The Lion Mistress: Book 1 — Chapters 3 and 4

Chapter 3: Penth

KATHRAEL LOOSENED THE FRAYED laces holding the front of her bodice together, and looked up at Livvy with her good eye. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “You should sleep on the bed with me.”

Livvy caught his breath, and Kathrael could see his gaze darken in the candlelight. He started to speak, but the words caught in his throat. He had to swallow hard before he could reply. “I’ve never slept with a girl before. You know… because of my lip. Father always says no girl is likely to want me, and I should just get used to it.”

“But that’s not true. I want you, Livvy,” Kathrael lied. She glanced down, a calculated move. “Unless you find my scars repulsive…”

It was a surprise how much the beat of silence affected her, as if her heart had suddenly decided that this awkward young man’s opinion of her mattered, without bothering to consult her head. She looked up again to find him staring at her open-mouthed.

“No!” he said quickly. “No, I’m just surprised is all. I never expected—”

“Come here then, and sit next to me,” Kathrael told him. He did, carefully not touching her. Nervous excitement rolled off of him in waves. She continued, “So, you’ve never even gone to the temple, then? Dallied with the novices?”

He shook his head and looked down. “Father said there wasn’t any point. It would just make me want what I couldn’t have.”

Kathrael angled her body toward him, one hand coming to rest on his tense thigh as the old, familiar dance came back to her. “Well, that’s simply not true. I’m sure you’re not the only person in Rhyth with a harelip, Livvy. Perhaps you’ll find a nice girl who looks like you do, and you’ll fall in love with each other.”

Several expressions chased each other across Livvy’s open face as she watched, and slid her hand a little higher. “Or… maybe a girl with scars?” he asked, utterly artless.

The smile Kathrael pasted on felt like it would crack her damaged face. “Perhaps so,” she managed. To forestall any further conversation, she cupped his cock through his loose trousers, drawing a groan from him.

He was large and hard, and when she knelt between his legs on sore, creaking knees to unlace his clothing and free him from his smallclothes, he grasped the edge of the mattress tightly with both hands. His prick reeked of stale sweat, and she had to battle nausea as she sucked him off. He was the first man she had serviced since her face was ruined, and the scars around the left side of her mouth pulled painfully as her lips stretched around him. Thankfully, his lack of experience had him coming down her throat in great spurts after mere moments.

Later, she lay back on the bed, making encouraging noises as he rutted into her. There was no oil-filled lamp in the room, nor was there any grease, or anything else she could use to ease the way into her dry passage. Despite the gob of spit that she’d managed to surreptitiously smear over him, the familiar push-pull between her legs went beyond the usual vague discomfort, spilling over into full-fledged pain as flesh that had lain untouched for months stretched to accommodate Livvy’s large cock.

She had learned years ago to retreat inside her mind at such times, but something about letting another person this close to her scars and hurts brought a terrible sense of vulnerability to the fore. By the time Livvy finally cried out and shuddered through his second release, Kathrael’s skin was crawling in a way it hadn’t for years.

Afterward, she lay very still and quiet in his sweaty grip. When his loud snores filled the room, she wriggled free and pulled on her ruined dress with jerky, uncoordinated movements, covering herself. Then, she curled up on the rough wooden boards of the floor and fell into an exhausted sleep.

* * *

A hand on her shoulder woke her the following morning, and she was unable to suppress her flinch. Sleeping with someone nearby who wasn’t Vesh was a terrifying prospect. She never would have let herself drift off had she not already been on the verge of collapse.

“Hey,” Livvy said. “S-sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Why are you on the floor?”

Kathrael’s tongue felt thick and dry as she unstuck it from the roof of her mouth to reply.

“I was… too hot,” she said eventually, after casting around for a reasonable sounding excuse. “I didn’t want to wake you with my tossing and turning.”

Livvy frowned, looking unhappy, but he only said, “Oh. I see.”

“Is it time to leave?” Kathrael asked, hoping to distract him.

“Yeah,” he said. “Did, uh, did you still want to come with me the rest of the way to Penth?”

What Kathrael wanted was to flee the room and never see him again, but that wouldn’t get her any closer to Draebard. “If you’re willing to take me, yes.”

