“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.

The red willworker tilted her head, the dim light glinting off the topaz set on her brow. She drew a long breath and held it a time before speaking. “You have taken upon yourself full responsibility for a number of unpleasant things. While it speaks better of you than would thinking yourself blameless, Tavi thinks, and I agree, that you have sealed yourself in walls of guilt that keep you from a true and balanced view of your role in matters, and are punishing yourself too harshly for them. My task will be to undermine those walls slightly – not to eliminate your feelings on the matter, but to soften them and allow your perspective to shift. It’s too delicate a task to accomplish directly without risking an impairment to your very sense of responsibility, so what I will do instead is make you more open to suggestion, and accomplish the rest with words.”

Well, he’d hope she didn’t want to remove all his awareness of the cost of things. “I don’t see how this,” he gestured to the fine quarters around him, “is punishment for much of anything, though,” he replied.

“It isn’t. Part of my task will be to show you what your punishment for yourself has been,” was the ready response.

Somewhat nonplussed and not quite knowing what she meant, Jisarr nonetheless gave his assent. Understanding was what he was supposed to have after this business, after all.

“Close your eyes,” she instructed, soft-voiced. When he complied, she started slowly circling him. “Relax. Don’t try to listen, or to follow where I am. Just let your senses work naturally. Let everything happen as it will. Be comfortable, that’s right, just let yourself rest easy.” Standing behind him, she touched his shoulders. “All is well and peaceful. I will help you understand what it is we want of you, what we think has been ailing your mind.”

The Deep Ones knew some understanding would be helpful.

Her words washed over him, soft and soothing. Tension bled out of him under her fingers, and a sense of warmth, peace, and general wellness settled over him, such as he’d not felt in years. Maybe not ever. He might have wept from the relief if it didn’t all feel so right and good.

“Who are you?” she whispered into his ear. “When all else is set aside, what are you? What is the essence of you?”

He was confused. This was not at all what he’d been expecting her to say. “I… I’m Jisarr,” he said softly. What else could he say? “I’m nobody else, I can’t be, not anymore.”

“Why not?” she pressed.

“Because… because when my father died, I had to take his place. I had another name before that, but not anymore. It’s not who I am now.”

“If you could be someone else, could you?”

Confusion pushed his ears down against his skull. “I… can’t. Not without making it right.”

“What, then, does it mean to be Jisarr? To you.”

He swallowed, trying to push back the sting of shame and failing. “I was… I was supposed to lead our people.”

“But you feel that you did not.” To that, he couldn’t reply; he just hung his head. “Because you said what the Dukes expected of you?” His ears flicked forward in assent. “Always and exactly?”

There he paused.

She seized it. “What did you do that differed from their instruction?”

“I… kept Freia, Luka, and Semarr as my consorts. Even when Dren was…” Grief and shame choked off his words and brought tears to his eyes.

“The Dukes wanted to breed him with them,” Rima concluded. “You defied them in that. Why?”

“I didn’t want them to be sent back down there,” he blurted. “They deserved better. So did he, but I could at least keep them out of it. And… it would have upset them, to see how he was treated. I liked them. I wanted to keep them as happy as I could.”

“Because you knew them?”

“Because they deserved it!” he insisted. “Luka I didn’t know at all until… until after. I took royal privilege because I didn’t want her stuck in the vault for the rest of her days, because nobody deserves that!”

“Shh. Gently, now.” She stroked his ears, murmuring assurances over them, until peace settled over him and he relaxed again. Then: “When is the last time you were happy?”

He thought. “When I heard Semarr was well, and with child again.”

“Before that. Before you surrendered in the Deep, when were you happy?”

That time, the answer was not so easy in coming – and it was bound tight in shame. He slumped. “When… when Dren was my lover.”

“Not with your consorts?”

“I couldn’t be, not since I had him sent down there. How could I? All I could do was try to be sure they were happy, and didn’t suffer the same.”

“So, for the last two years, you have been denying yourself happiness,” she murmured. “That is how you have punished yourself.”

“What kind of happiness did I deserve?” he cried out. “After I did that to him…”

“After you followed the standing precedent,” she corrected. “One which you had no grounds to gainsay.”

“It was wrong!” he insisted.

“And if you had stood up for that, changed precedent which has stood for hundreds of years, what would the Dukes have thought?”

If his eyes had been open, he’d have blinked. The conversation had taken an unexpected turn. “They… probably they would have thought me troublesome.”

