Normally the Dining Hall was the one place in the Eighth Palace that everyone agreed to stow their disagreements, to drop their drama and their quarrels, at the door. It was something even visiting dignitaries who saw the inside of the Palace maybe twice a year knew about, something they did unconsciously, as though Thayne had attached a permanent attend to the threshold that activated the second one crossed it. Granted there were times when that unofficial attend only went so far, times when Dhaoine forgot themselves and where they were and decided to have it out with one another, but it was rare. Rare enough that when he walked into the Dining Hall to find Azriel and Relyt squaring off against each other in the middle of its central walkway, he was caught off guard enough to come to a complete halt just inside the doors.
Though of all the Dhaoine who would forget the rules, or rather toss away their cares for them, it would be the Grey Court. After all, they seemed to operate on a level far above and beyond the rest of the Worlds. But for all, he could still sense the tension in the air, could still feel Thayne’s magick whispering along his skin and leaving a hint of calm in its wake that could only be the work of a loosely worded attend. He wasn’t even involved in whatever tiff had set the Grey Companion and Steward against each other this time, but the Honorable Qishir’s power still touched him.
But what he doubted Thayne had anticipated was that Shiran’s Watchtowers would glow so long after the Qishir who had tethered himself to their Heart had disappeared from the face of the Worlds. That the Companion and Steward qahllyn to that Qishir would find themselves at constant odds without Rhyshladlyn to act as a buffer. Not that he doubted Thayne’s ability to strategize with the best of them, but there was only so many things the gods could throw at the Grey Court, or rather what remained of it, before even an attend couldn’t keep short tempers contained, patience alive, and hope from turning barbed. Frankly, he was surprised that things had taken this long to come to a head that no attend short of the Grey Qishir’s own could prevent.
“You are not my Qishir!” Relyt’s voice was filled with poison that made the air thick and difficult to breathe. “And I don’t give two fucks whether you being his Oathed Companion makes you speak for him in his absence, you do not have the right to order me around like you’re a Qishir.”
Eiod stepped just slightly in front of Jerald, his left arm extended to keep the Alphenian from trying to step around him as his right hand settled loose and careful on the hilt of the sword strapped to his hip. He trusted that Azriel wasn’t going to loose his control, his patience maybe, but he didn’t trust Relyt as far as he could throw him. Which, even with his strength, wasn’t very far. And given that Jerald didn’t argue with him, he wasn’t the only one.
Ever since he’d officially met the Grey Steward during the aftermath of Ryphqi City’s destruction he hadn’t trusted him. Maybe it was just him reading off Rhyshladlyn’s responses or the way everyone had acted around the Soul Healer, but something had made him uncomfortable in a way he couldn’t put his finger on. By the Cliffs, it had been three hundred years and he still couldn’t pinpoint what it was. Just knew it made the skin at the back of his neck crawl. Knew that it made him want to be as far away from Relyt as possible and that that feeling was why he and Jerald spent as little time at the Eighth Palace as possible. Why they only ever came here when it was time for Eiod to make his rounds of the Palace, to make sure his contacts were still as strong as they had always been, to touch base with Thayne and the Honorable Court as well as allow Jerald to be within easier reach of his fellow qahllynshæ.
Because he was tired of this infighting and the baggage that both the males staring each other down in the center of the Hall spewed everywhere. He wasn’t Rhyshladlyn’s biggest fan, never had been and probably never would be, but even he was at the point where he wished the damned Qishir would come back or be reborn, whichever the case may be, so that he could get his damned males back under control.
“I’m not ordering you anywhere, Relyt,” Azriel’s voice was soft but it carried as though he’d shouted, his voice finding every nook and crevice of the Hall and filling them until nothing remained but his words and the accent that carried them. “I’m not ordering you in any form. I’m suggesting that one of your station should perhaps reconsider taking to a root that has been known to poison even the best of us.”
“I would give anything to know what was discussed before we walked in,” Jerald murmured and Eiod snorted.
“I was here for the start of it,” a high, clear feminine voice said and he glanced sidelong to the left to find Bayls sitting in a chair, hazel grey eyes almost hyper focused on the two males facing off against each other in the center of the Hall, “and even I don’t fucking know what’s going on.”
Part of him flinched at how he hadn’t even noticed how close she was until that moment. That he’d allowed himself to tunnel vision on Azriel and Relyt and forgo clearing everyone else in the Hall. I’m getting sloppy around those two. Gods.
He shook his head. “It is doubtful that anyone save their Qishir himself would know.”
Both the Sinner beside him and the Alphenian at his back made murmurs of agreement that sounded almost like prayers. Not that he could blame them as he watched Relyt growl, lips curling back from teeth bracketed by fangs that were far sharper than he remembered them being. Watched as he took a step forward, invading Azriel’s space, one hand coming up to jab his fingertips into the Anglëtinean’s chest. All around the Hall gasps erupted like snapping fingers. He blanched as he watched Azriel’s expression shift, as the air seemed to whoosh out away from him, as tattoos that were unnerving when Azriel wasn’t furious began to undulate as though they had a life of their own, as though they were truly the ghosts of the qahllyn’qir they paid homage to. His anger flared like a catching fire and burned heat shimmers into the air above his skin. It was a touchable, deadly thing that made Eiod suck in a breath that shook more than he wanted it to.