Livvy nodded. “All right. Well. You’ll have to get out of the cart before we reach the edge of the village. If any of Uncle’s contacts tell him I’ve been taking on passengers, I’ll be in big trouble.”

“That’s fine,” Kathrael said. “I appreciate you helping me, Livvy. You’re a good person.”

In fact, Livvy’s plan sounded better than fine. If he dropped her off on the road somewhere, he wouldn’t expect a repeat of last night before they parted. Which suited Kathrael right down to the ground.

Livvy blushed, embarrassed by the compliment. “It’s nothing, really. I just like to help where I can, you know?” He cleared his throat. “If you, uh, want to wash, there’s a ewer of water and a bowl in the hallway. I’ll see if I can talk the innkeeper out of some bread or something, and then we should go.”

“Of course.” Kathrael forced another smile and hobbled into the hall to rinse off her face.

Livvy disappeared down the rickety stairs, and she looked around the now-deserted space to make sure she was truly alone. The other doors were closed and no sounds emerged from within, so she hiked up her torn skirts and ran the damp cloth between her legs. There was no blood, thankfully, though her flesh was raw and aching. The cool cloth went some way toward soothing it, but she was nearly as sore from last night’s coupling as she had been after her first few painful times at the tender age of thirteen.

She sighed. It would get better in a couple of days, and it seemed unlikely that she would be called upon to repeat the performance anytime soon.

When Livvy returned with a couple of hunks of two-day-old brown bread, she was as ready to face the day as she could be, under the circumstances. She knew she would barely have made it half a league today if forced to walk on her own, but the food and drink combined with a few hours of sleep had at least revived her enough that she could manage sitting on the back of the melon wagon for a few more hours.

It was cooler than the previous day, and cloudy. At first, Livvy kept up an intermittent stream of banal small talk, shouted awkwardly back and forth between his place in front with the donkey and her perch on the back of the wagon. By late morning, it began to rain—a steady drizzle—and the talk dried up even as the parched dirt turned to mud. Kathrael let the chilly water drip down her hair and the back of her neck, shivering a bit as her wet clothing clung to her skin.

She was so thin these days that she had no defense against changes in temperature, and she dreaded the coming winter. Perhaps, she thought as another round of trembling took her, she would be dead by then. Perhaps that would be preferable—particularly if she was able to gain her revenge first.

Late in the afternoon, the cart rolled to a stop on the uneven road. The rain had finally ceased, and the returning sun steamed the moisture back out of the ground, making the air thick and humid. Livvy appeared at the rear of the wagon.

“Time for me to get off?” Kathrael asked, and the young man nodded reluctantly.

“Penth is in the valley, just over the crest of this hill,” he said. “It’s not far. I, uh, wish I could keep you with me…”

Livvy was a sweet, decent young man, for all that he was awkward and uncouth. Even so, something about the wording made Kathrael’s stomach churn and a shiver travel up the length of her spine.

Keep you with me

Like a possession. Like an object—something to be owned.

The pasted-on smile seemed harder to conjure each time she summoned it. “I have to keep heading north, Livvy. And you have to get back to your uncle. Remember what I said, though. I’m sure there’s someone out there for you. You just have to find her.”

Livvy’s face twisted through a complicated mixture of hope and disappointment, before he darted forward and kissed her undamaged cheek. She forced herself not jerk away from the contact.

“You’ll be all right, though?” he asked.

“Of course I will,” she said airily, as if such a question was ridiculous. “Go on. Off with you, now. Thank you again for helping me.”

Livvy caught his lower lip in his teeth and chewed on it before nodding and turning away. A moment later, the cart rattled forward, leaving Kathrael standing on the side of the road with her waterskin and satchel, sandals clasped in her hand. She looked past the slow-moving cart and the young man shooting occasional glances over his shoulder at her as he crested the hill leading down to Penth.

The mountains had been at her back as she traveled in the wagon, but they were noticeably closer now than they had been yesterday. A genuine smile flickered over her features for an instant as she looked at the rugged peaks. Her satchel still contained food and a few precious coins. The waterskin was heavy at her shoulder. Her feet ached, but not with the unbearable stabbing pain that had brought her to her knees the morning before. The blisters were already starting to scab over, protected by the bindings torn from her skirts.

