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The first is Veovis' 30th naming day.

Aitrus had, of course, been invited. As he stepped onto the docks of K’veer, he was almost swept back by the veritable wave of colored light, chatter, and music pouring out of every window and colonnade as if trying to fill the entire cavern. He had never been a fan of large gatherings; this was no exception. In the end, though, he had felt that it was important that he come by, no matter how the crowds and the noise pressed on his nerves. He patted his pocket once, confirming its contents before heading up to the door.

It wasn’t Veovis himself but a doorman who let him in, alongside three or four other finely dressed young men and women. They looked at him sidelong but said nothing, wandering inside in their own bubble of light conversation and leaving him to find his own way from the massive foyer. As he drifted from room to room, it seemed every parlor and hall was packed with well-dressed men and women mingling within their own groups and hunting for any chance to converse with the young Lord or his influential father. Aitrus felt that if he asked after his friend he might be pounced upon; better simply to try every room.

It took a full half hour of pushing past partygoers and backtracking from dead-ends, but finally he located his only real reason for being here. Veovis was in his element, eyes flashing in the low light of the fireplace as he leaned against the mantle and spun out a tale of some sort of animal that could be found in one of his family’s Ages. His listeners were entranced, and seemingly happy to be so. Those who had managed to snag a seat were packed two or three to each large, high-backed armchair; many others simply stood at the periphery. Aitrus had no desire to interrupt, and so he waited, hoping that if he pressed closely enough against the nara of the doorframe, he might yet go unnoticed for a while.

“So I went to Lianis to ask him what he thought, and—Aitrus!”

Aitrus did his best not to flinch as the entire room’s attention turned on him. No use in being quiet, then; Veovis, it seemed, would be able to recognize him from five spans away in even the darkest tunnel. The thought brought a smile to his face, if a somewhat long-suffering one. “Good evening, Veovis. You’re enjoying yourself, it seems.”

“More so now that you’ve arrived.” Veovis was already halfway across the room before he stopped, pivoted, and gave a polite nod and an ingratiating smile to the other gathered guests. “Forgive me a moment’s absence, my friends.”

With an accepting murmur, their focus softened and they began to talk amongst one another. Aitrus allowed himself a quiet sigh of relief, more than happy to be shuffled out into the corridor.

As expected from someone who had lived in the massive, labyrinthine house all his life, Veovis quickly found a small alcove overlooking the bay that wasn’t filled to the brim with party guests, although the ambient sound of chatter was still audible over the gentle sloshing of the water a span below. He chuckled and held out his hands in greeting. “It is good to see you here. I was worried you might misplace the invitation among your research notes.”

Aitrus noted the touch of sarcasm as he accepted the gesture, fingers lacing through Veovis’. It wouldn’t be the first time he had lost himself in his work. “I did consider not coming. I would prefer an acid burn to an overcrowded parlor any day.”

Veovis laughed, bright and loud. “My guests aren’t nearly so frightful as that!” Then he paused, seeming to reconsider. “Well…most of them, anyways. You may wish to stay clear of Temer once he’s had his fourth or fifth drink.”

“Thank you for the timely warning,” Aitrus said dryly. “Regardless, it would be unconscionable for me not to come and at least present you with some small gift for your naming day.” Taking the opportunity, he slipped one of his hands free of Veovis’ grip and reached into his pocket, pulling forth a small, flat wooden box.

“You were under no obligation to bring such a thing,” Veovis chided, good humor crinkling the corners of his eyes. “But I am honored that you would suffer my gatherings long enough to do so, and I thank you.” He accepted the box and for a moment surprise flickered across his face at how light it was. Openly curious, he pushed the lid back.

He was quiet, his expression shifting from mildly intrigued, to blank, to quizzical. With practiced delicacy, he lifted the pair of engraved pins from their case as if to examine them better. They flashed like sparks of flint even in the lake’s low, warm light.

“…You’ve let your hair get quite long, my friend,” Aitrus offered by way of explanation, feeling suddenly wrong-footed in the heavy silence. “It falls in your eyes. I imagine that can’t be ideal, with all the writing that you do.” He laughed once, pushing back the worry that he might have overstepped a bit. “You may someday find that your hair has found its way into the ink, and painted its own strange words across your work. The guild masters would never forgive you, I’m sure.”

At length, a grin spread across Veovis’ face. He shook his head, caught in a helpless look somewhere between astonishment and affection. “...You’re absolutely correct, and as ever, you seem to know what I need before even I do.” He was practically glowing, perhaps thanks to the wine he’d had. “I suppose I shall just have to let my hair grow even longer, so that I shall always have reason to wear them.”

He spent a moment longer admiring them, before tucking them back into the small box, and slipping it into his pocket. “Thank you, Aitrus. Truly.” He wrapped Aitrus in a tight hug, but when he pulled away, there was already regret written on his face.

Aitrus cut in before his friend was forced to make excuses. “I understand; return to your guests.”

“My apologies.” Veovis glanced towards the house proper, and back to Aitrus. “I will find you again before everyone has left and thank you properly then.”

One last parting squeeze about the shoulders, and Veovis was gone, vanishing back into the crowds with almost unsettling ease.

The party went on well into the night – unsurprising, as Veovis was well-connected and had a Master of the Guild of Caterers practically at his beck and call. Aitrus ended up lingering for far longer than he had intended. Determined to try to enjoy himself, he partook of the food – excellent – and just enough of the sweet, sharp wine to make his head feel a bit too light on his shoulders. Still, he kept mostly to himself, searching for a flash of dark hair or a familiar laugh. He didn’t find them.

