Kirel shivered in the chill of the late autumn evening. He'd never expected Scholastica to get this cold. Only late autumn, not even winter yet, and the days were already as cold as winter where he'd grown up. And the nights...! Brr.

But he stood and shivered anyway, in his less than adequate new to him cloak, and enjoyed the entertainment. Up on the courtyard stage of one of Scholastica's myriad taverns a group of musicians sang and played, providing a seamless harmonic backdrop for the soloist, a young man with red-gold hair and a voice like a bell. Kirel enjoyed music, an interest once encouraged by his mother, and he recognized the amazing talent on stage before him. He'd never heard a voice like that of the soloist, a warm and rich tenor, with a very flexible range. And he played an instrument, too, a thing that looked like an enormous lute and rang with the sound of metal strings. None of the travelling minstrels passing through Tanivar Estate used such instruments.

Weaving underneath the vocals and instruments, a deep-voiced drum thumped out an intricate, compelling rhythm. Kirel shoved his way through the crowd, most of whom seemed more interested in laughing, shouting, and imbibing much beer than listening to the music. The closer he got to the stage, awash with the light of glowballs, the more the drum stirred his blood. Wonderful!

The singer stood directly in front of him now, out at the front of the raised stage. Kirel stopped moving when he found himself pressed against the wooden edge of the stage itself, between two footglows. He had a great view here, and the sound...!

He could see the background singers, now, each with a stringed instrument of their own. He recognized a lute, a zither, and a mandolin, but the fourth defied identification. It stretched tall and thin above the head of its seated player, its strings speaking in a plaintive wail. The drummer sat behind them and to the left, partially obscured by shadows.

The music reached its finale, and Kirel sighed. Too bad it couldn't go on forever. He applauded frantically with the others, who broke off their shouted conversations long enough to acknowledge the performance.

The soloist caught Kirel's eye and smiled. His heart did a funny little flip in his chest. Then the singer glanced over his shoulder and called out, "Dragon's Lament."

The music started again, slow and mournful. The instruments carried the melody for quite a while, weaving together a net of magic. From his close vantage point, Kirel saw all of their fingers flashing, dancing rapidly through intricate fingerings. The drum throbbed beneath the melody, like a bass heartbeat, ba-doom. Ba-doom. Ba-doom.

Then the singer began his tale of a lonely dragon, last of his kind and locked into immortality. The words were few and simple, woven into the instrumentals with skill, but the sadness they evoked brought a lump to Kirel's throat. Poor lonely dragon, doomed to wander eternally alone, always searching for the answering cry he would never hear.

The song told of the dragon's mate, dying at the hands of a human hunter, and his discovery of their broken nest and shattered eggs. It followed his hopeful search, then told of centuries of crushing despair, followed by his retreat into the mists of a remote mountain range, safe from hunters but ever and always alone.

Afterwards, the group took their bows and left the stage. Kirel sighed, both supremely satisfied and frustrated. He'd heard the sounds of good music from the street as he hurried past, heading home after a late night at the stables. Looked like he'd arrived just in time for the end of the performance. Damn his dedication to duty! He could have seen the entire performance if he hadn't been in the stables.

But then fewer horses would have exercise, and Rashka would still be feeding, and... Kirel sighed.

Following an impulse, he struggled through the crowd once more, to the backstage area. Here he found the group congratulating each other on a good performance as they packed their instruments in protective cases or wrappings.

"No matter what the audience thinks," one of the backup singers, a young woman, laughed.

"Well, I think the performance was wonderful," Kirel said. Startled heads turned to look at him, the stranger in their midst.

"Thank you," the soloist said, recovering first. "I saw you out there, for the last two songs, anyway. You must have been the only one truly listening."

"The others are a bunch of fools," Kirel said. The singer's speaking voice equaled the beauty of his singing, sending funny little tingles racing through Kirel. "I've never heard music like that before."

"Nobody has, outside of Scholastica," the young woman who'd laughed at the audience's lack of interest said. Tall and thin, with curly brown hair brushing her shoulders, she smiled at Kirel. "Hello, I'm Caro."

"And I'm Kirel. It's a real pleasure to meet you." He smiled, but his eyes drifted back to the singer.

