The main Audience Chamber was a piece of engineering of a kind with the great cavern of Aynithral, if on a smaller scale. In its tiered galleries, a thousand people and more could gather to watch the proceedings. The main body of the chamber could hold hundreds more in procession, without even setting foot on the broad dais that held the throne. That in turn could hold a retinue of a few dozen on its lower tier, and another half-dozen around the throne itself.

It was the site where all royal proclamations of Jisani were read. From this very cavern, he’d sent Dren to the deep vaults. Many an uncomfortable hour had been spent on that unyielding seat.


The moment the door closed, it sank in just how much more of a home the Hall of Healing had become than the Deep ever had. Perhaps the appointments weren’t quite so sumptuous, definitely not so spacious, and the food was much simpler fare, but he felt safe there. For the past few years especially, the Deep had kept him in a state ranging from anxiety to active terror.

Jisarr sagged against the door with a sigh of relief.

Rima looked from one of them to the other. “Aynithral’s market may be the most hectic place I’ve seen, but the both of you look rather too wrung for even that.”

“The market, averting a bloody riot, and interrogation by a rather prickly general. That’s enough to leave anybody feeling wrung,” Tavi put in. “I think I need a drink, and I’m strongly considering getting you one on healer’s orders.” With that parting word to Jisarr, she disappeared deeper into the building.


Tavi was indeed supportive of the notion, and did indeed have a contribution toward it, but she also had a caution: it wasn’t going to be as simple as just walking out the door and going to market.

“Firstly,” she said, “you are still in my care, and not just for healing. It’s absurd, but for the moment, that lot hold power, and it would not be wise to simply ignore them. Second, it would be best if you avoid drawing too much attention to yourself. Unfortunately for us, you are rather conspicuous.”

“Oh, curses. I should have thought of that,” Rima muttered. “I’ve never seen black fur outside the royal family and its close relatives.”

“Even the Dukes don’t have that,” Tavi confirmed. “And while I don’t know how people would react to seeing you in the public plazas, I can only imagine that it would hamper your plans, one way or another.”


“She wasn’t pleased that I chose to bring it up,” Rima said, pushing the door shut. “However, with that already done and well-received, she is in favour of going ahead with it.”

“So what will ‘it’ entail?” Jisarr asked. “I don’t know how much of it I’ll be able to understand, but I am curious.” He was sitting on the cushioned seat he’d used for reading, now placed in the middle of the room rather than at the wall.


There’d be no difficulty on his part this time; Jisarr’s heart was pounding before he reached Dren’s door, an uncomfortable tightness growing in his clothing by the time Dren hesitantly opened it in answer to his knock. There was a deep yearning in the smaller man’s eyes now, a need grown almost painful; and though he felt a pang of guilt for leaving Dren alone while that need built up, anticipation of the forceful climax that it heralded made him tremble.


For a Crandil male, he was big – tall, muscular, and clad in shining bronze mail over his russet pelt. His thick fur was marred in places by scars, sprinkled with grey, and his eyes were hard as he looked over his visitor.

Smaller even than most Crandil men, that visitor was in some ways what the big warrior was not. He was sleek, handsome, and dark, wearing an elaborate wrap of many separate lengths of cloth. He might be beautiful if one liked that sort of youthful look, but in neither form nor demeanour was he very imposing.

“So,” the bigger man sneered, “this is the mighty Jisarr that the locals are clamouring for?”


Dren rested easily – no terrors haunting his dreams – and, watching him, Jisarr was struck by a thought. Hadn’t the man been unable to find any sleep, restful or otherwise, when he’d first come here? To be sure, he’d rested easily enough after some release from his spell-driven lust, but that had been when he was greatly short on it.

Now he could slip into a midday doze without issue, and stayed that way as Jisarr shifted around to tidy the place somewhat. Progress?

Dren wasn’t entirely still, but the movements he made were the gentle ones that anyone might while they slept. Certainly Jisarr had seen jerkier motions in his own consorts. Even if it was obvious within an hour that lust was colouring Dren’s dreams, it seemed to be a soft sort of desire, not the burning, pent-up need he’d had when Jisarr had first met him here.


“I believe,” said Rima, before Jisarr could frame a word, “that I owe you an apology.”

Jisarr blinked. “You of all people have every right to be angry with the lot of willworkers.” He opened the bottle and started to pour.

“You aren’t the author of their troubles,” she replied, taking the goblet on her side once he’d filled it. “Semarr made me aware of that – at length.”


