“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.”

“Semarr!” he gasped. The russet-furred female had been the most willful of his willworker consorts, the most prone to unorthodox thought. He hadn’t seen her since before the assault on the Deep had begun, and had worried, in some free moments, that the Dukes might have done something to her before they were taken. “By the Deepest, is she well?”

“Yes, yes, she’s quite well indeed. Well enough to give me a blistering talking-to,” Rima answered in a dry tone. Her voice grew somewhat more subdued as she went on, “She is with child.”

It was hardly the first time he’d heard such news. After all, he’d been kept rather busy in the last few years – none of his issue had been officially named his heir, not least because most of them had been with the trio of willworkers. It wasn’t even the first time he’d sired a kit with Semarr. Yet it still sent a rush of joy through him – which he bit back, hard, on seeing Rima’s expression.

It was no shock that she’d be wistful. She, after all, would never have children of her own.

What could he say? He was delighted to hear that Semarr was doing well, not at all displeased that she had conceived, and didn’t think she’d be unhappy with that either – she might even get the chance to be more involved in raising the kit, now. But it would hardly be tactful to express too much happiness over that last piece of news. Besides, it was her welfare, not her issue, that had him most pleased. He took a breath, trying to school his emotions.

A hand curled around his, around the stem of his goblet. “You don’t need to check yourself quite so thoroughly. If I find myself wanting a kit in my life, I can seek out one who needs a parent; I’d be no less of one for the kit not being of my blood.”

He let out that breath. “I’m more glad to hear she’s well. I worried about that somewhat. That she’s healthy enough to be carrying a kit is additional good news, of course. But if I’m to be wholly honest, little though I mind siring a child, much though I hope any such child has a good life, my life is entirely too much of a shambles to be suited to fathering one.”

She laughed. “If you’d had the talent, you might have made a good willworker. To bend the minds of others, it’s important to first know your own. Seeing your own limitations is an important step, one that many aren’t able to do. Take care, though, that you don’t exaggerate them.”

Jisarr blinked. “Forgive me for being so blunt, but you’re not among the people I’d expect to tell me I’ve been too harsh on myself.”

“Know your own mind,” she repeated. “Semarr made plain to me that it was the position, not the person, to which I had an objection. I’ve had to look at my own thoughts and memories of the past few days, sort through what was tainted by that error.” She took a breath. “Thus, the apology. What I’ve seen of your deeds suggests a certain practical mixture of integrity and expediency, and the latter,” she paused, considering him for a few moments, “rather unwilling. Combine that with what I’ve heard, and I could be somewhat envious of those four.”

“Four?” Again, he blinked. “Freia, Luka, Semarr…”

“Dren?” she supplied, almost purring the name. “To be sure, he’s paid a heavy price, but he certainly seems to have bought your loyalty with it.”

Oh. It wasn’t the women he’d sired kits on that she was talking about – it was his consorts.

Suddenly he remembered the intensity of her gaze when she’d walked in and seen him.

She… couldn’t possibly fancy him?

“Why the surprise?” she queried, still in that purring tone. “One of my grievances with the old system was that the monarch’s seemed to be selected more for looks than merit. It would seem I only erred in assuming they were exclusive of one another.”

He swallowed. “This is… a more abrupt change than I’m accustomed to in anyone.”

“You thought me among your staunchest enemies,” she translated, and paused to sip her wine. “One of our first and foremost lessons, Jisarr, is to recognize when we are not being rational. One of our most important abilities is that to shut away unwanted patterns of thought. We may be most known for using this on others, but so long as we remember to use it, it’s very valuable for thinking clearly.”

Draining the last of her cup, she stood; when he rose as well, to show her out as he had some notion a proper host ought, she leaned in close, one hand cupping under his jaw. “Think on it,” she murmured, breath stirring his whiskers. “I certainly will be. The more I hear of you, the better a prospect it sounds – and it seems that you need a few more people willing and able to tell you of your own virtues.”

And before he could recover his composure, she was gone, the door latching shut behind her.

Blinking, he turned to the flask of medicine where it still waited. Half a watch, Tavi had said it would stay strong, but he had no desire to push that limit at all; it had been a wearying day, and the latest surprises didn’t help for that. He tried to consider Rima’s words, though. Especially those with which she’d parted. What, in fact, were his virtues?

Embarrassing as it was to think, he’d never actually been sat down and told what was virtuous. He’d gleaned bits and pieces from old stories, legends, songs – things that spoke of long-gone heroes. He lacked the courage those tales spoke of, to stand for what was right no matter the cost. He tried, at the least, to live honestly, and he longed to make amends for some of the people he’d harmed. He despaired of ever being able to do so, but if he could, he would at least try. That was virtuous, was it not?

