They were bound in an inescapable cycle of mating and sleeping, only to wake and eat and couple with frenzied compulsion once more. Eiri was soon sore inside and out but the touch of Kelarion's hands, the silken slide of his tail over Eiri's thigh, had the power to make him instantly hard under their circumstances.
Vivo cracked the door open on the following day, peering at the tangled bodies within, making out the sight of a silky tail draped over the line of a thigh, legs enmeshed, golden-tan skin overlapped with paler pink-tanned skin.
Boy and youko had been quiescent for barely ten minutes, collapsed and sweaty amongst the sheets, and Kelarion seemed unconscious as the door opened wider and the black-haired youko tiptoed into the room, bearing a heavily-laden tray. Eiri roused, though, peering over Kelarion's shoulder with a sleepy golden eye, stroking Kelarion's side as he felt the youko's arm tighten.
Vivo gave him a bracing smile. "How is it?" he whispered.
Eiri licked his lips. "Oh," he began hoarsely, stirring and wincing as his legs stuck together, then a luxurious expression slid over his face. "...Amazing." He looked down as Kelarion twitched an ear. He couldn't get over wanting to touch him.
"They sent me in," Vivo explained, still whispering, "because you need food, of course, but because Tokusan thought I would be least threatening."
Eiri's brow furrowed.
"To Kelarion," Vivo clarified, setting the tray on their bedstand. He sneaked a glance at his older brother, then knelt to slide the covered, incense-laced pans from beneath the bed to swap them out for fresh. "He should be feeling pretty, uh, possessive by now."
Eiri had only begun to wonder about this when Kelarion stirred in his arms, hand already beginning to stroke down Eiri's side. Eiri felt the burn of desire crawl painfully through his belly, making his chest tighten. Kelarion's ear twitched again, then as Eiri watched his nose twitched, too.
His eyes snapped open.
"What are you doing in here?" he growled, swiveling to peer at the intruder while simultaneously attempting to crowd Eiri against his body.
Vivo backed away hastily on his knees, dragging the bedpans with him. "Food! Changing the pots!" he replied, sounding terrified.
Eiri locked his hands around Kelarion, attempting to pry himself loose, and rediscovered the fact that the youko was much stronger than he. "Kelarion, don't be an ass," he reasoned.
It was in retrospect not the best handling of the situation. Kelarion upended him, surging up out of their tangle of limbs and bedcovers, and sat on him, tail lashing. "You! Out!" he growled at Vivo, crouched over Eiri.
"He's your brother," Eiri protested, trying to maneuver himself into any kind of position with leverage. "It's your brother, it's Vivo!"
"You spent an awful lot of time with him, didn't you?" Kelarion continued, ears flat. "I still smell you on him..."
"I just came to drop off the food and change the pans!" Vivo said pitifully, his own body bowed in what seemed to Eiri an extremely subservient posture.
"Hurry, then," Kelarion snarled, flipping to hover over Eiri. Now the boy didn't have to wonder about Vivo's remark about possessiveness; it was evinced in every line of the youko's body. He dipped his head to Eiri's throat.
"If you bite me I'll bite back," Eiri murmured, feeling his lips vibrate against Kelarion's skin.
"Watch yourself," Kelarion warned, and Vivo scuttled hastily backwards out of the room.
As the door closed gently, Eiri demanded, "What in the one hell's name was that?"
"Can't help myself," Kelarion muttered, lowering himself to Eiri, fitting their bodies together with minute, comfortably erotic adjustments. He gathered Eiri close to him, running a hand down his back, the expression on his face one of pure concentration. "It happens. Not wanting anyone near you. I want you all to myself, if only for these few days."
"You're still a bastard," Eiri told him.
The youko bared his teeth, a little. "You're stuck with me now."
As the days passed and they grew into the Bond, the clarity of thought faded from the link, leaving them with the messy imprecision of impulse and emotion. Touch seemed to sharpen any contact between them, though, and it was certainly hard to separate for any length of time. They were still caught up in the first, powerful breath of passion that bound them together more than anything.
Eiri toyed with a handful of Kelarion's hair, fascinated by the texture and color of the strands that slid through his fingers. It wasn't nearly so silky as it looked; there was a slight burr to it, a hint of roughness like the overcoat of his fox's tail. The hairs deeper within, closer to the nape of his neck, were soft and silken. "How long will we live, really?" he asked lazily, remembering Dorrado's rambling explanations as they passed through the ruins and into the long tunnel. "You can't tell me that no one knows. How long would I have lived?"
Kelarion shifted, dropping a kiss onto his bare shoulder. "You might have lived a good long while. Anyone with youko blood tends to share in that longevity," he mumbled, then stirred, fingering the scabbed wound on Eiri's arm. "Though now, my blood is working inside you this very moment. You'll live...as long as you live, Eiri."
"Yes, but how long," Eiri insisted, laughing a little, pushing at the intractable youko's side. "That's no kind of answer."
Kelarion murmured a wordless protest and rolled half-atop Eiri, pressing a leg between his thighs, rendering him immobile. "A long time, Eiri, hundreds of years. You know I'm close to seventy."
"Mmm." Eiri tracked his mouth along the youko's neck. "You do act like an old granfer sometimes."
"Watch it," Kelarion warned, and nipped him.
They lazed about for several minutes more in a mildly-sexual haze, not moving with any sort of urgency but rather enjoying the building sensations as they shifted and touched one another idly.
"I suppose my question should be what happens next," Eiri said thoughtfully. "After the Bonding, what then?"
Kelarion snorted. "Listen to you. Raised by humans. We've finally reached Stronghold and you wonder what's next? Enjoy what's at hand, Eiri..." He shifted again, slow and languid, against him.
"Mmm..." Eiri stretched and did enjoy the feel of Kelarion against him, skin to skin. Yet he wasn't sidetracked so easily. He tried again. "Will we stay with Tokusan? What will there be for me to do..."
With a displeased grunt, Kelarion rolled off him. "You're entirely too inquisitive, you always have been."
"Oh?" Eiri parried. "You mean if I'd asked less questions in the early days of our acquaintance, you would have taken me back then?"
The youko shook hair out of his eyes. "Come to think of it, it might have shut you up. For awhile. While presenting an entirely different set of problems."
Eiri imagined the two of them grappling together in some smoky trapper's lodge, unable to separate for any but the basic necessities, twined for days or hours until the Queen's Knights came crashing in. He wrinkled his nose.
"I'll take up some sort of trade, I imagine," Kelarion said, heaving a sigh. "There's not much call for courtesans in Stronghold when all one has to do is go to the partnering block of the quarter and find a dozen willing."
Eiri tried to imagine Kelarion putting in good honest work, like smithing at a hot forge or toiling in the gardens or carefully-cultivated parks, and buried his face against the youko's chest. He shook, but didn't laugh.
"Oh, thanks," Kelarion said, wry grin in his voice. "I did work here and there, in Abia and the Killian nation. I'll find something. As for you..." His finger trailed down Eiri's arm.
"I have a lot to learn," Eiri completed the thought. Even though he had absorbed the general imprint of Kelarion's life, there was a lot that he did not know or would need to be prompted; much of the finer detail was available to him as only vague impressions.
"Yes," Kelarion said consideringly. His finger traced up Eiri's side, now.
Eiri received a vague impression of red hair and piercing amber eyes. "You really think Toki will be my teacher?"
Kelarion's lips compressed in familiar reticence. He pressed a kiss to the corner of Eiri's mouth. "To answer your question, probably four hundred, maybe five hundred years. Though there are youko, I have heard, who lived to be nearly a thousand...perhaps more."
Eiri might have pressed the issue, might have protested that Kelarion had answered one question only to avoid another, but Kelarion moved against him in a significant fashion that had the power to overwhelm him, inexperienced as he still was.
