Swept: Chapter Six

by Talya Firedancer

There was no shelter from the bake of the sun once they had left the gullies behind. In a ragged line they traveled south, walking the horses during the day, collapsing in heaps during the hottest peak of the sun, and riding by night. According to Dorrado this stretch of the Wasteland also helped deter any travelers from 'casually' crossing to find the Stronghold. Though the land was hard on them they were pushing onward even harder, walking without sleep, drinking sparingly, eating with salt, and descending into a kind of perpetual sun-stunned state outside of time.

At length, when Eiri thought he might pass out on his horse's neck from exhaustion, Dorrado brought them to a halt during the onset of night.

"We'll stop and sleep," Dorrado said briefly, after sharing water and the salt-rich cakes again. "Tomorrow is the final push and we'll need all our strength to make it through."

"The storm wasn't bad enough?" Eiri mumbled around a greedy mouthful, reaching for the near-empty canteen again. Kelarion lifted it out of his fingers.

"Tomorrow we go through God's Teeth," he said with an unpleasant smile. "Finding the pass is the hard part."

They hobbled the horses and slept.

Eiri slept deeply for the first time in days, curling up in a safe place without dreams. The Wasteland at night was a cold place, white-chilling contrast to its ovenlike days, and the two youko and the boy typically huddled together for warmth. Kelarion usually chose to place Dorrado between himself and the auburn-haired boy, but when Eiri woke with a start, the moon's pale fingers on his cheek and casting very little shadow, he saw Dorrado's back facing him somewhat removed when his eyes made sense of the color-leached forms around him. A subtle change had woken him, the prickle of difference.

There was someone breathing on his nape, softly stirring the hairs there.

There was someone's arm slung over his midsection, holding him against the taller body spooned behind him.

"Kelarion," Eiri hissed, wriggling in the half-embrace. "What are you doing?"

He felt a twang of sleepy alertness, then he was shoved forward on his face in the rocky silt.

"You...you ass!" Eiri spluttered, twisting violently and skinning an elbow to face the youko who had become his nemesis. "What was that for?"

Kelarion stared at him suspiciously, slitted coppery eyes glowing from beneath wild strands of streaked hair. "What were you doing?"

"What were you doing?" Eiri retorted in an outraged whisper. "I woke up and you were breathing in my ear!"

"Ohh?" Kelarion shifted on his side; stretched sinuously then twined up against Eiri with unexpected swiftness. "And did you like it?"

"Stop," Eiri said, voice strangled, face hot as Kelarion pressed flush against him, a knee pushing his thighs apart. He could feel the youko's rough, sour breath on his face, a hand on the small of his back and squirming downward. Kelarion was enveloping him, smothering him.

Kelarion was kissing him.

It was like the heat of a bright star on his mouth, erasing any thought but that of Kelarion pressed against and around him, making his protests vanish like a shadow with the sun at zenith. Kelarion's lips were firm, coaxing, active on his, the line of his tongue finessing a gasp from Eiri so that it could delve inside of his mouth. Eiri clung to the source of his agitation because Kelarion was the only anchor, the sole point of reference he had. Their tongues touched, soft exploration. Kelarion's hand was pushing inside the rear of his pants and all Eiri wanted to do was squirm closer.

"What do you think you're doing?"

The cold voice shattered their heated fumblings in silence.

Kelarion sprang away from him, leaving Eiri's mouth throbbing. He tasted blood and reflexively put a hand to his mouth. The youko had bit him.

"Staying warm," the youko replied sulkily to Dorrado's question.

Dorrado was sitting up, cloak drawn tight around his shoulders, pale eyes shimmering eerily at them in the moonlight. "I think you'd better sleep over here, Kelarion," was all he said, tone quiet but authoritative.

Avoiding Eiri's eyes, the youko left Eiri's side and settled where he was told.

Eiri was chilled again, and incredibly frustrated. What...? Why...? Dorrado was already settling down, though, and this was no time for questions.

He lay wakeful and unsated for a long time, playing through those moments in Kelarion's arms with an embarrassed sort of arousal boiling inside.


They started for God's Teeth before the dawn unfurled over the far horizon, when the air was still cool and held a faint hint of moisture. Stowing their warmer clothing, they rode for the jagged shape of the foothills that had been growing larger ever since breaking the storm.

Dorrado took the lead, with Eiri following closely. Kelarion had been keeping to himself ever since waking and Eiri wanted to shout at him, to batter him with questions, force him to take action...any action...rather than ignore him. But he pulled in on himself, too; a tactic he used to shield himself from the reality of the journey. It was easier to do as they traveled, discrete as they all were on their separate horses along with the rigors of the journey. As the day grated on it became more and more difficult to open one's mouth in the parching heat.

"More ruins," Eiri exclaimed as they got even closer and the nature of God's Teeth became apparent. What had looked like foothills before were now discernable as the broken towers of ruins, fading into jagged cliff-faces and hills beyond.

"No one with any sense plays around in the old ruins, they're too dangerous," Kelarion said to empty air, passing Eiri on the left.

"The ruins are difficult for us to pass through...we think there may be old metal devices within that are active even now, and they cause some pain during the passage," Dorrado explained. "But they are difficult for humans to navigate as well, and so they function as a gauntlet."

Massive iron skeletons stretched above heaps of detritus. Everything was pitted and had a look of great age about it, from centuries gone by in the heart of the Wasteland. Beams were corroded with the rust of the long years they had lain in the shadow of the cliffs, reaching up like broken angular fingers. The closer they got, the more a headache began to push at Eiri's temples, like grass-fever in the spring. Dorrado was wincing in his saddle, digging a thumb into his browbone. Kelarion simply hunched over and looked miserable.

"That's another reason no one would think youko live here, right?" Eiri said aloud, then shut his parched lips. The heat was rising, making him thirsty again. "All this metal..."

"We don't live right in the ruins," Kelarion corrected him. "And humans...we try not to let them know certain kinds of metal can be...problematic."

It was like something out of a tale. The heat-shimmer thickening on the horizon, the blur of the past few days, made it all too easy for Eiri to entertain the notion that he'd gone mad or been swept into a tale one of the older cousins might tell, gleaned from a Father or from a boozy jaunt to town.

Eiri threaded his fingers into the rains and clung doggedly to his saddle pommel, giving his horse its head in following Dorrado. He could hear something, a high, thin whine, and he thought that might be the source of the pain but he'd given Dorrado his word that morning that he wouldn't stray to search for anything.

They skirted great slabs of gray, uniform stone, more thick metal poles, and rode the horses through shells of buildings. Here and there, odd writing was riveted onto metal plates or etched in stone, tantalizingly familiar but not quite readable. "ZONA." "DEPT. OF TRANSPO." Eiri looked dully at the ground beneath his horse's hooves; noticed a faded green strip of metal stamped with letters caked in dirt. "OLEANDER ST." Dorrado seemed to know the way, and he led them through the intriguing maze of the ruins.

