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There's nothing left but the ice now, Vanyel thought, hard-eyed as he watched clippings of his hair fall to the floor. He held very still against the straight razor scraping against his head, though he wasn't sure why he didn't lean back into the blade.

Because the monk doing this has clipped too many novices' hair, he decided, finally. Because leaning back would just get him injured, just earn him a scar. Because if he accepted the ice, he could live like this.

He could live with his father's scorn ("If I get good reports about your obedience there, I might call you back"). He could live with the monastery's rules (Awake at dawn, an hour's morning chores, breakfast, work for three hours, silent contemplation for two hours, mealtime, work for three, contemplation, prayer time and study, dinner, personal time until lights out at nightfall). He could live with not understanding why it had come to this, with the dull ache in his arm that never healed right, with lack of family and lack of love and lack of companionship. He'd guarantee the last. If the ice was the only way to live, he wouldn't let anyone close, and wouldn't ever be hurt again.

He wasn't sure what he'd be living for, but he could live.

Days passed, weeks passed, months passed. The first time his birthday came and went, he thought distantly that if he wanted to, he could leave in a year. That nothing could force him to stay in this place after a year, if his father didn't recall him sooner.

As that next year passed, he stopped caring about even that. What did he have to go back to? There was nothing for him at Forst Reach. He couldn't run away and become a minstrel now even if he could before; his stiff arm and lack of practice spoke to that. He disliked women anyway, so he'd never find love.

There was nothing for him in the world.

When his next birthday came and went, he didn't note it. There was nothing for him but this.

And when, shortly after that, a stranger arrived, when Father Brevec told him that the stranger must share his room, he refused to care. It didn't matter. If anything, he was angry. Angry that his single room had to fit another, angry that he was the one who had to make room for something else, angry that some beautiful, smiling stranger could intrude on what little time he had to himself.

He wouldn't show it. He wouldn't show anything but the ice.

But somewhere deep beneath it, he seethed.

***

:Gala, is everything okay there?:

Her mental voice was tinged with a tired amusement. :Fine, love, fine. Better off than you are right now. The stables are warm and I'm not injured.:

As if in answer to her thought, his leg throbbed harder, and he made a face. :It'll heal. At least the monastery wasn't too far.:

Negotiations were in progress to, perhaps, marry his cousin to one of the Lesharas. The idea infuriated him, but over the years of butting heads with Savil about it, the anger had faded to a dull, constant ache, a sense of twisted sickness in the back of his head that wouldn't go away but which he couldn't express. He was a Herald. He couldn't pick sides. As family, he'd been sent to get her thoughts on it, to discuss with her—a maiden in her thirties, devoted as a nun in cloisters as she had been since she was a child—her thoughts on this match. If she refused it, that would be the end of that.

With the external pressures of resolving the feud, he doubted she'd resist it. Still. At this point, things had gone so far that nothing was left but permissions. He hoped that, without actively going against his role as Herald and trying to dissuade her, he could present the situation so fairly that she would see the risks to herself in it all, and perhaps refuse. Otherwise, he wasn't sure what would happen. Even if she agreed, if Staven refused to move from his position as Lord Holder—as was more than his right, Tylendel thought angrily—something would have to give.

He'd expected a lot of problems out of this trip, but somehow hadn't anticipated being attacked by bandits. He and Gala had fought them off, but he'd taken an arrow to the thigh in the initial skirmish. They'd bound it for him at the nunnery before his initial meeting with his cousin Jeanni—just introductions for now—and then he'd gone on his way to the nearby monastery to beg a place to stay and recover. With Gala settled into their stables, he felt a little more secure, but as the cold outside wore off, his injury seemed only to throb the worse. He'd need a change of bandage soon, he thought, and hoped he wouldn't be too much trouble to the clerics here. It was bad enough having to stay with them, given his own inclinations and their religion's view on it.

"Vanyel." The monk who had introduced himself as Father Brevec was addressing one of the novices, who had been sweeping away excess ashes from the fire and adding more fuel. "A moment of your time, son."

The novice turned to look at them, and Tylendel almost felt his heart stop.

He was beautiful, for all that his coarse novice wear and shaven head drew away from it. Strong brows lead down into delicate, heavy-lashed grey eyes above high cheekbones, plump lips, a sharp jawline. He was around 'Lendel's age, maybe a year younger, and radiated a sharp coolness. Tylendel's empathy was never at the best when he focused on it, but he had a general impression of the boy as withdrawn and repressed, some cold, icy wall between him and the rest of the world.

"Yes, Father Brevec?"

"As you know, we're lacking in room at the moment, but Herald Tylendel needs a place to stay. We've given you your space out of deference to your family, but you'll let him take the spare bunk during his time visiting with us."

No, Tylendel thought in horror. Don't put me with His Loveliness!

Despite being considerably shorter, Vanyel somehow managed to look down his nose at Tylendel as he rose. "Yes, Father Brevec," he said, the tone clipped.

"It seems he's taken an injury as well. Please make sure that you're helping him with his bandages."

Disgust poured off Vanyel in a tangible wave. "Yes, Father Brevec."

Inside his head, Gala laughed. :And it had to be on your thigh.:

:Please, Gala, if I'd known I'd have a handsome monk as a roommate, I'd have told them to aim for the heart.:

:Oh? Do you think he could help with that?:

He didn't have time to retort; Vanyel had swept himself around stiffly and was proceeding down the hall. Out of deference to his injury—or, more likely, to the watchful eye of the Father—he at least went slowly enough that Tylendel could keep up.

"So, your name's Vanyel?" he panted, hobbling along behind.

"Yes, Herald."

Tylendel was starting to wonder if Vanyel's vocabulary was in some way limited, or if he was that disinterested in carrying on anything resembling a conversation. "Have you been here long? You seem young—what made you decide to become a monk?"

Vanyel whirled on him, stopping abruptly in the hallway and staring at him with hard, cold eyes. Tylendel could practically feel the temperature dropping.

"This is the room you will be staying in," Vanyel said, instead of responding, tension making his lips thin, pulling them off his teeth as he opened a door. "My bed is on the left. Yours, the right. It has been unused so you may wish to air it out. Or, I suppose, I should do that for you, as you're currently indisposed." He looked down at 'Lendel's visibly bleeding injury as if he hoped it hurt badly. "I'll do that, then. I will change your bandage first, as the Father has requested it, and permit you this room, as the Father has demanded it, but I will not converse with you, nor will I be showing you any kindness that is not demanded of me by the Father."

Wow. Tylendel couldn't quite keep his brows from rising. "Understood."

Vanyel's sharp-edged tongue at least kept things from getting awkward as those delicate, beautiful fingers perfunctorily changed his bandages, even with his trousers off. His poor whites, he thought sadly. He had a spare pair of traveling whites in his pack, but there wasn't much point in switching to those until he'd stopped leaking through the bindings. He certainly wouldn't put the dress ones on.

That task done, Vanyel rose stiffly from in front of the chair he'd put Tylendel in, went over to the spare bed, and shook the blankets out. He turned back. "Yours," he said, with a tone like he was consenting to something disgusting, and went to his own bed. "Now, if you do not mind, it is study time from now until dinner, and I do not wish to be disturbed."

At least he'd brought along a chronicle that Savil had suggested he read. "Of course," he said.

But as Vanyel sank down onto his bedroll and pulled out a book and a journal he was clearly taking some notes in, Tylendel had the impression that something was wrong—something much worse than just a stuck-up monk he had to share space with.

For a second, as he had turned away from Tylendel, he'd picked up a sense of despair from Vanyel; a sick, deep, thorough gulf in him as if he felt like he was losing something. As if, he thought, Vanyel's personal space was the only thing he thought he had, and he'd lost that as well.

It hadn't lasted long; as soon as Tylendel had started to focus on it, he'd felt nothing but that cold blankness from Vanyel.

:Gala, thoughts?:

She was sleepy and warm, had just been fed. :He's not very happy, is he?:

:In a word... maybe I'll ask around about him.:

:Don't get yourself in trouble, darling.:

As if he would.

***

It wasn't fair, but Vanyel tried not to let himself dwell on that. Nothing was fair. Life wasn't fair. If he began down that path, he'd be in trouble. There were feelings down there.

But it didn't make sense, no matter how he looked at it. Fairness was one thing, but it still needed to be logical.

This visiting Herald shouldn't be sharing a room with him.

When it first had been requested, he'd thought it made sense. It was true that because of his family line, he'd been given a single room. It was true, too, that the monastery was surprisingly full. But even so, a guest should be given a room alone.Visitors had been treated that way enough times that the slow dawning realization felt uncomfortable, strange, because he couldn't find a reason for it.

He should have been forced to move out of his room, share an overcrowded room with two other novices until the Herald was gone. He wasn't displeased with the fact he didn't have to, but that didn't make it less strange that it hadn't happened.

So why?

Vanyel didn't have an answer. He found himself picking at it throughout the next day—bitter, yes, that the time that Tylendel was out doing his Herald business was also the time Vanyel had to be out and about working, so he couldn't even enjoy the privacy. But picking at it nevertheless.

There had to be a reason. He just hadn't seen it yet.

***

His visits to Jeanni over the next few days were not particularly productive. Lendel considered it as he rode back to the monastery, trying not to wince under Gala's gentle, careful gait.

Jeanni had listened intently as, with all the neutrality he could muster, he'd explained the issue, the risks, and what he feared would become of her. He emphasized the possible impact on the settlement if she refused, of course, though he hated every moment of having to do so. But he also took her hands and told her earnestly that despite that, it wasn't her problem to deal with, and she had to take her own health, happiness, and future under consideration as well. If this was something she was content with, she could accept the suggestion, he'd said, trying not to let on how horrible he found the idea. If it was not, she could refuse it. Nobody would hold it against her, and her life was her own to live. Certainly, Staven had the stronger blood tie to the Frelennye household, but the queen would overrule that if she took the offer. He was not here, he told her, to convince her one way or another. He was only here to talk to her as one person to another and encourage her to consider her options—all of her options.

She'd remained silent a long time, gaze modestly downcast. Then, "I just want to do what's right," she murmured. "I'm sorry. I'll need some time. Please come back again."

What could he do? He couldn't push it, not and live out the Herald's ideals, no matter how much he wanted to take her by the shoulders and yell that if she were so unsure, she had to refuse. If it wasn't something she could easily make a decision on, that'd bleed into her political marriage; a Leshara would walk all over her. Instead, he bowed his head, smiled, and said, "I'll do so."

It was discouraging however, and as he headed back, even Gala's gentle teasing couldn't quite pick up his mood. Returning to the room he'd been sharing with the novice Vanyel didn't help much either. Vanyel was sitting with a book, his back ramrod stiff as he did his best to ignore Tylendel who, himself, had very little left to do and was feeling fairly oppressed by the situation.

"It's so quiet," he muttered aloud at one point, and caught Vanyel glancing at him in return. "...Don't you think? Maybe I'm just too used to Haven."

"I wouldn't know."

"What about where you came from?" Tylendel pressed. "It can't have been this quiet there. I'm not sure the grave is this quiet normally."

Vanyel's lips twitched into a smile, and then he scowled hard, as if annoyed at his own amusement. "I doubt the grave is a place to joke about."

"I mean no disrespect," Tylendel said offhandedly. He and his brother had developed little nods to their own comfort when both parents had died in one year, back when they were younger, but not everyone shared the sentiment. "Regardless. Was there chatter? Did you have a large family?"

"It doesn't matter. This is where I am now."

Something was off again, in a way that Tylendel still couldn't quite put a finger on. He pursued it almost helplessly; this person needed help, he knew that much by now. "Do you prefer the quiet, then?"

"I..."

"I miss music already," Tylendel sighed. "I don't have any skill for it myself, but back at Haven, the Bards—"

Vanyel slammed his book closed. "I don't give a damn about the Bards," he hissed, but although he seemed bitterly cruel in expression and tone, it didn't match with what Tylendel was Feeling from him. It felt almost like grief, in the brief moment before Vanyel managed, it seemed, to push it down again.

"Alright," Tylendel said. "Sorry."

But Vanyel was already rising. "I see I can't do anything in private here. If you'll excuse me, I'll be in the library." Without waiting for an answer, he stormed out.

