Rude Awakening

Crescent had retired to his quarters not long after the two masters had left the gathering. Usually he looked forward to night-time, but this day had left him tired and more than a little confused. Travel was new enough but the obvious tension between Domerin and Master Abolan had been rubbing unpleasently against him all night, and he found he tossed in bed, instead of falling into his usual easy sleep.

Ire for the guild master was not new, but perhaps it had been the naked way their host had called him out that troubled him so. Either way, he couldn’t let himself dwell on it. They were in for a full day tomorrow and he would be in no shape for anything if he didn’t get some sleep.

He didn’t know how long he was out for before he started awake, every danger instinct inside of him flaring to life. His eyes went wide, straining against the gloom of the room for any speck of light. His hand shot down, quick as a snake striking, closing instantly around the blade he’d tucked between the mattress and bed frame.

Someone was here, and for an assassin that meant a quick reaction, or a quick death.

He swung as he caught motion out of the corner of his eye, though his blade met nothing but empty air. His blood was pumping now, breath quick, eyes darting back and forth as he searched for the intruder. It took everything inside of him not to let the feline erupt from below his skin.

He drew in a few breaths, trying to calm himself. It wouldn’t help if he lashed out wildly, and so he stilled, feeling out whoever had intruded. He could almost feel eyes upon him, though he couldn’t yet pinpoint where they were coming from.

He crouched, ready to spring, when there was a soft click.

Light flooded the room, momentary blinding him in the sudden brightness, as the overhead light came on.

He blinked, on the defensive, but no attack came.

When he could finally see again his eyes widened when he realized who was standing across from him, and for a moment he stared, dumbfounded.

“Master Abolan?”

He was confused and shaken, nearly vibrating from the lingering adrenaline. He was very keenly aware that if the master assassin had wanted him dead he wouldn’t have woken up at all. That bothered him, more than he wanted to admit. But if attack wasn’t on his mind why hadn’t he roused him with the traditional signaling touch?

“Crescent, isn’t it?” The man asked, arching a brow, sounding as if he were reading the mail rather than standing in his room in the middle of the night.

He shifted in bed, drawing the covers a bit closer around him. He was the furthest from shy but for once was thankful he hadn’t slept naked. The question didn’t fool him for an instant. This man was well aware of who he was. He willed himself to breathe and returned the knife to it’s place, taking a moment to compose himself before speaking.

“That’s right, master. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yes, there is. I must speak with you. Now.”

It wasn’t a request, and he didn’t dare argue, not after seeing how unforgiving the man had been that day.

He would move to get up, but the other man held up a hand, and he paused.

“Right where you are is fine.” He would take a seat in a plush chair that rested near the bed, watching him with that single eye of his. It was impossible to tell what he might be thinking, and he sat very still, as if still expecting an attack at any moment.

When it came, it was not in the shape he expected.

“You’re good, young man. I was only in the room a few minutes before you sensed I was there. Fast too.”

But not fast enough. The unspoken words hung in the air between them. He wasn’t sure what to say, but the older man went on.

“But, you were not raised in the guild.”

“How-”

“You’re much too old to be such a recent graduate.”

That was true, but he got the feeling there was more to it than that. Why would Master Abolan be here otherwise?

“Yes, quite good.” The man went on, as if he were talking to him. “It’s not easy for those raised outside of the guild to make it through the training, let alone to excel. But then again, the former master always did have a very good eye for people. I don’t think he would have made you the offer he did unless he was sure you were up to the challenge.”

Crescent quickly clamped his jaw, and set his face to its most neutral, not letting anything through. He didn’t know what the master was on about, but there was only one person left who knew about that deal, and she wouldn’t have talked.

“Master, I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about. Is it possible you have the wrong room?” He tried his best to sound innocent, confused, hoping not to offend.

But Seibel didn’t seem put off, instead a knowing smile touching his lips.

“I understand your hesitancy, but lying will do you no good here. I know you made a deal with the former master, where he offered to buy your contract if you promised to help Master Lorcasf. I knew you’d taken the deal, but lost track of you after that. I must admit surprise that you made it through your training at all, let alone so quickly.”

Crescent bit his tongue. He didn’t want to speak of this but the the other man had details he shouldn’t, unless perhaps the former master had told him about it. One of the masters had whispered that the old man hated Domerin because he’d been appointed heir instead, and stolen his chance to be the guild leader. But if that were true, why would the old master have told him in the first place?

He supposed it didn’t matter right now. Seibel was looking at him expectantly, and he didn’t want to get to the point where the man started demanding.

“I didn’t ask for any special favors, if that’s what you’re suggesting. I worked and fought just as everyone else did.”

“I’m sure you fought very hard, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t benefit from the desires of the old master either.”

“If I did it was indirectly. With all due respect, I know guild law as well as you, master, and I swore loyalty to it when I joined.”

“As do we all,” the man returned, his tone sharp, holding a slight warning edge. “But that stops no one from also looking after themselves.”

Crescent bristled under the not so subtle accusation. He again willed himself to breathe, and shifted back to a tactic he’d used many a time back in his old life

“I’m afraid I’m a bit lost, Master Abolan. May I ask what it is you’re getting at?”

He infused it with as much innocent curiosity as he could. Unlike the nobles and johns back at the brothel, the man across from him clearly wasn’t taken in by the act, but if he wanted to accuse more he was going to have to come right out and say it. He was gambling, but didn’t think the man wanted to go that far.

A tense few seconds passed in silence, each of them looking at each other. Crescent refused to look away, refused to cow or crack.

Finally, after what seemed like a small eternity, Seibel smiled.

“Nothing at all, young man; merely pointing out facts. It’s good to know you’re so dedicated to the laws. We don’t have enough selfless assassins like you.” Though, by his tone, Crescent didn’t get the feeling the other man much believed him.

“As you say, Master Abolan.”

The older man regarded him silently for a few moments more, though it was impossible to gauge his thoughts.

Finally the man smiled again, but it didn’t reassure him, instead making him clutch the covers a bit more tightly. He was sure he’d seen the feline smile like that, just before pouncing, only this time he was the prey. It was not a comfortable place to be, not when the man after him was so high ranking.

“Well, this has been a most illuminating discussion, but I’m sure you’re eager to get some rest. You’ve a long day ahead.” He shifted, moving to get up.

“Are you going to tell Master Lorcasf?”

Seibel stopped at the sudden question. The way his grey eye bored into him made him wish he hadn’t spoken. He couldn’t charm or sweet talk this one, and that made things all the harder.

“Now why would I do that, Crescent? I’ve no reason to tell him, do I?” The man arched a brow, but a chill went down Crescent’s spine. Another word hung in the air, unspoken but ready to drag him down.

Yet. He had no reason to tell him yet.

For the first time in a long while, true fear bloomed in his chest. He was sure everything would be over if Domerin found out the truth. The man would never forgive him for that and, worse, it would break him. No matter how strong he acted, or how much he tried to avoid it, Domerin was, in some ways, more fragile than he would admit.

Master Abolan hated Domerin, and he would not allow him, or anyone, to use their relationship to hurt him. It was only knowing the old man would mop the floor with him that kept him in place when all his instincts told him to attack.

“No, Master Abolan,” he said, trying to keep his voice level, “there’s nothing he need know.”

“Very good. I’ll try my best to see that he doesn’t find out. I look forward to the rest of your visit, Crescent. It should prove to be… enlightening.”

7 Deadly Sins – Gluttony

You feel it, don’t you?

The voice was impossible.

