31

A language he hadn’t heard before ripped through the air and brought him back to reality and the pain it held. Groaning he opened his eyes and found xefras staring at him, eyes wide enough that the light of the hearth fire and the lanterns placed randomly about the room glinted off the specks of green and gold in the true brown of his eyes. He looked paler than normal, cheeks tinged high with red and a slight hint of green, chest rising and falling rapidly, mouth open just enough that he could hear the other slave’s breath rattle out past his teeth in a shaky exhale that told him so much and nothing at all. Groaning he tried to shift and swallowed a scream when his back pulled over where his old wing scars had been, where his wings should have come out had he been able to access the truth of him.

Everything hurt. He couldn’t think straight, couldn’t see straight. All he knew was the feeling of emptiness that burrowed at the center of his back and trailed down towards his buttocks. All he knew was that the World swam in a riot of colors that moved too fast for him to focus on, all he knew was that his throat felt slick as he made sounds that rattled the walls and made the ambient magick around him scream. Because everything hurt and if he had to hurt? Then so would the Worlds.

“Rhyshladlyn!” He blinked up at xefras who was now several steps closer, eyes not quite as wide but they were filled with a wonderment, with a hope, that told him something was very wrong. Because he knew what he had to look like after that last client, knew that it couldn’t be anything pleasant. He could feel the blood pooling underneath him, cold and tacky, which meant he’d been lying here for at least half an hour before xefras had come back. He knew he was dangerously close to smelling the wild flowers of the After, of feeling the cool waters of the River.

Something was so very, very wrong.

That was when the name the other slave had called him registered and he felt the color drain from his face. Felt every instinct, Imènian-blind though they were, come roaring to life and he swallowed convulsively on the fear that clawed its way up his throat. xefras couldn’t recognize him. There was no way. The glamours built into the collar that hid his god-Marks, that hid his scars, made him effectively anonymous. And those glamours only succeeded because a lot of Dhaoine, and those few Laedens and Imènians born to strong Dhaoinic families, in the Worlds had eyes like his. Some of them even had hair-bells or charms woven into their hair like him. It was his scars and his signature and his wings and his god-Marks that made him recognizable. And without them? He was just another Imènian slave. So how the fuck all had xefras recognized him?

“You’re really him, aren’t you?” He watched as the slave he’d come to consider a friend, the only one he could stand to be around because instead of making his skin itch, he made him calmer, made him more clearer headed, took a slow hesitant step forward. “Everyone thinks you died, but you’ve been alive. You’ve been here this entire time.”

He didn’t move, didn’t say anything, just watched as xefras continue to walk closer. He wanted to tell him to shut up, to forget what he saw, to leave now before anyone came in and saw the truth, saw that for some reason the glamours had failed. Because he knew that Lílrt wouldn’t let xefras live, not without a price. Not without getting something from him that he wasn’t sure he was willing to give. Too many people were depending on him finding a fucking way out of this collar not being stuck in it for longer. But if he lost xefras? The clarity the other male’s mere presence gave him would be gone, too, and he couldn’t afford to lose it again. He couldn’t afford to go back to when his mere existence at Xitlali’s Court was pockmarked by stretches of time that were utterly lost to him and others that were crystalline in their clarity. But above all of that, above the practical reasons for not wanting to lose xefras, there was more to it.

He had come to view the other male as a member of his Court, of his family, and the idea of losing him, in any way, was enough to make his heart clog his throat. It was enough to make him chance doing more than just holding his breath and acting as though he wasn’t bleeding to death on the floor from wounds made over where his old scars had been, where they currently were given by the way xefras’ eyes traveled over his body, getting wider and darker the further they went.

Trying to sit up brought more agony but he couldn’t, he wouldn’t, have this conversation laying face down in his own blood. He had more class than that, more decorum. So he ignored the pain as best he could and pushed himself up until he could tuck his legs beneath him and rest his hands on his thighs, breathing raggedly through the waves of pain that rippled up and down his back, along his sides, in his groin, the back of his right shoulder, and across his chest. But when he trusted that he could speak without vomiting, without losing consciousness, he raised his eyes and looked at xefras who had stopped walking and was out right gaping at him open mouthed instead. He looked at those wide eyes bracketed by long black lashes, shoulder length blade-straight black hair with a shock of white at the right temple, pouting lips, strong jaw with its dusting of facial hair that made a shadow over the pale skin it sprouted from. Took in the frame that was shorter than him by a foot but was no less strong for its size, watched the muscles ripple along his forearms as xefras clenched and unclenched his fists. He looked at him in the same way he’d looked at all his Court, with the full intensity of his gaze, trying to decide if this was worth the risk.

And he knew it was when xefras squared his shoulders, raised his eyebrows, and met his gaze without blinking despite the blush that crawled up his neck.

Only Azriel has ever been able to meet my gaze like that so don’t fucking disappointment me, xefras. Don’t make me regret this.

“In answer to your questions, yes,” he started and snapped out a growl when the other slave started to say something, “do not interrupt before I’m done or you’ll get us both killed.” When xefras nodded, he took a deep breath and spoke with his eyes closed, willing the room to stop spinning. “The collar around my neck is why no one has known who I was for the last three hundred years. There’s glamours built into it that’re supposed to keep my scars and god-Marks and the rest from being seen. It’s how they’ve kept me hidden in plain sight for so long.”

His back spasmed and he only half managed to swallow the scream down as he lurched forward and caught himself on his hands, splashing half-cold, half-sticky blood in all directions. His stomach protested violently but he ignored it. He’d vomit and flip out later, right now he had more important shit to do.

“You have to pretend you’ve never seen this. You have to leave now before the guards come in, or Xitlali comes to collect her coin, whichever happens first,” every single word hurt, every breath made it worse, but he had to try. He refused to be the reason another Dhaoine died or had their mind fucked with. “Because if they find you here, if they see that you know, they’ll mind fuck you until you don’t remember or they’ll kill you. And I don’t have anything to barter for your safety with. I just don’t.”

“I can get you out of here,” xefras whispered it, not a single trace of hesitance in his tone and it made him look up. Made him wonder not for the first time what race the other slave hailed from, made him wonder what leverage Xitlali had over him that kept him here. Because no slave served the Mad Qishir willingly.

“Not with this collar around my neck, you can’t,” he replied, lips twisting in a smile that had to have looked as exhausted as he felt by the way xefras frowned at him. “Believe me I’ve tried.”

He heard footsteps shuffling across the floor and blinked his eyes open again, wondering how much time he’d lost when his vision focused and he saw xefras was less than two feet away.

“Let me help you.” Four simple words filled with so much emotion and so much determination but he couldn’t answer them in the way they both wanted him to. Not yet. One day maybe, and soon if the gods were forgiving, but not right now.

“Not yet, xefras. Please, just go. Before you get yourself killed.”

Maybe it was the please maybe it was that he finally knew the truth, but xefras mercifully didn’t argue any further. Just nodded and strode past him to the secret slave door hidden away in the wall next to the fireplace.

“No matter what happens, Rhys, I won’t forget the truth. I promise.”

Please, don’t make me regret trusting you, too.

He didn’t respond, didn’t even make any movement to show he’d even heard the words. Just waited until the air pressure shifted to indicate the door had opened and then closed. He swayed where he knelt before slowly listing to the side just as the main door flung open revealing Xitlali and Hujiel. At their curses, he tried to laugh but his body wouldn’t cooperate.

It was just as well. At least the darkness was warm this time.

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