“And then?”

That was an easy conclusion; it had haunted him for years. “They’d have found a child by one of my other consorts, and… made something happen to me.”

“What, then, of Dren? Would they have let your decree stand, when they held the regency?”

His eyes flew open.

Tavi had said something about it, hadn’t she? If he’d displeased the Dukes… Dren would have died of neglect after the uprising. Back in the deep vault. “They’d have… taken him back. He’d have had nobody who could defend him. And when the provinces eventually rose up… nobody would have let him free before he died of thirst.”

“So,” Rima concluded, “in abiding by the Dukes’ will at the time, and rising against them only when you would not be alone, you set yourself up to save his life and see him to freedom.”

The epiphany was stunning. He sat back in his seat, staring forward unseeing, his breath slipping out in a sigh.

“Enough.” She patted his shoulders. “You’ve enough to take in, for now. Return to yourself, more enlightened than you were.”

For a moment Jisarr just stayed where he was, mind racing. Much of what he’d known about himself and his past had dependent on a notion that now no longer seemed so definite; with that one little shift, so much needed to change.

“Take a few moments to adjust,” Rima encouraged. “Indeed, you may find yourself physically unsteady if you try to do anything but. It will pass.”

Jisarr took a breath. “I… did what I had to do,” he said, as much to himself as to her.

“To survive, yes, that’s my impression.”

His ears tilted forward. “But I did what I could, too. I tried to make things better.” That was the thing he’d found so easy to lose sight of. “My consorts were the most personal of it, but… there were other cases, too. Whenever I saw a choice that I thought the Dukes would accept, I took the gentler course.”

Rima’s ears flicked an acknowledgement. “That is the impression your consorts gave me, yes.”

He sighed. “Maybe there was more I could have done, maybe I could have reached out to someone, displaced the Dukes that much sooner…”

“Beware the clarity of hindsight,” she warned. “Did you have any hint that there was any sort of organized opposition, much less something strong enough and coherent enough to take power in Aynithral itself?”

He dug through his memories, trying to find some indication, some clue that he might have followed up on… and came up empty-handed. Oh, he could surmise that people would be unhappy with the way of things, but Rima was correct; it was quite a leap from that to an actual armed uprising. He conceded the point with an outward flick of his hands.

“So what’s next?” he wondered. “I still don’t know what to do with my life, not in anything but the broadest terms.”

“And what are those?” Rima challenged. “What goals do you have for your life, right now?” When he hesitated, she went on, “Put more broadly – what would you have people say about you, in the fullness of time?”

That was a scope he could answer, somewhat. “That their world was better for me being in it.”

“A difficult, if noble, aspiration even with a few specific people,” Rima praised. “But you must know there are some people whose vision of the world you’d rather not further.”

Like, say, the ones who would send an assassin against a young man they no longer found a convenient mouthpiece? Jisarr grimaced, flicking his ears. “True enough. I don’t hold so much favour for those who would think nothing of harming others to further themselves – or who would find it a good thing.”

A chuckle. “However it was it happened, you’ve come through what could have been a venomous upbringing with a respectable notion of virtue. It might not have been their intent, but the old Dukes seem to have made you into one of their staunchest opponents.”

“Hero of legend I am not,” Jisarr scoffed.

“Most of us aren’t,” was her retort. “That’s why they’re legends. And don’t forget that legends grow in the telling. The actual deeds of the figures that populate our storybooks, if indeed they happened at all, probably didn’t seem so dramatic at the time. But sometimes one simple deed is enough to change lives – be they many or just a few.”

There was something about the way she said that that made Jisarr twist around to look at her. “What are you getting at?”

Rima’s head tilted slightly. “You’ve certainly made life better for your consorts. And for all you’ve punished yourself for speaking the word that sent Dren to the deep cells, he knew you fondly enough to endure through his treatment there, and he’s made strides since his release that I’d not have thought possible if I hadn’t been keeping myself involved with his progress.” She touched his shoulder. “There are many sorts of bravery, Jisarr. You showed one when you confronted the Dukes – make no mistake, to go in there largely untrained and ill-equipped to defend yourself, all in the hopes of averting further bloodshed, was a brave thing to do, and certainly heroic enough for the staff and servants there. Without your intervention, first in leading a force into the gallery and again, as I heard it, facing down the captain of Duke Antani’s guard, many more would likely have died that cycle. But when you were convinced that you didn’t deserve Dren’s good regard, yet you pushed through shame and guilt to do for him whatever you could – that was bravery of another sort. What you don’t deserve is the unhappy lot to which you seem to have consigned yourself. You’ve suffered enough. Let it go.”

