Half-awake, Jurnia reached over to the other side of the bed.  Her hand brushed the tumbled covers, but the warm bulk of her husband was notably absent.  The realization brought her the rest of the way into wakefulness, and she sat up, frowning at the empty bed beside her.

A moment later, she shook her head at her own paranoia.  Surely he’d just gotten up to relieve himself; any minute now, he should be coming back in through the private hallway.  With a smile, she carefully posed herself for best effect, opening the front of her sleeping robe a little more and arranging her hair on the pillow.  Discovering that Kara had been struck by some spell or curse that brought the fierce Khuradasu side of his personality to the forefront had been distressing, but since everybody who could do something was already doing it, and she herself wasn’t able to contribute to the search for the culprit or discovering the remedy, she had become determined to adjust.  The fact that Khuradasu made no secret whatsoever of his desire for her, and was a downright dangerously thrilling lover, compensated to some degree . . . but she found herself desperately missing her sweet, gentle husband.

Artfully displayed, Jurnia waited for Khuradasu to return and do what she knew he was likely to do.  And waited.  And waited.

Scowling, the young woman sat up again.  Where had he gone?  Unless he was suffering from some major digestive issue, he certainly should have been back from the toilet by now.  A new thought occurred to her; perhaps he’d gone to get a midnight snack.  That suddenly seemed like a rather nice idea.  She hopped out of bed, snugged her robe around her, opened the bedroom door, stepped into the hall, and almost fell over her husband.

To her astonishment, he was fully clothed, sitting cross-legged with his back propped against the wall, his sword leaning against his shoulder, and his hands folded into his sleeves with his chin on his chest.  She stared in pure amazement for a moment, then leaned down until her head was about level with his ear.

What in the name of the Almighty do you think you’re doing?

He jumped and his head snapped up.  Honey-gold eyes flew open and stared at her in surprise; then he smiled—a bright, innocent, sunny smile—and caught his sword before it slid entirely off his shoulder.  “Oh!  Hello, Lady Jurnia.  Is everything all right?”

“What are you doing out here instead of in bed?” she demanded, her mouth taking over while her brain went into gear.  This was most definitely not Khuradasu.

The smile didn’t fade.  “I thought it would be best for me to be out here where I can watch for intruders, that I can.”

“I don’t want you to watch for intruders,” she explained with iron patience.  “I want you to be in bed where you belong.”

He actually blushed a little.  “Well, Lady Jurnia, if you’ll show me to a room, I suppose that I could do that if it would make you feel better.”

She looked at him steadily, then pointed at the door she’d just stepped out of.  “In there.”

He followed the line of her pointing finger, and blushed again.  “But that’s your room, Lady Jurnia.”

“That’s our room, Kara.  We’re married, remember?  It’s perfectly appropriate for us to share a room.”

With an uncertain glance, the little swordsman stood up and peered through the doorway.  “But . . . there’s only one bed, that there is.”

“Yes.  That’s right.”  She put her hands on his back and pushed him firmly into the bedroom, stepping in and shutting the door behind her.  “Now get undressed and get into bed.”

“Ara?” he warbled, turning around to stare at her in shock.

“If you value your life, Karavasu, don’t you dare make me repeat myself.  I’m going to the toilet.  When I come back, I had better find you in that bed, or else you’d better be hightailing it for another district.  Understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he mumbled.

Raven give me strength, it’s the wanderer all over again, she fumed mentally as she padded down the hallway.  She remembered all too well how Kara had acted the part of the silly, harmless vagabond to make himself innocuous and non-threatening in any way.  The idiot act had driven her berserk until she’d figured out his reasoning, but if Khuradasu was any indication of how this curse worked, the way Kara was behaving was not an act.

When she returned to the bedroom, she found that her orders had been followed.  Kara’s clothes were neatly folded atop the chair on his side of the bed, replacing the sleeping robe that had been draped over it before; Kara himself was lying almost on the very edge of the mattress, turned on his side, with the covers pulled up to his neck.  She noted that the sheets had been smoothed on her side and her pillow fluffed up, which was a nice gesture.  Settling down and tugging the covers up, she reached over to touch his shoulder.

He flinched so violently that he almost fell off the bed, and she was forced to grab him by the back of his robe to keep him from teetering over the edge.  He yipped faintly as she pulled with sufficient force to roll him onto his back, his eyes huge and anxious.

She glowered down at him.  Now what are you doing?”

“I thought I’d leave you plenty of room, Lady Jurnia,” he said plaintively.  “It’s not really appropriate for me to be in here . . .”

“Kara, we’re married,” she said again.  “I don’t want you hanging halfway off the bed, I want you to cuddle me.”

