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A Season Of Dragons

by P L Nunn


Chapter Seven


The sun was just sitting, casting shadows over the land, making the crevices and nooks etched into the surrounding mountains seem deep and mysterious. Impenetrable hiding places that would soon be shrouded entirely by full night. Sai wasn't certain he wanted to attempt the rescue at night, when human sight was at its weakest and frightened human bodies would have to navigate the climb with little or no light. But he was assured that the enemy's vision was no better in the pitch of night - - though their hearing was keen - - and his and Kento's and Ryo eyesight was very, very good, enhanced by the armor - - so it made sense - - to attack in the dead of night. At least that's what Ryo and Kento insisted and the hun'ra seemed willing to agree, eager to free their fellows. And there was no arguing either of them out of the notion.

So here they all crouched, waiting for the moment that the attack would be signaled. A rather suicidal attack, if you asked Sai, who remembered very well, the durability of the Dragon-men back on the island - - who remembered very well the effort it had taken to kill even one, much less thirty. Thirty against three. Ridiculous odds. But then, they hadn't had Ryo on the island and his twin blades that lopped off reptilian heads like he was shearing through butter. Slicing weapons, it seemed were much more effective than piercing ones. You could poke the things all day and not stop them, but a little simple decapitation did the job very well. So Ryo and Seiji had advantages here, Kento too, with his naginata and its long sweep - - though not as much as a man with a sword or two

Kento was on the other side of the small vale where the ne'gal had gathered their newly acquired slaves. He'd signal the start of this operation by creating a diversion that would lure some of the ne'gal up into the foothills to hunt him down. Ryo and Sai would wade into the rest of them while the hun'ra would slip in and try and free the slaves.

There were women and children among the captives and likely wounded, so the flight would not be swift, which meant that as many of the ne'gal as possible needed be dispatched. And there were close to thirty of them, maybe more out in the hills. Sai was not terribly optimistic. Ryo was. Ryo was quiet and focused and deadly still, waiting for Kento's first move. Ryo already had blood on his hands today, having taken out another ne'gal scout. Sai shivered recalling the absolute emotionless way he'd retold it. The lack of - - of anything - - in his eyes. Ryo was a different person when he was in the midst of combat, than he was when he was outside of it. Two separate entities that shared the same body. Maybe it was the armor. Maybe that most crucial, most centralized armor out of all of their armors that Ryo possessed - - or that possessed Ryo - - inflicted its long years of combat upon him - - its experiences - - its cold-blooded rational. All their armors did, to some small extent. It was just that sometimes Ryo in combat was - - unnerving. He didn't complain of it tonight, though. Not with what they were about to face. He just hoped it was enough.

The gate keeper was one tough bastard. Only reasonable, considering he'd been given the responsibility of guarding this impressive pass. It had taken a combined effort to take him down. Rowan had knocked him off his perch and Seiji had finished the job. Really, Rowan would have preferred if they'd not had to kill the man-monster - - it was hard to engender good faith and expect favors to be granted when you'd just killed valuable henchmen, but they'd had very little choice. The gate keeper had not been willing to talk and when they'd tried - - well, he'd gotten testy. Rowan could still hear the ringing in his ears from that first bout of attempted negotiations. He hoped - - he actively preyed - - that this ostracized dragon prince - - this Sarag'sa was a more reasonable sort.

That esteemed personage appeared in short order, atop the gateway, with a regiment of winged followers and stared down at their rag tag group in cold judgment. The first thing that Rowan noted and that with great surprise, was that though this Sarag'sa lacked whole flying reptile look of the others. That he lacked the oddly bent legs and the reptilian snout. That, in fact he looked very much human, save for the pair of furled bronze wings that protruded from his broad back.

"That's him?" Rowan whispered to the closest hun'ra at hand.

"It is." The man only looked up from under his lashes, not daring, it seemed to stare boldly at ne'gal nobility.

"He sort of looks - - like us."

"He is a changeling. All the pureblood ne'gal are. His favorite shape - - rumors are - - is that of the hun'ra. It is one of the reasons he was cast out by his own."

"Well - - that could work in our favor." Rowan chewed his lip. Squinting up at the gate.

"Perhaps you should say something, natari." The hun'ra at his side suggested. Rowan glanced at Seiji, who shrugged, silent and open at the moment to following whatever brilliant plan Rowan could concoct.

Rowan stepped forward, away from the rest of his party and called up.