"Enough talk for now," Kelarion breathed against his mouth, and the smoldering fires between them blazed up eagerly at his touch.
By the fourth day of the Bonding, Eiri felt sorry for Vivo, who came to supply them with food and empty the necessary with such a hangdog look. He had been acting chastened ever since Kelarion's angry accusation and warning, and a brief attempt had been made to substitute Varis in his duties. Kelarion had emphatically rejected the presence of the other twin, rising from the bed and shouting him from the room in a display more animal than human.
Vivo cracked open the door, items rattling and chinking softly on a well-loaded tray. Instantly Kelarion's body stiffened, his ears flattening, and Eiri put both hands firmly on his mate's shoulders, rolling atop to straddle him.
"You're being stupid," he told Kelarion, who merely growled, eyes straining toward the intruder. Eiri settled back on his heels, pressing himself against Kelarion's cock in the most effective distraction.
"I'm sorry," Vivo apologized, setting the tray beside the bed, then kneeling to retreive the pans beneath it.
"Don't apologize," Eiri replied, a little breathless. What little modesty he'd possessed was gone, especially in the midst of the Bond that still gripped them. He shifted so that the length of Kelarion pressed against him more intimately.
"Tokusan wants to know when you think you will be done," Vivo asked politely, though he was trying not to stare.
Kelarion replied in a half-snarl what he thought Tokusan could do with his inquiry, and Eiri smacked him.
He moved his hips a little more, sifting through Kelarion's blurry recollection of youko lore, then prodding at his own emotions and those of the youko beneath him. Testing the Bond. "Another day?" he said doubtfully, not certain of his own judgment.
Kelarion reached for him possessively, ears still flattened as he glanced at Vivo with narrow eyes. "A day and a half," he said reluctantly, then his fingers bit into Eiri's hips as he guided him right where he wanted.
It was the morning of the fifth day after Toki had tied the Bond between his nephew Kelarion and the boy, Eiri. Tokusan watched Vivo return from the upstairs quarters with a doleful mien, shuffling his feet as he carried the emptied tray toward the kitchen. The older youko suppressed a smile. He made certain that Vivo and Varis were safely started on their reading studies for the day before donning the summerlight wraparound that was standard dress in the relaxed confines of Stronghold.
His sister, Rashi, was deeply entrenched in a healing scrye when he stopped at her hearth, and so Tokusan's steps led him naturally to that place where Toki had been taking counsel with the foreign youko.
Most of Tokusan's two hundred-odd years had been spent within the safety of Stronghold; he was one of those who had been born and raised within the hidden youko enclave and the wandering urge had never gripped his feet. His brother Toki, on the other hand, had by virtue of his craft and inclinations spent a great deal of time outdoors. Rashi had, as well, else she never would have been spoken for as Hanshi of their Azure Lily district.
Changes were stirring in the world outside, and Tokusan liked none of them.
Man had always been envious of youko; feared and hated youko since the Cataclysm and the birth of their race, though it was man who had brought about his own downfall. Tokusan thought of the Code of Civilized Nations; of the ban on Tekk ways and wondered if the Code still held to it. That was the one reason youko had not been wiped out entirely.
Though he disliked the necessity, he was drawn to Toki and the foreign Dorrado for news of what was coming.
He found them, not within Toki's solitary hearth as expected, but in the cultivated gardens that stretched behind his hearth, communal property. Toki and Dorrado had been very much together since the golden's arrival, Tokusan had noted shrewdly, but not -- he thought -- sharing more than information.
"Tokusan," his elder brother greeted him with no trace of surprise. The flame-haired youko was seated on a curved stone bench, the half-circle bench that most used for discussions of intimate nature.
"Toki," he returned, and inclined his head to the golden youko, Kelarion's guest. "Dorrado."
"First blessings of the day to you," the other responded politely. "I would ask 'how is your hearth?' but as I am already a guest there..."
"And welcome to stay as long as you wish," Tokusan replied, though he had wondered why Toki had not extended the invitation. The two were either acquainted or had been drawn together somehow; he was too diffident to inquire. Too, Dorrado himself probably had reasons for staying at Tokusan's hearth, looking out for Eiri among them. "Any friend of my nephew is a friend of mine."
"I very much doubt he would have called me friend, before being amongst his kin and giving in to the Bond restored him to himself," Dorrado said with a faint grin.
"No doubt you've come for news," Toki broke in coolly, lifting a hand as if to halt their conversation in its tracks.
Both Dorrado and Tokusan looked askance at him. Such bluntness was considered un-youko; conversation was an art that most chose to navigate through carefully, adhering to social niceties before broaching less easy topics. Though the criticism was unspoken, such direct behavior was considered more 'human.'
"Yes," Tokusan replied at length, seating himself without invitation on the half-circle bench beside Dorrado. Toki's words had been an invitation, of sorts. "A condensed version, if you please."
Toki inclined his head. "You would not understand the detailed one," he said calmly, then looked to Dorrado. "Esperanza no Dorrado and I have been discussing the outside world. As we already knew, from the flocking of ever-greater numbers to the north and to our Stronghold, the situation worsens in Ussay."
"I did not come directly from the Provincial Alliance," Dorrado picked up the thread, his accent thickening slightly. "I have spent some years in many of the kingdoms and countries of Ussay, the ones that abide by the Code of Nations."
"Do the Provinces of Somerica still abide by the Code?" Tokusan inquired out of curiosity.
The Code of Civilized Nations, he knew, had been established long ago when the chaos had finally settled after the Cataclysm. When nations and kingdoms and city-states had arisen once more, dividing up territories, the agreement of most had been that Tekk ways had caused the Cataclysm and the great disasters that followed. To prevent such a thing from ever happening again, the Code of Civilized Nations had been established by treaty amongst collected governments across Ussay and Somerica. The provision was simple: avoid Tekk ways or suffer embargo and severance of ties. Each government dealt with violations as they saw fit.
"Of course," Dorrado said, inclining his head. "Youko are involved in key positions in nearly every province. We see to it, but there are many clear-thinking men who hold believe in the prohibition as well."
"What a remarkable place," Tokusan exclaimed. "For humans and youko to govern out in the world, that is."
Toki gave him a sardonic glance. "Isn't Stronghold a model for such government?" he said. "Each district has its own Hanshi, but the Heads of Stronghold are always a Bonded pair, both human and youko."
"True," Tokusan agreed, "but in Stronghold, the only humans are those sympathetic to us, or of our blood by birth or Bond."
"I did not cross the land-bridge," Dorrado said, picking up his narrative once more. "My ship put in at Tarquinia and I traveled from there."
"The Tarquins," Tokusan murmured, widening his eyes. Of all the human factions, those who had become the Tarquins had been their fiercest opponents from centuries long ago. They were the descendents of the lost isles of Nippon, the people from whom their race had taken its name, youko. And so the Tarquins had seen them as a breed of demons.
"The Tarquins have opened their borders," Dorrado said with a shrug. "They still do not mingle their blood, but they do take concubines of the same sex from other nations, and it seems the infusion of trade and ideas has done them good over the past century. We met the Shidai passing through Sevida Ron."
"The Little King? Heir to the throne?" Tokusan gasped, his composure given a severe prick. "They would go so far as to send him from the land? Why?"
"I did not presume to ask," Dorrado replied. "And their policy towards our race these days is one of bemused tolerance. Like Sevida Ron, youko are not allowed to interbreed, but those whose preference is to lay with their own sex can find places within Tarquin, now. Youko are permitted to live there as concubines but none are allowed any positions of power or significance."
"Peculiar custom," Toki observed, speaking up. "But practical. To ensure the purity of their bloodlines, if sex is not for procreation then it must be with those who cannot procreate."
"How do they enforce that?" Tokusan wondered.
Dorrado gave a rippling shrug. "They have their own brand of magic there. I presume their people are warded against it, or perhaps it is so culturally ingrained, they refrain from cheating out of habit."
