|The Lay of a Broken Winged Sparrow
Author: Bladesworn PM
When my own people cast me out, it was the enemy that took me in. / Atreia through the eyes of an exiled Asmodian; graphic descriptions of all kinds.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Drama - Chapters: 24 - Words: 166,862 - Reviews: 167 - Favs: 70 - Follows: 59 - Updated: 05-31-12 - Published: 05-11-09 - id: 5055161
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Music for this chapter is Jaya's theme - Solid Ground by Break of Reality, which, like Moonlight, can be found on Youtube. (Can you tell I love the sound of cellos?) Special mention goes to the cover of Bad Company by Five Finger Death Punch, which provided much of the atmosphere for the latter parts of the journey across remote Asmodae.
Also included with the posting of this chapter is some special bonus content: screenshots from Aion's character generator, as close as I could get to my vision of what the cast members of the Lay look like! The link can be found in my profile, and I appreciate any and all comments upon them. Fair warning: THE PICTURES ARE RIFE WITH SPOILERS. I highly recommend you read this current chapter before you click and view them! (If you don't see the links, refresh my profile until FF.N updates it. :D)
Over the next handful of days, I coaxed the remainder of the tale from him, piece by piece, each word a priceless treasure that he parted with only reluctantly; for example, the story most famously attributed to Ourobouros Stalks-By-Night was, in fact, true, but the widely-known version was woefully incomplete, likely a clever bit of propaganda by Ariel's agents in order to strengthen her own position, and weaken that of the Asmodians. Ourobouros had indeed stolen in the night into the palace of Asphel, Lord of Darkness, and slain that great Shedim Lord's own spymaster - but I had never heard a motive for this killing, and through fair, if sometimes difficult trade, Oros revealed what Ariel had so carefully hidden.
The real Ourobouros had had an Asmodian lover - "Daiyu, for her eyes. Mortal," Oros said when first I persuaded him to speak of her, his tones deep-chested and filled with a kind of absent reverence, black eyes distant, "but fierce-willed, and strong enough in her own right to refuse him, if that had been her desire. In all honestly, I think no less than half their brazen plans her own devising" - and, because the Assassin was at the time unallied with any of the major Elyos Houses or any known legion, owing fealty only to Ariel and himself, he was something of a Daeva-itinerant, wandering as he pleased, whenever and wherever his strength was great enough to take him. Oros professed that he did not know how his parents had met in the first place, but the night that Ourobouros had infiltrated Asphel's palace, it had been with the intent to steal Daiyu away, and take her with him to Elysea. Corian Moonshy, the unfortunate spymaster, had stood in his way, a Daeva simply in the wrong place at the worst possible time.
"I see why Ariel would not wish that knowledge circulated. It would seem the greater coup, to kill Corian with intent rather than without," I said carefully, once this tidbit had come to light; Oros himself merely shrugged and rearranged himself beneath the trees we had made for that day's shelter, scarcely comfortable with discussion of what appeared to my eyes to be a most daring elopement.
"There is reason to believe it lessened his sins, in Ariel's eyes, no matter how it was accomplished," noted the gyre, shifting his weight from one hip to the other. "Certainly his plans could not have proceeded without her approval, after that."
His plans, it seemed, had involved hiding Daiyu beneath the very noses of the Elyos elite, in a secure household procured through a curious bargain with House Helios that he would not elaborate upon, despite whatever I might tempt him with in offer of trade; when I queried further of this deal of his father's design, he grew cagey and withdrawn, remarking only that I ought to "Ask Taion, when we get back - that's the business of his House. He chose not to betray to you my secrets, and I would do him the same courtesy." Phrased as an argument, perhaps I could have swayed him, but as a point of honor, I had no choice but to demur, a calculated move on his part that I had little doubt he had prepared well ahead of time. I allowed the subject to drop, however; if Oros believed that the knowledge might be gained from the illustrious leader of the Furiae, then I would pursue that line of inquiry when it became available. It would do me very little good now, to press my advantage and unravel all the precious-earned trust we had accrued, through our dangerous venture.
And trust there was, although perhaps not in great amount; in the days it took us from the lonely cavern in the mountain to reach Synedell, we learned somewhat to read each other, acting unhesitatingly when perhaps a lack of what little belief we had in one another would have caused disaster. On the first night away from that doomed lovers'-nest, flying in complete darkness as the moons had not yet risen, the gyre dropped like a stone from the sky, only to swoop unerringly into a neat landing in a snow-lined gully below the caravan-road, grey wings crisply folded behind him - and cursing silently, I followed him to secure myself in the canyon, perhaps not quite so precisely as the gyre and my wings ungodly black against the whiteness, their tips a fervent blue no matter how I wished they would not glow; I could not extinguish their light save for thrusting them into the snowbanks, and even then the white all round them took on a faintly azure-lit quality that made the gyre's mouth twitch in blackest gallows humour. Despite all my clumsiness and our cobbled shortcomings, however, Aion must have been watching over us; we were hidden in time to avoid a trio of Daevas flying from Synedell in a practiced vee, their wings blacking out the stars as they went.
We waited, breath held, for them to notice us far below, if not from our silhouettes then from our aether; only when they had flown past and well out of sight, unerring in their path, did I dare to move, Oros's eyes and mine meeting in the starlit dark. "Courier dispatches from the town?" I wished more than hazarded, perhaps more optimistically than circumstances demanded - but the gyre shook his head, his face ghost-pale and his mouth a flat line, lips pressed together.
"A courier would fly alone, at higher altitude. Reinforcements, from the Academe," he said, firm but unhappy with his own judgment. "They cannot have been hunting us, at least - they would have been flying for days already, if your estimates in distance are correct." A pause, his breath pluming in the night air, wreathing him in mist. "Three less Daevas to catch us in this mad enterprise, I suppose," he added, with not a small amount of cynicism, and within moments we were in the air again, winging onward through the cold, barren night.
The further we explored into the mountains, trapped in a state of perpetual exhaustion from which we seemed disallowed by Fate to remedy completely, the more we spoke on all subjects, and the less wire-tight and wary the gyre became. I inquired into the history of the Furiae, brief and bright as it was, for a more unlikely group of allied Daevas I could not have conjured from the annals of children's stories; there was not overmuch to tell on that subject, but Oros parted with it willingly, the subject a safer one than was our wont. The legion, such as it was, had only been formed in the last handful of years - Taion its unquestioned leader, of course, and its founding membership based entirely upon Oros and Kit, a triumvirate comprised of words, action, and a charisma enough to win followers and friends, despite the lack of prestige attached with the post. Nico had been the first to convert to Taion's cause, somewhat to my surprise: "She was seeking refuge from the Fidelis, and specifically, Liath Beltaine."
