Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Cymru - Chapter 49

No Plot ahoy. Can you tell I'm stalling? Although I've run out of things to stall with. Next chapter, next will be plot, I promise...


The morning held a wonderful, if at least mildly distressing, surprise. Awen had a playful streak. Gwilym wouldn't have thought it possible, except he was very definitely being woken up by the scratch of a quill on his stomach, the slightly ticklish sensation being augmented by the whisper of her hair brushing over his skin. Gwilym tried not to twitch for fear of feather impalement and opened his eyes.

Damn, she was beautiful in the morning. Her hair had that sexy, tousled, I've-just-fallen-out-of-bed-and-am-completely-natural look to it, and in the softly muted light from the curtains was a deep, burnished red, firy and burning. And actually getting some sleep had, it seemed, helped immensely. Her smile was contented, eyes slightly mischievous. Gwilym raised his head.

"And what on earth are you doing?" he mock-demanded. The quill stopped. "Is there ink on that?"

"It's a number-line!" Awen said brightly. "But I made it into a pattern, look. And then I drew you. Upside-down, so you can see, because that's officer-level thinking, which I'm supposed to have."

Gwilym raised himself to his elbows and looked down. Sure enough, Awen had drawn an elaborately twisting number line that had been woven into what looked suspiciously like a battle tattoo, beneath which - or above, from Gwilym's perspective - was a small, smiling face, identifiable as him by its hair and beard, a torque encircling its neck. Beside it was what was presumably another head, given that it had long hair and braids, but the uncertainty came from it having no face. At all. Not even two dots and a curve.

"It's a good one of you," Gwilym said, staring at it, and Awen grinned.

"You could tell!" she said gaily. "Drawing is one of my many talents, you know. Good morning."

"Morning." He caught the beads and pulled her down into a kiss. "Why are you drawing on me, you crazy wench?"

"I was bored," Awen shrugged. "You were asleep, I didn't want to wake you."

"So you drew on me, you psycho?" Gwilym laughed. "I'm meant to look polished and pristine today. Now I look like a trade report margin."

"Well? You would have been showering anyway." Awen grinned, and swung herself elegantly onto his thighs, straddling him to continue the drawing. "Now you just have to pay extra attention to your stomach. And if you don't, just wear a tunic that covers your stomach. You usually do."

"I do," Gwilym agreed. "It's like you've wrapped me up in logic, except you really haven't."

"I think you'll find I have," Awen declared. "And anyway, it's more ingenious than that, because hopefully now you won't leave for a while."

Interesting. Maybe she'd inscribed some kind of sinister rune onto him that would prevent him from passing through doorways with an intact spleen. Gwilym plucked the quill out of her hand and sat up properly, wrapping his arms around her waist.

"You'll have to run that by me," he said contentedly, resting his chin just below her collar bone. "And you know you could have just asked, by the way."

"I have eight highly trained Riders at my disposal," Awen grinned. "All of whom will happily lock you in if they know that you're covered in ink but need to look beautifully groomed and perfect in five hours from now, because they like you and that's how they express such feelings. And I'm apparently not well-adjusted enough to ask you for favours yet, keep up, Sovereign."

"You're a mess beyond physical description," Gwilym told her. "Seriously. And you realise you're depriving me of the chance to arrive in front of Watkins looking dishevelled and debauched after not coming home last night?"

"That is true," Awen nodded thoughtfully. "But, you see, I'm also helping you arrive in front of your terrifying Aunt looking slightly less dishevelled and debauched than you otherwise would."

"Good gods, so you have!" Gwilym stared at her in open wonder and admiration. "Do you know what you've saved me from?"

"I'm a Rider," Awen said mildly. "That's my job. Now come on; it's going to take forever before they're happy with us anyway, so we might as well get started."

"I love you."

"Shut up."

"I lust after your body."


There was a knock at the door, and Awen looked at it alertly, like a pet dog who suspected its owner was coming home. It was almost cute. If she'd had mobile ears they'd have swivelled towards it.

"I bet," she smiled quietly, "it's Llio. Or Adara, one or the other. Come in!"

"Good morning, scandalous ones," Adara said amiably, marching straight over to the curtains and leaving the door open. Llio lurked in it. "How's tricks?"

"Tricky," Awen said. As the sunlight flooded in her hair flared to gold, the green in her eyes lighting up while her tabby skin glowed softly silver and ivory. A ring of bruises beame visible around her left wrist, suspiciously finger-shaped. "How's everyone doing? Any news?"

"Fine, and yes." Adara bounced happily onto the bed and hugged Awen's waist as well, one hand gripping onto Gwilym's wrist. "That sniffy fellow of yours who looks unnervingly like a kettle arrived to ask us as disdainfully as he could if we'd care to deliver you back before the trial, Sovereign. Unfortunately, Caradog answered the door."

"Oh, gods," Awen muttered. In spite of himself, Gwilym grinned. Much though his relationship with Watkins was much improved, something about the man still brought out his otherwise well-suppressed sadistic leanings, like a charming house-cat seeing something fluttery and feathery and remembering it had claws. "And?"

"Well, he hasn't come back since," Adara said. "Although I personally consider this to have much improved my day."

"We're in trouble if Aunt Clíodhna comes to ask, mind," Gwilym said doubtfully. "She can set things alight with naught but a glare."

"That's fine," Llio said. "Caradog can repulse people with naught but a word."

"And if we get you spruced up and ship-shape soon she won't have time to come here with her arsonist ways," Adara declared. "Come on, both of you. Chop chop!"

"Some days," Awen said conversationally, springing neatly off both Gwilym and the bed like a pixie, "it's like I'm not in charge at all."

"That's what being a Sovereign is like," Gwilym nodded, climbing out with considerably less finesse. "But more days than just some. Awen drew on me, I need a shower and some sort of scouring brush. And liberal quantities of soap."

"Oh good gods, you did what?" Adara said, eyes narrowed at Awen, who grinned unrepentantly. "Right, this way, Sovereign, quickly. Awen's a crazy and you must stay away from her for a while."

"No," Awen said, and the tiny edge of a command was in that; not enough to be suddenly demanding or overbearing, but enough to make it clear that, as amiable as the situation was, there would be no discussion around this negative. The negative would stand. Gwilym would not be staying away from her. Adara smiled an oh-look-you're-being-needlessly-unreasonable-but-it's-cute smile and crossed her arms, saying nothing. "Come on! Shower."

"I'll get towels!" Llio said brightly, bouncing out. Adara marched after them as Awen led Gwilym down the corridor, away from the lolfa.

"Right, then," she said, business-like. "Leader. You washed your hair last night, so we'll tie it up now. Get it wet and I'll hold you down for Cei to throttle, because he's a big neurotic and won't believe it'll dry in time. Sovereign, how fast does your hair dry?"

"Um," Gwilym said, blankly. "I have no idea. Apparently I've grown so used to having an aide to feed me necessary information I've forgotten how to work it out myself. An… hour?"

"Hmm." Adara peered at him closely as Awen pushed open the door at the end of the corridor. "Sounds about right. And it's a warm day. Fine; in, you goons. Get cleansed."

"But why am I a goon?" Gwilym asked bewildered, stepping in. "Why -?"

He paused, his eyebrows shooting up into his hairline as he took in the sight of the bathrooms in front of him. Riders got the best bathrooms. The room he now stood in was large, decorated in tile and enamel and containing a line of ten showers along one wall, a set of sunken baths of various sizes set into the floor. One seemed to be big enough to take the whole Wing.

"Wow," he said, impressed. "I had, like, a bath. Just one. I wasn't given a pool."

"It's an important bonding tool," Awen grinned. She turned to him and hooked her fingers below the hem of his tunic, sliding it up his torso in a move that instantly had Gwilym holding his breath. "Although Caradog pushes people in a lot. Arms up."

"Lies!" Caradog's voice boomed around the tiled room. "And the only people who saw were my victims, and they can't be relied upon to give an impartial account."

"Perhaps not," Gwilym said as Awen pulled the tunic over his head. "But, you see, you just made the classic beginner's mistake of admitting to having victims. Schoolboy error, that."

"And he's involved with law courts because of his job," Adara nodded with affected wisdom. "But it was mostly Owain you went for, so it's fine."

"True!" Caradog said happily, as Awen serenely folded the tunic and put it on a shelf of towels beside the door. "But that's - why are there pictures on you?"

"Oh, well, Awen was bored, you know?" Gwilym shrugged. "Apparently this is a risk of sharing a bed with her, although everyone neglected to tell me so."

"It's not a risk for anyone else," Awen said, her fingers sliding alluringly into the waistband of his trousers from behind him. "Them, I wake up, because I'm an irreverent troll, was that the term?"

"I think it was," Adara nodded reminiscently. Beside her Caradog gaily stripped off the pyjamas he'd been wearing and ambled over to the showers with his many muscles, completely naked. It put Gwilym at ease somewhat, given that Awen was fast taking him to the same state, albeit sans the muscles. "And I stand by it. That's a Sovereign you've drawn on, you comlete lack of respect. Hurry up. I need to tie your hair back."

"I'm done," Awen said defensively, stripping the last of Gwilym's clothes away and leaving him naked before them all. It would have been weird, but Caradog had started it, and none of them were so much as batting an eyelid. It made the experience oddly liberating, somehow, as though Gwilym had just discovered his inner naturist and was now swearing to never again return to his prisons of linen and wool. And Awen kissed his shoulder as she passed on her way to Adara's hair ties, which was reward enough.

"Shower or bath, take your pick, Sovereign," Adara said, waving a hand vaguely. "But stand and hold Awen a second. It's too early in the morning for hand-to-hand grappling, and there's no point anyway unless you charge people to watch."

"If I was Wingleader," Caradog said lazily from his corner as Gwilym took Awen's shoulders, "I think I'd make everyone fight for me. Just so I could watch."

"Which is precisely why you aren't," Eluned said, arriving through the door. "Super formal uniforms, is it?"

"Yes," Awen said contentedly as Adara swept her hair back. It was still loose, the only braids left hanging from her temples and holding her beads. Eluned vanished. "Although I hate the damn things. The collar's too high, it practically slits your throat. And that's already happened to me this week."

"In my defence," Gwilym said morosely, looking at the scar across her neck. It was newer and so slightly pinker than the other scars over her body, but fast fading to white from the druidic attention it had received. "I'm so sorry."

"It was my job," Awen said pointedly, giving him a look. "That's what I'm for. You don't apologise to bards for the inconvenience of playing music for you. It's exactly the same."

