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the peace-weaver

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You will be the peace-weaver, his mother told him, smiling though her dark eyes welled with unshed grief. The one who brings two bitter enemies together and ends the bloodshed and death between us, once and for all.

Keith stared up at her, fighting the urge to rip away the bridal vestments which so hatefully adorned his stiff body. Outside, drums beat a foreboding rhythm more suited for war than marriage. It mirrored Keith’s heart. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-da-dum. Keith wondered if his heart would stop when the drums did, too.

Will I ever see you again? he asked.

If fate wills it, his mother said, and lifted a hand to his face, cupping his sharp jaw and braided hair. She never was one to mince words.

Keith leaned into her touch for what might very well be the last time. I know this is my duty, he whispered into her palm, but Mother, I am afraid.

Good, she said, voice tight, edged with an anger she could not fully express. Your fear will keep you alive, my son. Follow your instinct – it will serve you well, as mine has.

Keith stepped away, eyes wide. But I thought I was the peace-weaver, he said.

You are, she told him grimly, but try as we might, men will always crave war. Your husband’s people most of all.

Mother, Keith said, I do not wish to fear my own husband, nor to be forced to bear his heirs; enemy heirs. Surely there is another way.

Remember your gifts, my son, she said. Remember your power, a power he does not have, and never will. Use that power, if you must.

If he discovers I have that power, he will hurt me, Keith whispered.

If he hurts you, I will kill him, she promised, slipping a slim dagger into his hands, and let him go.

*

The wedding is swift, and Keith is numb to most of it. There is song and drink and feasting and fire, roaring in a great hearth before the great table. There are many warriors, though, Keith thinks with some selfish pride, most are not nearly as large and strong as they are in his tribe, the Marmora.

Most, that is, save for his husband.

Keith does not dare to lift his eyes to the man’s face. Not during the ceremony, where the man drapes a heavy fur cloak over Keith’s shoulders and says his vows in a low, rumbling voice as warm as the roaring fire, nor when the man tilts his head up for a chaste, dry kiss, stubble brushing across Keith’s smooth cheek. Nor during the feast, when the warriors fill themselves with mead and meat and Keith sits quietly in the oaken chair at the thane’s right, barely touching his food and answering the man’s occasional polite questions with equally polite answers. Nor afterwards, when the man gathers Keith up into his arms amidst approving roars from his warriors, and carries him out of the mead hall, and up to his quarters.

It is only when the man sets Keith down with more gentleness than anticipated on the edge of the great bed that Keith looks at him, and at once wishes he had not.

His husband, a bloodthirsty and powerful thane of King Zarkon, ruler of the numerous and warmongering Galra tribe, a man who has slain dozens of Marmora and can cleave a man’s head from his shoulders with a single sweep of an axe, is the most beautiful man Keith has ever seen.

His fair face is marred only by the faded slash of a blade-scar across the bridge of his nose, but even that adds a strange and pleasing symmetry to his features, brightening the cold sea-gray of his eyes, and strengthening the noble set of his dark brow and the sure curve of his mouth.

A shock of silver hair among the long dark locks falls over his forehead, tucked behind one ear. The lightning-touch, the Marmora call it, a sign that he has faced death, and walked away, though one cannot expect such a man to ever be the same afterwards.

His hair was tied back for the ceremony, but since then has come undone, and falls past his shoulders like a dark lion’s mane. It shines in the candlelight as if daring Keith to touch. He does not.

Mouth dry, Keith gazes up at him, still as stone when his husband’s large hands settle on his shoulders, moving slowly to the golden clasp at his throat. He unpins the fur cloak and it falls from Keith like a heavy shadow, thumping onto the bed behind him.

“Did you enjoy the feast?” his husband asks, hands falling back to his sides; feigning harmlessness. But Keith knows what those hands have done; what they could do to him.

“Yes,” Keith says quietly, tearing his gaze away, back down to the dark floorboards. “It was very grand, my lord.”

His husband pauses, brow lifting. “You’re meeker than I expected. And quite small, smaller than any Marmoran I’ve seen – though, to be fair, I’ve only seen Marmoran warriors.”

Keith’s jaw works. “Small stature is a desirable trait for consorts, is it not?” Or do you doubt I will be strong enough to bring you heirs? he does not say.

“If you are asking,” his husband murmurs, “whether or not I find you desirable, then the answer is yes, without a doubt.”

“Oh,” Keith says, though that was not what he was asking at all, and swallows hard. “My lord,” he adds, hastily.

His husband chuckles, and sits down beside him on the edge of the bed. Keith closes his eyes, breath thinning to a single, fragile thread.

“We are wed,” his husband says. “There is no need for titles between us, at least not here. Unless you would prefer them.” Warm fingers seize Keith’s wrist, tracing violet veins and the lines of his pale palms. “What would you have me call you?” When Keith is silent, physically unable to speak, his husband releases his hand. “You may call me Shiro...or Takashi, if you like. May I call you by your given name, also?”

Keith nods, slowly. “If that is what you wish, husband.”

“Shiro,” his husband, Shiro, corrects. “Though that word does sound good in your lovely mouth, Keith.”

Keith is wholly unprepared for his name on Shiro’s lips, spoken under warm lamplight in the intimate space of a lord’s bedroom. His breath catches. “I —” He trails off into dumb silence, heart pounding.

“Keith.” Shiro’s eyes are kind when he looks at Keith. But how can he be kind? Keith has heard the tales of the thane’s bloody deeds sung before many a grim feast-fire; he must not let himself be lured into a false sense of security.

They call him Zarkon’s Champion. And though King Zarkon has more gold than any in all the land, and builds the finest keeps and mead halls for his thanes, he is a tyrant devoid of honor and humanity, as far as the Marmora are concerned. Any champion of his must be as cruel as he.

“Yes, husband?” Keith murmurs, looking away for his own self-preservation.

“My warriors in the mead hall below may expect a consummation from us tonight, but I do not.” Keith sucks in a startled breath, face growing hot. “You have had a long journey, and I expect you are tired, and perhaps overwhelmed. If you would rather sleep…”

Shiro is giving him an option. A choice. An escape. It is the only choice Keith has been given, as of late, and yet he finds himself saying, “No.”

Shiro smiles, bemused. “No, what?”

“I intend to consummate our marriage,” Keith says firmly. “As peace-weaver —”

Shiro lifts a hand, expression troubled. “Not as peace-weaver,” he says. “As Keith. What do you want?”

Keith almost laughs in his face at the awful irony of it all. What he wants is to be home, to be with his mother, for his father to live, for his dead clan members to rise up and bring ruin to the ones who put them in the ground. What he wants is to burn this mead hall and its thane into ashen oblivion.

But he is the peace-weaver, and he is in bed with his beautiful husband, and though Takashi Shirogane, Thane of Garris, may be a sworn blood-enemy of the Galra, Keith knows he must take the good things in life when they are offered to him, for there are not many, and they can be ripped away from him as quickly as they are given.

So Keith tilts his head up and reaches out, touching his husband for the first time, running slim fingertips over the rough angle of Shiro’s jaw. “I want you inside me,” Keith says. He does not mince words, either.

Shiro’s lips quirk, and his hand comes up to rest, firm and purposeful, on the back of Keith’s neck. Keith imagines it a collar, as one might give to a disobedient hound, and shivers.

“Not so meek, then,” Shiro muses, and seems pleased by this. Curious. “May I kiss you, Keith?”

It’s quaint that he’s asking. In reply, Keith lunges for him, capturing his lips in a bruising kiss, and Shiro catches him easily in his lap, sighing against Keith’s demanding tongue. Shiro’s arms wrap around him, bulky muscle and corded veins, and Keith fumbles to unclasp the purple-red brooch at Shiro’s throat. When he finally manages, the thick black cloak falls to the floor, and Keith crouches in Shiro’s lap, holding the sharp brooch-pin to his throat, the glittering tip nearly resting on vulnerable skin.

“This is a fine jewel,” Keith says, barely breathing.

Shiro’s fingers encircle his wrist, holding him fast. “Yes,” he says. “It was my mother’s. Ruby.”

“And the metal?”

Shiro hums, squeezing Keith’s wrist gently. “Gold, of course.”

“Of course,” Keith echoes, a little mocking, but only a little, because the man holding him could still crush Keith like a grape if he so chose...and if Keith didn’t crush him, first.

Shiro takes the brooch from him and sets it atop the cloak. Both arms settle around Keith’s waist, and one feels...colder than the other. Keith shifts, confused. Eyes never leaving Keith’s face, Shiro loosens the ties on his shirt, letting it drop over the brooch and revealing the rippling musculature of his torso...and the dark splintering of his right arm.

Keith flinches back — the skin darkens just below Shiro’s scarred right shoulder, streaked as if with soot before turning deep charcoal, like burnt meat. As Keith watches, the shadows move, fluid as water though dry to the touch. The shadows extend along the rest of Shiro’s right arm and hand, where the nails end in tapered points like black claws, or the terrible talons of a great eagle. Under Keith’s wondering eye, the nails shorten and dull into something almost human, slowly but surely.

“It’s a curse,” Keith whispers, unable to tear his gaze from it.

“Yes, and no,” Shiro says. “It can also be a gift.”

Keith’s brow creases. “This is Galran magic...”

Shiro lifts a dark, sharp finger to Keith’s face, sliding it along his jaw. “And what does a Marmoran peace-weaver know of such things?”

Keith swallows. “Only from stories...of the Druids. Did they cast this upon you?”

Shiro’s gaze is thoughtful, and he makes a soft sound of what could be assent. “I was young,” Shiro says. “Younger than you.” He shakes his head. “Cast it out of your mind. It will not harm you; this, I swear.”

Keith shivers. He can feel the magic radiating from the cursed arm; it is powerful, insidious...angry, and bitter. Did Shiro want this magic? Or was it forced upon him? Keith’s gut twists around an unseen blade.

“And what of you? Are you harmed by it?”

Shiro smiles; the motion is practiced and measured. “A little mead and a pretty face, and one forgets any pain entirely,” he lies.

“A pretty face,” Keith repeats, and kisses him, softer this time, daring to lay his hands upon Shiro’s bare and heaving chest, squeezing the swell of scarred muscle there, letting his calloused fingers wander to dark nipples.

Keith is determined to map out his limits, here, before he is altogether bound and confined. Yet the thane sits back, patient enough, and lets Keith explore at his leisure. He does not chastise him for his boldness, and stops Keith only when he begins to knead and pinch and rub with insistence, by which time his nipples are reddened to points, pebbled from Keith’s touch and the chill air.

“Sly little creature, aren’t you,” Shiro chuckles. His husband’s voice is strained, as is the fabric of his breeches, so Keith touches there next, cupping the large bulge of heat fiercely and fully intending to unlace Shiro’s breeches before sure fingers fall upon Keith’s bridal tunic.

Keith holds perfectly still. Shiro takes his time, tracing the detailed embroidery in the wine red fabric, the white swans with spread wings at his shoulders, the yellow daffodils around the high collar, the green ivy wreathing his sleeves, interspersed by bright red roses and blue forget-me-nots crowned with gold. Shiro’s fingers stop at the embroidery at his throat, a silver crescent moon and a perched raven, the Marmora crest.

“I admire your clan,” Shiro tells him in the dim room on the great bed, under flickering lamplight that shines on his sweating chest. “What you may lack in numbers and territory, you make up for in resolve. I have never seen men fight with such fearless conviction.”

“That conviction gets us killed,” Keith replies, and Shiro blinks in surprise. “By your men.”

Shiro frowns, and draws upon the laces over Keith’s chest. “That is why you are here,” he murmurs. “To stop the killing of the Marmora.”

Keith holds his breath, and the fine fabric falls away, baring his chest to the air. His skin seems too soft and pale and unblemished beside Shiro, who bears countless marks of battle and strength. Keith bows his head and squeezes Shiro’s cock through soft leather. “This is why I am here,” he says.

Shiro hums, leaning forward, breath feathering over the curve of Keith’s neck. “To pleasure me at your leisure in our bed?” His lips brush warm under Keith’s jaw. “Then I suppose my purpose towards you is the same, hm?”

Keith’s eyes widen. “My lord –”

“Yes?” Shiro cups the slight swell of his chest in one hand, kneading gently, letting his thumb flick over Keith’s nipples. Keith lets out a pathetic sound, hair falling into his eyes, unable to look as Shiro plays with his tits with no apparent goal in mind other than to feel them and drive Keith slowly mad.

“This is not how one sires heirs,” Keith manages weakly, letting his head fall against Shiro’s shoulder and hiding in the curtain of black silk hair when his husband applies both hands to the task, the sharp cold claws of his right hand teasing at Keith’s nipples with the utmost care, coaxing dusk-pink buds into stiffening.

Shiro’s left hand slides down Keith’s heaving ribs and dips under the waistband of thin leggings, scratching through coarse hair and seeking the wetness Keith can feel gathering with a vengeance at the join of his thighs. Shiro feels it next, his eyes darkening and claws digging into Keith’s breast. “Heirs can wait,” Shiro growls, and very near rips the last of Keith’s garments away.

Keith straddles his lap fully bare, shivering, the thane’s broad hands gripping his waist with purpose. “Beautiful,” Shiro murmurs, and Keith shivers harder, fumbling with the ties just above his husband’s hardening cock. Shiro stops him, head tilted. “Not yet,” he says. “There is no need to rush.”

Keith wants to scream. There is every need to rush, as they both well know. The Galra will demand an heir and when Keith fails to provide one there will be consequences which he has not yet devised a solution for, but — oh, Keith cannot think when Shiro is easing him down onto the bed, holding Keith effortlessly in his arms, kissing the hollow of his throat, his collarbones, his chest, his stomach, his hips — Keith surges to sit up, gawking at his husband’s head between his legs.

“What are you doing?” Keith demands, forgetting to be docile in his genuine state of shock.

Shiro raises his eyebrows. “Dear Keith, you need not play at the innocent virgin. From your kissing alone, it is clear you are no stranger to this.”

Keith stares at him, face reddening. “I am — husband, I came to you as is proper, I swear it on the Marmora. I have never — you are the first. Do not mock me and my clan’s promises to yours.”

Shiro stares back at him, and his hands around Keith’s waist tighten. “I would never dare,” Shiro murmurs, voice dark, “to mock you.” He places a kiss over the dark hair trailing at Keith’s inner thighs. “Nor your clan.”

Keith shivers, toes curling at the brush of his breath. “Good.”

“To answer your question,” Shiro adds, “I wish to taste you, if you would be so inclined.”

Keith’s stomach flips. “Taste me,” he repeats.

“Mm. Like so.” Shiro’s tongue flicks out, playful, and teases at damp folds, quick yet clear in his intent.

“Oh,” Keith whispers, dizzy. “I — I see. And what shall that do for you?”

Shiro inhales, his grin bright and devastating in the gloom. “I should like to see you come undone around my tongue. That, dear one, would be reward enough.”

“And after —?”

Shiro shakes his head, rubbing Keith’s thigh in calming circles. “If you wish only to sleep after, we will sleep. I place no expectations upon you tonight,” he promises, and for some reason, Keith believes him.

Keith nods, still sitting up and staring apprehensively. Shiro chuckles, easing him back down onto the pillows, and takes his time kissing Keith’s legs, his gaze ever-warm and approving. Keith watches with disbelief as Shiro rubs his rough jaw against Keith’s soft inner thighs, turning pale skin red, making Keith jerk from the odd sensation. Shiro glances up. “Do you like that?”

Keith swallows. “Yes,” he whispers.

“It doesn’t hurt?”

“Hurts a little, but I like it,” Keith admits quietly, and Shiro’s gaze darkens.

“Very well,” Shiro says, and licks at the swollen hood crowning equally swollen lips, prompting a startled moan from Keith which only makes the thane lick in earnest, tugging back the flesh to expose the fat pink clit shielded beneath. Keith’s eyes widen, and Shiro sucks it into his mouth mercilessly.

Keith cries out, shocking even himself, kicking and grasping at the fur blanket like a wild thing and barely stopping himself from grabbing the thane’s hair. He must remember who is between his legs, but the thought does not instill fear in him then — his greedy body likes the thought of destruction.

Shiro’s tongue is hot and wet and firm and presses up against him wickedly, again and again and again. By the time Shiro pulls off, licking his lips, Keith is panting and shaking and his cunt throbs, liquid want pooling heavy between his thighs and everywhere Shiro touches him.

As if to add insult to injury, Shiro watches him and rubs his stubbled cheek over the gleaming, reddened crown of his clit, and Keith bites back a scream, spine arching off the bed.

“Hush, dearest,” Shiro coos, licking at glistening, thick folds and coaxing them open to reveal their brighter, wetter interior. “How pretty you are. Like the loveliest rose in the garden.” His lips brush teasingly and Keith digs his nails into his palms. Shiro smiles with deceptive innocence. “Have you many thorns, I wonder?”

More than you know, Keith thinks, before Shiro’s tongue delves into his cunt with eager abandon, and Keith’s thoughts dissolve into scattered gold like the sparks popping from a roaring bonfire, blown away into hazy ash.

Shiro chuckles and Keith hears it as if from miles away, or perhaps from underwater, but he feels it like an axe blow to the chest, sundering what little armor he had left. Keith lets out a weak and strangled cry as a thick finger joins Shiro’s plunging tongue; it must be thicker than two of his own, and the angle is far better. Shiro can sink the digit in up to the knuckle, much to Keith’s dismay.

Already, his body is betraying him, but in that moment, squirming over the expensive furs and soaking Shiro’s fingers, he can’t be bothered by it in the slightest.

“Mm,” Shiro hums, licking around his curling finger and littering Keith’s thighs and hips with sucking kisses, “how lucky I am to have you in my bed.”

In a brief moment where he remembers how to form words, Keith gasps, “Had many others, have you?”

Shiro pauses, withdrawing his finger and laving his tongue over the empty space until Keith feels the heat dripping out of him and Shiro looks back up, mouth and chin obscenely messy.

“Not as many as you might think,” Shiro murmurs. “Whores, mostly.”

Keith’s throat works; the bare rafters of the ceiling are spinning, blurring out of shape. “Whores,” he repeats, and moans at the sharp and sly twist of Shiro’s fingers, fervently wishing he could tear out his own voice box.

“Does that bother you?” Shiro’s voice is hoarse, and muffled in Keith’s cunt.

Keith throws an arm over his face, shuddering. Shiro retreats, if only to let him answer. “Most lords take mistresses,” is all he manages.

Shiro lifts his head, eyes narrowing. “And do you think I’d do such a thing?”

Keith gulps, shaking his head frantically; he has no idea what color the sky is, much less the answer to complicated questions like that. “It would be well within your right —”

“I will not,” Shiro growls, and stretches Keith wide with two fingers, working him open and rubbing at Keith’s recovering clit. “You are mine; I need no other.”

“Ah,” Keith gasps, eyes watering when Shiro licks at his clit, kittenish and teasing this time, but just as dizzyingly good, bordering always on too much. His fingers slide slickly in and out as he does, and the sensation tips over into something startlingly new. “Ah, ah, I’m, oh —”

Shiro hums, and lifts Keith’s thighs to drape both twitching legs over his broad shoulders. Keith makes a sound as if dying — he feels like he’s dying, for no living being should be able to feel so much all at once — and he swears he feels Shiro’s smile against his skin as he keens and trembles all over, pleasure washing over him like waves against sea cliffs, and tingling through him for endless moments afterwards.

Shiro rests his head on Keith’s hip, just watching, eyes half-lidded and lips tilted in contentment. He pets Keith’s sweating skin like he can’t quite help it.

“Good?” he asks when Keith returns to the waking world, as casually as if speaking about the weather.

“Fine,” Keith whispers, heart pounding and legs splayed open, too vulnerable.

“Just fine?” Shiro’s hand wanders back between his legs, tracing the swollen shape of wet lips. Keith squirms away with sudden panic, every touch almost painful in its intensity, and Shiro’s hand falls away at once. “I’m sorry,” he murmurs with a frown.

“Sorry,” Keith echoes, and snorts. Shiro blinks at him. “Don't be sorry. Kiss me.”

Shiro smirks and leans back in over Keith’s clit, and Keith smacks his head, sitting up and glowering. “Not there, husband,” he snaps.

Shiro hums. “Show me where, then, wife.”

Keith sees red at the thane’s first usage of the unspoken word between them; what Keith is by clan law though he loathes the word as much as his bridal clothing. Or maybe it’s because he doesn’t loathe the word on Shiro’s lips that he surges up and seizes Shiro’s face, fingers scrabbling through thick stubble and the mess Shiro made, and kisses him hard enough to roll him down onto the bed under him.

Keith straddles his flexing waist and throws oversensitivity by the wayside when Shiro kisses him back, letting Keith suck on his tongue and bite at his lips, sharp musky taste blooming between them. Keith grinds over the thane’s muscled stomach, using him as he would a pillow, and Shiro groans low under him, hands framing Keith’s waist not to hold him there, but to stroke at his rolling hips and flexing thighs.

Keith’s clit drags through the hair trailing down into the thane’s still-laced breeches, delicious friction that Shiro’s cock is not getting. It strains under the leather, and Keith’s mouth waters unexpectedly when his palm falls over it again and finds it damp, leaking through with desperation that betrays the thane’s cool, controlled expression.

“Inside me,” Keith hisses against Shiro’s slack mouth, “now.”

Shiro’s laughter is strangled; he’s already tugging the laces of his breeches open. “Your wish is my command,” he says, and shoves his pants open, the thick curve of his cock springing up over his belly at once. Keith’s breath catches. Shiro’s hands guide him down, and they both shudder when the wide, wet crown of Shiro’s cock catches on sloppy folds and then, for a brief and blissful moment, on Keith’s clit, swollen anew, apparently insatiable.

Keith braces his hands on the thane’s chest and sucks in a breath, thighs trembling. He sinks down, cunt swallowing Shiro’s cock with command Keith did not know he was capable of, and Shiro moans under him, head falling back on the pillow. Keith’s mouth opens and closes soundlessly; Shiro’s cock breaches him deep and so wide, and his cunt flutters around the welcome violation, as if to work him deeper, so deep he can never leave.

Shiro doesn’t wait for Keith to start moving; he wrenches Keith’s hips down, forcing his cock in up to the hilt. Keith yelps, spine rigid and clit throbbing as Shiro thrusts up into him. Keith bounces in his lap, struggling to find purchase on the furs, the blankets, the strong body below him – then Shiro takes his hand, tangles their fingers together and drags Keith closer to his chest, fucking him slower but hard, harder when Keith mewls and reaches between them to tug on his clit.

Shiro’s sounds are near-animal, growls and grunts covering Keith’s pitchy cries as his hand covers Keith’s, teasing at where Keith’s folds are spread open around his thrusting cock, sighing into Keith’s mouth when his cock knocks against something that makes Keith jolt forward, wrapping his arm around Shiro’s neck without a thought and groaning into his throat as he pulses around Shiro’s cock, their fingers rubbing in relentless unison over his quivering clit. This time, Keith doesn’t push him away, shaking and riding the wave of impossible bliss out in its entirety; it ebbs just as Shiro softly gasps his name and stills, cock twitching where Keith’s cunt squeezes it tight.

Keith tenses when he feels it, Shiro’s full cock spurting for what seems like too long. He scowls against Shiro’s shoulder – maybe the rumors of Galran fertility were true. It would certainly explain why there were so damned many of them. Still...he can’t complain as the heat settles in him; there’s something inexplicably satisfying about it, and though he dreads what is meant to come after, he likes the thought of keeping Shiro’s seed in him, a treasure hoard locked away where none but he can spend its riches.

Shiro’s clawed hand strokes slowly up his back. “I apologize,” he murmurs, words tickling the shell of Keith’s ear. “I know less of your people and their customs than I would like, but I do know that while the Galra call you my wife, that may not be what you wish me to call you.”

Keith’s scowl deepens; he does not lift his head. If only the damn thane would shut his mouth and keep his cock right there… alas, it’s softening already. Unfortunate.

“Keith?” Shiro’s hand reaches the nape of his neck and fingers curl into ruined braids.

“You are my husband and the Thane of Garris,” Keith says, tone clipped. “Call me as you wish.”

“I wish to call you as you would wish me to,” Shiro says firmly, and Keith does lift his head, then. If the thane wishes to play at civility mere minutes after displaying the true extent of his carnality, then Keith will have to indulge him.

“It isn’t a dirty word,” Keith mutters. “Wife.” He looks away. “Why should it be any less a title than ‘husband?’”

“It shouldn’t be,” Shiro agrees quietly, stroking his hair. But it is, at least to the Galra, he doesn’t say.

“I’m not a woman,” Keith says.

Shiro makes a quiet sound. “I know.” He raises an eyebrow. “I only lie with men, after all.”

Keith blinks, all at once wide awake. “Oh.” He pauses. “Then, the whores –”

“Put them out of your mind,” Shiro chuckles, and rolls Keith down onto the furs beside them, separating their joining in the process. Keith hisses, and Shiro kisses him in contrition, pressing his palm gently between Keith’s thighs where seed drips out in thin rivulets. Keith lets him; the touch is somehow comforting; it’s lazy, purposeless.

“What do your people call you?” Shiro asks, not a single note of mockery in his voice. He’s just asking, genuinely seeking an answer. Keith relaxes as much as he is able, given the circumstances.

“They call me Keith, son of Krolia,” he says. “They call me the peace-weaver.”

“Simple enough,” Shiro says, and pushes Keith’s hair out of his face. “Shall I call you husband, then? Would that be alright?”

Keith’s heart thuds hard against his ribcage. “But others will not –”

“Others do not matter, husband,” Shiro says, gaze dangerous, and in that moment Keith can picture him leading the charge across a blood-soaked battlefield in perfect, awful clarity.

Keith swallows, and nods. “You may call me both,” he says when he regains his voice, “for the other Galra will call me your wife anyway, and it will be less painful if you call me as such around them.”

“And why is that?”

“I don’t think you’d say it like an insult,” Keith whispers, and sits up, moving away from him. He stares at the rug on the floor and curls his toes into the soft gray wool. “Would you?”

“Never,” Shiro says, and lays his hand over Keith’s arm. “Come back to bed. You must be tired.”

Keith shakes him off and stands. “Where is the washroom?”

Shiro begins to sit up. “Just to the left of the antechamber – I can call the servants to draw up a bath –”

“No,” Keith says. “That won’t be necessary, thank you.” He retrieves his wedding cloak from the floor and wraps it around himself for some semblance of decency. When he glances over his shoulder, Shiro has not moved an inch, though his head is tilted and his brow furrowed. “I won’t be long,” Keith says, and leaves the bedroom on unsteady legs.

He’s already sore from the day’s ride to Shiro’s keep, but the full extent of his exertion does not hit him until he closes the door to the washroom behind himself and nearly collapses against the washbasin, thighs trembling from the effort of keeping himself upright.

After a moment of internal battle with himself, Keith admits defeat and slumps down onto the floor gingerly. With some trepidation, Keith twists to look between his legs, where a dull but bone-deep ache spreads and throbs in time with his heartbeat. He holds his breath and feels at stretched lips and his dripping hole, but when he lifts his fingers to the candlelight, he’s surprised to find no red nor pink among the silver-white.

Keith frowns. His mother had warned him to expect blood. He does not know how he feels, exactly, about Shiro not fulfilling this warning despite being more than capable of doing so.

He settles on relief, then forgets about relief entirely as he staggers to his feet and slides two fingers inside himself with a full-body wince, gathering as much of the remaining seed as he can, and letting it drip into the empty washbasin. He knows he needs only a few drops, but he won’t risk this failing. First time’s a charm.

He reaches then for a splinter protruding from the oaken beams of the dark walls, and pricks his thumb with it, letting the single scarlet drop fall into the basin, also. He swears the candles flare, just for a moment. Keith closes his eyes, centering himself and the pound of his heart, rabbit-quick, and whispers the words he memorized mere hours after receiving the title of peace-weaver a month ago. He must not forget them, cannot, for he will not find them in any Galran text; they would have been burned long ago. Even among the Marmora, they are hidden carefully.

Children, after all, are things one prays for, not away.

But Keith is not praying. In the wash basin, the mixed fluids darken into a brightening red, brighter and brighter until it looks more like the thane’s ruby than blood. Keith repeats the words a little louder, as loud as he dares, and places both hands over his flat belly, squeezing his eyes shut. His palms warm, and against his skin glow with a faint brilliance like moonlight, before the ruby puddle in the washbasin bursts into violent violet flame, and snuffs out in an instant, destroying the evidence.

All the candles in the washroom snuff out with it, plunging Keith into darkness.

He stands at the washbasin alone, and presses a weary hand to his face, wondering if he should feel remorse.

But again, he feels only relief. He thinks it worked, though only time will tell.

Keith sways on his feet and reaches for the door before he loses the ability to walk altogether. By the time he makes it back to the bedroom, he’s limping, and of course Shiro notices. Much to Keith’s chagrin, the thane rises and hurries to him when he takes a moment to brace himself on the doorframe. Keith glares at his feet. “I am perfectly capable of walking on my own –”

Shiro scoops him up as if he is no more than a particularly pouty paperweight. “Of course, my husband,” Shiro says, lips quirked. “But I want to hold you in my arms, if you would deign to allow me the honor.”

Keith curls up as best as he’s able. “There is no honor in this,” he says under his breath.

Shiro crosses the room in three strides and lays him down on the bed – the soiled furs have been replaced, Keith notices vaguely. The new ones are softer, and gray-white. Wolf, perhaps?

Shiro blows out the candles and lies down beside him, covering them both with the soft blankets. Keith wonders how many died for the gold to build this bed, this keep, this man.

“There is great honor in this,” Shiro whispers, his face both too close and too far away in the darkness. “Peace-weaver is hardly a title without weight, and neither is wife, especially wife of a thane of the Galra.”

“I am not Galra,” Keith whispers. “I will never be Galra.” He figures if his husband is to slit his throat for disloyalty, it might as well be tonight.

But Shiro only lifts his hand to cup Keith’s face. “Then I will have to honor you here as best I can all by myself,” he whispers back.

Keith rolls over, away from the faint and earnest gleam of gray eyes. “Goodnight, husband,” he says to the far wall.

The bed dips as Shiro moves away, allowing Keith a measured space between them, at least for now. “Goodnight, Keith,” Shiro says.

Keith dreams of a man climbing over him, staring down at him and shaking his head. I’m sorry, the man says, silhouette aching with familiarity. Five claws frame Keith’s jaw. You did not choose this. But it was the only way. His long hair falls across Keith’s cheek, soft and tickling. He smells like sweat and smoke and sorrow. Your clan would give nothing else. Nothing but you...why didn’t they want you? Sharp nails slide over his throat like the flat of a sword. Who wouldn’t want you?

Keith awakes with a start in soft darkness. The thane slumbers beside him, a rumbling mountain of shadow, but the space between them is bridged by a far-flung arm.

Charcoal fingers rest over Keith’s bare waist, but in sleep they are no longer monstrous. The nails are human, and draw no blood, though the fingers curl into Keith’s flesh as if wanting to keep him there.

After a moment of hesitation which never should have existed, Keith pushes Shiro’s hand away and curls close to the edge of the bed, where his husband cannot reach him.

Chapter Text

Keith awakes in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room to the mouthwatering smell of sausage and eggs and the distinct sensation that he must have been impaled and mounted on a spear for someone’s sick entertainment.

That someone is standing in front of the impressive oak wardrobe, lacing up the front of a fine black coat, and when Keith cracks his eyes open with a pained groan, the man turns slightly towards him.

“Good morning,” Shiro says far too pleasantly. “How are you feeling? I brought you breakfast; you slept through it completely.”

Keith hurries to sit up despite his soreness as the full weight of the situation comes crashing down, eyes wide and heart stuttering into a panic. “Oh – I apologize –”

Shiro frowns and turns to face him fully. “There is no need to panic,” he says slowly, as if Keith is a wounded animal he must calm before landing a precise deathblow. “Your attendance was expected, but not required.”

Keith sucks in a breath. “Expected – then, I – where did they think I –” His face grows hot, imagining what conclusions the visiting thanes must have come to about his absence.

Shiro lifts an eyebrow. “Why, they thought you were in bed,” he murmurs, “resting. From your long journey, of course.”

“Of course,” Keith grits out.

Shiro approaches the bed and Keith flinches back; the thane stops. “I will ask again: how are you feeling?”

“I am not struck with morning sickness, if that was your hope,” Keith grumbles, rolling over and huddling under the blankets peevishly, trying to move as little as possible.

Shiro chokes, then coughs. “Er – no. That was not my meaning, Keith. Are you, that is to say, in pain at all?”

“You are not allowed to put anything inside me for a week,” Keith snaps.

Shiro pauses. “Ah. Hm. Does that include my tongue?”

Keith hisses wordlessly.

“Didn’t quite catch that, dearest.”

“As you well know,” Keith says under his breath, “I cannot stop you, should you wish to try.”

The bed dips and Keith tenses, but Shiro only touches his shoulder, squeezing gently. “True. Nor can I stop you if you decide I am the sort of man who would do such a thing. But I wish you wouldn’t.”

“You are the sort of man,” Keith whispers, “who would kill as many men as you needed to reach victory, no matter what the cost. This, I know. Everyone knows it.”

Shiro chuckles darkly. “And you are not? Shame. You won’t survive long if you insist on innocence.”

“It isn’t innocence,” Keith mutters. “It’s being a good man, a man with a conscience –”

“A conscience is a luxury,” Shiro interrupts sternly. “One I cannot afford.” Keith doesn’t dare look up at him. “Neither can you. You’re in the enemy’s bed, aren’t you? What would your clan’s dead thanes have to say about that, I wonder?”

Keith tenses. “Don’t speak of them,” he whispers.

“No? But you know, don’t you, that two of them fell by my sword –”

Keith’s breath hitches. “Stop –”

“Thace, one was called, and the other, the tall one with pale eyes, Ulaz –”

Keith squeezes his eyes shut. “Please .”

“You were close to them,” Shiro says. “You knew them well.”

“Yes,” Keith breathes.

“I was fulfilling the weregild, Keith,” Shiro says. “Marmora offered us no gold, so King Zarkon accepted a life for a life. Your people took two of Zarkon’s most loyal thanes, Prorok and Haxus. I took two of yours.”

“And then Kolivan traded me instead of more gold, more lives,” Keith whispers. “Yes, husband. I know how it happened.”

Shiro’s grip on him tightens. “Then know also that I am not a good nor bad man. I am a good thane. I do as my king commands me to.”

“And if he commanded you slit my throat in our marriage bed and attack my clan while they are vulnerable and reeling from your massacre?” Keith’s voice is barely audible, but Shiro hears every word.

Shiro lets go of him. “You are the peace-weaver,” he murmurs. “Certain traditions must be upheld with your position, and the Galra respect traditions. Murder is not among them.”

Keith is quiet. Thinking of last night, and then thinking of Thace and Ulaz, still and gutted like fish, lying on their burning pyres, he feels sick. He thinks of Shiro standing over their corpses, sword dripping with their blood, and curls in on himself with a low, hurt sound that has nothing to do with physical pain.

Shiro moves off of the bed; Keith stays curled. “I’ll ask the servants to draw you up a warm bath,” Shiro says, “and to bring some tea to help with the pain.”

Keith is silent; fuming or on the verge of tears, he isn’t sure which, yet. Shiro finishes dressing and leaves the room. Keith does not let out the sob he was holding in until the thane’s footsteps are altogether gone, and he cannot keep the grief locked in his chest any longer.

*

Once Shiro is gone, Keith does not wait for the servants and the bath and the tea; he has no desire to be boiled in perfumes and prodded at like a hen in need of plucking. He slips out from under his fortress of furs and wool and flings the wardrobe open.

It is at once evident which half is meant to be Keith’s. Alongside the thane’s heavy tunics and jackets hang gowns adorned with intricate embroidery and ribboned hems. All of the colors are dark and rich; wine red, midnight blue, evergreen.

Keith snatches a dark tunic and wonders if Shiro will strike him for it, or simply torture him into submission with his mouth. Deciding the risk is worth it, he slips the tunic on and thankfully finds his leggings from the marriage ceremony intact, not on the floor where he left them but folded neatly on his side of the wardrobe.

The wedding cloak hangs there, too, and he frowns before grabbing for it, pinning it clumsily at his throat. It is autumn, and though it might benefit him to catch cold, as Shiro might be less inclined to touch him, Keith would prefer to stay as sharp as possible in this strange place.

He tugs on his calfskin boots and hurries to the washroom, settling with a quick finger comb through his ruffled hair and a few short braids to tame the worst of it. Keith does not try very hard to make himself presentable — everyone in the keep knows what transpired last night.

He expects the door to be locked. It is not. The handle gives under his determined push, and swings too easily outwards into the drafty hall Keith can only vaguely remember. He was more focused on not focusing, last night.

The hall is empty and dim; it is an overcast day and the wide, lead-paned windows let in only a pale gray light, less of an illumination and more of another layer to the shadows. The ceiling is arched and everything is made of grim dark stone. Keith runs his fingertips along the cold surface as he walks, gazing up at the looming painting on the far wall.

It’s King Zarkon, he thinks. The painting is faded with age, discolored by weather, perhaps. But it is fine work nonetheless. No mere thane could afford such a commission, not even a thane of Galra.

The Galra king stares down at Keith from his black frame with an air of both cold judgment and smug victory. Keith stares back. His gold crown rests on a proud but cruel head, long dark hair slicked back against his skull, trimmed beard framing the harsh lines of his aging face in even harsher angles.

Every bit of him glitters with gold — his throat is encircled by golden necklaces laden with precious gems, his forearms are bound by golden vambraces, his fingers are ringed with gold and jewels, his cloak drips with pearls and golden thread and thick velvet and ermine. His eyes are dark; they reflect none of the shining riches, hungry for more, more, more.

“His Imperial Majesty certainly cuts an imposing figure, doesn’t he?”

Keith whirls on his heel. There’s a man standing at the top of the stairs, the ones that lead down to the courtyard and mead hall. He doesn’t look much like the other Galra — finer-boned, finely dressed, ash-brown skin, tall but too slim, and with hair so light it seems silver, braided down his back neatly. A pale eyebrow arches and he steps forward. There is a yellow pendant hanging at his throat. Topaz, or amber, or perhaps diamond…who is Keith kidding, he’s no jeweler.

“You’re Thane Shirogane’s new wife,” the man says. “Somehow, you’re different than what I imagined.”

Keith swallows, unsure yet whether or not this man is dangerous. He is, like all things in this keep, a threat. But how much of a threat remains to be determined.

“What did you imagine?” Keith asks.

The man taps a long finger to his chin, considering. “A pale, frightened waif in a pretty dress,” he muses. “Or else a scheming beauty with vengeance in mind. But I doubt you are either. Perhaps you are a bit of both. I see you have foregone the dress, in any case. Might I ask why?”

“Dresses hinder movement,” Keith says, holding himself stiff and as tall as possible, though the man is far taller than him; taller than Shiro, too.

The man chuckles. “Oh? Plan on a great deal of movement, do you? They won’t let you near the stables. You’ll be lucky if you’re allowed to leave the keep.”

Keith’s gut twists. “So I am a prisoner, here.”

“No, you are the peace-weaver,” the man says, a little sing-song, a lot mocking. Keith’s eyes narrow and the man pauses. “Of all my father’s thanes, you should know Thane Shirogane is among the most sympathetic to your people, by far. But he is not what you would call kind – not a good trait for thanes of Galra, you see.”

Keith takes a step back. Not only is this man a threat, he is the most threatening thing in this damned keep. “Your father. Then you – you are the prince. Lotor.”

“It would seem that way, yes,” Prince Lotor murmurs. “Ah, and now you look more like the frightened waif. Disappointing.”

“I am not frightened of you,” Keith says. “Nor the Thane of Garris.”

“You’re not a very good liar,” Prince Lotor reproaches. “Shame. You ought to brush up on that skill. You’re going to need it.”

“I’m not lying about anything,” Keith retorts, but softly, because this is not a man he can afford to anger, and Keith can pick his battles when he must.

“Of course not,” Prince Lotor says. He wears no gold, but his eyes gleam like precious metals of their own making, irises sharp chips of lapis lazuli. “If you are searching for your husband, he is on a hunt with the other thanes. I suspect they will be gone ‘til sunset.”

Keith’s brow furrows. “Why are you not with them?”

Lotor’s brows lift, waiting.

“Your Highness,” Keith adds in a reluctant mutter.

Lotor smiles, not at all friendly. “A good question,” he says. “In short, I dislike hunting. I dislike the thanes, too. Your husband is tolerable, but when they all gather together…” His nose wrinkles. “They are quite like a jabbering flock of carrion crows picking over the glorious scraps of battle. No thank you; I would rather wander this humble keep and bother the Marmoran peace-weaver everyone has been whispering about. Are you bothered, yet?”

Keith does not know what to make of Zarkon’s son, though he has the distinct suspicion he is being made fun of.

“Er,” he says. “Yes?”

“Unfortunate,” Prince Lotor sighs. “I was hoping you would prove a more difficult adversary. Alas, I may find my match in the kitchen staff. You haven’t met them yet, have you? A good night’s sleep is important, but so is breakfast.”

Keith bites the inside of his cheek. “I ate,” he says.

Prince Lotor clicks his tongue. “Truly the most awful liar I have ever come across. Are all Marmorans so terribly blunt? Ah, well. Starve yourself if you must. I won’t stop you. I could. But, I won’t. Enjoy ogling my father’s portrait.”

He turns and walks down the staircase, unhurried, long black cloak trailing after him. There is a silver clasp perched above his braid – shaped like a roaring lion, with cold blue eyes just like its owner’s.

Keith shakes himself. If that was truly the Galran prince, then he wasn’t so bad. A pompous man too clever for his or anyone else’s good, yes, but Keith was only mocked, not harmed. Prince Lotor’s words about Thane Shirogane linger in the back of his mind – he is among the most sympathetic to your people. But what does sympathetic mean, exactly? Does he pity the Marmora? Or does he empathize with them?

Keith would bet good coin that what his husband feels is pity; therefore, he likely pities Keith as well. Keith looks out the wide windows and across the wooded plain, where he can see a smattering of colorful tents, men and horses milling about.

Keith sets his jaw. He can work with pity. He can work with pity very well, indeed.

*

“I would like to join my husband on the hunt,” Keith declares to the first set of guards he finds.

The guards exchange looks of disbelief under their black helmets. “The hunting party departed some time ago,” one says.

“I have eyes,” Keith says. “I can see the tents outside; those have not departed. Take me to them.”

The other guard coughs, raking his gaze up and down Keith’s body. His expression is amused. He thinks Keith is asking. “I do not think the thane would approve of that, milady,” he drawls.

Keith steps into their space and the guards stiffen noticeably. “Oh? Did he specifically forbid me from accompanying him on his hunt?”

“No, but –”

Keith lifts a hand. “No. He did not. And if I told him that you prevented me from joining him on his hunt when he specifically asked me to do so this morning, do you suppose he would be happy with the two of you?”

Their eyes widen. “We – have received no orders of the sort –”

Keith glares. “Do you think the thane has time to dictate every detail of your lives? He told me, as his wife, to accompany him on his hunt. He wishes to introduce me to the other Thanes of Galra. Would you deny him that?”

The guards pause, and Keith viscerally dislikes the sudden and nearly smug realization in their faces when he says introduce me. He does not think introduce has the same meaning for him as it does for them – nor as it does for Shiro. His gut twists in sick apprehension.

He is among the most sympathetic. But he is not what you would call kind.

“Ah,” one guard says, “very well, milady. We will accompany you to the camp at once.”

“We would never wish to deny our thane his wife,” the other says, stepping away from the wall, and gestures for Keith to follow.

Keith could back down and flee, but he has never been one for cowardice, even when it is his best option. He follows.

*

As he rides through the camp, eyes settle over him like flies to honey. Keith sits tall in the saddle though every fiber of his being regrets getting atop a horse today of all days. Every step is mildly agonizing, though to his credit, the gelding they gave Keith has a smooth gait and needs only Keith’s voice and firm tug at the reins to obey his commands.

Keith frowns to himself. He must not get attached, not even to the horse they gave him. Everything could be taken away from him in an instant, and if he lets any of the Galra know any of his weaknesses, they will have yet one more advantage. Keith cannot allow them to have any more power over him than they already have.

But he remembers that the horse’s name is Midnight, and Keith leaves a tiny braid in his shaggy black mane before he dismounts in front of the Thane of Garris’s tent with as much grace and poise as he can muster; that is to say, without grimacing too much.

The guards who escorted him remain outside the tent as another guard hurries to lead the horses off. “Wait inside for his Lordship. The hunt should be over in an hour or two before the real fun begins.” The guards wink and Keith ducks inside the tent so he doesn’t have to look at their ugly, smirking faces a moment longer.

He stops as the tent flaps fall shut behind him. There’s a wolf sprawled out on the rug spread across the ground, and it leaps to its feet as Keith enters, baring sharp white teeth at him and growling, hackles raised. It’s black, though the longer fur along its back and shoulders is a striking blue-gray and its face has paler markings, almost like a mask, surrounding fierce golden eyes. It isn’t wearing a collar.

Keith lifts his hands in what he hopes is a placating gesture and whispers, “Please don’t eat me.”

The wolf blinks at him, and pads forward, hackles still raised but growl fading. Keith holds perfectly still as the beast circles him, sniffing at his clothing and nosing at the tunic and cloak, ears pricking and tail thumping against the ground. The wolf backs off a little and sits down, head tilted and bright, eerily intelligent eyes fixed on him.

He probably smells like Shiro to the beast's keen nose. Keith swallows, not wanting to imagine what would have happened if he didn’t.

“My name is Keith,” Keith tells the wolf as he walks slowly to the large cot in the corner of the tent, sitting down on the edge of it and staring back at the wolf. “Do you have a name, or does he just keep you around as a guard dog?”

The wolf huffs and lays its head down on its paws, though its gaze never leaves him.

“Do you eat people?” Keith asks after several minutes of awkward silence. “I've heard stories about wolves that eat people. I don’t believe them — or, if you do eat them, you probably have a good reason. Right?”

The wolf blinks. Keith is talking to a wolf. But he has nothing better to do. He would much rather talk to the wolf than the guards.

“If I take a nap here,” Keith says, “will you eat me?”

The wolf’s tail thumps. It stares.

“Very well, then,” Keith mutters, laying his head down on Thane Shirogane’s pillow and tugging the blankets over him. “I shall have to take your word for it. And if not, then Thane Shirogane will be in a great deal of trouble.”

He closes his eyes. The wolf does not.

The wolf also does not eat him. Keith awakes some time later to a loud curse and a warm, fluffy weight bearing down on his entire left side. Keith cracks an eye open. It’s the wolf. It’s still staring at him, but now it’s snuggling with him, wet nose shoved into his armpit. Keith gives it an absent-minded scratch behind the ears, and the wolf yawns, satisfied.

Someone curses again. It’s Shiro. Keith looks up at him.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Shiro says. His manner is grim. His hair is pulled back in a high bun, but strands have escaped, and gleam with perspiration in the candlelight. He smells like horse and men and the same woodsmoke scent of last night, but thicker, smothering.

“Your wolf didn’t eat me,” Keith says, sitting up, and the wolf with him. It pads towards Shiro, head held low in what could be shame. Shiro gives it a sharp look, and the wolf whines, sitting beside the tent flaps with drooping ears. Keith can’t blame it; the thane’s displeasure is palpable and lingers around him like high humidity.

Shiro shakes his head. “The real wolves are outside this tent, and they know you’re here, thanks to your grand entrance earlier.”

“Did you expect me to stay in that keep all day?” Keith snaps, getting to his feet more clumsily than he would have liked. Shiro notices his stumble, and purses his lips.

“I expected you to be smart,” Shiro says. “Evidently, I have married a fool. Come. They are waiting to meet you, and there is no escaping that now.”

Keith’s brow lowers. “A fool,” he repeats, more stung by Shiro’s opinion of him than he should be.

Shiro extends his dark clawed hand. His eyes are cold. “You would have been wise to stay in the keep. You were safe there.”

“And here?”

Shiro’s claws close around his wrist and he tugs Keith in close against his chest, crooking a claw under his chin and gazing down at him. “You’ll meet the other thanes and their wives soon,” he says. “You’ll see.”

“The other thanes brought their wives? Then why didn’t you –”

Shiro’s gloved hand covers Keith’s mouth firmly, and Keith inhales against worn leather, brows drawing together. “Don’t question me,” Shiro says in a calm, even tone that does not match his burning eyes. “Don’t speak to the other thanes unless spoken to, and even then, say as little as possible. Don’t eat or drink anything I do not give you personally. And don’t leave my sight. Understood?”

Keith’s hands are curled into fists against his chest. He nods, with difficulty.

Shiro lifts his hand away. “Say it.”

“Understood,” Keith whispers. He clears his throat, peering past Shiro through the thin gap in the tent flaps, at the fading autumn sunshine and the faint gleam of a bonfire in the distance, surrounded by silhouettes. “Do the wives,” he says, jerky and uncertain, “get...hurt?”

Shiro’s claws dig into his wrist and forearm. “You will not,” he says. “Not if you do as I say.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Don’t,” is all Shiro says, and steps away, but not too far away, appraising Keith. “That looks good on you,” he adds, brushing his knuckles over the black fabric of the tunic Keith stole from his wardrobe before taking his hand, gentler this time, and leading him out of the tent.

The wolf follows, head held high and alert, and Keith wonders why a thane would keep a guard dog in his own tent, in his own camp, at his own marital celebration. He knows better than to ask now, though – Shiro is as alert as the wolf, his brow low and eyes scanning the camp as if expecting an ambush at any moment. He keeps a hand on Keith’s shoulder, forcing him to remain tucked close to the thane’s side, shielded from prying eyes by his thick black cloak.

The bonfire climbs towards the faded blue sky as if trying to devour the clouds themselves, licking hungrily at the sun before it dips below the horizon. Keith watches passing men shed their armor in favor of more comfortable leather jerkins and hide breeches, slapping each other on the back and laughing around full mugs of golden ale. Horses snort at their hitching posts, flanks and muzzles flecked with the white foam of a recent chase, sides heaving in residual exertion. Keith reaches out to touch a bay’s long neck, and Shiro pauses, and lets him.

“You like horses,” Shiro murmurs. It isn’t a question.

Keith nods. “My horse was mortally wounded in the last battle,” he says. He lowers his gaze, hand falling away from the bay’s neck just as the horse’s head turns to investigate, dark eyes unblinking. “She was a good horse.”

“Hm.” Shiro regards him for a moment. “That is unfortunate.”

“You’re not surprised I fought in the last battle,” Keith adds as they continue on to the bonfire.

“No. I’m not.” Shiro faces ahead, inhaling and setting his jaw as if to steel himself for the apparent ordeal ahead. “I saw you in that battle. You fought well. Many fell; you did not. For a half-trained Marmoran of twenty summers, that is commendable.”

“Galran women don’t fight,” Keith mutters, ignoring the jab, though it is the truth.

“No, most do not,” Shiro agrees. “There are, of course, exceptions for those who prove themselves in battle. Three of King Zarkon’s best thanes are women: Ladnok, Trugg, and Drick.”

“And where are they?”

Shiro gives him a sidelong glance. “Not here,” he says. “They are leading a campaign in the north.”

“So the women do all the work while you lot tell campfire stories and drink your cares away?”

“Well, when you put it like that...” Shiro muses, a sardonic lilt to his voice. “I know Marmoran women fight as warriors. Your mother, in particular…tales of her deeds are nigh-folklore, even among the Galra.”

“I wish they weren’t,” Keith says shortly. It hurts too much to think of his mother, to think of her far away in the forest he called home, a forest he will likely never return to in this lifetime. “Why don’t most Galran women fight?”

Shiro opens his mouth, then closes it. “I believe the official ruling is that women are ‘too precious to be thrown into the jaws of war.’” He tilts his head. “Or was it ‘maw’ of war?”

Keith snorts. “Surprised you still agreed to the marriage after seeing me slit a man’s throat astride a war-mare, then.”

Shiro hums; it rumbles through his chest. “Handling a blade is a good skill to have, regardless of sex.” He shakes his head. “Besides, I agreed to nothing. I was simply the nearest unwed thane to the Marmora. Fate and sovereignty willed this,” he gestures between them, “not me.” He pauses. “Nor you.”

“And you follow your king’s orders like a good thane,” Keith mutters, “yes, I know.”

“Do you?” Shiro asks softly, grip tightening on Keith. “Hush, now. The wolves are hungry.”

King Zarkon’s best thanes sit in a rough semicircle around the fire, beside which is a smaller cookfire roasting the spoils of the hunt. It’s a pair of large boars, turned on a spit under the thanes’ eager eyes, and in a nearby tent Keith can see servants bustling about with cups and plates and plucked fowl and skinned rabbits and barrels and barrels of mead.

Shiro takes his place at the head of the semicircle, atop a makeshift throne of furs and stone. Keith falters; there is no chair for him. Expression inscrutable, Shiro pats his thigh. Keith’s throat constricts. He glances wildly around the bonfire and sees what he willfully failed to notice before — the few women present sit on or nearly on the laps of their thanes, heads bowed and waists encircled by proprietary hands.

They wear dresses like the ones on Keith’s side of the wardrobe, opulent finery concealing the ugly truths beneath. The closest woman’s long golden hair shines like burnished coins stretched thin, and she glances at Keith with a kind of dulled curiosity. Her thane is the largest and appears the wealthiest of the group; his massive frame shakes with guffaws as the thane beside him cracks some joke.

He holds her waist with a ringed hand as if to draw attention to it, and when she shifts, Keith sees the slight but unmistakable swell of her belly. She looks away.

Other women mill about, whores, with tawdry dresses and loose hair, and as he follows their winding paths Keith’s gaze snags on the thane a few seats down, one of the bigger and older of the men. He’s missing an eye, the entire right side of his face struck through with mottled scars, and his thick dark hair, pushed back from his face, makes no attempt to hide it. The whores flock to him like sparrows to the boy they know will give them crumbs. The thane lifts his head, eye locking on Keith, and his scarred lips twitch upwards.

Keith has evidently hesitated too long, because Shiro hauls him down into his lap, and Keith goes with an unhappy grunt, sitting stiff and uncomfortable and biting back a rebuke as all the thanes look to them. The pregnant wife looks, too, in a way that suggests she has gotten very good at pretending not to look.

“My lords,” Shiro says, voice rising over the crackling flames and low thunder of half-drunken conversation. “It’s an honor to have you all here this fine day. Fate and our king have blessed us all, indeed.”

“Especially you, Shirogane!” the large thane with the pregnant wife bellows, his reddish beard moving with his wide grin. “Blessed with a wife pretty enough to miss breakfast, albeit one who wears your trousers. Though Marmorans aren’t known for wearing gowns!” The thanes laugh as if he has just said something terribly clever.

Shiro inclines his head graciously. Keith struggles not to scowl. “And you are most blessed of all, Lord Ranveig, and of course Lady Gleda. Your wife is all aglow with health. Fate shines on us both, it seems.”

“Ay, it does indeed,” Ranveig agrees proudly. Lady Gleda smiles, demure and close-lipped. “Well? Aren’t you going to introduce your wife, Shirogane?”

“Marmorans are a quiet sort,” the scarred thane remarks before Shiro can reply, studying his ringed fingers, which glint in the shifting light. “I’ve often wondered if they are capable of speech, or else completely dumb and mute.”

As the scarred thane speaks, Shiro’s right hand sharpens into claws, digging into Keith’s hip.

“My name is Keith,” Keith says, directly to the scarred thane. “I’m not mute.”

He doesn’t have to turn to feel Shiro’s glare, nor the threatening tightening of his grip. The thanes all pause. Lady Gleda looks up, not pretending not to, this time. He can see then that her face is freckled, nose upturned and eyes an ocean blue. She looks young, but there is a tightness to her mouth and eyes, an unwilling hardening of her features.

The scarred thane chuckles. “Evidently not. Shame. Silence can be a charming trait.”

“So can eloquence,” Lady Gleda says. Ranveig beams down at her and she tilts her head, her gaze on Keith unbreaking. “We have all heard many wondrous things about the Marmorans; they cannot all possibly be true. I am sure we would all be fascinated to hear whatever you would deign to tell us...Keith.”

Ranveig beams. “My wife speaks true as ever! You Marmorans are great horsemen, are you not?”

“It has been said,” Keith replies warily, glancing around the fire. The thanes lean forward in interest; Shiro is tense at his back, and the wolf sits at their feet silently. The scarred thane watches, a whore on each thigh. “Our warriors are paired to their steed when they are child and foal. It is a deep bond.”

Ranveig and the thane next to him nod sagely. “A good horse makes a better warrior,” he agrees, and points to a thane across the fire, another with a wife. “Branko, now there’s a man who knows his horses. Great warbeasts. You Marmora should have traded with them; maybe things would have turned out better for you then, hm?”

Keith’s eye twitches. “Maybe,” he says. “No telling, now.”

Thane Branko grins; his face reminds Keith of the boar roasting over the open flames. He makes some reply which hurtles the other thanes into another bout of raucous laughter and knee-slapping, but Keith is more focused on Branko’s wife.

She is a slight thing, with silky black hair plaited loosely down her back, and small dark eyes fringed with trembling lashes. Her skin is a pale brown like a riverbed in drought, and her gown is loose, faded white and vivid russet. Keith recognizes the style.

Shiro has been more or less quiet as the other thanes talk, still holding Keith fast, occasionally telling Keith the names of certain thanes in a distracted sort of manner, as if he is trying to listen and speak at the same time. Now, he is quiet, fingers tapping at his knee, one by one.

Keith turns his head slightly towards Shiro. “Branko’s wife,” he murmurs, “she’s Olkari.”

Shiro glances down at him, finger lifted mid-tap. “Yes,” he says. “Mei. She’s a peace-weaver. So is Gleda.”

Keith swallows. “And was peace woven?”

Shiro looks past him. “Gleda’s clan is the Mer.”

Keith tenses. “But the Mer –”

“Were driven out of their ancestral land and across the sea to a distant island.” Shiro finishes.

“That isn’t peace,” Keith whispers.

“They’re still alive, aren’t they?” Shiro turns to smile and talk to an approaching thane as if Keith had said nothing at all. Keith shivers, and glances back at Mei. She has been left by her thane on his heap of pelts, and sits with a sort of disoriented resignation, nibbling on an apple and idly petting the furs. Keith frowns. The Olkari were far from Galran reach, or so he’d thought. It was true they had heard little from the clan in recent months, but –

“I will not be long away,” Shiro says, standing and upending Keith with the sudden movement, steadying him before he can stumble flat on his face.

It is an unsubtle reminder that Keith is at his mercy in as many ways as Shiro would like him to be. This is his domain and Keith is a stranger trapped here; the more he struggles, the further he is entangled. “Stay here.” Shiro eyes Keith and looks to the wolf. “Or he will make you.”

The wolf lifts his head eagerly, and blinks at Keith, pink tongue lolling over wicked canines. Keith sinks back down into the furs sulkily, and Shiro wanders to the other side of the bonfire with two thanes Shiro called Morvok and Janka. Keith furrows his brow at the rising smoke and popping flames – the sky is darkening, but lingers stubbornly in a hazy half-dusk, suspending the conversation in a perpetual state of almost; almost night, almost feast-time, almost revelry, but not quite.

The scarred thane is standing in front of him. Keith raises an eyebrow, and the man sinks into a crouch, so that they are eye-level. Shiro is obscured by the bonfire. The wolf growls, rising into a low and defensive stance in front of Keith.

The scarred thane ignores it. “Never seen Shirogane so protective of a lover before,” he says. “Possessive, some might say.”

Whatever Keith was expecting him to say, it wasn’t that. He frowns at the thane. “You have known his other lovers, then?”

Scarred lips curl, and the thane extends a massive hand, palm-up. It is familiar, in that, like Shiro’s, it is clawed and cursed, but this one is reinforced by an iron gauntlet which extends over his entire forearm. “Lord Sendak,” he murmurs, “of Arus. Your husband and I are old friends.”

“He did not seem very friendly towards you,” Keith says, placing his hand in the thane’s waiting palm. “He did not even tell me your name.”

Sendak touches his lips to Keith’s knuckles, the brief ghost of a touch, then releases him. “He has grown cold, as of late,” Sendak replies. “He forgets his origins, and why our king thought so highly of him. He forgets he is and will always be the Champion.”

“Why, exactly, is he the Champion?” Keith asks. “What has he done to earn such a title?”

Sendak chuckles. “He is the king’s kingslayer, wifeling. We are all trained well in the art of war, but your husband has other training. He brings kings’ heads on pikes to King Zarkon. And if he cannot reach the king, he kills the kings’ champions.” Sendak nods to the growling wolf. “That beast and your husband are not dissimilar in that regard...among others.”

Keith sinks a hand into the wolf’s thick ruff of fur. “And why are you a lord, and my husband only a thane and a champion?”

“He is not of noble blood,” Sendak says. “Nor will he ever be. Nor will his heirs.” He leans closer. “If there are heirs at all.”

Keith’s skin prickles. “I am of noble blood.” Sendak’s eyes narrow. “My mother, Krolia, is a direct descendant of our forefather, Marmora of Thaldycon. My father was a warlord. My blood is not Galran, but it is noble.”

“Then you have married down, not up,” Sendak retorts. He frowns deeply at Keith. “I have visited many a brothel with your husband, so I will give you a word of advice, wifeling.” Sendak lowers his voice. “Your husband has...dark proclivities. If you are relieved he has taken a liking to you, don’t be. He wishes to lure you into a false sense of safety; he is clever like that. Shirogane is a man capable of unimaginable cruelty – not the sort of man, if he is truly a man at all, who ever ought to be father.”

Keith sits frozen, Sendak’s words settling deep and sickening in his gut. “What do you mean?” he whispers.

Sendak shakes his head. “Let us just say,” he murmurs, “he has never shied away from inflicting pain and drawing blood. He likes to leave his mark, and often his marks leave scars. He likes others to know who belongs to him, without doubt.”

Keith flinches, withdrawing his hand from the wolf’s fur. “I...I see.”

“You don’t,” Sendak replies, straightening up, “but you will.” He gestures for a passing servant to come, and plucks a goblet from their tray, holding it out to Keith with an apologetic smile. “The lot of a peace-weaver is a difficult one, but mead is good for forgetting one’s troubles. Good to meet you at last, Keith of Marmora-turned-Garris.” He bows, a gesture as sincere as it is mocking, and returns to his waiting harlots.

Keith drinks from the goblet hastily, not noticing the faint smear of reddish powder around the golden rim. The wolf sniffs the air and whines, lifting a paw onto the furs and trying to reach the cup; Keith curls away from it. His heart pounds and his thoughts blur.

Shiro is not kind, no, but could he be cruel, and in such an intimate way? It hurts to consider. But Keith has considered it before, so the thought does not hurt as much as it should.

The sun is setting at last. Keith downs the contents of the goblet when he sees Shiro striding towards him.

“Keith,” Shiro says, stopping short. “Where did you get that?”

In reply, Keith tosses the goblet over the edge of the furs; it comes to a rolling halt in the dust. Fear makes him rude. “Doesn’t matter,” he says. “I was thirsty. I drank it. I didn’t want to wait for you.”

A vein throbs in Shiro’s forehead. “Do you not remember the rules I gave you?”

“Must have slipped my mind.” Keith shuffles to the side so Shiro can sit beside him. Shiro reaches for his waist and Keith stops him with a glare.

“Keith,” Shiro demands, abruptly silenced by the roar of hungry men as the servants serve the feast at last. Barrels of mead are split open and golden brew sloshes out of slamming mugs, triumphant toasts. Servants bring them food and drink; they don’t have to lift a finger.

That’s good, because Keith isn’t certain he can lift his fingers. Something, he thinks, is wrong. The wolf is staring at him and whining. Shiro scratches the wolf’s neck until it calms down, watching Keith out of the corner of his eye as the food is served and his mug filled to the brim. Keith blinks, struggling to clear his vision. His tolerance is better than this. It was only one goblet.

Shiro lifts a warm slice of buttered bread to Keith’s lips. Keith eyes him over the crust, brows drawing together. “It’s tradition,” Shiro explains, “to feed the bride.”

“I’m not a bride,” Keith mutters, but opens his mouth, images of jaws forced open by sharp claws swimming through his head, blood dripping from split gums and sliced lips. The bread tastes divine. Keith chases the soft warmth and salt-sweet butter, and does not realize he is licking Shiro’s fingers until the thane makes a choked noise and pulls his hand away.

Keith frowns to himself. Yes. Something is very wrong. But he doesn’t know what; he does know he would like more mead. He takes Shiro’s cup. Shiro doesn’t stop him, though he takes the cup from Keith when he’s drained half of it. “You’ll thank me tomorrow morning,” Shiro tells him.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be thanking you come morning,” Keith retorts petulantly. “I still feel as though I’ve been stabbed in —”

Shiro coughs. “I’m sorry. How was the bath? Did the tea help?”

Keith rolls his eyes, burrowing under Shiro’s cloak; he’s too cold suddenly, shivering and unable to stop. The thane watches him with a perplexed stare, but lifts his cloak to accommodate Keith.

“I didn’t take your bath or your tea,” Keith replies. “I met Prince Lotor.”

Shiro blanches. “You did — what? Why?”

“He wanted to bother me,” Keith sighs. “He was — who is that?”

There’s a woman standing not far from Sendak, but she isn’t a whore. If she is, she’s a highly unconventional one, and Keith would be interested in visiting whichever brothel she came from. Her hair is short and dark, ragged and angled around her slim face as if chopped by a sword. Her eyes are dark too, cunning under the shadow of her hair. There’s a blade at her hip, with an ornate silver hilt. She’s watching them, and turns away when Keith sees her, disappearing into the shadows without a hurry.

“Acxa,” Shiro says. “She’s one of Lotor’s.”

“One of Lotor’s what?”

“Thanes, you might call them.” Shiro hesitates. “Keith, are you well?”

“I’m hungry,” Keith says. “Feed me more, husband.”

“If you insist,” Shiro says after a deliberate and disbelieving pause. He plucks tender boar meat from the bone and Keith takes it from his hand between careful teeth, chewing and making small pleased sounds low in his throat.

Shiro’s heavy gaze on him is as comforting as it is frightening. Shiro wants him. Keith wishes he knew the full extent of that want, and if it truly includes the horrors Sendak described. But for now, it is easier to wish only for the next rich morsel of their meal.

The sun vanishes, somewhere along the way. Keith loses track of time. There is only the fire and its hypnotic light, and the food warm in his belly and on his tongue, and the heat of Shiro’s body, and the heat of his own body, a heat that climbs through his thighs and down his spine to find its crux where his body still aches.

Shiro touches him, draws his thumb over Keith’s lips to brush crumbs away, and Keith forgets the ache. He pushes his chest out to feel the way the thane’s cloak teases, unknowingly torturous, at the hard points of his nipples below the tunic, the tunic which smells like Shiro; he is choked by woodsmoke and the faint metallic tang of what could be, must be, blood. For he has married a man who kills for his keep, for his title, for his gold — he has not earned his blood by birth, so he must take it by force.

But Keith is familiar with blood.

The moon is a high and smirking crescent as spiced mead settles in Keith’s belly like a fallow ember, stoked into smoldering alive at Shiro’s hands and voice. Keith can no longer think of a single good reason not to settle fully into Shiro’s lap and nuzzle into his soft cloak and warm throat. The bonfire roars along with the other thanes’ laughter and conversation, but Keith cannot hear any of them anymore. Shiro squeezes his hip, leaning his head close, and Keith blinks hazily up into his husband’s smoke-dark stare.

“Keith?” Shiro murmurs, cupping his face. His thumb strokes over Keith’s cheekbone in slow circles.

“Mm,” Keith sighs, wriggling on his thigh to get more comfortable. “Think ‘m drunk.”

“Yes,” Shiro chuckles, hand moving down to Keith’s neck, smoothing his hair back in calming strokes. Keith’s eyes flutter shut, reveling in the soothing sensation. “I think you are quite drunk, my heart.”

Keith’s eyes open. “My heart,” he repeats, and shivers, squirming then for a different reason. Through the long strands of Shiro’s hair Keith can see Sendak a few seats away, narrowed eyes turned yellow by the dancing flame. Keith narrows his eyes back and gropes blindly at Shiro’s chest under the cloak, kneading at firm muscle which flexes under his bold hands.

Shiro makes a low sound in the back of his throat, eyes widening. His lips part when Keith shifts to straddle the thane’s thigh as best he can, rubbing against the hard muscle there, gods, Shiro is delightfully large and hard everywhere, just right for Keith to wrap around and use for friction on the softest parts of himself, until they twinge with a confusing mix of pleasure-pain and a moan trembles on his lips –

Something growls, and it isn’t the wolf.

“Control yourself,” Shiro says against the shell of his ear. “People are staring. Is this how you want them to know you?”

“I only want you to know me,” Keith says, too breathy, too unashamed. A distant part of him is panicking, but it is quiet, drowned out by the foreign flood of lust churning in his gut with the mead.

“What has gotten into you?” Shiro marvels, tucking Keith’s hair behind his ear. Keith leans into it with wanton desperation. He’s wet. He’s so, so wet, and yet everything feels dry, burning, feverish. It’s awful and incredible and utterly overwhelming.

Shiro looks like he wants to eat Keith alive. Keith wouldn’t be able to stop him if he did. All he can do is clutch at Shiro and shift in dissatisfied half-rolls of his body until the thane holds him fast and says, low and rough, “Alright, we are leaving, you have made your point.”

But Keith continues to make his point even as Shiro hauls him off and back through the camp; Keith’s legs refuse to carry his weight and tries to climb Shiro like a tree when the flustered thane is forced to carry him. The overwhelming feeling is teetering on pain and Keith whimpers against Shiro’s lips when the thane kisses him and guides him down onto the plush cot in his tent, the tent flaps drawn tightly shut behind them.

At the sound, Shiro sits up and cups Keith’s face in his hands. “Keith,” he whispers, slow and dripping with dread, “who gave you that goblet of mead?”

Keith closes his eyes and bucks uselessly up under him. “Sendak,” he manages on a half-inhale, half-wheeze.

Shiro freezes; Keith sees the sharp flash of his teeth in the gloom and swears they are needled, tapering to inhuman points like his claws. “Why did you take it?” Shiro demands, braced over him in a heavy penumbra. “What did he say to you?”

He’s angry, and Keith is aflame, as terrified as he is aroused; the fear urges him harder, wetter, needier. It’s a sick instinct, but it’s a method of survival — make yourself useful to the enemy, make yourself pliant and offer yourself up, and they have less reason to destroy you.

Surrender has always been Keith's last resort, but as peace-weaver he has no other choice; no choice with Shiro, with the Galra. If he fights this, them, him, they’ll have no reason not to finish their slaughter of the Marmorans. They’ll kill his family and burn their forest until all that remains is ash and it will be Keith’s fault.

That is what they will all say, anyway.

“Sorry,” Keith gasps, breath snagging in his constricting throat, “sorry, sorry —”

Shiro’s hands close on his shoulders and Keith cries out in ragged anguish, bracing himself for torn flesh and screaming nerves. Instead, he finds himself dizzily upright, slumped against Shiro’s chest, the thane’s arms wrapped close around him. Shiro’s heart beats against his cheek. Keith shakes.

“Hush,” Shiro whispers. “Shh. Orichalis can be dangerous in large doses, but it will not last too long. Are you in pain?”

Keith nods. He keeps his eyes shut. He doesn’t want to see Shiro, nor himself, nor anything. Having five senses is far too many, right now. “Please,” he whispers. “I need –” He hiccups on a sob he refuses to let past his lips.

Shiro is quiet, then his left hand slides from Keith’s back to the taut expanse of his stomach, slipping under the tunic. Keith bites at Shiro’s cloak, mouth filling with fur and sweat, and Shiro shushes him again, unpins the cloak and lays it across the cot so Keith can fall down into it, a heap of limbs askew.

“Tell me what you need,” Shiro murmurs. “And what you don’t.”

Keith’s chest rises and falls in uneven heaves, tunic pushed up just under the slight and sweating curve of his breast. “I don’t know,” he gasps, “I – please.” His legs spread and he hates himself for it, but he can do nothing else; his body is not his own.

Shiro kisses him again, smoothing Keith’s messy hair down and cooing meaningless sounds over his slack mouth. He pulls back for a moment, studying Keith with frightening focus, then reaches back and unwinds the high pin of his hair, letting it fall down over his scarred shoulders. Keith inhales.

“You can touch,” Shiro says, not like a condescension but like a reminder, and tugs Keith’s leggings down to his ankles without much effort at all. Keith forgets about not looking. Shiro buries his face in wet curls and wetter folds and Keith forgets about not crying, too. His hands, struggling for purchase, sink into Shiro’s hair as the thane’s hot tongue flickers inside him, then yank harder than he means to when Shiro finally touches his clit. Shiro groans, kissing the swollen tip and catching it between his teeth, and Keith comes so hard he kicks Shiro square in the chest.

Shiro grunts, lifting his head, eyes darker than before. Keith pants shallowly, thighs sticky, skin flushed so red and hot he feels sunburnt, but there is no sun in the tent, only Shiro, and the lamp which haloes him in gold.

“More?” is all Shiro says, and Keith shudders and whispers, “Yes,” and then again, just to make certain Shiro heard him, “yes, yes.”

Shiro smiles, and this time there can be no doubt that his teeth are not human; Keith squirms away but Shiro catches him in half a second, pins Keith’s hips to his cloak and drags the flat of his tongue back and forth until Keith doesn’t care about mutilation and monsters anymore. Shiro’s fingers pluck and rub and when Keith begs for it, hook inside him hard and sweet, and when he comes again, Keith scratches at Shiro’s scalp and stuffs his fist into his mouth, leaving ivory indents in his knuckles.

His thigh stings; he looks down through teary lashes. Shiro’s right hand is splayed over tender flesh, holding him open, and his claws have broken skin. Keith stares at the five scarlet pinpricks, at the infernal brilliance in Shiro’s eyes. His thighs tremble and his bruised cunt pulses around Shiro’s still fingers. Sendak’s words echo; they hurt his ears.

“Let them hear you,” Shiro snarls. “Let the whole camp hear you scream, and know you’re all mine.” The world tilts on its axis and so Keith does not know if the forked tip of Shiro’s tongue is real or imagined, but he swears he feels it plunge into him, feels it just as he feels Shiro’s tightening grip scratching his inner thigh open in growing lines of fire.

Keith tumbles back to the edge far too quickly and Shiro pulls away, not to give him mercy but to lick at the claw-cuts and rub at Keith with rough fingers and his rougher jaw, ‘til he is red and twitching all over.

When Keith comes the third time, Shiro is expecting it, and kisses him without quarter. He tastes like iron and rotting fruit and Keith tears away, gagging as bile rises, and doubles over beside the cot.

Shiro moves fast, too fast, so that when Keith vomits it is into the chamberpot. It happens in a moment, maybe two. The chamberpot was on the other side of the tent. Shadows writhe at the edges of his vision, and some of them look like hands.

It doesn’t make sense. Keith coughs, shivering and wrapping his arms around himself. He’s still feverish, but not in any way other than nauseous and exhausted. He can still feel Shiro’s tongue on him and presses his legs tight together, trying to banish it from his body.

Keith doesn’t fight it when Shiro lays him down on the cot among blankets too soft for what just transpired, but he keeps his eyes shut.

“What did Sendak say to you?” Shiro murmurs again in the fading adrenaline and roiling uncertainty.

The truth, Keith thinks, but he keeps his mouth shut, too.   

Chapter Text

They leave at dawn’s first light.

Keith sits between the hard curve of Shiro’s body and the crest of his black stallion’s proud neck. Shiro suggested he ride side-saddle, but Keith is more numb than sore. He didn’t sleep well last night, staring blankly at the muted glow of moonlight through the tent-canvas, Shiro’s breath measured and lukewarm on his neck.

When he was selected for this role, Keith steeled himself to deal with a man, but it seems his husband is not one. What he is, Keith does not know, but he knows it is powerful and it is cruel, and he does not know if Shiro is in control of it – nor if he wishes to be.

Shiro asks him questions and Keith does not answer, or barely answers. His mind is distant and tangled. That thing, the thing inside Shiro; it was inside Keith, too. And what if…

Well. The spell Keith learned was meant to destroy the seed of men. If Shiro is not one, then maybe he will have the damned heir, after all. Maybe his mother was wrong to say Shiro does not share the power of magic – worse, maybe his magic is stronger than Keith’s. The more Keith thinks, the more he is convinced that the power flowing through Shiro’s veins is far greater than Keith’s fumbling spells to make his womb the most inhospitable place on earth.

It would certainly be comeuppance for his meddling in nature if he birthed a monster.

The lump in Keith’s throat grows over the course of the day. Shiro helps him off the horse with the utmost care, and when Keith ducks his head from Shiro’s offered kiss, the thane does not scold him.

He does take Keith’s hand gently, and insist that they bathe. Keith begrudgingly thinks Shiro is wise to not leave Keith to his own devices this time, nor trust that he will follow orders. Shiro likely trusts him not a whit. But the feeling is mutual.

The thane bathes first, and he does so alone, which Keith was not expecting. The servants bar him from the washroom like the suspicious stranger he is and Keith stands in their bedroom with clenched fists, staring out the lead-paned window, watching the winter geese fly across the slate sky in a shaky V.

The minutes tick by and his knees tremble and his spine threatens to buckle and he wishes he had wings, too — though, with his luck, they would be as sore and tired as the rest of him.

When Keith is finally ushered into the washroom, the servants leave, and it is just the two of them. Shiro stands wrapped in a dark blue robe; his hair hangs dripping, night and day, earth and bone, endless black and whitest white. He does not smell like woodsmoke anymore, or blood, or rot. He smells like winter, cold and clean. Sterile. Keith can hope, anyway.

“Come,” Shiro says, and Keith does. He stands as Shiro peels the tunic from him, and then the leggings, and the pathetic soaked-thin mess of his smallclothes. Shiro says nothing of it.

His hands span Keith’s shoulders and he presses his lips between jutting shoulder blades. Keith does not breathe. Shiro pulls away after a moment, and stands beside him instead. He looks disappointed. Keith eyes him dully and thinks of the knife his mother gave him.

The thane nudges him into the steaming bath and Keith weathers it, sinking down in the warm water with a sigh he does not mean to make. Shiro raises his eyebrows, as if to say I told you so, without saying anything at all.

Keith closes his eyes in retribution, leaning his head against the wooden edge of the bathtub as Shiro’s hands sink into his hair, working a lather of soap through to his scalp. It feels good, and smells like springtime, the pungent perfume of roses clinging to his skin. Keith shivers and Shiro’s fingers still.

“If you would prefer,” Shiro says, quiet and for the first time since Keith has met him, uncertain, “I can leave you to bathe yourself.”

Keith draws his fingers through the stagnant surface of the water and sighs again. “If you are bathing me in hopes of bedding me, then perhaps leaving would be more fruitful for you.”

Shiro exhales; it tickles Keith’s wet hair. “You are in no state to be bedded,” he reproaches.

Keith sinks down further into the water. “And you are here to put me in a more presentable state,” he finishes.

Shiro’s hands leave his hair altogether. He kneels beside the bathtub, brow creased. “Is that truly all you think I desire from you?” he asks. “From this?” He gestures between them.

“What else would you desire from me, from this?” Keith retorts. “This is no marriage founded on love nor even friendship. It is founded on alliance and the furthering of bloodlines. I have no illusions about that. Do you?”

“It is still a marriage,” Shiro argues, visibly perturbed by Keith’s reply. “We will still be wed for the rest of our lives, and if Fate smiles upon us, that will be a long time indeed —”

“Fate is not known for smiling down on me,” Keith says. He glances at Shiro’s arm. “Nor you, perhaps. It may be shorter than we think. Odds are you will die long before me, husband.”

Shiro scowls. “I am not that ancient. How old do you think I am?”

Keith does not deign to answer that except to say, “Younger than most thanes, which is the best one can hope for.”

“I have lived twenty-five summers,” Shiro mutters defensively, “more or less.”

“Perhaps you will be killed in battle, then,” Keith muses, “by a noble sword-blow, or even a stray arrow.”

Shiro’s eyes narrow. “You sound eager, for someone who would benefit least from my death.”

“At least I would have the bed to myself for a night before they seized me and burned my clan into nothing,” Keith counters.

Shiro’s expression softens. “I will not allow that to happen, Keith.”

“What, death?”

“I will not allow harm to come to you. I will do all that is in my power to protect your clan, too.” Shiro’s gaze is steady. “Can you trust me in this, Keith?”

“You have already harmed me,” Keith says, and looks between his legs, to the angry red marks Shiro’s claws and mouth left on him.

Shiro looks down, shoulders slumping. “Yes,” he murmurs, “as I suppose Sendak hoped I might. I am sorry, Keith.”

“You liked it,” Keith blurts, and Shiro’s bowed head jerks up. “You liked hurting me.”

Shiro’s throat bobs in a hard swallow. He doesn’t deny it. But he doesn’t look smug or scornful, either — he blanches, eyes widening with obvious horror, and hurries to stand. “I’m sorry,” he repeats, hushed. “I don’t know why I thought this would help, I —”

Shiro looks to the door, frame tense and frozen, and Keith knows he’s about to flee.

He catches Shiro’s wrist. He doesn’t know why he does it. Maybe it’s because, even if trusting Shiro’s words is impossible, what Keith can trust is the guilt shining bright in his eyes.

“Stay,” Keith says. “It might help.” He lets go. “I don’t want to be alone, right now,” he admits. “And your hands feel...pleasant enough.”

Shiro pauses, then slowly, he kneels again and touches Keith’s hair. “Pleasant enough,” he repeats. “That is...a kinder description than I had hoped for.”

Keith frowns. “It still does not mean I wish you to bed me.”

He feels the need to clarify this, but Shiro only chuckles weakly and says, “I know. There will be no bedding. Sleeping, yes, but only once you are clean and fed.”

“I sound more like an infant than a wife,” Keith remarks.

Shiro makes a low sound of protest. “You are no infant. I would see you cared for nonetheless. Is that wrong?”

“By you?” Keith purses his lips. “So you wish to bed me and care for me. Is that all?”

“No.” Shiro fetches a clean cloth and draws it over Keith’s shoulders, urging him to sit up so Shiro can wash the reluctant curve of his spine. “I wish to talk to you.”

“We are talking.”

“I wish to know more about you,” Shiro adds, “about your people, your childhood, your family.”

“So you may then have the best tactics to bring about their end should the whim strike you?” Keith shakes his head.

“Then just tell me about you,” Shiro sighs. “I want you to be happy here, Keith.”

“Happy,” Keith repeats, and wraps his arms around his bent knees.

“Yes.” Shiro scrubs carefully at the dip of his waist, moves away from the small of Keith’s back when Keith tenses. “This is your home now, and I will do all that is in my power to make it a comfortable place for you.”

Keith peeks at him over his hunched shoulder. “And what is within your power?”

Shiro offers him a small, apologetic smile. “Less than I would like,” he admits, and Keith tilts his head obligingly to the side so the thane can cover his neck and dripping collarbones in thick white suds. “But I can afford the best soap in all the land for you, so that is something to take pride in.”

Keith snorts. “Most of my baths growing up were in creeks and springs, with added herbs for any scent. I gave little thought to soap.” He sniffs delicately at the air. “This smells good, though. What is it?”

“Roses and thyme,” Shiro hums, hands venturing down over Keith’s chest. Keith keeps a wary eye on him, but the thane’s touch lacks intent, it is more exploratory than anything else. Warm water and soap runs down the middle of Keith’s chest in lazy rivulets. Shiro’s fingers follow, and Keith’s breath catches when his palm skims, then settles, over tender flesh. Shiro isn’t quite squeezing or teasing, just...holding. “But you smell good, regardless of flowers and herbs.”

Keith licks his dry lips and shifts forward into his touch. “Thank you,” he whispers. Shiro’s fingers circle his nipple, tracing slow shapes over pale skin through the film of soapy water. “What – are you doing?”

Shiro pauses. “Admiring you,” he says, and Keith’s breath catches, hard. “Should I stop?”

“No,” Keith says, a bit too fast. Shiro’s lips quirk. “But I still don’t want –”

“Admiration need not mean lust,” Shiro murmurs, stroking over Keith’s belly with the wet cloth. “What do you admire, Keith?”

Keith focuses on breathing, and on the slow slosh of the water up against the sides of the tub. He finds a way to relax, like that, listening to soft sounds as Shiro bathes and admires him.

“Stars,” Keith says, finally, because Shiro was waiting for his answer, as if he truly cares what Keith has to say. Maybe he does. Keith swallows. “The sun, and the moon, and…” He trails off.

“The heavens?” Shiro lifts Keith’s leg gently, guides him until it bends just right for him to reach the scabbed-over wound on Keith’s thigh.

Keith nods. “One...one of my first memories is stars. Falling stars.” He hesitates. Shiro’s touch is so careful; how is this the same man from last night? “I remember I was afraid. I thought – maybe the world was ending. Maybe the stars would fall on me. But I couldn’t look away. They were too beautiful.”

“Hmm,” Shiro muses, voice overlaying the ripple of the water like icing. “I know a thing or two about that.”

“About what?” Keith blinks the fog from his head. “Falling stars?”

Shiro hesitates, then nods, rubs the cloth around Keith’s calf and ankle in steady strokes. “The Galra see them as good omens. Falling stars mean many enemies will fall in the next battle.” He glances up at Keith. “What do they mean to the Marmora?”

Keith shrugs; the wet cloth tickles over the soles of his feet. “They don’t mean anything. We just watch them. What happens, happens. If the stars really did fall on us, and the world really did end, we would be able to do nothing about it.”

“That is a strangely passive view for a clan with such a fierce reputation,” Shiro murmurs.

Keith bends his knee, foot jerking out of the thane’s loose grasp. “It isn’t passive,” he retorts. “It’s how life works. We fight for what we can. Once, maybe, we fought for everything. But that is how we lost so many of our people. Some battles cannot be won. Some stars must fall.”

“Is that how you feel about this?” Shiro asks after a moment of thoughtful silence, sitting back on his heels. “About me, and us?”

I am fighting this, Keith thinks, but you will never know it – and I may have lost already.

“It was the best choice for my clan given the circumstances,” Keith says. “That is how I feel about this.”

“The best choice for you, or for your clan?” Shiro presses.

Keith frowns. He decides he is clean enough, and the thane startles back when Keith stands in the tub, water cascading down his lean body which looks much stronger than he feels. The soap stays. Shiro hands him a towel, eyes averted, absurdly enough.

Nonplussed, Keith steps out of the bath and dries himself off. “I was never going to marry,” Keith remarks. Shiro looks to him in surprise. “It was not something I thought about, nor wanted.”

“And what about children?” Shiro asks, because of course he does.

Keith shakes his head and chooses his words carefully. “I gave little thought to children, either.”

Shiro’s scarred nose scrunches as if this is incomprehensible to him; perhaps it is. “Do you...dislike children?”

Keith pauses, towel wrapped loose around himself. “Do you think it is that simple — either I like children and want to birth them, or I hate them and do not?” Shiro’s brow creases and Keith adds before he can answer, “Do you like children, or just their ability to inherit titles and wealth?”

Shiro huffs and folds his arms. “That’s a very cynical way to think of children.”

“You didn’t answer the question, so I will assume the answer is yes.”

“It is not,” Shiro retorts. His face softens and he opens the door for Keith, who resolutely does not look at him on his way out. But Shiro’s voice, quiet and wistful, follows him back to their bedroom. “I have always wanted children of my own, yes,” he muses. “Children are the best parts of us, and of those dear to us. They do not know or see or understand all the horrors of the world, and if raised well, they need not ever see such things, and let such things twist them into something ugly and filled with fear.”

“You cannot shield them from all that,” Keith mutters, dropping the towel and rummaging through the wardrobe. Shiro keeps his distance. “Children should be raised to survive the world, not hide from it.”

“But survival need not be a brutal thing,” Shiro says softly. “There is purer strength in trust and kindness and...and hope. Don’t you think?”

Keith grunts noncommittally.

Shiro sighs. “What I mean is, the best men are those who are good of heart, and made strong by that, rather than by their fear or wrath or greed. When we have children, I will care for their hearts. Survive they must, but not alone, and not without as kind and good a father as I can be to them.”

“When,” Keith repeats, under his breath, the word sour on his tongue. He reaches for the wine red gown. “Help me dress, husband.”

Shiro watches as Keith slips the gown on over new smallclothes and a pale chemise. He steps forward to lace up the back, and Keith holds his breath, and Shiro says nothing of it.

*

They dine in the mead hall that night, Keith in the wine red gown sitting alongside the other wives at their separate like a row of prized broodmares. The one broodmare who is brooding, Lady Gleda, has apparently been deemed worthy to sit with the thanes in the center of the hall.

There is nothing wrong, Keith desperately tries to convince himself while viciously stabbing the peacock breast, with being a broodmare. The broodmares he remembers in Marmora’s herd were fierce creatures, after all. Many a stallion was wounded or even killed by their striking hooves and nasty temperaments towards any fool who came too near to their wobbling foals.

He gives up when he looks across the hall to the roundness of Lady Gleda’s belly. He is meant to feel joy at the thought of joining her in that supposed blessing, but his gut just roils in disgust. And she is not even that far along. Her ankles have not yet swollen and her back does not yet ache and her body has not yet been taken over by the hungry creature growing inside her, a creature that he wonders if she ever even wanted. He pities her and he pities the child who is not yet a child.

The wife beside him is Branko’s, the Olkari, Mei. She nudges his elbow and whispers, “Is she not beautiful?” Keith glances at her. Her skin flushes with color, smile too warm and earnest for this cold stone keep. Her gown is pale green and her hair, much longer than his, is done up in traditional Olkari braids, looped along the sides of the head and joined at the nape.

Without waiting for an answer, Mei adds, “She wants a baby girl, you know. If she has one, I am certain she will be as pretty as her mother.”

Keith frowns. “A girl?” he repeats. “Why would she want a girl?”

Mei frowns back. “Why not? It is her second child, and she is fond of children, no matter their sex –”

“The first was a boy,” Keith says. “Of course.”

“Yes, Ranveig’s heir.” Mei is oblivious, he thinks. “His name is Ranvul. He is ten this year!”

“Ten?” Keith repeats. “Why so many years between the two children?”

“Ranveig was on a campaign across the sea,” Mei replies, nodding sagely. “Poor Lady Gleda, she pined away for him so – but he returned last year, victorious. Look at how happy they are, the two of them.”

Keith looks, and is disgruntled to find they do look happy. The thane sits beside his wife, foregoing the platters of food to hold her slender hands in his large palms. He grins and laughs at her throughout the meal, and she laughs with him, and bears none of the nervous mannerisms nor sickly pallor nor timid demeanor of the few other wives at their sequestered table.

But Lady Gleda was free of her husband for a decade, and she is older; she knows how to play the role of the peace-weaver well. She has had time to learn.

Keith looks back at Mei. “Are you not happy with Thane Branko?” he asks.

Her face shutters off. “He is a brave warrior,” she says. “His men listen to his commands and do his bidding without question.”

“Does that command extend to his bed?” Keith asks offhandedly.

“Why — !” Mei blanches and scoots a few inches away from him on the bench. “Bold of you to ask such a thing after what happened at the bonfire.”

Keith sets down his fork too hard. “What happened at the bonfire?”

Mei purses her lips. “The entire camp heard, if they did not see you draping yourself over Thane Shirogane in a drunken stupor beforehand.” She shakes her head. “Many of them were drunk, too. But I stay away from mead. It is bad for babies, you know.”

Keith takes a big gulp of his mead and Mei squints at him. “What do you know of my husband?” he asks her.

Mei huffs. “I would think you know far more than I on the subject. Thane Shirogane is a private man, and he has no well-bred lineage to refer to, so his nature is quite the mystery.” She shivers. “Though Branko and the others do...speak of him. A little.”

Keith waits. The mead hall is loud, the thanes thundering over the wives’ hushed tones. The musicians play roaring ballads and meandering epics about greedy men slaying greedy monsters, and the thanes roar for more. Shiro, seated far from him at the head of the table, is as subdued as he had been at the bonfire.

Mei does not answer him until dessert is served, sticky fruit pies and sugared puddings. “They say he has killed kings,” Mei whispers around a mouthful of fig pudding. “They say your husband delights in the killing – and of course there is glory in war, but his delight, they say, is pleasure, not glory.”

Keith eats his mincemeat pie and says nothing.

“He seems so quiet and kind,” Mei adds, “but I said so to my husband once, and he got very angry. He said Thane Shirogane is a changed man behind closed doors — he said he is very dangerous. Is he?”

“I don’t know.” Keith licks his fork clean and eyes her. “And what do you know of Lord Sendak?”

“Oh, he is King Zarkon’s favored thane, besides Lord Throk, or so Thane Branko claims,” Mei says at once. “When King Zarkon chooses his heir, there is much talk that it will be Lord Sendak...especially now that Prorok and Haxus are dead by your people’s hand.”

Keith pauses. “But King Zarkon has his heir.”

“Prince Lotor? No, no,” Mei says impatiently, “have you not heard? King Zarkon rejected Lotor as his successor. He has not the warrior’s heart that his father demands for the Galra heir. He is too fond of books and lost kingdoms to conquer the kingdoms that remain…”

“So King Zarkon will choose an heir from his thanes?” Unease prickles through him. “They must be...competitive.”

“Very!” Mei exclaims. “My husband supposes Lord Sendak may not be chosen because he has no wife, and no heirs of his own. Those are poor prospects for the future succession, you see.”

“And why has he no wife?”

Mei frowns. “I cannot say,” she admits. “I suppose he just never fancied marriage. Some men don’t.”

“Some women, too.”

“Hm?”

“Nothing.” Keith drinks more mead. “Is Lord Throk wed?”

“Yes, and his heir is of age, twenty-two summers old. Handsome young man with a head for battle, soon to be wed, himself – but that’s only gossip.”

Keith tilts his head. “Then would he not be a far better prospect as the Galra heir?”

Mei purses her lips. “I...I suppose so, yes.”

A shadow falls over them. “You two are chattering away like sparrows.”

Keith’s hand tightens around his fork, knuckles flexing. “Lord Sendak,” he says, and does not turn to look at him, unlike Mei.

Sendak clears his throat. “You don’t seem to be enjoying this meal as much as the bonfire feast, wifeling.”

Keith stares at the chunks of mincemeat on his plate and tries to will them aflame. It does not work, which is perhaps for the best.

“This is the wives’ table, milord,” Mei chastises. “And none of the wives are yours, so.”

Keith decides he likes Mei. “Whores are not allowed in the mead hall tonight, either,” Keith adds.

Sendak’s shadow steps closer. “Are they not? You’re here.”

Mei gawks at Sendak and puffs up like she is indeed an indignant sparrow, a sharp retort clearly on the tip of her tongue. As it would happen, Keith has something sharper in mind.

Keith pauses, considers the consequences briefly, then jams his fork into Sendak’s thigh without turning around. Possibly his thigh. If it’s higher, then he has better aim than expected.  

The thane does not cry out, which is disappointing, but he does grunt loud and pained, louder when Keith yanks the fork out and sets it back down on the table, the tines dark with blood.

Mei does cry out, then smacks a hand over her mouth, eyes wide as dinner plates.

Keith picks up his spoon to finish the pie. “If one of us is a whore,” he says evenly, “it is the man who beds a different woman each night. I only bed my husband, as a peace-weaver ought to.”

He glances over his shoulder at Sendak. The thane stands fuming with an air of cold rage, a small red stain spreading over the middle of his left thigh through punctured breeches.

Mei’s shriek has roused the attention of the thanes’ table, and upon seeing Sendak standing behind Keith and Mei, both Ranveig and Shiro get to their feet. Ranveig’s expression is confused. Shiro’s is a barely-controlled fury not dissimilar from Sendak’s.

Prince Lotor, who sits at the end of the table opposite from Shiro, just watches, head in chin. Behind him, half in shadow, three figures stand, passing flagons to each other. Keith can’t make out faces — and he has more pressing issues.

The other wives, who have been ignoring Mei and Keith for the most part, gasp and whisper amongst themselves as, little by little, they realize what Keith has done. Sendak, still focused on Keith rather than the approaching thanes, reaches for him.

Keith is off the bench and on his feet before Sendak can make contact, fork in his hand. The thanes freeze. Sendak glares. Blood drips from the fork to the floor.

“Shirogane,” Sendak growls, loud enough for the whole mead hall to hear, “your peace-weaver is not very good at making peace.”

“And you are not very good at remembering your position here, Sendak,” Shiro retorts, striding towards him with an intensity that takes the entire mead hall aback — Shiro is evidently not prone to such displays of emotion, nor to failing to call other thanes by their proper lordly titles.

Sendak does not back down, unfazed by Shiro’s vicious demeanor. “Thane Shirogane, this may be your keep, but we both know its true lord is our King. By attacking me, your wifeling attacks Zarkon, and all of the Galra. There must be consequences for such actions from a peace-weaver.”

“I was defending myself and my honor,” Keith declares. “Lord Sendak attacked first, and a thane who attacks a peace-weaver with false accusations and undue advances ought to be punished.”

The mead hall ripples with surprise and agreement. Sendak glowers at him. “There were no advances, wifeling —”

“The only bed I frequent is my husband’s,” Keith snaps. “Your implication regarding my imagined infidelity was plenty clear, lordling.”

Sendak’s lip curls and Shiro’s brow lowers. “Is this true, Sendak?” Ranveig demands.

“You would trust a Marmoran’s word over mine?” Sendak snarls, his facade at last cracking, crumbling away into rage. “He is a murderous and conniving whelp, like the rest of them, and I do not envy your having him as wife, Shirogane. He will slip a knife between your ribs the first chance he gets — mark my words.”

“I will not have you speak such words under my roof, in my mead hall, at my keep.” Shiro’s voice does not raise, but it trembles with a tightly reined-in fury. “Get out, Sendak. You are not welcome here.”

Sendak’s face purples. “You would dare —”

“Yes, he dares!” Ranveig roars. “You heard the man! We cannot have such insults thrown at the most precious of us, Sendak! Such behavior is not acceptable!”

