Kaykolvayshti, the Rookery.  Since time beyond memory, the ancient stronghold was the capitol of one of the most powerful clans in Zarya.  Glowering over the usually placid waters of Lake Varipra from its island perch, the very air around it seemed steeped with the energy and memory of generations of Kaykolom.  Kara gazed down at the distant fortress seated where, it was said, Kaykolu the Raven Spirit last actually walked the earth, separating out those Raven who would follow the Sun Goddess’s path and those who would eventually become the sleek, black birds that roamed the skies.

Jurnia glanced at the slender man at her side.  Noting that his expression too closely resembled that of a man traveling to his execution, she frowned.  “It’s not that bad,” she complained.

The Lopayzom gave her one of those innocuous but irritatingly sunny smiles.  Having traveled with him for a couple of months now and given her new-found intimacy, she was starting to tell the difference between those smiles of his that only sat upon the surface and those that actually reflected some measure of internal happiness.

Her frown deepened.  “I’ll make sure it’s not that bad,” she vowed.

“Of that, I have no doubt,” Kara murmured, amber eyes remaining focused on the distant fortress below.  The two of them stood on a tree-scattered hillside, the forest giving way to meadowlands on the edge of cultivated ground.  Having wanted to keep the Raven Chieftain—and his mysterious ill-wisher—in the dark as to their arrival for as long as possible, the newly-married couple had kept off the road and traveled along little-known forest paths.  “It’s just that the last time I was here, I truly went no further than the town outside the Rookery’s gates.  This will be the first time ever I’ve actually crossed that bridge and been within the Rookery’s walls.”

Jurnia nodded, her emerald eyes shifting back to stare at what used to be home.  Though “home” was now wherever her husband was, a deep sense of melancholy filled her at the sight of the ancient stronghold.  Not only was the reality of her marriage sinking in just a bit more, but Kara’s words also brought to mind the grief-filled memory of her mother’s funeral.  The majority of the clan had held Chaiya in high regard; as a reflection of that, her funeral had taken place in town at the lake’s edge rather than on the far side of the Rookery’s island.  At least this time, I have a chance of making my final memory of home a happy one.  Though she certainly didn’t go as far as to tell herself that her father would openly embrace a Lopayzom son-in-law.  The vendetta might be officially ended, Iryasitru might have formally made peace with Arjunayazu, but the Raven Chieftain still harbored his anger somewhere deep down.

She shifted her travel bag on her shoulder.  “Well, we’re not accomplishing anything by standing here.  I want to get a real bath and sleep indoors tonight.  And I really want to show you around the Rookery.”  She smiled at Kara.

His answering smile was a bit weak.  Rolling her eyes, she turned and started briskly through the thick grass; after a moment, she heard the faint rustle of cloth, and knew he was following her.

“Some clans have been scattered or had to move their clan seat for various reasons, like political friction or natural disaster, but the Rookery’s been here as long as the Empire has,” she confided cheerfully.

“I heard that somewhere,” he murmured.

“It’s kept in perfect repair.  Some families are hesitant to improve on existing buildings, but the Kaykolom are quite proud of moving with the times and rebuilding to include new innovations,” she lectured on.  “The town started off as the camp for the laborers who first built the fortress, and it grew over time to include the farmers and other folk who support the Rookery.  When there are major renovations underway, some of the Rookery’s residents will move out and live in the town.”

“Mm,” Kara said noncommittally.

“The bridge is the main route into the fortress grounds, of course,” she continued.  “However, if you look, you’ll see that there’s a small dock near the bridge on either shore.  That’s for the ferry.  If the Rookery’s attacked in force, there are provisions made to sink parts of the bridge so that the enemy can’t use it.  The ferry can still be used to travel across the lake during or after the siege, until the bridge is repaired.”


“It can withstand a siege for at least five years.  There’s a well inside the walls, and many storerooms for food and other supplies.  If it’s fully garrisoned, there’ll be almost five thousand troops inside, with room to spare for the support personnel.”


“Are you hearing anything that I’m saying?”


The sound of her wooden sword catching him upside the head was similar to whock.  He toppled over sideways with a distressed “Ara?”

“Pay attention!” Jurnia admonished him.

“I was!” Kara yipped.  He stared at her with an expression of wounded pride while rubbing a hand against the spot where she’d hit him.  In light of her continued glaring he burbled, “It’s as old as the Empire, always repaired, renovated, with a ferry and a well in the walls.”

“The ferry isn’t in the walls,” she protested.

“You know what I meant!” he yelped, preparing to duck in case she decided to clonk him one again.

“Hrmph.”  Satisfied she truly had her husband’s attention, Jurnia turned and began striding towards the still-distant town.  “Anyway, it’s been proven to be one of the most impregnable fortresses in Zarya.  Never once has a force breached its defenses, and—”

“I could probably get in there,” the redheaded swordsman said, voice bland, conversational.

“As I was about to say,” the garnet-haired Herald chimed in, “though assassins have gotten in on occasion, those times have been few and far between.”  His words, however, made her think about what he’d said had been his adopted father’s purpose in raising the boy—and she shivered.  The thought of a Khuradasu hell-bent on Kaykolom destruction was a sobering thought indeed.

She looked sidelong at Kara, who was brushing bits of grass off his clothes.  He definitely didn’t look like a harbinger of doom right now, but a chill ran down her back at the thought of assassins creeping through the halls of the Rookery.  Only the thought that her message must have been received and her chieftain alerted to his danger kept her from running frantically down the hillside and across the basin of the lake valley to reach the fortress as quickly as possible.

Yet she still felt the urgency, the sense that time was growing dangerously short.  Though she didn’t break into a run, her strides became longer, anxiety flickering in her eyes.  It was already afternoon, sliding steadily into evening; it would be dusk before they actually reached the gates of the Rookery itself, winding their way through the farms that formed a patchwork on the rich soil of the large valley.

Amber eyes stayed focused on the Herald’s slender form as Kara hurried to keep up.  Something had unsettled her—that much was obvious.  Probably the reminder of what had been my intended fate . . .  Angry at the Demon’s Claw for being his wife’s likely source of upset, his own expression turned slightly grim as he dropped into that loping, distance-eating stride of his.

It took a few minutes for Jurnia to realize that something had changed in the immediate atmosphere.  From the corner of her eye, she could see Kara’s somber expression and the turmoil in his normally bright aura.  She started to open her mouth to ask him what was wrong, and hesitated as her mind ran back over their exchange and leapt to the first obvious conclusion.

“I’m not upset at you,” she said quietly, reaching over to take his hand.  “I’ve just . . . got a bad feeling, like time is running short.  I want to get to the Rookery as quickly as we can.”

He paused mid-stride.  “A bad feeling?” he inquired, head tilting slightly to one side in a characteristic gesture of questioning.

Jurnia halted as well, unwilling to let a sudden distance break her grasp on his hand.  “I can’t explain it any better than that—”

“No need,” Kara interrupted, his attention focusing for a moment on the distant fortress.  “I don’t get the sense of anything lurking about or on the prowl, but we are a good distance away still.”

“Then let’s go,” she encouraged, tugging on his arm.

He nodded and the newlyweds hurried forward, their paces covering ground at a decent clip while they remained hand in hand for a short while.  But eventually the need for haste outweighed their desire for continued contact.  Though Kara could easily outdistance his wife despite his slightly shorter height, he matched his pace to Jurnia’s.  Together they loped down the meadow-covered hillside, the long grass and wildflowers stirring in their wake.

Once they reached cultivated land, Kara slowed a bit to allow the Herald to lead the way.  Tended fields were a universal sign that one no longer traveled upon unclaimed, public land but rather upon private property.  Here on the ground that supported her home clan, Jurnia held the full authority of her office and her blood ties; it would be far easier for everyone for it to be obvious that the redheaded swordsman was there as Jurnia’s guest.

That the dark-haired woman was blood-kin became equally obvious the longer they traveled.  Families working the fields paused in their labor as the couple passed; the peasants’ hair and auras were very similar in hue to that of the woman Kara followed.  Greetings and gestures of welcome were given and returned warmly and cheerfully as Jurnia made her way closer to her former home.  It seemed as if everyone they encountered knew the Raven Herald on sight.

For the Lopayzom, it was both interesting and depressing.  He couldn’t help but wonder if this warmth and sense of belonging had been the lot of the Fox in better times, and some of the sense of loneliness and grief borne so long by his adopted father became clearer.  Yet there was also hope.  Both he and his father were now married; in time, perhaps, there would be more Lopayzom walking the earth.

They reached the outskirts of the town of Kaykolvayshti without incident.  Unlike most settlements built in support of a fortress, the town here was unwalled.  The explanation was simple enough:  since the Rookery itself covered the whole of the island and the lake was far too large for a city to encompass it and turn it into an enormous natural moat, Kaykolvayshti itself couldn’t fully serve the function of being the outer defenses of the citadel.  Should any force threaten the heartland of the Kaykolom, Kara was certain everyone would retreat to the island with whatever they could salvage and allow the settlement to be taken.  From what he could recall of his earlier visit, the town was little more than a permanent marketplace serving the fortress; most things of import would be located within the Rookery itself.

More greetings awaited them—or rather, awaited the slender Herald—as the couple walked along smoothly cobbled streets between neat squares of wood-framed buildings.  Here many of the structures were two stories, with shops on the bottom floor and living quarters for the merchants’ families above.  A number of public bathhouses were scattered throughout, allowing the frugal businessmen to save on the cost of private ones if they so wished.  The somewhat narrow lanes testified to the antiquity of the site, but the town wasn’t claustrophobic by any means.  And everywhere they went, people smiled, waved and called out a welcome to their chieftain’s representative.  For her part, Jurnia seemed quite alert and happy, returning greetings with easy familiarity.  The only people who offered her more formality than adding “Lady” or “Herald” before her name seemed to be merchants and travelers from out of town, recognizing her only by the welcome she was receiving from her kin.

Kara was receiving his share of curious glances, but no one seemed worried or alarmed by his presence at all.  Here, at the very heart of Kaykolom home ground, he could finally see exactly how much authority Jurnia commanded; indeed, he could almost feel it like a tangible thing, her hand spread out to protect and legitimize his presence.  He might have protected her through all their journeying, but the situation was reversed here.  It was not unreasonable to believe that a single word from his companion could exert more power than his sword.  Should someone make an attempt to harm Jurnia here, the entire town would defend her without hesitation—from the youngest child who could understand what she was, to the most feeble elder sitting quietly in the sun.

On the way through the market square, Jurnia suddenly let go of Kara’s hand and turned to neatly catch a pair of glossy red apples that had been tossed without warning by a grinning older fellow whose raven-black hair had gone gray at the temples.  The fruit seller laughed as Jurnia shot him a mock-chastising look before continuing on her way.  She passed one apple over to Kara and bit into the other with a contented sort of look.  “He’s been doing that since I was old enough to have decent coordination,” she said cheerfully.

“You’re very well-known here,” Kara remarked inanely.

“Well, this has been my home ever since I was born.”

“Everyone seems to know you, and they all seem very fond of you.”

Jurnia stopped in her tracks and turned a sharp stare on him; her voice was very low, meant only for the two of them.  “I know where you’re going with this, Kara.  I made my choice, remember?  Knowing what I was giving up, I chose you above all else.  Don’t trivialize my choice.”

His gaze slid away from hers, a silent acknowledgement of her words.  She gave a little nod and continued on up the street, her eyes now fixed on the Rookery, its outlines sharp and clear against the rapidly darkening sky.

She knew her chieftain and his routines.  At this moment, he would have finished his last workout of the day and bathed in the company of his men-at-arms, discussing the training session.  She didn’t even have to close her eyes to visualize him clearly; his black hair would still be damp, but his springy bangs would already be arching out towards his temples like wings, framing his high, broad forehead and echoing the distinctive, sharp lines of his eyebrows.  Dressed in clean, simple clothing, he would be walking from the soldiers’ bathhouse through the training yard, moving through the airy corridors of the fortress towards his private quarters with a preoccupied look in his violet eyes.  He always spent some time in his study at nightfall, going over the day’s paperwork, sometimes looking out the large windows to the small, private garden that was enclosed by the layout of the chieftain’s quarters.  This was the right time of year for his wife to be away visiting her elderly parents, though Jurnia knew that the woman had been quite ill for some time.  If she had indeed gone on her usual visit, she’d probably taken their children with her—all except Iryasitru’s heir, possibly.

Even the guards stay outside the doors of the chieftain’s quarters.  Irya likes his privacy.  But nobody else will be there, nobody except maybe his heir, and he always follows the same routine every day unless something major happens to disrupt it . . .

Without her conscious volition, Jurnia’s steps had quickened.  The sense of urgency pressed on her awareness, every beat of her heart whispering hurry, hurry, hurry.  He always followed the same routine, every single day, and simple observation or casual conversation with a servant could reveal that information.  He always spent time in his study, behind his closed doors, separated from his guards—

She was almost running now, her breathing coming in quick, short pants.  Irya was a creature of habit; she remembered years and years of watching him, following him, curious about this man who she had felt such a strange tie to.  When her mother had finally told her the secret, it had seemed like such a simple and obvious answer to the question that had plagued her.

Are you my father?

She had never asked him that question, never revealed that her mother had told her the truth, never called him “Father”.  He was always “Iryasitru”, or “Irya”, or “Your Grace”, or a number of far less polite epithets if they were arguing.  It was only in the absolute silence and complete privacy of her own mind that he was simply “Father”.

Anything that threatened him, threatened part of her as well, and Jurnia could not tolerate that.  He might be arrogant and high-handed and stubborn, but he was her chieftain and her father and she would not, would not, fail him.

“Hurry,” she whispered, and hardly knew that she spoke aloud.  Yet beside her, a constant figure in the corner of her eye, the small red-haired swordsman paced her without comment or complaint, matching her speed.

They passed through the massive outer gatehouse with no incident; the almost bored-looking Kaykolom warriors took the hint from the Herald’s hurried stride and let them pass with only cursory nods and bows.  Once through the L-shaped courtyard, they crossed the sturdy wooden bridge that linked the island to the mainland.  Kara’s amber gaze noted the subtle but telltale signs that confirmed what Jurnia had said about the bridge being constructed so that sections could be deliberately sunk.  He knew, as he crossed, exactly which sections would be destroyed and which would remain.

The far side of the bridge lead to yet another gatehouse constructed around an L-shaped, narrow courtyard.  More Kaykolom warriors stood easy guard; they too let their chieftain’s top-ranked herald pass with silent bows.  Thank the Goddess Heralds are known to be the most loyal of servants, Kara thought, his gaze straying to an appreciative observation of his wife’s backside as she hurried into the outer complex.

Something caught his attention then, and he abruptly stopped.  Shifting focus inwardly, he scanned outward for whatever it had been that had sparked in his awareness.

Jurnia took a couple paces more before she realized her redheaded shadow was no longer with her.  Coming to an abrupt halt, she whirled, prepared to harangue her husband for dawdling when time was of the essence—then froze the moment she caught sight of him.

Gone was any trace of the silly, clueless wanderer mask he wore in an attempt to convince the world he was harmless.  He stood with feet braced slightly apart, his body in a pose of stalking wariness, amber eyes scanning the distance like a predator searching for prey.  Had he been an actual fox, she would have sworn he’d be sniffing the wind for a scent.

“What is it?” Jurnia asked, dread filling her.

“The Chieftain’s quarters.  Where are they?”  The soft voice floated to her on a note of steel.

She flicked her eyes upward, scanning the skyline of the maze of buildings for the tall keep.  Sighting it, she pointed in its direction.  “Over there, between where we are now and the main keep.”

“Middle complex then,” the Lopayzom murmured.  He’d expected as much; most nobles tended to have their private quarters between the outer support staff and the military heart of a citadel.

“What is it?” she repeated, voice rising slightly in worry and insistence.

“There’s an aura too dim out there, like it’s trying to hide.  I’m getting the sense of something on the hunt.”  Kara fixed his wife with his amber gaze.  “Run.  Go warn the warriors assigned to safeguard the middle complex that there’s someone lurking about. I’ll track down this aura.”  I can move much faster without you.

For once, she didn’t argue or even hesitate to do as she was told—a rather significant indicator of just how much she trusted her husband.  She nodded once, caught his travel bag as he tossed it to her, and bolted for an archway.  If there was any part of the Rookery that Jurnia didn’t have permanently etched into her mental map, it would have to be a very small part.  She’d explored the place so often as a child that she could probably walk from end to end of it in her sleep.  Getting from the outer complex to the guard posts of the middle complex wasn’t going to take her very long at all.

Even as he felt her violet aura begin to move away, Kara gathered his spirit energy into a tight focus.  His own presence dimmed out to the faintest of flickers as his power was internalized and harnessed.  From a standing start, he leapt high into the air; his sandaled feet landed with the faintest of sounds on the tile roof of the two-story building next to him.  Another Avatar-empowered jump and he was perched atop the structure.  Locking mentally on his prey’s faint aura, he ran like the wind atop the roofs of the clustered dwellings and shops of the outer complex; fluid, superhuman leaps carried him across from structure to structure.

Had any of the Kaykolom glanced up and seen the little figure racing along the skyline of their ancient home, they would have only seen a faint blur of orange hair and green clothing.  The same mechanism that focused his power to limits beyond most Avatars also helped increase his stealth as he moved: his aura was contained like an eclipsed sun, showing only the dimmest of coronas; the outlines of his body were blurred and easily missed or ignored as a trick of the light; and his footfalls were as loud as snowfall.

He jumped from rooftop to rooftop, dashing across the porcelain tiles as sure as a mountain goat on a craggy hillside.  Sensing his prey’s growing anticipation, Kara prayed he’d arrive in time.


Iryasitru sat comfortably upon his favorite cushion in his study, his lean body clad in the somber, dark clothing he’d favored since Chaiya’s body had been brought home for burial.  Always a man of action and few words, he’d become even more of a cipher since then.  Many of the Kaykolom saw him as a man in quiet, perpetual mourning.

Eyes so dark they seemed pupil-less scanned over the writing upon the piece of paper he held; in brighter illumination, those same eyes betrayed their true color:  a green so dark it appeared black.  His still-drying hair hung loose to the middle of his back, the black highlighted in the glow of lightstones with an iridescent red.  Already his long bangs were dry, the locks fanned out around his handsome face in a manner reminiscent of outspread wings.

He held both a dark beauty and a charisma that encouraged loyalty and respect.  Though many clans now feared the quiet man peacefully reading in his study, those that knew him well—and his very own clan—viewed him in a very favorable light.  For nearly three decades he’d guided the Kaykolom ship of state well.  The only true blot upon his record was the relentless destruction of the Lopayzom in revenge for his younger sister’s murder.

The Raven Chieftain frowned slightly.  Setting the report back down on the low table resting on the mat-covered floor next to where he sat, he picked up another of the day’s correspondences from his kinsmen’s manors.  But his eyes remained unfocused even though he unfolded the letter; his attention was caught elsewhere by something sparking Avatar senses.

Something’s not right.  Irya’s frown deepened as he cast outward.  Something was up in the ancient fortress’s middle complex.  He could feel the growing unease and alarm in the somewhat distant auras surrounding him.  The opened letter was returned to the low-legged redwood table, unread.  Unadorned black silk whispered as the Raven elegantly rose to his feet.  Bringing Jurnia’s warnings to mind, he wondered if someone had somehow slipped in past his clan’s defenses and was even now wreaking havoc among his kinsmen.  Though such breaches were rare, they did happen.

Worried far more for his clansmen’s safety than his own, Irya walked over to the paper and wood panel covering the large window of the office.  Tugging it aside, he stood framed by the opening while scanning outward with all senses.

Nothing moved in the well-kept, peaceful garden there in the center of the chieftain’s complex.  High above, the sky was cloudy as twilight deepened; here and there a glimmering star could be seen through the clouds.  He sensed nothing near, though he could feel that those entrusted to the protection of the fortress were stirring in alarm; their distant shouts to one another confirmed they were on the hunt.

Never one to stand idly by, Irya was a man who truly led by example whenever possible.  Determined to assist his clansmen in hunting down the threat, the dark-haired chieftain was just beginning to shut the window and turn away when a sudden flare of battle-ready spirit energy caught his attention.  He instinctively looked toward the source of the sensation.  Someone stood braced on the roof of the building opposite where Irya now paused, the dark clothing blending into the late twilight sky.  The Raven’s dark green eyes widened in shock as the figure pointed an arm at him, the other hand coming up to grab near the wrist.