One moment it boomed like thunder, shaking the space around him and making his ears ring. He was sure his bones would be shattered to pieces if the sound lasted much longer.

The next moment the voice was a whisper, an intimate breath of wind against the nape of his neck that made him want to shiver. Each word slithered over his skin like disembodied fingers sliding up and down the length of his body.

And for a moment, somehow, it was both, though he could not fathom how that could possibly be.

Even in the silence that followed he could still feel the after-echoes, the words lingering in his mind like ghosts.

But even those were swallowed up by what followed, by a feeling even greater, and more terrible. He could not deny the question put to him. His stomach rumbled and ached, his traitor of a body calling out for food. In all his years he’d never been made to go hungry, had never known a day without the bounty of the farms and jungle at his fingertips. Never knew a night without the sweet taste of wine on his lips. But he also knew instinctively what hunger felt like now, as if his stomach would fold in on itself. The emptiness, the fatigue, the sheer force of need. It was as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks or, he realized, as the warm coils around him tightened, a millennia.

He was going to die if he didn’t eat something. Of this he was sure.

Only, he realized with growing horror, he couldn’t die.

He was immortal. No, the god inside of him was immortal, and he would live so long as that god made use of his body. He was sure it would leave him to suffer the gnawing hunger for all eternity. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t his mind; his stomach still felt the pain and the desire. The god hadn’t feasted in so long, and so neither had he. The sweet fruits and succulent meats he’d glutted himself on for his last meal seemed a lifetime ago, though it had been less than a day. The god’s hunger wasn’t just inside of him, it was him, and he was powerless to separate himself from it.

“I do,” he muttered.

It was too much, and he cried out. He felt invisible fingers sinking into his mind, peeling his thoughts back like banana leaves. They sifted though his memories, nibbling at the edges of his last meal, draining the color and taste from them. Before it went too dark, however, the feeling stopped, and he felt a wave of distaste wash over him.

It is as ash. Your food does not satisfy my hunger.

For a few moments the presence went still, letting the hunger grow and fill the void until it overwhelmed him, and he couldn’t help but wonder if this was some sort of punishment. It hurt, more than any wound could have, as if a pit had opened in the very core of his body.

He would eat anything at this point to make the pain go away, anything at all to stop the terrible hunger. He would gratefully gnaw a leather sandal strap, suck the skin from rotted fruit, gobble raw meat upon the ground.

The being inside of him shifted, practically purring at the last of his thoughts. A single phantom finger slid down his cheek, warm and dry, moving so smoothly he almost didn’t feel it.

Do not worry, my little vessel. I would not have us eat off the ground.

The words were like a gentle wind through dry grass, announcing the coming of a stalking jaguar. It sent a sickly shudder through him. It was a promise, he had no doubt.

What was more concerning though was that his body did not mirror that shiver. Up until now he’d been content enough to stay still but now he tried to move his arms and, while his mind registered that the motion should have occurred, nothing outside happened. It was the same with his legs, his fingers, even his eye lids. He started to panic, trying to reach out for something to grasp onto, but there was nothing, as if he were floating below the black surface of the nearby lake. He drew in several quick breaths, forcing his breathing to even out, even if his heart thrummed away in his chest.

Strangely enough, he could look out through his own eyes and observe the world around him. Even as he struggled in the nothing, he found himself looking into the large polished glass set into the wall of his room. His lips pulled back in a predatory smile, exposing his teeth. His brown eyes flashed, quick as a snake striking from the brush. His fingers ran deftly through his long raven hair, teased over his cheeks, and brushed across his lips. He looked pleased with himself, but he felt none of it, not his skin, or silky hair, nor the press of the fine cloth draped over his slender form.

He was trapped in his own body, tied, unable to do anything but watch and feel whatever the god wanted him to feel. Surely he would go mad like this, stuck amid the smothering heat and hunger.

The great serpent moved his legs. Down they went, through hallways, and stairwells, to the special ritual chamber that lay in the belly of the temple. He’d been there before, and longed to feel the smooth hewed stone, cool under his feet and the sense of mild dampness that seeped in below. The senses were there, vaguely, but he wondered if the god even felt such things. They were small feelings, perhaps inconsequential to one so grand. The god seemed to need powerful feelings and sensations to take notice of them. Always needing more and more.

The chamber they entered was small but empty, though as he approached he caught a whiff of the burnt charcoal and reed smell that usually clung to the high priest. The man had been here, recently no doubt, to prepare the room. As far as the man knew he was gone, and it was only the god that now walked the halls. No doubt he was eager to serve in all ways, pleased his ritual had been a success.

All the candles were in their proper places, bathing the room in flickering light, and flowers and cuttings from the surrounding jungle festooned nearly every surface. But their sweet scents were completely overpowered by another, far more sickly smell, that he didn’t have to stretch himself to catch.

In the center of the room, on a small altar, sat the great obsidian cauldron, its surface polished to a near perfect black glass, with sharp edges that could cut the careless. He knew what it was for, had seen it used so many times, but it seemed today it was all for him. It was filled, near to overflowing, with what the god had come here to find; recently harvested hearts. It only made sense that the god made flesh would need to feed, and there had been plenty of stock to pull from.

This. This is what we have hungered for, is it not?

They approached. Steam rose from the pile, and he could almost feel the warmth radiating from it without even touching it. The air smelt of iron, like the edge of a sword. The offering should have sickened him, turned his stomach. But, with a growing dread, all he felt was that ravishing hunger, washing away all other thoughts. It was exactly what he hungered for.

He flew forward, plunging his hands into the pile of meat and, for a moment, he couldn’t tell if he’d guided the move or if the god had. In that moment it didn’t matter; they were one step closer to what they wanted. He pushed deeper into the slickness, the heat inside feeling near enough to burn his hands, but he didn’t stop until his arms were sunk in to the elbows, and there they rested.

The smell of blood and offal assaulted him, but his stomach rumbled pleadingly, and he could feel his lips drawing upward in a pleased smile.

The god reveled in the heat, the sensation, the knowledge that all these hearts had been torn free for him. The serpent wanted and so he wanted.

His hands closed over a pair of hearts and drug them free from the rest. His arms were painted red that smeared over the pale linens he wore, but that was of little matter. He lifted one of the hearts and stuffed it into his mouth, biting out a huge chunk. Warm wetness filled his mouth, but he felt no disgust. He tore and bit, and pulled the flesh away, and swallowed in one great gulp. And for a moment that impossible hunger eased, and he held a glimmer of hope that this could, finally, sate him.

The feast began. He ate until his body was half covered in red. Ate until the heat began to cool. Ate until he felt as if he were going to burst from the inside. How his stomach could contain this much he would never know. But it soothed the horrible ache, and suffused him with a sense of strength and power that was not his own. He felt powerful, invincible, ready to strangle the world in his coils.

Through it all he was aware of being both apart from himself but still there, as if someone had lashed him to his own body, and drowning in the desires and being of another, near the threat of losing himself. He knew, deep down, this was how his life was going to be from now on. Watching every moment, but helpless to change it. He may as well have died. That, he thought, might have been a kindness.

Finally the god finished and rested for a time. He took some small comfort from the hearts filling his insides. But as the time passed he began to realize, with a great dismay, that the hunger began to creep back inside of him. He gave a cry and felt the god stir.

An amused chuckle sounded right against his ear.

The hunger never really dies. That is the fate of a god. A fate you now share. But there is power to be had. You will see.

Now that I possess flesh to walk in I will feed, and drink the life blood of this world. There are not enough beating hearts in this world, on any world, to sate my hunger. Not forever. But this world has mortals aplenty to appease it.

