I panted so loudly I barely had breath for the word. My chest heaved and when it did, Ithiel's knife cut my skin above the heart. His eyes, the pupils mere dots in the attentive irises, flickered down to the blood starting to well up. He stepped back, only a shadow space.
"Your mind is too open," he said in a low voice. "If I were a human you could probably still kill me. A Gelaming, you'd be putty. Or dead. Block me!"
With the speed of a lashing snake, I grabbed his wrist, the one holding his dagger, and leaned into the keen edge. His eyes widened comically. "What the hell are you doing?"
"If it were a Gelaming, I'd push myself onto the knife. A straight pierce to the heart, and it would be over."
He jerked his torso back, but with deadly grace, had the knife on me again, this time at my throat, grazing my jaw. I stiffened, my own dagger having been knocked to the ground. I'd struggled with mind control to try and retrieve it, but I was nowhere near strong enough.
"Don't you ever be a Varrish martyr, Swift," he rumbled. "I'm teaching you how to survive, not die some needless, romantic-seeming death. We're done for today."
I eased away with extreme caution, unsure as to whether or not he'd take me by surprise one more time, but his entire demeanor and carriage had changed. He always held himself at the ready, his body poised to defend those he served and cared for. I'd now spent enough time with him to pick up on the ebb and flow of his energy and focus. Ithiel had relaxed, physically, but his mind was pulling apart my words as though they were thick taffy.
"You've been spending a lot of time with Calanthe."
It was a statement, not a question. I didn't know why it mattered.
"Did he put such ridiculous ideas of self-sacrifice in your head?"
"Cal?!" I laughed, dark and knowing. Since Terzian and his forces had gone and I'd been in training, I felt as though I'd aged a decade or more. Of course Cal was an influence; it was like asking if the sun affected growing things. But he'd never said anything about sacrifice and honorable death. "No. I'm sure I'd fight to the bitter end, don't put too much stock into what I said. I spoke in the heat of the moment. If I found myself in combat with any of the Gelaming, I'd lock down my thoughts and let them taste the flavor of my blade."
Ithiel exhaled a labored sigh. "You have too much of your hostling in you. How can I make a proper warrior out of you with Cobweb's blood in your veins and Cal, the Uigenna cast-off breathing words of God knows what into your ears at night?"
"I guess you're stuck doing what you're doing," I said good-naturedly as we cleaned up our weaponry before heading back to Forever.
"You are improving," he admitted.
"Don't sound so enthusiastic." I jabbed my shoulder against him in a playful manner.
"We'll see how you do hand to hand tomorrow."
Our boots crunched against the crust that had hardened on the snow; a waxing moon blazed brightly in the sky, casting the familiar environment into an eerie, noctilucent otherworld. It made me feel reckless and strange. Wicked thoughts of Cal in my bed began crowding my mind, the visions delicious and also highly improbable. Vainly I tried pushing them away by busying myself once we were in the vast house. It still echoed with the fevered pulse of Terzian's absence and the deaths I'd caused. Dinner was nearly ready so I set the table, hoping to receive a smile in reward from Cobweb. He continued to wear his mourning with the elegance of tailored, supple leather and his thoughts were scattered. Until Cal entered the room, that was. Did Cal truly wander through life unaware that planets realigned, hearts turned to battlefields full of rotting corpses of hope, that the air sang with fire, all due to the violet storms of his eyes or a flippant, but earnest remark that spilled from his tongue?
He was master of my soul, bittersweet keeper of my heart and exquisite torturer of every bared secret of my body. For him it was just another evening in We Dwell in Forever as he sat down at the table and engaged in casual conversation with Ithiel. I tapped silent messages against my woolen trousers with my fingers and realized that, in fact, he was truly unaware of the wreckage he left in his wake. It didn't cause me to desire him any less; if only loyalty to my hostling had prevailed, but Cal's sway had been far too powerful for a mere har like me. A har who was mostly ignored at this meal, so I ate quickly, lingering in the kitchen afterwards with Yarrow until he said I was being a nuisance. Beaten, I went to the room of one who wouldn't turn me away.
"Come here, Tyson," I crooned, and he ran to my lap, laughing. I played with him, with wooden blocks that served as toys, and then parchment scraps and colored inks. My mind was meandering along different paths not suitable for young ones after not too long, however, and Tyson grew impatient. He tried to keep me interested in his own pursuits, but we grew frustrated with each other. I left him to entertain himself until Cobweb came to get him ready to sleep. I'd just left the room when Cobweb swept past me in the corridor to bathe the harling and get him ready for bed. He paused, and seemed to see me, clearly and with the speed of an arrow shot by a skilled archer.
"What's troubling you?" he asked, his eyebrows knit with concern. The comment was tossed out as though he'd not set eyes on me all evening.
"I don't think I live up to Ithiel's expectations." It was the truth, but skirted my discombobulation.