"I'm Sylvan, Kirel." He extended his hand. Kirel grasped it, noting the strength in his fingers and the string calluses at the tips. The contact sent a warm, pleasant sensation shooting through his body, and he couldn't have torn his gaze from Sylvan's hazel eyes if his life depended on it. Except—uh-oh. Something unusual stirred down below. "Are you doing anything tonight?"

Part of Kirel noted the exasperated sigh Caro gave, and her turning to speak with another group member. The rest of him focused on his crotch. For the first time in his conscious life, his previously unresponsive member was standing up and taking interest in a person. But it wasn't a woman! His face heated with embarassment.

"Ah, yes. Well, kind of. That is, I have to go to bed. To sleep. I'm worn out, working too many horses, had a very long day." Kirel realized he still held Sylvan's hand and released it, taking a step backwards.

"Perhaps some other time, then, Kirel. I'd love to get to know someone who's got such interest in our music." Sylvan smiled at him, and Kirel's heart flipped again. "Where can I find you? You mentioned horses?"

"Yes. I'm a trainer. I—I've got to go."

Kirel turned and fled, the cold night air outside hitting his flaming cheeks like a slap. What was wrong with him? He felt slight relief that his body finally wanted to work properly during the daylight hours, but Sylvan was entirely the wrong sex!

"Healers," Kirel muttered. "Got to find the Healers."

Someone manned the Healer's station at all hours, here in this town consisting of primarily young people. Maybe someone there could tell him what to do to fix his confused body.

A middle-aged woman wearing a shapeless dark robe looked up from her book when he entered, setting it aside and rising from her comfortable chair.

"Can I help you?"

"Please do!" Kirel blurted. "I—my body, it's gone wrong on me, and I don't know why. It decided to work, finally, but it's all wrong and I don't know what to do about it..."

"Well, you can start by relaxing. What's your name? My name is Meirelle." She paused for Kirel to provide his name. "Very well, Kirel, let's go have a seat here in my office. It's hard to get comfortable in this receiving room, wouldn't you agree?"

In Meirelle's office, Kirel sat as directed on a padded chair and the Healer took the seat behind a tidy desk.

"Okay, Kirel. Suppose you start with the beginning. What makes you think there's something wrong with your body?"

Kirel blushed again, even though Healers knew very well the normal workings of a human body. "Um, well, I couldn't perform with my lady wife. So she told my cousin, who wanted all the power for himself, and, well, they deposed me. For impotence. And I know I'm not really impotent, because I've woken up with, well, you know, wet spots in the bedding, but it never worked right before. Now, though, now it's working, or it was, but for a man. What is wrong with me?"

"Ah! I understand completely now." Meirelle smiled, reassuring rather than amused. "There's nothing wrong with you, Kirel. Have you ever heard the term flit?"

Kirel shook his head.

"The word refers to someone who is sexually interested in members of their own sex. There's nothing wrong with these people, there's nothing sick or unhealthy about such a response. It's just a natural preference, like some men prefer blond women, or some women prefer short men. Does this ease your mind?"

"Normal?" Kirel felt stunned. "There are other people that respond to the wrong sex?"

"Not wrong, just different. And yes, there are others. Not very many, because it's not a very common condition, but there are certainly other men and women who enjoy relationships with others of their own sex."

"Really. I'd no idea such a thing was even possible. I mean, we're just not built for—" He stopped, feeling his face heat yet again, picturing two aroused men together. He twitched. No, think of that later. In private. Very, very private. "And you're certain there's nothing wrong with—with—"

"Absolutely nothing," Meirelle responded, with such firm confidence that Kirel's distress eased. "Please be aware, though, there are some people who fear differences. Never travel to Shandar Province, nor yet to Bandor. The people of both places regard any differences, whether sexual preference, magical ability, or mental strengths, even Healing, as pure evil. They seek to purify their cultures by eradicating all such differences."

"They think Healers are evil some places?" Kirel shook his head. "That's insane. Very well, I shall avoid Shandar with a good heart, if I'm to be—what did you call it? Flit?"

Meirelle nodded. "Is your heart eased sufficiently, young Kirel?"

Kirel considered. Nothing wrong with him? Just different, not sick? He could live with that, especially because he wanted to believe the Healer. "Yes, I think so. I think I'll go home now. I'm very relieved. I thought something serious was wrong with me."

