thene: and the space is filled with stars (centuries)
[personal profile] thene posting in [community profile] last_herald_mage
agghfffghgh this took a while. But it is wrapped up for now? I have a halfassed epilogue lying around but no idea how long that will take to become presentable. At some point I'll also likely polish this fic up for AO3, so please tell me what you think needs fixed (all of it) (etc)



He awoke lying on his side, feeling like dark water; empty, thoughts diffusing even as his next task shaped itself in his mind.

Stef was beside him on the narrow straw mattress - "I don't sleep in company," he'd announced hours ago, before curling against Vanyel's side and drifting away with the night. Rules broken. Lines crossed and walls breached. Vanyel rose slowly. Still that wrenching feeling as he shuffled away, the cold air entreating him in biting whispers not to leave his sleeping lover. He scrambled into his clothes, shivering and glancing at the shadows where Stefen lay.

Moonlight wavered through the poor glass, casting ripples across the floor. He'd slept not long, but he had sorely needed it; the intricate spell would require energy and focus, and brief, sound sleep had restored a measure of both. He tested his energy levels, and was a little surprised by how much he'd recovered. I only hope it's enough. He reached with his Othersenses as he palmed open the door. Stefen, barely visible to his eyes, was a crimson-bright fire to his inner vision, flickering softly beneath the window. He's so resilient. Given even a little stability - a few years somewhere safe - he could be so much. A Bard, a healer and a peacemaker. I'd give anything to see that... Vanyel had never left a lover without a twist of regret, even knowing it was always for the best and inevitable. But now - his sorrow felt like ice in his jaw, and drifting uncertainties cracked beneath his every thought. You barely brought yourself to trust me, and here I am showing you why you shouldn't have?

Outside, the stars flickered between fleeting clouds. It was hard to see to see to the next corner - or think past the next spell. Light rain spattered his face as he reached further into the darkness. :Wake up, friend,: he nudged Tantras.

:I'm not asleep,: mumbled Tran, though Vanyel could have believed otherwise from the sluggish beat of his thoughts. :Would be difficult after what I saw earlier.:

:Oh gods.:

:I'll spare you the details. And the images,:
Tantras said tightly. :I questioned the monks' sexton under Truth Spell. All I got was that yes, he found Harren - what was Harren - floating by the shore, no, they didn't - do anything - to him, and no, they don't know who did.: Vanyel found the stuttered thoughts almost as disturbing as the bloody facts they concealed.

:We'll soon find out,: Vanyel assured him, wishing he dared a magelight. It was so dark he didn't know what he was treading through. His ears guided him more than his eyes.

To the river.

:You're ready?:

:I might as well be,:
he answered. :Now I know where to look, waiting won't make it any easier.:

:Strike while the iron's still hot?:

:Something like that,:
he replied awkwardly - he couldn't lie mind-to-mind. The balance of time and energy should have been his only consideration, but it wasn't. Valdir had to depart much the same way he arrived - a thief in the night. Windborne, leaving nought but his old lute.

Which would be sign enough of how false Valdir had played Stefen.

I can't think of that now. He reached out, tasting the air's energy; the edge of a storm was driving the seemingly gentle rain westward into Valdemar. He heard footsteps not far away, but saw no one. The night's commerce was done, fires doused and windows shuttered, so only lingering scents reminded him of the life of the city; a little blood, a little smoke. Here and there, the heavy breaths of a stoop-sleeper. He passed under the old arch that Stefen's street was named for; the crumbling white stone turned briefly resplendent with kind moonlight, too dim to show the wear of its age.

The stars were of little aid in finding his way, but that sound - thrumming and rushing, beating on stone and pattering a welcome to the rain striking on its skin - called to him. He hadn't seen the shifting scuffmarks of the Scale's territorial border, but he sensed he was beyond it; the stones beneath his feet felt a little cleaner, a little more whole.

