Rashka took the news better than he'd hoped, in the dark before the dawn.

"You've a right to your rest," he growled. "Growing boy, and all, for all you're more a man than most who've left their beasts here. Take the day and do well with it. But," and he scowled fiercely, "I expect you to top at least eight horses a day rest of the week, got that?"

"I got that, sir," Kirel said, relieved. He set off with a lightened heart, humming a cheerful little tune under his breath.

The week sped past. Kirel rode horse after horse, paused to attend his fascinating required classes, then returned to the stables to pull out another horse or three before full dark. Sometimes he wondered, in the blur of horsehair, how he'd gotten himself into this situation. He worked harder now than ever before in his entire life, save perhaps foaling time, here in this town where most people only labored four hours of the day.

But he felt good. Here, among the horses, he experienced no failures, only competence and joy. The quiet pleasure of brushing a horse, the warm feeling brought when a large, friendly beast shoved its head into his chest or hung it over his shoulder, the satisfaction of teaching a horse to do something properly... yes, he felt much better about himself out here in the stables.

And there was Sylvan, the young man who made Kirel forget how it felt to take a life and concentrate on how it felt to live life instead.

So Kirel rode, and groomed, and studied his way through the days until restday. He eased his conscience about taking the day off by looking at the overall picture: true, he was indeed the most advanced rider available, but nearly twenty others helped exercise the four hundred or so horses virtually abandoned by their owners. Each rider took out at least four horses a day, with a few of them pulling eight a day, as Kirel did. So the horses got ridden at least twice weekly. Not bad, not bad at all. Kirel's own fifty or so challenging brutes could survive a day off. He told his conscience to go take a long hike.

The night before restday, Kirel woke repeatedly from the cold. After the third or fourth time he shivered himself awake, he gave up on the bed and stirred up the fire. He couldn't hear any wind outside, so why the cold? Shivering, his feet lumps of ice even inside socks, Kirel yanked his formerly adequate quilt off the bed and rolled himself up in a ball on the rug in front of the fire. Here, finally, warmth began to seep into his aching body and unclench the taut, unhappy muscles. He at last fell into a deep sleep.

Cold woke him again, this time with the thin light of early morning sneaking past the thick window covering. Kirel sat up, then quickly scrabbled the blanket up around his bare shoulders. Cold! He threw another log on the fire, then looked outside to look for the reason behind the odd quality of morning light.

Scholastica lay under a thick blanket of white. Kirel stared at it, uneasiness coiling through his guts. Snow. It must be snow. He'd heard of the stuff before, but never really believed in it. After all, how could rain become solid, except as hail? But people here had been talking about snow for the last several days, some excited, some resigned. And now he saw it for himself.

Kirel let the curtain drop back into place and stepped away from the frigid window. Now what? His clothing, wonderful for the warm and sunny southern canyonlands, with their red rock walls that held so much heat, proved itself scarcely adequate to the chill of autumn here. Now he was supposed to deal with crystallized water, as well? Ai. Not good.

He decided to put on all his clothing. Maybe that would help. Or wait... perhaps... But no. Even if it provided warmth, which it would, Kirel did not want to wear the padding he'd worn beneath his armor while on the road. Heavy quilted fabric it may be, but it still bore invisible stains of blood and failure. No. Let it lie with the mothballs and gather dust. He'd wear both his outfits at once, one over the other.

The extra layer of clothing did help, Kirel decided, although he felt awkward and bulky. He threw his cloak over the lot and ventured down to the dorm kitchen, where he found fresh bread and hot tea. Things began looking up once the warm meal got inside him and thawed out the frozen knot at his center. The other students in the eating area chattered like a flock of magpies about the snow, and what fun it would be, and where the snowball fights would be the fiercest.

Kirel left them to their excitement, returning to his room instead of finding out about snowball fights. Did one actually touch that white stuff, and throw it at other people? It sounded ludicrous to him.