"Greetings. We wish to parlay." He thought he sounded stupid. He hoped he sounded formal enough for them not to laugh outright at him. He really should have asked Seiji how he would have phrased the request. Seiji was all about formality. But it was too late now.

"You killed my gate keeper." After a moment the accusation boomed down at them.

"Yeah, well - - he refused to deliver our request. He got rude about it."

More silence. Then. "How? He was no minor ne'gal."

"We're no minor hun'ra. We wish to pass and we wish to ask a favor."

There was a rustling among the ne'gal at the prince's back, a murmur of angry conversation, perhaps, which the prince himself did not partake of. Finally he lifted a hand and silenced his followers, then turned and walked away, the lot of the man-creatures behind him scattering to make way for him.

"Well - - damn." Rowan stared up at the now empty gate. They were not just going to ignore them. Oh, they most certainly were not. If they had to blast away at this monster gate until it was in crumbles, they were getting past.

"Rowan. Wait." Seiji suggested as Rowan was starting to spew a few choice curses under his breath.

"They - - they just walked away . . ."

"I know. Wait."

He turned to give Seiji a glare of impatience and Seiji met it impassively, eyes dark and shadowed under his helm.

There was a creaking groan that echoed down the pass, loud enough to make Rowan cringe and turn defensively to ward off whatever monster that might be descending upon them. But it wasn't a monster. It was a ten foot portal positioned off-center in one of the three story iron doors, creaking open. A little door inside a bigger one, in the face of a freaking monster gate that could probably survive several hits from tactical weapons.

"Well - - isn't that sweet." He cocked his head at Seiji, smiling grimly. "We get a free pass."

"It wasn't free." Seiji said, and started walking. He had a great deal more of the gate keeper's blood on him than Rowan did. Rowan shrugged, waving at the Thorn and his gaping hun'ra behind them to follow.

There was no sunlight on the otherside of the minor doorway. Just a towering dragon man with dully gleaming bronze accouterments, who stared down at them with narrow, slanted golden eyes and stepped aside, for them to pass, gesturing them to enter what seemed a passage way inside the wall. It was more than a passage way, it was like a long dark cavern, nestled between the intimidatingly thick stone of the wall. There was another door opposite them, about twenty feet away, but it was firmly shut and the dragon-man seemed to have no intentions of opening it.

"What? We're not going through?" Rowan asked, clutching his bow tighter, not eager for a closed quarters fight where his arrows would be of no use - - If they got sealed in here, shoulder to shoulder and a herd of the ne'gal came rushing in - - well, he and Seiji might survive it - - but the hun'ra would be meat.

"You asked for parlay. You parlay." The voice hissed out of the narrow snout, like escaping steam. One long, clawed hand pointed down the dark passage. Obviously it wasn't going anywhere until they moved. So Rowan started walking and the rest followed nervously behind him. The light went away entirely as the ne'gal sealed the door behind them and Rowan stopped outright so abruptly that Seiji tread on his heels.

"You know. I'm really not liking this." Rowan hissed, latching hold of what he assumed was Seiji's armored arm. "A light would be really, really nice."

"There is a light." Seiji said quietly. "Look ahead and let your eyes adjust."

Rowan did, and sure enough at the end of the long passage was a pale square of illumination. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Lovely, he could only hope there weren't nasty things waiting beyond it.

And so they passed from oppressive, black tunnel to a hall of cold, black stone and towering pillars. Whoever had built this place had borrowed from some serious gothic influences. Black and heavy and just a little frightening. It was like walking into Dracula's castle and knowing that the vampire himself was waiting to sup with you.

"Mmm - -- is that like - - a chick and a couple of snakes and a - - ?" Rowan kept getting distracted by the disturbing sculptures that adorned column and wall.

"Focus, Rowan." Seiji suggested, eyes straight ahead. A contingent of ne'gal awaited them, watching them like predators appreciative of the prey that dared to walk among them.

They stopped, in the midst of the ne'gal and waited for some direction, or an attack. Rowan thought at this point, as tautly stretched as his nerves were, that either option would be acceptable. But none of the ne'gal made a move, and the voice that entreated them was plainly human, and followed by a slim girl in what looked to be a very costly, simply cut robe of red silk.

"Be welcome. My master, the lord Sarag'sa bids you take your ease. No harm will come to you while you are here."

Rowan stared at her, at her bowed head and her smooth, young face and wondered if her lips spewed lies.

