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The grumbling started quickly. Not that this surprised me.
“Why can’t we just take the road?” asked Nem, for what seemed like the hundredth time.
He’d started before we’d even exited the hospital. I couldn’t really blame him. He was a prince, of sorts, and the road offered comforts and familiarity that trudging through the great wood of his realm did not.
I turned and looked at him. “You can go,” I said. “I am content to travel alone.”
His eyes were mercurial, gray that burned with a silver fire when he was irritated, as he was now. “Trying to get out of our bargain?” he spat.
I shook my head and glanced around, choosing a rather large stone as a seat. As I pulled myself up onto it and let my legs dangle, I looked at the young prince of Zaharoth. “I honor my bargains, Nem,” I said, meeting the gray, swirling gaze. “But the bargain was to accompany me. That does not mean dictating the route. Jordan will be difficult enough to find without wasting time by going around the wood.”
The shadow behind his eyes began to overwhelm the silver fire burning within, and his gaze skirted away. I allowed my legs to swing as I sat on the rock and leaned back, braced against one hand. In the wood the curtain of his silver hair caught easily on trees and bushes and the outer layer of it tangled wildly. His clothes, all finely wrought of rare silks and velvet, these too were marked—stained by exertion that the young man was clearly not used to. An errant tree branch had already marred his face with fine red lines, stark against the pale icy flesh. His high, regal cheekbones flushed as he avoided my gaze, and yet I simply sat, leaning back, relaxed.
Nem closed his eyes, resting one hand on the sword in its scabbard at his waist, a gesture he’d made so often in the short time we’d traveled that I knew it must be pure habit. “You lack appreciation for the wood,” he said. His voice was quiet and cold and… certain.
I leaned forward and launched myself lightly to the ground. I grasped his shoulder lightly, ignoring the flinch and color to his cheeks. As a prince, I knew few would dare to touch him with such familiarity, but I made the gesture undaunted. “There is nothing to fear.”
“Of course not!” he said, his nose in the air. His posture grew rigidly straight.
I ran my hand from his shoulder along his upper arm and then clasped tightly there. “I mean it,” I said, squeezing lightly. “We’ll be fine.”
His chest filled, puffing up as he took a long slow breath and let it out slowly. His body was still rigid, but the silver fire dwindled to an ember in his eyes.
I smiled. It had taken the rage over Bri leaving for me to learn strategies like that for managing my anger and fear. “Better?”
“The wood is dangerous,” he said, his voice carefully calm and threatening to rise every moment, “even for those of the blood. If you are truly the One That Feels, then you know that.”
“I do,” I said, being sure to catch the gave that actively worked to avoid me. “But I am in haste. The journey will be several days, perhaps weeks, and while we travel, a boy dies.”
“Yarath of Om will not let a child of his own flesh die!” Nem spoke with the fervor of certainty. I wished I shared it.
“He would let the boy’s body die in the Real. He could keep Jordan from Brian forever.” I shook my head. “I cannot let that happen.” Even if part of me wants it to.
“I do not understand you, Thommas of Ashe,” said Nem quietly. “You come to the Realm, paying openly what we charge mortal flesh from the Real for the privilege. To find your lover’s lover. To return him to your home. To bring them back together.”
“Yes,” I croaked.
“But you love him,” pressed Nem. This time I shared his certainty.
I closed my eyes. “I do,” I said softly. My hand fell from Nem’s arm and I turned away. “He left me. Years ago, he left.”
“But you were there,” said Nem, and I imagined he must be shaking his head. “You were helping him. I saw the death you drew from the boy child of Om. It was strong. Even for one of the blood it would have been—”
“And yet you drew it from him without a thought to yourself. Your thoughts were on him. Not the child of Om, but on the anchor, this Brian, the one who loves you still.”
His tone was thoughtful, contemplative. It took a while for him to finish. “You should be dead.”
“I’m not. Might be easier if I was, really,” I said. Should it hurt that I meant the words? I did not turn around. “I’d taken that death from Jordan before. I’d hoped that was all I’d need to do. I could leave, Bri would be happy.” I shook my head. “I love him. He deserves happiness.”
I hesitated. “It doesn’t matter.”
“You called me friend. I think, to a friend, it should,” said Nem.
I felt his fingers, cautious and hesitant on my shoulder. I took a deep breath and let it out slow. I couldn’t help a chuckle. He had just done the same thing to calm down, and now here I was. “Maybe I don’t want it to matter.”
“Maybe you deserve for him to love you back.”
I turned around. “He does,” I said, my voice cracking with the pain. “He just loves Jordan more.”
“No. I promised him I’d try.” I looked into the silver embers that had been Nem’s anger, smoldering in his gaze. “You know what that oath means. I must try.”
Nem flushed and turned away. “You are the One That Feels. You could make him love you.”
“He is an anchor,” I said. “It wouldn’t work. Even if I could have, I wanted him to choose me on his own.” I sighed. “I wanted it, and when the time came, I gave him the choice. He walked away.”
“Yet you still love him.”
I chuckled. “I used to tell Brian that love was forever. And it is. It’s a blessing—this wonderful feeling that buoys and strengthens us. The ecstasy. The passion. But love is the most painful of all emotions. Nothing can hurt us more. You can find new love,” I said softly, shaking my head again. “You can. But it is never the same. Not quite. And the old love is still there, killing you inside forever.”