It wasn't until the cavern's warm glow had dimmed to a dull, bronze nadir that those who had enough of their faculties about them began to stagger down to the dock, where their boatmen waited to take them home. Aitrus, too, began to make his way out. As the crowd thinned, he at last caught a glance of Veovis again. The young lord had by this point shed the majority of his hangers-on. A wine-flush had settled heavily across his cheekbones, splashing gracelessly across even the tips of his ears, and his voice lacked its usual grace. Yet he was holding up far better than some of his guests; he seemed to be in the process of instructing a handful of servants in caring for those few who had drunk beyond their limits. Aitrus lingered at a distance until, some moments later, he was noticed.

"Aitrus!" Veovis greeted brightly, a hazy grin on his face. He waved the servants away to their business and drew closer. “You must forgive my tardiness… There really was no end to the conversation, but such is the way of these events. Before one knows it, the night has turned to morning.”

“You have enjoyed yourself, though?”

“Oh, of course! You as well, I hope?”

“The food was delicious,” Aitrus answered evasively.

“You need not try so hard to find a kind word!” Veovis laughed. “Most food is delicious compared to the Guild’s dining halls.”

"True enough, and I thank you again for the invitation.” Aitrus inclined his head politely. “But now it is late; I must be returning to the guild." He held out both hands to Veovis in farewell. "Congratulations on thirty splendid years. I am certain, with your skill and talent, that you will see many more successes in those to come."

"Kind words, and from you, I believe them. My thanks." Veovis took Aitrus' hands in his own, and lingered there, fingers glancing over the backs of Aitrus' knuckles. His skin was smooth, delicate, as expected of a lord’s son, but the fingers of his writing hand were callused and hard. "You need not be in any rush to leave; I’d like to speak with you more. There are many here who will stay the night, and I can put a word in with your guild. You'll be forgiven for your tardiness, I'm sure.” He drew closer. “Let my hospitality serve as proper thanks for your gift.”

An uneasy tension bled into Aitrus’ chest. He couldn’t hold his friend’s gaze, and glanced off to the side, pulling his fingers back from Veovis' grip. "I actually have some time-sensitive experiments I've been running on the differential hardening rates of nara as compared to various native stones...I can tell you of the details later if you'd like, but–”

"No…I understand." Noticing Aitrus’ discomfort even through the haze of wine, Veovis put space between the two of them. "Thank you again for your kind words, and the gift. Return home safely."

There was an undeniable disappointment in his voice, and Aitrus felt it too, along with a twinge of guilt. They communicated often by letter, but gatherings like this weren't common, particularly given Aitrus' tendency to work long hours, and to become tied up in his experiments. Now his work was pulling him away again. He hadn't guessed that Veovis had been so looking forward to seeing him; had he known, he might have tried to mingle a bit more, if only a bit.

"I will." He hesitated, measuring what he was about to say against his general aversion to large gatherings. Veovis' despondent tone weighed on him heavily. "...Let me know when you are hosting an event like this again."

With an enthusiastic promise to do so, Veovis waved Aitrus off into the night.

 

-*-*-*-

 

The second time, they were both working late.

Aitrus had gone straight to the guild’s laboratories as soon as he had finished the day’s tasks, his research calling him as it did most evenings. There, the hours had quickly slipped away from him. Occasionally, he heard calls of farewell through the half-open door as his fellow guild members returned to their dormitory halls for the evening. He pressed on, even as the light coming in through the high workshop windows dimmed to almost nothing.

When, in his exhaustion, he almost spilled weak acid across his workbench, he had to admit that it might be time to clean up for the night and get some rest. By that point practically the entire guild house was asleep, the great stone halls gone quiet. Even so, the sconces in the wall were still alight and the doors open to whoever would wish to use the laboratories or the technical library. There was even a study nearby with long couches where guild members who didn’t wish to make the long walk back to their dormitories could take a few hours’ rest. Aitrus considered it a moment, but in truth, he could use a bath and a change of clothes, dusted as his had become with dirt and grit. To say the lab aprons helped with that in any significant way would be generous. He was certain his face, too, was a lovely shade of dull brown where the work goggles and mask hadn’t covered it.

As he was wiping down and stowing away the equipment he had been using, he heard the night watchman call out a greeting. It was an odd hour for someone to be starting their work, but then again, some projects were quite time-sensitive. There were many types of minerals that would react steadily with air, as well as several whose properties simply changed gradually over a period of time. As he listed them off in his mind, he came back around to pondering a research design he had been planning for some months, and paused in his cleaning. He didn’t hear the knock on the door.

“Aitrus?”

He started, almost overturning a small box filled with failed samples, but relaxed when recognition of the voice sunk in. He turned around with a tired but genuine smile, and found his expression mirrored on the face of his visitor. “Veovis. Still about at this hour?”

“Dinner went on for quite a long while this evening, my friend,” Veovis said wryly. “It’s only the Maker’s mercy that I was able to get away this early.”

“Is that right.”

“There’s a vote coming before the Council soon, about whether an additional Age should be written in order to keep up with the city’s demand for paper and preserve the ecology of those Ages that already provide for us.”

“The dining halls were quite lively, then?”

“The dining halls, and the studies, and the writing rooms, and even the washrooms.” On closer inspection, Veovis did indeed have that look about him that he usually bore after a long debate – a mix of exhaustion, tension, and lingering exuberance. He paused, and glanced over Aitrus’ shoulder. “You’ve been hard at work, I see. I can’t say I was surprised when I heard that you were still at your bench.”

“It will likely be many long nights yet before I can get any clean data, but it is progressing.” Aitrus couldn’t help but let a little bit of pride for his profession seep through. Research like this could save lives, in time.

Veovis leaned further to the side, squinting slightly as his focus on the bench intensified. A genuine smile broke through the tiredness hanging about him. “And still using the scales I sent,” he said, straightening up again. “It is good to see that they’ve held up.”

“They have, and every day I thank the Maker that I’m not forced to squabble with my fellow guildsmen for a turn with the common-use sets.” Aitrus, for his part, gave a nod and a pointed look towards the twin lines of gold glinting against the dark curtain of Veovis’ hair. “And I see that you have kept your promise, too. If your hair gets much longer, you may need a second set of pins simply to hold it back.”

