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Do You Know the Way to Ba Sing Se?

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Vanyel had not thought this plan out properly; that had been apparent since his first day of work, after the Askevron cast off from Baranduine's Homely Station. At this point, he should probably have been wishing he'd never left home, not that Vanyel was actually capable of conscious thought at the moment. But let's face it: it should have been one of the thoughts uppermost in his mind for a while now. It wasn't, and it hadn't been.

The first clue should have been that the cruise ship would hire a fifteen-year-old in the first place. He'd lied about that of course, and he was exceptionally attractive for any age; but he was smart enough to know the difference between thick-wittedness and plausible deniability.

Vanyel was short, even for fifteen. His hair was black and straight; his skin was flawless. It was usually very pale, but at the moment he was flushed with the same sensation that was twisting the normally classic lines of his face into a mask of agony. When he had been very young his eyes were grey, but now they were an unusual, eerie silver behind lids squeezed tight shut like airlock doors against the vacuum of space.

The thing about this experience—the verbal abuse and the constant critiquing of his inept efforts at manual labour; the bitchy people and whiney guests, the eyes following him, unsettling things he couldn't remember—not enormously different from home, was it?—was that no one was asking him to like it. As long as Vanyel didn't fuck up too badly, he could be as miserable as he liked. And when he decided to move on, they'd all be glad enough to see the back of him.

He might have fucked up too badly now.

Of course, that was probably irrelevant, because the cruise ship Ashkevron had just exploded.

__ __ __

 

"Excuse me, sir. I'll be out of your way in just a minute." Vanyel forced himself to mouth the phrase, eyes downcast. Towels, towels; if he could just get the clean bloody towels onto the bloody shelf, he would be free to move on to another, hopefully empty, room and stew privately in his intense shame.

"I would appreciate it if you..." Mister Back-In-His-Bunk-Early began snippishly; Vanyel bristled but bit his tongue, "...would tell me if you're assigned to this part of the vessel," he finished much more amicably.

Vanyel looked up, although he had been determined not to, and felt his anger clouding over. "I go where they tell me to."

"I think you should work this section as often as possible."

The man was closer now. He had a harsh, heavy-boned face that boasted a deep scar cutting down either cheek. He didn't look like a man who took long, expensive cruises. His suit was entirely black; darker than his eyes, but only just.

"Something there, yes," the man murmured, only half to Vanyel. His hands were on Vanyel's head now, a not quite clinical touch; and he should have been indignant, should have been running for the hills; he'd decked a greasy-haired engineer's assistant in a panic for as much his second day aboard. But Vanyel was transfixed by the intensity of those black eyes.

"Come back to me." He spoke as to a child. "Don't be worried; just come back to me, my new young friend." A smile Vanyel somehow didn't register as ominous. "I can make something of you."

Vanyel nodded blankly and left. Outside, his eyes landed on his vastly demeaning cart and all thoughts of peculiar passengers vanished from his mind.

He was vaguely unsettled all that day. The next morning, he made sure to work the same side of the ship. Corsabrin glared at him.

"You're powerful nervy for someone didn't know how to change his own sheets a week ago."

"I'm just trying to do a job, here." Vanyel brushed past Corsabrin, jaw clenching.

Vanyel had dreamed of space again last night. It was the dreams that had given him the idea in the first place. They had started just before he left—before he ran away; the night before his father had shipped him off to Bái Yuè, in fact.

The Honourable Withen Hivert had little use for his eldest son. Withen was one of the richest men on Baranduine, Representative for his district and Chair of the Military Appropriations Committee. Lissa was older, but she had no ear at all. She'd joined the military almost a year ago, with fùqīn de blessing, leaving Vanyel with only the dubious protection of his mother. Mǔqīn meant well, but Vanyel got the feeling that the only reason her head stayed attached was that someone had tied it on when she was a child. And she didn't understand.

It was possible to pursue a career in a well-respected field with opportunity for advancement, that both his parents approved of, while still immersing himself in music. That it mattered to Vanyel what sort of music he played was evidently too sophisticated a concept for his parents to grasp.

Mǔqīn defended him, generally, because he played for her and her friends; but to her it was just a pleasing hobby. Her own brother was a political composer, though not a very successful one. She didn't see the difference. Every hack on Baranduine was grinding out policy sonatas and legal briefs like a snakemonkey with a crank-organ. Vanyel would personally rather take a pair of pliers and pull out all his fingernails.

Withen, of course, just didn't care. Which was fine, because neither did Vanyel anymore.

The night before he was shipped off like a crate of cabbages to some fancy preparatory academy on Bái Yuè, a chill calm had smoothed away all other dreams. At first the cold had hit him with the same jolt came with a dream-fall, so he thought for an instant he'd awoken. The chill had interrupted his breath, so it took him a moment to realise that the place inside where the anger lived was numb. After a few breaths, the icy fire of absolute zero erased the rawness around his eyes his tears had left.

There was silence, where before there had been his own harsh breathing and the sound of his blood rushing past his eardrums. In the vacuum, there was of course no pressure, real or imagined. No walls, none of his enormous, spiteful family clamouring around him, no Withen trying to swallow him like a black hole. Nothing but solitude, and the stars.

They were so beautiful.

 

The dreams were how Vanyel survived on the Ashkevron. He reached out with his mind and his memory and drew the iron ice of space around himself like armour. It didn't matter what he was doing or what these people thought of him. The worst they could do to him was dump him at Ba Sing Se and really, there were worse places to end up. An Independent world, stable government, with a reputation for keeping itself to itself. Almost as good a harbour for a runaway as a cruise ship, always on the move.

If only he hadn't left his violin—but no; besides being a statement impossible for Withen to misinterpret, they'd have been able to track the SASS case. It was a beautiful instrument, the only good thing Withen had ever given him, and he had still rather leave it than pawn it. He'd rather have his guitar, but smuggling it out in the first place had been out of the question.

Except now he had to somehow scrounge enough for another before he could get a decent berth. He could do it though; he knew he could. In the meantime, if he had to endure this—

"Housekeeping."

—he could.

"Come in," a harsh voice answered.

 

Vanyel felt even more distant the rest of the day. I think it's getting easier. He ate quickly and alone, then went back to work.

Vanyel barely even twitched when one of his assigned rooms turned up occupied. Again Most of the passengers spending most of their time out and about or having the wherewithal to put their privacy locks on.

It was a woman. She had strawberry blonde hair and blue-grey eyes. Additionally, she was naked to the waist.

Oh, great, Vanyel thought sourly. He was well aware that he could in fact be making good money on this trip and not just working for his board. It was almost tempting, sometimes; but if he'd wanted to whore himself for money and advancement, he'd still be at home. Besides, in this case he was genuinely unaffected.

"Duìbuqǐ, xiǎojiě. I can come back—"

"No, please, go ahead."

She turned around, and for a moment Vanyel was distracted more by her white, even teeth than her nipple piercings. Didn't that hurt? Shaking it off, he went to check her towels.

"Wait a minute." Exhibitionist Lady grabbed his arm as he passed, loaded down with dirty towels.

Vanyel tried to shrug her off, but found himself frozen to the spot. The woman's eyes were oddly compelling and did not look away as she set her hairbrush down.

"I thought I sensed Chamdar's oh-so-subtle odour in the air. I should have known they'd send him. So predictable. Now, the question is, what does he want with you, young...?"

"Ivan," Vanyel lied mechanically. It was like his brain was swaddled in cotton. There was something in the woman's expression of amused superiority he thought he might ought recognise, but it eluded him like the softest pianissimo after a blast of brass.

Her expression was unimpressed. "Really." Almost casually, she backhanded him, except it hurt a lot more than being hit usually did. "Try again."

"Vanyel," he gasped. It was sheer luck he didn't drop the idiot towels. "Vanyel Hivert."

The woman leaned close to whisper in his ear. "Does he know that?"

Vanyel, not knowing why, shook his head.

"Good." She smiled. "Don't tell anyone else. Do you know what he wants you for?"

"No," Vanyel choked out. He was reeling either from the residual pain or the scent of the woman's wavy hair as it brushed his face. She was pressing up against him, but it felt more like being wound in the coils of a basilisk than a seductive embrace. Despite the ample size of her breasts, there was quite a lot of muscle underneath all that exposed skin.

"It's not very pleasant."

The woman drew one finger across his throat to emphasise her point. She had to let go his arm to do it, and his skin felt clammy where her hand had been.

"Don't worry, Vanyel. I won't let anything happen to you. I'm your friend." She smiled again. "And when Chamdar asks, tell him everything, hǎo ma?"

The woman stroked his still-stinging cheek, making it burn again. Vanyel nodded dumbly. When she brought her hand down, he half-expected to see blood.

She turned back to the mirror and picked up her brush again. "And don't forget to finish cleaning the room."

__ __ __

 

Even the void of outer space couldn't absorb the fire searing through Vanyel's brain. It boiled through him and out of him, up into the vacuum, which should have absorbed it like the roots of a tree in parched earth.

Nothing dissipated, though. Instead, he could feel it boiling the ether. Things up there shuddered and lashed out, and the rawness in his throat went completely unnoticed as down on Ba Sing Se he screamed himself mute.

__ __ __

 

"That's two days now you've been late, Vanya," Grace Nevatta observed.

"Sorry," Vanyel snapped instead of bite me. He'd chosen the alias Ivan Hart when he signed on because Vanya sounded enough like Vanyel he wouldn't have to think too hard about it. "1444 are zhēn de pigs."

"You're supposed to be through before five. People don't want to find the help in their rooms when they come back to change for dinner."

"I know, nǔshì."

"Well, get your ass over to the kitchens or Cook'll thrash you. And I'll be next," Nevatta growled at him. Grace Nevatta was a fat, greasy woman with bad teeth and a grating voice. Vanyel would have despised her on principle, even if she hadn't singled him out as a lack-wit and a layabout. He returned her glower blankly; she growled again and waved him off.

Vanyel floated through dinner that evening, smiling vaguely at the guests and ignoring the murmurs from the rest of the staff, whose dislike followed him like trails of laser fire. He didn't know why, but he was used to being unpopular.

"Who does he think he is, the king of all Londinium?" Vanyel heard one of them say to his cronies.

"He certainly looks like he thinks so," one of them responded.

"I bet I could fuck that expression off his face quick enough."

Vanyel's back stiffened; they didn't even bother to lower their voices when he walked by. He set his teeth. So what?

The dream came almost nightly now, eroding away the memory of black eyes that jolted him awake in his narrow, shared bunkroom, skin clammy with sweat. Vanyel was dimly, distantly surprised that his exhalations didn't hang like a mist in the air around him. His mind was foggy, too, to the point where he couldn't even remember how he'd come to be on the surface of Ba Sing Se.

There were guests from the Ashkevron around, so Vanyel assumed he was here in case someone needed a damp towel or some smelling salts and hadn't jumped ship or been summarily dismissed. Right now, he was holding a parasol over a snooty-looking rich lady who could just as well have been one of his mother's snooty friends.

"—me, Chamdar?"

Vanyel jumped, looking around for the source of the voice in his ear, but no one was nearby, except for the snooty lady, who had definitely not spoken. The voice had sounded almost familiar.

"Not this time, woman," a very familiar voice replied.

Vanyel didn't see the dark man in the crowd of tourists, and he would have. Vanyel noticed that the hairs on the back of his neck were beginning to rise, removed from any emotional response.

"You'll have to do better than that, Chamdar," the woman said.

"Zěnme—" gasped the snooty lady as the gentle wash of Ba Sing Se's daylight hit her pampered skin.

The delicate veins of the parasol cracked as Vanyel collapsed. His overloaded nerve-endings barely registered the impact where hands and knees hit the stone walk, warm at midday.

"Vanya! Vanya!"

It was like plasma was being poured from the heart of a sun into his brain direct. He couldn't get up and, a second later, he couldn't stop screaming. But everyone was looking up, now, at the brilliant flash of light that was spreading across the sky.

Vanyel started screaming, and the ground began to shiver underfoot.

__ __ __

 

The first sign most of Ba Sing Se had that there was something wrong was the cruise ship Ashkevron exploding in orbit. Shortly afterwards, sensors at Nedrane Station in orbit outside Birnam Wood detected power fluctuations in its core reactors. Com traffic was thick as other ships in the system reported similar problems.

It was the people of the Impenetrable City who noticed the series of minor but escalating quakes. The Imperial Science Institute contacted the palace with the information that the epicentre was somewhere in the vicinity of Ba Sing Se University, which was puzzling, as there were no fault lines under that part of the continent.

The understandable amount of consternation due this fact was superseded by reports from another branch of the ISI, as well as Nedrane Station and a substantial portion of local space-traffic, detailing a sudden and unscheduled eruption of solar flares on a scale that would soon become dangerous.

