He had seen a lot of things in his lifetime: a darkness that moved like a flesh and blood Dhaoine, that breathed and acted like no absence of light should; death and bloodshed on a level that went beyond what even the Old Stories contained; horrors that the word “nightmare” didn’t even come close to adequately describing; acts of selflessness that stole his breath and gave him hope for the future generations once the war ended; love that seemed to transcend time; happiness that didn’t just seem out of place in the midst of a war of this magnitude but also seemed impossible yet wasn’t.
Had encountered a Healing Curse, had broken it, and felt the Dhaoine to whom it was attached die for the space of two heartbeats before coming back with a force that he hadn’t felt since. Had watched an Other bring someone back from certain death. Had witnessed an Oathing Sacrifice be performed, accepted, and the Qishir survive it.
Had seen the damage dealt by an unstable un-male who had long since lost whatever grasp of sanity he’d had. Had cleaned the broken, barely recognizable body of one of the two males he loved above all others. Had witnessed the Nameless and the Many walk with him as he carried Azriel to the funeral pyre, as he wrapped him in the ceremonial robes of the Grey Soul Healers, as Thayne had tilted her head back and sang the Song of Sorrowful Passing, as Bayls had laid flowers on the Anglëtinean’s chest. Had watched as those who were part of the strongest Court he had ever heard of sank to their knees in the sands of Shiraniqi Desert and sobbed and sang and held each other while two gods stood among them and two others, those who had Touched Azriel, kept the fire burning bright and hot until every piece of the male had been reduced to ash.
Had come to love an adopted child as only a father could, only to have that child taken away from him by the blood parents. Had witnessed the naming of his blooded daughter and son only to watch them die in his arms only a handful of years later. Had killed to defend what remained of his village before any others could die when the raiders came back.
But none of those things prepared him for the look that crossed his Qishir’s face as Rhyshladlyn admitted that he had known Azriel had been reborn a mere fifty years after his passing. That they had found each other on one of the innumerable Fields, pitted together as enemies. That if his Companion hadn’t born the same eyes and wings as he’d had at the time of his death, Rhyshladlyn wouldn’t have believed it was really him, wouldn’t have believed it was possible for the Anglëtinean to take up arms against him. Even though the clear answer was that Azriel must not have known he was fighting against Rhyshladlyn, it had still been so great a shock that the Qishir had been left utterly speechless because their Bond should have prevented Azriel from taking up arms as his enemy.
“Yet he was against me,” Rhyshladlyn murmured, hands curled loosely around the mug of whiskey-spiked coffee on the table before him, eyes staring down at the steaming liquid, his hair-bells silent for once. “We crossed swords, Rel, and I didn’t know what to do in the face of that. Had no idea how to handle it. He wore the livery of my enemy and when I asked, he said he knew me, that he remembered me. But if that was the case why was he fighting against me?”
“He was born to his first race so it’s likely they deceived him,” Relyt replied, tilting his head to the side and smiling gently when the Qishir looked up at him. “You said it yourself, yes? Azriel has been serving in my Corps for the last century and a quarter. He wouldn’t have been accepted if anyone doubted his loyalty to the cause, to you. So that further lends credence to the theory that the Race deceived him into thinking he fought for you. And if he believed that deception? His Bond wouldn’t have risen against him.”
Rhyshladlyn didn’t look convinced. Not that Relyt was entirely surprised. After all, the last half a millennium hadn’t been entirely kind to either of them, let alone the Qishir. It’s one thing to know your Companion died because of you, it’s another to see that same Companion only a few decades later fighting against you. Were it me, I wouldn’t be so easily convinced either.
“How did you not know he was here? Doesn’t every warrior in the Steward Corps get tested by you?” the Qishir countered and Relyt snorted, flapping one hand in a broad gesture at the tent around them and the camp that lay beyond it.