“You make it sound as if I have some sort of wicked plan,” Veovis laughed. “I’m simply putting what you gave me to good use, as are you.”

“Yes, alright. I suppose that’s true,” Aitrus conceded, to another round of laughter from Veovis. If nothing else, it was good to know that he seemed to be enjoying the gift still. Finding something a lord wouldn’t have thought of wanting, but would appreciate nonetheless, had been an ordeal. “…But what of you, Veovis? Was there something you wanted?”

Veovis shrugged and adjusted the strap of the large, heavy bag that hung from his shoulder. “I must continue working on my writing but, it seems that many of my fellow Writers are eager to trade sleep for a little more ink on their hands this evening.” With an almost sheepish smile, he held out his hands in resignation; Aitrus noted that they, too, bore the shadow of old, bruise-like ink stains here and there. “The guild’s study halls are rather more crowded than I prefer, particularly after an evening of discussion.”

Aitrus couldn’t help but laugh a bit. Even the argumentative and politically-minded Veovis had his limits. “I can imagine it would be so.”

“However, I find silence and solitude to be almost as oppressive as an overcrowded table,” Veovis sniffed. “They press upon the ears, and the mind.”

“They are not nearly so intolerable,” Aitrus said mildly, gesturing at the small space around him. “These single-user labs are quite popular, after all.”

Veovis let out a nasal hmph. “If you find such an atmosphere enriching, that is your choice, I suppose. I cannot truly say I’m surprised to hear that Surveyors prefer solitude and small spaces.”

“Perhaps we are most at home in tiny caves and cramped machine cabins…or perhaps we simply need more single-user lab rooms,” Aitrus countered good-naturedly.

“Perhaps,” Veovis conceded grudgingly. Seemingly eager to change the topic, he pressed on. “If you would prefer to stay here, I understand. But if you, too, are planning to work through the night, I had hoped that perhaps we might share a workspace.” He gestured back towards the main areas of the guild hall. “The watchman said that there are larger labs down the hall that aren’t being used now…”

“Actually,” Aitrus began, and he could already see a bit of disappointment creeping across Veovis’ face. The young lord wasn’t one to conceal what he felt or thought, but even so it was a rare look for him. It twined itself serpent-like around Aitrus’ ribs as he spoke. “I feel that if I work any longer this night, I may become careless. I was cleaning up when you came by.”

“I see,” Veovis answered, with a hint of a sigh. “It would do no one any good for you to push yourself too far and throw your work into disarray as a consequence.” His mood seemed suddenly to recover a bit, as a corner of his mouth quirked up and light came back to his tired eyes. “Especially as I hear that you’re well on your way to becoming a Master.”

“What? This is the first that I’m hearing of it.” Aitrus wasn’t blind; he had noticed that his fellow guild members afforded him a level of respect, even if he wasn’t always sure he had really earned it. He knew the day would come when he was considered for elevation to the rank of guild master, but it was something he looked towards both as an honor, and as an unpleasant inevitability. As hard as being a junior guildsman was, the long days in the tunnels and long nights in the lab had a familiar and comforting rhythm to them. To think that his research projects and explorations would be coming to an end so soon, to be replaced with training apprentices and acting as a social face of the guild… “Are you certain?”

“Your Master Lerahd becomes quite talkative after his second cup of wine,” Veovis said, with a slyness that implied that such rumors were hardly the only news he had wrung out of the tipsy old man. “Nothing is ever certain of course, and such a decision is likely several years out, but if you continue working as you have been, I’m confident you’ll be considered for the position soon.”

Aitrus opened his mouth to reply, prepared to call the base flattery for what it was, but Veovis cut him off with a raised hand.

“I know what you are about to say, and as I have said before, this is something you deserve. It was, after all, the quality of your work that first caught my attention, what was it…nine years ago, now.” Veovis seemed about to take Aitrus’ hands in his own, but seeing that they were still gloved, settled for holding him by his shoulders. “But, I won’t take any more of your time, my friend. I would hug you, but…” He gave Aitrus’ dusty form a once-over and laughed, short and sharp. “You’re a mess. Go, bathe and get some rest.”

Aitrus pulled a glove off and rested his hand – a little sweaty, sure, but at least it was reasonably clean – over one of Veovis’. “I will. You take care of yourself as well, and Maker’s guidance in your writing.”

Veovis gave a grateful nod. If any of his disappointment from earlier lingered, it didn’t show in his face. He squeezed Aitrus’ shoulders once in farewell, and went on his way.

 

-*-*-*-

 

The third was just after Aitrus was made a guild master.

Such occasions required the attendance of all guild members, and while most were carried out with a matter-of-fact atmosphere of bureaucracy and obligatory celebration, there was a low hum of excitement about the silence in the guild’s assembly hall as Aitrus’ ceremony proceeded. That energy only made his insides twist tighter and colder, made his skin prickle with the gaze of thousands of his peers. He was surprised his hands didn’t tremble when he received his new cloak. Perhaps it was because they felt like blocks of stone.

The youngest guild master in over seven centuries. Whose word had decided this? How could they take his measure against men nearly three times his age and find something in him that was more respectable, more venerable?

As the ceremony ended, the assembly hall erupted into a dull, rumbling wave of fists on stone. They approved, it seemed. Well, then, so be it.

It was several hours before he managed to extricate himself from the most congratulatory of his peers and colleagues. Many presented gifts; it was fortunate that his father and mother were on hand to help him carry them. The amount was honestly a bit ridiculous, but still he accepted them graciously, and offered his thanks.

He escaped to his room as soon as he could. He even rushed his parents out, taking the piles of presents from them before coaxing them to leave with the promise that he would visit home the next day, once he had rested and asked for the time off.

