Kirra flinched when Styx's body rubbed against his. The contact lasted for a fraction of a second, but it was enough to send Kirra on another spiraling journey through his doubts. He wanted Styx in every way, from the quiet conversations to the lust-fueled kisses exchanged in the dark corners of Madame Godani's complex. He wanted more, to invite Styx to explore the depths of his body and soul, but he couldn't.
They sparred on the roof of the Inkblade headquarters, shirtless and sweating from the exertion. Wooden swords danced between them, occasionally scoring a hit on naked flesh. Kirra lived for adrenaline fueled moments like this, but every time they paused he immediately wanted to hide. Styx would inevitably stare at Kirra's naked torso, and Kirra would end their break early just to stop the flow of lust.
It hadn't been this way in the beginning of the relationship, but every moment with Styx unearthed more of Kirra's repressed memories. How could Kirra explain the terror which seized him every time he got aroused—every time Styx's hands swept across his skin with the gentleness of a thousand feathers, teasing out the lust hiding in Kirra's soul— how was he supposed to explain about the taunting faces of the men who had raped him? How could he confess to Styx that every touch reminded him of an old man bending him over a desk every night since he had turned ten?
With little to do to satisfy their need for physical activity, sparring had become their number one activity. Though Styx had tried to get intimate multiple times, Kirra put a stop to it every time, before it went too far. Styx never asked for an explanation, though Kirra wanted him to know. It never seemed like the right time to say anything.
"Yes, that's it, you've got it!" Kirra clapped excitedly as Styx narrowly missed him with the sword. Styx had improved dramatically over the last four days. Training had originally been his idea, but Kirra had eagerly agreed. What better way was there to release all their pent-up physical energy without resorting to sex?
Kirra groaned at the thought, denying his inward desire for intimacy, and pushed the conversation away. He eyed the wooden sword, imagining it slaying his demons in the Everbright City, then looked at Styx and saw the concern in his eyes.
"What's wrong?" Kirra asked, lowering his sword and assuming a casual stance. "Need a break?"
Styx shook his head but lowered his sword as well. "That's not it. You're distracted. I can just feel it, but I don't know how."
Oh no. He's caught on to my vulnerability, Kirra thought but kept his face as unreadable as possible. "I'm just worried about something is all," he answered quietly.
"About what?" Styx asked. "Can I help you sort through it like you've done for me?"
"You mean, regarding Prism's death?" Kirra replied. "I don't think I helped much."
One corner of Styx's mouth raised in a half-smile. "So, these last four nights of talking me to sleep were for a different reason?"
"Uh . . ."
"I'm joking," Styx replied, but he set the sword down and came over to Kirra, reaching out to touch him but stopping an inch away. "I know something is wrong, and I . . . I guess I was hoping humor would bring it out."
"I'm sorry, Styx," Kirra said. He wanted to push forward, to grab Styx's hand and draw it toward him. Instead, he turned away, hiding his eyes from Styx. "There is something bothering me, you're right."
"It's Max, isn't it?" Styx said after a moment. "You were uncomfortable about this arrangement in the beginning, and you aren't sure you want to go through with it anymore."
Kirra sighed. Styx had given him an out here, but it wouldn't be fair to either Styx or Maxthane if he took it. He wanted to build a relationship with Styx—no, with both of them—but he couldn't do that with lies. "That's . . . yeah, I am uncomfortable, but not for the reason you think."
Kirra hesitated once again. This was the moment he had to decide which path to take. He wanted to run, but he always ran. He wanted to hide, but he was already in The Shade, what better place for secrets than the shadows surrounding him? No, Styx, and the comfort of his shadows welcomed his trust, and with a deep breath he unlocked the door. "It's because of what happened with the other Knights."
"What do you mean?" Styx asked.
"I wasn't always part of Alsha's command and . . ." Kirra trailed off, not because he didn't want to say anything, but because the words wouldn't come. This was a delicate matter, and deserved precision.
"And?" Styx said when Kirra didn't continue.
Kirra shrugged, giving an answer that would satisfy Styx's curiosity for a moment. "I need to go tell her I'm okay. She's probably worried sick. I can't settle down until I fix that. I'm not certain I could come back immediately, either."
"I understand," Styx said slowly. He paused for two breaths before going on, "Just . . . if you're really leaving because you don't want to be with me anymore, you'd tell me, right?"
"Of course!" Kirra said, rounding on him in surprise. His hands ached for Styx, but he still couldn't bring himself to touch him. "And, I do want to be with you. I really do. More than anything I've ever wanted before."
