Toyus watched oun Nilja carefully. The oun Shi’ehl stood before him nervously, his ears flat to the sides of his head.
“Why don’t you like him?” Toyus demanded once more.
To Toyus’ right, Ereali shifted and sighed.
The Sha’jeen did not reply.
Toyus cleared his throat. “We know you can’t abide oun Ei’dhar. I want to know why, for security sake, if nothing else. Do you suspect something?”
“He does not like me because he has adopted all of you as his pets,” oun Ei’dhar stated from behind them.
Toyus whipped around. “Is that your opinion?”
oun Ei’dhar showed his teeth. “It is the truth.”
oun Nilja showed his teeth.
oun Ei’dhar huffed in amusement. “You frighten no one, pukra!”
Before oun Ei’dhar could turn away, oun Nilja was upon him and they fell hard to the ground, where they hiss and spit and rolled about the dirt.
Toyus rubbed his face with his hands and sighed. “Stop! Ereali, help me.”
They managed to separate the two Sha’jeen. Toyus held onto oun Ei’dhar while Ereali held onto oun Nilja.
oun Ei’dhar broke free of Toyus’ hold. There was a cut along oun Ei’dhar’s cheek. It bled thinly into the soft down. Blood gleamed on his lower lip.
“It matters not,” oun Ei’dhar said, as if continuing a discussion. “I am leaving tomorrow morning, so you can have the entire village, pukra.”
oun Nilja yowled. “Do not call me that!”
“Then behave as a Sha’jeen!” oun Ei’dhar shot back. “Your behavior is embarrassing. Pray to the Goddess for your own kits and stop rolling around the ground like some pathetic–” He rolled his eyes. “You have no shame! But it isn’t my business any longer.”
He turned south and began to make his way to the gate. The area was crawling with workmen rebuilding the gate and parts of the walls.
Toyus watched him as oun Ei’dhar made his way along the edges of the crowd, under the gate and out into the surrounding land.
oun Nilja had turned to watch him walk away. “He is leaving?”
Toyus sighed. “Apparently.”
“He’s headed towards the shuttle,” Ereali noted with interest. “Should we speak to the Sentinels?”
Toyus stared in the direction of the shuttle for a few seconds before coming to a decision. He nodded.
oun Nilja made to turn in the opposite direction, but Toyus put his hand out. “You come, too.”
oun Nilja looked startled before nodding once. “I will come.”
They walked in side-by-side, Toyus in the middle. They did not speak. Navigating the area of construction proved a little tricky, but they were able to slip through in a line, hugging the broken wall. Toyus was hailed by the workman lead, who stopped him to ask when the Council would hold another town hall. Toyus assured him it would be soon. The middle-aged man nodded with a grin and pounded Toyus on the back before turning back to his work.
They continued under the gate arch and out into the treeless land beyond. The shuttle stood to the southeast. The river was just down a rise in the land, to the east. There were families at the river’s shore, gathering water into buckets. The river rushed north, cold and clear. Children ran, screaming and playing. oun Nilja looked towards them longingly.
They headed towards the shuttle. The bay door stood open. Sol and Ishel sat at the top of the ramp, talking softly. There was no sign of oun Ei’dhar.
Sol glanced up and raised a hand in greeting. “Welcome, Toyus!”
Toyus felt his heart speed up. He swallowed. “Hello, Sol!”
The Sentinels rose and pounded down the metal ramp, Ishel following more sedately.
“What brings you here?” Sol asked. He glanced curiously at Ereali but did not say anything.
“I just want to ask if oun Ei’dhar is leaving with you?” Toyus asked.
Sol and Ishel shared a look before Sol turned to Toyus and nodded. “He is going to assist other Amalgamese from North Torahn in a new settlement in South Yllysia.”
oun Nilja hissed. “He is a murderer!”
Sol nodded. “And what do you recommend we do with him – murder him in turn?”
oun Nilja”s ears flattened. “No! But…”
Sol and Ishel stared at the Sha’jeen expectantly.
oun Nilja sighed and dropped his gaze.
“We just want to make sure everyone is safe,” Toyus murmured.
