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TWO UPDATES IN TWO DAYS: ICYMI Anonymous Avatar sent extensive edits of previous chapters which fix continuity errors and also change Earth time to Ovanan time. An Ovanan year is 14 years, for example. Also, chapter headings will be revised. Three chapters have been reloaded so far.

Title -- "Love and Loyalty: Aeren" Book Two Chapter Two Part Two
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.

WARNING: Child abuse. Some content may be disturbing for some readers.



PART I PART II
PART III Part IV Part V Part VI Part VII Part VIII
Part VIX
Part X




Aeren's heart raced. He felt a guard softly squeeze his arm in sympathy, and he nearly sobbed aloud at the simple relief he felt at the small gesture. He felt naked and blind, his power crippled by the psi-blocks, small and weak among these giant people, and he knew that when he stepped into that office to be alone with Kovar, he would be absolutely helpless before him.

The sympathetic guard said nothing, nor did he look down at his charge, but marched him along until they reached the massive stone stairs that led to Kovar’s apartments. The Prince usually took his private lift, which Aeren had taken, escorted by guards, this morning. Aeren sniffed resentfully as he deduced that the Prince preferred to be seen striding ahead of him, a picture of composure, grace, and power, up the wide steps, as his newly acquired young ward, shorter, stumbling, and in an ill-fitting cadet’s breeches, trailed behind him. Everything Kovar did, Aeren thought, was designed to make others feel small, ineffectual and impotent.

As they reached the landing at the top of the stairs, the dark, massive, silver-chased doors to the apartments silently swung open. Of course Kovar could not have simple sliding doors, these had to take up space swinging about, thought Aeren. One had to make people stand back before one could get past them. Rather like Kovar himself.

The small crowd of attendants began to peel off as they walked through the reception hall, moving on to their various duties, until the grim party reached Kovar’s private office. Kovar and his healer, his secretary, valet, and Aeren’s guards remained. The door emblazoned with the seal of Teramis, silver-chased with an overlay of the seal of the Avatar dominated the decoration of the door, which swung wide silently, welcoming its master. The guards stopped, and one placed his hand in the small of Aeren’s back, propelling him forward with a gentle push.

Aeren made an effort to move through the door with some small measure of what grace remained in him, having entered it the night before with pure confidence in his beauty and power, all of which had been stripped away. His anxiety was almost overwhelming, and he knew those around him could feel it. The doors closed silently behind him, the guards on the other side of them. He was alone with Kovar and what remained of his staff.

The bright light of morning over the mountains shone off endless expanses of snow and ice through the massive windows to the far left of the doors, a beautiful altar to the God simply decorated with a fountain that had small devotional crystals at its base set before it. A comfortable chaise was nearby, a cheery bar with refreshments, tables and lights in soothing colors. It looked peaceful and welcoming and nothing like the spirit of what Aeren expected to find here.

Kovar walked briskly to his massive desk, which looked like chaos.

The night before, the office had been a pristine space of meticulously maintained, clean spaces. Today, boxes were everywhere, parchments, scrolls, tablets, and piles of crystals littered the desk, the floor and tables. An altar to the far right of the room, an eternal flame at its base, was flaked with the remains of burned documents. Aeren hesitated, blinking, unable to fathom what had happened, but fearing what was about to.

“Sit” Kovar ordered. Aeren glanced to the secretary and the valet, who looked at him calmly. Then he walked carefully to the chair that had been offered to him as Kovar moved to the opposite side of the desk to his own chair. As he approached, Aeren could see food service had been laid out for two, and wine, and a generous spread of brunch selections amongst the chaotic documents. The hospitality following his cold exile and humiliation was disorienting.

“You haven’t eaten in almost 20 hours, which is one of the reasons you feel so faint, according to him,” said Kovar, making a brisk gesture to the healer, who stepped forward. “If you’re going to be petulant and pretend you don’t want anything,” Aeren pursed his lips, because he had been considering it,” we can have you fed intravenously.”

Aeren paused. “Sit,” said Kovar again, enunciating the word, carefully. “It is a simple command. I shouldn’t have to tell you twice.”

Aeren took the chair. As he did so, he realized it did not swamp his form as the one he’d sat in the night before had. Another seat had been acquired congruent with his smaller proportions that fitted him easily, and was raised to a height to prevent the desk from overwhelming him.