The trees of Ba Sing Se, both celestial and terrestrial, vibrated; and the arboreal throne of Empress Xebel whispered to her, transmitting messages from its millennia-old roots deep in the earth. She met the eyes of General Armstrong, commanding the Imperial Military, and issued an order.

Parsecs away, a mind pricked up curiously as a wail cut across the Black, and then went silent.

__ __ __

 

Darius was already on his way. Even through his most substantial mental shields, he could feel a frenzied mixture of pain and power; not attacking, but blasting uncontrolled in every direction as though the anguished mind flew to escape from itself. He could hardly grasp how the general population, unprotected as they were, was not bent over double with the potency of the barrage.

Insensibility, Darius supposed, was its own defence. Although he did notice the pinched expressions of headaches mixed in with more common signs of alarm as he hastened towards the University grounds; unknowing sensitives, uniquely vulnerable.

He saw the disturbance immediately. The Quadrangle was almost deserted, and no wonder: the ground here was shuddering violently enough Darius had to catch himself on one of the low, marble buildings before he even made it out onto the lawn.

He jerked his fingers back from the cool stone as though they'd been scorched. His eyes went to a small, dark figure fallen halfway on the grass.

Someone beside it braced—herself, Darius thought—in a crouch, but made no further move. Ah. Colonel Barrett, he recognised the body-language as he drew nearer; General Armstrong's redoubtable right hand.

It looked like her mental disciplines, and she never had revealed to him what they were, weren't holding up as well as his own, even though from all he'd been able to discern she was merely a sensitive. Barrett was wiping a trickle of blood from one eyebrow, as collected as ever.

"The Empress has been trying to reach you," Barrett said. She hesitated, then apparently decided not to try to stand.

"You can tell her I'm already here," Darius replied, adjusting his habit almost unconsciously as he lowered himself to one knee by the boy who was shaking the system of Ba Sing Se.

He was rigid on his hands and knees, and the raw force of undirected magic being emitted, reabsorbed, and backwatered was literally eating away a crater in the earth and stone under him. Darius eased up on his shields slightly, to get a better view of what was going on. That was too much power for one person to be generating. He could scarcely believe a body could endure its passage without being destroyed.

"I tried to make contact with him," Barrett said. "My head nearly exploded."

That would explain why she looked a little like a rung bell. I'm surprised his hasn't. This was node energy, and quite a lot of it. Solar energy, which was always eager to escape, and great, sucking draughts from the massive node at Ba Sing Se's core. The child was a stronger mage than Darius had seen in millennia to survive such an onslaught.

Not for much longer, though. This sort of raw power would eat you away from the inside out. Darius only hoped he was in time to save the child's mind.

The first step had to be to stop the influx of node-magic. That would diminish the force behind the telepathic barrage as well. Then, bleed off what energies had not found their own egress, to halt the viciously mounting damage to the boy himself.

Darius pushed his shields out to include the boy. He had screamed himself to silence and seemed not to have noticed. Oh, poor, wretched soul.

The backlash knocked Darius onto his back. Impact chased the air from his lungs. That didn't bother him, though, because the arc of power from sun to the mage-boy had popped his shields like a soap bubble.

"Wángbādàn de biǎozi! "

Darius hastily re-formed them, from his own energies and not from the life-generated webwork of the 'verse; enough of that here already. Maybe cut the connexions one at a time?

The child was pulling energy from the planet's core, from the ships in orbit, and from the star itself: far more, even singly, than Darius would ever himself attempt. Barrett watched him closely, but made no move to interfere when he settled by the boy again and grounded himself. He couldn't send all this into the earth without cracking the planet open like the Great Bird of the Universe was hatching out of it; but if he weren't to boil his own brains, he'd need all the help he could get.

The ships and the station reactor severed easily enough, although he felt the boy's unconscious groping for sustenance tickle across his shields as he did so. It was more difficult to persuade his link with the planetary node to let itself be interrupted, but at last it gave way.

Sweating now, Darius was more concerned with the draw from the solar node. It was the last, but absent the confusion caused by the other lines, this current was less disrupted, and so doing more damage. He was afraid that, even if he successfully stopped the torrent, the sudden absence of pressure would cause a backflow in the escaping energies, which still badly needed to be expurgated.

How had the boy managed to get himself into such a mess? Surely, Darius would have noticed a Worker of such power in Ba Sing Se. And so young; where was his master?

Darius finished tapping out the small nexuses in the area, then took a moment to let the power settle. His purpose was twofold: to shore his own strength, and to prevent the boy from pulling at them and so doing himself further harm when Darius would very possibly be too depleted to deal with it.

Quieting his presence, Darius insinuated himself as close as he could to the thinning line between influx and output that was the boy's self. It was like rowing upstream. Ideally, there was always a point of balance there, where a Worker directed both. In this case, there was a maelstrom.

Putting hands on the boy's trembling head and back, Darius let down his shields and heaved a tremendous push in both directions. Back, at the sun; and outwards from the roil of energy caught inside. This closely linked, Darius found himself crying out in shared pain. The light was visible even through his eyelids; heat on his skin, and a sensation like sinking under him. He could feel it working, though. The internal pressure was decreasing, and the affinity with the sun was weakening. Just a little bit more, and Darius could bring his shields up again around them both.

It was like bathing in hot fire. Darius set his jaw and smoothed the exchange as much as he could. There was no turning back now. That solar link had to be severed, or the resultant recoil would incinerate the both of them. His own strength was waning dangerously, and the child still had to be contained. I wish we were doing this at the monastery. Although the node there would be as dangerous as it was useful.

"Hold on," he murmured to the insensate boy in his arms, and slammed his shields up again.

Pain, Darius felt. The inside of the boy's head had been scoured raw, and he was shouting as loudly with his mind as he couldn't with his voice. That, too, bounced off the inside of his shields, along with fitful blows of energy that had to be from the boy himself. Darius was quick to gentle them, tugging the boy to lie with his head on the coarse red cloth of his habit. He was still tense and shaking, although the ground wasn't anymore, thanks be.

"You are strong," Darius told the boy. "Hold with me. Shh, it's all right. I've got you now."

Darius touched him with soothing strokes and the softest of mental persuasions, trying now to reach the mind itself. Was it waking, even a little? Darius wouldn't have been surprised to find it had been scoured clean away, except that the mindless hadn't telepathy.

"Colonel, please call for medical aid. He's going into shock. And I'll need help transporting him to the monastery." Darius opened his eyes to look for the first time at the boy's pale, pinched face. They were sitting in a glassy crater, the ground below them hot to the touch, now he was aware of it. That might make standing up interesting. The lip was as high as his seated shoulders.

"I believe General Armstrong would prefer—"

"Probably," Darius cut her off. "But Her Imperial Majesty trusts my judgement, or she wouldn't have called for me. Please, do let me know what Xebel decides."

Barrett was standing now, restored to her usual laser focus. Her eyes locked with his, and he could see her thinking.

"Base, this is Number One. I need medics and a ground transport at my position on the double."

"Roger that." Darius heard faintly.

"Xièxiè nǐ," he said simply.

Barrett raised an eyebrow at him, then switched her attention back to her comm. "Number One to Ice Queen. Subject has been contained..."

Darius turned back to the boy; his patient now, for that was next. There were a thousand questions to be answered, but they could wait until the boy was stable, and his head was healed enough that waking wouldn't send him into another fit. He'd wanted to keep the boy awake for the medics, get something into him to replace some of what had been burned away; but this wasn't any sort of useful consciousness. No good doing more damage.

"Sleep," Darius whispered, mouth and mind, and felt that hellish tension drain at last.

__ __ __

 

"Darius."

Xebel, Empress of the Wood, the Impenetrable City, and the system of Ba Sing Se, descended lightly from the living wood of her throne to greet her oldest counsellor. Darius was far taller and more physically imposing than herself—height did not run in the imperial line—but he sank respectfully to one knee to accept her greeting and embrace. Unlike most Buddhist monks his head was unshaved, although he wore only the simple red habit of his order, with no sign to set him apart as abbot.

"It is good to see you, dear friend," Darius told her. His tired smile crinkled his eyes, but barely touched his lips.

"You almost look your age today," Xebel told him, stepping back so he could rise.

She frowned slightly as Darius came to his feet with far less ease than usual. "Forefend. What do you know about the accident?"

"I know it was caused by the man-child you have taken into your care; and I know not even my summons could prise you from his side before this morning." Indeed, it had been nearly a fortnight since her first summons, during the shaking of Ba Sing Se.

Darius ducked his head, acknowledging the reproof. "He took very great harm. It is my hope that he will survive it; but I still don't fully understand its cause. What have General Armstrong and her formidable Military Intelligence uncovered for you?"

Xebel knew this was Darius protecting the man-child. Darius was always protecting things. It was maddening, but she recognised he'd clam up tighter than a virgin in a bull pen until he judged his charge was no longer in danger.

"Little. He was a menial aboard the ship that was destroyed; a cruise ship, unaffiliated. The other crewmembers who were downside when it exploded didn't like to say much, but he signed on recently and hasn't been making friends." Xebel shrugged and settled back on her throne. There; that was most of her cards n the table.

Darius looked mollified, but not fooled. "Wherever he comes from, I'm not going to send him back. When he's ready, he can take himself where he likes; but until then he has the sanctuary of my walls."

Xebel regarded him, trying to read past his frank determination. "Did he blow up that ship?"

"He doesn't have the control, certainly not to do it from downside. He's blasted raw; I think—"

Xebel waited. Darius shook his head slightly.

"What I suspect, he should hear first. He has that right."

How reassuring. "Very well. He has your sanctuary—for so long as you have him under control."

"Your Majesty, if I fail to contain him, it will be the end of Ba Sing Se; and not all of General Armstrong's arsenal would save us, unless Belgarion himself returned."

__ __ __

 

In fact, Darius had been keeping the boy under. He had a shielded room under the monastery for training new Workers. It had been lately disused, but it was enough to keep the 'verse and all its energies from rushing in on the boy all unprepared. But it couldn't stop him from loosing his own energies, in nightmare or irrational pain.

That had happened once, and it had been all Darius, still exhausted, could do to shut the cycle down again. In the past, he'd had students and apprentices, mostly individuals who had come to learn control of their Working; but the last of those who'd stayed at Mar Terrin had died, oh, eighty years ago. There was currently no one to spell him.

In healing him, Darius had delved deeper into the boy's mind than he'd been willing to say, although Xebel was shrewd enough to guess. He had touched emotions, impressions, more than thoughts. There was the memory of long hurt, and fear; dark, cruel eyes and something like a siren.

Baranduine, Darius thought, picking up on the familiarity of Ba Sing Se's pervasive greenery and rounded structures. He thought there might have been a Worker, or more than one, on board the Ashkevron. There were not many mages in Ravine. Magic of any sort was more common on its fringes, in the Black, which was after all quite near; and the Black had been chaos even before the Alliance started stirring up trouble. Sisko controlled some of it, to an extent; but the only law was still what a man carried with him, and no more.

Wake, child, Darius called softly to the boy's shuttered mind. It was healing, slowly. If he could wake and think rationally, Darius might at last get some answers. And some sleep.

There was a shuddering distrust. It was difficult to tell, in this wreckage; but yes, those were a Worker's fingerprints, dark and lingering. I will not harm you, Darius promised. I've healed you as best I can, but you cannot stay like this, child.

Awareness there, yes, praise be. I'm Darius. Do you know your name?

Vanya, came an echo, strangely garbled, then Vanyel; and that rang truer. But even this was painful; he could tell.

"Vanyel," Darius said aloud, easing his mind back. "Wake up, Vanyel."

The boy Vanyel lay on a futon in the work-room. It was a space he had blocked off from the rest of the monastery's deep cellars, which were devoted mostly to the storage of food and other supplies. A series of barrel vaults supported the weight of the monastery above them, low enough that Darius had to duck beneath their arches. He'd kept the light dim out of consideration for what he expected to be a stunning headache on Vanyel's part.

Darius, kneeling on the bare stone by the meagre bedding, watched him for evidence of stirring. Slowly, Vanyel's eyes blinked open. Even in the poor light it was plain that their colour was not simple grey, but a remarkable silver. Darius felt something oddly like déjà-vu, remembering another pair of eyes opening on him long, long ago; but those had been black and not argent.

Let it go, he told himself. This would be what it would be.

"Nǐ hǎo," Darius said.

Vanyel blinked him into focus.

"Would you like anything to eat? To drink?"

"No..." It was barely audible.

"Lie back, then. You've been unwell these several days."

"Where am I?" The boy's voice was still hoarse.

"This is the monastery of Mar Terrin, on Ba Sing Se."

