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The Virtu

CHAPTER TWO

FELIX

I dream of the Omphalos.

In the waking world it is a small and dingy structure, a pinched dome supported on weathered columns, the entire thing made dark and dank by the suffocating embrace of clematis vines. Many celebrants like to spend time there, but I don't understand the attraction.

In my dream, the Omphalos is beautiful. The dome is vast, airy, the color of the sky; the columns are tall and straight and blindingly white. I feel drenched in peace, as golden and slow as sunlight. I step out onto the peripeteia and see the gardens spreading out around me, tapestries of green. There are no people anywhere in view, just these soft myriad greens shading in and out of each other in an endless dance whose steps I almost know.

I come down the steps of the Omphalos. The paths which spiderweb away in all directions are paved with white marble, the pieces fitting together as neatly and randomly as the scraps of fabric in a crazy quilt. I pick a path vaulted by the intertwining branches of the perseïd trees, begin walking. There is no sense of urgency, no purpose, merely the pleasure of the smooth marble beneath my bare feet and the heady scent of the white perseïd flowers.

The first two or three times I pass a ghost, I don't recognize them for what they are, dismissing them vaguely as heat haze, the mirages of my weak eye, even some strange property of the dream itself. But finally, I happen to see one head-on, come face to face with a red-haired, yellow-eyed, transparent woman, and as she walks indifferently through me, I realize the truth. The gardens are not deserted, but their paths are walked only by those who cannot see or hear or feel me.

I did not regard my isolation when I believed myself to be alone, but now I am crushed beneath a weight of loneliness so heavy that I wake.

#

I lay sprawled across my bed, chest heaving, staring at the ceiling without seeing it. Part of my mind was screaming at me to get up and go find another human being--Mildmay, Astyanax, Diokletian ... anyone. But my body seemed too heavy to move, and there was a strange, chafing feeling of recognition.

I've dreamed about that garden before.

The thought seemed nonsensical, but I could not rid myself of it. I'd dreamed about the gardens several times since waking up here, but that wasn't the source of this nagging, frustrating sense of déjà vu. I'd dreamed about that garden before, with its white marble paths and the Omphalos like the vault of the heavens. I could not remember that earlier dream; I could not remember having the dream. But I knew that I had dreamed it before, that radiant garden I had never seen.

I let my head roll to the side, and the window showed me the sky, awash in the luminous gray that was the precursor of dawn. I couldn't quite stifle a groan. My fatigue crushed me to the bed like the peine forte et dure, but sleep was a dream as distant as the ghost-haunted garden, and it was no more than an hour or two before I would have to get up anyway.

I groaned again and dragged myself upright.

I bathed and dressed and wandered to the refectory, still puzzling over the strange familiarity of the dream. I made a detour to request that the acolyte who was opening the library have all available maps of Kekropia and points west delivered to my brother's room. The sun was up now, bathing everything in early morning clarity. And there was something else nagging at me, as I became more alert, something Diokletian had said ...

When I went into the refectory, the only person there, aside from the cheerfully yawning staff, was Diokletian himself. It felt like a sign. A portent, an omen, an augury. I exchanged good mornings with the shy child who brought me tea, yogurt, honey, and a half-cantaloupe, and carried my breakfast to the table where Diokletian sat pretending he was so absorbed in his book that he had not noticed me.

I contemplated him as I stirred honey into the yogurt. He was in his early fifties, slightly less than twice my age. He was one of the many men who might have been my father; my mother, Xanthippe had told me, had always refused to say. I was conscious of an unworthy hope that Diokletian was not my father. He was kind enough, but he was so stiff, so repressed. And it was clear--despite the fact that he was married, with two daughters--that he had never gotten over my mother. I had come to hate the way his eyes searched my face for signs of her.

I ate most of my breakfast with only a view of his hair and forehead as he stared at his book. At last, he could stand it no longer and looked up, meeting my eyes. I smiled at him and said, "You said something about oneiromancy."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Oneiromancy." I said it slower, dragging out the syllables as if I believed he hadn't understood me or didn't know the word. His face twitched with irritation. "When I woke up here, you said you'd been experimenting with oneiromancy."

"Yes." Cautious now, not trusting where I might be going.

"Tell me about it."

"What?"

"Tell me about Troian oneiromancy."

"Why?"

"I hunger for knowledge."

He reddened, scowled. "You're mocking me."

"No, I'm perfectly serious. I want to know about the Troian magic of dreams. Tell me."

"I don't understand what you want to know."

"Did I not make it plain enough? Oneiromancy. The theory and understanding thereof as practiced in Troia."

"It isn't."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Oneiromancy is not practiced in Troia."

"But you said ... I didn't imagine it!"

I winced at my own vehemence, and Diokletian said, "No, no, it's quite true. I was practicing oneiromancy. But that was ... Let's talk about this somewhere else."

"As you wish," I said and followed him back to his room.

We did not speak on the way there, and he must have used the time to collect and order his thoughts, for as soon as he had closed the door behind us, he said, "The practice of oneiromancy was discontinued in Troia one hundred and thirty-nine years ago."

We sat down. "Forbidden?" I said.

"No. Not exactly. It was deemed ... ineffective, unnecessary." One corner of his mouth quirked up bitterly. "A waste of time."

"And you disagree?"

"I believe that the great past practitioners--oneiromancers like Tigranes and Galinthias--could work with dreams in ways that no other kind of magic can copy. The whole of the Euryganeic covenant followed Hakko and abandoned dream-casting in favor of pythian casting almost three hundred years ago, and I think knowledge was lost that we cannot even begin to imagine."

"Why did they abandon dream-casting?" I said, thinking of that white-faced Euryganeic, those bruises on Mildmay's hands. "Pythian casting seems unacceptably dangerous."

"It's reliable. The Euryganeics were losing favor with the Aisxime--the Parliament and the court. They believed, whether rightly or wrongly I do not know, that their covenant would not survive if the Aisxime turned away from them. They sacrificed much to keep the approbation of fools."

"You sound bitter."

His face was set, grim. "I was an acolyte of the Euryganeic Covenant, but I did not have the strength for pythian casting. I endured convulsion after convulsion, splitting headaches, nosebleeds, until the Celebrants finally admitted that it was not laziness or malingering. And then they told me that I could stay, swear the covenant of Euryganeia, be raised to celebrant--as a bookkeeper, a caretaker, a servant to those of my peers who could withstand what I could not. I asked about other methods of divination and was laughed at."

"So that's why you came here."

"Yes. I have some talent for healing--and I have come to see, with age and distance, that I am better here than I would ever have been as a Euryganeic."

