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Bright Future

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The next thing Mavash knew, she was in the bed in her suite -- a featherbed covered in the white furs of arctic bears, in the style of her birthplace. Her face was burning like a brand, but a cool cloth was on her forehead, and a cool hand rested against her cheek. She raised her hand to meet it, unsurprised to find dark grey fingers against hers.

At that moment, she remembered retching all over his feet, and buried her face in the down pillow.

"I think you told me something about your famous alcohol tolerance, when we were in Gauntlgrym," Jorlan said, removing the cool compress. "My confidence has been shaken."

Muffled by the pillow, Mavash replied, "You drank nearly as much as me. And you're smaller." She raised her head, felt her vision spin before her, and laid back again.

Jorlan sat on the edge of the bed, dressed in his loose sleeping clothes. "Mm. So you keep reminding me." He picked up a glass bauble from the side table, which Mavash recognized as a float for a fishing net. "I'm feeling rather jolly myself. I'm just better at hiding it. It's that famous survival instinct you accused me of having." He winked at her.

She made a little exhalation of breath, which was the most she could manage in the way of mirth. The muscles in her stomach protested at the effort they'd expended in vomiting up dinner. "You, jolly? How could I tell?"

"Well, since I did clean up the mess you made, and volunteered to make sure you didn't choke on your own vomit," he said, with an indulgent smile, "I suspect I'm more generous when I'm tipsy."

She groaned, lolling her head against the pillow. "Getting drunk with you... this was not how I pictured it." She smacked her lips. "Ugh. My mouth tastes like dirt."

"I thought you might say that." He offered her a waterskin from the bedside table. "Here, drink up. It will help the alcohol clear your body."

The water was sweet and blessedly cool on Mavash's tongue. When she had drunk her fill, she handed the waterskin back to Jorlan. "You didn't warn me that drow poison could taste so pleasant."

He raised an eyebrow. "The jhinrae? Truly? You weren't just saying that for my benefit?"

Mavash turned on her side, looking up at him with a playful smile. "I enjoy weird stuff."

"Mmm, yes, your tastes are extremely suspect." The smile he returned was one of deep fondness. He reached out a hand, as if to touch her hair, and then dropped it to his side again, looking down at his knuckles contemplatively.

Mavash's thoughts were still fuzzy, and Jorlan's smile was nearly as intoxicating as wine. She had worked very hard to win that smile, and she didn't want to see it fall. Telepathically, she probed, What troubles you?

I want-- he began, but then she felt the wave of his self-hatred. I am not allowed to want things. He was sober enough to rein himself in, but too drunk to shield that thought.

He broke eye contact. "I'm sorry," he said aloud. "You're sick. I don't mean to trouble you." He made as if to rise.

No, Mavash said, psychically but insistently. She grabbed his arm and pulled him down to the bed. Before he could protest, she had an arm around his waist, levering herself closer to him. "No trouble to me," she whispered, against his side. "Don't go. Please."

He relaxed into the embrace with a release of breath. Mavash lost no time in settling her head in his lap; this time, he only hesitated briefly before brushing the back of his hand over the plane of her temple. "Well," he murmured, "how can I deny my most lovely jailor?"

She raised herself on her elbow to meet his gaze, her head spinning marginally less this time. "You don't still think of yourself as a prisoner, do you? You know you don't have to stay if you don't want to." Though, he had no other place to go, so perhaps this was a meaningless gesture.

"I want to stay. That's the thing I'm not allowed to want. Well, one of the things, at least." Color pinked the tips of his ears.

With a crooked, wolfish grin, Mavash said, "What are the others?"

He looked away, and said, "So how did you picture this going?" His tone was carefully light and distant.

"What?" The turn of the conversation hurt her head, and the flickering lamplight wasn't helping. She almost wished he'd taken her to his room, which was lit only by the cool glow of fungi.

He leaned back on his arm. "This getting drunk together. I'm curious. Is this something you often think about?" There was a teasing smugness in his voice.