He curled up in front of his fire with more hot tea and a book from his Literature course. He ignored the quiet nagging of guilt and focused instead on the pleasure of a good read. He'd almost forgotten the sensation of having idle time on his hands.

Sylvan found him there around noon. He tapped at the door, then entered before Kirel could move. Sylvan's cheeks shone red with the cold and his hair bore little flecks of white, melting in the heat of Kirel's fire. Kirel's heart paused, then picked up its pace.

"You're inside! I expected I'd find you out playing in the snow, like everyone else."

"Hello!" Kirel struggled to unwrap himself from his cloak and quilt, then stood, putting his book aside. "You look like you're enjoying this stuff."

"Snow is beautiful!" Sylvan grinned, eyes sparkling. Then he took in Kirel's appearance and raised an eyebrow. "But what's this? Let's have a look at you."

He came around Kirel's chair, into the toasty warmth of the fire's greatest influence, and took hold of Kirel's arm, fingering the telltale white ring peeking out from beneath the cuff of his good grey shirt. Kirel's breath caught.

"Two shirts, and wrapped up in a nest of blankets... or wait." He dropped Kirel's arm and inspected the quilt. "Make that a summer-weight cloak and a light quilt... Kirel, my friend, are you trying to freeze yourself to death? You silly southerner, don't you know anything about proper winter garb?"

"Well, no," Kirel admitted, squirming with embarrassment. "That is, what I've got is more than adequate for a proper winter back home. How was I to know how cold this crazy place of yours gets?"

"Poor baby!" Sylvan laughed. "I'll tell you what. Since you're so obviously not equipped for cold, and I'll bet you've never seen snow before, why don't we skip the hike out to the lake and instead make the rounds of the clothiers in town? And get you some proper bedding, as well. I most certainly do not want you to get sick, and there's no better way to do that than heading into winter completely unprepared."

"That sounds wonderful," Kirel said. "Educate me, please, because I have no clue. I've never even found the clothiers, let alone made a deal with them. Robin showed me Needler's Hall, once, and I got a cloak there, but I've always been too busy at the stables for much else."

Sylvan patted his shoulder. "Not to worry, then. We'll fix you up. Let's go. Have you a pack?"

"Saddlebags," Kirel shrugged. "Will they do?"

"No, no. I mean a proper shoulder pack, meant for carrying lots of clothing and gear. Never mind, we'll find you one of those first."

Kirel put on his cloak. Summer weight? He'd thought the wool would be very warm for the winter. Where he came from, no one wore cloaks past mid-spring... He knew so little about this fierce climate.

"I wonder what you'll think when it gets really cold?" Sylvan said, then laughed at the look on Kirel's face. "Come along, then, kasana, and we will make you ready for the winter."

A thrill raced through Kirel. Kasana. A Dargasi word, translated loosely as "dear one" or "beloved," used affectionately with both children and loved ones. But which did Sylvan see him as, a silly child or a potential lover?

Kirel followed Sylvan out into the frigid morning. His eyeballs prickled, his cheeks stung, and his nose went numb. He wished wistfully he felt brave enough to cuddle up close to Sylvan and steal some of the vibrant Bard's warmth for his own, but the trembling uncertainty inside allowed no such thing.

The first stop, as promised, was for a pack. Kirel walked into the shop with a jolt of familiarity: it smelled heavily of leather.

"A saddler's!" he exclaimed, delighted, and dove into the two rows of different kinds of saddles on display. Part of him remained aware of Sylvan, speaking with an unlucky journeyman manning the shop this restday, as he stroked, prodded, and tugged at various designs of saddle.


Sylvan's voice jolted him out of a happy inspection of a saddle like none other he'd seen. He looked up, to find the Bard smiling at him, holding a large leather bag in one hand.

"Try this on, would you?"

