As the arguments flew all around the room, the entire Grey Court packed into Nhulynolyn’s sitting room, Azriel had eyes only for Rhyshladlyn. Even as he offered his own arguments and agreements, he never looked away from his Qishir. Watched every twitch of muscle, every blink, every eye flicker, every flutter at his jaw. Took note of how his hair-bells were death-silent even when Rhyshladlyn moved enough to send the strands they were woven into tumbling over each other. Looked for signs that they were getting through to him, for danger, for any hint of what Rhyshladlyn was thinking.
But all Azriel got was the same thing everyone else did: nothing. They were all flying blind. Well, everyone but his Others. He told himself that it didn’t hurt that even he was being shut out. It wasn’t remotely close to the truth but there was nothing in his genetics as an Anglëtinean that kept him from lying to himself.
In the hour and a half since Rhyshladlyn had summoned them all here, he’d watched his Qishir remain in that suspended place between showing just enough emotion to not make everyone nervous but hid just enough that no one knew if they were really safe or not. He’d watched that expression never waiver, even as he told them of the two Otherborn who were asking for aid, claiming they were seeking repayment for aid rendered decades ago. Even as Rhyshladlyn described things that none of them had ever heard or read about leaving the Forest to give chase to the kè of those Otherborn as the three had escaped, the Qishir’s expression, inflection, tone, never changed.
No one argued that this was made up. There wasn’t a single hint of lie or untruth or partial fallacy anywhere in the words Rhyshladlyn spoke, echoing those given by the Otherborn who’d come on behalf of their kè who had run for Ryphqi City, thinking that he would find the Grey Court there, or at lest Thae’a and Adïmshyl, though the High Ones only knew why the male thought that. After all, no one, not even Otherborn desperate to save their kè, broke though the wards and Shields and Barriers on the Eighth fucking Palace, never mind into the rooms of the Grey Qishir’s twin, if they weren’t legitimately in need. What everyone was arguing over was who should go to the City to render aid or if any aid at all should be given. Argued while those Otherborn stood patiently outside in the corridor, praying that the verdict would be in their favor.
And it was probably pointless to argue any of it because Rhyshladlyn had likely already decided. Which was typical of the Qishir and oh so tiring for it.
“This could be a trap, Rhys!” Relyt argued for the thirtieth time and Azriel rolled his eyes as Malkuth hissed where the Other was wrapped around his neck. The Soul Healer turned a glare to him but Azriel just kept looking at Rhyshladlyn. “Well it could be, whether any of the rest of you will admit it or not.”
“We aren’t saying it won’t be, or that it couldn’t be,” Thae’a said, voice tired, expression even more so. Usually she was the one who kept Relyt in check but now didn’t seem to be one of those times. “What we’re saying is that that chance doesn’t outweigh the threat to the City of these creatures.”
“Never mind that this Xefras ran there looking for myself and Tee,” Adïmshyl added, leaning forward where he sat on one of the extra chairs that had been brought in from the spare rooms, his forearms resting on his thighs, hands loosely clasped together. “Despite Eyrdo being closer to where they departed the Forest, that male ran to Ryphqi. Even seeing what chased him and in such incredible numbers, he still went there. Why?”
Relyt grunted, “I don’t have those answers. And I’m not saying we don’t help them. I’m saying Rhys should not go with whatever party we send there.”
“That’s the stupidest shit I’ve heard.” Azriel turned and looked at where Ahdyfe sat on what served as a dining room table, legs idly swinging back and forth. Her diamond white eyes were hyper focused on Relyt who had rounded on her with a growl. But she didn’t even blink. “Think about it, Relyt,” she pressed. “If you were going to stage an assault against Rhyshladlyn anywhere in the Worlds, where is the one place that you wouldn’t want to face off against him?”
“Not a City, that’s for sure,” Bayls quipped.
“Nowhere he has any magick ties to at all, City or otherwise,” Jerald added with a nod at Bayls who smiled at him.
“So basically nowhere he’s been more than once,” Thae’a snickered. “Or, to be absolutely safe, ever.”