Again invisible fingers slid over him, dry and soft, and no matter what he did he could not escape them. He shuddered.

Oh my little vessel, this is just the beginning. I have so many wonderful things to show you. It will be truly glorious. 

Ruhk – Eye of the Beholder

Describe the same character twice. Once to hate, once to love.

“Well… he might just be Vahlok.”

The silence after Pantriss’ declaration fell into his stomach like a lead weight, and he felt a moment of pure fear like he hadn’t in so very many years.

The eyes of her mother, who had not minutes before been looking at him with interest, turned hard and cold. He could feel other eyes, around and behind him, do the same. It was all he could do not to flee the room right then and there. Already his eyes were quickly scanning the surrounding area, mind furiously working to come up with an escape plan. It wouldn’t be easy, unarmed, but he’d faced worse odds.

His muscles tensed, ready to move, but stopped when he caught motion out of the corner of his eye, as Ves came to stand at his side. In her wake the rest of the Immortals melded out of the crowd, coming to his defense despite the possible danger to themselves. Even Pantriss, though part of him couldn’t understand why, after what she’d done.

He didn’t even fully relax once the danger had passed, and everyone had gone back to what they’d been doing. The room didn’t feel welcoming anymore and adrenaline ran through him, dancing like tendrils of lighting through his veins.

This was exactly what he’d feared when he’d agreed to come to this party, if it hadn’t happened in the exact way he’d thought. He’d been sure someone would recognize him, know him for what he truly was, and hell would finally break loose. Everything would be different when his precious anonymity had been stripped away. But he hadn’t expected his own teammate to out him. Decades of hiding, of watching every step he took, gone in the span of a few breaths. Despite Aaran reassurances, it was impossible not to feel exposed, trapped.

He stalked away from Pantriss, needing to move, to calm himself. After a round of thanking his fellows he ended up at the bar, downing a pair of drinks without hardly breathing. Anger swelled despite himself, and it was all he could do to keep himself from rounding on Pantriss. It hadn’t been her place to expose him like that. He would have been more than happy to leave Vahlok dead and buried, forever.

But that was Pantriss, wasn’t it? Always speaking up even when what they needed most was stealth and subtlety,  hammering her way through problems like a battering ram. She had no sense of why it could be better to lie and avoid the fall out. Sometimes her sense of honor and stubborn devotion drove him half mad. How the two of them had ever gotten on this long, he didn’t know. They were practically day and night.

It was only his danger sense that kept him calm in those moments. If he lashed out it would only confirm everything Pantriss’ mother already thought about him. He’d just be happy when this night was over.

The way his friends had come to his defense had helped calm him somewhat, and he took comfort from their nearby presence. Now that he’d had a chance to think about it he wondered how long had it been since he’d been able to say he had friends. No one else would ever had stood up for him like that. But they were only doing what he would have done for any of them.

Part of him had expected Pantriss to be the outlier, to turn on him when her mother did. She was still young and he’d always been able to tell she tried her best to impress her mother, and live up to her legacy. That much he could understand. Dranfel society was all about glory and great deeds, songs sung, and epics penned. He’d never been much the fan of all that, happy enough to leave it behind. But not everyone had that option.

Despite her apparently boundless confidence, he didn’t think Pantriss fully realized the extent of the amazing things she’d done in her life. From the very first day she’d impressed him, even as parts of her had driven him a bit crazy. Even after everything she was still trying to distinguish herself, outside of the shadow of her mother. Why wouldn’t she have left him and joined the rest that would have been happy to toss him in jail for the rest of his days? Tying herself to him would only ruin her chances.

But Pantriss had been no less quick to defend him than any of the others. She might have exposed him, but it hadn’t been done with malice. And, even more importantly, she hadn’t left him alone afterward. She’d never been the sort to leave her friends behind, no matter the situation, or how dangerous it was for her. Much like himself, she would cross galaxies to save a friend in need.

He’d found his center by the time she found him, and sat down to talk.

He knew, deep down, that he wasn’t going to be able to run away from his past forever, as much as he might have wanted to. Perhaps she’d done him a favor in tearing the bandage off now.

“Meet me in the memorial gardens in an hour.”

Her words settled into his chest, and he felt a sort of warmth suffuse him that he knew had nothing to do with the alcohol.

Not a half hour earlier he probably would have said no. Now he just nodded.

Ruhk walked the quiet hallways, part of him wondering if he was making the right decision, going to meet Pantriss in the gardens.

He’d never quite known what to make of her. Despite his former position he’d never particularly been the shining pinnacle of the Dranfel race. He’d just gone along with things, driven forward by his own moral code, letting his skill and strength speak for themselves. They’d brought him renown, titles, his position. But he’d always felt it was just dressing and, outside of his council glaive he hadn’t taken anything reminiscent of his old life off Xarzha.

Whereas he’d always been something of a outlier, Pantriss, in many ways, exemplified everything Dranfel. From her style of battle, to her music, the way she told stories, to her unwillingness to budge. It had screamed of everything he’d left behind, and he’d done all he could to put distance between them, at first. He’d been so sure she would never have understood.

But then he’d gotten to know her. The way she never compromised on her morals reminded him of himself. Her propensity for truth had been eye-opening. It was almost refreshing to someone like him, who lived far too long in the shadow. He’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be himself. Her light burned away the darkness, and eroded all the barriers he’d put up around himself.

Wasn’t she always the first to admit when she might not be able to do something? The first to throw herself into danger? The first to stand up for those would could not? Pantriss had her faults, but didn’t everyone? He hardly lacked his own.

He paused at the gates to the garden, a wall of tall hedges keeping him from seeing inside. He didn’t need to, though, to know that Pantriss would already be there, waiting for him.

What was she thinking right now? What would she say? There was only one way to find out.

Even so, he hesitated. There was still time to turn around and run. Everyone was still busy at the party. He could grab his glaive, a few other things, and be gone from here forever. He’d disappear again, just like last time. A new name, a new profession, a new life. He didn’t know what was going to happen from here on out. He didn’t who might be, even now, coming for his head.

Did he have the right to put Pantriss in that sort of danger?

But he already knew the answer. She was an adult, and a strong one. It wasn’t his place to make that decision for her, nor did he want to. If, one day, she decided he wasn’t worth it, that was something he’d deal with when the time came.

Yes, he could have run, but he didn’t want to anymore. He’d never thought this rag tag group would be where he’d find himself, where he’d find family, and more. He’d be damned if he denied what he felt when Pantriss’ face filled his mind.

He was a seasoned warrior who had slain Qu’ren. He’d fought by the side of Falkrid himself, was a veteran of so many battles. He’d left his entire life behind, carrying the weight and memory of a planet full of dead. Why, then, was he more afraid of walking through that hedge than he was of just about anything he’d ever done?

He drew in a few breaths, and and thought of Pantriss’ courage. Her spark, her light, called to his own and he felt his resolve firm. Squaring his shoulders, he stepped forward into the garden, to meet whatever future awaited.

If he was lucky, it would be side by side with the dranfel he loved.

7 Deadly Sins – Lust

Kevin moaned, as a pair of large, calloused hands moved over his body, fingers sliding through his fur. They touched with a skill borne of familiarity, and he responded in kind, running his sharp claws with care over taut, tanned skin. They left soft red lines in their wake, but that only drew out a pleased sound from his partner. The man above him hovered close, pinning him deliciously to the bed with his bulk. His skin radiated heat like a furnace, and he welcomed it, wanting it to consume him even as the heat in his blood did the same from the inside.