"Abia was next, I presume," Tokusan prompted.
"Yes, of course," Dorrado said. "The Abian Empire. All trade and intrigue, it has not changed significantly. I sought to find the youko settlement rumored to be in the deep south beyond that land, but could not find any trace at the time."
"Their protections are somewhat more stringent than our own," Toki said. "Even against youko, the Renards have been cautious."
"Their caution dates back from the time of the Cataclysm, when even our own kind was divided into warring tribes," Tokusan said calmly, showing off knowledge of his own. "Yet you've been there, Toki."
"They have a great deal of pooled power," Toki responded. "But if you have a great deal of power yourself, and know what you are looking for, it's possible to find them."
"Modesty has never been one of your strong suits," Tokusan observed.
"From there I passed through the Killian nation, moving with a caravan and keeping myself well-hooded," Dorrado continued, ignoring the byplay. "It is most unusual for any youko to pass there, I found. In the Abian Empire youko are treated as second-class citizens, but many do live and thrive there. In the Killian nation, in passing I met only a handful, and their businesses did not thrive."
"The Killians are a superstitious lot," Toki said with disdain. "In spite of the fact that they'd have the world believe the only thing they care for is business and money, most of their folk are afraid of a dozen different shadows a day."
"There were rumors that they have begun to dabble in the slave trade, as well," Dorrado murmured, "but because of my nature I was unable to verify while remaining safe."
Tokusan nodded. "You did not venture into Misra, did you?" he asked. He held his breath. One nephew had been damaged there, more so than Rashi was willing to disclose, and the other had been reft from them.
"I did not," Dorrado replied. "There was no need to enter to discover that civil war grips the country once more."
"Truly?" Tokusan said with surprise. "Civil war? Last I heard, the Mortenons had established themselves as the sole dynasty."
"Your news is perhaps ten years out of date," Dorrado replied, "no doubt because most youko no longer venture near Misra, nor seek news of it. That is because the atrocities of Prince Julean and his peers have continued these past fifteen years; they continue now, despite his father's disapproval."
"But what of civil war?"
"Rumors of survivors from the dynasty have persisted, and now it seems a claim to Castillian blood does indeed survive," Dorrado said. "Many districts have risen up in her support, and even certain factions of the church."
"Garrey Mortenon thought he had a good idea, eliminating the other dynasties to put an end to civil war in Misra," Toki said clinically, "but the good idea was in itself fatally flawed. At any rate, the atrocities continue there, and no sane youko would enter willingly."
"It was said that Prince Julean had taken a youko for a concubine," Dorrado said thoughtfully. "If you could indeed call him a concubine and not a bed-slave. From what little rumors I could glean, he was a black youko from the north, from my lands, and he had been bound to the Prince with some mage's metalwork." He shook his head.
Tokusan suppressed a shudder. "So he can't even seek final mercy," he guessed.
"I don't know," Dorrado replied. "Best not to think of it."
"Tell him of Taksis," Toki ordered, leaning forward with chin in hand. "This is the best part."
"Oh?" Tokusan arched a brow.
"Taksis prospers," Dorrado said calmly. "They have always done thriving business with Somerican lands, especially the provinces, and trading relations are good with Sevida Ron and the Killian nation and even, I hear, with Tarquin. Their borders with Misra are closed but it seems to make no difference. From what I was able to gather, much of the prosperity of the Queen's reign was due in large measure to the help, both public and private, of her advisor Kelarion, who also functioned as courtesan at her discretion."
"Hmm," Tokusan murmured. "Yet was this not the cause of his flight home, in the end?"
Toki gave him a mirthless smile. "No matter how deep the Queen's gratitude was, it did not extend to her son and Heir sullying himself with a youko."
Dorrado shook his head. "In the Provinces, and in many nations of the north, most rulers would be overjoyed that any of their relations were able to attract a youko to their side."
"Most?" Tokusan prompted.
"The Provinces have worked and lived with youko since we migrated to them after the Massacre," Dorrado said. "Yet now, it seems, many men are taking on the attitude of the southern nations, that youko are sub-human, something to be used and thrown aside. And some--"
Toki lifted a finger.
"...Some of them have begun to cry abomination, again," Dorrado finished softly. "They say that youko seek to supplant men."
Tokusan examined his narrow, inscrutable face, but found no trace of dissembling. He wondered at Toki's interruption; wondered what the foreign youko had begun to say. "And Sevida Ron is the same, of course."
"Of course," Dorrado echoed. "Borders closed to youko, in and out with visas, watched with suspicion in case one should spirit a youth away in the night. They haven't changed in centuries."
Tokusan wondered, not for the first time, how old Dorrado was. He was certainly older than himself; perhaps older than Toki, as well. "Dark times are coming," he said quietly. "More and more of those who come to Stronghold are the maimed ones, those who draw away from all contact save those similarly inflicted." He suppressed his disquiet. Kelarion had nearly been one such, and the scars of his nephew's mind were yet to fade.
"Yet there are still youko living with relative peace in human communities," Dorrado countered, but he was shaking his head. "Though they are few and far between. I felt the greetings of each one, even one emerged from Renard."
"Oh?" Tokusan uttered, curiosity sharpening again.
The other youko smiled. "Eiri spotted him as well, a lovely creature with green eyes the likes of which I've not seen here in the south."
Tokusan pondered that briefly, then shook himself from introspection. "You will tell the Hanshi, of course."
"I have already spoken with Rashi," Toki said stiffly. "As well as the Heads. They and I agree, action is not the course to take...yet."
Not for the first time, Tokusan wondered at the levels of involvement that his brother had with their governing heads. Certainly as Stronghold's pre-eminent mage he was highly regarded, and consulted frequently...but now, as he had many times before, he made veiled hints at a greater involvement.
There was one part of Ussay that Dorrado had not touched on, and now Tokusan spoke of it. "What of Tekk lands?"
"I would not dare," Dorrado said sharply, paling. "I do not have the strength, nor the power to press into their lands. Only an armed force could venture safely into their lands. If a youko were to go there..." He broke off, shaking his head.
"It would be death, and more than death," Toki said, eyes half-lidded. He stared forward at neither of them. "There is too much metal, too many of the old machines, still buried in the heart of those lands. But someone will need to go there, some day. To finish what our ancestors failed."
Tokusan eyed him suspiciously. "You've never spoken of this before."
Toki returned the glance, his lips curving in a barely perceptible smile. "I never saw how it could be done, before."
For a moment Tokusan eyed his brother with incomprehension, then looked to Dorrado. The foreign youko was still pale and looked drawn, now; a little bit sick.
Internally, Tokusan shrugged. Toki would reveal his secrets when he wanted to, or never. "Are you well, Dorrado?" he asked solicitously.
"I think I would like to return to the hearth now," Dorrado said, rising. His simple wrap fluttered around his spare frame and he smoothed it into place.
"I'll return, as well," Tokusan spoke up, giving his inscrutable brother one last look before he stood. He had a few things he wanted to discuss with Dorrado himself, regarding his nephew and other arrangements.
They bade goodbye to Toki, who remained on the bench, looking out speculatively over the gardens.
The hearth of his brother was out near the far edge of the ring that was the Azure Lily's outward boundary. The Azure Lily was one of the much-sought districts in terms of its location, for it was close to one of the inner walls of the cliff, where there was more light from natural apertures. Tokusan and Dorrado walked inward on one of the "spoke" streets from the outer street, taking the path that led them back to the hearth.
"Eiri and Kelarion should be finished tomorrow," Tokusan spoke, thinking back on Vivo's accounts of the Bonding pair. "So that's proceeding successfully."
"Yes," Dorrado said absently, gazing down the street.
"I imagine he will stay with us some while longer until he establishes a hearth of his own," Tokusan continued. If he knew his nephew, once Rashi proclaimed him fully recovered he would be seeking just that. He was fishing, subtly, for Dorrado's intended arrangements.