All borders vanished in the night. It was a hazard. He kept heading north, the sound growing as the river curled back to meet him, and he reached out for Tantras again. :You still have that ring?:

:I'm wearing it.:

:Hold it in the palm of your right hand. I'm going to Fetch it,:
Van warned him.

Tantras seemed to blink at him tiredly. :Whatever you say. You know what you're doing.:

Vanyel extended his senses towards his friend's weary, angry presence, brushing against mindshields toughened with resolve. He filtered out all those extraneous sensations of Tantras - blue glow of life-energy, cutting thoughts and emotions that cast shadows inward - and settled on that base plane where the Gift of Fetching began; the physical. He raised his hand to meet Tantras's, which wasn't there...and with a flick of his mind, the ring rested between his fingers.

He felt Tantras startle, and he slipped the ring onto his middle finger; too wide for his thin hands, but he wouldn't be wearing it for long. Such a small object, so close at hand, it had taken little of his power to procure it. A mere twist of silver that had brought such illumination and such trouble in its path. And without it, I would never have found out about Stefen's past...

Anger shook through him again. It was still hard to put Stefen's life out of mind - gods, when he'd last seen the ring, Stefen had been turning out his pockets and cursing. He had kindness more than coin, and had turned Valdir back with his prize barely out of reach.

And it couldn't matter to Vanyel. What made for a steep barrier in Valdir's world were as nothing to Vanyel. It wasn't Vanyel Stef had been kind to, and Valdir didn't exist, and that was that. Focus.

He reached out to Yfandes, and indicated his destination - at the riverside, on the northern edge of the city. :Could you come close? I might have need of your energy.:

:Not like you've missed me the last two days, then.:
Even the light teasing was enough to scrape at his raw feelings, and she Sent him a gentle nudge. :I'll be near. Do what you came to do.:

:I'll try.:
She must know how apprehensive he was. He'd never cast the spell before; Savil had talked him through it before they'd left Haven, but a spell's essence resisted description. Sometimes, merely knowing what was possible had been enough to make it happen. Other times, unfamiliarity had led him to dangerous mistakes.

Far away, he heard hoofbeats over the babble of the river. The rain had thickened, beating on his face in the wind. He felt the city drop away before him; ahead was only the sound and the shimmer of the water. This was close enough to the spot where Stefen had shown him the ancient trapworks of the Rockharbour. Here, the Culway's prizes and victims washed ashore.

He paced the wall with his hand to the stone until he found an opening; downward, he took a precarious stairway, and trod a slick wooden wharf as far into the river as the Rockharbour's jaws would lead him. Few boats were moored here. As his eyes cast over the river, he fancied he saw the spined edges of their traps. The scent of blood, he must have been imagining.

Vanyel raised his hand into the wild wind and focused his power on Harri's ring, tendrils of his magic asking the silver's history. He felt a piercing cold, and the river before him glittered with frost.

He couldn't move. He wasn't here yet.

Vanyel let the still landscape pass through time. It had been cold two nights ago - ice crystals danced on the water, scattered diamonds of moonlight. On the horizon, he saw the faintest candle-glow of sleeping Lydra, a lantern left burning here or there, over-river and through the strange lands beyond. Wouldn't let no friend go to Ceejay -

If he could only look back far enough - not days, but years and pain - he'd see Stefen coming toward him. A child in the prow of a pirate longship. Reminding him, you won't see your friend again.

Oh, Stefen -

The light on the water seemed to re-order itself; a curve, a spur, emerging from the scattered motes. A knife-edge reaching for him from so far away.

Movement flickered at the horizon.

He couldn't even gasp. It's ice, he realised, even as the frost below him solidified, growing out to follow the line of Harren's power. Gods. I told Tantras I could have walked across in midwinter. But why here?

And the darkness around him brightened. Lights danced around him, their glow doubled by the river. Oh gods, Loa saw this. Someone didn't want him to head to Lighthouse Market. They wanted him here.

The fleck of shadow on the ice path came closer, grew into a man, and Vanyel saw the energy coiling beneath him - a deep, elemental chill building a tongue, a bridge across Valdemar's natural edge.