With a huff of laughter, Mavash settled back into his lap, allowing Jorlan to continue stroking her hair. "With more flirting. Less puking. As for your other question..." She paused, sorting through feelings she'd never dared put words to before, and resigning herself to them with a sigh. "Jorlan, I think about you... a troubling amount."

In the depths of the cup, one finds candor.

His hand stilled, and oh, she hoped she hadn't offended him, or driven him off with her drunken forthrightness. "I thought you said I was no trouble." His tone was detached, and a smile leaked out from clenched teeth.

Gods, but it was so easy to hurt him. She could crush his heart as easy as breathing, and if she hadn't been experienced at reading his micro-expressions, she would scarcely even notice. "A poor choice of words. Maybe... 'sbetter to say... an unexpected amount. Makes me question my own wisdom."

His hand returned to its movement over her hair, his touch raising gooseflesh on her arms. "Well, you did just drink eight glasses of wine on a nearly-empty stomach, so I question your judgment as well."

"Judgment and wisdom aren't the same, silly." She reached up and tapped him on the nose, causing him to rear back in surprise. "As for wisdom... in our line of work, attachments are unwise. And I'm very attached to you." She made a nervous laugh, as if to soften the weight of the confession.

He stayed in that position of surprise, looking at her curiously -- as if she were a trap he was trying to disarm.

"But my judgment," she murmured, "is impeccable." This time when she reached her hand up, she smoothed it over the side of his face. She let her fingers curl in his silver hair, her thumb trace the line of his jaw. Such beauty in those features, and yet she was sure no one had ever told him that.

But she opened her mind to him, allowing him to feel what she was feeling, the depth of her fondness.

At first, it was like touching a blank slate -- the careful brick wall he had placed between his thoughts and hers. But then, a tendril of thought reached out, as if from a distance, with a furious desperation--

-- the door snapped shut behind his eyes again. He gave a heavy sigh, and Mavash sighed with him.

After a long moment, he said, "You have to understand, this is the sort of thing that would get me killed back ho-- back in Menzoberranzan."

Mavash frowned a question at him.

He looked towards the corner of the room, avoiding her gaze. "Male drow do not make advances. It's too dangerous a gamble. If the interest is not returned..." He made a helpless gesture, implying all the terror his society could visit on him. "Flirting is easy; it's always plausibly deniable. But to be more serious... there is too much to lose." He put a protective hand across his chest, and closed his eyes. "I fancied it was a game I was good at playing, you see. Signaling receptiveness while veiling it in courtesy, in the language of the temple; making someone believe it was all their doing, that they were seducing me. It was... a dangerous game, I suppose; there was always the risk of being killed for one's impudence. But that's an everyday risk, in Menzoberranzan."

Well, that answered a question she'd once asked him indirectly -- about Ilvara, and his relationship with her. "High stakes. What were you playing to win?"

He made a bitter smile. "Whatever I couldn't get by other means. Power, rank, jobs, coin. Sometimes just... the comfort of another body against my own." He made a shuddering inhalation of breath, as if the confession pained him. "My life may have been at stake, but I... never risked more than that. If you understand. That's what makes this so difficult."

This thing between us, he meant. She touched a finger to his chin, prompting him to meet her gaze. She said into his mind, Because now you care.

He opened his mouth as if to speak, but no words came out.

I would never use that against you, she added.

"You are all bloody mad," he said, with a laugh of mingled incredulity and delight. "No sense of self-preservation at all. You go about the world doing good for people, just because it tickles you. No job too big or small. Of course you wouldn't betray me. I trus--" He caught himself abruptly before he could finish that sentence, and switched modes. If you knew who I was, what I'd done, I would be the one betraying you. He wrested his eyes away from Mavash in shame, but his hand clenched tight around hers.

She let the words settle into her brain. How long had he been holding onto that fear? How long had it taken him to feel safe sharing that? Into his mind she whispered, So what have you done that's so terrible? Let me be the judge of that.

