93

Azriel sighed heavily as he stood up and crossed the hall, following the soft but insistent call that had always drawn him to Rhyshladlyn. Even though he probably shouldn’t, even though he knew he should follow Thae’a’s lead and leave not just the hall but probably the Court, too, put distance between himself and Rhyshladlyn and the family they had built together, he couldn’t. Not until he tried one last time to get through to his Qishir, to fix at least the ties that held the bridge between them in place. It was a losing battle but he couldn’t walk away without trying.

He had failed at everything else, had walked away from those failures without any legitimate attempt to fix them, to make up for them. He wouldn’t do the same now. Kept telling himself that what he was doing now was righteous, was acceptable, even as Jerald’s focus sharpened on him seconds before Xefras’ did the same. Even as Rhyshladlyn’s shoulders tensed when he came to a stop a couple feet away and paused, debating what to say. What could he possibly say that he hadn’t said a thousand times already to no avail?

It felt almost like he was back in Shiran City, walking onto the practice fields, knowing that if he didn’t do his entrance just right that the mission Lulphé had sent him on would fall apart before it had even started. He ran a hand through his hair and shook the knots out before letting out a breath that was only gusty because he was trying not to laugh at his own stupidity.

“When was the last time you slept?” That was a horrible fucking choice of for a conversation opener. Gods, get it the fuck together.

Rhyshladlyn lifted his head from where he’d been resting it on his bicep, the muscles of his right arm flexing and making his scars undulate, fingers pressing harder against the window as he shifted his weight. Looked at him with eyes that were colder than snow and as unforgiving as the ocean in the middle of a hurricane set in a face as expressionless as a statue with just as much life. The Qishir held Azriel’s gaze for a heartbeat before he resumed his previous position, the dismissal clear.

But Azriel had never been one to listen to any warnings where Rhyshladlyn was concerned. And after the events of the last week, shit after the last few hours, Azriel felt compelled to check on him, to ask after his health. Even if it meant that he had to act like the chasm that spread between them, filled with bad blood that stank like months old milk and rotten corpses, didn’t exist. Like he wasn’t responsible for putting it there even when he was, even when it was his fault that the bridge he was trying so desperately to save was put at risk of falling by his own actions and no one else’s.

Because he had come so terribly close to losing his Qishir, to losing the mate that had outshone his first in a way second mates usually didn’t. And having him lost due to Azriel’s fuck ups and having him dead were two incredibly different things. The former he could survive, the latter he couldn’t. So even though Rhyshladlyn wanted nothing to do with him, had dismissed his concern, all but told him outright to fuck all the way off, Azriel stayed right where he was. Kept speaking, kept acting like the last seven hundred and ninety years of war, tragedy, horrors, abuses, and mistakes wasn’t yawning between them with the Worlds’ most rickety bridge spanning the gap.

“Take a couple hours, Rhys,” he leaned back against the window beside the male, arms crossed loosely over his chest, looking out at the audience hall, now three times the size it had been before Lílrt’s Oathing Sacrifice. Watched the Numbered Qishir discuss plans around the largest table at the room’s center, several on their feet, pointing at the map that took up the entire top of that dark wood table. None of them paid any mind to the Grey Qishir who stood in a shaft of dying spring sunlight, exhaustion dripping from his body like water from a soaked towel, at least they didn’t pay any noticeable attention. Ducked Thayne’s gaze when his niece’s crimson eyes flicked up to narrow at him before she returned to the discussion she was having with the First Qishir, her disapproval of him being near Rhyshladlyn clear but she had other things to deal with before she could chase him away. “Get some rest, we’ve got things in hand here.”

The Qishir snorted softly in the back of his throat, the sound barely audible and just as dismissive as his glance had been, as his posture was. Anger flared, hot and sudden, and Azriel bit the inside of his cheek to keep from lashing out with it. Because it wouldn’t accomplish anything but having them fight, again, only this time with a much more public audience any of the times before. And as good as it would feel to fight, to make Rhyshladlyn hurt the way he himself was hurting, it wouldn’t solve anything. And he was tired of being vindictive, was tired of sabotaging what little remained of their relationship. He just wanted to make things better.

Though Thae’a was probably right in that if he kept pushing, he stood to lose more than just his mate and his Qishir, he stood to lose the closest friend he’d had in either of his lifetimes. And if he lost all three, he knew there would be no recovering them. Rhyshladlyn didn’t give second chances, he gave warnings and then he gave consequences. It was up to the Dhaoine interacting with him to handle their shit because if the Qishir had to do it, he’d make sure there was no way for them to ever reach him again.