“Ay, Ranveig and Shirogane speak true.” The third thane to rise is Lord Throk; he is tall and thin with a severe jawline and the air of a man who will not be argued with. “Are you a thane or a boar, Lord Sendak? I hope you are a thane, for boars are allowed in the mead hall only when roasted.”

Sendak’s jaw works, and Throk stares at him with the glare of a bird of prey, unceasing and with the promise of spilt blood.

“The King will not be pleased with this, nor with any of you,” Sendak warns. “Galra come first, not peace-weavers; certainly not Marmorans who impale thanes with silverware when offended.”

Prince Lotor chooses this moment to stand, and heir or not, the other thanes look to him with a kind of wary reverence — except for Shiro, whose eyes do not leave Sendak. “Keith of Marmora was provoked and retaliated,” he says, clear voice echoing through the hall. “That is no crime. To harm or threaten a peace-weaver, however, is and has always been. You are not exempt from the law, Sendak. Thane Shirogane has every right to send you away from his home...as does the peace-weaver in question.”

All eyes turn upon Keith. Sendak’s are slitted and deadly, the color of the puff adders which lie in wait under dying leaves, disguised among faded gold and dry brown. It is the color of venom.

“Keith,” Shiro says. “What is your ruling?”

Keith pauses, choosing his words like the best apples, bright and tart. “Lord Sendak, return to your own keep, report to your King, do as you wish, as long as it is not anywhere I can catch wind of you.”

Sendak stares at him and Keith knows he has made at least one enemy here. Then he leans forward and whispers, “Do not forget yourself, peace-weaver. Your people would be easy to finish off, and we hardly need a reason to do it. Do not forget what I told you of Shirogane. Do not think you can trust him. And do not think I will ever forget this and make you live to regret it.”

“Get away from my wife,” Shiro snarls, physically stepping between them and shoving Sendak backwards; the clawed right arm swells with the movement, and sends the other thane staggering several feet.

The shadows in the mead hall have grown longer, darker, and both tables shift uneasily as Shiro stands, fists clenched, beside Keith. Candles sputter though there is no wind, and the air is so cold that Keith can see his breath on a slow exhale, as if winter has come early.

Shiro stands perfectly still, jaw set and eyes glinting, right arm hanging at his side like a sword at the ready. Shiro’s rage ripples through his mead hall like a prowling beast, and all the thanes pull their cloaks a little tighter, the wives duck their heads as if to hide. But there is no hiding from this; it seeps into the stone, chills the mugs of ale, and sweeps with frozen insistence over Keith’s skin.

“Someone bring Lord Sendak his horse,” Shiro orders, and the servants scramble towards the doors. Shiro looks at Sendak, jerking his head for the thane to follow them out.

Wisely, Sendak does, storming out of the mead hall without a backwards glance. The mead hall lets out a collective sigh of relief, save Shiro, who turns to Keith as if he may crumble away into dust at any moment.

The thane reaches for him, and Keith is too petrified to protest. Raw, cold, crushing power coils around him like so many serpents at Shiro’s touch. “Are you alright?” Shiro demands.

The other thanes and wives slowly resume conversation and pretend they aren’t all watching the two of them as Shiro takes Keith by the hand and leads him away from the tables.

Shiro repeats the question when they are out of earshot. Keith nods mutely. Shiro stares down at him with something like suspicion.

“Why did you stab Sendak with a fork?” Shiro asks.

Keith’s mouth is dry, lips chapped and cracked, goosebumps rising and limbs locking up, as if Shiro’s mere presence is a snowfall.

“He called me a whore,” Keith whispers.

The snow falls heavier. “Then I am glad he is gone.”

“May I leave?” Keith asks quietly. “I do not want to stay at the feast.”

“Of course,” Shiro murmurs, thumb nudging at Keith’s jaw. “I can escort you to our quarters —”

“I do not want to stay there, either,” Keith says. “Let me walk in the garden. I need — air.”

“You should not be left alone —”

“Then send guards, I do not care.” Keith pulls away from him. “The garden is walled, and I have no horse. Where would I go?”

“That is not why I worry about leaving you unattended,” Shiro sighs, but inclines his head after an endless moment. “The garden, then.” He waves two guards over. Keith does not hear what they say. He wonders if they can feel the wrongness of Shiro, too.

His clinging frost follows Keith until the mead hall doors swing shut behind him, and even then, he swears it maintains a watchful echo.

The gardens are quiet and the guards keep their distance. Keith is grateful for it, and after wandering the not very long perimeter of the modest garden, he sits upon the stone bench below the silvery fronds of a weeping willow beside a small pond.

The black shapes of fish dart below the surface, and Keith remembers with a sudden pain the afternoons spent with his mother, or else Regris or Antok or Thace or Ulaz or even Kolivan. They would wade into the churning rivers and swipe with long spears for the leaping salmon, swimming upstream for their spawn. The salmon were fat and delicious, scales crisping over the fire, the savory charred scent of them wafting through the pines for miles.

But these fish are slender and sly, and they do not leap, and they are better for looking than eating.

“Peace-weaver. May I join you?”

Keith looks up from the pond. Standing on the other bank is a woman, the one Shiro called Acxa. She has no sword this time, and she is not smiling, but her expression is not unfriendly. It is a cloudy night and she is barely illuminated. Keith gets the odd sense she can see him perfectly.

“We have not met,” Keith says, “but I saw you at the bonfire. You are one of Prince Lotor’s thanes.”

“Yes,” she says. “I am Acxa, my sister-thanes are Zethrid and Ezor.”

“Where are they?”

She shakes her head. “In the mead hall. They do not see in you what I do. May I sit, Keith of Marmora?”

What do you see in me? Keith does not ask. “Where do you hail from?”

“Galra,” Acxa says, walking towards him with graceful steps like a doe through ferns. “You hold yourself like a warrior. Are you?”

“I never went through the Marmoran rites,” Keith says.

“Of course not.” She tilts her head. “If you were a full-fledged warrior, you never would have been chosen a peace-weaver. Yet here we are.”

“Here we are,” Keith agrees warily. She stands before him. “You may sit,” he belatedly adds.

“Thank you.” She sits. “How much do you know of Altea, peace-weaver?”

Keith frowns. “Why do you ask of long-fallen kingdoms?” She shrugs, waiting for his answer. He frowns harder. “Queen Honerva was Altea’s peace-weaver, King Zarkon’s wife. She was also the last Altean, after peace failed and Altea fell to Galran invaders.”

“And what else?”

“The Alteans were said to have magic,” Keith mutters. “That is all I know.”

“Then you know not of the Druids?”

Keith shifts, deeply regretting wearing the dress. Acxa is in breeches and a long tunic tied neatly at the waist; her cloak is a dark, coarse fur. Keith left his coat in the mead hall. Perhaps he will catch cold after all. He does not wish to answer her question, but she is waiting.

His throat clicks as he swallows and says, “What of them? There are no more Druids.”

Acxa’s brow lifts. “No? Then how do you think your husband got his right arm?”

Keith stares at her. “All the Druids are dead.”

“Some still yet live,” Acxa murmurs. “But they serve King Zarkon, not Altea.” She peers at him a little too close for comfort. “Some legends claim your ancestor, Marmora of Thaldcyon, had Druidic blood in his veins.”

“They’re just legends,” Keith says, digging his nails into the red fabric and his thighs beneath. “And he is long dead.”

“But the Marmora are not.” Acxa blinks slowly. “You are not.”

“My lady, the peace-weaver is to be left alone.” The guards have finally caught up to them. Acxa rises and looks to him, head cocked and dark hair falling over her brow in a jagged swoop.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Keith of Marmora,” she says. “Give thought to my words. Prince Lotor already has.”

Keith’s nails break skin.

*

He tells the guards to bring him to the bedroom; the mead hall still roars with drunken revelry.

They leave him there, alone in the candlelight. Keith fumbles with the lacing on the gown; it catches on his fingers and he struggles not to rip it, painstakingly pulling the ribbons from their eyelets and loosening the tie at his waist, until at last it all slips free and falls at his feet.

Keith keeps the shift on; he can pretend it is just a long thin tunic, and it is better than stripping entirely. He half-stumbles into bed, curling into the goosedown mattress and tucking his head against the fine pillows with a sigh. It is a cowardly thought, but it is tempting just to stay here, wrapped in warm furs and soft blankets and the thane’s heady scent.

Keith closes his eyes in frustration. No, he will not think of surrender, nor of Shiro. He needs sleep; he will think of nothing at all. He blows out the candle, and clears his mind like sweeping an ash-buried hearth clean. He can stoke the fire anew tomorrow, if he has any kindling left.

*

His uneasy sleep is disturbed just before dawn, when the room has begun to lighten a shade bluer than nighttime. Without grace, heavy garments thud against the floor, followed by their owner thudding into bed hard enough to jolt Keith out of dreaming.

The cloying smell of mead clings to Shiro and Keith wakes in bleary fright, pretending to slumber on when the thane fumbles for him and wraps his bulk around Keith’s back with a pleased sigh. Keith blinks rapidly as Shiro buries his rough face into Keith’s neck, mumbling something incomprehensible and happy. Keith keeps himself limp, breath shallowing when a clawed hand paws blindly over his stomach until Shiro finds a solid grip on Keith’s hip, yawns into his shoulder, and falls asleep before he can fondle Keith any further.

Keith forces himself to stay awake until sheer exhaustion pulls him under, and the birds begin their first tentative chirps of the day.

When he awakes again in sunny mid-morning, Shiro is gone, and his shift is untouched as far as he can tell, but in his husband’s place the wolf slumbers, ears twitching in sleep, cracking open a watchful golden eye when Keith starts to sit up.

He sees then that there is also a scrap of parchment beside his pillow, and Keith squints at it, bewildered by the elegant script, which reads:

Keith,

I apologize if I disturbed you last night. You looked too peaceful to wake for breakfast; I apologize for this, also. I have given the cooks orders to give you what ever you may desire. I will be absent until supper.

You may also question why the wolf is in our bed. Do not fear, he is a noble beast. You may be pleased to know his name is Cosmos – although I doubt he stargazes.

Your faithful and mead-weary husband, Shiro.

Keith huffs in irritated amusement, and the wolf named Cosmos blinks at him and lifts his head. “Well,” Keith sighs, “I suppose you are a better bed-partner, all in all. Shall we go and see just how much food the cooks are willing to give us?”

The wolf leaps off the bed and waits beside the door, head cocked expectantly.

It is only when Keith is downstairs in the quiet kitchens, devouring a plate of eggs and sausage with Cosmos’ help, that he realizes Shiro never told him where he was going.

Keith thinks of lost kingdoms and cursed claws, and tries not to wonder too deeply about what secrets his husband is hiding from him...for, truth be told, Keith has plenty of his own.

Chapter Text

They continue like this for several weeks.

Shiro is either out on business with the other thanes or perhaps invading other kingdoms during the day; there is no telling. Keith has not bothered to ask him, because Keith avoids him as best he can even when he is present. It is an art, and Keith is perfecting it.

He cannot shake the constant, creeping paranoia that his spell failed, and does not know whether the nausea he sometimes feels around breakfast is imagined or a symptom of his failure. At night, he presses his hand to his belly and concentrates very hard, as if he can sense a quickening below the surface, and sometimes he swears he does, but later feels nothing at all.

Keith even wonders if the wolf has caught on, since it follows him everywhere when Shiro is not there with a near-obsessive protectiveness Keith knows hounds display for those with child – either that, or Cosmos is just very fond of him.

Keith’s anxiety eventually becomes obvious even to Shiro, who begins to take pause when Keith flinches away from his touch again and again, including any and all attempts to take what the thane likely considers his marital right. Keith is grateful the thane has so far respected his refusals, but he knows that one night, Shiro’s patience will run out, and that night will not be a good one for either of them.

Keith keeps the knife his mother gave him under a loose floorboard just below his side of the bed – it is as accessible as he can make it, and he runs scenarios over in his head – Shiro lunging for him, claws aimed at his throat, Keith rolling off the bed and wrenching the floorboard away, fingers closing around the hilt of the blade just before Shiro can reach him...

After about two weeks of this relentless avoidance, Shiro confronts him about it, but he does so by bringing Keith breakfast in bed.

Keith blinks sleepily at the gentle push of a hand on his shoulder, only to jolt upright at the sight of the thane bowing to set down a full platter of chicken eggs, thick bread, blood pudding, sausage, and pretty little fruit tarts, along with a full teapot, on the bedside stool. Shiro offers him a smile and a blueberry. Keith takes it, not between his lips but between thumb and forefinger. Shiro’s smile dims, but nonetheless he kneels beside the bed and nods to the platter.

“Good morning, husband,” Shiro says, far too brightly considering the sun has hardly risen. “Did you sleep well?”

Keith rubs his eyes and sits up fully, instinctively curling his legs together and chewing the blueberry for as long as possible. Shiro waits, ever patient. Keith swallows and says, “Yes, I slept well, thank you. What, ah...what is all of this for?”

Shiro scratches the back of his head. “Oh, well,” he starts, and clears his throat. “I wished to show my, er, appreciation. For you. I have been so busy as of late, and fear I may have upset you, as well – have I done something to upset you?”

Keith falters, gut churning in apprehension. “I – you – there is no need to apologize, husband.”

“No?” Shiro tilts his head. “Because it seems to me that certain events may have soured any attraction you had towards me, namely being drugged, threatened, and wounded before and since our last coupling.”

Keith stares at the window and contemplates how much it would hurt if he hurled himself out of it. “That is not –”

“Keith,” Shiro sighs, voice level and grave, “I say this to clear any foul air between us, not to reprehend you for not…”

“Letting you bed me?” Keith chokes out.

Cosmos whines on the rug, rises to his paws, and wisely slinks out of the room.

Shiro coughs, ears red. “It has been some time,” he admits. “And I have been absent, though I did not wish to be, but was unsure if you even wished me to be present, and —”

“Please stop talking,” Keith begs.

“Yes, right, well, I think that would be wise,” Shiro stammers.

Keith gestures jerkily to the food. “So is this — you trying to — bed —”

“Apologize!” Shiro yelps, and truly, Keith cannot reconcile the monstrous thane with the stuttering mess before him now. “I’m trying to apologize,” he says, pursing his lips and staring at the tarts as if they will save him from Keith’s merciless gawking.

“For — for what?” Keith ekes out.

Shiro wrings his hands. “I — all of this?”

“All of this,” Keith repeats, and narrows his eyes.

Shiro’s shoulders slump. “You are unhappy here,” he says. “Miserable, even.” Keith stiffens in surprise. “I told you I would do all that is within my power to make this a good home for you — and to be a good husband for you. I have already failed in that...so here I am, trying again. Will you eat, please?”

Keith stares at him. “You are not a bad husband,” he says. It requires a great deal of effort, though he knows it to be true – there are far worse husbands to be had than Thane Shirogane.

“A neglectful husband is not a good one,” Shiro reproaches.

“You are not neglectful,” Keith murmurs. “Not any more than I have forced you to be, anyway.”

“And why have you forced me away?” Shiro asks, lifting a fruit tart to his mouth. This time, Keith takes it, the warm pastry flaking sweet and buttery across his tongue.

Keith shakes his head, and takes another bite of the tart. Blackberry. He used to stain his fingers violet in the wild and thorny blackberry hedges back home, every summer, plucking plump berries from their prickling stems and gorging himself on their dark sweetness until the sun went down…

“I frighten you,” Shiro whispers. “That’s it, is it not?”

Keith swallows the tart. “You frighten many,” he says. “Why not me?”

It is a shock when Shiro cups his face with his warm left hand; it has been so long since they have touched each other directly. Keith is too stunned to push him away.

“I would have my enemies frightened of me,” Shiro says, “but not you.”

“Are we not enemies?”

Shiro’s brow crinkles. “We are wed.”

“And so?” Keith blinks at him. “I have not forgotten your people’s deeds against mine.”

“Nor I yours.”

“We are wed enemies,” Keith concludes with a wry twist of his lips which Shiro mirrors. “Should we not fear each other at least a little?”

Shiro’s eyes flicker; he withdraws. “Should I fear you?”

“Do you not?”

Shiro hums. “I respect you,” he says, “and your undoubtable ability to make yourself something to fear, should the need arise.” His face is soft. “But I hope that need should not arise, Keith.”

“That is a clever way of saying you know I could never claim victory over you, if it came to that.”

“I would not have wed you if I did not believe you were capable of holding your own against me,” Shiro says.

Keith’s eyes narrow. “Why would I need to do that?”

“Let us hope you never do.” Shiro pours him a mug of tea and Keith takes it in both hands, the hot ceramic a comforting burn between his palms. “But nevermind that. I was thinking, you must miss your horse.”

Keith pauses, swallowing the tea with difficulty. “Why were you thinking that?”

Shiro is unfazed by his air of indifference. “You told me she was killed. But there are other horses, here...”

“Are you gifting me with a horse? How generous.” Keith eyes him – this is no apology. This is bribery. Shiro is coaxing Keith into his good graces and Keith does not want to give him the pleasure of his obedience.

But Keith does miss his horse.

Shiro rises to his feet, a glint in his eye. “Finish your breakfast,” he says, and as he walks away, the thane places a parcel he had hidden under his arm at the end of the bed. “Meet me at the stables when you are done, unless you’d rather I fetch you myself.”

“There will be no fetching,” Keith grumbles around his tart.

Shiro inclines his head, smiling ever so slightly, and strides out of the room without a backwards glance. How quickly he can switch from a flustered boy to a prince ascending, Keith does not understand.

Perhaps he never will.

He waits to open the parcel until breakfast is as finished as he can bear – Keith is unused to such a lavish spread of food. Marmorans are considered frugal by Galran standards; the truth is they are foragers and rarely take more than they strictly need to survive.

Blackberry patches and roast boar or stag were rare treats, allowed only when the forest was generous enough to give so much. Keith misses simple meals of quail and pheasant eggs, of mushroom soup and wild carrots, of crisp apples and sour strawberries, of wriggling trout and thinly-sliced and salted salmon, of carefully preserved deer and rabbit jerky in the winter months.

This much food seems a waste to him and the richness of the meat is strange compared to the gamey flesh Keith is used to. He feeds the blood pudding and sausage to Cosmos when the wolf cautiously returns to his rug. Keith watches the wolf devour the meat greedily and wonders if he ought to be less picky. He needs to keep up his strength now that he is in enemy territory.

Though, he reflects with irritation, he is expected to keep up his strength here not for his own sake, but for the heir’s.

Mood effectively soured before noon, Keith rips into the parcel Shiro left. His fingers touch plush velvet and he pauses, slowly lifting the fabric from its wrappings – it’s a winter cloak, violet velvet on the outside and thick dark wool on the inside, with a hood lined in dense black fur. Keith runs his fingers through it, considering. Fox, he thinks. He can’t even entertain the thought that it might be ermine – but it might be.

This is an absurd gift; it is a hundred times more expensive than his damned wedding cloak. This much purple dye must cost more than a whole bloody thane.

But Keith pulls it on, fastens it at his throat with the neat velvet ties, leaves for the stables with Cosmos, and wraps the disbelieving states which follow him through the keep around himself like a coat of armor.

*

It is a bright day for late autumn; Cosmos gets distracted near the stables by a couple of intrepid squirrels gathering acorns together, and takes off after them at full speed, whining and circling the oak tree they flee up to safety.

But Keith has no oak tree — he keeps his cloak close and stays as alert as possible. He notes every passing servant, and every possible path out of the keep, too. It is walled, as only the most expensive keeps are — and as all Galran keeps are — but the main gate stays open, and Keith passed easily enough through it with Cosmos at his side and the thane’s foreword. The stables lie not far outside the keep walls, tucked in a pleasant, flatter meadow amidst the rolling hills.

The stables are not large, but still contain about a dozen horses, and there are others grazing in the field. Several lift their heads as Keith walks along the narrow aisle, ignoring the unsubtle gawking of a few stable boys, and the more suspicious gaze of who he assumes to be the groom.

But the one who lured him here stands at the far end of the stable, feeding a handful of sweet hay to the massive black warhorse Keith remembers from the ride back to the keep. Warhorses are noble and imposing beasts, but the truth is that they are gentle giants. They must be calm to withstand the chaos of battle. The larger the horse, Keith thinks, the sweeter the temperament.

Ponies, on the other hand, are cruel and conniving little beasts, for which Keith cannot fault them — he may be far more like a pony than a warhorse, especially here.

The gelding palfrey Keith was given to ride to the feast is sleeping in the patch of sunshine in the corner of his stall, snoring peacefully and flicking his tail at the buzzing flies. Keith pauses, then continues past his stall towards Shiro.

“The horse you rode is called Offrian,” Shiro remarks, glancing up at him and stroking his munching horse’s muzzle. “A fine beast, though too tame for you?”

“Your stallion seems quite tame,” Keith retorts, stopping short a man’s height away. (A normal man’s height, not Shiro’s.)

Shiro chuckles, and gives the stallion a good-natured pat on the neck. “Hm, now he is. It’s a different story when there’s a mare in season within five miles.”

Keith glowers at the both of them. “Speaking from experience?”

“Oh, yes,” Shiro says, shaking his head. “Nearly bucked me into the next kingdom; it was very embarrassing.” His lips quirk. “Good thing he didn’t get within range, or I might not have a horse anymore. It was a feisty mare. Would have kicked him into the next kingdom if she found him lacking —”

Keith clears his throat forcefully. “Did you make me come here to talk about horse breeding?”

Pink creeps into Shiro’s face. “Ah,” he says. “No. I did not. I...” His gaze travels down Keith’s body with a slowness that somehow does not feel as intrusive as Keith is certain it should. “The cloak looks good on you,” he adds. “Do you like it?”

Keith rubs the velvet and fur between thumb and forefinger. “It is extravagant,” he says. “It seems too fine for a mere peace-weaver to wear.”

“More fit for a queen, do you think?” Shiro doesn’t laugh; his eyes are dark. “Good. You deserve things as nice as that.”

“The Queen is dead,” Keith whispers harshly. “Nor am I one. Is this ermine? Tell me it isn’t.”

Shiro smiles and leans against the stall door. “Alright,” he says easily, “it isn’t.”

Keith’s jaw works. “You are not spending your gold wisely, husband,” he snaps. “Wasting it on frivolity —”

“Anything for you,” Shiro interrupts, “could never be a waste, Keith.”

Keith nearly chokes on air. Satisfied with this, Shiro turns and points to a stall across the aisle. “On the subject of feisty mares, I thought you might like this one.”

A chestnut head pops up, with a bright white star on its fine-boned brow. She looks like his dead horse, but not — a few shades lighter, a fair bit smaller, with smaller ears and larger eyes. But the resemblance is still so striking. Her coat ripples and shines in the warm sunshine like burnished copper, and her nostrils flare when he steps towards her.

“Is she in season?” is all Keith manages to say.

Shiro raises an eyebrow. “No. She’s not a broodmare, either, and will never be one.”

“Why not?”

Shiro pauses, and shrugs. “Nasty temperament. Pregnancy would only make her meaner.”

“That sounds like a coward’s talk,” Keith says, crossing the aisle and holding out his palm for the inquisitive mare. “And her name?”

“Stræl,” Shiro murmurs.

She snuffles slow and suspicious at Keith’s palm. Something in him sunders at the warm nudge of the mare’s velvet muzzle to his skin; it is a memory he had almost forgotten, yet knows he never could, like his mother’s voice, or his father’s face through crackling flames.

“Arrow?”

“She is as quick as one.” Shiro’s boots fall heavy on the packed earth, and he stands close behind Keith, a finger’s breadth between them, never quite touching. Stræl shies away, ears flicking back, and Keith frowns. Shiro clears his throat. “She dislikes men.”

Keith’s frown deepens. “I –”

“Yes, I know,” Shiro sighs. “But horses know only scent and tone of voice. To her, I smell of danger. You do not. That is the only distinction between people that horses make.”

Keith swallows, stepping away from the thane, so that his chest presses to the stall door. Stræl lifts her head again, and snorts. Her stomping hoof is one of warning, but when he reaches out, runs his hand over her neck and withers, she lets him. Keith sees his face reflected in her eyes, a pale moon with dark craters. He looks away.

“You are giving me a mare too mean to be bred who fears men?” Keith asks archly. “What a catch.”

Shiro shakes his head, turning away before Keith can see the extent of the disappointment on his face. “Choose whatever horse you’d like, Keith. I simply thought you might like her most.”

Keith spends nearly half an hour wandering the rest of the stable, making friends with all the other horses with Shiro as his quiet shadow, half to waste the thane’s time and half to prove him wrong, but by the end, he thinks he has failed to do either.

He keeps returning to Stræl, and when all is said and done she is the one whose saddle he finds himself in as he rides out of the stable after Thane Shirogane, who seems far more pleased than annoyed with Keith. It is disconcerting. Keith does not know what to think of it.

Cosmos stays in the stable and no guards accompany them as Shiro urges his warhorse, Artax, into a heavy gallop. Keith, who is still learning Stræl’s reins, takes a chance and digs his heels into her sides as he did for his dead horse. She needed so little pressure to know what he wanted from her.

As if she can hear his wistful thoughts – or maybe she is just eager to run – Stræl bursts into a thundering stride across the hills at the slightest nudge and firm whisper, towards the vibrant golden blur of the autumn-bright woods ahead.

Keith is shocked and delighted by her speed – she easily surpasses Artax and Shiro, tossing her head as if to taunt and kicking up her front hooves as they tear through the heather and stony earth. The wind catches Keith’s hair, tugs it away from his face to stream behind him in dark, wild tendrils, short braid snapping against the nape of his neck.

He surrenders to the visceral need to throw his head back with his horse and loosens his grip on her reins just enough to pretend he is aloft, suspended, soaring through the open sky. Powerful muscle and taut sinew rolls and thunders beneath him, all under his command, carrying him faster, faster, away…

Stræl slows as the shadows of the woods fall over them and Keith’s eyes flicker open, the illusion fading like the sunlight. Artax and Shiro are not far behind, but they are still behind, and when the thane pulls his stallion up beside Keith, Keith swears there is faint alarm in his bright eyes and flushed face.

“What did I tell you?” Shiro chuckles, both horses falling into a leisurely walk among the dappled sunshine and twisting trees. “Her name is Stræl for a reason.”

“She’s faster than yours,” Keith points out, leaning back and relaxing in the saddle. “Why, I wonder, would you give me a horse that could outrun any other?”

Shiro grips his reins a little tighter. “It is good to have the fastest horse, is it not?”

“It is not good if you are a thane chasing a peace-weaver on the run.”

Shiro chuckles softly. “You won’t run.”

Keith resolutely does not shiver. “No?”

Shiro glances at him and smiles with disarming warmth. “No. You’re too clever for that.”

“To clever to flee?” Keith huffs. “Well, I am certainly clever enough to know what would befall my clan if I did.”

“Do you miss them?” Shiro asks, turning his gaze to the treetops, and to the piercing patches of blue sky through them.

“Every day,” Keith admits after a long silence, for the words are painful to speak, and prickle at his throat like briars. “With all my being.”

Shiro hesitates; Keith sees the tension in his shoulders, rippling outwards as he says, “Perhaps we could feast with them, in my hall. Would you like that?”

Keith stops his horse. It takes Artax a few moments to halt, and Shiro circles him back around, blocking Stræl’s path. Keith stares at the thane, his breath coming with difficulty, shock an iron weight on his chest.

“Why would you do that?” Keith whispers.

“They are your family,” Shiro says, his brow furrowing. “They would be honored guests in our home.”

“The Galra –” Keith stumbles over his speech. “The Galra do not invite the clans of peace-weavers to feasts in their mead-halls.”

“Then perhaps they should,” Shiro counters. “I would like to meet the Marmora...under better circumstances than the first time.”

“You mean, in battle,” Keith mutters.

“My point stands.” Shiro tilts his head. “Would they accept my invitation?”

Keith swallows. He does not truthfully know, and it hurts to think that they might well spurn the invitation, and any chance to see Keith again, out of suspicion that it is a Galran trap they will be walking into.

“You must not harm them,” he whispers, and Shiro’s eyes widen.

“Of course I would never –”

“Do not,” Keith warns, and the thane falls silent. “My people have no guarantee, none at all, that you Galrans will uphold any vows of honor you give. You have broken them before. You could do so again.” Shiro’s eyes narrow; Keith presses on. “That is what my people will say if you invite them into your mead-hall, Thane Shirogane.”

Shiro frowns. “I see.”

“No,” Keith says. “You do not.”

Shiro makes a low sound of clear dissent, but no words accompany it, and they continue through the woods in silence which will surely end in an argument. Keith distracts himself with marveling at the strange trees and the fiery colors of their leaves, and listens to the birdsong, the cawing of crows and the noisy chattering of sparrows. He missed the forest, and this forest is not his, but the peace he finds surrounded by trees is much the same.

Alas, Shiro does eventually break the silence, but it is not to rebuke or argue with him.

“Keith.” Keith looks up. Shiro’s gaze is intense, yet soft. “Follow me. I wish for you to see something.”

Keith blinks, then nods, for what else is he to do? He has tested the thane’s patience with him enough for one day, and considering they are alone in the woods together, with no one else for miles...Keith would prefer not to antagonize him more than he must.

Shiro leads him down a sloping path, where the trees are older and grow closer together, their trunks wrapped thick with ivy and lichens. The horses are forced to pick their way through huge boulders and loose, pebbled earth with great care, and the further they walk, the more nervous Keith becomes. He curses himself for not bringing his knife. The closeness of the trees is no longer comforting, but confining.

Stræl shifts under him, feeling the growing tension in his body, and her ears flick back in unease. She stays close to Artax, who plods onward just ahead, towering above the uncertain mare. Shiro faces forward, occasionally turning his head just enough to make certain Keith is still following.

Keith is so wrapped up in anxious, swirling thoughts that he does not hear the rushing water until the trees clear to reveal a secluded glen, lined with lush emerald ferns and slender birches, a collection of stately oaks and somber ashes guarding the blanket of green like graceful sentinels.

A pair of willows dip their silvery leaves into the burbling stream which crosses the glen and which is fed by the most magnificent series of waterfalls, tumbling over mossy rocks and filling the air with cool mist which reflects a thousand glimmering rainbows. The stream curls onward through the trees, widening into a smoother, deeper river. A fallow deer drinking from the river bounds off uphill at their approach, pausing at a safe distance to watch them with more interest than fear.

It is the loveliest place Keith has ever seen, or imagined. Stræl chews impatiently on the bit when he pulls her up short, sitting slumped in the saddle and gawking. He must be dreaming, or else dead. Did Thane Shirogane slit his throat on the way here, and now he has stumbled into a faery kingdom?

“Keith.” Keith looks down, dazed. Shiro has dismounted Artax, who is grazing happily a short ways off, and now the thane stands beside Stræl with palm extended up to Keith. “Take my hand,” Shiro says. Keith does, the black leather of fine gloves warm to the touch, and Shiro pulls him gently from the saddle. Once freed, Stræl joins Artax, stealing the best grass from him — the warhorse is too mild-mannered to protest.

Shiro does not release his hand, but weaves their fingers together, offering Keith a small smile and walking with him to a hollow beside the stream. As they hasten to it, Keith sees a wicker basket tucked between the rocks there, and stumbles over his own feet. Shiro steadies him.

“You look pale,” he murmurs, standing in front of Keith and cupping Keith’s face in his hands. “Have you caught a chill? Is the cloak not warm?”

Keith opens his mouth, closes it, and shakes his head. “The cloak is very warm,” he whispers. “I — what is this place?”

“Let us sit.” Shiro leads him to settle down in the soft hollow of grass and riverbank, and reaches for the wicker basket as Keith stares helplessly at their surroundings and at the contents of the basket. “I found this place long ago, when I was quite young. I wanted to share it with you...and, as well, a meal. I brought this here this morning, so it should still be fresh, though you did take your time choosing a horse.” Shiro winks and pulls a blanket from the basket, laying it before them like a tablecloth.

Keith says nothing as the thane places the basket’s contents onto the blanket one by one, but there’s a growing lump in his throat and his eyes itch.

The dishes are — familiar. He recognizes the bottle of dandelion wine, the pot of venison and vegetable stew with steam that aches of so many nights spent around crowded cook-fires. There is a plate of little quail eggs and thin slices of what must be eel, cooked perfectly. There is a whole roast salmon, belly slit and stuffed with nuts and cloves and fragrant herbs. The loaf of bread is not doughy and floury but flat and shining with butter and spices. At some point, Keith has to stop looking.

“They may not all be as you remember, but I had the cooks prepare what I know of Marmoran meals, and my head cook can work magic in the kitchen, so I…” Shiro trails off.

Tears dribble down Keith’s face and he swipes them away angrily, panicky, before the thane can reach out and try to do the same. “Why?” Keith demands, lifting his gaze to the startled thane in frantic accusation. “Why would you do this?”

“Have I upset you?” Shiro exclaims, face lined with worry. “I thought you might miss the foods you grew up with, so I…”

“So you wanted to be kind to me?” Keith sneers; he cannot help it, his heart is pounding and he’s dizzy; the scent of the food tangles into so many memories, unearthing all that he had tried so hard to bury, tearing poorly-healed sutures one by one.

Shiro grabs him by both shoulders; Keith does not realize he was shaking until the thane steadies him. “Yes,” Shiro whispers, searching his face. “I – I wanted to see you smile again. You are so often unsmiling, and I wish it were not so.”

Keith shakes his head. “We may wish for many things,” he whispers, “but wishing does not make them so.”

Shiro sighs and releases him. “All of my family is dead,” he says, and the words jerk Keith out of his stupor. “My mother died when she gave birth to me, and my father and older brothers died when the Galra raided our village. I was seven summers old. I do not remember them, try as I might.” Shiro sits with his legs bent in front of him, resting his forearms on his knees. “I feel a sense of loss because I know I should. But I cannot remember what I lost, so I cannot know how you feel.”

Keith tucks his hands into the cloak’s soft fur and clears his throat, wiping his face on the velvet. “Your...your village was raided by the Galra?”

Shiro nods. “I am not Galran by blood,” he murmurs. “Much like you.” He takes Keith’s hand in his own and Keith does not move away.

“Who raised you?” Keith asks, listening to the dull roar of the falls and the slowly resuming birdsong as the forest warily accepts these two strange men.

Shiro hesitates. “The Queen,” he admits. “Honerva.”

Keith’s eyes widen. “Then – are you not –”

Shiro laughs ruefully. “No, I am no prince. I was not raised alongside Prince Lotor. Queen Honerva had...a penchant for collecting strays. We were raised together in a separate dormitory, a bit like an orphanage.”

“A bit?”

Shiro’s shoulders are hunched, gaze averted, though his tone remains calm. “It was overseen by Queen Honerva’s Altean handmaidens. You would know them as Druids.”

Keith dislikes the shadow that has fallen over his husband’s face, and shifts closer, resting their joined hands on Shiro’s knee. “Did they treat you well?”

Shiro hums. “Well enough. We were fed and clothed, given a roof over our heads. What more could a child ask for?” He smiles and it does not reach his eyes.

“Where are the other children?” Keith asks. There is a growing pit in his stomach, one he is not yet willing to explore, but Shiro is an unfinished tapestry of half-woven threads and mysterious patterns impossible to look away from. Keith has never been good at weaving, though.

Shiro lips quirk, his brow low. “You’ve met one of them,” he murmurs. “Lord Sendak. His father was a Galran lord killed in battle; his mother died while delivering what would have been his only sibling.”

Keith sucks in a sharp breath. “Then – you two were –”

“Brothers, yes,” Shiro says. “Of sorts. But I consider him my brother no longer – time has changed us both, and Queen Honerva is dead.”

“And her Druids?”

Shiro tenses. “And her Druids,” he says. “More or less.”

Keith frowns, but Shiro’s eyes are distant, haunted, and Keith swears he sees a ripple of movement under the thane’s right sleeve, a tightening and swelling of flesh and bone and something other than human. Shiro’s hand curls into a fist for a few moments, then relaxes. When hidden by the leather gloves, it looks quite normal.

“I am sorry about your family,” Keith offers, looking away from the thane’s hand.

“And I am sorry about yours,” Shiro says. “Will you tell me about them, as we eat? If you want.”

Keith is about to refuse as he has refused in the past, but then he sees the genuine eagerness in Shiro’s eyes, the look of a man who never knew his mother and barely knew his father, who may be a Thane of Galra but who is alone in this clan, perhaps even as alone here as Keith.

“Alright,” Keith relents, reaching tentatively for a quail’s egg. Shiro does not stop him, only smiles in encouragement and pours two cups of dandelion wine. Keith chews the hardboiled egg, savoring the rich yolk and sharp tang of vinegar, and accepts the offered cup of wine. He takes a sip, swallows, and begins. “I was born to Krolia of Marmora, the great, great granddaughter of Marmora of Thaldcyon, wife of Kihyun of Marmora, my father, the brave warrior who kept my people free from yours and any others who would invade us for many moons…”

Shiro listens with rapt attention, breaking the bread and watching as Keith shows him how to wrap it around the eel and pieces of the herbed salmon, then dip it into the stew, as his father did for him, when he was almost too young to remember.

And as he sits beside the stream with his husband, Keith thinks of family; he thinks of the family he is meant to have with Thane Shirogane, of the sons he is meant to bear. And though Keith has always known he does not wish to birth children, and never will want that, Keith does not dislike children themselves.

He likes children very much; he admires their honesty and innocence, their unbridled hope and imagination and bright sense of adventure. Keith would die to protect a child in a heartbeat, if he must. And the thought of raising children with Shiro is not an unpleasant one. It is the expectation for Keith, and the role he must fill, which is so unpleasant – to bear sons, to carry on his husband’s legacy, until he can bear no more. His entire life, his body’s sole purpose, would be for his husband’s children; children snatched from his arms to be given swords and bloodlust and to fight and die for the Galra. That is not the future Keith wants, for himself or for any child.

And maybe it is selfish, or maybe it is just the brutal truth, but Keith does not know how he could love a child planted in him against his will. He would try, of course he would try. But if he failed? Such a thing would be fair to neither of them.

They finish the bottle of dandelion wine and the world blurs at the edges. Keith sits close to Shiro, their sides touching. The horses drink from the stream. Eventually, Keith stops talking about his family, for there is only so much he can say before he stumbles into death and grief, and Shiro does not press him for more. He was, after all, the cause of some of that death and grief.

“I know why you brought me here,” Keith sighs when the plates are almost clean, wiping crumbs from his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Oh?” Shiro lifts a slice of eel to Keith’s lips and Keith takes it from his fingers and between his teeth with as much docility as he can muster. “Why is that, then?”

Keith exhales, tries to convince himself that if the spell has failed it is too late already, anyway, and tucks a hand between Shiro’s thighs, cupping what he finds there. Shiro tenses, breath ceasing.

“I am not ungrateful,” Keith says quietly, “for your kindness.”

Shiro licks his lips. “Keith.”

“And you have not failed in any duties to me, but I have, to you, and –”

Shiro holds him at arms’ length before Keith can finish unlacing his breeches. “Keith. That is not why I brought you here.”

Keith’s jaw works helplessly. “So I should believe you are not upset with me?”

“Yes.”

“And I should believe you had no other intentions when you led me to the middle of the forest although I have not let you bed me for weeks?”

“Yes.” Shiro frowns at him. “This was not about that, Keith.”

“Then why?” It comes out like a plea.

“I have already told you.” Shiro tucks a wild curl behind Keith’s ear. “To see you smile. To make you happy, and for you to feel less alone although you are far from home.”

Keith doesn’t know what else to do, so he kisses him, praying the thane won’t push him away just as much as he prays he will.

After a moment, Shiro’s arms wrap around him, gentle but secure. He murmurs against Keith’s lips, “Are you kissing me because you think you must?” His tone is playful, though colored with concern.

Keith hesitates, then shakes his head. “I wish to kiss you,” he whispers. Shiro’s hand slides into the dip of his waist.

“How fortunate,” Shiro replies, “so do I.” He kisses Keith with startling chasteness, cupping his cheek and waiting for Keith to deepen it, to press closer, resting his hands on the thane’s chest and curling his fingers in the leather. Keith has to catch his breath after a minute or two, and Shiro lets him, waiting without pushing, his lips exploring past Keith’s mouth, under his tilted jaw and over the nervous bob of his white throat. Keith slumps into his touch, and thinks, dizzily, that the longer they kiss, the less sharp Shiro’s claws feel, and the more tenderly they touch him.

When Shiro’s tongue slides without hurry past Keith’s parted lips, he lets it in, and makes a soft sound which is lost in the golden tips of the fading summer grass as they both tumble down into it on the banks of the singing stream. Shiro does not pull at his clothing with hunger, nor does he grab hold of Keith’s body and force it to do as he desires. He places no expectations in his kisses and the slow way he strokes Keith’s body. In his arms, Keith is warm, but never aflame; wanting, but never desperate; breathless, but never drowning. There is balance. It is peaceful.

The autumn sun stretches the shadows long and dark, but Keith does not want to let go. Shiro’s breath tickles his cheek like the swaying grass and rustling ferns, and when he pulls away, Keith chases his mouth, biting his lip when Shiro stays just out of reach and says, “It is late...we should return to the keep before nightfall.”

Keith weasels his way back into Shiro’s embrace. “Or we could stay here,” he counters, “and watch the stars together...”

“We could,” Shiro says slowly, eyes fixed on Keith like he is a falling star, himself.

“What?” Keith demands, furrowing his brow. “What are you looking at?”

Shiro touches the corner of Keith’s mouth and Keith flushes. “You’re smiling,” he says, and then he smiles, too, and Keith understands why Shiro went to all this trouble.

*

They do return to the keep, but that night, Shiro takes him out to the gardens, and they sit on the stone bench gazing up at the sky and the smiling sliver of moon together.

“They will not accept the invitation unless I write it,” Keith says when the chill has sunk into his skin enough that he has begun to miss the warmth of the bed and the fireplace.

Shiro’s head turns. “Hmm?”

“My family,” Keith whispers. “The Marmora. If they are to feast here, with us, I want to write the invitation. If nothing else...they will at least know I still have use of my hands and thoughts.”

Shiro’s mouth tightens, but he nods, and takes both of Keith’s gloved hands between his own. “Of course,” he murmurs. “You may write as you wish, husband.”

“Thank you,” Keith sighs, and leans his head on the thane’s shoulder.

*

On the morning of the year’s first snowfall, a week after Shiro’s consolation breakfast and three days after the messenger rode off for the Marmora clan with Keith’s letter, Keith awakes to a familiar dull ache deep in his abdomen. He wrinkles his nose, groaning softly in discontent, only to freeze with eyes wide open as a more complete understanding settles over him.

Just to be certain, though he has felt this flowering for eight years and counting – it is an old and unmistakable visitor – he tucks his hand between his legs, under the thin shift and undergarments, and lifts his fingers to the pale sunlight.

They’re stained a vivid red. Keith sits up, dizzy with relief.

His spell did not fail. His husband may be inhuman in some ways, but not in this, and Keith lets out a giddy bark of wild laughter. Shiro stirs, not waking but rolling from his side onto his back. The movement reveals the heavy arch of morning arousal beneath his undergarments. Keith pauses, gaze flicking up to Shiro’s sleep-calm face, and reaches out to push lightly upon his arm. The thane grumbles a little, turning his face to the pillows and scrunching up his nose before relaxing again into deeper slumber, and Keith’s eyes narrow.

He kicks off his own ruined undergarments and in a low crouch descends the length of the bed and of his husband’s body, running curious palms over the width of Shiro’s thighs, smiling in bemused delight when they shift apart to accommodate his touch. Keith checks that Shiro is asleep every few seconds, as hesitant as he is bold in this, for he knows this is not quite how a peace-weaver ought to please their husband. A certain measure of passivity is expected. Keith is not fond of that expectation.

Besides, he has not had the chance to explore Shiro’s body like this, uninterrupted. He draws on thin laces and is startled by how easily the fabric falls away; the thane’s cock is thick and flushed with blood, and he has not even gotten a hand on it yet.

It occurs to Keith then that Shiro must often wake up like this, hard and wanting. He wonders, with surprising thrill, what Shiro does about it, if he does anything. Does he lie beside Keith and gaze upon him as he strokes himself to completion? Keith shivers, kneeling more fully on the bed between Shiro’s legs. He hopes so.

Keith’s hand is still tucked loose between his thighs; the bleeding is not yet heavy, but the strange scent hangs thick in the air; metallic, yet earthy. Keith has always thought the smell to be not unlike a used sword – bloodied iron, dripping slow over his fingers like winter sap. But not all the wetness between his folds is blood, now.

He looks at Shiro’s cock, and tilts his head. It no longer fills him with cold apprehension. His mother was right – he has a power that Shiro does not, and that knowledge makes Keith brave, and maybe a little stupid. But power is dizzying. He thinks of no longer fearing Shiro’s cock as a weapon against him and his body, but using it, taking it, for his own pleasure and to his own end – it is a selfish thought, and it is a good one.

So Keith takes it. He takes it between his lips, slides his tongue over the darker crown and opens his mouth wide as he ventures down, licking as he goes, lashes fluttering shut as the strange – yet also familiar, for it is the bitter-salt-musk taste of skin and want which he has tasted before from himself – taste sinks into his throat along with the thane’s thickening cock. Shiro shudders under him, breath catching, shallowing, but he is still asleep.

Shiro’s cock may be unable to plant seed in him, but it’s still wholly capable of choking him, so he draws back to suckle rather than suck, bobbing his head slow, unhurried, as his fingers follow his mouth’s lead and delve past the tender edges of his cunt, and sink inwards with a wet sound not unlike the sounds of his drooling mouth on Shiro’s cock.

Keith almost bites down when his hole swallows two fingers to the knuckles, and his teeth graze when he thumbs at his clit, throat constricting around nothing but spit. He squeezes his eyes shut, lips working around the head of the thane’s cock, which spills rich pearls over his tongue, dribbling out the corners of his mouth. Keith’s fingers twist in a clumsy plunge, seeking an impossible depth, and he cannot hold back his ragged moan, nor the hot gasp over the thane’s leaking cock.

“Kei — eith?!”

A hand catches in Keith’s hair, strong fingers tangling and the body under him rousing in a different way. Shiro groans, and Keith whines at the sharp sting at his scalp before the thane’s eyes fly open and fix on the startled creature he’s caught in his blind but punishing grasp.

Shiro’s cock falls from Keith’s mouth and Shiro groans again, propping himself up on his forearms. He looks awestruck, as in, it is as if Keith has physically struck him into waking, and judging by his dazed eyes, Shiro is unsure whether he is still dreaming.

Hoping to clear that up for him, Keith laves another messy kiss over his cock, fingers still working between his legs. “Good morning, husband,” Keith pants, grinding against his palm.

Shiro throws his free hand over his face and whines into his knuckles. Keith lifts his head to blink in disbelief, unprepared for this rather more flustered and twitchy version of Thane Shirogane than he is used to. Keith strokes his cock loosely, and when Shiro lets out a choked whimper, Keith pauses and asks, “Are you alright?”

“Am I – augh.” Shiro could be laughing or sobbing, Keith is not certain which. Gray eyes peek at him between parted fingers, and Shiro’s gaze darts down, from Keith’s shiny mouth to the hard points of his nipples through the thin shift, to his busy hand between flexing thighs.

Shiro’s eyes widen and he starts forward, unbalancing Keith; he’s forced to brace his hand on the thane’s taut stomach, leaving reddened fingerprints behind. Shiro stares at them, then at Keith. “Uh,” Keith grunts. “I –”

“You’re…” Shiro clears his throat, voice cracking. “You’re not injured, then. I thought – but – ah. You’re. Keith. Keith.”

Keith cringes away, curling his bloodied hand close to his belly and kneeling on the bed, ducking his head. “I’m sorry, I –”

Shiro squeezes his thigh. Keith looks up, heart pounding. Oh, gods. Surely he isn’t –

“You’re ruining the furs,” Shiro murmurs, voice pitched low, rough. His hand finds Keith’s waist, dipping under the shift until it rises up obligingly, as does Keith. The thane urges him to sit instead atop his supine body, and Keith goes, trembling — evidently his previous confidence has traitorously left him.

But Shiro’s eyes are dark and his touch is welcome. He brushes Keith’s sleep-mussed hair out of his face, draws his thumb over Keith’s wet mouth, and smiles. “Good morning, husband,” he echoes, and tugs Keith down for a bruising kiss.

Still hazy from sleep and the meditative trance Shiro’s cock has somehow cast over him, Keith does not know entirely what is happening. He does know that he wants to kiss Shiro breathless and that Shiro is still hard. Keith’s gut aches, and he feels all at once spread open and vulnerable, wounded, though these cycles of his body are natural and this pain is as it has always been.

This is the first time he has bled with his husband’s cock in such close proximity, however.

Shiro’s teeth catch his lower lip and Keith’s breath stutters violently. “Better luck next time, hm?” His fingers dance over dark curls and press to the thick mound beneath. Keith’s hips shift forward, red smears over Shiro’s hip, Shiro’s cock twitches against Keith’s belly.

“And when will next time be?” Keith gasps into the thane’s hot mouth.

Shiro pulls back, his smile wicked. He strokes around Keith’s waist, his expression openly curious, and so fond Keith has to look away before his heart can quicken any further. “Does it hurt?” he asks, soft, lips brushing Keith’s ear as he leans in again. “Or does it help, perhaps, when you…” Calloused fingers grasp Keith’s wrist, guide it back between his legs, and Keith hiccups on a curse, obliging the thane’s unspoken command.

“It helps,” Keith manages, bowing his head into Shiro’s shoulder, adding a third finger with a bitten-off grunt. He hesitates, squeezes his eyes shut, and digs his own grave. “But your cock would be better.”

Shiro makes a sound he has never made before, sitting up against the pillows and the headboard, so they are face-to-face, and there is nowhere for Keith to hide. He makes the sound again, a harsh and growled syllable, and this time it sounds more like, Keith.

“Or I can just use my mouth,” Keith adds quickly, floundering in the ruins of himself, much to Shiro’s obvious amusement – yet, Shiro’s composure has long since been flung by the wayside, and he makes no secret of this when his hands lock down on Keith’s hips and twist him off and down, giving Keith a second to protest, which he does not do, too shocked to even form a word, before the thane is between his legs and pressing the head of his wet cock to Keith’s wetter hole.

Keith gapes at him soundlessly and Shiro’s lips curl, gripping Keith’s thighs to keep him open, apparently enjoying the fattening of reddened folds with every rub of his cock’s leaking crown. “Much as I adore your mouth,” Shiro coos, shaping the corner of Keith’s parted lips with a clawed thumb, “there will be time for more of that later, I hope. For now...I admit, I have missed your cunt, husband.”

Keith’s toes curl in the sheets when the thane’s cock slides over his clit, so hard they are both purpled in the early morning shadows. “You don’t seem like you’ve missed it,” Keith retorts, voice somehow steady. “If you missed it, you’d be inside me already.”

Shiro clicks his tongue in disapproval, though his eyes shine with satisfaction and want – he looks like he wants to eat Keith alive. Keith would let him, as long as he got to take a bite, too.

“Then I suppose I’ll have to prove it to you,” Shiro says, and fucks into bloodied heat.

Keith blacks out briefly, hand smacking against the headboard so hard his knuckles bruise and spine arching high; the slide of Shiro’s cock in and out of him is punishing and good, gods, it’s so good Keith could die of it — but he can’t die yet, because he has to make Shiro come first, and maybe a second time, and maybe a third, because Shiro is not the only one who has missed this...and Keith intends to get his revenge for every time Shiro brought him to climax with his cruel tongue.

The first time they laid together is still etched into Keith’s mind in intricate detail, solid and familiar like the carvings in the wood of their bed’s headboard, but this second time feels entirely new. Maybe it is because the fear coiled tight in Keith is gone, or at least it has loosened, enough to make way for something else, something that makes Keith pull Shiro closer, clinging to him with the entirety of his aching body, smothering his greedy moans in desperate mashes of their lips.

There is freedom in the artlessness of it. Keith knows Shiro must have laid with many before him, and he knows his own tactics of seduction are surely lacking in comparison, but like this, right now, they are both a mess, too desperate for each other to create any illusions of mastery. Keith is drowning, in pleasure and warmth and Shiro, and so he cannot be ashamed of the way his body ripples tight around his husband’s cock at the first touch of a claw to his clit, the first graze of fangs on his throat. This time, Shiro does not draw blood — Keith has already drawn it for him.

He comes, too fast, and it feels like the summer night he leapt from a high cliff’s edge into the waves below, not knowing with any certainty if he would survive the fall, but not caring, because the wind howling past him and the weightless moments between earth and sea were well worth the risk.

The surprise is that Shiro comes too, tucking his face into Keith’s neck and groaning low and long. He’s louder this time. Keith wonders how much louder he gets. Keith clenches the muscle he is quickly discovering how to use around Shiro’s cock as it spills in him and the thane swears, human hand tangled in Keith’s hair like he needs an anchor, like maybe he feels like he’s falling in the best way, too. Keith laughs, breathless, weightless, thinking he could sink down into the bed like an endless cloud, dragging Shiro down with him into soft cotton fog.

Shiro shifts over him, lifting his head from Keith’s shoulder. He’s laughing, too. It’s a nice sound, Shiro’s laughter. It makes Keith warm in a different way — a happy way.

Somehow, Keith never expected laughter and bedding would go hand in hand — but it seems they do, at least with Shiro, and he is glad for it.

“You are like a little limpet,” Shiro chuckles, nudging at Keith’s ribs with his elbow. Keith is still wrapped tight around him, inside and out, and he has no intentions of letting the thane escape from his clutches.

“What does that make you?” Keith huffs. “A rock?”

Shiro rolls his eyes. “Considering my cock is no longer hard, I don’t think —”

“Wait a minute or two. That will change,” Keith says. He says it like a warning. Shiro blinks at him.

“Ah,” he says, rolling carefully onto his side, Keith’s grip on him so unyielding that his softening cock is barely dislodged. “I see. I’m being held hostage.”

Keith nods solemnly and presses his face to Shiro’s neck, indulging in a nuzzle. He does not know when he decided he liked nuzzling Shiro, but there is no going back from it now.

They both pause as wetness drips out down Keith’s thighs, and Keith catches a glimpse of white streaked pink before he has to hide his burning face in Shiro’s neck again.

Shiro makes a questioning noise and strokes a hand down his back. “Hurts?”

“No, no,” Keith mumbles, then amends, “sore. A little. But it’s — a better hurt than before.”

“A better hurt,” Shiro repeats. “Hmm.”

Keith swallows. Shiro, who seems to have accepted his fate, shifts with occasional discomfort in Keith’s grasp but makes no move to disentangle them. Finally, when he can feel Shiro’s cock beginning to fatten again, Keith whispers, “Should you not be — repulsed, by this?”

Shiro pauses. “By blood?” He rolls his hips and Keith shudders, ducking his head when dull nails scratch through the now-messy patch of coarse hair. “I have seen too much blood to be repulsed by it.”

Keith frowns, struggling to keep his thoughts in line as they begin to rock and move together, Keith’s thigh hitched up on Shiro’s hip, his other leg folded between them. “You find blood — appealing?” he asks, halting.

“I find you appealing.” Shiro kisses him. “Like this, or otherwise, it does not change how I feel about you.”

“I do not think most men would agree,” Keith pants, letting his head loll on the pillow as Shiro takes his hips in hand to guide and control each thrust.

“Then it is a good thing,” Shiro retorts, “that I am the only man in your bed, hm?”

“At least you did not use your mouth,” Keith groans, breaking off in a startled whine when Shiro licks his fingers and rolls Keith’s clit between them, tugging lightly at its flushed hood.

“I could,” Shiro muses, and Keith freezes. “I still could...you would still taste divine.”

“Don’t say that,” Keith gasps raggedly, pulling on Shiro’s hair hard enough for him to bare his teeth and shove his fully hard cock to previously unexplored depths. “Are you not satisfied enough with using your cock?”

“You’re one to talk,” Shiro pants, bracing his clawed hand on the headboard and half-leaning over Keith, half-crushing Keith’s chest with his weight. “Do you intend to keep me here all day?”

Keith growls behind his teeth and shoves on the thane’s shoulders, knocking him off with the advantage of surprise, wresting Shiro’s cock from his cunt like sword from sheath. Shiro’s brows lift, eying Keith as he crawls back over him, digging his nails into the thane’s broad and scarred chest, laughing softly at how there is more to hold in his hands here than with his own breast.

“Well?” Shiro presses, the breathless tone of his voice filling Keith with a sick sort of pride. “Must I inform Thane Janka I will be unable to hunt with him, since I am imprisoned in my own bed?”

Instead of answering, Keith sits back, stretching and tugging the wrinkled shift up and over his head, tossing it across the room. Shiro rumbles under him, hands twitching on the bed. Keith arches back, curling one hand around the base of Shiro’s cock, which is ringed with a scarlet stain that only serves to make the ravenous throb inside him worse; harder, hotter. Shiro smells like him, like battle and sex, and Keith’s breath catches.

“Alright,” Shiro whispers, “very well, yes, there will be no hunting today – ah –”

“No,” Keith agrees, low and deadly, stroking the thane’s cock faster, until his breaths sound more like gasps and his cock jolts in Keith’s fist. “There will not be.”

“Keith,” Shiro groans, head falling back, baring his throat and closing his eyes tight. “Keith, please, my heart –”

Keith’s movements stutter and he swipes his thumb roughly over the wet crown, digging his nail against the slit there until Shiro whines. “Say that again.”

“I – m-my heart?”

“Yes,” Keith says, “yes,” and when Shiro’s face crumples, jaw dropping, Keith squeezes tight as a vice around his swollen cock. He doesn’t know why he does it, but he does not expect it to make the thane shout, fist slamming down against the bed as a milky half-spurt of cum arcs over his stomach. His cock remains hard, twitching pathetically, his sac heavy and full with seed.

Keith’s eyes narrow. Shiro looks murderous.

“My heart,” Shiro hisses, “release me.”

“I don’t think so,” Keith says, smiling grimly. “Don’t come until I have, husband. If you think you can manage it, anyway.” Shiro’s mouth opens, astonished, and Keith lifts up, and sinks back down over him, sheathing his length fully inside him. Shiro shudders. There might be tears in his eyes. Keith pauses and leans down, suddenly worried he has gone too far. “I – apologize, are you –”

He doesn’t get to finish the sentence.

He thinks, for a moment, Shiro might be attacking him, so powerful and furious is the way he tears Keith off of him and pins him to the bed below his bulk, as if wrestling, but – his cock drags thick and wet over Keith’s lower back and then ruts hard between Keith’s shaky thighs and slides in from behind, rubbing his palm over Keith’s clit hard enough to hurt.

Keith screams into the pillow, burning and split open, and Shiro snarls against the back of his neck in smug reply, hips hitching and fingers curling around where he pounds into Keith, drawing the sticky heat upwards, streaking over Keith’s stomach and chest, circling around his nipples and pinching when Keith bucks under him.

“Don’t apologize, beloved,” Shiro breathes over the shell of his ear, then bites down, and does everything within his not inconsiderable power to follow Keith’s orders.

*

Some time later, after Keith is content he has drained the thane of seed – for now, anyway – they lay on the bed together, both limp and in mild disbelief of the other.

Keith pillows his head on Shiro’s chest without thinking much of it, and Shiro yawns, playing absently with Keith’s hair. He turns his head to the window and says, “Huh. It is snowing.”

Keith snorts. “It has been snowing,” he says. “Since we awoke.”

“Since you awoke,” Shiro corrects, and stretches lazily. “I had little time to contemplate the weather.”

“You were not complaining,” Keith huffs.

“No,” Shiro chuckles, “I was not. I am still not.” He snuggles closer and kisses Keith’s brow. “You are so beautiful, husband.”

Keith falters, sensing unknown territory. “As are you,” he mumbles, accepting the kiss and unsure if he is meant to return it.

Shiro cups his cheek, his smile rueful. “There is no need for empty flattery,” he murmurs.

Keith blinks, bewildered. “What?”

“There are many beautiful things in this world,” Shiro says, tracing the curve of Keith’s breast, down to the relaxed dip of his belly, “and we both know I am not among them.”

Keith is too stunned to argue. Because...what? What? “I,” he starts, “Shiro, you are –”

Shiro shakes his head, clawed hand flexing and scarred body shining with sweat and drying blood as he gently nudges Keith off and sits up. “It is alright, Keith,” he murmurs. “I have made my peace with what I am. I am glad you find me pleasing enough; that is all I could hope for.” He drops a sweet kiss to Keith’s lips and starts to move off the bed. “I will have the servants draw up a bath, for it appears we have ruined both the furs and ourselves.”

Keith bolts upright, ignoring the sharp twinge of protest in his entire lower body. “No!” he exclaims. Shiro eyes him quizzically. “No, I – let me use the washroom first.”

“Ah, of course,” Shiro says, and offers him his hand. “Come, I will help take care of you –”

Keith pulls away. Shiro looks – hurt. Keith swallows. “I would like to do so alone,” he whispers. “I will be quick. And then...then a bath would be. Good.”

“Very well, then,” Shiro says after a moment of confusion, and watches Keith go, collecting his discarded shift as he does. Keith hurries to the washroom and closes the door tight.

He goes about the spell quickly, using the blood from a small cut Shiro’s claws left on his hip, wincing as he mixes it in the washbasin with the seed dripping out down his thighs – he doubts this spell is even necessary while he is bleeding, but he won’t risk it. It’s easier to focus and say the spell’s words now that he knows it works.

He wipes all evidence away carefully, tossing the dirtied rag in with the others waiting to be laundered, and returns to their bedroom. Servants hurry into the washroom after him, avoiding looking at him and his clearly disheveled state, and Keith gladly hides under the least-ruined furs with Shiro once he reaches the bed.

Shiro seems to enjoy just holding Keith in his arms as they wait for the bath, and Keith has no objections. Shiro noses into his hair. “All is well?” he asks.

Keith nods. “It seems so.”

“I am glad.” Shiro sighs and settles back into the pillows. “Bleeding is also a sign of fertility, is it not?”

“Sometimes,” Keith manages, gulping down a sudden surge of guilt. “If it is regular.”

Shiro hums. “And is yours?”

Keith nods slowly. “It was not, before, but now...I am better fed, here,” he mutters, “and exercise far less.”

“Are you saying feasting and laziness is the key to success?” Shiro laughs.

Keith shrugs, and rolls onto his back, no longer laughing. “Perhaps.”

“Only time will tell,” Shiro agrees, and lays his hand over Keith’s belly. Keith stares at the ceiling as his husband imagines that there is something where Keith has ensured there will be nothing at all.

*

The Marmora clan arrives at Thane Shirogane’s keep in an early morning of mid-winter, a grim entourage of guarded faces and swift steeds laden with the trappings of war. As Shiro descends the keep’s steps with Keith to greet them, he dips his head to murmur, “They certainly came prepared for a fight.”

“If they had not, they would not be my people,” Keith replies from the corner of his mouth. “But take comfort in the display – if they were truly here to kill you and your men, they would have hidden it.”

Shiro shakes his head. “You and I have a very different idea of comfort, husband.”

The two of them approach the Marmorans as they dismount one by one, handing their horses off warily to the stable boys, and Keith has steeled himself for this moment, for this reunion, but it wasn’t enough to prepare him for seeing his mother’s face again.

Krolia hands the reins of her black charger to a servant after saying something quick and sharp to them, and the servant hurries off as she turns away, walking towards the keep and Keith with purpose, long cloak swirling around her ankles. Kolivan falls into step beside her, glancing around in obvious suspicion, but Krolia keeps her gaze straight ahead as the dozen other Marmorans flank her and Kolivan, their hands never leaving their sword hilts.

“King Kolivan,” Shiro greets with half a bow, which is all the courtesy a thane to another king would ever give. “Lady Krolia. It is an honor to meet and receive you and your people at our keep. Was your journey hard?”

Kolivan stands half a head higher than Shiro, and steps forward as if to emphasize this fact. “It is winter,” Kolivan replies. “All journeys are hard.”

“True enough!” Shiro agrees, his smile slightly more forced. Kolivan looks at him with as much chill as the icicles on the eaves. “Please, come inside, the mead-hall is warm and the feast awaits us.”

But the Marmorans do not move. They are waiting for something. Then Krolia steps forward, closer than Kolivan, and stands before Keith. Her dark eyes gleam like beetles’ backs. Her hair is longer, dusted with snow.

“Hello, peace-weaver,” she says, and glances at Shiro with a slow nod. “Thane.”

“Mother,” Keith says, only a little choked. “It is good to see you.”

“And you, my son.” Krolia’s face softens, and she touches his cheek, the barest brush of cool fingertips. “You look well.”

Keith would say the same of her, but she does not. There are lines on her face where there were not before, and her eyes are bloodshot, shadowed in deep circles. She looks angry, but tired, as if she has been fighting battles she cannot win.

“Come, mother,” Keith says. “Thane Shirogane speaks true. It is a good mead-hall, and a good feast. We have much to catch up on.”

“Yes,” Krolia whispers, “we do.”

*

The Marmorans relax after the first few rounds of mead, though Keith knows they are wary by nature when surrounded by walls and unfamiliar men; Galrans, at that. Shiro and Keith sit together at the head of the crowded table, which attracts a great deal of murmuring, and a hard stare from Kolivan which Keith knows he will have to answer for, later. Krolia, however, only watches them over the edge of her goblet, neither approving nor displeased.

Keith longs to pull her aside so they can speak together properly, but he knows that will not be possible until everyone is drunker. Shiro is already well on that path; Keith notices the thane is making an effort to engage more in conversation and jests than he ever has with the other Galran thanes.

Socialization does not come naturally to Thane Shirogane, but one would never guess if they had only met him tonight. He is all warm laughter and clever quips, and it takes talent to charm Marmorans, but he is managing.

Except for Kolivan, who continues to scowl and eye the hall like he is expecting soldiers to burst from the earth at any moment.

There are a few other Galrans currently wintering at the keep, including Mei, whose husband Branko has been drawing up plans for the spring raids with Shiro these past few weeks. Branko and Mei are at the other end of the table with some other Galran soldiers and Thane Janka, and they keep a few degrees of separation between themselves and the Marmorans. However, in a lull of conversation on Keith’s side of the table, he hears a fragment of their mutterings, and pauses to listen.

“...hadn’t heard. Lord Throk’s son, dead –”

“How? That young man was the most promising future commander in our ranks!”

“Awful accident – not in battle. Fell from the keep’s tower.”

“Fell? Or jumped?”

“Why would he jump? He was to inherit his father’s title and all his lands –”

“Doesn’t matter...cold when they found him. Neck snapped.”

“Who found him?”

“Lord Throk himself. He was hunting with Lord Sendak…”

“...and what of the King? Any news?”

“None, but Lord Throk has taken the blow hard, so I hear…”

Keith finishes his goblet of mead and nudges Shiro, who is listening to several Marmorans’ dramatic rendition of a fishing contest. Shiro looks to him at once, brows raised. Keith pauses. “Hello,” he says.

Shiro’s face breaks into a grin. “Hello,” he replies, and kisses Keith in front of, well, everyone.

(Keith does not notice until later, but Kolivan’s wooden spoon splinters down the middle.)

Keith indulges him for a few moments, ears hot, then pulls back and mutters, so only the two of them can hear, “Did you know about Lord Throk’s son?”

Shiro’s brow creases, and he nods. “Thane Branko told me this afternoon, yes. It’s a shame.”

“Do you really think he fell?” Keith presses.

Shiro pauses. “Sometimes accidents happen,” he says, though he sounds doubtful.

“But it’s strange, is it not?”

“It is strange,” Shiro agrees, and squeezes his shoulder apologetically. “May we speak of this later? I don’t wish to be rude to our guests.”

Keith pats his thigh under the table and Shiro jolts. “You are being very gracious, husband,” he chuckles, and ignores Shiro’s spluttering, returning to his mead, and then to his mother, who has shifted to sit closer to him when he was not looking.

“Mother,” Keith says when the musicians begin strumming and the men begin rising from their benches to dance and find more mead. “How is home without me?”

She reaches across the table, surprising him, and takes his hand. “It is not the same,” Krolia replies. “I think of you every day. I worried. And when we received your letter…”

“I was not certain you would accept,” Keith admits. “I told my husband as much.”

“Husband,” Krolia repeats, wondering. “How easily you call him that. Is he worthy of the title?”

Said husband is leading several Marmorans over to Thane Branko’s table, which is sufficiently drunk to be amiable to their introductions. There is lots of backslapping and roars of laughter; a couple of the Marmoran women even begin speaking to Mei, and their faces are all smiling. Shiro is, Keith thinks, a good diplomat.

Krolia squeezes his hand, her eyes mirthful. “I see. I will take that as a yes.”

Keith blushes and tugs his hand away. “He is not what I expected,” he murmurs. “He treats me well.” He smiles. "He gave me a horse."

Krolia exhales. “Good,” she whispers, “that is good.” She hesitates. “Since you left – I sought to know more about him, your thane. I did not like what I found, Keith.”

“Marmorans value strength on the battlefield,” Keith starts, but she shakes her head.

“Strength, yes,” she says. “Not slaughter.”

Keith looks down. “Yes, I have heard such talk, also.”

“And?”

Keith shakes his head. “He is a complicated man, mother. I have not pried into what he keeps hidden.”

“Yet.”

Keith’s eyes narrow. “Yet,” he agrees.

“There is something more,” Krolia starts, her shoulders slumping. “The Blades...they have come to a decision.”

The Blades were Kolivan’s council of thanes, of which his mother was a part, and apprehension fills him as he takes in her haggard expression and unhappy tone. “What decision, mother?”

She leans in close, sliding along the bench until there is no chance anyone else can hear her words. “The spell,” she whispers, “has it worked?”

Keith nods. Her shoulders slump further. “Mother?” he questions. “What is it, what did the Blades decide?”

“Not here,” Krolia pleads, pulling away, for they are already attracting stares, and she curls her hand around the back of his head, pressing his face quick but firm to her breast in a brief embrace. “Oh, Keith. I am sorry. If nothing else, know that this was not what I wanted for you.”

Keith searches her gaze frantically. “Mother, what –”

She shakes her head and stands, walking through the crowded room, weaving past the musicians and the guards, out to the doors and the snow-buried gardens.

Someone slings an arm around his shoulders and pulls him close, and of course it is Shiro, but Keith still jumps out of his skin, heart pounding and skin clammy, because he knows, he knows. Shiro’s mouth and scruff is warm and rough on his neck and he murmurs, “My heart, you should drink more mead.”

“Mead is bad for babies,” Keith says, faintly.

Shiro pulls back, eyes wide and lips parted. “Oh,” he says, and nods solemnly. “I did not know...do not listen to me, then!” He gives Keith a messy kiss on the cheek. “You are the expert, not I.”

Keith smiles weakly, and as soon as Shiro is distracted with the other men, Keith slips away from the table, hurrying out to follow his mother. He tells the guards he needs fresh air and will be back in a moment, but they have been drinking, too, and let him pass without consequence.

The cold air stings. The garden is quiet, and lonely – no one wants to be here when they could be inside enjoying themselves in the company of others. Yet, a single figure stands, staring down into the pool with the fish Keith once found so strange. A crown glints on his brow. Keith approaches with the soft steps this very man taught him to use, and Kolivan only hears him when he is within several feet.

“Sire,” Keith says. He does not bow.

Kolivan studies him. “You do not wear a gown,” he remarks.

Keith folds his arms, heat creeping up into his face. “I did not wear gowns with the Marmora,” he says. “Why should I here?”

Kolivan turns back to the pool. “They are not the Marmora,” he says. “Nor are you.”

“I know,” Keith retorts. “I have no forgotten that. Nor will I ever.”

Kolivan hums. “No, I did not think you would.”

Keith steps closer. “My mother said the Blades made a decision.”

Kolivan inclines his head. “We had to,” he murmurs. “We are in danger, Keith. We have lost too many lands, too many warriors. These are desperate times...they call for desperate measures.” Kolivan rubs his temples. “You have heard King Zarkon seeks an heir from his thanes. You are wed to one of his thanes.”

His words are a falling axe, and Keith cannot move away – for he is the one on the chopping block.

“No,” Keith whispers. “Sire, you –”

“Do not call me that,” Kolivan mutters, and when he turns, he looks as tired, as defeated, as Krolia did. “The Galra are our most formidable enemy, but there are enemies all around. We lost some of our best on the moon we received word from you. Regris and Antok are dead.”

Keith has no words. Kolivan keeps speaking, keeps cutting into him.

“We all must make sacrifices, Keith,” Kolivan says. “At least you are not sacrificing your life.”

“That,” Keith snaps, “is exactly what I –”

Kolivan lifts a hand. “Don’t,” he warns. “This was not an easy decision, Keith. But we need an heir – a powerful one. If the man on the Galran throne was of Marmoran blood, with you to guide him –”

“You are suggesting treason,” Keith breathes.

Kolivan’s eyes narrow. “It is not treason,” he argues. “You have no loyalty to Galra.”

“I am the peace-weaver –”

Kolivan grabs his shoulder and Keith goes still. “Do not fool yourself,” Kolivan whispers. “They will break the peace, if we do not, first. You are not a peace-weaver; you never wanted to be a bloody peace-weaver. You are a Marmoran warrior. Fulfill your duty as one.”

“My duty, then,” Keith whispers, “would be to bear a son destined to kill and betray his father and his kingdom at my behest.”

“Yes,” Kolivan says.

“No,” Keith whispers, stricken, “I –”

Kolivan releases him. “Keith,” he murmurs. “Listen to me well, child. The road to victory is rarely a pleasant one. We have tried fighting, we have tried compromising – it is not enough. If this is not done, if we do not at least try, Marmora will just become another lost, conquered clan, dead and forgotten. I do not want that for our people, Keith. Do you? Do you want to be remembered as Keith, Blade of Marmora, and savior of our people’s future; or as Keith of Galra, Thane Shirogane’s barren peace-weaver?”

“You already know my answer,” Keith whispers numbly.

“Say it,” Kolivan murmurs.

Keith closes his eyes, hands curling into fists at his sides. “I am Marmoran,” he whispers. “I will do what is best for Marmora.”

“Not for Galra?”

“No.”

“Not for your husband?”

Keith’s nails dig into his palms. “No.”

“Swear it, and know that the punishment for treason is death.”

Keith kneels, bowing his head for the flat of the blade to rest upon it. “I swear,” he says, feeling very far away, hearing himself as if from underwater, “to fulfill my duty to my kingdom and to bring glory to Marmora, no matter the cost.”

“Then I name you, Keith, a Blade of Marmora,” Kolivan whispers under the rustling trees and cold stars.

Chapter Text

The next time Shiro fucks him, Keith stays in the bed afterwards.

Shiro gazes at him across the pillow with cloud-gray eyes. “Do you not wish to go to the washroom?” he asks. His arm, the clawed one, is slung over Keith’s hip like a heavy chain.

Keith makes no move to push it off. What is the use? He is bound; by duty, by honor, by family, by the roles forced upon him. He has already tried, and failed, to break free of them, and it is exhausting.

“No,” Keith whispers, and curls into the curve of the thane’s body. He thinks of tiny fingers grasping at his hands and hot blood pouring from Shiro’s cut throat. He shivers; even among the furs he is cold in this long, miserable final stretch of winter. “I am tired.”

“That’s never stopped you before,” Shiro chuckles, and he’s right. This time was hardly a test of stamina – more of a lazy sunset rutting, messy pawing at bodies and kisses that never quite deepened.

And Keith didn’t come, but Shiro need not know that. The display he put on must have been convincing enough, because the thane is content to hold Keith close, kiss him goodnight, and fall asleep. Keith closes his eyes and presses his hands over his belly and thinks, Please, do not plant this seed. Many couples go years without children, and not for lack of trying. Maybe they will be like that, he muses without much hope. Maybe the Marmora will be forced to look elsewhere for their heir, after all.

He comforts himself with these thoughts, because Kolivan spoke of sacrifices, but this feels like too much. Keith likes his body, more or less – and he likes having control over it. In this, the control slips away, and the sensation is sickening; instead of leaping from the cliff’s edge of his own volition, he was pushed, and the rocks below are too sharp, too unwelcome.

He dreams of the sea, of drowning with a belly full of stones, weighing him down no matter how hard he kicks and pushes upwards through the churning waves.

Instead of dying, he crumples down to wet earth and cool stone, lying on the belly he does not recognize as his own, and tries and tries to stand, but he keeps slipping, and his ankles are stuck fast in the deep mud; he’s sinking. There’s a shadow through the water, standing over him, watching him struggle.

Help, Keith says, reaching out to the silhouetted stranger. We’re going to die…

He does not know why he says we.

The stranger steps forward, and Keith freezes as his face is revealed as a familiar one, paralyzed in that awful way of dreams, where he knows he must move, must run, but can do nothing at all. And whose fault, Shiro snarls, is that?

Keith shrinks away, tugging at his own trapped limbs, breath catching harsh and loud in his throat. Shiro is the night sky, the prowling beast in the woods, the triumphant warrior still thirsty for bloodletting. Did you really think you could kill me? he laughs, the sound twisting ugly but true ‘round Keith’s neck, an ever-tightening noose.

I wouldn’t, Keith gasps, I won’t kill you, husband.

Shiro glares like a wildfire. No, he says, but it would. He lunges forward, a slice of shadow which arcs through the water and across Keith’s womb, gashing it wide open. Keith falls to his knees as lifeless pebbles tumble out of him, red and endless, until he is hollow of everything but his own echoing, ragged cry.

It does not hurt. It does not feel like much of anything at all, except loss.

“Keith! My heart, wake up, Keith, shh, come here, come back to me, you’re alright.”

Keith moans and writhes awake, soaked in sweat, kicking at the furs which tangle and trap his legs and shoving, striking out blind, at the weight which pins him down. When he pries his eyes open, Shiro is sitting up in the bed beside him, hands lifted, hovering over him but no longer touching. A red mark blooms high on his cheek, the size of Keith’s fist. Keith sucks in a shallow, wounded breath and stares at him. “Sorry,” he gasps, “I did not mean to –”

Shiro leans down and Keith flinches back, a hand going to his belly. It is whole, the flesh unbroken, but he still swears he feels a dull throb from within. Shiro pauses, his brow creasing, gaze flickering down to where Keith clutches at his own flesh so hard his nails leave marks. “It is alright, husband,” Shiro whispers. “You were dreaming.”

“I hit you –”

“And you hit me well,” Shiro agrees, touching the mark on his cheek with an approving wince. “You have good instincts, and aim.” Keith blinks, disbelieving, and Shiro sighs. “Keith, you were asleep,” he murmurs. “I know quite well that one can see any number of terrible things when sleeping, and believe them to be real.”

Keith closes his eyes, remembering how to breathe, heart pounding rabbit-quick. “Yes,” he finally whispers, defeated. “I thought it was real...it felt real.”

Shiro lies down beside him. “Did someone hurt you?” he asks softly.

Keith swallows. “I don’t remember,” he lies. “It was – dark.”

“Dark?” The bedroom is dark, too – the sun has not yet risen. Keith woke Shiro in the middle of the night with his shouts, then – and yet, Shiro is calm, his temper even, his face unsoured by even a hint of irritation or anger. It was just a dream.

But...if he ever learned the truth…

Keith shivers. “I think I was with child,” he admits, staring at the ceiling. “It was awful.”

Shiro frowns, shifts closer. “Awful how?”

“I didn’t want to be,” Keith says. “And then someone – a shadow, it...” He sucks in a breath. “It cut me open. Then I woke up.”

“Keith.” Shiro touches his shoulder, squeezes. Keith looks up at him. “No one will touch you. No one will hurt you. As long as I have breath in my body – I swear this to you.”

Keith shakes his head, and leans his sweaty forehead into Shiro’s chest. “And what if I do not bear you a child?”

Shiro makes a questioning sound. “Why would you not?”

“I could be barren,” Keith whispers. “What then?”

“Hmm.” Shiro strokes his hair, unhurried. “Somehow I doubt that is true, but, if it is, there are remedies – there are healers and midwives who specialize in such things.”

Keith bites his lip. “And if I do not wish to?”

Shiro pauses. “Keith…”

“No, do not answer,” Keith whispers. “I already know what you will say; you, who will never bear children. It is my duty to you and your kingdom.”

“And to yours,” Shiro says. “Our children will be Marmoran, too. One needs two threads to weave peace, after all.”

Keith rolls away from him. His heart hurts, his gut hurts. “But you are not the peace-weaver.”

Shiro sighs. “Speak plainly, Keith. Why do you not wish to bear children?”

“Do I need a reason?”

“I would like a reason, yes.”

Keith narrows his eyes, his back to Shiro so the thane cannot see the frustration wrought across his face. “Would you wish to bear children?” he snaps. “If you could?”

There is a long silence. Then Shiro chuckles. “What a question,” he murmurs. “I don’t see why not.” Keith is ready to snap at him again, but then Shiro adds, “It is not easy, I imagine, by any means, but surely rewarding. And it is no small wonder that mothers love their children as much as they do, when they are the ones who brought them into this world after guarding them so entirely for many months, with their whole body, their whole being. It seems like a powerful experience.”

“Then I wish you were the one who had to bear them,” Keith mutters.

“You still have not given a reason,” Shiro points out. “Do you fear dying in childbirth? I would not let that happen.”

“How would you stop such a thing?” Keith scoffs, and shakes his head. “No. I do not fear death, on the battlefield or in the birthing bed. It is not that.”

“Then…?”

The very thought of bearing children feels wrong, Keith does not say. I become viscerally ill just imagining it, and I have nightmares of drowning under a baby’s weight inside me, and you tearing it from me, and destroying both of us. I do not want this. I have never wanted this. Why must I justify it when I know my own body and I know, I know, that this is not what I want?

“It frightens me,” Keith says in a small voice, because men like Shiro understand fear, if nothing else.

The bed dips. “Ah,” Shiro sighs.

“Do not ask me to explain it,” Keith adds. “Why do people fear darkness?”

“Because they cannot see through it,” Shiro replies. “They know not what lies within it, and the unknown is frightening.”

“So they light torches,” Keith says. “To light the way.”

Shiro fits himself against Keith’s spine. “Do you need a torch?” he murmurs.

Keith knows he will never truly understand, and it does not matter, for it is likely already too late. “I need sleep,” Keith says.

But Shiro will not let him end it there. He grabs for Keith’s hand and enfolds it in his own when he finds it. “I am not the one bearing children, it is true,” he says, “but do not think you are alone in this, either. You are not alone, Keith. It is alright to be frightened. I am with you, and I will take care of you, and we will figure this out together.”

Keith keeps his eyes shut. “Fine,” he says. It comes out choked.

“It will be,” Shiro says, and kisses his shoulder. “Sleep. I will fight off the nightmares, should any others dare to knock upon our door.”

But what if the nightmare is you?

Keith keeps his mouth shut.

*

After that night, and a few more troubled nights after, Keith decides with an unhealthy dose of bitterness that if this is his damned lot in life he might as well make the most of it.

Maybe he’ll even make Shiro live to regret it.

Keith is honestly not certain how many times a twenty-five year old thane is feasibly able to come in a day, but Keith certainly tries his best to surpass that limit.

“Gods, are you not tired?” Shiro groans under him, sprawled out across the furs that Keith had, at some indiscernible point in time, flung from the bed onto the floor in front of the hearth. The fireplace crackles beside them and Keith finds comfort in the dry warmth. Besides, he likes the way the light casts over Shiro’s sweat-shining skin.

“Why would I be tired?” Keith asks, pulling his mouth off of Shiro’s cock to speak. He wipes the back of his hand across his messy chin and prods at Shiro’s cock impatiently. “This is taking too long.”

Shiro squawks at him, actually squawks. He sounds like a disgruntled raven. Keith is...oddly endeared. “That’s because it’s been – five times? Has it been five times?”

“Seven since breakfast, I think,” Keith muses, stroking Shiro’s cock loosely in his fist. He does not expect Shiro to make another birdlike sound and smack his hand away, face red and cock stubbornly remaining neither hard nor soft. Keith eyes it. He might be able to shove it back inside…

“I can practically hear you scheming down there,” Shiro grumbles. “Are you going to let us sleep tonight, or fall asleep on my cock again?”

“That was one time,” Keith says mildly. “And anyway, I like it there.”

“This was not what I meant when I prayed for a virile and willing husband,” Shiro groans, pressing the heels of his palms to his eyes. “You will be the death of me, Keith.”

“If you want me to stop,” Keith murmurs, exhaling over his thigh, “I will stop. But, you could have stopped me many times, and you have not. Why is that?”

Shiro’s flush is also more prominent in the firelight. He purses his lips, then relaxes, more out of defeat than relief. “You’re enjoying yourself,” he sighs, “and there is no harm in that – I am glad for it. But it – er. There is a fine threshold between too much pleasure and utter discomfort, and I am very near to that threshold.”

Keith pulls back at once. “Oh,” he says. “You – I am hurting you?”

Shiro coughs into his fist. “Well,” he mumbles, “it does not feel wonderful, let’s put it that way.”

Keith scowls at him. “Why did you not say something? If I am hurting you, say something.”

Shiro scrunches up his nose. “I think I ought to be the one more worried about hurting you –”

“You know I will tell you if you do,” Keith snaps. “But you must also tell me. It is only fair, and – do you not think I care about your comfort, also?”

Shiro swallows. There is a strange expression on his pink face. Then, slowly, he bends his legs so that Keith is framed by them where he kneels on the furs, and mutters, “There is – I mean. You do not have to just touch my cock. If you –” He clears his throat. Keith has never seen Shiro look so flustered. He makes a familiar gesture with his fingers and Keith peers at him, uncomprehending.

“You want me to touch myself?” Keith asks, a bit irritated. “Why? I am already quite –”

“Not yourself,” Shiro says, barely audible. “Me.”

Keith’s shocked gaze darts down to the tight, dark furl of a hole that the spread of his thighs have revealed, then back up to Shiro’s face. “You,” he echoes, and then, lower, “you.”

“It may bring me to climax again,” Shiro whispers, “if you are –”

“Good at it?” Keith finishes. He’s breathless at the thought of opening Shiro on his fingers, even more breathless at the thought that Shiro has done this before; he must have. Gods, who did this to him the first time? He himself? Or perhaps some brothel boy –

Shiro grabs his wrist. Keith’s fingertip rests just below the shadow of his cock and the heavy swell of his sac, an inch from unexplored territory. “Perhaps you should touch yourself first,” Shiro says, strained. “You will need oil, otherwise.”

Ah, of course. “I think we can do without oil,” Keith murmurs, fingers returning to slip inside himself, finding a thick mess of fluids, his own and Shiro’s, which clings between his curled fingers like webbing. Shiro makes a wounded sound. “Yes?” Keith asks, serious. He meant what he said – he has no wish to hurt Shiro, at least not in their bed.

Or on the floor. Same difference.

“That should – work,” Shiro manages. Keith’s finger presses up against him again with undeniable curiosity. How this would feel good to the thane, he is unsure, but he has certainly heard it is so, and Shiro seems certain.

Keith watches his face as he nudges his forefinger inside, head tilted. “Has it been long since you’ve done this?” Keith ventures to ask.

“Now is not a good time to ask me questions, husband,” Shiro says as if through gritted teeth.

Probably because he is gritting his teeth.

Keith frowns and wiggles his finger; it’s far too tight. “Stop that,” he chides, and smacks Shiro’s thigh lightly.

“What.” Shiro is staring at the bare rafters as if he expects them to fall on him.

“You asked me to do this,” Keith reminds him.

“Ghh,” Shiro grunts, flapping his hand. “Don’t – look at me –”

Keith’s voice drops an octave. “How can I look anywhere else?” he murmurs, leaning in over Shiro to dip down and lay a line of kisses from hip to thigh. Shiro stills, his breaths loud. The tension of muscle clamping down on Keith’s finger lessens, and he smiles into the coarse line of hair on Shiro’s belly, and presses it deeper. “You are a sight indeed, husband...as strong as you are beautiful. Mm.” Keith runs his tongue over the taut lines of Shiro’s hipbones, tracing them downwards, and Shiro shudders.

“So are you,” he whispers.

“I know,” Keith says, easily, stroking the thane’s thighs open as his finger curls slowly. “But you, you do not. How can you not know, hmm? Can it be true that no one has ever told you how lovely you are?”

Shiro closes his eyes; he looks pained though he opens well now to two fingers, moving with slick sounds in and out of his hole which looks more pink than before, flushed bright like his face and chest. “Lovely?” he repeats, disbelieving note ringing out. “No,” he huffs, “they do not say I am lovely when my sword is cleaving them in two, tragically.”

Keith raises his eyebrows and twists his fingers; the thane’s breath catches. “I say you are lovely when your sword is cleaving me in two –”

Shiro splutters with laughter, cutting him off, and Keith smiles, pillowing his head on his forearm, braced over Shiro’s belly. “I like the sound of your laughter,” Keith murmurs. Shiro makes a noise when his fingers crook into deep velvet heat, almost a moan, and Keith sits up, alert, eyes narrowing in concentration. “There?”

“I –” Shiro gulps and nods, lips parting. “Yes – ah.”

“I like that sound from your lips, too,” Keith chuckles, rubbing his fingertips where directed, and witnesses a change sweep over Shiro’s body. His knees draw up and his toes curl in the furs; his muscled abdomen bunches in shivery ripples. The thane’s head falls back on the pillows, the thick column of his throat painted gold by the flames.

Keith fucks him with two fingers sheathed up to the knuckles, and notes with fascination that paying constant attention to the spot which makes Shiro moan aloud also makes his cock fatten anew, enough that a steady puddle of translucent white dribbles from the swollen crown to puddle over his stomach.

When this happens, Keith begins to pull his fingers out, gut aching in anticipation, but Shiro groans and scrambles to sit up with a sound of protest. As he does, the pink rim of his hole clings to Keith’s fingers, greedy, as if trying to keep him deep within. Keith pauses.

“Don’t stop,” Shiro gasps, his pupils blown wide.

Keith licks his lips, eyes wide with mock naivety. “No?”

It is hard to play at innocence, though, when he is unable to stop rutting slow and messy against the furs, his inner thighs and lips wet with want at seeing Shiro like this — at knowing Shiro is letting Keith see him like this, wants Keith to see him like this.

“Tell me what you want, then, husband,” Keith murmurs, fingers playing around the dark plunge of his hole, which shines in the firelight like the rest of him.

Something flickers across Shiro’s face, a complicated emotion, desire but also wariness, a vulnerability that he cannot now keep hidden, now that he is spread before Keith with willing surrender.

“More,” Shiro says, chest rising and falling rapidly. His rising cock smears wetly when he shifts himself closer to Keith, thighs flexing and lip bitten.

“More what?” Keith coos, wiggling his fingers and wiping them over Shiro’s thigh.

If Shiro wants more, then Keith will give him more. Gladly.

He thinks they may need oil, after all.

“Do not make me beg,” Shiro breathes.

Keith looks up at him. There is a line between his brows and his monstrous right hand curls tight in the furs, claws ripping into them, kneading anxiously. Keith hesitates, then reaches out, covering Shiro’s claws with his palm, weaving their fingers together. “I will not,” Keith promises quietly, “if you do not wish it.”

Shiro shakes his head, a little frantic. “I don’t,” he whispers, “Keith —”

“Shh,” Keith sighs, lifting the thane’s shadowy hand to his lips and kissing each knuckle until Shiro settles down, slumping down onto the furs, old fear shining dull in his eyes. Keith continues to kiss his hand, since the thane makes no move to pull it away from his touch, trailing his lips in fluttering kisses in the dip of Shiro’s wrist, over the lines of his palm.

When he reaches a clawtip, Keith opens his mouth and lets it rest cold and curved upon his tongue, looming over Shiro and closing his lips around the dark claw as the thane watches with jaw agape and eyes wide. Keith sucks on it as he pleases, and finds the taste strange, metallic and dangerous like a blade, but also crisp and clear as springwater, the kind found only in the oldest parts of the forest, hidden from prying humans.

Shiro’s claw does not cut him, as he knew it would not. Shiro whimpers when Keith’s teeth graze over his skin, and then Keith releases him, bracing both hands on the thane’s chest and cupping his cheek.

“I’ll take care of you,” Keith tells him, hair hanging into his face, framing them in a secret black veil. “Do you trust me?”

Shiro lies there, breath evening out, and nods jerkily. “Yes,” he whispers, “husband.”

“And you will tell me if I hurt you,” Keith adds sternly, tapping a finger against his jaw. “And you know I will stop should you ask me to.”

“I know,” Shiro says softly.

“Very well,” Keith replies. “Where is the sword oil?”

Shiro starts to sit up, but Keith keeps him down with a look. “You stay there. Tell me; I will fetch it.”

Shiro points, and Keith finds it after a short while, but evidently it was too long for Shiro, because when he looks back again, the thane is stroking his cock, back arching with each thrust into his palm, and he looks very near to coming.

Keith kneels back down between his legs and smacks his hand away with a growl. Shiro stops, startled by the rebuke. “Keep your hands at your sides,” Keith warns, “or I will tie them.”

Shiro blinks wildly. “You —”

Keith holds up a finger. “Do you understand?”

Shiro swallows, then sighs, and nods, hands falling obediently at his sides.

“Good,” Keith says, approving, and kisses his bent knee while pouring the oil over his fingers. “Always so good for me, Takashi.”

Shiro shudders. “You have never called me that before.”

Keith smiles. “Oh? Have I not? Why, do you like it? Takashi, my sweet Takashi.”

Shiro’s body rumbles with a long groan as Keith sinks two fingers back into him. “Why have we not done this sooner?” he asks, spreading his legs wider. Keith watches, skin running hot – he does not have words for how he feels, right now, but it is not unlike hunger.

“Then you have done this before,” Keith concludes, twisting his fingers a bit more roughly. Shiro groans again, breathier, cock jumping against his belly. Now, Keith avoids the spot which makes the thane so squirmy, rubbing instead all around it, testing the depths of Shiro’s body and stretching his fingers apart, then back together, with only the goal of opening him wider.

It takes Shiro a long while to answer, and when he does, Keith is sliding a third finger in, petting Shiro’s hip to soothe him as his hips jolt upwards to meet Keith’s hand in a jerky, uncontrolled rhythm. Keith’s fingers move with purpose, measured and unyielding, as he likes when he does this to himself. He holds Shiro’s waist down as best he can to keep the thane where he wants him.

“Yes,” Shiro pants, lashes fluttering and biceps bulging powerfully as his hands work at the furs, useless in their scrabbling. “I – when I was younger, would –”

“Younger?” Keith echoes, and scoffs. “How young?”

Shiro’s throat works around nothing but spit and trapped moans. “Too young,” he admits, “probably – nngh ...fourteen summers, the first time –”

Keith’s breath catches hard. “Fourteen?” he demands. “Who? Who took you in this way that first time?”

Shiro licks his shiny lips. “I – sought them out, there are places, certain brothels, where –”

“Where boys can go to get off with fingers up their arse?” Keith’s hips roll against the furs, hard; his clit throbs and his cunt drips but it is all secondary to the exquisite arch and fall of Shiro’s body under him.

Shiro moans. “Y-yes – oh – it was another boy, young, also, but – experienced.” Shiro’s eyes flicker open. “His fingers were calloused, clever – like yours.”

Keith’s free hand wanders up Shiro’s stomach, ignoring his cock and squeezing instead at the swell of his chest, plucking at dark nipples until Shiro’s cock twitches and his broad chest pushes upwards, into Keith’s touch like it belongs in his palms.

His long hair is spread out over the furs, and he turns his face into it with a low whine when Keith’s fingers close around his hard nipple and tug, repeating this on the other, until both are sore and reddened and Shiro’s cock is a mess of sticky silver-white and hard veins. It looks agonizing. Keith coos at it, and thrusts three fingers without warning and with perfect aim.

Shiro’s stuttered shout of pleasure echoes through the room, piercing through the hazy crackle of the flames, and his cock spurts in a high arc over his belly, again and again. Keith keeps rubbing, teasing, and the thane keeps coming, his balls drawn up with his curled legs and his hole clenching tight around Keith’s fingers. There’s so much; Keith is entranced.

Shiro whimpers when Keith leans down to mouth at his spilling cock for a taste, coaxing more seed from its slit. “Keith – Keith, please,” Shiro gasps, clawing and bucking under him, but not pushing him away.

Keith swallows, his fingers curling back, though they remain buried inside his ass. “Yes, husband?” he murmurs, tilting his head. “Shall I stop?”

Shiro shudders, and shakes his head, dazed. “I don’t – I’m still –”

It’s true – he’s still hard. Will wonders never cease?

Keith sucks in a sharp breath and brushes the heavy curve of Shiro’s cock with his knuckles. Shiro groans and hides his face again in his hair when Keith, slow and with another pour of oil for good measure, tucks his pinky finger in alongside the three already sheathed in his husband’s gluttonous body. It is a snug fit, but still a fit. “How is that?” Keith asks, an idea forming in his mind, crawling over Shiro to turn the thane’s jaw up to face him directly. “Does that feel good, Takashi?”

He wiggles his pinky against desperate heat and clenching muscle and Shiro makes a broken noise. “Yes,” he rasps. “Gods, you’re –”

Keith chuckles, leaving a kiss at the corner of Shiro’s slack mouth. “Keep the gods out of our bed,” he murmurs. “It’s just me here, taking you apart, and putting you back together again...”

Shiro nods, turns his head to say into the soft shape of Keith’s lips, “Only you.”

Keith smiles, gazing down at him with a gathering warmth in his belly, and brushes Shiro’s hair out of his face. “Did you let them fuck you?” he asks then, whispered into the rough stubble at the hinge of Shiro’s jaw.

Shiro’s eyes glint, bright silver rings nearly overtaken by chasmic black. “Yes,” he breathes.

Keith can imagine it, but he can also think of something far better than simply imagining Shiro speared open on a thick cock. He swallows with effort and draws back, his shadow blanketing Shiro, shielding him from the dancing brilliance of the fireplace.

“And would you let me?” he murmurs, stretching up over his husband, smoothing his own hand over his belly and up his rib cage, pleased by Shiro’s desperate gaze on him as he thumbs at a pebbled nipple. He digs his nail in just so, cupping his tits without purpose, just because he can, and because it makes Shiro spasm around his fingers – he wants to move, to rise up and take Keith in his arms, but Keith told him not to, so he doesn’t. Keith is proud of his restraint.

“Yes,” Shiro whispers, without hesitation.

“Yes, what?” Keith coaxes.