He made a huff of laughter. My most generous justiciar. Where do I start? Gaulir made the observation that I was good at murder. Flickers of memories -- the fight with Kinyel, Sladis' lifeblood painting an arc across his skin. That's a... skill I've honed. He licked his lips. Part and parcel with being a drow who's good with a sword. You're expected to stick that sword in other people and make them dead -- all in the name of the House and Matron you serve.

Mavash nodded somberly. But aren't we all guilty of causing death? She and her companions followed a goodly path, of course, but too often violence was the only language their enemies would speak. It had always troubled her to wonder how many of their enemies could have been saved -- like Jorlan was saved, or Neheedra, or even Bizzy the cave bear -- given enough time and care.

Jorlan sat silently mouthing words. Then there are the surface raids.

Mavash's heart sank. She'd wanted so badly to believe he hadn't been made to do those things. I gather if you hadn't, you probably would have been executed? Or something equally pleasant?

Well, it would be disobeying orders, he said, as if that made it obvious. Then there's... imprisoning some very fine humanoids. Putting them to hard labor, and... making callous bets about their longevity. He gave a weak smile to Mavash, and then quickly glanced at the ceiling.

Unpleasant, but I can forgive even that. Drow society was a poison that had had two hundred-odd years to infect him; she'd be surprised if he hadn't learned to play dice with life and death. Impishly, she added, I just hope you made some coin out of it.

Alas, I bet on you as the first to break. My folly.

When Jorlan seemed to be done numbering his crimes, Mavash said, None of that is unforgivable, you know.

"I-" he said aloud, and swallowed hard. "I have to say this aloud. As penance. There's something you need to know."

"Mm? I'm listening."

He closed his eyes. "You remember, on the ramparts of Mithril Hall, I said... I had been to the surface before, but only during the night?"

"The raids, of course."

"No-- at least, not just that." He took a deep, shaky breath. "I-- I don't know a good way to say this. I was part of the... hunting party, that captured you."

That made Mavash sit up. She didn't remember it, but then, she didn't remember anything of the kidnapping. She had been camping in the forest with several druids from her grove, and the next thing she knew, she was waking up in the prison at Velkynvelve. The drow had dosed her with so much poison, so many narcotics, that her memory of the event had been thoroughly erased.

Alarm must have showed on her face, because Jorlan shrank back as if she had raised a hand to him. "No, please," she assured him. "I... I'm just-- it must have been difficult for you to tell me that."

"It's possibly the least self-preserving thing I've ever done." He made a laugh, deep in his throat, heavy with self-mockery. "Do you... do you want to know the details?"

"I remember none of it, so... yes? I think so?" Even after all these months on the run, she still hadn't pieced together the chain of events, didn't remember what had happened to her companions. Was afraid to, if she was being honest.

He bit his lip, thoughtful. "Is it-- is it possible for you to read-- I mean, it will take a long time for me to tell the story--"

Ah. "I can do something of what you're suggesting. But you will need to guide me. And... allow me in." Why don't you let me in? she remembered asking, when they were in Mantol-Derith. Certainly since then he had opened up -- hadn't he? "It may be more... intimately painful for you, to do it this way," she warned.

"I worry more about your pain. The person I was, then... is not the person I am now." He laughed. "And yet that was, what? Three months ago? By how you reckon it..."

"I can bear it if you can." Mavash took his hand between both of hers.

Jorlan's gaze flicked between their joined hands and Mavash's face, questioning.

"This part isn't necessary," she said, with an indulgent smile. "But it helps."


It was not the first time Jorlan had been to the surface, nor even the tenth. But every time he emerged into a world with sky instead of stone above his head, he was dazzled by starlight. How bright it was; how even a drow child could have read by its moonlight. Strange, to feel endless sky above, a vault higher than the entire darkness below. And everything was alive with sound, too -- the chirping of insects, the sound of the wind, the scratching of branches.

It was hard not to feel like the hunted, and not the hunters.

