Jesus Christ, how many times have I got to wake up fucking hurting all over? Who beat me up this time? I never was the praying sort, but God, look, I don't care what state I wake up in as long as all that medieval shit was the dream I'm waking up from, okay? I don't care if I wake up beaten half to death, arrested, gang-raped, infected with the mother of all STD's, hung over, robbed, hell, stripped naked and hung from a Christmas tree as long as I wake up in good ol' post-Millenium Dallas with no fucked-up horse things and guys with fangs and stone castles, okay? We got us a deal here?
Painfully Skip opened his eyes.
"How could you bring him back here? We don't even know what he is, much less who."
Skip wasn't facing that direction, but he recognized the voice. High Lord Simon, whatever that meant. He tried to roll over he was lying on something hard and cold, probably yep, the floor. Again. Why couldn't he wake up in a nice soft bed for a change?
That was when he realized that he was tied hand and foot tied good and tight, too. He was gagged, too. He fought down panic, fought down the urge to struggle. Right now he needed to listen and learn.
"He's human and naught else," Dante said flatly. "I saw him manhandled and easily subdued by a piece of drunken scum whom your Consort begging your pardon, my lord Vizier could have fought off. I've held his head while he puked and washed his bottom when he soiled himself with threshold sickness. His blood's as red as any man's. He's no homunculus, nor is there any illusion about him."
"That doesn't make him harmless." A deeper voice, one Skip didn't recognize. He surmised that maybe that was leather-pants.
"What did you find, James?" A softer voice ah, that was the blue-silk one. Blair?
"Strange scents," James said. "A lot of them. His hands are as soft as a nobleman's, only a few calluses on his fingers, like a tinker's hands. His clothes I've never seen the like."
"You see?" Dante said. "A crossover, as I said."
"And you think that makes him less dangerous?" Simon protested. "Look at him he could be a mirror for Kix! Just look at him and tell me he wasn't brought here with an evil purpose."
"I misdoubt that purpose included being all but buggered and killed by four drunken louts in a back alley," Dante said wryly. "Or being so ill of threshold sickness that he'd have died long since before finding a healer who could help him even if he knew where to look for one. He doesn't carry a weapon, not even the smallest dagger. He had not even a cloak against the cold."
"How do you know he wasn't placed there deliberately for you to find?" James challenged. "You did find him, and saved his life, and brought him here, which was likely the purpose all along. He knew Kix's name, so can't be as ignorant as you say."
"So he knows a name that every man on the street has heard. How could anyone know I'd be there to find him?" he said practically. "I had no plan to take that road or drink at that tavern; I chose at random on my way out of the city, and I'd be greatly surprised if anyone knew I was in the city at all. And I find it hard to fathom that those four men hired on to face my sword and knives. And if the one who Gated him here knew where he was and what he was about, then why the sending searching for him? If Skip was going about the business as was intended, no master worth his salt would've stirred the waters by sending out powerful seeking magic, magic he'd have known I could feel."
"Dante's right." Dear God, that was Kix. It was. Skip would know that voice anywhere. He heard it every night in his darkest nightmares. "There's only one possible explanation. Someone, some adept mage, brought this man here through a Gate possibly with evil intent, yes, we don't know that but he had enough will to pull free and dropped from the Gate prematurely. It's the only explanation."
"That doesn't make him innocent or harmless," Simon growled. "He wears your face, my love. That makes him a danger to you, and that's the one thing I won't tolerate."
Dear God, Skip thought, starting to tremble involuntarily. Killing. They're talking about killing me. Why? What have I done? They're going to kill me just because I look like my twin brother? They think I'm some sort of spy?
"High Lord, less than half an hour after I met him he told me his Truename," Dante said softly. "After watching me kill four men, still he opened his mind wholly to me so I could conceal him. There is no deceit to this man. His only crimes are being sick and lost, and wearing the face he was born with."
"There's another thought," Blair added. "With him alive, we have the opportunity to learn how and why he came here. We have a chance to track and trap the one who brought him. Dead, we lose that chance."
Simon made a noncommittal noise.
"You are all my closest advisors," he said irritably. "So advise me."
"Let him live, at least for now," Blair said. "We need to learn more."
"It terrifies me that he came here wearing my face," Kix admitted. "But how can we kill him if that's his only crime? And we know no other."
James made an impatient sound.
"Your charity does you credit, Vizier," he growled. "But even if he's nothing but a pawn, a pawn can take a king on the board. Think even if with no purpose of his own, even if the purpose of his master's gone awry, still he's managed to insinuate himself into our city, your castle, High Lord by the gods, even your very hall, only a few steps from your feet! If he can get so far by chance alone, dare we risk more? Innocent or not, he can be used. Will you risk your life or your Consort's on that?"
Silence, and Skip felt cold with fear. He realized, wonderingly, that some of that fear was Dante's, not his own.