"Refuge from him?" I frowned sidelong at the gyre in puzzlement, my brows fret and rubbing my hands against themselves to keep them warm; we sat side by side, in order to remain under cover of the ruined remains of a cottage hidden well back from the caravan-road, and as such the pair of us were close enough for easy conversation, but the howling wind blew straight through the decaying stone walls, and the black stripe of the Last Word lay between us like a law called down by kings. "Pray elaborate."
"There isn't terribly much to explain, more's the pity." He leaned his back against the cottage wall and kicked his long legs out as far as they would go ahead of him, arms folded across his chest, seemingly unperturbed by the little gales that breezed through the brick behind him and whisked through his hair. "The Sethes are indentured servants to House Beltaine, a contract between families that goes back generations, almost to the founding of the city itself - there were some debts the Sethes patriarch owed to the House, to be repaid with service. The current Lord Beltaine chose Nico, out of all her siblings and cousins, to be trained up into the house-guard - a position with some amount of prestige attached, though I must add," he said, with white brows raised, "that House Beltaine's guard forces are exclusively female, and traditionally chosen before puberty. Make of that what you will, phoenix; your imagination cannot possibly be worse than the reality, and if Nico's behavior around him is anything to go by, I believe she fancied herself in love with him at the time." A pause; a careful tilt of his head, one that seemed to absolve Nico of almost all responsibility. "She was very young."
I had thought I did not have the strength for horror; I was wrong. "Aion above. How did she escape?"
"She Ascended, that's how." A roll of his shoulders, to ease a touch of cold-spawned stiffness in the muscles there; he was not at all tense now, despite the subject, but rather had the attitude of a sunning cat, idly stretching more for the joy of it than out of any intent or need to do so. "As far as I'm aware, the Sethes line had never thrown a Daeva before Nico, and the emergence of one in his servant caste was seen by Beltaine as nothing less than a threat to his power. After the first attempt to have her killed, she fled the Fidelis, and Beltaine, at first opportunity. The problem here," he added, turning his head to fix me with the stare of both of his impossibly dark eyes, "is the word indentured. Beltaine quite literally owned Nico when she was mortal, and once she was immortal, was still considered his property. Any legion or House caught sheltering her would suffer the full brunt of the law."
That horror in my belly grew, twisting and knotting itself into a thorny, nauseating mess that had me twisting my hands around themselves. Nico was my friend, but she had never breathed so much as a word of any of this - would have as lief liked to forget it ever happened. What awful things she must have endured in that bleak home, faced with every turn of a mockery of justness that made my nerves twist and my warrior's heart rebel. And yet she had emerged from it, stronger for the experience, bright and brave and a friendly, cheeky soul - though the openness with which she flung about her favors and affections made a great deal more sense to me now, in light of the practically abusive way in which she had been raised. Her body was her own, now, subject to the whims of no one but herself; she chose to flaunt the fact, a subtle act of defiance for her former master. "That is - outright slavery, Oros -"
"I know," he said, and his jaw was stern, not for me but for the memory of what had happened to Nicolette Sethes, and the dark things that had happened behind the closed doors of House Beltaine. "But the compact is centuries old, and Ariel, the only authority great enough to dissolve it, has better things to hold her attention than the cruelty of a single House - and one that has served her with irreproachable loyalty, otherwise. Disgraceful," he snarled, flashing eyeteeth in the corners of his mouth, and there was enough violent hatred in his voice that if the word had been a tangible thing, it would have spat and sizzled on the floor between us.
For the first time in quite a long time, I found myself not only unopposed to his attitude, but wholeheartedly agreeing with his sentiments. "That well explains why she hates Beltaine, or why any of us should, for that matter," I said carefully, watching him as he struggled to soothe away the anger that had leapt into his frame at the slightest call, "but it does nothing for why Beltaine so despises you, gyre."
The snarl transmuted into a sneer, black amusement replacing his show of temper, and as the tension drained slowly out of him once again, he replied, "This one I give you for free, phoenix, because it is wholly priceless: He despises me because I paid Nico's debt out of my own pocket. I've no doubt Taion would have done so, if I asked it of him, and Aion knows he has the capital - but that would have reduced it, in the eyes of the Court, to a transaction between two Houses. Nico would have only have become a thrall of the Helios, instead of Beltaine. No," and he shook his head sharply, "I paid it myself, every last kinah, and in a public enough manner that Beltaine couldn't refuse it without looking like a graceless jackass." I could not miss the malicious satisfaction in his voice, the lifts at the corners of his generous mouth. "So Nico went free, and then she went to Taion and begged him to let her join us, which Taion could no more have denied her than if the request came from Ariel herself. One of my favorite sessions at Court," he added, malign mischief giving an acerbic cast to his angular face, "was when Nico came in on Taion's arm the next day, draped in silk and the Furiae crest, all made up and looking like a queen. Beltaine's face was damn near purple, he was so mad."
But the best revenge, I think, was that Oros was a past master of stillness and calm, and Beltaine's flamboyant, spotlight-seeking nature would have demanded some sort of reaction, a show of temper or emotion from the gyre; it would have galled Beltaine like nothing else to be denied the chance to make a scene, and so Oros put on the part of disinterest, of having nearly forgotten Beltaine existed. He did not say as much, of course, but he did not need to - I recalled what interactions had gone between the pair of them, and always Beltaine was the insulted aggressor, Oros unflappably cool. How it must have needled the lord of the Fidelis, to face such an implacable, irresolvable foe! He certainly did not find such in Nico, who rose to every bait Beltaine cast, but with excellent reasons for doing so.
The rest of the Furiae had come to Taion with much less spectacular purpose. Trist had been lured by the promise of company that was not judgmental of his flaws - his lack of voice was seen as a detriment among the Elyos, despite whatever mental talents he possessed to compensate - and Kiert by the challenge of enduring the Furiae and their strange ways, the cleric unruffled by their odd hours and even odder missions. Terekai had simply appeared at Taion's door in the dead of night, and was closeted with the Helios prince for hours before, come morning's light, he was drafted into the legion, much to Oros's personal dismay and Taion's apparently smug satisfaction; it seemed that recruiting the powerful, experienced and notoriously hermitic Sorcerer was seen as something of a coup, and while I could not deny that possessing a mage with the strength and rare skill to hold a Gate was a boon to the Furiae as a whole, I rather sided with Oros and his uneasiness at having Terekai so close to hand.
