They managed to piece together a combination drag-litter and sled from the wreckage of the two vehicles. Three of the four horses were dead amongst the debris and there was no sign of the fourth one that Seth had managed to cut free, so he was pulling the litter himself. Cyreste was the only one unable to trudge through the snow under her own power, her right knee having swollen to more than twice its size within a few minutes of her standing on it the first time.

Carteher also spent about half his time on the sled. His dignity resented it, but the snow was about as deep as his legs were long, and so the entire length of his abdomen and tail were in full contact with the snow whenever he walked. When Seth had seen that he was freezing about four times faster than the rest of them, he threatened to tie him up and pack him onto the thing. So he walked for a while and he rode for a while on and off.

Everyone had makeshift leggings cut from the carriage upholstery to protect what could be protected and the air was irrationally warm so nobody was going to freeze too soon.

The fact that the air felt like that first spring morning in the mountains when you don't need a coat, didn't impress the snow at all. It fell steadily and refused to melt unless you crushed it in your hand for a good long while. Wherever it touched skin it stung with the caress of the deepest of arctic winters. The fact that this subtropical forest had never seen more than a freak flurry since the realm was wrought was also not lost on any of them, so they trudged on in silence.

Beyond all that, Seth's resolution to pretend that Morgan hadn't declared to him was pointless. Thoughts were tumbling incessantly in his head, banging into everything like stones bouncing around inside a rolling cask. The problem was that past context was linking up in Seth's head in a grindingly slow epiphany. He realized that he desperately needed someone to talk to, and the only people that had ever really taken a deep enough interest in him to listen were Morgan and Liane, and neither was an option just now.

They trudged on silently through the snow for the better part of a day when all at once the Snow seemed to decide it was in the wrong place, whereupon it stopped falling and then disappeared from the ground. It didn't melt, it disappeared. First it was barely passable snow about two feet deep, then there was a kind of misty fog swirling about their legs, and then they were on the completely dry packed-stone road they had been traveling on this morning. The near tropical sun hammering down into the thickly forested canopy starting to raise a normal days' humidity.

Fortunately the sun dissolved in the western sky before the air could become its customary barely-breathable soup. The litter was harder to drag across the road than it had been on the snow, but they all decided to keep on since they would be able to make town by midnight. Nobody felt much like sleeping anyway as who knew if they'd wake up in time if something else odd happened.

* * *

The town was small but dense packed. An outpost in a place where war was unlikely. Basically it was an appendage of the government that also saw to keeping itself fed and clothed even though more than half of its provisions arrived as cargo instead of produce. There was the “tower”, actually just a broad square two story building with a single up-thrust member. A lower building attached to it which contained a small guard house and a number of offices of the type necessary to the function of a modern government. Tossed near that were a number of houses and an inn, and a large grassy field that was cut from the forest. This was a place where a geographically diverse population could come to do business, receive aid from, and generally be serviced by the crown.

The tower was a focus of communication. Functionary talents would take turns on duty listening mentally for shout-casts and communiques, occasionally sending whatever outgoing missives the surrounding communities might generate. Most often these were requisitions from the people stationed there for the few luxuries that made living in the middle of nowhere survivable. The only reason the entire town really existed was to service the transcontinental trade route that cut through this freakish and temperate lowland.

The place was in post-panic repose. The disturbance had touched every corner of the realm and there were floods of messages and gossip all through the com-net that needed to be transcribed and considered. Buildings had been damaged and animals scattered, and since the snow had gone a large number of riders from caravans and villages had been pounding in demanding answers nobody had.

There were a good number of people on the ball in town, they knew this because they were all met just outside of the city limits, such as they were, and then hustled directly into the tower.

In short order Seth found himself cooling his heels in an anteroom with some rations and nothing to do but stew.

After a while Carteher came wandering in. The outpost was staffed by a relatively savvy crew but he and Seth were still to far off the norm to socialize with.

They exchanged companionable grunts and then Carteher hunkered down with his own food.

Seth started to blush, which meant nothing to Carteher, and said “um, can I, uh, ask you something?”

Carteher did the head-flick thing that Seth had learned to take as general ascent.

Seth looked down at his meat-roll and realized he didn't know what to ask. “What do you think of Morgan... and me?”

“You go well together.”

What did that mean? “no, I, um...” Seth didn't know what exactly he meant either.

Carteher watched Seth fidget for a minute or two and then just had to ask “what is really bothering you?”

“Morgan said he loved me.”

“I understand,” Carteher said, “I'm sure that when he recovers all the way he'll be back with you again.”

Seth's jaw dropped. “What?”

