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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 XXIV XXV XXVI


Kovar carefully held Aeren long into the night, until the young squire stopped thrashing and crying out, calling for comfort and protection from one who had likely never been able to give it. The Prince finally fell asleep, long after Aeren did, only to be awakened a short time later when Aeren quietly slipped from Kovar’s embrace and out of bed. Kovar pretended to slumber on, shielding himself tightly to prevent Aeren from sensing his wakefulness. He could feel Aeren’s eyes on him as he held the curtain aside and studied Kovar’s prone form lit by the pale light of the dying fire. Then Aeren allowed the bed curtains to close again, enfolding Kovar in darkness once more.

The Prince could hear Aeren’s light step, the sound of items being moved quietly about, clothing being drawn over flesh, and then the swish of a door and a blast of cold air as it opened and closed again. Aeren had left the chamber. Kovar stared into the darkness, expecting his quick return. Perhaps Aeren had food stores somewhere, or had left something in the cave entrance. But he did not return.

The silence was punctuated by the sound of the fan on the coal fire, which pumped what little warm air remained of the dying embers into the room. Kovar lay in the great bed, chilly and stiff, wondering if he should try to follow Aeren wherever he had gone. He realized no one knew these underground caves and chambers like the crystalcutter: one could become hopelessly lost in minutes without a guide. Kovar bit his lip, and tentatively reached out with his senses, feeling once again the strange and disturbing hum that greeted him when he first entered the caves, discomforting and invasive. He pulled back into himself quickly.

Frowning, he sat up and pulled aside the bedcurtains. The room was left as it had been the night before, but the fire was dim. A soft glow emanated from the far end of the room. Perhaps Aeren had left a light on. The bedside table bore other evidence of Aeren’s presence: he’d placed a bowl of fruit, a large hot plate of pastries and meat pies, and a fresh carafe of spring water next to it. There was a sprig of a fresh fragrant herb as well, remat, favored for cleansing the palate. Kovar smiled at the scent. Aeren must grow it in the hothouse he mentioned. A pot of cider with a small, hand written label HOT placed upon it, in case Kovar might thoughtlessly touch it and burn himself, and another hand written note: BACK SOON.





Gingerly, Kovar swung his legs out of bed. He was stiff, despite the massage of the night before. He scolded himself for not drinking more water. His wound burned still. He walked toward the fire and knelt by the big glass doors. With a small shovel, he tucked into the coal stores under the rock hearth and added to the fire, stoking it until it caught. Heat and light returned to the room.

One of the thick furs from the bed had been casually thrown over some of the fireside pillows. Kovar pulled it over himself, shivering. He stood and looked about the room, alone with the intimate proofs of Aeren’s life, the piles of crystals, the strange pottery, the swirling mosaics. Once again, he carefully lowered his psionic shields: this time, the hum he’d felt on first entering the cave was low, unthreatening, but still discomfiting. Aeren had probably warded the entire area with crystals to throw off psionic invasion. Kovar raised his shields again.

His stomach grumbled and he went back to tbe bed, to the pile of meat pies and the hot steaming pot of cider. Once again, the fare was humble but tasty and he ate greedily, making a dent in the pastries and draining the warm pot, which was mulled with fragrant fresh herbs.

Kovar was amused by Aeren’s strange homely ways. This sort of attentiveness was expected from servants, not from a young lord. Even when Kovar was a squire, he’d not been this delicately intent on his master so quickly, full of little niceties and frills like a sprig of herbs by the breakfast plate, and hand written notes.

He wondered where Aeren had learned the behaviors, or, if he’d simply observed it in servants and taken on their daily routines as normal. He would have had no models for how a royal should behave in the Avatar’s palace, no exposure to the court growing up.

The sleek and seductive young dandy who had walked into Kovar’s office was the mask: this was the true Aeren.

Kovar also wondered about Revora, Aeren’s companion and teacher, the crystalcutter who had lived here with Aeren: perhaps they had cared for one another like this. Long, lonely hours digging and searching with nothing for solace but one another. Loveless solace, if Aeren was to be believed.