*What did you expect, Master?* Malkuth asked from where he sat curled on top of Alaïs head, tail flicking her left shoulder in a gentle tap-tap that had a soft, ghost of a smile pulling at the Honorable Companion’s lips. His serpent Other had taken a strange and intense liking to the Lord Queen, one that was, to everyone’s surprise, mutual. If Malkuth wasn’t with him or sleeping in the warmest sun puddle he could find, the snake was with Alaïs. *You spent years making him think all your actions were his fault instead of yours. And then you nearly die and instead of going to him, you cheat? And after he does die and loses his twin in the process, you still couldn’t shelve your own shit to help him? Pfft. You’re lucky he even suffers to let you live.*

Azriel glared at the sassy fuck but he didn’t try and refute the words. It was all true and that was part of why he was so angry. It was more that he was furious with himself than he was with anyone else. But there was only so much damage one could do to oneself before it didn’t satisfy the need to destroy, to make reparations. So one instead turned it on those around them. Destroyed not themselves but rather the relationships and the Dhaoine closest to them until none remained. Until they were all alone and the pain of that was finally closer to what they believed they deserved.

*That is the most honest you have been in a while, Master, I am proud of you,* Lycarn commented and Azriel rolled his eyes, huffing mentally at them all to shut up. All he got back was laughter at his expense. Which was justified, annoying, but justified.

“You can leave me alone now.” Azriel jumped at the sound of Rhyshladlyn’s voice, startled by the way it sounded so normal. Though in the after-image of it, the soft echo it had always had by virtue of him being a Multitude and a Qishir, Azriel could hear the remaining gravel and cavern deep divinity that only two hours ago had turned him into something unrecognizable.

“What?” he asked and wanted to smack himself. You know very well what. High Ones prevailing.

Azuna’s laughter crackled like the fire eating at dry kindling, *Wow, you were smoother when you first met him and couldn’t think for wanting him.*

*Shut up.* The fire cat just laughed harder.

Rhyshladlyn blew a gust of air out of his nose, half a snort and half a huff, and pushed away from the window, moving with the same grace he always did but he was slower, more careful with each movement. As though he feared what moving too fast would do. As though he wasn’t entirely himself again, not yet, and he didn’t want to risk spilling out of his Dhaoinic skin. But underneath the slowness, underneath that careful control, was the male Azriel had first seen in Shiran City, sweat drenched and clutching a blood-splotched sword in one hand, bare chest heaving as his heart rate slowed. It was buried deep beneath layers of dirt and grime and terrors unimaginable, but it was there. He just wished he knew how to reach it.

“You are no longer obligated to check on me, Azriel,” Rhyshladlyn elaborated, tone and expression flat and but his energy prickled where it touched Azriel’s bare skin. He closed his eyes at the feel of that magick, so familiar he’d recognize it on the other side of the River if it reached for him, and purred deep in his throat. “So, resume whatever duties you were about before you decided to come over here and disturb me.”

The anger he’d gotten a handle on flared again, stronger this time and his eyes flew open and cut sidelong at Rhyshladlyn who stood facing him, listing gently side to side like a snake getting ready to strike. That movement was just as much of a warning as his power was and his tone, but Azriel found himself not giving a shit, even though he should. Even though he knew he was rising to a bait, he just didn’t know what that bait was yet. But Rhyshladlyn had always been able to pull the worst out of him at the most inopportune moments, especially when Azriel was too weak to fight it.

“Obligations were never what kept me with you, Rhyshladlyn,” he replied, letting some of that anger leak into his voice. Not enough to spark a fight, but enough to make those orange-amber eyes sharpen as they settled solidly on him instead looking in his direction but not at him.

“Oh?” the Qishir quipped. “Then what was it and when did it fuck off exactly? Asking so I know whether it was because I wasn’t good enough or because you weren’t that our relationship turned into,” Rhyshladlyn waved a hand to indicate them both, a sour twist to his mouth, eyes the color of a banked fire, “this.”

Azriel flinched hard enough at the words that his body thunked against the glass behind him and a hush fell over the hall. He took a deep breath and let it out slow, careful not to look away from Rhyshladlyn, careful not to rise to the bait behind those words because it was much clearer than the bait Rhyshladlyn had been dangling in front of him before. Reminded himself that he hadn’t come looking for another fight, had merely wanted to check on the obstinate fuck. To try one more time before he left to reconcile something, anything, between them. Because there were more important things to do besides pick a fight with the male he still loved, even if that love wasn’t what it had been.

*It was probably best that you had left with Lady Thae’a earlier if you’d truly wished to avoid this outcome, Master,* Kitteia’s chuffing purr shook their link and he hissed at her. The panther just rolled her eyes.