“Things are not right between you and Morgan just now, am I right? And you grieve for what is lost between you and your mate. Hold those words, when he is better again I am sure they will still hold.”

Seth shook his head, “no, he just told me today at the wreck.”

“I don't understand.”

Seth frowned “neither do I.”

Carteher made a kind of chirping, whistling call and a few moments later Raiolal sauntered in with food of his own, looked at Carteher and asked “what'cha need?”

“The word `love' that is the word declared between mates, yes?”

“Uh, yea, you know that.” he said around a bite of his own meat-roll.

Seth flushed bright red all over, which they didn't notice because of all his ink.

“This word comes early between mates among your people?”

“uh ha”.

“So why should Morgan have only said it today?”

Raiolal's eyes went wide and he looked over at Seth, then back at Carteher. Sometimes, he thought, that lizard had no clue whatsoever. “Real diplomatic ambassador ... beat it.”


“Get out Carteher, I need to talk to him alone now.”

“Oh.” Carteher slid off the bench and went out.

Raiolal flopped down in a char, set his plate aside and looked hard at Seth. “Carteher is a good guy, but sometimes he has no clue about people, human ones anyway. So now you have to tell me everything or it'll get all twisted up inside.”

Seth just grunted.

“Seriously, you've just been betrayed. Not on purpose and not too seriously, but betrayed nonetheless. Make something good of it or it'll fester to something very bad. That's the way I was raised to see things.”

Seth wasn't sure he understood or agreed but it seemed well intentioned and he was the only other person he had to talk to. “Just after the wreck Morgan said `I love you' to me.”

“You two aren't already lovers?”

Seth shook his head.

“Oh,” Raiolal visibly suppressed a laugh, “we thought you two were just incredibly discrete. What exactly is between you two then?”


Carteher and I have talked about you two before. Your intimacy. The way you hang on each other's every word. From the day we first met I'd just assumed you two were... together.”


“I just said. You two... I have never once seen Morgan treat you like... um, according to your station. You're no slave to him... no pet... and `friend' doesn't do it justice by half. You nick yourself and he bleeds, and it isn't a one-sided thing. I was there in the mist, I watched you cut him and what it cost you and how you swallowed that cost.

“He loves you, I don't doubt that for an instant, and whether you know it or not, you love him right back.”

“That can't be true.” Seth said. He'd spent his entire life forcing himself into a very small mold. His identity, his sense of self worth was completely tied up in the idea that he would serve. To survive Seth had systematically redirected, or strangled to death, every impulse to transcend his station. For all that she had treated him well and cared for him, Lady Mildaw had always seen him as something to be used and he'd made himself grow up to that expectation with all the considerable mental discipline at his disposal. Raiolal's words weren't liberating, everything he said was simply a denial of everything Seth had ever aspired to be.

But Raiolal was watching him and saw the distress cross his features. “Spill it.”

Seth didn't respond, he was diving deep into survival habits he hadn't even visited since being bought by Morgan, reaching desperately for the comfort of a selflessness that just wouldn't come.

“Seth!” Raiolal was shaking him gently. “Seth, you can't run from it. There's nothing to run from and nowhere to go.”

“But I...” Seth started.

“No buts. You have something to be jealous of. Hells, I'm jealous of what you have. Look at me, my best friend is a quadruped that nobody can talk to and if I manage three nights in the same place or more than a few hours with a strange woman I count myself lucky. You have someone who you love, and who actually loves you back. As fates go, well, there are a lot worse, and I know you know that.”

Raiolal got up to leave. “You need to think about things, and if all this is really just about sex, ask Carteher about the `heeth-some', er, however you pronounce it.”

It wasn't about sex. Seth knew he was attractive, that people wanted him. Life on the margins was all about intrigue and personalities just as often as it was a straight fight for survival. He'd often had to be outside the protective reach of Lady Mildaw. He'd been used for sex by free women, and men, and he'd even done an ample share of the using, when the need arose. He'd even been put to stud. Somewhere out there he had children living as slaves, and probably a few as nobles. Sex was nothing, a tool, and this had nothing to do with sex.

It took Seth a while to even realize tears were running down his face, and even longer to stop shaking.

* * *

Seth woke up sore. He didn't remember curling up in the corner of the anteroom and it took him forever to find anybody he knew. The town was filling up with riders from all quarters. Every community on the continent sent someone somewhere looking for answers, and the little outpost was not staffed to get inquiries from every community they serviced at the same time. On top of that caravans everywhere had been pushing through the night to find the solace of a permanent community, and several from the main road had tumbled in already, in various states of disrepair.

