Prism stepped back from Ghayle's touch, momentarily reeling from the weight of memory. After he recovered and reassessed his condition, he turned a narrow-eyed stare on Ghayle and asked, "What was that supposed to tell me, Ghayle? My life was hardly a good example of the state of the world. I was a poor boy who didn't understand how the world worked, not then, and not when it collapsed."
"So that you understand your place in the world," Ghayle replied, nodding in approval. Her hand remained poised in the air as if expecting him to come back to it to resume the experience. "That wasn't all I wished to show you, but you pulled away. You fear what comes next."
Prism snorted in annoyance. "Fear? Have you known me to show fear in all the years we've known each other? As a boy, perhaps, but not since I fought my first demon have I felt real fear. No," he shook his head firmly, "I simply have no wish to relive it. Those were the hardest days of my youth, which led to an adulthood spent entirely on the front lines of a battle against hordes of demons. Demons you summoned."
Ghayle sighed but did not lower her hand. "It's important, Prism. You must understand the state of things. Perhaps if I showed you someone familiar, you'd be more comfortable? I can access more than your memories, Prism. I'm connected to everyone still living in this world."
Prism smirked, immediately inferring the meaning of her words. "So, you'd show me Grim's?"
"There were other's I could've picked," Ghayle replied with a slight smile.
"Neither Veil nor Neredos is familiar to me anymore. Grim still has the same look in his eyes. He still loves the world, no matter how much pain he has," Prism said confidently. "If you're telling me there are others still alive from those times . . ." he laughed despite the weight of their conversation and added, "I'm surprised enough as it is that there are four of us still alive."
"Three," Ghayle corrected. "You're dead."
"Right . . ." Prism said, touching his very substantial body before giving Ghayle a knowing look. "Hard to think of it that way now." He shrugged and sat back on the log. "Very well, Ghayle, lead me into the darkness of the past. I suppose I can't pass up the opportunity to touch Grim, now can I?"
Grim lounged across a chair in his sitting room-the chair easiest to clean. He remained shirtless and covered in paint but too exhausted to clean up. Especially considering his mental state. The human boy from the streets, Prism, wouldn't leave his thoughts.
He'd heard about the Fedain curse his whole life. Of course, there was nothing mystical about it, and 'curse' was a misnomer. It was wired into Fedain biology, but right now the 'curse' label seemed appropriate. Fedain had a peculiar sensitivity to pheromones, and every so often would meet someone with the right chemical composition to completely addle their otherwise sane brains.
Prism's pheromones had just the right composition to affect Grim in maddening ways, and he couldn't get Prism's scent from his mind. It was cerebral and instinctive at the same time, a longing for both physical and mental intimacy, and impossible to ignore completely.
The effects magnified during puberty. Though Grim hadn't finished passing through that horrid period of adolescence. If he'd spent any more time with Prism, he doubted he'd have maintained control, no matter how public his displays of affection would've become. When Prism's knife had rested at Grim's throat and he'd held their naked skin together, death had been the furthest thing from Grim's mind.
The longer he relived the memory of their skin to skin contact, the more aroused he became, and he undid the clasp on his belt. His other hand drifted lower, rubbing his erection through the heavy cloth separating him from his carnal pleasure.
Before he could get much further in pleasuring himself, the door to his sitting room opened and he hastily redid his belt, standing to see who had interrupted him. Sharis bowed his head in respect to Grim's nobility, giving Grim time to force his erection to subside before his tutor straightened.
"Lord Grim, your father will see you now," Sharis said, sliding his spectacles back up his nose as he regarded Grim with a polite but tight smile."Let's get this over with," Grim sighed, stepping past Sharis and into the hall. He took a few steps before realizing Sharis hadn't moved farther than the doorway. "Aren't you coming, Sharis?"
"No. The Duke requested to meet with you alone," Sharis said, shuffling his feet.
"Alone? Likely not. I'm sure sister will be with him," Grim said. He nodded and grinned at Sharis, trying to put the troubled old man at ease. "Very well. Will we be resuming our studies this evening?"
Sharis' smile gained more strength as he nodded in agreement. "Yes. I'd like to resume your Galagu lessons."
