72

Xefras watched Rhyshladlyn’s hair sway back and forth across the back of his broad shoulders. Blinked every time sunlight bounced off the hair-bells woven among those auburn locks, bells that hadn’t made a single chime in the days since Xefras had found the Grey Court again. Watched as the muscles beneath his shirt rippled and bunched with each swinging motion of his arm. Felt his blood heat at the way the Qishir’s hips swayed with each liquid-smooth stride he took through the hallways of the Palace. He moved the same way he had when Xefras had first seen him in one of Xitlali’s compounds, back when he’d only known Rhyshladlyn as slave yshlad, the only slave who spoke verbally, who had a moving escort of five guards at all times.

Back then, Rhyshladlyn had walked with the same set to his shoulders, his hair-bells had been a riot of discontented, discordant notes as they’d tumbled over and against each other with each rolling, violence-laced step that had jarred the body they’d sat atop of. The same shadow of grief that followed him back then followed him now; the kind born not of what one had lost but rather of what could have been. It draped across his shoulders under the dancing tips of his auburn hair like a cloak. Ruffled the fabric of his shirt like a breeze that touched nothing and no one else.

And the reason for that shadow of grief walked shackled by Xefras’ own magick just a few paces behind him. So many questions were answered now after watching the exchange between the real Relyt and Rhyshladlyn in the central gardens. Was so close that Xefras could taste the connection between them, could see the chasm that had yawned with so much suddenness and force that it left both Steward and Qishir broken in ways neither saw yet or comprehended if they did. And now that his own qahllyn was realized and Acknowledged, he could intimately feel the swirling emotions that plagued Rhyshladlyn, could catch blips of the thoughts and memories that accompanied those emotions as the Qishir strode through the Palace.

Each flash of the past made his control wobble just a little more. Made his muscles itch with the need to round on the Soul Healer and render him useless not just in producing young but also in ever serving a purpose as a qahllyn to a Qishir, be it Rhyshladlyn or some other Dhaoine. For without Relyt’s choices, without what he’d done, they wouldn’t be here.

And for all that Xefras was thankful to have met Rhyshladlyn, for all that he loved the Qishir and would move the Worlds thrice over for him, there were some things that were never worth suffering. Some outcomes weren’t worth the scars gotten in the process. Even if one survived and those who created those scars didn’t.

But one wouldn’t know the turmoil the Qishir was in to look at him striding with the same grace of movement he’d had as a slave bound by the Worlds’ strongest magick tampering collar. No, to look at him, Rhyshladlyn was just as confident and unflappable as the stories the Worlds told of him said he was. But Xefras knew better. Not just because as his Companion he could see what other Dhaoine could not but because he had spent centuries learning to read Rhyshladlyn without the aid of magick. And the way the Qishir moved now despite the internal maelstrom of emotions and memories that brought tears pricking Xefras’ own eyes, told him that whatever Rhyshladlyn had planned for when they reached the meeting hall wasn’t going to be good.

That and it reminded him of the night Rhyshladlyn had told him not to mourn him when he was gone.

*Xykra?* he called and smiled fondly when she perked up from where she was sitting at a table in the Palace library surrounded by books. *Rhys has something major planned so I need you and Hythin to be on your guard, okay?*

*Do you need us in the meeting hall with you, my ?* Hythin asked from where he stood wrapped in the shadows of the trees that lined the main courtyard.

*Just say the word, my twin, and we will be there.* His hands tingled with the feel of the old magick that came off the book Xykra gently closed as she sat back in the plush chair she’d dragged up to the table to replace the more unforgiving ones.

He watched Rhyshladlyn take a turn, eyes flicking back to make sure he and the prisoner they were escorting as publicly as possible were still there, and thought about it. Knew he wanted his Others there if only because it would make him feel steadier. He didn’t know the Grey and Honorable Courts as well as he knew Rhyshladlyn. He’d spent nearly three centuries in close quarters with the Qishir but in the forty years since they’d both escaped, he’d been running for his life in the Forest of Dreams and Darkness and had only barely escaped that ordeal with his life. So how the politics and movements of the Worlds’ two most powerful Courts usually went, he had no idea. Never mind that he didn’t know for certain how much of those politics and movements were what they used to be before Lílrt’s meddling or were altered because of that meddling.

But one thing he did know was that adding more variables to an already variable-laced, volatile situation was begging for shit to go wrong.

“Nearly there,” Shadiranamen whisper-hissed from behind him, nearly making him trip. “And guess what, Azriel made it there, too. From what I hear, you kicked his knee out.”