"It's really not," Gwilym said, rolling his eyes. Adara twisted Awen's hair deftly back into a knot, pinning it in place. "There's a staggering amount of difference. The price paid, for one thing. I don't ask bards to risk life and limb to play to me."

"Because it's not their job to risk life and limb," Awen said with maddening logic. "It's mine. Any Rider would have done the same thing, I told you that before."

"Done," Adara announced. "Get naked, get clean. I'm going to help Cei plan hairstyles."

"It's not a good day until Adara has had chance to order someone naked."

It was Tanwen this time, already shorn of clothes before even arriving in the strange nudist event Gwilym seemed to be attending. It was interesting seeing the differences between her and Awen, though; physically, Tanwen was a bloody Amazon, at least six feet tall and broadly muscled, unusually so for a woman. Her eyes and cheekbones suggested a Viking ancestor or two to Gwilym, particularly when viewed in conjunction with her size and the blonde hair tumbling to her shoulders. Awen's musculature, by contrast, was far more lithe, like a cat or a wolf; her curves were largely lost to slenderness, but her ribcage and waist were naturally narrow enough to give the illusion of an hourglass figure where there wasn't one. Whereas Tanwen's breasts seemed to be weapons in their own right. He shuddered to think what damage she could do to a man's skull between her thighs.

"It's not," Adara agreed, striding away. "Get naked, Tanwen. Oh wait, you are."

"So Tanwen," Caradog said, throwing her a bar of soap that she actually caught, proving once and for all that Riders were magic. "Reckon you could take Llŷr?"

"Totally," she sniffed. "And Meurig. Struggle with Cei, though."

A hand took his, and Gwilym looked around. Awen had joined the ranks of the We Hate Clothes protesters and was tugging him gently towards one of the baths, her tied hair giving him an uninterrupted view of the tattoos over her back. She glanced back at him, her smile supremely calm.

"Coming?" she asked. "The ink won't just fall off, you know. I made sure."

"Yes." He looked at the deep water. "Do you know, I suddenly have this genuinely insane urge to just push you in?"

"Oh, Sovereign," Awen grinned, her eyes glinting. "I would genuinely love to see you try. Even Caradog hesitates, you know."

"I do!" Caradog called merrily. "She's got this move where she twists her body and then you fall in instead. Cheating, I think."

"Fair, I think," Tanwen said, rolling her eyes. "You're a moron, Caradog."

"You know I can take you, yes?"

"Do you have a list?" Gwilym asked curiously, jumping into the bath with a splash. Beside him, Awen slipped in with the grace of an otter, barely a ripple announcing her. "Of who would beat whom in a fight?"

"Not a list, Sovereign," Caradog said merrily. "More just, like, me at the top and everyone else mills about below me."

"You so desperately wish that was true," Tanwen accused. Gwilym looked at Awen.

"Can he beat you?" he asked wonderingly. "I've seen you fight."

"You've also seen his size," Awen said wryly. "Yes, he can. He's not impossible to win against, but given that he only needs to land one punch, the odds aren't good."

"But you're all…" Gwilym waved a hand vaguely. "Nimble, and spry, and… jumpy."

"So's Caradog," Awen said, settling contentedly on one of the underwater seats. She glanced over at Caradog briefly, her expression proud. "Another of his tricks is just to fall on you. Imagine being pinned by a building and you're halfway to the effect. Instant fail."

"Although I don't do that with Awen," Caradog shuddered. "I learned years ago not to put myself off-balance around her. She uses you against yourself."

Gwilym could believe it. Awen's mind was sharp enough to slice through metal. Clearly, it served as a weapon too. And, now he came to think of it, every one of the hilarious stories he'd been told by foreigners about Riders that had featured Awen had been about her impaling her adversaries upon their own weapons. It was interesting to learn it was possibly true. Although he wasn't insane enough to casually inform a Rider about their far-reaching reputation.

"I'm sorry, by the way," Awen said softly, leaning forward. "That you had to see me fight. It's… fairly unsettling, as I understand it."

"Think of a snowy road in the winter," Gwilym said, wading over to her and settling beside her. "On a mountain. Terrifying, but beautiful. That's what it was like."

"Poetic." Awen smiled, moving her hand back and forth under the water, only her fingertips breaking the surface. She watched it. "I'm going to miss you."

It was catastrophically unfair, in Gwilym's view. Two of her Riders were standing not ten feet away, more wandering in and out, and he had no idea if this room could be overheard, so there was no way to pick her up on that. He put out a hand and gripped her thigh under the water, making her freeze again.

"I'm not leaving you," Gwilym said calmly. Awen regarded him carefully, her gaze analytical.

"Listen," she said gently. "I'm not naïve, and nor are you. I'm an extraordinarily difficult person to love, Sovereign. It doesn't matter how soon you realise just how difficult - today, tomorrow or years from now - eventually, you will. I will wear you down, even though I don't want to, even though I'll be trying not to. You won't be able to handle it forever. And -"

She broke off and sighed, and suddenly Gwilym could see someone far older looking out through Awen's eyes, the world-weary warrior with barely anything left to give.

"When it happens," Awen said quietly, her tone almost kind, "I'll understand, okay? When you leave. I won't beg you to stay or anything. And I don't want you to feel guilty about it. Just giving me the last few days has meant so much more than you can know, Sovereign."

It was funny how much of an imprint Rider culture was already leaving on him. A week ago he wouldn't have dreamt of forcibly pushing someone against a wall and kissing them until they were quiet to silence an objection, although admittedly, he'd have been doing so to Watkins as his main objector, and there were genuine kettles Gwilym would have preferred to kiss. But now, with Awen, he didn't even pause to think about it. The water made the movements easier as he pulled her off the tiled seat and into his arms before pressing her back firmly against the wall of the bath and all but gluing his mouth to hers, the adrenaline making every extremity twitch. She went utterly still in his arms and then shuddered, melting into him. She kept submitting to him, Gwilym noted. He'd have to keep an eye on that.

He broke the kiss off and tipped her chin up to meet her eye. She watched him, motionless again.

"I am not," Gwilym repeated firmly, "leaving you, Awen. I love you."

"At the moment," she breathed, and Adara arrived before he could throttle her.

"Argh!" Adara exclaimed. "I said cleanse, not fornicate! Are there still pictures on you?"

"As it goes," Gwilym nodded. Reluctantly, he released Awen, although she didn't move from where he'd pinned her to the wall. "But we have hours, it's fine -"

"Oh, wrong thing to say," Awen muttered with a grin as Adara's eyes flashed. "Actual timetables are irrelevant, Sovereign, only Adara's counts. You know," she added, turning around and speaking to the angry Rider above her, "there's someone in Madog's Wing you should meet. You're really compatable."

"Unless they can be here in five minutes to display their professional make-up skills, Leader, I don't even want to hear about them," Adara said flatly. "Here! Take the gods-damned soap and bloody be clean!"

"Ooh, hair soap," Awen said mildly as Llio arrived with a block. It was, thougtfully enough, for dark hair. "Okay. You do your hair, I'll get the ink off? Since I put it there-"

"Ah. No." He caught her wrist as she aimed for his stomach, halting her. "The reason being, if you do I might actually sexually assault you, and I don't want to die."

"Do yourself, Leader!" Adara almost cried in despair. "He can manage it! And will do so considerably better when you aren't naked and wet in front of him! Now move, everyone!"

"Sorry," Awen smiled ruefully as the Riders around them all scampered away again. "I hadn't thought. I just find your skin fascinating."

"Says the tabby girl," Gwilym laughed. "Oh, that's it, isn't it? How often do you get to see non-Riders naked?"

"Well, fairly often, in a sense," Awen shrugged. "I torture a lot of people. But that's really not the same at all."

"Glad you think so."

The actual cleaning progressed fairly smoothly, entertainment provided by Caradog and Tanwen finally squabbling to the extent that they began an actual fight, which ended with Caradog dropping Tanwen into the pool-bath as promised. Although she managed to haul him in with her, so as far as Gwilym could tell it ended in a draw. In reality, they carried on wrestling in the water, until Awen climbed over to them and grabbed an ear each to pull them upright. Then it ended.

After that he had to put yesterday's clothes back on, although since the letter was in the tunic that was a good thing regardless of how wrinkly he now looked. Then it was back to Awen's room where Cei was lying out the appropriately formal uniform for her, and then a fun five minutes of holding Awen still while Cei put said uniform onto her. Gwilym could see why she hated it. Unlike all other Rider uniforms he'd ever seen, this one had clearly been designed with decoration in mind rather than function. The high collar Awen had complained about reached all the way up her neck to her chin, making looking down a thrillingly dangerous past-time in which the odds of losing a head were far higher than normal. The sleeveless skin-tight jerkin design was back, but this time with ornamental stitching starting below her left breast in a point and spinning into an elaborate knot that was continued down her left thigh on the breeches, meaning both items had to be very carefully lined up and then clipped together. The belt that covered the join sat just above her hipbones, the usual pouches and things gone, with only an elaborate sheath for her hunting knife left on. The boots had been rigorously polished, the suppleness of the leather the only thing that kept them from being classified as 'dangerously reflective', and stopped at the knee. Even the archery guards over the wristblades had been polished, the stitching far more ornate than the normal model. Awen looked irritably at them for a moment before sighing, running her fingers around the collar.

"It's just so staggeringly pointless," she said. "How do you fight in this? What am I supposed to do if several large, angry Saxons arrive and start threatening the Sovereigns when I can't even twist sideways?"

"Cut it off," Cei shrugged, his broad shoulders rising and falling with a quick nimbleness that belied his stocky frame. "You don't need to wear stuff to fight. And, actually, I think fighting naked against chauvinist men would be helpful."

"From both sides," Gwilym grinned. "They'd stare at her and run from you."

"Good point," Cei agreed thoughtfully, closing the final clasp and stepping back. "Right. All done, time for hair and make-up. Can we see Owain yet?"

"You want to do his hair and make-up too?" Gwilym asked blankly as they wandered back into the lolfa. Cei laughed.

"Actually, sort of yes," he said. "I would genuinely love to right now. I can't tell you how much I want to cut his beads off, but that should really be Awen's job."

"And it shall be," Awen said contentedly, dropping elegantly into a chair that had been placed into the centre of the room. "I'm going to do that today before the trial, if I can. And then I might auction them off."

"Phoenicians would buy them," Gwilym declared. He pulled a chair up next to her and sat, holding her hand. "They would sell dust if they thought they could."

"Hooray, you're ready!" Llio said, reappearing. "I'll do make-up!"