"Indeed," I murmured.

"But my dreams ... my dreams have always been prescient. I know there's something there, if I could just learn to wield it. I believe I have read every text the library has that mentions oneiromancy, interpretation of dreams, anything of the sort. There is frustratingly little, but I found references over and over again to something called the Khloïdanikos, the Dream of the Garden. Later books describe it merely as a mental construct, such as clerks use ... ?"

"I am familiar with the idea."

"But the earlier texts talk about it in very different terms. A construct, yes, but an oneiromantic construct."

"For what purpose?"

"I don't know. That was one of the things I wanted to discover." He sighed, the fierce energy seeming to drain out of him. "But all I ever discovered was you."

"Me?"

He continued as if I had not spoken, "I found the Dream of the Garden easily enough, but I could do nothing with it. It was merely ..." He waved a hand. "The Gardens. As they were hundreds of years ago, when the Dream was created by the oneiromancers. I walked in the Dream, I don't know, twenty times? Twenty-five? It remained unchanging--unapproachable, for all that I stood within it. When I saw you, I thought at first ..." But he did not tell me what he had thought, and I found that I did not want to know.

After a time, he seemed to shake himself out of his dismal reverie and said, "So if you want to know about oneiromancy, I am afraid you will have to ask someone else."

"But it seems from what you have said that there is no one else to ask."

"True."

I took a deep breath, gathered my resolve, and said, "Let me tell you about my dream."

Once he had absorbed the implications of what I had dreamed, it took very little time for Diokletian to tell me everything he knew about the Dream of the Garden. It wasn't very much. It took more time for him to describe the mental exercises he used to send his sleeping or entranced mind into the Dream of the Garden. They sounded insanely complicated, and I said so.

"Oh, I can bring you in."

"No," I said. "You can't."

"I did before," he said, offended.

The thought made me ill. "That was ... different. I assure you, whatever techniques you used before will prove ineffectual now."

He bridled, but I went on before he could speak: "I can find my own way in."

"But you haven't been trained to--"

"Neither have you."

I had spoken more sharply than I had intended to; his silence was both hurt and reproachful.

"Trust me," I said. "I'll get in. Shall we try it now?"

"Now?"

"Why not?"

"I scarcely think you know the meditation techniques necessary to reach the Khloïdanikos without being in deep natural sleep."

"You have no idea of what I do or don't know," I said, catching his gaze and holding it. After a moment, he looked away uncomfortably.

"If you insist," he said, trying to sound as if he was merely humoring my delusion.

I made myself comfortable in the chair. "I do. I'll see you there," I said and shut my eyes.

Malkar had trained me in certain kinds of meditation, but most of what I knew I had learned from Iosephinus Pompey, a tremendously ancient wizard who had himself been taught by wizards who remembered what magic had been like in the Mirador before the Wizards' Coup. He had been taught principles of oneiromancy, although it was heresy, and he had taught them to me because I confessed my nightmares to him. He told me that his own teacher, Rosindy Clerk, had believed that the magic of wizards with great natural talent--like me--often bled into their dreams, whether they had training in oneiromancy or not.

Iosephinus had taught me well, after swearing me to secrecy with a barrage of frightening oaths, and the steps of the ritual felt as comfortable and familiar as an old, much-washed shirt, even though I could not remember the last time I had performed it.

I called up my mental construct of Mélusine and then imagined myself opening my eyes. Iosephinus called it "opening the third eye," but I had always shied away from such blatantly mystical language; Malkar would have laughed himself sick if he'd ever heard me talking about third eyes.

I was fully in trance; when I opened my eyes, my schematic of Mélusine lay spread around me, as if I stood on the Crown of Nails. It had been so long since I had done this that for a moment I couldn't identify what was wrong, although my nerves were screaming with it. And then I saw: the river.

I had never loved the Sim, although my childhood fear of it had waned once I was safely ensconced in the Mirador. My mental representation of it had always been as a thin, sinuous blue line, like a river on a map. But now it was wide, black, a trail of ichor left by some unimaginable wounded beast. Although I knew I could not, I seemed to smell it, the Sim's own bitter metallic reek mixed with a scent of rot and corruption and death.

Perplexed and beginning to be frightened, I traced the vile river's course from its entry into the city from the northwest, southeast to the Mirador, where I myself stood, and then south from the Mirador through the Lower City and ...

I stared, aghast. In the real Mélusine, the Sim flowed out of the city beneath a tremendous arch, which the denizens of the Lower City called the Septad Gate, and into the St. Grandin Swamp. In this construct-Mélusine, the river had torn a horrid, jagged, weeping hole in the city wall; beyond it I could see a festering, noxious darkness, and whether I could smell it or not, I knew the stench was there. Swamp, graveyard, abattoir: it was all those things, and still nothing that I had created--at least, not on purpose.

If it had not been for Diokletian, I would have broken my trance. But I had told him I would find my own way into the Dream of the Garden, and I was not willing to prove myself a liar merely for some unexpected garbage in a mental construct. Iosephinus had told me that properly constructed oneiromantic portals were in a sense alive--that they would change to reflect everything along their borders, the dreaming self as much as the waking. If I did not fully understand the demonstration, I was entirely cognizant of the theory. There was nothing here at which to take alarm.

Or so I told myself.

I knew which gate I wanted; Horn Gate was the gate of true dreams, oneiromantically charged dreams. I wrenched myself away from my horrified contemplation of the Septad Gate and turned to the northeast. There was Horn Gate and there was the Dream of the Garden. I could see the perse´des, and the memory of their smell helped to counteract the imagined stench of the Sim. Without hesitation, I left the Crown of Nails and walked through Horn Gate into the Dream of the Garden.

#

It was as it had been in my dream: verdant, idyllic, deserted except for the Troian ghosts who roamed its paths. I wondered, now that I knew what this garden was, what they were. Were they true ghosts, or traces of the oneiromancers who had once used this construct? Or, speculating more wildly as my search for Diokletian ranged farther and farther, were they those oneiromancers themselves, coming to the Khloïdanikos from their own time? Did I appear a ghost to them, as they did to me? That thought became more unsettling the longer I contemplated it. I was glad, when I came in sight of the Omphalos, for the notion to search for Diokletian there.

I made my way to the Omphalos; sure enough, he was there, standing beneath the center of the dome. He turned to face me as I came between the columns, and I stopped short. We stood, staring at each other.

"Oh," he said, sounding vaguely surprised. "You look like yourself now."

"I ... what?"

"Well, you didn't. Before."

