“Have you heard the news?”

He looked up from where he’d been sharpening one of his backup knives to see Jerald leaning with his shoulder against the doorjamb, the Alphenian’s brown eyes light enough to be near a chestnut brown versus the freshly turned earth they usually were.

Sitting back in his chair, he set the knife and the whetstone on the table and looked closer at the other male. Saw the stiffness of each minor movement he made from the way he shifted his weight to how his eyes scanned the room before settling back on Eiod. Saw the way he didn’t hide the strength of his body and his magick like he was wont to do while in the Eighth Palace. Saw the way he brushed the fingers of his right hand across the bare skin of his thick left forearm in a nervous tick he’d developed, as though he could feel the qahllyn’qir they both knew he no longer had. Something had happened and it had set Jerald on edge in a way he hadn’t seen since Rhyshladlyn’s disappearance.

And it made him sit up and take notice.

“No, I’ve yet to make my rounds,” he answered at length, taking care to relax every muscle, to look as nonthreatening as he could considering he had naked steel plainly visible on the table, steel he’d been sharpening to a point fine enough to cut through bone easily just moments ago.

Fought to appear as calm and harmless as he could because the Jerald staring at him from across his sitting room wasn’t the Grey Warrior who had watched as the qahllyn’qir he’d only just begun to understand the meaning of were pulled to the surface and then snapped out of existence. This wasn’t the Alphenian warrior who had stood shoulder to shoulder with Azriel on the Fields and tore apart anything and everything that didn’t yield. This wasn’t even the male who had made it his mission to help as many of those who had suffered torture similar to his own recover in the aftermath of the war’s ending, if one can even really call it that. No, this was the Jerald who had been raped and beaten right in front of him; this was the slave who had looked at him with eyes filled with an acceptance Eiod himself had known all too well and whispered a thanks that didn’t need words.

And that more than anything else about his demeanor, told Eiod that he had come straight here, told him that he’d stopped nowhere else between the Dhaoine who’d passed him whatever this news was until he’d gotten to Eiod’s rooms. Knew because of them all, the only one the Alphenian trusted the most was him.

“I trust you because you could have saved Rhyshladlyn, could have gotten him away from that Soul Healer, but instead you got me out. That is a debt I will never be able to repay.”

“Talk to me, Jerry,” he kept his voice just as relaxed and calm as his appearance, used the nickname he’d blurted during one night of cards with the whole Court before Azriel had had one too many snide comments of Relyt’s and punched his fellow qahllynshæ hard enough he’d nearly snapped the Soul Healer’s neck.

The nickname had rolled out just as easily as the one he’d given Lulphé all those centuries ago but this one had come out for a different reason. This one had come out with something closer to friendship, something that Eiod hadn’t known was possible to feel until the moment he’d spoken. It had been spoken then in an effort to make the Alphenian relax, to make him smile and maybe laugh. Had been spoken in an effort to break the tension that clung to the male like a wet blanket.

Gods be thanked it had worked then and it worked now.

Jerald snorted and shook his head before he pushed off the wall and kicked the door gently shut behind him.

Eiod didn’t move, barely blinked. Just stayed still and relaxed with his hands clearly visible, right arm hooked over the back of his chair, fingers idly tapping at the wood of it. He let Jerald guide the conversation, let him decide the pace of it, let him come to the table or go to the window seat or to the bed. Whichever made him more comfortable. If this news had been urgent enough that he hear it immediately one of the others would have beaten the Alphenian here. But they hadn’t so he was in no rush.

Since everything had gone to shit, since the Grey Triad’s qahllyn’qir had bloomed into the visible spectrum and then snapped into nonexistency, he and Jerald had leaned more and more on each other. It wasn’t in the way one would expect of lovers or even a mated pair but calling what they had just friendship wasn’t good enough either. They’d both seen the horrors Xitlali could enact, one as a witness and the other as a victim, and that had created a camaraderie that no one else outside of Xitlali’s Court had. It had bonded them in a way that neither could explain to anyone else in the Grey Court or even in the Honorable Court. Because none of them knew what it was like to be drawn to a Qishir they barely knew and hadn’t had any chance to properly get to know before said Qishir was taken from them. None of them understood what it was like to know one had no one they could trust until they suddenly did.

He expected Jerald to come closer but stay just out of lunging distance, just far enough that Eiod couldn’t reach him with weapons or fists without using his magick to close the distance. But the Alphenian surprised him and pulled out the chair on the opposite side of the table. He raised his eyebrows at the action but wisely kept his mouth shut.

Jerald rubbed at his face with both hands before he pressed them flat to the table as though he needed it to ground him in the present. As though he needed something to hold him up despite being sat in a chair. It didn’t bode well for whatever this news was. Made his instincts stretch and lazily chitter at him, not quite enough to make him want steel on him, but enough to make him more alert than he already was.