It seemed the Wing were a slick, well-oiled machine in the act of beautification, too. Eluned and Cei worked on Awen's hair while Llio meticulously wielded pots of make-up to somehow enhance what was already the most beautiful face Gwilym had ever seen, now Even More So. She even used slightly darker foundation to highlight Awen's cheekbones and jaw, brown kohl paste making her eyes sparkle and stand out, a tiny dash of cocchineal tinting her lips just slightly darker. Gwilym watched in awe. Llio had missed her calling to become an artist, he felt. Or, well, had been brainwashed away from it, but same thing.

As, potentially, had Cei and Eluned by the looks of it. Once again only the top part of Awen's hair had been used, but it ran to the back of her head in four plaits where it had split into several more braids and been woven into an elaborate Celtic knot, pinned in place with actual gold-decorated hairpins to match the embellishments of the uniform. It was deeply impractical for fighting. It probably explained why Awen was looking slightly gloomy.

"It does look incredible," Gwilym offered. "And, you know, they're hairpins. I have complete confidence that you could do horrific damage with those if you needed, and no one would even realise they were weapons until they were looking for their eyeballs."

"True," Awen smiled, wryly. "Necessity is the mother of invention, they say. I'm more annoyed about the collar, to be honest. I now have to rotate my entire body if I want to look around, and that's damned inconvenient for things like catching arrows, which you seem to attract."

"That is so unfair!" Gwilym exclaimed. "It's been twice! Out of my whole life! That's significantly less than you, Rider!"

"He's got a point," Eluned murmured. Llio finished with Awen and moved herself so she was now facing Gwilym, armed with make-up pots. Awen rolled her eyes.

"You seem to have trouble with recognising the concept of this being my job, Sovereign," she said. "Whereas yours is to avoid irritating people so much that they send arrows your way."

"Irritating Owain specifically," Gwilym defended. Llio's fingers stroked gently across his skin. "I mean, it was him both times."

"Yes, but I've been irritating Owain for years," Caradog announced, marching in with Llŷr's shoulder in one hand and pushing him onto a sofa. "He's never shot at me, you know. Unless he was, and he just has bad aim, of course."

"I believe that," Llio sniffed. "Be with you in a moment, Llŷr."

"Believe my assurances that he has excellent aim," Gwilym shuddered. "At least at short distances. Genuinely thought I was going to die this time around."

Awen's eyes had gone steely, he noted. She'd thought the same, it seemed. Well, obviously she had; they'd had to scrape what was left of Owain's face off the wall, which probably wasn't standard apprehension technique.

"Did he actually get an arrow off at you the second time?" Llŷr asked interestedly. Caradog was crouched in front of him, carefully navigating his chin with a pair of scissors. "I assumed he was stopped before that."

"Sadly not," Awen said quietly. Gwilym grinned.

"Excitingly enough," he said, "he did actually take aim and fire. And then this board sailed out of nowhere and knocked the arrow just off course, although I still hear the sound when I sleep. It was really impressive."

"Good work, Leader," Eluned said, impressed. "I actually don't think I'd have thought of that."

"Of course you would," Awen said dismissively. "It's clearer when it's actually happening. If he'd still had the bow down I'd have cut the string, but it was too late for that, and an arrow through the eye does not the prettiest of corpses make."

"You're done," Cei announced. "Right, who's next? Get over here, Llŷr."

"Well done, team," Awen smiled, springing neatly to her feet. There was a knock at the door. "Get over there, Llŷr. I'll answer."

"I bet it's for me," Gwilym said. "I bet it's Watkins. I'm sorry if it is. He'll make us all want tea."

"And look at me like I'm a bug," Awen nodded, hand on the door knob. "One day, he shall succumb to my charms. One day… ah, good morning, highness."

Her switch to Erinnish was as fluid as a stream, no hesitation or jolt as the languages realigned themselves. Gwilym was impressed. He'd been bilingual in both since some time shortly after birth, and even he needed a split second to move from one to the other unexpectedly. But that was a magic bardic power. Awen had many magic powers. He had to stop being surprised by them.

"Good morning, Rider," Lorcan said pleasantly. "Can Gwilym come out to play?"

"Not until he's done his homework and cleaned the dishes," Awen threw back easily, bowing nonetheless. "But you can come in and wait if you want, I'm sure he won't be long. Everyone, look presentable! This is Prince Lorcan. Highness, meet my Wing. I won't introduce them all, but these are the non-evil ones."

And she was back in Cymric. Gwilym grinned as Lorcan wandered in, smiling slightly nervously at the jolly chorus of hellos from the peers of a man who'd tried to murder him the day before.

"Lorcan!" Gwilym said. "How angry is she?"

"Extremely," Lorcan said, sitting where Awen pointed. He looked around curiously. "But just in general rather than specifically at you, because Dad spent all night drinking with Lady Marged again and now keeps trying to take down the light fixtures to make them into models of sheep. Is - can I ask? Is it true you can't see mirrors?"

"Yes," Eluned said from behind Llŷr. She had a very kind smile for a woman who killed fellow human beings. "It's sort of sacreligious to us. We can't draw pictures of each other, either."

"Owain had a mirror," Llio told Lorcan with the tone of voice of the very wise explaining why a very bad thing had happened. "Sorry he threatened to kill you, by the way. We're all terribly embarrassed about the whole thing."

"Oh, that's okay," Lorcan said, throwing Awen a shy smile where she stood watching Llio's handiwork. "It was fine in the end, and Dad enjoyed himself."

"You're your father's son," Gwilym remarked. "I give you thirty years before you start developing an unhealthy attraction towards grain bins, and then I'll stop visiting."

"You're done, Sovereign," Llio said, repositioning her chair in front of Llŷr. "Present your face, Llŷr."

"Good timing," Lorcan said, sitting forward. "Your man who looks like a kettle wants you back, Gwilym. He's had some message or other he wants to give you."

"Typical," Gwilym sighed, standing. "Fine. It's been a pleasure, people. Thanks for your time and effort in the field of drawing on my face, if not my stomach."

"Your beard still needs doing," Awen said, standing up as well. "And you need to get dressed-"

"Come with me," Gwilym said, holding out his hand. "You'll make an excellent shield from my reportedly angry aunt, and can carefully undermine Watkins' authority by picking out better clothes than he's chosen. It'll be fun!"

"It sounds it," Awen grinned. Her fingers gripped his, slightly more tightly than her exterior calm and his lack of hanging off a precipice would have suggested was likely. "Fine. Let's go and get sniffed at by a disapproving aide."

They really were, too, or at least Awen was. Watkins was very much a detractor of this non-traditional Sovereign-Rider relationship it seemed, to the extent that he was even willing to show his disapproval by tipping his head back very fractionally when adressing Awen the better to look down his nose at her. He bustled over as they entered the Aberystwyth quarters, a sheaf of papers in one hand and a pen behind his ear.

"My lord!" he said briskly. "Excellent. First thing's first; we need to prepare you for the day. You'll need to change -"

"It's okay," Gwilym said with forced levity as he strode towards his bedroom, Watkins being swept into the wake of his affected authority possibly unwillingly. "I brought a Rider back! They're very good at grooming."

"Indeed, my lord," Watkins said, his voice deliberately devoid of any emotion whatsoever. "And were grooming all that was required, it would indeed be okay, as you say. Have you breakfasted yet?"

Ooh, little bitch, Gwilym thought. Watkins knew how to take a stab at a Rider. He gave the man a casual glance, his stride unfaltering.

"No," he shrugged. "I thought I'd just go to the banquetting hall for the whole Official Breakfast for Sovereigns thing, see how everyone else is holding up. That's not for another hour."

"Very well, sire," Watkins intoned. They entered the bedroom and Gwilym's eyes fell on the bright red tunic hanging out ready, a truly indecent amount of gold and silver stitching marching across it. One of the bloody cloaks hung next to it, edged with bloody fur. "Your attire is as you see. Do you require anything else?"

"Scissors if you've got them," Awen broke in serenely, apparently utterly unpeturbed by Watkins' congealed disdain. "His beard needs trimming, and it's best to do it before dressing."

"Of course, Rider." Watkins moved professionally to a dresser to one side and slid out the slim top drawer, revealing a neat line-up of trimming scisors, tweezers and nail files. Mental Uncle Dara appeared in the doorway, beaming. "Might I ask; will you be performing the task of barbering his lordship?"

"My word!" Mental Uncle Dara boomed as Awen plucked out the scissors, fitting them to her fingers with the grace of an expert. "Barbering? It sounds like some form of sexual torture!"

"I will," Awen nodded mildly, not even glancing at Watkins' face. She pushed Gwilym to sit on the bed and knelt in front of him, wielding the scissors with quiet skill. "Good morning, sire. I see you're recovered from yesterday?"

"Oh, quite!" Mental Uncle Dara said happily, clearly enthused by her language choice as the conversation became Erinnish again. "Oh, your man led us on a game, didn't he? All good fun! I got to run at a door!"

"Dara," Aunt Clíodhna's voice snapped icily. Lorcan shuddered. "You will refrain from telling people that."

"Forgive my intrusion," Watkins interjected. "And my presumption. But, Leader Awen, do you not consider it potentially unwise for you to be operating such a tool near Lord Gwilym's neck given your current mental health?"

"Not at all," Awen smiled, a slightly firm edge to her neutral tone. "I can promise you, I'm absolutely expert in making blades be exactly where I want them to be."

Which as not-really-a-threat-but-watch-your-step-you-damned-secretary statements went was utterly superb. Gwilym fought his face not to crease up in laughter and avoided her eye.

"Your Lady Marged is excellent, isn't she?" Mental Uncle Dara asked, obliviously breaking up the tacit fight. "What a drinker!"

"I believe the official description is 'as crazy as ten bears', sire," Awen said casually, rounding Gwilym's chin. "But each to their own. How much knitwear has she piled upon you so far?"

"An extraordinary amount," Aunt Clíodhna said, in the tones of one who really couldn't be having with knitwear. "I fear we may sink the ship in trying to return to Erinn."

"But the scarves will float," Lorcan said with a half-smile. Aunt Clíodhna's look was frosty. Awen grinned.

"I know the feeling," she said warmly. "I don't think I've ever been to Caerleuad without leaving considerably more insulated than when I arrived. It helps when flying, though. It gets cold in the sky."

