54

“Do you really want to know why you’re not his companion anymore, you pompous shit?” Alaïs’ voice sliced apart the quiet and focus, making everyone in the infirmary jump.

Shadiranamen closed her eyes and sent a prayer to any gods listening for patience. She didn’t blame the Sinner for her anger. Knew exactly why it had snapped now, hours after they’d made it back from Ryphqi City. Even the most patient of Dhaoine could stand only so much of the amount of bitching Azriel had been doing since they’d moved Rhyshladlyn and Xefras here before snapping.

Thayne had ushered Azriel into the corridor after he’d asked for the millionth time what happened now, was he expected to consent to his Oath being broken or would it be done forcibly, how could this complete stranger be a better qahllyn choice that he usurped Azriel’s already finalized two-way Blood Oath. Had kicked him out and told him that until he could act like the calm headed warrior she knew him to be, that he could stand outside. Because the Eighth Qishir would be damned if she allowed him to disrupt the Healing being done to Rhyshladlyn and Xefras any further than he already had.

“None of us have the answers you want or need, Uncle,” the words she spoke were the only gentleness Thayne showed Azriel in that moment. Everything from her tone to body language to the glint in her eyes was cold, reserved. Like she knew something the rest of them didn’t and that it was keeping her from giving her uncle the slack she normally would. “So grow the fuck up and wait for your Qishir to wake up and give them to you. He’s the only one who can.”

And then Thayne had left him there, pacing the corridor like an angry bear. All tensed limbs and banked confusion and anger and loss that was less about grief and more about abandonment. Had returned to her duties as dawn approached without a backward glance.

Things had been as peaceful as one could expect in the interim between Thayne leaving and Alaïs going to fetch Sheieh. But when the Lord Queen had returned Azriel had tried to follow only to be stopped and asked if he had gotten himself together. That had not gone over well. Alaïs’ face had smoothed out, eyes losing any emotion they’d held, as she just waved Sheieh on inside and then pulled the door closed behind her as she faced off against Azriel in the corridor.

For a good half hour their words had been barely discernible. And then they were and Shadiranamen found herself wishing more than before that Rhyshladlyn would wake up, that her ‘s power would kick in and take over Healing the body that kept it contained. Because the longer Rhyshladlyn took to wake up, the more agitated she feared Azriel would become. And for all that his qahllyn to her no longer technically existed, it didn’t mean he was no less powerful than he had been a day ago. Just now he didn’t have a Qishir who could reign him in as easily.

“Well?” Azriel’s voice was all danger and warning, holding a heat that made Shadiranamen share a look with Thae’a on the other end of the infirmary where she worked to help Sheieh with Xefras. The Dreamweaver glanced at the door, rolled her eyes and sighed before she looked back at Shadiranamen and shook her head with a shrug. The if he wants to be stupid enough to go head to head with Al? I say let him was clear. “You going to elaborate or just snarl at me for asking a valid question, Lord Queen?”

“If you are going to use my rank to try and put me in my supposed place, Azriel of House Veratone,” Alaïs replied coldly, “then address me by my correct rank or speak to me not at all.”

*Xhesh?*

*Yeah. I’ve caught it through you, Shad. I’ll keep Bayls on this side of the Palace.* Xheshmaryú answered. *Let me know if you need me over that way.*

That was a relief at least as she felt Alaïs’ anger touch their link, fuzzy though it was since the Sinner’s actual was dead. Sighed deeply as she refocused back on Rhyshladlyn and the muscles she was working on re-knitting in his back while Relyt and another Healer worked on his heart from the front, the Qishir held in a sitting position by ropes strung through loops bolted into the ceiling to give them easier access. Realistically she should intervene in this argument because Azriel was just stubborn enough to press a point he didn’t want to know the truth of and Alaïs was just sadistic enough to not care about sparing him his feelings if she got pushed far enough. But even though she knew that Alaïs had already been pushed too far, that this argument was a long time coming, Shadiranamen stayed right where she was.