"Hmm," Dorrado replied noncommitally. Then he turned his head to look at Tokusan. "I have not been to a partnering establishment in quite some time. Perhaps you would be obliging to show me a good one...?"
"Ah," Tokusan said, and a brief smile touched his mouth. "I would be pleased to do so." In a way he had his answer. Their foreign guest would likely not stay with them much longer.
In the morning, Eiri lay in bed with Kelarion quiescent beside him and thought he felt the blood working its changes in his body. There was no basis for it, he knew, and it was probably his imagination, but over the past few days he had begun to feel subtly different. It wasn't because he was no longer a virgin, either. His senses felt sharper, and he felt more...aware of everything in general -- and for the past few days, Kelarion in specific.
The morning sunlight was slanting through the filmy curtains, translucent material that was similar to the simple wraps the youko in Stronghold wore. The arm across Eiri's chest tightened as Kelarion stirred, and with that movement a familiar thrill of desire coursed through him. To his bittersweet relief, it was not the sharp immediacy of need that had rolled over him the past few days.
"I feel different," Eiri whispered to him, not knowing if he was awake as he stroked the youko's hair. He wanted to say it out loud nonetheless. Some of the subtle changes were indescribable, but he felt as if he was existing in different skin, as if he had sloughed off the old Eiri to become someone new.
"We're Bonded now," Kelarion whispered back, head still unmoving on his shoulder, though he ran a hand down Eiri's side. There was some of the old tension in his voice, his lingering uneasiness transmitting itself to Eiri.
"You aren't your father," Eiri told him, intuiting the source of that uneasiness. He wasn't the kind of person who would get involved in shouting matches, he told himself, even though they had snapped at each other for a great deal of the journey after Dorrado had joined them.
"That's a comfort."
"You're still a bastard, though," Eiri offered, and yelped with the youko's idle caress turned into a pinch.
"A bastard, am I?" Kelarion loomed above him, coppery eyes full of mixed emotions, hair tickling Eiri's face. "My parents were properly Bonded, Mairisson, unlike yours...and you need to work on your curses."
"Why bother?" Eiri said, squirming beneath him in a manner the past five days had taught him was a definite argument winner. "I can just do this..."
Kelarion's eyes gleamed down at him. "You thought you had the upper hand. But I've got sixty years experience on you, boy."
With that, Kelarion rose up beside Eiri, flipped him over, and began his assault.
Afterward, they lazed in one another's arms again. "Vivo hasn't shown yet," Eiri noted. "We did promise we were going to rise today."
"I lied," Kelarion said, tightening his arms. There was a tenseness to him, a lurking fear that rolled over Eiri. It had not been there before. "Maybe tomorrow."
"What's wrong?" Eiri was not sure if he thought it or spoke it, but he was gathered against the youko and nearly crushed. He nestled his head beneath Kelarion's, inhaling his musky scent, bewildered. "What..."
Words came to him. Eiri had thought their Bond had settled out of that into the play of emotions between them, but he had been wrong. These thoughts entered his mind like sharp, anxious darts. It will never be like this again. It won't be the same. I'll never have you to myself like this again--
"Stop it," Eiri said, pushing at him. The intensity of Kelarion's anxiety was infecting him, making him afraid too. "Stop. How can you possibly have any more of me?"
Kelarion pulled away, smoothing tangled hair from his face, then Eiri's face. His copper-gold eyes were hard now, flat in a beautiful mask. "I didn't want to care for you," he said.
Eiri felt the lingering unease behind those cold words and didn't take offense. He had seen Kelarion's past and knew what would make him say such a thing. What bound them together, Eiri didn't know -- he had no idea what might make them compatible -- but it was a start. The Bond wasn't perfect, but already he felt he had been placed on even footing with this difficult, quixotic, beautiful creature. It was enough.
"I know," he replied, and tugged on a strand of gold-brown hair. "Come on. I'm hungry, and we should bathe."
Unexpectedly Kelarion leered. "Want me to wash your back?" he offered.
Eiri choked on laughter, remembering the first time the youko had volunteered. The memory was dual-layered now; he could recall his own feelings, and also the spike of fear and desire that had gone through the youko as the words left his lips. "Oh, no, I'm afraid you'll molest me!"
"It's not molestation if you cooperate." The youko snatched him up with strong arms, dragging them both off the bed. "I hate you, you know. I thought I would have a good long sulk about being run out of Taksis and my lover's arms."
"So sorry I forced you to buy me with the last of your counterfeit coins," Eiri retorted, then clung like a burr as Kelarion headed for the floor bath with the obvious intention of tossing him in. "No. NO!"
They toppled in together.
Words came to him again. Things will never be the same, but maybe that will be all right.
When at last Eiri and Kelarion rose and dressed, leaving the room that had been their world for the past five days, it was near mid-day by the mark on the hallway waterclock. The house was silent and empty. They found the others on the rear terrace that overlooked the ornamental gardens, sharing a noon meal.
"Good to see food again," Kelarion greeted them. "And all of you, too." He headed at once for an empty chair. Place settings had been laid out at two seats, indicating that someone, Tokusan or Vivo, expected them.
Tokusan lifted a cup. "The length indicates the strength," he said, his words seeming like a proverb.
Kelarion laughed shortly and began heaping things on his plate. "I would have stayed longer, so what does that mean?"
Eiri slipped into the empty chair between Vivo and Kelarion, giving his friend a smile that the youko tentatively returned, his golden eyes darting briefly toward his older brother. Kelarion caught the look as he reached for the pitcher to fill his cup.
"Oh, you don't need to fear me now," he said, sounding almost cheerful. "Bonding doesn't leave much room for rationality, does it?"
"No, although the way you were acting toward Vivo, perhaps I should have hired a boy below pubescence," Tokusan remarked.
Dorrado leaned back in his chair, regarding the two of them with an appraising eye.
To Eiri's surprise, he could see something surrounding the foreign youko, a nimbus almost. An aura of warmth and gentle power pulsed around him, and as he sensed these things, Eiri realized he was not seeing it so much as feeling it. This was new, he mused, and wondered if it was his Bond with Kelarion that enabled him to see it.
"How are you?" Dorrado inquired, directing the question at Eiri as much as Kelarion.
"Better," Kelarion said shortly, and tucked into his food.
Eiri rolled his eyes as Dorrado looked his way. "He would say 'wonderful' if we hadn't left the bedroom," he claimed. "As for me...I'm well, but I did need the break." He grinned.
Varis excused himself from the table, golden eyes flickering over them as he stood. "I have studies to attend to," he said, and departed with his dishes.
Kelarion stared after the quiet twin, then looked to Tokusan with a troubled expression.
"Yes," Tokusan said to an unspoken question. "He reminds me of Tobira, too."
"Without the temper, I hope," Kelarion said hoarsely.
"No, you got all of that," Eiri said.
After the minor scuffle that came of that shot, the recently-Bonded pair gave their attention to the food while the other three youko finished up. The noon meal, as most meals, consisted of fresh fruits and vegetables of limited variety, two types of bread, and slices of goat meat and cheese. It was simple fare, but filling.
Vivo pushed back his plate and lounged in his chair. "I have studies, too, but this is more interesting." He smiled freely at Eiri now, pushing a wing of black hair over his shoulder. "So I'll stay here for now."
"I should be making myself useful in some fashion or another," Dorrado observed. "I've rested on your hospitality too long, Tokusan."
"You're staying in Stronghold, then?" Kelarion asked.
The youko around Eiri acquired odd expressions, as if Kelarion had said something wrong. Eiri looked at them all curiously, more interested in peeling his grapefruit but a little confused.
"You have been away from youko for too long, Kelarion," Tokusan said after an awkward pause.
"Ha!" Kelarion said, then shook his head. "You've forgotten how I was, then."