His eyes got bigger.  “Ara?”

“Stop arguing and cuddle me!” she barked in a tone that strongly resembled that of a drill instructor.

“Yes’m!” he yelped, hastily turning onto his side and putting his arms around her as if she might burst into flames or shatter like thin glass.

“That’s not cuddling,” she sighed.

“Ara?” he mumbled nervously.

            She rolled over to face him and tucked her arms around him in the way she was accustomed to.  He remained rigid as a board, and she opened her eyes to frown at him.  “Would you please relax?”

“But . . .”

“Let’s go over this one more time, hm?  You and I are married.  That means it’s perfectly all right for us to share a bed.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this.”

“I don’t want to take any liberties, Lady Jurnia, that I don’t,” he said sincerely.

She stared at him, torn between exasperation at his absolutely honest innocence and laughter at the sheer overwhelming idiocy of the situation.  “Kara, I’m your wife.  You’re allowed to take whatever liberties you want, as long as they’re all right with me, and I don’t think there’s anything you could do that wouldn’t be all right.”

For a breathless moment the large amber eyes stared right back at her like an animal caught in a trap.  Suddenly he jumped as if someone kicked him in the rear, his gaze shifting to the far right—though Jurnia suddenly knew he wasn’t actually looking at anything in the room.  “No, no, no . . . I’ll behave,” the little swordsman murmured apparently to no one in particular.  “You’ve done quite enough already, manhandling her like that.”  His cheeks suddenly blushed bright red.  “I do know what to—no, I’m not going to do that.  She deserves to be cherished, worshipped, not—eeeee.”

For a moment Jurnia wondered if he was going to faint—his eyes glazed over and his face went from an embarrassed flush to a shade far too pale.  Then he shook his head, his topknot becoming even more disarrayed against the pillow, and his gaze cleared, focusing on her.  “I apologize,” he gently murmured.  He did relax then, reaching up to rest a hand on her cheek, his other arm wrapping around her in a warm embrace.  He smiled at her, expression full of the quietly comfortable, gentle, more friend-like side of the love Jurnia knew her husband had for her.  “It was wrong of me to make you worry like that, but it was shown how easily someone could get onto the estate, and I did think it better to be on the alert, that I did.”  He dropped his hand from her cheek, gathering her up closer in his arms.  Sighing happily, he nuzzled against her for a moment as he settled in, truly cuddling her.

“Are you done talking to yourself?” she inquired, rolling her eyes at the ironic fact that if she had understood what just happened, he really had been talking to himself.  After a fashion, anyway.

“Yes,” he mumbled.

“It wasn’t shown how easily ‘someone’ could get onto the estate, by the way.  What was simple for Khuradasu isn’t likely to be quite so easy for anyone else.”

His arms tightened around her.  “I’m not willing to take that risk, that I am not.  You’re too important.”

She laid her head on his shoulder, closing her eyes tightly.  “I’m not totally helpless, you know.”

“Yes, but I’m still responsible for protecting you, that I am.”

Since Jurnia could hardly argue with that, she remained silent, just scooting a bit closer and relaxing into his embrace.  Within a few minutes, he had drifted off to sleep, his arms still tucked around her.

There was a gentleness to his touch that she had missed; Khuradasu would never hurt her, but his possessiveness, his power, communicated itself even when he held her in sleep.  Khuradasu seemed somehow older than Kara’s true age, with an aggression and a force of personality she would have associated with a hardened man who had more years of experience in the world; even when she’d first met him, he possessed a degree of skill that surpassed that of many adults, and his behavior back then had been more mature and confident than his true age suggested.  The swordsman seemed younger now, with the Wanderer “in charge”, as it were.  Sweet-tempered, gentle, innocent, almost childlike in some ways—unthreatening, doing what he was told, protesting in only the mildest of ways and yielding immediately in the face of direct command.

Jurnia was almost embarrassed to discover that her body was starting to tingle with a familiar heat.  Khuradasu was difficult to control, his dominance showing itself in a hundred tiny ways.  She knew that the Wanderer wouldn’t be such a trial, and she was beginning to wonder what it would be like . . .

She wrestled with the thought for over an hour; in that time, Kara eventually shifted in his sleep, rolling over to face the door.  Looking at the back of his head, Jurnia bit her lip, worrying at the soft flesh for a moment.  Then she took a deep breath and moved closer to him, suddenly determined.  They were married, after all, and surely the Wanderer knew that and all it implied.