And no sign of Thia. To drive Harren on such a desperate, fragile crossing, Thia had to be already dead. Only the hunted run on ice. The arc now spanned the river. Harren came closer, so close Vanyel knew the shape of him, the sway of broad shoulders and the creaking rhythm of his long stride. His face appeared in a ray moonlight, hidden at once by clouds, and Vanyel wished he could look away. From what he knew would come, but not how.

He had come so far only to witness this moment. To see his face again.

Some foolish part of Vanyel's mind was willing Harri to make it.

Closer - to the edge of the traps below the surface, iron sharp as treachery. He barely dared breathe. Harren's face turned away from him, looking back to the east. Fearing an enemy he knew. Vanyel felt the ice sway below him, and for a second he thought he knew how it would end.

Then the water erupted.

A long flash of silver cut through the broken water, scything towards Harri's torso. Harri screamed in shock, and his eyes cut straight through Vanyel - through time and chaos, a last message even as the jagged silver shape passed between them.

Despair.

He knew. He told me. Signs for days that he was watched and hunted. And Thia was killed, and he came so, so close to home.

Harri raised a levinbolt in his hands, and the serpentine creature in the air whirled around the flash of light. The sawblade ridge of its spine slammed into his body even as the spell left his hands. Vanyel had nowhere else to look. He could only slow the moment as Savil had taught him. He fixed the vision like a horrifying portrait, watching the silvered, knife-edge extrusion ripping through Harren's body. I have to know what it is. This was no magical beast of his knowing, no demon. Slow...

The image slowed - and it didn't slow. It danced double in his eyes - a serpent still moving like a thrown knife, skimming the water into a torrent of froth, while its lethargic counterpoint twisted against his falling friend. He watched Harri fold and slip away inchwise, dark blood blooming at the edge of the ice. Something's wrong, and Vanyel fumbled with the spell, trying to find his error in the hopelessly fractured vision. What did I do wrong -?

Nothing.

He had done nothing wrong.

:Vanyel!:

He knew it before Yfandes's call of warning. He cut the spell off violently, and his hand stang with pain. He stumbled backward a moment before the creature - the weapon - sprang from the water to cut him down.

It mised him by inches, and slammed against the river. :What is that?: he gasped. Vanyel was reeling from backlash, fumbling for power. He slung a line of flame straight at it, and the beast dropped into the water.

The magic hit the surface with a hiss. For a second, Vanyel was able to collect himself. It kills, he thought through his own question. It went for Harri physically - and it will do the same to me. Magic scares it - it's probably not shielded against spells, but it's fast. Faster than me. His probing through energy-lines finally reached a node, small and far downriver. He drew in its power, spun it into his shields even as he quested for more.

The water's surface rippled around a protruding fin.

He had but moments to ready spells, and he used them, sending levinbolts to strike the river, and he heard the beast keen and saw it flip ungainly from the water. In reflected light he saw it uncoil - a beast twice his height, flying on magic and momentum, its spinal ridge an array of hooked knives. Eyeless and fanged, tapering to a spearpoint. As if a coldrake had been reshaped by a master swordsmith.

It spun again, and came right at him.

Vanyel had all but nothing left, and little hope of evasion. He raised his hands, light blooming between them, and flung -

The creature veered from its course, skimming the river. Vanyel breathed, and flicked another harmless magelight toward its eyes, sending it back into the river. Fast, hells yes, but it's not clever. Someone had taught the dumb thing to fear magic, but it couldn't tell a real attack spell from a harmless illusion.

He took stock of his resources. Another node, deep in the hinterlands - he tapped hungrily but it was so far away, its power dissipating to distance. He crouched, touched a hand to the freezing river - extending his shields and his senses, feeling what moved under-river. Vibrations below, water turning and rocks stirring.