"Uh... certainly." Kirel took the pack and shrugged into it, giving a wiggle to settle it on his back. His hands and Sylvan's brushed as they adjusted the straps. "How odd. If I've needed a pack for anything, I've always just rolled it up and tied it to my horse. Now I know what my horse feels like."

The journeyman leatherworker laughed.

Sylvan inspected the pack with a critical eye, making an adjustment here, tugging there. "I think it'll do," he pronounced at last. "Kirel? What do you think?"

"Sylvan, you know I have no opinion in this matter. I'll just have to trust you to know what's right for me."

"Very well, then. I say it'll do well. Now, Harna here says your credit is good, because you're exercising the Master's horse."

"I am?" Kirel blinked, jolted out of his pleasant awareness of the Bard. Somehow, he'd never expected anyone outside the stables to know anything about him, much less which horses he rode.

"You are," Harna nodded. "Stablemaster Rashka came down a good lunation ago for a repair job and let us know Delphi is getting ridden now. Master was real happy to hear that. He can't sit the old boy anymore, not with his bad back and Delphi's rough gait, and he's been wishing for someone with enough experience to handle the stubborn old goat."

"Well! That's a surprise. Yes, I ride Delphi, and I'd have to agree with you about his gait. Ouch. And he is a handful. But I'm happy to be of service. It breaks my heart to see a good horse left to stand."

Harna grinned. "That's just what Master said. So have the pack, and welcome. Let us know here if you have any other needs."

"Thanks, I will," Kirel said, then followed Sylvan to the next destination.

The cold smacked him, hard, when they walked out of the protection of the saddler's shop. Little knives of cold pierced his lungs as he stretched his legs to keep up with Sylvan.

"Where to next, wise one?" Kirel asked, gasping a little.

"A cloak, I think. A good, fur lined one, because something tells me you feel the cold a good bit more than most."

"Something tells me you're right," Kirel agreed. Apart from the high color in his cheeks, Sylvan seemed unaffected by the cold, despite the way his cloak hung open down the front. Kirel held his shut tight with both hands, shivering with every stray breeze that found its way through the fabric. "Where are you from, Sylvan? You seem completely unaffected."

"That's because this is warm, compared to my homeland. My family holds a farm in the Hollow Mountains, in a high valley."

"Hollow Mountains? Are they really hollow?"

"They are indeed," Sylvan nodded. "And high. They're easily three times the height of your canyonlands, or so I'm told by people who study such things. And they're filled with tunnels and cave systems from one end to the other. It's quite the adventure, entering the Hollows."

"What's it like inside?" Kirel tried to picture a hollowed out mountain range, but couldn't manage it with his limited experience of mountains.

"Amazing," Sylvan said. "I can't begin to describe it accurately, it's so magnificent. You have to see it all yourself to believe it. There are whole caverns covered in glowing moss. There are rivers of stone, and stone waterfalls cascading down walls and crystals covering entire caves... like I said, it must be seen to be believed."

"Sounds wonderful," Kirel said. "Can we go somewhere warm now?"

Sylvan laughed heartily. "Oh, Kirel, I—yes, we can go somewhere warm now. See that A-shaped building over there? That's where I wanted to go. We can get you a truly warm cloak, and probably boots, in there. And don't worry about the cost. You put in more than enough time at the stables to cover any expense, right up to having your very own home designed and built."

"Really?" Kirel's eyes widened. He hurriedly blinked them back down to normal size. No sense exposing more eyeball than necessary to the icy air. "How so?"

"I confess, I asked the Stablemaster how long you've been here." Sylvan looked a bit sheepish. "He said you came in late summer. That's been four lunations now, Kirel. Four long lunations, and you've been working like a slave all but the two class hours of the afternoon. No days off, no time to yourself... you've earned about three annums worth of ordinary living credit already. You can stand a shopping spree, and spot me lunch as well."

Kirel chuckled. "I'll take your word for it. I still have little concept how this barter system of yours works. As you pointed out, I've been living in the stables all this time."

