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.

Someone moved near him, and he yelped as a hand gripped his shoulder – but it was just a normal hand, its grip gentle, and no stink of blood assailed him now. “Tavi,” he gasped, and swallowed. “Forgive me. I thought…”

“You thought I was some phantasm from your dreams,” she supplied, sitting on the edge of the bed. She sighed. “Whatever assails your mind so can only do you ill, Jisarr. Put your mind to ease and your sleep will be more restful.”

A simple thing to say. Unfortunately, he hadn’t the slightest idea how to appease his conscience. He sighed in turn. “If it were so easy…”

“It’s the fifth hour; do you need more sleep still? I’d only meant to deliver a change of clothing – I can fetch a draught to keep your sleep peaceful, if you’d rather that than speak of what ails you.”

“No…” He shook his head. “I’ve slept enough.” At her coaxing, he told her of his recent dreams – the ever-growing torrent of blood, the jeering voices that sealed him into the pit as it filled; and now the corruption of those who came near him.

For a moment she was silent. Finally, she said, “It would be an insult to you to tell you these images are born of your own guilt. But I must caution you that such guilt can destroy you, if you allow it to run its course.”

“And what of it, if it does?” he spat. “I don’t need their message any more than I needed Rima’s scorn. I know the depths of what I’ve done. I also know I’ve not an ounce of worthwhile skill with which to make amends. I could struggle for years without even denting that debt – and what more harm might I do in the interim? No.” He slumped, staring into the shadows at the far corner of the room. “I will not seek my own demise, but I’m not so sure it wouldn’t be the swiftest course. A great many people could have their justice, if only I were bold enough to offer it.” Which, of course, he was not. Another failure to add to the miserable tally.

She said something, but her words were soft, his mind deep enough in the whirl of thought that he didn’t make it out, and she didn’t repeat it, whatever it was. When she spoke again, more clearly, it was to say, “Dren needs you still. None other has been able to get him to – ”

“Dren woul be hale and whole if I’d only spoken for him years ago,” Jisarr snapped, resentment surging in him. She’d grasped the knife that was in him deepest and given it a hard twist, with that name. “If I hadn’t had him sent to the deep cells – ”

“Then what?” The healer shook his shoulder, hard enough for it to jar his bones. “The city at large might not know how ruthless were the Dukes, but I’ve been in the palace, part of its life, enough to know what happens to those who cross them. No matter their rank. They thought you a puppet – if you’d cut the strings, do you truly think they would have simply let you take over from them?”

“Of course not!” He shuddered, remembering, feeling all over again, that cringing terror that had kept him in line. “But I should have tried – I should have stood for something, not – ”

Suddenly he was sent reeling back against the bedframe, jaw smarting from the blow that had fallen across it. It was all he could do to keep from biting down on his tongue, never mind speaking further.

“Only a fool throws his life away for nothing,” Tavi growled. “If you had displeased the Dukes, you would be dead, and Dren might have died of neglect before anyone realized he was there. It would not have been better. If you truly wish to make amends for the past, little emperor, you’ll find it difficult if you don’t actually know what needs mending.” She got up to her feet. “Think of that, if you must sit here thinking yourself into oblivion. But when you’re ready to find something useful to do, your new clothing is on the seat there.”

And before he could even put his thoughts in order, she was gone, the door latch clicking shut behind her.

Jisarr sank back onto the mattress, staring up at the ceiling. He’d lived under that terror for so long, he’d almost stopped noticing it. Even when it had eased, he hadn’t consciously realized it until he was reminded of what it had been like to be afraid. And that brought back with it the sickening shame – the knowledge that every time he said what was expected of him, someone suffered for it. How many lives had been ruined by his own desperate desire to keep his own?

Still… what was done, was done. She was right about one thing for certain: he’d be doing no good just lying here and brooding. Maybe he might never put everything to right, but he certainly wouldn’t put anything to right if he didn’t try.

He swung the sheets back and then froze. When had he even pulled them atop him? He supposed he might have done so in his sleep… but either way, he’d been naked when Tavi had come in here.

Ears burning, he padded over to the chair that had the promised pile of cloth on it. It was, as mentioned, simple fare – a loose wrap, a cloak to go over it, sandals on the floor under the chair. The cloth was a deep red like imported grape wine from the surface; definitely cut loose, but that was better than the other way. He gathered it around himself with not too much extra fabric to tuck in. Feeling mildly guilty for the fit of petulance that had left his other clothing scattered about, he gathered that into a tidy bundle and deposited it in the hamper for later attention, fastening his borrowed cloak with the royal brooch.

Well. As Tavi had said, he ought to make himself useful. With what?

He might offer to help with the domestic tasks – he was not expert at them, but the basic ones, at least, ought not to require too much expertise anyway. But perhaps he ought to show some initiative, first.

After all, there was one thing he’d already agreed to do.

When he tapped at the door to what he was fairly certain was Dren’s room, he didn’t hear an immediate reply – that, of course, was to be expected. He did hear a bit of movement, though, and could sense someone abruptly moving about slightly. He tested the latch – it gave way under his thumb, and he eased the door open slightly, enough to peer through.

