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Deret Beshelar and Cala Athmaza meet for the second time in the court of Edrehasivar VII, Ethuverazhid Zhas. Deret meets Cala for the first time in a seedy bar in the low district of Aveio.

Deret and the other members of the guard finish a rotation on the Evressaian Steppe, and thunder into nearby Aveio that afternoon, drunk off victory and eager to taste the sweeter delights of drink and flesh.

In truth Deret doesn’t intend to seek a lover that night; he is not the sort of man that needs a taste of flesh in each and every border town they visit. And while the urge does strike he rarely courts civilians, much preferring fellow soldiers.

But the sight of the young man in the blue robes had struck him in a way few things did. It was certainly not the robes themselves that did it, patched and tattered as they were. But Deret knows strength, and he sees it in ice blue eyes that watch him from behind thick spectacles.

He buys the man a drink. He learns in this order: the man is named Cala, the man is a teacher at the university, the man is a maza. The man appreciates the company of other men.

The company stays in Aveio for five nights. Deret spends all of them in Cala’s bed.

He wakes early on the sixth day to the sound of the company’s bugle in the distance, pulls himself out from under Cala’s arm.

“We ride for Cetho,” he whispers, voice laced with regret.

Cala blinks up at him, face cast purple in the predawn light. “Shoudst write.”

And Deret is not the sort of man who writes, but this time he thinks he might make an exception.

**

Deret thinks of Cala often in the days and weeks that follow. Indeed, Deret cannot get him out of his head. His daydreams are filled with spectacles and falls of white hair. His nights are filled with dreams of an altogether different sort.

Indeed, he entertains the half-mad notion of taking leave and riding back to Aveio on a white charger, his cape billowing behind him like a warrior in an old lay. He savors the fantasy of it in the darkness of his cot, the way Cala might rush to him, let himself be swept up into Deret’s arms.

Such foolishness looks poorly in daylight. Still, he could write. And so he kneels before the desk in his room, staring at the blank and curling parchment before him, until the light fades and the ink stone dries into sticky tar in the shadows. He finds no translations for the feelings inside him, no way to put them into spoken words, much less clean lettering on the page.

He does his best. His first letter is a cringe worthy effort, stilted and awkward in the ways it meanders away from the point- “How art thou?” He inquires after Cala’s health, remarks on the weather in the capital, and then balls up the letter and throws it in the trash.

If he is to write Cala, it must be better. It must be genuine. And so he tries again. He is still a soldier, and there is little poetry in his soul. But he does his best to put his feelings forth plainly and clearly. There is perhaps some degree of oversharing, and some of the things he writes makes his ear-tips redden- but so what? If one resolves to tell the truth, one should tell all of it. He seals the missive and hails a courier before he can change his mind.

His mind wanders to the letter in the days that follow, thinks of it as he goes through his drills and exercises. He imagines the letter in the basket of the courier, traveling up the Istandaartha and through Aveio, into Cala’s waiting hands. He checks the date against what he knows of the miles traveled, until he is sure that any day now a response will come.

But he is, each day, disappointed. His excitement bleeds into anxiety and is at last is subsumed by a numb resignation. As summer fades into autumn, his hope of a reply lessens each day, and Deret resigns himself to the fact that this is how their tryst will end- with a whimper rather than a bang.

And then the Wisdom of Choharo explodes.

**

When the news comes to Cetho, Deret immediately goes to the training grounds and busies himself as best he can. He does his best to lose himself in his sword forms, trying to calm his mind with sweat and steel.  He is three parts grief- he had known the emperor’s nohecharei, had grown up in their awesome shadows. And guards of the archdukes were compatriots, friends- he had diced and laughed and trained beside them for as long as he had lived in Cetho.

There are too many empty cots in the barracks, too many wailing women in the nearby taverns. Soldiers are not meant to take wives, but it is a rule scarce cited and even scarcer enforced. And so the women cry, and the ache in Deret’s heart echoes them.