The door slammed shut behind them, and at last, it was silent. Aitrus looked about his new dormitory. It was sparse, cold and antiseptically clean in the way of a corpse prepared and dressed for burial. The pile of gifts and recently-moved personal effects did little to assuage the feeling. There was a standing mirror in the corner, and Aitrus caught a glimpse of his reflection, a flash of pale blue. The cloak fit him loosely despite his strong build. Made for bigger men than me, he couldn’t help but think, with a touch of bitterness.

Not ten minutes had passed before there was a commotion outside – two sets of footsteps, a quiet exchange of words, and then one set of footsteps, walking away. There was a knock at his door, and he stayed still and silent as stone, fully intending to wait until the well-wisher left to seek him out elsewhere.

“The steward told me he saw you come in, Aitrus.” A laugh. “Or should I say Master Aitrus, now?”

A beat of quiet, and then Aitrus pulled the door open just enough to look out. “If you begin calling me that as well, Lord Veovis, I won’t be able to take it.” He wasn’t certain how well he kept the shaky edge of panic from his voice. It had been a long day.

“Ah, my dear friend…” Veovis offered a hand in greeting, before letting it drop to his side when Aitrus made no move to take it. “I feared you might think of it like this. I told you some years ago, did I not?”

Aitrus nodded mutely, eyes fixed somewhere near Veovis’ knees.

“Even then, your seniors believed you worthy of this. And, as you did then, you have continued to put everything you have into your work. Just because others have worked longer than you does not mean that they work as well, or that they have even a fragment of your intellect.”

Veovis’ words had a solidity that was harder to accept than the abstract pomp of the ceremony. Aitrus knew, of course; he had always known that this was the direction in which his work would take him eventually. But leaving behind the endless tunnels, the rock and the grit and the whine of machinery – that felt less like a reward and more like a violent, cleaving strike at his old foundations. He turned away even more, fixing his eyes upon the door frame, and remained mute.

“…Come, now,” Veovis coaxed gently, and Aitrus was sure it was the softest tone he had ever heard the other man take in 13 years of friendship. “You deserve a true celebration. You should go somewhere for a while and relax.”

“I appreciate the offer.” Aitrus’ throat felt tight. “But pubs are not to my taste.”

“I imagined we might go to K’veer together.”

“Large parties are not to my taste either.”

“I remember that well enough.” Veovis’ thin lips quirked into a half-smile. “It only need be the two of us, perhaps another friend or two, if you’d like. We can get away from the crowds here, eat, drink, talk into the night. There is no need to think about all of this right now. Besides,” he added with a disdainful sniff. “This room is utterly depressing.”

Aitrus laughed, abrupt and quiet, the sound simply leaving him of its own accord. But still he didn’t look up, and didn’t answer. In truth, the idea wasn’t unappealing. The flood of empty words he had heard that day had left him feeling equally hollow, and Veovis always seemed to know how to put him more at ease. But…

Fingers against the side of his face and the smell of ink broke through the course of his thoughts. A gentle push guided his gaze back. “At least have the propriety to look at a Lord when you tell him no,” Veovis said, his voice laced with quiet humor.

Aitrus did, and said the only thing he could say when faced with such a look.

He left his guild cloak behind in his room. The two of them slipped down to the docks undetected, and from there, it was a long, quiet boat ride out to K’veer.

A light dinner was eaten in the familiar warmth and comfort of Veovis’ firelit library, and by the time the carafe of mulled wine had been brought in, Aitrus was almost feeling back to himself. He sometimes traded jabs with his friend, but mostly he listened, and laughed. Veovis’ easy confidence in everything he did was infectious, and Aitrus felt how, gradually, it began to smooth over the anxious, jagged space that the day’s events had opened beneath his ribcage.

The fine metalwork on the windows cast dim and indistinct shadows along the floor. Across the lake, the city was steadily going dark, lights flickering out in windows. It was late; how late, Aitrus wasn’t sure, but the alcohol and the warmth and the familiar timbre of Veovis’ voice were pulling at the edges of his consciousness. A brief flicker of concern crossed his mind: I should get back.

Something in his posture or expression must have betrayed his exhaustion, because Veovis paused in the middle of spinning out a theory about one of his favorite books of commentary. Aitrus tried to sit more at attention, but it was too late – his lapse had been noticed.

“You seem tired, my friend.” Veovis glanced out the window and noted the color of the waters. “It is well into the night…I apologize for keeping you so long, but perhaps it would be best if you stayed here, and returned in the morning.”

Aitrus set his mostly-empty wineglass aside and rubbed his eyes. “No, it’s alright. I don’t want to impose, and I would rather my absence from the guild hall not be noticed.”

“You are not imposing if I invite you freely,” Veovis countered matter-of-factly. “There are more than enough guest rooms here. You could even have my chambers if you truly wished not to be disturbed. And you may, of course, leave as early and as quietly as you like. Our boatmen are very discreet.”

“I am grateful for your invitation, and for your hospitality. Truly,” Aitrus added, worried that his refusal might come off the wrong way. “And I am feeling much better than before. These days, it isn’t often that we can spend time like this, and it seems that it was just what I needed.”

Veovis’ face practically lit up at that, and he seemed about to agree, which made it all the harder for Aitrus to cut back in.

“But,” he began quickly. “I already promised my family that I would visit them tomorrow. I need to take time in the morning to settle my affairs at the guild before I leave.” In all honesty, it would not take so long to do so, but something about the idea of staying was threatening to drive the drowsy comfort from his mind and body. He had already lost a place in life that had felt like home, no matter how lowly it was. As irrational as the impulse was, for now, he just wanted to return to a space that was truly his. He needed to begin work on a new foundation.

He rose from his seat, lifting the blanket he had been using from his lap and draping it, neatly folded, over the back of the chair. Veovis followed him, standing to the side almost with an air of restlessness as Aitrus gathered himself. With a nod, he signaled that he was ready to go, and Veovis nodded back tensely, leading the way back down to the docks along what appeared to be the lesser-used hallways of the manor. The empty hallways amplified their silence.

