The doors clicked shut behind her and she leaned against them with a gusty sigh, eyes closed as she tried to reign in her temper. Thae’a had never been good at diplomacy. Sure, she could play the part and play it well, could keep things cool headed enough between arguing parties until logic and honor prevailed. But put her in front of a crowd of nearly a hundred Dhaoine all clamoring for answers that she didn’t have, that not even her Qishir had? That was beyond even her meager skill set. And there was only so much patience once could have when faced with willful refusal to approach a situation with consideration and understanding.

She was better suited for spying with Adïmshyl. At least then the rules had made sense and it didn’t matter if she was a diplomat or not. So long as she kept to the script and played her part, that was all that mattered. It was all that had been needed to ensure the mission was completed safely and, hopefully, successfully. But standing up as a diplomat to keep a peace she wasn’t even sure she wanted anymore let alone agreed with was something far more difficult.

“Are you okay, Tee?”

She jumped and looked over at Azriel who stood to the left of the doors opposite Xefras, acting as guard should the crowd she’d just barely gotten to calm themselves decided to do a truly stupid thing like rush the audience hall. The Anglëtinean didn’t look at her but she knew he was watching her, was tasting her emotions, was reading her magickal signature. All without ever looking away from the hall he watched with a lazy, bored expression that was his version of a warrior’s thousand yard stare, mismatched eyes not nearly as bright as she was used to.

“Aye, just… fuck,” she shook her head with a soft laugh. “I’m not a diplomat. I’m not cut out to even try to be one. And if I’d ever had a mind to try, the fuckers in the hallway bled it out of me.”

Azriel snorted, making Xefras’ attention slither sidelong towards the male before it refocused back on the hall at large. She shivered at the touch of that fiery power, so like their Qishir’s own, and wondered when the Dragaen had been trained as a warrior, never mind how old he was. But she wouldn’t ask. One thing the war had taught her was that warrior’s spoke of their age and their training when they were good and ready and those who had earned their notches, their right to fight alongside other warriors in the Worlds, never asked. But it didn’t stop the nagging need to know that prickled at her skin. Adïmshyl always said her curiosity would get her killed one day.

“None of us are, Tee. Save Al but only because Azhuri trained her to since she was originally supposed to take the throne at Atlanshïr in her mother’s stead.”

“Then why not send Al out to talk to that lot?” She sounded petulant and she hated it but fuck she was tired. It was like lately the skills of every member of the Court were being shucked out the window like day old kitchen slop and instead they were getting assigned to duties that didn’t even remotely fall in their repertoire. “Why send me when there was someone more capable?”

“Probably because out of everyone in here, you’re the only one who could mother them into silence if you couldn’t placate them with diplomacy,” Xefras’ voice was a shock to the system like it always was. It sounded like the soft crinkling of burning paper with undertones of the deeper rumbling pops of a fire bursting air pockets in dried wood. It was hard to imagine anyone ever thinking he was anything other than the Dragaen he was. Never mind that he had escaped notice while living under Xitlali and Lílrt’s thumbs for so long while standing shoulder to shoulder with Rhyshladlyn.

“Right… like anyone actually listens to me,” she scoffed as she turned to looked at him, feeling Azriel’s attention shift and do the same though the Anglëtinean didn’t move physically like she did.

Xefras took a deep breath and let it out slow before those brown-gold eyes turned to look at her directly, the focus of them carrying the weight of not just a few centuries or thousands of years but longer. The breadth of his age pressed against her skin from the inside out, the knowledge of tens of millennia like the slow press of a knife in the gut; the pressure intense until the skin parted beneath it and muscle tore asunder so the steel could sink into the hilt and twist to do maximum damage. Holy shit how has no one figured out how long you’ve lived? You literally watched the Greywalkers be massacred and then be reborn.