"Forgive us, if we're a little wary." Rowan said. "But, we've had a hard week. Exactly where is your lord?"

"Follow me. He awaits you and offers refreshment."

Rowan glanced back at Thorne, a questioning tilt to his head. "Can we trust them?"

"Sarag'sa has always been honorable."

"Even when he demanded some of your people as payment for passage?" Rowan asked.

Thorne inclined his head. "Even so. There were no deceptions and it was a toll we were willing to pay."

"Charming." Rowan forced a smile and pulled off his helmet, shaking out damp hair. "Well, looks like we're partying with the dragonlord."

They passed from black stone to slightly less black stone and into a somewhat brighter, somewhat smaller hall the center of which sat a long low table, piled high with the most amazing assortment of food. Rowan blinked and blinked again, his stomach rumbling into instant overdrive. A group of ne'gal gathered at the end of the room. Some of them towering winged monsters, others slender, scaled, and almost human looking. All of them adorned with silk and gold and decadent jewelry. And the most decadent of all, and the most human seeming, was their lord, the outcast prince Sarag'sa. His features were strong and handsome, his hair slick and black, falling well past his broad shoulders. His height would have done a pro basketball player proud, but there was nothing lanky about him, he was all sinew and rounded muscle and controlled power. His skin was a dark, glittering gold. Glittering because of the very fine, almost imperceptible scales that covered his flesh. He was a reptile just like the others, who had put on a facade of humanity. His wings were just - - cool. Translucent gold with dark veins that spread with intricate artistry through the fleshy filament. The light shining through them made them glow.

"Rowan." Seiji nudged him with his shoulder, breaking his amazement. "Be eloquent."

"Uhhh - - hi. How you doing? Nice wings. Do you greet all your hun'ra visitors with such a kick-ass banquet?"

Seiji drew in a breath of what might have been frustration - - or embarrassment.

"You are not simple hun'ra, the two of you." Sarag'sa said, stepping forward. "What you did to Thag'sa bordered on the mystical. Are you shamans?"

"That would impress you?" Rowan asked, lifting a brow. "Well, then - - yeah. We're natari-shaman. Do we have your word that we're safe here? All of us?"

The dragon lord smiled, amused at him, and inclined his head. "You have my word that no hun'ra shall be harmed while you enjoy my hospitality and present me with this request you wish to parlay with me over."

Rowan smiled back, and let his armor dissolve in a haze of mystic fallout. It always made an impression to the initiated, the releasing of the armor as much as the calling of it. He stood there, in his borrowed clothes and tried not to look too smug as the ne'gal gasped and made what might have been signs against evil spirits - - or whatever boogie things that plagued ne'gal nightmares. Even the hun'ra were round eyed, though they'd seen it before, backing away just a little in case the mojo that surrounded him decided to attack a hapless mortal.

"So, are we eating?" he decided to play it cool and cocky. If they thought he had no reason to fear them - - they'd wonder what other tricks he had up his sleeves. Cocky, but polite. That seemed the way to go.

"Not armed." Sarag'sa was staring behind him. Rowan glanced over his shoulder and frowned at Seiji, who had a tense, unhappy set to his mouth.

"Oh, don't mind him. You know shak'nor's - - don't do a thing until they're told. Disarm for the nice ne'gal, Seiji." Rowan gave a tight little smile and imperceptible jerk of his head in the direction of the ne'gal prince, hoping Seiji wasn't going to be in a mood the entire night. Of course, on the same note, he probably shouldn't have called Seiji a shak'nor right in front of the whole hall - - but hell, hind-sight was twenty-twenty and all.

Seiji gave him an ice-breathing glare and let his armor dissipate in a faint glitter of dancing pin-point lights.

"Shak'nor - -" the dragon prince was staring, his hand half raised to gesture them all to take refreshment at the well stocked table - - his glittering eyes glued on Seiji like he'd never seen a round eyed blonde in his life. Well, he probably hadn't - - and Seiji tended to draw stares at the worst of times. Rowan figured this was one of those worst of time situations. He shuffled between Sarag'sa's line of vision and Seiji.

"So here's the deal - - we have a favor - -"

"Not now." The dragon prince said. "Refreshment first, then we will talk. Eat. All of you." He waved towards the table, having gotten over the shock of first-Seiji-sighting and gathered his wits.