At the door that led out to the pier, Veovis paused and stood to the side, letting Aitrus come up next to him. He offered his hands in farewell, and Aitrus took them, squeezing gently. “Get some rest, Aitrus,” Veovis said, without his usual edge of humor. “You look as if you need it.”

“I will.”

“And do not doubt yourself so much.” There was an earnest, persuasive conviction to his tone that he usually saved for his most driving debates. “You are intelligent, and dedicated, and your work shows focus and discipline. Your fellow guildsmen see that as well, and they trust what you say. It will be a change, but one that I’m certain you will weather with little trouble.”

He released Aitrus’ hands, only to pull him into an embrace. Aitrus was startled by the sudden contact, but after a moment, realized he was grateful for it. A touch was worth a thousand words, and, although he had never doubted Veovis’ sincerity, now it seemed to truly settle in his heart. If anyone would be able to pass judgment on such matters, it was Veovis, who mingled in high society as easily as breathing, and knew well the vagaries of people’s minds.

“Thank you, truly,” Aitrus murmured against Veovis’ shoulder. “Your confidence in me is…” He struggled a moment to find a word to properly convey the warm ease that filled his chest and loosened the bone-deep tension that had been weighing on him. “…heartening.”

Veovis’ grip loosened, and he leaned back a bit. He looked startled, as if unprepared to hear the raw sincerity in Aitrus’ voice. “…It means a great deal to me that you think so highly of my words.”

There was a close, heavy moment of silence, loaded with intent, as Veovis seemed to turn something over in his head.

In the span of a breath, he leaned in and pressed his lips against Aitrus’, a brief, light touch, barely felt. He lingered for only a fraction of a heartbeat before pulling away entirely, letting his hands drop from Aitrus’ shoulders. There was a hint of a smile at the corners of his eyes. “Congratulations,” he said softly. “And take care in your return.”

With that, he turned and disappeared up the narrow, winding staircase into the manor, leaving Aitrus stunned and distantly wondering if he even remembered where he was staying.

 

-*-*-*-

 

The fourth time was their first meeting in months.

Aitrus, surprisingly, had more time to himself after he became a guild master, while Veovis only became busier with every passing day. He, too, had earned the rank of guild master, shortly after Aitrus, and within a year and a half, he had also secured a seat in the Council. No one was surprised; his guild status had been the only thing holding him back. The official placement was more a formality than anything else. However with that formality came an ever-greater number of dinners and meetings as various factions tried to win the influential Lord to their side, and as the Lord himself tried to do the same. On top of that, he had recently begun writing his first Master work, an Age that promised to take well over a decade to complete, even assuming nothing went wrong.

Thus, although no more than a hundred spans separated their guild halls, the two found that they could see each other less and less. Since Veovis had begun writing in earnest, they had not seen each other at all. Even letters he wrote infrequently, but when he did, he wrote several pages at length, as if trying to make up for lost time. Aitrus flipped around to the last page, his fourth re-reading of the latest letter in as many weeks. As always, Veovis had written that he couldn’t foresee any time opening up in his schedule, but would send word the moment he was free. The bottom of the page was taken up by the closing line and an artful signature: “With love, Veovis”.

It was odd to say the least, the closeness that had grown up between them in recent years. It had been slowed and discouraged by how infrequently they saw one another, yet it was alive even so. Despite what it might have initially resembled, Aitrus felt hard-pressed to put a name to it. But then again, it wasn’t as if he had any deep or particular knowledge of such things. In truth he had always preferred stone to people; stone at least had the decency to do what one expected most of the time.

The knock at the door had Aitrus almost dropping the pages in his hands. He folded them and set them aside hastily. “Who is it?”

“Steward Tishar, Guild Master.”

“Enter.”

The door was pushed open just enough for the steward’s young face to peer inside, and then turn politely towards the floor, not making eye contact. “Apologies for the intrusion at this late hour, Guild Master. Lord Veovis has requested your presence at the Writers’ Guild, Hall of—”

Aitrus was already on his feet and pulling his long boots on. “It’s alright, Tishar, I know where his study is.”

“O-Of course, Guild Master,” the boy stuttered, stumbling back as Aitrus hurried past him and out the door. “Good evening to you, Guild Master!”

Aitrus waved back over his shoulder absentmindedly, his feet leading him almost of their own accord. Out through the massive stone doors of the Surveyors’ Guild, a lengthy walk across the Council plaza, and inside once more, through the pillared colonnades of the Writers’ Guild. A steward or two attempted to come to his side and he dismissed them with a nod, pressing on alone. He was walking fast enough that his legs were beginning to protest. He could feel his pulse racing at the base of his neck.

He rapped his knuckles twice, sharply, on the door, and pushed it open at the first sound of acknowledgement from within. A part of him relaxed almost immediately, seeing the familiar study. Veovis was half-risen from his desk, but upon seeing Aitrus, he all but leapt up and jogged over to pull him into a tight embrace.

“My dear Aitrus! It’s been too long.” Veovis looked tired – the circles under his eyes were markedly dark against his pale skin – but he was ecstatic nonetheless. Gradually, he released his hold on Aitrus’ shoulders and stepped back, gesturing to the plush, high-backed chairs near the desk. “Well, do come in.”

Aitrus glanced around – nothing much had changed since his last visit, although the desk itself seemed far more cluttered than usual, and the shelves crammed with more books – before settling himself in one of the offered chairs.

“To be honest, I wasn’t expecting you so soon, so you must forgive the mess,” Veovis said, closing the door and coming back around to sit at the edge of the chair opposite Aitrus. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “I thought you might be busy, or caught up in your research – I see my timing was perfect, though.”

“Too perfect, really,” Aitrus admitted with an embarrassed half-grin. “I was rereading your last letter when the steward came by.”