“They do, Thae’a. Whether you acknowledge that or believe it,” Xefras said after a moment, “they do. They always have.” Those eyes flicked to Azriel before the Dragaen resumed his previous position of staring straight out at the hall, hands clasped palm over fist behind his back, body relaxed in a way that part of her didn’t want to believe but only because his age had thrown her. “Even when they probably shouldn’t have.”

She frowned. What does he know? It was hard to tell, harder still to ask. She shook her head and turned back to Azriel who was staring at the Dragaen with a look that was equal parts confusion, fury, jealousy, and something unnameable. None of which boded well as the first whisper of his power sparked at the air around him. Thae’a tapped the Anglëtinean’s shoulder, bringing those mismatched eyes swinging over to her. She raised both eyebrows and nodded to one of the small, unoccupied tables across the room. Azriel sighed and nodded before pushing off the wall and making his way for the table, relaxing more with each step he took away from the more crowded side of the hall.

“Jerald,” Thae’a called and the Alphenian immediately stiffened from where he had been sitting talking to Eiod at a table with Nhulynolyn. The Grey Warrior looked at her with an expectantly raised eyebrow and she gestured at the spot Azriel had vacated.

“Aye,” was the only reply from that deep voice before he rose to his feet and moved silently but swiftly to take the spot she’d indicated.

“Thank you for your insight, Xefras,” she said with a nod of her head to the Dragaen as Jerald settled into the spot Azriel had vacated. Xefras made a sound that might have been a chuckle but it was hard to tell with the buzzing hum of conversation all around them. “I will take what you said into consideration.”

She made to walk away but stopped when Jerald’s hand shot out and gripped her arm as she passed in front of him. She turned to look at him and flinched at what showed in his eyes and knew that whatever Xefras thought he knew, Jerald had proof of. Remembered the way Rhyshladlyn had laid out all the transgressions of the Court that had led up to the moment he’d been collared by Lílrt and swallowed hard. Fought to keep the fear from her face even though she knew the Alphenian had already smelled it. Because while she hadn’t acted upon any of the thoughts she’d had over the last few centuries, since well before Rhyshladlyn had been collared, she had done things that toed the line, that wouldn’t be explained away with placation and promises. Not with everything else that had gone on, not with Relyt’s betrayal and Azriel’s missteps and the hand that Sheieh and Ahdyfe had in it all.

“Mind yourself, Thae’a,” Jerald warned just loud enough for only herself and Xefras to hear. “You think the path you are on is the right one but it is not. Eventually the sun will rise and clear the fog that shields you and then there will be no turning back.”

With a growl that she was careful to keep just as soft as his voice was, she jerked her hand from his hold but felt the strength in his hand and knew she only got free because he let her get free. Knew he wasn’t just warning her as a courtesy or because at one point they had been vague friends never mind battle-mates, but because he was the Grey Warrior and he could and would kill literally anyone and everyone to protect his Qishir. And she didn’t have an Oath to protect her and Adïmshyl, she didn’t have blood relations to link them either. It was merely a friendship that had gotten strained over the years and the unspoken knowledge that at some point she had stopped being wholly on Rhyshladlyn’s side. He warned her because there were bigger threats to his Qishir than herself but he wouldn’t pretend she wasn’t an active possible threat for long.

While it was honorable, admirable even, it still pissed her off that he had the audacity to accuse her outright like he was. Even if he never said as much, merely did it in so many words, it still crossed a line she hadn’t even come close to deserving.

“I know the path I walk, Jerald Tar’rant,” she snapped. “Do you?”

His smile was unsettling and not because his expression changed with it, because it didn’t. It was like she saw something move behind that smile, behind the face it stretched across. Something that lived between the skin he showed the worlds and the bones that held it up. Xefras’ muted mirth danced behind her but she ignored it. One fucking high and mighty bastard at a time.

“Ever since I first laid eyes on him.”