She could keep going.

Kathrael started limping slowly toward the village of Penth.

* * *

The blight had obviously hit Penth hard. The fields outside the village were mostly wilted and yellow, with immature, wrinkled vegetables withering on the vine. The air smelled of rot. In the town itself, people in the street gave her wary glances, their eyes flicking up only briefly before returning to the ground in front of them. Gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes were everywhere. The scent of desperation clung to them.

Kathrael kept her head down and tried to blend in, aided in doing so by her own jutting, starvation-sharpened bones. Penth was a good-sized settlement, somewhat larger than she had assumed it would be. As she wandered the streets toward the center of town, she began to realize that she was once again trapped by circumstance.

She’d had vague thoughts of using her meager collection of coins to purchase supplies for the next leg of her journey—the mountain crossing. The sad collection of food she now carried might conceivably suffice to get her to the mountains, but it would come nowhere close to getting her over them.

Livvy’s generosity had gained her two meals she hadn’t needed to acquire for herself, but it had also landed her in a place where food was scarce and unbelievably costly. There was a crowd in the marketplace; its mood restless as townsfolk vied for meat and produce that simply wasn’t there.

After only a few minutes of walking stall-to-stall, Kathrael learned that her handful of coppers would buy her precisely nothing of use in Penth. The ugly atmosphere soon drove her onto a side street, the fine hair at the back of her neck prickling with unease.

From ahead came the sound of another crowd, this one punctuated by cries of excitement and occasional laughter rather than angry muttering. Curious, Kathrael followed the noise until the narrow street opened out into a second open square, paved with flagstones and surrounded by two-story, whitewashed buildings.

At one corner of the square, a collection of wagons and people dominated the crowd’s attention. She could see a large number of children clustered near the front, laughing and hopping up and down in an attempt to see over the shoulders of those in front of them. As was her habit, Kathrael kept to the shadows and skirted the edge of the crowd until she reached a set of steps leading up to a sheltered doorway. There, she was able to get a decent view of what was going on without attracting attention.

It was a band of traveling entertainers, as she had half-suspected. A well-fed man in flamboyant dress stood atop a small wooden platform, waving his hands and sweet-talking the crowd. With few other options open to her at the moment, she settled in to watch for a bit.

The troupe was a small one, but included some very strange—even shocking—individuals. An exceptionally tall, skeletally thin man danced with a tiny, misshapen women who would barely have come up to Kathrael’s waist. At the end of the dance, the woman clambered up the spokes of the wagon wheel so the man could take her in his arms like a child. They kissed to the sound of raucous jeers from the children, and titters from the adults.

A lad with no arms sat at a wooden table near the raised platform, playing a game of dice using his toes. Occasionally, he would pause to grasp a flagon between the soles of his feet, contorting himself to lift it to his lips and take a drink.

Another man—normal looking, though his expansive stomach set him immediately apart from the skinny townsfolk—made his way through the crowd, a young boy with large, sad eyes balanced on his hip. A girl the same age trailed behind him, one small hand gripping the bottom edge of the man’s intricately embroidered tunic. In his free hand, he carried an upturned hat.

Kathrael was not close enough to hear the conversation as he moved from person to person in the crowd, but after a few soft words from the unhappy boy-child, many of the audience members who had been singled out gasped in surprise and nodded, sometimes taking a step back in shock. More often than not, they or the people around them would flip coins into the hat immediately afterward. She wondered what caused the reaction, but did not dare get closer to find out.

One thing was certain, however. The performers were making money. Quite a bit of it, in fact.

Half-formed ideas and plans circled Kathrael’s mind as she continued to watch the spectacle. She was in a strange town, where the people were already desperate and unlikely to have much sympathy for a beggar, especially a hideously scarred one. Before her stood men who had money—enough money that the upturned hat was already sagging under the weight of coins after only a few minutes. If she followed them to wherever they stayed for the night…

Well. They would need to go to sleep sometime.