He pushed a physical shield outward over the surface, sweeping the river like a curtain. He let water run through it; a net. Speed's all you've got. If I can just pin you down -

The water crested. That was his only warning before the beast leapt upward, arcing toward him - and it thrashed against the spell-net. I've got you, I've got you. He cast fire at the convulsing, twisting thing, and felt it writhe with pain. Its teeth - dagger-blades in the blind bulge of its head - opened, crying out its agony as he attacked again.

He saw inside it in the flashes of light he made. Tongueless, empty. Barely able to think. A weapon, primitively feeling and sensing. And its pain outweighed its fear. It turned, snapped its jaws and arched, pounding the net with its own deadly body and Vanyel felt his power cracking. Die damn you - and he shoved it back with a thrust of power as the net broke around it. The beast tumbled backward, its head sinking toward the river, its tail flicking toward Vanyel like a whip.

Vanyel cursed, feeling the fracture running back through his shields. He tried to knit the tattered lines back tight together, and it was long moments before he realised he was bleeding.

He swayed, clutching his hand over the wound. Dropping to a crouch, he felt the wood beneath him shake.

The beast burst from the water, rising to strike - and he heard an unmistakeable mechanical clatter. It screeched, bowing backward and thrashing, and from behind him Loa hollered. "I got it -"

It didn't bleed. A sort of wet, green light spilled from between its scales, Loa's crossbow bolt stark against its strangeness. Ichor, a remnant of its foul forging. The beast hissed and whirled, trying to shake the bolt away. Vanyel reached for the edge of the wound, shoving the bolt deeper. Fetching its flesh apart even as he readied his magic, lightning forming in his hand. It struggled, seeping down toward the water, and he blasted it with all he had left.

The first flash of light bloomed around the bolt, as if it were impaled by pure moonlight. Then it flashed tip to tail with burning blue sparks, and he felt the flesh below its ridges become cinder. He felt its shadow beating even as its body died. Wings beating.

Vanyel stumbled over on the jetty and slipped, half of him in water and the other half too worn to do anything about it. What in hellfires. A trap - a monstrous trap - if Loa hadn't, oh gods, they saw me -

Hands on his back. "I knew he were in trouble with someone." Stefen muttered, and yanked him away from the water. "Still breathing." A cold hand fumbled at his neck, shivering too hard to find a pulse.

"That's trouble, eh?" Loa spat out a mouthful of rain. "He was fucking glowing, Stef. You fucking saw him." Vanyel tried to speak, to stand, but his body wasn't cooperating. "If you get him on his feet, I'll get him under cover -"

"Shhh!" There was no silence for Vanyel - the river throbbed in his ears, the creatures below it still screaming into his mind. "Horses upside - I hear two of them. Can you stand?" he asked, his lips near Vanyel's ear, and his hands feeling around his ribs.

"I lay you any money that's the god damned law, I can't stay. You can't stay," Steps on the board, near enough to add to the pounding in his head. "I knew something weren't right with him. I ain't letting his troubles be mine. You with me?" Voice receding. Loa was gone without an answer.

"I -" Go, he willed, as Stefen hesitated. Don't be here when Tantras finds me. Please. Please. "I can't leave you here," he explained. "We can hide - come on." He tried to pull Vanyel half-upright - and Van yelped with pain.

"Damn, damn, damn," he muttered, and his cold hands shook convulsively. "I'm sorry. Can you, Valdir, please," and his rising panic was a shrill, sharp bell against Vanyel's tortured senses. "Are you bleeding?" and he didn't even know any more because everything was cold and flowing. "Shit," and he cradled Vanyel's neck, his free hand searching Van's torso for the wound. "I saw it go at you - what is it, what did you...I saw lightning and fire," and a great hush settled over them, the clamour lulled by awe and terror and fading strength.

If he'd had a name, perhaps Stefen would have whispered it. But Stef simply kissed him - quickly, too tremulous to reassure, too insistent to say goodbye. Footsteps rang louder and he felt a presence close and reaching before the cupped-hands call. "Vanyel!"