And that was the kind of sentence it was worth having Riders around for, as though commenting on the temperature of the sky while travelling through it was a perfectly reasonable topic of discussion, inviting the next person to chime in with 'Yes, indeed, it's just the same walking along the ocean floor' or 'Do you know, it's the opposite problem with fire?' Clíodhna blinked, proving that there was, indeed, a first time for everything. Mental Uncle Dara almost roared with laughter, and sat himself on the floor beside Awen.

"Flying!" he said merrily. "Incredible! Are you scared when you're up there?"

"No," Awen smiled, her natural love of flying appearing in her eyes to Gwilym. "Once upon a time, when I was first learning, but not for years."

"She never screamed, either," Gwilym told Mental Uncle Dara's wide, interested eyes. "Which I find astonishing. I know how it feels now."

"You… what, my lord?" Watkins asked, aghast. For a fraction of a second Awen smirked before her soft smile reasserted itself.

"You didn't scream either," Awen reminded him, standing. "There, you're done, and yes, it was quick, wasn't it? I'm practiced."

"It really was," Lorcan said, fascinated, as Gwilym ran a hand over his chin. It felt entirely even, too, which meant she'd done a better job in half a minute than Gwilym managed in an hour of staring blearily at a mirror and still being left with clumps missing at the end. "How are you that practiced at it, though?"

"No mirrors, remember?" Gwilym said, standing and stretching. "Riders handle each other's appearances. It's how they express love, which is why the Alpha Wingleaders are all striding around like gods right now."

There was a slight pause as everyone looked at Awen, who was obliviously putting the scissors away. They all nodded, and looked back.

"Right," Watkins said, smoothly stepping forward. "If you would, my lord? You will need to dress now."

"I don't think it should be in that," Awen said thoughtfully, moving herself onto Watkins' fantasy hit list of Who Will Not Be Spared When Watkins Becomes King. "It's nice, but the red is too brash a shade. It'll make your eyes look washed-out."

"We have other clothes," Gwilym said, trying not to grin and cheer as he skipped over to the wardrobe. "Although there's a mirror on the door. Should I bring things out?"

"Nope." Casually, Awen pulled down the cloak so beloved of Watkins and so behated of Gwilym and threw it to him. "Hook that over the door, that'll do."

"Why can't you see yourselves?" Lorcan asked curiously. "Why is that? Is it just to make you all brush each other's hair and bond and things?"

"It removes an unnecessary distraction," Awen shrugged, waiting as Gwilym wrestled the many folds of the cloak over the door. "Not knowing what you look like means you don't care what you look like, which helps to take your ego out of the equation. It stops being a concern."

"And," Gwilym said, opening the newly-blinded door to reveal no mirror and lots of clothes hanging in a line, like a linen trader's display. "And, if you don't know your own face in a world in which everyone else does, it helps to stop you from feeling like a normal person deserving of privileges."

"Sovereign," Awen sighed, and Gwilym waved a hand.

"It does," he said calmly. "Just a fact. Here; any of these any good?"

"I like that one!" Mental Uncle Dara said happily, pulling out a pyjama top. "Wear that one!"

"Or," Awen said thoughtfully, her scarred fingers moving through the rainbow of cloth. "We can stick with the red idea, but a different shade… this one?"

She pulled out a tunic in burgundy, its silver trim far less ostentatious than the scarlet one hanging up. The cut was different too, looser around the shoulders and slightly tighter around the waist, the sleeves just longer than elbow-length and the neckline slitting down from the normal circular shape to a point a few inches below the collar bones, probably somewhere around mid-chest when on. Gloriously, it was far less pretentious than everything Watkins had put him in for the last year, and far more comfortable-looking than the usual formal wear. Awen looked at it critically for a moment, holding it up against him. Mentally, Gwilym begged her to say yes.

"If I may," Watkins began dourly, and Awen pushed the tunic into Gwilym's hands.

"Try it on," she said. "Then we'll see."

"That means leave, Dara," Clíodhna said coldly. "Come along, Lorcan. We will wait outside."

"If I may, my lord," Watkins repeated as Gwilym's family filed out, trying vaguely to steer Mental Uncle Dara, "that is not really an appropriately formal tunic."

"Not by itself, no," Awen said, her voice muffled by her having stepped inside the wardrobe. "I think it can work, though…"

"She thinks it can work," Gwilym shrugged. "It's her area of expertise, Watkins. Along with killing and chord sequences. I'm not arguing."

"Very well, sire," Watkins said with a glance at the wardrobe that wasn't quite neutral. "I shall be outside."

The door closed behind him, and Gwilym fished Awen out with an arm around her waist and a surprised noise from her throat, hugging her.

"I love you!" he grinned happily. "Seriously. You're even saving me from hideous outfits now. I love you."

"Stop saying that," Awen said despairingly, trying to twist around in his arms. She didn't manage it, and it struck Gwilym that she was probably trying not to mess up her complicated uniform. "And let go, you oddity! I need to find some way of making it more formal."

He inhaled deeply, smelling the mingled scents of heather and geranium and beeswax drifting off her hair, and kissed the side of her head before letting go. She gave him a soft smile over her shoulder before digging back into the wardrobe again, a woman on a mission. Gwilym shook his head fondly and went about switching tunics.

"You know," he said thoughtfully, "in spite of your dark predictions of the future, you seem fairly happy."

"Ah." Awen stepped back out, three pairs of trousers and two pairs of boots in her arms. Her smile was slightly off, slightly dry. "It's my naturally sunny disposition. And determination. I want to form as many happy memories with you now as I can."

The addendum 'Because I'm going to need them' floated large and unsaid in the air around them as Awen dropped her treasures onto the bed and turned back to him. She smiled sadly as she saw his expression and stepped forward, gently taking the new tunic from his hands and pulling it onto his body.

"It's okay," she said softly. "This way, it doesn't matter which of us is right. If it's you, then we're going to live happily ever after anyway, so it's a good thing that I'm not upset now for no reason. And if it's me, then…"

She trailed off as Gwilym pushed his arms into the sleeves, her eyes on her hands as she lowered the hem to his waist.

"Then I'll have now," Awen finished. "To remember. It's okay, Sovereign."

Gwilym raised her chin and kissed her, gentle but firm. She kept doing this, he reflected; kept producing these displays of heart-breaking logic that made him want to weep for her. And she thought he'd leave her? Really? Well, of course she did; but the very idea made Gwilym feel hollow. It was like Paradise glumly asking when you'd be checking out.

"We have to get on," Awen said lightly, breaking the kiss with an easy smile. "Or Watkins will seek to wreak clerky vengeance upon me. These trousers first, I think they're the most likely candidates for sartorial success."

Which they were, as it turned out, although only once she'd paired them with the second pair of boots, knee-high brown leather affairs with laces and almost enough polish that Awen had to avert her eyes. Finally he pulled the cloak off the mirror and surveyed his reflection critically while Awen handled the laces for the sake of time, her back to the glass.

"Gosh," Gwilym said, impressed. "You've got a knack for this, haven't you? For the first time in a year I actually don't hate what I'm wearing."

He paused, staring at himself.

"And I seem to have gained at least two stone of muscle," he blinked. " How did you do that? I swear I'm not naturally that broad-shouldered."

"You pick things up," Awen grinned, tying off a lace. She glanced up at him. "And you are, actually. You're naturally well-proportioned."

"And you're naturally good on people's self-esteem, Leader," Gwilym snorted. "You just know the right things to say, don't start…"

"A secret of leadership," Awen said, amused. "It's part inspiration, mostly facts. You tell people the truth and they can't dispute it. This makes inspiration ten times easier, when what you're saying is demonstrably true. I just told you the truth, Sovereign. Prove me wrong, if you can."

"Oh, very clever," Gwilym told her. "So you're saying you've mastered the art of leadership through being nice to -?"

He broke off, the words dying in his throat as his hind-brain deigned to inform him of the position she was in.

"Awen," he said. "Stop kneeling to me."

She blinked and looked down at herself, and then sighed wearily as she realised what she was doing, standing up. Gwilym pulled her against his chest, holding her firmly.

"Sorry," Awen said meekly against his shoulder. "I honestly didn't realise."

"It's okay," Gwilym said quietly, reaching out and dropping the cloak back over the mirror. But it wasn't. It was the first thing she'd done that had genuinely freaked him out, even more than removing Owain's face with colossal prejudice and torturing a fourteen-year-old. He ran his fingers through the loose part of her hair, accidently activating her I-can-no-longer-think-or-speak-properly state as his fingertips brushed her scalp. "Why do you think -?"

"No Sovereign at the moment," she murmured, a tiny noise of protest escaping the back of her throat as he withdrew his hand to let her answer. "Maybe, anyway. It's a bit of an odd state to be in for me. Could be I'm latching onto you instead, as a far better Sovereign I actually want to follow, what with your progressive social policies in which you don't rape people or send armies against your neighbours."

"I'm radical," Gwilym agreed. "I'm sorry. I can't let go of you for a minute."

"That's really bothered you, hasn't it," Awen stated. Gwilym closed his eyes.

"Yes," he said wearily. "It's my issue, though, not yours. The normal bow you give me I can take, because that's just respect. The full, down on the floor, my-life-revolves-around-you one creeps me out even when Alaw does it. It's a bit too… slave and master. I've met slaves."

He was fully expecting her to retreat into her armour again at that, to use it as an iron-clad example of why they could never be together before walking sadly but nobly away into the sunset to spare him further pain, although admittedly she'd have needed to wait a few hours for that. Instead, the latest in a long list of such occurances, Awen surprised him.

His back hit the wardrobe door behind him as fingers knotted into his hair, forcing his head down and his mouth onto hers. Her body was pressed full-length against him authoritatively, so closely 'plastered' almost became a better word; her free hand had pulled the loose neckline of the tunic to the side, her thumb running knee-shakingly seductively across the bare skin of his now-exposed collar bone; the friction of her hips was very nearly making him whimper; and the kiss itself was phenomenal, hot and demanding and bloody perfect -

Damn, Gwilym thought. Suddenly, he was aware of how eagerly he was responding, and the Casnewydd Alpha Wing would be beyond pissed off if he messed up Awen's hair, clothes or make-up right now. Fortunately her self-control was better than his, and she abruptly softened the kiss, her lips sliding from his in one final, sensual move. Gwilym grinned, and tried to remember how to breathe. Or speak.

"Point proven," he murmured at last. Awen's eyes twinkled. "I feel better now, thank you."

"You're welcome," she said mildly. She placed a single chaste kiss on the tip of his nose and stepped away, making for the bedroom door. Gwilym blinked, and hastily tried to remember how to operate his legs next. "I'm letting your kettle back in now. He'll probably stare in horror, but he's wrong. Ready?"

