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[personal profile] siphraniax3
Author-- AnonymousAvatar
series -- A Distant Soil
Disclaimer -- Colleen Doran owns all
Rating -- NC-17
Characters/Pairing -- Seren/ Kovar, D'mer/Seren
Summary -- The Avatar and his Shield Kovar must face a conspiracy that threatens everyone and everything they love. Kovar and Aeren get to know one another a little better. Comedy and Drama Ensues.

PART I PART II PART III Part IV Part V Part VI Part VII Part VIII Part VIX Part X Part XI Part XII Part XIII Part XIV Part XV Part XVI Part XVII Part VXIII Part VIX
Part XX Part XXI XXII Part XXIII

He’s insane, thought Kovar.

Aeren reached the rim of the valley in seconds, hurtling at more than 60 miles per hour, hitting an icy, rocky outcrop and flying over it, landing with ease over 100 feet away in a burst of powdery snow, no easy feet with a heavy pack on his back. He turned with perfect form, an arc of spray bursting around him as he skidded to a halt and waited for Kovar to catch up.

Kovar took the more conservative approach, angling his skis horizontally over the face of the mountain, one leg out and the other back with his bottom low and close to the snow to slow his descent. He reached Aeren and scolded with the thought, “Good way to cause an avalanche, show off.” He could sense Aeren’s unshielded exhilaration.

I won’t let the big bad snow get you,” Aeren thought in return, mirth bubbling forward. “Come on. First snare is just over there.”

A grid with the map of the snares was projected on the inside of Kovar’s visor. Almost completely buried in snow and ice, the snares could barely be discerned by the naked eye. Aeren, however, with his unique sensitivity to energy signatures, could see them even without the map.

Stay back,” Aeren ordered. Kovar was once again amused by Aeren’s vigorous assumption of command, though he assumed for now that this was due to Aeren being in his natural element. Kovar would be less accommodating were Aeren to attempt to shoulder an authoritative role in Kovar’s sphere unbidden, and he wondered when he would, which seemed inevitable.

Aeren removed one of his gloves, his hand shuddering slightly in the immense cold. He carefully approached the snare, which appeared as nothing more than a bump in the show with a small dark depression where the scanner beam was focused toward the valley. Aeren’s image shivered as the enhancer attempted to block him from the snare’s sensors. He carefully stepped toward it. The top of the snare swiveled around, recognizing the vibrations on the ground that indicated warmth and movement. Aeren reached out and touched the top of the machine with his bare hand. Suddenly it shuddered, a small arc of electricity sparking from it.

The small trail of sparks spread, light fast, from one snare to the next, and as far as Kovar could see little explosions popped up, detonating one snare after the other in a line along their uplinks. Aeren was as still as stone, concentrating, his exposed hand on the snow and ice and freezing metal, willing it to discharge his disruption force to every snare in the valley. Kovar’s visor read the death of each one as a small silver mark on a grid, the power blinking out along a ragged web.

Finally, Aeren gasped and drew back his hand, stuffing it into his glove with relief. “Freaking cold!” he exclaimed.




“Well done.” Kovar understated the matter. He had never seen anyone pull off such a  trick. “But a good way to get frostbite,” said Kovar, pulling forward on his skies to meet Aeren next to the dead snare. “If your smuggler friends are monitoring this area just now…”

“I’m sure they are. Good luck finding us in that.” Aeren pointed to the vast, roiling clouds descending over the valley, dark and grey and full of snow so thick it appeared as a solid mass.

“These smugglers,” said Kovar. “You know them well? Have they ever done anything on this scale to catch you? They have an excess of determination and resources at their call.”

Aeren looked uncomfortable. “No, nothing like this. Little stuff, you know. A few traps on obvious trails, but…no.”

The two men were already being dotted with tiny ice pellets. “The winds are a good 40 miles per hour in the bowl of the valley. We should be able to hide well enough.”

“Good,” said Kovar. “Is your hand all right?” In this cold, frostbite could set upon exposed skin in minutes.

“Yes. I can’t,” Aeren said, “disrupt through this suit. I could blow my data threads. I might try that trick somewhere I wouldn’t freeze to death, but out here I can’t afford to make a mistake.” He rubbed his hand and hissed. “Does get rough having to expose myself like that, though.” He pushed a button on his poles and his skate skis’ shape morphed into wider, shorter and flatter marathon snow skis. “Let’s get moving.”

Kovar did the same with his own skis, then trailed behind Aeren, taking advantage of the cut he’d made in the snow. The wind and ice pellets hit them in a delicate stocatto that grew into a torrent. Darkness fell quickly, and their visibility deteriorated, but Kovar had no trouble following Aeren’s aura: it was a beacon. But their descent was laborious as the winds rose, their bodies struggling against the rushing tide of wind.

Kovar could sense Aeren’s exhilaration and confidence, his pure joy in the challenge, and his pride in showing Kovar a measure of what he could do. He was unfiltered and unshielded in this environment, careless of his stray thoughts and feelings. He bubbled with amusement, joy, and pride. He knew what a rare creature he was, a disruptor who usually had to hide his gift. But from Kovar, here in this moment, he hid nothing. The pure delight that radiated from him was far more attractive than the calculated, seductive charm he applied at court, thought Kovar.