“If he wasn’t pissed at you before,” Xheshmaryú snorted, “he is now.”

*No,* he answered with a glance back at the Others and Relyt who didn’t even look up from watching the floor pass by beneath his feet, *but keep an ear out on the conversation. I’ll signal if one or both of you is needed.*

They turned the corner into the hallway with the meeting hall moments later. The doors swinging open before Rhyshladlyn was even ten feet away. His magick was a cold snap that left heat in its wake as it trickled out and then filled the corridor. Like one had gone from being outside in the dead of winter to stepping inside where the furnace was on full blast.

The Qishir didn’t break stride as he reached behind him and snapped his fingers. Xefras, despite himself, cried out when Relyt went flying down the hall, dragged by the invisible touch of Rhyshladlyn’s power. Rhyshladlyn pivoted to face the Soul Healer just as Relyt’s throat slammed into the Qishir’s hand. For a brief moment no one moved, no one breathed, until the wind Relyt’s sudden movement caused whipped around them all, ruffling hair and clothing alike before it settled. And then all that grief, all that loss, and the other emotions that it brought on, that had been swirling inside Rhyshladlyn breathed through the hallway. Filled every inch of it until they replaced the very air.

“Remember when I told you that I don’t give second chances, only consequences?” Rhyshladlyn asked, tone conversational, an utter contradiction to the look on his face, the darkness in his eyes, the shadows that clung to his shoulders, and the weight of his power as it dripped from him in waves. It was in that moment that Xefras saw what made the Seven Worlds nickname him the Grey Qishir.

It wasn’t because he was a Greywalker, the first born in tens of thousands of years, though that probably had a small part in it. No, it was because Rhyshladlyn was able to straddle the line between abject monstrosity and the essence of goodness and mercy. He was able to be neither and both simultaneously while also being the line itself without ever succumbing to any of them. Rhyshladlyn was the Grey Qishir because he was fair, merciless but never cruel, unforgiving when it was warranted, understanding always, and treated every single Dhaoine with an equality that was as much a double edged sword as it was a shield.

Relyt, to his credit, just faced down that force of nature, that touch of divinity without blinking. Just matched Rhyshladlyn burning stare with a cool, calm one.

“Yes, your majes–” the Soul Healer cut off abruptly when Rhyshladlyn’s forearm muscles flexed and the hand he curled around Relyt’s throat tightened.

“Do not call me that, you worthless piece of shit,” the Qishir snarled. “You lost that right the second you betrayed every promise you made and every Oath you ever wanted to make.” Rhyshladlyn pulled him close until their noses were nearly touching. Xefras tensed, prepared to separate them if need be, but stopped when a hand landed on his shoulder and another gripped his elbow. Glanced to either side at Shadiranamen and Xheshmaryú who shook their heads before disappearing from sight. “So let’s try this again. Do you remember when I told you that I don’t give second chances, only consequences?”

“Yes, Qishir Rhyshladlyn,” Relyt answered, voice strained, eyes wide as his face began to drain of color as the Qishir squeezed his windpipe and deprived him slowly of air. “It was the first day after I… fou-ound you in Shiran. In — the… hea-ealing pools of the palace.”

Rhyshladlyn hummed. “Aye. Well now you get to experience me upholding my word as the subject, instead of a witness.” Xefras jumped when he tossed Relyt into the meeting hall like the Soul Healer weighed nothing more than a blanket. The sound of Relyt hitting the floor was loud, almost louder than the scream and snap of bone that accompanied that impact.

Xykra’s curse and Hythin’s surprise kept him anchored enough to school his face when Rhyshladlyn turned and smiled at him with a serenity that was unnerving. Kept him from flinching when the Qishir gestured at the open hall doors and asked with a gentle conversational tone that was nothing like the tone he’d had moments ago, as though the anger and heat and grief had never been there, “Shall we?”

*Xefras…*

*No, Hythin. My order remains the same. Listen in and wait for my signal. Without that? Do not come here.* Xefras smiled at Rhyshladlyn and closed the distance, executing a bow when he was three feet away as was proper.

“After you, my Qishir,” he replied, straightening slowly, ever cautious of bringing back that same anger from before only with an entirely different target.

Orange-amber eyes regarded him for a long moment before Rhyshladlyn nodded and walked inside. Xefras let out a silent, shaky breath he hadn’t known he was holding and followed, praying as he did so that this conversation would go a far sight better than the one with Sheieh had. And knew the moment he saw Ahdyfe kneeling beside Relyt’s crumpled body that it wouldn’t.

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