Vanyel's brow furrowed, but he made no move to sit up. "Ba Sing Se..."

"My name is Darius," Darius introduced himself again.

Vanyel looked at him sharply, twisting his neck to better see Darius' face.

"And you're Vanyel."

"How do you know that?"

"You told me."

__ __ __

 

The surge of panic Vanyel experienced would have sent him bolting for the door, if only he could have stood up. Or seen where the door was.

He wasn't sure, quite, why he was panicking either. His mind was still foggy and oddly numb, as long as he didn't move at all. Not moving seemed to be a pretty good idea, because when he'd moved his head just now it'd felt like it was going to fall off.

Darius was watching Vanyel with a daunting, patient silence. It was—quiet.

"What's wrong with me?" he croaked in a voice like sliding gravel. Swallowing hurt, too.

"What do you remember?"

I don't remember anything, Vanyel didn't say. Darius had called him Vanyel, and that was right; and there was something oddly familiar about Darius. He saw this windowless vault and knew it had to be underground; knew his voice wasn't right, and that he was used to much more comfortable beds than this. It was like his mind was a cramped muscle, used too hard and now unwilling to function properly.

Vanyel closed his eyes. All he could call up was a confused welter of images that made no sense: a woman pressed against him, and a parasol catching fire in his hand. There were other memories, the longer he reached for them: slightly blurred faces, the feel of polished wood under his fingers, a man shouting—

The pain eased as though by the stroke of a gentle hand; with it, the memories subsided. Vanyel suddenly recognised the touch as a presence from his troubled sleep, the one that had soothed away the suddenly-remembered fire inside his head. His eyes flew open. Darius met his gaze, and the touch receded.

"Shénme—?"

"I would wait until you were more fully healed to tell you," Darius said, "except what it comes down to is a matter of your own safety, and the safety of others. You have a gift, Vanyel. Awakened early, or awakened late; and, I fear, awakened violently."

"What are you talking about?" Vanyel wasn't a danger to anyone but himself, he thought bitterly.

"You came to Ba Sing Se on a cruise ship, the Ashkevron, which you may or may not remember. From Baranduine, I think."

Vanyel lay there, dumb, waiting for his patchy memory to contradict any of this. Darius continued.

"There is no easy way to say this. The ship was destroyed by a burst of energy from the planet's surface. I am afraid that it came from you. There was another transfer of energy, from the ship to the ground, first; you may not have even been conscious after that point. And when the backwash from the Ashkevron's explosion travelled back to your unshielded mind, it did you great damage, which I have only partially been able to heal."

"I don't believe you." There was an odd, dull ringing in Vanyel's ears.

"I know it is not easy to accept. But it was not your fault. This was magic acting on its own. It is like any other force of nature, from solar fusion to simple water: not evil in itself, but when left free reign, it can be a source of great harm." Darius' serious blue eyes bore into him like spikes of ice.

"I didn't kill all those people! I don't believe you!"

"Vanyel, listen to me. You must learn control, or it will happen again. You cannot ignore this power; it is far too strong."

"I don't believe you!" Vanyel shouted, half sitting up in the force of his emotions.

The massive foundation stones shivered around them, rattling Vanyel and his futon across the floor. It felt like rolling his brain in a frying pan. Vanyel gasped and clutched the bedding. It had to be a migraine ringing Darius with a double flash of white light.

Still glowing faintly, Darius reached out, one hand hovering just shy of touching Vanyel's forehead. There was a strange sensation like something raw and sticky was being touched, but the fire receded.

"Of course. I'm sure it's as you say," Darius said calmly.

 __ __ __

Vanyel was going out of his mind with boredom, stuck in the basement room. Darius refused to let him outside until he learned how to centre and shield. His head still felt ready to fall off, and the foundations shook every time he got upset as it was.

Darius was a Worker, too, he'd said. A Worker and a Reader, neither of which Vanyel had thought was possible. There was an unsettling sense of his presence in the basement, even when he wasn't there; like part of him had seeped into the chiselled stones themselves. It gave Vanyel the unpleasant impression of being watched, and he often lay on his stomach with his face in the single thin pillow to hide emotions he was too exhausted to conceal.

Reaching for the cool clarity of his dream of space, Vanyel found only indistinct echoes until he was at last permitted, for his co-operation, out into the monastery and its grounds. He'd been disturbed by the willing rightness when Darius had centred him, a place like a pivot Vanyel knew at once he would never lose, but could not locate physically. The shields he built thick around himself, until there was no feeling of Darius even when he was standing right in front of the man, and he could pretend it wasn't possible to reach outside himself and alter the world with his mind alone.

Life at Mar Terrin was simple: Vanyel did what Darius told him, and Darius didn't send him home. Vanyel's memory was still a touch sluggish, but it had come back to him; part of him rather wished it hadn't. And just because neither of them had said anything outright didn't mean Vanyel didn't understand the way things worked.

Right now, Darius wanted Vanyel to meditate. There was lots of meditation. It was almost as boring as the gorram cellar. Vanyel didn't even know what he was supposed to be thinking about; some weird Buddhist crap. Vanyel just sat and let the residue of the dreams returning settle over him, providing Darius with at least the illusion of his peacefulness.

Vanyel was still sleeping in the bowels of the monastery, even after a month of Darius and his disciplines. Vanyel didn't want this power. He had never wanted power or any of the baggage that came with it; his father had never understood that. Nothing was any different here.

The dream came again, almost as soon as Darius gave him free run of the monastery. What a treat. But Vanyel held the dream close as a shield, distancing himself. Darius spoke to him of peace, and Vanyel called to mind the memory of the Black drawing him into itself in turn, the galaxy's light collapsing to a single spark. He turned away from it, and then there was nothing. No pain, no faces, no cries echoing in his mind, full of—

The foundations of Mar Terrin were sunk deep. The structure wasn't quite as dug-in as the architecture on Baranduine, which was often less erection than excavation; but there was a definite similarity in line and organisation that told anyone with eyes that here was a kinship. Baranduine was a daughter-colony of Ba Sing Se, in fact, settled barely a century after the Migration had reached Ravine. They said the Migration ships had come in half-empty, colonists vanished in tongues of light. It gave Vanyel a chill to think about, now.

Vanyel retreated to the cellar room after supper, ducking the patently forced solicitation of the monks. He couldn't believe he was homesick, but he'd never imagined being so completely cut off from everything he'd known before. These rounded, buried vaults were the most home-like thing in the monastery. The monks were quiet, serious, maybe even intelligent; not the boisterous roar that shook the rambling tunnels of Forst Reach, anyway. The attractions of plain bean curd and tofu paled to someone who was used to the four sumptuous meals a day that were the custom on Baranduine. It had been months since he'd drawn music from shaped and gleaming wood.

Reaching out was just asking for more pain, Vanyel had to remind himself as he descended the unpeopled stairways. If he didn't touch these men, they would have no opportunity to disappoint and betray him. He had no real desire to go home: he might miss the life he could have had on Baranduine, but the more parsecs he put between himself and his family, the better he'd sleep nights. As for the music, well, anything he asked for could be used against him here. His goal for the moment, Vanyel thought bitterly, was to escape this trap, not gild the bars.

Vanyel shut off the lights and fell heavily on the thin futon; this room had obviously never been intended to function even as a monk's cell: Darius had put him in here because he was too volatile to be left in any less secure location, just tossed an old futon on the floor and be grateful for that.

The dream took him almost immediately. Darkness surrounded him. The void drained away all his anger and panic and pain, leaving behind only a restful numbness. Here, in the space between galaxies, was a night blacker than pitch. Vanyel could let his eyes drift anywhere, and there would be no flicker of light even from wide-flung galactic sparks.

But that isn't right, something in Vanyel recognised, mostly muffled by that sweeping dark. Even in the Black, there would be the incalculably old glimmers of distant galaxies, the jewel-dust gleam of Ravine itself spread out behind. Unrelieved black was not the colour of space. It was underground, and suddenly Vanyel was aware that what had begun as open space, free from both pressure and gravity, had closed in around him. It was still suckingly cold, spinning him out further and further, like wool roving ready for the spindle. If Vanyel could still have felt his heart beat, it would have been pounding with abrupt terror.

You shouldn't go that way.

It was like a hand reached out and caught him, pulling him up short. There was such a rush of warmth that Vanyel gasped, unable to respond.

What are you going that way for? There isn't anything out there.

Something... Vanyel shivered, or something like it; he didn't seem to have any flesh to shake. Where am I?

Laughter, then. Or at least, Vanyel thought it might be laughter. It—tasted?—like apples.

Sleepwalking, were you? You're—that is, your body is—wherever you were before.

I don't understand! Vanyel felt like he was about to shake apart.

Hush, now. The—other—had not let go of him, and Vanyel clung to that grip. The dark was still there, pulling at him. What's wrong?

The presence shifted until Vanyel was enfolded in an embrace. He hadn't known how cold he'd been, how wounds were growing underneath the numbness. But the question pulled him up short, even as he longed to lose himself in the comfort being offered here.

The Black was all around him, mute and eternal; and somewhere in it was a patch of darkness, cold and leeching and oppressive. But, insensate, it wanted nothing of him. Vanyel stared into it blindly. He could feel his heart ripping in two and chill seeping into the fissures. People, people only hurt.

Go away! Vanyel flung the thought before he was trapped again by his weakness, waiting for the laughter, the attack.

Why? I want to help you. But the presence around him gave when he struggled against it. Although it didn't, Lord and Lady, feel like a lie.

Why? Vanyel screamed in the empty, empty dark. Who are you?

Here, the other said, or, Look. If what he'd been offered before was an embrace, this was a flood, spreading out before Vanyel, but not overwhelming him. The other opened himself completely, and suddenly Vanyel knew him as Tylendel, seventeen, a quick smile and a wicked sense of humour. There was a sister, and a twin; parents, and a low half-city that had to be on a planet somewhere on the Rim.

And more: here was something threaded with fear and pain and sorrow, amid the stunning brightness that made Vanyel want to weep. Part of it reached out to touch Vanyel, and he realised it was where Tylendel's magic lived. Something Vanyel had buried deep resonated with it.

The tears came as though pulled from him. Vanyel tried to hold more and more tightly to his emotions; but the harder he gripped, the more they slipped through his fingers, like sand, until he had collapsed into that offer of welcome.

The walls in his mind buckled, and he was as open as Tylendel now; all the story came pouring out, his flight, his desperate hopes, fears, things he wasn't even sure he remembered, scores of voices incredibly loud and then gone, gone; and it had hurt him, and now he was caught, again, and still so alone—

Not anymore, Tylendel told him fiercely, holding him fast against his own pain and confusion. I won't hurt you, Vanyel. I promise. I promise. I wouldn't ever.

Vanyel let his wounds weep out their poison. Tylendel coaxed him through his anguish, less with words than with a projection of comfort, not demanding any from him, even that he stop. It had been so long since he'd had anything like this; since Lissa left.

Done? Tylendel asked, after the storm had passed and left them floating in a soft peace like eternity.

I think, Vanyel managed, feeling a little self-conscious now he was more fully awake and in possession of his faculties.

Want to talk about it? Tylendel asked, not closing a jot. All Vanyel could read there was concern, sympathy. Could he really want to...?

I never wanted any of it, Vanyel told him at last, too tired to pull in again and hide behind his shields; too afraid of the dark dream. I ran away because I didn't want fùqīn de damn job. I don't want—why should I want to tell other people what to do? But they'd never let me. I didn't want the power to tell a bunch of farmers where to plant their crops, and now he tells me I can blow up a ship! Without even meaning to! I—

Tylendel folded him in closer as he fought even thinking it.

I killed all those people! I can't even—they're all dead, because of me! How can I live with that? How is that even possible? And, more quietly, from an even deeper place, I'll never make it now. This is in me, and it's who I'll have to be forever, and it's just not fair!

He gripped Tylendel tighter, because Tylendel wasn't letting go either. If he'd had a face in whatever sorcerous space they inhabited, he'd have buried it in Tylendel's chest to smother that selfish wail.

My twin, Stephanie. The two of us don't look anything alike either—and Vanyel saw a tall, slender, dark-haired girl who looked more like twenty than seventeen—but we've always been linked. Sort of like this, only with touch, not words. I was a bit of a Dúzhě from pretty young, but Steph isn't at all. And I could make—accidents happen to people I didn't like, sometimes, which I guess was a sort of Working. It always made me sick after, though, so I wouldn't do it on purpose, not even when Steph asked me to.

Vanyel listened to this silently, Tylendel's mounting tension distracting a little from his own misery.