Tylendel flopped back on the hard bedroll and sighed. :Gala, love, I'm getting worried.:

:He does seem more than a little troubled. Maybe the celibacy?:

:You're not helping!:

Vanyel didn't come down for dinner that night; 'Lendel could only assume that he'd either grabbed something on his way to the library or was going to sneak food later. He doubted that even Vanyel would skip meals to avoid him. Tylendel had made his schedule perfectly clear, that he'd be there just over a week for his work, and may need to extend his stay if the injury were particularly troublesome. It had been healing well, but nobody would think to go meal-less that long.

Still, Vanyel's absence had its advantages. He sat himself down among the novices as he had become accustomed to doing, and picked slowly at the meager meal. "Tervan," he said, to the young pug-nosed man he recognized on his right. "I was wondering if you knew anything about Vanyel? I was put in his room, but I seem incapable of doing anything but offending him."

"Oh, that's normal for Vanyel," Tervan said, with a visible eye-roll. "Nobody likes him—he's always like that. I'm not surprised he's just as bad to a visiting Herald as he is to any of us! You can't do much with him, Herald Tylendel. He's a mean and bitter human being, and something inside him has just gone wrong. I don't think I've ever seen him show any positive human emotion, not since he arrived here! Perhaps that's why his father sent him here."

Tylendel pretended to be taking a long time to cut through his vegetables. "His father...? Someone important? He does act a bit like a nobleman..."

"That's what I heard. Couldn't say who, though..." Tervan shrugged. "I've never actually heard his family name. Well, that's how it is with that type. Father Brevec doesn't pass their full names on, and forbids them to say it. Teaches them humility. There are plenty of fathers out there who need to send their sons away as punishment, to teach them a thing or two. Everyone says that's why he acts so awful. The only people he listens to are the Fathers; everyone else he treats like dirt."

If anything, Tylendel felt more troubled than before. He remembered that as soon as they'd met, he'd asked Vanyel what had made him decide to take holy orders. If he was being forced to...

Well, no wonder he'd reacted badly.

Managing to force a smile, Tylendel said, "Well, I'm glad it's not just me he treats that way."

Encouraged, Tervan smiled back. "Not at all! Well, he does okay for himself, even if he's a right prat. A lot of the others that were sent out here were too soft, and those vanished."

That wasn't right. "Vanished?" Tylendel asked, trying to keep it casual.

Tervan glanced down at his meal. "Well, they run away," he said. "People who can't hack it but aren't old enough to leave legally, they take matters into their own hands."

:Gala, thoughts?: he asked silently as he chewed.

:It's a little suspicious,: she admitted. :But you're a lord's son too. If he'd gone ahead with his threats and outcast you, if he'd tried to have you shipped away somewhere, what would you have done?:

He knows what he'd do; had tried to do it a few times before Gala had come for him, in those two solid years where his gifts were driving him mad and he'd felt like there was no escape. He still had the faint scars to show for it. Being glad he'd survived to be with her didn't mean that he'd been any less a danger to himself. But that had been because of his gifts; he didn't think he could run from those. If it were something else, if he could have just walked away from his problems...

:True enough,: he allowed.

***

Despite Vanyel's best attempts to avoid and ignore the Herald, he just wasn't leaving, and in the hours that he couldn't be out of his room, Vanyel found himself hyper-aware of his presence. It was like a physical pressure against him: Tylendel's bouncing golden curls and their tendency to fall over one of those enormous brown eyes which seemed to never miss anything. The sound of the Herald's breathing even when he was completely silent otherwise like a touch making Vanyel's skin crawl. Worse, he was friendly and kind even when Vanyel snapped at him, something none of the others were in this gods-forsaken place. He caught himself wanting to start to reach out to that, wanting to start to talk to him, to hear about the wide world that Tylendel had seen.

What will I do if I get used to him? I can't let my guard down.

Vanyel refused to let himself do so. He stayed in silence when he had to be in the room with the Herald. Although he'd tried to stay away as much as possible in the few days since Tylendel had dared ask him about music, in some ways that only made it worse. Rather than it getting easier to ignore him through overexposure, Vanyel had to consciously recall the old cold numbness whenever he had to go back and face Tylendel being there in his space. It was like the crackling sharp-edged burning of the crust on top of fresh snow; he wasn't warm, he wasn't anything but ice, but something kept shoving through, breaking up the evenness.

Tonight, Tylendel was writing something in a journal. Vanyel couldn't seem to tune out the scratch of his pen no matter how hard he tried, despite years of ignoring his fellow novices doing likewise.

"Maybe Savil's right," Tylendel muttered under his breath about whatever he was writing.

It took a moment for Vanyel to understand what he'd just heard, for it to sink in. The name's familiarity bounced around his head like echoes off a mountainside, Savil, Savil, until suddenly he placed it.

It felt like he was dredging it out of a dream, pulling it from a life not his. He vaguely formed a face not unlike his father's, then tightened it to more severe, feminine lines. Savil; that was Savil. He had vaguely met her once, he was fairly sure, sometime when he was much younger, but he couldn't recall what they talked about. He remembered her disapproval, though, her dislike of him as he'd tried to stare her down.

It was strange, another misshapen piece of this illogical puzzle. He felt the urge to panic and couldn't bring himself to do so. There was no reason for this, to be sharing a room with someone connected to his family.

...It didn't matter. It didn't change anything. He refused to say anything, tightened his teeth together with a soft click only he could hear.

But two nights later, as he snuck down late to dinner to eat the remaining scraps of food, he caught the tail end of a conversation between two novices.

"—talked to me today. Asking around about lords' sons. You know, the thing Brevec does by making sure the heirs shape up or get out of the way of the other sons. I didn't tell him anything, but he wouldn't go away."

"Hah! Careful, Lewyss. Maybe he's interested in you."

"Please. He's a Herald. Even a sinning Herald wouldn't approach a man of the cloth."

Something about the scornful, smug way they were talking froze the already-cold blood in Vanyel's veins and he drew closer to listen.

"I've heard a fey man has no limits. Man of the cloth aside, you could be a child and he probably would."

"Do you think so?" Lewyss was asking mildly. "Poor Vanyel, then, having to share a room with him. I'd think he'd be in greater danger than myself or any boys."

He'd been spotted. Lewyss turned Provine's attention to him that simply, clearly eager to no longer be the subject of scrutiny. "Poor Vanyel indeed," Provine said, none too displeased at the sight of Vanyel looking discomfited; he schooled his expression more firmly. "Has he done anything to you, lad?"

"Done anything?" Vanyel tried to snap it, but couldn't keep it as firm as he wanted. Not and get answers.

Vanyel was aware of how blankly he was looking at them; they seemed to recognize it as well. "Hadn't you heard? That Herald Tylendel's supposed to be fey," Provine said, more bluntly.

He shook his head, was unable to do anything but. The other two clearly thought it was explanation enough but the words meant nothing to him; it was obviously supposed to be some kind of slur, some kind of insult to the Herald's character, but the specifics were a complete blank.

"Lord and Lady, he doesn't know." Lewyss said, then touched two fingers to his forehead in apology for the casual blasphemy. "You were meant for the cloistered life, Vanyel."

"It means he'd rather sin with boys than with ladies, if you take my meaning," Provine said, with a distinctly unapologetic grin. "No draw to womenfolk but to his own kind. Crime against nature as it is. That's why he looks so much like a woman himself, I reckon, with those pretty eyes. Gives me the chills."

Lewyss rolled his eyes, getting more visibly impatient. "Don't scare the lad. And I don't think that Herald looks much like a woman at all. You're the one getting your head turned by his eyelashes and giving yourself an excuse for your reaction, it seems to me—"

Vanyel's head was swimming, and he hardly could take in the rest of their words. Rather do that... with boys? That was possible? There were men who weren't drawn to women, who didn't want to bed them, but men? That people thought these urges made them like women themselves—

Suddenly, everything clicked into place. His father's disgust with him for as long as he could remember. Constantly trying to make him more manly, to stop him from hanging around his mother's ladies as if he were 'one' of them. Throwing serving girls at him, encouraging to bed them. His own attempts to do so; managing, but finding himself stepping back from his own body, skin crawling, the whole thing more mechanical than it had ever been with his hand. His father's fury over his desire to play music instead of training to manage the hold, over his desire to avoid beatings and use his mind to get himself out of trouble. Always, always insulting his masculinity, and ultimately sending him here to toughen him up, to make him more obedient—

His father thought he was 'fey', and Vanyel knew, chillingly, that he was right.

But that wasn't all that Vanyel realized.

***

Tylendel picked over his words as he finished up a letter to Jeanni. She was still buying time, and he could hardly blame her for doing so. It was a lot of pressure, and the settlement had been in stasis for long enough that she didn't need to rush into anything. He summarized his thoughts and the relevant issues as clearly as he could so that she'd have it for a reference, then stated the time in which a decision should be made—no more than one year, now, and that only if she felt like she needed that long to make a decisive statement. Personally, he felt that if she wanted to delay even half that long, it meant she shouldn't do it, but he couldn't say that despite the desire to. Instead, he just urged her to seek opinions from those around her and those who would want the best for her, and left her with contact info—letters to the collegium or the palace would reach him if addressed to Tylendel Frelennye, though it may need to wait until he were back from any mission; in the meantime, it would be best to send information care of his old friend and teacher Savil.

He was just signing the missive when Vanyel entered the room in a rush, shutting the door and locking it behind him, staring at Tylendel like his gray eyes were about to fall out of his shaven head.

Tylendel opened his mouth to ask what was wrong when Vanyel's feelings hit him. That strange wall was shattered. It reminded him of magic gone wrong, like Vanyel had made some kind of false shield that had rebounded on him finally, leaving him raw and burned inside. His distress made the air so thick that Tylendel thought there was a haze in it. It was almost impossible to pick out individual notes, especially with his own senses dulled as soon as he tried to focus, but there was rage in there, fear, guilt, and (strangely) some kind of deep hunger.

"This is a trap," Vanyel hissed at him, accusatory and hurt. "This is a trap! You're here to trap me."

"What—?" Tylendel stared at him, confused by his words and shocked by the intensity.

"Savil. You mentioned a Savil before. I have an aunt Savil. My father's sister." He was almost raving, chest heaving with his deep breaths, with the effort of keeping his voice low so nobody else would hear him through the thin walls. "Lord Withen talked to my aunt and had you sent here to tempt me. Father Brevec's in my father's pocket; that's why I'm here, that's why he could send his goddamn—the goddamn son of—what's my family name?!"

Tylendel opened his mouth and closed it. Vanyel was staring at him in utter panic now, and Tylendel couldn't even begin to know where to start with the sudden rant and the hysterical implications of conspiracy. Alarmed, trying to pick his words carefully, he said, "Savil's ... family name is Ashkevron...?"

"Yes... yes. Yes! I'm Vanyel Ashkevron!" Vanyel seemed almost about to start crying, tears welling up in his eyes, but instead he grew angry again, like he didn't know how to cry. Or, worse, didn't dare to. "And my father had me locked away here and you were sent to tempt me! To see if I'd sleep with you! And if it sounds like I did, if there's any sign, he'll tell my father... he'll tell my father and he'll never, ever approve of me..."

It was a jumbled, incoherent mess, and Tylendel raised both hands. "Hang on," he said. "Who was sent to tempt who?"

"You were! Because I'm—because my father knows, thinks I'm—" Vanyel shut up abruptly, trembling, clearly afraid—maybe for good reason—that someone was listening. His voice dropped to a whisper. "If I'm not reformed, Father won't call me home to be heir. If I'm not obedient. Manly. He'll never approve of me."

:Gala. Didn't Savil have a nephew who went missing?:

:Not missing. It's as the boy's saying.: Gala's usually-teasing voice had dropped all pretense at humor. :It was a few years ago, but don't you remember the letter? Savil cursing and insisting she was going to kill her brother?:

He did, now Gala mentioned the details. It hadn't been his business, and not the first time that Savil had grousingly threatened her brother, so he hadn't paid it too much mind. Vaguely, he recalled that Savil's brother had queried if he could have sent his son to be 'toughened up' by Savil, but had changed his mind when he'd heard about her training Tylendel. That there was no way she could help him become a man. Even secondhand, it had hurt a little.

:And she...said that he decided to send his son to a monastery instead. That's right. She couldn't intervene because he was sixteen and Withen was his guardian, so legally Withen's decisions had to stick. But that was years ago: Tylendel blinked.

Gala sent him some encouragement, wordless, and he steeled himself a little.

"How old are you?" Tylendel asked.

Vanyel stared at him, trembling. His voice came out in a whisper. "Eighteen."

