“Your honor guard is no longer necessary, Bayls Qaeniri. My twin lives.”
She stared at the door that Rhyshladlyn had closed behind him. Could feel him on the other side, could just catch the barest whiff of his tears, his magickal signature pressing against the wood like the gentle but insistent hands of a child wanting attention. For as long as she lived, she’d never forget the way he’d looked when he’d walked through that door, eyes dull, face a riot of emotions and yet still as stone. He had looked so lost and so alone and even though her heart had swelled with happiness at the news he’d brought, she grieved for the loss that news begot him. Would never forget the way he’d stared at her like he couldn’t decide if he hated her or envied her as Xheshmaryú had disappeared with a soft pop of displaced air, the Other no doubt going to Shadiranamen.
And now, feeling her Qishir standing so close but so far, her heart broke all over again. Sure, she was shocked and amazed and so happy her face hurt with the force of her giddy smile that Nhulynolyn was alive, that he was back. But she knew just as well as anyone else in the Court that a Greywalker was not Awakened without an incredible sacrifice. They gave up the thing they loved the most, cherished the most, in all the Worlds. Knew that what Nhulynolyn had given up was something that very well could break Rhyshladlyn.
“He lost Azriel cuz somethin’ of equal value must be exchanged.” Nhulynolyn sounded tired as he dropped face first onto the bed in a move that was somehow graceful for all that it was uncoordinated.
“But why though? Why did Az have to die, and why like that? Couldn’t Rhys have Awakened some other way?” she asked, sitting down at the foot of the bed, watching as the Other flopped over onto his back, blue eyes staring at the ceiling of the tent. Watched those ancient eyes trace the stitching in an idle back and forth, the fingers of his left hand tapping an idle melody only the Other could hear against his thigh.
“Because, B,” Nhulynolyn answered, voice soft, almost hesitant, like he was choosing his words carefully, “the only person Rhys loves more than Azriel is me an’ I can’t die. Well.. not in such simple manner. So the short straw got handed to good ol’ Feather Duster.”
“I don’t… what do you mean? If he loves you more, why wasn’t it you who was sacrificed?”
Nhulynolyn looked at her and she felt like she couldn’t breathe at the emotion that turned those normally solid, ice-like eyes into molten pools of blue as vast as the ocean and as terrifying as the night sky. “Because, Bay, I’m an Other an’ the rules of the living ain’t apply to me. I can only die in defense of my kè or at his hands. That’s it. It can’t be a happenstance mistake made in the heat of battle but a conscious choice he makes to kill me. An’ we both know Rhys ain’t ever gonna do that.”
She snorted. “That’s a fucking understatement.”
For all that she was grateful to have her mate back, to have the father of her fledgling returned to her, Bayls couldn’t help but also feel guilty. Couldn’t help but be angry with the gods, with Fate, with whatever shit deity controlled the odds because her family had suffered more than enough. They were constantly sacrificing themselves and those they cared for in order to ensure that the Worlds at large were kept alive and safe and Balanced and for what? A few months of respite, of peace, of happiness? A few mumbled words of gratitude spoken in a rush by a population that only gave two shits so long as they didn’t have to lift a finger to help themselves? It wasn’t enough. Not by a fucking long shot. And out of them all, Rhyshladlyn shouldn’t have to give anymore. Not for the Worlds, not for the Court, not for the ragtag family that he had saved from fates worse than death more times than she could count in a single lifetime.
But she knew as well as anyone else that he would give pieces of himself even after there were no more to give. Would keep finding pieces until the day they built his funeral pyre and the Worlds ripped themselves into the number of pieces he’d given them for the loss of him.
After all, he’d come to tell her that her honor guard was no longer needed, that her mate had returned to the land of the living. Then he apologized for his distraction, for his error, which had led to Nhulynolyn’s death. And it had taken everything in her to not snarl that it wasn’t he who should apologize but Azriel for being the worthless fuckbag who couldn’t keep his dick where it motherfucking belonged. That it was Qishir Xhala Qinshi for being the dishonorable shit who ordered the systematic genocide of Rhyshladlyn’s origin race. That it was Azhuri for being a two-faced psychopath who cared more for her own safety and that of her first born fledglings than being the mother she should have been. That it was Qishir Lulphé for sending Azriel to Shiran City specifically to gather evidence to convict Anislanzir of breaking the most sacred of the Laws, only to ignore every single piece of proof he sent her.