Despite the simple, cozy comforts of the bolt hole, Kovar could not see spending months or even years living here, with the weight of the stones and the strange sense of power he could not identify that suffused the place. The comfort and peace that had embraced him when he first entered supported on Aeren’s shoulder seemed to have evaporated. Did the warmth and serenity come from Aeren, his sensitive’s abilities? Kovar had little experience with such people, and none with such unique gifts as Aeren possessed. And Aeren was anything but a serene presence. Instead of warmth and comfort, Kovar felt a sense of brittle ambivalence, the traces of being without sentience: the echoes of a sensitive’s power?

Kovar drained the pot of cider, and made his way through half the carafe of water when his bladder made its needs known. Kovar pulled the fur tight around him and made his way to the bathroom to piss. After his experience with Aeren’s drunken escapade in the office bath and the chaos left in the wake, Kovar had been surprised and relieved to find Aeren’s facilities to be clean and comfortable despite their ancient plumbing. Kovar’s snow suit hung in the shower where Aeren had left it the night before. Dry now, Kovar moved it to hand on a hook embedded in the wall.

He inspected the shower stall, searching for evidence of unsanitary habits, and once again finding none, he reviewed the supply of clean towels stacked on shelves nearby. He studied the ancient fixtures, fiddling with the water spigot until he discovered the right combination of settings to get the temperature and flow he wanted. Then he doffed the fur blanket, fixing it to another hook in the wall, and stepped inside luxuriating in the hot steamy water. Kovar vigorously soaped his body down with his customary thoroughness, carefully avoiding the seal on the leg wound, before starting on his mass of hair. Gingerly he tested the quality of Aeren’s hair care products, cluttering a shelf inside the stall, before choosing one scented with the bark of an exotic and spicy alien tree wood. Only after he’d been in the shower for a long while did he consider what a strain his hot water use might be on Aeren’s primitive resources, and he sheepishly rushed to finish the rinse.

He emerged rested, tingling with the pleasure of the night’s massage and the morning’s steaming spray. Aeren was still nowhere to be seen. Kovar wrapped a large towel around his waist, and took another to his hair, lifting the mass off the floor and wrapping it around his arm so he could walk without dragging it. He picked up the heat wave Aeren had used the night before and casually applied it, roaming about the chamber as he did so, studying the piles of crystals, the unusual dishes, pictures, and other personal items. After his hair stopped dripping, he removed the towel and spread it by the hearth, then continued his journey about the chamber, waving the heat wand over his long tresses.

There was a large area at the far end of the chamber, some sort of workshop, with a wide variety of tools, some of them very delicate and sharp. Bits and pieces of what looked like jewelry were scattered about, intricately forged and carved. There were small, fragile boxes, bits of crystal wrapped in gold wire, and large rough dull stones, which, Kovar realized with a shock, were raw diamonds, worth a fortune, in a casual pile as if they were plain rock.

The wall beside the workshop, which on first look appeared made of the intricate mosaic in a continuation of the flowing wall designs throughout the chamber, was actually made of colored glass, and glowed faintly, backlit by a soft light. Kovar touched the glass gingerly, and it slid open, revealing a pocket door entrance into a brightly lit hothouse.

Kovar blinked at the sudden glare and was stunned by warm air, a surprising contrast to the cold, dry inner chamber where Aeren lived. At first, the room appeared to be an expansive continuation of Aeren’s workshop: there were tools, tables and chairs, stacks of pottery and jars on wide shelves. The broad stone floor was littered with carpets and pillows. Fitness equipment was littered about, and a long cushioned mat was rolled to one side. The room was separated from the hothouse by a floor to ceiling glass enclosure made of large panes, soldered together in irregular but pleasing shapes. Outside, the glass walls dripped with mist, the plants beyond thick and tropical green, gold and purple.

The stones under Kovar’s feet were very warm. The floor must be heated underneath, he thought. Pity it wasn't so inside the sleep chamber. Behind him, by the mosaic door, there was a large enclosed cabinet full of pottery ware. Curiously, Kovar picked up a large up from one of the open shelves. It was roughly hewn, but with a pleasing shape, and had been painted, glazed, and set with jewels. With a start, he realized that all the unusual dishes in Aeren’s home had been handmade right here. There were paints and brushes, and a primitive pottery wheel. A large kiln was set at one side, near the enclosed cabinet of pots and dishes.