Eighteen. Just a year younger than him. He thought of his father's old threats to cast him out and felt the worst sort of sympathy curl in him. "Then you don't need to stay here. You're legally an adult now. You can leave. You don't need your father's permission—"

"Not permission," Vanyel whispered. "Approval. I don't have anything else. I don't want anything else, not anymore. I can't play music. I don't have anywhere to go. Without the Ashkevron name I have no money either. No way to make it. If Father approves of me I'll at least have that. I hate it here. I hate it there. But I hate it everywhere, so at least I'd have that."

Gods. The boy seemed almost broken. This gambit to make a good obedient son out of Vanyel had done horrible damage to him, Tylendel thought. Faced with nothing, he'd become this cold, sharp-edged thing, barely a person, cutting down every possible emotional attachment to the people around him and showing obsequience for the approval of those above him.

"Alright," Tylendel said. He spoke calmly and quietly, like trying to calm a spooked horse, one hand toward him with an open palm. Vanyel was in a panic and the only way to get through to him would be to make the truth too clear to deny. "I wasn't sent here by Savil to trap you. Believe me, I didn't want an arrow to the leg either. That injury was real enough. You saw it, right? I didn't do that to myself."

"That's..." Vanyel hesitated.

"I know you won't believe me when I say that Savil would never do such a thing," Tylendel said evenly. "I know her, but you don't. However, she wouldn't. I'm not disagreeing that you might have people trapping or testing you, but Savil wasn't a part of it, and I wasn't either. If you're right and it is a trap? It's just that I showed up; my reputation as someone shay'a'chern preceded me, and the Father decided to test you like that."

Although the foreign word was obviously going over Vanyel's head, the meaning in context was clear enough. "That's too convenient," Vanyel said, almost silent. "Do you expect me to believe that?"

"I'm a Herald," Tylendel said. "I would never, ever, ever take advantage of someone. I want you to believe that. Surely you know enough about Heralds to know that I'd never let myself be used to harm an innocent. Savil, too, is a famous Herald. Our job, our calling is to protect people who need to be protected. To help the helpless." He tried to project his earnestness, meeting Vanyel's eyes and not looking away, and could tell that trying to explain how abhorrent that would be to a Herald meant nothing to Vanyel. He tried taking another tack. "Besides, I do prefer men. I don't have anything against people like me. Obviously! Why would I want to trap anyone else into getting found out? Why would I want anyone to be punished for that?"

Vanyel's eyes widened; Tylendel saw that line of reasoning sink home with a dawning understanding and pain. For a moment, he thought he had him.

And then Vanyel's shoulders slumped completely. On the one hand, the fight had gone out of him. On the other hand, the feeling that was welling from him—equal parts despair and that hunger again—had become nearly overwhelming.

"It doesn't matter," Vanyel breathed. "It doesn't matter whether you meant to be involved or not. I don't care... I need Father's approval. I have nothing else in life except the Father's approval."

It was chilling. Tylendel realized impulsively that Vanyel was making no distinction between Father Brevec or his own father any more. That, in some way, it had become a strange, enormous mass of simply needing to be obedient to authority.

He was broken. Completely.

"If you'll excuse me," Vanyel whispered. Behind himself, he unlatched the door again. "I need to sleep in the library tonight. You leave tomorrow, and then everything will be normal again, and they'll know I didn't give in."

Before Tylendel could protest again, he was gone.

***

So cold.

Vanyel hadn't brought a blanket with him to the library. Hadn't thought about anything except getting out of that room. He found a nook in the library and curled up as tightly as he could, holding his own knees, dropping his head to them and trying to contain what little warmth he had left in his body. Slowly, almost against his will, one of his hands rose to rub against the minuscule spikes of hair on his scalp, sharp and abrasive against his palm, not how it should be. He remembered how proud he'd been of his hair, long and elegant. His mother's ladies would play with it, twist it into different styles. He wondered how it would feel to have someone else do it instead, someone he wanted to play with it.

It doesn't matter, he tried to tell himself, bitter, but he couldn't quite bring himself back the place where he felt that way. It was missing, that spot where being miserable almost made him secure, where he could just stop thinking and feeling and exist moment to moment in a thick shroud of his own hatred.

Breathing was hard. Toward the end, talking to that Herald, he'd been afraid of being overheard, but also had simply been unable to get words out with any strength. His throat had closed like it was going to choke him. Everything inside him had felt sharp, like he was going to cut himself open on his own feelings.

And he'd wanted. That was the worst possible scenario, wanting things again. He'd wanted Tylendel to promise that he hadn't tried to trap him. He'd wanted Tylendel to reach out to him. When the Herald had done both those things, he'd wanted assurance that it would be okay. That everything would be fine now. That he could have something other than this life of constant vigilance and misery.

That wasn't something he could have.

When he was here, he had nothing to do except what he was told. He had nothing to do but wait for his performances of obedience to make him acceptable. He didn't have to want anything, and he didn't have to get hurt. It wasn't like before, in Forst Reach, where he constantly wanted to be acknowledged, wanted people to know he was smart, capable, had his own way of doing things, talented. Where he wanted to have his own personality and talents mean something, rather than just be something for them to scorn him for. He'd desperately wanted to be a Bard. To fight his own way. To learn the things that interested him. For who he was to be more than simply his father's son.

And now he knew: nothing he could have done would have helped that.

Because what he was good at, what he liked, was what made him so abhorrent to his family. To everyone except his sister—what was her name? He couldn't remember. But to his mother, it made him a pet. To his father, it made him fey. It didn't matter that he'd never even realized that was possible, that his treatment had started long before he were capable of wanting another man. It didn't matter that he'd never once taken action to sin with boys, as the other novices had put it.

All that mattered was that he wasn't what his father wanted.

He wanted to cry, but couldn't. He wanted to scream, but couldn't. He wanted—

Those beautiful brown eyes, staring at him with genuine, true concern. A hand outstretched towards him; meant to be appeal, but looking too much like an invitation. A face Vanyel had finally been able to find beautiful, after so many years of looking at the wrong faces and not being able to feel anything at all.

All the time that he'd been irritated about sharing space with Herald Tylendel, had that irritation, that awareness been as much desire as it had been fear? Without knowing a thing, without being able to put a word to it, had he wanted the Herald—for his looks, his body, that firm thigh under his hand when he'd bound his injury? Or, worse, for his freedom, his ability to make choices that even the queen would listen to, to ride wherever he wanted and be accepted for who he was and how he was by everyone who met him, regardless of what they felt about him?

But desire was the enemy. Desire was a fearful, wrong thing which would get rid of the ice if he let himself feel it. It wouldn't give him anything; it'd just make him want things he couldn't have, hurting for no good reason.

If I can just endure this I'll get my father's approval. If I can just endure this I'll get my father's approval. If I can just endure this I'll get my father's approval. If I can just endure this I'll get my father's approval. If I can just endure this I'll get my father's approval. If I can just endure this I'll get my father's approval. If I can just endure this I'll get my father's approval.

He repeated it like a prayer, a mantra to keep himself going, to keep himself centered, to the point that words stopped having any meaning. Eventually, it relaxed him. Eventually, he began to drift to sleep, and lose hold of the words, and instead he thought:

Then what?

What's for me there?

Will it mean something?

Will I begin to live again?

I don't even want to.

***

It took Lendel a good hour to calm down from how angry that had made him—not at Vanyel but for Vanyel. That numb anger inside of him, the over-trained, reactive anger, had flared up again and left him sitting in Vanyel's room with his fists clenched tight as if he could hold it inside.

:Sweetheart. You're not alone. I feel for you, love.: That was Gala, uneasy as she talked him down again. Slowly, it subsided to a point where the throb of outrage was just a background counterpoint again, pulsing in time with his heart.

Of course he was outraged; he suspected Vanyel was right. This was some kind of trap.

There'd been enough nods to something going on here—something that was, if not illegal, perhaps something that should be illegal. There'd been enough chatter about this being a place that noble houses tended to send disreputable children so the monks could shape them up to be heir—or to vanish so another child could inherit. A convenient way of avoiding the the messy disputes of determining if a disinheritance was legitimate, of dodging the legal side of blood rights.

Vanyel had been here longer than Tylendel by far, and Tylendel had already heard so many dubious things. If Vanyel had suspicions that the people involved might trap him into something, he had a better perspective on it than anyone from the outside.

:Calm down, my darling. Get some perspective yourself,: Gala urged, picking up the word from his mind and pushing it forward.

Perspective. Right.

First: One way or another, it was a known factor that Vanyel had been sent here to be made into an obedient heir. It was also pretty clear that the attempts to break his 'disreputable' behavior had been successful in at least some way.

Was Vanyel in danger of being 'disappeared', assuming that was something that did happen here rather than just people running away?

Lord Withen of Forst Reach didn't have a reputation as a cruel man; he was blunt and no-nonsense and (as Savil had said many times) a prejudiced blockhead. Sending Vanyel here to rehabilitate him was well in line with his known behavior. Sending him away to get executed was not; Savil had in no way expected Withen to try to harm his own son. The fact that said rehabilitation would break Vanyel's will was not something that he would consider as harmful, most likely; he might, like many of his kind, consider it a way to save his son and his reputation all at once.

No, Withen wouldn't want Vanyel disappeared. Tylendel could, most likely, pack up and go and not worry that anything he had done would expose or harm Vanyel. Beyond that, Vanyel was an adult now; he was able to decide to stay here or leave as he saw fit. He could confront his father if he saw fit.

But him being an adult didn't help. The fact he technically could leave couldn't be taken out of context: victims of abuse couldn't, not easily. They'd been taught not to, had fear put into them, coaxed only with what they could keep or gain from enduring their suffering. Tylendel was very sure that Vanyel was subject to that sort of abuse. That weird obedience to authority, his desire for his father's approval, being sent here as punishment...

Besides, what if Tylendel was wrong on his assessment of what little he knew of Withen? If he were wrong, and if Tylendel's own association with Vanyel meant that his father would never want him back, Vanyel could be harmed. The fact that he didn't think it likely didn't mean it was an acceptable risk.

:I don't even like him,: Tylendel protested to Gala distantly. But, dammit, I want to. I think there's something in there behind that brittleness and coldness and sharpness and I want to see who that person is. I don't want to leave him to have whatever's left stolen from him. I don't think I can. It feels like it's against my very nature.:

:I do feel you there, my darling. I agree it's not likely that they'd kill or sell him, but the damage that's been done could keep working on him,: Gala agreed.

That didn't comfort Tylendel at all. But he tried to keep perspective, keep sorting through the situation.

Second: Something was going on here that needed to be looked into. Perhaps those 'vanishing' heirs all did run away; perhaps the novices' gossip about the monastery itself being used to clean up messy inheritance issues without getting the law into it was just gossip. But whether it was or wasn't, it was something the crown would want to look into.

So, he thought. I need to get this place investigated. I could leave quietly, but if I do, I have to leave Vanyel. I don't know whether or not they'll decide he fell into their 'trap', that I was just too tempting, and harm him after I'm gone. What a horrifying thought. If I announce that I will be sending someone for further investigation I can take him as evidence whether or not he wants to come, but anyone I've talked to here may be endangered. Brevec's clearly the ringleader of whatever's going on, and he might escape...

He rubbed his face, finally fully calm and a little uncomfortable. What he needed was Savil, but even in deep trance his Mindspeech reach was no good. :Gala, love, I don't suppose Haven's still in your range? I'd like to drop a word to Savil.:

:Well out, sweetheart. I can't get a peep to Kellan. Let me just... hm. I can reach Gersham's Companion Melannye. They're a day or two from Haven, however, and while I can reach her, Melannye's range is particularly weak; she's well matched to Gersham that way, unfortunately. But if you want to pass a message along, that'd be faster than waiting until we're back:

Tylendel considered it, then discarded the thought. :No good. It's a complicated mess and if I'm going to ask for permission, I'd have to wait for it. No, I'll just have to use Savil's name without permission and apologize later.:

:She's going to twist your ear off.:

Despite himself, he grinned. :She sure will, but we're going to need to send someone to investigate and her name will shut down protests much faster than mine. Anyway, you know she'll approve despite herself. That kind of method is near and dear to her heart.:

***

Vanyel came down to breakfast from the library; he made sure he was seen coming from the library, too. He couldn't seem to get his thoughts in order; they were scattered and like something hot to the touch. But if he were to maintain the status quo, he needed it to be seen that after he learned about Tylendel, he didn't stay in the same room with him—

Why bother? some part of himself asked quietly, and he had no answer.

