Azov's Mare


Ann Marie Olson

Story © 2000 Ann Marie Olson


Chapter 1

      Lexi sighed as Sharm Lord Sergei paced down the flower lined aisle. It was so romantic! Her father, marrying again, at last. She knew Diomid had loved Sasha, her blood father. But it had been a long time ago. Diomid deserved happiness again in his life.
      Kirina looked absolutely stunning in her Sergei white, but Diomid was spectacular. Despite the fact Kirina, by virtue of being both Sime and seven months pregnant had a huge head start in the looks department, her father was absolutely radiant.
      She thought Gens should marry. Heaven knew Lexi had been trying to find a permanent partner for nearly a dozen years now. Her current lord, Tanya, burrowed even more tightly against her and sighed. The young woman was stunningly beautiful, good with the hounds, but a feather head. Oh well, Gens didn't marry Simes for their brains, even though Lexi well knew Kirina had no lack in the intelligence department.
      None of the Karola's children lacked for brains. Sense occasionally, she gave Valtanir a swat to mind his manners and quit zlinning behind him. The lad acted as if she'd shoved a poker up his ass. Avilan looked back over his shoulder and glared at her.
      Lexi wanted to protest the unfairness of it, but knew better than to protest anything to her mentor when he was being paternal. Avilan was usually great, except when he thought something or someone was sniffing around his kids. And Valtanir was Avilan's youngest son.
      Her eyes widened as she caught a glimpse of Diomid's side through his loosely laced tunic. Tanya did more than that and licked her lips at the show. Only for such an occasion as this, did any Gen go out without the all encompassing kador, the heavy shielding garment Lexi had worn since she'd established.
      But seeing a Sharm Lord like Diomid, in what looked to be white paint beneath his heavily embroidered overtunic, was enough to take even Lexi's breath away. Normally she didn't much care for either men or other Gens, but Diomid was certainly scenic.
      She tucked Tanya even more firmly to her side and could feel Tanya's quiver of interest through Lexi's heavy robes. "I can smell you," she murmured in Tanya's ear, giving it a tiny lick.
      "I'm sure you can," she cocked her head to give Lexi better access. "He's gorgeous, but definitely Kirina's."
      Which was the entire point to the exercise, Lexi supposed. Give everyone a last look at the couple before they were permanently bonded. She'd tried to make a play for Kirina, but it had been an utter failure. Before she could even get her alone once, Diomid'd carted her off to Sergei. Foo.
      A proud smile lifted her heart as Diomid stood on his toes to kiss Kirina over their bound hands. Then she chuckled as she caught the flash of selyn. "Good for you," it was so romantic, Kirina taking her life long partner on the very dias at their handfasting. Lexi knew she'd never have the nerve for such a thing, but then that was what Simes were for. They had the nerve for nearly anything, once a Gen got them pointed the right direction!
      Valtanir, or Val as his childhood friends had called him, couldn't figure out what was making the back of his neck itch. His new clothes, all green now rather than the rainbow motley of a child were made of the same materials, if a great deal less worn.
      He'd been rather unfortunate in being the youngest of seven children for most of his life, and the smallest child of his parents, he'd never, ever gotten anything but hand me downs. This tunic was the first new garment he'd ever worn. The bright metalwork caught his attention again. He zlinned a dazzling rainbow glittering in the ambient.
      "Ow," he rubbed his wrist. Someone had hit him. His father looked back over his shoulder. The heat of his glare would have scorched Val's hair if it had been directed at him.
      "Are you all right?"
      "Yes, otyet," the familiar phrase in a world turned upside down steadied him some. He took a deep breath and made sure he wasn't zlinning this time. Kirina had been a right nuisance growing up, but he was glad to be able to see her marry at last. Now she'd only visit with the adults!
      Of course now he was nearly an adult too. This was something which took getting used to. Only the two little girls were left at home after him, and they were far younger than he was. Illyana and Falyana were cute ... when they were far away.
      There were undercurrents to his father's field Val didn't dare try to sort out. He'd tried once and nearly made himself sick. Then he could faintly zlin Diomid through the gap at the side of his tunic. Being hardly more than a week after change over, Val had never zlinned anything like Sharm Lord Sergei!
      He gaped at the magnificent field surrounding the man. No wonder Kirina had wanted him so badly as a partner. This was what some of his friends had been sniggering about behind the barn when Lexi had broken up their little chat.
      "Don't zlin," his father reminded him, unnecessarily blocking Val's ability to do so.
      He didn't protest. Val never protested his parent's orders. They did know better, despite what some of his friends had said about their parents. No, they weren't perfect, but they were a far better at judging the potential results of their actions than he was. For that much matter, they were a better judge of the results of Val's potential actions.
      He burrowed into his father's side more firmly. The temptation to zlin more than the very fringes of Diomid's field was too much. This was safety. His father would take care of him.
      The warm honey feel he knew was unique to his father surrounded him and protected him from the crowd. Few Simes as young as he would ever be allowed to watch such an important ceremony. But he'd promised to never once, even for an instant leave his father's side. It had been a very easy promise to make.
      Val knew he wasn't ready to be on his own. His first transfer had certainly shown him as much. He'd never been so out of control in his life! It had been awful. He knew that every month, from now until the end of his life he'd go through it, but he wasn't much looking forward to it. Transfer was all well and fine, if only it didn't require such a lack of control!
      "Get out!" A tea glass shattered on the door frame. Lexi ducked the following holder.
      "But Tanya," she tried to plead with her partner.
      "Out!" Another glass shattered into a million pieces. She should have never given Tanya anything breakable.
      "But where will I go?" Lexi put on her best, poor little sharm lord expression.
      "To hell for all I care," Tanya hefted the serving tray. Lexi bolted. The door rocked beneath the impact of the heavy platter. At least she didn't have to pick up all the glass. But Tanya would.
      "Don't cut yourself," she opened the door a crack.
      Lexi slammed the door again. A guard at the end of the hallway was studying the ceiling. A blush burned her ears. She still had the use of the suite which her parents had once lived in. Even though she didn't have more than a spare kador in the closet.
      Slinking down the hallway, she tried not to be spotted. It was too embarrassing to be tossed out on her rear this way ... again. Not that Lexi didn't try to make her relationships work. Things had been going quite well for her and Tanya until she'd heard about Lexi's little indiscretion with Briana last week. Or had it been Kria three days ago?
      Neither of them could support Lexi in the manner to which she'd become accustomed. She liked having fine silk overtunics to show off the body her parents had given her. Even more she liked the silk underthings to show off to her lovers in.
      At last she made it past the guards and began whistling. "No, I didn't just get booted out of another lord's bedroom. No I didn't. I would have left soon any way." Her cheerful little song proclaimed.
      Checking behind herself, with more of her parent's kind gifts, she felt the guards zlinning her back. No, she couldn't let down her facade. A breeze stirred the rushes on the floor.
      More guards were posted outside of the Fatima suite, where Arkay was staying while visiting with Avilan and Karola. The Fatima guards seemed dark and forbidding in their silver and black. Lexi far and away preferred the green and gold of Azov.
      Azov guards stood outside the doors leading to the suite where the Lords Azov lived.
      "And stay out!" The door opened suddenly. A slender figure in Azov green was launched into the hallway.
      "But otyet!" A traveling pack bounced off his chest.
      "You heard your father," Karola's rich voice backed her mate to the hilt. Even though the hilt seemed to be stuck right through the poor lad's chest. "Grow up, Valtanir!"
      "But when can I come home?"
      "You can't," Avilan appeared in the doorway. Lexi ducked back behind one of the Fatima guards. He gave her a quick zlin and then froze. More people were coming into the hallway. "You have to find your own way."
      "You're throwing me out into the snow!"
      "It's September, you idiot," one of the guards muttered. Lexi chuckled and he gave her a wink.
      "Now, now, Valtanir," Arkay appeared behind her. He gave Lexi a look of surprise and then strolled around her as if she weren't there. "You'll be fine."
      "But otyet and mat' know what I'm supposed to do," his lower lip quivered. Lexi couldn't stand to see a Sime cry. She tried to come out to his rescue. A steel strong, Sime hand grabbed her shoulder.
      "Wait," Lord Fatima put a finger to his lips. Up close he was even more beautiful than at a distance. For him Lexi might rethink her preference for females. He was stunning. She nodded quickly, swallowing to try to wet her now dry throat.
      "You have to find out for yourself, Valtanir," Arkay knelt before the young man. "Spread your wings, little one. We can't take care of you for the rest of your life."
      "But I don't know how to do anything," he wailed. Lexi had never seen a Sime so insecure. Most youngsters were more than ready to move out when they matured. The dance of the larities was fun. Far more fun than any sport but hunting Lexi knew of. Hunting Simes was the best sport of all she reminded herself, a bit bruised feeling over having gotten kicked out of lord Tanya's suite.
      "Then we've been wasting all our time teaching you?" Karola put her hand on her son's shoulder. "Go on with you, Valtanir. You'll be all right. You're smart, you're strong, go on," she tipped her chin towards the hall.
      "Where will I stay? What will I do?"
      "Figure it out," Lexi muttered with a snort. Nashen chuckled in her ear. "It isn't tough."
      "Hush," his warm breath caressed her ear and made her head spin. She was ready for him, even if she only had a couple of days left until turnover. He patted her butt fondly. "You're too young for me. Go catch the little one."
      "He isn't ripe," she sighed. "Give him a few years first."
      "Take too long and someone else will grab him. Karola's children go fast." Nashen walked out into the crowd. "Well, Valtanir?"
      "What?" He sniffled and wiped away tears with the back of his hand.
      "What are you going to do now?"
      "Cry," his chin quivered.
      "That isn't going to get you food or selyn," he looked down at the young man. "Try again."
      "Uh," he looked around. Lexi wanted to help him so badly. She'd never seen a Sime look quite so lost. It was hard on young lords, as well she knew. They couldn't stay with their parents past the beginnings of adolescence, or they'd end up horribly spoiled by their Gen parent. Children of Sharm Lords or Lords in some ways had it harder, as they stayed with their parents until adolescence. The children of other nobles went to school at ten. "I don't know."
      "Try again," Nashen frowned a bit. Valtanir shrank back so far he bounced off one of the Azov guards. He yelped and danced forward, right into Arkay. This was as effective as running into a brick wall. Arkay simply looked down at him.
      Lexi saw his eyes roll up in his head. She dashed forward and caught him before he hit the floor. "Poor little thing," she glared up at all his parents towering over him. "What did you think you were doing?" Her hand brushed his hair back from his face. It was silky soft in its short renSime like cut. Lexi had never held such a young lord.
      "Trying to get him to leave," even Avilan looked exasperated. "We've been trying to get him to go for the last two and a half months!"
      "He's coming up on his fourth?"
      "Yes," Avilan crossed his arms over his chest. "He can't stay any longer."
      "I can't take him in," but of course he chose this instant to cuddle up to her. The heat of his body soaked right through her mid cycle kador. "I don't like men."
      "You work fine with me," Avilan blinked at her in surprise, "Oh, yes, fourth," he raised an eyebrow. "I doubt you're a virgin with men."
      "No," she lied, sorta. Well, there'd been the once she'd tried to have sex with a man. It hadn't worked very well. He'd been an oaf. She'd kicked him out long before he could get past slobbering on her breasts. Valtanir's arm snaked around her neck. It was like being molested by a very slow octopus.
      Avilan gave her 'the look' again. She should have known better than to try. "Well, sort of," she shrugged, gradually being enveloped by the youth in her lap. He couldn't be doing this in his sleep, could he? She looked down and found him trying to burrow into her overtunic. This wasn't going to get him days in her book. "Out of there," she removed his wandering hand.
      Four steel strong tentacles grabbed her hand in return. Shaking it did no good, they only latched on harder. Then one from his other arm tried wrapping around her throat. "Gach!" She tugged it loose. Well, it moved from her throat to her finger.
      "Valtanir," she addressed him sternly.
      "Yes, mat'?" His guiless blue eyes reminded her far too much of Avilan when he wanted something.
      "I'm not your mother," she frowned at him. This was a gesture she'd practiced. Most lords sucked their tentacles all the way into their sheathes when she gave them the frown. It didn't work. He only latched onto her harder and hid his face against her chest. "Would someone rescue me from this leech?"
      "You volunteered," Nashen gave her what had to be his equivalent to 'the look'. Arkay snickered. "Have fun." They stepped over her and joined the Azov household. The door shut behind them. All the guards were studying the ceiling. They were good at that.
      Lexi sighed and looked down at the limpet attached to her front. This would never do. "Get up, Vasha," she couldn't keep calling him by such a long name.
      "Don' wanna," he grabbed even harder. Her ribs were starting to protest.
      "Well, you're going to," she swatted him on the butt with her field. He yelped and scrambled to his feet. "Now that's better," she put her hands on her hips and realized he was actually a bit shorter than she was. Amazing. Most people were at least a little taller.
      "Well, I know one thing you can do to earn your keep," she knew a lazy smile had come to her lips. Vasha gulped audibly. "Come along," she headed for her suite to pick up a few things. He padded after her, obviously happy to have a leader. What a waste of good selyn.
      Val cursed as he heaved yet another shovelful of manure onto the pile. Any renSime could pick out the barns. His hands burned with the blisters now peeling from his palms and fingers. Two more loads and he'd be done.
      Muttering vile imprecations on all sharm lords, he eyed the shaggy black cow warily. She could kick like a Sharm Lord. And had. He still had the bruise on his thigh from her temper.
      Careful to not startle her, he reached over the partition and stroked her bony hip. She moved over calmly, still chewing her cud. Breathing a sigh of relief, Val picked out the straw behind her tie stall. He'd learned to whistle while he worked, even though most of the songs he whistled were prison dirges. The cows didn't care.
      One more smelly, filthy load and he'd be done. Val wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. The cow slapped him in the face with her urine soaked tail. He gagged.
      Gods he hated being Sime. As a child he'd never had such a delicate stomach. Now it seemed everything set it off. Taking a short break, Val went over to the pump and sluiced off his face. That was better. At least he didn't have to fight throwing up again. He'd done it twice already this month, earning no sympathy whatsoever from his jaoler.
      Back to whistling, this time a funeral dirge, for one Alexandrya Iliranova, Val finished off his final load.
      "You're late," Alexandrya looked up at the clock.
      "It's off," he growled, clutching the wooden pitchfork so hard in his tentacles it creaked alarmingly.
      "You break it, you make a new one," her green eyes were as cold as the slime on the bottom of a water trough. As Val should well know. He'd cleaned out all of them last week. The cow byre had been this week.
      "I know," he'd only broken one tool, a very worn, nearly bristleless broom. He'd thought it hadn't been worth much. He'd been wrong. Four hours later, and straw chaff in all of his tentacle sheathes, he'd had a new broom. His sheaths still itched thinking about it. He hadn't been clean in the two weeks since his tormenter had dumped him in the barn!
      "Better," she flicked off a bit of dust from her riding apron. How she stayed so clean was beyond Val's comprehension. It wasn't as if she didn't work. All hours of the day, and many of the night, she was looking right over his shoulder. Particularly every time he'd messed something up. "Are you ready to move up in the world?"
      "Yes!" He jumped at any opportunity to escape the cow byre.
      Lexi hated doing this to Vasha, but it was for the best. "Now get up there and rinse down the whole sty," she called to him on the catwalk. Squealing pigs glared at her through their little beady eyes. A boar even snorted at her. She narrowed her eyes and cast the thought of bacon at him. He ducked his head and turned his attention to his sows. "Better," she didn't much care for pigs, but she did like sausage. And pigskin was irreplaceable.
      Vasha was dead white as he clung to the wooden rail. From here she could see him swallow heavily. "Are you going to be sick?"
      "Yes," he gulped. Then he started to crumple. At least this time she didn't have to hold him. He caught himself before he fell into the muck, but that was all he caught. Lexi waited, rather impatiently for him to be done. He couldn't have eaten so much as for this to take long. Few Simes were quite this sensitive to stomach upsets, but Vasha would get over it. They all did ... eventually.
      At last he wiped his mouth and glared at her with bloodshot eyes. "Get up and get this thing cleaned up." The smell of his sickness, on top of the pigs was revolting, but she'd smelled worse. "Go on."
      "I won't," he set his jaw and for the first time glared at her.
      "Do it, Valtanir," she reached out with her field, nearly at its height. He flinched back and grabbed the hose. He'd feel better once he got the sty cleaned out, and hopefully he'd have the sense to rinse himself off as well. No longer did he wear the silk and cotton of a noble's child. Now Valtanir wore the rough wool and leather of a renSime. He had some lessons to learn.
      He wasn't dumb, Lexi noted as he turned the hose upward first and let the water sluice him off. The wool he wore would stay warm, even wet, which was why she'd taken away his silk. Then he sprayed down the sty, washing the manure into the pit waiting for it below the generator. Methane was very useful stuff.
      Of course he tried to get her wet too. She'd have expected nothing less. Her glare stopped that gesture before it got too close. "The pigs, Vasha," she reminded him. A renSime snickered at her back.
      "Yeah, we're not bein' pigs, puker," the renSime shot back. Lexi let Vasha get her with the hose. "Hey!" The pigs squealed at the shout.
      "Keep working," she reminded them. At last it was done. And so was he. As white as whey, he looked ready to faint. "OK, time for dinner."
      "I'll pass," he looked grimly at the animals below him. "Not hungry."
      "You will be," she told him. "But nothing until breakfast tomorrow if you pass on dinner tonight."
      The threat worked, "Yes, Alexandrya." He was a smart boy, just no backbone.
      Val forced himself to finish off the last bit of bread and cheese before his eyes closed on him. He was utterly exhausted. His limbs ached with every move he made, and even when he stayed still.
      "Did you clean your tentacles?"
      "Yes," he ducked his head, praying she wouldn't ask to inspect them. He hated it when she did. They were too private. It was like she was cleaning a stallion for breeding.
      "Let me see," she held out her hands, gloved of course. Reluctantly, Val coaxed his tentacles from their sheathes. Of course he'd scrubbed them as well as he could, but they were now permanently grungy with the work he did. "You're going to have to do better," she tugged them out the rest of the way.
      Val's face burned with his blushes as he saw the ring of filth at the base. They itched horribly, but there was nothing he could do about it. Oh well, if she asked him to strip and show her his other sheath, it would at least pass inspection. "Why haven't you been keeping them clean?"
      "Because I can't," he finally snapped.
      "Why not?" Her soft smile startled him so badly, his laterals licked out to taste the ambient. It was actually not so harsh as he would have guessed, even though he yanked them back as quickly as he could so as not to give offense. "Those are clean."
      "They aren't holding a pitchfork or brush all day," his blushes spread downward. The sudden awareness of her as Gen, not simply his master, startled him badly. He stammered and turned his face away. "Sorry."
      "When's your transfer?" At least she didn't sense for herself. Val took stock of his reserves and realized it was soon.
      "A day or so," he felt every millimeter his tentacles traced over her soft, silk gloves as they retracted into their sheathes. "Tomorrow, I think."
      "You don't know?"
      "No," he crossed his arms over his chest. Now that she'd mentioned it, he felt it. While he'd been working so hard, he'd managed to forget all about such things as need. "I'll be fine."
      "Have you had any thoughts about who you want?" Her voice was nearly sympathetic. Val jerked his head up and looked at her. While they were eating, she'd dropped her veil. The fact she hadn't replaced it only now dawned on him.
      "Lord Karola, I suppose," his mother had given him his testing transfer last month. It had been good enough. "Haven't had the chance to look around."
      "Oh?" She speared a piece of late melon with a fork and offered it to him. He took it, looking up at her through his eyelashes. "Why is that?"
      "I've been too busy," he swallowed hastily, nearly choking. "Sorry."
      "Didn't you look at any of the sharm lords out riding or working with you?" Her scorn rasped over his skin.
      "Should I have?" He hoped this was the right thing to do. Some of them had zlinned interesting, but he'd not dared do anything about it. He was a stable hand, they were nobles. He'd somehow failed his parents' expectations and now they wanted nothing to do with him.
      Lexi took off her gloves and set them on the table. The manual nakedness seemed horribly intimate to Val after two weeks of not having seen any Gen's bare skin. "Yes," she tipped his chin up to look at her. "That's why I put you out there. So you could zlin around and try to find someone."
      "I thought you wanted me to work," her hand was Gen soft for all the heavy callouses from her labors.
      "Not that hard," she chuckled, still making him look at her. "So, what are you going to do? It is your fourth."
      "I know," he hadn't felt any of the urges his father had told him of. But then he'd also said some people didn't beforehand. "Wish I could ignore it."
      "It won't go away, Valtanir."
      "I know," he shivered. His dinner sat like lead in his stomach with the uneasy conversation. "Give me a couple of days?"
      "You said you didn't have so long," her reminder made him grimace.
      "True," he wished he didn't have to deal with this. Life would have been so much simpler if he could have stayed with his parents. They knew what to do about things like need and sex. He didn't. It was unnatural. Stuff shouldn't come at him all at once like this. There should be some break between natural disasters. "Find a lord to give me my forth and then hold out for the next one, I suppose," he shrugged awkwardly. Personally he'd put off his maturity as long as physically possible. Sex seemed like such an awkward and messy business.
      Lexi couldn't help but sympathize with Vasha a little. He looked so lost and alone, even across the table from her. She'd moved into her office in the barn while closing up Azov for the winter, which seemed to be a good place for Avilan's youngest son.
      Now she wasn't so sure. He was growing at a tremendous rate, even though he'd never be as tall as his sibs. More that he was filling out. If only he would stand up straight. Well, maybe he had to fall on his face a few times first. She sighed and leaned back in her chair.
      One of the few privileges she took advantage of with taking her blood father's place at the head of Azov's animal husbandry division, was the access to good tobacco. She filled a pipe and lit it.
      "My blood father hates it when my other father smokes," he gave her a wink and half a smile. "Says it smells bad."
      "I like it," near transfer, the nicotine calmed her nerves. Although Lexi also enjoyed the rich taste and bite of the southern tobacco. "Would you like to try it?"
      "Sure," he sat up a bit straighter. His first puff was wildly unsuccessful, but after that he seemed to do much better. "This is good."
      "Yes," she managed to collect her pipe back. Lexi fished around on the shelf behind her desk. At last she managed to unbury her pipe rack. A slender, elegant meerschaum was nearly buried beneath a pile of papers. She'd never cared much for it, as the balance was all wrong for her heavier Gen fingers. But it should suit Vasha well. "Here," she offered it to him after cleaning out the stem.
      Without having to ask, he filled it neatly and lit it. Smart, very smart. He couldn't have seen anyone but her ever fill and light a pipe. It wasn't always the easiest task in the world. "I think Arkay's right," his eyelids were drooping a bit.
      She had to give him credit for being a hard worker, maybe a bit too hard. Most young Simes would have at least zlinned the young sharm lords learning to ride, hoping to get a glimmer of nager or the sight of a bare ankle. His body finally settled down to digesting dinner, helped along by the drug. This was more what she expected to see.
      If only he weren't so shenned young! His deep blue eyes turned to catch hers. They widened in surprise. He looked away quickly, not apologizing, but rather recognizing the fact he'd overheard her thought. This was one lord who'd not be waiting long for his ascension. But then only Kirina had dawdled around with getting herself formally ascended.
      His teeth clicked on the amber pipe stem as he sighed. "This is quite good," he murmured as he settled his chin on his hand. "Thank you."
      "You're quite welcome," the silence of the fall evening was only broken by the restless shuffling of a cow settling in for the night. Soon the nights would come to swallow the days. Before then, she had to figure out what to do with Valtanir. Setting Azov to rights for winter was long familiar and far, far easier.
      Val leaned back and enjoyed the soft, warm buzzing in his head. The slight dizziness seemed rather to be more that of contentment. For the first time since his change over, the world didn't seem to be quite so bad a place.
      There was a low fire lit on the tiny hearth in the corner of the room near an oversized couch. A couple of woven blankets told of Lexi's occasional use of her office as a bedroom. What would it be like to sleep peacefully again? He'd not had a good night's sleep since his parents kicked him out.
      He sighed and looked longingly at the couch. But then it probably wouldn't work. He'd been restless in his sleep before transfer the last two months. This month probably wouldn't be any better. Nothing to do but cope.
      "Hey," Lexi's field tapped him under the chin. It no longer hurt when she did things like that, but Val wasn't sure he enjoyed it either. "You don't look happy."
      "I'm not," he shrugged and inhaled deeply of the rich tobacco smoke. He'd never dared violate his blood parents' prohibitions on smoking as a child, but now that he tried it, he found it wasn't so bad. The heavy, dragging feel of his limbs hurting was not pleasant either, but without sleep, he'd never overcome it. "What are tonight's chores?" He knew Lexi should be getting some rest.
      "Don't you want to go to bed?"
      "No," the tobacco had a sort of winy tang beneath the rich bitterness. Daring to zlin a bit, he zlinned the blue-white smoke blur the ambient. It was actually rather pretty. "I can't."
      "Why not?"
      "Do you really want to know?" He was not going to turn in the renSimes he had been bedding down with for being human. If only Val were more like them. "I haven't been sleeping well. I'd rather not toss and turn all night."
      "Why didn't you say something?" Her brows furrowed, in what would have been concern if they'd been on anyone but Lexi's face. "No wonder you feel like hell."
      Val turned his face away. He knew his parents had the right to invade his field and body this way, but to have a near stranger do so was unsettling at best. His delicate stomach protested his concerns yet again, but at least the nicotine seemed to be doing some good in that department.
      "I didn't mean to intrude," Lexi rested one of her hands on their makeshift table, her desk. "Vasha."
      "I prefer Val," he refused her hand. He'd make a fool of himself if he touched her, even gloved. How he hated being Sime! "Sorry, I didn't mean to snap." He ran his fingers through his short hair. "I'll go back to the dorms if you don't have a night shift for me."
      "My uncle's name is Val," then she looked down. "It was."
      "What happened?" He stopped on his way to the door. It was getting late and he had to at least try to sleep, if he couldn't get any work done. The idea talking with and learning about Lexi could be construed as a valid part of his life was dismissed with hardly a glance.
      Most Simes were emotional to the extreme. Vasha, she couldn't think of him as Val, was as cold as the Moskva winter. He was too young to be so aloof. "Go play, Valtanir."
      "At your will," he bowed his head, even though his field was knotting so badly she was surprised he didn't fall on his nose. "How should I go about this?"
      "Go chase some sharm lords. Find a partner!" Lexi could well understand why his parents'd had to kick him out the way they had. He didn't move for anything but orders! "You aren't going to get a transfer off any ren."
      "How?" At last he snapped at her. "I don't know."
      Lexi leaned back and counted to ten. "Flirt, dance, talk with them." She never had a problem like this. "You are far from hard on the eyes."
      "I'm filthy," he extended his tentacles again.
      "Then get cleaned up!" Didn't this little idiot know anything?
      "So I can get dirty again tomorrow?" He rolled his eyes. "I don't think ... no, sorry."
      "Say something, damn you!" No one had gotten under Lexi's skin the way this young lord had in her life. With his big blue eyes and black hair, he was beautiful enough to stop any young sharm lord in their tracks. If he didn't have at least half a dozen of them panting after him with even half a try on his part, she'd eat her end cycle kador, without salt.
      "Something," his wry grin tried to slither in under Lexi's defenses. For a moment, her heart pounded as she realized how very Sime young Valtanir was. No, he was too young ... and too damn soft.
      "Get yourself laid, Val!"
      "At your orders," he didn't even slam the door behind him.
      "Overbred, overmannered, overobediant little snippet of a Sime!" Lexi slammed her fist down on her desk. It was a far substitute for the door slam any normal Sime would have indulged in. She put her face in her hands and wanted to cry.
      For Lexi had no one this month. Dealing with Vasha had taken every last bit of her admittedly slender resources in both time and social capital. Right now if she walked into court, she'd be laughed out on her ass. There were too many other twenty three to twenty five day sharm lords in the great house alone.
      With the coming winter, many of the outlying sharm lords were coming in as well. Soon the ratio of sharm lords to lords would be nearly three to two. Not good odds for someone subject to the often vicious rumor mill as a rakehell and libertine. Particularly one who preferred women.
      Sighing heavily, Lexi resigned herself to getting stripped every month from now until spring. It would be easier to set up the appointments now, before the rush. With spring would come a lot of work and she could easily double up with someone else to put a lord on half cycle.
      "Sooner begun is sooner done," it was nearly midnight, but tonight was low court and she'd not get a chance to talk with Karola until next week if she missed Lord Azov tonight. At least Karola was good at hard strips. Banking her libido until spring wouldn't be such a bad idea either.
      Lexi jogged back into the main building and up to her suite. She'd managed to rescue the rest of her kadors from Tanya's rooms and they had been hanged neatly in front of the stash her parents had left her. Over the years, Lexi had sold a few of them for the capital to generate a decent income to support these rooms.
      They weren't cheap. Sometimes she wondered how her fathers had managed. Alexander Azovich had never made very much money and he'd not received any great inheritance from his elder brother. Not that any Azovich had ever been rich in and of themselves, unlike say all of Fatima's great children.
      But her mother had given Lexi a very solid background in playing the selyn and goods markets, providing a way for Lexi to at least support herself. Her work ate up nearly three quarters of her selyn income alone. This mausoleum was nearly as expensive.
      The framed portrait of her blood father was no longer banded with black, and hadn't been since Diomid had lived here, even though Alexi had been long dead. It seemed he still smiled on his only child from over the mantle. She blew the image a kiss and dashed off to try to catch the very end of court.
      Shaking so badly he could hardly stand, Val looked around the edge of the open doors. Dozens and dozens of people were talking and laughing together in little knots. How was he supposed to introduce himself into any of those tightly knit groups?
      Now thoroughly scrubbed and wearing his one good lord's tunic, he slithered along the deeply carved wood. This was ridiculous. He looked like a fool. Tugging at his tunic with now very sweaty hands, Val gulped and headed for the open area.
      Music filled the gaps in various conversations. Its tempo was far slower than that of Val's heart. Most lords didn't go through this, did they? Nivanya, his brother Ilyan's partner never had. But then she'd have never thought twice about having all the nobility of any Demense watching her every move.
      Val almost wet his pants as he realized Azov was the largest of all five Demense. There were even that many more people looking and zlinning at him. His father no longer looked welcoming. If Val hadn't known better, he'd have said Avilan looked bored.
      Nearly terrified out of his mind, Val tried to bow to his father and show him his tentacles in formal obeisance as any other lord of Azov would do on appearance at court. But his tentacles would not come out!
      Panicked, Val stared at his arms and shook his hands frantically. Had he mistaken the soap for glue? He even tried scrubbing at them a bit. They only retreated further, knotting up painfully in their sheathes. His face was burning with his shame. It was simple. He was supposed to come up, bow and show Avilan his tentacles.
      "Easy," his father breathed, leaning forward. Val whimpered, still trying to get his tentacles unstuck. One brave dorsal peeked out and then knotted even harder. "Good enough." Then he spoke to the court, "Azov welcomes lord Valtanir Azovich Azov this evening. There is no pressing business, be free to join your peers, lord Valtanir."
      "At your will, my leige," this Valtanir could do. He bowed himself backwards and debated bolting for the door.
      "Hssst," someone was tugging on his attention. Val turned and found himself nose to nose with another young lord. Even though her eyes were even wider than he hoped his were. "Are you really his son?"
      "Yes," Val grinned and ducked his head a bit. A servitor had appeared at his elbow. He'd seen his older brother get drunk once on the clear fluid offered in the innocuous looking glasses. Val decided to pass on the guarantee of throwing up in the morning. He did it far too often with no help. The headache had not looked entertaining either. Val selected a glass of the nearly sweet cider his mother preferred at events like this. "I am."
      "Oh wow!" The young lord blinked in astonishment. "My name's Yana Toronova Azov, no relationship to him." Her tentacles were dancing with her infectious excitement, pointing to Val's father. "I only changed over a couple of months ago."
      "Me too," he couldn't help but grin back. Val started to say something about the likelihood for a good harvest when Yana ran right over the top of him.
      "Wait 'till I tell Sara and Berin!" Her tugging had not let off a bit. "Good thing you didn't take that clear stuff. Starka is dangerous. No one told me about the morning after. Nearly puked up my toenails." Val wasn't entirely sure this was appropriate conversation for court, even low court.
      "Oh it's awful," another very young lord was sipping at some juice. "Horrible. I'd never been so sick in my life."
      "You always say that, Berin," another young lord scratched at her bare ear. "I knew better," she winked at Val. "I'm Sara, Valtanir," a faint blush came to her nager. "Sorry, my fourth was last week." The look she gave him was decidedly uncomfortable.
      "Can I get you some more to drink?" He noted she'd finished her glass of water. Or at least he hoped it had been water. Val's tentacles finally decided to reappear and were twining around the glass he held in ever shifting patterns.
      "No, thank you," she looked over his head. "If you'll excuse me," Sara's tentacles flicked from their sheathes as well. Val zlinned a very scantily clad sharm lord bearing down on them. He got out of the way.
      "Would you like to dance, my lord Azov?"
      Sara's face fell. Val brushed her nager with his, all the while trying to remember how to get out of this politely. If he tried to dance, he'd certainly make a fool of himself.
      "Would you like something to eat, my lord Azov?" Another of those green clad, veiled figures appeared out of nowhere.
      "I saw him first," Val caught a flicker of nager from the first sharm lord to appear. His eyes tried to roll up in his head.
      "Don't cheat, Domi," the second growled. "Go find someone your own age."
      "A four month is yours, T'lani?" As Domi crossed his arms, Val nearly fainted. Even with the shielding kadors, both sharm lords had to be high field to drive him crazy like this.
      "Now, now," a third bore down on them. Val's erstwhile companions vanished like so much morning mist. How did they do that? He wanted to dissolve into the green and white tiles beneath his feet. "I know you are probably not used to the press, lord Valtanir. Would you like a breath of fresh air?"
      In October, in the middle of the night? Not likely! Val shivered violently.
      Finally someone came to his rescue, "Do you know anything about reworking ribbon embroidery?" A female sharm lord, even smaller than himself, held out a rather tattered sleeve.
      "Yes, first you have to find some good silk thread, the same color as the ribbon ..." he rattled on about how to redo the roses coming apart on the sleeve of her kador. Before he knew it, he'd gone and swiped the sewing kit he'd hidden beneath his bed upstairs and was showing sharm lord Katrina how to make butterflies out of silk ribbon and thread.
      Lexi looked on in pride as she saw Vasha nearly head to head with an equally young sharm lord, both bowed over some sort of entertainment. His partner laughed and Lexi could sense the young woman's field trying to tempt the lord sitting so very close to her, even through her kador.
      This was as it should be, even as a pang in her heart made Lexi very sure her nager was contained. It would not do to be zlinned showing any regret for Vasha finding a partner. He was far too young for her, and truth be told, far too spineless. Lexi preferred far more strongwilled, and adult, lords. Or at least as adult as any lord could ever approximate.
      With the grace of long practice, Lexi knelt to her mentor and step father, Sharm Lord Azov.
      "Get up," he wrinkled his nose at her and held out his arms. She hugged him tightly, glad to see him looking so well. She'd heard he'd been a bit off since he'd had to kick Valtanir out of the nest. "You look good."
      "I could say the same for you," she thumped his back solidly. If only she could find a man as good as her fathers, then maybe she'd think of bonding to a male. But they were few and far between.
      "Has the rumor mill been fussing about my health again?"
      "Always," she grinned at him, taking a seat at his side and watching the court with him. "You know lords."
      "Oh yes," he sighed, chuckling. "When they aren't fretting over their sharm lord, they're fretting over the weather." Then he threw her for a loop. "How's Valtanir?"
      "Doing all right, I suppose," he seemed entirely oblivious to the rest of the room at the moment. Lexi would be a bit more comfortable if she could see what had the two of them so fascinated. Even though there was little trouble they could get into in the middle of court. "Who's the sharm lord?"
      "Name's Katrina. A twenty two, heading for twenty three. Good girl, just green as grass and not getting better," he sighed, resting his chin on his hand. "It's like she's not quite wired right."
      "Vasha seems well enough interested," rarely had Lexi heard Avilan speak so negatively about anyone. "Do you think they'll try for this month?"
      "I wish Valtanir had come to court before now," his growl raised Lexi's hackles.
      "I had to nearly shove him out the door and force him to come here tonight, Avilan," she grumbled. "He didn't want to go."
      "No, he never really has," Avilan sighed again. "Of all our children, after Sevrin, Valtanir is the oddest. It's like he has no backbone at all, even though he's no dummy either. Anything Karola or I said, he'd do instantly. Never a moment of backtalk or rebellion."
      "I tried to get him to push back a bit and nearly crushed him with work," Lexi admitted.
      "He looks good," Avilan chuckled softly and sat up straight. "Fairly healthy, if a bit thin."
      "That's because his stomach has been bothering him."
      "Ouch," Avilan flinched. "How bad?"
      "Not sure," Lexi realized. "No more than once or twice a day."
      "Too much, Lexi," his deep blue eyes went hard. "Don't break him."
      "I'm trying not to," she pleaded with him. "But he's so damn malleable, it's tough. I tell him to clean out the water buckets, and by the time I turn around, he's scrubbed every single water container within ten kilometers! And scrubbed them so clean they could be mistaken for new."
      "You're exaggerating, Lexi."
      "No I'm not," she waved her hand towards the young lord. "Look at his hands."
      Avilan paled a bit. "I can see, yes," to any one who could sense fields, the angry weeping blisters on the young man's hands were apparent from across a room. "Well, what are we going to do?"
      "I've been trying to get him to reach for a riding position. I know he can ride nearly as well as my blood father." This had become a saying in Azov for anyone who was a natural horseman. "But he wouldn't budge even after I had him hose out the pig sty."
      "Are you sure he knows he can ask for any position and earn it by proving his abilities?"
      Alexandrya had to think about this for a bit. "I think he knows it in his head, but doesn't know in his heart he can do it." She tapped her fingertip against her lips, earning the stares of every single Sime within reach of the dias.
      "Well, maybe that's your next step." Avilan raised an eyebrow at her. "Speaking of moving on, Alexandrya."
      Glad she had on her heaviest kador, "Yes, m'Lord Azov?"
      "When are you going to claim your ascension?" He pointed to her still bare wrists. "You've been a Sharm Lord for over two years now. Maybe it's time for you to grow up some as well."
      "I don't want to!" Lexi thought of all the things she'd have to give up. Parties along the river banks in summer. Hunting every fall in the forests. Snowshoeing and skiing in the winter. Even fishing and camping in the spring. It would be horrible. She'd be shacked to a suite and the barns forever then. "You can't make me."
      "No, I can't. But I can make sure you stop playing with those beneath your station," Avilan's eyes went hard again. "If you don't claim your ascension by Year's Turning, you will be banned from all lords in transfer."
      Lexi wanted to protest this high handed cruelty. However, it wouldn't do any good. She was in the wrong in this case. "Does that mean I can claim impersonals from Karola?"
      "As many as you like, Lexi. But I'll tell you one thing, after a few months of impersonals, you're going to feel like you've been under ban." His gaze was challenging. "Find a lord to ascend or catch a Lord for yourself, Lexi. Grow up finally."
      "I do good work," she looked out over the court, counting how many of her peers were here. It didn't take more than a moment. Most had paired off and had left early. Only bachelors and very young people remained. Nearly all the sharm lords had vanished entirely.
      "Work is not all of life," one of her mother's favorite sayings, from her step father, gave Lexi pause. "It took your mother years to learn it. How long will it take her daughter?"
      "I've never neglected my partners," her mother had been brutally honest with Lexi in some ways. Probably for the best, as Lexi had never quite managed to make the same mistakes her mother had. Of course not pissing off the Veiled probably helped. Lexi gave a brief prayer they'd overlook her momentary impiety. "Have you heard any complaints?"
      "No, but you've never settled down, either."
      "I want to," she grimaced.
      "Then find someone to settle down with and do it!"
      "I thought I had in Tanya," Avilan could be far too easy to talk with sometimes. Even worse than Diomid.
      "Then why did you sleep around on her?"
      "Tanya never said I couldn't."
      "But she never said you could, either." Avilan sighed. "Or at least you could have asked."
      "How do you know so much about it?'
      "I am Lord Azov, Lexi," he gave her a wry grin. "I hear all the gossip."
      "Oh," she blushed furiously. Lexi figured it could have been worse, exactly how, she wasn't sure, but fate had a kick like a mare who didn't want to be bred.