For all that she should stop them because that much emotional upheaval so close to where her and his new Companion lay so close to touching the River wasn’t a good thing, she wanted answers. Needed to know why Alaïs was so furious with Azriel on Rhyshladlyn’s behalf. Wanted to know why Rhyshladlyn had been so frigid towards his former Companion over the last several months. The gods forgive her but she wanted answers more than she wanted to ensure that whatever had brewed sourly between them didn’t boil over and drown them all. So she didn’t move and prayed that it wasn’t the wrong decision.

“As you will, Honorable Companion,” Azriel replied at length. “How is it that you know why I’m not Rhys’ Companion anymore and no one else does?”

I know what you did to him,” Alaïs’ voice was poison, each word a physical smack against one’s skin. “I know exactly why he’s been so cold to you the last several months. And furthermore, I know that it is the pivotal moment where the Bond between you both shattered beyond repair.”

“How did–”

“He told me,” the Lord Queen cut in, tone harder than obsidian and just as sharp. “When he ran from the meeting hall and I followed him into the gardens he broke apart and sobbed and told me everything.”

“I… Alaïs,” Azriel let out a soft sound and fell quiet. A soft thump of something hitting a wall echoed through the infirmary then his voice drifted through the door, subdued, full of regret. “It was a mistake, I swear it was. Our ship had gone down in a bad storm and I nearly died. When another in the fleet picked us up and brought us to town… I forgot myself. I just needed to feel alive, need proof I hadn’t fallen victim to the Drowning Deep.”

“Your qahllyn’qir would have writhed under your skin with gratitude at you having lived. The link between you and my brother would have burned with vitality so strong it stole your breath.” If words could cut like knives, Shadiranamen knew the Anglëtinean would be covered in thousands of cuts. “Those two things alone should have been enough, Azriel.”

“I… they should have been and looking back, they were. I just…” Azriel trailed off and Shadiranamen didn’t need to see through Alaïs’ eyes to know that the Anglëtinean shook his head, one hand lifting to tuck his hair behind an ear, eyes haunted and clouded with memory. “I wish I could go back and change what happened. It was a horrible, horrible mistake.”

Shadiranamen felt the sting in her palm as Alaïs slapped the Anglëtinean across the face, heard the echo of skin on skin seconds before Azriel cried out and fell against the door. Every head shot up and looked over as the wood rumbled on its hinges as Alaïs’ power leaked in through the cracks, the feel of it like the desert wind during the height of summer; a heat fit to peel one’s skin off as surely as it would dry out one’s veins of water and blood.

“I was with him when he felt your fear as you got sucked beneath the waves, did you know that?” Alaïs countered, tone hard, not a single trace of the forgiving female Shadiranamen had seen in Rhyshladlyn’s childhood memories. But then being the Eighth Qishir’s Companion, the Lord Queen of the Sinner Demons, and the last Ka’ahne sibling to escape Anislanzir, and barely at that, would harden even the gentlest of Dhaoine. It had to or one would break under the stress. “I watched him drop what he was doing and rush to your side. We were in Majik World when your ship went down and he ran for you. I watched through his eyes as he put every single ounce of power he had into getting to the Uthiel Sea as swiftly as possible.”

A pause, the air charged with tension, then a soft whistle before the door shook again, harder this time. Shadiranamen smiled as she saw Azriel’s stunned face, felt the fabric of his tunic bunched in her hands. Knew the Lord Queen had lifted him away from the door and bodily checked him back against it. Enjoyed the feel of the Anglëtinean’s body trembling in their grip, the way he was forcibly reminded that for all that she was smaller than him, Alaïs was the Eighth Companion for a damned good reason; that she was as powerful as her younger brothers. That she had led armies and felled hundreds of thousands of enemies on thousands of Fields and won every single battle she fought except for three.

“I di-I didn’t know,” Azriel all but whispered, the words only heard because of the absolute silence in the infirmary and because he was pressed against the door. Otherwise Shadiranamen doubted even her keen hearing would have picked up what he said.