The storm reduced visibility to no more than a few feet. The valley was rimmed with a series of deep cuts from many years of mining. They rode the rims in an ever-descending circle, narrow and treacherous. One trip ad they would roll nearly a mile down. Even the wind could upend them and spell their doom.

“Agh, veer off my trail a bit, there some rocks here. Don’t want you to hit them and pop a ski,” said Aeren, struggling a bit to right himself after hitting a patch of jutting stones.

Kovar did as advised, his eye still on Aeren’s beacon-bright aura, when suddenly, he felt a searing, tearing pain in his leg. He stumbled and caught himself, balancing his weight on one ski, skidding to a quick halt at the edge of a steep drop. In the snow behind him he saw a short barb, bright red with his blood.

“Kovar! Are you all right? What happened?”

“Stop! Aeren, stop moving!”

“You’re hurt, I can feel it! What’s wrong?”

“Aeren don’t come any closer.” Kovar ‘s blood poured onto the snow. He grabbed the bolt: shot from a primitive booby trap, it had no electrical parts to show up on a scanner. This was as archaic as a snare could get. A cord fluttered from the front of Kovar’s ski where it had tripped the trap. The barb sliced through two layers of snow suit and cut a deep gouge in the flesh of his thigh. He could feel the temperature in his suit dropping fast. For a moment, he wondered dumbly if the barb was poisoned. He grabbed it and stuffed it in his pocket, his suit running a quick diagnostic, readings flashing across his visor.

“What’s going on, Kovar?”

“Set off some kind of snare,” said Kovar as he rustled through his pack for a patch, explaining the evidence he had found as he did so.

“Shit!” said Aeren. “Are you hurt bad?”

“I’m fine,” Kovar lied. The pain from the barb was one thing, but having his suit’s seal compromised was another. “How far are we from your mine?” There was no poison in the barb, but the wound was deep. Main arteries avoided, but the wound was bad enough.

“About 15 minutes…can you…can you see anything? A heat signature? Energy?”

Kovar could not. His visor was military grade, and the best that could be had, but it showed nothing but a simple schematic of the valley floor. Aeren’s heat signature was the only sign of life on his visor, but his aura was brighter to Kovar’s inner eye than the dwindling vision obscured by the snow. The storm quickly grew fierce: protection from smugglers and pirates, but impossible to see small tricks and traps on the valley floor. The brutal wind had thrown the bolt off course just enough to keep it from take a bigger bite of his leg, Kovar mused. He peeled the patch from its protective backing then pressed it against his wounded thigh. The seal hugged the material, clinging and pressing against it. But the data threads were shredded, and the temperature in his suit fell. His body heat would be trapped in the suit and keep him warm for awhile, but would soon be overwheledm by the piercing cold outside.

“Give me a minute,” said Aeren. “I think I can…yes, I think I can pick up something.” Kovar could see Aeren standing very still, his aura expanding, reaching out in tendrials as the snow and wind whirled around it. His aura was unaffected by the elements, expanding and thinning as it did so, touching the ground in delicate wisps. “I can sense where people have been recently. Where they paused.”

Kovar watched as Aeren gingerly stepped toward his right. Then with his pole, he tapped the ground. Suddenly, he shouted and sprang back. “Aeren!” cried Kovar.

“Found one!” said Aeren excitedly. He turned and approached Kovar, carefully retracing his trail. “I can spot them, but it’s not easy. It looks like they are littered randomly around the valley.” He looked down at Kovar’s hand pressed against his leg. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Knicked my suit. I’ve patched it.” In the dim light, he’d no doubt Aeren could not spot his blood on the snow, but his squire paused, looking up at Kovar with intensity. His thoughts were shielded but the atmosphere of his mind was not. Kovar wondered if Aeren automatically dropped his carefully constructed mental barriers the minute he returned to his wilderness home. He did not seem to be concerned that Kovar shared his sensations, and his concern was clear. Kovar’s discomfort would be visible in his aura. He tried to mask it, but did not know how long he could expend the energy, much less how long he could fool a sensitive like Aeren.

“Here.” Aeren pulled a safety line from his suit and hooked it to Kovar’s utility belt. “Can’t let you get separated from me. Follow everything I do exactly.”

He reset his skis with a touch of the button on his ski poles, and the bottoms fanned out into a pair of snowshoes. Kovar did the same with his gear, the shoes balancing them on top of the snow on a broad base. Then they carefully marched forward, Aeren in front, psionically probing for signs of contact between the valley and a recent sentient presence. He paused, thrust his pole into the snow, and then a bolt flew again. Once more, Kovar was deeply impressed by his squire’s raw talent. A sensitive of Aeren’s quality was perfect for this work, but rarely useful on a battlefield where intense emotions of all kinds made delicate telepathic examination impossible. Because few living presences trode these mountain byways, Aeren could spot their trail and not be overwhelmed by the psychic noise around him

Someone’s coming! Aeren’s thought hit Kovar like a slap. They crouched down in the snow, their enhancers set to maximum shield, as they willed their bright auras to dim. They could hear the sound of a low-flying skiff, circling the valley, searching. Their trails would have been visible to the skiff if the storm hadn’t wiped them with every step, especially as Kovar had spilled blood on the snow in a bright red stream. The thought occurred to him that if the smugglers had a sensitive as good as Aeren, he could be tracked by the resonance from the blood flow. But the likelihood there was another sensitive as adept as Aeren available to service smugglers was highly unlikely. This was a skill Aeren kept to himself almost as dearly as he kept the secret of his disruptor power.