Tylendel wasn't at breakfast, though; he could only hope that meant that the Herald-Mage had left at first light. It was a long trip to Haven and since he'd been planning to leave today, it would only be reasonable to head out as soon as possible. The thought felt weird inside him, heavy and betrayed, even though he felt that he would feel the same way had it turned out Tylendel was still here.

But just as he found himself thinking that, Tylendel strode into the dining hall.

The Herald was in a different set of whites than the two that Vanyel had seen so far; fancy and eye-catching. Conversation dropped quickly as Tylendel passed through the room, like a cloak of silence was following him. Vanyel found the already-hard food turn into a lump in his stomach.

Although Vanyel knew Tylendel's injury still bothered him, the Herald showed no sign of it, striding evenly and calmly up to Brevec. Brevec rose from the head of the table and began to come around it to talk to him, to (presumably) see him off, but something on Tylendel's face seemed to give him pause. Rather than stepping aside to gesture Tylendel out the door behind himself, he stopped where he was.

"Herald Tylendel," Brevec said. "Is there a problem?"

"Indeed there is." Tylendel's voice was as Vanyel had never heard it: rather than friendly and casual, it had become something firm and unshakable, completely confident and with an air of authority. This was a man who was used to being taken very, very seriously, Vanyel realized with a startled twist in his chest.

"Can I ask—"

Tylendel didn't let Brevec finish his mild question. "I apologize for misleading you, Father Brevec. My injuries and business elsewhere were something of a cover," he said. "So let me make myself completely blunt: I was sent here in trust of Herald-Mage Savil Ashkevron to determine if rumors of abuses of those in this monastery's trust were true."

A whispering began around the place. Vanyel felt his own heart seem to stutter in his chest. His aunt had? No, that couldn't be possible—Tylendel was faking this. He was sure of it. Or was he? Why would he? he asked himself silently. It's believable enough. But there wasn't a hint of it before.

"I have determined that the evidence has indicated the probability that you have been at the head of such things. To conduct a deeper investigation, I will be confiscating the novice Vanyel, whose behavior you had given me the opportunity to observe in person, and I will be taking you along. I will be borrowing two of the monastery's horses to take the two of you back to Haven with me to unravel this situation." Tylendel's voice didn't waver, completely confident. "Do you have any objections?"

Vanyel stared down at his plate to try to avoid looking at Tylendel. He was being... confiscated? The whispers had increased and he could hardly hear them over the noise and confusion in his own head, the pounding of his heart. A fey Herald, coming here, "confiscating" him—there was no way he could go home now. So many rumors... but then what? What was the point? He'd go to Haven and then what?

"I have no objections," Brevec said calmly. He stepped forward. "My innocence will be revealed in front of the queen and we can get this whole silly mess behind us. Will you be binding me, Herald Tylendel?"

Vanyel looked up to see Brevec raising his left hand, as if offering it for binding; Tylendel glanced to it. Abruptly, Brevec lunged, foot rising to kick Tylendel hard in the arrow wound.

Tylendel was flung backward by the force and Vanyel thought it should be chaos, but nobody rose; everyone was frozen in their seats, staring, unknowing what to do. Even the other Fathers, the other acolytes, were just stunned, apparently not understanding what was happening.

Blood had blossomed on Tylendel's leg again, seeping through his pants, and Vanyel felt something weird wrench inside him. I spent so long binding that damn thing—!

Brevec alone hadn't frozen; he pulled a straight razor out from inside his sleeve and advanced on Tylendel, grabbing him by the hair and pulling his head back.

A sudden banging at the door was all the distraction that was needed, Brevec paused for barely a second and the razor suddenly was yanked from his hand by an invisible force, spinning across the stone floor. Tylendel's hair, where not held, whipped around his head as a strange wind and pressure rose around him.

In a clear sudden panic, Brevec dropped him and tried scrambling across the floor for his razor. It slid again, and as he reached for it, a chair spun out across the floor, yanked out from underneath Novice Provine, and slamming into the Father, throwing him across the floor as well.

Tylendel picked himself up as Brevec scrambled the other way, grabbed a knife that had fallen from the table, and tried to fling it at Tylendel. It flew with deadly accuracy but didn't land, floated in the air in front of Tylendel. Slowly, it turned to face Brevec.

Brevec broke and ran for the door, reaching to open it; it opened in front of him, but Tylendel's Companion was on the other side, rearing up, strong front legs kicking sharp hooves at the Father.

It was over quickly.

"I trust," Tylendel said, rising, panting a little for breath, one hand pressed over the reopened injury, "that there will be no further protests?"

Nobody said a word.

"Vanyel. Follow me. The rest of you, stay. Go about your daily business and do not leave. If this place does not stay exactly as I'm leaving it today, it will be taken as evidence of conspiracy," Tylendel said.

Vanyel remained where he was, frozen with indecision. If he left now, he'd be willingly going along with Tylendel. If he did not, then—what? He'd stay here, and then what? It was already too late. His father would hear about this and assume the worst. There was nothing for him here. There was nothing for him there. There was nothing anywhere.

Suddenly and helplessly, he resented the man standing in front of him, commanding the entire room.

Tylendel waited. He didn't offer a hand; he didn't seem to be a person any longer but a Herald, the authority of the queen and a strange power in his own right, a terrible authority.

"Vanyel," Tylendel said again.

"Yes, Herald," Vanyel said, gaze downcast, and followed the limping Tylendel, resenting him. He took the horse's reins that Tylendel offered him, one of the old mares of the monastery's stables, and resented him. He rode behind him silently to their first rest stop, slept with his back turned to him, and resented him. He didn't dare do anything but resent him. Anything else would require hope and he didn't dare have that.

***

The trip was wearing on Tylendel for more reasons than just his aching, throbbing leg. Certainly, he shouldn't be making a three-day trip on it under normal circumstances; the whole reason he'd delayed as he was negotiating things with Jeanni was to heal. But he hadn't thought he'd need to play a role with the monastery at the time, and he certainly didn't think he'd have to play one with Vanyel.

But he did. There was no doubt about that. He'd tried to apologize, to relax again when they were away, to say that they could get help for Vanyel now—

Vanyel had just stared at him with hard, cold eyes. He wasn't withdrawn in any way. No,
he was radiating his distress, but that distress had congealed into bitterness again, a bitterness Tylendel couldn't penetrate.

:Gala, did I do the right thing?:

:Well, if I were you, I'd have fought more with magic and less with Fetching,: Gala said, consideringly. :But with the number of bystanders and your own distraction in your pain, I think you made it work fairly well. Especially given that you weren't sure he even was to blame until he attacked you.:

Tylendel sighed aloud. :Not what I meant, love.: Not that he didn't appreciate the feedback, but... :Should I have left him there?:

There was a pause, Gala picking her words carefully before sending them to him. :No, you did the right thing, I believe. Leaving him would have been like giving up on him. You did your best to salvage his reputation in how you approached it, and you know for a fact that he needs help. Some things just have no perfect solution. It's all right if things are unpleasant now if it means it can help him later, isn't it?:

:Mm. You're right, my darling.:

They stopped that night later than he or Gala would like. Dealing with the pain from his injury was taking up too much of his attention and the last thing they needed was another attack on the road in that state. But they also couldn't drag the trip out too many days, not with Vanyel like this.

Once they got back to the room, though, he sighed. He'd changed back into his already-damaged uniform on the first stop with the hopes of somehow salvaging his dress whites despite the enormous blood stain on the thigh, but he just felt dirty and uncomfortable. He headed down to the baths and showered the best he could, head dunked under the pump, wiping his body down with a cloth rather than letting the wound bleed into public water. Then he rebound the injury a bit clumsily, unable to make it as fully secure on the back as he'd like but unwilling to ask Vanyel for help again.

Back upstairs, he found Vanyel already curled on the bed, facing away, and cleared his throat. Vanyel didn't respond, but did tense up. Still awake, then.

"The bath's still available," Tylendel said. "I didn't use the water so I wouldn't dirty it on you, I used the pump."

He didn't expect a response, and was genuinely surprised when Vanyel shifted, one eye flicking back at him. "...Why?" Vanyel asked.

"I thought you'd feel better if you were clean? You should go before it gets cold."

Vanyel still didn't move. "Trying to make me more presentable for when you hand me over to my Father's judgment?"

"I can't imagine why he'd be at Haven, so no. Trying to make you more comfortable—"

"So you can have me?"

Tylendel felt the anger flare up, strangled it before he could let it out and before Gala could comment on it. "Vanyel, if you think that's the worst anyone's ever said to me to try to upset me, you're wrong." He lowered himself to sit on his bed with a wince, then gave up on fully containing himself behind his calm Heraldic role. "Ow! Lady's tits, that smarts!"

Surprised, Vanyel sat up, blinking owlishly at him.

Tylendel waved a hand. "Don't bathe if you'd rather be unclean," he said, a bit snappish despite himself. "It's paid for whether or not you use it. I, for one, am tired and sore and a good day's ride from the Healers still and I'm going to get some sleep."

"...What if I run away?" Vanyel asked.

"Please don't," Tylendel said, feelingly. "You could get yourself set on by bandits or worse. And I'd really rather get back to Haven and my own bed sooner rather than later."

He didn't open his eyes as he heard Vanyel rise. Footsteps hesitated, then the door closed.

:Think he'll run away, love?: he asked Gala, anger fading into exhaustion.

:Where's he to go? But I'll keep an eye open, 'Lendel. You get yours closed.:

:I'll do that, Gala. Thanks as always.:

***

Vanyel huddled in the bath, arms wrapped around his knees, the warmth of the scented water getting to him despite his reticence to relax.

He couldn't make any sense of it.

He was sure, sure that Tylendel was taking him to Forst Reach. There was no reason behind it; there was just no reason behind anything any more. All of this had been leading up to his father's judgment of him one way or another, and the idea that might not be happening...

He didn't feel like he could even grasp it.

The logical part of him pointed out how unlikely it was, for the very reasons that Tylendel had argued earlier. Tylendel was—that word he kept using, the one that meant that he was like Vanyel, that he liked boys. He had no reason to want someone else to get hurt for that. If he kept his chin up over worse things than the one Vanyel had just said, he wouldn't want to see anyone else get told worse. Beyond that, a Herald had said, in official capacity, that he was taking him to Haven. Why wouldn't they be going there?

But despite that, the feeling of upcoming catastrophe kept hanging over him with practiced surety. He could only leave the monastery if his father judged him. The only place he could go after there was back to Forst Reach, to become the person his father had expected him to be. And yet, as the person he was now, the person he was aware of being, there was no way his father would approve of him. Leaving with a beautiful Herald, a Herald who liked men... that just guaranteed it. His father would think the worst. That he'd sold himself to Tylendel for his freedom, that he'd been seduced by a pretty face. Something like that.

They weren't going to Forst Reach, half his brain argued. Tylendel said, with a Herald's authority, that they were going to Haven.

They were going to Forst Reach, the other half said, flatly. There was no leaving except for his father's judgment. There was nowhere else for him to go.

Frustrated, aching, Vanyel flung his hands over his ears as if that would help make things quieter inside his head. He sank back under the water, holding his breath, letting the pressure surround him and weigh him down until he thought his lungs would burst, and then leaned back up, gasping for air, hot water streaming down his body.

Eventually, the water began to cool, and for lack of anything else to do, he got out and dressed again in his coarse robes. They felt odd against his skin, too rough, wrong. The oils in the warm water had softened his skin, he thought, an old pleasure he must have had back when he was a lord's son but had lost experience with. As a monk, he'd been accustomed to bathing under a cold tap.

Slowly, he returned back upstairs. Despite his question to Tylendel, he didn't have any plans to run away. There was nowhere for him to go. Tylendel would take him to Haven as a Herald, or to his father as a judge. One way or another, he had nothing to do but rely on Tylendel.

Tylendel was already asleep by the time he got there, lying facing into the room so his injury wasn't pressed to the mattress. His face had softened even more in sleep, curls spread out on his cheek and the pillow. He looked young, Vanyel thought. Tylendel was a little older than him, but right now, he looked even younger.

In his sleep, as if noticing Vanyel looking at him, Tylendel shifted with a little sound and Vanyel stiffened. He was a Herald; who knew what strange Gifts he had? Certainly he'd been able to fling things around with his mind.

Better not watch him too closely. He might be able to feel it somehow.