“Get this shit off,” said Kovar as he whipped off his coat, took his own seat, then stuck a foot out for his valet who tugged off one thigh boot after another, and stripped away Kovar’s stockings. Stashed under the desk were comfortable, short soft boots that were swapped for the fitted glossy black thigh huggers. Kovar loosed the collar of his shirt and sighed. The valet, her work done, left through the doors leading to Kovar’s inner chamber carrying the discarded clothes which he’d donned only minutes before. Kovar reached for the wine, gesturing with his hand toward the healer, who leaned over and touched Aeren’s face once again. Energy pulsed and spread, making quick work of the slap Kovar had given Aeren, easing the growing pain from the psi-blocks.

The healer gave Aeren a small, weak smile, bowed and silently left the room.

Kovar drank his wine, watching Aeren over the lip of his glass as the secretary took his turn. Erastos carefully placed a tablet before Aeren. “Your ward contract. And the manifest of your personal belongings,” he said. Aeren looked at it stupidly, too befuddled to think of a response. “Shall I send for the attorney to explain this to you?”

“No,” said Kovar, flatly. “Go.”

Aeren froze. So, there would not be a legal representative for him. The secretary looked at Aeren worriedly, paused then turned to Kovar. “Ah. Yes, Your Highness. Um…then shall we go over your itinerary...”

“My itinerary is canceled for today. I am unavailable. There will be no interruptions.”

“Ah,” said Erastos, and Aeren was beginning to think “Ah” was his favorite word, “But then there’s…”

Kovar picked at his food and said around a small mouthful, “If someone isn’t being shot at or on fire, they don’t need me today.”

“Ah,” said the secretary.

“Go,” said the Prince.

Alone, Kovar and Aeren sat glaring at one another over opposite sides of the big desk, piled with papers, and documents and food.

After a long moment of silence, Aeren drew a deep breath. “Is this the part,” he said carefully, “Where we become very candid with one another?”

“Yes. Did you kill Lord Acteon?”

Aeren paused. “Is that why I’m here?”

“In part. Yes.”

“If you think I murdered someone, and I am here to face my punishment, you can’t expect me to own it.”

“I don’t think you murdered anyone,” said Kovar.

Aeren was confused once more, giving Kovar time to take another drink.

“Then why am I here?”

Kovar fingered the stem of his glass as he gently placed it on the table. “There is the conversation between me and the Avatar that I recorded, and then there is the conversation between me and the Avatar I did not record.”

Aeren froze. “And that conversation consisted of…?” In the tense silence that followed, Aeren’s stomach let out a mighty rumble. He rolled his eyes in embarrassment.

“You really should eat something,” said Kovar, gesturing to the food with his glass. Then he picked up a roll of meat with his fingers and devoured it in one mouthful.

Mention of a conversation with the Avatar that had not been recorded gave Aeren a dash of hope, spice for his appetite. He licked his lips, then served himself with a spoon from a dish of meats in sauce, tasting it gingerly, then eating another healthy mouthful while Kovar watched.

“Are you going to keep me in suspense, or are you going to sit there and watch me chew,” Aeren grumbled. “I can say things like that now, I believe. We’re in private. Where we can be candid,” he added acidly.

He was surprised when Kovar grinned. “Yes,” he said.

He turned to the pile of papers, selecting a few and drawing them toward him. Then he put a tablet next to them, and a box, longer than it was wide, moving his plate aside to accommodate, while popping yet another meat roll into his mouth. Then he took another drink.

“A little early, isn’t it?” said Aeren tartly.

“That, coming from you? Ovanan’s party boy? That’s rich,” Kovar grinned. He swirled the liquid in his glass. “Non-alcoholic, have as much as you like.”

Aeren blinked. “Oh.” He looked at the bottle, then poured some for himself, sniffed at it delicately, then took a drink.

“You really don’t drink alcohol, do you?” said Kovar.

“No,” said Aeren, “I can’t afford to…”

“Lose control?” Kovar finished for him.

Aeren glared. “Why am I here? If you wanted to kill me you’d have done it already. Easy enough. So why? Are you going to mind wipe me? Send me back to Etan a blank slate so he can start over? Maybe he’d like to fuck me when I have nothing to say, for a change. And don’t try to interrogate me again. I’ll destroy everything that’s left.”

“And what,” said Kovar with precision, “Does the Avatar’s ward, an undisciplined, spoiled child who has no responsibilities, who flits from party to party, yet does not drink alcohol because he’s afraid of losing control, have to protect that is so precious that he would destroy his own mind to keep it safe?”

Aeren hesitated and then responded with equal precision, “At this point, you unbelievable prick, I would set myself on fire just to spite you.”

Kovar raised an eyebrow. “I believe you would,” he said. “But you won’t. Because I know what you’re protecting.”

