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The Tale of Aerin Fire-Hair and The Excess of Choices

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... as often as they could they slipped away north through the Hills to Luthe's valley. They took the children with them -- Aerin was followed by Jack, and Jack by Hari, as the years passed -- for Luthe was fond of children. And sometimes, as Harry and Corlath sat in the long narrow hall drinking goat's milk and eating bread with cora berries, Harry watched Luthe with all his blond and leggy distracted cheer, and thought that while she was as satisfied with her husband as any damalur-sol -- or any Outlander -- could possibly be, she needs must in all honesty admit that Luthe was pleasing to the eye and to the imagination.

She dared say nothing about it while in Luthe's valley, though she suspected he would only be amused if he knew, but when she and Corlath were lying at last in the blue mosaic palace, having said goodnight to three overtired and overexcited children who wanted stories and songs and company from parents instead of from their exhausted nursemaid, she told Corlath of her thoughts. Harry felt her ears warm, and thought, I am blushing. I didn't realize I blush.

But Corlath only laughed, and looked at her with amber bubbles breaking like stars on the surface of his eyes. "Tell me more, my heart," he said, and the heat in his voice was most certainly not anger.

Harry wondered for only a moment about what more her husband wanted to hear -- for the chaotic children's bedtime had made her wish for a Teka of her own, and so stories of the Lady Aerin were very much on her mind -- before she began her tale. "This is a story of Aerin and Tor the Just-but-still-interesting," she said. Corlath raised one eyebrow but settled back silently and expectantly against his pillows.

It's true that the not quite mortal part of Aerin did sleep for a time. She grew to love her country and her husband, and while loving her country was occasionally difficult as she remembered *Dragon-Killer*, and *witch's daughter*, and Perlith, loving her husband was both easy and wonderful. But while her love for Tor never waned, one who had drunk from the Lake of Dreams cannot live so long as a mortal without remembering her less mortal parts. Aerin's dreams of a tall blond man grew more frequent, and sometimes at night, when her husband lay sleeping, she looked at his ruddy skin and saw instead the milk-white chest of a Northern mage. She grew more and more ashamed, until finally Tor drew her aside.

"Something is bothering you," he said. "You don't have to talk to me about it if you don't want to, and I know that whatever happened to you out there --" He made a gesture encompassing Maur, Agsded, the Crown, everything. "I know it changed you, and I know I can never understand. But you've been sad lately, and I wish you would tell me how I can help." He looked worried. His concern was so palpable that she only felt more dishonored; it was a betrayal, at this point, to be keeping secrets even of her dreams. Honest Tor, Agsded had said had said with a sneer, as if it were a crime to be honest and loyal and faithful. But Tor's honesty was something to be admired, Aerin knew, and at the very least she owed him the truth. When she first returned not speaking of Luthe seemed to be the kindest thing she could do for her old friend and new lover, but she had assumed then that she could put Luthe aside and be wholly queen of Damar and Tor's beloved.

So she told him, not only of the dreams she had been having, but of immortality, and of Luthe, and of the long journey back with the Crown. That Tor showed no surprise during her telling was what she expected; he'd known since she first returned that her partings from Luthe had been more than she would say. But that Tor heard her out without any anger or sadness, but only increasing concern and love, left Aerin mortified.

"If you miss him, why don't we go visit him?" Tor asked when she finished. Aerin looked at him disbelievingly. "Look," he said, patiently. "From the stories you've told me, I owe Luthe... more than I can ever repay. Not just the help he gave you bringing back the Crown to save Damar, but you yourself. He saved you twice over."

Aerin snorted. "He saved my life so he gets me as a prize? I don't think it works that way."

"That's not what I'm saying, and you know it," said Tor, and he sounded annoyed for the first time. "But he brought you back to me, and so I trust him. Besides, I'd rather you have a friendship with your first lover than have you all to myself and know that you were wishing you were somewhere else."

"There's no one else like you in the world," said Aerin, awed. Tor only laughed and kissed her, and the serious mood was broken. A few minutes later the yerig queen stalked irritably from the bedroom, where she'd been displaced from her afternoon nap in the middle of Aerin and Tor's bed.

The journey to Luthe's stone hall was, in its own way, joyful. Both Tor and Aerin were learning to love their desert, and the chance to travel through it (on a pair of stallions sired by Talat, who, while not as intelligent as their sire, were still superior to most horses and quite smug about it) was most welcome. Even so, the passage from the desert to the cool trees between the mountains and the Airdthmar was a relief, and the pair took their time in the forest, stopping early at night to camp, sharing cheese and stories over the campfire. In some ways, Aerin thought, they were having the wedding journey that had been denied them in the aftermath of the war.

Still, their happiness was subdued, and grew more so they approached the Valley. This will be ridiculously cruel to Tor, thought Aerin. Not to mention to Luthe, not to mention to me. Why are we doing this again? "We can still turn back," she said.

Tor only laughed, and rubbed her back. She could see that his worries were not about Luthe, but about her own strain; while it made no sense to her, she tried to conceal her fears to best lighten his load. The steep pathway to Luthe's hall was dappled with sunlight that moved not quite as sunlight should, and rustling that didn't correspond to the wind through the trees. Aerin glanced at Tor, worried, but he merely looked intrigued. Her own worries didn't fade, but were disconcertingly overwhelmed by a strong feeling of coming home; since the City (which contained Teka, and Talat, and folstza-hair everywhere, and even Galanna) had begun to feel like home to her more than ever in the last few years, the overall effect was disconcerting.