The river pummelled him from the inside. He tried to breathe through a throat stuffed with weeds and stones and water - tried to move as the current held him down. He couldn't move, and terror overtook him - spines under his ribs, wounds tearing open. Something outside connected - hands, a voice, another person who had to run before they were drowned or devoured, and he tried to move but he was inert, driftwood, splintering as it tore through him -

:Vanyel!:

And he was awake. Gasping, but awake. "Van," and his ears were ringing and thick with water. Words inside and outside. He felt like a tiny thunderbolt had rattled through his mind - Yfandes's last-ditch effort to wake him from his nightmare. He tried to make sense of Tantras's fuzzy words. "Try not to move too much - Healer's orders - think at me if you have to -"

Vanyel choked, and Tantras shoved a cup gracelessly to his lips. He tried to grasp it, and tilted half its contents over his chin, but the rest helped a little. He risked opening his eyes - it was too bright, but it was good to see Tantras's face, on the edge of rare exasperation. Few besides himself had extracted that particular expression from his old friend.

He tried to take stock of himself. Someone had definitely done their best to make him comfortable; he was in a real bed, and wearing a loose linen nightshirt that might belong to Tantras. With blurred vision, he saw what looked like Tran's packs tossed into a corner. Bright daylight covered the stone walls with the shadows of rooftops - must be Tran's room above the gatehouse.

"Nightmare?" Tran asked. Vanyel nodded weakly. "Gods, Van. Not surprised, after..." and he shook his head. "What happened out there? I only know what Delian heard from Yfandes," and his eyes widened.

"A trap," he croaked, and abandoned speaking. :The whole thing was a trap,: he explained. :It was planted in the Rockharbour, waiting for someone to use magic on the Culway - first Harri, and then me.:

"What was it? A demon?" Tantras asked.

:No, a construct - a mage-made thing,: he explained. This didn't alleviate Tantras's panicked expression, nor should it. :Whoever made that and set it...I'm not looking forward to finding out what else they can do.:

"But you're going to," Tran observed.

"You know me," he replied, clearing his throat. "Harri must have been right. The Cejans really were entertaining a blood mage - willingly or otherwise."

"That's just what we need. Where are they now?" Tantras asked, eyes narrowed.

"If I knew, I wouldn't be sitting here," and Tantras glared at him sternly. "I can't rest for long," Vanyel insisted. "And I've a feeling..." Tantras's eyes pressed him, and he tried to recall that sensation - a power that went hither-tither beyond the night, wings beating against void. "I might have felt it before." He shook his head, and even that motion tugged at the complex of bandages growing on his torso. "Gods, what did it do to me?"

"Tried to cut you in two, so I'm told. Took a slice below the ribs. I carried you back here and requisitioned the Lord Mayor's household healer to set you to rights."

"Thank you," he murmured, weak but sincere. He could feel the Healing energy knitting his wounds whole - and he could tell he'd been lucky this time.

Tantras shook his head. "We could stop meeting like this," he suggested.

"You prefer prisons to sickbeds, then?" Speaking hurt only a little now. Less so than silence.

Tantras sighed - it was a poor joke, with worse timing. About what he was accustomed to from Vanyel. "You scared me," he admitted. "I'd like to never drop you on a Healer's doorstep in the nick of time ever again." He arched one eyebrow thoughtfully. "That healer may have asked if you were collecting fancy-looking scars from wounds that didn't kill you."

He groaned. "You know I don't mean to."

"And I told her that. That you don't mean to," Tantras assured him, will great levity. "But the way your life goes, every scar's another insufferable song -"

"Oh gods, Stefen," and Vanyel sat bolt upright, instantly regretting it as pain sawed through him. "I saw him -"

Tantras sighed, evidently unsurprised at the change of subject. "I know. I spoke to him last night. Not sure where he's been since, though. I called at his home this morning - spoke to a Cejan girl who said he wasn't there." Vanyel lay back down slowly, hoping Tantras wasn't trying too hard to read him. "He surprised me," and Tantras sounded a little dazed.