Chapter 2

      Val scrubbed his face and hands clean as fast as he could. Lexi had given him the afternoon, and all of tomorrow off work. This would be the first break he'd had since he started working in the barns.
      Taking the steps two at a time, he dashed up the front porch of the townhouse. Katrina'd promised to be waiting for him, and he hoped she'd be able to get away. Val had barely managed to drag himself into work this morning, even though from the zlin of her, Lexi had gotten even more potted than he'd zlinned last night.
      Oh well, her problem not his. Val slowed as he neared the blast doors. "Halt and be recognized," when reciting things from memory, even the renSimes had regular diction.
      "I am lord Valtanir Azovich Azov. I have been asked for by sharm lord Katrina Liranova Azov at official dusk." Even though it was currently only the middle of the afternoon. Val's heart pounded as he fretted the difference. He knew some lords came and went as they please, but no one had said he could. Sweat beaded on his brow as he waited for the clerk to decide.
      "At your will, lord Azov," he waved towards the doors. "Don't you two know anything?" His parting shot to the guards gave Val pause. "If lord Azovich wants you to hold his dick when he takes a piss, you do it, idiots!"
      "We didn't but know," the panicked reaction of the guard nearly made Val retrace his steps. But his blushes would have done nothing to settle the matter.
      "The fact he needs someone to hold his dick only makes it worse." Val blushed furiously. This was awful. Was this how people thought of him? "Now get it though your thick skulls he's not quite right in the head."
      "Hey," Val whispered, a slow burn of anger replacing his unease.
      "Too right," one of the guards chuckled. "Never but be zlinning so spineless an excuse for a lord. M'friend in the stable says he puked the first time he had te de so much as be gettin' his tender white hands near a cow's teats."
      "Think he's gonna puke first time he get's near a Gen's teats."
      "I would," the first made a retching sound.
      "Enough, you two," the lord snapped. "Don't be running down your betters so."
      "You were."
      "Yes, but I'm a lord and you're a ren. Keep your filthy mouths off him."
      "'Cause ye wan' te?"
      "Of course not," there was a sharp crack, as if someone had been slapped. Val grimaced and slunk away. He'd only do more harm than good if he went back. Someone should deal with such vulgarity and rudeness, but it certainly wasn't him. That somebody was an adult, not an half grown lord.
      Maybe mixing her annual examination and her first of many impersonal transfers wasn't such a good idea. Light gleamed off the scissors before her on the tray. Lexi cringed away from them, her stomach turning as badly as Vasha's ever had.
      Faced with cutting her hair, now she wasn't entire sure she could deal with going onto lord's transfer.
      "You're getting a bit old for this sort of nonsense, Alexandrya," one of her father's lieutenants, Gregory Sergeyevich, tapped his stylus on the wax tablet. "So, why are you here?"
      Through a throat suddenly as dry as sawdust, "Annual pelvic and production exam."
      "I can't do it when you're in need," he glared at her, as if she could do something about it herself.
      "Then get a twenty seven day lord in here and have her strip me," Lexi barely remembered to make the conversion. Azov was nearly four days ahead of Sergei.
      "For the exam?" He made a wave with his hand toward the scissors. "Clever Lexi."
      "Been here before," she sighed and leaned back against the padded seat. "I'll probably end up getting it cut, but not if I can weasel out of it."
      "I don't want your problems, that's for sure," he set down the tablet. "Let's do the physical part of this first and then I'll call for Lord Karola."
      "She's available?" Lexi paused in the midst of tugging off her gloves.
      "As long as you promise to make appropriate cooing noises at the baby." He grinned, nearly as smug as the new parents must be.
      "I think I can manage," Lexi hid her shiver expertly. One advantage to only sleeping with women, she'd found, was a lack of concern for pregnancy. And Lexi liked it that way. She had plenty to do keeping up with foals, calves, lambs, piglets and other young animals.
      The question and answer session must not have changed since the time of the ancients. How many sex partners have you had? What form of birth control are you using? Are you getting enough sleep? What sorts of things do you eat most? And so on, ad nauseum. It was deadly dull. Lexi briefly wondered if she should sometime write down the whole sequence on parchment and let her physician copy it. She'd had nearly the same answers to those questions since she was fifteen!
      "All right, Sharm Lord Alexandrya."
      "What?" She gave him 'the frown'.
      "You heard me," and only now did she note the single bracelet decorating his wrist. "Yes, I'm doing exams now. On the scale."
      A bit taken on the curb, Lexi stepped onto the measuring device. It beeped and she looked down. "Eighty two and twenty two percent," he scribbled these notes on his tablet. "Stand in front of the screen please," he waved towards it.
      Meekly, Lexi did as he bade. This was not going the way she'd expected. When did Gregori get his ascension? He'd not been much of a sharm lord, even though he did have the Sergei gifts, even if in fairly minor degree. A snort greeted her ruminations and she blushed down to her toenails.
      "Sorry," she wished she could remember not to think so loudly when she was naked. In her kador few people could overhear her thoughts, even if she screamed them to the aether. Her hands were smooth and white from not having been exposed to the sun since she was a child.
      "I hear all kinds of things, Lexi," he chuckled and turned to the intercom. "Strip, twenty eight in three o' two."
      "Twenty eight?" Lexi blinked. She was a match for Karola? That was an odd thought. Had she really grown in the last year?
      "Yes, actually," Gregory made a few more notes and set down his chart. "You could well make an Azov twenty eight if you ever got off your ass and worked for it."
      "And loose all those potential transfer partners?"
      "Not like you're going to get them anywhere else Lexi," his light blue eyes turned hard for an instant. "Sharm Lord Azov put us all on notice. You won't be pulling any lords from Sergei unless you ascend them."
      "That's not fair!" Lexi jumped to her feet.
      "Fair or not, that's life," Kirina entered the room. Her face was actually softer than Lexi had ever seen it before, as if something more wonderful than any human could ever expect to experience had happened to her. "Yes, my son, Miran is healthy and doing well."
      "Congratulations," the fact Kirina was Valtanir's sister hadn't really sunk in before. Now it did and Lexi found herself drooling a bit. Certainly Kirina had a depth it would take years for her brother to match, but the same quicksilver field was unmistakable. For a moment, Lexi had to pause and gather her wits. She couldn't' be thinking of taking, and ascending Valtanir? Foolishness. He was years from his ascension and years younger than she was.
      Val's hands were sweating as he fumbled the catch on Katrina's veil. She chuckled softly, a bit tight with need, he hoped, as her hand met his. Her eyes were smokey dark with a longing for something Val had never felt. Her hand too was shaking a bit as the metal threaded cloth fell away.
      For the first time in his adult life, Val looked full in the face of a Gen who was not a relative or a teacher. His heart was racing as he dared zlin. Katrina turned her face away, her nager skittering with nervousness. "It's all right," his fingertips traced over her slender shoulders.
      "I haven't done this before," her lower lip was caught in her teeth.
      "Neither have I," his voice broke ignominiously and Val blushed. Katrina giggled and ran her cool Gen fingertips over his upper arm. The touch seemed to go straight to his head. But even so there was a distance to it and his stomach clenched at the dissonance.
      "Excuse me," he held his arms to his waist, trying to get everything under control.
      "What is it?" Her hood fell back and shimmering rainbow of unfettered selyn danced through the ambient. It danced on Val's nerves with hobnailed boots.
      "Something I ate," cold, clammy sweat trickled down his flanks as the skin on his scalp seemed to shrink.
      "Should I call someone?" Her eyes flicked towards the emergency com in the corner.
      "Give me a moment," he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. The horrible swooping, falling sensations stilled a bit without the conflict between his vision and his other senses. He took a deep breath, willing his damned stomach to settle. After the crude comments of the renSimes earlier, he'd be shenned before he gave in again to his body.
      "Val, you're dead white," Katrina's voice made his eyes snap open. "I'm scared, Val."
      "Call," he bolted for the bathroom.
      "Room two fourteen, red two, repeat red two," Katrina's voice shook, but was blessedly clear.
      Val praised all the gods in heaven for her quick thinking as his body tried to reject everything he'd eaten since change over. It wasn't getting any better. He hurt, oh gods he hurt. Even his hair hurt. No one had ever said growing up would hurt like this.
      "Room two fourteen, what is the count?"
      "Oh shen," he could hear her run back to the com.
      "I don't know. It's Valtanir," panic made the poor young woman shriek. "Get a team here, stat!"
      "Try to stabilize him, a team's on the way."
      "Val, Val," Katrina's cool arm wrapped itself around his heaving shoulders. It had never been this bad before. Usually once he'd emptied his stomach, it stopped complaining for a little bit. "I'm here," she wiped his sweating brow with a damp cloth.
      "Thank you," he gulped, trying to breath through his muscles locking on him. "I wish ..." he couldn't put into words how sorry he was for not being able to do anything for her.
      "I know," her soft lips were so wonderfully cool on his temple. "I know."
      "Thank you," he sagged sideways with the release of the muscle spasms. "Oh gods I hurt."
      "Rest here with me," there was no pressure on him now, only a lassitude finally creeping through his limbs. Val knew this was a bad sign, but the peace it gave him was too wonderful to deny.
      "Oh gods, get here," Katrina whimpered, her field seemingly fading away to darkness. This wasn't supposed to happen. Gens were supposed to dim like this. "Someone, anyone," her pleading fell on nearly deaf ears. It was as if she were far away, down a long dark tunnel.
      Raphael nearly went through the damned door. Why had the shenned operator waited to ask who it was? A red two was nearly the most critical status in the book. Only a red one, complete cessation of circulation or a black, a kill, were worse.
      Right behind him, Dominic carried the special emergency supplies for Lords. There were things in there he hated using, but his partner could with a fair degree of safety.
      "Oh shen," Raphi hadn't waited to hear who'd gone down. "Get out the wet pack," he slid so he wrapped Valtanir in his nager as well as his arms. He wasn't much of a Sharm Lord, but Val's condition had to be painfully obvious even to the little three month sharm lord holding him.
      "Clear," Domi called out. Damn he was good. Raphi pulled the young woman back, nager and body both. The sharp scent of carmech turned Raphi's stomach, but Valtanir came out of his stupor with stunning speed.
      The nails on slate rasp of artificial need grated on Raphi's nerves. The young sharm lord he held shuddered and then began crying against his chest, even though she had to be in deepest need. "It will be all right," he stroked her soft hair. It was still so short it barely touched her delicate, shell like ears.
      "You'll be fine," he looked up as Domi managed to drag out Valtanir's laterals. Valtanir's face was a mask of bewildered anguish. He was not ready for this, none of it. Both he and Domi had heard of the problems Valtanir'd faced, but had tuned them out as mere rumors. Now he wondered. "I'll see you get a good transfer."
      "But I wish," her voice shattered. "I wanted him."
      "Oh, little one," he rocked her gently. "There will be other lords for you."
      "I wanted Val," the protestation of loyalty tugged at Raphi's heart. "But if this is best," she started to turn her head.
      "No, don't look," he held her close, as he would have a child of his body. "You don't want to see this." Neither did Raphael. Valtanir was fighting Domi with everything he had. Even the fact he was nearly in attrition did nothing to open his nager to Raphi's partner.
      "Do it, Domi," Raphael closed his eyes. "My word as Sharm Lord Raphael Azov."
      "Shen," Domi's raspy voiced curse made him flinch, but Raphi could feel Valtanir's heart failing. The ambient seemed to solidify and then shatter into a million pieces. The cry of a kill shattered the hissing of his own harsh breaths.
      He bowed his head over Katrina's. Now she'd never have the chance at young Valtanir. He was now Lord Valtanir, and if he didn't find a true partner in the next six months or so, he'd be dead. But then Raphi reminded himself, if he hadn't given Domi the order to ascend Valtanir, he'd be dead now.
      Lexi had a bit more sympathy for Vasha this morning. Her whole body ached from her hair to her toenails. She rolled over in bed and buried her head under the pillows. Why wasn't it winter yet? She still had work to do.
      Grumbling at the unfairness of it all, Lexi put on her lightest work kador and thinnest gloves. At least she was no longer high field, even though the pelvic examination had been excruciating yesterday, as she'd not managed to get at all post even with Kirina yanking down Lexi's field with all her substantial might.
      Seemed Lexi had gotten considerably tougher than the last time she'd gotten stuck with lord's transfer. It wasn't fair. All she wanted as a partner. Was it too much to ask she not go through the rest of her life alone? Even her mother had managed to find a permanent partner after she'd left Lexi's fathers.
      The sun hadn't come up yet, not this late in the year, as Lexi stumbled off to her chores. Milking cows was not particularly taxing, even though all Lexi could do was supervise. At last she made it to the warm, familiar barn. Breathing deeply of the wonderful odors of sweet straw, rich hay and heathy animals, her heart lightened. This was what she loved.
      The slender backs of the renSimes, bent over on their stools were the same as always. Even Valtanir was here. She blinked in confusion. Lexi thought she'd put him on seclusion. Even though her own fourth had been royally messed up, she'd not wanted his to be a disaster.
      Then she reached out to sense his field. It was nearly black, and twisted into tight knots, but the unhealthy churning was gone. What had happened? He shouldn't be out of bed with a nager like that. Even though as he rested his forehead on the cow's flank, Lexi didn't want to disturb him.
      He looked nearly peaceful like that. A far cry from the timid young man she'd first brought out to the cow byre. But that wasn't fair either. He'd not really been timid, had he? With her recent poor transfer, Lexi felt a sort of gentle sympathy for young Valtanir.
      Finishing within minutes of the renSimes, he poured his bucket into the trough with the rest. Other renSimes came in to herd the cows out to the surviving fall paddocks for what little sunshine was to be had before winter. Vasha was leaning heavily against a post.
      "Ye arigh?" One of the renSime who'd formerly tormented Vasha horribly was looking down at the young man sympathetically.
      "Yes, Vassily," he gave an off center smile and shoved himself off the post. "I'll be fine." His field seemed to slide away from hers. "Let me talk with her for a moment," he tipped his chin towards Lexi.
      "I'll be lettin' ye," Vassily winked and hurried out.
      "Yes, Alexandrya," it took another deep breath and a flinch for Vasha to straighten up completely.
      "You look like hell, Valtanir," she tried to put as much sympathy into her eyes as she could. "Want to talk about it?"
      "No," he turned his face away. "But I probably should." Lines formed around his mouth and eyes, the first she'd seen on his face.
      "Not in my barns. Not if you don't want to," she put a hand on his shoulder. He patted it, as she would a horse's shoulder and the gesture was actually rather comforting. "I have a couple of horses I have to get worked this afternoon."
      "Don't you have ... lords in lessons?" His pause before the rank made Lexi look at him more closely.
      "Don't say it," his jaw clenched. "I'm no longer throwing up everything I eat," he snorted darkly, "for the next few months until I'm dead."
      "Val," she licked her lips behind her veil. "What happened?"
      "I couldn't even manage to be a normal Sime," his face reddened, whether in anger or shame Lexi couldn't tell. He turned his face towards the loft. "It was an emergency ascension. I didn't kill. But I almost did kill," his eyes were dead as he looked at her again. "Katrina."
      "You made the right choices, Valtanir," new respect for him brought a new image of Vasha to her eyes. No longer did he look quite so young, so unformed. Now she could see the Sime in his movement, his eyes and it called to her. "I'm proud of you."
      "Thank you," he took her hand from his shoulder and kissed the back of it. "I appreciate your support."
      "You have it," she promised. This she could do for him, as she'd been trying. "Now, about those mares."
      "As long as it isn't because of my parents," his jaw clenched again and she could see the open doors reflected in his eyes. There was a longing for freedom there which was irresistible "Do you want to learn to hunt?"
      His eyes turned to saucers as he looked her in the eyes. Then he smiled like the four month lord she knew him to be. "Yes!" He breathed, clasping her hand. "I am so sick of the barn, I would be happy never to come back in here again."
      "You'd miss the cows," she told him.
      "True," he admitted with a soft chuckle. "But I could do without cleaning stalls."
      "You didn't have to do all of the barns in one day, Valtanir," she shook her head.
      "You told me to clean the stalls," his confusion was palpable.
      "In the one byre, Valtanir!"
      "Oh," his sheepish grin broke through like the sun after rain. "I should have asked."
      "Yes, open your mouth sometimes," she shook his hand for emphasis.
      "I'll have to try it."
      Like all of the children of Azov, Valtanir had trained his own horses. Even though in this, like in all things, he'd ended up with his elder siblings' castoffs. Pulling his saddle off the rack, he nearly squashed his still relatively new tentacles as he tossed it over his arm. They guarded his laterals with lightning speed.
      Lexi raised an eyebrow at him but said nothing, thankfully. The battered old thing had seen more generations of children than Val wanted to know about. He sighed and put it over the rail of the tie stall and reached for his mare's bridle.
      She snuffled him kindly with her graying muzzle, as if trying to figure out a stranger. The confusion in her soft amber eyes was painful. "It's me little Lashka," he crooned into her flicking ears. "It's little Val. Come to take you out for a walk."
      "Vasha ... Val, do you really want to ride her?" Lexi brought out a big, strapping stallion. He'd wondered who rode Melekush, as he'd bucked him, and all his near sibs off at one point or another in their education as horsemen. He'd even managed to dump Ilyan so hard he'd broken his collarbone! The only person he'd seen stay on the big stud for more than a few minutes was Arkay.
      "She's sweet," even though she wasn't even a Teke, but rather a Trakh like the rens rode. Being on the bottom of the heap, Val hadn't wanted to whine his way right out of riding altogether. He'd figured better to ride a nag than not at all. Not that Lashka was a nag, just old. "And I don't mind if you call me Vasha."
      "Grow a backbone Val," Mele took a swipe at Lexi she tugged so hard on the girth. She popped him on the nose and he glared at her. The glare was mutual. "You don't require any more backbone, Mele." The horse only looked over her head. "However you do have to listen to me." One ear flicked in Lexi's direction. "Yes, you," she tapped his nose and he finally lowered his gaze.
      Val had to smile at the little discussion. It was so much like those Arkay had with Kika. "So, how do I grow this backbone?"
      "What do you want, Val?" She turned to him and put her hand on her hip. "Well?"
      It wasn't something he'd thought about much. "I like riding," he stroked the side of Lashka's smooth face. Even though her cheek felt faintly cool now, not warm as it had when he'd been a child. The dissonance was painful in the extreme. Even this had been taken from him. Long hours alone, walking though the forests nearby on her back had filled many empty afternoons for a younger Valtanir. "I like needlework." He admitted shyly. "I like the cows and sheep and goats as well as horses."
      "Not pigs?" Lexi's eyes were soft behind her translucent veil.
      "No, not pigs," he shuddered at the memory of cleaning down the sty. They were filthy, disgusting animals. "Even though they weren't as bad clean."
      "What about the hawks and hounds?"
      "No, not as much," he tipped his head, trying to think about it. "I don't know about their fierceness. I think it's beautiful, but scary too."
      "Why did you say you wanted to go hunting?"
      "It was expected," he turned his attention back to his mare. She was familiar, unlike the uneasy conversation.
      "Val," Lexi's hand landed on his shoulder again. For an instant, he wished he could brush his cheek against it. "Why do you do only what other people want you to?"
      "Because they know better," his throat tightened up on him again. Why couldn't people just leave him alone? Like so many afternoons, he longed to ride out thataway, and not come back for hours. He'd done so as a child. As an adult, never again.
      "You know right from wrong too, Val," her hand tightened briefly. "You did right yesterday."
      "How do you know?" Guilt at having failed Katrina so desperately tore at him again and he sobbed into Lashka's heavy black mane. Gods it'd hurt having to turn her away. She'd so looked forward to having a personal transfer. It was tough for many of the youngest sharm lords to get them. He bit at his lower lip until he tasted the sweet copper of blood.
      "Don't hurt yourself, Val," Lexi stroked his back. "You are alive and have a chance to live. So is she. Let it go."
      "But I should never have promised more than I could give," he tightened his hands in Lashka's mane.
      "Did you know you couldn't give a normal transfer?"
      "What?" He turned to look into her face and realized she'd dropped her veil. "Why not?"
      "I can tell you are much, much healthier today, Val," her green gold eyes held only sympathy. "Perhaps your body was rejecting the backflow from those channels in your mind which make a Lord. I don't know. I'm not the physician. You'd have to ask my father, Diomid."
      "He's your father?" Lexi looked nothing like the massive Sharm Lord Sergei.
      "Oath father," her wry grin was utterly fascinating. "My blood father was Lord Alexander Azovich."
      "Oh," there was little Val could say to this. He'd always thought of Lexi as rather a fixture in the barns and paddocks of Azov. How she'd come to be there had never crossed his mind. "Lexi." He paused to take a deep breath.
      "Yes, Valtanir?" She'd stripped off her gloves as well and was brushing the tears from his cheeks.
      "Help me learn who I am." He held her hands to his face with his. "I do know this feels good."
      "It's a start," she smiled and her soft, cool lips brushed his forehead.
      "So," Lexi's heart was pounding with the absolute, stunning beauty of Valtanir's field throwing dizzying spirals into the ambient. It was as if he'd opened a box of rainbows. "Who do you want to ride?"
      He bit at his lower lip and looked around the barn. His eyes were bright with excitement as he looked back into hers. Cute did not begin to describe it. If only he were a few years older! Oh well, he'd find some other young Sharm Lord and she could then cheer them on. "I'd like to ride Mira."
      Lexi couldn't help but raise an eyebrow in surprise. Then she realized Mira was now an older, rather sedate broodmare and not the rakehell mare she'd been ten years ago when Alexi had trained her for Lord Karola. "Oh?" She looked pointedly at Lashka, who admittedly was an excellent mare for beginners, but she knew full well Val could ride Mele if he put his mind to it.
      "Who would you suggest?"
      "You're backsliding," she popped him one with her nager. He jumped as if she'd goosed him.
      "So I am," his long, dark eyelashes fluttered down over razor sharp, high cheekbones. Lexi had to get at least another ten kilos on this lad, and soon. He was far, far too thin. Too thin for what, Lexi didn't really want to think about at the moment. "I'd like to ride Dara."
      The midnight black mare, one of the first by Vayer's Chernye was a pip, but stunningly beautiful and with excellent gaits. This would be something to see.
      "Use my father's old saddle," Lexi pointed to the magnificently worked Lord's saddle which had been collecting saddlesoap and oil for the last two decades. "It should fit her."
      Val looked like he'd been run over by a gang plow. Before she could say anything more, he put up Lashka with a gentle pat and promise to turn her out.
      This was much better, Lexi noted as Val replaced his battered old student's saddle, which was about to fall apart, with the one Sasha'd made for himself. His fingers and tentacles caressed the ultrafine tooling he'd put into the skirts in reverent awe. As a young sharm lord, Lexi had tried to match the sort of work her father'd done, and never had any luck. He must have augmented a great deal to do some of it.
      Then he replaced Lashka's heavy, quite functional bridle with Dara's beautifully beaded and braided one. The difference in tack, or Val was unmistakable. He held his head up high now, looking out over the barn as if he owned it, which he did in a way. Then he got out Dara and the transformation was complete.
      She was being more than a pip today, bouncing around like a soap bubble in a high breeze, but Val only laughed at her and tickled her into accepting a quick grooming. Amazingly enough, she only snapped at him once, for which she got a sharp fist right on the end of the nose. Dara could be very, very mouthy for a mare.
      Lexi had forgotten all about her state of dishabille until they'd gotten out into the crisp fall air. Dara's tail was over her back and her hooves striking sparks from the flagstones. "Will you settle yourself a moment," Val clucked at her and scratched her under the jaw. Her eyes closed in bliss and he grabbed Mele's reins.
      "Thanks," there was no doubt he was competent. Mele stood like a plowhorse even as Val subdued a mare with his other hand. Now all she had to do was convince Val he was competent.
      Val vaulted into the saddle with far greater ease than he'd ever managed before. Of course Dara reared before his butt hit the saddle. He laughed at her and her ears slicked back. The instant her front feet hit the ground, she bucked nearly as high. "Hush," he kneed her into a walk, hoping she'd not hurt herself on the stone pavers.
      Her mouth opened, working the bits nervously. "Easy, Dasha, easy girlie," he murmured into one back turned ear. Oh this was magnificent. Sleek muscles slid beneath his knees as she lengthened her stride into a Teke's long, gliding walk.
      Certainly he'd ridden horses of Dara's quality, but never so young and never in such a wonderful saddle. He could feel every movement she made through the perfectly constructed apparatus of wood and leather. He stroked her sleek neck, already becoming fuzzy with the onset of cooler weather.
      At last he turned to see what was keeping Lexi. She was looking right at him, smiling. "And?" He let Dara prance a bit, reveling in the slick, gliding on ice feel of a good horse ready to run.
      "You look good together," she picked up her reins. "I think Dara will be getting a bit more exercise."
      Val started to protest then held back his words. No, this was what he wanted. Dara was not a stupid mare, just underexercised! He could feel her quiver with explosive energy. "Me too." He said quietly.
      "Good, she needs it," Lexi breathed and let Mele walk out. "I couldn't find anyone to keep her worked."
      "Why not?" She wasn't that tough to ride. Val's weight shifted easily with her nearly desperate attempts to levitate. Her ears were flicking madly back and forth. "I know, Dasha. You're about to pop. Wait a bit, little black one. We'll run soon. I know your feet tickle. Mine do too sometimes." Speaking mush to the horses had been something Val'd always enjoyed. They never chided him for sounding foolish or childish.
      Her hooves made tight, clipping sounds even on the thick loam of the forest floor as they passed off the courtyard. Even though Val had utterly no idea what gait Dara was performing. It seemed to encompass all of them! He sighed and felt for her mouth. Of course she gaped and fretted. "Walk a bit more, my girl."
      "Do you want to do the track, or just go out?" Lexi waved her hand towards the safe, conservative path cut through the forest. There were no surprises on the path, unlike if Val decided to go cross country. With an unfamiliar mare, Val had to think about it.
      "The path," he said as Dara launched herself into the air, yet again. "Even though I bet I can beat you."
      "You're on," her eyes narrowed. "What's the forfeit?"
      This was something Val'd rarely thought about. Usually when he bet with his sibs, they'd traded chores. Then he realized if he was going to win, on a strange horse against the best horseman bar none in the Demense, he was going to be a snarled mess afterwards. "A backrub."
      "You're on," her laughter rang from the trees.
      If Mele hadn't bobbled the last fence, it'd be Lexi face down on her bed in the tiny room behind her office in the barn. As it was, Val had ridden a masterful race and beaten them by a respectable half length. Mele had landed in a heap and Dara had flown over the meter and half obstacle with the grace of a gyrfalcon.
      Val sighed and stretched his arms over his head. He still hadn't gotten the testosterone rush to begin growing hair anywhere but his head and the image of him nearly nude sprawled over her bed sent a shiver of foreboding up her spine. "If you want another forfeit?"
      "No," she reassured him, resting her palm on his lower back. His muscles were one large knot from his tailbone to the base of his skull. Her fingers dug in, searching for the worst snarls. Finally she got over her reticence and straddled his slender hips.
      He moaned and stretched out under her ministrations. The perfect triangle of his shoulders tapering to his hips was beginning to take form as maturity reshaped his body from childhood. He'd already lost all his baby fat in being so sick and the feel of his muscles moving so near his sleek skin was pure adult Sime.
      His tentacles came out and bunched the covers into little heaps with their idle motions. It was the first time Lexi had seen Val so relaxed in any way. Usually he only used the strong digits as extra fingers, without the extra gestures so common to Simes comfortable with their larity.
      "Did you want to be Gen?" She asked softly, trying to figure out where things had gone so wrong for the youngest son of Azov.
      "No, not really," he sighed, pushing the blankets around his hands some more. "I knew late last winter I'd change over this summer. It wasn't as if I didn't have the time to think about it."
      "But did you want it?" She worked her way up his back slowly, then reached for a bit of the warming oil she used on the horse's legs. The scent was even more familiar than her own. The sharp bite of mint and clove filled the air. "I'd known all my life I'd establish."
      "None of Karola's children knew for certain which way they'd go until maturity," he looked up at her out of the corner of his eyes. "Some of us could guess. I did. I think Ilyan did. We both began maturing a bit before it actually happened. Vayer nearly got himself dead because of it." His snort was rather acerbic.
      "After that little lats up, the rest of us were raised as if we'd go either way." His eyes closed again as Lexi dug into the knots beneath his shoulderblades. "Even though Arkay had a really hard time finding enough side saddles." His chuckle brought forth one of her own. She remembered when he'd come storming out to the barns and dug out all those old children's side saddles. The three younger boys, all aside, had been amazingly cute together.
      "I never knew Sevrin much." He sighed, muscles knotting up again.
      "He was a hard child to get to know," Lexi reassured him, resting on him with all her weight. His back popped and he groaned, all eight handling tentacles plucking at the blankets in mindless pleasure. "I taught him as well as you and Ilyan."
      "I do remember that," he sighed, settling down deeper into the straw filled pallet. "But he rather avoided the rest of us."
      "Sevrin avoided everyone," Lexi managed to pop another knot in Val's spine. This time his hips flexed with his groan. Curious, she noted his body was actually trying to respond sexually to her massage. Ascending him had done a world of good.
      "Unless they had a leather bound spine and parchment leaves," he nuzzled the blankets beneath his cheek. "I never did."
      "What were you good at?"
      "Being good," his shrug was deftly sinuous. "Obedience."
      "Anything else?" She really wanted to ask if there were anything productive he'd been good at. "Other than riding."
      He chuckled softly. "Good mare between my legs." If Lexi hadn't known better, she'd have said Val'd made his first off color joke! She squeezed his ribs with her knees. "Oof, make it so I can't breathe."
      "One way to get you to shut up ... if you ever decide to talk enough!" She let her field glitter with humor.
      "Point taken," he tried resting his head on his arm, grumbled about his tentacles getting in the way, and settled for his hand. "Well, if I'd turned out Gen, I'd have taken my father's place at the head of Azov's fiber arts." His sigh seemed to come all the way up from his toes. "Now I can't even sew."
      "Why not?" She'd always thought it silly the way some sharm lords panicked if a Sime touched a needle. Lexi'd often thought it'd be convenient to have tentacles when doing fine needlework. Or even better when weaving or making lace.
      "Like any Sharm Lord would want such competition," his lips turned down in the bitter grimace she'd learned to hate. "No, such things are behind me now."
      "My father made the saddle you rode on today," Lexi wished she could brush away the hurt she sensed in Val's field.
      "But that's not the same," he shook his head. "I like the bright colors and softness of embroidery and weaving." His sigh would have done Mele proud. "I suppose I could decorate saddle blankets."
      "Val, you can do what you want," she leaned down and nipped the back of his neck in remonstrance. His groan of pleasure with the gesture rocked the bed. "All you have to do is decide what price you're willing to pay."
      All Val could think of was Lexi's lean, but still Gen soft body resting on top of his. "True," he would have agreed with anything she said at the moment. Why couldn't it have been like this with Katrina? He'd have liked to enjoy at least one good transfer in his life.
      His curiosity had been piqued by listening to the renSimes gossip in the barns after their work shifts. Perhaps it had not been overly polite of him to eavesdrop, but he'd learned an amazing amount. Now it was all behind him. Sure he'd try, it was expected of him, but Valtanir seriously doubted he'd find someone in time.
      The sense of a clock ticking down made him uneasy, despite Lexi's masterful backrub. "I don't know if I'm willing to pay the price, Alexandrya," his tentacles were trying to twine over his ear and he shooed them away. What a nuisance they were sometimes.
      Lexi's finger stroked over one questing digit and he shivered at the intimate contact. "Then do you really want it?"
      "I guess not," he tried again to think of what he really wanted ... and could have. "I don't know Lexi," she seemed done, so he rolled over and looked up at her. "I like riding horses. I like embroidery. I like good food and cooking." He trailed off, looking into her rather sharp featured face. There was an unease about her and he feared he knew why.
      "Not very Siminine, am I?" He rested his hands on her thighs.
      "I wouldn't exactly say so in that position, youngster," a very faint reddish tinge came to her cheeks and she looked away from him.
      "I'm quite afraid my libido is still on back order," he gave her a wry grin, realizing he'd managed to get the alpha mare to blush. It got worse, even the tips of her ears turning Kirov red.
      "Both kinds?" Her hands clutched his.
      "Yes, I'm afraid," he snorted. "Maybe at least my transfer libido will come in before it kills me."
      "Hey," her hands went cold under his.
      "What you feed horses," he let her slide off him. "Did you really think I'm such an innocent to not know the mechanics of procreation?" He tickled her under the chin, making the euphemism into a joke.
      "There's a lot more to it than mechanics, Val."
      "A fair bit of acrobatics as well," he'd have never thought Lexi, of all people would be shy about sex, of all things. Even he'd heard of her romps through Azov's lords. It was said Azov's mare rarely stood for fewer than three lords in a season. This might have been exaggeration, but it was still telling. "Lexi, I'm playing."
      "You're too young!" Her wail was wildly out of character. Val sat up and put his arm around her shoulders.
      "Not with my parents," he shook his head. "All of us, at least once, had seen both nageric and sexual intercourse between humans by the time we were ten. Some people might consider that abusive. To me it was very little different than working in the breeding shed with Arkay. It's a part of life."
      "Maybe that's why you don't have any libido." Lexi's suggestion had some merit.
      "Thinking about it, no, not likely," he studied his now well calloused hands. "More that it doesn't scare me, the way I've heard it can scare some young people."
      "Transfer never scared me!"
      "Of course not, you're Gen," he rested his head on her shoulder. There was something wonderfully comforting about sitting here talking with someone who was neither a potential threat or potential partner. "I would have been scared out of my mind at first transfer if I hadn't known what was going on."
      "I've never quite understood that," she leaned back against him. Their hands twined on her lap. "Why would a young Sime be afraid?"
      "No matter how much preparation, it can't portray the reality of change over," he shivered again at the memory. "Yes, first transfer felt good, but the fear something would go wrong was overwhelming."
      Her free hand came up and turned his face to her. "You were afraid you'd make a mistake in change over?"
      "Isn't that stupid?" He looked down towards her well defined, well muscled forearms. "I knew exactly how it should go and kept bugging my mother for time ticks until she was ready to pound me into the floor."
      "Why, in the names of all the little blue and green gods?"
      Avilan's favorite amused curse made Val chuckle. "Because I wanted to do it right."
      "You mean you missed out on what should be one of the most incredible experiences in your life because you were fretting about what your parents would think?" Her voice rose with every word.
      "Well, yes," put that way, it was rather stupid and Val realized he'd screwed up in simply a different way. "My first transfer, even though Avilan enjoyed it, or so it seemed, was rather unspectacular. I had more fun the first time I was allowed to go ride off into the forest myself, or even the first time I was allowed to stay out alone overnight."
      "Valtanir, quit being such a prig," she shook him by his shoulders. "First transfer is supposed to be the most wonderful event in anyone's life. It's one of the few times where you're supposed to be catered to and cosseted."
      "I know that, and knew that, intellectually, but I wanted to help, not mess it up," he spread his hands in supplication. "I survived."
      "Val," Lexi had, for some unknown reason, gathered him into her arms. His mother had done so quite often in the last few months before his change over, and now he knew why, because she'd have to let him go soon.
      "You don't have to push me away later, Lexi," Val tentatively hugged her back. "I'm not going to get attached to you in any way which is inappropriate."
      "Maybe you should do something inappropriate in your life!" She actually nipped Val's ear and he yelped.
      "But someone might get hurt," which for him, was the ultimate argument. "Better a less spectacular transfer for me, than hurting someone. If I'd messed it up, all my family would have been hurt. No, I wouldn't have killed, but I might have given Avilan or even myself a sick headache which would have spoiled all my mother's plans for a party afterwards." He gulped back the choking sensation of tears yet again. He might not have gotten post, but he didn't have the nice emotion deadening of need either.
      "I thought you wanted the party," Lexi cocked her head at him.
      "Of course I did," his tentacles gave away the lie, as usual, hiding deep in their sheathes at his unease. "Maybe I should take the veil."
      "No," Lexi's hands wrapped around his forearms protectively, as if she were actually afraid he wanted to have his handling tentacles removed. It wasn't as if they were truly necessary.
      "If I went below, I could then do my embroidery and weaving," her pale hands blurred in his vision.
      "Please don't, Valtanir," her fingers stroked his tentacle sheathes so very gently his tentacles came out to investigate their new playmates. "I ... no ... it would be very hard on many people if you took the veil, but if you truly want to, I won't stop you."
      "No," he had to look away from their joined hands, even though he couldn't turn his attention away from the feel of her skin beneath his tentacles. "I couldn't ride if I were below."
      "And Dara would miss you," one of her hands disengaged and traced his hairline. It felt far better than it should and Val looked away. No, this was not good. His heart was pounding again and the delicate, sweet perfume of her skin was going straight to his head.
      "We can't have that," he met her eyes and grinned. "She's a great mare, Lexi. You did a wonderful job with her."
      "She'd not easy," Lexi finally chuckled and relaxed a bit. "I went through three assistants before I took over her training myself. Most of the mares are nowhere near as aggressive."
      "But now she's wonderful," Val let an appropriate distance return between them. He did not want to force the last person who'd talk to him to drive him away. No, if Lexi drove him away as well, Val would take the veil, for then he'd be more than alone in the world, he'd be bereft as well.