She’d have to make it to a town beyond the reach of the blight, but the money in the hat would be enough to buy food, and sturdy boots, and new clothes for her journey. Movement from one of the wagons caught her attention, breaking her free of her thoughts. The back of the cart was enclosed by bars, like a cage or a cell. Within, a tawny, four-legged shape rose and stretched, jaws cracking in a wide yawn to reveal sharp fangs.

It was a lion—thin and covered in scars, but still one of the most beautiful things Kathrael had ever seen. She caught her breath, unable to look away. The animal swept its ears back, and green-flecked eyes locked on hers without warning, pinning her in place in the sheltered doorway. Her heart jolted and began to beat double-time.

She tore her gaze away with considerable difficulty when the man on the platform raised his voice again, addressing the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen! I give you the main attraction. The king of predators, tamed and reduced to the gentleness of a kitten by the indomitable power of my will!” He turned to his partner, still carrying the boy while the girl clung to him. “Laronzo, release the lion!”

There were several shouts of fear around the square as the second man stepped up to the wagon and unlatched the barred door. Mothers hurried forward to drag their children away from the front rows. The lion shook itself and jumped down from the back of the cart before padding over to the raised platform and leaping nimbly onto it to stand next to the leader of the company.

“Now, now,” said the man. “There’s no cause for alarm, I assure you. Your young ones are as safe as they would be with a baby lamb. Watch!”

His partner joined him on the dais with the two children, and plopped the boy in his arms unceremoniously onto the lion’s back. The child immediately grabbed the animal’s scruffy mane, completely without fear. A moment later, the little girl wrapped her arms around the lion’s neck, and Kathrael was hit with a flash of memory so strong it nearly sent her to her knees.

The wolf growled, its hackles rising as it crouched in front of her, keeping the overseer with the whip at bay. Kathrael gaped up at the legend made flesh standing less than an arm’s length away, hope surging in her young breast.

She righted herself from where she lay sprawled on the ground and crept forward, wrapping her arms around the wolf’s bristling shoulders fearlessly.

“Lupi?” she asked, tears running unchecked down her cheeks. “The gods have finally sent you for us, after so long?”

Kathrael thrust a hand out to steady herself against the doorframe behind her, caught between the past and the present even as the audience looked on in amazement.

“As you see,” the man continued, “this beast is completely under my control. Only the strongest of wills can overpower the spirit of a lion, and I am pleased to count myself among that number.”

The lion wrapped a large paw around the little girl and swiped its broad tongue across her hip, drawing a giggle from her. The audience gasped, but she only clung harder and buried her face in its mane. Kathrael stared as if entranced as the man on the platform motioned for his partner to drag the children away, and then guided the animal through a series of tricks as one might do with a pampered lapdog.

He seemed totally unconcerned for his safety, supremely confident of his control over the beast. Kathrael wondered if she was imagining the sense that the lion was humoring its jailer, biding its time until… what?

At the end of the show, however, the beast leapt lightly back up into its cage. It flopped down next to the bars and yawned again, its eyes returning unerringly to Kathrael in her shadowed hiding place. She couldn’t help the shiver of reaction that skittered up her spine.

* * *

That night, she sat huddled in a small hollow behind two scrubby bushes on the outskirts of Penth, waiting for the moon to rise. Exhaustion circled like a carrion bird, threatening to swoop in and carry her off to unintended sleep at any moment. She knew, though, that this might be her only chance to get the money she needed to continue her journey. There was every possibility that the traveling entertainers would be heading off for greener pastures in the morning.

The group had chosen a campsite a little way outside of the town. Kathrael had been hard-pressed to keep up with them on her aching feet, even with the relatively slow pace of the heavily laden wagons.

Something rustled in the darkness and she blinked her eyes open with a jerk, unaware of having closed them. To her relief, she found the camp illuminated only by a faint silver glow of moonlight. The two men she took to be the owners had finally retired to their enclosed caravans, and the fire had burned down to embers.

Earlier, before night had fallen, she’d watched as the pair herded the others into various caravans with bars on the windows, and locked them inside. It made something inside her itch and prickle, but she told herself firmly that it wasn’t why she was here. These people were not her responsibility.

And yet, a voice in her head taunted, you vowed to Elarra that you would free all the slaves in the south. Does that not make them your responsibility?

