Sometimes, when Kiri caught himself finding satisfaction in his work, it drew him up short. It should not have felt like making himself of use, not when Mikhael seemed to care so little for what he did. Not when all that held him was a few words and the passionless embrace of a man who, knowing nothing of love, also could not comprehend the boundless loyalty woven into the very fiber of his being. The Kiri who had once lived in his skin, who had hated the idea of being trapped by a master with a viciousness that had left him swearing he would rather never be complete than be tamed, sometimes felt so removed that he contemplated him with pity, as a stranger too ignorant to recognize his own misery. And when he realized what he had done, terror crashed into him like the first raindrop that portends a deluge. Too often in those moments, the fear felt like lucidity, even though he knew it false. Mikhael was his only true haven of clarity if he would not return to the lonely high mountains.
In truth, it was not what Kiri had expected in his most mindless fears, this belonging to Mikhael. He was not reduced to a tame pet, only able to lick his master’s hand and obey his orders. Nor had Mikhael made of him a mindless weapon, that went where it was aimed and killed as it was commanded. True, there was yet no possibility of disobedience, but in the beginning his terror sprang all from the changes in himself, who had always sworn to offer his name to no one and now found contentment in this peaceful service.
And when the fear of being a stranger to his former self threatened to overwhelm him, he tried to remember that it was better to face the loss of name and autonomy than of consciousness and sanity. Too, he was lucky in his master, despite chance and lack of choice. Mikhael was one he might have offered his name of free will and in his right mind, if only Kiri had thought such as he existed. For he did not command, as he might have, that Kiri cease to taunt him, but answered his rages with desire. Kiri sometimes thought that his petty defiance soothed some fear deep in Mikhael’s heart, for his master could have had his silence and deference with no more than a word.
Mikhael would have disagreed with him, Kiri suspected, but his emotions were buried so deep he almost did not believe he had them at all, any more than a tin soldier did. Kiri preferred to believe he recognized in Mikhael’s actions the sentiments lacking from his affect. Placing his pet monster to guard Camille certainly hinted at softer feelings for the boy than he would claim to possess; and why else would he return so regularly to Kiri’s own bed in the servants’ quarters and yet never use his power to compel his participation. Or at least, that was what Kiri hoped. The darker possibility, that he and Camille were two unwanted burdens fobbed off on each other and left to rusticate, was one he could not ignore. It preyed on his mind in the lonely nights between Mikhael’s visits, whispering that he had given all Mikhael asked, and it had not been enough to prove his value. Kiri came to fear that half life, held safe out of pity and given only enough scraps of purpose to keep despair at a single remove. He had not thought he could fear something other than possession or mindlessness. Naught else could threaten a man-beast. Yet this tore at him as fiercely as fear of ownership ever had.
The threatening purposelessness made Kiri wild, as he had not been even in his first coupling with Mikhael. Then, he had attacked with taunts and jibes, enjoying the process of clawing his way through Mikhael’s seemingly smug tranquility to the reality beneath. Now, he was very nearly feral, clawing and biting in truth, demanding not Mikhael’s emotion but his domination. Kiri lived in terror that Mikhael would respond gently, stepping back and offering freedom when all he wanted was to be valued enough to be worth capturing even if he seemed to fight for liberty. This was a deeply unfair thing to ask of Mikhael, who had lived valuing nothing in the world enough to fight for it, and Kiri knew it, but he found that knowledge only intensified his desire for such an outcome. To be the one thing Mikhael would fight for from base desire rather than duty seemed the greatest happiness any man-beast could wish, above even valued service.
Through intuition or understanding or even mere bloody-mindedness, Mikhael did not fulfill Kiri’s deepest fears and back away from his challenges. Had Kiri been fully in his right mind, and not halfway to a form of madness his grandmother had never known to warn him against, he might have realized that Mikhael had never from the very first backed away from one of his challenges. Whether it was a result of some instinct carried in the blood of the marked ones, or his knowledge of Kiri’s nature, or even his own stubborn, selfish, unacknowledged desire, when it came to Kiri, Mikhael would not be gainsayed in seeking his pleasure, though it left him with bloody scrapes down his back and great, toothmarked bruises about his chest and neck. He did not even force Kiri around to his belly, though that had been his preferred posture in earlier days and would have spared him most of the damage.
But to Kiri, it was never quite the proof he sought. If he had known what drove his discontent he might have acted to incite from Mikhael the action he needed, but he was too profoundly bewildered at his own lack of contentment to determine a cure. So he continued on as his instincts demanded, more confusedly savage than he would have believed possible, for even in the moments before he met Mikhael, when he had so very nearly lost himself entirely, he had at least known what was happening and why.