This was the final target for Ilvara's plan. Or, so she said; she was more unpredictable than ever. What the priestess' goals were, he couldn't say, and he'd long ago lost interest in asking. But the past fortnight had been exhausting -- they spent the dark hours raiding, and retreated with their drugged prisoners only to the Upper Dark, where others of the Velkynvelve guard would shuttle their quarry back to the prison. Jorlan's hunting party only had a scant rest before repeating the cycle over.

Ilvara was at the back of the column with Shoor; Jorlan scouted ahead, moving as silently as he could on ground that seemed made of crumbled paper. A hundred feet ahead, through the trees, he made out a campfire, blazing bright against his darkvision.

He gestured in Ilythiiri hand signs to the rest of his elites -- halt, wait for my command -- before creeping to the edge of the clearing. He saw five humanoids around the fire -- two moon elves among them, which made hatred grind in his stomach. No one despised the drow more than surface elves, and the feeling was entirely mutual. Three others were human, but in watching them interact, he saw none of the awkwardness he'd expected between elves and the shorter-lived races. They all spoke a language he recognized as Common, but only understood a few words of. Pass. Story. Sleep. Fire.

By their clothing -- robes and furs and skins, ornaments of bone and antler, a silver crescent moon dangling from the neck of a moon elf woman -- he judged them druids.

He made his way back to the rest of the party and Ilvara's vulture gaze. She made a gesture in their sign language, an open-ended question.

He lowered his eyes before the priestess, and signed, "Druids. As you said. Did you wish to take all of them?" He glanced over his companions. He had only six of his elites with him -- he wasn't counting useless Shoor -- and depending on how powerful the druids were, it might be a difficult fight.

"Only the one I came here for." She stepped past Jorlan, heedless of the noise she made. "She should be recognizable. 'The white-haired stranger to dreams,'" It sounded like she was quoting poetry.

Or prophecy. All of Ilvara's choices of quarry were strange like this. The priestess Asha, before they left Velkynvelve, had said, She follows Lolth's own will. A blessing for Ilvara, perhaps, but a curse for the rest of them.

Gazing past Ilvara, Jorlan spotted who she must mean. While common in drow, white hair wasn't often found in humans, except in great age. And yet one of the druids beside the fire had a full head of white hair, tangled in messy braids, reflecting the red of the firelight. Her features were alight with laughter as she passed a wineskin to one of the other druids. They were singing some kind of song now, the clamor covering Ilvara's noisy approach.

Ilvara clutched her piwafwi against the night's chill. (Why was it always so much colder here on the surface?, Jorlan had many times wondered. Must be something about the wind). "I will web the east side of the camp," the priestess signed. "Give the signal when you are ready, jabbuk Duskryn." An honorific, a title, but there was no honor in it, coming from a woman who had once writhed atop him and gasped out his name in pleasure.

He put aside the burn of shame, and gestured for his elites to make a semi-circle around the camp. As silent as shadows they found their places. Their body heat blazed in reds and oranges against Jorlan's darkvision, but no matter. The humans were useless in the dark, and with the campfire blazing bright, the elves wouldn't be looking into that spectrum.

Shoor did not move, but signed against Ilvara's sleeve like a helpless child. "Please don't trouble yourself, yathrin. Let the guard captain take care of it." He wore gloves now, to hide the fingers he was missing, as well as the acid scars left by the black pudding.

But Jorlan knew. He had been responsible for putting them there.

Jorlan bared his teeth at the other man. "Why are you here again, cripple?" He'd cautioned Ilvara against it -- someone needed to stay behind to defend Velkynvelve against the demon incursion; why not Shoor? But she would not easily be parted from her newest lover, and was equally insistent than both she and Jorlan needed to be on the surface for this maneuver.

Shoor tipped his head. "Ilvara requires my services. I am more than a weapon to her." His smile was beatific and brimming with rancor. He knew Jorlan was responsible for his injury, too. But there was nothing he could do about it; to tattle to Ilvara would reflect worse on him.

