing a terrible job of running away. Still he felt as if he couldn't set one foot off the porch, as if something was anchoring him here.
"You're embarrassed!" Caette exclaimed, laughing, rubbing her hands together. "Was I wrong? You're not their concubine?"
His face was probably flaming from chin to hairline. He shook his head, and managed to speak. "That...is it common? I didn't know people could speak of it so casually, a man taking a boy to bed, or another man."
Caette gurgled with more laughter before she could answer him. She swept her flyaway blonde hair from her face. "In Tarukinnya it's a common practice but they don't talk about it so much."
"Really?" Eiri said, intrigued.
She nodded. "It's like taboo. Everyone does it but no one says anything in public, only in private. Where I come from, Gwen Palen, people don't talk about it at all. People who lie with their own sex are considered sick in the head, and usually sent away from the clan. I think it's different depending on where you come from," she said thoughtfully. "We've heard about the libido of the fox-spirits, though. When I saw you with them, I assumed you were their concubine, the way Sylfaen belongs to Riddoki-zan."
Eiri felt some of his discomfiture returning. 'Libido of the fox-spirits?' "Well...I..."
"What are you doing with them?" she pressed, dark blue eyes intent.
"Them?" Eiri repeated, like the village idiot. "I...ah...I'm kin to them. I belong where they're going." As he said it, though, he felt lonely inside, wondering if it was true. He wouldn't know until he got there.
"Where--" Caette began, and was interrupted by the forceful jolt of the door swinging open.
A slender, androgynously beautiful figure stepped onto the porch area. Eiri looked at him a little differently now, as if he hadn't seen Dorrado before. He was beautiful, made so by the shape of his face and body, and exotic with those ears jutting up from his head. For a moment he could understand why a person could be frightened, especially if they were unfamiliar with youko.
It was strange. Eiri's first reaction had not been fear. He had felt a sense of recognition, looking up into Kelarion's alien features.
"Eiri," Dorrado said, pale gold eyes assessing the girl from Gwen Palen. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," Eiri replied, and discovered that he was. His anger had drained away. "I'm hungry."
Dorrado nodded. "We can eat inside," he said, eyes still fixed on Caette before he glanced briefly at Eiri. "I will meet you. Pick whatever table you like."
Eiri scrambled to his feet, giving Caette a brief smile. "It was good to meet you," he said sincerely. "Fare well."
"Safe travels," Caette returned. "I am sorry if I offended you."
"Not at all." He brushed off his already-dusty trousers and sidled past Dorrado into the inn. Just inside the door he paused, tempted to linger and hear whatever conversation passed between the odd girl from the land he didn't know and the youko from -- surely -- even farther. He shook his head and strode toward the common room. Jin Riddoki and, if he was to believe Caette, his wife and concubine had both departed.
Eiri selected a table and sat. His insides were churning. He didn't know if he could eat. What would become of him when they arrived at Stronghold? Would Dorrado turn him over to someone else's care?
...Would he ever see Kelarion again?
Though the youko had been so awful to him, especially recently, the thought cut him like a knife. He frowned at his hands, at the grain of the wood below them; might have frowned a hole through the table if a serving-boy hadn't come over to him to ask timidly if he wanted anything to eat or drink.
Eiri, sure of Dorrado's purse, ordered both and waited. When Dorrado joined him in a moment's time, sliding into a chair with his typical bland expression, Eiri couldn't resist asking:
"What did you talk about with Caette?"
Dorrado blinked his pale eyes. "The road," he replied with equanimity. "They have just been along the road we will take to Vigilant. The road will have merchants and perhaps a handful of travelers...it is well-maintained in Sevida Ron, but we may have to worry about armed scavengers in the Wasteland."
"Oh?" Eiri said, caught off-guard. Whatever he'd expected, it hadn't been that.
"Yes, we will have to be careful. No one lives in the Wasteland but the desperate. It is a hard living, and so it is usually criminals who end up there, or those with no options...and living in the Wasteland makes a person even harder, more desperate," Dorrado explained. "I have passed that way before, long ago. Caette informs me that the problems with scavengers have only increased, though the knights occasionally try to eradicate them for harming trade relations with Tarquinia."
Eiri looked at his folded hands. "And youko live there."
"Yes," Dorrado replied.