Irya knew what was coming.  The man was obviously an assassin and equipped with what amounted to a streamlined crossbow.  Built into a bracer and powered by a combination of spirit energy and spring-loaded mechanics, the weapon was capable of firing a thick, metal bolt through a wooden plank once it was discharged by pulling back on the heavy bracer.  Though the arm-bow was a one-shot only weapon, it was favored by the warriors of the shadows because it was not bulky and it was lightweight.

The bolt was already in flight.  Irya could do little more than slide a foot back to widen his stance and brace himself for the hit.  Fear flooded through him; few were the times he’d faced a situation so inherently lethal, and fewer still were those moments when he’d been caught so completely off guard.  But the panic was almost instantly gone as his warrior’s spirit took over.  If he was fated to die in this moment, he would die in a manner befitting a Kaykolom chieftain.

But the hit never came.  Just as he sensed the projectile was about to strike, a sudden blur of orange and green dropped seemingly from Heaven itself into the garden outside to intercept the bolt.  Irya watched, dark eyes wide in astonishment, as the blur slid back from the force of the hit.  Coming to a halt, the sight resolved itself into the image of a short, slender, girlish-looking man with orange hair pulled up in a warrior’s topknot, well-worn clothing in shades of green covering him, and a spreading stain of blood over the little swordsman’s right shoulder where the thick metal bolt was now embedded.

“Get back,” the redheaded stranger ordered, his voice just above a whisper but carrying easily nonetheless.  The steely tone easily matched the golden glow in his harsh, narrowed eyes.  “Get into the interior and get some of your kin around you.  He’s failed now, but if you present another opportunity right away, he may try again.”

Irya shook himself out of his stupor, instinctively stepping away from the window—but doing so in a manner where he could still observe the red-headed newcomer.

The little stranger kept his gaze upward, toward the place from where the assassin had struck.  Reaching up with his left hand, he firmly grasped the bolt sticking out of him.  With a war cry and a flare of sunlit Avatar energy, the young-looking swordsman yanked the short, stubby arrow out.  As the bloodied projectile fell to the ground, the stranger turned and gazed for a moment at Irya.

Those eyes were the most feral the Raven had ever seen, full of lethal power without being insane with bloodlust—a startling contrast to the youth’s otherwise soft appearance.  Nodding in approval, the redheaded youth turned his gaze away, staring back up at the roofline across the garden.  “Jurnia will be happy to see you are still whole and well.  Now retreat to a better-guarded place and await her.  I’ll see to keeping the assassin from escaping the Rookery.”  Golden power flared again—but still under such intense focus that Irya could get no sense of the young man’s clan—and the Raven watched in some amazement as the short Avatar raced across the garden.  With a graceful leap, the redhead landed on the tiles of the first story overhang.  Another leap took him to the top of the two-story structure; he swiftly disappeared in hot pursuit of the man who’d boldly attempted to kill one of the most powerful chieftains in the Western Province.

Irya retreated even further, mind still somewhat numb from the close call and the stranger’s appearance.  Grabbing up his own sword from where it rested against the wall, he stormed out of his study.  For now he would retire to the audience hall in the chieftain’s complex.  That the youth mentioned the Kaykolom Chief Herald made Irya certain of one thing:  the small, girlish warrior with the fierce eyes had to be the fabled Demon’s Claw; after all, Jurnia had mentioned traveling with Khuradasu for weeks now.  He’s certainly not what I expected, even with Jurnia’s descriptions of him.

Arriving in the audience chamber, Irya found it a center of some activity.  Already a number of the guards assigned to the middle complex were there; the chamber was the only entrance point for the chieftain’s quarters from the outside for those not determined to break through a window or a wall.  Shouts of relief and happy greetings swirled around him as his men could see that their chieftain remained healthy and unharmed.  He faintly smiled at them in return as he sat himself down upon the ancient Raven Throne.

At almost the same moment, Jurnia stormed through the door from the outer complex.  She was dusty and disheveled, her usual neat braid half-undone, spots of heightened color on her cheeks from her run through the city, issuing orders in her clear voice.  The servants and guardsmen who were following in her wake were either nodding in acknowledgement or peeling away from the train to carry out her commands.  She glanced toward the throne, and her eyes brightened.  She called out even as she spun in mid-stride to approach the dais.

“Irya, you’re all right?  He reached you in time?”

“I assume you mean Khuradasu.  Yes.”  He watched her as she crossed the floor.

Seen in the soft, diffuse glow of the lightstones, Jurnia’s hair seemed very black, showing flashes of its true dark red only when she passed close by a source of light.  Her eyes were a deeper, richer green than Chaiya’s had been, and she burned with energy where Chaiya had been serene and reserved, but nevertheless, the resemblance to her mother was strong indeed in Irya’s view.  He could see himself in the girl as well—the set of her eyes and the line of her jaw were as familiar as his own reflection, and whenever they’d argued, he had seen that resemblance become even stronger.

Of all his offspring, she was the one of whom he was the most proud.  Though her presence at the Rookery was unexpected, it brought him great pleasure seeing her again, especially since not only did she seem healthy and well, she seemed to glow with a happiness not before sensed.  All their past conversations about her desire to have none other than the renowned Demon’s Claw came back to him; he knew, in that moment, he would have to let her go.  If the young man he’d glimpsed in the garden was truly what she desired, and desired her in return, Irya would have no real choice but to accede; he knew full well that Jurnia could match him for stubbornness.  That she would be so happy in her chosen life eased his heart.  As her father, he cared very much about her welfare.  Since Chaiya’s death, the silent answer to Jurnia’s unspoken eternal question had hovered between them, unanswerable as long as his wife lived.  He did not love her as he had loved Chaiya, but he would not publicly dishonor her.

He frowned then, knowing he had to warn Jurnia.  “He intercepted the bolt shot at me, then ran off after the assassin, determined to keep the killer from escaping.  Hopefully his wound isn’t too serious.”

She froze, one foot on the bottom step of the dais.  “The bolt that was shot at you—  The color drained from her face.  He’s hurt?  He ran off after an assassin and he’s already been wounded?  Did you see how bad it was?  Where did he get hit?  Which direction did he go?”  The questions tumbled over each other as she looked around wildly, as if she planned to dash off in immediate pursuit.

Her impulsiveness reminded Irya much of himself in younger days.  “Don’t you trust him, Jurnia?” the Raven mildly asked.

The Kaykolom Herald whirled on the man sitting upon the ancient Raven Throne, her expression one of outrage and indignation.  “Of course I do!” she snapped.

That’s my Jurnia.  Always quick to defend that in which she believes.  Though his smile remained unseen, Irya’s low voice held a faint note of approval and amusement.  “Then trust him to know his business.  I’m certain he trusts you to stay by me to be sure the assassin doesn’t get another opportunity.”

“But, Irya—” she protested.

“As for your questions,” the dark-haired chieftain quickly added, interrupting, “He was hit in the right shoulder just high enough to miss his lung and low enough to not endanger the major blood vessels below the collarbone.  He pulled the bolt out and continued on as if it were nothing.  Last I saw, he was leaping over the guest quarters opposite the garden from my study.  I can see why the lad’s so legendary.  He’s quite impressive to watch.”

Her eyes virtually glowed.  “Isn’t he magnificent?  He’s even more than all those stories have claimed him to be.”  She frowned again.  “But I don’t like the thought that he’s chasing some hired killer with an injured shoulder.”

One corner of Irya’s mouth quirked upward in a faint smile.  “I would think you were ill if you did like that thought.  But again, he’s not some inexperienced boy.  I’m certain he’ll not push himself beyond his limits.”

“No, he’s not inexperienced, but he’s so stubborn.  He knows how important it is to ensure your safety, and I’m worried he might push himself after all.”  She gnawed her lip distractedly.  “Maybe I should go after him.”


“How?  What do you mean, how?  By going in the same direction he went.”

Irya looked at her for a moment.  “About the only way you’re going to go in exactly the same direction is if you suddenly grew wings and flew.”

She gave him a disgruntled look.  “Not the exact same direction, then.”

He smirked back, content to have scored a point.  “As I said, last I saw he was heading over the guest wing opposite my study.  I assume they were heading toward the outer wall on that side of the complex.”

“I’ll go in that direction and see if I can catch them, then.  You stay put.”

He smiled far too sweetly in response.  To her trained eye, her giving him orders rubbed him the wrong way.  “First Khuradasu, now you.  You’d think I wasn’t the chieftain around here.”

His daughter put her hands on her hips, eyeing him for a long moment in a way that he normally recognized as being prelude to an argument.  Then she made a beautifully graceful obeisance.  “If it please Your Grace to remain here in the safety of your guardsmen’s attendance, it would most greatly put my mind at ease whilst I go in pursuit of the miscreant who has dark designs upon your health, my lord.”  Amazingly, she managed to keep from sounding even a little sarcastic.

“Save the fancy speech for the other clans.  Fine then, if you’re so determined.  Just be careful and don’t get in their way.”

She shot him a bit of a dirty look.  “I don’t even get credit for trying to be courteous?”

His smile this time was genuine, a hint at how much he admired the woman she’d become.  “Of course.”

“Well, good.  Now stay out of harm’s way.  If this . . . this animal succeeds in his task, it’ll be disastrous.”  She turned and half-ran for the door that Irya had only recently come through.


Blood ran down his skin, mixing with sweat, but he paid little attention to his wound.  The pain only sharpened his focus, helped him remain determined to catch the one who would dare strike at an Aizvaryan chieftain.  The assassin was fast, but Khuradasu knew he was swifter.  From rooftop to rooftop he leapt, his feet running across the ceramic tiles as silently as a mouse.  Homed in on the other killer’s aura, the redheaded swordsman worked on intercepting the other’s path.  He fully intended to get between the other assassin and the outer wall of the Rookery.

The area immediately interior to the ancient fortress’s wall was a green, open space maintained both as a garden and a break to allow catapult ammunition and the like to sail over the walls and land without damaging the buildings.  Reaching the edge of the final rooftop in his series, the Lopayzom dropped to the earth and made his way though the greenery.  There he lay in wait, watching for the other manhunter’s arrival.

Soon enough the other man slipped into the night-shrouded clearing.  Golden eyes narrowed dangerously, Khuradasu stepped out into the open in silent challenge to the other assassin’s right to pass.  The other warrior was a head and a half again as tall as the Lopayzom, slender and clad in tight-fitting black clothes.  A large, round, pointed hat obscured his features, as did the black scarf wrapped loosely around his lower face and neck.  Deep blue eyes stared back at the little challenger with a gleam of contempt.  “You again,” the unknown assassin murmured.  “A determined annoyance, aren’t you?”

Khuradasu shifted his stance slightly, readying for a clash.  “And a bold annoyance you are, to take a contract on such a one as the Raven.”

“It’s all about the money,” the assassin replied.  “And who are you to question my right to my prey?”

The Lopayzom’s right hand drifted close to the hilt of his still-sheathed weapon.  “Khuradasu, first-ranked among the shadow warriors of Derkarya.”

The other assassin hesitated.  Momentarily startled, he took a shuffling step back before sliding once again into a ready stance.  “Modest, aren’t you, claiming first rank in only Derkarya.”

“It is simply the truth.”

“Well then . . . I, Jivalu, third-ranked of Zarya, must insist on passing.  I’ve lost the opportunity this night.”

“I can’t allow you to continue to hunt the Raven,” Khuradasu responded.  “Nor can I allow someone as bold as you your freedom.”  As challenger, he was obligated to strike first; he dashed forward swift as the wind, sword remaining sheathed until the very last moment.  Steel glittered in the faint, ambient light as the edgeless weapon slashed the air in a tight arc.

With a clang, Jivalu easily blocked his small opponent’s strike.  Almost easily blocked were the following thrusts and slashes, though the taller man found himself becoming hard pressed as Khuradasu continually increased the rhythm of his attack.  Steel rang out into the night as the flurry was barely countered; grunting, Jivalu broke the attack and scrambled back for a breather.  His little opponent seemed hardly slowed by the wound in his shoulder, and didn’t appear winded in the slightest.  Unsmiling, expressionless, Khuradasu watched him with those sharp, alert golden eyes.

The outside attack came as a total surprise to both warriors.  There was a flash of steel and the distinctive sound of a meaty impact as a knife embedded itself in Jivalu’s right shoulder.  To his credit, the only sound he made was a hiss, issued between his teeth, as the unexpected weapon struck.  In almost the same moment, amethyst power flared, released from tight control.

Jurnia walked soundlessly from the shadows, one hand still extended, the other sleeve pushed back to reveal the knife sheath strapped to her forearm.  Her hair had come entirely loose from its braid during her run, haloing her face in a cloud of midnight fire, and her eyes were chips of glacial ice.  To many who had known her for any length of time, the idea that she could have learned to control and confine her power so tightly as to pass virtually unnoticed would have seemed laughable; she was entirely too impulsive, too passionate, too hotheaded and reckless to master such an art, even if she’d had a teacher.

What few people tended to remember was that Jurnia was temperamental, not stupid in the least, and above all else, she was a Herald.  From the cradle, she’d been taught how to observe, to absorb detail and memorize it for later review.  She had been traveling with a man whose ability to close his aura down was virtually unsurpassed, and even in her most temperamental moments, Jurnia never, never stopped cataloguing everything around her with all the senses at her command.  Despite her anger at the attempt on her chieftain’s—her father’s—life, and the news that her husband had been injured by the same attacker, Jurnia had known that she would get no second chance to level the field.  Locating the Lopayzom had been almost frighteningly easy, given how skilled he was at hiding himself; she had an advantage that no one else in the world could have, however, in that she had taken a spark of his essence into herself during their wedding ceremony, and that spark led her unerringly to the wellspring of its golden light.  Her effort to mask her approach, combined with the tight attention focus necessitated by the fight between the two warriors, had ensured that Chieftain Nizaisa’s sharp, well-balanced gift would again prove itself useful.

The Zaryan assassin snarled as he whirled in the direction of both the unexpected attack and the new presence.  Reaching up, he pulled the dagger out; the Kaykolom maiden had indeed evened the field.  Blood began to seep through his clothing in the same area where crimson stained Khuradasu’s green shirt.  “You bitch!” Jivalu snarled, grip tightening on his sword as he glared at the young woman.

“Your opponent remains here,” Khuradasu reminded, his voice as cold as the glint in Jurnia’s eyes.  Fluidly, effortlessly, the redheaded warrior circled around the taller assassin; he took up a stance between Jivalu and the Raven Herald.

“There’s been interference,” the black-clad manslayer growled.

“You attempted to murder one of the most important men in the Tiger Court.  Your retreat cannot be allowed save with my defeat,” Khuradasu said.  He shifted his stance slightly, a visual clue that his next words were addressed to his wife.  “That was both brave and foolish.  Now step back and stay out of it.  There should be no more interference.”  Though his tone had hardly changed, Jurnia knew him well enough to realize that he was angry with her.  Apparently she’d broken some unspoken rule about two assassins dueling it out over a point of contention.

“You were wounded,” she said in an eerily calm tone; as ever, she was completely unafraid of the most terrifying man alive.  “Now he’s wounded too.  Fair is fair.  I’d like the knife back, please.  It was a gift from Chieftain Nizaisa.”

Jivalu’s grip shifted slightly on the dagger.  For a moment, it looked as if he intended to throw it as she had, with intent to do harm; then he snorted and flipped the weapon toward her in an exaggerated underhand toss, as if she was too far below his notice even to deserve a wounding.  Without changing expression, Jurnia simply held out her hand, palm up, making no real effort to intercept the dagger’s arc—but the weapon changed direction in midair like a bird returning to its mistress, dropping gently into her hand.  She never took her eyes off the startled-seeming assassin as she knelt to wipe the blood on the grass before returning the knife to its sheath.

It would have taken a whole herd of wild horses to make Jurnia show just how astonished she was.  The crooked, knowing grin Nizaisa had worn as she dropped the sheathed knife into the Herald’s lap came back to mind.

If you get a chance, you might find out just how much of an advantage it can be, the young-seeming Snake had said.  Jurnia was definitely inclined to believe her.

A catch in his breath and a widening of his eyes were the only betrayal of Khuradasu’s astonishment.  “Interesting toy,” he murmured, focus shifting back to the conflict at hand.  “Now stay back,” he ordered.  Lowering his sword to prepare for a strike, the little redhead dashed toward his opponent.

Jivalu hissed, dodging to the side.  He thrust forward, hoping to intercept the other warrior.

Khuradasu halted, then moved just enough to allow the taller assassin’s blade to go whistling past an ear.  A few strands of orange hair floated to the ground while Khuradasu ducked under Jivalu’s sideways swing.  Flipping his sword so that the pommel pointed to the sky, the Lopayzom jabbed forcefully upwards.  The cherrywood-decorated hilt slammed hard into Jivalu’s throat; the black-clad warrior staggered back, choking.

It was enough to make the Zaryan manslayer’s focus waver.  Momentarily hunched over and fighting for breath, his red-hued aura became noticeable, the totem within glaring angrily.

Khuradasu hissed.  “Zardulom?  I refuse to believe Prince Hiranyu has anything to do with this sordid affair!”

The choking subsided and the tall Tiger straightened.  “Oh, he’d be angry beyond belief knowing of this.  He thinks those of us of the Dark Tiger bloodlines should content ourselves with guard duty and intelligence-gathering.”  Jivalu settled into a fighting stance, dark blue eyes glittering but his face remaining pale.  “For untold generations, we Dark Tigers have helped our more royal cousins maintain peace and prosperity not only by guarding the strongholds from the shadows but also gathering information on Zarya’s enemies and reaching out beyond Zarya to eliminate threats.  Then along comes dear royal cousin Hiranyu who insists we come out of the shadows and confine ourselves with more peaceful pursuits within Zarya’s borders.  It’s sickening.  He’ll weaken us all.”

The Lopayzom’s eyes narrowed.  “His Highness the Tiger strives to make Zarya even more civilized than before.  The Empire is at peace; Zarya has long been a part of the Empire.  The Tiger is right to ask those of the clan in the shadows to step out into the sunlight.”

“Another idealist, I see,” Jivalu spat, aura all but disappearing again as his focus returned.  “Do you honestly think ones such as the Dark Tiger are no longer needed?  If so, then you’re a fool despite being a first-rank shadow warrior yourself.”  With a flash of steel, the assassin sprang at his smaller opponent.

Jurnia watched, wide-eyed and intent, as the duel picked up speed.  The two men circled and closed, backed and turned, in a complex dance that was set to the music of their clashing blades.  Khuradasu had a definite advantage in his unbelievable reflexes, even discounting the fact that he was an Avatar fighting one who was not gifted with such abilities.  Jivalu was older and had obviously studied a different fighting style; his focus was almost frightening, his whole attention fixed on the other warrior.  It was as if he was shutting out everything in the world except for his opponent . . .

Jurnia’s hand strayed toward her sleeve.

Without even seeming to look at her, Khuradasu said, “No.”  His voice was no louder than a normal conversational level, and his tone was quite calm and ordinary, but the single word froze her as if he’d shouted it in a rage.  She scowled rebelliously, but dropped her hands back to her sides.

It was enough to give the well-trained Tiger an opportunity to strike.  Even as the Lopayzom was bringing his blade back up in a defensive stance, the dark-clad assassin darted forward.  Blood flecked the ground while Khuradasu gasped in pain; Jivalu’s sword impaled his opponent’s right shoulder, making the wound already there worse.

Khuradasu stumbled back, left hand clutching the injury the moment his shoulder was free of the other man’s blade.  Coming to rest in a kneeling position, the orange-maned warrior gritted his teeth and concentrated on ignoring the pain.  Jurnia’s anguished, angry cry rang out as she snatched the knife from her sleeve, already knowing that she simply could not move fast enough to effectively counter the Tiger assassin.

With a shout of triumph, Jivalu dashed toward his fallen opponent.  Just as he slashed down, Khuradasu’s huddled form suddenly seemed to blur and disappear.  “Eh?” the Zardulom gasped, abruptly getting the instinctive sense of danger from above.