"Before what?"

"When I first found you, before we healed you. You looked quite different." He tilted his head, appraising me. "It must have been what you thought you looked like."

I decided I didn't want a description. "Many things were different then." And, because a jibe was the best distraction: "I told you I could manage for myself."

"Yes," he said, although he scarcely seemed to hear me. Then he shook his head and said more vigorously, "Yes, and now that you are here, what do you propose to do?"

"I don't know," I said, annoyed. "I suppose I'd like to find out why I was dreaming in your construct."

"It isn't my construct--"

"You're the one who was experimenting with it."

He glared at me.

"Look," I said. "What is the Khloïdanikos for?"

"I told you. The oneiromancers--"

"No. Not who built it or what they thought their reasons were. What is it for?"

"I don't understand you," he said stiffly.

"No, probably not." I felt more cheerful with a thaumaturgic riddle to solve. "The man who taught me what I know of oneiromancy told me that all good constructs have a life of their own. That's what I'm after: what is the life of the Khloïdanikos?"

"I have no idea."

Somehow we were at cross-purposes. Diokletian seemed to be having a different conversation, in which all the words meant something else and which every word I spoke was an insult.

I tried again. "Why was I drawn here when I was mad?"

"Why are you asking me?"

"Oh, I don't know--because there's no one else to ask?" I waved an arm furiously at the empty, ghost-ridden Khloïdanikos. "Because I thought, silly me, that you were interested? Because if we put the little bits of oneiromancy each of us knows together we might learn something?" He was staring at me wide-eyed, as if I'd thrown my head back and howled at the moon; he looked uncommonly half-witted. "What?"

He said in a vague, dazed voice, "She would never care so much about ..."

I resisted, with difficulty, the urge to employ some of Mildmay's more colorful vocabulary. I closed the distance between us, took him by the shoulders with a slight shake, and said distinctly and emphatically, staring him in the eyes, "I am not Methony."

He looked back at me, his gaze more unguarded than it had ever been in the waking world, and I found myself backing away from him before I'd even fully identified what I saw in his face.

"No," I said. "Oh, no. You can't."

"Why not?" said Diokletian, not moving but still watching me hungrily. "Isn't it what you want, to have every man who sees you desire you?"

"Me! Not my mother's ghost! You don't want me--you can barely tolerate me. You want her, and I am not flattered at being deemed an acceptable stand-in."

"You are so like her," he said dreamily, "your looks ... your voice ..."

"My career as a prostitute," I said, desperate to shake him out of his strange, abstracted absorption. I wasn't frightened of him physically, but the way he looked at me made me feel insubstantial, as if I were merely a veil between him and the woman he had desired for nearly thirty years.

His head jerked back as if I had threatened to slap him.

"Besides," I said, letting my voice become throatier, a parody of seduction, "I understand you could be my father. I wouldn't mind, but I think you might."

He backed up a pace, raising his hands as if to ward me off. I saw horror, revulsion, self-loathing on his face, and then all at once, like a soap bubble, he vanished. He had broken his trance, and I wondered if it had been intentional.

I did not care to remain in the Khloïdanikos alone, and with my body unprotected from whatever Diokletian might choose to do. I took a deep breath and started back toward the ungainly bulk of Horn Gate, alien among the perse´d trees.

MILDMAY

Whatever else you could say about him, it did seem like Felix kept his promises. I was up and dressed and peeling an orange when there was a tap at the door. Khrysogonos still didn't knock, and Felix always banged on the door like he was ready to break it down if I didn't answer fast enough. My mouth dried up, along of suddenly being afraid it was Astyanax. Astyanax who hated me and was fucking Felix--or being fucked by him, and that was just one of those questions I was never going to ask. He'd looked through me good and hard the first time we came up against each other when Felix was around, and I'd gotten the message. And that was fine with me. Wasn't like I wanted to talk about it or anything. All I wanted was to keep the fuck away from him.

But even if it was Astyanax, I couldn't hide in here all day. So I said, "Come in."

And it wasn't Astyanax, just a skinny little acolyte with braids most of the way to her knees, carrying a big clumsy stack of parchments.

She dropped me a kind of curtsy--best she could do with all that parchment--and said, "Your brother said that I should bring these to you."

"Maps?" I said, and she nodded.

"Grand. Put 'em here," and I cleared off a space on the table. She put 'em down and skittered away before I could even say thank you.

I finished the orange--love 'em--got my hands cleaned off and started in with the maps.

A bunch of 'em were written in Troian, which made them not much good to me. I can limp along in Marathine, 'bout as fast as a slow turtle, and I can recognize names in Midlander, but Kekropian and Troian have this whole different alphabet and I can't tell a gorgon from a wheel. But one of those had the best drawing on it, and I put it on one side while I looked through the ones with the Midlander writing.

I'd had a map myself when me and Felix had been going across Kekropia. It'd been lost with everything else when the Morskaiakrov sank. But I remembered it well enough to sort of hold it up against these maps and to see the places where there were some serious differences of opinion. Mostly, these Troian maps didn't make Kekropia look anywhere near wide enough, and only one or two of 'em had even a feeble guess on where Mélusine and the Mirador was at. That didn't matter so much though as where they thought the Bastion was, it being the place where all the Kekropian hocuses hung out and the thing we principally wanted to avoid. I figured if we got that far, we could find Mélusine on our own.

If we got that far.

The maps all put the Bastion around about the middle of Kekropia, but you could tell the mapmakers were basically just guessing. They knew it was out there somewhere, and I don't suppose anybody but the Eusebians themselves can actually pinpoint it any better than that. So exactly how far north it was from anything, or how far west ... well, I couldn't tell, and I stared at those damn maps until I swear I could feel my eyes crossing.

When we'd been going east, it hadn't mattered so much, because, for one thing, we'd been following the route Mavortian von Heber had chosen, and for another, Felix had been crazy, and Gideon had thought that would keep the Bastion from noticing him. Which looked like it had worked, because, I mean, they hadn't. But Felix wasn't crazy now, and if he was where the Eusebians could feel him with their spells--however the fuck that worked, and I didn't know and didn't want to--my understanding was they'd know right off he was a Cabaline, and then we might as well kiss our asses goodbye.

So there wasn't no point in trying to finesse it. We wanted to circle either way to the north or way to the south. I couldn't see that there was much to recommend either direction--going south we ended up in the duchies that were sort of a part of the empire and sort of their own thing, and I'd heard enough gossip going east to know we didn't particularly want to fuck with them, but going north took us up into Norvena Magna, and all I knew about that was it was likely to be extremely fucking cold. And then when we wanted to swing south again, there were all kinds of little countries that had hacked themselves out a space where none of the big players cared enough to come and get them, and I'd learned when I was doing smuggling runs for Keeper that who was friends with who changed pretty much by the hour, and none of 'em had much use for Marathat to begin with. At least going south we wouldn't have to wonder.