There were few who could truly match him here. His desire was voracious, and he made sure to give just as much as he took. Most fizzled out too soon, but Martin Amman was not one of them.

Kevin knew what he was. His species were impulsive at the worst times, landing them into all sorts of trouble they needed to get themselves out of. Luckily, most of the time, they had the wits to do so. But on a new world, interacting with other species, that didn’t always work. You couldn’t use your quick wits to mend a fractured relationship or make up for hurting someone you loved.

No, he was quickly learning that sort of thing took exactly the opposite. Introspection wasn’t something he was known for but he’d done perhaps more of it in the past few months than he ever had in the rest of his life. Little had he known that impulsiveness could take many forms.

He hadn’t been with anyone since Domerin had broken up with him and he’d foolishly decided that he should try to be more like Sesha. Though he’d been sincere in devoting himself to Domerin, his mind had been screaming with need after little more than a week. He didn’t honestly know how other people did it. Desire was something in his blood he could not deny; a base lust that coursed through the very DNA of his species.

His people were wanderers, but he’d found someone he wanted to come home to, someone he would have been willing to fight his lust for. He considered himself lucky Domerin didn’t ask that of him, giving him the freedom to seek out other lovers to sate himself. He hadn’t even needed to think before choosing Martin as the first to return to. The other man had been thrilled when he’d approached him about resuming their association, but first he’d forced him to sit down, so they could get some things straight before he’d even consider sleeping with him again. He’d been more relieved than he’d realized when Martin had agreed to his new terms. At least he knew the other man wasn’t going to bother Domerin any longer.

And so he’d finally let free the lighting that coursed through his veins, reveling as Martin took him to the edges of madness and over, into the abyss. He’d held this in so long he’d been sure the fire would boil his blood away.

As the heat cooled they both came to rest, and Martin gathered him up in his arms with a gentleness that would have surprised anyone who knew his strength. He laid his head against the man’s chest, the familiar double heartbeat thrumming in his ears.

For the moment he felt content here, warm, and sated. Even Martin was quiet for what was probably a record time for him. Eventually he shifted, and chuckled softly.

“You haven’t moved in about twenty minutes. I’ll bet even Domerin can’t wear you out like that.”

Kevin growled and pulled back sharply, forcing Martin’s arm to loosen enough so he could lift himself up. He shot the other man a hard look.

“I warned you about letting go of this thing with Domerin. Don’t make me regret my decision.”

Martin’s blue eyes widened, and for a moment he might have been a deer in the headlights.

“I was just kidding,  I promise!” The man tried to lightly stroke his arm, but he remained tense.

Martin’s brows furrowed and he moved to sit up, forcing Kevin to shift as well. He tucked his legs under him, and his look morphed to concern.

“Look, I’m sorry. It was a bad joke. I really have no interest in competing with Domerin anymore, okay? I saw what he did for all of us. I sent him my thoughts as hard as anyone else. He deserved it, and as far as I’m concerned, well… he’s a good guy. Peace?”

Kevin gave him a somewhat skeptical look, but finally nodded. Martin wasn’t the sort for subterfuge,  truthful to a fault, if poor in taste. The man might give him what he craved, but he had made it clear he’d cut him off in a second if he showed a hint of that former rivalry.

“Still mad at me?” Martin gently brushed his fingers down his arm in a conciliatory gesture.

Kevin shivered, body still sensitive from earlier, but he only shook his head.

Martin frowned and reached out. It was only moments before the man’s arms slid around his furred form and were drawing him into his lap. He fit perfectly, given their size difference, and Martin held him close against his muscled chest.

The man’s unique scent, mixed with that of their recent joining, filled his nose. He felt the spark of heat inside him already, needy and demanding, and he drew in a soft breath. It was so tempting just to give in, to not think anymore. It would have been easy. It always had been.

Martin knew him well enough to read that sound, and the way he pressed back against him, but instead of sliding his hands through his fur, he just gave him a gentle squeeze.

“What’s wrong, Kevin? Surely the sex wasn’t that bad.”

The question startled him out of his reverie, and he half turned to see Martin’s lips quirked up in a teasing grin. He couldn’t help but laugh softly, though before he could reply, the man went on, his voice far gentler.

“You don’t seem like yourself today.”

That surprised him. When had Martin become so observant?

“Sorry,” he admitted, an apologetic smile touching his lips, “there’s just a lot on my mind right now, and it’s been awhile since I- well, since I did something like this. Fed the fire this way. I kept thinking I could stay away from it, the need I mean, but I realized that’s just not possible.”

“Was that what you were doing? Why would you ever want to do that?” Martin asked, a single brow raised.

“I guess I thought it would be a distraction from… building a relationship. Most people in committed relationships don’t exactly sleep around. At least, not to the degree I do. But I can’t deny something that’s so integral a part of me. I think I would have lost myself eventually if I’d kept trying.” As much as he’d been the one to champion an open relationship at the beginning, these thoughts had plagued him, at least until Domerin had assured him that he was fine with his wandering.

“That’s still no reason to deny yourself. You think it’s a sin or something?”

“Oh come on, you know me better than that.” He said, gently bumping Martin’s stomach with his arm. “I just- things are different now. I want something more, and I was willing to give my up wandering to have it.”

Martin made a thoughtful sound that rumbled deep in his chest, and then he gave a little shrug.

“Seems to me any relationship that’s worth it wouldn’t expect you to deny a part of yourself like that. If it does it’s probably not good for you. It’s just pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as you’re not hurting anybody.”

Kevin stared at the other man for a few long moments, amused. Leave it to Martin to reduce months of anxiety down into a few sentences. He might have come off as simple to a lot of people, but he was anything but stupid.

“He didn’t ask you to do that, did he? Domerin, I mean.”

“No,” Kevin said, giving a little smile, thinking Domerin wouldn’t have minded him sharing this one little detail. He’d been fine with the wandering, it was the other things that needed changing, so he could treat the man right.

“Good. I don’t see what the problem is then. Build your relationship with him, and I’ll be here the rest of the time. At least you know you’ll never go wanting.”

Martin’s hands began to move once more, sliding suggestively up and down his furred stomach. This time Kevin didn’t resist when he felt the familiar embers of desire start to glow.

“I think Domerin would be surprised to hear you say that,” he said, drawing in a pleased breath.

Martin’s chest shook softly against his back as he gave a little laugh. “I won’t tell him if you won’t. But for the moment, my dear, I believe we have a desire to feed.” The man’s large hand gently cupped his cheek, turning his head to the side and slightly up, so he could catch his lips in a passionate kiss.

Kevin didn’t say more, letting it carry him away once more.

Read what my writing partner, Megan Cutler, did with this prompt. Read The Sweetness of Eden: A Tale of Lust, over on her site.

 

Seibel – Wrong Thing, Right Reasons

Same character/same world/different time – I did the right thing

The sun shone down cheerily on the shore, its light glinting off the top of the waves as they rolled ever up onto the sand. The air was warm, but not so much so as to be uncomfortable.

Seibel walked just at the edge of the water, taking some pleasure in the way the ground sunk slightly under his feet with each step.

Just up the beach, in the shade of a palm tree, Naia sat on a blanket. Next to her, little Cael slept in a wicker basket, suspended from the sturdy trunk of the palm by thick rope. The breeze gently rocked the basket back and forth, lulling the child to sleep.

It was about as perfect a day as they could get. It had been a long time since he’d walked by the sea; and this shore in particular. Though he loved the ocean it was a place he had a rather complicated relationship with.