The ne'gal settled on cushions around the head of the table where their lord sat. The hun'ra nervously scooted as far down the long table as they could get from the ne'gal. Rowan found a nice, cushy spot in the middle and Seiji knelt next to him, gracefully folding his knees under him. There were fruits and vegetables and roasted meat. Rowan was a little suspicious of the meat, but the other was cooked to perfection. The wine - - if it was wine - - was sweet so light that it hardly carried an aftertaste. Seiji picked at this and that, drinking close to nothing and only occasionally casting Rowan a moody look.

Sarag'sa wasn't going to much trouble to hide his stares, though. He sat there, back against plush, stacked cushions and stared in outright interest at Seiji. A human servant knelt beside him, refilling his goblet when it was empty, or reaching for a choice sweetmeat when the prince gestured. It was a mental undressing if Rowan had ever seen one and Seiji was well aware and trying to ignore it.

"So," Rowan said, unnerved himself. "This is a pretty nice place you have here. Is it all inside the mountain?"

"Where did you get your shak'nor? I've never seen the like."

"Ahhhh - - not from around here, believe me."

"Does he serve you well, natari - shaman?"

Oh, god, he was so going to regret this conversation. The irritation was practically oozing from Seiji's skin.

"Yeah, he's got his moments - - when he's not in a snit." Rowan cast Seiji a look and Seiji's pale blue gaze made him flinch away, the dragon lord preferable to Seiji's promised retaliation.

"Is he ka'rath to you?"

It took Rowan a second to place that word. It was the one that meant a servant that was used for purposes more intimate than cooking a man's meal and setting his tent. He opened his mouth and shut it and hoped that Seiji hadn't picked up on that word yet. But, Seiji had, it seemed from the very faint flush that stained his cheeks and Rowan hastened to set the record straight.

"No. No. He's just my shak'nor. Nothing else."

"I'm not your shak'nor." Seiji's hiss broke past Rowan's hurried denial. One had to assume that Seiji had had just about enough of speculative stares and conversation regarding his ownership.

"Really?" Sarag'sa leaned forward, face mild, but interested. "If not yours - - then - -?"

"Then nothing - - my lord." Seiji said, very low, very politely. "From where we hail, I assure you, I'm not so unusual - - nor anyone's shak'nor."

"But, we are here, are we not?" Sarag'sa tilted his head, resting it upon the palm of one clawed hand. "And all foreigners are either enemies - - or shak'nor. Which are you?"

Oh, that was such a trick question and Seiji was soooo going to answer it incorrectly. Rowan held his breath, trying to think up a reasonable answer to cover Seiji's prickly pride and save them from having to fight their way out of this dark, monster sized mausoleum.

The hun'ra Thorne save him the effort.

"My lord," the man bowed his head, not quite meeting the dragon prince's eyes. "There are more than these two - - Natari-shaman's - - and among them a great Kan'tara that slew single handedly one of the great land dragons of your brethren to the south. Perhaps - - he is his."

"That's right," Rowan piped in. "He's Ryo's shak'nor. You can live with that, can't you? So all's well that ends well, right."

Seiji sat, face frozen into apathy, which meant he was well and truly pissed off, but not feeling the urge to sink them deeper down the shit hole by opening his mouth to deny it. Hell, he might even accept the looming innuendo of the ka'rath thing, if it would get Sarag'sa from sniffing after him. At least there was a modicum of truth to it.

Sarag'sa steepled his fingers, eyes drifting to Rowan. "And where are these other Shaman?"

"Well, that's sort of what we wanted to talk about? You know that these people's friends were kidnapped and taken south - -"

"I let the them pass." Sarag'sa said.

"Even though they were dragging kicking, screaming captives?" Rowan had to ask.

The dragon prince shrugged. "They paid well for their passage."

"Oh. Well, that explains it. Who said capitalism wasn't alive and well in the land of the lost. Our comrades are going to be bringing them back and we'd like it if you'd be so kind as to let them pass and not to let past the hordes of ne'gal that are likely to be dogging their trail."

"Is that all?" Sarag'sa asked politely.

"Well - - yeah - - that and the release of the hun'ra that you took as payment when you let Thorne and his folk through the pass the first time."

A few of the ne'gal at Sarag'sa's side hissed indignantly. Sarag'sa himself laughed.

"Really? And what wealth will you give me for doing such a thing. I like my human pets."

"Slaves." Rowan corrected. "Believe it or not that has a better ring than pets. Pets is just too Planet of the Apes, for my taste."

"Again. What do you offer?"