Beyond the kiln and work area, the hothouse stretched out under a series of bright lights, rows and rows of plants growing in lush profusion, some in elegant hydroponic tubes, others in thick trenches buried in dirt or in wide barrels that appeared to be repurposed industrial apparatus. Kovar sought and found a door, hard to spot among the eccentric glass panes, and stepped out to the garden, into hot and steamy air, and the rich smells of flowers, plants and soil. Above him, he observed an intricate network of lights and watering tubes, and below, a stone path. There were insects buzzing about, humming lightly, and he spotted a small animal rushing under a large leaf: a burrowmite.

The heat called up sweat quickly, and Kovar ducked back into the workshop once more to find himself curiously drawn to Aeren’s creations, the strangely shaped bowls, the plates and cups. Some were draped with cloth. Others sat one atop another. Among the detritus, pictures of young Seren and Aeren, framed in the same unique glazed wares, images of the boys at play, in the snow, in a garden. Seren looked very small. They both looked happy and innocent and untouched by the evils that brought Kovar to this place.

To the side of one cabinet, Kovar saw a lute propped casually against a shelf, an ancient instrument with well worn frets and a body glowing with the patina of long use. The sight of it gave Kovar a pang. He imagined Aeren bent over the instrument, playing it in this place all alone, crafting a song for no one to hear.

He turned again to the jeweled cup he’d held before, strangely beautiful, with a shape that invited touch, and a rich blue diffuse glaze that deepened to a brilliant ultramarine at its base. The stones that were set into it were surrounded by a latticework of delicately applied gold lace which glinted like sunlight on ultramarine waves. Kovar held it to the light to watch it glitter.

“Do you like it?”

The sound of Aeren’s voice made him jump. The boy had fantastic shields when he chose to employ them. He turned slowly to see Aeren in the doorway, watching him, a careful smile on his face. Kovar smiled carefully back.

“I do. You made these.” It wasn’t a question.

Aeren continued to smile, but there was something guarded in him. His pose was casual, hand on hip, leaning against the mosaic door. His chest was bare, as were his feet, and his hair was unbound. He wore a pair of rough make trousers that were too big for him and which hung loosely around his hips, tied by a well worn thong and bound in careless gathers at his ankles.

“I do,” he acknowledged.

Kovar realized that this moment echoed the time days before when he’d found Aeren in his private library, going over Kovar’s possessions and momentos, learning, searching. Aeren had lured him to his private place as well. Games played between men taking one another’s measure, Kovar thought.

“You’re an artist.”

This seemed to catch Aeren off guard and something shifted in his face. “No…” he shrugged. ‘Not really.”

“You are,” said Kovar. “Do you sell them?”

A mix of fleeting, unguarded emotions danced across Aeren’s face. He looked as if he had not slept well, but Kovar’s interest pleased him and he did not care to show it. “Sometimes,” said Aeren, “But usually I just give them away.”

“Would you care to give one to me?”

Aeren blinked. His shields went up again, hard as flint. “Why?”

Kovar looked at him with his direct grey eyes. “So that I may have a momento of our adventure. A keepsake from my squire.”

Aeren chewed the inside of his lip. “To place on the shelves in your library?” There was a touch of amusement in his tone.

“Yes,” said Kovar. “I would like that.”

Aeren shrugged. “My work can’t compare to your royal artisans,” he said with a touch of tightness in his voice.

“Your work,” said Kovar, “is like you. Beautifully crafted but rough around the edges. I want what is of you, not something I can get anywhere else.”

This made Aeren smile in earnest. His blue eyes, as radiantly blue as the gaze on the cup, were bright, banishing for a moment the grey shadows under them. “All right,” he said. “Is that the one you want?” He gestured to the cup Kovar held.

“Yes,” said Kovar. “Blue and gold. Your colors.”

Aeren looked quite shy of a sudden, his eyes cast to the floor, chewing his lip again as Kovar watched him. Gathering himself, he returned to his carefully constructed casual pose. “Take whatever you want,” he said with fake indifference.

“Thank you,” said Kovar. He placed the cup back on the shelf. “I’ll leave it here until it is time to go.”

Aeren gestured toward Kovar’s body. The Prince had almost forgotten he was wearing nothing but a towel around his hips. “How’s the leg?”