As he savages a training manikin with a blunt long sword, fear begins to war with his grief. Soldiers well know the turmoil a succession crisis can bring. This archduke- Deret cannot begin to think of him as Emperor- is young, and ill known at court, even discounting the rumors of his moon-madness. Will the southern lords raise their banners for their own candidate? Will he have to face his friends under enemy banners on the battlefield?

A courier’s polite cough cuts through his racing thoughts. “Osmer Beshelar?”

Deret sheathes the sword and turns to face the courier. He tries for a smile, though he imagines it does not come off well. “We are no lord.”

The courier nods in apology and sketches a slight bow. A young thing, all lithe limbs and smooth skin. The boy’s face is calm despite everything, and Deret finds himself heartened. A courier will always know which way the wind blows; perhaps in the whisper-web of the messengers things are not deemed to be quite so bad. Perhaps the world is not quite ending. “We have a message for you from the Captain of the Guard. He… he bid me give you this.”

And there, resting in his hands, is the imperial baldric.

Deret’s throat dries; he feels a sweat break out in the hollow of his palms. It is not that it is not an honor- he had dreamed of this as a child, devoured tales of Haretha and Csestha, and all the other great nohecharei of old. But considering the circumstances the honor tastes like ash in his mouth.

“We are… honored,” he croaks.

The courier ducks his head in reply, but not before Deret catches the faint crease of sympathy on his forehead. He feels a kinship then- surely any courier is well versed in saying things he does not mean, accepting dubious honors he does not wish for.

The moment passes. Deret takes the baldric, clutches it to his chest as the courier retreats into the maze of the palace. He stands alone on the training field for a spell, lost in thought as the sky purples into shadow and a chill steals into the air. The leather of the baldric is heavy in his hands, like a sentence.

**

His first impression of the Archduke- by the stars, he must learn to think of the boy as Emperor- is strictly speaking less than favorable. When he enters the imperial chambers to introduce himself the boy is gibbering in the shadows like a half mad suncat, and Deret is horror-struck by the possibility that perhaps all the rumors are true.

He is skilled in many things, but well knows he has no talent for dissembling. And so he kneels and ducks his head, and hopes his new charge does not see the disapproval surely writ large on his face.

From the way the boy’s face falls, he knows he has failed in this. Hardly an auspicious start.

“We are Deret Beshelar,” he offers, fully aware of how paltry a peace offering this is. Well, so what? He is to guard this child’s life- he has no duty to protect his feelings as well. “We are Lieutenant of the Untheileneise Guard. Our captain has ordered us to serve as a nohecharis—unless Your Serenity is not pleased to accept our service.”

The boy stammers out some incoherent string of words, and Deret rapidly re-estimates of how long this reign- and by extension, his own life- will last. It is not a favorable estimation. He wonders if he’ll live long enough to see his family in Nelozho again. He had planned to visit his mother for the orange blossom festival after the mountain passes cleared. Funny, how quickly things change.

The door behind him opens and he turns, grateful for the intrusion. Unless the assassins have already arrived, whoever it is can’t possibly make this meeting any more awkward.

Cala blinks at him through the glass of his owlish spectacles. “Damn. We did so hope we would get here first. Serenity.”

Well, fuck.

**

Let Edrehasivar imagine that his disapproval stems from Cala’s appearance or manner, for both surely deserve it. In an effort to look anywhere but Cala’s face, he notes his disheveled hair and bare calves. He’s wearing an entirely different set of threadbare robes this time, and has bothered to tie up his hair in an uneven queue.

Deret swallows and stares at the tiles below his boots, wishing he could melt into the floor and take all of his shame with him. The images come unbidden but forcefully- legs hooked up over his shoulders, trembling. Hair feathered across the sheets in candlelight. The way the strands felt knotted around his fingers as Cala threw his head back against the pillows. Sweat and musk, the taste of salt on skin.

Somehow he can feel Cala’s gaze burning against the back of his neck.

The rest of the day is a fever dream. It is all he can do to execute his duties to the letter, and he falls into the movements gratefully. He guards and marches and radiates stern disapproval like a mechanized clockwork soldier, and swallows all of his grief and fear and confusion.