So did Naia, though she might not have remembered it. Twenty years was a long time to a human. Still, he’d debated long with himself before setting their course to this place.

The last time they’d been here she’d slept under a makeshift tent of palm fronds, lulled to sleep by one of her favorite stories, and the steady thrum of the waves. It had been a beautiful night.

The next morning had been less so. Her questions had started almost immediately after breakfast about when they were going back home. He’d been able to distract her, for awhile, but inevitably the tears had come and he’d been sure they would never dry.

Eventually, her desire for home had lost its grip. She had exciting new places to explore, new faces to meet, foods to taste, and the start of her magical training to occupy her. It had all steadily replaced the small island in her mind.

He’d been wondering, for perhaps longer than he’d allowed himself to admit, if she didn’t deserve to learn where she’d come from.

Her footsteps were soft on the sand as she came to join him at the edge of the water. She was smiling, and he couldn’t help but smile in return.

“I feel like you’ve been holding out on me,” she said, fixing him with a look for a few moments, “waiting so long to bring me to the ocean. I love it here. We’re going to have to visit far more often. It’s beautiful!”

“It is very beautiful,” he said, looking out at the waves, though his smile faded somewhat. In a way, he had been holding out on her, but if she loved it so much he wasn’t going to deny her any longer.

Silence settled over them for a few long moments, but next to him she shifted a bit from foot to foot, suggesting there was more on her mind.

“It’s more than just that. I feel a sort of… pull to the ocean I haven’t anywhere else we’ve traveled. Like there’s something on the edge of my mind.”

She sounded thoughtful, as if she were somewhat hesitant to speak of it. When he didn’t immediately reply she looked down.

“It’s nothing. You’ll just think I’m being silly.”

He shouldn’t have been surprised. He was sure he knew what that pull was, though he’d hoped she wouldn’t feel it. Part of him was tempted to dismiss it as nothing, but didn’t give in to the impulse.

“It’s clearly something, if it’s coming into your mind like that.”

“I don’t know.” She sighed and looked over at him. “It feels a bit like deja-vu.”

Her green-eyed gaze was seeking. He’d never been able to say no to her when she looked at him that way.

This was the moment, to face the choice he’d made. Even now, doubts plagued him, but she was a smart woman, and he felt sure she would understand.

“Well-” He started, and thought better of it.

Before he could change the topic, though, she’d fixed him with a look that he knew he wouldn’t be able to get away, prompting him to continue. She gave him similar looks during lessons when she wasn’t satisfied with his answers.

“Well, that’s because you have been here before.”

“I have?” Her brows knit together, and her lips pursed, the same face she’d always made when she was trying to work out a problem.

He gave an encouraging nod, and she closed her eyes, focusing.

“Wait… I have been here, haven’t I?” Her eyes opened in surprise, and she started looking around her, really taking in the beach separate from the initial excitement she’d felt. She knelt down and slid her fingers into the dry sand, letting the grains run between them. “I remember… sleeping in the sand, on a blanket. It’s all sort of hazy though.”

“You couldn’t have been more than six at the time, and you’d had a very long day. I’m honestly surprised you stayed up for your story.”

“If we’ve been here before why haven’t we ever been back?” She sounded a bit distant, as if she were chasing the answer for herself. She stood suddenly and strode the few steps to the waterline, the waves running over her feet and ankles.

She stared out at the ocean for a long time. When she spoke he could barely hear her over the waves.

“I used to have dreams, where I was walking on water. I never understood them, but, I remember… We walked on the water. In the middle of the ocean. I- I remember there wasn’t any land in sight, and it was scary and it took so long. I thought the sun was being swallowed by the sea, and you picked me up and carried me. That all really happened.”

“It did. We walked nearly all day.”

She turned back to him and her voice held a hint of desperation. “Why were we walking on the ocean?”

“We were running.”

“Running?” Her brows knit. “What could you possibly need to run from?”

“Slavery.”

“Slavery? I don’t-”

“We were trapped on a slave trading island, cut off from conventional magic. It looked like a paradise, on the outside, but it was run on the backs of slaves. I would never want to return there. I was one of the lucky ones, taken to be a caretaker and a teacher. Most were not as lucky. I was able to send out tendrils to Lord Kalindas, through prayer, and over time I managed to stockpile just enough power to escape.”

She was staring at him, as if she couldn’t believe it, but after a moment she closed the distance between them, reaching her hand out to brush her fingers across his neck.

“I remember you used to always wear an iron necklace.” At the realization of the truth, she gasped and drew her hand back, looking horrified.

“I was a slave when we first met.”

“And me? How did you find me? Was I a slave too?” She absently ran her fingers over her own neck as well, as if she could find some evidence worked into her very skin.

Here he hesitated, perhaps for the final time. She’d never seemed all that interested in asking about her past, despite knowing that he wasn’t her father. He could have lied to her, she would never have been the wiser, but he didn’t feel like that was fair.

“No, you were never a slave. You might not remember but you were the daughter of the people who owned me. You were my charge.” He kept his tone even, almost the same as he did when teaching his lessons.

Her expression shifted from horror to confusion.

“I was? Did- did they die? Did they give me to you?”

“No. They were at least alive on that last day. When I gained enough power to escape I made a choice. I used our outing as an excuse to get away, and I planned on sending you back home while I did so. But, by that time I cared very much for you. You were always a wonderful child, and I knew you’d make an amazing adult. But the thought of you growing up and becoming someone who bought and sold human life was too much for me to bear. So, you must understand Naia, that when the moment came to choose, I took you with me.”

She said nothing following his admission, staring at him as if she were frozen in place. The waves, the wind, and the distant gulls crying suddenly sounded far too loud in his ears. He reached out to lay a hand on her arm.

“Naia-”

She came to life all at once, pulling back from him. Her arms shot out in either direction, and her face contorted in rage.

“You did what!? You took me away from my parents, my life, and you never told me!? How could you?”

The force of her reaction nearly rocked him back on his heels. He’d expected shock, surely, but this sort of reaction wasn’t like her.

“Naia, listen to me, you’re being illogical. I did the right thing.”

“The right thing? How do you even begin to justify that, Seibel?”

“Easily. Who knows who you’d be if I’d left you there? Could you imagine yourself being comfortable with owning someone?”

For a moment his words seemed to strike her and she went silent. He knew how she felt about the idea of slavery; he’d always made a point to speak out against it, and she found it as abhorrent a practice as it was. Surely she would understand if she thought about it.

But the stillness didn’t take and the anger returned, if anything, growing in intensity.

She pointed a finger right in his face,  trying to loom, even if she was shorter than he was. He could almost see her anger roiling off of her.

“How was it any right of yours to make a decision like that!? It’s my life! My choice! And by the gods, Seibel, did you ever think of my parents? What would you have done if someone had just taken off with Cael? My world would collapse. I don’t believe for a minute that they didn’t love me, and try to do right by me.”

She drew in several breaths, in a way he’d taught her to help her calm down, but it didn’t seem to be helping. She shook her head but her gaze was no less intense.

“I’m sorry that you were a slave, but you had no right to take me away! None! Do you hear me?”

He’d never expected her to react this way, and it twisted his stomach. She’d never been this angry at him before, and he couldn’t help but think back to those same questions he’d asked the silent sky all those years ago.

“Naia, please-”

“No! I don’t want to hear any more of your bullshit justifications. You think you did right? That you were saving me? What you did was selfish and nothing more. You bastard!”

Her voice was like a whip in the wind, and up the beach Cael gave a cry, unhappy to be so rudely woken from his slumber.