Unspoken was the certainty that desperation had driven them there...and hardness must have followed.
In that awkward pause Eiri's food and drink were delivered, and Dorrado placed his order with the server. Eiri found he was still lacking appetite.
"I'm sure Kelarion is happy to have the room to himself," Eiri said resentfully, turning his mug around and around.
"Eiri..." Dorrado inhaled, then laced his fingers before him on the table. "Do not take Kelarion's behavior to heart."
"Why shouldn't I?" Eiri muttered, still avoiding his eyes. He didn't want one of Dorrado's lectures, delivered in that same maddeningly calm tone he used on Kention to the flowerlike face above larion when he was being unreasonable.
"He's not himself," was the unexpected answer. "Do you understand?"
The laughter startled Eiri, and resentfully he looked up. Dorrado pressed a hand to his mouth, giving him a penitent look. "Of course...I am sorry to laugh."
"Why--" Eiri began, frowning even harder, but Dorrado brought his words to a halt by holding up a hand.
"I cannot explain, I'm sorry, Eiri. But when we reach Stronghold I think you will realize...Kelarion is not himself. He cannot help behaving this way, no matter how bad it seems." Dorrado gave him a small, coaxing smile. "So, please, until then...?"
Eiri hesitated. He didn't know why it seemed so important. He didn't even know why he should agree, given Kelarion's unpredictable, almost violent mood swings. Yet... "All right," he said, and with the words an odd kind of pressure evaporated. He felt a little less tense.
Suddenly reaching the Stronghold seemed to have purpose, becoming more than just a goal for its own sake.
The road between Vanguard and Vigilant passed uneventfully, unless one could call the occasional bouts of sniping between Eiri and Kelarion an unusual event. The trading route -- for that was the road they traveled -- was lined with merchants and wagon-trains creaking with goods, dressed in the clothing-styles of many countries.
Dorrado educated Eiri as they went along, for the further they got from civilization the more Kelarion slumped in his saddle, pretending to be dead to the world in general or at least Eiri in specific. The soberly-garbed merchants who rode on horses -- either following or leading their wagons -- were from the trade-nation of Killian. They dealt in many types of business and artistry. There was perhaps one cluster of travelers who were dressed as Jin Riddoki and his party had been; Eiri guessed that they were from the country called Tarquinia and Dorrado confirmed it. Trade relations between Sevida Ron and Tarquinia were at very low levels because of a border war twenty years ago, and skirmishes that continued to that day.
They did not see any youko.
They did not see any Misrans, either, Dorrado explained, though Misrans were ostensibly welcome for trade purposes in Sevida Ron. The last bloody war from the southwest had been thirty years ago, before the ascension of Misra's current king. Any Misran traders would come from that direction, the border they shared with Misra.
No one, Dorrado explained, went into the Wasteland unless they were prepared to die, or strike out for the lands beyond it.
For Eiri, it was fascinating to hear orally-recounted histories and explanations, but he was looking forward to gaining access to more than just the one book that Dorrado had bought him. Now that he had achieved a reasonable level of proficiency, Eiri had read his one precious book many times.
In a few days' time they arrived in Vigilant. Vigilant was a trading town, a border town, somewhat like Guardian. It was divided into the Sevida Ron side, which was distinctive because of its spiral layout and lockdown-ready sections, and the other side -- in Vigilant, the other side of town was devoted to free trade.
They replenished their supplies after passing into the free trade portion of the town, and settled in for the night at another inn, the Blue Cherry. The inn they stayed at was, surprisingly, run by a couple -- a youko male and human female, Daren and Elayna.
The next day, Dorrado explained, they would leave Vigilant, crossing the border into the Wasteland.
"Insanity," Kelarion snorted. "No one departs straight from a Sevidan border town. Someone's sure to try and follow us."
Dorrado looked steadily at Kelarion for a moment. "Would you like to be in charge?" he offered politely.
"It will take a certain amount of mental discipline," Dorrado said, casting another look at Kelarion, "but I think we will be able to manage. If anyone does try to follow, they will think we died in the desert."
The desert, Eiri knew, was a part of the Wasteland, but parts of the area were so barren and lifeless that they truly were waste. He had felt it, shimmering like a great sun at the edge of his perception, for the past few days as the land they traveled through grew steadily more arid, losing all traces of green. If he turned quickly, like a mirage it flickered at the edge of...not his sight, but his mind.