"High Lord," Dante said formally, "For eight years I have served you. Though you've treated me generously, I've asked nothing of you, not money or comfort or honor. Now I ask you this let this man live, at least until we know more of why he's come, until we can say with more certainty that he is or isn't our enemy. I'll guard him personally, and the moment he becomes a danger I'll attend to the matter myself."
"I've never heard you plead for a life before," Simon said curiously. "In fact, Dante, I've never known you to hesitate to kill."
Shuffle of nearly silent footsteps; then Skip almost jumped out of his skin as Dante's familiar touch brushed his shoulder. His collar was pulled back.
"We shared a blood bond," Dante said shortly.
Several gasps Skip couldn't sort out who. Then a long silence.
"Oh, Dante," Blair said, dismayed. "How could you risk yourself on a man you don't even know?"
"He offered me his Truename unasked," Dante repeated. "I gave him a cup and he drank without hesitating. I've looked into his eyes, his heart. In a way the bond was there already. In a way I know him better than I know any of you."
"You can't kill him, Simon," Kix said softly. "You know what it'll do to Dante. Please, love. It's right to let him live, at least for now."
"He hasn't even had a chance to speak for himself," Blair added, to Skip's delight. "Even a condemned criminal deserves that much."
A long pause. When Simon spoke, his voice was heavy.
"All right, then," he said slowly. "Loose his feet and his mouth and let him stand. But you'll keep his hands bound in our presence."
"Aye," Dante said impassively, but Skip felt relief vibrate through the bond between them. A reassuring hand touched his shoulder briefly again; then he heard the hiss of Dante's dagger being drawn. The damned thing must have been sharper than hell, because it sliced through the ropes around his ankles as if they were tissue paper, and the bindings of the gag dropped away instantly. Skip spit out the leather ball in his mouth, then spit again, trying to get his throat working. He was trembling and sick, and he knew miserably that it was more than just old memories making him so. Shit. He'd just had some of Dante's blood why was he getting sick again so soon?
Dante helped him struggle awkwardly to his feet, his hands still tied uncomfortably tight behind him. His numb feet gave out immediately and he went back down, his head hitting the floor. That brought a new bout of nausea and before he could stop himself, he vomited catastrophically on the High Lord's doubtlessly expensive rug. Dante sighed and helped him back up.
"Can you stand?" Dante murmured when Skip's legs nearly gave out again.
Skip shook his head, humiliated beyond belief. Well, at least he hadn't shit himself.
Dante sighed again and helped Skip away from the mess, then lowered him to sit on the clean rug. He didn't bother to drag a chair over, for which Skip was grateful. He didn't think he could manage to stay in a chair. He found himself being watched by four pairs of eyes James' cold and suspicious; Blair's wide and curious, Simon's unreadable, and Kix's
Oh God. Kix. It can't be. It couldn't be. But it's him.
"So talk," Simon said flatly. "Tell me why you're not our enemy. Tell me who you are and why we should believe you."
But Skip only had eyes, only had ears for one person, and it wasn't the man on the throne.
"Kix don't you recognize me?" he pleaded. "Don't you know me? It's me, Skippy."
Kix looked startled, perhaps that Skip had addressed him, but he shook his head.
"I don't know you, stranger," he said. "Why should I?"
"I'm your brother," Skip choked. "How can you not know me? Listen, if you hate me, I understand that, but please God, please, I need you to forgive me "
Kix looked shaken now.
"I have no brother," he said softly.
Skip rocked back, struck to the soul by his twin's denial. In that moment, for the first time since he'd found himself on those grimy cobblestones, he truly wished to die.
Dante crouched beside him, reaching out to touch the rivulets of tears down his cheeks.
"What is it, muírnigh? What's the matter?"
"He hasn't forgiven me," Skip choked. "Why should he? God, let them kill me. I deserve to die. I don't care anymore."
"Ah, but I do, muírnigh," Dante murmured in his ear. "Why do his words hurt you so? 'Tis true. He has no brother, no living kin at all."
Startled out of his grief, Skip looked up at Kix.
"But how can you " He swallowed. "You're my twin. Can't you see that?"
Kix stepped a little closer, but was halted by Simon's hand.
"We're very alike, anyone can see that," Kix said. "But I have never met you before."
Skip's mind whirred.
"I can prove it," he said rapidly. "In my pocket my wallet. Dante, can you get it out? My back pocket."
He had to squirm to his knees so Dante could reach his pocket, and the dark-haired man carefully pulled out the battered leather wallet.
"What of it, muírnigh?" Dante murmured.
"There's a picture in there "
"You tell us you can keep a painting in that small thing?"
"I didn't say a painting, I said a picture," Skip said irritably. "Just open it yeah, like that. Now flip through those clear windows. Right. There!"
Dante gasped, staring down.
"By the gods!"
Simon craned his neck, trying to see.
"What is it?"
"May I approach, High Lord?" Dante said quietly. "You must see this you and the Vizier."
"Yes, bring it."