When we were about twelve, Steph was already, um, a lot more mature. She was getting all sorts of attention, and I'd already figured I didn't like girls, so I was powerful curious. So when one of Papa's friends I'd always thought was fine-looking came to visit dropped her a note he'd not mind at all finding her in his bed that night, I made her a deal. I'd cover for her, but only if she'd let me, well, listen in.

A flash of embarrassment here, then an apprehensive pause; and Vanyel started to wonder how bad this was going to go. Darius called it a gift, but everyone else seemed to agree on the opposite.

It was a touch peculiar from the get-go. The further along things got, the stranger I felt. I think maybe—when I tried to just concentrate on the link, when things were starting to get more, um, interesting, I started to, to lose track of what was me and what was Steph.

It got stranger the harder I tried, all fading in and out around me, and me sort of feverish sick like when I made an accident happen. Might be I would've quit anything else; but I was stubborn fixed on this, and Steph would've busted my ass for just diving out. But it didn't get fun again. Just as Steph was about to go over the edge, something in me snapped. All I remember is, it was like I'd suddenly been dropped into a fire or caught in the middle of a lightning storm.

Vanyel, who had been following the narrative patchwork of words and memories, startled at the vividness of that one, so painfully and recently familiar to himself. Did you...? he whispered, horrified.

No, thank the Lord and Lady, Tylendel replied. But I well and demolished my room. After that, I'd fall down in a fit, wake up in a circle of wreckage. It started at fifteen metres, but it kept getting worse. I had to stay way back in the uncleared hills on our land, and even then they had to post warnings not to fly over the area. Which was maybe a good thing for me, too, because I couldn't help Reading anyone for kilometres and kilometres. Steph was the only one who would—could—get near me. The only one I could stand.

Our other sister, Gaila, she said she was going into the Black to find someone could help me, since I obviously couldn't risk taking a ship. Folks all thought I was cursed, or maybe possessed. But Steph stayed with me, even in exile. She took care of me; never doubted I wouldn't hurt her; never let me give up hope that this was something could be controlled, that Gaila would come back with help.

Vanyel wanted to ask, but held still. There was starting to be a sick, embarrassed knot where his stomach would have been. Tylendel brushed a soothing touch across his consternation.

It took her almost two years, but she did it, Tylendel reassured him. Found someone willing to come and teach me. I can't tell you what that was like, looking into Grey shīfu de eyes and feeling the shields come up around me. Knowing I wasn't mad, or possessed, or any of it.

Vanyel hardly knew how to feel: vindicated or indignant or ashamed. Sensing his confliction, Tylendel fell silent, just holding him close. How could Vanyel be angry with him when he could feel his honesty, and each beat of his heart? More clearly than his own, at that; Vanyel wobbled, and clung to Tylendel for stability. Don't let go!

We can't stay all the way out here all night, Tylendel told him. Where are you reaching from?

Ba Sing Se, I guess, Vanyel replied, distracted by the wavering connexion.

Ba Sing Se? We're halfway to Empok Nor! Here; follow me.

Tylendel pulled him back in towards a stripe of stars, like a gash in a black velvet bag full of diamonds. Vanyel realised abruptly that where they were had a reference in physical space. They were moving quickly, although Tylendel seemed as reluctant to risk breaking their link as he was.

That's quite a reach you have. They were still in the Black, somewhere in the cradle of the south galactic arms, but much closer to the stars themselves. You don't have any training?

Until a month ago, my only gift was for— Vanyel cut himself off. Tiān a, it hurt.

Tell me. I want to know.

All I wanted was the music. Just the music. Vanyel let it wash over him and through the link: the sweep of sound like the galaxy around them, like his soul breathing and his heart breaking. Being smothered and cornered and trapped.

And your parents wanted you to get a paying job? Tylendel asked sympathetically.

Music is a paying job on Baranduine. It's the language of our laws. Fùqīn wanted me to go into politics. He was going to send me to a preparatory academy. I ran away. Vanyel remembered cousin Joserlin's bland stare, silently watching him disappear into the crowd on the Homely Station while the retainer-cum-pilot was distracted.

Do you mean to go back? Once you're eighteen, I mean.

Tylendel, I won't be of age on Baranduine until I'm thirty-three.

That's preposterous!

It's the law. Well, mostly it's a formality nowadays; but I know fùqīn wouldn't agree to anything but what suits him. And by that point, I might as well run away. I was going to run away from here, too, just as soon as I could figure how, Vanyel admitted, feeling more than a little silly. Although—would your master train me?

I'm sorry, Van; she was called back to her clan earlier this year, when Sisko's rebellion started being a real threat to the Sri'vastra Empire, Tylendel told him. You have got some sort of teacher, though, haven't you? I don't think I'm really qualified; but, well, if you need it—

Vanyel had a sudden image of Tylendel swooping in across the parsecs that separated them and spiriting him away, and he had to laugh. He calls himself Darius; I really don't know that much about him. I'm all locked up in this monastery here, for my own good. Which—I guess— Vanyel groped for a way to express his misgivings. He had been more than a little contrary in his denial, but—

He's still treating you like a child, someone to be managed, Tylendel supplied. My parents are like that, sometimes. They don't realise that the moment I got this power, I stopped really being a child. If I can shatter a tree, or a rock, I can kill a man. He paused. That's why I haven't been after them as much as I might to let Steph join up too. Not that we can't use every body we can get. She's—I want her with me, but—

Vanyel sensed his fear and conflict and protectiveness of someone who had always protected him. Wait a minute. Join up? Where are you? In danger, apparently.

Hera. The Alliance hasn't focussed a lot of attention on us, yet; we're too far out. But we're too strategically important for them to ignore us forever, sitting across so many hyperspace routes.

They talked for hours. Tylendel was right: it was much easier to hold the connexion when they weren't both reaching far out into the Black, and Vanyel felt his sending getting surer with the practice. Although he felt fatigue creeping up on him, he was still reluctant to part with the firm anchor Tylendel provided him. The dark dream was never far from his mind, hovering like a ghost.

Once your mental discipline improves, your dreams shouldn't be able to take you out of your body, at least, Tylendel offered when Vanyel confessed his fears. There's no way I know of stopping nightmares, though.

Vanyel accepted his sympathetic mind-touch and sighed.

Like I said, try talking to Darius about it. I think once you understand each other, things will go much better.

It was nearly dawn when they parted, with many promises to make contact again. Vanyel was exhausted, but he rolled out of bed—futon—onto the cold floor anyway and prepared to face the day.

__ __ __

 

Darius was still not sanguine about this interview, although the Vanyel who had greeted him three mornings ago had been almost a different person than the distant, defensive ball of adolescent contrariness he'd been dealing with this past month. Vanyel's expression had been almost soft and remarkably open as he'd offered an apology for his behaviour. It had tested the bounds of Darius' self-control to keep his expression even so as not to offend all that prickly pride.

"Not to look a gift horse in the mouth," Darius had said, "but I take it that I have whomever it was you spoke with last night to thank for your sudden change of heart."

Vanyel's great silver eyes widened in shock, and Darius again had to swallow a laugh. Oh, child. You are not nearly so hardened as you pretend.

"You could hear us?"

"I could tell you were reaching; you reached straight through these shields, in fact. But even if I had such poor manners as to eavesdrop on your conversation, I would have barely heard your side of it; whoever you were speaking with was much too far away."

"Oh. Um."

It seemed he wasn't quite finished. Darius waited, folding his hands in the sleeves of his habit. The style was different, and lighter to suit Ba Sing Se's warmer climes, but some things did not change so very much from year to year, religion to religion.

"He said—I might try trusting you," Vanyel said hesitantly.

"Was his name Duncan?" Darius asked. Duncan should not have been able to reach so far, either; but it had been a long, long time, and who knew what Vanyel's range was?

"N-no—" Vanyel looked puzzled.

Darius sighed and settled on the floor next to the futon, closer to Vanyel's eye-level. "Duncan was a pupil of mine, some years ago. When he felt he had learned all he could from me, he went his own way. I am afraid we argued before he left; I haven't heard from him since."

"He was your friend," Vanyel said, displaying surprising insight. "Was he...?"

"He came to me with a power he could not control. He could not touch another's flesh without also touching his mind," Darius said simply. Duncan had been so fiercely earnest. The distress he felt at being isolated from those he would touch in friendship had been obvious from the first.

"Why were you so sure you couldn't trust me?" he asked, breaking the silence that had followed. That was pushing things, maybe; but he wanted to test the boundaries of this new openness.

Vanyel hesitated, eyes flicking up to Darius, then down to the age-smooth stones of the floor. Whoever had brought him up had inculcated in him proper conduct and behaviour, however he might at times flaunt them. His posture was straight, and he knelt in front of the futon in an unconsciously formal attitude, not fidgeting except with his hands.

"My f—People have been trying to control me for as long as I can remember. So I ran away, and then—"

Then this happened. That confirmed a number of Darius' suspicions. The bearing, the attitude, the pattern of his flinches. It all spoke of a privileged upbringing, not that that was a new story. But it might cause problems for all of them, if Vanyel's family found him before he had learned what he needed to.

"What you do with your life after I have taught you enough to be safe outside these walls is your choice, young Vanyel. I will not hold you here." To try would be plain foolishness. "I am myself more a monk than a Reader."

Darius would have been happier about the situation if he could have spoken with Vanyel's new friend himself, but on the whole, he saw the softening of Vanyel's walled-off expression and was encouraged.

The walls were back up now. Vanyel stepped forward with graceful but guarded propriety and bowed to the Empress of Ba Sing Se.

"The Ashkevron boy, your Majesty," General Armstrong told Xebel.

Darius felt, but did not see, Vanyel flinch at that. It would not surprise him if they meant to push the boy, and General Armstrong was not always long on tact.

"What is your name?" Xebel asked from her living throne.

"I think Ashkevron will do for now," Vanyel replied evenly. Xebel's expression did not change, but she gave Darius a speaking look.

He sensed Vanyel clamping down again, shields well and up. Now, but Darius didn't wonder that he'd been picking up everything floating loose in the room, or the palace, up to this point. It was a temptation difficult to resist, but one that long experience had taught Darius was singularly unrewarding.

"Do you know why you're here?" Xebel asked bluntly.

"Your Majesty, I was given to understand this audience is an opportunity for me to demonstrate control of my abilities and apologise for the disruptions I unwittingly caused in your domain."

"You're here because of Darius. It's a simple matter to find where you came from on the Cortex and send you back there. I'm not going to do that. Out of Darius' control, you are out of control. I will not permit anyone to remove you."

Vanyel was completely unreadable now, the expression on his face as absolute a barrier as his shields. He'd learned that before Darius ever met him.

"And what if I chose to remove myself, Your Majesty?"

"That decision belongs to Darius. I've known him through threescore years of my reign. So my mother before me, and her father before her, all the way back to the Empress X'Nedra. He has earned from Us whatever he asks."

Xebel's stare bore into Vanyel with enough directness and force she might actually penetrate. Darius could have wished that most of that had gone unsaid; Vanyel was skittish enough. But if he'd been listening with more than just his fears, he'd realise Xebel had just left the determination to Darius.

Xebel had sent an aircar for them, and it took them back to the humble walls of Mar Terrin. Vanyel was silent all the way, and Darius did not disturb him.

"Lái," Darius said, once they were on the grounds, and took Vanyel to a small courtyard paved with large, weathered flags.

He led Vanyel in a series of moving meditations, to clear his mind and provide an outlet for his likely unsettled emotions. Vanyel was still dressed in the monastery's red, there being nothing else for him to wear, but it hardly made him look like a young monk.

"You were trained with the sword," Darius said during a break in the motions. It was something he had observed before, but hesitated to comment on.

"Yes," Vanyel replied, looking surprised.

"It shows in the way you hold your shoulders. The martial arts are good discipline for a Worker: becoming familiar with the flow of energy through your own body helps you control it, and understand by extension the flow of energy through the universe."

The look on Vanyel's face was at once wary and curious at even this vague hint of new training. Here was one both quick and quick to bore, Darius saw after having his full attention for even so few days. If he co-operated, Darius could probably make him into a full healer. In any case, Vanyel was certainly going to keep him on his toes.

__ __ __

 

"Excuse me, Darius, but one of the Alleyne girls is here to fix the problem we've been having with the south power grid," one of the monks cautiously interrupted Darius and Vanyel's training some days later.

"Ah. I'll be right there."

The monk nodded respectfully and left the small courtyard. Darius turned back to Vanyel.

"You can come with me, if you wish. You haven't had many chances to speak with people your own age."

Vanyel shrugged, but followed him. He and Tylendel had talked into the small hours the night before; couldn't reach so far again so soon. Darius was right that Vanyel was isolated; a few of the younger monks were Lissa's age, but Vanyel had not approached them or any of the others.