“Fine,” said Kovar, though the wound still burned him. “I’ve had worse. You said,” he continued, “you had something to show me today? A mile down the caves, is it?”

Aeren smiled contemplatively. “Yes, if you think you can make the walk.”

“I can,” said Kovar. He adjusted the towel around him, securing it, aware of Aeren’s eyes on his body in the bright light of the hothouse. “Did you do all this?” he gestured upward, indicating the lights, water fixtures, and the garden beyond.

“Not all of it,” said Aeren. “But some. The glass wall, I did that.”

“You can’t let some of this heat into the rest of the chamber?” The night was spent in a warm bed under thick blankets, but Aeren’s abode was too cool for Kovar’s taste, even with the coal fire.

Aeren shrugged. “Can’t regulate the temperature and humidity properly if I do. For my pottery, it needs to be constant, or the work cracks as it dries.” He held up a dish with a wide gash in the bottom. “Like this.”

“Ah, I see,” said Kovar, understanding dawning. “I’m sorry, I left your doors open. I didn’t think.”

Aeren shrugged. “No trouble, this isn’t your doing. It’s my mistake, weeks ago. I’m not making anything new at the moment, so we can let some heat out, though I need to keep the hothouse blocked off at all times. The humidity breeds mold. It gets foul down here if you’re not careful. I don’t want lichen growing in my bathroom.”

Something flitted across the glass behind Aeren and Kovar looked alarmed. Aeren smiled as it went by, a silent grey streak. “Maintenance drones. For the plants. I can’t be here all the time,” he said. “Did you get your breakfast?”

“Some of it,” said Kovar. “Bring what is left to me, and sit with me.”

This earned Kovar another smile from Aeren, fragile and wary. He disappeared behind the mosaic doors and Kovar settled himself onto some of the pillows strewn about the floor. Aeren returned a short time later, food and drinks filling a large tray, which he placed between them, joining Kovar on the carpet which was clean, the Prince observed, while he tended his hair. They ate in polite accord, Aeren brittle and careful.

Aeren had awakened to find himself wrapped around Kovar like a vine, comforted in the shelter of the Prince’s great arm and broad chest. Aeren had cried out in the night a frightened boy, begging “Don’t leave me!” In the light of day, he kept his distance.

It pained Kovar to watch this push and pull, this deep desire for comfort and closeness, and the fear of same. “In some way, he’s as damaged as the Avatar.” The words of Saveris came back to him, delicately painful.

Despite Aeren’s ambivalent feelings where Saveris was concerned, made bitter by a vein of jealousy that seemed to have multiple murky origins, Aeren loved Saveris, Kovar had no doubt. And, Kovar suspected, that love made Aeren work hard to nurse an irrational dislike for the Shield. Saveris had known Aeren since the boy had come to the Avatar’s home, had seen him grow from a charming child into a beautiful young man, and he desired to revel in that beauty. But Aeren rejected the advances of Saveris, though Saveris had been far more considerate and responsible about his approach then others who had taken the young lord to bed. And, Kovar had no doubt, Saveris was a fine match for him, both men golden and glorious, and Saveris, stable, kind, tender. A shame Aeren feared those qualities he needed in another the most.

Aeren could barely accept his own desperate love and growing passion for the Avatar’s Heir, didn’t even acknowledge that he felt it. Despite his nightly devotions, the giggling and sighing he did at the very sight of the young and painfully pretty Heir, Aeren considered himself nothing more than a protector, responsible, and powerful, a guide for his young friend.

Kovar had never known anyone in such a deep state of romantic denial.

The Prince wondered with an acute sense of discomfort at the unfortunate circumstances that had brought Aeren to this place: unable to make genuine connections with the people he genuinely cared for, even though he was a powerful psionic sensitive who ached to fill the needs of others, an ache so profound he cut himself off from the world to avoid it.

“What,” asked Kovar, “Does Etan think of your work here?”

Aeren’s face froze at the question. Carefully, he picked up his cup and took a drink. “I’m sure he doesn’t think of it.”

“Have you ever showed it to him?”

Aeren looked wary. Kovar had the sense that he was contemplating a lie. In the end, Aeren rejected that tack and said, “Yes.”

“And?”

