"Do you have to?" Skip sighed.
Dante kissed his forehead gently.
"Don't look so peevish, muírnigh," he chided gently. "'Tis only for the day. I'll be back tonight. I'll go, take the book to Lord Vithian's estate, and be back before you know I'm gone."
Skip sighed again.
"What am I going to do up here all day?" he complained.
"You're not," Dante said patiently. "Kix is coming to fetch you, and he said he'd keep you amused today."
"Oh, great," Skip grumbled. Wonderful. A whole day of James and Simon giving me the hairy eyeball. He still had more than a few ambiguous feelings about Kix.
"You'll enjoy it," Dante chuckled. "Have Kix sing you the ballad of the miller who tupped his neighbor's goat. Kix knows more bawdy songs than any bard."
Dante grinned and made a distinctive in-out gesture with his finger. Skip snorted, then sighed again.
"Muírnigh." Dante took Skip's hand and led him down the stairs, locking the tower door behind them. "I know it's difficult. Seeing him brings so many memories, good and bad, hmmm?"
"Yeah." Skip sighed.
"But you must understand, he's not the brother all those feelings attach to," Dante said gently. "This Kix you've never loved, nor ever harmed. Think of it as the fresh start you wanted between you. You can start anew with him, a clean blank page to write upon, and mayhap in time you'll feel as if you have a brother again. Perhaps not the same brother, but that's not all to the bad, eh?"
"I doubt Simon's going to let that happen," Skip said drily. "He doesn't seem to want me within eyeshot of Kix."
"Simon has nothing to say about it," Kix's voice said firmly. Skip glanced up and saw the Vizier leaning against the wall. Today he was brilliantly attired in leaf-green silks with gold trim. "Simon's going to behave himself if he wants to pour his wine in my goblet anytime in the next month."
Dante almost choked with laughter, but Kix only grinned merrily, unembarrassed.
"Besides, Simon's meeting with six merchants from the Cheesemakers' Guild all morning, and after dinner he's in audience until suppertime," Kix said cheerfully. "So the day's ours. Come on, kiss Dante goodbye and I'll show you the whole drafty place."
Considerably happier at the prospect of a day with Kix now that he knew that Simon wouldn't be there, Skip kissed Dante.
"I'll miss you," he said awkwardly.
"And I you, muírnigh," Dante said softly, brushing his lips over Skip's eyelids, one after the other. Then he smiled. "But I've got to ride through the market, and I've never had a love to buy trinkets for, so perhaps we'll both have an enjoyable day after all. Sup without me, mo grá, I'll likely be back an hour or two after."
Skip sighed when Dante was gone, following Kix down the hall.
"No offense, but I'd rather have gone with Dante," he said wistfully. "I'd like to get outside for a bit."
Kix patted Skip's shoulder.
"No offense taken, but right now it's best you stay here," he said regretfully. "It's safer that way."
"I suppose it'd cause quite a stir, a man running around who looks like you," he said resignedly.
"Well, true." Kix laughed. "Wouldn't it be fun, the two of us dressing alike and showing up in the middle of the marketplace at noon? Everyone would be rubbing their eyes and pointing, thinking I'd cast the strangest illusion ever! Merchants would be falling on their bottoms, spilling their wares everywhere, grand nobles running into each other in shock "
Skip laughed involuntarily. Kix was right, the idea was funny as hell. Then Kix sobered slightly.
"But it's not safe," he said regretfully. "For you, I mean. The castle's well warded, as proof against outside magic as I can make it. Even knowing your Truename, a sending couldn't penetrate my wards here, and no magical means could be used to control you or fetch you. But outside the wards " Kix shook his head. "It's not only magic, you know, to be feared. Loose tongues can be just as deadly. Even here I can't guarantee that some servant won't accept a purse of gold to betray you to the one seeking you, or his agents. Gossip will spread, there's nothing we can do to stop it. But at least we have protections here, magic and guards and strong walls." He smiled. "And Dante and James, and I don't envy anyone trying to pass by those two."
"Huh." Skip grimaced. "James would probably be just as glad if somebody did take me away, and Simon would be, too."