“Hammer Strike,” intoned a soft voice, seemingly from the heavens, rife with the sound of doom.  The edgeless blade hit Jivalu square on the top of his pointed hat, flattening it before slamming into the Zaryan’s head with a resounding crack.  The Tiger crumpled into an unmoving heap on the ground as Khuradasu landed as light as a cat on his feet.  The Lopayzom stared down at unconscious assassin for a long moment, eyes glowing golden under his shaggy orange bangs.

Jurnia skidded to a halt beside the small man, her eyes wide and frightened—for him, not of him.  She reached toward his shoulder and then stopped, looking down at the man on the ground.  “Should I scream for the guards?”

“Go and bring them here.  I’ll make sure he stays out of it so that he can face justice,” Khuradasu replied softly.  He remained in a state of wariness, glaring down at his unconscious foe, seemingly unaffected by his wounds.

Jurnia nodded, walked over to the gate which led into the courtyard, leaned out, and literally screamed, “Guards!”  As unconventional as it was, this was immediately effective; Khuradasu heard the sound of running feet within seconds.

Her actions were certainly not what he’d expected.  The Lopayzom blinked a few times, startled, the golden glow in his eyes dimming as he was unceremoniously pulled from his warrior’s focus.  Apparently so intent had he been on following the spirit energy trail of his foe and then intercepting him, Kara hadn’t noticed just how narrow the strip of greenery just inside the walls was along this stretch of the fortress’s outer boundary.  He stared, confused, at the dark-haired Kaykolom.  “But if they were that close, why didn’t they come with the sound of fighting?”

“I told them not to,” she said absently, trotting back over to him and gingerly pulling the slash in his shirt open to get a look at his wound.  “They were supposed to wait until I called for them.  They’d have only been in danger otherwise, and I didn’t want them in the way.”

He absently nodded, still blinking in that adorably confused way he had at times while Jurnia tugged on his cut and blood-stained clothing.  With his focus gone, his shoulder began throbbing with every beat of his heart.  “Ara,” he murmured, closing his eyes and pulling away from Jurnia so that he could clamp his left hand against it.  He could feel his blood running warm and slightly sticky down his trunk.

“Hold still,” she said brusquely.  Drawing the knife again, she cut at his shirt, removing the cloth around the wound even as the guards rushed through the gate, fanning out to form a loose ring around the two of them.  Three men descended upon Jivalu with a distinct rattle of chains.  Ignoring the activity around them, Jurnia rolled up the fabric, heedless of the blood staining her fingers, and pushed the makeshift pad between his hand and the open gash.  “Press down and hold this there.”  Without turning her head, she shouted, “Medic!”

Responding in a seemingly automatic fashion to the call, one of the guards broke from the ring and approached, pulling a small sack off his belt and holding it open for Jurnia.  It wasn’t unusual for guardsmen to have some rudimentary knowledge of medicine, at least enough to provide first aid to an injured comrade, but the Kaykolom evidently had gone one step further and equipped some of their household soldiers with actual medical supplies.  Jurnia wiped her bloody hand on her hip and reached into the bag for what she wanted.

“What should we do with the prisoner, Lady Jurnia?” one of the men asked, Jivalu dangling between him and his partner like a sack of potatoes.

“We’ll take him to Irya first,” she answered distractedly as she pushed Khuradasu’s hand away and laid a thick pad of fresh linen against the wound, starting to wind long strips of bandaging around his shoulder to hold it firmly in place.  “I need more light.  Someone go tell one of the physicians to meet us.  We’ll be in the audience chamber—he’s still in the audience chamber, right?—Good.”

“Jurnia, it’s really—But honest, I—Jurnia!” poor Kara stammered, flustered at the sudden attention his wife was giving his wound.  Certainly it hurt and was deep, but he’d sustained similar wounds before on the bloodiest of the Dragonfly Conflict’s battlefields, and he was unused to such fussing.  All the times before he’d either been roughly patched up by field medics or was alone, having to withdraw somewhere to rest undisturbed as his Avatar abilities began to knit his body back together.

“Shush,” she told him without taking her eyes off what she was doing.

Sighing in exasperation, his expression took on the look of someone long-suffering as he stood still for his wife.  A shame about the shirt.  There’s another one too ruined to keep, and I’m beginning to run out of clothes . . .

“We’ll see about getting you a new shirt,” Jurnia said, and for a moment, Kara wondered wildly if she could read his mind now.  “This one’s a wreck,” she added, “and some new clothes certainly wouldn’t be too much to ask of the Raven for the service you’ve rendered.”

“I wouldn’t think about imposing upon his generosity . . .”

“Then it’s a good thing that I would, isn’t it?  Let’s get inside so I can see what I’m doing.”

“But, Jurnia, I’m already asking enough out of him as it is,” Kara protested even as his wife stepped around behind him and started pushing him forward.  Taking the hint, he quickly sheathed his edgeless sword; he managed to do so gracefully despite being shoved forward and coming very close to looking like he was going to get his legs tangled up in the cherrywood scabbard.

“All right, then, we won’t ask him.  I’ll just send directly to the tailor and have him make up some new clothes for you.”

“Ara?”  He glanced over his shoulder at her; the effort was almost enough to make him lose his balance and trip over his feet.  “Won’t he get angry at that, Jurnia?”

“What, the tailor?” she asked, deliberately misunderstanding him.  “Of course he won’t.  It’s not as if he’s not going to get paid.”

“Not him.  Iryasitru,” Kara clarified.

“Why would he get angry?”

“Because I’m a Fox and taking advantage of his generosity?”

“How is it taking advantage of his generosity to buy new clothes from the tailor?”  She steered him deftly through the maze of two-story wooden buildings crowded about the middle complex and the chieftain’s apartments in the center.  “It’s not as if you’re asking him for the money.”

It had to be something of an entertaining sight for the Kaykolom.  After all, everyone knew of their current Chief Herald’s stubbornness, and it wasn’t often someone of her stature could be seen shoving someone else through the ancient fortress’s grounds.  That the young man being so bullied was downright good-looking in a cute, endearing sort of way despite his obvious injury made it even more of a spectacle, especially to the tittering Kaykolom women.  Given that Jurnia’s demeanor was about half irritation and half solicitous concern, it was all the more amusing.

“No, but I am asking him for you.  That’s certainly all I wish.”

“I will arrange for you to get new clothes,” she said in carefully measured tones that hinted she was reaching the end of her patience, which had always been a commodity in short supply for her to begin with.  “It’s not Irya’s business what I choose to do with my own money, whether or not he’s amenable to your request.”

“But I don’t deserve you spending your money on me . . .”

The look she turned on him was enough to scorch metal.  Leaning quite close to his ear, she hissed, “You’re my husband.  What’s mine is yours, and vice versa.  Remember?”

Eeee, he mentally yelped.  Audibly gulping, he fell silent and just let Jurnia push his slender form forward.  Though an inch shorter than her and somewhat girlishly soft in appearance, his body was deceptively heavy—another testament to his hidden strength.  Though he was easy to move, considering he was cooperating with her.

“That’s better,” she muttered.  The doors of the audience chamber stood open, but not unguarded; the men on either side recognized Jurnia and let them pass unchallenged.

Kara couldn’t resist flashing the stern, grumpy-looking Kaykolom standing watch one of his bright, sunny, clueless grins while Jurnia shoved him towards the audience hall.  Underneath the silly act, he was making sure his aura remained under tight control.  Now would not be the time to let slip that the man in their midst was one of the two remaining Lopayzom.

Jurnia caught the cheery grin and rolled her eyes heavenward.  “That’s not the way to maintain your frightening reputation, Khuradasu,” she muttered.

“Heh.”  He glanced over his shoulder, giving his wife the same sunny smile.  “So’s pushing me into the hall like an errant child.”  She focused that stare on him again, then glanced up toward the dais.

Give her father credit for trying to remain as serious and formal as a clan chieftain was expected to be when greeting a stranger to whom he owed a blood debt.  Irya was sitting relaxed on the Raven Throne, leaning forward and resting his chin on a hand.  Only the fact that his long fingers covered his mouth and his deep green eyes were sparkling with amusement betrayed his internal laughter at the sight of his daughter marching the orange-haired stranger into the large chamber.  “I see you found him with little trouble.  What of the assassin?”

“He’ll be along shortly.  The guards are bringing him.”

“Even better news.”  Irya sat up, suppressing his smile.  He’d seen how fierce the little man could be; that he was so docilely allowing Jurnia to manhandle him spoke volumes of the relationship that had developed over the past few weeks between them.  The Raven was certain that if Khuradasu didn’t wish to be pushed around, even the headstrong Jurnia would give way to him.  Even so, he could sense an accord between them that put his father’s heart at some ease.

Jurnia steered the swordsman to a bench near the dais and leaned pointedly on his good shoulder until he sat down.  An older woman carrying a physician’s satchel came briskly through the door, nodded respectfully to her chieftain, then changed course.  After one measuring glance, she did not try to take over from Jurnia; she simply began speaking quietly with the young Herald.  A few moments later, six guardsmen entered the chamber in two columns, the middle pair lugging the Tiger assassin between them.

Now would probably be a good time to actually act like Khuradasu, Kara thought as he thumped down on the bench.  Pushing aside the sunny innocence of the mask of the clueless wanderer, the Lopayzom wrapped his innate prowess and subtle menace around himself like a cloak.  The eyes he turned on the Zardulom were cool, harsh—a gaze befitting one who had stalked other humans from the shadows.  The other assassin was awake, though groggy, and he made no resistance as the guardsmen dropped him unceremoniously on the floor before the dais.

Ignoring the chained man, the Raven chief looked toward Khuradasu.  “I owe you my life,” Iryasitru said formally.  “That is a debt which is difficult to repay.  If there is anything that you desire that is within my power to give, you need only ask.”

The young man inclined his head.  Though he had spend time and effort, put his life on the line, to safeguard the dark-haired man enthroned before him, Kara had done so both for the stability for Zarya and because it meant so much to the slender woman now pressing clean cloth against his wounded shoulder. Still, he had also journeyed to Kaykolvayshti specifically to ask for—now belatedly—permission to marry his Chief Herald; that Irya now presented him with such a perfect opportunity was something Kara could not resist.  “Chieftain Iryasitru, of all the wealth and treasure of the Kaykolom, there is but one precious thing which I desire.”  He reached up to where the garnet-haired woman was tending his wounded shoulder, laying one hand gently over hers.  “I ask that you grant me Jurnia, daughter of Chaiya, to be my wife.”

Iryasitru had seen that coming; he nodded slightly in acknowledgement. A hundred arguments with Jurnia had driven home the point that she would only consent to marry Khuradasu; it was vividly obvious, from the touches and glances passing between the two, that Jurnia had truly won her heart’s desire. The more he saw of the two of them together, the more he realized his unacknowledged daughter’s fondest wish had come true.

“You ask a great boon indeed,” he murmured, “but one perhaps of equal value to the gift you have given me.  I believe that ‘Khuradasu’ is but your warrior’s name, earned in the heat of battle.  Before I give up my Chief Herald, I would like to know into whose keeping I surrender such a precious thing.”

“Of course, Your Grace.  It would be unthinkable to ask you to grant such a request otherwise.”  He rose from the bench and gently moved Jurnia’s hands away, obviously intending to make himself known in a dignified manner; the young Raven scowled at him so fiercely that he actually blinked in surprise, and she went right back to cleaning the blood from around his wound.  There was a hint of resignation in the amber eyes that met Irya’s dark-green gaze. The Raven Chieftain—having dealt with Jurnia for nearly twenty years himself—returned the younger man’s glance with no small amount of sympathy.  Khuradasu drew himself up as best he could with the persistent girl still working on his shoulder, and again inclined his head with noble grace.  Taking a deep breath to steady himself, the young redhead proclaimed, “I am Karavasu, son by adoption to Lord Arjunayazu, Chieftain of the Lopayzom.” To further back his claim, he released his mental hold on his spirit energy, allowing its full brightness to shine within Avatar senses, the red fox totem peering outwards calmly but warily.

There was a hiss of indrawn breath, and hands went to swords as the guards began to react to the revelation.  They froze into immobility as Jurnia turned nearly a full circle, sweeping a dangerous stare throughout the chamber.  Kara remained as still and calm as before; only the slightly brighter gleam of his aura in Avatar senses betrayed his readiness to battle for his life should the Kaykolom decide to no longer honor the permanent truce.

Shock, consternation, disbelief, astonishment—these were all words that described some aspect of the expression that bloomed on Iryasitru’s face.  Completely bereft of his usual reserved dignity, stunned into wide-eyed immobility, he gaped stupidly at the redheaded youth.  He could not have been any more surprised than if the boy had announced himself to be the Goddess’s own son incarnate on the earth.  Lopayzom!” he choked out.

The guards in the room immediately knew that they had not really seen the Kaykolom Chieftain’s uncharacteristic reaction—if they wanted to go on being able-bodied guardsmen, that was.  The Raven was a man who took his pride seriously.

The assassin on the floor started laughing, amusement overwhelming the discomfort of his wounds and binding; this levity did nothing to ease Iryasitru’s mind.

“Isn’t it amazing, Irya?” Jurnia said cheerfully.  “Surely it’s a sign from heaven, approving of the peace between Fox and Raven.”

 “It’s madness!”  The Chieftain erupted out of his seat.  “You have always enjoyed baiting me, Jurnia, but this is going to extremes!”  It was Chaiya and Samjayna all over again, the Lopayzom snatching from him things dearest to his heart.  Yet even now, in the center of his astonished outrage, part of him not only had no desire to rekindle his youthful, vengeful folly, but realized what had developed was somehow fate, an inevitable accounting of past deeds.

The cheer vanished instantly from the Herald’s face.  “This isn’t baiting you, Irya,” she said in a chillingly sweet tone.  “I’ve told you for years that I would marry no one but Khuradasu.  Now, he’s saved your life and he’s asked for a reward that’s well within your power.  I want to marry him, and your honor demands that you accede to a reasonable request.”

Reasonable!” he half-shrieked.  “This is a Fox, Jurnia!”

“Lord Arjunayazu’s a Fox too, Irya, and you dealt well enough with him.  And he hadn’t even saved your life from an assassin’s bolt.  I wasn’t entirely joking about the peace between the two clans—there’s surely no greater way to indicate that the conflict’s over and done with.”  She slipped her hand into the youth’s; Kara reinforced their concord by lightly wrapping his right arm around her waist, though he remained on alert.  “It all works out.  I get what I most want in the world, you can repay some measure of the debt you owe, and there’s no further question that Lopayzom and Kaykolom are no longer enemies.”

“You don’t know what they’ve done!”

“They’ve died, Irya,” she answered flatly, and the Raven chieftain nearly flinched at the ice in her voice.  “They’ve all died, except for Arjunayazu and Karavasu.  Don’t think for a moment that Chaiya neglected to tell me why, either.  I know that your sister’s death triggered the bloodiest internecine war that’s been seen in Aizvarya for centuries.  But she’s still dead!  Kaykolom warriors slaughtered Lopayzom warriors—and women, and children, and old people, and Samjayna is still dead!  Are you proud of that?  Are you proud that you ‘honored’ your sister’s memory by sending hundreds of innocent people to the afterlife with her?”

Her words sounded so very much like Chaiya’s that Irya did flinch.  Over and over, the gentle black-haired Herald had begged Iryasitru to stop the killing, to let reason rule him instead of emotion—and over and over he had refused to listen, had driven his people to kill and kill until the ground was drenched in Fox blood.  He’d been young, proud and arrogant, emerging from a vicious political battle to take rulership of the clan when his beloved younger sister had been murdered.  The cost of proving to the Raven, to Zarya and to Aizvarya as a whole that he was strong enough to lead had been high, but none had challenged his power since.  Though the Fox had withered, all but extinct, the Kaykolom had prospered in the intervening years.  But underneath it all, he somehow knew Samjayna would have been horrified at what had been wrought in her name.

Jurnia’s free hand clenched into a white-knuckled fist.  “You owe the Lopayzom a great deal for all the sorrow you’ve visited on them, Irya!  Giving up one Raven woman to bring more Fox children into the world is the least you can do!”

The assassin was laughing harder now.  As a single unit, the two Kaykolom and one Lopayzom rounded on him; green and amber eyes blazed in concert with fierce Avatar power.  For some reason, Jivalu seemed to find this even more entertaining.

“Be silent!” Irya snapped at him.

“Oh, I’m ever so sorry to offend Your Grace,” the Tiger wheezed between peals of laughter.  “But this is the most wonderful drama I’ve seen in years!  All these years after his sister’s death, the great Iryasitru is still blaming the Lopayzom!”

Silence fell, broken only by the assassin’s laughter.  The implication of his words had not been lost.  The guards around the room seemed to have turned to stone; only four people in the room appeared to be alive rather than statues.

“I blame those who are responsible for her death,” Irya said in a slow, leaden tone.

“But you take out your frustrations on the Fox?”  Jivalu laughed even harder.

“Are you saying,” Jurnia asked in a low voice, “that His Grace’s sister was not murdered by the Lopayzom?”

He stopped laughing and looked from face to face, eyebrows rising.  “You really didn’t know?”

“Know what?”

A sly grin moved across Jivalu’s mouth.  “Oops.  My, I’ve said far too much already.”

“You haven’t said nearly enough,” Irya murmured, his deep green gaze burning into the assassin.

“You’ll just hang me, Your Grace.  The other party wouldn’t be so merciful if it were discovered that I blurted out a few secrets.  Far better that I keep my mouth shut.”

Jurnia stared at him, her mind working very fast.  “Oh, I don’t know,” she said with exaggerated casualness.  “We could just let you go.”  She raised a hand slightly to forestall Irya’s startled response.  “Of course, this ‘other party’ might believe that your life was spared because of some important information that you rendered up in exchange for a pardon.”

The Zardulom’s mouth shut with a snap.  Dark blue eyes widening, he stared at Jurnia.

“Would that be inconvenient for you?” she inquired solicitously.

“Just hang me,” he muttered.

“If you talk, we’ll give you a quick and clean death.  If you don’t, well . . . I couldn’t say what this ‘other party’ might do once we set you free.”

“You are an unbelievable bitch,” he spat.

Kara started forward, but Irya was much closer, and surprisingly fast for a man his age.  He was down the dais steps before the Lopayzom even got out of Jurnia’s reach, and the kick he unloaded into the pit of the Tiger assassin’s stomach even made the seemingly frozen guards wince as the man doubled up, making a retching sound.

“You will not speak to my—Herald that way,” he hissed, and anyone who caught that split-second hesitation, as if he’d nearly said something else, would not have commented on it even if they’d been on the rack.  Without visible effort, he reached down and dragged the black-clad, chain-bound assassin up to eye level by a double-fisted grip on his shirt.  “You will tell me what you know of my sister’s death.”

Wheezing, Jivalu stared back in cold rage.

“He’s clearly afraid of this ‘other party’,” Jurnia said thoughtfully.

“That’s as it may be,” Irya said in icy, measured tones, “but that ‘other party’ isn’t here.  I am.”

Jivalu looked into the Raven Chieftain’s eyes.  What he saw there made him blanch.  Iryasitru had not hesitated to order the destruction of an entire clan in repayment for his sister’s death; that impulsive eruption of fury twenty-four years ago had been the last major outburst of the man’s temper.  Jivalu was not looking at the cool, reserved chieftain—he was eye to eye with the Fox’s Bane, and he could see nearly two and a half decades of choked-back rage boiling in the depths of those near-black eyes.  Suddenly, the consequences of revealing old secrets seemed like nothing next to the consequences of not speaking.

“We’re straying from the point,” Jurnia murmured sweetly.  She raked an icy stare over the man who was dangling like a helpless puppy from her chieftain’s grip.  “Whatever that offal has to say, I’m sure he’ll benefit from a bit of time to organize his thoughts.  All else aside, the man who just saved your life has told you what you can do to repay the debt you owe him, and you haven’t given your answer.”

Irya wanted very much to throttle the truth from the man, to shake the replies possible out of his would-be murderer.  Chaiya’s words came back to haunt him, her belief in her later years that perhaps some third party had been responsible for the brutality visited upon the always sweet and kind Samjayna.  The elegant chieftain froze, feeling suddenly cold inside; suddenly torn between a need to know the truth and a desire to flee from what that truth was, he simply let go of the man.

Jivalu fell hard to the mat-covered floor, the chains clanking while he thudded into a dark-clad heap.  The wind knocked out of him, the bound Tiger could only wheeze and gasp for breath.