The skiff swirled over them again and again, unsuccessfully seeking its prize, drawn by the alarming news that the entire snare grid had been wiped out with an energy pulse. The skiff could barely be seen from the ground, even with its searchlights and scanners set to full. The lights from the ship appeared as great golden, hazy globes in the driving snow.

As the men crounched behind a rocky outcropping, Kovar took the time to surreptitiously apply another patch on his leg. He felt the retreat of the biting cold that had leaked through. Aeren’s eyes were fixed on the skiff, which finally made its way past the rim of the valley and retreated into the distance. It would no doubt return when the storm passed.

“We can go,” said Aeren.

The march was slow. Fifteen minutes became a half hour. Then forty-five minutes. Then an hour. Aeren had to gauge every move, sense the location of traps, and then move to the next step, agonizingly slow work. He left most of the traps alone, not wanting their pursuers to follow the trail of tripped snares right to his door.

The blood had flowed freely from Kovar’s wound at first, gushing down his leg and soaking the inside of his suit, pooling in his boot. It gradually slowed with the application of the second pressure seal and the cold. But the storm that hid them from capture was a lethal enemy Kovar could not fight for much longer. His suit could not maintain its integrity. Kovar’s core body temperature was dangerously low. His leg felt numb and prickly: early signs of frostibite. He shivered and pushed forward.

“We’re almost there,” said Aeren reassuringly. Kovar’s powerful psionic shields were raised to the full, but Aeren sensed his distress: perhaps from the resonance of his spilled blood. “I don’t see any more traps. I think we’re clear to push from here.”

It was another fifteen minutes before they reached a large, rocky outcropping in the side of the valley, a massive jutting prow of quartz. The wail of the buffeting winds around them sounded like a cry, filling Kovar with a sense of dread, an emotion to which he was not at all accustomed. Lightheaded, he clutched his leg. He was numb. “What the hell is this place?” he demanded. It sounded like the voice of another man, weak, dull and spiritless. He had an urge to leave, to turn around and find the warm skiff they’d left behind on the cliff and go home. What the hell was he doing here with this idiot boy in the middle of this fierce snow in front of a prohibiting pile of rock while his leg leaked his life into his boot? He felt pressure, a forbidding pressure, as if a great hand was pressing against his chest, another gripping his head, squeezing, sinister.

“Kovar,” said Aeren, as if from very far away. “It’s all right. Take my arm. Come on.”

Kovar did not recall stepping forward or accepting Aeren’s grip, he did not recall moving at all, but in the next moment, he found himself thrust into complete darkness, the piercing cold wind and ice gone, nothing visible but Aeren’s aura, the awful, prohibiting confusion fading as quickly as it had come upon him. He was still lightheaded, and stumbled a moment, Aeren gripping him, his body pressed against the boy, his golden presence, welcoming, assuring, but wavering with the stress of the effort and the power he’d expended.

“We’re here. It’s all right. I know. It feels like that until it’s sure it’s sure it wants to let you in,” said Aeren.

“What was that?” Kovar mumbled, his hand pressing against his helmet, blindly.

“The stones,” said Aeren. “They choose who is allowed to enter.”

“Stones,” said Kovar dimly, “Fine. Stones.” Kovar didn’t care to parse what Aeren was trying to tell him just now. “What would have happened if they had said no to my presence?”

Aeren grinned. “They wouldn’t. They like you. And I asked nicely,” he said.

Kovar sank to his knee.

“Kovar!” Aeren cried. “You are badly hurt! Damn it, why didn’t you say something?”

“Aeren, I didn’t faint, I’m taking off my skis,” said Kovar, exasperated, reaching down to unhook the latches on his boots. “It’s hard to walk in here. I can’t see and I feel no snow under my feet. Light a torch.”

“Yes, yes, of course.” In a moment, a pale dim glow filled the passage from small bulbs embedded in the walls, barely illuminating what was a narrow cave. Kovar and Aeren shirked their skis and their helmets. The air was cool, though far preferable to the brutal frosty temperature outside, but not enough to warm the deep chill that cut Kovar to the bone. He shivered, precariously chilled.

“You don’t look well,” said Aeren, his eyes wide at the sight of Kovar’s dark, sunken eyes, and white face.

“I need a med kit with a skin stitcher,” said Kovar. “Got one?” The med kit in Kovar’s pack only contained patches, and he’d already used two.

“Yes, of course,” Aeren said. He gripped Kovar as if to try to lift him. “Go ahead and dump your pack, it will be safe here. I can come back and get it for you.”

He shrugged the boy off. “I can walk,” Kovar said, and then popped the latches on his pack, letting the heavy gear slide to the ground.

“You should have told me how badly you were hurt,” Aeren said again.