"I suppose you must be very good with your tongue and your seven remaining fingers, then." Jorlan turned away, stalking off towards his task.

Ilvara spit after him, "Watch your own tongue, jabbuk, lest you lose it."

As if she hadn't put them at each other's throats.

But there was still the matter at hand. The webbing, Jorlan judged, should cut off the two elves and one of the humans until his elites could wade in there. That left only the white-haired woman and another human on the west side of the campfire. Jorlan gestured one of his lieutenants into position behind the man, and as quietly as he could, moved into position to take the white-haired woman himself.

He gave the signal to Ilvara.

Spidersilk, the color of moonlight, flew through the air silently, and a web covered the east side of the camp, prompting cries of surprise and warning. Three of the druids were caught in the webbing, frantically trying to free themselves, but growing more entangled in the process. In the flurry of activity, Jorlan's lieutenant slid in behind the final human, drawing his blade silently across the man's throat. He died with a wet gurgle, falling to the ground.

Cries of alarm turned into panicked screams.

Jorlan wasn't allowed the luxury of a killing blow, so instead he threw a dagger coated with sleeping poison. The woman had leaped to her feet at the attack, presenting an easy target. The dagger buried itself shallowly in her shoulder, and Jorlan followed it, tackling her and pinning her arms to her sides. She was taller than him by nearly a foot, but he was experienced at using his enemy's strength against them. In a moment he had her arms twisted behind her back.

The narcotic acted fast, but not, it seemed, fast enough. Belying her frail form, the druid was still upright, glaring sidelong at Jorlan, cursing him in Common. Her companions in the webbing were shouting at her in a language he didn't understand; one of them had transformed into a bear -- Jorlan had been warned their quarry might do that -- and was attempting to use its greater strength to free itself from the web. He was still unsuccessful as the remaining five elites moved in, hacking through webs and limbs alike, swords glittering like stars. Blood painted the spidersilk a dark red; screams tore from raw throats and were joined by the distant baying of wolves.

Pain shot through Jorlan's foot; the white-haired woman had stomped on his booted foot. He cursed under his breath and shuffled backward, barely managing to keep his grip on his prisoner.

And then, she melted away in his arms.

Jorlan was momentarily confused, until movement on the forest floor caught his eye -- a spider the size of his hand, brown and mottled with white. Large by surface standards, perhaps, but just the right size for a drow matron's pet.

Druids were shapechangers -- yes. And if what he recalled about them was true...

The spider skittered away from him, its movement impeded by the debris on the forest floor. As Ilvara careened to a stop behind him, Jorlan reached out his foot and squashed the creature under his boot.

The body of the spider transformed immediately into that of the white-haired woman. She gave Jorlan one more panicked look, then fell quiet. The rise of her chest slowed as the narcotic took its effect.

Jorlan lowered his boot from the druid's side, taking a steadying breath.

Something struck his face, and he stumbled back a step. He looked up to find Ilvara staring at him with hatred in her eyes, her tentacle rod raised. "How dare you strike one of Quarval'sharess' creatures," she hissed at him.

It wasn't really a spider, he wanted to argue, and they wouldn't have captured the druid without his quick thinking. But saying that was a good way to get struck again -- and with the venomous end of the rod, this time -- so he dropped to a knee in supplication. "I am grievously sorry, yathrin," he murmured. "I pray that you and the Queen will be merciful in light of the result."

"Impudent male. I suppose you did get me what I wanted." A hand rested on Jorlan's head, fingers twisting in his hair until his scalp burned. "You should be more cautious. House Duskryn can ill afford more disfavor."

Rage and shame burned his cheeks and quickened his tongue. He buried it in the same place he buried all such feelings. "Yes, mistress," was his only reply.


After the vision faded away, Mavash sat silent for a long time, her lips set in a line, her brow furrowed.

You've done it, Jorlan, his thoughts mocked him. You've finally managed to push her away. Look how disgusted she is at how unmoved you were by murder, how cruelly you brought her under your thumb. The spite you showed Shoor, and how you bowed and scraped to Ilvara. If she doesn't already think you a pathetic, hateful creature, she will now.