On the heels of that inspirational speech they were supposed to take to bed early, so as to rise early.
Eiri lay awake and visions of bleached skeletons swam before his eyes.
The strip of dawn on the horizon was like hammered steel, already scintillating with heat in the early hours. The two youko and the young man had been traveling since long before daylight.
During a brief pause, when they dismounted to walk their horses for a stretch, Dorrado had passed out cakes encrusted with salt.
Eiri wrinkled his nose, watching with amazement as Kelarion, ever the picky eater and culinary expert, wolfed his down.
"Eat it," Kelarion leaned over to command, his face glistening with the beginnings of sweat.
"I don't like salty food," Eiri protested, breaking off a piece and nibbling on it. He made a face. "Ugh, it's full of salt."
Kelarion leaned in even closer, running a finger down the side of Eiri's face.
Eiri flinched back from the contact, his face growing warm. He felt heat spreading down his breastbone and belly. Kelarion narrowed his copper eyes at him, but held up his finger -- it was beaded with droplets of sweat.
"This is your body's water," Kelarion said, adopting the tone of a teacher with an especially dim-witted student. "If you lose too much of it, you'll die. Our horses could only carry so much water. So the more water you keep inside of you, the better off we are."
"And salt does that?" Eiri said dubiously, but he knew it was true. In the summertime, he recalled, when it got especially hot the Bransson had distributed salt amongst the livestock.
"It will help us cross the desert," Dorrado said.
That was the last they spoke for a good long while. Dorrado cautioned them to save their words for necessity, because even speaking could dry them out. So they mounted once more and followed Dorrado across the wastes. The youko had led them off the path early, and now they made their way through a steep gully bare of anything but rock.
The Wasteland was not what Eiri had expected. He had thought of a desert, picturing shimmering dunes of sand, but this was all bare rock, the terrain like Sevida Ron but completely devoid of greenery or life. The contours of the Wasteland were difficult, steep inclines and treacherous slopes. Dorrado led them with an expression of intense concentration, as if he were focusing all his senses on the land -- more than just sight or hearing, but something within.
Kelarion had tied his scarf over his head again, this time not to flatten his ears but to provide a barrier between his skin and the battering heat.
The sky was cloudless, an inverted bowl of perfect, pure blue, and from that empty sky the heat from the sun pounded down on them in waves.
After an hour or so of riding through the gully, they dismounted to walk their horses once more, letting them lip for a moment from water-soaked rags. Dorrado distributed the salt-crusted cakes again. It was getting hotter.
Eiri stood on the side of his horse that allowed for some shade as Dorrado finished watering his own horse. He leaned against the animal's sweaty hide, then rubbed at his arm and winced. In this heat and sun, he would probably burn and then freckle, a stunningly unattractive combination.
A sodden bundle dropped on Eiri's head, and he sputtered for a moment, grabbing at damp cloth. "That's disgusting!" Eiri said, unraveling the cream-colored towel that Kelarion had used to water his horse.
Kelarion stared at him, his eyes flat and alien. "Tie it over your head," was all he said, then he turned and began leading his horse after Dorrado.
Eiri weighed the pale towel in his hands for a moment, still looking after Kelarion with a frown. He thought once more of Stronghold and Dorrado's promise, not knowing what to expect but anticipating it nonetheless. Then he fashioned a turban-like structure on his head, pressing the damp cloth to his forehead for a moment, relieved by the tepid coolness of it.
Though Dorrado had emphasized the need for passing through the Wasteland as swiftly as possible, they stopped when the sun reached its peak in the sky. The reason for traveling in the gully became apparent...with the sun at its zenith, there was no shade anywhere but for direct overhanging rock. In the gully, they found a ledge large enough to accommodate themselves and the horses, and came to a halt.
"No one travels at this time," Dorrado explained briefly.
Copying the actions of Kelarion and Dorrado, Eiri hobbled his horse and slumped against the rock at the rear of the overhang, splaying his arms and legs out. The rock was faintly cool, which meant it had probably been under shade for most of the day.
"Push over, make space," Kelarion commanded, putting his back to the rock and sliding down along it until he, too, was seated.