Jurnia snuggled up against his back, putting a hand up to his shoulder and kissing the nape of his neck.  She knew immediately when he awoke, his body going rigid, but he didn’t make a sound; she chuckled faintly, leaning up and over to kiss his cheek affectionately, which made him relax a notch.  With a wicked grin, she slipped her robe down off her shoulders.

He immediately tensed again when she slid a hand down the back of his robe and over his side to loosen the belt.  She heard him gulp audibly when she tugged the cloth away from his back and pressed herself close again, the caress of skin on skin making her shiver.  Recalling the “ladder incident”, she slid her hands around to his chest, drawing little circles around his nipples, and felt him jolt as if hit by lightning.

“Ara?” he squeaked.  Though she knew it was mean of her, she giggled; that little sound was always cute, but it sounded even cuter coming from the Wanderer, somehow.  “J-Jurnia?  What are you doing?”

She grinned against the back of his neck.  “If you don’t know, I’ll have to show you.”  She nibbled his shoulder, one hand still teasing a nipple, and ran the other hand down to flick the folds of the robe aside and touch him boldly.

“A-are you sure about t-this?” he asked, almost desperately.

“If I wasn’t sure, would I be doing it?”  She was delighted to note that although he was feebly protesting out loud, his body certainly had no qualms.  He’d already been partially aroused, and her massaging fingers were rapidly having a positive effect on him.

He turned his head, and she leaned up on her elbow to look at him; his face was quite red, his eyes huge.  “But aren’t you tired?  You—you haven’t had much sleep yet.”

“I’m not that tired.  Besides, we can sleep in,” she murmured, lowering her head to nibble his ear.

“The servants will be wondering what’s going on, and the chores starting late,” he protested, starting to look panicked.

“The servants ought to know what’s going on already, and we have servants so we don’t have to do the chores,” she pointed out, sitting up and untying his belt, then flipping the robe open.

“But I can’t just sit around doing nothing all day.”

“Who said you were going to be doing ‘nothing’?” she asked with a sly grin, leaning down and running her tongue up the underside of his shaft.  With a plaintive “Arara,” he fell over onto his back as she shifted around to take him in her mouth for a more serious assault on his innocence; one of his hands settled onto her shoulder, but it was difficult to tell if he was trying to persuade her to stop, or encouraging her to continue.  Given that she was employing any number of things she knew he liked—swirling her tongue around the tip, flicking the little thread of flesh on the underside, drawing him deep into her mouth—the latter was more likely.

When he moaned out loud, clenching his fingers in her hair, she drew back with a smile and looked up at him.  To her surprise, rather than looking eager, he was blushing furiously, his expression anything but happy.  She blinked in astonishment.

“What is it?  What’s wrong?” she asked, wondering if she’d done something that had caused him actual pain or discomfort.

Even so, his pretty, blushing face wasn’t that of someone in pain or discomfort.  Rather, the child-like wanderer seemed . . . miffed.  “All my good intentions, all for nothing,” he muttered.  “When you get down to it, I’m just as bad as he is.”

Jurnia stared at him, befuddled.  “What are you talking about?”

Chin on his chest, propped up on his elbows, he peeked reproachfully at her from under his bangs.  Love shouldn’t have to be sticky, sweaty, and full of funny noises,” he said sulkily.

The look and the words were unintentionally hilarious, but after the initial impulse to laugh, a weight of disappointment slammed into Jurnia’s stomach.  She wanted to be angry enough to yell, but she couldn’t seem to find the anger; she had been missing the gentle, playful side of her lover, but now that it was more or less manifested in its purest form, he didn’t want her.

Hurt, tears welling up in her eyes, she turned away and fumbled at her robe, trying to pull it up and get her arms through the sleeves.  “Sorry to offend you,” she replied in what should have been a sarcastic snap, and instead was genuinely miserable.

His head jerked up, the orange locks around his face sliding back, leaving his bewildered then mortified expression open for the world to see.  Muscle rippled smoothly as he pulled himself up to a sitting position.  One hand sank into her mane of deepest red hair while the fingertips of his other hand brushed against her cheek.  Amber eyes stared at her, full of concern.  “Jurnia . . .”

At his touch, she hesitated, the robe still halfway off.  “Since I’m disgusting you so much, I might as well go read a book or something so that you can get some rest.”  Her voice was thick as she fought to hold the tears in.

“Oh no, no . . . You’re not disgusting at all!”  He seemed downright panicked and confused that she even had that impression in the first place.  “You’re the most beautiful woman in the world, and it makes me very happy just being near you.”  He paused for a long, breathless moment, the pad of his thumb lightly caressing her cheek as he continued to stare at her.  “Just being near isn’t enough, is it?” he whispered.