Dante carried the wallet up to the throne, and Simon and Kix's gasp were simultaneous. Skip knew what they were seeing the photograph of him and Kix together on their 14th birthday, squeezed side by side on a swing, arms around each other. It hadn't been a happy year, but God, at least they'd still been speaking then.
Blair came to look over Simon's shoulder, and he gasped too.
"By the gods, how could anyone make such an image?" he said, and Kix snorted with surprised laughter.
"Only you would ask such a question now, Beauty," Kix laughed. Then he shook his head. "More important than the image, how could I be in it? With a man I've never met?"
"There's only one explanation," Blair said, touching the photograph gingerly, as if afraid it might bite him. "You have a counterpart in his world, even though he has none in yours."
Then Kix went very still, one thin hand pressing over his mouth. Before Simon could stop him, he dashed to Skip's side, sinking to his knees, speaking in a voice barely above a whisper.
"Your . . . brother," he whispered. "What's his name?"
"Was," Skip said dully. "Was. You're he's dead. Died last year."
"Ah, gods." Kix laid one gentle hand on Skip's shoulder, shaking his head, his eyes bright with sympathy. "I grieve for your loss. His name?"
"Byron Kingston Thomas," he murmured. "The Third."
Kix gasped, rocking back on his heels, a high, hectic flush burning in his pale cheeks.
"My Truename," he choked. When Simon surged to his feet, Kix held up his hand. "No, wait."
He leaned close to Skip, so close that their foreheads touched.
"I know I have no right to ask it," Kix whispered softly. "Will you tell me your name? Please?"
Skip breathed in the scent of his brother, a scent he would never forget, could never forget, and closed his eyes, allowing himself one precious moment of illusion.
"Spencer Lawrence Thomas," he whispered. "You're Kix was the older of us by about fifteen minutes."
"Ah, gods. Ah, gods." Kix touched Skip's face, tears running down his own cheeks. Then he drew Skip's head to his thin shoulder and held him there, and even through his sobs Skip could feel the answering tremor in the slender arms holding him.
"Kix, love." Skip whimpered with protest as strong dark hands drew Kix up and away from him, but thankfully Dante was there again, solid and strong to lean against, strong hands stroking his hair, and he barely listened to the conversation up on the dais.
"What did he tell you?"
"His Truename " Kix's voice was soft with wonder. "Simon, I do I did have a brother. A twin. I'd almost forgotten. He was born minutes after me, but he was stillborn, the lifecord wrapped around his neck. Because the midwife had sensed our Gift long before we were born, we'd been given our Truenames before birth to protect us. His name it was the name of my brother."
Simon's voice was hard, angry.
"And you think this man is harmless? How could he be, to know such things? And he knows my Consort's Truename as well."
Dante tightened his arms around Skip ever so slightly.
"With respect, High Lord, if he were so inclined to make use of your Consort's Truename, he would scarce have waited until he was at your mercy, half dead of threshold sickness, to do it," he said. "I tell you, the man has the mage-Gift, but no training, no control. How could he have reached adulthood with that Gift unrecognized and untrained, or his appearance never remarked upon, unless his story is true?" Dante's voice became even firmer. "Sentinel, your ears hear falsehood. Has this man spoken even one lie in your presence?"
A long pause.
"No," James said reluctantly. "But he's barely spoken. And he's said nothing of how he came here, or his purpose."
"Because he has no purpose, and has lost all memory of his arrival," Dante said patiently. "Skip, tell them."
"I don't know how I got here," Skip said, sniffling. He forced himself to sit up again, although his stomach protested the move vigorously. "The last thing I remember, I was walking home from Schuyler's from a guy's house. Then I don't know, something about an alley. I remember feeling this hand on my shoulder. Then I'm waking up on the ground next to a bar and four big, stinking, hairy goons are hot for my ass, and I feel like somebody ran over me with a tank and then beat the shit out of what was left." He shrugged. "Now you know as much as I do."
Simon glanced at James.
James shook his head reluctantly.
"He's not lying. Either he's telling the truth, or he's mad and believes he is. And Dante's right about this much he could hardly have gone so many years with no one remarking on his appearance."
"And he does have threshold sickness," Kix added. "There's no doubt of that. I can feel it from here."
A long silence.
"All right, then," Simon said unwillingly. "I'll place him in your charge, Dante. He and his actions are your responsibility. He's not to take a step outside your quarters alone, do you hear?"
"Aye, High Lord," Dante said quietly. "No fear, seeing as he can't take even a step on his own. And regarding that "
Simon nodded brusquely.
"Kix may attend him with guards."
And Kix was there again, allowing Skip to cling to his thin hand. He leaned over to whisper in Skip's ear.
"Don't worry," he murmured. "I won't let you die. We have so much to talk about."
And this time Skip had no energy left even for tears of gratitude, and for once, he fought the darkness, though vainly, not because he was afraid to go, but because for the first time in his life he wanted to stay.