Green eyes almost as black as night focused upon the chieftain’s headstrong daughter.  That expression was there in those eyes, the one she recalled whenever he read the crumpled and worn message bearing news of the destruction of the last Lopayzom village.  His face was under control, but his eyes were filled with that terrible weight that words could hardly describe.  “One who has every right to rejoice upon my death has instead shed his own blood to safeguard it,” Irya began, his voice low, subdued.  “What he has asked for is certainly within the bounds of my power and my honor, but could never even begin to repay what he’s done.”  He turned his gaze to the orange-haired Fox that had so thoroughly captured Jurnia’s heart.  “You are one of rare honor, to come to the defense of one who had ruthlessly hunted your clan.  You are a credit to your clan and to your father, His Grace the Fox.  You have my blessing to marry my Chief Herald, if that’s truly what Jurnia wishes.”

Jurnia clapped her hands together with a delighted squeal and skipped over the intervening space to hurl herself at Irya’s chest.  Aside from the difference in age, it was almost precisely the same act that had so often turned the Raven Chieftain into the watery-kneed, foolishly-smiling slave of a bright-eyed little girl.  Not catching her for a hug seemed impossible.  Since her mother’s death, Jurnia had seemed somehow withdrawn, no longer as happy and carefree as she had been; he hadn’t been the target of one of those impulsive, affectionate embraces for years, and he suddenly realized how much he had missed them.

He hugged her tight, for once allowing himself the gesture of a father showing his affection to a beloved child rather than the more distant, cooler embrace of an uncle or a cousin.  He closed his eyes, denying the tears that wanted to flow.  “There’s one condition,” he murmured near the younger Kaykolom’s ear.

“What condition?” came the reply, slightly muffled by his shoulder.

“You’ll have the ceremony here, hosted by the Kaykolom.  My sister died traveling to the Den to marry a Fox.  I won’t allow the same to happen to you.”

She lifted her head, looking first surprised; it blossomed into anger, and she opened her mouth.  He had braced himself for the argument, and so it was a shock when she hesitated, closed her mouth, and gave him a smile.  “All right.”

His expression shifted to a sardonic smile.  “Recall what I said about baiting me?”

She just smiled up at him, a little misty-eyed, and he was startled when she kissed his cheek affectionately.  Her voice was low enough that only he could hear the words.  “I don’t want you to worry.  You’ve suffered enough over Samjayna’s loss without having the weight of another one on you, Irya.”

“Thank you.”  He gave her another gentle squeeze, then let her go.  “You’d better see to Karavasu’s wound.  And be sure to give him comfortable lodgings in the guest wing.”  His attention then shifted to the guards standing about.

Some were surprised and wary; others seemed willing to accept their chieftain’s guidance, as they always had before.  But Irya was certainly not fool enough to think every Raven would so willingly accept such an alliance.  “I want it known here and now that not only will Jurnia be stepping down as Chief Herald and marrying this Lopayzom, but I fully intend to invite His Grace the Fox here for the ceremony as well.  The feud has been officially over for almost two years and active hunting of the Lopayzom has been outlawed even longer.  I will not tolerate any breach of hospitality here in the Rookery, and from this point on, I expect the clan to view the Lopayzom as having blood ties.  Understood?”

“Aye, Your Grace!” the Raven clansmen replied without hesitation.

“Then make sure everyone knows.  Dismissed.”

The young men did as ordered, only a couple of them glancing back to stare at Jurnia and the Lopayzom in their midst.

“Oh,” Jurnia said as if the notion had just struck her.  She gave a little tug on Kara’s torn and bloody sleeve.  “He definitely needs some new clothes.  Shall I have the tailor sent to his rooms?”

Kara’s eyes grew wide; he started to protest, but the Raven’s low voice curtailed any resistance.

“Please.  No sense the man who’s going to marry my—Herald looking like some homeless vagabond.”

Hey, wait! Kara thought, expression turning sour and a hand coming up with index finger raised.

“He’s been living quite . . . frugally for a while,” Jurnia said brightly, overriding Kara’s attempt to cut in.  “Some new sets of clothing would definitely be nice.  And I’ll have the barber in as well, since his hair needs a little trimming.  New shoes, perhaps?”

“How touching,” Jivalu muttered bitingly from the floor.

Irya pointedly ignored the trussed-up assassin.  Smiling at his daughter, he nodded in agreement.  “Do whatever you feel is necessary to make him presentable.  After all, how we treat him reflects on the Kaykolom as a clan.”

“Ara,” the Lopayzom warbled, feeling a bit insulted.  Still, the chieftain was right.  Kara’s aimless, homeless wandering had begun to take a toll on his appearance at the least.  Truth be told . . . I think I’m getting weary of it as well . . .

“Exactly.  And it’s only appropriate to do such things for someone who’s going to be kin fairly soon—it will be fairly soon, right?”  Without giving Irya quite enough time to answer, she looked down at the assassin on the floor and prodded him thoughtfully with her foot, earning a blazing glare.  “What should we do with this?”

“All things considered . . .  A wicked grin settled on the Raven’s handsome face.  “I think he can go rot in the keep until such a time as I can hand him over to His Highness to deal with.  After all, the man is a Tiger and is accused of attempting to murder a clan chieftain.  Though I’m within my rights to try him, I think this is something worthy of His Highness’s personal attention.”  He then turned his attention back to the slender woman.  “As for the ceremony, it will be done as soon as His Grace the Fox arrives.  I’ll be certain to have your chambers readied for you; you’ve been gone quite a while this time out.”

She prodded the prisoner again.  “I think he’ll have some information to share.  If he’s smart, it’ll be long before the Tiger takes custody of him.”  She gave Irya a radiant smile.  “Why, thank you.  It’s been an interesting trip, to say the least.”

Irya stared for a long moment at first Jurnia, then Kara.  “I do hope it’s not been too interesting.”

Looking just a bit glassy-eyed, the Lopayzom quickly glanced at his wife.  Jurnia gave her chieftain a fierce stare.  “Are you suggesting that Karavasu might have done anything dishonorable?”

The Raven watched his daughter’s reaction carefully, then nodded in satisfaction to himself.  Whatever had passed between the two, Jurnia herself regarded it as proper—though the lad himself gave him the impression it could have easily been otherwise.  “Not exactly, but I know how headstrong you can be and what it was like to be that young.”

“Headstrong!  You are calling me headstrong?”  Jurnia put her hands on her hips.  “I’ll remind you that my mother saw to it that I learned the proprieties quite nicely.  And this is Lord Arjunayazu’s son we’re talking about—he certainly knows how to conduct himself in the presence of a lady.”

That is a lady?” Jivalu muttered under his breath.

Without any hint of his coming action nor a change in his impassive expression, Irya whirled and gave the chained assassin a resounding kick.  Kara winced, certain he heard at least one rib crack in the meaty thud that seemed to fill the audience hall.

“I really should have told a couple of the men to stay and clear the hall of trash,” Irya muttered, striding over to the entrance.

“I wasn’t about to leave you alone with him in the hall,” Jurnia said calmly.

Irya tugged the sliding door aside.  “You’re very thoughtful,” he responded.  “However, I’m tired of him stinking up the throne room.”

Kara leaned over and whispered, “I’m starting to see where your attitude comes from.”

“See?  I’m not completely to blame,” she replied out of the corner of her mouth.  Looking down at Jivalu, she smiled sweetly.  “There’s just no telling what Irya might do if there weren’t any witnesses around,” she remarked, and was rewarded with a faint widening of Jivalu’s eyes.  “After all,” she added, “he does have a certain reputation for ruthlessness.”

“Heh.”  Kara thought it the better part of valor to remain silent after his nervous laugh.

A couple of shouts later and a small band of stalwart Ravens were dragging the captured assassin out of the ancient hall.  Irya watched them go, his expression remaining unfathomable.  Once they were out of sight, he glanced back at the other two.  “You shouldn’t keep Karavasu sitting there all bloody and sweaty, you know.”

Jurnia nodded briskly, catching Kara’s hand.  “With that creature under lock and key, I feel much better about leaving you alone, Irya.”

The orange-haired warrior rose to his feet as Jurnia tugged on his hand.

“It’s all right now, Jurnia.  He’ll be locked up in the prison on the third floor of the keep and I’ll be certain to keep a guard on him at all times until he can be turned over to His Highness, the Tiger.”

“We really should invite Prince Hiranyu to the wedding,” she said cheerfully.  “And maybe Princess Divaksina, too.  Kara grew up with her, you know.”

At the mention of inviting such royal presences along, the Lopayzom’s amber eyes grew wide.  Eeee, bad enough having to face Father again, but Diva and the Tiger as well?  He opened his mouth, raising his hand slightly in a gesture of protest.

“Hmm.  I’ll be sure to send invitations to them.  Perhaps with the royal presence, the remaining Raven who think I’m too forgiving in my old age will understand that the feud is over and nothing more will be gained by continuing any hatred,” Irya responded, apparently not noticing the little redhead trying to interject his opinion.

Kara just gaped at the Raven, hand still slightly raised.

“One can hope.  Kaykolom are awfully hardheaded sometimes.”  Jurnia’s look was quite innocent.  Seemingly by accident, she reached out and curled her hand around her husband’s uplifted one.

The amber gaze shifted back to the dark-haired woman.  Kara closed his mouth, faintly pouting.  It was obvious he wasn’t going to be allowed to have a say in the matter.

“Indeed.”  Irya stepped away from the still-open door leading to the middle complex.  “I’ll see to the start of preparations and the invitations.  You’d better see to making our esteemed guest comfortable during his stay.”  The Kaykolom Chieftain strode gracefully across the large, throne-bearing chamber; without another look at the couple behind him, Irya disappeared down the enclosed corridor heading toward his private apartments.

“The Dragon and the Tiger?” the little swordsman warbled.  “What are you thinking?”  The thought of facing his father after so long trying to deny the fate the older Fox had chosen for him and then fearing that the Fox Chieftain’s change of heart was only a temporary thing frightened Kara.  Though more certain now that Arjuna truly intended to allow the Fox to live, the fact remained that Kara had been running away from his father ever since he was thirteen years old because he knew Arjuna would disapprove of how Kara lived his life.  But even more terrifying was facing the Dragon Princess; technically, the orange-maned warrior was absent without leave from the Ruby Dragon Army.  Diva could make his life a legal living hell if she so chose.

“I’m thinking that driving the point home into some of my kinsmen’s thick heads is going to take a royal hammer.  There’s been a certain amount of resistance ever since Irya called off the hunt on the Lopayzom during the Dragonfly war, and Irya’s decision to formally end the feud didn’t go over well with some of the younger warriors.”  She was leading him busily through the maze of corridors, nodding slightly to various wide-eyed people who had obviously already heard about the presence of a Lopayzom in the heart of Kaykolom territory.  “When my mother died, some of the clan wanted to shift some of the blame onto your father, even though Irya clearly didn’t hold him responsible.  Nobody is likely to miss the significance of Chaiya’s daughter marrying Arjunayazu’s son.  If anything is going to end the grumbling once and for all, this ought to be it.  Ah, I think this one ought to do.”  That last was in reference to the door she had just stopped in front of, and she opened it briskly.

The room was comfortably large and rectangular; rather than having a separate sitting room, there was instead a delicately painted screen dividing off the rear third of the large chamber.  Kara could glimpse the corner of the bed back behind the screen.  The furnishings were sturdy, well-maintained, and—something he’d noticed in common throughout the Rookery—vividly colored and lacquered.  It seemed that the Raven clansfolk, like their feathered counterparts, were fond of bright colors and shiny objects.

“The guests’ bathhouse is through here,” Jurnia said, nodding toward a door on the right side of the room even as she steered him towards it.  “You go in and get undressed, and I’ll have your bag brought here and send for the tailor.  I’ll be right there to help you clean up.”  She gave him a faintly naughty look, and he blushed.

“Are you sure that’s appropriate?” he asked plaintively.

“Irya gave his permission,” she answered, then lowered her voice.  “Besides, I’m your wife already.  It’s fine.”  She looked at his shoulder with a frown.  “I’ll do a better job on that, too.”

“What?  This?”  Kara asked, nodding down toward the crudely-wrapped hole in his shoulder, the reddened linen visible underneath the slashed and bloodstained cloth of his shirt.  “I think it’s stopped bleeding.  All it really needs is to be sewn together so it heals smoothly.”  He gingerly rotated his shoulder through its full range of motion, then hissed as he felt a sudden twinge.  Blood began seeping out of the wound again; he tossed his wife an apologetic smile as he rammed his left hand against the linen pad over the gaping injury.  “Perhaps it’s a bit more serious than I thought,” he softly murmured, sitting down hard on the mat-covered floor.  A chill went through him as he wondered if perhaps the sword slash had enlarged the initial injury enough to involve the major blood vessels servicing his arm.  That he could feel the blood leaking out and not gushing in spurts assured him that at least the artery remained intact.

“It seems like it needs a little more than that,” Jurnia said, worried.  “I’ll fetch the physician again, too.  I’ve never dealt with anything this bad.”  She hesitated at the door.  “Will you be all right if I leave you for a few minutes?”

“It veritably breaks my heart to be without you for even a moment,” he said extravagantly.

“Stop that.  Will you be all right?”

“Just ruin my attempt to be poetical and romantic, why don’t you?  Yes, I’ll be all right.”

She nodded, still looking worried, and closed the door softly behind her.  Kara took a deep breath, holding his hand against the thick pad of linen to keep it pressed tightly to the wound, and tried to stay as relaxed and calm as he could.  His Avatar energy was already working toward mending the damage, but he already knew that this was a far more severe wound than he’d ever suffered before.

Jurnia returned with the older woman in tow.  Taller, and stern-appearing, the middle-aged Kaykolom female exuded professional medical competence.  Long, iridescent black hair was pulled back by a sparkling clean, white head kerchief; her brown eyes seemed to appear as if she’d seen the worst of injuries.  Given her age, she’d probably treated those Raven who had returned home sorely wounded in their crusade to rid Aizvarya of the Lopayzom.  Even so, those same eyes were full of professional caring and even genuine concern as their deep sienna gaze swept over the little red-headed Fox sitting slightly slumped on the floor.

 This time Jurnia stood aside to let the professional handle the situation.  In fairly short order, Kara was stripped to the waist, with the Herald washing the blood off his arm and chest while the physician gently probed into the wound.  Kara had expected the prodding to hurt, but the woman applied a thin layer of some kind of salve, and all he could feel as she worked was the sensation of pressure.

“Not good,” she said bluntly.  “You’ve got a tear in the vein here.  Though it’s very small, it’ll bleed again at the slightest provocation.”

“I can heal him,” Jurnia said in a very low voice, as if it were something shameful.

The older Kaykolom gave her a long, steady look.  “Is that so?  Well, then.  I’ll close up the wound and leave it to you, Herald.  But he is going to be wearing a sling for a bit.  Even after a healing, it’s best to give the shoulder a rest.”  The physician’s dark sienna gaze bore into the younger Raven.  “Be certain to make that vein whole.  Otherwise I’m going to have to widen the wound and go in there myself to stitch it closed.  In fact, thinking about it, I’d rather you healed that right now before I sew him up.  I’d so hate to have to rip up my nice neat seam to get in there if you didn’t get it right.”

Eeeee . . .  Kara’s eyes glazed over a bit in nervousness.  Not only were two Kaykolom speaking yet again about doing things involving him as if he weren’t there listening, but the nice lady doctor was certain to anger Jurnia speaking like that to the headstrong Herald.

Astonishingly, Jurnia just nodded, the very picture of meekness.  She sat down behind Kara and scooted forward, a leg to either side of his hips, his back settled against her chest, her arms slipping around his ribs.  Catching the older Raven’s amused look, Jurnia blushed faintly.  “It’s easier if there’s more contact,” she explained.

“And I doubt that bothers you in this case,” the doctor said dryly.

Jurnia rested her forehead against the back of Kara’s neck; he could feel the shift in the atmosphere as she gathered her concentration and focused her energy.  He’d been asleep or unconscious the other times she’d used healing on him, so this was the first time he was able to see the pale green radiance wash over him in waves, seeming to leave accumulating layers of soft jade light at the site of the wound, like an intangible bandage.  The oozing blood stopped immediately, and the twinges of deep pain he’d felt even after the numbing salve was applied began to fade.

He sighed in some pleasure, amber eyes closing as he relaxed.  Not only had the pain disappeared and there was beginning to return an instinctive sense of well-being, but the sensation of healing power was nice in and of itself.  It was like a warm and tingling hug all over, especially since he was well aware that the one doing so was the woman he most loved in all the world.

“Well done,” the female physician murmured, tone taking on a note of satisfaction.  “Now to close this up.”  She turned her attention to the task at hand, expertly manipulating the edges of the wound together and then efficiently stitching them together.

Kara kept his breathing even and steady.  He’d had sword slashes on his shoulders sewn closed before, often with hardly any numbing at all; compared to those battlefield methods, feeling only pressure and the occasional tug was downright blissful.  The fact that Jurnia was still snuggled up against him, letting him rest his head back against her shoulder, made it all even better.

“There,” the Kaykolom doctor said, snipping the bloodstained thread close after tying a securing knot.  Leaning back, she smiled at the young Lopayzom.  “You’ll live.  After you wash off the wound, keep it out of bath water and be sure to keep your arm in a sling for ten days.”

“But it’s my right arm—”

“No buts.  It’s better to be safe than sorry since it is your dominant arm,” the physician firmly reiterated while standing up.  “The stitches can come out after ten days as well.  No need to push Her Ladyship the Herald’s healing for something Nature will cure well enough.  I’m sure Her Ladyship will be more than happy to assist you over the next few days.”

Kara sighed, resigned.  Jurnia ignored his pitiful little sound, thanking the physician graciously and standing to show the older woman out the door as courtesy demanded, taking the folded, sturdy cloth of the sling that the physician handed over.  As soon as the door closed, she turned with a very determined look on her face, and Kara gulped.

In short order, he was ushered into the bathhouse, stripped down to the skin, and being briskly washed by Jurnia, who gave him very unnerving glares every time he so much as tried to lift a hand to help.  “I feel like a horse,” he mumbled as she scrubbed down his leg and picked up his foot to wash between his toes.

“Horses are smart enough to stand still and let other people do the work in a case like this,” she responded tartly, ignoring his muffled, reflexive giggle as the washcloth tickled his foot.

“But horses don’t have hands,” he pointed out reasonably, brushing at his face as suds oozed down from his soapy hair.  “So they have to let people do the work.”

“Horses also don’t talk back,” was the ominous reply.

“Ara,” he mumbled.  A few moments later, he repeated “Arara!” with considerably more emphasis.  “Uh, Jurnia, you don’t have to wash there quite . . . so . . . much . . . arara . . .”

Her response was a very naughty giggle.  She nibbled delicately at the side of his neck, shifting to stand slightly behind him.

“We’re supposed to behave ourselves,” he managed.

“I am behaving,” she whispered, and tugged lightly at the rim of his ear with her teeth.

“That’s not good behavior!”

“It’s not?  I plan to be very, very good . . .”

Araraaaa . . .”

“But you’re right,” she said contritely, the cloth finally sliding up to scrub his middle instead.  “We’re trying to spare Irya’s pride, so we’ll have to be decorous.”

Kara opened one eye, turning his head and gazing reproachfully at the girl—who, birth clan notwithstanding, was most definitely a vixen.  He received a wide-eyed, lash-fluttering stare in return, and groaned quietly.  “You wouldn’t dare tease me again, not the entire ti-i-i-me . . .  He stuttered in mid-sentence as she proved that she would indeed dare tease him again.  “The entire time until the official wedding date,” he rushed out, catching her wrist and pulling her hand away.

“I think your father’s right,” he added, being certain to keep his voice low so that only they could hear.  “You do like to bait people, don’t you?”

“I have to give up a great deal to behave myself until the official date,” she murmured, the slide of her soapy hand up over his abdomen very nearly as erotic as it had been a little farther down.  “You don’t want me to be completely deprived, do you?”

He’d pout, but her continued washing was entirely too distracting.  Instead, he just sighed again like a soldier just told he had a bunch of army latrines to muck out.  “It would probably be easier on both of us if you could be.  And you make it sound like a horrible fate indeed,” he groused, his tone clearly implying that maybe this wasn’t so good an idea in the first place.