Veovis let out a surprised laugh. “You reread them? I’m touched. But, I must confess…” He glanced sidelong at the desk. “I only read your reply just before calling you here. Would that I had the time to re-read your letters at my leisure…”

“Surely they are not so fascinating.”

“On the contrary. I’ve said before that it is the mind behind the writing that makes it enjoyable, and yours could make even the driest, most trite book of commentary seem riveting.”

Once upon a time, Aitrus might have denied the compliment, but from Veovis he had begun, grudgingly, to accept the praise for what it was. He found, however, that those words stuck in his mind and led him down a tunnel to some indistinct memory. “…You know, if I remember correctly, I believe it was your advisor Lianis who said as much originally.”

For just a moment, Veovis narrowed his eyes in confusion as he, too, struggled to recall that particular day. After a moment his face broke into a defeated grin. “You do indeed remember correctly. I feel like a fool for forgetting…that was the first time we met on good terms, after all.”

“‘Good terms’ might be carving out a more positive image than I recall,” Aitrus countered, unable to resist pushing his brief advantage.

“Were you truly so suspicious of me?”

“Do the sons of lords usually take such obvious interest in Surveyors’ apprentices?”

“I take your point, but I do believe that Lianis did a fine job explaining the situation.” Veovis paused, his expression growing distant as he seemed to turn the memories over in his head. “I was terribly anxious that day, you know. I can only recall being so anxious on one or two other occasions in my life.”

Aitrus gave a neutral shrug. “You were younger then, and Lord Rakeri was ill. Then there were all the formalities…”

“Oh, no, not the formalities. I was rather accustomed to those.” Veovis laughed, a breathy, wistful sound. His eyes were fixed on the blank, dark ceiling above. “You will think it foolish…even I think it so, looking back on it. But I truly was terribly desperate for you to like me.”

Aitrus struggled for a long moment but failed to find anything more eloquent to say in reply than, “You…were?”

Veovis laughed again. “I knew you would find it foolish. Childish. And to think that I thought myself so mature, then.” He held up a hand to stop any comment Aitrus might try to make. “I will explain, and then we can both put it from our minds.” He took a breath, let it out, and took another before continuing. “Lianis was right. I can’t say that I have ever been particularly attracted to the hard sciences, but you were so passionate about your work and your discoveries that I found myself getting drawn in. The more I thought about it, the more I felt how stupid I had been in my childhood to overlook your better qualities. I felt, quite suddenly, that we should have been friends, perhaps even–” He cut off suddenly, a conflicted expression coming across his face. “You must forgive the unfortunate turn of phrase, but I had the strangest feeling that we were meant to be so, and that I had wasted an unforgivable amount of time in antagonizing you, for no reason whatsoever. So, I sent along a letter and a small gift–”

“Small??”

“–and although I did not have the time amidst the preparations to continue our correspondence then, it was…heartening knowing that you did not loathe my memory so much as to throw the gesture aside.”

“And then you came to the feast as well.”

“I did, and I recall trying so often to speak with you that Lianis asked me if I was feeling unwell.”

“As you describe it, you were.”

“Frustrated, perhaps, and quite fed up with my fellow Councilmen, but hardly unwell.” He closed his eyes briefly in a semblance of prayer. “May they never know that I said as much.”

“We never were able to talk properly. At least, not until you had a hole in your shoulder.”

“And a lovely scar to show for it,” Veovis chuckled, raising a hand to rub the old wound. “If that is what it took, then so be it, and I can hardly be angry.”

To that, Aitrus found he truly had nothing to add, although he tried for some time to think of something. What could he be expected to say? It felt as though Veovis was waiting for some kind of response, but really the idea – that Veovis considered his brush with death a worthwhile price to pay for Aitrus’ friendship – was too many things at once to truly answer. The silence grew long and weighty with the burden of something that needed to be said but couldn’t.

Finally, Veovis cleared his throat. “Well, there it is, anyways, and let us be done with it. I wanted to ask about these crystals you described in your letter…”

More than happy to put the awkward topic behind them, Aitrus launched into a more detailed than usual explanation of all that had been going on at the Surveyors’ Guild in the past few months, while Veovis offered both insight into his progress on his Master work and veiled complaints about an unnecessary rezoning law of some sort or another. As usual their conversation fed upon itself, pushing ever later into the night, until the great lake of D’ni had dimmed itself almost into total darkness.

At last exhaustion and the promise of work in the morning drove Aitrus to rise from his seat, but Veovis spoke up before he could even begin to make his excuses and head for the door.

“You are returning for the night?”

“I had planned to, yes,” Aitrus answered evasively.

“It has been many months since last we spoke like this.”

“Seven, by my count.”

“I’d like you to stay, even if only for tonight,” Veovis said, and despite his air of natural authority, it sounded like a plea.

For the second time that evening, Aitrus found himself at a loss to respond. Almost instinctively, he deflected. “You always ask.”

“And you always leave.” Veovis’ expression was an open book, tense, expectant, but hollowed out with exhaustion and isolation. Even his posture was wound tight, perched somewhere on the edge between staying seated and leaping up. “Please, Aitrus.”

“If you will be free, there’s no reason that I couldn’t return tomorrow.” Aitrus couldn’t conceal the edge of exasperation that was beginning to creep into his voice. He was tired, and as much as he disliked upsetting his friend, he didn’t understand why this was so important. “So what is it, Veovis? What is it that you want of me?”

“I want you to stay, here, with me!” Veovis hadn’t truly raised his voice, but his intensity made it feel as if he had. He was on his feet now; his hair swayed with the sudden movement, two lines of gold glinting near his temple. “Is that so strange? I enjoy your company; I care for you. Do you-” He stopped short, the burst of energy seeming suddenly to drain from him altogether, leaving behind a quiet, ashen horror. “…Do you not feel the same?”