I didn't particularly like either plan, but then I remembered something that made the decision easier. We were pretty far south on Troia's coastline--I'd found a little square labeled GARDENS OF NEPHELE on one of the Midlander maps--and so going north would take longer, take us farther out of our way, and moreover would mean, almost as sure as eggs are eggs, that we'd have to go through Aigisthos, the capital of the Empire of Kekropia. And I remembered just how much Gideon had said we didn't want to go there.

We'd have to go around to the south.

I looked at all them little duchies, like a particularly crazy kind of crazy-quilt, and thought, Kethe, I hope we can pull this off.

FELIX

When I opened my eyes to Diokletian's bedroom, I was relieved to discover myself still in the chair, exactly as I had been when I went into my trance. Diokletian was sitting on the floor, his back against the wall, knees pulled up and his face buried in his hands.

I stood up, deliberately noisy. Diokletian did not move. I wanted simply to leave, wanted it in the same way one wants water to quench a thirst, but I knew that would give this silly, rather tawdry contretemps a kind of weight and meaning that it did not deserve. So I said, lightly, "Are you all right?"

"Fine," he said, still without moving. "Please, just go."

"This isn't the end of the world, you know."

That got his head up; his face was ashen, and his yellow eyes staring. "What, to discover that I'm lusting after a man? And that man quite possibly my own son?"

"You aren't lusting after me. You're remembering her. And I may very well not be your son."

He shook his head. "That's not the point." He stood up, staring at me now with pain in his eyes. "I love my wife, my daughters. I never felt for my wife what I did for Methony, and I have never, thank the Tetrarchs," the hint of a wry smile crooking the corners of his mouth, "felt anything for my daughters that even remotely resembles what I feel for you."

"Which is?"

"Oh, you were right. I don't like you. This is something else. This is some madness in my blood. I would never ... I don't know what happened there, in that ..."

"Nothing to worry about," I said. "Neither of us is going to act on it--"

"And if we shut our eyes and put our fingers in our ears, it'll just go away? I had expected better of you."

"Well, Mildmay and I will be leaving the Gardens soon, so it's not as if--"

"Soon? How soon?"

"A few days."

"You're leaving?"

"Of course I'm leaving. You didn't think I was going to settle down here for the rest of my life, did you?"

His gaze shifted away from my face.

"Well, I'm not," I said.

"Because your brother doesn't want to."

"I beg your pardon?"

"It's true, is it not? You are leaving because your brother does not want to stay."

"Diokletian, I thought we--"

"Just answer the question."

"Mildmay doesn't want to stay, that's true, but neither do I."

"You've seemed very happy here."

"Of course I'm happy, you nitwit. That's not the point."

"Then what is the point?"

"There's something I have to do. In the Mirador."

"The Mirador?"

"It is my home," I said, treading carefully now among the truth, the lies, the omissions and evasions. "I ... I am needed there." To repair the damage I did. Yes, indeed, the Mirador needed me, although there was a good chance I'd be tied to a stake with the flames licking my ankles before any of them calmed down enough to realize it. But that, too, didn't matter.

Diokletian snorted. "After the abysmal job they did taking care of you, I don't think--"

"You don't understand the circumstances."

"Then explain them."

And that was the last thing on earth I was likely to do. "It doesn't matter," I said. "I'm not accountable to you."

"I had thought your gratitude might run a little deeper," he said bitterly.

"Gratitude? What does that have to do with anything?"

"We saved your life--you and your trained bear--"

"Don't talk about him that way."

He gave an impatient jerky half-shrug. He hadn't been trying to bait me; that was genuinely how he thought about Mildmay. "We saved your life, your sanity. We've fed, sheltered, and clothed you for the past three months ..."

"I didn't realize I was running up a tab," I said, in Marathine because I didn't know the word in Troian.

"What?"

Back into Troian: I wasn't about to let him condescend to me about my language skills. "I didn't know anyone was keeping score."

"What? Of course not!"

"Then why are you trying to make me feel guilty about it?"

"We have done a great deal for you, and although we did not do it with thoughts of recompense, I did think--"

"That I'd--what? Join your covenant? Be your acolyte?"

"You're being unfair."

I couldn't help it; I laughed. "Unfair? And trying to talk me out of leaving by reminding me how much I owe you--we did not do it with thoughts of recompense," I mimicked him savagely and was pleased to see him flinch, "that's the epitome of impartial fair dealing?"

"You're twisting my words."

"No," I said. "I'm not. And I am grateful, but it has no bearing on the matter. I have to go back."

"Xanthippe will not be pleased."

"And I will be sorry for it, but I am still leaving. As soon as Mildmay and I can be ready."

It was an exit line, and I took it.

#

Having been through one unpleasant scene, I decided there was no sense in wasting the aggrieved feeling of martyrdom and set out to find what I fully expected to be another, possibly even more unpleasant.

Astyanax was where he always was at this time of day, holding court in the atrium of the Nephelion, his crowd of sycophants around him. He smiled when he caught sight of me, and it was a good effort, but I had been Lord Shannon Teverius's lover for five years, and it took more than this boy could muster to turn my knees to water.

I made my way to him through his resentful clique and said, "We need to talk."

He caught the seriousness. "Talk? What? Is it--"

"Not here," I said, because I owed him that much. "Come on."

He came, and I was glad of his docility, although I knew it would have bored me senseless if our affair had been protracted. For the first time I thought clearly, It is good to be leaving.

I made for a particular bench in the middle of the formal part of the gardens, where no one could approach us without being observed and where from the main thoroughfares, we would be merely another pair of red-haired men.

Astyanax sat down beside me, his face worried. "Felix, what is it? What's going on?"

"I thought I should tell you privately," I said, keeping my voice light and unconcerned, as if I did not think this situation was about to explode in my face. "Mildmay and I will be leaving in a couple of days."

"Leaving? You mean, for good?"

"We're going home," I said simply, as if every word in that sentence did not carry its own fraught burden along with it.

"Is it ... is it because of me?"

I bit down hard on the inside of my lower lip and did not laugh. "No, it's nothing to do with you. It's just time for us to leave."

"Is that what I am to you? Nothing?"

"No, not nothing. But this isn't true love, if that's what you were thinking."