"I still don't see the need to learn a second Elrok dialect, but if you insist," Grim replied, shrugging. "Can we resume our archaeology discussions if I get through my lessons quickly this evening?"
Sharis' smile brightened even more as he replied, "I guess I can indulge you a little, even if you are a troublemaker."
"It's just so much more interesting, Sharis," Grim said, shifting his eyebrows suggestively to say, "Plus, you said yourself that History is your favorite subject, and yet you never get to use it!"
Sharis cleared his throat awkwardly, unsure how to take Grim's personal comment without sacrificing his nervous professionalism. "The Duke is waiting, Lord Grim," he said at last.
Grim chuckled nasally. Inhaling through his nose reminded him of his current physical state. He grimaced and said, "I suppose I should've showered first, but it's not like my father would see me any differently, anyway."
Sharis' smile became a smirk as he bowed his agreement. "Likely not, Lord Grim."
Grim laughed more throatily and turned on his heel, making his way through the palace halls to his father's meeting room. Despite his shirtless and dirty state, none of the servants gave him more than a passing glance and nod of deference. They'd long grown used to his eccentricities, though he'd likely be the subject of all the gossip in the servants' quarters and barracks.
Two soldiers stood guard at the doors to Duke Selfaeth's meeting room, and neither gave Grim more than a glance as he approached and opened the doors. Of all the palace staff, these two would've expected him and received orders to admit him regardless of his state. He wondered what words his father had used when giving that order, and what expression he'd worn as he spoke of his disappointment of a son.
It didn't matter much to Grim. He expected his father would forget about him as soon as this conversation was over, no matter how strong the reprimand. This would be the same as any other meeting, and Grim would leave wondering why his father even bothered to reprimand him at all. He sighed and entered the room.
". . . Caliphar is an odious lout who deserves his fate!" Duke Selfaeth's heated voice echoed through the cavern-like chamber.
"Father, haven't you taught me it's more practical to avoid war?" Grim's twin sister, Veil, replied, her voice as composed and pleasant and ever. Compared to their father, Veil always seemed the more reasonable one.
Grim approached quietly until he could see them speaking. Instead of sitting at the long council table which dominated one half of the room, they sat at the high-backed chairs near the fireplace, drinking wine and eating cheese. Veil, in all her regal posturing, looked every bit the fine lady of the court, with a silken white dress and her hair done up in myriad braids, even more complex than Grim's. Duke Selfaeth, on the other hand, fit the part of a scoundrel more than a duke, with a high-collared black coat splayed around his neck, his messy mop of blonde hair spilling out over the collar, and long shirt-cuffs revealing his almost skeletal fingers. He wore several jeweled rings on each hand, the most prominent was his sapphire ring with the three silver roses entwined around the setting. It was the signet ring of the Tehir Duchy, and the family's most prized possession; Duke Selfaeth wore it everywhere.
"King Hashayne has exhausted all diplomatic options, as I was saying," Duke Selfaeth said, taking a long swig from his wine glass. He placed it down, empty, and filled it again as he continued. "Within the next few months, we'll have no choice but to unleash our full arsenal on him."
Veil shook her head, sipping her wine before responding in a concerned tone. "People will die. We'll be killing people, Father. That's against everything the Fedain stand for."
Duke Selfaeth groaned in frustration. "We'll come in after the blast and heal as many as we can. As long as a Fedain hand isn't on the trigger, we won't be breaking any vows, will we?"
Grim snorted. Loudly. "Ah, the logic of despots. Glad to know your ability to twist your logic is as strong as ever," he said, hastening his approach to stand at Veil's side and address his father, fury in his eyes. Selfaeth's hand tightened around the wine glass, his eyes darting daggers at his son. "Oh, are you going to slap me, Father?" Grim taunted. "Is that no longer beneath you? Or will you simply have one of our human soldiers do it for you?"
"Grimfaeth, you test the limits of my patience," his father said through gritted teeth. He pointed in front of his chair and ordered, "Come here and receive your punishment."
"No. I have something more important to do first," Grim replied. He turned to Veil and embraced her from the side, sighing at the welcome weight of her in his arms. "Veil, it's good to see you. I wasn't aware you'd returned from Xarin."