“Having to wait?  That is a horrible fate,” she whispered.  “Especially after everything you’ve shown me so far.”  The words made him recall the journey from Athasati to Kaykolvayshti; any number of small inns and secluded camping spots had been settings for scenes right out of his most private fantasies.  Jurnia was an energetic and eager partner—if, perhaps, a touch demanding.  At least she was learning that male stamina, while impressive enough in war or some other such enterprise, was far outstripped by female stamina in this particular arena.

He blushed at the vivid reminders, suddenly feeling lightheaded.  While part of him felt guilty about not only marrying her essentially on the sly but truly enjoying the relationship and all its perks, another part felt deep satisfaction at knowing his beloved wife was always eager.  It was that same eagerness that made him wary now, only because under it all, he was just as impatient as she was to indulge in his newfound pleasure.

She giggled faintly, then kissed him on one blushing cheek.  “Am I wrong?”

“No,” he squeaked out.  “I feel much the same way, that I do.  It’s just . . . I’d really not want to give Iryasitru a good reason to contemplate breaking hospitality, that I don’t . . .”

“Oh, I don’t either.  But he might already realize that something happened, you know.”

His amber eyes glazed over and he wobbled slightly.  For a moment, it looked like the little Fox really would pass out.  “Ara . . . He’s going to kill me after all.  I just know it . . .”

She steadied him.  “No, no.  I think that as long as we don’t give any overt evidence to the contrary, he’ll pretend that he doesn’t know anything happened.”

“Why would he do that?”

“What good would it do for him to start prying into things he doesn’t really want to know?  It’s more polite all around, really, to pretend nothing significant has happened yet.”

Kara had to admit that she had a point, but the idea of basically lying to the Raven Chieftain bothered him.  Iryasitru might have been a high-tempered, ruthless man, but he was also exactingly honorable.  One might argue that a man who directed his soldiers to kill even the women, children, and elderly of an enemy clan was and always would be dishonorable, but his every action since that dreadful time had been seemingly directed by a desperate need to regain his lost honor.

He was shaken from his reverie by the splash of warm water cascading down his body as Jurnia began rinsing him off.  Since she growled at him whenever he tried to move his right arm, he settled for helping as best he could with his left.  The soap stung just a little on the stitches, but the pain of the wound itself had receded from a deep, throbbing hurt to a tender soreness.

The hot water of the big tub felt wonderful, the heat working into his muscles and making him very sleepy indeed.  Jurnia was hovering at the side of the tub to make sure his wounded shoulder didn’t get soaked; one of her hands was absently stroking his wet hair, smoothing it back from his face over and over, and the gentle caress was familiar and soothing.

“You’re falling asleep, Kara,” she murmured.  “Let’s get you out and dried and put to bed, hm?”

“Sounds like a fine idea,” he mumbled in reply, reluctantly levering himself up and out of the water.  Again he got to stand in one place and let Jurnia do all the work, bustling around him with a towel; the robe she tugged onto him was of very fine black silk, warm from the firebox and smooth as a dream against his skin.  He drowsily cooperated as she put the sling on, tucking his arm into it, which made his shoulder feel much better as the weight was taken off it.

The sheets were fine, creamy linen, the mattress and pillow firm and comfortable.  Jurnia pulled the coverlet up over him, tucking him in with gentle solicitude and bending to kiss him softly.

“You saved Irya’s life,” she whispered against his lips.  “Thank you, Kara.”

Golden Avatar energy glimmered within his half-closed eyes as he reached up and wrapped his left hand around the curve of the back of her head.  Slender fingers threading through her darkest-red hair, he murmured in Khuradasu’s deceptively soft tones, “I promised.”  Unspoken remained the rest of the thought:  And I keep my promises to the best of my ability.  The kiss he gave her held all of his love and longing in its teasing, lingering caress.  However, he knew he had to let her go; for her father’s sake, they were pretending they were not yet married—and behavior such as this wasn’t appropriate under those circumstances.  Reluctantly, he released his gentle grasp and broke the kiss.  With a sigh, he closed his eyes.  “Good night, beloved.  Sleep well.”

Jurnia straightened up, hesitant.  The thought of having to leave him behind and lie alone in her old, familiar bed held little appeal to her.  Mind casting back on the day’s momentous events, she suddenly looked at him curiously.   “Why did you get angry when I knifed that cretin, anyway?”

“The Dark Tiger?” he queried, amber eyes opening again to stare up at her.

The Kaykolom Herald nodded.

Kara gave his wife a crooked smile.  “It’s simple, really.  Like you Heralds, we assassins have a code of ethics to which we abide amongst ourselves.  Though we hunt and dwell in the shadows, we’re still warriors—and we have our own sense of honor.  I challenged his right to finish his contract; as a result, we were honor bound to fight one on one with no one else interfering.  The difference between ranks was enough that my wound actually made it more even between us, since I was the higher rank of the two of us.”

Jurnia blinked.  “I didn’t know that assassins had some kind of ranking system.”

“Well, we do, and we abide by that.  It’s not that different from other crafts and professions, really.”

“You’re that much better than he is that having an injured shoulder made it closer to an even fight?”  There was a tinge of disbelief in her voice.

“The top rank’s divided into ten degrees.  Each degree is just that much better.  So yes, third against first would be like that.”

“I heard him say something about you being modest for only claiming to be first-ranked in Derkarya?”

He softly chuckled.  “Yes, but truthfully, that’s the best I can claim.  Each of the provinces has their own ranks of Shadow Warrior, but there are none for the Empire as a whole.  But some would say Khuradasu should be considered first rank of the entire empire.”

He sounded very drowsy, the honey-gold eyes slipping shut again, damp hair haloing his face.  She stared down at him for a few moments in silence; it was hard to believe sometimes, even though she knew it was true, that this small, almost girlish young man—her sweet-natured traveling companion, her gentle and passionate lover—really was the dreaded Khuradasu.  Hard to believe that he could really be so powerful and skilled that even other assassins feared him, respected him.  He was so complex that she wondered if she would ever understand him, all of him, in every way.

“Is that really that surprising?” he softly murmured as her silence continued.

“In a way,” she admitted.

“How so?”

“I don’t know if I can explain it in a way that won’t sound insulting or stupid, Kara.”


She caught herself bending to kiss him again; if she did that, it was entirely likely that she wouldn’t be leaving the room any time soon.  The ends of her hair brushed his face as she stopped herself.  “There are times when it’s hard to believe you’re really Khuradasu,” she whispered.

“There are times I find it hard to believe myself.”  He smiled, reaching up to stroke her cheek a moment before gently pushing her away.  “You should go, before people start to wonder.”  And before my will crumbles and I make you stay . . .

“Good night, love,” she murmured in return; her hand rested briefly on his forehead before he heard her soft steps retreating, the quiet sound of the door opening and then closing behind her.

Jurnia had so wanted to climb into the bed next to her husband, to cuddle up to his comforting warmth as she had done every night since their wedding in the farming village.  Settling down to sleep in his arms, she felt so completely safe and cherished that she’d actually cried just a little the first few nights—which had had the unintentionally humorous effect of making Kara panic slightly, thinking he’d done something to upset or hurt her.  Assuring him that she wasn’t at all hurt or sad had often led to some rather physical demonstration of just how unhurt she was, and . . .

She knew she was blushing a little as her thoughts went down that path, but no servants or guards she passed on her way to her quarters commented on it.  Still, it was a relief to reach the familiar door and step inside.

The efficient household staff of the Rookery had been keeping her quarters clean; there was no dust to be seen, and the place was lacking in any musty, shut-in smell.  The lamps were glowing, casting a warm, mellow light over the familiar furnishings.  She walked from the small sitting room into her bedchamber, where her eyes went first to the large, comfortable bed with its rather frilly and feminine trimmings.  There was a black blot among the brightly colored pillows.  With a wry smile, Jurnia went to the bedside and lifted up the plush toy raven from its accustomed place.

Her favorite toy had seen better days, but it was quite clean, its velvety body still very black except where some of the plush had rubbed off.  The wings and the embroidered yellow feet had been sewn back on more than once, and one shiny black button eye was slightly off-center where Jurnia had stitched it back on herself at one point.  She gave the toy an affectionate hug, then set it carefully back down on the pillows and went to her travel bag, which had been placed near the door by whichever servant had brought it in.  Extricating the little fox from the bag, Jurnia padded back to the bed and put Lopzu down on the pillows as well.

“Lopzu, this is Kayka,” she said, one hand on either toy.  “She’s been with me for a long time.  Kayka, this is Lopzu.  He belongs to Karavasu, my husband.”  It was probably just the way the light fell, but she could swear that the two stuffed animals were eyeing one another a bit warily, sizing each other up.  She looked at them thoughtfully.

“Since I can’t have Kara to cuddle for a while, I want to keep Lopzu with me.  But I don’t want Kara to be lonely, so . . .  She picked up Kayka, petting the fuzzy head.  “You don’t mind keeping him company, do you?”  She smiled down at the raven.  “I didn’t think so.  Let’s go on back to the guest quarters and I’ll tuck you in with him.”


He should have been able to fall asleep.  The bed was easily the most comfortable he’d been in for months and his wounded body wanted to shut down into somnolence and divert energy into becoming whole once more—yet Kara remained awake lying there, eyes closed, unable to slip away into unconsciousness.

She wasn’t there with him.  For the first time in a long while—and he didn’t count the week of his captivity; he was nearly insensate from the drug that entire time—he was trying to sleep well and truly alone.  Ever since she’d learned his warrior’s name and had become his Kaykolom shadow, she’d been close by at night.  The times he’d camped out in the forests, sleeping upright against a tree, sword propped against his shoulder, she was there near at hand.  The first few times they stayed at inns, they’d gotten separate but adjacent rooms—until she quite cheerfully and logically pointed out that they could both save money by splitting the cost of a dual-occupancy room.  Since that meant separate beds and he had no steady income, he’d quelled his apprehension and accepted.  Then had come the news of the attempt to assassinate the Raven Chieftain and the stay at the Shadow Clan town.  Though again they’d shared a dual-occupancy room, they’d also carried on the charade of the dark-haired girl being “Khuradasu’s woman”—while all the while that pretense was swiftly becoming fact.  He’d married her then, and from that moment until now, they’d slept in one another’s embrace.

He missed her.  It just wasn’t the same not having her now-familiar violet aura near at hand.  It wasn’t the intense, intimate passion he missed either—though give him long enough and he knew he was going to become snappy at being so denied—but simply the fact that her presence had become so much a part of his life that he now felt uncomfortable and lost without her there.

And this is going to have to continue for nearly three weeks? Kara mentally groaned, reaching up with his off hand to rub his forehead for a moment.  Ara.

Three weeks:  one for getting the letter of invitation over to the Dragon Palace and for the Dragon and the Fox to prepare to travel and two for actually traversing that many miles to Kaykolvayshti.  Perhaps His Grace the Raven can be persuaded to hire a Dove handler to relay the news by carrier dove?  That would get the message to Father and Her Highness in two days.  It would still take two weeks to travel unless they packed very light, kept the retinue down and moved at a faster than leisurely pace.  If everything was worked toward collapsing the time frame as much as possible, they could arrive here just short of two weeks instead of three . . .

Still, there may be another way . . .

Kara shifted slightly, rolling onto his back from where he’d been lying on his uninjured side.  Taking a deep breath and then slowly letting it out, he turned his attention to a back part of his mind shut away and ignored.  It was something he often imagined as a door, kept tightly shut and locked—but now he worked the latch free and hesitantly opened the sturdy mental portal.  Father?

For a long moment, nothing happened—no reply, not even the spark of an emotion.  Perhaps it had been so long now, that connection had atrophied beyond use; it was a thought that made Kara a bit sad.  But then came a sense of surprise and a bit of relieved delight.  Kara? responded a mental voice the younger Fox easily recognized as Arjuna’s.

Yes, Father, the redheaded swordsman responded, startled at the older Lopayzom’s acceptance of the term.  No sense of rejection of the relationship came back to him, like it had so many times before.

All’s well? Arjuna queried, his concern genuine.

For the moment. Kara paused, searching for the best way to state what needed to be said.  But I need you and Her Highness the Dragon to come to Kaykolvayshti.

Kaykol—? Why on earth—wait, no, a moment . . . You’ve married a Raven, haven’t you?

The younger Fox gulped, instantly nervous.  Ara?  How did you--?

For a short while now, I’ve been sensing another aura linked to yours in a manner much like Kerza’s is linked to mine.  However, it’s not been a strong sensation thanks to your normal blocking of our connection—though now I can sense it quite well.  I am surprised, however, to learn you’re in Kaykolvayshti and chosen a Raven—

This particular Kaykolom may not be a surprise, Father.  My wife is Chaiya’s daughter.

A long moment of silence followed, but still Kara felt no anger or disappointment.  Rather there seemed to be a sense of amusement from his adoptive father.  Well, seems the little fledgling turned out to be correct.  I’d heard from Chaiya, a few years before her death, that her daughter had developed a rather intense fixation on capturing the Demon’s Claw for a husband.  So why do you need Her Highness and myself there if you’ve already married her?

With his unbound hand, Kara rubbed his forehead with his fingertips.  Trying to keep his thoughts clear and concise, he explained the full situation to the elder Lopayzom.  Even in the stillness that followed, there was no anger or recrimination.

I see, Arjuna responded at last.  I shall certainly make the journey to witness the public ceremony, but as for Her Highness . . . She was—and still is—quite upset that you’ve never returned.

Kara gulped, nervous again.  Please, Father, I want to come home now.  I’m weary of traveling, and now I have someone else to watch over as well.  It was foolish of me, yes—but I had good reason for not returning right away.  And after that, I was afraid I’d be cast out for not being what—

No more, Son.  I understand the reluctance, given what Kerza’s told me.  If it was completely up to me, I’d welcome you home instantly, but the fact remains that you still have to answer to the Dragon.

If she comes to Kaykolvayshti, I will explain to the best of my ability what happened and then do whatever she wishes, Kara vowed.  And if she refuses to come, then I will go see her one last time to learn what fate she may have in store for me.

I will talk to her, Son.  However, you need to try to rest now.  Even I can sense how much your body wishes to sleep.

I’ll try— Kara intended to continue, but he felt the door between them gently shut; it was a subtle hint for the younger Fox to stop burning energy to talk and to make another attempt at sleep.  Sighing, the redheaded swordsman rolled back onto his uninjured side and did his best once more to relax and drift away.


Arjuna, lying on his back in his own bed, opened his eyes at the gentle touch on his chest.  Turning his head, he looked into eyes that he knew were the breathtaking blue of a summer sky, though the dimness of the room and the faint spill of silvery moonlight concealed the vivid color.

He didn’t bother asking how Kerzama had known he was awake; she was so attuned to him in so many tiny ways that it was almost unnerving, bordering on actual telepathy.  She knew when he was tired or hungry, or feeling ill or out of sorts, even when nobody else—sometimes including himself—could have determined it.  That she would know he wasn’t asleep any more was hardly a major surprise.

“Kara just contacted me,” he murmured, laying a hand over his wife’s where it rested on his chest.  “He’s well enough, though I sensed that he’s been wounded.”

“Where is he?” the Swan asked.

“Kaykolvayshti, of all places.”

Her fingers tightened under his.  “But he’s safe?”

“Yes.  He wanted to let me know that there’s a wedding in the offing.”

“He’s getting married?”  Kerza’s face lit up with delight.

“Indeed.  And, apparently, he’s also just saved the Raven’s life from an assassin,” the Lopayzom Chieftain replied, smiling.  His gentle wife probably could sense how relieved he was at knowing Kara was doing well and willing to talk with him.  “How intriguing, the ways life travels through time.”

“He saved Iryasitru’s life?”  Her eyes widened.  “That’s . . . unexpected.  But who’s the girl?”

“Chaiya’s daughter, Jurnia, current Chief Herald of the Kaykolom.”  He couldn’t help but softly chuckle.  “The girl apparently always said she’d capture Khuradasu as her own, and she’s managed to do so.”

There was a profound silence from the other side of the bed; Kerza’s face was almost expressionless, a perfect porcelain mask.  “So Chaiya’s daughter will finally be your daughter as well,” she said very softly.  He could sense no anger in her, but her bone-white aura was giving nothing away in any case.

He frowned, sensing the shift within her.  “Through no effort of my own, if you haven’t noticed.  The children chose this of themselves, with no input from anyone else.  That she’s a Raven probably means her chieftain’s been dissuading her from this—and probably forcefully now that he knows who Khuradasu truly is.”

“I can imagine,” she murmured.  “Iryasitru may have formally made peace with you, but having all his hard work to destroy the Lopayzom unraveled by his own Chief Herald . . .”

His frown deepened.  He moved his other hand over, lightly caressing his wife’s shoulder.  “You’re unhappy over something.  Please tell me about it.”

She looked him straight in the eye.  “Did you know that Iryasitru fathered Jurnia?”

“I guessed as much during her funeral.  Kara’s confirmed it,” Arjuna responded, continuing to caress his wife.

“It’s doesn’t trouble you to know that your son’s going to be connected by marriage with the man directly responsible for the near-total destruction of your clan?”

A silver eyebrow quirked up.  He’d been a bit surprised that Kerza had known of the connection, but her question was even more unexpected.  “The Raven and I agreed to an ending of the blood-feud.  It’s over.  No matter how I feel about it, nothing can ever bring any of them back.

 “Without either of our knowledge or our blessing, our children have come to care very much for one another—so much so that when the Raven asked Khuradasu what he would accept as a reward for saving his life, my son asked for Jurnia’s hand in marriage—even knowing her paternity.”

“This is going to cause a certain amount of furor, I’m certain—particularly among the Kaykolom who’ve been raised to think that Lopayzom are the very incarnations of evil.”

“Apparently that’s been thought of as well.  His Grace the Raven—at his daughter’s suggestion—is extending invitations to the wedding to both His Highness the Tiger and Her Highness the Dragon.  Apparently it’s hoped such august presences at the ceremony will reinforce to the reluctant Kaykolom that remain that the feud is over and any further violence will not be tolerated.”

There was another lengthy pause.  “Diva’s still a bit . . . piqued that Kara ran off to join the army.”

“I know.  And he’s aware of it, somehow.  But he’s promised to give her a full explanation when he next sees her, whether it’s at Kaykolvayshti or here.”  Arjuna paused, sighing softly.  “He finally wants to come home.  I could feel his weariness and his fright.  He’s scared even trying to explain won’t be enough and he’ll be officially exiled at a time when someone else is dependant upon him.”

Kerza shook her head firmly, sending a drift of snow-white hair tickling across his chest.  “Diva won’t do that.  She might make him sweat, but she won’t exile him.  Though even if she did, I suspect he and Jurnia would be able to make a comfortable home in Zarya.”

“I wouldn’t be happy with them there,” Arjuna replied, softly.  “The Lopayzom estates are still empty save of seneschals overseeing them.  I want my son and his family here, near mine, on our lands now that I’m looking to a future here among the living.”

“I know,” she whispered, her free hand coming up to touch his face.  “Diva won’t banish him, Arjuna.  I think you know that as well as I do.”

He turned his head to kiss her hand.  “Perhaps, but if she still harbors some resentment for his leaving the palace and then never returning from the war, I fear her temper.  She has reason to be angry at him, no matter what his claim.”

“She’s still angry about that, yes.  She was reaching an age where Kara was suddenly a lot more interesting than he had been previously.”  Kerza gave a wry smile.  “But no matter how furious she is with him, I don’t think she’ll really exile him.”

“That’s a headache I’m glad we all managed to avoid, actually.  Kara’s always been one to bow in the face of direct authority.  Dragon only knows how far our dear princess would have taken it . . .”

“You’d at least be Diva’s father-in-law, if that were the case.”  She considered that for a moment, then added, “Not that it would really help much.  She didn’t even mind her own father very often.”

“I think Her Highness would have ended up less than happy, however.  Her true fascination’s always been His Highness the Tortoise. I’m glad the prince seems to share the interest.”

“That’s another thing that might help soothe her ire.  Nethratu’s quite a calming influence, isn’t he?”

“Seems to be something inherent for the Tortoise Clan, though I’ve heard there’s nothing worse than a Tortoise finally pushed to anger.

“Hmm . . .”

“Hmm?”  She dropped a kiss on the edge of his collarbone.

