“Where are you going?” Uveis called after her as she swept towards the front of the War Hall.
She turned and stared at him, feeling a sense of urgency thrum against her muscles like the insistent waves of the Uthiel Sea that battered against the eastern shores of Anglë World. Her eyes went to the two-way mirrors she had dropped on the dark oak table: one still in an open call to Thayne’s where it had been dropped and abandoned in the sands of the training field, the other dark and full of cracked glass.
She could still hear the way Relyt’s voice broke when he heard Rhyshladlyn speak, when he realized the Qishir was alive. She could still hear the sound of Azriel choking on his own blood, could still remember the way Anislanzir had grinned and told her, “tick tock, tick tock, better hope little ‘Adlyn runs fast.” They would haunt her dreams for years to come.
“I am leaving for Shiran City immediately,” she answered without looking away from those mirrors. “I’ll Gateway into Ryphqi City and then take a horse or a Line, whichever is faster, to get to Shiran.”
She knew the moment that her entire Triad and Sacred Three agreed to stop her. Knew it when the air shifted, when the scent in the room changed, when the feeling of twelve pairs of eyes turning to her at once settled over her skin. Before any of them could speak, a collective breath taken to trip over each other, she held up a hand to silence them.
“I’m going because I started this. This entire thing is my fault. You won’t be able to convince me not to go, so do not bother to try.”
She turned and left with Eiod right on her heels before they could ask anymore questions. Before they could try and talk her out of it. Before the memories of how her failures had led to this could rise up and swallow her whole.
She stood staring through the window of her rented room at the Watchtower that stood alone in the center of the City’s main square, the sleek surface lined with golden veins that pulsed in time to a heartbeat she couldn’t hear. This Tower wasn’t glowing brilliantly like the ones in Zhalharaq but she assumed that was due in part to the the fact that this City had no tie to the first Greywalker Qishir born to the Worlds in ten millennia. Well, that, and her theory that the order in which the Cities had fallen during the purge played a part in the the order in which they awoke. Shiran had been last but Zhalharaq had gone just before Shiran had. Ryphqi had been one of the first to fall, having been so much smaller than its cousins despite its heady power, like a fine whiskey that burned the back of the throat and warmed the entire body before it had even fully settled in one’s stomach. But not even its incredible power could save it when its Qishir had died trying to defend the gates from raiders that had no tie to her predecessor’s army; especially when that army moved on it before the mourning period had concluded, before the Qishir’s heir could take over. There was several speculations by historians as to why Shiran was the last to fall when it was one of the weakest and was so close to Ryphqi, but she doubted any of them came close to the truth.
None could prove their theories, however, because there was no lore to consult, no research libraries to visit, no records to study. Just the history of how the Cities had been erected and then felled one by one, how those that still stood were the ones their creators hadn’t had time to dismantle before their Dhaoinic cousins ran them out, killed them off, and then bastardized their Sanctuaries before the blood mist had had time to settle.
And that history was piecemeal at best, non-existent at worst. It would not help her or the Greywalker Qishir she was attempting to make amends to so she hadn’t even bothered to pay it any mind.
The only history about the Sanctuary Cities that she had paid attention to was making manners at the Watchtowers. So when she had first arrived in Ryphqi she had reached out and brushed her hand against the only one left visible in Ryphqi City, and sighed when she felt the City’s awareness press against her, desperate for a Qishir to tether to, desperate for a Court to bring it back to its former glory. Had felt her heart break at its begging whine that she tether it, that she and the full Court at her back become the Qishir and Court that gave it purpose again.
Because it was dying, slowly but surely, with each century that passed without a tether point, without a Court. But it was populated by Demons and ruled by Sinners and that bitter race didn’t believe in bowing to anyone but their Lord King. Even when he’s a fucking lunatic. So it was unlikely that Ryphqi would ever see a Qishir that was powerful enough, aware enough, to tether to it and give it the hope for survival it had long since lost. A hope she couldn’t restore to it, no matter how much she wished otherwise, because she was not a Walker, wasn’t even of one of the Anglë bloodlines rumored to descend from them, so even if she wanted to tether to it, she couldn’t. The magick of Ryphqi would kill her or she would kill it; for only a Greywalker Qishir could truly tether to one of the Cities. For nothing short of the balance that only that race possessed could handle that kind of power.