By no means do I wish to imply that so much as a word of this precious knowledge of the enigmatic, complex creature that is the gyre was gained without fair trade; in return I answered his questions with all the honesty I could muster for such difficult subjects, steadfastly checking myself against half-truths and the lies of omission or implication that once came only with difficulty, and now surprisingly easily, to a warrior-scholar's hand. He asked of my origins, and I answered truthfully - of Carcarron where I had been born, of my trial and the death of Raum, of my brother Jareth and the cleverness in his magery - and of the fact that, though I had not been raised with the knowledge of who my father was, if I had been sired of one in the first place, that I had my suspicions in his identity. "Terekai Nameless has his fingers in more pies than we can possibly know," he remarked once I had broached the topic on the morning we found ourselves a snow-dusted ravine to shelter in, the gyre shifting where he sat. He was unperturbed by the notion of somewhat else that he could lay at the Sorcerer's feet; my feelings on the subject a sorry tangle mantled in thorns, I was uncertain if I was grateful for the consistent frankness of his distaste, the willingness to believe of the man near to anything, and without further examination into the depth and breadth of his motives. "He's older than he lets on, that much I am sure of."
"Oh?" I could not help the slight smile on my cracked lips, chafed from the cold and wind. "And here I was, believing you capable of rooting out any secret, no matter how impossible the task."
He tilted his head in quiet, tired acknowledgement of the weak and somewhat backhanded compliment, too bone-weary for the smugness that was his natural state. "Speaking of secrets, Jaya - you have told me what you believe of your father, and what you know of your brother; you have not spoken on your mother," and if all his senses came alive and his back were held straighter, it was because of what he saw flickering across my moon-white face, in the tension of my shoulders and the sudden clasping of my hands to each other, my fingers lacing corset-tight. He did not speak, but waited for me to do so, his eyes slowly narrowing with suspicion, and I wish for all the world that I could not have hesitated, could not have given him the hint that such a subject was uneasy for me at best - but it was fairly asked-for, and I could not refuse him, despite how I thought he would react.
I had kept this secret only with the help of Terekai, who was perhaps blood of my blood, and in any wise nowhere near what might be called Oros's good graces - and I had done it that I would not be used as a tool, but I believed then that Oros would not see it in such a light, and would surely rant and rage at my deception by omission, bellowing to high heaven of my deceitful nature and bringing down all of the Amsodians abroad in the valley as surely as an avalanche diving down from the mountain peaks, unstoppable and inexorable.
But the gyre handily proved me wrong, so adept at every turn in surprising me with his actions.
I spoke her name aloud, and that was enough; I saw the recognition on his features, the slight widening of his already large eyes, the contemptuous scowl smoothing from his mouth and brows, replaced with the now-familiar arrogant mask of sharp-cheeked pride, one that I was beginning to intuit as the face he hid himself behind, when he wished for no one else to know his thoughts. His coal-black eyes skipped to one side, away from my face, away, indeed, from anything that might have betrayed his mind; now it was my turn to frown, studying him in his many complexities and perfections and imperfections, and wondering what under Aion's power might draw the gyre to such a reaction, for if I did not know better, I would have thought him shamefaced.
"My condolences for your loss," was all he said when I probed him further, and though I braved a few more sallies into the vast dark plain that was comprised of his secrets, we ended the conversation with the pair of us huddled on opposite ends of the light-speared ravine, heads covered with upward-flung arms against the brightness, cold and alone, lost to everything but our own thoughts.
And mine were many, roiling and half-formed, chaotic in the unkempt theatre of my mind; as I struggled toward sleep, I contemplated the gyre and all his fey strangeness, his moods that appeared and disappeared with the whim of the winds - the anger that gnawed within his chest, the slivers of humour, of kindness that he had displayed, always to his own advantage - how even now he held his secrets close and dear as life, and how rare were the precious few glimpses I had seen of a man who was not governed by the rage of being cast into a role in his own life that he had had no interest in playing. More puzzling was his face when I had spoken aloud my mother's name, and I worried at it like a starving worg with a marrow-dry bone, unable to persuade the calcified strata to sustain me further, but just as unable to resist the temptation to try.
He was prickly, yes, and protective, but more it seemed of the memory of Daiyu than of his own reputation - and while it seemed a curse to be born a bastard (a word I hesitate to use even now, so many years long gone) among the purebred Elyos, that Taion and the Furiae knew of it felt to me an obvious truth; and if Taion knew of it, then as like the Helios as a whole knew of it, and thus Ariel and all her lackeys. Yet at court Oros had not seemed a thing reviled, even by the older immortals present; that he had been playing the role of his father might have sufficed for those Daevas too new-Ascended to remember the first Ourobouros, but what of those decades, centuries older than he? Surely they could not be so easily tricked - surely there was some secondary explanation, some fact I did not have access to nor had thought to inquire toward, that would allow the tricky pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that was the gyre to at last fall into place.
The gyre held Daiyu in the highest of esteem, but seemed not to care what others thought of his bloodline, had used the damning term without hesitation once it was warranted; I myself did the best I could to withhold judgment, for it was very likely that I was of the same ilk - merely of a different, if no less exalted heritage - and the piece of myself that had seen Oros hold the line at the Dragon-beset Gate, that had glimpsed him as a noble creature utterly consumed with the moment, squirmed to label him with such an ugly turn of phrase.
He deserved better than such, and I wondered why he had not received it in Elysea.
I began to wonder also if he had not lost his own mother to tragic circumstances - if this Daiyu he spoke of with such respect, such adoration, had taken the same early path Ashura Aether-Born did, down into the Void, where their thoughts could not reach us for what scarce comfort we could draw from them. It was as good an explanation as any; and if he noticed that I deftly avoided the subject from then on, then he did not comment upon it, and so we held the peace between us for as long as we could.
We woke mid-afternoon on the last day to rain. It was a glacial drizzle at first, the spattering of ice-cold droplets soaking quickly into my hair and down into the still half-damp padding of my borrowed armor, freckling my cheeks and raising gooseflesh all along my frame. What light we had was rapidly dimming, and far too early in the day for true dusk; I was orienting myself from the sudden pull out of sleep when Oros appeared and bent over me, a brief shelter from the lancing rain, droplets running down his dirty cheeks and furrowing in his muck-daubed hair, already coursing in smooth icelike rivulets down his mud-smeared leathers. He looked like he had been rolling in the dirt and wet, so caked with the stuff he was - not far from the truth, I learned later, as the gyre had scaled the side of the ravine in order that he might see the path the weather would take, and had not had an easy go of it, belly-crawling the last few feet in order he did not flop like a fish back to the bottom, the precipice dangerously unstable under his weight.
"Storm's nearly upon us," he informed me, reaching out to grasp my searching hand and haul me to my feet; I was still half-blind from grogginess, but the rain was swiftly bringing me round to sobriety. "Sleet, not snow, but we can't stay here long."