"I just ask because . . ." Styx shifted uncomfortably, "because if it was just the sex, I would understand. But you've started pulling away on my kisses, too."
"I have?" Kirra asked. Despite his misgivings, he hadn't consciously pulled away from any kisses, though the news didn't surprise him.
Styx tried to smile but frowned instead. "It feels that way."
Kirra bit his lip, studying Styx carefully. His reluctance to explain himself was hurting Styx, and that couldn't continue. "Styx."
"Yeah?" Styx smiled hopefully.
"Do you remember Grembal?" Kirra asked.
"Of course," Styx replied. "Strange guy, but nice enough. He's always lying—or so his eyes told me—but that's pretty typical here in The Shade, so I can't say it unnerved me too much."
"He's not a nice guy," Kirra said firmly through gritted teeth, his body tensing. "He's not nice at all."
"What do you mean?"
Kirra scoffed at the thoughts running through his head. If he hadn't experienced this new world, he might've never understood the depravity of the world he'd come from. "When people tell stories about The Shade, they say it's where murderers, thieves, and rapists live. I think I prefer your people to the ones in the Everbright City, as strange as that is."
Styx nodded. "Murderers and thieves certainly, but rape is rare here. There aren't many laws here, and fewer still are written, but there's a healthy respect for attended personal property. Muggings don't happen often, just burglaries." Styx's eyes turned thoughtful as he leaned against the rocks beside them, reaching for a waterskin he'd left there before training. He wetted his mouth and continued. "Rape is the same way. Besides, everyone down here knows how to fight dirty. Try to force yourself on someone and you'll lose your eyes before you get off."
"I would've thought it worked the other way," Kirra replied. Styx raised an eyebrow, and Kirra hastened to add, "Not just because of the reputation, either. It's just . . . things are not what I expected them to be here."
"And I would've thought people in The Everbright City wouldn't like nudity, what with hating individuality and expression like they do," Styx replied, grinning. "Then my first day there you forced me to bathe. Publicly!"
"You still don't like nudity, do you?" Kirra said, his gaze lingering for a moment on Styx's bare chest. "Considering how free you are with sex, I would've thought . . ."
Styx cut him off with a chuckle. "We both like to make assumptions, I guess. This is the first time I've ever been shirtless in The Shade. Outside of the guildhall, I mean. It feels . . . nice, actually. A little colder than I'd like, but it's not bad." He shrugged and added, "Considering your openness to nudity, I'm honestly surprised at how shy you are . . . sexually, I mean. I didn't want to press anything, though."
"Have you and Max had sex?" Kirra asked with only slight hesitation.
Styx gave him a strange look. "Haven't had time. You should know that. We've spent all our time together down here."
Kirra's breath caught for a moment before he asked, "Am I holding you back?"
"Oh no, I didn't mean it like that," Styx said. "If you two were into it, I'd do you both at the same time." He laughed, but he grimaced when Kirra's face fell. "There's that look again. It really is Max."
"No!" Kirra said immediately. "No, it isn't. It would be so easy to lie to you that it was, and maybe that'd make it easier, but . . ." he shook his head firmly. "That's really not it. Our situation may be unlike anything I've ever thought of before, but that doesn't mean I can't get used to it. I know you want me, and that's enough, really."
Styx nodded in acceptance, and his mind worked to connect the pieces of the puzzle. "But something about Kinar Grembal keeps you from being with me?"
"And you said something about murderers . . ." Styx trailed off thoughtfully, then his eyes widened in shock as he gasped, "Oh no, did he . . . did he kill your parents?"
"No." Kirra sighed, his voice catching as he tried to explain his reality. "No . . . it was . . ."
"Sorry, I shouldn't have asked," Styx offered. "I don't want to make you tell me."
"He raped me," Kirra blurted. Once he started, the words kept coming. "He would do it nightly, since my tenth birthday until I joined the Knights and moved into the barracks."
Styx paused for a second, the words sinking in. He turned, picking up his shirt and sliding into it, his face a mask of pure rage. He started speaking as soon as the shirt settled comfortably on his shoulders. "I'll kill him. I'll go do it right now. How do we get into the Everbright City without an eagle?"
Instead of answering, Kirra put his hand firmly on Styx's arm. "No . . . you'll do nothing of the sort."
"A man like that doesn't deserve to live," Styx said. "You can't control what you don't own."
"Strange logic for a thief," Kirra scoffed. He didn't know why he said it, couldn't figure it out for the life of him, but he wouldn't take it back, either.