Chapter 3

      By the end of November, Azov's animal industries had been settled in for the long Russian winter. Both Lexi and Valtanir had managed to survive impersonal transfers, Lexi with her hair, Val with his sanity and now the winter winds were beginning to arrive out of the north.
      Lexi, still wearing her simple light coat, and Val, wearing fur already, had decided to take one last inspection tour of the paddocks.
      "Would you settle yourself," Mele was being a pain in the ass. His bugling call knocked the frost off the trees overhead. Half of it had to have gone down the back of Lexi's jacket.
      "He's ready for spring," Val's eyes were bright and cheerful, despite the horrible dark circles under them. "What's he like then?"
      "Worse," Lexi shook her head, and the reins. Mele snorted and jittered on the crackling ground. "Easy, my lad," her voice went tight with worry for a moment. Neither of them were used to the ice yet, much less the layer of snow already blanketing the meadows. Dara pawed, or at least tried to, despite the fact they were moving forward, more or less.
      "Settle my lady love," Val's cooing to his mare did nothing for Lexi's blood pressure. His voice was mellowing to a honey sweet tenor, even if it did break with predictable regularity. "I love thee my raven wing beauty," her ears flicked back to Val and she sighed. Lexi could sense Dara's brittle energy smooth out with Val's soft words.
      "She likes it when you talk to her like that," Lexi grinned at her young friend.
      "Oh," he ducked his head and of course Dara shied into an ice covered bush. "Yes, is there a stray pheasant you are wanting to find?" His nonsense made Lexi giggle, even though Dara preened under Val's renewed attention. "You can hear her?"
      "Yes," she admitted, not entirely sure why. Only a handful of people knew what the Azov gift had been, and the fact she'd gotten it from her father. "I can hear all animals, but particularly horses."
      "I'd always heard sharm lords had an interest in horses," his easy seat on his mare gave lie to his supposition it was only sharm lords. "I suppose next spring ... no ... I don't suppose I'll see next spring."
      "Why are you so hard on yourself, Val?"
      "Because I want to do the right thing," his automatic response made her teeth grate. "What, I shouldn't?"
      "You don't have to beat yourself up to do the right thing," she turned and looked him in the face again. His heavy coat was drawn close around it, protecting his fair skin from the harsh light reflecting off the ice and snow. "Relax, Valtanir!"
      He snorted and scratched Dara's neck. She stretched it out, pulling the reins through Val's hands, and then flipping them in the air. "Goofy girl," he chuckled and retrieved them.
      "Is she hurting anything with her nonsense?"
      "No," he began plaiting Dara's mane with his tentacles. "But she's a horse."
      "Don't you deserve as much respect and attention?"
      "I got a lot of attention last month," his teeth nearly cracked with how hard he locked his jaw. "Not something I want to repeat."
      "Then go to the dance with me tonight," she dared him to get out for once. He'd immured himself in the barns since his parents had chivied him out of the nest.
      "What a romantic proposal," Dara picked that exact moment to buck and Val spent a moment getting her attention back on him. "You are the most silly mare in all the world, my pretty raven feather. What do you have for brains, my lovely, black swan down?"
      Lexi giggled again at him.
      "If it bothers you," his mouth shut with a snap.
      "No, I like it," she said in a rush. Mele, of course, took his rider's distraction as an excuse to try to scratch her off on a tree. "Now you are a gold plated bastard whose brains I should have cut off years ago." His irritation was a spiky knot behind her eyes and it only got worse.
      "I'm sorry, Mele," she shook his crest. "I do love you my fine gold, but sometimes you are a pain in the ass." He shook out his mane and returned his attention to any possible threats beneath the skeletal birch and aspen trees.
      "See, I do it too," she kept scratching Mele's crest. The first hums of pleasure came to her as he relaxed into the caress.
      "What's he saying?"
      "That he'd like you to go to the dance tonight."
      "You lie, Alexandrya," Val laughed. "But yes, I'll go. Don't know what I'll do there, but I'll go."
      "I think you'll enjoy it," she herself was looking forward to it. Even if she didn't stand a chance at attracting any lord she'd even want to think of ascending and bonding, she'd at least get the chance to look over some new stock.
      "You didn't tell me the dance was at Fatima, or that it was formal," Val plucked nervously at the front of his heavily embroidered overtunic.
      "Hush, Val," she brushed imaginary lint off the garment she'd loaned him. Lexi was wearing a fantastic sharm lord's kador with scenes of a winter hunt embroidered on it. "You'll do fine."
      "I've never been to formal court," and he had no idea if he could get his laterals to come out in public. They never had before. He still had a hard enough time getting his handling tentacles to come out to his own father!
      "It isn't formal court, Val," she twitched straight the high collar. He wondered if she were trying to choke him. "You don't have to expose your laterals."
      "Thanks for telling me now," even though if he'd have thought of it, he'd have remembered that little fact. He pulled at the loop holding the front placard closed.
      "Don't fuss so," she wet her fingers and ran them through his short hair.
      "Who's fussing," Val winked at her, finally realizing what she was doing.
      "Oh," she sat on her hands. "I was not," the full moon reflected off the snow and cast heavy shadows over Lexi's face. "We'll be there soon."
      "It isn't like Fatima is so far away," in kilometers, if not in attitude. Azov was very low key, even at formal court. Fatima could be so elaborate and ornate, a single line of stitching could invite the wearer to a challenge.
      "That's why I thought you'd enjoy," were her last words as the carriage came to a clattering halt. Val stepped out and handed her down, as he'd seen his mother hand down his father hundreds of times. "Elegant," she murmured in his ear as he took her on his arm.
      "Azov's mares deserve only the finest of courtship," he rested his hand over hers, covering it completely. For some reason, he didn't even want her gloved hand showing to the guards at the door.
      "Lord Valtanir Azovich Azov and sharm lord Alexandrya Iliranova Azov request and require admittance," after his little contrempts with the sharm guards at Azov, he was taking no chances.
      "At your will, my Lords," both bowed elegantly and let them in without even a second zlin.
      "Amazing," Val muttered under his breath to his mentor.
      "Truly," her thrumming voice was richer than Val'd ever heard it. "So emphatic, m'Lord."
      He ruthlessly quashed his incipient blush, "It has been said I need someone to hold my dick when I take a piss."
      "Oh gods, Val," Lexi's hand clamped on his arm. He turned and saw her brightly painted eyes clenched shut. "Oh, yes," her shoulders started to shake. "Dark hair, brown eyes, about a fifteen?"
      "Yes," he growled, not sure if she were mad he'd picked on her friend, or laughing at his being picked on.
      "Nati's an imbecile. He's gate guard because he's too stupid to give transfers to renSimes. Can't even figure out which glove goes on which foot." Her chuckles were becoming louder. "He's jealous, Val."
      "Oh," was all Val could say. Then he laughed too. "I was so hurt. I thought he thought I was to spineless to do anything."
      "So did I," her smile reached her eyes behind her veil. There were already a few lines at the corners, but they only emphasized the health of her body from a life spent outdoors. "I learned better."
      "Only that I'm too soft?" Bitter humor tasted like gall, but it was better than turning morose.
      "Val," her hand gently squeezed his bicep. "No," she began walking towards the great hall again, perforce taking him with her. "Only as stubborn as Arkay and as sensitive as Avilan."
      "Oh," he was still trying to figure out this unusual comparison when they entered Fatima's great hall.
      The evening had started out so well! Lexi took another drink of her starka and began triaging the damage. "No, I don't know exactly what Sharm Lord Fatima's plans are next spring for Kirakush," she told the droning, ancient lord who was sonorously attempting to get under her kador. "If you care to speak with me after Year's Turning, I can get you an appointment." If she were in luck, the fossil'd be dead by then.
      "Oh, not necessary," again the hand came out and reached for hers. Lexi tried to take another swig of anaesthetic and then realized her glass was empty.
      "If you'll excuse me," she stood up. This was a mistake. The room swayed wildly about her.
      "Oh, I'll get you another one," lord whatshername reached for the glass. "What are you drinking?"
      "No, no," Lexi managed to avoid another grope and threaded her way towards the back of the crowd. The high pitched laughter of a group of very young adults made her stop in her tracks.
      In all five colors of the Demense, a group of sharm lords were knotted around a slender figure in Azov green and gold. Something told Lexi to wait.
      "And then, when he'd managed to pull a camel out of the fishpond, Sharm Lord Vassily proclaimed he'd seen everything," riotous laughter broke out at what was obviously the punch line to a long, convoluted Sharm Lord Vassily joke. Even as a young sharm lord, Lexi had never gotten the point of such jokes.
      They were often extraordinarily crude and revolved around Sharm Lord Vassily, a creation who was so stupid he had to have help putting on his shoes every morning. What was Val doing telling jokes to a whole mob of sharm lords? The skin on Lexi's scalp tightened as the knot of young people closed in on Val.
      "But do you really have to go back?" A flash of nager, bright white with youth flashed into the ambient.
      "I'm afraid so," Val's voice was the artificially smooth tone he sometimes used with the horses. The hackles on Lexi's neck went up. On silent feet, she approached the crowd. "Even though if ..." Lexi broke in.
      "Valtanir," she called out to him. The flash of relief was only visible to a Sharm Lord, but to her it was blinding even though her kador.
      "I'm sorry, it seems my companion requires me for something," he deftly slid through the crowd surrounding him. "Alexandrya?"
      "Could you get me another glass of starka?" She prayed with all her might he'd get the clue of her swaying gait. Even though how much of it was feigned and how much for real was beyond her at the moment.
      "Certainly," he took her arm and led her over towards the bar. "Two starkas, citron in mine, pepper in the sharm lords?"
      "Yes, thank you," oh gods, if she had to drink her way though another entire glass of the stuff she'd throw up. Her stomach was beginning to get a bit queasy anyways, what with the heat of the room and the way the tiles beneath her feet swayed. "Actually, on second thought, citron in mine as well." The renSime flicked a tentacle at Val. He nodded. At least the lemony taste would come back better.
      "Here, let's sit and watch the dancers," Val took her arm and escorted her to a number of chairs against the wall. Lexi took a sip of her drink and nearly spit it out. It was pure, sweet water with a touch of honey and lemon. Oh, bless you Val, she thought to herself.
      He winked and took her hand in his. "Are you not feeling well?"
      Lexi didn't really want to ruin Val's evening, but he didn't look too well himself. She sipped a bit more of her drink, but the damage had been done. "No, not really," she looked around. There was an alcove, with the distinctive edging on the tapestry over it indicating a restroom.
      "Let me help," he caught her elbow and neatly guided her into the room, without hurrying, but amazingly quickly. The instant the door closed behind them, he stripped off her veil. It was just in time.
      Valtanir saw this coming from the moment they'd gotten into the hall. The first thing Lexi'd done, was head for the alcohol. Most Russians drank, but he'd noted Lexi tended to overdo it a bit. He wiped her sweating brow clean, glad he'd put out the in-use warning on the door.
      If he had to, he could ensconce Lexi on the rather sorry pallet in the next room to sleep it off. At last she leaned back and Val handed her a damp, clean cloth. She wiped her lips and swallowed heavily.
      "Lets get you out of your kador while you have the chance," he undid the laces and removed the incredibly heavy garment. The instant he'd hanged it up, she began shivering. He stripped off his own overtunic, as he knew this might get messy at some point. "Oh, my poor little one," he put a warm, wool throw over her shoulders. "You'll be alright in the morning."
      "I was to take care of you," for some reason Lexi's speech never slurred, no matter how drunk she got. No wonder the barkeeps kept giving it to her. "Screwed up. Now you're not gonna take one."
      "No," he shook his head. The unweaned puppies he'd put up with until Lexi's reappearance had been worse than vile. There'd been no Katrina among their number, who'd at least been interested in something beyond transfer and fucking. All the sharm lords he'd met tonight had been pawing his nager before they even knew his name.
      "Fucked up again, I did," she clasped her arms to her middle. "No good for nothing, old Lexi."
      "Hush," Val took Lexi in his arms, as he'd always wished to be taken himself when he was upset. "Hush," he brushed her long hair back from her face.
      "Can't even get the most gorgeous young Lord in Russia laid," her drunken mutterings were hitting a bit close to home. "Can't have him m'self. Gotta get him a good one. Can you sing?"
      Before Val could answer, Lexi began making the most horrible, warbling sounds. Then he realized it was supposed to be one of Val's favorite ballads. Ouch. "Lexi," he had to get her to shut up!
      "Yes Val," her eyes were wide, with their unique gold green emphasized by her cosmetics. Then her face crumbled, "I tried Val." She wailed and buried her face against his chest. He held her against him and her tears soaked through his shirt before she finally fell into a heavy, drunken slumber.
      Lexi woke to the all too familiar sensations of a hangover. What was not familiar was the warm body curled around hers. A slender, fine boned Sime hand was draped over her hip. Usually she got drunk only when she was between partners. Most Simes wouldn't get within a hundred meters of a sick drunk.
      Which from the truly vile taste in her mouth, she'd been. Oh gods, her head. A tiny whimper skulked through the muck covering her tongue. The odd Sime muttered something soothing and nuzzled the back of her neck. Then a tiny nip sent fresh selyn burning through the trash coating her nerves.
      The world snapped into blinding focus and her stomach revolted entirely.
      "Easy," a soft, frighteningly familiar voice murmured in her ear. "You'll be all right now. Trust me, Lexi." The purring tones wrapped her whole body in the softest, warmest wool. "Yes, my Lexi." Another soft kiss and it was done.
      "I'd always wondered if that would work," at last Lexi recognized the voice and groaned. "You don't feel better?"
      "Val," Lexi cringed at the thought of what his family would say about this little incident. Lexi was a grown woman. If she did something stupid like get roaring drunk at a party, made herself sick, and dragged her ass in to work hungover to hell and gone the next day, it wouldn't be the first time. Val, on the other hand, was as innocent as the first snow of the year and shouldn't even have been exposed to a sick drunk, much less been coerced into sleeping with one.
      Wiping her face clean, and trying to clean up the worst of the damage to the pallet she'd slept on, Lexi levered herself upright. She felt better than she'd ever done the morning after the night before, but better still wasn't well. Lexi peered at the clock on the wall. It was nearly official dawn.
      "Yes, I didn't abandon you, Lexi," his voice had lost none of the honey warm richness it had held. Was this what Val would sound like to his lover when he finally found one? Lexi wasn't sure she wanted to know. "We can still make it home before anyone notices we're missing. Or we can send the carriage home and visit with Fatima for a while." His hand went cold on her shoulder with this.
      "No, let's go back to Azov," she turned and finally looked him in the eyes this morning. His face was drawn down hollow, with huge dark circles under his eyes and lines around his mouth. "You look like hell, Val."
      "You look worse, Lexi," he chuckled softly and tapped her on the nose. "I don't think anyone will give a damn if I bring you home naked," he pulled off her now filthy shirt and began washing her off.
      "I'm not a mare," she couldn't believe he'd just swabbed off her breasts with about as much attention as he'd have given a mare's teats!
      "Nope, horses can't vomit."
      Lexi flinched. Gods Val's sense of humor could be vile at times. Then she had to laugh. It was true. And she'd have felt even more self conscious if he'd made a big deal about it. The soiled bedding he shoved into the laundry chute, along with her shirt. "Hey, how will I get it back."
      "I'll buy you a new one, Lexi," he rummaged around in the closet attached to the room. After pulling out his overtunic and her kador, he tossed her a soft, blessedly lightweight robe. It wasn't a kador, as it didn't have the metal threads interwoven with the wool, but it would be warm and comfortable. "Put this on."
      "Why so bossy?" She was curious, as much as her still fuzzy head would allow.
      "I like it when I'm sick," he grinned at her rather sheepishly. "It makes me feel secure, as if the world isn't falling apart and I'm not going to die any minute. Silly I suppose, but then few people have ever thought I'd ever amount to much."
      "Hush, Valtanir," she shrugged into the robe and cupped his chin with her hand. "Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I don't know how I can ever repay you for tonight."
      "You don't have to," he looked up at her through devastating dark lashes. Gods he was a beautiful young man.
      "I want to," Lexi forced herself to do nothing more than kiss his brow. Even if they'd been lovers, she'd not want to subject him to her breath this morning.
      Val got Lexi poured into her own bed and went out to look at the stars. Winter was fast approaching, a time he'd always enjoyed before. The moon was glorious with the light shimmering off the thin layer of snow on the ground. He sighed and leaned against a fence post.
      There were a few tracks across the paddock, the cloven hooves of deer, the long pointed ones of hare, even a torn up spot where some raptor had gone after dinner last night.
      The weather had turned frightfully cold after it had snowed last, and ice creeped up the walls of the barns forming great sprays of frost. Val's breath steamed in the icy air, giving him an idea. Instead of returning to the main house, he pulled out his pipe and lit it.
      Ever since Lexi had given him the delicate pipe, he kept it on him. Of course he didn't want his blood father to catch him smoking, but unless he stood right behind Val, he'd never know.
      Double checking to be sure Avilan was no where near, Val took the rich smoke deep into his lungs. Smoke trickled from his nostrils as he stood and thought. It had been rather interesting ... holding Lexi while she slept of the worst of her alcohol poisoning.
      Admittedly it was not consent. She'd throw him out into the snow permanently if Val were so stupid as to court her, and she'd have every right. Lexi was an adult, Val was not. There was nothing to be done about their age differences.
      Her question about what he wanted to do nagged at him like an untrimmed nail. But no file seemed appropriate to rasp it away. Tobacco glowed cherry red as he drew deeply on his pipe.
      "What do I want?" Val asked the silence before dawn. Most of the renSimes had been dismissed for their winter positions, and only a handful of them were left in the barns. After Year's Turning, there'd be none.
      Val didn't really know what he wanted. He tapped loose the ash from his pipe and refilled it. This would have been a substantial problem if he'd had more than a few months to live. But then to die without knowing the answer to that question was not particularly satisfactory, to Val's way of thinking.
      He leaned against the top railing of the fence and looked out toward the forest. Val'd spent a great deal of time looking out into these paddocks and wondering what skill or knowledge he'd be tested on next. There was one thing he could do.
      Neither his sibs or the fosterlings could match Val for his knowledge of the beasts and plants of Azov. Nor could they match his skill with either. Not that his parents knew of such.
      Val had always been humble about his depth of knowledge. He was the youngest. It would have been offensive to make his older sibs look like they hadn't studied the night before, even when they'd been up late to finish an embroidery project or because they'd forgotten to send down their laundry the morning before and so had to wash their underwear in the sink.
      Such difficulties did not happen to Valtanir. He'd organized his life so such incidents never occurred, and no matter how often his sibs insisted such events were accidents, this did not explain Val's freedom from such happenstance. He brushed a bit of caked snow off the rail.
      And now it was all for naught. He'd go to his grave like this, utterly alone as he'd never been before in his life. His teeth clenched on the pipe stem. No, he didn't like it. There was one thing he couldn't make obey his command, his future.
      Why had he been cursed with a body so unruly as to make a saint sweat through their kador? It was so far from fair, Val wondered if a demon had taken particular interest in him. But only for a moment. The world was too beautiful for their to be such things as demons. Val rested his chin on his laced tentacles.
      The cold air bit at them, but Val'd found he liked the feel of his own tentacles when alone and no one could see him. If there'd been anyone around, he'd have been embarrassed beyond words, as if someone had caught him with his pants unfastened and around his ankles. One dorsal brushed over his still smooth cheek and he let it.
      To him the soft velveteen skin felt good. It was so very different from the rest of his skin. Hamid, tonight, had teased him about his beardless cheeks and still cracking voice. There was little he could say about either. He flicked away a drop of moisture from his face.
      It was stupid to cry about something so inevitable. Val should have died in change over, he know that now. But as he'd done as his parents wanted, he'd managed to survive the experience, where he should have failed. Only a defective would be so insensitive as to not be able to enjoy transfer, or remain immature after six transfers.
      He put away his pipe and placed his face in his hands. There was no one outside of stone walls for kilometers. The cold ate into his skin, all the way into his chest. He'd miss Dara and Lexi and even Mele. What was it going to be like, he wondered? No one who'd given peace had ever written down their experiences as they escorted their nearest and dearest kin beyond the veil of Azrael's wings.
      There was something Val could do for Lexi's children, for he knew she'd have them someday. Something of himself could live on. He had the finest hand of all his sibs, and even his parents. He could not write of what it was like to die, but he could write of Azrael's approach, and Val's own perspective of his uprushing appointment with the angel of death.
      Lexi's back was chilled as she woke again, alone this time. Where had he gone? The last thing Lexi remembered was ... oh gods, her trying to sing. She groaned and put her face in her hands.
      This was not a success. She was starving, even as the smell of her own breath turned her stomach over. It was a lousy combination. Lonely could wait.
      Aching in every joint, particularly her knees and hips, Lexi staggered out of her office. No one was in yet, the skeletal winter staff not assigned yet and the fall gone.
      The skitter of rodents greeted her entry into the feed room. None of them were too fat, nor were too many pregnant, so Lexi ignored them. Of course mice and rats ate grain. The trick was to keep the losses to a minimum. Too many cats and they'd be doing as much damage to the place as the pests.
      Thinking of which, Lexi caught the bright flash of red as Ekatrin, a two year old queen managed to pounce on a mouse. Her mental cry of triumph made Lexi grin despite her remaining hangover. "Good girl, Eki," she gave the queen a mental caress and realized she was pregnant again.
      Good, they should get another good mouser or two out of her. Lexi'd had most of the barn cats spayed and neutered, but she always left the best two or three queens fertile, and a couple of outdoor toms. How they managed to get together, Lexi left to the felines, but she was not going to have any spraying animals in her barns. The studs could be bad enough over winter.
      Lexi groped around in the dark, trying to find the sweet feed. Unfortunately all she could smell at the moment was her breath. At last she tripped over the bin. "Ow!" Lexi cursed the makers of all such hard objects waiting for bare feet. She knew better than to wander around the animals barefoot, but didn't really care right now.
      The molasses, corn and oat mixture actually settled her stomach. She nibbled on a kernel of sweetened corn thoughtfully. The beets and carrots had been stored last week, but she didn't want to wander all the way across the barn to get some. And besides, they still had dirt and sand on them. The horse feed was at least clean.
      She picked an oat hull from between her teeth and trundled out to the pump. Thank all the gods Azov had indoor water pumps. Lexi still remembered carrying water from the great house to the barn at Kirov as a child. It had been far too cold for her to ever forget the experience.
      The first thing Lexi did was stick her head into the water. It was freezing! A high, tight whimper escaped her lips. But at least her head was the normal size now. She shivered all over and then took a drink from the pump. Animals did need clean water, which was always the excuse she made for keeping the watering systems in the barns spotless.
      Besides, in a way, she did have to drink out of their troughs and eat their food. Always present in the back of her mind, there was no way Lexi could get away from the four footed members of Azov. Brave Mele, elegant Kika, outrageous Dara ... they were a part of her heart and soul. As much so as the green and gold she wore or the blood which flowed in her veins.
      A light came on in the great house. Then another, and a third. Slowly so as not to frighten the animals, the winter lights began coming on in the barns. They never came on to full brightness in the winter, for their bodies would then be unable to tolerate the cold if they had to go out. But the light made it far easier for humans to work with them this time of year.
      Her senses picked out the renSimes approaching the barn. Lexi only now realized she was naked! "Ack!" She bolted for her office. If she let any experienced Sime zlin her now, they'd know she wasn't a sharm lord anymore. That she couldn't let happen. Once she got her ascension, Lexi knew she'd get dragged away from her animals and stuck in administration.
      She did not want to end up like Arkay Sergeyevich ... only allowed on horseback when all of his other duties permitted. Riding Simes was fun, but horses were better!
      "So fancy," Vassily eyed Val's clothes. He blushed, of course, and ducked his head. Vassily had helped him out a great deal when he'd first tried to find his way around the barns as a servant rather than young master.
      "Give me a moment," he hurried to his bunk. Pyoter, Boris and Khristov had already moved out for the winter, and all of Vassily's things were packed. Val shivered a bit as he slid out of his good shirt and breeches. Folding them neatly, even though they were to go into the wash, Val brushed his fingers over the fine cloth one last time.
      Not really regretting last night, even though a nap would have been pleasant, Val got into his work clothes. They were cold! He squirmed as his testicles tried to hid inside his body. Ouch! Carefully shaking out his boots, Val noted with relief the lack of occupants.
      He'd only forgotten to knock them out once. The one time a mouse had nested in the toe. It had been a memorable experience, particularly as everyone else had been too busy laughing to help Val as he hopped around the room on one foot. Shaking his head at the memory, he put them one, hopping from foot to foot in his hurry.
      These boots weren't tight fitting like the ones he'd had made to his measure. Of course they were also part of his room and board for working in the barn. He'd already racked up a huge selyn debt with no way to repay it. He did not want to make it any worse.
      Rubbing his hands to warm them, Val followed Vassily back into the barn. The older renSime was stroking Bettya's soft nose as she chewed her cud. The cow was too old to go out to the winter pastures anymore, and so was one of the ones bred late to produce winter milk. The heifers she'd produced were extraordinary, and she herself was of exceptionally sweet disposition.
      Val rested his hand on the cow's distended barrel. Right now she looked nearly as wide as she was tall. "Not long now, m'lady," he murmured into her back turned ear. "Soon."
      "She knows," Vassily met Val's eyes. The heavy lines on his face, formed by decades of wind and sun, formed deep crevices as he smiled. "She's but bein a good one these many years," he rubbed the cow's poll and she butted against his hand. "Yes, ye but be knowin me, ye do."
      "What do you do in winter, Vassily?"
      "Not much," he shrugged and wrinkled his nose. "Get meself bein warm after te fall. Mebbe be pattin a rear or two."
      "Ye old fraud," Lexi was still fussing with her veil as she came out of her office. She looked far, far better this morning than when Val had left her to finish sleeping off her drunk. "I know you."
      "Se ye do, m'lass," he winked, his bright eyes disappearing into his wrinkles. "Ye two be keepin m'childer up," he paused, "nor but be ye two keepin up all hours a te night too."
      "We won't," Val had to laugh. There was no way he could talk anyone into letting him be part of the winter barn crew. The position was for experienced, older people. Particularly sharm lords who could go without transfer for a month or two without dying of selyn insufficiency the way a Sime would.
      "Not this winter, Vassily," Lexi's eyes held more shadows than the low light could account for. "I'm not going to be able to stay past Year's Turning."
      "Why not?" Vassily snorted. "Ye got yerself this fresh, fine young buck here te be keepin ye warm. He'll not be strayin like te lasses ye keep picking."
      Lexi's blushes warmed the air. Respectfully, Val tried not to zlin. "Sharm lord Alexandrya is my mentor, not my mistress." He couldn't resist the alliteration. Lexi's blushes deepened.
      "Lord Valtanir is too young for me, renSime Vassily."
      "Not hardly," his tentacles flicked towards the two of them. "Ye strap him down and train him up right. He'll give ye a good enough warmin te make ye forget his age."
      "Vassily," now Valtanir was blushing. He shifted the straw bedding about on the floor with his toe. "Do you really think you should but be talkin like that about a sharm lord?" His discomfort deepened as he realized he'd slipped in his speech patterns. He bit at his lower lip.
      Lexi's attention pinned him to the stall wall like an arc light. His eyes rolled up in his head under her focused gaze and his knees quivered. This was what all the stories had spoken of. He found his mouth watering and his arms aching as they'd never done before. Now he knew what it was to need!
      Despite her lingering discomfort from last night, Lexi suddenly found herself in a high state of readiness to serve need ... Valtanir's! Swallowing back the roniplin rich saliva flooding her mouth, she desperately tried to draw her field back. She'd grabbed her lighter kador, thinking she'd only have one or two last renSimes to cope with for the rest of the week!
      "We have over a week to go," Lexi reminded Val, hoping he'd get the hint. It was pointless. His eyes were glazed with what was probably the first true lust he'd ever felt in his life. "Val," she popped her field under his nose. He started and came back to himself.
      "Yes, sharm lord Azovich," he shook his head, as if shaking off flies, even as Lexi saw his eyes still trying to unfocus. "Next week?"
      "I think not," her automatic reaction fell from her tongue into a heap on the floor. "Perhaps we should talk about it later."
      "Don't but be givin' her te hard a run, Val," Vassily clapped the younger man on the shoulder so hard Val nearly fell over. "Good strong un like our Alexandrya, she but bein mor'n a bit popular."
      "Don't worry about it Val," Lexi tried to reassure him.
      "I won't," he turned his face away. In profile, he was even more gorgeous. Why couldn't he be older? Say about a decade? Lexi rubbed the hair on her forearms flat again. It kept standing up around Val. Annoying to say the least. The one Lord she couldn't have, and he made her as much of a slut as any mare in season. "When do you think Bettya's going to calve?"
      "A few days," Val's simple question brought Lexi back to her senses. Concentrate on work, she reminded herself. If she could keep from thinking of Val's sleek warmth or his ... stop that! "Another heifer, good and strong." Lexi rested her hand on the cow's barrel next to Val's. "Nope, tomorrow or tonight."
      "I have to be gone," Vassily sighed, stroking Bettya's cheek. "Take care of 'em, will ye?" He asked the old cow.
      "We'll be fine," Lexi reassured the old renSime. "Ye take care of yerself and we'll but be seein' ye next spring, good an early."
      "Ye feed that one up right and he'll be doing right by ye, Lexi," old Vassily had to get in the last word. "Take 'im before some 'un else but be getting te him."
      "Go on wit ye," Val waved him towards the bunks. "We'll keep an eye on old Bettya for you."
      Vassily crossed his dorsals in what Lexi knew was an extraordinarily rude suggestion, only possible between two Simes. She popped her field at him too, but he jumped and bolted from the barn, laughing all the while. Silence descended, but for the steady chewing of the cows. "I'll shake down some hay." Val headed for the loft, neatly leaping for the pull hooks and making it in one grab.
      "Neat," Lexi began walking down the line of horses. Val forked hay into their mangers as Lexi checked for broken water lines, ill cleaned stalls, damaged wood work and other problems. Now the winter's work was truly beginning. Feed morning and night, make sure no one got hurt, and wait for spring. Long, boring but ultimately necessary. From now until first thaw, only the hunters would go out at all, and even then for only short periods of time. It was simply too much of a risk for the fine bloodstock and older animals who stayed near the great house in his barns.
      Val breathed deeply of the soothing smells of a healthy barn. To his now much more sensitive nose, the odors were even more calming. He pitched down the last of the hay and replaced the carved wooden fork. Someone had put a great deal of work into the simple implement, carving delicate tendrils into the hard wood.
      He caught the hooks and let himself back down. Lexi had dropped her veil and was scooping some more water out of the main trough. Val joined her, drinking deeply of the sweet water. It had been his hand which had cleaned the fixture so well he could taste the purity of the water.
      Remembering his father's tales of a time when all the water in the city had been fouled my man's madness, Val smiled at the changes which had been made. All children of the Demense knew Rodina had nearly died before the mutation. Azov's children were told the entire story, of exactly how man's excesses had poisoned the air, water and soil to the point where it could barely sustain life at all.
      He flicked out his tentacles and let the cold water wash off any bits of loose hay which might have tried to get into the sheaths. He'd only forgotten to clean them once. The abscess had healed in days, but it had hurt!
      "What are you thinking about?" Lexi's face was still pale, but her field was vibrant enough now he could zlin it without invading her privacy.
      "Only about how I used to grouse at your constant reminders to keep my tentacles clean," he flicked the last of the water off them before letting them retreat. Cold water in his tentacles sheathes was not a pleasant sensation. "That was until I got a bit of straw trapped in one."
      "Had to learn the hard way, did you?"
      "Yes," he grinned at her. "I suppose very few people ever learn by anything but experience," he tried to nudge her towards talking about last night.
      "I've never learned from some experiences," she shook her head and chuckled softly. "Thank you for last night."
      "You invited me," he lowered his eyes. "But you are quite welcome."
      "I just wish it hadn't been necessary."
      "Why do you do it?" Val leaned against the pump handle.
      "Don't know when to stop," her voice was soft in the early morning hush. "I suppose that could be rather general for me."
      "As I don't know when to start?" He wished for this quiet time to never stop. It was so peaceful here with the contented animals and the steady sounds of their chewing.
      "One way to put it," a gesture caught his movement sensitive eyes. Lexi stripped off her gloves and flipped them over her shoulder. "I hate wearing the things all the time."
      "Why do you?" He wished she'd turn her full attention to him again. Earlier this morning it had been more wonderful than anything else he'd ever felt.
      "Don't want to spook a Sime around the animals," she rinsed off her alabaster white hands in the clear water. The shimmering effect of selyn through water made Val's laterals flick out in astonishment. She chuckled and turned her hands over. His face burned with being caught out zlinning. "You're fine now, Valtanir."
      "How so?" He made sure they'd not escape again by holding his own arms.
      "Don't hurt yourself," Lexi's soft, nearly golden eyes stared pointedly at his hands. "You know when to zlin and when not to now."
      "If you're sure."
      "You're not?"
      "No," he looked away from her intent gaze. "Not at all. This morning ..."
      "You were fine, Valtanir," her soft, low voice brought his attention back. "Of course your body would react to the nearness of what it thinks is an appropriate Gen."
      "Any appropriate Gen, you mean," again his was disgusted as his absolute lack of control. Val had no business thinking of Lexi in such a fashion. It was no more dignified than lusting after some renGen.
      "If you think that way about me," her jaw set into its usual stubborn lines and her field flared a bitter, dark orange.
      Val realized he's stepped right on Lexi's feelings and promptly backtracked, "No, not you specifically, Lexi."
      "Oh?" From the way she was looking right over the top of Val's head, Lexi was not at all mollified.
      "You are my dearest friend and most wonderful teacher, Alexandrya," Val bowed to her, as a ren would to a Sharm Lord. "I'd not risk our friendship for any amount of selyn in the world." Her hands dripped crystal tears to plink back into the water.
      "Are you sure?" Fine white lines framed her mouth and eyes.
      "Yes," he reached out and brushed the back of her hand. This time he was ready for the flare of desire and quashed it before it could ruin the peace he'd hoped to make with her.
      It had been far too long for Lexi. She grabbed Val's tentacles before they could get away. The warm, wonderfully alive, indescribable feel of the silken digits cut through the chill of the water like a knife. A very sharp knife.
      His gasp brought her back to her senses and she released her hold. But instead of flicking away, they traced slowly though the dampness left as Val stared at her with hot, black eyes. Lexi could sense the desire rising off him in waves, even as he asked, "Why did you do that?"
      "Because I wanted to," she couldn't think of any better answer.
      He blinked and then his tentacles vanished back into their sheathes. "Aren't your hands cold?"
      "Not now," she grinned at him. "You warmed them quite nicely." He's too shenned young, Lexi, she reminded herself. But with him standing there, not half a meter away, nearly close enough she could feel the heat rising off his body, hers was decidedly unruly. All the hair on her arms was standing up beneath the concealing sleeves of her kador. "So, food."
      "Yes, breakfast," the chill returned between them. This was a good thing. The admonition fell flat, with a thud. "I'm not so sure you wish to go to the sharm dressed as you are?"
      "Why not?" Her sense of the perverse reasserted itself. "I'm dressed."
      "Not really." When had he gotten so tall? Lexi found herself looking up at him. "You should at least put on another layer."
      "Why are you so stuffy?" Lexi turned away and stomped back to her office. Dara looked up at her over her own breakfast and snorted clear a bit of dust. "Don't you know how to play?"
      "Harp, guitar, violin, even a bit of flute," his tone was utterly deadpan.
      "Val!" She snapped before sensing the humor in his field. "I swear you're going to be the death of me."
      "I could make a really obscene joke out of that," one corner of his mouth twitched upwards. "But I'll leave the words as an exercise to the student." Lexi blushed all the way down. "Even though I am the student here."
      "Yes," this was an excellent reminder. "I'll be a moment." Lexi escaped into her office. There was nothing hanging on the rack. Absolutely nothing. Not even a spare veil. Where had they all gone? She turned as Val strolled in.
      "Get out!" She pointed towards the door.
      "I've seen you naked before, Lexi," he leaned against the door frame. "Last night, as a matter of fact."
      She hid her face in her bare hands. "Oh gods," now she remembered Val holding her sick head over the basin. What had she done? How badly had she screwed things up. "Don't tell me I took you away from the party last night?"
      "No, I had to bring you home," this was far worse. "You drank a bit too much."
      "I ..." she didn't want to admit how often she did so. "What was the sharm lord's name?"
      "Who?" His brilliant blue eyes blinked as if he hadn't a clue what she was talking about.
      "The sharm lord I took you from."
      "There was no one," the muscles at the back of his jaw flexed. "I'd been hoping to find you soon to go."
      "Didn't you enjoy the dancing?" Lexi flailed around in her morass, probably sinking herself in deeper.
      "I hardly got a chance to dance."
      "Oh shen," this was too awful. How could she have made such a fool of herself, and in front of Valtanir?
      "Such language, from a ... sharm lord?" The pause before the title made Lexi cringe. "No, you aren't a sharm lord, are you?"
      "No," she studied the intricate lines in the wood of her desk. "I'm not."
      "Then why do you still wear a veil?"
      "Because I don't want to end up like your father," Lexi's short temper finally broke. "I like it here in the barns. I don't want to end up in the house for the rest of my life."
      "What does want have to do with anything, Lexi?" The ripping snarl in Val's voice made Lexi's hormones do little flips. "I've never had such a luxury."
      "Then take it," Lexi wasn't sure if she wanted to hit him or kiss him. No, neither would be right. "You have the choice to make, Valtanir. Make it."
      "Not before breakfast." With this odd pronouncement, Val stormed out. What? How could he leave in midarguement. That wasn't fair. Lexi started to run after him and realized she was more than half naked.
      "Get back here!" She shouted at the top of her lungs.
      "No," he said simply and kept walking.