They both looked automatically but by the time Seibel had looked back the tears had started falling again, Naia’s green eyes swimming in the light. But her anger was still there too.

He tried to reach out to her, but she narrowed her eyes at him, pulling away and stalking up the beach. He moved to follow but she rounded on him, her face and voice gone cold.

“Don’t you dare follow me. I don’t want to see your face right now.”

Her words stopped him in his tracks and she continued on, stopping only long enough to gather Cael up in her arms before she stalked away in the direction of their cabin.

Seibel stood alone on the shore, wind pulling at his hair and clothes, like so many invisible fingers. He felt lost, as if a hole he’d filled long ago had suddenly burst open, and he’d found the wrong person in the grave. He’d been telling himself he’d done right for twenty years, but with her gone it felt horrible wrong.

Without thinking he turned and looked up at the sky, but the sun and clouds offered no more answer than the stars.

Read what my writing partner did with this prompt. The Blessings of Marriage, by Megan Cutler

7 Deadly Sins – Sloth

Kestrel slid through the familiar, dark hallways, moving particularly stealthy for a man his size. It helped that he knew the turns and doors; none of it had changed since the days he’d walked them, back in another life. When his captain had brought this most recent plan to him he’d been surprised. Silkfoot had been delighted that the very building he wanted to rob was one where his first mate had once worked. That provided insider information on the layout that would be much harder to gain otherwise.

He passed down a long corridor, shining his light in through an office window. He knew it instantly.

“You come highly recommended Mr. Valladon, but I can’t help but notice you haven’t stayed in your past few jobs for long.”

The man across from him was fussy, in a suit that was a bit too tight for him.

“Yes. The truth was they were very nice places to work, but they didn’t challenge me. I’m the sort of man who enjoys the challenge of a job, and in solving the problems that come with it. I can guarantee you that I will give my very best, no matter how hard the work might be. I will not leave you disappointed.”

The man considered that but after a few moments he nodded, seeming pleased enough by his answer.

Thomas was careful not to let his thoughts show. That was always the most bothersome question of the interview process. He’d used the exact same line at least three or four times now, and knew he wouldn’t be able to get away with it for much longer. Resumes were useful, up until the point when they weren’t.

“Well, we certainly have more than enough challenge around here. It’s a big building with lots of needs. As you know we store many priceless pieces, and our clients expect top notch security. That’s why we only hire the best. With your qualifications and some drive I could see you making supervisor. Wouldn’t that be wonderful, Mr Valladon?  Think of all the opportunity.”

“It’s certainly a lot to keep in mind.”

“Wonderful, I look forward to working with you.”

“Likewise,” he offered out his hand to shake, along with a smile, even while knowing that he’d be gone from this job well before he had a chance to advance. Unless it had something different about it, something that really challenged him, his boredom with it all would eat away at him until he left to find another empty job to fill his time.

-ow’s the work coming, Kestrel?” The voice in his mind faded, morphing to a different one whispering in his ear.

His captain’s voice was familiar, and reassuring, and he let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. The office where he’d had his interview faded into darkness, and he chided himself for getting distracted.

This job and this building, had never meant anything to him, but he’d never been back to one of his former places of work. He’d never had reason to, since he’d never bothered to make any connections. Moving through these hallways was like walking through the grey fog of his former life all over again. He’d labored for years in jobs where he’d only ever done enough to garner good references, but not enough to excel.

Why bother, when none of it had meant anything? What was the point of a life that lacked all challenge?

“Kestrel?”

“Sorry, Captain. It’s going well. I should reach the rendezvous in less than ten minutes.”

He shook the cobwebs from his mind and hurried on.

Most anyone with a mind at cracking this building would have tried to take a route that would have had them in the building for far too long, climbing through ducts, hiding under desks, anything to avoid running into security.

That was the problem with this building, unless you were somehow blessed by fate, or possibly suicidal, there was no way to take out every patrolling guard without alerting someone. The only option was to move as stealthily as possible. That had certainly piqued Silkfoot’s interest, and even he felt the familiar electricity running through his veins as he moved toward his target, just narrowly missing being seen.

This was living. Siding from shadow to shadow, living in the moments between the sweep of camera and guard. The way your heart beat in anticipation, knowing every moment an alarm could shatter the air. Whether it was this, or feeling the wind on his face, and the sea spray, he’d never felt alive until Silkfoot Lightvolt had found him.

He passed through the cafeteria. There was an employee evacuation stairwell though there that not even the clients were made aware of. The custodial staff could have made a killing selling the secrets to this place to the highest bidder.

He pressed himself up against the underside of a cash station as a flashlight swung by over his head. He counted the moments as each footstep echoed on the tile floor.

Three… Four… Five…

“Oh come on Thomas, there’ll only be five of us! I’ll even cover you. Not even you could say no to free beer.”

Lana had been leaning down across the table where he’d been eating his lunch, her shirt quite noticeably not quite fully buttoned up. He couldn’t deny that the view was nice, but he wasn’t swayed by displays like that.

“I’m afraid I’m busy that night. You should go out and enjoy yourself.”

“You’re always busy. Five months on the job and he never goes out. I’m starting to think you cease to exist when you go off the clock.”

Thomas took another bite, ignoring the annoyed noise she made before she straighted up. Her friend laid a hand on her arm, drawing her away.

“Just leave it Lana, he never goes out. Let him stew. We don’t need him to have fun.”

“He probably doesn’t even know how to.” The two women tittered as they made their way out.

Thomas hadn’t bothered to tell them that he’d already given his two weeks notice. It wasn’t really their business anyway.

He made his way up the hidden stairwell, Spencer’s words echoing in his mind with each step he took.

“I hate to see you go, but of course I’ll provide a reference, Thomas.” 

He paused on a landing, checking his watch to orient himself before continuing on.

“Just, a bit of advice. Take it as you will. I’ve met men like you before. You’re never going to find the perfect job. Someday you’re going to have to settle for something. If you keep on this way no one is going to be willing to hire you. Just remember that, in case you want to come back. We’d gladly take you again.”

Kestrel pressed his ear to the door leading out of the stairwell, imagining Spencer’s face in his mind. The man had looked so crestfallen, and he hadn’t understood why he cared so much about a place like this. He’d thanked him for his advice. They were probably good words to live by, though he had no intention of doing so. He’d asked Spencer not to tell anyone else, and went back to work

Guarding buildings had worn thin after that. That was when he’d gone into event security, and changed his fate.

Kestrel had arrived in the remote security room. By his estimation he had another seven minutes and thirteen seconds before the guard returned and he would have to vacate. This part had to be done perfectly, and he whispered into his earpiece, guiding Silkfoot along through the last of the barriers.

The man was almost there when the quiet hum from the monitors was broken by a metallic click. He turned, wide eyed, to see the door-handle starting to turn. Without even thinking he dove for the wall, out of sight of whoever was coming through the door. Unfortunately he’d left his watch on the dashboard.

A short, round man walked in, seeming oblivious to his hidden company. He must have noticed the watch across the room, as he headed right for it, though halfway there he tensed and started to turn.

Kestrel silently cursed. He hadn’t wanted to engage anyone, but if the man tripped the alarm now they’d be hard pressed to get out of here. He shot out of his hiding place just as the man was turning, his hand closing around the short man’s neck to cut off any sound he might make. His momentum carried them across the small space and up against the wall.

He squeezed, even as the face looked up at him with wide eyes. The moment he met those eyes he froze, his grip loosening just a hair.

“Thomas?” The short man managed to squeak out around his grip, hands clinging to his arm.