"You just leave Simon to me," Kix said firmly, "and leave James to Blair." He grinned wickedly. "Sometimes big strong men like that forget who's really in charge." He stopped in front of a door. "Here, these are my rooms. I don't ordinarily stay here " He gave Skip a wicked grin, " but just as well for Simon to know I've got a choice, hmmmm? I thought you might like to take some tea with me. I'm not fond of wine."
"No, Kix never drank much " Skip swallowed. "Sorry."
"That's all right." Kix held the door open for Skip.
Skip glanced around. The room was a lot less somber and plain than Dante's in fact, the first word that came to his mind was decadent. And then frilly. There was velvet and lace everywhere, and they weren't even in the bedroom, just some sort of sitting room with a desk, small table and a couple of comfortable chairs. There was a tray on the table, and Skip sat down in one of the chairs, still embarrassed by the fact that he'd mentioned "his" Kix. Dante was right this wasn't his twin, and it wasn't fair for Skip to burden this man with his memories.
"You can talk about him, if you like," Kix offered. "I admit I'm curious, but I don't like to ask I can see his death hurt you so much. May I ask, how did he die?"
Skip swallowed, looking at his feet.
"He was um, really depressed," he mumbled. "He'd been depressed on and off for a long time, most of his life. He killed himself." He had no intention of telling this Kix the whole sordid story. It had been hard enough to trust Dante with the tale.
"Really?" he said. "I used to feel that way sometimes sad and tired for no reason. A healer I met showed me an herb to brew into tea and drink twice a day, and it's been much better since then. Sometimes I still feel sad, but it's not as bad. I'm sorry for your brother."
Skip pasted a reassuring smile on his face. Herbal tea. Kix had seen therapists and psychologists and psychiatrists, had spent time in mental hospitals, and had probably taken more different drugs than Skip had. Herbal tea.
"I saw the scars on your body when I treated you for threshold sickness," Kix said gently. "Maybe you and your brother had a sadder childhood than I did. My mother and father weren't very kind my father hated it that I was so so womanly, and that I was drawn to men instead of women, and my mother was a drunken slattern, but I was never beaten. They'd never have dared, of course, because I had the Mage-Gift. And I left home and went into training young, too. It wasn't so bad."
Skip looked up.
"What did Dante tell you?" he said, his voice shaking.
"Not much," Kix reassured him. "He said that you might not like to be asked about growing up with with your twin. That I shouldn't press you. As I said, I saw the scars, and I guessed a little on my own."
"Oh." Skip looked down again. "He's right. I mean, that I don't really like to talk about it. If you don't mind."
"No, I don't mind," Kix said. He was silent a moment, then smiled. "Do you read maps?"
"Huh?" Skip's head spun at the sudden change in subject; finally he nodded. "Um, yeah, I read maps."
"Then you'll love this." Kix picked up a roll of parchment from the table and handed it to Skip. "I made Simon make it for me when I came here, but I don't need it now."
Skip unrolled the sheet, smiled, grinned, then laughed. It was a map of the castle, each room neatly marked. The strange script was hard to read, but he could make sense of it enough sense, at least.
"Just what I needed," he said, cheered again. Then he grimaced. "Except I'm not allowed to walk around alone anyway."
"Oh, just let me work on Simon, he'll give in," Kix said firmly.
Skip rolled the scroll back up.
"Kix " He hesitated. "Why do you trust me? Is it just because I look like, um, you?"
"Oh, goodness, no," Kix said, laughing. "I trust you because Dante says we can, and he's the least trusting person I've ever known, including James. And you don't look like me, not that much, at least if one really looks. Which we must do something about, really. If folks hereabouts are going to go mistaking you for me, Skip, then we must make you more presentable."
Skip looked at Kix's green and gold tunic, his embroidered slippers and his earrings and swallowed hard.
"Your hair wants trimming," Kix said firmly. "And it looks like you washed it with harsh stable soap or something like that. And then there's your clothes "
Without quite knowing how it happened, Skip found himself in a chair while Kix carefully combed and trimmed his hair and rubbed something into it that left it silky soft, and not long after that a knock on the door announced a bevy of men and women who trooped in with arms full of finished and half- finished garments.