"I can imagine. Good, I'm glad you feel better, and I wish you well with your romance. I'll walk you out." Meirelle escorted him out of the Healer's Station and back into the chill night air.

Once outside, Kirel wrapped his woolen cloak around himself and walked slowly towards his dormitory. Overhead, the stars shone with a brittle clarity he'd never noticed before, and a crescent moon kissed the horizon.

Flit. Someone who found the same sex appealing. Nothing wrong with him. What a lot to think of the Healer had given him, just in the space of a few minutes.

He never remembered the contents of the erotic dreams he knew he'd had, just that they'd happened. Sometimes it disturbed him, because the stubborn thing just would not perform with Ellya, so why in the world should it in the dark of night? Perhaps because he'd been looking at the wrong type of body. How... shocking.

Kirel found some comfort in knowing he wasn't the only one with a case of ignorance about this subject. Otherwise, both Ellya and Jackon would surely have taunted him with the accusation, because a flit man would be equally incapable of siring children as an impotent man. How sheltered life at Tanivar Estate had been!

The wind picked up, chilling Kirel to the bone. All this introspection belonged in a warm room in front of a blazing fire, or better yet, snug in bed. If he didn't get warm soon, he'd find himself right back at the Healer's station, this time with a chest cold!

So Kirel put his thoughts aside and increased his pace. Moving faster warmed him somewhat, but the steadily rising breeze stung his cheeks. He'd never imagined such cold, down in the heat of the canyonlands. How did people survive in such a place?

Safe inside at last, Kirel pulled some warm coals from his carefully banked fire and put them in the warming pan. He set the pan in his bed, contemplated having a hot shower, then thought about cold air hitting naked, wet flesh, and decided he'd shower in the morning. Of course, he'd just get dirty again at the stable, but at least he'd start out clean.

So he stripped off his clothing and slid into the bed, pushing the warming pan carefully aside so he wouldn't burn himself. The bed offered a combination of icy chill and cozy warmth. Unbidden, an image of the singer Sylvan's smile rose in his mind's eye. Now he cursed himself for fleeing so soon. But he'd been confused, and frightened, and wanted to escape the peculiar, wonderful sensations inside. Perhaps the singer would seek him out at the stable at some point.

Kirel fell into sleep like a stone. Hormonal confusion or no, he'd been putting in many long hours at the stable, far more than the required four, and he was exhausted.

The next day brought no sign of the singer, nor the next, nor yet the day after that. Kirel told himself to quit looking and get back to work with his whole attention. Some of the horses he rode required all his skill just to remain in the proper mounted position, so he had no business dividing his attention, looking for a particular visitor.

He really had no business passing by a particular tavern every night, either, listening for the sounds of music in the open courtyard. He spent every waking hour not taken up with classes helping out at the stable. So many horses, so few hands to care for them, and fewer still to ride them. What made him think he could find time for a friend, no matter how wonderful his smile?

And so, he'd nearly succeeded in putting the singer from his mind when Sylvan actually appeared.

Kirel sat atop a dusty roan stallion named Spice. The horse had stood in the stable for nearly six lunations, cared for but without exercise. To top it off, Spice was young and very fiery. He'd managed to forget most of his training (or at least to pretend he'd forgotten how to do what the silly creature on his back asked of him) over the course of his time in that box, and actually put Kirel in the dirt twice his first time up. So he'd sighed, dusted off the seat of his pants, and started over. He walked the horse through the most basic of training excercises, as though the five annum stud were a two annum greenie, and got some satisfaction from his success. Spice wasn't a bad horse, just willful and bored, a bad combination.

Today Kirel had him attempting flying lead changes on a serpentine path, in one of the arenas. He wasn't quite comfortable taking this horse out of the stable complex. Spice tried hard, always a good thing, but he kept breaking back into a trot rather than excecuting the maneuver properly. Then he did it—roughly and with little finesse, but he still did it. Kirel immediately halted him, praising the horse lavishly. Then he heard the applause.

"Congratulations! I was beginning to think he was never going to get it."

