“Y’know, I figured you’d have a more difficult time lookin’ at me.”
He looked over his shoulder at where Nhulynolyn stood with his shoulder tucked against the doorjamb, hands in his trouser pockets, eyes glazed as though he wasn’t seeing the here and now but something else all together. The Other looked so lost standing there despite being back, despite having spent the last week consoling Bayls and getting reacquainted with everything in the Worlds as much as he could. But really it wasn’t a surprise to see him looking so lost; after all he was truly on his own for the first time since birth. There was no one else with him but himself. And after having Others of his own, the mere thought of being alone in his own head again terrified Azriel in ways he didn’t want to look at too closely. Especially since without his Others, when he lost his connection to Rhyshladlyn, he would have died under the weight of that Silence.
“You aren’t your twin, Nully. I’ve never struggled with knowing that,” he replied, careful to keep his voice neutral.
“You an’ Bay seem to be the only ones to understand that,” Nhulynolyn muttered just loud enough for him to catch.
Azriel laughed but it was sharp and mirthless. “Probably because we spent centuries mourning the lack of a set of twins who for all they look identical are very much not that. But where other Dhaoine grieved for your and Rhys’ loss, they didn’t lose the loves of their lives. Bayls and I did.” He shook his head as his laughter faded off. “That and we happen to be the smartest two out of the Court, but don’t tell the rest of them I said that. They’ll get prickly.”
His attempt at humor fell flat and silence that was thick with things unsaid settled between them, loud enough that when Nhulynolyn took a deep breath Azriel could hear the way it shook. There was more the Other wanted to say, more that he wanted to talk about than just how Azriel could look at him and not see the twin whose likeness he bore. But clearly the Other hadn’t figured out how to put it to words yet and Azriel stared at him for a few moments longer before he looked back out over Ryphqi City glittering beneath the empty late night sky that bore the first warm hints of dawn in the far distance. Just stood there and waited patiently because he knew better than to press Nhulynolyn to speak before he was ready. Knew that the Other would talk, maybe in a few minutes or hours or days, the gods only knew, but he would talk exactly when he was ready and not a moment sooner.
Nhulynolyn was much like his twin in that whenever they wanted to talk, they would but even then it was like they struggled to get the words out. And if one wasn’t very careful, the Ka’ahne twins would shut back down and retreat behind their walls until whatever time came that they could bring themselves to try again. So he wouldn’t press, told himself he didn’t need to, that he didn’t want to. Even though he so very much did.
*He knows for certain whether Rhyshladlyn lives, whether he can be saved, or if this return was just a fluke,* Malkuth’s voice was just as carefully neutral as Azriel’s had been and he appreciated that. It took some of the sting out of the serpent’s words. But for all that it lessened that sting, it didn’t take it away.
Because the High Ones only knew that he desperately wanted to demand answers from Nhulynolyn. Wanted to question him until they both were blue in the face. Wanted to do anything to get the answers he sought. But the fact that he was able to entertain the thought of torturing his Qishir’s Otherborn twin to get answers was enough to tell him that he couldn’t ask those questions. He couldn’t take that step and risk setting off that chain of events. He wouldn’t turn into that, he wouldn’t become one of the very things he despised.
“I saw him when I was… when I touched the Heart Watchtower,” Nhulynolyn’s voice was quiet and oh so careful, as though he were afraid to speak too loudly, like if he did he’d disturb something. “For a moment our link was back, the hallway was there, all its doors flung open and his power poured through me into the Tower. For a brief moment it was like… was like I was him but I wasn’t, I was jus’ his conduit. An’ then as quick as he was there? As quick as I saw him, felt him, heard him? He was just… gone. Our link went quiet an’ it was jus’ me all over again. Only now I’m here versus the in between realm an’ I have no idea what’s worse. Knowin’ he’s alive, barely, but alive regardless o’that, or not knowin’ whether anyone was alive an’ bein’ alone in the in between.”