Dren was perched on the side of the bed, ears canted toward the door, apprehensive. He relaxed slightly when he saw Jisarr, ears spreading out to the sides, tail curling in what might have been a friendly gesture, or simply one of ease. Either way, Jisarr took it as a sign that he was willing for company, and slipped in the rest of the way.

He’d intended to be good. He started with a cursory grooming, smoothing bed-mussed fur. Somewhere through that, a tray was delivered – stocked for two; his duties had not gone unnoticed, apparently. He fed the other man, who was content to lie sprawled across his lap and eat voraciously, and snuck bites of his own in between.

But as the meal went on, Dren, it seemed, wasn’t content with that. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, not with the way his arousal jutted proudly over him, green traceries glowing bright on blue skin. And it wasn’t, really; it wasn’t really a surprise when Dren wriggled up against him, one arm curling around him just under the shoulers, head craning for the nest bite, even as his other hand sli up the inside of Jisarr’s thigh.

Well. He’d agreed to tend to that need, after all, if that was what it took.

He coaxed Dren to lie back, undoing his cloak one-handed, getting that hand free, then swapping to loose the other one; all the while he kept a hand roaming that slender body, working its way down. Dren deserved the proper attention of a lover, after all. Jisarr would not keep his desire waiting, but nor would he rush too swiftly to the conclusion if he could avoid it.

He’d wriggled free of the wrap and nudged it aside, and slipped his feet from the sandals, by the time his fingers curled around Dren’s length. Dren bucked up into his grip, trembling, lips slightly parted – though they let no sound free, Jisarr could almost perceive the moan that wanted to escape anyway. And for all Jisarr tried to vary things, to slip down to stroke Dren’s pouch, to lap from base to tip at his shaft… well, he hadn’t done that more than thrice when he felt Dren surge under him. It was enough warning that he could grab the smaller male’s shaft, could set his muzzle against it, could let Dren’s seed splash over his tongue.

But this time Dren wasn’t so swiftly appeased. Even before he’d quite calmed down from his own pleasure, he rolled, pushing against Jisarr with a strength that caught him quite off guard, bearing him face-up against the bed. He took hold of Jisarr’s length – quite rigid, today, will he or nill he – and assailed it with lips and tongue, swallowing half of it or so, lashing all of it with firm, wet strokes, or troking the soon-slickened flesh, or dabbing the ring through its head with the tip of his tongue.

He was relentless, and he was good. The hunger he showed would have been arousing even on its own, but he knew just how much pressure to apply and when – and when to back off, to leave him quivering for want of more sensation.

Only for the first few moments had Jisarr been inclined to resist. Then he surrendered to it; if Dren wanted to pleasure him, then by the Deep Ones, he would let himself be pleasured. The man deserved a full and honest response, not some stilted, emotionless physicality. Some corner of his mind still felt guilty to know that Dren’s need was spurred on by artifice – but that wasn’t enough to keep his pleasure from crashing down on him, to keep him from giving voice to the cry that Dren could not, shoving up against the smaller male’s strong, stroking tongue, shivering through and through as Dren milked out his seed in sticky white streaks over his belly.

As he caught his breath, Dren cuddled up against his shoulder, nuzzling the side of his neck. He buried his nose between Dren’s ears, inhaling the scents of fine herbs and the underlying, sharper scent of the cleansers that had been applied to Dren’s fur. And he knew for certain that he should never have let Dren be without a proper lover’s touch for so long. Even if he couldn’t have kept Dren out of the vaults for good, he could have visited, could have eased his ordeal…

He sniffed, and swallowed back a worse sound. No. He could mourn for time lost on his own time. Dren deserved whatever happiness he could muster.

Both of them needed that aborted grooming, now; it was time again for the bath, an this time Jisarr was a bit more a participant. Not only because of the need to wash his seed from off his belly before it dried there; it pleased Dren to make him feel good, to tend to him, so he swallowed his guilt and let it happen, let some appreciative sounds slip free.

He was initially somewhat surprised, but quickly realized he shouldn’t be, to find Dren rigid again, ready and eager for more. He himself was still feeling the traces of his earlier pleasure, his equipment not quite willing to rise again; so he just curled an arm around Dren, leaned back with him against the wall of the sunken tub, and with his free hand squeezed out another eager climax, streamers of white twisting in the water for a few moments before the flow carried them away.

After that, after they had both dried as much as they could, Dren was content to doze. And, perhaps, to digest; he’d devoured the larger part of the tray’s contents. Dressing again, Jisarr took the empty tray with him and slipped out, meaning to ask both what to do with it and where he might get a few more mouthfuls for himself.

He found Tavi in the foyer. She fixed him with a sharp gaze that brought him up short, that made him remember the bitterness of earlier in the morning; he swallowed. “You were right,” he croaked. “I need to at least try to do what I can, or it’s no goo at all. What else might I do?”

One of her brows lifted. “I’m not so certain you gleaned my true meaning, there,” she drawled. “But it’s a start. Come; if humble toil will help to put you at ease, there are always sundry tasks to be done.”

There was plainly something more she had in mind for him, for his “treatment”, but he could not, however he tried, see the direction she was taking it. The next few hours brought no insight – but at least they helped to take his mind off of the past, at least for a little.