Sleet, in the mountains, at this time of year? I opened my mouth to comment, but closed it again with an audible click of my teeth meeting as my mind executed a few calculations, long overdue; Raum had died at the beginning of summer, and I had languished in sickbed and then in Carcarron's dungeons, all through the warm months and well into autumn, before the farce of a trial that had trotted me out in chains before the lords of the Duchy - the winter, or the slight depression of temperature that passed for it in Elysea, had been spent closeted with the Furiae and with Kit and Sara-shi in particular, though the greenness of the land had never faded, even with the shorter days and somewhat less tropical weather. In Elysea there would shortly be a burgeoning of spring, an explosion of buds and flowers, a celebration of life feted by nothing short of the land itself; the process would be slower in Asmodae, especially in the high places and the northern regions, but there would yet be scant signs, a thawing of the thickest ices, a prepared readiness, the sense of the earth waiting for the snows to ebb and melt away - in order that that brave, desperate creatures could blossom, bereft of the oppression of the cold.
Raum and Jareth and I had been born in mid-spring, on a glorious day when the crocuses had at last pushed their way into sunlight from beneath the carpet of a late-fallen snow, tiny green specks of hope that had heartened the denizens of Carcarron as surely as the birth of their lord's heir; we were now nearly twenty, or would be in a handful of weeks, except that Raum had been dead for the better part of a year, Jareth sat now in distant Synedell, and I was a traitor and a failure twice-over, a defector to the enemy, sworn now to serve the light when I had been born to serve in darkness. And barely, barely had I noticed the passage of time - interminable from day to day, but slipping rapidly through my fingers when added up in their totality.
Now it seemed to me that an entire lifetime had passed, between the day that Raum had died and the one whence I stood in a sleet-stricken slash in the earth, enroute to Synedell in mind of what even I could admit was an idiotic, suicidal plan; but worse was the knowledge that not only had it been three-quarters of a year at best, that I now had all of eternity to look forward to in order to contemplate it - uncountable decades and centuries, a black phoenix in the service of the Lady of Light, reminded perpetually of my flaws without so much as the weak comfort that age might bring, the slow enfeeblement of my memories as much as my mind. The events that had led up to this moment would never dull or fade, not for so long as I continued to live.
Too much, added atop the burdens I already bore; wounds old and new pulsing with ache in time to my every heartbeat, my mind scraped raw from the use of aether unpracticed, so stiff in my movements and harsh in my breath that I no longer noticed it, half-starved and trembling with cold and wet to my bones, and fearful that I might never be warm nor safe, not ever again. When had I become so afraid, so fickle and fragile of purpose?
I looked into myself, and I did not recognize the person that I had become in so short a time.
Oros was making ready to leap into the air as my mind scrambled to process all that had occurred, his sleek grey wings summoned and held aloft a few moments, to keep off the worst of the rain, and his face serenely distracted as he considered the logistics of an ice-storm flight; he looked entirely surprised when the first choked sob came, a brief panicked expression as if he expected me to be suddenly and fatally injured, but instead I lifted my hands to my face and dropped my head, palms pressed to my eyes, sleet running in sharp quick spears down the back of my neck and under my coraline, in my hair and along every inch of exposed skin, pinging off my armor with tinny metallic chirps where hail began to fall alongside the frozen slush. The second and third cries I reduced to soft noises clenched in my throat and high up in my sinuses, and the forth was merely a working of the muscles of my tongue, soundless, evidenceless but for the spasming of my chest as I tried to draw heaving breaths of air and denied myself the pleasure, but by then the tears had already begun to stream helplessly from my eyes, my shoulders hunched in upon my frame that my ice-rimed pauldrons brushed my temples and my whole frame shaking with the effort to control what would not be contained.
A passing fit of distemper, I told myself, a manifestation of stress and hunger and weariness, not weakness; I told myself this, and knew even as I did it that it was the most extravagant of lies, that all that I had held within me was now sluicing outward and that there was nothing I could do to make it cease until it was leached from me to the very last drop, a poison I had kept bottled up for far too long.
In hindsight, I think that I would have been acceptably well; I believe that, given a moment to collect my scattered and much-abused dignity, that I could have pulled myself up from that gutter of anguish and self-pity, wiped the tears from my face and continued on, a soldier to my core. I believe that, had I the chance, that I would have righted myself, locked all of it away deep in the parts of my soul that I do not like to remember that I have, and continued with our insane mission with nary a mention of what had passed.
I also believe that it would have been a terrible thing to live with, for the rest of my existence facing my inner demons alone, afraid to show the slightest hint that I was anything less than an invincible shield to protect those around me.
I wept, and stood shaking just at the edge of Oros's aether-risen sphere of autumn air and sand dunes, head in my hands and utterly wretched, until the moment he angled his wings to hide us from the world, and on the strength of a single careful step forward, leaned in to touch his cheek to the crown of my ice-wet hair.
It was a delicate maneuver, the gyre despite his heritage far more schooled in the language of closeness than I; his wings where held such that the feathers at the tips latticed where they did not rest against the wall of the ravine, grey diamonds formed and edged in white ice, deflecting all but the worst of the rain off of me and down his own frame, the slush tracing shining paths down the planes of his neck and shoulders, then altering course to follow the dirt-pebbled panels of his leathers and dripping in absurdly cheerful streamers along the length of the Last Word, quiescent in its scabbard. The air was calm between us, slowly warming with our breath as much as it could in that wintry atmosphere, and smelled of his aether and mine. Held there, he seemed still distantly aware of my distaste for being touched - his gloved hands were at his belt, not placed at my back or sides where I would have felt trapped in it and forced to rebellion, and though his face was close enough that his breath stirred my hair, he did not attempt to cross that personal divide - yet it seemed impossibly intimate, moreso to me than even an embrace would have been; it was not the closeness, however, but the simple kindness in that well-meant gesture, the quiet assurance that I did not fight my battles alone, as unlikely as it had been freely given, that loosed the catches on my much-vaunted discipline and saw me entirely undone.
I bit down on my own knuckles to smother the sounds of my crying against discovery, overcome with it all at once. Oros simply stood there and allowed me to weep, the sleet and hail falling ever harder, the gyre silently bearing the brunt of both my emotions and the weather, the trailing edges of his ghost-grey wings slowly limning themselves with ice, the world around us growing ever colder as the cloudbanks spat and raged. He offered me no soothements or meaningless words, which would have been both against his nature and perhaps increase the chances of my continued weeping, but he instead stood fast and steady in the frozen rain and waited, patient as the earth, for the tide within me to recede. I would learn later that such outbursts are not only common among the new-Ascended, but practically expected; a Daeva's senses become enriched by the aether, growing keener and deeper than that of a mortal, and until an immortal learns to compensate for it, it was a necessity of divinity that a powerful warlord may be reduced to hysterical fits of weeping, all for the unexpected beauty of a sunset. Aion's chosen, and indeed the very acts of being chosen, are not without their flaws. But that did not explain the behavior of the gyre, save that perhaps he had been anticipating the moment long before I could see it hurtling towards me - anticipating it, and prepared to act upon it, because he could not risk my being unable to continue under the harsh conditions of our journey. Just as I would never reach Synedell without his aid, so too would he never leave the mountains without mine.