What Darius didn't realise was that Vanyel had never had many friends. His enormous brood of siblings and cousins had more than justified a full set of tutors on the country estate. Vanyel was a little uncomfortable around the monks anyway, aware all too well of how much they knew about everything from his early days of leaky shields.

Vanyel followed Darius inside and down to a utility junction, tucked into what was more like a closet than a room, mostly he surmised to keep the technology from marring the aesthetic integrity of the hall rather than for convenience. He blinked surprise. The woman perched on a stool and digging through the guts of a switch panel was dressed in the green and brown of Ba Sing Se's military.

"Xiǎo Fan," Darius greeted her warmly.

"Darius bófù. It's good to see you."

Darius enfolded her in an embrace she returned warmly, then held her at arm's length. "The family's still putting you to work, I see."

"You know father, idle hands are the devil's playthings. He and Xoria are out fixing a J69 generator, what a wreck, in one of the old mansions, so I said I'd take this one."

"Have you heard from Zoe?"

The woman's lively eyes grew serious. "Not for a few weeks. Alliance has communications pretty well jammed in that sector."

Darius clasped her hands wordlessly in his. She squeezed back, then turned towards Vanyel to change the mood.

"Who's this?"

"Vanyel," Vanyel said, without thinking, then remembered to at least add, "Ashkevron."

"Of course, forgive me," Darius apologised. "Vanyel, this is Yfandes Alleyne. She used to be a sweet child, but I'm afraid military life has ruined her."

"You know Zoe was always the good girl," Yfandes objected.

"Oh, as I recall all of you were quite full of mischief. How does it look?"

"Old as sin, which isn't surprising. Why don't you just have the whole place rewired? Take the monks on a retreat to Prolgu and come back to lights that work."

"I'll take it under advisement," Darius said seriously. "Can you fix it?"

"Dāngránle."

Darius darted a sideways glance at Vanyel, which instantly made his hackles rise. "Could you use an extra pair of hands?"

Yfandes raised an eyebrow. "Always. You up to it, Vanyel? The wiring in this beast is pretty ugly."

"Hǎo," Vanyel agreed cautiously.

Darius smiled approvingly and ducked out of the room. Vanyel watched him go a little uneasily.

Yfandes sat down and dug back into the guts of the panel. She was attractive, as far as women went. Her skin was only a few shades lighter than the brown of her uniform. Vanyel didn't know enough to tell from the insignia whether she was a private or a colonel. She had graceful dark eyes with just a hint of an epicanthic fold. Her hair was braided back from her forehead, but spilled in dark curls down to her shoulders. Vanyel had had to look up a few centimetres into her eyes.

"You know who I am, don't you?" Vanyel asked warily, resignation leaking into his voice.

"You're Darius' new protégé." Yfandes shrugged, glancing up from the wires she was reconnecting. "He had one when I was little."

That surprised him; Vanyel had figured Darius for only ten or fifteen years older than Yfandes, who was obviously still in her tweens. He could be fifty, maybe.

"Hand me those, will you?" Yfandes broke his reverie.

Awkwardly, Vanyel picked up the indicated pair of pliers and laid them in her outstretched hand.

"Shiny," she told the console. "Want to hang sometime?"

Vanyel stiffened. "I'm not interested in—"

Yfandes' laughter interrupted his bristling. "Please, you're twelve. No, I meant, Mar Terrin's nice enough, but as long as you're living here, you might want to see more of the City. You're not really a monk, after all. I could show you around."

"And report back on my behaviour?"

"I'll have to get permission to take you out, of course. And I'm sure I'd have to write a report if you started blowing holes in blocks of buildings, but they'd probably notice that anyway."

Yfandes seemed unnervingly untroubled by the idea of his powers. "I smell a strong hint of collusion."

"Darius is an old friend of the family; I've know him since I was a baby. He doesn't want you to feel like you're imprisoned here. Sides, it's criminal to visit Ba Sing Se and never get past this lump of rock," Yfandes told him feelingly. "I've got a few days' leave from my battalion. How about I swing by tomorrow and show you around?"

 

Vanyel was hesitant, but Darius thought it was a wonderful idea. He'd spent a few hours with Yfandes, helping her patch up the monastery's power grid. Vanyel didn't know much about circuitry, but he'd absorbed Yfandes' freely offered explanations in silence, reflecting that here was a skill might buy him an instrument and another chance, if he could make it that far.

Yfandes talked easily, keeping her hands and eyes busy, but not flinching from him in any way. Vanyel resisted the urge to probe her mind to test her sincerity. Darius would certainly not approve; and anyway, he was learning to control these—powers with a view to keeping them leashed, not use them, an insistence that might have bothered another pupil, but not Vanyel. Vanyel would be overjoyed to stop using magic of any sort and go back to living like a normal person. Except for talking to Tylendel, of course. But maybe, someday, he could talk to Tylendel in person.

Vanyel wondered what Tylendel was doing now. Sleeping, probably; it was a few hours earlier where he was on Hera than it was at Mar Terrin. Vanyel wished he dared tap the solar node, or even the sleepier one at the planet's core, to reach Tylendel without exhausting himself.

It was a few hours past dawn, and Vanyel was sitting near the monastery's main entrance, pretending to meditate. He'd meditated with Darius before breakfast, but everyone here seemed to spend all their free time meditating, so they'd believe it, and it was better than sitting around awkwardly.

He'd been watching Darius ever since Yfandes left. Gorrammit, the man just didn't move like fifty. But what did he know? Maybe the people on Ba Sing Se were even longer-lived than the ones on Baranduine.

Vanyel figured Yfandes was prompt, but since he didn't have a chrono anymore, how could he tell? He was nearest the gate when she banged on the gong, anyway, not too long after they all finished the usual spartan breakfast and dispersed to their various activities.

"Bright the day," Yfandes said cryptically.

Vanyel blinked at her through the half-open gate.

"You say 'wind to your wings'. It's a greeting," she explained.

"I never heard it before." Vanyel remembered to open the gate the rest of the way.

Yfandes jerked her head at the exotic expanse that was Outside the Monastery. "It's a Hēiér de expression."

"You mean the dewies?" Vanyel asked. He'd known, academically, that Ba Sing Se was right on the edge of the Black, but the actuality of empty intergalactic space and the people who lived there was something else.

"We don't really use that term," Yfandes said a little sharply.

"Duìbuqǐ."

Vanyel had been surprised to see the Elevated Train station the last time he'd been let out of the monastery, for that excruciating interview at the palace. They were the only ones in their section of the short train, and Vanyel was conscious of the fact that he was about to face crowds of folk again for the first time. Nervously, he built his shields more thickly around him.

The tracks rose, or really they stayed level as the hill that Mar Terrin was built into fell away, and Vanyel saw the half-forested sprawl that was the heart of the Impenetrable City. Trains rode on pale stone causeways, their arches mathematically round and graceful, to the edge of sight. Yfandes was telling him that the pedestrian walkways were on ground-level, and that most traffic used either them or the planet-wide grid of public transportation.

"Practically no one uses groundcars, except on the big private estates, or even aircars. Mostly it's just emergency vehicles. Ba Sing Se is one of the best-planned cities in the 'verse," Yfandes said with considerable pride.

It was certainly one of the strangest ecumenopoli in the 'verse. While the whole surface of Ba Sing Se was technically part of the Impenetrable City, it had never been built up and paved over like the great cities of Sihnon and Londinium, with streets like canyons and people crowded so thick they'd almost suffocated themselves.

Ba Sing Se had no need of air-scrubbers or bioengineered oxygen-producing plants vining from every window and rooftop. Ancient trees lined the broad avenues they passed over and clustered in grassy parks. Far, far overhead, the sunlight was filtered through the broad, diaphanous leaves of Birnam Wood high in orbit. Vanyel searched his memory, and was disappointed to find that he couldn't remember seeing the celestial trees from space. But most of his memories of the Ashkevron were distant and disturbingly incomplete.

"Are they really alive? The trees, I mean," Vanyel asked.

"Sure are. There's a whole ecosystem up there. Few months' time, Dromedaries'll come in from the Black to breed. Makes navigation a nightmare once the little critters are born, have to keep dodging 'em all over the place. And of course you have the Hēiér all keeping a close eye on their own herds, and one another's."

"Wait, space beasts?"

"Could say that. Come on, this is our stop."

They had transferred a few times already. Yfandes fronted the negligible charge, but it made Vanyel aware once more of his destitution. He'd thought he'd escaped this continual dependency; no matter what Darius said, he knew control when he saw it.

Yfandes led Vanyel down the worn stone steps to a shady but bustling footpath and turned left along it. He was glad to note he could keep up with Yfandes' legs, longer by virtue of her greater height. Maybe all of that yoga was doing more good than he'd thought.

"The Hēiér call them Dromedaries," Yfandes explained, picking up where she'd left off. "They ride them like settlers on the Rim do horses, except through space and hyperspace. Not deep, just skimming like."

"In the Black? Without mass points?" Without oxygen?

Yfandes shrugged. "Don't know much about the science of it. Great swarming herds of Dromedaries ain't hardly a secret."

Vanyel shook his head. The Ravine galaxy had two main spiral arms. The southern one split partway down, leaving fissures in the Rim, protrusions of the Black. Hera where Tylendel was was so strategically important because it sat on the narrowing between those fissures, the furthest distance a ship could cross in one hyperspace jump in either direction. And so a choke-point for all the Rim worlds beyond it.

"B—my world knows more about Ba Sing Se than the rest of the 'verse, I think. But for someplace so famous, you folk sure keep to yourselves."

"It's because we're closer to the Black than the Core, I suppose. My family's moved back and forth between the Black and Ba Sing Se a half a dozen times in the last five centuries."

Vanyel was impressed despite himself. He looked around curiously. The streets were not quite as wide here as they had been near the palace, but the overhead tangle of public transportation was thicker, often shading the passers-by below.

Yfandes fed him second breakfast, showed him a nearby commercial district and parks and public gardens and told him the stories behind all the statues. It was the first decent meal he'd had on this rock; he tried not to wolf it down too appallingly. Glad to see the unseasoned bean curd isn't a cultural delicacy.

The city spread out around him, seeming almost more vast than the reaches of space. Vanyel's shields were holding, but the sense of life all around him, after weeks sunk in the slow quiet of Mar Terrin, was like waking from a dream. The family estate had always been remote but busier than a kicked anthill. This wasn't Forst Reach, and Yfandes wasn't Lissa. But she spoke to him like he was a person, despite being, he discovered, almost ten years his senior. Vanyel wondered if the mysterious and absent sister Zoe had anything to do with that. He wondered what Lissa was doing now.

They came to a square with a fountain in the middle. The fountain was surprisingly not a tree (Vanyel was by now no little surprised that Darius' monastery was dedicated to the Buddha and not the forest), but of a rather plain, sober-faced young man astride a fantastic creature with wings half like a ray's and half like a bat's, cast in dark bronze. An unfelt wind whipped his robes around an ornate saddle, and the creature's heavy, ungulate head had been captured as it tossed itself back, fighting the bridle and tasselled reins.

"Belgarion," Yfandes said, stopping several metres back.

The statue hovered a few centimetres above the water, set to roiling as though in a storm; a smaller AG unit held a small sphere suspended just above Belgarion's upraised palm. The other hand was wrapped in the reins, crushing the ornamental tassels in a detail strangely real. There was something about the expression on Belgarion's face, an almost sorrowful resolve, that caught at Vanyel's heart.

"He seems to be an important fellow here."

"Belgarion was Empress X'Nedra's consort. Some say he was ruler of all the Black; others, that he was just another chieftain. He was the most powerful Worker in history. The legends say X'Nedra had a favoured tree in Birnam Wood. She'd go up there and wait for him to appear out of the empty, and they'd make love in the branches.

"They say X'Nedra had a hundred daughters, like flowers in the Wood. One day, after a hundred years, she left her crown to the eldest and disappeared, sailing off into the Black with Belgarion on the celestial tree. The Sevens say they spent the next forty years living in the Black, but after that, no one knows where they headed. Maybe back to Earth-That-Was. Maybe on to the next galaxy."

A musician busking began setting up across the square from them. Vanyel deliberately turned his attention back to Yfandes, who rocked back on her heels, hands in her pockets.

"There's a massive statue of the two of them up near the palace, but I figured this would be busy enough for you."

"Yeah," Vanyel agreed absently.

He let Yfandes lead him around the fountain, then eventually towards another street. He wasn't really thinking as such, but his not-thoughts were strained enough. They passed the musician, a ratty old flautist, who was beginning to draw a crowd.

"He's sharp," Vanyel sniffed.

"Sounds hái bùcuò de to me."

"For a thrupenny hack. I've eaten mellower cheese. And will you look at those sloppy fingerings? It's a wonder he's not screeching like an owlcat."