Kirel's head snapped around. Sylvan stood in a patch of sunlight made just for him, leaning against the fence, looking like a splendid young god made real. "So was I," Kirel said, around the sudden, intense pounding of his heart. Then his voice failed him. Instead of trying to say anything more, he jogged Spice over to the gate and eased him through. Then he dismounted and led the horse the few steps to where Sylvan stood watching them approach.

"I'm glad you came," Kirel said, then cursed himself silently. Don't go acting like a little squeally girl, you fool! But he smiled, despite the stinging in his cheeks.

"I'm glad you're glad," Sylvan said, smiling back. "I had to meet up with you again sometime. A true music lover is soothing to my soul. Although, I'd never expected to approach this closely to the stables in my time here."

"Really?" Kirel felt enough shock to jolt him out of his daze. "You haven't got a horse?"

"No, not I. I'm a Bard. What need have I for horses, save to draw me across the countryside in comfort and style, riding safely in a coach?"

Kirel shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I'm a horse breeder and trainer. I've been riding since before I could walk. That attitude is completely foreign to me."

Sylvan laughed. "Ah well, nobody's perfect. But come, have you finished with the day's chores here? It's well past the fourth hour."

"Yes, I know." Kirel considered for a moment. He really should get on at least three more horses. And then came the evening feed, always a good time to help out. But he'd been putting in many, many hours here, from dawn until lunch hour, then again after classes and a quick meal until long past dark. He hadn't even taken any days off. "Well, I'm not really finished, but then the work around here is never done. What did you have in mind?"

"I sought you out to tell you that New Sound Rising, my performing group, is playing again tonight. Would you care to attend? And perhaps meet with the group before the show for a meal and discussion of music?"

"There is nothing I'd like more," Kirel breathed, then shoved Spice's head. The stallion had taken advantage of his distraction to chew the back of his shirt and slobber down his neck. "But," he said, in a more normal tone, "There's a condition. You have to give me a chance to put up Spice here and get clean. I truly doubt you and your friends would appreciate my presence if accompanied by the smell of horse."

"That is a very good point, friend Kirel." Sylvan's smile stole away that brief moment of sanity, and Kirel felt his insides turn to mush. So this was desire.

But would Sylvan feel the same?

"Very well, then. I shall accompany you while you 'put up' the horse, and you shall explain to me the mysteries of what you are doing. And then you shall show me where you live, so I may find you again without venturing into this strange, horse-scented world of yours. How does that sound?"

"Like a rare good time," Kirel said, with a broad grin. "Come along, then, we've got to take this lad for a bit of a walk. He needs to cool down some and stretch his muscles. I kept him cantering for quite some time."

"If you say so." Sylvan gave the horse a dubious look, but walked beside Spice when Kirel started moving. "So where are you from, Kirel, that you train horses and appreciate fine music?"

Kirel winced. Still painful, even after several lunations. "I came from a place called Tanivar Estate," he hedged. True enough, and the Bard hadn't asked him what his station in life had been. "It's—"

"In the canyonlands, where the Palontir River opens out into the sea," Sylvan replied promptly, then laughed at Kirel's amazed expression. "I may not ride horses, but I certainly know my geography! I have to, after all, if I want to travel as widely as a proper Bard should."

"I've never seen a full Bard," Kirel said. The three of them reached the well-worn track circling the stable complex. "Minstrels came through the canyonlands sometimes, but it's a bit too risky and too isolated to attract the attention of proper Bards."

"A pity for you," Sylvan said. "I'm afraid I'm not a full Bard yet, so you still haven't seen one. But I should have completed my masterwork by springtime, and then I'll be off."

Kirel missed a step. "Off?"

"Steady there. Yes, off, out to see the world with the group and try to earn our fortunes. We're heading for Caissa first, then down to Eirian. Beyond that, who knows? We might even go to Bandor."

"Not Bandor." The words popped out without thought.

"Whyever not? I hear they've got quite a cultured situation there."

"Because," Kirel said, this time choosing his words with some thought, "I've heard they're rather intolerant over there, and that they punish unusual talents severely."

"Ah, yes, the burning thing." Sylvan shuddered. "I agree, that's plenty reason to avoid Bandor. But they only burn people they know are different."

Kirel shuddered in turn. Meirelle hadn't mentioned the method of execution. "Burning. How unpleasant."

"Yes. Very well, if it will make you feel better, I'll not go to Bandor."