A searing pain grew in his throat. He looked down at his hands, still joined with Mavash's, and felt the mockery, the pity in that touch. He pulled away before it could be taken from him.

Mavash's gaze moved from her empty hands to his eyes. "Galvan. Etheniel. Avra. Sethendir."

"I-" Jorlan began, trying to divine meaning in the sounds, his panic growing.

"Those were their names. The druids your companions murdered."

"That I murdered," he blurted out. "That is what you're thinking, isn't it?"

She gave him a sad smile. "You're not nearly as good as reading my mind as you think you are." Her fingers worked at the edge of the blanket, a nervous gesture. "Galvan -- the man beside me -- was from Daggerford. He had just passed his apprenticeship, and was coming to join my grove in Neverwinter Wood. The two elves, Etheniel and Sethendir. They were younger than you are. Brother and sister. They liked--" She stopped short, wiping at tears brimming in her eyes. "I'm sorry. Etheniel loved the tawdriest kind of entertainment. Used to tell me how she went to see the show Winter in Neverwinter before it was banned in Waterdeep." She looked earnestly at Jorlan. "That means nothing to you, I know, but you have to be pretty raunchy--"

He took her by the bicep, stopping her mid-sentence. "I was their commander. It was my responsibility." My fault. "I could have ordered them to be less deadly, could have taken you all as prisoners. Light, we certainly could have use more general labor in Velkynvelve." He winced. That didn't sound any better.

The truth of it was, it was easy to kill, and he had done what was easy and what would keep him out of Ilvara's disfavor another moment.

Mavash waited a long moment before countering, "Wasn't it Ilvara's responsibility, ultimately?"

He was silent at that, uncertain how to reply.

"It was," she insisted. "Even if your priestesses put the blame on you, they're the ones who give the orders, and woe to anyone who disobeys them. Am I right?"

Another long silence followed. Jorlan's throat felt thick with emotion. "You don't understand," he choked out at last. "It's all like that. My whole life. One memory after another, with me a dull spectator, never raising a finger to save anyone but myself. That's the poison filling my veins."

She raised a hand to cup the side of his face. "No one chooses to be poisoned. How can I hold that against you?"

And yet, hadn't he done just that, less than a week ago in Mantol-Derith? Or very nearly, at least. "You are too-- too gods-bedamned good," he growled, which was the only thing he could think to say.

"Mmm. Let's see if it's contagious." And with that, she tipped his chin up and kissed him.

For a moment, his mind went blank, utterly failing to process what was happening. Then it dawned on him -- her lips were on his, warm and soft and pliant, and light, it had been so long since anyone had touched him like this, and never with this much care. His hand found the back of her neck, and his lips pressed hungrily against hers, begging admittance--

She pulled away, and the heat of her embrace was replaced with his own cold mortification. "I'm sorry," he murmured, and wiped a hand across his mouth. "You caught me by surprise."

"A rare delight," she said, and waved him away. "It's nothing you did. Right now my mouth tastes like half-digested wine, and it's not something you'd like to share."

"Ah, of course." He felt heat rising in his cheeks. Light, he was behaving like a callow youth.

Mavash was eyeing him assessingly. Then she crawled up to the head of the bed, stretched out her legs, and beckoned him toward her. "Come here. Lie back."

Warily he leaned back against her, his head falling to the cleft of her shoulder and neck, his feet reclining on the bed. She wrapped her arms around his waist, pulling him close. Somehow despite her bony frame, her body was soft as a pillow beneath his back. His muscles relaxed as surely as if he were sinking into a hot bath, and he heard himself give an involuntary sigh.

Mavash, her mouth beside his ear, murmured, "Thank you. For telling me what happened to my companions. It saddens me, but -- it's better to know than not. The world can't hurt them any more, and they will return to the forest."

A romantic vision, that. "I wish I could believe in that sort of poetic afterlife."