"How?"

"He lied to me so fervently that I almost believed him - he swore up and down that you were his oldest friend, worse for drink and just needing helped back to your home on Masonway, nothing wrong or unlawful and definitely not whoever I was looking for. I thought I was going mad. That was his Gift at work? I didn't know a Bard could do that. If he's that powerful..."

A shiver ran through him at the thought of it. Not the power - not that alone - but that Stefen had used it for him. "He saw me use magic," he whispered. And still he faced down Tran for me? Because he thought Tran was going to - to take me and sell me -?

Tantras nodded. "He must have seen something. He knew that Valdir was - not all he seemed. But he was still quite intent on keeping you out of the hands of the law," and Tantras smiled with wondering amusement.

You have no idea why - and Vanyel found he hadn't strength nor heart to explain how entirely unamusing Stefen's motivations were. His last strength was knit into his mindshields; Tran would, at least, be spared Vanyel's feelings on the matter. "He fled, then?" he asked.

"I convinced him we would see you right. 'Fandes found her way down a tow path and got him to lay off - no arguing with her when she's eyeballing you. I did my sorry best to explain everything."

"You told him who I am."

"He hadn't left me much of a choice," replied Tantras, seeming perplexed by Vanyel's rising horror. "I told him you'd had to disguise yourself to find Harri - and I thanked him for all he'd done to help us in that regard. Van?" and he reached a hand to Vanyel's shoulder. "Van, are you -" His eyes narrowed, and then he looked away, smiling strangely.

Vanyel shied into his pillows, belatedly trying to hide his bruised neck. Damn, damn, damn.

Tran shook his head, blinking at whatever unfathomable thoughts he was harbouring. "I'm no foreseer but I've a funny feeling we'll see Stefen again."

"Like a bad ha'penny?"

"Well, I don't think this town runs on the king's legal tender," Tantras agreed, glancing at Vanyel's neck again with a barely hidden smirk. Vanyel could feel himself blushing, hoped that Tantras would attribute his flushed face to his shaky condition - not likely. Gods, but Tran knows it's been years since... How could I explain to him what happened between Stef and I? How can I even explain it to myself?

Tantras shrugged. "But I'm so sure we'll see more of him. Maybe it's just whatever he did to my mind - part of me still wants to believe that he knew you better than I did. If it was anyone but you, I'd wonder if..." He broke off, staring at Vanyel as if he'd just seen something very odd indeed. "Well, I'll put word out. From all you've said, we might need him."

"Do that," he replied absently. Despair ate at him, toyed with his wounds. It didn't matter what Tantras thought about any of it. Stef won't answer your damned word.



Tran left him to rest, which was the last thing Vanyel was capable of. A swarm of stinging memories drove his thoughts in circles. Mistakes. Stef was right - whatever good came of them, it was my mistakes that led to evil. And it was hard enough to enumerate them. He couldn't undo the lies he'd told, much less the love they'd made.

It was doomed from the first moment. He doesn't even know who I am. Not - as a person. He buried his face in his pillows, feeling guilt and confusion twist inside his body, tugging at his wounds. You can't found trust on a lie. I can't have ruined something that was never even possible. And it wasn't. Ever.

And he shouldn't, couldn't, be hurting this much.

:What's wrong, Van?: Yfandes asked him gently.

He might as well say it - was there anything he held dear that he hadn't betrayed? :I was trying to remember the last time I felt so - so taken with someone. And then I did remember.: Gods, but taken wasn't even the word. Consumed? Oh Lendel, I'm so sorry...

She Sent him something akin to a patient, kind smile. Not a hint of surprise or reproach. :One might wonder what that's worth.:

:Nothing,: he replied. Firmly, hopelessly. :How could it amount to anything? Stef knows 'Valdir' was just another person who betrayed him.: The obsession was smothered in its cradle, bereft of the honesty that Vanyel had always held paramount in his personal relationships. How had he even brought himself to do this?