Aeren looked skeptical. There was the clever, wily expression, the steel that had always been so fleeting in their previous encounters, freeing himself from the grim young man who had been certain he was going to die that day. Gaining confidence that he wasn’t about to meet his demise, he was coming out to play.

“Do you? Really?” He sneered. “Etan told you all about it?”

Kovar took another bite, this time of a vegetable roll. He shrugged. “He didn’t have to. He confirmed that I was looking in the right direction, however. Then I spoke to Saveris.”

Aeren snorted. “And what did he say?”

Kovar shrugged again and went back to the meat rolls. “I asked him why his scrawny twin came here to kill me. And he said, ‘If Aeren wanted to kill you, you’d be dead already.’ What do you think he means by that, Aeren?”

Aeren opened his mouth then quickly shut it. His eyes were wide and piercing.

“And then I told him you used your power to try to coerce me into having sex with you. By the way, do not do that on Teramis, we consider that rape.”

Aeren exploded in rage, gripping the edge of the table, and leaning over it to shout at Kovar with all the passion he possessed. “How dare you! I would never have touched you! I’m nothing like you!”

Kovar continued calmly. “Saveris was not pleased with this news, though whether it was because he’s always fancied you and you’ve not given him a tumble, or because you used unethical means to attempt to get me to feel desire for you, I cannot say. We did not discuss the matter in depth, as he has always honored the confidences of the House of the Avatar. But he, too let me know I was on the right track without saying very much, just as you are now.”

Aeren stood, still gripping the edge of the desk, breathing hard, barely controlling his rage. “Why don’t you just come out and say what you mean, then?” he said through gritted teeth.

Kovar’s mouth set in a thin line, a small smile at the edge of his lips. “Why didn’t you just come to me with the truth and ask for help in the first place?”

Aeren’s face went white. “It’s not my story to tell.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “How do I know I can trust you? How do I know you’re…”

“Not part of the conspiracy? Yes, you alluded to that earlier, and you are not wrong. There is one. Hence all of this.” He gestured around the room, indicating the pile of parchments, scrolls and crystals. “And this.” He picked up the box and pushed it across the table to Aeren who looked at it quizzically.

“You mentioned something about Acteon and Lady Sere,” said Kovar, the tone in his voice changing into something that made Aeren even more wary. “We found a reference to her in Acteon’s will. This is what he left her.” He waved toward the box. “Open it.”

Gingerly, Aeren did as he was told, and found inside the plain black box a magnificent necklace of crystals resting on a red velvet cushion. He waved his hand over the crystals, but sensed nothing, forgetting he was wearing psi-inhibitors. He looked at Kovar, annoyed.

“Put it on,” said the Prince, quietly.

Aeren made a quick study of the clasp weighing the crystals in his hand as he did so, his training as a crystalcutter making him default to his professional habits. He fastened the jewels around his neck and looked at Kovar blankly. Then suddenly, he screamed in horror, clawing vainly at the clasp “Get it off! Get it off!” he sobbed. Kovar rushed to his side then tore it from his neck. The boy gasped for air, weeping, choking. Then he began to vomit violently. Kovar deftly avoided the spray while sending a silent call for his valet and household staff. He pulled Aeren’s chair away from the mess.

The wretching over, Aeren sat rocking back and forth in shock, trying to catch his breath.
Asha rushed in with a fresh black shirt for him, looked at Aeren, Kovar and the mess, and in response to her silent query, Kovar said, “The food is fine. He’s not well. No, we do not need a healer,” speaking aloud in deference to Aeren’s inability to speak telepathically. The staff, nervous, sensing the intense emotional upset in the room, finished their task and left as quickly as they’d come.

Aeren numbly accepted the clean shirt from Asha then Kovar directed him to the sink at the bar near the windows so he could refresh himself and wash out his mouth. Kovar picked up a pile of papers and a little crystal as he did so, walking quietly toward a long chaise near the vista and the beautiful, peaceful altar, where he liked to relax when working late in the evening. He put the papers on the table. Asha brought the wine and glasses from the desk and placed them on the table next to the chaise, silently withdrawing once her task was completed, leaving the men alone.

Aeren changed his shirt slowly and painfully, as if to bear the weight of the cloth was too much for him. There were thin scratches on his face and neck where he’d clawed at himself to get at the necklace. When he turned away from the sink, he was startled to see Kovar on the chaise near him. He hadn’t realized what others were doing in the room while he was washing his face and hands.

“Sit,” said Kovar, this time quietly, kindly.