Chapter 4

      Val knew the instant he left, he'd made a huge mistake. Reflected in an unlit window, was Lexi's form outlined by the low barn lights. No, he couldn't go back. No matter how fascinating her nager, she'd never speak to him again if he actually pursued her.
      No, he had to find someone his own age. Lexi could well take care of herself. Trying to convince himself of this while shaking down to his toes was tough. Of course the cold morning air might be causing his shivers. That had to be it.
      His stomach tried to be oh so delicate again. No he could quash its impudence with ease and did so. After stomping off dew and no small quantity of mud, Val made his way down to the blast doors. The lord Lexi'd mentioned last night was here again.
      This time Val didn't even think to wait, but rather narrowed his eyes at the man. Amazing, Val hadn't known anyone could whimper nagerically. It felt like his field just melted away into a little puddle at his feet. Val nodded calmly and strolled through the doors.
      "At your will, m'Lord Valtanir."
      "Be well and do your best," he'd heard the rote responses so many times in his life, he rarely thought about them, even as he said them. But this time was different and he looked into the faces of the renSime guards. They were looking straight ahead, even as they zlinned the fringes of Val's field. "I mean it."
      "Yer a good'un," the younger of the two winked as he passed by. Val smiled as he followed the well worn path in the stone floor. His work clothes were not as wildly out of place as he would have thought when he reached the common dining area. More than a few rens were dressed in coarse work clothes as well.
      Along with a breakfast roll, some cheese and an apple, Val grabbed a writing tablet and stylus. There were always dozens of the wax covered tablets set out along with meals, as many renGens and other denizens of the sharm were avid note takers.
      Not that such notes lasted longer than a day or so. But he'd found as a child, writing things down helped him think. Perhaps writing down his experiences now, might help some future child avoid the trap he'd fallen into.
      Even here, in the heart of Azov, with nearly a dozen sharm lords within easy reach, Val felt no draw towards the opposite larity. Katrina had been sweet, even though Val knew then, and now, she'd never have been more than a single seclusion's partner.
      But Val wished to hell he'd been able to give her even so much status. Even though he was the youngest of his parent's adult children, to have caught an Azovich would have greatly improved Katrina's chances of catching her next partner. "No," Val looked over the neatly arranged tables. He couldn't let his failure taint her.
      "If you could find where Katrina Liranova works?" He asked a renGen servitor.
      "De ye think ..." Val cut him off.
      "Yes?" He raised an eyebrow. It worked for his mother, more often than not. The renGen gulped and nodded. "She probably works with the silk and ribbon looms, but I'm not sure."
      "Then I'll get te it," he scurried off as if Val'd lit a fire under his tail. Good. He didn't have the time to waste and far too much to do.
      Lexi finally remembered she'd sent all her spare kadors off to be cleaned in preparation for winter. Blast. Well, to hell with it. She threw a spare cloak over her shoulders and decided to brave her way through. If she were going to be forced to show herself as a Sharm Lord, she might as well take advantage of some of the privileges.
      Crushed rock crunched beneath her weight, even as Val had made his way silently across the surface. How did he managed to move so neatly? No other Lords moved like they were made of light and steel. The crisp air felt exceedingly strange against her bare face.
      She'd not gone outdoors since she was a teenager unveiled and the odd sensation made her turn her face into the wispy breeze. It felt wonderful! Her skin drank up the moisture in the air as if she'd not had a taste of water for days.
      The guards at the door stared at her. "Stop that," she flicked her nager at them. They came to rigid attention, quivering in their nervousness.
      "At your will, Sharm Lord Alexandrya," this was no improvement.
      "Be well and do your best," she stroked them both gently and the younger of the two bit his lower lip. "You'll be fine." She purred on the way by.
      "Thank ye," his voice cracked. Pity made Lexi speed her steps. It would only make the lad's nerves worse if she stayed nearby. Now sand on stone hissed beneath her feet. Where to go?
      "He's below," Nati's voice was marred by his usual sneer. Lexi just looked at him. The dark haired man paled. She could hear his chair shift on the stone floor as he scooted away from her. She kept looking at him. At last he dropped his eyes, "m'Lord."
      "Very good," she reached out as if to pat him on the head. He whitened even further and ducked the gesture.
      "At your will, Sharm Lord Alexandrya."
      She couldn't resist. "Be well and do your best," the sharm guards choked. To speak to a lord as if he were ren was the height of obnoxiousness. Lexi was still hungover enough to enjoy it.
      "He's off to get breakfast."
      Lexi's eyes widened at this snippet of information. Was everyone already mating her with Val? If so, how could she take advantage of this. No, she couldn't do that. Just because he turned her insides to mush and her arms to frantic, she'd not take advantage of his youth.
      Still thinking over this astonishing turn of events, Lexi puttered her way though selecting breakfast. She didn't really want to eat, but knew the moment she put real food in her mouth, she'd be ravenous. At least here in the sharm, she could reap some of the rewards of her hard work.
      "Ah, I see someone finally decided to serve the last of Pyotr," Lexi speared a huge slice of ham from the platter. A lord nearby turned green and swallowed heavily. Well, he shouldn't have been sitting so near the Gen's section.
      "Good morning, m'Lord," Val's voice crawled up her spine, through her hair and ended up tickling the roniplin glands in her mouth into overdrive. It was entirely unfair how beautifully he could speak.
      "Let's try this again," she turned and then studied her breakfast. His arm had been so very gently wrapped around young Katrina's shoulders. "Good morning, m'Lord." Nope, the steak, eggs and bread hadn't changed any in the last fifteen seconds. And she doubted they would at any time in the future until she ate them.
      "Good morning," even Lexi had a better voice than this lass and she looked up in astonishment. "I'll give him back if you want him?"
      "No, no," she shook her head and prepared to bolt. "Go right ahead."
      "You don't want me?" His perfect little boy imitation was completely wrecked by the blatant wink he gave her.
      "Not like that, my friend," she leaned very heavily on the word 'friend'. "Even though I would like to have you after breakfast." That didn't come out right.
      "I'm not in hard need yet," his big blue eyes were bottomless. Lexi sputtered and stammered helplessly. Katrina giggled, her own brown eyes merrily alight as well. "Just playing, Lexi."
      "Teach me to ever say you can't do something," her heart was hammering so hard she knew every Sime in twenty meters could zlin it. "If you'll excuse me?"
      "Certainly," Katrina ducked her head and turned to Val. "Thank you so very much, m'Lord. I would never have asked ..."
      "And so it is a gift, freely given."
      "As I couldn't give?"
      "No," he shook his head. "Not that. I appreciate more than I can ever say what you've done for me," with that, he kissed Katrina's brow softly. "Thank you."
      "You are quite welcome, and don't let that Sharm Lord eat you alive!" Lexi thought for a moment Katrina was talking about her. Nah, couldn't be. "Good luck!" And she wandered off. Wait a minute. This wasn't the way things were supposed to go.
      "So, would you like to sit down or are you going to play statue while you eat?"
      Val's heart pounded in his chest. Katrina had given him some extraordinary advice, putting it into effect however ...
      "I think I'd like to sit," Lexi'd never zlinned this flustered before. Chantir, another Sharm Lord, gave the two of them a hard stare. The chair he sat on creaked as he shifted his weight to stand.
      "No, no, you don't have to get up," Lexi's normally rather rough voice was breathy.
      "But you are leaving a Lord to stand, m'Lord," his smooth baritone was backed by an equally smooth nager. "Please, sit," he waved towards the chair he'd vacated. Lexi was so flustered she took it. Val grinned and bit at his lower lip.
      *Would you like help?* Chantir's sending smacked Val right on the wrists before he figured out what was going on. But the citrusy tang of amusement was crystal clear, even if Val'd never sensed it before in his life. He nodded.
      "Here, let me help you," his velvet dark eyes were crinkled with faint sun lines at the corners, very much like Lexi's. He pulled out another chair, right next to her. Val sat, letting Chantir stroke his hair. Lexi scooted her chair closer.
      Chantir sat at his other side, just as close. Between the two, both high field Sharm Lords, Val's eyes threatened to roll up in his head again. This was not quite what he'd expected. "Here," Chantir pulled out a soft cloth and deftly brushed it over Val's forearms.
      Lexi's nager spiked into the visible at the deft teasing and a chair clattered to the floor. "Not over breakfast!" One of Val's peers, lord Gartin, snapped.
      "So sorry," Val tried to make his apologies, while panting for breath. It didn't come out very well. He rescued one of his hands from Chantir's and used it to tug loose the tight collar of his shirt. Or at least he tried and found out he was still only wearing his loose work tunic.
      Gartin flicked a tentacle against his front teeth. Val lunged to his feet. No twenty two day lord was going to tell him to fuck off! Both his hands were caught and he found himself dragged backwards.
      "No fighting!" Silverware clattered against ceramic as people scattered.
      "Take that back," Val growled deep in his throat.
      One of his hands was almost free. Something was slicking the hold they had on him. "Because you are no lord if you insult your Demense this way," he flicked his field over both Sharm Lords.
      "Oh?" His swagger brought a red film to Val's eyes. His breath was hissing between his teeth. "I only see a chicken too tough to stew and a hen too old to lay."
      Both hands released their grasp. Using the momentum he'd gained so far, Val leaped over the table and rolled into Gartin's feet. An elbow jabbed him in the ribs. Air whooshed out of his lungs.
      Fury drove Val's nager into a spike to displace his tormenter. A man's scream shocked him back to awareness. He came to, kneeling on Gartin's chest. He looked down into the young lord's face. "Care to take back your words?" Gartin shivered beneath him. His fear twined with Val's soul, an incubus reaching for his life.
      All his tentacles lashed out. "Or do you prefer to Challenge?"
      "No," Gartin stammered. The stink of ammonia announced he'd terrified the young man so badly his bladder had cut loose. But this had to be finished, even as Valtanir's own nerve threatened to break.
      "Then done," he stood and offered Gartin a hand up, tentacles carefully sheathed.
      "I beg your forgiveness for my hasty words," Gartin sank to his knees before the two Sharm Lords, all four laterals extended to prove his honesty. And to give them the choice of accepting his apology.
      "Who was it who said something about disrupting breakfast?" Chantir gave the young lord a wry grin.
      "I did," he ducked his head and cast a rather reddened flicker of his field towards Val.
      "Jealous, perhaps?" Lexi's field had faded to a rather sorry shade of gray and smelled of must and mold. *Finish this,* Val sent his new ally.
      All he got was a pulse of assent, but all of Val's attention was on Lexi as Chantir finished off the little ritual with Gartin. Her face had paled even further and Val could zlin her sway on her feet. Finally it was done and he could go back to her side.
      "Sorry," he righted her chair for her.
      "You don't have to apologize," she nearly fell into her seat. Val picked up her fork and speared a piece of egg. It was cold, but it was calories. Lexi made a face, but opened her mouth anyways. After a couple of bites, she went back to growling at him and took her fork back.
      "So, are you going to be staying in with us this winter, Alexandrya?" Chantir leaned back in his chair, neatly wrapping his arm around Val's shoulders. At least his skin didn't crawl with Chantir's touch, but it didn't do much for him either. Katrina had been right. He was fixated on Lexi. This was an even worse mess than he could have imagined.
      "No," Lexi couldn't face having to deal with Val everyday. Not now. Not anymore. When had he grown so strong and big? Besides that, when had she wanted a big, strong Lord? Her past partners had always deferred to her wishes, letting Lexi take care of herself. Which she wasn't too bad at, if she did say so herself. "I'll be staying in the horse barn after Year's Turning." When all hunting stopped until thaw, or disaster.
      They could bring the hunters out in winter, if they had to in order to thin down the wolf population, but she hoped they wouldn't this winter. The chance of gruesome injuries went up a hundred fold with a mid-winter hunt.
      Another lump of ham made it past the knot in her throat. What was this all about?
      "Good," Val's warmth spread little fingers of desire through all of Lexi's nerves. "I'll not be staying in this winter either." He caught her eyes and shook his head slightly.
      "But ..." ghostly fingers stopped her from what she'd been going to say. Annoyed, Lexi glared at him.
      "I think the peace and quiet of simple work would be best for me until spring," his blue eyes seemed to expand until that was all Lexi could see. Her fork was paused midway to her mouth. "Eat, Sharm Lord Alexandrya."
      "I am," she chomped so hard on the now empty fork she nearly chipped a tooth. If Val'd snickered, she would have thumped him. But he gave her no excuse.
      "I'm sure your parents would agree," Chantir was no help whatsoever. When had she thought he would be? He was nearly as young as Val, having managed to ascend himself through a fluke.
      "No, no fluke," he turned his face away. Now if Lexi were to ever have any interest in another Sharm Lord, she'd certainly not turn away Chantir! His gracefully planned profile nearly echoed the much finer profile of Val. No, that couldn't be right. His smile made her heart pause. "Yes, Valtanir is my uncle."
      "What in hell did you let him get into, Lexi?" Avilan's honey rich tenor brought all conversation in the hall to a dead stop. "Can't you even keep one, young, Sime under control?" His sapphire eyes caught hers.
      "But ..." she couldn't come up with anything to say. She gulped and nearly choked on some unswallowed tea. Val pounding on her back only sent it up her nose. It didn't smell any better. "Um," she finally managed to choke out.
      "And you, Chantir?" He leaned against the table. "How did you let things gets so out of control?" The way he was ignoring Val entirely sent a slow burn of anger up Lexi's spine.
      "Gartin was being an ass, Avilan," Lexi figured she was a Sharm Lord now too and didn't have to use any honorific. Besides, she'd worked with the man for the last dozen years! "Lay off."
      "He's my son," Avilan's jaw clenched and Lexi knew they were in for one of Avilan's very rare, and very violent explosions. "You, of all people, should know of Azov's tempers."
      "Indeed I do," she shot to her feet and glared up at him. This wasn't very effective. Normally Avilan was amazingly good natured, but when he wasn't ...
      "Sharm Lord Azov," Val's tugging at her shoulder did nothing but fire Lexi's temper even hotter. Before he could do something stupid, like apologize, Lexi broke in again.
      "He was defending mine and Sharm Lord Chantir's honor."
      "You?" He crossed his arms over his chest. "What honor?" A gasping murmur ran through the hall. "How many has it been this month?"
      "You take that back," now Lexi was holding Val back. Sure Val had stomped Gartin into the floor. If he went for his father, Val'd be smashed into paste. "She's been working."
      "Never stopped you before," he flicked imaginary lint from his sleeves. "Has it Alexandrya?"
      "It has this time," she narrowed her eyes at him, thinking of he'd barred her from all personal transfer. "It's all your fault I haven't had a good transfer in two months."
      "Why did you do that to her?" Val was vibrating with fury. "She hasn't done anything wrong."
      "Hasn't done a whole lot right, either," he moved so close he towered over both of them. "Now here me, you two. I've had enough of both of your fooling around. You, Lexi, will stay in this winter. I'm sick and tired of cosseting your whims about neglecting your appropriate duties.
      "And you, Lord Valtanir, are going to get it through your thick Sime skull you need to take your selyn from a Gen, not a Sime. We flat out don't have the Lords to keep you going. Your mother and brother, Vayer, are the only two who can keep up with you. Both of them have their own work. Get over it. Find someone, like your uncle, who is of an age and acceptable." Even Chantir paled at this pronouncement.
      The entire room stayed silent as Sharm Lord Avilan Azov swept back out. Lexi gaped as he slammed the door.
      Val's chest heaved as he fought to force tears past the dryness in his eyes. Too near need to cry, he gasped for breath as if he were drowning. How could his father do this to him? Hadn't he tried to please him? What had he done so wrong as to deserve this?
      "Hush my lad, hush my little one," Lexi's voice was softer than he'd ever heard it ... other than when speaking to a four footed animal. With a desperate wail, he threw himself into her arms. Buffered by her field, tears began streaming down his face. "Yes, little Val, cry." Her hands seemed to hold his entire body.
      "You didn't do anything wrong, pretty one," her words made little sense. Val held her back as she rocked him in her lap. The easy, smooth motion seemed to wear away the worst of his heartbreak. "You'll be all right."
      "No I won't," for some reason he didn't feel like being diplomatic. First this morning when he'd gone after Gartin, and now with Lexi. "I don't want to do it Lexi! I will, but I don't want it. I want to play and laugh in the sun with the horses. I want to ride Dara over the next hill. I want to sing with my brothers and sisters. I want to dance in the moonlight. I want to make pretty things to wear and sweet meats to eat." He bit his lip at this recitation.
      This wouldn't get him a Sharm Lord. They wanted someone who could be strong and mature. Someone who would work hard and bring home the money to support them in luxury so they could raise children and wear pretty things. No Sharm Lord who knew he was so soft would ever want him.
      "You're fine, Val," Lexi's arms tightened around him. "Really you are," her soft words, murmured in his ear did not reassure him. Now, no matter how hard he tried, Lexi'd never accept him in her life. "I'm sure your father only wants the best for you."
      "I know he does," doors slammed shut in Val's mind again. But his arms were too limp to push Lexi away as he should. Should had control of him again, but not so much as this. "I'll just have to try harder."
      Lexi felt the ice regain its grip on Val's soul and she shivered. "No," she tried to hold him close. "That's not what you need to do."
      "Then tell me," he leaned away from her and unlike any other adolescent, used a handkerchief to wipe his eyes. Lexi pushed it away and wiped his face clean with her hand. His whole body tensed at the touch, turning to spring steel.
      "You told me what you want, Valtanir," her throat was knotted with her own sadness at the longing Val'd shown for such simple things. Those Sharm Lord things Lexi'd never managed to succeed at. "How do you make them happen?"
      "I don't," he flicked his head away. The dim light, covered in dust, reflected off the tears pooling in his eyes. "I learn to do it right."
      "Gods, Val, no!" Lexi made a grab for him. "You can't keep tearing yourself apart like this."
      "Then it won't be a problem, will it?" Great big tears began chasing each other down his cheeks again. "I'll be dead."
      "I don't want you to die, Valtanir," never had she spoken anything more true in her life. "I want you to live."
      "But what if I don't," he turned his face away. The faded glow cast harsh shadows over his face, turning it to a skull mask. "What if I want to die?"
      "You wanted to do things earlier," like she wanted to take him in her arms again and make everything all right. "What made you change your mind?"
      "They aren't the right things," he kept his face turned away, as if he were ashamed to want. "I should ..."
      Lexi put her finger on his lips, stilling them. "I want to hear what Valtanir wants, not what Valtanir should."
      "Why?" At last he turned on her. Gods but he was gorgeous when his ire'd been roused. "So I can die in attrition?" His eyes were huge in the dim light, and as bottomless as the midnight sky against his porcelain smooth skin.
      "No, so you can find someone who suits you," Lexi couldn't resist brushing his black hair away from his face. It was only a few cents long, but so very silky soft even still. "If you lie, put on a mask, all anyone will know is a shell."
      "But I'm not worth anyone's effort or time," long black lashes draped over his impossibly high cheekbones. "Only the mask is good enough."
      "Never, Valtanir," her hands slid down to cup his shoulders again. They'd grown amazingly wide in the past months and were now covered with dense, Sime muscle. Her palms began to sweat as the heat of him soaked through the thin layer of cloth separating them. "No. You are beautiful and wonderful as you are."
      "Someone who can't even be a decent Sime?"
      "Not all Sharm Lords want a Sime who can crack rocks with their handling tentacles and then bore holes in them with their laterals."
      At least this got a faint smile out of him. "But where do I find one like that?" His face fell again, "My father certainly expects more out of me."
      "I'm not talking about your father, Valtanir," her thumbs were trying to crawl inside his loose tunic and she yanked them back. His skin had been so impossibly taut and smooth. "He's not the one looking for a partner."
      He still looked doubtful. "Have you ever heard the story of how your parents came together?"
      "Yes," he grimaced. "But my mat' was never a spineless worm no good for anything but fertilizer."
      "I'm sure Avilan has never said anything like that about you," what a horrible thing to have said if he did. Lexi couldn't imagine Avilan being so harsh to any of his children.
      "No, not in such words," his face paled even further beneath his tan. "But earlier ..."
      "He was upset, Val," she could feel him tremble beneath her hands. Shivering with shock was her best guess. Lexi grabbed a rather musty blanket off the back of a chair and tossed it around his shoulders. "Avilan can be ... well he can be rather over reactive when he's excited."
      "Like Karola can't," he shivered even more violently and clutched the blanket to him. "Sorry, I don't mean to drag you into my family problems."
      "They're your family, not your gods," she tucked the cover under his chin. "You still have to live your own life."
      "But they know what's best for me."
      "Stop it," Lexi couldn't help but pop him with her field. His eyes went wide and he stared at her. Then they went glassy. Before he could faint, she joined him under the blanket. He was still shivering hard enough to rattle his bones. "Easy, my pretty dark lad. Easy."
      "I'm just too responsive," his tone was as bitter as coffee, which Lexi'd only tried once. It had been enough. "Sorry."
      "No, like Dara, you simply need a deft touch," her hands sought out the knots of muscle tightening on his nerves and making them misfire. "There you go, my beautiful black lad." His sigh of release made Lexi think of all kinds of impossible things, like taking him for her own. "Rest here with me a moment. We're not going nowhere."
      "I'm not a horse," he chuckled softly, relaxing even more. "But now I know why they like this so much."
      "Feels good, doesn't it," she couldn't help but nuzzle his ear. It was in exactly the right spot. His lips brushed hers and her breath caught.
      "No," she nipped him before he could apologize again. His yelp caught her by surprise. She moaned as the ambient went wild around them, spraying rainbows of selyn across the bare walls. He moaned and went limp in her arms. From the throbbing pulse of selyn consumption in his body, she hadn't hurt him. Far from it. As far as she could tell, he'd latched onto her field with a death grip. "Feeling better?"
      "Much," his hands slid beneath her shirt with all the inquisitiveness of a newborn colt. He chuckled, "I'm not looking for your teats. I well know they're on the other side."
      "And I'd slap you silly if you grabbed them," faint wet traces followed his hands and she realized he was leaking roniplin all over the place. This didn't help matters any. "But you are fine where you are." Her eyes rolled up in her head as he began nuzzling the front of her neck. "Although you probably will want to stop here soon."
      "I know," his voice was rumbling in his chest and vibrating against her hands. She moaned again, letting her head fall back. Never, ever had anyone so deftly pulled her need out so early. This was like making love, only nagerically. "But I don't want to."
      "Neither do I," she admitted. Her field was going crazy, spiraling higher and higher to try to match his need. He'd been ahead of her by nearly four days, but if she kept at this, she'd match him by the end of the month. This had to stop, now! If only his teeth weren't so deftly nibbling at the base of her throat.
      Valtanir knew what he was doing was wrong, but gods it felt good! His lips seemed to be tracing some sort of sparkling pattern deep beneath Lexi's skin, making them tingle for some sort of source of life or energy. Intellectually he knew his body was searching for selyn. He was near enough hard need for it. Emotionally, he wanted to drink as deeply as he could before it all vanished.
      Lexi's hand came up and cupped the back of his head, drawing him even deeper into the glittering core of her nager. For the first time, he zlinned the impossible glory of a fully aware and mature Sharm Lord. Even in his first transfer, he'd not dared open himself up so fully to his father. Nor, could he guess, had his father opened so far to him.
      His tongue came out and wetted Lexi's smooth, delicately scented skin. Now he could zlin her racing pulse of selyn production even more clearly. Her response, to him of all people, brought a growl to his throat. He had to have her. This was his. All this glittering, shimmering light.
      "Val," her voice broke into his greedy introspection. Horrified at his own thoughts, he tried to extricate himself. How dare he molest his teacher? This was outrageous. "Relax," he couldn't get loose without hurting her!
      "You're fine," more words followed the first and finally Val managed to pull himself back together. At last he opened his eyes and found himself looking down at her. This was a surprise. "Yes, you've grown."
      "So I have," he gulped in air, trying to still his frantic pulse. It didn't work very well. "I didn't mean to get so forward."
      "I'm flattered," her wry, half smile lit her eyes. "I've never had anyone try to climb up my sleeves a week out."
      Val blushed furiously. What an oaf! He could throttle himself if it were mechanically possible. How could he have made such a fool of himself?
      "No," she shook her head. "Not a fool, only young."
      "What's the difference," he grimaced and tried to wipe the worse of the roniplin of his arms. He could do nothing about the way he'd so liberally anointed her back. Even though the thought of those soft, sweet, curving planes beneath his tentacles brought forth another pulse of roniplin to trickle down his arms. "What a mess."
      "Oh, little one," she laughed and handed him a clean handkerchief. His was soaked. "I'm not offended. Flattered actually."
      "How can you be?" He couldn't get the stuff off! The more he rubbed at his arms, the more his glands produced. This was utterly humiliating. "Help?"
      "Sure," Lexi began searching though drawers. Val had simply ducked into the first open, abandoned room he could find. "Here," she draped a bit of soft, veil material over his arms and tied it loosely. The soothing, cool sensation of having his laterals blocked finally stilled his frantic lubrication. "Go to sleep now, my little ones." Lexi's fingers deftly slid over his glands, bringing forth a last bit of fluid to be soaked up by the cloth.
      "Thank you," he breathed, at last able to. "I really appreciate it."
      "And I really appreciate being loved so gently," her still damp finger tapped him on the nose. "Whoever finally manages to catch you is going to be one lucky Sharm Lord."
      "If you say so," he couldn't really bring himself to believe her.
      Lexi was having a hell of a time getting herself pulled back together. Her shoulderblades itched fiercely where Val'd soaked them. And not with irritation, but rather with his absence. She hadn't exaggerated at all about how wonderfully he'd loved her just now, even if there'd been no release. Lexi'd heard about making love nagerically, but the reality was far more wonderful than she could have imagined.
      "What are you going to do with yourself?"
      The question bounced off her dazed wits to land with a harsh thump on the floor. She blinked at him a bit, trying to figure out what he was after. It didn't work. All her blood was in her forearms. "Huh?"
      "My father's pronouncement ... earlier today ... remember?"
      "Not really," she licked her lips, thinking about what she'd just been doing earlier today. This was never going to do. "Wait a moment."
      Far more calmly than she, Val simply sat and looked at her. She closed her eyes to concentrate. He was too damn attractive to look at for her to be able to think at the same time. With his laterals blocked, his field was stilling to it's normal, smoothly powerful cycle. It was like sensing a river or her horse, Mele, as a colt. Way too much power to channel easily.
      Then she remembered what Avilan'd said. "Oh hell." Lexi put her face in her hands. "I hate being trapped in the house!"
      "Why?" Val's simple question startled her out of her introspection.
      "Because ..." she'd never thought about it before. "Um, well ... oh." He sat and watched her, his arms still wrapped up in that horrid piss green veil. It did not suit him, but it was the best she could find. His steady, kind gaze dragged it out of her. "I hate being locked up inside!"
      "I can understand that," his smile was soft and welcoming. "But it isn't only for the winter."
      "Don't you understand. Avilan wants me to take his place when he retires. My father was Azovich." Her voice cracked as the horror of her situation drove away the warmth of their inadvertent loving. "I don't want to be tied to the books and a desk."
      "Aren't you the one who talks about doing what they want?"
      "Yes, but I have a responsibility to Azov," she put her face back in her hands. The smell of roniplin filled the air. The contrast between desire and emptiness only tore at her more.
      "Hey," his hands brushed the backs of hers. "I understand, Lexi."
      "I know you do," she looked up at him through her own tears this time. "But I don't want it yet. I want to stay in the barns and fields. This place," she waved her hand towards the rest of the great sprawling townhouse. "It's too much. I love working with the renSimes and seeing them grow. And the horses and calves and even the pigs."
      "Then what does it take to make Lexi happy?"
      "A miracle," she ducked her head. "I don't know. Maybe a Lord who is willing to stay at home and raise children."
      "Too bad I'm too young," a single dimple appeared in his cheek. "Maybe I can find you someone."
      "You're on," she took his hand in hers. "And I'll look for you."
      "Sounds like a deal."
      Val didn't know if he should slap her or kiss her. "Now if you don't get dressed in five minutes, I'm going to come in there and dress you!"
      "You were the one who spent two hours in the bathroom!"
      "I was trying to get my hair to behave," and two hours later, it still wanted to stand straight up. When it wasn't looking like an out of control hay stack. Maybe this was why his sibs had gotten themselves ascended so young. So they could let their hair grow out to braiding length even sooner!
      "It's gorgeous, Val," more cosmetics clattered on the marble sink.
      "Let me help," he opened the door and ignored her yelp of dismay. "Sit still." He tipped her chin up towards the light.
      "I've never had to do more than eye makeup," her blushes told him exactly where to add color. Val rinsed off a sponge and cleaned up the mess she'd made.
      "Hold still," still holding her chin, Val dried her face with a soft cloth and looked at the pigments. He'd certainly seen his father do this often enough, and Lexi didn't require the heavy base he did. He'd even given all of them more than a few lectures on how to apply the heavy makeup most Sharm Lords preferred for evening court.
      "Not this, no," he sorted out the few he thought would do the best. "There we go," he set up the light foundation he felt would go best with Lexi's skin. The few imperfections in her skin were covered up easily with a touch of base, and then he got to work.
      Whistling cheerfully, Val gave Lexi orders on what to do. "Now look up," he told her, watching the way her skin flowed over his cheek bones. Unlike most Sharm Lords, they weren't knife sharp and he deftly shaded them to accentuate her differences. "Open your mouth." In any other circumstance, this would have been dreadfully provocative. She did as he asked.
      Finally he powdered his work to set it. No, not quite perfect. Val looked in the drawers at the side of the sink. There, that would do it. He pulled out a tiny tin of amber colored glitter. The stuff was dreadfully expensive, but he knew exactly what to do with it.
      After tracing the tiniest lines at the base of her eyelashes, it was perfect. Her gold green eyes now shone, dimming the reflection of his painting. He recapped the tin and put it away. "Look," he pointed towards the mirror.
      "That's me?" Her eyes widened and then she turned back to him. "Thank you!"
      "You're quite welcome," he leaned down and kissed her brow, careful not to smudge anything. "Now you know if you get too near anything with alcohol in it, it'll all melt and take your face with it."
      "I get the hint," she laughed. "No starka."
      "Thank you," he hated seeing her as sick as she'd been the last time they'd gone to a dance together. Not that he was any more sanguine about them, but he knew drugs were not any sort of answer to anything.
      Lexi was so nervous she was about to have kittens. "Can we skip the niceties and go straight to the singing?"
      "You don't like to dance?" He tipped his head, smiling at her almost possessively. Or at least she would have liked to think it was possessively. Maybe later, when their age difference would not be so important. Like say a decade, or a year, or ...
      "Help," Lexi wanted to hide behind him. Lord Tyran was bearing down on them like one of Fatima's riverboats.
      "Good evening," Val gave the overbearing boor a shallow bow. "Do you know where the trays are set out?" Three people who overheard this turned to stare at them. The rest were too thunderstruck to move. Or at least their nager's were. Lexi's mouth went as dry as sand.
      "So you're Avilan's lad," he puffed out his chest.
      "So you don't know," Val sighed. "Perhaps we should ask elsewhere." With a deft hold on her arm, Val steered her around the jerk. She was still in shock. How did he do it? "I knew him from when I was a child." Val's tone was as dry as her mouth.
      "Here," Val neatly removed two glassed from a passing tray. More people stopped to stare. He'd done it with his handling tentacles. Lexi relieved him of one and took a drink. Water, of course, she should have known. "Perhaps something to eat?"
      "Not so close," she grimaced, realizing she'd not eaten since the day before yesterday. In which case Val was probably right in not letting her drink anything stronger than water.
      "Try," he filled a small plate with a few of her favorite delicacies. "Let's watch the dancers for a bit."
      His amazingly adroit handling actually managed to slip a few bits of food past her lips. Of course turning down the savory, wonderfully sharp caviar with fresh sour cream was not something Lexi'd ever been able to do. The sweet pickles with just the right amount of salt were nearly as irresistible. Particularly when he offered her the choicest bits from his own fingers.
      "I think we might be able to do the next one," he smiled and ran his fingers through his hair. His grin was so infectious Lexi couldn't say no. She let him lead her to the dance floor. Her heart began to pound frantically in her chest. The cold sweat of fear slicked her palms. "Trust me." For some reason she did.
      The music started after what seemed like forever. Watching the other dancers closely, she realized all she had to do was follow Val's movements. The promenade was actually rather simple. Only a few steps. Then she changed partners.
      This was fun! Lexi smiled and fluttered her lashes at the lord opposite her. He grinned as he took her fingertips. Even as they circled each other, he held her eyes. Trying to be coy, she ducked her head. He tipped his shoulders back.
      Nearly laughing with joy, Lexi flirted with all the lords. She could sense the selyn patterns in the ambient mesh with the ordered lines of the dance to form fantastic geometries in space. Then Val returned to take her hand one last time. She squeezed his fingers and mouthed, "Thank you."
      "You are quite welcome," he murmured in her ear as they formed the final figure, side by side. She looked up at him over her shoulder. As naturally as could be, he leaned down and brushed his lips against hers in a featherlight kiss.
      Avilan watched carefully as his youngest son danced with Alexandrya. They were a beautiful couple, but she could be so damn rough. He'd done a great deal of research on her when she'd packed Valtanir off to the barns last summer. Most of it was good, but what was not, did not bear repeating.
      He'd nearly ordered them into transfer with each other after the fiasco in the dining hall. Any fool could see Valtanir was as entranced with her as she with him. Despite the difference in the ages, much of which Avilan often disregarded, they were actually of fairly similar maturities.
      Unfortunately, Ilira'd given her daughter a few odd ideas about the place of Sharm Lords. She'd never been ascended while her daughter had been slated for ascension from the moment she'd been conceived. No, Avilan certainly didn't want to have to force Lexi into spending her life behind a desk.
      The mere fact she'd hate it with all the passion in her body, which was considerable, meant it wouldn't work. Sighing, he wished he still had Arkay at his side to help him with problems like this. Or even better, old Sharm Lord Sergei. He still missed the old man who'd taught him so much about human nature, which had so often contradicted what he now knew was his own innate empathy.
      Valtanir'd always been the toughest of his children to reach so far. It was as if there were a bottomless well behind those deep blue eyes. Some secret, inner part of himself he'd buried so deep no one could reach it. He'd always been a good child, never given to harsh pranks like Ilyan or biting commentary like his lost Sevrin. He sighed and put his chin on his hand.
      "What is it?" Karola's voice was a sweet as it had been those many years ago and he stroked her hand possessively. If he'd stopped to think about her age, he'd have never courted her. Now he gave the same consideration to their children.
      "Valtanir," he caught her tentacles to give them a gentle squeeze. They twined with his fingers in sympathy.
      "Do it, love," she murmured in his ear. "The first excuse she gives you."
      "What if she doesn't?"
      "I know Lexi. She will." Karola's Sime insight had never failed before, and even if it had, Avilan would have still trusted her absolutely. "Maybe not this month, but she will." An outburst of murderous fury on the floor stopped all conversation. "See." Her tone was more amused than Avilan would have wished, but at least it wasn't, 'I told you so'.
      A field strike drove Val to his knees. "Die you Sime kissing bastard!" He rolled from the second even before he realized it was Gartin. Before he could get up, another field strike shattered the ambient.
      "Stop!" Avilan's will froze the ambient in diamond. Val struggled to draw breath against his father's command. Gartin had collapsed entirely and the smell of blood tainted the air. The only sounds were his own strangled breath and this his of his father's boots on the stone floor.
      Gathering his will, Val struggled over to Gartin's side. "Don't do it," Lexi's voice was distorted into a monstrous growl.
      "I have to," he rested his hand on his rival's chest. The instant he felt Gartin's heart beat, he retreated. Good enough. He hadn't been murdered. That was all he cared about. His head fell to sag below his shoulders. Pain knifed through his skull, echoing the throbbing of his own heart.
      Then Lexi's hand came to rest on the nape of his neck. Her field wove with his.
      "What is the meaning of this?" For the second time in under a week, Val looked up into the face of his father under suspicious circumstances. At this point he wondered if he should have killed Gartin and gotten it over with.
      "None of that, Val," Lexi's hand caressed the sensitive bundle of nerves at the back of his neck. It was too soon. Too close to transfer for him to resist. He moaned deep in his throat and gave thanks he was still on his knees. All four of his laterals came out in search of selyn.
      "I warned both of you," Avilan's voice dropped into its lowest register, his threat display ringing in the ambient. All the nearby Simes paled but for Val. His own desire spiked beyond any he'd ever felt with the hot emotions. But even still he kept himself under some control. Or at least he stayed on his knees. "Now I will make good on my threat. You are both barred from Year's Turning and neither of you are allowed beyond the doors of Sharm Lord Alexandrya's suite until first thaw!"
      Val gaped as his father gave him only one chance to survive ... with a Sharm Lord he knew wouldn't have him.