Veil stood to embrace him more fully, ignoring the paint dripping from him as she smiled warmly. "I came back a day early, at Father's insistence. I heard you had some excitement today. You could have at least showered before coming here, you know."
"And miss the chance to aggravate the Duke?" Grim said, pointedly making mention of his father's title; lack of personalization would aggravate him further.
"I'm sitting right here, you know," Duke Selfaeth growled.
Grim rolled his eyes and said to Veil, "Of course I know."
Duke Selfaeth sighed and said, "Grimfaeth, Veilynn, please . . . both of you, sit down."
Grim finally turned to his father and said defiantly, "So you can yell at me some more? I can do that standing."
Duke Selfaeth closed his eyes, breathing in once before letting out a long exhale. When he opened his eyes again, he spoke calmly. "Grimfaeth . . . Grim. Please?"
The shift in his father's demeanor stunned Grim, and he nodded in approval. "A moment of sincerity? Those are rare." He rewarded his father's calm with compliance, and took the seat next to Veil, facing his father with an intent expression, wondering how long it would be until boredom set in.
"Grim, this affects you a lot less than Veil, but you are second in line to the Duchy, and with the state of the world I'd rather have you both as informed as possible," Duke Selfaeth said, meeting both their eyes in turn.
"This sounds serious," Grim said.
Duke Selfaeth nodded. "The ceasefire we've managed to hold with Oligan for the past few years is deteriorating rapidly. A recent incident has triggered a collapse of certain agreements between our two nations. If you've been watching the newscasts . . ."
"Not most of them." Grim shrugged. "Most of them are boring."
The Duke's eye twitched as he frowned. "Perhaps I should have a word with Sharis."
"He's fine, Father. He assigns them, I simply don't pay attention," Grim replied. "Don't blame him. I just prefer studying other subjects. There's a lot you can learn from the history books in our library, you know."
Duke Selfaeth sighed. "My youngest son . . . always more concerned with the past than the present. I'm hoping to convince you to break that habit."
"So, we're at the brink of war again? That's what I'm supposed to take away from this?" Grim asked, trying to get his father back on track before they resumed their longtime squabble.
Duke Selfaeth nodded. "Yes. A defector managed to escape to our side last month. She's a high-ranking officer in the Oligani military and brought news of a weapon being developed. It has the power to tear mountains apart, according to the data she showed us. If it were turned against any of our power facilities, the fallout would be devastating."
"Not to mention our weapons stores," Veil offered.
"Correct, Veil," Duke Selfaeth replied, nodding in approval. "If they find the locations of our weapons stores, such a device could obliterate us overnight. It would also make those regions uninhabitable for decades, if not centuries, from the radiation."
"So, what you were arguing about before I came in was whether Ultaka should invade first and attempt to stop President Caliphar from using the weapon on us," Grim surmised. When he received confirmation from his father and Veil, he added, "I'm afraid I agree with Veil on this one."
"Why?" Duke Selfaeth asked, showing genuine confusion as he regarded his children. "How can both of you feel that way? We're talking about the potential end to our civilization if we don't act!"
Grim gave the most reasoned response he could think of, doubting his father would appreciate it. "Well, for all we disagree, father, you have to give some credit to history here. In the great wars of the last century, every side had enough firepower to wipe out the enemy, and we didn't, because our destruction was mutually assured. Why should we act any differently now? Perhaps instead of viewing this as a need for destruction, we can view it as an opportunity to come to the table and talk peace."
"It won't work, Grim. I understand the King's position, much as I hate the thought of such violence," Veil said. "What Father explained to me before you came in makes a great deal of sense. If Oligan expected to come to the table because they fear our bombs, they would've made mention of their weapon as a show of strength. Instead, they've kept it completely secret."
"How can you be so sure?" Grim asked.
"There's more evidence, Grimfaeth," Duke Selfaeth replied. "Troop movements along the borders. Testing in the Dobrag, great scars in the world, the crumbling remains of mountains destroyed by the device . . ." he shook his head. "The quake in Gellibran last Autumn was likely the result of that testing."
Grim lowered his gaze, finding the news unsettling. "I see."
"Still, it's unlikely you will have much to do with it, Grim," Duke Selfaeth said, smiling. "I don't even think Veil will, at least not in the war effort. Perhaps in the aftermath."