Sol nodded. “As do we. These Amalagamese will know oun Ei’dhar killed someone. They will decide if they want oun Ei’dhar among them.”
“Forgive us,” Toyus said. “We are concerned.”
“Of course,” Ishel piped up. “We are, too, but he isn’t happy here.” He flicked a glance at oun Nilja. “We want to prevent future problems.”
oun Nilja mewled softly and ducked his head.
“When are you leaving?” Toyus asked.
“Tomorrow morning,” Sol replied.
Toyus nodded. “Will you return here?”
“No,” the Sentinel said. “We’ll head back to the moon for cryosleep. We’ll be back in 1,000 years to see how things are progressing.”
“I see,” Toyus said in a small voice.
Sol was smiling at him with empathetic eyes.
“Well, we’d best return then to the city. Good luck to you, Sentinel Sol and Sentinel Ishel. And thank you for everything.”
He turned and strode back the way they had come, Ereali and oun Nilja scrambling to keep up.
For a few minutes, Toyus saw nothing in front of him. He was unaware of what he was doing and where he was going. When he finally was able to see again, he found himself at the shores of the river. He squatted, resting his forearms on his thighs and dangling his hands between his knees. His face and ears were burning. He could not seem to catch his breath. He looked straight ahead towards the other shore. He thought he was past this affection for Sentinel Sol, this attraction. He wiped his face with his cold hand and sighed.
“Are you alright?” Ereali asked.
Toyus looked at his friend. Ereali was squatting, too, mirroring him. oun Nilja was a few feet away, speaking to an Amalgamese woman and her two children.
“I’ll be fine,” he replied stiffly.
Ereali nodded and gazed across the rushing river. They had to pitch their voices just so to hear each other over the voice of the river.
“I’m sorry,” Ereali said.
Surprised, Toyus glanced at him. “What for?”
Ereali pointed to the shuttle. “You love him.”
Toyus shook his head. “That’s too strong a term. I am attracted to him. I am wondering what would have been if he could stay.” He gave a bitter bark of laughter. “It’s a moot point, though. He can’t stay and I can’t go.”
Ereali nodded and looked away.
After a while, Toyus began to feel the heat of the sun’s glare on his head and he rose. “Let’s go back.”
Ereali rose and followed him without a word.
This time no one bothered them as they wove their way through the construction site and into the city. They went to straight to their dwelling and entered.
They had done a lot of work on the house. They had whitewashed the outside and Toyus had purchased a woven cover for the front door.
Ereali had focused on making bright patterns of paint along the inner walls of the dwelling. The paintings seemed chaotic at first but then patterns began to emerge if one stared at the figures long enough. It was especially interesting at night, when shadows from the firepit danced along the walls.
Toyus felt ashamed suddenly.
“I’m sorry,” he told Ereali.
Ereali started and looked at him. “Why?”
“Here I am pining for something that I already have.”
Ereali smiled and shrugged. “I am no blond Sentinel.”
Toyus sobered. “You are also not a half-man whose body is full of metallics and plastics, whatever those are. You cannot lie down in a chamber and sleep for 1,000 years.”
Ereali lowered his gaze. “I’m not exactly human any longer.”
“Neither am I, friend. Neither am I.”
Ereali kept his gaze on the floor. “Does that mean you would try a relationship with me?”
“We are already in a relationship. We are friends. But, yes. Let’s see if we commit to this where it will lead us.”
Ereali gave a hesitant nod. “I would like that.”
Toyus smiled at the younger man. “I am going to scrounge us a meal. Throw some wood in the fire. I’ll be back.”
He pushed the door flap to one side and stepped out into the bright, muggy afternoon. He turned to face south, but he could not see the shuttle because of the southern wall. He squared his shoulder and turned north, quickly striding away from the dwelling he shared with Ereali.
oun D’jir sat against the wall of the Prayer Hall. Before him, five of his six kits rolled around on the floor, hissing and spitting and mewling. They seemed to have an inordinate amount of energy. It took the five of them — himself and his remaining four priests — most of the time to look after the little beasts. One sat on his lap, ieh Desja, the only one of his kits to have been born ieh boueli. The little kit was quiet and gentle with large eyes that gazed at everything limpidly. Part of oun D’jir had wanted to kill it when it was born–there were so many ieh boueli already–but aun Sjir’phal had convinced him otherwise. He looked down at the little kit who watched its siblings playing so seriously. oun D’jir caressed the kit’s soft back. The kit turned its limpid eyes up to its parent then leaned heavily against oun D’jir without so much as a mewl. oun D’jir smiled fondly at it, running the back of his hand along the little one’s cheek.