"They got all this done in one night? Hey, gimme that back!" Skip added, grabbing his briefs and glowering at the maid who'd tried to spirit them away.
"Dante gave them a great deal of money to finish quickly," he said. "He said you wanted something more, hmmm, dignified? Dull, I say."
Thankfully the seamstresses had apparently got the idea that Skip, unlike Kix, didn't want to dress like a peacock, but that didn't make the linen undergarments any less awkward. Or the frigging hose any less bizarre.
"Oh, my, no wonder my tunic was so tight on you," Kix chuckled. "You've got lots more muscles than I do."
"Not anymore," Skip said sourly. When he'd been working regularly on the rigs, he'd been strong, in good shape. It was a little embarrassing, now, how much strength and tone he'd lost since then.
One of the maids behind him breathed in, a sharp hiss of shock.
"Oh, Skip," Kix said softly, one slender finger tracing a scar on the back of Skip's shoulder.
"It's nothing," Skip mumbled, his face flaming, pulling the first shirt he could grab over his head.
"There, that's enough for now," Kix said more loudly, shooing the others out of the room. He let Skip dress in peace, only smiling shyly and touching the dragon tattoo at Skip's navel before Skip dropped the shirt down to cover it.
"I do like that," Kix said wistfully. "It's a pity you put your ornamentation in a place where it's hidden."
Skip chuckled and glanced at Kix's myriad earrings.
"Don't men wear earrings in your world?" Kix asked curiously.
"Not when they work around machinery, if they want to keep their ears," Skip grinned, giving one of Kix's earrings an illustrative tug.
"Ah, yes, you said you were a tinker," Kix said, smiling delightedly. "Come, you need to see Blair's workshop."
"Uh maybe " But Kix was having none of his protest; he dragged Skip bodily down the halls to one of the other towers. This door was locked too, and Kix knocked, waiting until Blair opened the door. Blair's face lit up in a smile of amazing beauty.
"Kix! It's good to see you," Blair said with a sigh of relief. "And Skip, I'm glad you came with him. Come in and keep me company. James has been such an ogre, I told him to go run the woods for a while and leave me alone."
"Simon too," Kix said, wrinkling his nose. "It's too bad I can't send him out to run the woods."
"It's because of me, isn't it?" Skip said miserably.
"No, Simon's always a terrible grouch," he said. "And Jim well, it's near the full moon, isn't it, Blair?"
Blair nodded, sighing.
"You know Sentinels," he said, grinning ruefully at Skip. "He's wearing me out every night and growling at me all day."
"No he doesn't," Kix corrected. "Dante says his world has no Sentinels."
Blair's eyebrows shot up.
"Really," Skip sighed. And I can't say I'm sorry either. "So uh what happens to Sentinels around the full moon? They don't " He hesitated. "They don't, like, turn into wolves when the moon's full, right?"
Kix and Blair exchanged astonished looks, then burst out laughing. Skip blushed.
"Turn into a wolf?" Blair giggled.
"When the moon's full?" Kix choked.
"Okay, okay, I know, ignorant city hick," Skip grumbled, embarrassed as hell. "Superstitious idiot, I get it."
"Wolves," Blair gasped, knuckling tears out of his eyes. "As if any Sentinel could ever be a pack animal. They're all big cats, lone hunters."
"And what good would their changing be if they could only do it under the full moon?" Kix chuckled, gradually recovering his breath and his aplomb. "James can change whenever it suits him, of course."
"Come on up," Blair said blithely, holding the door open. "I just had cakes sent up from the kitchen."
Skip picked his jaw up off the floor and followed Blair and Kix up the tower steps.
Halfway up the stairs there was an open door; Skip thought there was a door like that in their tower, but it had been closed and he'd barely remarked upon it the couple of times he'd gone up or down the stairs. This door, however, led into a round room that instantly sparked a feeling of familiarity, even nostalgia, in Skip it was a comfortable clutter of tables covered with jars, bottles, bits of metal, vises and clamps, components, tools, lamps.
In short, it was a workshop a grease monkey's paradise.
"Wow," Skip said softly, swallowing hard. It had been almost a year since he'd lost his last job with the drilling company. Since he'd stood in a workshop like this. "Nice place."