Chapter 5

      Lexi tossed and turned on what was supposed to be a familiar bed. She'd claimed this suite since maturity, when she'd gone to live at Azov with leaving her mother. She shivered and burrowed deeper into the blankets. It was still cold. Now she remembered whey she slept in the barns over winter. They were warmer!
      At last, utterly exhausted and out of sorts, Lexi dragged herself out of bed. This wasn't working. She threw a battered robe over her shoulders and padded out to the front room.
      Val was wrapped around a cushion as if he were trying to mate with it. This was an unfortunate image. Lexi tried to push it from her mind as he opened his eyes. "Couldn't sleep?"
      "Not alone ... not within twenty four hours of hard need and no partner in sight," she still couldn't think of possibly bedding this child. Even if her Sharm Lord nearly forced her into it. He was too damn young! She sat at the hearth and began feeding the coals. At last a good fire blazed up, warming her hands and face.
      "Me either," there was no other sound and suddenly he was at her side. "I'm afraid I'm even more nervy about it."
      "What are you going to do?" She could actually live for a few days over twenty eight, and if she had to, longer. It would hurt like shen, and she'd be shortening her life expectancy considerably, but not by as much as Val.
      "I don't know," he rested his hands on his knees. Only now did she realize he wasn't wearing anything. Just went to show how much Lexi looked at people's bodies when she was in need. "Maybe if I go far enough into attrition, I'll be able to do something." From the tone of his voice, Val was beyond despair. "Maybe I'll just go mad and throw myself from a window."
      "Defenestration will not get you selyn," Lexi was proud of remembering the elaborate word.
      Laughing, Val said, "Three points if you can spell defenestration."
      Lexi was stumped. "You win," she rested her hand on his. This was the wrong thing to do. Before she could pull away, his tentacles had come out and bound them.
      "I think we might want to stay apart," his jaw clenched as he tugged his hand free. "I don't think they're going to obey me much longer."
      "We have to do something, Val," she met his dark shadowed eyes, even darker with the heavy circles beneath them. "But I can't think of what."
      "OK, I am going to need selyn by tomorrow night or I'm probably going to become uncontrollable." He turned his face away, as if ashamed.
      "Val," she reached up and stroked his face. He hadn't ever shaved, that she'd been aware of, but even still there was no stubble on his cheeks. "You can have mine."
      "Then it's going to have to be tonight," his eyes were flat and shiny, as if there were something cold and dark hiding behind them. "Tomorrow I'm not going to be very polite about it."
      "I don't want ..." she paused for thought. "I don't want to be raped!"
      "I can well understand that," his nager shattered into a million diamond shards. "I'm sorry. I thought I could do better." He wrapped his arms around his knees. "Gods, Lexi, I didn't mean to coerce anyone."
      "I know," pity made her heart ache for him. But still she couldn't reach out to him again. If she did, she wouldn't want to stop this time. And if she didn't stop, she'd want him again. Lexi well knew she had no tolerance for drugs. "Here," she worked the sticky lock her father Diomid had shown her at the side of the hearth.
      "It is?" He sniffed the resinous hashish dubiously. "Oh," he sighed, handing it to her. "No, thank you."
      "But why not?" At least under the influence, they could forget their struggles for a brief while.
      "Because I don't want to die not knowing why," he squared his shoulders. "Alexandrya, I'm going to be dead in a few days. I don't want to miss any of this time."
      "No!" She put the things away and stopped herself cents from him. There her hand stopped in mid air. She could feel the heat of his body burning away the last of his selyn. Now frantic, she could sense her own field skyrocket at the prospect of watching any Sime die of attrition. "This is stupid," Lexi said finally, crossing her arms over her chest.
      Val felt his eyes widen as he took in Lexi's change of heart. Her field was still shying away from contact with his, but her emotions had completely reversed themselves. Suddenly shy, Val shrank back from her forbidding posture.
      "We could ask someone in here," he at last figured out the loop hole in his father's command.
      "No," she turned her face away. Her strong features, no longer hidden by veil or paint, seemed to glow from within. Tentatively, Val leaned forward and brushed her cheek with a kiss. Still she shied away from him. No, he couldn't do it. On silent feet, he let himself out the door.
      The guards came to attention immediately, as Val'd known they would. He held out his arms to them, waiting for arrest. They gaped at him for a moment and then crossed their spears before his chest. "Stop."
      "I have," he said, trying to still the trembling in his voice. The door opened behind him with a rush of displaced air.
      "Get back in here," Lexi grabbed him by the back of the neck and dragged him bodily back inside. "I'm sorry. A bit of a domestic disturbance."
      "At your will, m'Lord," the ambient glowed red for a moment as both renSimes shifted uneasily in their places.
      "Be well and do your best," with that, the door slammed shut again. Val stared at it, still not daring to face her. "Now, for you," she turned him around. He found himself staring over her head and promptly dropped his eyes in respect.
      "I won't rape you, Sharm Lord Alexandrya," he mumbled, probably incoherently. "If you wish me to stay, I will." He couldn't think of what else to do.
      "I," her voice broke and she cleared her throat. "I do," her hand was trembling on his shoulder. Then he heard the snick of a lock. "My key, my rooms."
      "Are you going to rape me?" This all came out in a high pitched squeak, even as roniplin began flooding his glands again. He'd managed to keep them under control until this very instant.
      "Are you unwilling?" Her voice, roughened by wind and weather, deepened into an even more throaty purr. Val's eyes rolled up in his head and his knees turned into jelly. The whole world dissolved into shimmering spectra beyond the sight of man.
      Lexi managed to catch Val's body before it hit the floor. He wasn't sick, from what she could tell, only a bit overwhelmed. No wonder any Gen he'd approached before had run screaming. He was a twenty eight, like his mother, but without her nageric resilience.
      Careful not to disorient him, Lexi hefted him over the nest of cushions before the fire. He was out cold. And he was heavy. As gently as she could, she arranged his still lanky form around the cushion he'd been cuddled up with earlier. She'd have much rather taken its place, but didn't really like the idea of giving her back to a Sime in hard need.
      She was almost certain he wouldn't try to kill her, but better to not take the chance. Some Simes would wake up rather badly in need, when they managed to sleep in that state. After putting a bit more wood on the fire, Lexi settled down to wait for him.
      Val woke to the utterly unfamiliar sensation of soft, Gen arms wrapped around his body. He muttered something utterly incoherent and scooted backwards into his holder's chest. This felt too good to let go. As had happened last week, need receded beyond his ken and he wallowed in the sensation. Not since he'd changed over, except for that one time, had he felt so alive.
      His eyes kept trying to cross as he fought exhaustion with need. Unsure of which was winning, Val tried to figure out what was going on. His jaw cracked as he yawned hard enough to open his whole head. Warm mud was sloshing around between his ears. Not since he'd tried staying up with Kirina one time she was home for a visit had Val felt so mushy brained.
      Lexi sighed in his ear and rubbed her cheek against it. Unsure of quite what to do, Val tipped his head to give her better access. This seemed to meet with her unalloyed approval, as she began nibbling her way down his neck. He moaned as the delicate sensations sent shivers of pleasure dancing up and down his spine.
      "Feel good?" Her husky whisper only cooled the warm moisture she'd left behind. This time Val shivered in earnest. "Cold?"
      "Yes to both," he admitted the latter reluctantly. Somehow the last eight hours had vanished into the aether. Out of no where, Lexi pulled a soft wool blanket to cover the two of them. "I don't want to get this sticky." He realized his roniplin glands were working overtime again. How did anyone ever learn to deal with this?
      "They'll wash," her tongue traced down the back of his neck. A cool breath of air followed it. Val arched his back, trying to tease her into going down even further. This had to be what so many people spent so much time chasing. Now he knew why. Even with Lexi's reassurance, Val carefully held his forearms to his chest, not wanting to make any more of a mess than he could help.
      "Relax, Valtanir," her now familiar voice purred in his ear. "I won't hurt you."
      "I won't want to stop this time," even though he was still a few hours out from transfer, he knew his body was going to turn on both of them as soon as it felt Lexi's retreat. The tension in his field kept racheting up with each deft touch of her tongue and hands.
      "I know," a gentle tug on his shoulder made him think to roll over. He found himself looking up into Lexi's wonderful soft eyes. He knew her. He'd known Lexi nearly all his life. This was no stranger. Someone he feared offending with an off color joke or misstated complement.
      "I wish ..." her finger touched his lips.
      "For this one time, I don't want to hear it," she replaced her finger with her own lips. Val'd known the logistics of kissing. The reality was something else entirely. At Lexi's gentle insistence, he opened his mouth to hers. In an instant, he learned to not force, but rather give to her demands. And gods but it felt good!
      Unlike any other time, Val opened up his heart and mind, as Lexi's sweet warmth teased at his lips. Unsure of how far to go, Val tried to please her as best he could. She broke off their kiss and gazed at him with hot, midnight black eyes. He stroked her soft skin, finally resting his thumb at the corner of her mouth.
      It twitched upwards in a smile. "You like?"
      "Yes," was all he could say. But obviously it was enough. No longer gentle, Lexi cupped the back of his head with her hand and plundered his mouth. There was no other word for it. Wide open, Val moaned and let his hands press her to him.
      This was no child like Katrina or close relation, like Chantir. To Val, this was his Lexi. In their abortive foreplay last week, he'd learned the sensation of his instincts rising up to choke off his reason. This time he drew back of his own accord before they swallowed him whole. Even if Lexi was trying to do so with near success.
      "What is it?" Her heart was pounding madly beneath his hands.
      "I'm about to become a bit uncivilized," he admitted, fascinated by her glowing eyes, but knowing he should probably turn away now. This was the point at which things got serious, and those he wasn't sure he could deal with it.
      "Valtanir!" Lexi gaped at him. Embarrassed at having made so huge a gaffe, he turned his face away. "No, no, I'm not mad at you," her work roughened hand made him look up at her again. "Really I'm not."
      "Then what did I do?" He couldn't figure this out. Confusion reached up and snuffed out his arousal as easily as he would have a candle.
      Lexi wasn't sure if she wanted to scream or cry with Valtanir's rather clinical description of arousal. The reminder of his naivete chomped on her own now rather fragile self image. If she couldn't get a Lord, still less than a year after change over, to take her, what in hell was she doing here?
      Frustrated beyond her ability to cope, she rolled over and put her arm over her eyes. At least this way he couldn't see her cry.
      "Lexi," the near panic in his voice was unmistakable. "Please, what did I screw up this time?"
      "Oh, Val," she shook her head and looked at him again. "Come here," Lexi offered him her arms. Looking entirely too cute, and too bewildered, he curled up against her side and rested his cheek on her shoulder. "You're fine."
      "No I'm not," he rested his hand on her middle, then pulled it away.
      "Touch me. It's all right." She captured her stray and put it back. "Go ahead."
      "I don't want to hurt you," his hand trembled as he spread his fingers over her belly. His tentacles came out to explore their new environment as a cat would sniff an unfamiliar chair. They tickled! She giggled and they vanished. "No, tickle."
      "You're ticklish?" His grin lit his eyes.
      "Yes," she admitted, capturing his hand before it could escape again. His palm was sweating ever so slightly and she placed a cover over his shoulders. She knew she would get a chill very easily from nervous perspiration.
      "Feel good," his fingertips began sliding over her bare skin. "I've never done this before."
      "I know," she held him close and waited. Unlike all the stories she'd heard of innocent Simes, there was no rushing to his gestures. Only a sort of slow, awe inspired gentleness. "You won't hurt me."
      "Are you sure?" One of his legs tried to slide over hers. She caught it before it too retreated. There too he was different, lacking the coarse hair she'd always disliked so in males, and only covered in a soft, silky down. Her own fingers traced the length of his long thigh. He shivered a bit as her fingertips traced over his hip.
      "Feels even better," he scooted in even closer, now flattened up against her side. This time she knew to go slowly, and tipped his chin up to look at her. His eyes were wide and astonished.
      "Yes, my black colt." She reassured him with her hands holding him tightly. A flicker of tension tightened his body. Immediately she loosened her hold. He sighed and went back to his explorations. "You'll be all right. No one will hurt you this time."
      "No one has," he bit at his lower lip. "I don't know what to do, really."
      "Relax," she leaned down and left a breath of a kiss against his lips. He tried to open to her again, but now she knew better. "Not yet," she made sure to whisper against his skin. A soft moan rose from him, and the dark velvet of Sime need began edging her vision.
      "I don't know, Lexi," his voice cracked in mid-sentence.
      "Then let me teach you," this she'd done a lot of, but never quite in this context. "You can't hurt me, Val. Trust me?"
      "Yes," his instant response made her quail a moment. The ambient shattered again as if she'd hit glass with a hammer.
      "Hush, my little black, hush," she wrapped him tightly in her arms. Gods he was sensitive, unlike any other Sime she'd ever known. "Hush, my pretty sleek stallion. You're going to be fine as soon as Lexi figures out the difference between her head and her asshole."
      He laughed at this, his shivers slowly stilling. "I'm ..."
      She cut him off with a squeeze before he could apologize again. "Please?"
      "OK," he gave a great gusting sigh and rested on top of her. "I like this too."
      "Then rest here for a bit," her hands stroked the length of his back, trying to unknot the snarls in his muscles. They couldn't be doing him any good. No Sime was normally quite this reactive, but Lexi realized he'd never had a good transfer in his life. At last he seemed to melt against her body, a wonderful self heating blanket.
      He chuckled softly.
      "You can hear me, can't you?" She asked, wanting to be sure.
      "Yes," he nodded against her, tensing up a bit.
      "You're fine," she dug her fingers into the muscles of his neck. He groaned and now his fingers tightened on her sides. "Don't much mind the floaters in my head. I'm just a rather rough, cranky old Sharm Lord. I don't mean it."
      "Are you sure?"
      "Yes, I am," she rocked him against her, showing him the first easy movements he'd want later. Hopefully she'd managed to get both of them post enough to enjoy it.
      Val wondered how anyone ever survived growing up. Admittedly, when things were going smoothly, there was nothing else he'd ever sensed which was better. But when they glitched, it hurt like a parchment cut. Right now, all he could do was take Lexi's advice and relax.
      "I'm jumping at shadows, Lexi," he tried the tactic of telling the truth. She'd said this was what she wanted, even as her mind fretted over it.
      "Yes, and those shadows can only hurt you if you let them," the rhythmic motions of her hands on his back were making him melt into a little puddle. Now things were feeling wonderful again. He tried moaning again to let her know how much he liked this. "Drift for a while, my raven."
      He couldn't really speak, but rather nodded as his eyes closed of their own accord. Something very like this had happened with his change over, but then he'd fretted so much about falling asleep, he'd tied himself into knots. "If you fall asleep, I don't mind."
      "Thank you," he truly was grateful for the reassurance. Settling himself in a bit more comfortably, he yawned and nuzzled Lexi's ear.
      "Don't bite it off," her normally acerbic humor was muted in the warmth surrounding them.
      "I won't," he lipped it softly. The line of little rings around the rim told Val of how many partners Lexi'd had. More than even his father, surprisingly. Although from some of the rumors he'd overheard, Avilan'd stopped being so easy to catch after he'd handfasted Val's mother.
      One of her hands came up and began rubbing at the back of his neck. He arched it and tried nibbling on her shoulder. She squealed like a mare in season. And like that mare, she opened to him. Emboldened, Val licked at her skin, tasting the sweet, unfamiliar scent of a Sharm Lord coming into hard need.
      Something within him knew if he could wait, that taste would mellow into a richness he couldn't imagine. Schooling himself to patience, Val began exploring Lexi's body with his hands.
      Rather unexpectedly, from Lexi's viewpoint, Val rolled off her and began slowly caressing her entire body with his deft hands. He didn't say anything, but rather let his fingertips explore every cent of her skin. After nearly an hour of this, Lexi found herself drifting with his attentions.
      One warm, soft touch after another brought her skin alive. He didn't miss anything, or over emphasize anything. From her toes to her scalp, he touched, licked, nibbled and otherwise investigated her everywhere! Even when he rolled her over, he didn't let her help. Instead moving her as if she were a giant doll.
      So much for her over timid Lord! Lexi groaned as he worked out the snarls in her calves with hands and teeth. Her muscles twitched as he used his mouth to work over the skin on her legs, and then it felt wonderful. Unlike any other massage though, it just went on and on.
      "Are you getting tired?" she'd ask.
      "No," he would say, and go back to what he'd been doing. The steady ticking of her clock was the only other break in the silence. Finally, when she realized he'd been doing this for hours now, she looked up to see his eyes black with hard need. He'd worked himself into attrition!
      Her gasp must have broken his concentration, as he sagged against her, utterly limp. Lexi felt her own field flare, trying to catch his fall. When she'd recaptured his hands, they were cold. No, she couldn't let him fade away on her for something so stupid. "Val, Valtanir, Vasha," she began nibbling on his fingers.
      "I'm here," his voice was hardly more than a breathy whisper. The he groaned and writhed against her. "Oh, more," his plea went straight to her arms. "Please, do that some more."
      "I will," she rubbed her face against his hands, warming them with her now fevered skin. His fingers trembled as he retraced the paths he'd made over her cheeks. As softly as she could, she nibbled at the soft pads on his fingertips. His tentacles joined his fingers, tracing over her face with mindless fascination.
      The sharp bite of fresh roniplin filled the air again. Lexi hummed softly as his velveteen tentacles danced so very lightly over her features. Nothing in the world felt so wonderful as those strong, sensitive digits. Not thinking of anything but her desire, she let her mouth water as it would.
      Before it could overflow, Val shifted his weight with a gentle hiss of skin against cushions. Lost in the sensation of his need tugging at her field, now higher than it had ever been in her life, Lexi let her head fall back. But he didn't go for her throat, but rather brushed the tip of his tongue against the corner of her mouth.
      The heat of his sweet breath made her open to him. But he still didn't kiss her. As if he were studying her lips, as he had the rest of her body, his soft, warm tongue traced her mouth one tiny fraction at a time. This wasn't kissing, this was pure erotic torture!
      A groan rose from the base of her spine and ended somewhere around her fingertips. "Yes, my sea eyed Lexi," his murmuring against her lips only drove her desires hotter. "You like this, my rambunctious one?" He didn't let her answer, but rather let his tongue play with hers.
      This was too much. Her hand came up and cupped the back of his head. Desperate to drink of him, she nearly forced herself on his unresisting form.
      "Yes," he hissed at last when she realized she'd rather forcibly flipped him over and pinned him. "Take me," his eyes were the absolute black of a desperate Sime, even as his body lay limp in her arms. "I'm yours, Alexandrya."
      "Mine," his pleas bypassed her sense. Without thinking of the consequences, she wrapped her body around his and plundered his mouth in one desperate kiss after another. With each shared breath, he opened to her more and more. A bottomless well of night opened beneath her senses.
      "Yours," his wandering hands left damp traces to chill in the cool air. Goose bumps joined in standing her hair on end and a shudder ran through her body. "Feel good."
      "Does it?" careful to keep her contacts asymmetrical, Lexi ran her kisses down the solid column of Val's neck. Immature he might be, but androgynous he was not. The unfamiliar taste of male Sime tugged at one of those tiny warning bells in Lexi's mind. But before it could disturb Val, Lexi stomped it firmly into silence.
      "More?" Damn, he was sticking again, not quite making the field contacts. What to do? Well, what the hell? Lexi bit at the newly formed, quite solid arch of muscle between neck and shoulder.
      Val howled right in her ear and bit her right back, but gods it felt good. Before he could get too carried away, Lexi moved her mouth down, now nipping and biting at him. With each little sting, she could feel him soften to her. Power sang its siren song.
      Trembling at the hold she had on him, Lexi let his need ripen even more. She was doing this for him, damn it, not for her. But her soul spread its gossamer wings in the vale of his need darkened night. With every gesture she made, his surrender to her power grew.
      It was a heady mixture, as potent as any drug. He writhed beneath her hands and mouth, passive but never sullen or resigned. Her entire body thrummed with the sensation of holding his very life in her hands. He'd given it over to her, and she could hear his pleasured purring as she demanded more and more of his body.
      At last his hands clamped down on her shoulderblades with the utter finality of commitment. This was what she'd been waiting for. Before the silly idiot could change his mind, Lexi clasped his throat in her mouth. He sucked back. Before he could shen out, Lexi drove her short, but still sharp nails into his butt.
      He howled as his own desperate need broke down the barriers between them. Fired by the teasing, Lexi's selyn poured from her body with wild abandon. Back currents threatened to rip her from her pleasures and she drove herself into him, body and soul. But still there was a stillness to it, a nearly mechanical dullness.
      Driven frantic by the nearness of termination, Lexi yanked back against him. Val screamed again and yanked at her. Pleasure finally thrummed through her body and fed back into his. Desire fed back on ecstasy in a dizzying spiral over what had once been barren and dark, as their souls, at the very end, met in mutual repletion.
      Val couldn't look at her. No one could have willingly given him such pleasure. It was impossible. The myriad sensations had to have been a fluke. A once in a life time experience, and now he'd used up all his times. Besides, he was about to do very rude things to Lexi simply by virtue of their physical proximity.
      "Valtanir, sweetest one," her purring endearment went through him with the force of a lightning bolt. His abdominal muscles locked with the force of his will commanding them not to move. He trembled beneath her, driven by even more forces entirely beyond his control. Then she moved.
      Before he could escape, her rhythmic, rocking motions dragged another low growl from his throat. "I don't want to force myself on you," but if she kept this up, he'd drive himself into her with the force of a three year old stud colt with no manners. Val did not want to get kicked in the balls.
      "You can't," again her soft mouth captured his throat, dominating his very will with the gesture. He gasped for breath, utterly overwhelmed by the fiery longing in his loins. Val would not force himself on her. No matter how soft her body was against his or how frantic his own desires. "I'm willing."
      "I'm too ready," it sounded inane. "Let me calm down some."
      "I don't want to," a soft, damp, sliding along his rampant desires blinded him with lust. "Relax, Val."
      "No," he protested, not wanting to loose control twice in so short a period of time. His hips were trying to wriggle around to get at her. He'd not let them. His body would obey his commands. If he relaxed, he'd loose himself in the warm wetness so very near.
      "You will, Valtanir," she growled, biting at him again. "Give to me."
      His response was incoherent as his body managed to slip its lead again. He trembled all over as he felt the grasp of another's body for the first time. Finally Lexi held him still. This was so much better. He could feel the beat of her pulse and the stunning life of her body so very near his own.
      "You are mine, this month."
      Val tried to think about pulling away. It didn't work. Then she cheated, nipping at his neck again. He moaned, desperately trying to get himself back together. It didn't work. "Yes, moan for me my raven beauty." Her throaty purr only made it worse.
      "I want you, Valtanir," her damp lips were leaving lines of tingling desire behind them. "I want to feel you in me. All the way in me."
      "Yes," he relented with a hiss, his hips flexing of their own accord. Lexi's startled gasp in his ear made him stop.
      "No, you're fine," her breathy whisper didn't sound fine. She sounded scared.
      "Relax, my mare, my beautiful mare of Azov." He stroked her strong back. It was as tight as harp stings. "Rest against me a moment." With her still, he could keep his desperation at bay a little longer.
      Now she was trembling against him, nearly still even as she grasped him in her hold. But from what he knew, it was far too tight. With a flick of his hand, he grasped a blanket to throw over the two of them. Warmth seemed to soothe some of her trembling.
      "Better?" He began nibbling his way down her neck. At last the worse of her frozen rigidity passed. Careful in his motions, he let his hips rock a fraction at a time, never more than the tiniest bit.
      This even he could keep up. Gently rubbing her back, he felt life and warmth return beneath his fingertips. Soon the fluid motion of her entire body returned. She moaned softly, seductively. "Let me love you," with hands and tentacles, he stroked the length of her body, from neck to knees.
      "Oh, my," her breathless comment made him look up at her. All her attention was inward, and it was the most glorious thing he'd ever seen. The very enthralled, fascinated expression brought a smile to his face. Distanced by his own entrancement, Val began moving her slowly on him.
      Yes, it felt good, but the look on Lexi's face was worth far more than his own pleasures. He watched as waves of desire made her eyes darken again. This was something he could do. Avilan had taught all of them more than the mere basics of reproduction.
      As softly as he could, Val flipped Lexi over onto her back. She didn't even blink, so wrapped up in what was going on in her body. He could feel her flower around him, her soft mouth grasping him so very firmly in its wet living velvet.
      Nibbling delicately on her lower lip, Val gradually lengthened his strokes, still keeping them soft and smooth, even as she grappled at him not so very gently. "Easy, my lass," he captured her hands and placed them over her head.
      "Val?" Her eyes were utterly unfocused as he slid himself over her beating pulse. Another shiver of heightened desire ran through her body.
      "Yes, it's me," he made sure he'd not pinched the bones in her wrist and leaned down to kiss her again. This time she nearly tore at him, obviously beyond all control. "Easy," he slowed down the wavelike like motions of his hips.
      "No," her heels drove into him, trying to force him to go faster.
      "When I'm ready," he purred, and began nibbling along the line of her arms. Her howl nearly shattered his eardrums. Oh my but this was fun. Thinking wicked thoughts, Val pulled out.
      Lexi had no leverage! She had no way to stop this. Her body pulled at the air it was so desperate in his leaving. "Val, don't go," she was sure he was dismayed, as he could so easily be, at her own shock.
      "I'm not," unlike that idiot, Yri, Val only left more soft kisses over her breasts. Her nipples hardened into stones, begging for attention. Lexi tried to wriggle one of them under Val's mouth. He laughed!
      This wasn't fair. He was supposed to be overcome with lust he wouldn't notice her lack of experience with men. And he kept moving down! That was the wrong way. Her first taste had sparked a craving for far more. Besides, Lexi didn't want to think of having an inexperienced male's mouth anywhere near her delicate bits, even if Val had been quite exceptional so far.
      Trying to tug him back up was like dragging on Mele's lead when he was in a mood. It did no good whatsoever. Sort of like pulling on a tree stump. He was bound and determined to investigate everything, rather like Mele in that regard as well.
      Grumbling a bit, Lexi gave in. Maybe after a poke and a prod, he'd get back up here where he belonged. A feather soft nudge told her to relax her thighs. Hopefully he'd hurry up. Lexi never had cared much for oral sex. It all seemed rather a bother to her, and often not particularly enjoyable.
      But rather than diving straight in, something wonderfully soft and warm and wet began tracing little tiny circles along the insides of her thighs. Sensitized by years of riding horses, she could feel the soft pressure of his breath against her skin and the delicate, but firm enough not to tickle, brushes of his tentacles.
      Against her will, Lexi's thighs fell open to give him better access. "Yes my watery beauty."
      "Wet am I?" She really didn't mean that to come out so sarcastically.
      "Could be better," his low chuckled thrummed through the muscles of her legs. Then he moved. Lexi braced for what was to come.
      Val could now smell the very faintest traces of blood. It worried him for a moment until he realized what it was. Nearly startled out of his daze, he brushed one dorsal along Lexi's soft curls.
      Her shy flower was hiding from Val's attentions and he didn't want to startle it again, as it had clamped shut with all the finality of a sensitive plant. But he had to know for sure. Just as he knew asking would do no good whatsoever.
      Besides, he was having way too much fun here. The scent and taste of Lexi surrounded him so he could wallow in it to his heart's delight. Regaining his measure of patience, Val began treating her as his father had said he should treat a virgin, if he'd ever have the misfortune to encounter one.
      A slowly as if he truly were afraid Lexi would kick him, Val contented himself with licking and nuzzling her perfect thighs. With time, they relaxed again and warmed beneath his touch. This was what they should do.
      One slow cent at a time, Val worked his way inward, pausing to discover some new facet of Lexi's wonderful skin on those occasions when a tremble passed through her muscles. At long last, his nose nudged her wonderful curls. He couldn't tell if they were black or red or brown, but he knew they were perfect.
      Humming happily, Val did nothing more than gently begin licking her. Stroke after slow stroke. His mouth watering with each deep breath helped as he licked every cent of her petioles. He'd get where she wanted soon enough, so he ignored her hands in his hair.
      Lick, lick, lick, as if he were trying to dissolve rock candy one stroke at a time. Even still, no candy ever tasted like this. Lick, the steady rhythm soothed him, even as her blossoming beneath his tongue roused him. Lick, there was no place Val would rather be, even if his own arousal was beginning to hurt. He was having way too much fun right here.
      At last she opened to him all the way, inviting him back in. But this time he didn't intrude, but rather explored. Keeping the same long, slow, luxuriant rhythm, Val licked the sweet nectar begging for tasting. Salt and sour and sweet all at the same time, Val wallowed in his new found delight.
      Lexi wondered when Val was going to stop. At least at first. Now she no longer cared about anything. Slow, gentle waves of pleasure had stormed the barricades and taken no hostages. Her entire body was one giant sensation. Humming tunelessly, she knew this much, as she still knew she couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, Lexi idly caressed Val's ears. They were the only things she could reach of his.
      Somehow he'd manage to get his nose to go flat, or something. There was no poking, no prodding, only the soft wetness driving her mad! And it went on and on without a pause for breath or complaint of being tired. Lexi squirmed her hips around to get a bit more comfortable.
      Not even pausing, Val held up a hooked tentacle. She couldn't say a thing beyond moaning. The constant heartbeat slow pace had robbed her of all speech. She rarely reached release like this, but right now she didn't care. Release was the last of her worries. What she wanted was for him to keep going.
      How long was debatable. Another hour or two would probably leave her sore. Well, sorer. She knew she'd be sore as soon as this stopped feeling so very good.
      Then, without loosing the slightest fraction of his slow rhythm, Val slid up her body and came to rest in her. Pleasure whited all of her senses.
      "My mare screams," his neck was arched and his eyes intent.
      "Yes," she latched onto him. He slid from side to side against her thorough soaking. Another wash of pleasure made her clutch at him. "Oh, Val," it sounded stupid. Well she was at the moment. "Do not stop."
      "Like this?" He froze. She should have known better. Then, somehow, he managed to vibrate his hips. The salty sweet taste of him filled her mouth. "I can't move, Lexi."
      "Oh," she tried to let go some. It didn't work. Her arms were locked.
      "Then perhaps I should move you," his voice was as thick and rich as honey. He made good on his threat. Lexi's head fell back in utter abandon as he moved her with all the grace, on her part, of a rag doll. She didn't care. All she cared about was how good it felt.
      Nothing mattered but his even, steady strokes brushing against the very heart of her desire. "Yes, my Lexi," his hand on her face only drove her wilder. She bucked against him, trying to draw him in even more. "Oh yes," the sleek muscles of his chest and arms had to have grown with work. They now stood out in splendid relief as he struggled not to let go.
      "Give to me, my black lad," she gave him the spurs again. This time he only arched his neck and began driving her even harder. Lexi lost all sense. Writhing on him, she tried to do anything other than moan. It felt too good. Pleasure neared the point of pain.
      "Yes, my beautiful mare of Azov," with this, Val reared back and pulled her to him. She didn't care, but for the fact she could now clearly see his face. Pleasure chased pain as he pursued release from both. All she could do was cry out as peak after peak lashed her mind to nonsense.
      "Mine," he dropped down and came to her. His high pitched cries called forth a last and final cry of her own. The crushing strength of his arms clutching at her only made everything feel better, even if she couldn't breathe.
      Utterly and completely sated, Val stroked his cheek against his lover's. "Oh, my beautiful Lexi," he wished he could hold all of her, for all time, right now. Her soft, senseless murmurs of pleasure warmed him to his toes, even as the icy night air bit at his backside.
      He fumbled to the side for a blanket. It didn't work. He collapsed face down into the cushions. Not that Lexi was any less wonderfully cushiony. Giving up, he simply purred softly as he tried to soak up her body heat. It wasn't much, but it was far better than the air in the room.
      Then her arm flopped out, most likely in search of a blanket. This was too tempting. Instead of letting her, he kissed the soft skin at the inside of her upper arm. "Smell good," he dug his nose into her nicely furry armpit.
      "Stop that," her other hand swatted him on the rear. It wasn't particularly effective. Val ignored it and lipped at the crinkly, fragrant hair. Didn't taste to bad either. "Quit!"
      "Why?" He breathed deeply of her again, forgetting entirely about his backside freezing. Gen, very definitely Gen, he noted, rubbing his nose even deeper into her armpit.
      "Tickles!" This time her swat had a bit more force to it. Val snorted and really tickled her with his tongue. "Argh!" Her frantic wiggles finally dislodged him. Then the cold air really hit.
      "Cold!" He yelped, flailing around for a blanket. He found the corner of one and tugged. "Hrmph," he was lying on it. This didn't work very well. Lexi shivered and immediately he stopped playing around.
      He looked over his shoulder and found another tucked between more cushions. After checking to make sure it wasn't too cold, he slid it over the two of them. "Better?"
      "Much," her smile seemed to light the entire room. It was a rather sleepy, very smug sort of smile. Said smile probably matched his own to a fair degree of accuracy. "Thank you."
      "For?" He cocked his head to the side in question. Val couldn't remember anything he might have done she would be giving thanks for. The fire had burned down to nearly nothing, but when he tried to get up he found himself so weak he could barely move.
      "Making love with me the way you did," her grin became rather lopsided. "I should have told you."
      "Told me what? You were nearly as inexperienced as I?" Val was rather proud of having gotten that sentence out coherently. His eyes kept trying to cross with utter lassitude. Perhaps his body was trying to make up for all its lost opportunities.
      "How did you know?" Her hand reached up to brush over her ear rings in a rather pointed reminder.
      "Physiology," he wondered if she'd let him curl up against her side again. That was a good spot in his opinion. Val rather liked resting against her nicely soft flank. He sighed and tried looking mournful around the grin which kept peeking through. Never, ever had anything felt quite so good.
      "Come here," she held out her arm like a falcon's wing. Not waiting for her to change her mind, Val slid into the offered spot. This was what he wanted. Safe in Lexi's nager, and replete with selyn, now he could wallow in the soft feel of a mature Gen. Perfection multiplied upon itself. "Could you explain?"
      "Oh," he would have thought it would be self evident. His hand spread over the small bit of soft padding she carried so perfectly on her lower belly. Val could sense, or somehow he could know, of the life so vibrant beneath his fingertips. For some reason it was far, far stronger than he would have guessed.
      The distraction pulled him away, "Simple, whoever removed your hymen did not do a perfect job." He grinned at her and winked. "Plenty good enough you probably wouldn't have felt it with, well," he blushed furiously.
      "With someone a bit smaller?"
      "Well, yes," he hid his face against her exquisitely curved shoulder. Even in this her sleek, fat tempered muscles formed the most wonderful curves. Just made for resting he cheek against, or so it seemed.
      "I wish I'd known."
      "If it had been cut more, you might have gotten hurt."
      "How do you know it hadn't been broken by another man?" In his mind's eye, he could see her glare at the top of his scalp.
      "Your reaction to being penetrated," he hid his grin carefully.
      "I could have been using toys with my past lords," her tone was more amused than exasperated.
      "True," he conceded. "Perhaps I shouldn't have said cut then."
      "You are awful, Valtanir," she chuckled and pulled him even closer. "Yes, my oath father cut it years ago, but I'd never let a male take me."
      "Just the other way around?"
      Her pinch on his flank made him yelp. Carefully ineffective, he batted at her hand. At last she said, "No, no males at all between my legs."
      "Except for Melekush," he twitted her.
      "You take that back!"
      "It's true," he caroled, ducking another pinch.
      "I'm going to start calling you zherebets!"
      "I'm not that big," Val was utterly taken on the curb. He really didn't think so, was he? Of course he had to look down. Nope, looked the same as it always had.
      "Cold!" Lexi flattened herself to his body. This was pretty good too. Val carefully made sure no drafts got in and managed to find another blanket to cover them.
      "Than Mele?" Her eyes were as bright as he'd ever seen them.
      "I'd hope so," he rested his hand on the curve of her hip. He'd not really noticed them before, having been dreadfully distracted by lust. A bit more objective now, he noted the perfect lines of her waist swelling to hips and then trailing off to hard, but still slightly padded thighs.
      "Not his first time," she sighed, moving even closer, as if to crawl inside his skin. Val was not complaining at all.
      "Even more awkward?" Val found this hard to believe. He'd had no real idea if anything he was doing would please Lexi. All he'd had to go on was what his parents had told him and watching many, many animals.
      "You weren't at all awkward," her voice dropped into a throaty purr. "No, you were better than any man I've ever known."
      "But you've never known a man," he smiled sadly, brushing her still bound hair aside with his nose. What an utter idiot, he castigated himself. Val figured he could have at least remembered to be polite enough to unbraid Lexi's hair. What a moron.
      "True," her lipping his ear did nothing to remove his unease. "Although you'd probably not believe me if I said you were better than any of the women." He could hear the untruth in her voice. "Even if I said you were the best virgin I've ever had."
      "And how many have you had," he had to see the look on her face.
      "More than one, less than twenty, you pick," her smile told him nothing more than this was the truth. "Few of them have any patience."
      "Few of them were taught advanced sensuality as a child," he grinned at her. "We all thought it was silly at the time, even as Avilan said we'd be grateful for it later."
      "Wise man, our Sharm Lord Azov."
      "He didn't want any of us to be hurt with our initiations," no matter how awkward, Val left unsaid. Oh how he wished he'd had the presence of mind to unbraid Lexi's hair.
      "What are you beating yourself up with this time, Valtanir?" Her tone was so much like his mother's, Val blurted out the answer.
      "That I didn't undo your hair," he hid his face.
      "Idiot!" The loud crack of her hand hitting his butt again made him start more than the slight sting it imparted. "Ow, I hurt my hand."
      "Can I fix it?" Val reached for it, forgetting his unease at last.
      "You goof," she laughed even as he kissed her reddened palm. "I hurt it hitting you."
      "Didn't hurt," he shrugged, licking clean the faintest traces of sweet musk lingering between her fingers. Where she'd acquired her own taste on her hand, he had no idea, but it still tasted good.
      "You are forgiven for not letting down my hair," her fingers caressed his face. "I didn't give you the chance to back out by doing so."
      "Oh," he rubbed his cheek against her palm. "So, can I unbraid your hair?" He finally offered her his hand in transfer, for this month at least.
      "Yes, you may, Valtanir Azovich," she chuckled and tugged her braid out from under herself. "For you."
      "Even if it's a bit late?"
      "Even if."

