She stepped inside her rooms and froze at the sight of a figure standing in front of the floor to ceiling windows that made up the far wall. But she didn’t raise the alarm, didn’t draw her steel, because she knew who it was before his magickal signature even registered. Knew it without him turning around to face her by the swirls and dots and filigree and knotwork inked in the color of orange-amber that glowed against the backdrop of his pale skin.
He stood with his back to her, hands clasped behind him, forearms bare so that those tattoos were always visible. That wasn’t the only part of him they covered, but rather the most noticeable besides his face. She’d never forget the day he’d had them done, would never forget how he’d held still and grief-quiet while each section was pierced deep beneath his skin, as each line was woven with magick. It had taken three days nonstop to finish them all but he had refused to take a break. He hadn’t complained, hadn’t made a sound, hadn’t asked for water or a break. Just laid there and accepted the pain of it, as though it was a cathartic release. And perhaps it had been given what those marks represented. Given what loss they signified for the entire Seven Worlds to see.
Not that she blamed him. Not that she thought less of him for it. No one with half a functioning brain cell did.
“I take it you’ve still found no trace of him,” she commented as she closed the door and unhooked her cloak. She tossed it over the back of one of the chairs near the hearth.
He turned around then and she fought the gasp that always clogged her throat at the sight of those tattoos framing his mismatched eyes, making them all the more intense than before. His fringe fell in curling wisps along his temples, the rest pulled back into a low tail at his nape, the blackness of it reflecting the firelight in a way that made them look like a dark crimson rather than the true black that it was. What she had thought was a quarter-sleeved tunic was really a long vest that left the tattoos that danced and ducked and twirled down his chest and abdomen visible. His leather breeches looked painted on, dyed a black that matched his open vest, and rode low on his hips to show that those tattoos disappeared beneath them. What could be seen of his lower legs and feet showed that those marks hadn’t stopped at his legs.
He stood there dressed for the hotter days of summer, dressed so that every available inch of his inked skin that could be bared without risking his health was. He stood there silhouetted against the backdrop of the snow falling in heavy, thick flakes on the other side of the window and looked utterly at ease, as though the cold that permeated the Palace didn’t touch him. And perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps facing off against several feet high snow drifts, that were rapidly growing taller as the night hours passed, bare foot and with only enough clothing to keep the important bits covered was far easier to do than to face the loss they’d all suffered. A loss that had hit him the most.
A loss that was all the more obvious with him standing there against the snowy night, with the firelight painting him in shadows that played tag with his tattoos. Seeing him standing in her rooms, tonight of all nights, made her shiver. He’d always been powerful but it wasn’t until he’d gotten those tattoos that his power had become a touchable thing. An undercurrent that teased at the edges of one’s senses until one caught sight of him and then it was like a bolt of lightning to the heart. It wasn’t until he had walked into the Main Hall of the Eighth Palace and bent knee before her and the Eighth Court dressed much like he was right then, those glowing beautiful marks visible, that she had understood why he was still called the Grey Companion. Why, even though their Qishir was lost, he was still given the honor of retaining his title.
That and no one was going to challenge him for the right to keep it.
“No,” Worlds were birthed and killed in that simple word. He spoke it like it was two syllables, his native accent thicker than she ever remembered it being. He didn’t elaborate but she didn’t need him to. They both knew who she’d meant and what his continued absent signified.
Even after three centuries he hadn’t given up searching despite how he still couldn’t say Rhyshladlyn’s name.
“I’ll give up when I find proof he is truly in the After. Until that moment, I will not stop searching.”
“But you bring other news?” She made it a question as she crossed the room and sat down near the fire, snapping her fingers to call up a plate of bread and cheese from the kitchen as well as two mugs of fine Anglëtinean wine kept on tap just for his visits. Setting it on the low table in front of her, she plucked a few pieces of bread and cheese off the tray, studiously acting as though she wasn’t intently listening to the soft sounds of his bare feet walking across the thick carpet. But as soon as he was in eyesight, she tracked him as he walked to the other side of the table and sat down on the couch opposite her.
He plucked two bread pieces and some cheese off the tray, making a sandwich with deft, quick movements before he took a bite. With a contented hum, he dipped the remainder in his wine before he ate the rest. She smiled fondly at the Anglëtinean custom of breaking bread. He only ever took the time to observe the Race’s customs when it wasn’t urgent. Though to be fair he’d only started really observing those customs when Rhyshladlyn disappeared and everything went to shit.