They trooped silently through more structures, row upon row made of fused metal and some sort of substance that looked like glass, but wasn't. Unlike every other piece of glass in the ruins it hadn't shattered, so it couldn't be glass...as they passed, Eiri trailed his fingers over a piece and marveled. It was hard and smooth, but slightly yielding. His headache seemed to whine through his ear cavities for a moment then, oddly enough, vanished.

"Don't touch anything," Kelarion snapped. "There's been enough trouble with others activating artifacts..."

"I'm sorry," Eiri apologized, and snatched his fingers back. They were tingling, or he imagined they were. His ears buzzed for an instant and his headache resumed. "How would someone activate an artifact? Aren't they hundreds of years old?"

"Don't listen to him, Eiri," Dorrado said, looking over his shoulder briefly. His brow was knotted in a pained expression. "It's been a very long time since anyone has activated anything within the ruins. Yet there are things active, here and there, else we would not have so much trouble in the crossing." He turned his horse's head and led them down the shabby remnants of a street.

They passed through a brick archway, crumbling and pitted but still partially intact. The street down which they traveled was recognizable, barely, for what it might have once been; a place where people had lived, with the shells of odd boxy dwellings fallen in on either side. What remained was mostly rock and rubble.

From the street they traveled down an avenue of stone that was, beneath the scars of time, a pale color -- it was unlike anything Eiri had ever seen before. The stone was cracked and parts of it were buckled, but it was a great stone street that sloped down an incline, immense slabs joined together to form one long corridor. As they rode down it the horses' hooves seemed to echo in the ruins.

"What is this place?" Eiri asked, hushing his voice because it seemed appropriate.

"We call it the Pass Highway," Kelarion answered, equally hushed and for once not seeming superior as he gave out information. "It's been called that for centuries, or so they say."

Dorrado took the lead, though there was nowhere to go, it seemed, but down and down the incline. Then they came to a juncture. The youko led them confidently to the right fork.

The nature of the Pass Highway was revealed to be even more of a maze than the ruins they had moved through before. It branched, at intervals, in forks or in several directions. As they traveled down, corridors rose to either side of them -- the branches they had not taken -- like arches, streets rising up into the air supported on great stone columns. Above the long stone corridors occasionally metal frames had been mounted, now collapsed halfway or fallen completely, littering their path. Dorrado had not only the task of choosing their juncture but threading their way through the detritus as well. The mountains loomed ever closer as Dorrado led them steadily onward. Another broken building towered above them, seeming even taller than the cliffs they approached.

"Where is the pass?" Eiri cracked his parched lips apart to ask. The term 'Pass Highway' had indicated to him that they were getting close, yet they'd been traveling along it for half an hour or more.

"You'll see," Kelarion said, and would say no more.

The Pass Highway terminated abruptly next to the wreck of the tall building that dominated the landscape. It ended in the same four-foot stone wall that had bordered the avenues they traveled along. Eiri looked around in confusion. There was nowhere else to go.

Dorrado was turning his horse's head, leading it for a gap in the wall that led them toward the towering shell of the building beside them. He took them directly through a jagged breach in the ruin's side.

They traveled through the ruin in silence. Inside it was even more of a wreck than it seemed from the outside. Pieces of ceiling dangled, stone and tile crumbled from the walls to reveal stripped, rusted metal framework. Piles of rubble were everywhere within, caked gray with grime. Some of the heaps seemed to be made of metal and that curious yielding-firm substance Eiri had touched earlier.

"Don't touch anything," Kelarion hissed unnecessarily.

The horses were unperturbed by the alien landscape they moved through, their only concern in avoiding the stones and other detritus that littered the floor.

It was close and cramped within the wreck of the building, but now Dorrado led them through quickly and confidently. Eiri glanced curiously at the fallen heaps of box-like shapes. As he passed one that was particularly close to their path he gave it a good looking over -- it appeared to be covered in a kind of moldy-looking gray fabric, thick with dust and rot.

"What kind of a civilization was this?" Eiri asked, unable to keep his questions pent up any longer. All the fixtures of this large, ancient city were familiar in some ways -- houses were recognizable as houses, streets as streets -- but the construction was far different from any Eiri had ever known. Surely the people who had lived within these ruins had been an advanced people. The Pass Highway with its great stone corridors had been built along the most amazing proportions, and Eiri felt instinctively that nothing like that could be built today.

"No one knows," Dorrado answered him, voice very slight. "They existed before the Cataclysm."

"They brought about the Cataclysm, that we do know," Kelarion contributed with a falsely cheerful note. "They were machine-users. That's why machines, metal things, are taboo even today."

Eiri, not really knowing what a machine was anyhow, shook his head.

The far end of the building was more intact than the blasted section they had entered to pass through. Here there were doors, set in an entire wall made up of very thick glass -- at least that was what it appeared to be. Along its length many cracks spiderwebbed their way up and down, and in some places little holes had blasted through, looking like crystalline puncture wounds. The doors were made of metal, and partly ajar -- the frames were empty but might have once been filled with glass or another, less durable substance. Their horses picked carefully through the shards that littered the area for many lengths.

Eiri cried out in surprise as they emerged from the building. Ahead of them gaped the black mouth of a tunnel, larger than any cave he might have ever dreamed. Above the mouth of the tunnel the foothills stretched up towards the sky like pointed teeth, row upon row stretching to either side as far as the eye could see.

"The Pass of God's Teeth," Kelarion said, and there was an unsettling sort of look to his face. He looked tense, almost upset.

"How long has it been?" Eiri found himself asking. It was strange; he had no real desire to speak with Kelarion but sometimes it was as if his questions were drawn out unwillingly.

"Nearly fifty years," Kelarion answered, straight-backed and facing the blackness of the tunnel. Their horses stepped back onto a wide smooth-paved stone street that had started up shortly after the huge building they had passed through.

"Fifty...years?" Eiri's words tapered off into a stunned silence. Kelarion looked barely half that. He tried his voice, which would not work quite properly at first. "How...how...I mean you...how..."

It was Dorrado who answered him, as usual. The silvery-white youko was the one who doled out crumbs of knowledge when the golden-brown one who'd "kidnapped" him became utterly cryptic or maddening. "Youko have much longer lifespans compared to humans, Eiri," he said. "It's one of the advantages of being a race with tremendous control over the body. We are certain our innate, natural form of 'magic' is one of the reasons youko are so long-lived."

"How..." Eiri pulled his scattered wits together before he could get stuck on that one word again. "How long, exactly?"

He looked back and forth between Dorrado riding serenely on one side and Kelarion slouching over his saddle on the either. Both youko frowned and neither met his eyes.

"There is no 'exactly,'" Dorrado replied. "Many youko die before what might have been their natural lifespan, due to several unnatural causes--"

"Humans killing them off," Kelarion broke in savagely, "or killing off their human partner and causing them to suicide, or living in torture until the mind separates from the body and can no longer maintain its own functions..."

"Enough," Dorrado cut him off, and it was a relief, for with each word from the former courtesan a welter of images pushed against Eiri's mind in bloody relief.