“No,” she said, and there was a tiny splash against his thumb.  “It’s not.  It’s not.  Khuradasu’s so . . . domineering, especially in bed.  I miss the gentleness.”  She sniffled ungracefully, and didn’t speak the follow-up thought—I miss my husband.  It wasn’t his fault that this had happened, that he’d been so sharply split into what seemed almost like two completely different people.

He seemed to wince as her tear fell on him.  Those huge amber eyes, usually so innocent and clueless when her husband played the wanderer, gazed at her now with tenderness and sympathy.  “Forgive me,” he murmured, long eyelashes fluttering down toward his cheeks as he leaned closer.  “The poets and troubadours claim the purest of loves are found within the heart, the emotion feeding on itself and rising above the carnality of sex.”

Poets and troubadours clearly don’t get laid enough, she thought, but opted not to say it in case the Wanderer passed out at hearing such a blunt remark.  “I think they’re focusing more on an ideal than on the real world,” she replied instead.  “Like the non-sexual affection that can exist between, say, a faithful warrior and his lord’s wife.  They don’t seem to mention relationships between husbands and wives all that much—maybe they think everything stops after the wedding and people just turn boring.  It’s stupid that the only poems and songs that even mention sex are the crude ones that turn up at dockside taverns and military outposts.”  She sniffled again.  “What’s wrong with carnality, anyway?” she demanded tearfully.

The hand in her hair clenched slightly; he gently sighed as he pulled himself forward.  The little swordsman rearranged his lean body so that he was now kneeling before her.  Resting his chin on her shoulder, he lowered his arms and scooped her up in a warm, sheltering embrace.  He hugged her to him, murmuring, “I hold that ideal for Karavasu; you are that lord’s wife though we all know he’s the lord, not some warrior beholden to the lord.  There isn’t anything inherently wrong with carnality.  I do feel desire, especially when it comes to you.”  He nuzzled against her neck.

Jurnia curled herself up small enough to fit in his lap, wrapping her arms around him and resting her head on his shoulder, closing her eyes against the tears that still clouded her vision.  “I know that you’re doing your best to be . . . unthreatening, but how could I be threatened by my own husband’s genuine desire?”  She dropped a tiny kiss on the soft spot right beneath his ear.  “Especially when I want him so much?”

Unbidden, he tilted his head to give her better access to that spot; he held her even closer, a hand rubbing her back soothingly.  “Don’t you find his domineering even remotely threatening?”

“It’s only a threat to my ability to do things to him like he does to me,” she murmured, kissing the spot again.  The tears were receding, his gentle touch having its intended calming effect on her.  “I know that I will never be in danger from the younger of the remaining two Foxes, no matter what happens—even though I’m a Raven.”  She paused, then smiled wryly.  “Or rather, I was a Raven.”

He couldn’t help but swallow hard.  Like it or not, she affected him every bit as she affected both the Demon’s Claw and Karavasu.  He slid his hands up her back, gently kneading the smooth skin over her shoulder blades.  “Won’t you think less of my love for you if you discover it’s not idealistic after all?”

“Why would I do that?  I’m not an ideal myself.  I’m a real person.”  She mirrored his movement, her fingers spider-walking down the channel of his spine to rest lightly at the small of his back.  “I occupied myself with imaginary ideals long enough, and I’ve discovered that they can’t even compare with reality in some ways,” she murmured against his neck, thinking of her fantasies of Khuradasu.  The reality had certainly turned out far better than her imaginary version.

Shivering with pleasure, he nuzzled, then kissed the side of her neck.  His hands still continued the sensual massage.  “But you’re a real person who deserves some form of idealized love . . .”

“If you want to put me on a pedestal, I can hardly stop you . . . but don’t be so shocked to discover that I’d like to jump off the pedestal and into bed.”  She nibbled lightly on the edge of his ear.

“Ara . . .”  Leave it to this fragment of her husband to use that burble as a sound of pleasure.  And pleasure it obviously was, because he didn’t tense up or pull away or do any number of things that would have made her think the sound was being made per its normal uses.  He merely hugged her tighter with a single arm as he brought his other hand between them to tickle the side of a smooth-skinned breast.  She made a soft sound, turning a little to press herself against his hand, her nipple a tight peak against his palm.

It was very different from the past few days.  He was incredibly gentle, almost reverent, as though he couldn’t believe that he was allowed to put his hands on her.  Perhaps a little too reverent, hesitating slightly, looking into her face for signs of disapproval; she took pity on his obvious uncertainty, murmuring soft requests for him to touch here or kiss there.  Still, after the heated, fierce attentions of the Demon’s Claw, the silly, innocent Wanderer was a welcome dose of peace.