“What Tee said,” Nhulynolyn leaned over and slapped his hand against the Dreamweaver’s, the Other’s grin all sharp edges and shadows. That sharply masculine face full of all the emotions his twin’s wasn’t.
“Not to mention that if this male was gonna set up a trap to go after Ka’ahne here, why didn’t he run here to Eyrdo?” Adïmshyl stroked his beard and shook his head. “There’s no sense in traveling farther in distance to a City that anyone in the Worlds’ knows none of us have been to since the war’s end, but he did it anyway.”
Azriel looked away from Rhyshladlyn long enough to glance around the room. Needed to see the responses of those around him.
Bayls was glaring at Relyt with nothing short of hatred and the violence it birthed. Nhulynolyn was watching his mate like he was waiting for the signal to either stop her or join her, and he hadn’t decided which one he wanted to happen more. Shadiranamen was relaxed back against the chair to the left of the hearth, sapphire eyes the darkest blue Azriel had ever seen them. Xheshmaryú had one hand braced on the mantle, violet eyes hidden by the fall of his hair, the violet streak in those locks looking crimson in the firelight. Thae’a was in the other chair by the hearth, Adïmshyl sitting on the air of that chair, both of them regarding Relyt with steady gazes that weren’t as critical and contempt-filled as Bayls and Shadiranamen’s. Jerald was sitting on the window seat, Eiod leaning against the wall beside the window; the former watching Rhyshladlyn’s every move, coiled and ready to move the second his instincts told him he was needed, the latter waiting to move in tandem to his friend. Relyt paced in front of the hearth between the chairs and the low table, looking like a caged animal ready and willing to snap at the nearest thing or Dhaoine it believed could free it. And Ahdyfe watched them all, those diamond white eyes never staying on any one Court member for too long, taking in everything with the eagerness of a fledgling.
The room was filled to bursting with tension, more so than what had been in the meeting hall, but this had a different taste to it. This felt like there was a conversation being had beneath the spoken one. And only a certain few knew what was really being said and they weren’t in a sharing mood; either one got it or one drowned.
Relyt huffed. “What is your point?”
“Their fucking point,” Rhyshladlyn’s voice held a thousand blades bristling with the need to be unleashed, expression beginning to thaw out and Azriel didn’t know if that was better or worse, “is that the worst thing to do would be to set up an attack against me in a City I literally am tethered to. Never mind that even if it were a trap, the fact he went to a City the entire Worlds knows I have not stepped foot in in forty years means that, unlike the rest of us, that male and those Otherborn of his don’t have the same memories of reality as we do. That maybe he has answers to the questions we’ve been asking for days now.”
“No, you’ve had plenty of time to speak bullshit words that make no sense and have gotten us nowhere,” Rhyshladlyn interrupted, rising slowly to his feet. “And I’m not going to waste more time the citizens of Ryphqi, that those Otherborn and their kè, don’t have.”
In the pause that followed Azriel watched as Rhyshladlyn crossed the room to stand right in front of Relyt, body tensed and ready for a fight but only those who knew him well could spot the warning signs. The closer he got to the Soul Healer, the more Rhyshladlyn’s face went blank losing what thaw it had gained, until it was as smooth and emotionless as stone. Orange-amber eyes grew brighter, the weight of the Self behind them strong enough that even though Azriel wasn’t the subject of that gaze, he could feel it on his skin. With each step that brought the two closer, the focus of the room shifted to Rhyshladlyn and Relyt. Narrowed until everyone was on alert, waiting to see what would happen this time.
Relyt, to his minimal credit, only leaned back just a little away from Rhyshladlyn but otherwise he didn’t move. Which was probably wise. As when their Qishir went quiet, calm, and stone-faced like this, any movement made one a target. Especially if one was already sighted as one.
“I only called all of you here to give you the courtesy of knowing my decision from my own mouth and not by messenger,” Rhyshladlyn’s tone was clipped and filled with danger. “I did not call you all here to be argued with. To have a discussion of what to do. I am going to Ryphqi City and that is final. I will take Jerald with me and Nhulynolyn. The rest of you will remain here.”