Aeren accepted the offer without hesitation.

“Were you one of those children, Aeren? Did Lord Acteon hurt you?”

Aeren looked at Kovar, his eyes red and swollen. “No. No, he…they never touched me.”

Kovar nodded. Then he said, “How old is the Avatar’s heir, Aeren?”

Aeren closed his eyes. When he opened them again, his face was the most mournful thing Kovar had seen outside of a battlefield. “Seren is a little over a year, I think. About 1 and 3 months.”

Kovar nodded again. “I see.” He hesitated, searching for the right words. “Lord Aeren,” he said, “I ran a facial recognition scan of the children in those recordings. If they came from a crèche there should have been a record. But we only matched one.”

Kovar picked up one of the pieces of paper and placed it in front of Aeren. “Can you confirm the identity of this child?” Aeren let out a wail. He buried his face in his hands, pain radiating from him in hot waves.

Kovar picked up the paper with others he had set aside on the table. He walked quietly to the altar on the far side of the room, the one with the eternal flame. He said a quiet prayer, and consecrated the papers to the fire. He bowed as the flickers of light licked the images into little black flakes. Then he blew on them and they scattered.

Aeren was still weeping into one hand, the other helplessly resting on his knee. Kovar walked past the chaise to the big windows to look at the mountains. At midday the light was so bright the glare made it almost impossible to gaze directly at the snow. The brightness made his eyes water. He waved his hand over the window, and the radiance dimmed slightly.

“No,” said Aeren, gasping. “No, please. Make it bright in here again. I need light.”

Kovar did as he was asked. He wiped away the moisture from his eyes. Then he walked back to the chaise and sat down next to his ward. Aeren’s face was red and puffy from weeping. Kovar handed him a glass.

“May I have real wine this time?” Aeren smiled ruefully. “You’ll shield me, won’t you?”

Kovar nodded. “Of course.” He walked to the bar and picked up a bottle and two fresh glasses. “It’s the good stuff,” he announced and poured for them both.

Aeren quaffed it down quickly, before handing his glass over for another round. “It is the good stuff.”

Kovar saluted him with his glass. “I have done some damage with this stuff.”

Aeren gulped down another mighty quaff. “I am damaged already,” he declared.

Kovar watched him take in the burn of the drink and he sighed. “You could have told me,” he said.

“Told you,” barked Aeren, turning to him, his face on the edge of anger. “Told you what? That the Avatar’s heir, before he was even a year old, was systematically raped and passed around like a…” He shook his head. “It wasn’t my story to tell, and how did I know you weren’t…”

“Part of it? A child rapist? Because Lord Acteon was of this House?” Kovar said, not bothering to hide that he was offended.

“Yes! I mean, no!” Aeren struggled for clarity. “Kovar, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t want to think it. There were trails of money leading through here, I needed to know-I was out of my mind with grief. I swear I didn’t come here to hurt you. I just wanted information. You could have been more direct with me, too, you know.”

“Could I?” said Kovar. “How did I know you weren’t part of it yourself?”

Aeren looked stunned.

“You come to my house under false pretenses and to steal information. It didn’t take much effort to deduce you had something to do with the death of Acteon. You practically waved that around on a flag. Did you think I’d fall on top of you and open the vaults of my House’s files in return for a fuck? How did I know you weren’t trying to destroy incriminating information about yourself?”

Aeren bit his lip. “When did you figure out I wasn’t?”

“I wasn’t entirely sure until you put on that necklace,” said Kovar.

Aeren’s face went scarlet.

“Etan assured me he was trying to protect you,” said Kovar, “but I didn’t understand the context when he said it. He was cryptic.” Aeren rolled his eyes. That was a common complaint where Etan was concerned. “At first, I assumed he was covering for the death of Acteon. I spent the night going over his papers.” He waved his hand at the mountain of documents then turned back to Aeren. “I eventually got to the heart of what Etan wanted done with you. You are going to stay here with me, because you are not safe on your own. No, do not argue with me.” He held up his hand staving off a protest. “You are already under suspicion. That is why the Avatar wants you here. He cannot protect you in his House.”

“What do you mean?”

“If I can figure this out in one night, what can others figure out? You think you are clever, and you are. But someone is going to realize the trail of bodies has you at the end of it. Etan thinks someone already has.”

Aeren swallowed uncomfortably.

“How many people have you killed, Aeren?”

Aeren’s eyes narrowed. He turned away, and rubbed his upper lip nervously with his forefinger.