At least the little voice didn’t sound like Vesh this time. Yes, she had vowed to her sister when they were children that she would lead an uprising against the slavers. But first, she would have her revenge. She deserved that much out of life, surely. And revenge meant getting across the mountains.

In the moonlight, the camp was completely quiet. Kathrael slipped on silent feet from her hiding place and into the circle of wagons. Someone had left a crust of bread and the dregs of a cup of wine next to the remains of the fire. Kathrael ate and drank without thought, finishing every drop, every crumb.

She was just looking around, trying to decide the best way to find where the money was stashed without waking anyone, when a soft noise pierced the silence.

Psst!”

Her heart thudded in her ribcage and she froze, caught, but no cry of alarm followed that first quiet sound. She cast around in the near darkness, silently cursing her blind, useless left eye. Eventually, her gaze came to rest on the lion’s cage. The animal was nowhere to be seen. Instead, a naked man crouched inside facing her, his arms resting casually through the bars as he watched her.

Chapter 4: Favian’s Ultimatum

FAVIAN OF DRAEBARD took a deep breath and knocked on the door to the High Priest’s private quarters in the back of the temple. He’d always known it would be a challenge to convince his mentor that he was truly ready to undergo his novitiate into the priesthood, but the situation was starting to become ridiculous. It was time to speak plainly, and finally hash out the argument once and for all.

There were low voices coming from within, though the conversation paused at the sound of his knocking. As it was fairly late in the evening, it came as no surprise to Favian that the High Priest was not alone in his rooms. And indeed, it was not Senovo, but Carivel—Draebard’s Horse Mistress—who opened the door for him.

“Oh! Hello, Favian. Come on in,” she said with a sheepish smile, rubbing a hand over the back of her neck as she stood back to let him pass. She was barefoot, dressed casually in a man’s tunic and breeches—clearly not intending to leave anytime soon. “We were just discussing some village business. Have you eaten? There’s a bit of roast left.”

“Hi, Carivel. Thanks, but I ate earlier with the other acolytes. I just need to speak with Senovo, if he has time. You and Andoc as well, I guess, since you’re here.”

Carivel mouthed a silent “ahh” of understanding, and waved him into the room.

Chief Andoc looked up as he entered, a smile brightening his ruggedly handsome face. “Join us, Favian. What can we do for you tonight?”

Next to him, Senovo leaned back in his chair and lowered the goblet he’d been holding to the table before him. His black hair hung loose over his shoulders, freed from the tightly plaited queue favored by members of the priesthood. He raised a dark, finely sculpted eyebrow at his protégé, a question in his gold-green eyes.

Andoc and Carivel had been Favian’s formal guardians since he lost his father several years ago. His mother had died giving birth to his sister, Frella, when he was still quite young. After his father was killed in an accident while traveling, Senovo had immediately taken both Favian and Frella under his wing, welcoming them into the temple and ensuring that their day-to-day needs were met. Soon afterward, Andoc and Carivel had used their positions of authority within the village to make a more permanent arrangement for the siblings. None of the three had ever attempted to replace his dead parents, but nonetheless, he and Frella had quickly come to rely on them as family.

Favian was more grateful to the eccentric trio seated before him than he could express. Now, though, he needed to make Senovo, in particular, understand that it was time for him to move on to the next stage in his life. He swallowed, and licked his dry lips to wet them.

“High Priest Senovo,” he said, “I formally request that you either agree to let me undergo my novitiate and elevate me to the priesthood, or throw me out of the temple altogether.”

Understanding flooded Senovo’s features. “Favian—” he began, looking pained.

Favian didn’t give him a chance to continue. “I have completed all of the requirements to join the priesthood, and expressed my desire to dedicate myself to the gods’ service. Several times, in fact,” he added dryly. “I can only assume that your continued resistance to my request means you do not consider me worthy of becoming a novice priest.”

Senovo closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. “Of course it doesn’t, Favian,” he said, “as you know perfectly well. I merely wish to ensure that you truly understand what you will be undertaking, Little Brother. Once done, it can never be undone.”