"It's not my system," Sylvan shrugged. "I didn't invent it, I just know how to use it to my advantage."

"That's more than I know."

They reached the A-frame shop and entered. A blast of warmth enveloped Kirel and he drew a deep breath with relief, standing still in the warmth while Sylvan moved on into the shop.

Then he lost Sylvan's greeting to the Master—Climbing Master? Could that be right?—manning the shop in a fit of coughing. Sylvan left off speaking to the Master and hurried back to Kirel's side.

"Are you all right? That doesn't sound so good."

"Fine," Kirel rasped. He coughed again to clear his throat. His heart warmed at the concern in the Bard's voice. "Sorry. The change in the air got me."

"Sounds like you'd better watch yourself in the chill, young man." The Master joined them.

"Yes, Master Arven, it's as I was saying. Kirel is a southerner. He's never spent a winter away from the canyonlands of the Palontir."

"Ah, yes, the canyonlands. Fine climbing down there, absolutely fine, if you can take the heat."

Kirel smiled. "Some like it hot."

Master Arven laughed. "Aye, lad, that they do. So. You've come from the warm canyons to our chilled valley, and you need warm gear. Correct?"

"Yes, sir. I'm tired of freezing."

Another hearty laugh. "Wait until it gets really cold! Not that it truly does that down here. Sylvan, you'd best keep this lad from the high slopes."

"I can't see any reason for Kirel to experience them, Master," Sylvan said. The two shared a smile with a wealth of knowing packed into it, and Kirel felt an unexpected stab of jealousy. "He'd turn into an icicle in no time."

"Indeed. Well, enough joking around. Kirel, let's get you fitted. Boots, for sure, and I think you need to learn about goosedown. And lambswool, too, for that matter. Not to mention furballs."


Kirel's incredulity produced amusement in the other two.

"Yes, furballs," Arven confirmed. "They're furry little critters that exist to eat and provide fur for our cloaks in the high country, near as I can tell."

Kirel shook his head. "Furballs. Sounds like something the housecat leaves on the floor in the morning."

Sylvan snickered appreciatively, then Arven took charge. Shortly, the bemused Kirel found himself in posession of two thick lambswool sweaters, a lambswool muffler, a vest filled with goosedown, a heavy woolen cloak lined with thick, rich furball, thick woolen socks, and heavy, lined boots.

"My feet are warming up!" he exclaimed, as he laced the large, awkward things. He wiggled his toes in delight, completely distracted from his overactive emotions. "How wonderful! I've been having a terrible time with my feet, out riding the horses. They get so cold, and then jumping off the horse—ai!"

"I can imagine," Arven said, sympathetically. "These'll keep you warm, even on a horse. Now for a hat, then you're good to go."

Arven produced a round hat made of more deep sable furball and they took their leave. Kirel walked out of the warm shop eagerly, wanting to test the effectiveness of his new garb.

"It works! At least for now."

"Of course it works. That's why we went to Arven. He's from an even colder place than I am, the Barrier Range. There are peaks there so high that there's no air at the top."

"You're teasing me," Kirel accused. "There can't possibly be a mountain so high it runs out of air. Can there?"

"There can," Sylvan nodded solemnly. "Ask Arven sometime. The peaks are so tall there's no trees able to grow up top, and any person that tries to go up there will just fall down and die, because they can't breathe."

"That's very strange."

They stopped for a bit of pastry and tea at a baker's hut, then continued the shopping expedition.

"Why are so many of these people working today?" Kirel asked, as they left a textile shop trying to stuff a down-filled comforter into Kirel's pack. "It's restday, isn't it?"

"Second restday, technically," Sylvan replied, tightening the laces on the pack with a grunt. "All the people you see working today had their restday yesterday, and all the ones that worked yesterday are off today. Works rather well."

"This whole place works well, which constantly surprises me," Kirel said. "It hardly seems possible, running an entire town without much money, and without any government to speak of. Yet it works."