Would that I could save you, Ryphqi, but I can’t. I’m sorry.
Turning she smiled at Eiod who stood just inside the door dressed in all black rather than the livery of her Court and House. His black hair was pulled back into a long braid that started at his hair line, looped back over his head, and hung down his back to rest between his shoulders, gold eyes intent and seeing everything even if they never left her. Dressed in that manner he looked more Sinner than Anglëtinean and she realized belatedly that that was why he had done it. It wasn’t often that she was reminded that he was half Sinner, though not of the noble bloodline like Rhyshladlyn and his siblings but still high enough that the regality of the noble classes showed in his softly tanned face and height. High enough that it was likely why his eyes were more gold than amber, a trait that was predominately seen in the Sinner race’s nobility, the clearer the gold, the higher on the noble ladder the Dhaoine was.
But his mother had been a lower ranking female from one of the Thirteen Families of the Race and because of that, his appearance leaned more heavily towards her side than his father’s and was likely the only reason he had survived the slavers initial inspection when it had come out that his mother had begot a child on someone outside of the Race. Because if he didn’t look more Anglëtinean than Sinner, the slavers would have killed him immediately. But looking at him dressed like that? She was confused as to how he ever passed for Anglëtinean at all.
Seeing Eiod dressed in near traditional Sinner garb she was glad she had left her Court at home; none of them could be inconspicuous and with them, she’d have never gotten anywhere for the attention they’d have drawn would have been ridiculous. Never mind that Eiod, for all that he looked delicate and flouncy, was just as deadly as her Companion and Warrior combined. After all, one did not survive the Anglëtinean slavers auction blocks as a disowned mixed breed by looks alone.
Plus she had shifted forms and was walking around as a more masculine-leaning neodrach versus her more recognizable female side that she preferred. It was the perfect way for her to travel incognito. Perfect enough that Eiod had drawn on her when he’d walked into their lodgings earlier to find her standing where his Qishir had been. Though she hadn’t blamed him for it because in all the time they had known each other, she had never shown him or her Court any form besides her female one despite the fact that they all knew she was a neodrach.
“Everything is ready. I’ve also brought the clothes you requested,” he said with a bow and a sheepish smile that was a continuation of his profuse apologies for earlier when he’d pointed steel at her. It had taken nearly two hours to calm him down and convince him that she wasn’t going to take his life as punishment, even if she was well within her rights to do so. It hadn’t helped that she’d been near tears with laughter that she had only just managed to keep down while attempting to console him.
“Thank you, Eiod,” she replied, holding her hands out for the neatly folded stack of clothes. Turning to set it on the chair next to the full length mirror she’d been standing in front of when he’d entered she reached behind her to begin undoing the laces of the corset of her dress.
“Here, my Lady, allow me,” Eiod murmured and stepped up, moving her hands away before his deft fingers loosened the laces in record time, allowing her to take a deeper breath with each inch that was loosened. He gently set it at his feet off to the side once he had removed the laces, his hands returning to undo the hooks on the back of her dress.
It wasn’t nearly the first time that he had removed her dress for her, both for practical reasons and much more personal ones, but this time felt different. It felt… final. She watched as a face that she hadn’t seen since she was barely of majority frowned back at her from the mirror, attention drawn to her right eye that glinted with a sheen of gold when the light caught it just right. Before she could fully focus on that, not remembering if it had always been that way or if that was something new, Eiod spoke again.
“I had the Ilzuhdae Line cleared for us. We’ll be the only ones on it straight from here to Shiran City. I’d have cleared a faster Line, but that is the only one that runs directly over Shiran City. The rest pass within a few leagues in either direction and it seemed ill advised to drop into the middle of an army or to waste further time having to travel several more leagues on foot.”
“Ilzhudae Line will suffice, Eiod. Did you contact Kírtlaq?” She shivered as the silk slithered down her body baring a chest with small, high breasts and hips wrapped in black silk underclothes as she stepped out of the pile it made at her feet so Eiod could move it to the side.