Favian relaxed his stiff stance enough to lean his hands on the table, meeting Senovo’s gaze evenly across the expanse of wood. “I know you’re only trying to protect me, Elder Brother,” he replied, echoing the less formal term of address used between members of the temple, “but in the end, it’s my life. My choice.”

Andoc, along with Carivel, had been watching the confrontation silently. Now, the village chief looked at Senovo and rolled his eyes. “It’s not as if you haven’t tried every trick you could think of to talk him out of it already, amadi,” he pointed out, one hand resting on the back of Senovo’s chair with casual familiarity. “He wants to be a priest, and he wants to be a eunuch. It’s a completely different situation than the one you suffered as a young man.”

Carivel ran a hand through her close-cropped hair, ruffling it. “There’s nothing that says you have to do it personally, is there? The castration, I mean,” she asked Senovo with a frown.

The High Priest pinched the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb. He was silent for a long moment before speaking again. “No. No, there is not.” He looked back up at Favian, pinning him with an intense gaze. “Very well, Favian. Give me your word that you are truly running toward the priesthood—not running away from your physical desires or inclinations… and I will agree to your request.”

Favian forced himself to hold that too-knowing gaze and reply in an even voice, “You have my word.”

It was the truth, now that Ithric was gone, seemingly for good—sneaking away from Draebard months ago in the middle of the night, without so much as an explanation or a goodbye.

Well… it was mostly the truth, at any rate, and Favian refused to feel guilty about the small deceit.

Senovo’s eyes burned into his for another beat before he blinked and said, “In that case, I will speak to Healer Sagdea. She is the most qualified person in Draebard to perform the procedure, in any case. Brother Eiridan can assist her in my stead.”

“Congratulations, Favian,” Carivel said quietly. “I’ve always said you were going to be a terrific priest someday.”

“We’re all very proud of you, you know,” Andoc put in. “It took courage to beard our stubborn High Priest in his den and state your case. Carivel’s right—you’ll make a great priest.”

“Thank you,” Favian said, the words meant for all three of them, but his attention still focused on Senovo.

Senovo huffed out a breath. “Don’t thank me yet, Favian. You may assume that my reluctance to see you castrated stems merely from my own unfortunate initiation into the Priest’s Guild, but there is also another matter to address.”

Favian felt a moment’s confusion before he realized what Senovo meant.

“Ah,” he said. “Right. I’d almost forgotten about the dream.”

Andoc’s expression sharpened immediately, and Carivel drew in an audible breath.

The dream?” Andoc echoed. “What dream are we discussing, here, and why is this the first I’ve heard about it?”

Favian opened his mouth to speak, but Senovo beat him to it. “Favian has many dreams, Andoc. He shared this one with me not long after the battle at Llanmeer, but it didn’t seem relevant until his novitiate approached. It did, however, have many of the hallmarks of a true vision. Favian?”

Favian cleared his throat. “Yes, it felt like a seer’s dream at the time. You have to understand, it’s been years ago, now, so it’s pretty hazy, I’m afraid. But I was definitely lying in my room, recovering from the novitiation ceremony. I think it was a few days afterward. And there was this girl…”

* * *

Later, after his guardians had extracted every detail from him that he could remember, Favian left them to their discussion and went to find Limdya. She had offered earlier to keep his sister Frella company while he spoke to Senovo, and she’d made him promise to tell her everything once he returned.

Limdya and her two sisters had been orphaned in the Alyrion attack on Draebard, only a few months before Favian’s own father had died. She’d been a huge help to both him and Frella as they dealt with their grief and fear for the future. In return, Favian had assisted her wherever he could with her job at the horse pens—she had been the first girl ever accepted as an apprentice there. Well, the first girl if you didn’t count Carivel, who had originally gained her position at the pens because everyone thought she was a boy.

At any rate, Limdya had never been allowed near the horses when she was growing up, so she was at a considerable disadvantage compared to the other apprentices. Since Favian had worked at the pens before becoming a temple acolyte, he was happy to tutor her in horsemanship whenever he was able. Though he was confident his decision to leave the pens and join the temple had been the right one, he still missed the horses, and it was good to get out with them when his other duties allowed.