Aeren smiled, bitter and brittle once again. “He doesn’t think they’re art.” His harsh expression was a course counterpoint to his angelic beauty. In the bright light of the conservatory, his pale gold hair seemed washed in silver.

Kovar also took a drink from his cup then held it up, turning it to admire the glaze. This cup, unlike the one he had chosen to keep, was glazed in rich, warm variegated browns and golds. The blue and gilt cup brought Aeren to mind, but this one was Saveris, he thought.

“How fortunate for you he is not a critic. Tell me, has he any art himself?”

“What do you mean?”

“Has he any skills? Does he make things as you do?”

Aeren grinned cruelly. “Everything he does he does as well as he sings.” The Avatar was well known to be a terrible singer. “He plays the lute poorly. He has no crafts. He does not dance. And he’s a lousy fuck.”

Kovar put down his cup. “It’s unfortunate,” said Kovar, “that the Avatar, who has my deepest respect, did not show appreciation for your skills.”

“Do you mean my jewelry and pottery, or do you mean the way I do him up the ass?“

“Your jewelry and pottery. I think it’s quite good,” Kovar gestured to the work desk beyond the mosaic door. “If you had not chosen to be my squire, I would have given you a place in my house as an artisan. If you choose to leave my service, that offer is open to you.”

Aeren’s sour expression crumbled, and he looked away quickly, taking in a short sharp breath as he did. “There’s no need to patronize me. I’m not a child.”

“A child might appreciate the patronage of the Prince of Teramis,” Kovar said coolly. “Do you think I pay false compliments? I have no need to do so, I could easily have said nothing, for that is what you are accustomed to, I think.”

Pain flashed behind Aeren’s eyes. He caught it quickly. For a moment he struggled and then he said, “Thank you for saying you like them. I’m sorry I was rude.”

“Not to worry,” said Kovar.

“It isn’t just…it isn’t just that he doesn’t like them. My work I mean,” said Aeren.

Kovar waited patiently for Aeren to continue.

“It’s part of being a crystalcutter, you see,” said Aeren, softly, haltingly.

“I do not see.”

“It’s all of this,” Aeren waved his hands about indicating the room. “These are the old ways, from the days before the Avatars. It’s heretical, what I do.”

“I still do not see.”

Aeren smiled and shook his head. “The way I live. The way I commune with the stones. Forming clay: even that is a crystal structure, did you know? The patterns on the walls, all of it. The things I make. Old ways.”

“And Etan doesn’t approve.”

“Of course he doesn’t approve, he’s the embodiment of God, and I’m his…his protege, and look what I am.”

“Lots of people make jewelry and pottery, Aeren,” said Kovar.

“If they are of House Paramid,” said Aeren. “And they don’t live like burrowmites.”

“I do not know much of the ancient religion.” Kovar hesitated, and then said carefully, “It is illegal to practice it.”

“It is,” said Aeren, his tone as brittle as if it would crack in a breeze, like one of his plates.

An uncomfortable silence fell between them. Kovar could see small insects darting to and fro beyond the glass wall, iridescent wings fluttering silently as they passed.

“Did Revora teach you these things?” he asked.

“The ways of the heretic?” Aeren grinned disdainfully as he said it.

“If you like. But I expect these are the ways of the crystalcutter. Are they not?”

That Kovar was willing to discuss the matter openly, and did not immediately denounce him as a criminal was propitious, and Aeren had fragile hope in his eyes. “Yes. The old ways. When the Ovanan focus was on the personal path of the soul through the spirit of the stones and not through the gate of the Avatar.” His voice was soft as he spoke.

“I see. And are these rocks your God?” asked Kovar.

“No,” said Aeren, frigidly acerbic again. “The man I used to hump thinks he’s God. But he’s not God, either.”

“No,” agreed Kovar, “he is not. But he is the vessel that houses the spirit of God.” This religious disagreement, thought Kovar, was as violent as two whispers, but he felt a great deal was at stake, regardless.

“If you like,” mimicked Aeren.

“We agree to disagree,” said Kovar with the utmost politeness. “But I do not wish you to feel as if you cannot share yourself with me. I would be glad to know more of your ways.”

“My ways which are illegal,” said Aeren, carefully.