It was almost time to feed aun Sjir’phal. He had taken up the task himself to keep the aun Deuil safe. With a sigh, he tucked the kit close to him and smoothly rose to his feet. He padded quickly to where oun Belihe sat against the wall on the other side of the room. He handed the kit to his friend.
oun Belihe smiled and tucked the kit against his chest. “Are you feeding aun Sjir’phal now?”
“Ye,” he replied and stepped out into the bright, hot afternoon. He glanced around, noting construction of the village continued unhampered by rain. The hot afternoon was filled with the voices of workers in conversation or calling to one another.
He made his way to the central dwelling of the village: a long rectangular single-story building. This was the second such building, the first being the dwelling of the ieh boueli. This building housed the kitchens and two large eating areas. The cooking area was set off to one side. He walked into the kitchen and asked for some meat and water. An ieh boueli bowed and went to fetch these things.
While he waited, oun D’jir paced. He would have to give aun Sjir’phal his answer about mating with him. He did not want to have another clowder of kits so soon. But he was sure aun Sjir’phal would understand. It had taken aun Sjir’phal’s poisoning and near death to make oun D’jir realize the value of the aun Deuil. It had taken that to make oun D’jir own his attraction to him. He had not been ready to accept these things until something nearly catastrophic occurred.
The ieh boueil returned with a bowl of cut meat and a mug of water.
oun D’jir took the items and thanked the ieh boueil, startling it.
oun D’jir surprised himself as well. That was the first time he had ever thanked an ieh boueil. He said nothing more incriminating and strode out of the building.
The bowl he carried was covered with a towel. He could smell the meat. He could detect most of the Sha’jeen poisons, although if the poison were local, he was not sure he could detect it. He wondered why someone had targeted aun Sjir’phal. His investigation had not uncovered much, although aun P’ata’lyh continued to ask questions.
Oun D’jir came to the aun Sjir’phal’s hut and paused at the door flap. He took a few cleansing breaths and pushed the woven flap to one side, entering into the smallish interior. It took him but a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimmer interior. There was a fire in the pit, although it seemed to be going out. The windows were covered. He signed and wrinkled his nose at the smell of urine and waste. He would have to send an ieh boueil to take the waste buckets away for the contents to be disposed of. He went to the pallet, set the bowl and mug down on the floor and rose, striding to the windows to pull the covers back and allow sunlight into the dimness.
He turned and started.
aun Sjir’phal was lying awake, watching him. His fever-bright eyes looked sunken in his lean face.
oun D’jir’s heart gave a painful lurch.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
aun Sjir’phal said nothing.
oun D’jir went to the pallet and sat down at the edge. He took aun Sjir’phal’s right hand in both of his.
“How are you?” he asked again.
“I am dying, oun D’jir,” he answered softly, his voice sounding papery.
oun D’jir touched his neck and detected the thready hearbeat.
“I’m going to heal you with the Goddess’ grace, aun Sjir’phal. It will only be you and I.”
aun Sjir’phal closed his eyes. “So tired. Maybe just let me go.”
“How are we to mate then?” oun D’jir demanded tightly.
aun Sjir’phal opened his eyes and turned his head. “You want to mate with me?”
“Ye.” oun D’jir felt shy for the first time since he was a tumbling kit. “Ye. I would we mated.”
aun Sjir’phal’s eyes were bright. “For that I’d live.”
oun D’jir nodded. “Then close your eyes and I will pray.”
aun Sjir’phal closed his eyes.
oun D’jir rose and knelt at the head of the pallet. He put his hand on either side of aun Sjir’phal’s head and closed his eyes. In the ancient language, a language that came from before their dark days on their arks before they encountered the dual-face God that almost destroyed them. Only High Priests learned the language from predecessors. He began to pray. As he prayed, he allowed his emotions to bleed into the prayer. He was upset at how close his mate was to death. He had not asked anything of the Goddess until now.