“Fuck me.” Shiro’s eyes are heavy-lidded, lips parted so prettily. He trembles with exertion yet his muscled and massive body, honed for battle and domination with the scars to prove it, is pliant, inviting, needy. It occurs to Keith that, perhaps, Shiro never wanted the role he was forced into in this arranged life of theirs, either.

He looks so at ease, now – gone is all his usual intensity, the dangerous edges and sharp air of command. Shiro likes this. He likes letting go. Keith understands. With Shiro, he likes the release of control as much as he likes seizing it. He seizes it, and Shiro, now.

Keith kisses him, licks into Shiro’s mouth and swallows every splintered moan. When he breaks the kiss he whispers, “As you wish,” and nudges the tip of his thumb against Shiro’s stretched rim like a question.

Shiro groans, arches up into it, and Keith presses his thumb inside with far more ease than should be possible. Shiro cries out, twisting violently, but not to get away – he’s bearing his body down onto Keith’s hand, riding his knuckles, his half-curled fist – Keith has to pull back to breathe, cursing in breathy disbelief, so in awe is he of the way Shiro’s hole swallows his hand, his wrist sliding slickly inwards.

The oil coats Keith’s entire hand, but he can see the devastated crumple of Shiro’s expression, so takes care not to thrust too deep or move too fast, instead rocking his hand inside Shiro’s clenching body with steady twists, dragging knuckles and stroking his thumb, just a little – it’s too tight to do much else.

Shiro has no complaints. He makes awful, wonderful noises, and Keith’s attempts to calm him by kissing his hip, his chest, his neck, only make him louder. Gods, but he’s beautiful...and it is startling how good it is to feel inside of him like this, to stroke and touch so deep, where perhaps no one else has felt, not like this. Keith is fascinated by how strong yet soft it all is, how tight, yet how yielding.

“Takashi,” Keith breathes, clambering up on his knees to get a better look, and because if he doesn’t get friction now, he may die. Shiro lets out a strangled string of moans when Keith straddles his splayed thigh, manhandling it until it’s just how he needs it, and grinds down onto it, hard, punishing.

He stares at where Shiro’s rim sucks him in, stretched wide and wet around the girth of his wrist, then even his arm. He takes it so well. Keith knew he would. Keith tells him this and Shiro sobs, lifting one of his hands not to touch his helplessly hard cock but to bite into his own forearm, drooling over it, saying Keith, Keith, Keith, in blurred and shaky syllables.

Keith’s head falls back, eyes never leaving Shiro’s. As a moan trembles on the tip of his tongue, he starts to open his curled fist inside of Shiro, bit by bit.

He doesn’t get very far before Shiro comes with a shocked whimper, hips rolling through it, like he still hasn’t gotten enough. Keith thinks he’s more than sated, though; Shiro’s cock twitches in a final climax, spilling far less than before, and begins to soften at once, but the open bliss on Shiro’s face is all Keith cares about.

Keith withdraws his hand while Shiro still shakes with pleasure, hoping to lessen any discomfort, and he thinks it works, if Shiro’s arching spine and soft, ragged sigh of satisfaction are any indication. His head lolls on the furs, and for a long moment all is quiet, as if frozen in time. Only the fire moves. Keith sighs with him, disentangling himself from the sprawl of Shiro’s legs, and curls against his side, stroking a lazy hand over Shiro’s chest.

At length, Shiro opens his eyes, gaze sliding at once to Keith, who gazes back with lifted brows.

“Alright?” Keith asks, starting to sit up. “I can help you into bed if you –”

Shiro draws slow claws down Keith’s spine and he shivers, jaw clicking shut. “You haven’t come,” Shiro murmurs, and leans in for a clumsy kiss, stubble scratching across Keith’s parted lips.

“Nevermind that,” Keith mumbles. “You have brought me pleasure enough.”

Shiro hums, sleepy, but what little focus he has left is wholly on Keith. “Then at least let me clean you up,” he says, and Keith doesn’t understand until the thane tugs him up onto his chest with shocking force. “Sit on my face,” he murmurs, hands framing Keith’s hips like they’re spun of gold. “Please?”

Keith groans, staring down at him with a hand braced on either side of the thane’s hopeful face. He exhales, attempting to compose himself, and slides his hand into Shiro’s hair. “That’s what you want?” Shiro nods, leaning into his touch eagerly. “To lick your seed out of me and bury your face in my cunt, hm?”

Shiro moans in soft entreaty, hiding his yes in Keith’s thigh, and then in damp curls as Keith shuffles forward and guides his head back, yes, and then, when Keith is arching above him and muffling his curses in his messy fist, one last time where his lips and tongue find wet heat and his own seed, yes, please, yes.

*

The winter thaws day by day. Keith watches from the windows as the garden pond’s thin layer of ice splinters with hairline fractures which widen until one morning the ice is water once more, and impossibly, the small silver fish dart to and fro beneath its smooth dark surface. Keith does not know how they lived so long frozen, but supposes Nature will always keep her secrets.

This was, Keith realizes over a steaming bowl of bear stew, the first winter in memory where he was not fighting for survival at every moment. Each winter is a test for the Marmorans; they have their winter lodges but inevitably spend nights in freezing tents among the snow while hunting for their next meal. Warriors lost fingers and toes to the cold, or else starved, or developed coughs which never went away. Infants born in the winter rarely lived long, and their half-starved mothers were not much better off.

But Keith spent this long winter with Shiro, locked away in their bedroom, where all is warm and it is all too easy to forget about the sharp ice and howling wind. If either of them were to lose extremities, it would be due to their own curiosity in each other’s bodies finally going too far, not the cold. There were certainly times Keith thought his wrist might be snapped in half, but thankfully, that has not happened. Nor has Shiro’s cock snapped in half, yet. All in all, Keith thinks, it has gone well.

There is one small issue.

It might be nothing. Keith has chosen to believe it is nothing. But while he and Shiro are bathing on a dark afternoon soon after the pond has thawed completely, Keith pauses as he sinks down in the warm water, and stares down at his chest, perplexed.

Shiro pauses, holding Keith’s soapy calf in his hands. “Something wrong?”

Keith pokes gingerly at his nipple, and sinks further down in the water. It feels...strange. Not good, not bad, just...strange. Different. He shakes his head slowly. “No,” he murmurs. “Hmm.”

“Hmm?” Shiro echoes, sticking a finger between Keith’s toes to get his attention. Keith yelps, nearly kicking him in the face and splashing a not significant amount of water onto the floor. Shiro laughs silently at him.

Keith huffs and blows bubbles underwater, and under the cover of the soapy film over it, feels again at his breast. Something is not right. Unease prickles through him, and for the rest of the day his attention is divided. Keith becomes conscious of every little thing about his body, holding his breath at the slightest twinge of muscle or ache in his belly. Nothing, he tells himself, nothing is the matter. You are being foolish; paranoid.

Later that night, Shiro tugs him close for a lingering kiss and strokes up his thighs with intent. Keith is soaking wet by the time his fingers find their target, and when he comes, it ripples outwards from him like a stone thrown into the garden pond, endlessly churning over his skin and in the pit of his stomach. He almost cries out when Shiro’s breath ghosts over his nipples; he does cry out when Shiro’s hot mouth covers them.

Afterwards, Shiro murmurs against his lips, “You were so quick tonight, my heart. I like it, but – has it ever been so fast?”

“No,” Keith whispers into his hair, heart pounding. “It hasn’t.”

Perhaps if he does not think of it, it will go away.

Chapter Text

It does not go away, but winter does, an occasion which the Galrans rejoice at more than the Marmorans ever have.

“Your people truly do not know of the goddess Imbolc?” Shiro asks as they ride side by side towards the cluttered sprawl of the village of Garris, which lies nestled in the dip of the valley below Shiro’s keep, beside the thawing river and a scattered cluster of woodland.

“No.” Keith lifts his head to the clear blue afternoon sky to admire the way a flock of sparrows swoops and dives far above in neat, spiraling turns, faster than the eye can track, faster than even Stræl can gallop. The ache to join them is a constant pricking in his rib cage. “What is she the goddess of? Spring?”

Behind them, a scattered entourage of unhurried thanes follows. Only the thanes of the nearest thanedoms have come to Garris; Warlord Ranveig, Lady Gleda, and their son Ranvul of Zeragat to the south, Thane Branko and Mei of Emira to the north, and Thane Janka of Qaval to the west.

According to what Shiro told him at breakfast, they hold the Festival of Imbolc in a different village each year. This year, it is Garris’s turn, and the village Keith has never set foot in is bedecked in bright yellow and orange pennants, which snap and flutter in the wind. The second thing Keith notices is the loud sounds of...sheep?

“Did you pay attention to a word I said this morning?” Shiro sighs, exasperated, and nods to the still-snowy world around them — spring is still a ways off. “Imbolc is an aspect of the goddess Brigid, her Maiden form. In the old language, Imbolc means ‘in the belly.’”

Keith’s hands tighten on the reins. “Hm. Doesn’t seem like much of a maiden, then.”

Shiro snorts. “It’s symbolic. And some kingdoms base maidenhood on childbirth, so, Imbolc would still be a maiden. I thought Marmora had a similar —”

“Marmora has no definition of maidenhood,” Keith retorts. “What does it matter?”

Shiro eyes him. “None?”

“What,” Keith repeats, fiercer, “does it matter?”

Shiro frowns. “Do you not think a husband — or wife — ought to know such things?”

Keith’s nails dig into the leather reins. He isn’t sure what has come over him, but the need to stand his ground on this is overwhelming, burning hot and unpleasant in his throat. “No,” he snaps. “Why was it, on our wedding night, that only I had to assert my maidenhood? Why not you, also?”

Shiro flushes, and clears his throat quite loudly. “Are you not glad I bedded others before you? If I had not had such experience —”

“And perhaps I lied to you,” Keith interrupts, lifting his chin. “You thought I had bedded others, too, before I told you I had not. But perhaps I have, after all. What then, husband?”

Shiro looks stricken, and nearly stops his horse. “Have you?”

Keith glares at him. “Would you think less of me if I had?”

“I would think less of you for your dishonesty,” Shiro starts, and Keith does not wait to hear his answer, but rides ahead to the front of the entourage, which is headed by their most unexpected guest, Prince Lotor. His keep and estate, Sincline Castle, lie to the south, east of Ranveig’s keep and along the Galran coast. It is located, Keith cannot help but notice, as far away from his father’s castle in Daibazaal as possible.

His three thanes ride close behind him, and all of their gazes snap to Keith, but they do not stop him from approaching their lord. The one called Acxa rides a blue roan charger, a fine mount whose coat is the same shining dark shade as her hair. Keith shakes himself, and looks away. Her gaze follows him.

Without looking, Prince Lotor clicks his tongue and his reins and says, “Ah. I thought I heard a marital spat in the distance.”

Keith grinds his teeth. “What do you know? You aren’t married.”

“Indeed,” Lotor says. His horse is a fine-boned dapple gray, the likes of which Keith has never seen before. “Do not ogle my horse,” the prince adds. “If your thane cannot buy you the finest Iberian stallions, then that is not my problem.”

“Iberian?” Keith repeats, and blinks. “Why would you get a horse all the way from Iberia?”

Behind them, Keith swears someone snorts.

Lotor hmphs softly. “Why would you not?”

“I see why you are not married,” Keith grumbles.

Lotor frowns. “What was that, peace-weaver?”

“Why are you not married?” Keith asks instead, on second thought.

Lotor gives him a look, and shakes his head. “You are not the first to ask that and you will not be the last, however, the answer should be obvious. I am not exactly in high demand. Why should anyone wish to marry Zarkon’s spurned heir?”

“You have a castle, a title, and plenty of gold,” Keith retorts. He has no sympathy for the prince’s whining. “That is far more than most.”

“I’m hurt you forgot to mention my good looks,” Lotor murmurs.

“I did not forget,” Keith says.

This time, someone behind them definitely snorts.

Lotor eyes him with begrudging astonishment. “It’s no wonder Shirogane likes you. Clever little tart, exactly his type.”

“I’m not a tart,” Keith says.

“That’s right, Lord Sendak got into quite a bit of trouble when he implied the same.” Lotor tilts his head. “Funny, how much of an interest he’s taken in you.”

“As if you have not taken interest,” Keith says under his breath.

“On the contrary,” Lotor says, “I was just riding my horse, minding my own matters, when you rode up in a huff. Speaking of which – may I venture to say I somehow doubt you speaking with me is going to ease your husband’s temper at all?”

“It isn’t his temper,” Keith growls.

“Evidently not.”

“I will speak to whom I please,” Keith adds. “He cannot stop me.”

“Well, he could,” Lotor says. “He will not, because he is absurdly smitten, but he could.”

“Smitten?” Keith hisses.

“Would you look at that, we’ve arrived to town. Go on, now, rejoin your husband, unless you want the townspeople’s first impression of you to be that you’re having an affair with the Galran prince.”

Keith, needless to say, rides back to Shiro’s side as they cross over a wooden bridge and into the Town of Garris.

Shiro does not scold him; he is silent.

“It’s a nice town,” Keith says as wooden slats turn to rough cobblestones. “And yet you have never taken me to visit. Why is that?”

Shiro frowns, holding his head high — the villagers watch him as he passes, eyes wide with both awe and fear. They watch Keith, too, openly curious, but look away when the two of them pass by. Shiro’s clawed hand tightens on the reins.

“You never asked to visit,” Shiro says at length, as they pass by what must be a blacksmith. There’s a large boy there with brown skin and soot smudges high on his cheekbones peeking at them from behind a sword as long as he is tall. When Keith looks at him, he ducks away, nearly dropping the sword with a resounding clang.

Keith tilts his head. “The villagers are frightened of us.”

Shiro’s frown deepens. “They have no reason to be.”

“No?” Keith raises an eyebrow. “You are not a cruel lord, then?”

Again, Shiro ignores him, and Keith bristles but does not press him on it. The procession of thanes and peace-weavers and a wayward prince comes to a halt in the town square, which is large and bedecked just like the rest of the town, with the addition of long wooden feast-tables, what must be the sacrificial altar, and all manner of people bustling about with trays of food, torches, garlands, and more sheep.

“Why are there so many sheep?” Keith asks as they dismount and hand off their horses. Strael nibbles his hair in parting and Shiro’s hard expression softens a bit when he notices. As if on cue, a portly woman with a lamb under each arm hurries past, both of them bleating loudly.

Shiro sighs. “If you had listened to what I told you earlier, you would know.”

Keith glares, frustration creeping through him hotly again. “Care to repeat it, then, or would you rather I remain in the dark?”

Shiro blinks, taken aback by his vicious tone. “Uh,” he says slowly, “I...can repeat it, if you insist.” Keith opens his mouth to snap again at this phrasing and Shiro continues hastily, “Imbolc is also called Oimelc, meaning ‘milk of the ewes.’ Now is the time of year when most herd animals, especially the sheep, give birth, so…”

“Yes, I understand,” Keith mutters. This may well be his least favorite festival. “And what do Galrans do during Imbolc, hm?”

Shiro offers Keith his arm in reply; Keith takes it, begrudgingly. They sit down at one of the tables with the other thanes and peace-weavers, who for once are all sitting mingled among each other. Lotor and his lady-thanes sit at the far end of the table, but Acxa inclines her head to Keith and raises her goblet to him in greeting.

“Thane Shirogane, Keith, good of you to join us!” Warlord Ranveig exclaims as they sit opposite him and the ever-demure Lady Gleda. Their son Ranvul sits between them, his reddish hair glinting in the sun, and peers around curiously, jiggling his legs with the impatience of children.

His mother’s golden hair is braided intricately, strung with many small, glittering red stones and with tiny white and yellow wildflowers tangled in among them. There is a woven, strangely lopsided cross pinned at her throat – a symbol which is embroidered on the town’s banners and pennants, too. Her cloak and attire are impressive in their extravagance; the dark green cloak is trimmed with thick white fur and overlaid in pink, red, and yellow floral embroidery.

Lady Gleda notices his curious stare and smiles. “Do the Marmorans celebrate Imbolc, dear Keith?”

He shakes his head, and tenses when Shiro covers his hand and squeezes. “I was just explaining our festival customs to Keith – I believe this is all very strange to him.”

Thane Janka, Thane Branko, and Mei are on Shiro’s other side, and Branko leans over to say, “Ha! How can our Imbolc be strange, when you Marmorans will take any excuse to butcher in the name of spirits, and claim the true gods are those of witches and death?”

Lady Gleda narrows her eyes at Thane Branko, wrapping an arm around Ranvul’s shoulders. He blinks up at her, and glances at Keith, a bit nervously.

Keith keeps his mouth shut, but it is a near thing. However, he does not expect Mei to cut in, “Husband, I believe you are mistaken. We Olkari are such close neighbors of the Marmorans, and there are some similarities in our gods.” Branko scowls at her, but Lady Gleda is smiling and both Ranvul and Ranveig look intrigued, so he only grumbles something under his breath. Mei continues, “We believe the gods are of the earth and the sea, while the Marmorans look instead to the sky and the night. We both have gods in the fire and the forest. Is this not true, Keith?”

“Yes,” Keith says. “It is true.”

The rest of the table waits for more; he says nothing else. Shiro raises an eyebrow at him. “We are here to talk about your gods, not mine,” Keith mutters, loathe to tell them any more about his people than he must.

To his relief, Lady Gleda replies at once, “Indeed, you are right. Imbolc is one of my favorite Galran goddesses, as is her festival day...and this year, I have been given the high honor of High Priestess of Imbolc.” She rests a slim hand on her rounded belly. “It was lucky I am with child this time of year.”

Keith forces a smile. “Yes, I suppose. What does the High Priestess do?”

“Mother will lead the sacrifice tonight, and bless all the girls of the village with the power of Imbolc!” Ranvul replies before she can. She beams at him, as does Ranveig, and Ranvul glows with his parents’ approval. He may be small for his age, but it seems he is clever.

“To bear children, you mean,” Keith says slowly. “That power?”

Mei nods, leaning forward tentatively. “Imbolc is a goddess of fertility, of all creatures and things which bear fruit. They also bless the seeds and the plows…”

“And the peace-weavers,” Shiro murmurs, looking down at Keith. “Of course.”

“Of course.” Keith stares into his goblet as a village boy ducks in to fill it with spiced wine. He drinks it to completion as soon as it is filled, and Shiro’s brow lifts.

“Did you not once claim wine was bad for babies?” Shiro asks.

“Mead, not wine.” Keith calls the boy back over, and this time he is accompanied by a few other youths, all bedecked like the town itself and carrying platters of scones and strange little yellow cakes speckled with black dots.

“Oh, so wine is fine, then?” Shiro chuckles, plucking two of the cakes from the tray and handing one to Keith. “Don’t drink too much before the festival has even begun, hm? Here. Try it.”

“What is it?” Keith peers at the cake and squeezes; it’s spongy and crumbles a little in his grip.

“Poppyseed cake,” Shiro says, and takes a bite with a pleased hum. “I used to love these as a child.”

Keith shoots him a glance. “I cannot imagine you as a child.”

“Nor can I, you,” Shiro admits after he finishes the cake. Keith chews on it thoughtfully — it is rather good. “What were you like, as a child?”

Keith pauses, drawing his legs together under the table and shrugging. “I climbed a lot of trees,” he mumbles. “Skinned a lot of knees.”

“Yours, or others?”

Keith’s lips quirk. “Both. But only the knees that deserved it.”

“Hmm, a brave and just little warrior. I would expect nothing less.” Shiro nudges him. “What else?”

“Well, I was —” Keith clears his throat, cheeks warm. “They tried to teach me embroidery. I tried, but I was...I was very bad at it. All of my flowers were so ugly, they looked more like squished insects. But, er, I liked maps.”

“Maps?” Shiro tilts his head. “What sorts?”

“All sorts,” Keith says softly. “I would try to draw them, and all the fantastic things on them, sea monsters and dragons and such, with bits of charcoal. I would be all smudged with it...Krolia was so cross. But my father kept showing them to me.”

“They were your father’s, then?”

Keith nods. This wine is stronger than he thought, though not laced with any wicked substance, thankfully. He’s just pleasantly warm, and fights the urge to lean into Shiro and his earnest expression.

“My father traveled lots of places,” Keith sighs. “So did my mother. I wanted to be just like them.” He looks down.

Shiro squeezes his shoulder. “You will go many places,” he says, “if that is what you wish. I have many maps — take your pick.”

Keith smiles wryly. “It is a foolish idea to sail the seas when heavy with child,” he retorts. “As I am meant to be, for you, my lord.”

Shiro’s brow furrows.

Keith finishes the poppyseed cake and clears his throat. “How were you, as a child?”

Shiro’s expression slides to what Keith swears is discomfort. Still, he replies, “I was a good child. Obedient. I suppose.”

“That’s all?” Keith purses his lips. “No swordfighting, no duels of honor?”

Shiro laughs, strained. “Er, no.” His eyes dart to Ranveig, Janka, and Branko, who are engaged in a heated discussion about armor. Shiro lowers his voice and leans closer to Keith, sheepish as he adds, “I was very frightened of swords.”

Keith’s eyes widen. “What? You, frightened?”

“Hush,” Shiro mutters. “I was a child, a child who had seen…” He sighs. “Perhaps this is not the time for such stories. We are here to celebrate, not –”

Keith grabs hold of his cloak and Shiro pauses. “What are you saying?” Shiro does not reply at once; his jaw works. “Do you mean what happened to your village, your family, when you were seven?”

Shiro eyes him warily. “Well,” he murmurs, “that was the start of it.”

Keith’s gut churns, then, with a sudden cold dread. “Shiro,” he whispers, “what...happened at Honerva’s orphanage? Your hand, and Sendak’s –”

“Do not speak his name,” Shiro growls, demeanor changing in an instant. He pulls away and shakes his head. “Especially not here, now. This is a time for celebration, not...”

Keith leans closer. “What did they do there, Shiro?”

Shiro’s mouth twitches; he exhales tightly and mutters, “There is a reason Queen Honerva perished. Her magic, Druidic magic, is a power which corrupts. It rotted her from the inside out, and all those around her paid the price, too.” Keith opens his mouth, but Shiro shakes his head. “We will speak no more of this,” he sighs, tone gentling.

It is then that the first strains of music begin to fill the air, the bards with their lutes and flutes and lyres and lilting song. Shiro looks relieved at the sound, and offers Keith his hand. “Care to dance?”

Keith blinks; sure enough, many villagers are gathering in the center of the square, dancing in pairs or groups with much clapping of hands and swinging of skirts. “I don’t know how,” Keith admits, though he wishes he did, for the villagers look like they’re enjoying themselves.

Gleda looks as though she wishes to dance, but Ranveig has a hand over her belly, so she sits on her bench and pretends to be content with observing as Ranvul scampers off with the other village children. Mei and Branko do not dance; Mei sips her wine alone and Branko has already moved away to speak with some villagers, farmers and warriors with arms like tree trunks and great bellowing laughs.

Lotor and Acxa sit at the end of the table across from each other, speaking quietly, but his two other thanes, Zethrid and Ezor, have joined the villagers. Zethrid lifts the much smaller Ezor up and she cackles wildly, clinging to Zethrid’s broad shoulders and tucking her face into the beaming thane’s hair as they prance and twirl together.

Shiro helps Keith up with an easy smile. “That’s alright,” he assures. “It isn’t difficult — you just follow the music.”

“Our music is not like this,” Keith says, but goes as Shiro leads him to the dancers. “Not so...high-pitched.”

“No? How is it, then?” Shiro takes Keith in his arms and twirls him around without warning; Keith yelps and falls into his chest. Shiro grins. Keith scowls and half-skips out of reach until Shiro hauls him back in.

The violet winter coat billows out around them, tousling Keith’s hair as he moves — it has gotten long enough for a proper braid, though the braid is quickly coming undone as they whirl across the crowded cobblestones with increasing ferocity.

“We have chants,” Keith gasps, breath thrown from his lungs; the rhythm grows ever faster. “Bigger drums, and horns, and harps made of jawbones, and — oh!”

The song stops and he and Shiro end it face to face, chest to chest. Keith can feel Shiro’s heart pounding, and is so close he could count Shiro’s eyelashes, if he wanted. “I would like to hear it someday,” Shiro murmurs, brushing his knuckles over Keith’s jaw. “Marmoran music.”

“Someday,” Keith whispers, “perhaps.”

He knows that, likelier than not, either he or Shiro will be dead before that day ever comes.

Another song begins, and so does their second dance.

*

They dance — or rather, Shiro dances while Keith enthusiastically stumbles along — until nightfall, when the feast begins in full, and a platter of ram is brought out, with its horned head still attached.

“Why a ram?” Keith asks, chewing on the lean meat slowly. It is glazed and roasted in thick honey and herbs he does not recognize. “Why not a ewe, or a lamb?”

“The ewes and the lambs need each other,” Lady Gleda says, daintily wiping her mouth. “The rams have served their purpose, and now serve our purpose of honoring Imbolc.”

Ranvul nods solemnly while forgetting to wipe his mouth, though Keith cannot tell if he understands what his mother is truly getting at.

“Do the ewes and lambs not also need the rams?” Keith replies. “Do they not all need each other, as a family does?”

Shiro eyes him, pausing mid-sip, and sets down his goblet.

“Not so!” Mei exclaims. She sits on the other side of Keith; Branko and Janka have slunk off to the tavern. “In Olkari, we have many goats and sheep, and as herd animals it is alright if a ram is slain; other rams take up that one’s ewes and lambs.”

“In any event, the rams are not necessary,” Gleda adds. “Indeed, is it not true that rams sometimes kill lambs, as other male animals do to young, even their own? Stallions do this, yes?” She directs this to Keith.

Keith frowns. “If the stallions are badly introduced to the foal, sometimes, but…”

“So it seems the ewes and lambs might be better off without them.” Mei takes a long draught from her goblet.

“A harsh sentence,” Shiro says mildly. “Alas, let us hope we poor rams do not end up as someone’s feast!” He winks at Ranvul, who giggles and accepts the pumpkin seed scone Shiro sneaks him under the table. Lady Gleda pretends not to notice, but the corner of her lips quirk. Keith’s frown just deepens.

“Where has Thane Ranveig gone?” he asks Lady Gleda.

She smiles. “He has gone to prepare the sacrifice with the other warriors.” Gleda pauses, and leans across the table, clasping Keith’s wrist. He goes still. “I feel I must apologize that you do not have the honor of High Priestess today, my fellow peace-weaver. It seems only right, as we are in your thane’s lands, eating with your thane’s people.”

“Ah,” Keith says, feeling everyone’s eyes on him, but especially Shiro’s. “There’s no need to apologize. After all, you are the only one here with child, so, er. It seems. Right. For you to have the honor.”

Lady Gleda’s gaze is knowing, or maybe that’s just the spiced wine getting to his head. “Of course,” she murmurs, squeezing his wrist once before releasing him. She glances at Shiro, something imperious in the tilt of her chin. “Thane Shirogane, should you not join my husband in readying the sacrifice? I am certain he would appreciate the help.”

Shiro blinks, and nods, rising at once. “Of course, Lady Gleda, a fine idea.” He leans down and kisses Keith swift but sweet. “Enjoy the ram, beloved.”

As he leaves, Mei and Lady Gleda titter softly. Ranvul looks confused. Keith is glad to have at least one ally at the table, until Lady Gleda sends him off again to play with the village children, and turns back to Keith with a sly expression.

“What,” Keith says into his goblet, face hot.

“Beloved,” Mei echoes, and giggles. “It’s quite nice, that’s all.”

He frowns, and does not meet either of their eager gazes. “Does Branko not call you such things?”

Mei makes a face. “Oh, never. If he did, I would take it as mockery.”

Keith’s frown deepens. “You think it is mockery?”

“Not from your husband,” Lady Gleda says, leaning on her cupped palm. “Certainly, I love Ranveig, in his own way, but it is not a love I would have chosen, not like yours.”

“It was not chosen, and we don’t,” Keith starts, but is interrupted by Mei’s vigorous nodding and subsequent outburst.

“I know Branko does not love me, nor I him. How could I? He practically carried me off as ransom after attacking my people for many moons. I am lucky, yes, that I was wedded to him – it is the most secure position I could have hoped for – but he is such a vile man.”

“There are uglier men in the world, dear,” Gleda assures grimly.

“But his is an absolute ugliness, inside and out!” Mei huffs. “I can only hope now that our children will take after me. I always had such dreams for my children, you know, but even the thought of having his children is terrible.”

“There, there,” Gleda says. “It is not so bad.” She pauses, and leans forward with a secretive curl of her lips. “I have not even told Ranveig yet, but I have very exciting news – I am going to have twins.”

Mei gawks. “Twins! Oh, how wonderful!”

“Hush,” Gleda warns. “You have drunk far too much wine, dear.”

“Yes, I think you must be right,” Mei says, and slowly crumples down, pillowing her head on her forearms.

Keith awkwardly pats Mei’s shoulder, then squints at Gleda. “How do you know you will have twins?”

“Not just that,” Gleda murmurs, “but they are girls. I know this, Keith. It has been six moons since I first felt their quickening and when I close my eyes...I believe I can see them, feel their tiny heartbeats against my breast.” She smiles, faraway and fond. “There is nothing like it in this world.”

Keith swallows. “Yes, well, I...suppose I will understand what you mean, someday.”

“If the gods are kind, yes,” Gleda agrees. “Would you like to feel?”

Keith would not like to feel, but he nods and stretches out his hand anyway. Her belly is warm, stretching the thin fabric of her gown, and her smile widens as he flattens his palm over the six-moon slope of flesh.

He waits for several moments of nothing, and then, impossibly –

He snatches his hand away, eyes wide. “There was – it –”

“Kicked, yes,” Gleda laughs. “They do that, quite often.”

“Does it not hurt?” Keith is as fascinated as he is horrified.

She waves a hand. “Oh, sometimes, but…” She shrugs. “I don’t mind. I like feeling them moving around, it is a comfort, to me. And we have this game we play.” She pushes gently on her own belly, and though Keith is no longer touching her, he can see the twitch of her mouth and the slight jolt of her body. “They just pushed back. Sometimes we’ll just do that, back and forth, for hours as I lay in bed at night. They’re always awake when I am trying to sleep...but I can never hold it against them.”

Keith watches the way she cradles the swell of her belly, face soft and serene. “Do they have names yet?” he asks tentatively.

She shakes her head and smiles at him. “Maybe. I was going to consult you, actually – I have two names in mind, but I worry Ranveig will not approve.”

“Why not?”

“They are not Galran names,” Gleda sighs. “They are Mer. Enya and Erin.”

“And so?”

Gleda raises an eyebrow. “So, they are Ranveig’s children.”

“They are in your womb,” Keith retorts. “Name them what you wish. He does not feel his children move through the night many moons before birth. He will not be the one to bring them into this world, either.”

“Spoken like a true Mer, Keith of Marmora,” Gleda says, her voice warm. “Very well. I will name them as I wish.”

Keith hums. “They’re pretty names.”

“Thank you.” Lady Gleda drinks her wine. “What will you name your sons, who will be Thane Shirogane’s heirs?”

Keith pauses. “I don’t know.”

“Your daughters?”

He is about to answer the same, but then, drifting through the dregs of wine too easily to another time, another place, another festival so different from this one, yet alike in its warm air of revelry, he says, “Keira.”

“Keira?” Gleda repeats. “That sounds more Marmoran than Galran.”

“It is.” Keith leans back, tilts his head to the now-night sky, a dark maw with jaws agape, filled with scattered stars, fragments of distant broken mirrors.

“What does it mean?” Gleda murmurs, looking up at the sky with him.

“It means ‘black,’” Keith murmurs back, “but it also means ‘shining.’ Is that not strange?”

“Indeed it is,” Gleda says, “but Enya means fire, and Erin means water, so I believe I understand.”

Keith smiles. “Hm.”

“You know,” Gleda adds, “I once saw a stone knife that was both black and shining. It was like shadowed glass, and very sharp. I asked the merchant where such stone came from, and he told me it was hewn from a mountain which breathed fire, like a great dragon.”

“I would like to see such a mountain,” Keith says.

Gleda nods. “I have heard tales of them, from the far north and the far south. Perhaps someday, we will see them, and know the truth of these tales for ourselves.”

They settle into companionable quiet, listening to the riotous music and Mei’s soft snores, until Gleda asks, “I do not mean to pry, but how is it that you are not yet with child?”

Keith chokes subtly on his dinner. “Sorry?”

“You have been wed four moons, and everyone is quite aware that you consummated the marriage on that very night,” Gleda replies. Keith chokes a little more. “Yet...you have not yet felt a quickening?”

“No,” Keith mutters, for it is the truth, defensive though it may be. “I have not.”

“And are you bleeding as usual?”

“Yes,” Keith lies, for he is late, has been late, but blames it on eating less, and exercising more, as he has been forcing himself to do lately.

She peers at him. “I am not one to gossip,” she says, lowering her voice, “but there are more than a few rumors about Thane Shirogane.”

“About him, or his fertility?” Keith mutters.

Gleda’s gaze is unwavering. “Many a night I escape my husband’s desire because he is old and fond of ale. I expect you do not have the same experience with your husband.” Keith does not look at her. “Seeing the way he treats you, it is hard to imagine, but there are vicious tales whispered throughout this kingdom of what Thane Shirogane is capable of. They say his cruelty and taste for blood is not limited to the battlefield. That it is his nature, whether he is slaying men, or bedding them.”

Keith wants to shake his head. He wants to tell her she is wrong, because in his mind’s eye he can see, so clear and bright, the shining vulnerability in Shiro’s face against the firelight, the thane’s frantic words trembling in the heavy air between them — do not make me beg.

But he does not shake his head, because he has not forgotten the oath he swore to Kolivan, and he knows it will be easier to kill Shiro if he is a monster after all.

“Where do these rumors come from?” Keith asks quietly.

“Why, is there — oh, dear. Is there truth to them?” Gleda demands. Keith waits for her to answer and she glances about with a new nervousness, tugging on her intricate braids. “Well...you wouldn’t know of Thane Shirogane’s past with Lord Sendak. They were raised together, by the late Queen Honerva, and spent much of their youth, well…” She shudders. “I do not know how much truth there was to the stories, only that there were stories of murdered whores and nightmares with Shirogane’s — and Sendak’s — faces.”

Keith stares. “They killed together. They killed — whores, together?”

“They are only stories,” Gleda cautions, “and this was years ago, and he cares for you, dearly, that is plain to see.”

“Why does he not speak to Sendak any longer, if they were so...so close?” Keith whispers.

Gleda frowns. “That, I am afraid, is a mystery. Ranveig certainly does not know. But they are not on good terms, and have not been for some time.”

Keith wets his lips. “Is...is it possible Thane Shirogane did not approve of the murders?”

“Anything is possible,” Gleda sighs. “And, well...it is known that Lord Sendak is manipulative. He sees men too often as chess pieces. Perhaps your husband numbered among them.”

Keith exhales. “I have heard King Zarkon uses him as his Champion, his kingkiller. Maybe Lord Sendak used him like that too, though with whores, not kings.”

Lady Gleda taps her lips. “Perhaps…” She shakes her head. “In any event, there are strange whispers about Thane Shirogane. Many believe no man is capable of what he has done – they claim he must be something Other, that there is a part of him, perhaps his very soul, which is not...not human.”

Keith’s nails dig into his thighs. “And if I were to bear his child, you think…?”

Lady Gleda exhales, her brows drawing tight and pained together. “Many small horrors can be shaped in the womb, Keith of Marmora. I had a second child, you know...one which neither Ranveig nor myself speak of. He called it a monster – it did not live long past birth. But it was a boy. He would have been Ranvul’s brother, and...and misshapen though he was, when I held his tiny bloodied body to my breast I loved him all the same. He was a baby. My baby.” She bows her head. “Whatever you bear, it will be your baby, and you will love them just the same.”

Keith swallows. “And...and your twins, now, do you think they will be...like that?”

Lady Gleda barks out a bitter laugh. “Oh, if they are, I will drown them myself.” Keith recoils and she shrugs, reaching for another scone. “It is difficult enough in this world to be born a girl – to be born a monstrous one? They would be better off dead.”

It is then that a few villagers gather beside the table, and usher Lady Gleda off to prepare for the ceremony. She goes without a farewell, and Keith sits there numbly, uncertain what to make of her words. She may be right, that to kill a malformed infant would be a mercy, but Keith does not think he could do it. Perhaps he would not be the one to do it. Perhaps Shiro – oh, no, but that is far worse.

Someone sits down beside him, at a polite distance, and when he looks up it is Thane Acxa. Her attire is severe and practical, but there is a yellow wildflower tucked behind her ear, bright white against the dark of her skin and hair. She looks expectant, and a bit tipsy. Keith eyes her with wary uncertainty and hopes she is not here to speak of mercy-killings, too.

“Are you enjoying Imbolc?” He cannot tell whether she is sarcastic or not, and has a suspicion she, also, is unsure.

“The food is very good, yes,” Keith offers. Perhaps wine will make her forget their first and last talk about Druids.

She leans in. “You spoke with Lady Gleda at great length.” She nods to the snoring Mei. “And that one.”

“They are my fellow peace-weavers,” Keith sighs. Wine makes him sleepy, and irritable.

“And so? Will you be the High Priestess next year?”

Keith looks glumly into his goblet. “If the gods are so kind and generous.”

Acxa snorts. “Very convincing.”

“You could be High Priestess,” Keith retorts. “You are the prince’s thane, surely that is a high enough rank for it.”

Her expression shutters off. “I could not be,” she says, not with anger, but as a fact. “I do not wish to bear children.”

Keith pauses. “Why not?”

Acxa eyes him with faint curiosity. “I thought you might understand,” she says. “If you do not...then I am not certain it is something I can explain, nor need to explain.”

“It just feels wrong?” Keith murmurs. “Even the thought of it?”

She smiles, faint. “Yes. Besides...I am not a peace-weaver. It is more logical for me to...avoid childbirth, in order to best serve my lord.” She looks to Prince Lotor, who sits, statuesque and alone, at a distance from the bonfire. He hardly looks real. What a strange man, Keith thinks.

Wine also makes his tongue looser. He leans his chin in his palm and says, “Isn’t it difficult, to lay with no one?”

Acxa’s cackle surprises both of them. She covers her mouth. “Excuse me,” she says. “It is just — I lay with whomever I like.”

“Oh.” Keith tilts his head.

“Some say it is a woman’s work to bear children,” Acxa says, wrinkling her nose. “So, then, it is also her work to not bear them, if she wishes, if that is the best course of action.”

“For a thane, that is the best course,” Keith mutters. “For a peace-weaver, it is failure.”

Acxa is quiet a moment. “Not the best course for your duty,” she says. “The best course for you.”

“I am not a woman,” Keith sighs into his wine, more of a reminder than a rebuke.

“And I am not a man, yet, men like Branko there call me mannish and not womanly enough because I wear armor and carry a sword and own land. It is a hopeless battle.” She shrugs. “You may not be a woman but they see you first and foremost as a vessel to be filled with heirs. And that is how a woman is seen.”

“Thane Shirogane does not —” Keith starts, before thinking better of it.

“And yet he is here, celebrating Imbolc with you,” Acxa murmurs. “Do you know how Imbolc ends, peace-weaver?”

Keith sets down his goblet. “I don’t care how it ends,” he snaps. “Why are you here?”

Acxa purses her lips. “I apologize. I did not want to talk about babies with you. It’s just…” She gestures, a bit helplessly, to their surrounds.

“Yes,” Keith sighs. “I know.” He shakes his head. “What did you wish to talk about, with me?”

“Last we spoke, I asked you of magic –”

“I told you, I know nothing of the Druids, nor Altea.”

Acxa hums, unfazed by the dismissal. “That magic is not the only kind. You asked me where I hailed from when we first met. I said Galra. This is true, but my mother was Marmoran. She taught me how to wield my blade...and she told me stories. About the night spirits.”

Keith sucks in a breath. “Night spirits are ill omens. We don’t speak of them. Your mother should not have spoken of them, either.”

She peers at him. “Have you ever seen one?”

“I did not go looking,” Keith lies. “Marmoran forests are dangerous after dark. Nevermind night spirits, the wolves are real.”

“You do not strike me as a rule-follower,” Acxa says. “Or a coward.”

“Listen,” Keith hisses through his teeth, “I don’t know why you’re asking me about night spirits, but they are dangerous. They drive men mad, and we stay well away from them. The Druids and Alteans may be long gone, but the night spirits are not.”

“Did you forget?” Acxa murmurs. “I told you, the Druids aren’t gone – they gave your husband his arm.”

“I did not forget,” Keith says. “But I do not dwell on it.”

“Maybe you should.”

He glances at her from the corner of his eye. “Is that you telling me this, or Prince Lotor?”

“We have similar interests,” Acxa replies.

“What, me?”

She does not deny it.

“Oh.” Keith blinks.

“Prince Lotor is not Marmoran,” Acxa adds, ignoring his red face, “but he is half Altean. He studies the old magic, but always with care. Not like his mother.”

“I do not think she died from studying,” Keith mutters.

“No.” Acxa pauses. “Do you know what the night spirits are, Keith of Marmora?”

He swallows. He looks at the fire, because a part of him fears that to look into the shadows would incite their wrath. “Ghosts,” he says.

“Almost.” Acxa watches the fire with him. The flames dance and pop and climb, ever upwards. “My mother once told me they came from a place between worlds – between the living and the dead. They look like ghosts, a little, but they were never alive. Never human.”

“I wish we had continued speaking of babies instead,” Keith says, for the first time in his life.

Acxa chuckles, strained. “There will be plenty of that before the night is over, I am sure. Your husband is returning – I will take my leave. Happy Imbolc.”

“Happy Imbolc,” Keith echoes. She slips away into the crowd mere moments before Shiro’s shadow falls over him, plunging him into sudden darkness as his body blocks out the firelight.

“It seems you are quite the popular one,” Shiro says, sitting down on the bench beside him. He smells like blood, sweat, and sheep. Unfortunately this does nothing to quell the apparently near-constant want Keith feels for him. Alas. Shiro nods to Mei. “Oh, dear. Is she alright?”

“She had too much to drink,” Keith says. “A whole two people – three, before she fell asleep – spoke to me. That is hardly popular.”

Shiro snorts. “One of them was Lady Gleda, the High Priestess and one of the most powerful peace-weavers in Galra. The other was Thane Acxa, Prince Lotor’s most loyal general. People take notice of such connections.”

“I don’t,” Keith says. “I don’t know why they wanted to talk to me.”

Shiro smiles. “Come, now,” he murmurs. “This entire village has had its eyes on you since you stepped foot in it.”

Keith flushes. Shiro’s right hand is not its usual metallic chill when he curls his clawed fingers around Keith’s neck – the strange flesh is warm, nearly burning, but Keith shivers nonetheless. Shiro is drunk, and pulling him closer. Keith does not end up in his lap, but it is a near thing.

“They look at you, too,” Keith whispers defensively. “They look at you more than me.”

Shiro’s expression flickers like the fire. “It is a different look.” His hair frames his face; the lightning-touch gleams like stripped bone. “They fear me. They desire you.”

“And why not both?” Keith coaxes. His fingers curl around Shiro’s wrist.

“You flatter me, husband,” Shiro says. “Ah. The ceremony is beginning.”

They tear their gazes from each other and follow everyone else’s eyes, to the raised altar erected in the center of the village square.

Lady Gleda rises to the dais in a slow and magnificent glide; framed by the bonfire she is a vision of warmth, skin painted umber, golden hair framing her face as she turns it up to the sky, and begins to pray to Imbolc.

A flock of attendants hurry to bestow the sacrificial knife upon her, a wicked curve of iron which glints in the light, its hilt made of a sheep’s jawbone. She grips it tight, and as the attendants bring a bound white ram before her, her reverent tone changes to something more urgent, more violent. The animal shifts nervously, its heavy horns which once served it so well in the pastures now sealing its fate, held by the attendants and the ropes to keep it from fleeing. Lady Gleda circles the ram, praying louder and louder, her swollen shadow cast over the earth.

The assembled Galrans sway slow and hypnotic to the rise and fall of her words, the cadence of her prayer guiding their bodies. Keith does not know the words, but is unsure if the villagers know them, either — it is less of a knowing and more of a feeling, a sensation of divinity which sweeps over and through him, coils in him and in an instant, as he watches the shape of her lips and the fire in her eyes, he swears he understands.

“Plant in us the seed from which new life will bloom, in us, only in us. Give us the strength and the will to bear these lives, to carry them safe within us, to bring them into this world among the living. Fill us with fertile earth, where nothing withers and everything flourishes into fruit, let us be round with your blessings, and let us glow with your gifts.”

It is Shiro who whispers these words so he will understand, not some divine power, but when Keith looks at him, he wonders if they are not similar forces.

“We offer this sacrifice to you, O Imbolc, Lady of the First Milk and the Spring Lambs. We offer him to you, so you may have use of his horns as trumpets to spread the word of your goodness and fill one to the brim with spiced wine, and the other with your frothing milk. We offer to you his fine fleece, so you may wear it as a fine winter cloak to keep you and your blessings warm, and so his soft pelt will not chafe your fine flesh. We offer to you his tender meat, made strong by his readiness to defend his ewe and lambs. We pray you will find our sacrifice proper and good. We pray for your many blessings, my Lady Imbolc.”

Then she slashes the struggling ram’s throat, and his dark blood gushes into the shallow basin, splattering over the altar, over the attendants, over her. She looks at ease, and rests a hand on her belly, lips moving in a private prayer Shiro does not translate. Some of the assembled villagers sink into a praying posture with her, saying their own private hopes and wishes for the year ahead. Keith looks at Shiro, who looks away from the ram’s twitching body, and down at Keith on the bench beside him.

“Yes, husband?” Shiro murmurs.

“Do you have a prayer?” Keith asks him.

Shiro pauses, and slowly nods. He pulls Keith a little closer. “Do you?”

“In Marmora,” Keith tells him, half in a panicked rush, “it is bad luck to speak one’s prayers aloud. The gods hear them best in the quiet of our minds.”

“Is that so,” Shiro muses. “Well, then…” He shifts forward, and covers Keith’s belly with his left hand. Keith holds his breath as Shiro closes his eyes, and leans his forehead against Keith’s. Keith is unprepared for the intimacy of the position; Shiro’s scarred nose nudging against his own, their thighs and sides pressed together, Shiro’s fingers framing his lean stomach in a careful splay. Keith trembles in his grasp and Shiro’s eyes open.

“It’s alright,” Shiro murmurs, looking at him with soft confusion. He calls Keith husband, but does not understand this; Keith fears he never will. “I promise, my heart.”

It is then that Lady Gleda descends from the dais to bless the village’s girls, who have surrounded the altar in a semicircle of heads crowned in flower garlands, the first flowers of the year, some of their crowns more twig than bloom.

Each girl holds a little doll, woven of wheat straw and wool. They hold their dolls out to Lady Gleda, and one by one she paints a small smear of ram’s blood on each of the dolls, and in return the girls give her little gifts – white swan feathers, the strange woven crosses, ewe’s cheese, seed cakes, and a basket of snowdrops.

Lady Gleda reaches into the basket with admiration clear on her face, and says something to the girls. It sends them into a flurry of movement, and then she sits gracefully on the dais step while the girls gather all around, and begin weaving snowdrops into her hair. Keith is dizzy watching them.

Cheers erupt from the crowd, the somber ceremony and the dead ram forgotten as the night dissolves into carefree revelry. The other thanes return to their table, and there is much congratulating of Ranveig before Lady Gleda returns, hair filled with white flowers. The thanes congratulate her, too, but with far less backslapping.

The last course of the feast is served, a large seed cake with dried fruits and honey and enough sweetness that Ranvul is running through the streets, screaming in delight with the other children, before too long. Keith chews his cake and looks out past the clustered houses and low stone walls, out into the tumbling woods and hills. Garis is a valley thanedom cut through with rivers and streams, surrounded on all sides by higher ground. It is a poor strategic location, Keith thinks vaguely, and reaches for his wine.

But it has been replaced while he was looking away, he realizes as his fingers close around it, by a more ornate goblet. Keith falters, eyes narrowing. The children are all long gone, likely herded into their homes for bedtime, but...the village square is full, the cobblestones and packed earth scattered with furs, and on them, bare bodies gleaming beside the fire, moving in slow, sinuous, unmistakable movements. The sounds of flesh on flesh are growing louder, not quite covered by the remaining laughter, music, and conversation.

Keith’s head jerks back to the table, heart pounding...only to freeze, because Ranveig is leading Lady Gleda away, with an unsubtle longing glance towards the bonfire, but the others are staying right where they are. Branko, thankfully, has lost interest in the slumbering Mei, and hurries to the bonfire, where more conscious others await. Thane Janka joins him, stripping his shirt and cloak off with embarrassing eagerness, both of them lost to the mass of bodies.

At Prince Lotor’s end of the table, Ezor is sprawled out in Zethrid’s lap, kissing her lazily and untying her tunic while Zethrid’s gloved hands sweep over her waist, up the arching curves of her back and breasts. A ways off, closer to the bonfire than the table, Keith catches a glimpse of ash brown skin and long pale hair, a braid unwound, body hidden by a young man and older woman who press kisses to either side of their prince’s throat.

Acxa is nowhere to be seen. Keith’s stomach flips.

Do you know how Imbolc ends, peace-weaver?

Shiro stills Keith’s hand, which still grips the new goblet. Keith looks up at him, mouth dry.

But Shiro’s expression is flushed and concerned, not lustful. “Wait,” he breathes. “Keith, don’t. It’s – the wine is mixed with orichalis.”

Keith lets go of the goblet as if stung. “Oh. That – explains the – um.” His gaze drifts to Shiro’s goblet, which he is holding – it is empty. His eyes widen. Shiro sets down the goblet with a dull thud . “Are you –”

“I forgot,” Shiro whispers. “I – they do this every year, but I…”

Keith swallows. “You forgot.”

“Uh-huh.” Shiro looks...sort of miserable.

Keith blinks. “Should...should I drink mine? Do I have to?”

Shiro sucks in a sharp breath. “No! No. That’s not – it’s not like – what Sendak did to you, and not nearly as much. It’s just – if you want.”

Keith frowns. “I don’t like orichalis.”

Shiro relaxes. “Then don’t drink it,” he murmurs.

“But you –”

“Don’t worry about me.” Shiro shifts, cheeks pink.

“You’re my husband,” Keith starts. “Won’t the others expect me to...expect us to…” He avoids looking at the bonfire. The thought of others seeing what he and his husband do in their bed is...perhaps not as upsetting as it ought to be, but upsetting nonetheless. These people have forced him to be vulnerable enough – he does not want to owe them his body on display, too.

Keith only owes that to Shiro...though it does not feel like a debt, with him.

Shiro takes both of Keith’s hands in his own. “What they expect does not matter,” he whispers. “Not in the slightest.”

Heat pours off Shiro’s body, and in the cool night air, Keith shuffles closer. “Can we leave?” he asks. “And...and get Mei away from here, too?”

Shiro looks to Mei, who is still asleep and blissfully unaware, drooling on her sleeve, and nods jerkily. “I — I know a place we can bring her where she will be safe until morning.” He searches for Branko, and once determining he is sufficiently distracted, nods again and climbs a bit unsteadily to his feet. He offers Keith a hand, then drops said hand, and gets a very puzzled, frustrated look on his face. “Oh, no...we cannot leave with her. You’re right that people have...certain expectations, and for a thane to disappear with another peace-weaver…”

“They’ll think we...with her...oh, no.” Keith blanches. “Can someone else take her away, then? Someone you trust? We cannot just leave her here. I won’t.”

“I know. I know.” Shiro bites his lip, again searching the crowd. His eyes light up. “Yes! I did not know he had returned to Garis — Matthew! Matthew Holt!”

And Shiro sprints into the orgy.

He must be very drunk.

Keith winces, sitting down to keep watch over Mei and observing in disbelief as Shiro just grabs one of the writhing bodies and hauls it up. The body yelps, and covers itself, then beams at Shiro and tugs him into a hug. Keith squints at the naked man embracing his husband, and says to Mei, “Why is Galra like this?”

“Huhhh?” Mei mumbles.

“Nevermind.” Shiro returns with the naked man, who is lean with freckled skin and shaggy light brown hair. He finds a pair of trousers somewhere along the way, and grins at Keith as they approach. Keith does not grin back. There are too many questionable fluids on the man’s face for him to be expected to grin back.

“Good to meet you, peace-weaver,” the naked man says. “The name’s Matthew Holt. Shiro — sorry, Thane Shirogane — and I go way back.”

“My name is Keith of Marmora,” Keith says. “Hello.”

“Charming,” Matthew says dryly. He peers at Mei. “Hm, is this the one? Poor thing. Either that, or smart — escaped this mess, anyway.”

“She won’t escape anything if her husband returns,” Keith snaps.

Matthew and Shiro share a look, and Matthew nods. “Understood. Well, she’ll be safe at my family’s farm for the night.”

He reaches for Mei but Keith stands in front of her, uncertain. Matthew blinks at him. Keith frowns. “Promise you won’t let her come to harm,” he says.

“I — I promise, you have my word, Keith of Marmora,” Matthew says after a startled beat of silence. He lowers his voice. “If anyone does try to hurt her, I’ll cut off their fingers. Deal?”

“Hands,” Keith counters. “Cut off their hands.”

“Easy enough.” Matthew smiles, and this time Keith returns it. Shiro claps Matthew’s shoulder and helps him cover Mei with her cloak so as not to be seen. Matthew lifts her up in his arms and Keith clasps Mei’s shoulder gently, and turns her face to his.

“He is taking you somewhere safe,” Keith tells her.

She peers at him blearily, then smiles and pats his cheek before losing focus again. Keith nods to Matthew, who casts a last wary glance at the distracted Branko before carrying her out of the village, hurrying off to the horses.

Keith watches, brow furrowed. “You trust him?”

“With my life,” Shiro says instantly. “She will be alright, Keith. He’s a good man, and always keeps his word.”

“I believe you,” Keith says. He does. He can also see the heat rising in Shiro’s face and the steady dilation of his eyes, and when he takes hold of Shiro’s shoulder, the thane shudders, chest rising and falling unevenly. “Shiro. Tell me honestly. Do you need me to drink the wine?”

“No, no,” Shiro protests. “That’s not –”

“Shirogane!” Janka bellows, emerging from the bonfire crowd with absolutely not a shred of clothing. The Marmora are certainly not prude, but there are some things Keith would rather not see. Shiro keeps his eyes on Janka’s face. “Why the delay? Your wife was hot enough for it at that first bonfire!”

Shiro’s right hand curls into a fist, hidden from Janka as Keith stands in front of him. Keith can see the anger simmering in his eyes, and knows in that moment that Shiro’s judgment is severely impaired, to say the least. If he opens his mouth now, he’s going to ruin an alliance.

Keith thinks fast, and swoons into Shiro’s arms.

Shiro’s fist uncurls to catch Keith, blinking down at him in bewilderment. “Shirooo,” Keith whines, turning his face into Shiro’s chest, “please, I need…”

Janka bursts into laughter. “There it is.”

Shiro clutches Keith to him. Unseen to Janka, Keith reaches between them and cups the front of Shiro’s pants, eyes widening at just how hard Shiro is. Shiro makes a punched-out sound and grips him tighter, hips hitching forward. It may have been a smaller dose of orichalis, but not much smaller, Keith thinks grimly. Shiro is a damned liar; he is hardly fine – he must be desperate to get off.

“Enjoy the bonfire,” Shiro half-wheezes. “I believe we will be – going.”

Janka folds his arms. “Hmph, have it your way. Until next year.”

As soon as the other thane turns away, Shiro hauls Keith over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Keith continues the act, flopping limp and making a little whimpery noise right next to Shiro’s ear. Shiro jolts and walks faster. “Where are we going?” Keith asks. Shiro is just...leaving the village. He’s bypassed the horses altogether, which is a good idea – he likely cannot ride in this state.

Not horses, anyway.

“Away,” Shiro grunts.

Keith squirms in his grasp so he can lean in and kiss Shiro’s neck. Shiro’s jaw clenches and Keith bites down. “I have an idea,” Keith murmurs. “Would you like to hear it?”

“Yes,” Shiro says at once, hardly a breath, much less a word.

“You could fuck me,” Keith replies, “or, I could fuck you.”

Shiro is the one whining, then. “We – we have no oil –”

“I know,” Keith soothes, kissing the dark bruise he’s made under Shiro’s stubble-thick jaw, “trust me?”

Shiro nods hastily, and half-throws Keith onto the ground.

Keith grunts, expecting the wind to be knocked out of him, but he lands on loamy earth and among lush ferns which cushion his fall. Shiro crawls over him and wastes no time in kissing him hard, all hunger and heat. Keith moans soft against his mouth and wraps a leg around Shiro’s waist, encouraging him to rut, to rub himself off at the join of Keith’s thighs. Shiro’s claws tear at the earth, ripping moss and roots from their moorings, and his teeth sting on Keith’s throat before he shudders and comes, so fast it’s a shock, mouthing at Keith’s skin through it.

“Fuck,” Keith breathes to the night air, staring up at the dark treetops while Shiro squirms over him, fumbling with the wet laces of his pants. Keith helps him, and together they shove the fabric off and away and roll Shiro onto his back. Keith crouches over him, biting his lip at the sight of the mess Shiro’s made, and Shiro just...lets him look. He’s still aroused, hard cock pushing up through puddling white, still dripping down the thickening length under Keith’s gaze.

Shiro arches his hips up, as if to catch Keith’s attention. “Husband,” he whispers, and spreads his legs. “I need – to see you, please, please.”

Keith swallows back a groan and nods, kneeling to rub the heel of his palm through thin leggings. Keith does not like dresses very much, but he cannot help but think they do provide much better access. If he was wearing a dress, he could finger himself open and straddle Shiro, work his cock deep, and keep their joining hidden through layers of skirt and shift. He tells Shiro this, and has the pleasure of seeing his cock twitch upwards, dribbling though Keith has not even touched him yet.

“Look at you,” Keith murmurs, and Shiro’s eyes flutter shut at the sound of his voice. Keith drags the hem of his leggings downwards, past the jut of his hipbones and down over tense thighs, just enough to reveal where he too is dripping. “If I could,” he continues, stumbling only a little over the words, “I would flip you and fuck you right here, husband.” He dips two fingers between his thighs, teasing at slick folds, dipping into the heat of his opening but never penetrating, the noise of it slow and wet.

Shiro’s eyes flicker open again, and he does not hold back his groan as he watches Keith circle his clit and tug. “You can,” he gasps, “please, want you to, Keith.”

Keith gulps, eyes tracing rippling muscle and dark hair, the shine of sweat in the moonlight, features defined in shadow. Although Keith’s instinct says he will, Shiro does not stop him when he rises up on his knees, nor when he grabs hold of Shiro’s shoulder and shoves, as hard as he can, pushing Shiro’s face into the ground and bracing himself over Shiro with faint, giddy panic thudding against his ribcage. He takes his time divesting Shiro of his tunic and cloak, admiring every new sweep of skin, kissing the scars he finds there.

Shiro lifts his ass, and Keith can’t not palm over it, spread his cheeks apart to study the dry wink of his hole, to let his tongue drag over sweat and a fine dusting of hair which thickens where Shiro’s cock hangs. Keith cups his balls and squeezes Shiro’s ass, at every moment expecting Shiro to surge up, to put him in his place, but it seems Keith’s place is here, because Shiro only moves to present himself further, needier.

He does not protest even when Keith takes ahold of Shiro’s long hair, which has fallen into his face, gathering it at the nape of his neck before yanking it, throwing Shiro’s head back so he cannot hide his face in the dirt.

Shiro yelps, eyes wide and mouth falling open, face burning red. Keith leans over him, playing with himself as he pulls on Shiro’s hair again, again when his cock jerks and his thighs flex. “You like that?” Keith’s voice is hoarse and Shiro turns to it like a flower to the sun. “Tell me,” Keith snaps, because he isn’t sure what else to say, but – but he wants to give Shiro his words, if that is what Shiro wants.

“Yes,” Shiro breathes, “I like it when you – ah!”

Keith pulls his hair again, harder, and digs his nails into Shiro’s ass, feeling the skin heat under his palm. “Later,” Keith promises, a foggy plan forming in his mind, “later, I’ll – fuck you, properly, until you’re crying for it.” Gods, his face is red. How does Shiro do this? It is one thing to think filth, another entirely to say it. But the way Shiro moans helps him to keep talking. “Fill you up, ‘til you can’t think of – of anything else, nothing but me.”

Shiro whimpers. “Keith…”

Keith trails kisses over his bowing spine. “Hmm?”

Shiro drops his head back to the earth, trembling. “Touch me…”

“How badly do you need it?” Keith murmurs, stroking over Shiro’s ribs, touch lingering in the sloping divots of muscled flesh at his abdomen.

Shiro shakes. “Badly,” he says, the word breaking off at the end. Keith pulls away, startled. Shiro sounds ruined. He tucks his face into his forearm, as if to hide.

Do not make me beg.

Keith kisses his shoulder blade, pressing his chest to Shiro’s back and stroking upwards over Shiro’s chest, rubbing his thumb over the thud of Shiro’s heart. “How do you need it?” he asks, softer.

Shiro peeks at him through tangled silver hair. “I – want to taste you.”

Keith snorts, shaking his head, though his cunt throbs. “Pff. As always. I meant, how do you want me to take care of you?”

Shiro bites his lip. His eyes vaguely resemble a puppy’s. “Taste you,” he repeats.

Keith sighs in exasperation. “Shiro –” Then he pauses. Tilts his head. “Very well,” he murmurs, pushing the leggings off the rest of the way and, after a moment’s hesitation, his long tunic follows, baring his torso to the air. “Roll over.”

Shiro does. For a man so used to giving orders, he receives them just as well...from Keith, anyway. It is a curious phenomenon, one Keith does not wish to think about when he has Shiro sprawled out before him. Shiro’s cock bobs up, hopeful, and Keith is not about to disappoint. He takes a moment to assess the best plan of attack, then swings a leg over Shiro’s chest, facing his cock, and leans down to touch his lips to the shiny, swollen tip.

“K – eith –” Shiro sounds equally disbelieving and awed. Good. He understands.

But just to be sure, “Taste me, then,” Keith says, spreading his legs wider and shuffling closer to Shiro’s face before stuffing as much of the thane’s cock as he can fit down his throat. He expects to choke a little, but does not expect Shiro’s hands to close around his hips and yank Keith backwards, until he is surely smothering Shiro, who – unsurprisingly – does not seem to care about anything except getting his tongue inside Keith.

When he succeeds, Keith decides this is the best idea he has ever had. He pulls off of Shiro’s cock to swear at the rough lap of Shiro’s tongue and stubble over both his hole and cunt, and catches the first spurt of Shiro’s seed over his chin and cheek before sinking back down again to swallow the rest.

What follows is a strange loss of time – Keith focuses on coaxing Shiro’s cock back into hardness, which is simple enough given Shiro’s current state, while Shiro licks into him, humming and mumbling nonsense where Keith’s thighs squeeze around his head. It is a lazy sort of pleasure, one without pain; no strain, no urgency — the slide of his lips down Shiro’s cock is sweet and uninterrupted. Keith closes his eyes, throat working, hair falling into his face, braid tickling Shiro’s stomach.

Keith never liked being held, constrained in any way, before Shiro. The grip of Shiro’s hands on his thighs and ass is comforting, grounding. He grinds down onto Shiro’s mouth and Shiro’s tongue answers, and Keith usually knows just when he is about to come but this time it is sharp and sudden, a crashing wave in a placid pool of bliss.

Shiro’s eyelashes must be sticky, Keith thinks, pulsing over Shiro’s face and groaning around his cock. Shiro is slack under him, dragging his tongue and lips back and forth with slow want, tensing only when he comes for the third and final time. Keith pulls off, admiring the high splash over Shiro’s body, and gives his cock a few last licks as it softens bit by bit.

Shiro doesn’t push him off, so Keith stays where he is, closing his eyes and nuzzling into Shiro’s hip. “You’re warm,” he rasps.

Shiro pets his ass and kisses his clit. Keith’s toes curl. “You could stay there all night, if you wished,” Shiro mumbles. “Keep you open on my tongue...mm.”

Keith cracks an eye open, skin heating anew. “Did the orichalis wear off or not?”

Shiro huffs. The breath makes Keith’s toes curl, too. “It wore off. That’s just me.”

“Oh. Huh,” Keith says. He cuddles further against Shiro’s belly. “How are you?”

“Happy,” Shiro says. “I’m...happy.” He says it quietly. “You?”

“Happy,” Keith repeats, “but tired…”

Shiro hums and pets his hip. “I wouldn’t think less of you,” he mumbles.

Keith lifts his head. “What?”

“If you had bedded others before me.” Shiro turns his face into Keith’s thigh. “I would be sorry that you felt you had to lie to me...but not sorry to have the privilege of wedding and bedding you.”

Keith swallows hard. “Oh,” he breathes. “I…”

“Don’t tell me if there were others,” Shiro mutters, half-pleading.

Keith’s nails dig into Shiro’s hip. “There weren’t,” he says. “Shiro, you were my –” He pauses. “Shiro?”

Shiro snores. Keith blinks, sits up and turns around, slightly mortified by how wet Shiro’s entire face and neck is. Slightly proud, too. He pokes Shiro’s face. Fast asleep. Keith rolls off of him, and pokes Shiro again for good measure. Shiro shifts towards him, throwing his shadowy arm over Keith’s hip.

Keith has to stretch out his entire body to grab Shiro’s cloak and pull it over them, because Shiro shows no indication of waking anytime soon. That is alright, Keith thinks, curling into his side, because sleeping here, under the trees, reminds him of home. The earth is still cold, but not frozen, and Shiro’s body is warm, safe.

When Keith closes his eyes and wraps his arms around Shiro, he is transported. He can almost smell the curls of peat incense on the air, the smoke of cookfires, the bright clean scent of the mountain springs and year-round snow on their peaks. It is tempting to imagine how it might have been had their positions been reversed – if he had received Shiro in his family’s winter lodge, if they had been wed among the pines and mist and open air rather than among the crowded strangers and expectant eyes of a feasting mead hall.

Afterwards, there would have been no consummation bed. They would have had only the stars, and Keith would have taken Shiro’s hand and led him to the cliff by the sea he once leapt from, and they would sit together there on pebbles polished by the wind and salt, and Keith would tell Shiro all the stories he cannot tell him here. There would be no fear of invasion and betrayal, and no secrets nor whispered spells between them. Keith would not bear a single heir, and Shiro would not resent him for it.

They would fish together in the clear alpine streams at dawn, during the day they would eat and talk and hunt and spar and learn and listen with the other Marmorans, and at sunset they would sleep together just like this, tucked in the embrace of the trees and the earth. Keith would slip his hand into Shiro’s, counting curved claws, and he would make a promise he actually intended to keep, a promise he was not bound to break by the duty of his clan, because Shiro would be his clan. It would be simple. It would be good.

They would be happy.

Something moves between the trees. Keith sits up, head tilted towards what should be the sound of snapping twigs and crunching leaves, but silence answers. Yet, there is something there. The something stands, then takes another step forward, on all fours. Keith furrows his brow. “Cosmos?” he whispers. It is the first – and best – possibility. But he knows, with sinking certainty, that it is not the wolf. It just stands there. Watching.

Then the something starts forward, lurches to the side, as if unsteady, unbalanced, but – its feet don’t touch the ground. Wide awake now, Keith curls his legs close and reaches for Shiro’s knife, sheathed on his abandoned belt. The something – laughs. Keith freezes.

Its laughter is not a heard sound, but an echo, hollow and aching in his skull.

Keith’s fingers close around the knife, holding it out. “What are you?” he asks.

The laughter stops abruptly. The something steps out of the shadows, bringing them with it. It trails darkness in ribbons, yet, as the moonlight falls over it, that too becomes it. Its eyes are but empty sockets, glowing from within. Light leaks from its shattered ribs and broken spine. It lifts a crooked limb and says, though it has no mouth, no lips, You know us.

Keith’s breath stops. He had been a child, alone in the forest and frightened by the silence. He had called out, to his mother, his father, his family – and the forest had answered. He has told no one of this, but it knows.

“Night spirit,” he whispers, “why have you come here?”

Not here, it says, we are not here. Cannot be here…

Keith swallows. “What do you mean?”

It is silent again, and steps forward, each step appearing both agonizing and graceful.

Hurts, the night spirit tells him softly. You hurt us.

Keith’s eyes widen in alarm. “Me? I, I have no wish to –”

Human, it says.

“Humans hurt you,” Keith whispers. “...how?”

Yes, it says. Twist us. Make us real. It lifts its head, staring directly at him with its luminescent sockets. Hurt you.

Keith lifts the knife, knuckles ivory.

But it keeps advancing. We are not real, it says. We do not hurt.

“What do you do, then?” Keith manages.

Give, it says, and extends a long, skeletal forelimb. Its fingers are spidery, and faded at the edges, but they almost look like claws. For you.

It stays where it is. “What are you giving?” Keith asks.

It does not answer. It stands, drifts there, waiting.

Keith looks to Shiro. He is still sleeping. His face is peaceful. Keith touches his shoulder, just once, and slowly stands. It watches, silent. Keith wonders if he should have pulled on his tunic as he steps forward, bare, but he does not think the night spirit makes a distinction between clothed and not.

You will die, it says when he is within its reach. Keith stops walking. We see this.

“When?” he whispers. “How?”

Twice, it says. In the same dark place.

Keith trembles. “Where? Where will I die?”

In the same dark place, it says again. Alone, then not. We see this.

“Oh.” Keith looks down. “Is...is that it, then?”

No. It shivers forward. But it says nothing.

Keith inhales. “Will Shiro die with me?”

It shivers harder. Already dead.

Keith’s head snaps up. “What?”

Died, it murmurs, toneless voice changing for the first time – it sounds mournful. Long ago.

“He’s alive,” Keith snaps, panic bleeding into anger, “he’s right there, he’s –”

Saved. It bows its head. Yes.

“Why are you here,” Keith repeats, pleading now.

Give, it says, and as it says it, it grows, rising higher and higher like a column of flames. To you.

Terrified, Keith stands, staring up at it. This forest, he thinks, is a dark place. Perhaps he will die here, now.

It reaches out, murmuring in his ears with a thousand voices, and when he obeys them, lifting his hand to it, hot pain sears across his open palm, drawing blood. But the blood does not fall – it lifts, curling into the air like tendrils of red smoke, and the night spirit sighs, sending it swirling. We give, it says, to you.

Keith wakes with a start.

Beside him, Shiro yawns. Birds chirp and squirrels chatter in the boughs above them. The sun filters through the budding leaves in long, pale rays. Shiro stretches, and squeezes Keith’s waist, drawing him in to the curve of his body and kissing the nape of Keith’s neck. “Good morning,” he mumbles. “Sleep well? I think I have a snail in my hair, ugh…”

“Yes,” Keith says, distracted. “Morning…”

He’s looking at his palm. It is cut through with a single clean white scar.

Give, the trees sigh, to you.

Chapter Text

The Holt family farm is humble but thriving, rolling hills dotted with sheep that raise their horned heads in unbothered greeting as Shiro and Keith ride up the winding path to the small but handsome house between the two sprawling pastures. It has a thatched roof and hazy smoke curls from the chimney. The front door is open, and half a flock of speckled chickens pecks away at scattered grain on the threshold.

They scatter with a chorus of alarmed clucking when an older woman swats at them with a hefty broom, grumbling loudly about feeding the chickens in their intended place before she sees the approaching riders and nearly drops her broom.

“Thane Shirogane!” she calls, waving a hand to them.

“Good afternoon, Cailín!” Shiro calls back, beaming at her.

They pull up the horses at the hitching post and the woman yells, “Samuel, fetch the water pail!” at the nearby barn, a squat building with space for only a few stalls. A man with gray hair full of straw pokes his head out, and so does an old gray plowhorse with a mouth full of oats.

The man waves, too, and ducks back inside. When he returns it is with water for their horses, and they drink noisily as Shiro dismounts, and helps Keith from his saddle though they both know he does not need the assistance.

They are ushered inside by the Holts, who lead them to the small dining table and immediately set about serving them ale and thick slices of buttered brown bread. Both the man and the woman eye Keith with open but polite curiosity, and it is only when they are all served and seated that the man, Samuel Holt, asks, “So, this is the peace-weaver that has all of Garris abuzz.”

“Like a beehive, they are,” Cailín Holt sighs. “I cannot abide by such gossip, but I will say you are as lovely as the rumors say, dear.”

Keith flushes and clears his throat. “Er, thank you, milady.”

She looks quite tickled at the title, and Shiro smiles. “I apologize we did not visit earlier. But, better late than never — Keith, these are Samuel and Cailín Holt, both old and fine friends of mine, from the village I was born in. And this is my…” Shiro hesitates. “My husband, Keith of Marmora.”

Silence. Keith’s heart seizes. The Holts blink, expressions wavering for a moment. “Hello,” Keith mumbles. “It is good to meet you both. Shiro has...told me much about your family.”

Samuel shakes himself a little, and offers Keith a crooked smile. “Oh? Only the good, I hope!”

Keith smiles weakly back. “He has mostly just told me of Matthew,” he admits. “But he speaks well of the whole family, very well.”

“Indeed,” Shiro agrees, and squeezes Keith’s shoulder with his gloved right hand. Keith wonders if the Holts know what it truly looks like. “I wished to apologize for the night of Imbolc — your son did a great favor to us by bringing Thane Branko’s peace-weaver here, and I wished to assure you both that as always you are under my protection, and that Thane Branko may have been upset, but his anger is ungrounded.”

“Oh, that one is all bark and no bite,” Samuel says. “But thank you, Thane Shirogane."

Shiro’s eyes narrow. “Did he bark at you?”

Cailín reaches across the table and pats his hand. “Don’t you worry about us, Shiro. He made a great big show of fetching his wife with as many soldiers as he thought would scare us, but we don’t scare easy. You know that.”

“It helps that your brave mercenary son has returned from the south,” Matthew Holt adds, sauntering in and stopping guiltily to kick off his muddy boots when his mother gives him a warning look.

“Mercenary is such an ugly word,” Cailín says.

“Sword for hire?” Matthew suggests.

She sniffs. “At least that makes it sound like more of an honest business enterprise.”

“It is an honest business enterprise!” he protests.

“No, your sister has an honest business enterprise,” Samuel counters.

“That’s just because Katie isn’t allowed to stab people,” Matthew huffs.

“She is sixteen!” Cailín exclaims.

“So was I when I started wielding a blade,” Matthew says under his breath.

“Truth be told, our daughter would be a menace to the entire kingdom if she had a blade in her hands,” Samuel says apologetically to Shiro and Keith. “Better for everyone that she reserves her, ah, gifts for the farm.”

Keith blinks. “I do not think Shiro told me of your daughter.”

“I mentioned her,” Shiro says. “Katie Holt. She was very young when I left our village...now, she has grown into a young woman.”

“She’s grown into something,” Matthew mutters. Cailín makes him clear the table without getting a single drop of ale for himself.

Samuel rises. “She’s in the barn, I believe. Come, I’ll introduce you to her, Keith of Marmora.”

Shiro rises with them, but Cailín waves him over. “Stay, Shiro – I’m sure Matthew would appreciate someone to help him clean up.”

Keith gawks at them as Shiro meekly obeys, grabbing the broom and joining Matthew in the kitchen area. Samuel leads Keith out of the house, chuckling and shaking his head. “Don’t look so surprised; she’s always been that way with Thane Shirogane, long before he was a thane at all. She was like a mother to him, more oft than not.” He glances down at Keith as the door closes behind them. “Suppose Shiro told you about his mother?”

Keith swallows, and nods. “She died in childbirth,” he says.

“Yes.” Samuel sighs, shaking his head. “Pity, that. She was a fine woman, Tsuya Shirogane. But...there was nothing even the best village midwives could do. They weren’t even sure if Shiro would survive it.” He frowns, and adds, half to himself, “Looking back, not sure Shiro’s father ever forgave him for that.”

“What?” Keith asks, gut twisting.

Samuel glances up, startled. “Hm? Oh. Nothing. Had a whole slew of brothers, Shiro did. Four of them; Ryou, Kuro, Akio, and Hikaru. Kuro and Ryou were twins, five summers older than Shiro, Akio was second-born and seven summers older, and Hikaru was the eldest, ten summers older.”

“And they were all killed?” Keith asks, quietly.

“Mm.” Samuel’s face twists, but it clears quickly, so quick Keith is not certain he didn’t imagine it. “The twins were only twelve, at the time, and Shiro…”

“Was seven,” Keith finishes.

Samuel nods. “It was a dark day,” he sighs. “The Galra were more merciless, then, with terrible powers on their side.”

Keith pauses. “Powers?”

“Pardon,” Samuel says, coughing. “It’s far too easy for an old man to get lost in the past. It is the past, and it is over. What matters is that Shiro is well, and our family is well, thanks to his generosity.”

“Are there other people from your village in Garris, too?” Keith asks.

“Oh, quite a few, yes,” Samuel replies absently, “though many are old, or have long since died. When the Galra attacked us so many years ago, they took most of the children, you see.”

Samuel Holt pushes open the barn door. Keith stands frozen for a moment. The words don’t sit right in his head. They took most of the children. But why? What use would the Galra have for children? Keith recalls what little Shiro has told him of his childhood, and the words sit even worse.

Queen Honerva had...a penchant for collecting strays.

“But, we kept ours well-hidden,” Samuel says over his shoulder with a crooked smile. “Katie! We have a very special guest – Keith of Marmora, Thane Shirogane’s peace-weaver.”

Keith peers into the barn. The plowhorse eyes him, still chewing its oats. He sees no daughter in the cramped, dusty building, but there is a large plow taking up most of the space, and it is from under this plow that a head of hair the color of old straw emerges.

She’s almost a mirror image of Matthew, with significantly more dirt on her freckled face, a snub nose, and thick, wildly wavy hair tied back with a faded green ribbon. She blinks at him with wide hazel eyes. Samuel sighs and rubs his temples. “Katie,” he starts, “you’re ruining your dress.”

“I’m not wearing my dress,” Katie retorts, and wriggles out from under the plow. She’s in a long brown tunic belted at her narrow waist and black leggings quite covered in dust and straw. Samuel just sighs again. Katie tilts her head at Keith, and does an awkward little curtsey. “Hello, peace-weaver. Was starting to think Shiro was never gonna get anyone to marry him.”

“Katie!” Samuel exclaims.

She shrugs. “What? I’m not surprised it took a mandate from the king for him to wed, is all I’m saying.”

Samuel rolls his eyes. “I apologize for my daughter,” he tells Keith dryly.

“That’s alright.” Keith takes a step closer and Katie raises an eyebrow. He points at the plow. “Were you...fixing that?”

“Fixing it?” She huffs, hands on her hips. “I’m rebuilding it. The old one has a very inefficient design, and poor Mossflower is getting old –” she points to the plowhorse, who is now asleep, “so it was taking a toll on him. Too much drag in the soil, and not enough glide. This one,” she smacks the plow proudly, “has plenty of glide. Or it will. When I’m done with it.” She puffs out her bony chest.

“That’s very impressive,” Keith offers. “Where did you learn how to build plows?”

“She has a knack for that sort of thing,” Samuel says. “Never could break her habit of tinkering.”

“I like tinkering,” Katie says. “Been doing it since I was a wee thing.”

“You are still a wee thing,” Samuel reproaches. “But the best tinkerer in Garris,” he adds to Keith. “She fixes all sorts of things from other farms, far and wide.”

“I have some help,” Katie says, red dusting her cheeks now alongside the actual dust. “One of my friends in town is a blacksmith’s son, helps with all the metalwork, and another one, he finds all the missing bits and pieces for me – knows everyone, and I’d rather not go out and chat with folk, so he does it for me.”

“Oh,” Keith says. “I understand not wanting to go out and chat with folk.”

She smiles, a little shy, previous bravado gone. “Hm. Good. You’re from Marmora, I hear.” Keith nods, slightly wary, but her eyes light up. “Were you a warrior there? Did you learn how to wield the famous Marmoran luxite blades?”

“Now, now,” Samuel says, “he’s a peace-weaver, Katie, not a warlord –”

“I am quite familiar with the blade,” Keith murmurs, “yes.”

She grins. “I knew it! It’s the way you move, I think. Light on your feet, and always alert. Here, here, let me show you how to fix a plow.”

“Katie…” Samuel says, warning, though he sounds as if he knows he’s already lost this battle.

“What? You don’t think Thane Shirogane has use for plows?” Katie’s lips quirk, hardly subtle. Keith snorts into his glove. He likes this girl.

Samuel throws up his hands and leaves the barn, mouthing an apology to Keith.

As soon as her father is gone, Katie whirls on him with a gleam in her eye and a pitchfork in her hand. Keith takes a step back, but she does not impale him with the pitchfork. She holds it out to him and declares, “Teach me how to swordfight, Keith of Marmora.”

Keith eyes the pitchfork, then her, and purses his lips. “No,” he says, and sets the pitchfork aside.

Her face falls, and pinches in frustration. “No? What do you mean, no? Everyone says no. Please! I want to learn, I’d be just as good as my brother –”

Keith holds up a finger, then takes off his gloves. Her forehead crinkles. He walks over to the piled up hay bales, and picks up the two hay knives resting atop them, weighing them in his hands. Katie sucks in a sharp, excited breath. “These will work much better,” he says, and hands her one. “A real sword is longer, and has a heavier hilt, so the balance is different, but we can use this for the basic footwork and stance.”

“I can get a real sword,” Katie breathes, eyes wide and shining. “For next time.”

Keith can’t help but grin back. “Next time,” he agrees, and lunges at her, commands falling from his lips as their blades collide.

*

This is how Shiro finds them: panting, soaked in sweat, flushed with exertion, covered in straw, and sparring with a pair of rusty hay knives.

“Keith?”

Keith pauses at the strident, shocked note in his voice, and signals Katie to stop with only his eyes, lowering his knife to turn slowly towards the thane. Shiro gapes at him. Katie drops the knife and shuffles innocently back towards the plow the moment before Samuel walks in after Shiro.

“Husband,” Keith says, slowly catching his breath, wiping the knife off on his tunic – there’s no blood, of course, he was very careful, but the handle is sweaty from his palm. Shiro’s eyes track the movement in disbelief. “Is the kitchen clean?” He sets the hay knife aside, and sweeps his hair back – it was braided but is coming undone in fraying, damp tendrils.

Shiro opens and closes his mouth. “Is everything alright?” Samuel asks, stepping cautiously forward. “Did Katie do something?”

“No, your daughter was just showing me how the plow worked,” Keith lies. Katie peeks at him from behind the plow beam. “Fascinating.”

“I...see.” Samuel clears his throat. “Thank you for being hospitable, Katie.”

“Of course, Father,” Katie croaks.

“I think we ought to go,” Shiro says, gaze on Keith unbroken. “At once.”

Keith straightens up. “But it is not even noon,” he says.

“We would not wish to impose,” Shiro says, and this time the darker note in his vote is unmistakable. Keith stiffens, and fights the urge to reach for the hay knife. Instead he returns to Shiro’s side. Shiro’s right hand falls upon the small of his back. “Thank you, Samuel,” he says. “It is good to see you as well, Katie, however briefly.”

“And you, Thane Shirogane.” Her voice is barely a squeak.

They return to their horses in tense silence. Shiro’s hand does not leave Keith’s back, and Keith does not rebuke him for it. Shiro’s jaw is set and Keith is terrified of it, but he refuses to let his fear show.

Shiro grips his hand too tight when he helps Keith up into the saddle. Keith does not look at him, and holds the reins with ivory knuckles. Strael shifts nervously under him, and shies away when Shiro walks in front of her to reach his stallion.

They continue back down the winding road from whence they came, but Shiro makes a different turn – not towards the town, but towards the woods. Heart in his throat, Keith follows, though Strael tugs at the reins and chomps at the bit, her muzzle frothing with anxious foam. Shiro dismounts suddenly not far past the treeline, and Keith is nearly unseated when he pulls Strael up short nearby.

His mouth is dry and his heart thunders as Shiro advances on them, eyes almost black in the shadow of the trees. Keith does not extend his hand to Shiro, but Shiro’s right hand curls around his wrist anyway, and the claws are bigger, sharper. Keith stares at him, dizzy with terror climbing hot and stinging in his throat. Shiro’s gaze on him burns.

“I won’t apologize,” Keith whispers.

Shiro’s brow creases.

“For teaching her how to fight,” Keith says. “I’m not sorry for that. Nor should I be.”

“I know,” Shiro says. His voice is level, but low. “Get off of your horse.”

Keith squeezes his thighs tighter around Strael’s middle. She snorts, ears pinned back flat. “And if I don’t? If I ride off into the woods?”

Shiro huffs, releasing his wrist, and takes a step back. “I could hunt you down,” he murmurs, “but I’d really rather not, when I have you right here.”

“And what would you do when you caught me?” Keith can barely speak.

Shiro tilts his head. “I would do something far better if you came to me of your own accord.” His tone is strange, not angry, but – mocking, almost.

Keith does not doubt that. He slips out of the saddle, landing light on his feet, and ties Strael to a low-hanging branch. It’s a loose knot, one she can pull free if she bolts. She looks like she’s about to, and Keith wishes he could follow.

“You knew I could wield a blade,” Keith whispers as he approaches. “You cannot expect me to never wield one again. It is in my blood –” The breath leaves his body, for Shiro is upon him, moving faster than the eye can follow, faster than should be possible, and Keith’s back hits the nearest tree trunk with a dull thud.

Shiro’s body presses into his, and somehow, he feels bigger, stronger, stranger. Keith does not turn his face away nor close his eyes although he wants to. Shiro would not let him, anyway – his five black claws frame Keith’s cheek, and from them, shadows drift. It could be a trick of the light – or not.

“Do you remember,” Shiro murmurs, “when you said you were surprised I agreed to the marriage after seeing you slit a man’s throat astride a war-mare?”

“Yes,” Keith whispers, halting, bewildered.

“And I said,” Shiro leans closer, “that I agreed to nothing, and was simply the closest unwed thane to Marmora, and did not will our marriage?”

“Yes,” Keith repeats, strangled, as Shiro’s shadow lengthens.

“I was lying,” Shiro says. “Not lying in that I was the closest unwed thane, but lying in that I did not will it.” Keith trembles as a claw traces his lips. “If the world was good and just,” Shiro tells him, “and there was peace between our kingdoms, then you should be no other place than among your people, with your blade in your hand, held high.”

Shiro’s lips curl, both sardonic and sad. “But the world is neither good nor just; there is no peace between Marmora and Galra,” he says. “And I am a selfish man. And the day I saw you astride that war-mare, tearing your blade from one of my men, I knew no amount of gold would ever be enough.”

“So you – you asked for me?” Keith says, dazed.

“I asked of you,” Shiro says. “Kolivan told me of your lineage and, as Marmora has no prince, we came to an agreement.” Shiro’s eyes narrow. “King Zarkon ordered I marry, but he did not order me to marry you.”

Keith is pinned by the bulk of Shiro’s body; even if he were not, he thinks he would be frozen in place. “This is your fault, then,” he whispers. “It is your doing that I was made your peace-weaver, and not a warrior of my people.”

“If not you, it would have been someone else,” Shiro says. “Would you have preferred that? Do you like the thought of someone else in my bed, someone else on my –”

“Shut up,” Keith hisses, grabbing for his waist, digging his nails into Shiro’s ribs through his tunic. His heart hurts and his body aches from sparring after so many months out of practice.

“Answer the question,” Shiro says, almost a growl, claws curving inwards, a cage around Keith’s jaw.

Keith grits his teeth. “Do you want me to beg for you not to leave? To thank you for taking me from my home, from my family, from my future?”

Shiro’s face softens. “No,” he says. “I want you to have both.”

“Both,” Keith repeats, and laughs in his face. “I cannot be a peace-weaver and a warrior, husband. I can only choose one of those paths, and you made that choice for me.”

“And what choice do you think I had?” Shiro retorts, voice rising. “I was told to wed a Marmoran. I chose to wed a skilled warrior for a reason, Keith.” His clawed hand flexes. “You know how to fight. To defend yourself.”

“Why,” Keith whispers, “would you want a wife who could do that?”

Shiro’s eyes are struck flint. “Spar with me,” he says.

Keith blinks, head spinning. “You — what?”

“At my keep,” Shiro says. “Spar with me.”

“I can’t,” Keith says in a rush.

“Why not?” Shiro crowds him against the tree until there is hardly room left to breathe. “You can.”

“People would talk,” Keith starts. “They would say — they might think I could hurt you.”

“You could,” Shiro says, breath feathering across Keith’s jaw, “hurt me.”

My duty would be to bear a son destined to kill and betray his father and his kingdom at my behest.

Keith shakes his head. “I am the peace-weaver,” he whispers. “Not that warrior you saw. Not anymore.”

Shiro’s lips press together. “Then why did you teach Katie Holt to fight?”

“Because she is a girl, and she wanted to learn,” Keith says, eyes falling shut as Shiro’s lips brush his neck. “She is safer with a sword in her hands.”

Shiro pauses. “Do you want a sword?” he asks.

Keith’s eyes fly open. “You cannot give me a sword,” he snaps.

“No? Yes, I can. Get on your horse. We will go the blacksmith and get you a sword.” But Shiro does not step away.

“I don’t want a sword,” Keith says.

“You should have a sword,” Shiro says.

Keith shoves on his chest. It is like pushing on a particularly stubborn boulder. “No sword,” he says.

“Why not?” Shiro coaxes, thigh pushing between Keith’s, which part without his permission. “It would be far better than a hay knife.”

“I —” Keith’s eyes roll back when Shiro’s thigh rubs against him. “Stop that. You cannot seduce me into accepting a sword.”

Shiro smirks against his collarbones. “No?”

Keith slumps and clings to him. “Why tell me that you wanted to marry me?”

Shiro kisses his throat. “Because it is the truth,” he says. “I know you did not wish for this, for me. But I — I thought maybe it would help to know I wished for you. And I can still hardly believe that I have you.”

“What is unbelievable about that?” Keith mutters. “You are the Thane of Garris, Zarkon’s Champion. You can have whatever you like.”

Shiro hums in soft dissent. “It is a nice sentiment, but not the truth.”

Keith pushes him away again, and this time he catches Shiro off-guard, and sends the thane stumbling backwards. “I don’t want your flattery,” he says. Shiro’s brows draw together. “You cannot honestly tell me,” Keith continues, “that you are satisfied with this,” he gestures a little frantically to himself, “after spending the rest of your youth fucking as many men as you wanted in the back rooms of brothels.”

Shiro’s eyes widen. “You are a –”

Keith holds up a hand. “I am a compromise,” he bites out. “It is all very well and good to pretend you want for nothing more now, when I look at least a little like those men, but how are you going to pretend when I am six moons with child, like Lady Gleda?”

Shiro stares at him. “You think I am pretending?” he whispers. “Keith –”

“You wed me because you need heirs,” Keith says. The words are like stones in his throat, falling heavy between them. “If you had no need of that, you would have wed a warrior like the ones you slew. So don’t pretend I wasn’t your second choice.”

Shiro’s claws draw blood. It drips dark and hot down Keith’s neck as the pinpricks open along his jaw. Shiro’s breath is the cool wind in the oldest parts of the forest, laden with secrets and shadow. It is not human, and Keith is bewitched.

“I wed you,” Shiro tells him, “because you were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, Keith. I wed you,” his claws drag lines of heat down Keith’s skin, delicately tearing, “because when we came to collect our weregild from the Marmora, you were not afraid. You did not hide. You fought. You killed. You did not hesitate. If I had not been there, I think you would have won.”

Shiro looms over him, and the way his eyes glow, Keith knows in the pit of his belly, is not a trick of the light at all. “I was not thinking of heirs,” Shiro says. “I was thinking of how you would look in my bed, beneath me, above me, and how you would touch me with those hands which dealt so many killing blows.” Keith shivers, and Shiro nuzzles into his hair. “And after the battle, after the talks, when we were wed in my mead hall, you were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen then, too. And I did not think of blood and death and power when I looked at you then. I thought of embracing you, of holding you with a gentleness I had forgotten. I thought of calling you mine. And not once did it feel like a compromise. Not a single time, Keith.”

Keith shakes his head, blinking back the sudden and mortifying urge to cry. “I thought you were angry with me,” he stammers. “When you walked into the barn – I thought you were going to punish me.”

Shiro makes a soft sound, a sort of coo. “For what?” he murmurs, leaning in closer, ‘til his tongue touches the droplets of blood he’s left on Keith’s skin, licking them away. “For moving like wind incarnate? For looking at me with eyes bright from battle and calling me husband?”

“It was just – sparring practice,” Keith gasps, Shiro’s thigh rocking against him, forcing him to ride the flexing muscle. He bites back a whine. “Shiro –”

“Let me buy you a sword,” Shiro murmurs, hooking his claws under the hem of Keith’s leggings. Keith squirms; to get closer or to get away, he doesn’t know.

“Yes,” he groans, “alright, fine, yes.” His chest heaves unevenly. “Buy me a damned sword.”

“Good,” Shiro chuckles, far too amused, but also proud in a way that makes Keith’s face heat. He scratches claws down, down through coarse hair, until he finds Keith’s clit and plucks at it between two claws. Keith whimpers and twists on his thigh, and Shiro kisses him into calming, even as his claws seek further, deeper. “Shhh,” Shiro says into the corner of Keith’s gasping mouth, “I told you once these would not harm you.” He pauses. “And they will not...in any way you do not desire.”

Keith’s head thuds back against the tree bark. “How kind of you,” he wheezes.

“Mm,” Shiro says, “I can be.” His claws trace through flushed wet flesh which opens to him bloodlessly, and Keith can feel the wicked points spreading him wide; he bites his lip until it bleeds when one dips into him. Shiro clicks his tongue. “Careful,” he scolds, “or you’ll hurt yourself.”

Then he sucks Keith’s bitten lower lip into his mouth, coaxing the blood from the ragged wound, and with eyes shut and legs spread, Keith does not see the dark tendrils which lift from Shiro’s skin, trailing behind and around him like black ribbons as light leaks from his slitted eyes, glowing gold as the harvest moon.

*

Shiro buys him a sword from the village blacksmith boy, who eyes Keith as if he is a viper likely to strike at any moment, then gapes at Shiro as he hands over the coin.

“Thane Shirogane,” he stammers, “this is – too generous, really –”

“I insist,” Shiro says. “You and your father do good work.”

“It is an honor to make a sword for you, my lord,” the boy says, bowing and carefully taking the coin.

“Oh, not for me,” Shiro says, nudging Keith forward. “For him.”

The boy stares. “Oh. For – I see. Um. Would you prefer more of a dirk, then? Or a short sword –”

“I would like a claymore,” Keith says, testing just how far Shiro is willing to extend this offer.

Shiro’s mouth twitches upwards. The blacksmith boy gulps. “That is a very large sword,” he says.

“I know,” Keith says.

“Um,” the blacksmith boy says.

“Make him a claymore, please,” Shiro says, and gives the blacksmith boy another coin.

“Of course,” he says, still eying them both in mild disbelief. “As you, er, wish, my lord.”

They ride back through the town. It is less intimidating now that it is not decorated for the festival. Chickens, sheep, and goats wander between houses, and a scruffy orange tabby follows them from a distance, a mouse tail hanging from its mouth. The villagers are busy but not in a hurry about it, and some stop to wave at the two of them as they pass. Others just go about their business as usual.

“I cannot believe you bought me a claymore,” Keith says. “That is not the proper weapon for a peace-weaver.”

“Is there a proper weapon for a peace -weaver?” Shiro counters. “Besides, I trust you can wield such a blade. I look forward to seeing you do so.”

“Should I be worried by your eagerness to see me swordfight?” Keith mutters.

“Now, why would you be worried by that?” Shiro asks, as if Keith’s inner thighs are not still smarting with scratch marks. Before Keith can reply, Shiro pulls up short with a smile in front of what looks to be a small bakery. “Aha! It is open today. Wait here, husband, I’ll only be a moment.”

Keith frowns as Shiro dismounts and ties Artax, wandering inside the little bakery. Steam smelling of fresh breads and sweets drifts up to him through the open doorway. When Shiro does not return immediately, Keith relaxes in the saddle, getting comfortable and watching the townsfolk go about their day around him. One in particular catches his attention – a little girl with bouncing braids and a bright red smock, gleefully playing in the muddy road and toddling after a sheepdog with a lolling pink tongue.

Keith smiles, watching them...until, that is, the sheepdog stops abruptly, lifting its head to stare at him with eyes which shift from friendly brown to cold white. Keith jolts and Strael stomps, but her ears are relaxed – she doesn’t seem to see the staring sheepdog which is no longer a sheepdog, for its blunt claws are lengthening into curved points, its jaws widening, slavering, tongue darkening and forking at the tip. Its fur falls away, melts into smooth gray scale; dark tendrils lift and spread at its shoulders like grotesque wings as it says, softly, Give, to you.

It’s gone as soon as it had appeared. Shiro walks out with two glazed buns in his hands. Keith slowly uncurls his hands, tightened into fists on the reins, his palms cut with the half-moon gouges of his digging nails. “What’s this?” Keith asks as Shiro hands him one of the buns, careful not to let the thane see the little cuts.

“A gift,” Shiro says, already taking a bite out of the pastry while he swings himself back up into the saddle. “Honey buns. I used to steal entire batches of these when I was a child.” He winks. “They were worth the scoldings.”

“I thought you said you were an obedient child,” Keith murmurs, taking a hesitant bite. Sweetness blooms on his tongue. He understands at once why Shiro stole so many. “Mm.”

“Obedient in everything that did not involve tempting pastries,” Shiro chuckles. They start off again towards the keep, eating their honey buns, steam wafting into the air. “Say, what sorts of pastries do Marmorans make?”

Keith chews thoughtfully. “We eat all sorts of things with cloudberries in them,” he muses. “Have you ever seen a cloudberry?” Shiro shakes his head, mouth full of honey bun. Keith tries not to laugh at his chipmunk cheeks. “They’re very strange-looking, I suppose...they only grow in the peat bogs, and in the high tundra, and when I was little, I always thought they looked like little amber gems scattered across the earth. We would sometimes mix them with crowberries and tallow, all mashed up until they were a dark, lovely violet color.”

“Like your eyes,” Shiro says around his honey bun.