"That's right, you were always more like Toki in that respect," Tokusan replied with a faint frown. "Blunt as a human, and just as direct."
"I will stay at Stronghold until I must leave again," Dorrado said calmly, answering Kelarion's question.
"A suitably cryptic youko response," Kelarion noted. He plucked a slice of meat from Eiri's plate, ignoring his protest. "Eiri and I are moving out of the hearth, Tokusan, as soon as I find suitable employ. Are there any good districts still open?"
"We are?" Eiri spoke up. "Moving, that is?" He was somewhat piqued at being treated like a child. For Kelarion to go so far as to mention it aloud over the noon meal, it meant he'd given it at least five minutes' thought, yet hadn't shared any of that with Eiri. After a moment's thought he admitted to himself that until recently, he had been a child.
Kelarion turned to him, surprise and contrition flitting over his beautiful face. "I thought it might be nice," he replied slowly. "Unless you have objections?"
The uncertainty in his manner warmed Eiri, as did the vague impressions that he received from Kelarion in that moment. The youko was used to being self-sufficient, used to making all of the decisions large or small. The Bonding was a newness to the both of them. "I thought it might be nice to stay awhile with your family," he said slowly, "but I suppose we still could see them if we moved nearby. But the money, won't it take time?"
"Well, I have some money from the goods I moved in Capespuerte." Kelarion said, giving Dorrado a guilty look. "There's enough left of it that it would secure us a place while I found a means of support."
"Hmm." Eiri leaned back, stealing a look at Vivo. "We can talk about it later."
"That's right, we can," Kelarion said, apparently relieved to drop the subject as quickly as he'd aired it.
"The only district nearby that has homes open is the Red Crow, the...ah..." Tokusan floundered. "Where the maimed ones live." A thin flush had risen to his cheeks.
Eiri had never seen the collected older youko so disconcerted.
"The maimed ones." Kelarion's expression shut down.
"It's not merely I who names them in such a fashion," Tokusan said, seeming apologetic. "They have...withdrawn from us, as if they no longer consider themselves to be youko. They allow no one to heal them in heart or body or mind."
"What happened?" Eiri asked. "Why are they like that?"
"You should know," Kelarion said shortly, sliding his hand over Eiri's shoulder to ease the curtness of his words. Tangled emotions spilled through the contact; uneasiness, distress, the sour roil of memory. "They came here after being rescued from the humans."
"Most of them were tortured, Eiri," Tokusan said softly, glancing sidelong at Dorrado. "Or simply used for too hard and too long by the ways of the humans."
That could have been me, the sense of Kelarion's thoughts came to him. There but for the Bond and my family, that could have been me.
Dorrado said, leaning forward, "On my continent, they do not let such individuals draw away into isolation. No true healing can occur under those circumstances."
"No one 'let' them, precisely," Tokusan replied with a pained look. "We have many healers at Stronghold. In that district, none are welcome. The maimed ones are those who draw away, who spurn those who would help or any contact but those they see as maimed as they are. You can't force a healing."
"And they have no family, no kin?" Dorrado said, obviously troubled.
"If they had...they would not have gone to such a district," Tokusan said. "It is a problem, and the Hanshi and our Heads are aware of it...they are at somewhat of a loss, however, as to how to correct the problem. The maimed ones prefer to avoid the contact of humans living in Stronghold, and for now it seems best to allow them to do so."
Eiri thought back to the scarred, angry youko who had confronted him and kept his eyes riveted to his plate. "Do they...hurt humans?" Kelarion's hand instantly returned to his shoulder, tactile reminder of his youko's presence beside him.
"None have reported attacks, only harrassment," Dorrado replied, voice grim. "The maimed ones lose heart when those they harrass show signs of resistance."
They didn't seem as if they would lose heart when they were harassing me, Eiri thought, unsure if he was angry or scared over the memory.
"I guess we'll be relying on your good graces a while longer then, until something opens up," Kelarion changed the subject, squeezing Eiri again. "If you don't mind."
"Mind?" Vivo spoke up, scooting back on his seat and clasping his knees. "Kelarion-brother, I've hardly spoken with you! We ought to have plenty of time to know one another before you try to leave us again."
Kelarion glanced over at the dark-haired youko and a smile warmed his face briefly. "I would like that," he murmured.
They pushed their plates back from the table and leaned back, enjoying the temperate morning. Most of the food had disappeared during the course of the meal, with a few scattered bowls of vegetables and a half-plate of bread remaining.
Kelarion removed his hand from Eiri's shoulder and contemplated suggesting they go back to bed, but checked himself. He knew the suggestion wouldn't be well-received when they hadn't left the room in days. "What kind of work is there to be had in these parts?"
It occurred to the youko that he had never worked in Stronghold, not really. He had left when he and Kelvaryn were young, and they had made their way in the human world, taking jobs as the occasion required. That was until Kelarion had settled on his most recent occupation, which gave him no shame but no real pleasure at the recollection either.
Tokusan frowned, considering the question. "I work in hydroponics," he said, "in the gardens at the outer rim. There are some openings there..."
"No, that won't do," Kelarion said with a wave of his hand. "I've never had an affinity with plants."
"Well then," Tokusan parried, "where do your strengths lie, nephew?"
Kelarion shrugged. "With people, mostly," he replied, thinking it over. "I've never plied what you would call an actual trade. For a time in the Abian Empire, Kelvaryn and I ran an information service..."
"Information service?" Tokusan repeated, raising a pale brow.
"Spy network," Eiri clarified hepfully.
Kelarion cast him a thin look and continued. "And in the Killian nation we did something similar, running a business that sold business services."
Tokusan frowned. "I haven't heard of that one," he said dryly. "Trust the Killians to take trade to an entirely new level."
"It was a lot of outsourcing," Kelarion explained. "Whatever services the client desired, we put them in touch with the individual or group that could get it done."
Tokusan gave him a stern look. "Including things like assassination and thievery?"
"Not without good cause," Kelarion replied blandly.
"Sounds a little like Coriandar," Dorrado remarked. "In the provinces, we have one where any services rendered are considered legal so long as you register with the guild providing the service."
"It must be very civilized," Kelarion said, suppressing a smirk.
"Everyone is polite, to be sure," Dorrado returned.
Tokusan was looking somewhat out of his depth. "I think your skills may prove too subtle for unsophisticated Stronghold, Kelarion."
Kelarion managed a laugh, though he felt a little sour. "The one I've got most practice with, recently, is something that even kits Vivo's age provide for free, here." His tail switched furiously before he willed it still, noticing Eiri's quick, sidelong glance.
"Perhaps you could manage a partnering establishment," Dorrado suggested. "I visited one myself last evening and my companion mentioned that the owner was looking for new management."
"I don't know..." Kelarion demurred, pointedly not looking at Eiri. Their Bond was still new and he was certain the changes it would stamp on his life hadn't worked their full course. Already he knew he could never function as a willing courtesan again. As for any partner but Eiri, right now...that wasn't desirable, either.
"Perhaps you could serve in one of our teaching establishments," Vivo spoke up, still clasping his knees. "They're always looking for those who have recent experience in the world."
Kelarion's face shut down all expression. "Perhaps," he said, letting the thought roll past him. The experiences he had to share weren't those he wanted to relive. Even most of the good ones were tainted with the shocking loss of Kelvaryn.
Dorrado's head lifted, and they looked to the open terrace doors as Toki paused there, looking them over.
"Ah," Toki said, yellow eyes alighting on Kelarion, then Eiri. "I had thought it would be today."
Kelarion was abruptly, unreasonably irritated. "What do you want, Uncle?" he said bluntly, ignoring the inhalations of Tokusan and Dorrado from across the table.
"A word with Eiri," Toki replied, eyes flicking back to him, every bit as direct. "If Eiri would not mind?"