“Goddess Ie’teihna, merciful One, kind One. I ask a boon–“
The presence of the Goddess was announced by the sweet scent of flowers. In the next second, her entire presence filled his mind and body.
He dies because he does not believe in me.
He can pray and save himself, but he has given up.
“If you save him; perhaps he will believe.”
He was traumatized by your previous god. He must learn to trust me.
“Please heal me and I will teach him about you.”
I have told you what must be done.
oun D’jir felt bereft when She was gone. It took him a few seconds to calm himself. She came to him, albeit infrequently. It was to test him, he knew.
oun D’jir opened his eyes. He glanced down and found aun Sjir’phal studying him.
“It didn’t work,” he told oun D’jir.
oun D’jir snarled. “Because you do not believe! You are throwing us away because you won’t believe!”
He rose and made to leave.
“Wait,” aun Sjir’phal said. “What must I do?”
oun D’jir covered his face with his hands and, with a sigh, dropped his hands.
He looked at the aun Deuil. “You must pray like you mean it, aun Sjir’phal. If you want to mate with me and build a life together, then you must do this thing.”
aun Sjir’phal struggled up onto an elbow. “Show me how to pray properly. Help me.”
oun D’jir assisted aun Sjir’phal to sit with his back to the wall. He sat beside him and took his left hand in both of his.
“Allow yourself to be open to the Goddess,” oun D’jir told him. “Say the words with emotion and passion. You must save your own life, so say the words like you mean them. Keep your heart open to Her. Listen and she will speak to you.”
aun Sjir’phal nodded and closed his eyes.
oun D’jir fed him the words, holding his hand all the while. While he prayed with aun Sjir’phal, he sent his own prayer into the ether. He prayed aun Sjir’phal believed and saved himself.
Time began to blur for oun D’jir. He thought distantly that aun Sjir’phal needed his rest, too. That healing was two-pronged.
Finally, oun D’jir opened his eyes. He looked at aun Sjir’phal.
The aun Deuil was panting.
“Lie down once more,” oun D’jir said and helped aun Sjir’phal to lie down, covering him with the bedclothes.
aun Sjir’phal was trembling and his teeth were chattering.
oun D’jir took his closest hand and rubbed it. It felt icy.
“I have more curatives to try,” he told his mate. “Let me fetch them.”
“No!” aun Sjir’phal said. His eyes rolled to the back of his head. “Something is happening. Do not leave me alone!”
oun D’jir was taken aback. He had never seen an aun Deuil express fear. Not of death. Not of anything.
“Let me go to the door and fetch an ieh boueil to remove the waste buckets,” he said. “I’m still here.”
He hurried to the door flap and stepped outside. He managed to flag down two ieh boueili.
They returned to the hut.
“You take the waste buckets, empty them and wash them,” he told the first ieh boueil. “And you, send the priest called oun Belihe to me.”
The ieh boueili bowed. One hurried outside, while the other one gathered the buckets and hurried away.
oun D’jir returned to the pallet and sat at the edge.
aun Sjir’phal continued to pray, his eyes closed.
oun D’jir could not hear the words. They were whispered so softly.
The minutes ticked by. The first ieh boueil returned with fresh buckets, and oun D’jir had him carry the meat back to the kitchens.
Soon, oun Belihe arrived, ducking past the door flap and entering.
“You called me, High Priest?”
oun D’jir rose and met him at the door.
“I trust you, oun Belihe, to keep my mate safe,” oun D’jir said. “Please stay with him while I gather antidotes.”
“Do you need help?” oun Belihe asked.
“Stay here, with aun Sjir’phal.” oun D’jir put his hands on oun Belihe’s shoulders. “I trust you.”
“Ye, High Priest. I will care for him.”
oun D’jir gazed into his eyes, but oun Belihe did not flinch.
“I’ll be back shortly. Send for an ieh boueil to build the fire and find clean bedclothes.”
“Ye, High Priest.”
oun D’jir hurried out into the busy late afternoon.