Friday, 26 March 2010

Cymru - Chapter 40


Something was going on here, Gwilym reflected, that he really didn't understand. He was being played in some way. Except it was by the Union, so he wasn't entirely clear on whether he was just meant to accept it with patriotic gladness or go storming to Councillor Gwenllian's study to demand an explanation. Not that he was that upset about it.

The image of Awen wearing only a pair of leather breeches cut off below the knee was going to keep Gwilym happy for the rest of his life, he decided. She had her back to him where he sat cross-legged on the bed, giving him an uninterrupted view of the supple muscling sliding beneath the silver-brindled skin as she stretched, the swirling indigo tattoos marching up her spine and across her shoulder-blades. It was a beautiful sight.

Bizarrely, it was also sexier than when she'd been tied to a bed, naked and oiled between his thighs, although Gwilym supposed he was being a bit soppy there. She'd been in terrible pain when tied to the bed, naked and oiled between his thighs. Now she was - well, knowing Awen, probably still in pain, but far less terrible. And anyway, as he'd already revealed today and been mocked for, Gwilym was an old-fashioned religious lad. There were two social groups it felt sacreligious to try to tame or restrain in any way, and they were Riders and bards, and look who fit both categories like some kind of falsified image of perfection...

"How did you escape last night, by the way?" Awen asked curiously, her fluid voice puling him back out of his reverie. "I saw who you were sitting with."

"Ienifer and Girly Lord Ieuan?" Gwilym shuddered. "I told Marged about my drinking game with Gwenllian, and then she and Erys were kind enough to drag me away while Iestyn kindly distracted them with a socially demanding but boring story about prunes."

"Really?" Awen flashed him a grin as she closed the clasps of a supporter beneath her breasts. "I actually want to hear it now. Prunes, you say?"

"Prunes I say," Gwilym agreed. "And boring, did I mention that? You don't want to hear it. You're wrong, I'm afraid."

"Oh," Awen said mildly. "I see. You really do make the strangest Sovereign, you know. I think the last person to tell me I was wrong was - well, Owain, actually."

"I'm unsurprised," Gwilym said disapprovingly. "He was an unsavoury fellow, apparently of body and mind."

Awen laughed, the sound like honey.

"In fairness, it's a privilege of rank," she grinned, pulling on a clean jerkin. "He was my Deputy. They're allowed. Like Madog and Dylan, although I'll freely admit that their dynamic is considerably different from mine with Owain."

He'd noticed that, actually. Getting to know Casnewydd's Alpha Wing all morning had been a whole new education. Madog and Dylan's relationship was that light-hearted, indifferent dance of banter that covered chasms of earned affection, and Gwilym had been expecting much the same here; but it was far, far more complicated. To them, Awen was commander, mother, sister, lover and friend. They adored her. She was every kind of comfort to them that she could possibly be; but, at the same time, she could have ordered them to walk into the sea and drown themselves and they would have done it joyfully. A Deputy was a sub-commander, someone to share the leadership with in some way, someone to debate orders with her. But the others couldn't and wouldn't. With the loss of Owain, Awen had actually lost the closest thing she'd had to a peer. It wasn't that surprising that she was feeling lost. Everyone needed someone who could tell them they were wrong.

"Their dynamic is the opposite of mine with Watkins," Gwilym nodded sagaciously. "We pretend to like each other while secretly hating each other. I think my father once told me that sort of thing is character-building."

"Of a sort," Awen snorted, her fingers closing the clasps at her throat. She was a fast dresser, although Gwilym supposed it was an expected skill given that in her line of work speed of dressing meant the difference between fighting in uniform or fighting in nothing but a smile. "Depends on the character, of course. Was your father a tough-love kind of man?"

Gwilym considered that for a moment.

"I'm not sure," he admitted. "I didn't know him that well. He didn't have much spare time, and what he did have was spent with my sister to teach her Sovereigning and such. He seemed to be."

Gwilym trailed off, idly watching the wall opposite as he thought.

"He was... stern, certainly," he said at last. "Didn't smile much. He grew up in the Wars under my completely psychotic grandmother, though, so I suppose it was expected. He was definitely one of those people with firm ideas on what makes an adult, killing a hare with your teeth and wearing its blood as face-paint, that kind of thing. But he was also very fair, so it was hard to complain."

"That's important," Awen nodded, pulling on a boot and somehow lacing it from ankle to knee in the same sort of time Gwilym would have used to just pick up one lace and look at it blearily. "It makes you a better leader."

"Presumably it did." Gwilym linked his hands behind his head and leaned back against the pillows, watching her. "To be honest, though, I think you would have met him more than I did. You probably knew him better."

Awen glanced at him, the fleeting look guilty before she turned to the other boot, a soft smile firmly in place. She was far too used to wearing masks, Gwilym felt.

"My take on him was much the same," she said. "Stern as a rock and about as likely to change his mind on something. But fair. I don't find it at all surprising he came up with Marged's crazy system of butterflies and sunshine."

"No," Gwilym agreed. "Although I'm surprised she didn't. I wonder how disapproving he'd be of what I've done so far? I've ruined his careful system of budgetting already."

There was a pause as Awen finished the lacing and stood, her gaze fixed on the wall as she dusted off her hands, apparently trying to work out how to say something. Gwilym almost laughed.

"Tell me what's on your mind and I promise I shan't take it as either condemnation or endorsement of my crazy political schemes," he grinned. "Or change anything based on it."

"I'm not allowed," she said, clearly torn. "You're already not supposed to be in my bedroom, Gwenllian or not. If I start giving you any sort of political advice I probably won't survive long enough to see Adara come back after all."

"That's a policy that really needs changing, you know," Gwilym said contentedly. "Life would be much easier if the Union could just give us all instructions on what we should do as Sovereigns."

"We don't run the country," Awen smiled with a distressing amount of certainty given how wrong she was. She picked up a long, rectangular mechanism from the dresser and began to strap it to her forearm. "We just guard it."

"Well, yes, I'll just be avoiding that particular bear-trap now," Gwilym said, sitting up. "But anyway; I'm merely asking what my father might think of my wanton destruction of his carefully-created scheme. Not what you think."

"Well..." Awen shrugged awkwardly. "As I say, he didn't change his mind much. I expect he'd have hated it at first."

"Only at first?" Well, that sounded hopeful. Perhaps it was mildly pathetic Gwilym was seeking approval from a dead man he hadn't known that well.

"Yes," Awen said, and it took Gwilym a moment to work out that she hadn't just answered his internal reflectings about his patheticness. "Because he was fair enough not to hold a grudge against something once it was already done and demonstrably working. Once you've got that system in place properly and everything clicks, I think he'd have been proud of you."

Proud of him. He hadn't considered that. Although it must have been the case, given that on finding out about Gwilym's nocturnal doctoring habits he hadn't deported him or anything. Although that could have just been Gwilym's mother's influence.

"I wonder what your sister would have been like as Sovereign?" Awen mused suddenly. Gwilym blinked.

"Bethan?" he asked blankly. "Terrifying. She was so angry, Awen. She'd have combusted within the year. My Mental Uncle Dara pushed her into a grain bin once. My chefs tell me they had to peel her off his face."

"Yes, but that's excellent foreign policy," Awen said, straight-faced, and Gwilym actually giggled. "You'd never lose a trade agreement again. And just imagine Flyn asking her for an illicit vote, all our problems would be solved at a glance."

She finished with the mechanism and flexed her wrist. A seven-inch blade, slim and horrifically sharp, shot out of the mechanism from her inner arm with enough speed to punch through metal. Awen gave it a critical look and then nodded, another flex making the blade shoot back so suddenly it seemed to have disappeared, and then began strapping a second to her other arm.

It took a second, but Gwilym realised his jaw was hanging.

"Er," he said. "Concealed death wrists?"

"Yes, they're very handy," Awen said absently. "They're easier to kill with, and of course they practically already-drawn - that's how I got away from Owain. Risky though. They're literally an accident waiting to happen. You have to undergo extensive training before you're certified safe to use them."

"Surely," Gwilym said, his mind swimming, "the risk of self-impalement -"

"Staggeringly high, yeah," Awen agreed. She flexed this wrist and again, the blade shot out and back, a flash of metal, deadly and hidden. "And accidental impaling of others, of course, which is why the training is so intensive. You do it for years upon years before you're allowed them. I've often considered cutting my ring fingers off, actually."

"You - what?" Gwilym managed. Awen started pulling a leather guard over the mechanism, and blankly he realised she'd been wearing those the day before. He'd just taken them to be archery guards, defence against errant bow strings.

"To give the blade an exit point against my palms," Awen explained, supremely unconcerned. "But I decided against it on the grounds that it would then be a clue that I wear them, and half of the efficacy of wristblades is that no one knows you have them."

"Awen," Gwilym sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "You are beyond messed up."


"You're floating around somewhere, way out past the border of messed up," Gwilym continued. "So much so you seem to think you're actually back in Well-Adjusted Land with the rest of us."

"I don't think that," Awen protested mildly. "I'm not normal, I know that. I'm a Rider."

"Oh, I see," Gwilym said glumly. "And therefore normal rules don't apply."

"No, they don't," Awen agreed, finishing with the guards and picking up her knife-belt. She looked at him suspiciously. "Is this about my fingers? I said ring fingers, I'm not mental. You don't need those."

"You're a bard!" Gwilym protested. "You need all of your fingers!"

"It's a secondary job," Awen shrugged, and gave him a look. "And anyway, I decided against it, remember? This discussion is academic. More important-"

She sighed as she finished buckling on the belt and ran a hand through her hair, looking worried. Gwilym sat up straighter. Some primal part of him was screaming in girly fashion at the sight of a trained killer looking worried. It was like seeing a mountain get dizzy.

"More important is why Gwenllian sent you here," Awen muttered, and Gwilym went still.

Well, he agreed. It was, after all, probably a safe bet that the Union knew all about his increasing infatuation with their best Rider. Gwilym wasn't naive. The second he'd put on the torque he'd been quite aware that he was going to be closely monitored, because that was the whole point of the Union. Their job was to make sure Gwilym did his legally. Presumably, therefore, he was watched. He found it mildly bizarre that no other Sovereigns seemed to realise this, but perhaps it was an advantage of growing up outside the country giving an external perspective.

Apparently, though, this was a mutual infatuation, something which made him feel all soppily happy inside, but nonetheless created a genuine Problem. There really should have been more of an attempt on the Union's part to keep them apart as much as possible. Gwenllian's intervention this morning was frankly bizarre. And seemingly worrying to Awen.

"You know," he said thoughtfully, "I think I'll ask her."

"What?" Awen said. Her voice was alarmed, as though he'd just declared himself to have three heads.