Azriel felt his heart sink to bounce against his stomach. He’d never been left behind on a mission like this. Not when they didn’t know what they were going into. Especially not if it was a fight with something that required urban-fighting skills. But really what had he expected given the way things were between him and Rhyshladlyn right now? Sighing softly he rubbed a hand through his hair and stood up.
“That’s–what?” Relyt spluttered, seeming to forget just how close his Qishir was to his face, the danger that stood inches away, ready and waiting. “That’s not remotely enough!”
“Loathe as I am to admit it, Rel is right,” Azriel said before anyone else could speak. Fought to meet that too bright, too intense gaze without flinching as it swung around to him. “Neither Nully nor Jerald have any real training in urban warfare. Yes, they work well because one is trained to fight as your literal shadow and the other is your fully Oathed Warrior, but that is not enough. Not when you’re about to face off against creatures none of us have heard of before.”
Rhyshladlyn kept looking at him with the same expression he had in the corridor before dinner, only this time the eyes he loved so much flashed with an emotion he couldn’t name. Wished as he stared at those regal, striking features that he wasn’t locked out of the mind, that their Bond wasn’t shut down, if only so he could know exactly what the Qishir was feeling. If only so he could get some kind of read on him. Gods, Azriel would even take a uniform front of expression, tone, and what lay in those eyes. Because at least when Rhyshladlyn had been blank and unreadable and emotionless, Azriel didn’t feel cornered and adrift. But faced with conflicting things? That he didn’t know what to do with, not when Rhyshladlyn was closed off magickally, too.
*How did you ever function with him before you Oathed?* Malkuth snarked.
“And what do you propose I do instead, Companion Azriel?” He flinched at his title and the bite behind it. Clearly Rhyshladlyn was still pissed but he had hoped, thought, that that fight wouldn’t bleed into their everyday life with the Court. That when it came down to the important things, Rhyshladlyn wouldn’t let his feelings about what Azriel had done cloud his judgment.
Clearly he was wrong. High Ones prevailing.
“Take me with you,” he answered and knew it was the wrong thing to say as those eyes went as blank as the face they sat in. As Rhyshladlyn stepped back from Relyt he’s moving out of striking range like he thinks Rel is going to attack him and faced him more fully, Azriel felt his heart skip a few beats but kept talking regardless. Pressed the point because he couldn’t in good conscience let Rhyshladlyn walk out without having tried to get him to see reason. “Think about it, Rhys. I’m the best urban fighter the Court has short of yourself. Leaving me here is asinine. Why would you shelve your best fighter?”
“You do not want my actual answer to that,” the Qishir’s voice was as still as water right before one tossed a skipping stone across its surface. Filled with danger and something else Azriel couldn’t name, a darkness, a monster, lurking beneath that too still, falsely inviting surface. “And you aren’t the only skilled urban fighter in the Court.” Those orange-amber eyes flicked to the right as Eiod straightened, tucked his right fist against his heart, and bowed low at the waist. “There, problem solved.”
The fuck it is. “Why are you leaving me and Relyt here?” Why are you leaving me here?
It was a bad idea to press the issue. Especially when they had an audience. Especially, too, because Azriel knew he was not the innocent party in the fight that was threatening to tear them apart, if it hadn’t successfully done that already. But he couldn’t let this go. He didn’t like the idea that Rhyshladlyn was traveling to Ryphqi City with no more than his Warrior, his First Other, and Eiod. It left a sour taste in Azriel’s mouth.
And if he was being honest with himself, that sour taste was more jealousy that they didn’t have to fight to been seen as worthy of their other skills to the Court like he was. No matter how justified Rhyshladlyn was to do it, it still hurt.
“Do you really want to know? Here, with everyone in the Court as witness?” Rhyshladlyn raised his eyebrows but his expression didn’t change, his eyes didn’t liven up. Just blankness with those sharp brows lifted towards his hairline.