Kirel smiled, more relieved than he should be after such a brief acquaintance. "Thank you, Bard Sylvan. Forgive me if I hold you to your word."

"You're forgiven, Trainer Kirel." Sylvan smiled, and Kirel melted again inside.

They walked Spice around half the complex, a fair distance, while the sun dipped towards the horizon with the speed of late fall. Then Kirel brushed out the horse and cleaned his hooves, dutifully explaining each step of the untacking and grooming process.

Then he and Sylvan hurried back to Ellsworth Hall, where Kirel modestly shut himself in the bathroom with an armload of clean clothing. He showered quickly and dressed in the one set of finery he'd brought along, black velvet trousers, a silvery grey linen shirt, and a charcoal vest stiff with embroidery in charcoal thread. The resulting pattern was pleasant and subtle, far from the garish splendor his cousin embraced with such vigor. He brushed out his still damp hair and secured it in a braid, then gave the floor a rueful glance. He was nearly as bad as Jos, his suitemate, tonight, leaving behind puddles outside the shower and a pile of soiled clothing. Oh well.

He emerged from the bathroom to find Sylvan seated in his comfortable padded chair, the one he'd traded a week's care of a craftsman's horse for, with a book in his hands. The Bard looked up with a smile, which widened as he looked over Kirel. He set the book aside. "This was always one of my favorites. No need to ask if you're ready. Let's be off, then."

"So where are we going?"

"It's a bit out of the way, a place called Nightowl's. It's a place where the Masters like to congregate, so it's a lot quieter than the last venue."

"That's a good thing. That last crowd was a bit rowdy for my tastes. And perhaps this lot will appreciate your skills."

"They should," Sylvan shrugged. "We've played there before and gotten along well."

"I've never heard a singer with a voice like yours," Kirel said, as they left Ellsworth hall and started towards the Outer Square.

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing? My vanity needs to know." Sylvan's eyes danced.

"It's a bad thing," Kirel said, giving in to a flash of mischief. He hadn't felt this lighthearted, this good, since he'd been deposed. "Bad because I've never had the pleasure of listening to someone as good as you."

Sylvan laughed. "You had me frightened for a moment there. I thought my voice had failed me."

"Not in the slightest," Kirel said with heartfelt fervor. "You—and your group, too—it was magical. Simply magical."

"Wonderful," Sylvan said, well satisfied. "That's what I like to hear. You may continue." He waved his hand, an airy invitation for more praise, and Kirel laughed, happier than he'd ever thought he'd be again.

"Very well, I shall. Not only did your voice amaze me, but the sheer presence of your group on stage is impressive in itself. The instruments, weaving together, and the drum beating like a heart beneath it all," Kirel shot a brief glance at his companion, then decided to risk revealing some of his interest. How did one go about courting romance without yelling "I'm flit!"? What if the object of interest felt no reciprocating desire? "And you, out there in front, shining like every light on the stage was placed to illuminate only you, with a voice straight from a dream of heaven."

"I knew there was a reason I liked you, Kirel. You have such a way with words."

They laughed together, then Sylvan indicated a brightly lit doorway. "We're here."

Nightowl's occupied a large, round hut, like a village meeting house, complete with thatched roof. Kirel, accustomed now to the architectural oddities of Scholastica, didn't give it a second glance, just followed Sylvan in.

"Where have you been?" Immediately, before their eyes adjusted to the change from deep dusk to magical light, they were accosted by an angry Caro. "It's almost time to go warm up! We've been waiting for you, and you've been dawdling with this—"

"Fan," Sylvan interposed smoothly. "Remember, Caro, Kirel here truly appreciates our work. Now, according to my timekeeper, there's a good half hour before we have to go warm up. So do you mind if Kirel and I join the group and have a bite to eat beforehand? Or do I have to perform tonight with my stomach rumbling louder than the doumba?"

Kirel heard a snort from the table where the rest of the group looked on with interest. "Oh, get over here, Sylvan. And bring our fan, too. Caro's been in a panic, as usual."

"Right, then," Sylvan said. He brushed past Caro and took Kirel with him. "Everyone, you all recognize Kirel, I'm sure, from the last show. But he never really got to meet all of you. Kirel, we've got here Melindara, lute; Sorun, zither; Akimel, doumba; and Yana, uzben. Caro's on mandolin, but you already know her."