Chapter 6

      "Would you sit down and quit galloping around the room!" Lexi glared at the threads she'd snarled, yet again.
      "What am I supposed to do?" Val wailed, throwing his hands in the air. His tentacles were twined so tightly around his fingers they were turning white. "I've cleaned the bathroom, scrubbed the floors, redecorated the bedroom, sorted the closet ..."
      "Hush!" she looked down. "Oh, damn," her snarl had turned into a mare's nest. Threads were going everywhere.
      "Here," he leaned over her shoulder and with a few deft tweaks, untied the whole mess. The heat of his body so near made her hands tremble. "Again?" His soft purr made her head spin.
      "Go away," she couldn't think with him nearly pressed against her.
      "Where?" He began pacing again. This was no improvement. "Do you really want me to go away?"
      "No," she relented, shaking her head. Having such a vibrant, beautiful Sime charging around her suite was heartbreaking. "I'm sorry you're stuck here with me." It was like locking a three year old stud colt in a stall, and then feeding him lots of grain.
      "I'm not," he crossed his tentacles at her with a grin. She'd had to show him some of the tricks he could do with those wonderful digits, but it hadn't taken him twice to learn. His face tipped towards the painting of Lexi's father. "He was a beautiful Lord."
      "Yes," she had to smile at Val. "I wish I could have known him, but Diomid told me a great deal about him."
      "He died before I was born," Val dropped his head.
      "Nothing to be ashamed of," even though Lexi wished he wouldn't remind her of his age. What was she doing bedding a Lord barely out of his parent's home? Other than feeling very good. Her whole body was purring with pleasure at their often rather enthusiastic loveplay. It was happy.
      "I suppose not," his attention turned to the windows. "I can clean the windows," he headed for the bathroom at a dead run.
      "Wait!" Lexi fell on her face as she got seriously tangled in her embroidery. The sheet she'd been edging had tangled her legs! "Argh!" The linen wouldn't give a cent.
      "Oh, Lexi," Val was immediately by her side.
      "There's a needle around here somewhere," she only hoped it wouldn't poke her before she got herself untangled.
      "Hold still," his hands on her body made her want to do anything but hold still. She gave him a little nageric purr to let him know this. "Now I want to wiggle." His lips had managed to find her ear. "But we can't spend all winter in bed."
      "Why not?" This seemed like a good idea to her. She wiggled her hips at him in invitation.
      "Because there are other things in life than sex," he was too damn mature about this. "Besides, I should put down this needle first."
      "You found it," she managed to nearly poke her eye grabbing for it.
      "Yes, Lexi," he, of course, got it out of range in time. "Now, about those windows," he smoothed out the linen and inspected her work. His cringe was unmistakable.
      She flushed, unable to meet his eyes.
      "Why are you using so much thread on the needle?" He inspected the long loop between linen and implement. By this time, her embroidery floss was its usual mess of slubs and frayed bits. With Sime quick gestures, he'd slid the needle beneath a few of her woefully uneven stitches and was tieing it off. She'd never managed to learn how to do that.
      "Because I don't like threading needles?"
      "There's a trick to it," he pulled the badly damaged piece from the needle and measured a new length from the skein.
      "Avilan tried to show me," Lexi watched in utter amazement as Val did nothing more than wet the end and it went right through. His nager was glittery with pleased contentment. He flicked up the lights a bit and started a new line, without a knot of course.
      Watching closely, Lexi still couldn't see how it was done. With tiny, perfectly even stitches, Val traced the line Lexi'd started, but more evenly than the pattern she drawn on the linen in chalk. It was utterly humiliating, or would have been if it hadn't made him so happy.
      Completely bemused, Lexi didn't dare move until Val'd finished the outline, with two more lengths of thread and had opened her embroidery basket in search of her colors.
      "The windows, right," he blushed so hard she feared for his blood pressure.
      "No, Val," she tipped his chin so he'd look at her. "I was enjoying watching you."
      "But I'm a Lord," he sighed, his hands smoothing the linen from where she'd sweated creases into it.
      "Who's going to say anything?"
      "Can't let anyone know one of Sharm Lord Azov's sons turned out backwards," he handed her back her work. It was painfully obvious where Val'd taken over. Uneven, drunkenly meandering stitches, with lumpy knots showing through the pale cream linen gave way to a line which looked as if it'd been painted on. Then it blurred in her sight.
      Val swallowed down the lump of disappointment. For a brief while, he'd been content. He'd enjoyed such work as a child, but now there was so much more depth to it. He could feel each thread of the smooth cloth beneath his sensitive tentacles and could see exactly where to place the needle. It was as if change over had amplified his ability to perceive spatial relationships.
      The lump didn't go away. He tried to put a smile on his face and nager as he turned to Lexi, "It's fine. I can find something else to do."
      "Like?" Her eyes were filled with tears.
      "Clean the windows," he cupped her strong face in his hands. No, Lexi would never be beautiful to many, but her slightly tipped, unique green-gold eyes and sharply carved features were beautiful to him. Even her arched profile gave her often imperious gaze even more fascination to him.
      He didn't want to clean the windows, really, but he had to do something. With a reluctant sigh he looked down and closed the lid to Lexi's embroidery basket. He'd given his own to Katrina, now that he no longer had a use for it. The bright silk and wool threads, in very rare colors had made a bit of a start towards the apology he'd wished he could have made to her.
      The familiar feel of smoothly woven wickerwork was more familiar than his own hands in some ways. He traced the ribs of the basket with his hand. Something pricked at his finger.
      "Don't do that," Lexi startled him a bit. Val pulled his hand away with another flush of shame. He shouldn't be pining for such a silly thing.
      "The windows, right," he shifted his weight in preparation to getting up.
      "No, not the windows," Lexi still outweighed him, even if not by much now. "Why won't you do what you want?"
      "Because I have things I should be doing," he could already see a few places where he'd have to scrub the double paned glass particularly hard.
      "Bullshit, Valtanir," her hand tightened on his. "You don't want to do the windows."
      "Then what should I do?"
      "Something you enjoy," her mouth tightened into a harsh line. "What will it hurt?"
      "My pride," it was so damned foolish to want to do something so Geninine. He wasn't Gen and so ended the story. "I can find something else." But his fingers still held them memory of the needle slipping so very easily between the threads of the linen.
      "What?" The challenge in her eyes was unmistakable.
      "I'll find something suitably Siminine." He managed to get to his feet, even as his eyes remained focused on the embroidery basket.
      "Val, sit down," she got to her feet and pushed. Startled at the sudden gesture, Val let himself fall back into the chair. "Stay."
      "I'm not a hound," he studied his hands in his lap. At least they were well calloused with hard work, showing he was really Sime and not Gen.
      "They listen better," Lexi was fishing around in her basket. She yelped and immediately Val was contrite.
      "Don't hurt yourself," he caught her wrist. "Really." It was obvious Lexi did not enjoy such delicate work. At least from the quality of it. "We can go down to the weightroom again."
      "No, Val," she frowned, at the contents of the basket or at him he couldn't tell. "Where's yours?"
      "Gave it away," his hands were washing each other in his lap again. They didn't require cleaning, as he washed them in soap and water at least five or six times a day. As a matter of fact they were getting rather chapped. "I didn't have any more use for it."
      "Katrina could use it."
      "Val, look at me," her hand tipped his chin up. "Do whatever you damn well please here. I'm not going to think less of you for it."
      "But you can't exactly explain where you got a hold of such work." Val knew his embroidery was nearly as good as his father's, and probably would have exceeded Avilan's skill given the experience.
      "You sorted the closet."
      "But you only have the one Azov sharm lord's kador made by my father. Everyone knows every single one of his pieces. If you show up in one, everyone will know I'm the only person who could have made it." His shoulders snarled with tension even as his throat knotted again and his vision blurred. How he hated having given up the one thing he could truly do extraordinarily well.
      "What about your brother?"
      "Illyan is only a touch better than you are," he tried not to chuckle. "I think he was born with hooves and not hands like the rest of us." Val immediately regretted having said such a rude thing of Lexi, but before he could apologize she threw her head back and laughed.
      "You do tend to tell things as you see them sometimes, don't you?" Her nager was still sparkling with laughter.
      "Sometimes," he ducked his head. "I try not to."
      "I like it," her delicate hold turned into a soft caress. His body responded automatically, but that wasn't what he wanted. Lexi was often a bit distant when they pleasured each other, and Val wasn't up for that. There was something missing in their enjoyment of each other's bodies, and he feared he knew what it was; she still couldn't accept him because of his age. Not that he was truly sure of his heart either. But at least Val knew better than to treat his first bed partner as the panacea to all his woes.
      Val's features would never be what Lexi would call strong, but the will behind his eyes was harder than stone glass. His emotional shutters clamped down with the force of a vice. No matter how many times he shut her out, the pain of it never lessened.
      This time she couldn't take any more. "Damn you, Valtanir!" She wanted to slap him. "Why can't you bend?"
      "How so?" He blinked and for the first time straightened his shoulders. "I'm doing what I'm supposed to, bending to the will of those who know better."
      "You lie to yourself, Val," Lexi's jaw clenched. "I keep asking you what do you want. You never do it. All you do is tell me what you think I want to hear."
      "I don't want to make you upset," his chin quivered. "All I want to do is please you, and my parents, and the people who depend on me."
      "Then why won't you do what I ask?"
      "What, abandon all those people for my own whims?" His rising anger nearly pulled her under in its reddened fury. Never before had Lexi felt anything like this. Even when Vayer had made sure Val wouldn't become overly possessive, all Val had done was submit to his older brother without a word.
      "You aren't abandoning anyone by doing something you enjoy," she wanted to throttle the little idiot. Of course the fact that now his blue eyes nearly glowed from within and his tentacles were lashing the air wildly did nothing to her body but carbonate her hormones. "Relax, Valtanir. We aren't going anywhere until thaw. Enjoy this time. Troubles will come soon enough."
      "I have to get out, Lexi." His eyes met hers. "But I can't," like that same three year old colt, Lexi could see his need for exercise destroying his mind. "I have to do something."
      "Hush," she knelt and rested her hands on his knees. His thighs were trembling with the strain of holding back. "Easy, my raven lad," Lexi rested her face against one of her hands.
      "I must," his heartbreak was painfully evident in his tone.
      "What if I commanded you?"
      "No," he rested his hands over hers. "It isn't right Lexi. I won't ask you to do something wrong because I'm not quite right in the head."
      Lexi narrowed her eyes and smiled up at Val. "Let's get a second opinion on that."
      Diomid had not really been in the mood to be taken away from either his children or Sergei, but his oldest daughter had been the one doing the begging. Not so very long ago he would have looked askance at Lexi having taken so young a partner. Things had changed.
      "How are you enjoying your vacation so far?" He sipped at the rather unexpectedly fruity port she'd offered. Before he would have thought such sophistication was beyond her capabilities. As he noted Valtanir surreptitiously examining the wine in his own glass he had to hide a smile.
      "It was not my idea," her field was darkened by more than her usual irascible temper. Diomid narrowed his eyes and watched Val's field skitter wildly. "No, it wasn't your fault."
      "I started it," his body language was painfully reminiscent of Kirina's at that age, but without her natural poise. There was something very wrong with the lad.
      "How so?" He took a savory potato and cheese pastry from the plate. Azov's kitchens were the best in Russia and Diomid was not about to pass up the chance to graze on the fruits of their labors. The flaky savory was delicately spiced and quite tasty.
      "I got into a fight," his tentacles were so firmly knotted in their sheathes Diomid's own forearms threatened to cramp.
      "Gartin was an ass, Val," Lexi put her arm around the lad's shoulders. He shrank away a fraction before freezing. "He insulted me and Chantir. You had every right to try to pound him into a pulp. You didn't even growl at Vayer when he tested your ability to override your instincts."
      "Impressive," Diomid made a great show of licking his fingers. Only Lexi stared at the gesture. Val was so drawn into his brittle shell, he didn't even look, much less zlin. "If another young Sime threatened your Sharm Lord, I would expect you to defend them."
      "That's what She said," his nager was a little knot of writhing darkness at his core. The capitalization for Lexi brought another well hidden smile to Diomid's face. "But I hit him."
      "So did I," Lexi gave Val a rather hard smack with her field. He didn't even rock under it, but rather it rolled off his back like water off a duck. Stranger and stranger.
      "Is that why you got locked up together?" A great deal of nageric sputtering filled the ambient.
      "My father locked me up because I didn't behave myself," white lines formed around Val's mouth.
      "Avilan locked us in here together in an attempt at matchmaking." Lexi shifted her weight on the couch. This was the first time in his memory he'd seen Lexi so uneasy in herself. Here was a Sime she could neither bully nor cow. It would be interesting to see how they would do together, if they didn't kill each other in the process.
      "He does that," Diomid flicked his eyes towards the portrait of his lost beloved, Sasha. "It often works."
      "With real Lords," Val's nager clamped down even harder. He was past turnover and should be reaching for Lexi all the time, even if he was unaware of it.
      "And you aren't?" Diomid nibbled on slice of sweet apple topped with sharp cheese. The combination was wonderful and reached for another while Val thought.
      "Not yet," he straightened his shoulders imperiously, looking very much the young Lord. "I will be."
      "If you don't destroy yourself in the process," Lexi's fingers twined with Val's. Even if he wasn't trying to latch onto her, the converse was not true. It would take explosives to pry Lexi from her rightful prey, and Val was it.
      "I'll be fine," he kept his face averted from both of them.
      "Not if you keep on like this." Diomid's statement had the exact effect he wanted. Valtanir jumped and stared at him as if he'd poked the lad with a pin. In a very delicate place. "If you continue to draw back from Lexi, and all other Sharm Lords," Lexi glared at him for this. "You'll be dead before thaw."
      "We're not going anywhere before thaw," the sun darkened skin around Lexi's eyes formed into lines despite her own youth. She'd been the child of Diomid's youth, but she wasn't that old. "Avilan told us as much."
      "Not if I override him," Diomid put out a bit of bait. Valtanir was chewing himself up locked into this little tiny box. Avilan had been clever in throwing the two of them together, but not for so long. Now they had to get out and about and see how other couples coped together. As far as Diomid knew, Lexi'd never had a bonded partner, even a private hand binding for a month. And he did keep track of her exploits.
      "You can do that?"
      "Sharm Lord Sergei could banish us to the ends of Rodina if he wanted to," Val's field finally slid out from under its rock and sniffed around. The concept of freedom was one it seemed another young Azovich could not live without. Sasha had always gone a bit off by spring thaw, indulging in some rather neurotic habits on occasion to try to dispell the mental toxins of being housebound.
      Thinking of which, Diomid finally looked at Valtanir's hands and flinched. No, he had to get out. He'd bitten his nails to bleeding and even from here Diomid could see where he'd been scrubbing them far past the point of cleanliness. "Why aren't you in the barn this year?" He knew Lexi usually hid out over winter with her beloved horses.
      "Sharm Lord Azov," she snapped out, nearly as restless as her partner. He could see where she too had been driven a bit frantic by confinement by her constant restless movements and glances towards the one bit of natural light falling on the floor. "He said we were to be confined until thaw."
      "I know, Alexandrya," he handed her a cherry, which she promptly tried to tempt Val with. He didn't want it from his nager, but ate it anyways, neatly spitting out the pit into a small bowl on the side table. A flash of sickly red and black guilt flashed from him, all out of proportion to anything going on.
      "I'll clean it later," his breathing speeded up, his eyes flicking between the two of them. "It needed it anyways." There was not a speck of dust to be found anywhere.
      "It'll be fine," Lexi's field tried to twine with her lover's, only to be rebuffed quite harshly. It jittered, as if he'd struck her and his face fell.
      "I'm no good," this had the sound of a common refrain.
      "Yes you are," Diomid forced the young man to look at him. The way he sagged into the mental dominance scared the hell out of him. This was not a healthy Lord at all. "No, Valtanir, you only have to be yourself."
      "I keep telling him as much," Lexi butted in. "But he won't listen to me!"
      "Hush," he told his daughter.
      "I'm not a very good Lord."
      "You are very good at some things."
      "Like sex?"
      "No, well yes, um," Lexi's hands fluttered in her lap before Val captured them. "You're good at riding horses."
      "Not like your father," Val's innocent mention of Sasha made Diomid cringe slightly. It always did, no matter how many years had passed since he'd gone on.
      "You're damn good at embroidery."
      Val's field crashed into utter chaos. Before he could drop out of Lexi's grasp in a dead faint, Diomid caught his blood pressure and drove it back up. He gasped as his body was denied unconsciousness.
      "I would love to see some of your work," Diomid slapped a mental hand over Lexi's mouth.
      "It's not right." Val was trembling. Poor lad, Diomid thought, but it has to be done.
      "Who told you as much?"
      "Could you bring everyone in here and let me talk to him or her?"
      "Of course not," Val looked like he'd bitten into a lemon. "There's no such person."
      "Exactly," Diomid snugged the noose taut. "Now, who said it was wrong for a Lord to do embroidery."
      "My father," Val was on the verge of tears, despite need.
      "I doubt it," Diomid offered his own hands. Lexi hissed in utter fury and batted them away. He let her. "Perhaps Vayer should have tested you."
      "I wouldn't have passed," her hands grabbed Val's.
      "No, you wouldn't have," he smiled at his willful child. She'd turned out well, if more than a bit hard headed. "Now, would you ever encourage your partner to do something which would hurt him or you?"
      "Of course not," she reared back, her field still shrouding Val entirely from Diomid's non-physical senses.
      "Would you ever think before answering such a question?"
      "No," her automatic response still pulled a snort of amusement from him. If nothing else, Lexi was painfully straightforward. Val gaped at her and then shook his head. "Well, I'd try to, at least later."
      "I know," Diomid chuckled. "So, would you lie to Valtanir?"
      "Of course not," now she was getting aggressive at him.
      "Why not?" He challenged her, carefully watching Val's physical reactions. His tentacles were peeking out, even his laterals flicking from their sheathes for brief tastes of the ambient through Lexi's field.
      "Because I'm not exactly your daughter in the tact department," she smiled back at him, her too familiar green tinted eyes bringing more than a small pang to Diomid's heart. Much as he loved Kirina and their children, he still missed Sasha dreadfully. Usually he didn't do more than address his lost love in his morning prayers, but dealing with Lexi herself brought it all back. "I say what I think and feel."
      "Even about ..." Val kept trying to hide his face, even as his other senses were reaching out. "About ..."
      "About what you want to do!" She smacked him so hard Diomid was surprised he didn't black out.
      "It's wrong," his wail lacked quite the conviction it'd held earlier.
      "Why?" Diomid tried to soothe the ambient with the single murmured word.
      "Because Lords don't like to do such things."
      "Why?" Diomid asked again.
      "It's not Siminine."
      "Because I might get hurt," at last he broke through to the real reason behind such division of labor.
      "And if you get hurt?"
      "Then Lexi might be tempted to kill me," the rote words held no conviction.
      "Now I'm tempted to kill you," she smacked him again and then hugged him so tightly Diomid doubted he could breathe. "I won't kill you because you stuck yourself with a needle."
      "But I might damage a tentacle," those secondary larital characteristics were quite busy investigating every square cent of Lexi's skin they could reach.
      "They heal," Lexi's hands spread over Val's back as if they were preparing for transfer. Not that it would work very well with both of them still fully dressed. "I'll be fine."
      "But what about other Sharm Lords?" Val's question rocked Lexi's normal self assurance to its foundations.
      "We'll see when I find you one," her face was closed with a sorrow invisible on the ambient. "And don't you just see if I don't find you the best damned Sharm Lord in the world."
      Val hurt. He hadn't hurt like this in years. Not since he'd gotten himself well and truly lost for three days in the forests surrounding Moskva and only his idiot horse had managed to find her own way home. Never again had he doubted the homing instincts of any equine, no matter how lowly.
      He didn't dare use his rapidly dwindling selyn reserves to heal himself, so he suffered. Dara had tucked into the mash Lexi's prepared for her and Mele as if nothing had happened. But five days of hard riding, in less than ideal conditions had taken their toll on Val's body.
      Groaning, he stared at the still cold hearth. This wasn't getting the tiny rooms any warmer. But he couldn't move. Lexi'd had to finish grooming Dara when Val's knees had given out and she'd found him sagged over her still slightly damp whithers.
      Struggling to get back up only produced a weak flailing of tentacles. Then they too sagged to the rough wool blanket beneath him. It itched, but he didn't care.
      "You poor thing," Lexi came in, along with a few kilos of snow. It had begun snowing again two hours ago and they'd hurried as fast as they could to get to their destination. Now that he was here, Val wasn't so sure it had been worth it. The thick wood and stone walls were frosted where the cold air had seeped in through minuscule openings in the chinking.
      She flipped back the hood of her cloak, still keeping her fur coat around her face. The winter air had given her unweathered cheeks a rosy glow. It looked uncomfortable. Val writhed on the musty pallet, still struggling to get up.
      "Stay put," her hand resting on his back felt like fifty kilos of snow. But at least his tentacles finally retracted against the cold air. It would not do to get the delicate digits frostbitten.
      "Do I have any choice?" He looked around the room, trying to figure out where they were going to sleep tonight. The only thing he could see was a large, flat, stone surface in front of the fireplace. It would be warm if he could ever manage to pry himself upright.
      "No, you don't," more ice and snow fell off the fringe of her hood. Year's Turning had come and gone, and with it the last of the mild weather. Avilan had decided three months maintaining the furthest outpost of Azov would keep his scapegraces content, or at least out of his hair.
      Lexi turned to the hearth and began the arduous process of lighting the fire. There was plenty of wood, and even a large bin of coal for what passed for a heater this far from the city. Val shivered as his own body heat melted enough of the snow caked to his clothes to wet his skin. Wool might be warm when it was wet, but it still wasn't as warm as he liked.
      At last she got a huge blaze going. Water dripped down the inside of the walls to pool on the stone floor.
      "Don't mess with it," Lexi told him as he managed to get up and reach for a brush. "Let it seep out and seal the bottom of the walls."
      "Oh," he should have thought about that. His brain seemed to be full of snow. He joined her by the fire and held out his hands. Lexi tisked at him and stripped off his sodden gloves. There were tiny white patches at the very tips of his fingers.
      "You idiot," she cupped his hand in hers, rubbing at them so gently it didn't hurt. Like any other child of the far north, Val instantly recognized the taint of frostbite. "Why didn't you say something?"
      "Didn't want to worry you," actually it was because he hadn't wanted to stop for anything at all, even to relieve himself. Which his growing warmth was now allowing him to feel again.
      "Silly Sime," Lexi blew on his fingers, still rubbing them. His body responded to the nearness of her high field by healing the damage in only heartbeats.
      "I can't afford the selyn," his debt hadn't even been dented by his one, effectively free transfer from Lexi. Personal transfers were classified as unchargable to a Sime's account. It kept Gens from cheating them by holding back on transfer and then getting paid for the excess. One personal transfer a month and the couple were free of financial obligations, or benefits for their selyn besides the standard living stipends.
      "You have plenty," Lexi chided, her unwieldy field seeming to fill the entire room.
      "On loan," his mother had insisted he go out full up in his public field. Probably wise, but not cheap. He hoped he could give back as much of it as possible. This little job was not going to pay very well.
      "You paid good selyn for it."
      "On credit," which was probably going to run so low he'd have to resort to selling his body to make up for any of it soon. Not that he was so good at bed pleasure to be able to make his living in such a fashion.
      "You'll catch up," her blithe unconcern would have been better if it had been infectious. Val continued to fret. The air began to warm up, and so did the remaining snow on his clothes.
      "Maybe," he didn't resist her taking his clothes off, however. She was already undressed, at least by Val's standards. Her current garments did nothing to hide her brilliantly coruscating nager shedding rainbows across the ambient. A dark glimmer at her very core made Val pause his observations.
      "Aren't you going to return the favor?"
      "You are more fair than the Ice Maiden herself," Val applied himself to the toggles on the front of her coat, forgetting all about what he'd zlinned.
      Val's deft hands on the fastenings to Lexi's clothes had their usual effect. She wanted him. Never before had she wanted any one Sime so much. Usually her eye roved at least a few times during the month. Not that her partners had complained too much, at least until they tossed her out on her rear.
      Wanting his physical touch, Lexi reached up to caress his newly healed fingertips. Only an Azovich would have the innate discipline to keep his body from healing so near transfer. She'd spent one winter in an outpost very much like this one a number of years ago and knew where everything was kept.
      Sometimes renSimes escaping slavery to their Gen masters would flee to Rodina's skirts, particularly in winter. Outposts like this one were places they could find selyn which didn't command their lives as the price. Lexi had actually taken in half a dozen of them when she'd worked a border point. She could understand why many northern tribes kept Simes as pets. She'd been tempted.
      There was something inherently satisfying to having a few renSimes fawning over her every word and gesture, even though she'd grown sickened by it before thaw and had sent them on. With Val here, there'd be no temptation to form a nest. He was far more interesting than any renSime.
      "My goodness," Val's eyebrows rose as he stripped off all her outer clothes. A cool breeze bit at her nearly bare chest.
      "I thought you'd like," the translucent gauze of her underclothes was still dry and lifted with her breath. She finished unbuttoning her tunic and slid it off as well. Here, right before the fire, it was already plenty warm. The walls were sealing far more quickly than she would have guessed. The oncoming night must have already frozen solid the water leaking out.
      "I do," his hand caressed the delicate material, not brushing her skin at all. "Very much."
      "You can touch," she wished he would.
      "I could," there was a playful lilt to his field.
      "You're bad," she took a deep breath.
      "If you want me to be," his skin seemed to glow from within, reflecting the warm light of the fire. "Or not."
      This was an entirely new Val, one Lexi'd never thought to see. It was as if by coming out here, something had changed for him. And Lexi didn't think all of it was the change in scenery. "Your choice," she stood one he'd helped her get her boots off.
      The slate beneath her feet had warmed considerably and would soon be quite toasty. Good thing the heating system still worked, or they'd both be in danger of freezing before thaw. But the Lexi doubted Avilan would have sent his baby boy out somewhere Avilan didn't know for certain was relatively safe.
      "I'm no child," Val's voice no longer cracked, having mellowed into a marvelously velveteen tenor nearly as soft as the skin on his tentacles.
      "No you're not," she licked her lips as she began sliding out of her pants. The effect was diminished by her badly cracked lips, but he still stared at her with hot eyes. Her laces snarled, ruining it the rest of the way.
      His hands on her calves repaired it in its entirety. Now she licked her lips for real. Woefully distracted, she found herself staring down at him as he knelt at her feet. His need darkened field spread like a great billowing cloak before her attention. His worshipful gaze commanded her desire.
      Val couldn't believe Lexi would wear something so scandalously thin, even under her other clothes. Other than her single bracelet, every other garment she had on only accentuated her nager. And even the refraction through the metal of her jewelry only highlighted the brilliance of her field.
      He could do nothing but gape at her, his mind dribbling out his lateral sheathes. "I have to go," he pulled off his heavy coat before he could soil it. The soft fur lining the cuffs couldn't take much abuse before it wouldn't be wearable over his forearms.
      "Good idea," the pulse at the base of her throat fluttered like a captive bird. "So do I."
      "I'm not going outside," he'd freeze some parts of his body off he'd become rather attached to.
      "There's a bathroom around here somewhere," her turning her back to him did nothing for Val's hormones. Before his source of selyn could get away, he found himself following her rather closely. Oddly enough, he was now nuzzling her crown when she stopped suddenly.
      "You don't have to breathe down my collar."
      It was far better than nibbling at it, which was what he really wanted to do. Of course the thin gauze covering her flanks and backside did nothing for his arms either. The air still held a bit of a nip, accentuated by the moisture beginning to trickle from his lateral sheathes. How Lexi could stand it, in the wisps of cloth she wore, was beyond Val's ken.
      So instead Val began nibbling on the curve of Lexi's ear, counting her earrings with his lips. There were so very many of them, even though she'd given him one as well. The zlin of her field caressing him in return made his knees wobble.
      "Val," her hands grabbed his and pulled him close. The soft, cool, Gen feel of her made his arms throb. All of his tentacles came out to bind their hands. He couldn't quite manage a transfer position like this, but close enough to tease. He bent down to lick the pulse at the side of her neck. "Valtanir," her voice was a harsh whisper.
      "Yes?" There was no one at all watching them here. No parents to grade his performance the next morning, no guards zlinning to tell if they were required to break up a dispute, no nosy sibs wanting all the latest gossip. He might not be able to create anything concrete during his time here with Lexi, but there were impermanent things he could create while free of such observation, such as turning his erstwhile partner into a mass of sensation.
      Lexi was having a hard time believing the change in her young partner. Val'd never been so forward with her, even when they'd been locked in her suite together. Her knees wobbled and she leaned back into his embrace.
      "Feel good?" For once one of his stupid questions felt more like a caress. Lexi twined her fingers with his tentacles in answer. At least he hadn't let them get frozen. They were wonderfully warm against her still chilled skin.
      "I would guess so," his hands splayed over her middle. She'd gained a couple of kilos last month and thought about moving away. But no, his easy kneading felt too good. At this moment, there was no sign he was anything but Sime. "Feel even better," his fingertips explored the bit of softness she'd added far too easily with sloth and good food.
      "Been eating too much," she grumbled, hoping he wouldn't be too upset with her. For some reason she couldn't seen to get enough to eat, no matter how hard she tried. Usually Lexi was militantly indifferent to food.
      "I don't think so," his warm breath caressed her collarbones as he twined his head and neck around hers, as if he were a stallion courting a mare. The similarity sent another shiver of warmth to replace the chill of the air.
      "You want me fat?"
      "I wouldn't mind a few more kilos," he knocked this out as if he were looking forward to it. "I rather like my Gens a bit padded."
      "Forward tonight," not that she was particularly complaining.
      "Do you mind?" He reverted in a heartbeat. Before he could take his hands back, Lexi grabbed them.
      "No," she snapped. "I don't." With that she turned in his arms. When had he gotten so tall? Not that she minded too much, it was surprising is all. The shutters had come down behind his eyes. Exasperated with him, she licked his face from chin to forehead.
      "Lexi!" No one could remain serious when they'd been slobbered on. Not even Valtanir. She giggled at him and threatened another lick. "You win," he leaned back.
      Careful of his hands, Lexi cocked one of her wrists and then took his throat in her mouth. His sudden groan vibrated her already sensitive mouth. She hummed back, nipping at the slightly roughened skin. She could feel his whiskers growing in beneath the surface. He swallowed heavily and let his head fall back.
      His laterals were already out, tracing the skin of her wrists, zlinning for a landing spot. If she didn't stop soon, he'd find it and then she'd be caught. It wasn't quite time yet for transfer. Another day or so before she'd be ready. With one last lick, Lexi relented her hold. It was another few moments before he managed to look down at her again.
      She gave him an impish smile and licked her lips. "Tease," his eyes were dark, half lidded with lust.
      "Yes," she wiggled her eyebrows. "I am teasing you."
      "But can I tease you?" His strong hands slid inside her underpants and cupped her to him. It wasn't sexual, quite, but the promise for later was unmistakable. "Does Lexi like this?" His teeth nibbled their way along her jawline, bringing out her own desires with each hot touch. At times like this Lexi swore the body heat of Simes was purely intended to drive Gens crazy.
      "Maybe my ancestors had the right idea," she cupped the back of his head and held him close.
      "In keeping Simes as slaves?" He was moving south at a rapid rate. What was he doing. If he even so much as touched her sore breasts she'd slap him one. They'd been hurting ever since she'd let him play with them last month. Not that it had done anything but feel good at the time.
      "Yes," she did not want him to stop. He nuzzled aside her loose undershirt and came to rest with his mouth over her heart. Her nager went wild, trying to light the entire room. It was saying 'zlin me, zlin me'.
      "Very ostentatious," his lips parted and he opened the dark velvet of his need to her senses. It wasn't the true promise of transfer, but it was darker than the cold night outside. The warmth within her, struggling to be free, battered at his indifference. "Pretty though." He placed a single kiss over her frantically beating heart.
      Val managed to catch Lexi before she melted completely. He smiled and tugged loose the end of her braid. "This time?"
      "Yes," her eyes were now smokey dark, the gold nearly overshadowing the green.
      "Yes for what?" His fingers undid her hair one plait at a time.
      "Anything," there was still a slight flatness to her field and Val knew it was not yet time.
      "Bathroom then," he grinned. Her slap was not very light. He chuckled, twining her hair band among his tentacles. "Mine."
      "Yes," she wrinkled her nose and managed to get back on her own two feet. Too bad, Val thought. He found he'd rather liked having Lexi lean on him for once. Not that he could keep her by his side, but he'd found in the last month he enjoyed her acerbic wit and quite innocent outlook on life. Val knew she'd never leave him for some misplaced sense of duty or obligation, but only because another Lord had caught her roving eye.
      With Lexi, this was to be expected. She had quite a reputation for hopping from bed to bed. With another Sharm Lord he might be scorned for not being able to keep their favors. With Lexi, any time he managed to keep her attention on him and not someone else, was a major accomplishment.
      Now desperate, Val tried to zlin for the facilities. He did not want to look like a little boy dancing from foot to foot, but their loveplay had only prolonged his agony. "So where is it?"
      "I could make you wait?"
      "I could make a mess," he decided the stables would do. She laughed and pointed towards a well concealed door.
      As he was washing his hands, he caught sight of the menstrual supplies some previous occupant had left on the back of the primitive commode. "I don't remember your needing such things this month." He narrowed his eyes at her, his suspicions coming to the fore.
      "I skip months, Val," she shrugged, eying them all the same. "It's not that big a deal."
      "It is if you're pregnant," his heart began pounding again. He was too young to be a father.
      "I'm not," she shook her head. "You're too young. I'm too set in my ways."
      "How so?"
      "I rarely cycle completely. My body has never quite settled down." She shrugged again. "Really Val, I get myself checked out every year by Sergei. I suppose I should have gone for the Veil, but I couldn't stand the idea of living below ground for the rest of my life."
      "I can understand that," he wished he could zlin to be sure though.
      "Don't worry about it," she stood and nudged him over. "I've even zlinned pregnant before."
      "Yes," she grinned. "My body got confused and I suffered through about two and a half months of false pregnancy. Happens to Sharm Lords and Lords some times."
      "Oh," at last he relaxed. That must have been the dark spot he'd zlinned earlier.
      "Diomid says it's because our systems get so driven into trying to reproduce, some females will not cycle correctly when under particular transfer conditions, like taking away a few personals, and then driving one really hard."
      This was an explanation he could understand. "Like happened to you?"
      "Exactly," she dried off her hands and cupped his face. "I doubt I will ever be able to have children."
      "Why?" This seemed like such a waste to him. Maybe Lexi wasn't the most intelligent human being to walk the face of the earth, but she was funny, and sweet, and wonderful to hold and touch and make love with. If only he were older or more Siminine or something!
      Lexi's usual response of her preference for women would not have gone over well. "Because I don't want them."
      "Why?" Val acted as if this were the most horrible thing he'd ever heard.
      "Because I don't have the time for them," she gave him a rather lopsided smile. "You will sire beautiful children, Val. Find someone who can give them to you without regret."
      "But so could you." He clutched at her hands.
      "No, Val," she let her fingers twine with his. "I'm too set in my ways. I don't want to learn to deal with human children. I have plenty of four footed children to deal with every day."
      "You aren't too old," he just kept pushing.
      "I don't want them, Val," she wished she could get through to him. "No, if you want children, you'll have to find someone else."
      "You could adopt."
      "Val," she wished he would quit. "I've thought it over long and hard. No children. Maybe I will bear one for the Veiled some day, but not to keep."
      "Would you bear one for me?"
      "You're too young."
      "I know," he dropped his eyes from hers. "I wish things were otherwise."
      He looked so crestfallen, she had to reassure him somehow, "You'll find a mate, Valtanir. Someone your own age who wants to stay home and take care of half a dozen children."
      "No," he turned his face away. "No one would have a Lord like me."
      "You don't know that, Val," she made him look at her again. "There are lots of Sharm Lords who'd be more than happy to partner you."
      "I don't suppose I have any choice in the matter," he clenched his jaw so tightly Lexi could hear his teeth grind.
      "You do," she didn't know why he was being so stubborn on this point. Of course he was stubborn about everything. Her thumb brushed over the hinge of his jaw. "You deserve the best, Valtanir. I'm not it."
      "Bullshit, Lexi," he yanked his head back. "What do you know about it?"
      "I know I'm older and more experienced than you are. I've been to court, trying to catch a Lord. Sharm Lords outnumber Lords by nearly two to one in Azov. I'm the one who's likely to go without a partner." The thought of returning to her cold, lonely bed after setting Val up with a suitable partner was not reassuring. But it was for the best.
      "I've zlinned those children."
      "You are one of them."
      "No, Lexi, I'm not," the strength of his field, even within a day of transfer was still overwhelming. Now it yawned beneath her feet, a black maelstrom of desperate need, held in check so easily by his will. "I've tried to talk with them."
      "And they loved you," she steered him back out to the fire. The main room was nicely warm now, heated by the fluid piped through the floor.
      "True," his shoulders sagged. "I suppose I should be grateful for what I have."
      "Yes," she stared at the supplies packed so very neatly in their chests. Lexi had no idea what to do with half this stuff. She gingerly poked at a rather thick, canvas wrapped bundle. Last time she'd been here, her predecessor had left all the bedding and other furnishings set out.
      "I really don't like the way they snap at me. As if I were a pike to be biting at flies," his simile was not particularly flattering.
      "You think Mele gets upset at having mares back up to him?"
      "He's a horse," Val gently nudged her aside and got to work. Gods he was domestic. Before she thought to assist, he'd stuffed two pallets, aired out a number of blankets, and was sitting on the pile of bedding with needle and thread to repair a sheet. "I'm not."
      "Obviously," she sat next to him, afraid to spook him out of his task. She hated mending, often paying someone else to do it for her. "But you are attracted to the opposite larity."
      "Of course," his neat, even stitches made mockery of every single time Lexi'd tried to do so much as darn a sock. Even his mending was a work of art. He was adding little leaves to outline the stem he'd created in closing the tear. "I am straight."
      "Of course," she didn't want to tell him his own father was far from straight, being a one to chase anything human.
      "Oh, I know about Avilan," he gave her a wink. "I couldn't have missed it. He did give us all a little talk about not looking down on those unfortunates who didn't truly appreciate the opposite larity and rather preferred their own. I always thought people like that were more than a little odd, but not harmful."
      "Not to hear some of the older people talk about it," Lexi was amazed as an entire rose appeared beneath Val's busy fingers. It was all in white, but beautiful nonetheless. Or perhaps even more so because of the white on white. No one else would probably ever notice it, but the tiny decoration seemed all the more fascinating because of it's simpleness.
      "Up to a point," he finished off his work and then stared at it. "I really hadn't meant to get so fancy." Val picked up a pair of scissors.
      "Please don't," she couldn't stand to see it destroyed. No one would ever see it or care again.
      "Why?" His tentacles traced over the blossom.
      "Because it's pretty," she placed her hand over his. "I like it."
      "Then I'll leave it."
      Val finished tidying up their bed. He truly did enjoy sleeping with Lexi. Since Ilyan had established, Val had slept alone and didn't much care for it. Beds were too cold and lonely with no one else in them. He remembered sleeping with both Sevrin and Ilyan as a young child.
      "What are you smiling about?" She'd managed to remove the scissors from his fingers before he could take them back. Lexi was probably right, no one would ever notice what he'd done, but it still rankled. It had been far too easy to create on the linen canvas. Now it was like painting with thread, not making stitches.
      "Thinking about sleeping with my brothers."
      Lexi cocked her head at him in question. Val set aside his idle sewing and gathered her into his arms. He could do this one Sime thing well. She sighed and relaxed against him. Zlinning her gently, he would have sworn she was pregnant. All the signs pointed towards it, but if she said she wasn't, he wasn't going to push the matter.
      "When it was really cold, we'd all pile into one big bed together." He tucked a fairly fresh smelling blanket beneath her chin. Tomorrow he'd zlin about doing better by her. "It was sort of fun. Even though I was the youngest, we were all close enough in age to play together."
      "Sounds really neat," her body conformed to his so perfectly, as if she were made to cuddle up to a Sime. "My sister and I would do the same, even though it rarely got cold in the Kirov sharm."
      "You grew up at Kirov?"
      "Yes," she stiffened slightly against him.
      "If you don't want to talk about it?"
      "Not you," she relaxed again. "Only the fact my mother didn't want me to get to know my blood father. When I was old enough to understand what was happening to him, he'd already gone."
      "I was never told what happened to Alexander Azovich."
      "No one would ever tell you," she sighed and remained silent for so long Val would have thought she'd fallen asleep but for her still brilliant field. "He died of neural degeneration brought about because of being Azovich."
      "Is that why you won't bear children? You don't want to subject them to your early death?" Was this why Lexi kept pushing him away? If so, Val didn't want it. He would much rather have a short, happy time than a life full of could have beens.
      "Yes and no," her field grayed to the color of lead. Voice still flat and dull, she went on, "I'll probably not die young."
      "Unless you don't stop drinking too much." This earned him a sharp pinch. Val was glad she was not truly despondent, even though all the other evidence pointed towards it.
      "But I also don't want to be tied down." She looked up at him. "Can't you understand that?"
      "No, I don't know I can," he replied as honestly as he could. "To me children aren't a burden or a problem. I watched my parents raise quite a few of them, including many others than their own. It never seemed so hard." Actually Val remembered quite clearly caring for other children from the time he was very young. There had always been children of all ages around the Azov household. Sometimes as many as twenty or more sat to dinner.
      "It's fun," he smiled down at her. "I remember singing with the hounds howling in protest every time we hit a sour note. I remember us all going out sledding down the hills south of the city in winter. I remember everyone swimming in the pool near the river in summer. I remember running through the forest when the ground beneath the trees was all crackly with leaves and playing tag."
      "Then you do that. You have a lot of children and love them all." Her shoulders shook as a hot wetness trickled onto his chest. "I can't."