“You needed to concentrate on those snares, no point in having you poking about at me,” Kovar said. “In case you didn’t realize, those bolts were aiming for you.” Aeren flinched. “My suit would tell me if my vitals were critical. They’re not. Just get me someplace warm.”

Aeren looked at him skeptically, and took Kovar’s arm again, as he propelled the Prince forward gently. He was rewarded with a glare, but Kovar accepted the aid. “What hit me in the leg would have hit you in the gut,” said Kovar. “You’d have to call for emergency relief, and while you were lying there helpless, smugglers would have swept in.”

“Don’t talk so much, you’re weak,” was Aeren’s response. Kovar could sense his squire’s discomfort. His pursuers had gone to a great deal of trouble to trap him, and Kovar suspected there was more behind that determination than the usual game between crystalcutter and avaricious locals.

Aeren negotiated the passage with ease. Minutes later, Kovar spotted a pale greenish glow on the wall, the light from a data pad embedded upright in the rock of the cave. Aeren removed his glove and pressed his hand against it, then tapped in a code. The cave wall opened to reveal a warm light that emanated from a large room covered with mosaic tiles. In the center, a glass enclosed fire pit, which flared to life at their entrance.

A broad bed was set against the wall to one side, covered with fur skins and embroidered pillows. There were tools, and carpets and what looked like handmade bowls carelessly situated on tables, shelves, and a chair. The light grew brighter, giving their eyes time to acclimate as it did, washing the room in the soft color of the tiny gem mosaics that covered every inch of the walls and floor in gold, tan, brown, and cream tiles. The environment radiated warmth and comfort and peace. Aeren coaxed Kovar to lie gently down on the floor by the fire next to which was spread a thick pile of furs in various colors, one enormous, plush and white as frost. For a moment, Kovar thought he was looking at a clump of sleeping animals.

He spread himself upon the dense white hide. It was longer even than Kovar’s tall figure. His immaculate nature recoiled at spoiling the beautiful fur with his dirty gear and blood, but he luxuriated in the rich warmth of the pelt.

“Take off your clothes, I’ll get the kit,” Aeren said, quickly dropping his heavy backpack.

Kovar doffed his parka, and gingerly removed his boots. The left boot was soaked inside with blood that had dried in spots, near frozen in others. He sighed hugely as he peeled the two layers of his upper snowsuit away, baring his chest to the keen warmth of the fire.

Aeren quickly returned with the med kit, of which Kovar immediately took control. “You are drained of power. I can see it in your aura. Get something to eat,” Kovar ordered.

“Cover yourself up, you’re freezing. I’ll get sterile solution and water. And towels,” said Aeren, and rushed off to fetch them.

Kovar applied a solvent to the patches. They released their tight seals, peeling them away from his flesh and the fibers of his suit. Blood seeped slowly out of the wound, thick and dark. Quickly, Kovar peeled off the over and underpants of his snowsuit, then his smallclothes, which had been soiled by the spreading blood that oozed and percolated through his gear. He shivered as the cloth fell away, and pulled furs over his naked body with shaking hands. He took sterile cloths from the med kit and daubed the wound while holding a med evaluator over the broad gash. Cloth from his suit was embedded in the muscle and would have to be dug out. He poured sterile solution over the gash and picked up a probe.

“Don’t. Let me get that,” said Aeren, his arms bearing a tray of bowls, warm water, a sterilizer, and clean linen.

“I told you to get something to eat. You’re weak,” growled Kovar. He shivered again.

“So are you,” said Aeren. “I’m a crystalcutter, my hands are as steady as mortal hands get. Leave that work to me.” Aeren knelt at Kovar’s side. Averting his eyes, he pulled the furs over Kovar’s naked loins before pulling the probe from Kovar’s hand. The Prince did not resist.

“Data thread is stuck in there,” said Kovar. “Can you see it?” He shivered again.

Aeren nodded. “Take a painkiller,” said Aeren looking into Kovar’s pale face. “This must hurt like hell, no need to pretend it doesn’t.”

“I’m not pretending anything. Just get those threads out.”

Gently, Aeren picked in Kovar’s flesh with the probe, drawing out the threads and fibers until the med evaluator deemed the area clean of contaminants. Kovar watched Aeren’s rough workman’s hands do their tender labor, fascinated by his calm, precise touch. The Prince leaned back on his elbows, his leg arched to give Aeren access, his body bowed as gracefully and casually as if he were watching a sunrise. Only the pulse in his temple betrayed his pain.

The job finished, Aeren sat back and let out a breath, showing more distress over the matter than Kovar did.

The removal of the threads had caused blood to flow freely from the wound again. Kovar reached for one of the bowls and dipped a towel in it.

“I can do that,” said Aeren, reaching forward again.

“I told you to take care of yourself. Did you not hear your Shield Master?” Kovar daubed at the area and picked up the skin stitcher. He placed it against his leg, and the machine wove the wound, digging deep to close veins, piecing together shorn flesh. As it finished one small spot, Kovar moved it to another.

Aeren left Kovar to his work and stepped away to the compact kitchen against the far wall near the entrance to the chamber. Cabinets, a small heat unit, water unit, sink, scattered about with cooking implements, cartons, and other paraphanelia Kovar would not identify: he didn’t spend a lot of time in kichens. Aeren returned with another tray laden with a hot broth drink in a steaming pot. He knelt and filled a large mug, passing it to Kovar, then picked up a towel. He dipped it in warm water, and began to clean Kovar’s foot.