Certain he misheard, Keith says, “Excuse me?”

“Like the sky,” Shiro says, swallowing and looking straight ahead. “Before sunset. It turns violet. Sometimes. Go on, I’m listening.”

Keith squints at him. “Anyway,” he says, “we call that akutaq. It is very good. But I like cloudberry jam better. We would put that on flatbread with crumbled hazelnuts and seeds in the summertime.”

“That sounds…” Shiro trails off. “It seems we have visitors.”

As they near the keep, Keith can make out a horse prancing at the gates, beside a gathering group of guards. They approach, and one of the guards calls out to Shiro. “Messenger from Zeragat, my lord!” he shouts. “From Thane Ranveig. Says it’s urgent.”

Shiro and Keith exchange glances, and both urge their horses into a canter up to the gates. The messenger’s horse is nervous, but its rider does not look panicked. He looks...sad. Grieving.

“Well?” Shiro demands. “What news do you bring from Zeragat?”

The messenger bows his head. “No good news, Thane Shirogane. There has been a murder, of the most foul sort.” He looks up, expression pained. “It’s Thane Ranveig’s son, Ranvul, my lord. He was found, stabbed to death in his bedchamber, this morning.”

*

Ranvul’s funeral is a quiet and somber affair, held at dusk, beside the churning falls which crown the hilly thanedom of Zeragat, a day’s ride south from Garris. The archers fire their flaming arrows, and his small boat erupts into brilliant flame as the sun dies on the snow-capped mountain peaks. The boat drifts down the river, out to the distant sea, and the sounds of weeping women echo through the darkness.

Shiro stands beside him, the pyre flames reflected in his eyes. He does not cry, but his lips move, slowly. He’s saying a prayer, to a god Keith does not know. He doubts it is Imbolc. He doesn’t think she can fix this.

Keith looks at Lady Gleda, standing on the shore, hands clasped in front of her, but not touching her rounded belly. She is seven moons with child, now, and she looks thinner than she did at the festival. Her cheekbones are sallow and her eyes are sunken. The set of her lips is one of numb fury.

She does not look at anyone, not even her husband, standing bowed and defeated beside her. She has eyes only for the burning boat bearing away her firstborn son, the hope and pride of Zeragat. Keith wonders if a part of her wants to burn everything else, the trees, the earth, the assembled crowd, the murderer whom no one has been able to find or name. He thinks he might want to, if he were in her place.

But she burns nothing. She sighs, and turns away, and returns to the keep she is kept in.

*

On the day the last snow melts, Keith awakes to Shiro gazing down at him.

“Hello,” Keith slurs, then scrunches up his face when Cosmos jumps onto him, slobbering everywhere. “Mmph...good morning to you, too.” Shiro laughs and Keith eyes him. “I thought you were going hunting with Prince Lotor and his thanes today,” he yawns. “Are they not here?”

“They arrived at dawn, but are resting from their journey,” Shiro murmurs, rolling over and scratching Cosmos behind his fluffy ears. Cosmos licks him for a few moments before returning to Keith, snuffling at his neck and face with his wet nose until Keith pushes him away. “Silly wolf,” Shiro says when Cosmos sits back on his heels and whines before bounding out of the room at Shiro’s order. “He’s rarely so affectionate, you know.”

“Guess I’m special,” Keith sighs, settling onto his back and blinking at the ceiling. “Why is it so warm?” He kicks off the furs, irritable. Shiro peers at him. “Aren’t you warm?” Keith demands.

Shiro frowns and presses his palm to Keith’s forehead. “Hmm. No...but you feel warm. Are you feeling alright?”

Keith shakes him off. “I’m fine. Just tired.”

“But you just woke up…?”

Keith sighs and slumps back against the pillows. “Shiro. I said I am fine.”

Shiro does not look convinced, but stops questioning him, and starts kissing his shoulder instead. Keith twitches. “What,” he says.

“What?” Shiro echoes, smiling and going back to kissing. “If you are tired, then sleep. I won’t stop you.”

Keith closes his eyes suspiciously. Shiro continues dropping kisses over his skin, slowly tugging Keith’s sleep shirt down, but not doing anything more than kissing until he nudges at Keith’s back and murmurs, “Turn over, my heart.”

Keith cracks an eye open. “Why.”

“Over,” Shiro coaxes, nudging harder, and Keith huffs at him, rolling onto his belly, face-first into the furs.

“Happy?” Keith grumbles. His head hurts, too. Maybe he’s coming down with a fever.

“Oh, yes,” Shiro says, and pushes up the bottom of Keith’s sleep shirt, exposing his ass. He kneads at it with greedy claws and Keith groans, arching into it. “I was thinking,” Shiro starts. “I have not taken you like this, yet.” His thumb slips between cheeks which redden at his intentions, brushing over the dry hole between them. “It could be interesting,” he adds, a little casual but mostly not.

Keith grunts in mild disbelief. “You woke me up to tell me that fucking my ass ‘could be interesting?’”

Shiro coughs. “Well,” he mumbles, “it could be.”

Keith sighs and shakes his head. “Alright, then,” he says. “Get on with it.”

Shiro moves over him. “Truly?”

“Clearly you’ve given this a great deal of thought,” Keith snickers. “I cannot say I really understand the appeal, but I am not...opposed.” And you have not let me down in bed so far, he doesn’t say, but thinks very loudly.

“You’re curious,” Shiro teases, nipping at the shell of his ear. Keith huffs at him. “And you will understand. If not, I will cast it out of my mind forevermore. You have my word as Thane of Garris and as your husband.”

“Now, that’s a little dramatic,” Keith says, and chokes, as Shiro’s other hand strokes him into rousing between his thighs. “Mmm...have you finally grown bored of tasting me?”

“Not at all,” Shiro promises, and slides down his body, giving only a warm puff of breath as warning before he licks over Keith’s hole. Keith’s entire body jerks in shock, and Shiro has to hold him down with a hand splayed over the small of his back.

“Sh – hiro, gods, what – are you – nnghh…” Keith kicks weakly, feeling that he really ought to put a stop to this, but also, cannot, does not wish to, especially not when Shiro’s tongue pushes in, flickering in and out of the tight ring of clenching muscle. Keith grabs at the pillows, burying his face in them.

“Should have known you’d like that,” Shiro chuckles, smoothing the flat of his tongue over his handiwork.

“Could say the same of you,” Keith hisses. “Filthy – oh.”

Shiro’s finger slips into his cunt too easily, not clawed this time, but welcomed in wet heat, the sound of it curling within him both obscene but familiar. “Filthy, yes,” Shiro muses, pulling out his finger too soon, studying it and then drawing the slick tip of it around Keith’s shiny rim. Keith can’t look, and drops his head again, but lifts his hips. Shiro’s finger slides in slow, and Keith shudders, belly sucking in sharp and clit throbbing. He wants to grind into the furs but Shiro holds him still. “How is that?” Shiro asks, and kisses his hip.

“Strange,” Keith mutters. “Too – too dry, I think.”

Shiro makes a considering sound, and tugs his finger free. Keith hisses and slumps back down. Shiro laughs, pats his ass, and rises from the bed. Keith watches him fetch the sword oil, and his heart pounds.

“Do not worry,” Shiro says, uncorking the flask and pouring it over his fingers liberally. “I will not be putting my entire hand inside of you."

“Not sure your cock is much smaller,” Keith mumbles.

“We will just try this for now, then,” Shiro assures, and slides a finger back inside, but it is much smoother this time, and Keith adjusts faster. It is still strange, but...not bad. Full, he thinks. It could be good, with more. He tells this to Shiro, who hums and adds a second finger, thrusting these two in and out, until Keith is limp on the bed, nearly melting into it. “Good?” Shiro pets along Keith’s spine and Keith nods. His head is fuzzy, headache fading into gray sensation, neither pleasure nor pain, the pure pressure of being stretched open.

Shiro adds a third finger and it tips into pain. Keith whines, and Shiro pauses. “Keith?”

“Keep – keep going.” Keith can hardly recognize his own voice; too breathy, needy. Shiro inhales sharply and thrusts his fingers harder. Keith whimpers and twists up, back, he does not know what direction is, suddenly. “Ah – ah, please, I –”

“What is it?” Shiro asks, leaning over him, reaching again to stroke and rub at Keith’s cunt, ignoring his clit, which is swollen and aching, cherry red, begging to be touched. “Use your words, beloved.”

“Need to come,” Keith whispers, hair hanging in his face; he’s propped himself up on his forearms without realizing it, so he can better arch back into Shiro’s fingers, ride them in uneven rolls of his hips.

“How bad?” Shiro asks. Bastard. “Tell me, my heart.”

Keith grits his teeth, and summons up every shred of coherency he has left to growl, “When I get the sword you so foolishly bought me, I will show you how bad if you don’t fucking touch me, now.”

Shiro is quiet. Then he smacks Keith’s ass, hard.

Keith howls. He isn’t proud of it, but he does. The sound is bitten off with a whimper. Heat races across his skin.

Shiro bends down to lick the stinging scarlet mark his palm left, and taps the warm skin with three warning fingers. “Try again.”

Keith whimpers again and closes his eyes. “Please touch me,” he whispers.

Shiro hums. “And then?”

“Fuck me,” Keith says, muffled into the pillow. “Takashi, please –”

“Hush, you’re alright, I have you,” Shiro murmurs, and seizes Keith’s slippery clit between slick fingers. Keith jerks forward, cunt pulsing, hole spasming around Shiro’s fingers as he comes. Shiro makes a soft, awed sound, squeezing his waist and petting his skin as he shakes into submission, breathing ragged and shallow.

“Keith,” Shiro whispers. “Look at you.”

“Fuck me,” Keith says, still twitching, shivering all over.

Shiro kisses him until his breathing calms, but not by much. “Here?” Shiro asks, curling his fingers in Keith’s ass, “Or here?” His claw circles Keith’s clit.

Keith shakes his head. His lashes are wet. He just — needs. “Don’t care,” he gasps. “Just — in me, now, please —”

Shiro rolls him back onto his front and Keith sobs at the brush of his clit on the furs, but then Shiro is tugging his hips up and the blunt head of his cock pushes in where his fingers were and Keith sobs harder, yes, he’s crying, and Shiro touches the tears as they fall with halting fingers but Keith snaps, “Move,” and he obliges without hesitation.

It’s different. Fuller. More. Keith struggles to keep his eyes open, and loses the battle when Shiro pulls out and thrusts in, harder than Keith swears he ever has, knocking Keith forwards. He lifts his ass and he’s babbling, asking, no, commanding Shiro to hit him again, and Shiro does, the bed creaking as he fucks Keith faster, groaning and panting, but not as loud as Keith. He forces Keith back onto his cock and Keith takes it, takes it in a way he never would otherwise, because this is taking him apart and he — he cannot do a single thing about it. Nor does he want to.

He’s coming again when Shiro’s palm rubs messy over his clit, fingers dipping into his cunt without mercy, and Keith cries out when one slides home. “Look at you,” Shiro says again, but Keith cannot even see, much less look at himself. He blinks blearily and moans, stretching, giving Shiro more, as much as he can take.

Shiro fits himself to the desperate curve of Keith’s back and squeezes at his tits, flicking his thumb over Keith’s nipples and Keith screams, the sensation verging on burning, which he does not understand, but he begs Shiro to do it again. His chest is tender, as full as the rest of him, and he presses it into Shiro’s palms.

“Does this hurt?” Shiro gasps, teasing at Keith’s nipples as Keith strains and writhes and convulses around his plunging cock. “Are you in pain?”

But Keith is not. He feels, and what he feels is yes, please, touch me, more. Shiro does. He kisses Keith hot and filthy over his shoulder and reaches down to play with Keith’s clit and at the very first touch Keith is coming a third time, and this time he cries out Shiro’s name and his cunt constricts around nothing, sticky heat squirting in relentless pulses, soaking his inner thighs and Shiro’s fingers dancing over his clit.

Shiro draws in a shocked, rumbling moan. “Did you just — Keith —”

Keith collapses, trembling, back still arched, the thane’s cock still buried deep. As soon as he moves, Keith mewls, shaking his head and gasping, “Not — don’t — too much —”

“Shh, alright, I hear you,” Shiro pants, and pulls out too fast, holding his cock tight around the base. “Should I —”

Keith spreads his legs wider. “Here,” he says, tucking his hand between his thighs, dazedly parting his cunt, which is already dripping as if Shiro had spilled within it. But he hasn’t, yet.

“Fuck,” Shiro says, and does it.

It doesn’t take long. Keith is soaking wet and still spasming from climax and it is easy for his cunt to bring Shiro there with him, the thane’s breath hot on the name of his neck as he ruts to completion, spilling with a stuttered groan of Keith, Keith. It feels as good as it always does, but more. It is all so much more, so much that it frightens him.

“Shiro,” Keith whimpers. Shiro covers his body, rolling off enough that he isn’t crushing him, though Keith wouldn’t mind the feeling, if his chest weren’t so sore.

“My heart,” Shiro says simply. He strokes Keith’s hair back and kisses behind his ear.

“I think…” Keith whispers, “I will sleep now.”

“Let me take care of you first,” Shiro murmurs. “You are always running off to clean yourself up, after. But let me, this time. I will be careful, I will not hurt you.”

Keith looks at him. “Did you think,” he whispers, “I was worried you would hurt me?”

“Why else would you run away so fast?” Shiro sighs.

“I am not worried of that,” Keith says, and curls into him. “You do not hurt me, Shiro.”

Shiro just holds him, very tight. He trembles. Keith listens to his heart. In the hazy quiet of fading bliss, Keith knows that even if he were to run away, to perform the ritual, it would not work. Nothing would happen. It is too late.

He closes his eyes. Shiro gathers Keith up in his arms, and carries him to a warm bath which smells of blooming things.

*

Keith sleeps for a while after. The bed is empty when he awakes, save for Cosmos, who is napping in a patch of sunlight but wakes up as soon as Keith moves. The wolf watches him with bright eyes, unnervingly alert. Its eyes do not change, however, and Keith relaxes, then smiles as he sees the flower on the bedside table. It is a rose, one of the first of spring, red as blood.

Getting out of bed is a difficult process, far more than it should be. Keith’s movements are sluggish; his head hurts again, and his chest worse than ever. He can hardly bear the way the fabric of his tunic chafes against his nipples, and finally decides to wrap his chest in torn strips of cloth, the way he used to do when training with the blade. He cannot decide if this makes it better or worse, but at length gives up, and leaves it wrapped.

Cosmos tracks his every movement through the room with fierce anxiety, tail held high, sniffing intermittently at the air and at Keith’s clothes. Keith swats him away, and once, the wolf snarls at him and bares its teeth. Keith flinches back and Cosmos sits down at once, head held low, whining. He seems confused. That makes two of them.

The wolf tries to stop him from leaving the room, blocking him with every step he takes to reach the door, but finally Keith orders him to go as Shiro often has, and Cosmos does after a moment of clear hesitation, tail tucked low between his legs before bounding out of the room before Keith, and down the stone steps.

As soon as Keith starts down the steps, he knows something is wrong. He’s dizzy, headache pounding against his skull, and after only reaching the first landing, he has to brace himself against the wall, breathing harshly through his nose. “You are fine,” he tells himself. “Everything – is fine –”

Something moves in his belly.

Keith does not move at all, but his pulse climbs, spilling up and out of his throat in a shaky gasp, wordless at first and then, when it moves again, impossible to mistake, not just a movement but, Keith thinks, a kick, the gasp becomes no, and louder, no, no, and Keith folds into the stone wall, numb, bracing both hands over his own stomach.

He knew – he knew. And he thought he could do it. He had stopped performing the ritual, after all. But it is different, feeling it. It is so much worse, feeling it, knowing it is there. Keith lifts a hand to his mouth to stifle the awful, horrified sound he makes. Black spots of panic flash across his vision as cold crawls over his skin, and it moves again, and Keith wants to cry, to scream, to throw himself from the lead-paned window. But he is frozen. It moves, and he cannot.

When his limbs do start working again, he does not walk, but rather stumbles, thinking only away, far away, before anyone finds him, finds it. He cannot be the peace-weaver. He cannot be a Blade if his duty is as Kolivan said. He can only be Keith, and Keith needs to run, now.

Except that as he rounds the corner in a blind panic, he collides with someone else.

Keith stumbles, catches himself on the stone wall, and on a soft leather glove.

Thane Acxa stares at him, steadying his shaking hand. Her eyes widen as he lifts his frantic face to hers.

Keith swallows back his fear, and latches on instead to the way her fingers squeeze around his wrist, the way her lips part in what he hopes, prays, is some kind of understanding.

He steels himself, and looks her in the eyes. “I need your help,” he says.

Chapter Text

They face each other in Acxa’s guest quarters. She has been given a tower room, cold and drafty, but it is far from prying eyes and ears. She sits on the clothes-chest at the end of her bed. Keith paces the length of the room, blood roaring in his ears.

“You are certain,” she says.

“Yes,” Keith breathes, “yes, of course I am certain, it – there was – is...”

“A quickening.” Acxa exhales tightly. “As you said.”

Keith stops short and looks at her, wringing his hands. “It’s too late, isn’t it?” he whispers.

Acxa purses her lips. “Too late for what, Keith?”

Keith swallows back bile. “Do not make me say it,” he pleads, voice breaking. “I know – I know it is a monstrous thing to do, and I will have to live with it until the end of my days, but I would not have told you of my condition if I thought I was able to – to bear this child, I can’t, Shiro will hate me for this but I can’t – !”

Thane Acxa has risen to her feet, face ashen. She reaches out and Keith flinches back, expecting, perhaps, to be struck. Thinking, perhaps, that he deserves it. But instead she grabs him by the shoulders. “It is not a monstrous thing to do,” she whispers, low and stern. “Sit down. You look as if you will faint at any moment.”

Keith crumples to sit on the edge of her bed, head in his hands. “It is – alive,” he whispers.

Acxa squeezes his hand. “You are alive,” she says.

Keith closes his eyes.

“Do you want this child, Keith?” she asks, softer. “Do not think of what Shiro wants or even what Galra wants. What do you want?”

“I am the peace-weaver,” Keith whispers. He sighs, shoulders slumping. “But I never wanted that.”

Acxa waits, patient. Her hand is warm in his.

It moves again, and Keith’s eyes open. “No,” he says. “I don’t. If I were to keep it, I...I cannot see a future for it. And I do not think it deserves to be born to someone who kept it only out of duty, not...love.” This time, when he touches his belly, it is not with fear and revulsion, but a sort of apology, remorse. “Is that wrong?”

Acxa bows her head, and lets go of his hand to fiddle with her own thumbs, frowning down at them. “Several years ago,” she tells him, “I was with child.”

Keith stiffens, and blinks at her in confusion. “Whose child?”

She sighs, and turns away a little. “Prince Lotor’s,” she says.

Keith opens his mouth, then closes it. He narrows his eyes. “Did he – ravish you?”

Acxa snorts, breaking the tension, and shoots him an amused look. “Do you think I would let him draw breath, much less serve him, if he had? No, I wanted to be in his bed. But it was still a mistake; I could not have a child. I did not want one. It is as simple as that.”

Keith’s brows lift. “Is it?”

“Yes,” she says. “I will not lie, it is not pleasant. Folk who think this is an easy decision, a frivolous one, even, are fools. Those who lose their babies by nature, even if they wanted them more than anything in the world…‘choosing’ this is not as different from that great sorrow as one might think. It is still a loss, Keith. It still – caused me pain, and grief. No one would choose this. Because it is not a choice, really, is it? Does it feel like a choice made freely, to you?”

Keith swallows, and shakes his head. A choice made freely, he thinks, would not feel so awful. “No,” he says. “Not at all.” He hesitates. “But – is it even possible, so late? It is…” He exhales, shaky, drawing a hand over his mouth, “moving. Will there –” He bites his lip. “Will I have to be – cut open?”

Acxa shakes her head slowly. “Some do,” she says. “The desperate ones. Most of them die. If not at once, then weeks afterwards, from rot and pestilence.” Keith shudders. He thinks of the night spirit. He thinks it was right. “But there is no need for that,” she adds. “Not for you.”

Keith tilts his head, as relieved as he can be, given the situation. “Then what? Some sort of herb?”

She nods. “I also felt the quickening,” she says. “So, it was just as late for me as it will be for you. There is a plant, a flower that I used. It is a poison. It induces miscarriage. It will either work, or it will work and it will kill you. I can find it for you, Keith of Marmora. But you must be certain.”

“I am,” he says.

“Even if it means you may die?”

He nods. “Even then.”

She stands. “Very well. I advise you stay here, out of sight, until I return. You are not good at pretending to be well. Your husband would ask questions you will not want to answer.”

“I will stay here,” Keith mutters.

“Do not do anything drastic,” she warns, and leaves him there in the tower, only to return not long after with a large black wolf who perks up at the sight of Keith, and immediately bounds into the room to flop down at his feet.

“Thank you,” Keith says, smiling a bit helplessly as Cosmos licks his hand, tail thumping on the floorboards.

“I thought you might appreciate some company,” Acxa replies, and leaves for good.

*

Keith lays on Thane Acxa’s bed with the wolf half-sprawled over him, huge head resting on his belly. Keith scratches behind his ears and Cosmos whines, pleased, tail thumping again.

“You knew,” Keith murmurs. “Didn’t you?”

Cosmos huffs and snuffles at his tunic, equivocal.

Keith sighs. “Don’t tell Shiro,” he says. “He will – well. I do not know what he would do.” He peers down at Cosmos, who blinks back with golden eyes. “He would not understand, at the very least,” Keith says, quieter. The admission hurts as much as the thought of what he must do. “This is his child, too. I know that. But...”

Cosmos’ wet nose bumps against his limp palm. Keith raises an eyebrow. “Yes?”

The wolf does it again, and then – Keith’s mind is flooded with images. No, not just images – memories.

He is crouched among the undergrowth, deep in the woods, hiding beneath the curling heads of ferns and thorny briars. It is raining, and dark, and he is afraid, because through the heavy rain and distant thunder he can hear the howls and snarls of the pack, cut off into agonized whines as the roars of Men overtake them. He curls tighter, for he is small, the only pup in his litter to survive the winter, and his heart pounds against his jutting ribs as he trembles and listens to the roars grow closer.

The shadow of Man among the trees is a terrifying sight, the last thing many ever see. He knows what will happen if he runs. They will catch him, if he runs — if not with their sharp bright sticks, then with the branches tipped in pain, which fly through the air like birds of prey, and rip through flesh and bone. So he stays hidden, shaking, as the rain falls harder.

He blames the rain when the Man grabs him, though he knows his keen ears should have sensed the Man’s approach. But the Man was silent, and as soon as the Man’s grip closes around the scruff of his neck, he knows there is something different about this one. Too quiet. Too strong. Strong as a wolf. And his smell — wrong. Too dark. Too old. Older than even the trees.

He goes limp as the Man lifts him, but growls, baring his teeth and kicking weakly at the air. The Men have starved out his pack for many moons, hunting them when they were hungriest. He cannot fight. But still he twists in the Man’s grip, out of both pride and fear.

“Hush,” the Man says. It is a strange sound and it makes him stop. He growls again, softer. The Man bares sharp white teeth and he flinches, ears flattening to his skull. “Hush,” the Man says again. “I am not an enemy.”

Then he feels the Man’s claws on the back of his neck, and stops growling. This, he thinks, is not a Man at all. He lowers his head, whimpering.

“Good,” the Man says, and curved claws like eagle talons scratch through his fur. “I am sorry about your pack. I did not kill them. But men have a love for blood. So do wolves.” He tilts his head. “Will you run if I let go?”

He does not understand these sounds, but then the Man sets him down on the ground, standing over him. He hesitates, then slowly sits at the Man’s feet, ducking his head and whining again.

“Hush.” He stops whining. The Man bares his teeth again. “You are a good wolf,” the Man tells him. “It would be a pity for you to die here. Besides — I may have use for a good wolf someday.”

The Man’s talons fall upon his head and he holds very still, but they do not crush or cut. They pet. It is like his mother’s tongue, almost. It soothes him. Maybe the Man will not kill him, after all.

“Folk would think twice about crossing a man with a wolf,” the Man adds. “And if I wed, someday — assuming someone is foolish enough to agree to wed me — you could keep them safe. For we do not all have claws and sharp teeth, little one.” The Man stares down at him. “Would you serve me, I wonder? Or will your wildness be the death of you?”

He blinks at the earth. The Man’s tone is not growling or loud. It is like the rain; cool and clear. He cautiously lifts his gaze. The Man looks back, head cocked. Claws curl along the side of his face, and he pauses before licking the Man’s strange claws, body held low and tense, gaze averted.

The Man’s body rumbles, and he freezes, but the Man says, “Good,” a sound which lilts at the end, a sound he likes, like hush. “I will name you Cosmos,” the Man tells him. “And I will teach you how to rip out the throats of any man who wishes us ruin.”

Keith jolts upright, panting.

Cosmos tilts his head.

“How,” Keith squeaks, staring at his hand, then at the wolf, who blinks innocently and licks his palm. Keith snatches his hand away. Cosmos looks hurt.

“That man was Shiro,” Keith says, after a moment. “Younger, and — angrier, but Shiro.”

Cosmos nudges at him again. “Oh, what, have you more visions to show me, wolf?” Keith demands, strangled. He gets more images in reply, not full memories, but fragments.

Cosmos is still small, held in Shiro’s arms as he strides into a grand throne room, full of shocked faces which follow them like ghosts. Shiro does not look at them, nor at the hulking figure on the looming throne, but holds Cosmos closer. A tall man with mismatched eyes, one brown and one brilliant blue, steps forward and says, Got yourself a pet, Takashi? Who did you steal that mangy mutt from?

It is a wolf, Sendak, Shiro says, and the man falls silent. Shiro’s heart pounds against Cosmos’ wet fur. Shiro smells like fear. The man with mismatched eyes smells like death.

Then Cosmos has grown, and they are walking through a crowded village, and stop in front of a building with overwhelming scent, enough to make Cosmos want to back away. He does not, however, because Shiro has not told him to. Shiro looks down at him. There will be a boy, he says, a boy who smells like me. He will be wounded. You must protect him. Do you understand?

Cosmos does not, quite, but he waits dutifully outside as Shiro walks in through the flung-open doors.

Some time after, there is a boy, a boy who smells like Shiro, but he stumbles out of the building with both hands clawing at his neck, choking on his own blood. Cosmos starts forward as the boy falls, tripping on the stairs and into the dirt. Cosmos catches his body a moment before he hits the earth, whining as he tries to lift the boy’s head up with his shoulder.

The boy gurgles and gasps wordlessly, eyes rolling back in his head, blood pouring out over his sheer tunic and Cosmos’ fur. He is going to die. Cosmos backs away. The boy stares sightlessly.

Not long after, Shiro walks out. There is a smear of red high on his cheekbone, and his hands smell like soap even through thick leather gloves. He pauses to take in the scene of the blood-soaked corpse and wolf for a long moment, then sighs. He looks tired. He smells of sweat and satisfaction as he approaches Cosmos, and scratches him behind the ears. Cosmos accepts the touch, for Shiro has never struck or sliced him, but he thinks his master is a Man who hunts Men, like a wolf who hunts wolves.

Cosmos is just glad he is not a Man, and that Shiro is fond of him. He does not think Shiro’s prey ever escapes.

Next time, Shiro says quietly. Next time, it will be different. It might even let them live.

The scene shifts. Cosmos is curled up on a warm pillow in a warm tent, watching Shiro’s back as he strips off his tunic, revealing a back sliced through with scars more pink than silver. His hair is short, black with the lightning-touch running through the jagged fall across his brow. He turns. His hands and forearms are covered with blood, as if submerged. He looks at Cosmos watching him, and smiles.

Cosmos whines softly. Shiro has been away, and as he approaches he smells more like a Man than he ever has. The strange golden light the wolf sometimes sees in his eyes is gone. He extends his right hand to Cosmos. Cosmos sniffs at it, at the dry caked blood and viscera. It is a Man’s. This is unsurprising. Cosmos licks at it, curious, and Shiro coos at him.

“Lucky wolf,” Shiro says, “you have tasted the blood of a king, now. Does it taste any different than the blood of the common man?”

Cosmos curls his tongue around a sharp claw and huffs. He is hungry.

But Shiro pulls away, and tosses him a slab of jerky from the food-box, which Cosmos gobbles up, at once wanting more. “We will hunt tomorrow,” Shiro promises him. Cosmos’ tail thumps. “You will do the honors, I think — this kingkilling business makes it tired, and quiet. Much better for shutting it up than brothel boys.”

Cosmos yawns, revealing huge jagged canines and black-speckled tongue. He does not care much who his master kills, as long as he gets fed.

Years later, Shiro’s hair is tied back in a small bun and he sits astride Artax, whose eyes are still wild with the youthful spirit of a colt. Cosmos walks beside them, sniffing the air with interest as he pads over dirt road and cobblestones. The three of them enter the village Shiro calls Garris with their entourage of warriors and servants. The villagers watch from their doorways, and they smell like the rabbits who hide in the tall grass. Cosmos lowers his head, fur prickling as he feels their eyes on him and his master.

Shiro does not seem to notice, or chooses not to. “This is ours, Cosmos,” he murmurs. “All of this. That keep, high on the hill, that will be our home.”

Cosmos whines softly. This is a place of fear and prey, not home.

But then a small child runs from one of the doorways, towards him. Cosmos stops short, startled, as the child reaches for his muzzle. The child’s mother cries out from the doorway, running for her, but it is too late. The child – a girl-child, he thinks, though human scents are often puzzling – touches his nose and pats at his face with small brown hands. Cosmos blinks down at her, feeling as if he should snap and pounce, but thinking Shiro would not be pleased. If this is home, then home is to be protected, not attacked. Even if these Men smell like rabbits.

So he holds very still, sitting down as the child paws at him. Shiro stops Artax. He is rumbling – laughing. A good sound. The child squeals at Cosmos and says, “Good doggy.” Cosmos tilts his head at her and whines. She sticks a finger in his ear and he swats at her with his tail with a warning growl, but she just grabs that, instead. He heaves a sigh and endures it.

The Men smell less like rabbits. The girl-child throws tiny arms around his neck and says, “Good doggy!” again, and Cosmos licks her cheek. Her mother stops screaming.

It is snowing and Shiro is looking out the window. His hair is grown out a little, but his face is clean-shaven. Cosmos nudges his thigh, and Shiro gives him an absent scratch behind the ears. “I am to begin the journey to Marmora tomorrow, he says. There will be a slaughter there, I can feel it.” He frowns and shakes his head. “The weregild is demanded, but my blood does not sing for it as it once did. This time will be different, Cosmos. This time, I do not think gold and death will be enough for our King.”

Cosmos sets his head on Shiro’s thigh and mulls over these strange sounds: “marmora,” “weregild,” “king.” They mean little to him. Slaughter, though, he knows, and sing. He misses singing under the full moon. He thinks Shiro would let him, but it feels empty to sing alone.

Shiro’s hand is warm and welcome in his fur. “When I return,” he murmurs, “I may be wed.” He sighs and slumps back in the chair. “They may offer me a peace-weaver, and I could not refuse that. Much as I would like to.”

He looks down at Cosmos. “I suppose it’s simpler, for you wolves. No politics and emotions.” He peers closer, and taps the tip of Cosmos’ nose. Cosmos sneezes on him, and he huffs. “I was going to ask you if wolves fall in love. What a foolish question, hm? But these are the things I find myself thinking as I imagine what manner of creature I may return with. Some thanes like the scared little things who will come and go at their beck and call.” Shiro wrinkles his nose. “Let us hope that is not our lot. I wouldn’t know what to do with that. She would fear me for merely existing, I think.”

Cosmos licks his palm and Shiro smiles faintly. “It will be alright. Perhaps it will be better for my wife that I do not desire her, hm? We could be friends, if nothing else. Friends who...have heirs together.” He winces. “I would not fault her for seeking love elsewhere, provided she was discreet, but I...do not think I could do such a thing.”

Cosmos whines. Shiro smells of sadness, of winter, when all is cold and white and alone. “May I tell you a secret, my dear wolf? I do not think I have ever loved anyone. I wonder if I am even capable of it. Is it wrong that I felt nothing more than shallow affection with those boys in the brothels, the ones who lived, even the ones I saw again and again? Maybe it was because I knew they might be killed that I did not grow attached. Or maybe it is because of what the Druids did to me.”

He frowns at Cosmos. “But if that is true, then why did I save you? Because you were useful...no. I don’t know. It feels like more than that.” He shakes his head. “But loving a pet wolf is far different from loving a wife. That, I do not think I will be able to do. We will protect her, at least, and give her a home here. But more than that, I cannot say.”

Cosmos sighs with him. He does not know what a wife is, but Shiro says it much like he says the sound king . Wary, and resigned.

Then it is dawn, and Cosmos is bounding through the mud to greet Shiro as he returns on Artax with all his warriors. They are in good spirits, and when Shiro sees him, he beams and dismounts, sending Artax off with the gathering stable boys. “Hello, my fine beastie,” he chuckles, ruffling Cosmos’ scruff of fur as he leaps around the thane in excitement. The other warriors watch in disbelieving awe — Cosmos only acts this way with Shiro, and will snarl at any others who come too close. He is, after all, still a wolf.

It is some time later before Shiro returns to his bedroom, and lies on the bed heaped with furs. He does not often allow Cosmos to join him there, but tonight he pats the bed, and Cosmos jumps up eagerly. He curls against Shiro’s side and paws at his chest until Shiro pets him.

Shiro’s eyes are shut, not in pain but in contentment. Cosmos waits for him to speak. He thinks he might fall asleep first, but then Shiro murmurs, “It is as I said, before. I am to be wed.” Cosmos’ ears prick, intrigued. “They offered me a peace-weaver, the Marmora. They do not have many options, for most of them are warriors, both men and women — at first, their king offered me a child-bride, a little waif. He was as repulsed by the idea as I, but I suppose he thought a Galra would leap at the chance.”

Shiro shakes his head. “But I already knew which Marmoran I would wed.” He smiles, a rare expression, and Cosmos huffs in encouragement. “His name is Keith. He fought in the battle, and he was...mm. I have never seen anything quite like it, and I have seen many a wonder.” Shiro stretches, his lips curving further. “The king thought I was mad for wanting to wed him, I think. Perhaps I am. But he agreed, and so, this Keith of Marmora will arrive at Garris before the frost.”

Cosmos is glad the thane is happy, and flops onto his back so Shiro will rub his belly. But slowly, Shiro’s smile falls. Cosmos eyes him. He knows that look. It is one of doubt – of guilt. Guilt is a concept Cosmos only vaguely understands – he feels guilt when Shiro catches him eating one of the village chickens or chasing the barnyard cats – but the way Men feel guilt is different.

Shiro rolls onto his side, so they are nose-to-nose, and whispers, “It is a very selfish thing I have done in Marmora.” His brows furrow together, pained. “I do not think Keith wishes to wed me. Why would he? I am the enemy. I killed Marmorans, good warriors.”

Shiro exhales. “But, I –” His eyes squeeze shut. “No one would wed me willingly, except perhaps Matthew Holt, and the king would hardly approve of that.” He snorts, but the sound covers up the sorrow in his gray eyes. “I will just have to convince him that I am a good husband. He deserves that. And maybe he will never be convinced...maybe he will hate me always for taking him from his home.”

Shiro shivers and tucks his face into Cosmos’ scruff of fur. The wolf blinks, and whines in concern. “I do not know what I will do, then,” Shiro admits. “I can be cruel, you know. Terribly cruel. But – not in this. I just –” He hesitates. “Galra took so much from me. Too much. Again, and again, and again, until I started taking, too. I do not want Keith of Marmora to be just another taken thing.”

Cosmos noses at his jaw. It is the only way he can comfort his thane.

Perhaps it works, though, because it is not long before Shiro is asleep, curled close to the wolf, the set of his brow troubled even in slumber.

Keith opens his eyes. Cosmos whines softly. Keith is quiet. He does not know how to make heads or tails of what he has just seen.

“At that first feast-fire,” Keith murmurs, “Lord Sendak said something to me. He said, ‘Shirogane is a man capable of unimaginable cruelty – not the sort of man who ever ought to be father.’” He frowns at Cosmos. “Do you agree? I suppose you’d know him best. And he has never been cruel to you.”

Cosmos tilts his head.

“When I was very small,” Keith adds, “and the world was very large, and sometimes frightening, my father would sit me on his knee and tell me about the great heroes of our people. And he would tell me that what made them all so heroic was a good heart. Because men who could have been heroes, but whose hearts were cruel, turned to evil for their own gain.”

Keith strokes Cosmos’ ears, and the wolf leans into it, still watching him. “My father said such men were often cruel to animals, first,” Keith tells the wolf. “Creatures who cannot fight back. Like wolf pups.” He exhales. “Or babies. Or...or peace-weavers.”

Cosmos whines and butts his nose against Keith’s arm. “Why did Shiro kill that boy?” he asks, softly. “Why hasn’t he done the same to me?”

Cosmos blinks and licks his cheek, and somehow, a single word is shared between them. Family.

Keith stares at the wolf. “Family,” he repeats. “Is that what we are?” His heart aches unexpectedly at the thought. “I already have a family,” he sighs. “A family Shiro took me from.”

Cosmos lets his head fall, and closes his eyes with a quiet huff. He keeps his head over Keith’s belly, and one ear cocked. Keith wonders what he can hear. A heartbeat, maybe.

“But Shiro doesn’t have one,” Keith says, and swallows. “His was taken from him, and he will never get them back.” He chews his lip. “But I do not owe him that – a family. Do I? I do not want to, especially not if ‘family’ means ‘heirs’ to him. I never asked to owe anyone anything. Not Shiro, and not Kolivan, either.”

Cosmos opens one eye, and sneezes.

“You are a good wolf,” Keith tells him. “And maybe I am not a good husband or a good Blade, and a piss-poor excuse for a peace-weaver. But I cannot give him a family like this. And maybe I will end up like that brothel boy if he finds out. But that will not be my fault. And maybe there will be blood on my hands, but it will be of my blood. It is my body. It is my baby. It is of me that it would be born. And it is of me that it will not be born.”

Cosmos ears twitch, but he is heavy over Keith, heavier in slumber, heavy enough that Keith cannot feel what stirs within him over the slow thud of the beast’s heart. Keith sighs, and stares at the ceiling, and waits.

*

Acxa returns just before sunset with a pot of tea.

“Oh,” Keith says, “that’s very kind of you, but I don’t think now is the best time for –”

She gives him a look and points to the small table and chairs by the window. “Sit,” she says. Bewildered, Keith does, after he manages to disentangle himself from the sleepy wolf. Acxa pours the tea, which is already well-steeped from the dark look of it, into a single cup, and slides it to him.

“Ah,” Keith says, understanding. “This is…”

“Pennyroyal,” Acxa sighs.

The name means little to him – there are different plants in Marmora. Keith stares into the cup. “It smells like mint.”

She leans back in her chair. “Yes, well, I did not drink mint tea for a good year, afterwards.”

Keith winces. “That bad?”

“Let me be frank,” Acxa mutters. “The amount of pennyroyal needed to induce miscarriage is hardly smaller than the lethal dosage. For all intents and purposes, that is a cup of poison.”

“So you have said.” Keith’s fingers close around the cup.

“Those who say poison is a coward’s way out have never been poisoned,” Acxa adds, quieter, not as a rebuke but as a warning. “Keith, I have been wounded in battle in all manner of ways – pierced by arrows, slashed open by swords, burnt by enemy flames. None has hurt me as much as this single cup of tea did.”

Keith lifts his chin, though his fingers tremble and his gut twists. “You will not change my mind.”

Her lips quirk, though more sad than amused. “That is not my intention, Keith of Marmora. I did not just ride hours to the nearest village beyond Garris to find a rare and expensive quantity of this herb for you because I wanted to change your mind. I just –” She looks down. “I am sorry, Keith of Marmora. That is all.”

“Do not be sorry,” Keith says. “You helped me. I am sorry that it has come to this. But not sorry that you have helped me.”

“Not yet, anyway,” Acxa says, but she relaxes a little, and inclines her head. “Well, go on.”

Keith takes a hesitant sip. It tastes like mint, too, but more bitter, a pungent flavor that lingers on his tongue. He doesn’t know what he expects to happen, but right then, it is just tea, warm as it fills his belly. Acxa looks out the window at the setting sun, and he follows her gaze.

“Why are you helping me?” Keith asks when the tea is half-gone.

Acxa shrugs. “I have seen enough unwanted round bellies for several lifetimes, and too many neglected infants in the aftermath.”

“I would not neglect it,” Keith says, even as he drinks the last of the tea.

She takes the empty cup, and pours a second one. “I know,” she says.

“More?” Keith asks.

“One more, for now,” Acxa says. “And then we wait.”

“Until?”

“It works. Or not.”

Keith drinks the tea. Cosmos jumps off the bed and nudges at his thigh, ears tilted forward.

“That wolf likes you,” Acxa notes, leaning her chin in hand. “You know, he’s the reason Lord Sendak is missing an eye.”

Keith almost chokes on the tea. He sets it down hard, eyeing her in disbelief. “What?”

Acxa nods, smile tugging at her mouth, though Keith notices she stays well away from Cosmos. The wolf is wholly engrossed in sniffing Keith, though, so she relaxes after a few moments.

“Mhm. Shortly before Shirogane was given Garris as a thanedom, Lord Sendak tried to humiliate him rather publicly in Daibazaal, at one of King Zarkon’s feasts for all his retainers. He insulted Shirogane’s common lineage and tried to provoke him into a fight. We had all heard of Shirogane’s peculiar skillset, which the King makes use of, and which gave Shiro the title of his Champion. Sendak was jealous, and when Shirogane did not rise to the bait, he tried to provoke him physically.” She shakes her head. “But as soon as Sendak laid a hand on Shirogane, that wolf leapt at him, went for the throat but took out his eye instead. Shirogane called the beast back to him once the damage was done, and it went, tame as a puppy.”

“This happened in front of everyone?” Keith exclaims. “Even King Zarkon?”

She purses her lips. “I believe he found it entertaining. Lord Sendak needed to be brought down a few pegs; we all agreed on that count, though we resolved not to speak of the event out of respect for both thanes’ reputations. It certainly did not sour the King’s opinion of Shirogane, for he was given Garris hardly two moons later.”

Keith looks down at Cosmos. The wolf cocks his head, and rests a giant paw on Keith’s knee. “Has Cosmos attacked anyone else?” Keith asks faintly.

“Not yet,” Acxa mutters. “But I would not be surprised if he took out more than eyes for you, peace-weaver.”

“Let us hope he doesn’t have to,” Keith says. He looks into the empty cup of tea. “Now what?”

“If I were you, I would skip tonight’s feast,” Acxa says. “Get some rest while you can, and hope your thane is none the wiser.”

Keith nods grimly. “Yes. Alright. How...how will I know if it works?”

“You will know,” Acxa sighs. “It affects different people differently, but one thing is certain – it will hurt, and you will bleed. But when that will be, I cannot say.”

“Thank you, again,” Keith says as he rises from his seat, Cosmos close on his heels. “Oh – before we part ways, I did, ah, have a question for you, Thane Acxa.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Oh?”

He exhales. “You asked me about night spirits, at Imbolc.” Her eyes narrow. “Have you...that is to say, have you ever heard of night spirits bestowing, er, gifts? To humans, I mean.”

“Gifts?” Acxa repeats, and tilts her head. “Well...I would be surprised to hear of such a thing. My mother always told me that night spirits did not meddle in the affairs of men. The only reason they would, would be if other night spirits were involved. The ‘gift’ might indirectly benefit the human, but more likely, its intended purpose would be to help another night spirit.”

“I see,” Keith mutters. “Hm.”

Acxa squints at him. “Why do you ask?”

He shuffles in place. “No reason. Just – our conversation made me think about the old stories.”

Her eyes light up. “Was there one about gift-giving? I don’t think I’ve heard that one!”

“I don’t remember it,” Keith lies. Her face falls. “But, but if I do, you’ll be the first to know,” he adds hastily.

“I appreciate that.” Acxa offers him a smile, an awkward but heartfelt one, and leads him to the door. “Goodnight, Keith of Marmora. I will keep you in my thoughts tonight.”

Keith nods. “And I, you.”

“Try not to die,” she says, and ushers him out.

*

Cosmos nuzzles at Keith’s hand as he climbs into bed, but does not try to jump onto the bed after him. The wolf whines softly, and lays down on the pelt beside the bed instead, ears pricked and golden eyes watchful. Keith curls up on the furs, and inhales the scent of them, of himself, and of Shiro. He remembers how terrified he was of this bed on that first night. He is not terrified now, though perhaps he ought to be. He is calm. He cups his belly, but it is silent, still, as if it, too, is waiting.

He is still sore and exhausted from Shiro’s thorough morning surprise, so it is not difficult to drift off. He’s awoken by a gentle hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake, and blinks blearily up at Shiro.

“Hello, you,” Shiro murmurs, brushing Keith’s sleep-mussed hair out of his face. “Acxa said you were feeling ill during the feast, and needed to rest.” He makes a soft sound, his weight dipping the bed. “Are you alright? Did I hurt you, earlier?”

Keith sighs. “No. You didn’t. Just tired.”

“Feeling any better?” Shiro lays down next to him, and tucks his face to the nape of Keith’s neck. Keith shivers, and presses back into him.

“Stomach hurts,” Keith mumbles, because it does – a dull ache, like cramps. He curls further in on himself when he feels movement inside of him, sharper, this time, twinging through his body.

Shiro hums and kisses his neck, smoothing a hand over his waist. Keith keeps his arms crossed over his stomach, so Shiro cannot feel it. “I’m sorry, beloved. I hope it feels better in the morning.”

“I hope so, too,” Keith whispers. He lifts his head, then, and the movement makes Shiro look up, too. “Shiro?”

Shiro peers down at him. “Yes, Keith?”

“What would you name your son?”

Shiro blinks, eyes widening. “I –” He settles back down, a smile playing at his lips. “Ryou, I think,” he murmurs. “One of my brothers. He was always the nicest to me, and...he saved my life. He took an arrow meant for me. He was twelve. His brother, Kuro, was already dead when he fell.”

Keith frowns. “I’m sorry.” He closes his eyes. “It’s a good name.”

Shiro nudges him. “What about you?”

Keith sighs. “Me?”

“What would you name him?”

Keith swallows. “Thace. Or Ulaz,” he says. “After the Marmorans you killed.”

Shiro inhales. “Ah. Would that be a good way to honor them?”

“I think they would find it amusing,” Keith says.

“Then at least one of our sons will bear their names,” Shiro says.

The cramps are getting worse. Keith breathes in, out. “How many sons do you expect me to bear?”

Shiro is quiet, then, “Do not worry about that, now. Cast it out of your mind, and sleep, my heart.”

Keith bites back a retort. It does not matter how many heirs Shiro expects from him, because whether the tea works or Keith dies, Keith will give him none.

“Stay with me,” Keith whispers, and coaxes himself back into uneasy dreams.

*

When he awakes again, it is in a haze of pain, and the furs under him are wet, sticky. The room is dark, and Keith can hardly open his eyes, much less move his limbs, which jerk as he forces himself upright. Something – is wrong. Keith’s hand falls upon the furs, and when he lifts it, it smells like death. Keith’s breath is ragged, and he can feel his pulse between his legs, where he cannot even bring himself to look, because it hurts ; he spasms and that hurts more. Keith slumps back against the pillows, trying to breathe, to focus on that, for his vision is blurry at the edges, warped.

But he cannot breathe, for the cloth he had wrapped tight around his breast, too tight, cuts off his air, presses his lungs into burning. Keith claws at it, but coordination is an impossible task, and his sweaty fingers slip and scrabble uselessly.

The bed shifts and Keith thinks at first he is falling, dizzy, but then Shiro is sitting up, rubbing his temple and shifting towards Keith, only to freeze, eerily still. His eyes, in the darkness, flare gold. His right hand lifts from the ruined furs. Blood drips from sharpening clawtips. Shiro’s golden eyes widen. “Keith,” he breathes, then, louder, panicked, “Keith, oh, fuck, no, no, what –”

“Shiro,” Keith slurs, trying to roll onto his side and groaning at the resulting stab of pain.

Shiro pushes up Keith’s nightshirt and makes a wounded sound, pulling at the cloth where Keith has been trying to. It loosens at last and Keith gasps in air, chest heaving, but it isn’t enough. Shiro tugs the strips of cloth away entirely, and brings the wadded mess of fabric downwards with shaking hands. “You’re bleeding out,” he whispers, faint, distant. “No, no, stay still, don’t –”

“Don’t leave,” Keith gasps, clinging to his arm, “Shiro, Shiro –”

He convulses again, and Shiro jerks away as if burnt, dropping the soiled cloth, as Keith’s inner thighs are soaked in dark blood, too much, there’s too much blood, and Shiro is stumbling out of bed and running for the door, even as Keith cries softly for him, and screaming, “Get the midwives! Now! Now!”

“No,” Keith whispers, head lolling back and spine buckling as his body contracts again, viciously. “Come back, Takashi, please, don’t leave me here –”

Shiro’s shouts fade down the hall, and Keith bites his lip until it bleeds, too, and somewhere there is a wolf howling, but he hears none of it, because the night spirit is standing over him, and murmuring in its voiceless voice, This is the dark place, and you are alone.

Keith is afraid, then.

*

His vision flickers between chaos and nothing, a circle of faces all around him, bathed in wan lamplight that makes every shadow too long and every face too harsh. He recognizes none of them, except for Shiro, who he cannot see but whose voice echoes at the edges –

Let me in, this is my keep –

Thane Shirogane, this is women’s work, please stay out of the room.

He is my husband – he was calling for me, please –

The peace-weaver is beyond sense, Thane Shirogane. There is nothing you can do.

Cold cloths are pressed to Keith’s head, for he is burning, feverish and sweating and the pain in his belly throbs, and at some point he is washed with too many hands, warm water and stinging soap, and one of the strange women says, Thane Shirogane called the peace-weaver husband, did you hear? and another says, Marmorans are meant for the battlefield, not the birthing bed, and another says, This is too much bleeding for a natural miscarriage so early, and yet another says, Hush. There is no telling if that is true, and either way, the thane must not know.

And then the faces drift away, far away, and Keith is not in Garris, not in Galra, not in Marmora, not in this world.

He stands on an endless black plain. In the distance, he thinks there may be mountains, jagged peaks like broken glass, but it is hard to say when everything glitters with stars, reflected on the black plain from the vast sky above.

Keith.

He turns. He knows that voice.

“Shiro,” he whispers.

But even as he says it, he knows what stands before him is not Shiro, only a creature wearing his shape. It steps forward, no, glides, for the way it moves is with a slow and chilling grace.

“What is this place?” Keith asks.

Shiro’s eyes glow, not golden, but a pale, brilliant silver from deep within. He tilts his head. You know, he says in the night spirit’s voice. You are dead.

Keith takes a step back. “No,” he whispers. “I – truly?”

We do not lie, Shiro says. We tell only truths and riddles.

Keith looks around. “Is this where the dead go, then?”

No. Shiro glides closer. Light and shadow trails from him like a ragged cloak. The dead do not go anywhere.

“Then why…?”

Hush. Shiro stands before him, and reaches out, silver fingers curling around Keith’s jaw. His touch is like the night wind. Life and death are but states of being, and between them lies a threshold. You are there, now. You are there of your own doing.

“I had to,” Keith says.

We know this. Shiro’s hair lifts around his head, carried by an unseen breeze. We saw it. We saw your death. It could not be stopped. These things happen as they are fated to. And we cannot intervene with fate. Shiro pauses. But...when our kind crosses over, the paths change. New paths appear where there were none before. There is one now, for you. Your path would have ended here, Keith of Marmora, in the dark and alone. But you will help us. And you cannot help us if you are in the dark and alone.

“How will I help you?” Keith asks quietly, looking up at the Shiro who is not his, the Shiro who is made of starlight and ether.

Both hands cup his face, and they feel like nothing at all. Keith closes his eyes. You will live, Shiro whispers, and kisses him.

Keith’s eyes open. The room is still dark, but now with the pale shadows of dawn, and the circle of faces are gone. Only two silhouettes stand in the doorway, the door cracked open just a bit. They speak in hushed tones.

“I am so sorry, Thane Shirogane,” the midwife whispers, head bowed. “The pregnancy ended too early; there was nothing we could do to save the child.”

The taller silhouette tries to step into the room. “Forget the child,” he snaps. Shiro’s voice breaks, cracks, shatters, low and tired and angry. “What about Keith? What about my husband?”

The midwife hesitates. “Milord...we did everything we could, but he lost too much blood –”

“No.”

“Milord –?”

“He is not – no. Let me in, or I will make you.”

She lets him in.

Shiro stands at the end of the bed. “Please, no,” he whispers. “Not you. Please, not you.”

Keith is still weak, but manages to lift his hand. “Shiro,” he says. “Shiro, come here.”

The midwife covers her mouth, eyes wide and face ashen. “How – but –” She turns fast on her heel, hurrying away, shaking her head and wringing her hands.

Shiro does not even notice. He is too busy running to Keith’s bedside and falling to his knees, clasping Keith’s hand between both of his own and bowing his head to kiss Keith’s palm. “Keith,” Shiro gasps, and leans his cheek against Keith’s hand. “You live. Thank the gods. I tried – I wanted to be with you, but they would not let me in. All I could hear was your cries, and –” He exhales, shaky, and looks up at Keith with sorrow. “I am so sorry, Keith.”

“Why are you sorry?” Keith whispers.

Shiro swallows, and sits on the edge of the bed, still holding Keith’s hand. “There was a baby,” he says, dully. “Did – did you know?”

Keith swallows. “No,” he lies. “I – could not be sure. I did not want to...to get your hopes up.”

“Perhaps that was for the best,” Shiro sighs. “The baby is...gone.”

“Oh,” Keith says. Relief floods him. He touches his belly, and Shiro follows his gaze. Never again, Keith thinks. I will not make the same mistake twice.

“It was not your fault, my heart,” Shiro murmurs. “Oh, Keith...are you in pain?”

Keith shakes his head. He thinks of the black plain and the starry skies. “I will be alright,” he says, “in time.”

Shiro’s face crumples. He looks down. “May I hold you?”

Keith nods, body and mind sluggish and skin tingling where Shiro touches him, as if awaking from numbness. Shiro wraps himself around Keith tight but careful, and avoids touching his belly. Keith sighs. Shiro is warm and his heart thuds in a steady rhythm.

“I leave for the spring raids in three days’ time,” Shiro whispers.

Keith stiffens. “So soon?”

Shiro exhales, hot over Keith’s cool skin. “If I could delay, I would. But –”

“No, you must go,” Keith says. “I understand.”

Shiro makes a low, unhappy sound. “I do not wish to leave you, especially not after…”

“Shiro, it is alright,” Keith starts.

“It is not,” Shiro says. “But I will leave you under the protection of Matthew Holt. He is both a good man and a skilled warrior. I trust him with my life, and I trust him with yours.”

Keith frowns, and twists around in his arms. “I do not require protection –”

“You do.” Shiro’s tone is as flat as his eyes. “Keith. Listen to me well. I do not trust the other thanes. You would not be safe alone, here.”

Keith searches his gaze. “You do not trust the other thanes, or you do not trust Lord Sendak?”

“I trust none of them,” Shiro growls, and holds him tighter. Keith shivers and curls into it. “Something evil is afoot in the kingdom. First Lord Throk’s heir, then Warlord Ranveig’s, and now –”

Keith sucks in a sharp breath. “Shiro, this was an accident.”

“Maybe,” Shiro mutters. “Or maybe not.” He shakes his head. “Either way, my heart, I will have you safe while I am away. Promise me you will stay safe, Keith.”

“I promise,” Keith whispers.

Shiro cups his jaw, and kisses his brow, hand and lips trembling. “Good,” he whispers. He strokes Keith’s hair and pulls back to look at him, his eyes soft and lips curved in a small, sad smile. “Even if I am going away for a time, I can leave you with one thing, something I should have told you long ago, and which I will tell you now before it is too late.”

Keith’s breath hitches. “Shiro –”

Shiro puts a finger over his lips. “I love you,” he says. “You are my heart’s end and this world would be colder without you, Keith of Marmora.”

Keith stares at him, a lump in his throat. “Shiro,” he just says again, a little helplessly.

Shiro sighs. He looks disappointed, but not surprised. “I will stay with you for as long as you wish me to, Keith.”

Keith’s hands grip his tunic tighter.

Chapter Text

“My husband tells me you are a great warrior.”

Matthew Holt folds his arms, which are, Keith has noted from the start, a good deal smaller than Shiro’s. “Yes, that’s right.”

Keith narrows his eyes, raking them up and down Matthew’s body. “I’m not convinced you are a greater warrior than I am.”

Matthew makes a choked sort of sound. “You do not seriously think —”

Keith lifts his chin. “I’m not sure you want to finish that thought, Matthew Holt. Because the answer is yes: I do seriously and sincerely think that I could best you on the battlefield.”

“Even if that is so,” Matthew protests, red-faced, “you are hardly in fighting condition. You need rest, not swordplay.”

“Do not assume you know what I do or do not need,” Keith says, and turns to face the window. They stand alone in the bedroom which now feels terribly empty since Shiro left at dawn with his warriors and Cosmos. Matthew arrived soon after, and has been bothering Keith ever since.

“With all due respect,” Matthew says, “you have been bedridden for the last three days.”

Keith’s hand tightens around the purple-red ruby brooch-pin he holds in his closed fist. He can feel the echo of Shiro’s hand in his own as he unpinned the jewel from his own throat, and placed it in Keith’s warm palm, closing his fingers around the cold gold. 

Keep this safe for me, husband.

And before all the assembled warriors and bridled horses, Keith had reached out, pressed his palm over Shiro’s heart, and whispered, Only if you keep this safe, too. 

Keith shoves the brooch-pin into his pocket. “I was feeling ill, that is all. I am better now.”

“You may lie to the village and to the kingdom, but you don’t have to lie to me,” Matthew says, quieter. “Thane Shirogane told me what happened.”

Keith turns sharply, his jaw set. Matthew wisely takes a step back. “He had no right,” Keith snaps.

Matthew’s eyes widen. “He is your husband –”

“And are you? No.” Keith shakes his head, some of the vitriol fading. He is still exhausted, even after three days of rest. His body aches and protests in ways it never had, before, and this frightens him. But what is more frightening is that when his mind drifts, it returns, always, to the black plain and the night spirit in Shiro’s form. “I am not a child,” Keith tells him, low and even. “I know my own limits and my own strength. You do not even know me. You are here to wield a sword against those who would bring me harm, not to patronize me. Know your place.”

Matthew gulps. “Thane Shirogane’s warnings did not do you justice.”

Keith huffs. “He warned you of me? Oh, this ought to be good.”

“I’m not your enemy, Keith of Marmora,” Matthew sighs. “I have great respect for both you and your husband. Please do not think otherwise. But I know he would have my head if I let a single hair on your head come to harm.”

Keith smiles sweetly at him. “Then you had best remain respectful,” he says, “and I will have no reason to endanger your head, Matthew Holt.”

*

Spring in Garris is beautiful. The land is lush and green, all is in bloom, the birds sing loud and bright, the sun shines far longer and warmer than before, and the town and countryside bustles with life and noise. Yet, for Keith, it is in some ways more gray and lonely than winter. 

He is bound to the bedroom for nearly a week more afterwards, and spends many an hour curled miserably in bed, his body betraying him in its inability to spirit him away from the drafty room. He wishes Shiro had left Cosmos behind with him, though he knows the wolf is meant for the hunt, for the battle, and not for comforting an infirm peace-weaver. 

When he closes his eyes, he is struck with the memories of the days between his death and Shiro’s departure. He remembers the words Shiro said, and thinks Shiro showed him his heart that day, truly...and yet a part of him can never be sure that they are the truth. To accept it as truth would be to make himself vulnerable to a betrayal, and Keith is tired of being vulnerable. He has let his armor grow too thin, and builds it up anew in the quiet spaces between sleep and languid waking. 

It is on the third night after Shiro leaves him, and after a grueling day of the worst aching and residual bleeding yet, that Keith returns to the black plain and the night spirit. 

“Am I dead again?” Keith asks. The night spirit stands before him, not as Shiro, nor as it did in the forest, but as something which stands on two legs (he thinks), but is not a man, nor a beast, but something in-between and yet neither of them at all. It is like trying to assign form to water, or mist. Tendrils of light and shadow and starry, translucent colors trail from its back like a great mane, and it hunches forward, face shifting between a tapering muzzle and flatness with the vague suggestion of human features. It is dizzying to look at. 

Not dead, it says. 

“Then why did I come back to this place?”

The night spirit shrugs. Humans are creatures of habit. Once visited, it is a place not forgotten.

“Hm.” Keith starts walking. The night spirit trails after him.

Where are you going?

“I don’t know,” Keith says. “I want to see how long this plain goes on for.”

It is infinite, the night spirit informs him. 

He squints into the distance. “What?”

It has no end.

Keith stops walking and turns to face it. “How is that possible? Everything has an end.”

Not this. The night spirit never blinks, but its eyes glow brighter when Keith looks into them. 

Keith opens his mouth to protest, then pauses. “You said you cannot tell a lie.”

We do not lie, it says.

“Do not, or cannot?”

The night spirit gazes at him. Do not.

Keith tilts his head. “What happens if you do?”

You ask many questions, the night spirit sighs. 

“Does that irritate you?”

It does blink, then. We are not irritated, it says. We just are.

“And how does that work?”

It just does, the night spirit tells him. It is our nature. We are balance.

“And what are humans, then?” Keith asks.

It blinks again, slower. Humans are chaos, it says. 

He winces. “All of us?”

Yes.

“Oh.” Keith frowns.

This upsets you.

“What of humans who wish to bring about peace, to help others?” Keith presses. 

You mistake chaos with evil. 

“Is it not?”

Chaos is anything which shifts the balance, the night spirit says. Good or bad.

Keith furrows his brow. “So balance is, what, passivity?”

The night spirit’s tendrils flare, lengthen. Was it passive for us to bring you back to life?

“...I suppose not. No.”

He starts walking again. The night spirit follows at a distance, but is never too far away. As he walks, the black plain begins to change. The surface grows more uneven, hilly like the landscape of Garris...no, he realizes with bewildered delight, it is like Marmora, for the dark shapes which rise from the inky black are pines, and the mountains are closer than ever, and they are familiar peaks.

“See, it is not infinite,” Keith says to the night spirit over his shoulder. “There is a whole forest, just up ahead!”

It does not react. Yes. We shaped it for you.

Keith stumbles and stares at the night spirit. “You – what?”

Shapes are fluid, here, it says patiently. We thought changing these shapes would please you.

Keith swallows. The back of his neck prickles. “Why – why would you want to please me?”

We do not want, it reminds him. We restore balance, and you are unbalanced. You carry a heavy weight of hurt and guilt and loneliness. 

He eyes the night spirit. “And you want to take that away?”

The night spirit steps closer. Not away, it says, softer. Humans are tangled in ways that should not always be untangled. But we can help. We can ease the weight, a little.

His heart beats faster, faster. “How?” Keith whispers.

However you want. 

Keith inhales. The air tastes like pine, like home. The night spirit does not move closer, and its demeanor is not expectant, devoid of intent or desire. It is an open invitation, not a demand. Slowly, he relaxes.

“You can change shapes,” Keith starts, halting. “Of — of everything? Even...me?”

It inclines its strange head. Do you wish to change shape?

Keith looks down, and hesitates. “I – I don’t know. This is the only shape, the only body, I have ever known. It is – it is mine. Even if sometimes it doesn’t...fit right. Does that make sense?”

Yes, the night spirit says simply. There is no fault in not knowing. It sits back on its heels, though where it touches the ground has become more of a mass of swaying shreds of light and dark than actual limbs. But shapes are also easily changed back, here. What you bring to this place is not a body, not fixed in one state. 

“What is it, then?” Keith whispers.

A thought, the night spirit murmurs, a dream.

“Then it is not real.”

It is, the night spirit says. We are real. You are real. Our shapes do not change that.

“Oh.” Keith considers this. He sits down on a large boulder nearby. There are tiny purple flowers growing in the cracked stone. The night spirit stays where it is. He sets his chin in his hand and looks up at it. “Do you have a name?”

No, the night spirit says. We just are.

“Is there only one of you?”

Yes, and no. We are not individuals. Individuals are inherently unbalanced. There is harmony in many. 

“Then what should I call you?”

Whatever you would like. 

“That isn’t helpful.”

It just hums, and sits there.

“I do not know how you could help me,” Keith sighs, hunching his shoulders and frowning down at his hands. He glances up. “But...I like it here, in this place. It isn’t home, but it’s closer to home than Garris.”

Then you will return, the night spirit murmurs, and we will be here.

*

He returns night after night. He walks with the night spirit through the dark forest and watches the stars streak the strange sky. All of the constellations are different. He does not know what to make of this, except to think that the black plain must be another world, so far away that the skies are not the same.

Some nights, Keith is different there, too. He falls asleep with his chest bound, and in the black plain, his chest is flat, unbound, new yet not. He marvels at this beside an ink-dark pool, peering at his reflection in it. 

This brings you peace, the night spirit observes from the opposite bank. It sits curled there, long silvery tail rippling the surface of the water with its hazy ragged edges. 

“It brings me something,” Keith gasps, giddy and unable to stop touching his chest, and then his face, which is smooth no longer; stubble rasps against his wondering knuckles. “I do not look as different as I thought I would, but it feels...good.”

It is still you, the night spirit murmurs. That has not changed.

Keith’s fingers fiddle with the hem of his leggings. “Yes,” he muses, distracted, “I suppose so…” He looks up at the night spirit again, and blushes.

Its bright gaze is unrelenting. Perhaps you should go for a swim, it says.

Keith blinks. “I – what? Here?”

It hums, and glows brighter as it does, rising to stand and dipping its luminous claws into the black pool. There is balance in water, it says. 

“There is also chaos,” Keith says, thinking of monsoons and waterfalls, of blizzards and roaring river cataracts. 

Yes, the night spirit says, and sinks into the pool like a stone. 

Keith leaps to his feet, eyes wide, staring into the depths, but he can see nothing. He frowns, and waits a while, but the surface of the pool is undisturbed. Finally, curiosity gets the best of him, and he hesitates only a moment before wriggling out of his leggings.

His body is unchanged from the waist down, and this is not upsetting to him, for he knows that if he truly wished to, he could change it here, somehow. But it is no urgent need, simply a possibility, and he finds freedom in this knowledge. 

He wades slowly into the water. It is cool, but not cold; warm, but not hot; refreshing, yet soothing. It also does not feel exactly like water – it is thicker, like fresh sap without the stickiness. It rolls off his skin like sword oil, in slow whole droplets. 

When he has reached the middle of the pool, the night spirit surfaces in front of him, and it is in Shiro’s form. It gazes down at him impassively. Keith looks up at it, mouth dry. His instincts say he will be seized, dragged under and drowned. But the night spirit doesn’t move. It waits for him, and when he reaches out to touch its chest, flattening his palm over it, it only hums, a soft vibration that rumbles through the water and through Keith’s body. 

“You said you do not want things,” Keith whispers, withdrawing his hand, fingers curling away reluctantly. 

The night spirit’s hum strengthens. Its tendrils reach, arching up and over him, but never touching. You want us, it murmurs. As it does, a darker shadow emerges from Shiro’s mouth, a long and curling tongue, dripping with the black water that is not water.

Keith struggles to keep his breathing even. “I –”

You miss him, the night spirit adds. You miss his touch on you, in you.

Keith closes his eyes. Softly, softly, the tendrils stroke at his skin, whispery breaths of sensation. “Yes, but – how can Shiro bring me balance, if he is the root of my hurts, my confliction?”

He brings you balance when he is with you, the night spirit murmurs. The water ripples outwards with every word. When you are joined with him, the world is simpler. 

“It really isn’t,” Keith says, turning his face away, throat constricting. “My body is simpler, with him, but my mind, my heart…” He shakes his head. “I do not know what I feel for him.”

Yes, you do, the night spirit says, but then it sighs, and the water ripples with more force, and when Keith opens his eyes again, Shiro is gone, and it stands before him in its eerie, inhuman splendor, and cups his face with fingers which taper to sharp yet faded points. Is this better?

Keith’s breath catches. “What are you?” he asks, half-pleading, half not wanting to know.

Whatever you want us to be, the night spirit tells him. 

“And what,” Keith breathes, “are you going to do, to me?”

A dark and curling shape slips from just below its tapering jaw, where a mouth would be. Whatever you want us to do. Its tendrils dance over his trembling body and the night spirit dips its head down to him. You fear us, it murmurs, but there is no need. Nothing hurts, here. You are far from your wounded body. Here, you may heal.

Keith is reaching for the night spirit again without a thought, but pauses before his fingers touch. It waits, ever patient. “Can you...is it possible for your kind to – to…”

No, the night spirit says. We do not create, for creation, like destruction, is chaos also.

Keith exhales. “So, then…”

We have no seed to plant, the night spirit says. Even if such a thing was possible, we would not, for you do not want that.

Keith reaches out, and this time, he lets himself touch. The tendrils look like fire up close, silver tinged with pale flickering colors, but they do not burn him. The night spirit thrums under his hands, watching him silently. “Can you feel this?”

Yes.

“Does it — does it feel good?” Keith eyes it. “And do not say it just ‘is.’”

Hmm, the night spirit murmurs. We do not feel good or bad. But humans do. And we are — It pauses, tilting its head, tail swishing silently under the water. We are perceptive of human feeling. It is how we know where balance is needed. And so, when you feel ‘good,’ we will also feel this, like an echo.

Keith turns red as his mind works through this. “Is that — is that why you’re here with me?”

You assume we are self-motivated. The night spirit seems a bit amused with him, now. But we have no self.

Keith is panicking, a little, but also cannot stop touching the night spirit. Its body is skin and smoke, flesh and flame, and the more he touches it, the more radiant it becomes.

“Do your kind often do this with humans, then?” he demands, not looking at it.

This? What is ‘this’?

Keith shuffles closer, until they are nearly chest to chest. “You know,” he mumbles. 

A slim hand squeezes his shoulder, fingers then carding through his hair, undoing the braid there with care. Keith shivers. No, it tells him. It is rare that we ever meet humans, far rarer for us to lay with them. 

“Then why me?” Keith whispers, tilting his head up as the fingers creep under his jaw and slide over the thin skin there.

It sighs. You have called to us for longer than you know, as so many Marmorans do...or at least those who remember the old arts.

Keith’s eyes widen. “The ritual my mother taught me.”

Among other things, it murmurs, yes.

Keith stares up at it, breathless. “Thank you,” he whispers. “I do not understand how you heard my plea, or how you answered it, but I am more grateful than I can say. And sorry I did not continue the ritual every time.”

Do not be sorry, it says, stroking at his throat. The world will try its best to throw things into chaos. In the end, you returned to balance. 

“By causing death?” Keith whispers.

Death can be balance, as life can be chaos. Too much death, chaos. Too much life, chaos. Unwanted life...that is chaos, too. The night spirit’s arms close around him, gently holding him in the black pool. Ours, and the path of the Marmora, is a difficult path to understand for many because it is neither good nor evil. 

“It just is,” Keith whispers. 

Yes. The night spirit’s hands sink below the water. What you call magic, that is us.

Keith’s lashes flutter as its touch smooths over his thighs, scratching slow through the dark hair covering them, nudging them apart with more of a suggestion than any actual force. “All magic?” he presses. “Even — even the Druids, and Shiro’s arm, and the Queen —”

We are the root of all magic, it says, pensive, but sometimes that is twisted. Most humans do not like balance. They like chaos, whether good or evil. That is all. Shall we touch you, now?

“I think,” Keith gasps, “you are touching me already — oh —”

The night spirit begins to hum again, and the vibrations thrum through its fingertips and through Keith as it strokes his inner thighs apart. It is the oddest, loveliest thing he has ever felt, especially as the humming intensifies, and tips over into something more powerful, shaking through him to his core. 

It touches him with both hands yet holds him up in the water, somehow — with the tendrils, Keith realizes, which wrap themselves in supple coils around his limbs and waist, lifting him up until he is submerged only from the hips down, and he can see where pale hands veined with shadow move beneath the surface, exploring his body without hurry. He bites back a groan as gentle fingers pry apart darkening folds, both of them watching the flesh thicken and heat under its light but intent touches. 

The night spirit hums, the light in its eyes near-brilliant. Does this still not feel real to you? it asks him.

Keith gulps and shakes his head, toes curling as its fingers rub between the gathering slickness, and upwards to circle around the swollen dark hood over his hardening clit. Keith swears it looks bigger than usual, or maybe that’s just the distortion from under the water, but either way it swells out from under the hood without the night spirit even having to touch it, which is decidedly new.

The night spirit makes a sound like laughter, not the terrifying noise from their first meeting in the woods, but kinder, fonder. See? it tells him. Shapes are fluid, here. 

Speaking of fluid, Keith is soaking wet. He did not know that being bedded by an otherworldly entity which is apparently the source of all magic would be so appealing, but he is dripping for it, and the black pool only makes everything wetter. It is far too easy when the night spirit’s fingers slide into him, and Keith’s body bows, crumpling forward into the night spirit’s chest and gasping soundlessly into painless flames as it curls deep within him.

“Please,” Keith gasps, trying to fit himself closer, to sink into the night spirit’s soft embrace and forget everything that hurts in the waking world.

Hush, there is no need to beg. We hear you even when you do not speak, and we always listen, the night spirit sighs, tendrils playing at his lips. Larger flickering flames lift his knees, spreading him wide, lapping at his skin alongside the black pool, which he swears has a life of its own — the black water climbs up his calves and thighs like spreading ivy, cool and whispering on his heated skin, and presses between his legs alongside the night spirit’s searching fingers. 

Keith whimpers and twists at the way it fills him in a slow, thick ooze which warms once inside, and shifts between hot and cool where it spreads over the folds of his cunt, tenderly lapping and pulsing where it reaches his untouched clit. Keith cries out, muffled in the night spirit’s mane of fire, as the black pool shapes around him, tugging and licking and kissing and squeezing until he is jerking and coming, legs kicking and body falling limp into the night spirit. 

But the pool does not recede, and he does not wish it to. The way these things touch him is not overwhelming to the point of pain, nor even discomfort. His body still thrums with the night spirit’s, and his clit — or his cock, he thinks blurrily, for here it is easier to accept they are one in the same — is still hard, still greedy for more.

His body is still opening, too, and when Keith looks down between his legs there is no blood caked over his thighs, only the smooth black water, and there is no pain, even as tendrils wriggle in alongside curling fingers. He is filled and safe and it feels good, simple, calm. Keith’s head lolls forward onto the night spirit’s shoulder, and he moans.

“The water,” Keith gasps as his slips in and out of him, dipping into him now through both holes, stretching him with its strange, fluid, pulsing heat. “What — what is it?”

We are the water, also, the night spirit tells him. Do not fear it.

“I don’t,” Keith gasps, eyes rolling back and spine arching, “I want you to take me, before I wake up —”

To take you? it muses. We have all the time in the world here. We will not rush. As long as you wish, we will stay here, and you will awake at dawn in your world either way.

Keith shudders and rolls his hips helplessly into warmth and wet silk fingers. “As long as I wish,” he repeats reverently, mouth falling open. “Is this — is this some plot to keep me in your realm for eternity? Because — ah — it is working...nngh.”

There is no plot, the night spirit assures him. Only this. And it sinks into the black pool again, as the tendrils lift Keith up, and below him, he sees the night spirit move beneath the surface, and he sees its jaws open, its huge dark tongue swirl through the water, then over his thighs, painting them in glowing silver. For now, we will taste you, it murmurs, and plunges its thick tongue inside of him, spearing him open on pulsing ecstasy as the black water drips warm nectar down his gaping throat.

*

“Your mood seems much improved, my lord,” Matthew remarks over breakfast. 

Keith chokes only a little on his eggs, and raises a cool eyebrow. “Strangely, being able to leave one’s bed does wonders for one’s mood.”

Matthew grins. “Well, yes. You made a quick recovery. Thank the gods.”

“It was not the gods,” Keith mutters gleefully into his mug. “Not your gods, anyway.”

Matthew blinks. “Sorry, what was that?”

“Thank the gods,” Keith says louder, and toasts him. Matthew toasts back, albeit warily.

“So, what’s the plan of attack for today?” Matthew asks, passing him the bread basket. 

“I would like to go riding,” Keith says.

Matthew eyes him. “Riding? I’m not certain sitting in a saddle for hours on end is going to do you any favors, my lord.”

Keith scowls. “Not a long ride. I just need to leave this keep for a while, or I might go mad.”

Matthew opens his mouth.

“If you are about to tell me you cannot allow me to do that, then I will go to the stables right now,” Keith warns.

Matthew snorts. “I would never dare,” he drawls. “I was going to say that I know where we might go.”

“We?” Keith repeats. 

Matthew gives him a look. “I’m not a fool,” he says. “I can’t very well let you ride off into the forest on your own.”

Keith squeezes his eyes shut. He longs for the freedom of the black plain, where he can go anywhere he likes, and do anything at all without anyone stopping him short.

“Fine,” he says. “Where might we go, Matthew Holt?”

Matthew smiles. “The blacksmith,” he says. “I hear you have a sword waiting there for you.”

Keith is out of his seat in five seconds flat.

*

Riding a horse is not as unpleasant as he expected it to be. Matthew keeps glancing at him, like he expects Keith to swoon out of the saddle at any moment, but Keith keeps his seat and Strael is exceptionally well-behaved – maybe because Shiro and Artax are not present, and Matthew’s mount is a mild-mannered gray gelding who is content to let Strael lead the way to town, much to Matthew’s consternation. 

The blacksmith boy hurries to fetch the sword after a few words from Matthew, who mentions his sister’s name, moments before Katie Holt herself scampers out from the smithy, face streaked with grease and dust. She stops short when she sees Matthew and Keith, and halfheartedly tries to wipe her face and hands off on a nearby apron. It’s a lost cause.

“Fancy seeing you here,” Matthew deadpans. “Aren’t you meant to be shearing the sheep?”

“Father isn’t letting me near the shears,” Katie mutters. She jerks her head at Keith. “Why’s the peace-weaver here?”

“The peace-weaver is named Keith,” Keith reminds her. She flushes. “Thane Shirogane has left for the spring raids. Your brother has been appointed as my – wholly unnecessary – keeper.”

“Your sword, my – er, my lord?” The blacksmith boy, who Keith thinks is named Hunk, but must be mistaken because that is a very odd name, emerges from the smithy with the biggest sword Keith has ever seen. Both the Holts gape at him as he dismounts from Strael with as much grace as he can muster and accepts the sword. It may be large, but its actual weight is less than he expected as he grips the jeweled hilt and balances it in his hands. 

“This is beautiful craftsmanship,” Keith murmurs. “How did you make it so light?”

The blacksmith boy who might be named Hunk grins, looking more than a bit relieved. “Thank you, ser. It’s mix of metal, you see, an alloy. Just as strong as iron but far lighter, and more flexible.”

“What is the other metal?” Keith asks, pausing as he tilts the massive blade, watching it shine with dark, familiar iridescence. 

“Luxite,” Hunk says. Keith looks up in surprise, and he shrugs. “Thane Shirogane paid me more than enough for it, and I had some I never thought I’d have a chance to use, and I figured, what with you being Marmoran and all, you might prefer that.”

“I do,” Keith whispers. “That was thoughtful. Thank you.” He takes a step back, and hefts the blade, not to test its weight but to test its swing. Everyone else scrambles back as he does so, smiling in wonder at the easy slice of air, the soft whistle which rings out. “Very nice,” Keith says approvingly. 

Hunk blushes and scratches the back of his neck. “Wondered why Thane Shirogane wanted you to have such a blade, but now I see. You’re a natural. Would be a shame for you not to have one.”

Keith hums. “It has been some time,” he says, “since I wielded a proper blade, and never one so fine as this.”

Katie Holt takes a bold step closer. “Now you can teach me to swordfight properly, too!”

“Katie,” Matthew warns, but there’s a gleam in his eye. 

“Does she have a sword?” Keith asks Hunk, who is sweating, and not just from the heat of the forge.

“Erm,” he says. “If she does...it isn’t one I gave to her...certainly not...that would be...ahem. Yes. I made her a shortsword. It’s over there.” He hangs his head. “Please don’t tell Cailín.”

“My lips are sealed,” Keith promises. Katie is already running to fetch her sword. 

Matthew rubs his temples. “Shiro is going to purchase a sword with the sole purpose of stabbing me if either of you gets hurt. Just putting that out there.”

“Shiro ought to let people fight their own battles,” Keith retorts, bringing the claymore down on a nearby anvil with a resounding clang that makes everyone jump. “As should you.”

“Noted,” Matthew croaks, and does not make any further protests.

*

Despite his bravado, Keith is well aware he is still not in prime fighting condition, but it is alright because Katie is a beginner, so he is able to take the steps and moves he has learned for years more slowly with her. Matthew interferes at first, but it only takes a few more swings of Keith’s claymore which cut a bit too close to Matthew’s throat for him to back off, and let Keith teach Katie himself. Since his sword is so large, he shows her how to use her smaller size and weapon to her advantage, as Keith so often has in his own battles.

They cannot very well train out in the open, so they choose a secluded clearing in the woods. The weather is warm and sunny, and by the end of their sparring, everyone is sweating and flushed. Katie still has some energy in her yet, and runs about trying to catch the yellow butterflies which flit from wildflower to wildflower, but Keith and Matthew are content to sit on a nearby hill and watch the horses graze. Keith absently polishes the claymore on the grass, and Matthew watches, chin in hand.

“What?” Keith asks, after he’s been staring for too long.

“How many men have you killed?” Matthew asks.

Keith pauses. “Why do you wish to know?”

“You are a very skilled warrior,” Matthew says. “But…”

“You want to know if I have killed as many as you?” Keith frowns. “That is no measure of a warrior’s worth.”

“No? Then what is?”

“How long they survive,” Keith says. “And how difficult the ordeal they emerge victorious from.”

Matthew purses his lips. “Ah.”

“You disagree.” Keith flips back his hair and begins to braid it, not bothering to make it neat – he never does. “Well, how many men have you killed then, mercenary?”

To his surprise, Matthew shrugs, and looks away. “I don’t know,” he says. “At first, I thought it was important to count. But then there were too many. And I didn’t want to count, anymore.”

Keith glances at him. “Do you think that makes you cowardly?” Matthew is quiet. “I don’t,” Keith adds. “It isn’t the number that matters. It’s not that you should remember. It’s the faces.”

“Do you remember every face?”

Keith nods. He plucks a blade of grass and rolls it between his fingers. “They were all Galra,” he says. “All men. In my memories, they all look the same, but when I stop, and think about their faces, I know they were all different men, with different faces, different lives.”

“Wise words, for someone so young,” Matthew muses.

“We are all young,” Keith counters, and Matthew cannot argue with that.

Katie at last manages to catch a butterfly, but releases it after only a few moments, and moves on to weaving the wildflowers together into garlands. She waves the two of them over. Keith fumbles with the delicate stems, but manages a haphazard crown of daisies, cowslip and dandelions for Katie, who makes a much neater crown of buttercups and bluebells for Matthew, who makes a surprisingly elegant crown of violets, periwinkle, and cornflowers for Keith.

“You’ve had practice,” Keith remarks, carefully touching the flowers upon his head. “I’m impressed.”

“I have a sister,” Matthew chuckles, lying back in the meadow. As if on cue, Katie hurls herself on top of him, mussing his hair with her hands and cackling when he tickles her stomach, sending her curling in on herself and smacking his chest in retaliation. “Is that any way for a young lady to behave?” Matthew wheezes. She elbows him in the ribs one last time before deftly wriggling out of his grasp and rolling back into the safety of the grass. 

Keith watches with confused curiosity. Katie Holt tosses her flower garland into the air and says, “Have you any siblings, Keith of Marmora?”

Keith shakes his head. “No. It is rare that Marmoran warriors bear more than one, maybe two if they choose, children. It is not practical to be with child for so many moons, and childbirth is a dangerous business for the mother, more often than not.”

Katie hums and sits up, resting her head on her knees. “I want to live in Marmora.”

Matthew frowns. “Marmora is not welcoming of outsiders,” he reproaches her.

“We would not kill a small girl who wandered into our lands, not even one with a sword,” Keith murmurs. “Especially not if she wished to join our warriors.”

“Is that why your numbers are so few?” Matthew asks.

Keith huffs. “Compared to the Galra? I suppose. They are fond of breeding, aren’t they.”

Katie snorts and Matthew looks at Keith askance. “They are fond of empire,” Matthew retorts. “You need heirs for that.”

“Mm.” Keith sits up and stretches, his eyes tracing the pale ribbons of clouds across the blue sky. They look almost like silvery tendrils when the sunlight hits them. “Yet, they are losing heirs at an alarming rate, are they not?”

Katie and Matthew exchange wary looks. “Those were unfortunate accidents,” Matthew starts.

Keith gives him a sharp glance and stands. “You don’t believe that,” he says. “Nor does Shiro. I don’t know what to believe, but I think someone among the Galra is keen to rid himself of the competition.”

“Competition,” Matthew echoes. “For what?”

Keith sighs. “For the throne, of course.” He takes off the garland of dark flowers, turning it over in his hands. “What else is there?”

*

When he asks the night spirit to teach him more magic, its cock is deep inside of him, a strange sinuous thing which changes shape at Keith’s unspoken behest.

It rumbles beneath him, and shifts so that Keith is nudged further into its lap, and onto its cock, which is now thick and covered in ridges and bumps which Keith can feel on every lazy thrust, rubbing his cunt until he’s sopping. This is made even more pleasant by the tendrils which loop from its base around his clit, which is puffy from the constant attention, and reminds him more and more of the tip of a cock — though, he would wager, more sensitive.

Right now? it asks, purred soft and innocent against his ear. But we were just about to fill you.

Keith groans, fingers tangling in its mane, which grows solid in his grasp. “Do that first,” Keith demands, and the night spirit laughs gently as it flips him, presses him hard and rough the way he likes to the smooth black mirror-earth, and pulls out. It leaves him empty and squirming for just long enough, methodically rubbing its cock between his thighs, making his folds messy with the ooze that drips from the tapered tip. Its cock, which he thinks is just a fatter, stronger tendril, wriggles at his hole in maddening teases before slamming forward, bottoming out and swelling as it spills in him, and spills, and spills.

Keith hums, head pillowed on his forearm. “S’nice,” he mumbles.

We know, the night spirit coos, hands and tendrils squeezing his waist in reassurance. 

Keith hasn’t come again, yet, but he is content like this for now, and lays there, eyes half-shut, savoring the feeling. As he shifts, he peers down at his belly. It is rounded in its utter fullness, and the night spirit hums with him as he makes this discovery. “Strange,” Keith murmurs. He reaches down to touch it, toes curling. “How did you know I liked this?”

The night spirit settles along his back, and the way it touches him is like kisses, everywhere. We know many things, it says. You knew these things too, though you did not voice them, not even in your own mind.

Keith shivers. “Are there many things like that?”

The night spirit only hums, as it often does. Then it rolls him onto his side, curled up close behind him with Keith in its embrace, and murmurs, Why do you ask us to teach you more ‘magic’?

“I may have use of it someday,” Keith replies, tilting his head to expose his neck as tendrils wrap around it, fleeting. 

It makes a sound he swears is disapproving. Our magic will not help you in the plans the Marmora have for Galra.

Keith twists around. “You know about that?”

Of course. It worries us. It will bring chaos – should it come to pass.

“And ensure the future of my people,” Keith argues.

It is quiet. Balance is not always the path that we want to follow. 

Keith frowns. “So – so, what, your magic is only the balanced sort? What does that mean?”

You used our magic to make your body barren, the night spirit murmurs. Not to create life, nor to destroy it, but to keep bare. To keep balanced. 

It kisses his throat, cock stirring within him again, changing shape to something that feels like – two. Keith moans and slumps back into the night spirit’s bulk as it fucks him tenderly with both, their flared heads catching, their bases rounded like his belly. 

“Stop trying to distract me,” Keith gasps, forcing his eyes open. 

We do not know what you mean, the night spirit says placidly, fucking him slower. Its tail curls around his ankles, binding them together, as do twin tendrils to his wrists, and it holds Keith in place, at its mercy.

Keith bites back an obscene sound to snap, “What other spells, or rituals – mmnn?!”

It pushes a thick tendril into his mouth, one which smears sweet ooze around his lips and pumps more down his throat. Keith writhes, but it holds him fast, shoves him face-down and covers his helpless bound form with its suddenly-heavy body, and he is a bit humiliated to realize he likes this, too, and the night spirit knows it. 

All our magic is subtle, the night spirit says after Keith has come again, after it has stuffed him with two cocks in his cunt, a tendril down his throat, and teased him with fingers thrusting in and out of his ass where he still leaks silver from earlier. 

“Guh,” Keith mumbles, cracking an eye open, shuddering with lingering ripples of pleasure. “Subtle – how?”

It hesitates. You call them all Druids, but in essence, they are different. The Marmoran Druids, the Altean Druids, and the Galran Druids all use different magic. Your people use ours. Though ‘use’ would be the wrong word, we think. Channel, perhaps. Redirect.

Keith forces himself to focus, and pushes himself up on his elbows, looking it in the eyes. “What magic do the others use?”

The night spirit blinks. Chaos, it says. On this, we can say nothing more. It is not our domain. Not anymore.

Keith considers this. He’s curious, terribly so, but knows the night spirit will tell him nothing more on that. Besides — he is more intrigued in Marmoran magic, anyway. 

“Many Marmoran Druids were healers, in the stories,” Keith says. “Is that what your magic does?”

Healers, yes, but not the kind who perform miracles. Our magic may only hasten nature, not circumvent it. It cannot regrow limbs, only heal where they once were. It cannot bring back to life, only turn flesh into bone, or dust.

Keith frowns. “But you brought me back to life.”

It frowns back at him, or at least he imagines it does. Sometimes we must break our own rules to keep the balance as a whole. Your death would have led to chaos. We saw this.

Keith swallows. “What kind of chaos?”

It curls tighter around him, encompassing him in its strange fluid form and slender but strong limbs. You would like to see what we saw, it murmurs. We cannot show you all. Humans are not meant to see the futures. But we can show you pieces...if you feel it would bring you closure.

“Yes,” Keith whispers. “It would.”

It cups his face, and Keith sees.

Keith sees a shadow, rising and rising over a bloodsoaked bed. The shadow has a face and the face is Shiro’s, but all wrong. The eyes are too bright and the teeth are too sharp and the rage is too great. 

No, the shadow says. Not you. Please, not you.

And then there is carnage, a keep of bodies torn asunder, blood dripping down dark stone walls and men crushed by their own armor. Horses and children scream and smoke chokes the sky, blocks out the stars, plunges the entire world into an endless night. 

A wolf stands over a mangled corpse, throws back its head, and howls, muzzle red. Its fur gleams blue-black in the moonlight, and its eyes shine gold.

On the hills bordering Garris, a man sits astride a great white war-stallion. The light of distant fires flickers across his face, and it is scarred, one eye missing, the other glinting with the hunger of one who has tasted power and taken a liking to it. Hooded figures flank him, eyes glowing with unnatural light under their hoods. 

A monster on a black stallion rides towards him at a full gallop, snarl echoing through the fiery night. Long black hair streams out behind him, lightning-touch spattered with gore. Artax froths at the bit, eyes wild and mad, just like his rider’s. The man with one eye only laughs, and turns to one of the hooded figures, saying, Look how eagerly he rides into the jaws of death now that his precious peace-weaver is no more.

Then the night is still, and the earth is wet with blood, and the moon shines over a still face, a face which used to be Shiro’s, but is no more. His neck is twisted at an awful angle, hair falling over his eyes, but through the dark strands Keith can see the shadow of his right arm has spread in sick gray veins over his skin, and in death, the thane is a man no more. 

His hulking form is struck through by swords and arrows, too many to count, and he is surrounded by more bodies. One of them is furred, paws still twitching and golden eyes rolling back to expose bloodied white. A black stallion tries and fails to rise to clumsy hooves, before crumpling back down quietly and closing its eyes. Horses accept death easier than men and wolves.

Over the vast field of the fallen, shadows walk among the bodies, murmuring under their violet hoods, Victory, or death, death, death.

Keith stares up at the night spirit. “That was what would have happened, if I stayed dead? Everyone else – Shiro –”

The night spirit sighs. You see now why we had to bring you back.

Keith swallows, pulling away from the night spirit to sit up, and curl his knees to his chest, shaking his head. “Did Shiro kill all of those people? Everyone in Garris, even the – the children?”

The night spirit sits beside him. It was not Shiro, it murmurs. It was grief, and the fury born of that grief.

Keith peers up at it. “Grief alone cannot kill,” he whispers. 

True. The night spirit tips its head up to the stars. We cannot tell you all things. Some you must learn on your own, or new paths, worse paths, might be born. 

Keith nods, and exhales. “What can you tell me?”

It gives him a lingering sidelong glance. Everything we showed you just now. Keith opens his mouth, and it adds, Who was the one-eyed man?

“Sendak,” Keith murmurs. “And those hooded people with him…”

Not people, the night spirit says. Not anymore.

Keith’s eyes widen. “Were they Druids? Galran Druids?”

The night spirit hums, but does not reply. 

“They were, weren’t they?” Keith shivers. “They had magic – the same sort I felt the first time I saw Shiro’s arm. Chaotic magic. Evil magic.”

Silver eyes settle heavy over him. We will teach you, the night spirit says, our magic. But you already know far more than you think. It was not us who healed you after you returned from the dead. You did that, yourself. Being here, with us, helps to direct that magic – but in the end, it was you.

Keith searches its face, once so strange and now nearly familiar. “Help me to stop that slaughter from coming to pass,” he murmurs. “If balance means those people will live, then I want to follow that path.”

You are already on it, the night spirit promises, and kisses him into waking.

*

The way the night spirit teaches him is as strange as it is. The dawn that it wakes him with a kiss, it guides him out of the keep, and into the woods. Keith does not know how none of the guards see him, nor why Matthew does not question his leaving or even glance in his direction, and when he questions this, the night spirit whispers, Invisibility can be balance. 

Keith leans against a nearby tree and lifts his hand up. It is – translucent, he thinks, for he can see the light of the rising sun shining through it, and the shadows of the trees do not simply fall over his skin, but into it, as if it is a pane of pale stained glass. “They cannot see me,” he whispers. “Not Matthew, not any of the guards – not Shiro. I could run, I could go home –”

His hand goes solid again. Keith scowls. You are missing the point, the night spirit sighs at him. What waits for you in Marmora? Think, Keith. With your mind, not your heart.

Keith’s jaw works. “My family,” he says. “My mother, my home…”

And with them, all of their plans for you, the night spirit finishes. 

Keith exhales, his breath shortening, chest tightening in sharp frustration. “Shiro has plans for me, too,” he growls. “So there is no winning for me, is that what you’re saying? Is that what balance is? A game I always lose?”

Think, it urges him again. How would you win in Marmora? 

Keith opens his mouth. “I – I would speak to Kolivan, try to reason with him.”

But you have already done that, and it did not work. Your own mother has already done that, and failed. 

Keith is silent.

How would you win in Galra?

Keith bites his lip. “Perform the ritual,” he whispers. “Even if it means I become known as Thane Shirogane’s barren peace-weaver.”

And when Galra takes this as a failure to weave peace between the kingdoms, and takes its empire to Marmora?

Keith throws up his hands. “What do you want from me? Are you saying I should have kept the child? Is that it? Because if so, you’re a little late!”

It pauses. No. We are saying you must weigh your options. There is no need to act yet, but there will be. And when that time comes, you must make choices that do not just serve yourself, but the balance as a whole. 

Keith rubs his eyes. “I do not understand, night spirit. You sound like Kolivan, speaking of sacrifices. I am beginning to think that path is the one you mean, even if you cannot just come out and say it.”

If there is true balance, they will not feel like sacrifices, the night spirit murmurs. Balance is not an invasion of body and self, Keith. We would not ask that of you. Chaos is needed, sometimes, but the end must justify the means – it must add up. What Kolivan asks of you – does that add up? Would you find it a satisfying, justified end if you raised a son only to teach him to hate and usurp his father? You would hate Shiro by the end of it, too. You would have to make yourself hate him, or you would not be able to do it.

Keith slides down the tree trunk to settle at the base of it, among the roots and ferns, and curls his knees to his chest. “You’ve seen this, too,” he whispers. “Haven’t you?”

Yes, the night spirit says. Look.

Keith’s eyes roll back, and then he is standing in a tower window, looking out over a great city, one he has never seen before, but knows is Daibazaal, capital of the Galra Empire. Keith sees himself as if dreaming, sees himself robed in ermine and scarlet, crowned in delicate gold and fine rubies. His hair is long and dark, braided too neatly down his back. His face is older, crueler, and lined with years of bitterness. He is wearing a gown. It looks wrong, and feels worse. 

Mother.

The other Keith turns. The tower room door opens, and a man walks in. Keith stares. The man is young, a warrior in his prime, and his face is – Shiro’s, Keith thinks faintly, but with Keith’s indigo eyes, and the same hard set to his jaw and brow and mouth. His hair is jet black, except for a silver streak which curls over the golden circlet adorning his brow. He is dressed for battle. He steps forward, and the other Keith extends a hand to him.

My son, Keith says. The man takes Keith’s gloved hands carefully between his own silver gauntlets. He looms over the other Keith, but looks at him with the guileless adoration of a child. It is almost time. You know what to do?

Yes, Mother, his son says. Keith wishes he would stop calling him that, but the other Keith does not even flinch at the title. He looks tired, both resigned and resolute. Like he accepted this role long ago. Keith feels sick. 

Promise me, the other Keith says, low and vicious, that your sword will not falter. Promise me this, Ryou. 

I promise, Ryou says fervently. For Marmora. I will not fail you. Father is a monster, you taught me that well, and he has proved it often enough. This world will be better off without him, I will make certain of that –  

“Enough,” Keith gasps, tearing himself away from the night spirit’s prophecy, covering his face with his clammy hands. “Oh, gods –”

The night spirit is quiet while Keith remembers how to breathe. He gulps in lungfuls of the spring air, perfumed with blooming flowers and warmth. The world around him continues as usual, but Keith needs a moment to forget the fury and emptiness in his own eyes, and the rage he had cultivated in his own son, towards his own husband. 