This time he frowned at the other male.

“Shiran’s Watchtowers are glowing.”

His curse made them both jump. But he didn’t have time to feel bad about it.

“Where did this information come from?”

Jerald just stared at him and Eiod knew before he even spoke that he really wasn’t going to like the answer.

“Grey Companion Azriel.”

This time when he cursed, Jerald didn’t jump.

“Has he spoken to Thayne and Alaïs yet?” he asked, vanishing out the knife on the table with a careless wave of his hand as he pushed back from the table and stalked over to the standing wardrobe, pulling his tunic and vest off over his head as he did so. “Who told you this news?”

Silence greeted his questions and he took a deep breath, letting it out slow and prayed for patience. His ire wasn’t at Jerald it was at the situation in general. Was at the fact that he was tied to the Court of the Qishir who had killed his beloved, who had wiped her from the face of Existence, and he no longer was mad about being pulled into Rhyshladlyn’s unavoidable orbit. If anything he felt right at home. Which among so many other things was weird all on its own. He was mad that even after the way the Worlds had changed with Rhyshladlyn’s death, loss, disappearance whatever it was, the Grey Court and those in its thrall still weren’t given a break.

Pulling a fresher tunic from a hanger, he turned and met Jerald’s steady gaze bare chested, knowing that the Alphenian would understand the apology in the action. Because his upper body was riddled with scars, many of them old enough to be nothing more than white flickering ghosts on his tanned skin but they were still there. And only another slave, one who hadn’t gone into their loss of freedom willingly, would recognize what those scars were. What they signified. What it cost him, what it meant, for him to show them so blatantly.

He stood still and waited, watching Jerald just as steadily and as carefully as the Alphenian watched him. When he nodded, Eiod did the same and pulled his tunic over his head, tucking it quickly and expertly into his leather breeches before he turned back to grab a vest and swung it on over the tunic. He said nothing else, just went about strapping himself into his persona, the one that Eighth Palace saw whenever he was on the grounds, the one that the Grey Army saw whenever he visited the few Fields and war camps still up as the war was over but not every Dhaoine in the Worlds had gotten that message. He wrapped his cold, emotionless persona around himself like a coat to ward off the winter chill but it didn’t warm him. Just kept his true feelings, his true thoughts masked. Because while he trusted Thayne and Alaïs and the Grey Court, there were enough Dhaoine around that he didn’t trust to make him want that mask firmly in place.

He was just finishing lacing up his boots when Jerald finally answered, voice soft and subdued, quivering at the edges in a way that told Eiod he would only get the words out so long as he didn’t look at him.

“It was Alaïs who passed the information to the First Circles and Thayne and Azriel joined them. But I heard it from Relyt’s guardian, Sheieh, while they spoke in the hallway. ” Jerald took a deep breath and let it out slow but it shook around the edges just like his voice did and though he knew he shouldn’t, he looked up and met Jerald’s eyes just as he said, “Xitlali’s forces have pulled back from Imèn World’s borders, only enough remain to make it seem like they haven’t left entirely.”

“But that’s not what has you spooked?” he asked though he knew the answer already just didn’t know the why.

Jerald shook his head and held out a shaking hand. Eiod swiftly finished tying his boots and crossed the room to take that hand, to wrap it in both of his own. He didn’t press, didn’t need to. He knew this kind of fear, knew that it was something deeper rooted. Knew that it was more than what it seemed. He stood there looking down at his friend, at the male who was stronger than anyone really gave him credit for. Stood and watched as Jerald gathered himself until he stopped shaking, until his free hand came up and laid over Eiod’s. Stood and watched as the male who had been perfectly chosen for Rhyshladlyn’s Warrior looked up at him with a fire behind his brown eyes that made something primal in him rumble happily at the sight.

“Something bad is going to happen, Eiod,” he sighed and leaned forward until his forehead touched where their hands were joined. When he spoke his breath brushed across Eiod’s forearms, a ghostly whisper that made him shiver. “Something bad is going to happen and I’m afraid that somehow we’re yet again going to be at the center of it. That this entire Court is going to suffer more than we already have.”

“Like we’ve missed something crucial,” he added, phrasing it like a question.

The Jerald who looked up at him then was the Grey Warrior in all of his unflappable, beautiful glory. In all the dancing shadows and understood pain and willingness to do anything necessary to defend his Qishir, no matter the cost, no matter the collateral damage. He didn’t say anything but Eiod didn’t need him to. He understood.

And in the Worlds they lived in, in the new reality that had fallen across the Seven Worlds when Rhyshladlyn disappeared? Understanding was everything. It was the only thing that kept one alive.

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