“Your flesh is ice cold. Kovar you’re hypothermic.”

“Steady down there, I’m still stitching this,” said the Prince. He knew what his medical situation was, the med scanner had told him, but he was secretly pleased at Aeren’s attentiveness. Aeren gently wrapped Kovar’s feet in heated towels then pulled the fur away from Kovar’s legs, which had soiled the white pelt with blood. He wiped the blood and sweat with the towels and water. Then he passed a cleanwave over the area to sterilize it. He paused as he reached Kovar’s upper thigh, where the skin stitcher was still doing its work as Kovar held it. One powerful leg bent and exposed to receive care, the other buried under the fur that the Prince secured over his loins with his free hand.

“You might want to finish off the rest for yourself,” Aeren said, averting his gaze. “Be sure to drink all of that. It’ll fortify your blood.” He indicated the hot broth. “I’ll get your pack. Be back in a few minutes,” his exit strategy so that Kovar could finish bathing himself in private.

The skin stitcher had done its job well. Kovar’s thigh burned like hellfire, but the bleeding stopped and the healing began. Kovar threw off the furs and wiped himself with the clean water and warm cloths, sighing with relief as he did so. He poured the soiled water into the sterilizer, where it emerged clean for immediate reuse, but the bloody work left floor of the chamber looking as if someone had been murdered on it.

In the kit, he found a tube of antiseptic cream with mild analgesic properties and applied a thick layer of it to the wound. The flesh around the gash was red and angry with early signs of frostbite, addressed, thankfully, before serious damage was done. Kovar covered the tacky cream with a clean cloth to keep it from smearing. Then he carefully folded the soiled towels and placed them on the tray.

His body was cold and sweaty at once. He folded his snowsuit carefully and placed it on a towel to minimize leaking blood onto the tile floor, a futile attempt to minize the spread of gore. Then he dabbed himself dry, running the cleanwave over his bare skin. He wrapped himself in the thick furs, scooting closer to the fire, luxuriating in its warmth. He closed his eyes and sipped at the warm broth, the mug thawing the freeze from his hands.

He’d been foolish, perhaps, not to inform Aeren of his predicament, but he had no wish to burden the boy with his care. Had their trek gone on much longer, or had he the misfortune to step on another snare, the Prince would have called House Teramis for a rescue, which would have taken minutes; there was an outpost no more than 15 miles south.

Kovar had little doubt Sere was behind this attempt to trap Aeren. She’d probably bribed every smuggler and pirate over a thousand miles to be on the lookout for the famous crystalcutter in every mountain on the range.

Kovar would have his men scour the area, clearing the mines and valleys of snares as soon as he and Aeren quit this place. Aeren wouldn’t appreciate the intrusion; Kovar mulled how best to present the issue of sending Teramis security into Aeren’s treasured wild domain. Since the land and mining rights no longer belonged to Aeren, he had little say in the matter. Kovar knew there was much more to learn of Aeren and the silent stones he cherished. He didn’t want to risk damaging anything Aeren valued or their budding alliance.

Kovar drained the mug of broth then refilled it from the steaming pot. He was dehydrated and weak from the loss of nearly two pints of blood. A little more and he’d go into shock. At that, his suit would have sent out a distress call, alerting Aeren and summoning a rescue from Teramis, which would have annoyed Aeren a great deal, and required a bit of explaining back at the palace. Fatigue rolled over him in waves. He rummaged in the med kit again and found a nutritent cell, which he injected into his arm. He found another and jabbed again.

His dizziness faded in moments, and Kovar was able to focuse on the strange room in which Aeren had left him.

His true home, Kovar suspected, the retreat where he lived when he fled the Avatar’s palace. While all the court assumed Aeren moved from warm bed to warm bed, discarding lovers like used linen, the reality was the sensitive crystalcutter spent most of his time alone, and much of it here.

There were no right angles in this place. The walls flowed with the free forms of the cave, in and out in graceful waves. The mosaics glistened in the light of the fire, tiny bits of glittering gemstones in swirls and arcs and symbols of protection and comfort. Every surface was covered, even the sparse furniture. There was a work area in the far corner, cluttered but clean, tools and jewels everywhere. Pottery was stacked in corners and in rows of shelving, arranged by size and color, holding personal items, packaged food, and clothes, clusters of crystals. Shelves were dotted with clumps of gems and geodes, very fine specimens, of exceptional color and impressive size. Several huge geodes had been turned into tables, their insides exposed and covered with glass. They were set on small rollers: they must be monstrously heavy to move otherwise, thought Kovar. The clutter was clean and had a strange logic to it, a sense of idiosyncratic order, intensely personal and inviolate. Kovar had the sudden impression he’d been given a great honor in being allowed here.

The bed was very large, built on a rocky platform, surrounded by a narrow shelf, as elaborately tiled as the rest of the room. Pictures lined the shelf, Seren in most of them, recent images of him as the astonishingly beautiful youth Kovar had admired in the projection, and others as a small child, his tiny arms wrapped around Aeren’s neck, their expressions twins of joy. Small trinkets were there, little boxes, a glass jar filled with what appeared to be dead plants, and a picture of Aeren and Etan, embracing, their bodies pressed together, Etan sporting a rare smile.