"The chance to royally piss off the ne'gal that ostracized you." Rowan pressed his palms to the table and leaned forward. "You've got a thing for humans - - Hun'ra - - why not pick a side and gain the admiration of all of them? Maybe then you won't have to gain their loyalty by collecting them as toll for your little pass here. Maybe even form some sort of alliance that will benefit you both."

"You do have grand notions, don't you. I was thinking along the lines of much simpler things. Your pale, golden shak'nor would be worth a hundred brown skinned, black haired ones."

Seiji didn't flinch, but after a breath, his lashes did sweep slowly down, hiding whatever glittered in the depths of his eyes. Not a pleased Seiji, at all.

"You know - -As generous as that is, and I'm sure we'd be getting the better end of the deal - - I'm thinking there'd be way too much blood shed in that arrangement - - so no."

"Ah - - well then." Sarag'sa sat back, pondering, face mild and pleasant. A very generous host. "I shall have to dwell on your words then and perhaps by the time your Kan'tara comes with your captured hun'ra - - I shall have come to a conclusion. In the meanwhile - - enjoy my hospitality. I shall prepare rooms for your hun'ra and for you, natari-shaman."

"So how badly did I fuck that up?"

They stood, very much alone under the heavy stone arch of the foyer of the room they'd been led to.

One room, which one supposed smacked of a certain elegance - - a certain stark grace. The only ornamentation was in the bones of the place, in the undulation of the stone crafted by hands that were more than likely not human. Other than that, it was aesthetically barren. A windowless, oddly serene chamber that a body might almost find a bit of peace within, if not for the situation and the uncertainties that lurked outside the heavy wooden door that the servants had closed behind them.

One room, which they'd given to Rowan, Rowan being more than a simple Hun'ra with his mystical prowess and Seiji had been expected to make due, mystical prowess or not - - because he had the skin and the hair and the features of a foreigner and was beneath consideration because of it. He tried not to let it irk him. It was no entirely new feeling - - in fact he'd put up with similar scorn entirely too recently when he'd made the dismal decision to flee home, seeking the familiarity of the house in which he'd grown up. When he'd tried to search out whatever solace the ghost of his father might bring. But there'd been no ghosts at home. Only bitter relatives, aunts uncles and cousins who thought and said none to subtly what they thought of him and what they thought of his father's state of mind when he'd given all the family wealth to a mongrel son. Not even enough honest blood to be considered a half-breed. And he'd endured it in silence, because his father would have expected honor from him, even if his father's blood relations displayed very little. And maybe, because he'd deserved the scorn - - for his weakness - - for the shame that he'd brought down upon himself and upon those closest to him. Maybe fleeing home had been less a search for familiarity than a penance. Twenty lashes, please. And again.

"Not that badly." He answered, because Rowan was staring at him and waiting, worried over what they'd have to deal with in a few days when Ryo and Kento and Sai came back with the captives. "He heard you. Perhaps, he was even intrigued."

Rowan rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right. Like he was paying attention to anything other than the hard-on he was sporting for you."

That was uncomfortable, as well. Not the attention, for Seiji was used to that. Used to the stares and the propositions and the desire - - he just found the source disconcerting and the fact that it might effect their progress here.

There was a broad, raised stone slab upon which lay thick cushions, furs and pillows. Rowan sat down on it, staring up at the undulating stone patterns in the ceiling. "I don't think he's gonna agree to anything without a price. An alliance! Right. As far as he's concerned - - it'd be the same thing as us deciding to form an alliance with a herd of sheep."

"Flock." Seiji said absently.


Seiji shook his head, lowered it and ran a hand up to the back of his neck, pressing at the insistent ache there. They'd been armored up too long, and as ever, it would start to tell. Sooner or later.

There was a soft rapping at their door.

What now? Rowan mouthed and Seiji shrugged, and moved to answer the summons. It was a pair of young women in a knee length white silk robes. They stood demurely outside the door, eyes lowered shyly.

"My lord extends the hospitality of his bathes. And our services to make them more enjoyable." One said, peeking up from under her lashes at him.

A generous host indeed and as tempting as a long bath might be - - and the ministrations of a young woman, Seiji had no desire put himself at such a disadvantage in this place.

"Thank you, but no - -"

"- - no way would we say no to such a kind offer." Rowan practically plowed into him from behind in his haste to reach the door. Rowan shouldered him aside, leaning on the door frame with his predatory smile and his oh so smooth - - Rowan thought - - body language.

"Then please, follow us."

Rowan grinned, nudging Seiji out into the hall.