“Good for you,” she retorted, pivoted and walked away, feeling the Alphenian’s eyes track her until she got to the table and that stare moved away. Swallowing hard around the other words she’d wanted to say, things that would have crossed lines that made the one she felt Jerald had just stepped over look tame in comparison. Because some things were not meant to be spoken aloud.

Azriel sat looking at Rhyshladlyn who stood in front of the windows looking out over the City, one hand braced on the glass, fingers spread as though to help lend him extra support. As though he wasn’t strong enough to throw every single Dhaoine in here several feet barehanded and not break a sweat. She kicked a chair out from the table and sat with her back to Rhyshladlyn. It was petty to not want to look at the Qishir after what Jerald had said, what he’d hinted at, but right now her focus wasn’t her Qishir, it was his disgraced Companion, it was her friend. But now that they had the illusion of privacy, she found she had no idea what to say to him. Or rather, she had no idea where to start.

Instead she sat and traced the tattoos that marked where the qahllyn’qir he no longer had had been. Marveled at their brilliance, at the way they seemed to shift and writhe even when Azriel himself was still as stone. Wondered what would happen if things between the Anglëtinean and their Qishir couldn’t be resolved, if those tattoos would fade just as the qahllyn’qir they represented had or if Azriel would be stuck with them until his next death, forced to be reminded every time he or anyone else saw them of his biggest failure. Felt a twinge of sympathy for the male because if she were in his place, she’d be hard pressed not to cut her own skin off just to get rid of them.

“Where’s Adïmshyl?” Azriel asked, startling her out of her morbid train of thought. He gave her a soft, apologetic smile that only brushed at his eyes as they shifted away from Rhyshladlyn to her. “It’s unlike him to be far from you.”

“He is helping out in the infirmary until all the Healers who were in the Palace are accounted for,” Thae’a answered with a smile that hurt her cheeks to make.

For all his issues, she loved her mate. Had gone through so much with him that she couldn’t imagine tossing him aside like Rhyshladlyn had tossed aside Azriel. Though, realistically that wasn’t entirely fair to the Qishir. He had defended himself against someone who hadn’t respected the agreed upon boundaries for the relationship they shared, had ended the coupling as was his right. But choosing another Companion just because of that? It seemed a bit much to her, seemed like he was being unfair and it bothered her. But the gods only knew the stubborn male wouldn’t ever listen to anyone’s perspective so she didn’t even waste her time anymore trying to get him to see reason.

But maybe if I had, we could have avoided this.

“He is a good male,” Azriel commented and looked away from her and back to Rhyshladlyn, one hand tapping the tabletop in an idle, incomprehensible rhythm, the other resting on his thigh. “He treats you right.”

It wasn’t a question but it felt like one. Felt like Azriel was trying to test the waters of whether she was safe to have the conversation he was dying to have with someone. She reached across the table and put her hand on top of his, curled her fingers so she could press her fingertips into his palm. Felt him stiffen and then relax but he didn’t look at her even though she stared at him like if she didn’t memorize him, he would disappear and her perfect memory of him would be the only proof he’d ever existed at all.

“I didn’t mean to hurt him, Tee,” Azriel said after a few minutes of sitting like that with her holding his hand and him not looking at her. “I fucked up, I know I did. I didn’t… I didn’t treat him right but fuck, I didn’t do something that deserved to see me lose him as my Oathed Qishir. I just… I’m so damn lost, Tee. I don’t know what to do anymore. He won’t listen to me. Any time I try to talk to him, it devolves into a fight. He’s made up his mind about me and nothing and no one will change it.”

“Doesn’t mean you have to accept that,” she replied, “or even be okay with it.” She squeezed his hand and sighed. “Adïm and I have had our fair share of problems over the centuries, especially in the beginning, even more so lately. But relationships take work, real work. You can’t just haul ass when things get hard.”

Azriel looked at her, hope sparking in his eyes and she hated that she was going to dim it again but she wouldn’t lie to him. Not outright, not on purpose.