“The ways of a crystalcutter? If the Avatar felt you to be a danger to him, he could have ended you at The Choosing. If your methods for mining crystal were heretical, then he would have checked you. But he did not. He gave you all you the freedom you needed to pursue this path.”

Aeren paused a moment, his great blue eyes narrowed. “A path that has made him a great deal of money. For the House of the Avatar. Still, he knows it is not,” he said, “possible to be a crystalcutter and reject these spiritual rituals. To reject the stones.”

“Crystalcutters,” said Kovar, “are our treasures. Who am I to deny them their ways if even the God himself does not deny?”

Aeren blinked, then he grinned and turned his head aside, shaking it lightly, golden hair shimmering. “You have a wonderful knack for twisting things to suit your purposes.”

“One doesn’t keep a throne as long as I have without knowing how to bend when circumstances would see one break. You brought me down here for a reason, Aeren. You wanted me to know these things.”

Echoes of expressions flitted across Aeren’s face, loud in their silence. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “I think…if you are finished…we could go. I promised to show you something. Something very important. Where I kept the evidence I collected so it would be safe.”

“Not just yet,” said Kovar adopting a langorous tone to ease Aeren’s tension. “I am not dressed and I would have another plate of these excellent meat pies.”

Aeren was disarmed by Kovar’s ready acceptance of heretical doings beneath the ground, and he paused a moment considering, before he laughed gently and rose to his feet, grabbing the empty plate and walking out the door, light in his step.

Kovar sprawled across the pillows, his long, white body splayed in a languid curve, his wounded leg free of the cover of the towel, which was loose again about his hips. The heat felt wonderful, and the light lifted his mood. His injury was a vague discomfort, easy to ignore now. Under the patch, his skin itched as the flesh repaired itself. Kovar touched it carefully, resisting the impulse to dig at it with his nails.

When Aeren returned, he made a valiant effort to ignore the power and scope of the Prince’s handsome body on full display. He left another full plate for Kovar, then returned soon after with underclothes, a sweater and loose pants from Kovar’s pack.

“Do I…do you need help with these?” asked Aeren. He would spend his future helping the Prince in and out of clothes, but he wasn’t quite ready to wrangle with the intimates.

“Boots,” replied Kovar.

Aeren looked uncertain. “Please do not wear them where we are going. You have freestyle climbing slippers in your pack.”

“I thought you said we wouldn’t be climbing.”

“We won’t. The way is smooth, but there are delicate formations of crystal there that don’t like boots.”

Kovar looked at Aeren’s feet, which were broad, scarred, covered with callouses, and his toes looked as if some had been broken and grown back incorrectly. Two toenails had bloody edges and were taped. The damage was very recent, perhaps from this morning, when Aeren had left their bed and an open door had sent a cold breeze into the room.

Aeren squirmed under Kovar’s scrutiny. Kovar considered that Aeren had never minded his rough feet much, and the women he wooed would probably think him quaintly rugged, someone they could pamper. Kovar’s regard was that of a man who did not approve of one who wasn’t taking proper care of himself.

“You go barefoot down here?”

“As you see.”

“Did you never have a healer look at that?” Kovar waved a hand in the directed of Aeren’s damaged feet.

Aeren bowed. “No. I pray they do not offend. Your own feet are as pretty as fresh white blossoms. How I admire them,” he said sarcastically.

Kovar raised a brow and downed another meat pie. “One of these days I’m going to wake up to you sucking my toes, aren’t I?”

“I leave that to Saveris.”

“It may disappoint you to know, he doesn’t really do that very often.“

“Which is entirely too much for me to know about you two, ever,” said Aeren in mock distress.

Kovar rolled his eyes, and then sat up again to finish his meal. “You don’t eat enough,” he said of Aeren and pushed a pile of pies toward him. Aeren’s aura was still diminished and his eyes dark from fatigue.

“You said I was well formed,” protested Aeren.

“For an androgyne. Welcome to Teramis,” said Kovar, and Aeren accepted the plate with a wry grin. He ate quietly, discomfited by Kovar’s powerful presence and form, then darting about the room, fixing on some fluttery insect outside the glass wall.