*And I suppose we are all just going to collectively ignore how he went from being undecided on leaving to, surprise, we’re definitely going to be leaving,* Raynfa quipped.

“You were always worthy, Rhys,” he said when he could trust his voice not to betray him, choosing his words just as carefully while his Others heckled him. “You still are. And it is no one’s fault but mine that our relationship ended up like it did. I…” He sighed and shook his head. “I just wanted to check on you, that was all.”

“Uh huh, right,” Rhyshladlyn laughed, short and sharp and mirthless. He crossed both arms over his chest, the muscles of his forearms rippling with the motion, hair settling around his face and over his shoulders, the hair-bells woven into the the auburn strands tomb-quiet.

“It is!” he pressed. “I legitimately care about you.”

“We both know you stopped caring ages ago. You can stop pretending otherwise because believe me, everyone knows.”

I will not get angry. I will not get angry. He took another deep breath and let it out, dropped his arms away from his chest and slid his hands into his pockets to hide the way they shook and the way he curled them into fists to keep them from shaking. Conversations picked back up around the hall but they were muted, the focus on them not as keen, as everyone tried to pay attention to him and Rhyshladlyn while also paying attention to their assigned tasks. Not that he blamed them really. Those part of the Honorable and Grey Courts knew that he and Rhyshladlyn had been fighting more than usual, knew, too, thanks to Ishmariel’s eavesdropping ass and Alaïs’ barbed tongue that some of those fights were very nearly deadly. But the rest, they were merely picking up on the reactions of the two Courts and given the reputations both he and Rhyshladlyn had, well, any intelligent Dhaoine would be concerned.

“I’m not pretending, Rhys. Fuck! I’m genuinely worried about you. Why is that so damned hard for you to believe?” Knew before he saw the cold fury flash across Rhyshladlyn’s face as his entire demeanor shifted and shut down that those had been the wrong words. But Azriel couldn’t take them back, wouldn’t even if he could because they weren’t a lie. And of all the things he’d done wrong, that had been the one thing he’d taken great pains never to do.

“Do you really want me to answer that question?” That was not bait but a very clearly stated warning that if he didn’t respond in just the right manner that the Qishir would drop him where he stood.

*No, the fuck he does not,* Malkuth answered and if the situation he had gotten himself into wasn’t so serious, Azriel would have found the response funny.

“Look, I’m sorry, Rhys,” he said instead and tried not to growl at the way Rhyshladlyn rolled his eyes and muttered under his breath. Pressed on even as “For… for everything. I just… I love you and while you may not believe that, and that’s fine, I still want to make sure you’re taken care of, that you’re okay. And regardless of the evolution or devolution of our relationship that isn’t going to change.”

Rhyshladlyn growled and the only reason Azriel knew it came from the Greywalker was because he’d heard that exact growl before. His entire body responded to the warning it held, every muscle tensing at once as the air in his lungs froze and his heartbeat kicked up in speed. Could feel the way the air in the hall changed in response as every present member of the Grey Court alerted to their Qishir’s sound of warning, to the way his body language screamed distress and anger and back the fuck off. Jerald’s own growl trickled across the hall, sounding like the Alphenian was inches away instead of nearly a hundred feet, the slap of his power as an Oathed Warrior searing along Azriel’s nerves. But before anyone could move or say anything, Rhyshladlyn spoke, bringing the full attention of the entire hall swinging to him.

“If you had actually loved me, Azriel Kasuske of House Veratone, and not the thought of me,” Rhyshladlyn took a step forward closing the two feet of distance between them in one stride and continued in a voice four octaves deeper, and switched languages, the Anglë’lylel sounding like a curse, like something foul, “then you would have never made me regret Speaking an Oathing Sacrifice for you.

The words were like a knife-punch to the gut and he rocked back on his heels, dangerously close to falling over. Knew his face betrayed the devastation the blow of those words caused and didn’t care. Because there’ wasn’t a trace of remorse or empathy on Rhyshladlyn’s face. He’d meant every single word on a Self-deep level and had for a while given the amount of power he’d thrown behind them. Azriel’s vision swam as his eyes welled up with tears but he refused to let them fall. He’d give Rhyshladlyn many things but he wouldn’t give him that.

“Rhys… I… how could sa–“

“Rhyshladlyn!”

Thayne’s voice was a whip-crack in the suddenly death silent hall, cutting him off mid-word, as though she was trying to keep Rhyshladlyn from saying anything else. But the Grey Qishir didn’t have anything else to say. Didn’t even acknowledge the reprimand. Just stared up at him until Azriel swallowed and blinked, conceding the challenge inherent in that hyper-focused gaze. Rhyshladlyn curled his lip before stepping back and pivoting on his heel, long legs carrying him slowly but surely towards the doors.