“Kestrel?” Silkfoot’s voice echoed in his ear, moments after.

He grunted, to let the man know he was still there, but that he couldn’t talk at the moment..

“Thomas Valladon it is you. I never forget a face.” Spencer Beltain had hardly changed, aside from a bit of balding at his temples.

It was likely only years of work in this field that kept Spencer from panicking, though he’d never had the strength that Kestrel did. The more you could learn, the more you had for the police later. The man was already taking in his black-clad form, and he’d been in the business long enough he’d have no doubt what they meant.

Kestrel chose not to answer, even as Silkfoot’s voice sounded in his ear again, more terse this time.

“Kestrel where are you? What happened?”

“Sit tight.” He murmured, not quietly enough.

Spencer’s eyes narrowed.

“Is this what you decided to do with yourself, Thomas?” The man nearly growled at him, and his sharp tone caught him off guard. “You were so talented, and now this?”

Kestrel stared at him, his eyes dark. Had he been any other thief he likely would have smashed the man’s head against the wall and been done with it. That wasn’t really his style.

“Talent? In that nothing job, and nothing life? I have nothing against you, but none of it meant anything to me.” He looked back and saw so much waste, whole years he could have cut out of his life without a loss.

He fixed Spencer with a look, as if daring him to contradict him.

Instead the smaller man just laughed, not particularly cruelly or mocking. In fact, he seemed more amused than anything.

“You know, that’s the most impassioned I’ve ever seen you.” His laughter slowly subsided, and his look became stony.

“Shame you only came alive as a thief. So, what are you going to do to me? Slit my throat?”

“If I had wanted to kill you, you’d already be dead.”

“Then do whatever you’re going to and be done with it. At least I know who to report to the police.”

It was almost a dare, trying to see if he was a murderer. He wouldn’t take that bait.

“Sorry Spencer.”

He pressed the man further back against the wall, and depressed the syringe he’d slipped out of a pouch. This stuff was expensive, but he always insisted on carrying at least one, just in case. He didn’t like needless deaths.

Spencer began to slump, but the fought as the drug drew him under. Once more his eyes narrowed accusingly.

“I don’t think you are.”

The other man slumped to the floor, his breathing slow and even.

Kestrel watched him impassively for a few moments. He hadn’t been wrong: he wasn’t sorry. One last lie. One last nail in the coffin of his old life.

That done he turned back to the panel.

“Sorry about that Captain.”

“Everything all right?”

“Just a small issue. I took care of it. Let’s reset and get this done.”

On the other end Silkfoot gave an affirmative, not delving into the rest now. There would be time after the work was finished. Once Silkfoot had what they’d come for, he slipped away, without looking back.

“Kestrel?”

Someone was touching his arm.

He blinked and shifted, having to look down to see Silkfoot standing there, looking up at him with one eyebrow arched. Instantly his heart filled with warmth, and his world with color. Blue sky stretched away in front of him, and blue-green ocean rolled along far below.

“Apologies, Captain, I didn’t see you there.”

“I thought you’d been turned to stone there for a few minutes, my friend.” Silkfoot patted his arm, a playful grin curling his lips.

“Well, I wouldn’t be much use to you then, except maybe as an anchor.”

Silkfoot laughed, and he relaxed, though the other man didn’t go anywhere. Instead he moved to lean his arms against the railing, the gentle breeze playing through his hair.

“You’ve been spacier than usual since the last job.”

“My apologies, Captain. I will redouble my efforts.”

“Oh, don’t give me any of that, Kestrel. I heard what happened. You didn’t silence your radio.” The man lightly poked him in the arm to punctuate his point.

For a moment Kestrel froze, trapped in the other man’s emerald gaze.

“Captain, I’m sorry. I willfully put the job in jeopardy. I would understand if you-”

“Kestrel, I understand.” Silkfoot looked over at him, and the man’s smile was far gentler than he was used to seeing. “Do I look mad?”

“No,” he returned, feeling for all intents like a schoolboy being disciplined. “But I could have botched the job. Gotten us captured.”

Silkfoot shrugged. “Yeah, you could have, but you didn’t. If I hadn’t trusted you to handle the situation I would have aborted. Sometimes the wind shifts unexpectedly, and we have to deal with it. The past can be a dangerous thing, but you’re here now. That isn’t going to change.”

“I walked through a fog to be here. I might as well not have a past, for all any of those years mattered.”

“Careful my friend,” Silkfoot said, flashing him a grin, “some of the more uptight priests would say you’re a sloth, not appreciating the life you had.”

Kestrel had never considered that. He’d never cared to.

“Do you think I’m a sloth, captain?”

“Me? No. People like you and I wither when we’re tied down. We chase the sun, the wind, and glory. Why bother with a life where there’s no fun or challenge?”

Kestrel smiled. Silkfoot understood. He’d always understood, and that was part of why he’d follow the other man to the ends of the earth. He couldn’t go back to the shadow and the fog. Not anymore.

“If it helps, Captain, I appreciate where we are, and being here with you.”

Silkfoot’s lips curled into a broad grin. “As it should be, Kestrel. Just be careful, I might think you’re trying to flatter me.”

The man broke out into a laugh, and Kestrel joined him, feeling the last of the tension ease away.

“Never. And that I can promise you.”


Check out what my writing partner did with this prompt: Minimum Safety Threshold; A Tale of Sloth.

7 Deadly Sins – Envy

“Welcome, sir. Please come in, the Mistress is expecting you.”

The butler held the heavy wooden door open as the lone guest stepped inside the richly decorated entrance hall. Though he was dressed well he seemed almost out of place in his modernly cut coat and plain tailored shirt and slacks. His long black hair was tied in a simple tail and when he gracefully shrugged off his coat the cuffs of his sleeves pulled back for a moment, exposing the pointed tips and gentle whorls of black ink tattoos that graced his wrists.

He handed his coat over without remark, and to his credit the butler drew no attention to it.

“Thank you. Has your employer any particular rules she would like followed while I’m here?”

For a moment the butler looked open surprised. Given the nature of the guest, he clearly hadn’t expected such a humble question.

“No, sir. I think only that she will be happy to see you.”

“That is good. I’m happy to be of service.” He smiled, warm and pleasant.

The butler swept his hand forward and bade him follow. There was hardly the sound of a footstep as the tall, thin man followed through the opulent hallways.

The butler’s back was straight, his gaze ahead. He had to hand it to the man. Most people were uncomfortable in the presence of an assassin, and it was hardly usual to invite one into your home. The nobility had always had a strange fascination with the assassins guild and their work, despite also regularly being their targets.

But he wasn’t here today to fulfill the request of someone who had been wronged. In fact, as far as the guild’s research could tell, the woman he would be meeting had led a pretty clean life, all said.

No, he was here for another reason; one that marked him different from most of his fellows.

Their way led upstairs, and into a plush study. A grand oak desk stood in the center, along with fine leather couches, and walls filled with books. The scent of herbs filled the air, overwhelming a stubborn hint of tobacco smoke. He recognized them immediately as medicinal, no doubt meant to be a breathing aid. The dark curtains had been drawn back, bathing the room in sunlight, and a gentle breeze blew in through a set of double doors that opened onto a balcony overlooking a blooming garden.

Amber eyes swept the room, scanning instinctively for traps or danger, before coming to rest on the rooms only other occupant.

She was seated in an expensive wheelchair, thin arms resting on a blanket laid over her lap. From this angle all he could see was a thin halo of white hair atop her head, held up by a neck skinnier than someone her height should have been.