A cold, sick feeling settled in Aitrus’ stomach, the weight of realization. This wasn’t the time to be having this conversation – it couldn’t be – and yet, apparently, it had to be.

“It…it isn’t that,” he said at length, and truly meant it. Months and years of letters and late-night debates and the occasional experimental touch of hands or lips – none of it had been unwelcome. Yet it had never been something Aitrus had tried to name. It just was, and he had been content to avoid questioning it, had been, perhaps, afraid to fully acknowledge it. He didn’t know what this would mean. He needed time, he needed–

“Then what is it?”

“I don’t know!” Aitrus snapped, before immediately feeling ashamed of letting himself take such a tone. He turned his gaze to the floor, unable to look Veovis in the eye. “…It is very late. I think…that I need to leave, and get some rest.”

“Just go.” Veovis’ voice was barely above a whisper now. His footsteps retreated towards the desk; when Aitrus glanced up, cautiously, he found himself staring at the young lord’s hunched back, the now-slightly-disheveled sweep of his dark hair. He kept his gaze fixed there.

“I will think about it,” he said, trying his best to convey a certainty he wasn’t sure he felt. “And, with your leave, we may speak on this again.”

Veovis remained as still and mute as the stone around him as Aitrus left the study, closing the door behind him.

 

-*-*-*-

 

The morning after they fought, Aitrus received a note, more a slip of paper than a proper letter: “I apologize for my behavior. Let us put it behind us.” Delivered alongside it was a pouch filled with a number of small, dried fruits from one of Veovis’ family Ages. They were tart and aromatic, and Aitrus was quite fond of them. He took the gesture for what it was worth.

For three months after that, Aitrus wrote letters frequently, yet every time they were returned to him by apologetic stewards who explained that, yes, Guild Master Veovis was still too busy with his writing to accept correspondence. He had thrown himself into it quite passionately, it seemed, and in Council meetings he had made himself an even more outspoken voice than before. He, at least, appeared to be trying to put what had transpired behind him, and he had apparently decided not to include Aitrus in that process.

Which was why Aitrus was more than a little surprised when, one day, the steward informed him that Guild Master Veovis had returned home to K’veer a few days ago in order to rest at a family Age, and had, in fact, asked that Aitrus be made aware of his whereabouts if he tried to get in touch. Aitrus promptly sent the steward away with a written notice to the Grand Master that he was taking the next few days off.

The docks were not particularly busy at this time of day, and there were plenty of ferries waiting when Aitrus got there. The ride out to K’veer felt longer than he remembered.

A thin-faced servant answered the door, his slight look of skepticism replaced with some measure of understanding when he saw who was calling. He bowed his head politely. “Guild Master Aitrus. Are you here to speak with Lord Veovis?”

“I had hoped to, yes. He left word to call on him at Tenashorah.”

“Of course. Do come in, guild master.” The servant stepped back, gesturing to an open doorway off the main entrance hall. “Please forgive the inconvenience, but we must send a runner ahead to inform Lord Veovis that you are here. You may wait in the parlor. Do let us know if there is anything you desire.”

The runner was not long; Aitrus felt as if the inevitable tingling nausea of nerves had only just begun to settle along his diaphragm when the same servant who answered the door appeared at the entrance to the parlor.

“Lord Veovis will see you now. If you will come with me,” he said shortly, giving a slight bow. Seeing that Aitrus was prepared to follow, he turned on his heel and began to lead the way through the labyrinthine halls of K’veer to the Book Room.

Only one book was open, the others draped with sheer covers to protect them from dust and light. The descriptive window showed a clear, dark sky pierced by two colorful moons, their soft, prismatic light dancing across a vast silvery lake and a grassland streaked with ridges of white stone. Aitrus had never seen this Age before, hadn’t even known its name before receiving Veovis’ invitation. Entering a private Age was no small matter, and such invitations were rare, almost unheard of across class lines. Veovis had likely needed to secure his father’s permission as well before allowing someone outside the family to enter.

With a far more delicate touch than necessary, Aitrus pressed his hand against the window of the book. Even as the familiar shrinking and falling sensation of Linking surrounded him, he swore he could still feel the eyes of the servant and the returned runner burning into his back.

The breeze was cool. It seemed to pass through him at first, then finally, grudgingly, to move around him as his form solidified. There was a well-maintained yet clearly ancient platform beneath his feet, decorated with an intricate five-pointed star mosaic that caught the moons’ rays in confusing ways. Animals of some sort called back and forth in the distance. A path of smooth, glinting white cobbles ran around the edge of the lake and into the distance where, perhaps 300 spans away, a structure rose up out of the ground, looking for all the Ages like a large rock itself but for the light spilling from the narrow, carved windows. Aitrus started walking.

The path was lined with extruded sculptures, sweeping arcs and fused stonework blurring the lines between art and nature. Some Ages were designed with the exotic or the exciting in mind, but it was clear that this one was made to offer a level of comfort and D’ni familiarity. In fact, when he looked closer, Aitrus was almost certain that the rocks jutting up out of the gently-glowing lake were shaped and positioned to represent the islands of the main cavern. Truly, it was a grand Age, and Aitrus was hardly surprised that it was Veovis’ retreat of choice. It seemed the sort of place that would suit his tastes.

Aitrus took his time meandering along the path. He gazed blankly over the sculptures and the purple-black grasses and the gleaming white mounds of stone and turned his words over in his head for the 25th time. He didn’t drag his feet, but he certainly didn’t hurry, excitement at seeing his dearest friend again pushing against anxious dread at how the conversation would go. Even his small, slow steps, however, eventually brought him to his destination. Before half an hour had passed, he was on the doorstep of the grand stone house. Only the roof and top floor, it seemed, jutted above the ground, with the rest of the dwelling planted firmly down into the Age’s soil. There was a faintly glowing button beside the inlaid door. Aitrus pressed it, once, and although he heard no sound, after a long moment, the door pulled back on its own, allowing him in.