Soon the tray was clean. Aeren looked less pallid, and his aura brightened. “My food stores won’t last long with you here,” he remarked. The Prince ate a good deal more than the squire, though they were near equals in psionic power. Kovar was curious exactly how far Aeren’s ability went. He’d have plenty of time to scan those depths, and looked forward to future discoveries.

However, the Prince’s powerful frame required far more food to maintain, and he ate like a black hole. Aeren cleared the dishes which had hardly a crumb left on them, tossed cleansing wipes at Kovar and left him alone to dress.

Kovar’s night pale skin was luminous in the bright conservatory glare, and it occurred to him the sunny glow could baste his white flesh. He slipped on the loose deep red trousers Aeren brought him. They gathered at the ankles and flowed in waves about his legs. “Is this light full spectrum?” Kovar asked as he gathered his thick hair and tied it into a knot to keep it from dragging the floor.

“Not inside the glass,” Aeren called from the kitchen. “In the hothouse, yes, you can burn.”

Kovar walked through the mosaic doors, pulling a warm white sweater over his head as he did so. It draped across his chest in a scoop that emphasized his long, graceful neck. “Is that all you’re going to wear?” he said as Aeren came into view.

Aeren looked down at his loose trousers and bare chest. “I always dress like this.” He thought a moment then said, “I don’t get cold. Not the way you do.”

“It makes me cold to look at you,” said Kovar. “Put on a sweater.” When Aeren looked at him skeptically Kovar, said, “It would please me.” Kovar picked up his free climbing slippers, toe sock garments that hugged his feet to mid calf, with grooves on the pads to grip rocky surfaces. He drew them on while he waited for Aeren to do as he was told.

The request puzzled the squire, who had not quite gotten it into his head that his tolerance for submission was slowly being mapped by the Shield Master. Aeren shrugged, then grabbed a loosely folded garment from a shelf. It was dull brown and it was too big for him. While Kovar dressed in the finest stuff, even when he was at his most casual, Aeren’s clothes were careworn, mended in patches. But they were clean and smelled of spice. “Tremet. An herb. Repels vermin,” Aeren explained.

Warmly garbed at Kovar’s request, from a shelf, Aeren grabbed a large, well worn shoulder bag festooned with many pockets. He stashed a thermos in it, and medical supplies. Then he grabbed a torch, offering one to Kovar as well. “I guess we’re off,” he said.

“You said it’s only a mile. Do we need all that?” Kovar asked as Aeren slung it over his shoulder.

“You lost a lot of blood yesterday,” Aeren admonished as he opened the door at the end of the chamber, a heavy thing that swung quietly, ushering in a gush of cool damp air.

Kovar tilted his head, a smile dancing at the edge of his lips. “You are good to be concerned.” When Aeren chose, as he had so often in his cave realm, his attentiveness and thoughtfulness were quite touching. Aside from his devotion to young Seren and his relationship with the msyterious Revora, he wondered who else had been the fortunate recipient of this gentle regard.

Kovar’s scrutiny made Aeren blush again. By the God, the boy was virtually incapable of gracefully accepting any genuine consideration. The shallow interactions of court, fripperies of emotion and form, were his tools. Stripped away, his interactions oscillated wildly between vulnerability and acidic defensiveness.

“You’ll be all right. Just follow me,” said Aeren brusquely before turning away.

The men stepped together into the darkness of the cave beyond the door. Aeren’s warm and well-tended apartments closed definitively behind them. They were plunged into darkness and damp.

“When your eyes adjust, you’ll see a light phosphorescence over many of these stones,” said Aeren. “If you don’t light your torch, that is.”

The Prince carefully stepped into the unknown territory with an uncertain stride. The floor was a smooth path worn by centuries of wear. It appeared free of flora and fauna, but a sheen of moisture was visible on the walls and pooled in little valleys along the path. Aeren’s bare feet, unconcerned by clammy rocks, tough soles like leather on the stones, made small padding sounds as they moved forward.

As they walked into the cave, Kovar felt the strange pressure again, the presence he experienced on his first sight of the great stone edifice guarding the hidden entrance to Aeren’s home, and he paused, disquieted and respectful of inchoate intensities.

“Are you all right?” asked Aeren. Neither man had lit their torches, but Aeren glowed before him, a tattered angel in his ragged clothes and battered feet.