"It pays to be direct." Gwilym stood and stretched, his spine easing back into place after sitting on a bed for so long. Awen took a few steps towards him and stopped barely a foot away, her expression much the same as someone whose elderly father has just declared he wants to marry a pony. Mental Uncle Dara had done that once. Gwilym still wasn't sure if it had been a joke or not.

"I don't for a minute believe you think that, what with you being a politician and all," she said. "And - no. That just wouldn't be a good idea."

"Of course it will," Gwilym grinned. "Stop freaking out. The worst she can do is innocently deny everything. Hopefully, she'll helpfully explain what she's up to. And I'm a rubbish politician, by the way. Don't attribute any level of skillful sneakiness to me. You'd be wrong again."

"Councillors like people tacitly dancing around their plans," Awen said, raising her hands. "Seriously. They don't like people just asking them things."

"Councillor Gwenllian is exactly the one to ask, then," Gwilym pointed out. "Since she has a fine disregard for social niceties anyway."

"Well, yes," Awen said, exasperated. "But this isn't a social -"

"You don't like people discussing you, do you?" Gwilym asked thoughtfully. Awen's face went carefully blank. "Not if you can't steer the conversation. You have control issues."

And the more he met of other Riders the clearer it became that there was more to Awen than met the eye, although Gwilym couldn't begin to guess at what.

"It's a Wingleader thing," she said mildly defensively. "Shut up. But anyway; a lot of Councillors tend to make plans based around no one actually saying what they are. If she is, and you say something, you could force her to change it."

"Fortunately," Gwilym said wryly, stepping forward against her raised hands and freezing her in place, "I'm not sworn to her and have no need to protect any scheme she may or may not have. I'm going to ask her. I live life on the edge, me."

"If you - " Awen stopped, her eyes closed for a moment, and the change was abrupt. She seemed suddenly calmly resigned. "No. You're right."

"Sorry?" Gwilym studied her suspiciously. "Either I'm genuinely more pervasively influential than I'd realised, or you're not sharing something. My mother always told me I should share."

"It's nothing that matters," Awen shrugged, and sighed, frustrated. "I'm sorry. I keep doing this to you. Go and ask, it's fine. I need to see someone anyway."

And there went a full morning's worth of rehabilitation in a wash of weary self-recrimination, and without pausing to think about it Gwilym caught her arm and pulled her into a hug.

And then his brain froze in childish terror, because it was the equivalent of just asking to be assassinated, really. He'd been trying so hard not to be, too.

But she clung to him back. Her fingers clutched at the tunic on his back, winding themselves into the fabric and pulling it tighter, her face buried against his shoulder while she trembled slightly in his arms. Gwilym sighed, idly combing her hair between his fingers. On some level, somewhere, Awen was not facing the prospect of her probable imminent demise anywhere near as serenely as she was on the surface. And deep down on that level, beneath the surface, something was going on that she wouldn't or couldn't tell. And that was going to kill her.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

"Shut up, you mentalist," Gwilym snorted. "I want this clear, Awen, right now. You don't ever apologise to me for falling apart, or breaking down, or even something as mundane as just needing a hug. I will gladly hold you up every time you need it should circumstances so allow. And you don't get to feel guilty about it, or ashamed of it. Understood?"

She stayed glued to him for a moment more, her grip tight, the lithely muscled body tense against him, and then Awen pulled back, her face wistfully calm.

"No," she said, turning to the small shrine beside the bed and kneeling to it. Gwilym blinked.

"No?" he repeated.

"It won't be allowed, Sovereign." Her fingers moved almost automatically over the figures, the prayer short and muttered, and then she stood and moved to the door. "And furthermore; I'm going down. I'll not take you with me. Llio can show you where Councillor Gwenllian's study is, if you're not sure."

"How very good you are at retreating," Gwilym observed, and Awen flashed him a wry smile.

"It's a skill," she said, and bowed. He'd never been hurt by a bow before. "Anyway; enjoy your day, Sovereign. And thank you for this morning. I'll now enjoy mine considerably more."

"You know, you were far friendlier when you were naked," Gwilym smiled sadly, and Awen grinned.

"You're not the first man to say that to me," she answered lightly, and then she was gone, leaving Gwilym looking at the empty doorframe, his mind racing.


"You're actually going to have to come back later," Llio told him as she led him along a corridor. "We can't do her hair and make-up at the moment, which is genuinely terrible timing given that we're at the Archwiliad. They'll think we don't love her."

"I'd love to!" Gwilym said brightly. "Although I'm fairly sure this mysterious 'they' will understand that you do, in fact, love her deeply, and will simply think she can't be touched because she's impure."

"Of course they won't," Llio said, shaking her head. "They're my Paranoid They, Awen says. They don't really exist but because they're paranoid they'll think the worst."

"They - hang on," Gwilym frowned. "Surely it's you who's paranoid? Not them?"

"That could be it," Llio nodded. "To tell you the truth, at the point Awen was telling me this Owain was being an arse, so the end of my memory for this conversation is of pushing him into a bath. But anyway, it doesn't matter, because we can touch her if you're touching her too. I wonder why you?"

"So do I," Gwilym agreed thoughtfully. "I might ask a druid about that. I suspect I represent something her subconscious views as 'safe', although I couldn't begin to guess at what."

"Can you help her, do you think?" Llio asked quietly, almost pleadingly. "I'm sorry, I know it's nothing to do with you and stuff, it's just -"

"Please stop talking," Gwilym winced. "Every time I speak to Riders these days I seem to want to cry for you all. I'd dearly love to help her. More than anything else. I don't know if she'll let me, though."

"But you want to help?" Llio asked hopefully. "Really?"

"Yeah, I'm a gentleman like that," Gwilym sighed, trying to rein down the sarcasm. They reached a door with a bronze nameplate inscribed with the words 'High Councillor Gwenllian' in the sort of curly font that was meant to convey posh, fancy wealth and sophistication, but just made Gwilym's eyes go funny, and he smiled at Llio.

"Thanks for being my guide!" he grinned. "Although I'll bet you a torque I get lost on the way back and eventually have to be extracted from a cupboard."

"I can wait if you like," Llio giggled. "I don't mind. The trouble with holidays is that I get bored not killing Saxons."

"Oh, I know," Gwilym agreed with fake empathy, making Llio laugh again as he knocked on the door. "It's a dreary day if you don't have to wash blood off your tunic by breakfast. But no, thank you. I'm absolutely certain you have better things to do."

"Come in!" Gwenllian's voice called cheerily, and Llio bowed to him. Gwilym smiled and pushed the door open -

- and paused, staring to his right. Councillor Rhydian was standing maybe a foot away, his arm raised above his head and ready to strike and holding, Gwilym noted with keen interest, an axe. A very sharp axe, too, by the look of it. He lowered his gaze to Rhydian's. Rhydian looked extremely embarrassed. Gwilym wondered if he'd regain the ability to speak any time soon.

"Um," he managed, and Rhydian lowered the axe awkwardly. Gwenllian seemed to be near asphyxiation over by the desk.

"Sorry Sovereign," Rhydian said, abashed. "I thought you'd be a Rider. It's a little joke of mine."

"You threaten them with axes?" Gwilym asked blankly. "What, to - see them jump?"

"Sort of," Rhydian said warily, and Gwilym narrowed his eyes.

"No," he said, his tone accusatory. "You actually attack them, don't you? With an actual axe."

"Sometimes," Rhydian said, slightly defensively. "They can dodge."

"They aren't toys!" Gwilym said, exasperated. "They don't grow on trees! What if you pointlessly injured one? And then we all got attacked by Vikings or something? What then, hmm?"

"Well, we'd need to know if they'd lost their edge," Rhydian said, looking at the carpet. Gwilym folded his arms, ignoring Gwenllian's desperate attempts to stop laughing.

"And precisely how, Councillor, would you help them re-sharpen said edge if they no longer had a head?" he demanded. "Honestly! You torture the poor things into adulthood, you send them off into wars and tell them to be grateful, and then you can't even allow them the luxury of relaxing when they come 'home'. Is that any way to treat people?"

Gwenllian actually fell off her chair. Rhydian sighed, defeated.

"I fear, Sovereign, we've made a terrible start to this meeting," he said gloomily. "Come in, sit down, help yourself to tea, it's on the side there. I'll pick up Gwenllian."

And finally, Gwilym's brain caught up with him and quietly explained that he'd just lectured a High Councillor on how to treat Riders. Really, it was a miracle his spine was still intact these days. He just kept inviting people to kill him. He really had to stop.

Fortunately, Rhydian seemed to be feeling guilty about the whole axe thing, and after Gwenllian had been propped back up and calmed down she was so high on seratonin it seemed she would be incapable of anger for a day or so, so Gwilym had apparently gotten away with it. He poured himself some tea, and tried to maintain his composure as he sat.

"Anyway," Gwenllian said merrily after a while. "What brings you to see me, Sovereign?"

There was a gleam in her eye that suggested she knew damn well what. Gwilym sighed, and put his tea down.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm really terrible at politics, and this includes subtlety. Why did you send me to Awen this morning?"

"You did what?" Rhydian asked, startled, turning to Gwenllian. She grinned, ignoring him.

"Because she would otherwise be as stiff as a rock right now and possibly in screaming agony, boy," Gwenllian said, sitting back in her armchair and winding a red-and-black braid around a finger. "Well, I say possibly. Probably. Biscuit?"

"Why me?" Gwilym asked. He took the biscuit. He liked biscuits.

"Because you have special gifts, Sovereign," Gwenllian said innocently. "You've a way with your hands, I'm told. I'm sure Lady Ienifer and Girly Lord Ieuan were disappointed not to -"

"Tell me," Rhydian interrupted calmly, one hand over his eyes, "that you did not send the Sovereign of Aberystwyth to have sex with a crippled Alpha Wingleader. Please."

"If she did, I wildly misunderstood the message," Gwilym said. Gwenllian sat up brightly.

"But not the massage, eh? Get it?"

"Massage," Rhydian said, with relieved comprehension. "Right. Good with your hands. Excellent."

"Nonetheless," Gwilym said carefully, pulling the conversation back around. "Why-?"

"Yes, why?" Rhydian demanded, frowning at Gwenllian and crossing his arms much as Gwilym had at him not three minutes earlier. "Good gods, woman! Were you thinking? She could have killed him!"

"Could have," Gwenllian smirked. "Except Lord Gwilym is exempt from Awen's angry reflexes. I noticed it in the bar last night, Rhydian. She jumps like she's been stung with everyone except him, when she just goes still."

As did Rhydian's expression. Gwilym nodded enthusiastically.

"Yes!" he said, pointing at Rhydian's face. "Exactly! And I know I've not been subtle; I spent half of dinner yesterday with Marged telling me what a shame it is that Aberystwyth and Casnewydd are so far apart!"