That wasn’t surprising, though, given why she’d called him here.

“Mistress, Master Sesha Liatos has arrived.”

Frail, thick-veined hands took hold of the wheels, and the chair turned slowly. It paused several times mid-turn, the shoulders of the woman rising and falling with the effort. Beside him the butler winced, his muscles straining with the effort of staying put; likely a prior order from his employer, though it was clearly not a popular one.

When she’d finished turning the woman’s face was pale from the effort, and she drew in several shallow breaths. Despite that, she seemed to still be fighting to sit up straight, and her eyes remained sharp on her guest.

Sesha always liked to think of it as the stubbornness of nobility, a desire to never appear weak, but it was quite clear to him that she was dying. He had the eyes of both an assassin and a doctor, but he needed neither to see that.

“Thank you, Arin.” The woman’s voice was thick, as if something was stuck in her throat. “Would you like anything to eat or drink, Master Liatos?”

“No thank you, Madame Villara.”

She didn’t press him, instead beckoning him further inside with a quaking hand before dismissing the butler.

He crossed the room and took a seat on one of the leather chairs near her own, running his fingers lightly over the supple fabric. It was real, as was everything else in this place; he knew old wealth when he saw it. Many would have killed to live in a house like this, to posses the wealth of its owner. He was sure many jealously stared at the building as they went past, even while imagining their own name on the postbox.

Sesha felt no such envy.

Though he was surrounded by another sort of opulence every day in his home at the guild hall, those finer things had never drawn his attention. Material goods were transitory, as was power, as much both civilian and assassin alike wanted to deny it. Unlike most of his fellows he was rather content with where he was. Having been chosen so young to be the Guild Master’s personal physician might have had something to do with that, but his position within the Ravens brought him into contact with another sort of death that most assassins rarely saw.

Up close Leise Villara’s cheeks and eyes looked even more sunken, and deep wrinkles creased the corners of each. Her was skin dry like parchment paper, drawn taut over her bones, and her veins were clearly visible through the thin skin. Still, he couldn’t help but note the tinge of red on her lips and a brush of blue around her eyes, the touches of makeup subtle but fitting. Embroidered birds danced delicately on her dress, flying with a freedom she could not hope to gain. Still seeking elegance, even at death’s door.

“Thank you for coming to see me.”

“The guild found your case worthy of our services.” He replied, bowing his head.

“So… how do we do this?”

Straight to the point. That wasn’t unusual in cases like this. Most of his clients weren’t afraid of him, and a good portion welcomed him.

“It is very simple, Madame Villara. Your application has been accepted, however in cases like these it is customary for us to visit and speak with the person in question before final approval. We need to be absolutely sure this is the path you want to take.”

She chuckled, voice wheezing a bit. “You would think people wouldn’t just ask you to do this while playing around. Are there often problems?”

“Occasionally. Jealous or ambitious family members sometimes try to push through applications for the infirm, claiming it is their wish. Others apply, and are approved, but change their minds at the last moment. We take every step of this very seriously.”

“As you should. I admit, I assumed you’d show up in my bedroom one night to do the deed after my application was approved. You’re far more businesslike than I imagined. What if I change my mind?”

“These are the only applications where the guild allows retractions after a contract has been approved. In such an event we will keep your information on file and allow for reapplication. Our goal is to make things as easy and peaceful as possible.”

For the first time the woman’s expression soured.

“Peace? You do it out of pity, you mean. You must know we’ll come crawling right back when it gets to be too much. When you have to call an assassin to end your life what else is there but pity?”

“We do not pity those in your situation, Madame.”

“My situation,” she said, giving a hoarse chuckle, and fixing him with a withering look. “I’m dying, young man. You don’t have to sugar coat it for me.”

“Then I will not. You are dying, but I am here to do all that I can to help you, with dignity.”

“Then help me. Don’t you understand? Everything hurts. I can’t sleep anymore, can barely tolerate anything more than damned soup and bread. I can’t even get up. I’m stuck here either choking on those herbs or my own lungs. You must know who I am, the things I’ve done. To end up… here…” Her words shifted into wheezes and she laid her head back against the chair to try and get her breath. It took time, but when she was finally calm enough again she turned her head back to him, though for the moment it was as if the fight had gone out of her.

“There’s no dignity in death. There’s no choice. Just the pain, and the darkness.”

“That is where you are wrong, Madame. Death is welcoming. It is a warm embrace after a weary life. And, despite what you might think, you do have a choice.”

“Choice?” She laughed, voice ugly and guttural. “That’s easy for you to say. You assassins deal life and death with your own hands. You sweep through the rest of us like gods.”

Sesha was silent a few long moments, drawing in a soft breath before letting it out again.

“The truth is, Madame, I often envy you.”

Her eyes widened, and she looked rather incredulous, before her eyes narrowed.

“Don’t you dare play games with me. I won’t have it. How could you envy someone like me, sitting here waiting to die?”

“Because you have a choice.”

“The choice to die?”

“Yes.Tell me, Madame, why do you go out of your way to dress like you do, to put on makeup, even when you know what’s coming? It must cost you effort, and discomfort, and there’s no point, right?”

“There is a point,” she said, gently rapping her fist on the arm of the chair. “I don’t want to be like one of those people you see laying in bed in their nightshirts, all grey and wan. The ones who already look like ghosts. I won’t have myself seen that way. I still have that left to me.”

“Exactly. But, you also have more than you know. You submitted your application, and now the choice to live or die is yours. You don’t have to wait, if you don’t want to. You can choose to end your suffering right this moment, or continue on for as long as you desire. And those in your position are able to choose the method, if you want. Just like you won’t give up how you look, your situation cannot take this choice from you. Your life, your death, belongs to you. You are free to do with it as you will. Very few people have that opportunity.”

She stared at him, her dark eyes wide as she processed what he’d said. She almost seemed to be grasping for words, and as she thought, some sort of understanding seemed to come into her eyes.

“And you don’t?”

“Not like you. An assassin only has one choice, and taking our lives is not it. Anyone can come to us when they’re in pain, and take their life into their own hands. This is your choice, every part of it. We are not given such a luxury. Death takes assassins too, but we cannot choose it. Our deaths do not belong to us.”

“I- I never really thought about it like that. I just know I don’t want to keep diminishing, to fade away into nothingness. I was never the sort of woman who gave up on anything.”

He paused a moment, a somewhat sad look touching his lips. “Most do not. That is why I envy you. It is the choice I will forever be denied. I’m not glad that this choice is in front of you. No one who comes to us ever takes it lightly, and I truly am sorry you’ve suffered so much. But, you can take comfort knowing that you have control over that which is most precious. Something so important that it makes even an assassin envy you. If you do not wish to fade away, then stand and fight. That is what I am here to help you do.”

She was silent then, and turned her head to look out the open doors at the garden beyond. Sesha wondered what she might be thinking, but didn’t press her. Silence was a welcome thing too, and he truly did want her to choose her own path, no matter what his own feelings were. He might envy, but he would never force.

After a time, Leise lifted her head from the cushion on the back of her chair. She shifted and forced her sluggish body to obey, so she could once again sit up. Despite the weakness, the disease, her frailty, it seemed she’d made a choice.

“I refuse to fade away, or take what I have for granted. If this is my last hill, I will make my stand here. Thank you, Master Liatos. Now, if you would be so kind, tell me what my options are.”

Sesha smiled, a feeling of pride rising in him for her. He always held the greatest respect for his clients, and he had no doubt that she was sure of her path now.

“Of course, Madame. I’d be happy to.”