“I was just thinking . . . Perhaps I should send a letter to His Highness and suggest a trip to Kaykolvayshti.  Her Highness may be more amiable to seeing my son married off if the Tortoise is there as well.”

“What a dreadfully scheming thing to do, Arjuna,” she murmured against the side of his neck, her tone amused more than anything else.

“Not really.  If His Highness accepts, it’ll only be pleasurable for both royals involved.  They seem to enjoy one another’s company, and I believe they correspond quite a bit through letters as it is.”  It’s called tactics, dear, and I’ve been called a master of tactics, you know.

“Mm . . . that’s true.  Diva might be so distracted by Nethratu that she won’t do much more than make faces at Kara.”  The tip of her tongue flicked against the hollow of his throat.  “But then, that was probably what you had in mind, yes?”

He couldn’t help but softly purr in appreciation of his wife’s caress.  “That’s part of it, yes. I am his father and wish to keep him from serious harm—but I was also thinking that such would lessen the sting for Diva of seeing Kara become some other woman’s husband.”

Kerza tilted her head, an odd, thoughtful look on her face.  “Why do I get the feeling that you’re not quite telling me everything?”

Again a quizzical expression crossed the handsome chieftain’s face.  “Like?” he prompted.

“Kara’s comported himself as a gentleman this whole time?”

“Yes.  Why wouldn’t he?  It’s not like he saw his father hopping about from bed to bed.”  He chuckled softly.  “And in the army, there were some who wondered if he’d ever develop a taste for such things.”

“And Jurnia’s behaved herself properly?”

“She’s headstrong, but I never got the sense she’d truly cross the line.  They’ve acted honorably yes, save in one way.  As I mentioned, without either permission or input from either the Raven or myself, they’ve chosen one another.”  This time he stressed that phrase a bit more.

Kerza blinked down at him, clearly absorbing his words a bit more thoroughly this time; her eyes widened.  Arjuna, are you saying that they already . . . ?”

“Are married?  Yes. Kara’s owned up to it . The Raven doesn’t know yet, but if I know my son . . .”

Her mouth fell open for a moment.  “They went ahead and were married without a word to anyone else?!”

“Apparently so.  I can sense Jurnia’s aura tied to his, so the spirits certainly have agreed to the alliance.”

A faint smile flitted across her face.  “That’s so very like Kara.”

“Hmm?” Arjuna murmured, an indication for her to expand on her observation.

“I met Jurnia when we were at the Rookery.  If what I learned of her then was any indication, Khuradasu would have been lucky to get his shoes off before she dragged him into bed.  I can’t imagine Kara doing anything that would seem dishonorable, so it’s not a terrible shock that he sought benefit of clergy.”

Arjuna chuckled.  “Indeed.  And the girl’s got every bit of stubbornness her father possesses if I’m to believe what I’ve heard about her.  There’s probably quite a story to all this.

“But what matters is that they’re happy with one another.  Kara was scared to face me and tell me what’s happened, and beneath that, I could feel guilt—not only because of all he believes he’s done wrong but also because he doesn’t think he should be allowed to be happy—but under even that, there’s a sense of well-being in his core I’ve not felt before.  He told me he married her because he loved her and didn’t want to be the cause of sadness for her—and I believe he believes it to be absolutely true.”

“Good,” Kerza whispered, laying her head on his shoulder, one hand stroking through his hair.  “I hope he comes to realize that it’s all right for him to be happy, too.”

He nuzzled against her.  “If anyone can convince him of that, it’s probably Jurnia.”

“It seems that Jurnia and I have something in common, at least.”

That made the silver-haired Lopayzom chuckle softly.  Shifting slightly, he gave Kerza a warm, affectionate kiss.  “Do you think you can talk to Diva about making the journey to the Rookery and perhaps seeing Kara again?  I’ll be certain to send a letter to the Tortoise.”

Propped on one elbow, she smiled down at him.  “I can most certainly do that.”

“Good,” he replied, a suddenly sly look in his jade-green eyes—a look that would do the playful Fox Spirit proud.  Reaching up, he pulled his wife down to him to kiss her passionately.

Arj  Whatever Kerza might have planned to say was quite thoroughly eclipsed by her husband’s warm mouth; her fingers curled in his silver hair as she responded wholeheartedly.


Fresh from the bathhouse, her skin still pink and warm, Jurnia went very softly down the hallway with Kayka tucked under her arm.  Rather than just padding around in her sleeping robe, she wore a heavier damask dressing gown, her hair tumbling in damp locks down her back.  It was late enough at night that most of the lamps were out, leaving only a few small light sources glowing in the hallways, making it much easier for her to sneak to the guest wing.

The door of Kara’s room sighed open softly, and Jurnia tiptoed in, making as little noise as possible.  Kara was lying on his back, eyes closed, apparently sound asleep; she couldn’t help but smile as she crept up beside the bed and leaned down to tuck the stuffed raven into the crook of his elbow.

She didn’t get too far, however.  The golden eyes suddenly opened, staring up at her, while his left hand curled around her arm.  “Why are you here again?” the redheaded Lopayzom asked, voice soft.  The look in his eyes seemed to add, Are you trying to get us in trouble with your father?

She clapped her free hand over her own mouth to stifle her yelp of surprise, green eyes huge in the shadows; he’d looked so definitely asleep that she certainly hadn’t expected such a quick reaction.  When her breathing settled a bit, she dropped her hand and looked at where his fingers were curled around her forearm.  “I missed you,” she whispered.  “I’ve got Lopzu for company, but you’re all alone, so I thought . . .  She blushed; it sounded utterly silly when spoken out loud.  “I thought you’d like having some company too.”

“Oh.”  It wasn’t exactly what he’d expected; then again, he wasn’t sure what he expected to hear by way of explanation of her tucking a child’s toy in next to him.  “How thoughtful, if a bit silly,” he added, a corner of his mouth quirking up in amusement.  He kept his hand on her arm, thumb lightly rubbing against her in an affectionate caress.

“This is Kayka,” she announced, holding up the stuffed raven, determined not to feel stupid about the whole situation.  “She’s been my favorite toy since I was very small.  She doesn’t snore or steal all the covers or anything.”

The plush toy gave him a sort of cross-eyed look, which was almost definitely the result of having one button eye stitched on off-center.

He gave his wife a long look before turning his gaze to the well-loved and time-worn toy.  “Well, a pleasure . . . I think.  I suppose you’ll have to do since Jurnia here really should be heading to her own quarters to sleep.”  Kara then shifted his attention back to his wife.  It was all he could do to not just pull her down into the bed with him and start kissing her.  “Three weeks is going to be such a very long time, that it is . . .”

Given that Jurnia was leaning down toward him in a rather provocative way, her eyes gleaming with the sort of look he’d become accustomed to since their wedding—and slightly before it—the prospect of just letting her go was a difficult one to contemplate.

“I know,” she whispered, reaching out to touch the bright skein of his hair where it lay on the pillow.

“Maybe you can talk your father into sending the invitations by messenger dove?  That’ll get the word out faster.”

“I think he might be planning to do that already, but I’ll ask him.”  She was leaning just a bit closer; he could catch the fragrance of the soap she’d used in her bath, which immediately sent his imagination down a rather dangerous path involving just how she looked when she was bathing, pearls of water trickling down her fair skin, following the beautifully sculpted contours of her body . . .

He softly groaned, closing his eyes and laying his unbound forearm over his face.  He wanted her so badly, yet here he was stuck having to pretend he had no right to her just yet.  “Jurnia, go,” he growled at her, doing his best to ignore his aching need.

She flinched, pulling her hand back from his sunset hair as if she actually had been singed by the flame-bright strands.  “Kara?”  She sounded bewildered, hurt, by the rough dismissal.

He winced at the sound in her voice.  “Damnation,” he muttered, tightening his grip on her arm.

Next thing she knew, she was there lying atop him after having been pulled down with ease.  Even one-handed, the Lopayzom was startlingly strong.  He held her close, capturing her mouth in a heated kiss that left no doubt as to his desire for her.

Jurnia gasped faintly as he pulled her down, but the sound was stifled by his kiss.  She only relaxed after determining that she wasn’t putting any weight on his wounded shoulder, and then she melted against him with that sweet, willing passion that was utterly captivating.

He continued the kiss for a long, breathless moment.  The whole of his love and passion and frustration at having to keep up such a pretense filled the caress of his lips.  Finally, however, he gently broke it and opened faintly glowing golden eyes to stare up at her.  “It wouldn’t be wise to continue, no matter how much I wish to do so.”

“Nobody saw me come in here,” she whispered, tracing the outline of his lips with the very tip of one slender finger.

He softly groaned.  Capturing her finger with his mouth, he suckled suggestively upon her finger for a few tense heartbeats before murmuring around it, “You are a vixen, beloved.”

“Fortunate that I married a Fox, then, isn’t it?” she murmured back.


The night sky had changed from star-studded ebon velvet to a shade of blue so dark it could scarcely be distinguished from black by the time Jurnia stirred, still feeling warm, languorous, from Kara’s lovemaking.  Beside her, the little swordsman did not move, his arm looped around her waist; his grip tightened a bare fraction as she raised her head from his shoulder.  His other hand lay relaxed and open against his chest, the material of the sling somewhat wrinkled, but still secure.  Since he had been hampered by the injured shoulder and the bound arm, Jurnia had been obliged to do a great deal of the work, which was hardly something she objected to.

She glanced out the window above and to one side of the bed, glimpsing that darkest-sapphire hue in the sky, and blinked in surprise.  She hadn’t planned to stay so long—though truthfully, when she’d entered the room, she hadn’t planned to linger at all.  Kayka was almost buried between the pillows, tucked out of the way of the passionate frenzy that had overtaken the Lopayzom warrior and his Kaykolom wife.  Jurnia found herself smiling apologetically as she fished the toy raven out and patted its plush head.

“I need to go, Kara,” she whispered, pressing a kiss to her husband’s cheek just in front of his ear.  “Dawn isn’t far off.”

Kara murmured incoherently, sounding disappointed, but he turned his head enough to kiss her drowsily.  His arm tightened around her in a brief hug before he released her, and she settled Kayka down in her place as she got out of the bed.  There was an almost-pout on Kara’s soft lips as he cuddled the stuffed toy against him; clearly, Kayka was a very poor second to having Jurnia herself in his embrace.

Their night robes and her dressing gown lay in a rumpled heap on the floor where they’d been tossed aside as unwanted barriers to touch.  She slipped into her robe, laying his across the chair beside the bed with a faint smile.  The heavier silk of the dressing gown wrapped some of Kara’s warmth against her skin as she bent to kiss him one more time, his mouth moving sleepily under hers, soft and yielding.  The urge to climb right back into bed was difficult to resist, but she contented herself with a gentle stroke of his hair before padding across the room and out the door.

She was reaching for the handle of her own suite’s door when it suddenly opened in front of her, making her jump.  Iryasitru wasn’t quite large enough to actually occupy the entire doorway—nearly tall enough, but certainly not wide enough—but he certainly seemed very intimidating to her faintly guilty conscience.

“There you are,” he said, as if it were quite normal for the clan chieftain to be lurking his Chief Herald’s sitting room at the crack of dawn.  He stepped aside politely to let her in.

“I was looking in on Karavasu,” Jurnia said, glad that she’d smoothed her clothing and securely belted her dressing gown.

“Is that so?” he murmured politely.

She gave him a blank, innocent smile.  “Oh, yes.”

“In fact, when I looked in, I noticed that your bed is quite neatly made.”

“I wasn’t very tired,” she replied blandly.  “I suppose it’s all the excitement—finally being home, that incident with the assassin, you know.”

“I’ve been waiting for at least half an hour.”

Her eyes rounded in a sort of empty-headed cluelessness that would have done credit to the Wanderer.  “Good heavens, I must have slept for much longer than I thought in the chair in the guest room, then.  I thought I’d sit down for a few minutes, and I dozed off.”

“I thought you weren’t tired?” he asked.

“You know how it is when you’re recovering from a lot of excitement, Irya,” she answered sweetly.  “You don’t even feel sleepy, and you’re suddenly out like a light.”  Knowing that he was edging her slowly into a conversational corner, she went on the offensive.  “What in the world brought you to my rooms at this hour anyway?”

“I wanted to look in on you and make sure you were all right,” he said, now just as innocent and polite as she.  “You’ve been away for a long time, after all, and I do miss you when you’re gone.”

“Why, Irya,” she murmured with genuine pleasure.  “I didn’t know you cared.”

His expression, the tone of his voice, were just as sincere as he cupped her chin with one graceful hand.  “I always have, Jurnia.”

For a long moment, they looked steadily at each other, a wealth of words that couldn’t be spoken infusing the two pairs of emerald-green eyes.  It was Irya, finally, who drew away from the painful gulf of silence.  “If you’re not tired, perhaps you could tell me the entire story now?  Your messages were fairly brief.”

“Which part of the story?” she asked whimsically, padding over to a chair and flopping down in it.

“All of it would be nice.  I’d like to know everything from how you met Karavasu to how you found out about this assassination plot.”

“That’s likely to take a while,” she warned.

“I have time.”

“All right.  At about noon on the fourth of Greenleaf, I was going to the market square to see what information I could find on the bandits who claimed to be Lopayzom . . .”

She had been right about the whole story taking a while.  She told him virtually everything, including the growing attraction that had drawn her and the young Fox warrior together—though she was careful to emphasize that while some of their behavior danced along the edge of impropriety, they had done nothing dishonorable.  She also glossed over their stay in Athasati to avoid giving away the fact that she and Kara were already married, though she hardly needed to work too hard at it; Irya was visibly shaken by the news that Dashtru had sought revenge for his fate.

“That the creature would seek such vengeance . . .  The Raven leaned back in his chair, his eyes troubled, one hand propped under his chin.

“It wasn’t just him,” Jurnia pointed out.  “He said outright that someone else wanted you dead badly enough to deal with him.”

“I wasn’t referring to the assassination attempt,” Irya murmured.  “I was referring to what he did to Karavasu.”

Jurnia scowled.  “Kara was a mess.  He’d been nearly starved, hadn’t been able to bathe or clean himself up at all for an entire week, had infected wounds with that stupid drug keeping his Avatar energy low . . .”

“Not even a Fox deserved such treatment,” the Kaykolom Chieftain murmured, though the expression in his black-green eyes seemed far more disturbed than the news ought to warrant.

She shot him a faintly reproachful glance.  “I don’t think anybody would deserve such treatment.”

“Indeed.”  She wasn’t going to find a disagreement there.  She studied her chieftain for a long moment, aware of the odd look in his eyes, trying to puzzle out what could have caused it.

“Anyway . . . That is the extent of the story?” he asked, looking away toward the door to her room.

Mmm . . . essentially,” she murmured.  “After Kara recovered his strength, we traveled straight to the Rookery.”

“And in doing so, saved my life.”  That almost inscrutable dark gaze settled on her then.  For one of the few times in her life, she could not read him at all.  “Strange, how after all that’s happened, I’m indebted to a Lopayzom for my life.”

“Fate does funny things, doesn’t it?” she remarked, leaning back in her chair.

“Indeed.”  The flicker of a smile settled on his face.  He then began walking over to the door.  “Tell me . . . Despite this attraction to one who belonged to a former group of enemies, how strong does your loyalty to me remain?”

Jurnia watched him thoughtfully.  “How does one measure loyalty, exactly?”

“How would you measure it, Jurnia?”  Does it really need a qualifier?

“I don’t know,” she said honestly.  “I’ll do whatever you need me to do as long as it doesn’t conflict with the Lopayzom’s interests.”

“So says my Chief Herald.”  With a faint snort of disgust, Irya pulled open the door.

“So says your daughter,” came Jurnia’s voice, pitched so low it was scarcely audible at all.

He paused, then glanced back at her.  “If it means anything, I’m glad you’re happy with the choice you’ve made.  That’s more important to me than the absolute loyalty a chieftain expects from his Chief Herald.  Above everything, your mother and I wanted you to be carefree and happy.”  He sighed, looking away and bowing his head.  “I’m going to miss having you underfoot.”

“I’m going to miss you, too,” she whispered, huge green eyes too brilliant in the lamplight.  “I won’t be the Chief Herald for the Kaykolom any more, but I’ll still be your daughter.  Marrying Kara can’t change that.”

“I wouldn’t want it to change that, ever.”  He turned back toward her; the only expression readable in his eyes was one of melancholy.  “This is really what you want?”

“Yes.”  There was no hesitation at all in her response.  “Believe me, Irya . . . I know Kara well enough to be sure that he really is what I want.”

Samjayna also believed in the Lopayzom to whom she was promised.  But Lord Arjunayazu swore an oath.  That his son was willing to risk his own life to save the one responsible for the slaughter of the Fox at least shows the son is of the same sort.”

A dark unease displaced the emotional shine in Jurnia’s eyes.  “Irya, the Tiger assassin . . . you heard what he said about Samjayna’s death.  If he wasn’t lying, if it’s really true . . .  She couldn’t get the words out.  To discover that an elaborate deception had been created to set two clans against each other, that so many lives had been thrown away for a lie, that the slaughter of the Fox had been a disastrous error . . . staring into her father’s face, remembering how he had looked when he’d read that message proclaiming that the last Lopayzom village had been destroyed, she felt her throat close up with near-suffocating horror.

He closed down even more at her words.  One moment he’d looked ready to hold his arms out to give her a fatherly hug and the next he shifted back towards the door, shoulders drooping slightly.  “One way or another, I’ll find out the truth of his statement.”

“Irya . . .  She was out of her chair in an instant.  “No matter what’s happened in the past, I hope you know that Kara does what’s right.  He intervened to save your life because it was the right thing for him to do.”

“It’s not Karavasu whom I’m concerned about.  As Khuradasu, the man has quite the reputation.”

“But how much of it is soldiers’ tales and rumors spun entirely out of thin air?”  She propped her hands on her hips, tilting her head in challenge.  “Just what part of his reputation worries you?”

The Raven waved his hand dismissively.  “I wasn’t speaking of those nigh-impossible tales of a demon desiring to bathe in the blood of hapless humans.  Rather, I was referring to what is whispered among the Shadow Warriors everywhere . . . The man’s deadly, efficient, and apparently as honorable as a saint.”

“Oh.  So you meant the good part of his reputation.”  She gave him an angelic smile.

“The only ‘bad part’ has been among his foes and the ignorant, to be honest.”

“He’s a good man, Irya.  He seems to have trouble believing that himself, but I know it for certain.”

The Raven merely nodded, then sighed.  “And that’s why you couldn’t keep your hands off him, isn’t it?”

She blinked, then went for the most innocent expression she could manage.  “What do you mean?”

Hrmph.  If it’s anything to you . . . I can see how unhappy you’d be without him.  So as long as you keep it to yourself, you have my permission.  It’s just hard for a father to let his daughter go, you know.”  He shook his head, then started for the door.  He had other things to attend to, after all.

She trapped him in a sudden embrace, hiding her face against his chest.  “I’m glad you’re all right,” she murmured in a thick sort of voice.  “I was afraid we wouldn’t be in time.”

He hugged her back, a sword-callused hand stroking her head.  “I’m glad I’m all right too, and that I get to see my daughter’s fondest wish come true after all.”

She lifted her head to smile up at him, rather misty-eyed.  “It would be nice if we could be publicly honest about my paternity, but I’m asking enough by wanting to marry a Fox.”

“I promise.  As soon as there’s no way announcing that will embarrass my wife, I will.  But regardless our feelings about our marriage, she is my wife.  I’m certain you understand.”

“I’ve understood it ever since Mother explained it to me when I was three,” she said into his chest.  “That doesn’t necessarily mean I like it.  The entire clan seems to already know the truth, at least, but it would be nice to have it all out in the open.”  Her tone was a little wry as she added, “How the clan figured out our relationship is a mystery to me.”  As if the physical resemblance wasn’t enough of a clue, the fact that Chaiya’s daughter also had a temperament to match the clan chieftain’s made it rather more obvious.

He hugged her again.  “It’ll be all right, Jurnia.  Somehow, it’ll be all right.  But I really should be going.”

“I know.  Be careful when you talk to that assassin.  Don’t even think about not having any guards in the room with you.”  She straightened the folds of his shirt as she stepped back.

“I will.  Don’t worry.  I’ll be around to see you given away to that Fox.”  He faintly smiled, then turned and walked out of her quarters.