“That cannot be – is that truly what would happen?” Keith whispers, watching a bumblebee buzz around the patch of purple milk thistle flowers nearby. 

We do not lie, the night spirit says. 

Keith’s head thuds back against the tree. “Fuck.”

The night spirit hums. 

“So,” Keith says, sitting up grimly, “we aren’t going down that path. Absolutely not, ever.”

Again, silence, though this time it thrums with something like approval. Keith stands, shaking his head slowly, wringing his shaky hands. “Can I ask –” He gulps. “Does it work? Does Ryou – kill his father?”

The breeze sighs through the woods. Yes, the night spirit says. And his father kills him. And their deaths kill you, slowly and painfully.

Keith’s nails dig into his palm before he uncurls his fist. “Is – is he the child I would have had? If I hadn’t –”

It helps no one to agonize over what could have been but what will now never be, the night spirit says. Now, return to the keep. We will show you how to hide yourself from others’ eyes, among other things. Do you wish to learn, or keep looking at worse paths?

“I wish to learn,” Keith says, closing his eyes as sunlight washes over the forest. “Teach me.”

*

So it is that the night spirit teaches him how to walk unseen, in shadow and sunshine, though Keith prefers shadow, for it is less unnerving. The night spirit warns that this invisibility is meant for watching and hiding only, and if he uses it as an assassin might, the magic will no longer answer his calls. 

The night spirit teaches him other things, too. When Keith visits Strael and the other horses in the stables, with Matthew waiting dutifully just outside, the night spirit tells him to listen. 

“For what?” Keith asks.

Them, the night spirit says. 

Strael’s ears prick forward, and she snorts softly. Keith lays his hand over her muzzle. 

Warm, Strael says. 

Keith snatches his hand away and she shies back, stomping nervously. Too quick! she exclaims. 

Keith opens and closes his mouth. “Strael?” he whispers. 

She ambles back over to him. Rider. 

He looks into inky eyes. “Can you hear me?” he whispers. 

Not aloud, the night spirit murmurs. Listen, and speak to her there.

Strael? he tries again. 

She snorts, nostrils flaring in surprise. You are not horse, she says, breath feathering over his outstretched palm. Her words are, in a way, like the night spirit’s, more impressions of awareness than actual language, but they hold meaning nonetheless. 

No, Keith says. But I hear you. 

Her ears tilt forward. We go? she asks. We run?

You want to run? Keith runs his hand over her proud neck. She huffs and noses into his hair. Where?

She does not seem to understand this. Run, she insists. Away, away, fast.

Keith furrows his brow. Don’t you like it here? Are you happy?

Strael blinks. Want oats, she says. Want bristle-touch. Keith follows her head as it points to the tack and grooming tools. 

“Does she understand ‘happy’?” Keith muses as he fetches her brushes. 

Of course, the night spirit says. But it is a more permanent state than human emotion. More like contentment. Safety. Try asking her that.

Keith returns to her stall to brush her chestnut coat clean. Dust billows off her back and she snorts, lower lip hanging loose and relaxed. 

Do you feel safe here? he asks her, brushing her neck more gently. 

One ear tilts forward, as if considering. Loud, sometimes, she replies. Too much fire and shine-stone.

Shine-stone?

Sharp shine-stone, Strael insists. Cut through flesh, make red and pain. 

Keith swallows. Swords, you mean, he murmurs. Blades.

She closes her eyes. Shine-stone, fear. Hurt horses. Not me. Too fast.

Keith hesitates. What do you think of the thane? She sends back confusion, and he sends back a thought of Shiro’s face.

Strael flinches under the brush. Keith’s mind is filled with her prickling unease, not fear exactly, but the overwhelming sense of wrongness. 

What is he? Keith asks her.

Split, Strael says. 

Keith sends back, ?

Smells like death, Strael says, but alive. Smells like Man, but Not. She huffs. But he is kind to us. Someday, he may hurt us. But has not yet.

Why do you think he will hurt you?

Strael’s nostrils flare. He smells like the hidden things with sharp teeth in the forest, she says. The things that hunt horses. The things that kill us. She lowers her head to him and snuffles at his hair. But you smell like him, and he has not hunted you.

Keith tries to press further, but she has no more words to give, and is instead content to stand and be brushed. When he is done, Keith pours her some oats, and goes to find Matthew, to ask if he can take Strael riding. He hates that he even has to ask for permission, but he will play this game, for now.

He finds Matthew in the sparring ring, with the other few warriors who did not leave for the spring raids. He’s fighting a warrior with red hair who Keith knows vaguely as Aiken or Acton, and Matthew is clearly much better. His footwork is better, for one thing, and poor Aiken doesn’t stand a chance against his quick, brutal jabs and effortless dodging. Keith pauses to watch, always one to appreciate a good sword fight, and leans against the stone wall beside the ring. 

A nearby guard mutters, “Peace-weaver, you aren’t meant to be here. Go back to the keep.”

Keith ignores him, and keeps watching.

Another guard, “Are you deaf? You’re to stay away from blades, in the keep –”

Aiken falls into the mud with a grunt. The onlookers cheer. Keith shrugs off the gauntlet reaching for his shoulder, vaults himself over the stone wall, grabs a guard’s sword right from its sheath, and approaches the victorious Matthew. 

Matthew’s expression shifts from smug to startled in an instant. The guards shout and lunge for Keith, but he’s already in the ring, sword half-raised, and nobody moves. They don’t know what to do. 

Keith raises an eyebrow. “Spar with me.”

Matthew glares at him. “You know I cannot do that,” he hisses. “Put down the sword.”

“No.” Keith hefts the blade, sunlight glinting off the blood gutters. “Are you a coward?”

Matthew’s eyes narrow. “So it’s going to be like that, huh?”

“Coward,” Keith teases, circling him. “You’ve seen me fight. You know I’m better than you. Are you afraid to lose?”

“You’re a menace,” Matthew snaps, but he raises his sword. “Fine, then. I’m starting to think you want Shiro to behead me.” 

“Now, why would I want that,” Keith drawls, and leaps for him. Their swords clash. The guards freeze. Keith twists away from Matthew’s following jab, and parries the next one with a resounding screech of metal on metal. Keith grins at him, adrenaline singing through him as his blade sings through the air. He missed this. Gods, he missed this.

But as they spar, a curious thing happens. Matthew moves, parrying and attacking, back and forth, and as he moves, Keith sees – lines. Paths? Whatever they are, they trail out from him like pale silver-blue ribbons, and as they do, they bring ghosts with them. Ghosts of Matthew, of his sword raised in a dozen different ways – Keith stumbles in shock. Matthew’s blade catches his shoulder, and blood splatters on the ground. Matthew flinches back. Keith doesn’t flinch at all. 

“Fight me,” he orders, and this time, when Matthew moves, Keith follows the paths and their future actions, and he evades the blow a second before Matthew even makes it. 

The mercenary’s eyes widen. “How –” 

Keith laughs. He watches the way the path that Matthew will choose to take is brighter than the others, and how the others fade as soon as the action happens, and he knew he was better than Matthew before this, but now, he thinks, Matthew cannot possibly beat him, for Keith can see what he is going to do before Matthew himself even knows. 

Keith follows the next path, watches the way Matthew’s blade will come down, and meets it when it happens with just the right angle to disarm him. They both watch the sword arc from his hand, through the air, and into the mud. Keith presses his swordtip to Matthew’s sweating throat. “Do you yield?” he asks.

The guards are all agape, hands long since fallen from their sword hilts.  The watching villagers are even more aghast.

“I yield,” Matthew breathes. The guards murmur in disbelief. Their eyes on Keith are different, now. Wary, but also awed. Good, Keith thinks, and drops the stolen sword in the mud before handing Matthew his own. 

Matthew takes it, lips pursed. “Gods. What are you?”

“A peace-weaver,” Keith snorts. “Can I take Strael riding?”

Matthew opens his mouth, then closes it. “Uh-huh,” he manages. “Just – let a healer take a look at that, first.”

Keith looks at him flatly. “It’s a scratch,” he says. “Don’t flatter yourself.” And he turns on his heel to the stables. He doesn’t have to look back to know Matthew is following.

*

That night, they eat in the mead hall. It isn’t quite a feast, as there aren’t enough people for one, but the atmosphere is much the same. Nobody questions Keith when he sits at the head of the table. The warriors and guards may murmur about him amongst themselves, but it is with a new tone – a more respectful one. Keith can hope, anyway.

Matthew pours him more mead, and Keith nods to him, taking a long draught. Matthew watches him, chin in hand. “What?” Keith asks, swallowing the mead and wasting no time in devouring his plate of pheasant and brown bread. “Planning your future sparring strategies against me?”

Matthew shakes his head. “Hah, no. Don’t think they’d matter much – it was almost like you knew every move I was about to make. Marmorans fight well, but like that?” He whistles. “That was incredible.”

Keith eyes him. “Are you flirting?” he demands.

Matthew turns pink. “What? I – no! I would – never. You are – completely married.”

“Completely,” Keith repeats. “As opposed to partially?”

Matthew glowers. “Listen,” he says, “if Shiro would behead me for letting you come to harm, you can best believe he’d light me on fucking fire for putting my cock anywhere near you. Not that I'd ever do that.”

“Fire seems too light a sentence,” Keith muses. “I think he’d make it a good deal more agonizing than that, don’t you think? Probably cut your cock off, for starters. Or I would.”

Matthew takes a long and despairing drink. “You’re both mad,” he says. “Perfect for each other.”

“So, is that you saying you don’t want to put your cock anywhere near me, or saying you’re scared of the consequences?” Keith wheedles. 

Matthew pauses. “Are you – you’re lonely. Aren’t you? You actually domiss him. Ha. I knew it.”

Keith rolls his eyes. “Pass me a tart, you tart.”

“Oh, now I’m the tart?” Matthew exclaims. But he passes him the tarts.

“I don’t want to fuck you,” Keith tells him, after he’s halfway through the tart. It’s blackberry, and very good. Matthew chokes on his mead. “And what do you mean? He is my husband, of course I miss him. Do you think he doesn’t miss me?”

Matthew, once recovered from his coughing fit, looks at Keith askance. “Our dear thane is probably pining away as we speak,” he says. “Of course he misses you.” He drinks, and belches. “But, can’t say I don’t envy him. The south is full of so many pretty blond boys. And girls. Hair like sunshine and eyes like the calm sea – I always did like taking jobs in the south.”

Keith’s stomach turns. “What? What pretty blond boys?”

“I need more mead,” Matthew complains. “More mead!” he yells, and the mead hall erupts with answering roars. Eventually, more mead arrives, but Keith does not partake. He has lost his appetite, in one fell swoop.

*

“Pretty blond boys,” Keith repeats to himself in bed later that night, scowling at the ceiling. He fumbles with the ruby brooch at his throat before finally managing to unpin it, and casts it aside on the nightstand. “I suppose – it’s only fair, isn’t it? I fuck a night spirit while he’s gone, and he...fucks every port prostitute he can find. The southern seas are a lonely place.” Keith swallows back bile and rubs his eyes. “Why would he settle with my hand when he could have any of their cocks? Or mouths, or cunts, or arses, for that matter!”

You do not really believe that he is unfaithful, the night spirit says, its presence wrapping around him as he lays there for awhile in the dark, on the cusp of sleep. 

Keith scowls harder and rolls over, though this does nothing to push the night spirit away. It is like the very air, like a familiar mist hanging over the bed. “Why should I believe otherwise?” Keith demands. “Because he gave me that jewel? Because he told me he – he loves me?” Keith stumbles over the words. “Plenty of men say those nice things and stick their cocks elsewhere anyway. It is an empty word.”

Love? 

“No, cocks,” Keith grumbles. “Yes, love. Are you a bloody echo?”

You are afraid of his disloyalty, the night spirit observes, tone unchanging. You do not want him to betray your marriage vows.

“I’ve already broken mine,” Keith snaps, burying his face in the furs. “Why would I care if he did the same?”

It is not the same, the night spirit sighs. When you are with us, there is nothing to be guilty of. We are not a person. We are not even, really, a thing. We just are. Think. Would it upset you if you discovered the thane was with us, too? Would it upset him to know you were with us? We think not.

Keith’s blood runs suddenly, startlingly, hot, at the thought of Shiro watching the night spirit take him apart, of peering through the shadowy Marmoran trees at the black pool, and Keith writhing within it. At first, he might be concerned, afraid it was attacking, but then – but then he would see the bliss on Keith’s face, the pleading gape of his mouth and holes as he is filled, the sheen of sweat over his body as the black tendrils creep and curl and kiss his skin and drag him into thick heat –

Then he thinks of what Shiro might be doing right now, of him grunting over or under a stranger, smelling of ale and saltwater, and Keith curls in on himself, want souring into nausea. 

“He would not let marriage vows stop him from joining the other warriors in satisfying their most base needs,” Keith says, aiming for certainty, but his voice trembles, because he hopes it isn’t true. 

The night spirit pauses. Would it bring you peace, it says, carefully, to see him now?

Keith bolts upright. “What? What do you mean? He is – he is oceans away, how –”

We have shown you the future, the night spirit says, and yet you balk at the impossibility of this? Look. We will show you your husband.

Before Keith can protest, can exclaim that he is tired, and just wants to sleep and forget about Shiro, the night spirit surrounds him, and again he is transported, though this time – it does not feel like a dream. 

No, it feels all too real when he finds himself staring at Shiro, head thrown back and palm clamped over his mouth to muffle his own moans as he strokes his cock. He is sitting on a bedroll in a tent, alone, illuminated by a bonfire roaring somewhere outside, shining through the gaps in the draped furs. 

He must have been at it for a while, for he is sweating and flushed and his cock is swollen and dripping, silver-white rolling over his knuckles. The shadow of his balls hangs full and heavy below. 

His long hair hangs in his face, and his stubble has grown out, darker and thicker. His brows draw together as he squeezes the base of his twitching cock and groans, low and unmistakable, “Keith, Keith.”

Keith, lying in their bed, is vaguely aware of his body responding to the sight, though his awareness, his soul, is elsewhere, watching hungrily as Shiro touches himself with increasingly frantic pulls, his noises gorgeous and throaty. His head falls back as he nears his end, and he rubs the pad of his thumb over the tip, breath hissing out through his sharpening teeth as he says Keith’s name again and comes, hips rolling into his palm as he spills and spills in messy smears of white. 

Shiro slumps back down onto his bedroll. When they are together, he is more graceful, Keith thinks, more aware of how he carries himself. But here, he thinks no one is watching, and Keith looks on in bewildered, disbelieving delight as he wraps his arms around a pillow and snuggles into it, burying his face in the fabric and whispering, “Keith, Keith, miss you.”

Keith thinks, then, that he must be done, but evidently he is a fool, for not a minute later, Shiro hesitates before kicking off his trousers until they are caught just around his calves and ankles, binding them loose, keeping him trapped. And as Keith watches, the shadows around Shiro lengthen. 

At first Keith mistakes them as his hair, lifting into the air on an unseen breeze. But — no. They are not hair, nor are they flesh. They are something Other, dark and twisting. They curl from Shiro’s back and then along his bare legs, shadow lifting from skin, moving like searching tongues. 

And what they search for is found as they slip and wriggle over the curve of Shiro’s ass, dipping inwards, spreading him wide, and then filling him as he again moans Keith’s name, head falling back, body sprawling out on the bedroll. The shadows push deeper. Shiro’s body ripples with them. They — are him? 

Keith does not understand. He has seen Shiro strange and shadowy but this, this is more than tricks of the light and glowing eyes. This is a thing,taking Shiro apart as he begs for it, as his clawed hand flexes and rips into the furs, as shadows race and slip over his body not unlike the black pool. His cock, hard once more, is seized in their grip, dripping anew.

And Keith — cannot look away. His own body burns, hotter with every gasp of his name from Shiro’s lips. He thinks of what Shiro told him, and wonders if it is not an empty word after all. 

We cannot show you much more, the night spirit says. We must not remain so far away for so long. Already your mind drifts from your body. 

Keith ignores this, and tries to call out to Shiro, but Shiro cannot hear him. He clings to the expression of simple bliss on his husband’s face as the night spirit brings them back, not to the keep but to the black plain. This time, Keith knows at once something is different, and it is not just that the night spirit stands before him as Shiro. They are both bare, sitting on the banks of the black pool, and Shiro strokes both of their cocks in hand, slowly. Keith blinks down at them. 

“That’s new,” he says. “Did I do that?”

The night spirit looks up at him from familiar gray eyes. “We do not control you,” it says. “So, yes. It would seem so.”

Keith watches the movements of his hand a while longer, before he tips his head back and succumbs to the sensation. It is good. New, but good. “I want to fuck you,” Keith gasps to the stars, gripping Shiro’s shoulders, bruising. “Please, let me. I will make you feel so good. Fill you up, like you do for me.”

Shiro cups his face with a cool hand. Neither of them are clawed, here, Keith thinks distantly. 

“I know you will,” Shiro says. “How do you want me?”

“Over,” Keith breathes, “on your hands and knees, yes, like that, so good for me.”

He is already hot and on edge. It will not take long, but he wants, no, needs to do this right, to take his time, to make Shiro feel him deep and good. Shiro obeys, but only after tugging him into a messy kiss, licking into Keith’s mouth as Keith takes over in touching them both, squeezing their cocks together and groaning against Shiro’s lips. He groans louder when Shiro pulls away and rolls easily onto his front, lifting his ass up and waiting patiently as Keith drinks in the sight.

When Keith’s fingers rub against his hole, he finds it wet, already prepared. Shiro shivers. “Keith,” he whispers, and it sounds so like his voice, only a little more hollow, echoing. “Please.”

Keith spreads him wide with his thumbs, focus narrowing to where Shiro is open for him, just for him. “Thought you didn’t want to beg,” he murmurs, finger circling, and pressing slowly in. 

Shiro hangs his head and arches back into it, hole swallowing Keith’s finger all the way to the knuckle in one greedy slide. “Anything,” Shiro gasps, “for you.”

“Do you mean it?” Keith murmurs, twisting his finger and easing in another when Shiro does not answer at once. “What would you do for me, Shiro?”

“Anything,” Shiro repeats, voice breaking on a ragged moan when Keith fills him with three. “I’m ready, I want your cock, I –”

Keith smacks his ass, and at once understands why Shiro did this to him. It is satisfying to watch the flesh bounce and redden, and the way Shiro tenses, then shudders, cock twitching upward where it hangs between his spread thighs. “And you shall have it,” Keith murmurs, bending down to trail kisses over the flushed skin. “Tell me who you are loyal to, first.”

“To you,” Shiro breathes, needy and rushed. “I am loyal to you, Keith.”

“But you are a thane of King Zarkon,” Keith murmurs, his kisses dragging up Shiro’s curving spine, settling heavy between his flexing shoulder blades. “Your loyalty ought to be to him, to your kingdom, don’t you think?”

Shiro closes his eyes, breath shortening. Keith’s fingers curl inside him, hook and rub until Shiro spreads his legs wider and whispers, “You are my kingdom.”

“Liar,” Keith breathes. “If your king ordered you to slit my throat –”

“Then I would slit his throat,” Shiro growls, and Keith falters – it does not sound like the night spirit, not at all, and when Keith looks across the black pool, to the opposite bank, the night spirit sits there, watching idly, head resting on its front paws. Keith looks back down at Shiro, and holds him tighter. 

“You speak of treason,” Keith sighs, pulling his fingers out with a slick sound, framing Shiro’s hips with his hands and pulling them back until his cock rubs up between spread cheeks. “And I do not believe you.”

Shiro claws at the smooth earth. “I swear it,” he pants, “I swear it on all of Garris, on all my warriors, on my very soul –”

“What do you swear?” Keith presses, watching with raw hunger the way his hole contracts around nothing.

Shiro swallows. He bows his head. “Fealty,” he whispers, “to you, my heart.”

Keith hums. He takes Shiro’s hanging hair in his hand, gathers it up to sweep it over the side of his neck, exposing the nape. “I have no sword here with which to seal your vow,” he murmurs, “but I do have this.” 

He lines up his cock and presses in, and at once collapses and groans over Shiro’s sweating back at the tight heat which envelops his cock slow but sure and devastating, for he felt it with his hand but this is different, and in the black plain everything is more. Shiro whines under him, pressing his hips back until Keith is hilted fully within him and they are both cursing and making small, breathy sounds. “My heart,” Shiro pleads, “move, I want, to feel you, to – oh –”

“Yes,” Keith hisses, mouth falling open as he pulls out only to thrust fully back in, Shiro’s body welcoming him, cock swelling deep inside him. “You will feel me, for days, every time you lift your sword for Galra –”

“– not for Galra, for you –”

“Say it again,” Keith gasps, fucking him now in earnest, his hips hitting Shiro’s ass as the thane lifts it higher, needier. He opens to Keith so well, and every time he pulls back, Keith memorizes the way his rim opens around the girth of his cock, spread wide, clinging to every inch so perfectly. “Tell me how well you would serve me, husband.”

Shiro whimpers, hiding his face in his forearm even as he meets Keith’s hard thrusts shamelessly. “I would serve you always,” he groans, “with my sword, with my vows, with my tongue, with my hands –”

Keith’s fist closes around his dripping cock and the thane shouts,caught between his hand and his plunging cock. “And with this?” he coos beside Shiro’s ear, tugging his hair back with his other hand. 

“Yes,” Shiro sobs, blinking back tears as Keith pulls his hair harder. “Gods, I miss you, I miss you so much, every part of you, Keith, my king –”

Keith’s breath catches, his thrusts slow. He wraps his arms around Shiro, holds him close, tucks his face to the back of Shiro’s neck to kiss and mouth and whisper, “I am here, with you. And – and you will come back home to me, safe, and we will be together again.”

“Please,” Shiro begs, trembling under him, “kiss me –”

And so it is that Keith kisses him as he fucks him to the edge, until the thane jerks in his grasp, cock spurting onto the black stone and Keith’s fingers, and Keith follows him, rolling his hips into clenching heat, chasing the new, wonderful feeling, and coming in hot wet pulses of impossible seed, but here, nothing is impossible, and Keith cups Shiro’s belly as he fills him, and nuzzles into his skin, and whispers words he cannot say in the waking world.

Then Keith is back in the bed, alone, his undergarments wet. He blinks hazily at the ceiling, and reaches down to grind against his palm without urgency. “Was that him?” Keith murmurs. “Was that really Shiro?”

The night spirit touches him like a warm breeze. You were both dreaming, it says, and both wanting the same thing. 

Keith shivers and bites his lip. “Then – those things he said…”

Go back to sleep, the night spirit urges. The thane has awoken, but your sun has not yet risen. Then it is gone from the room, gone though it was never wholly there.

But Keith does not go back to sleep. He rises from the bed, and takes the brooch-pin from where he left it on the bedside table. As he pads across the room to the door, he lets himself drift to walk in hidden shadows, so that when he opens the door, Matthew Holt does not look at him, only blinks, brow furrowing, as the door creaks shut and Keith tiptoes past him. Instead of descending the stone steps, Keith goes up. He climbs the staircase until he feels the cool night air on his face – no, not night, but not yet dawn, either. 

On the ramparts, all is quiet. An owl perched on the edge of the tower swivels its head around to stare at him with shining red eyes. He wonders why it can see him, when the men cannot. 

Hello, Keith calls to it, as he did to Strael. What are you doing here?

Hunt, says the owl, and leaps from the tower with its powerful talons, wide wings spreading, carrying it silently into the darkness.

Keith sighs in the reigning hush. He walks to the edge of the ramparts, and looks down. It is a long drop. Below, the earth looks so dark that it could be water, an infinitely deep sea. Beyond it lies the island of the village, dotted with torch-light. Keith sits down on the rampart-edge, knees tucked to his chest, and closes his eyes. He holds the brooch-pin to his chest, tucked against his heart.

Someone sits down beside him. 

My child, his father says. It has been a long time. 

Keith opens his eyes, heart pounding as he slowly turns his head to look. Warlord Kihyun sits there beside him, translucent and starry, looking at him with dark, steady eyes.

“Father,” Keith whispers, his throat closing up. “I –” He can say no more.

His father tilts his head. You have changed, he observes. Keith swallows, curling in on himself, but his father’s gaze is curious, not critical. Has your name changed, also?

Keith blinks at him, uncurling a little. “Yes,” he says, halting. “It is – I am called Keith, now.”

His father hums, thoughtful. A good name. Did you choose it?

Keith nods. “With – with Mother’s help. Yes.” He hesitates. “It – reminded me of your name. I wanted – to honor you. With it. With...me.”

His father’s expression softens. You do, he says. I am honored by you as my son, Keith of Marmora.

Keith inhales, sharp and a little panicked. “Then, I – I am glad,” he whispers. “Thank you.”

They look out at the thanedom together. His father says, This is not home.

“No,” Keith agrees. “It is Galra. I am a peace-weaver, here.”

His father looks at him sharply. You are a warrior, he says. You always wanted to be a warrior.

“What I want matters little,” Keith tells him.

His father’s brow furrows. It should matter most.

Keith shakes his head. “Why are you here, Father? Why has your ghost come to me?”

His father does not answer immediately. Then he says, Do you know who killed me, my son?

Keith frowns. “You were killed at sea,” he says. “The ocean killed you and your men. That is what they told me.”

The ocean does not wield a blade, his father says. Keith stiffens. The man who killed me was young, then, but now he is older, and deadlier. He is a thane, now, and he has wrought death in this land.

Keith’s eyes widen in dawning horror. “No,” he breathes, “Father, tell me it wasn’t –”

His father reaches out, and cups his face. His hand is warm, shockingly so. It was not your husband, he says. But it was the one he once called brother. His name is Sendak, and I have come to you because I fear he will come for you, next. 

Keith grabs his father’s wrist, or tries to, but his hand falls through. He gulps. “Father,” he breathes, “what must I do?”

Win, his father says. Defeat him before he can strike against you. His father’s thumb strokes his cheekbone, brushes the hair back from his eyes, the way he did when Keith was so small he could sit on his father’s shoulder. Be the warrior you were meant to be, he says. Those who would keep you from this destiny are those who are afraid of the champion you would become. For you are my son, and the son of your mother, and our family’s blood sings for battle and victory. 

Keith searches his eyes frantically. “But Father...I do not know if I could fight Sendak and win,” he whispers. 

There are other ways to win battles than with blade and bloodshed, his father tells him. Remember your power. He thinks you are a frightened peace-weaver pining after your raiding husband. But we know the truth. You are dangerous. So be dangerous.

Keith nods, lets out a measured exhale. “This is a battle for a dagger, not a sword.”

His father nods. He hides something terrible in his keep at Arus. Something he will use to tear this kingdom, and ours, apart. Stop him, my son, before it is too late. He weaves war. 

“So I am to be the peace-weaver after all,” Keith muses. 

Weaving peace need not mean bearing heirs. If they say you must be a peace-weaver, then you must. But they do not know what this means, nor what you are capable of. Not yet. 

Keith looks out over the kingdom. His father’s hand falls away. “But they will know,” he whispers. “Someday, they will all know.”

There is no reply, and when he looks to the rampart beside him, there is no one there, and the sun lights the horizon in a brightening band of gold.

Chapter Text

“I know I said you were mad before, but this is far worse,” Matthew exclaims. “You cannot go to Arus, my lord.”

“You cannot stop me,” Keith says, not pausing as he faces the mirror and pins the ruby brooch at his throat. “So, you can either let me go alone, or go with me. It does not matter much to me either way, however, I think it will matter to my husband if something does go wrong, and you are not there.”

“Why do you even want to go to Arus?” Matthew demands for the third time. “Lord Sendak is a vile person. He is your husband’s enemy. He ought to be yours, too.”

“Did I ever say he was not?” Keith shakes his head and turns to face the flustered mercenary. “You are in my way.”

Matthew stares down at him, defiant. “You aren’t even bringing your sword? What are you planning on doing in Arus, having a nice chat?”

“Something like that,” Keith sighs. 

Matthew folds his arms. “No,” he says.

Keith raises an eyebrow. “No?”

Matthew doesn’t move out of the way. “I don’t know what game you’re playing, but I’ve seen that look in men’s eyes before, right before they do something really stupid. Just – tell me why you want to go to Arus. Be honest. I won’t take part in a betrayal of Thane Shirogane.”

Keith blinks. “A betrayal? What do you think –” He blinks rapidly. “Do you think I intend to bed him?!”

Matthew splutters like a landed fish. “Well, I don’t – I mean, do you? What am I supposed to think when your husband is absent and you demand to ride south to the keep of a thane infamous for his whoremongering?”

Keith purses his lips. “Oh. Hm. That does...it sounds worse, when you put it like that.”

“You didn’t answer the question,” Matthew croaks.

“Nor should I have to,” Keith retorts, “but for your information, no, I do not intend to bed the whoremongerer. Happy?”

“Not particularly.” But he moves out of the way.

“If you must know,” Keith adds, taking his luxite blade from its hiding place with his back turned to the mercenary, and tucking it into its hidden sheath, “I have reason to suspect Lord Sendak of treason. There have been strange goings on in Galra, as you know. Heirs dying and such. And before he left, Shiro told me he did not trust the other thanes – especially Sendak.”

“I think he said that to keep you away from Lord Sendak,” Matthew mutters, “not to run into his arms.”

“Indeed,” Keith sighs, “but he is not here to stop me. Now, will you escort me, or will you snark at me? I won’t tolerate both.”

Matthew rubs his temples. “I’ll escort you,” he relents. “Don’t make me regret it. Please?”

“I owe you no promises,” Keith tells him, and strides out the door.

*

The first day of their ride is uneventful. Stræl is happy to be free of the stables, and Matthew’s gelding is as usual happy to follow. It took some convincing to make Katie Holt stay in Garris, and part of Keith wishes she were there – he does not yet fully trust Matthew – but he knows where they are going, it is not safe for her to follow.

It is a day’s ride south until they reach Zeragat, and Keith has only seen the keep once before, at Ranvul’s funeral, but it looks different than he remembers. The keep at Garris is imposing, but more elegant, Keith thinks, with narrow towers and tall walls and ramparts tucked close together. Zeragat is a squat, blocky keep, with two central guard towers flanking it, in which the only windows are slotted. There are dark figures on the ramparts, spear-tips glinting in the firelight as the sun sets, and the torches are lit one by one.

The entry to the keep is blocked by a sizable courtyard, and after that are two archways, and only after that is the door. Keith feels claustrophobic, and they are not yet even inside. 

“Halt!” a guard calls down. “Who are you, who fly the colors of Garris? Thane Shirogane is on the raids.”

Before Keith can answer, another guard exclaims, “Wait – that’s his peace-weaver, the Marmoran! Here for Lady Gleda?”

“Yes!” Keith calls back, for it is a good excuse, and he is a poor liar. “I wished to see her. How does she fare? Is she still with child?”

The guards, who are now leaning over the ramparts to peer down at them, exchange looks. Keith cannot see their faces in the shadow, but the pause is...heavy. “Nay, she delivered the twins just a few weeks ago. Look – you’d best talk to her yourself. Open the gates!”

The old wood creaks open, and Keith and Matthew ride through the arches, then through the gates, which lead...to another courtyard, this one in the heart of the keep. Stræl shifts nervously. The courtyard is dark, the only torches lit being those brought by the approaching guards. “Something strange, here,” Matthew murmurs, and Keith manages a nod, the back of his neck prickling. He tries to find the night spirit’s familiar presence, or even just its voice, a single word, but is answered by uneasy silence. The gate groans shut with a powerful thud.

“Surprise to see you here, milady,” the guard says as he approaches, and Keith barely disguises his flinch. They really aren’t in Garris, anymore. “Did you send word?”

“No,” Keith says, dismounting from his horse before they can reach him and try to help. “I made the journey on a whim.” He nods to Matthew, whom the guards have been eyeing. “This is my guard. See to it that he has quarters near me. We will be staying the night, if Warlord Ranveig agrees – where is the thane, anyway? I thought he stayed home from the raids, after…”

Keith trails off, and the guards look at each other again, but this time, he sees for certain that their expressions are wary. “The thane, and his wife, have been suffering from ill health. Nothing serious. They will be informed of your arrival. Come, milady, we will stable your horses and see to it that you have appropriate quarters prepared.”

Keith follows them. He has little other choice, even if the prickling over his skin grows worse with every step, until it feels like tangible touches, featherlight and maddening.

*

The quarters they give him are certainly appropriate. They may even be bigger than the bedroom at Garris. But they are not cozier. 

It is a large, drafty room, with a large bed, spread with fine blankets and a single huge plush pelt of what must be bearskin. The windows are narrow, not lead-paned, but open to the night air. The furnishings are sparse, and as far as decor, there is really only one item of note – an intricate tapestry on the far wall depicting a fantastical scene from the old legends. Keith sits cross-legged on the end of the bed, feeling quite small on it, and examines the tapestry at length.

The old legends transcend kingdoms and empires, though nowadays, this particular legend is associated more with the Alteans than the Galra, for only the Alteans ever had dragons, so Keith thinks it is an odd choice for a tapestry in Zeragat. When he was a child, this legend was one of his favorites – he would demand that his father tell it again and again, or his mother, though she was never quite as good a storyteller. An excellent teacher of the blade, to be sure, but his father had always been better with words than himself or his mother.

The legend went something like this – there was once a great and ancient people of immense wealth who lived by the sea, and they lived for many centuries in peace until a terrible evil befell them. Sometimes his father claimed it was a deadly plague, other times it was another people who came with swords and greed, other times, the ancient people simply...wasted away. However it happened, by the end, there was only one left, and with much bitterness and sorrow he buried the entirety of his people’s treasure deep within a mountain, like a grand burial mound, before he too succumbed to death.

The treasure lay sealed within the mountain for a hundred thousand snowfalls before it was found, not by people, but by a dragon. The dragon, as dragons apparently do, saw the treasure not as something to be spent nor shared, but to be guarded and lorded over. And so the dragon stayed in the mountain, watching over its hoard. His father had called it a stolen hoard, once, but Keith remembers he corrected him. 

“The dragon didn’t take it,” Keith had interrupted. “He left it right where it was. And the people it belonged to were dead. How do you steal from the dead?”

His father had ruffled his hair and considered this. “Well,” he said, “even if the dragon did not steal it, he was very greedy. He kept it all to himself. Would you do that, if you found all the treasure in the world?”

“I don’t know,” Keith admitted. “I would give you some, of course, and Mother, but what would you even do with it?”

“That,” his father had said, tapping the tip of his nose, “depends on what the treasure was.”

Keith had pouted at him. “Why does it matter what it was? I think nobody should have the gold. I thought you and mother said gold makes men do stupid things. The dragon’s not a man. The dragon can have it.”

His father had laughed for a long time at that. Now, it hurts a little to remember him, laughing...alive.

Stolen or not, the dragon kept the gold, until one day, someone did steal from its hoard while it was sleeping. They stole a single golden goblet – or sometimes a golden dagger, or a golden brooch, or a golden shield, but always made of gold – and when the dragon awoke to find it gone, it burst from its mountain in a rage, and scoured the land to find the thief. 

In the version Keith’s father told him, the dragon found the thief, after setting his village aflame in its anger. But the dragon did not burn the thief, nor kill him. The dragon asked for him to return the cup. But the thief, fearing for his life, told the dragon the truth – that he had stolen the cup at the behest of his king, and that if he failed, the king had said he would hurt the thief’s family.

At this point, Keith had leapt off his father’s knee with all the wrath of a four-year-old and exclaimed, “No! What was the thief ‘sposed to do? Is he going to die? I don’t want him to die.”

His father scooped him up again. “Listen. The dragon listened to the thief, and was unsurprised to learn that men were as they had always been. The cup, you see, was no ordinary goblet – it was an object of legend, and it was said that whomever drank of that golden cup would be healed, no matter how ill they were.”

“So –” Keith had furrowed his brow, trying very hard to puzzle this through. “So the king was ill?”

“Not the king,” his father sighed. “The king’s wife. She was going to die. And the king loved her very much. People do stupid things for gold. They also do stupid things for the ones they love.”

Keith blinked. “Have you done stupid things for mother?”

“Oh, so many,” his father replied instantly. “But, all worth it.” He’d smiled at Keith. “Utterly worth it.”

After hearing the thief’s story, the dragon decided to let him live, but he warned the thief that the cup was just a cup. The queen would not be healed, and the thief would be punished. But the thief did not believe the dragon, so he fled to the king, and there was much rejoicing, and the king filled the cup with the finest mead and served it to his queen.

The queen drank, and nothing happened. The queen, like those before her, wasted away into death. The gold was just gold. The thief was punished. And the king, mad with rage, went after the dragon.

Keith had clung to his father tightly during this part. If he closes his eyes, he swears he can feel the rough hide of his father’s cloak beneath his curled fingers. 

The dragon was waiting for him. And the king struck the dragon many times with his sword, but could not pierce its armor, so at length he fell to his knees among the piles of gold, weeping in grief for his queen’s lost life and his own. But the dragon did not kill him. The dragon took his sword, and told the king this:

“Your queen is dead, but you are king of many. Did you not swear to protect them, all of them, always? Her death does not change that. If your thief had not persuaded me you were the true enemy, I would have killed him, and razed your kingdom to the ground, and that would have been your fault. A kingdom that can be destroyed by a single golden goblet is a bad kingdom. Do not return to my mountain, for there is only death to be found here.”

The king left the mountain and its dragon, and in return for the stolen goblet, the dragon gave the king a gift, a fine golden crown, the first of its kind. From that day, the king was the best king in all the lands, and the dragon was left alone, until people forgot about it, and thought it was just a mountain like any other.

This tapestry, however, is not a scene of the coronation nor of the dragon speaking with the thief, nor even of the dying queen or the king fighting the dragon. It is simply of the dragon burning the kingdom to the ground in a fury of umber and gold flames, scales embroidered in black and silver thread, its eyes burning red. It does not look like the creature Keith imagined at all. 

Keith wonders if the Galran version has another ending.

The longer he looks at the tapestry, the more the back of his neck prickles, and before he’s even aware of it, he’s slipping off the bed, padding across the floor towards it, and he can feel heat coming off of it, like real fire, and when he exhales over the cloth he swears it ripples,moves –

Someone knocks at the door, and he startles back. The dragon stares at him with one knowing ruby eye. He hurries away from it, and opens the door. “Yes?”

Matthew is standing there, and takes in his flustered appearance with a raised eyebrow. “Everything alright?”

“Fine,” Keith mutters. “What is it?”

“Warlord Ranveig and Lady Gleda are waiting in the mead hall,” Matthew replies. He pauses. “I’ll ask again. Everything alright?”

There’s an edge to his voice. Keith narrows his eyes. “Perhaps I should be asking you that.”

“No,” Matthew snaps with unexpected vehemence. Keith takes a step back and he scrunches up his nose in a vaguely apologetic way. “No,” he repeats, quieter. “Nothing about this place is alright. I can’t explain it, but it feels…”

“Wrong,” Keith finishes. The mercenary nods grimly. “Right, well, we’re only staying the night. Just – be vigilant,” he adds lamely. Matthew looks unconvinced, but does not argue, and waits while Keith readies for dinner, a short process which involves a hasty braid, making certain his dagger is both hidden and accessible should the need arise, and casting one last wary look at the tapestry, which is innocently still when he stares at it head-on, but flickers in the corners of his vision as he walks away.

*

The mead hall at Zeragat is bigger than then one at Garris, but it feels lonelier, darker. Only the lamps at the center are lit, where two figures sit at the largest of the oaken tables, platters laden before them. Keith and Matthew approach slowly. The feast seems far too big for so few people. 

A black shape perches on one of the high, narrow window sills, a raven, a creature of the battlefield. It stares down at them, cocks its head, waiting. 

“Peace-weaver,” Warlord Ranveig says. He sits at the head of the table, head bowed so Keith cannot see his face, only the halo of red hair, the matted shadow of his beard. “Come. Sit with us.”

Lady Gleda sits on her husband’s right. Her gown does not fit her right – her bones jut, head held at a strange angle, face gaunt and hair several shades lighter, more like bleached bone than burnished gold. Or maybe it’s just the moonlight, streaming in through the high, narrow windows.

“Thank you,” Keith says, taking the offered seat on the thane’s left. Matthew stands off to the side, but he does not go far, and Keith is glad – particularly when his eyes adjust to the light and he sees the ‘feast’ laid before him.

It is, or rather was, a suckling pig, but it has fallen to rot. The meat is exposed beneath the crisped skin, and it is an odd color, gray-green, struck through with darker patches of what could be mold or flies. There is no question about what the small, wriggling white things are. Keith swallows back bile as the smell reaches his nose – the smell of death, disease, and corruption.

The rest of the feast is much the same. The fruit is dry and shriveled and fuzzy, the vegetables are blackened, the tarts are stale and white-filmed. There are no servants, and the only guards are the two beside the door. Keith thinks they are the same two guards from the ramparts, and in the gloom, he swears their eyes gleam green.

He turns back to the thane. “My lord,” he starts. 

Warlord Ranveig holds up a hand. Keith’s eyes widen – his knuckles are twisted, the flesh wrinkled and pockmarked like that of a much older man. “There is no need for titles, peace-weaver,” he says. His voice is strange, too, less of a voice at all and more of a hollow, fading echo. “What brings you to our humble keep tonight?”

“I –” Again, desperately, Keith calls upon the night spirit, but there is only silence, overlaid by the dull buzzing of flies. “I wished to see you, Lady Gleda,” he whispers. “And, and your twins, are they well?”

Lady Gleda lifts her head to look at him. Her eyes are not dull as he expected but bright, too bright, no longer ocean blue but something more poisonous. “The twins,” she repeats. “Yes. They are well.” She smiles, lips curling up too far at the corners. “How kind of you to visit me, dear. It gets so sad and lonely here. Will you be staying long?” 

“Only the night, I am afraid,” Keith says. “Where – where are the twins, Lady Gleda?”

Her smile falls abruptly, twists into a vicious scowl, and she slams her hand down on the table. Keith recoils. Warlord Ranveig does not even flinch. Blood beads up where her fingertip collided with a sharp splinter, but she does not seem to notice. “Enough about the twins!” she exclaims, and straightens up in her chair, smiling at him again. “They are well. I am well. Can’t you see?”

Matthew makes as if to move forward, but Keith shakes his head imperceptibly. “Yes,” he says to Gleda. “Yes, I can see. You have a beautiful home.”

She leans forward. Her hair is unpinned, wild. “How kind,” she says. “Would you like to see more of it? It is such a large keep, you know, and some rooms, some rooms I have never even stepped foot in –”

“Wife,” Ranveig growls. Gleda shrinks back, her face white, and lets out a high, startled giggle.

“Won’t you eat?” Ranveig asks Keith, voice pleasant again, or a facade of it, anyway. 

Keith glances from thane to peace-weaver. They are both looking at him expectantly. “I,” he starts, stutters, stops, “I am not hungry. I apologize.”

To his relief, Ranveig seems unbothered, though Lady Gleda’s eyes narrow, and do not move from him. “No need to apologize,” he says. “But you must have some mead.” He uncorks the bottle sitting before him, and grabs Keith’s mug without preamble. “Tell us, peace-weaver. What do the voices tell you?”

Keith freezes. The mug fills with mead. “The...voices?”

“Yes.” Ranveig tilts his head. “Listen. Can’t you hear them?”

The worst part is, when Keith tilts his head, he can hear — something. Voice seems the wrong word for it. It rasps, whispers, curls in his ear, and if the night spirit is soft mist, then this is sharp brambles, burying themselves under his skin and stinging as they twist ever tighter. Keith pulls away from it, and stares down at the mug of mead in his hand, which he does not remember ever picking up. In his panic, he drops it, the clang ringing out through the empty mead hall. The mead spills, puddles across the oaken table, drips over the sharp edge and into oblivion.

This time, Ranveig’s face twists with cold fury. Keith’s hand darts for his blade. Gleda stays silent and still as a ghost.

He is saved by the howling shriek of an infant, no, not one – two. Ranveig’s glare only darkens, but Lady Gleda leaps to her feet, swaying unsteadily and grasping for the chair as she does so. “The twins,” she gasps. 

Keith reaches out to help her, and she grasps his wrist, her long nails digging into his flesh. There is a long, taut moment between them, in which Keith stares into her haunted eyes and swears they glow, like Shiro’s – but green, not gold.

“Go, shut them up, you women are good at that,” Ranveig grumbles, and to Keith’s revulsion, grabs a chunk of rotting meat from the pig with his bare fist. Keith turns away before he can see the rest, but the sounds of loud, satisfied chewing and smacking lips follow them to the door. Matthew follows them, too, and as soon as the door is shut behind them, he tries to reach for Keith’s shoulder. He is stopped by Lady Gleda, who steps in front of the mercenary, towering over him, her mouth twisted.

“You ought to know better than to touch a peace-weaver, boy,” she says in a low hiss. “Return to your quarters. Sleep. It is late, and you do not want to linger too long in these halls after dark.”

Matthew gulps. Keith gives him a little nod, though his heart slams against his ribcage with each shallow breath. “Yes, my lady,” Matthew finally says, and turns, hurrying away up the stairs to the left from whence they came.

Lady Gleda turns to Keith. “You mustn’t let him touch you,” she murmurs. “Really, you mustn’t let any of them touch you...not even your husband.” Her nails drag over his cheekbone, stinging, hot. “But it is too late for that.”

“Why not?” Keith whispers, half-pleading. 

Her eyes are glowing a pale and wicked green. There can be no doubt, now.

“They want heirs from you,” Gleda whispers back, and her voice is the Voice, coiling thorns and rasping echoes. “But you are capable of so much more than that, Keith. We can give you more.”

Keith wants to take a step away, but when he looks into Lady Gleda’s eyes, he is paralyzed. “Who are you?” he breathes.

Lady Gleda smiles, and for the first time that night, she looks like her old self. “We are power,” she replies. “Power that is all yours for the taking.”

The words are acrid in the air, and something snaps between them – Keith stumbles away. He cannot hear the night spirit, nor can he be certain it was that which broke her spell, but he can feel the anxious ripples of its presence, or something very like it, through himself. With the ripples comes an answer, a true answer, to his question. He takes another step back. Lady Gleda watches him, calculating.

“No,” he says, “you are chaos.”

Lady Gleda’s smile slips off her face, and he is sure she is going to lunge, to sink her talon-nails into his throat, but the twins scream louder for their mother, and she shakes herself, and starts up the stairs to the right without looking back at him. 

Keith follows after a moment of inward battle – it is the twins’ cries that finally make the choice for him, because he thinks of Lady Gleda’s stinging touch, and of fragile newborn skin, and is taking the stairs up after her two at a time before his instinct to run from this cursed keep can win out over the instinct to protect vulnerable things. 

Lady Gleda does not address him, does not glance back, but the twins grow louder, and when they reach a landing, she walks down a twisting hall, and stops before a lone door. It is larger and made of paler wood than any of the other doors he has seen here. It has but a single iron knocker, carved in the shape of some unnameable beast. 

The twins’ cries aren’t coming from behind this door. 

Yet, Lady Gleda stares up at it, slowly pressing her palm to the pale wood – if it is wood at all. In the flickering torchlight and Keith’s uneasy imagination, it could just as well be bone. 

“What is in there?” Keith asks, though he knows he shouldn’t.

Then, she does turn, just enough to meet his eye. “A friend,” she says. She walks away, further down the hall, and further, and further, until Keith is certain the hall cannot possibly be as long as it seems. At length, another door rises up out of the gloom, the last door, at the hall’s end. Lady Gleda has no reverent pause here – she flings the door open, scowling, and stalks into the room. 

It is sparsely furnished, empty of decor save for a magnificent tapestry spread across the far wall, with the single huge crib at its base. The tapestry is of the same dragon in Keith’s room, but it stands over a single human figure, the king, and bathes him in fire. And the longer Keith looks at this dragon – the less it looks like a dragon at all, and more like something other, something twisted and unknowable. 

Lady Gleda throws back the pelt over the crib. Keith hurries to stand beside her, relieved both when she does not push him away, and when he sees the two babies within, staring up at them with huge blue eyes. They are perfectly normal human babies, not a bit of rot or glow about them, though Keith swears their eyes are round with terror. 

Any relief he had vanishes when Lady Gleda mutters, “They aren’t mine. Those – those aren’t my babies. Look at them. They’re wrong. Wrong, I tell you.”

“They look – fine to me,” Keith says, halting. “Did you name them what you wanted to?”

“Yes, yes,” she snaps, “Enya and Erin, but it doesn’t matter, don’t you see, because they took my babies, they changed them out for these little monsters, in the night, I didn’t see them but I know, I know they were here – a mother knows.”

“Who took them?” Keith is trembling. He thinks the twins are, too. 

She doesn’t answer. She stares down at the twins, lips moving in a mumbled mantra: A mother knows, a mother knows, a mother always knows.

Keith shakes his head. “Stop it,” he whispers. “You, power, chaos, whatever you are – stop this. You’re hurting her.” Lady Gleda keeps mumbling, and Keith raises his voice. “I know you can hear me. Take this delusion away from her, and – and I’ll listen to you, or, or do what it is you want, with me. Just – don’t hurt her or her babies.”

Her mumbling continues, but another voice enters the room, through the tapestry. The not-dragon’s head dips towards him. Swear it, the voice says. Swear that you will let us in.

Keith stares up into ruby eyes like live coals. “If you swear you will do as I asked, first.”

The not-dragon pauses. Its lips draw up in a jagged grin. We swear, it says. Your turn.

“I swear,” Keith says, ignoring the frantic ripples of familiar magic tugging at him, saying no words, but carrying an unmistakable meaning – no, no, no.

The instant after he says the words, Lady Gleda starts crying. She bows over the crib. “My babies,” she whispers, voice breaking, tears streaming down her wan face. “My only children left in this bloody, wretched world…”

“Lady Gleda,” Keith starts, “is...is there anything I can do…”

But it is like he is not there. She takes a child in each arm, and rocks them both to her breast until their cries subside. The madness is not gone from her eyes, but she says nothing of stolen children and imposters, and Keith knows – somehow, deep down – that the thing in the tapestry kept its oath to him.

Keith runs from the room, and down the hall, but it is hardly a hall at all – the pale door is gone, and he has hardly taken ten steps before he reaches the stairs. 

He takes them down two at a time, the back of his neck prickling all the while, swearing there are eyes on him, though when he looks, only the dark stone walls glare back at him.

*

Keith does not know what the oath he made entails, and this is his first mistake with the thing in Zeragat keep. 

He learns this well when sleep claims him too quickly, as soon as his head hits the pillow of the bed he never planned to stay the night in, and when his dreamscape is not the night spirit’s, but a cavernous nightmare.

Everything is pale porous stone dripping with black ooze, illuminated by sickly green torchlight. When he looks one way, his surroundings appear like a castle, another way, they are a cave, yet another, they become the vast skeleton of a beast that never quite died, for the walls of the cave heave, breathe, and the ground beneath his bare feet is sticky and spongy.  

Keith does not try to explore. He does not want to. He stands in place, arms wrapped around himself, for his body is bare here against any volition of his own, and the very air is noxious. He thought he had seen too many fantastic things to fear another, but here, he fears, with every fiber of his being.

Why, hello, there.

This voice is not like the night spirit’s. The night spirit soothes, softens. This is mocking, drawling, acidic.

“Show yourself,” Keith snaps. 

You first. You humans, so shy. Foolish.

Keith keeps his arms where they are. The cave shudders with displeasure. “This was not in our oath,” he says. 

Wasn’t it? Something slithers from the shadows. It is a long, dark, wriggling thing, and beyond it, there is a looming darkness, two rows of slitted eyes, three on each side, like venomous emeralds. More wriggling tendrils creep from its mass. They all ooze, but it is not black as Keith first thought, rather a dark, deep green. 

“No,” Keith snaps, his voice cracking. “It wasn’t. I —”

You swore to let us in. The dark mass elongates, a serpentine neck extending, curling around him, always remaining in the shadows of its own making. We meant what we said, Keith of Marmora. You are meant for greater things than bearing heirs. Your blood sings for more, and we hear it, and we have answered its call. 

“I never called to you,” Keith grits out, turning in a circle as the tendrils slither closer. “I swore to let you in and I did, I let you into my mind, my — dreams —”

One tendril wraps around his ankle. It is an almost casual gesture, but one laden with incredible malice. It squeezes gently, a reminder that it could yank him down, smother him into helpless bondage, in seconds. Keith stays utterly still, terrified. “Don’t,” he breathes. 

The cavern pulses. Poor little peace-weaver, the thing coos. How you have suffered in the land of men. This is not that land, and you would not suffer here. We keep our promises. You would have no heirs who die in your belly — no heirs at all, if you did not wish for them. For you are more than that, Keith of Marmora, more than a peace-weaver. 

Keith stares at the other tendril wrapping around his other ankle. “Is that what you told Warlord Ranveig and Lady Gleda before you drove them mad?”

It sighs in marked disappointment. They were poor hosts, it admits. Too twisted by grief already. We did not drive them mad. They were halfway there.

“Then what are you,” Keith whispers, “if not madness incarnate?”

We are of the Rift, it says. We have many names, but all fall short of our true nature. Our true power. Let us in, Keith of Marmora, and you will be more powerful than any in Galra. We feel your rage, your pain, your sorrow, your ambition. We feel your desire for revenge. Revenge is easy, with us. You could have all the blood you desire, and more. You could have your family back. It pauses. Even those you thought were lost to death – for nothing is truly lost, with us.

Keith’s gaze does not move from the tendrils. His feet are nearly buried in the dark ooze. It is warm, stinging. “What is the price?” he asks, softly.

There is no price, it says. To see your power is all we ask. To witness it, and marvel, and stand beside you through your victory, to see the fruits of your conquest.

“That’s what you truly want,” Keith whispers. “Chaos, more and more of it — isn’t it?”

The tendrils tighten instantly. Keith’s heart leaps into his throat as one reaches his thigh and squeezes hard enough to bruise. You have been spending too much time with the one who is not meant to meddle in you humans’ affairs. Tragic. We were willing to give, but you make us take. Selfish little peace-weaver...we will enjoy making you scream.

The cavern shakes, not like breathing but like something besieged, until the stone begins to crack and the ooze bubbles up in alarm. The serpentine neck curls away, green eyes darting back and forth. The tendrils slip away from Keith’s skin and he leaps back, ready to fight with his bare fists if he must to keep this vile thing away from him — but he never gets the chance. The ground opens up beneath him, and he falls, and falls. 

When he lands, it is on a black plain. The night spirit is there beside him, its face blank yet grim. It reaches out, helps him to his feet, and he all but collapses into its careful embrace. He is clothed again, and the ooze is gone from his skin, like it was never there.

Do not make oaths to monsters, the night spirit whispers, stroking his hair as he shudders and lets out shaky sobs against its starry skin, sobs of both broken relief and wretched fear. They are difficult to break.

“But — did you break it?” Keith gasps. “Or will it — will it be back for me?”

Ruin will never touch you again, the night spirit promises.

“Ruin,” Keith repeats. “Is that – what it is?”

Yes. Cast it out of your mind. It is unwise to let Ruin linger. It has made Zeragat its lair, and we did not know this, or we would have warned you away. The night spirit bows its head over him. This troubles us. Ruin’s kind rarely create such strongholds among humanity. Chaos is afoot. Tread carefully.

Keith looks up, brows drawing together. “There are others? Others like that thing?”

The night spirit gazes down at him. Yes, it says. We once told you not to confuse chaos with evil. 

“That thing was evil,” Keith snaps, shuddering as he tries to banish its phantom touch from him. “Do not try to convince me otherwise.”

Your instincts serve you well, the night spirit murmurs. Ruin’s kind seeks to destroy.

“I thought you said chaos also creates,” Keith whispers. 

Not this chaos, the night spirit says. Not the chaos of Ruin. Now, forget what you have seen, and when you wake, leave Zeragat – there is nothing more you can do here.

“Wait,” Keith gasps, clinging to the night spirit, “don’t leave, not yet. I – I need to stay here, with you, for a while longer. Please.”

The night spirit simply nods, and holds him closer. Hush, it murmurs. Remember, there is no need to beg, with us. You are strong, Keith of Marmora, and you are safe here. Hush, hush.

When Keith does awake, it is after a long period of deep and dreamless sleep. In the strange bedroom, with the tapestry glaring down at him, he cannot reach the night spirit, but he can feel its touch surrounding him, smoothing the fear away. When he curls his fingers around the ruby brooch at his bedside, the touch strengthens, solidifies into armor.

He dresses quickly, and when he opens the door, he finds Matthew Holt standing there, half-slumped against the stone wall. At first, Keith fears he’s dead, but – when he nudges him, the mercenary straightens up, clearing his throat and gripping the hilt of his sword. “Good morning,” Keith says. “Trouble sleeping?”

“I cannot sleep here,” Matthew mutters, rubbing his temples. His eyes are bloodshot.

“You were right not to,” Keith says. In his peripherals, he swears he can see dark ooze between the cracks in the stone. “I don’t intend to stay around for breakfast.”

“No,” Matthew agrees, his lip curling in disgust. “I have no desire for moldy sausages.”

“It isn’t funny,” Keith sighs, continuing on down the hall without checking to see if Matthew follows – he knows he will. “This place is a tragedy. It’s only going to get worse, until someday, this keep, and everyone in it, is nothing more than a ruin.”

The floor rumbles as if something beneath the earth is growling its displeasure. Keith ignores it.

The guards try to stop them as they walk out of the still, dark keep into the courtyard. “Wait!” one calls. “Warlord Ranveig said you were not to leave –”

There’s a wolfhound padding alongside the guards. There’s a cat in the kitchens, he tells it, and the wolfhound lets out a joyful bark, bounding away from its master and back into the keep. Alarmed, a guard starts after it, and in the commotion, Keith and Matthew run to the stables.

All that’s left of the stable boy is a pile of clothes and flies – rot creeps up the walls, clinging like repugnant moss. He was lost a long time ago. 

Matthew clamps a hand over his mouth. “Fuck,” he croaks. “What in the names of every bloody god happened here?”

Keith can smell the dead horses in their stalls, but cannot look at them. Stræl and Matthew’s gelding are at the end, the whites of their eyes visible. Keith doubts they slept much, either. He calls to them silently.I’m sorry, he says. We are here, now. Safe.

Away, Stræl pleads, far away. Run.

Yes, Keith agrees, and when he’s recovered her saddle and their meager supplies, that is exactly what he does.

*

“I don’t think we should continue south to Arus,” Matthew says when they make camp early, a few hours before dusk, since everyone but Keith is sleep-deprived. “After what we’ve just seen at Zeragat…”

“You saw nothing at Zeragat,” Keith says, idly stirring the embers of the cookfire with a twig, watching the end char to black. 

Matthew makes a scornful sound. “Oh, don’t you dare. There was something there, something evil –”

“Don’t speak of it,” Keith snaps. “Don’t think of it, either, or you’re just giving it more power.”

Matthew’s eyes widen. “You know what it was,” he whispers. “Don’t you?”

Keith doesn’t reply. He stares up at the trees. Here in the south, they are more scattered, giving way to wider hills and heaths, more open, with less places to hide. He misses his forest.

“Keith,” Matthew says.

Keith frowns, but keeps his silence. He is thinking of the white stone in that awful cave. He thinks it, like the door, was not stone at all.

“Keith,” Matthew repeats, and reaches out to nudge his knee.

Keith stiffens, draws his knees up and scrambles to his feet, tense and alert, blade drawn and trained on the mercenary. Matthew holds up both hands. “I’m sorry, I did not intend –”

Keith backs away. He can taste bile, feel the ring of bruises around his upper thigh, the ones that he got in the dream but remained when he awoke. “I am going to find dinner,” he says. “Look after the horses.”

Matthew’s brow furrows. “I’m sorry,” he repeats, quieter, subdued, but Keith is already hurrying off into the undergrowth, hoping for a rabbit, a chase to take his mind off of bruises and caves made of bone.

*

He sees the eagle before the hare.

A golden eagle, he thinks. It soars high above him, riding the dusk-burnt clouds and the last shreds of blue sky. It is an awesome sight. He waves up to it, and when it cries out its high-pitched call, he would like to believe it is a greeting returned. 

He forgets about hunting for awhile, watching its dark wingspan, as wide as he is tall, cut through the air effortlessly. Keith tries to speak to it, but it is too far away, and even if within reach, he does not know if it would reply. He must be but a speck to the eagle, small and insignificant. Eagles do not worry over crowns or young. They fly, hunt, live. Keith envies the simplicity of it. 

Then the eagle makes its swift descent, and Keith sees its target up ahead – a pair of hares, made less cautious by springtime, bounding through the high grass as the eagle’s shadow falls over them. Keith breaks into a sprint, wishing he had his bow, and stops at the top of the nearest hill, peering down as the eagle swoops, talons extended, and flaps its powerful wings furiously as it collides with the larger hare in a vicious burst of speed. The other hare wobbles away, stunned by the close encounter, and Keith makes his move, leaping from the grass, half-rolling down the hill, and hurling his blade into the startled hare.

It isn’t a clean kill, but it is a kill. The eagle shrieks at him in warning as he walks up to retrieve the hare, wings held like a shield over its prey. 

Hush, Keith tells it, slinging the hare over his shoulder and tilting his head at the eagle. Good hunt.

The eagle cocks its head back at him, brown-gold feathers fluffing up and yellow eyes glinting. Yes, is all it says. Then it clutches the hare in its golden talons and leaps aloft once more, flying towards the horizon, flying south. 

Keith wipes his bloodied blade on the grass and watches the sun set, until the sky is a tapestry aflame, and the eagle’s shrinking silhouette could almost be a dragon’s.

*

An hour later, it is dark, and he is eating roast hare with Matthew. The mercenary sits at a distance, his face pinched up in a seemingly permanent frown. Keith touches the ruby brooch at his throat. He misses Shiro. He does not want to, but he does, more and more with each moment they are apart. Yet he knows that if Shiro were here, he would not want Keith to continue on this fool’s errand. Or maybe he would. Maybe he would help Keith kill Sendak.

Matthew jolts him out of this reverie – he’s decided to resume conversation, apparently. “I know you don’t want to talk about Zeragat.”

Keith eyes him. “No.”

Matthew sighs. “Then we won’t talk about it. But – I think perhaps we should talk about your husband.”

Keith tears off a strip of hare with his teeth. “Then talk.”

Matthew sets down his hare. “My lord. I have seen things – I could not explain. And when Takashi and I were children, when the Galra attacked our village, I...I cannot explain what I saw that day. But it felt just how Zeragat did. Wrong. Cursed. And sometimes...sometimes Thane Shirogane feels like that, too.”

Keith swallows the piece of hare, and leans forward. “What did you see when the Galra attacked your village...when they took Shiro?”

Matthew shakes his head. “There were warriors, but their eyes...glowed. My father said it was a trick of the light afterwards, but I know it could not have been. And after those warriors came people, or, or things, in long, black, hooded robes. They were not human – not anymore. I saw one of their hands, when they took Takashi, and the other children. They were almost skeletal, and too white, as if they had never seen the sunshine. I had nightmares for years after. I still do.”

“How was Shiro when he returned?” Keith whispers. “Was he – different?”

Matthew’s smile is wry and the line between his brows is deep. “I hardly recognized him. He was older, of course...but it was not just that. Sometimes, his eyes glow, too. Sometimes his face gets a cruel look, one that does not fit him right. I heard the tales of what he did in his youth. He, and Sendak.” Matthew looks at Keith from across the fire, the flames painting his face in shifting streaks of light and dark. “Does he hurt you?” he asks, in a small, soft voice.

Keith draws in a deep breath of woodsmoke and night air. “No,” he says. “But – but I think he thinks he will, someday.”

“And what do you think?”

Keith tears off another piece of hare. “I think he must have a reason for thinking so,” he admits. “His eyes do glow, sometimes. His face does change – like he’s someone else.” Keith bites his lip. “And he has done cruel things, but I do not think he is one of those men who delights in cruelty.”

“Like Sendak,” Matthew says.

“Yes.” Keith swallows. “Like Sendak.” His eyes trace the wandering path of the drifting sparks, up towards the scattered stars. “Lord Sendak killed my father,” he adds. Matthew inhales sharply. “I hope that puts your suspicion that I wish to bed him firmly to rest.”

Matthew nods, but his expression is guarded. “Do you plan to kill him?” he asks. “With that blade of yours?”

Keith shrugs. “I don’t know, yet,” he says. “Maybe. If the opportunity arises.”

Matthew is not convinced. “You would have to get very close to use a blade like that.”

Keith scrubs at his tired eyes with his palm. “Matthew Holt, I do not know what they say about me in Garris, but I am not some lethal seductress. Nor do I want to be. Alright? I’m just – me. I’m just Keith. It wasn’t my bloody fault that Shiro found me beautiful. Sometimes I wish he hadn’t – sometimes I wish my damn face had been sliced open in that battle, so that he never would have seen me.”

Keith leans back and sighs. “But he did see me, and I became his peace-weaver. I didn’t have a choice. Galra didn’t give me one. Marmora didn’t give me one. He didn’t give me one. I have a choice in this, now. I knowsomething is happening in Galra, to Galran heirs. I don’t care if Shiro doesn’t believe me; he isn’t here. If I kill Sendak, that’s that. But what I want is to know, Matthew Holt, to understand what it is he wants, why he’s killing heirs, if he is.” Keith folds his arms. “Does that make sense?”

Matthew nods hastily. “Yes. Yes. I — I didn’t know Shiro chose you. I thought King Zarkon —”

“King Zarkon ordered him to marry,” Keith sighs. “But I think his cock ordered him to marry me.”

Matthew doesn’t laugh. “You really think that’s all he feels for you?”

“It would be easier if that were so,” Keith replies. “Maybe I would miss him less.”

“My lord,” Matthew murmurs, “I’ve never seen Thane Shirogane as happy as he is with you. The last time I saw him smile and laugh so easily, we were children. You didn’t choose this, it’s true. But…I know they did something to him, when he was with the Queen’s Druids. He didn’t choose that, either. He knows what it is to — to lose agency. To lose...humanity. The Shiro I know would never want you to lose that, too.”

“And the Shiro we don’t know?” Keith asks quietly. “What does he want?”

“I think they both care for you,” Matthew mutters. “Whether or not that is a good thing — that, I cannot say.”

Keith’s thigh aches. He tucks his legs together, folds them under himself. They sit there in uneasy silence and crackling flame for awhile, finishing the hare. Keith tosses the bones far away. Matthew notices, but wisely says nothing.

“We leave at dawn,” Keith says when the hare is gone and the fire is all smoldering embers. “Are you still with me?”

“I’m with you, my lord,” Matthew agrees. “South at dawn it is.”

*

The further south they ride, the terrain becomes more difficult, rocky and mountainous, and the horses have to rest more often. They follow the Pyraline River, which Matthew claims ends in Arus Lake, and will lead them straight to Sendak’s keep there. It’s a long river, two days’ ride if the land was flat, three days’ ride because it isn’t. Matthew insists on finding them breakfast, but Keith is much better at fishing than he is – they end up with a rather bedraggled blackbird, along with some blackberries and mushrooms Keith swears won’t make Matthew hallucinate. Keith wants to stop to make soup, but they don’t have time.

They stop briefly to cook the salmon Keith caught for lunch on the banks of the Pyraline, a stone’s throw from a waterfall roaring over the sheer cliffs, breaking off into silvery ribbons as it falls into the rushing river. “What was Shiro like, as a child?” Keith asks, admiring the colorful light within the waterfall’s mist.

Matthew sighs and stretches out on the mist-glittering grass. “He was sickly,” Matthew admits. “So was his mother, Tsuya...before she died.”

Keith looks away from the waterfall, surprised. “Sickly? Were his brothers, also?”

“Oh, no,” Matthew says. “Takashi’s brothers were as hale and hardy as boys can be. But...well, it may shock you to know, I was not exactly a brave little warrior as a child. That’s why Takashi and I got along so well. We preferred going on adventures in the woods to sword fighting and wrestling with the other boys, Takashi’s brothers included. A few times, Takashi tried. But he often got hurt – usually by Kuro. His father always blamed Takashi, though – told him he had a delicate constitution, ought to be more careful.”

“I – Shiro had a delicate constitution?” Keith exclaims. 

Matthew purses his lips. “Yes. I don’t know what his illness was, but it made him very weak sometimes, and he’d be hardly able to lift a finger. He was a small child, too, believe it or not. Small and skinny. I thought the Galra killed him for certain when they took him that day.”

“Your father said the Galra took other village children,” Keith cuts in.

Matthew closes his eyes. “Yes. They did. I don’t know what became of them. I never saw them again, Takashi was...he was the sole survivor, I think.”

“What did they want with all of them?” Keith muses. “Why did they kill Shiro’s warrior brothers and take him as prisoner? Wouldn’t they want more warriors?”

Matthew hesitates. “All the children they took – they were all young, around his age: seven summers old. Come to think of it...none of them were older than seven. They even took babies.” Matthew opens his eyes. “And they got their warriors, in the end. Look at the mighty Thane Shirogane now. No matter the illness he had, there isn’t a trace of it, now.”

“What did they do to him?” Keith whispers.

“The same thing they did to Sendak, I expect.”

They finish their salmon in silence, with the waterfall’s dull roar as company.

*

They make camp in a cave that night, a shallow alcove near another, smaller waterfall. Matthew falls asleep before Keith, who sits at the cave’s edge, leaning against the smooth, wet stone. The horses are dozing in the meadow below, but he isn’t worried about them – Keith knows from questioning a noisy jay earlier that this place has very few predators, secluded and inaccessible as it is.

No, he’s worried about Shiro. And maybe he shouldn’t be. The gods only know how many he’s killed, what he’s done, what’s he’s capable of. But Keith cannot help it...just like he cannot bring himself to hate Shiro. What he once told his mother is true – Shiro is a complicated man who keeps many things hidden. Keith thinks Shiro keeps these things hidden because they frighten him. 

Whatever the Galra did to Shiro – that frightens him, too. 

Keith closes his eyes and calls out to the night spirit. It replies only when he has slipped into the first stages of sleep, not in the black plain but in a hazy gray in-between place. It wraps around him, murmuring slow greetings. 

Keith embraces it in turn, lets himself sink for a while into the gentle, undemanding touch. But then he remembers his true reason for calling the night spirit to him, and pulls away. “I miss Shiro,” he says simply.

The night spirit sighs in a mildly resigned way. We know. Ask what it is you wish of us, Keith of Marmora.

“I want to go into his dreams,” Keith says. “You can do that, can’t you? You said, last time, that we were dreaming of the same thing –”

That was a shared subconscious, and therefore balanced, the night spirit reproaches. But to enter his dream, and to replace his mind’s perception of you with the actual Keith – 

“Creates unbalance, yes, I know,” Keith sighs, “but I’ll behave, I won’t do anything to make him suspect it’s, well, me. I promise. Please. I just – want to see him.”

The night spirit pauses, then heaves another sigh. Act wisely, Keith of Marmora. We will be forced to remove you if you upset the balance of his dreams in any way. Do you understand?

“Yes, yes, we have a deal, thank you,” Keith gasps, relieved, and the night spirit swirls around him in reluctant affirmation before the hazy gray melts away to a familiar bedroom. Keith is sitting on the edge of the bed, wearing the fur cloak Shiro gave him, and the ruby brooch, and nothing more. It is predawn, the sky is bruised blue, lightening at the edges. The room is quiet, peaceful. He hears footsteps from just outside, and turns to look.

Keith stops himself from making a highly undignified squawk when Shiro steps into the room, fully disrobed save for the linen wrapped around his waist, and dripping wet as if he’d just stepped from the bath, but Keith cannot possibly stop himself from beaming helplessly at the sight. 

Shiro grins back, though he looks a bit puzzled. “Hello,” he says. “Everything alright…? Oh – !”

This is a dream, and Shiro does not know it is him, so Keith leaps from the bed and hurls himself into Shiro’s arms without any reservations. Shiro catches him, his touch warm but hesitant, and Keith buries his face in Shiro’s neck and whispers, “Gods, I missed you.”

Shiro’s arms tighten. “I – I missed you too, my heart,” he whispers back, uncertain. 

Keith swallows back the strange, overwhelming emotion rising in his throat, and pulls away just enough to cup Shiro’s face, stroking his thumb over the darker, thicker stubble that has grown there since he saw Shiro last. “How were the raids?” he asks. “Have you won great treasures to bring back to Garris?”

“My greatest treasure is already here,” Shiro replies, and scoops Keith up effortlessly, depositing him on the bed and climbing over him, wet hair dripping through the fur cloak. The brooch-pin is only so effective at keeping the cloak closed, and it falls open under Shiro’s eager hands, baring a long strip of skin from the middle of Keith’s chest to the join of his thighs. 

Keith holds very still, and tries to hold himself limp and passive, quietly yielding to the thane’s touch, for that is probably how Shiro imagines him in these dreams. He hopes, with sudden apprehension, that Shiro’s fantasies about him are nothing too terrible. He thought he had forgotten Sendak’s words at that first feast-fire, but they return to him with a vengeance now, here in Shiro’s dreamscape, at his mercy.

But then Shiro pulls back, his brow low and eyes bright. “What is wrong, my heart?” he murmurs. “Do you need me to stop?”

Keith blinks at him, bewildered. Even in Shiro’s fantasies, he puts Keith’s comfort first? It makes no sense. Just to see what he will do, Keith says, “Yes,” and to his utter confusion, Shiro moves off of him at once, lying beside him and keeping some space between them. 

Shiro’s expression is earnest and soft. “Are you alright?” he whispers. “Are you –” he swallows, gaze darting downwards, “in pain?”

Keith sucks in a sharp breath. The emotion in his throat tightens. “No,” he whispers back, and carefully takes Shiro’s hand, lifts it up onto his own hip until Shiro’s fingers curl around it. “No, I’m – better. I heal fast. Don’t worry.” Hesitantly, he shifts closer to kiss the thane, and his kiss is returned with the utmost tenderness. 

It’s almost absurd. Shiro could do anything he wanted to Keith right now, here, and yet all he’s doing is kissing Keith softly, tucking his arm around Keith’s waist so he can snuggle in closer. 

“How could I not worry?” Shiro whispers against his cheek. “I hate that I left you when you needed me, or, or someone there, to be with you.”

“It’s alright,” Keith insists. “You have other duties. I understand.”

Shiro frowns, and noses into Keith’s hair, quiet for a while. Then he says, in a small voice, “The first week I was away from you, I had nightmares of you, in pain, of your voice, calling my name, calling for help, but no matter how fast I ran, I could never find you. I could never reach you in time. My mother had the gift of prophecy, you know. Her dreams came true.” His hands tremble on Keith’s skin. “I have always been more like my mother than my father, but I pray to all the gods that I do not share her gift. Are you safe, Keith? Will you be alive and well when I return?”

“I am,” Keith tells him at once, and kisses him harder, sinking his hands into Shiro’s hair. “I’m right here, husband. I’m with you. Kiss me.”

Shiro does. Keith loses himself to it, and does not know if it is the dream that makes him so dizzy and afloat, or if it is simply Shiro. He thinks it a little of both, because Keith is suddenly under Shiro, though he does not think either of them moved, and Shiro’s hands are stroking down his body, squeezing and petting appreciatively as they go. His palms spread Keith’s thighs, and Shiro starts kissing down his neck and chest, pushing aside the furs impatiently to kiss each nipple until Keith’s toes are curling, and he moves further down, dropping a kiss just below Keith’s navel. 

“Let me suck your cock,” Shiro whispers, and Keith groans in shock and arousal. Shiro nips at his hip. “Please.”

“Yes, yes,” Keith gasps, and Shiro licks his way through dark hair, curls his tongue around Keith’s hardening clit, a wet tease before closing his lips around it and sucking, hard. Keith shouts, for even after the night spirit, even after fucking Shiro beside the black pool, this is so much more, so much more real. 

He’s so consumed by the sensation that it takes him a while to realize Shiro’s mouth is full, and while his body was unchanged before, Keith can now see the fat head of a cock pushing up from inside Shiro’s cheek, and he can feel Shiro licking over the swollen length, greedy and messy.

Keith laughs breathlessly, because of course, Shiro would want to choke on his cock, of all things. Gods. The man has a serious oral fixation, and Keith isn’t complaining – he certainly has plenty of fixations of his own. Keith’s laughter makes Shiro lift his head, and Keith stops laughing and starts moaning at the sight of his cock slipping from Shiro’s mouth, connected to his lips by a shiny string of spit. Keith strokes Shiro’s hair back from his face, transfixed, as Shiro’s eyes flutter shut and he licks his lips. 

Keith doesn’t mean to say it. But it’s the only word he has for the warmth in his chest, in his belly, in his blushing face, spreading like wildfire when Shiro looks up at him.

“I love you,” Keith gasps.

Shiro’s eyes widen. He sits up, squeezes Keith’s thigh, and says, almost shyly, “You, too. So much.”

“Shiro,” Keith whispers, and reaches out, but the dream dissolves around him, and he awakes with a start in the cave. It’s raining outside. Stræl whinnies to him, and Matthew waves from where he’s saddling up his gelding. 

“Apologies, didn’t want to wake you! You were smiling, it was adorable.”

Keith tosses a large pebble in his general direction, heaves himself to his feet, and tells himself it was only a dream, though his heart beats twice as fast for hours after.

*

But he returns again that night. This time, he isn’t in their bedroom at Garris. He’s in a dark tent, illuminated only by a half-melted candle in the far corner. It casts long shadows, flickering and dancing, but Keith has little time to see them, because Shiro is kissing him, braced heavy and hot over him, and – ah, yes, huh, evidently Keith has entered Shiro’s dream at the same time that Shiro has entered him. 

Keith hopes the night spirit can forgive him for yelping at the top of his lungs as Shiro fucks fully into him in one hard thrust – he’s wet, so Dream Keith must have been enjoying things and prepared up to this point, but oh, Real Keith sees stars. 

The surprising thing is that Shiro doesn’t stop at the sound. He growls, maybe in reply and maybe not, and sets a brutal pace immediately. Keith gasps out curses under him, scrabbling at Shiro’s back; he thinks he draws blood. Shiro doesn’t falter. He’s stopped kissing Keith, and moves instead to suck and bite at his throat and shoulders. 

Keith moans, panting into Shiro’s neck and whimpering when Shiro fucks into him even harder – although it makes Keith even wetter, each thrust sends a dull, throbbing ripple of torn pleasure through him. It doesn’t hurt, exactly, it just doesn’t feel – right. Shiro feels – bigger, and the shape feels different, longer and twisting, forcing his cunt wider, deeper.

Then Keith blinks back the tears gathering in his eyes and stares at the black tendrils lifting from Shiro’s back. There were only maybe a dozen when the night spirit showed him Shiro before, but now, there are – hundreds, thousands, filling the entirety of the tent with their writhing shadow. 

Keith bites back a scream and tries to twist away, forgetting his promise to the night spirit in his surprise and panic, and this time, Shiro does pause, pulling back from the mess of bruises he’s made on Keith’s neck and peering down at him with – golden eyes. There can be no mistaking it, now – his eyes are glowing, glaring gold, and his expression does not look like Shiro at all.

Time is frozen between them. Keith gapes up at him, his body still shuddering around Shiro’s cock, Shiro’s clawed hand digging into the skin over his hip with increasing pressure. Keith inhales, exhales. Shiro says nothing, just tilts his head, slow and studying. 

Keith’s voice is tiny but steady when he whispers, “Do you want to hurt me, husband?”

Shiro blinks. The swaying tendrils still, then vanish, along with Shiro’s golden eyes, which blink out like a snuffed candle, returning to dark gray. He’s scrambling away from Keith in an instant, looking around wildly, breathing fast and hunching in on himself. “No,” he snarls, bowing his head, “no, you were to stay away from him, that was our deal –”

The deal does not extend to dreaming.

Keith covers his mouth with a muffled curse and draws his knees up to his chest. The voice echoes through the tent, hollow and ancient, and distinctly displeased. Keith’s heard voices like that before – at Zeragat. But this isn’t Ruin. This is – something else. The very air crackles with its anger, raising every hair on Keith’s body.  

Shiro shakes his head, grabbing at his own hair and pulling as if to rip it away. “He doesn’t – he doesn’t want it, he doesn’t want you –”

Us. The voice is closer. Keith wraps his arms around himself, barely daring to breathe. Dreams want whatever we want. But this – The voice laughs, sudden and sharp, and Keith flinches. This is no dream. Clever boy. 

Shiro’s eyes widen in horror and he looks to Keith. “What? What do you – what do you mean, it isn’t, you’re lying, you always lie – Keith –”

“Takashi, shh,” Keith whispers, reaching out to him, “it’s – it’s alright, you’re dreaming, I’m a dream, you – you can’t hurt me, you wouldn’t, I know, I know you –”

The laughter grows louder, shaking the tent, the earth, the thane and the peace-weaver. He knows us, it mocks. No, boy, you don’t know us. But you will. 

“No!” Shiro screams, lunging forward, just as his eyes flare gold and the shadows overtake him again, and the ground falls out from below Keith, sending him tumbling back into hazy gray. Keith tries desperately to claw his way back up, because he needs to help Shiro, to save him; he cannot leave him with that thing –

He does not wake immediately.

The night spirit stands before him, but its back is turned, head bowed. “Send me back,” Keith whispers. “Please. I can fix it, I can restore the...the balance, I can –”

You cannot visit Thane Shirogane’s dreams anymore.

Keith recoils. “Wait – no, that isn’t fair, at least give me a chance –”

You would never wake, the night spirit murmurs. We were wrong to send you to such a place. It is not a place meant for mortals.

“But – Shiro –”

Have you forgotten what we told you when we first met? Your husband met death long ago. There is nothing you can do for him – not there.

“What are you saying?” Keith pleads. “That – it brought him back?”

It killed him, the night spirit sighs, and Keith opens his eyes to the morning sky. 

*

Their final day’s ride to Arus is solemn and quiet. Keith isn’t in the mood for talking. 

“Almost there,” Matthew says, shading his eyes with a hand as he gazes out at the gleam of Arus Lake, and the large keep perched beside it, on the slope of a mountain crag. 

The path up to the keep is winding and empty. They pass no other travelers, and once they are upon the mountain, even the birds are silent. Arus is a squat and blocky keep. It has no towers, few windows, from what Keith can see. A single flag snaps from the ramparts. No one is on watch. 

Keith imagines the portcullis is a mouth, jaws grinding open, ready to devour as they approach. 

Run, Stræl says.

Keith does not reply. He rides forward. Matthew hesitates, but follows.

The courtyard is empty, save for a single figure, robed and hooded in black. Keith rides up to him, and stops ten paces away. “You were expecting us,” Keith says.

The figure says nothing, but inclines its head. Keith dismounts. He can feel Matthew’s eyes on him, before he, too, dismounts. He hopes, if nothing else, that Matthew is not harmed here, for helping him. If he were a more selfless man, he might have sent Matthew away before the portcullis closed behind them.

But Keith does not want to be alone here.

He hands Stræl’s reins to Matthew and starts forward. “Then you know that I am Keith of Marmora, and I seek an audience with Lord Sendak of Arus.”

It inclines its head again, then extends a hand to him, pale and so thin it is nearly skeletal. It speaks in a voice like the wind through dry reeds. “I am Macidus. Welcome to Arus, peace-weaver.”

Chapter Text

Shiro is no stranger to bad dreams.

Nightmares have plagued him since his long, cold, lonely nights in Queen Honerva’s orphanage. Even now, nearly two decades later, he can remember those thin cots, lined up in neat rows under the vaulted ceiling. There were no windows, there was no sunlight. Queen Honerva kept Shiro and the other children deep underground, away from prying eyes, closer to her mysterious masters. Sometimes, the earth rumbled, the dormitory shook, and Shiro could only close his eyes and hope the ceiling wouldn’t cave in.

He had the worst nightmares in those days – worse, because they came true. In the morning, the scratches and bruises were still there, and that touch, like the flat of a blade sliding over his skin with such tender cruelty, lingered for days afterwards. 

Now, he feels that touch all the time. What had once terrified him so is now almost mundane. 

Almost.

Shiro leans back on the bench, boots kicked up on the table, idly drinking his mead and watching his warriors revel in that day’s spoils. They’d stormed a ‘church,’ one of those strange buildings with the colorful windows and crosses everywhere – more importantly, with lots and lots of gold, silver, and fine gemstones. Shiro hadn’t stopped his warriors from slaying the robed priests with their bald heads and skin like candle wax – they unnerved him. But the worshipers were more or less left alone, as long as they were smart, and cowered under the pews rather than put up a fight. 

And, well, as long as they were not beautiful women.

Shiro has learned, however, that his warriors are easily swayed to ignore such would-be victims if promised a night or two at the nearest brothel. They are even more easily convinced if Shiro’s blade is to their throat. Thankfully, he has not had to deal with any of his own men on this raid. 

He drinks more mead, watching over the rim as two warriors leer and grope at the passing barmaid, who is not just a barmaid, but nearly drops her tray of ale nonetheless. The warriors laugh, and Shiro frowns. The barmaid makes a flustered, hasty retreat before anything else spills. Shiro looks down at his thigh, where his right hand curls, claws stinging as they dig into his own skin through leather pants. The warriors are Branko’s, not his. It could cause war if he attacked them.

Branko’s authority is meaningless, the voice in his head whispers, in the face of your power. You know you could end him and his reign in a moment. 

Shiro drinks more mead.

Most of the other warriors have already found bedpartners for the night. Shiro’s raiding party is made up of Branko and Janka’s warriors, as well as his own, and they are all lusty men – some younger than others – whose blood still sings from the thrill of battle, longing for more.

Tonight, the mere thought of bedding anyone makes Shiro’s stomach roil. Whenever he closes his eyes, the memory of Keith’s horrified face resurfaces, unbidden. But what haunts him more is the possibility that somehow, it was not a dream. That somehow, he really did hurt Keith, put that horror and revulsion in his eyes. 

It makes no sense that it could be real. Then again, few things in Shiro’s life follow logic and reason. He has to know. 

But, as it often is, the voice is silent. Silent, but not gone – never gone. It simply slumbers, and so Shiro must awaken it. 

At his feet, Cosmos whines, lifting his head for a pet. Shiro indulges him briefly before rising from his bench and leaving the brothel and his empty mug. The night air is warm, stroking through his hair with invisible fingers. Cosmos follows him out, ears pricked and bright eyes expectant, but Shiro orders him to stay near the door. He must be alone for this.

Shiro walks through the quiet village, back to the ransacked church. The village is quiet because the villagers are afraid. Shiro catches the pale flash of a face in a window, ducking away when he looks in their direction. Once, this would have upset him. Now, he feels only vague disappointment.

He keeps walking, the sword at his hip heavy. The church doors are flung wide open, one hanging off its hinges. They are good doors, made of dark oak. No expense is spared for these churches. Yet their god never comes to their aid when the northerners come knocking. Shiro admires their foolish tenacity, if nothing else. From what he knows of their god, he is supposed to be a nice fellow. A source of comfort, a protector, a father. 

But Shiro has met the true gods, and they are none of these things. Nor are they worshiped in pretty buildings, with altars and gold. 

The true gods accept only one currency.

Shiro walks down the center aisle, head tilted, listening for any tell-tale signs of life – a stifled gasp, a rustling robe. But all is still. He draws his blade anyway, the rasping sound echoing through the sacred space, and approaches the altar. The priest is sprawled out beside it, flies buzzing over him, but not as many as there would be if they’d left him out in the sun. Shiro regards him with a raised brow. His face is forever twisted in fear, and wrinkled like a withered apple, his remaining white hair caked in dry blood where he hit the floor. 

“I do not know what your people’s burial rites are,” Shiro says to him, “but I think this probably goes against them. I apologize. You served your god well – maybe he will forgive you. But, maybe not.”

He cuts the priest’s robe away with little care, then kneels fully to start cutting his chest open. It is tedious work, and Shiro is numb to most of it – easier, that way. The man is not long dead, so the cutting is difficult, but at length Shiro cracks through his ribcage and closes clawed fingers around the still-warm heart. He tugs it free with a weak spurt of dark blood. 

In his palm, the source of lifeblood looks a pathetic and puny thing. Shiro wrinkles his nose and places the organ on the altar, then drives the tip of his sword into the heart’s heart.

It bleeds, but the blood darkens to black as it flows, covering the altar and dripping off down the sides. It never reaches the ground, breaking off and condensing into golden sparks which drift around him like glowing dust motes. It is beautiful, but deceptive. 

The heart begins to shrivel, then crumbles away into ash. The ashes swirl among the gold, creating a shifting pattern of dark and light, filling the moonlit church. The shadows behind the altar lengthen. 

Shiro’s skin prickles everywhere. “Come out,” he commands, as if he has any power over this thing. “We need to talk.”

The air ripples in a lazy yet violent motion, swirling around him, around the altar, like a demented river current, a widening whirlpool. The gold and ash swirls with it, ever upwards, until a silhouette forms, looming over him. We are talking.

Shiro is afraid of it, as he must always be. To be afraid of it is to remain vigilant. If he forgets that fear, lets himself lapse into complacency, then he would be surrendering to it. And that, he can never allow himself to do, because that is exactly what it wants of him.

He lifts his chin. “I need to know what you meant when you said that dream was no dream. What else could it be? Are you taking my body places without my knowing, now? Breaking your sworn promises?”

Golden eyes narrow. The shadows circle him. I see now why you were so protective of him. He’s powerful. And clever, yet naive. A dangerous combination.

Shiro’s jaw works. “I need to know what you meant,” he repeats. 

Amusement ripples with the violence. And what would you do, if I had broken our promise? If I had touched him…?

“Against his will,” Shiro spits, failing to control his tone and temper, which he knows only amuses and provokes it more. “You could have ruined him, in mind and body, if I had let you continue —”

The amusement falls away. The shadows settle into a shape, not of a man, nor a beast, but something in-between yet utterly other. I am not my little brother Ruin, it reproaches. To ruin him would be a waste. He interests us. Fascinates us, even. That is all.

“That is worse than if you hated him,” Shiro whispers. “Answer me, you wicked creature.”

It sighs. It was a dream, it says. But that Keith was not created by me, nor you. He created himself. He was there of his own will, not ours. That is why we could not subdue him.

“You could have.” 

It laughs, then, softly. Oh, I see. Is that what you want? For us to subdue him, to control him, to command him completely? It can be arranged, easily — 

Shiro’s breath hitches. “No —”

The shadows laugh at him, louder, smug. I think it is. He liked it, you know. Squirming under us, begging for more, even when he became afraid. We could make it so good for him, Takashi, so good he would know nothing but our power and pleasure for the rest of his life. Don’t you trust us? 

Shiro’s jaw works furiously. “Stop.”

No, it murmurs, wrapping around him, in tight, undulating coils of shifting light-dark, of violet and gold and endless black. Shiro doesn’t even try to fight it, not at first, not even when it shifts against him with purpose, forces its way between his thighs to rub and rock in a slow, firm tease. You don’t believe me. But we are always right, Takashi. Always. Look. 

Shiro doesn’t want to, but his head is forced up, up to look at the altar, stained red. Keith is spread out across it, spread-eagled and bound, gagged, blindfolded. He cannot move at all, except to curl his toes, to curl his fingers into fists, to swallow the drool running down from the corners of his mouth, to breathe in unsteady expansions of his chest, and to shudder and twitch as ghostly hands drift over him, teasing and merciless. 

There is no fight left in him. Tears drip from below the blindfold, soaking his flushed cheeks, falling into his forced-open mouth. He is gasping, moaning in muffled tones like he is trying to say something, anything, but has forgotten how to form words. 

Yet his body is alive with arousal, with dizzying and unceasing want. His nipples are hard and dark, shiny and pink at the tips, and his clit is even moreso, red and swollen and aching and huge in its neediness, even as Keith’s face crumples to near-pain when the silvery fingers pluck at it again and again. He’s wet, too. Wet, filled to the brim with swollen violet tendrils, and yielding to more and more, though it should not be possible. Keith’s head lolls back. He makes a low, pleading sound, and convulses into climax.

Shiro is as entranced as he is horrified. 

Look at him. You could have him like this. He would cry your name loud enough for the damned king to hear. He might even say I love you back.

Shiro jerks away, anger hot and metallic in his mouth — or maybe that’s blood as he bites his tongue, snapping himself out of the spell. “That isn’t him,” he snarls, bucking against its bruising grip on him, against the coils which stroke at where his cock juts in helpless response to the scene before him. “He is not yours. Let go. Let go of him!”

Its disappointment darkens the church, turns the glass windows colorless, the spilt blood black, the priests’ robes bone-white. He makes you weak, it warns. The Keith on the altar starts to struggle, the blindfold tearing free, revealing violet eyes which fly wide in terror as they meet Shiro’s. And he is not yours, either. A mistake, to give him such freedom. We should be his master. His king. But you let him defy you. Defy us. He grows stronger in his defiance, and you turn a blind eye. 

The ghostly hands squeeze Keith hard, the tendrils twist inside him. Keith screams behind the gag, writhing, trying to escape — but there is nowhere to go. Shiro fights its bonds now, viciously, with all his might. But its might is his might. It might as well be him doing this to Keith. Bile rises in his throat. He fights harder, anyway.

Its laughter now is cruel, deeply mocking. You trust him. You think he will choose not to betray you, not to betray Galra for his own gain. But why should he not? If he slips his knife between your ribs, why should we help you? You said it yourself. He is more a king than you are. So why should we not abandon you, and take him, instead?

Shiro is always afraid of it. But this fear is not for himself. He strains forward, frantic. “No,” he gasps, “no, please, no, whatever you want, not that, never that —”

Whatever we want? The hands release Keith, pause, as if considering. Keith trembles, staring at them, at nothing, at everything, at Shiro. Its hum fills the quiet church. We want him.

“Not like this,” Shiro begs. “Don’t — don’t hurt him.”

Are you afraid we will do to him what we did to the brothel boys? One hand lengthens, sharpens, into a blade. Shiro goes still, and so does Keith, as the blade drags down the center of Keith’s chest. It never cuts through, but it could. It chuckles. Well...we do miss the brothel boys. Let us have more of them before you return to your peace-weaver, and maybe there will be no bloodshed.

Shiro glares. He stops struggling. He holds his head high and ignores Keith’s soft whimpering. “Not maybe,” he says. “There will be none. Not with Keith. And there will be no brothel boys. I will slaughter all the priests and enemy warriors you want, but I’m not going to fuck any of them.”

Then we want to taste his blood, it growls. We want to make him scream.

“One time,” Shiro warns. “That is all you get. And there are — there are rules.”

The shadows uncoil from around him and surge towards Keith. His cry is muffled. It isn’t real. Shiro has to keep telling himself that...just another trick. Tell us your rules, then.

“One, he has to want it,” Shiro says. “No coercion. No violence to get your way.”

Our way, it mutters.

“Two, I can stop it at any time,” Shiro continues. “At any time. Understood?”

It hums in vague affirmation. The Keith on the altar is covered in writhing shadow and flickering gold. 

“And three,” Shiro whispers, “you cannot make him fear me.”

A little fear is good, it murmurs. What if we want him to fear us? You said whatever we wanted. Liar.

“That’s not —”

Or is this what you want, Takashi?

The shadows around Keith tighten, throb, and Keith breaks free of his bonds, only to arch with a strangled howl off of the altar. His eyes roll back, his nails rake across the wood, his body shakes, and he is consumed. All is still, and then — he rises. 

Lifted by an invisible force, Keith stands, floating above the altar, his hair a wild dark tangle around his face, a crown of wicked thorns. His pale skin glows, unnaturally bright in the gloom. Gold and violet drips down his thighs, covering them in spiderwebs of color. Dark shadows swirl from his back, his hips, searching tendrils like bruised tongues. His knuckles crack, black claws burst from both hands, the shadow veins spreading up each forearm. His lips part, revealing his long tongue, his serrated teeth.

His eyes snap open. They glow gold. 

Shiro knew they would, but he startles back anyway at the wrongness of it all. 

We want fear, Keith says. We want control. We want a king.

“Not him,” Shiro breathes. “Please.”

Then he will fear us, it concludes. He will fear you, as he ought to. He will serve you. He will give you your heir — your throne. And you will give him the love of a king. Isn’t that what you wanted, Takashi? It coos, wraps around him soft and warm as it recedes from Keith, leaving him looking like himself, smiling and alive and happy and beautiful, wrapped in ermine and velvet, crowned in gold and rubies. 

He could never love you otherwise, Takashi, it murmurs, not after all you have done to his people. Shiro flinches, filled with sharp shame. He could never love you as you have pretended to be, as the gentle thane with a good heart. We both know you are not that. If he is to love you, he must fear you, first. Teach him to obey, to serve, to kneel. Your wolf loves you, but he feared you first.

“Keith is not a wolf,” Shiro says weakly.

No, he is a Marmoran warrior with a sword you gave to him, it says. He already had teeth. You gave him permission to use them...against us.

Shiro swallows. “I didn’t —”

How foolish must you be to think your peace-weaver could defeat us, Takashi? It sighs, and Keith vanishes into smoke. If he did, he would only kill your body, and I would take him. I don’t think he would resist. I think we could persuade him...especially after he had killed you. Such a toll it would take on him...he might even be at death’s door. I would be his only hope.

“I understand,” Shiro says dully. “He cannot be allowed to wield a weapon against us. It...it is better if he is...afraid.”

I know this is difficult, it says. But the path of my champion is not an easy one. It will be worth it, in the end. You will have your kingdom and your love. 

Shiro stares at the floor. He thinks it might have gone when he finally says, “But...how was Keith there, in our dream, of his own will?”

A cold wind rattles the windows and makes Shiro shiver through his leather armor and mail. He is powerful, it says simply, but not that powerful. I do not think he will return again. Cast it out of your mind. He is gone now, far away; but the battle is near, and we are hungry for it.

It leaves, then. Shiro stares at the altar. He tries to imagine Keith there, praying for deliverance from gods who never listen. “I’m so sorry, my heart,” he whispers, and walks away. 

*

Keith and Matthew eat dinner in the mead hall at Arus alone. There is no rotting food — the feast is simple but delicious, made unnerving only by howling wind outside and the hooded guards flanking the single open doorway. They say nothing. There is little question that they are Galran Druids. Matthew confirms it. The only Druid who has spoken to them, or indeed acknowledged them at all, is Macidus — and he left them here shortly after showing them their quarters and promising them a later audience with Sendak.