More disconcerting was Luthe's presence, long and golden, looming at the top of the pathway. "Tor," he said, with an unreadable look. And then, "Aerin". She wondered what unkind words for Tor he might not be speaking, and then was ashamed of herself for suspecting it of him. Tor dismounted, all his seeming casualness gone, and bowed, perfectly formal. Knowing him, the bow was the exact depth appropriate for a Damarian king greeting a magus, unearthed from some ancient manuscript of the Damarian kings of old.

"Hello, Luthe," Aerin said, dismounting; she stood in the unfilled silence as the three of them stared at each other and the horses pawed impatiently at the soft grass. This is awkward, she thought. This is worse than awkward. This is being a child again, with my lumpy darns and orange hair showing to the jeering court. Only it's worse, because it's Tor and Luthe, and I would not have them hurt and I know they hurt. Her hands clenched around her reins, and she held Luthe's eyes until he dropped his own gaze. "Follow me," he said, and without another word led them to the hall.

Her head ached. Dinner was no more unpleasant than could be expected, but that was quite unpleasant enough. Tor was excruciatingly correct, as he was around most people who were not Aerin; Luthe eventually unbent enough to attempt small talk, and in doing so proved he had no notion of how to go about it. "So... er. How was your journey?" he asked, and grimly determined, Aerin answered. The gods bring this interminable torture to an end, she thought, and avoided looking at either of them.

At last Luthe flung down his spoon. "Enough. I cannot bear this. Your Majesty, I am sure you thought this would be a kindness but it is no kindness to invite the starving man to watch your feast. I wish you happy, and wish you long life and nothing but joy, but I also wish you *gone*." He pushed back his chair and stood, long legs prepared to flee.

She stared rather desperately at her plate of stew. A bit of potato had spilled out of the bowl and sat in a gravy puddle on the wooden table. Where does Luthe get his vegetables, she wondered hysterically. Tor was speaking.

"Aerin --" he started, then stopped and turned to Luthe. "It is also no kindness to leave me like this," he said, reaching out his hand as if to stop Luthe's flight. It worked. Luthe froze, arrested by his voice. "I wake up each morning knowing that some part of my wife is waiting for me to die so she can move on." Aerin started, but stopped when he turned back to her, anguish written in every line of his face. "I know you love me -- I never doubt that -- but there is something that you cannot have while I live. Some part of you waits patiently for my death so you can move on and do whatever it is immortal dragon slayers do. Every morning I see your face, and there is nothing I would rather wake up to than that, and I die a little knowing that you are waiting."

"I'm not --" she cried, but he reached across the table and grasped her hands and she stopped, weeping.

"Don't you see?" he asked. "I would rather share you now than know that there is something you desire for which I am the obstacle. It will hurt me to see you and he go... It will hurt me far more to know that some part of you -- an unconscious part, I know! --" he added at her stricken look. "Some part is waiting for me not to be an obstacle anymore."

An incomprehensible sound made them both turn to Luthe, whose hand gripped the back of the chair so tightly Aerin wondered absently if he would splinter it. He was shaking slightly, and chuckling -- an exhausted and panicked sound. "You are an original, your majesty," he said to Tor. "I am afraid I have underestimated you southern kings if you are capable of such... whatever this is."

"I mean it," Tor said stubbornly.

Luthe shook his head and snorted slightly. "I believe you," he replied.

"Don't," she said, and she didn't know to whom she was speaking. Then, "Tor -- gods, Tor, you're my life. How can you think I would...?" She gripped his hand more tightly. "Without you?" she whispered. She did not turn to Luthe, though she was aware of his trembling, of his breathing, of his eyes on her hands clasped with Tor's; she would not, could not hurt her husband by looking away from him now. Tears ran into her collar and itched as they dried.

Tor held her gaze, despairing, but looked up again as Luthe spoke abruptly. "Possibly I have a solution," he said, and Tor started; Aerin still would not look at anyone but Tor. He seemed to be carrying on a silent conversation with Luthe, judging by his changing facial expressions. Dawning realization, then anger, than speculation. What is this solution, she thought hysterically, And hopefully it will involve this all having been a bad dream brought on by too many state dinners. I shouldn't have eaten that salad; it was probably dressed with surka leaves and I am having fever dreams.

Tor turned to her with half-lidded eyes, no longer anguished but considering. She blushed, though she didn't know why; Tor's facial expression was not one she was used to seeing out in public. If Luthe's hall counted as public. Something crackled in the air, but it was no longer pain.

After a long moment, Tor looked up at Luthe and nodded, sharp and determined. "If she wants," he said, and Aerin fell Luthe's hands close gently on her shoulders.

Corlath sat up suddenly, dislodging Harry's hands from his chest where she'd been idly tracing patterns as she spoke. "So in your story Aerin Fire-Hair, Tor the Just, and Luthe all --?" His expression wavered between appalled and amused, and Harry burst out laughing.

"Well, it would make sense, don't you think? She loved them both, so why shouldn't they be happy all together?" She grinned infectiously.

Wrapping his arms around her, he coughed choked laughter into her hair. "Dearheart, if you are making an oblique suggestion, I must warn you that Luthe is not at all my type."

Harry was so surprised she squeaked. "No! It's a story," she said, and then smirked. "That ...modern possibility didn't occur to me." Her throat was sore from telling stories; the time for talking was done, she decided. She shifted slightly to put plan into action. "Now," said Corlath, as the pair of them lay down again. "If we were talking about *Jack*..."