Kovar continued, “A string of unexplained deaths among Ovanan nobility over the last few months. Men and women in good health, in sealed rooms, no known cause, showing small lesions in the brain, possible stroke. Except healthy, well-trained psionics do not die of stroke.” Aeren listened to the litany without comment. “All dead in the same way Lord Acteon died. And I know why you killed Lord Acteon.”

Aeren remained silent.

“The faces of the adults on those crystals are obscured. But if we dig deeply, and follow the money trail you’re tracking, I expect we will find the names of men and women who died, won’t we Aeren?”

“You’re not going to turn me in?” Aeren asked quietly.

“No. If those animals were here I’d kill them myself.”

“Oh,” said Aeren. “I thought you said you didn’t think I murdered anyone.”

“I don’t think you murdered anyone. I think you assassinated them.”

“Oh,” said Aeren again.

“You’re a disrupter, aren’t you?” said Kovar. A disruptor, rare and forbidden, a psionic who could disrupt energy systems in machines as well as living beings. When Saveris had said, “If Aeren wanted to kill you, you’d be dead already,” he was telling Kovar all he needed to know. Aeren could kill with the smallest touch, even someone as powerful as Kovar. Disruptors were weeded out during the Choosing at childhood, executed before they could grow and develop their power.

Aeren bit his lip. “Secrets and secrets.”

“Does Etan know?”

“Of course he knows!” Etan, as the God of Ovanan, was the vehicle by which children were judged and given souls appropriate for their mortal vessels at the Choosing. Etan singled Aeren out and adopted him into his House, knowing full well what he was. Aeren did not offer Kovar a reason for this eccentric decision. “How did you figure it out?”

“I almost didn’t. It’s been so long since I have seen a disruptor, at first I didn’t realize what your aura was telling me. Your kind is supposed to be extinct.”

Aeren shrugged. “Sorry.”

“Sorry for trying to kill me?”

“I told you I-I wasn’t trying to kill you,” Aeren insisted. “And I got the worst of it. You beat the shit out of me!”

“You were in my home, lying to me about the death of one of my people. I saw impending psionic attack in your aura. Don’t try to pretend you weren’t going to strike. I had to disable you before you got the first shot. You’d have done the same.”

Aeren glared. “I wouldn’t have bent you over a desk and spanked you like a child!”

“That is because I do not act like a child,” said Kovar.

“You enjoyed it, didn’t you?”

“Not particularly, no. You’re a bit skinny for my taste.”

“Oh, I bet Saveris loves it,” Aeren sneered.

“What Saveris and I do when we love is none of your business.”

“You don’t mind making my business everybody’s business!” Aeren shouted. “That humiliating display you put on today, letting everyone watch while I was disowned by God himself! Delightful theater! The Avatar’s ward, sent to reform school!”

‘Yes,” said Kovar. “It was theater. That’s the point. And it hurt. It had to hurt, to make sure people know that you are no longer of the Avatar’s House, that you are under the protection of Teramis, and that you are, in all respects, untouchable. That every thing that happened today was real, no matter how unreal it is. Your emotions were genuine, and everyone felt them. Wouldn’t have gone half as well if you were acting, I didn’t think much of your acting last night. By now, all Ovanan has heard that the Prince of Teramis is your Shield Master.”

“Wouldn’t it have been simpler just to have me move in with you and send out a press release?” Aeren asked sarcastically.

“The point is to take suspicion off the Avatar and his Household. To make it clear the Avatar was not involved in and does not approve of anything you may or may not have done. And to make sure any scandal won’t reflect on him. If there is retaliation to come, I can handle it better than he can.”

Aeren glared and reached for the bottle. It was already empty. “Is there more?”

Plenty for both of us, thank God, thought Kovar. He was up and back from the bar with two bottles in moments. Aeren took one. He struggled to open the top, then handed it to Kovar who performed the task easily, then handed it back.

“You’re a brute,” sighed Aeren. He took a large swig. “I can’t remember the last time I was drunk.” He took another deep draught. “But it doesn’t matter now. I have no powers.” He made a whirling motion with his finger at his temple. “Can’t hurt anyone, can I?”

“No.” Kovar could not remember the last time he’d seen anyone so determined to get intoxicated. Aeren was about to drain the second bottle when Kovar touched his arm as he raised it again. The boy flinched. “Slow down,” Kovar said, softly.

Aeren blinked. “Are you going to take these off any time soon?” He indicated the psi-blocks.

Kovar hesitated. “Not until I am sure you are not a danger to yourself or anyone else.”