“We are going to die here,” Matthew tells him, and takes a hearty swig of mead. “Just so you know.”

“Maybe.” Keith drinks his wine. He cannot feel the night spirit here, as in Zeragat, but this does not bother him so much now. He is cross with the night spirit. He is cross with himself. 

Most of all, he is worried for Shiro. Very, very worried.

“You’re thinking,” Matthew accuses. “What about?”

“Shiro,” Keith says, without thinking. He ducks his head and shovels the rich partridge stew into his mouth to stop himself from saying anything else embarrassing.

Matthew’s expression softens. “Ah,” he says. “Much to think about, there.”

Keith swallows and shakes his head. “What do you mean?”

“Do you love him?” Matthew asks.

Keith is glad his mouth was not full, or he’s sure he would have choked. “What sort of question is that?”

“A simple one.”

“It really isn’t.”

Matthew, surprisingly, sighs and drops the subject. “Alright. Well, then what about Shiro were you thinking about?”

“Suppose we do die here,” Keith says. “What would Shiro do?”

Matthew pales. He stares down at his plate. “Probably kill everyone else,” he says.

Keith frowns. “You truly think so? You think he’s capable of that?”

Matthew stops eating altogether. “I don’t know what he’s capable of,” he admits. “I don’t know if he knows, either.”

“Oh.” Keith chews thoughtfully. He looks at the Druids. “I don’t think he would.”

Matthew raises an eyebrow. “Kill everyone? Well, no. Maybe not. Maybe just Sendak. But he would kill anyone who got in his way.”

“He doesn’t like killing,” Keith argues. “He isn’t like that. If he did it, he would do it only because he thought he had to.”

Matthew doesn’t look at him. “A part of him likes it,” he says. “A part of him loves it.”

“That part of him isn’t him,” Keith whispers.

Matthew turns to him. “What did you say?”

“Nothing.” Keith stirs his stew and stares at the pale face reflected back at him. 

*

After dinner, the Druids escort Keith and Matthew back to their rooms. Their rooms are not as close as they could be, but Keith does not argue with the hooded guards. He thanks them for their hospitality. They say nothing, but bow, and glide away down the corridor and the stairs without a sound.

There is no tapestry in Keith’s room, only a boar’s head mounted on the wall over the bed, its tusks polished to gleaming and beady glass eyes set deep into its skull. Keith does not spend much time looking at it. 

He does not understand nor admire hunting trophies. They are wasteful, in his eyes, as in the eyes of most other Marmorans. Those tusks could be used as good knives, the pelt as a warm garment, the brain and tongue as a tasty stew. But he supposes Lord Sendak can afford wasteful displays like this one. 

Keith is considering changing into his nightshirt when someone knocks. He opens the door, and Macidus stands there. 

“Lord Sendak awaits you,” Macidus tells him, “in the baths.”

Keith pauses. “The baths,” he repeats. “Where are these baths?”

“Below,” Macidus says. “Our lord is not patient. Follow me.”

“And if I do not follow you?”

“Then you will not speak with Lord Sendak,” Macidus says. “Follow.”

Keith follows. He follows the Druid down, below, where the stairs become narrower and the wall sconces’ lights flicker with a strange, vivid orange-red glow. Keith falters as they pass the first of these. Macidus stops with him. “Yes?”

“I assume you know there is something in Zeragat,” Keith says quietly.

Macidus tilts his head. “Yes.”

Keith exhales. “Is there something here, also?”

“Something,” Macidus echoes, distant, “yes.”

“Is it Ruin?”

Macidus’s cloak ripples. For a moment, Keith thinks he is going to lunge, to attack. But he does neither. “No,” he murmurs. “Our lord’s power is something greater than dust and decay.”

“Its name…?”

Macidus keeps walking. “Your language is imprecise,” he rasps. “Names do it no justice.”

“What is it? What are they?”

Macidus does not reply.

“Are they dragons?” Keith asks, thinking of the tapestry.

Macidus stops again. “No,” he hisses. 

“Oh.” Keith is taken aback by his vitriol. 

“We ended the dragons. They are no more. Only our gods remain, for they are greater. Silence, now.”

Keith is silent, until the stairs level out, and the air becomes humid with steam. The scent of sulfur wafts through the air, and as Keith looks around, he realizes they are in some underground cavern. The stone is dark, though, not pale and porous. That is a small comfort. It is also rather well-lit, with lanterns placed here and there, each burning with a strange violet flame that flickers red from time to time.

Macidus leads him to the pools. They bubble with heat, the rising steam providing some cover, but not enough to cover the man waiting for Keith in the largest pool, reclining against the far edge. Macidus stops at the first step. “My lord,” he says. “The peace-weaver is here.”

“So I see. Leave us, Macidus.” Sendak’s tone is amused — never a good thing.

“Yes, my lord.”

Keith faces Sendak. He says nothing, just looks at him. Far from being unnerved, the thane seems to preen under Keith’s critical eye. Sendak leans back, his broad shoulders and chest on full display, along with his missing eye and clawed, cursed arm. His iron gauntlet and eye patch are gone. He’s as scarred as Shiro, but much hairier. Keith folds his arms.

“What a surprise to see you here, wifeling,” Sendak drawls. “We did not part on good terms, you and I.”

“No,” Keith says, wary.

Sendak hums, then stands in the pool. Keith takes a step back, but the thane does not move towards him. He simply points to his upper left thigh. Face red, Keith looks. There are three puckered punctures of scar tissue there, left by a fork. “Your handiwork,” Sendak says. “I underestimated you, before. I won’t make the same mistake twice.”

“Is that why you are meeting me in your baths?” Keith asks.

Sendak inclines his head, and sinks back down in the water. “Think of it as equal footing. Honesty between us, no secrets, no hidden forks. Come — the water is nice.”

Keith stands stiffly. “I am sure it is.”

Sendak sighs. “Listen, wifeling. I was unfair to you last we spoke. You defended yourself. I admire that.”

“You called me a whore.”

Sendak huffs and raises an eyebrow. “I did. I was wrong.”

Keith does not break his gaze. “Were you?”

Sendak’s lips part. “Ah,” he says. “How long has your dear husband been away?”

“Too long,” Keith says. His fingers start unlacing his tunic. He forces himself to keep his hands steady. He thinks of Sendak’s sword felling his father, and that helps. The words, the lies, come easier when he is angry.

Sendak does not stop him, but he asks, “Why come here, to me? I could have had you killed. Were you not afraid?”

“Of you?” Keith sneers at him. “You could not kill me.”

It’s a bluff, but it makes Sendak smile, intrigued. “No, perhaps not. Rumors of your fighting skill are spreading across Galra, after that recent sparring stunt of yours. I wonder what Thane Shirogane will think of that.”

“I do not care what he thinks,” Keith snaps. He tugs the last lace free and yanks his tunic up and over his head. Sendak’s gaze on him makes his skin crawl, but he focuses again on his father, on blades and blood, on how it will feel to see the light fade from that leering eye once and for all.

“I think you do,” Sendak chuckles. “Is that why you came to me? To anger your husband?”

Keith leaps on it. “And if I did? It is common knowledge that you are his enemy.”

“Mm.” Sendak’s smile widens. “But we need not be enemies, you and I.”

Keith doesn’t bother with the laces on his pants. He unties his belt, unties the top lace, and steps out of them, into warm water. Sendak is quiet as Keith wades into the pool, though he never looks away. Keith does not approach him, but remains tucked instead in an alcove near the steps — he needs to keep his escape route open. 

He feels vulnerable, more naked than he ever has, but he tells himself to find strength in this exposure. Clearly Sendak finds strength in it, in flaunting his power and scars. So, why not Keith? He knows, objectively, that he is attractive — a little lean and scarred here, a little soft and curving there. As peace-weaver, he thinks of any beauty he might have as a weakness, a target on his back. But he is here as Keith, not as a peace-weaver.

“I don’t want to be your enemy,” Keith says to him across the pool. “I want to talk.”

“Just talk?” Sendak shifts closer. 

“For now,” Keith hedges. “Then, we’ll see.”

Sendak, to his relief, settles back, and nods. “What would you have us talk about, then, wifeling?”

“Indulge me.” Keith leans forward. “I am curious about the things no one in Galra seems to want to speak of. I wonder if you would be more forthcoming.”

Sendak’s brow lowers. “What things?”

“I have been to Zeragat,” Keith says. “I have seen what my husband becomes, though I do not understand it. Do you know what I speak of?”

Sendak smiles wryly, a shadow creeping over his face. “There are reasons no one speaks of these things, wifeling.”

“And you? Do you speak of them?”

“Not to whores,” Sendak says. “But, as we have established, you aren’t one.”

Keith waits. He does not expect Sendak to extend his clawed right hand and add, “I will show you something, but you must trust me. You must not be afraid.”

“I am not,” Keith says, and places his hand in Sendak’s rough palm.

Sendak grins, wide and cruel. “Good. If you are afraid – it won’t let you out.” His hand closes around Keith’s wrist.

The pool dissolves into soft, warm sand. Keith gasps, the air torn from his lungs, glancing around wildly. The cave is gone, replaced by a wide open expanse of what Keith thinks is called a desert. In the sand, red pennants fly and flap in the hot wind, their edges torn and darkly stained. Keith thinks he can see a bleached skull half-buried in the sand some ways away, but forgets this entirely when he sees Sendak is gone, too, replaced by a towering red dragon.

It is the dragon from the tapestry in Zeragat, it must be — the dragon that does not quite look like a dragon, scales and horns too sharp, too jagged, too numerous, each tipped in clouded violet, dull gold, or burnt orange. Its dark red wings are ragged and stained like the pennants, surely incapable of flight, but spread out behind it, catching the wind like sails. Its head bows down to Keith, a short blunted muzzle and jaws filled with teeth, glowing red eyes deepset in violet sockets. Unlike Ruin, this one wants Keith to see it. 

You must not be afraid. That’s what Sendak had said. It seems impossible that he could be anything but frightened by this creature, which circles him, body held low and long, spike-tipped tail lashing behind it. But maybe that is exactly why Sendak sent him here, to it. He doesn’t want Keith to survive this.

Unfortunately for Sendak, Keith has encountered stranger things, and he’s not keen to go down without a fight. Especially not against Sendak.

Keith folds his arms. At least he’s fully clothed, here – albeit in odd warrior’s garb, still stained from battle. The creature pauses in its circling, and opens its jaws – red teeth, violet maw and tongue. “You aren’t running away and screaming,” it says. Its voice doesn’t sound like Ruin’s, nor like the night spirit’s. It sounds almost human. Conversational, really.

Keith shrugs. “No. Did you hope I would?”

Its mouth stretches into a smile. “There’s still time. Tell me, why have you come to Arus?”

“To get answers,” Keith says. “Among – other things.” Its tail brushes his leg. It doesn’t feel like scale, like a snake or lizard, but more like...chainmail.

“Other things.” It chuckles, smoke curling from its nostrils. “What answers were you hoping for, wifeling?”

“What’s your name?” Keith asks. “I’ve met Ruin.” Its eyes narrow, lip curling. “So far, you’re much better company,” he adds.

It stops circling, and lays down in the sand in front of him, clawed paws crossed in front of it and head still tilted down, watching him. “Ruin does not keep company, but rather, well, ruins it.” It snorts at its own joke. “I would hope you found me more pleasant.”

“I do,” Keith says, and tentatively sits down, too. It looks pleased with this. 

“Look around you, wifeling,” it says. “What do you think my name is?”

Keith looks around. The expanse of sand and nothing reveals little – except for the torn pennants, the besmotered armor Keith wears, the bleached skull, and further, a gleam where the sun glints off a sword hilt, buried in the sand.

“War?” Keith guesses. 

It hums. “Oh, not exactly. In war, you see, there are winners, and losers.” It leans down to him, closer, and smiles. “But I am always the winner.”

“Victory, then.”

“Closer,” it drawls. “But one gains more than just victory when they win a war. A winner has winnings, you see?”

Keith doesn’t break eye contact. Its tail is sliding through the sand like an adder, and then around one ankle, loose, but capable of tightening at any moment. “Winnings,” Keith repeats, flat. “Like gold?”

“Gold,” it drawls, “land, mead, horses, men, flesh.” Its hot breath washes over him, hotter than the burning sand. “I am Conquest, peace-weaver. And you – you are a conquest, aren’t you? The conquered peace offering of a conquered people.”

Keith’s jaw works. “No one has conquered Marmora,” he says. “Nor have they conquered me.”

Conquest rests its chin in one leathery palm and studies him. “Not even your husband? I find that difficult to believe.”

Keith stands, hands curling into fists. “And why do you find it difficult?” he demands. “You’re Sendak’s spirit, fine — but what spirit belongs to my husband, to Thane Shirogane?”

Conquest throws back its crested head and laughs. “Belongs! Ha! If anyone belongs to anyone, your husband belongs to Him, not the other way around.” It stops laughing, and leans in to study him again. “Still, you don’t bear His mark. Shirogane has some control, it’s true. But not enough. He’s weak. You make him weaker.”

Keith stands his ground. “Tell me the spirit’s name.”

Conquest shakes its head. “And for what? So you may best Him in battle?” Conquest clicks its tongue, tail lashing. “That is not His way. He gets inside your head, wifeling. He will make your own destruction the best thing you have ever felt.”

Keith swallows. “You’re trying to scare me. It won’t work.”

Conquest’s eyes burn. “No? But you should be scared, wifeling. You should be terrified…” It leans close, ever closer, and its long forked tongue flickers out, sliding across his cheek in a wet caress. “But not of me.” In one fluid movement, it knocks Keith flat on his back, towering over him, lips stretched in a thin smile. “You would make a delectable meal, but Lord Sendak doesn’t want your flesh – not like that, anyway.”

Keith stares up at it. “But that’s not all, is it?” he whispers. “You’re afraid. You’re afraid of Him.” He smiles back at the dragon, sharp and dangerous. “You’re afraid of what He would do to you if you touched me.”

Conquest’s smiling lips curl in a snarl. “You think His protection is a good thing,” it hisses. “You’re wrong, peace-weaver. We fear nothing. He will be your end.”

The sand falls away. Keith blinks wildly – he’s back in the pool, this time with Sendak leaning over him, forearms braced on the stone edges. He’s – very close. Keith curls back, breathing fast, mind whirling as he forms a plan of attack...but then pauses. Sendak isn’t moving, or even grabbing at him. He’s just looking down at him, brow furrowed, their chests almost touching. 

“I know you didn’t come here for this,” Sendak says, voice low. “I’m not a fool, Keith of Marmora. Nor are you.”

Keith gulps. “I – I don’t know what you mean.”

Sendak sighs, and leans away, a little. “Yes, you do. I know about the miscarriage, wifeling. I knew it would happen as soon as you wed Shirogane. It was only a matter of time.”

Keith forgets about seduction and smokescreens, and shoves Sendak away from him, panic bubbling up. The thane goes easily. “How – what do you mean, you knew?”

Sendak shrugs. “It isn’t your fault,” he says. “It’s Shirogane’s. You’ll never give him an heir, never weave peace with him, and that’s the sad truth. No matter how fertile your fields may be, wifeling…” Sendak snorts. “His seed is incapable of bearing fruit. Not any fruit you’d want, anyway.”

“Stop speaking in bloody riddles,” Keith snaps.

“He’s cursed,” Sendak sighs. “It’s unlikely your union with him would result in anything other than miscarriage. If you did carry a child to term, it wouldn’t be a child. It wouldn’t be an heir. It would be a monster that would likely not live long past birth.”

Keith leans back, slowly. “I don’t believe you,” he whispers.

“Believe me, wifeling.” Sendak grimaces. “Or don’t, and hope that he still cares for you even after would-be heirs keep dying in your belly. Is that a gamble you’re willing to make?”

Keith glowers at him. “You sound like you have a gamble you’re willing to make. So name it, already.”

“He cannot give you an heir,” Sendak says, “but I could.”

Keith’s eyes narrow. “Out of the goodness of your heart, I’m sure.”

“Not exactly.” Sendak tilts his head. “But the result would be far better for you than bloodied sheets and grief. “

Keith looks away from him. “I can’t,” he says, pretending to be conflicted about it even as his stomach roils in violent disgust at the very thought. “It would be a betrayal.”

Sendak’s expression is uncharacteristically soft. “As if he has not betrayed you, already.”

“He hasn’t.” Keith folds his arms over his chest and sinks down further in the water. “And I have no way of knowing that you don’t share his curse, considering you’re both haunted by cruel spirits, so your argument is a stupid one.”

Sendak hesitates, then frowns, and inclines his head. “Very well.”

Keith glances at him, startled that he isn’t being throttled. “That’s it?”

“Did you expect me to throw your wishes to the winds and do what I like with you?” Sendak grumbles. “It’s tempting. But I’ve no desire to be castrated, wifeling.”

“I’m unarmed,” Keith retorts. Fortunately for you.

“I’m sure you’d find a way,” Sendak says. “For all I know, you’ve got teeth in there.”

Keith almost wishes he did. It would be a satisfying way to end his father’s killer, to be sure.

“Anyway,” Sendak adds, “I’m sure we’ve both had a fine time ogling each other,” Keith makes a face, “but I’m as clean as I’ll ever be. You?” Keith warily nods. “How nice. Shame this didn’t end in me fucking you, but I can’t say I wasn’t expecting it. You cling to Shirogane like a barnacle, it’s nauseating.”

“Or a limpet,” Keith says under his breath.

“What?”

“Nothing.” Keith wades out of the bath. “Enjoy the view, because you’re never going to see it again.”

Sendak grunts at him. “Tragic.” He points to a nearby boulder with folded linen stacked upon it. “Towels, unless you prefer being wet and naked.”

Keith dries off and dresses quickly, ignoring Sendak the whole time. His skin crawls everywhere that Sendak and Conquest touched him, and he plans to bathe again, alone, as soon as possible. Thankfully, Sendak waits until Keith is dressed to lumber out of the pool and find his own clothes, and Keith keeps his distance, staring at the steam rising off the pool.

“It isn’t a betrayal to look, you know,” Sendak says when he’s dried off. 

“Nothing to look at,” Keith retorts. “May I go?”

“Surprised you’re asking permission.” Sendak huffs at him. “If you want to run back upstairs, be my guest. But I have something more you ought to see, if you’re amenable.”

“If it involves sand and dragons, I don’t want to see it.”

Sendak’s brow arches. “Dragons?” he repeats. “Wifeling, that was no dragon. Dragons look nothing like...them.” His eyes flare brighter as he says it, the same orange-red as the wall sconces.

Keith peers up at him. “You’ve seen a dragon? Macidus said they were all gone.”

Sendak smiles and laces up his pants. “You want to hear about dragons, wifeling, then meet me in the mead hall later tonight. I have not just seen a dragon.”

With that, Sendak walks past him and back up the stone steps, leaving Keith alone in the steam.

The wall sconces flare around him. Don’t keep us waiting, wifeling, Conquest whispers.

*

But Keith does not go straight to the mead hall. 

He knocks on Matthew’s door after thrice checking the narrow hall for any Druids. “Open the door,” Keith hisses. “Are you asleep already –”

Matthew flings his door open, appearing flushed and panicked in his nightshirt. Keith folds his arms. “What, what is it?” Matthew whispers urgently. “I thought you were sleeping!”

“No, I was –” Keith stops himself. It would perhaps not be wise to tell his husband’s old friend that he was bathing with Lord Sendak. “Talking with Sendak,” he finishes. “He wants to talk more, but…”

“But you don’t trust him and we’re leaving at once? Good, I knew you’d come to your senses –”

Keith holds up a hand and Matthew’s face falls. “No. I don’t trust him. But we aren’t leaving...yet. I want to see what he has to say.” Keith lowers his voice. “I also want someone waiting with our horses in the stables. You understand?”

Matthew nods, looking to and fro. “Now?”

Keith nods back. “Wait for me there. If I don’t return…”

“I’ll come find you,” Matthew says at once.

Keith blinks at him, taken aback. “I was going to say, you should leave without me –”

“Out of the question,” Matthew says. “What did I bring my sword for, show? I’ll come find you, my lord. I swear it.”

“Let us hope it doesn’t come to that,” Keith mutters. “Let us hope Lord Sendak is a man of his word.”

Matthew grits his teeth. “If that’s the hope,” he says, “then we’re already doomed.”

*

Lord Sendak does not regale him with tales of dragons over a mug of mead. Instead, he takes Keith to a locked tower.

There is a brief moment where Keith tries to reach out to the night spirit, as Sendak turns the key in the lock and holds the heavy door open for Keith to walk through first. In that brief moment, what answers him is not exactly silence. More like a low hum, but still not a reply, not a link between them. It is a relief, then, when Sendak follows him in through the door before it thuds shut, and gestures to the glittering, circular room before them. 

“Behold, a dragon’s hoard,” Sendak declares, then grins, more than a little crooked. “Well, mine, now. But, once upon a time, all that you see before you belonged to one of those ancient bastards.”

Keith steps forward hesitantly, eyes huge as he takes it all in. The entire tower is heaped with treasure, with gold, silver, and jewels of every size, shape, and color. There are multiple levels, each one connected with a ladder, the wooden platforms strengthened with stone supports, for their contents must be incredibly heavy. 

On the first level alone, there is almost too much to process. Gold coins, for one, more than Keith has ever imagined, let alone seen. By that alone, there can be no question that Sendak is the wealthiest of Galra’s thanes – perhaps even wealthier than King Zarkon. That’s unthinkable, but staring at the hoard before him, Keith cannot believe the king has an even greater hoard than this. If he does, there is no hope of defeating him, for he must be the wealthiest man in the world.

But there isn’t just gold. There are countless weapons, swords encrusted with rubies and daggers made of diamonds, bows and arrows wrapped in silver and carved from iridescent mother-of-pearl. There are statues, some as small as a pinky finger, others taller than Sendak, ranging from warriors and women to rearing horses, delicate birds, howling hounds, and endless fantastic beasts. There are shields, round and diamond and square and triangular, studded with wood, with metal, with wickedly glinting glass. There are tapestries, covering the stone walls in a dizzying array of scenery and portraiture, the threadwork more intricate and vividly colored than any Keith has seen before. 

All at once, a terrible sadness overcomes him. This, all of this, was stolen. Stolen, and kept here, all alone in this cold tower in the inhospitable keep of a murderer. 

“Beautiful, is it not?” Sendak plucks one of the tiniest statues from where it stands atop a pile of coins, and places it in Keith’s palm. It’s a wolf, carved of sapphire, with tiny topaz eyes. “You can keep it, if you like.”

Keith slips the wolf slowly into his pocket. “Where is the dragon?” he asks quietly.

Sendak chuckles. “Don’t worry, he’s not out for vengeance, if that’s what you’re worried about. Follow me.”

Sendak starts up the first ladder, and Keith watches his back, transfixed and furious. He could strike, now. He could tear the thane from the ladder – somehow, he knows he has the strength to do it. It would be fast...or not. He could make it slow, sink his blade in between vertebrae until Sendak was paralyzed, unable to move against him but able to feel every cut, every slash, every tear of his teeth –

Keith starts, heart pounding, and glances around wildly. There’s no one there, not even the night spirit. But it feels like someone, something, is watching. Something as ancient as Ruin or Conquest, but while their presence felt like a cold leaching of strength and will, this feels like an excess of it, a chaotic tangle of hot, rippling power straining to be set free. The gold tingles against his fingertips when he touches it. 

“Wifeling!” Sendak snaps from the top of the ladder.

Keith scrambles to the ladder, eager to be away from the humming gold. But the presence only worsens on the second level. Sendak is talking, telling him about a massive broadsword displayed like a corpse on a cairn in the middle of the piles and piles of gold and jewels. Keith doesn’t hear a word he’s saying. He isn’t looking at the sword, but at a pale, ovaline stone buried in the pile just behind it. It looks white, at first, but then the colors shift and it seems pink, green, blue, gold, and so many more he has no names for. It’s captivating. Keith never wants to look away.

Sendak grabs his shoulder and shakes him. “Wifeling. By the gods, what is wrong with you?”

“My name is Keith,” Keith says, voice uneven. Sendak follows his gaze.

“Really? You’re more interested in a pretty rock than the sword of the first Galran king?” Sendak snorts. “Typical.”

Keith ignores him and starts towards it. He needs that stone. He needs it more than revenge, more than anything. But Sendak’s hand stops him short, around his wrist. Keith looks up. “Not so fast,” Sendak murmurs. “You refused my offer earlier. But look around you, Keith of Marmora. Does your husband have this?”

“No,” Keith whispers, staring up at him. “No, he doesn’t.”

“No,” Sendak echoes, lightly mocking, “he doesn’t.” He cups Keith’s face in his shadowed hand, and the claws feel familiar. Keith leans into it without meaning to. “But I do. It could be yours, wifeling. All yours.”

Keith’s mind is still snagged, stuck. “Even that stone?” he presses, and points, to make his meaning clear.

Sendak looks at it, quizzical, then back at Keith. “Uh...yes. All of it. However many pretty stones you want. All you have to do is say yes, wifeling, and I’ll give you all of this, and an heir, as many heirs as you like.”

“Yes,” Keith says. 

All he sees is the stone.

Sendak freezes. He clears his throat. “You...have certainly changed your mind fast.”

“You’re persuasive,” Keith mutters absently. “May I have the stone, now?”

Sendak opens his mouth, then closes it, and smiles. “Yes. Yes, of course, wifeling.”

Keith hurries towards it, wading through the gold and scooping up the stone carefully. It’s large, almost as big as his head, but not as heavy as a stone ought to be; almost as if hollow. He cradles it to his chest with one arm. It’s warm, but not warm enough – this tower is so cold…

“Leave that silly thing here,” Sendak says. “You can’t carry it up the ladder.”

“I can,” Keith says, clutching it tighter to himself. Sendak glares at him, then shakes his head, and starts up the next ladder. Keith follows, slowly, climbing with one hand and keeping the stone tucked close. 

By the time he makes it up, Sendak looks annoyed, but this fades to smug delight when Keith’s jaw drops at the sight of the gigantic skull half-buried in the gold. There can be no question of what it belonged to. The tower room is large, but even so the skull takes up most of the space, staring at them from empty eye sockets. The bone is yellowed and bumpy in places, sharp and spiky over the eye ridges and nose, crowning its head with a spiraling set of horns, and several smaller horned protrusions along its jaw. It must have been a magnificent beast, a long time ago.

Sendak points to something on the wall. “It was red,” he says.

Keith stares at it. At first he thought it was another tapestry, a strip of fabric, but – it’s skin. Dragonskin, to be precise, a section of it as long as Keith is tall and twice as wide. It is red, but faded, like dry blood. The scales must have shone so brightly in life. Now, they are dull, like blades left to rust.

“Where did you get this?” Keith asks, dazed.

“I fought alongside the king when he conquered Altea,” Sendak says, puffing his chest out. “And with him, we destroyed the dragons there – all those that were left, anyway. Most of them were old, weak, and stupid. But this one…” He taps the elegant curve of its muzzle almost fondly. “This one was a warrior in his prime. He took my arm. I took his life. It was a good fight.”

“Why did you kill them?” Keith steps closer to the skull. It hums like the gold, but stronger. 

Sendak shrugs. “Their era was over. Ours was beginning, and there was no room for them. That’s life, wifeling.”

“What was his name?” Keith lays his palm on the bone. It’s warm, like the stone. The stone grows warmer against it.

“Ankalagon,” Sendak mutters. “Why? He’s dead. No one mourns him. Nor should you, wifeling.” Keith pauses. Sendak’s heat is at his back, heavy and threatening like his hand on Keith’s jaw, forcing his head to tip up and pressing Keith fully against the dragon’s skull, forcing him to bend over it with increasing pressure. “Now,” Sendak says, breath hot on his throat, “you have your prize. Let me claim mine.”

Keith reaches for his blade.

“My lord.”

Sendak jerks away from Keith. Keith stays where he is, heart in his throat, and slowly lifts his gaze to the hooded figure standing beside the ladder. “What,” Sendak snaps. 

“The one who is nine moons with child has just arrived,” the Druid says. “Your presence is requested.”

Sendak’s jaw works. “She’s a whore like the rest of them,” he says. “Give her a belt and tell her to bite down.”

The Druid does not leave. “She is in poor condition, my lord. The child is at risk. We believe your presence might calm her more than ours.”

Distantly, a woman’s scream pierces the air, then again, louder.

Sendak steps fully away from Keith. Keith slumps against the skull, his fingers inches from his blade. “Fine,” Sendak says. “Take me to her.” He casts a look at Keith over his shoulder. “Keep this one here. Lock the door. We have unfinished business, wifeling.”

He starts down the ladder. Keith stands, his knees shaky. The Druid regards him and the stone he carries, then says, “You see? We ended the dragons. They are no more. Our gods are greater.”

It melts away into the shadows before he can reply, and several floors below, Keith hears the key turn in the lock. 

Keith stands there awhile longer, holding the stone. When he looks at it, he feels both great longing and awful confusion. Why had he said yes to Sendak? He wanted none of that, he wanted nothing but this...no. He shakes himself. He needs to think clearly, but the humming, the tingling sensation, is all around him. It tells him to climb higher. 

He has nowhere else to go, so he climbs, holding the stone all the while. 

He does not stop to admire the treasure on each level. He just keeps climbing. The air gets colder. He holds the stone tighter. 

There are so many levels. He stops counting after twelve, so that when he reaches the last one, it takes a moment before he realizes there are no more ladders to ascend. That is his first realization. 

His second realization is that the treasure kept here, on this final floor, is not gold and jewels at all. It is something far more precious.

Keith’s eyes cannot make sense of what they’re seeing for a long while. He stands amidst the circle of tanks, no, circles, there are concentric circles of them, packed so close together one can hardly pass between them. They are filled with water, bubbling as if boiling, and suspended in each tank...is a child. 

Keith may have never given birth, but he has witnessed enough births among the Marmora to know what a baby looks like upon its first breath. These are...earlier stages, he thinks, turning in a slow, shocked circle, trying and failing to count them all. Some are larger than others, others so small they look like little more than salamanders, but Keith knows they are all, or could become, human. 

Yet this – nothing about this nightmarish sight is human, nor natural. How long has the thane been keeping them here? And for what purpose…?

Keith sinks, then, to his knees. Because he knows. What other purpose could there be? Sendak has no heirs. That is what all the others think. But that could not be further from the truth. Here, he must have...dozens, at least. Hundreds, at most. They look barely alive to Keith, with their grayish skin and jerky movements in the bubbling water, but if Sendak has somehow found a way to bring them into this world...

Another distant scream echoes through the keep. Keith covers his mouth. These are the children of the prostitutes Sendak has bedded, they must be. Can it truly be that the thane has been taking their “heirs” from them, cutting them from their bellies and putting them here, in this watery limbo, buried in dragon gold? It is a horrible fate, and what becomes of the prostitutes afterwards, Keith does not want to know.

Keith holds the stone to himself, sitting in the middle of the tanks and trembling. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, here. He rode to this place on a whim, on the orders of a ghost wearing his father’s face, and now he does not know if he will ever get out. He must think. He has to do something...but his mind is so fuzzy, his thoughts drowned out by the humming, which is now less of a hum and more of a dull roar.

No. Not a roar. It’s a word. Keith closes his eyes and listens.

BURN, it roars. BURN IT ALL.

Keith eyes fly open and he leaps to his feet, cradling the stone with one arm, and staring at his other hand. In his right palm is a flame, small and madly flickering. The longer Keith stares at it, the larger it grows, until it is consuming his entire hand...but his skin remains unburnt, untouched. Keith gapes at it. The flames flare and sputter, spitting out embers onto the floorboards. The wood smolders. The water bubbles.

The shutters of the single window in the room fly open, baring a semicircle of night sky to him. 

BURN, the tower rumbles, FLY. 

Far, far below him, Keith hears a key turn in the lock. He panics. He drops the fire. The roar grows, a living wind howling in his ears, as the first of the tanks catch light.

Keith can’t look. He runs for the window, holding the stone all the while. There’s no doubt in his mind that he should bring it, must bring it. Behind him, the wooden floorboards begin to creak in warning. Glass shatters. Water spills. Still, Keith stops before the window, staring down, down, down. It is a long fall, and the mountainous land below is jagged and unforgiving. 

Fly, a voice whispers in his ear, softer than before. It sounds like Shiro’s. Fly, my heart. Do not be afraid. I will catch you.

Keith leaps from the tower window, holding onto the stone for dear life, the floorboards collapsing into fiery kindling in his wake. 

He does not fall.

The world below him is vast, serene, beautiful. Keith looks up at the stars, down at the endless trees, and then to the faint dot of a stable just inside the keep walls. There’s a man with a sword waiting for him there, though not the one he wishes was waiting for him. Keith closes his eyes. “Catch me,” he pleads, and drifts like a feather back to earth.

*

Matthew is waiting for him, and snaps to attention when Keith strides in through the doors. “I thought I smelled smoke,” Matthew starts, and is cut off by the tremendous crash of a collapsing tower. “Keith,” Matthew gasps, staring at Arus Keep as it begins to burn. Then he sees the stone. “What –”

“We need to leave,” Keith says. He tucks the stone into Strael’s saddlebag and strokes her nose with a soothing sound – the horses are starting to smell the smoke, too. “Now.”

“Did you kill him?” Matthew asks as they ride through the gates. There are no guards. Keith doesn’t question it, and when a hooded figure darts into the corner of his vision, he urges Strael faster. 

“No,” Keith sighs, pressing his face into Strael’s mane, squeezing his thighs tighter around her middle, “worse.” He swallows. “So much worse.”

Matthew stops asking questions.

*

They keep riding until the horses and Matthew force them to stop. Keith almost falls off of Strael; his legs are so numb from so many hours in the saddle. Has it been a day? Two days? Keith doesn’t know, but he accepts Matthew’s help as he staggers off of his horse, shaking with the effort. They’ve stopped beside a waterfall.

“We’re near Zeragat,” Matthew tells him, “though not too near.”

Keith nods, rubbing his eyes. “Good...that’s good.” Then, without a thought, he limps over to check Strael’s saddlebags. The stone is still there. He smiles and pats it gently, then lifts it out and hugs it to his chest.

Matthew watches silently.

“I’m alright,” Keith tells him, though he doesn’t know if it’s the truth.

Matthew sighs. “Please just get some sleep.” He nods to a small cave beside the falls. “I’ll keep watch. You need rest, my lord.”

“Yes,” Keith mumbles without a fight, and walks to the cave, where he promptly collapses, curled around the stone in his arms. 

For a while, his sleep is deep and dreamless. Then it is light. At first Keith thinks he has woken up, but no – he’s floating, staring at someone who is no longer in the waking world.

It’s Ranvul. He’s standing kneedeep in the waterfall’s pool, staring up at Keith, red stains blooming across his chest through his small green tunic. “Hello,” Ranvul says. “I remember you. You’re the peace-weaver my mother told me stories about.”

Keith takes a step forward. Ranvul does not run. “Yes, I’m the peace-weaver,” he says. “What stories did your mother tell you about me, Ranvul?”

“She said the Marmorans worshiped gods of death.” Ranvul steps forward, too. He’s bleeding so much. Keith needs to do something to stop it, but there’s nothing, nothing to be done. “Is it true? Do you worship the hooded men?”

Keith’s heart skips a beat. “What hooded men, Ranvul?”

Ranvul’s lower lip trembles. “The ones that hurt me,” he whispers. “While I was sleeping.”

Keith’s eyes widen. “The Druids killed you,” he breathes. “Sendak’s Druids killed you.”

Ranvul runs to him even as Keith turns to flee, and grabs his hand tight. “They will hurt you, too,” he says. “I can feel them getting closer – run! Now, now, now!”

Keith jerks away, but it is still not enough to wake. He is falling, deeper and deeper into dreams, and he struggles against it until he recognizes the infinite black plain. 

Hush.

Keith makes a sound, not a word but a sob, and the night spirit’s arms enfold him. Hush, hush. 

“Is it true?” Keith gasps. “Was that really – him?”

We do not know, the night spirit says. There is no telling with these things.

Keith twists in its grasp. “Liar,” he says, “you’re lying, it was, it was him, you’re –”

Keith.

Keith goes limp, and turns his face into its starry skin. Its skin is less smooth than he remembers, textured with a roughness not unlike scales.

We are glad you are back, the night spirit murmurs after a while. It frightens us when you go places we cannot reach.

Keith lifts his head. “I didn’t know you could be frightened,” he whispers.

Neither did we, the night spirit admits, and strokes his hair. We will protect you as best we can, Keith of Marmora. But remember that some things must come to pass. We are sorry.

*

They ride back to Garris. Keith never thought he would feel relief at seeing the keep’s familiar silhouette in the early dawn, but he does. Matthew helps him up to the bedroom before taking his leave. 

Keith lets him go, sitting on the edge of the great bed with his head in his hands before looking to the saddlebag he brought up with him. The pale stone glints from within. Keith pauses, then after some debate, wraps it in the softest fur on the bed, and tucks it under Shiro’s pillows. The proximity is comforting, even when Keith closes his eyes.

Sleep finds him quickly that night. He is ripped from its grasp just as fast.

This is no child’s voice, but the inhuman roar from before, urgent and thunderous. 

THEY ARE HERE.

Keith opens his eyes. He stays still and quiet under the furs, opening his eyes just enough to see the lengthening shadows, the figures surrounding the bed, crouched and armed with long, thin daggers. Before he can sit up, the first one attacks. 

Keith grabs for a pillow and shoves it at the blade as it flashes through the air. He is answered by ripping fabric and low, rasping laughter all around him as all the others dart towards him. In the dark, he can see their faces, and they are smooth, pale, eyes and nose only a sunken suggestion of features, mouths toothless and gaping. They were human once, but no more.

A blade catches his forearm, slashing it open, and the world slows. He looks at his bloodied arm and wrist as if they don’t belong to him. The pain is distant, because there’s something else, something more than just blood pouring from the wound. 

Keith’s hand curls into a fist, and the world starts again as a fiery red web of light explodes from the wound, throwing the Druids against the walls, the floor, the ceiling – away. The Druids twist and hiss where the red veins touch them, and Keith watches it dance up their cloaks, incinerating the shadows wherever they touch, power growing stronger as Keith himself grows weaker. His vision spots. His arm bleeds, and bleeds, and bleeds.

The roaring voice says, ENOUGH.

The red light turns blinding. Keith closes his eyes against it, and the Druids vanish into screaming smoke. Keith falls down onto the bed, clutching his bleeding forearm. The roar fades. The light snuffs out. A gentle hand strokes his cheek. This is the dark place, and we are with you.

Keith tries to push himself upright. “No,” he says, “no, I’m not dying – wait – I need –”

He’s looking at the stone. It swims in his vision, beseeching, so close yet just out of reach. 

The roar is now a soft purr, wrapping around him. Find Oriande, it tells him. Find the last Altean.

The door to the bedroom opens. “My lord?” It’s Matthew. “Keith – Keith!”

Keith manages to sit up, slipping a little on his own bloody palm. “I need – you to send for Prince Lotor,” Keith manages, “or Thane Acxa – please –”

“Keith,” Matthew whispers, hurrying to the bed and lifting up his lolling head, face stricken as he takes in the scene – the cut forearm, the bloody knife left on the furs inches from Keith’s limp hand. “Why would you do this, oh, gods…help! Guards! There’s been –” He hesitates, looking down at Keith again, and swallows hard. Through bleary eyes, Keith sees the guilt in his face. “There’s been an – an attack.”

“Prince Lotor,” Keith repeats, determined. “Tell him – I need to find the Alteans…”

“I will,” Matthew says, gripping him hard, “but you need to stay with me, Keith, stay –”

Keith closes his eyes. “Don’t worry,” he mumbles. “If I die, it won’t be for too long.”

Chapter Text

Keith does not go to the black plain. He does not go anywhere. He simply...drifts. Distantly, he thinks he should be alarmed. It didn’t take this long, last time. The night spirit does not appear to him in Shiro’s form, and he does not open his eyes to see the familiar rafters of the bedroom ceiling. Instead, he finds himself sinking forever into swirling shadow, and somehow he knows he is falling beneath the earth, deeper and deeper.

When he does stop falling, the space around him is filled with gold. The gold is dimmed in the shadows, but still beautiful, still mesmerizing. Keith lays on his back in it, blinking at the far-away ceiling. It looks like a cave, he thinks, but it must be a very large cave – so large it is more like a hollow mountain. And in the stone, there are carvings not made by nature; the cave is held up by thick stone pillars, and the ceiling is vaulted in places, so high that Keith is sure it would echo forever if he cried out. But he is quiet. This is a place of silence and loss. The air is heavy with it.

Then the gold begins to shift, to fall, clattering down with a strangely musical sound as something huge shifts awake beneath it. Keith stays where he is. He isn’t sure he can move just yet, and anyway, the creature beneath the gold already knows he is here. Its serpentine neck arches over him, shaking off the gold that catches between scarlet scales. It’s a dragon – the one from the story, not the one from the tapestry. Not only that – Keith knows its face, the sloping curve of its muzzle and the sharp, curling horns from the head, the proud spikes adorning its jaw and spine. He’s seen its skull, yet here it stands before him, in the flesh. 

“You’re dead,” Keith murmurs as the dragon’s head dips down towards him. Its eyes are a pale green, the color of the new leaves on trees in spring. 

As are you. The dragon moves its head when it is a hairsbreadth from crushing him, so that it settles instead in the gold beside him, watching Keith with one intelligent eye. Its pupils are catlike, narrowed to slits at first, expanding now into curious circles as it studies him. 

Keith sits up. The dragon does not stop him. “Where are we, Ankalagon?” he asks.

That was the Galran name for me, the dragon says. Do you know what it means?

Keith shakes his head slowly.

Enemy, the dragon sighs. It means ‘hated enemy.’

“Then what is your true name?”

Axzelan, it, or rather he, says after a beat. But it has been a long time since I have used either name. It has been a long time since I was slain.

Keith frowns. “Are the other dragons here, too?”

No. This is my domain alone. I do not know where the others are – I doubt they exist as I do. Axzelan sighs heavily. Soon, very soon, I too will be gone for good. A dragon’s life...soul, you might call it, is tied to our hoard. And you destroyed mine.

Keith flinches. “I’m sorry, I – I don’t know where the fire came from, I did not mean to –”

The fire was mine. Axzelan huffs, smoke curling from his nostrils. I gave it to you so you could use it. Mine is a lonely existence, and you took the one treasure that mattered with you...so the rest of it could finally be burned into nothing.

“The stone,” Keith says. “Was it you who forced me to bring the stone with me?”

The stone? Axzelan repeats, and makes a sound like a low chuckle. You were not forced. You were called. It did not belong there, but Sendak could never hear its call, nor could his Druids.

“Then why can I?” Keith pleads. 

You have Druid blood, do you not? Axzelan inquires. More importantly, you have unclaimed Druidic blood.

Keith does not like that phrasing. “Unclaimed by who?” he snaps. “The magic I use comes from the night spirit, like other Marmoran Druids, surely –”

Night spirits cannot claim anything, Axzelan interrupts, amused. It is against their neutral nature. As for the other Marmoran Druids, they may have shared the night spirits’ neutral magic, but they were not as close to their spirits as you are to yours. A spiked brow lifts. This is why you are so intriguing, Keith of Marmora. If you are interesting to a night spirit, then you are someone worth investigating further. Someone with powerful blood, and potential that should not go wasted.

Keith regards him warily. “Is that why you’re here, then? To investigate me, or to try and stake your claim?”

Is it not a strange coincidence that you should stumble across my hoard? Axzelan murmurs, claws tapping at the gold in the rhythm of an old song Keith swears he knows. Do you not question who sent your father’s ghost to the ramparts, to persuade you to ride to Arus?

Keith’s breath catches. His chest constricts painfully. “It was a trick,” he whispers. “It wasn’t him, was it? You just wanted to lure me there.”

Of course it wasn’t him, Axzelan sighs. Believe me, if I could speak with human ghosts, my rider would be here with me. I do not know where they go. Longing to know the answers does not make the answers come to us any faster, or ever at all. The dragon closes his eye for a long moment, jaw tightening. But the rest of it was true, Axzelan adds. Sendak did kill your father. His already gravelly voice lowers to a near-growl. Lord Sendak is fond of killing fathers, it seems.

Keith wants to question this, but the dragon’s tone does not sound open to conversation. Instead he says, “Answer the question. Are you like Ruin, like Conquest? Do you want the...the power in my blood? Are you here to claim me?”

Axzelan opens his eye. That was three questions. I missed humans and your endless chatter, however...so I will answer them. No, I am not like them. The night spirits have neutral natures, as you know. They are balance, the opposite of us. I am chaos. The others, they are chaos too, but of another sort. They destroy. I create. 

Keith leans forward, the coins clinking under him. If I were alive, I would want the power in your blood. I would want to claim you. But dragons do not take, as Ruin’s kind do. That is why we had riders – the Alteans. I am – was – already bonded. So I did not bring you here to claim you nor your power, peace-weaver, and certainly not against your will.

“So – then why am I here?” Keith says in a small voice. “I know I died. I know you died, too. Are we here for good, then? Is – is this the end?”

Axzelan lifts his head, his breath warm over Keith, ruffling his hair. He looks Keith in the eyes and shakes his head. Of course not. No, Keith of Marmora, I brought you here because you have done me a great favor, and I wish to bestow you a great favor in return, if you are worthy. 

Keith scrambles to his feet, lifting his hands in surrender, for he has no blade here, and feels too vulnerable in his thin nightshirt before the watchful dragon. “I don’t want any favors,” Keith says, the gold sliding away from under his bare feet, making running impossible as he backs up. “I just want to go back. I need to go back.”

Your body is still recovering in the world of the living, Axzelan tells him. Sit down, Keith of Marmora. Yes, you need to go back, and you will. But first, tell me why you need to go back.

Keith sits, trembling, feeling all too much like he’s kneeling in front of the great red dragon. “I...I cannot stay dead. It would cause chaos if I died. Many others would die, and that...I won’t let that happen.”

Why not? Axzelan tilts his head.

Keith frowns. “Because they’re innocent lives that would be pointlessly lost.”

Yet, even knowing this, you allowed yourself to be killed?

“I fought back,” Keith argues. “I still tried to live, even though I knew that what happened – my death – was fated to happen. There was no changing that.”

The night spirit told you this, Axzelan says, rearing back with obvious shock. Changing their own rules, hmm? Did it show you these future ‘pointless deaths,’ too?

“Not from this time,” Keith starts, “but the first time, before it brought me back –”

A NIGHT SPIRIT RESURRECTED YOU?

Keith flinches at the dragon’s bellow of disbelief. “...Yes?” he squeaks.

I apologize. Axzelan’s eyes narrow. But such a thing is unheard of. Please, continue. Why else must you return?

“I…” Keith swallows. “My husband. Thane Shirogane. Do...do you know him?” he ventures. “Did he fight with Zarkon and Sendak in Altea?”

He was too young to slay dragons, Axzelan murmurs, but not too young to kill on the mad queen’s behalf. Not with that thing inside of him. Tell me, Keith of Marmora, do you return for Takashi Shirogane, or for the one who controls him?

“I don’t know what controls him,” Keith says, “but I return for Shiro, alone. He’s in danger from it, whatever it is. It hurts him. It isn’t him. He’s a good man – or at least, he could be one.”

You forgive him for how he has wronged you, then?

Keith looks down. “I don’t know,” he admits. 

Do you return to give him an heir?

“No,” Keith says, firm. “There will be no heir.”

You’re very certain of that. Why?

“My first death was because I thought I could force myself to bear an heir, and I was wrong; so wrong that I knew I would rather risk death than go through with it. I don’t want to make that mistake again.”

Axzelan accepts this with a thoughtful hum. And what of the Marmora?

“I want to help my people,” Keith sighs, “but not like that. I am a Blade, and a peace-weaver. I chose to be a Blade. I never chose to be a peace-weaver.”

Yet you choose to follow neither path; you follow no path but your own, it seems, Axzelan replies. Hmm. Why else?

“When Matthew found me...I heard something. Was that you, telling me to find the Alteans?” Keith asks.

Yes. Axzelan pauses. To find Oriande and the last Altean. That is what I told you.

“I have to bring the stone there,” Keith says, “to Oriande. Right?”

You tell me, Keith of Marmora. Do you feel that you have a duty to do so?

Keith doesn’t hesitate, because he does feel it, as surely as he feels that he must return to Shiro. “Yes. Where are they?”

The Galran Prince and his thane will know, Axzelan says. They will be with you when you wake. Something else will be with you, too. Stand. Hold out your hand.

Slowly, Keith does, never looking away from the dragon’s unblinking eyes. “Was that a test?” he asks.

In reply, Axzelan opens his jaws, and Keith is bathed in dragonfire. Eyes wide open, Keith stands perfectly still, the flames licking around him, warm but never burning, howling in his ears in a muted roar, flickering in the edges of his vision with brilliant flares of color, golds and reds and blues and sunset-bright orange and pink. If Keith were not already dead, he thinks it would be a beautiful way to die. But he remains standing, and when the fire dies, there is a tiny flame in his palm.

It is yours, Axzelan says. He sounds tired, and lays back down in the piles of gold. The last of my power. I will warn you, there is not much of it left. Do not waste it. Use it only when you have to. His gaze is sad, then. For you will have to, Keith of Marmora. Someday. The night spirit’s magic is limited. It will not defend you against a direct attack.

“Like the Druids,” Keith says, unable to look away from the flame. “That magic that saved me...was that yours?”

Axzelan falters. No, he admits. Nor was it the night spirit’s. Before Keith can demand what he means, the dragon adds, Be careful that you do not let Shirogane’s shadow too close to you. He is powerful, but it comes at a terrible cost.

“Then it was His magic,” Keith whispers, sitting down heavily. “How…?”

It was old magic, Axzelan mutters, blood magic. Dragons used it, once. But there is a reason we stopped. He blinks at Keith. You have little reason to trust me. I know this. But do not let yourself be twisted into His games and forced under His rule. That is what He wants, more than anything – to rule. If He protects you, it is because you are part of His plans. Not because He cares for you. He cares for nothing but crowns and subjugation. You may fascinate Him, or even attract Him, but He is incapable of tenderness, of love. Remember this, if nothing else.

“What is He?” Keith asks. “Can you not speak the shadow’s name, even here?”

Axzelan snorts. Well, I will be dead soon, for good – thanks to you. Even He cannot touch me there, I suppose. The dragon plucks something from the piles of gold – a crown. He dangles it from the tip of his claw, the gold flashing in the dim light. He is Dominion, Axzelan says. Greater than Ruin or Conquest, than Plague or Nightmare, greater than all the others. He rules them, you see. He is their king. And he has been molding your beloved Shiro for the throne of his new kingdom since the thane was a child, and Dominion chose him.

Keith doesn’t speak. Can’t. When he does, it is hardly a whisper. “Dominion...”

Axzelan is quiet. 

“Shiro does not want to be king,” Keith starts.

It does not matter what he wants, Axzelan says. Dominion grows stronger even still. What Dominion wants, Shiro will want, in the end. That is His way. And you are a fool if you think something like your husband’s love for you will stop Dominion – this is not that kind of story. In Dominion, all becomes twisted. Love turns to obsession, to possession, to dominion. You see?

“There must be something I can do, even so,” Keith insists, trying to shove Axzelan’s warnings away and looking again to the flame again. It looks smaller, weaker than before, then it snuffs out entirely. Keith gulps, fingers curling into a fist. “Surely there is some way to stop it...”

I see why the night spirit has such an interest in you, Axzelan murmurs, if it is indeed a night spirit at all.

Keith freezes. “What?”

Nevermind. They are secretive beings; even I know little of them. There is no mark of malicious magic on you, so it must be what it says it is, despite its strange behavior. Axzelan settles down more fully into the gold. That is all, Keith of Marmora. You have my magic, do not waste it. Bring the stone to Oriande. Follow your heart in helping Shirogane, but try not to die again...and know that some fights cannot be won. He closes his eyes.

“Can I go back now?” Keith asks.

A green eye cracks open. You think I control the timing? Pff. You will return when your body is stable. I did my best, but I’m afraid it won’t be as pretty as your night spirit’s resurrection. 

“Oh.” Keith sits there awkwardly. “I...see. Erm, thank you, for trying your best. I...I’m sure it will be fine.”

They are silent for a while, so long that Keith thinks the dragon has fallen asleep, or else gone for good. But then he says in a low, strangely tentative rumble, Would you lay beside me, Keith of Marmora? I have spent a long time here alone, imprisoned in the tower of that oafish, greedy man, and I thought I would welcome the freedom of nothingness, but now that the time has come I find I am afraid.

Keith looks up, stricken. Axzelan lays with his wings tightly folded, his head tucked between his forepaws, eyes staring dully at the gold before him. He is a massive creature; each paw is easily as large as Keith’s entire body, but he looks small, crouched like that, curling in on himself. 

Axzelan sighs, eyes falling shut. Perhaps you are afraid of me, too. I never wanted to be feared, you know. It was better to be loved. I miss that. I miss my mate, my rider, my home. I miss Altea. Maybe I will see them all again. Or maybe not.

Keith stands, wading through the gold towards the dragon. Up close, Keith can see he is trembling. “It will be alright,” Keith whispers, sitting down uncertainly beside him. “You...you’ll be at peace, no matter where you go.”

One can only hope. Axzelan sighs, but when Keith lays an uncertain hand on his scales, he relaxes, wings drooping, half falling over Keith. Thank you, Keith.

Keith nods, and gives into the urge to curl a little closer, until his entire body rests against the dragon’s side, and he can feel each uneven breath. Axzelan is warm, and his scales feel like finely polished wood, but each is as shiny as a jewel. 

“Would it help if you told me about Altea?” Keith asks, running curious fingers over each scale, since the dragon seems to find it soothing. 

Altea was beautiful, Axzelan replies, his voice almost a chant, a hazy, dreamlike mantra. It is still beautiful, even if now, only the Wilds remain...and all the palaces and temples are but ruins, crumbling away...but I remember them as they were. They were nothing like these cold stone keeps. There were so many windows, so many towers, and everything made of stone so bright it glowed even in the nighttime. There were always people in the palaces and temples, and some were kind and some were not, but they were One. The unity, the peace, the community...that is what I remember most. 

Keith lifts his head. “Really? But...did Altea not fall because of division?”

Axzelan growls, pained.

“I’m sorry,” Keith starts, “go on, keep telling me about the palaces –”

No. That is important, too. Axzelan grimaces. I am sure Galra has told the world little of what happened to Altea, and as we were all but wiped out, our story has not been told. But I can tell you what I know. 

I know there was a young lady who wed a Galran warlord, much as you did. I know that warlord happened to become the Galran king, and she their queen. I know this made Altea wary. I know the king and queen did not weave peace, but sowed dissent in both of their lands. 

I know the queen went mad after she bore her son. I know the queen took in children, as many as she could capture, and I know she awakened the chaos of destruction which had lain sleeping and bound for so many centuries. I know the effort cost the queen her life. 

I know the king went mad after her death, mad with power, mad with destruction. I know he and his warriors and the queen’s captured children marched on Altea. I know we did not stand a chance. I know we were destroyed; in battle, in morale, in belief, in loyalty, in our home. I know Altea is no more, just like its people, like my brethren, like me. I know there is no hope for us.

Axzelan is fading under his touch, vivid red dulling to gray, the color of ash and dust. Keith does not let go of him. “Wait,” Keith says, “you said there was one Altean left. The last one. That’s hope, isn’t it? It has to be. And the stone – will that help Altea, too? It was precious to you. Wasn’t it?”

Tears roll from Axzelan’s pale green eyes. Yes, he whispers. It is the most precious thing in the world to me, and I have given it to you, a stranger. I have never begged for anything in my life, but I beg of you now...keep it safe. If you can find Oriande, then there is hope. If not, all is lost.

“I’ll find Oriande,” Keith promises, “I swear I will, Axzelan. Thank you for your gift and your story. I...I’ll remember what you told me. All of it.”

Write it down, Axzelan advises wryly. Human memories are fleeting and unreliable. 

Keith stands up and smiles weakly. “I will,” he says. Then he looks down at his hands – they’re transparent, gray, fading like the dragon. “Goodbye, I think,” he adds. “I – I hope you can see Altea again.”

Goodbye, peace-weaver, Axzelan sighs, crumbling away into ash and embers. 

Keith opens his eyes.

“Keith,” Thane Acxa whispers above him, voice breathy with relief, “you really must stop doing this.”

Keith blinks, groaning as he tries to sit up and his head spins, stopped by Acxa’s gloved hand firmly pushing his shoulders back down. “Doing what?” Keith mumbles. 

“Dying.” Keith looks to the window, where Prince Lotor is standing, arms folded and expression dangerous. “You’re rather good at it, aren’t you?”

“I’m not dead,” Keith protests, glancing around the room. His gaze snags on the stone, tucked under Shiro’s pillow. He looks away hastily and resolves to hide it better as soon as possible.

Lotor scoffs. “A miracle. Truly. If you’re looking for your loyal hound – Matthew, was it? – he’s outside, sulking. I politely asked him to give us some privacy with you, peace-weaver.” Lotor turns from the window, brow lowering and mouth tight. “Now that you’re finally awake, I believe you owe me some answers.”

Acxa frowns at the prince. “My lord, he’s barely woken up –”

Lotor ignores her, his shadow falling over the bed, a strand of silver hair falling into his face. He’s angry, Keith thinks, but he’s also...frightened?

“What do you know of the Alteans?” Lotor demands. “You told my thane you knew nothing. Evidently, this was a lie, since I was summoned here to, and I quote, ‘help the peace-weaver find the Alteans, for he seems utterly convinced there are some alive to find.’”

Keith stands his ground. “Are you denying that there isn’t one Altean left?”

Lotor blanches, and he takes a step back. Even Acxa freezes, startled. “What did you say?” Lotor whispers.

“The last Altean,” Keith says. “They exist. Don’t they?”

Lotor’s hands curl into trembling fists. “Why, my dear peace-weaver,” Lotor murmurs, “would you ever be so delusional as to think there is a ‘last Altean?’ Who told you this?”

Keith blinks. He sinks down in the pillows a little. “A dragon,” he says.

Lotor’s bark of disbelieving laughter is sudden and sharp. Acxa doesn’t laugh. 

Lotor stops laughing when he adds, “It was a dragon named Axzelan. He told me to find the last Altean and Oriande. He said you would know where to go. Was I misled?”

Lotor’s entire demeanor changes. His fists uncurl, and his eyes widen. He leans forward. “No,” he breathes, but it is wondering rather than accusatory. “Axzelan is dead. Killed in the war. How…?”

“Marmoran Druids have been known to speak to the dead,” Acxa says.

Keith bites his lip as the prince looks at him closer. “Is that true?” Lotor asks. “Are you a Druid, after all?”

“And if I am?” Keith says. “What does it matter?”

“If you are, I assume your husband does not know,” Lotor replies. “And perhaps it is best, that way.” He tilts his head. “Your secret is safe with us, if you will agree to keep ours, also.”

Acxa inhales. “You’re certain, my lord?”

“Yes,” Lotor says, after a brief hesitation. “Yes, I am. And if he does tell anyone, he will pay for it with my blade – I think the peace-weaver will respect such an agreement.”

“I do,” Keith says. “I won’t say anything. You forget I am not of Galra – the Marmora have no fight with the Alteans.”

“True enough.” Lotor folds his arms, thoughtfully, now. “But first, tell me one more thing, Keith of Marmora – did Axzelan tell you to slit your wrist, as well?”

Keith falters, and looks to his bandaged wrist. “What – I didn’t...that wasn’t me, that did that.”

Lotor raises an eyebrow. “No? Then who was it?”

“Shadows,” Keith says. “They were trying to kill me.”

“Ah.” Lotor does not question this, nor does Acxa, who nods grimly like she was expecting it. “Shadows will do that, at times.” He leans against the wall and exhales. “Very well, peace-weaver. Will you be fit enough to ride in three days’ time?”

“Ride where?” Keith asks. 

“North,” Lotor says. “Into the Wilds. I can tell you no more than that, and if you so much as consider telling anyone, even your hound, of our destination?” The prince smiles sweetly down at him. “Don’t.”

Keith nods. “Alright.”

“In the meantime…” Lotor taps the footboard of the bed. In the wood there is burnt a strange spiraling symbol, one Keith is certain was not there before. “We really ought to get rid of this summoning sigil. Someone very powerful wants you dead, peace-weaver. I would ask who you pissed off so fantastically, but a little bird told me that you just returned from Arus.”

“That Matthew is not good at keeping secrets,” Acxa remarks, standing beside Lotor and taking out her knife, beginning to carve away at the sigil. “That is why he will not be joining us.”

“Sendak will keep trying to send them after me,” Keith mutters, staring at the burnt sigil as Acxa’s blade obliterates it. “He isn’t just angry. He wants revenge. On me, on Shiro.”

“Revenge is such a petty ambition,” Lotor huffs, shaking his head. “But Lord Sendak is a petty man.”

“His ambitions aren’t that petty,” Keith says. “He wants the crown.”

“One needs to have an heir to seriously qualify for that position, as far as my father’s judgment is concerned,” Lotor retorts. “Bastards, I’m sure Sendak has aplenty. But an heir? Doubtful, unless he has a secret wife unbeknownst to all of Galra.”

Keith doesn’t reply. Acxa scrapes away the last of the sigil, and sheathes her knife.

“You’re going to need more protection than that,” she declares. “How well can you identify herbs and flowers?”

“Well,” Keith says. “If I was bad at gathering plants in the forest, I would be a very bad Marmoran.”

Acxa grins at him. “Then you should join me this afternoon,” she says, “while His Highness here has his nose in his books and scrolls, you can help me do the actual work of assembling all the recipes he’s reading so thoroughly about.”

Lotor sighs in her general direction. “Research is very important work, Acxa.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” she says, and winks at Keith over her shoulder. “We will be in the mead hall, should you feel well enough to join us.” They leave the room together, and as the door thuds shut, Keith hears Matthew’s curt voice.

Keith has no idea what just happened, but considering he was not stabbed by Prince Lotor, he thinks it is a victory.

*

He hides the stone beneath the floorboards, in a small nest using the cloak Shiro gave him. Maybe that expensive fur will be useful for something after all.

The stone gleams in its strange pearly swirl of pale color among the violet velvet and black ermine. Keith spends a few moments admiring it, then replaces the floorboards before anyone else can see his treasure.

*

“Are you certain those are the correct mushrooms?” Acxa asks, peering down at the handful in Keith’s dirty palm. “It would be very bad if we made a mistake with those.”

“I’m not eating this, am I?” Keith asks, dumping the mushrooms into his basket. “Anyway, I amcertain. They make very good soup, and the deadly ones are more green around the gills.”

“You’ll be eating some of it,” Acxa replies, “though not the mushrooms, I suppose.” She gives him a look. “I hope you’ve been staying well away from poisonous plants.”

“Yes,” Keith says, kneeling down to dig up some pigweed, easily lost in the routine of sinking his hands into the loamy earth. “Previous experiences with them have not agreed with me.”

Acxa frowns into her basket. “I’m sorry, Keith,” she says. “I know I warned you. But the dose I gave you must have been too high, I –”

“What are you talking about?” Keith snaps. “I’m fine. The dose was fine. It did its job, and I thank you for that.”

Her frown does not go away. “Keith,” she says, firm. “I have friends among the midwives here. They swore you died, Keith. That you breathed your last before them, that there was nothing they could do to stop the bleeding. They were readying a shroud for you before your joyful reunion with Thane Shirogane.”

Keith stands stiffly. “And do you believe them?”

“I believe that midwives are honest women who keep many secrets,” Acxa murmurs. “Secrets kept from husbands, in particular.” She studies him closely. “We spoke once of night spirits. You asked me if they were known to bestow gifts upon humans. Why did you ask this, Keith? How have you returned from death – and at what cost?”

“There has been no cost but death itself,” Keith says, ducking his head. “I don’t know, Acxa. I don’t understand it.”

“It,” Acxa repeats, wondering. “So they do come to you, the night spirits.”

“Only one,” Keith says. “A night spirit who meddles in the affairs of men.”

Her brow creases. “That is not a night spirit, then.”

Keith kneels again to start on another pigweed plant. “You said there was one reason they might intervene – if other night spirits were involved, with the purpose of helping them, not me.” He looks up at her. “But what about other spirits?”

“Other?” She folds her arms.

“Spirits of chaos,” Keith says. “Evil spirits.”

“Why would a night spirit want to help those?” Acxa asks. “No, that would go against its very nature. It makes no sense. There are no stories about such night spirits, Keith – none.”

“I know.” Keith digs harder. “But it’s not – like them.” He has to believe that. He has to trust someone. Something.

“Then what does it want, Keith?” Acxa whispers, her voice barely audible over the rustling grass and leaves all around them. “And why has it come to you?”

Keith just shakes his head. 

*

Keith knows it must drive Matthew mad to watch the prince and Acxa cover the bedroom with all manner of little sigils and charms. When Lotor hands Keith a corked vial over breakfast and Keith pours it into his tea, Matthew makes a snide comment about poisons. Lotor does not do anything to diffuse the situation by replying that the herb can be deadly in higher concentrations, but this amount will simply guard the drinker against evil influences.

“Define ‘evil influences,’” Matthew grits out. 

Lotor sips his tea. “Well, it won’t protect him from, say, a bear – bears have no concept of morality.”

“Would it protect him from evil men, then?” Matthew asks, looking a bit more hopeful.

“No,” Acxa says. “Why would a potion do anything against a well-placed sword?”

Matthew folds his arms. “So what evil is he safe from?”

Lotor taps his head. “Evil influences,” he says. “They come in many forms.”

Matthew makes a quiet sound of absolute outrage. 

“For a sheep farmer, you’re very informal around your prince,” Lotor remarks. “Friend of Shirogane’s, are you? He has several issues with respecting authority, too.”

“You’re just a thane, same as Shiro, as far as I’m concerned,” Matthew mutters. “You won’t inherit the throne – Shiro has a better chance at that than you do.”

Keith chokes on his tea and Lotor raises an eyebrow, gaze sliding to Keith. “Oh, does he, now?”

Acxa clears her throat. “Prince Lotor is still prince by blood,” she murmurs. “He will be prince until his death, regardless of his inheritance, and you owe him more than you know. Be respectful, warrior.”

Matthew shakes his head and mutters, “I’m just supposed to let you ride off with the peace-weaver of Garris, then? For all I know, you could be planning a clandestine beheading in the woods.”

“How vulgar,” Lotor sniffs. “I don’t want the throne, mercenary. I thought that was obvious.” He pauses. “Not the Galran throne, at least. Far too much...bad blood, here.” He sets down his tea. “Clandestine beheadings aren’t really my style, either. If I wanted dear Keith here dead, I would either hold a public execution – a pyre, perhaps, that would be dramatic – or challenge him to single combat.” Lotor rolls his eyes. “Or just let him go about his life. He seems to find death easily enough all by himself.”

“I am right here,” Keith says, digging into his blood pudding with a scowl. 

“You have a point, there, Your Highness,” Matthew concedes.

“Hey!” Keith exclaims.

“Sometimes, I wonder if you invite death,” Matthew adds, under his breath. The mercenary doesn’t meet his eye, and Keith’s wrist twinges. 

*

The sigils and charms and potions must work, because three nights later, Keith has dark circles under his eyes but is still breathing. His wrist is also almost fully healed. He thinks it’s the night spirit’s magic, but cannot be sure, because the night spirit has been silent. Its presence still lingers, but it isn’t speaking to him. He wonders if it knows about Axzelan...more importantly, about Dominion. Maybe that’s why Keith is being avoided. The night spirit does not wish to answer questions – or is unable to.

What happens when a night spirit deviates from its nature? What happens when they become unbalanced?

Where did the dragons and dark spirits come from, in the first place?

Keith thinks of the night spirit’s skin under his fingers, of the faint ridges replacing its original smooth and shifting surface, and is afraid he knows the answer already. Maybe it is best that he stays away from it, for awhile.

They depart for the Wilds on a foggy morning, and spend hours in silence as the horses pick their way through the rolling hills and wooded valleys. It is a pleasant ride, save for one aspect – Keith keeps seeing things in the fog.

First, he thinks it is a bird, a raven taking flight...but it does not caw, and it moves differently. Then he sees it again, on his other side, larger and taller. He thinks it might be a man, then, but he does not tell Lotor or Acxa – they think he’s mad enough already. But it's strange that they don’t see it, since it begins to appear on all sides of them, frequently enough that Keith’s hand falls over his concealed blade and Strael shifts under him, unnerved by her rider’s tension. Keith keeps glancing back at the saddlebags, where the stone is hidden, wrapped tight in the cloak.

Strael, Keith asks after awhile, do you see that, moving in the fog?

She balks under him. What? What is in the fog? Should we run?

Keith swallows. I don’t know.

I can run, she reminds him.

Not yet. She sighs under him, disappointed.

It cannot be a man, he decides after some time. It moves differently, and when it turns away, its neck seems longer, more curved, serpentine. It hunches over, head held low and shoulders forward. It makes no sound, not a single rustle or breath. It just appears and disappears, closer at first, then further away, then close again. Keith tries to ignore it. It gets closer, then. Once, its head is so close Keith can see the sharp points atop it, like...a crown.

He grips the reins tighter.

They stop beside a stream for lunch, and to water the horses. Acxa gives him another defensive potion, and the meal they brought is hearty and smells delicious, but Keith has no appetite. He watches the fog intently. It’s watching him back, and somehow its presence feels...familiar. Like the presence of someone he misses very dearly. It could be a trick.

Or maybe not.

Lotor does not question his lack of appetite, and Acxa just gives him some exasperated looks and forces him to take an apple before they start off again. 

They reach the treeline before sundown. Keith sits back in his saddle and stares up at the distant treetops. This forest is ancient, and the trees look it. Many have trunks so thick that Keith doubts the three of them could touch fingers standing around it, even if they stretched their arms out as far as they could. 

“My father never could tame this place,” Lotor muses, riding up alongside Keith and Acxa. “He tried, many times. But it does not want to be under Galran rule – or any rule. And so it is not.”

“Why did King Zarkon fail to annex the Wilds to the rest of Galra?” Keith asks. 

Lotor shakes his head. “All the Wilds settlements failed,” he replies. “No one wants to live here, and you cannot have a kingdom without people.”

Keith opens his mouth to question further and Acxa adds, “The Galran settlers were killed, Keith. Almost all of them died.”

“They were mostly soldiers,” Lotor adds. “Veterans from the war, riding the high of their victory in Altea.” He says these words with obvious distaste, a glint in his eye. “They found no victories here.” He continues forward, into the Wilds. 

“Do not worry,” Acxa assures, and follows Lotor into the forest gloom, huge ferns wet with dew swaying as she passes through them.

Keith glances up at the trees and their heavy, creaking boughs. Behind him, the fog shifts with a dark figure. My heart, it whispers. Come to me.

Keith urges Strael forward, and the Wilds swallow them up. 

*

They don’t get far before impending darkness forces them to stop and make camp. Keith unpacks his saddlebags discreetly, and takes the tent Acxa offers him with quiet gratitude. The prince and his thane take the second tent, and retreat inside it before Keith. He sits beside the fire for a short while watching their silhouettes move through the canvas, cast thin by the firelight. They’re speaking, heads bowed close, but never quite touching. 

Keith wonders if they’re planning to slit his throat in his sleep, but as soon as the thought crosses his mind, he knows that isn’t it. They’re not the ones he should fear, here. The back of his neck prickles as he stands, the cloak bundle in his arms. He does not look behind himself as he walks to his tent, and only when he is inside does he relax, unwrapping the cloak and running his fingertips over the gleaming stone.

“Axzelan said you called to me,” Keith murmurs. “He said it was because my blood was unclaimed...but I don’t know if that’s it. I think you just want to go home.” He swallows and closes his eyes, covering it with the cloak again and slumping down onto his bedroll, keeping the stone close. “I want to go home, too...but I’m not sure I know where that is, anymore.”

The stone thrums in his arms, and Keith falls slowly into an uneasy sleep, the forest and the fog whispering all around him.

*

He wakes up with his entire body curled around the stone. It seems heavier than before, its colors more vibrant. Keith tilts his head at it, then hastily throws the cloak over it as the tent flaps open and Acxa peeks in.

“Oh, good,” Acxa says when she sees him. “You’re alive. I stayed up listening for screams, you know. But you were very quiet.”

“Uh,” Keith says, hopelessly trying to smooth down his hair. “Thank...you?”

“Of course.” Acxa inclines her head. “The prince is preparing breakfast, then we ride north.” She hesitates. “I feel I should warn you of something, Keith. Prince Lotor is...quite protective of the place we are riding to, and of the person who resides there. Do not try to provoke him. He has killed to keep this place hidden. He would do it again, and I would not be able to protect you.”

“I have no intentions of revealing this place to anyone, wherever it is,” Keith assures her. “Wait – he has killed for it? Who?”

“Irrelevant.” Acxa waves her hand. “And he does not kill for this place, but for her.”

“Her?” Keith echoes, bewildered.

“Breakfast,” Acxa reminds him.

*

The Wilds live up to their name. Keith is amazed at every turn by the sheer number of creatures in this forest, most of which he has never seen before. There are colorful birds with extravagant plumage and piercing calls which hop about in the trees as if performing strange dances, each one more complex than the last.

“The ones with bright plumage are the males,” Prince Lotor remarks as they ride through the trees. “It’s rare to see the females, they’re small and brown and well-camouflaged so they can hide in their nests.”

“How do the males hide?” Keith asks, unable to take his eyes off the odd dancing birds.

“I don’t think they do,” Lotor says after a beat. “I suspect predators find them quite easily. Macabre though it may be, it makes a sort of sense – the females are the only ones who need to survive a long time.”

“Sometimes it is better to be small and brown,” Acxa chuckles, then pulls up short, motioning for them to do the same. She points through the trees, and when Keith follows her gaze, his eyes widen. 

“Is that…”

“Hush,” Lotor warns. “Unicorns are very shy creatures.”

There are two of them, grazing in a clearing a ways off, barely visible through the ferns but unmistakable with their shining coats and deadly horns. “Two mares,” Acxa observes. “There may be foals around. If you see one, stay well away from it. The mothers will attack you.”

Keith blinks, still staring at the unicorns. They don’t look like horses with horns. They look like something other, almost ghostly, and carry themselves with cold dignity. “Attack?” Keith echoes. 

“Yes, of course,” Lotor retorts. “Unicorns were once Altean warbeasts, as elite as dragons, though far more rare and difficult to bond with.”

Keith frowns. “Why was it so difficult? Are they not like horses?”

Strael snorts nervously. Not horse. Danger. Like man.

Lotor scoffs and Acxa shakes her head. “Unicorns are highly intelligent and unimaginably powerful beings,” she explains. “They have their own societies, their own language and customs. If they bonded with an Altean, it was by their own will and desire to fight for Altea.”

“They will never fight for other beings again,” Lotor adds softly. “Many were lost in the War with Galra, though they were not obliterated like the Alteans and dragons. The ones who remain have gone into hiding...though they are not passive. My father does not know of their existence, but between you and I, peace-weaver, I think they killed the Galran warriors who dared to settle here.”

They ride past the unicorns in silence then, and all hold their breath when one of the mares lifts her head to look at them with strange dark eyes, glinting with all the light of the cosmos even from so far away. Her horn shines a burnished silver, and when she looks at Keith, all the breath leaves his body.

Then the other mare noses at her companion’s mane, and she slowly turns away, the two mares retreating into the depths of the Wilds like fading stars.

“This place was never meant to be tamed,” Lotor says as the birdsong resumes and the horses relax. “Nor was Altea. They chose death before defeat.”

“Is the death of a people not just defeat by another name?” Keith asks.

Lotor is quiet. Acxa gives Keith a long look, then rides on ahead with the prince.

*

The trees begin, somehow, to get bigger. They must have been riding for hours before Keith sees the first ruin – the crumbling remains of a tower that once spiraled high above the trees, but now stands just below them, covered in flowering vines and colorful lichens. 

“That was a dragonspire,” Lotor tells him. “Fledglings learning to fly nested there, once.”

More stone rises up, all pale and glowing like the unicorns, brilliance dimmed by the forest shadows, but bright nonetheless, like nothing Keith’s seen before. 

“Marble,” Acxa says, noticing him staring. “With limestone foundations. Some Galran castles use limestone too, but none as bright nor fine as Altean stones.”

“My father never could find the mines,” Lotor says with evident glee. “Such a pity.”

Despite his jests, Lotor grows visibly tense the further they ride, as the ruins become more and more frequent. Finally, they stop before the largest and most intact building yet – but it is covered almost entirely by vines and even trees, their roots growing bare over the stone. The building itself looks sunken into the earth, its marble columns half-buried. If Keith had to guess, he would say it was some sort of grand temple, or perhaps a palace…

“Wait here,” Lotor says, and Keith stops Strael alongside Acxa. Without further explanation, Lotor rides onward, disappearing around the far edge of the ruin. 

Keith looks at Acxa, who raises an eyebrow and offers him no explanation.

He is about to question her when he suddenly feels...a pull. It is as powerful as it is abrupt, and he knows without looking that it comes from the stone in his saddlebag. He needs to take it...to bring it somewhere, near here. Keith is dismounting and reaching for the saddlebag before he’s aware of it, and Acxa exclaims, “What are you doing?”

Keith blinks at his own hands. “I...I need to go. Take a piss. Over there.” He waves his hand vaguely. 

Acxa squints at him. “Alright…”

Keith snatches the bundle of cloak and turns around with it held to his chest before she can question it. “I, uh, won’t be long,” he mumbles, and starts wandering off.

“Don’t get lost,” Acxa calls after him, but Keith isn’t listening to her. His full attention is on the stone, warm and thrumming against his chest. It doesn’t communicate with words, but with that same strange pull, tugging him into the undergrowth, towards the palace ruin. He knows it is, was, a palace, because the stone tells him. Images flash through his mind – golden halls, silk drapes, mosaic tiles and stone fountains filled with leaping silver fish. Unicorns graze in the quiet courtyards and dragons leap from the elegant towers, and fly down, down, down…

Keith is underground. He blinks away the haze, and looks back the way he came – the stone has led him into some sort of cave, its entrance obscured by the undergrowth outside the palace ruin. The stone here is a darker limestone, the way illuminated by an eerie glowing moss. Keith holds the stone tighter as the moss begins to thin, plunging the way ahead in darkness.

Still, the stone urges him forward, almost frantic in its pulling. Axzelan’s voice echoes in his mind, Find Oriande. He’s almost there. He knows this as well as the stone does.

Something moves in the darkness. Keith freezes despite the stone’s increasing heat in his hands, because the something has eyes. The eyes fix on him, towering high above him, a cold blue with slitted pupils like a very large feline’s – or maybe more like a snake’s.

Slowly, Keith unwraps the stone, the cloak falling at his feet. The blue eyes widen. The stone nearly sears his palms as a great wind rushes through the cave, almost knocking Keith backwards with its sheer force, and then the space is illuminated by blue fire, lighting the wall sconces placed along the stone. Keith is too shocked to even scream, because standing before him is a dragon. 

This one is pearly white, scales shining sky blue, pale green, lilac, and rose pink with every shift of light. It’s larger than Axzelan, though there is no gold in sight, and its wings are half-spread but look like tattered lace, surely incapable of flight. The dragon does not speak. It just stares at him, at the stone, as if in shock – or deciding whether to burn him next. 

“I think this belongs here,” Keith says, hushed and reverent, holding the stone out hesitantly. “It was given to me by a dragon who died – Axzelan.” Blue eyes widen further, and the dragon steps closer, torn wings trembling. “He told me to find the last Altean and Oriande. Do you know where Oriande is?”

The dragon lowers its head to him, and Keith instinctively sinks to his knees, kneeling and letting the dragon touch the curved tip of its muzzle to the stone with startling gentleness. Then at last the dragon speaks. 

I am Oriande, she says. Axzelan was my mate, and you have brought our only remaining egg home.

Keith numbly relinquishes the egg as Oriande plucks it from him, holding it in her palm. It looks so small, and Keith wonders how many there must have been, once upon a time. “An egg,” he whispers. “But...how…?”

Our kind do not die easily, Oriande sighs, holding the egg close to herself. Even before we hatch. But this one was nearly lost. She looks at him, her gaze as burning as her flames. Who are you, you who have returned such a precious thing to me, one I believed was lost with all the others? I wish to remember your name always, for I owe you the greatest of debts.

“My name is Keith of Marmora,” he tells her.

She frowns, leans in closer, nostrils flaring in a delicate sniff. And what is a Marmoran doing wearing Galra clothes, smelling of Galran folk?

“I am the peace-weaver in Garris,” Keith admits. “My husband is Thane Shirogane.”

Her eyes narrow. So he is. How did you find us, then?

Keith swallows. “Er...I was led here, actually, by Prince Lotor –”

Lamplight spills into the cave, and Keith’s gaze travels up to the source, he sees a door with three small silhouettes in it. “Oriande!” a woman’s voice cries. “We have guest, but Lotor says one is missing, a new guest, a –”

Peace-weaver? Yes, I have him. Oriande turns to Keith and scoops him up in her palm, the same one with the egg. Hold on, little one. He clings on for dear life as she lifts him up to the door, which is perched atop a steep stone staircase. The three silhouettes come into view – Lotor, Acxa, and a woman with a cloud of silver hair and eyes the same color as the dragon’s.

Her eyes widen as both Keith and the egg come into view. “Oriande,” she whispers, “is that...how…?”

This Marmoran peace-weaver has delivered us a great gift today, the dragon murmurs, peering down at them all, gently closing her claws around the egg. Hope.

Lotor stares at Keith in disbelief. Acxa smiles wider than Keith has ever seen from her. 

And the woman with dragon eyes? She looks at Keith, makes a sound like a sob, and takes both of his hands in her own. “Thank you,” she says. “You cannot know how much this means to us.”

Keith blinks at her. Her hands are soft and she smells like blooming wildflowers. “Are you the last Altean?” he asks.

Her smile is sad. “My name is Princess Allura of Altea,” she replies, “and yes, I am the last of us.” She nods to Oriande. “As was my dragon...until today.”

It has not yet hatched, Oriande cautions. Only time will tell if it survives.

“It’s alive,” Keith says with certainty. “It will hatch.”

Allura scrutinizes him, her smile curling into something closer to happiness. “You are as intriguing as the prince said you would be, Keith of Marmora. But let us not disturb Oriande any longer. I hear you have had quite the adventure.”

“I’m not sure adventure is the right word for it.”

“No,” she murmurs, gaze tracing over him again, “perhaps not. Come...let’s talk. I’m sure we both have questions for each other.”

Keith follows her out of the cave. 

*

The palace does not look as it did in the memories the egg showed him. Keith tells Princess Allura of these as they walk through the halls together after leaving Lotor and Acxa in the guest quarters, and her smile grows sad again.

“Ancestral memory is a powerful thing,” she sighs, running her fingertips over the stone walls. Her nails are polished and painted as brightly as the stones, which is fascinating to Keith but was apparently a common custom among the Alteans. “That egg was created when Altea was still alive and well. But change comes quickly. So does ruin.”

Keith glances at her. “Do you mean ruin, or...Ruin?”

Allura pauses, turning on him with a somber expression. “So you have met those creatures,” she murmurs darkly. “He had a hand in it, of course. All the old gods did.”

“Old gods? Is that what they are?”

She shakes her head. “They have many names, none truly capture what they are. Old gods, daemons, dark spirits, fiends...but my people called them rift entities, for that is their origin – rifts.”

Keith looks at her blankly. She leads him down the hall, into a circular, high-ceilinged room. In the middle of it is an equally circular shallow basin, now filled with dry leaves and sprouting fungus, but which once may have held water. The circle has tiered levels, so that many people could sit around it, and directly above the basin is a hole in the roof, also circular, directly facing the sky. 

“Rifts are the origin of many entities,” Allura explains, sitting on one of the tiered levels and gesturing for him to join her. She points to the walls, where there are paintings made of colored tiles, intricate mosaics depicting curious scenes. “We do not know for certain what rifts lead to, but our alchemists believed it could only be another world, and it is from this world that we summoned the first entities. I believe Marmorans called those early entities night spirits?”

Keith sucks in a sharp breath as he follows her gaze to the first mosaic, where a circle of Alteans stands around the circle, which glows with a ring of light and darkness, and which contains a creature that is unmistakably a night spirit. “You summoned them?” he whispers. “Why?”

Allura rests her chin in her hand and shakes her head, cloud of hair rippling with the motion. “If my people had a fatal flaw, it was that our curiosity about what lies beyond this world was often twisted into ambition. The first alchemists created the first rift by accident, and the first entities came through by accident. In their curiosity, the alchemists captured the entities who could not slip away into our world. But it was their ambition which led them to try to control the entities, to divine power from them.”

“They became the first Druids,” Keith says, wondering, gaze drifting to the other mosaics. There are night spirits chained in gold, surrounded by more Alteans, but this time the Alteans glow as the rift did, and the night spirit looks duller than before. 

“Yes,” Allura says, surprised. She gives him a long look. “Lotor told me you have Druidic blood...that you are a descendant of Marmora of Thaldycon, the founder of your people.” Keith nods slowly. “But did you know Marmora was an Altean? He was from a northern tribe, yes, but he trained under our Druids – indeed, he was among the first of them. Before…” She looks down, pained. “Before the entities began to...change.”

With a shiver, Keith remembers the night spirit’s words. Humans...twist us. Make us real.

“How did they change?”

“The original entities, night spirits, were beings of balance,” Allura says. “But our world is not balanced, Keith.” Her lips twist ruefully. “So you see, the longer the entities spent in our world, bound to us, giving us their magic...the less balanced they became. One by one, they fell to chaos.”

Keith swallows. “And what became of these fallen night spirits?”

“Well,” Allura muses, “for a long time, we did not think we had done anything wrong by unbalancing them, by tethering them to our world and ourselves. Chaos is not all bad – my father taught me that there are two kinds, creative chaos and destructive chaos. But my people used them to create, not destroy, and that is how dragons and unicorns came to be.”

They look together at the next mosaic, where unicorns prance across the walls between towering trees, and dragons soar with Altean riders on their backs, no more of the night spirits in sight. 

“The unicorns were escaped entities – according to many scholars, anyway – who grew fond of the material realm and decided to stay. The dragons were entities bound by our Druids, who formed close, powerful bonds with our people. They both gained a desire to create, to be agents of what you might call ‘positive chaos,’ and in doing so, they lost their original balanced, neutral nature.”

Keith furrows his brow. “I don’t understand,” he says. “If the entities only became dragons and unicorns, then...how did the others come into being?”

Allura takes a deep, steadying breath. “As I said, our world...it isn’t balanced. If it were, we might only have creative chaos. But some people prefer destruction. And some of those people bound themselves to entities. The entities changed, as mirrors of their Druids. But the entities kept changing, kept twisting. There are – or at least, I would like to think there are – limits to how evil humans can be.”

At first, Keith thinks she must be naive to believe that, but when he looks into her dragon eyes, he knows she is far, far from naive. She has seen terrible things and survived them. She is not naive, but rather clinging to what little hope about humanity she has left. 

Allura steels herself again, and continues. “At the very least, humans are bound by mortality – no matter how evil they were, some day they will die. But the entities were not restricted by life and death, so they twisted further, and further, until they were unrecognizable from both the night spirits and the beings of creative chaos. They wove paths of single-minded destruction, and embodied different forms of it – you named Ruin, but there are many others.”

The mosaic depicts them, a tangle of jagged shapes, of sharp teeth and glowing eyes, of bodies distorted beyond comprehension. Keith recognizes Ruin’s sickly green coils, as well as another, red and gory. 

“Conquest,” Keith mutters. “I met him, too.”

She shivers. “It troubles me beyond words that they are stirring in Galra again, but after what Honerva did...this was inevitable.”

Keith struggles to remember what Axzelan told him. “She awakened the entities, didn’t she? Freed them, somehow.”

Allura nods gravely. “Yes. Once they began to stir in Altea, to sow their dissent and death and destruction, our alchemists devised a plan to imprison them. They could not open a rift to send them back – that had been tried, and failed at a terrible price – so they created a new kind of rift, one that led not to the entities’ realm, but to a prison somewhere between.” She looks at Keith, then at the mosaic. “The creation of this prison would not have been possible without the Marmorans...and their night spirits.”

The following mosaic depicts more night spirits, but these stand alongside the Altean Druids, who are robed in white, and the Marmoran Druids, in black. They all stand in a circle around the rift, into which the entities pour in a mess of gnashing teeth and clawing limbs. 

“Some of the first entities escaped capture, but did not become attached to our world like the unicorns,” Allura tells him. “They retained their original state, but could not return to their world, so the night spirits drift between worlds, in neither life nor death, neither real nor not. The night spirits spoke to Marmoran Druids through dreams, and through these dreams, your people channeled the night spirits’ magic.” She tilts her head. “Do any speak to you?”

Keith swallows. “Um,” he says, “I...I think so.”

She smiles gently. “They are unknowable beings, so you’re right to be uncertain. But it’s comforting to know there are still some of them left.”

“The night spirits, then,” Keith says, hurrying to change the topic, “they helped you make this prison between worlds?”

“Yes,” Allura replies. “They are neutral, but they have to keep balance, and that is when they intervene. Our world was unbalanced, they stepped in, and with their help the destructive entities were sealed away.”

“Until Honerva,” Keith says.

Allura nods, expression clouded now by more than sadness. Keith sees anger there, too, bitterness. She draws a hand over her face. “I’m sorry,” she murmurs, “this is more difficult to talk about than I expected.”

“We don’t have to talk about it,” Keith says quickly. “Axzelan...he told me most of it, I think.”

Allura peeks at him through her fingers. “Did he tell you about your husband?” she asks. “About Honerva’s captured children?”

“Only a little,” Keith admits. “But...we don’t need to talk about it, Princess.”

“Yes, we do,” Allura sighs, rising with a soft rustle of her blue skirts, “but perhaps dinner, first.” She gives him a small smile. “It would be my honor to share an Altean meal with you. I may be biased, but I think our cuisine is far better than Galra’s.”

“After you,” Keith agrees, and follows her out of the rift room.

*

Dinner is...an interesting affair. They dine in a courtyard, where Lotor and Acxa have prepared most of the food, with Allura’s help. Oriande remains below in her cave, and when Keith asks what she eats, Allura says, “She eats as she likes, never with me. Dragons eat rarely, like snakes – they have low metabolisms.”

Keith has no idea what she means by that, but nods solemnly and pretends to understand her.

Acxa snorts at him, and drinks her wine primly when Keith glares at her. 

The wine is certainly exciting – apparently Alteans had been great lovers of the stuff, for the palace has a wine cellar filled with aged barrels of it. “See, it’s not all bad, being stuck here,” Allura laughs as Lotor pours her some wine, after the prince insisted on doing so. Keith watches the two of them carefully over the course of the meal, surprised at the conclusion he comes to. It makes little sense for the Galran prince to love the Altean princess, yet, it seems that very thing has come to pass.

Allura continues to speak about Altea over dinner, her love for her home pouring from each word. She explains to Keith how she became bonded to Oriande, through a complex ceremony as a child in which the dragon chose her as a rider. She does not explain how they survived, nor what happened to Oriande’s wings, and Keith does not ask. He does ask a little about Axzelan, and to his relief Allura smiles, and tells the table many tales of his adventures with Oriande, and of his rider, a woman named Merla. 

“They were among the bravest and most foolish of pairs,” Allura chuckles. “Oriande and I are fonder of stopping to think about situations; Merla and Axzelan always just jumped right into it.”

At one point, Keith remembers the weight in his pocket, and just as they are polishing off their plates of smoked venison, Keith offers the sapphire wolf to Allura. “It was from Axzelan’s hoard,” he tells her, and Allura’s eyes widen. Acxa and Lotor exchange looks. “I thought you might want it...this and the egg are all that’s left.”

Allura hesitates, then takes the wolf carefully, holding it between thumb and forefinger. “Thank you,” she says. “I will treasure it, very much.”

Dinner is quieter after that, and Keith worries he ruined the mood. But he need not have bothered, because as they are finishing off the wine and the little honeyed cakes for dessert, Lotor and Princess Allura rather unsubtly excuse themselves from the table and wander off into the palace together. Keith chokes on his wine and Acxa raises an eyebrow at him.

When Keith can breathe again, he asks, “How long has that been going on?”

“Years,” Acxa says, and Keith sucks in a sharp breath. “He found this place first, you know – he would visit her in secret here, braving the trek into the Wilds time and time again, always hiding his tracks from his father.” She sighs and drinks more wine. “They were friends first, for a long time. I’m sure they must have been enemies before that, but they share much in common. A love for Altea, if nothing else.”

“But Prince Lotor is Queen Honerva’s son,” Keith protests. “Doesn’t Princess Allura hold that against him, after what she did – didn’t Honerva go mad after Lotor’s birth?”

Acxa’s gaze hardens. “That was not his fault,” she reproaches. “He was just a baby. She had always been too ambitious, too obsessed with her experiments. It caught up to her in the end.” She leans back in her chair. “Princess Allura probably held it against him at first, but not any more. They fight for a common cause.”

“What cause is that?”

Acxa sighs louder. “A better world. One free of Galran tyrants like King Zarkon and murderers like your husband.”

Keith’s eyes narrow. “Is that a threat?”

She frowns at him. “Your husband is a threat,” she says, “and if you don’t see that, then you’ll be dead sooner rather than later.”

Keith sets his wine goblet down so hard that red sloshes over the top, across his hand. “So that’s it, then? He’s a threat, and there’s nothing to be done about it except destroy him?”

Acxa’s frown deepens. She rubs her temple. “Keith…sometimes sacrifices must be made, even if they are painful ones.”

“Don’t speak to me like a child,” Keith retorts. “You’re not telling me something. What is it?”

“Your husband was one of Queen Honerva’s experiments,” Acxa says, halting. 

“I know that,” Keith mutters, though he has not heard it spoken plainly. 

“But do you understand what that means?” Acxa presses. “Princess Allura was bonded to Oriande as a child, as many Alteans were bonded to their dragons. But your husband was not bonded to a dragon as a child, Keith, and it was not through his free will.”

“Of course not,” Keith whispers. “He was a prisoner there, they kidnapped him.”

“Yes, but the entities were prisoners too – except, they were freed and given their choice of hosts. Honerva forced the entities upon the children. Most of them were killed, horribly. The ones who ‘lived’ and were chosen by the entities died through the bonding, your husband included. It’s only through the entity’s corrupt magic that he lives at all.” Acxa takes a long, weary drink of wine.

“How do you know this?” Keith demands.

“Prince Lotor broke into his father’s records, which include Queen Honerva’s notes. He stole as many as he could, in the hopes that he could undo the destruction she caused.” Acxa winces. “They’re not a happy read.”

“But he’s alive,” Keith says, staring into his wine. “Shiro isn’t...some husk of himself, he’s alive, he…”

“Allura can hear Oriande’s thoughts,” Acxa says, “and Oriande, hers, if they choose. The bond between an Altean and their dragon is incredibly close. But the bond between those children and their entities was even closer. They are two beings forged into one, Keith, and one of those beings is far stronger. It keeps Shiro alive because it needs him, for now, until it is powerful enough to take over. Maybe it hasn’t consumed your husband yet. But someday, it will.”

“How do you know,” Keith repeats, this time softer, more desperate.

“Have you ever met King Zarkon?” Acxa asks. Keith shakes his head, and she tips her head up, looking to the stars. “He isn’t human,” she adds. “I know he isn’t, and if you ever meet him, you would know, too. The man who used to be Zarkon is long dead. The entity bonded with him has taken over, fully. That is what sits on the Galran throne – a monster; not a man, not a king. He does not care for human life nor suffering. He does not think there is any means too terrible to reach a desired end. He does not feel and he does not hurt. I don’t even know if he can die.”

They are quiet, and Keith looks up at the stars with her, through the tangle of vines overhead. The crickets of the Wilds sound different, more of a dull buzzing hum than high chirps, but the stars are the same. It occurs to him that he is closer to Marmora than ever before. If he had been here several months ago, he would have leapt back onto his horse and rode through the Wilds until he crossed into the mountains of his childhood. But he is here now, and things are different now. He has to stay, now.

“Do you want to see Thane Shirogane become that thing?” Acxa asks, quiet, not a reprimand, half plea, half apology. 

Keith looks away. “There has to be something else I can do. He can be saved. Can’t he?”

Acxa says nothing, but her lips press into a thin line. She’s disappointed. 

But he’s not giving up on Shiro. Not yet.

*

Eventually, Acxa shows Keith his bedchamber in the old palace. It must have been a fine room once, but is now crumbling like the rest of the palace. Keith asks Acxa why everything here seems to have aged many centuries, when it has hardly been fifteen summers, give or take. 

“You’ve seen what Ruin does,” Acxa replies, and Keith tenses at the thought of it here, invading his sleep. “The entities are long gone,” she adds. “But the vanishing of Altea is their doing. Goodnight, Keith.”

She leaves him with that. Keith likes Acxa, but she is not a very cheerful presence.

Keith changes into his nightshirt and checks the room for suspicious tapestries or glaring boar heads. Thankfully, there are none. The only furnishing remaining in the room is the bed, which is a sunken rectangle in the stone floor, within which are heaped not furs, but finely woven white and blue blankets and pillows embroidered with flowers and vines. They’re very soft to the touch – almost too soft. 

After some consideration, Keith takes the cloak from his bag and curls up in the bed with it laid over him, letting its weight and rougher cloth anchor him. If he tucks his nose into the fur, he swears he can smell Shiro. He knows that’s not possible – Shiro has been gone for but it comforts him anyway, and he falls asleep much faster than expected, the ruby brooch pressed to his cheek.

He awakes somewhere else. In a tent, not a room, much less a palace. It’s the same dark tent from the second, and last, dream he shared with Shiro – or what should have been Shiro.

Keith sits up in the sunken bed. There’s a figure sitting in the corner, and as he looks at it, the tent seems to widen, to grow. The walls look more like stone than pelts. The ceiling is far, far above. A cold draft sighs over him, and Keith flinches. The sitting figure tilts its head.

“Shiro?” Keith whispers. 