Seth finally found Morgan with Cyreste. They were working in the tower trying to correlate reports from all over the realm. The disturbance, as they were calling it, had been universal, flowing outward from the center of the realm. The exact nature changed here and there. Where some had snow and ice, others had desert heat or ruinous storms. And for all that the entire realm was in turmoil, all Seth did was surreptitiously watch Morgan and indulge in his inner turmoil for a while.

Morgan seemed to be enjoying himself, as such things are measured. His blank-faced meditation was periodically broken by a snicker or grin, say once every five minutes. His rapid personal redevelopment seemed to be making its way through that particular part of adolescence where everything even remotely suggestive was cause for giggling and embarrassment. From what Seth could see Morgan wasn't working within the lace of minds doing the “long haul” work of the currently over-stressed exchange. He was taking hand-off messages that needed to be written down for local people.

Watching that exchange cross back and forth over Morgan's features filled Seth with an odd combination of feelings. A possessiveness he didn't let himself acknowledge, and the incisive resentment of that possession being violated, was restrained from blooming into jealousy by the very denial that fueled it. Pride, unfocused because of the multitude of things he wouldn't let himself process, flowed along with the other feelings. And finally, anger. A multilayered, unstructured, simmering volcano of anger that made his palms itch.

The more he let himself be basted in his own juices the less real everything around him felt. That, at least, was old and familiar ground. The Floating Feeling, a sense that there was only void around him, had been a near-constant companion through much of his life. It was a small madness, he knew, but the compelling thought that reality stopped just beyond his furthest fingertip had consumed him every now and again. Pick up a rock and throw it, was the rock real before you touched it? Was it real after you let it go? In some ways the secret terror at the core his every nightmare was this vast and crushing sense of unreality that everything sometimes presented to him. Unable to banish the queer, empty feeling, he'd mastered it by learning anything and everything he could about, well everything. The weight of the knowing being the only force that could crush the emptiness out of his head.

But now, though he didn't understand it or recognize it for what it was, the bulwark of what he knew was starting to fail. The world wasn't falling away in catastrophe, at least not that he could tell, but his fundamental sense of how things are supposed to be was sliding around loose in his head.

It wasn't his fault.

In his core, somewhere deep down in those places built in childhood, was a powerful and corrosive message. The idea that he was a thing, a damaged thing at that, that had to constantly prove its worth or be destroyed. This was the single consistent message of his early life. He'd made peace with that and he made himself the absolute best thing he could manage. For the past year he'd been consistently forced to swallow small doses of the idea that he was not a thing, that being a thing was insufficient, and that he was now expected to be more. The dangerous idea had been sneaking its way into the core of his being, seeking to kill the only identity he'd ever had.

The sharp edge of the wedge, the drill hose, and the sluice to carry away the broken stone of his facade, had been the link he'd shared with Morgan. That link had even undermined the emptiness by providing a subtle and continuous sense of an actual connection to the world around him. It had, for all that it had been a burden at times, continuously provided that most dangerous of subconscious messages, a shared vision of objective reality.

Cyreste had cut that line and left a bleeding wound in Seth's heart and not a handful of days later Morgan's words had struck a blow. The greater pressure, however, was from within. The bonds of self-preservation within Seth's essence wrapped a cocoon of denial around two very dangerous facts. The first was that he did, absolutely and completely, love Morgan back. No, worse than that, there was no `back', no condition, he just plain loved him till it twisted in his gut like a knife. The second was packed deeper and tighter and his deepest self would not even look in its general direction. The idea that he was worthy of receiving someone's love at all was coiled and pressed deep inside him, waiting for the right spark to blow his mind apart.

The brain can only take so much. In times of great emotion, when the piece of meat itself is threatened by a crush of despair, or fear, or even joy, the brain will reach its limit and just stop. Like the snap of a twig, it just refuses to feel another serious feeling. For all that his very resiliency had built the trap. And for all that anger and emptiness and unrecognizable jealousy seemed to scrabble at the foundations of his mind. And for all that his every thought seemed to rain down on the muddy hillside of his emotional state, trying to make it slide, his brain just substituted away every active feeling and displaced it all with a sudden empty sense of calm refreshment.

But, ready to slide, the mountain had shifted, and there was no shifting it back. And from the seepage his intellect manufactured a patch. It wasn't the thing Morgan feared most, it was less wholesome than a simple willingness to perform mixed with a sense of duty. It was a shadow of love tainted by the idea of absolute duty. The love of an inferior, perhaps like a pet loves its owner but without that clean innocent intent, and woven to its edges was a dangerous and angry colored lust borne of earlier sexual misuse.

Seth felt better.

Seth was much worse.