Because it never felt like we lacked honesty.

Oh, but that was worse. That was madness speaking, low, lulling delusions, seducing Vanyel into believing his own lies. They'd come together so easily - sharing troubles and songs before pleasure - and then I let someone inside me who didn't know my name. That's unforgivable, no matter how else I let him know me. Was that all they'd shared - tokens of themselves? Scrapings from his past, presented in lieu of his real name and real reasons for being there?

He had so many reasons to be angry with himself. That he'd done it. That he'd had to do it. That there had never been a way for him to touch Stefen without violating every principle he held dear - and he'd still done it.

Yfandes nudged at his mind through his reverie. :Be that as it may - he's still profoundly and unusually Gifted. If you believe Gifts appear in Valdemar because we need them...:

And of course his failings had consequences. If Stefen had ever been willing to trust in Heralds, or to honour Valdemar's faraway king, Vanyel's deceptions had put an end to the possibility. :Tantras is trying to find him,: he reminded her stonily. :Maybe if I'm not involved -:

He heard a tap at the window.

Vanyel stood gingerly, and looked out into the sky and the city. He gasped, and the window sprang wide as he was crossing the room to open it; Stefen scrambled up onto the sill, gripping the edge with bare toes. The breeze swept waves of red hair across his face, and he swayed - "For the love of the gods, come inside," Vanyel pleaded, and reached out his arms, guiding Stef inwards.

They stared at each other for long moments. Vanyel dropped his eyes and his hands when he couldn't stand it any more, and found himself watching Stefen's bare, scratched feet flexing against the cold wooden floor. "Figured I should pay a call on you before you went away," he said softly.

"I'm glad to see you again," Vanyel admitted through teeth grit with shame. He watched Stef's right foot curl and uncurl as the silence between them grew hard and tense.

"I'm trying to put you together," Stefen continued. "I knew all those songs...and then I thought I knew you. You're different," he noted. Vanyel didn't doubt it. Valdir had many things he lacked - fears and humilities, desperation enough to stifle his conscience. "I got a rule," Stef said, voice shaking. "No one owns me. No one keeps me, no one plays me."

"I'm so sorry - truly. If I could have told you," he began, but that wasn't true and he couldn't lie to Stefen any more. "No. If I'd been - myself - with you, I could never have been with you at all. It's not you -" he added hastily at the flash of hurt in Stef's eyes. "But I would never have dared. I wasn't lying when I told you it had been a very long time." He looked at Stefen again, no longer sure which of them was more confused.

Stefen shook his head, shaking chaotic hair out of his face. "We both do what we had to, right? Roll of the dice?" he sighed, doubt and regret shading his eyes. "You're really Vanyel," and Van only nodded. "Gods damned, what's happened to me? If I knew what were real," and he covered his face with his hands. "I got no heart for this. Didn't even know what I were feeling - I never felt this way with someone. Only time it wasn't easy to get gone after," and his words faltered. "It's goodbye, then? You up and leave on your white horse, and I stay here in this dump saddled with a rep for palling with the law, no hard feelings either side?" The facaetious words wavered like a drunken fiddler.

Vanyel bit his lip. "I was going to ask Herald Tantras to put this to you - I thought you'd not hear it from me. Valdemar can't ignore you any longer."

Stefen stared at him suspiciously. "The hells you mean?"

"I mean we need you. What you can do to people with your song - it's the Gift that the Bards of Valdemar have, and you use it as well as any Master Bard I ever heard. And you can sing pain away - I've never heard of anyone who can do that. Stef," and Stefen shook his head, dazed and wary. "Did you know King Randale has been ill?"

"Heard some road talk of it."

"He's been in pain for years now, and every Healer in Haven's failed to bring him relief. You just might be the one person who can help him."

Stefen gasped at him, and then laughed in derision. "You want me in your royal court? I don't even read."

