It bothered the humans, Ebon could tell, that there was no set ritual for this, despite how absurd - and invidious - the idea of a precedent was. Humans liked... beautiful containers, even for ugly things, and when something had no container at all, just was itself, they were wary of it.
Ebon and Sylvi had refused to give speeches. They had decided this together, and then Ebon had made his refusal known, and then Sylvi, supposedly in response to the decision Ebon had made (having been formally informed about it), had also refused. Since one of the two of them giving a formal speech and the other delivering a short breath's call or answer would have looked bad, they were permitted this stubbornness. In the end, suppressing a sneeze brought about by the incense the torches burned, Ebon said only that he was the eternal friend of Sylviianel, fourth child of the human king, and that this was as it had been.
His human pledged the same, giving the phrases first in the pegasi and then in the human language. Her voice and the gestures of her hands were clear and steady - she had kept up her practice, he thought, with a surge of pride for that act of defiance - but her eyes were brimming with tears.
Oh, Ebon, she said, so privately he doubted even a shaman would have been able to sense that she was speaking to him. Oh I have missed you.
It was the first time in three years he had been allowed to look in her eyes.
It was the first time in three years that they had been allowed to talk to each other, too, but they could have lived in perfect silence no more easily than they could have lived in perfect stillness. For three years they had been kept apart, and although Ebon could almost have hated Sylvi's too-human distress at her own disobedience in talking to him, he also could never have hated her. And she had disobeyed.
Their binding had been a day-long celebration in front of human and pegasi crowds in the human palace's inner grounds; this ceremony of re-binding had been arranged for a windowless hall, with barely forty present when humans and pegasi were added together.
They don't know whether to make it formal or pretend it isn't even necessary, do they? Ebon had commented.
Sylvi's laugh rang in his mind. No, they don't.
It was easier, probably, for him to laugh than her. The crowds present seven years ago had been thinned by the war, not just by the politics of the occasion. Sylvi's mother was there - and how bitter it would have been if she who had slain a roc, and proved its dying words a lie, had died of it too... But Garren and Oyry were not there. Aary was not there. So many humans Sylvi had cared about were not there - enough that even if had distinguished himself in remembering human names, he might not have been able to list them.
Fthoom was not there.
Fthoom was not there, and although the war continued, Ebon and Sylvi had claimed a victory.
In the moment when his eyes met hers he was tempted to do something showy and pointed as part of claiming that victory. He was tempted to step forward and sniff, like the least self-aware little, to gather in Sylvi's scent, or to sweep his wings forward and wrap her in them. His Sylvi, who stood looking at him with bright eyes, unblinking.
But it would have been foolish - the kind of splashing about in a puddle of power that humans did, and for all that the ban on physical contact was a stupid ban, another human thing that made no sense and never had, it made less sense to defy it now - when the watching humans would think he cared about their opinion. Only Sylvi's mattered.
He was glad, later, that he had waited.
The hall emptied quickly. It would not have seemed strange to Ebon, because when a pegasus meeting was over, it was over - except that the last few years he had paid more attention to such things.
He had grown more human, and Sylvi had - grown. They had discussed it obliquely, but he vowed yet again that it would not matter. They must still be able to fly. He would throw bad wishes after even a dead Fthoom if Fthoom's malice had ended their flights for good three years ago.
The ceremony had ended with a swirl of people, commenting and greeting and wishing them well, but when the hall was empty, Sylvi stood exactly as far from him as she had during the ceremony.
Then she walked to him and buried her face in his mane.
He could feel the soft pressure of her cheek, and the dampness there. Lady, your hoof-planted servant, he said, too grandly, apropos of nothing, to make her laugh, and then he brought his wing up carefully around her.
There was nothing about the sensation of human clothing (smooth, scratchy, spiky) at the end of his feathers that made it notably pleasing for its own sake; the warmth was nice, but vague, not even equal to the warmth of brushing feathertips against sun-warmed stone. Had it not been Sylvi, there would have been something distinctly unpleasant about her wet cheek against his mane. But it was Sylvi, pressed against his withers, her shoulders under his wing, one strong arm held against his chest like a shield and the other stretched along his back. He could feel her fingers, each stronger than either of his own hands, stroking him. His mind leapt from one point of contact to the next; he had no words to describe either to himself or her what it felt like. Finally, she said, and he could only send her back an echo.