Rhyshladlyn waved a dismissive hand at Nhulynolyn when his twin made to stand up from the chair he occupied at one of the smaller tables that was scattered about the room. Hissed when Eiod made to stand and following him, the order of sit your ass the fuck back down clear even if he never said the words. Kept walking while Xefras pushed off the wall near the doors and opened one side while Jerald did the same from the other side.

Azriel watched his Qishir walk out without ever looking back while the crowd gathered in the hallway parted before him like a river parted around a stone as his new Companion and his Warrior fell into step behind him. Felt the last of his control snap, the last of his decency walk out the door with Rhyshladlyn. Felt what remained of his heart shatter into thousands of tiny pieces as the words Rhyshladlyn had said to him finally sank in. As he realized that the reason the Greywalker had spoken them in Anglë’lylel wasn’t because hardly anyone else in the room would know the language but because it was the only one he could speak in that Azriel would know for absolute certain that he spoke the truth. Because it wasn’t just Anglëtineans who couldn’t lie in their native tongue, it was any Dhaoine who spoke it.

Without thinking, he turned and followed Rhyshladlyn’s path to the doors, trailed in the wake of the scent of spicy desert wildflowers and sandalwood and the lightning-sharp spark of his power. Moved with the singular goal of getting the fuck out of the audience hall and back to the rooms he still shared with Rhyshladlyn where he intended to pack his things, vanish out what he couldn’t carry, and leave. He was out the still closing doors moments later, walking through the still stunned crowd as the muted boom of them closing echoed in the too quiet hallway, all too aware of the silence that he’d walked through in the audience hall. But he didn’t slow down. Just kept walking until he turned a corner. Kept walking until his vision swam with tears to the point that he couldn’t see. Ducked into an alcove and pressed his forehead against the cool stone of the wall, arms crossed above his head, and sobbed as quietly as he could.

Tried to tell himself this was for the best. That he had been warned this would happen but he hadn’t listened. Had thought that this time, like every other time, that he was immune. That he was Rhyshladlyn’s blind spot. And the sting of being wrong, of misjudging his hand and the play, wasn’t nearly as bad as the last words Rhyshladlyn had spoken to him. Slammed his clenched fists halfheartedly against the wall, feeling Eyrdo shiver under his touch, unaccustomed to what such a response meant from a Dhaoine. If he was a better male, he’d apologize, but he wasn’t so he didn’t say or do anything. Just kept crying all while trying not to drown.

He cried until he had no more tears to shed. Until he felt Lycarn nose at the back of his left knee before the ice wolf plopped down at the alcove’s entrance, waiting for him to get his shit together. He took a deep breath, smelling stone dust and old incense, and the barest traces of Rhyshladlyn’s magick. Took another breath and tasted more of Eiod’s new found power than he did Rhyshladlyn’s as the crimson walls pulsed and their glow brightened slightly before dimming again. Took another and finally pushed away from the wall, wiping his face aggressively with both hands before he sighed. Head tilting back, eyes falling closed, he prayed for strength because he didn’t know how he was going to do this. How he was going to pack his things and leave, really leave, with no intention of ever coming back.

But he would do it. He had no other choice. It was either leave while there was still some chance, however slight, that he had a future where Rhyshladlyn was in his life in some capacity or stay and definitely never have that. He reached out and scratched Lycarn’s ear before patting the ice wolf’s head and stepping out into the hallway. Pushed on even though his feet dragged across the rug, even though his legs felt like jelly, and his head throbbed from the tears he’d yet to shed. Kept going because he had to, because what he really wanted was to chase after Rhyshladlyn and doing that was suicide. And while it may feel like he was dying as he walked to their rooms, as he went over a list of the things he needed to pack, he was very much alive and he wanted to stay that way.

As he got to their rooms and pushed the door open, blanching at the way their scents mingled together, he swallowed hard around the lump in his throat and pushed off the doorjamb towards the set of drawers that held his things. Told himself as he called in a trunk and began filling it that for all that it didn’t feel like he was making the right decision he knew he was. Because not once since the day he’d been caught in another Dhaoine’s bed had the qahllyn’qir his tattoos represented done anything but be calm and silent whenever he’d done something or thought of doing something that stood even a sliver of a chance of harming his Qishir.

And if nothing else told him with absolute certainty and clarity that he was no longer bonded to Rhyshladlyn, that sure as fuck did.

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