But the justifications rang hollow even within my own mind, and I found myself reluctant to ascribe the gift of his kindness to an instinct for self-preservation.
In the end, the storm outlasted my momentary weakness, and hiccuping and cuffing at my cheeks, I stepped back out of the little warm space we had formed between the two of us, red-eyed and swollen-faced, not to mention mortified beyond all belief; in tandem with me as I moved, he shifted his weight and stepped backwards, then shook and flicked his wings in every direction except mine, to rid them of the icicles that had begun to form on the feathers - a gesture he had been longing to make, from the vigor with which he flung the frozen slush into the air.
"Better?" asked Oros, not ungently; I nodded, eyes to the rain-pelted morass of mud and snow and sleet that had been the floor of the ravine only hours before, untrusting of my voice and unable quite yet to look the gyre in his hawkish face. I do not know what I would have done, if he had attempted further comfort, but blessedly he instead added in a tone rather more like his usual self, "Let's away, then, before we drown in this muck. Synedell ought to not be too much further on," and though that was a bit of an exaggeration, the thought heartened me, that if we had come so far and had not yet failed, that perhaps there was hope for us in this daft venture after all.
Into the air we went, and directly through the heart of every hazard a spring storm could possibly summon for our pleasure, but the dangers seemed nothing in the light of what had occurred; we did not speak perhaps more than five words to each other, all the rest of that endlessly long flight, but something between the gyre and I had changed, something that I could not easily quantify. It took us several hours to free ourselves of the storm, tacking back and forth across the chaotic winds in order that we would not be cast up into the ice-rimed clouds, but once we had broken loose of the gale and driving rain, I moved ahead of the gyre in wing-precedence, both to allow him some rest and to direct our travel from that point on; Synedell had at last become clearly visible, nestled high in a natural depression formed where a trio of mountains abutted one another, sheltered from the worst that a winter beyond the borders even of Beluslan had to offer, though in typical Asmodian fashion, nothing was ever left to mere chance.
It was fully dark by the time I saw it, each house a fortification unto itself, the walls surrounding the village as well as the doors and streets marked by dim purple lights that would have seemed inordinately bright to my people; they were there for safety as much as anything, however, because while the valley protected Synedell from the snow and wind, it could hardly do as much for the natural predators that roamed these remote reaches. I strained for altitude, conscious of the gyre following me after a brief hesitation, but the reason for such soon became apparent even to him - there were guardsmen patrolling in those streets, little shadows moving far below us against the bare, dark earth, and though we needs must fly over the township in order to reach the Academe, I did not intend to do so low enough that we might be identified and hailed. The moons would not rise till much later in the evening to give away the game, but seen from a steep enough angle, the cobalt-glow of my wingtips might be taken for falling stars, for the faint pale light of them could not be snuffed; the last thing we needed now was to tip our hand, right as we reached the doorstep of success, and I prayed that such efforts would be enough, that we would not be tripped up upon such a simple thing, and one so very beyond my control.
Once I felt we were high enough, I set my wings and began a long, stately glide, my back and arms protesting now not from the motion of flight, but the lack of it; I was becoming stubbornly inured to such an ache, and distracted myself with memorization of the layout of the town, appreciative of the tangled mess of streets initially designed to confuse conquerors, and the subsequent irony of how the caravan-road wound gracefully out of the mountain passes to streak a brilliant white line directly through Synedell, bisecting the village into two symmetrical pieces. There were a handful of such merchantmen, far below us and hard at work with the loading or unloading of their wares, each wagon displaying different colors and various states of neatness with their wares; I could pick out the scattered rings of bystanders watching the crates file out of those carters who were unloading their carefully packed items, an impromptu bazaar forming around the visitors, who for the denizens of Synedell were yet something of a novelty. With winter in the mountains not quite over, the merchants were very likely the first strangers the natives of the township had seen in months - and an enterprising tradesman, brave enough to risk the snowy passes, might make his life's fortune off of a single trip, bringing spices and silks and other such things as the mountain people could not manufacture for themselves. As such, they were fascinated with the show, and I saw no faces craning upwards for the sky; I waited still until we were most of the way past the streets below, all activity appearing normal to my eyes, before I risked a flap of wing to angle our path to the side, aiming with one final push of my endurance for an outcrop of mountain that fell beyond the rearmost border-wall of Synedell and outside of the dim circle of light, but was not quite yet within the purview of the Academe.
We dropped down behind the shelter of the rocks with as much silence as our exhaustion could muster, and with a shake of his shoulders, Oros banished his wings into nothingness, dropping onto the sloped ground to stretch his long legs out before him, and labored to catch his breath. I had had no such forethought - my legs boneless and seemingly made entirely of jelly, save for the throbbing streak of hot white agony that was my serpent-scar, I was on my rear end on the rocks and panting like an overworked brax before I had the thought to allow my own feathers to dissipate. Synedell now behind us, along with what was arguably the easiest leg of our journey, the Academe loomed full and impressive to the fore; it had been a single building, once, set at the very back of the valley and as far up against the mountainside as the citizens could persuade the mages to build it, and the central building was still an imposing stone structure, built of much the same mica-flecked granite as Carcarron and Rivenstone had been, neat rows of squared-off bricks giving the slant-roofed building a pebbled, almost scaly texture in the uncertain illumination of its own bluish guard-lights, set at regular intervals around a low curving retaining wall that demarcated the boundaries of the campus. Clustered around the main structure were a series of smaller, somewhat newer buildings of similar construction, connected by stone-columned breezeways with tiled roofs and, to my half-crazed eyes, resembling nothing so much as a dozen chicks crowding the legs of their mother; I had to squelch a hysterical laugh at the image, though in all honestly, I doubted I could truly find the energy for something as frivolous as mirth.
Nothing stirred on the pathways of the Academe between the buildings, but every window was lit from within, and shadows moved behind the curtains and reed-slatted blinds; when I sent my gaze towards the gyre, I saw him frowning at the oddness of it, his wits recovered along with his rasping breath, his eyes seemingly grown enormous in the dark, a trick of the lack of light matched against their inky depths. "There's no reason we shouldn't wait, and watch to see their habits," he said reasonably, but there was unwonted gravel in his usually clear tenor voice - my eyebrows shot up to hear it, and Oros grimaced and shook his head, a truncated gesture that barely stirred his dirt-spangled hair. "I'm fine. Too much cold air, and not enough rest or food."
The mention of food made my stomach grumble so insistently that the cramp hurt, harshly enough that I could feel it through the rest of the myriad insults my weary frame had withstood; the last dish I had eaten had been a hearty if simple Elyos lunch four days previous, before I had donned Kit's armor, and the tactile memories of apples, still crisp even so far removed of autumn, and fresh, hot bread, straight from the ovens of Sanctum's finest kitchens and drizzled with honey, were so vividly clear that it made my dry mouth water. To contrast, since the calling of the Gate, Oros and I had eaten nothing but snow, snow and more snow - hydration and a swift elusion of any pursuit we might face a higher priority than risking discovery in order to procure supplies.