“When would I have had the time?” he retorted with a shake of his head. “While I am the General of the Steward Corps, and yes I try to test and vet every warrior who wishes to join my Corps, I don’t always get the opportunity and end up delegating it to my lieutenants. As it is, I am fresh off a new Field, am on day five of little to no sleep, and find that I am barely holding it together as is. Never mind that I still have to check in with the Healers here, check in with Thayne, and maybe, if I am lucky, get some rest before I join my warriors in the training pits before the next battle hits,” he shrugged. “So it is no surprise that he managed to slip past me. Especially if this is the first time we’ve been in the same camp.”
Rhyshladlyn frowned then, tilting his head to one side. “I thought all of the Steward Corps was in the same camp,” he spoke it like a statement.
“Not anymore. Not after what happened in Ansyen Lontän World,” he answered, taking a gulp of his tea, draining the mug and wishing it were a far stronger drink, wishing he had some g’hitshé root to smoke. The echoes of screams from that disaster rose from the depths of his memories and he beat them back into their boxes as swiftly as possible; it was bad enough they visited him in his sleep, he didn’t want nor need them in his waking hours. “After that battle, I elected it was best to separate the forces. It means that my time is further tugged upon and stretched all the thinner, but I refuse to chance another bloodbath. Not to mention that if I am not needed in any camp, I am at our home where I am more comfortable.”
Rhyshladlyn didn’t say anything but it was clear by the surprise he couldn’t quite hide that he hadn’t known just how much Relyt did for the Army, for anyone really, and how little time he took for himself. But that wasn’t really a shock seeing as Relyt had gone to great lengths to make sure that no one realized just how busy he was.
He didn’t quite regret it, but he wasn’t entirely okay with it either. It was more that that was just how his life was now. And with each new day filled to the brim with things he needed to get done, people he needed to see and warriors and soldiers he needed to train? The less time he had to think about what he lost, what he still stood to lose. The less time he had to contemplate the way the itching of his qahllyn’qir had become less of a nuisance and more of a painful burn that nothing soothed, not even being in Rhyshladlyn’s presence like he was now. The less time he had to think about the crushing loneliness as every member of the Court had someone to pair off with except him as the two he would have turned to for comfort had either been dead or avoiding him.
For long moments neither of them said anything, merely let the silence stretch between them. Relyt wondered at how it didn’t feel more awkward than it did, how it felt just as comfortable as it always had before Shiran City, before Azriel’s death, before the last nearly five hundred years of war. He wanted to fill the quiet of the tent with words, wanted to ask so many questions, but he didn’t dare. Not yet, not right now. He didn’t want to chance that Rhyshladlyn would run off, that he would leave before Relyt could fully grasp that he was here, sitting at his map table, in his tent like nothing had happened, like he hadn’t just spent the last handful of centuries doing everything possible to avoid Relyt. As though he hadn’t just walked in and told him that Azriel was alive and had six Others and that he had known about the Anglëtinean being alive for centuries now.
Wait a fucking minute… he’s known that Azriel was alive this entire time! His attention snapped up from where he’d been staring at the leaves that had stuck to the bottom of his mug and landed on Rhyshladlyn who flinched at whatever look had contorted his features. If the anger swirling hotly in his gut was anything to go by, Relyt doubted highly that whatever expression his face bore was far from pleasant. As that anger festered and spread through his veins, heating his blood and speeding his heart rate as his breathing grew shorter, vision starting to tunnel on the visage of his Qishir, Relyt found he no longer gave half a goat’s bladder if his questions ran Rhyshladlyn off. Not anymore.
“You have known he was reborn this entire time?” Relyt snapped, fighting to keep his hands from squeezing around his mug, knowing that if he didn’t he’d shatter it. “Why did you wait until now to tell me?” When Rhyshladlyn just stared back at him, guilt written clear across his face Relyt hissed, feeling his wings flutter and demand to flare out to visibly show his displeasure and he only just kept them from doing so. “Does anyone else in the Court know?” he demanded, voice low and full of danger that it never had before. A danger, a threat, that he wouldn’t have thought of aiming at his Qishir before the war had drug him beneath its waves, drowned him in sorrow and hatred and pain and fear, and spat him back out on a beach made of the bones of all the Dhaoine he’d killed.
“Thayne knows,” Rhyshladlyn answered after several heartbeats. His reluctance to admit even that much made Relyt want to break things, made him seriously rethink keeping his hands from squeezing hard around his tea mug. “No one else knows that I am aware of.”