"There's plenty of space," Eiri protested, but he was too tired to be outraged.
Kelarion slitted one copper eye and looked at him from the corner, but said nothing.
Eiri flushed and looked away. It was hot, but Kelarion had seated himself close enough that their arms and thighs brushed with the slightest breath or movement. He couldn't say anything. He ascribed it to being too tired and hot to complain. When he looked back at the youko, Kelarion's eyes were closed.
A faint warmth settled in the pit of his belly, and stayed there.
"We'll stay here for a few hours, then move on when the heat of the mid-day has passed," Dorrado told them, then seated himself as well some distance further along the overhang.
The afternoon passed in a drowsy blur of heat and near-silence. Eiri drifted off several times, only to rouse at the shifting of the body beside him then, reassured by Kelarion's continued presence on some deep level, returned to a light doze once more. His almost-sleeping thoughts swam thick with the journey, the places they had been skipping past him in a jerky montage, then were replaced by a reel of unfamiliar scenes. A vast cavern, cool and lit by an eerie white-green glow. A sea of sleek youko heads with furred ears perked up. A youko male and another figure locked in an embrace.
When Eiri tried to focus on that image, in the place between dreaming and wakefulness, he found that the youko's partner resembled the prince he had seen in his dream weeks ago. He looked back and forth from man to youko, and the youko took shape in his thoughts as Kelarion.
He felt a pang, and tried to withdraw his focus. Then the fuzzy scene shifted, and Kelarion twined around a male figure with auburn hair.
The voice was Kelarion's. Eiri tried to pull away again, fighting the pull of the not-quite-dream, and felt a heaviness descend upon his thoughts. Suddenly he was twined with Kelarion, the youko's face close to his, the youko's arms around him, hips flush with his and shifting subtly...
"I can't," Kelarion's voice repeated, a sobbing half-snarl.
Yet Kelarion's cheek was against his. Eiri looked to the side, languidly, watching a white fox trot past them in the wavering heat of the desert. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth and it looked over its shoulder in a seeming grin, golden eyes fixed on Eiri.
Then it bounded forward in joyful leaps, and in the wake of its pawprints, blood-red flowers sprang up, burgeoning instantly and heavily with swollen twinned fruit, surrounded with a flickering, flame-like aura.
A sheet of flame roared up before his eyes, and laughter rang in his ears.
Eiri wrenched himself from the dreamlike vision with an explosive cry. He found himself awake and gripping his tarnished medallion hard, tightly enough that his hand hurt where the metal bit into it. Eyes wide open, he stared around at the desert anxiously, searching it for signs of the portentous vision. Nothing.
There was a weight on his shoulder, pressing against his side, which Eiri realized as soon as his panic began to subside. Kelarion's head was on his shoulder.
Eiri relaxed minutely. He stared blankly forward out into the glare of the sun on the opposite wall of the gully, and watched rock trickling down the slope. He reached up, not quite aware of his actions, and stroked Kelarion's hair, then played his finger along the edge of one soft bristle-furred ear.
When Kelarion shifted his head, murmuring something in his sleep, Eiri snatched his hand away and shoved the youko off him.
"Wha--" Kelarion slurred drowsily, then practically leaped away from him. "What were you doing?"
"What were you doing?" Eiri retorted, glancing away from Kelarion's accusing coppery eyes when another handful of rock rolled down the slope, snagging his attention. "Wait...there's something..." He frowned. He could almost sense...
"Eiri, stay under this outcropping," Dorrado broke in, his voice terse and unlike anything the boy had heard before. He got up, movements quick and flowing, utterly silent.
Kelarion froze, and there was an odd expression on his face, caught between some kind of fear and the irritation he'd woken with. He rose in a swift leonine movement. "I don't have anything," he said. "I left Queensdale in a hurry..."
Dorrado was rooting around in a pack, and he withdrew a long, thin wrapped object, then a smaller one which he tossed to Kelarion. They tore the wrappings off, revealing a sword and a short-sword, bright steel with a slight curve, sharp edges demarcated by a rippled wave up the length of them.
"A kodachi?" Kelarion said in apparent disgust.
"Take it or leave it," Dorrado invited. "I don't happen to have any broadswords handy, nor the cutlasses of my land."
"What about me?" Eiri objected, as both youko moved for the sunlit area that waited beyond the outcropping.