Hastily the young man scrambled about employing the shielding techniques he'd been taught.

"It is commonly acknowleged that youko enter maturity at roughly fourteen turns of the seasons," Dorrado said in his lecturing tone. "Humans mature at nearly the same rate...some earlier, some later, just as it is with youko."

They were pausing at the entrance of the huge tunnel. It was overwhelmingly dark, like a starless and moonless night, a smothering blackness that Eiri had never imagined. Here Dorrado dismounted to pull something from the saddle-packs. He passed long, thin sticks to each of them. Eiri's was somewhat twisted and at the end of it was a tightly-closed, waxy-looking reddish bud, darkly colored and shading toward purple.

"Let's go," Dorrado said, giving them both a nod after he'd remounted.

They moved forward into the darkness of the tunnel.

Eiri felt cold during daylight hours for the first time in what seemed like an age. He shivered and looked forward into the darkness, trying to see any light in the far reaches. The tunnel, he felt sure, went completely through the foothills of God's Teeth or why call it a pass? He clenched a moan behind his teeth and tried not to think about the immense weight of the rock piled above the tunnel they traveled through. Surely the ancients had known what they were doing when they constructed it? But how could anyone tunnel through solid rock? It was so old, what if it collapsed for good while they were traveling through?

Dorrado's voice came out of the growing darkness. "The flowers will unfurl once all the light is gone, Eiri," he said in reassuring tones.

"Yes, but how much longer will that be?"

Neither youko replied to that, but Dorrado continued the thread of his earlier explanation as if he'd never dropped it. "We're not entirely sure how long youko live, you see. Our history stretches back farther than we can remember, and no one in our histories has died of old age, at least, not that we recognize as such."

"How is that possible?" Eiri's voice was very small as if all the air were being pressed out of him by the dark.

"Ask the humans," Kelarion snarled, voice snappishly close.

"Even the youko who make it to the most venerable ages die from violence or heartbreak," Dorrado replied, voice effectively gentle in counterpoint. "It's the tragedy of a destiny entwined with the humans. If their hatred does not kill us, then their love breaks the will to live."

"I...I don't understand."

"It means we die, little fool," Kelarion's voice came out of the dark, more cutting than usual. "If a youko loves someone, mind, body, and soul, they can't stand living if that person dies. So they just...fade."

A pinprick of red light seemed to be unfolding before Eiri's eyes. The harshness of Kelarion's voice seemed very far away for an instant as Eiri grasped at the bright little point. They were completely eclipsed by the tunnel's darkness, now, but the further the horses traveled through the dark the brighter the star of red light grew. A glowing red flower unfolded in Eiri's hand and he stared at it, amazed and delighted.

"Are you talking about the Bond?" Eiri asked him, shaking off his preoccupation with the unusual flower and looking around. Everything was cast in a thin red light. There was rubble in the tunnel as well, heaps of twisted metal and the most curious metal boxlike frames, but the horses picked their way through the relatively clear central path.

"Call it what you like," Kelarion said, slumping in his saddle.

The thought dawned on Eiri that this might be one of many reasons why Kelarion denied the existence of the Bond so vehemently...if being Bonded to a human meant shortening one's lifespan, would it be better not to consent to that sort of tie? Even though, from what it seemed, it wasn't the kind of thing that could be denied, Kelarion had certainly fooled himself into thinking so.

"So...Bonding to a human makes a youko's life shorter?" Eiri hazarded.

"Well, no one's quite sure," Dorrado admitted calmly. "For the part of the human, Bonding to a youko certainly increases their lifespan significantly. Where I come from, no human-youko pairs have died of old age alone, though certainly after a great length of time they begin to show signs of age."

"No one I know has ever died of old age," Kelarion muttered.

Eiri glanced at him. Kelarion looked thin-lipped and tense, as if he'd rather they change the subject entirely. He was still curious, though. "How old can I expect to live?"

"The oldest we know of lived to be over four hundred," Dorrado said casually, as if numbers over a hundred were quite common.

Eiri sucked in a breath.

"Over six hundred," Kelarion contributed sourly, "then he died when I was a kit, trying to make peace overtures to the Tarquins. Wouldn't it be better to save this conversation?" For Stronghold, he seemed to imply.

"He's asking now," Dorrado said calmly. "At any rate, we don't really know how long we can live. Quite a long time...but if any have died of old age they did so in isolation. It would certainly be possible, as we do not tend to form close-knit communities; Stronghold is an exception, not the standard."

Eiri nodded and let them all lapse into silence. He looked at his flower more than their surroundings; ruins in a pall of thin red light were not curious or interesting at all, merely disturbing. He looked at the flower itself, which cast an amazingly pervasive light. Its petals were long and folded down from the center of the blossom; the heart of the flower gave off its intense red light, blooming in the dark as if it drew upon it and transformed it.

"What kind of flower is this?" Eiri asked at last, after they had been traveling in silence for perhaps a quarter-hour.

"I made them," Dorrado replied. "While Kelarion taught you to read, I was preparing these and other devices."

"You mean...this isn't a real flower?" Eiri said, utterly astounded. It was so beautiful, almost delicate, vibrantly alive in the dark. It even gave off a sweetish floral smell.

"It is, in a manner of speaking," Dorrado assured him. "I made it of entirely natural components. It's most unusual, and I did construct it myself, but it is real and it is a flower."

It reminded Eiri of the flower-flame of his dream, the shape from his medallion, though this was clearly modeled after a kind of flower Eiri had seen once...an orchid, he thought.

Not much longer after that, a speck of light appeared at the end of the tunnel and grew and grew. It took nearly another quarter-hour but at last the red orchidlike flowers dimmed and folded into tight buds once more, and they emerged into the light. Eiri shielded his eyes for a long moment against the intensity of white light, feeling heat pour over him in a rippling wave, blinking as his eyes streamed while he grew accustomed to the sun once more.

When he looked up, he was faced with the immensity of a great cliff-face that lifted up high and towering over the dip of a gorge -- more a rip in the earth -- that their road became.

Eiri had seen this cliff-face before. He recognized it, though he had never seen it with his own eyes.

"Stronghold," he whispered, and nudged his horse to follow as the two youko rode down into the gorge.


Dorrado hadn't lied. The day's journey had been hard, and as bad as the ruins had been, passing through the gorge was even worse. The daylight was paling in broad bands of orange and lavender in the ninth hour after mid-day when they and their horses finally staggered up out of the gorge for good.

"Switchback trails...I hate switchback trails..." Kelarion muttered, straggling between Dorrado and Eiri. He was bedraggled as they all were, covered in sweat and the grime of prolonged travel.

They led their horses after coming up out of the gorge. The cliff face that had dominated the landscape after they emerged from the pass now towered over them impressively. To Eiri it loomed as insubstantially as the cliff-face of his visions, because he was not yet there. It was hard to believe they were closing in on the end of their journey.

"Almost there," Dorrado told them, speaking for the first time in over an hour. None of them had felt particularly inclined to speak because they had shared water before descending into the gorge and realized how low their remaining supply was -- enough to reach the cliff, but barely.

