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.

He couldn’t deny, now, that Dren enjoyed their intimate contacts. He pursued them too eagerly for that – not just his own pleasure, but Jisarr’s – and even did so when the delirious urgency was past. But nevertheless, could he ever be sure that the man would have wanted it if not for those accursed marks on him? Was Dren truly in a state that he could refuse?

Jisarr’s word had condemned him to that fate. Now he was reaping its rewards, and the thought made him feel filthy.

He set down a hefty stack of folded blankets, and flinched when a hand touched his arm. It was, of course, only Tavi; his ears pinned back in embarrassment at the overreaction. “Yes?”

“That’s enough for now,” she said. “It’s been some hours since you paused for refreshment, and something is obviously troubling you. Come, sit; we can address both at once.”

After the harsh words of the morning, the tender concern was almost unsettling. But he did have to admit that he’d needed to be shaken out of his stasis. It had stung at the time – and not just physically – but it had got him moving. So he followed her, and brought goblets and platter to the side table while she fetched food and drink.

Astil wine, he mused, turning his goblet in his fingers. He’d drunk it often enough and for long enough – several years, anyway – that he had no chance of putting a figure to it, and yet he had hardly any idea what went into making it. He knew where the astil farms were, roughly – under and to the east of the city, in a cavern whose main feature other than the farms was the steam vent the astil thrived on. But after that, he knew next to nothing.

He took a sip. A little tart, a little sweet, and rather more alcoholic than either. He’d drunk enough to place the simple, smooth flavours as a recent vintage, and it was also the way he liked it; he’d not sampled so thoroughly as to make sense out of the complicated notes of older wines, and they didn’t suit his palate anyway. “I wonder,” he mused, setting the goblet down, “if I could at some point visit the winery, learn how they do their work. I find myself… a bit curious as to how the things I’m so familiar with actually came to be.”

“That’s not a poor thought,” Tavi replied, quartering the bread and the meat laid atop it with two deft trokes of a knife, forming four slices each as large as a spread hand. “But I doubt something so pleasant is what was weighing on you so. Hmm?” She selected a wedge for herself.

“Not hardly.” Sighing, Jiarr took the piece on his side of the platter. Best not to dissemble or delay, he figured. “I want to do right by Dren. He deserves it and more. But I have trouble knowing what ‘right’ is. Isn’t it… rather questionable, to say the least, that I have as consort someone who is enspelled to such… unnatural heights of desire?”

She considered him for a few long moments; then, reaching for her own glass, she said, “You mean, would he desire you if not for that.”

He opened his mouth to protest, to say that there was a greater concern, a point of right and wrong, but the wrench in his gut brought his words up short. Yes, there was a point of ethics there. Yes, it was worth thinking about. But under that, there was a more selfish concern. She was… close to right.

He stared down at the table, at the sliced bread and meat with the alternate quarters taken. If it was an omen or metaphor for something, it wasn’t one that he could interpret. He swallowed, and pushed out the words, “Does he truly fancy me at all?”

“Hmm?” Even without looking up at her expression, the surprise in that utterance was plain. “Without meaning to be crass, I gathered that he’d shown a rather marked interest – ”

“In me?” he challenged. “Or am I merely the nearest convenient person whom he – for some reason – doesn’t associate with pain, with being forced to perform?”

“He certainly hasn’t been as affectionate with Arrin,” she said, and there was a bit of dryness in her voice.

He blinked, looking up. The name was common enough, but he had no idea to whom she was specifically referring. “Arrin?”

“A male colleague of mine. He was by earlier, while you were sorting books. He examined Dren, gave him food and a cursory grooming, would have been willing to do more – but although Dren suffered his touch better than my mere presence, it wasn’t exactly gladly.” Tavi took another sip of wine. “Dren was… far more uncomfortable about his condition than I gather he has been with you. Physically, there was desire, Arrin said – but Dren was fighting it all the while, and was stiff to any tender touch, even that a friend or a brother might use.”

JIsarr’s heart skipped a beat. That he was there, that he was male, didn’t seem to be the sole reason Dren coupled with him, then. But why in the darkest deeps would Dren be so interested in him, of all people? By all the sense he could make of anything any more, Dren should have been happy to have a consort who hadn’t subjected him to two years of misery. Yes, if he was honest with himself, it would have stung to be replaced thus – but it would have been right.

“Jisarr.” Tavi’s hand settled atop his, curled around the stem of his goblet. “You’ve done a good portion of work today, and if your body isn’t showing much strain of it, your mind is. Besides, you are a guest here. Be content, for now, with what you’ve done. As of the last report, Dren is sleeping peacefully – more so than you did last night, certainly. Go to your quarters and relax. You seemed interested in those books – I can bring one for you?”

He tried to hide a grimace. She was right; he’d been fraying under even the simple tasks he’d been doing, and was making mistakes. It might indeed be best if he didn’t push himself to the point that he made more. “You may be right. A history, perhaps?”

“A sound choice and I would not refuse it,” she said with stilted care. “But if I might make a suggestion – divert yourself with something a touch more pleasant. A tale, perhaps, something calculated to inspire, not a recounting of a past folly; you have enough unpleasant things in your mind without adding to them.”