It was disconcerting at the very least to see a body bereft of the soft pubic mound that sloped down to her sex, bereft of the ample breasts that had always drawn the attention of males, females, and neodrachs alike. Sure the muscle definition in her arms and stomach and legs were still there, were still the same, but her face was sharper, more ruggedly defined with a stronger jaw and chin. Her hands looked more deadly than delicate. This was her body still, this was still her, but now she looked more like the brother she had abandoned than the female she had fought so hard to become. Now she looked like one of the sides of herself she had worked to keep out of public.
“You are still beautiful, my Qishir,” Eiod murmured seeming to read her mind like he always did with just a look. He pressed a quick kiss to her shoulder as he leaned around her to grab up the thin, cotton, long sleeved tunic at the top of the folded clothes pile, hooking a foot around a leg of the chair and pulling it closer.
“And yes, I reached your Companion. He and the others are still most distressed,” he rolled his eyes and she snorted, “that you ordered them to remain home whilst only I accompanied you. But I reminded them you are a neodrach and thus have three forms to take. They quieted down significantly after that,” he huffed as he shook out the shirt. “I also reminded them that you are not called the Crimson Qishir for no reason and that you are a powerful Anglëtinean warrior who has 25 notches on your back to attest to that,” as he spoke of her notches, his fingers gently trailed over them before disappearing.
“Sometimes I wonder if they forget that my gender holds far more sway in the Worlds than theirs,” she muttered testily at hearing that they listened to her male personal servant than her. But she lived as a female and while females generally were often highly revered, neodrachs tended to supersede females in that regard.
“It is likely, my Qishir,” Eiod murmured in response, voice soft and full of apologies he wouldn’t speak because he knew she would shoot them down. He did not need to apologize for the actions of others.
She pressed her lips tightly together, trying to ignore the darkening spiral of her thoughts as Eiod stepped onto a stool he called in to be taller than her so he could slip the tunic down her arms as she stretched them above her head. Vanishing out the stool, he smoothed his hands down her back, making sure the it lay perfectly, fingertips ghosting along the hem where it rested on the curve of her buttocks. She chuckled, knowing by the cheeky smile he tossed her way in the mirror that he had done it for that reaction though there was a soft heat in his eyes that told her if she wanted more before he got her fully clothed, then she need only say the word.
But she wouldn’t. Not right now, even though she wasn’t opposed to the idea. Even though it would help tremendously in improving her mood, in easing some of the anxiety making intricate knots in her stomach and chest.
“Eiod,” she lifted her hands to tug at the front of the tunic, staring at it while she worked up the courage to speak after his only slightly distracted sound of attention while he worked swiftly at braiding her hair. “Would you still wish for my body were it male?”
She didn’t need to be looking at him to catch the way his head snapped up and his eyes searched for hers in the mirror but she wouldn’t look at him. Couldn’t risk that what she’d see there was rejection.
She missed her other forms, especially her male form, but since becoming the Eighth Qishir, it was expected that she exist as either female or androgyne. When her mate, and later on her Companion, had expressed dislike for any form but her female one, she had become locked in it. The idea alone that she had those forms had been more than enough to disgust them and she hadn’t wanted to lose them over it. So she had dealt with taking her male and androgyne forms in secret, in absolute privacy, eventually becoming too afraid of being caught doing it that she had suppressed her other forms and lived strictly as a female.
Her mate had only felt her male form when she’d begotten their children on em, but ey had never seen it or interacted with it. Her mate had only tolerated it because they had found that her female form could not get pregnant but eirs could, and heirs were required of them both. And Kírtlaq refused to have anything to do with her male form, or even her androgyne one, expressing once that he was glad she’d already begotten heirs so he did not have to see her take a female-formed neodrach or female to beget them. After waking one night in her male form, she had fled to the bathroom before Kírtlaq had woken and then made him sleep in a separate set of rooms rather than risk it happening again.
Neodrachs, while they generally chose to live as one form the majority of the time versus another, still had to shift through their forms for health reasons. Most would do so while they slept, spending a few hours each night in one form and then waking in the form they preferred. But she had had to be careful not to do that when her mate had still been alive and had ordered that Kírtlaq sleep in a separate set of rooms because she had woken up one night in her male form and had scrambled to vacate the bed and the room before her Companion awoke and found her like that. And the fear of his reaction should it happen again was too much to handle and she had kicked him to a different bed rather than risk it. So she hadn’t shifted for several centuries and it was starting to wear on her.