Sweat dripped down Eiri's back and trickled through his hair. He was filthy, all his clothes were dirty, he'd been thirsty for what seemed like days, and tired and hungry overall. It seemed impossible to walk even in the final moments of the journey, but they walked their horses in the shadow of the cliff, locating a slipshod path that wound through sheets of scree and shifting rock.

The path came up against the cliff itself, running alongside it for several lengths before continuing up the sloping side of the peak. Here Dorrado paused, handing his horse over to Eiri and examining the rock face. He ran his hand over the rock, rapped his knuckles lightly in one place, then moved to his right and spread both hands over the reddish-brown surface.

"What--" Eiri began, keeping his distance with the reins of the horses in his hands. He could feel something shifting; that odd othersense of his opened again -- it had been overwhelmed by the desert, and Kelarion -- and he could feel some of the effort Dorrado was exerting. The rock face was shifting, re-forming beneath Dorrado's hands, parting to reveal a tunnel within.

"Let's go," Dorrado said briefly, narrow chest heaving, sweat glinting on his brow as he turned.

"Are we going to need..." Eiri reached for his saddle-pack and the peculiar flower within.

"No, not this time," Kelarion answered him. "It's a short way, then it's lit. Just follow me."

Eiri looked over his shoulder, brows arching in surprise. "You?"

"I can't close the face behind us," Kelarion said, lips thinning to a grim line. Then, though there was very little room on the path, he led his horse past Eiri and his two charges. Dorrado's horse rolled his eyes and Eiri's stamped, but they let the youko pass.

Narrowing his own mouth in a frown, Eiri followed the volatile youko, both horses behind him. Though the mouth of the tunnel was almost narrow, it widened considerably once they were in. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness he could see a square of light on the far side, impossibly sunlit brilliance for the inside of a cliff. He paused, turning to see Dorrado seal up the cavern behind him. If he wasn't so tired, pushed to his limits, he might have wondered more at the power that allowed the youko to manipulate solid rock as if it were clay.

"Come on," Kelarion said impatiently.

Eiri could see the dark outline of Kelarion's bedraggled form, gesturing him forward. He hurried, horses nickering behind him, all of them eager to step into the light.

"Oh...amazing...holy Mother," Eiri breathed, coming to a dead stop as the tunnel opened onto a wide rock ledge, large enough for wagons and certainly plenty of room for three horses and people.

Inside a cliff, one might expect Stronghold to be dark and cavern-like. While it was cavernous, it was wide and immensely tall, taller in places than some of the buildings from the ruins in God's Teeth. Most awe-striking of all, it was filled with sunlight that seemed to come from all directions, making what might have been a cave into something that looked like a sun-washed, rocky desert landscape.

The wide ledge upon which they stood clung against the inside of the cavern wall, descending to their left until it met the floor many lengths below. Eiri stood looking down over the ledge at the city that spread out ahead of them, down in the cavernous inside of the cliff.

"This is Stronghold?" he breathed, hardly believing his eyes. It didn't seem possible. It wasn't a cave...it was a city, inside a hollowed-out cliff!

The buildings of the city below were constructed of white and reddish-brown material, homes and larger buildings. They were patterned in roughly spoke-like grids, fanning out from a clear circular area at each hub. A light breeze stirred the air, and it smelled like wild grass and summer. Eiri inhaled and sighed.

"Yes," Dorrado replied, coming up behind Eiri, taking his own reins again.

"How...how?" he demanded, eyes drinking up the immense contours of the cavernous space. Above them, the ceiling was smooth, bare of the rock projections that would normally hang from such a cave.

"Youko created this place," Dorrado said simply. "It was a very, very long time ago. They pooled their power and hollowed the inside of this mountain."

"What about...all this light?" Eiri asked, turning his face up. It was sunlight, no question of it, but where the shafts of sunlight came from, he had no idea.

"There are openings and cracks all over the place," Kelarion replied. "They let in the light. In some places, reflective surfaces divert the light into the cavern's interior so that there is always natural light in Stronghold."

"It's impossible..." Eiri said. His awe was interrupted.

"Ho there, party of three!" a masculine voice called out.

Turning, Eiri watched a darkly-tanned, sinuously beautiful youko approaching from their right. There was a tent there, an outpost he hadn't noticed in his contemplation of the city.

This new youko had hip-length platinum white hair and, like all youko, was androgynously beautiful. Only the deep timbre of his voice and the flatness of his chest clued in his sex. His skin was darkly tanned, and sunshine-yellow eyes twinkled at them from a good-natured face as he drew close.

"Welcome to Stronghold," the youko told them, pausing a short distance from them and cocking a hip, setting one hand to his hipbone. "I see you already knew the way in. I could feel you from afar, and was about to come greet you myself."

Kelarion twitched his tail. "You must be new," he said. "I don't recognize you, but it's been...a long time." His ears angled closer against his bedraggled hair.

"Vellar no Vasili, of the Zonya provinces," the youko replied cheerfully.

Kelarion made a disparaging noise in his throat, but said nothing.

"I, too, am from the north, the Somerican continent," Dorrado inserted into that awkward silence, casting Kelarion a sidelong glance, then turning toward the "guard." "We both return to Stronghold after a very long absence. I am Esperanza no Dorrado; my travel-worn companion is Koten no Kelarion."

Eiri, standing closer to Kelarion than his other youko companion, could hear him mutter almost inaudibly "Don't make excuses for me."

Vasili's bright eyes turned toward Eiri. "And you, little one?"

Being more than two heads smaller than the tall youko who had come to greet them, Eiri could not really get indignant over the diminutive. "I'm Eiri Mairisson," he said, suddenly feeling a rush of excitement swell his breast. He was here. They were here, in Stronghold, and maybe he'd finally get some answers! Maybe at last he could find his place. "Pleased to meet you."

Vasili nodded. "You know this place, then?" he queried of Dorrado. "You know the customs?"

"I know, and will abide," Dorrado replied with a fluid bow.

After a moment, Kelarion looked up to meet Vasili's searching eyes and nodded his head in a quick, sharp movement. "I was born here," he said, eyes narrow with resentment or dislike.

Vasili shrugged. "I am required to ask," he said pointedly, then he looked at Eiri.

"I...er..." Eiri stammered, feeling hot. The youko hadn't explained anything to him. By what customs was he supposed to abide?

"I am responsible for the boy," Dorrado spoke up.

Vasili bent to look at Eiri, his eyes disturbingly direct. "He has our blood in him," he observed. His gaze fell to the medallion that hung around Eiri's neck, and he frowned.

"Yes," Eiri said, clasping his hand over his worn medallion, lifting his chin.

"Let's go," Dorrado murmured, putting a hand to Eiri's shoulder. "With your permission." He looked to Vasili.

"Of course," Vasili said amiably. His eyes flicked from Eiri to Dorrado, then to Kelarion. "Should be interesting. Look me up, if you've a mind...I live in the Scarlet Thrush district."