Right leg, then left.

"Yes," Gwilym said calmly, closing the wardrobe. "See my professionally calm exterior. I am utterly ready for everything, and in no way still shaking."

"Shut up," Awen laughed, and pulled the door open. "He's ready for the torque now."

"Excellent," Watkins intoned, bustling in with it. Awen followed amiably. "It has been polished ready, my lord."

It had, too. The light gleamed off it and hurt his eyes. Gwilym slipped it on, the heavy metal cold against his skin. Behind Watkins he saw Awen run her fingers briefly around the high collar again, apparently in sympathy.

"Gwilym, boy!" Mental Uncle Dara boomed, wandering in. "You look just like your mother, but male and bearded! And slightly like your father!"

"That is my understanding of genetics, yes," Gwilym agreed as Watkins plucked an invisible speck of lint off his shoulder. "Is that it, now? Am I free to go?"

"A few matters remain, my lord," Watkins said, adjusting the torque. "Firstly, the Union are requesting your presense as a witness in the trial today."

"Really?" Gwilym asked Awen, surprised. "Why? What do I know?"

"He sent you a letter asking you to join his conspiracy," Awen said neutrally. "Or, well, to talk to me about it, although obviously that wasn't what I ended up asking you. But that was his plan."

"I'd forgotten about that," Gwilym said thoughtfully. "Yes, okay. He has unsavoury attitudes towards social classes as well, I'll tell them that too if you like."

"Unlikely to be necessary, my lord," Watkins said humourlessly, in counterpoint to Awen's smile. "Next, the trial is to be open, so King Dara, Elder Clíodhna and Prince Lorcan are all permitted to attend in the upper galleries if they so wish."

And Mental Uncle Dara did so wish, it seemed, at least if his beam was anything to go by. Although Watkins' standards were slipping - in Erinnish etiquette Elders were meant to be listed before Monarchs. Gwilym debated telling him, and decided to wait until later.

"And, you've had a request for an audience, my lord," Watkins said, examining his papers. "From Lord Flyn. He -"


Gwilym's jaw dropped in disbelief. Awen looked at Watkins sharply, her eyes alert.

"From Lord Flyn," Watkins repeated calmly. "He begs an audience with you before the trial begins, my lord. You are, of course, utterly entitled to say no."

"What the hell does he want?" Gwilym asked, bewildered. He looked at Awen, whose gaze had become calculating. "Why me?"

"I'm not sure," she said slowly. "I can probably go and ask him, if you want? I think I'm allowed."

"You mean torture, don't you?" Gwilym said. "No. I might as well go if I want to know. Should I?"

Awen regarded him for a moment.

"I'm not sure," she repeated at last. "Certainly not alone, if you do. It sounds like a plan of some kind to me. You'd need someone to back up what was said. Although he probably won't say anything if I'm there, so…"

"I'm going to go and see him," Gwilym declared. "If only I knew someone who could be there covertly, to keep an eye out and act as a witness if necessary…"


"Ooh, exciting!" Aerona said, bouncing happily along. "Maybe he's trying to blackmail you! Wait, that wouldn't be good. Have you done anything illicit, Sovereign?"

"Certainly not!" Gwilym declared. "Apart from Awen, but that's been sanctioned. Well, and I'm related to an Erinnish menace currently at large in the Union, but that would have happened with or without me. I like the bead, by the way. It suits you."

"Cheers!" Aerona said cheerfully. "It looks amazing on Dylan, you should see it. Hey, what will you two do?"

"No idea yet," Awen said neutrally. "I'll have to go with the bead option, I think, or I'll have problems wearing my symbol of choice without breaking it and then superstitiously believing I've destroyed us forever. Which I would."

"I'm going to have our initials tattooed across my face," Gwilym said. Aerona giggled. "Possibly followed by 4eva and IDDT. I've not decided."

"You should get a braid too," Aerona advised earnestly. "Just one. And then it's really special, because it's sort of symbolic of you being in love with a Rider specifically! See?"

"Oh, she can't take that word yet," Gwilym grinned as Awen winced. "I have to go with milder things, like 'dislike' or 'apathetic towards' or something."

"In here," Awen said, slightly reproachfully. She pulled open a door and led them into a corridor full of Guard Riders, standing in pairs in front of more doors leading off it. They gave Gwilym and Aerona polite smiles, standing to attention; but as Awen passed they somehow stood even straighter. It was very military, Gwilym supposed. They were reacting to that very attractive but impractical collar that loudly proclaimed her rank. Compared to that, he was just some tramp in a necklace.

"Is Owain down here?" Aerona asked interestedly. Awen gave her a wary look and pointed to one of the doors.

"In there," she said. "Although no one's allowed to do more than talk to him yet, if you're -"

"No, no," Aerona said quickly. "I mean, I'd quite like to take a few of his toes off, and maybe his ears, but I don't mind waiting or anything. And, you know, you have a stronger claim."

"Not by much," Awen said, pausing outside a different door. "He nearly killed you, you batty Archipelagan. Now get in the crawlspace."

"Will do!" Aerona Saluted happily, and vanished. Gwilym shook his head.

"I love that I once thought her sweet and normal," he said. "How naïve was that?"

"Very," Awen said, throwing him a small smile and turning back to the door. "Okay. Ready?"

"Yes," Gwilym said, fighting down the odd nerves. He was, really. His curiosity as to what on earth Flyn could possibly want to say to him was more than strong enough to overcome any reservations, so he was largely focusing on that and ignoring any lingering thoughts about the untimely demise of a metaphorical cat. "Shall we?"

Awen pushed open the door and stepped inside. Gwilym followed, and looked around.

It was a long room, maybe thirty feet to the opposite wall, and fairly wide; but only a five metre strip in the middle was available to actually walk in, the walls to either side lined with cells. They were fairly spacious cells in fact, in their own way. Each was around five or six metres square with a low bed along one side, a basic latrine positioned against the back wall and thick, floor-to-ceiling bars on all sides. Only one was occupied, the rest standing empty with their doors open into the aisle. Gwilym felt vaguely disappointed. The least the Union could have done, he felt, was leave Flyn for the night surrounded by rambling nutters. He could have lent them Mental Uncle Dara, it would have been no trouble.

"Why are the doors in the way?" Gwilym asked for something to say. Awen shrugged.

"They automatically lock when they shut," she said. "Easier to get people in this way."

"Lord Gwilym," Flyn's voice echoed from the far cell. "Thank you for coming."

"Fuck off, rapist," probably wasn't a well-mannered response. Gwilym walked down the aisle and looked in.

Well, yes, Awen hadn't pulled that punch. Flyn was still wearing the same overly-purple tunic of yesterday lunchtime, one shoulder stained with wine, the fabric stiff and rumpled. His hair, normally so carefully smooth and neat, was ruffled up into spikes that were damp here and there where he seemed to have tried to neaten it again. And his eye was swollen shut, and certainly not the right colour. Gwilym could tell, because no one's eye was naturally purple. It even outshone the decadent tunic.

"Wow," Gwilym said, unable to help himself. "She really got you."

"She did," Flyn agreed grimly, his mouth smiling. "Against orders, too. I have to say, I expected better of you, Leader."

"It's funny how for an intelligent man you're singularly stupid," Gwilym remarked. This really wasn't well-mannered. He had to stop. "You tried to physically intimidate a famously unstable Rider. How on earth did you think it would end?"

"Perhaps you're right," Flyn said. He rose stiffly from his seat on the thin bed and walked towards the bars where Gwilym stood, watching him carefully, his grey eyes cool. On the edge of his vision Awen shifted very slightly, some minor change in position that his subconscious recognised as a predator and wanted to watch. "I suppose I've become spoilt by a higher standard. And, of course, one tends to become somewhat vexed when wrongly accused."

"Some evidence says you haven't been," Gwilym returned. "Can I go? I want breakfast."

"Are you with her now, then?" Flyn said idly. He didn't so much as look in Awen's direction. "What's that like, being close to a Rider? Everything you wanted?"

"Certainly," Gwilym said. "It's consensual, for a start."

"Is it?" Flyn watched him, his face professionally neutral. "And how are you sure, my lord?"

"You stop when they say no," Gwilym advised. "It's a rule of thumb worth learning. Also good is checking whether or not you have to hold them down so hard you break bones."

"Most droll," Flyn said, flashing a quick smile. "And not what I meant, as I think you know. Because when your partner feels compelled to follow any order you give them - when they consider you to be so far above them that they can't bring themselves to deny you anything - how can you be absolutely sure it's consensual?"

Gwilym smiled, and folded his arms.

"Do you know," he said conversationally, "if you'd asked me that yesterday I might have been worried? It's funny what can happen in a day."

Awen's face didn't move from it's emotionless mask, but she did rub a hand briefly over her chin and jaw, telling of the bitten back laughter. Flyn nodded.

"Excellent," he said. "Then the only possible motivation for you to worry about is guilt."

Gwilym thought quickly. Flyn was digging for something, here. This wasn't a normal conversation to have with anyone waiting for their trial and potential horrific execution, and he could tell that despite never having had such a conversation before. And it was unlikely, whatever Marged spent her time implying, that Flyn was merely going to be jealous of anyone in a relationship with Awen, thereby causing him to try to drive any wedge through that he could. Which left a few options; either he was trying to get a rise out of Gwilym for some reason, a rise out of Awen for potentially fatal reasons, or there was something important here.

Either way, this won't be fair on you.

Guilt. Whatever was in that letter was mangling Awen's conscience, an impressive feat given that she was, in many respects, conscience-less. But also, whatever was in that letter had come from the big pile of anti-Flyn evidence. It was enough to instantly pass a death sentence. And it had been enough that Owain had tried to kill him and his surviving family for it.

Ah, Gwilym thought. You want to know what I know.

"Guilt?" he asked out loud, fractionally condescendingly. "For… what, now? Saving my life twice?"

"One could argue," Flyn said carefully, his gaze unwavering, "endangering it in the first place."

"Yes," Gwilym said, forcing himself calm. "Yes, I imagine you would."

Flyn watched him for a moment, eyes searching, and then nodded.

"But you would not," he said. "Happily for you both. Tell me, my lord; what do you know of the situation currently in Saxonia?"

"That you're manipulating them into a war that will end the lives of thousands on both sides of the border so you can rule both countries?" Gwilym suggested pleasantly. "Amongst other things. What do you know about the situation currently in Celtiberia?"