Instead she’d just wrapped her arms tightly around Rhyshladlyn’s waist and murmured word of forgiveness in Sinxhët into the newest scar on his chest where it pushed against the fabric of his tunic. Had hummed softly when he’d held her back. Hadn’t fought him when he’d stepped back and bowed in the traditional Sinner manner before turning and making for the door without another word. Had just gone back to the chair she’d hardly gotten out of in five days and sank heavily back onto it.
She looked away from the door as the sound of running footsteps and Rhyshladlyn’s deep rumbling baritone filtered passed the wood. Stared at the tattoo on her left hand, watched the firelight play across it and wondered when Nhulynolyn would show up. Wondered how long he would wander the streets of the City that had been resurrected alongside him. Tried to figure out how she would tell him that she was pregnant, that she was terrified, that she was pissed, that she was so happy it felt like her skin would never be cool again. But most of all she wondered how different things would be now and if the change his death and return was something the Court could handle, never mind if the Worlds over could.
A subtle change in the air of the room told her she wasn’t alone and her head snapped up and around. Nhulynolyn stood behind the couch Rhyshladlyn had been sitting in minutes before, looking just as he always had but different, too. Like he was older in ways she’d never be able to understand. His hair fell down around his shoulders in gentle curls, more vivid a red than she remembered, like someone had taken fire and woven it into hair. His skin seemed darker, like he’d spent the last five days under the sun versus in the in between. The striking regality of his face and the bulkiness of his muscled warrior’s body seemed more intense, like she was seeing it all for the first time again. He spread his arms with a crooked smile that was all Nhulynolyn and she was on her feet fast enough that her chair scooted across the floor with a loud screech of wood on stone.
“Nul?” her voice cracked as her vision blurred with tears. She blinked and he was suddenly inches away, the feel of his power breathtaking, like standing too close to a bolt of lightning as it landed. She swayed under the intensity of it, eyes falling closed as she took in his scent, the sound of his signature so loud and healthy in her ears that it almost drowned out the thundering beat of her heart. Her hands flailed out blindly for him, breath falling out of her mouth in a sob when his own caught hers and pulled them to his chest.
He’d always known what she needed long before it had even become a thought in her head, let alone had words for her to verbalize it. And feeling the warmth of his body, the beat of his heart beneath her hands was exactly what she needed. Second only to the feeling of his arms encircling her as he pulled her close, nose tucked behind her ear, breath hot where it danced along her neck.
“It’s me, Bayls, it’s really me.”
Her tears fell despite how she fought against them. The sound she loosed at those six words and the voice she’d been so certain she’d never get to hear again terrible in its joy, cacophonous in the things it left unsaid. He said nothing else, just held her while she cried into fabric of his tunic, her hands fisting the material so it was pulled tight across his chest until she was sure it would rip under the force of her grip. But she didn’t loosen her hold, couldn’t bring herself to even entertain the thought of doing so. Like if she let go, he’d disappear. As though the only thing keeping him physically here and alive and with her was the too tight hold she had on that flimsy fabric.
The rustle of feathers had her eyes flying open in time to see him release his wings and wrap them around them both. Her breath stopped in her chest at the sight because she could count on one hand the number of times she’d seen those beautiful appendages with their feathers colored in the hues of the shadowfire only he controlled. She lifted a shaking hand towards the nearest one, traced one of the shorter feathers gently, hesitantly. Laughed in a bark of sound when Nhulynolyn jumped and moaned at the touch before holding her tighter.
“You’re really here…” she whispered and felt him nod where his nose was still pressed into the dimple behind her ear.
“Yeah, B. I’m really here.”
“Great Mother and Father be thanked.” Still idly petting the feathers she could reach, she allowed herself to sink into the feel of him holding her. Of the strength and safety the cocoon of his wings created. Marveled that this was her life, that she was so lucky to have this moment even if the reason for it was born of unimaginable tragedy. Vowed that she would never take moments with him for granted ever again; that she’d never wait to tell him anything again thinking that they had all the time in the Worlds because the gods only knew they didn’t. “Nully… there’s something I need to tell you…”
He chuckled softly and nodded. “I know you’re pregnant.” He laughed when she pulled back and stared at him with wide eyes. “I suspected before we left for Ryphqi but didn’t know until I got back just now. I can hear our little one’s signature, it’s nearly as loud as your own.”
She touched her abdomen with the hand that had been petting his wing, marveling that their fledgling’s signature made music just like theirs did. Wished she could hear it, too, but knew that she couldn’t until it was born.