“Then I am not,” said Aeren precisely, “going to slow down.” He drained the bottle. Then he leaned back in the seat, his head resting against the pillows, and closed his eyes. Kovar said nothing. He waited for Aeren who waited for the alcohol to do its work. When next the boy spoke, it was in a low voice as if from very far away.

“They refused to prosecute,” said Aeren. “They refused to punish them for what they did. Lord Acteon. Lady Sere. Lady Revati. Lord Yavish. Everyone involved.”

“Who refused to prosecute, Aeren?”

“The Hierarchy, of course. Can’t cross The Hierarchy. No, no, not Lady Sere, too powerful, too important. We will have her pay some sort of fine, recommend that anyone involved have no further access to children, keep it secret, the scandal. Oh, my. No one must know.”

“How do you know who was involved Aeren? When you killed them. How could you be sure?”

“I was sure.”

“You were wrong about me, Aeren,” said Kovar carefully.

Aeren sat up in drunken frustration, his voice raised almost to a shout. “I was not wrong! I wasn’t going to hurt you!” He waved the empty bottle about. “I was angry, scared. You are almost the last person on the planet I wanted to think was guilty of this Kovar, believe me. But the evidence pointed to…” Kovar looked at him patiently as Aeren paused and considered, then took Kovar’s bottle from him and began to drink from it as well. “The others…with the others…I saw it.”

“Saw what?”

“I saw them doing it.” Aeren said it in clipped tones. He looked down at his feet. A tear escape his eye and rolled down his cheek, still slightly discolored from last night’s bruising. “Disgusting. I saw them. They save images. They’re compelled to. They all do it. They collect children like…like trophies. I wasn’t just killing people on suspicion, Kovar, if that’s what you think. I saw what they did. I had to look at it. The way you made me look at it on that filthy necklace. Filthy.”

Kovar hesitated then said, “I am sorry.” Aeren grunted. “I am, however, relieved to hear that you were…thorough before taking definitive action. But what made you suspect me?”

Aeren raised his head. “The money trail, of course. You already know that. It’s been running through this House. Lord Acteon was laundering payments for the…services of the children for Lady Sere.”

“I see. Acteon resigned from his position as assistant to our envoy to Sere some time ago. Did it not occur to you,” said Kovar carefully, “that your finding my house named in this scheme…perhaps it was an attempt to frame me? Acteon had time after he’d been discovered to set up false clues.” Aeren frowned. “If someone knew an assassin was tracking down those involved in this ring of vice, then pointing the assassin in the wrong direction would be an excellent way to take out an enemy.”

Aeren hung his head and bit his lip.

“Were you the one who discovered this vice ring?”

“Yes,” said Aeren, “I found out they were abusing Seren.”

Kovar said gently. “I am truly sorry. That must have been very difficult for you.”

Aeren twisted his hands together, and then said, “Etan didn’t want me getting involved. He forbade it, of course. Forbade me to do what I’ve been doing. I didn’t tell him, but he knew. I couldn’t just stand by and…and let them get away with it. They hurt him…and all those other children. They raped them…” Aeren shook his head. “Did you ever know Seren? I mean, before all this, did you?”

“No”, said Kovar. “Not really.”

Aeren’s face was set in grim lines. “He was perfect. The most perfectly beautiful thing I ever saw. Truly innocent. Kind.”

Kovar smiled. “He was at court once or twice. He was very charming.”

“He was perfect,” Aeren said again, definitively.

“How is he now?”

Aeren’s face was hard as marble. “He’s…getting better.” He closed his eyes. “He needs me. I have to go back.”

“You can’t go back, Aeren,” Kovar said firmly. “You’re in danger there.”

“He’s naked without me!”

“Saveris is there. Saveris will protect him.”

“A fine job Saveris did of protecting him when he needed it!” barked Aeren. Kovar flinched. Aeren shook his head as if trying to draw back with what had come from his mouth. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that wasn’t fair. We were all…we were all blind.” Aeren rubbed his eyes as if demonstrating the point. “Lady Sere would take Seren on jaunts, to see other children, she said. She was taking him away to rape him. To let others rape him. How were we to know? Seren said nothing. He never did. Not once!” Aeren took another long drink. “He’d been trained from infancy to block thoughts, we never violated his privacy. But he had nightmares. He would wet the bed. I thought this must be what children do!”

Kovar knew little of children himself, beyond his distant memories of growing up in the crèche. The idea of using a child sexually was alien to him, incomprehensible. He would not know how to identify a traumatized child from behavior alone, and doubted Saveris or Etan would know any better. He could not recall Saveris spending any time in the company of children, except Aeren, either. “How did you find out?” he asked.