High Ones See him, the warning in that tone, the way it slipped and slid down his spine should be enough to tell him to back down but he couldn’t. He didn’t. This was him and Rhyshladlyn, when it came to the Qishir, Azriel had never known how to back down, how to be afraid of him, how to see the monster everyone else in the Worlds did. Love and respect made him blind and more than a bit stupid.
“Rhys! Come on! How could you say that?” he implored, reaching for the Qishir who growled, eyes too wide in a face gone white, tears flowing freely and easily from those sun-bright eyes. “I love you. I just.. I made a mistake. I didn’t mean it. I swear I didn’t.”
“Then why did you do it?” Rhyshladlyn countered.
He didn’t have an answer for that. Not one that wouldn’t see him losing everything, so he bit his tongue and kept silent.
“Yes,” Azriel answered and could hear his Others groan. Could practically feel the Court do the same. But he ignored them all. “Tell me why you’re leaving me here. Why you’re only taking a small group with you, only two of which are guaranteed to be able to fight in close urban quarters like Ryphqi City’s streets. Tell me why you’re putting yourself in a situation that is dangerous as fuck and not just because you don’t know it’s not a trap.”
The Qishir scoffed and shook his head. “I’m taking those I’ve named because I trust that if things go south, they will follow my orders to the letter and not question every single thing that comes out of my mouth.” If looks could kill, Azriel didn’t doubt his heart would have stopped beating already. “That they won’t make me feel as though their inability to follow those orders is my fault when it isn’t.”
*Master Azriel, do not press this. Not here, not now,* Azuna urged and High Ones prevailing, Azriel wanted to listen but it was like he couldn’t control his mouth.
*Please, let it go,* Lycarn nudged the back of his knee.
“You really don’t trust me to have your back, Rhyshladlyn?”
“No,” a single word and it was filled with all the things the Qishir hadn’t said, all the things they’d tiptoed around for months. Hovering right at the surface, waiting. He wished he was less of a coward because if he was, he’d pull them to the surface and let them see light so he could finally know exactly where he and Rhyshladlyn stood. So he could finally try and make proper amends for what he’d done.
The silence that followed was thunderous, everyone studiously not looking at him or Rhyshladlyn. No one moved except for Nhulynolyn who kissed Bayls soundly, promising he’d be safe and make sure everyone got home in one piece; Eiod who passed a message to Thayne via Alaïs though Azriel didn’t catch the words; and Jerald who spared a look full of warning and poison at Relyt before he moved into position behind Rhyshladlyn as the Qishir made for the door.
Azriel reached out and caught Rhyshladlyn’s hand as he walked by, stopping the male in his tracks, arm extended behind him. Stared a hole into the back of his head, willed him to turn around and look at him like Rhyshladlyn used to. Wished desperately for a goodbye, a kiss, a reassurance that he would be fine, that he’d come home. Not the cold shoulder, the pointed lack of eye contact, the silence. Opened his mouth to say something, anything, but Rhyshladlyn spoke before he could find the words.
“Please, come home safely, Rhys, okay?” he whispered and felt the flinch at his words travel up into his hand. Felt the muscles beneath his fingers tense hard enough it nearly jarred him. “Je dú velknaden.”
“Then show it,” the resignation that wrapped around those words, like Rhyshladlyn didn’t believe Azriel ever would, that he ever had, broke something in him. And the feeling of it cracking, whatever it was, made him release Rhyshladlyn’s hand. Made him not fight to hold onto the Qishir.
Instead he watched as Rhyshladlyn walked to the door and through it, Jerald and Eiod trailing after him. Watched as Nhulynolyn stopped and looked back, blue eyes nearly as dark as Shadiranamen’s. The Other didn’t say anything, just stared at him for a long, long moment, but he didn’t have to. The warning in those eyes was clear enough. Azriel nodded, feeling his throat grow tight as he did so. Nhulynolyn stared for a heartbeat longer before he smiled and followed after his twin, closing the door behind him with a soft thud that sounded eerily final.
It wasn’t until someone’s hand touched his shoulder that he realized he was crying as his heart broke apart.