Nhulynolyn hooked a finger beneath her chin and lifted her head, eyes twinkling with an emotion that went beyond the simple word love. And as she always was, Bayls was left breathless in the wake of it.
“It sounds like someone made a melody out of the sound y’hear when a dune collapses, that shishitter of the sand filling the crater, the plop plop of the damp ground beneath it thudding against the bottom, the howling of the wind as it blows passed and into and through the cracks.” Nhulynolyn smiled and she felt fresh tears fall. He cupped her face gently, thumbs brushing across her cheeks. “It sounds like someone made lyrics out of the laughter around a campfire, the heartbeat drums and the haunting hollowness of the flutes.”
“Home…” she whispered breathlessly, eyes falling closed. Imaging she could hear exactly what Nhulynolyn was describing. “It sounds just like home.”
“Aye,” Nhulynolyn said. “That it does.”
She wrapped her arms around his waist much like she had Rhyshladlyn earlier and held him tightly. Curled her hands into fists against his lower back, feeling the tickle of the downy feathers at the base of his third set of wings. Smiled when those wings wrapped around them both again like a giant feathered blanket, a shield just as strong as the Dhaoine they sprang from.
He was dressed the as the day he’d left for Ryphqi City. Smelled the same, his hair was just as long as it had been, skin cool to the touch but giving off fever heat. It was as if the last five days hadn’t happened, as if that time had been a nightmare so vivid it had felt real. If she hadn’t seen Alaïs’ pain, hadn’t witnessed Rhyshladlyn laying on the table in the meeting hall, blood gushing from the most horrific wound Bayls had even seen off a Field, she’d have thought this entire thing was a Weave of Thae’a’s. But even the Dreamweaver wasn’t strong enough to create something like this. Sure, she could make the physical shit seem real, but the emotional? No.
Her mate felt and looked and sounded just as he had before she’d seen his body, before she’d overseen the wrapping and preparation for the funeral pyre. And it was so hard to reconcile that with the fact that he had been dead not two hours ago.
“We need to get to the audience hall,” he murmured as he leaned back and kissed her forehead.
“Duty fuckin’ calls,” she muttered testily.
“Unfortunately,” he chuckled and ducked down to kiss her soundly on the mouth. Laughed at her sound of protest when he pulled back. “Come on, Rhys is ’bout to have his hands full as fuck in a few minutes an’ is gonna need us both there.”
“How do you know?” she asked, genuinely curious.
Nhulynolyn smiled but it didn’t fully touch his eyes and she wished she could take the question back but she didn’t try to.
“I’m Alaïs’ kè in truth now.” It wasn’t an answer, not really, but she didn’t press. Just accepted it at face value.
He was only ever cryptic like that when he wanted her to go into something cold because he wanted her at her absolute best. And if she was prepared, she would miss something. This is going to be unpleasant, I can just feel it.
“I’m sorry, y’know,” Nhulynolyn murmured as they walked the Palace corridors hand in hand like it was just another normal day. Like she hadn’t spent the last five days ritualistically preparing his body for the funeral pyre, that the only reason it hadn’t been lit was because she couldn’t bring herself to send him to the gods in full while Rhyshladlyn lay unconscious, struggling to Heal, to survive, to make Nhulynolyn’s sacrifice worth it. “But I–“
“Shut up, Nully,” she interrupted, squeezing his hand to take some of the sting out of the words. “I knew the risks when I invited you into my tent that night. I knew who I was being bound to when we handfasted. I know that in the grand scheme of things that no one comes before Rhys does for you, not even me, not even our unborn child. And that’s okay.” She shook his hand until he glanced at her. “I forgive you both. Neither of you could have predicted that Xefras was his Companion, that he’d be there, that things would have gone tits up and fucked with it.”
“But, B, I lef–”
“No.” This time she left the sting untouched as she glared at him. “No,” she continued when she was certain he wouldn’t be stupid and try to keep talking, “you did nothing wrong. The asshole to blame for all of this isn’t you and it ain’t your brother though the Great Mother knows neither of you will believe that even after you’re dust on the wind.” She shook her head before leaning it against his bicep, feeling the muscle twitch as they walked. “So for the love of everything, just stop apologizing for doing exactly what you should have in that moment.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes before Nhulynolyn kissed the top of her head and she smiled.
“I love you,” he whispered into her hair.
“You fuckin’ better,” she replied and grinned as his laughter shook the air around them.