In the beginning of their friendship, it quickly became obvious that Limdya had something of a crush on him. Which was, well… awkward. Though Favian had always craved close relationships and emotional intimacy with females and males alike, he had only ever been sexually attracted to men. Unfortunately, such liaisons were strictly taboo in Eburosi society—to be caught with another man could result in exile at the very least.

Not that Favian thought Andoc would actually throw him out of the village, of course. Rumor had it that their fearless chieftain had entertained his share of male lovers in his own misspent youth. And there was also the fact that Andoc and Carivel were handfasted to a eunuch High Priest—though the controversial three-way relationship had brought its own measure of scandal when it first became public knowledge.

Still, a eunuch being with a man was different. Not encouraged, exactly. But… tolerated.

A few months after they had become close, Favian haltingly told Limdya all of this, terrified that she would pull away in disgust once she knew of his unnatural leanings. She sat very still and quiet for several long moments after his flood of words had finally dried up, before leaning forward and pulling him into a tight hug.

“It’s not fair,” she’d said, her voice full of sadness on his behalf. “It’s no more fair than saying that women can’t tend the animals or men can’t be healers. It’s just so… stupid—all of it!” She pulled back, wiping away tears. “Sorry, I’m being an idiot.” She gave a wet laugh, obviously directed at herself. “Apparently, I have a type, when it comes to men. The unavailable type.”

“You’ll find someone, Limdya,” he’d told her with complete certainty. He placed a kiss on her forehead, even as relief poured through him that she hadn’t reacted with anger or hurt. “If it weren’t for the sex thing, we could go get handfasted tomorrow as far as I’m concerned. I do love you. I just don’t… desire you.”

Her smile was watery. “That’s a tempting offer,” she said. “I want children, though. Lots of them. And I do want to be desired, Favian.” Her eyes grew far away. “Maybe someday…” When she looked at him again, her usual playful good humor had returned. “I’m afraid you’ll just have to put up with me as a friend.”

He’d smiled back at her and made some light quip, but inside, he’d longed for someone in his life who was more than just a friend.

As it turned out, Limdya hadn’t needed to wait long before love found her—in the form of Dalon, Carivel’s assistant at the horse pens. He was a few years older than her, and their relative positions in the village made it awkward at first, but Favian was convinced that their feelings for each other were genuine. They had been together for almost two years, and were now discussing entering into a more permanent arrangement in the fall.

Still, Limdya had made good on her promise of continued friendship, and she was the one he went to whenever he needed support or a sympathetic ear from someone close to his own age. Now, she was waiting for him with Frella in the room he and his sister shared in the temple.

Frella must have heard his footsteps approaching, because she yanked open the door, eyes wide, and asked, “Well?”

“He said yes,” Favian confirmed, and caught Frella when she squealed with excitement and threw herself into his arms.

Limdya appeared in the doorway, a smile making her round, soft features glow. “Congratulations, Favian. When is the ceremony?”

“Two days from now,” he told her, flooded with a strange combination of relief and nervousness.

She nodded her understanding before turning sober. “What about the dream, though? You remember the one I mean? Did you tell them about the girl with the knife?”

“Yes, I did.” Favian disentangled himself from his sister and crossed to sit down on his bed. “Senovo knew already, but I recounted everything I could remember about it to all three of them, which unfortunately wasn’t as much as I’d have liked.”

“It might not even happen, you know,” said Limdya, though she sounded doubtful. “Not all of your dreams come true.”

“Thank goodness,” Frella put in, her face screwing up in disgust. “Remember that one you told us about where no one in the village could find any clothes, and everyone had to go around naked? That would have been a real nightmare.”

Limdya laughed, clear and light. “It all depends on the person in question, sweetheart. Am I right, Favian?”

Favian blushed to the roots of his hair, remembering with perfect clarity how Ithric’s body had looked in the odd dream—lean and perfect and covered with old scars. “No comment,” he said.

“Eww,” groaned Frella. “Why do you two have to say things like that?”

Limdya only laughed harder. “It’ll all make sense someday, sweetheart—you’ll see. And may the gods help the male population of Draebard when that day finally comes.”