“I fail to see how feeling is wise.”
“Love is not about wisdom or sense.”
Nem growled, turning away. “I am trying to understand. This realm. This wood in my own lands. You could die, trying to recover this boy. And you are not of the blood. You would not just sleep. You would be gone, without trace in the Real. You would just disappear, everything about you becoming slowly obscured by the fog that separates the worlds. Forgotten.” Nem gazed at the ground, scuffing his foot. “You risk this, and for someone who betrayed you.”
“He walked away. It’s not the—”
“It was a betrayal. A betrayal of those feelings you hold close and value.”
“It wasn’t like that,” I said so softly I was sure he would not hear it. I turned and walked deeper into the wood, and for a long time I ignored anything the young prince had to say.
The wood of Zaharoth was a growth of primeval forest, and as we got deeper, the trees began to tower over the scattered leaves and brush of the forest floor. It grew dark, even in the day, the dense branches letting through only the scarcest trace of light. Nem fairly glowed in the darkness, his pale skin and silvery hair shining like the moon in the dark of the trees. It was bad enough that the creatures of this place would smell the scent of Real on me, but they would surely also see us.
Almost as though he sensed my thoughts, the young prince chuckled. “I am not so foolish,” said Nem, his voice softly musical in the way of the folk of the realm. “We are shaded, both of us by glamour. Do not think I failed to spot the binding that hides the light of the Real in your flesh.”
“Yours is more subtle, clearly.”
Nem smirked. “I am of the blood.”
A fair statement. Those of the blood did not just wield the power—in a sense they were the power, incarnate. “I was merely concerned for your safety.”
He smiled at that. A genuine smile, soft and gentle, just the slightest curve of his lip at the edge. He grunted as he clambered over a small rocky ridge and he paused, his eyes on the wood. “We are not alone.”
It was my turn to chuckle. “My dear Nem,” I said, clapping his shoulder and ignoring the familiar wince. Princes, it seemed, were not used to such physical affection. “We have not been alone since we entered the wood.”
“These are different,” he said plainly, his eyes narrowing, the silver swirling, blazing inside them, “dangerous.”
I nodded. “Be ready,” I said plainly, “and show no fear.”
“I am the heir of Zaharoth,” he hissed. “I do not fear.”
“Good.” I clapped him again on his shoulder and pushed him forward. “Come on. It’s a long way to Om, and Jordan has little time.”
“We do no good to the brat of Om if we’re dead,” said Nem in a fit, his hand moving to the pommel of his blade. He did not follow as I pressed forward.
“Nem,” I said, stopping but not turning at all, “this forest is theirs. No rank or title held by the prince of Zaharoth will change that. We have invaded, and so they watch.”
“You question my rule!”
I had not heard his steps, but his voice was just behind me.
“I do not. They do.” I turned to him. “Let it be.”
“They stare at us!” he shook his head. “It is unseemly.”
I chuckled. “I doubt they considered the etiquette of how to look at a prince.”
Nem grumbled. “What if they—”
“Then we will deal with it,” I said flatly. “When it happens, Nem. Not now.”
“You are being foolish!” he yelled, pointing to the wood. “We see them now. Wouldn’t it be better to attack now?”
“And if you die?”
He glared at me.
His lips set in a tight line. “I am not a weakling!”
I shook my head. “I did not say you were. But accidents happen. A slip, a careless shift of balance. What would you have me say to the realm of Zaharoth if you died and so entered the great sleep?”
“What about you?”
I laughed at that. Did he know so little of the One That Feels? Had that much time passed in the Realm? “Come. They only watch. Let them see we mean them no harm.”
Nem let out a long sigh that was almost a growl. “Very well.”
We pressed on, and I couldn’t fault Nem for his nervousness. The beasts that watched us did so carefully, from the shadows, and all we ever saw were glowing eyes in the darkness, and the occasional wailing cry answered by a pack.
His grumbling got worse as the day wore on, though at least the subject had changed. “I’m hungry,” he demanded, sometime near what I knew must be dusk.
I laughed. “Then eat!”
“I don’t have any food!”
I glared at him.
“But I’m starving!”
I glanced him up and down. He wasn’t starving; his sculpted body was all muscle. I sighed and glanced around, trying to ignore the eyes that watched us in the dark. I wanted to ignore his plea, but my own stomach had been rumbling for some time already, and being of the Real, the lack of food would do more than just cause me discomfort. “Fine. Hunt and I’ll make camp.”
“We’re sleeping here?” he asked incredulously.
“Yes. Go. Hunt.”
“No doubt have trained extensively in hunting,” I said, “from animals all the way to the servants that failed you.”
He did not deny it. “But they’re watching!”
“Then be sure when you hunt, that you leave them alone. And leave an offering, there”—I pointed to a tree perhaps twenty yards away—“at the base of the tree. They are predators, these eyes that watch us. They will understand a hunt.”
Nem looked at me suspiciously, but quietly left. Hunting was no easy pastime, especially not in the Realm.
I readied the camp site, clearing the area, preparing and starting a small fire, and having the necessary discussion with one of the trees to shelter us within it for the night. This was long and involved, for trees have unusual concepts of time, and converse so seldom with walking folk that there were frequent misunderstandings that could not quickly resolved. When I was done I had a groan of agreement that most would mistake for the wind in the branches, and I settled by the fire to wait.