Kelarion turned to pin him with an angry eye. "Stay here. If someone comes and it isn't us, take a horse and go back to Vigilant."
"What--" Eiri started, and shut up mid-protest at the wild look Kelarion gave him. He wouldn't know how to get back to Vigilant on his own, but it didn't matter.
They left, and as they paused on the verge of shimmering heat, it seemed for a moment that they blended into the landscape and disappeared. The mirage flickered, then Eiri could see them once more. The youko picked their way over to a rocky climb up the escarpment.
Eiri waited for one long, tense moment, straining his ears for the slightest sound. Were they still climbing? Would he even be able to hear the fight from here?
"Devils to this," he muttered, getting to his feet. He cast a quick look around, eyes wide, checking briefly that the horses were still hobbled, then made for the route the youko had taken up the face of the gully.
As he climbed to the top, sweat dripping off him, arms straining, he heard the harsh clatter-clang of steel striking steel. He hurried, as much as he was able. There was nothing he could do, Eiri knew this as he climbed, but neither could he sit in fragile safety and miss witnessing this fight.
When he cautiously poked his head over the top of the escarpment, Eiri's mouth dropped in surprise.
Dorrado's skill with the blade somehow came as no surprise. He moved like a whirlwind of silver with his sword, tearing through opponents. The two youko were up against a ragged crowd of men, eight...ten...perhaps twelve opponents, but already three were down silent or groaning in pain.
He had heard from Kelarion's own mouth that the youko had been a courtesan in Queensdale, and perhaps before that for all Eiri knew. During the trip he had disparaged their traveling conditions in a non-stop string of complaints. He had seemed ill at ease with his surroundings, out of his element, mean-tempered and sulky like a child used to coddling.
There, on the rocky plain with his cloak cast aside and standing tall in a sleeveless vest, his upper body glistening with sweat, Kelarion looked pared to the essentials and fighting-dangerous. His hair and ears were confined in a ragged turban but his eyes, his face were feral as he moved, flickering-fast, felling enemies with the short sword and defending himself with his left arm and leg. He whirled, he punched and kicked his opponents, he sliced throats and plunged the kodachi into chests. Blood flew into his face and streaked his upper body and he laughed, moving faster. It was fascinating, and sickening.
Eiri averted his eyes, only to alight on something else. At the edge of the fight a lone man stood, swathed in dirty ragged robelike clothing like the others but leaning on a long black staff.
Why wasn't he fighting? What was he waiting for? Eiri frowned, climbing all the way over the edge of the escarpment.
"Eiri!" Kelarion's voice roared. Four swordsman. Three. They fought harder, hoarse battle cries splitting the searing air.
One unkempt swordsman charged Eiri, who crouched on the spot like a stunned animal, unable to move in the face of danger. Dorrado broke from his opponent, disabling his sword arm with a vicious cut and turning to run for him, but there was not enough time.
At the last instant, Eiri rolled aside, forcing his locked limbs into motion. He rolled on the dusty ground, rocks cutting into his skin, and watched as the man jerked short on the edge of the escarpment, arms pinwheeling scarily, sword tumbling from his grip before he plunged over the edge with a scream.
The piercing sound of the scream lingered, but what stayed in Eiri's ears was the thump and sickening crunch of the body's impact.
Dorrado returned to the fight in an eyeblink. His sharp eyes burned into Eiri's like yellow flame before they swept away, back to the fight.
Shuddering, Eiri pushed himself to his hands and knees. His eyes fell on the sword that had dropped to the ground an instant before the desert man had fallen. Dorrado had said only the desperate lived in the Wasteland, the desperate and hard.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
With three sharp taps, the long black staff struck stone.
Eiri swung around, staring at the man with the staff. Dorrado and Kelarion were still locked in combat. As he watched, the head of the staff began to glow with ruby light, a light that shone even in the heat of the day. A pain began to grow in Eiri's temples, developing into a headache that spiked through his skull.
"No!" Kelarion lunged for the man with the staff, who raised his black pole and aimed it right at the youko. A red spark lanced from its tip, striking Kelarion down. He fell heavily, sword still clenched in his fist.
"A mage!" Dorrado's hoarse cry was alarmed, and even as he fended off his opponent he clutched at his head. He sagged, weakly attempting to parry.