As they continued down the path Eiri couldn't get the encounter out of his mind. Vasili had been perfectly friendly, even curious...toward the end of the conversation he had appeared to intuit something. It was as if everyone around Eiri knew what was going on, and they were withholding, and it was incredibly frustrating. He wasn't a child, after all.

Even if he had been sold off, he still possessed a brain.

The city seemed to gleam white and amber under the sunlight, shimmering in the shifting beams that poured through the caverns. It was invitingly close.

"Where will we stay?" Eiri asked, looking up and up at the smooth rock ceiling far above.

"With my parents, of course," Kelarion told him, turning his head to reply. For a change his tone was more absent, distracted, than waspish. "I told you..."

"You never told me!" Eiri contradicted. "I didn't even know you had..." He faltered. Kelarion was turning with puzzled eyes, looking at him instead of through him. Well, why shouldn't Kelarion have parents? Just because he would say nothing of his twin...

"I have parents," he said quietly. "I have a human father and a youko father, and they live in the Azure Lily district." Then he turned and kept trudging up the path.

Silence reigned for a beat. And then, "Districts?"

"Yes, the city is laid out in districts," Dorrado answered this time, when it appeared Kelarion had lapsed into ignoring him once more, or at least into his own silence. "You could see them from above -- each district is shaped like a spoked wheel, and overlaps at the rim street with those next to it."

"They have strange names," Eiri observed. "Like some fo the inns we stayed at."

"Yes, each district is named for a color and a creature or flower, combined," Dorrado said. "Having something to identify each district by makes it a little easier to find. Each building within each district usually has some identifying marker, a sign, a door, shutters painted in its color."

"Very orderly," Eiri commented.

There was a smile in Dorrado's voice. "Youko debated for quite some time, the stories go, as to the layout of Stronghold but all agreed it should be orderly."

Eiri shut up for awhile as they approached the city and the sprawl resolved itself into the shape of nearby buildings. He didn't know why he'd been so surprised that Kelarion had parents. Only because the youko had never mentioned it? That was tenuous of him.

They had reached the city, and now they were leading their horses into the path, which had become a wide, broad street. Before the first pair of buildings that flanked the street, there was a gate that arched over the street, a stone archway that had been carved in impossibly complex convolutions.

Once they passed beneath the gate, they had entered Stronghold proper. Beside Eiri, Kelarion walked with more of a spring in his step, shaking off the slump he had moved in since the earliest days of their acquaintance. Even Dorrado looked revitalized. Eiri's head turned this way and that, taking in the clean appearance of the city.

And then there were the youko.

Youko were everywhere, moving through the city in the scarcest amount of clothing Eiri had seen anyone wear. The youko seemed to favor loose, almost transparent clothing, or brief singlets that allowed for little restriction. The cave was a comfortable temperature, neither hot nor cold but almost pleasantly warm, and the preferred dress of the youko -- very little -- seemed to reflect that.

It was an incredible concentration of beauty. Everywhere he turned, he saw another youko; walking up the street, leaning out a window to chat with a neighbor, a pair of twins chasing each other across the circular hub of the district as they came to it. They were almost sexless in their beauty, each youko seeming neither male or female at a quick glance. What made them all distinctive was the silk-furred ears that jutted from the crowns of their heads, and the tail that trailed down the backs of their legs.

"Most of the youko in Stronghold are male," Dorrado told him.

Eiri looked up. "Why is that, Dorrado? I mean, I think you mentioned before that females were scarce, but no one ever really said..."

"Part of the reason is because youko are still recovering from the last Massacre, when all of our females were slaughtered," Dorrado replied. "The other reason is that most births are male...and that, we don't know why."

"That's easy to see," Eiri noted, looking around at all the youko in the city. He hadn't yet seen one female. "What about human women?"

"That one is easy," Kelarion said, catching up with them, looking around with an animated, slightly impatient expression. "When one of us pairs off with a human woman, it's much harder to have full-blooded children with her. Impossible, really, unless she has youko blood."

"But there's no denying the Bond," Dorrado said with a smile. "Or love or desires without it...which is why we have you with us today, Eiri. You're part youko."

Eiri remembered the fleeting dream, seeing his father for the very first time, and smiled.

"That's why I knew--" Kelarion began, then broke off.

"Knew?" Eiri prompted. "What did you know?"

"Forget it." Kelarion pulled ahead, making a dismissive gesture over his shoulder. He walked fast enough for a time to put plenty of paces between them.

Eiri glanced over at Dorrado, but the other youko's face was unreadable.

They passed through many interlocking streets, threading toward one great inner wall. It wasn't much farther, Kelarion assured them. They looked a sight and they'd been drawing stares for it. Eiri had never seen so much beauty concentrated in one place and it made him feel small and quite dirty. Now that the long journey was over, he was overwhelmed with the reality of Stronghold. The youko moving through the streets, fixing them with their curious stares, made him self-conscious. He wanted nothing more than a bath and to curl up beneath the sheets of a comfortable bed for a long, long time.

After fielding a certain amount of stares and curious glances Eiri finally bowed his head, using peripheral vision to follow Dorrado.

"Kelarion? Hound and town, it IS Kelarion!"

The delighted, deeply masculine voice resounded up the street.

Astonished, Eiri turned. His horse pawed a foot at him and he kept a firm grip on its reins; beside him Dorrado came to a hault as well.

A bone-thin, tall youko was bounding up the street in energetic strides. He had sharp, angular features softened by heavy-lidded golden eyes, and a wealth of black hair poured down his back, tied back over his nape. Thumbs-width streaks of platinum hair radiated from the crown of his head and ran through that midnight length.

Kelarion turned, too. "Gwain?" he said incredulously. "Never figured you to stick around here..."

The dark-haired youko brushed past Eiri and Dorrado, leaping on Kelarion, enfolding him in skinny arms. "You bugger, where have you been?" He was clad in dark gray pants that clung to his thin shanks -- cutaway pants to allow for his tail -- and a sleeveless maroon top of the same diaphanous material of his pants.

Eiri flushed and looked away. It was indecent, the thought sprang up in him unexpectedly.

"Around," Kelarion replied evasively.

"Hn." Gwain gripped Kelarion by both arms. "Later, then, we'll catch up later. Where are you going?"

"Home," Kelarion replied. His eyes looked over Gwain's sharp shoulder to meet Eiri's.

Eiri quickly glanced away.

"Kelarion..." There was unease in Gwain's tone. "You don't know, then."

"What?" Kelarion said, voice racheting up with instant anxiety. "What don't I know?"

Gwain sighed heavily. "Gate-guard must've been new...your parents, they...I'm sorry."

Kelarion's face turned wild with panic. "No."

"I'm sorry," Gwain repeated, and there was pain in his voice. "I'm so sorry, it was just a few years ago...ten years ago, they left--"

"Stop!" Kelarion said, shrill hysteria rising. "Stop, it's not true, my fathers were strong, they were good--"

"They left on a trade expedition," Gwain broke in, gentle voice somehow undercutting Kelarion's shrillness. "Out of ten only Tobira returned, and he died despite all Rashi's skill."