"That it does, but only if the individual Masters keep their students in line."

They made one further stop, to get Kirel woolen pants and a few strange, brushed cotton shirts, with a pleasingly fuzzy texture.

"Success," Sylvan pronounced.

Kirel agreed. Snug inside his cocoon of cold weather gear, he now felt warm and happy. He looked at the snow with a far less critical eye, noting now the beauty of the white blanket and the icicles dripping from some roofs.

"Thanks, Sylvan," he said, patting the rich forest green exterior of his cloak. His hands, tucked into warm woolen mittens, did not protest emerging from inside the cloak at all. "I feel ready to take on the winter now, and confident that I'll survive."

"You'd better survive," Sylvan said, with overblown alarm. "After all the time I've invested in getting you warmed up?"

"And thanks for that, too. I'm sorry to cost you a restday."

"Oh, pish," Sylvan waved off his apology. "I enjoyed watching you in the shops. Your face lights up every time you find something new."

"Now what?" Kirel asked, because he couldn't think of a response to Sylvan's words. His heart took off again, pounding painfully fast. Did the Bard know how powerful his smile could be?

"Back to your place? You need to put all that stuff away, after all, the new and the old. Or would you rather go to mine? Fair warning, I share the building with a host of other musicians."

"New Sound Rising?"

"Among others. There's generally about fifteen of us there at any given time. It gets somewhat crazy at times. Er... okay, most of the time."

"I think I'd like to put my stuff away, then," Kirel said. He also wanted to have Sylvan to himself for a while, not to share the Bard's attentions with fifteen others! Perhaps with privacy he could find out for certain what Sylvan thought of him.

"Ellsworth Hall it is, then! Lead on, friend Kirel."

Sylvan gave him a courtly bow, complete with flourishes of his cloak, and Kirel laughed.

They reached Ellsworth in good time. A snowball fight raged outside in the streets, complete with banked snowforts and shouted battle commands. Kirel looked at the people, young and old, playing at war and felt a chill inside that had nothing to do with cold.

"Hey, what's wrong?" Sylvan turned from the snowball action, somehow sensing Kirel's distress. "Is something bothering you?"

Kirel opened his mouth, suddenly wanting to get his secret failures out and tell someone sympathetic. Then a snowball whizzed past his shoulder and he winced. What if one of the cold, wet things smacked into him? He'd only just gotten warm! "Not here. I'll tell you inside. But," he said, struck by a sudden inspiration, "I want you to tell me something, too. You said you'd explain Caro's problem later. Well, it's later."

Sylvan smiled, although a shadow of concern remained in his eyes. "Right, then, in you go. That's also not something for public discussion."

Inside, Kirel busied himself storing his new and old clothing, the inadequate cloak, and the quilt he'd been using. Sylvan settled into the comfortable chair and watched him, then frowned and turned the chair around so its back faced the window and he could watch Kirel without having to twist awkwardly.

"Well? What is it, then?" He leaned back in the chair, prepared to listen.

"A moment," Kirel said, flinging the down quilt over the bed, a bright splash of red the color of autumn leaves. He pulled it into position, removed his boots and put them in the wardrobe, then sat on his newly-fluffy bed. "Ah, much better. Pity these rooms are so small. More furniture would be a good thing."

"You were going to tell me what was bothering you?" Sylvan prompted.

"Ah, hells," Kirel sighed, suddenly reluctant now that the moment had arrived. "Do you want the whole rotten story, or just the reason the snowball fight affected me?"

"The whole thing, if you please. I really want to know."

"All right, then." Kirel closed his eyes, tucked his legs up under him, thinking. Where to start? Part of him wanted to skirt the issue, just stick to the basics. But he also wanted Sylvan around for a long, long time, and it might be better to tell him everything right up front now, before Kirel got any more attached then he already felt. Better to let all the past history out now, to prevent any future awkwardness.

