She stared down at the thin band inked permanently into the skin of her left heart finger. A mark her mate shared on his own hand, an agreement made to show they were bound together for all time because with their lives, with the Court they had sworn fealty to, rings weren’t doable. Not safely, at least. Part of her regretted the lack of rings exchanged now if only because she had nothing of his that she could save from the funeral pyre, to wear as a memento to who he had been. Nothing she could give to their fledgling, should it survive to term, to remind it of the father it would never get to meet. Wished she had something more than memories and the ghosts of touches and his scent that haunted the room around her.
Two hands slid into her own and she looked up at Xheshmaryú who smiled at her shakily, violet eyes still so dark but he seemed more at ease than he had been. But that was probably because she’d finally snapped at the Healers to get the fuck out, that what they had to Heal couldn’t be mended with magick. Not unless they could raise the dead.
“Hey, Bay,” the Nochresi whispered, speaking softly not because he feared upsetting her with the volume of his voice but because he just couldn’t seem to speak loudly in light of what had happened. Like everything was muted with the lack of her mate’s laughter, his trademark grin, his presence. “You still with me, yeah?”
She nodded. “Yeah, Xhesh. I’m still with you.”
“Good,” he squeezed her hands and looked down at them, his darker skin making her seem paler than she was. Like snow falling on freshly tilled soil. She watched those striking violet eyes trace the paint flecks on her skin, watched them notice the tattooed ring on her finger. Watched the scars around his eye bunch and twist as he flinched seeing it, knowing without having to ask why she’d been staring at her hands. “I’m so sorry, Bay. I…”
“It’s okay, Xhesh,” she squeezed his hands back and smiled when he glanced up at her. “It wasn’t your fault. I just…” she sighed heavily and stared at that inked ring. “I was just wishing I had something of his I could keep. A memento to giv–” she cut off abruptly.
“To give to your little one?” Xheshmaryú finished for her and chuckled when her head snapped up. “I only know because one of the Healers is a mid-wife and stopped on her way out to let me know.”
“Yeah… to give to our fledgling,” she confirmed on a shaky breath. Closed her eyes to the sight of the Other’s gentle understanding. It wasn’t something she could handle seeing at that moment. “I had planned to tell him tonight, privately, since I’d only had it confirmed early this morning. I’d… I’d wanted it to just be him and I when he learned of it, y’know?”
“Yeah, that kinda talk needs to be private each time you get with child,” the Nochresi gave her hands one more squeeze and stood up. She watched him push his silver-white hair behind one ear, spreading the violet streak as he did so. Clasped her hands together while he walked to the table and the food and drinks Palace staff had brought before she’d kicked the Healers out. “Never gets any less scary though.”
“You sound like you’re speaking from experience.”
Xheshmaryú loaded a plate with strawberries, two biscuits slathered with cinnamon honey, and a couple bananas before pouring some wine into two mugs and carrying it all over. Handing her a mug he casually balanced the plate on his lap and handed her a biscuit before he peeled a banana, talking as he did so.
“I am, sort of.” Taking a bite of the banana he sighed. “My partner and I, we’d asked a really good friend in the village if she would carry our child for us. She was mate-less with no prospects and to be a surrogate was a high honor so doing so wouldn’t lose her standing in the clans. My partner was the one who laid with her since he had no gender preference. The night she told us she was with child? I felt like I was flying and buried alive all at the same time.”
She carefully ate the biscuit and grabbed up a strawberry while she waited for him to continue. Knew from what Rhyshladlyn had told her that the Nochresi race wasn’t friendly to certain types of Dhaoine, especially those who loved their own gender like Xheshmaryú did. Knew, too, that the scars he bore on his face were a testament to just how unfriendly his kind was. So she was content to let him tell this story at his own pace, in his own time.
He’d polished off both bananas and gotten more strawberries after she’d eaten more than half of them and the other biscuit before he finally continued.
“But being a lover of your own gender in my race was an exile-able offense. Which is why I have these scars,” he tapped his eye and smiled but it was sharp edged and sad. “But to beget a child in such a relationship? That is punishable by so much worse.”