Styx looked like Kirra had slapped him, but that only made him angrier. "Ownership is possession. You can't possess another person. Even if you keep them imprisoned, that's not possession either. They still have choices. They still have the right to fight back." He took one deep breath, which diminished but did not eliminate the edge in his voice. "He had no right to do that to you, and he deserves to die."
"I won't have you murder in my name," Kirra said.
"It's not murder, it's justice," Styx said firmly.
"I won't have you murder in my name," Kirra replied just as strongly. "Styx, I'm serious."
"So, you'll just let the bastard live?" Styx asked. "Why are you defending him?"
Kirra growled but forced his voice to remain calm. "To my knowledge, I was his only victim. It's my justice to give out. And I'm not just defending him, I'm also protecting you. Do you have any idea how risky it would be for you to attack him? You would be putting yourself in danger for something that happened in my past."
"But - "
"My choices. My possession," Kirra said forcefully but also released his grip on Styx. "My justice."
A harsh silence fell between them for several seconds, Styx searching Kirra's eyes before he sighed and looked away. He ran both hands through his hair, growling in frustration before he turned back to Kirra. "He made you hate your own feelings. You can't . . . you can't enjoy it because of him?"
"Him and . . . others," Kirra said hesitantly.
"Styx . . . I've never told anyone any of this," Kirra said, tears threatening to burst from his eyes at any moment. "It's hard."
"Can I hug you?" Styx said.
Kirra bristled at the thought. Styx frowned, and Kirra hastened to explain, "Not right now. Even though I want you to."
"I understand," Styx replied, though Kirra wasn't sure he believed it.
But it didn't matter if Styx understood or not, at least not yet. Now that he'd started down this path of vulnerability, he had to see it through. "In my first unit - the one I was part of before joining Alsha's - They . . . they used to corner me in the showers. Nearly half my unit was in on it. My Commander . . . he watched the first time. Didn't say a word."
Styx listened intently, his face a stony mask as he replied. "I see."
"You're looking at me strange . . . what are you thinking?"
"Do you honestly want to know?"
"Yes," Kirra said hesitantly.
"I'm thinking we should blow up the whole sky," Styx replied. "Kill every bastard in that city."
"What!?" Kirra explained.
"And, let me guess, you've let them off the hook too?" Styx said. "No justice for them either?"
Kirra gritted his teeth and said, "That is not fair, Styx."
"Isn't it?" Styx asked. "You've let them get away with it for this long. And why?"
"I was twelve!" Kirra said sharply. "What was I supposed to do? Who would believe me? I couldn't tell my own guardian, since he was involved. I couldn't tell my Commander, since he endorsed it. Who? Who was supposed to hand out justice for me?"
Styx's features softened, appropriately admonished by the reality of Kirra's words. "I'm sorry. I just can't believe anyone would ever want to control you like that." He shook his head helplessly, his mouth contorting in disgust. "It's revolting. I enjoy my freedom way too much to ever do something like that to someone else."
"I know that," Kirra said quietly. "And that's why I feel safe with you. It's just . . . every time someone touches me in that way, it brings back memories."
Styx nodded, now understanding Kirra's predicament. "What can I do?"
"Let me go," Kirra said immediately.
"What?" Styx said, recoiling. "Are you . . . you don't want to be together?"
"No, I mean . . ." Kirra growled in frustration at his poor choice in words. Now he'd offended his greatest supporter, and he hastened to clarify, "let me report to Alsha. If I talk to her, I think . . . I think she could help me."
"Ah . . ." Styx said, "That makes more sense. Would you like me to go with you?"
Kirra sighed. "I wish you could, but I think that would make more trouble than it's worth. Even though the Knights will recognize your contribution to the war effort, I doubt most people will be comfortable with the idea of a Shade walking among them after we lost so many of our comrades."
"Then I'll guide you to the surface, at least," Styx offered. He forced a smile, though his eyes remained filled with concern. "I still wish I could do more. I wish you would let me do more."
Kirra nodded and turned away, reaching for his shirt. After a moment, he turned back and said softly, "Styx,"
"Thank you," Kirra said. "I appreciate everything you've done for me, and I'll make it up to you someday."
"Just come back," Styx replied gently. "That's all the payment I'll ever need."
The sunlight filtering through the hole in the cavern roof wasn't enough to guide Kirra on its own, and he was grateful for Styx's reassuring presence as they ventured along the great staircase toward the main entrance to Pentalus. With Maxthane now ruling, The Shade felt safer than ever, but the near absence of light created other dangers for Kirra.
He warily eyed the cliff face next to him with every step. He doubted Styx would let him come close to falling, but that did little to assuage his fears. Heights didn't bother him when he could see, but the darkness made the depths unknowable. Kirra feared everything he couldn't trust.