Eiri glanced back at the fallen sword, breath rattling in his throat. Without too much forethought he seized it, hand closing around its warm, cracked leatherbound hilt, and he scrambled to his feet. Pain stabbed through his head, but he could stand.
He could stand, and he ran for the man who was causing the pain that radiated out in spiking waves from the glowing red tip of his black staff.
The man gabbled something at him as Eiri approached, head woozy with pain but legs steady; he spoke in a language unlike any Eiri had heard. Eiri couldn't stop to think or look behind him for the men with swords who might be attacking; he ran for the man with the staff and swung the dusty sword he'd picked up with all his might.
The world exploded into sizzling red stars.
Flame eclipsed his vision, like the fire on his medallion, fire from his vision, not flame and not flower but something more, a powerful fusion, elemental mingling of the two. Eiri swam in the fire, breathed it, seared his lungs, and groaned. The world was painted with red pain.
Out of the fire leapt a fox, knocking him over, making him roll and roll until the fire was gone and they lay in a field of ashes. The fox curled beside him, whimpering in pain. It was huge, bigger than any real fox had a right to be, with a dark brown pelt streaked with gold and large, intelligent reddish-gold eyes.
He lay beside the fox and breathed harshly, stroking its pelt with an ash-smeared hand.
"Eiri." The voice spoke to him relentlessly, sinking into his aching head. "Eiri. Eiri, wake."
I am awake, he wanted to protest, looking down at the golden-brown fox in his arms, but then the fox shuddered, twitching its pelt, and vanished.
Eiri opened his eyes.
"Nnng..." He slitted his eyes against the cruel sun. Dorrado's face hovered anxiously above his. Eiri's head lolled and he wanted to cover his eyes with a hand to shut out that look...in a moment Dorrado would begin shouting at him for disobeying and climbing up the cliff; he was sure of it.
A soft, moist cloth pressed against his forehead. "You're going to be okay."
"Mmm...where's Kelarion?" he asked, feeling a dull throb through his temples, radiating through the skin of his forehead. Kelarion, he was sure, would be ten times more furious than any anger Dorrado could summon; would rail at him and call him stupid, would...
"Still out." Dorrado sounded exhausted.
Eiri felt a flicker of concern. "What happened?"
"You remember the swordsman? Good. Do you remember the mage?"
Eiri winced. The first thing that came into his mind was the red spark that had struck Kelarion, bringing him down. "That's what he was..."
"You broke his wand, his stone of power," Dorrado said, then helped him sit as Eiri struggled to do so. He took back the damp cloth and held it, pale-gold eyes on Eiri. "It was amazing. Kelarion and I...we are full youko, we cannot bear the touch of that form of human magery. But you charged at him and broke his gem."
Kelarion was laid out beside him, Eiri was able to ascertain with a glance. It reassured him.
"And you finished him off?" Eiri said, taking deep breaths. He wasn't burned. He was fine, even though his head ached from the aftermath of the...the magic.
"Yes," Dorrado said, eyes lingering on him thoughtfully.
"Why was it so strange?" Eiri questioned. "Should I...not have been able to do that? It hurt, but I knew I had to do something or we'd all die."
Dorrado quirked a silvery-fine brow. "Or worse," he said cryptically. "You are the first half-youko I've ever met who could bear the touch of a mage and not be incapacitated."
"Oh." A thread of cold frissoned up Eiri's spine. Had it been that close? "What do we do now?"
"We wait for Kelarion to rouse, then we push as far and fast as we can by cover of night."
Eiri nodded, feeling drained. He looked down on Kelarion again, then took the rag from Dorrado's hands and began sponging off the worst of the blood. None of it was the youko's, he was both satisfied and repelled to note.
Dorrado's eyes lingered on Eiri, along with the sense that there was something he had not fully disclosed.
They traveled the Wasteland for another day and night, pushing fast, never sleeping for more than a few hours at a time. They moved roughly southeast, taking the branch of the gullies that led in that direction. There were no more attackers, no more ragged men with swords or black-robed mages -- which was a profound relief to Eiri -- but they did encounter strange structures on their way to Stronghold.
When they sighted the first one, emerging from the mouth of the gully where it terminated onto a vast desertlike plain, Eiri gawped in amazement.