"For your sister?"

He winced. Why did she have to tear at that old wound? But It was his fault for even bringing it up, wasn't it? "For myself." The only person I can save.

"It's not poetic," she went on as if he hadn't spoken. "It's real life. Their remains will feed the earth -- predators first, then maggots and mushrooms and the roots of trees. Did you know," she said, and her voice became breathy with wonder, "that on the surface, underneath our feet, are thousand of miles of mycelium -- the roots of mushrooms? A greater distance than I walked to come to Neverwinter Wood, on a brittle, two-ply thread spun of life and decay." She kissed his shoulder, sighed into his hair. "I try to remember that death is all around us, but it can't destroy us in any real sense."

The words stunned him to silence. The sardonic part of his mind was ticking away, trying to find the humor, but he found himself at the end of his schemes of a sudden.

"I guess what I'm saying is--I forgive you, Jorlan. No, rather -- there's nothing to forgive. You did what two hundred years of training had taught you to do. You survived. And I'm happier for it."

"I'll endeavor to continue, then," he murmured. He let his head loll to the side, his nose resting against the skin of her neck. After three days' travel, none of them were exactly clean, but the smell of her body's musk was... not unpleasant.

"I didn't mean it when I said you smelled of wet fur," he murmured against her skin. He didn't remember if he'd told her that, but it was a joke he'd definitely made in the privacy of his own head. To himself, he added, if you kiss her neck, then neither of you needs to worry about tasting wine sick--

The vibration of her laugh tickled his lips. "What sweet things you say. I'm glad? Although right now I imagine I smell of brimstone and old sweat."

He felt languid -- tipsier, perhaps, than he had thought. Or maybe he was just at ease enough to appreciate it now. And yet she seemed more sober than ever. Perhaps that was the nature of her famous alcohol tolerance.

His languor demanded honesty, that luxury he'd not often been allowed. "Did you fancy Sladis? Before you knew he was a cannibal?"

"Of course not!" Her reply came too quick, and from his vantage point, Jorlan could see color creeping up her neck. "I just... really like mushrooms."

"You're a phenomenally bad liar," he whispered, without rancor.

"I-" She looked down at her hands. "Maybe I did a little, but it would have passed in time. He reminded me of someone. Sethendir. The one I mentioned."

Jorlan made a snort, though he felt a sensation in the pit of the stomach like he was falling, falling. "I see. I should probably stop murdering people you fancy."

She tipped up his chin to look at him. Her voice grown husky, she said. "Or threatening to." Her fingers traced his lips, leaving sparks in their wake. "There's one I couldn't bear to lose."

Those fingers were an irresistible target, and so despite his better judgment he kissed them. They were rougher than his lips, the hands of someone who worked with earth and roots. But the momentary connection set lightning arcing between them--

He was looking in her eyes -- blue, he noted -- and he never wanted to move from that gaze of trust--

(jal khaless zhah waela)

--but he also wanted to know why she had said what she said in that faerzress grove. The thing that had cut him like blades.

The only one you could ever love--

Why did it stab him? How could you stab something that wasn't there?

She touched her fingers to her lips, a kiss by proxy. "You aren't heartless. No matter how much you want to believe it."

He let his head fall back on her shoulder. "My thoughts are leaking again."

Mavash made a heavy sigh. "I knew as soon as I said it how cruel and wrong it was. I like teasing you, but sometimes I don't know when to stop."

"Am I so easy for you to read?" he murmured.

"You looked the same as when you surrendered to me in the Upper Dark. Blank. Hopeless. Wanting to disappear entirely." She kissed his forehead. "That's how I knew."

They lay silently like that for a time. Jorlan heard Mavash's breath ease into sleep, and the crackle of fire in the next room, and the beat of his own heart. He tried to slow his breathing into trance, but a thought niggled at him, evading capture.

"Mavash, I--" he began.

(jal khaless zhah waela)

"I trust you," he said to nobody, and then closed his own eyes.