A low growl answers him. Shiro, Shiro, Shiro. That’s the only name you want us to have, isn’t it? The only one you want us to be. But he’s a lie, peace-weaver. Everything he has, he has because of me. Everything, including you...yet, I don’t get to have you. Now, tell me: does that seem fair?

Keith stands. “I know who you are,” he says. “You don’t frighten me.”

No? Not yet. I don’t want to frighten you, yet. Right now, I just want to fuck you.

Keith pauses. “I thought you already did that.”

It laughs. That was different. He was there, then, with us. But Shiro is far away, here. This is not his dream, you see. This is yours. Which means...you are all mine. The figure stands. It looks like the figure from the fog, but bigger. Stronger. Hungrier. It takes a step forward, then another.

“No,” Keith says. “I’m not yours. I don’t belong to any of you – not to Ruin, not to Conquest, and not to you...Dominion.”

The air goes still. So you do know me. How?

“A friend,” Keith says. “I know something else, too. I know you can’t hurt me here, not unless I want you to.”

Dominion’s eyes narrow. They’re golden, with the faintest hint of slitted pupils. You seem very certain of that.

“Yes,” Keith says, folding his arms, “I am. It’s my dream. You’re my guest here, and I think I could send you away, if I wanted to.”

But you wouldn’t, Dominion murmurs. 

“You seem very certain of that.”

Oh, yes, I am. Do you know why? Keith shakes his head, numb apprehension gripping him. Your Shiro is a loyal man. So loyal that he refuses to sate me in our usual ways. He gives me blood, oh yes, more and more of it, but my power wanes...and so does his. I need more than blood, peace-weaver. I need...control. To rule, to dominate, to exert our power in a way that does not end in simply death, but in complete and utter surrender – of will, of mind, of body...of spirit.

Keith sucks in a sharp breath. Dominion materializes behind him, pressed close along his back, clawed hand splayed across his jaw, forcing his chin up. Takashi and his warriors face a great battle tomorrow...we wouldn’t want him to lose, would we?

“I can’t,” Keith whispers. “I won’t betray him –”

You stupid boy, Dominion snarls, don’t you understand? I am him. He is I. 

Keith shakes his head. “No, no, you said he wasn’t here, you said he was far away –”

Far away, but not gone. We are bound. I am as much a part of him, and he of I, as your heart is a part of you. 

“But –” Keith closes his eyes. “He kept you away from me. There are two sides, then – and I am only wed to one of them.”

The hand on him tightens to the point of pain. You are just as foolishly loyal as he is, then. But I am hungry, and he weakens. Try to wake from this dream, but I will take what we need, if not from you than from another – 

“Wait,” Keith gasps, “if – if you’re bound, then you could bring him here. You could –” He gulps. “You could take what you need from me, but only if it’s him. Truly him.”

Claws stroke at his jaw, down over his arched neck. You think that just because it’s the husband you think you know, he will be kind in this? Peace-weaver, he is not so kind. He would not know it was truly you he was seeing, here.

“He won’t hurt me,” Keith says with certainty.

Dominion releases him. Oh, peace-weaver. I almost pity you.

Then the tent fades. Keith blinks, turning around as the walls give way to trees, to the secluded glen Shiro once brought him to. It was a pleasant autumn day, then, but now it is a hot spring night on the cusp of summer. The stream is swollen with the spring rains, widening into a slow-flowing river, and the waterfalls tumble in silver-black sheets of water over the slick rocks cloaked in thick emerald moss.

This time, there are no horses, no deer, no Marmoran feast – and no Shiro, Keith thinks, until someone sits up in the tall, swaying grass, head turning to look at him. 

This isn’t your dream, anymore, Dominion whispers, and Shiro’s eyes flare gold from across the glen. 

“Keith,” Shiro calls. His voice is low, edged with a warning. “Come here.”

Keith comes as if pulled by a thread, and when he reaches Shiro, the thane waits for him to sit on the earth beside him. Keith looks up into his face, wary, searching for the open tenderness of the first dream. But Shiro’s face is closed off, guarded, grim. When he reaches out and touches Keith, it is not to stroke him, nor to kiss him softly, but to wrap his right hand around Keith’s throat and squeeze.

“I – I missed you,” Keith tries, grasping at Shiro’s wrist, failing when Shiro grabs both of Keith’s wrists in his left hand, his grip bruising. 

“Quiet,” Shiro mutters. He seems distracted, agitated. Keith watches him anxiously, and Shiro’s eyes narrow. “I know you’re not real,” he says. “Just another trick, like in the church…” His thumb rubs at Keith’s collarbones, claw nicking the skin. 

His gaze is dangerous, and Keith’s heart pounds. “What church?” Keith whispers. “Shiro, it’s me –”

“Shut up.” Shiro flips him, facefirst into the grass, and Keith’s eyes widen as rope winds around his wrists, his ankles, tying him tight and fast. As the rope knots and binds, his clothes slip away like mist, and Keith shivers at the cold air at his back and wet grass against his front, shivers harder at Shiro’s hot palm pressing down between his shoulder blades. “Don’t make me gag you. Don’t make this harder than it needs to be.”

Keith’s low whimper slips out, unbidden. “Takashi,” he says, this time a plea, and the pressure of Shiro’s palm lessens on his back. Shiro’s touch does not lift away, but slides upwards, sweeping Keith’s hair back, out of his face and over his shoulder. Keith squeezes his eyes shut as Shiro leans over him, until his bare chest is nearly touching Keith’s bare back. 

“Husband,” Keith breathes, his voice fragile and wavering in a way he hates, but in a way he cannot control. At the sound of it, Shiro makes a low noise, and his thumb skates across Keith’s jaw, brushing just shy of his lips.

“He said you liked it,” Shiro murmurs, breath tickling his ear, “when we controlled you, used you, made you surrender to whatever we would give you.” Keith’s breath quickens, nails digging into his own palms. “Was it true?” Shiro’s lips touch his brow, a fleeting hint of gentleness, grounding Keith with the barest touch. “Tell me you want this.”

Keith keeps his eyes closed. Like that, everything is more – everywhere Shiro touches him, his skin flushes hot. “I want you,” Keith says, the words trembling through the grass, the beaten earth. He swallows, forces his eyes open to add, “I want to trust you.”

Shiro exhales. “Then trust me,” he replies, like it’s that easy.

Keith stares at the blurry blades of grass. “Sendak was wrong,” he whispers, “you don’t like to hurt, to destroy, that isn’t you –”

“Stop pretending to be the real him,” Shiro hisses. “You don’t know me. You don’t know what I like, what I need.”

“Yes, I do,” Keith says. “You like gentleness, kindness. You like mischief and intimacy and holding me in your arms and kissing –”

Shiro covers Keith’s mouth. “Enough,” he says. He sounds strained, choked. 

“But it’s true,” Keith says against his palm. “That first night, our wedding night, you –”

Shiro wraps both arms around his torso and brings Keith close to his body, so Keith can feel his shaking. “Don’t mistake that man for me. That was me fully restrained, with Him bound and tucked away. It isn’t the truth. The truth could have killed you, that night – and every night after.”

“You wouldn’t have,” Keith starts, and stops when Shiro lets out a soft sob, hidden in Keith’s shoulder. 

“I wish we could have had gentleness between us always, my heart,” Shiro whispers. “But that time is past.” His voice firms, hesitation resolving itself in his cool, level tone. “I am your thane, and you are my peace-weaver. And someday –” His hips roll against Keith’s thighs, skin on skin. “Someday, I will be your king.”

Keith inhales. “Is – is that what all this is about?”

“Tell me, Keith,” Shiro murmurs, “would you ever betray me?”

Keith shivers, tries to squirm away. “I –”

“Don’t lie. I’ll know.” Shiro’s teeth find his shoulder, and Keith arches into it, even as his arms flex in their bonds, uselessly. “I know you must have imagined it – imagined sliding your knife between my ribs in my sleep.” Keith makes a panicked sound and Shiro laughs meanly. “Oh, you think I didn’t know about that ‘hidden’ dagger? Do you take me for a fool?”

“No, no,” Keith gasps, twisting in earnest, unsure if he’s trying to get closer or away. “I wasn’t – it wasn’t meant for you –”

“Lie.” Shiro reels back and smacks his ass, hard and stinging. Keith cries out, but not in pain. The grass and moss is wet with dew and mist and so is Keith where he ruts in helpless jerks against it. Shiro rubs at the stinging mark his palm left and Keith whines, louder when claws rub between his cheeks, skimming the tender skin of his hole before parting where he’s dripping, continuing to rub in teasing, wet circles. “Tell me the truth, and maybe I’ll put these inside of you.”

“Shiro, I wasn’t, I couldn’t do it, I swear,” Keith stammers. “Please –”

Shiro’s palm strikes him again and he chokes on a despairing moan, slumping into the ground. “You think you’ve earned that?” Shiro demands. “Answer me.”

“Earned –” Keith swallows thickly. “Earned what?”

“My name,” Shiro growls. “Is that how you address your thane?”

“You are my husband,” Keith tries, and Shiro gives him a sharp tap, not a slap but a warning, a chance to correct himself. Keith lets out a shaky exhale. “My...my lord…?”

“Better,” Shiro murmurs. He pets Keith’s ass, tracing the curve of it, then back up to his spine. “You know...I once heard a story that there are some who can control their dreams.” Keith’s eyes fly open. “And since you are my dream…”

Keith struggles in earnest. “Shiro, please,” he begs, stumbling over his words, “my lord, don’t –”

Shiro kisses him, hands cupping his face soft and sweet. “Let go, Keith,” he says. “All I want is to take care of you – and to rule you with all I have. Trust me to bring you to bliss – to take you apart and put you back together again.”

“And if I cannot trust that?” Keith whispers, fearful despite his previous conviction. 

Shiro’s brow lowers. “Then –” The mad, golden flare in his eyes dims, if only for a moment. “Then it ends. I wake up,” he says.

Keith blinks, the weight on his chest dissolving into featherlight relief. “Even if I am just a dream?” he whispers.

Shiro almost looks angry when he says, “You could never be just a dream to me. Even when you are.” He shakes himself, the golden glare returning with a vengeance. “But you must decide, now.”

You make him weak, Dominion tells Keith. Weak men are dead men. 

Keith wets his lips. “How do I let go, my lord?”

Shiro’s eyes darken. “You obey me,” he says. “You serve me. You relinquish all control. Say it.”

Keith nods. “Very well,” he whispers, “my lord.” He closes his eyes again. “I relinquish all control, to you.”

Behind him, Shiro’s body ripples with power, with a magic not unlike the kind Keith felt in Zeragat and Arus, but deeper, stronger, shaking him to his core. The willows in the glen shiver as a roar echoes through the trees, and when Keith dares to open his eyes, the shadow looming over him is not a thane, but a dragon. 

A startled cry dies in Keith’s throat when Shiro flips him onto his back with one long black claw, golden gaze raking over him. Keith’s wrists ache, crushed between his back and the earth, but as soon as the thought crosses his mind the pain is gone, fading into the fuzzy sensation of dreams while everything else sharpens and intensifies. 

Shiro’s body arcs over him, taller than any man, taller than the willows bowing to the rushing water. His scarred skin is covered by strange armor – shining black scales which shift into an iridescent purple where the moonlight catches them. His eyes are gold, feline like Axzelan’s, but his pupils are so dilated they reveal only thin rings of iris. There is not a trace of gray, not a trace of Shiro, save for the scar slashed across his lengthening muzzle and the monstrous appearance of his right forelimb, where the scales stop shining.

Twin horns curl from his skull, silver and smooth and tipped in inky black. His spine is framed by great wings, so dark and massive they block out the stars above them. He is smaller than Axzelan, but while that was a dying dragon turned feeble and tired in age, Shiro is a serpent in its prime, eager to sink his teeth into battle – or Keith.

When he lowers his head to Keith’s body, at first Keith fears he will. If Shiro kills him here, will he wake up? Or will he be trapped forever between worlds, where not even the night spirit can reach him?

No teeth find his flesh. Instead, a long violet-black tongue drags down the center of Keith’s chest, stopping when each forked tip rests over a hardening nipple, teasing at them while Keith gasps and twitches under the weight of his tongue and jaws. There’s no way to escape, bound as he is, and though he tries to spread his legs, he’s stopped by the rope around his ankles, even as Shiro grows impatient with his nipples and licks down through coarse wet curls before forcing his tongue between Keith’s thighs. 

Keith bucks wildly, riding the twisting tongue as it slides over his clit and the folds of his cunt again and again, trapped between Keith’s tied legs, salivating so much that Keith feels a puddle forming under him, and sees fat globs of spit sliding down over his thighs and belly, warm and wet at the join of his thighs. It’s made worse – or better – by Shiro’s growls, vibrating through him until Keith shakes with them, squeezing his thighs together as best he can around the dragon’s flexing tongue as he comes. 

The alien way Shiro touches him in this form almost reminds him of the night spirit, but it’s rougher, more selfish. The night spirit was slow, methodical. When Shiro’s tongue finally plunges into him, it is with the intent to open him up wide and make him come again as soon as possible, not to draw it out sweetly, and certainly not to comfort him. 

Shiro growls louder as Keith convulses around his tongue. Keith has no way of knowing if this is the dream’s doing or his own, but he’s opening far too easily, without any pain except the dull burning ache he secretly craves. His clit throbs, trapped in spit-soaked hair and then under a rough claw as Shiro’s right hand braces itself around Keith’s waist, thumb rubbing and flicking at his clit until he shouts at the dizzying waves of feeling.

“See how easy it is to let go for me?” Shiro asks, tongue withdrawing, leaving Keith shuddering and gaping. Shiro tilts his head, as if admiring his handiwork. “You may play at defiance, but we both know you were made for this.” The dragon’s lips curl in a smugly jagged smile. “Made to be mine.”

Keith whines behind his teeth. “My lord, please –”

“Please, what?” Shiro nuzzles at his chest, licking there again, both forked tips flickering over each nipple without mercy. 

“I – I need – inside me –”

Shiro’s eyes narrow. “You need what I decide to give to you. Quiet.”

Keith lets out a wretched whine and the ropes around him tighten, scratching red across his skin. “Y-yes, my lord,” he whispers.

“Good boy,” Shiro growls. He lurches forward and something bumps over Keith’s cunt, then slides in – and in, and in. Keith’s legs kick and the ropes strain as his thighs are forced wider by the girth of the cock entering him, his cunt split open first, then the ropes follow with a loud snap as they reach their breaking point. 

Keith blacks out for a moment – or maybe it’s just the way these things work in dreams, because when his awareness returns, he’s slumped over Shiro’s chest and belly, smooth silver scale under him, the dragon’s cock fully impaled within him. His arms are still bound behind his back, but his legs are free, straddling Shiro’s waist. Shiro settles back with a lazy huff, one scaled brow lifting. Keith pants, head hanging down – it’s torture to sit like this, with Shiro inside him but not moving an inch, not even as Keith tightens around him frantically.

“Stop squirming,” Shiro chuckles, head lolling back in the grass and hips lifting just enough to circle and grind deep, wrenching a moan from Keith’s throat. “Fuck yourself properly, come for me, and maybe then I’ll give you what you want.”

Keith shakes his head, even as he starts rocking on the dragon’s cock, biting his lip as it leaks inside of him, turning its swollen, bumpy surface slicker and warmer. “C-can’t, not without you touching me –”

Shiro growls under him, an overwhelming rumble through Keith’s body. “Then you won’t come at all,” he warns. “And I’ll just keep you here, warming my cock like a useless whore –”

Keith flinches, hair falling into his eyes as he shakes his head and bounces harder, struggling to find purchase on the smooth scales as he lifts up, then comes back down so hard that Shiro’s cock knocks against something it never has before, an angle that stings and burns as much as it floods Keith with shaky pleasure. 

He doesn’t realize he’s screamed until something flicks as if in question against his cheek, and Keith turns his head to find himself face to face with a curling tail-tip. He peers at it, bleary and uncomprehending, before it presses to his mouth. His lips part automatically and Shiro murmurs in approval under him. Keith relaxes at the sound, eyes half-lidded and lips closing around the dragon’s tail, sucking it as he would a cock. 

“But you aren’t a whore, are you, beloved?” Shiro coos, tail pushing deeper, opening Keith’s throat before retreating, then curling right back in again. “You’re mine, all mine…” 

His eyes glint, and his tail curls away entirely, ignoring Keith’s plaintive whine and his clumsy attempts to fuck himself on Shiro’s cock with only his thighs and upper body, considering his arms are rendered useless in rope. “You said you missed me. Tell me, then – how much? I don’t know if I should believe you...look at you, you’re so greedy for this. Why should I believe you didn’t go running to someone else after I left, when you’re this desperate for cock?”

Keith swallows, toes curling and hips circling fast and shallow, so full he swears he could choke on it. He thinks of the night spirit and his face burns with shame, despite its promises of his fidelity. “I – I didn’t – you were gone and everything hurt and I was all alone –”

Shiro bares his teeth, a wild light in his eyes. “Who,” he snarls, “who dared to touch you –”

“No – nobody,” Keith gasps, his clit hard and starting to chafe against the scales, almost, almost...frantic, Keith wriggles, forcing the entire base of Shiro’s cock past flushed folds as he tries to get the right angle to rut his clit against Shiro’s belly. His body strains and ripples around it, but Keith doesn’t care, he’s too despite to get off to feel any pain. 

But the moment his clit makes contact, Shiro growls and a clawed hand is yanking Keith up, so that he’s held with only half of the dragon’s cock inside of him, his clit far from any friction. “Lie,” Shiro hisses, and Keith shakes his head, kicking out blindly and arching his back in despair. 

“It’s not, it’s not –”

The dragon’s tail slithers down his spine and Keith grunts in surprise when it pushes at his hole, still wet from his spit, insistent. “It doesn’t matter, anyway,” Shiro replies, low and dark, Keith’s spine stiffening as the pressure against his hole increases. “Everyone will know who you belong to by the time we’re done with you.”

“What –” Keith freezes as another shadow falls over him, hot breath washing over his back. A clawed hand clamps down on his shoulder, wrenching him into a backbend, coming face to face with a second dragon. While Shiro is all black and shining violet and pale silver, this one is black and brilliant gold, and easily twice his size. His head is crowned in horns, a golden set that extends down his spine in glittering ridges. 

His tongue flicks out, tipping Keith’s chin up, and Dominion murmurs, Miss me?

Keith stares at him, heart pounding. “But – then – Shiro?”

That one is all Shiro, peace-weaver, Dominion hisses. Just as you desired. Is he as kind as you believed he would be?

Keith whimpers softly. Surely Dominion is bluffing. But he had said...there were two sides. And if these are both of them, separated in draconic form...then, did the Shiro who sought gentleness and kindness, the Shiro who begged for him beside the fire, the Shiro who swore fealty to him, the Shiro who kissed him so slow and sweet...did that Shiro truly exist at all?

He cannot hear us, Dominion adds, claw dragging through Keith’s hair, twirling it around the wicked point and tugging until Keith yelps. He cares for nothing but you – and therein lies our problem, peace-weaver.

“What – what do you mean,” Keith gasps, tears stinging at his eyes as the claw pulls tighter, his body straining between the two dragons. He’s vaguely aware that Shiro’s tail is working his ass open, but the sensation is muted, so overwhelming he’s nearly numb. 

I have realized that if he is to take the throne, it must be with you at his side, Dominion purrs, jerking Keith upright again before releasing him altogether, his mouth falling open in a voiceless shout as he sinks down fully on Shiro’s cock once more. So I offer you a choice, Keith of Marmora – either you serve him as his loyal wife, his loyal peace-weaver, and face my punishment if you fail to do so...or, I take you as I have taken Shiro, and you rule together, side by side, as equals under me. 

Keith twists away from Dominion, but overbalances — he falls against Shiro’s chest, and Dominion laughs behind him. Always trying to escape, Dominion sighs. But there is no escape, peace-weaver. Not from me. Not from your thane. Either way, you will have to choose. But we can give you a taste of how it would be if you chose us. There is no need to fight us, Keith, when you could join us.

Shiro, oblivious to the spirit’s words to Keith, thrusts up, so powerfully that Keith cries out again, clinging to Shiro’s scales as best he can without his hands, pretending the warm, smooth belly plates are simply a suit of armor. It makes him feel safer, tucked against Shiro, shielding the front of his body from Dominion’s ruthless gaze. 

The back, however, is bared to him, and he only understands why when Shiro’s tail slips free and Dominion rears up on his hind legs with a low snarl, coming down hard with his forepaws on either side of Shiro’s chest, the burning, tapered tip of his cock rutting against Keith’s ass. 

Keith shakes, and for the first time, he feels Shiro tense under him, the smaller dragon glowering up at Dominion, and finally, finally touching Keith, clawed hand wrapping around his torso almost protectively. “He’s scared of you,” Shiro growls. 

It’s a dream, Takashi, Dominion replies. If he’s frightened, it’s because I want him to be.

Keith shakes his head, whispers, “My lord,” into the dragon’s shining scales, because it’s all he can say.

“It’s my dream too,” Shiro retorts, “and I don’t want him to be scared.” His claws slip beneath Keith, and when they find Keith’s clit he moans and arches over Shiro’s body, held fast by Shiro’s cock and sure claws which rub and stroke until Keith is collapsing against him, shuddering through climax and spasming around Shiro’s cock. 

“Shhh...” Shiro’s serpentine neck curves forward until he can nuzzle at Keith’s hair, his warm breath somehow soothing. “I have you,” Shiro promises, “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Enough, Dominion growls. He hasn’t earned our affection yet.

Sharp teeth graze Keith’s ear, and claws drag lines of fire down his hip before Dominion shoves forward against him, and Keith is filled by both of them in a way that surely would be impossible in the waking world. It feels impossible here, as it is – for what seems like a long time, Keith is incapable of thought, much less speech, and thinks he might be waking, or falling deeper into sleep, but when he surfaces from the dark haze he is still caught, torn, crushed between the two dragons, the two sides of the same coin. 

Both of them are fucking him, each thrust sparking lightning up his spine, and Keith shudders and crumples between them, every other breath a ragged scream. The quiet glen is no longer quiet – the roars and snarls of the dragons overlay his cut-off cries, and the smack of skin and scale is deafening, not to mention the slick sounds of their cocks inside of him. 

Keith’s head lolls against Shiro’s chest, and under him, Shiro groans, lifting his hips just as Dominion pulls out suddenly. Keith lifts his head, bleary and empty, only for his mouth to fall open as Shiro’s cock swells at the base and spills inside him in messy pulses, his strange new cock acting as a plug. Keith slumps further into him in disbelief, whimpering and twitching as he’s flooded with wet heat, his body flushing with another wave of arousal at the sensation. 

It’s a familiar feeling, but more than it’s ever been, and Keith doesn’t...dislike it. The best part, though, is that Shiro is touching him through it, purring under him and nuzzling into Keith’s hair. 

Don’t be rude, Takashi, Dominion warns, snapping Keith back into shivery adrenaline. Use your mouth, make him come.

Keith opens his mouth to protest, but Shiro is already obeying, craning his long, crested neck to nose at where they’re joined, and then licks over all of it in broad, slick strokes, no teasing, just relentless, wrapping the forked tip around Keith’s swollen clit. Keith sucks in air, thighs shaking and cunt clenching around Shiro’s still-fat cock, falling back into Dominion as he comes with a strangled shout, pulsing over Shiro’s insistent tongue.

Dominion mouths at the join of his neck and shoulder, lining up his cock again. Keith waits warily, chest rising and falling in uneven heaves. So...what do you say, peace-weaver? Dominion murmurs. I think you fit well with us. Do you choose to serve, or to join…?

“I will make no deals with you,” Keith whispers hoarsely, his bound hands curling into fists. 

Dominion growls, claws splitting skin where they hold him. What did you say?

“I will make no deals with you!” Keith snarls, and says it again, louder, when Dominion fucks back into him. Keith’s own rage blocks out the sting. Shiro cannot hear them, he is far away, tongue flickering over Keith’s body, pulling back to blink at him with hazy eyes that are beginning to look more human as he sees Keith’s furious face. 

You will regret this, Dominion warns. All you have to do is choose. You could have the throne, power over all Galra – all Marmora, too – everything you wanted –

“I don’t want your power,” Keith hisses, twisting around to look the black dragon in the eyes. “You hurt him. You killed him. I don’t know how, not yet, but I will make you pay for that. I will make you sorry you ever touched him, because I know he is good, and I know you don’t want him that way.”

If you are betting on his ‘goodness’ over my power, Dominion says, then you have already lost, peace-weaver. Tomorrow morning he will bathe his sword in the blood of a hundred men and kill yet another king for Galra. Is that ‘goodness,’ Keith of Marmora? No. That is my power, shared with him. I will give you one last chance – you could share in it, too. 

Keith smiles, manic and vicious. “And what will that cost me? My arm? An heir, torn from my belly and placed in your arms, on your damned throne? No. I will not be claimed by you, Dominion. I will not be claimed by any of you.”

Bold words for someone at our mercy, Dominion growls. His cock thickens, pushes deeper, but Keith barely feels it. He feels only Shiro, feels his claws dulling, feels his warm gaze and warmer touch. 

“It was my dream first,” Keith retorts, and breaks free of the rope around his wrists with a thought. Magic ripples through him, the power of a night spirit and a dragon swirling in a paradoxical whirlpool within him, and Keith knows in that moment that he is untouchable.

Dominion recoils in shock, and Shiro blinks up at him in slow confusion. “Keith…?”

“I’m going to wake up, now,” Keith declares, but as he does, Dominion seizes him, ripping him away from Shiro. The magic within him falters in his confusion and the pain of separation. The dragon vanishes, replaced by a dazed thane lying in the glen alone, reaching out to Keith with his right hand, eyes wide with panic and his cry of Keith’s name echoing as Dominion’s teeth sink into Keith’s shoulder, dragon jaws closing tight.

Keith wakes at the blinding pain, panting and blinking rapidly at the ceiling. It must have been beautiful once, a mosaic of painted tiles swirling in shades of blue like a ceramic ocean. Now, the tiles are faded and chipped with age. He swallows, and looks down at his right shoulder. 

No red blooms through the white of his nightshirt, but when he lifts the collar slowly, he sees the bitemark where Dominion’s teeth cut through, angry and red. His shoulder throbs. He looks again at the ceiling, and imagines the waves crashing down upon him.

*

Needless to say, Keith does not sleep for the rest of the night. He leaves that room as fast as he can, still in his nightshirt but with his chest bound and the cloak Shiro gave him wrapped tight around his body. These little things bring him strength, even though he feels like crying when he thinks of Shiro. 

It isn’t because he didn’t want it; didn’t want Shiro’s hands on him and cock in him. He wanted that. Difficult as it is to admit this to himself, he did – still does, despite it all.

No, it’s because of the way Shiro did it. It’s because he’s hardly recognizable as the man in that first dream, the one who laughed in warm sunlight and kissed Keith and put his comfort and pleasure first every step of the way. This Shiro was not that kind and selfless lover. This Shiro was angry, brutal in a cold and controlled way that arouses Keith as much as it terrifies him. There were moments, he tells himself, where the other Shiro shown through, but even then he was dulled, muted, suppressed. 

Shiro did not know it was the real Keith he was doing all of those things to. But does that matter? Keith thinks, wandering through the cool palace soaked in moonlight, half-expecting a towering shadow behind every corner. Does it matter if Shiro did not know, or does it matter more that he would do those things to me at all, in any form, real or not?

At least Keith can rest easy knowing that Dominion, and by extension Shiro, will have the strength needed for tomorrow’s battle. Unless, of course, Dominion was lying. Perhaps he was. Keith has no way of knowing, but what he does know is that the thought of Shiro lying dead on a battlefield terrifies him as much as Shiro himself.

When Keith’s feet carry him into a lush courtyard, he does not expect to have company, but as he rounds the corner of the foliage to sit on one of the crumbling stone benches, he finds Princess Allura sitting there, first.

He turns to go, but she’s already heard him. “Keith,” she murmurs, eyes wide and shawl wrapped loose around her shoulders. “Trouble sleeping?”

Keith nods mutely. She gestures for him to join her on the bench, and tentatively, he does. 

“This place was my home, once,” Allura says conversationally, “but I’m afraid it’s quite filled with ghosts, now. Peaceful dreams can be hard to come by with so many hauntings.”

Keith exhales, shivering despite the warm spring air, on the cusp of summer. Shiro will return soon, very soon. He grips the cloak tighter. “I didn’t dream of ghosts,” he whispers. “Living men can be far more frightening.”

Allura shifts towards him on the bench. “Yes,” she agrees. “Truer words were never spoken.”

“Did you ever meet my husband?” Keith asks her, on a whim. “He was only a child during the War, but…”

Her brow lowers. “They were all children,” she murmurs. “Or they were, once. Honerva turned them into monsters hungry for blood.” Allura shakes her head. “I hope the children were long-gone, for no child should have suffered what they did.”

“Who were the other children?” Keith asks. “I know of Lord Sendak, but the others…?”

“Most died,” Allura says shortly. “Not because we killed them, the entities did that, consumed them too quickly before they had enough power to become corporeal, and became shells of themselves. You know them as Galran Druids, I believe.”

Keith goes cold, thinking of Macidus, of the faceless grins and sharp knives. “They – were the other children?”

Allura nods. “I suspected it when Lotor told me of his father’s mysterious soldiers, and he confirmed it through his research. The children who survived, like Thane Shirogane and Lord Sendak...they did so because their entities were clever as well as powerful. They decided to bide their time...and they are almost done waiting.”

Keith bites his lip so hard he tastes blood. His shoulder aches where Dominion’s teeth sunk in.

“Which entity is bound to King Zarkon?”

Allura blinks. “Ah...so Acxa told you.” She sighs, looking down at her clasped hands. “We cannot know for certain, but Lotor has his own verdict. Whatever it is, it was drawn to Zarkon’s grief at losing Queen Honerva. I believe it is Vengeance, personally...I know all too well that grief breeds a desire for revenge, either for some sense of justice or simply to cause hurt.”

“How many entities are there?” Keith asks, hushed.

“Too many,” Allura replies. “As many as there are stars in the sky. There are countless destructive forces, after all.”

“Does any one rule them?”

Allura looks at him, a bit confused. “Rule? What do you mean?”

“I mean...does any single entity control them all? Do they have a plan, a goal they pursue?”

“What a strange question,” Allura muses, tilting her head. “I never considered they might, but...I suppose it is possible. Such an entity would have to be terribly powerful.” She tugs her shawl closer. “I hope such a thing doesn’t exist.”

“So do I,” Keith whispers. 

They sit together for awhile, then Allura says, “That is a beautiful brooch-pin. Ruby?”

Keith nods. “My husband gave it to me. It was his mother’s.”

Allura smiles, and reaches out. “May I?” Keith unpins the brooch and holds it out to her. The instant it touches her skin, her smile falls. “Oh,” she says, “how strange.”

“What’s strange?” Keith peers down at the pin with her. The ruby glimmers darkly under the full moon, and in her palm, it appears to be a single, perfect drop of blood. 

“This...it’s enchanted,” Allura says, “but I recognize the alchemy. It’s Altean. Like…”

“Honerva,” Keith breathes, horror washing over him. Shiro’s other mother.

Allura swallows. “It’s imbued with an ancient protection spell, but it does not just protect. It also...opens the wearer, much like one would open a rift. The spell involves blood magic – Keith, what did you dream of?” 

Her voice is urgent, commanding, and Keith fumbles with the cloak. Her gaze is heavy and frantic on him. “It...I tried to wake up,” Keith says. “But...before I could, it…” Wordlessly, he slides the cloak off, exposing his scarred right shoulder where the nightshirt slips down. 

Allura gasps, hand flying to her mouth. “It touched you.”

Keith has not the heart to tell her that it did a lot more than just touch him. “What does that mean?” he demands. “What does it want?”

She flings the ruby brooch to the ground and grasps his hands tightly. “Keith, a mark is the first step of the bonding ceremony.” She rolls up her sleeve to reveal a single faint mark on her forearm, the clean puncture of a single dragon’s tooth. “It’s looking for a host, in you.”

“What if it already has a host?” Keith whispers.

“Then it is an entity unlike any we have seen before, one powerful enough to expand its reach,” Allura whispers back. “It tried to open a connection with you, and we must close it, at once.” She leaps to her feet, still holding his hand. “Quickly, you cannot spend the rest of the night out here, much less in your room with that cursed ruby.”

Keith looks at it laying abandoned in the courtyard as Allura leads him away. “But...it was Shiro’s gift to me,” he says weakly. “I...he didn’t know. He couldn’t have.”

Allura pauses. She searches his face, some of her urgency fading. “You think your husband is a good man,” she murmurs.

Keith frowns at her. “Don’t tell me what Acxa already has – that I’m a fool for believing it.”

“I won’t tell you that,” Allura sighs, “because I don’t think you are a fool. I hope you are right, Keith. Tell me one reason that you believe this about Thane Shirogane.”

“He loves me,” Keith says. Her lips curve up. “It was one of the last things he told me, before he left for the raids.”

“And did you say it back?” 

“No,” Keith says. “How could I?”

She squeezes his hand. “Sometimes it is near-impossible to admit to ourselves how we feel about someone because we believe they should be, must be, our enemy.”

“Lotor did not tear you from your family and your life to warm his bed because he thought you looked pretty wielding a sword,” Keith retorts, sharper than he meant.

But Allura does not flinch. She raises an eyebrow. “Is that what he did? Do you truly believe that was his intention?” When Keith is silent, she releases his hand. 

Keith bows his head, exhaustion catching up with him. “I am tired,” he admits. “I don’t know what to believe anymore.”

Allura makes a soft sound, and drapes his cloak back over his shoulders before taking his hand again. “I know,” she says. “You are certainly not alone in that. Nor will you be alone tonight.” 

She leads him through the palace, down twisting stairs and dark archways until they reach a familiar cave, glowing with blue dragonfire. Oriande is waiting for them, and Keith watches in sleepy confusion as the princess and the dragon appear to have a conversation without saying a word, before Allura hands him over to the dragon. 

“Goodnight, Keith,” she says. “Oriande will watch over you, I swear it by Altea.” She lingers in the doorway. “And...know who your real enemy is, peace-weaver. Know who the victims are in this story...all too often, they may start to look like villains.”

Allura leaves, and Oriande lifts Keith into her palm, guiding him down to the cave floor. He sees the egg at once, nestled in moss and live coals smoldering with a dull glow beneath it. Oriande lays down beside him and they watch the egg. 

He is beautiful, Oriande says, is he not?

“He?” Keith echoes. The dragon placed him in a nest of moss – thankfully no coals – and it is awfully soft and warm. He has to fight to keep his eyelids open.

Yes, Oriande sighs. He told me. He knows his name. He told me that, also.

“What is it?” Keith yawns, curling into the moss and blinking up into calm turquoise eyes, idly wishing he had also known his entire self and name when he was still in his mother’s womb. 

She huffs softly, blowing white smoke over him. Bad luck to say a dragon’s name before they hatch.

“Oh,” Keith says. “Sorry...I didn’t know.”

Oriande makes a low sound. He thinks she might be laughing at him. Sleep, Keith of Marmora, she tells him. Your dreams will be more pleasant, far away from those who wish you harm. 

“The entities who twisted into destruction,” Keith mumbles, phantom teeth stinging under his skin, “were they dragons before they were night spirits?”

Sleep, Oriande says, more firmly, and Keith drifts off into floating silence.

He wanders a forest, but it is a real forest, his forest, not the one the night spirit created. There’s a woman walking among the trees, and Keith recognizes her at once. He runs to meet her.

“Mother!” he calls, running faster, as if she will fade away at any moment. “Mother, it’s me.”

To his relief, she turns, and her eyes widen as he leaps into her arms. Neither of them are given to frequent signs of overt affection, but she embraces him with all her might, and so does Keith. “It’s really you,” Krolia whispers, “isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Keith says, burying his face in the thick waves of her hair. “I think a dragon sent me here.” Krolia pulls back to study him, her calloused hands cupping his face. “Her name is Oriande,” Keith adds. “She’s protecting me tonight.”

Krolia’s brow lowers, and she strokes Keith’s hair out of his face like she cannot keep her hands still, cannot stop touching him. “Protecting you from what?”

Keith pulls down his nightshirt and Krolia draws in a sharp, furious breath at the sight of the fresh scar. “Something terrible,” Keith says. “Once I told you I was afraid of this, afraid of my duty. You told me my fear would keep me alive. But I do not want to fear him, Mother. I want to help him.”

Krolia’s hands on him tremble. “I never should have let them take you,” she whispers. 

“But they did take me.” Keith clings tight to her. “I cannot do what Kolivan has asked of me,” he tells her. “I tried, Mother, and it nearly killed me.” Her eyes shine, brimming with tears for him, for them both. “I cannot be a Blade if it means a betrayal, both to myself and to my husband.”

“You love him,” she says, smiling though she looks almost in pain. “Even though loving him might kill you.”

“It would kill me just as wholly to play the role Kolivan wants of me,” Keith says with certainty. “I have seen that future, Mother. I am not myself, and Kolivan’s plan will end only in grief, not in the Marmora’s salvation. I won’t do it.”

“I know,” Krolia murmurs, resting her chin atop his head. “I know, my son.”

Keith looks up at her. “You aren’t going to try to convince me otherwise?”

She shakes her head. “No. This is not a choice I can make for you, Keith. Nor can Kolivan.”

“What if I make the wrong choice?” Keith asks, his voice small.

“Then know you can run to me,” Krolia says. “No matter what you choose.”

“Marmora will not welcome me home.” Keith leans his head against her breast, listening to her heartbeat. “You might even be labeled a traitor for helping me.”

“Then we will be traitors,” Krolia says. “You are my son, and I love you more than anything in the world. Do not forget that. I will be there, if you need me.”

“Thank you,” Keith whispers, burrowing closer against her. “I miss you.”

“I love you,” Krolia replies, cupping the back of his head and keeping him close. “Your father would be so proud of you, Keith.”

He wakes up to faint sunshine falling over the cave floor, Oriande slumbering beside him. She cracks an eye open when he sits up. Princess Allura awaits you above, she tells him.

Keith rubs sleep out of his eyes and nods absently, rubbing his shoulder. The scars remain, real and red. The egg glows softly over its bed of coals, the colors swirling over its pale shell like living smoke.

*

The day is spent poring over Altean manuscripts and creating more charms and potions. The palace library is immense, and Keith’s eyes hurt just looking at it. He knows his letters, and counts himself lucky for it, but reading has never been his strong suit. The prince and princess, however, are naturals. They go through stack and stack of heavy leather volumes and carefully wrapped vellum scrolls, scratching away on their own parchment with quills until their fingers are black with ink. 

Acxa and Keith, meanwhile, are weaving together charms and mixing potions. Keith does not fully understand all of it, but Acxa is infuriatingly vague.

“What is this one for?” Keith asks, lifting the half-finished wreath of vines interwoven with dried berries, fox fur, raven feathers, and polished agate beads. 

“Protection,” Acxa says, pouring a vial of bubbling blue liquid into her little cauldron. 

Keith scowls. “Against what?”

Acxa shrugs. “Detection. Princess Allura is always under threat of discovery, here. We need a wreath for every entrance.”

“Fine, but how does it work?”

“Alchemy.”

“How does that work?”

Acxa throws another half-finished wreath at him. “I’m a warrior, not an alchemist,” she says.

Thirty seconds later, Keith ventures to ask, “What does the mixture in that cauldron do?”

Acxa eyes him over the bubbling, now purple brew. “It’s skin care.”

Keith blinks. “What?”

Allura, who has wandered over to fetch another book, spooks Keith so badly he almost drops his wreath when she pops over his shoulder and exclaims, “It makes your skin smooth and shiny! You’re welcome to try some. I have a bottle for hair, too.”

“It’s good stuff,” Lotor remarks, turning a page and glancing at them. His hair is very nice, though not as nice as Princess Allura’s.

“Hold on,” Keith says, “I thought we were doing serious work, here.”

Allura frowns at him. “It is serious,” she insists. “Of course protection sigils and spells for regeneration and regrowth are important, but so is taking care of yourself.” She puts her hands on her hips, a sudden glint in her eye. “When was the last time you did that, Keith?”

“Um,” Keith says. “I, I don’t…”

“Go on, my dear,” Lotor murmurs, lips curling in amusement though he never looks away from the page. “Acxa and I can manage the rest.”

“What,” Keith squeaks as Allura plucks the wreath from his hands and spins him around, marching out of the library with him. “What is happening?”

“You need a bath,” Allura declares. Keith stumbles, and she continues to tug him along. “Oh, don’t give me that look. There are natural springs in the palace, and according to legend – and very real alchemical properties – the water can heal and cleanse. Two things which you are in need of.”

“Princess, you’re very kind, but –” Keith stops short. The baths are closer to the library than expected – and they look nothing like Sendak’s dark, cavelike cellar. They’re in an open courtyard, two rectangular sunken pools with mosaics in the stone, rippling beneath the water. Some privacy is afforded by the thick vines which climb down the pillars and their glossy leaves which form a series of green curtains, but it’s open to the sky and a warm breeze curls through Keith’s hair as if in greeting.

“Come on, I promise the water is lovely,” Allura says, and – she’s already unlacing her gown. 

“Uh,” Keith says. 

“No need to be shy,” Allura says. Her smile falters, and she adds with more uncertainty, “Unless you would rather bathe alone, which is quite alright!”

Keith panics at the thought of being left alone here – even if it is daytime, the creeping fear that the shadow will return for him persists. “No, that’s...it’s alright.”

“If you’re certain,” Allura says. She returns to unlacing her gown, and Keith fumbles with his tunic, wishing he had bound his chest as the skin is bared to the air. He keeps his body turned away from the princess even when he sinks into the water, which comes up to his chin. Allura wades in afterwards, her brown skin shining rich bronze in the sunshine, silver hair tumbling down her back and over her breasts. 

Keith is silent, curling his knees up to his chest. She regards him curiously. “Something tells me communal bathing is uncommon among the Marmora?”

“No,” Keith replies, shy as she looks at him. “I mean – we do bathe together, in lakes and streams, but I preferred to find my own space, for...reasons.”

“I see.” Allura tilts her head. “Merla was like you, you know. Or, well, I suppose – the opposite of you. Her parents thought she was a boy at birth, but as she got older, she found a new name, and her true self.”

“Oh.” Keith considers this, and relaxes a little against the wall. “Did her parents respect that?”

“Mhm.” Allura nods slowly, sinking down in the water until her hair floats up around her face. “Of course. They loved her, as did Axzelan. I remember he taught her a word for it, a draconic word, wergyrn.”

“Wergyrn,” Keith repeats, softly, half into the water. “What does it mean?”

“Changed, shifted one, something like that,” Allura muses. “Merla liked that word.”

Keith closes his eyes. The water does feel good, especially over his scarred shoulder, soothing the burn away.

“You know,” Allura says, “there are ways to change one’s body – alchemical operations.” Keith’s eyes open. “Merla chose to do so, though it was a difficult choice for her – but she was happy she had done it, afterwards.”

“I cannot change my body,” Keith murmurs. “I am a peace-weaver.”

“The choice should be yours alone,” Allura replies, “but Keith, that should not be your reason.”

“Maybe someday,” Keith sighs, pressing his cheek to the mosaic tiles, “when all of this is over.”

“Regardless of your choice,” Allura adds firmly, “it makes you no less a man, no less Keith.”

Keith exhales. “Peace-weavers are not men,” he says. Saying it aloud, it feels like less of a weight off his chest, and more of an awful confession, one that has been gnawing away at him from the start of all this. 

Allura shakes her head and reaches across the pool, interlacing their fingers and squeezing his hand. “You are the first, then,” she says. “Shouldn’t everyone be able to weave peace? Man or woman or whatever lies in between – weaving peace is more than bearing heirs.”

“But I don’t even know how to keep myself safe against Galra,” Keith admits, “much less keep Marmora safe.”

Allura waves her hand to the ruined palace around them. “The truth is that you cannot keep them safe,” she sighs. “Kingdoms fall.”

“Is that it, then?” Keith looks at the faded mosaics, the endless vines, and though Marmora has no grand palaces like this, his heart aches at the thought of his people vanishing like the Alteans.

“Kingdoms fall,” Allura repeats, “but they may rise again.” Before Keith can question this, she stands, exiting the bath and grabbing a linen robe from a nearby bench. “I will be next door; find me when you’re done bathing.”

*

When Keith finds her, she has a strange array of items laid out before her on the stone table, and is tapping her chin in consideration. She beams when she sees him, and gestures him over. “I’m glad you took your time,” she exclaims, “because it took me ages to find some of these. I knew they were around here somewhere, though.”

Keith peers down at the items. “What are they…?”

“Here are some of the potions for skin and hair,” Allura says, holding up several vials, some blue and some purple. “There are others, as well – potions for calmer sleep, for better health, for keen eyesight, for higher libido...the list goes on.” She winks.

“Huh,” Keith says, looking at them with more interest. There are more than just vials, though – there are folded garments of some kind, a gleaming white comb, a variety of pendants and amulets, some odd powders, and a dark red ribbon embroidered with gold thread.

Allura shows him the garments next. “These in particular, I thought you might like. If you’ll forgive me, I noticed last night that you use strips of cloth to bind your chest...these might be more useful.” Keith takes the offered fabric – it’s a sort of sleeveless, short undershirt that would fall just below the breast, meant to be closed in the back with simple lacing, and has a tight hem and light padding inside it, so that, Keith imagines, it could bind his chest just as well or even better than his strips of cloth. The fabric itself is also beautiful – there is one in white, one in gray, and one in black, and all are embroidered with intricate stars, moons, or suns. 

“How did you come by these?” Keith asks, shocked. He’s never seen anything like them before.

“They were quite fashionable among Altean men, once upon a time,” Allura chuckles. “Meant to be worn with an outer shirt or cloak, and often quite elaborate jewelry. They draw attention to the abdominal muscles.” She smirks. “I tried to talk Lotor into wearing one – but he’s so shy.”

Prince Lotor has been the opposite of shy in all of Keith’s experiences with him, but he can see how the princess might have that effect. 

She perks up. “Speaking of elaborate jewelry – how do you feel about it?”

Keith folds his arms. “It seems impractical,” he says. “You can’t sneak up on people if you’re jangling everywhere.”

“I...see.” Allura raises her eyebrow. “Well, nevermind then. There’s also –”

“Wait,” Keith says, reaching for one of the necklaces, “I like this one.”

It’s a narrow golden choker with fine floral filigree, the center inlaid with a small, glinting ruby. It’s meant to be worn tight to the throat, thus allowing no jangling at all. “Of course, the ruby,” Allura murmurs, and hands it gently over to him. “Though, this ruby is meant to put on guard rather than open the wearer. Perfect for you, I’d say – if any danger approaches you, this necklace will make you aware of it. Simple, but effective – no one will be able to sneak up on you.”

Keith likes the sound of that. “Good. What about the comb?”

“Ah.” Allura smiles and lifts it to the light. “Made of unicorn horn. Don’t worry, the horn was freely given. It would not retain this power otherwise – anyone who brushes their hair with this comb will remember their fondest memories.” She then picks up the scarlet ribbon. “And this, this is woven of unicorn mane. It makes the wearer stronger...in whatever forms that may occur.”

Keith’s eyes widen. “Incredible,” he whispers, reaching out, then snatching his hand back uncertainly.

“This is all for you, if you want it,” Allura says, seeing his hesitation. His eyes widen further. “Please, take it, Keith. I gathered these things for you – I want you to have them.”

“If...if you’re sure,” Keith agrees, a bit stunned by it all. “Thank you, princess.”

“It is my pleasure,” Allura promises. “Oh – one last thing. These powders have no magical properties, but they are very pretty. If you want them, they’re yours, too.” She bids him farewell, telling him to find them in the library when he’s done.

Keith is somewhat overwhelmed, but he changes into the embroidered binder first, the black one with the stars, and examines his reflection in the mirror. He looks a bit ridiculous, stripped down to just that and his loose undershorts, but – suddenly there’s a lump in his throat, because the profile of his chest is flat, and it feels almost as good as it felt on the black plain, perhaps even better, because this is real. 

Keith wipes hastily at his eyes and turns to the other items with newfound determination. 

He is the peace-weaver. And he is tired of being afraid. 

*

They depart from the palace the next morning. Keith again spends the night next to Oriande, and his sleep is blessedly deep and dreamless. When he wakes, he laces up the binder and clasps the choker around his throat. He combs his hair with the unicorn horn and marvels at how many of the thoughts that drift through his head are of Shiro. He braids it with the scarlet ribbon braided through.

He took some of the powders, too, and uses Oriande’s reflective scales as a mirror, drawing his thumb over his lips, smearing rich red across them. His eyes are lined in soft black kohl. 

You are very handsome, Oriande tells him graciously before he leaves. May you fell any enemies who dare stand in your way, Keith of Marmora.

“Thank you,” Keith says. “May your egg hatch soon.”

He will hatch when he is ready, Oriande sighs, surrounding the little nest with her mountainous body. We may meet again very soon, Keith of Marmora. Until then.

Keith doesn’t know quite what she means, but he does know that dragons like cryptic messages, so he does not press her.

Lotor and Allura have a surprisingly tearful goodbye. Keith waits on Strael with Acxa on her horse beside him, pretending not to watch as the prince and princess embrace and kiss in a dramatic fall of silver hair. 

Lotor mounts his horse, and Keith expects them to ride away, but then Princess Allura approaches him and holds out a glittering ruby brooch-pin. “Oriande and I removed the curse,” she says, “at least, as best we could. It is powerful magic...but I know this is important to you.” 

Keith takes the brooch. He does not pin it to his tunic, but tucks it away in the saddlebags with the cloak. “It is,” he murmurs. “Thank you, princess. You have repaid any debt you owed me already.”

She smiles sadly. “I wish that were true,” she says. “Goodbye, all of you. Safe journeys.”

And away they ride from the last Altean and Oriande.

*

Lotor and Acxa return Keith to Garris, then continue southeast to Sincline Castle. Keith misses them more than he expected. They are strange companions, always sarcastic and wry to the point of cutting, but he spoke about things with them that he cannot say, here. Matthew is a fine enough companion, but these days, he treats Keith less like a friend and more like a frightened, feral animal who might go mad at any moment. It’s irritating.

Keith’s sparring stunt made the people of Garris take interest in him, but his return from a mysterious journey with the Galran prince and one of his lady-thanes seems to be all anyone can talk about. Matthew tries to coax details out of him, especially when he notices Keith’s new trinkets.

“I didn’t fuck the prince, nor have I any desire to, nor does he,” Keith finally tells him. Matthew recoils. “I cannot tell you more than that, but that is the truth.”

Keith’s nights are long and lonely in the great bed, but no Druids return for him, thanks to the sigils and potions and pendants. Yet, the night spirit also does not return to him. Keith worries that the protective measures are keeping it away, too – but why would they, if the night spirit means him no harm?

The flowery late spring days turn to heavy rain, and it is on one of these rainy days, three months after his departure, that Shiro returns with his band of warriors. Keith hears the greeting shouts before they reach the courtyard, and, ignoring Matthew and the other guards, runs down the stairs two at a time and out into the keep courtyard, just as the horses and men pass through the gates. 

Shiro’s gaze scans the courtyard, and when he sees Keith, their eyes lock. Everyone else fades away. Keith stands in the mud and pouring rain, breathless, and Shiro swings himself out of Artax’s saddle, striding across the courtyard to meet him. Shiro is unsmiling, his brow low and jaw set, stubble grown out darker and thicker than before. 

In the moment before the thane reaches him, Keith falters mid-step, remembering the dream, the cruel words in his ear. But then Shiro’s arms are around him, one catching him fast and close around the waist, the other on his jaw, tipping his face up to Shiro’s. 

As soon as Shiro’s hands touch his skin, Keith forgets all apprehension and wraps his arms around Shiro, wherever he can reach, and kisses him hard. The rain falls down around them and Keith doesn’t care. Shiro’s mouth is hot and hungry on his, stubble scratching at his face, and Keith did not think it possible to miss someone’s touch as much as he missed Shiro’s. He knots his fingers into Shiro’s hair and the thane makes a sound against his lips, crushing Keith closer. 

The other warriors are whistling and cheering. It’s surreal. Keith’s hand splays over Shiro’s rain-streaked face and the kiss breaks, but their gazes don’t. 

“Missed you,” Shiro whispers into the curve of Keith’s cheek.

“Yes,” Keith breathes, soft and ragged. He draws his fingers over Shiro’s skin again. “You’re filthy.”

Shiro snorts, lips quirking. “You don’t seem too bothered.”

“Mm.” Keith reaches between them, finds the leather laces of Shiro’s trousers and what strains beneath them. He smirks back up at Shiro as the thane shifts into his palm instantly. “You’re bothered, though.”

Shiro grabs his wrist. “Still a wicked little creature, I see,” he says dryly. 

“Wicked?” Keith echoes, frowning. 

“Don’t fondle me in front of my men,” Shiro says, harsh against his ear, and starts towards the keep. Keith hurries to keep up, gut twisting. Shiro glances over his shoulder as they reach the stairs. “You’re filthy, too,” he adds. “Tracking mud everywhere, hm?”

Keith’s brow furrows. “I wanted to see you,” he says. “Should I not have?”

Shiro’s expression softens. “Come here,” he says, quieter, almost resigned. Keith comes warily, and Shiro’s hands close around his hips. The servants studiously avoid them. Then Shiro lifts Keith up and slings him over his shoulder like a sack of flour before starting up the stairs. 

Keith yelps and smacks his shoulder. “Shiro!” he cries. “What are you doing?”

“Making sure you don’t get mud on the floor,” Shiro says, even as his muddy boots fall on every step. 

He squeezes Keith’s middle, and then his ass, and Keith replies with a petulant grunt. “I could have just taken my boots off,” he grumbles.

“I probably still would have picked you up,” Shiro counters, clawed hand resting across the backs of Keith’s squirming thighs. “I almost forgot how small you are. This is a nice reminder.”

“Small?” Keith shrieks.

“And loud.” Shiro pinches his ass. “But I’d bet good coin that you’ll be even louder when I fuck you in the bath.”

Keith goes limp and groans into his shoulder. “Gods, Shiro, you…”

“Yes?” Shiro’s voice is filled with laughter.

“Take me to the bath,” Keith orders, more shaky and desperate than commanding. 

“Of course, beloved,” Shiro says, and carries him up.

*

They can’t even wait to take off all their clothes before they’re splashing into the bath and pawing at each other. Keith would be embarrassed if Shiro wasn’t as frantic as he was. They manage to get their muddy boots off and shove Keith’s leggings down, beneath which he is bare, which makes Shiro even more frantic. Keith gets Shiro’s trousers unlaced and Shiro unclasps his cloak and leather jerkin, but that’s about the extent of their disrobing. 

Keith falls heavy into Shiro’s lap, working his cock between them and impatiently ripping Shiro’s shirt open, actually tearing the fabric until Shiro’s chest is bared to him. Shiro laughs in disbelief, then moans when Keith bites his nipple, stroking his free hand over Shiro’s body, tracing every scar, checking for new ones, and growling when he finds them. Shiro’s cock twitches at the sound. 

“You’re hurt,” Keith hisses, pressing his fingers into fresh bruises and healing cuts which turn the water pink. “Who did this to you?”

Shiro groans, spreading Keith’s thighs over his lap with one hand and petting clumsy and urgent between wet folds. “A king,” he admits, mouth falling open when Keith rubs down over the head of his cock. “A Christian king. He was a good warrior.”

“Did you kill him?” Keith demands, baring his teeth when he finds a worse wound, a gash over Shiro’s ribs, stitched but still fresh. 

“Yes.” Shiro looks up at him, eyes dark. “I brought his head back for King Zarkon on a pike.”

“Good,” Keith snarls, and kisses him viciously, because he isn’t afraid now – he’s angry. Angry that Zarkon has made Shiro into a kingkiller, angry that Shiro has been gone for months, angry that anyone has dared to raise their sword against him, angry that Shiro isn’t fucking him yet.

“Keith, I,” Shiro shudders under him. “Please, if you are in pain, if you need me to stop, tell me now, or I don’t know if I will be able to listen.”

“Don’t stop,” Keith says, and this time, it’s an order. “I am healed, I want you – you say you miss me? Then fuck me like it.”

Shiro groans and kisses him, hands back on Keith’s hips, bruising and demanding when he sits Keith down hard on his cock. Keith bucks and cries like a wild thing, the bathwater splashing in the first few messy thrusts, and Keith comes after mere seconds of Shiro’s cock stretching him open, filling him deep. It feels different than usual, not from his untouched clit but spreading warm all over his skin, waves of steady bliss as Shiro finds a slower, more even rhythm in him. 

“Keith,” Shiro moans as Keith tightens and ripples around him. “I – I’m not going to last –”

“Don’t care,” Keith gasps, clawing at his back and drinking in the sensation. “Shiro, Takashi, I missed you, I missed you –”

Shiro buries his face in Keith’s neck, kissing and biting, and Keith forgets he did not wear a binder today until, one, Shiro cups his chest, and two, Keith’s shirt slides down off his shoulder and Shiro jerks back with a guttural sound of horror. 

Keith lifts his head in slow confusion. Shiro stares at the scars, the mark Dominion left on him.

For a long moment, neither of them moves nor speaks. Then Shiro whispers, “How…?”

Keith swallows, shuddering over him, clinging to Shiro, trying to prolong the inevitable. “I – I just woke up, and it was there...do you know what it is?”

Shiro makes a wounded noise and lifts Keith off of him, standing and wringing his hands, hair hanging dripping around his wide-eyed face and cock softening. “Were you dreaming?” Shiro pleads, looking at him with raw fear. “Did you dream of me, Keith?”

“I can’t remember,” Keith lies, struggling to his feet, his body aching. He holds up his palms in placation. “But, it’s alright, Shiro, it doesn’t hurt, I swear –”

“Finish your bath,” Shiro snaps, gathering up his clothes and stumbling to the door. Keith tries to step out of the bath and Shiro whirls on him. “I said, finish it,” he warns, voice shaking, and hurries out, slamming the door behind him. 

Keith sinks down to his knees in the bathtub and presses the heels of his palms to his eyes before lashing out, slamming his fist into the side of the wooden tub until his knuckles bleed.

No, he definitely isn’t afraid, now.

*

There is a feast in Shiro’s honor in the mead hall that night. All of the thanes Keith has met before are there, including Warlord Ranveig and Lady Gleda, who sit apart from the others, and Lord Sendak, who has foregone his usual retinue of brothel workers and sits alongside the other thanes as if all is normal. Prince Lotor sits with his thanes further down the table. Shiro and Keith, of course, sit at the head. 

Shiro avoids looking at him and hardly touches his food. He does touch his ale, though, and keeps glancing at Keith’s golden choker. 

Not long through the feast, Sendak approaches them. Keith steels himself. He is wearing nearly all of the protective items he has, and is confident Sendak cannot touch him, but the ruby on his choker warms at the lord’s approach. Shiro also sees him coming, and for the first time that night, lays his hand on Keith’s arm. 

“Thane Shirogane,” Sendak greets, cordially enough. “Congratulations on successful spring raids. You bring great honor to Galra, to Garris...and to your peace-weaver, who may be in need of honor most.”

Shiro’s eyes narrow and Keith’s breath hitches. “What are you insinuating?”

“I think your wifeling knows full well,” Sendak chuckles. “But don’t take it from me. Ask your mercenary friend, Matthew, was it? He can tell you all about their little trip to Arus.”

Keith glares at his plate. “I suggest you shut your mouth,” Shiro retorts, “and stop speaking falsehoods.”

Sendak raises his eyebrow. “Oh, I think you’ll find the only one telling falsehoods is him –”

Keith's choker abruptly burns. There is a commotion from the middle of the table, and everyone turns towards it as a woman screams. The woman was Mei, who is staring across the table, where Ranveig clutches at his chest, blood gurgling out through his mouth and staining his red beard redder. Lady Gleda leaps to her feet beside him just as he topples off the bench and onto the floor, dead. She lifts the dagger in her hands for all to see, and the hall exclaims and gasps in horror. Someone lunges for her, but it’s too late. 

“He killed my babies,” Gleda wails, a wretched sound that Keith will not soon forget. “He killed us, he killed us!” 

And before anyone can stop her, she draws the blade across her trembling white throat, and the hall erupts into chaos. 

Chapter Text

Lady Gleda falls like a stone. 

Keith is moving before his mind can catch up, pushing past Shiro and Sendak and through the other panicking guests to kneel beside her. She isn’t dead yet – a slit throat is a slower and uglier way to go than one might think. The thanes and gathering warriors seem afraid to touch both of the peace-weavers, but men shout for Keith to get back, as if the poor woman will somehow pass her madness on to him.

But as Keith covers her torn throat with his palm and sleeve, he sees the unnatural green sheen of her eyes and wonders if contagion is a real possibility. He thinks of the squalling twins in the dark cradle, Enya and Erin’s small frightened faces staring up at him, and decides he doesn’t care. “Gleda,” Keith whispers, “stay still. Keep your eyes open. Look at me. Can you do that?”

She chokes, red trickling from her parted lips, but keeps her eyes open, fixed frantically on him. Keith closes his, and focuses on the torn flesh under his palm. He remembers what the night spirit said — its magic could not be used to heal mortal wounds. But he doesn’t think it’s a night spirit, anymore. 

Under his skin, new power hums, the power of flame and chaos that Axzelan gave him. He redirects it into his fingertips, where the night spirit’s slow healing touch awaits. Faster, Keith urges, more, more. The two magicks mingle, burning him from the inside out, but Keith grits his teeth and stokes the flames higher within him.

Gleda’s pupils dilate. The flesh beneath Keith’s hand begins to knit together, stitched without thread. It isn’t perfect, but the bleeding stops just before someone tears Keith away from her. The someone is Shiro, and there’s thunder in his expression, then bewilderment as he sees Keith’s bloodied palm and Gleda’s half-healed throat. 

Keith opens his mouth to snap at Shiro, but is seized by a wave of exhaustion and slumps into him instead, smearing Gleda’s blood all over Shiro’s leather tunic. Shiro steadies him, his hands trembling. “What have you done?” he whispers.

Keith looks blearily to where Gleda fell — but she’s no longer fallen. She’s standing, unsteady but determined, her green eyes burning. She tilts her head as one of the warriors makes a lunge for her, and no one in the hall can quite agree on what happens next. Some say the warrior tripped and fell on his own sword. Others say his drunk brother in arms dealt the blow. But Keith knows no man killed him, because as the warrior crumples, red puddling under him, a voice that is almost Gleda’s echoes in Keith’s head.

Thank you, Keith of Marmora, he who is more than a peace-weaver, he who once swore to let us in. It is good to know you do not serve Dominion – your blood still sings, but it is not for us.

Then Gleda is gone. She does not run. There is no poof of smoke. She’s just gone, leaving Ranveig’s body and the warrior’s in her wake. Shiro clutches Keith to him. 

“The women of Mer are witches,” Thane Janka mutters. “I’ve always said so.”

“He’s dead,” Thane Branko exclaims, standing over Ranveig with utter disbelief. “The bitch killed him.”

Mei, still seated, trembles and stares at the corpses, covering her mouth. Her gaze lifts to Keith, no less horrified.

“A messenger should be sent to Zeragat,” Sendak declares, “to see if Lady Gleda’s claims of infanticide are true —”

Keith is shaking his head, mumbling against Shiro’s tunic, “Not one of his men. Don’t let Sendak send them, they’ll kill the babies, if they aren’t dead already…”

Shiro holds him somehow tighter. Keith’s vision swims in and out. “I’ll send one at once,” he retorts. “Everyone, the feast is over. Thanes, we should organize search parties to find Gleda, she can’t have gone far.”

“You won’t find her,” Keith sighs into Shiro’s hair. “She isn’t human, anymore…just a shadow...”

The hall stirs to action as thanes gather their men. Keith sways on his feet, hears Sendak’s voice closeby, too close, and Shiro’s sharp rebuke. Then Matthew, speaking lower, worried. A hand brushes Keith’s brow, then the floor sweeps out under him. Shiro’s carrying Keith in his arms.

“Thought Marmorans were used to blood,” someone says as they pass.

“Poor thing was trying to save her. Likely in shock from it all, and after what happened with the miscarriage, you know…”

Keith stops listening. They’re leaving the mead hall, ascending the stairs. Keith tries to protest, but his tongue is too heavy in his mouth — he’s drained of energy, struggling not to drift off.

“He spoke of shadows,” Shiro whispers to Matthew, who follows them. “The same shadows he claimed — slit his wrist?” Shiro stumbles over the words.

“I don’t know,” Matthew says, “but I know something is wrong with him. You’d better keep a close eye, Shiro. He might…”

“Hurt himself again, I know,” Shiro finishes.

Keith tries to lift his head. “No,” he slurs, “didn’t, that wasn’t me — the shadows, Sendak’s shadows…”

Shiro tenses. “Sendak said you took Keith to Arus,” he says to Matthew.

“Shiro…”

“Enough. Just tell me the truth. Did you?”

“...yes.”

Shiro’s grip is bruising. “Why.”

“Keith wanted to go,” Matthew admits quietly. “When we left, half his keep was aflame.”

Shiro’s exhale is measured. “Did Keith…?”

“He wanted Sendak dead,” Matthew says firmly. “I know that much. Shiro, he wouldn’t — mad or not, he is loyal to you.”

“Is he?” Shiro’s voice is dark, almost unrecognizable. Matthew doesn’t reply. Shiro continues up the stairs, and in the resounding silence, Keith falls asleep despite his best efforts.

When he awakes later, it is to the ruby burning at his throat. The room is lightening with dawn, and Shiro is leaning over him. Keith’s eyes open, and Shiro jerks away, moving over to sit on the edge of the bed. “Shiro?” Keith whispers, groping around for his hand, for something of Shiro’s to touch, to hold onto. 

The ruby remains warm. If any danger approaches you...but Shiro isn’t supposed to be a danger to him.

“You directly disobeyed me,” Shiro says. Keith blinks at the ceiling. “You broke the promise you made to me. One promise, Keith – that you would stay safe. That was all I asked of you.”

Something crumples within him at the sharp disappointment and reprimand in Shiro’s tone. 

“I had to,” Keith says. “I’m sorry, but I had to –”

Shiro moves in an instant, over him again, eyes burning and mouth furiously twisted. “No,” Shiro growls, “you did not have to do anything except stay here and try not to bloody kill yourself.” Keith flinches, eyes widening, the ruby flaring hot again, and Shiro draws back a little, though the anger remains. 

“I didn’t try to do that,” Keith starts, “it was the shadows, Sendak’s Druids –”

Shiro’s smile is bitter. “Oh, so now it’s Druids, is it? Is that why you rode off with the prince and his thane to ‘find the Alteans?’ Is that why you came back with so many pretty jewels and garments?” He snorts. “Enough, Keith.”

“What do you want from me?” Keith sits up, back against the headboard, curling his knees to his chest. 

“The truth,” Shiro snaps. “Matthew said you went to Zeragat, first. He said you met with Lady Gleda –”

Keith blanches. “Do you think I told her to kill her husband?”

Shiro raises an eyebrow. “Did you? It would not be out of character, for you.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Keith demands, glaring now.

“I know about the sparring, too,” Shiro mutters. 

“I thought you wanted me to wield a blade.”

“Not when I’m not with you –”

“Oh, so you’re my keeper, is that it? Think I can’t handle myself in a fight –”

“Who gave you that ruby necklace?” Shiro snarls, startling Keith into silence. “Who gave you those powders and embroidered undergarments? What did you give them as payment?”

Keith stares at him, hands curling into fists. “I thought only Sendak believed I was a whore.”

“I don’t know what to believe,” Shiro says, “except that you have been lying to me.”

“So have you!” Keith exclaims, yanking his shirt down to reveal the scars. Shiro looks away. “What are these, Shiro? Why did you run from me in the bath?”

For a moment, Keith thinks Shiro might tell him. Shiro’s eyes, the eyes which once looked at him with such fond gentleness but now shine hard as iron in anger, soften as he hesitates. But the softness, and with it Keith’s hope, is gone in an instant. 

Shiro stands, moving away from the bed, arms crossed. “It seems we must have secrets between us then, wife,” Shiro says coldly. “Rest. Don’t do anything foolish.” 

Cosmos pads around the edge of the bed from where he must have been laying on the floor, guarding the door. He looks up at Keith with golden eyes as cold as his master’s. Keith shivers. 

“It’s just as well that you prefer to go behind my back when I’m not here,” Shiro adds as he walks to the door, “because I am leaving for the summer raids as soon as the weather in the Amyrran Sea improves.”

“Don’t leave me here,” Keith says, and Shiro pauses, his hand on the door. “Take me with you.”

Shiro shakes his head, back turned to Keith, and leaves without a word.

Cosmos leaps onto the bed with the prowl of a predator, curls up at Keith’s feet, and stares at him until Keith surrenders and rolls over, curling around a pillow in uneasy sleep.

*

For the first time in months, he returns to the black plain.

But – it’s different. The trees around him are darker, taller, caging him in. Keith turns in a slow circle. The stars above burn brighter, closer than before. “Please,” Keith whispers, “not you, too.”

The trees rustle around him, swaying gently. Hush.

“What are you?” Keith pleads. “Are you – are you one of them? Like Ruin, like Conquest, like –”

Hush, it repeats. We are – ourself.

“I don’t understand.” Keith sinks down, head in his hands. “You – we – did you claim me? Was that why you…”

No. The voice is closer, and Keith freezes as breath ghosts over the back of his neck, startlingly warm amidst the cool forest air. Not yet.

Keith squeezes his eyes shut. “What do you want?”

Gently, a rough palm curls around his hip. He can feel claws digging in, feel the warm scales where the flesh was once smooth. We are not supposed to want anything, it replies. Wanting things – changes us.

“What do you want?” Keith repeats, softer. A weight settles against his back, but its presence is undemanding, even as thick arms wrap around his body and hold him closer.

We want what you want, it murmurs. What do you want – not now, not here, but in your heart, what is it you want most?

“To save Shiro,” Keith says. It is his first thought. “To help him fight against Dominion...somehow.”

It sighs, and the sound is relieved. Yes, it agrees. We want this, also. We were sent to you for this purpose, Keith of Marmora...though we were not meant to become attached.

Keith swallows. “You’re...attached? But night spirits do not...”

No. They do not. It huffs softly in his ear, and then a long wet tongue drags over his scarred shoulder, the skin tingling in its wake. We are sorry we were not there to protect you against this, Keith of Marmora. 

Keith shakes his head, breath quickening, knees weak as he puts the pieces slowly together – the scales at his back, the leathery brush of wings over his arms. “It’s alright,” he manages. “He didn’t – finish the bond. Did he?”

Jaws close around his shoulder, a softer echo of Dominion, and Keith does not dare to breathe. No, it says. He did not. He will not.

Keith leans back into it, letting himself relax, yield. “Are you going to claim me, now?”

It nuzzles at his neck. We cannot claim, it says, but we will keep Him away. Far away.

Keith opens his eyes. He’s back in the bedroom. Cosmos is still watching him, and he cocks his head when Keith sits up. Keith narrows his eyes at the wolf, and Cosmos stares defiantly back until Keith says to him, loud and clear, Let me leave. I must speak with Shiro.

Cosmos leaps to his paws with a startled yip, ears pinned back. 

Keith repeats himself, and the wolf whines, tail lowering in uncertainty.

Stay, Cosmos tries. Keith ignores him and moves off the bed and Cosmos follows at a panicky trot, whining louder and nosing at Keith’s legs, nipping as hard as he dares (which is not very hard at all). Stay! Must stay! 

Keith whirls on his heel to face him with a stern stare. The wolf gazes up at him imploringly. Do you think Shiro will punish you if you let me leave?

Cosmos whimpers. Yes...no sausages…

Keith sighs and gives Cosmos a firm pat. I will give you sausages, he promises, and the wolf perks up. More sausages than Shiro ever gives you. Good?

Good! Good! Cosmos drools on his hand and Keith wipes it off on his fur. 

Good. Now – where is Shiro?

Cosmos pads over to the door and noses at it. Out, he says. Woods.

Thank you, Keith says, and gives him a scratch behind the ears before slipping out the door. 

Cosmos tries to follow him. Protect, he says when Keith gives him a look.

I will be fine, Keith promises. He points to himself. Good hunter. Good at...hiding. You stay here – I will bring back sausages.

Cosmos blinks and sits down obediently, nose twitching at the mention of sausages. Keith closes the door softly, and shifts into invisibility before the guards can turn and see him. Silent as the grave, Keith creeps down the stairs, ducking past servants and guards. The night spirit’s magic is certainly less draining than Axzelan’s, more like a candle slowly burning than a bonfire roar. 

Keith makes his way into the courtyard, sneaking out after an oblivious guard, and finds himself in the middle of a bustle of men and horses. The thanes and their warriors are preparing to leave. Keith is hurrying past Lord Throk, Thane Branko, and Mei, who remains only as close to her husband as she needs to be, when he hears a snatch of their conversation and stops in his tracks.

“– did you hear? Shirogane’s messenger returned from Zeragat,” Branko is saying.

Lord Throk is changed by grief. He still wears all black, his hair grayer than Keith remembers. He looks at the other thane with tired, raised brows. “And? What news?”

“No sign of the infants,” Branko says, “but the guards there say they were alive and well until last night.”

“What happened last night?”

“Lady Gleda arrived at Zeragat and took them,” Branko says. Even Mei looks up at this. 

“But that’s impossible,” Throk exclaims. “Zeragat is a day’s ride from Garris, at least!”

“You saw how the woman vanished,” Branko retorts. “Ranveig’s men said she spoke no words to them, just took the twins with her and walked off into the woods.”

“Did any of them try to stop her?” Mei ventures.

Branko frowns down at her and gives a curt nod. “They tried. They fell dead the moment they tried to touch her, much less stop her.”

“Seems Janka was right about Mer witchwomen,” Throk mutters.

“I just hope the twins are alright,” Mei whispers, half to herself. 

Keith continues onward, his mind whirling. So Gleda is alive – or Ruin, or whatever she is, now. Her babies, at least, are alive – Keith has to believe they are, anyway. Somehow, it makes little sense that she would hurt them, even if Ruin has her. Ruin seems changed, too – perhaps by a mother’s grief and a peace-weaver’s fury.

He follows Prince Lotor and his thanes as they ride out through the gates, but deviates from their path down to the village as they ride southeast to Sincline Castle, towards the Heorot Forest which borders Garris and separates the two thanedoms. 

Keith instead walks straight south to the Sefa Woods, where he knows Shiro hunts, even if he has never accompanied him. The realization that Shiro has never asked Keith to accompany him on a hunt stings. Keith sees his invisibility faltering as he loses focus, so shakes himself, banishes all bitter thoughts from his head, and hurries onward.

It’s a long walk, but Keith doesn’t mind. The fresh air is nice – he’s grown fond of the open hills and heaths of Garris. Where they once made him feel exposed and vulnerable, he can now find the simple beauty in the blooming wildflowers and the cool breeze ruffling his hair. He finds the woods beautiful, too – once he reaches them, he takes a moment to admire the shifting sunlight in the leaves, the tree trunks wearing moss like emerald gowns. He misses Marmora’s pine needles and ancient evergreens, but these trees are growing on him.

Then he hears a hunting horn in the distance, and remembers his quarry. 

Keith finds the boar before he finds the men. It’s charging through the brush, snorting and thrashing – there’s an arrow buried deep in its heaving flank, but the boar is only made angrier by the pain. Keith hides behind a tree, well out of the way as the hounds follow in barking bounds. The horses come thundering after the boar with the thanes in their saddles – but one of the men is not a thane.

Keith recognizes the king in an instant – he looks just like his portrait, and almost nothing like his wayward son. Zarkon sits tall in the saddle, his golden crown gleaming on his brow, purple cloak streaming out behind him and over his white stallion’s flanks. A thin scar trails over his left eye, but the eye remains, a golden hazel that Keith swears shines even in the shadowed woods. 

He has high cheekbones, an aquiline nose and wide jaw. His long, slicked back hair and neat beard are more gray than they appeared in his portrait, but he does not look old, and certainly not frail. He looks dangerous, and this is confirmed when he lifts his spear and hurls it with perfect, deadly accuracy into the boar’s head, just as it turns to charge for the hounds and horses.

The hunt is over with almost eerie quickness. The boar falls still, and the thanes congratulate their king, but the mood is uneasy. Zarkon smiles thinly at both of them – Shiro and Sendak. Other warriors accompany them on the hunt, but they keep their distance from the monarch and his thanes as the hunting party rides back to camp with the dead boar and enough hares to feed a small army. 

Keith follows, but he keeps a larger distance between himself and the party than is strictly necessary – he swears King Zarkon keeps glancing through the trees, gaze landing too close to Keith for comfort. The night spirit promised he would remain invisible, but he relies more on the skills his mother taught him in remaining hidden, crouched among the ferns within earshot of Shiro as the group finally settles down around the fire with the boar roasting on a spit. 

“We are honored by your visit to Garris, my king,” Shiro says, his head bowed when he speaks, the picture of deference though his shoulders hold a sharp tension. 

Zarkon does not reply at once, taking his time with the air of a man who knows all those around him must wait on his every whim. “It has been some time,” he finally says, accepting the goblet of wine from a timid servant who he does not even look at. “You seem to be managing the thanedom well...save one vital flaw.”

Shiro pauses, lifting his gaze slightly. “My king?”

Sendak leaps on the uncertainty in his voice, and Keith’s stomach churns as he cuts in, “How long have you been wed to the Marmoran peace-weaver, Shirogane? Has it been nine moons, yet?”

“Eight,” Shiro grits out, glancing warily between them. 

“Eight moons,” Zarkon repeats. “How interesting.” He sets his wine aside, untouched. The way the king moves is too steady, too smooth. There is something wrong in the perfection of it. “A little bird told me the peace-weaver was with child and failed to deliver.”

Shiro’s jaw works. “Yes, my king,” he says. “This is true. My wife was...very near death.”

“Do you need a new peace-weaver?” Zarkon asks calmly. 

Keith’s eyes widen and Shiro’s narrow. “My...king...? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Is this one broken?” Zarkon continues. “It must be, if no heirs are produced. Or maybe the fault is yours – either way, it is a failure in your duty to Galra. This kingdom needs heirs if it is to have a future.”

Shiro gestures to Sendak. “With all respect, my king, at least I am wed –”

“He is wed,” Zarkon says, and raises an eyebrow. Shiro blanches. 

Sendak’s sneer widens. “Indeed, my wife was hiding as a common prostitute in Arus, but upon giving birth to my dear child, revealed her true identity as a princess from the Christian kingdoms, fleeing an arranged marriage. Her name is Lady Dorma – she’s got lovely tits, and smiles far more than your grim little wifeling.”

Zarkon gives Shiro a long look. “The child is a son,” he says. “A healthy baby boy.”

“An heir,” Sendak adds, folding his arms smugly. 

Shiro exhales. “Congratulations.”

“With Lord Throk’s heir dead,” Zarkon murmurs, “and now Warlord Ranveig’s...you see the urgency, I hope.”

“Yes,” Shiro says. “Of course, my king.”

“Good,” Zarkon says, and leans closer to Shiro. The jealousy that flickers across Sendak’s face is unmistakable. “You are a good thane and a loyal subject, Shirogane. More importantly, you are a powerful man who is unafraid to get his hands dirty. Would you agree?”

“Yes, my king,” Shiro says. “I am honored to serve you.”

“Then I suggest you spend your time wisely before you depart for the summer raids in the Northern Kingdoms and leave your peace-weaver behind,” Zarkon says.

Shiro hesitates. “Ah...my wife does not wish for me to leave, my king.” Zarkon raises an eyebrow and Sendak snorts. “That is to say – the peace-weaver wanted to accompany me on the raids, but I know such a thing is –”

“A good idea,” Zarkon finishes, and Shiro blinks at him. Sendak splutters. Keith stares at the king with growing suspicion. Zarkon smiles. “Perhaps staying in a tent, on a ship, in such close quarters, would hasten the existence of an heir. Don’t you agree?”

“I –” Shiro opens his mouth, then closes it. “Would you allow such a thing, my king?”

“Allow it? Why would I not?” Zarkon chuckles. “Is your peace-weaver a Marmoran or a milkmaid?”

“Keith is a trained warrior, yes, but – if something were to happen –”

Zarkon drinks his wine, shrugs a shoulder. “Then Marmora would give us a new peace-weaver.”

Shiro’s expression is unreadable. Keith swallows. Is he considering it? Has he finally decided Keith is more trouble than he’s worth? If so, why does the prospect make Keith’s heart hurt so much?

“You will take your peace-weaver on the summer raids,” Zarkon continues. “What will happen, will happen. And remember, I’ve no need for thanes ruined by grief. It is just a peace-weaver, an alliance...or rather, insurance against attack. That is all.”

“Yes, my king,” Shiro says. “I know.”

“Good,” Zarkon says. “Let us feast.”

Keith steals away through the forest, his heart pounding and skin clammy. You are my heart’s end and this world would be colder without you, Keith of Marmora. I love you.

Keith never said it back. He never said it back, and now he thinks Shiro might have changed his mind for good.

In a daze, Keith barely remembers to bring Cosmos sausages from the kitchens. By the time he reaches the bedroom again, his feet ache, and he tosses the sausages onto the floor for the waiting wolf to devour before collapsing onto the bed. He lays there, running his fingertips over the scars he has received here in Galra – the thin sliver across his palm where the night spirit first drew blood, the strike over his wrist from Sendak’s Druids, the jagged teeth marks in his shoulder.

He likes to leave his mark, and often his marks leave scars. He likes others to know who belongs to him...

Cosmos leaps onto the bed, nosing at his face with a whine. Hurt? he questions, dutifully sniffing Keith everywhere he can reach, ears tilted forward and eyes bright. 

Keith doesn’t know how to explain to him that one can be hurt without blood drawn. The hearts of peace-weavers, after all, are far different from the hearts of wolves.

So instead, he drags Cosmos down, shaking hand anchored in his thick ruff of gray and black fur, and buries his face in it as Cosmos lays an uncertain paw over his shoulder. Thank you for taking Sendak’s eye, he says. You are a good wolf. I missed you.

Cosmos licks his cheek. Stay, he says. Keith stays.

*

That night, Shiro does not return. Keith wonders if he’s riding to Marmora to find a more suitable wife. He feels more numb than sad, but Cosmos’ fur beneath his cheek is wet, and when he wakes in the morning, his eyes are sore from crying.

*

Keith is eating breakfast and sneaking Cosmos more sausages under the table when Shiro walks in, sweating and smelling of horse. Keith chews his eggs more slowly, eyeing him with his fork still in hand. Shiro sits down across from him and nods to the fork. “Planning on stabbing me with that?”

He doesn’t dignify that with an answer, and keeps eating his eggs. Ignore him if you want more sausages, he says to Cosmos under the table, who was just about to pad over and lick his master’s hand. Cosmos falters, and blinks up at Keith. Shiro’s gaze drifts to the waffling wolf, and he frowns. “Oh, and now you’ve turned my wolf against me? Wonderful.”

Keith swallows the egg noisily and puts his elbows on the table. “Do you have somewhere to be? Maybe the bath?”

Shiro’s mouth twitches. “No,” he says. “I wanted to...speak with you.”

“Then speak, I can’t stop you.”

Shiro folds his arms. “You’re going on the summer raids with me.”

Keith meets his gaze. “That doesn’t sound like an invitation.”

“It isn’t.” Shiro holds his gaze. “It’s an order.”

“Then why are you even telling me?” Keith snaps. “Shouldn’t you just tie me up and carry me off wherever you please?”

Shiro looks pained, then. “You told me once you wanted to travel,” he says. “Sail the seas like your father.”

He remembered. Keith didn’t think he would have.

“My father was killed at sea,” Keith retorts. “By your old friend Sendak.”

Shiro sucks in a sharp breath. “We are not friends.” Then, softer, “I won’t let you die at sea, Keith. Not by Sendak’s hand, nor anything else.”

“No?” Keith stabs another egg until the yolk spills out, garishly orange against the dull ceramic plate. “You’re going to stop the storms? Tell the very waves to leave me be?”

“If I must,” Shiro says. He looks down at the table and frowns again. “I thought you wanted to go.”

Keith stops destroying the egg. “And I thought you didn’t want me to.”

“I don’t,” Shiro starts, then sighs. “I don’t want you to get hurt,” he amends. “But...it may be good for you to get some use out of that sword I bought you.”

Keith considers him, tilting his head. “You mean you would actually allow me to fight?”

“I don’t think I could stop you,” Shiro admits. “Besides...you are quite good at it.”

“And you’re hot for it,” Keith adds around a mouthful of egg.

“What was that?” Shiro asks, knowing damn well what it was.

“Nothing.” Keith leans back in his chair. “Fine, then, my lord. When do we leave?”

Shiro’s face is red. “What – why did you call me that?”

Keith blushes. “Call you what?”

“Nevermind. Uh.” Shiro coughs. “We’ll begin riding north tomorrow.”

“Alright.” Go give him a kiss, he tells Cosmos, slipping him another sausage, and the wolf gleefully slobbers over Shiro’s best hunting gloves.

*

Again, Shiro does not return to bed that night. Thankfully, Cosmos is an excellent cuddler, even if Keith wakes up with fur in his mouth. He’s nudged awake by Shiro, but the awakening is not followed by a kiss nor a suggestive touch. Instead Shiro just says, “Our supplies are packed with the wagons outside. Gather anything else you must, and we will be off after breakfast.”

Keith yawns and stretches, giving an equally sleepy Cosmos a scratch behind the ears. “Is Cosmos coming with us?” he mumbles.

“No,” Shiro says. Cosmos huffs and rolls onto his belly, oblivious. “He doesn’t like boats. We’ll be leaving the horses in Yamir, at the Black Fort, too.”

Keith rubs sleep out of his eyes and sits up. “The Black Fort?”

“It’s the main Galran port to the Amyrran Sea,” Shiro replies. He hesitates, voice soft when he says, “Keith...are you certain you wish to come? I do not want to...force you.”

Keith blinks, suddenly alert. “You aren’t,” he says. “I wish to come. Give me a moment to fetch my things and I’ll find you in the mead hall.”

“I could help,” Shiro offers. “Fetch your things, I mean,” he adds hastily.

Keith hesitates, then nods. “If you like,” he says.

He doesn’t plan on taking much, but he packs the cloak Shiro gave him, the choker, the unicorn comb and ribbon, the brooch-pin, and the binders. Shiro turns over the garments in his hands, eyes wondering. Keith braces himself for another argument, but Shiro just says, “I know little of threadwork, but these are beautifully made.”

“Yes,” Keith agrees cautiously. “They are.”

When Shiro looks at him, it is a little sad, a little resigned. “Whoever gave them to you must think highly of you.”

“She does,” Keith says, “I hope. She meant it as a kind gesture. Of friendship.”

Shiro watches him, more puzzled than sad, now.

“There’s nobody else, Shiro,” Keith says quietly, bundling up his things into the saddlebags. “Just you.”

“Oh,” Shiro says, almost shy. 

“Let’s go,” Keith says, before he has to explain himself further.

*

They ride northwest, and at once, Keith misses the woodlands. Where they are going, the trees are few and far between, and the land turns to rolling hills of heather and wildflowers of early summer, beautiful but too open for Keith’s liking. There is nowhere to hide out here, save for in the scrub and high grass, but even that fades away as they approach the peat bogs of Emira. 

Emira is a large thanedom but not a desirable one. While it has strategic value, bordering Olkari and to the north, Lake Altea, which feeds directly into Marmora, the thanedom of Emira is a difficult place to make a living. The land seems actively opposed to being farmed, and the few people Keith does see trying to till the earth are filthy with mud and look nothing short of miserable under the summer sun. 

The trees which manage to grow in the peat are scraggly and angry-looking, with sharp twiggy branches and dark, jagged bark. The only birds Keith sees are little brown sandpipers, noisy wrens, and blackbirds which flash their scarlet wings at the warriors with raucous shrieks as they burst from the reeds. 

There are also ravens, who perch on the skeletal trees and watch the warriors below with keen eyes. One warrior, unnerved, looses an arrow at a particularly large raven. The bird falls with a startled croak, swallowed up by the hungry peat below, and the warriors hurry onwards, only for the next pair of ravens to dive at the man who loosed the arrow, screeching and flapping their black wings until the man is near tears. No one else shoots at the ravens. 

Strael dislikes the peat bog, but Artax seems even less fond, snorting and tugging on the reins the whole way. If Shiro were not an excellent rider, the stallion would have unseated him a dozen times over. Keith observes this silently, riding at a short distance from the thane and ignoring the murmurs of his warriors. They likely take his presence here as a bad omen. This entire place is a bad omen as far as Keith is concerned. 

They make camp at dusk on a rise away from the sinking peat, and as the men light torches and gather to hunt for dinner, Keith retreats to the thane’s tent. He wishes they could have brought Cosmos, but contents himself with snuggling into the thick furs Shiro brought with them. Keith is surprised Shiro did not just pack a simple cot — he wonders if the added comfort is for his benefit. Or perhaps it is for the new peace-weaver.

As soon as he thinks it, he frowns. He does not want to think it possible that Shiro would replace him, but Keith is also under no delusions that he is easily replaceable. Was that why Shiro had leaned over him that early morning, triggering the choker’s ruby to burn in warning? Had he thought to be merciful, to slit Keith’s throat in his sleep rather than watch him suffer on the battlefield?

The tent flaps part and Keith lifts his head. Shiro steps in — who else? 

“You are missing all the feasting and revelry,” Shiro tells him.

“I am tired,” Keith replies. “Besides, this is no place for revelry.”

Shiro snorts. “Yes,” he agrees, “it is not a pleasant landscape, and I’ve had enough reveling for the night.”

He hesitates, glancing at the furs, at Keith, then at the exit. Keith frowns at him. “Would you rather sleep in the peat?”

Shiro coughs into his fist. “What – no! Er. No. That’s not…”

Keith stares, nonplussed. “You’re going to have to sleep somewhere.”

Shiro looks down, shoulders hunched. “I’m really not – in the mood.”

Keith blinks. “For...for sleeping?”

Shiro lifts his gaze sheepishly. “I could sleep beside the bonfire,” he offers. “It would be no trouble.”

Keith sits up. “Shiro, what are you talking about? You’re my husband, are you not? Come here.”

Shiro comes, though he does not look happy about it. He sits down heavily on the bed of furs, back to Keith. “I’m afraid,” Shiro admits, his voice unsteady. “I’m afraid of hurting you again, Keith.”

Keith sucks in a sharp breath. “You’re not going to hurt me, Shiro.”

Shiro turns his head to look at him. “I know what happened wasn’t your fault,” he whispers. “It was mine. I’m afraid there’s something wrong, inside me. No – I know there is.”

Keith reaches out slowly, touches Shiro’s shoulder even as the thane flinches. “What do you mean, Shiro?” he murmurs. “The scar? It doesn’t hurt me –”

“No,” Shiro snaps, and drags in a slow breath, rubbing his temples. “The child, Keith. You almost died because of me, because I poisoned what could have been our – our…”

Keith lowers his hand. He wants to tell Shiro. He wants to say, The only poison was the pennyroyal in my tea, and I wanted it to be there. But he knows Shiro would not understand – and he fears Shiro would cast him aside at once if he knew.

“Shiro,” he says quietly, “that wasn’t you. Sometimes these things just – happen.”

“But what if it was me?” Shiro says in a small voice. “What if it happens a second time, and this time, you don’t…” He swallows.

“It won’t,” Keith promises, because he’s never going to be with child again. “Shiro, it won’t. Lay down. You need sleep – have you slept at all these past nights?”

The thane’s eyes are shadowed by dark circles, bloodshot when he looks at Keith again. “I...not really, no.” He licks his lips. “I have. Dreams. Bad dreams.”

Keith coaxes him to lay down; Shiro goes without much of a fight. “What do you dream of?”

Pain flickers across Shiro’s face. “Terrible things,” he whispers. “You.”

“Am I a terrible thing?” Keith asks.

Shiro shakes his head, wrapping an arm around Keith’s waist, tucking him into the curve of his body. “No,” he says. “No, never.”

Keith breathes in the scent of him, cookfire smoke and horse and leather and iron and man. “On our wedding night,” he whispers, “you gave me a choice. Do you remember? You said your warriors expected a consummation, but you did not.” Keith looks up, brushes Shiro’s hair out of his frowning face. “I never expect it from you, either,” he adds. “When I say I wish to sleep beside you, that’s what I mean, Shiro, nothing more. I just – missed you. Like this. Just like this.” He snuggles closer, leans his head into Shiro’s chest ‘til he can hear his heartbeat.

Shiro relaxes against him, tucking his chin over Keith’s head. “I missed you too,” he whispers back. “And I – I’m glad you’re here, with me.”

They fall asleep like that, fully clothed in each other’s arms, lulled into slumber simply by the knowledge that they are together again.

*

The next night, they arrive at Thane Branko’s keep in the heart of Emira. It is a squat building of sandstone, smaller and uglier than the keep at Garris, but Keith is glad to be there because Mei is there. The warriors talk and drink and feast in the mead hall together, but as peace-weavers, Keith and Mei are permitted a corner to themselves, away from the drunken bellowing.

“It is good to see you, Keith,” Mei says, offering him a shy smile. “I...worry about you, and the other peace-weavers, after Lady Gleda…”

“She’s alive,” Keith says, and Mei’s eyes widen. 

“But...her throat…?” She frowns into her mug. “Branko says she is a witch. I don’t want to believe him, but if she healed herself and vanished into thin air...she must be a witch, mustn’t she?”

“I don’t know,” Keith murmurs. “But whatever she is, she has her children, alive. That has to count for something.”

“And she killed Ranveig,” Mei adds. “I never did like him, truth be told.”

Keith furrows his brow. “He seemed alright...he loved Gleda, didn’t he?”

Mei sighs. “Looked that way, didn’t it? And maybe he did. But he was a jealous man. When he returned from his long travels…” She lowers her voice. “Lady Gleda had an affair, or so the rumors say. With the local blacksmith – by all accounts, they were dear lovers. But Ranveig cared little for their feelings. He had the blacksmith publicly executed. Flayed alive, I think, then beheaded with one of his own swords – mind you, I think some tellings exaggerate. Whatever the method of execution, he made Gleda watch.”

Keith sets aside his plate, appetite gone. “Oh.”

“Yes,” Mei agrees darkly. “Branko is a coarse man, and I have little love for him, but at least he is not jealous. He fucks who he likes and only turns to me out of duty, I think.” She eyes Keith. “But yours...I don’t know.”

“He didn’t bed anyone else on the spring raids,” Keith admits. 

Her eyes widen. “Not even whores?”

“No,” Keith mutters. “He is my husband, he is loyal to me.”

“Among Galrans, chastity only matters for the wife,” Mei replies. “He has no obligation to –”

“He does if I say he does,” Keith retorts.

Mei raises her eyebrows. “I see. So he listens to your orders – is that why you’re here instead of safe in Garris?”

“I wasn’t safe in Garris,” Keith says. “He wanted me to come, and I wanted to, thus, I’m here.”

“I don’t suppose he would have let you come if you were with child,” Mei guesses.

“No,” Keith says. “Thankfully, I am not.”

Mei makes a face, and frowns at her plate. “I wish I could say the same.”

Keith leans forward. “You’re…?”

She nods. “I felt the quickening a week ago. I have not told Branko, yet.”

“Why not? Do you plan to...not have the child?”

Her frown deepens and she shakes her head. “No! No, I...I want to keep it. But I don’t know if I want him to have my child. Is that so wrong?”

“How would you keep it from him?” Keith asks. “Go into hiding?”

She nods slowly. “Maybe. I don’t know. You Marmorans know about living wild in the forest, don’t you?”

“It would be dangerous to give birth there, alone, without any midwives,” Keith cautions. “If you died, so would the child, in those circumstances.”

“I know,” Mei mutters. “I don’t think I’ll really do it. I just wish…”

“You’ll be a good mother,” Keith offers, and reaches out to take her hand. She looks up. “Whatever happens.”

“I hope you’re right,” Mei says, and squeezes his hand.

*

They leave Emira too soon, at dawn the next morning. Keith spent the night in a featherdown bed with Shiro, and again, they hardly even kissed, just held each other. Keith is just glad Shiro is finally getting enough sleep.

They ride straight west now, and ford the River Galra at its mouth in Drowner’s Bay. The ocean is close, judging by the wheeling flocks of seabirds overhead, and Keith cranes his neck to catch a glimpse. He’s only seen the ocean once, as a young child, when he rode in his father’s saddle to the icy northern seas. The Marmorans hunt seals there, when the ice begins to melt just enough, and Keith has a vague memory of a dark expanse of churning water filled with distant ice floes. 

But this ocean is very different. They ride along the cliffs of Drowner’s Bay, and Keith marvels at the sunlight on the endless blue water, glinting like a thousand gold pieces. There is not a ship in sight, only the gently rolling waves and once, a gray whale and her calf, who breach near the cliffs and prompt a chorus of cheers from the warriors. Marmorans hunt whales, too, but Keith has never seen them alive. They’re incredible.

The swampland turns to fields and plains as soon as they cross the river into Yamir, the thanedom of Thane Morvok. Yamir is a small thanedom just north of the capital at Daibazaal, and though Keith strains to see the shining towers of Zarkon’s castle in the distance, all he sees are Yamir’s pine forests. They are unlike Marmora’s – the trees are younger and more spread out – but they are familiar nonetheless. 

However, they don’t ride to Morvok’s keep, just continue westward. Shiro explains they will meet the other thanes and warriors at the Black Fort before sailing to the Northern Islands as a large group. 

“Who rules the Black Fort?” Keith asks as the building finally comes into view – a tall, sturdy, dark stone tower rising up from the sloping coastal hills, overlooking the ocean. Only the Galran flag flies from its ramparts. 

Shiro chuckles. “Nobody, save for King Zarkon. Some say it was built by giants, long ago.”

“Giants?” Keith looks at the stone fortifications, and has to admit they are different from any of the other Galran keeps. Sturdier, yet elegant. 

“Mhm.” Shiro points down to the crashing waves, where rocky fingers rise out of the surf, spotted with seabird nests. “The old stories say they fell to their deaths, down there, leaving their tower behind.”