The large pillows on the bed and scattered about the fire were not of fashionable make, but decorated with the same whirls and patterns of protection as the walls, in warm tones of rich lands and sun, ancient motifs from before the Great Cold, the craftsmanship of holy men who rejected secular life for an ancient religious practice that most considered peculiar and heretical. Kovar certainly did, but he appreciated the inviting colors and patterns. The bed was draped with thick curtains which, on closer look, appeared to be made of old tapestries, the entire bed covered with furs and pillows so plush Kovar could not discern if there was a mattress under it all.

There were doors leading to other rooms, but everything Aeren needed for daily life seemed to be in this single chamber, a room both simple and profoundly comforting.

The bed could easily accomodate several people. Kovar wondered who else lived here. He reached out, seeking other minds, the sort of open scanning he would rarely risk in a city: Aeren was in the corridor, burdened with Kovar’s pack. There were no other sentients in the chamber, no one but Aeren to reside in that big bed. Curious, he went deeper and farther. But there was nothing, not even an echo of presence, nothing but a strange, raw hum at the back of his mind: was it the stones? There was a profound power in this place, a constant drone. He couldn’t decide if that hum was soothing or sinister.

A quick cool breeze announced the return of Aeren, who quickly shut the cave door behind him, sealing them against the world and the cold. “I have your things,” he announced, unnecessarily, bowing under Kovar’s heavy gear, and their skis and helmets that they’d dropped on their way in. Awkwardly, he dumped the load on the floor by the door, then immediately went to Kovar’s side. “Are you all right?”

“You haven’t done as I told you. Get something to eat, Aeren,” Kovar scolded gently.

Aeren responded with a smile and a shake of his head. “Let me help you into bed. You’ll be more comfortable there.”

Kovar waved him off, rising gracefully but painfully, the furs falling to the floor as he did so. He clutched the cloth to his leg. Aeren’s ready blush flamed his cheeks as he averted his gaze from Kovar’s nakedness while the Prince strode the few steps to the bed. Aeren helpfully pushed aside coverlets and pillows and furs as Kovar stretched himself out, sighing, plumping the pillows behind his head so as to sit with his back upright. Aeren gently lifted the wounded leg, passing a pillow under the knee to raise it. Then he arranged the covers around Kovar, pooling them at his cold feet, and drawing a thick fur over his chest. Kovar wondered at Aeren’s attentiveness and ready nurturing skills, perhaps the natural gift of a sensitive.

Aeren rolled a small table next to the bed, another geode of dazzling amethyst set under glass, and placed the mug and pot of broth in Kovar’s easy reach. “Is there anything you need from your pack?” he said.

“My tablet.”

Aeren hesitated. “Underwear?”

“No. I don’t want to be in the position of pulling it up and down over this leg until I’m sure the stiches are stable.”

Aeren nodded, then dug into Kovar’s pack to retrieve the tablet. He placed it in Kovar’s hands then went to the kitchen, which was no more than a few feet away from the bed and in easy view.

Kovar activated his pad. “Can you get secure reception in here?”

“We get the Avatar’s private channel,” said Aeren. “All the security you can buy. I suppose you know all about that. You set the system up for us.”

Aeren returned with a large tray of steaming meat rolls, which he placed on the table next to the bed. “Your favorite, I think,” he said. “Frozen, so not as good as they serve at your palace, but I like them.”

“By the God,” said Kovar with relief. “Real food! Thought we’d dine on energy bars and reconstituted rations.” He gulped down two rolls before the sentence was finished.

Aeren smiled. He went to the kitchen and returned again with another plate, this time of hot vegetable rolls, one of which he munched as he brought the tray to Kovar. Then he went to work cleaning up the bloody floor. “I keep about a year’s worth of food in storage. And through that door,” he indicated over his shoulder, near the work station, “there’s a hothouse. Fresh greens and fruit. Not a lot, but it’s nice to have. You can live down here for a long time.” He sounded rather proud. “Seren loves gardening, he taught me things,” he added, wisfully. “Hothouse has powerful grow lights, when I want a dose of sun, I go sit in there.”

“Did you carve out all this yourself?” asked Kovar around his meal, waving his hand at the room as he did so.

“Me?” said Aeren. “No. This used to be a dorm for mine workers. Miserable place, crowded. Twenty to a room. Long ago. Most of it is sealed off, collapsed. Dangerous.” He smiled and glanced at Kovar reassuringly. “It’s safe in here, though.” As he spoke, he poured the bloody towels into a wash bin, followed by Kovar’s smallclothes, then retrieved the skis and placed them neatly on hooks by the door. “I did a lot of the upgrades, though.”

“The mosaics?” asked Kovar.

Aeren smiled, almost shyly, very uncharacteristic of him, Kovar thought. “Yes. There was feeling down here, took ages to exorcise it. The stones and power patterns helped.”

Kovar took a deep drink of the hot broth. “What feeling was that?”

