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.

Step after step he followed the winding corridor. It was not a passage he knew, and his head kept bumping against the stone despite his efforts to feel his way along. The same iron helmet that warped his senses kept him from knocking himself entirely out cold, but still his ears rang from the impact.

Someone was calling his name, murmuring in his ear in a voice of pain and heartbreak; he couldn’t see, couldn’t feel anyone beside him, couldn’t smell any sign of someone there, but Dren’s voice reproached him, and others beside. Some asked why, asked what they had done to earn their fates, others, many others – soldiers he’d sent into battle – just heaped curses upon his name. And as the voices rose, so too did the dripping escalate to a steady trickle, then a rush.

Stone gave way under him, carrying him in a slide of rubble toward that torrent. He fell, landing hard upon stone a few feet below; he was in a shallow pit of some sort. When he tried to climb out, his hands slipped on the stone, coming away wet and sticky – and only then did the stink of blood assail him. It was blood, not water, that poured down upon him.

There was a resounding clang just over his head, more iron pressing down on the space around him. He tried to jump, but the very world twisted around him; instead of open air or rock, his hands were brought up short by an iron grate.

And blood kept pouring in – so much blood. It was up to his ankles already, and rising faster and faster with every moment. The reproachful voices now turned to taunting, jeering, even as the pit filled with awful, hot, thick blood. So much blood – all those he had sent to die, now bleeding out over him. He tried to cry out, to plead, but his voice would not obey him. It was all around him now; he floated high enough in it to seize the grate, shaking it, but it held firm. And as the blood rose to the level of his head, the grate shook from the other side, stone being piled atop it with a heavy thump, sealing him –

Jisarr gasped, flailing – and found himself in a tangle of sheets.

Bit by bit, his senses reasserted themselves. He lay on a fiber cot – thin, but much softer than raw stone. He was twisted up in blankets but otherwise unrestrained; the room was dark, but the walls were several comfortable feet away.

Inch by inch, his terror ebbed. It was easier once he’d managed to wrestle free of his covers; but even as he tried to catch his breath his ears caught a tapping noise.

That was the door. Someone was tapping it, as they might to get someone’s attention while trying not to wake anyone.

He swallowed. “Who is it?” he called. His voice was ragged with the last traces of his nightmare, but he didn’t bother, yet, trying to shore it up.

The bolt drew back; the door of his cell started to open, a line of pale blue light marking the crack of it, then easing wider. He clutched at the blankets he’d just cast off, tugging them over himself just before the door opened wide enough to admit a stooping figure – human, female, clad in leather armour. In one hand she held a wizard lamp – a bronze chain from which depended a sphere of the same metal, its shutters now open to reveal the enchanted, glowing crystal at its heart; the glare of it, against eyes that hadn’t yet adjusted from total darkness, washed out her features. “Healer Tavi told me to check on you,” she declared.

Oh. Perhaps his uneasy sleep had drawn attention. “Uh – my thanks, to you and her; I am… well enough.”

A sharp nod. “The General wants to talk to you,” the woman went on. “Ready yourself.” She hung the lamp on a bracket near the door, and slipped back out through it. Once it had shut behind her, the bolt slid home again.

Jisarr shivered. So far as he could tell, it had been a full night since he was put in here, but he doubted he’d slept more than two hours – and that not restful, though nothing before had been so intensely awful as this last dream.

Well, there was no help for that. He blinked a few times against the light, the features of the tiny room coming into proper focus, and then flipped the blankets back again. His clothing, he had left neatly folded nearby; he had secured the various wraps around himself, clasped the last of them with the royal brooch, and just managed to neaten the blankets somewhat when the bolt clicked and the door swung open once more.

Two Crandil guards ushered him out. Both were female; one was gray like slate, the other a deep green. When the heavy outer door of the prison closed behind them, the bolt fell into its brackets with the heavy boom that, muffled, had haunted his dreams near the end; he shivered at the memory.