"I'd just as soon not." Seiji said softly, trying to keep the edge out of his tone - - at least in front of the two girls.

"Nonsense. We both filthy. Its been raining all day - - a nice long soak - - you know you want it. Stop whining."

Seiji narrowed his eyes. He did not whine. Ever. To argue the fact would have been demeaning Rowan was infuriating and bossy and the two of them were going to come to an understanding very soon if Seiji had his way.

The bathes were down a level, but the path had been simple and one was assured that finding the way back would be no hardship, even without guidance. Unlike the rest of this huge place, under all the massive weight of a mountain, the bathes were warm. The air moist and faintly scented. They were more like Roman baths than Japanese, the outer room boasted a good sized warm pool and though a stone walk the next chamber had a large stone pool so warm that steam permeated the air. Beyond, the girls said was a cool pool to refresh on overheated body. Tempting, one had to admit.

Disrobing before them, at the urging of their skilled hands, bothered Seiji not half so much as it did Rowan, who blushed just a little, all his rowdy talk dwindling down to acute embarrassment when it got right down to it. It almost made Seiji smile, to see him make very quickly for the pool to preserve his modesty.

"We shall see that your robes are cleaned." One of the girl's promised.

"No." Seiji said. "Leave them." The orbs of power were hidden within the folds of those robes after all. The girl cast him a shy, speculative look, very curious over him and his pale skin.

He sank into the water across from Rowan, allowing a small sigh of satisfaction to whisper past his lips. Perhaps Rowan had not been such a fool to accept this. The warmth seeped into skin and muscle and bone, easing tension away. The very gentle, skilled hands of the girls did, washing away sweat and accumulated dirt. Seiji stopped her short of his waist, and she frowned, disappointed, but retreated to pour cool wine, which he left untouched by the poolside. Rowan accepted his, draining his goblet and leaning his arms on the smooth marble rim of the pool, watching the girls wring out their rags and put away the scented soap.

"You know, I could learn to live with this sort of service."

"A girl to facilitate with your bath?" Seiji murmured, mellow and relaxed and willing to forgive transgressions for the moment. "You'll break Sai's heart."

"Humm. She could wash his back, too."

"Its not washing your back that would upset him."

Rowan laughed, burying his face in his arms, hair wet and slick against his head. "No, I don't suppose he'd be real happy about that. I wonder if they're okay? I've never seen Kento so damned gung ho - - and Ryo was into serious commando mode because of whatever the fuck is up between the two of you."

"Don't, Rowan." Seiji closed his eyes.

He felt Rowan's displeasure. His need to speak his mind and give his opinion. The very air vibrated with how badly he wanted to state whatever hypothesize he'd come up with regarding the state of Seiji and Ryo's affairs.

His silence would not hold for long, and Seiji didn't want to hear it, so he chose retreat, rising out of the pool and padding across the damp floor to the next room.

"I won't require your assistance." He told the girl who made to follow him. "Just leave the towels and go."

This pool would have been uncomfortable had his body not acclimated to the warmth of the previous pool. He still had to sink into it slowly, skin prickling from the heat. Steam swirled around him, making the walls indistinct. He had just settled back, alone and at peace, when Rowan sloshed into the pool, making small hissing sounds as he submerged.

Of course, Rowan wasn't content to stay to his side, but waded towards the center and sank down before Seiji, everything under water from the nose down. He crouched there, staring with speculative eyes until Seiji gave up the pretense of oblivion and lifted his lashes.

"So, you not gonna make any effort to set things right? You calling it quits with Ryo, or what?"

If the suggestion hadn't annoyed Seiji so much, he would not have graced it with an answer.

"Ryo will get over it."

"Ryo was pretty pissed."

Seiji shrugged. "Its his nature. He's - - excitable."

"No shit? But he doesn't usually hold onto it this long."

Which was true. And just a little unsettling. Dwelling on it now, with Rowan's piercing gaze upon him just would not do.

"Why do you care?"

"Because I do care. Because without Ryo you're gonna be unbearable to be around - - more so than usual - - "

Seiji glared. Rowan shifted and waded backwards to sit down next to Seiji, close enough that their elbows touched. Seiji glared more at the infiltration of his personal space.

"See." Rowan said smugly. "You're already getting pissy. But on the other hand - - maybe I could set Ryo up Kento - - since he's discovered the wonderful world of sex and all - - it would save me from - -"

"Shut up, Rowan. You're not amusing."