I had meant it as a joke, but the deepening crimson of his face and the there-and-gone flash of a snarl told me that that was exactly what he had been thinking. And not in regard to his own feelings, either.

I burst out laughing. I knew it was the worst possible reaction, but I could not help it. I wasn't sure I would have been able to keep from laughing even if there had been a knife at my throat.

He shot to his feet and started away, as stiff and bristling as an offended cat.

I choked down my laughter. "Astyanax, wait!"

He stopped and turned. There was a strange mixture of affront and hope on his face, as if he thought I might yet change my mind, declare my true feelings for him. I said, "We don't have to part like this. Our ... liaison was mutually satisfactory, and--"

"If you dare to say, 'I hope we shall always be friends,' I will hit you," he said, his voice high and trembling. Indignation, not heartbreak: he was wounded in nothing but his vanity.

I raised my eyebrows. "No, frankly, my hope is that we never see each other again--a hope which is growing stronger and more heartfelt with each passing moment. But I would prefer us to part amiably."

"Ha!" he said. I could tell that he was longing for a more stinging retort, but could not find one. He turned on his heel and stomped off. This time I let him go.

When I was sure he was well away, I got up and started for Mildmay's room, to tell him that unless some catastrophe intervened, we would be leaving the Gardens the day after tomorrow.

It was time to go home.

MILDMAY

I had to ask how to find Thamuris's room.

We'd be leaving in the morning, and there was some kind of party tonight that Felix said I had to go to. So this was my last chance to talk to Thamuris. And I didn't have nothing to say to Thamuris, but it seemed like the least I could do was go and say nothing to his face.

I stood for a moment outside his door, because this was going to be a bitch, no two ways about it. Then I took a deep breath and knocked.

Nothing happened for a while, but about the time I was wondering if I should knock again or try the doorknob or just go the fuck away, Thamuris called, "Come in!"

He was laying in bed, propped up on enough pillows to stock a small hotel. "Mildmay." He didn't sound much of anything, and I just hoped he wasn't pissed off under all that laudanum. After a moment, he went on, "Sit down. I'm sure there's a chair somewhere." One hand twitched in a feeble sort of wave.

There was a chair, right beside the bed. I sat down, said, "Thamuris," and waited until he turned his head. His pupils were down to almost nothing. It was like he had a pair of gorgons in his head instead of eyes.

"Me and Felix, we're leaving tomorrow."

"Going back to your blind city?" There still wasn't much of anything in his voice, but he gave me a smile.

"Um. Yeah."

"Good." He let out a breath like he wanted to let out a bunch of other stuff along with it. Like his life. "You weren't happy here."

"No,"I said, because there wasn't no point denying it. "I'm just sorry ... I mean, I know you ain't happy here, either."

"No," he said, "but ..." And then he lost track of whatever he'd been going to say. Powers and saints, I hate laudanum. But it was better than where he'd be at without it, even so.

We sat for a while, and then he said, "I'm sorry."

"Sorry?"

"For ... using you. Xanthippe was right. It was abominable of me." His breath shortened up, and I guess there for a moment we were both praying for him not to start coughing.

This time it went on by him, so I could say, "It's okay, really. I let you. I mean ..." It wasn't like what that fucker Astyanax had done, laying a compulsion on me to make me answer his questions. And I couldn't even care that he'd done it to help cure Felix. All there was for me was how much it'd hurt and how much he'd liked hurting me.

"You trusted me, and you should not have," Thamuris said, with a break in the middle where the cough almost got away from him. I was going to have to go soon, because however much time he had left, I didn't want him to have less of it--or spend more of it coughing--just on account of me. But he caught his breath and said, sounding almost like he had the first time I'd met him, "Do you know why I'm here?"

"Sorry. What?"

"Here. In the Gardens. This isn't my covenant, you know."

"Yeah, I got that. But, I mean, I thought--"

"I am dying of consumption. Yes. But I could do that anywhere."

"Oh." I wasn't sure I should admit that the Arkhon had told me and Felix about him. "I, um--"

"I am here so that I would not do exactly what I did. The Celebrants of Hakko decided I was not trustworthy, and I have proved them right."

"Thamuris, it don't--"

"Yes, it does." But he'd worn himself out. His head fell back against the pillows, and there was sweat on his forehead.

"I should go," I said and got up.

"Yes," he said. "But, please ..."

I looked at him a moment, and then said, carefully, "If you need to know that I forgive you, then, yeah, I do. It's good between us. Right?"

"Yes," he said, in a voice like a half-dead cat. "Good."

"Okay," I said. And there was no wish I could make for him, "be well," or "think of me," or nothing, because all there was ahead of him was him dying, and it would be stupid and mean to say anything pretending otherwise. So I just touched his hand and said, "Good-bye."

"Good-bye, Mildmay," he said.

I turned and limped out of the room without looking back. I kept on not looking back, all the way to my room, and then I shut the door behind me and sat down on the bed, and then I rubbed the water out of my eyes and tried real hard to think about something else. And I don't suppose I need to tell you how well that worked.

#

If there'd been any way in this world, Hell, or anywhere else, I could've got out of going to that fucking party, I would've taken it. But Felix wanted me there, and I was finding out real fast that I sucked at saying no to anything Felix wanted. Besides which, Khrysogonos was all over me about would I go, and it would be good for me, and on and on, all that fucking bullshit pretending like he cared.

So I went.

And I hated it.

They had the common decency to leave me alone, which meant I could stand in a corner by myself with my ugly cane in case I fell down or something and watch all these red-haired people laughing and talking and drinking, and Felix in the middle of it. I could see Khrysogonos somewhere near him, staring at him like--well, let's be honest, Milly-Fox, like you do when you're sure nobody's looking, like he hung the fucking stars. So I was hating Felix for being the way he was, and hating Khrysogonos for being able to look at him like that and not fucking worry about it or be afraid that Felix would use it like leverage in a wrestling match, and especially hating everybody else who could look at Felix any damn way they pleased. I was watching for Astyanax--the way sometimes you'll pick at a scab, you know, because you want it to hurt--but I didn't see him. Which was probably a good thing because the way I was feeling I would've done something stupid.

So I stood there and kept my face blank and wondered how long I'd have to stay to make Felix happy. Wondered if he'd even notice if I left. Nobody else would, that was for sure.

Then all at once, everybody was getting quiet, and the Arkhon was standing next to Felix, smiling and saying shit about colleagues and friends and blood-ties and success and on and on, and Felix was watching her with an expression on his face I couldn't quite make out, and then she took a box out of her coat-pocket, a jewelry box, long and narrow, and handed it to him.