For a time, it was easy to lose himself in simple chores. However simple they were, they were still largely new to him; he’d seen other people doing their like – cleaning, sorting, shelving, folding clothing – but he’d never been expected to do them himself. Even when he paused for food, it was a simple, informal affair, things he could move around as he ate, nothing like a long-drawn-out state dinner that would have given his mind time to brood. Just a few mouthfuls to take the edge off his hunger, to let him bide until a fuller meal later, and then it was back to work.

Yet however new to him the tasks were, they remained simple. Once he’d grown accustomed to any given chore, his mind bean to wander as his hands did the necessary work. And when his thoughts strayed afield thus, their destination was never pleasant.


All around him, the city was alive – people went about their lives, going their separate ways, joining and leaving the flow of bodies. At first glance, all was as it should be.

But then he saw that nobody passed by him unscathed. Anyone who so much as went near him, anyone whose path he crossed, was left… scarred. Faces that had been pristine were instead marred by lines or patches where the fur would not grow; some of those in his wake walked with limps, or hobbled with the aid of canes or staves.

He tried to back away, but hands gripped his shoulders – hands that ran with their owners’ blood, but nevertheless forced him forward. The clothing of those who passed next to him became stained with red; flesh withered. And then he was helpless to pull away as someone walked right up to him, white fur blossoming with patches of ugly red. She reached forward, her hand little more than skin and bone by the time it seized his muzzle, and she leaned closer, bringing her muzzle up to his –

He lurched back, flailing amid the sheets before it quite registered that the dream was past. He’d cried out; now he sat, panting, trying to push the awful vision out of his mind.

Whether this was better or worse than the last night’s dreams, he wasn’t sure, but it was certainly dreadful. Even his dreams were hammering home the harm he’d done.


Jisarr splayed his ears slightly, thinking, but didn’t stop walking, as his guards ushered him out of the patients’ wing. “Where am I bound?” he asked. He didn’t want to be the one to cross Tavi, who had told him to expect to stay here; but if there had been a change of plans while he couldn’t hear of it, it wasn’t his place to argue, not anymore.

“You said you were done here,” the grey guard said. “So you’re going back where you came from.” Her grip on his shoulder tightened.

Rather than risk angering her further, Jisarr shut his mouth and walked on between them. To the exit of that wing, past the silken curtains, across the mosaic floor of the lobby – they had almost reached the door when a voice behind brought them up short.

“Where are you going?”

It was softly-spoken, but the question had undeniable authority behind it. Gold fur, red robes trailing – Tavi strode across the lobby in their wake, hands tucked into opposite sleeves, ears upright and alert – almost wary.


The door closed behind him, again with a curiously muted sound – but this time, it was reversed; instead of keeping sound within the room from leaving it, the barrier blocked sound from outside, leaving those within in peaceful isolation, while those beyond remained able to hear, should some sound of genuine distress emerge.

It was, he knew, a standard setup for a convalescent’s quarters; Tavi had expressed regret that her expertise did not extend to giving him true privacy for a time. But it was still enough to make his potential tasks here somewhat embarrassing – especially knowing that his guards would be right outside the door. The healer had spoken sternly to them, making it as clear as she could that anything that happened here would be for Dren’s benefit and was to be kept in confidence – but the skeptical looks they’d given him all the same nearly made him quail.

But no. He had to try – had to give Dren whatever peace of mind he could, in whatever form it took. Dren was broken at his order; it was only right that he made an effort to mend him.


Something was dripping nearby. The sound of it filled his ears and demanded attention – in the deep places, a flood was a threat second only to a cave-in. But he couldn’t see. There was no light for his eyes, and iron wrapped around him, blocking his stone-sense, twisting it in on itself.

He felt all around him, felt cold stone under his bare hands; a dead end. The only way out was toward the dripping, one handspan at a time. The sound grew louder, faster; under it rose the sounds of battle, shrieks of agony coming from somewhere above him.


For thousands of years, the city of Aynithral had nestled, safe and secure, beneath the living rock. No enemy had come to the city in all that time; no hostile force had ever threatened the heart of the Kingdom of Jisani.

Well, they had come now, and the oldest city of all the Crandil race was in chaos.

Not even the deepest tunnels of the Deep of Rod and Crown – the Palace, the humans called it – were empty of fighting, save for the very secret passages that only a handful of Crandil ever knew.

Only one knew them now, and by the exit of such a one he crouched. All about him was darkness, but that was no great barrier for his race; the deep, dark places had long been their home. Light gave life to their crafts-folk and made the jobs of workmen many times easier, but for something so simple as navigating a passageway at a slow walk, there was no need of it. And he had walked these unseen halls so often, his feet would know the way even if he shut his eyes and folded his ears back and in all ways closed his senses from the world; his stride was all he needed to measure his path.