General Braxley wanted secrets: he wanted to know more about the tunnels that had allowed a squad behind enemy lines; wanted to know if there were hidden places there that the Dukes’ supporters might have holed up, or that treasures might have been secreted. Too often, Jisarr found himself forced to say he didn’t know, to fall back on guesses and supposition. Braxley, who had evidently not been party to any effort to chart those passages, grew more irritated with every question that didn’t get a firm answer. Jisarr wracked his mind, but even details he thought he knew were slipping away from him by the minute under the pressure of interrogation.

Just as it got to the point that Jisarr thought the General might strike him, a new voice cut in, sharp and strident. “General Braxley! I asked after his welfare because I have need of him, not so you could bully him into giving you the answers you want to hear!”

None of the General’s own staff or soldiers could possibly have used that tone on him, and so it wasn’t; it was a Crandil female, her golden fur largely covered by red robes – red for blood, red for healing. Jisarr had only been introduced to her once, but she was distinctive enough for him to have fixed the image of Healer Tavi quite firmly in his mind.

The General was taken aback – white-haired with age, a veteran of many campaigns by the decorations he wore, he was not accustomed to being taken to task; but Tavi wasn’t finished. “This man came to you of his own free will,” she growled, coming up to Jisarr’s side of the table, “and risked his neck to save some of our people and make matters easier for yours. I will not allow you to shout at him just-risen from his bed simply because you don’t like what he’s telling you – nor will that change the truth to something more to liking. I told you I have need of him, and I will not let you scare him into being another patient!”

Feeling rather like a grain on a millstone, Jisarr looked back and forth between the two – but, wonder of wonders, General Braxley was actually backing down and leaving. Not just that, he was even apologetic as he did so – to Tavi, not Jisarr, but so long as it meant the interrogation was over, that was good enough for him.

Besides, he wasn’t blameless in all things. Demanding apology for an aggressive questioning would feel ludicrously petty, in the face of all the deeds done at his order.

Still – in that light, it was comforting that Tavi had come because she had use for him. Maybe he could start making amends.

The guards started to make noise about returning him to his cell; Tavi overrode them in an instant. “There are places in the city with only one door,” she reminded them, “if you’re so set on keeping him under watch.” The gray one gave that a moment’s thought, then flicked her ears in affirmative, gesturing for the green to carry on.

Curiosity grew; as they neared the main entrance of the Deep, it became strong enough that Jisarr spoke up. “Forgive me, Healer, but – what is it I can do for you that a healer couldn’t do better?”

“You can minister to one of my patients,” she replied. “He’s… whole in body, but doesn’t want to be touched. When he heard your name, it drew the first reaction we got from him that wasn’t an attempt to get away. So far as we can tell, he has some fondness for you.”

Odd. Who could he have left such an impression on? As the gates of the Deep passed by, and the vast cavern of Aynithral drew nearer, he was momentarily distracted by that thought. A lover? Not so many men fell into that category, not at all. As for their fates – Avil, the last he’d known of the man, had had a reasonably successful life as a sculptor; Irin had still been one of the servants in the Deep when the invasion had begun – not so fulfilling a life, perhaps, but Jisarr had also seen him within the last few days, and he’d seemed healthy enough, content with his lot. He couldn’t comprehend how either of them could have become so broken as Tavi described – nor remember him, specifically, with such fondness; he didn’t think he’d been a bad lover to them, as such, but doubtless they could have found someone more attentive in their own lives.

Still, he couldn’t imagine he’d touched anyone else’s life so deeply as to have that sort of effect, if not a lover.

Then the party crested the bridge, the cavern opened up before them, and speculation momentarily left his mind.

He didn’t often go into the city at large, and in the past few years especially had almost never left the Deep. It was an impressive sight even on its own; seen from the bridge into the Deep, with a great cleft in the rock that stretched to either side – there was emptiness, vast and dark; and then there was the gleam of a thousand lights, shining in all colours. Lights glowed in windows, lights shone along the tiered streets, lights reflected off of the great beams of stone and bronze that shored up the giant vault; and in the spray of colour was Aynithral itself.