He shook his head, placing a strong but gentle hand on my shoulder. "Rubbish. You've only been training in earnest for a few weeks. Ithiel is a har who knows war, and he knows well how to instruct you in self-defense."
Curiosity burned in me. "What about you?"
"What about me, child?"
I was too feverish with the turbulence under my skin to contradict being called a child. The flames from my Feybraiha licked at me with insatiable tongues; it was they that scorched me. I'd experienced enough now to know these things.
"Your military training. You would never depend on Terzian to defend you, would you? Or Ithiel?"
He looked down his regal nose at me, though we were nearly the same height. "Not everyone needs to fight with weapons in hand."
The conversation appeared over. I suddenly wanted some sheh, and to be alone with my rampant thoughts. I turned on my heel and made my way back down to the kitchen with Cobweb's baffled thanks for looking after Tyson ringing in my ears. There was a bottle of sheh in the pantry, one from a batch Yarrow had brewed a few weeks back, so I took it and a glass back to my room. Once there I poured a half-glass, tossed back a mouthful, grimaced, and set to trying to find some oil for my sore muscles. Training with Ithiel was no walk around the grounds; he put me through my paces.
I'd lit a small fire, taken off my shirt and started to rub the fragrant salve into my forearms when I heard my bedroom door shut. He'd come, summoned by the soundless, greedy calls my body had shouted through the house. A part of me rejoiced that I had even that modicum of power. Cal didn't say anything, simply pulled off his wool sweater, drank a fair amount of the sheh in my glass and gently prised the vial out of my fingers.
"Why don't you go lie down on your stomach," he suggested. As I stood up, he let his fingers skate down the middle of my chest and gazed at me. Embers of desire glowed in his dusky eyes; a frisson of anticipation jolted my ouana-lim. "You've put on some muscle. What's Ithiel doing to you, really?"
I huffed a laugh and sprawled facedown on my bed, arranging myself like a banquet to be feasted upon. "Proper training in weaponry— knives, guns, both pistols and rifles, archery, and a regimen of stretches, sit ups and pushups. Thankfully he's not forced me to go running. It's too cold, anyway."
He made a non-committal, appreciative noise as I heard him go around the room— I eased onto my elbows and watched as he lit several large candles and a thin taper of incense before turning off the main light. I sank back down onto the bed while he situated himself atop my backside and started to knead at my upper back. Low sighs and contented purrs of happiness burbled out of me in a stream.
"Where do you do all of that?"
"Near the stables. One of the storage houses."
His questing fingers and strong palms worked healing magic on my back and shoulders. I was buzzing with questions, and loved to hear his voice, so I asked about his past and who'd taught him self-defense, if anyone.
"Not so interesting," he said blithely, and I couldn't help but snort in response. "I was a street rat; I learned my survival skills in the dying city where I was incepted. We were a wild gang, not glamorous, really. I'd rather not think about it now." He paused, leaning up a bit to massage his fingers into my scalp. I let out a soft gasp of pleasure. "You should turn over. And take off your pants."
I didn't need to hear that suggestion twice. I was down to my underwear, my famished skin craving Cal's touch. He was a potent drug; I knew why Cobweb hated him so much, but here and now all thoughts of my hostling were banished. Cal was a fierce jungle cat, crawling up my legs before sitting carefully on my groin. He poured more of the sage- and clove-infused unguent into his palms. There was no subtlety in my body's wishes; my erection strained up, teased mercilessly as Cal shifted and arranged his thighs before settling into his task, massaging my chest and tight muscles where bicep joins pectoral.
My eyes had adjusted to the dim light; I was mesmerized by the flex and stretch of his own arms as he worked, having taken off his undershirt to reveal his still thin and wiry frame. I felt just brazen enough to tilt my pelvis, rocking between his legs to find out if there was an answering hardness— the heat there wasn't on display. This part of him was the most puzzling, a key enigmatic and seductive-colored flicker in the kaleidoscope of Cal's personality. He was often soume; his power radiated with it. If ever there was an antithesis to the simpering passivity that many more ouana Varrs preferred, it was Cal. When soume, he ate me alive; I sank into his moist earth and at the end was reborn. This was his preference tonight, apparently.
"I have plans for you, pure-born," he said. His husky voice caused my heart to thump a resounding beat of 'yes' and 'please, god, now,' against my ribcage.
I'd meant for that to sound suave, but the way my nerves were howling, it was more of a yelp. A sultry smile glided onto his lips, and I was gutted.
"I like my bruises, and the bite marks," he said, forthright and strangely earnest. "But tonight you'll keep your hands to yourself."