"I know how quick your mind is," Van assured him. "There's nothing you'd need to know that I wouldn't trust you to learn. And I swear you'd be safe there." Stef watched him, still in shock, but Vanyel could see his innate calculation getting to work. Gods, if he agrees to come with me I don't even know what I'll do. What I'd tell Randi. Or Breda. Or my parents, gods spare me. But leaving him here would be like leaving a diamond in a rat's-nest even if I didn't love him.

The admission cast out all other thoughts he might have had. His feelings were undeniable, and completely untenable - he couldn't, mustn't, say it. It would only sound like a further deception, an act of emotional blackmail.

Their eyes met. He could keep silence, yes, but he couldn't keep his feelings from showing, not now. It was as if he saw his own reflection in Stefen's gaze - he who days ago, Stef hadn't even been sure was real, a name from fantasy put to the face of his anonymous lover. Behind Stef's suspicion, he saw a light growing his eyes. "If you need time to think on it -" he tried.

Stef shook his head. "What are my options, really? Go west while going's good, or sit here counting coppers and covering my marks until someone gets bored of my truce and knifes me? That's if we've got much longer before Loa turns on her father and sends us all downriver."

Vanyel tried to still his nerves at Stefen's considerations. "I don't like to think of Cul Aber without you," he wondered.

"That's a damn good reason to not think of it at all," Stefen told him. "This ain't Ceejay, where each man has his place in the heavenly array," he sniffed. "River flows on with or without me. I either got to spend every day of the rest of my life thinking on what might have happened if I followed you - or I can follow you." He held Vanyel's eyes, deeply thoughtful, full of possibility and worry. "What's your stake? You take me to your king," and Stef looked away in trepidation. "You even want to be seen with the likes of me?"

Van sighed. "Gods, I wish it was that easy. I should be honoured to be seen with someone as - courageous and brilliant and beautiful as you." Stef's eyes widened. "But I told you, I would never have dared. Anyone who's seen close to me could be attacked by my enemies - and I want you to be safe more than anything. And as far as the Court's concerned, I don't know what repercussions I might get for just - being myself. I've never lied about being shaych," he tried to explain. "It's years since I was last seen with anyone. I've let them think I'm an unfeeling statue," he added bitterly.

"But you're not," Stef said softly. "I understand. It were like that here before truce, you know? Yorann still don't tell no one who's his sons or his favourites. But I rather take my chance and have a life than do naught and have none."

Vanyel nodded slowly. "If the palace is a pit full of warring vipers - that's exactly what you're used to dealing with, isn't it? I trust you," he said again, amazed at himself. "You're used to making a stir without ruffling a feather, and keeping what's yours to yourself."

"I am," Stef nodded. "You thought it all out, then? How this is going to go?"

"No," he avowed. "I didn't dream you'd give me another chance. But I meant what I said - Valdemar needs you. That means I have to find a way." He'd spent most of his life putting Valdemar first, fitting his own needs in here and there, somewhere far behind. Would Stefen ever understand that?

"Suppose we began again, for true? Just like I never saw you before." Van nodded in relief, and Stefen offered his arms as if in greeting. "I'm Stefen. Trucemaker, singer, former vagrant and slave. Pleased to meet you."

Vanyel took his arms, and felt him tremble. This is more of himself than he ever offers anyone. More truth, more trust. I swear to honour that. "And I you," he responded. "Vanyel Ashkevron, First Herald-Mage of Valdemar - known by a few other titles." He saw Stef's lips move, mouthing a few of them in incredulity. "Would you travel west with me?"

"It'll cost you," and Van could only grin back at him, though now he was trembling too. Good gods, this is happening. I think Breda will decide this is madness. I also think she'll back Stef to the hilt.

"Your price?" he asked lightly.

"You tell me all about you again - but no leaving parts out this time."

"Hard bargain," he mused, and squeezed Stef's hands. "I will if you do the same."

"Aye. And you still play for me sometimes."

"As long as you sing for me," he pledged, and Stef leaned close to kiss him, murmuring his name.

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