Vanyel went to bed, and eventually he slept. The next day, they were up early, and he tried to maintain his stony front, but he couldn't. It had given over to anxiety, and he watched Tylendel closely as they saddled up and began to ride again. He still avoided Tylendel's questions, but it was less out of a deep resentment now and more out of nerves, a tight knot of uncertainty blocking words in his throat.

The road went on, and eventually, to his own shock and confusion, they arrived at Haven. It was loud, and big, a huge noisy city, and as he himself became more and more overwhelmed by the number of people glancing at them, getting out of their way, calling out a good-day to "M'lord Herald-Mage", Tylendel seemed to relax. He chatted back, easy-going, leading the way.

We didn't go to Forst Reach, Vanyel thought, just to make himself think it.

Still, there was no knowing what to expect, and he kept repeating that to himself, trying to keep his walls up, keep himself safe, keep himself from feeling anything that might let him hurt when it turned out he was betrayed.

And so, as they approached the palace, he had no idea what to feel beyond utter confusion when a hatchet-nosed, severe older woman ran out, grabbed Tylendel by his ear, and pulled him off his Companion. Tylendel went down with a laugh and a curse, just barely managing to land on his good leg and hop; his Companion Gala let out a snort and shuffled to the side.

"Savil! Savil, please, my poor leg—"

"I am going to have your hide," the old woman said, and the two just looked at each other for a moment, smiling and warm, as if sharing some silent communication that Vanyel wasn't party to. It lasted long enough for his confusion to fade again into uncertain alarm, discomfort—

And then she wheeled, reaching to help Vanyel down. He came down stiff and confused, heart pounding in panic, clinging to his mare's saddle to try to have something to hold on to. He felt like he was waiting for some blow, like she would deliver him some judgment, punishment. Tell him that his father was waiting inside, tell him that his father never wished to see him again; it was her brother, they had to be alike, had to view things the same way. She'd judge him. She'd reject him in Lord Withen's place and he'd never even have the closure of his own father's final word on the matter—

Aunt Savil put her hands on his shoulders and squeezed. "I am going to have so many words with your father for doing this to you, lad," she said, and there was kindness in her voice, and a brisk, firm sympathy, enough that he had to start blinking rapidly to try to keep his composure at all. "For now, let's get you in and get you some rest. You can see Lancir after you've had a good meal in you."

None of it made any sense.

***
The first few days back were rough for Vanyel, Tylendel was sure of that, and since he refused to go too far from Vanyel, that made them rough for him too. He tried not to let Vanyel's vacillating moods get to him. The boy was still dealing with the realization that he was free, hadn't been sold out. Even just adapting to being in a new environment would be hard after all this time.

Gala had let Tylendel know she'd explained things on the way in to Haven, that Savil and Kellan would make sure that they were prepared to receive them and get Vanyel the help that the situation deserved. What that ended up meaning was Lancir's aid, much to Tylendel's surprise. He'd known Vanyel was badly off, but hadn't expected them to pull in the Queen's Own for something like that. Perhaps it was just because Lancir was a personal acquaintance of Savil's; perhaps Lancir was just free at the time and willing to help. Tylendel didn't know, but there was no way that it could be a bad thing. Lancir had been there for Tylendel when he'd first come to Haven, only newly shielded and an emotional wreck from the two years prior.

But he also knew firsthand how long MindHealing took, and how much trauma and pain had to be brought to the surface and dealt with for someone to really start to recover from it. Vanyel's first session was a few days after his arrival. Tylendel had moved back into Savil's training suite quietly, pretending he'd never left for his proper rooms in the palace so that he could stay near to Vanyel, and waited in the main room for Vanyel to come back.

Sure enough, Vanyel returned from that session with red eyes, exhausted to the point of shaking. Despite trying to brace himself for Vanyel's feelings, the tiredness and pain washed over him, and Tylendel was on his feet in seconds, coming over and taking Vanyel's elbow.

"Tylendel...?"

It was the first time Vanyel had called his name, Tylendel realized with a shock, rather than just 'Herald' if he didn't avoid it entirely. He smiled as he helped lead Vanyel to a chair. "Sorry," he said. "You look like you're about to collapse."

"Mm..." Vanyel glanced up at him hesitantly, then sank down with gratitude. It looked for a second like he was going to say something else, but then he dropped his gaze, shoulders hunching.

It was something, though. Tylendel considered just leaving it at that, but...

"Are you hungry? I've got a cheese and meat platter here and there's more than I can manage."

"No—" Vanyel's stomach rumbled, and he looked abruptly abashed.

Tylendel smiled again. "How about I move it over to your table instead?"

"Yes. Thank you..." Again, that hesitation.

Tylendel moved the tray, then carefully stepped back from Vanyel, going back to his own chair and picking up the book he'd been reading before Vanyel came back. Keeping him company seemed best, letting him know he was here without making any kind of issue of it.

A few pages later, he heard again: "Tylendel?"

"Mm?" He looked up.

Vanyel wasn't meeting his gaze, looking down at a piece of cheese he had clutched between forefinger and thumb. "'Fey' is an insult, isn't it?"

That was hardly a question he'd been expecting. He didn't let the unexpected term jolt him, just exhaled slowly. "It is. It means feminine and strange, like some sort of spirit. Inhuman."

"There's another word you've been using?"

Despite himself, a sense of excitement curled in his chest. Vanyel was talking to him, really talking to him. It seemed like before all this, in the monastery, the only times Vanyel had spoken back to him was to shut him down, accuse him of things... "That's right! Shay'a'chern," he said. "It's a Tayledras term—do you know about the Hawkbrothers?"

Vanyel's brow furrowed. He still didn't look up from the cheese; he seemed to think it was the most fascinating thing in the world. "No... maybe," he said. "Outlanders...?"

"That's right! I'm sure you've seen the masks around this place. Savil's... friends with some of them, she brought those back and some language as well." It was one of Tylendel's favorite subjects, not the least because Savil had originally brought the word back and got people to start using it because of him, because he'd come to her as her student. He'd had no words for what he thought or felt that weren't rude.

Vanyel was waiting, so he continued. "In Valdemar, it's considered abnormal and unusual, a perversion. But to the Tayledras, it's just part of natural development. Humans are just really advanced animals, and all animals have a tendency for some subset of them to show desire within one's sex. So since it's natural, they have equivalent terms. Shay'a'chern means something like, 'one whose lovers are like oneself', specifically meaning gender—" He reigned in his desire to start talking linguistics. Vanyel's brow was still drawn down. Better to keep it simple. "There's no judgment in it, it's just a term, so I prefer to use it. One can hope it'll catch on."

"Shay'a'chern," Vanyel repeated.

Tylendel ached to ask more. When Vanyel had confronted him, it had sounded like he either thought he was shay'a'chern or had thought others believed it, but it had hardly seemed like Vanyel would have had any chance to know himself. It seemed to Tylendel that it probably didn't matter to Vanyel whether he was or wasn't, not so long as his father believed it of him. There was no way to know if Vanyel were asking because he wanted to speak more nicely about Tylendel, if he were asking for himself, or even asking simply because he wanted to know.

Tylendel wanted to ask and desperately weighed the pros and cons. He wanted to be good company: not 'the Herald' who had ordered Vanyel to come along, but a friend to this person he was starting to finally see. Not asking might seem like he wasn't interested to know about Vanyel, but asking too much would put him on the spot. Carefully, he said, "It's a nice thought to me. When I came here originally, I felt pretty broken. Learning that there are entire cultures that just acknowledge it as what it is, a person who grows up and finds their interests lie elsewhere? It really helped me feel less like a deviant, even when other people treated me like one. Like something I could hold close no matter what."

"Yeah... maybe," Vanyel murmured. He blinked down at the cheese, then put it in his mouth and closed his eyes. Tylendel watched for a little while, but when Vanyel didn't make any move to interact further, went back to his book.

Even with just that little, it felt like things were changing.

***

The sessions with Lancir were hard and strange. Vanyel never really knew what to expect when going in to talk to him, which he did twice a week. The first couple of weeks, he hadn't even talked much, but seemed to be left utterly exhausted at the end regardless. Lancir's questions alone took a lot out of him, and even the few words he'd use to try to answer would seem like Lancir knew too much, understood too much from them.

The weeks after that seemed to become easier and more difficult all at once. Lancir had spent the first sessions simply developing a core of understanding and nailing down what to talk about. In these later visits, he found all the questions that made Vanyel hurt. An energy came from Lancir that made Vanyel both want to talk more and want to listen more, like something about the man unknotted his tongue. But the subject matter didn't get any easier. There were tears more often than he liked. He'd call it embarrassing, unmanly, and cry harder when Lancir would quietly, curiously, ask him why it wasn't manly to cry.

They were hard enough that he needed his time outside them to be quiet and calming, and he received that.

Tylendel being back at Savil's helped. He seemed always to be there, relaxing. He said he was just killing time while waiting for his next mission, but whatever the reason was, Vanyel could always expect to see him there. He wasn't doing anything specific—sitting around reading, writing, always with food in one hand. But he was reliable.

Tylendel wasn't the only thing, though, that made him start to feel human again. There were others: Savil, blatantly an Ashkevron herself and supportive, helped him think his own name without feeling guilty about it. Seeing dark hair start to grow out on his scalp. Clothes of his own, comfortable and soft. Things were changing, and he wasn't entirely sure how to feel about it.

He tried to tell this to Tylendel one time when he came back from Lancir. He stumbled in with wet eyes, tired, but feeling somehow more alive. He didn't lead into it, couldn't figure out how. 'Lendel was sitting in an armchair with a meatbun hanging out of his mouth, dropping crumbs everywhere, and Vanyel found himself abruptly saying, "I can't hear myself think."

 

Tylendel blinked, then took the meatbun in one hand instead, chewing. "I—"

"I'm sorry," Vanyel said quickly, abruptly horrified at himself, embarrassed. That was the worst kind of non-sequitur, Tylendel was going to be confused, think he was stupid. "I didn't mean anything."

Slowly, Tylendel exhaled. "I've felt that way before," he said. "Like everything inside you is wrong and you're shouting to get out. But you can't, because it's impossible to get out of yourself."

Vanyel's mouth fell open. If he'd thought it was difficult to hear himself think before, it was worse now, a weird buzzing white noise in his head as he tried to conflate this, conflate Tylendel's cool calm Heraldic exterior with someone who could feel that way.

"I used to have to see Lancir too," Tylendel said, apologetically. He rubbed fingers through his hair, and Vanyel noticed he'd accidentally trailed crumbs in his curls. "I was... How to put this... My gifts woke up unexpectedly. I was also a lord's son, and ...mm. It was a mess. I had fits. Everyone thought I was insane and cursed, and I was throwing feelings everywhere and picking up what they were thinking, and I discovered I was shay'a'chern on top of that."

Something shifted uneasily inside Vanyel. Something hungry, and eager; Tylendel was reaching out, offering something of himself, and Vanyel wanted to take it. But at the same time, a weird sense of guilt came over him.

"That sounds... hard," Vanyel said slowly. "Worse than with me, I mean, you had to—"

"No," Tylendel said firmly. "Not worse. Different. I had my twin brother Staven with me; he believed in me the entire time. I relied on him so much, and he got me through it. You didn't have anyone; you were alone and had nothing to hope for or expect. See? If I put it that way, yours sounds way worse."

"That's—"

"But it's just different. I got better, and have a future. You'll get better and have a future too." Tylendel smiled at him, comforting. "I'm just sorry the getting there's hard."

A future...

The idea was almost too much. He still couldn't imagine anything after this, any kind of future. His father wouldn't give him one, that was for certain. He wasn't a Bard like he'd wanted to be, he wasn't a Herald like Tylendel was, he wouldn't be the Ashkevron heir.

But I'm not alone. If Tylendel said that he could have a future, he wanted to believe it.

Even as he found himself thinking it, he panicked. He swallowed around a sudden lump. "Excuse me," he said, and retreated toward his room; he paused in the doorway, glancing back. "...There's food in your hair," he said, hurriedly, and ducked into his room almost too fast to see Tylendel go red.

***

Savil was more than content to leave Vanyel's recovery for Tylendel to keep an eye on. "You've at least got some Empathy," she'd said with a sigh as they sat together with tea and cookies. "I hardly know how to deal with the boy, for all that I want his happiness. And I'll have enough to handle, between the rest of the family getting notified and this situation you left me with."