Eiri pushed himself from the table, looking to Kelarion, who made himself expressionless. "I suppose..." He trailed off, uncertain, then squared his shoulders. "All right."
And that quickly, they were gone.
Kelarion stared at the boy's empty place for a long, brooding moment. Tokusan stood, beginning to clear the places, and after a moment Dorrado joined him. "I don't like this," he said to their backs, but he was helpless to stop whatever changes Toki wanted to evoke of Eiri. The boy had power and it couldn't be denied; it was part of what had drawn him to Eiri in the first place.
Without warning, his lap was full of a double armful of black-haired youko, nestling against him.
"Kelarion-brother," Vivo said sweetly, "tell me stories."
Kelarion stroked his brother's ears and hair. "What kind of stories?" he asked absently, soothed against his will by Vivo's calming presence.
"Oh...stories from outside. Good ones," Vivo specified.
Kelarion's mouth twitched. "Let's see..."
There were many rooms in Tokusan's house that Eiri did not recognize, and it seemed Toki led him past many of them as he took Eiri from the terrace for their private conversation. With a sense of the uncomfortable, Eiri wished that Kelarion could be present for this meeting - they had only emerged from seclusion an hour ago and for some reason he chafed at being away from Kelarion's side even this much. He consigned it to a lingering sense of the Bonding process and followed the slim figure of the youko, his fiery red hair loose over his shoulders, contrasting with the pale green of his simple wraparound shift. Toki's spine was upright as a blade as he led Eiri to a first-floor room, pausing at the door, gesturing for Eiri to precede.
The room had no windows, Eiri noted as he entered. He wondered why it made him feel uncomfortable.
Toki waved a hand, and from that simple gesture illumination blossomed in the wall sconces that lined the room. He shut the door behind them, and seated himself across from Eiri at the room's sole table.
"What do you want from me?" Eiri blurted, before the youko had a chance to speak.
Toki regarded him without smiling. "I think others have already told you, in part," he said. "So why don't you tell me? What do I want from you, Eiri?"
"You want to train me," Eiri said, and shook his head. "There's nothing to train, I don't have the power you said I do."
"No?" Toki said, raising a brow.
"No," Eiri replied firmly.
The youko's shoulders rose and fell. "Ah."
Something pressed behind Eiri's eyes, smothering, choking as if his head were wrapped in wool. He tried to speak and gurgled, tongue lolling in his mouth.
"Then I'll leave you to it," Toki said softly, ignoring him and standing.
As he passed beyond Eiri, the wall sconces flickered and went out as if snuffed simultaneously by some great thumb pressing down.
Toki was going to leave him. Eiri tried to breathe, wheezed, and sagged in his chair. Darkness folded down around him, chill and oppressive.
A spark flared in the depths of Eiri, hot and angry. He pushed it outward, almost as he had when thrusting away those heckling youko, but this time it was different. Rather than concussive, it spread the burn of his anger. How dared Toki? What gave him the right to judge?
The wall sconces guttered, then tongues of flame shot up from each of them. Light filled the room as Eiri fought off the strangling hold on him, brushing uselessly at his face and throat with feeble fingers.
The choking hold vanished as if it had never been.
"I didn't--" Eiri coughed, then struggled to draw even breaths as Toki re-seated himself. "I didn't know youko could do that."
Toki looked at him evenly. "Not many can."
Eiri sat there panting for a while longer, then scraped hair out of his eyes and glared across the table at Toki. "Fine," he said angrily, "you win."
The youko shrugged, conveying clearly that he had expected nothing less. "Do you know what you are, Eiri?"
Eiri struggled with it for a moment, then shrugged, imitating Toki and falling far short. "I'm sure you'll tell me," he returned in small defiance.
Toki merely looked at him as if he were a particularly unreasonable creature or as if to say 'nice try.'
Blowing air through his teeth, Eiri considered. "A halfling," he guessed. "Not even half-youko."
"Partly right," Toki said with a maddening air. It reminded Eiri, in a fashion, of the infuriating manner Kelarion had used on him while teaching him to read. "What else?"
Eiri furrowed his brow. "A magic-user. A mage. A--I don't know, what would you call it?"
"There are many kinds of youko magic," Toki said. He spread a hand palm-up on the table before them. "Elemental affinity, such as fire or water. The power to coax fire into greater life, or even call it into being; the ability to hear what the trees hear, or divert flowing water." He folded a finger in.
"There are those with flesh-shaping ability, who can shift and change things in their bodies, or in others'," he continued, folding in another finger. "Many of those youko are body-healers. They can knit flesh, or alter it."
Eiri thought briefly of Rashi, and wondered where she fit.
"There are those with power or connection over mind and emotions," Toki recited, folding another finger. "To varying degrees, they can transmit or receive thoughts, project and identify emotions, and even take on another's emotion, like drawing poison from a wound."
Ah. Eiri nodded.
Toki folded another finger. "Then there is one of the rarest categories, loosely called internal-inert-inanimate," he explained.
Now Eiri was confused.
"Internal -- it comes from within you," Toki elaborated. "It affects even inert or inanimate objects, non-living objects, which is rare for youko." His eyes flicked upward, then back to Eiri. "Those youko who first came here, they must have possessed internal-inert power, or they never could have shaped this cliff as they did."
"I'm internal-inert," Eiri guessed. The power had come from within him.
"Wrong," Toki said, folding in his last finger and forming a fist. "There are combinations of all four, of course, youko with a little of one, a little of the other, or a perfect blending of two...there are varying degrees. But the very last, fifth category is the most rare of all."
Eiri nodded. Now that he mentioned it...Eiri knew he could hear thoughts, sometimes; feel emotions not his own beyond even Kelarion. He had heard the sounds that the earth and grass carried, and felt the sea and desert at the edges of his mind. "What's the fifth?" he managed.
"The maker," Toki said, eyes glimmering at him. He banged his fist on the table. "The maker has power balanced between all aspects of youko magic, and in that balance, often displays unusual power beyond that any individual aspect possesses."
Maker. Eiri absorbed the word. "I can do...all of that?"
"All of that and more," Toki confirmed. He leaned forward, looking forbidding. "But not yet."
Eiri shook his head, overwhelmed. If he didn't have to think about it, it wasn't so exceptional. But once he started...the reality of it was too much.
"Do you know why you came to Stronghold, Eiri?" Toki asked him.
Eiri frowned. "To Bond--"
"Wrong," the youko interrupted flatly. "Whatever else you might think of it, your Bonding with Kelarion was incidental to your coming to this place. Now. Think again."
Chewing his lip, glaring at Toki, Eiri racked his brains. Kelarion had said many things to him, during those early days; when he'd said anything at all. "He said I was meant for another..."
Toki's narrow eyes gleamed at him. "Then even he doesn't fully understand," he murmured, almost to himself. "Good..."
"What have you got against Kelarion, anyhow?" Eiri burst out. This was not the first time he'd gotten a sense of disapproval from the otherwise imperturbable youko.
"I'll tell you," Toki returned coolly. "I don't think that Kelarion is the right mate for you."
Eiri gaped. "But...but it's the Bond," he objected. "It draws together--"
Toki waved a hand, startling him into silence. "I'm familiar with the rote," he said in a tone of disdain that caused Eiri to stare at him. "That doesn't mean it's right."
"Oh? Then what's it all for?" Eiri demanded, pushing up his shirt sleeve, exposing the raw red line that was still healing on his arm.
"I've always held that the Bond is for bringing together those suitable to have offspring," Toki sniffed. "Nothing more."
Eiri said nothing, only kept his eyes on the redhead. There was more.
Toki's eyes flickered, though he did not look away. "I...have seen too many tragedies to think otherwise," he said slowly, as if the words were drawn from him. "Including that of my own brother."