"James won't even come in here," he said. "He says he's seen pack rats who keep their belongings in a more orderly fashion, but he keeps our rooms so neat, I've got to rebel somewhere! Here, look at this I've been working on it since yesterday."
Skip glanced at the apparatus sitting in a rare cleared spot on one of the tables. Blair had mounted upright on a metal base a set of spring-loaded tongs, with a bit of stone on one side and a piece of metal on the other.
"I don't get it," he said hesitantly.
"It's a firestarter," Blair said triumphantly. "Like yours. Well, not like yours, of course. But a little like yours. Only I'm not sure where to go from here," he added abashedly.
Skip eyed the strange device, then experimentally squeezed the tongs. The stone and metal scraped sharply together, emitting a spark. Skip tried it again, frowning.
"Okay, that's good as far as it goes," he said. "But when you make the spark, you need something to burn, like hmmm." He glanced at the various lamps sitting around the room, choosing a small one and positioning it carefully in relationship to the tongs. It took a couple of tries to get the lamp in position, but at last the spark lit the oil-soaked wick, starting a flame.
"See, what you need to do is angle this, um, spark-maker," Skip said. He pushed a few items to the side to make a clear space, grabbed a burnt piece of wood and made a brief sketch on the tabletop. "Then you mount your small lamp to the base like this yeah, see? Then your spark will light it properly every time, and all you have to do is refill the oil every so often."
"Ooooh, I want one for my lab," Kix enthused. "Just wait till Simon sees it!"
Blair was still touching the device reverently, his eyes glowing.
"I don't suppose you'd like to come work with me sometimes?" he said wistfully. "Gods, the things we could create "
Skip felt a brief glow of pride. It'd been a while since somebody had praised his work.
"I guess I could, sure," he said shyly. "I mean " He grimaced. "If nobody objects, I mean."
"Nobody will object," Kix and Blair said simultaneously, in exactly the same firm tone.
Skip snorted with laughter.
"Pretty sure of that, huh?" he said wryly.
"Just watch," Kix grinned.
"So this is what you do?" Skip asked Blair. "You invent things?"
"Oh, no, this is just a hobby," Blair said ruefully. "I wish I had more time and talent for it, but it's not my gift. No, I'm the High Lord's researcher. I supervise his archivists, manage the Archives and advise the High Lord, mostly on dealing with foreign peoples. I used to travel a great deal, learn about other peoples, their languages and customs." He sighed, then smiled. "But it's not altogether a loss. I met Kix when I was working with the Archives not here," he corrected. "But the mage archives at Renkien."
"You wouldn't believe how very scholarly he looked when I first met him," Kix said. "With book dust all through his hair, and pen smudges everywhere, even one on his nose and even at that, he had me on my back and moaning in an hour!"
"I had you?" Blair protested.
"Well, you did," Kix snickered. "Several times, as I recall."
Skip almost choked.
"Didn't the High Lord mind you, er I mean, you know, with his Consort?" Skip said, trying not to laugh.
"Oh, I hadn't even met Simon then," Kix said blithely. "I was studying advanced cross-planar etheric vortices at Renkien. Later I did a few consultations for Simon, and Blair met James, and that was that we all stayed friends, and Simon got a Consort, a sage and a Sentinel for the price of a Vizier."
Blair burst out laughing.
"Well, that's the short version," he said. "But it'll do. Here, have a cake." He passed a plate.
Kix made a comical face.
"Ewwww, Blair," he protested. "After they've been sitting in here with all this dust and grease?"
"Oh, you're as bad as James," Blair grumbled, taking a small cake himself and biting into it. Skip chuckled and helped himself. The taste of workshop grit on his food was almost comfortingly familiar.
"Anyway, it's almost dinnertime," Kix said, pushing the plate away again.
Skip grimaced, thinking of sitting at that table again with Simon.
"Can't we just, you know, eat up here or something?" he suggested.
"In this mess?" Kix said disbelievingly. Then he patted Skip's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Skip, but Simon's expecting us."
"James, too," Blair said with a sigh. "He's back, I heard the horses making a fuss."