"Hello? Kirel, are you still there?"

"Oh, hush, you. I was thinking." Kirel stuck out his tongue at the Bard, then focused on the fire, so he wouldn't have to see any expression at all cross his friend's face. He took a deep breath and ignored the nervous fluttering in his guts.

"I was born some fifteen annums ago and named Kirel Tanivar, only son and heir to Lord Daro and Lady Mairead Tanivar. That's really where the problem started, because right up until that point my cousin Jackon, who's seven annums older than me, was the heir. And he knew it, too, even as a little child. His whole world revolved around getting the estate some day. And then I was born, and naturally Papa took me under his wing and loved me and showed me how to run the estate. He taught me to ride, to train, the secrets of breeding horses—he even gave me the key to the stud books when I was eight.

"So you've got the background. I was Papa's favorite, Jackon was jealous. Then the fever came.

"It was awful. My mother was pregnant again. She and the baby died of the fever. So did my father. So did about half of the people in the entire canyonlands. Papa knew he was dying, so he appointed a council to help me, a little eleven-annum kid, run the estate. And Jackon lost his little brother and his father too and became convinced he should be the one in charge.

"But the Council helped me, and things went well enough. One of the things the Lord has to do down Tanivar way is protect his people against bandits. So I learned bandit-fighting. I became really good with a bow. I started planning the raids at eleven, leading them at twelve. But the leader stays out of the action, pretty much. So I stayed at the back, coordinating and giving orders, you know. Used my bow a bit. Thought it all very exciting, playing warrior in defense of my people and my lands."

Kirel paused for a moment, watching the fire dance. Time to commit now, to let Sylvan know... and to see what came of that knowing.

"I got married right around my thirteenth birthday. Ellya was an annum older than me and very pretty. I was very, very lucky, and I knew it. But I couldn't do anything about it. The marriage remained unconsummated.

"Then somehow Jackon found out, last spring. Probably Ellya told him. He called together all the advisors, the former councillors, all the major landholders... and he told them. Right there, in my own Justice Hall, he told them I was unfit to be their Lord for reasons of cowardice, incompetence, and impotence. Now, none of them were fools enough to believe the accusations of cowardice and incompetence. They knew better. But with Ellya up there confirming the tale of impotence, and even submitting to an inspection to determine her untouched state... well, to put it bluntly, I was deposed.

"They let me take my horse, and my armor, and whatever I could take in one pair of saddlebags. I realized a good bit later that they let me keep Papa's signet, too, which means none of them can access the treasury or the record books until they get some kind of magicuser in there to break the lockspells. Kind of funny, that.

"So I took my horse, and my gear, and the few items of jewelry I was wearing that day, and rode out. I was very upset, pouting, really, and whining incessantly to myself. Then I got jumped by the bandits I'd embarassed quite thoroughly the lunation before, and rather than face them, I kicked Dapple and we ran like there was no tomorrow.

"So that was my first taste of feeling like the coward Jackon named me. Then we stopped in a small village a few days later and I was set on by an inept thief. I wounded him with my dagger in the dark, so I didn't know how bad it was, only that he went from trying to kill me to staggering away, hunched over and moaning. The trader I joined up with as a guard found out later I'd put the man's eye out. That still gives me nightmares, sometimes, and gave me the first hint that I might fail as a soldier.

"I hired on with a caravan in Caissa, rode with them for two lunations. There was an engagement. A large, well-organized group of raiders hit the caravan, and this time I wasn't sitting back, shooting arrows from a safe distance. No, I was right in the middle of it all, getting sprayed with blood, watching bits of guts fly through the air, hearing the screams and smelling the stench. Then someone tried to take my head off with a mace. I ducked the blow, took it on my left shoulder. Hurt like nine hells. But I thrust my sword forward with my right arm. I felt it go in, felt it pierce the leather armor and the guts and grate against the spine. Then he looked at me, and died."