"Did you get on that well with Flyn?" Gwenllian asked, grinning. Rhydian watched her impassively. Gwilym rolled his eyes.

"Oh, look at that," he said, sourly. "Awen was right. You really can't give a straight answer."

"She didn't want you to come?" Rhydian asked neutrally, his eyes on the ceiling. Gwilym shrugged.

"She didn't and then she did," he said. "Or rather, she told me it was a bad idea and then abruptly put her emotional masks back on and left to do important and secret things."

There was a pause as Rhydian and Gwenllian exchanged a serious glance, the atmosphere suddenly rather different from that of mere seconds before, and Gwilym hastily groped for the significance. Why was it important? Why hadn't Awen wanted him to come anyway? Why was it bad that she hadn't? Why - ?

Oh. Saying it aloud can force them to change their plans. As long as the attraction between him and Awen went unacknowledged officially, Gwenllian could have continued to put them togther; not a relationship, but the closest they could get. Saying it aloud, now, meant they'd be kept seperate. Which Awen had known. And not told him.

I'm going down. I'll not take you with me.

Gods damn it, Awen.

"That's more serious than I thought," Rhydian was muttering to Gwenllian, her tattooed face serene. "She's never done that before."

"Done what before?" Gwilym asked blankly, and Gwenllian actually answered.

"Tried to hide something from us," she said, sounding puzzled, and Gwilym suddenly scrabbled not to think about the letter pressed against his ribs. "She's - well. Awen's very... devoted? Good word?"

"Yes," Rhydian said quietly. "If it's for the good of Cymru, she does it. She's never violated a protocol for personal reasons before."

"Are you willing to lose her, Councillors?" Gwilym asked abruptly. They both turned and blinked at him. He was really getting into the swing of lecturing Riders today. Maybe he'd be dead by sundown after all.

"For the sake of what?" Rhydian asked suspiciously. Gwilym leaned forward.

"Look," he said. "I'm a really, really rubbish politician. I have no concept of when not to say something, and besides which one of my father's few life lessons to me was 'Never lie to a Rider' -"

"Before or after 'Never try to out-drink a Rider'?" Gwenllian asked, fascinated. Rhydian swatted her shoulder, and motioned Gwilym on.

"Awen is going to be killed, isn't she?" he pressed on. "And it's going to happen because, frankly, you did too good a job of both messing her up and making her into a weapon. You drove the 'You are your country's only defence and it is all your resonsibility' lesson far, far too deeply, so now it's all gone wrong she's blaming herself entirely. If you want to save her, she's going to need to talk to someone who can explain it all to her."

"We can do that," Rhydian said blankly, and then looked slightly embarrassed as Gwilym gave him the most unimpressed look he could muster. "What?"

"Of course you can't, Councillor," Gwilym said flatly. "With every possible respect you're owed, you have the emotional intelligence of a child. You all do. That's what you do to yourselves and each other, and it's why Awen is slowly going insane now."

"Owned," Gwenllian smirked childishly. Rhydian smacked her upside the head this time.

"I think I can do it," Gwilym continued, ignoring the interruption. "Talking to her this morning there were several points where I thought I was making some sort of progress, but she's got some incredibly deep convictions because, obviously, as part of her very job she does things I'm not allowed to know about. And that's the problem. Without knowing everything, there's not a lot I can do. And she'll never tell me, because obviously she'll take state secrets happily and willingly to her grave."

"Ah." Rhydian straightened, his face now incredibly grave. "I see what you mean by 'willing', then. Except we can't tell you, Sovereign. There are some things that no one outside the Union is allowed to know, and you - well. You're a Sovereign."

He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"If that's the price, Sovereign," Gwenllian broke in softly, "then yes. We would be willing to let her die. And she'd actually be happy that way. This is a system Awen believes in, very strongly."

"Yes, I thought you might say that," Gwilym nodded, thoughtfully. "Which is where the 'Never lie to Riders' part comes in. What if I already knew?"

And suddenly he was on the receiving end of two dangerously calm stares, and Gwilym had never felt more like he was about to die. He fought to maintain his compsure, and to his very great credit, he felt, he didn't melt onto the floor and sob at their feet.

"Oh?" Rhydian asked dangerously calmly. "And what do you know, Sovereign?"

"Conjecture on my part, obviously," Gwilym said with a slight smile. "But; I travelled a lot when I was younger, Councillors. A lot. Right through the Mediterranean, visiting every civilisation along it and meeting several from a long way beyond. And I went to what's affectionately known as the Great Library of Alexandria. Do you know they have books there about the political systems of at least fifteen different nations? Not all of which are still alive and well. Like the Romans. Old Greece, pre-Graeco Egypt, the Far East, the Maurya in India, the Hebrews... the list goes on. It was fascinating reading."

He'd wrong-footed them again. They exchanged another glance, this time the sort of slightly blank look given by two people who are alone with a maniac and are each hoping the other is following, but are saddened to see this is very much not the case.

"My point," Gwilym said, and they both looked mildly relieved that they were being given a conclusion, "is that all of the civilisations I've just mentioned used what they called 'espionage'. It's where you train someone to cross enemy lines and pretend to be one of them, while secretly sending intelligence back to your side."

There was silence. Both Councillors seemed to have frozen in place, watching him impassively, but Gwilym didn't seem to be dead yet, so he carried on.

"I think I was nineteen when I first read that," he said quietly. "And I instantly thought that was what Riders must do. Some of you, anyway. Your very purpose, the whole point of the Union, is to make sure Sovereigns behave in order to keep us out of war with ourselves. That means you have to be watching Sovereigns at all times, or near enough. Or that at least you have to be ready to if you suspect something. And then I didn't think anything more of it, since I wasn't actually going to be Sovereign, but... well..."

"Life had other ideas," Gwenllian said mildly, and looked at Rhydian, a clearly deferential look. Apparently he was the authority now. Gwilym wondered vaguely if he was about to die. Rhydian watched him, and quite suddenly Gwilym knew he was right. He recognised the calculating, analysing look in Rhydian's eyes, windows into a rapidly turning mind. Awen had that look. He was right.

"You're on the right lines," Rhydian said carefully at last. "One in each City-state, inactive until the Alpha Wingleader suspects something and activates them. Through a quirk of fate Awen is both in Casnewydd."

Only one? Gwilym doubted it. He didn't press the issue, though. Right now he was experiencing the incredibly pleasant sensation of blood pumping around his body. He rather enjoyed it. He nodded instead.

"And I assume she can't tell anyone else around her?" he asked. Both jobs? Alpha Wingleader and spy? In a border City? No wonder she was breaking. Add the inability to share it with her Wing... Gwilym would have crumbled in a week.

"No," Rhydian said. He was still watching Gwilym carefully, as though waiting for him to leap from his chair and make a break for the window. "As you can't, Sovereign. I'm afraid I'll have to insist. Other than myself, Councillor Gwenllian or Leader Awen -"

"I won't tell," Gwilym smiled. "As I say, I've thought this since I was nineteen, Councillor. I didn't even tell my father. I certainly didn't tell anyone abroad."

"It is a lot, Rhydian," Gwenllian said suddenly, watching her desk-top. "For one person to do. It's a lot of responsibility, and she can't share it."

"The thought had occured to me," Rhydian nodded. "Very well. Lord Gwilym. In spite of your claims to be a terrible politician, we've been watching you with something akin to awe this week, which has helped your case tremendously; additionally, in spite of your claim to have no subtlety you clearly have plenty. Use it," he stressed, locking eyes onto Gwilym, "and I'll sanction whatever sort of relationship you want with Leader Awen. Although she may need ordering. She's quite traditional."

There was a pause as both Gwilym and Gwenllian gaped at him. In his mind's eye, Gwilym imagined the entire Union grinding to a halt and turning to stare blankly in Rhydian's direction, not knowing why but nonetheless dumbfounded. Hell, the entire country were probably pausing in their daily activities to be unknowingly shocked.

He should probably say something, Gwilym thought detatchedly. He should probably give the old speech a go. He should probably say something like, 'I'm incredibly grateful, Councillor, for this genuinely unique opportunity. Thank you.'

"What?" he managed.

"A full relationship," Rhydian nodded, his steely smile slightly undermined by its amused glint. "If that's what you want. Don't shout it from the rooftops, though. And, I'll be honest, you probably don't want it, actually. We're hard work without much reward."

Just for a second, a tiny edge of bitterness flashed through Rhydian's eyes, and Gwilym thought of Marged's fond smile towards him, and sighed. Riders, it seemed, were Riders. Whatever stage you found them at.

"Why?" Gwilym asked. His voice had lost its stunned edge. That was a start. "I mean, I'm -"

"Well, to be honest, at whatever age you found out about this - espionage, did you call it? - I'm not and never will be comfortable with a Sovereign knowing," Rhydian shrugged. "So now, if you ever try to use that knowledge to your own advantage, you can sleep uneasily knowing that Awen Masarnen would hunt you to the ends of the earth and into Annwfn itself in order make you feel every last second of the betrayal."

"Ah", Gwilym said. Rhydian smiled brightly.

"Exactly!" he said.

"But don't, boy," Gwenllian broke in. "Serious now. We've all been so impressed by you so far. Especially this new proposal for Iestyn's builders that we're now going to have to do more paperwork on, you bastard."

"That's sort of a mixed message, you know," Gwilym began, but Rhydian stood, apparently closing the meeting.

"Well, it's been informative!" he said merrily. "I'll get you Awen's file to read, Sovereign. You should know what you're getting into before you make a decision. Otherwise, I've an Audience to make arrangements for, so I'll be off. Thanks for the tea, Gwen."

"Don't forget your axe," she said silkily.

There was an embarrassed pause, and then Rhydian shuffled back to the desk, picked up the weapon and shuffled out, not meeting Gwilym's eye. Gwenllian grinned.

"It's a milestone!" she said happily. "No one's ever survived finding out about Intelligencers before. Pub after? To celebrate?"

"Only," Gwilym said sternly, "if you promise you won't change your mind and poison my drink."

"Ha! Alright!" Gwenllian drained her teacup, and picked up a document from the table in front of her. "I'll push you down the stairs instead. Now sod off. You've given me paperwork."


It was lunchtime when Gwilym found out which Audience Rhydian had been arranging. This being the Archwiliad, of course, Gwilym's days were filled with banquets, and the banquets were filled with Sovereigns, and the Sovereigns were filled with snide, underhand comments at each other. Lunchtime was fortunately not too formal, and even more fortunately he wasn't on a table with Ienifer or Girly Lord Ieuan, so he decided to hang around in one of the big common rooms for the after-dinner chat. Which wasn't entirely hellish. There was Lady Erys, for a start.

"Almost all of your food now!" she said, holding a few pages in one hand, a pen behind her ear. She was, it seemed, the type of workaholic who viewed holidays as merely a different setting to check her receipts. "There's impressive!"