A brave thing? Really? He certainly hadn’t felt brave, creeping through the tunnels with iron pressing down all around him.

But it seemed the people around him were determined to see some good in him, and rather than dismiss their words, didn’t he owe it to them to at least consider it? True, he’d been scared and anxious – but though there was some awareness, at the time, that he was in danger, some of that fear hadn’t been for his own sake. It was for the innocent lives at stake.

And afraid or not, he’d kept going. He’d done it. Just like he’d made himself tend to Dren in spite of his shame.

Huh. Looking back on the day of the battle, at least, his actions that day actually felt good. He had made a positive difference there, when lives were truly on the line.

If he’d been wrong about himself then, what else might he have mistaken?

He drew a breath. “Do you think I’m… doing the right thing, with Dren?”

“He was your lover before he was imprisoned,” she mused. “Perhaps a return to that is precisely what he needed. At any rate, I think you’ve been doing the best thing available. That you feel guilt for it is good evidence that you’re doing it for the right reasons… whatever conclusion I may have first jumped to.”

Still it seemed like such a self-serving thing; he shook his head. “I wish I could be certain he’d chosen me, not…”

When he trailed off, she cut in, “What makes you think he didn’t? Yes, his need has been unnaturally amplified, but he still resisted it. Certainly none of those who brought him here drew any positive response – and at least a few of them were male, so it isn’t only an aversion to women. Which, by the way, seems to be steadily waning; time in a hospitable place is doing much to mend his psyche. Recall, too, that simply hearing your name cut through his fear – which, at first, your presence did not.”

“He was half-mad with fear when I opened that door,” Jisarr countered. “I don’t think he’d have received anyone fondly, just expecting more abuse.”

“Fair.” She tilted his head. “Nevertheless, make no mistake – once he recovered from the worst of that, what remained of him, rather than the half-feral creature he’d been made, longed to be reunited with you.” A wistful expression touched her face. “Which I could well believe, now I’ve had time to learn more.”

“What have I done that’s so appealing?” He shook his head in disbelief. It just seemed so hard to grasp, almost preposterous.

“You’ve a kind heart, for one thing. I’d been told that, at length. Touching your mind confirmed it – and before he had that accursed collar on him, Dren would have been feeling you that way even without thinking of it.” She caught his hand and gave it a squeeze; if she noticed how he tensed in spite of his best efforts, she didn’t comment. “He knows you to be kindly, whatever you may think of the things necessity has driven you to do. Perhaps he doesn’t quite connect you, his lover, with you, who sat in judgement over him. And,” she shushed him before he could object, “it’s not as though you’d have made the same judgement without the looming threat of a death like your father’s, is it?”

Jisarr shivered – half from remembered fear and half from revulsion. “Certainly not.”

“And that is the person he longed to be reunited with,” she concluded, then smirked. “Though there was probably another, simpler aspect to it as well.”

He blinked. “How so?”

“Well. While I can’t speak for your performance as a lover – yet,” she interjected with a sizzling grin, “you are, at least, quite appealing to the senses.”

His ears flushed, tilting back some. “I can’t take much credit for that,” he protested. “It’s not like I’ve had much chance to do much else with my life.”

“And I’d welcome a chance to learn what you’ve gained from that experience,” she purred.

She’d said earlier that she couldn’t be much more open about her interest without propositioning him. Well, if that wasn’t a proposition, he wasn’t sure what would be. He swallowed, thoughts racing. This time, it wouldn’t be fair to just let it slip by without answering it.

“It’s… hard,” he managed, “to shake the impression I first got of you. I can’t edit my thoughts like you can.”

“And on that point, it wouldn’t be right for me to help it along.” Rima dipped her head. “But do you want to go past that… false start?”

He’d thought she loathed him. Some part of him still expected her to repudiate him. It was only with difficulty that he could keep from cringing when she drew close to him.

He was sick of living in fear.

“I do,” he breathed.

“Perhaps a dramatic lesson is exactly what you need,” she said just as softly.

“Clear proof of how things truly are, hmm?” He’d never heard of object lessons for positive things. Now he smiled a bit crookedly. “Not that I’ll be quite at my best – when I was courting a consort before, I could offer some concrete tokens of my regard. I suppose I’ll have to make do without, now.”