With a shrug, he wiggled the stopper free. The draught within smelt plain enough, but it was sweet on the tongue, with a lingering aftertaste of bitterness; he chased it down with the last of his cup of wine, and then he hung up his robe, shuttered the lamp, and crawled onto the bed.

It wasn’t as though he had very much else to do with his days but think; he could do plenty of it after he slept.

Tavi’s medicine was as good as her word; the sheets drew him right down into peaceful oblivion. If he dreamt, he didn’t remember any of it; certainly not the horrors that had plagued him over the past few nights. When he woke, he was a touch sore from being in the same posture for too long, but no worse complaints than that.

He also had a hand on his shoulder.

Tavi’s scent was already familiar enough that even before he placed it by name, it wasn’t threatening. In point of fact, it felt rather nice, resting there; it was a gentle touch, one that didn’t seem to expect anything of him but his very presence under it.

When he stirred, twisting to look up at her, she gave that shoulder a light squeeze. “You seem better-rested than you have been,” she murmured.

“Greatly so. Thank you,” he sighed, shifting onto his back. “That concoction of yours seems to have worked quite well. How long was I asleep?”

“I can’t say when you took it, of course,” she shrugged, ears splaying, “but it’s been three full watches since Rima’s departure.”

“About that long, then,” he confirmed.

There was a moment of tense silence; then, “She didn’t disturb you in any way, did she?”

“No, no,” he assured her. “She was a… quite pleasant guest. Much more so than I was expecting, or, I think, prepared for.”

“Good.” One more pat to his shoulder, and she drew back somewhat. “I’d no wish to disturb you, but there’s another who’s been very anxious to see you. Another willworker, by the name of Karo; he speaks for many of his kind here in Aynithral. Why he wishes to speak to you, specifically, he wouldn’t say, and I informed him that I’d not allow him to disturb your rest, but he’s been staying in the lobby, he and his cohort both.”

By the Deeps. Just when Rima seemed to have stopped being his foe, now he had to worry about another willworker. It seemed he hadn’t expunged his treatment of them quite yet. Still… “How is Dren?”

“Hale and healthy,” Tavi replied. “By last report, he’s at least eating and grooming for himself, but… as of a quarter of watch gone, somewhat restless.”

Jisarr grimaced at that. He had a good guess as to why Dren might be restless, after all. Will this… what was his name?”

“Karo. I’ll see that he waits long enough for you to do what you must.”

“I’ll do my grooming there, then,” Jisarr declared.

“Very well. I’ll have food, and your finery, delivered to his suite.”

And so it went. Anxiety somewhat blunted Jisarr’s response at first, and he made apology to Dren for it, even as he said he ought not to linger; yet when he actually had the taste of the other male’s arousal against his tongue, felt Dren’s need as the blue male pressed up into his touch, it was much, much easier to get into a more appropriate frame of mind, to enjoy the other man’s building pleasure, to savour the torrent of his seed cascading over Jisarr’s tongue.

And it was easy enough, by then, for him to enjoy Dren’s answering hunger, to stroke the other male’s ears and press up against the touch of fingers and tongue, to surrender to his own surge of pleasure as he fed Dren in kind.

After that, however, that other duty drew his attention. He washed as quickly as he might, and wound the many layers of his court garment around him in their accustomed order while he was still damp, and then threw his cloak over them and fastened it with the royal brooch. He took a roll from the tray – Dren’s hunger at least assured him that the rest of the meal would not go entirely to waste – and slipped into the hall while the other male was eating.

Karo turned out to be small for a Crandil man, though he had a presence to him that made that fact easy to miss. His ruby fur was immaculate, his clothing plain but well-made and well-kept, his topaz circlet balanced just so on his brow. He had an impatient air about him, and his emerald gaze on Jisarr was stern.

“So,” the man said, “this is the man with the right to Rod and Crown.” His head tilted up somewhat, ears canting forward.

“You have me at something of an advantage, sir,” Jisarr admitted. “Your name I’ve been told, but not the need you have of me.”

“The need I have?” Karo replied, and swung his arm out in a gesture toward the great door and the city beyond. “The City of Jewels needs its sovereign, and instead, what we have is a collection of provincial upstarts, and a band of surfacers who have not the slightest idea how any of us think! They claim to have our interests in mind, yet they keep you imprisoned here!”

Most of that outburst, Jisarr had no idea how to respond to, but the last caught his ear. “I am here for my health, sir,” he protested. “I am here because my time in the Deep…”

“Has left your mind as scarred as the city. Yes, I’m aware,” Karo cut in. “Yet I’ve no illusions on the matter. If you weren’t here, you would be languishing in a cell with Aynithral still run to the whim of outsiders!”