Slowly, deliciously slowly, he brought her toward the peak.  With her coaxing directions, he was far more confident, as though he only needed the reassurance that he was doing the right things, pleasing her.  As long as she told him what she wanted, he was diligent in applying Kara’s familiar skills to the task.

At least, until the time was right for the act itself; when she whispered in his ear, he gulped audibly, blushing.

All right, so maybe he’s not quite ready for that part, but I’m sure ready for it.  Jurnia kissed him, rolling the two of them over in a sort of slow, casual way, until he was lying on his back.  She didn’t stop kissing him as she slipped a leg over his thighs, moving to straddle his hips; one hand went back to guide his throbbing hardness to her slick softness before she gently broke the kiss and straightened up, impaling herself on him with a shuddering moan.  He echoed the sound, reaching up to grasp her hips, his body arching up to meet her.

The disaster struck less than a minute later, as she was rocking herself atop him, rising up only for him to pull her back down, feeling the edge coming closer with every thrust.  It ended with shocking suddenness, the only warning a gasping yelp from the Wanderer before he pulled her down hard onto him, his body grinding against hers as he flooded her with his seed.

Jurnia sat blinking in surprise, breathing hard, and suddenly feeling rather cheated.  She looked down at Kara’s face as he lay beneath her, breathless, his eyes closed, hands relaxed on her hips.

“You’re not serious,” she mumbled.

No response.

“That’s it?”

No response.

“You took all that wonderful time getting me worked up and that was it?” she said, her voice rising.

This time, she got a response, though not one she had expected.  He started laughing.  She stared in disbelief as he progressed from low chuckles up through steady giggling and into full-throated laughter.

“What,” she inquired in frozen tones, “is so funny?”

He opened his eyes; the wicked look would have been enough to mark the change to Khuradasu even if the gleam of golden energy hadn’t been visible.  “You made him pass out, Jurnia.”

“Huh?” she said intelligently.

“The poor Wanderer.  At the last moment, he went ‘Ararara’—” amusingly, Khuradasu reproduced the cute, overwhelmed burble perfectly, “and keeled right over unconscious.”  He considered a moment.  “Smiling, though,” he added.

“It’s not funny,” she insisted, though she wanted to laugh herself at the mental image his words produced.  “I’m not done yet, but you are!”

“We can change that if you want,” he said with a familiar glint in his eye.

Her shoulders slumped in dejection; Khuradasu, while passionate, wasn’t quite what she’d wanted this time.  Her head drooped as well, and she bit her lip as she closed her eyes tightly.

He sat up without dislodging her, taking her in his arms for a remarkably Kara-like embrace.  His lips brushed her forehead as he murmured, “What’s wrong?”

“I miss my husband,” she whimpered into his chest.

“He’s right here,” he pointed out gently.  “The Wanderer and I are both your husband.”

“But you’re the extremes,” she cried.  “I want the real Karavasu, who’s fierce and tender at the same time, not two totally different aspects that have to trade places!”

His hand under her chin coaxed her head up.  “I could just do what I’d like to do and give you the physical satisfaction, but that wouldn’t be the same as having your husband along with you, would it?”

She shook her head, sniffling.

“Well, then.”  He let her go, lying back down.  “If you want to do what you did in the carpenters’ shed, that would probably work—but no tying me up.”  He folded his arms under his head.  “Do whatever you want.  I’m totally at your mercy.  I promise I won’t touch you before you’re ready,” he murmured, his eyes smoky gold under heavy lids.

Jurnia stared down at him in astonishment.  Khuradasu surrendering control?  The idea seemed ludicrous, this powerful, dangerous man putting himself completely into her hands—but there he was, stretched out under her, his arms tucked under his head.  Warily, watching his face through her lashes, she reached down and stroked a thumb over one of his nipples.  Though his cheeks pinkened and his eyes snapped closed as he took a sharp breath, his arms didn’t move.

He didn’t move when she kissed his neck, suckling on the skin until faint marks were left behind; he didn’t move when she trailed her fingernails down the undersides of his upper arms and all the way down his sides to his hips; he didn’t move, though he did chuckle involuntarily a few times, when she moved down to experimentally suck on his toes.  He didn’t move even when she teased his nipples until his breathing was sharp and quick, or when she cleaned their mingled fluids off his groin with long slow licks of her warm tongue.  Indeed, by then, his softened member had risen again, lying hard against his belly.  His fists were clenched white-knuckle tight into his own hair, and it had taken every ounce of willpower at times to prevent his arms from twitching in reaction, but he hadn’t moved.