There was a reason why no Dhaoine in the Worlds had tried to tell Azriel he didn’t have the right to keep the title of Grey Companion with Rhyshladlyn’s assumed death and Eiod was watching that reason manifest itself before him. Was watching the proof of it rise to the surface of the humanoid body that housed it and trickle outward.
“You’ve no more right to tell me what I can and cannot do in my off time than you do regarding my whereabouts,” Relyt’s voice was what Eiod imagined the Thirteen Cliffs of Oblivion would sound like if they even made a sound, if they even could make a sound. It was like every negative, dark emotion in existence, that had ever existed for that matter, had wrapped itself around every word the Soul Healer spoke. “I don’t even want to hear your opinion on how I’ve handled myself on anything.”
“Remove your hand from me.” Azriel said nothing else, just those five words and Eiod clicked his fingers at Bayls to get her attention as he felt the first whispers of the Anglëtinean’s power leak out around the Shields Azriel had erected the day the Worlds’ Temple bells had rung mourning Songs. A power that was filled with razor edges and whispers that reminded him of the sounds Xhlëndïr made. Of all the battles, all the moments, all the near misses and hopeful moments between that moment and now, Eiod had never felt this much leakage.
I’ve missed something. It’s the only plausible reason for Azriel to be this angry over words that carry no real weight.
“Not until you learn to respect others,” Relyt shot back. “Especially those who are your equals.”
If they weren’t all in incredible danger Eiod knew he’d have laughed until he cried at the irony of that statement. As it was it was difficult enough to curb the urge as he gestured for Bayls to stand behind him, as he nudged Jerald back a few steps towards the door behind them. All across the Hall those nearest the other doors slowly stood and made for them, those who weren’t did their best to put as much distance between the two males and themselves as possible. Because while this wasn’t the first time the two had come head to head in public, it was the first time that this level of danger slithered across the floor and slapped against the walls when they did. It was the first time that anyone else had truly felt why Azriel had been qahllyn as Companion, why with Rhyshladlyn’s loss he was able to step up into his place, albeit temporarily, and lead the Grey Court in the Qishir’s stead.
He watched as Azriel’s expression darkened all the further, watched as streaks of red and gold began to drip from his eyes, as his snake Other took corporeal form at his side, the top of its head reaching the Anglëtinean’s elbow. Watched as the air crackled with energy behind him as his fire cat and ice wolf Others took form, both of them baring their teeth at Relyt, the growls that tumbled from their furred throats reminding him of the roaring of a forest fire and ice shelves breaking off into the sea.
“Stupid of you to think that I don’t,” Azriel answered, each word clipped as his accent curled around the syllables, making the Common difficult to understand. “And you’re one to talk about respecting others, Rel.”
Relyt’s expression twitched and then slowly darkened like a shadow falling across his face as he snarled, the sound thrumming along Eiod’s bones like they were tuning forks and someone had flicked them.
“Old Ones aplenty, why do they always have to do this so publicly?” Jerald muttered testily, brushing against Eiod’s back. He didn’t have to see the Alphenian to know he was rubbing at his arms.
“Because if they didn’t one would be dead by now,” Bayls answered. “Their fights used to be way worse.”
He felt Jerald’s attention slip across his back as the Alphenian looked at Bayls.
“What kept them from killing each other all those other times?”
He and Bayls answered at the same time, “Rhyshladlyn.”
The smile that twisted Azriel’s lips made Eiod hiss a swift prayer under his breath as his fingers curled more securely around the hilt of his sword but he didn’t draw it no matter how badly he wanted to. Because the second that naked steel showed itself in this Hall, the fight brewing before him would be more than just grandstanding chest jabbing and scathing words. It would be a challenge that would see at least one Dhaoine dead on the floor. And he for one didn’t want to be the reason Thayne’s fury shook the Palace walls.
Just the thought alone made his stomach twist.
“After all, I’m not the only one who can attest to how respect is something you fail miserably at.”
“Oh he’s not going to go there, is he?” Bayls’ voice was breathy, her fear like soft spices carried on the distant wind through a market square.
“Go where?” he asked.
She didn’t get a chance to answer.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Relyt huffed with a roll of his eyes that made Eiod’s hurt in sympathy, “I respect those who deserve it.”
Azriel’s laugh was like bone wetly slicing through skin and muscle as it compound fractured. Eiod shuddered to hear it and knew that whatever came after that sound was going to be something the Anglëtinean could never take back. Knew it in the way he knew that Lulphé wouldn’t be there for him in the After. Knew it in the way he could feel the taint that had settled over the Seven Worlds after Rhyshladlyn’s magickal signature had been wiped out. Knew it in the way he felt a stirring in his Self every time the Grey Qishir’s name was mentioned by one of the Grey Triad. Knew it in the way no Dhaoine could safely travel the Lines anymore. Knew it in the way he’d known that he was saved the first time he’d caught a glimpse of black hair and crimson wings long before he’d heard the voice and seen the eyes that had gone along with them.