Jisarr wracked his mind for answers, but he still wasn’t sure just what it was this man wanted. “I’m almost as much an outsider as they,” he pointed out. “I don’t know the needs and wants of the city’s residents any more than they do — perhaps less.”

“That is what advisors are for,” was the impassioned willworker’s reply. He allowed himself to be briefly distracted by an offer of wine, but no sooner had he swallowed one mouthful than he put the cup down and went on. “This city has been led by Jisarr since the first tunnel was carved. In a time such as this, we need that tradition more than ever. We need the latest heir to the name to hold the Rod and wear the Crown. Not some gaggle of… of humans!”

“What is it you want me to do?” Jisarr demanded. The man seemed to be heaping so much upon him in the way of hopes and expectations that he was getting more confused by the moment.

“For the moment, I don’t expect you to do much of anything,” the man replied. “Your mind needs its proper time to heal; whatever ails it is no business of mind, but I’m well aware that such healing can be a delicate process.” He gulped down the rest of his wine, pausing partway through to add, “I only wanted to see, with my own eyes, that you were being treated well.”

“Better than I ought to expect, to be entirely honest.” Jisarr grimaced. “Enough terrible things have come about by my word that I shouldn’t expect unadulterated approbation.”

“Oh, but weren’t you aware?” Karo asked, rising to his feet. “All leaders must command terrible things, from time to time; that is the true price of power. Those unworthy to wield it are those for whom it’s no price at all. If you find yourself unable to pay it, now… that’s the proper time to name a successor. But it should be done according to our ways, not the ways of these… strangers.”

With that somewhat cryptic advice, Karo let himself out, the burly brown woman who was his escort falling in at his heels. Jisarr, perplexed by the whole encounter, returned to his quarters to try to puzzle it out.

The man wanted him to lead. Expected it of him. What did he know of leadership? He’d been valued by the Dukes only for being biddable; initiative was, in all likelihood, what had earned his father their wrath.

Oh, well. He’d also suggested seeking an advisor. Speaking as someone else taught him would hardly be new to him, if it came to that.

For now, though, he had quite enough on his table, trying to bring Dren back to some semblance of health, never mind mend himself of whatever damage it was that Tavi saw in him.

For the first, he could take action, at least so well as he knew how; if Tavi thought it was working, he would do it some more. So it was that he went to Dren’s quarters again.

Even if it was just as perplexing as ever that Dren still regarded him so kindly, Jisarr did have to admit, at least to himself, that the joy with which the younger man clung to him was comforting.

Here was a person who, oddly enough, wanted him for himself, enjoyed who he was. He wouldn’t need to transform into someone else, some ideal or paragon, to return Dren’s embrace, nor to smooth down his fur, to enjoy a proper meal with him. He didn’t need any fancy trappings to enjoy Dren’s wandering touch, and the blue man divested him of the ones he had quite eagerly, with many an errant stroke to ensure that his flesh was quite rigid, its normally-hidden markings glowing bright crimson, by the time it was brought into view.

Ignoring his own arousal, Dren instead nuzzled at Jisarr’s, lapping at his pouch, sniffing up along his length and trailing soft kisses all the way. He drew Jisarr into his muzzle with such eagerness, there was no denying that he enjoyed it. He wasn’t merely slaking the demands of his accelerated lust; he liked doing this, liked the grunts and moans that Jisarr let free, liked the way the dark male held his shoulders, the jerk of Jisarr’s member against his tongue, the rush of seed coursing down his throat.

He held Jisarr until well after Jisarr’s pleasure had faded, and even then, though his grip loosened, he made no further move toward his own pleasure.

Not that Jisarr intended to let that go unanswered. Even if it hadn’t been for his agreement to do so, it felt good to bring the other man a few moments of pleasure. Oh, he had doubts and worries about the situation that brought them together, no doubts there.

But if he left that aside, it felt good to have Dren’s hot flesh under his fingers, to caress it from one end to the other, gently at first, then with more vigour. It felt very nice indeed to have Dren pressing up into the contact, panting with excitement.

And to have him surge upward, his seed wetting Jisarr’s fingers, the scent of it filling his nose… that was exquisite. All the more so for not needing to rush off after; he could curl up with Dren, listening to his breath and heartbeat as they returned to their normal pace, then slowed a bit further still.

It was strange; Jisarr didn’t know that he’d ever understand why Dren enjoyed his presence so, after all that had happened. But he did, and though Jisarr might have misgivings later, it felt good to have Dren dozing against him.