"I'm very amusing. You just don't have any sense of humor."

Seiji looked away, deciding that it was either ignore Rowan entirely or try to drown him in the hot water. His neck was starting to ache again, a bow string taught tension that seeped up towards his head. The warmth had been so nice for a while, until Rowan brought up things he'd rather not think about. Things like Ryo and the depths of hurt he must have felt for him to hold onto his ire for this long. Hurt Seiji had caused and ultimately been responsible for. Hurt that he had witnessed from a distance - - and had been stirred by. That appalled him the most, out of all the dismal acts that had scarred their lives those long weeks - - that somewhere deep inside him he'd been stimulated over Ryo's suffering - - by Ryo's blood and it terrified him and shamed him and made him wonder if he weren't better of letting Ryo hold onto his grievance - - if Ryo weren't better off. Saying as much was unthinkable, because he wasn't vulnerable to terror or shame - - because he couldn't have people thinking that he was that weak - - even though - - even though maybe he was - -

"Seiji?" Rowan's voice was concerned, Rowan's hand was on his arm and he hadn't even felt the initial touch.

"What?" His voice sounded wavery. He blinked, trying to focus on Rowan's face.

"You okay? You zoned out for a moment there."

"Did I?"

"Yeah," Rowan's hand slid up his arm to his shoulder, fingers pressing into muscle and flesh. "God, you're so tense - - how can you be this tight after being steamed like a lobster?"

Rowan's breath smelled of sweet wine and Seiji wondered how many goblets of the stuff he'd downed. Several at dinner and several more while they'd been in the warm pool.

"How drunk are you, Rowan?" Seiji drew his brows, irritated that Rowan would allow himself to become inebriated when they were in such a tentative situation.

Rowan laughed, pressing his damp forehead of a sudden against Seiji's shoulder. "Not at all. A little - - maybe. You can be like the designated driver. So what you said last night - - that if I wanted to - - you know - - it would be okay with you - - that still true?"

Had he said that? He didn't recall quite those words. And he'd know, besides, that Rowan wouldn't do anything when it came right down to it. Not a sober Rowan at any rate. A drunk one tended to be - - unpredictable. Unpredictable made Seiji nervous.

"If it makes you happy." He said flatly and Rowan grinned, slipping a hand down under the water to rub against himself.

"This warm water is making me really happy."

Seiji hadn't needed to know that, nor did he particularly need to feel it, but Rowan was insistent and urged Seiji to move forward with a determined tug on Seiji's arm so he could slip behind him.

"Let me help with that tenseness." Rowan purred, not helping at all when he pulled Seiji back, wet skin against wet skin. He put hands on Seiji's shoulders, strong fingers pressing into rigid muscle, thumbs biting into the sore spot at the back of Seiji's neck. It hurt enough to make a small, involuntary sound escape his lips. And Rowan apologized and softened the touch - - which was worse, because it did feel good and he was starting to think - - with the lurid feel of Rowan's erection against the small of his back and Rowan's smooth skin sliding along his own - - that relieving a little tension with Rowan might not be such a bad thing. That spreading his legs and letting Rowan use him might very well satisfy a need. Only he'd have to look at Rowan the next day and if he were going to offer himself as a sacrifice to someone else's gratification to assuage his own guilt, he'd rather it be with a faceless stranger.

"Rowan - - " He shivering a little, because Rowan had brushed the wet hair away from the nape of his neck and pressed something softer than fingers there and he remembered vaguely that Rowan kissed very well, that Rowan had a crafty, skilled tongue. Rowan's hands had slid down his shoulders and around his sides, fingers splayed out across his belly and questing lower.

"Hummm?" Rowan murmured against his neck, working his way around to Seiji's ear lobe.

"- - - no."

And Rowan paused, his hands frozen, his mouth pulling back just a little. After a beat he asked. "Really?"

Seiji inclined his head marginally.

"Okay - - okay." Rowan took a breath and another, then pushed himself up onto the edge of the pool, skin clean and pink from the heat. "My head's spinning."

Rowan tried to sound good-natured, but it was strained and maybe that was because of the wine and the steam - - and the denial. And Seiji would have let it go at that - - as simple as that, but it was Rowan and he had to work with Rowan and live with Rowan and despite all their differences Rowan was a friend and Seiji didn't have so many of those that he could afford to bruise the one's he did. At least not mortally and things like this could lead to long held grudges - - and dealing with Ryo with a grudge was more than enough, without adding Rowan to the mix.