He followed the hallway down, the flagstones smooth, clean and colorful beneath his boots. Fire marbles lit the lower half of the passage, and the temperature seemed to rise to a more comfortable indoor level as he descended. He turned a corner and was confronted immediately with a large, five-sided parlor, several short, plush sofas pushed against the tapestried walls. And there, on the far side of the room, was Veovis. His clothing was colorful and soft, a marked contrast to the stiff beige of guild uniforms, and his hair hung freely to the small of his back, bound only at the bottom with a loose cord. He smiled tightly as Aitrus came in.

“I apologize for the sparse reception. I really had thought you might not visit.”

“I’ve always wondered about your family’s other Ages.” It wasn’t a lie, even if it wasn’t the whole truth. “It’s beautiful here.”

“Yes.”

“You stay here by yourself?”

“Not quite.” Veovis gave a small half-shrug. “There are a few servants who cook, and clean, and look after the animals. But in many ways the house takes care of itself.”

“I…see.”

Aitrus found that all he had planned to say had already left him. Veovis seemed uncharacteristically unwilling to talk as well, and so the silence stretched itself out, and waited.

Finally, Veovis took a breath, let it out, and turned on his heel, back towards the hallway he had come through. “Well, come in,” he said mildly, gesturing for Aitrus to follow.

The interior of the house was almost cozy, despite its grandiose exterior. Its layout was more straightforward than that of K’veer, and it lacked the massive parlors, the ballrooms, the spaces that existed only for the entertainment of others. Aitrus peered through half-open doors as they walked and saw rugs, worn but sturdy furniture, folded quilts. More than he had ever felt on K’veer, here he had the sense that he was truly inside someone’s home.

That feeling only intensified when Veovis turned off the main hallway and into a study, larger than his rooms at the Writers’ Guild but somehow closer, the severe lines of the walls broken up and softened with haphazardly packed bookshelves and small art pieces. There was a large desk against the back wall – Veovis’, presumably – and another doorway that led to a darkened room further inside.

“Forgive the mess,” Veovis said, his back still to Aitrus as he walked towards his desk. He pulled the chair that was there, dark polished wood, over to a small table near the front of the room. There was already a deep blue armchair nearby that was occupied currently by what seemed to be a ball of dark-striped purple fur; he indicated it with a noncommittal wave of his hand. “You may sit, if you wish. Just nudge Emiya, she’ll move.” Aitrus had few other options, so he did as Veovis suggested. The furball opened one citrine-colored eye, and then another, and then a third, above and between the other two. It stretched lazily, before hopping down silently onto the floor on large, padded feet. Aitrus eyed the animal – Emiya? – cautiously for a moment, and spent another moment trying futilely to brush some of the purple fur from the chair before realizing there was little use, and resigning himself to sitting down. Despite everything, he found the chair to be quite comfortable, still warm from its previous occupant, and with a pleasantly worn, velvety feeling to its upholstery.

Veovis sat as well in the chair he had brought over, arms folded across his chest like bars across the gates of a fortress. His expression, as always, was easy to read – he was not simply being guarded. Rather, he seemed to be bracing himself, even as he spoke. “I assume that to come to all this trouble to speak with me, you must have something more you wish to say.”

Aitrus did. He did, and he pushed back against the excuses that rose instinctively to the front of his mind. The two of them weren’t fighting, not now, anyways; there was nothing to turn aside. “…I’m sorry. I think that I…misunderstood a number of things.”

Across from him, Veovis seemed to tense up even more, his gaze unfocused, looking vaguely at the wall over Aitrus’ left shoulder.

“I admit I was taken aback, and I didn’t know how to respond.” The words began to come easier once he realized Veovis wouldn’t interrupt. “I have thought on this a good deal, but I…cannot say that I truly understand more than I did before.”

“Is that all that those letters said,” Veovis murmured, with a quiet huff of laughter and a strained, bitter smile.

Aitrus pressed on, feeling something like frustration building behind his sternum. “I don’t know what you have convinced yourself of, but I’m not angry, nor do I dislike your company. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here,” he said, punctuating his words with a broad gesture around the room.

“I do not keep a wide circle of friends. You know that,” he continued in a rush, trying to get his thoughts out before they abandoned him again. “It’s tiring to navigate talk when I could be working with something far steadier. Yet with you, despite how we met and the times that we’ve fought…since we first agreed to be friends, I have felt at peace.”

Veovis was focusing now, his brow furrowed slightly as his eyes skimmed across Aitrus’ face, searching. After a long moment, it seemed he had not found what he feared, and some of the hard lines of his posture went slack. “…I am grateful to hear that,” he said distantly.

Aitrus leaned back in his chair and ran a hand briefly across his face, gathering his words once again. “…It is true that we disagree, but we have done as much many times in the past. And…sometimes we have changed our minds, and learned from one another.”

“Say what you came to say, Aitrus.” All of the tense energy from before had left Veovis, and everything about him now simply seemed dazed and tired.

“I would like to stay with you a while. If that is alright.”

A beat of silence.

“…You want to stay? Here?”

“I want to stay with you,” Aitrus corrected lightly. “If not here, than perhaps elsewhere. It makes little difference to me.”

Veovis looked as if he’d seen the world turn upside-down for a moment. “…What of the guild?”

“I’ve taken a few days off already.”

“Your research?”

“It isn’t pressing.”

“I haven’t agreed yet,” Veovis said at last, but there was no force behind it.

“You haven’t.”

There was a long moment in which Aitrus swore he could see all number of considerations running through Veovis’ head, but over all of it was a palpable air of relief, and after some time, Veovis smiled slightly.

“Very well. Let us worry about accommodations later. For now,” he began, his smile growing a bit wider, a bit more comfortable. “It has been some weeks, hasn’t it? We have much to discuss.”