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Gwilym smiled sheepishly. "I just thought, you know, it's a bit of a waste to be producing food that doesn't sell and keeping all the money. It seemed a bit mean."

"Yes." She lowered the pages thoughtfully. "Your father was an admirable man, don't get me wrong, but... he could occasionally be a little bit stuck in his ways. I was always surprised when we'd get to yet another Archwiliad and he still hadn't changed it."

"I was surprised when I saw it," Gwilym agreed. "My Chief Clerk wouldn't let me see it for ages. I think he knew I'd go crazy and tear it in half."

"A fabulous start to one's day, I find," Erys grinned. "I am impressed, though. I'm starting a few schemes in Milford Haven to encourage local production. Did you know all four Graecian Empires pay twice as much for Cymric honey as any other kind?"

"I didn't," Gwilym said with interest. "Although when I was travelling honey was what I missed the most. I thought I was just being homesick, though."

"Ah, it's all in the bees," Lord Iestyn smiled, claiming a chair beside them. Or, beside Erys, anyway. "Better bees, better pollen. I remember your mother talking about you travelling, Gwilym. She had a small collection of tea towels you'd sent her."

"She insisted before I left," Gwilym grinned. "I offered to bring her something more useful, but she said she wanted tea towels. I think the Erinnish are all just very slightly crazy."

"Ooh, I travelled once!" Marged's voice said happily, preceeding her into the chair to Gwilym's left. She snuggled in and started to knit. "I went to Gaul! Lovely, it was. I went to a village where they had a druid who thought he could make a potion that gave super strength! Couldn't, though. Sad end."

"I went to Dál Riada once," Iestyn smiled. "To arrange a trade agreement. It was very pleasant; almost like a cross between Cymru and Phoenicia, as far as their culture was concerned. Celtic, but very much about sea-trade and sailing."

"I've always rather liked the Dál Riadans, I must admit," Erys smiled. "And the Phoenicians, for that matter, although they occasionally - good gods, Gwilym. You really meant it when you said you weren't interested in your own money, didn't you?"

"Yes?" Gwilym said hesitantly, leaning over to see the paper in her hand. "Oh, the Luxury Budget. Well, how many purple silk hankies does one really need, anyway?"

"You've cut it to eight percent of what it was," Erys marvelled. "You're a wonder. Perhaps you're right; maybe even half-Erinnish people are slightly crazy."

"Cheers," Gwilym grinned over Iestyn's deep laugh. "I like to think I'm the optimum cultural fusion."

"Ooh, you should bring your arrow to dinner tonight, by the way," Marged broke in, contentedly oblivious to the conversation thread. "It's ever so impressive."

"I sort of think that would be macabre over dinner," Gwilym said mildly, and Iestyn snorted.

"It's a crowd that appreciates macabre," he said drily. "Although don't show it to Ienifer, whatever you do. She won't leave you alone, and I've already told her my prune story."

"Yes, have I mentioned that I'm grateful to the point of being willing to carry your child for you?" Gwilym said to Iestyn's laugh. "Really. I'm willing to find a way. The druids must have some sort of trick for it."

"I still say you should have taken both," Marged grinned. "You'd have had a lovely time."

"You really would," Erys smirked, making a few small notes with her pen. "And she's a beautiful girl, Ienifer. You could do far worse."

"She looks like a doll," Gwilym said, glancing over his shoulder to make sure said doll-visaged temptress was not about to brain him with a vase for the scorn. She wasn't. "And - this is going to sound so patronising, and deeply ironic given that I'm about eight years younger than her - but..."

"I know what you mean," Iestyn interrupted, rather graciously saving Gwilym yet again from Ienifer even though she wasn't actually present this time. "There are far more advantages to those with more experience of the world, is that diplomatic enough?"

"Considerably better than I was going to say," Gwilym grinned, and carefully ignored the brief glance between Iestyn and Erys in favour of examining Marged's knitting. Predictably, Marged was almost cackling.

"Very good, boys!" she giggled. "You'll go far, Gwilym. Well, that's Ienifer out, then, bless her she'll be crushed. What about Ieuan? He's certainly got experience, you have to give him that!"

"He's terrifying," Gwilym said, slightly more whingily than he'd intended. "And a bit rapey."

"Only a bit?" Erys asked mildly. "I'd have said - there's unusual. Isn't that your clerk, Gwilym? Looks a bit like a kettle?"

Gwilym looked up. Sure enough, Watkins had entered the room, which in and of itself wasn't that unusual. Watkins entered rooms all the time, and to Gwilym's knowledge almost always without assistance. What was unusual, though, as Erys had rightly pointed out, was that he seemed to have done so this time at a flat out run, so much so that his face had gone shiny and red, unfortunately making him look like a kettle that really needed to be taken off the boil now. His clothes were slightly askew, too. Clearly, he'd run quite a way. Either that or he really needed to get into shape.

"My lord," he puffed as he slammed to a halt at Gwilym's chair. "I had - to tell - you -- The Audience -"

"Stop and breathe a bit, Watkins," Gwilym said, alarmed. "Is there any water?"

"Here, poor lamb," Marged said, handing over a glass. "I wonder what's so important about the Audiences?"

"I can't imagine," Gwilym said his mind racing. Had he done anything to anger anyone else? He'd turned down the Phoenicians, but it was Hannibal now, so clearly they were -

"I think the Erinnish one was chosen today," Erys put in casually, and Gwilym's world shrank in horror as he locked eyes with Watkins.

"Where is he?" he pleaded. "Tell me he's still in Erinn. Just say 'Erinn'. Tell me it's not -"

"Kitchens," Watkins managed, and Gwilym was up and out of the room faster than it took Marged to finish repeating the word blankly. Where were the kitchens? Oh gods, where were they? The Union was huge, they could have been anywhere -

- near the banqueting hall. They had to be. No one wanted to carry a whole roast pig further than ten feet. Gwilym fled down the corridor, retracing his steps to the room he'd just eaten in, dodging the scurrying clerks and tradespeople with limited success and leaving them astonished and mildly bruised in his wake. Who the hell had taken him to the bloody sodding kitchens? Of all the places to take the mentally derranged! And it wasn't like he was only mentally derranged in private! It might as well have been written on the man's forehead!

Gwilym shot round a corner, nearly dragging a group of children into his slipstream. Who was with him? That was the question. Would there be a Rider with him? If so, maybe everyone would survive, you never knew. Maybe it would all be a slightly embarrassing joke. Although that was assuming he wouldn't try to push the Rider into the grain bin -

He hadn't thought he could run faster, but apparently he'd been wrong. Not that he could keep this up. There was a stitch forming angrily in his side, prissily reminding him that he shouldn't eat and sprint, and he was already out of breath. Which way here? Left or right? Had he seen that statue before -?


Gwilym spun around, glorying in the sound of her voice. Awen was standing in one of the doorways he'd just fled past, studying him with bemused concern, Madog glancing over her shoulder. Gwilym ran back to them and skidded to a halt.

"My Mental Uncle Dara is loose!" he panted, looking around in wild frustration. "I must find the kitchens!"

And advantage number one to being Friends With Riders was that no matter what gibberish you shouted at them, they instinctively obeyed whatever order was buried in the sentence; in this case, 'Take me to your kitchens.' Both of them went from staring at him as though he was a nutter to a full sprint away along the corridor, Awen grabbing Gwilym's wrist and yanking him after them to get him started.

"Why's he mental?" Madog asked as they ran. They also seemed to run smoothly and elegantly and with no sign of tiring. Gwilym was relatively certain he was showing the comparative grace of a swan taking off. "What's he going to do in the kitchens?"

"Push someone in a grain bin," Gwilym managed. "The 'why' is harder."

"In fairness, jury's still out on the 'why' for Dylan," Awen threw out, and Madog laughed.

"Definitely," he agreed, pointing to a large pair of double doors ahead, which Gwilym optimistically took to mean they could stop running in a few more metres. "Although he's never pushed anyone in a grain bin. Here we are."

They both slowed to a sedate walk at the doors, but Gwilym crashed through them, staring around desperately. It seemed okay; the chefs were milling about, preparing food for the banquet that evening, no one seemed to be too distressed other than more than a few staring at him, except -

Further in. Gwilym ran in, weaving between people holding pastry and a girl with a tray of silverware, following the booming voice. Sure enough, as he approached the ambient chefs were forming a small, nervous crowd - and gods, behind them against the back wall, there were the grain bins -

"Uncle!" Gwilym almost screamed in Erinnish as he plummetted in front of them and desperately tried not to double over, clutching at his side. Several people jumped. He was going to be a hot conversation topic tonight, Gwilym just knew. "Good to see you! Please tell me you haven't been near the grain bins yet?"

"Gwilym!" and Mental Uncle Dara's enormous bulk wrapped itself around Gwilym in a bear hug, instantly cutting off his breathing. "Sovereign now, eh? Fantastic! Look at these kitchens! Have you seen their butter churns?"

"Are they big enough for a person?" Gwilym managed. No, he really couldn't breathe. That was going to be a major problem in about three seconds.

"Sire?" Awen's beautiful, mellifluous voice cut through the exchange, warm but polite. And speaking Erinnish. "Welcome to Cymru. I think you may be crushing Lord Gwilym's ribs."

"So I am!" Mental Uncle Dara boomed joyfully, and dropped Gwilym. "It's always a pleasure, Rider! And may I say, your Erinnish is as beautiful as you look?"

There was an almost comic pause in which Awen glanced helplessly at Madog, who nodded, before smiling back at Mental Uncle Dara.

"Thank you, sire," she said smoothly. "If you'll excuse me, Leader Madog and I have something to attend to briefly..."

They moved away, behind Mental Uncle Dara, and as Gwilym watched Awen sprang lightly off Madog's obligingly linked hands and on top of the grain bins, balancing as easily and elegantly on the rim as a cat.

"So, Gwilym, destroyed your City yet?" Mental Uncle Dara near-shouted jovially. "Tricky thing, ruling, eh?"

"Challenging," Gwilym nodded. "But the walls are still up and only one person has tried to kill me, and I'm assured that he doesn't count."

"Oh, you get used to those after a while!" Mental Uncle Dara beamed. "Only this month a man tried to break my skull with some sort of cosh! He was fine afterwards, though. I said to him, I said, 'Not my skull, laddie!' and he saw the funny side eventually. After I'd had him whipped, of course."

"Of course." Gwilym glanced around in some trepidation. "Um... is Aunt Clíodhna here, too?"

"Oh, yes!" Mental Uncle Dara waved a hand vaguely behind him, where the kitchens seemed to continue around the corner. Awen was nimbly disappearing around it on top of the bins still, Madog shadowing her on the ground. "She's around somewhere, back there, I think. Lorcan's here too. Thought I'd best bring him, show him the ropes. Hey, they told us you have a Rider we mustn't touch or startle because of Death! Is that true?"