“Hm.” Keith considers the tower. “Are you sure the giants won’t come back for it?”

Shiro laughs nervously. “Let’s hope not.”

As a higher-ranking thane, Shiro gets his own room in the tower, and Keith stays with him. Thane Branko will be arriving tonight, then Thane Morvok in the morning, then Thane Janka, Lord Throk, and Sendak by tomorrow night. In the meantime, the warriors wait restlessly, drinking and sparring and hunting in the woods – generally, getting up to trouble, as restless men are wont to do. 

Shiro does not join them. He stays with Keith on the ramparts of the Black Fort, stargazing. 

“Don’t you want to drink with your men?” Keith asks, watching the path of a snail over the black stone. “Keep up morale, and all that?”

“Not really,” Shiro admits, chin in hand as he looks at the glittering constellations. “Nothing I can do to make the sea voyage easier. We’ll lose warriors no matter how many drinks I share with them.”

“Not much of an optimist, are you.”

Shiro sighs. “No. Truth be told, I’m just...tired.”

“Of what, being a thane?”

Shiro frowns. “Maybe.”

Keith eyes him. “Do you want to be king?”

Shiro coughs, hard, and glances at him warily. “Someone has to be, when Zarkon is gone.”

“And that someone is you?” Keith presses.

Shiro folds his arms. “You sound like you have an opinion on the matter, so speak.”

“I…” Keith exhales. “I think you would be a good king.”

Shiro looks surprised, then scoffs. “You flatter me.”

“You never answered the question. Do you want the throne?”

Shiro hesitates. “Yes,” he admits, voice low. “More than I think I should. I would like to think I would be a good king, Keith – but I know, if I sit on the Galran throne, many will fall, and much blood will be shed.”

“Why?” Keith whispers. “Why must that come to pass if you are king?”

“I don’t know,” Shiro says, something haunted in his expression. “I just know it will. Yet I still find that I want it. Selfish, isn’t it?”

“All kings are selfish,” Keith replies. “Aren’t they?”

Shiro doesn’t answer. 

*

Later that night, when they are tucked away in their bed in the Black Fort in a dark, drafty room, Shiro draws Keith in close, kissing him long and soft, running reverent fingers through his unbraided hair. “You would not be selfish,” Shiro whispers, in the shadows where only the two of them can hear.

Keith stares at him, at the dull glow of his irises. “What?”

“If you were king,” Shiro says, and kisses him again, as if to erase the words altogether.

*

Shiro is gone when he wakes, but breakfast is waiting for him on the bedside table, and there’s a young woman with long blonde braids and a simple pink gown hurrying around the room, tidying it up. Keith watches her, puzzled, until she turns around, sees him staring, and yelps, hand flying to her breast. “Oh! You’re awake!”

“Yes…” Keith throws back the blankets, tilting his head at her. “Who are you?”

“Oh, er, sorry, I’m Romelle,” she says, offering a little curtsy. “Thane Shirogane sent me up to bring you breakfast and tell you he’s sparring in the ring outside.”

“Hello,” Keith says. “Thank you, breakfast smells good. Are you from Yamir?”

Romelle blinks, then ducks her head. “Oh...no, no. I’m from the Northern Islands.” Keith furrows his brow and she adds, “The Galrans captured me as a young child. I was raised here at the Black Fort, by some of Morvok’s fishermen...now, I serve as a scout on the summer raids. There are some other Northerners, too.”

“A scout?” Keith frowns. “You mean, you help the enemy?”

Romelle purses her lips. “The Northern Islands were my birthplace, but Galra has become my home. Neither place is perfect, peace-weaver, with all due respect. There are tyrants there, too. The Empress is not a just leader...I have no loyalty to her.”

“I see.” Keith doesn’t know much of the Northern Islands’ Empress, but Romelle clearly doesn’t think highly of her.

“You’re from Marmora, aren’t you?” Romelle adds, bouncing nervously on her heels. “Have you been to the Wilds?”

It’s a strange question. “I’ve explored them a bit,” Keith hedges. “Why?”

She beams. “Really? Oh, have you seen any unicorns there? I know they say that when Zarkon took Altea, they were all killed, but I refuse to believe it – please, please tell me you saw some!”

Keith pauses. She’s practically glowing with excitement; he can’t bear to let her down. “I did,” he admits. “Two mares. I think they had foals, too, but I didn’t see them. They were...beautiful. Like nothing I’d ever seen before.”

Romelle squeals and claps her hands in delight. “I knew it! How wonderful, thank you, Keith – oh, can I call you Keith?”

“Yes, that’s fine,” Keith sighs. It may be just past dawn, but she has boundless energy. “Thank you for breakfast, Romelle. Can you do me a favor?”

She perks up, braids swinging. “Of course, Keith!”

“Thane Shirogane packed up my things on one of the draft wagons, and I need you to bring one of the items up for me – a claymore. Can you do that?”

Romelle gawps at him. “A...a claymore?” He nods. “I...I don’t know if I can carry that up all these stairs,” she admits sheepishly.

“Nevermind,” Keith says. “You can just provide a distraction for me, then.”

She watches him shove his breakfast into his mouth, then turns around with a yelp when he starts undressing, grabbing a binder, his sturdiest tunic, and his most flexible leggings, along with a good belt. “Keith, what are you going to do?” Romelle exclaims, following him downstairs with dainty hops like a noisy little rabbit. 

“Don’t worry about it,” Keith says. They reach the end of the stairs only a bit out of breath, and Keith walks away from the warriors’ tents and the sparring grounds, making his way towards the supply wagons. There are several guards around them, and the largest stands in front of Shiro’s wagon, where the hilt of his claymore gleams in one of the sacks. 

Keith weighs his options, then turns to Romelle. “Can you seduce that guard?” he asks.

Romelle turns pink. “Which one?” Keith points. She eyes him. “I don’t really like redheads…”

Keith huffs. “Just for a second, until I can get the sword. Just – flirt with him, bat your eyelashes, or something. Unlace your dress a little.” Romelle splutters at him, as if her dress isn’t already purposefully not fully laced up. “I have a very pretty comb made of unicorn horn you can have,” Keith adds.

He’s never seen someone move so fast.

While the guard is pretending not to ogle Romelle, Keith makes a mad dash for the wagon. He grabs the claymore and its scabbard, slinging it over his back in one fell swoop and casually sauntering off despite the sword’s considerable weight. When he glances over his shoulder, Romelle is still flirting with the guard, and doing a lot more than batting her eyelashes. Apparently she likes redheads after all.

Keith weaves through the tents and sleepy warriors, some of whom look at him with vague bewilderment, but nobody stops him until he reaches the sparring grounds. It’s his luck that Shiro is in the ring, locked in brutal combat with Branko. The two thanes are sweating and grunting with each swordblow, both armed with greatswords that howl through the air as their owners feint and parry in a deadly dance. The warriors watch, some quietly placing bets and others itching to have their turn against the victor.

“What are you doing, Keith?”

Keith spins. Matthew Holt stands there, hand on his hip. “Waiting my turn,” Keith says, mirroring his pose and raising an eyebrow. “I want to spar with my husband.”

Matthew frowns. “You don’t even know if he’s going to win this match.”

“He will,” Keith says. “That was never in question.”

“You shouldn’t even be here,” Matthew tries, his worried eyes betraying him, undercutting his firm tone. 

“Aren’t you glad you’re not babysitting me in Garris?” Keith retorts, and turns back to the ring. “Stay out of my way, Matthew.”

“He’s not going to be happy, seeing you here,” Matthew adds. “He’s been in a foul mood since breakfast. Keith, please. Go back to the fort.”

Keith ignores him. The warriors are eyeing him openly now, and those who saw him spar before look nervous. They glance back and forth and mutter among each other when Branko falls first, Shiro standing victorious over him before the thane limps off with a bloodied nose and bruised ego. Shiro turns to the crowd. “Who’s next?” he calls, grinning wide and dangerous, smile freezing on his face when Keith steps forward and draws the claymore from its sheath, balancing the blade with its long, two-handed hilt.

“I am,” Keith says. 

Shiro’s brow lowers. The murmurs in the crowd grow louder. Then Shiro sets his jaw. “Very well,” he says. He nods to the warriors, who watch in disbelief. “Get me a claymore.”

A claymore is procured, and Shiro hefts it, balancing it as Keith did, shifting slowly into an offensive stance. The warriors look more nervous than before. Claymores are not weapons meant for extended battles – they are meant to deal swift deaths. They are not commonly used in sparring. Then again, neither are peace-weavers.

“We fight until a yield,” Shiro announces, and takes the first swing. The heavy sword connects hard with Keith’s as he blocks the first blow. The impact reverberates through his entire body – Shiro isn’t holding back. Good. Keith keeps his stance, knowing from experience that once blocked, it’s hard to move the heavy blade back up in time. His swing catches Shiro’s shoulder, the fine metal slicing through the leather and the skin beneath in a clean nick, drawing first blood.

Keith leaps away as Shiro retaliates, holding the sword aloft for a downwards cut that Keith ducks from and meets in a messy counterstrike, his footing slipping in the mud. Shiro catches the weakness and kicks, his boot driving into Keith’s shin. Keith stumbles away, thrusting out wildly; Shiro blocks it easily and goes in for another strike, merciless. 

Keith is forced onto the defensive, breath punching out of his lungs as they move faster, ducking and lunging back and forth, the claymores singing in the morning air. The warriors are dead silent. All Keith can hear is metal on metal, Shiro’s harsh panting, and his blood roaring in his ears. Shiro lunges again, striking Keith’s blade once, twice, three times that Keith barely manages to parry. 

It isn’t that he underestimated Shiro – he’s out of practice, and he didn’t expect Shiro to fight this hard, this fast. Shiro has the advantage of size, and Keith thought he would have the advantage of speed, but Shiro’s fast, too. Faster than he should be. The sunlight glinting off of Keith’s blade illuminates Shiro’s eyes, revealing the golden glow deep within his irises. Keith considers it cheating, even if Shiro doesn’t know he’s channeling Dominion’s power.

Shiro’s blade catches him across his upper thigh as he narrowly escapes a sweeping strike, and there are gasps from the crowd, a few uncertain mutterings as blood drips down Keith’s leg from the clean tear in his thin leggings. 

Keith grits his teeth, glaring at Shiro over the edge of the claymore, and jumps into an offensive flurry of blows that drives Shiro back to the edge of the ring before he manages to parry firmly enough to ground himself. Keith doesn’t let him, gripping his claymore one-handed to drive his elbow into Shiro’s gut. It’s a dirty move, but neither of them are playing nice.

“Yield, Keith,” Shiro growls when their blades meet inches from each other’s faces, the impact stunning them both into a brief standstill. 

In reply, Keith forces his sword along the edge of Shiro’s blade in a piercing screech, nearly knocking it from his hands as Keith darts away and lands another blow on Shiro’s hip with the flat of the blade. Keith hopes it leaves a bruise. He goes in for another hit and misjudges the distance at the same time as Shiro’s upwards slash, unbalancing the blade while Shiro’s sword grazes his knuckles in an explosion of pain. The wound is shallow, but blood drips in a steady trickle down Keith’s sleeve.

Shiro knocks him down the moment he falters. Keith hisses, keeping his sword and parrying from the ground, Shiro’s weight braced over him. Tears of frustration sting at Keith’s eyes; everyone is watching, and Shiro isn’t letting up. “Yield,” Shiro insists again, but Keith – and he isn’t proud of this – spits in his face.

Keith takes Shiro’s moment of shock for a desperate shove upwards, but Shiro recovers fast, grabs Keith’s wrist, holding his blade steady in only his right hand, and disarms Keith with a sharp twist to his wrist that wrenches a sharper cry from his throat. Keith lets go. The claymore falls into the mud, and Shiro’s blade falls over his throat. “Yield,” Shiro says again. This time, it’s an order. 

Keith’s jaw works. If he doesn’t say it, what would Shiro do? The thane’s claymore rests fully against his throat, the flat of it digging in, increasing pressure. Keith tries to reach for the hilt of his sword. Shiro kicks it away from him. Keith swallows against the metal.

“I yield,” he gasps. The pressure lifts instantly, and Shiro moves off of him, offering a hand which Keith ignores. There’s still spit on Shiro’s face. Keith takes pride in that, at least. He picks up his sword and leaves the ring, Shiro’s gaze on his back.

No one wants to fight Thane Shirogane after that. It’s just as well that Thane Janka arrives soon after, distracting everyone from the sparring. Keith walks numbly back to the Black Fort, the cut on his thigh smarting. 

Matthew stops him once out of earshot from the warriors. “Keith,” he starts, “you put up a good fight –” Keith shrugs him off. “You should get that wound looked at,” Matthew adds.

Keith shakes his head. Bile is bitter in his throat, and suddenly the crowds around the fort are too much, the shouts of men and the clanging of swords. He needs quiet. He needs out. Matthew’s voice fades behind him as he breaks into a run. Even with a sliced leg, he’s faster than the mercenary. He makes it to the horses. Strael isn’t saddled, doesn’t even have her bridle but Keith doesn’t care. He unties her even as the guards notice what he’s doing and raise their voices in alarm. 

Strael shifts under him as Keith scrambles up onto her bare back. Run? she asks.

As fast as you can, Keith tells her, and she breaks into a joyful gallop away from the camp, away from the Black Fort, away from Thane Shirogane and his blade. 

*

They run until Strael announces, Tired, and finds a stream running through the sparse pine tree woods to drink from. Keith dismounts, stripping off his tunic and leggings to wade into the stream, sloughing off the dirt and sweat and blood from his body. 

It’s in the clear water that he notices the blood between his legs, the first since the pennyroyal tea. It’s natural bleeding, accompanied with only dull pain, no stabbing contractions. Maybe he should be relieved that his body has sorted itself out again, but he doesn’t feel relief at all.

Strael grazes freely and Keith lets her, she knows that, like him, she won’t run away. The stream deepens as it flows, and Keith wades until it’s deep enough to swim. He floats along with the easy current, stopping here and there to swim back so he does not drift too far upstream.

He’s expecting it when hoofbeats sound in the distance, but he expected more of them. Instead, there’s just a lone rider – Shiro. Keith swims back to the shallows and stands, water cascading down his bare body, wet hair plastered to his head and dripping down his back. His claymore lies with his clothes on the bank. Shiro does not dismount, but rides right up to him. His expression is not pleased, but he also can’t seem to look away from Keith.

“What if someone else had found you like this?” Shiro snaps.

Keith folds his arms. “Luckily, I have a sword.”

“Put your clothes on,” Shiro mutters. “You’re married to a lord, act like it.”

“You’re not a lord,” Keith says.

Shiro’s eyes narrow. “Not yet. Put your clothes on, Keith.”

“Are you going to draw your sword on me if I don’t?”

“Keith.”

“What.”

“I was worried,” Shiro says, quieter. “I thought…”

“Thought what? That I’d run off?” Keith grabs his clothes, the bitter taste returning to his mouth. “As if that wouldn’t be convenient for you.”

Shiro looks stricken. “Of course it wouldn’t be.”

“No? Are you not tempted to find a Marmoran who doesn’t challenge your authority? Who doesn’t fondle you in front of your men?” Keith sneers. Shiro frowns at him.

“Did you honestly think you would win?” Shiro asks.

Keith takes a step back into the stream. “I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known you would mock me.”

“I’m not mocking you, Keith. But I’ve just returned from three months of battle. You’re out of practice, and with good reason. Thanes don’t fight their peace-weavers. You know that.”

“Then why did you do it?” Keith demands.

“I…” Shiro hesitates. “I wanted to fight you.”

“No, you wanted to win. You knew you would win. You liked beating me. Didn’t you?”

Shiro regards him silently. He doesn’t deny it.

“I wanted to win too, Shiro,” Keith whispers, half-hoping Shiro doesn’t hear. “Just once, I wanted to win.”

Shiro’s brow creases. Keith turns away from him and dresses quickly, braiding his wet hair and wishing he had worn the scarlet ribbon during their fight. Maybe things would have turned out differently if he had been stronger – though in his gut, he knows they wouldn’t have. He calls Strael, and she comes to him. 

He and Shiro ride back to the Black Fort in silence. Keith’s belly aches, and he makes a mental note to ask Romelle about rags when they return.

*

The next few days pass in a blur of preparations for the voyage to the Northern Islands. Keith stays well out of it, keeping his claymore on his back and watching the proceedings from the top of the Black Fort. Romelle often joins him, combing her long blonde hair with the unicorn horn comb.

“You know, it’s the funniest thing,” she tells him, “whenever I use this comb, I always remember my childhood in the Islands.”

Keith looks away from the waiting ships gathering at the docks. “Are they good memories?”

“Oh, yes,” Romelle sighs, “I wish I remembered more of them. My family lived in a village with many others like us. We were sheep herders...my mother wove such lovely blankets and cloaks and things. The winters were terribly cold – that’s why Galrans go raiding in the summer.”

“Others like you?” Keith echoes. “Other sheep herders?”

“Not just that.” Romelle sets down the comb and fiddles with her hair, braiding and unbraiding the ends. “It’s hard to remember if I imagined it or not, but I don’t think we came from the Northern Islands, originally. I was born there, but my parents…” She frowns. “I wish I could remember. I know they sailed to get there. They were fleeing something...some war…”

Keith looks at the unicorn horn comb. Surely that’s impossible…though, Altea was invaded eighteen years ago, and fell after three years of fighting...Romelle looks young enough for it to make sense. 

Romelle laughs a little, and shakes her head. “Maybe it was all just a story. Do you have any good stories from when you were a child?”

Keith tells her the story of the dragon and the king. The ships swarm over the coastline like rats, boarded by men as tiny and numerous as fleas.

*

It rains as they set sail the next morning. Shiro wants to wait until the weather clears, but Sendak and Throk have seniority and declare it’s clear enough. Keith huddles in the middle of Shiro’s ship with Romelle. She, unlike him, is not terrified of the ocean. Keith has been afloat on it for mere minutes, and he has already decided it is not for him.

“You get used to it,” Romelle assures him, patting him gently on the shoulder. Keith lists against the side of the ship, sure he’s going to be sick. His one solace is that the younger warriors are also looking rather nauseous. They are all, literally, in the same boat.

Shiro stands at the bow, unbothered by the churning waves and rain. From time to time, he glances back at Keith, but does not go to him. He’s too busy speaking with his warriors and shouting across the waves to the other ships. They’re all supposed to remain in sight of each other, but it’s not uncommon for storms to separate the Galran fleet. The sun peeks timidly through the heavy clouds, which seems to cheer everyone, at least until the wind begins to howl so powerfully it threatens to snap the masts in two. 

The ships are the largest Keith’s ever seen, but they still need men to row them along with the wind from the sails, and Keith is just glad he doesn’t have their job. The waves splash overboard from time to time, soaking the rowers thoroughly in saltwater, and they just have to grit their teeth and keep rowing.

“There must be many riches in the Northern Islands for this to be worth it every summer,” Keith says to Romelle, yelling over the wind and waves. 

She laughs. “In most of the Islands, no! But in the castles – oh, yes. The lords and ladies love their pretty things, and so do the Galrans.”

At some point, the weather calms enough for the initial panic to fade, and Keith eats the brown bread and tough jerky offered to him. Still, Shiro avoids him. It may be a large ship, but it’s not thatbig – they’re always within view of each other, it’s just that Shiro isn’t looking at him. Keith contents himself with watching the waves and straining for a glimpse of land, though Romelle told him it would be a three day voyage at least. 

It’s only when the sun sets and the warriors pass around more jerky and bread for dinner that Shiro joins him. Romelle is sitting with the red-haired guard, and Keith wonders if Shiro was intimidated by her presence – though Romelle is hardly a menacing figure.

“The weather is settling down,” Shiro says, even though it’s still raining. Keith eyes him from under the oiled hood one of the warriors tossed to him. “Are you feeling alright?”

“Better,” Keith grunts. “My stomach and the sea do not get along.”

Shiro chuckles, sitting down fully next to him. He hasn’t bothered with a hood, and though he has many layers of leather and a fur cloak, his hair is soaked. He ties it back in a bun and says, “You’re doing better than I did. My first time at sea, I was vomiting over the edge of the boat more oft than not. Then I tripped over my own feet once back on land. I think I fell to my knees and kissed the ground.”

Keith snorts. “I can see why. I don’t understand why my father did this for so many years voluntarily.”

“You’ll understand,” Shiro says with certainty, and points to the horizon, where the clouds are parting and the sun is...falling. It looks like it’s falling into the sea, a red dollop of melting metal sizzling in red streaks across the water where it meets the surface. “Nothing like a sunset at sea – and a red sky at night is a good omen.”

“Is that so?” Keith watches the red sun lower into half, then a sliver, and then, suddenly, it slips away entirely, the sky darkening to a faded lilac in its absence. “Where does it go?”

“The sun?” Shiro hums, and wraps an arm around Keith’s shoulders. Keith blinks dumbly at his hand, but doesn’t shove it away. “The old stories say the goddess Sunne takes it with her to bed each night, to keep her warm.”

“How romantic,” Keith mutters. 

Shiro frowns. “I wanted to apologize,” he says. Keith stiffens. “For the sparring...I did say I wanted to spar with you, once. Before I bought you the sword. It is true that thanes do not fight their peace-weavers. But I do not see you as my peace-weaver.”

Keith ducks out from under his arm, perplexed. “Well, what, then? Do you see me as an enemy?”

Shiro’s eyes widen. “What? No! Keith, that’s not what I mean.”

“Then what?” Keith’s eyes narrow as the silence drags on. Shiro looks away, clearly uncomfortable, and Keith sighs. “Nevermind. You don’t need to apologize. You won, and I was foolish to think I had a chance at victory.”

Shiro bites his lip. “Not foolish,” he says. “You could be a great warrior, Keith –”

“No,” Keith says, fixing him with a flat look, “I cannot be, now.” 

Shiro takes the hint and stands, another apology in his eyes. Keith curls away before he can voice it, hunching down under the cloak to try to get some sleep. Shiro doesn’t press, and walks away with a sigh. 

Keith does fall asleep, but awakes blearily hours later to a warm weight leaning against his side. Keith jolts awake, at once on the defensive, but it’s just Shiro, softly snoring on his shoulder. There are a few men rowing and awake on watch, and the others are sleeping under their own cloaks. Shiro still doesn’t have a cloak, and he’s shivering in his sleep – he must be freezing.

Carefully, Keith shifts so that the cloak can drape over both of them. It isn’t big enough to cover them both fully, but it’s something. Shiro makes a sleepy sound and snuggles closer, wrapping an arm around Keith’s waist and hauling him half into his lap. Keith makes sure nobody’s watching, then kisses Shiro’s cheek, leans his head against Shiro’s chest, and closes his eyes again.

*

The weather does not improve over the next two days, and on the third, chaos breaks loose.

Keith is wrenched from uneasy slumber by the sound of cracking wood, and his eyes fly open just in time to see the mast groaning and splintering, the sails flapping madly in the howling wind, the rain pouring and the waves smashing against the sides of the ship like battering rams. 

Shiro yanks Keith to his feet, and Keith immediately slips on the slick, shifting deck, clinging to Shiro’s shoulder for support. “What’s happening?” Keith demands, glancing around wildly at the shouting warriors who are running back and forth, grabbing at ropes and oars and supplies. He strains to see the other ships around them, but the waves are too high, the night is too dark. “How bad is it?”

“Bad,” Shiro says grimly. “Keith, no matter what, I need you to stay beside me.”

Lightning illuminates the night and the mast breaks in two. Keith watches as the ship cracks under the weight of the falling wood, and takes with it all the people unable to get out of the way. One of them is Romelle, and Keith sees the brief, terrified flash of her pale face and hair before the waves swallow her up. 

Keith tears away from Shiro and sprints across the deck. Shiro shouts after him, but the thunder erases his words. Someone grabs at Keith’s arm, holding him back at the splintered edge of the ship. It’s Matthew. “Stay back, Keith,” he warns. 

“Romelle fell overboard!” Keith yells, yanking his way free and pointing to her thrashing figure as she manages to surface, only to be dragged under again by the waves. The clouds part, flooding the world with moonlight, revealing the waves littered with men and broken ship and one drowning girl. “Let go of me!”

“Keith, you can’t help her,” Matthew starts, but Keith punches him and dives overboard, Shiro’s anguished scream echoing in his ears before he hits the water and hears nothing but the roaring sea.

Keith knows how to swim, he does. But as soon as he’s submerged, he realizes that not even the most violent rapids in the mountain rivers come close to the violence and power of the ocean. The breath is knocked out of him by a massive wave, and Keith surfaces, gasping, before diving back under, the salt stinging his eyes as he searches blearily for blonde hair and a pink gown. 

Single-minded panic propels him forward, and he passes several floating bodies, some impaled by shards of the mast and others crushed, a few already drowned. Keith refuses to believe Romelle numbers among them. His lungs ache and he ignores it, kicking out in a stream of bubbles and looking around frantically, spinning in a circle until he sees it – a limp pink dress and pale legs, one of her slippers missing. 

Keith swims to her, wrapping his arms around her waist – her eyes are half-open and her mouth moves when she sees him, bubbles escaping. Keith kicks to surface, but they’re much deeper than he realized – the ocean is so very deep, and when Keith looks down, all he sees is black, nothing, no, he cannot look down, he needs to look up, to follow the moon, just a little farther, a little more breath –

He’s not going to make it. Keith’s vision spots, and the moonlight fades as the clouds return. With all his strength, Keith pushes Romelle up to the surface, and sees her legs kick weakly when she breaks it – she’s alive. Keith tries to follow, but his limbs are leaden, and he can’t keep his eyes open anymore. Worst of all, his chest is constricting, burning, and the more he gasps, the more it hurts. He reaches up towards the surface, desperate – and someone grabs his hand, black claws closing around his wrist. 

Keith blinks his stinging eyes open as the water rushes past, and sees Shiro’s blurry face just before the waves break, and his gasping mouth breathes in air instead of water. Keith starts choking, coughing ragged and wet, and Shiro holds him up above the waves, dragging him back to what’s left of the ship. Somehow, it’s still afloat, and when Keith’s body hits the deck, he doubles over, coughing up saltwater and clutching his chest. 

Shiro’s hand rests heavy on his back, smacking it until he spits up the rest of the water. Keith wipes his mouth, panting. “Romelle,” he croaks, “where –”

“I’ve got her,” Matthew gasps, clambering up onto the deck with Romelle slumped over his shoulder, coughing like Keith, a hefty bruise blooming on his jaw where Keith hit him. “Shiro, this ship isn’t going to hold!”

As if the sky heard him, lightning strikes what’s left of the mast and sets the ship ablaze. In the rain, it’s not an instant inferno, but it’s still utterly on fire. “Everyone, grab what you need,” Shiro orders to the remaining warriors. They all scramble for their things – Shiro grabs their most important bags, and Keith grabs his sword. “We’re going to have to swim to shore,” Shiro calls.

What bloody shore! Keith almost asks, and then he follows Shiro’s pointing finger to the hulking mass of land in the distance, illuminated by another burst of lightning which branches across the sky like upside-down trees made of moonlight.

“Keith, can you swim?” Shiro asks. Keith nods. “Even with the sword?”

“I’ll be fine,” Keith says, as if he hadn’t just almost drowned. Shiro’s eyes narrow. Too bad – Keith’s not letting the sea have either of his blades – his dagger is, as always, tucked into its hidden sheath.

“Stay close to me,” Shiro orders, and adds, “please.”

Keith nods. They jump into the ocean, the waves welcoming them with all their might.

*

By the time Keith drags himself onto the beach, he’s beyond exhaustion, and Shiro looks the same, collapsing on the sand beside him as the little waves wash over them. Around them, the other warriors are in similar states of bedraggled fatigue, and Keith is relieved to see Matthew helping Romelle up, the two of them stumbling across the sand before Romelle gives up and flops down onto her back. Matthew sits down wearily near her.

“Fuck,” Shiro groans, heaving himself up onto his elbows and wiping grains of sand off his face. Keith agrees, and it takes every bit of stubbornness he has left to get to his feet, his legs trembling from the effort. He offers Shiro a hand, and the thane groans again before taking it, staggering upright with him. 

“We’re alive,” Keith croaks, and spits up more saltwater.

Shiro kisses him. Keith splutters and Shiro kisses him harder, until Keith kisses back. They both taste like brine and near death experiences. Shiro pulls away after too long, but keeps Keith in the circle of his arms. “Tell me before you decide to risk your life, next time,” he whispers. 

“She was in danger,” Keith stammers, “I didn’t, I didn’t think –”

Shiro hugs him. Keith stands there, now confused as well as exhausted – he expected to be scolded, not embraced. “I know,” Shiro says, muffled in his wet cloak. “But that was too close to losing you, Keith.”

“I – I’m sorry?” Keith tries.

Shiro squeezes him, sighs, and steps back. “No,” he says. “You’re not. You’re good at being the hero, Keith – but you don’t have to do it all by yourself. You can’t always do it all by yourself.”

“Oh,” Keith says. “I...you think I’m a good hero?”

“I like you better as my husband,” Shiro retorts. “My alive husband.” He nods to his warriors. “We need to find a place to make camp, first and foremost.”

Nobody asked him, but Keith points to the top of the bluff overlooking the shore. “We could see the other ships from there if they’re headed this way, and build a signal fire.”

Shiro gives him a long look, then nods. “Good thinking. Alright, let’s see if we can’t dry off and find the rest of the fleet before dawn.”

There’s some grumbling among the bedraggled warriors. “With all due respect, why before dawn, Thane Shirogane? We’re all exhausted,” one warrior, Romelle’s redhead, protests.

“The signal fires will be much easier to see at night,” Keith replies.

Shiro doesn’t look at him this time, but his lips quirk. “Exactly.” He raises an eyebrow. “Thank you for volunteering to gather driftwood for the signal fire, Jamie.”

Mysteriously, the grumbling ceases as they make their slow ascent up to the bluff. Shiro takes the lead, but not before taking Keith’s hand and squeezing once, brief but firm. Keith watches him go, face warm, before hurrying to catch up with Romelle and Matthew. 

“That was a really brave thing you did, Keith,” Romelle whispers, her bright eyes wide and earnest. “Thank you, a thousand times over. But – I’m really sorry. I lost that lovely comb you gave me.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Keith assures. “I’m just glad you’re alright.”

Matthew clears his throat and hands Romelle the comb. “This it? I grabbed it from the ship before we left,” he mutters. “Seemed too pretty to leave it there –”

Whatever he’s about to say next is drowned out by Romelle’s victorious whoop, a cry which the warriors echo, because yelling is what warriors do. They may not have won a battle, but they did survive. 

Shiro looks over his cheering band of warriors, and meets Keith’s eye. He smiles, and Keith smiles back.

Chapter Text

The sea is like gray silk in the morning. Keith sits at the top of the cliffs with his knees tucked to his chest, chin resting on his knees, scanning the waves for ships.

Two other ships, Sendak’s and Throk’s, saw their signal fires in the night. Their warriors made camp with Shiro’s, and the thanes are deliberating on whether to wait for the others or continue on. Keith bets on the latter. The men are restless after the storm, and their loyalty is frail when gold is not close at hand. The line between warrior and mercenary is thin here.

Nobody seems worried about the lack of ships. When Keith asked, Shiro shrugged and said, “We can just take some for ourselves when we sail home.”

They’re all very blasé about the raiding and the pillaging. Keith doesn’t know how to feel about it. He cannot judge the Northern Empress yet, but he has seen one of her lords’ castles, and his judgement is that this is a wealthy kingdom, even moreso than Galra. 

It isn’t a Galran keep, built to be sturdy and efficient. It’s built for beauty, to be admired. Keith admires it, but he’s also eager to know what lies beyond its gleaming white walls.

“Pretty, huh? Don’t let that fool you, Lady Hira’s castle is a fortress.”

Keith turns. One of Shiro’s warriors is there, a young man he vaguely remembers from the village. He’s tall and lean, built like a birch tree, with brown skin and hair, and eyes the color of the sea. Keith frowns at him. “Who is Lady Hira?”

Instead of answering, the warrior holds out a hand. “Lance,” he says. “Katie Holt told me about you, thought I’d meet you for myself...especially after that sparring match at the Black Fort.” He whistles, low. “Hunk would be proud; you wield that blade well.”

Keith eyes his hand and gingerly shakes it. “Hello. You know Katie and the blacksmith?”

“We’re good friends. You saw that plow Katie was building? Hunk helps her with the metalwork; I help her find all the parts she needs. Most people in Garris know me. Surprised she didn’t mention me to you.” He grins.

Keith isn’t sure what this lanky warrior’s game is. He clears his throat. “Is this...your first raid?”

Lance nods. “I didn’t go in the spring; had to help the family with calving season. Your first raid too, huh? Can’t say I expected Thane Shirogane to bring you along — but I can see why he did,” he adds hastily, when Keith’s eyes narrow.

“We were lucky to survive that storm,” Keith replies. “My husband says we lost some of the older warriors to the waves — he will have even greater need of young blood like us.”

Lance ducks his head. “Looks that way.”

Keith points again to the castle. “Who is Lady Hira?” he demands again. “Are we attacking her castle?”

Lance lets out a startled bark of laughter. “That cursed place? No!” He shakes his head. “Listen, peace-weaver —”

“Do not call me that, warrior,” Keith warns.

“Sorry, uh, Keith,” Lance stammers, “but Lady Hira’s castle is infamous. If you’ve noticed all the warriors are on edge, that’s why — they take it as an ill omen that we’ve landed so close to Ellesmere, her lands.”

Keith squints at the castle. At a guess, it is a day’s walk away, maybe less. “It looks an easy enough target to me. Poor defense, no moat that I can see.”

“That’s what the Galra thought, too,” Lance mutters, “but something evil’s in those walls. Lady Hira is one of the most powerful Northern nobles, close to the Empress. She dabbles in experiments, or magic, who knows which. Some have compared her to…” Lance lowers his voice, glancing around. “Queen Honerva.”

Keith’s eyes widen, looking at the castle in a new way. “What happened when the Galra tried to storm her castle?”

Lance shakes his head. “Slaughter, according to the tales my father told me. The few Galra who escaped fled to the sea. This was decades ago, around the time of the Queen’s death. Nobody’s tried, since.”

“Maybe they should,” Keith murmurs.

Lance looks at him askance. “What?”

“Nothing. Why did you approach me, Lance?”

Lance turns red. “Oh — I, er, just wanted to meet you, is all.”

“No, that isn’t all.” Keith searches his flushed face. “Is it?”

Lance’s shoulders slump. “Alright, no, it isn’t,” he mumbles. “I was just...well, it isn’t my place, but my mother, she’s...she’s a midwife. In town. So is my older sister. And —”

Keith’s stomach flips. “No.”

“N-no?” Lance gulps. “But I didn’t even —”

Keith sighs, forces himself to calm down. “What are you saying?”

“Um.” Lance wrings his hands. “My mother is a midwife, one of the best. She and my sister were summoned to the keep, when. Things went wrong. And she said —” Lance sucks in a sharp breath. “Are you a witch?”

Keith stares at him.  

“My mother said you came back to life,” Lance whispers. “And before that, she said you had a smell on your breath, an herb she’d smelled before on women who didn’t want their —”

Keith whirls on him, heart in his throat, fist raised. “Shut your mouth before I shut it for you.” Lance’s eyes fly wide.

A heavy hand falls on Keith’s shoulder and he freezes. “Something wrong?” Shiro.

Keith swallows and slowly lowers his fist. “No,” he says. “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong.”

Lance stares at the ground. “Apologies, milord,” he whispers, “I was just...leaving…”

“I think that would be wise, yes.” Shiro watches Lance as he hurries off to join the other warriors, then turns to Keith, still not releasing him. “Are you alright?”

Keith nods hastily. “He didn’t mean any harm.”

Shiro raises an eyebrow. “Is that why you were about to punch him?”

Keith shrugs him off. “I wasn’t.” He’s about to say something else, cobble together a lie, maybe, when he sees Shiro’s shoulder, the one his claymore nicked in their sparring match. It’s barely visible, but the collar of Shiro’s tunic is loose, revealing the edge of a dark, ugly wound. Keith steps closer. “Are you alright? That looks bad.”

Shiro holds still, clearly uncomfortable but not pushing him away when he gently lifts the edge of the tunic to examine the shallow wound. Keith frowns. It looks festering, but not in any way Keith’s seen before. The edges of the wound are blackened, as if burnt, and spread in thin blue-black lines just under Shiro’s skin. “How…?” Keith whispers.

“Your sword is made of luxite,” Shiro murmurs. “The blacksmith’s choosing, or yours?”

“His,” Keith says, tearing his gaze away from the wound. “He thought as a Marmoran, I would appreciate it. Why?”

“Do you know the history of luxite?” Keith shakes his head. “According to legend, the ancient Alteans mined it and used it to defend against terrible monsters, for it was said to have special properties which harmed them far more than common metals.” Shiro looks ruefully down at the wound, not meeting Keith’s eye. “They mined away all of their luxite; there were too many monsters. The only luxite mines left are in Marmora, now...unfortunately.”

Keith’s heart pounds. “What were the monsters they fought?”

Shiro sighs and covers the wound with his tunic again, brushing Keith’s hand away. “Things beyond our world, from darker places,” he murmurs. “Things that feed off of human suffering, in all its many forms.” 

Keith is quiet. He looks up at Shiro. “Will it heal?”

“In time, yes.” Shiro squeezes his shoulder again. “I’m glad your blade is made of luxite, Keith...for I’m afraid you will have many chances to use it soon.”

Keith isn’t sure he wants to know what Shiro means by that, and knows Shiro won’t tell him, anyway.

*

The monsters come for them in the night.

They made camp beside a river in the woods, thinking the trees would hide them from Lady Hira’s furthest patrols for at least a short time. They were wrong. 

Keith wakes with a start as Shiro does, both of them sitting up in their tent and listening for a tense moment before they jump to action. Keith grabs his dagger, having no time to buckle on the claymore, and Shiro hefts an axe he’d used to chop firewood at dinner. They emerge from the tent into a camp ablaze, and exchange grim looks. 

Then the first of Lady Hira’s warriors lunges for them, in full plate armor. Keith darts out of the way and Shiro meets the swordblow head-on with his axe, the sound clanging painfully in Keith’s ears before Shiro pulls back and hurls the axe into the warrior’s chest. 

The axeblade crumples the metal, buried in the warrior’s breastplate, but...he doesn’t fall. He barely even falters. He raises his sword again. Keith looks to Shiro in horror, and Shiro swears, his eyes flaring wicked gold in the night, and yanks out the axe in a splatter of gore without breaking a sweat. The shattered breastplate is painted with a coat of arms — a rearing red bear on a black field.

“Keith, run,” Shiro growls, catching the warrior with another slash of the axe — but again, it advances, unfazed by two mortal wounds. Keith doesn’t need any more convincing; something is seriously wrong, here, and his dagger won’t do much against fully armored warriors. But Keith isn’t one to run from battles, so instead of fleeing the camp, he scans the area for a pink dress and blonde hair. When he spots Romelle, she’s headed for the trees, and there’s a warrior in hot pursuit.

Keith grits his teeth and sprints after them, dodging several other warriors — at a guess, there are only a dozen of them, but they seem incapable of dying. Keith glimpses one with a chunk missing from his skull, helmet caved in, charging at Matthew and Lance. He turns back to Romelle just as Lance skewers the warrior on his spear, which does nothing except make it angrier.

The woods aren’t dense, but in the dark Keith has to be careful with his footing, especially as he sees Romelle cry out and fall up ahead. It’s hard to make out the warrior chasing her in the darkness, but Keith catches the glint of moonlight off steel, and knows he’s still there. His thoughts race in a whirling frenzy — what are these warriors, who fight without tire and cannot be felled by swords, axes, or spears? And why do they fight for Lady Hira, assuming the red bear is her family crest?

Keith doesn’t have long to ponder it — the ruby choker burns at his throat with unhelpful timing as he’s stopped short by a sword pommel to the back of the head, knocking him out cold.

So much for no one being able to sneak up on him.

*

“Keith, Keith, wake up —”

Keith’s eyes snap open with a gasp, followed by a groan of pain as the throbbing pain in his head catches up with him. Romelle is peering down at him, her hands bound and eyes wide with worry. They’re in the back of some sort of hay cart. The cart is driven by one of the warriors, and they’re surrounded by the rest of the patrol on horseback. Keith stills, eyes darting and pulse racing. 

“Don’t panic,” Romelle whispers. “I’m sorry...you weren’t supposed to end up with me.”

Keith glances at her in bewilderment. “You were supposed to end up here?”

“Shh, not so loud,” she hisses. “Yes — I let myself get captured by the berserkers. I’m sure that’s what they are, but I’ve never seen them in the flesh.” Keith continues to stare at her, and she sighs. “I’ve studied the stories of this place, of Ellesmere and Lady Hira’s castle. It’s one of the last places in the eastern Islands untouched by the Galra, and I knew there had to be a key to her success. But the only way we’re going to find it,” she points to the castle, which is much closer than before, “is by going in there.”

“What are berserkers?” Keith croaks. His head still hurts. The ruby around his neck is warm, not burning but not cool, either. They are surrounded by potential danger. Wonderful.

Romelle chews her lip thoughtfully. “Well, you saw what they could do. In battle, they go into a...a frenzy. They become indestructible, it seems. But out of battle, afterwards…” She nods to the warriors riding around them, who are silent and subdued. “Some stories say they draw their power from wild beasts, like bears, thus their name and Hira’s crest. But I don’t know if I believe that.”

“You think finding the key to the berserkers will let Galra take Lady Hira’s castle,” Keith murmurs. Romelle nods. “So you let them take you prisoner? What kind of fool plan is that? We’ll be thrown into the dungeons —”

“No,” Romelle argues, “we won’t. We aren’t prisoners, Keith, not in Hira’s castle. We were prisoners of the Galra — that’s the story we’ll tell them, anyway. Hira will be our blessed ward, our savior from the Galran barbarians —”

Keith makes a face. “Right. I get the idea.”

Romelle hesitates. “You might have to tell her you’re a peace-weaver, too,” she adds. “It will be safer that way, for us. She will be more likely to believe that we’re…”

“Damsels in distress?” Keith sighs. Romelle winces. “Very well. Have you given any thought as to how we’ll be escaping?”

Romelle winces again and stares at her shoes. “Um,” she mumbles, “still working on that.”

“Uh-huh,” Keith says, and leans his aching head against his knees.

*

The castle is just as beautiful on the inside, dampened slightly by the seemingly endless number of guards, who stand silent and in full armor. Keith has no doubt they are of the same ilk as the patrol that attacked their camp.

Three of the warriors bring them in through the castle gates. Unlike Galran keeps, the castle courtyard is a garden, crowned by a stone fountain which spills into a series of mist-shrouded ponds. There are a hundred different kinds of blooming flowers; the air is thick with their cloying fragrance. Romelle is entranced by them, but Keith finds them unsettling, and so does the ruby choker.

He’s never seen such a variety of plant life, and in a place with such deadly winters, it makes little sense for them to exist here. Stranger still, the branches are laden with a variety of large birds with vibrant plumage and short, curved, sharp beaks. The birds tilt their heads to the sides to watch them pass, their eyes pale and beady. 

One of the largest, red-plumed with a white face and blue tail, clacks its beak and makes a warped, sing-song sound that is too close to the word “hello” for Keith’s comfort. Whatever these birds are, they don’t belong here. He’s not even certain they’re real. He squints suspiciously at them over his shoulder even as they pass the watching, chattering creatures.

As if kept back by an unseen barrier, the warriors stop in front of the steps leading out of the courtyard, and into the main castle. Two of them untie Keith and Romelle’s bound wrists, then one points with a bloodied metal gauntlet to the door at the top of the stairs, which creaks open though no one stands behind it. Romelle starts up the steps, and Keith follows more cautiously. His dagger is tucked into his boot — the warriors disarmed him when they caught him, but he found it in the wagon, and they didn’t seem to notice it was gone. He wonders if they are aware of anything at all beyond bloodshed.

There are no silent, armored berserkers waiting for them in the castle. Instead, a handsome man in shining armor stands there, and Keith does a double-take. His hair is all black, shorter and falling over his brow, and his face is narrower and unscarred, but...Keith has to wonder if all of Shiro’s brothers are dead after all. The resemblance is uncanny. He shifts uncertainly, and Romelle glances at him with matching disbelief. 

“Hello,” the man says, his voice accented and tone gentle. “I am Sir Sven. I apologize for your rude arrival here — you are guests, not prisoners. Lady Hira informs me you were stolen away by the Galra...please know you are safe within these walls. Any enemy of the Galra is a friend of ours.”

“How does Lady Hira know that already?” Keith demands. Romelle winces. Keith makes no apologies. He was never trained in courtly manners, nor does he wish to follow them.

Sven gazes at him, steady and serene. “She was informed,” he says simply. “Her soldiers are both loyal and attentive. Anything they know, she knows. Now, then — shall I bring you to your quarters, or would you like to meet your hostess?”

“We would like to meet the Lady,” Romelle says before Keith can say something else rude. “Please. That would be wonderful...Sir Sven.”

He smiles widely. It unnerves Keith, because his teeth are too white, too straight, and Shiro would never smile like that. Something in the knight reminds him of the colorful birds — he doesn’t belong here, either. Yet...in his presence, the ruby has stopped burning. “Of course. Follow me, please.”

They follow him through the wide hall. It is lined with endless paintings in gilded gold frames, and Keith eyes each one, knowing the Galra would likely strip it to pieces with little care for the canvas. He can’t say he cares for the canvases either — they’re mostly portraits of tall, thin, glowering fair-haired people. Some of them have equally glowering and fair pets, weird little lapdogs and cats with strangely human faces.

Sir Sven notices him looking and smiles again, as unnerving as before. “The royal families of the Northern Islands,” he says, “or Senjaroy, in our native tongue. They are beautiful, no?”

Beautiful is not the word Keith would use. “They look...wealthy,” he offers.

Sir Sven chuckles. “Wealthy, they are. Thus our feud with the Galra.”

“How did the Northern Islands, or, er, Senjaroy, get so wealthy in the first place?” Keith asks. The walls themselves seem plated in gold, or maybe it’s just painted wallpaper, but he’s never seen so much shine.

“Trade,” Romelle says, surprising them both. “Senjaroyan sailors were some of the first to sail across the western seas, and established settlements in the lands they found there. Those lands also had a great deal of gold.”

Keith pauses. “That sounds like stealing, not trading.”

Romelle gives him a meaningful look as if to say, That’s why we’re here.

“There is much gold to be had in Senjaroy itself,” Sir Sven adds. “And precious metals and jewels, which are in high demand. Our timber is also exceptional. It is a prosperous land. Anyway, none of our success would be possible without the Empress and her legacy.” As he says it, his mouth twitches, ruining his perfect smile.

“And what is that legacy?” Keith asks.

“Are you familiar with alchemy?” Sir Sven asks. His tone is different, lower, hushed. “Her Imperial Majesty certainly is.”

He says nothing more on the subject, and shortly after, they reach a set of grand gilded doors. He pushes them open, revealing a circular room that is entirely wine red, floor to ceiling, broken only by the large window opposite the door and the golden desk set before it. 

There is a woman sitting at the desk, and she looks up as they enter. She has pale skin, a dark mole just below her frowning lips, piercing blue eyes, low-set brows, and a shock of dark red hair slicked back, falling just above her shoulders. She is armored, too, in an even finer suit than Sir Sven. It gleams an ice blue as she stands, offering them a thin smile. “I was hoping I might greet you two,” she says. “I am Lady Hira. I apologize if my soldiers frightened you.”

“Oh, that’s alright,” Romelle squeaks, already dropping into a curtsy. “Thank you for offering us such generous hospitality, milady.”

Keith refuses to curtsy. “My lady,” he says, arms folded firm and unyielding across his chest. The ruby choker is hotter than it has ever been before. He resists the urge to rip it off.

She eyes them both. “My soldiers tell me you, little one, are an islander finally returned home...and you,” she looks to Keith, “are an unlucky Marmoran peace-weaver.”

“Luckier now that I’m here,” Keith replies. He never told Hira he was a peace-weaver.

She laughs lightly. “Yes, I suppose so. Though...before you go to your quarters, I must share with you a few simple rules. One,” she holds up a finger, “do not be frightened of my soldiers. They will not harm you, so long as you remain polite guests. Two,” another finger, “do let me know if you have any upsetting dreams. I can provide you with tonics to banish such visions. And three,” she holds up a last finger, “do not leave this castle. It isn’t safe, as you well know.”

“Understood, milady,” Romelle says, hiding her shaking hands in the folds of her dress. “Thank you, again.”

Lady Hira nods, and sends them off with a wave and a promise to meet them at supper. Sir Sven leads them down another hall, up a flight of stairs, and off to a new wing of the castle where two doors face each other, both gilded, both heavy and with large keyholes. “Here we are,” Sir Sven says, smiling at them both. “Do not hesitate to ring the bells beside your beds should you be in need of anything. Myself or my brother in arms will come to your aid at once.”

“Brother in arms?” Keith asks.

“Indeed.” Sir Sven raises an eyebrow at Keith. “I think you would like him.” With that, he turns and marches off down the hall.

“What was that?” Romelle asks, peering after him.

Keith shakes his head and opens the door to his room, revealing a lavish interior that only makes his stomach crawl. “I don’t know, but I don’t like it.”

*

From the single window in his room, Keith strains to see the lights of the Galra campfires in the distant forest, but the most he can find is a single plume of smoke, curling upwards. The castle walls block most of his view from this angle, and he suspects that’s purposeful. He wonders what Shiro is doing, now. He wonders if Shiro is angry with him...or just frightened. Keith wishes he could tell him he didn’t mean to run off, this time. He didn’t mean to get captured in this castle where something, he knows, is terribly wrong.

Keith tries to open the bedroom door and finds it locked. He didn’t expect otherwise, but it still doesn’t feel good. Having little else to do, and his head still aching from the berserker’s blow, he curls up on the soft bed, on top of the embroidered golden blankets, and falls asleep.

Keith dreams of a door. The door is locked, but when he peers through the keyhole, there is a woman standing on the other side. Her skin is rich brown turned sickly sallow and her long brown hair is streaked through with silver. Her dress was fine once, but is faded and torn, the edges of her hem darkened with mud or blood or both. 

She stands before a child, a boy who cannot be older than eight. He stares up at her, hands curled into fists and face pinched in unhappiness. His hair is black, short. His eyes are gray, tear-filled, but refusing to cry with all the stubbornness of little boys. There are red marks on his wrists, rubbed raw. 

“No,” he says, “I don’t want to!”

“What you want does not matter, Takashi.” She steps closer to him and his defiance crumbles; he stumbles away, eyes shining with obvious fear, now. “Remember what I told you? If one of the Voices speaks to you, you must answer it. Tell me, Takashi — have they spoken to you?”

His lower lip trembles. “No,” he whispers. “No, nobody spoke to me —”

She hits him, hard. He falls with a sob. Keith pulls on the door handle, shakes it until it rattles, but it’s no use. The door is locked. A desperate, furious sob caught in his own throat, Keith stares through the keyhole, knuckles white on the handle. 

“Stop lying, Takashi,” she warns. Her eyes gleam with an unnatural light, not gold, but brilliant silver. Keith’s heart skips a beat. He’s seen that light before, in a dark place, on a black plain. No — it can’t be. “Only bad children lie. Do you want to be a bad child, like your brothers?”

Shiro cowers, hands over his head. “No,” he whimpers. “I don’t want that, please…”

“Then tell me the truth.”

“Yes,” Shiro whispers, defeated. “I heard a Voice. But — it wasn’t a nice Voice, it frightened me, I don’t want to speak to it, it scares me —”

She leans down beside him. He braces for another hit, but instead she touches his bruised cheek gently. Her fingernails are long like claws. “Oh, Takashi,” she murmurs, “it’s alright to be afraid. In fact, you should be afraid. Because you are just a weak little orphan, and this world is filled with monsters. Are you afraid of monsters, Takashi?” He nods, squeezing his eyes shut. “You know what that Voice can do for you, Takashi? He can make you stronger, better. He can make the monsters afraid of you. Doesn’t that sound good?”

Shiro lifts his head, tears streaming freely down his cheeks, now. “But...I don’t want anyone to be afraid of me,” he whispers. 

Keith’s heart hurts.

She stands and sighs, clearly disappointed. “Not yet,” she says. “But someday, you will want nothing more. Druids, take him.”

Shiro’s eyes fly wide as hooded figures emerge from the shadows and flank him, reaching out with white, gnarled hands. “No! Wait, no, please, Mother, please —”

Her lip curls. “I’m not your mother, boy. Your mother is dead. You killed her. Leave him in the dark cell again.”

“No, no, no —”

Keith scrambles upright, panting and clawing at the blankets, nearly tumbling out of bed in his panic. His gaze falls upon the golden bell at his bedside and he rings it frantically, head in his hands, struggling to breathe. Was that real? Was that a dream, or a memory? Why had Honerva’s eyes glowed like that? Why had Keith dreamed it at all?

The door opens, and Keith whirls towards it, heart in his throat.

“Hello?”

Keith freezes. If Sven looks like Shiro’s twin brother, this knight looks like his. 

“Y-you…?” Keith stammers, leaping to his feet. “What is this fucking place?”

“Good question.” The other knight steps into the room, the door closing behind him. His armor is gold, and his hair is longer than Keith’s, tied back in a much neater braid than any one Keith has managed. He looks older, too, and his jaw is dark with stubble, but everything else is near-identical. “Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. You may call me Sir Akira. You rang the bell?”

“Who the fuck are you,” Keith snaps. “Akira? Fuck that. Tell me your real name.”

Akira raises an eyebrow. “If you must know, we don’t have names, but humans find that off-putting.”

“What are you.”

Akira exhales. “Alright. Calm down. Too much commotion attractsattention here, and believe me, you do not want that.”

Keith stares at him, heart pounding.

“Sit down,” Akira says. “Please.” Keith sits heavily on the edge of the bed, never taking his eyes off of the impossible doppelgänger. “You should not have come here, Keith of Marmora,” Akira murmurs. “Even if we have waited a long time for a Marmoran to find us here.” Keith leans forward, questioning, but Akira shakes his head. “Only the Marmorans of old could have freed us from this prison. Nowadays, the old stories have been lost. Tell me, peace-weaver, what do you know of night spirits and Druids, other than old wives’ tales?”

Keith meets his gaze and frowns. “More than you think,” he retorts, “considering I wield the magic of a night spirit.” And a dragon, he doesn’t say. Akira’s eyes widen. “What are you?” Keith repeats. “A new entity come to stake your claim, like Ruin or Conquest?” He won’t say Dominion’s name. Can’t, for fear he will hear, somehow.

Akira looks down and shakes his head. “No,” he says. “There is one of their kind here, but it is not us. We…” Akira sighs and nods to the bed. “May I sit?”

“Don’t touch me,” Keith says, but scoots over. Akira sits, tense beside him. Keith wishes his knife was closer.

“If you know of night spirits, you must know the Altean alchemists summoned them from their world, trapping them between, twisting all the others bound to humans, in one way or another.” Keith nods. Akira’s frown deepens. “There were other night spirits summoned. A second wave. But our summoners were not Altean — they were the new entities, like the one who calls this castle home.”

“How can the new entities summon night spirits?” Keith demands, horrified by the thought, by the potential for harm — if Dominion discovered how to do that...all the armies in the world would not stand a chance.

“How can they turn human warriors into mindless killers devoid of humanity, mad with rage?” Akira asks softly. “They feed off of the power of their hosts, and different entities feed off of different things. Some things are easier to come by than others.”

“What does the entity in this castle feed off of?” Keith whispers.

“Dreams,” Akira replies. “To be exact: terror, imagination, and sleeplessness. Put them together, and you have…”

“Nightmare,” Keith breathes. Around them, the castle seems to shudder, the candles flicker as if in warning. 

Akira nods. “She is a dangerous foe, and She is the one who keeps us here, twisted into neither new entity nor dragon nor unicorn, but into shades, shadows of ourselves, powerless servants. You see what you want to see, here...and sometimes, what you do not.”

“Why do I see myself and my husband in you two?” Keith asks.

“Either you want it, or you fear it,” Akira replies. “We cannot say which. We only appear, and serve.”

“But you can disobey,” Keith argues. “You told me all of this, didn’t you? Would Hira, would…” He glances nervously at the candles. “Would She want you to tell me these truths?”

“No,” Akira sighs, “but it does not matter, Keith of Marmora. If you are a Druid, Lady Hira will know soon — if she does not already — and She will take you and your night spirit for her own. She has done it before. You and your friend will not leave this place. I’m sorry.”

Keith stands. “No,” he says. “I won’t accept that.”

Akira hesitates, standing beside him but avoiding his gaze. “Did you have a bad dream?” he asks quietly. Keith nods, and Akira’s brow lowers. “Then it is already too late.”

He turns to go.

“Wait,” Keith says, “you must be able to tell me something more. How can the Galra defeat the berserkers and take the castle once and for all?”

Akira just shakes his head and walks out, but he leaves the door open. 

The first thing Keith does is run to Romelle’s room. It’s dark outside, so they’ve been out for awhile — too long. Shiro must be worried sick. Or maybe he isn’t worried at all. Maybe he’s relieved — Keith shakes himself, glaring at the castle walls. He’s getting paranoid. 

He bangs his fist on Romelle’s doors, but to his surprise they swing open. She, too, is on the bed, but has not yet awoken. She’s writhing and making soft, bitten-off whimpers of fear, and Keith runs to her, smoothing his hands over her wet face and shaking her awake.

“I’m sorry,” Romelle gasps as she wakes, “so sorry, didn’t mean to, I —” She claps her hands over her mouth when her eyes focus on Keith, and then she bursts into tears, curling in on herself. 

“Hey, hey, shh…” Keith awkwardly gathers her up in his arms, patting her shoulders and rubbing her back. “It wasn’t real, I promise. This place — it gives you nightmares. You can’t let it win.”

Romelle sniffles and wipes her nose on her sleeve before pulling away. “It was so awful,” she whispers, almost awed. “I’ve never had such an awful dream.”

“If we stay here another night, there might be worse ones,” Keith mutters. 

Her eyes widen, then narrow. She wipes her face dry and sets her jaw. “Then — then we won’t sleep.”

Keith stares at her. “Just like that?”

She nods smartly. “Just like that.” She rings the bell before he can stop her.

“Who do you see?” Keith asks when someone knocks at the door, too fast, as if they simply materialized outside it. They probably did.

Romelle hesitates. “A man...who looks very like my old caretaker. Why? Who do you see?”

“Nevermind,” Keith says. “We see different things. They told me it’s who we want or fear. Which is it for you?”

“Oh, he was very kind to me,” Romelle says, then freezes as the door swings open. Akira walks in, ignoring Keith this time. “Oh,” Romelle squeaks, “it’s me, but...fancier?”

“Yes,” Akira says, and as he speaks, his image ripples like water, and for a moment Keith sees long blonde hair and a pale blue gown, before it’s back to Akira’s golden armor. “How may I assist you, dear?”

Romelle recovers, lifts her chin, and says, “We need tea. The strongest tea you have. Also, bath salts. Don’t tell Lady Hira, and don’t give us her ‘tonics.’ Please..”

Akira blinks slowly. He turns to look at Keith, then back to Romelle. “Hmmm.” A long beat of silence. “I will see what I can do, dear. Is there anything else?”

Romelle smiles. “Yes, actually. I’ve heard this castle has a marvelous library. Is that true?”

Again, Akira’s gaze darts between them. Then he says slowly, “It is not so much a library as it is a laboratory, dear.”

“Even better.” Romelle folds her arms. “Can your friend show us around the laboratory?”

Akira’s smile is colder, this time. “I’m afraid that would be quite dangerous for us all, dear,” he warns. “Perhaps tomorrow. I will see about those tea and...salts.”

He leaves them quickly.

“What are they?” Romelle asks, seeming far less disturbed by it all than Keith expected.

“Ghosts,” Keith says, because it is the easiest answer.

Romelle nods, her expression troubled but resigned. “Yes. I thought so. My caretaker...he died, ten years past.” She hesitates. “Who do you see, Keith? Are they dead, too?”

Keith doesn’t answer.

*

The tea and salts work for a little while. 

Romelle procures some paper and a quill pen from Akira-Romelle, and Keith manages to persuade “Sven” to bring them on a tour of the castle. They walk through the gardens — the strange birds are called “parrots” — then through the shining halls and past marble statues and vibrant portraits, and then up to the towers, where Lady Hira keeps her forbidden laboratory and many astronomy charts which are not so forbidden. 

Romelle finds the charts interesting, but Keith can make little sense of them. He knows his letters, not star charts. His mother taught him how to follow the stars for navigation but the constellations on these charts are unfamiliar to him, like everything else here. 

The more time they spend with the two shades, Keith observes that they may not truly be an alternate version of himself and Shiro, but they do seem to genuinely care for each other. Akira-Romelle gets downright unapproachable when they suggest putting Sven in any possible harm to help them sneak around, and Sven keeps Akira-Romelle close when they are together, which seems to be usually.

In a sad way, it makes sense. They were trapped here together, stripped of their power and former night spirit identities together — Keith doesn’t know if shades can feel attached, but he would bet they are.

The shades don’t let them into the laboratory, and Keith has to assume Lady Hira spends her days there because they don’t see her at all until supper. The meal is fine, almost too fine — partridge with all the feathers neatly laid over its crisp, cooked, plucked body. The sight makes Keith feel ill, and he eats only a little. Romelle looks similarly green, and though Lady Hira tries to make some conversation with them, Keith gets the sense that she’s eyeing their empty plates more oft than not.

“Tell me, Keith,” she says as he nibbles on some potatoes, “how is Marmora?”

Keith swallows as little potato as possible and frowns. “Marmora is...fine. Why?”

Lady Hira waves a hand. “Oh, I had just heard of the recent Galran encroachment into Olkari, and wondered how Marmora was faring. Evidently, not so well, since they sent a peace-weaver to Galra.”

Keith’s jaw works. “And how is your kingdom faring?” he retorts. “Last I checked, several Galran ships are landed on your shores with bands of warriors eager for bloodletting.”

Lady Hira’s lips curl. “Do not fret, peace-weaver. They will get their bloodletting — just not the kind they were hoping for. Indeed, they have already begun to pay the price of trespassing onto my lands, and the Empress’s lands.”

Keith grows cold. “What do you mean?”

“It seems your capture has upset them,” Lady Hira chuckles. “I can see why — a peace-weaver is more precious than gold. But they won’t find victory here. Only death.”

Keith forces a smile. “Good,” he says. “Better that they don’t take us back.”

Lady Hira tilts her head. “But do you not worry for Marmora’s wellbeing?”

“I worry the Galra have no honor or loyalty,” Keith tells her. “I don’t know if Marmora is any safer even with my peace-weaver status.”

“Then these are dark times indeed,” Lady Hira murmurs, “if even a peace-weaver cannot secure a kingdom’s safety. History repeats itself, they say...I pray poor Marmora does not meet the same fate as its neighbor, Altea.”

“We are lucky Galra does not have a mad queen for a second time,” Romelle chimes in.

Lady Hira looks at her, cool and steady over her goblet of wine. “Was she mad?” she asks. 

Keith thinks of Shiro, a small child terrified of Queen Honerva and the Voices, the entities, she summoned. “She was cruel,” he says with certainty. “Her legacy is one of pain and death.”

“Hm.” Lady Hira sips her wine. “Don’t you think any lasting legacy involves a bit of both?”

“Not a good one,” Romelle says, frowning at her.

Lady Hira smiles. It is not a kind smile. “That, my dear,” she replies, “is what we call coward’s talk. But, by all means. Leave your spotless legacy and tell me how that goes, in the end.”

The shades do not eat. They stand by the table, eyes downcast, mouths curled into small frowns. Hira ignores them. 

Keith doesn’t eat anything else, but apparently the damage has already been done. Whatever Hira put in the food is stronger than the tea and the salts combined — one of her tonics, perhaps. After supper, he tells Romelle he just needs to lay down for a moment, and a moment turns into an hour. 

Nightmare must have been taking notes on his thoughts, because he dreams again of the door, but this time when he looks through the keyhole he sees Sven and Akira against the golden walls, their armor abandoned on the floor, their mouths on each other’s bare skin.

Keith wants to look away but cannot. In the dream and out, he feels more than sweat warm and wet between his thighs, his pulse quickening as Sven sinks down to his knees —

Then the scene changes. The golden walls are gone. The stone is dark and familiar. Sven is Shiro and he is sucking the cock of a stranger, face buried in dark curls. Keith can’t see their face but he doesn’t have to. He already hates them. He hates Shiro, too, he hateshim, he always has, hasn’t he — ?

Dark claws slide around his hips, cage him in. Keith’s head is a blur. He doesn’t hate Shiro. How could he ever hate Shiro? The image of the crying, cowering child flickers through his mind with violent vividness. The thought makes him want to cry but he hates crying. The claws on his hips tighten, dig in, sting. Keith tries to tear away, his flesh parts in ribbons, bloodless, just scarlet silk. Keith crumples to the ground and a shadow looms over him, grinning wide. 

“You can try to run all you like, but it will never be far enough,” Dominion promises.

Keith kicks out in a blind panic, crawling away from him on the cold stone floor, but the hall is endless. Keith cries out for help and Dominion grabs his ankle, pulls cruelly, lets him crawl a little further, pulls again. 

There’s something coming for him from the end of the hall. Black and lumbering, rhythmic. It’s a horse, a mare, but its mane is made of mist and its eyes are burning coals. We know your secret, Marmoran, Nightmare promises.

Keith can feel the telltale tug of the night spirit over him, and for the first time, he tries to shove it away. “No!” he cries. “Don’t come here, they’ll hurt you!”

Nightmare watches, impassive, and Dominion laughs, plucking the scarlet ribbons of Keith’s ribs. “All we want from you is everything,” Dominion coos, reaching inside of him, claws closing around something hidden, something precious, something his. A child cries, far away, and this time it isn’t Shiro.

The night spirit’s roar echoes through the dream and Keith knows it is not a night spirit anymore. 

The coals brighten. What have you done to our old friend? Nightmare asks.

“Shhh,” Dominion giggles, “he doesn’t know yet.”

“Shut up,” Keith shouts, “you’re lying, I know you’re lying —”

Sharper claws tear him away from the entities. The black plain is starless, airless. The night spirit hovers over him, and when Keith sees its face, he wakes up screaming, because it was wearing the face of the dead, mad Queen. Those glowing silver eyes, they’re the same. But it makes no sense. 

In his waking panic, Keith rings the bell, but Akira does not answer his door. Instead, a hulking soldier does, and Keith freezes on the bed, reaching for his knife in an exhausted, belated reaction as the ruby choker begins to warm at an alarming rate.

Do not struggle, Nightmare’s voice says through the warrior’s mouth as its eyes begin to glow bright as coals within its spiked helmet. You and your ‘night spirit’ belong to us now, little Druid. We’ve never had a Marmoran before.

The soldier turned berserker lunges for him and Keith scrambles off the bed, then under it, knowing the door will be locked and he stands no chance against the creature in this state. He holds his dagger close, crawling further away as sharp gauntlets reach for him, Nightmare’s haunting voice growling through the undying man’s throat: Come to us, to us, to us…

The door bursts open. Keith gathers up all the magic he can within himself, reminded of Axzelan’s warning of its limit but knowing that if more berserkers storm the room, he will have no other choice. 

But they aren’t more berserkers. “Keith!” Akira shouts. “The spike at the back of their helmets — remove it, and they will die for good.”

The berserker roars and ambles towards the shades in a dumb rage, giving Keith time to slip out from under the bed. Facing the berserker’s armored back, he steels himself before hurling himself up onto it, clinging on tight, anchoring himself with his dagger plunged into its shoulder. He grabs onto the golden spike on the back of the iron helmet, pulling with all his might. Something shifts, and the spike comes free along with a spurt of black ichor, sending both Keith and the spike flying backwards while the berserker collapses face-first in an unmoving heap.

Keith stands, the spike in his hands, knees wobbling. Sven and Akira look at him, then down at the dead berserker, and exchange grim smiles. “Quickly, we must go,” Sven says, gesturing for Keith to follow. “Your friend, she is about to fall asleep.”

Keith sways on his feet, still exhausted, but nods and retrieves his dagger. They cross the hall and run into Romelle’s room just in time to see her lolling head drop. Keith grabs her and yanks her upright, and she splutters awake with a curse, staring at the trio and the black splatter over Keith’s tunic. “What…!”

“We are getting you out of here,” Akira tells them both, and gives Romelle a bound parchment scroll. “Here, you will find castle blueprints. They include the tunnels below the castle, through which the Galra can pass undetected.”

“Once inside, the berserkers will be a challenge,” Sven adds, “but know that you can remove the spikes or set them aflame to destroy them, and in doing so, lessen Nightmare’s power.”

Romelle gawks at them before tucking the scroll hastily under her arm and hopping off the bed. “Sounds like a plan to me.” She’s a very adaptable young woman. 

“Good,” Akira and Sven say. “Follow us, before the Lady realizes what we have done.”

“What will happen to you then?” Keith asks.

“It is no matter,” Sven sighs. “It does us no good to be stuck here for decades longer.”

“This may be the last bit of good we can do,” Akira adds, and grabs Romelle’s hand. Sven takes Keith’s, and they hurry out down the hall and another set of stairs. Outside, it is near dawn, storm clouds thick over the faint gold band of the horizon. 

The shades lead them through all the back halls and the narrow stairs, avoiding the ponderous shadows of the berserkers as they prowl the castle. Sven and Akira look less and less solid with every step, and Keith wonders how much of their scant power the shades are using to shield them from Nightmare’s burning eyes.

Sven leans close to Keith as they crouch behind a stone column, waiting for the berserker patrol to pass. “Your Galran husband grows restless outside the castle gates,” he murmurs. 

Keith looks up at him, startled. “Shiro is at the castle gates?”

“As close as he dares to be.” Sven hums quietly. “Did you expect him to wait patiently for your return? You are both men of action, not content to passively wait for life to have its wicked way with you.”

“I just didn’t think…” Keith frowns. “More precious than gold,” he mutters to himself.

“Precious in a different way than gold,” Sven counters, and touches his cheek, a gentle brush of his thumb that feels so like Shiro that Keith has to take a moment to recover. “You will see him again soon,” Sven promises. 

“If it’s the last thing we do,” Akira adds, and leads them out into the courtyard. They weave through the exotic plants, through the blooming flowers and thick vines which look even more sinister than before. The parrots are gone; Keith sees only ravens and crows gathering on the ramparts, patiently ruffling their wings in anticipation of death. The berserkers stand guard at the gates, and Keith sees right away that they have no chance of getting through, but Akira and Sven look determined.

“Is there no other entrance?” Romelle asks, as if reading Keith’s mind.

“No, Lady Hira walled all the others up,” Sven says, “save for the tunnels, and you cannot use those, or she will know we gave you the blueprints.”

“We will need to create a distraction,” Akira muses, frowning. “And you will need to hide...or run, as fast as you can.”

“Wait,” Keith says. “I have a plan. We will still need your distraction to open the gates, but...Romelle, take my hand.”

Hesitantly, she does, and Keith lets the night spirit’s power wash over him, ignoring the flashes of silver eyes through his mind. Slowly, their joined hands fade to translucency, and Romelle gasps quietly as they disappear altogether. Akira and Sven look on approvingly. “The Marmorans of old would be proud,” Akira says, and nudges them forward. “Go on. Don’t look back. Your Galrans are camped just inside the treeline. We will hold the berserkers at bay for as long as we can.”

“Thank you,” Romelle whispers. “You’re very brave ghosts.”

“We won’t forget you,” Keith adds, and is glad he said it when the shades smile, nod in determination, not resignation, and leap out of the flowers and trees to face Hira’s berserkers and Nightmare’s reign for the first and last time.

Keith runs with Romelle to the gates as the berserkers step away from them, growling and lifting their weapons against the shades as energy swirls around the two in long, thin shimmers of air, a hundred whips poised and at the ready. The shades are already fading to nothing, but their expressions are triumphant. 

One of the whips lashes out and smashes the castle’s portcullis just wide enough for Keith and Romelle to squeeze through. Keith glances over his shoulder at the shades just as a berserker rips Sven in two, his body dissolving into pale mist. Akira fights harder as he falls. Keith and Romelle run down the road to Hira’s castle, unseen, towards the dark trees in the distance.

“Are you a witch?” Romelle whispers to him as they hurry through the fallow fields and over burbling brooks lined with tumbled stones which make their passage all the more difficult. She clutches the blueprints tightly to her chest the whole way.

Keith shrugs though his heart pounds. “Why does it matter?”

He can barely see Romelle’s face, but her eyes are wide, and her hand trembles in his grip. “You aren’t like Queen Honerva,” she asks, “are you?”

“No,” Keith promises, “no, never,” but she doesn’t seem comforted.

“Honerva wasn’t always evil,” she tells him. “I heard she was very kind, once.”

“That doesn’t matter, after what she did,” Keith snaps. “She died evil, doing evil.”

“But why does that happen?” Romelle pleads. “Why do good people become bad?”

Keith doesn’t have an answer for her, but he thinks again of the silver eyes that both his night spirit and Queen Honerva shared. He wonders if it is possible for bad people, bad things, to become good. He wonders what Nightmare meant by “old friend.” He wonders what his night spirit wants from him, truly. 

When they reach the camp, Keith has stopped wondering. The lack of sleep is catching up to both of them, and he almost forgets to drop their invisibility as they stagger into camp, catching the warriors on morning watch by surprise. “Peace-weaver!” one of them exclaims. It’s Lance. Keith is too tired to tell him off for the unwanted title. 

Romelle sags against Keith’s shoulder, as tired as he is, and Keith rasps, “Shiro — where is Shiro?”

Tent flaps begin to open, and Shiro steps out of one, his face weary and drawn, looking ten years older. When he sees Keith and Romelle, he stops short, lips parting and hands falling limp at his sides. Romelle hands Keith the blueprints. “Take these to him,” she mumbles. “Of all the thanes here, he’s the only one I trust with them.”

Keith nods and takes the scroll, pushing Romelle towards Lance and the approaching Matthew, who is eyeing them with the same utter disbelief of the other warriors. They all look at Romelle and Keith as if seeing ghosts. Keith straightens up, shaking off his bone-deep exhaustion from both sleep deprivation and the night spirit’s magic, and walks to Shiro. “Husband,” he greets. “Lady Hira’s castle is not impenetrable, after all — oh.”

Shiro yanks Keith into his arms, his hug bruising. Keith blinks, face smushed up against his chest. “It’s good to have you back,” Shiro whispers, rough and terribly earnest.

“It’s good to be back,” Keith squeaks, and when Shiro releases him, he lifts up the slightly crumpled blueprints so only his thane can see them. “We should — look over these in private.”

“In private,” Shiro repeats, eyes dark. Keith isn’t sure they’re talking about the same thing. “Yes.”

He guides Keith into their tent, the camp’s usual sounds slowly resuming behind them, and it’s only when the tent flaps are tied shut that Keith allows himself to collapse into their cot with a groan after setting the blueprints aside. Shiro frowns, kneeling down beside him. “Are you hurt?”

Keith shakes his head, eyelids heavy. “Tired,” he admits. “The thing in Lady Hira’s castle...gave us nightmares. Couldn’t sleep...or it would take us.”

“Nobody’s taking you,” Shiro says, and smoothes out the blueprints, then smoothes the sweaty hair away from Keith’s face. “Sleep. You’re safe here, my heart.”

“The blueprints,” Keith mumbles, “there are tunnels...into the castle…”

Shiro leans down and presses a kiss to his forehead. “I’ll look at them,” he promises. “But you need rest right now.”

“Don’t leave?” Keith mumbles, the question halfhearted, expecting a rejection.

“I won’t.” Keith tries to believe it.

*

It’s dark when he opens his eyes again, and Shiro is slumbering beside him. Keith rolls carefully onto his side, drawing his fingers over Shiro’s bare chest, his shoulder, his right arm where the pale scarred flesh becomes solid shadow. The wound on his shoulder looks better than before, and Keith is glad for it. On an impulse, he leans in, pressing his lips to the space between Shiro’s collarbones.

He doesn’t intend to wake Shiro, but the thane stirs against him with a low sigh at the soft kiss, his hand lifting to cover Keith’s hip, petting it through his leggings.

Instead of speaking, Keith leans in and kisses him, nipping at Shiro’s lip and rolling his body closer, against Shiro’s. Shiro’s sigh deepens into a groan, his other hand curling around the back of Keith’s neck, claws stinging softly at his nape. “I want to touch you,” Shiro murmurs in the stolen breaths between kisses. 

“Touch me, then,” Keith replies, pressing forward in invitation. 

Shiro rubs his nose against Keith’s jaw, nuzzling into his neck when his hand slides from Keith’s hip to dip below his waistband, cupping between his thighs where calloused fingers rub blindly through wet curls. Keith shudders, wrapping an arm around Shiro’s waist, holding him there. “Yes,” he whispers into Shiro’s chest. 

“Yes?” Shiro echoes, voice pitching lower again, fingers spreading Keith wide and delving inside, up to the first knuckle, no more. Keith bites his lip and circles his hips, slow, savoring the stretch as two fingers sink in deeper. Shiro isn’t gentle with him; by now, they both know what he can take, how quickly his body accepts Shiro’s touch. 

It wasn’t always like this, but Keith relaxes into his embrace with a soft moan, and is glad he does not fear his husband in body or mind. He knows Shiro believes he ought to. 

But what Keith believes is that Shiro is a good man, caught in the midst of a terrible power that was forced upon him. Keith refuses to let that power take hold of him, of either of them. He doesn’t know yet how he, a mere peace-weaver, can stop it — but he will. Someday — before it’s too late.

“Good?” Shiro murmurs along the shell of his ear, and Keith realizes he’s been quiet, mindlessly squirming and tightening around Shiro’s fingers, losing himself in the easy, building sensation. Shiro’s touch stokes warmth in his belly and trembling thighs which squeeze around Shiro’s helpful hand, trapping it in Keith’s increasingly damp leggings. Keith nods, idly stroking Shiro’s back, and hums a sleepy affirmative for good measure. Shiro’s laughter is soft, pleased. “Good.”

“I can touch you, too,” Keith says, half-gasped, when Shiro’s thumb plucks and pets over his clit, three fingers slipping in and out of him, but Shiro shakes his head and curls his fingers firmly until Keith’s spine buckles and he starts to shake as the sensation boils over, spills into helpless heat. 

“Perfect,” Shiro whispers before kissing him through it, letting Keith suck on his tongue and claw at his back. Keith’s toes curl and he shudders, fully against Shiro’s front, aware even then that Shiro angles his body away. “Keith, oh, Keith...I nearly stormed Hira’s castle to bring you back to me.”

Keith mouths at his jaw, his kisses as sloppy as his cunt where Shiro’s fingers stay curled in wet heat, coaxing another spasm of uncontrolled pleasure from deep within, another, another. “You would have died trying,” Keith pants, crushing Shiro to him, accepting Shiro’s offered thigh with desperation, though he wants something else. “I’m not worth that, Shiro.”

Shiro’s teeth are a surprise, digging sharp into his shoulder; Keith swears the bite almost breaks skin. It only spurs him on further; just as his body accepts Shiro’s touch, it has grown to accept and even welcome the sicker, stranger parts of their coupling: with the sting of pain comes greater pleasure, with rough handling comes a greater end. 

The black claws pricking at his thigh do not frighten him. They bring moans spilling past his lips, smothered in Shiro’s skin. Keith writhes and jerks in his arms until he swears Shiro has wrung him dry, at which point he pushes weakly at the thane’s scarred chest and mumbles a dull plea. 

Shiro kisses him into silence, his fingers stilling and sliding out gently. Keith is empty in their wake, but less so with Shiro kissing him. “Mmm,” Keith sighs, tired in a new and better way, now. “You’ve gotten good at that.”

He feels Shiro’s smile against his brow, but it vanishes only a moment later. “You’re worth that castle, Keith,” Shiro tells him. Before Keith can reply, he adds, “I looked at those blueprints. You and Romelle found us a perfect way in — something no Galran has been able to do, and never attempted since our defeat here over twenty years past.”

Keith furrows his brow. “I cannot tell if you are scolding or congratulating us.”

“I am saying you’ve done something incredible,” Shiro murmurs. “Sometimes I wonder if the rumors among my warriors about you are true.”

Keith sits up, disgruntled now. “Rumors?”

Shiro remains lying down. “That the Marmorans sent me a witch instead of a peace-weaver.” He chuckles, but it’s strained. Keith notices. 

He narrows his eyes. “As if you did not use ‘magic’ to become a thane. What rumors do they have about you, hm?”

Shiro regards him with lifted brows. “I try not to listen to rumors and I suggest you do the same,” he says. “Such talk is too often born of envy or fear, not truth.”

Keith shakes his head and rolls over, back to Shiro in the cot. “There is magic afoot in that castle, yes, but it does not belong to me,” he snaps. “We received the blueprints from a pair of Hira’s servants who rebelled. They told us also that the berserkers — her warriors — can be killed by removing the golden spike on the backs of their helmets, or by burning them. I know the spike method works from experience. Believe me, or not. I don’t care. But that’s how you’ll take the castle.”

“We,” Shiro says, hesitantly curling up at Keith’s back, though not too close. 

Keith pauses. “Hm?”

“We will take the castle. I want you to lead the assault on Hira’s castle with myself and the other thanes,” Shiro says. Keith stiffens. “You are, in my mind at least, equal to a thane in status. You were the one who escaped that place with Romelle, and brought the key to our success with you. Unless you would rather wait at the camp, I would have you there beside me in battle.”

Keith’s breath catches, disbelieving. “But — I lost to you in sparring,” is all he can think of to say.

Shiro kisses the nape of his neck. “Thane Branko lost to me also, and you lasted longer than he did. My warriors noticed. Everyone noticed. You can be a Marmoran and a peace-weaver, Keith. Maybe even more than a peace-weaver, someday.”

A queen. Keith doesn’t say it, and neither does Shiro. Romelle’s words swirl uneasily through his mind. “We will take the castle, then,” he whispers. It doesn’t sound real. Keith wonders if he is still dreaming, and if so, is this to be just another nightmare?

“Yes,” Shiro says simply, and holds him ‘til dawn.

*

They make their first approach into the tunnels at dusk the next day. 

There is no point in waiting, though the other ships still have not arrived. They have enough warriors; Keith estimates from their time in the castle that the berserkers number perhaps a hundred. Together, Shiro’s, Sendak’s, and Throk’s warrior bands number at least that; Sendak claims they are a hundred and fifty but Keith is less certain. Shiro tells him it’s closer to a hundred and thirty. Either way, it should be enough.

However, the berserkers are each as strong as five men, even ten, so Keith hopes the fiery arrows Throk has devised will serve them well. Arrows will not work in the close quarters of the tunnels, so for those they have bombs of pitch and fish oil made by Sendak’s warriors, who may not be berserkers but keep to themselves and are a bit too proficient at making firebombs for Keith’s liking.

Shiro’s men will be the vanguard, as he is the lowest ranking thane present. They don’t mind — most are young, hale and hearty men who are unexpectedly further excited by Keith’s presence among them. They grin and raise their weapons higher at the sight of him, eyes shining with anticipation, likely recalling what Keith and Romelle had said of the gold waiting for them. 

It’s a welcome surprise. Keith had braced himself for jeers or suspicion when he took his place beside Shiro, scarlet ribbon threaded through his braided hair, claymore strapped to his back, dagger at his hip, wearing the leather cuirass Shiro presented to him that morning, but he only feels approval and eagerness from them. 

Apparently, Shiro had the cuirass made for Keith months ago. It fits like a glove, and Keith suspects Shiro enjoys the way it frames the width of his shoulders and the taper of his narrow, belted waist. Keith may flex his arms and back more than necessary as they are preparing at camp, and Shiro may brush against him with purpose more than once. Maybe. Keith won’t admit to anything.

But as they advance through the tunnels, there is no teasing. The air is grim and expectant, and the warriors move with purpose through the packed earth passages, lighting torches as they go, keeping the fire always close at hand. 

Sendak’s warriors are advancing through the tunnels leading into the castle proper, while Throk and his warriors will be waiting to enter the gates as soon as Shiro and his warriors reach the courtyard through this series of tunnels. It’s no secret that the courtyard will be where the fighting is thickest. They’re going to have to get that portcullis raised fast if they want to stand a chance.

Lance is on portcullis duty, along with Romelle’s redhead. Romelle herself is back at the camp with a few of the warriors too injured from the storm to fight. She’d given Keith a kiss on the cheek for good luck. He told her to run if they lost the battle.

“We’re almost there,” Shiro says, his voice echoing through the tunnels. They’re just tall enough for him to pass through, hunching his shoulders only slightly. “Warriors, we fight for Galra, for gold, and for glory. Are you with me?”

A chorus of axes, swords, maces, and spears banging on wooden shields answers him. Shiro smiles at Keith, bright and deadly. Keith smiles back, just as sharp. He’s not fighting for Galra, gold, or glory. He doesn’t think Shiro is, either. Hopes he isn’t, anyway.

The tunnel spits them out in the middle of the gardens. Keith glares at the offending flowers, makes a note to bring the prettiest one back for Romelle when they take this damned castle, and draws his sword as the berserkers notice the stream of warriors from the garden with a furious roar that sounds as if it comes from a single voice.

“Firebombs!” Shiro orders, and a hail of the pungent, burning bundles sail over Keith’s head, exploding where they land among the berserkers. The warriors cheer and swarm forward as the berserkers who are set aflame begin to sway and crumple, reaching out with swords aloft even as they topple to the earth, cooked inside their armor. 

Unfortunately, there are still plenty of them left, and they’re blocking the portcullis in a wall of iron and rage. Shiro’s warriors are unbothered, especially when their thane yells, “Charge!” and a wall of leather and shields plows into the berserkers at full speed. 

Keith has no shield, nor does Shiro, so they remain in the middle while the vanguard grapples against the berserkers toe to toe. Behind them, the archers notch their arrows. 

The vanguard breaks through the front line of berserkers. Shiro’s mouth curls. “Fire,” he says.

If the firebombs were a hail, the arrows are a blizzard, illuminating the darkening sky with countless tongues of flame. There are almost too many — Keith looks back, and from the castle doors Sendak’s warriors spill out, archers among them. The arrows fall, thudding into their targets and setting light to the flagstones where they’re stained with residual fish oil. The conflagration takes out another dozen berserkers.

Shiro’s smirk settles into a thin, straight line when they keep advancing, and his vanguard starts to struggle. “Fall back!” he shouts when the first three men are impaled on berserker swords, then a fourth crushed between two of them. “Fall back to Sendak’s band!”

Shiro’s warriors scramble to obey. Keith hefts his sword, marveling at how quickly they follow his orders. The relationship of thanes and their warriors is one based more in trust and respect — and sometimes fear — than in assumed authority and hierarchy. But these men listen to Shiro’s every word without hesitation. He’s led them well. 

They join Sendak’s band, working together to try to circle around the berserkers, cut them off from the portcullis. The problem is, the berserkers aren’t staying put. They surge forward, and Keith’s claymore meets one of their broadswords before too long. He fights evasively, though not defensively — his goal is to distract it with enough jabs and hits that he can get behind it. 

It isn’t the quickest strategy, but after slashing its knee where the armor meets in a slight gap, the berserker stumbles and Keith yanks the golden spike out the moment its head lolls down. The berserker falls lifeless. 

The other warriors aren’t so successful. Keith sees too many skewered on berserker blades, simply driven to exhaustion by their relentless strikes. Others are just a second too slow; still others almost reach the spike but let their own guards down too early. 

Keith searches for Shiro, ducking and shoving back a berserker with the claymore’s hefty pommel. More arrows fly, less accurately than before, plenty of Galran warriors serving as kindling rather than heroes.

Thankfully, Shiro isn’t among them. But he’s also in a bad spot. He was one of the warriors who managed to get between the berserkers and the portcullis. Unfortunately, the rest of those warriors are dead, and Shiro is pinned down by three massive berserkers, closing in on him from all sides. 

A burning berserker nearly falls on Keith. He shoves it away, leaping through the fray and removing two more spikes before he realizes he won’t be able to reach Shiro in time. The berserkers are flocking to the two thanes as if they know their importance to the warriors — Keith has no doubt that Nightmare knows. 

The rest of the berserkers fight in various states of dismemberment, but this doesn’t hinder them. One berserker kills a warrior by grabbing him and forcing him onto the end of the spear protruding from its chest. Then it tears the warrior off and keeps walking. Towards Shiro.

Shiro is trapped, surrounded by the corpses of his warriors, struggling to remain standing. Keith can see the entity’s fire bright in his eyes, but he can also see Shiro fighting it, gritting his teeth and shaking his head, sweat dripping in the firelight. If Dominion takes complete control of him, Keith knows the berserkers won’t stand a chance...but he also thinks it would kill Shiro just the same. 

But Shiro is fighting a losing battle on both fronts. The berserkers close in. He swings his sword in frantic sweeps, claws darkening and lengthening around the hilt. Several of Shiro’s warriors leap to his aid, but it takes three of them to kill a single berserker. There are still three surrounding Shiro. Fear, cold and bright, flashes across Shiro’s face. 

I don’t want anyone to be afraid of me.

In that moment, Keith doesn’t think. He lowers his sword, ducks down below a swinging berserker, and vanishes. The berserkers around him falter in bewilderment. Keith crouches down, out of range and unseen, and focuses hard. He’s never used multiple magicks at once, but he needs to, now. Suddenly, the air around him is filled with the pale lines of a hundred thousand future sword-strokes, the strokes not of a single sparring partner but of an entire battle. Keith’s gaze wanders over them, sees them not as mere air but as a net of latent energy. Each sword-stroke could be a deathblow. 

Keith doesn’t need a deathblow. He needs a path to Shiro. 

He needs them to get out of his way.

Keith exhales. A soft, familiar voice whispers, Let go.

So Keith does — cannot describe exactly how he does, but only knows that one second, he is holding all of the sword-strokes in the air around him, suspending them in time like countless bow strings strung tight and trembling, and the next second, he flings them away from him with all the force in his body, augmented exponentially by the scarlet ribbon woven tight in his hair. 

The net of silver-blue tears right down the middle, throwing the berserkers and warriors alike to the ground with the sheer force of its breaking, rending the entire battlefield in two. Keith runs through the tear, still unseen, straight to Shiro. 

It is over as soon as it began — the lines fade and the berserkers and warriors stagger to their feet, stunned. The fighting resumes, but Keith sees only Shiro, a berserker’s blade to his throat. Shiro’s eyes burn as bright as the berserker’s, brighter, too bright. Keith was too late. 

No. He refuses to be too late to save Shiro.

Keith’s scream of rage echoes through the courtyard, strident above the thuds of hard bodies and steel. He drops his invisibility as his claymore whistles through the air, slicing the berserker’s head clean off its shoulders, the golden spike rolling off with it. 

The sword falls from Shiro’s throat, and golden eyes fade to startled gray. Black blood drips hot down Keith’s face and chest. Shiro’s lips part, about to say something, but Keith does not hear because the two other berserkers are lunging for Shiro in his moment of confusion.

But Keith is not confused. It is very simple — they are trying to kill Shiro, so they must die.

Later, no one can quite agree on what happened. The warriors and thanes think it must have been fiery arrows or an oil bomb tossed with improbable accuracy. They know this isn’t the truth. 

In hushed whispers, they say it was the Marmoran peace-weaver, the witch, who set both berserkers aflame with a single look. Whatever the means, the end was the same: both berserkers burned to death in columns of fire before Thane Shirogane as he fell to his knees in exhaustion, Keith of Marmora standing by his side, sword at the ready.

*

When they break down the castle doors, the warriors cheer at the sight of the gold and, just as Keith expected, rip the paintings from the walls and strip away the gilded frames. Keith, Shiro, Sendak, and Throk continue onward, deeper into the castle.

“Lady Hira is either in her apartments or her laboratory,” Keith declares, leading the thanes through the silent halls. 

“And if you’re wrong, wifeling?” Sendak demands.

Shiro opens his mouth, brow lowering, but Keith beats him to it. “I suggest you watch your tongue when I’m carrying two very sharp blades, lordling,” he retorts.

Lord Throk snorts and Sendak glares at Keith’s back murderously. Shiro grins at him and Keith huffs, hand on the hilt of his dagger as they climb the stairs of the largest tower together. The stairs end in a single door, right where the shades said it would be, but it isn’t locked. The door is cracked open, and from the room beyond a putrid scent curls through the air. 

“Keith, you may want to stay back,” Shiro starts, but Keith is already pushing the door open and striding into the room. The laboratory is a disaster. Vials are smashed on the floor, papers are everywhere, burnt and shredded, and on the floor in the center of it all is a man with gray hair and a beard that was once distinguished but is now splattered with blood. His throat is cut, the life drained from him. 

“Trayling,” Throk muses, surprising them all.

“Who?” Keith leans down for a closer look — the knife that slit his throat is within reach, and he’s holding something, a battered leather-bound book. 

“Commodore Trayling,” Throk repeats. “He is — was, rather — Lady Hira’s chief advisor and alchemist. The last time we Galra tried to take this castle, it was his magic that killed so many of our warriors. He laid the curse over this place, I’m sure of it.”

Keith is less sure. Trayling may have just been a tool, a mere means to an end. 

He pries the dead man’s fingers away from the book, and Shiro peers down at it. “What is that?”

Keith opens it just a little, his stomach flipping as he sees the first page. He shakes his head and shoves the book under his belt. “Star charts,” he lies. “Hira was fond of them.”

“What do bloody star charts have to do with this mess?” Sendak snaps. 

“Look.” Lord Throk stands at the far windows, which overlook the lands behind the castle, to the western Islands. There’s a lone rider on a black horse galloping away from the castle, her red cloak flapping in the wind. Throk shakes his head. “Cowardess. But what can you expect from a woman who relies on trickery and forbidden magic to rule, as they all do?”

Sendak’s eyes are still on Keith. “She’s lucky she didn’t try to fight us,” Sendak growls. “I wouldn’t have given her an easy death.”

“Enough,” Shiro mutters. “She’s gone, we have the castle, what’s done is done. Let’s divide the spoils evenly between our warriors and —”

“Your warriors deserve more,” Keith interrupts.

All three thanes look at him. “What?” Shiro asks.

“Your warriors were in the vanguard, took the greatest risks and had the greatest cost of life, and if not for the blueprints Romelle and I brought, we never would have taken the castle,” Keith reasons. “The warriors of Garris and their thane deserve the lion’s share of the castle’s treasure.”

Throk’s eyes narrow, and Sendak always looks at Keith with loathing, but now fury is added into the mix. Shiro blinks, then slowly relaxes, his expression thoughtful. “You make a good point,” he murmurs. 

Throk and Sendak turn on him. “We divide the treasure evenly, Shirogane,” Throk warns. “That is how it is always done.”

Shiro raises an eyebrow, holding himself differently, a glint of gold deep within his irises. “Is it? Is that why your men always return wealthier than mine?” He lifts his gaze to Sendak. “To say nothing of yours.”

Sendak’s eye twitches. “Know your place, Shirogane.”

“Oh, I do,” Shiro counters, walking away from them and gesturing for Keith to follow. “ That is why I call upon the law of weregild — one of our oldest laws, if you recall. Since Lady Hira herself is not here to repay me for the loss of my warriors with their weight in gold, I will oversee it myself.” He turns, eyes flashing and voice hard. “My warriors will have what they earned today. If you take issue with it, by all means, take it up with King Zarkon. He knows the law of weregild as well as I.”

The thanes are silent. Keith follows his husband out of the laboratory, his satisfaction dampened by the contents of the bloodstained book at his hip.

*

Not only do Shiro’s warriors get the most gold, they also get the first pick of sleeping quarters. Shiro and Keith get the first pick of them all, and that is how they end up in the master apartments, much to Sendak and Throk’s chagrin. Hira must not have used the spacious apartments much, for they seem untouched, the canopied bed unslept in — Keith has to wonder if she slept at all.

The bed and furnishings are utterly unlike those in Galra. The bed is not a roughly hewn frame heaped with pelts and blankets — the headboard and legs are intricately carved of red cherry wood, the canopy is thick red velvet embroidered with gold thread, and the linens are finely woven. Shiro tells him they must be made of silk. Keith marvels at their smooth softness and the way they shine in the candlelight. 

Despite their beautiful accommodations, Shiro remains tense and distant throughout supper. They pillage the kitchens and cellars, unearthing countless barrels of mead and wine, which makes for many happy warriors. To Keith’s surprise and embarrassment, all of the warriors except for Sendak’s joyfully toast to “the battle-weaver,” and as Keith walks among them, there is much cheering and backslapping. Shiro stays at a respectful distance, but there’s pride glowing in his eyes and Keith’s face is warm from more than the roaring hearth. 

Romelle isn’t left out — she ends up giggling with tipsy delight as her redheaded warrior lifts her up over his head and parades her through the drunken crowd amidst hoots and more enthusiastic toasts. Apparently, Romelle is quite the gifted healer, and many warriors kept their lives and limbs thanks to her skills while she was tending to the wounded back at camp during the battle. 

Keith is glad for her. Healers are highly respected, and she has a veritable flock of admirers who all stop by her table to express their gratitude for the “clever blonde maid.” Keith is fairly certain Romelle is no maid, but he gives her a stolen cherry tart and tells her to have a good night. She swats at his arm, but she’s smiling wide.

The warrior named Lance is among those who congratulate him, and Keith thanks him coolly, hoping his glare persuades Lance to keep his mouth shut. Matthew also approaches him, but there’s more suspicion than appreciation in his eyes. He gives Keith a pat on the shoulder, leaning in as he does so, and hisses, “How did you do that, Keith? It was you who set Sendak’s tower ablaze, wasn’t it? How? What are you?”

Keith pulls away, brows drawing together. “Don’t accuse me of what you don’t understand, Matthew.”

“You think I don’t understand magic like that?” Matthew’s voice is low, angry but shaking. He’s afraid. “Keith, the only magic I’ve ever seen before like that was the magic those Druids used to burn my village to the ground as a child.”

Keith takes a step back. 

“It was Shiro’s village, too,” Matthew adds. “And he wasn’t as lucky as me.”

“I’m not them,” Keith starts, but Matthew is already shaking his head, his hands curled into fists at his