“But some things are unforgivable, Az,” she shrugged when he glared at her and looked away. Jerked on his hand and brought his attention back to her with a growl that made the table vibrate. She raised an eyebrow, tightened her grip, and kept talking, “And what you did? That is unforgivable. You cheated Azriel, all you had to do was wait for him, was reach for him, and you didn’t. Instead you reached for the nearest warm body and when he caught you, when he responded like any honorable, word-keeping Dhaoine would, you made it his fault.” Azriel growled again and tried to pull his hand away, to run, but she held fast, she wasn’t done yet. “If the roles had been reversed, what would you have done, hmm?”

“Rhys wouldn’t have fucked up like I did,” the Anglëtinean replied.

“You’re missing the fucking point, Azzy,” Thae’a pressed. “Say he was capable of doing that shit and he had, what would you have done?”

“If I was a Qishir?” Thae’a shrugged and nodded in a sure, go with that gesture. “Revoked his Blood Oath and killed his partner where she lay before making an example of him.”

She blinked, taken aback at how quickly he’d answered and how much truth radiated from him when he did. Let him go and watched him pull his hand back and cradle it protectively against his chest before it joined his other one beneath the table, mismatched eyes cold as they stared back at her. Didn’t care in that moment if he ran because suddenly she was faced with the realization that trying to defend him, to see both sides of the argument had been wrong. That she had missed something crucial and by missing that she had done so many things wrong, things that could see innocent Dhaoine hurt or worse. Azriel was capable of grasping why Rhyshladlyn had responded the way he had because the Anglëtinean would have done worse in the Qishir’s stead, yet he acted like he was the victim. It was such a double standard, so hypocritical that she was disgusted by the mere idea that she had defended him.

“Then why is it so hard for you to understand why things have gone down they way they did?” she asked, genuinely curious, swallowing her disgust at his hypocrisy in the hopes of getting real answers. “Because if that would have been your response, can you imagine the response Rhys actually had and then swallowed?”

“What does it matter, Tee?” the Anglëtinean retorted, crossing his arms over his chest, shoulders tight, a muscle ticking along his jaw as he ground his teeth.

“It matters because you say you feel guilty for what you did to him but you’re blaming him for his response to your actions, your choices,” she snapped, a small part of her happy when he flinched at her tone. “You of all people know exactly why he has trust issues, why he doesn’t let many people close and after everything he’s gone through you’re… what? Butt hurt that he left you live and tossed you aside? When he’s killed Dhaoine for less?” She shook her head and let some of her disgust leak out because maybe then he’d fucking listen. Maybe. “It matters because I’ve been trying to defend you and Rel for fuckin centuries while also taking care of Rhys but fuck if I can’t do it when you are being purposefully fucking ignorant of all sides to a situation. Never mind that you refuse to see how you’re the one at fault, not Rhys.”

“What do you want me to say, huh, Tee? There’s only so many fucking times a male can apologize before even he gets tired of hearing himself say it.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Thae’a hissed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I don’t want to hear your apologies, Azriel. I want to hear the truth. Just once, just to see if you or Rel are capable of it since it sure as fuck isn’t Rhys we have to side-eye. I want to hear just how far you have fallen so I know whether it’s worth it to keep putting in the effort to save your stupid, hypocritical ass or if I should cut my losses and walk away while I still can before you drag me down with you.”

Azriel sat back, expression clearing as though he’d never looked fierce and furious and hadn’t said how he’d kill his partner and whoever they cheated on him with without a hint of hesitation or remorse. As though he hadn’t acted like a petulant child told that his actions didn’t match up to his word and it was time to either do so or pay up. It was unnerving at how different the two expressions were. Like night and day, only worse because the difference between the Anglëtinean’s expressions wasn’t nearly as innocuous as the difference between day and night.