"Yes," Gwilym said fervently. "You just met her, and Uncle, I cannot stress this enough. She is immensely dangerous right now."

"Well, can't be as bad as Clíodhna, eh?" Mental Uncle Dara said, mentally. "Anyway, I'm ravenous! Any good pubs?"

"Plenty," Gwilym said weakly, and his worst fears were realised as Awen and Madog reappeared round the corner, leading Lorcan covered in flour and being led by Aunt Clíodhna, apparently the physical vessel for the wrath of the gods. It seemed Mental Uncle Dara had resorted to pushing his own son into a grain bin. Although it was less of a diplomatic incident, so there was at least a silver lining.

The cloud being Aunt Clíodhna. She looked not unlike a withered, shrivelled and sour version of Gwilym's mother, really; mid-height and once dark-haired, now iron grey and almost permanently scraped back into a bun. Her eyes were the same very pale green, but narrowed and piercing, and constantly looking down her raised nose. And her expression found you wanting. Wanting and punishable.

And right now, she was furious. Her aura made her seem around three times taller and broader, an anger that his sister had inherited. Gwilym wondered nervously if he could edge behind Awen and Madog unobtrusively. Or just run.

"Dara!" she snarled, her eyes almost flashing. "We are standing in the very heart of Cymric civilisation, a privilege reknowned the world over, and you have celebrated by pushing your son into a grain bin. Explain!"

Even the chefs cowered. Even Lorcan cowered, almost vibrating in a small cloud of flour, and it was his honour being defended. Only Awen, Madog and Mental Uncle Dara seemed immune.

"It's character-building!" Mental Uncle Dara boomed cheerfully, spreading his arms. Awen caught Gwilym's eye, and suddenly they were both trying hard not to laugh. "And anyway, I'm not made of stone! He was leaning over the bin, it was just too tempting!"

"No I wasn't, Dad," Lorcan said wearily. He'd grown since Gwilym had seen him last. Which made sense; he must have been about nineteen now, and they were almost the same height, although Lorcan hadn't quite filled out into it yet. "You picked me up bodily and threw me in."

"Threw him in!" Aunt Clíodhna repeated, her voice poisonous. "You're an embarrassment to our entire country -"

"Lorcan!" Gwilym interrupted brightly, neatly side-stepping the relatives he would forever think of as 'The Adults' and slipping back into Cymric. "You've grown! I'd hug you, but you're inexplicably covered in flour."

"Yes, I'm as surprised as you," Lorcan grinned. "Thanks again, Riders. Trouble is, once you're in you're trying not to breathe. It makes shouting difficult."

"It's sort of tragic that you clearly have experience," Madog said wryly. "We can find out where your quarters are and show you there if you like."

"Otherwise, I can offer you an overlarge brush," Awen suggested, looking around. "They usually have some around in case someone accidentally gets covered in flour."

"That's best to start with," Lorcan said with the voice of experience. "If you get straight in a bath you just cover yourself in dough."

"I'll fetch one," Awen said, and then grinned over Gwilym's shoulder. "And the perfect distraction has just arrived to smooth out the diplomatic problems."

"Ooh, Gwilym!" Marged's voice trilled behind him. "Are these your relatives? My word, what a jolly bunch!"

"Sod it, then," Gwilym said, throwing an arm over Lorcan's shoulders. "Let's go to the pub. Just don't try to out-drink the Riders."

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Cymru - Chapter 39

Fact: I'm getting really good at chapters that do sod all. But I figure Awen needs at least some time off.


The pain woke her up, flooding every nerve ending and locking her body into place. She only just managed to bite off the scream in her throat, throttling the sound into something quieter that wouldn't bring half the Wing running, but within seconds Awen instinctively knew that she was getting attention anyway. The sound of another person Being Still was one she was highly attuned to.

"Llio," Awen said, forcing her voice calm as she tried not to move. "Have you gone to sleep on my floor again?"

There was the sound of a blanket rustling, and someone drawing cautiously closer. It set Awen's teeth on edge. She kept her eyes closed.

"Yes?" Llio's voice offered warily. In spite of herself, Awen smiled.

"You're a mess," she said softly. Ordinarily at this point Llio would have climbed onto the bed with her. Today, she didn't. The absense of normality was almost more painful than Awen's nerve endings. "Who else is there?"

"We were worried about you," Llyr's voice chimed in defensively. Awen sighed. "Does it hurt horrendously?"

"I've had worse," Awen said. Which was true, but not by much. She mentally imagined they were both leaning over her with knives and then opened her eyes, which meant she didn't jump when they were simply kneeling beside the bed in incredibly non-threatening poses. "Go back to bed, both of you. You can't have slept properly on the floor."

"Leader," Llyr said quietly. "You haven't moved, so clearly it's agony. We can try and help you stretch? It's worth a shot."

No, it wasn't. Even without trying it Awen knew it wouldn't work; the second they touched her she would, best case scenario, tense up so much they'd start to think she might have tetanus or something, which would make the pain worse. Worst case scenario she'd try to attack them. And Awen was already finding the looks on their faces when she jumped away from them more than she could handle.

"Bed," she ordered. "Or go and get breakfast, in which case you can bring me some. Leave me to whimper, it's my own fault anyway."

It was reluctant, but they obeyed, as she knew they would. Once they'd finished throwing her concerned glances and shut the door Awen sighed. It was going to be a long and painful morning, she reflected. With luck she could get herself basically mobile within an hour; after that she'd be able to stretch properly, so call it another hour before she was able to march stiffly about the place. Moving about would in turn help to loosen her up, so... afternoon. By the afternoon she ought to be back to the level of general pain and stiffness she'd had yesterday.

Gods, it was agony right now, though. Her back in particular was aching, a constant, throbbing pain that refused to diminish in spite of Awen's resolute immobility. Well, the sooner she got started, the sooner it would be over. She gritted her teeth, and carefully flexed her fingers.

She only whimpered, which Awen applauded herself for. The knuckles seemed to have made a spirited attempt to fuse themselves into shape, and the skin over the backs felt bizarrely like it was trying to split as her fingers straightened. She ignored it and stretched them out as far as they could go, the skin and muscles over her palms tightening as they went, and held the pose for a second before letting go. It felt... better. Incredibly painful, but better.

She repeated it a few times to make sure she'd got the mobility back in her hands, and then moved on to the next excercise. The first attempt failed; she went to bend her elbows and lift her forearms, but the strain through biceps and elbow joints was too much too soon and made her actually cry out, her wrists dropping back to the bed. Awen paused, glaring at the ceiling for a moment, and then changed tactics.

Tensing the muscles, relaxing the muscles. Tensing the muscles, relaxing the muscles. It took a while; at first Awen couldn't tell if there was even a difference between the two states, but after five minutes of concerted effort she had it, and moved on. The elbows had been a problem. She focused on moving only those, towards her sides, away from her sides, each shift barely a few milimetres at first. Why did her bones ache? That shouldn't even be possible, should it? She had medical training. Bones had no nerves.

The second attempt to lift her forearms succeeded, if admittedly accompanied by more swear words than Awen usually produced in a day. She paused to breathe, her hands resting wearily beside her shoulders. This was so much easier with someone else, gods damn it. And far more fun. And far less depressing.

Awen sighed wearily, and weighed up the options for the next movements. Shoulders next, insofar as she could, but then she was going to need upper body mobility to excersise them properly. An experimental twitch that made her yelp revealed that her stomach muscles were extremely displeased with her, as were those in her throat and neck. Which was a vicious circle, of course; without her stomach she couldn't sort out her shoulders properly, but without her shoulders for support there was almost nothing she could do about her stomach. Definitely easier with someone -

There was a knock at the door, and Awen resisted the urge to scream.

"Come in," she called, carefully repeating the arm movements she'd managed so far. The muscles were just about loose enough that she could mask the pain now-

"So how's my favourite Wingleader?" Caradog asked brightly, striding in. Llio was starting into the room just behind him, and Awen groaned and closed her eyes. "How painful is it? Do you want to cry?"

"Oddly enough, I am suddenly feeling that way, yes," Awen returned steadily. "Sod off, would you?"

"Will do!" Caradog said, the grin evident in his voice. "But first, we've brought you things; Llio got you breakfast, because you told her to, and I've brought you Lord Gwilym, because Councillor Gwenllian told me to. In here, Sovereign!"

Awen's eyes slammed open.

"I'll put the food here," Llio was saying happily, sliding a tray onto the cabinet beside the bed. "Think of it as an incentive to get moving again. That's motivational, that is. I learned that from you."

"You know, Rider quarters are about twice as nice as Sovereign ones," Lord Gwilym said interestedly, towed by the wrist into the room by Caradog and looking around. "Oh, although the bedrooms contain less. It's sort of reminiscent of Mental Uncle Dara's room, because he's not allowed too much in case it excites him."

"Why's he mental?" Caradog asked curiously. Lord Gwilym shrugged.

"Dropped on his head as a child, I should think," he offered. "Sad business, but he is the king of an Erinnish province, so in all fairness it's served him well."

"Did you say Councillor Gwenllian?" Awen asked, her mind racing. Llio smiled.

"She found me when I was eating!" she said cheerfully. "She said we were to bring Lord Gwilym here because he can do some massage thing or other that sounds brilliant, by the way."

No, no no. The danger of the situation was screaming at Awen. Sovereigns weren't casually sent to help out Riders in any sort of tactile context. Was it a test? Was this the bit where she was meant to turn him down, to show that she wasn't about to break sixty Union rules? It must have been.

"That's a terrible idea," she said blankly. "I'll kill him."

"So many want to," Lord Gwilym said morosely.

"She said you'd say that," Caradog said merrily, dropping a few coils of rope on the bed. "And we agreed, but she said if you were tied down he'd be fine. Oh, and also that she's overruling you. You can't order us to stop."

"Right," Awen said weakly. The situation had become officially insane. Did Gwenllian not know? She couldn't. Or maybe it was a lesson... Lord Gwilym smiled softly at her, an expression that conveyed far too much affection for her comfort level, and crossed over to the bed, sitting carefully on the edge. The contact with his body even through the quilt made Awen's heart beat stumble slightly, and for around the fiftieth time she wondered why. What was it about him? She barely knew the man.

"It's okay," he said merrily. "I was surprised, too. Now; obviously everywhere hurts, but anywhere in particular?"

And he seemed to have the gift of freezing her in place, rendering her completely immobile. How was he doing that?

"My back," Awen said defeatedly. "But yes, everywhere, really."

"How much of yourself can you move by now?"

"Oh, my fingers are moving mighty fine," she grinned. "And I can bend my elbows, look. Good, isn't it?"