“Please,” he whispered as she straddled him again, sinking down with a shivery little moan; she leaned forward and kissed him lingeringly, and his arms trembled with the urge to reach for her.

“Not yet,” she whispered back, bringing her head down to his chest and drawing a nipple into her mouth as her hips began to move, sliding her hot wet satin sheath up and down his length with torturous slowness.  He groaned, arching himself to meet her, his scalp starting to ache where his clenched fists were pulling on his hair with the effort of self-restraint.

She was beautiful to watch, riding him hard, her hair a shining halo of dark fire framing her upper body, her breasts heaving with exertion, sweat gleaming on her skin.  The need to touch her—palm those lovely breasts, run his tongue in the valley between them, catch her hips to take over the rhythm—screamed at him, but he ground his teeth and fought for control.  He could tell she was close, and he knew that he was teetering on the edge of another orgasm, but he was determined to wait for her, wait for her, wait . . .

Her hands clenched on his shoulders.  “Now,” she cried breathlessly, “now!

It took no thought at all, which was fortunate because he really couldn’t think clearly, to seize her waist to keep her from disengaging as he rolled them both over.  Catching her behind one knee, he hooked her leg over his shoulder, one arm holding her to him and the other bracing his weight as he thrust into her.  She circled his neck with her arms, gasping with each deep penetration.

Khuradasu couldn’t help but tease her just a little, a small retribution for the way she’d taken advantage of his generosity.  He drew back until he was almost completely withdrawn from her, only the very tip of his member still pressed against her; she wailed in dismay, her eyes snapping open.  He repented at once, driving himself deeply into her again, giving her his full length in one long hard thrust.  It was the last straw for them both, and his hoarse shout echoed her scream of release, her sheath convulsing around his pulsing shaft.  Letting her leg slide down to loop around his waist, he virtually collapsed onto her, panting.

When she could breathe in a mostly normal rhythm again, Jurnia slowly turned her head on the pillow to look into the lazy amber eyes.  “Why?”

He didn’t need her to elaborate on the question; he tilted his head enough to kiss her softly.  “Because you wanted it.  You needed it.  I’m not quite Karavasu, but I hope I came close enough to please you.”  One hand stroked her hair slowly, his expression a little abstracted.

She kissed him again, then murmured, “What are you thinking about that’s got you looking so faraway?”

“You’ve never said it to me,” he answered simply.

Jurnia blinked.  “What?”

“I was your ideal for years, but you’ve never said the words to me.  Only to him.”  His fingers clenched briefly in her hair, and she saw a flare of what looked like pure jealousy in his eyes.  “Is the reality too far short of the dreams, Jurnia?” he whispered, making her recall the earlier exchange between herself and the Wanderer.  “What can I do to make it better?  Can I make it better, or is it already too late?”

She looked into his eyes again, and for once she did not see the terrifying predator, the dreaded assassin.  She saw a seventeen-year-old boy who had never grown up over the past few years, who had never matured past the point at which he and his expertise had been put aside for a path that denied killing.  Shunted aside like an unwanted pet, kept chained unless and until he was needed, but never growing up in the darkness where he waited—she saw him, so clearly that she found it difficult to believe she’d ever been oblivious to the reality.  Kara had rejected that part of himself so violently that there was no chance for Khuradasu to grow and change with him.

Jurnia touched his face, stroked away the fine lines of stress at his brow and mouth, caressed him until he closed his lonely eyes.  “I love you,” she whispered, feathering a kiss across his receptive mouth.  “I love you,” she said again, with a more lingering touch of lips, and “I love you,” once more, slanting her mouth over his for a slow deep kiss that carried the truth of her words.

She understands.  The realization shook him to his very core, bringing tears to his eyes as an almost painful sense of profound wonder momentarily distracted him from the hellish loneliness he’d long ago accepted as his due for what he was.  The fingers he twined in her hair were every bit as gentle as Karavasu’s and worshipful as the Wanderer’s, as was the answering kiss he gave her.  Crystalline tears spilled out from under his long lashes, rolling silently across his skin to fall to the pillow below.

Is he . . . ?  Jurnia opened her eyes.  He is.  He’s crying.  She touched his cheek as if she’d never seen tears before—and indeed, she’d never even thought she’d see Khuradasu shedding them—then half sat up and slipped her arms around him, holding him tightly against her.  “It’s all right,” she whispered, not entirely sure what she meant, but knowing that he probably needed to hear it.  Or maybe it didn’t matter at all what she said, just that he could hear the sound of her voice.  “It’s all right.”