My brows furrowed. I loved to grapple with him, to stroke and grab and fondle. What sport was there if I couldn't even hold him, rake my fingers down his back, or entwine my fingers in his hair? As always I'd underestimated him, somehow forgotten since the last time we'd collided souls and slaked our arunic thirsts with each other, that he'd been singing these erotic duets since before he even became har. I'd only just had my Feybraiha— he was a master, I a novice, a shuddering, babbling, shaking mass of limbs; his supplicant and devotee.
His leather bonds on my wrists that held me to the bed frame were sweet agony. With lips and tongue he forged all across my body, finding delights that caused the waves of passion in my groin and thundering in my blood to crash and roil. He was the sun and my aching ouana-lim reached toward his light. When my language had shattered to nothing but begging cries and actual tears shimmered in my eyes in frustration, he at last took pity on me. It was relief for him, too, as he angled my shaft, glistening in full flower, and sank down on it, sheathing me to the hilt. He tossed his sweaty hair back from his face, a dark satisfaction dancing in his eyes. They were dilated by desire; only a sliver of violet ringed the black when he leaned forward and breathed across my face.
The word was prayer and need, scraping its thorns across my over-sensitized skin. The hints of sharing breath were toxic addiction; he hovered over me as I struggled. He slid up and down on my ouana-lim while exhaling his visions over my unblinking eyes, his flames and fields of gold, his burning suns. I strained and pulled, arching up to capture his lips, to kiss him, to taste the faint apple of his tongue. At last he relented, his inner muscles of that masterful soume-lam grasping my ouana-lim while we shared breath. He bequeathed a torrent of scalding sands, grains of lavender visioncraft swirling between our open mouths until his pulled back.
"Cal! God! Take us through it!" My hips were snapping as I filled him, this demon sylph with his old soul and scent that pulled me like the demands of gravity.
"What? You're not enjoying yourself?" he teased, but he, too, was panting with exertion, barely keeping himself in check.
"Fuck, Cal," I whimpered, thrashing my head from side to side on my sweat-dampened pillow, my eyes closed against his luminous presence.
I barked a short laugh at his vulgarity, my eyes still squinched shut. My blood pounded. Through the rushing wind of our release, Cal guided us to a precipice and then flung us down with a throaty growl. I was wracked with blazing auroras, the blinding ecstasy at last settling to a less dangerous ring of azure flames. Cal uncoupled us— I kept my eyes shut, captivated by the shadow sparks behind my eyelids. A few moments later, two fingers were teased along my lips until I opened them, licking his fingers clean of a tangy, lemonbitter fluid.
"That's how you taste, dragonling."
My eyes flew open. I was mortified with shame.
"Cal! You! What?"
My inelegant staccatoed words flew past tainted lips as he untied me and draped himself along my side. Heavy-lidded, he regarded me with the fierce beneficence of a well-fed mountain lion, sprawling down to lick its claws and curl up to sleep.
"Don't be such a prude."
I couldn't help but lick my lips again, they were so dry, and the faint flavor of my own release still lingered there. I burned with embarrassment; I knew so little about myself. Cal showed me how little, again and again.
"Stop thinking so loud," Cal chastised me without real rebuke. In a rare show of his caste practices, he got up on an elbow, kissed me, and then waved his arm lazily at the candles, which were snuffed out. "I don't want to cause an accidental fire and have Cobweb come banging on the door. Threesomes are really quite a rush, but even as Wraeththu, hostling and son together might be a bit taboo."
I shuddered with crazed horror. "You're unbelievable!" I said, decorating his face with chaste kisses. "There'll be a special place of torment for you when you die." The laughter in his face metamorphed to one of more serious quiet, and I berated myself. "Sorry. That was a shitty thing to say."
"Don't beat up on yourself," he said, his voice warm but his eyes tinged with melancholy. "Let's sleep. I'm exhausted. That pure-born body of yours, you take a lot out of me."
"Me?" I asked, incredulous, making space under the turbulent mess of sheets and covers so he could spoon at my side. "You're the demon. Aruna with you leaves me bloody half the time."
A secretive smile meandered onto his lips as I carded my fingers through his hair. "Yes, but you don't really mind, now do you?"
His voice was tinged with sleep. I nuzzled into his collarbone, wishing he'd stay up for a time; I saw this side of him so infrequently, it was the most precious gift I knew. "Besides," he continued on, "you inspire me. You're a chosen one— of what, or whom, I have no idea. But you're fearless and beautiful and you bring out my wild side."
I was flabbergasted, proud and full of disbelief. "Cal," I murmured, "You scare me. I'm not fearless at all! I can't bear to stay away from you. I want to breathe you in me, and keep you "
"Hush. Let me sleep."
He kissed the top of my head, eased an arm over my ribcage, and relaxed against me, completely boneless. Though my mind was still turbulent with questions and my chest was bruised with adoration for him, I, too, soon joined with him in sleep. My dreams were of incense and violet sand dunes, of Cal's lips on my forehead and the beating of dragon wings.