“What happened?” she asked gently when he fell silent again.
“The elders of the clans came together and killed our surrogate mother and the child she carried. Killed my partner before my very eyes while I fought to get to him, to save him,” Xheshmaryú drained his mug in three gulps and stared into it, hands turning it around and around. “I was allowed to live in exile because I was of such high breeding and the elders couldn’t bring themselves to do more than mar my beauty and take everything from me. So… they stripped me of everything but the clothes on my back at the time and my given name.”
He got up and grabbed the wine jug off the table, floating the plate with the remaining biscuits over with him on his way back. She chuckled and took it when he hovered it in front of her, stuffed a smaller one in her mouth whole as he shook his head with a fond smile and refilled their mugs.
“So I wandered. Dunno for how long but I know it was a while. I eventually met a neodrach who preferred to live in eir male form much like Rhys does. I fell in love and we started a family.” Xheshmaryú took a long pull from his mug but didn’t drain it this time. “But that’s not my point. My point for all that was this: I understand wanting to keep it private and you didn’t do anything wrong wanting to wait, Bay. Even if things didn’t work out the way you wanted them to.”
This time it was her who drained her mug as quickly as she could.
“I just… Xhesh, how the fuck am I supposed to raise this fledgling without him?” she fiddled with the plate on her lap, still hungry but not knowing if her stomach would revolt should she try to keep eating. “How am I supposed to tell anyone else? How am I supposed to tell Rhys? I don’t even know if I’ll be able to handle looking at a mini version of him, I can’t… I can’t ask Rh-Rhys to do the same thing. Never mind that this Court can barely take care of itself how the fuck are we gonna keep a fledgling safe?” She rubbed at her face with her left hand and sighed, “I… I can’t do this without him, Xhesh, and now I have to. And I ca-can’t help feeling that if I’d told him before he left… maybe… maybe he’d be coming home right now alive and not destined for a fuckin’ pyre.”
Xheshmaryú put his mug on the low table and got onto his knees in front of her, moving the plate off her lap and the mug from her hand before he took both her hands in his again. She swallowed hard around the lump that had suddenly formed in her throat at the sight of him staring up at her. Of the love that filled those violet eyes, the smile that pulled at his full mouth. They may not have been all that close over the centuries but Xheshmaryú had never shied away from making her laugh, from being a listening ear when she didn’t have anyone else. And right now she was so very thankful for that. Because without him she’d have broken the fuck apart.
“Bayls, you can though. You can. Because you are strong and you are fierce and a warrior. You’re the most independent female I have ever seen in my very long existence. Nully fell in love with you because he wanted, he needed, an equal, and he got that and more in you.” Xheshmaryú shook her hands and she laughed wetly, not bothering to try and stop the tears before they fell down her cheeks. The Nochresi Other just smiled at her, his own eyes glimmering with tears.
“And I can promise you that my kè will love and protect that child no matter how much hurts for him to look at it. You may not feel like it right now but believe me, you have a piece of Nully with you forever and it lives on in the child you two made.” One hand reached up and cupped her cheek, thumb wiping away the tears that fell there. “You don’t need him beside you to be the best mother to that child, Bay. You don’t need anyone else, for that matter. You just need you. You are enough, you always have been, and you always will be.”
She let out a sob then and didn’t fight him when Xheshmaryú pulled her off her chair and gathered her into his arms. Just let him hold her tight, her arms around his neck, her face buried in the fall of his hair that smelled like sandalwood and vanilla. He held her while she cried and trembled. Moved so they were sitting on the floor, her curled in his lap like a fledgling, rocking gently back and forth as she cried. His fingers smoothed through her hair and down her back like her mother had when she was little and the pain Jere caused them was too great.
Bayls didn’t know how long they were sat like that when a soft knock had her head flying up and Xheshmaryú twisting around to see Y’adtrik standing in the doorway, the knuckles of one hand pressed against the doorjamb. She knew what the Honorable Steward was going to say before he opened his mouth, the sadness that poured off him told her.