“Why does she know?”
“Does it really matter?” Rhyshladlyn asked, sounding not like the four century old Greywalker he was but rather the still maturing fledgling he had met all those centuries ago.
“Yes!” he snapped, voice whip-cracking around them, fluttering the canvas walls of the tent. “Yes, it most certainly matters. Because I am your Steward and she is not. If anyone should have known first after you, it should have been me.”
Rhyshladlyn looked away, the nails of one hand tap-tapping against the side of his mug. Relyt narrowed his eyes at the action, one that was born of nervousness and the type of impatience born of one wanting to be anywhere but where they were. Even more suspicious was the way the Qishir didn’t growl at him for the obvious slight against his honor as a Qishir. But before Relyt had the chance to comment on it, Rhyshladlyn spoke.
“According to her, Azriel sought her out immediately after he’d met me on the Field. Said he wanted to join the Grey Army. He didn’t give a reason,” his voice was small, soft, barely above a whisper. It almost made Relyt regret feeling angry at him. “The only reason she even knows is because he went to her. I told no one but you until now.”
The silence that yawned between them wasn’t comfortable now. It was filled with prickling needlepoints that made his qahllyn’qir hiss at him. Was filled with a thousand things left unsaid, memories and hurts that tore a yawning divide between them. If he didn’t feel so upset at that moment, he would likely be worried they may never recover from it.
“Why didn’t you say anything until now?” he repeated, wishing he didn’t feel this angry, that he didn’t feel this betrayed. Wishing that he didn’t want to hunt down Thayne and smack her for keeping this shit from him as well. Rhyshladlyn was one thing; the Grey Qishir always had a reason for doing or not doing something. But Thayne? She had no excuse. Especially after the Eighth Qishir ad regent was the one who had been there when he had a full breakdown not even a century after Azriel’s passing, when it was clear that Rhyshladlyn wouldn’t be coming home to him any time soon. So she knew how badly he would need to know Azriel had been reborn. And neither she nor Rhyshladlyn had said shit.
There was a heartbeat too long of silence and he slapped his hands down on the map table, making Rhyshladlyn jump and Relyt’s mug topple onto its side and the Qishir’s shake violently enough for some of its contents to spill over the sides.
“Answer me!” he snarled, knowing he should reel it back, knowing he was being disrespectful but by the Many’s ten cocks, he was sick of this.
He had suffered the avoidance, he had suffered the loneliness, in relative quiet. Had accepted it as the norm, figured it was Rhyshladlyn just needing time to grieve, to recover, to search for their shared lover. By the Cliffs, he had understood the need for it, even. But to find out that Thayne had known Azriel was alive? To find out that Rhyshladlyn had known this entire time? Only neither Qishir bothered to tell him? And when he was finally able to get answers, he was still being denied them? No. It was too much.
Rhyshladlyn’s eyes snapped up to his and Relyt fought the urge to lower his gaze, to back down. Fought against the ache in his chest that demanded that he apologize, that he make nice. But he was a General, he was a blooded warrior, he had earned his title and his marks and his position. And by the Many, he was still Rhyshladlyn’s Steward, he was his acting Companion until Azriel took over, yet he was being treated as though he was barely in the Second Circle let alone the Triad. Enough was enough.
“I am still your Qishir, Relyt Greymend, and you had best remember how to properly make manners to me by virtue of my station,” Rhyshladlyn growled, the air in the tent whooshing out around them as the oxygen was slowly sucked out of it. But even with the Greywalker his Qishir had become looking back at him, Relyt wouldn’t back down.
“If you’re going to start snarling at me for not giving you proper manners, perhaps you should take a moment to remember that I am your Steward, that I am your acting Companion,” he bit back.
“How could I have possibly forgotten?” Rhyshladlyn’s voice dripped with anger and a sarcasm that was borderline disdain. It made Relyt’s bones ache but he still wouldn’t let it go, he still wouldn’t back down.