The World went fuzzy and resettled so fast Azriel had to grip the top of the balcony railing because his knees went weak enough he didn’t think they’d hold him up without aid. Malkuth flicked his tail against Azriel’s chin and he took in a shaky breath that wasn’t nearly as deep as it needed to be because fuck he felt so lightheaded but it was impossible to feel anything other than that. It was impossible to hear anything else in his head besides the screamed yes he lives! he fucking lives! that was dripping with the hope he had been so terrified to feel since he’d watched Rhyshladlyn walk out of the Steward Corps camp for the last time. It was hard to concentrate on anything but the way the World felt like it had regained some of the light it had lost.
“Th-then whe–” he swallowed and gripped the railing tighter, trying to collect his thoughts and his breath enough to have a coherent thought let alone speak it. “Then why haven’t we been able to find him, to sense him, if he’s been alive this entire time? Also, my vote is both–both are equally as bad.”
Nhulynolyn grunted and Azriel knew without looking that he had pushed away from the doorjamb and was walking over to him. The Other leaned backwards against the railing beside Azriel with a look of profound guilt, born not of a wrong one had done to another but rather of survival where another had perished, twisting his face into an expression that looked as painful as Azriel didn’t doubt it felt. And no matter the revelation Nhulynolyn had just spoken, no matter the hope Azriel felt filling his chest like an out of control forest fire, he shelved it. Because he knew that guilt, knew the look and feel of it, after all, he had been battling it for lifetimes. Though not always for the same reasons.
“It wasn’t your fault, Nully,” he whispered the words, taking a chance that saying them wouldn’t make the Other run. Nhulynolyn jerked like he’d been hit and turned those unnervingly ancient blue eyes on him, surprise written in every line of his face. Azriel just smiled, a soft twitching of one corner of his mouth, using it to make up for the fact that he didn’t reach out and squeeze the other male’s shoulder despite wanting to. “It wasn’t any of our faults. And while I know that doesn’t make the guilt go away. we can’t let it consume us. It will make us blind if we let it.”
The Other snorted. “You’re one to talk there, Feather Duster,” he gestured at the tattoos that followed where his qahllyn’qir had been. “Your guilt was so great you did the unthinkable.”
The words were harsher than the Other probably meant them to be. Sharper edged and intended to cut, to get him to back off. And knowing that kept him from taking offense. Knowing that made it easier to accept the subject chance for what it was: a chance to breathe, to regain wobbly control, before tackling the hard truth the previous subject held.
“I didn’t do it out of guilt, Nully,” Azriel sighed and looked back out at the City, one hand petting along Malkuth’s scales where the serpent lay curled around his neck. “I refused to let the ringing of the Worlds’ bells be the only way his existence was honored. I couldn’t let anyone forget he had lived and what he had been, what he is, and what we lost when he was taken from us.”
“So you got your qahllyn’qir inked in the same color as my twin’s eyes so that everyone who saw you knew and could never forget.”
“It was the only way I could think of to memorialize him,” Azriel confirmed. “A simple statue was’t enough. A temple built in his honor wasn’t enough either. So I became a living memorial. I marked my skin in the way his existence, our Bond, marked me. Only now every Dhaoine in the Worlds can see those marks and know exactly what they are, what they were, and what they stand for.”
He smiled at the memories of the first time he’d walked into the Main Hall of the Eighth Palace freshly inked and still so furious at everything. No one had expected him to show his face so soon after the bells had been rung. No one had known where he’d gone for the week and a half it had taken to get the ink itself let alone for his body to heal except for Thayne. And when he had bent knee to Thayne? By all the gods, the Hall had been so quiet he had heard his blood slip-sliding in his veins. And it had been made all the better when the only Dhaoine who had been able to look him in the eyes had been Thayne and Bayls. Alaïs had been able to eventually, but it had taken the Lord Queen longer than her sister-in-law and Qishir.