"If there is an aftermath. You're assuming we'll survive," Grim said pointedly.
Duke Selfaeth took another long drink of his wine and said with false confidence, "Our radiation bombs will knock out their power structures in a matter of hours."
"Before they can counter-attack?" Veil asked.
Duke Selfaeth shook his head and admitted, "I don't know."
"Well, shouldn't we find out if this is all true first? What if they aren't planning to attack and we start a war unnecessarily? Grim's point is important, Father," Veil said pointedly.
"It's not my decision, Veil. King Hashayne has the final say, I can only advise him," Duke Selfaeth said helplessly.
"Of course," Grim said, sighing. "Of course, we're powerless as usual."
"So much death . . ." Veil muttered.
"Don't look so glum, you two. This has been coming for a while. As members of the nobility, we must be the face of faith and hope for our people. You are sixteenth and seventeenth in line for the throne, need I remind you. We can't have either of you showing your doubts to the public," Duke Selfaeth said, then turned his full attention to Grim. "Or making yourselves easy targets for assassins, either from Oligan or the Gor."
Grim shrank under the weight of his father's gaze and said, "I'm sorry, Father. I just wanted a bit of fun."
"Yes . . . I heard about your 'fun'. You were held at knifepoint," Duke Selfaeth said as Veil gasped. "I can't treat that lightly. I've a mind to speak with Grandmaster Valkean about the boy in his custody and have him sent much farther away."
"He wasn't going to harm me. I could read his emotions. He was just scared," Grim said, meeting his father's eyes. "Please don't do anything to him."
"Many scared people have done terrible things from fear alone," Duke Selfaeth retorted.
Grim saw an opportunity to make a point and slipped his words in like a dagger between his father's ribs. "Interesting point, considering what King Hashayne is thinking of doing out of fear."
He could feel Veil's smile without having to look her way, but her words confirmed it. "Looks like Grim got you, Father. Again."
Duke Selfaeth's shocked expression faded, and a wry smile spread across his features instead. "Very well . . . I'll see if I can sway King Hashayne's decision and at least convince him to consider diplomatic options."
"It's our way, Father. We are the protectors of our people. Of all people. This is why we rule, is it not?" Veil asked.
"Good one, Veil," Grim said.
"You two . . ." Duke Selfaeth said, laughing. It wasn't a common sound for him, and it made both his children smile and blush. "Your mother would be proud of you both. Even with your indiscretions, Grim." His smile took the sting out of his words, but what he said next made Grim want to cry. "Seldorym probably would've given you a medal for your actions."
"I miss him," Grim said meekly at the mention of his late elder brother.
"Me too," Duke Selfaeth admitted, a single tear rolling down his cheek. He turned to Veil whose eyes were just as heavy with moisture and said, "Veil, could you please excuse us? I need to speak to your brother alone."
"Of course, Father," Veil said quietly.
Grim gently caught her arm as she passed his chair and said, "Let's meet for a game of Dannu later."
Veil smiled. "Deal."
Grim sighed as Veil left, meeting his father's eyes and bracing himself for the coming beratement. "So, what is my punishment going to be?" he asked after a moment.
"Nothing," Duke Selfaeth said to Grim's surprise. "Oh, I'm still angry that you put yourself in danger, but I suppose you got yourself out of it, too." He chuckled softly and went on. "You're your mother's son, as surely as Seldorym was. Veil is the only one like me, and she's a good mix of both her parents."
"Oh, I think I'm more like you than you think. I've certainly got your stubbornness," Grim said with a grin, hoping to make his father smile.
"Maybe you do at that," Duke Selfaeth said, returning Grim's smile with full warmth. "But could you at least do me a favor and not be so reckless next time? You ran off with a strange boy without even a thought."
"I . . ." Grim started to say, then blushed and looked away, "thought about it."
"Uh-oh," Duke Selfaeth said gently. "I know that look. Your blood called to him, huh?"
Grim groaned. He'd hoped to avoid having this conversation with anyone, especially his father. "Sometimes I wish I was human. Now more than ever. Falling instantly in love has to be the worst part of being a Fedain."
"This is the first time you've ever done it, unless there's someone I don't know about," Duke Selfaeth observed.