"What a wit you have, Lord Gwilym," Flyn said. "How would you feel if I told you that Saxonia is currently about to boil over? That it will soon march on the whole of Cymru, wave after wave of Saxon warriors, without end? That it will bring ships and sail all around the coast, even to the Great Darkgate itself? Would you believe me?"

"No," said Gwilym. "Because you're phrasing it as a certainty. And you can't get to the Great Darkgate from the sea."

"Sometimes," Flyn said, "things can be so close to certainty that the difference becomes irrelevant. You know this is true."

"Hmm." Gwilym shrugged. "I'll give you that. Go on."

"How would you feel," Flyn said quietly, "if I told you that the only way to keep this from happening was to let me control the situation? It doesn't matter now how it came about, my lord, I'm sure you see that. What matters is stopping it."

"I'd feel far less nervous about playing gwyddbwyll against you," Gwilym said. "Clearly, you overlook things."

"The Riders would fight well," Flyn said sharply. "And ultimately win, I think. But not before untold damage occurred."

"Breguswid," Gwilym said simply. Flyn's chin jerked upwards.

"Is dead," he said. Gwilym raised an eyebrow.

"She's living in Casnewydd," he said, and Flyn's tiny, brief flicker of emotion would keep him warm for the rest of his life. "And I'm bored of talking to you. See you later."

"You're really very angry with me, aren't you," Flyn said. "So much so that you're ignoring reason. Tell me, Lord Gwilym. What is it specifically that's so enraged you?"

No, I really don't know what's in your letter, Gwilym thought. He regarded Flyn for a long moment.

"Alis Morgannwg," he said at last. Flyn's brow furrowed.

"I'm afraid you've lost me," he said, and the anger nearly brought bile to Gwilym's throat, his hands clenching into fists.

"Yes," he said. "And that's what has specifically enraged me so."

He spun on his heel and marched away without a backwards glance. Awen followed him silently and carefully closed the door behind them as they left. Gwilym leaned against the wall in the corridor and breathed.

"I actually want to hurt him," he ground out through gritted teeth. "He didn't know her name. He didn't know her name. I want you to evicerate him."

"So do I," Awen said softly, her hand sliding up his arm. "I'm sorry. I should have stopped you from coming."

"No, it's fine," Gwilym said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I mean, it's not, because good gods, but you letting me speak to him is fine. Dammit."

"Well, he's really thoroughly unpleasant, isn't he?" Aerona's voice broke in, slightly awed. Gwilym looked around to see her emerging from apparently nowhere, dusting off her hands. "Commiserations that you had to kneel to him, Awen."

"Thank you," Awen said mildly. "Many's the time I nearly bit his knees. Anyway; can you write that up for me? If you're busy -"

"No, no, it's fine," Aerona said earnestly. Gwilym looked at her.

"You know," he said, "you need a badge that says 'Hello, I'm Aerona and I want to help you'. Just so everyone knows."

"That would be lovely!" Aerona beamed. "I really do want to help!"

"Basically," Awen said as she led Gwilym away to the breakfast hall two minutes later, "the world would be a nicer place if everyone was more like Aerona, I feel. Although there would be more neurosis."

"And possibly fewer toes and ears," Gwilym nodded to Awen's merry laugh. "Possibly removed over the course of some sinister game."

"Sovereign," Awen grinned. "She is not that bad. It's only Owain, and frankly, that's a mild opinion compared to most."

"It's so sweet you think that's mild," Gwilym said, placing an arm carefully around her shoulders to avoid the hairpins. "I love it when you do that."

"Shut up," Awen said, smacking his ribs with one hand but snaking her free arm around him in response. She rested her head on his shoulder and sighed, contentedly.

"A few hours left," Gwilym said quietly. "What do you want to do?"

"I thought I might go to the kitchens and have breakfast," Awen mused. "And pay attention to what I'm eating again. Could be my last chance. And then… I don't know. I need to finalise my recommendations for what everyone in my Wing should do next, after I'm gone. And I have some letters to send."

"That sounds important?"


They stopped by the doors to the banquetting hall, and Awen unwound herself from his arm. Gwilym caught her beads and twirled them, gently.

"Do you want some company while you write?" he asked. "And eat?"

Awen smiled wryly, her eyes on the floor, and looked up at him.

"Yes," she said softly. "I do."

"Well, in that case," Gwilym grinned, putting his arm back around her shoulders, "I think we should reintroduce you to the joys of laverbread."

Well, it was hardly a chore. Kitchens were more fun than banquetting halls anyway.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Cymru - Chapter 48

No plot ahoy.


There was something soothing about tuning harps, Awen found, something vaguely exciting. It was like the instrument was promising you something; if you looked after it, it was going to look after you. Once you were done, it would purr for you. Until then, good luck not wanting to sacrifice your own eardrums to any passing god to make the horrendous sound go away.

It was all part of how alive they were, of course. The harp was the body, the music was the soul. Tuning them, oiling them, dusting them, it was all like feeding them properly so the music would fly. They played to themselves when you didn't, Awen felt. It wasn't audible, but it was like the opposite of sound. Not silence; silence was no sound. A harp left to itself played minus sound, the memory of music, heard only by itself but felt by everyone else. And it was impossible not to want to join in when you could feel it, Awen found. Suddenly, she'd have this urge to fit the soundboard to her shoulder and her fingers to the strings, and then it all just progressed from there. The music poured out, and the harp sang.

Particularly triple harps. Awen could play a lot of different instruments by now, but the triple harp was such a visual mess of strings it basically blinded you, demanding that you learned to feel it instead. It didn't want to be plucked; it wanted to be played. It was difficult to say no.

She'd never meant to actually like playing. She'd turned to music to strip the medium of every additional skill she could, to make herself useful, but she'd been sucked in. The music had become… something else for her. When she sat at the harp, she wasn't quite the same anymore. It was like taking off the cloak that was Awen, that was her life, and just hanging it up for a while. Everything could wait. The responsibility could wait, the danger, the frustration, the pain. The harp let her be something else, if only for a while. It was addictive.

She plucked a final string and the sound rang out, clear and sweet. Awen smiled and sat, letting her mind unfocus and her fingers move. The music cascaded around her, caressing her as gently as the night-time breeze from the open window.

"You're beautiful when you play," Gwilym said softly behind her.

"Thank you," Awen murmured. The fire to the side warmed her, contenting her. "When did you arrive?"

"Just now." He sat carefully on the chair behind her, his thighs pressed against hers, and slid one arm around her waist, the other drawing her hair back over her shoulder. The music mellowed and grew, the liquid flow of triple harp notes strengthening. "Favourite instrument?"

"Definitely," Awen smiled. "It's like a river, hear that?"


He was quiet for a moment, listening to the stream of the music.

"How does it do it?" he asked wonderingly after a moment, apparently thinking about it for the first time. "Crwths can't do that. What makes it do that when other instruments can't?"

"The strings," Awen said. "The outer two rows are tuned together, and the style of play is to play identical notes either together or just after each other. It means you get two tunes at once. Constant music, see? For the greedy of hearing."

"Are your eyes closed?"


"That's beyond impressive," Gwilym told her, one hand firmly taking hold of her beads, his chin resting on her shoulder. The music changed slightly again, her fingers dancing up the treble. "Do you know you're playing your emotions?"

"Yes," Awen laughed. "Sorry. I can't help it."

"Don't be," Gwilym said earnestly. "Really. It's beautiful."

The music swirled and danced happily, filling the room, and they lapsed into silence, listening to it. It was strange how safe she felt, sandwiched between Gwilym and the harp, feeling the vibrations of one and the warmth of the other. After a while he snorted softly, his breath tickling her neck.

"You were transposing into minor before," Gwilym murmured, his smile audible. "Now you're doing it the other way around. That's the Doleful King of the Ghosts you're playing."

"I like a challenge," Awen said. "And now I have brought joy to a deeply unhappy ruler of the dead. That, my friend, is the product of a winning personality."

"You're right," Gwilym nodded. "Now he is positively doleless. I might even push the boat all the way out and use the word 'elated', you know."

"I like the word 'elated'," Awen mused. "It sounds golden, like summer."

"You sound crazy, like my uncle," Gwilym said mildly. "But that's okay. Bards are supposed to be."

He paused, and then slipped both hands up to her face, covering her eyes. Awen smirked, the music unchanging.

"I meant it," she grinned as Gwilym laughed. "Looking at triple harps is more confusing. You just have to learn your way around them -"

She broke off as his lips closed on the nape of her neck, the sensation heightened by her lack of sight and making her shiver, her head automatically bowing forwards to give him better access. He kissed her gently, her heart hammering, and then chuckled quietly, the sound deep in his throat.

"Sorry," he said, standing up behind her. "Couldn't resist. But I'm going to blindfold you, there's something I want to do."

"I'm not having sex with you," Awen said quickly, her hands freezing on the strings.

"Oh good gods it's just like being seventeen again," Gwilym said. "Sioned ferch Hafren, behind the fishing sheds on the harbour. I swear that was the only sentence she ever said to me, and I heard it so many times."

"Shut up," Awen laughed, holding the soundboard. "I'm just -"

"No, it's fine," he said morosely. One hand slid around to cover both of her eyes, the other vanishing briefly before the soft slide of cloth replaced both. "I know the drill. It's not me, it's you. One day I'll meet the right person. You're just not ready to settle down yet, or stomach touching me in any way."

Oh, damn, it had never been more tempting to sleep with him, though. There was something powerfully erotic about him blindfolding her, which Awen could in no way explain given that she generally had problems trying to give control to other people. But suddenly her heart was racing at the touch of the cloth, her fingers gripping the harp rigidly as Gwilym gently tightened the blindfold while merrily jabbering on, apparently oblivious to his effect.

"And then there was the 'No, Gwilym, the thought of you seeing me naked is giving me a rash' answer," he was saying cheerfully, tying a knot at the back of her skull that somehow didn't catch any hairs. "And the 'I'm only not reporting you to a Rider because you're the Sovereign's son'. Oh, and 'Fuck off Gwilym or I'll dropkick you downstairs', but in all fairness that one was just my sister on a bad day when I happened to walk past, she was quite indiscriminate."

"Some days I seriously consider punching you, Sovereign," Awen said, reaching back and catching his hands. He squeezed them back. "In the stomach, so it wouldn't show. What are you going to do?"

"Ah!" Gwilym said happily, his tone that of an excited scientist about to test a pet theory. "Well, let me ask you something first -"

"Oh, I see," Awen said, as realisation dawned. "You're using your 'I've been thinking hard about you, Rider, and I've just realised an exciting new way in which you're emotionally deficient' voice."