Aeren shrugged, and began unpacking his gear. “The workers. Their feelings, they stayed here. Bad stuff,” he said. “Mining by force like that, it’s ugly work. It hurts the people, it hurts the stones.”

Aeren settled by the fire, comfortably pulling his pack apart, removing personal items, tools, bits of clothing, a tablet, and a small, jeweled box that he tenderly set aside. He reached to the table and picked up a meat roll, chewing it with great pleasure. “Not bad, I told you!”

“Not at all,” said Kovar, who was making fast work of the pile. Then he said, “Are you alone down here?”

“Of course I am.”

“Big bed,” said Kovar.

Aeren shrugged. “I didn’t used to be alone down here,” he said, quietly.

“I see,” said Kovar.

“You don’t see,” said Aeren. He walked to the kitchen and retrieved a bottle of cider, pouring a measure for himself. “It wasn’t like that.”

“Like…what?”

“Work only. We were partners. I told you. The crystalcutter I met, Revora. She found this place first. And she taught me a lot about the craft. We were never lovers.”

Kovar’s expression clearly indicated that he found it difficult to believe that Aeren and any woman he met didn’t eventually end up in a horizontal position.

Aeren took a drink of the cider, and settled comfortably on a cushion. The fireplace was in a circular column that could be enjoyed from any angle in the room. The room was rather cool, but now warming nicely, and the fire appeared to be the only source of heat. Old fashioned coal, it appeared, with filters to clean the air. “She didn’t like men,” Aeren continued. “Didn’t like anyone, actually. I’m not sure she ever had sex…I didn’t ask.”

“Oh,” said Kovar, understanding dawning.

Aeren munched a vegetable roll. “She was relaxing to be around that way,” said Aeren.

Kovar bit his tongue on a tart response.

“Some crystalcutters, they get so deeply involved with the stones, they lose touch. They can’t tolerate people.”

“But she could tolerate you,” said Kovar.

“Sometimes we needed each other.” Aeren picked up the little jeweled box he’d retrieved from his pack and contemplated it. “For big jobs. It’s dangerous down here.”

Kovar nodded. “Where is she now?”

“Dead,” said Aeren.

“I’m sorry.”

Aeren shrugged again.

“How did it happen?” asked Kovar gently.

“I told you it was dangerous down here,” said Aeren. “Let me get you some more food.”

As was Aeren’s habit, he avoided a difficult subject by changing it. He returned to the bedside with another large tray of food, and Kovar decided not to press the matter of Aeren’s dead comrade.

Kovar’s stomach growled, and he fought the edges of fatigue. His body would replace the lost liquid volume on the morrow, but it would be days before his blood platelets were replenished.

Aeren refilled the pot of broth again, and brought cool, fresh water, which tasted of the purest underground spring. The towels at his feet he exchanged for a new pair he’d warmed by the fire. Before Kovar could ask or indicate a need, Aeren was intuiting it and filling it, the act of an immensely sensitive psionic. From the hothouse, he emerged with a handful of fresh berries that he put into a bowl and sprinkled with sugar, then offered to Kovar proudly announcing “I grew those.”

It had never occurred to Kovar until this night that Aeren had the makings of a perfect squire. His attentiveness and ready concern, his complete focus on Kovar, anticipating before being ordered, this usually took months to develop between Master and student. Aeren’s natural impulse was to fill the needs of others. This could be a blessing or a curse, and he suspected for Aeren, it was something of a curse. His senses, heavily blocked when Kovar saw him at the palace were open in this, his intimate space. And those senses compelled him to attend the wounded Prince. The difficulty would be in teaching Aeren to cultivate that quality in an environment where he was not isolated.

Kovar picked up his tablet, and slowly worked his way through the meal while surriptitiously watching Aeren who cleaned, and puttered about with all the proud focus of an intimate palace servant who was very good and scurpulous at his job. He casually selected a morsel or two from the tray and popped it in his mouth as he passed by. He finally discarded his baggy snow oversuit and placed it on a hook by the door. His undersuit was as tight as a second skin. He’d already doffed his boots, and padded about the tiled floor without concern for the chill.

He turned to Kovar and smiled, almost shyly. “The water closet is over there,” he said pointing to the far corner on the opposite side of the kitchen, “if you need to go.”

Kovar did need to go, and Aeren had, as Kovar imagined he would, sensed another need. The implications were a bit uncomfortable. No doubt Aeren would sense that, too.

“Do you need help?”

“No,” said Kovar emerging from the bed, his long, handsome body unfolding from the mass of furs and pillows like a pale primeval god. Again, Aeren looked away.

Kovar strolled to the water closet, ignoring the pain of his leg, and his pounding head. The water closet had no door. It was tucked behind an outcropping of the cave wall, as swathed in mosaic as the rest of the chamber. Kovar wondered what kind of feelings had to be dispelled in the ancient bathroom to justify the need for protection symbols.

The fixtures were so out of date, Kovar had to puzzle a moment to recall how to use them. There was no bath, but there was a shower, and he looked at it longingly. The shower had no door either, and was set into a niche in the wall. It sported a spout, a drain in the floor, and nothing more. His faint head made him wary of standing for too long, but he promised to make use of the facility on the morrow after a good sleep.