His strong arms encircled her in return.  Gone was the domineering, menacing, powerful aura; what remained behind seemed far more like the Lopayzom’s normal presence.  The fearsome assassin, the man whose name was used to terrify little children and adults alike, pressed his face against Jurnia’s shoulder, still silently crying.  In her arms, she could feel the shudders that ran through him.

“You’re not bad,” she caught herself murmuring against his hair.  “It wasn’t your fault.”  It was as if she were trying to comfort a child who had done something wrong and taken his punishment far too seriously.  There had been times when she had felt that way, ashamed of disappointing her elders and utterly convinced that she was beyond all redemption.  But every time she had thought her life was essentially over, her mother would be there again with a gentle hug, gradually teaching her that nothing she did was ever so wrong or so bad that she wasn’t worthy of being loved anymore.  Oddly, Jurnia found herself wondering if Khuradasu had been in a similar position . . . only with nobody to reassure him.

“You’re the first . . . to truly not . . . hate me,” he managed to say between his eerily quiet sobs.

Her heart ached at the wealth of emotion she could hear in his voice; she was rocking him a little, stroking his hair soothingly.  “How could I hate you?” she whispered.  “You saved my life.  You carried me back to the camp and made sure I was seen to when I was hurt.  I don’t see blood on your hands, and I never have . . . I see the hands that protected me and cared for me.”

His arms tightened around her just a bit more, but they remained the same gentle strength she’d come to rely upon from her husband.  “Never killed . . . without regret . . . afterwards.  The vow . . . never was beyond me . . . but it didn’t matter . . . I was a monster . . . that needed to be chained . . .”

“After you helped me?”  She kissed his temple, trying to understand what he was saying; though his sobs were nearly silent, they broke his words enough to make it a bit hard.

He seemed to sense her confusion.  That the Lopayzom’s sensitive ability to read emotion seemed to be part of who Khuradasu was probably wasn’t overly surprising to the woman comforting the scariest assassin living.  He took a deep, shuddering breath, then carefully leaned back.  The tear-bright amber eyes gazed at her, reflecting the dark loneliness and bright wonder at her love within their depths.  “I’ve never enjoyed ending someone’s life.  It’s always been for the greater good or because there was no alternative.  Even the ones who tried to hurt you . . . there was still a sense of loss, even though what I did was the right thing to do.  Karavasu . . . has ended up hating and fearing me both.  When he vowed to never intentionally take a human life again, he believed I could not be held by that vow.  But I could have kept it.  I still could keep it now.  He didn’t trust me.  Instead, he’s sealed me away into the darkness, certain I’m truly a monster that cannot help itself from taking life.”

“I believe you,” she said, very softly, as she cradled his face between her hands.  She meant it—she could see that he was sincere, that the terrifying Khuradasu was not the bloodthirsty animal that even the person he was part of believed him to be.  “It began because you wanted to please Arjuna, didn’t it?”

He gently shook his head in the negative.  “I’m . . . not certain.  The roots probably lie there, but only Karavasu knows for certain.  The first clear memory I have is the heat of battle—the confusion and fear, the shouts and screams, that terrifying stillness at the center of our sword-art where it becomes kill or be killed and pure instinctive reaction.  At first I only wanted to live, but as I began to realize that I had the skill and the means to preserve my own life, I started seeking out others of the Dragon army to keep them from lying hurt or dead on the battlefield.”

Jurnia took her time about kissing the tears off his face.  “Then almost from the start, it hasn’t been about death for you.  It’s been about life . . .”

Another tear rolled down his face as he reached up and threaded his fingers in her hair.  “‘The sword of a Lopayzom is meant to protect those who cannot protect themselves’.  I’ve carried those words with me wherever I’ve gone, and I’ve regretted the times the only way to achieve that protection is to slay the threat.  Once a person is dead, they cannot come back.  I understand this very well.  But sometimes . . . though a death causes grief and anguish in an increasing ripple, that same death may also mean many more lives being able to continue in peace, their happiness able to remain whole.”

The realization of how badly he had been misunderstood, and what had happened to him as a result of that misunderstanding, shook her.  She wrapped her arms tightly around him, drawing a slow, deep breath.  “How . . . could Kara not understand it?  You’re part of him.”

“I hold much of him that frightens him,” Khuradasu sighed, lowering his head to rest his cheek against her once more.  “So much so that I don’t think he’s allowed himself to explore what I hold and see what truly lies chained in the darkness with me.”  He gave her a hug.  “I truly should apologize to you . . .”

“Apologize?  Why?”  She turned her head to kiss his shoulder, her hands stroking gently down his back.