"Yes!" Gwilym said, taking hold of her shoulders and pulling up lightly. Awen stood, suddenly uncertain with the vulnerability. "You see, I've been thinking hard about you, Rider, and I've just realised an exciting new way in which you're emotionally deficient. We're going to the sofa. This way."

"This is weird," she said, unnerved as he guided her to the sofa beside the fire, clutching his tunic for support. He sat her down and suddenly was next to her, both arms around her, his presense solid and reassuring.

"I know," Gwilym said softly. "You're doing well, though. Thank you for trusting me."

"I don't trust you," Awen declared, although she didn't let go. "You're an enormous liability. Are you about to sell me to a Phoenician?"

"Absolutely!" Gwilym beamed. He turned her on the sofa so she was leaning her back against the arm, legs crossed, her feet still touching him. "Now. It's not so much an emotional deficiency as a sort of social one, actually. What's your favourite food?"

So many of his questions threw her. Awen blinked.

"What?" she said blankly.

"What's your favourite food?" Gwilym repeated. He sounded like he was grinning. "Mine's lemons, but we can't get them here. They grow in northern parts of Phoenicia. What's yours?"

"What are lemons?" Awen asked, vaguely bewildered, and his hands were suddenly on her wrists, running up and down her arms.

"No," he said, voice gentle again. "Don't do that. You're changing the subject. Third time: what's your favourite food?"

"I don't know," Awen said, slightly nervous for no reason she could fathom. The feeling of his hands on her bare skin was soothing, a reassuring comfort. "I don't really have one."

"Okay," Gwilym said. "Next question: can you remember the last time you ate something that you really, really enjoyed? Savour-every-mouthful kind of enjoyed?"

"No," Awen said, non-plussed. "Why?"

"All in good time!" Gwilym said grandly. "Next: how often do you eat? Generally?"

"I don't know," Awen said, and then belatedly realised the effect that statement might have on someone with a normal metabolism and a three-meals-a-day regime. "The Gwales Ritual means we don't need to eat as often," she explained hastily. "We only really get hungry if we've been injured."

"Do you eat when you're hungry?"

It was difficult to tell without being able to see his face, but his voice didn't seem disapproving, so she seemed to have gotten away with that one.

"Yes," Awen said. "And when I remember. I don't know how often."

"That's what I thought," Gwilym said, satisfied. His hands left her arms, her skin still tingling with the tactile after-image. Gently, he raised one of her hands, kissing the knuckles in a move that made her heart dance again. "Okay! Open your mouth. I swear this isn't a deviant sexual practice I'm foisting upon you."

"Are you sure?" Awen asked suspiciously. She wished she could see his face. "I've heard that one before. What are you going to do?"

"You," Gwilym said happily, "are going to exercise your bardic way with words. I want you to describe a flavour."

He leaned forward, one hand cupping the side of her face delicately, his thumb stroking her chin.

"Open," he said softly. Something brushed her lips and Awen automatically obeyed.

It was bread, and then, quite suddenly, it wasn't. The taste went from 'bland' to 'intense' faster than she could blink, the flesh velvet-smooth and flavoured like the scent of the evening air, the crust a firm, chewy shell that was sweet and floral, glazed with honey. She inhaled sharply through her nose as her tongue rolled over and admitted defeat under the onslaught, barely able to process it all. It was sensational. Literally. And that was as far as words would carry her. Bardic training hadn't prepared her for such arcanely delicious bread. Who the hell had made it, a faerie?

"Thing is, you see," Gwilym said conversationally over her rapture, and his grin was definitely audible, "food is more of a habit to Riders than a necessity, so you forget to taste it. And you have such a busy life it's all about when you can remember and spare two minutes. You've forgotten how to actually enjoy it."

"I see," Awen managed, swallowing. "You don't actually want me to describe that, do you?"

"Well guessed!" Gwilym laughed, kissing her forehead and sitting back. "No. I just wanted you to pay attention. And now I'm going to make a list. How did you like the bread?"

"I loved the bread," Awen said weakly. "The bread can come again. Is there more?"

"No," Gwilym said thoughtfully. "I only brought a morsal of everything. You get to try lots of things. Here, this one's next…"

The texture, Awen felt, was reminiscent of sand too close to the sea, so wet it formed an almost liquid compound that you couldn't dig. It was a sort of paste, cool on her tongue and delicate, so delicate in flavour; meaty but sweet at the same time, with a very faintly acrid tang. And mint, just a hint of it, refreshing and complimentary -

"Pâte!" Gwilym announced. "How did it do? Did you like it? More or less than the bread?"

"More," Awen said distractedly. "Much more. Is there more of it?"

"I'm afraid it counted under the broad category of 'everything'," Gwilym said. There was the sound of tearing paper, and then his fingertips were brushing her mouth again. "Next!"

Next was a bite of sausage, mouth-wateringly complex and yet heartily simple all at once, which actually made her moan and went over the pâte; after that was a cube of cheese, rich and tangy and creamy and rating just below the sausage; after that was yoghurt with honey drizzled into it, a dazzling meeting of acridly sour and cloyingly sweet. The raw onion she nearly spat out, but cooked into soup she loved; the butter she found a pointless waste of good bread; the carrot sticks were beautifully crunchy, sweet in a savoury way, and when dipped into some incredible soft-cheese-and-leeks concoction she was sorely disappointed to finish them. The raisins she refused to finish; the celery she threw at the fire; the peas she happily ate straight from the pod. Gwilym made a note of all of them, his voice almost dementedly cheerful over the tearing paper.

"Okay!" he said at last, to Awen's enormous disappointment. "That's all of it. How was it for you, darling?"

"Immensely enjoyable, honey," Awen grinned, stretching and leaning back against the arm of the sofa. "How did I do? Do I like weird things?"

"Yes," Gwilym declared. "You ate three spoons and a coaster, you freak. No; according to my re-assemble-able list on scraps of paper, it's mostly meat and dairy products for you. And you seem to have a bit of a sweet tooth."

"And there's definitely no more?" Awen asked, without any real hope. Gwilym's weight shifted, his arms closing around her waist and she was pulled gently but firmly down flat onto her back on the sofa cushions, grinning. His fingers began work on the knot for the blindfold. "No more spoons or coasters? I can't nibble on the corner of a tray?"

"Sorry," Gwilym said contentedly. "It all counted under the umbrella heading of 'everything', you see. It was quite a broad, but in this case accurate, description. Close your eyes."

They were anyway, but Awen obediently kept them that way as he slid the cloth from her face, catching her breath as he very delicately placed a kiss to each eyelid.

"You know this is pointless," she murmured quietly, her hands finding his waist and clinging on. "I have days left at best -"

"Oh, stop it," Gwilym said fondly, his hands lining her eyes. "If that turns out to be the case, I'm making every one count. Stop trying to convince me otherwise."

"I'm not," Awen sighed. "I just want to make sure you realise it."

"I do." He kissed the tip of her nose. "Open your eyes."

She did. The lighting at this time of night was far from bright, but it was still a good thing Gwilym was shielding her vision from the firelight as she readjusted from the dark again. Awen blinked, and looked up at him.

"You have beautiful eyes," Gwilym said happily. "And that's a point - if you've never seen your own face, do you know what colour your eyes are?"

"Grey," Awen smiled. "We all told each other when we were children."

There was a slight pause.

"They're green," Gwilym said, clearly suppressing a laugh. "Dark green. They're only grey when it's cloudy or night."

"Oh." She laughed, squeezing his waist. "Green then. Well, we were about four, in all fairness. I always wanted green eyes, actually."

"I remember that," Caradog's voice proclaimed as its occupant entered the room. Awen grinned. "We told Owain his were brown, but they were blue. I wonder how he felt when he saw them?"

"Repulsed, I should think," Gwilym said, earning a guffaw from Caradog. "Although probably not by his eyes as much as his nose."

"Looked like he'd been hit in the face with a spade," Caradog agreed merrily. "Come to think of it, he might have been. Anyway; can I have a minute, Leader?"

"I'll go," Gwilym said, sitting up, but Awen was faster. She knocked his supporting elbow out from under him and pulled him down, rolling on top of him as Caradog snorted and threw himself onto the floor, his back against the sofa beside them.

"What do you mean, you'll go?" she asked blankly. "Do you want him to go, Caradog?"

"No, don't be daft," Caradog said dismissively, and then abruptly sighed. "I keep dreaming."

"Congratulations," Awen said mildly, settling on Gwilym's chest and gripping Caradog's shoulder. He held her hand tightly, leaning one scratchy, unshaven cheek against it. "That's what adults do at night."

"Yeah, and why is that?" Caradog asked gloomily. "What's the point of dreaming, anyway? If it's good you wake up disappointed, if it's bad you wake up screaming."

"Well, it's because sleeping is boring," Gwilym said sagaciously. "That's how it works. Everyone goes to bed and keeps their eyes tightly closed until they pass out from boredom and hallucinate wildly to entertain themselves."

"Ha!" Caradog grinned merrily. "If your time in bed is that boring, Sovereign, it's a good job you have a girlfriend now!"

"Oh, look, this conversation is fun," Awen said. "What are you dreaming about that's distressing you so, Caradog?"

He sighed again, threading her fingers through his.

"Owain," he said at last, quietly; although 'quietly' for Caradog meant 'normal volume'. "I keep dreaming about him. All the time. It's weirding me out."

"Ah," Awen said softly. "What do you see him doing?"

"It changes." Caradog tipped his head back and looked up at the ceiling, his eyes clouded. "The first night was… sort of… well, I was angry, like. I killed him."

"Well, we've all been there," Gwilym said knowingly and somewhat surprisingly, Awen felt. "Next night?"

"Was bloody weird," Caradog declared. "You know the nightmare where they're hunting you? And you're just running, but you can't go fast enough, and they're in the shadows?"

"No," Gwilym said.

"Yes," Awen said. Gwilym's hand stroked her ribs, once.

"Like that, but lots of Owains," Caradog said angrily. "That one annoyed me. I could wrap him around one hand, for gods' sakes."

"And frequently have," Awen smiled. "Well, there's no mystery so far. You were angry with the betrayal on the first night, reacting to the relationship on the second. He was your Deputy. A commander. There's a strong element of security involved, which he took away."

"Cock," Caradog muttered. "Yeah, alright, I can take those. But every night since - a bloody week - I keep dreaming about him as though it hasn't happened. Like, one night we were all just having a party, nothing else. One, we were fighting, and he died, and I actually woke up bloody crying, Leader. Crying!"