Eventually, however, they arrived at the top of the staircase. Both had broken a sweat, and wearily rested for a moment to catch their breath. Despite their physical fitness, the climb had been steep and quick, and they'd already spent the morning training. Kirra couldn't wait to arrive back on flat ground again, though he wasn't eager to leave Styx.
"So, we're here," Styx said after a minute, addressing Kirra's unspoken concerns.
"Yes, I guess we are," Kirra said quietly.
"When do you think I'll see you again?" Styx asked when nothing more was forthcoming from Kirra.
Kirra shrugged. "I don't know. Hopefully soon. You're not planning on leaving, are you?"
Styx shook his head. "Not that I know of, though I have to find this 'Ghayle' Prism mentioned, at some point."
Kirra made a decision in the half-second in took him to consider Styx's words. "I'll resign my commission before I come back, and then we'll search together."
Styx stared at him for a moment before responding. "You don't have to do that."
"Yes. I do," Kirra replied firmly. "I hold no loyalty to Neredos or the Everbright City anymore. I hold some to Alsha, but it's not enough to keep me there. She'll understand." He smiled warmly and added, "At least here, I'm welcomed as one of you."
"A Knight of the Firmament wanting to live in The Shade," Styx said, chuckling.
"Personally, I'd prefer to live elsewhere, but I want to be with you," Kirra replied, "If that means living here, I'm okay with that."
Styx grinned, and he raised his arms as if wanting to embrace Kirra but then dropped them a second later. His eyes were conflicted as his smile faltered slightly and he said, "I suppose I'll let you go then. Good luck." He turned to go.
"Styx," Kirra said, catching Styx's arm before he went too far.
"Yes?" Styx said, turning back to Kirra with a question in his eyes.
Kirra pulled Styx into a tight embrace, surprised to find it didn't trigger any negative memories. Styx returned the embrace with equal fervor, and when they pulled back a moment later, Kirra ended it with a firm, albeit short, kiss. "Give Max a kiss for me, would you?" he said.
"Of course," Styx replied, nodding appreciatively.
They parted again and Kirra ascended the last few feet into the root cellar that disguised the entrance from the citizens of Pentalus. Since the fall of Sabreeza, a small garrison of Maxthane's soldiers guarded the entrance, and Kirra approached them cautiously.
"Oy, I know you." A middle-aged woman in the black leathers of house thulu-Khant addressed Kirra as he stepped into the cellar. She stood beside a low table, playing a game of Jatla. How they managed to see the details on the colored cards before them, Kirra didn't know. Styx had said the Shadesight tattoos didn't allow for much determination of color.
The soldier put her cards down and parted from her fellows to approach him. "You're the Knight who's part of King Maxthane's harem, if I'm not wrong."
Kirra had never heard himself described that way before, but correcting her misconception seemed like too much effort. "That's right. I'm heading back to the city."
"I'm not sure we can let you leave," the woman replied. "You might be taking Shade secrets out with you."
"You can contact Maxthane if you want," Kirra said plainly. He pointedly left off Maxthane's title. He'd spent his entire life around nobility, being a member of it himself. By omitting the title, he presented himself as equal to Maxthane, which in both Kirra's and the King's mind, he was. If these soldiers did decide to check on Kirra's right to leave, they would find an irritated Maxthane demanding to know why they stopped Kirra in the first place.
But he reasoned that they wouldn't check. They hassled him because he was a Knight, and they were Shades. It was a Shade's duty to be in opposition of anything connected to King Neredos or the Everbright City, and they would fulfill that duty to the best of their ability while respecting Maxthane's authority over them.
"We might just do that," the woman said firmly. "But we'll let you pass for now. If we find out you're lying, we'll come after you, I guarantee it."
An idle threat, but one which made Kirra want to grin, though he suppressed the urge quickly. "You're threatening the lover of the King?" Kirra said forcefully. "What makes you think he didn't send me on this mission?" Although he and Maxthane had only exchanged one kiss, and they hadn't pursued any further development of their triad with Styx, that kiss had been public. For all this soldier knew, he and Maxthane had riotous sex every night.
The woman chuckled dryly. "Of course, Master Elrhanadan. I apologize for my disrespect. Have a safe trip." She stepped out of the way at last.
"You are fulfilling your duty," Kirra replied easily. "There is no disrespect by honoring your oaths to the Shadow King. You may rest assured that your behavior is commendable."