The light coming in the window told Kara that it must be late morning.  He was hardly surprised that he’d slept so much; between his Avatar energy being directed to heal his wounds and Jurnia’s energetic early-morning visit, he’d been quite worn out.  Pleasantly so, when it came to Jurnia, but still worn out.

He knew almost immediately what had awakened him.  The smells of hot, fresh food wafted over the folding screen that divided the room, and he could hear someone moving around.  It startled him to realize that he didn’t even need to concentrate at all to know that it was Jurnia.

She peeked around the edge of the screen and smiled brightly; he smiled back, sitting up and stretching his good arm.  She picked up his robe where it had been lying over the seat of the bedside chair and held it for him to slip his arm in.  The bound arm made it a bit awkward to get the robe on and belted neatly, but he was dressed enough to be decent.

“How are you feeling?  Is your shoulder hurting you?”  Jurnia looked at the bandage with a certain amount of worry before she pulled the top of the robe closed.

“Not the way that I’m used to blade wounds hurting.  It just feels very tender and sore.”  He adjusted his arm in the sling a little.

“That’ll go away,” she assured him, rummaging briefly through his travel bag and pulling out his comb in one hand, then pointing toward the table with the other.  “You’d better eat your breakfast before it gets cold.”

He eyed the comb.  “What are you going to do with that?”

“Well, you can hardly comb your hair yourself with one arm out of commission, can you?” she pointed out quite reasonably.  “I thought I’d do that for you.”

Her expression was just a little too reasonable and helpful, barely masking the eager gleam in her eyes.  Still, if she wanted to comb his hair, there was no harm in letting her do so.  “All right,” he said dubiously, walking over to the table.

The food was delicious, and distracted him from what Jurnia was doing for a few minutes, but eventually he just had to look over his shoulder.  She was running the comb through the ends of his hair first to get them untangled before starting any longer strokes, and the expression on her face was so delighted, almost childlike, that he had to stifle the impulse to laugh.  Concentrating on the food helped.

“Irya caught me coming back to my room,” she said suddenly, and he almost swallowed his chopsticks.

Ara?!” he gargled, twisting to look back at her with a horrified expression.

She smacked him on the side of the head with the comb to make him face forward again.  “I said, he caught me coming back to my room.  He’s not stupid, so he knows perfectly well what we had to be doing.”

I am dead.  I am so very, very dead.  “He knows that we were . . . ?”

“Mm-hm.  He just asked that we exercise some discretion.”

“He knows what we were doing,” Kara repeated, dazed.  Dead, dead, dead.

“Didn’t I say that already?”

“He knows and he just wants us to be discreet about it?”

“I’m sure that I just said that.  Yes.”

“He’s not going to kill me?”

“Don’t be stupid,” she said briskly.  “Of course he’s not going to kill you.”

“Of course he is going to kill me.  He’s always been a stickler on what’s honorable.  What makes you think this is going to be any different?”  I know I am so dead.

“Because he can see that being with you makes me happy,” she answered, simply enough.

“I suppose killing me would make you unhappy . . .”

“Obviously,” was the tart response as she gave his hair a slight yank.

“Ara!”  He couldn’t help but yelp at the tug on his hair.  The jerk on his neck made his shoulder ache a bit more.

“Sorry,” she murmured, instantly contrite, dropping a tiny kiss on the spot where his shoulder joined his neck.  “Didn’t mean to yank so hard.”

“It’s all right,” he responded.  He tilted his head slightly, baring a bit more of his neck.  “It feels a bit better, but . . .”

“Do you want me to try healing you a little more?” she whispered into his ear, her hands still busy with his hair.

“Oh, I don’t think you have to use your powers to make me feel any better,” he answered, shivering a bit at the feel of her breath on his ear.

“That’s sweet of you to say, but from a practical standpoint, it’s nonsense.”

“From a practical standpoint, I’m healed quite enough and my body can easily compensate for the remainder.”

“I suppose that’s good enough.”  She didn’t sound terribly happy, but rather more resigned.  “I think the ends of your hair need trimming.”

He sat there for a moment, faintly bewildered and a bit disappointed.  “I must be losing my touch or something,” he muttered to himself.

Jurnia leaned forward, over his uninjured shoulder, enough that she could look him in the face.  He thought briefly of a tame raven sitting on its owner’s shoulder, and stifled the thought immediately; he’d surely get smacked if he said anything.  “What do you mean, losing your touch?”

“Here I am trying to be a bit amorous and all you can think about is hitting me with more Avatar power,” he explained, a faint pout settling on his pretty face.  Next to her, the gold and fox-ruby ear cuff sparkled slightly in the room’s illumination.

She stared fixedly at the ear cuff for a moment, then shook off the distraction and giggled at his disgruntled little pout.  “I thought you might be tired after last night,” she remarked, sliding her fingers down his back under the bright veil of his hair.

“Even if I am, I can still be appreciative of a beautiful woman, now can’t I?” he asked.  Under her fingers, she could feel a shiver of pleasure course through his lithe form.

“As long as the beautiful woman isn’t someone other than me,” she answered with a sniff.

“After you, what other woman could I even call ‘beautiful’?”

“Good answer.”  She kissed his temple lightly.  “Like I said, don’t worry about Irya.”

“What ‘good answer’?  I mean it, love.  I’m not just saying it.”

She blinked and looked him in the eye.  She knew of an awful lot of men who’d happily say whatever would keep them in the good graces of a woman.  Kara, however, wasn’t like that; it was plain to see in his amber eyes that he was being entirely truthful.  She knew that she was smiling stupidly and her knees were turning to water, but it was hard to really mind.

“You’re the only one outside of those who watched me grow up who didn’t let the rumors and wild tales get the better of their opinion.  That is a treasure that could never be matched, Jurnia, and I love you very much for it.”

She blushed.  “How could I think otherwise?” she argued feebly.  “You’re just not like that—not like the monster that all those stupid stories talked about.”

“As I pointed out before, many things could have changed over six years—especially in wartime.”

“I didn’t think you would change that much.”

“I just find it amazing you kept that much faith in me.  Though I suppose since Zarya’s far from the Dragonfly lands, it would be easier to do so.”

“Easier in what way?”

“Not being right there in the middle of the bloodshed or having the adverse effects of war making your life even more miserable, to the point where you curse at all those involved in bringing such heartache to folks just trying to live happy, peaceful lives.”

“You were helping ensure that more people would be able to have those happy, peaceful lives,” she pointed out reasonably.

“I know . . . It’s my duty as a member of the nobility to risk war, death and wounds in order to keep those who live off the land safe.  But to those in Aizhou, I was nothing more than an unstoppable killing machine that sent their husbands, brothers and sons home not to have happy lives but to be buried.”

“That’s over and done with.”  She kissed him again, a feathery touch on his skin.

He softly sighed, a mixture of regret at the past and pleasure in the moment.  Reaching up with his uninjured arm, he threaded his fingers through his wife’s deepest-red hair.  “Yes, it is,” he softly agreed.

“Besides,” she muttered almost inaudibly into the side of his head, “my clan sent more than the fighting-age men of the Lopayzom to their graves.”

“But that’s over now too,” he gently reminded her.

“Yes,” she whispered, giving his own words back to him, “it is.”

He stroked her head, smiling at the soft feel of her hair and the contented warmth of the moment.  “And we both have a chance to somehow make things a bit better, don’t we?”

“Mm-hm.  A lot better.”

He softly chuckled at that.  For some reason, her reply struck him as both amusing and a bit arousing.  Jurnia smiled, then kissed his cheek and settled back behind him, running the comb through his hair with a happy little sigh.  He closed his eyes and just allowed himself to enjoy the feel of her brushing through his shaggy orange hair.  But after a few moments of silence, his thoughts turned once again to the imposing Raven Chieftain.  “He wasn’t very happy with you, was he?” Kara finally asked, tenor voice holding a note of trepidation.

“He wasn’t exactly happy.  He believes we’re not married, after all,” she muttered.  “Obviously, he knows now that we’re sleeping together, but he’s willing to look the other way if we’re discreet because he wants me to be happy.”

Kara merely nodded in reply.  If I know him as well as I think I do, then I bet just owning up to the truth will make him feel better about the entire thing.  Still . . . Jurnia’s the one that came up with this, and she ought to know her father better than I.  A frown settled on his face; he certainly trusted his wife, but this entire scheme never did sit well with him.  He was just too honest at heart to feel comfortable with deliberately misleading someone like this, especially someone who was—even unknowingly—already a relation through his marriage to Jurnia.  His wife could be terribly devious and clever, he’d noticed.

“Was this really the best way, love?” he finally asked, unable to keep his thoughts within himself.

“It spares his pride, if nothing else.  I’ve been a trial to him in so many other ways . . . letting it be known far and wide that I chose to marry without asking for his blessing, as either chieftain or father, would probably be the last straw.”

“You don’t think it’ll make a difference that we came here anyway to seek just that?”

“Sort of, maybe.”

“Well, that’s certainly definitive,” he replied, suppressing a smirk.

She tweaked his long hair gently.  “We still did it without getting his approval first.”

“I know, but given our feelings, we’d be more of an embarrassment if we hadn’t done so.”

“True.  We really would be doing what Irya thinks we’re doing.”

“And he seems willing to deal with that right now . . .”


“Well, maybe he’ll not think it’s so bad if he knew the truth.  He’s assuming the worst, so it can’t get any worse, now can it?”

Jurnia leaned forward again to look over his shoulder and into his face.  “What are you scheming, Kara?”

“Scheming?  Me?”  Compared to his wife, he was an infant when it came to schemes.  He just blinked at her, once again the clueless wanderer she’d first met.

“Yes, you.”

“But I’m not scheming.”

“Then what are you planning?”

“It’s better to just tell him the truth, love.  That’s my opinion, anyway.”

She gave him a wide-eyed look of vapidly stupid submissiveness.  “If my lord commands it, certainly it shall be done.”  The look vanished instantly, her tone going deadly-sweet.  “Provided he does it himself, that is.”

Eeee,” he muttered at the words and the expression.  “Don’t do that,” he added, making a face.  “That’s not the Jurnia I know and love, not at all.”

She started gathering handfuls of his hair, pulling it up in preparation for tying his usual topknot.  “Glad you noticed.”

“Of course I’d notice.  Whatever made you think that I wouldn’t?”

“Sometimes you can act awfully dumb.”  She wrapped the leather thong around his hair and tied it neatly.

“But you don’t, so it’s eerie seeing you act that way,” he faintly complained.

“I’m glad that it bothers you.  Men who seem to want ridiculously spineless wives make me sick.”

“I confess . . . When I was younger, I thought I’d probably like someone like that . . .”

“You must be joking,” she said incredulously.  She could probably be forgiven for her disbelief; after all, she hadn’t grown up around Princess Divaksina.

“Not at all.  I grew up with the Dragon Princess as a playmate, and she’s not the most subtle woman in the world.  Sometimes I felt like all she wanted to do was boss me around.”

Jurnia blinked at him.  “Are you serious?”

“Yes.  But I guess it would only be natural for her to be like that.  She is a princess after all—and back then, we all knew she’d be next one on the Dragon Throne.”  He paused, then wryly added, “She wouldn’t ever let any of us forget that little fact . . .”

“If I were in her place, I probably would do the same thing,” she mused thoughtfully.

“If you were in her place, then you’d not be here playing with my hair, now would you be?” he kidded.

“No, I wouldn’t,” she admitted, reaching out to brush his bangs out of his face.  “And I’d really hate that.”

Mmm.  So would I.”

“Well, I need to go talk with my fellow Heralds.  You could go get to know Irya a bit,” she suggested cheerfully.

“Tossing me to the wolves, hmm?”

“Just to the Raven.”  She kissed him lightly.  “It won’t be so bad.”

“I hope so . . .” he sighed.  At least Irya already was thinking the worst.  Kara was certain he couldn’t make it any uglier for his father-in-law no matter what he did.


Those deep, deep green eyes stared back with little expression.  Irya sat comfortably cross-legged on an embroidered pillow, his violet aura calm and hard to read.  Having been listening to various reports while seated on the Raven Throne out in the audience chamber, the imposing chieftain had agreed to retreat to this office located off the throne room.  Having dismissed the other Ravens, Irya was now waiting to see what the Fox wanted to speak in about in private.

Kara couldn’t help but blush under the older man’s imposing stare.  Kneeling on another cushy pillow, his rear resting on his calves, the Lopayzom found himself looking away from that unreadable, dark glare.  “Forgive the interruption of your normal routine, but . . . Jurnia told me this morning that you were there in her chambers when she returned to them.”

Silence greeted Kara’s attempt at opening.  The violet aura didn’t flicker as Irya continued to stare.

Feeling a bit intimidated, the Fox bowed his head.  An unconscious gesture, his hiding his eyes—and therefore his own expression—behind his thick, shaggy, orange bangs often indicated shame or embarrassment.  “I know what you must be thinking, but it’s really not as bad as it seems,” Kara added.  “I’ve done nothing to dishonor Jurnia.”

The Raven finally spoke.  “Really?” he queried, deep voice sounding completely skeptical.

“Truthfully,” the redheaded swordsman replied, eyes still hiding under his bangs.  “I’ve only done what would bring happiness to her.  I know there’s no dishonor in that.”  He lifted his head, amber gaze meeting the other man’s.

Irya remained cold, imposing.

Kara gulped.  The man was hard to read; he had no sense what reaction his words were evoking—or if they were creating any reaction at all.  “She’s told me you’re her father, so I can understand any anger you may have towards me in regards to what you think is going on.  What father would want their dear child hurt and humiliated, which is what would be the case were a noblewoman bedded before being married and then abandoned?  But that’s not the case here.  For one, it’s my understanding that Jurnia was excluded from the political games to which most daughters of the royal blood are subjected.  For another, I will never abandon her, not of my own free will.”

“Are you trying to justify this by your impending marriage, then?”

“Not at all,” Kara responded to the Raven’s words.  “It’s not like that in truth—but for argument’s sake, it wouldn’t be so bad because there will be a wedding, correct?”

Irya frowned.  The darkest-green eyes continued to watch the nervous young Fox.  “I have to concede that point.  We both know why virginity is so prized; the end result would be the same, hence there’s some mitigation on the circumstances.  No question of paternity, no question of whether she and her offspring would be supported or not.”

“But there’s still the sense I have no right to her as yet . . .”

“Are you claiming you do?”  Finally, a glimmer of emotion.  Irya raised dark eyebrows in mild surprise.

The Lopayzom took a deep, steadying breath.  Willing himself to remain calm, he reached into the right sleeve-pocket of his shirt.  It was a new one, given to him by the Rookery’s staff—a rich, deep, midnight-blue silk that seemed to make his orange hair glow warmly.  Kara pulled out a folded piece of paper.  “I have a copy for myself, and there’s one I intend to give my father.  Please, don’t be too angry at your daughter.  In all things, she’s kept your interests at heart, and there’s nothing she’s done to disgrace her position as your Chief Herald.”  He kept his amber gaze on the copy he’d had made for the Raven.  “How much has she told you now?”

“Most of it,” Irya replied.  “Obviously not all of it, however.”

“She’s . . . aware she’s been something of a trial at times.  She’d been hoping to spare your pride.  Even now, on the surface, what will be done will be grand and glorious and for the good of both clans, even though at the heart of it all—it’s a sham.”  Kara leaned forward, holding out the folded paper to his father-in-law.

A sham? Irya mentally hissed.  A glowering expression settled on his handsome face as he took the offered document.

Kara internally winced at the thunderous look on the chieftain’s visage.  Bowing his head, he remained silent as the dark-haired man opened the paper.

Deepest-green eyes scanned over the characters gracefully penned on the paper.  Thunderstruck, he flicked his gaze to the humble man—his son-in-law!—kneeling before him.


Jurnia stopped talking for the ninth time or so, bringing the impromptu Heralds’ conference to yet another halt.  Her sister Heralds watched her patiently as she went to the window and looked outside.  Why do I have the feeling that there ought to be big black storm clouds hanging over the Rookery?  Shaking her head, she turned back to the others and managed a wry, apologetic smile before launching back into the conversation.


  “Already married?” Irya choked out.

“A couple of weeks now.  Right after I’d recovered enough from being Dashtru’s captive,” Kara replied, still not looking up.  The other Avatar’s aura was easy to read now.  He was upset and shocked at finding yet another twist to circumstance.

“Without notice, let alone permission?” Irya growled.

“My father’s in the same situation,” Kara pointed out.

“You’ve no sense of propriety.”

“Actually, I have a great deal of that.”  The young Lopayzom raised his head, his amber gaze staring at the Raven, unafraid.  “Despite my growing affection towards your daughter, I did nothing dishonorable.  I didn’t bed her until after we were married, though she sorely tempted me a number of times.  In fact, I was willing to love her from afar, to let her go and leave her behind once this plot to assassinate you was foiled.  Only I loved her too much.”

“Let me guess,” Irya snarled, “she forced herself on you.”  The Raven’s tone was bitingly sarcastic.

“Actually . . . she was frantic with grief when she thought I was dying.  Throwing off the drug’s effects long enough to deal with Dashtru took a lot out of what I had left.  For the first time, I clearly saw how hurt she would be if I had ever left her behind in any manner—whether it was through death or departure.  I love her too much to inflict that sort of sorrow on her.  Since she would always have worried about my one day leaving her behind, I did the only thing I could do to reassure her that I would always be there.”

“And so you married her.  For her sake alone?”

“As I said, I was willing to love from afar.  So long as she was happy, I could endure the loneliness I believed I more rightly deserved.”

The Raven continued to glower at his newly-discovered son-in-law.  The Fox was being earnest and forthright; his very aura felt clear and open.  Oh, Irya was angry all right.  Marriages between the royal houses of clans were always involved affairs, since each represented a union with political ramifications as well as personal ones.  Like anything involving the well-being of a clan, such marriages were highly regulated—and were often ways to seal alliances or cap off some economic or political agreement.  Yes, the Raven had long ago sworn to keep Jurnia out of clan politics and follow Chaiya’s lead in how much Jurnia would be involved, but he still had rights as Jurnia’s father and her chieftain that had been superseded.

Still, he couldn’t fault the youth.  Jurnia had fallen in love with the image of her long-ago rescuer; it had been Khuradasu that had captured her heart, and it never mattered what clan to which Khuradasu had belonged.  Irya knew how persistent his daughter could be, and he was getting some idea how gentle the Demon’s Claw truly was despite his reputation and battle prowess.  The dark-haired chieftain knew, in his heart of hearts, that this man was the only one for his beloved daughter.  They were happy with one another, seemed to be truly in love, and Karavasu would certainly do all in his power to support and protect her and her children.  What more could a father ask?  It’s not a loveless marriage, and he is a chieftain’s son.  And it would drive the point home that the feud is over.  “Why did you risk your life to save me?”

“Ara?”  Kara blinked, startled by the unexpected question.  “Excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

“Why did I save you?”

“Yes, that is what I asked,” Irya repeated, voice taking on a note of annoyance.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Kara responded, a puzzled expression still on his pretty face.  “You’re too important a man to allow to be assassinated.  The Kaykolom have quite an influence in Zarya, and that spills over into the Empire as a whole.  Though you have a designated heir, there’s still unrest with such an event, and though you may have prepared your son well, he’s still not you.

“But the main reason was because it was important to my wife.  At first I thought it was simply loyalty and duty of a Herald to her chieftain, but her concern seemed more than just that.  It wasn’t until she told me you’re her father that I truly understood.

“As I said, I’ve done what would bring happiness to her.  I want her to be happy.”

“As do I,” Irya murmured.  “And in the end, that’s all that matters as well.  Though circumstance has kept me from publicly acknowledging her as my own, I’ve never been one of these noble fathers who fool around and then forget about the offspring so created.  I care about her and her future.  That’s why I told her that as long as the two of you are discreet, I won’t stop her from going to you.”

“Isn’t it all the better to know that there truly isn’t any impropriety taking place?”

Indeed, but I think I’d still like a word with my overly-clever daughter.  “Excuse me a moment.”

The Raven rose to his feet and went to the door which led back to the throne room; opening it, he motioned to one of the guards, who approached immediately.  Kara couldn’t quite hear what Irya said to the man, but the guard nodded and turned smartly even as the chieftain closed the door.  Irya returned to his cushion and sat down again, returning Kara’s curious gaze with an unreadable stare.  Kara hesitated to ask, and Irya offered no explanation, so the silence stretched out uncomfortably for several minutes.