But the thought of sustenance, at least, nudged my thoughts down the proper paths, and with a moment to allow my breath to even, my mind had begun to process information once more. "The Academe is a mage's college," I noted, searching the quiet campus with my gaze. "They have to feed the students, somehow. Do you see a mess hall?"
Oros sat up straighter, narrowed his black eyes to the task, neither of us with the fortitude at that precise moment to move in search of a better vantage. "That large rectangular one, I think. Up front, there, to the right -"
"I see it," I said, and was just about to screw my courage to the sticking place and limp to my feet when a bell tolled out across the valley; the both of us froze, certain we had somehow been discovered, but the ringing was slow and measured in pace, a marker of time, I belatedly realized, slowly releasing the impromptu weapon of a rock that had somehow found its way into my palm. From the dubious luxury of the bluff, we watched as the central building emptied out, a seemingly impossible number of student-mages released from its confines, moving in groups towards the tentatively-identified mess hall, as well as several of the smaller buildings in whirls and streams, their voices risen in cacophony of friendly chatter and indistinct from distance, filling up the valley like a cup submerged in a pool of water, all at once with very little room to breathe. I searched for Jareth's raspberry head among the milling press of mages, the colour alone unusual enough that I had little fear of being able to pick him out of a crowd; my heart fell somewhat when I did not find him, momentarily discouraged. Oros must have seen my face, for he made no comment, only watched the students at their walking, some from one end of campus entirely to the other, for reasons we could not discern at such remove.
But I noticed quickly that there were no guards walking among the buildings of the complex, no sheen of armor or the rhythmic stomp of a military stride; I wondered at it, then supposed that the faculty at the Academe was all the defense the students might ever need, for wild animals would detect and then skirt the reek of aether in the facility, and any enemy forces needs must have been incredibly foolhardy, to consider attacking a college of mages on their own home ground. They would not be expecting a paltry pair of rogue infiltrators, not so deep in the mountains, nor well ahead of any news that might have been received from Carcarron. Within twenty minutes of the bell, the campus once again appeared almost desolately empty, save for the lights in the windows and the shadows behind them. Oros seemed to feel we had rested long enough; he loosened the Word in its scabbard and rose slowly to his feet, his exhaustion telling in the lack of efficiency to his movements. A man could only live so long on water and aether, after all, before his frame began to fail, and with that frightening thought emblazoned across the backs of my eyelids, I accepted his hand to help me to my feet, the gesture unasked, of course, but unrefused as well.
So far come, yet miles left to go; my entire body ached at the idea.
Down the slope we went, aided by gravity in the forward motion but not in the stirring of pebbles, gravel and detritus around our feet, and by the time we reached the base of the valley, I was flinching from the perceived racket, though it could scarcely have been a whisper compared to the yowling of the bell from the Academe. Though Oros seemed to have caught what must have been his fourth or fifth wind, I was not so lucky; where he sprinted ahead across the valley floor to crouch behind the retaining wall that marked the Academe's border, his shoulder set dead center of the tiny dim area between two sets of bluish lights and his knees in the dirt as he made himself as small as possible, I could only manage a ragged jog, reaching him to kneel in a painful clatter of armor, rattling breath and protesting musculature, kept from collapsing next to him only by virtue of his hand steadying my shoulder. If I went down now, I knew, I would never rise again, but the spark of defiance that had buoyed me thusfar was slowly beginning to snuff itself out beneath its own weight, not to mention the weight of the chain mail that I wore, making every pull of air into my lungs a losing battle.
The wall had seemed small, from the side of the mountain, but the damned thing nearly reached my collarbone. I choked back a groan of distress, already imagining the difficulty I would have in vaulting it, and instead leaned hard against it, my forearm braced on the stone, only to jerk back in surprise when I felt the flow of aether running through the wall, a shock to my raw senses much like plunging my naked arm into a bottle full of lightning. Oros made a questioning gesture, too close to the finish to risk discovery either by Elysean or the strange accents in his Asmoth; I snatched his hand from my shoulder and pressed it to the stone, and he yanked his hand back much as I did, white brows knit into that hawkish frown, one sole touchstone of the familiar in what I was rapidly becoming convinced was one long, never-ending nightmare.
A level breath from the gyre, then a sigh; there was no helping it; over the wall we had to go, or the days beyond the portal had been for nothing, and while the aether trained to follow the brick was powerful, it was not hostile, not a barrier meant to keep strange beings like us out. He laced his fingers together, looking as drawn and pale and hollow-eyed as I felt, and reluctantly I put my boot in his cupped palms, pushed off of the wall as he boosted me up and over -
I felt it when I passed through the barrier, and realized that my assessment had been incomplete a moment before; the wall was not meant to keep strangeness out, but to keep the aether rampant across the campus in, and all of it, every last scrap, slammed into my senses with such power and totality that I did not so much land on the other side of the wall as catch the ground with my side, limp and weak as a newborn kitten while my vision spotted and spun, blacked at the edges as paper waved through flame. There was so much aether contained within the Academe that in my weakened state, I stood no chance of withstanding it - the pressure of it filled the air such that I could not breathe at all, choking under its weight, a thousand tastes and smells stuffed like rotting petals into my nose and down my throat, a physical sensation of heaviness that had me scrabbling at the dirt with my hands, as if by clawing at the ground I could clear my lungs of the debris. Tears streamed down my face, the canals of my ears popped so painfully I was sure for a moment I bled from them, and as my world began to narrow to a single pinprick of light I had the clarity to think, So this is how I finally die, drowning on dry land -
And then Oros was there, over the wall and kneeling over my prone form, and autumn wind over the desert scraped away the blackness in my vision and the knots in my lungs, harsh and swift as sand rubbed into an open wound - but this was a familiar pain, the clean slice of his aether a thing I welcomed with open arms, and I was openly weeping as he ducked to throw my arm across his shoulder, the Last Word wedged between us, the energy of the accursed blade palpable even through the protection of my armor. It was glowing black and deep burgundy, now, the blade still sitting in the scabbard but four inches of steel exposed to the open air, the runes on the surface picked out in a vivid red the colour of pigeon's blood that threw the shadows on our faces into stark relief. We were terribly exposed, but there was little I could do, my limbs disobeying all orders from my brain; it was the gyre who limped us into the windowless lee of the nearest building, leaned me up against the stone, and my arm still draped across his shoulders, panted as he considered what next to do. He was trembling with effort beneath his leathers, pushed to the brink of his endurance and then well beyond it, but he refused to give up, not so close to the end of this awful journey. I could see the spark of stubborn defiance in his eyes, blacker than the night around us, and it gave to me a breath of strength, like the taste of water to a woman dying of thirst. Just enough to begin to continue on, and not a drop more.