"What...what is that?" he demanded, pointing even though there was no need to point -- the towering shape of twisted metal dominated the landscape. It was hundreds upon hundreds of handspans high.
"Ruins," Kelarion said disinterestedly, hunched in his saddle, stripped to the waist.
Eiri snorted. "Obviously they're ruins...but ruins of what?" He peered curiously at the shape, and the ones beyond it. They were mostly collapsed but looked as if they had once been buildings, tall ones with many windows in the sides -- row upon row, broken now with jagged glass teeth in their gaping mouths.
Pulling up beside him on his horse, Dorrado shaded his eyes with one hand as he, too, looked out over the ruins. "No one knows, Eiri," he said, but there was something guarded in his tone.
"You must know something," Eiri persisted.
"Human ruins," Kelarion snapped. "From a long time ago." He pulled ahead of their tight group, pointing his horse's head in the direction of what looked like the dark knot of a sandstorm on the heat-blurred horizon.
"It was so long ago, even with our traditions of the past we are not sure," Dorrado told him. "You will learn more at Stronghold."
My whole life is on hold until we get to Stronghold, Eiri wanted to complain, but bit his tongue. He didn't want to sound like Kelarion, after all.
Dorrado would not let him get too near the ruins as they headed for the speck of storm in the shimmering blue of the distance. Eiri chafed at these restrictions, because his curiosity knew no bounds, but followed where the youko led him.
He had been doing it all along; a little longer wouldn't hurt.
As their journey lengthened it was like traveling in a constant daze, battered by heat and thirst and hunger. The sun flattened down on them like a giant's hand pressed from above, and the heat sucked the moisture right from their skins. The ruins had stirred Eiri's interest for awhile, but he returned to his drifting state once they had disappeared from view.
They were headed into the storm, and Dorrado began to prepare them for the passage as they approached and it grew ever larger. His comment about "mental discipline" in Vigilant became clear, because it would be necessary for the three of them to be shielded until they reached the heart of the storm.
"The storm doesn't always rage in the same place, or all throughout the year," Dorrado explained. "That would be suspicious, and defeat its purpose as the first of many safeguards on the way to Stronghold. But it rages now, and we must pass it on our way there."
"What if someone came who couldn't pass?" Eiri inquired, glancing at Kelarion, who appeared to be asleep in his saddle again.
"They would wait just outside the storm," Dorrado replied. "Someone would sense them, and come."
"If you were lucky," Kelarion said snidely without opening his eyes. "If not, you'd die in the Waste."
The only thing necessary for Eiri to do, Dorrado explained, was maintain an open conduit between them so that Dorrado could borrow Eiri's power. Their minds would touch like one hand grasping another, or as if the eyes within their thoughts met in a prolonged glance. Dorrado and Kelarion would form the shield.
They reached the sandstorm on the pale edge of night with the moon spilling down their backs.
Dorrado brought them to a halt some fifteen feet from the edge, and the two youko began to prepare themselves.
"This is insane," Kelarion said without rancor. "You know I'm--"
"We'll be fine," Dorrado cut in, and gathered Eiri in with a glance. "Ready?"
Eiri took a deep breath, averting his eyes from the skirling bulk of the sandstorm and opening his mind. In his thoughts, he could see Dorrado's pale-gold eyes, the large fine eyes that had transfixed him upon their first mental meeting.
"Let's go," he said.
Eiri gasped. The thread of his thought shivered like a plucked string, then he felt himself drawn taut from the inside, his mind stretching out and forward and rushing along a column of light, the extended gaze of those golden eyes, from himself to another. It was exquisite and painful, strung out between his own mind and the other and feeling the power pulse all along the length of the connection. He was in many places; behind his own eyes, traveling between his body and Dorrado's, and seated behind the other youko's mind as well.
He hardly noticed when they entered the storm, so focused was he on the power cascading all around him, the taste of gold sharp on his tongue, the feel of sizzling green behind him that he knew somehow was his, the clear belling sound that was Dorrado funneling the power into one place. Dorrado was pure, dazzling white, colors he could reach out and stroke.
The horses continued unconcerned -- for all they knew, the storm didn't rage around them. He couldn't feel the horse between his legs, though, only the power that flew him along incandescent-rippling ribbons and the storm that battered in futility against Dorrado's song.