He’d worried, somewhere in the back of his mind, about what the recent fighting might have done to it; but the city was still vibrant and lively, all the busier for having a sudden influx of people in it – Crandil from outlying colonies as well as the other races.

The gray guard grumbled; his steps were lagging. He gave his head a shake and made himself hustle along.

The checkpoint at the base of the bridge brought a definite change from the last time he’d passed it. It was staffed by humans now, for one thing, with a desk set up by the roadway since the station itself was a bit too small to be comfortable for them. For another, he didn’t have priority of passage – far from it; his guards brought him up short, each one hanging onto a shoulder, while the human soldiers spoke to Tavi.

Then, with a slightly out-of-sync pair of shoves, he was nudged into motion again.

The bustle on the streets was all about them, now, and stares came from every direction, conversations stuttering to a halt as the speakers identified him. He bit his lip, and he managed to keep his tail from lashing, but he couldn’t quite ignore the weight of all that attention. Ears pinning back, he kept his eyes on the stone in front of him, trudging in Tavi’s wake. Whatever was being said about him, it was probably better for his sake if he didn’t hear it. After all, there would be plenty of people who would say such things where he couldn’t avoid them.

That thought turned out to be prophetic: the first person he recognized, on being ushered through the main doors of the Hall of Healing, was the red willworker, Rima.

Gone was the rage from the day before; instead she regarded him, briefy, with a cold contempt that was almost worse. “I still don’t think this is wise, Healer,” she said, apparently carrying on an earlier conversation.

“We’ve got to do something for the man,” Tavi sighed. “If there’s a chance that something so simple could help, I must take it.”

“He’s spent the last two years being twisted,” the willworker snapped. “Who’s to say what might make it worse?”

Two years? Oh, no. They couldn’t mean –

“I must try,” Tavi repeated. “The poor man needs some positive attention, and I can’t give it to him.”

Jisarr swallowed, trying to push back the sudden fear that had him shaking. “Do you mean… Dren?”

“That is he, yes,” the healer replied, ears perking. “Do you know him? Personally, I mean – I know you know of him.”

Rima started to object again; Tavi held up a hand, glaring in her direction. “I have heard your objections and noted them. I find them inadequate next to the possible gain. Now you may go.”

Growling under her breath, Rima strode forward, putting a heavy hand on Jisarr’s shoulder and squeezing it, hard enough for him to feel her claws, though not so much that they broke skin. His guards tensed, and so did she; but she did nothing more physical, only snarled, “If you hurt him any more than you already have – ”

Jisarr swallowed again, eyes slipping shut. She might or might not have realized it, but she’d put a name to his very own fear. He shuddered. “If I add to his lot,” he croaked, “all you will need to do is put me in a quiet room with a sharp knife. I will do the rest.”

Breaths caught; hers, the healers, the guards’ – none of them had expected that pronouncement. Tavi was first to recover. “Rima!” she snapped. “Whatever your station or your grievance, I will not have you harassing anyone in this hall!”

With slow deliberation, the willworker let go of Jisarr and stepped a pace back. “As you will, Healer,” she said, stiff and stilted. “I will be back another time to inquire about his welfare.” And with that she trudged out of the hall, her steps slower and less forceful than Jisarr might have expected.

When Jisarr opened his eyes again, Tavi was giving him an odd look – a bit of exasperation, a touch of pity, a dash of concern. “Jisarr,” she said, the name seeming awkward in her mouth. “My specialty is in the mending of damaged minds. It pains me to encounter another, but it is clear to me that your ordeals have left deep scars on your psyche. I will be making arrangements for you to stay here going forward.”

Jisarr flinched. “There must be someone more deserving, more in need,” he protested.

“I will decide that. For now, we should discuss my other patient. Come.”

She led him into her office, with a stern injunction to the guards to wait outside and an assurance that there was only the one way out of it. The door closed with the peculiar muted report of a sound-sealed room, and she gestured him to one side of the room, where cushions had been set near a padded rail; he sat, and after setting a pitcher and two goblets on a tray, she took the lot over to sit on the next one over.

“I must ask again,” she said as she poured, the smell of wine touching Jisarr’s nose. “Do you have a personal history with Dren?”