It was Savil, after all, who was forced to actually conduct the investigation that Tylendel had pretended she'd been involved in. The monastery was closed down with various outcomes for the inhabitants. Uninvolved people who wished to be moved elsewhere were; those who were involved in child-trading were tried. Underage novices were sent to Haven to be rehabilitated, and similar services were at least offered to the older ones. Messengers were sent to the families of those involved, both to track down missing persons and to alert relatives. Some had been unaware of the full extent of things beyond the monastic education, others may have deliberately 'lost' their children. That, too, needed to be assessed.

The unfortunate side effect of that was that Vanyel's relatives had needed to be alerted with all the rest. All in all a headache for Savil.

"Sorry, teacher-love," Tylendel said playfully. She gesticulated at him irritably with a cookie and he snatched it out of her hand and ate it. "You're just much more famous than I am, you know."

"It'll stay that way if you keep giving me credit for the absurd things you do," Savil said and sighed again.

He laughed it off, but his smile faded quickly. "About his family... do you think they're going to do anything?"

"I expect Withen'll have words for my interference, though I doubt he intended any harm to befall Vanyel," Savil said, resting her chin on her hand. "Believe me, I'm not likely to let that pass. The boy's of age; Withen's got no say here, and I don't intend to see Vanyel want for anything if Withen goes through the bother of casting him out."

"I adore you," Tylendel said, and dodged her hand as she swatted at him.

"What's with you lately?" she asked, and laughed. "You're so invested in him."

She was right, he knew. It was more than just wanting to save Vanyel. More, too, than his pretty face. He kept feeling like he was so close to seeing who Vanyel could be, and wanted that so much. Even though it wasn't any of his business.

"It's nothing," Tylendel said.

That conversation took place three weeks after Vanyel had come to Haven; on the fourth week, Withen showed up, storming up to Savil's suite. Even though it had been ages since Vanyel could have heard him, as soon as they heard the first angry shout, the banging on the door, Vanyel obviously recognized his voice and went white as a ghost. Almost without thinking about it, Tylendel rose, stepping between Vanyel and the door.

"Let me in! Savil, you've got my son in there!"

Savil rose from her chair, looking between Tylendel and Vanyel. A little embarrassed at his first impulse, Tylendel turned slightly and glanced behind him. Vanyel's eyes were huge in his face, a hollow fear on it.

"Shall I send him away, Vanyel?" Savil asked, her tone mild.

"Savil!" Another hammering of a fist on the door.

Vanyel opened his mouth, and no words came out. Tylendel tried to give him a comforting smile. "It's up to you, Vanyel," he said. "If you don't want to talk to him, that's fine. There'll be other times whenever you're ready. And if you do want to talk to him, we can make sure things don't get out of hand."

They both watched him as he hesitated, and then he bit his lower lip and drew himself up a little straighter. "No," Vanyel said finally. "I don't want to talk to him. I'm... I'm not ready to talk to him. I feel like I should but—if he talks to me now, I don't think I can stand up for myself—"

Savil nodded once, firm. "That's that, then. 'Lendel, you take Vanyel back to his room and talk to him a bit; I'm sure there'll be shouting. I'll deal with Withen."

Tylendel smiled at Vanyel again, and this time it came much more easily. He was overcome with a feeling not unlike pride, but it wasn't a personal pride. This wasn't his doing; it was Vanyel's. Vanyel had been the one to know his limits. Vanyel had been the one to speak up to say he wasn't prepared, rather than to try to do the vain thing and face his father down.

"Come on," he said, and Vanyel blinked at him rapidly, then flashed him a return smile before vanishing into his room.

It was so fast that Tylendel thought how easily he could have missed it. That bright moment, that beautiful lighting up on his face. Vanyel had read the happiness on Tylendel's face and reacted to it. And, like a flower getting watered for the first time, he blossomed.

Tylendel thought his heart might stop.

Following Vanyel into his room happened without him even thinking about it, and he shut the door behind himself. Vanyel had sat on the bed, and for a moment, an electric tension hung in the air between them.

And then Tylendel got hold of himself, forcing himself to ignore that feeling. It wasn't something he should even consider offering. He took a seat with Vanyel and searched for another topic of conversation.

Vanyel was the one who spoke first: "I think," he said. "I'm thinking I might... go over to Bardic sometime? I used... I used to be really good. I'm not anymore. My father's armsman broke my arm, and I don't have feeling in that hand properly. A-and I haven't played for years. I gave up on becoming a Bard a long time ago but..."

"That doesn't mean you have to give up music," Tylendel said. If Vanyel wanted to avoid the subject of his father, he was happy to oblige. "Are you sure, though? Going over there could be painful if it's something you really wanted."

"I'm scared," Vanyel said. He looked down at his hands, like he was trying to see something in them, then up at Tylendel again. "But... even if I can't have what I want... shouldn't I see if I can have something?"

"You're amazing," Tylendel heard himself say, and then fought the urge to clap a hand over his mouth, embarrassed.

Vanyel's eyes widened, then hardened. He thought he was being made fun of, that much was clear. "Why would you say that?" he muttered.

"I just mean..." Tylendel searched for something to make it better, but could only find the truth. "You've been through so much and you're trying anyway. On your own, you're trying."

"I'm not—Lancir said I should—"

"It's still your choice. Music. Not talking to your father. They're your decisions and... it makes me really happy," Tylendel finished, a bit lamely.

The sounds outside had quieted; Savil must have convinced Withen to at least take it away from the doorway. Tylendel rose, feeling too awkward to stay. "I mean it," he said, as he headed to the door. "Vanyel, you're working hard on recovering, and of course I'll notice that."

He slipped through, hoping he'd made himself sound at least a little more competent, and on the other side, put his hands over his face. What had possessed him to say that? Vanyel was working hard, but was still recovering. Even praise could be read in the wrong way if said carelessly. There was still a lot of reason for Vanyel to doubt people's intentions toward him.

The next day had another knock on the door, and Tylendel feared that Withen had come back, but the arrival this time was someone called Lissa Ashkevron. Vanyel didn't even wait to be asked. As soon as he heard the name, he dashed to the door, flinging it open.

The girl on the other side was dressed in guardsman blues, and looked like how Savil must have looked at Tylendel's age. Her face had rough, severe lines, that sharp hooked nose, but she was laughing, smiling. She scooped Vanyel into a hug and the two clung together.

"Finally," she said, muffled into Vanyel's shoulder. "I've been looking for you for so long, Van, but Father wouldn't say anything about where he'd sent you to be educated. I'm sorry—"

He was laughing too, tears in his eyes. "Not your fault, Liss. I'm just so glad to see you again...!"

The sight of them clinging together, the sound of Vanyel's wet laughter, made something clench in Tylendel's chest. Vanyel was the most open that Tylendel had seen him, happy and relieved. Perhaps he'd go off with Lissa, Tylendel thought. If not now, when he was healed. Perhaps that would be for the best. Everyone needed family.

Regardless, this is intruding on something private, he reminded himself, and retreated to his room before he could examine his feelings too closely.

:Someone's getting attached,: Gala noted slyly.

:Quiet, you. I just want to see him doing well for himself.:

:Uh-huh.:

***

A month and a half later, and feeling remarkably more secure with life in general, Vanyel looked in the mirror and thought, I need a haircut.

The decision came reluctantly. His hair was out to nearly four centimeters, but not evenly so. For some reason, it had been growing in longer on the side he slept than the other, and was starting to show it. He didn't want to cut it at all, staring at himself in the mirror. He just knew it was needed. In an ideal world, he could just wait until it was back to where he vaguely remembered liking it. What would that be like, to have it sitting on his shoulders again...?

Still, no help for it. "Tylendel?" He leaned out of the washing room, caught Tylendel walking past with a sandwich in his hand and a surprised look on his face. Vanyel felt something inside him jump as well. He hadn't any reason to think Tylendel might be right there, but had just somehow known he would be.

"What is it, Vanyel?"

Vanyel pushed past the urge to stammer and found his tongue. "Ah, this mop on my head. I want to even it out. Who does hair around here?"

"I'll have the barber I usually use come by, if you like."

"Thank you."

And he thought that was it. The decision was made, he'd get it cut, it would hopefully grow a little more evenly, and he would have long hair within a year or two.

But as soon as the shears came out, it was like everything changed inside him. He didn't want to panic. He wanted to keep going forward as he had been, to hear Lancir quietly approve of his decisions, to maybe be lucky enough to hear Tylendel praise him again.

But his wants had nothing to do with his feelings. He tried to hold himself still, and more or less succeeded by remembering the ice. He could stay calm, smooth, cold, not think or feel anything—

It nauseated him.

"Hang on. Stop," Tylendel said abruptly. The barber lifted his shears and turned, surprised.

And Vanyel lost his control over it. The ice shattered again, filling himself with a sense of self-loathing. He'd been trying so hard but even the idea of having his hair cut was too much. He wanted it even, wanted to make it look nice, but the sight of those short ends of hair drifting down made him feel like he was right back there. He wanted to die, wanted to stop feeling; his body was cold and hot all over.

It's just hair! he thought miserably.

"Sorry, Natham," Tylendel said. His tone was light. "I think we can't today after all, please understand—"

Vanyel tuned his voice out, tried to focus on breathing. It made it worse, somehow, how alert Tylendel was to his condition, how Tylendel had noticed how Vanyel was feeling. Even knowing that Tylendel was a Herald, had Empathic gifts, didn't help. He felt like he must have been advertising his misery, telling the whole world.

He put his face in his hands, feeling hot tears seeping between his fingers. The barber's sympathetic voice vanished behind a closed door, and Tylendel came back.

"I'm sorry," Vanyel whispered into his hands. "Sorry."

"You've done nothing wrong." Tylendel was hovering over him, and Vanyel could tell he didn't know what to do.

"I'm sorry." He couldn't seem to stop repeating it. "I want it done but I can't. I'm sorry."

"It's okay to know your limits," Tylendel said, and put a hand on Vanyel's shoulder.

It was warm, firm, and Vanyel was suddenly desperately grateful for it. He wondered if Tylendel could feel that too. "Can you do it?"

"What?"

"I don't want to see it all lopsided, I want—but—I don't know him, and I do know you. Can you—?" He met Tylendel's gaze, pleading.

Tylendel let out a hiss of breath. "I've never cut hair before," he warned. "It might end up worse than before."

"T-that's impossible. It can't get worse," Vanyel said, and laughed bitterly.

Another moment of silence, Tylendel's gaze searching his face. Then Tylendel gently squeezed his shoulder again, tone forcibly light. "Well, I'll try. Don't blame me if you don't like it, though!"

"Mm."

Vanyel drew a deep breath, trying to center himself. Tylendel waited until he'd calmed down, and then got a pair of shears from his own room. These were designed for cutting paper, not hair, but, Vanyel thought, it'd do better for him than a straight razor.

He managed, this time, to stay calm. Those were Tylendel's fingers on his neck, on his scalp; Tylendel's voice talking quietly behind him throughout. It didn't take long, or didn't seem to take long. Not like those first few agonizing snips before.

When Tylendel was done, he picked up a hand mirror. "Take a look," he urged gently. "Let me know if it's alright?"

Vanyel did, and this time relief washed over him. He started, embarrassingly, to cry again. His heart pounded harder. 'Lendel will think that I hate it if I keep carrying on like this!

It wasn't perfect, but it was better than it had been and not as bad as it could be. "I thought it would be all gone," he said as quickly as he could. "I mean, I knew you wouldn't, but whenever I look in the mirror, I think it will be. I-it looks good. Thanks."

"You don't ever have to go without your hair again," Tylendel said quietly.

What an absurd promise to make. Vanyel's lips twisted, trembling, into a shaky smile. "If you say that and then I go bald later in life, I'll blame you."

Something about that made Tylendel's eyes widen; their gazes met in the mirror. And then Tylendel broke into a sunny smile. "I'll let you," he said. "That does sound like a jinx, doesn't it."

***

A few weeks later, Tylendel received a letter from his cousin. He took a seat in his usual armchair to read it, shaking it out of its folds. To his surprise, Vanyel came over and leaned on the back of the chair, looking over his shoulder to read it. "Who's that from?" he asked, apparently a bit dubious of the curly handwriting.

"My cousin in the nunnery," Tylendel said. "You remember, I was out there almost every day."

"...So she's real? But you said you were just there to investigate us," Vanyel said. It was still 'us', Tylendel couldn't help but notice with a brief, sad stab.

