Lights were springing into life, down in the deep open heart of the Opal Night Court.
They lit up in patterns, spiraling lines of light, as the mentors moved invisibly far below through the open space at the heart of the court. Despite the rain that had started just before sunset, there were many more lights than usual, some of them placed high up on branches and walls where they could only be reached from the air. He smiled a little; doubtless Lithe would have complaints for him the next time she saw him, all about cranky complaining warriors who couldn't fly straight or hold still - and no doubt the next warrior he met would have just the same cranky complaints about scatty heavy mentors who couldn't make up their minds about which direction they wanted to fly in next. They'd all heard, and done it, many times before - every time that an important delegation came to Opal Night, in fact.
There was an important delegation in Opal Night tonight.
They'd doubtless been moved to one of the more sheltered halls to dine in, given the change in weather, but Shade was sure that the room had been picked so that the light display would still be at its best. From further inside the court, the show would be glorious, the patterns visible as stars or leaves or fern-spirals, brightening and dimming and changing colour as the evening progressed. The rain might even enhance it, blurring and refracting. There would be the best food, too, gently splashing water, light catching on jewels and fine clothes...
Up here there was just the rain, and the distant lights. Though he was sitting in the seat of an open window, the eaves were deep and broad enough that Shade stayed perfectly dry. Some ancient Arbora had carved the seat into a giant forest flower, each curved petal exactly the right size for one small Raksura to curl up into. The wood had been polished to a glassy smoothness that felt wonderfully cool and soft against delicate, shifted groundling skin. It had been one of Shade's favourite places to sit and read when he was younger, and feeling too shy to play with the other fledglings.
He didn't have a book today, but it was still pleasant, sitting here and watching the lights. Earlier in the day it had been brutally humid, but now the weather had broken and the air was cool. On another day, Shade might have shifted and flown into the open, to enjoy the sensation of that light rain against his scales.
But not when there were outsiders here. Shade wouldn't shift at all until they were gone.
As long as he didn't shift, he could, if he wanted, go down into the hall with the other consorts for dinner. He could speak to the newcomers, or just look at them - no one would think it rude or unusual if the quiet young consort with the odd colouring was too shy to make much conversation. It would be fun, and it would mean he would have something to talk to everyone else about, when they inevitably spent the next four or five days talking about nothing but the Scarlet Mist delegation. He'd done it often, when he was younger. Even a few months ago, when Emerald Twilight had sent a delegation. That had been a far more delicate situation, politically speaking, but Shade had made it through fine.
He wasn't going to go down there tonight, though. He couldn't risk it. It wasn't worth it -
Shade sighed and curled up tighter, listening to the rain.
Lithe came to find him, eventually. She was dressed in one of her favourite long tunics, shimmering green fabric catching the light in a way that always made Shade think of Malachite's scales. Some of the other mentors had made the cloth for her, years ago, a present when she finally became a full mentor herself; he thought they must have been thinking of Malachite too, when they gave it to her. Malachite wasn't Lithe's mother, they all knew that. But everyone knew that Lithe and Shade were special to her, too.
Shade knew that sometimes Lithe wore the tunic when she was feeling upset, or insecure; but sometimes she wore it when she was happy, too, or when she wanted to make Malachite feel happy. He wasn't sure exactly how she'd felt, earlier tonight when she was getting dressed for the evening, what impulse had been behind the choice of clothing, but now she was smiling sleepily, relaxed. It looked like it had been a good night.
He moved over a little to make space for her to sit next to him, but Lithe just grinned at him, and then curled up with her head pillowed against his hip. He smiled back at her and patted her hair.
"The lights were pretty, Lithe," he told her, finally. "They were even nicer in the rain."
"The show went well, didn't it? I think the delegation liked it."
"I bet Malachite was pleased."
Lithe smiled at him sleepily. "It was a nice night, Shade," she said. "The Scarlet Mist delegation aren't so bad. Some of their warriors are even almost sensible."
Shade snorted. Coming from Lithe, that meant a lot.
She turned her head to smile at him, rubbing her cheek against him.
"Malachite was impressed by their young queen," she said, very quietly. "Pyrite. She's clever, Malachite said. Thinks before she speaks."
Shade stiffened all over, so suddenly that Lithe's head almost slipped out of his lap.
Lithe sighed heavily. "I wasn't, Shade. Not really. Only - she asked about you, you know. She didn't know your name, but she remembered you. The shy consort with pale skin, she said."
There was a tight hard lump in Shade's throat, in the pit of his stomach. He'd met Pyrite accidentally the last time the Scarlet Mist Court sent a delegation; she'd gotten turned around in the corridors, looking for the Queen's level with one of her warriors, and she'd looked so startled and horrified when she'd found herself alone with an unknown, unescorted consort that Shade had forgotten to be shy of her.