"No, there's never been anyone else, but this is awful. I fell in love with someone I'll likely never even see again," Grim muttered bitterly.
Duke Selfaeth nodded and stood, stepping to the fireplace to warm his hands. "Likely not. And a human, too . . . you wouldn't be the first Fedain to fall in love with a human, of course, but the nobility won't like it."
Grim smirked and asked, "Are you forbidding me from feeling that way?"
"Would it do any good?" Duke Selfaeth asked, laughing as he regarded his son curiously. "Like I said, you're your mother's son. And your father's too. Your mother was a commoner, and I married her anyway, after all. Maybe most Fedain have multiple lovers throughout their lives, but her spirit was enough for me. I doubt I'll ever find another to match her, though I did have a fling with Baron Chardran once, when I was about your age. We were both studying at Duke Bollindar's court. Now Chardran was a beautiful man."
Grim rolled his eyes and buried his face in his hands before replying. "Father, much as I love these talks, I'm not so keen on dwelling on the idea of you having a 'fling' with Baron Chardran."
Duke Selfaeth laughed again, and after a moment Grim joined in. Grim stood and joined his father at the fireplace, the prospect of never seeing Prism again came back to his mind, chilling him. Losing Prism was the last thing he wanted, and he would do anything to ensure it wouldn't happen.
"So . . . if I pursue a relationship with this young man?" Grim asked.
"You'll ruin your reputation, and mine," Duke Selfaeth said simply. The barest hint of a smile crossed his face.
Grim asked in surprise, "But you don't care?"
In a rare display of affection, Duke Selfaeth wrapped his arm around Grim's shoulders and hugged him tight. "Grim, I've defended you and your antics for the last six years, ever since you pranked Baronness Liflynn with the wine at our Summer festival when you were eight. As much as I love the court and my duties to it, I will always love you and your sister more."
"I'm sorry I caused you trouble, Father," Grim said, returning his father's embrace.
"Don't worry about it," Duke Selfaeth said as they parted. "Though there is one thing."
Duke Selfaeth grinned and said, "Your sister is right. You need a shower. And I need to call my tailor." He grimaced at his coat, now stained with muddy festival colors.
"I'm sorry," Grim said. "Guess there's still some paint on me. I didn't even notice it on Veil's dress, she's going to be furious with me."
"Probably," Duke Selfaeth confirmed with a nod. "But did you have fun?"
"Never stop," Duke Selfaeth said firmly, his eyes growing serious. "Your love for the commoners is your greatest asset as a noble. One day, you're going to charm the whole court with just a smile. The Fedain will love you just for being you."
Grim's eyes watered as he fought back his emotion with a smirk. "That doesn't sound like something you'd say."
"Maybe, in the face of war, I'm a little more concerned about being a good father before we face losing it all," Duke Selfaeth said, putting his hand on Grim's bare shoulder.
Grim's eyes widened in shock as he sensed his father's emotions. "You're scared. I can feel it in you."
"I am," the Duke confirmed. "We've been testing new versions of our bombs all winter. As much as I applaud your optimism, I don't think this will be won by diplomacy."
"Then I guess I'd better study," Grim said, turning to the fire, as if he could envision it spreading all over the world he knew. "I'll have to look after the survivors, right?"
"That's right," Duke Selfaeth said quietly.
"Maybe, if you can focus on being a good father, I can focus on being a good son," Grim conceded.
The Duke patted Grim's shoulder gently and said, "You already do that."
"But I need to do better," Grim insisted. "Sharis has me studying Galagu tonight."
"That's good. We may need the Elroks before the end of this," Duke Selfaeth said.
"Do you really think they'd side with us?" Grim asked.
Duke Selfaeth shrugged and replied, "It's hard to say. Relations with the clans aren't nearly as bad as they used to be."
"I've always thought I'd make a good diplomat. Maybe I'll get assigned to them for my apprenticeship?" Grim suggested.
The Duke smiled and said. "It's a worthy goal."
Grim impulsively reached out and hugged his father again, craving the contact he'd sorely missed over the years. He clung to the world as it was in that moment, knowing it might never be again. "Thank you, Father, for your understanding."
"Of course. Thank you for yours," Duke Selfaeth said as a tear escaped his eye. With that, he let his son go.
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