Chapter 7

      Lexi was burning up with selyn, but even still she couldn't stop crying. How did he do things like this to her. His strong arms held her close in a way no lover ever had before. For all his gentleness, there was a core of strength to him unmatched by any Sime she'd ever known.
      "Cry, my Lexi," he murmured into her ear. "I'll hold you."
      "But what about you?" She sniffled, wiping her tears off on his broad chest. It wouldn't be long before it was covered with hair, but not it was as bare as a child's, even though no child had a voice as low or soft as Val's.
      "I'll be fine," he lied so easily. No Sime could not share the pain of a naked Gen crying on their chest. "Let me hold you for a bit."
      "It's backwards," her arms refused to push him away.
      "So I am," his hands stilled. "You did ask me to do as I wanted."
      "True," at last her tears stopped. Could he have been right about her being pregnant? The odds were so heavily against it. Well, there were things she could do if she were pregnant.
      "I wish you wouldn't," he rubbed his chin over the top of her head. "I won't stop you, but I would ask you to think about it first."
      "My mind is made up," Lexi set her jaw. No one was going to force her to bear a child. She had too many things to do before she could take the time off for such a thing. There were too many plans she had in motion.
      "So be it," his voice was utterly flat. "It is your choice."
      "It is," she pushed all such thoughts from her mind. In the morning would be soon enough.
      Lexi pawed through the cabinet in the bathroom. She'd left Val dozing by the fire. It had not been easy. He'd been wrapped around her so hard she'd nearly dragged him with her. In any other situation it would have been amusing.
      "Shen and shidoni!" Lexi checked the stocks again. Had the last occupants of the outpost been insane? There didn't seem to be anything remotely resembling contraceptives. She might be able to induce an abortion if she really were pregnant without Kriadin, but it would be very risky. Particularly this late. Within a few hours of conception it was easy. The risks of permanent sterility or death for both mother and child rose exponentially with each day she waited.
      A chill traveled the length of her spine. She'd slept so heavily last night, Val could have easily destroyed or hidden the unusual drug. It didn't take much, less than a mil, so there were hundreds of places he could have stashed it. Lexi took everything out of the cabinet and spread the contents on the floor.
      Nothing but a handful of Riadi and a half bottle of Jarli syrup. Neither of which would be a great deal of help. She cursed some more. He had to have hidden it. No sane woman would ever be without access to Kriadin. Unless of course they only slept with other women.
      Which didn't explain why she hadn't brought any. "Dumb git," she growled at herself. What a stupid thing to have done.
      "You aren't," Val's voice made her give out an indignant squeak.
      "How so," she hurriedly gathered everything up. "What did you do with it?"
      "Nothing," his dark blue eyes bore into hers. "I would never do such a vile thing as to force anyone in such a way." He shifted his weight as if to leave.
      "Wait," she placed her hands over her middle and looked up at him.
      "Yes?" His tone was colder than the ice outside. It was as if she'd broken some part of him.
      "Quit being such a child, Valtanir." She held out her hands to him.
      "Damn you, Alexandrya," his eyes turned as hard as stone. "I did nothing wrong until ..." He jerked his head up as if slapped. "No, I did. I trusted you."
      It was her turn to feel as if she'd been slapped. "Val," iron claws ripped at her chest.
      "Don't patronize me," a muscle worked at the corner of his jaw. "If you so hate me. Don't grind it in."
      "I don't hate you," she put her face in her hands.
      "Then why do you hate my child so much?"
      "I don't," she looked up through tear spangled vision.
      "Why do you want to kill it?"
      "It doesn't know."
      "If it's a month old, it does," his face was dead white. "No, I did not do right by you in bedding you last month. I thought you enjoyed it and were responsible enough to be certain you did not conceive. I should have thought of it and verified the fact." He turned and left with only one more phrase, "I'd say I was sorry if it were true."
      Val hugged the blankets to his aching chest. His head was stuffy and felt as if it were full of iron filings, but even so the tears wouldn't come. Away from Lexi, he could not shed the tears choking him. He bit down on the cover and keened.
      He'd zlinned Lexi last night in his sleep. She was pregnant. A little boy, perfectly formed as far as he could tell. It was her choice to end the life she carried in her body, but he hated the fact. He would do nothing to stop her in her determination to kill their son, even as he grieved for such senseless waste.
      It had been impossible to ignore his sister's turmoil as she'd struggled to bear a healthy child to Diomid. No one in the Azov household had. None of his parents had said anything, but what they'd left unsaid had horrified him. The one time he'd heard them discussing the matter had left him with nightmares for weeks.
      His face felt as if it would crack with the stress of his unshed tears. He damned himself for having been born Sime. Uncontrollable and uncontrolled, he'd perpetrated the ultimate wrong.
      No, he'd learn control. Never again would he do something so stupid. Glassware clinked in the bathroom and he shuddered. Val hadn't even looked to see if there was Kriadin or Bartir in the bathroom. Both abortifacients were anathema to him. Neither was useful in the first seventy two hours after conception. He'd not wanted to see them if they were there.
      Another great tremor shook his body even as sweat streamed down his flanks.
      "Go away," he turned from her, holding his knees to his chest and biting at them. The pain seemed to still some of the worst of his shaking. Her hand burned like a brand as it landed on his shoulder.
      "It's done."
      "No," he cried helplessly into the pillow. This nightmare had to stop. It was too horrible. Nothing had ever been as awful as this. His son, dead at someone's whim. And he'd once thought he might be able to love Lexi.
      No more. She was too cold, too uncaring. To so simply kill for her own whims locked his tentacles in their sheathes. Val reared up out of the blankets and zlinned her. He was gone, as if he'd never been.
      "I found the Bartir."
      "So I zlin," his throat worked convulsively on nothing but dryness. "I'll be going now."
      "Not into this!" Lexi made a grab at his hand. He augmented it out of the way. Her eyes darkened with a flash of desire.
      "I hate you with all my heart and soul, Alexandrya," he put on his heavy outer clothes. They were still clammy and chill, but he couldn't stay. "Please yourself, you know quite well how. When you see my parents," his voice cracked. "Tell them I loved them."
      "Valtanir!" Lexi lunged for the door. It had already closed after him. There was no way she could keep up with an augmenting Sime in such tight quarters. She struggled into her heavy pants even as another massive cramp tried to double her over.
      She didn't make it into her coat. Unable to stand, Lexi knelt on the stone floor. This part was unheated and the chill only made her legs cramp worse. Lexi gathered the warm garment to her shoulders. She'd never had to use anything like Bartir.
      Her vision grayed as another horrible spasm cramped her middle. She could smell the salty, fecund odor as her body rejected the now dead tissue she carried. No one had ever told her of the horrible darkness coming for her as her son died. Lexi screamed for the life she'd thrown away.
      Val heard Lexi's scream before he'd gone a klick. He turned back towards the outpost and tried to zlin. His eyes were trying to sag shut as cold overcame need. It wouldn't have been too much longer.
      "Now she regrets it," he blinked clear the snow gathering on his eyelashes. "Too little, too late," he reached for her presence. Her mind was black with turmoil, even as her body used the selyn she would have given their child to heal. In a few days, she'd be fine.
      He turned away. Before he'd gone another five steps, something heavy slammed him back into a tree. Ice and snow showered down over him. Blinded, he zlinned. A field strike drove Val to his knees.
      "My Sime," a rasping voice, in heavily accented High Simelan came from a hooded figure. Cold, clammy hands seemed to rummage through his brain. Val's scream of shock and terror was muffled by the snow.
      "Yes, you'll do quite nicely," dark brown eyes peered at him from behind a fringe of fur. "Come with me."
      He had no choice. His body obeyed, even as Val's mind howled incoherently. He struggled against his mental captivity. It did no good. Bruised and battered within his own skull, Val peered out from eyes no longer his own. He was puppet to this man's strings.
      Lexi stirred up the fire again. Unlike last time she'd been here, no one had come knocking on her door. It was as if she were the only person alive. Her hand went to her middle. If she hadn't been so stupid, he'd have been moving within her now. Spring was nearly here and Lexi had no idea what to tell the Lords Azov.
      She knew Val wasn't coming back. He'd frozen to death in the forest, alone, but not unlamented. So what if he was young. Lexi'd never known such beauty before in her life. No longer did she yearn for silk shirts and soft leather boots. Now all she wanted was short brush of silky black hair and soft, dark blue eyes to drown in.
      Her bark tea was done steeping. Lexi strained out the worst of the detritus and sipped at it. Could have been worse. It could have been coffee. The sour taste soothed her rather abused tastebuds. Without Val, her cooking repertoire had been painfully limited. Not that she'd much cared to eat.
      With one shaking hand, Lexi placed the mug back on the hearthstones. Her clothes were like a shroud. She'd lost countless kilos. Not that she cared. It never did seem to get warm in here anymore, no matter how much wood she put on the fire.
      Tottering to her feet, Lexi went out to check on the horses. Mele bugled as she came into the sheltered stable. They were fine, even as he ducked his head and butted her chest.
      "I'm fine," she scratched him behind the ears. He tipped his nose, nearly knocking her onto her behind. "Someone will be here for you soon." She wouldn't take him with her even if she could bring herself to do it. The sound of water dripping off the eaves made her smile. "Soon, my lovelies." Lexi stroked his soft skin one more time.
      He snorted and shook a bit of straw out of his forelock. Dara stuck her head over the partition. Lexi petted her delicate, but still strong jaw. She made chewing motions. "You're no foal, Dara." She chided the mare gently.
      From the look she was giving Mele, he'd soon be well aware she was no foal either. It wouldn't be more than a day or two before her relief came. Lexi forked in enough hay to keep the two of them for a week and then went into the tack room.
      Her father's saddle chided her for this winter's neglect. It hadn't cracked, but it would require a great deal of work before riding on it wouldn't damage it. She stroked her hand over the tooling with fingers gone numb.
      There wasn't much time left. Lexi stumbled as she struggled to return to the living rooms. The rough wood of the connecting passageway bit at her knees. Her feet flopped at the end of her legs. This wasn't how she'd wanted to go. She should have had a few more days!
      Val bolted for the opening between two great trees. The slick mud showed his tracks mercilessly. He remembered the outpost being nearby. The Gen who'd captured him this winter was breathing down his neck.
      "I'm going to kill you," he hissed, taking a swipe at Val.
      "If you can catch me," Val put on another burst of speed. If he could get to Lexi, maybe he could find away to escape. Three months of slavery had given Val a new perspective on life. He saved his breath for running, and thought.
      Without breaking stride, Val leaped for the heights. The branch he caught sagged under his weight and then held. He swung his leg over the slender limb and then jumped to the next tree. High above the ground, he zlinned for the stone buildings. If nothing else they should show up as dead spots.
      He couldn't move as fast up here, but his torturer couldn't catch him either. The Gen's field was as high as it ever got, but it was still plenty of threat to Val. How could he have ever mistaken Lexi's insecurity for cruelty? She hadn't known. This monster knew exactly what he was doing.
      And had every time he'd forced himself on Val. His body still screamed with remembered pain from being taken without his will, consent or desire. "Lexi!" All he could zlin was a bonfire of selyn laced with her signature reaching for the heavens.
      Lexi was hearing things. Was she dead already? No, her body hurt too shenned much to be dead. Mele screamed in fury in response to a howl rising from her own throat. "Val!"
      She managed to pry herself off the floor. Splinters were dug deep into her palms, the pain of them enough to get her moving. A crack of midnight darkness across the ambient made her shake her head.
      The there was the horrific crash of splintering wood. Mele's shoulder tossed her against the wall. Where in hell was he going? Lexi caught herself before she could fall again.
      What a farce, Lexi followed her own horse. The melting snow gave way to ice. Before she'd gone a dozen paces, she'd slipped twice. Now her hands were wet and full of splinters. Why hadn't she gotten around to refinishing the floor of the passthrough?
      At last she managed to make her way through the deep drifts surrounding the outpost.
      "You can't do a shenned thing, little Sime," a huge Sharm Lord reached for a figure slumped in the snow.
      "I can die," Val's face was nearly as white as the snow. Mele shoved Val in the back with his nose. Yes, he was a horse. Not really bright. Val sprawled at the stranger's feet.
      "You like it," the strange Sharm Lord reached for the back of Val's neck.
      "No!" Lexi managed to knock the bastard out of the way. Of course she ended up on her face in the process. A dark shadow covered all three of them. The flat, distorted image of Mele's vision came to her. His focus was on the stranger, and he was ready to murder.
      Lexi rolled to the side, landing on Val. He rose from the snow and threw her off. "Not you!" He struggled to his feet.
      There was a wet cracking sound. Then more. They were not the sounds of breaking ice. Mele screamed once more, still stomping the stranger into mush.
      Valtanir howled as the deathshock struck. Lexi's own vision went black as selyn exploded into the ambient. Blinded by too much selyn, she struggled to remain conscious. Her lungs burned in the frozen air.
      Then his hands were on her. Burning hot and desperate for transfer. Never before had she felt such a depth of need in anyone. His tentacles lashed around her wrists.
      She pulled back, knowing she'd hurt him if she tried to open to him. Instead he collapsed. Stunned, Lexi froze. Selyn pooled, bright and glittering to run into the snow. As she watched, it faded away.
      "Val, no," she knelt over him. Her hands made their way into the sleeves of his coat all the way up to his elbows. The vicious bastard had cut away the fur lined cuffs and his forearms were completely exposed to the weather.
      No wonder he'd been unable to come back before now. He'd have frozen to death before he'd gone more than a klick. Although now, due to her own stupidity, he was dead. No selyn moved in his systems other than the pooling effects of a corpse. "Don't do this to me!" She ran her hands over his cooling forearms.
      A flicker of life glimmered along his nerves.
      "Yes, for once, obey me," Lexi pushed away thoughts of how she'd shenned up every other time she'd tried to help him. "Oh, Gods, Valtanir," she collapsed over him. His long, lanky body was skeletal beneath his heavy clothes, and still deathly still.
      His heart faltered. "No!" She howled, shaking his hands, praying he'd come back. "Valtanir!" She screamed, wishing she knew what to do. What would Val do?
      For the first time in her life, Lexi paused for thought. What would her father do? Thinking back on his calm, quiet strength, Lexi set her field to paint the ambient in welcome to the delicate spirit she knew Valtanir to have. The only sounds were the hissing of her breath and the ice melting off the trees.
      Mele's breath warmed the back of her neck. Deep beneath the earth, she could sense life coming back into the frozen meadow. Lexi reached out to all of it, embracing all the creatures great and small in her nageric compass.
      Val reached for the jet black feather held out to him by Azrael, the angel of death. He could clearly see the figure's knife sharp features, softened to compassion by the most fantastic eyes he'd ever seen.
      Then he felt a warmth breeze at his back banishing the cold. He turned from Azrael.
      "Choose now, young Azovich," Azrael's voice held the hissing murmur of snow blown across ice. "I do not wait and you would not do well in the world of the shadows."
      A rift opened at his feet, glowing with writhing souls desperate for the light. The sensible thing to do was to take Azrael's blessing. Shadows rose around him, blackening all but the now dimly glowing feather. He sank into the ice beneath his feet.
      Another warm breath of air stirred the hair on the back of his neck. His fingers clenched on nothing. "No!" He refused the great angel.
      "Then die the final death," the feather was replaced by a great glowing scythe rising above the creature's black wings. It arced through the night towards his neck.
      "Father!" A boy's cry made him turn from the descending edge. The night shattered into day at the blade's touch.
      Lexi wiped away the tears marring Val's face. It was drawn to a skull mask, but his presence behind his slack features made up for its current lack of animation. Her own vision blurred again as she thought of how close she'd come to loosing him again.
      Not once, but twice he'd shenned out on her. Her own arms were bloody where his tentacles had twisted the skin open with brutal force. But even still, she'd persevered until at last she rode the pain he'd inflicted on her to force the selyn into him.
      Somehow he'd ended up with a skin deep, but frighteningly long cut on the side of his neck. She wiped it clean again, praying it would heal with his other injuries. She'd only gotten a few days of selyn into him, not enough to satisfy either of them, but hopefully he'd return to consciousness before she had to try again.
      "I'm so very sorry, Valtanir," her oft repeated refrain did work a bit better with him here. "I didn't know."
      "I tried to tell you," his voice was as harsh as a raven's.
      "I wasn't listening," she gathered his limp body into her arms, crying and laughing for having him back. "Oh, Val, Val, thank you."
      "For?" He nuzzled her ear gently.
      "I'm filthy," she realized how gummy and awful her hair was. Cleanliness had not been high on her list of priorities lately.
      "I don't care," of course he didn't smell particularly sweet either. The rank odors of stale sweat and soured oils was not all coming from her. "Or I can't tell what's coming from who."
      "You are fragrant. I stink." She tried to reassure him. Honestly all she cared about was having him back. Mele had been a very good horse. He'd even been good enough to not really care about the fact she hadn't had the energy to do more than shoo him back in the barn and close the door.
      But then she also knew he was not going anywhere ... and that there was no more grain to be had at all.
      "Who gets the first bath?"
      "You do," she tried to pick him up again. He was definitely feeling better. He'd regained his talent of selective mass. Right now he had to outweigh her by at least two to one. Or at least so her muscles told her. She grunted and tried again.
      "It won't work," he returned to nibbling on her ear. This was lousy aim.
      Lexi leaned back and captured his face in her hands. His eyes were huge as he stared back at her. There was fear beneath them now, tempting at the horrible part of herself. For an instant it escaped, showing her how very sweet it could be to torment him further.
      He shivered, but didn't drop his eyes. "I know what you want." His voice trembled. His nager tainted the ambient with blood red smears over a matt black parody of need.
      "No," she clasped his face, now terrified herself. She didn't want such a monstrosity. Lexi wanted the pure, beautiful glittering rainbows he'd once showed her.
      "That Valtanir is gone," he swallowed heavily and now closed his eyes. "I am no longer innocent." Through the touch, Lexi could feel the horrible damage his captor had done to him.
      "Yes you are," she could feel the purity of Val's spirit hiding behind the facade he'd created. As gently as she could, Lexi leaned down and brushed her lips over his.
      At first they stayed slack, even as his breath caught. She licked at them, tasting again the warmth of him. They were horribly cracked and Lexi very carefully smoothed them with her own. Not that her lips were a whole lot better off.
      "Don't," his soft whimper nearly went unheard. But she did stop, still brushing his face with her breath. Beneath the horrible stale odors of illness and hard use, there was still the beautiful sweet perfume she'd come to know as unique to him. Ever so slowly, it blossomed beneath her touch.
      "Why not?" She left kisses over every cent of his face. Even over his soft eyelids, wondering again at how delicately made they were.
      "Because I don't want to go through the last three months again."
      "You think I would torture you," she grimaced at how badly she had tormented him already.
      "I think you might not." His hands came up and captured hers. "Now I don't know if I can take a normal transfer."
      "Why?" She brushed one last soft kiss over his lips.
      "Because I enjoyed his," this time when his shutter came down, Lexi cried out in pain. It was as if he'd cracked all the bones in her wrists with the force of his nageric slam.
      Val's insides churned with need and an even darker longing. He couldn't poison Lexi's gentle offer with his own brutal desires. Hiding his twisted soul, he pulled the protective camouflage he'd created over his sickness. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
      "No, I don't suppose you did," her voice was utterly flat, as if she were already dead.
      "I'm sorry," he let what he could of his need come to the fore.
      "Don't," her hands clenched into fists. With the movement, he could zlin the open sores on her forearms. His fingers wrapped over the damaged skin, coaxing her body to generate selyn to heal her injuries. "Stop it."
      "You're hurt," he forced his hands open. How he hated seeing the reddened marks marring her skin.
      "So are you." Her mouth had drawn into a tight line.
      He shrugged in silence. It didn't matter. He should never have come back. Azrael's offer had been kindly meant. His heart still knew the silken feel of Azrael's feather.
      "No, Val," she shook him out of his distraction. A shiver of cold passed through his body. Good, it was shutting down with need at last. He wouldn't force himself on her.
      "One last time?" He tipped his head slightly.
      "No," her lips met his. But this time they were far from gentle. Val found himself plunged into a whirlpool of raging desire.
      Long, strong fingers traced over his arms. At their prodding, his tentacles lashed out to grasp Lexi's wrists. He tried to pull back, get away. Fear laced the ambient with magnesium fire.
      In the distance, he could hear his own hissing shout of both triumph and terror. Consumed by Lexi's need, his barriers burned to ash. Selyn coursed into his body, untamed and uncontrollable.
      Pleasure warred with panic, driving him to grasp for life. Val clutched at the sun, reaching for the morning with all his might. Warmth finally caressed his battered nerves, soothing them into soft compliance.
      His soul spread ethereal wings in the updraft off the new life burgeoning within him. Unmarred by past or present, Val lived in the moment Lexi gave him unstintingly.
      Lexi smoothed Val's hair back from his face. His eyes were still unfocused with the depth of their mutual spending. She couldn't have let him die under her hands again. Not for so stupid a reason. Now they'd have another month to try to recover.
      At last he collapsed into her arms. There was no sexual lust in him, not after having been raped so brutally. But there was a warmth beneath his breastbone which called to her. She rocked him in her arms, cosseting the poor lad who'd had all the worst of luck.
      "You're going to be all right," she stroked his shaking shoulders. His sobs were heartrending, matching her own quiet ones. "Yes you will. You have Mele to look after you."
      "He did. Didn't he?"
      "Yes," she lipped the delicate curve of his ear. He was so finely made compared to so many of the Simes she'd known. It was as if a strong wind would blow him over, but his internal strength more than made up for it. "Don't really know why, either."
      "Azov's mare doesn't know why her stallion does something?"
      "No, Azov's mare doesn't," she finally managed to get around to stripping the rest of his filthy clothes off him.
      "I'm not interested," he pushed at her hands.
      "Neither am I," she reassured him. Lexi felt better than she had in months, still the memory of her stupidity chided her sense of what was right. She'd done wrong by Val. Horribly wrong. Falling into bed with him and shenning up the same way for a second time was a bad idea.
      As soon as she got Val's clothes off, Lexi contemplated her own. They were filthy. But then so were all of her clothes now. Giving up the thought as lost, she chivied Val to his feet and steered him into the bathroom.
      "I'll drown," he eyed the tub with distaste.
      "No you won't," she sat him on the toilet.
      "I don't require this either," one eyebrow raised in a dubious look.
      "Shut up," she noted how much better he had to be feeling by the return of his vile sense of humor.
      "Make me." His dark blue eyes blinked in mock innocence. She stuffed a washcloth in his mouth. "Yuck," he spit it out. Then he looked at it. The toweling had once been white. Now it was a rather patchy brownish color. "What happened to it?"
      "I forgot it in the iron wash kettle," for a few days, actually. Her blushes burned her ears.
      He closed his eyes and sighed. "Can't you even wash the towels?"
      "Obviously not," she studied the mottled pattern of rust stains. It looked as if the cloth were molding where some copper hoof treatment had also stained it. She cleared her throat.
      "Bath," he looked at her with half a smile.
      "Yes," she hoped she'd remembered to fire up the boiler. Otherwise there would only be a very little warm water. A small stream of hot water came out of the tap. And then there was none. A few more silty trickles came out.
      "Oh hell," she pounded her fist against the wall. This didn't help. The boiler settled apologetically.
      "You forgot to fill it," his amusement wasn't helping.
      Now Lexi remembered, "Um, well, a few weeks ago."
      Val sighed again and shook his head. "You need a Gen, Lexi."
      "Don't I know it," she glared at the ceramic piping. This didn't help any.
      "Glare any harder and we will have hot water around here." He got to his feet and peered into the tub. His cringe was not reassuring. She looked over his shoulder and now noticed the cent of black slime in the bottom of the tub.
      "Go take care of Mele." He pointed towards the door.
      "Yes, m'Lord," nothing could get more humiliating than this.
      Lexi even groomed Dara and then cleaned all the tack. The sweet smells of fresh straw, saddlesoap and clean leather reassured her tremendously. Her transfer with Val had cleared out the worst of the selyn choking her, but her mind was also much clearer now.
      She whistled a bit of her favorite song. Dara pinned her ears flat back. "Sorry," she apologized to the mare. It would figure Val's mare would have a sense of pitch.
      After cleaning her hands beneath the pump, Lexi ducked her head into the icy water. It had been working well enough for her alone and she'd momentarily forgotten about her partner having returned. While cleaning water out of her ears, she opened the door to the living quarters.
      A heavenly scent wafted by on the air. She sniffed at it, trying to identify the spices. Grit on the cloth irritated her skin. Then she noted the clean, white sand beneath her feet.
      Lexi slipped off her boots before tracking in more mud. She held them up high, wanting to make sure they didn't drip.
      "Let me take those," Val had a couple of her extra veils wrapped around his forearms, which looked rather silly. She giggled, looking at them.
      "Didn't want to get sand in anything," he grinned at her and tugged at her boots. She finally let go of them. He held them at arms reach and headed for the front door.
      "They'll be cold in the morning!"
      "No they won't," he glared at her boots. "Let me set these down and then pour you a bath." His bare feet made no sound on the smooth floor. On top of the wonderful smells of baking, she could smell lemon oil and bee's wax. What had Val been up to?
      One of her big toes stuck out of her much patched socks. Val returned to tisk at them as well. "Sit," he pointed towards a chair, after placing a towel between it and her.
      "I'm not that dirty," she blinked at him, looking at the gleaming wood.
      "I just polished those," he snorted, eying her socks. "Are you sure they won't bite?"
      "Almost positive," she ducked her head.
      "I'm not," he wrinkled his nose and held them out at arm's reach. They went out with her boots.
      "Those are my last clean pair!"
      "They aren't clean," he rolled his eyes. "They aren't even close to dirty. They are utterly and completely filthy."
      "They don't stand up on their own."
      "Only because they are trying to walk off in all directions at the same time!"
      "Probably true," she grinned sheepishly. "Did you lock them up in my boots?"
      "Your boots are currently hanging upside down to dry. I'll get to them in the morning." He looked at her shirt pointedly. "Give."
      "Oh," this was not at all romantic. Lexi quickly slid out of the rest of her clothes. They too vanished onto the front entranceway. She couldn't meet his eyes. Her breasts were nearly flat now, having lost all their fullness with her extra weight and her hips and ribs were far too prominent.
      "Food after bath," he turned her and gave her a swat on the rear. She yelped and jumped ahead. "It won't be done for another hour or so." He kept patting her, as if directing a milk cow. The utter humiliation of the situation did nothing to distract her from the warmth of his hand.
      "In," he pointed towards the tub. Somehow it had gotten moved to in front of the fireplace. She gingerly stepped into the high sided vessel. "Sit."
      "I'm not a hound."
      "You're more of a cat," he pointed. She sat. Surprisingly enough, the bottom was warm. She looked up to finally note his hair was still damp. He must have washed as well.
      "I cleaned up while cleaning the tub," he hefted over a bucket of water. "Hold still," he upended it on her. The torrent of warm water felt better than any soak in one of Azov's huge baths. The rushing water seemed to massage out the worst of the knots in her shoulders. Then he undid her hair and began massaging her scalp.
      "This feels really good," she purred, leaning back against the side of the tub.
      "I'm glad," he brushed her eyelids closed. Then she smelled sweet milk and honey soap. Where had he found that?
      "It was in my luggage," his tentacles found all the knots in her scalp with amazing ease. One by one he loosened all of them, while soaping and rinsing her hair three times.
      "Finally clean," he put his hands under her arm pits. She rose at his urging and started to get out of the tub. "Stay put."
      "Yes, m'Lord," she stood. Then, with some sort of scrubby thing, he got to work on her elbows, her knees, even the little rough places she tended to get on her hands. Her knees wobbled as he scrubbed at her fingers.
      "Go ahead and sit again," he then went to work on her feet. Lexi melted into the water. Pops and crackles rewarded his hard work, along with many moans of ecstasy. Sex might be fun, but Lexi often preferred having her feet rubbed.
      Val looked around the room. He hadn't had the chance to clean up a great deal, but the air already smelled far better. The orange peel and cardamon smell of the sweet bread had banished the last of the miasma.
      The bedding was tattered and faded, but at least clean. He'd had to shovel out the blankets Lexi had been using into a store room for later consideration. If he boiled them with lye and then bleached the whites, they might return to serviceability.
      He'd never seen such a mess. Servants were useful, but he'd never had access to enough to be able to rely on them entirely. His parents had also made sure all their children could at least manage on their own if they had to.
      It was all a matter of attention to details. Thinking of which, he looked at Lexi's toenails critically. They were horribly overgrown. "A moment," he dug through his baggage for his own file.
      Along with various little vials and packages, he found a pair of clippers. "Perfect," he went back to what he'd been doing. "No wonder you have holes in your socks." He deftly cut them all and then began rounding the sharp edges.
      "I was busy," her eyes opened wide. "You don't have to do that."
      "I want to," he liked touching her. Even as thin as she was. Well, good food would fix that. From what he'd seen in the food stores, she'd hardly touched anything more than a few staples and enough fruit to keep her from getting sick.
      "There," he rinsed off her feet one last time and waved at her to stand. He poured another bucket of warm water over her, making sure he'd gotten all the soap off. Before she could protest, he helped her out of the tub and wrapped her in a warmed towel.
      "Are you for hire?"
      "I'm expensive," teased right back. His timesense told him it was time to rescue the bread he'd baked in the coals. "Sit," he placed her on the edge of the hearth and pulled out the oven. Val brushed the coals off the rim and opened it carefully.
      Fragrant steam told him it was done. He tapped the top to be sure. Val cut out two thick wedges and pulled the crock of butter from where it had been softening. He spread the butter on the bread and handed it to her.
      Lexi's eyes rolled up in her head as she bit into the confection greedily. The ambient thrummed with her pleasure at the relatively simple fare. He nibbled at his own, still watching her ravish her meal.
      "I take it you like?" He chuckled softly.
      "Yes," she caught up some crumbs and licked them off her fingers. Her long hair was frightfully tangled. He cut off another piece of bread for her and got to work.
      It took a while to unsnarl the mess with only fingers and tentacles, but that way he wouldn't pull her hair. Besides, it wasn't as if he had anything better to do. Val whistled cheerfully as he set things to right.
      In the middle of the night, Lexi woke to find the bed swaying gently. Lost in a warm haze, she drifted with the motion. Someone warm was softly moving her body.
      Her hips picked up the slow, steady rhythm. Hot, gentle kisses explored the back of her neck. She knew she should stop, but it felt too good. She purred as a pair of hands began sliding over her skin.
      A familiar pressure nudged at her thighs. Then her gentle tormenter stopped.
      "Don't," she pressed back against him.
      "A moment," he lipped at the back of her neck. A draft trickled between them. Lexi cursed the darkness. "Hold on," there was the soft rustle of some sort of wrapping. "There," he pulled her close again. "Much better."
      "If you say so," she wiggled frantically against his teasing. The soft licks turned to sharp nips. Lexi moaned, opening herself to him. It had been far too long since she'd been awoken so wonderfully.
      "There you go," Val's tentacles slid around and teased at her. It wasn't the raging desire of being post, but nearly as good. Then she felt his warm determination stroking her as well.
      Lexi opened to him, trying to draw him in. His hands grabbed at her hips, even as his tentacles continued to tease her. One small fraction at a time, he filled her. "Yes, my Lexi," his fluttering tentacles were driving her mad.
      "More," she begged, turning her heels out. His chest against her back was perfect, warming her all the way through even as his warmth filled her.
      "I want to take my time," his slow, long strokes did not speed up at all. Lexi clamped down on him, holding him as tightly as she could. His breath hissed between his teeth. "You cheat," his rhythm sped up.
      "I do," she rocked against his teasing tentacles. Then one of them slid up into her. She screamed as a blazing flash of desire dragged her under.
      "Like that do you," he growled and bit her neck again.
      "Yes," she shuddered as wave after wave of heat beat at her.
      "So do I," he drove into her with all his might. "My Lexi!" He shouted, clamping onto her and filling her with his desire.
      Val looked over the collection of used condoms with a jaundiced eye. Once he'd gotten her going last night, it had taken a few tries to get her calmed back down. With a stray cloth, he bundled them up to be taken out to the compost pile. Good thing he'd had his father pack for them.
      Lexi stirred, throwing her arm over her eyes.
      "Good morning, lover," he brushed his hand over her body. She quivered a bit. "Cold?"
      "Not at all," her eyes were still sleepy. "Content?"
      "If you are?" It had not been the same as being bare to her, but he didn't dare take chances. Besides, he had been able to last a bit longer.
      "For now," she rolled over and rested her chin on her hands. "Thank you."
      "You are quite welcome," he stroked her strong, broad back. Her tight buttocks tempted him. He nipped at the bottom curve, testing her.
      She squealed and slapped at him. He ducked the blow easily. This was much, much better. Now he was content. Their loveplay had been only for pleasure, not for progeny and he was going to keep it that way. Never, ever could he forgive Lexi her betrayal, no matter how much else he could forgive.
      Live with her, care for her, these things he could do. Love her, no, not now. She was a wonderful person, except for that one thing.

Chapter 8

      Lexi brushed the curls of wood off the piece she'd been leveling up. The sweet smell of freshly cut pine joined the other heady scents of summer.
      She'd been outside when the resupply caravan had stopped. Naked of course. Not just without her kador, but in her gauzes. Val had stolen her kadors and they had all been hanging out back on a clothes line. As she bolted for the stone rooms, he'd passed her in the hall stripping off the protective cloths he'd taken to wearing over his tentacle sheathes in place of bracers.
      All she'd been able to overhear was something about their relief not being able to come out and could the two of them stay over summer. Lexi's initial reaction was to tell the bastard to go to hell. Val had said sure.
      Now she was glad he had. Mele and Dara were out in their own paddock, made by Lexi herself when they'd found out they were staying. And after she'd gotten done screaming at Val. The latter had taken a while. Particularly as he'd just kept nodding at her and then had swatted her on the behind, given her a big sloppy wet kiss, boffed her brains out and then sent her back to work.
      It would have been humiliating if Lexi had never had so much fun in her life. He was wonderful in bed, easy on the eyes, a great cook, magnificent in the garden and sang like an angel. So what if she was playing Sime to his Gen? He didn't seem to mind anymore. Lexi was loving it.
      She tried whistling again as she studied her board. Mele flattened his ears and glared at her. So he'd gained a sense of pitch too. Val stuck his head out the door and made a rude noise.
      "That was last night," she made a rude noise right back.
      "Not my fault you're a windsucker," he crossed his tentacles at her.
      Lexi blushed down to her toenails. "Only 'cause you stretched me out!" She wasn't entirely sure she'd gotten a bit of a high spot off one edge. Turning the board on edge, she ran a string over it. Sure enough, there was a bit of a lump a third of the way down.
      With her plane, she shaved off the offending unevenness. Now she could cut the grooves in it and have her last long plank for the new flooring in the new bath house.
      She grabbed the last two planks, one under each arm and headed for the addition. Val'd said he wanted a bath house. So a bath house he got. After the new paddock, the fence around his garden, the compost pile turned over and the stalls refloored.
      Lexi hadn't worked so hard in years. She was fitter than she'd ever been, even as a child, and her smile never seemed to fade. Whistling again, she cut the edge grooves in the new planks and set them interlocked with their neighbors. Sweat plastered her hair to the back of her neck and she tried to brush it out of her way.
      "Here you go," Val handed her a glass. Lexi never asked in case he ever had second thoughts about treating her so well. Taking a big drink, she wondered yet again at how he'd managed to be so domestic. It was great. "This is even better than the last batch."
      "It's older," he grinned at her. "Had a bit more time to settle," his hand, cold and wet from his own drink, caressed the back of her neck.
      "Feels good," Lexi stretched out her neck and shoulders. His fingers dug in, rubbing at them. "Feels better."
      "I'm glad you like," he replaced his hand with a kiss.
      "I'm all smelly," she wrinkled her nose, careful not to move away.
      "At thaw, you were smelly. Now you're fragrant," he put down his glass. Then he crouched with his knees on either side of her and rubbed her back.
      "You do that too much and I'll fall over."
      "On your back with your legs spread?"
      "Most likely," she kissed his hand on her shoulder. His tentacles brushed over her face. "You are temptation."
      "For some things," he stood up and stretched. This Lexi could watch all day. Val would never be as heavy as his brother Vayer, but he was very nicely put together. The long, lean, smooth lines of his body were only set off by the slight bit of roughness being Sime gave him.
      Her hand slid up inside his loose shirt and over his ribs. Only the bottom three were showing beneath lean muscle. "Beautiful."
      "In my grubbies," he wiggled around as if resetting his skeleton. It was dreadfully cute. Lexi'd never seen a human do that before, only other animals. But then in some ways Val wasn't as human as many. He got along so instinctively and naturally with the horses, and now their cats and the stray hounds she'd ended up with Lexi sometimes forgot to speak out loud to him.
      "So am I," sure she had a shirt and pants on, but that was it. And both were quite baggy.
      "I'm seeing with my hands," he caressed her face as he leaned down to kiss her one last time. "Don't need my eyes to see you with."
      "Only your laterals?"
      "There you're even more beautiful," he murmured against her lips and then kissed her like he really meant it. Her head was spinning with total and utter lust by the time he stopped.
      "This month?" She'd thought long and hard about what she'd done to him, to both of them really. Now she wanted to make it up to him.
      "You can't bring him back," Val's jaw set for the first time since he'd come back. "No, Lexi," his eyes blazed with banked fury. "Never."
      "Why?" She couldn't believe she was hearing this. They'd been getting along so well. She'd hoped to catch by the simple expedient of making herself available, but so far nothing seemed to have worked.
      "It won't," in profile he was even more beautiful. No, Val was no longer young, even if he ever had been. Sure he'd been insecure, but then he'd never been allowed to run free either. He'd run free and learned some hard truths last winter.
      "And you haven't." He kissed the top of her head.
      "That's damn condescending," Lexi snarled as she rose to her feet.
      "Finish your work, Lexi," the corners of his mouth turned down. She couldn't keep pushing this.
      "I'm looking forward to dinner."
      "Just for you." The smile came back to his lips, if not all the way to his eyes. "You should eat better."
      "For dessert?" She raked him with her eyes.
      "We'll see," he blew her a kiss and went back to the living quarters. Lexi sighed as she watched him go. Now his shoulders formed a perfect triangle with his slender hips leading to wonderfully strong, lean thighs. There was even the perfect little bit of sway to them, as if he were almost strutting, but not quite.
      No, she wouldn't be interested in sex for another week or so, but his body always fascinated her, be it for selyn or sex. She only wished she could have more, but she'd ruined her chances.
      Lexi sighed again and placed her hand over her middle. She'd cycled regularly every month since Val'd come back, even the first. What was going so wrong? Her night vision was not good enough to see what it was he kept fiddling with before he made her senseless with his masterfully skilled lovemaking.
      Even with her other senses she couldn't figure it out. With anyone else, she would have overheard their subvocal conversations with themselves. Val never talked to himself in any way she could overhear. At least on that topic.
      The knot of fatwood shattered in Val's grip. He'd gone on to banter with Lexi after she'd struck so close to home so she wouldn't see how badly she'd hurt him. How could she brush off something so important to him? Couldn't she see her cavalier dismissal of her error hurt him?
      Val picked the splinters from his hands. "That was stupid," rarely did he let his temper get the best of him. He swept up the bits of wood and placed them in the kindling box. The fantastically decorated wood burning stove was far more beautiful than functional.
      "Shen you to hell," he messed with the damper again, adjusting the heat in the oven with great delicacy. It threatened to spew soot all over everything ... again. He gave it a solid smack and it settled down to drawing right.
      Making a note to himself to have Lexi go up on the roof and check the chimney on the shenned thing, he put his hand over the hot box. Good, it was heating the way it should. Val turned the cake in the oven again and then put tea water on to boil.
      The stove was better than the open fire at least. He'd been getting woefully tired of pease porridge and barley gruel by the end of winter. He plucked a heavy skillet off the overhead rack and dropped in a bit of butter.
      Val dipped slices of yesterday's bread in egg and cinnamon before tossing them into the fat to sizzle. When they were done, he swiped out the pan and tossed in some tiny squashes, slivered carrots, peppers and squeezed a bit of lemon over the mixture. The heat in the hot box reached its peak.
      He pulled the cake out to cool on the sideboard. Stirring the vegetables with one hand, he grabbed the sweet syrup out of the cupboard with the other. The smells were driving him crazy.
      A bit more garlic and onion went into the pan with the squash. That was better. "Good, done," a lid over it to finish cooking while he called Lexi in to eat.
      "Soo-eee! Here pig, pig, pig!" His sense of humor had come back with the relaxing chores of cooking for the two of them. Lexi nearly ran him down as she bolted into the house. He blew her a kiss in passing. Val always enjoyed teasing Lexi about being an omnivore. It didn't seem to bother her one whit, except when he called her a cannibal for eating pork.
      "I have to wash up."
      "Yes, you do," she had sawdust everywhere, even in her hair. "It will be on the table for you." Val relented and got out the place settings. Usually Lexi did the set up, and dish washing, but she was looking a bit stressed. Their transfer was in a couple of days, and she always got a bit unraveled right before it.
      Val hardly ever noticed unless Lexi did something particularly spectacular. Such as track ten cents of mud through his nice clean hallways right after he'd scrubbed them. That had been last month, or had it been the month before last? He couldn't rightly remember. Not that it really mattered.
      Buttercups went into the vase on the center of the table. Val wished he had roses, but those had not been supplied in the masses of materiel his father had bribed him with to stay out here with Lexi. He couldn't think of why else his parents had wanted him kept so far away ... unless it was because they didn't want him to shame them.
      No, that wasn't it. None of his parents were so petty. They were probably encouraging him to settle down with her. And they were quite right in doing so. It wasn't as if he could inherit Azov. Only a Sharm Lord could inherit Azov now that he'd shifted to Sharm Lord leadership. One of Val's younger sisters would be saddled with that thankless job.
      "It smells great," Lexi pulled out his chair for him.
      "Thank you," he winked at her and let her seat him. Usually a Lord seated their Sharm Lord, but such little gestures made him feel appreciated.
      "Thank you," Lexi seated herself and then blinked. "It all smells and looks so good." She scooped up the squash and stared at one of the zucchini. "What's that?!"
      "The flower," he served himself some of the fried bread. "There is cake tonight, so don't stuff yourself on sweets."
      "I won't," she was still blinking at the squash.
      "I didn't want clubs out in the garden. It won't bite you."
      "Didn't think it would," the squash managed to finish its interrupted voyage. Lexi handed him the spoon. Val served himself even more of the stuff. He liked all the squashes, and early summer was the best time for them.
      She tasted one of the blossoms. "Good!"
      "Would I serve you anything else?" He winked and applied himself to his own dinner. These weren't dishes normally served together, but he'd had the ingredients for both at hand. And actually it wasn't too bad. Lexi, of course, drowned her fried bread in sweet, but not so badly it made Val's teeth ache.
      How she'd ended up the one with the taste for sweets was beyond him. Usually it was Simes who loved them. He didn't even much care for dates. Oh well, she did taste rather good.
      "No," she cocked her head at her drink. "Small beer?"
      "Yes," he had to laugh. Her look was so acquisitive he expected her laterals to come out. "The batch didn't turn out very well carbonated."
      "Better luck next time." She took a draft. "On second thought, maybe not."
      "Don't jinx my mead," he warned her.
      "Oh no, I won't," she raised her hands. They were now permanently stained with the hard work she did with them, but even more beautiful for all that. "I like mead."
      "No starka though," he narrowed his eyes at her. She hadn't gotten drunk since he'd made the mistake of letting her at his first experiment with beer, unserved by him. The memory of her attempts to sing still made his ears ring.
      "Even ..."
      "No," he cut her off. "No starka. I hate the stuff. I'm the Sime," he got cut off.
      "No, you're the Gen, therefore you make the rules," she raised her glass to him.
      "If you say so," he matched her toast.
      "I do."
      Lexi smacked the tiny package down on the table between them. "How long has this been going on?"
      "Since I came back," he met her eyes squarely. "My body, my choice, Lexi."
      "Don't I have any say in the matter?" She was as post as she ever got and was aching to have him in her, skin to skin this time.
      "No, you don't," the white heat of passion came into his field again, this time tinged with red for his underlying fury. Lexi had no idea he still felt this strongly about what she'd done. "I will not make the same mistake twice."
      "But, Val," the condom mocked her for her own inadequacies. She knew there was something he was holding back from her, but not something so personal. Even Lexi wouldn't have known for sure until she'd stumbled over them in the bathroom searching for her toothpaste. Of course he'd put it away, on the highest shelf where she'd had to knock half the contents down trying to get to it. When she had, one of these had landed on her head.
      "Does it really make it so you don't enjoy yourself?" His gaze was challenging.
      "No," she couldn't continue to meet it. Her hands were white knuckled as she clenched at the table. A chill spread through her chest and out her limbs. Lexi bit at her lower lip.
      "Hey," with a creak of wood and leather he stood. "Don't cry for something so trivial." He pulled her into his embrace. Now she could tuck her head under his chin and did so. This place was safe and secure in a way she'd never known with anybody else.
      His broad hands stroked her back. Normally she'd respond with a mindless flush of desire. All she could think of now was crying. "I didn't know you felt so strongly about this."
      "I do," she burrowed her face into his shirt.
      "Here," he unbuttoned it for her. She found herself stroking his chest with her cheek. Somehow he'd managed to keep in shape, even though the only real exercise he ever got was riding Dara.
      "Oh, I exercise," there was a quick grab.
      "Not like that," she tried to pull away.
      "Then we won't," he never stopped stroking her back. "We can do other things," his hand twined with her hair. "It will be all right."
      "I suppose it will," her sigh came from the bottom of her heart. The cold emptiness in her heart refused to melt. A shiver passed through her, even though the day was well started and quite warm.
      "You'll find another lover who will give you what you want, Lexi. I'm here, I'm convenient," his always sensible words chided her for her thoughtlessness.
      "I want more than convenient, Val," fell out of her mouth.
      "Then I will help you find it. A child would not suit your lifestyle, would it?" There was no mockery to his field. All she could think was he was being honest. "I am being honest. You are a wonderful Sharm Lord, Lexi. Don't ever let anyone take that away."
      "But not a woman," the exclusion made her eyes burn again. No one had ever been quite so blunt in describing her shortcomings.
      "Gender is secondary," his logic was irrefutable. Lexi wanted to smash it all away with a sledgehammer. "I respect you and care for you Lexi. I look forward to your finding a true peer and partner."
      "Not you?" Again her tongue ran ahead of her. She bit it in irritation. He only chuckled, still holding her against him. Somehow they'd ended up on the pile of cushions Val had made for their bedroom. His hands were sliding inside her clothes.
      "For now," he murmured against her skin.
      "You bastard!" His seduction was entirely too well planned. This time she was not going to be distracted ... by the warm, smooth expanse of his skin so very near.
      "You know who my fathers are," his hands were causing her hormones to bubble over again. It wasn't fair.
      "What you did to me wasn't fair either, Lexi." He tipped her chin up.
      "No, it wasn't," she admitted. One of his eyebrows made a run for his hairline.
      "I'd have never thought you'd admit it." There was still a deep, dark undercurrent to his nager, but now there was also a glimmer of humor to it.
      "Freely," she could match his gaze now.
      "You will make some lucky Lord a wonderful bond mate," he tipped her face with such dexterity she hardly knew what was happening until his lips met hers. They were wonderfully warm and insistent.
      "No!" She pulled back, trying to think. All she knew was his sweet tongue brushing hers, making her loins ache for him.
      "I won't rape you," his voice was a warm purr, sidetracking all her thoughts.
      The uphill struggle kept getting steeper, but if nothing else, Lexi knew herself to be a bit stubborn, "No, you'd seduce me out of my mind."
      "Do you mind?" He purred, his fingertips tracing her back under her shirt. If he'd used his tentacles, she'd be utterly lost. Lexi had to move fast.
      "Right now," her voice cracked as if she were still an adolescent. "I don't want someone else."
      "Not right now, I would hope," his blue eyes caught her. She was lost. His eyes were hot with a desire she couldn't help but share. His overwhelming presence and sweet hands overrode what little sense Lexi normally had. He felt to damned good for her to protest.
      Val could zlin the foal still free floating in Dara's womb. It would be a while yet, from what he knew, until it implanted in one of the horns for the rest of gestation. According to plans, made by Lexi of course, Dara was not to be bred until next year. And then it was supposed to be to Kirakush, Kika, Arkay's stallion.
      But having a mare cycling around Mele would have been the height of cruelty. So she'd been bred. Now they could share a paddock without more than the normal day to day squabbles of equine life.
      Of course this was the moment Mele got a bit to close to Dara and she stomped her foot. He scooted away, tail down. His job had been done and she was having no more of him. Sometimes Val wished it were so easy for humans.
      Lexi had changed since winter. Whether it was the long period of isolation or simply her own cussedness, he had no idea. She was chasing him all over the barnyard with the dedication of a goat.
      Thinking of which, Val dusted off his hands and went over to their goat pen. They hadn't planned on dealing with a goat. But then neither had they planned on any of the other livestock which had descended on them.
      Here they were, two hundred kilometers from Moskva, and in less than a year they had thee cats, two hounds, a nanny goat, six hens, a rooster, two horses and a ferret. Val had absolutely no idea where the ferret had come from. Some mornings he wished it would go back to where it had come from.
      At least Lexi hadn't wanted fish. In Val's opinion, fish belonged in the rivers. In her opinion, they belonged on her plate. She could eat them outside. The ventilation here was nothing like at home and the smell of cooked flesh made Val's stomach churn.
      He checked the cauldron Lexi boiled the meat for the hounds and cats in. It was spotless, unlike the state of the cooking utensils she'd left rusting in the wash tub. He chuckled at her priorities. Lexi was utterly incompetent at anything having to do with housework.
      It was quite sad actually. For some reason she couldn't manage to organize her way out of a hole in the ground once she stepped over the threshold to their home. Threshold of the barn, the buttery, the byre, the bath house, all those were immaculate the instant she set foot in their limits. All the places traditionally kept by Simes.
      No, Lexi would not make a good parent. A child could not grow up entirely in the barn. There were other things to life than animals. Such as food.
      Val lifted the latch on the gate and stepped into his own outdoor Demense, the garden. It was even larger than the cook's garden at Azov, and all his. But then Val had to grow many staples in this garden the cook didn't have to bother with at home.
      Many of the vegetables had ben breed for very short growing seasons and cooler weather than they'd ever known in the wild. Val wanted to feel the sun on his arms today, and so didn't wrap them against the dirt. The days were growing shorter, as the angle of the light told him.
      He inspected his tomatoes and peppers closely. Then looked up towards the sun. He didn't have the weather control capabilities of Arkay's beloved Nashen, but he could see. And it looked like there was another summer storm coming in. Val worked with mulching the base of his more delicate plants.
      They might possibly drown if he didn't make sure they had enough drainage. A shadow passed over him. He'd been out here for hours now, and there was still work to do. Lexi's field flicked in front of his eyes.
      "Can I help?"
      "Sure," he tossed her a hoe. "Can you deepen those drainage ditches by the squash hills?" Val pointed towards his large squashes. He was praying he'd managed to get them to ripen before first frost, but it was going to be a bit chancy. Too much water now and he'd end up with mush rather than dinner this fall.
      She got right to work, not even bothering with gloves. He, of course, did have his own. Now that he had some choice in the matter, he took great pride in protecting his hands sensibly. That and the fact his gloves were made from pigskin lightened his heart. Val did not like pigs. Except his Lexi of course.
      "I know what you're thinking of."
      Val missed with his next swing of his own hoe and nearly decapitated a turnip. "Not quite." He checked to be sure he'd done no more harm than a broken leaf. He turned it over and found a caterpillar munching on the stem. "Get off my plants." He squished it and threw it over the fence. The hens all gather in a squabbling mass over the remains. Val chuckled and checked his other turnips carefully. No, that had been the only one.
      Usually he checked for such insects twice a day, but that one had to have slipped through. With both of them working, they beat the storm. Val could feel the trickle of charge building on the air. "Lets get a bath," he rubbed up against Lexi.
      "Lets," she grinned and leaned her hoe, upside down against the rail. Val sighed and took it into the shed with his other tools. She reddened beneath her dark tan.
      "Forgiven," he shook his head. "Just hand it to me next time."
      "I think I can remember that," she took his arm and led him from the garden.
      "Hssst," he waved his hands at the hens. Krasna, the big red one, had tried to bully her way into the garden again. "Go back to the hen house, you silly creatures." They continued to cluck and scratch at the ground. Even though their one rooster was trying to drive them inside. It would take him a while. Chickens were far from bright.
      Lexi braced herself for an argument. They'd sluiced off outside and were now ensconced in the cozy confines of the bath house she'd built with her own two hands. Well not the walls and ceiling, but the wood planking and tub had been made by her.
      She ran her hand over the silky smooth wood. She'd spent hours working the oils into it so it wouldn't rot in the high humidity. Val offered her his arm and she immediately cuddled up to him.
      He'd looked good enough to eat working in his garden this afternoon. With his shirt off and his bare forearms, she'd watched him for nearly half an hour before realizing she was going to have to help or he'd be hoeing in the rain. The mind numbing work had been irritating, but his soft singing to himself had more than made up for it.
      Many people sang or whistled as they worked. Val did it with unusual style. His voice was wonderful and he had an extensive repertoire of beautiful old ballads. He was singing again, this time a modern love song of two utterly incomparable partners who somehow made it work.
      "Do you ever listen to your own music?" She asked when he'd paused for breath at the end.
      "Sometimes," he held her closer. "A pretty song though."
      "When you sing," she grinned at him.
      "I won't talk about your singing," he tapped her on the nose with a dripping finger.
      "Everyone else does," even the cats glared at her when she tried to sing. His chuckle was as gentle as the warm water against her skin. "I never did very well in choir."
      "Whyever for?" He hugged her tightly to take the sting from his sarcasm. "You do other things very well."
      "In bed," her hands were now calloused and toughened by all the work she'd been doing.
      "Not just in bed," he kissed her softly. "Mele and Dara love you."
      "You don't."
      "In a way I do," he no longer slammed down his awful shutters against her, but there was still a distance between them.
      "Not enough to forgive me," she forged on with her earlier argument.
      "No, not enough," his honestly bit into her with the sharpness of knives. "You killed our son."
      "I did," she gazed up at the mitered beams holding the heavy slate roof up. "I was wrong."
      "You can never bring him back."
      "Don't dig, Val," the patterns blurred into a dark mass.
      "Sorry," he rubbed at her neck, as he always did in apology.
      "My turn this time," she ducked from under his arm and turned him. His broad back had already matured into absolute perfection. Nothing loathe to have her hands on him, she got to work. Sleek muscle bunched beneath her questing fingers until she unsnarled it. He moaned softly, relaxing beneath her touch.
      "Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?" She asked, her voice shaking.
      He took a deep breath. "No," his one word answer hurt like hell. "There isn't."
      "Val," she rested her forehead on his shoulderblade for a moment. "Why?"
      "You can't bring back a life."
      "No, I can't," she bit her lip against the emptiness chewing at him. "But I can do something for you."
      "Find me a Sharm Lord?"
      "I don't want to," her hands worked into the muscles alongside his ribs. "I want you, Valtanir."
      "You have me," he put his hands over hers, stilling them. "What more do you want?"
      "Your child," she blurted out.
      "Until your next whim or fad? I think not." His teeth ground together. "I do care for you Lexi. I know you. A child is not a toy to be discarded when you tire of them. Or an animal to be culled if they don't meet your expectations."
      "Do you truly think I'm so cruel?"
      "Not deliberately," he turned back to her. His eyes were nearly black in the low light. "You don't think before you act, Alexandrya. Children have to be taught to do so. You can't teach what you don't know."
      Shame burned her. "You're right." She admitted, looking him in the eyes. "But it is possible to be too controlled."
      "And I am," his expression never lightened. "We are not suitable parents."
      "Then stay with me," at least this much she could have.
      "Until we go back."
      "Then I never want to go back." Her mouth was running away with her again. This time she let it. "I want you, Valtanir. I want your child, or even children. You are a magnificent Lord."
      He snorted and intercepted her, "Sharm Lord you mean."
      "I don't fucking care. You are wonderful as you are, Valtanir."
      "Because I can cook and clean?"
      "Yes," she held onto his shoulders. "Because you can do all those things I can't." Lexi paused. "But then you can do those things I can as well." Tears were streaming down her face and she didn't care. She'd lost him long ago. He'd never change his mind. "I love you, Valtanir Azovich. Not just in bed, but in my heart."
      "Love doesn't put beets on the table, Lexi," he tipped her chin up. "I'd love you too if it were practical."
      "Shen you to hell, Valtanir," she had to grab him before he left. "Stay here and listen to me this time." He scowled at her, but stayed put. "There is more to life than what is practical."
      "Like holes in socks you can drive a herd of cattle through or laundry left in a rusting cauldron for days on end?"
      "More than that," she wished she could thaw the ice in his heart. "There's laughter and play. There's time spent watching the birds in the trees and the lambs in spring."
      "Those things aren't efficient."
      "Shen you," she shook him. "Listen to me for once."
      "Think before you open your mouth then," he set himself against her.
      "No! I won't." She snapped back. "I do have feelings, Valtanir. You may not care to recognize them, but so do you."
      "They were shattered beyond repair when you killed my son."
      "No, they were only warped into a shape you can never get over." She'd said it. There was no way she could ever make things right by him. "I was wrong, Valtanir. Horribly wrong. I love you and want to spend my life with you." Now wasn't this a messy proposal? "I want to bear your children and grow old with you."
      "Why?" Suspicion tainted his nager a sickly yellow.
      "Because I love you." Why couldn't he hear her?
      "Why?" He snapped again.
      "I don't know," she put her face in her hands and cried. Her knees came up and she buried herself into them. "All I know is I don't want you to go, ever."
      "I won't," he'd turned soft and loving again. "I promise. I'll always be with Azov. More than any of my other sibs, I've always loved him and cherished him. I won't leave you or Azov."
      "But I want more than that," she found herself crying on his chest again. How could he stand this? But even more, how could she ever live without this again?
      Lexi had become so volatile, if he hadn't known better, Val would have sworn she were pregnant. As it was, all he could do was hold her and pet her when her emotions got the better of her. Like now. "Poor little one," he'd heard his fathers tell Karola so a million times. Particularly when she'd been pregnant.
      Then the hiccups started. "My poor little Lexi," he cooed, rocking her in his arms. "You'll be all right. I'll take care of you. I won't let anyone hurt you." How could any Sharm Lord be so emotional? If he hadn't been so tough, her outbursts would have hurt him badly.
      As it was, they only made him feel a bit guilty. He didn't mean to prod her into these fits. All he'd done was state his arguments and opinions succinctly and logically. She'd fallen apart.
      Val tipped a bit more hot water into the tub before Lexi got a chill. Her field was rising precipitously, anticipating their transfer this evening. At last her latest crying jag slowed and came to a stop.
      "Do you want to talk about it?"
      "Yes," she sniffled. He handed her a dry handkerchief he'd left within easy reach. When they were together like this, right before transfer, she was the most likely to fall apart. Lexi blew her nose and gave him a wan smile. "How do you do it?"
      "Not get pulled into your upset?"
      "Yes," she rubbed at her eyes. Val moved her hands away from her face and then washed it with the warm water.
      "It isn't mine," he explained. "It does no practical good for me to share your unhappiness."
      "You and your practicality," she shook her head. "Why can't you be romantic?"
      "Oh, like the flowers on your pillow or the honey cakes for your breakfast?"
      "Sort of," her nager said not at all.
      "Then I don't know," he tried to tickle her nager out of its funk.
      "Neither do I," it remained flat and gray. "I wish I knew how to teach you to love."
      "What does love have to do with anything?" This was one thing he could never understand with her. Despite the lyrics of numerous ballads, Val knew love was the result of two harmonious personalities growing together. It wasn't the foolish nonsense of having your pulse race and your breathing catch. That was lust. He knew it well. It was not love.
      "It has everything to do with us," Lexi smacked at the water with her hand, splashing both of them. She giggled, and then wiped the water drops off his eyelashes. "I love you, Valtanir. Maybe if I say it enough you'll believe it."
      "You love my tentacles on your wrists and my body in yours."
      "True," her eyes flicked towards his arms.
      "That's lust, Lexi, not love."
      "But there's more to it than lust."
      "Then what?" If she couldn't articulate it, then it couldn't exist.
      "It's a feeling Val," she narrowed her eyes at him. "Don't you understand feelings?"
      "Feelings are the result of careful planning and consideration."
      "You bastard," her slap caught him entirely unaware. "Don't remind me your parents were handfasted."
      "Then you are being irrational."
      "Yes, I am," she jerked her chin up. "Try it for once. Maybe you'll like it."
      Val stopped his thoughts in their tracks. "That makes no sense, Lexi."
      "Not every thing in life has to make sense."
      "I want it to."
      "Wanting doesn't make things real."
      "It does if you work hard enough at it." Val ran a wet hand through his hair. It was getting to be a royal nuisance, even though Lexi wouldn't let him cut even a cent off it. He wanted to style it. She swore she'd cut his throat if he touched his hair. That argument hadn't been worth winning.
      "Then why do you work so hard at irritating me?"
      "I don't," Val was now utterly lost. "But something is bothering you."
      "The fact you try to dissect and examine every single emotion until it turns to dust." Now she was waving her hands in the air. Sometimes Val really wondered if they'd both been dumped in the wrong bodies. "Relax. Feel something."
      "I like feeling you," he ran his hand over her magnificent arms. Her breath caught and she gave him a hot look. "I like feeling you up."
      "Stop it," she pulled his hand off her elbow.
      "Don't you like it?"
      "Too much," she glared at his hand. High field, it physically burned until he put it under water. "I don't just want your tentacles or your dick. I want you, Valtanir."
      "I don't know why!" She splashed both of them again. "And I don't really care. I love you, you idiot Sime. Even if you act like a Gen. Maybe I love you more because you act like a Gen. Both heaven and hell know I make a lousy Gen."
      "Not true," her depreciation of herself stung Val to the core. It was so much the mirror of his own inner dialog. "You are wonderfully soft and cuddly."
      "Like Dara," she turned her face to the side. It had been darkened by the sun and the wind. Now even her skin showed the character of her spirit. To Val she was utterly beautiful.
      "Yes," he thought Dara was very feminine. "Mele sure thought she was an acceptable mare."
      "Mele doesn't analyze his love life to death. He only worries about getting himself kicked."
      "You've kicked me a few times." He tickled her under the chin.
      "So I have," she sighed, shaking her head. "What do I have to do to get through to Valtanir, not the shell he uses to protect himself?"
      "Maybe the shell is the person."
      "No, his shell is beautiful and brightly colored, but I want to hold the man with dreams and hopes."
      "They died many years ago, Lexi," he told her sadly. "Dreams and hopes are for children, not adults."
      "Then be the child you so nearly are in age. For me. We are all alone out here. Play with me in the summer sun, just for this brief period of time." Her nager was shattering with sadness again. Val hugged her before she fell apart and thought about what she'd said.
      "I can't go back, Lexi," he brushed his hand over her hair. "I was never so carefree as all that. I am none other than who I was born to be."
      "A cold, unfeeling lump?"
      "Maybe so," he rested his cheek on her scalp, a knot coming to his own throat. She'd hit so very close to home. He swallowed heavily and held her to him.
      "It will be all right Valtanir." She spoke against his chest. "Live today as well as tomorrow. Learn from Mele and Dara to live your own life. No one else can do it for you."
      "I'll try," was all he could say.