He looked like he thought it might bite him, but he opened it. And Kethe, the thing that happened to his face then--I felt sick for a second, just knowing that no matter what I did, I'd never be able to get that look from him, that wonder and happiness and just ... I don't know.

And he turned to the Arkhon and said, stammering a little which wasn't like him, "I--I can't."

"Of course you can," she said. "We are all in agreement."

And he looked around at all them red-haired people, all of them just grinning like fools, and I ducked sideways a little to be sure I wasn't in his line of sight, although he wasn't looking for me and I knew it. Then he said, "I shouldn't ... I know I should give them back ... but I can't!" And he laughed, purely with delight, and I felt even worse.

I edged back to where I could see him, and watched him take rings out of that box, ten rings, one at a time, and slide them on his fingers. They were gold and garnet, each the length of the first-finger joint, sized exactly, and I wondered if they'd taken his measurements when he was crazy or if it was some kind of spell. And when he was wearing them all and tucked the box into his own pocket, he held up his hands so everybody could see, and they laughed and cheered and clapped, and I was glad I had a wall to lean against because otherwise I would have ended up on the floor. Because the rings and the tattoos, and oh Kethe he was a Cabaline and for the first time since I'd known him, he looked it. And I realized I could never tell him that I looked at him like that and all I thought of was my friend Zephyr being burned because the Cabalines had decided to believe he was a heretic.

Nobody was going to notice if I left. This little gift-giving was all about him, like everything else here--and what would they have given me anyway, a new knife to replace the one I'd lost when the Morskaiakrov went down?--and nobody was watching me. Even if they did notice, I wasn't stupid enough to think even Felix would care.

I slipped out and went back to my room. We'd be leaving tomorrow, and I held onto that thought like grim spooked-out death.

FELIX

It was strange to have rings again, strange and wonderful, and these heavy, archaic, beautiful rings were like something out of a fairytale. I knew I should have refused them, and I had not been able to.

It was not that I did not need new rings, now that I was sane and free and had my power again. My own rings, silver set with moonstones, had most likely been melted down after I was convicted of breaking the Virtu. Even if they hadn't been, I could never wear them again, not after what Malkar had done. And it was not that I did not want these, beautiful thorny serpents that they were. But I knew full well I did not deserve rings like these. Xanthippe had told me they were patterned after the rings of Idomeneos, the Celebrant Celestial who had founded the Gardens unimaginable centuries before, and they did not belong on the hands of a badly trained, heretical prostitute whose greatest magical ability had proved to be as a pawn in betraying everything in which his school of magic believed. Everyone was smiling, though, delighted to have surprised me, to have found something that they were sure I would want, and in the end my desire was stronger than my scruples, as indeed it ever had been. I kept catching myself glancing, faux-casually, at my hands, and being shocked and thrilled all over again at their barbaric splendor.

I felt as if I was standing at the center of a blood-red and gold kaleidoscope; although I'd had only a single glass of wine, I felt dizzy, light-headed, almost effervescent. I lost track of the people I talked to, could no longer tell whose names I knew and whose I didn't. And then, all at once, there was a hand gripping my upper arm, dragging me, not gently, out of the kaleidoscope and into a narrow, dark hallway.

"I want you to see this," Diokletian said.

I freed my arm from his grip. "See what?"

"Your mother."

I was following him reflexively while my brain struggled to make sense of his words. "What did you say?"

"Just for once in your life hold your tongue and come with me."

The rawness in his voice silenced me more than the command. I followed him into a part of the Nephelion I had never seen: narrow back corridors, cramped, twisting staircases. It looked more like the Mirador than anything I had seen in Troia, and I was conscious of my pulse accelerating, my mouth going dry.

"Where are we?" I said and hoped Diokletian would believe I had intended the words to come out in a whisper.

"These are the acolytes' quarters," he said. "What? Did you think they slept out on the grass?"

"No, of course not," I said, annoyed to feel my face heating. "I just hadn't ..."

"Furnished with cast-offs, memories, the history that no one wants to speak of. I've often thought it a mercy that the acolytes are too preoccupied with becoming celebrants to stop and look around themselves. Here."

He halted in the middle of a corridor, no different to my eyes from any other, and called witchlight, sending it to illuminate one of the pictures on the wall. "This is your mother, painted the year before you were born."

Whoever the portraitist had been, they had had a gift. The young woman in the portrait, eighteen or nineteen at a guess, seemed so vividly alive that I almost expected her to step out of the frame, or at least to push back the strands of hair falling in her eyes.

She looked almost exactly like me--or, rather, I looked almost exactly like her. Save for my slightly heavier bone structure, save for my one blue eye, I could have been looking at a mirror instead of a picture. My resemblance to Mildmay was close enough to be startling, but this ... this was uncanny.

"Are you sure I had any father at all?" I murmured. "Are you sure she did not create me entirely from herself?" Cheekbones, nose, that slight sardonic hitch in one eyebrow that said louder than words how little value she placed in having her features recorded for posterity.

"Only the laws of nature stand against your theory," Diokletian said. His voice sounded easier, as if seeing me here, seeing me with the portrait, had purged something that had been festering in him. "And if anyone could find a way around that, it would be her."

"Tell me about her," I said.

He glowered at me. "You talked to Xanthippe, you said. So you already know."

"That in my mother's case, it was not a matter of sinking to prostitution?"

"It wasn't like that."

"Then what was it like? This is your chance. Tell me who she was. Make me believe she was something better than a whore."

"You have no idea what you're talking about," he said, almost growled.

"No," I said in exasperation. "I don't. That's the problem I'm inviting you to rectify. I'm told she slept with so many men that no one knows who my father is, and yet you say she wasn't a whore. You do see the paradox, don't you?"

His expression was mistrustful, and suddenly I understood. He had been defending Methony for twenty-seven years, defending her to people who would not listen to what he tried to say, who took his words and twisted them--as he undoubtedly felt I had been doing--so that they came around again to slut, harlot, whore.

"I was a prostitute," I said, still calm. "I know it isn't the worst thing one can be." No, because I'd found that worst thing for myself. But Diokletian didn't know about that, and he wasn't going to. "Tell me."

He must have wanted to, must have put the words together over and over, in different ways, with different inflections, because this time, when he started to talk, it all came spilling out.

Methony had been the daughter of a Celebrant Major of little power but tremendous organizational skill: Periander of the House Demetrias. Her mother, Theseia, a daughter of the House Leontis, had died when Methony was barely five, leaving Periander to raise his daughter alone.