The woman bowed as Kirra walked past her, ascending the last few steps from the cellar to enter into Pentalus. He blinked as soon as he set foot on the cobblestone alleyway, his eyes stinging. Four days in the dark had affected his vision, and he staggered forward until his eyes adjusted to the light.
Glad the soldiers hadn't witnessed his moment of vulnerability, he straightened his clothes and armor and walked toward the mouth of the alleyway. Though his eyes continued to sting, they allowed him to function with increasing ability. With a deep breath, he headed straight for the first person he thought could help him.
He arrived at Mister Swallow's clerical office a short time later. It had taken him longer than he would've liked to get there; between the physical exhaustion and the slowly decreasing blindness, he'd stumbled more often than not.
But as soon as he'd had a moment to catch his breath, he ascended the steps and knocked on the door of the office. The old man answered the door a moment later, staring at him in disbelief. "Mister Swallow," Kirra said with a polite smile.
"Kirra Elrhanadan! You're alive!" Mister Swallow replied excitedly. He stepped to the side and waved Kirra in.
"I am," Kirra said, stepping around Mister Swallow. As the clerk closed the door after him, Kirra continued, "I'm also hoping to report back to my Commander, but I'm afraid my eagle died in the battle, and I have no way back to the Everbright City. I hoped you could help me."
Mister Swallow shook his head as if to clear his disbelief, his spectacles sliding to the tip of his nose. "Your Commander was here just this morning, asking me to put out feelers on your behalf. Where have you been?"
"I was injured and trapped in The Shade, but I'm doing better now," Kirra said carefully. He couldn't give Mister Swallow the whole truth. If anyone found out Kirra had spent his time as a guest of the Shades, he would have too much explaining to do.
"That's good to hear. She's been quite worried about you," Mister Swallow said, nodding solemnly. "Unfortunately, she's on a mission. Left for Port Salmus with the rest of her company. She's off hunting the demon."
"I thought the demon was sealed back in the pillar," Kirra said. He'd only caught a brief glimpse of the final moments of the fiery demon before Neredos had resealed it. He and Styx had been too far away to assist in that battle, though they'd come to Prism's aid shortly afterward.
"Aye, one of them was. The one she fought with that monk and the Fedain. But the purple one, with the scales and quills . . ." Mister Swallow shuddered, "the townsfolk in Salmus sighted it in the nearby hills a day ago."
Kirra bristled at the memory. As far as he'd known, that demon was dead, killed after it had left him battered and broken on the cobblestones. "That's the one which killed my eagle," he said, frowning.
"It seems quite the dangerous beast at that," Mister Swallow agreed. "But if anyone can kill it, it's that fierce woman leading your company."
Kirra nodded. He found no fault in Mister Swallow's assessment. "I need to speak with her."
"How do you plan to catch her without an eagle?" Mister Swallow asked.
Kirra sighed. "I don't know."
"Why don't you report up above, and they can help you out?" Mister Swallow suggested. He sat behind his desk and added, "They might be able to get you a fresh mount."
"I suppose I don't have any other option, do I?" Kirra replied bitterly.
Mister Swallow reached for a pen and said, "I'll send a messenger bird to notify them to come and get you."
As Mister Swallow fetched a piece of paper, Kirra stopped him and said, "I'd like some time to decide what to say, if you don't mind."
Mister Swallow looked up slowly, a sly smile creeping onto his face. He pushed back the spectacles and gave Kirra a hard look, "You mean, your story isn't as solid as you said it was."
"You see through me?" Kirra asked, only half-surprised.
Mister Swallow chuckled. "My whole life is about attention to detail, Kirra. But I remember that you trusted me when no one else did, so I think I owe you one. You figure out your story, and I'll tell them what you want me to."
Kirra bowed in appreciation. "Thank you, Mister Swallow."
"I'm stepping out for an inspection, and I'll be back in an hour. Will that give you enough time?" Mister Swallow asked.
"I think so," Kirra replied.
Mister Swallow stood and gestured toward the door. "Good. If you'll excuse me then."
Kirra led the way to the door and stepped outside, smiling politely as Mister Swallow exited and locked the door with a large key. He turned and walked down the steps, leaving Kirra to follow slowly afterwards.
Not wanting to wait in the open, Kirra, spied a nearby alley and headed in the direction. He had placed his bets on Alsha being available but explaining himself to anyone else was a different matter entirely. Would any other person in the Everbright City accept his excuse for his disappearance?
He didn't have long to decide, for before long, his ears began to twitch, a sure sign of magic occurring nearby. He looked around for the source, his hand sliding down to the hilt of his sword when a large hand clamped down on his mouth from behind.
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