"We'd both regret it." Seiji said. "You know that."

"Yeah," Rowan scraped hair from his eyes, sighing, a little less strained. "Yeah, I guess - -" there were other things he wanted to say, Seiji could sense them hovering at the tip of his tongue, but he didn't. All Seiji got was a few droplets of cool water as Rowan pushed himself to his feet, then; "Listen, I've gonna go back to the room, okay - - maybe lay down for a bit and let my head stop spinning - - you - - you gonna be okay here?"

"Of course." The gift of a little separation would be priceless - - they both needed the time to gather wits and reform defenses. Rowan slipped away, feet slapping lightly on the damp stone of the floor, one hand going to the wall at the door to the warm room for support as he momentarily wavered. Far, far too much ne'gal wine. Fool. Seiji had a moment of concern, for a tipsy Rowan separated from him in this dank place - - but, Rowan wasn't that far gone - - or he'd be passed out - - and even drunk, he always had managed to hold onto his coherency - - so Seiji supposed he'd find his way back to the room well enough.

Alone, Seiji dropped his head backwards, onto the smooth lip of the pool and tried to blank his mind. He soaked for longer than he should have, in the steam room, and finally rose to cool his skin in the waters of the last pool. It was a shock, slipping into room temperature water, after the heated pool. He shut his eyes and sank down into the tepid liquid, forcibly concentrating on keeping his teeth from chattering. His skin adjusted quickly enough and he sighed, relaxing, dipping his head underwater and coming back up, hair slick and streaming water down his back.

They'd laid towels out on the stone benches that lined the wall. He rose finally, from the pool, and wrapped one about his hips. He lifted another to his head, towel drying his hair, then let it drape around his shoulders when a whisper of cloth against skin heralded the quiet appearance of a girl from the curtained doorway at the far end of the cool room.

"Is there some other service I might do you?" She looked up at him from under dark lashes, subservient and modest and not - - he thought - - suggesting the more lurid things that the other two had.

"No. Thank you. I've soaked as much as I can, I think, without becoming water logged." He held up his fingers, the skin pruned and rippled from too long submerged. He forced the hint of a smile for her, since she'd seemed so earnest in her offer.

Her lips trembled in an answering one. "Are you certain. I am skilled at the art of massage, and it would please my master greatly if I were to prove useful to his honored guests." She gestured to the room beyond and Seiji caught a glimpse of a few large stone slabs which he presumed to be tables for massage. He doubted though, that he, as shak'nor was numbered among Sarag'sa's honored guests. And it was that notion, as much as anything that made him shrug, not at all adverse to finding yet a little more physical ease from this place before they were forced to take up arms again.

He followed her past the curtain and lay on the slab where she gestured, with his chin propped on his folded arms and his towel securely about his hips. He sighed when she put her lightly oiled hands on him and indeed she was skilled, for whatever tension the pools had not taken melted away as her fingers worked their magic. She dribbled more of the sweet scented oil on him, rubbing it into shoulders, ribs, back, working down his upper arms and the calves of his legs. She was most wonderful at her profession and his mind drifted idly to images of her attending the ne'gal. It was amusing, the thought of those great, reptilian bodies stretched out in repose while a small human girl prodded and poked at their tough hides. He hid his smile in the crook of his arm and the movement of his head made his senses swim. Oh, perhaps he had soaked in the steam too long and it had addled his senses. He was aware of a certain lack of focus and it began to alarm him.

"I think - - I've had enough - -" he said - - slurred? And tried to push himself up, but managed only to roll a little to his side. His limbs felt leaden, heavy and huge, as if they belonged to someone else. The girl staggered back a step, her eyes wide, her mouth slack. She looked as if she might crumble at the barest urging.

Seiji frowned, the suspicion beginning to dawn. "What did you - - do?"

she half lifted her hands, glistening with oil and Seiji thought, with as much panic as his sluggish mind could gather, that something other than flowery scents had been in that oil. Something that soaked into the skin and - - oh, his senses reeled and his head dropped heavily to the stone, muscles no longer cooperating to hold it up. The world began to grow dark around the edges in a languid, lazy sort of way. He saw the girl fall, finally succumbing to her own poison and from the corner of his dimming vision he saw - - or perhaps he imagined a great, dark shadow separate itself from the rest, heard the clacking of nails against the stone floor and the leathery snap of wings unfurling. And then he ceased to hear or see anything more.



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