"He did a bad job of it," Diokletian said. "He couldn't control her."

My eyebrows went up, and he smiled, very slightly. "I know, I know. Certainly it's not the verb I'd want to use with my daughters. But it was how he thought, and it was the worst way he could have chosen. She was ... if I say willful, it gives entirely the wrong impression. She was the most obstinate woman I have ever known. And it was more than that. She would not let him control her."

"I think I understand. It seems to be a familial trait."

He could not understand the source of the bitterness in my voice, as I remembered the things Malkar had done to make me obey him, how I had fought against him and been defeated. But after a moment's puzzled look, he went on. "Her ... wantonness was, I think, aimed partly at her father, in defiance of his ideals, his plans for her. But it was also a way--maybe the only way, I have thought since--that she could reach the celebrants as an equal."

"You'll have to say that again."

He grimaced, but now it was only because he could not find the words he wanted. "She had power, but only a tiny amount, even less than her father. And I do not truthfully know whether she was interested in entering a covenant, ours or one of the others. But it drove her mad, to be surrounded by wizards who talked to her as if she were annemer. And so she seduced them. I don't know when she started, or who her first target was, but by the time I came here as a Celebrant Minor, she was already ..." He stopped, started again. "I don't think the Celebrants Terrestrial knew, or any of the wizards her father's age. But we younger ones ... she could have any one of us she wanted, with nothing more than a raised eyebrow. Men, women, the Tetrarchs know she didn't care. Never the same lover two nights in a row. And so when she announced she was pregnant ... everyone asked, of course--everyone who could have been the father--and she just smiled and said, 'If you needed to know that, I would have told you.' That's what she said to Periander, too."

"I see," I said. I wasn't quite sure how I felt now; it wasn't as if I had any warm, glowing memories of my mother to be trampled into the mud by these revelations. And certainly this story was no worse than what I had believed to be the truth. But it was still strange, unsettling, like looking at myself in a distorting mirror--or perhaps a mirror that did not distort at all.

I glanced at him. He was staring at the portrait with a rueful smile; he seemed almost to have forgotten about me. After a moment, he said, still not looking at me, "How did she die?"

"I don't know exactly," I said. "I was ... not living with her. But there was a fire."

"A fire."

"Oh, that doesn't even begin to convey it. It was ..." I made a frustrated gesture with my hands and then had to laugh at myself. I could taste ashes and smoke again, as I had for weeks when I was eleven. "Almost everyone I knew died. The ... the place where she worked," the brothel, but we both knew that and I did not need to hurt him by saying it again, "it burned to the ground. No one got out."

"An ugly death," he said softly, flatly.

"Most deaths are. But yes." I remembered Joline, dying of smoke-inhalation and burns in the middle of the Rue Orphée while I held her and wept and all around us the city burned and raved, writhing in agonies that were still not enough to kill it. I remembered that for a long time afterwards I had wished I had died with Joline.

Diokletian heaved a sigh that seemed as if it came from the bottom of his soul. "We should go back," he said. I wondered if he would lie awake tonight, tormented by images of my mother choking, screaming, the flesh burning off her exquisite bones.

"Yes." I checked the instinctive reach for my pocket-watch. "It's getting late."

"Yes," he said, answering many things neither of us had said aloud, and silently started back the way we had come.

#

When we returned to the party, I looked for Mildmay and did not find him. I tried to remember the last time I'd seen him and couldn't. It was clear to me without necessity of experiment that there was no point in asking any of the celebrants. But I caught Khrysogonos and said in his ear, "When did Mildmay leave?"

"He's gone?" Khrysogonos frowned. "I know I saw him just before the Celebrant Lunar started speaking, but I'm not sure ..."

That was Mildmay; one moment he was there, and the next moment he had simply evaporated. "You know where he'd be likely to go in the gardens. Will you check? I'll look in his room."

"Of course, but ... is there something wrong? Do you think he--"

"I don't know. It's probably nothing." But I didn't like the fact that he'd left without telling me. It wasn't unlike him, exactly, but there was just something ...

"Nothing," Khrysogonos agreed, smiled at me, and hastened toward the garden door.

I said good night to Xanthippe--remembering to be gracious, charming, serene--and left. I walked through the dark, silent halls of the Nephelion without noticing anything beyond the swiftest route to Mildmay's room. I wanted to find him and assure myself that he was all right. I knew that the most likely explanation was that he'd gotten tired and gone to bed, but some part of me simply refused to believe it. I was a wizard; I had been trained to listen to my instincts, and they said something was wrong.

I let myself through the door of Mildmay's corridor and was instantly aware of raised voices. I recognized Mildmay's deep curt tone without thought, but my relief was tempered by the other voice, shriller, aggressive. Who was that?

Mildmay's door was open. The shriller voice overrode Mildmay's, too quick for my comprehension of spoken Troian, although I could hear the ugliness and anger in every syllable and the words I could catch, I did not like: murderer was one, parasite another. I stopped in the doorway, staring. Mildmay sat in his favorite armchair by the window, expressionlessly watching Astyanax, who stood in the middle of the room, holding Mildmay's cane as if he intended to use it as a weapon.

Mildmay's eyes flicked past Astyanax to me, and I saw his shoulders relax infinitesimally. Relieved that he was counting me as an ally, I pitched my voice to carry and said, "What, exactly, is going on here?"

Astyanax whipped around, dropping the cane with a clatter. For a long, horrid moment, we stared at each other, and then he looked away, making a show of straightening his cuffs.

Mildmay said, his voice level and uninterested, but I could see the pinscratch frown between his eyebrows, "He thinks it's my fault you're leaving."

I resisted my first impulse, which was to throttle Astyanax on the spot, and merely raised an eyebrow at him.

"He has been poisoning your mind," Astyanax said.

"I beg your pardon?"

"He is a liar," Astyanax said, with a depth of unexpected venom; I hadn't thought he'd noticed Mildmay any more than anyone else here ever did.

I looked past him at Mildmay. "Are you?"

He shrugged a little. "Sometimes, I guess."

"He doesn't want to stay here," Astyanax said, his voice sharp and jealous, demanding my attention. "You could be happy here, Felix, you know you could, if you just didn't have him to worry about."

I could feel Mildmay's gaze like hot coals. "No."

Astyanax's eyes were eating up his face. "What has he told you about me? What lies has he infected your mind with?"

"Gracious, what rhetoric. Mildmay hasn't said anything about you to me. Should he have?" I looked back at Mildmay. "Anything you want to tell me about Astyanax?"