"What in the nine hells... did you just do?" I gasped out, when I had the ability to do so; Oros's free hand dropped to rattle the hilt of the Last Word, not daring to sheathe the blade and send it back into torpor; it seemed to be all that stood between us and utter failure, a suspicion confirmed by the gyre himself a moment later.
"It's a dispel-blade," he panted hoarsely, unlimbering my arm from his shoulders, unsteady on his own feet and growing moreso by the minute. "It eats magic." A black-humoured grimace, pressing his palm to his side as he did so, as if he battled a cramp. "Among its other talents."
And that was a loaded statement if I had ever heard one, but we hadn't the time for social niceties - with the Word to battle back the worst of the aether-miasma, my mind was rapidly clearing, and I realized with a start that I was aware as I had never been of Jareth, aware of precisely where he was in the sprawling compound and among all the myriad mages that could have blurred my focus. When we were young, of course, I had always known where he was, in a way that I could not articulate to anyone - when he had fallen and broken his wrist on the slippery bailey steps, I, who had been across Carcarron Keep in the training yards, had yelped in pain and run immediately to his side - but that had been when we were children, and close in both spirit and location. The last time I had seen Jareth in the flesh had been some two years previous, when he had been allowed a brief respite from the endless lessoning of the Academe to celebrate with Raum and I our threefold coming of age; Jareth had been sent to the Academe at ten, shortly after it had become clear that without our mother the nascent mage would have no one to teach him in the art that was controlling his ability, and I had seen him only sparingly in the intervening years, though our letters were frequent and richly detailed.
This was nothing like that vague childhood notion of twinhood; this was a humming in the forefront of my brain, and I knew without having to inquire of the sense that Jareth was well and not far off, in one of the outermost ring of buildings a few rows down - that he was alone, working busily at an advanced project of his, and would not be persuaded to move for quite some time. I pushed off from the wall, the knowledge giving me strength I did not know I possessed, a feeling of energy I had not experienced in days coursing through my frame. It seemed my second wind had arrived in the end, and after all, with the thickness of magic held within the air of the Academe, we need not worry at being found through senses other than sight or sound. "This way -"
Oros began to question me, but I did not stop to allay his quite rightful fears, or to answer his questions; merely because Jareth would not be abroad in the night did not mean we were not in danger of discovery, and the gyre bit back his curiosity and followed me one shadow-striding step at a time, hugging walls, ducking windows, once pressing ourselves to a corner in order to avoid the gazes of a pair of passing mages, laughing at and more interested in one another than in their own surroundings. We reached the door of the building without incident, and I was poised to threw it open without thought or concern, anxious beyond words to rush to my twin, until Oros hauled me back; though Jareth himself was in a room alone elsewhere in the structure, the hallway immediately behind the door bustled with activity, and Oros drew me as gently as he could away from the front entrance, around two corners to the furthest side of the building, the one that faced a smooth windowless facade of its neighbor, yet itself had two ground-floor windows.
From somewhere within the folds of his much-abused leathers, Oros called to hand a slender throwing-knife, the blade hiltless, thin as a whisper, black-beveled and no broader than his thumb; while I stood by anxiously, this he used to pry open the window, digging the tip up under the sash and pressing down upon the impromptu lever, until he could slip his fingers in the gap, the knife bent, dull and near-useless at the end of it. The operation was delicate, utterly silent, and without doubt the longest two minutes of my life, standing there watching him work as I waited with pounding heart for discovery. A glance at our surroundings, however, proved that the gyre had chosen his avenue of attack well, and when I flicked my gaze back to the window it was to find that Oros had already slithered through and stood in the hall beyond, hands held out towards me. Even with his help, I was less that graceful as I mounted the sill, through and into the hall without falling down on sheerest stubborn will alone - and then we were both in the building, and Jareth lay just on the other side of a smooth mahogany door marred only by a room-number, and nothing Oros could do would prevent me from going to my brother now -
I shouldered it open, took in the narrow slip of a room all in a rush (desk, single chair, a bed and dresser in the corner, all of it dwarfed by a floor-to-ceiling bookcase that ran the length of one wall and was packed to bursting with leather-bound volumes) but it was the man working over open books and messy papers at the desk that held my attention; dressed in dark red robes with the ink-stained sleeves rolled up past his elbows, dusky-skinned and silver-eyed and hair a messy high ponytail of raspberry strands caught back from his face, familiar boyish cheeks and a chin sprinkled with neglected growth, the hair there pinkish against his dark complexion - Jareth, undoubtedly Jareth in every beloved inch of him, and my heart swelled with both joy and a terrible fear that the surprise in his startled silver gaze would give way to suspicion or, worse, to hostility, that he would not know me as I knew him, would not know the pale stranger's face I wore like a veil across the one that should have echoed his own -
But the twisting in my guts were for naught; Jareth stood in a rush, the books and papers scattering across and clear of the desk, a feather-quill left to float gently to the floor, the inkpot miraculously left untouched - and then without moving from desk to doorway we were in each other's arms, crying and laughing in the same breath, and though Jareth was not strong enough to pick me up and whirl me round while I was so weighted down in armor and mail, the intent was there, the wish to do so - I clung to him and he clung to me, the side of my face to his upper chest and his to the top of my shoulder, for he was quite a bit taller than me now, tall enough to give lanky Trist a run for his figurative kinah. Ah, Aion, I did not care. So long separated from him, even with everything that had come before, it was as if, for the first time in a very long time, I was complete; as if I had been missing a piece of myself that I had not known I'd lost, one that his presence, his unquestioning love, had restored.
"I never gave up, not once," he said fiercely into my shoulder, his blunt-trimmed claws scraping across the back of my borrowed armor with a soft noise like shredding tin, the rolling accents of his Carcarrese brogue washing over me, the Asmoth words engendering in me the feeling like a woman coming home. "I never lost hope that we'd find you."
"I know, Jer. I know," I murmured into his robes, and my world, made painful and foreign ever since Raum's death, just for a moment hove back into true, and for the length of that breath it was as if I had never left - as if all the fell and foul things that had befallen me were nothing more than a bad dream.
But then the moment ended, as it must; Jareth and I broke our embrace, but only so that my brother - so tall now! I marveled at it in absent-minded moments, at how he had grown so much since last I had seen him - could hold me at arm's length and inspect the strange creature that the Elyos had made of me. "Oh, Jay, you look a fright under all that mud. Asphel's balls, what have they done to you?" It was not said maliciously, my brother only full of concern for my well-being, but I felt more than heard or saw Oros tense at my back, the gyre stranded in the hallway and horribly exposed should any student come wandering by; I murmured for Jareth some polite noises to the effect of 'may we come in', and when his silver gaze landed on Oros to see him for the first time, the gyre's black eyes burning like banked coals in his hawkish face, Jareth visibly startled and stepped adroitly aside of the door, taking me with him, as if he feared that the Elyos who had come so far and done so much to deliver me to him would now kidnap me out from under his very gaze.