“It is oppressive,” Kovar admitted. The Prince could feel Aeren’s smile in response more than he could see it.

“I suppose it can be. I’m used to it, of course. It feels…enveloping to me. Like an embrace.”

Kovar raised a brow at that. “Not like any embrace I’ve had. Similar, perhaps, to that time I got buried in an avalanche…” he said.

Aeren’s answering laugh was light and understanding. “You’re safe with me. You’ll be all right. I – I made sure you would be welcome.”

“Is that what you were doing this morning? You left very early,” Kovar said, avoiding a puddle while Aeren plowed through them. The phosphorescence Aeren spoke of was becoming brighter and brighter as the Prince’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he could now avoid the wet patches, some of which came up to his ankles. Kovar had a particular loathing for dirty feet, and he grimaced, wishing he’d overridden Aeren’s entreaty not to wear boots.

“Yes. I didn’t realize you noticed,” said Aeren.

“I did,” said Kovar.

“Oh.” The soft pad of his feet across the stones followed by Kovar’s heavy step tapped a rhythm in the quiet. “I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable,” said Aeren softly.

“You didn’t,” replied Kovar.

Aeren let out a skeptical snort. “I was all over you last night. I tend to sprawl.”

“It’s a big bed,” said Kovar.

“Yes,” said Aeren.

“Do you know you talk in your sleep?” said Kovar.

Aeren was quiet for a moment, and stopped walking, the only sound in the cave the gentle drip of water from some unknown depth of the darkness. “Yes,” he said. “I usually sleep alone. Hope I didn’t disturb you.”

“Not at all,” said Kovar.

“Did I say anything amusing?”

“No,” replied Kovar, truthfully. “You sleep with Seren, when you are in residence at the Palace, do you not?”

“Well, yes. You know that already. “ said Aeren, a defensive tone in his voice. “He has nightmares. When he sleeps with me, he has no nightmares.”

“I see,” said Kovar, gently. “You cure each other’s nightmares, then.”

“Yes,” said Aeren coolly. “I suppose we do…we should get moving.” The patter of his feet was a staccato on the ground again as he pushed forward, quickening his pace as he went.

“Perhaps,” said Kovar, keeping up, but noting a twinge in his thigh, "you could tell me more of this place and the source of the emanations. I don’t recall ever having felt this sensation before.”

“It’s the stones, I told you.” There was irritation in Aeren’s voice. “It’s how they protect themselves. The song is constant, but if it wants you gone, it becomes very powerful. It can kill. That’s why the mine was closed all those years ago. The miners…they couldn’t take it.”

Kovar let out a low whistle. “I have a vague memory of this sort of tale, from the old days. I thought they were just legends.”

“And religious heresy? It’s real, Kovar. The power here. As real as that of the Avatar. If it wanted you gone, you’d be gone.”

Kovar took in a breath. “You said when we first entered these caves that it liked me. How and why would it?”

Aeren laughed. “Why would it not? You are with me for one thing, and I asked it to approve of you. And it takes your measure. It knows you. All it needs to know, at any rate.”

“It,” said Kovar. "You keep saying ‘it’.”

“The Conclave of Stones.” Aeren’s tension waned as he talked, comfortable on this subject at least. “The souls of the earth. They’re here. You feel them. Some people don’t feel them directly. But you do. You are powerful and they sense that. And they want to know you.”

“Aeren,” said Kovar, wading into dangerous territory, “has it occurred to you that this entity might be a corruption event? What do you know if this presence? How does it affect those it touches?”

Aeren smirked. “Worried? Don’t be. It’s not like that. It doesn’t…it doesn’t get in your head and live there, not like a corruption. You leave this place, it’s gone. It lives here, in the earth. In the stones. Nowhere else.” He pointed ahead, to a growing glow at the end of the tunnel. “We’re almost there.”

Aeren turned, his expressions now visible under the dim light, his aura strangely warped around him, glittering and dancing, sparks and tendrils peeling off it.

“This is the secret of the crystalcutter, Kovar. This is why I’m good at what I do. And almost no one else is. A handful of people, we’re the only ones left, the only true acolytes of the Conclave. We speak to the soul of the stone and it talks back.”

“They want to meet you, Kovar.

Come.”







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