I said it only to bait Astyanax, but the way the color drained from Mildmay's face, the way that pinscratch frown deepened for a moment before he smoothed it away completely, indicated that I might have hit on the head a nail I hadn't even known was there.

"Nothing," Mildmay said.

"By the Tetrarchs, you are a hypocrite! You've told him already. I can see it in your face."

Then I should be taking lessons from you, I thought, because all I can see in Mildmay's face is that he really doesn't want to talk about this. "Shut up, Astyanax," I said out loud. "Mildmay, what is he talking about? There's got to be a fire somewhere under all this smoke."

He shook his head; I couldn't tell if he meant that he wouldn't tell me, or that there was nothing to tell, or perhaps something else entirely.

"I can tell you," said a voice from the door.

We all three jerked around.

"You," Astyanax said, with loathing.

It was Khrysogonos; not finding Mildmay in the gardens, he must have come here to check with me. He ignored Astyanax, looking from me to Mildmay with his eyebrows raised.

"Go ahead," I said; Mildmay sank back in his chair as if at news of some terrible defeat or betrayal.

Khrysogonos sighed a little, as if he didn't want to say any of this, either, and then said, "Astyanax laid a compulsion on your brother to gain information to help with your cure."

And here I had thought Mildmay vanished whenever Astyanax was around because he was repulsed by my sexual preferences. I could feel something inside myself freezing, hardening, could feel darkness rising like a tide. "I see," I said, my voice remote and uninvolved. "Is this true?"

Astyanax said, "Felix, you can't--"

"I wasn't asking you. Mildmay? Is this true?"

Mildmay's face was ashen, but he nodded, a tiny jerk of his head.

"Thank you. Would you excuse us just one moment?" I grabbed Astyanax by the arm and dragged him out into the corridor, kicking the door shut as we passed. I slammed him up against the wall, watched with satisfaction as his eyes widened in a mixture of surprise, pain, and fear. I waited until I was quite sure his entire attention was focused on me, and then said in a pleasant, conversational voice, "Where I come from, you would be burned at the stake for doing something like that."

He wanted to justify himself, to explain, to excuse; I saw it in his face, just as I saw his resolve crumbling away when he met my eyes. When the silence had held long enough that I knew he was not going to speak, I said, "Fortunately for you, it isn't heresy here. And fortunately for you, we're leaving tomorrow morning. Because if you ever came near him again, I wouldn't bother with the stake."

His face worked, crumpled. "It was for you!"

"You think that makes a difference?" I released my hold on him, stepped back. "Go on. Clear out."

He stared at me for a moment, vanity and rage and wounded, throbbing, screaming self-love contorting his face. Then he said, feigning disdain, "I hope for your sake he's as good in bed as I am."

I let myself smile, sharp, wicked. "Darling, that wouldn't be hard."

He was frozen for a moment, not believing I could say such a thing, then turned and bolted, the thump of his running feet, the slam of the corridor door, like the curse he hadn't spoken. I let him go. He would find one of his clique, and they would tell him lies until it sounded like truth again.

I leaned against the wall for a moment, staring at nothing, trying to rein my temper in, trying above all not to admit how much of myself I had seen and recognized in Astyanax's eyes. Then, because I could do nothing else, I opened the door to Mildmay's room and went back in.

Khrysogonos and Mildmay had clearly been frozen in silence, like an unlikely pair of waxworks; Khrysogonos said gratefully, "I'll just be going then," and whisked away.

I shut the door and turned to look at Mildmay. He was still sitting, unmoving, staring out the window at the night. I wondered if he was really seeing anything, or if it was just an excuse to avoid looking at me.

"Why didn't you say anything?"

His reply was unintelligible.

"What?"

He raised his voice, spoke slower, but did not turn his head. "I said I didn't think you'd care. If you believed me."

"You didn't think I'd care? What kind of monster do you think I am?"

"Not like that. Just ... you seemed happy, and there wasn't no harm done--"

"The fuck there wasn't."

His head turned then, an unguarded jerk. I had to shut my eyes for a moment, swallow hard. We'd both heard Simside in my voice, and although I could pretend I'd done it on purpose, done it to make him look at me, it would be a lie. It had just happened, and that told me how precariously we were balanced. Mildmay did not deserve my rage, my darkness, the lust for pain surging in my blood. I opened my eyes again, said slowly, distinctly, every consonant and vowel a separate brick placed in the wall between me and the thing I had been, "He hurt you. I don't know of a single compulsion spell that doesn't hurt more than all the beatings in the world. I don't agree with the Mirador on everything, but there is a reason those spells were pronounced anathema. You should have said."

"It ain't heresy here. It wouldn't've--"

"If I'd known he'd done that to you, I would never have slept with him."

I hadn't intended to mention that, hadn't intended to bring sex into this discussion at all. My nerves still raw from the confrontation with Astyanax, I was burningly aware of Mildmay's beauty, his bones, his grace, the walls and shadows in his eyes. Burningly aware that he was my brother and, more than that, he did not want me.

"Oh," Mildmay said, a beat too late to pretend it didn't bother him.

"I told Astyanax that if he came near you again, I would kill him, and I meant it."

He looked away, down at his scarred, lumpy-knuckled hands.

"Mildmay."

He raised his head reluctantly, but his green eyes met mine steadily. And the words died on my tongue, the easy glib words to charm and manipulate, to make him give without giving anything of myself in return. I knew, all at once, what he'd meant when he said he didn't want my gratitude, knew what it was he wanted instead, but could never ask for.

I said, "I do care."

He blushed brilliant scarlet, and I knew I was right. He might not desire me, but that did not mean he did not love me in his own way, although the realization made me as uncomfortable as it clearly made him. After a moment, he managed to mumble, "Thanks."

It was late; we were both tired, and it was a miracle I'd made it this far without yelling at him. Or kissing him. I shoved that thought away. "Do you need ... anything? Your cane?"

"Nah. I'm good." He stood up, limped across to the bed. "I ain't taking that thing tomorrow."

"You aren't? Are you sure?"

"Don't need it," he said, starting to undo his shirt buttons, and if I didn't get out of the room soon, I was going to do something unforgivable. "Hate it."

"It's your leg." I was already halfway to the door. I wasn't sure he was making the right decision, but staying to argue tonight would not help anything. We could buy him a cane in Kekropia if we had to--and I didn't like that cane either. "Good night," I said, and barely waited for his answering "'Night," before I fled.


Chapter One | plain-text
Chapter Three | plain-text
Chapter Four | plain-text


© Sarah Monette 2006     Feel free to link to this excerpt, but please do not reproduce it without permission.