“A key part of the experience?” she asked, voice thick with amused irony.

“There was more to my life with them than the physical act of sex,” he said just as archly. “But if I can’t do what I want, I’ll do what I can, hmmm?” He reached over to nudge her nose with a fingertip, grinning. “Isn’t that what you’ve been trying to get through my skull?”

“More or less,” Rima chuckled, and nuzzled his finger. “Or at least that’s an important part of it. So what can you do, then?”

What he did, first, was cover the light. She’d already got a few good looks at him, and for his part, he liked exploring a new partner with other senses than sight. There was another reason he liked the dark, but it wasn’t quite relevant yet.

The wrap he had on now was a simple thing, not at all like the many-layered things he wore by habit in the Deep. It was swiftly and easily set aside as he made his way back to the faint shimmer of a living being in his stone-sense. The rustle of cloth told him she was following his lead.

He brushed past her, fingers brushing her shoulder, tail trailing against her side; and as he sidled around her, her tail curled in against his. It was a good, comfortable feeling; and as they stepped past one another, he caught a whiff of her scent.

Scent was easy, comfortable. It was the sight of her that he’d found so hard to separate from the memory of anger and hatred. The scent of her – feminine, clean, in every way appealing – didn’t awaken any of those feelings.

No, the scent of her was quite welcoming indeed.

Turning, he brought his fingers upwards. It was common enough to keep one’s jewelry with a lover. The only such piece left to Jisarr was one that would have been awkward at best to remove, to say nothing of conspicuous in its absence. Rima didn’t have a great deal of such ornamentation herself, just that circlet – would she have set it aside with her clothing, or…? No, his fingers brushed metal as they slid over her brow, moving on to caress her ear, then down to rub behind it. She leaned into the contact with a pleased sigh, ear flicking just a little.

Once his tail had slid past and free of hers, he turned inward, slipping in right behind her, hands spreading against her sides. She wasn’t particularly large as Crandil women went, but under the fine fur she was surprisingly heavyset, quite muscular – one wouldn’t have known by the feel of her that her life’s work was of the mind. It made for quite a contrast to the relatively sedate lovers he’d had in the past. He slid his arms around her and pulled in a bit closer, hands splayed over her chest, taking in the feel of her, with his tail coiling loosely around their legs.

Her tail was a bit more direct. It slid between his legs and curled up along his back and over his shoulder, and as it wrapped around his body it also pressed up against his balls.

Groaning, he pushed up against her that much harder, feeling himself stiffen against her thigh. She responded with a soft chuckle, twisting somewhat in his arms, nuzzling over his ears. Her warm breath wafted over them as she whispered, “There you are.”

So she liked the feel of him hardening against her leg, did she? Maybe he’d been going about this the wrong way – instead of a stately sort of dance, perhaps he ought to try something more direct in turn. “Here I am,” he panted. “Would you care for a closer examination?”

“I rather think I would,” she purred. When his grip on her relaxed, so too did her tail loosen around him, and as she stepped forward and turned to face him, that sinuous length drew between his thighs, sliding against his pouch all the way.

By the time it pulled free of him completely, there was definitely a crimson glimmer starting to awaken on his stiffening flesh. It wasn’t enough to make anything else visible, not even in the pitch darkness, but as the only light present it certainly drew eyes quite well – hers as well as his, to judge by the pleased sound she made even before her fingers found his shaft and curled around it, thumb giving a nudge to the hoop that pierced him.

If she made any further sound at that point, it was obscured from his ears by the rumbling groan slipping from his own throat.

She didn’t quite block out all the glow – not where it went up onto the crown of his shaft, certainly. What was visible of the rest came and went as she stroked him, coaxing him all too willingly to full attention, by which point he was glowing bright enough to make a faint corona of red fur visible around her fingers.

“Feeling somewhat more comfortable now?” she murmured over his ears, giving his length a good, firm squeeze.

“Somewhat,” he replied with a laugh, rocking against her fingers. “Though I can think of a way to be even more so.”

“So can I.” And with that, she slung her free arm around him and tugged him bodily toward the bed.

They landed in a tumble, tails twisting together, and then she was every inch in control. She wound up atop him, nose to nose, and moments later she was around him, wet heat wrapping around the crown of his shaft and plunging onto him. It was so sudden, so unexpected, that he let out a rather undignified squeak – but he wasn’t about to actually complain. He mustered what leverage he could and rose to meet her.