He waggled a hand slightly. "I stretched the truth a little," he said. "I was there to investigate it—I just didn't know it until after I got there and met you and realized I had to. But a lot of people are being helped thanks to you, you know."

Vanyel looked at him blankly. "Why me?"

"Because you helped me see—"

"No, I mean... I don't understand. If you weren't there to investigate, why did you take me away?" Vanyel wasn't looking at him or the letter anymore, gaze downcast.

Tylendel picked his words carefully. "Because you're a person, Vanyel, and you needed help. I'm a Herald. Once I realized that you needed it, I'd do what I had to."

"I was awful to you."

"It's fine," Tylendel said. "I saw enough to know that wasn't all there was to you."

Vanyel shook his head. "That'd be a first," he said dubiously. "...So why did you need to see this cousin?"

Sighing, Tylendel rubbed the back of his neck. His elbow bumped Vanyel and he dropped his arm, a little uncertain. "It's a bit of a mess. My family's been in a feud with another one for nearly a decade now. Complicated things, people dying on both sides."

He and Staven had found their mother's body, and both of them only thirteen... having to call it just complicated stirred up shades of that old helpless anger. It was a long time ago now, he reminded himself, and pushed down on his immediate response.

Vanyel was still waiting expectantly. Tylendel cleared his throat and continued. "To resolve it, the Lesharas had suggested they marry one of their own to my cousin. She could then replace my brother as Lord Holder. But she's taken her vows and... well. It's messy."

That word again. He pushed on.

"So far things have been in stalemate working out the legalities of even the possibility, and trying to get my brother's agreement. It only recently progressed to a place where it might be a reality. So I went down there to clarify the situation. They felt that as her relative she might open up to me some, and as a neutral party, I might get her approval."

"Wait, how are you a neutral party...?"

"I'm a Herald," Tylendel said. He sighed. "I can't get involved personally. I had to present both sides and hold my tongue on my opinion."

Vanyel's gray eyes were wide. "And they trusted you to do that?"

"I'm a Herald," Tylendel said again, helplessly. "I wouldn't have gotten whites if they didn't believe I could."

"Oh." Vanyel's gaze shifted to the letter, and after a moment Tylendel focused on it as well.

Dear cousin, Jeanni's missive said. I have heard of what happened at the monastery and it has given me a great deal to think about. I have decided to put off my decision to the end of the full year—not so that I may simply hesitate, but so that I may learn. I do not know what the right thing is, but I see from what happened that that there are many factors that go into how we think about things. So it must be if so many people could be mislead under the guise of what seemed good. I do not wish to fall victim to that mindset, nor blind myself to what my own current education and the cloisters may have done to train my mind. I wish to take this year to learn myself better, to learn what goes into my own decisions, so that I know that whatever decision I make is a decision made as myself. I will write again.

Be well. Yrs - Jeanni.

It was so much better a result than he'd hoped for that he'd found himself smiling. Vanyel looked at him in surprise, and then smiled as well.

"She sounds really strong," Vanyel said. "Before I read it, I was worrying... that sounds like a situation that could really hurt her. I was thinking, if you have to be neutral, does that mean there's nobody who could help her? But I guess she's thinking that too."

It surprised Tylendel. There was such sympathy in his words, such relief. Abruptly, he felt like the last piece fell into place, like he could really understand Vanyel. He was sensitive, he was empathetic, he cared about people. That was the trait that his father had been so afraid of, had tried to train out of him.

Had nearly succeeded at destroying.

:Listen to you go on,: Gala said fondly. :It's like you think he'll be Chosen someday.:

:Do you think so?: Tylendel crushed a stab of hope before it could become unreasonable. If Vanyel were a Herald, they'd be able to keep spending time together.

:Sounds to me like that'd make you happy. Your heart's pounding, 'Lendel!:

:Hush, you,: he thought, flustered.

But she was right. His heart felt like it was going to beat its way out of his chest, and he couldn't even feel guilty about it. It was good. It was wonderful. The more Tylendel saw of Vanyel, the happier he was. It felt like he'd spent months just getting happier and happier. And talking to him now, it felt like they were able to relate to each other, that it wasn't just this weird twist of their history that had put them in each other's paths.

That they could be just Tylendel and Vanyel.

And it felt amazing. Embarrassingly amazing, because there was no way to separate Vanyel from his recent abuses. Vanyel wouldn't be ready for a relationship even if he were shay'a'chern, and Tylendel didn't think he could rely on Vanyel to really know that. But that was fine. He just wouldn't talk about his feelings.

"What're you staring at?" Vanyel asked, and stole some bread off Tylendel's platter. His expression had relaxed into something nearly mischievous, grinning at him. Despite his better intentions, Tylendel had to grin back.

Nobody had to know.Even if he'd caught himself thinking that he could spend the rest of his life watching Vanyel continue to grow and change and become better and healthier and happier... it was fine like this.

And then, one night, Vanyel had a nightmare.

***

Vanyel woke from the dream of ice and fear, the monastery wrapped in snow with icy walls rising up on either side. It had been horribly isolated, deep in the mountains, a place nobody would ever come and find him, and so cold.

It hurt. Not just the dream itself, but how hopeless it felt to him. When he was awake, he was doing better, but in the night, dreams would leave him shaking and terrified again. This one was the worst he'd had since leaving, and the fact that there was no trigger for it made it harder. It made 'getting better' feel impossible. Like he might be living like this for the rest of his life—

"Vanyel?"

That was 'Lendel's voice. The door creaked open and he saw the Herald-Mage peering in, still dressed in his nightclothes.

Of course, Vanyel thought abruptly. Empathy. I must be making Tylendel feel awful. He pulled his blankets more tightly around himself and tried to stop his teeth from chattering. "Y-yes..."

"Did you have a bad dream?"

Tylendel came over to his bedside, moving quietly through the dark room. Even in the gloom, Vanyel could more or less make out the look on his face. It was so genuinely concerned, so very worried, that Vanyel's heart clenched with a sudden desperation. It was so cold, so lonely.

Vanyel dropped the blanket and reached up to him.

Tylendel froze.

No! He didn't want that, couldn't stand the thought of Tylendel pulling back from him. Fear made Vanyel suddenly start shaking, reaching for him. "Please," he said, almost babbling in his sudden need for connection.

"Vanyel, what...?"

Vanyel tried to focus, to get his thoughts in order. He couldn't; they were running a mile a minute. "Please, I'm so lonely," he said. "I need you."

"Do you want me to get Lancir—"

"I don't want Lancir, I want you," Vanyel said helplessly. "You... you're the only person who has ever done anything for me just because you thought I'd need it! Lancir is, he's wonderful, but it's his job. You're just... here. Because you want to be? Because you like me?"

Tylendel seemed to blanch at that. "I do, but—Vanyel, what's wrong? What happened..."

Vanyel swallowed, trying to force the lump in his throat down. "Just... It's so hard. I keep thinking I'm doing better, I keep really thinking I'm fine now, and then I'm j-just back in the monastery again. Th-the haircut, this dream... it feels like I'll never really get away."

Sympathy washed over Tylendel's features. But despite it, he didn't move closer. He just put a firm hand over Vanyel's. "These things take time. It's okay to be afraid... it's better to let yourself feel it than try to suppress it. But bit by bit, it'll get better. I promise. There are always steps backwards with these things."

"I don't want to step backward," Vanyel said in a groan of pain. "I don't want to feel this way. I used to, I used to always think that ice would protect me, if I didn't have to want anything or feel anything, it'd be fine, and so I just w-went to ice, all to ice. A-and it's gone now and it's better and I'm t-terrified of it coming back, I don't want it to come back, but I don't want to f-feel miserable either..." He cut it off, drawing a slow breath, and met Tylendel's eyes. "Please s-stay with me. I don't want to be alone."

Visibly conflicted, Tylendel drew a slow, long breath. "Vanyel, I don't want for you to be alone," he said. "I like you... I like you so much, Vanyel. You're becoming everything I thought you could be, the person underneath all that mess they put on you. But..."

Here it comes, Vanyel thought dully. Rejection.

"Vanyel, you're lovely, you're beautiful. And I'd control myself, of course I'd control myself, but I don't want—my body would probably react, and I don't want you to feel... disgusting again. I don't want you to feel pressured because of another man wanting you." Tylendel was the one to drop his gaze now, biting his lower lip, his voice low. "Or, worse, for you to feel like your friendship's been betrayed, or that I only was kind to you for this—"

Oh. So that was it. Vanyel wasn't sure if he should laugh or cry. He didn't have time to do either, though. Tylendel looked like he might bolt at any moment.

"I don't think—no!" Vanyel's grasping hands finally found the edge of Tylendel's nightshirt, and he held on like Tylendel might really break and run. "I'm, what's the word, I'm shay'a'chern too!"

For a moment, it was dizzying to say it. He'd indicated it to Lancir from the start, but he'd never used the words. He'd always found some substitute when talking about it. 'The thing my father believed', or 'uninterested in women' or once, daringly, 'my interests'.

Tylendel was staring at him with wide eyes. He must think that I'm making this up, Vanyel thought. Trying to convince him to stay because I'm lonely... That's not it, that's not all of it!

He pressed on. "My father was right about me. But I don't think—I don't think that makes me bad. It can't, because you're shay'a'chern, and you're incredible."

Finally, Vanyel trailed off. There was so much more to say, but didn't know how to describe it. That feeling he got whenever he looked at Tylendel, thought about Tylendel, was near Tylendel. Like he felt almost overawed by how amazing Tylendel was, how kind, how wonderful, how beautiful—

"Vanyel," Tylendel began awkwardly. Vanyel couldn't let him finish whatever he was about to say. The apology in his voice was too painful already.

"I think I'm in love with you," Vanyel blurted out. "I'm almost sure of it. You saved me, you cared for me, I need you! You're so, so important to me..."

Vanyel ran out of words, just staring at Tylendel, imploring him to understand.

Finally, Tylendel moved, relaxing from his stiff position and slowly sitting beside Vanyel. Vanyel drew a quick, hitching breath as Tylendel put a hand on his cheek. The pressure was warm, firm, almost made his skin hum, and Vanyel half-closed his eyes in a sense of sudden relief at that willing touch. But Tylendel's expression was so serious he forced himself to open them fully again.

"I don't want to take advantage of you," Tylendel said. "I don't want that... so many people have, Van. I don't want to be one of them."

"'Lendel..." Vanyel felt at a loss for words, desperate to protest but unable to explain any further how far from that Tylendel could ever be.

But Tylendel slowly continued. "I'm... I think I am too. In love with you. But that makes it only more important... If you don't know what you want, I can't do this. I'll be your friend, but that's it."

Vanyel swallowed. He ached, but hope lit up in his chest like a candle, a sudden bright warmth, and he smiled at Tylendel helplessly with all the force of that feeling.

"I do know," Vanyel said. "I understand. I see why you're worried, but I do know. I am sure. I'm so sure of this. It's my decision. And I'm making this decision for myself."

For another long moment, Tylendel just searched his face. Vanyel tried to project it, his love, his desire, his self-awareness.

And then Tylendel smiled, relaxing, looking at him. "Really?" The word sounded almost giddy. Vanyel had known that Tylendel was only a little older than him, but suddenly, he recognized it in him.

"Yes," Vanyel said, and pulled Tylendel down, forcing Tylendel against him, and leaned in to kiss him.

As their lips met, Vanyel thought it was probably the best moment of his life. His mouth tingled where they touched, aching with a sudden want, warm and amazing. He'd never felt this before; he'd kissed so many girls his father had thrown at him, and it had always been wrong. Not an absence of desire but the opposite of it. This was as far from it as fire was from ice.

"Is that okay?" Tylendel asked when they broke for breath. His expression was so serious that Vanyel couldn't help but laugh. The reaction seemed to surprise Tylendel, but he couldn't help it. He felt free.

"It's more than okay," Vanyel said. "I've never felt this nice."

Tylendel's nose flushed red, and then he laughed too. "You're raising the bar, love," he said. "But I think I can make you feel a little better than just this."

"Oh?" Vanyel asked, aiming for arch but sounding, he thought, a bit silly.

"I'd hope so," Tylendel said, and leaned in again.

They kissed for long moments, slow and thorough. When Vanyel had to draw back for air, Tylendel moved to Vanyel's jaw. He kissed along it and down his neck, sucking lightly, teeth scraping. It tickled a little, but not in any way Vanyel would usually think of, mixed with arousal. He gasped, squirming, but threaded fingers into Tylendel's hair, pressing him more tightly against his neck.