They sat at the table, to find someone more kindly disposed towards them than Caro had bespoken two of Nightowl's specialty sandwich for them. Sylvan must have mentioned his plans to another group member. Caro sat as well, but pointedly ignored Kirel. He wondered what had gotten into her. He certainly couldn't remember saying anything to upset her.

The half hour passed pleasantly, despite the fuming presence at the end of the rectangular table. Kirel said little and ate a lot, listening to the different stories of the musicians and how they'd come together to form the group.

Then it truly was time for them all to go warm up, and they left Kirel sitting at the table all alone, finishing the last of his sandwich. The sight of Sylvan's parting smile warmed Kirel's heart.

Tonight's performance matched the magic of the previous time. Kirel sat enraptured, feeling his very soul woven into the music. He leaned against the table, chin on hands, and never let his gaze wander from Sylvan. His Bard shone golden in the light of magic, the elemental glowballs picking out highlights in his red-gold hair. Sylvan's voice seemed special, meant for his ears alone, as Kirel sat drinking in the performance.

Afterwards, Kirel joined the group in the small room hidden behind the equally small stage.

"Beautifully done," Kirel congratulated them. "Thank you for having me here tonight. I feel honored."

"You should," Caro sniffed, then stuffed her mandolin in its carrysack and flounced off.

"What's her problem?" Kirel asked, once again mystified by a woman. Seemed he would never understand the breed.

"Don't mind her," Sorun chuckled. "It's not you, not hardly. Her problem's with Sylvan. She's only being nasty to you as a side effect."


But the Bard shook his head, packing his instrument, previously identified as a dulcilute, away in its case. "Later, Kirel. I'll tell you later, okay?"

"Okay," Kirel shrugged, while a gleeful little voice inside him caroled with pure joy. Later! There'll be a later!

"For now, walk with me?"

"Of course." Kirel followed the Bard out of the eating establishment into the chill of the night.

"The stars are so much sharper here," Kirel said, craning his neck as they walked. They twinkled overhead, icy pinpricks of light against the intense black velvet of the sky.

"What do you mean?"

"Where I came from, they were, I don't know, less intense. Softer. It's like we're closer to the stars somehow."

"Closer to the stars," Sylvan repeated. "I like the sound of that. I'd enjoy being closer to the stars with you."

"Uh... Thanks." Kirel's wits deserted him, and he fell silent.

"You're welcome." Kirel could hear the smile in the Bard's voice. "And on the subject of thanks, I appreciate your willingness to be here tonight."

"I enjoyed the opportunity very much." Kirel felt safe saying that. Far safer to stick with commenting on his pleasure in the music and leave off with the thought of flying to the stars with Sylvan. "New Sound Rising is such a talented group of people, I'd have to be utterly tone-deaf as well as completely uncultured to not enjoy the performance."

Sylvan stopped at a corner. "Well."

Kirel stopped as well. "Well?"

"Well. This is where our paths part for now. My home lies to the right, yours straight ahead. When may I hope to meet with you again?"

"When will you get over your dislike of horses?" Kirel queried, only half in jest. "I honestly do not know when I will have free time," he said, with a resigned sigh. "The horses are in such dire need of exercise..." He made a long, drawn-out sound of exasperation. "Sylvan, at the risk of sounding like a silly little girl, I enjoy your company more than I've enjoyed anything in nearly an annum, since my life got so thtocked up I thought nothing would ever fix it. So I'll make the time. I'll tell Rashka he's on his own on restdays. Will that suit?"

"Admirably, Kirel. I appreciate your sacrifice, as well as your devotion to your four-legged charges. To make it worth your while, why don't we have a bit of an outing? Say, to the lake?"

"I'd like that," Kirel said. Somehow, without the words ever being spoken, he felt suddenly sure Sylvan was flit, and courting him. The thought sent a delicious shiver down his spine.

"I'll see you on restday, then." Sylvan smiled a final time. "Good night, Kirel."

"Good night to you as well, Sylvan."

Kirel returned to his room in a daze. One thought came clear, as he lay curled in his bed: Sylvan must surely be the best thing to ever happen to him.