"No." Kelarion slumped. His face was a sudden, shocking white. His voice had no force when he continued, "It's not possible...I would have felt it..."

"Where have you been, Kelarion?" Gwain said, casting a look over his own shoulder at Dorrado and Eiri, frozen in the poses of people caught infringing on a terribly personal moment. He looked into Kelarion's pale face. "Where is Kelvaryn?"

Kelarion shook his head mutely from side to side. His mouth opened and closed a few times.

"Oh, no," Dorrado murmured, sounding stricken.

Eiri could feel an icy, numbing outpouring of terror, something so intense it made him cry out. He couldn't look away from Kelarion's ghastly expression, riveted as if he was being compelled. It did not surprise him when the youko collapsed in Gwain's arms like a thread unraveling. His eyes were blank, empty.


Gwain turned with the other youko clutched in his arms, heavy-lidded eyes blazing. "What happened to him?"

Eiri was stunned, gaping. "I...I don't...know..." He felt helpless, a leaf at the edge of a storm.

"He's drained himself to his limits," Dorrado said swiftly. "Certain...things...happened to him in Taksis from which he has not yet recovered."

Eiri blinked. Had Kelarion been wounded somehow, this whole time? Was it from more than just his relationship with the Queen's heir? Kelarion's face was so white, it scared him. And the wash of terror he'd felt was simply gone, as if it had been wiped away the instant Kelarion had collapsed.

"Don't just stand there holding him," a cool, new voice intruded on the tableau. "I thought I felt my little nephew return. Can you get him on his horse, Gwain?"

Gwain gaped over their shoulders, and Eiri turned slowly, feeling as if he was on strings. He stared, too.

The voice was a low contralto, sexless, but the youko that approached them now was female. She was slender and full-breasted, tall like most youko, and surveyed them with narrowed eyes that resembled hammered gold. Her hair was jet-black and hung long and straight over her shoulders. She wore a simple, dark green shift that clung to her figure, slit up both sides to reveal long legs, and formed a V in front to reveal ample cleavage.

Eiri supposed she was ravishingly beautiful.

There was some similarity in her face to the alien beauty of Kelarion, but the youko that moved toward them now was unmistakably feminine.

"Rashi," Gwain said, sounding hoarse and a little bit scared. "I don't know what happened, he just--"

"Carry him," the youko named Rashi cut him off, "if you can't put him on his horse, if you would."

Gwain's head bowed and he attempted to heave Kelarion upright.

"You," Rashi said, and now she pinned Dorrado with her direct stare. "I will speak with you later. I've called to my brother and he can take you in -- his hearth is Kelarion's now."

Dorrado swept a deep bow the likes of which Eiri had never seen. "Your wish, lady."

Eiri felt lost as Rashi turned and took hold of the reins of Kelarion's horse, leading it past them up the street. Kelarion's head lolled against Gwain's shoulder as the black-haired one carried him after Rashi. His eyes weren't completely closed, and he looked vacant and fragile.

Dorrado's hand descended to Eiri's shoulder as they both watched Kelarion disappear.

"What happened?" Eiri asked anxiously once the procession had turned the corner. "Dorrado, what happened to him?"

A sigh answered him first. Dorrado put a hand to his head, and when Eiri looked up he wore a pained, somehow guilty expression. "He was drained to his limits. I did not realize how badly. Finding out about his parents was a shock he could not cope with."

"What's wrong with him now?" Eiri persisted. "Will he be okay?"

"That one is a skilled healer," Dorrado said thoughtfully, still looking in the direction they had disappeared. "Don't worry. It will take time...but he will recover."

As they watched the street absently, both still taken aback by the speed of the incident and Kelarion's disappearance, another youko turned the corner and rushed up the street, hair in disarray, golden- furred ears aslant. His quick eyes picked them out and he hurried up to them, coming to a stop, catching his breath in quick gulps.

This youko was of a height with Kelarion -- no, perhaps half a handspan taller -- and male, though quite lovely. His sunshine fall of golden hair fell past his knees and he wore a brief pair of sky- blue singlets and a wispy shirt that looked as if it were made of silk lace. "You...you came with Kelarion?" The youko peered at them with perturbed flame-yellow eyes.

"Yes," Dorrado replied, hand still on Eiri's shoulder. It was comforting, the feel of his hand, when everything else had gone awry. "Esperanza no Dorrado."

The very tall youko pushed hair back over his shoulders with quick, fussy movements. "Stronghold no Tokusan," he identified himself. His sharp eyes fell on Eiri.

He was alike, and unalike to Kelarion in strange subtle ways. Eiri wanted to shrink back but he replied, "Eiri Mairisson."

Tokusan sighed, and his veil of golden hair rippled. "Kelarion is returned. The poor boy." His penetrating gaze assessed them both. "You'll come with me to our hearth, of course."

"We accept your hospitality," Dorrado said courteously.

Tokusan nodded briefly, still looking at them, scrutinizing. "Once Rashi is finished with my nephew your presence will be needed, to bring him to himself," he muttered, almost to himself. "After all, you've been with him during this difficult time and I have not seen him in decades."

"You are his uncle?" Dorrado inquired.

Tokusan looked at him. "Yes. His father-progenitor Tobira was my twin. I am responsible for what remains of the Koten family."

"Ah." Dorrado inclined his head.

The tall blond youko shook himself. "What am I doing, standing here?" He gestured. "Please, follow me. You've traveled long and hard to come here; please enjoy the comforts to be had of my hearth."

Dorrado squeezed his shoulder and released him, giving Eiri an encouraging nod. Silently they followed the youko Tokusan.


The hearth of Tokusan turned out to be a two-level home not far from the district where Kelarion had discovered the fate of his parents. Tokusan led them quickly through the streets, walking between them, golden head turning to glance at one or the other of them from time to time but, while he would meet their eyes, he seemed to have nothing to say.

Eiri had no heart for questions. He was exhausted -- drained, rather, and the brief surge of energy that had filled him upon their entry to Stronghold was now gone. Kelarion was gone, and part of Eiri felt numb from the abruptness of his departure.

He supposed, he thought dully, he had suspected it from the beginning. Eventually he and Kelarion were to part ways, and now they had.

"It's not much," Tokusan said, pausing by the gates, one hip cocked, "but it's home." He looked over his shoulder at them and golden hair sifted around his slender form like a living cloak.

Eiri was struck once again by how beautiful he was.

The moment they were through the gates of the house two more youko appeared: twins, this time, a pair of youko twins with tangled chestnut-dark hair. They were moon-faced, with rounded arms; if they hadn't looked Eiri's own age he would have thought it was baby fat but it was only that they were slightly plump. The twins peered at them curiously. They had sunny yellow eyes, and one was smiling.

"Vivo, Varis, could you please take their horses?" Tokusan asked them, waving a hand.