They hadn't spoken long. Shade had told himself that she must meet consorts all the time - that there was nothing special about him - that of course she'd forget him as soon as she was gone -
He couldn't think about it now. Any of it.
"Lithe - "
She twisted and grabbed his hand. "No, I'll stop, Shade. I'm sorry."
They breathed together for a while, quietly.
"It's not fair, though," Lithe said. "It isn't! I'm a mentor, I have my whole life here. It doesn't even really matter that I can never have a clutch. But you - "
"I'm a consort who can't be a consort. I know, Lithe. But there's nothing I can do about it. So can't you just - "
She couldn't just, of course. If she could, she wouldn't be Lithe. Most of the time Shade liked that about her.
"Maybe you could, though," Lithe said. Unconsciously, Shade shook his head no. "No, I mean it, Shade! If it was the right queen, someone you could trust. Someone who didn't care if you were different. Someone like Jade - "
"Jade has a consort. Our brother." Shade's voice sounded harsh.
"Not actually Jade, I know that much. But someone like her. She can't be the only Queen who's - different. "
"Except how do you find out, Lithe? How can you really know if someone is trustworthy or not without telling them?" Shade swallowed, hard. "And what if I did tell - if I told someone, but I was wrong about them? What would that do to the Court?"
"Indigo Cloud didn't mind," Lithe said, stubbornly.
Shade snorted again. "Indigo Cloud is the only court in the Reaches that's stranger than we are."
Lithe laughed softly. "I suppose so."
Shade stroked his sister's hair, absentmindedly.
"I do think about it sometimes," he confessed, very softly. "Of course I do, Lithe. But I just - I just can't."
"Shade - "
"Right now, part of me does think that it could work. I could find a queen who understands, and wants me anyway, and wouldn't mind that I could never give her a clutch. There might have to be another consort too, but that would - I wouldn't really mind that. I would be careful, and she would be careful."
Lithe opened her mouth to speak, but Shade touched her mouth to stop her. He had to keep going, or he'd never say this at all.
"But even a few turns ago, I thought I'd never even risk myself with a queen. Never! I couldn't imagine ever changing my mind, ever even wanting. So just because I think I'd always be careful, now - how can I know what I'll think is right in five turns? Or ten? What if my queen changed her mind, and kept asking me..."
"Shade," Lithe said. Her eyes were huge, staring up at him.
"I can't, Lithe." He was begging her, now. These thoughts were too dangerous, the things that they were saying were too dangerous.
He wanted, so much -
"Even if you did - it wouldn't be the worst thing, would it? We were alright." Lithe's voice came out flat and almost expressionless, but her voice cracked at the end.
There it was, the forbidden thing that they couldn't even let themselves think. Lithe had never said it before, none of them had.
They'd never needed to. Malachite wasn't their birth mother, but they were hers anyway. She knew her to teach hard truths.
Unconsciously Shade sat up straighter, pushed her away. "Lithe - "
She sat up fast. "I'm sorry, Shade. I know I shouldn't have said that."
"No, you shouldn't have."
Shade didn't feel sad anymore. Just numb.
"Shade - "
"Maybe you are right, Lithe. Maybe it would be okay. But I don't know that it would be. And I don't want to be the kind of person who would take that risk, just because they were, they were selfish, and they wanted something. I want to think about the good of the Court, about the good of the Raksura. I don't want to be like - I want to be Raksura - " His voice broke off.
Lithe was clinging to him, suddenly and fiercely. "You are Raksura! You're Dusk's son, Celadon and Moon's brother - you're my brother - "
"We're Fell, too," Shade whispered.
Sometimes, when he remembered the Fell flight that had taken him, he could almost smell them. Could almost taste groundling flesh in his mouth.
The memory was more real than the solid world of wood and lights and Court around him.
"It doesn't matter," Lithe said fiercely. "We're Raksura. We chose to be Raksura."
Shade wished he could be as certain as his beautiful, brave sister.
"Malachite chose for us," he said softly. "Then you chose to help the Court as a mentor. Now I'm choosing. This is me choosing."
"I wish I was as brave as you, Shade."
Shade shook his head at her, startled, but Lithe stopped him and nuzzled closer.
"I mean it, Shade. You are brave, as brave as Malachite, or Moon. I love you so much." She raised her head to look at him, determined. "I know you're right, Shade. But I'm right, too. There are other Raksura who are brave, and kind, and understanding, just like you. And there will be one of them for you one day, Shade, there has to be! I'll find them, if I have to. I'll find someone like Jade or Malachite, someone who understands how things really are. Someone who is as determined to do the right thing as you are. You won't have to be alone."
Shade shook his head again, but he didn't say anything, just held Lithe closer.
He wished he was brave enough to believe her.
But maybe - maybe one day he would.