Ah, Eiri thought, because of Tobira. So Kelarion wasn't the only one who had been affected by that. "I'm sorry, but you wouldn't think that if you were Bonded," he said, and he felt he sounded young as he said it, but the truth of it was larger than him and so he spoke it. "And most respectfully, even if you do become my master, my Bond and its suitability is none of your business."
"That's where you're wrong, boy," Toki snapped, then drew a breath, visibly dampening the anger that danced in his eyes. "You have come here for a reason, like I said, and the reason is larger than the incidental Bond or this place or myself or even you."
"What?" Eiri demanded. "Won't you explain it?"
Toki's eyes lidded and he leaned back in his chair. "I'm not done explaining to you why Kelarion is unsuitable. If you have the power I suspect you do, Kelarion is too unstable to support you properly."
"Why are you telling me this?" Eiri wondered. "It's not as if you can undo the tie that you, yourself, finished."
A spasm of expression rippled over Toki's controlled features. "Not bad," he said evenly. "You could learn to manipulate people, in time, cutting to the essentials like that." He steepled his hands together, fire-gold eyes never leaving Eiri. "You'll need to compensate for his weakness even as you grow strong."
Eiri pushed himself back from the table, as if threatening to leave. "I think you're wrong about Kelarion," he said, even as niggling doubts stirred in his mind, brought to the surface by Toki's factual words. The way Kelarion had been all this while had been unstable. He hadn't even finished healing yet, according to himself and Rashi. But would it be enough, once the process was complete?
He didn't even know if he knew the real Kelarion.
"You begin to understand," Toki murmured.
"What I don't understand is why all this is important!" Eiri flared. "Why me? Why...you haven't taken any students for as long as Kelarion has lived, have you?"
Now Toki broke eye contact, and that simple gesture left Eiri riveted to his seat. "I have not."
Eiri found himself wondering where this ended. Would he walk out of here as himself, or someone changed? Already, admission of the power within him had started things, made him aware of the energy warm-bright under his breast, waiting to be unleashed. Maker. In addition to that, he found himself saying things he would have considered completely unlike himself before.
Toki lifted his elegantly elongated face. "There is no one else in Stronghold who can train you."
Eiri bit back a snort at the arrogance of that statement. Then he absorbed the import, and his eyes widened. "But..I'm just...I mean, I can't be that powerful."
"It's not merely that," Toki murmured. "Your power, it's perfectly balanced."
"I don't understand."
"Of course you wouldn't," Toki said with a hint of that familiar condescension. "The source of power for humans and youko is entirely different. It comes from different parts of the brain and body, we think, and the spirit. Your power draws from both."
"And it's the most powerful you've seen," Eiri hazarded, unease sinking his stomach.
"The most perfectly balanced," Toki corrected. "Both within the four aspects of youko magic, and balanced between youko and human sources of energy. That makes it the most powerful."
"I don't like it," Eiri protested, putting a hand to his face, pinching the bridge of his nose. Techniques flowed to him, thoughts and ideas whispering up like ghosts filtering through his brain, methods on how to release a headache coiled in his temples or constrict the flow of blood, clogging his spirit, or how to change the color of his eyes...
All the while Toki watched him, expressionless.
"So this knowledge Kelarion dumped into my head makes me dangerous, doesn't it?" Eiri ventured. If he wanted to, he knew, he could turn away his headache. He could just as easily kill himself.
"Good to see you've realized," Toki said in dry tones that reminded him of Dorrado.
"I don't want this," Eiri told him.
"You don't have a choice."
Beyond those terse words, Eiri's apprenticeship was sealed. He promised to present himself on Toki's doorstep at the working-hour of the next day, and that was it.
Watching the red-haired youko stalk away from him stiffly, the tip of his tail twitching behind him, Eiri knew that it was anything but the end. Stronghold had never been his destination, only his starting-point.
At the threshold of Tokusan's hearth, Toki paused. He was beset with indecision, even though the unruffled face he presented to the world would never reflect any hint of such turmoil. He drew himself up.
"I don't like it," said the foreign youko, Dorrado, waiting for him beside the front stoop. Without knowing it, he echoed the words of the boy, Eiri.
"Neither of you have to like it," Toki snapped, pacing forward with his back rigidly straight. "I have seen what I've seen. It can't be avoided."
Dorrado was thankfully quiet, matching steps to his as he left the hearth of his brother behind. The presence of Toki's fractious nephew made things difficult, and he had known it would be a fight to get Eiri under his guidance. Most of the resistance, surprisingly, had not come from Kelarion but Eiri himself.
"Do they know that your power makes you one of the most powerful predicters?" Dorrado prompted him, after several measures in silence.
"They know I'm the most powerful maker," Toki replied. He mulled over the flare of power Eiri had shown him that day. He would be difficult to train, especially where Toki could not follow his human-born channels of energy. "It's enough for now."
"It might be better if Eiri understood the larger picture," the golden youko suggested gently.
"He's not ready." Toki glared sidelong, willing the other to challenge him. Dorrado said nothing. "Not yet. He'll understand as he comes into his own."
"While you hope it isn't too late." Dorrado smiled to soften the jibe.
Toki's eyes were dark. "Exactly."
The cavern was so vast that the city inside of it looked as though it were nestled against the backdrop of mountains. Within it, the natural light filtered in through various means so that the illumination was the same as sunlight, except perhaps for a certain pale, sharp quality from so much refraction. In one of the many wheel-shaped, innerconnective districts of Stronghold, a boy waited on a bench outside of a hearth. The district was affluent; the hearth he had emerged from was austere.
At first glance, there was nothing remarkable about the boy. In a place filled with youko, he lacked the prominent features of the race, both ears and tail. He was slight of build, with the promise of height in his hands and shoulders; he was perhaps fifteen summers.
When he looked up, the face he lifted was as beautiful as any of his kin, and crowned by a pair of pure golden eyes that marked him as being of youko blood.
In the palm of his hand, which he lowered his eyes to once more, a tongue of flame sprang into life, hovering above his flesh without blistering the skin. The boy's golden eyes glowed, intent as he studied it.
"Eiri!" a voice called from up the street.
Eiri jumped to his feet, clenching his fist and snuffing out the fire. "Kelarion," he called back gladly, waving.
The youko lifted a hand in response. His golden-brown hair was gilded under the light of the sun that slanted down. The even beauty of his features had a brooding cast, which lifted in favor of a suffusion of joy at the sight of the young man waiting for him.
They met halfway and embraced, briefly, strong emotion readily apparent by the way they gripped one another. The youko was the first to disentangle himself with a hasty air, as if he feared someone would witness his overflow of emotion.
"You're the same as always," Eiri told him, nudging him in the ribs, not put off in the least.
They fell into step together, turning to take the avenue that would lead them from the inner spoke of the Crimson Fox district to the Azure Lily. For long moments they walked in silence, close enough for hip or thigh to brush, then an expression of irritation crossed Kelarion's face. He reached out and took Eiri's hand.
"How were lessons with Toki?" he asked, with a kind of exaggerated casualness.
In answer, Eiri lifted his free hand palm-up, and fire blossomed.
"Just like a strong elemental-mage," Kelarion said approvingly.
Eiri shrugged, curling his fingers and making it disappear once more. "He wants me to create a flower with fire by the week's end," he said, laughter lurking in his voice.
Kelarion widened his eyes. "As long as he doesn't intend for you to do so in the bedroom," he replied.
"No, of course not." Eiri bit his lip. He glanced sidelong at his youko mate. "How balanced are your powers, Kelarion?"
"More balanced than you would think," Kelarion responded, his smile somewhat twisted. "You still haven't seen me at full strength. I'm considered a little maker...nothing on Toki's scale, of course, but I can exercise command over all aspects."
A thought occurred to Eiri. "Is Dorrado a maker, too?"
"Of course," Kelarion said. "I thought you'd realized, by now. I don't know if he's as powerful as Toki, but he's definitely an adept among his own people."