“For acting as I have the past few days since . . . Karavasu’s fallen asleep back there.  I’ve done as I’ve believed everyone would expect Khuradasu to behave instead of trying to just be who I truly am . . . and being the companion the woman I love deserves at her side.”  His quiet voice was humble; no hint of his dark charisma could be heard, nor had he referred to her as his “mate” as he had times in the past.  “I fear Karavasu’s made me forget what I’m truly like after all this time.”

Jurnia blushed.  “I didn’t exactly mind.  Well, I didn’t mind most of it.”  She swallowed hard.  “He’s . . . asleep?  He’s not hurt?”

“You still minded . . .”  Though he kept his head against her, he seemed to frown in thought.  “‘Asleep’ is the best way I can describe it.  He’s back there—the poor little Wanderer’s still passed out next to him, twitching a bit but a hell of a smile on his face—like he’s lying in bed sleeping, but there’s no feel of his essence there.  We’ve both tried to wake him up, but he’s not responding to anything . . . and we’re beginning to feel lost without him.”

“I only minded because I like to win arguments.”  The mention of the Wanderer made her blush even more, despite her worry; then she shuddered, burying her face against the side of his neck.  “What happened?” she demanded, as she had several times over the past few days, but there was a hopeless tone in her voice by now, and her words got shakier as she went on.  “What happened?  All we can guess is that someone disrupted his energy so much that it caused some kind of severe shock, but we don’t know who or why or how, and no one seems to know how to fix it . . .”

“Shh . . .”  The soft voice and the comforting rub against her back could very well have been from her husband and not the cast-off assassin consigned to the darkness.  “Neither one of us really knows either, since we were both away in the shadows when it happened.  That I was the one to wake up with the body under my control leads me to think something happened on the road.  Karavasu’s sword was drawn, but I didn’t see any threat in the immediate area.  As for how . . . like I said, it’s like his essence is missing.  He’s . . . like a sleeping body when the soul’s off dreaming elsewhere.  He’s here but he’s not here, and if he’d been a normal person, I think you’d have a comatose husband on your hands, if he hadn’t died of exposure first.”

Jurnia shuddered, a bolt of fear going through her—and followed almost instantly by a surge of fury strong enough to make her violet aura flare.  “Whoever did it would have left him in the rain to die, or taken him away from me the way Dashtru did.”  The rage twisted back into fear at the memory of the diseased clan-dead and how he’d dared to hurt Kara, leaving her trembling.  “When I get my hands on whoever’s responsible for this, I’m going to make them wish their grandparents had never been born!”

The assassin holding her softly chuckled.  “Now that’s our Jurnia.”  Giving her a reassuring squeeze, he leaned back to gaze lovingly at her.  “However, it is late . . . and the lord and lady do have duties upon the morrow.  I probably should let his body rest now.”

“It’s technically your body too, you know.”  She used the sleeve of her robe to dry his face, kissing him softly.

“I know,” he replied, eyes closing at her touch, a smile curving his lips.  “But neither the Wanderer nor I are in as fine of tune with it as Karavasu is.  Though I’ve noticed that being the one in charge, as it were, for a few days now, I’m beginning to sense its needs better than when this first happened.”  He kissed her back, coaxing—not demanding—that she lie down with him as he started to settle back down into the bed.

She settled down beside him, tucked into the curve of his body.  “Oh?  What sort of needs does it have?” she teased, reaching up to smooth his hair back.

He replied with a throaty chuckle.  “Right now, it’s demanding sleep.  But I’m sure come morning it’ll be interested in something else.”  He paused, snuggling against her.  “I promise . . . I’ll try to be like Karavasu.  I’ll try . . . to actually live instead of playing the monster in the shadows.  That is . . . if you’ll have me.  If . . . if you’d rather . . . I’ll step aside for the Wanderer to keep you company instead.”

Jurnia wrapped her arms around him, kissing him lightly.  “Didn’t you hear me earlier?  I love you.”  She wound her fingers in his hair.  “The Wanderer’s a sweet little fellow, but ultimately, he’s a mask that Kara wore to hide who he really was.”

He nuzzled against her, his aura turning somewhat drowsy.  “The Wanderer is something else too . . . He’s the chains that bind me.”  Softly sighing, he held her close after getting fully settled.  “I will always love you.  The gratitude in your eyes the night I saved you so long ago has long been the light of hope for me, even in the furthest corner of the darkness.”

Well, that’s going to make interacting with the cute little airhead a bit more difficult, she thought, resting her head on his shoulder; then she smiled.  “That one piece of knowledge makes everything seem a little brighter.”  She kissed the side of his throat, yawning faintly.  “Good night, love.”

“Night . . .”