Skip stifled a sigh. Apparently there was no getting out of another dinner table go-round and this time without Dante to run interference for him. He reluctantly followed Blair (clutching his precious new firestarter to show off) and Kix, first to wash the grime off their hands, and then down to the same private dining hall.
To Skip's great relief, however, they reached the dining hall before either Simon or James. Giving each other a conspiratorial grin, Kix took his usual seat at the end of the table closest to Simon's chair and gestured to Skip to sit on his other side; Blair sat down across from Skip, leaving James to sit across from Kix.
It was a few minutes before Simon wandered in, chatting companionably with James (who, it appeared from his still-damp hair, had probably come fresh from the bath). Kix and Blair stood immediately; Skip belatedly got the idea and jumped out of his seat, feeling like a fool.
Sure, hey, I'm in practice dining with royalty. I used to take lunch with the President a couple times a month, you know, just to keep the skills sharp.
"Good afternoon, Dove," Simon smiled, kissing Kix. "Blair." He took a deep breath but kept the smile. "Skip. It's good to see you again."
"Thank you uh is it, um, 'your lordship'?" Skip said, glancing uneasily at James. James gazed pointedly at the empty seat, then at Blair, then at the seat again, but Blair gazed back implacably, and James sighed and stepped around to the indicated place.
"Yes, that's ummmph!" Skip glanced around just in time to see Simon rubbing his arm and glaring at Kix, who frowned at him sternly.
Simon took a deep breath.
"Call me Simon," the High Lord finished, rubbing his arm again. Kix smiled serenely.
Skip fought down a laugh and decided to earn himself a cheap brownie point.
"Thanks for the privilege, um, Simon," he said, keeping a perfectly straight face. "But I think, you know, unless it's just us, in private like this, it's not really appropriate for me to be so, um, informal, you know? I mean, Kix has an excuse to, you know, take liberties, but we wouldn't want people to think you're, like, building a harem here."
Simon's eyebrows jumped and the corners of his lips twitched in something suspiciously like stifled laughter. James snorted, but his eyes twinkled.
Yeah, he got the joke, all right.
"You know, I believe you're right," Simon rumbled. "And I appreciate your . . . discretion." This time the smile he directed at Skip was more genuine.
It ended up being a far more convivial meal than Skip had expected; apparently Simon's talks with the Cheesemakers' Guild had gone well, because Simon beamed broadly when the servants brought in a huge tray of fine cheeses. James, too, appeared mellowed by his 'run in the forest' either that, or he was putting on a damned good act under threat of enforced celibacy, Skip couldn't decide which.
Blair showed off his new firestarter, which Simon and James duly admired, and Blair calmly informed Simon and James that Skip had 'graciously consented' to assist him in his workshop when he had time. James started to bristle at this pronouncement Skip didn't know whether he objected more to Skip being in Blair's company without a guard, or to the invasion of James' territory by this suspect newcomer but subsided almost meekly when Blair turned the full force of those blue eyes on him. Skip almost choked on his cheese.
Oh, man, that mean ol' cat is well and thoroughly pussy-whipped, Skip chuckled to himself. And if Kix had Simon wound any tighter around his finger, he couldn't close his hand.
Simon bolted down a quick dinner and left for afternoon audiences, and James whisked Blair off, presumably to claim his reward for being a good little kitty, before the servants brought the fruit and pastries, so Skip and Kix nibbled and chatted Skip was poignantly reminded of how much his brother had loved sweets then moved on, cake in hand, to finish Skip's tour of the castle. Skip was duly awed by the Archives; although he couldn't match Kix's enthusiasm for the huge tomes and scrolls in their neatly organized slots, he knew a hellacious library when he saw one.
"Poor Blair, he loves the Archives but he'd rather be traveling," Kix sighed, trailing his fingers over the spines of the thick volumes. "And me, I'm a mage who would rather have been an archivist."
"Kix I mean, my brother was a librarian," he said. "He loved books."