"Of course, Uncle," the smiling one replied, voice mellifluously deep. He approached Eiri, giving him an ingratiating look. Eiri surrendered his reins to the young youko, returning his smile and feeling shy and unbalanced for the first time in a great while.

"Kelarion's brothers," Tokusan explained, leading them into the house. It was constructed of stone -- something to be expected when they were in a city inside of a cliff. Despite that, the house was cool and airy, the inside of it amazing. The walls, for one, were not bare or even painted a single color. They were painted intricately, patterns crawling up the walls and spilling like a tangle of greenery over archways and glowing with vivid, interlocking designs. Eiri gaped at the handiwork, which would surely take years to complete for one room. He looked closer as he passed one wall, and marveled at the incredible detail of the mural.

Tokusan took them deeper within the house, through an archway hung with a fluttering blue curtain. He pushed it aside, revealing a bathing area, two soaking pools and another curtained-off area. "Please, make yourselves comfortable," he murmured. "The twins will be bringing your things, but meanwhile I will find fresh clothing for both of you, and then we'll provide refreshments."

"How did you know what we wanted most?" Eiri asked, turning to Tokusan, but the tall blond merely closed one eye in a slow wink, then swept the curtain shut behind him.

Eiri stripped speedily, hardly noticing as Dorrado did the same beside him. The soaking pools were a pair of tiled pits already filled, one steaming gently, one clear and almost certainly cool. Eiri slid into the warm one and moaned softly. It had been too long since his last bath and, while he'd never been overly fastidious, he appreciated being clean.

"What's behind the curtain?" Eiri wondered.

"A shower," Dorrado replied.

Eiri slanted a blank look at him. "A what?"

"You'll see."

Eiri plunged below the surface of the warm water, immersing himself, surfacing with a gasp to reach for the soap. There was a rack of bottles and oils hooked to the lip of the pool and Dorrado reached for this, filling his hands with a liquid substance. "Come here." He stretched his hands out.

Eiri found himself looking beneath the water at the long shadows between Dorrado's thighs, and the perfect, flaccid organ at the juncture of his legs. He turned his head, flushing. Now he was very much aware of the youko's nudity, where before he had not been.

"Don't be silly," Dorrado said in a soothing tone. "And that is a perfectly normal reaction so there is no need to be embarrassed."

He was so matter-of-fact, Eiri believed him. He drifted across the pool to Dorrado's side, and the youko took his head in both hands, rubbing liquid through his hair. It frothed up like soap.

After they were through with washing hair and bodies the pool was filthy and Eiri climbed out, feeling woozy and overheated. Dorrado reached down with one foot and pulled something from the bottom with his toes; the water began to swirl and drain.

"Shower, next," Dorrado told him as Eiri headed for the cool soak pool.


Dorrado guided him behind the curtain. There was a clay waterspout attached to the wall, higher than Dorrado was tall. There were also a pair of ceramic knobs, and these Dorrado twisted. Water gushed forth and Eiri jumped back.

"A shower!" he exclaimed, delighted, understanding the concept at once.

They rinsed their bodies in the warm spray before shutting off the "shower" and settling in the cool soak pool at last.

Eiri felt serene and weightless, settling back in the pool opposite Dorrado. Then something began to gnaw at him, a restless feeling of something awry. Kelarion had been taken away. Kelarion wasn't well. Guilt welling up in him now, Eiri opened his eyes. "Kelarion--" he began.

"Will be better in a few days," Dorrado completed for him, golden eyes meeting his with patience. "A week at most. Then we'll get to see him again."

"I thought..." Eiri trailed off, shaking his head. A horrible fright had gripped him when Kelarion had fallen like that. He continued in a small voice. "He really scared me, you know."

Dorrado nodded. "Me, as well. I didn't realize he was so depleted."

"What happened to him?" Eiri cried out, the restlessness boiling to the fore. "He was fine...I mean, he seemed fine all through today..."

"Has he really?" Dorrado said softly. His lids lowered over his knowing eyes. "Has he seemed fine this entire time?"

Eiri bit his lip. "He's never been 'fine,' then, is that what you're saying?"

"No. He hasn't." Now Dorrado closed his eyes. "I can only guess at the details, but he expended nearly all of his energy in escaping from Queensdale. It took all of his power to escape being captured or killed but I imagine in return he took out all her men who possessed any significant power in the doing."

Eiri frowned, sat up a little straigher.

"That takes a lot, even for the most powerful. When he took you from Dickenston he was most certainly drained, stretched to his limits," Dorrado continued softly. "And he did not have time to recover. Then he denied himself..."

"I don't understand," Eiri interrupted. "What do you mean, recover? He slept well enough...he seemed..."

"Do not say 'fine,'" Dorrado said wryly. "Kelarion needed to recover his energy, badly, but there was never enough time for him. And then, past a certain point, he refused to do so -- and refused my help."

"Why?" Eiri said, bewildered. "I mean...I don't understand."

Dorrado sighed, and raked his wet hair back with both hands. It looked like wet, white silk. He looked at Eiri forthrightly. "There are several ways youko use to recover their energies, but the most common one is sex."

Eiri blinked. "Oh..." He frowned. He thought, maybe, that might have explained Kelarion's absence every time he locked Eiri in the room. "But it didn't work?"

Dorrado looked speculative. "No, it did not."

"And he kept getting more and more short-tempered along the way..." Eiri said. There was a tug in his gut. He closed his eyes, then dipped himself briefly below the surface of the water. He opened his eyes and watched the bubbles of his breath float upward, breaking open beyond the surface tension. Then he pushed himself up out of the water again. Kelarion, everything revolved around Kelarion. "Why did he refuse you?"

"Well, he didn't want to have sex with me," Dorrado said blandly.

Eiri was still frowning. Something was on the verge of clicking together in his head, but it was just out of reach. "He didn't want to have sex with me, either," he said, not sure if he should be feeling indignant but he was.

"No," Dorrado said, drawing his words out, "he wanted to avoid that above any other option."

"Why?" Eiri demanded. "Just because I'm young?" Now he did wonder at his indignance, but he had felt the draw of Kelarion's sexuality and, without its object before him, he didn't feel the need to deny it.

Dorrado opened his mouth, closed it, and climbed out of the soaking pool in the most graceless display of haste Eiri had seen from him. He went for the blue towels hanging from a rack just beyond the pool.

"Hey!" Eiri levitated out of the pool. "Hey, I asked a question!"

A towel landed on his head.

As Eiri squawked and gave up, beginning to rub his head dry, a voice came from beyond the bath's blue curtain.

"Guests of my brother, I have some clean clothing." It was one of the twins.

"Come in, by all means," Dorrado invited, rubbing his own long hair dry.

The curtains pushed aside and both twins entered, laying the dry clothes on an empty rack next to the entryway. Eiri hadn't noticed before, but they wore loose rust-red clothing of the same diaphanous quality as Gwain, both shirt and brief shorts. They were full-fleshed without being fat, and the hint of plumpness made them attractive, very different from the other youko he'd seen.

The smiling one approached Eiri. "I'm Vivo," he introduced himself, cocking his head. "Koten no Vivo."