High and Old Ones See us always.
“So I take it Rhys didn’t deserve your respect after all then?” He felt the Worlds sway at hearing Azriel use the Grey Qishir’s name for the first time in centuries. Names were a power all their own, given all the more potency depending on who spoke them. And if Azriel was speaking Rhyshladlyn’s name now, of all the times, Eiod knew he had missed something major. That they all had.
Relyt’s power breathed through the Hall like a fire wind before his fist cracked along Azriel’s jaw sending the male flying back across the Hall to land in a laughing heap on the floor several yards away. As he sat up, he was still making that sound that should have been a laugh, that would have been if it didn’t sound so wrong. He looked utterly unfazed that Relyt had done him violence, as though he hadn’t just gotten punched across the Hall.
“How dare you say I didn’t respect our Qishir!” Relyt took half a step forward but stopped when Malkuth doubled in size until the serpent towered over the Soul Healer, its jaw unhinging as it hissed a single note of warning. One that Relyt surprisingly listened to. Not that I blame him. A giant snake is definitely enough incentive to get me to stop moving. “I may have crossed some lines, but I never had anything but the upmost respect for him.”
Azriel rose to his feet, dusting his pants off before he cracked his neck and brushed a hand across his jaw to Heal the bruising that had already started to blacken the skin there.
“Right, so then explain to me how beating the shit out of him was being respectful.” His lip curled up to reveal one inch and a half long fang, voice a thunderous rumble that Eiod could feel across the stone floor despite the distance that separated them.
Azriel took two strides forward, the other side of his mouth curling to show the other fang, his eyes two pools of glowing, raw emotion, made all the more intense by the tattoos that curled and danced down over his forehead, across his temples, and along his cheekbones and jaw. He moved with that rolling, watery gait that had always made Eiod think of a river at the start of the spring thaws; it was a soft, gentle trickle but one knew it was a lie, knew that at any moment it would break free of the last of the ice that covered it and when it did, it would wash away everything in its path.
“Explain to me why he was afraid of you up until the day he walked out of the Steward Corps camp and disappeared.” He advanced a few more steps. “Tell me why every time he closed his eyes the only thing he could see was the absolute fury that twisted your face into something monstrous and woke up screaming to escape it.”
He was nearly on the Soul Healer now who was trembling visibly, jaw loose, and mouth slightly open. An almost unnatural quiet had fallen over the Hall and Eiod held his breath, waiting for that quiet to break, waiting for the tension to shatter, all while praying that it never did.
“He fucking loved you but you threw it in his face and now you dare to speak to me about respecting others?” The laugh that barked out of that terrifyingly beautiful face made Eiod groan and rub at his chest with one hand, as though that would dispel the ache that had settled behind his breastbone. “No. I will stand for a lot from you, Relyt, because you’re suffering like I am with his loss, like Jerald and Bayls and Thayne and Al and the rest of our wayward, haphazard Court, but make no mistake.” He grabbed a handful of Relyt’s tunic and hauled him to within inches of the Anglëtinean’s face. “If you ever lay your hands on me again, I will take it as a challenge to my position above you in this Court and I will respond accordingly.”
He tossed the Soul Healer away from him and held out a hand for Malkuth who slithered forward and up the proffered arm, shrinking down to the size Eiod was used to seeing it as it settled into its customary spot around Azriel’s neck. Eyes that were identical to Azriel’s own flicked to him then settled back on Relyt with an unwavering intensity that would haunt his nightmares for at least a few weeks. Because nothing about that gaze was Dhaoinic, or mortal for that matter, the fact that it was attached to a reptile be damned.
“And remember this Relyt,” Azriel’s voice was soft, full of exhaustion and pain as his power receded back behind his Shields, as Azuna and Lycarn disappeared from view, “for all the love I had for you, that I still have for you, I will not let you sully our Qishir’s memory because you refuse to get your shit together and stop acting like a spoiled child who had his favorite toy taken away from him. He deserves better than that.”
Eiod shuffled quickly out of the way, moving Jerald and Bayls along with him, as Azriel made for the door they stood in front of. As the Anglëtinean passed, Eiod watched a tear slip down his cheek, watched Malkuth tuck the top of its head under Azriel’s chin as its kè lifted a hand to pet along the inky black scales. Seeing it made his heart break.
He didn’t need Bayls’ hand on his wrist to keep him from going after the male, he knew better. Even if he understood all too keenly what it felt like to lose a Qishir, to lose the Dhaoine one loved above all others, he wouldn’t follow Azriel. They didn’t know each other that well, not enough that he could commiserate over their similar loss. Because at the end of the day, Eiod wasn’t a Blood Oathed male, Azriel was.
And nothing could compare to that kind of loss.