Color and sound contracted around him, flexing with the play of another power. Eiri felt the quick bite of reddish-gold before it rolled over him, dark and beautiful, taste/smelling of something rich and thick and...he groped for descriptors as the oil-slick red bowled him over. He was drowning again, like the sea of fire that had engulfed him only this did not burn...it smothered, clinging to him, enveloping the green. He sucked in a breath that was not a real breath and groped, surged forward, glimpsing the strong white that he traveled along before it was snuffed out.
Spasmodically, mind contracting, harsh winds battering at him and unseating him from his inner senses, Eiri flailed. The smothering red-gold tightened around him and he sensed surprise, then anger, and neither flowed from him.
What are you doing?
Wind scoured at the surface of his mind; he heard it howling just beyond the edge of hearing. They had moved before in the clarion bubble of Dorrado's song, the raw power-turned-sonic that had kept the winds at bay.
Hold on to me! The red-gold waves around him froze, then Eiri was looking into a pair of familiar coppery eyes, a look that resounded inside of him to the very bottom and back. He had recognized the shape of his future from the instant he saw those alien eyes, and whatever fear he might have had evaporated. He rushed through and forward and something clicked, inside, outside, it didn't matter; the song was all around him again and twice as strong as before, no, not twice but in some immeasurable way that made Dorrado's song pale in comparison to the strength of this rusty harmony, bracketed in raw green.
Something jerked behind his navel and Eiri was tumbling to the ground. His hands stung and he realized he'd scraped them on rocky ground. Back. He was in himself again. He ached and he felt loneliness spill over him.
Dorrado was kneeling beside him.
"What--what happened?" Eiri asked, feeling weak and hoarse. "I thought I was supposed to be connected to you!" He brushed auburn hair out of his eyes. His horse and Dorrado's stood nearby, wild-eyed, tossing their heads. Some distance apart Kelarion had dismounted and he was huddled in his traveling cloak, back to them, painfully thin and somehow radiating anger.
"Kelarion happened," Dorrado said succinctly.
Eiri pushed himself up. He felt battered and bruised. He looked around, and said with numb surprise, "The storm is gone."
"Yes, it seems so." The pale-haired youko helped him to his feet.
"Will you tell me what's going on?" Eiri demanded angrily. "Something strange is happening, I know it is! First Kelarion couldn't bear to touch me and we couldn't get through five minutes without insulting one another...now he touches me when I don't want him to, and...and that just happened! He interrupted the connection and sucked me in! We broke the storm!" He swung wildly between hysteria and exhilaration.
Dorrado said with a mirthless smile, "Kelarion is at the end of his resources, Eiri."
Eiri pressed back against the sweaty side of his horse, reaching up to calm the animal as he maintained eye contact with the taller youko. "What do you mean by that?"
"He didn't want to go through the storm." Dorrado sighed. "And perhaps I shouldn't have forced him. He is drained, body and mind, and he has trouble letting go..."
"Of me?" Eiri picked up on the unspoken possibility, frowning. "You said he didn't want to Bond with me!"
Dorrado's look sharpened, then he skirted Eiri and his horse to attend to his own animal. "I didn't say anything about the Bond. When Kelarion took you from that farm on Taksis, he has known all along that you are meant for one of us, as well as of our blood."
"So..." Eiri puzzled through that. He exclaimed, almost defiantly, "Kelarion doesn't want me!"
The youko mounted his horse before he answered. "I said he didn't want to Bond with you...that doesn't mean he doesn't want you, Eiri."
Eiri remembered that one kiss from weeks ago, Kelarion's mouth elemental and demanding on his. Sex and Kelarion had become inextricably linked in his mind...something he resented fiercely, because he was sure that wasn't the only thing in his future. "But..."
"Let's go." Dorrado clucked to his horse. "Leave him be, Eiri. He is not himself, as I said. You will understand when we get to Stronghold."
"I can't..." Eiri clutched at his horse's mane. "I want to understand now." The words slipped from him forlornly. Nevertheless he mounted, because it looked as if Dorrado was not going to stop, and Eiri got his nervous horse moving as Dorrado called to Kelarion.
"Are you coming, or do we leave you behind?"
Eiri's head pounded. They had stopped the storm.