From the way Edrehasivar’s ears flatten when Deret addresses him, his efforts are at least partially successful. He won’t let himself look at Cala, but he imagines him as less easy to fool.

Through some miracle of Csaivo he holds himself together until the end of his shift. He trudges to the first nohecharei’s quarters in numb exhaustion- goddesses, when had he last slept? Surely he had lain down yesterday, or the day before…

He pushes the door open while stifling a yawn, and steps inside. Blinks.

Cala is perched on one of the two cots, watching him with an opaque expression.

Of course the nohecharei are bunked together. Private rooms allow politics and romance, and the nohecharei are barred from both. Unless the romance is between them, like the great lovers Harenet and Olestha, a voice in his head helpfully supplies. He tells the voice to kindly shut up.

Cala has traded his ridiculous robes for a linen nightshirt that hangs low on his collarbone.  Yet he seems entirely well rested: his eyes are bright and there are no bruised shadows beneath them. Deret tamps down a brief spike of jealousy at that, along with several other emotions that he does not wish to examine more closely.

“Deret,” Cala murmurs, and after all of Deret’s fears the gentleness of his voice comes as a slap. “You should sleep. You look dead on your feet.”

Sleep sounds divine. Sleep sounds like a holy gift from Cstheio herself. And yet Deret cannot let this moment go, for the sake of his duty if not for the sake of his heart. “If we are to share quarters, and indeed every moment of our waking lives, we should discuss our previous… entanglement.”

“Entanglement?” Cala’s eyebrow climbs closer to his hairline. “Surely there was a bit more artistry to it than that?”

“We are no maza,” he says, harsher than he means to. “We have not your skill with words.”

Cala sighs. “Peace, Mer Beshelar. We were simply making a joke.”

His life is a joke right now, he thinks.

“In any case,” he says, forging ahead blindly, “what we meant to say is this: we shall not mention it, and shall endeavor to forget it happened. All that matters is protecting the emperor.”

It’s the most he can offer Cala, and he wishes it were enough.

But it must not be, for Cala turns to douse his lamp, but not before Deret catches his face fall.

**

Cala is a good partner. Not that he ever doubted the maza’s skill- but what with their rocky beginning, he had been unsure that they would be able to move past the initial awkwardness and work together. But they manage.

He learns to appreciate Cala’s wit and kindness. He is more than a bit awed that in situations that leave Deret flat-footed, Cala always seems to know what to say. Truly, they are a good pair, and he thinks with pride that Edrehasivar is well served by their partnership.

And if during the long winter nights he lays awake and listens to Cala’s steady breathing as he replays those memories from a lifetime ago in his head- that is no one’s business but his own.

**

The less said about Dazhis Athmaza’s plot the better.

There are volumes of things Deret could say- the terror of waking up to shouts, the rage of knowing that one of their own had done this, and most of all the grief of seeing the resignation on Edrehasivar’s face as he described what would have been his own death.

These are all proper feelings for a nohecharis. What is not proper is the tightness in his chest when he sees Cala falling apart in private over Dazhis’ betrayal, and the knowledge that he would rather cut out his own heart than see Cala so heartsick again.

**

Winternight finds them settled into a steady and comfortable rhythm. They stand at the emperor’s side as the dancing begins, silent guardians as Edrehasivar happily listens to Dach’Osmin Ceredin tell stories of her childhood.

There is something beautiful about watching the Emperor blossom under her attentions, the way he raptly drinks in her words like a puppy. Deret is not given to grand displays of affection himself, but feels quite fiercely that there is none deserving of such as Edrehasivar.

“You look like a mother hen proud of her chick,” Cala whispers in his ear, and Deret scoffs.

“You disrespect our serenity’s imperial person,” he murmurs back, though with no heat behind the words. He cannot deny the fierce pride Cala must see writ large on his face.

Cala hums but does not otherwise respond, and Deret knows he understands. They stand in companionable silence, content to watch the dancers glittering under the lights as the evening stretches on towards dawn.