Kirel paused again, swallowing hard, eyes closed and hands clammy. It all swept over him again, the stench and fear and sickness of the battle field.

"I fell out of my saddle onto that bloody, bloody ground. I knelt there while the battle went on around me, with Dapple fighting to keep me safe, and puked until I could puke no more, and even then I couldn't stop. Finally my guts quit trying to come out through my mouth and it was over. The other guards had done the job I couldn't do, and Dapple's hooves were bloody. For a very brief instant I almost hated him for doing what I'd trained him to do. Then I sought out the caravanmaster. I told him I would never fight again.

"So there I was, deposed, impotent, and now a complete failure as a mercenary soldier. That's when I came to Scholastica, and that's what sickens me about something so innocent as a snowball fight. It reminds me of all I've been through, all I've lost, and most of all what it feels like to take a man's life. I know it's a silly overreaction, but battle disgusts me."

Kirel fell silent, eyes closed. He felt better, getting all that out of him, but also surprised at how the emotions still affected him.

A weight settled beside him on the bed, and his eyes flew open when Sylvan put an arm around his shoulders. "That's quite a story," Sylvan said. Kirel closed his eyes again in a hurry at the caring in Sylvan's voice and leaned into the Bard's warmth. "I thought I'd had a rough life, but this last annum of yours certainly takes the prize. Now I understand a lot. Thank you for telling me."

"Your turn now," Kirel said, safe in the darkness behind his eyelids. His hands felt clammy. So, the Bard knew the worst now, and still cared... "What's your secret?"

Sylvan chuckled. "My secret is nowhere as world-shattering as yours, kasana. It is only that Caro wanted you for herself, and was mighty offended to see your eyes turn to me and ignore her."

"Uh..." Kirel's eyes flew open and he blushed. He struggled upright and finally turned to face Sylvan, who watched him with an open, inviting smile. "Uh. Sorry. I, uh, hadn't realized I was quite that obvious."

"No apologies, dear one," Sylvan said, as Kirel fell into the bottomless depths of his eyes. "The feeling is mutual."

Then those hazel eyes closed, and his mouth captured Kirel's, and the world dissolved into bursting fireworks and a fanfare of trumpets.

"Ohhh..." Kirel sighed, a long, pleasurable moment later. "I've... never... That was wonderful."

"What have you done to me, Kirel?" Sylvan's voice, usually so controlled and refined, trembled around the edges. He cupped Kirel's cheek in his hand, stroking the high cheekbone. "I admit, I've had my share of good times, and Caro's right to believe I get all the good ones with a smile. But you... oh, Kirel, you're different. I feel as if I'm trapped in one of my own romantic ballads. No, not trapped, that's the wrong connotation. Bound up? Consumed! Yes, consumed by emotion, and turned from the glib Bard into nothing but a sappy youngster discovering love for the first time."

"We'll be consumed together, then," Kirel said indistinctly, then kissed Sylvan.

Every movement was an awakening for Kirel. Not only had he never consummated his marriage, but he had very little idea how to give or receive pleasure. But he learned rapidly, and took delight in Sylvan's soft sounds of encouragement, before Sylvan's talented mouth and hands took him to a place beyond rational thought.

Afterwards, they lay twined together on the red comforter, sticky and satisfied. Kirel felt so alive, so vibrantly, vividly alive, that if he'd felt any desire to move he'd have bounced around like a giddy child. He could feel a smile stretching his face so far he feared it would crack.

"Well, smiley," Sylvan said, propping himself up on an elbow and tracing a finger around Kirel's mouth. "Perhaps a shower would be in order?"

"I believe so, my Bard. I seem to have gotten a bit... messy." Kirel laughed, not even minding the stickiness.

"Never doubt that I am yours, Kirel," Sylvan said, intensity vibrating through his voice. "Always."

Then he dissolved the serious mood by jumping up and racing the few steps into the bathroom.