"Magnificent!" Gwilym said, shifting aside briefly as Caradog pulled the blanket off her. It was a shame. The warmth had been the only pleasant physical sensation left to her. Awen fought not to shiver and let her muscles seize up as the cooler air touched her bare skin. "Well, you're doing better than I do after an arm-wrestling session with Mental Uncle Dara, anyway. But, you know, usually I have to have a nice long lie-down for two or three days."

"Really?" Caradog asked over his shoulder, unwinding a coil of rope. "He sounds excellent! How should I tie her?"

"Not too tightly," Gwilym said, turning to see, and through the sudden spike of fear Awen managed to catch his forearm without having to move her shoulder, limiting the pain. Gwilym looked back at her.

"Yes, tightly," she said, alarmed. "I could kill you, Sovereign. I'm not safe these days."

"There is literally no purpose to me trying this if you aren't comfortable," he said, his mouth quirking in a smile, his hand settling on her wrist and sliding down to the soft skin inside her elbow. Awen caught her breath. The enforced no touching rule was already becoming torture; Gwilym's fingers were like an addiction after withdrawal. "And anyway, I need to get to both sides of you. I'll need to roll you over."

"I don't think you're quite grasping the seriousness of what I'm saying, Sovereign," Awen said incredulously. "Are you familiar with the concept of dying?"

"Someone tried to shoot me!" he said brightly.

"Awen," Llio interrupted quietly, and everyone looked at her. "You've not moved since he came in, and he's currently sitting over you and touching you. You've not even twitched at Caradog tying a rope around your ankle."

There was a brief silence as Awen realised that yes, she could indeed feel the soft grip of the rope around her left ankle, Caradog tying the other end to the foot of the bed with about a foot of slack to spare and a gleeful smile. She met Gwilym's eye and the moment became charged, her own emotions reflected on his face.

"So I haven't," she said, not breaking eye contact. He gave her a small, sad smile.

"Yeah," he said heavily. "I know. Awkward, isn't it? The last year of my life has been deeply complex, though, so to be honest this is just like... seasoning."

"Poetic," Awen smiled tiredly. Gwilym stroked her forearm up to her hand, positioning his fingers softly around her palm. "But I still don't think -"

He squeezed with his fingertips and Awen shut up. Nothing - nothing - had ever felt as good as what the nerve endings in her hand were currently reporting. She closed her eyes and drifted with the sensation, ignoring everything else in the room. How did people learn this sort of thing? she wondered lazily. Who thought the hand was an important place to learn to massage? Well; a warrior, probably. Or a musician. Or a scribe. Certainly they were right, whoever they were.

Gwilym worked on her palm in meticulous detail, slowly making his way to her fingers which he gently stretched and curled individually before wrapping her hand in both of his and rotating the bones softly. Then it was her wrist, bent carefully forwards and back; and then his fingers were gliding over her forearm, slicked with oil and pressing hard enough that it should have hurt, but really didn't. Her hand tingled where it had been touched, all energy leeched out of it.

"Oh, that looks amazing," Llio sighed, her words sinking slowly through Awen's happy, blissful bubble. "We seriously have to learn this. How easy is it to learn?"

"Very," Gwilym said, his smile audible. "Especially given that you all have medical training and therefore a knowledge of what bit goes where anyway. But it's fairly basic; use lots of oil to avoid pulling the skin and don't press bones."

"Are you marinading me?" Awen asked lethargically. "Will I be able to just slide into my uniform after this?"

"Definitely," Gwilym declared. "Just think how much time that's saved you. Everyone should be basted in oil of a morning. Oh, and talking of basting, although more in its proper context; I made my chefs very happy before I came here."

"The most important people to keep happy in the entire Court," Awen murmured. He was doing something incredible to her elbow. "Anything to do with your new food sourcing?"

"I told them I wanted an entirely new menu out of it," Gwilym said happily. "And it turned out they'd been harbouring a secret loathing of monkey meat, so it's a good thing I caught it now. Would have been assassination attempt number two, I reckon."

"Certainly," Awen grinned. "As I say, you don't want unhappy cooks. They have inventive ways of revenge. Often involving whisks."

"Right," Caradog said from somewhere nearby. "Tie those to the headboard once you're ready, although I think it's unnecessary. Get out, Llio. Enjoy, Leader."

"Cheers," Awen said sleepily, belatedly noticing the mild pressure of rope around each wrist. Gwilym's hands had moved to her upper arms, the aching muscles purring beneath his fingers. The door clicked softly shut, and she sighed. "I'm sorry, by the way."

"Oh, what on earth for now?" Gwilym said, his tone mildly exasperated. "And before we move on, I want to say for the first time probably of many that you're not responsible for all the ills of humanity. Plagues and famines aren't your fault, Awen."

"Involving you in all of this," she said quietly, opening her eyes. He was looking at his hands, shaking his head slightly, his smile wry. "I just didn't think it would get so out of hand. I only wanted to know what Marged was up to."

"It wasn't your fault I got shot at," Gwilym said, amused. "I, I shall remind you, am pervasively influential. It was your fault I survived, you'll recall."

"My Deputy arranged it, I shall remind you," Awen said neutrally. "It was my responsibility to stop him, you'll recall."

"Which you did," Gwilym said, giving her an odd look. "Remember? I sewed you back together. And I'm alive, look, and I can tell because I'm breathing."

"To stop him at the stage he was planning it, Sovereign," Awen sighed. "He shouldn't have been able to -"

"How is it you're capable of massive objectivity towards everything but yourself?" Gwilym asked, sliding his hands to her shoulder. One slipped beneath her and the bed, carefully manipulating the muscles from both sides at the same time. It felt like summer. "You can dispassionately view everything except you, when suddenly you think you can't do anything right."

"It's been a bad week," Awen managed, and Gwilym snorted.

"Yes, I expect you normally give people hand-outs on your tremendous skills and charm," he said. "No. Let's talk about Owain."

"Must we?" Awen asked, disappointed. "But I'm enjoying myself."

"Of course you are," Gwilym grinned. "No one can withstand the aggressive wonders of Graeco-Egyptian massage. But tough. The subject matter is Owain. Tell me why you feel so badly like you failed there."

"What?" Awen stared, unseeing, at Gwilym's face. Was he serious? He was being serious. That was completely mental. In what way hadn't she failed on the subject of Owain, that was a shorter list. "I didn't know about it. I should have."

"How?" Gwilym asked calmly. He took hold of her arm at the wrist, the other hand staying on her shoulder, and raised it carefully. The shoulder joint resisted until Awen realised she was tensing it in expectation of pain, and relaxed. It still hurt, but only as a stiff ache rather than the sharp agony she'd been waiting for.

"How?" she repeated blankly. "Sovereign; he was my Deputy. And he was, amongst many other things, consorting with Saxons. And Flyn. These are things that have recognisable signs."


"Now you're just asking random questions."

"Am not," Gwilym grinned. He placed her hand beside her head on the pillow, and tied the rope attached to her wrist to the head board. "I'm serious. When a person plans out a terrible deed from start to finish, at what point do these recognisable signs appear?"

"Oh," Awen sighed. "I see where you're going with this. He had to do them before I could have known about them, yes?"

"Basically," Gwilym shrugged. He kicked off his boots and climbed over her to the other side of the bed, a move that really should have made her react violently but actually didn't. "You couldn't have known he was going to assassinate me until he actually tried, so you could hardly have stopped him beforehand. You're not telepathic."

"A lovely theory, with quite the hole in it," Awen said reasonably. He started on her other hand and she tried not to purr. "Because him wanting you dead wasn't the first sign. Him, I don't know, meeting with Saxons and killing children in my name, those were pretty big signs - "

"Stop it," Gwilym said. Commanded, really. He'd been working on his Sovereign Voice, clearly. "Alpha Wingleader. How much of your time is spent doing things apart from the rest of your Wing?"

More than you know, she thought hysterically. And I spend it on the lookout for people like him.

"Quite a bit," Awen said, her voice as calm as she knew it would be. Gwilym gave her a sympathetic look.

"Then how were you supposed to keep track of everything he did?" he asked softly, rubbing her knuckles. "Do you know every single thing the others do? There are entire windows of time in which you personally cannot be completely in control. Who's in charge then?"

Awen swallowed, her throat dry.

"Him," she said, quietly. Gwilym nodded.

"Your Deputy," he said. "The one person within the confines of this earth who you trust more than any other, because you have to. Because you should be able to. And I stand by my previous assertion that since you were still developing at fifteen too, you personally had no way of noticing he'd gone mental after the mountain thing. That was the responsibility of your Tutors. And if they missed it, then clearly, he was a clever lad. You just couldn't have known."

"You're wrong," she said, and was absolutely astonished to find that she suddenly wanted to cry. It was weird. She hadn't cried in years, and here she was, twice in one week, fighting back tears. And again, she had no idea why. "I still should have known."

"Why?" Gwilym asked gently, moving around to lie down next to her, propped up on his elbow. Awen shook her head.

"Because - " I'm an Intelligencer, she thought desperately. I'm meant to see these things. I'm supposed to know about this. And... and something else. "Because I should," she managed. "I don't - "

"The Wingleader in you is talking," Gwilym said, snaking an arm over her and holding her tightly against him. She rested her forehead on his chest, revelling in the strange, unexpected feeling of safety from him. "How old were you when you took charge? Roughly?"

"It's usually about ten," Awen said, her voice shaking. He threaded his fingers into her hair at the back of her neck, teasing at the muscles.

"You were a child," Gwilym said quietly. "I know, you just think of them as 'young Riders', but you were a child. Specifically, a child taking charge of other children. And none of you had parents. That's part of the Wingleader bond, isn't it? It's a lot of things, but some part of it is that parent-child relationship."

He stroked her neck, the motion hypnotically soothing. Awen didn't trust herself to speak.

"He was, in a small way, a son that you raised," Gwilym said. "He was your responsibility. You don't feel like you should have known, Awen. Not really.You feel like you caused it."

Good gods. He was right. Awen lay there, shocked.

"You're wrong, though," Gwilym said gently. "You really are. You were ten. It's a great system for producing Riders - whether you believe it or not you're the best Rider in the country - but it's a dangerous way to raise people if it goes wrong, and it went wrong here. It was the system that failed with Owain, not you."

There was a pause filled only with the sound of them breathing, and the faint echoes of people laughing in the lolfa. Awen tried vaguely to think of something to say as she dissipated the tight feeling in her throat. How had he spotted that? She hadn't understood that, and it was her bloody mind.

"How did you work that out?" she asked eventually, her voice still hollow with shock. Gwilym snorted gently, moving his hand around to her jaw and running a thumb across her cheekbone.

"I've been thinking about Riders a lot lately," he mused. "I spent an awful lot of my life before last year either travelling or living in Erinn. Becoming Sovereign was my first real exposure to you. I didn't really get you all."