After voiding, ee washed his hands and emerged to see Aeren at the kitchen sink, rinsing Kovar’s boots clean. He gestured toward Kovar’s damaged snowsuit. “I think I can repair the data threads on that,” he said.

“That would be welcome.” Kovar had weathered worse, and the suit would withstand the hike well enough properly sealed with patches, but he didn’t relish the prospect of equipment with no heating system.

“I repair all my own gear.” Aeren picked up the heavy boots, then carried them, dripping, to sit by the fire as Kovar walked toward the bed. He hesitated. “Do you need to pray?”

Kovar was startled to hear Aeren suggest it. But again, he’d intuited Kovar’s desire without the Prince having to state it. “Yes, I do. You have an altar?” He glanced at the picture of Aeren and Etan, loving and warm, and felt a pang of grief for what was lost between them.

“No,” said Aeren, flatly. “I have devotional crystals. I mine them for the temple.”

Aeren picked up one of the exotic bowls from the shelf, large, brightly colored, with uneven sides, inviting tactile exploration. Large, perfect crystals of the palest pink nested inside.

“By the fire,” said Kovar, and knelt next to it, resting his knees on a large pillow, taking the bowl in his hands.

“You don’t have to do that on the floor, it’s not good for your leg. I’m sure the God knows – “

“Do you have any oils?” said Kovar.

Aeren blinked. “I – I suppose.”

“Bring it. And a sterile cup.”

Aeren hesitated, staring.

“You’re my cupbearer,” said Kovar precisely. “Bring me the devotional oil and a cup.” Kovar’s back was ramrod straight. He could feel Aeren glaring at him. Then he heard the soft pad of Aeren’s bare feet. In moments he returned with a large cup, in the style of the eccentric bowls scattered about the room, and a vial of oil. He knelt on another pillow by Kovar, holding out the items for the Prince’s approval. Kovar nodded.

“I will not pray,” said Aeren, softly.

“I didn’t expect you to,” said Kovar. Complicated, thought Kovar, archly, to worship at the altar of the man who sent you out into the world to seduce and manipulate as a spy, a man who publicly humiliated you and exiled you from his House and his bed. “I expect you to serve my devotionals, cupbearer. You will perform the rituals. You will observe the forms. I know you understand the process, I’ve seen you in the High Temple at Etan’s side.”

Aeren sat beside him, stiff and quiet, his hands folded tightly in his lap. Then he picked up the vial and poured oil into the cup. He kissed the rim of the cup, turned toward Kovar, holding it up as he did so, his head demurely bowed.

Kovar accepted the cup and kissed the rim as well, then poured a small portion of the oil into the bowl of crystal. The oil burst into blue flame.

Kovar bowed low to the floor, his head touching the mosaic tile, his arms holding the cup aloft. He held this position for a long moment, uncomfortable with his wounded leg, and his light head was not improved by sitting on his knees. He raised his head and returned the cup to Aeren. As the flame burned in the bowl, Kovar chanted his prayer softly, until the fuel was spent and the flame burned out. Again, in tandem with Aeren, passing the cup of oil back and forth, pouring a small measure into the bowl, and praying until the flame died. Seven times he prayed, and then he bowed low again, his head touching the floor once more, while Aeren sat patiently waiting for him to finish his meditation.

Finally the ritual was complete, the flame in the bowl spent.

Kovar sat up again, sighing, lifting the warm bowl in his hands. “It should rest in an exalted place. On a pillow. Any one of these will do.” He indicated the pillows on the bed. “I pray five times each day and you will attend me. Our Teramis rituals differ from those at the High Temple; you do not have proper form. You hold the goblet at the wrong angle, and you don’t bow according to our custom. But I will teach you.” He rose painfully from his knees and returned to bed. He picked up his tablet, pulling the covers over him again, and sinking against the soft pillows at his back.

“You were going to bring me the evidence you said you had on Sere and Erastos. That is why we came here,” Kovar said.

Aeren was still kneeling by the fire, the goblet in his hand. He set it aside, rising as he did so, and reached for a small pillow near Kovar’s feet. “It’s not here,” he said.

Kovar raised a brow. “Don’t tell me I left my warm comfortable palace and got shot for nothing.”

Aeren grimaced. “No, I mean it’s not in this room. It’s in one of the inner caves. A mile in. I will get it after I’ve communed with the stones.”

“Communed with the stones,” Kovar repeated, uncomprehending.

Aeren bit his lip. “They’re not happy with me. Bringing you here is bad enough but…” He fell silent.

“I thought you said the stones liked me.”

Aeren shrugged.

“You have something to explain. I’m waiting,” said Kovar.

Aeren looked deeply uncomfortable. “The evidence is…it’s a bad essence. It hurts the stones.” He sighed. “I’m going to pay for that.”




ANONYMOUS AVATAR WRITES:

I haven't gone back and edited the first few chapters. I found a few mistakes, such as when I was using Earth time instead of Ovanan time in some parts. Since all of this was written before we knew much about Kovar and the other characters in the series, their ages don't exactly match the ages in the book. But I'm going to go ahead and leave them as is here.

So far I've posted about 85,000 words of this series and there is plenty left to go! Hope you're enjoying it. Happy New Year!

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