"Oh," Awen said. She exchanged a look with Gwilym, understanding dawning. "That's not -"

"He tried to kill you!" Caradog snarled, suddenly venomous. One enormous hand gripped her wrist, the fingers of the other running across the scar on her palm. "He tried to kill you! I swear to you, I haven't forgiven him, Leader, but then I have all these dreams, and I don't -"

"It's okay," Awen said gently, leaning down and hugging his shoulders. Gwilym stroked her back; it was a strange gesture, like he was backing her up, giving her strength while she gave it to Caradog, and stranger still, it was exactly what she wanted. "Seriously, it's okay. That's what I see, too."

"You what?" Caradog grabbed her forearms, holding her tightly. "You do?"

"I know!" Awen said, grinning. "Insane, isn't it? But it makes sense, when you think about it."

She glanced back at Gwilym. He was giving her the strangest look, a soft smile that was almost… proud, somehow, his pale eyes tenderly expressive.

"We miss the person we thought he was," Awen said, watching Gwilym as the impact of the same words he'd told her on the mountain-top finally hit home. "The Owain we knew. He's dead now, and we're grieving him. See?"

Caradog was silent, watching his own knees, lost in thought. Awen let him. She'd long found that the trick to Caradog was just to point his head in the right direction and then ask for a summary at the end to make sure he'd reached the right point; he was a man who enjoyed making up his own mind. She watched Gwilym's curious smile instead, and realised that he had hold of her beads in his free hand. He was rubbing a thumb against them contentedly, absent-mindedly, the colours glimmering through. Awen looked away. The blindfold had been bad enough. That really wasn't helping.

"Son of a bitch," Caradog muttered at last, squeezing her wrists. "Gods damn it! Oh, leave it to Owain to make sure we'll all pine for him after he fucks us over. Are we allowed to see him yet?"

"Yes," Awen said. "But -"


Caradog swung forward to jump to his feet, but from that position Awen had just enough leverage still to haul back on his shoulders and pull him back down, tipping his head back to meet her eyes upside down.

"But," she repeated sternly, "you are only allowed to see and talk to him, understand? That's all. And you can only talk to him if he's awake."

"Yes, Leader," Caradog said solemnly, and Awen grinned and let go.

"Good boy," she said, settling back on Gwilym's chest, who wrapped both arms around her securely. "Run along, now. And stop guilt tripping yourself; it's Owain's fault, not yours."

"Yes, Leader." Caradog paused for a moment, bending down from his massive height and gripping her shoulder tightly, unspeaking; and then he stood and stretched casually. "I'm going to go and shout at him if I can. You going to bed? You haven't slept in days."

"Yes I have," Awen lied seamlessly, making herself sound amused. "Just not at normal times."

"Cool," Caradog said, ambling away to the door and Owain. "Later."

"You're a very good liar, aren't you?" Gwilym marvelled once the door closed behind Caradog's massive back. "That's really very impressive."

"The fact that you can tell creeps me out more than anything else in the world," Awen told him mildly. "Really. It's shaking my faith in my own existence. I'm no longer convinced I'm real."

Gwilym laughed, the sound reverberating through his chest. Awen smiled, spreading her fingers over his heart.

"It's just logic," Gwilym said, one hand playing with her beads again idly. "You're unpurified, you must be having nightmares every time you blink. And, sometimes, when you let your shields go down, I can see you properly."

"Say what?"

"You look exhausted," Gwilym said. His free hand slipped to her lower bank, rubbing firmly at the muscles to either side of her spine, and Awen melted. "And not just physically. It's this weariness that goes bone-deep, the kind stressed people who don't get a holiday for years end up with. And the funny thing is, it makes you look both younger and older at the same time."

"That's paradoxical," Awen murmured, almost purring. Gwilym chuckled.

"Yes," he said affectionally. "But true. You are older than you look anyway, by nearly a decade. But you've also the same thing most child soldiers get. They stop aging at the point they first kill. And I can see it in you sometimes. When I confuse you, usually. Suddenly, there's a six-year-old looking out through your eyes."

"How old do I look?" Awen asked interestedly, and Gwilym burst out laughing.

"Or," he said, amused, "you could just ask me how old you are, you complete Rider."

Good gods, so she could. He'd read her file. That was crazy.

"I hadn't even thought," she said wonderingly, turning to look at him. "How old -?"

"Happy birthday," Gwilym smiled. Awen's jaw dropped. "You're thirty-four today. And you look about twenty-five."

"It's my birthday today?" she repeated, astonished. It wasn't that she hadn't realised, objectively, that she must have one. It was just that birthdays happened to other people. "Seriously?"

"Yes," Gwilym said, stroking her hair back from her face. "Well, sun's gone down, so technically it's now tomorrow and your birthday was yesterday; but I subscribe to the it's-not-a-new-day-until-you-wake-up school of social dating, so whatever. And as a gift I gave you the sense of taste, because Riders are difficult to buy for."

And abruptly that was too much.

It was overwhelming. Awen stared at him, almost horrified by the amount of thought he'd wasted on her. It was just too much; the letter sat between them, only the thickness of a tunic hiding it, and in Awen's mind it had never meant more. He'd found out her birthday, and spent fifteen minutes feeding her things to make her enjoy a small part of her life again, and all the while -

"Oh, don't you dare," Gwilym broke in, watching her expression, and his arms abruptly tightened around her, pinning her to him. "Listen, and listen very carefully, Awen. Because of the way your mind works, because of the way your life is, some things will mean more to you than me, yes? And the other way around, too. Yes?"

"Yes," Awen said, numbly. Gwilym nodded, his eyes stern, urgent.

"To me," he said firmly, "in my social world, it's nothing, understand? It's just a birthday, and not a particularly good present. I know it means more to you. I know that. But not to me. You don't get to start using this as a further tool with which to flagellate yourself. Understand?"

Good point. That was a good point. If he opened the letter tomorrow and left her in disgust he'd be able to look on this gratefully as a cheap present given on technically the day after her birthday. Awen clung to the logic with a death-grip, and tried to ignore just how important the last half hour would always be to her for as long as she lived.

"I understand," she said quietly, and felt Gwilym relax slightly beneath her. She sighed, pressing her forehead against his chest and over the letter. "You realise the deadline is the end of the trial? Tomorrow? Today, technically."

"I know."

His hands went to her lower back again, and resumed the massage. Really, it was like enforced relaxation; she lost the ability to be in any way on edge when he did it, as though his fingers just sucked the tension out of her muscles. She melted into him again, her eyes sliding closed.

"I'll lose you tomorrow," she murmured.

"We'll see," he said neutrally. "I'm staying tonight."

She let herself drift in the guilty happiness of that for a while, riding the gentle rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. It was supremely confortable there. She was starting to wonder if he was ergonomically designed.

"If you've read my file," Awen said sleepily at last, "do you know why we were given 'Masarnen'?"

"No," Gwilym smiled. "Random designation, I should think. Do you like it?"

"Owain and I always wanted 'Ywen'," Awen said. "For hilarious purposes. And Adara did, but mostly when she was a slightly morbid teenager and thought yews were edgy."

"My brother wanted to change his name to Seamus Mac Sorcha for a while when we were kids," Gwilym grinned. "He went through a hardcore Erinnish phase. Actually, he was a bit of an idiot, my brother, got to be honest."

"I used to wonder if I've got brothers and sisters," Awen said. The tiredness was fast catching up with her, between the luxuriously comfortable position and the amazing things Gwilym was doing with his hands and her back. "Like, biological ones, you know? I've got real ones, obviously."

"Hmm." Gwilym sounded thoughtful. "Odds are you do, I suppose. Union babies are usually either orphans or an unwanted extra in a big family, aren't they?"

"Or children of other Riders," Awen mumbled. "Not allowed to keep them."

She didn't remember falling asleep, but several days of exhaustion were queuing up to cash in what she owed, and Gwilym had intentionally made it as easy as possible for her. The first she knew of it was slowly waking up as she became dimly aware of a sussurration of voices and several hands trying to gently move her. Wearily she moved her head, looking for Gwilym, too tired to open her eyes, and she felt him tenderly kiss her forehead.

"It's okay," he whispered. "Go back to sleep, Awen."

Her brain translated it as an order, so she didn't protest.

"I got to call him some terrible things, though, so it was okay."

That sounded like Caradog. Actually whispering. Caradog never whispered.

"Never a wasted trip," Gwilym agreed. "What do the druids think?"

"They're now hopeful he'll wake up," Caradog was saying. A blanket had been put over Awen, and someone was carefully tucking it under her, as though preparing to move her and it. "Some time tonight, they reckon, or early tomorrow. And Dylan was there, throwing bits of wet rolled up paper at him, so I helped."

"Very magnanimous," Gwilym whispered back, the grin somehow shining through. "He's definitely going to wake up, though? I was worried Awen might have broken his brain."

"I think a mountain did that," said a new voice, approaching. "Because he's a congenital stupid."

"Well, a whole flock of druids were there," Caradog whispered. Gently, very gently, Awen was moved sideways in Gwilym's arms as he sat up, the others apparently helping him to stand. "Or whatever we call a group of druids. A chant? A murmur?"

"A circle?"

"A beard? Only describes half, mind."

"A robe? Ooh, a washing line!"

"A washing line of druids?"

"Well, as soon as you say it skeptically nothing sounds good," Gwilym whispered, rising to his feet. "Fine. What about a whinge?"

"Isn't that heretical?"

"And I swear it's more appropriate for Sovereigns, anyway," Gwilym answered. "Or a conspiracy of Sovereigns. Or a gossip. Or a sex attack, which happens far more commonly than I was warned about unless you get to dinner early and move the place cards."

They were moving, away from the fire and into the corridor leading to the bedrooms. Awen gripped the collar of Gwilym's tunic contentedly with one hand, and he snorted softly.

"Go to sleep, Awen," he repeated, and she was too tired to answer.

"In here," Adara whispered. "And she's already in pyjamas, look, what a helpful. Do you want some? I think you're about the same size as Llŷr or Meurig, I could get some."

"No, that's fine." She was being settled onto the bed now, the mattress cold but still inviting. The quilt was pulled over her, forming a nest, and then the bed dipped beside her as Gwilym climbed in too. "I get a perverse thrill out of making Watkins sniff."

"Do you love her?"

"Of course I do."

"Good answer."

"Night, Sovereign," Adara whispered. "Get out, Caradog, you social experiment."

She smiled at that, and didn't stop as Gwilym pulled her into his arms, pressing her back against his chest and holding her tightly.

And then, for once, she slept.