Because while Rhyshladlyn didn’t see anything wrong with what he’d done, Relyt knew that if the situation had been reversed? The excuse he gave for not telling the Qishir would have had to be a doozy otherwise he’d never hear the end of it. He held them all to an incredibly high set of standards but often forgot that to rule over them fairly like he always said he did, it meant he had to meet those same standards.
“Easily it would seem,” he replied, voice flat as the anger went from a raging fire in his blood to a simmer that warmed him but didn’t make him short of breath. “I have tried to be patient, Rhys. The Many knows I have tried. But four hundred years have passed and my qahllyn remains unAnswered, only Accepted, and each day the ache of that grows steadily stronger. Four centuries without more than a mug of tea waiting for me when I wake and the barest hint of your scent fading in the air as I touch the feather you leave behind. I have missed you, I have mourned the loss of Azriel alone for centuries. And here you stand telling me that you have known he was alive this entire time?” He shook his head, one hand raking hard through his hair. “I am owed more than the avoidance and silence that I have received.”
Rhyshladlyn sucked air through his teeth, a sound that made Relyt flinch slightly though he fought the action as best he could.
“I don’t owe you shit, Relyt Greymend.” He knew that tone, knew the danger it warned of, the line that he was perilously close to crossing, if he hadn’t already. But he found that he just didn’t care anymore. He was too old and too tired to care.
Relyt closed his eyes, took a deep breath and let it out slow. Opening his eyes on his exhale he gazed back at the Qishir with a serene expression, one that was all but an outright lie. He didn’t feel nearly as nonchalant as he was pretending to be right then. But by the gods he wasn’t going to sit here and be left out of shit anymore.
“A life debt can never be repaid, Qishir Rhyshladlyn,” he spoke in a whisper but it may as well have been a shout with the way Rhyshladlyn blanched hearing the words. “You owe me everything but I have never asked to collect nor do I intend to. What I will ask, however, is that you treat me with the respect due my station as your Steward, regardless of whether I am Oathed to you or not. That you remember who it was that buried Azriel in the end. That you remember that it is not just you who mourned his loss. So I ask once again: why didn’t you say anything until now?”
Rhyshladlyn just stared at him with an absolute silence that spoke volumes and Relyt sighed again with more force, a sound that was equal parts exasperation and reluctant acceptance. With a wave of his hand, he sent their mugs to the small wash basin near his cot, stood and brushed the wrinkles out of his tunic before heading to the entrance of his tent. If his Qishir wanted to act like a youngling, so be it, but he refused to have his day further disrupted because of it. He refused to sit here and look at the face that had haunted his dreams just as much as Azriel’s had; a face that four centuries ago had looked so much younger, so much more open, but now gazed back at him with a mask he wanted nothing more than to destroy but didn’t know how.
He was nearly to the entrance when Rhyshladlyn called out, voice shaky and filled with an emotion he couldn’t immediately place, “Where are you going?”
“I have duties to attend to,” he answered, tone clipped and dry as he stopped with his hand lifting the flap of his tent, looking over his shoulder at Rhyshladlyn who was staring at the map table as though it contained the answers to life. Only we would fight the first time we spend longer than a handful of seconds near each other. “And if you will not treat me with respect and give me the courtesy of answering my questions, then I will take my leave of y–”
Relyt cut off mid-word as the World heaved beneath him, as pain lanced along every nerve in his body before one long, drawn out note of pain shattered against the air of the camp just as the wards and Shields began to shriek.
Before Rhyshladlyn could say or do anything, Relyt was turning and ducking out of the tent, running towards the center of the camp, towards the pulsing Call he hadn’t felt since he happened to be at the Eighth Palace in Zhalharaq and witnessed an Anglëtinean warrior demanding that Qishir Lulphé send aid to his Qishir back in Shiran City.
He ran as fast as he could, heedless of the shouts around him, heedless of Rhyshladlyn’s voice sounding clear in the din of the hundreds of thousands of Dhaoine that made up the camp. He ignored them all because for the first time in hundreds of years the thunderous Silence where Azriel’s qahllyn had been was gone. And he was terrified that whatever had set the wards and Shields on the camp to shrieking was about to make that Silence return.