“Xitlali’s pulled back all of her forces from Imèn World’s borders.”
She blinked at him, frowning because not even her scouts knew that information. No one in the Grey Army who was still posted at the border waiting for Xitlali to make a move had told her. She frowned harder when it registered that Uncle had been able to gather information not even the warriors trained for just that could. When he smirked around a sip of wine she knew he was enjoying her response. Part of her wanted to be mad at him for it but if this was the only way he found joy, so be it. It was better than nothing.
“The fuck for? She’s been after Imèn for the last two centuries there’s no reason for her to just suddenly give that up.”
“Nothing living at least,” he countered and she swallowed thickly before taking a large sip of wine.
“Also how did you manage to get this information when no one else has?” she asked, focusing on something other than the fact that he’d come closer to saying Rhyshladlyn was gone than he had in centuries.
He shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine, Thay.”
He leaned back on the couch, looking relaxed as he stretched his legs out and crossed his ankles. But she knew better. Could see the tension that flicked at the corners of his eyes. Could tell that there was something else in the way that Malkuth wasn’t around his neck like the Other usually was, in the way the carved muscles of his chest and abdomen twitched like he was ready to bolt at a second’s notice. She had spent a few thousand years at this point watching him, learning his expressions both macro and micro and everywhere in between and right that moment he was unreadable. And in all the years she’d known him, he’d only been unreadable when whatever came out of his mouth next was far from pleasant.
She really didn’t want to know. Really didn’t want to ask but knew she had to. Because the war was finally, finally, winding down. She’d spoke the Blessing to Alaïs who had Accepted it and together they’d merged the Ancients, Anglëtineans, and Sinner Demons into a peaceful accord. The only faction of races left holding out for a victory for the old Eighth Army that her little sister had led were those who had sworn themselves to the Anointed One and Xitlali, those who called themselves the Mad Ones in honor of the Mad Qishir. After nearly two and a half centuries of having the major players in the Worlds War taken off the playing field, the Mad Ones still sought to unravel everything.
And that wasn’t even touching on how the Worlds themselves were shaky at best with the loss of the only Dhaoine capable of keeping them Balanced.
It cannot be worse than hearing him say that Rhyshladlyn is gone, than hearing Relyt say he was dead.
“There’s something else isn’t there.” It wasn’t a question but he answered it anyway.
“Shiran’s Watchtowers have begun to glow.”
She cursed and was on her feet before she had even formed the thought to move. Was at the door to her rooms and throwing it open before she could blink. Uncle’s soft laughter made her teeth itch as she hollered so the entire Palace could hear, “Alaïs! Rooms! Now!”
She didn’t bother closing the door before turning back to where Uncle still sat in the same position she’d left him in, one hand holding his mug of wine halfway to his mouth. Smugness fell off him in waves that made the air shimmer around him. Made the outlines of where his wings were tucked out of the visible spectrum obvious, like desert mirages.
“Ask me how long ago it happened,” his voice was soft, gentler than she’d heard it in three hundred years and it made her skin crawl. There was a hope to the undulations of it that gave her pause, that made her want to cross the room and shake him even though she knew doing so would get her nowhere. Though High Ones only knew it’d make her feel better.
“How long?” Alaïs asked as the Sinner appeared with a soft pop of displaced air and wrapped an arm around her waist.
Azriel turned and showed them his red eye, lips twisted in a half smile that was so much like Rhyshladlyn’s that she and Alaïs both hissed.
“Five hours ago.”
Beside her Alaïs snarled in Sinxhët and disappeared again as she whispered a prayer to the High Ones for the first time since she had watched Azriel’s qahllyn’qir hit the visible spectrum and then snap out of existence.
“You’re certain?” She took a slow step towards him, mindful of the shift in his demeanor as she did so. Mindful of the way his energy changed, like he was curling in on himself without ever having moved. It was something she’d seen Rhyshladlyn do countless times but had never thought she’d ever see Uncle do it. “You’re absolutely certain?”
He turned away from her, looking back in the direction of the window at the falling snow. When he nodded she felt her stomach leap into her throat.
“I was there when it happened.”
Her stomach dropped out and her heart skipped several beats. She scrambled to grab for the back of a nearby chair to keep from falling to the floor as hope bloomed white hot and searing in her chest. As it clogged her throat and shook her vision.
Because the only reason Shiran City’s Watchtowers would start to glow again was if Rhyshladlyn was alive.