And now the only times anyone else looked him in the eyes was out of anger which didn’t surprise him because anger always made one braver and stupider than they would be otherwise. Because everyone in the Worlds knew they had failed the one Dhaoine who could save them all, who had saved them all time and time again. The guilt didn’t fall on his shoulders or even Nhulynolyn’s, it fell on those who had never once believed in the Grey Qishir, never once accepted what he did for them and how much they needed him.
“What happened to the Court, Azriel? Why is it this…this…” Nhulynolyn made a vague gesture with one hand, impatience lacing the movement, “…mockery of what it used to be?”
That’s a heavy and loaded question if I’ve ever heard one. He didn’t miss any more of a beat with the latest subject jump than he had with the first one. He was too used to the constant movement in a conversation with Rhyshladlyn to be sent off kilter by any other Dhaoine doing it.
“Relyt had given up nearly immediately on the idea that Rhys was still alive, Thae’a and Adïmshyl couldn’t handle he and I fighting over it and left. Bayls was too mired in losing you to focus on much else. Thayne had the Seven Worlds to rule and Alaïs had to come to terms with being the Lord Queen and the Honorable Companion at the same time. Eiod and Jerald became wanderers hunting down what remained of the Anointed One’s inner circle and finding out what he and Xitlali had been doing with those jarred Selves — not that we ever learned anything concrete. Jaro attached himself to Alaïs permanently after Relyt got Sheieh as a Guardian.” He closed his eyes, pushing back the memories of those first few decades after everything had gone to absolute shit. Breathed through the emotions that rose up in their wake. “Things had gone so bad so quickly that I’d struggled to keep up. Problem was, problem is, I’m not Rhys and I never will be. So I had to do the one thing that would enable me to keep everyone else in the Court alive.”
“An’ what was that, exactly?”
He smiled at the Other and knew it wasn’t one of his own smiles but rather Rhyshladlyn’s planted on his mouth by the way Nhulynolyn raised both eyebrows.
“I earned the right to keep my title as the Grey Companion despite the loss of the Qishir whom I am Blood Oathed to.”
Nhulynolyn had nothing to say to that and let the conversation lapse into a silence that was easy, soft, companionable and Azriel was content to stand there and watch the City and let the quiet wash over him. Content to wait to see if Nhulynolyn would discuss what had really brought him here.
“I think I know the reason no one has been able to sense Rhys.”
Azriel slowly turned and looked at the Other, feeling his stomach start climbing up into his throat as his heart rate kicked up. It was the one question he’d had since the very beginning because he knew that if Rhyshladlyn had died, he would have been pulled along with him. Had scoured every library, every scroll, every record he could find to try and find an answer to that burning question but had come up with nothing. But here his Qishir’s twin stood with that answer and something told him it was worse than anything he had ever imagined.
Nhulynolyn turned and looked at him with eyes that were filled with a fury that tingled along Azriel’s skin where that gaze landed but there was a horror in them as well that made the fear roiling in his stomach join it as it climbed into his throat. He didn’t even know where to begin to try and keep them from to choking him.
“When I felt Rhys through our connection, he had a metal collar ’round his neck. Our connection cut when it sent agony along his nerves like it was made of fire,” Nhulynolyn shuddered, eyes falling closed as he gripped the railing behind him tight enough to turn his knuckles white. “They have him Imènian-blind. That’s the only explanation that makes sense for how he’s alive an’ why no one has been able to sense him an’ why he hasn’t gotten back to any of us yet.”
“Did you tell anyone else yet?” Azriel asked when he could breath again.
Nhulynolyn shook his head. “You were the first. I wanted to tell you before anyone else knew that he’s alive.”
“We need to tell everyone else,” he pushed away from the balcony railing and stopped two steps away from it when a puzzle piece clicked into place. He felt the blood drain from his face when he turned slowly to look at Nhulynolyn who was already watching him.
“Take it you jus’ figured it out, huh?”
“That Xitlali and the Anointed One used those jarred Selves to make the collar that’s around his neck.”
Nhulynolyn nodded, “Yup. Exactly.”
Azriel cursed loud and harsh.
“I totally fuckin’ agree,” the Other said.