Aeren closed his eyes in pain. He took a deep breath. “Seren was so small. No bigger than this.” He held up his arm to indicate a height to his waist. “Adult men, raping a little body like that…they hurt him.” Kovar gritted his teeth and grimaced in disgust. “Sere usually had a healer attend him before she returned Seren to us. Nothing left, no evidence. But she got careless. And I found blood.”

They sat in silence for a time then Kovar took the bottle from Aeren and drained the last of it.

“Prince Kovar,” said Aeren.

“What,” said the Prince.

“I’m going to be sick again.”

“Use the sink,” said Kovar.

Aeren stumbled toward it, hitting his target just in time, and vomited up what was left of nearly three bottles of wine and a meager breakfast. He spasmed until he achieved dry heaves, then continued to wretch painfully until he hacked and coughed and sputtered his last. He stood wearily over the sink, unable to move, as Kovar turned on the tap and the sanitation system, and ran cloths under cold water to place over Aeren’s neck. “I am a little drunk,” said Aeren.

“Yes,” said Kovar. “You are. I’ll get you something for it.”

“No,” said Aeren. “I want to be drunk. Please. I don’t want to feel anything. Let me be drunk.”

Kovar didn’t argue. He stood aside as Aeren made his way back to the chaise on unsteady feet. “It’s nice to let go, isn’t it? Nice to let go. I never get to do that,” Aeren mused.

“I suppose you don’t,” Kovar agreed. With a power as dangerous as disruption, Aeren had to exercise levels of control few Ovanan could imagine or achieve. It must be grueling, he thought. “Aeren, I know you want to go home,” Kovar said, “but this is the best place for you. Seren will be safe. I swear this to you on my life. And you will have training here you could never have at the Avatar’s House. Training it is forbidden to give anyone who is not of Teramis.”

Aeren looked at him, bleary eyed. “Are you trying to get my consent when I am drunk? That’s not binding.”

Kovar could not suppress a chuckle. “No, it is not. But we will have this conversation again when you are sober.”

“Oh,” said Aeren. “Joy.” He rolled his eyes. He did that a lot, Kovar noted. “Where’s the water closet? I need to take a slash.”

“Through here.” Aeren attempted to rise on his own, but was unsteady. Kovar put his arm around his shoulder and propelled him across the polished floor on which Aeren was having trouble getting a purchase.

“You don’t have to do that,” protested Aeren. “I can walk. Besides, I still hate you.”

“Of course you do,” soothed Kovar, “but I want to make sure you get to the toilet before you have an accident on my floor. I’ve had enough of your body fluids.”

Aeren glared, but did not demure further. They reached the water closet.

“You’re not going to stand there and watch me, are you?” he growled at Kovar.

“If you pass out, fall on this marble floor and break your nose again, my healer will assume I ruined your face for you. He likes your face. He can be quite a scold, and I’m not in the mood.”

Aeren glowered as he fumbled with his pants, groaning when he finally freed himself and pointed to the toilet.

“You could work a bit on that aim,” said Kovar.

“I’m a little drunk,” Aeren announced redundantly. Kovar observed it would be necessary to call household staff again, and that the modesty panel on the breeches Aeren had worn the night before wasn’t lying. He really was from Teramis.

Aeren turned from the toilet to leave the room. “Close your pants,” ordered Kovar.

“What?” said Aeren stupidly.

“I’m not putting that back for you,” said Kovar.

Aeren looked down and fumbled again with himself until his parts were safely tucked away. “Wash your hands,” urged Kovar.

“I always wash my hands!” announced Aeren, miffed.

As he did so, untidily splashing water all over the exterior of the sink, Kovar produced cleanser for his mouth, of which Aeren availed himself in as untidy a fashion as he cleaned the sink. He spat it out, and missed the basin. Kovar handed him a towel and then produced a small pill from a container in the cabinet.

“What is that?” asked Aeren suspiciously.

“You’re very drunk. This will help.”

“I told you, I want to be drunk.”

“You are sick drunk, and you will have a terrific hangover if you don’t take this. You don’t want a hangover.”

“I don’t want a hangover,” Aeren repeatedly, dully. He took the pill, swallowed and grimaced. “Will this make me sober?”

“Somewhat.”

“Prick. I told you I want to be drunk.”

“You’ll thank me later. Come on.”

Kovar guided Aeren back to the chaise, where he collapsed in a heap. Then the Prince walked back to his desk, chose some food, put it on a plate. He placed the food on the table by the chaise, then went to the bar and came back with another bottle, opening it and handing it to Aeren, who grabbed at it greedily. He took a large swig, then stopped and grimaced. “This wine is terrible.”