“How the fuck could you not have? You knew he’d done an arena fight barely a week before the one he came from when Thayne summoned everyone here. He had to do one in order to Feed and replenish what he wasted on you.” Alaïs took a breath and Shadiranamen looked at the door, the weirdest sense that the next thing that would be spoken would change things irrevocably. “He drained himself dry getting there only to find you in the bed of some barmaid, fucking the bitch into the mattress.”

The tension in the infirmary shifted as Relyt’s fury added the whispering touch of a cool spring breeze. Twisted as Sheieh turned glowing eyes to Shadiranamen and his own power breathed through the room, the hint of winter’s approaching cold snap. And that was to say nothing of the feel of Thae’a’s fury and Xheshmaryú’s own where it filtered mutedly down their link.

Did Nully know? She doubted he had and prayed simultaneously that he hadn’t. Because she knew that if her fellow had known, Azriel would have been facing off against something far worse than whatever punishment Alaïs could come up with. And it was a horrible thing to know and die having not acted upon.

“Al, please, you have to understand. It was a mista–“

Alaïs growled and the heat of her power increased tenfold until all of those awake in the infirmary made soft noises of distress. Were careful not to be too loud, not daring to risk bringing all that anger crashing down onto them instead. It was bad enough being so close, even separated by a door and stone walls as they were.

*Being in the same Province as Al right now is too close, let’s be real,* Xheshmaryú quipped and she bit the inside of her cheek hard to keep from laughing.

“Talk not of mistakes to me, you cheating piece of shit,” another whistle followed by a thump. Shadiranamen watched as a spiderweb of cracks formed in the door. That is not good.

“It was though, Al! I didn’t mean to!” Azriel snapped, voice breaking around the words, defensive but not in the way of someone who felt guilt for what they did and the hurt it caused, only that they’d not gotten away with it. “I never meant to hurt him, to go to bed with anyone besides him or those we mutually agreed were okay.”

“Was it a mistake when you blamed his lack of affection on why you turned to another?” Alaïs’ voice was so very cold, utterly devoid of the anger that had coated it seconds before. “How his distance in your bed was why you’d sought emotional comfort elsewhere even if that barmaid was the first time you’d gone looking for physical comfort in the arms of another?”

“He did fucking what?” Relyt snarled. He and Sheieh uttered Gretlök curses in tandem in the next breath.

*Just dropped Bay off with Thayne and I’m on my way,* Xheshmaryú’s voice shook with the anger he was barely keeping in check. The feel of it so foreign that it made Shadiranamen’s skin break out in shiver bumps. But she hardly noticed as her own rage shook loose the hold she had on it and smacked into the surface as she growled, lips curling back from her teeth. Didn’t bother to fight it even as the Palace Healer across from her flinched and paled. Just turned her head fully to the door and the drama occurring on the other side. Let Alaïs feel the touch of her support for a breath before she retreated back to her position of witness.

Azriel didn’t reply but his silence was answer enough. The tension in the infirmary broke then as they realized the true depth of the situation the Qishir was faced with. Understood that it was not her who was at fault for why Azriel was no longer qahllyn to him but rather the Anglëtinean himself. Made the loss of Nhulynolyn far more keen for of them all, only Rhyshladlyn’s twin had ever managed to be the perfect voice of reason when everyone else failed. And if this was the base upon which everything going wrong between Rhyshladlyn and Azriel had been built? When her did wake, they were going to need that ability.

“You cannot move yet,” Sheieh admonished suddenly in a desperate whisper.

Frowning Shadiranamen turned to the Soul Healer and raised both her eyebrows at the sight of the Dragaen, Xefras, on his feet. Watched the male push away from the bed and make for the door where Alaïs was still talking, though her words weren’t nearly as clear now. Xefras was green along his cheekbones, clearly in pain, but there was a determination in his eyes as he shuffled slowly down the aisle between the beds, one arm wrapped around his abdomen where his wound was beginning to bleed through the bandage wrapped there. He moved with the single minded focus of one whose anger had no words to describe the strength of it, whose need to defend the honor of the Dhaoine they loved was a tangible thing that coated the air around the defender like honey soaked sweet bread.