And then Deret’s traitor mouth decides to turn traitor and he asks a question without knowing quite what has come over him. “Cala,” he says, “who would you dance with, if we were not on guard tonight?”

Cala is turning to him with raised eyebrows, his usual grace gone. He opens his mouth to reply- and then Dach’Osmer Tethimar is requesting an audience, and Cala turns back to his duty. Deret finds himself in the odd situation of being grateful for Dach’Osmer Tethimar for once.

The next five seconds quickly change that.

The pain of Tethimar’s dagger catches him in the arm: a white starburst scraping across the bone. There is shouting, screaming, the heady scent of ozone- and whatever Cala had meant to say is banished from his head.

**

Deret loses himself in the chaos that follows, and the recriminations that bounce around inside his head. How could he have let this happen? For Tethimar to get so close… if Cala had not been quick with his hands, he shudders to think of what would have happened. Cala- that’s another betrayal in and of itself. He had failed Cala, for if the emperor had perished, Cala would have had to commit revathoran as well.

And thus he stays at Edrehasivar’s side through the night, despite feeling more and more faint. He will not fail him again. He cannot.

It is only after a screaming match between the nohecharei and a direct order from the emperor that he relents and heads back towards his quarters. He feels as if he is floating in the Istandaartha, a terrible lightness settles in his chest, as if he is on the verge of falling from some great height.

Beside him Cala is muttering furiously. “By all the gods, thou art a stubborn fool of an elf-”

“Tis but a scratch,” he says. Or croaks, if he is being honest.

Halfway back to their quarters he stumbles over a step and his legs buckle underneath him. Cala catches him, throws an arm around his back and hauls him to his feet. In a normal situation Deret would protest the treatment, but he cannot be anything but grateful as he leans his head against the crook of Cala’s neck and lets him guide them back to the nohecharei’s quarters on ungainly legs.

“I would heal you, if thou would let me.” There is a thread of urgency in his words that truthfully the situation does not deserve. The wound is not deep, there is no risk of infection if he is careful. Cala has seen his body, knows the dozens of scars he carries, all of which came from hurts much worse than this.

“Shouldst not use thy strength on me- ‘tis meant to serve the emperor.”

“To heal you is to serve the emperor. Deret, please-“ and maybe it’s the wild look in his eyes, maybe it’s the way his voice breaks on please, but Deret finally gets it. Cala killed a man tonight. He needs to remember he can heal, remember he can be something other than a harbinger of death.

So Deret nods carefully and shifts on the bed, that Cala may have enough room for whatever it is he wishes to do.

Cala takes his arm in hand. His fingers are trembling, his skin is bathed in a cold sweat. Deret watches him from underneath heavy eyelids, sees the way he twitches when he thinks Deret isn’t looking. What does a revethmaz do to the man that casts it? What hidden violence does it wreak on the way out?

Cala’s hands are gentle against his skin, and his heart tightens at the touch. His hands will always be the hands of a healer, never a killer, no matter what, and he yearns to tell Cala this in a way he might understand.

But Cala is murmuring soft sounds and numbness is spreading over him like sea waves, and he cannot find the words as sleep comes to drag him under.

**

The next day sees a visitor to the Alcethmeret for Cala. Deret insists on accompanying him to the meeting, despite feeling a thousand years old. Cala allows it with good grace, but insists on helping him down the stairs. They do not speak of the night before.

“Paitha is an old friend from the university,” Cala explains as they pass through one of the lesser entrances of the Alcethmeret, one of the ones Edrehasivar will never use. “We were flat mates in Aveio before Edrehasivar’s ascension. He had mentioned visiting for Winternight, but in truth he is so married to his library and so poor at checking his calendar that we had put the odds of him coming as quite low.”

Deret’s mood, buoyed from the night spent at Cala’s side, abruptly plummets at the mention of “flat mates.” He does not ask the question on his tongue. He does not have that right.

“Cala!”