At the age of ten, Frella had already perfected the art of the offended flounce. She employed it now. “Ugh,” she said over her shoulder in a tone of disgust. “You’re awful, Limdya! I don’t have to listen to this. I’m going to go and tell the others the news!”

“Don’t mention the dream,” Favian called after her. “I don’t want it to turn into some great big deal!”

Ever since he had begun to exhibit signs of the second sight at the age of fourteen, Favian’s gift had been a mixed blessing, at best. At first, he had only dreamed of catastrophic events—terrible things that left him wracked with guilt when they came to pass in reality. Later, he started to foresee stupid, meaningless things. People slipping and falling in the mud after a rainstorm, or spilling their drinks. Piglets escaping from the hog pens—that sort of thing.

Eventually, his dreams seemed to settle along a sort of middle ground, of things that were important, but not world ending. Possibly this was only because Draebard had been relatively quiet in recent years, since the war. Whatever the case, Favian wasn’t about to complain. He didn’t think he could have maintained his sanity with death and destruction playing out behind his closed eyelids at night.

“Here,” said Limdya, drawing him back to his surroundings. “I brought some ale from the cookhouse. We’ll celebrate with a toast.”

“Thanks,” Favian said, accepting a cup from her. Limdya’s older sisters still ran their late mother’s cookhouse, and even though Limdya no longer worked there, she always seemed able to get the best food and drink for any occasion.

“To Novice Favian,” Limdya toasted with a smile, raising her own clay cup.

Favian could not contain his pleased grin as he touched his cup to hers. “It does have kind of a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”

“It does indeed, my friend,” Limdya agreed. “So, are you going to have a last fling before the ceremony? See your balls off in style, so to speak?”

Favian choked on his mouthful of ale. “Limdya!” he said after he managed to clear his throat. “Be serious! Who exactly in Draebard am I going to fuck?”

Limdya sobered. “I was being serious. You could have a night with one of the novices, couldn’t you? Or maybe even another acolyte. Even if people found out, I don’t think they’d hold it against you. You’re almost a eunuch now, after all.”

He laughed, but it was a weak sound. “Oh, gods, no. I couldn’t. It would be like bedding a family member.” He shook his head and gave a little shudder, dismissing the frankly disturbing image. “Besides,” he added, “I don’t really go for eunuchs.”

Limdya let out an unladylike snort of amusement, as Favian had intended. It seemed she wasn’t ready to let it pass so easily, though. “I just think it’s sad that you’ll never get a chance to really experience it. As a man, I mean. I know eunuchs still do have sex, of course—some of them, at least. But it must be really different for them, right?” She paused, frowning. “Don’t you want to at least know what it’s like?”

Favian looked down, studying his ale. “I do know what it’s like,” he said quietly.

Limdya was silent for a long moment, before blurting, “Oh, my gods. You don’t mean… you and Ithric—?”

“Once,” Favian confirmed, and added in a voice laced heavily with irony, “right before he left, in fact.”

“But I thought you two could barely stand each other!” Limdya said.

“That’s because Ithric is an infuriating ass,” Favian muttered.

Limdya made a dismissive noise. “Dalon is an infuriating ass, but that doesn’t mean I’m not in love with him.” Favian could practically see her rearranging things inside her head to accommodate this new information. “Merciful Utarr. Everything makes so much more sense now. He broke your heart, didn’t he?”

Favian scoffed to hide the way his chest ached. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m fine. It could never have worked between us anyway. What would a novice priest want with a scruffy, itinerant shape-shifter?”

What, indeed?

Limdya opened her mouth to say something else that Favian was fairly sure he didn’t want to hear. Fortunately, approaching footsteps and a ragged cheer from the hallway interrupted her. Moments later, several of Favian’s fellow acolytes and novices poured into the too-small room, armed with flagons of wine liberated from the refectory.

Reston grabbed Favian in a one-armed hug and ruffled his hair. “Congratulations, Little Brother. Frella just told us the good news. Think the gods will forgive us in the morning if we get you thoroughly plastered tonight to celebrate?”

Favian took a deep breath and gave his melancholy thoughts a firm shove to one side. “I think there’s only one way to find out. Pour me a cup?”


Continue to Chapter 5-6

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