“That’s because it’s fruit juice.”

Aeren looked mournfully at the liquor cabinet.

“Eat some food,” said Kovar.

“You give a lot of orders.”

“I’m a Prince. Of course I give a lot of orders.”

“I used to live with God. He didn’t give half so many orders as you.”

“And look what a mess the world is in.”

Aeren picked up a morsel. “It’s cold.”

“It’s raw fruit,” said Kovar. “I will be very relieved when you’re sober, Aeren.”

Aeren chewed the fruit then closed his eyes. “Oh…oh…I think I can feel that pill kicking in.” He opened his eyes and turned to Kovar. “You’re a lot better looking when I’m drunk.”

Kovar shook his head. “Everyone is better looking when you’re drunk, Aeren.”

Aeren quietly chewed more chunks of fruit, while he leaned back on the chaise and looked straight up at the ceiling. “I don’t really have much choice in all of this, do I?”

“No,” said Kovar. “But the choice is not because you have been forced, but because any other choice would be foolish. Consider,” Kovar said, gesturing to the huge pile of documents around his desk. “You are the only person who knows the story behind all of this. The only person who can be trusted to help me track down the clues in these papers. They’re encrypted.”

“Encrypted? How?”

“Look at this.” Kovar picked up one of the parchments. “Notice anything?”

Aeren squinted. “I see a lot of stuff that looks like financial records destined to bore the hell out of me.”

“Now look at it.” He held up a small pink crystal and waved it over the surface of the parchment.

Aeren squinted again, and then gasped. “What is that?”

“It highlights certain letters and numbers and spells out a message. The message is also encrypted. It’s an old Teramis code, hasn’t been used in years. The image is activated by body heat. Most archivists and secretaries wear gloves while they work. These damned crystal overlays on the parchment are gritty, they tear your hands up. But I was looking at one of them near this lamp,” he indicated one of the multicolored lights near the chaise, “and I could see the effect. My analysts didn’t think to look for secret messages in everyday documents such as these. No one was looking for anything in particular, until you showed up last night.”

Aeren leaned over, interested, slowly sobering. “How many of these are there?”

“I do not know,” said Kovar. “I don’t see the effect on all the pages. That doesn’t mean the other pages aren’t encrypted in some other way we haven’t discovered yet.”

“How many people do you have working on this?”

“I’ve confided in no one else,” said Kovar. “It is possible Acteon wasn’t the only person in the House involved in this scheme. The more people who know the more likely the scandal will leak. I must protect the reputation of House Teramis, as best I can. ”

“Who else in the House knows then?”

“My secretary and valet know I am reviewing documents, a few workers know documents were brought here, and have seen them. They do not know what they are.” Kovar passed more papers to Aeren, who picked them up curiously, moving them to and fro under the light. “Help me with this.” Aeren raised a brow. “You’re my ward, no one would question the time we spend together alone.” Aeren smiled a dark smile. “You must have evidence as well.”

“Yes.”

“Have you showed it to anyone?”

“No. I knew the Hierarchy would seize it and destroy it, or find some way to tamper with it. I stashed it somewhere they will never find it.”

“Will you trust me with it?”

Aeren looked at Kovar with those piercing blue eyes, and said in a hiss, “Will you help me get justice?”

“Yes,” said Kovar.

Aeren sighed, leaned back on the chaise and closed his eyes, smiling.

“I will not tolerate the dishonor that has been brought on this house. I will track down everyone involved and see to it that they are punished,” said Kovar firmly. “Unofficially, of course.” Aeren’s smile grew wider. “I will find the children who were harmed. I saw names and ages in a few of these papers, but,” he said, the power of his voice trailing off into a whisper, “I don’t understand why the facial recognition data did not return any hits on those names; that puzzles me.”

Aeren looked at him, his eyes narrow and hard. He whistled. “You don’t get it, do you?”

Kovar blinked. “What am I not getting?”

“You really don’t get what’s going on here. Hunh.” Aeren shook his head.

“Apparently not,” said Kovar, quietly.

“Think you’re smarter than me, ‘Oh look at what I figured out in only one night!’” said Aeren with bitter sarcasm, taking a gulp of the fruit drink as if he were still quaffing wine. He gritted his teeth. “There aren’t any children, you big stupid lump. Seren is the only one left.”

Kovar went cold. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” said Aeren precisely, piercingly sober once more, his eyes filling with tears, “there aren’t any children to find. Because all the children are dead.”


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