Chapter 9

      The constant zlinning of other people was driving Val crazy. It wasn't as he'd become any more sensitive. Or maybe he had. Val pulled the blankets over his head again. Kira thought this was a game.
      Little, tiny, but still very sharp claws sank into his hand. Val yelped and tried to pull his hand away. This was an even better game. She growled, tugging at his fingers.
      "Let go, little one," Lexi's voice was way too amused. Particularly after their rather spectacular fight last night. His head hurt.
      "Come on Kira, let Lord Grumpy wake up on his own."
      "I'm not Grumpy," he muttered into the blankets. They did little to ameliorate the woefully bright sunlight streaming in through the windows.
      "Oh, sorry, then you must be Grouchy."
      Val gave up. He stuck his head out from under the covers. Kira purred at him, while still trying to rip his arm off. "Quit," he tapped her on the nose with a tentacle. She growled, sounding like a full grown cat.
      Their queen had presented them with kittens weeks before they returned to the city. Kira had been so vile tempered no one would take her from them. So they were stuck with a kitten. An evil kitten at that. Val growled right back at her.
      Kira's tail turned into a bottle brush. She hissed at him.
      "I'm sorry, little one," he stroked the top of her little fuzzy, empty head. She butted against it, accepting his apology before returning to her earlier mayhem.
      "Softie," Lexi was already dressed.
      "Yes, well," he played with Kira a bit more.
      "To bad it isn't directed at me."
      "I told you, Lexi. No." He glared at her. "I will not change my mind. If you want to get pregnant, go find someone else."
      "I was talking about the dance tonight," she plucked at the front of her tunic. It was fancier than she'd worn as a sharm lord, but not by much. How he wished to see her in something truly beautiful.
      "Then make it." She put her hands on her hips.
      "No, and I don't want to talk about it this morning." He rolled out of bed and fell flat on his nose. It didn't squash very comfortably.
      "Val," Lexi knelt at his side with enough creaks and pops to make his own joints hurt in sympathy. "Are you all right."
      "No, I'm not," he growled, trying to pry himself off the floor. At last he managed and propped himself up against the bed. He rubbed at his face, trying to still the swooping of the room about his ears. It didn't help. Then his stomach joined the room.
      "You are going to the doctor," her arm around his shoulders was enough help he could manage to stand.
      "I'll be fine," he forced down his nausea, trading it for a splitting headache. "Excuse me," he leaned towards the bathroom.
      "Valtanir," she had to help him. He fished through the cabinets and pulled out the bottle of Jarli syrup.
      "You aren't going through turnover yet," the alarm in her voice was painfully apparent.
      "No," his hands shook as he measured out the dose. "But soon."
      "We're still in cycle," her sigh of relief nearly knocked the glass off the counter.
      "You really want this degenerating carcass so much?"
      "Yes," she took the glass and held it to his lips. "I'm worried, Val."
      "I know," he hated having to take any drugs, but nicotine no longer was enough to keep his food or selyn where it belonged. He swallowed the sweet medicine with a grimace.
      "Jarli is supposed to taste good."
      "You don't know?" He blinked at her owlishly. The glass fell from his nerveless fingers and he swayed on his feet.
      "Whoops," she caught him easily and helped him to sit. "And no, I've never taken Jarli."
      "I'm amazed," he gave a soft burp as his stomach calmed down at last. "I thought everyone did, occasionally."
      "Nope," she wiped the sweat from his brow. Her green eyes caught his. The look of concern on her face was unmistakable. "Never required it."
      "I do," he caught her hand.
      "Let me finish," she brushed back his hair. "You're sick, Valtanir. This isn't normal."
      "I don't know, I didn't know," he slumped over his knees. "It wasn't like this last summer."
      "No, it wasn't," she sat next to him. "Go see someone Val."
      "Come with?" He was shaking inside with nerves, even with the buffering effects of Jarli.
      "It's time for my yearly exam too." She took his hand in hers. "If it will make you feel better, you can watch."
      "It would." Hope gave his body new strength.
      Lexi's heart was pounding in her throat. Less than twenty four hours before turnover was not her favorite time for a pelvic exam. Her body was already shutting down in preparation for her menses and she felt bloated and fat.
      "Hello?" Diomid strolled through the door as if he owned the place. Well, he did actually. Lexi's nerves frayed some more.
      "Good morning," Val was as white as a sheet, huddled in a chair in the corner. If she hadn't known he was there, Lexi would have jumped out of her skin. As it was, Diomid yelped in surprise.
      "Don't sneak up on me like that, youngster," his smile warmed Lexi down to her toes. Now everything would be better. Diomid had a magic above and beyond his talents.
      "Good to see you again, otyet." He was the only father Lexi'd ever really known. Her uncle Valentine had never been quite the substitute either of them had wished for.
      "What drags your sorry ass in here?" He leaned against the counter, fiddling with his tablet and stylus. Diomid no more needed those props than a Sime needed a map, but they reassured people who didn't know him.
      "Yearly exam," she shrugged.
      "And?" He tipped his head towards Val.
      "Don't know," his eyes flicked from side to side. "Not feeling too well, I guess."
      "I can tell as much," Diomid went straight to him and knelt at his feet. Val scooted back in his chair. "Hey, it's me, your Uncle Diomid."
      "I know," he whitened ever further. His skin was ashy beneath his fading tan. Then he swallowed heavily. Lexi was well trained, but Diomid knew instinctively what was wrong.
      "You'll be fine," he held Val's shoulders as he doubled over. "Easy, my lad," his purr was one Lexi had never heard before. "Come to me." He was tempting her Sime!
      Lexi took Val's other side. His stomach muscles contracted.
      "Here you go," Diomid hooked a waste basket over with his foot.
      "No," Val held his hands over his mouth. "Let me up."
      "Uh-uh," Diomid stroked Val's back. "Come on. Something has made you sick. It'll only be worse later."
      The words from someone else seemed to reassure him. Sweat streamed down his face. Lexi knew too well what this felt like. Her ascension had not been the easiest in the world and she'd been sick for months afterwards. He took another deep breath, gasping at the air.
      "Come on Val, quit being an idiot about it," Diomid popped his field under Val's chin. That did the job. Val heaved up the few mouthfuls of tea he'd managed to get down this morning. Along with it came a frightening amount of Jarli syrup.
      Lexi took a kerchief from her sleeve when he was finally done. Tears were streaming down his lined face. "You'll be all right, my little one. Yes you will." She forgot all about Diomid, where she was, and even the horrible smells filling the air. "Lean on me, my Val," she held his trembling body in her arms.
      She'd known he was getting worse and not better, but this was the worst yet. His entire body was shivering. "Here," Diomid put a blanket around Val's shoulders.
      "Thank you," she mouthed, tucking the warmed wool around Val's shoulders. Eventually he stopped shivering, but she could sense the horrible turmoil in his field. It was choked with what looked to be the detritus of years of bad transfers. He wasn't even that old and Lexi knew their transfers were at least average, even for Val. For her they were great, even though she had to spur him on a bit.
      "No, most Lords are a bit finicky that way," Diomid stroked Val's back as well. "Pushing at him wouldn't cause this. Not drawing him out fully would."
      "Don't need this," Val muttered against her chest.
      "Yes you do," she tucked his head more firmly under her chin. "My turn."
      "So it is," he was hugging his arms to his chest, the ultimate image of desolation.
      Diomid had no idea what to do. There was nothing he could sense which could be causing Val such distress. Lexi was doing everything in her not inconsiderable power she could manage. He stroked his fingertips over her hands, trying to get a feel for Val.
      Lexi kept knocking him away. *Let me in,* he finally had to send. Her reluctance was palpable. "I won't hurt you, Valtanir. Let me examine you."
      "Sick," he growled, showing a bit of backbone.
      "I can see that, yes," he tickled at the back of Val's neck. All his nerves were a snarled mess. "Come on, Val. You won't be sick again."
      "Not for a hour or two," some of Lexi's protections faded away. Even though Diomid knew better than to try to engage Val's fields. She'd slap him so hard his head would ring for a week. Diomid finally managed to worm his way in and found a complete mess.
      Nothing was quite right. His field was warped off his body by at least four degrees in the vertical and his main physical nerve node was clogged with so much damned Jarli he could hardly find the thing. "You really should take it easy on the self medication, Val."
      "Didn't want to be a bother," his mutter got him a nageric slap from Lexi, as it well should have. He stiffened in her arms and his field slid back towards alignment.
      "Do it again, Lexi."
      "I don't want to hurt him."
      "You won't," he tried to do it himself. Val reared up out of her grasp and nearly brained him. "Ow," his field tried to strike back before he got it under control. Lexi came after him!
      "Wrong way," he tried to deflect the blow at Val. She snarled, her own face turning into a mask of hate.
      "Whoops," Diomid locked down the fields before things could get even more out of hand. Val shrank back into Lexi's embrace, sobbing again. But better. This was not a therapy with great promise. Lexi was still scowling at him.
      "Don't hit him," so instead she took a physical swing at him. Fortunately it was hampered by Val on her lap.
      "Wouldn't work," he gave her a wry grin. "So, that was not particularly effective."
      "I would say not," her field had locked around Val entirely. Diomid was going to have to do this the hard way.
      "Lets get you checked out first," maybe he might be able to spot what was going on if he could get them separated for a bit. An idea began peering up out of the substrate of his mind.
      "I suppose we should," she brushed her cheek over Val's head. He latched onto her even harder. "Come on little one."
      "You're my little one," he muttered, even as he relaxed some of his death grip on her. "But I am curious."
      "All of Arkay's children are," he reassured Val. "You'll probably find this fascinating."
      "Never done it before," his voice was firming up as everyone's attention shifted off him. At last Lexi relinquished her own hold and stood up. She'd already changed into the light, mostly useless dressing gown provided for such examinations.
      "If you would strip all the way," he waved towards the black screen on the far wall. With the prop of a refractor, Diomid tried to set both of them at ease. He could do all this on his own, but he knew it looked better if he used the tools of his trade. Particularly when he was buying time at a cut rate.
      Lexi flipped the light garment onto a chair and padded over to the screen. Now there was a healthy Sharm Lord. Pride in his lost love Sasha for siring such a magnificent specimen made him smile despite himself. Her eyes were pointed towards the painting on the far wall, even though her body was still focused entirely on her partner in the chair next to him.
      Which was as it should be. And now Val was settling down as well, no longer trying to clutch at the ambient and force it into unnatural balances. All of Karola's children, so far, had been rather touchy as adolescents. Their powers seemed to come on them early and far too strong.
      He narrowed his eyes in thought. "On the scale, Lexi." Diomid waved her over to the implement. It beeped after a bit of a pause. "Eighty six and twenty one percent." Which was as near perfect for her build as he could want. Sasha and Ilira had done good work.
      "Now onto the table."
      Her eyes flicked towards Val nervously.
      "I think he's seen it before," Diomid gave her a jab in the ribs. She actually blushed a bit before climbing up and putting her feet in the stirrups.
      "I have," Val had gotten to his feet and was peering over Diomid's shoulder.
      "Ask, youngling," he reminded the lad of his manners.
      "May I?"
      "Yes," Lexi's grin relieved Diomid of another of his doubts. There wasn't, quite, a problem here. Now why did he qualify that statement?
      "Thank you," Val stroked one of Lexi's feet. Her grin broadened as she leaned back.
      Diomid picked the speculum off the table and checked to be sure of the temperature. "Eighteen hours until turnover?"
      "Yes," she nodded, visibly bracing herself. Diomid hated doing pelvics after turnover because they could hurt horribly. Even this close he had to be a bit careful. If her field crashed for any reason, he could actually injure her. He slid his own nageric controls into the ambient, stabilizing it further. This was part of why he did all the exams on the female Sharm Lords. No one else except Arkay could do this.
      "Relax," he slid the implement into place, making sure he didn't pinch her. Being Gen, there was absolutely no sexual component to this at all, but Val's breath caught behind his back. Diomid had to hide another grin. The same was obviously not true for the lad.
      He used a mirror to both light and see what he was doing. There was now a bit of excessive yeast overgrowth, but nothing serious. Also the first signs of her impending menses. She was definitely not pregnant. What had Val been doing with himself?
      "OK, worst is over," he stepped aside briefly so Val could see if he wanted to. Surprisingly he did, bending down and peering intently into the mirror.
      "Thank you, Lexi," he blew her a kiss.
      "You're quite welcome." She blew him one back. "But if you think I'm willing to do this for fun, you're out of your little Sime mind."
      "I wouldn't dream of it," he reassured her and stepped back. All normal, Diomid noted with a bit of internal frustration. What in hell was going on here? With a sideways glance he even noted Val tenting his pants to the breaking point, which was also as it should be.
      "Hand time," he carefully removed the speculum. For a moment he considered using his gloves, but they were so rare and hard to get he decided not to. There was no chance of infection here, what with her having a reasonably solid partner, so he'd simply be careful to scrub really well.
      With the utmost delicacy, he slid two of his fingers into her now rather well stretched vagina. Nope, absolutely no sign of any remaining hymen. She was well and truly not a virgin anymore. Diomid had despaired her ever losing those last shreds of her childhood. Of course from the looks of things Val was a bit of overkill in that department.
      Uterus, normal, a bit big for the time of the month and a touch tender, but that was it. She'd cycled this month, again perfectly normal. Nope, nothing wrong here he could tell. Why wasn't she pregnant?
      "What have you been using for birth control?" They had to be using something. Val was as fertile as his father's stallion.
      "Nothing," she clamped down on his hand so hard she nearly cracked his fingers. Wrong question, Diomid noted wryly to himself, removing his fingers and waving Lexi up.
      "I have," Val's voice was flat, his eyes ice hard as Diomid glanced at him. "My call."
      Claiming right of control over his own progeny against a woman's will was not something most men of the Demense ever did. True, it could be done. But rarely by any force. "How?"
      "Condoms," he said, meeting Diomid's eyes as if there were far more to it. And there had to be. Barrier methods were overkill by kilometers for most Lords and Sharm Lords. It was like a renSime taking transfer from a Sharm Lord. Most couples only did a hormone flush the morning after transfer to prevent implantation. But it was not foolproof. Sometimes a very strong cycle would cause the blastocyst to implant anyways. At which point most women would shrug and carry to term.
      Lexi was refusing to meet Diomid's eyes as she got to her feet. This silence was not like her at all. Her shoulders were bowed. Even her nager had turned gray and lifeless.
      "Look what you're doing to her," he forced Val to look at what had only minutes ago been a vibrant, beautiful Sharm Lord. "You're killing her by centimeters."
      "Stop," she turned to Diomid. Her face was now drawn and heavily lined from her time in the sun. "It's not his fault." All of her gestures were slowed from her nearly Sime quickness. It was as if she'd aged years in the course of minutes. "I killed our son."
      "Shit happens." He frowned at Val. "Why didn't you try again?"
      "She used Bartir," Val's nager had gone as hard as diamond. "It was no accident."
      "Oh shit," Diomid had found at least one of the problems. "OK, second exam," he looked Val up and down. "Strip."
      "Me?" He squawked, his hands going over his crotch so protectively it would have been funny if Lexi hadn't been so badly hurt by this idiot's behavior. But then much of it was probably her own fault.
      "Yes, you," Diomid gave Val a swat with his field. "You were the one throwing up his toenails earlier."
      "So I was," the arrogance and beauty of a mature Lord flickered through his field for a moment before vanishing back into the morass. No, there was something more here than his unwillingness to bow to Lexi's whims over children. With a finicky neatness worthy of any Sharm Lord matron with six children, Val took off his clothes and neatly folded them on a chair. What an odd contract with Lexi's having tossed her own every which way.
      Without being asked, he placed himself in front of the screen. His field was still about two degrees off center and knotted up like a kitten's play toy. Diomid also noted a number of unhealed scratches on his hands. Someone had been playing a bit rough with their pets. But that was nothing, really.
      "On the table," he waved towards it.
      "On my back?" He squawked.
      "Other way," he had Val flip over. Now this was going to be a bit more difficult. Val was definitely Sime and Diomid was post. He should probably call in an assist, but not with Lexi watching so very nervously over his shoulder. Oh well, no help for it. At least they weren't blood related.
      Val squirmed nervously beneath Diomid's hand resting on his back. "Relax," he purred, stroking the nerves underlying the skin as gently as he could. There were so many more of them to a Sime's spinal column there was almost no comparison.
      "I'm trying," Val's heels tipped outward, even as his thighs trembled.
      "Relax, my lover," Lexi's hand came to rest on his.
      "Thank you," he sighed, his eyes closing part way. Diomid couldn't sense things as well through Lexi's field, but at least Val wasn't squirming around anymore.
      After making sure he had his own libido under control, Diomid carefully checked the nerve bundles where a Simes' larity interfaced with their sexuality. It was a dreadfully awkward spot. But the time he was done, Val had bit his lower lip in an attempt not to make any moaning noises.
      "Go ahead, my lover," Lexi added her own enticement with her voice. Val shivered once, all those overstimulated nerves firing off the excess selyn Diomid had imparted with his touch. And even that was perfectly normal.
      "I made a mess," Val's lips twisted into a wry smile.
      "So you did," Diomid collected up a bit of it and headed over to his microscope. Could Val still be fertile this late in his cycle? It sure smelled like it. Curious, he put his sample under the lens and took a look. Yup, sure enough, lots of the little beggars flailing their way around. "Fraid your target escaped this month, my friends." He waved Lexi over.
      She took his place and chuckled. "Too bad you can't freeze these for later."
      "You can," he grinned at her. Val gasped. "Want to?"
      "You can't do that!"
      "As Sharm Lord Sergei, I can. I don't think getting permission from the veiled will be difficult. As a matter of fact, if you continue to refuse Sharm Lord Alexandrya, they may well request and require me to do something about the situation." Now he was working with his talents and skills. This was the right way.
      "That's wrong."
      "No," Diomid corrected him. "If the veiled demand it. By definition it is right. They have wanted a child out of Alexandrya."
      "Then she can get one somewhere else." His jaw was set in so stubborn a line Diomid wanted to slap him.
      "In two weeks?" He gave Lexi a wink on the side away from Val.
      "Sure," she was fighting back a grin with everything she had. "I'll be here. Who's the lucky man?"
      "I was thinking of myself." This had to get through to her the fact he had something else entirely up his sleeve.
      Val fumed as Lexi redid her eyeliner for the third time this evening.
      "Let me," he couldn't stay mad with her for long. What she was doing went against everything he believed, but it was her choice.
      "I'm not very good at it," she smiled at him. As always, his knees wobbled a bit when she was pleased with him. Once he'd survived turnover, he'd decided to prove to Lexi how bad an idea it was for them to have children together. He'd given up entirely on trying to act Sime. She'd been thrilled. Or at least she'd said so.
      Whistling, he cleaned the mess she'd made of her face off and started over. No matter what, he still adored touching her. Before putting on her lipstick, Val leaned over and brushed her lips with his. She moaned and opened to him instantly. He couldn't help but grab her too him, plundering her mouth with his before regaining some semblance of control.
      "Now you don't require any lipstick," he nibbled at her soft, smooth lower lip.
      "It won't last," she licked at him, opening her field to his senses.
      "I'll make it last," he fought not to take her then and there. No, this month they were to go to others. She was going to find him a partner tonight at the ball. His heart chilled at the thought.
      "Lets go," he finished making her up and took her arm. This time he knew exactly what he was doing. Their carriage was waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs. Val waved aside the offer of assistance and handed Lexi up himself, snatching a zlin of her nager in the process. It wasn't as much fun as zlinning a sharm lord, but it was still intriguing.
      He followed her up, making sure he didn't scuff his high, patent leather boots. She'd given them to him the first month they'd been back in the city. This was the first chance he'd gotten to show off in them.
      "You look gorgeous," she peered at him from over her fan.
      "It reminds me of your veil," he tugged it down and gave her a soft kiss, careful not to smudge her lipstick.
      "I thought it might," her hand cupped the back of his neck. "Although your tunic and breeches are nothing like a lord's."
      "Do you like?" He readjusted the silk ribbons highlighting and outlining his tentacles sheathes. There were literally hundreds of tiny glass beads along the length of them.
      "I do," her fingertips caressed one of his lateral sheathes.
      "Are you trying to make me unpresentable?"
      "Yes," she purred, wetting a finger and tracing another. Val's pulse hammered in his wrists. He was not going to get his ribbons wet, however.
      "I'm going to another this month," Val met her eyes.
      "I know," she dropped her own to the side. "I ... don't ... I can't say I don't want it."
      "Why?" Val still wasn't sure why she was going through with this farce. Of all people, Diomid was the last one he'd have chosen to sire Lexi's child. His own father would have actually been an excellent selection. He, at least, was wildly fertile.
      "I want a child," her jaw was outlined by the moonlight streaming in the window. The carriage swayed over the cobbled streets.
      "He's not your best choice."
      "Oh?" Lexi blinked at him.
      "I, my sister has had problems."
      "They have a little girl and a little boy." Lexi's field had gone cold.
      "After a lot of problems." Val shivered briefly. "It was not a good situation."
      "Ours is?"
      "We're both quite fertile." He gave her a wry grin. "Give it some time, Lexi."
      "I realized I don't have a lot of time, Val." She reached for the door handle as soon as the carriage stopped. Val held her hand still for a moment.
      "Why not?"
      "I'm not a teenager, Valtanir," her words froze him in place.
      Lexi felt Val's hand grow cold on hers. He'd been so absolutely wonderful in the last two weeks. Attentive, kind, sweet, everything she'd ever wanted in a Lord. His cheerful whistling or singing as he sewed or embroidered was the most delightful thing in the world. Why hadn't he done so earlier?
      "I suppose not," his eyes were wide with surprise. "Never really thought about it."
      "Let's get going," she turned the door handle. He slid around her and neatly helped her to the ground. The mirror image of the last time they'd gone to a dance at Fatima was not lost on her and she grinned.
      "No starka," he reminded her.
      "Not if I'm going to be getting pregnant." She wrinkled her nose at him. Actually she hadn't really wanted a drink in months. Lexi knew her field was throwing off little glittering sparks of excitement. Maybe she couldn't get exactly what she wanted, but then again, Diomid had something up his capacious sleeves.
      Val grimaced slightly. His hand tightened on her arm so hard she flexed her field to get him to loosen up. "Sorry," he looked at her from under his long, dark lashes.
      "It's all right," she patted his hand. He captured that hand too, gathering both of hers under his. He hadn't been this possessive before, quite. They passed by the guards with hardly a nod. The somber black and silver of Fatima seemed nearly cheerful this evening.
      Something was going to happen tonight. Lexi knew this. Keeping her eyes wide open, she looked over the gathering of people. Gems glittered on fantastically embroidered overtunics and breeches. Silk and satin flashed in the brilliant lights. Val's boots clicked on the marble tiles of the great hall.
      "Azov sends his greetings to Fatima," Val bowed to his knees, holding out his tentacles to his father Arkay and his partner, Lord Fatima.
      "Fatima welcomes Azov's son and Azov's mare to her gathering," Lord Fatima winked at her so quickly she nearly missed the pun. Lexi had always been known as Azov's mare to the renSimes, but she hadn't known Nashen had picked up on the usage.
      "Be welcome to Fatima, Sharm Lord Alexandrya," Diomid took Arkay's place.
      Lexi nearly fainted. She'd forgotten entirely about the fact Diomid still had the right to stand as Sharm Lord Fatima if Arkay relented the privilege. Val gaped at her side.
      She chivied him to his feet. "Azov's blessing be us all," Val was still staring at Diomid.
      "It will be," Diomid smiled. "As I am also a son of Azov," he held up one braceleted wrist. "We shall welcome Azov into our midst with all formality."
      "Oh shen," Lexi breathed, realizing what she'd gotten them into. Two lines of people formed behind her back. She turned with Val to face Fatima's children. There was no way out. She had no idea where the passthroughs were on the dias. Val was trembling at her side.
      "What does Alexandrya Iliranova give unto Valtanir Azovich as her pledge?" Diomid's voice rang hollow, as if he were veiled. The sense of presence from her father was multiplied beyond her wildest explanations.
      "Her terror," Lexi muttered under her breath. Val snorted his disbelief so hard the front row must have heard him, but no one said a word. "The work of her hands and her heart. The toil of her sweat and her patience." So much for the formal words. Now she was on her own. "I give thee, Valtanir Azovich," she couldn't think of anything.
      "Think, Lexi," Diomid coaxed her. She smacked him with her field.
      "I give Valtanir Azovich my labor in the barns and byres of Azov. I give him mares to ride, milk to sweeten his day, wool to clothe him and hounds to follow into tomorrow." The last phrase was the best she could do on short notice. Lexi was no poet and knew it.
      "And you, Valtanir Azovich?" Diomid asked them both. Lexi nudged him in the ribs.
      "I give thee, Alexandrya Iliranova the work of my hands and my heart. The toil of my selyn and my speed." There he stopped. His trembling increased. Fear shattered his nager into glittering shards. "I have nothing to give thee, Alexandrya."
      "Yes you do," she took his face in her hands. "Give me the work of your hands in garments beyond compare. Give me fine gauzes to wear, woven upon your looms. Give me sweet and savory dishes to fill my hunger. Give unto me the produce of your love, your dedication, your mind and your soul, Valtanir Azovich. I would have thee, as thou art, for all time under heaven and all ways upon the earth." Her lips trembled as she tried to smile through her tears.
      "Give unto me Valtanir Azovich. I will cherish thee, court thee, love thee and hold thee safe from all harm."
      "That's the Sime's line," he managed to say without moving his lips.
      "Then give me yours, Valtanir," she brushed her thumbs over his cheeks.
      "I will honor thee, give unto thee, love thee and be held safe by thee." His voice cracked twice, even as he began to cry as well. "Take me as thine, Alexandrya Iliranova." His need darkened field flared into the great sweeping display of a Sharm Lord to his mate. Lexi bowed at his feet, in wonder and joy at how right this all felt.
      She spread her hands as if showing her tentacles to him, submitting herself to his judgement and control.
      "Yes, I will take thee as mine, Alexandrya Iliranova," his smile was more brilliant than the summer sun. Then he pulled something from his pocket. "For thee, my Alexandrya," he laced the fantastically embroidered ribbon into her hair. She'd seen him working on it and wondered who it had been for, as he'd always said he'd never let her wear any of his work for fear of being mocked.
      Lexi gulped. She had no equivalent gift for him. In a near panic, she looked over her shoulder to Diomid. "Just like a Sime," he grinned at her and took an earring from his own ear. It was still warm with the heat of his body as he handed it to her.
      She studied it for a moment before gasping. This was the ring Diomid had bonded her blood father with. He nodded at her in approval and then sighed. "You forgot the needle, too, didn't you?"
      "I didn't know we were going to be doing this," her pulse fluttered in her throat.
      "He was prepared," Diomid pointed out, quite unnecessarily.
      "That's 'cause he's the Gen," she said through clenched teeth. "Let's discuss my shortcomings later, shall we?" Val snickered. She loved him for it, even as she smacked him one. He tipped his head to the side. Lexi nearly cried again. He'd already made another hole and had quickly removed the placeholder keeping it open.
      "Are you ever going to be unprepared?"
      "I sure as shen hope not," he grinned at her. At least he was patient. She must have nearly dropped the ring three times before she managed to get it into place.


      Val looked over at Lexi's lean body sprawled across most of the bed. She was so very, very beautiful. How he'd won her heart was still beyond him, particularly as she seemed to gush over each bit of embroidery or neatly patched sock he gave her.
      It was so very simple to him. She rolled over and began to snore. This he could well do without. But still he didn't want to disturb her. She looked so happy. Her smile hadn't even faded in her sleep. But then he supposed neither had his.
      There was a soft knock on the door. Not wanting to disturb her, he got up to shoo whoever it was away.
      "May I come in?" His father was standing there, in utter dishabille.
      "Of course." He waved Avilan in. Lexi's snoring had grown in enthusiasm. Kira came out, sat on the hearth and began grooming herself with great vigor. She was annoyed. Val chuckled and helped his father to a seat.
      "Is there something wrong?"
      "Not really," Avilan poured both of them tea. "A bit lonely maybe."
      "For?" Val could well understand being lonely sometimes in his father's house. Particularly with Arkay gone most of the time now.
      "Someone to talk to," his blue eyes were distant with the quiet of his thoughts.
      "I think I understand," Val sipped at his own tea, waiting patiently.
      "I think you would," Avilan stretched out his legs. "This is very good tea."
      "You taught me to brew it."
      "You listened," both of their voices were very low. Not that it seemed to disturb Lexi one bit. "She's loud."
      "Can be," he smirked into his cup.
      "Braggart," Avilan winked at him.
      "Pregnant too," Val chuckled.
      "Oh really?"
      "She wanted it."
      "The best course of action, I've found," Avilan traced the rim of his cup with one fingertip. "Simes can be a bit determined about things."
      "So I found out," he offered his father more tea. They sat for a while, enjoying the rather noisy silence together. "What went wrong?"
      "I'm not all that aware anything went wrong."
      "I mean with the way I turned out," his hand wrapped around his warm glass.
      "You're Valtanir Azovich. Something wrong with that?"
      "More Gen than Sime," he shrugged, still feeling a bit selfconcious about it all. Even though it seemed only the adolescents found anything odd in his arrangement with Lexi.
      "We're all unique, Val," Avilan scooted over and put his arm around Val's shoulders. Unlike with Lexi, there was no attraction there at all. Not even the baseline Sime to Gen. "Some are simply more unique than others."
      "You're bad," Val twitted him.
      "I try to be in some ways," Avilan grinned at him. "It can be a lot of fun."
      "Is all you do play?"
      "When I can," Avilan winked. "What use is life if you don't enjoy it?"
      "Not a whole lot, I suppose," he admitted, studying his tea leaves. "What will happen now with Lexi and I?"
      "I've thought of retiring," now Val could see the lines around his father's eyes and the heaviness to his face. Those hadn't been there before, at least insofar as Val could remember.
      "Karola and I have guided Azov through many years, Valtanir," he went on, as if unaware of Val's dismay. "We would like to enjoy a bit more freedom before age catches up to us too badly."
      "What about my sisters?"
      "Oh, we would also like the chance to spend more time with all of our children," he waved towards the rest of Rodina. "We're tired, Val. With Arkay gone, there's more work than Karola could ever hope to keep up with. Lexi's father should have been Lord Azov. We would like it if you two would take our places, at least for some of the more onerous duties as Lord and Sharm Lord Azov."
      "Who's who?"
      "We leave that up to you," Avilan grinned, the years falling away from his face with an ease Val could only envy. "One of Azov's greatest virtues is his flexibility. He is the youngest of the five great Demense. His heart is with the beasts and the fields, not really with the minutia of whose hand is on the distaff."
      "True," Val admitted, pouring himself more tea to think things over with. "Why aren't you asking Lexi?"
      "Because she is not the dominant member of your pairing."
      "She's Gen."
      "No, you are Valtanir," Avilan set down his glass without a clink. "In everything that matters, you are Gen, not Sime."
      "I don't produce selyn," Val's head was spinning wildly.
      "No, but you plan and think. You wait for fruit to ripen before plucking it from the vine and you plant the seeds to produce more vines in the future. Those are the actions of a Gen, not a Sime."
      "But what of Lexi?"
      "She strikes like a bird of prey, taking her quarry without hesitation or second thought. Both are vital, Valtanir. Together you two make one whole greater than the sum of the parts. So what if you are both a bit more unique than many." Avilan's grin widened even further.
      "I have to think about this," Val turned his cup around in his hands.
      "And there you have proven my point," he reached out and grasped Val's hands. "You do think about these things. Don't wait too long. I'd rather not have to deal with Lexi waddling up to me to take Karola's pledge from my hands."
      "Too tempting?"
      "Very much so," Avilan winked. "She might look Gen, but she zlins pure Sime."
      "I know what you mean," Val zlinned his lover again, wanting to be sure this was all happening. "Why me?"
      "Because you will love and cherish Azov as he was meant to," Avilan's eyes met Val's completely levelly. "You love Azov with all your heart, Valtanir. None of your sibs do."
      "Even my sisters?"
      "Yes," Avilan gave him a wry grin. "Neither of them truly feel the Rodina's life pulse within their veins or her breath whisper over their faces."
      "So poetic," Val had often though of Rodina in such a way, but had never spoken of it.
      "Lexi knows of the life of the land as well. Her horses and hounds tell her of the web of life. They can not be apart from it."
      "Is that why she tried to get me to live in today, not just for tomorrow?"
      "Yes," Avilan gave him a wink. "Simes tend to do it as well."
      "So I noticed," he took another sip of his tea. "Yes, we'll do it."
      "Good, at Year's Turning, Karola and I will step down. We'll still be here. We aren't going anywhere."
      "Heaven help me if I tried to kick my mother out of her rooms."
      "No one else will," Avilan chuckled softly. "She loves it here, and suits Azov well."
      "As do you, otyet." Val pointed out.
      "There was no one else."
      "You gave Azov nine to pick from."
      "Karola wasn't thinking in those terms. I think she liked being pregnant all the time."
      "I hope Lexi isn't the same way," Val's eyes widened in surprise. He didn't think she was. "But then what Gen ever understands a Sime."
      "Very true," Avilan shook his head. "I've kept you up late enough as it is."
      "No, stay," Val put his hand over his father's. "I want to hear all the latest gossip."
      Avilan laughed so loudly Lexi snorted and rolled over. They both looked towards the bedroom in silence until the snores started up again. "Close call." He whispered.
      "Too close," Val breathed a sigh of relief. Yes, this was where he belonged. And before long, they were both drinking mulled wine before the fire and swapping outrageous stories, some of which might even have been true. But those stories, and others, are for later times and other places.

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