Her fingers stilled, and she stepped back, rubbing at her face with the hand that had been stroking his back. He minded, but at least this way he could look at her out of more than the corner of an eye. I'm being sentimental, she said, and he could hear Not like a princess creeping in along with other doubts.
Oh, humans. Beautiful human of blue-winter-sunset eyes, he said giddily, esteemed princess of unparallelled percipience -
Oh, stop, stop!
I won't, he threatened, not meaning it.
She leaned forward, took a lock of his mane between her teeth, and tugged very gently – the kiss the pegasi gave.
He wasn't sure if it was her thought first or his: as an idea it was barely language. Pegasus and human. We've already flown together; that's more forbidden than anything, even...
Than this? I'm dizzy right now, she said, on merely being allowed to be in your presence, honoured Excellent Friend - but we've also been wishing we were the same species since before you even invited me to Rhiandomeer, haven't we?
Long before, he said. But we don't have to be, do we?
No, she said. And you wouldn't make nearly as handsome a human as you do a pegasus.
Flattery, he said. I would miss your hands. But delight in your wings.
He knew enough of humans by now to know that they could be coy about such things, but this was an easy conversation that flowed between them. It seemed clear to him that they had only avoided the topic of becoming lovers because they had feared the ban between them would never be lifted. But now it had been; now anything was possible.
Tomorrow, he said. Or the day after.
Quickly - before the next roc is sighted? Sylvi was rueful.
Before one of your humans tells you not to, he answered her, though I don't know why they would think to.
I am not entirely sure I would listen.
Although the fourth child of the human king and the fourth child of the pegasus king were now allowed to associate, finding the time to do so privately and at length was difficult. In the end, they resorted to the old trick of meeting outside at night. The fourth night after the re-binding, Sylvi reported that it was not Glarfin or Pansa stationed at Sylvi's room in the Palace, but Gerene, - new since the summer, and the fall of Beechdell - who could be cowed. Ebon kept to himself the thought that Sylvi felt bad about cowing her guard, but did not feel bad about leaving the castle by corridors and stairs rather than by climbing down a wall.
It was the same park Ebon had brought them both to on the evening of Sylvi's binding, when he had wanted to take her flying for the first time.
I wish it weren't so dark, he said, a little petulantly. I want to look at you.
At the same time, Sylvi said, I don't know any pegasus courting rituals. Should you teach them to me, first?
Ebon whuffed his disagreement at her. As if we've done anything else in the right order.
You could teach them to me later, then.
The courting rituals of the pegasi were not elaborate, or not as Ebon saw them. There were gifts, and feather-tokens, and even some phrases whose words were ordinary words but which meant something entirely different when they were said in this context.
We don't have harisshaha, he said. But we have time now.
He stepped towards her; she needed no encouragement to step towards him, too, and run her hands along his flank.
I always used to look at the coats of the pegasi, she said, and think how smooth they were. You're like stone turned to water. Like running my hands across the finest dust.
I missed your hands he told her. After a long flight, especially, of course, but there's nothing else that's so there.
She was laughing, a beautiful sound; he had rarely been close enough to hear her laugh out loud since Fthoom had separated them. It made almost a chord with the laughter in her thoughts. Everything about you is light and delicate and graceful.
Everything about you is sure. Fffwuhual. Intense.
With that encouragement, her fingers pressed into the knots of muscle at his shoulders, working towards his neck and back. It was good; he let her, for some minutes, work tension out. He listened to her quick breathing; he shifted when he guessed it was from exertion, not just from interest.
My turn, he said.
To do what?
Whatever you like.
She paused, her thumbs still digging in to his back, then stepped away and undressed. She made a neat pile of her clothing. Use your hands and feathers, then.
He wanted to protest - his wristless hands could do nothing of what hers could - but he knew she knew that. She stepped into the reach of his wings again, shivering.