"And I suppose you could do better."

"I could do better when I was six." Vanyel winced at a mangled bridge and kept walking as fast as he could away from the noise.

"Are you a musician, then?"

Vanyel didn't answer immediately. "I was going to be," he said at last, and didn't say anything else for a long space.

"What do you know about Darius?" Vanyel asked as the day dimmed towards evening and a train carried them once again towards Mar Terrin on its hill. "I mean, he's not exactly the sort to talk about himself."

"He's a púsà," Yfandes said in tones of great respect. "He's been at Mar Terrin since before the reign of X'Nedra."

"Bù kěnéng de."

"Says the guy who reads minds and does magic."

Well, that was a point. "So he's been here for a long time. Has he just been a monk forever? Where did he come from?" Where did he learn everything? Vanyel wasn't certain that perfectly enlightened was really the way to describe his mentor, but Darius did project an air of wisdom and imperturbability and tolerant amusement that could get really old really fast.

"I don't think anyone knows, except maybe Empress Xebel. He would tell us stories sometimes, if our parents brought us to the monastery. He hasn't changed at all."

"That's impossible," Vanyel objected again.

Mar Terrin coalesced into a maze of marble mounds, little stars of light winking out from it here and there. Vanyel stared at it broodingly as they drew closer. Yfandes shrugged in a way he could already tell meant she had made the decision not to argue.

"I see what I see."

Vanyel was troubled when he reached the gates. The hush of Mar Terrin closed in around him, like he'd stepped through to a different world. It was Darius' shields, Vanyel realised with a shock. No matter how thick he built the walls around his mind, he could still feel the loose welter of humanity cannoning off them. Indeed, the slow, quiet presences of the monks still brushed his mental barriers. A tension he had forgot he was carrying dropped away, which troubled him even more.

"Here," Yfandes said, just before the hard reed gate swung open. She pressed something into his unresisting hand.

"Shénme?" Vanyel's brows drew down.

"It's not a proper hand-held," Yfandes explained. "Just a comm-only unit I put together. I'm on duty in the daytime, of course, but it'll talk to my hand-held."

Vanyel didn't know what to say. "You're very generous," his somewhat neglected manners supplied for him.

"That depends on when you call," Yfandes warned, and Vanyel ducked his head.

 

'Lendel? Vanyel reached, setting Yfandes' perplexing gift on his cell's singular small table and settling on the bare futon.

Oh, hey Van. Tylendel's voice wasn't as bright as it tried to be.

You're tired; I can let you get some rest— Vanyel made to withdraw.

Just a long day, Tylendel made haste to assure him. I'm out with a squadron picking off the purple-bellies' courier ships.

Oh.

You don't approve. It wasn't a question.

I just—war isn't a ballad or a vid drama. People die ugly, and I don't want it to be you. I couldn't stand that, not after everything, Vanyel explained as rationally as he could.

And I can stop a lot of death, a lot of injustice, if I can keep the fighting off the ground. I can keep the Alliance off of Hera. They attacked us, Van, not the other way around.

I know. I never thought I'd be closer to this sort of thing than a duel, not that I'd planned on having many of those. Vanyel didn't have to say he was scared; Tylendel knew. It's just—Darius says this isn't the right way to do things.

I'm glad you've got things straight with him, but are you sure Darius knows what he's talking about on this one?

There has to be another way.

It's my home, Van. We didn't sign up to be dictated to. Lord and Lady, look at how they destroyed Shadow!

They destroyed Shadow because they fought back.

And they'll destroy Hera even if we don't.

Tylendel shot it out with such conviction, for a moment it was impossible not to see what he saw. Vanyel flinched back from the twisted knot of righteous anger and indignation, unnameable emotions rooted so deeply in who Tylendel was that Vanyel couldn't even separate them. A fierce love and loyalty to a place that had never really understood him, but which was home nonetheless. Fear of seeing all that made it home stripped away.

What if it was your home that was about to be lobotomised? Tylendel asked, backing down a little. What if it was Lissa's life in danger?

Lissa signed up for it, Vanyel replied, wavering a little.

That's not the point, and you know it.

I don't want her to die either! Vanyel wailed. But violence doesn't make the 'verse safer.

Tell that to the Alliance. That's what they're fixing to do, right? Make the 'verse safer?

Vanyel didn't have anything to say to that. He was so confused, and the harsh certainty Tylendel was projecting made his stomach clench. This was why he'd never wanted to follow Withen into politics; he was no good at making these kinds of decisions, of seeing how to fix things.

The link between them hung, buzzing with tension, neither of them able to find words. Or maybe Tylendel just didn't have any for him.

Vanyel let the connexion slip from him. He lay awake all the night, but Tylendel didn't reach back.

__ __ __

 

Darius was surprised to find Vanyel awake that night as he took one last walk around the grounds. I forget how easily two sensitives sound off one another. Darius had been on the receiving end of any number of intensely scrutinising gazes the past few days, since Yfandes had given Vanyel her tour. He would have been more encouraged had all this attention been accompanied by a corresponding rise in the quality of Vanyel's performance.

Yfandes had returned a very subdued young man to Mar Terrin. Darius had been gratified to see the sincerity of his pupil's thanks to Yfandes, the depth of the bow and the small smile which briefly crossed that stunning face. Bowing in turn, Yfandes had appeared not to have been alienated by the whiplash of Vanyel's insecurities.

Vanyel made no effort to linger by the gate where Darius came to speak with Xiǎo Fan. Instead, he disappeared in the direction of the cell he'd been assigned in lieu of permanently occupying Darius' only slightly more spartan work room. Darius had been tempted to leave him there, as densely shielded as possible, but the gesture of faith was more effective in stabilising the boy than trying to constrain him outright would have been, in the long run.

"I see the city is still standing." A case in point.

Yfandes smiled back at him wryly. "Poor Van's a little Black-sick, is all."

"Van, is it?"

"Maybe."

The look in Yfandes' eyes as she stared across the front courtyard, unseeing, was one Darius would never become resigned to. They grew up so fast.

Black-sick, Darius had reflected in his evening meditations, was an apt way to put it. The sickness that came over visitors to the Rim or the Black had less to do with the vertiginous expanse of starless space than the odd liveness of magic along this edge of the galaxy.

There were always spots where reality was thinner and it was easier to reach through to the power behind it, for the power to seep through and effect things anyone could observe. It was as mysterious as the currents in hyperspace, which spun ships towards one system but away from its neighbour.

It was this ambient low-grade magic that set a fever in the unacclimated. Vanyel, who had as much magic in his body as Darius had ever seen in a human being, would never have been effected, even had he never become a Worker.

He was unacclimated in a broader sense, however. He had grown up in a culture where space-travel was commonplace, but magic was unheard-of. Darius shook his head in bemusement. Vanyel was only now realising the extent of what he had fallen into.

When Darius saw Vanyel sitting on a bench carved into the stone of one of the walls encircling the rock garden, he thought he knew what was bothering the boy. Darius nodded silent greetings and sank down next to him. Silence worked sometimes with Vanyel, showing himself ready to listen and not simply to assume, dictate, and criticise.

"She told me that the Hēiér think you're a púsà," Vanyel blurted unexpectedly, interrupting his own apparently intense scrutiny of a patch of sand in need of re-combing. "That you've been in Ba Sing Se for hundreds of years."

Darius laughed and leaned on the wall at his back. Was that what all this was about? "Púsà I am not. Most of them could never understand why I haven't—"

Darius stopped, observing Vanyel's unenlightened look, and thinking about what Yfandes had said. He had no idea what they remembered, on Baranduine. "Perhaps it would help you understand to hear the story at that." He took a deep breath and looked up at the tree-latticed stars. "I was born...well, it would be over thirty-five hundred years ago now, on Earth-That-Was. There was no space travel then; most people lived as settlers do on the Rim: farming with livestock instead of motors, and making everything by hand."

If he closed his eyes, he could still see dimly the little village, tucked up against mountains no one except himself remembered. He'd had a sister and a mother and a father, who had taught him the way of the warrior. Darius blinked up at Birnam Wood rooted in the outermost atmosphere and thought that if you lived long enough, you really did see everything.

"I came to my powers late; over forty. Although it was only later that I realised I had stopped aging maybe ten years before that."

"You can't be serious," Vanyel objected.

"The power is in each of us differently. I have seen many ways of touching it over the years, and it does not always reach back the way you think. Magic is a strange thing, like the roots of a tree: variable in form, and with its own purpose."

"Am I going to be like that?"

"I don't know," Darius replied truthfully. "There was a time when those who did not die in the normal span were almost common. They were—well, they weren't Workers the way you'd understand it. They passed on long ago."

Vanyel looked across the painstakingly combed sand, brooding. "How did you find out?"

"In battle."

Vanyel looked startled.

"I was a warrior for almost four hundred years. In this instance, another tribe was attacking us; the names wouldn't mean anything to anyone now. All I remember is something falling towards me—I think a tree, or maybe a boulder—and trying push it away. I was amazed when it worked." Darius gestured. He had to blink past an unexpected surge of adrenaline.

"Didn't people, like, freak out?"

"Well, there was a lot going on. I did some freaking out. It soon became apparent that I would find no answers in my village. I went to seek a wise or holy man who could explain what was happening."

"And you found one, and you've been a monk ever since?"

"I have only been a monk for...well, I suppose it has been some hundreds of years now. But in the past I have been an acolyte of other religions. I'm not really a very good Buddhist; I appreciate the world too much. But I have friends here, and Ba Sing Se is a still a wonder to a simple boy from the steppe." Darius pulled himself back from theology to history. "To answer your question, no, Vanyel. For a long time after, I was a general. I thought to take my army across the continent, to the sea." And he'd stopped, and now he'd crossed the stars.

"There was a holy man. He stood before the walls of his city and let me cut him down. Understand, I knew only that I was a mage—you would say Worker. A telepath is oddly vulnerable to the moment of death, especially when his mind is untrained. He was old, and powerful; when I killed him, he did not resist. Instead, he gave to me his understanding of life, of the world and humanity and many things. When I regained myself, I was on my knees and there were tears streaming down my face."

Vanyel was listening raptly now, eyes fixed on Darius, his own troubles and contentions momentarily forgotten. Darius stared back into his past, seeing not stars but yellow lights spread across the earth. He wondered, sometimes, how much of him was the man who'd crossed the mountains at the head of an army, and how much the ancient mind that had watched for so long the play of human life that he saw no difference between the slow erosion of those peaks and the furious flicker of a man's life.

"I scattered my own armies. Since then I have seen no reason for war. I try to find peace, or make it, where I can."

Despite Vanyel's shields—no, they were wavering in his distraction; Darius would have to address that tomorrow—Darius felt a peculiar resonance from him. That was hopeful. The more he considered it, though, the more he recognised in Vanyel a desire for peace—his own peace, surely, but there was no violence in his soul.

"Is this what's been bothering you?" Darius broke a long silence. "I'd thought you might have had a disagreement with your friend."

"That's none of your business," Vanyel snapped, obviously startled.

"I won't pry into your personal affairs. But try to remember that just because you're friends doesn't mean you have to agree about everything."

Darius stood, leaving Vanyel's dignity its privacy. The close connexion with this Tylendel worried Darius a little; Vanyel obviously hung on his approval, and Darius had only Vanyel's reports on his character. The boy was still so isolated, though: himself too old, Yfandes too busy, Tylendel too far.

The sad truth was that not all friendships lasted. For someone so closed off, it was more important that he learned to reach out. Darius wished he could caution this Tylendel to be careful with his fragile trust.

Vanyel sat out late into the night. Despite all his misgivings, it was a relief the next evening when Darius felt the boy reach out through his set shields. The reconciliation continued long after Darius slipped into sleep.

__ __ __

 

Vanyel retired to his cell early one evening a few weeks later, reaching almost automatically for Tylendel when he got there. He still didn't much like being in the open when he was...elsewhere, although the monastery grounds were pleasant and well-kept, and you couldn't throw a stick without hitting a bald guy with his legs knotted together and his eyes closed.

Well, Darius wanted him to practice using node energy, now that he was finally allowed to touch the small ones. Vanyel had to admit, it made things easier. He had realised later that a big part of his quiet docility after meeting Tylendel had been plain exhaustion. Emotional, sure, but physical, too, if you wanted to call it that. Vanyel had barely been able to shield himself for two days, after.

Darius had told him never to draw too heavily from the large core of power in the heart of a star or a planet; not because anything he could pull would significantly disrupt such a body, but because after a certain point, the energy started flowing on its own. Like the breach of a dam, Darius had said. It does not happen often because those with the strength are rare; but it is not unheard of for a Worker to incinerate himself completely.