The night the feral man-beast kidnapped Camille changed things for Kiri, in ways he would not have believed even a single day before. The fight with the dark beast proved, if only to himself, that he could never have value to Mikhael that extended beyond serving as a second, redundant Tranquilo to entertain and watch over his son. That certain knowledge, when he had before thought that perhaps his relegation to the country estate was due more to the changes in the world since last man-beasts had been seen, which only rendered him useless in Mikhael’s military concerns, acted as the final straw, the proof that all Mikhael had done was for Kiri’s sake and not his own. That truth labeled him definitively burden rather than cherished tool, too weak and gentle even to do such work as was left to man-beasts in those days. Kiri had never before believed himself gentle, remembering Mao’s sweetness too well to have considered such a thing, but he could not argue with a failure caused by his own lack of ruthlessness. He had thought to offer up to Mikhael the last thing he had to give, his willingness to slay those few left of his own kind, and yet in the end had proven himself useless even for that task.
Once sufficiently recovered for movement, Kiri remained only to discover whether his master would dismiss him immediately or leave him the burden of removing himself. The waiting was akin to lingering torture as he fought to keep his self-disgust from Camille, who might be apt to blame himself if he understood Kiri’s failure. The boy had made it through with surprisingly few ill effects, and Kiri was of no mind to carelessly change that. That Tranquilo was also on the mend resolved one other lingering concern: that his disappearance would deprive Camille of any guardian, even so poor a one as himself.
Thus Kiri met Mikhael’s return, though it was days later than he would have chosen (and each further day’s wait left Kiri more certain of his disgrace), with more relief than dread. This outcome might not have been the one either his bestial instincts or his conscious mind would have chosen, but it was the one left to him and he was eager to have it over with. That Mikhael would not tell him to go was a disappointment, but Kiri supposed that being set a final test to prove he at least understood his position was more than just in light of his failings, especially since Mikhael had once again bowed to his wishes and rescued the man-beast Kiri had failed to stop.
So it was with no little shock that he felt Mikhael’s caress and realized that his master meant to use his body at least once more. It went beyond an unnecessary act to something very nearly cruel, that offer that might have been absolution if his failure had been less entire and so left such possible. Perhaps Kiri ought to have accepted it as a final gift from an indulgent master, but he could not help but find indulgence unbearable under the circumstances, and so backed away, eyes wide with shock at the unexpected pain entangled in the pleasure. And then, because Mikhael had reminded him of kindness, even misguided, he sought to offer a gift at their parting, of his love that his master might know both that love was possible for him and that he had tamed a willing pet and not broken a wild thing to his will.
Perhaps Kiri should have remembered that Mikhael had never reacted to any attempt at flight save to bind him closer, but he had not thought this time akin to any other of his experience. His master’s declaration, plaintive yet forceful as a demand, at once erased any intention of exile. Necessity was not uselessness, or failure, or burdensome obligation. It was something he could not escape and would not wish to run from, and he followed his master to bed with a glad heart.
Still, there was that deeper aspect of Kiri’s nature that once unfulfilled could not be soothed by words alone. He was yet too injured to struggle and fight as he had in the past, and even could he have done so he would have resisted the desire with every fierce scrap of will he had cultivated wandering masterless in the human towns. Mikhael was too likely to take resistance for a true attempt at flight so soon after Kiri had, for once, made an inarguably genuine try for the same, however reluctantly. So he remained carefully inviting, reaching to embrace and cling rather than wound or repel.
When, of a sudden, he felt a sharp, shocking pain twining with the pleasure of their lovemaking. It required several long moments for Kiri to understand that Mikhael had bitten him fiercely on his wounded shoulder. He felt the stitches tear and, unbelievably, the sudden loosening of a tension that had been knotted in him for months. The beast in him believed at last that Mikhael not only owned him, but meant to keep him, as Kiri’s mind had known since only minutes earlier, and his soul had known since the moment he had given his name that first day.
The next day, in the drowsy sun with a napping Mikhael, Kiri felt real contentment for the first time in longer than he remembered. Even with Mao and their grandmother there had been that creeping restlessness that had not allowed for full ease, that he now understood as his beast’s gnawing desire for its master. With that satisfied, he was able to look forward unburdened to the long years ahead with Mikhael and Camille, content to know that what he had found was his heart’s truest resting place.