"You've caught up," Awen said blankly, and Gwilym laughed.

"I'm working on it," he said fondly. "You're fascinating. Um... you in particular, admittedly. Although I'm hoping these insights will stop Alaw from hating me, which I think she does right now, but she's not allowed to just kill me because the Union says so."

She probably found that funnier than she would have if she hadn't been feeling completely numb. Awen laughed out loud, pushing her forehead into his chest.

"She doesn't hate you," she giggled. "She likes you, Sovereign. She just doesn't understand you, either."

"Really?" Gwilym sounded surprised. "Oh, well in that case we'll just have to go out drinking together when we get back and have a drunken heart-to-heart at three in the morning on the Aberystwyth sea-front. I think that's how people work."

"You're a master," Awen said, and unwisely tried to shift position. The pain scythed through her body, making her catch her breath. She didn't scream, though. That was good.

"Yes, where were we?" Gwilym said happily, sitting up cross-legged beside her again and taking her arm gently. "Your wrist, I think."

They lapsed into a peculiarly comfortable silence for a while, Gwilym even humming to himself as he worked while Awen tried to make sense of her own head. It would have been nice, she reflected, to have had the luxury of believing him. And he was right in many ways; about the assassination, certainly, and her hitherto unrecognised maternal instincts, and the fact that her Tutors should have noticed Owain -

But there was the snag. It didn't matter what direction Awen looked at it from, she kept coming back to the same point. She had been with Owain for years upon years, and in those years she had been an Intelligencer. She had been one of the very people who was supposed to track down traitors and murderers and such. He had been very much her responsibility.

And suddenly, and for no reason Awen could fathom, she desperately wanted to tell Lord Gwilym this. The Sovereign of Aberystwyth.

She let it go, and watched him as his fingers glided over her upper arm.

"Why did you travel so much?" Awen asked after a while. His smile, she decided, was utterly addictive. Some people were just transparent, and Gwilym was one of them when he smiled. There was a wealth of warmth and humour there that filled his eyes, a kindness that exposed itself, even when the smile was self-deprecatingly wry, as it was now.

"Because I hated politics," he said, and laughed at the irony. "I know! I am hated by the gods. No. Well. My sister was going to get the torque, and in the - well, actually fairly likely - event that she exploded with rage before that, it would have been my brother who got it. I didn't need the training, therefore, or so I thought. And I hated it anyway."

"So you stayed in Erinn with your insane uncle?"

"Mental," Gwilym corrected helpfully. "Insane would mean there was a genuine illness. He's just mental."

"Oh," Awen said, and thought about that. "And... you still stayed with him? Willingly?"

"Well, the thing about mental people is that they have far more interesting politics," Gwilym grinned. He took her wrist in one hand and her shoulder in the other, raising her arm gently. "Although... well. My Mental Uncle Dara is great, and my cousin Lorcan is brilliant, but every silver lining has a cloud. In this case, my Aunt Clíodhna. My mother and uncle's older sister."


"Beyond all reason," Gwilym nodded. "Well, probably not to you, you're hardcore, but to the rest of us mere mortals..."

"Hardcore?" Awen grinned. "I don't think anyone's ever said to me before."

"Of course not," Gwilym said mock-scornfully. "Because you're terrifying. Anyway, so was Aunt Clíodhna, although more in a way that made me want to scream like a tiny girl, so I left. After the Greek fellow who taught me how to sew skin I thought I'd go travelling, see what else is out there."

"That's insane," Awen marvelled. "I couldn't do that."

"Of course you couldn't," Gwilym laughed. "You're a Rider. You freak out at the thought of the Archipelago."

"Hey, I've left Cymru," Awen grinned. "And it was a terrible experience. It's why you're here, in fact."

"Oh, well, Saxonia," Gwilym said dismissively as he laid her hand beside her head, tying the final rope above her. "And anyway, I wanted to learn things. Saxonia has nothing to teach. No, I went wandering the Phoenician empire."

"Really?" Awen said, fascinated. "What's it like?"

"Increasingly hot," Gwilym said thoughtfully, sitting back onto his heels and stretching for a moment. The motion pulled his tunic tight across his chest. Awen fixed her eyes resolutely on his face. "And I really, really mean that. They go inside and stay there over the early afternoon because it's not possible to work in the heat. Further south again they basically live on a giant beach with no sea. The land is just sand. As far as you can see."

"I do believe I'd hate that," Awen nodded. Gwilym laughed as he knelt over her, straddling her hips, pouring more oil onto his hands.

"I wasn't keen," he grinned. "It's where Hannibal's from, the sand. Nubia is upriver from Egypt. In Egypt they build pyramids to bury their dead pharaohs, big triangular buildings. But, they also have the world's biggest library in Alexandria."

"Bigger than the one in Aberystwyth?" Awen asked one eyebrow raised, and then lost the ability to talk as his hands descended onto her stomach and started work again.

"Just shy of twice the size, I'd have said," Gwilym mused. "I ended up staying in Egypt for almost a year, actually, just working my way through the library. It's partly why I want to start a university over here. There was so much to learn, so much we don't have. Like their maths! It's incredible."

"Maybe all Sovereigns should travel for a while before taking office," Awen murmured, her eyes sliding closed again. She almost arched into his touch until her back screamed at her. "It seems to have filled you with ideas of a progressive social nature."

"Oh, that's not travelling," Gwilym said mildly. "That's intelligence."

His fingers paused as she laughed, revelling in the fact that it already hurt less to laugh. It was a nice realisation.

"Flyn's intelligent, you know," Awen giggled, and Gwilym sniffed dismissively while resuming the massage.

"Oh, okay, we need to talk about the different definitions of intelligence," he said. "Because, you know, I personally don't consider using your own Alpha Wingleader as a messenger in your attempts to take over the world as the mark of a genius. And anyway, call me an old-fashioned religious lad and that, but I have this small belief that compassion remains the greatest of human developments and therefore a conscience is an important part of intelligence."

"You are an old-fashioned religious lad, aren't you?" Awen grinned. "I shall have to try not to swear anywhere near you. It's a side-effect to being a warrior; my suggestions to the gods are often anatomically difficult at best."

"Ha!" Gwilym flattened his palms and slid them up her body to her neck, elliciting a quiet moan from her throat. "I'm not that religious, you're fine."

"You're weird to talk to, you know," Awen smiled. Gwilym snorted.

"You're not the first woman to say that to me," he told her, making her laugh again. "But they've always been clothed before. I'm saddened to know I've upgraded to naked women calling me weird. I've had nightmares like this."

"Shut up," she giggled. "I mean -"

"Well you're definitely not the first woman to say that to me," Gwilym stated.

"If I wasn't tied down I'd knock you out right now," Awen said sternly. "How many have told you that?"

"You'd be surprised," Gwilym said. "Okay. How am I weird?"

"To talk to," Awen corrected, smiling. "You're weird to talk to. It's like talking to a Rider."

He didn't speak for a moment, and Awen opened her eyes. Gwilym was watching her thoughtfully, his pale eyes considering.

"I treat you like a normal human being?" he offered. Awen nodded.

"Not many do," she said. "I don't just mean Sovereigns, I mean... anyone, any social class. I think I scare people even when I try not to. Or they're resentful if they're Sovereigns. Or just weird, like Hannibal. He bowed to me, you know."

"So I heard," Gwilym smiled affectionately. "He was very sad that you actually recoiled away from him, too. Nice fellow, I thought. I'm going to roll you over now."

"Oh gods." Awen sighed at the hardships of the world and nodded as Gwilym climbed off. "Fine. I think I can probably manage -"

"Oh, keep still, you're not moving," Gwilym scolded her fondly. He slid both arms beneath her and moved her sideways on the mattress before gently rolling her over into her original space. "You've got the morning off from moving. Other people will do it for you out of love and compassion. Now; your back, did you say?"

And then Awen stopped speaking again as Gwilym's hands pressed along the muscles to either side of her spine, easing the pain and regulating her breathing all in one go. No one had ever touched her like this before. She could feel her body relaxing independently of any input from her brain, the muscles loosening and soothing the ache. She hadn't been all that energetic anyway, but now the lethargy stole over her, the twin comforts of the mattress and Gwilym's calming hands tugging soporifically at her mind -

"It's not a duck, it's a drake."


"That's a male duck, Owain. That's like saying something isn't a horse, it's a stallion."

"No it's not."


"Is not."

"It's like saying you're not a human, you're a boy."

"Shut up, I'm a man."

There is a pause as neither of them answer him, but then Adara catches her eye and neither of them can keep from laughing. Owain folds his arms and affects an air of deep offense, sticking his nose in the air.

"I hate you both."

"Are you even shaving yet?" Adara giggles, and them both of them are off again, Awen falling back against the straw bales behind her. Owain aims a swipe at Adara's head which she only just dodges.

"Shut up, guys, or I'll hit you both," he says without too much rancour, and Awen wrestles herself into a calmer state, sitting up again.

"Sorry," she offers, trying to stop grinning. "We shouldn't have laughed, because that is emasculating."

"Or would have been if you were old enough," Adara adds, and all hell breaks loose. They manage to start running just fast enough that he doesn't instantly catch either of them, and then the chase is on, back into the Residence, up the servants' stairs, dodging the laundry workers, weaving past the flock of cleaners, racing for their quarters; they reach the door and haul it open, Awen yanking on it to slam it behind them, hoping to slow Owain down as they tear across the lolfa to the bedrooms, and he's right behind them, just in reach, stretching out an arm -

- as they fall into Adara's room and slam the door behind them.

"Don't come in! We're naked!" Awen yells, and they both collapse against the wood, laughing so hard they can't breathe, Owain's laughter echoing back to them through the wood -

"Then I'm sorry," he declares melodramatically, the knife biting into her throat, his arm pinning her to his chest. "But I have to do this -"

The wristblades bite deep into his fingers, and the blood takes all night to wash off -

She's alone on the mountain, watching the sunset.

Gwilym is there, and she's safe.

It's peaceful on the mountain.

She slid gently back into being awake again, the sensation of someone fiddling with the ropes around her ankles nagging at her without irritating. Awen stirred, and looked down.

"Oh," she said. "I fell asleep."

"I'm scintillating company," Gwilym told her morosely, his eyes twinkling. "And I wish I could say you're the first naked woman on a bed who's fallen asleep under me, but -"

"Shut up," Awen giggled, twitching experimentally. It was incredible. Apart from her neck - thank you, Madog - she still ached, but it had faded into the soft ache of excercise the day before, the crippling immobility replaced by a stiffness that was only mild. She grinned and stretched, ignoring the faint muscular burn. "Oh, that's miraculous. I am now insisting Riders learn that."

"I'll write you a syllabus," Gwilym said, tying off the rope. Awen shifted, and found he'd tied her ankles together. "I need to get to the back of your neck, by the way, for which I need your head straight. I'm therefore retying you."