Honestly, the more Vanyel learned about his collapse and the destruction of the Askevron, and three months later he still wasn't sure he knew it all, the more appalled he became. He could feel the power in him, sometimes, like it wanted to break loose, or the call of Ba Sing Se's secret heart when he walked Mar Terrin's underground halls. But he also felt something when he used it. What exactly he felt was difficult to describe. It wasn't what he felt when he played, the sense, unshaking and absolute, of this is what I was made for; but he thought it might be rooted in the same place. It felt more like the exercises Darius led him through, teaching the body balance and discipline that could be used on that which could not be physically touched. Something natural; something true. I never asked for this, Vanyel thought, more than a little disturbed.

Vanyel turned his thoughts aside, picking one and stretching it across the gulf of interstellar space. 'Lendel?

He gasped when the connexion formed. His skin flushed and his breathing quickened involuntarily. The sensations Tylendel was broadcasting were unmistakeable.

Shit! Duìbuqǐ! Vanyel felt like he might die of embarrassment. I'll come back, uh, later—

No, Vanyel, don't, Tylendel's mental voice spluttered, and the rush of emotion that accompanied it hit Vanyel with such intensity that he forgot breathing. Tylendel's arousal was close to breaking and, Vanyel somehow knew, suddenly doubled.

'Lendel, escaped Vanyel's mind like a shiver or a wave. He shouldn't—he should be—do that again, he told Tylendel, feeling every drag of Tylendel's fingers as he jerked himself off.

Van, yes, please, just—

Here. It was more a feeling than a word. Vanyel was there with Tylendel, inside his humming skin as orgasm cascaded up his nerves and left him panting.

They remained linked, stillness stretching between them. Tylendel was the first to break it.

I suppose that takes care of breaking the ice.

Vanyel laughed and wished he could shove Tylendel for his entirely inappropriate sense of humour. Or embrace him. Or—

I wish I could touch you, he thought plaintively.

Vanyel gradually became aware of his own body once more. There was a familiar buzz spreading warmth through his bones, and for a long moment, all Vanyel could think was crap, what am I going to do about the laundry?

__ __ __

 

"I think I just had sex with Tylendel! Sort of," Vanyel blurted when Yfandes answered her hand-held. Yfandes blinked stupidly for a moment, because the only Tylendel Van knew was on Hera, wasn't he? And Hera was still being blockaded by Alliance forces. And sure, they were both Readers, but could you really—?

"Sort of? Did you do it wrong?"

"Did I—what do you mean, wrong?" She could hear Van going bright red over the line; that lovely pale complexion of his was only half asset.

Yfandes had skooched off her bench in the refectory as soon as she'd heard the edge of panic in Vanyel's voice. Her dinner company had smirked knowingly, and sure, they all knew something or other about her relationship with Van, who would be full of discomfort to learn he was not nearly so anonymous as he imagined. Didn't matter what they thought, though; just let her pull ship duty again and she'd be chief petty officer inside two years.

"Well, you both got off, shí ma?" Yfandes asked, heading outside.

"...Shí," Van admitted, sounding worried now.

Shame on you, Yfandes scolded herself. "Tylendel isn't actually here, is he?"

"N-no." Apparently, you could. "I don't— Is it—? But I don't..."

"So you've just had hot, telepathic sex with a guy you've never seen, and now you're wigging out. Van, you dog." Yfandes wasn't sure if that was supposed to be helpful or not, but she couldn't help herself. Sixteen-year-old boy or not, she couldn't remember why she'd thought playing mother hen to a fledgling Worker would be dull.

"I have, though. We each looked in a mirror a while back and sent what we saw."

"Is he yīngjùn de?"

"Do we have to talk about this?"

"You're the one who called me, Van." Okay, come on now, think. Yfandes tried to remember how her own older sisters had handled her; Lord and Lady knew little Zoe hadn't needed sisterly counselling first time she got a leg over a man. "He wasn't a jerk about it, was he?"

"It was—no, Fan! He's just—he's smart, and gorgeous, and he believes in things." Oh, right. They'd offered to hook various electrical devices to the fellow's bits. Yfandes still wasn't sure whether that had been intended beneficently or not. He had been a bit of a jerk about it, come to think.

"You've got it bad, little heart. Not that that's news." Yfandes tossed her hair back over her shoulder and grinned at the darkness between the base's streetlights.

"Fan."

"And so does he, I'll warrant. There's easier ways of getting laid than interstellar telepathic sex."

"Well—"

"Not to mention all those long hours you spend having completely non-sexual, soul-searching conversations," Yfandes steamrolled on relentlessly. "So if you're panicking, stop."

"Then what do I do, Fan?"

"Talk to him again?"

"I can't do that!" Van protested, genuinely horrified.

"Well, think to him, or whatever you call it." Yfandes relented. "Can you hang on another day? I can take you out to a high-calorie dinner. Well-seasoned slabs of cooked dead animal; what do you say?"

She'd been going to drop in on Van again anyway; this was perfect. He'd be much more surprised.

"Hǎo le," Van agreed grudgingly.

"Cheer up, Van; enjoy your afterglow." Grinning wickedly, Yfandes cut him off mid-squawk.

 

Yfandes had been planning this for a while. She'd always taken her job as big sister very seriously even though of the five of them only Zoe was younger. Yfandes distinctly recalled that she'd wanted to be a good big sister, like Victoria and Winter.

Zoe was all grown up and—off on her own now. Yfandes supposed she was using Van as something of a surrogate.

But fair was fair: so was he. It had taken almost as long to worm Van's one treasured sibling out of him as the confidence that had Yfandes tamping a wild grin down to a mysterious smirk. Van was watching her suspiciously, which Yfandes graciously ignored.

The thing was large and kind of obvious, so Yfandes couldn't bring it with her on the train without ruining the surprise. Instead, she whisked Van (as well as you could whisk on public transit) off to a Sihnon-style eatery in the Amon district.

"Are you sure you aren't the one who got laid?" Van asked, grabbing the food while Yfandes paid.

"Lord and Lady, I could use it," Yfandes told him once she stopped laughing. "Tiān a. Turn here."

The park she'd picked out was small and quiet, with ground- and aircar access swishing along one side, not quite drowned out by the obligatory fountain. No one much was taking advantage of this gentle evening on the edge of the rainy season: a father and his small children, a woman with a reader perched on her knee, two giggling girls who'd left not long after she and Van sat down. Yfandes checked her chrono.

"Somewhere else to be?" Van asked from his end of the bench. Van did not like sitting on the ground, which was not in the proper spirit of Picnic, but she took what she could get.

Yfandes stole the carton of bāozi from him. "Mm, I'm good here. So, have you talked to Tylendel yet?"

"...No?"

"Well, aren't you going to say something?" Van asked after a minute.

"Are you going to listen?"

Van stole back the bāozi.

"You didn't bring me here to tell me I'm being an idiot," he said a little defensively.

"No, but it bears repeating from time to time."

Van actually looked vaguely hurt at that.

"It's okay. Love makes everyone a little soft in the head. I'd hardly expect you to be the exception. You tell me, Van: you're the one who's been peeking into his mind. Does he have feelings for you, too?"

They finished their meal in silence. For a little shrimp, Van sure could pack it away. Yfandes' eyes kept drifting to her chrono, and she tamped down her impatience.

At last, a familiar aircar sputtered to a stop on the side of the road. Yfandes scooped up the empty cartons and sprang to her feet.

"Wait here," she instructed, blithely ignoring Van's protests and confusion.

Yfandes dumped the trash in a bin and jogged to where her sister waited with her elbows on the idling aricar's roof. For reasons of visibility, aircars on Ba Sing Se were usually enamelled in violent shades of orange, yellow, pink, or red, and the old monster Victoria had been driving for the past eight years was a magenta found only in alien sea-life and burned-out retinas that also somehow made the car look twice its actual size.

"He's cute," Victoria said, handing the package over.

"Nothing but smut, ever since you got married," Yfandes sniffed.

Victoria laid a hand on her currently flat stomach. "We're already on F."

Victoria was the oldest of the Alleyne siblings (Victoria, Winter, Xoria, Yfandes, and Zoe). She'd been the first to come home with unsanctioned body art, the first to cold-cock a boyfriend (not actually hers), and the first to leave home. Her husband was a glass-blower and, Yfandes had to admit, he had excellent hands.

"At this rate, you're going to go through the whole alphabet in one generation."

Victoria just raised an eyebrow archly, like that was the plan. "Getting kind of attached to this kid, mèimèi."

"They don't let you keep pets in the barracks," Yfandes said, letting a warning edge creep into her voice.

"Could be trouble, is all."

Could be dangerous, you mean. No, Van wasn't nearly as anonymous as he'd like. "And you've never done anything dangerous. I have a feeling about this one; he'll be worth it."

Victoria shook her head. "Always with the big heart, mèimèi."

Yfandes hugged her, one-armed. "Just go gestate or something."

Holding her surprise behind her back, Yfandes turned around and waved at Vanyel, who had been watching this interchange warily. There was a subtle grade between the road and the bench. Yfandes hustled awkwardly up it, looking to keep the initiative on her side.

"What was that all about?" Van asked, those silver eyes not missing anything.

"That was my sister, Victoria. I asked her to swing by and drop something off."

"Does this have something to do with the real reason you dragged me out here?"

Yfandes stopped trying to suppress her smirk and displayed the package in both hands. "I wanted to surprise you."

Stunned would be a better word for it, she thought. Even somewhat muffled by the bulky case, the shape of the guitar was unmistakable. Van's hands reached out, hesitated, trembled.

"Shén—"

Van looked up at her, his whole confused heart splashed all over his face. Yfandes settled the case firmly in his arms.

"Found it in a pawn shop. I reckon it's nothing special, but I knew you'd been missing one."

Van clutched the case like she'd thrown a baby at him and not a hunk of wood. He was flat-out mesmerised, probably not hearing one word in three. Yfandes stopped talking and allowed herself a moment to feel satisfied. Aside from the tragic mess with the Askevron, which she'd cornered Darius at the beginning of this and made him describe in full, music was the deepest wound she'd put her finger on, a hurt carved half by his father and half by his own desperate flight. It had taken her a month just to weasel out what his instrument was. Van talked about it like other people did a dead sibling or ex-lover: full of detail and animation when he wasn't thinking too deep, then shut down when the hurting caught up.

Usually Van seemed older than he was, his looks and manner and all that self-control lending him the appearance of maturity. He looked about ten now, old-fashioned case almost dwarfing his really sort of scrawny frame as he hugged it to his chest.

Yfandes pressed her lips together patiently, just smiled when he lifted his round-eyed gaze to her once more. She didn't rush his long, pale fingers at the clasps. They didn't fumble at all, and his grip as he lifted the instrument out of its case was steady, reflex stronger than nerves.

It wasn't silent in the park. There was the low rush from the road, voices of her hometown, broad as the world. Catbirds and gecko-flights sang in the trees, competing with the oceanic murmur of wind through the boughs. Van winced when he plucked a string for the first time. It sounded softly but distinct amid all the other sounds. He twisted one of the little flat pegs at the end and tried it again. And then the next and the next, until the air was humming.

__ __ __

 

This wasn't the guitar Vanyel had left in its stasis case in his room on Baranduine. It had six strings, not twelve. The sides were not Shadow Mahogany, the back and front weren't Bricker's Honey. The picks were plastic instead of polished horn or shell. It had been made, like as not, in some factory, and not by the patient hands of a master craftsman.

But she sang for him. She filled the air on this hillside just outside the walls of Mar Terrin, and Vanyel felt for the first time in months like he could breathe again.

His fingers had not, as he had half-feared, forgotten the pattern of strings and frets. Callus pressed against wire and dark, haunting chords flew up into the night.

Vanyel sighed and lay back on the grassy slope. A few stars peeked through the screen of Birnam Wood and low-level light pollution to twinkle down at him. Even on clear nights, there weren't many stars to be seen at this latitude; Ba Sing Se was too high on the galactic plane.

Guitar still hugged to his chest, Vanyel tapped a node in the next district—the one at the monastery was closer, but he was on the wrong side of Darius' shields right now. His eyes slipped shut as his mind leapt out, seeking.

Van!

'Lendel, Vanyel replied with relief at the undisguised eagerness of Tylendel's greeting.

I was afraid I'd scared you off.

No, Vanyel thought firmly. I—wanted that too. I didn't even realise I wanted it.

He wanted so much, suddenly: to kiss Tylendel, to hold his hand; to look into his eyes and feel his breath, hear if his laughter sounded the same to his ears as to his mind. That shiver, there, was Tylendel responding to this naked streaming. Like a caress.