“Lulphé,” Eiod’s voice was right in front of her and she jumped, so lost in thought that she hadn’t heard or felt him move. He had to have been calling for her attention for some time if he had defaulted to her name. His hands cupped her cheeks and lifted her head until she met his gold eyes that were filled with warmth and understanding. “I am attracted to you, my dearest Qishir, not the body that acts as your house. Whether you have a pussy or a dick or some mixture — or lack — of either, I care not. It is the Self that powers this glorious body of yours that I fell for, not the body. Though,” he grinned lasciviously at her, eyes looking her up and down, “the body is a definite perk.”
With a giggle she swatted at his hip and he laughed with her but his face quickly took on a seriousness she rarely saw from him. He had been the perfect addition to her Court: a trained courtier who had knowledge in all trades, especially Court espionage and fleshly pleasures. But his best skill was dispelling tensions with a breath of levity. He hid in plain sight, seeming to be easily startled, mousy almost, when in reality he was far from either of those. Finding him and saving him had been a gift from the gods that she still wasn’t sure she deserved.
He was the only one in her life besides her brother, and now her eldest child, to call her by her given name and not her title or a variation of her title. Though he only ever did so in private, he still did it. He had earned the right swiftly and had more than proven himself worthy of it. Not even her mate had called her by her name, even in the throws of passion. So when Eiod had let it slip the very first time, turning eyes gone wide in a face gone pale as bone, she had laughed and kissed him soundly. He had always spoken his mind and the truth in equal measure, even when doing so could, would, put him in danger. In a Court like hers, it had been a breath of fresh air. He was the only person she trusted not to lie, not to tell half truths, not to speak truth while plotting betrayals.
“Never doubt my love of you, Lulphé,” Eiod raised his eyebrows at her as he spoke and she swallowed around a lump that had formed in her throat at hearing him speak it so blatantly. It was something they had tiptoed around for centuries, the emotion obvious and known but neither had said it out loud. The last person she had ever spoken it to had died and with the loss of em, she had sworn never to speak those words again, even if she did mean them.
Especially when she had come to realize that he was the first one since her mate’s death that she even wanted to speak them to.
She nodded and closed her eyes, leaning into the touch of his hands on her face before she tapped her fingers against his hip in an unspoken order to get back to helping her change.
“As you wish,” his voice was soft as he let her go and moved to grab up the black vest, holding it up so she could slip first one arm then the other through as he moved around behind her, making sure it settled properly. Then he was in front of her, buttoning the front and gently smoothing it down over the tunic.
Putting on the leather breeches and boots and tucking in the tunic and front tails of the vest went by quickly and quietly but the silence was thick with things unsaid. Things she wanted to say, needed to say, but couldn’t bring herself to say.
This moment, him dressing her with the ease of practice, gold eyes intent as he looked her over to make sure he hadn’t missed anything, that heat from earlier banked but not gone, still felt so incredibly final. It made her skin crawl and her stomach twist. She didn’t like it but she didn’t know why it felt this way, only that it did. And until she knew what that why was she couldn’t change it. But she was afraid to find it, was afraid to search, because the last time she had… She swiftly shook the thought away.
“There you are,” Eiod said with a wide grin over her shoulder when her eyes met his in the mirror, his hands curled loosely around her hips, body pressed against the back of hers, a single line of muscled strength. If she leaned back against him for support, for the feeling of safety he brought her, no one would know and he wasn’t going to tell them or judge her for it. “Is it wrong that I want to take you back out of these clothes? To wrap this braid around my hand as I take you from behind?” His hand lifted and swatted at the braid that hung over her right shoulder, his voice dropping to a sultry rumble that made her shiver, her body responding immediately.
She laughed despite her dark thoughts and her worries. Laughed because he was serious, laughed because she wanted him so badly. Laughed because while he was serious, he had intended for his words to make her laugh.
“Wrong, no. However, we haven’t the time, Eiod, though I wish we did.”
He snapped his fingers with a pout that she wanted to kiss off his face as he stepped away and let her turn to face him, his hands coming to rest on her hips, thumbs swiping over her hip bones in an absentminded way that she found endearing. “When we return then.”
“When we return,” she confirmed with a nod, smile slipping from her face as she watched him turn away to gather their things in preparation for leaving.
Why does it feel like I just lied to him?