"Really?" She watched him nervously as he leaned over her, pulling a rope free of the headboard. "I don't think that's a good plan. I'm now limber enough to kill you accidentally."

"I said re-tying, not untying," Gwilym said, his smile betraying some inner joke he was enjoying. "It's fine. Don't go tensing up now, you'll undo all of my good work."

"Sorry." Not that she could help it. Awen carried on worrying until he had crossed her arms over her stomach and tied the ropes behind her back, leaving her basically hugging herself. That done he scooped her up into his arms and leaned back against the headboard, Awen settling comfortably against his chest.

"Head straight," Gwilym said, leaning her temple against his collarbone and settling his fingers on her neck. "That's it..."

Earlier, she'd likened Gwilym's touch to an addiction. Now, Awen realised with a sinking feeling that she'd been right. The bizarre sense of security she got from him was intensified in this position, giving her a comfort she'd been craving for days and days. It was... blissful. And she wasn't going to be allowed it again. Whatever Gwenllian was thinking, Awen couldn't guess, but there was just no way it would happen again.

"I like your tattoos," Gwilym mused through her reverie. "They look incredible."

"Not as good as when they were first done," Awen smiled. "Nowadays they're over more scar tissue than skin. I'm not what I was."

"The scars suit you, you know," Gwilym said, quietly frank. "They sort of look natural. As though you're brindled."

"What, like a cat?" Awen asked blankly. His breath tickled her ear as he laughed.

"Tabby," he said. "Yes. Do you remember getting them all?"

"Absolutely not," Awen grinned. Apparently Gwilym was slightly weird like Hannibal. "To be honest, you usually don't notice them until after the fight unless they either get in the way or are unusual for some reason."

"There aren't many around your head," he said thoughtfully. "Most Riders don't seem to have scars around their heads, in fact."

"No, well." Awen sighed as a knot dissolved under Gwilym's fingers, the flash of pain giving way to relief. "Nine times out of ten a head that gets hit with a sword gets removed. It follows, therefore, that living people have either never had a sword swung at their heads or are good at ducking."

"Ah, statistical conclusions," Gwilym said merrily. "I want to teach those in my university."

"You just - " Awen started, and then was cut off as his fingers smoothed out another knot in her neck, the pain flashing and then sidling away. Gwilym snorted.

"Sorry," he grinned. "Doing this isn't helping your conversation skills much. It's a shame, I enjoy talking to you."

"I'm - sorry," Awen managed, forcing herself to focus. "Normally I'm very good at multi-tasking. I'm not sure why I'm -"

"Because you're a Rider," Gwilym said patiently, "who hasn't been touched in days during a time of high stress. You people experience pain for over half of your lives, and, as I've mentioned, grow up parentless. You're utterly dependent on each other for pleasant physical sensations and utterly in need of them. And this is Graeco-Egyptian massage. There's a case to be made for it being the world's most pleasant physical sensation ahead of sex."

"You know," Awen said slowly, "I think that might be the third time today that you've just explained to me what I actually think or mean when I haven't known myself. And you've been right."

"Is it unnerving you?" Gwilym asked seriously, his fingers pausing. "I realise you're not going to be used to that in any way."

And that was putting it mildly. Awen generally lived in a world in which only she knew everything that was going on and she kept all of the facts from other people. There were days in which she genuinely could lie better than tell the truth. Gwilym seemed to be plucking facts out of her head she didn't realise were there. It should have been unnerving, as he suggested. In a sense, in fact, it was, but...

Some part of her, some tiny, childish part, seemed to be really enjoying him doing it. It was doing the mental equivalent of jumping up and down and shouting 'Again! Again!'.

"I don't know," Awen said honestly. "Yes. And no. Explain it to me, Sovereign. Clearly you have the power."

"Yes, I learned the secrets of the Indo-Greek mages in the Library of Alexandria," Gwilym laughed. "It is an old and arcane power. I sacrifice a large vegetable every night for the privilege. Well; let's see. Your job is your life, isn't it."

He didn't phrase it as a question. Awen nodded. That was easy, at any rate.

"Which means your life is secrets and politics," Gwilym continued. "So people guessing what you're thinking is something you normally try to avoid."

Which she'd already worked out herself. Awen nodded again.

"But there's an extra element," Gwilym said. "Again: Alpha Wingleader. You know how to read people, how to motivate them, how to cut them down, what makes them work, what makes them fall apart. But! You can't apply that to yourself, can you?"

"What?" Awen blinked.

"You don't understand yourself," Gwilym shrugged. "Marged explained it quite well, actually, although Flyn sniffed at her: Riders, you don't handle your own emotions properly. Negative emotions get in the way of the job, so you box them away until you're punching Saxons and need fuel. But that's wildly unhealthy and basically sabotages your hope of ever understanding yourself."

"Well, yes," Awen said uncertainly. "But-"

"But that's fine, yes?" Gwilym interrupted. "Because to you you're just a tool, not a person. You don't need to understand yourself. Except that you do, which is why you're now facing the problem of being non-purifiable. But, more to the point, you're trained to analyse, so some part of you is always trying to work yourself out. When I explain it to you, it makes you feel better."

Awen paused.

"Oh," she said. "But - it is fine. I mean... I can't be purified because of things I've done, not because I'm sad without realising it. And it works, anyway, it can't be that unhealthy."

Gwilym laughed, the sound rumbling in his chest.

"It works until night," he said, hugging her tightly. "Tell me I'm wrong. Yes, you can be wonderfully functional during the day, but what do you see at night when you sleep?"

Note to self, Awen reflected. Don't take Gwilym on on the subject of emotions. He could take her.

"And no," he added. "You can't be purified because your mind has closed, remember? That's what we call Not Dealing."

"Do you fancy being a Rider in a non-military capacity?" Awen sighed wearily. "We have a space, see, and apparently you can explain my own brain to me. I'm sure you'd like it."

"Oh, Awen, I'm an emotional wuss who cries if I bang my elbow," Gwilym grinned. "My brother and sister used to tease me so. Part of the joy of Erinn was that I'm older than Lorcan, and so got to tease him."

"Shame," Awen said. "I think Caradog and Llio liked you. And Adara would if you weren't a Sovereign."

"Ha, yes," Gwilym said, his fingers moving again. "Well, she's got 'protective best friend' stamped across her forehead. Carved, in fact. By her bird -"

There was a knock at the door, which took a second for Awen to realise meant she was supposed to answer. The massage was seriously magic.

"Yes?" she called lazily, and the door swung irreverently open for Meurig and Tanwen.

"Leader," Tanwen said in her best fake whine. "Meurig keeps cheating when we play gwyddbwyll. Am I allowed to hit him here?"

"Not in front of the Sovereign," Awen said mildly. Gwilym's chest jerked as he snorted.

"Can I hit him in the lolfa, then?"

"Without a trial I must protest," Meurig said, devil-may-care grin firmly in place. "There's no evidence I cheated."

"Everyone saw!"

"Seven witnesses and your past record make a fairly compelling case, Meurig," Awen said reasonably. "And I'll be honest, I don't think I've ever seen you play gwyddbwyll without breaking a minimum of three rules."

"I believe that makes you a biased judge," Meurig said, spreading his arms. "I demand a fair trial!"

"I've never seen you play," Gwilym offered. "What did you do?"

"Ah, Sovereign!" Meurig said happily, ambling in and jumping onto the bed. Llio had been right, Awen noticed, surprised. With Gwilym there she didn't even seem to blink. "You are a fair and righteous man. I did nothing!"

"He stole one of my pieces," Tanwen interjected.

"I saved it as it fell from the board!"

"It was in the middle."

"I saved it as it fell after a freak gust of wind blew it down!"

"What caused the wind?" Awen asked, eyebrow raised. Meurig put his hands on his hips pointedly.

"You don't get to ask, Leader, as we've already established," he said. "Don't think I didn't notice your skeptical tone, there."

"What caused the wind?" Gwilym chimed in. "And I worked very hard to make that neutral."

"Eluned opening the window," Meurig nodded decisively.

"I didn't open a window," Eluned said, appearing in the doorway. Tanwen laughed triumphantly. "Don't bring me into this."

"You have no loyalty," Meurig said, shaking his head.

"You don't deserve it!" Tanwen crowed. "Look, you cheated, everyone saw you, take your punishment."

"She's got a point," Awen murmured to Gwilym. "I'd let her."

"It's not looking good, is it?" Gwilym said thoughtfully. "Call in the witnesses, would you? They've been invoked, I'll have to see them now."

"He totally cheated," Caradog's voice boomed, preceeding its owner around the door. His eyes lit up as he saw Awen and Gwilym on the bed, Meurig at the other end, and he strode over and shoved Meurig to one side to claim a seat himself. "I saw him turn the board around earlier, too."

"What?" Tanwen looked mildly outraged. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"I prefer watching the natural progression of your anger," Caradog grinned as the rest of the Wing appeared. Llio bounded happily over to the bed, settling herself an inch away from Awen. "Right; did anyone not see Meurig cheat?"

"Yes," Meurig said over the silence. "Me."

"I also saw him turn the board, too," Cei offered.

"You know, you seem fairly guilty, if I'm honest," Gwilym said. "I'm ruling against you, and handing the allocation of discipline over to your Wingleader."

"No!" Meurig said as Tanwen marched across, grinning. "But my pretty face! I know it is, you said I was prettier than Owain!"

"That covers a lot of ground," Llio said evenly. Awen laughed.

"Enough!" she grinned. "Go and smack him, Tanwen. Not in here, we don't want Lord Gwilym thinking we're unprofessional. And not his pretty face, somewhere it won't show. Accept it, Meurig, or I'll come and hit you."

"Justice is crying this day!" Meurig squawked as Tanwen hauled him off the bed by an ear, her larger frame easily stronger than him. Llyr neatly stole his seat. "I demand a retrial! I'm innocent, I tell you! Innocent!"

"He stole my bacon at breakfast today," Llio added as they disappeared around the doorframe. "Can I hit him for that?"

"Did you steal anything back from him?" Awen asked contentedly. She pushed her feet against Llio's leg, Llio instantly dropping a hand to them.

"Yes," she admitted. "His bacon. But it wasn't as good as mine, so there's a deficit."

"Clip him round the ear, then," Awen smiled. "Guys, stop bothering me with this. You're perfectly capable of managing your own petty revenges."

"Hey, my revenges have never been petty," Caradog said with satisfaction. "I pushed Owain in a river once. That was fun."

"What had he done?" Gwilym asked curiously. "Or was this a general protest against his distressingly ugly face?"

Which won over the Wing. Maybe Gwilym should join them after all. It would be the first time in history it had happened, admittedly, but screw it. She'd write the song for the bards and everything.