"Do you want to go on from here?" Tylendel asked, as his fingers found the laces of Vanyel's nightshirt. "I don't want to do too much all at once and overwhelm you—"

Vanyel's breath caught at the thought of being overwhelmed. He reveled in the greedy feeling, in having so much. Even just the fact that Tylendel was so attentive made him shiver with the awareness of how much Tylendel cared. In answer, he sat up, and pulled his nightshirt off, leaving himself naked. Tylendel's enormous brown eyes widened, and Vanyel felt himself blush but refused to cover himself.

"I'm fine," he whispered back to Tylendel.

He kissed Tylendel again, and, eager, Tylendel's hands roamed over Vanyel's chest, down lower over his thighs. Vanyel arched toward his touch, but 'Lendel hesitated to touch his cock, hands skimming back up almost at once.

"Mmh?" Vanyel breathed.

"Is it okay to touch—?"

"It's okay. Everything's okay," Vanyel promised and then, greatly daring, he reached over and pulled Tylendel's nightshirt off him as well, making Tylendel's curls stand out every which way. It was cute, Vanyel thought, heart clenching. Tylendel was lovely.

He pulled Tylendel in again and began to touch too, like by doing so he could reassure Tylendel about just how ready he was. Vanyel ran hands over Tylendel's chest until his small nipples hardened into points, and rolled those with his fingertips. They felt good on his hands, nubs of hard pressure, and it made him more eager, plucking and pulling at them. Even better, he was tearing sounds from Tylendel's high voice: soft, pleased, husky sounds.

Vanyel had never wanted so much, heated and throbbing and aching almost all over. Encouraged, he dragged his fingertips down to Tylendel's stomach, and looked at him, really looked at him, at his hard flushed cock jutting up from pale curls.

Another spike of dizzying arousal shot through him. I'd never known, he thought, amazed. I really had no idea.

"Van," Tylendel breathed, and leaned him back, kissing him again. Their bodies pressed together tightly, and Vanyel groaned. He could feel Tylendel's cock nestled between his thighs, his own pressed to Tylendel's stomach.

Almost without meaning to, he rocked, just wanting to get more pressure. Tylendel moaned, soft and high, and rocked with him. For a few long moments they just pressed together like that, grinding urgently, mouths finding each other's as they kissed again, wet and open-mouthed and gasping for breath between them.

"You can," Vanyel said into the air, voice rough. "If you want. Take me, I mean."

"Hm...?"

His heart was pounding harder, nervous despite his bold words. "I've been with women," he said. "I haven't... done it myself but I know people can use—use the—" he flushed. There was no way to talk that didn't feel vulgar, and he didn't want to feel that way, not now, not and interrupt this. "Put it inside elsewhere," he finished, awkwardly.

Tylendel blinked at him, then laughed breathlessly, dropping his head to Vanyel's shoulder and breathing hard. "I'd love to. I would. Lord and Lady, Vanyel... But not right now...?"

"Why?" Vanyel asked, suddenly unsure of himself. He wanted it, wanted to give Tylendel everything of himself, but the thought that Tylendel disapproved sank in coldly. Was the act dirty after all? He'd do whatever Tylendel wanted, he decided, hating how uncomfortable he felt. But I want it...

But before Vanyel could take back his question, passively agree, Tylendel began shifting against Vanyel again. It was as though staying still was taking too much out of him, as though he needed to keep moving no matter what. "We don't have oil here," Tylendel said, panting as he moved against Vanyel. "A-and I don't want to hurt you..."

Relief came in a rush. Tylendel hadn't disapproved, everything was fine. He wound his arms around Tylendel, pulling him closer, clinging a little. "Oh..."

"But... mostly... I just want to explore right now... we don't have to do that for a first time. We'll have all the time in the world to make love in every way possible..."

The thought sank into him, pushing those sudden fears away completely; he hadn't thought it was possible get more aroused, but he did, body aching, burning, completely humming with it. He wanted Tylendel, wanted this.

"Oh," Vanyel breathed. "Yes..." He kissed Tylendel again, sloppy with want, and then let out a low groan as Tylendel's callused fingers wrapped around his cock.

"Okay?"

"It's so good," Vanyel breathed, rocking into his warm, firm grip. Tylendel dragged his hand along him, shifted so he could pass a thumb over the head, rubbing into the slit, and Vanyel felt his toes curl at how that felt. "'Lendel!"

"I love you," Tylendel breathed. "You're so amazing, Van, you're wonderful..."

It wasn't the first time Tylendel had said those words, and Vanyel thought back to the time that Tylendel had blurted it out, heart aching. Desperate to make Tylendel feel as good as he did, desperate to give back, he ran his fingers down Tylendel's stomach, found his cock, and wrapped a hand around it too.

The sound Tylendel made was extremely gratifying.

They began to kiss again, tongues searching, teeth catching, lips pressing together over and over as they panted for breath between kisses, hands working quickly. They fell into each other's rhythms, perfect and quick and not drawing things out, just searching for the other's pleasure. For a moment, he felt like he couldn't get there, like it was out of reach, and he fought against it, grinding through that long slow burn of pleasure until suddenly, breathlessly, his body seemed to catch fire. He groaned, ecstasy rushing through him, unable to keep moving for how he'd tensed up, mouth open, vision hazy as it tore through him in waves.

He'd never felt anything like it, wanted it to last forever, to just revel in how good it was, how perfect, how right.

As he came down from it, Tylendel whimpered. Vanyel knew without thinking that Tylendel was close, was at that same desperately reaching stage he'd been in. He managed to start his pleasure-numb hand moving again, remembering the rhythm that Tylendel had on him almost more than the one he'd been using before. Tylendel's hips bucked hard, mouth opening against Vanyel's. He let out a soft cry into Vanyel's mouth as his cock began twitching in Vanyel's hand, slick come spattering up his wrist and stomach.

It was almost, Vanyel thought hazily, better than coming himself.

After, they lay together, panting for air. It's amazing, Vanyel thought hazily. And it's all because of Tylendel, with Tylendel, for Tylendel...

"You're so lovely," Tylendel breathed, and ran his clean hand over the short spikes of Vanyel's hair. "I'm so happy..."

It wasn't just Tylendel making him feel like this, Vanyel realized—it went both ways. Perhaps, to Tylendel, this felt wonderful because it was because of Vanyel, with Vanyel, for Vanyel...

The thought was humbling. He burst into a helpless smile, gazing at him with a heat filling his chest, warming him.

***

They were inseparable for the first few days after that. Tylendel knew the lack of separation wouldn't last—wouldn't be able to. He was a Herald-Mage, after all, not a trainee, and he'd be sent on another mission sooner or later. But he'd be able to come back to Vanyel, always. He thought again, wistfully, about Gala teasing him about his hope that Vanyel might become a Herald too.

Still, even though that wasn't likely, he decided they'd make the most of every moment they had together. Even when not making love, even when doing their own thing, they'd spend as much time as possible in each other's arms.

But around a week after, Tylendel had got up for breakfast and to read further into a chronicle, expecting Vanyel to join him as had become their habit, and Vanyel didn't. Instead, he kissed Tylendel on the way past out of the bedroom, smiling. "I'm going out for a few hours," he said, a little shyly. "Okay?"

Of course, the urge to protest rose; he pushed down on it at once. Even if he wanted to spend every waking moment with Vanyel, even if he'd expected to spend the day with the two of them reading together, that wasn't necessarily what was best for Vanyel. "Of course," he said instead, smiling, and tapped his open book. "I've got some reading to do today anyway. I'll be here when you're back."

Vanyel seemed to light up. "Thanks," he said, and snagged a cloak off the peg by the door, heading out.

It left an odd feeling in him. Good but strange. This is how it should be, he told himself firmly.

Gala, however, was listening in. :Getting jealous of every moment you can't spend in bed with the lad?:

He huffed, looking down at the open book without really seeing it. :It's been some time since I've been in love, darling, you know that.:

:And yet no romantic appeals, no begging him to stay. Not like with that Nevis.:

Tylendel wrinkled his nose to himself. :Little different there, Gala. Not that Nevis didn't have his own issues, but those weren't something I could do anything about, clearly! No, Gala, that's not something I can do here. Even if I want to, yes.:

:Nice to see you using your head instead of your—:

:Gala!:

:Gut,: she said promptly. :Thinking things through instead of going on impulse.:

:Is that where you were going with that?:

She laughed inside his mind, then went silent. Reassured, he smiled down at his book and continued to read.

That's how Savil found him a few hours later as she came in. "Alone today?"

Tylendel blinked, looking up. "So I am, yes. Is something the matter, teacher-love?"

"It could be," she said, and came over to sit across from him with a sigh. "It's about Vanyel."

"I'm listening."

It took her a moment to carry on, clearly sorting out her thoughts, and Tylendel sat up more. Savil sighed finally, frowning at him a little. "'Lendel, I'm as glad as any that this is working out so much better than that awful Nevis affair, but... I don't want you to forget to be careful with him."

"You and Gala..." He had to shake his head. "I'm so careful, teacher-mine," he said with a hint of mischief. "I promise you that."

"Spare me the gory details," she groaned. "But you know what I mean with this, 'Lendel?"

He did. Of course he did. There was no way to not be aware of it. Vanyel was doing fine, doing amazingly well: he was recovering his will, he'd been the one to start this relationship, he was figuring out his own desires and reaching for them. But...

"He's been hurt by authority. He's been made to be obedient to authority. We might be the same age, but I'm still a Herald," Tylendel said bluntly. "I'm a Herald who brought him back here due to my authority. I'm aware of the impact I could have. I'm trying to always be aware of it."

Sometimes, it was hard to. He'd give her that. His own bond with Staven was similar to how Vanyel acted towards him sometimes. He didn't think his twin bond was wrong in any way, but he'd always feared others would think so. Even now, nobody knew how deep it ran, because he'd been afraid. Since it felt so right to him to depend on Staven, to look up to Staven, it might be possible to lose sight of the fact that it would be wrong for Vanyel to feel that way toward him.

"I won't let anything happen," he said, finally. "I'm aware. I'm keeping an eye out for it. And, Savil, I know you're worried, but don't ignore how far he's come—"

The door opened again, and they both looked up as Vanyel came in. He startled, clutching a lute in front of himself by the neck, surprised to see the two of them watching him.

A lute?

"Welcome back!" Tylendel called. "What's that you've got there, love?"

"Oh, it's." Vanyel looked down at it, went red, and looked back up with a beaming smile. "I... I went to Bardic today. I don't have Bardic Gift, they told me." Some pain there, a hint of longing and loss, but despite that, his smile grew brighter. "But Bard Breda checked my hand. She said she thinks I can learn to work around it. So I'll be going back a few times a week. She gave me some exercises and... and this." He raised the lute higher.

"It's beautiful," Tylendel said.

"It's a really good instrument!" Vanyel said immediately, eyes wide. "It's been a while, but I couldn't forget that. Her sound's amazing, 'Lendel. There's no way I should have her! But Bard Breda said that since I was going to work so hard, I should do it on a good instrument. She let me name her, so I picked 'Woodlark'..."

Tylendel's heart clenched, warm and proud again, so dizzyingly impressed with Vanyel that he felt like there was no way Vanyel couldn't feel it from him. He smiled at Vanyel, helpless with the feeling, and somehow Vanyel's smile only widened more. "A good name," Tylendel said. "Since you'll learn to make her sing. When you're ready for it, would you let me hear you play?"

"Of course," Vanyel said at once. "Always. I'm, um, going to just..." He gestured to his room, then looked down at the instrument with the gaze of a man in love.

"Go on," Tylendel said, laughing. "Come out when you're done, love."

The two of them watched Vanyel scuttle off, and Savil let out a sigh, shoulders relaxing.

:You're right,: she said into his mind, a little chagrined. :Better not underestimate him:

:Better not,: Tylendel agreed. He gazed back down at the chronicle he was reading, content.

There would be a lot that would make him take up his Herald persona again, to play the Authority in front of Vanyel. His cousin was still deciding on what to do, his brother's stalemate with the Lesharas was still in place, and on top of everything else, Karse was none too quiet lately.

...Even so, I think we'll be alright.

"'Lendel?" Vanyel called.

Had that much time passed already? Savil's knowing, put-upon look told him it hadn't.

Tylendel grinned at her, shrugging impishly, and went to join Vanyel.