He gained confidence when he realised he was making her shiver - that she was closing her eyes to better feel the sweep of each feather and the trail of his alula-hands. I didn't realise you were so sensitive.
Why did you think we wore all those clothes? That's good. Do that.
Do which? This - one movement - or this? - another.
He nuzzled her neck, and she shuddered. No - yes. But that was uncertain enough that he lifted his head away, and returned to stroking her with his wings.
The muscles between his hindlegs were tight with restraint. He didn't know how long they had been outside; normally he was very good at telling the progress of the sky. The scent of Sylvi's skin was all over his feathers, and that scent was changing as she swayed in front of him, leaning into and away from his touch; the changes made him think of something that spun and caught the light. He arched his neck.
I think I do the next part, she said. I don't know if your hands can - but save that for later. Let me.
She backed into his chest, so that his head curved over her shoulder and her skin pressed against his coat. Despite what she had said about his coat, he did not think her skin was so different – the same soft sleekness, the same hard warmth beneath. He swept a wing down across her breasts and belly – there the softness was different, fascinating – and she followed the gesture down with her right hand, reaching between her thighs.
Is this what you humans do for each other? The question felt bold in a way that merely asking her about herself didn't.
Sometimes. Not exactly. She pressed back against him as her hands worked. Along the length of her back and his chest they were joined as surely as two strips of wood in a skyhold – small intricate parts designed to come together in just the way that they did.
He breathed in a cloud of unmistakable arousal, and let his cock slide free.
She gave a short, harsh cry, and her knees flexed. He reached belatedly with foreleg to steady her, but after staggering one step forward she caught herself. He reached out with his thoughts, too, and got an echo a little like an apology. I didn’t think to let you in, she said, but even the aftermath that she radiated at him was enough to tense him with pleasure and desire, even as she relaxed.
Warm rain on a dry plain, he said. She turned and wrapped her arms around his neck.
Your hands, he said. Could you do the same for me?
She caught her breath. Yes.
She ducked beneath him, a little absurdly, tucking herself against his hindlegs; he had to fight the urge to shift. And then - oh, then. She laid her arms, from elbow to finger, along the length of his engorged cock, her fingers rippling across the head. Just hold, like that, he directed her, shuddering.
He did stamp, once, with his left hind hoof. He couldn't help it. Her warmth against his... He thrust into her hands. Too firm he said ruefully, and she relaxed her position; her arms still bracketed him, but her hands were gentler.
And it was Sylvi whose arms provided steady resistance to his keen thrusts, Sylvi whose shoulder pressed against him. Sylvi whose presence he was immersed in, after being parched.
I'm - His orgasm came upon him too suddenly and powerfully for him to even think a full warning at her, but he could feel her awareness, her fascination, holding him within an elongated moment as surely as she held him with her arms. Her hands fluttered over him as lightly as his own might have. Stop, he entreated her, but he filled it with a wish that he might never have to ask her to stop. He would not have asked now, except that he was afraid that if she continued to caress him, the pleasure would become a kind of agony, and he would kick her.
She went still. He sent her nothing else for a little while; a cloud passed over the stars above, but he imagined them sinking together into a little core of stillness and warmth and satisfaction that was untouched by anything else – neither the sharp edge of the breeze, nor the snares of human etiquette, nor the war.
Is there a next, with you? she was asking him drily. He collected his thoughts, sent fondness towards her. Not exactly. There's a lot of neck-nibbling...
But I don't have the right kind of muzzle.
No. It's all right. He was entirely content to stand, and quiver with reaction, and bask in her.
A pause, but a pause with a core of brightness as intense as he'd ever drawn from a sculpted stone. He shifted away and then settled beside her, kneeling as she knelt. Wiping her hands on the grass, she leaned into his side. Do you think we'll be like this when we're forty? she asked, teasing him with the old question.
A question that usually meant stop, instead of go on. Probably, he answered her airily. I can't imagine why you'd change. And even more silently, far below words and thoughts and even happiness, he promised her, And nothing will change us.