He blinked and looked back at Rhyshladlyn and his face softened in increments until the Azriel she had met nearly a millennium ago was the one who looked across the hall at their Qishir. She saw the love he still felt for the male, saw that he was hurting because he had fucked up his one and only chance to be exactly what he promised Rhyshladlyn he always would be. Watched as the realization that he had gotten off light because the Qishir had been well within rights to have killed him that night at the docks danced across that sharp face. But instead of killing Azriel, Rhyshladlyn had tried to work it out until the moment when recovering from that overstep, from that destruction of trust, was too much for the Qishir to bear, until the moment when he accepted that it just wasn’t doable. Azriel’s expression twitched and she averted her eyes out of respect as his own welled up with tears. Didn’t look up until he sniffed and sighed heavily, chair creaking as he shifted his weight.

“I should leave…” he whispered, more to himself, like he hadn’t meant to say the words out loud. “Give him space from me…”

“Maybe,” she hedged, “maybe not.” She shrugged with a crooked smile when he glanced at her before looking away again. “But you do need to accept that you aren’t the victim here, he is. And he’s made his position quite clear.”

Azriel rubbed at his face and pushed his hands through his hair, eyes full of grief though Thae’a didn’t think he knew that, not yet.

“I just don’t want to lose him, Tee. I can’t lose him.”

Hard truths are always the worst. “I’m afraid, Azriel, that you already have. And if you keep pushing him for something that can’t be fixed, you will lose more than just your Qishir and your mate, you will lose your friend, too.”

The Anglëtinean didn’t say anything to that, just stared at Rhyshladlyn while she watched him and Jerald watched them both, his attention like a touch against her skin. Silken smooth and teasing but she knew it could turn sharp and deadly in a heartbeat and it made her want to not be in the room whenever Azriel solidly made the decision that floated behind his eyes. Shit, if she was being honest, she didn’t even want to be in the fucking Palace when the Anglëtinean crossed the room and spoke to his Qishir one more time, like an addict chasing a high that would never be as good as the first time.

“I’m going to find Adïm,” she murmured and tapped the table once with a knuckle. “Our home is always open to you, should you need it,” she added.

Azriel smiled at her but it was sad and didn’t touch his eyes. “Thank you, Thae’a Xh’taphïrd. May the High Ones always bless you and your mate.”

She smiled and nodded before standing and making her way to the doors. Jerald pulled his side open just enough for her to slip through, his attention on her but his eyes on the room. She paused with one hand on the door and looked at the side of his face.

“You were right, Jerald,” she spoke only loud enough for him to hear her, barely above a breath, “and I’m going to take some time away from the Court. Give Rhys some space and me and Adïmshyl some time to gather ourselves and decide where we go from here.”

“It is an honorable and right choice, Thae’a,” Jerald replied just as quietly.

“Take care of him,” she pleaded. The Alphenian looked at her and she watched his Dhaoinic mask ripple before settling. Fought to keep her stomach where it belonged.

“My solemn vow that I will do whatever it takes to ensure he survives. Always.”

She nodded and walked out, pushed through the crowd outside without hearing their questions, without answering them either, and made her way to the infirmary. Followed the pull of her mating bond with Adïmshyl and thought about where they would go. Part of her felt guilty for leaving the Court, for stepping away just when they needed all hands on deck, but she knew her heart wasn’t in it anymore. Hadn’t been for awhile. And for all that she’d meant every word she’d said to Azriel, she knew she hadn’t just been speaking to the Anglëtinean, she’d been speaking to herself. Only problem was, she didn’t think she’d been that convincing.

And for all that she and Rhyshladlyn had their differences now, for all that she questioned the Qishir’s motives and actions, she wouldn’t knowingly put him in danger. She just prayed she was making the right decision because even when she got to the infirmary and saw Adïmshyl step out of one of the rooms on the right hallway in the infirmary, chatting with a Healer, it didn’t feel like she was. It felt like she was running and that whatever had given chase wasn’t something she’d escape for long.

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