She rode him for a delicious stretch of time, then they tumbled over and he was on top, with her hands on his hips urging him into an even brisker rhythm. Then on their sides, squirming together – and it was then that she gripped his shoulders strong enough for her claws to dig in through his fur, bit down on the scruff of his neck, and squeezed hard around him.

That was all he needed. He shoved in as deep as he could, muffled a cry against her shoulder, and set to pumping into her.

It was intense, but also fairly quick; a half dozen breaths later, he lifted his head somewhat, nuzzling at her jaw, as the rhythms of his body began to slow. She was still trembling against him, but calming as well; so he drew a hoarse breath and said, “That was not at all like my usual. But if you enjoyed it half as much as I, I should be proud of it. Thank you.”

“Oh, I enjoyed it quite well indeed,” she purred, stroking his ears. “You’ve a good feel to you, a good rhythm, and by the Deeps,” she laughed, “with what you’ve been up to of late, I’m half-surprised you had so much in you!”

A surge of guilt swept through him; he reflexively tried to keep it off his face, but didn’t feel entirely successful, moot though the darkness made it. “I… possibly should have ensured Dren was comfortable before indulging myself.” He took another breath, and shook his head. “But surely if there was an emergency, even with what we had planned for this piece of time, Tavi would have found a way to make it known.”

“A tap at the door would have given me plenty of notice to gently disengage,” Rima concurred, ruffling between his ears. “Your concern does you credit; you count an obligation to him, and you want to do right by him.”

For all she’d said some cycles back of being envious, at least she wasn’t viciously jealous. “I do, on both counts,” he granted, pushing himself up a little and giving his hands room to move, sweeping over her chest, gently kneading. “But by all that is dear, I haven’t had someone so unambiguously eager for me, specifically, in far too long. I missed it more than I knew.”

“Is Dren not so eager as that?”

There was something in the willworker’s voice that spoke of serious concern, so he gave it serious thought. “Not in quite the same manner, I don’t think. Oh, I’ve been convinced that it’s not only a physical urge that drives me to him, but…” He shook his head. “He simply hasn’t been that energetic. It’s a small difference, really…”

“Perhaps he needs to know you truly want him,” Rima offered. “As a lover and not only an obligation.”

That sounded very close to what Tavi had said about the sort of lover Dren deserved. Jisarr sighed. “I don’t know what else I could do to convince him that my interest is genuine. I can’t rightfully say I don’t feel that obligation, but I do miss the time he and I had together. It hurts me to see what he’s reduced to, though thank the Deep Ones he’s not such a dim shadow of himself as he was.”

“Well,” she chuckled, “are you convinced that I’ve developed some fondness for you?”

He couldn’t help but laugh in turn, rocking a little against her, his still-mostly-firm member stirring inside her. “I’d be rather a fool to doubt it.”

“So maybe you could treat him to that,” Rima suggested. “Leave no doubt in his mind that you truly desire him, and see how he responds.”

That… was a shocking thought. At first, when the compelled need was so strong in Dren, Jisarr would never have considered it – there was no way he could be certain that Dren really wanted any of it; he hadn’t truly been in a state to consent. Or so Jisarr had thought. But Dren had refused his advances once since…

Rima touched his nose gently. “Maybe you need a chance to be normal with him. Go to the market – never mind your means,” she cut in when he drew breath. “I have some silver set aside, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Tavi has a fund she’d think it quite proper to tap for such as this. For even a small chance that this will bring both of you nearer to some semblance of normal, it’s well worth it. See what there is to see, bring him something, court him – and then remember that he is not made of porcelain.” Her lips brushed against his brow. “Fondness cracked the despair he’d walled himself in. It may be that passion – not lust alone, but something deeper and more personal – is what he needs to tear down what remains.”

In the darkness, Jisarr blinked. Could he truly have been going about this in precisely the wrong way? He’d been so careful with Dren – could it be that what he needed to be was, if not reckless, at least not quite so cautious? To accept that, yes, Dren wanted him, and not be so worried about taking some pleasure out of it himself?

To accept that he deserved Dren’s good regard, that he wasn’t unworthy of it, instead of maligning the man’s choice by thinking he might be wrong in making it?

Epiphany struck with all the force of a mailed fist and left him very nearly as dazed. “I understand,” he whispered. “By the deeps, I think I truly begin to understand.”