"Really?" Kix smiled wistfully. "I'd have loved to be the keeper of the Archives. Maybe if my Gift hadn't been so strong, I could have. But a strong Mage-Gift can't be wasted. It's just like Blair he'd love to travel, but a Sentinel has to have a territory to guard, and Blair's his Guide, so that's that. Destinies, you know, like hearts Blair says they have a mind of their own. Still, I suppose I'm luckier than " He sighed, patting Skip's hand. "Oh, listen to me whine. I've got true love, true friends, a good place and a comfortable home. And all the fine pastries I care to eat." They both laughed at that.
"What about Dante?" Skip asked as Kix led him down another set of hallways and up some stairs not to a tower, but to the second floor of the castle. "I mean, what do you know about him?"
"Not much," Kix admitted. "He's never said much about his life before he came here. Simon bought him, you know."
Skip stopped in the hallway, his jaw gaping.
"Bought him? Bought him?"
"Mm-hmm." Kix took Skip's hand, pulling him onward. "I don't know the story exactly Simon and I had only just met then. A mage came from the east and spoke to Simon secretly, and Simon gave him gold a lot of gold. A few days later a cage was left on the castle steps, and Dante was in it chained so tightly he could barely move, filthy and half dead from starvation. Blair and I took care of him, and he's served Simon ever since. A more loyal man you'd never know. But he doesn't speak of the time before, and we don't press him. His secrets are all he treasured " Kix smiled. "Before you, that is."
Skip blushed. Treasured. Waking in Dante's arms, turning and seeing that look in Dante's eyes, he'd felt treasured.
"So all I know about him is what everybody knows," Kix continued. "That he's half darkling, his father a Feeder. That, and he's a true and trustworthy friend. Here, this is my study, and my workroom's behind it."
Skip managed to look impressed by Kix's workroom, but truth to tell, he wasn't sure he wanted to know what was in all the jars and vials and boxes neatly arranged on shelves. If Kix was brewing up eye of newt and toe of frog, he'd just as soon not think about it too much. Still, listening to Kix talk about his work most of which went over further over Skip's head than the space shuttle was vastly preferable to spending a lonely afternoon in Dante's rooms. Besides, he liked to listen to Kix talk. Never mind that it wasn't 'his' Kix; still, just seeing him animated and happy and proud of his work fed some starving corner of Skip's soul.
He's got a wonderful job, a great home a place where he belongs someone to love who loves him back, Skip thought wistfully. Hey, I'm glad that at least in this world he gets to be happy. But hey, why wouldn't he? I wasn't here to fuck up his life.
"Skip?" Kix said softly, breaking into Skip's thoughts. Skip jumped, startled, then blinked at the compassion in Kix's eyes.
"You miss him very much, don't you?" Kix said softly.
Skip dropped his eyes and swallowed hard around the suddenly huge lump in his throat.
"Yeah," he said hoarsely. "I miss him a lot. But what I'm missing is a Kix I lost a long, long time ago a giggly kid who built a treehouse with me and told me stories at night and could make me laugh with just a look." He shook his head, scrubbing roughly at his eyes with the back of his wrist. "That Kix died a long time ago, and it's a little late for me to mourn him now."
Kix slid an arm around Skip's shoulders, stroking his hair sympathetically.
"I don't know what it's like to lose a brother," he said softly. "It must be horrible. But then, I never knew what it was like to have a brother. I was thinking " He leaned over, touching his forehead to Skip's. "I was thinking that maybe we could give it a try?"
Skip blinked, then cleared his throat.
"Well " Kix smiled shyly. "I mean, we already know each other's Truenames. And we're twins in a way, I mean. Which makes us brothers, right? I'm not the twin you grew up with, but maybe I'm better than nothing, do you think?"
This time the sleeve was insufficient and Skip had to accept the handkerchief Kix handed him, and thankfully the resounding honk when he blew his nose broke some of the tension.
"Yeah, you're better than nothing," Skip laughed hoarsely around a throat full of tears. "You're better than " He thought of Dante. "Well, better than almost anything."
"I suppose that'll have to do," Kix said, laughing too. "Almost anything is certainly better than nothing."
And it didn't feel strange at all when Kix hugged him tight. It felt like . . . coming home. And Skip thought wonderingly, That's two. Two people who care about me, at least a little. And if somebody like Dante and somebody like Kix can care about me, then maybe
Maybe I'm better than nothing, too.