Five feet from the door Xefras raised his free hand and twitched his fingers. The door swung open and Azriel toppled onto the floor, having still been leaning against it. Alaïs stumbled hard but kept her feet solely because of reflexes honed by centuries spent in Shiran City, her hands white knuckled as she gripped the doorjamb, eyes losing a touch of their hardness when she saw who had disturbed their argument. Azriel’s mismatched eyes swung up, glittering with anger as he pushed quickly to his feet to face what had toppled him, all lithe grace and fluid movements. But he froze, anger spluttering as he came face to face with Xefras. Paled as that touchable need reached him, as he caught sight of the determination and the anger that fueled it, that allowed the Dragaen to do what no one should be able to do: stand with a wound that completely compromised his core muscles.

“You lost the right to be his Companion because when he needed you most, you were not there,” the Dragaen spoke calmly, clearly, even as the air above and around him shimmered with his own fury, his power a scent that made one think of campfires and cooking meat and chilly desert nights spent at the edge of a Field still fresh enough for the blood on the sand to have its own weight. “I was. I watched him beaten, raped, tortured both with magick and without it, I was there to clean him up in the aftermath. When I stood before him looking for absolution, for forgiveness, he gave it to me because unlike you I never blamed him for choices I made. I offered my flesh as repayment for the scars my lack of forethought, my lack of swift and appropriate action, begot him.”

The Dragaen squared his shoulders and took a step closer. Azriel tensed but otherwise didn’t move. Shadiranamen just watched in astonishment. Marveled that this tiny Dhaoine stood against a seasoned, legendary warrior with a ferocity she’d only ever seen on the Ka’ahne siblings. Rose to his full height, what little there was of it, and met Azriel’s demanding gaze with one that never waved, never flinched. Confident that even with the age difference, even with the height difference and the reach that came with it, Xefras would be able to hold his own. That even with his injury, Azriel would be hard pressed to take him down and keep him there without killing him.

It was impressive.

*He’s going to fit right in,* Alaïs murmured.

*Without any effort,* Shadiranamen added.

“You bring dishonor to not only your name by stepping out on him but also to his own,” Xefras continued, bringing gasps from everyone. It was an insult that carried nearly the same tarnishing as calling a Dhaoine a liar. And it wasn’t one spoken lightly. “You talk of what you did as though mistake is a word that covers it adequately. It does not. A mistake would be forgetting to offer a nameday greeting or forgetting to meet for dinner. Something that didn’t bring sleepless nights, loss of trust, and scars.”

Xefras took two more steps forward and to everyone’s astonishment Azriel took one back. Not that Shadiranamen blamed him really. Dragaen were known to mate to one Dhaoine only and were more ferocious than a Qishir’s Oathed Warrior when it came to taking care of that mate. Sure they may have other partners provided all were willing, but that first mate? That one they would kill even their own young to protect if necessary. And for such a Dhaoine to be the qahllyn Companion to a Qishir, especially one like Rhyshladlyn? Any Dhaoine with half a functioning brain cell would be reluctant for such a Dhaoine to be pissed at them and within arm’s reach.

“What was it then if not a mistake?” Azriel asked, tone hard but it was mostly bravado. Well disguised, yes, but still noticeable to those who knew him well.

“What you did was a betrayal and the only repayment good enough is to lose the right to call him your Oathed Qishir,” the Dragaen answered. “Though if it were up to me? I would make you incapable of producing young. But it is not up to me.”

“But it is not up to you,” Azriel said, frowning slightly, looking paler, eyes narrowed.

“No,” Xefras confirmed, “and for that you should be grateful.”