I want you, so badly, Tylendel admitted. Tylendel's desire was more than a touch: it was a wave that drew a physical sound from deep in Vanyel's chest. He felt Tylendel gasp at that and sent the sound of his heart beating and the wish for Tylendel's weight to crush him down into the grass.

Tylendel responded with a sharply bitten lip and an urge to run his fingers through Vanyel's hair so powerful, Vanyel found his hand moving of its own accord. He would skate a touch down Tylendel's back, if he could, come to rest at his hip, pull him in closer.

"Please," Vanyel breathed aloud, not sure whose hand had started moving.

He felt the wish of lips at his throat to feel the vibrations. Tylendel's hand was definitely on his own cock. Van, please, Van, he moaned, and Vanyel had the vertiginous impression that he was on his feet, leaning back against something.

Vanyel licked his palm and started jacking himself off slow and steady as he could bear. Soon they fell into a faster rhythm together, each drag of skin on skin sparking a wash of sensation that reverberated between them like a building chord, driving them faster, further into one another, until Tylendel forgot to—god, he wasn't even, he was in a supply closet—to muffle the noises he was making for Vanyel.

'Lendel, he choked again, because Tylendel did want to crush him into the grass under the tree-filled sky and make love to him naked outside the walls of Mar Terrin. He came buffeted by a sensation that was more than pleasure. It held between them in the sticky aftermath of orgasm, while their breathing levelled.

I love you, Tylendel said, and Vanyel stopped breathing again.

I don't know—really know what to say. Except—'Lendel, I can't ever remember being this happy. I've never loved anyone, I don't know what it's like, but if—if wanting to die for you is love—

Eventually, they found words again. Vanyel somewhat guiltily harnessed a last spurt of magic to sail his tired carcass over the gate well towards dawn, to avoid waking the monastery. He didn't think he could sleep, but he went under as soon as his head touched the pillow.

__ __ __

 

"We're still completely cut off from our forces in Zhūquè hé Qīnglóng." General Moody scowled at the charts strewn across the table in the war room, enemy ship positions laid out through painstaking reconnaissance. Really painful reconnaissance.

"I could go back out and blow a couple ships to hell, open a hole," Tylendel offered, half-seriously. Not that he wanted another stint of border-patrol when Van was visiting him nightly, but at least it was doing something.

"Don't be an idiot," Moody growled. "We're trying to find out what's going on on the active fronts, not bring the purple-bellies swarming down on our own heads."

"And get out the intel you've helped gather, Lieutenant." Colonel Greengrass nodded towards Tylendel in recognition of all those hours spent squatting under battle cruisers sifting for the right minds.

Tylendel chewed his lip, thinking. It was almost impossible to stop a ship coming into a system out of hyperspace, unless you staked out all the possible departure points. Stopping someone leaving a system was much easier: a ship had to be a certain distance out from the central mass point, the sun, in order to enter hyperspace. "Do you have anyone on Ba Sing Se?"

"Why?"

"I've got a contact there."

"What kind of contact?" Moody asked, fixing Tylendel with both eyes, organic and mechanical.

Tylendel smiled vacuously at him in the way that drove him nuts. "The kind I don't need com equipment to get in touch with."

"Is it secure?" Greengrass cut across Moody, who had just opened his mouth on what would probably have been some fair interesting invective.

"I'd trust him with my life," Tylendel told her.

Greengrass gave Moody a pointed look. Moody switched his glower to her, but didn't go off.

"Do it," he ordered. "But I'll be wanting to talk with you about this later, Frelennye."

"Sir." Tylendel saluted.

 

Tylendel knocked on Van's shields a little earlier than usual that evening. He seemed distracted.

Zěnmeyàng?

Oh! Sorry. Can you...see this? Van asked, pulling his focus outward somewhere, like leading him by the hand.

Little sparks of something were flitting around. Is this space? What are those things?

People here call them thunderhorses, apparently. The dewies ride them.

Hǎo jí le. Thundercloud Andrews. But what are they doing on Ba Sing Se?

Fan says this is their breeding ground. I wish I could see them with my eyes. Van's thought was wistful.

Tylendel let the warmth he felt seep through. Me, too.

I wish I could see you with my eyes, Van said, turning playful.

Tylendel leaned into the caress, then sighed. Hey Van, your friend's in the service, right?

Yeah, why? Van's mind settled comfortably around his, touching but not demanding.

I need to ask you for a favour.

Anything.

It's only that I know you're uncomfortable with the war, Tylendel hedged.

I'm uncomfortable with the idea of you getting blown up. What's the favour?

We need to get word through to Persephone.

And the Alliance is still jamming you. But what can I do?

We've got an arrangement with someone in the Imperial Military, a Colonel Barrett. Do you think you could pass a message to her?

Barrett? She's personal aide to General Armstrong or something. I don't think I rate space in her inbox.

What about your friend?

Fan? I don't know. I mean, she's just a petty officer. It's a mighty long way up. Tylendel sensed him considering it, coming to a decision. What's the message?

__ __ __

 

"Who wants to see me?"

"Vanyel Ashkevron. At the request of Darius."

Colonel Majel Barrett raised an eyebrow, but didn't look up. "Why should he wish to speak with me, and not Empress Xebel?"

Perhaps it was about the Ashkevron incident. Barrett had been the other witness on the ground when Darius had come to contain the boy, after all.

"Seemed to think it was important."

Barrett glanced over at her desk clock. She could spare a few minutes, and as far as she knew, it had been over two months since Vanyel had been evaluated by command-level personnel. Darius' influence aside, Vanyel's threat-potential was high enough to merit the time. "Send him in."

"I'll be right outside," Barrett heard a female voice say through her open door before Vanyel came through. That would be ET1 Alleyne. Were they personal or security concerns keeping her outside? Barrett had read her file when she began her association with Vanyel, so she hardly expected it was intimidation.

"Vanyel Ashkevron." Barrett looked up.

"Colonel Barrett." Vanyel was a blank to her mental perceptions, a far cry from their first encounter. "I've been requested to deliver a message, from General Moody of the Independent Militia of Hera. He's under the impression that you can pass it along to Independent Command on Persephone."

Well. That was unexpected.

__ __ __

 

I wish I could play for you, for real. Vanyel sighed. He was sitting on the grass again, legs crossed under him, absently picking out the melody of a love song.

I like listening to your mind when you play. Vanyel had a disorienting flash of his mind as Tylendel perceived it, like looking at a familiar building from the sky.

No, I mean—I asked Darius. He won't teach me to fight—I know he knows how. But I asked him. If he thought I was ready.

("The Empress. She said it was your decision, whether to let me go or not, when I wanted to. Well, I want to."

"This has something to do with your Tylendel."

"I want to be with him."

"And you will fight."

"I'll fight, for him. Because that's the only way it will work."

"Think of how you felt, after the accident. Can it be any better, doing that sort of thing deliberately?"

"It's happening anyway. At least I'd be with him." It could happen to him. If I'm not there, if it happens and I could have helped. At least I'd be with him.)

Great good gods, Van! Tylendel exclaimed, an amazed, excited mess.

I meant it when I said I'd rather die than lose you. There's a transport that leaves for Iscariot in four days. It's an Independent stronghold; I should be able to smuggle myself to Hera from there.

I'll meet you there. Van.

Tylendel's breathless, almost giddy laughter eased the knot of apprehension in Vanyel's chest. He could do this. This was going to happen. A wide, foolish smile spread across his face. Tylendel nudged him.

You're allowed to be happy, you know.

Impulsively, Vanyel reached back. Show me.

 

Vanyel was sitting under a tree in the main yard, not really meditating, but soaking in the peace of Mar Terrin. It seemed much more appealing now that he was about to leave. The monastery was a safe haven. He'd done a lot of growing up here, and in some ways leaving was more difficult than leaving home had been.

There was a sound of quick footsteps on the stone path, and Darius came blowing through, apparently on his way out.

"Is something wrong?" Vanyel asked, rising to his feet.

"Three Alliance cruisers have just come out of hyperspace." Darius was positively agitated. "It was inevitable, once the Empire declared war on the Alliance. I must go to Xebel and try to persuade her not to do something foolish."

Vanyel suddenly felt like the bottom had dropped out of his stomach. He said nothing, just stared dumbly as Darius disappeared out the bamboo gates, an imperially dispatched aircar no doubt waiting outside. Then he sank clumsily to the ground, not even noticing when his head bounced off the tree's rough bark.

Oh.

 

Van! Tylendel's thought radiated excitement like a nuclear meltdown. Vanyel's gut twisted.

'Lendel—

I can't wait for you to meet Steph. The whole militia has basically threatened to throttle me if I don't shut up about you. And Gaila. And my parents.

'Lendel—

But I can't help it, we're finally—

Tylendel! I—can't.

Shénme?

Vanyel registered his confusion laced with the first tinges of disbelief and disappointment.

I—can't come. The Alliance is here.

Tāmā de. Don't worry; we'll get you out somehow.

'Lendel. You're not listening to me. I have to stay. It's what you said; I didn't understand at first. But I think I understand now. He had been terrified and sick and angry; but underneath it all he'd felt something else, as though the decision had already been made.

I have to stay, he repeated miserably. I haven't been able to think of anything else since the ships came, and I keep coming up with the same answer. Hera has you to protect it.

And Ba Sing Se has Darius, Tylendel objected, catching his implication at once.

Darius won't fight! I can't just turn my back. On Yfandes, and nine hundred years of history, and this wide green world that constantly amazed him. There were things worth protecting here. It was a new feeling, and not at all a comfortable one; but the resolve wasn't something Vanyel could ignore. I thought you'd understand.

You don't have a clue what you're doing, Van.

And I did before? Vanyel snapped back, a little waspishly.

I would've been there to help you.

Vanyel hesitated, feeling his world crumble out from underneath his feet. Won't you still?

It's not the same! This is serious stuff, Van. It's dangerous work, and I won't be there to have your back.

Remind me, who's been doing all your worrying for you?

And now the shoe's on the other foot. Lord and Lady. Tylendel was still palpably upset, but he enfolded Vanyel in a wash of warmth and apology. Be careful, Van.

Vanyel swallowed around an egg-sized lump in his throat, feeling all the things unsaid behind Tylendel's words. He remembered to breathe. I love you, he whispered, unutterably relieved.

I love you, too, you idiot.

Can I still come and see you? He'd already arranged his passage, and the ship left for Iscariot the next day.

Can't waste a perfectly good opportunity for assignation. Tylendel's bright tone did not entirely mask the tension, mind to mind.

I love you, Vanyel repeated. I wish—

I know.

They wrapped their minds around each other in an embrace more intimate than that of the flesh. Although it was a long time before they broke apart, to Vanyel it didn't feel nearly long enough.

__ __ __

 

The wide, marble corridors of Imperial Military Headquarters had grown almost familiar to Yfandes over the past few weeks as she escorted Van in and out with his intelligence. She still went a little stiff every time she missed knocking over a colonel or and admiral by a leaf's width when rounding a corner, though. The only other non-coms in the area she was entering were the ones guarding the doors.

Van had left this morning to visit his magic boyfriend. Yfandes didn't know why she'd been summoned, but her suspicions weren't any of them what she'd call encouraging.

Suspicion paled to reality, however, when after sitting for fifteen minutes in the least dingy briefing room she'd ever seen, Yfandes was confronted by the spectre of General Olivia Armstrong, Supreme Commander of the Imperial Military. Yfandes sprang to her feet and saluted, wishing she had Zoe's deadpan.

Armstrong returned the salute. "At ease."

Ease was really the last thing she was going to be feeling in Armstrong's presence. With a great effort, Yfandes managed to rearrange her limbs into parade rest, like manipulating a doll with articulated joints. People talked about the Ice Queen, typical harping about a superior officer. Now Yfandes saw why; she could've sworn the temperature dropped five degrees when Armstrong fixed her with those hard blue eyes.

"Petty Officer Alleyne. You're acquainted with the Ashkevron boy," Armstrong started in without any preamble.

"Yes, sir." Yfandes tried to keep her instinctive reaction to that off her face.

"Eight years; not quite spotless record. And you have a pilot's license?" What was even more unsettling than holding Armstrong's gaze, Yfandes decided, was the fact that she wasn't consulting a file.

"Had some time. Took the course," Yfandes replied cautiously, trying not to think about the fact that the supreme commander had taken the time to memorise her record.

"And your arms rating is respectable for an engineer."

"Thank you, sir."

"And of course you also know Darius."

Yfandes did not either grimace or swallow. "Would it be appropriate for me to wonder what this is about, sir?"

Armstrong's scrutiny grew more appraising. "Vanyel Ashkevron has volunteered to aid in the defence of Ba Sing Se. He'll need a handler."

Gāoyáng zhōng de gūyáng, Van. What have you done now?