Eiri nodded. He chewed his lip thoughtfully. "How was your day, Kelarion?"
"Management suits me better than I thought," Kelarion replied. "And of course, I'm more capable every day after a morning session with Rashi."
"You're progressing," Eiri agreed with a cheeky smile.
"Infant, what do you know about it?" Kelarion retorted, but he was smiling too.
Many youko that they passed in the street gave them casual greetings and signs of recognition as they passed from the areas marked distinctively in red to those marked in silvery deep blue. Eiri was quick to greet any who met his eye, clearly warmed by the pleasant and friendly airs of all who crossed his path.
"When are you going to show me the partnering establishment?"" Eiri asked him in a teasing tone.
"Wretch, you're lucky I let you out of the hearth doors," Kelarion growled, taking the bait. "I don't want to give another youko or man a chance to look at you, let alone think you're available for partnering if you step foot in that place."
Eiri protested, "But you work there."
"That's different. I'm the manager."
Thus the book on that subject was closed, as usual.
They passed the lane where Rashi lived, and hid grins at the sight of stoic Danshir barring the door to a pleading half-youko. Furtively, Kelarion's fingers tightened on his. A score of weeks ago it had been Eiri waiting at the healer's door.
"Please...just five minutes. You're merciless, Danshir!"
"Orders are orders," Danshir answered implacably, folding muscled arms over his chest. "You're not to see Arynna until the complications are past. It would be upsetting for both of you."
"But..." Frustrated, the young man ran a hand through his mane of sable hair, exposing the elongated tips of his ears that marked him as a half. "She was in so much pain, I'm worried for her and the kits..."
"Rashi is the best," Danshir unbent enough to say. "You've no need to worry."
The sight sobered Eiri, and he was silent as they moved further up one spoke and deeper into the Azure Lily district.
"Out with it," Kelarion said, nudging him.
"Is that why females are so rare?" Eiri spoke hesitantly, and gulped. "Do they...die...in childbirth often?"
"Some do," Kelarion said. "Most don't. The only ones at risk are those that have no fleshworking ability, or no access to a healer. For whatever reason, most male couples that produce children don't often have female kits -- probably because we don't produce them of our body. That's what makes our females scarce more than anything, that and our low birth rate and the fact that in the outside world, many of us are killed every year."
Eiri nodded, then his head lifted. "Almost home," he said, and frowned. "Is someone outside?"
Kelarion listened. His fox-ears pricked, straining to catch the hints of sound that Eiri had heard. "Several someones," he confirmed. "Everyone in our hearth."
They had only to round the corner to arrive at Tokusan's hearth. There, they joined the cluster of family that stood with Dorrado at its center. Vivo had his arm hooked through that of his twin Varis, and his tail was swishing with what could be either excitement or upset.
"You're welcome here as long as you like, you know," Tokusan was saying.
Vivo's tail snapped back and forth. "It's too soon!" the dark-haired youko protested.
Kelarion spoke up. "Thought you'd leave and give us a miss on the way out, did you?"
Dorrado released the reins of his pack-horse, turning that familiar calm look on the youko. "Of course not. I was waiting for the two of you."
Not for the first time, Eiri got the sense that Dorrado had shown up at such an opportune moment precisely to fill the need that Eiri had, both to contain his incipient power and to usher him to Stronghold. Seeing now that the two of them were on the right course, his obligation, whatever it was, had been fulfilled.
"Will we see you again?" he asked, wistful. In many ways, Dorrado had acted toward him as he imagined a father might.
A slight smile creased the youko's ageless face. "If the gods will it. There are other tasks for me, now."
A burst of intuition prompted Eiri to say, "Such as to return to Taksis, to find what fate wills?" In those moments, he felt, it was almost as if some outside force moved him but he knew it now to be the fifth aspect, as Toki would call it. It was a manifestation of his 'extra' power as a maker.
Dorrado looked startled, then it dissolved into that calmness once more. "If fate wills it," he agreed.
"The Shidai and his entourage were headed for Taksis," Eiri said thoughtfully.
Kelarion gave him a sharp look, radiating curiosity, but said nothing.
Dorrado gripped hands and rubbed cheeks with all of them -- even reserved Varis, who at the last clung to Dorrado's hands longer than any of them. Dorrado's eyes were bright and his face serene as he bid them goodbye.
"Safe journey," Kelarion was the first to speak, echoed in turn by Eiri and the others.
The golden youko swept over them with his eyes. "May you and your kin thrive, and your course bring you ample rewards." He was smiling. His eyes, last lingering on Eiri, were solemn.
May your Bond keep you. He could hear Dorrado's voice in his head.
With the smallest of motions, Eiri nodded acknowledgment.
Dorrado mounted. As he led his pack horse up the avenue, he cast one last look behind him, lifting a hand in a gesture of farewell.
Varis made a wordless noise. The twins clung together, eyes wide. Eiri wondered how many departures the two had weathered, over their short lives. Perhaps the last one had been that of their parents.
Holding fast to his own lifeline, Eiri looked away before Dorrado turned the corner. He felt as if he were saying goodbye to the last vestiges of his old life, in a way. Taking his shoulders in both hands, Kelarion turned him toward the hearth.
"Let's go home," he said.
Eiri held him there a beat longer, feeling safe within the half-embrace of the youko who had ultimately represented systematic change to him on every level. He thought, briefly, of all of those changes, from being uprooted to broadening his belief system to recognizing the sexuality and power within himself. Then he smiled, relaxing, accepting. If the fates willed it, he would see his friend again.
"Home," Eiri agreed. At long last, he had found his place for good.
"Swept" now weighs in at around 525K. In its first complete draft, it is now done. I don't even want to think how many words or pages that is.
I started the very first part of "Swept" on February 26, 2002. In its very first draft form, it was more short story-esque -- so obviously, I never expected it to get this long!
I still open that draft outline sometimes and kind of poke at it, amazed. In that kernel story, "Eiri" was named Julian Kelveren, and he was blond, blue-eyed, sturdy peasant stock and the bane of his uncle's existence. He was also a total wussy boy with a Cinderella complex. Some structural changes there, obviously.
Kelarion...well, I forget what he was named. Torien, or something like that. Originally he was a sinister, secondary character who kidnapped Julian in a rather cavalier fashion and went out carousing of nights, locking Julian into his room more for convenience than any desire to protect him.
Dorrado was named Kin'niro, and he was the youko come to "sweep" Julian from the irresponsible dark youko, carry him off to Stronghold, and Bond with him, bringing him into the bosom of his loving family and parents, Jin and Tokiya. Kin'niro's father Tokiya, a silver youko, would be the one to discover Julian's powers and train him.
Obviously the story changed a lot in execution, and it still has a long way to go.
Thanks to each and every one of you who has encouraged me, expressed appreciation and admiration, and thanks especially to those who have questioned, provoked, and otherwise badgered me into being more than a lazy author. I promise you, during rewrites it will pay off. "Swept" may acquire the backbone of a real plot! I already have grand ideas for the rewrites, which I don't intend to start until January at the earliest.
I already know your next question. "What's next? When are you going to start the sequel to Morgan Vale??" So I'll tell you exactly what happens next, in terms of my writing in general and in original fiction.
Some time soon, I hope to get started on the massive re-writing and editing that will be necessary to get "Swept" into shape suitable for publication. This may, or may not, incorporate "The Willow Key" and "The Morgan Vale," but I'm inclined at this point to say not.
The sequel to "Morgan Vale" has been outlined, but I'm not done poking with it yet. It could be a while.
Thank you for reading. Thank you for being there for me. Thank you for each and every impression you give me of my world, because what you see, reflected, gives me a fresh perspective on what I've written from each and every one of you.
Not to mention without you I'd be talking to an empty room!
So some day, I hope you'll be able to hold a copy of this in your hands. And you'll know that because of you, in part, it was able to happen.