Well… if she said it, it was probably worth trying. “You seem to know my mind better than I do,” he admitted. “So I will try what you suggest.”

Tavi lifted a second quarter from the platter, then nudged it, with the last quarter, and his goblet toward him in clear invitation. “Come, then. Settle yourself, and I will find one for you; I think I know something suitable.”

A more confident statement than he could hope to make. He sighed. “Thank you. I don’t wish to be a… a difficult patient…”

“Hush.” She cupped a hand behind his head to pull it down slightly, nuzzling at his brow. “You’ve had a difficult life. It is my duty, my calling, to see you well; the day you can stride through my door with confidence and not need to return, it will all be worthwhile.”

As she drew away, her touch seemed to linger; he lifted his hand, touching the spot on his brow where her snout had made contact. It brought up… something. Some memory that had lain buried for so long, he’d forgotten it was there, the details too indistinct to identify. He’d felt such, long ago, as the count of his life reckoned such things… from whom? But no name, no face, would come to his mind. All that did, was that it felt… good.

A more comfortable thing than had attended him these last few nights, for certain.

He sighed and forced himself back into motion, picking up the platter as invited. “Healer… you mentioned something for peaceful sleep…”

“I’ll make a draught for you,” she said instantly. “It won’t take long, but it loses its potency quickly; ring for me when you are soon to prepare for sleep. I’ll have the ingredients measured, so it won’t take more than a few minutes.”

“Thank you,” he said again, shivering. Whatever the message of his dreams, however much truth there was in it, the thought of going a night without them was such a relief.

With food in one hand and his half-full goblet in the other, he followed the healer back to his suite. Truth be told, it was more comfortable eating there – or, more specifically, eating on his own – than with her right there beside him; silly as it was, he’d felt a bit awkward eating in company. By the time he’d reduced the food to crumbs, Tavi tapped at his door, delivering a book as promised; he took it to a comfortable chair, let his tail nestle in its nook, and turned the first page.

He’d thought he would find it difficult to get going, but the words drew him in; he kept reading, pausing only to reach over and sip his goblet, as time and pages went by. At fifth watch, with him having been up something over half a day since his restless awakening at half of first, more food came; he slid a strip of cloth between the pages and put the book aside to eat, and when that was done, he rang – first, to ask after Dren.

“Resting, still,” Tavi reported. “Arrin is tending him for now. He’s eaten, and seems content to sleep now.”

“Then I should probably follow his example soon, after I bathe,” said Jisarr.

She flicked her ears forward in affirmative. “I’ll have your draught ready in an eighth of watch, then.”

Half an hour; that was about enough. “Very good, thank you.”

The warm water felt good, not only carrying away the dust of the day, but soaking heat into his muscles and chasing away the aches he’d been carefully trying to ignore. Tavi’s timing was good; he’d just stepped out of the water and was towelling himself dry when she rapped at the door again. For a moment he thought he heard a voice in the hall… but no, that wasn’t someone who’d be calling on him. Well, it wasn’t as though she hadn’t seen him in a worse state. “Enter,” he called.

She eased the door open, leaning through it. “Jisarr,” she said in an oddly strained tone, “if you can spare a few moments before you rest, you have a visitor.”

“I do?” He blinked, casting about for a robe; very informal, but quick, and at least better than a towel. “That’s… that’s fine, I’m not so very weary yet.”

She nodded, and pointed; as he followed her gaze and hustled over to the pegs, she turned, fixing whomever was beyond with a stern look. She first etered alone, setting a small tray down – it held a bottle and two fresh goblets, as well as a smaller flask; easy to tell which was which. “When you’re ready, just drink the whole dose; it’ll stay strong for half the watch. And you – just… remember.”

“I will,” said his yet-unseen visitor, and he stiffened.

So it was that he was still standing there, one hand keeping the towel around himself and the other clutching a thick grey robe, when she entered. Cinnabar red, clad in black with yellow trim, a silver circlet set with a large, gleaming topaz about her brow – he swallowed. “I – er – I hope the day finds you well?” By the Deep Ones, what else could he say to her?

She saw him, and for a moment she stared, ears turning forward; then they flicked back, and she averted her eyes. “Well enough,” Rima said. “Forgive me, I – I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

She was asking him to forgive her? For a mere social misstep such as seeing him fresh from his bath? He shrugged into the robe and tied it around his waist. This was becoming a strange day.

He paused long enough to hang the towel from a peg instead – there was no need to be slovenly – and hurried across the floor to the side table where the tray waited. He put the flask of medicine aside and lifted up the other. “Please,” he said, gesturing to where a few chairs waited to either side of a lower table, “sit.”

She flicked her ears, and sat. No protests, no growling, not even a glare; she just sat, as any guest might.

Sitting opposite her was almost unnerving. But stronger than the anxiety, stronger than the confusion over the sudden shift in attitude, was curiosity. Twofold curiosity: what had mellowed her antipathy, and why was she here?

There was only one way to find out.