The speaker is tall and fair, and from his messy hair and shabby robe so very clearly a scholar. “’Tis good to see thee, and in good health at that. I confess I almost didn’t make the trip- my research you see, I’ve made a breakthrough with the Evressaian philology…”

Deret bristles at the man’s use of the familiar, and immediately chastens himself. He has no claim on Cala. He has no right to feel each “thee” and ‘thou” like a bee sting. And yet.

Cala, for his part, seems thrilled to be in Paitha’s company. “I had doubted you would come at all, forgive me my lack of faith.”

Paitha ducked his head. “In truth I had meant to see you at the ball last night, but…” he trails off amid a complicated barrage of hand motions. Deret wonders if Cala can understand them as a fellow maza or an old friend, or if they’re entirely incomprehensible to him as well.

He lets his mind wander as the two catch up, only taking notice again when Paitha produces a thick stack of envelopes from the satchel at his hip.

“We took the liberty of bringing down the mail that came after you had already left. ‘Tis mostly adverts for books we know well you already own, but some of the sales might be of interest. Why, the university of Ashedro is publishing an illustrated collection of Cairestha’s tragedies, and we are told it is quite something…”

Paitha continues on with his opinions of the various publishing houses and their merits, but Deret is no longer paying attention. Instead, he watches Cala’s long fingers card through the envelopes, one by one. He is overcome with a peculiar lightness of breath as Cala reaches the middle of the pile, and pulls a thin envelope from the stack after a moment’s pause.

The paper is periwinkle blue: the color of propositions, assignations, and flirtation. An impetuous choice, and Deret now winces at the boldness of it. He had tied it with a sprig of juniper, a symbol of hope and opportunity. Stupid, stupid.

Cala hesitates for a second, fingers grazing the now-withered juniper, before turning the envelope over. The back of the envelope bears the sender’s name, written in a neat but untutored hand. Deret remembers writing it, agonizing over whether he should attempt the court script or the barzad before throwing his hands up in the air and using simple block letters. Inelegance was more forgivable than illegibility, he had figured.

Cala raises an eyebrow, waving the envelope in Paitha’s direction. “And did this seem an advert to thee?” he asks lightly.

Paitha shrugs. “I assumed it was an introduction between colleagues, and saw no reason to burden thee with a courier fee when thou wert slated to speak with Mer Beshelar in person before the courier would ever arrive.”

“We see,” Cala says with that bland voice and switch to the formal that belies he is anything but impressed.

Paitha cheerfully ignores him and goes back to his monologue on the universities, but Deret can’t listen because Cala is staring at him in a most peculiar way, like he knows, like he knows everything-

“Excuse us,” he stammers.

And flees.

**

“Deret.”

Deret lies still in his bed, hoping very dearly that Cala will accept his sleep as genuine and leave him to the endless recriminations he is currently looping through in his head.

“You are very poor at pretense, you know.”

He is not generally given to wallowing, but the circumstances did seem to desire it. “We shall add it to the list of things we are very poor at. ‘Tis quite a long list by now.”

He hears Cala sigh, and the bed dips as Cala sits down beside him. His muscles tense, waiting for the recrimination. The anger.

“Whyever did you not tell us?”

He buries his head in his pillow at that. He wishes Cala would shout at him, for all it would be wildly out of character. Rage he can handle, but this quiet condemnation sucks the air from his lungs. “We did not think it necessary,” he says after a moment. “You had refused the letter, we thought. We understand rejection when it stares us plain in the face.”

A deeper sigh. “You could have asked if we had received it.”

“And you could have asked why I had sent nothing.”

A gentle laugh at that. “It seems we are both fools, then.”

And despite himself Deret is rolling over to glare up at Cala. “Do not say so, for you have done nothing wrong, and we shall not listen to you disparage yourself.”

Cala gazes down at him with what he doesn’t dare name as fondness. “Knowest that thou art stubborn?”

He swallows. “I may have been told it before.”

And then Cala is leaning in to kiss him, soft and gentle as new snowfall. Deret hesitates as the world remakes itself around him, as his mind grapples with the gargantuan idea that this is real. That he can have this.

And then Cala pulling him closer, and there’s no more time for talking.