Then there was a brief knock on the door before it opened, and Jurnia looked in.  “You called for me, Your Grace?”  She blinked at seeing Kara there.

“I did.  Come in, Jurnia.  Have a seat.”

She blinked again at Irya’s carefully neutral tone, stepping inside and shutting the door behind her before walking over to settle onto another cushion.  “I was just finishing up a small conference with the other Heralds.  How might I serve you, my lord?”

“You can serve me by next time telling the entire truth and trusting me to deal with it,” the Raven growled, dark eyes narrowing slightly as he stared at his daughter.

Kara frowned, glancing at first Jurnia and then back to her father, uncertain about his presence in what could be a nasty family discussion.

Jurnia stared at him, clearly startled by his mood, but not understanding why he seemed to be angry with her.  It was a look he’d sometimes gotten when she was a child--that look of somewhat wounded innocence and a lack of comprehension.  “What?” she said blankly.

Irya impatiently gestured at the redheaded warrior seated nearby.  “He tells me that you happened to leave out one rather important detail from your story, one that’s backed up by this.”  He held up a piece of paper bearing a collection of calligraphic words and a seal embossed with the image of a frog.

She stared for a moment at the familiar document, then looked at Kara, and finally back to Irya.  The expressions of the two men, combined with the paper, told her exactly what was going on, and the blank look shifted to one that was slightly pained.  “Oh.  That.”

Kara blinked at his wife, the amber eyes wide in confusion.  He knew he’d told her his intent.  True, he hadn’t told her when he was planning to carry out that intent . . .

“Yes, that,” Irya growled.  “Don’t you think I’d be interested in hearing about something like that in the first place, Jurnia?”

She had the grace to blush faintly.  “Well . . . it did cross my mind, yes, but . . .”


“We didn’t get your permission or Lord Arjunayazu’s before we went through with it.”

“No, you didn’t.”  Irya shook his head slightly, obviously less than pleased with that fact.  “But what in the nine hells were you trying to pull—”

“Your Grace,” Kara interrupted, raising a hand, “she was trying to—”

“Hush, you.  I’m talking to my daughter at the moment.”  Irya tossed his unexpected son-in-law a dark glare.

“I was trying to spare your pride,” she told her father at nearly the top of her voice; the volume made Kara wince and hope that the walls had cork built into them to muffle and mute sound.  “I know that the entire clan’s watched me step all over your authority since I was eight, and I thought it might be best to at least look like I was doing things properly for once!”

“My pride?”  Irya’s own voice became just a bit louder, though nowhere near the volume his daughter had produced.  “Do you honestly think my pride would crumble under such a blow?  And if you’ve been that worried about my authority, then why step all over it every chance you get?”

“No, I didn’t think it would,” she answered in slightly less of a shout.  “But perhaps you’d like to tell me what your response would have been if Kara had requested your blessing on our already-accomplished marriage?”

“Depends on how it was broached, like anything else, daughter dear.”  The Raven chieftain growled out the final phrase.

Kara inwardly winced, then lowered his head.  Eeee, he really is upset . . .

Jurnia leaned forward, hands braced on her knees, her expression stormy.  “Is that so?  Can you tell me that you wouldn’t have been just as angry?”

“No, I can’t,” Irya readily admitted.  “Even though I’ve had to be quiet about your paternity to spare my legal wife any embarrassment and I promised you would have as free a life from politics as possible, the fact remains that you are of the royal blood, I am your father and there were rights I had as such as father and chieftain—rights which were completely ignored.”

“If the circumstances were different and we’d truly come to you for permission, would you have said ‘no’?”  Her voice was much quieter now.

Irya gave her a very long look.  A tense silence enveloped the office before, at last, the chieftain slowly shook his raven-haired head in the negative.  “Ever since you matured beyond childhood, I’ve heard your admiration of Khuradasu from your very own lips.  When all’s said and done, it hasn’t mattered what clan he truly was so long as you’d be happy.”

“You knew all along that I wouldn’t marry anyone but Khuradasu, and that Khuradasu hardly stood a chance of getting away from me once I found him.”

That actually brought a bit of a smile to Irya’s handsome, slightly angular face.  He glanced for a moment at the somewhat subdued redhead.  “I did know that, Jurnia.  And had you come dragging him home asking to marry him, I would have agreed once I was assured it was what you truly wanted.  But I am rather hurt that you didn’t trust me with the truth—very much so.”

“I didn’t want you to think that I don’t respect you,” she admitted softly.  “You and I tend to communicate on levels that other people just don’t understand, but I was afraid that this time even you would read something into my actions that I never intended.”

“After so many years hearing about how wonderful Khuradasu was, you truly doubted—No, I can see why you’d be afraid.  It’s because he’s Lopayzom, isn’t it?”

Jurnia darted a sideways glance at Kara and said nothing at all, dropping her gaze to the floor.  The young Fox inwardly winced, but reached out a hand toward his wife, offering her some small measure of comfort.

“You didn’t know if I still hated the sight of any Fox, didn’t you, Jurnia?”  Irya gently asked.

She took Kara’s hand, squeezing tightly, and finally raised her eyes back to her father.  “No.  I didn’t.”

Irya sighed, and in that moment he seemed to look far older than his usual wont.  He shook his head slightly, then turned his gaze away.  Staring far off at only something he could see, his lips twisted into a wry smile.  “A Fox returned Chaiya home to me, and it seems as if a Fox also kept my daughter from being an innocent casualty of a war not of our making.  Though no one else may have known Khuradasu was Lopayzom, he certainly did . . . and despite the feud, he saved my daughter.  It didn’t matter to him all those years ago what clan you were.  It’s only fair it shouldn’t matter what clan he is now.  And everything you’ve said about giving back to the Fox has merit.  Your mother would have approved.”

She managed a small smile.  “If you thought that you heard entire volumes about Khuradasu, just imagine how much Mother heard.  I don’t know if she ever really knew that Khuradasu and Arjunayazu’s son were the same person, but somehow I think she wouldn’t be terribly surprised.”

“She’d probably find some sort of divine justice in the entire situation.”

“I know that she argued with you over the Lopayzom a great deal.  She probably would find it ironic, at least.”

Irya’s expression shifted to a scowl for a moment.  However, by the time he glanced back at his daughter, he once again wore the same bland, unreadable look that usually graced his visage.  “Indeed.  But she would also be happy with how things have worked out.”  The dark-green gaze shifted to the younger man.  “Despite it being a sham, as you said, my clan needs for this ceremony to take place.  Dashtru’s sorry existence has shown me that what I started may not be so easy to set aside.”

Jurnia winced at the mention of the name, and her hand closed tighter on Kara’s.  “That was another reason for keeping the truth secret.  Everyone needs to see this happen.  It might help drive home the point that the war is over.”

“I agree with you on that point.  Though I wish you’d personally entrusted me with the truth at the start, I too would have kept it from the rest of the clan for just this very reason.  They need to see the ceremony that will make us related by blood—especially since we’re asking our respective princes to attend as well.”

“Speaking of that, if you haven’t already, why don’t we send out those invitations via messenger dove?  It would be faster.”

A corner of the Raven’s mouth quirked upwards.  “They were sent out by the dove handlers this morning.  Like it or not, Jurnia, I know you rather well.  You’re quite impatient when you’ve made up your mind.  Hopefully His Grace the Fox and Their Highnesses will travel as swiftly as possible.”

Jurnia blushed faintly.  “I hope so,” she admitted candidly.  “I miss having Kara with me.”

The Raven merely gave his daughter a long look with his deepest-green gaze.  When he finally spoke, his voice was droll.  “After spending all night with him, I would have expected your loneliness to be somewhat assuaged.”

Next to her, Kara lowered his head, his cheeks turning red with embarrassment.  Uncomfortable, he retreated symbolically behind his bangs.

Jurnia blushed as well, but without dropping her gaze from her father’s.  “It’s just not the same when I have to sneak around and be all clandestine about it.”

“I’ll have to ask you to do so for a little while yet,” Irya insisted.  “It’ll be better for the clan if they think the public wedding is the real one.”

“I know.”  She was absently stroking her fingers over Kara’s hand.

The imposing chieftain began to say something else when the scrape of the wood and paper door caught the trio’s attention.  Shifting position and looking over at the office’s entrance, Irya stared expectantly at the young Raven warrior standing there.

“Forgive the intrusion, Your Grace, but an urgent message has arrived.”  The black-haired man held out a folded paper.

Irya held up his hand.  “It’s all right, Asaru.”

Kara peered through his shaggy bangs as the Kaykolom entered the room and handed the note to his chieftain.  Once waved away in dismissal, Asaru bowed and retreated, pulling the door shut behind him.  Jurnia waved briefly at the familiar soldier as he departed, then looked curiously at the note in her father’s hand.

Irya opened the note. Dark eyes scanned over the words calligraphed there for a silent moment.  Though the chieftain’s expression didn’t change, the amethyst aura wavered slightly.

The Lopayzom swordsman lifted his head, frowning slightly.  Such a ripple in oja usually meant bad news acknowledged and then set aside.  Jurnia remained remarkably quiet, but it was obvious that she was very curious indeed.

Irya bowed his head and closed his eyes a moment.  Setting the letter aside, he glanced at the two sitting opposite him.  Dyumna’s dead,” he said, voice quiet.  “Her kin say her illness took her suddenly, so she didn’t suffer.  My younger sons are on their way back home, but her clan’s insisting on burying her there.  It apparently wouldn’t be proper to bury a Mayurom in such a rustic place as Kaykolvayshti.”

For a moment, Jurnia froze, her hand suddenly clenching on Kara’s.  When she found her breath again, she said quietly, “I’m sorry, Irya.  I knew she was still getting sick a lot, but I didn’t know how bad it was.”

“None of us knew, otherwise I would have insisted she remain here rather than undertaking such a journey.”  Irya shrugged.  “I’m certain she’s in a better place.  And she’s free of being my wife now.”

     A purely political marriage, Kara murmured to himself.  He sensed no deep feeling of loss from his father-in-law, but rather an acceptance of something that had little effect one way or another on him.  All Kara truly got was irritation of having the Rookery called “rustic” yet again by the overly-elegant Peacock Clan.  Thank the spirits my marriage is more than just politics.

“Did they actually have the nerve to say that Kaykolvayshti’s ‘rustic’ again?” Jurnia demanded.

The Raven sighed, clearly irritated.  “Of course they did.”  He slapped a hand over the unfolded note.  “It’s there in black and white.”

“Why, those spoiled, self-important, empty-headed sycophants!” Jurnia virtually exploded.  “They can’t even have the decency to address a clan chieftain politely when informing him of his wife’s death?!  I’d like to see that overly fancy piece of spun sugar they all live in stand up to the kind of thing that the Rookery can handle!”

Her outburst took her husband by surprise.  Kara blinked at Jurnia, feeling it best to just remain a silent observer to apparently some sort of long-standing situation between Irya and his wife’s family.

“Well, at least they can’t continue to pretend martyrdom by having sacrificed one of their own to be the wife of such a barbarian as myself,” Irya responded.

“Oh, they found you un-barbaric enough to expect the usual gifts and political favors from you,” she groused.

“I know, but that’s how the game’s played, unfortunately.  However, Dyumna had solid breeding and she and her kin haven’t seemed to have corrupted any of my three sons.  Nizanu will make a good chieftain after me, though it’ll be sad business to tell him his mother’s dead.”

“He’s a good boy,” Jurnia said absently of her eldest half-brother.  “He listens when someone tells him something, which is a good indication that he didn’t take after the Peacock side of his heritage all that much.”

“I wouldn’t underestimate him, Jurnia.  He’s far closer to me in personality than his mother.”

“I did say that he listens.  Whether or not he actually does as he’s told is another matter entirely.”  She gave him a very sweet smile indeed.

“Yes, well . . .” Irya leaned over, picking up the piece of paper.  He folded it back up again before slipping it into the sleeve pocket of his shirt.  “I’m sure Mayura will reward dear Dyumna well for having to put up with me for so long.”

“I realize that this is going to sound astonishingly selfish of me,” Jurnia mused, “but I have to ask if this is going to put off the wedding plans.”  She shot Irya a slightly apologetic look.  “I don’t really think any of the Kaykolom are going to miss her all that much.”

The chieftain almost instantly shook his head in the negative.  “Nothing’s going to change other than we won’t have my lady wife remaining in virtual self-isolation in her chambers and complaining about how backwards and uncivilized we can be.  Since they’re going to bury her there, there won’t be a funeral here to interfere.  My younger boys will be home before I anticipate Their Highnesses’ arrival, and I’d be surprised if Nizanu did anything more than say a prayer for his mother’s soul and go on with life.”

“Would it be suitably backwards and uncivilized to smile meanly over the fact that she’s gone off to whatever reward Mayura offers to those who make such a colossal sacrifice as marrying into a clan that doesn’t live in Kamarya?”

Irya shrugged.  “Suit yourself.  Personally, I’m a bit relieved, though saddened.”  The deep green gaze shifted to the redheaded man sitting next to his daughter.  “Before you cast too many aspersions at us, Karavasu, I want you to know that I did try to make our marriage something more—but she wouldn’t allow me to do so.  I did my best, but in the end I could neither win her over or gain anything I needed from our marriage save the sons to inherit the clan after me.”

“Your Grace, it’s really not my place—”

“Don’t worry about it.  I just wanted to explain.  I’m sure Jurnia can tell you more.”

Mayurom are insufferable,” Jurnia said immediately.  “All of the Kamarya clans have a certain arrogance to them in one way or another, but it’s the Peacocks who are the absolute worst.  They seem to think that if you’re not a fellow Peacock, or at least from another Kamaryan clan, you’re hardly worth giving the time of day to.  Irya’s marriage was political, but he really did try to make it work on a personal level too.  Dyumna just couldn’t get her pretty head out of her impossibly tight backside and treat him and the rest of the Kaykolom with anything more than the most coldly arrogant, obligations-of-the-noble-class kind of civility.”  Given that Heralds were supposed to be diplomats, Jurnia’s choice of language was shockingly blunt, to say the least.

“I see.”  Kara winced, even more grateful that fate hadn’t saddled him with such a bride.

“You’ll have to excuse Jurnia.  She has good reason to despise my wife, newly-dead or not.  I think Dyumna figured out my affection for my Chief Herald, and I swear she was determined I would be as miserable as she was.”

“She wasn’t as bad as she could have been,” Jurnia conceded, “but she never would let me—or anyone else—forget that I was born to an unwed mother.  The Mayurom are picky about that sort of thing, along with everything else.  Although Irya never acknowledged me,” and her expression showed absolutely nothing of how she might really feel about that, “and my mother never revealed his identity, it was obvious to almost anybody with functioning eyes who my father really was, and Dyumna resented that for some reason.”

Watching them, Kara could agree that a wife might feel a bit resentful of such an obvious symbol of her husband’s affair.  There was just too much of Irya in his daughter to mistake her for any other man’s child.  Though Chaiya’s delicate features had softened the boldness of Irya’s, and her pale-green eyes had lightened his darkly verdant ones, the resemblance was unmistakable.  Though it was hard to figure out where she’d gotten that red hair, even as dark as it was, from her black-haired parents.

“Well, I can’t do anything more to offend my wife’s sensibilities,” Irya murmured.  Gracefully rising, he added, while gesturing for the other two there to stand as well, “She’s beyond anything I can do now, so I will finally acknowledge you as my own, Jurnia.  It will be as your father, not your chieftain, that I give you away at your wedding.”  A lopsided smile momentarily graced his face.  “Even though you’ve already been given . . .”

The chieftain’s last remark made yet another blush of embarrassment bloom upon Kara’s cheeks.  He ducked his head again as he scrambled to his feet.

Jurnia’s reaction, on the other hand, was far from embarrassed.  She stared at him, her mouth open and her eyes wide, sparkling with sudden joy.  She tried to speak, but no words came out.  With a little gasping sound, she went from sitting to throwing herself at Irya’s chest without seeming to make a conscious transition through a standing position at any point in the process.

Reflexively, the chieftain caught her, then let out a faint “whoof” as she locked her arms around his ribs.  He stared down at her blankly, astonished by her reaction to his casual words.  It had never occurred to him that public acknowledgement would mean so much to her; she knew whose daughter she was, he knew whose daughter she was, and he had assumed that was enough.  Yet her almost offhanded and suspiciously blank-faced remark only moments previously suddenly seemed to hold a great deal more meaning than he’d thought.  Dyumna had always been chillingly proper in her behavior towards him, but about the time that Jurnia was learning how to walk, Irya’s wife had begun nudging right up against the boundaries of polite, civil behavior.  Her treatment of the little girl—and, now that he thought about it, of Chaiya—had been, if anything, treading the fine border of actual insult on many occasions.

Jurnia had grown up with the impression that she would never be acknowledged, that she would always be “Chaiya’s daughter”, the fatherless, illegitimate offspring who was accepted strictly on the basis that she was obviously pure Kaykolom.  She’d been the all-too-visible evidence that Dyumna’s husband had been unfaithful, and whether or not she actually cared about him, it was a blow at her personal pride.  She was “deficient” in some way, for surely he would not have strayed otherwise, and the Mayurom woman had hated even the thought that anyone might believe her to be less than perfect in every way.  Though Irya and Chaiya had chosen not to make a public issue of their affair, Dyumna saw their decision as intended to be an insult to her, not a gesture of polite respect from her husband and his Chief Herald.  She had taken out her spitefulness on the little girl instead, though never directly.  Her words had always been carefully chosen so as to let her deny ever making a deliberately insulting remark.  Chaiya had been on the receiving end of Dyumna’s mean-spirited jealousy as well, though nowhere near as much—Dyumna had no desire to see whose side Irya would take if his wife and his Chief Herald should happen to quarrel.  Hearing that Irya now intended to publicly claim her, to give her to Kara with the blessing of a father rather than simply a chieftain, filled Jurnia with a dazzling rush of sheer happiness.

After a long moment—during which Kara did his best to hide his amusement—Irya finally spoke.  “Are you quite done glomping me yet?”

Jurnia lifted her face and gave her father a blinding smile, tears shining in her eyes as she tightened her arms a little around him.  “I think I might have it out of my system—for now.”

He hugged her back before gently extricating himself from her warm embrace.  “That’s good.  Now you may wish to compose yourself.”  Amusement sparkles in his deepest-green gaze.  “I’d hate to have Khuradasu angry at me for making you cry.”

She giggled involuntarily and darted a look back over her shoulder at the little swordsman.  Kara had a hand in front of his mouth, hiding a smile--but laughter sparkled in his amber eyes. It was rather cute seeing the two of them being so chummy.

“I don’t think he’s holding a grudge,” she announced airily, and kissed her father on the cheek.  “Are the three of us going to have supper together tonight?  I think you ought to get to know Kara better.”

“That can probably be arranged,” Irya admitted.

“Good.”  She smiled at him brightly.  “Can I get back to my conference now?  The other Heralds are probably wondering what’s going on.”

“Go ahead, Jurnia.  And next time, have a bit more faith—though I did react as you expected,” he muttered, recalling his shock when the redheaded warrior had allowed his totem to be sensed.

His daughter patted his shoulder comfortingly.  “See?  I know you very well indeed, Irya.”

“You’d best be going,” the dark-haired chieftain admonished.

The younger Kaykolom nodded, still giddy, joyful. For a moment, it looked as if she’d give her father yet another hug before taking her leave, but Jurnia merely turned and walked off, a decidedly happy bounce in her step.

Irya turned his deepest-green gaze back to his son-in-law. “Karavasu?”

The Lopayzom blinked, faintly surprised at being so addressed. Wood scraped against wood as the door to the office closed. “Yes, Your Grace?”

“Tarry with me a while. My headstrong daughter’s correct; I should get to know you better.” The Raven gestured toward the door. “I have a court session due soon, and after that is a full meeting of the clan council. I’d be honored if you’d kept me company during those.”

“But Your Grace . . . is it wise letting a Fox sit in on Raven business?”

The dark emerald gaze hardened, turning dangerously cold. “The feud is over. The Lopayzom are no longer an enemy. The sooner the rest of the clan fully accepts it, the better. I’ll be damned if my grandchildren are hunted down and killed out of spite just because they’re Foxes.”

Kara could only mutely nod at that. “As you wish, Your Grace,” he acquiesced.