Jisarr stared out across the room, eyes drifting over the mosaic inlaid in the floor. “He was my lover, one time.”

A pause; the pitcher returned to the tray. “Did he enjoy it? Did you? Please understand, I don’t ask merely to pry, but for the sake of his well-being. And yours.”

Jisarr shuddered. “I… I think so,” he breathed. “He looked so… so happy, at the time. It was so beautiful… but when next I saw him, it was in my stateroom, after it was found that he had conceived. I… I couldn’t go against tradition, not with Vizier Karil’s eyes always on me. I wanted to have him brought to a royal suite, to pursue his own interests in comfort.” His eyes squeezed shut, but the memories – the waning hope on Dren’s face, the stern eyes of the vizier – danced all the stronger in front of them. “Instead I ordered him down to the deep cells, there to be kept for breeding.”

The healer touched his hand, curling it around the stem of a goblet. “But at the time, he was pleased,” she pressed. “It may be that he has two different memories of you – his lover not the same as his ruler. Whatever the case, he seems to treasure your name. We need you to try, for his sake.”

The automatic motions of courtesy took over; he lifted the goblet to his mouth and sipped. It was a good, sweet wine, easier on the palate than some of the rare and precious vintages he’d been served before, warm and subtly spiced. He sighed. “What do you want me to do?”

Now she paused, rather longer than her own sip of wine demanded. “I’m not certain,” she admitted. “At the least, he needs some company. Not I nor any of my fellows here can provide it – all of us are female, and I fear he has too many bad memories surrounding women. Too much pain. I would have sent for male healers from another hall, but your name was the one thing any of us said that got him to stop cringing away from us for a moment. It may be that he will let you sit with him, groom him, as he will not tolerate from us.”

He looked over; she was staring down into her goblet, cupping it in both hands. “There’s more,” he deduced.

“Plenty more. Enough to bring relevance to my prior query.” She did not look up, but continued, “We broke the symbols of pain upon him, but… he won’t tend to himself, despite his physical arousal, despite an intense need that we could see even through his fear. He’s too deep in the habit of avoiding such acts.” Finally she lifted her head, but her expression was so complex as to be indecipherable. “He needs a lover’s touch.”

A deep surge of revulsion and loathing gripped Jisarr; he shivered. “I don’t want to take advantage of him,” he protested. “With the compulsions on him, he’d give himself to anyone – any man,” he corrected; she was probably right about Dren associating women with pain and punishment. “But he’s not in a state that he can refuse, or give sound consent – it’d be tantamount to rape!”

She lifted one hand, laying it on his shoulder. “I know,” she whispered. “But right now, he needs release, more than any other immediate thing. All the better that it come from someone he’s been with before.”

Sick and dizzy, Jisarr set his goblet back on the tray before he could spill it, gripping his knees. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “I don’t know if I can do this. What if… what if in dealing with the immediate, I bury another problem deeper?”

“He needs it,” she pressed. “It may leave deeper issues – I cannot deny this. But right now, it’s causing him enough stress to be alarming – harmful. If only he can regain some acceptance with his own sexuality, it will be a step in the right direction. He might resent it afterward – I cannot deny the possibility. But if he’s left in a condition to do so, it will be an improvement.” She gave his shoulder a squeeze. “I am not asking you to be in all ways a lover to him – though I do think it would help him. But if he turns to you for release – please, I beg of you, at least consider granting it to him, though the act give you yourself no pleasure.”

He shivered. Oh, Dren. Why must it come to this? You should be free to love whomever you choose…

But if there was a chance, even a small chance, that he could help…

He looked up. “If he shrinks from me?”

“Then you will have tried, and we will find someone else to try,” she said.

“All right.” He reached for his goblet, taking a deep sniff over it. “To his health, then.”

“To his health,” she agreed, touching her goblet against his; and both drank.

She sipped; Jisarr drank deep, draining the rest of that goblet. It wasn’t nearly enough wine to render him insensible, but it just might help him relax, and that he would probably need soon enough.