For long minutes no one moved, no one said anything. Shadiranamen doubted any of them really even breathed as Xefras and Azriel faced off against each other. As Alaïs stepped deftly out of the way as Xheshmaryú arrived, giving the Nochresi Other room to get through the door. The Dragaen tilted his head to the side to share a look with Xheshmaryú before taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.

“Leave, Azriel,” Xefras’ voice was gentler but the anger was still there, still made the air around him shimmer and dance like heat rising off the ground. “Go prepare the room you two shared here so that when he can be moved, it is ready for him and we can make him comfortable. But until he is released?” The Dragaen took another step forward, every line in his body hardening, muscles tensed in the way only a warrior’s did when preparing to leap into battle. “You will not return here and further disrupt the attempts made to Heal him and myself.”

Azriel narrowed his eyes, holding his ground this time but looking like he wanted to do everything but that. “And if I refuse?”

Xefras chuckled, the sound low and full of promises that Shadiranamen never wanted to him to follow through on. Even though she didn’t know what they were, she wanted the Dragaen to keep them that way: unknown and hidden in the shadows that shifted eerily at his feet. Kept chuckling as he shook his head and turned around to walk back to his bed, shaking his head bemusedly as he went.

Shadiranamen tracked him as he walked by and wondered not for the first time, and likely not the last either, why Fate had chosen Xefras to be Rhyshladlyn’s next Companion. But just like the Dragaen’s laughter had been answer enough to Azriel’s challenge, so too was it answer enough for her unspoken question. Rhyshladlyn needed someone who saw the darkness in him, the shadows that tried to lure him from Balance into Order or Chaos or both simultaneously, and rather than fighting to keep him where the Worlds thought he should be, instead looked at where he should be for himself. Needed someone who could stand by his side as a true equal not just in respect earned and unofficial title, but in power. He needed armor that doubled as a weapon.

*What he needed the whole time was a Companion who can hold the positions of every single Triad seat and never break stride,* Alaïs’ voice was filled with awe and no small amount of reverence.

*And he found it in a Dragaen of all things,* Shadiranamen said. It was so damned fitting of Rhyshladlyn.

“Let’s go, Azriel,” Xheshmaryú’s voice cut through the tense silence, bringing everyone’s attention swinging back around. The Nochresi Other curled a hand around Azriel’s arm just above his elbow and pulled first gently, then with more force when the Anglëtinean didn’t move. “Azriel.” A warning, crystal clear and sharp.

“Xefras,” the Anglëtinean called, ignoring Xheshmaryú who growled at him. When the Dragaen looked at him as Xefras sat back on his bed, one eyebrow raised Azriel continued, “mark my words before all these witnesses. If you hurt him like I have, like anyone else who has done him wrong in his lifetime has? I will find a way to break your connection to him so that what I do to you does not harm him. If you do him wrong? I will make what Anislanzir dealt to him look kind by comparison.”

“Would that you had shown that conviction before this moment, Azriel Kasuske of House Veratone,” the Dragaen smiled but it didn’t soften the jab in the slightest, if anything it made it all the sharper. “But… fair enough. I accept your vow before these witnesses and shall hold you to it.”

Azriel held his gaze for a heartbeat longer then glanced at Rhyshladlyn who still hung suspended between herself and Relyt and the Palace Healer. She watched as those striking, regal features contorted with an emotion she didn’t have a name for before they smoothed out and he allowed Xheshmaryú to escort him from the room. Alaïs pulled the door closed behind them after a pointed look around the room.

In the ensuing silence Xefras spoke again, barely loud enough for them to hear, “And in return I vow that I will see the Worlds burnt to ash at my feet before I let you or anyone else who claims to care of him make another scar upon his Self or the body that houses it.”

Shadiranamen shuddered hard and redoubled her efforts to Heal Rhyshladlyn, sharing a knowing, worried look over her ‘s head with Relyt who was paler than normal. Prayed as she met the Soul Healer’s wide slate grey eyes that Rhyshladlyn woke the fuck up and soon.

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