"They have not done anything to me that I did not ask for, brother." The words were truer than he knew, quite possibly the truest thing I had said since crossing the Gate into Carcarron. I smiled for Jareth, though, and bit the inside of my cheek, assessing exactly how much I ought to tell him; Oros, scowling more ominously than a thundercloud, slipped into the room and put the door against his back, as much to hold the entrance closed as to keep himself upright, feet apart and slouched with the attitude of a disinterested warrior-prince lounging on his throne, though the gyre's dark gaze was watching us keenly, and not at all with demeanor of insouciance. The Last Word, still protruding from its sheath and casting its black radiance across us all, was decidedly not going to convince Jareth of the gyre's good intentions, but its influence was the only thing that kept the air in that small, confined space clear enough for me to breathe; I recognized now, weeks after the fact, that the doomblade had aided me before, and I was not enough a hypocrite to refuse its help now.
Jareth flicked a suspicious glance to the gyre, of a sudden become our warden holding us in this quiet, windowless room, before he returned his anxious gaze to my face; though we maintained contact only tentatively, his hands on my shoulders, I could almost feel his frame draw tight and close, and when I scented brimstone and burning earth, I thought that I had let loose a hint of my own aether, until I realized that it was rising from my brother in curls and tendrils, smoke just barely shy of visible eddying around his frame. I knew that scent intimately well; it had wreathed about me like a cloak, every time I called my wings. I gripped his arms with strong hands, diverted his attention from the gyre - not my intent, but effective nevertheless. "You've Ascended?" I asked of him as my eyebrows shot skyward, surprised, but pleasantly so - it was perhaps the most welcome and treasured piece of news that I had had in weeks.
MY brother flashed a brilliant smile, a pure and undiluted boyish delight lighting his face as, just for a span of heartbeats, he allowed himself to forget that an Elyos was present in that tiny room. "Four days ago, at dusk - a phoenix, which has the student body all atwitter, all of them attempting to source a deed-name for me. You are come just in time. I'm to be graduated as soon as my dissertation is completed; Mother would be so proud." Oros became very still at the door, and while Jareth was nowhere nearly as well-keyed to the moods and shifts of the gyre, he could not fail to notice the candle-flicker of startlement in the depths of my silver eyes, so very much like his own. Whatever my brother had been about to say, he closed his mouth upon it, frowned down first at me and then at Oros, and when his gaze met mine again, the mirth had utterly drained away, and his mouth was pressed into a thin line across his handsome face, a knife-slash to mar his usually smiling features. "You aren't here because of me, are you?"
"We are, and I do congratulate you from the bottom of my soul, Jareth," I said carefully, every word painful as it emerged from my lips, "but we are not present for the reason that you believe."
"Did our illustrious Lord Carcarron send you for me? I suppose he packed you off the very moment he knew I had gained the wings. How polite of him to bring my sister home across the damned Abyss, and then send her for reinforcements without so much as the grace to break those enchantments." One of his raspberry brows rose, and releasing me from his grip he lifted a hand to tuck stray strands of his hair behind one ear, then folded his arms across his chest, shifting to stand where he could easily throw his gaze back and forth between myself and the gyre; facing him necessitated that I give Oros my back, something that I realized only after I had done so that I did not hesitate in doing it. Jareth snorted, a sharp exhalation of breath, then dropped his tones to nigh-conspiratorial: "Does he speak Asmoth?"
"More than well enough, Sorcerer," said Oros in like tongue, the gravel in his tenor lending weight to his already caustic tones. Jareth jumped, as shocked as I had once been to hear the words of Asmoth spilled from the lips of an Elyos, and had I not been gripping his arms in my palms, he would have backed from the gyre, as if the halfbreed Assassin were a poisonous snake. Aether tingled under my fingers, and whilst I held the utter conviction that Jareth would never harm me, the gyre was an unknown quantity and an Elyos Daeva besides; were I in Jareth's shoes, I would have been twice as suspicious and just as swift to act, but I could not allow the situation to deteriorate one iota further.
"Jareth, he helped me reach Synedell. I would be dead thrice over, were it not for him," I said quickly, before the aether my brother had reflexively called could build to disastrous proportions, as we were all three of us in very close quarters. I hesitated a moment, wetting my lips with the tip of my tongue, in my mind paring down the story to the barest-bones of truth, in order to cut to the heart of the argument and avoid any further posturing on either side. Jareth was trustworthy; Jareth must be trustworthy, else we would die in the Academe, instead of on the mountainside or at the hands of the enemy. "Carcarron did not send me here. We have been running for days from the forces of the White Dragon, and if they catch us, brother, they will kill us - I as a traitor, and Oros simply for existing. We need your help. I beg of you," but at mention of the Dragon, Jareth's face changed from grimness to a whirl of cascading thought, the metaphorical gears spinning and clicking behind his silver gaze, slightly unfocused - as he was no longer looking at my face, but somewhere inward, aligning what I had told him with his own estimations from context, and with what he already knew.
When he looked up a moment later, did my clever-witted brother, he unfolded his arms to set his hands again on my shoulders, then said with studied neutrality, "Jaya, I believe you, every word of it, and I swear that I'll help you as best I can - but as I love you, I think that you need to sit down."
"I have not run mad," I said sharply, mistaking his meaning; he shook his head with a solemnity I had never seen on his laughing face before, and I recognized that whatever he was about to say was difficult for him, that he did not wish to cause me any great pain, but that he could see no way in which to avoid it.
"No, no - of course you haven't. You've allied yourself with the Elyos, haven't you? I would have done the same, in your position. But I fear that you've acted without all the facts, sister, and you will not like them when you learn the rest." A pause; his voice lowered to a deep-chested whisper. "Ah, Asphel-Umbra, how do I say this? I barely believed it myself, at first, and now here you are." His mercurial gaze strayed in Oros's direction without looking directly at the gyre, and he hooked his lower lip briefly with one fang, searched for the proper words to speak, to soften a blow he must strike. "The truth is that Avarran Carcarron is dead, some months ago."
"What?" My brows knit themselves into a frown, and Oros sucked in a sudden breath at my back, his mind reaching some conclusion that mine could not leap to; Jareth worried at his lower lip, hopeful that I would discover the knowledge myself, but it was not to be. "Then who in the Keep rules the Duchy?"
"The Dragon, of course," Jareth said, wincing, unwishing to see the expression on my face but unable to tear himself away. "It's Raum, Jaya - the White Dragon is Raum. Aelinian Carcarron lives, damn his brazen soul, and he's readying for a crusade."