"Eiri Mairisson," Eiri replied with a smile of his own.

Vivo held his hand out.


"Your towel," Vivo prompted.

Eiri blinked. If he gave his towel to Vivo, he would be naked. He glanced quickly at Dorrado. The other twin had approached him and Dorrado had surrendered his towel; now he was being rubbed dry by the dark-haired youko, who must be Varis.

"Oh." Sheepishly he gave up his towel, trying not to feel self-conscious. The twins were dressed, but he was still naked. Vivo began to rub him dry, starting with arms and moving to his back, and Eiri began to relax. It felt good.

The twins dried them, then presented their clothes. Eiri was startled to note both twins appraising the two of them quite openly, then checked his startlement. Stronghold was mostly male; not only that, but composed of mostly male youko. In a place free of sexual strictures, wasn't it only natural?

He returned Vivo's forthright look and was surprised anew to see a flush rise in his cheeks, before Vivo smiled and pushed the clothes into his arms.

They had been provided with the same semi-transparent clothing that most youko seemed to favor, a green shift for Eiri, a deep red for Dorrado.

"Are you hungry?" Vivo said, giving him another smile.

Were they hungry? Oh, yes.

The dining area of the house was on a terrace that overlooked a central area of the district, a garden. They sat down to table with Tokusan and the twins. The paired youko were beautiful in the light of the sun that came down through the many pathways that led to the immense cavern, sitting side by side with golden glints sparkling in their disheveled chestnut-dark hair. Vivo's arm was round his twin, Varis.

Tokusan sat across from them, the shimmering veil of his hair sweeping in a net of gold over his shoulders. The foods were all served cold, but they were filling and tasty and Eiri couldn't get enough of them, until he was abruptly full. They might have lounged on the terrace until evening came if not for Eiri. Once he was full, he began asking questions.

"Who was that? Rashi, was her name?" Eiri began, taking what he thought was a clever tack to lead back to Kelarion. He was compelled to answer the puzzle, to solve it for himself.

Tokusan smiled gently at him, and Eiri knew he wasn't fooling anyone.

"My sister," he replied. His voice was dulcet. "Kelarion's aunt, Eiri."

"She seems..." Eiri swallowed. "Very powerful."

"She'll take good care of him," Vivo spoke up, leaning forward out of the circle of his twin's arm with an encouraging smile. "Rashi is one of the best true mind-healers there is."

"Eiri..." Tokusan tilted his head, looking at him in a quizzical fashion. He shook his head very slightly. "Come with me and get dessert?" Now he offered a melting smile that was reminiscent of his difficult nephew.

"I...er..." Eiri looked to Dorrado, but the golden youko was looking out over the garden, chin on his hand. Out past one of the beds of luxuriant flowers a youko was walking, a thin flat-chested one -- and therefore male -- with a mane of bright red hair. Eiri spared a moment to wonder how flowers could grow inside of a great cliff, then nodded to Tokusan. He wanted to be polite to his host...and he wanted to extract information if possible.

They walked through the cool stone halls side by side. It was impressed upon Eiri how short he truly was in comparison with these tall beautiful creatures.

"The twins, are they my age?" Eiri started up with a non-sequitur that had been nagging at the back of his mind.

"Sixteen winters ago they were born to my brother Tobira and his bonded, Donnal."

"So..." Eiri reflected back on what Kelarion had said; how long it had been since he'd left Stronghold. "Kelarion never knew them."

"He will," Tokusan replied. "He'll know them the instant he sets eyes on them."

Eiri was quiet as they entered the kitchen area. It had the instinctively basic layout of kitchens everywhere; the hearth, the surfaces for preparing food, the cupboards and chests for storage. There was one very heavy-looking chest in the corner and to this Tokusan moved. It turned out to be made not of wood, but stone.

"Why stone?" Eiri wondered. He touched it and snatched his fingers back. "It's cold!"

Tokusan's mouth curved in the hint of a smile. Though he had a mobile face it was mostly sober, and under the circumstances it was understandable. "It is our cold-storage."

Inside the chest was a great deal of ice, and food packed into it.

"Amazing," Eiri marveled. "But where do you get the ice?"

Tokusan smiled again. "We make it." The statement, and the lack of explanation, made Eiri wonder even more but his mind was preoccupied with other things and how to find those answers.

They fetched a pastry from the cold-storage, a fruit-tart in a flaky crust. Eiri carried the plate and Tokusan picked up a pitcher full of some kind of beverage.

The questions he wanted to ask now were intensely personal, and he wasn't sure Tokusan could even answer them, not having known his nephew Kelarion in over fifty years.

"Will it really only be a few days?" he persisted as they walked through the intricately painted corridors toward the terrace once more.

"Don't worry," Tokusan replied. "Rashi will let you in to see him as soon as he's able."

This relieved Eiri, but not very much. What he wanted to ask was 'why not now?' but didn't quite dare. He didn't know Tokusan well enough to pester him with questions. He would save those questions for Dorrado, and take him aside -- perhaps over dessert.

When they returned to the terrace, however, Dorrado was gone. Only the twins remained on their bench, still side by side, Varis with his arm round Vivo. They looked up at Tokusan and Eiri with their sunshine-yellow eyes.

"Where's Dorrado?" Eiri asked, dismayed.

Varis, whom Eiri was already identifying as the quiet twin, lifted a hand, pushed back his chestnut hair, and pointed.

Beyond the terrace in the garden, Dorrado walked beside the thin red-headed youko. Even from the distance Eiri could see that they were talking, and walking further from Tokusan's home. He had an odd thought -- had Dorrado found a lover so quickly? -- then it was swallowed up by his own misery at the situation. He was alone in Stronghold, with youko who were kin to Kelarion but unfamiliar to him.

He must have looked lost, because Vivo got up from beside his twin and pulled Eiri onto another bench, drawing him down with an arm around him and forcing Eiri to set the pastry down rather hastily. "Don't worry! We won't bite," he said, then showed teeth in a comical mock-grimace. "Unless you like it. Dorrado went off with Toki but he should be back."

Eiri looked out over the gardens again. Toki's blaze of red hair was a moving pinpoint amidst the flowerbeds. "Who is he? Does Dorrado know him?"

"Toki is Toki." Vivo shrugged. "I don't know if he's acquainted with your friend."

Tokusan had laid the pitcher down and was cutting the pastry. He glanced at Eiri briefly, then at the gardens beyond the terrace, then returned to his work with an inscrutable look.

"Come on, relax," Vivo wheedled, laying his head on Eiri's shoulder. "It's just Rashi's twin, our uncle. We'll have dessert together and then I'll show you to your room."

Eiri expelled the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and tried to follow Vivo's advice. Vivo, as if sensing his tension, removed his arm and scooted a short distance away on the bench but gave him an encouraging smile.

"All right," he agreed with a hesitant smile of his own, but it was difficult to dispel the coil of anxiety wound up tight inside. Something had been taken from him, and he couldn't quite admit what.