Prism's angry growl pierced the solitude of Ghayle's garden, and she pulled away from him, regarding him curiously. He stepped away from the log, furiously pacing.
"That night . . . that day . . . Master Vinh and his bloody apple tree," Prism muttered.
"The memory was more bitter than you expected? I don't understand your reaction. You wanted to see that day," Ghayle replied quizzically.
Prism faced her and said, "Sometimes we have to face our demons."
"I speak metaphorically, not literally. Facing the darkness of the past can help bring clarity to the present."
"I refuse to let my words justify your actions!" Prism roared, stepping toward her, his fists clenched in wrathful agony.
Ghayle shrugged. "Then don't. I own my actions, you don't. I don't need you to defend me, or to justify me in any way, but I don't think that's why you're upset. You hate yourself for that night. Why?"
"I could've done things differently," Prism said ruefully. "I could've run away with Grim. I could've owned the truth and told Master Vinh everything, asking to be punished accordingly. He trusted me to be faithful, and instead I rewarded his trust with the naivety of a child, thinking everything could just return to normal without any consequences."
"Who would you be now if you'd done things differently?" Ghayle asked. "Could you guarantee happiness?"
"I would've spent those years with Grim. We would've been happy, at least until the demons came," Prism said with less confidence than his words implied.
"How can you be certain of that?" Ghayle asked. "How can you know that? You are you now, and you were you then, but you then, and you now, are not the same." She stood and circled Prism, her appraising gaze sweeping over him. "Your choices evolved you, crafting a heroic narrative, in my opinion."
"I didn't know what I wanted," Prism said. "I guess I still don't."
"Your world changed in ways you could've never predicted. It always does. Even when you can see everything happening at once, predicting the future is as difficult as anticipating the pattern of ripples on a pond during a downpour," Ghayle stated.
"Can I see Grim again. Please?" Prism begged, hating himself for the way he whimpered, sounding all too much like the boy he'd left behind long ago in that hotel room. "Please . . . I need to touch him again."
Ghayle regarded him with empathy, not judgment, and reached out her hand. "Of course," she said.
Grim knocked on the door to his father's study. As soon as the acknowledgement came, he opened the door and slipped through the crack, closing it softly behind him. Duke Selfaeth seemed to be growing thinner every time Grim saw him, and he drank more often, too. A weight hung from his shoulders, distorting the picture of the poised nobleman Grim had always admired.
Now he worked over a pile of papers, a wireless communicator serving as a paperweight. His father had ignored a hundred calls over the past three days, though he'd answered twice as many, and each call seemed to increase the weight on his father's soul.
"Father, I want to ask you something," Grim said, creeping toward the large chair sitting before the desk and sliding into it.
Duke Selfaeth appeared startled, as if not realizing he'd told anyone to come in. "Grimfaeth!" he said, dropping his pen and rewarding his son with a beaming grin. It even lit up his eyes for a moment, and Grim smiled back as his father continued. "We haven't had much of a chance to speak since I came back from Madrith, I'm sorry. Are you doing okay? I'm sorry I missed your naming day. Did you at least get your present?"
"Yes. It's very nice," Grim said, nodding vigorously. "How did you know I wanted Secrets of the Shadowtide?"
Duke Selfaeth sighed and leaned back in his chair. He reached for his wine glass and, finding it empty, stood to retrieve more wine from a nearby stand. "I'm ashamed to admit it, but I had to ask Sharis," he said as the wine sloshed into the glass. "That's a rare book, nearly a century out of print, but they say it's still as accurate as any other on the subject. Sharis said you're always asking about the Sendar, and the Ancient Cult of Naxthul, so I thought you'd appreciate it. Turned out Baron Chardran had a copy in his personal library."
"Oh, visiting old flames, are you?" Grim asked.
Duke Selfaeth chuckled and downed his wine in a single gulp, then poured himself another. Grim fought the urge to frown, forcing the smile to remain on his face. "It was nothing like that. We met for dinner, so he could introduce his new wife. Both his first wife and his husband were there, too, so nothing improper happened between us," Duke Selfaeth explained. "When they asked about you, I mentioned your interest in archaeology, and he said he had a few books on the subject. He practically insisted I take it when I said it was one you wanted."
"Thank you, Father," Grim replied. "I've already read it three times. I think I'd like to study archaeology when I attend the University in Madrith. Maybe I could even visit the Baron and talk about ancient history?" He shifted his eyebrows suggestively, and his father rewarded him with another laugh.
"You've never wanted to be a politician, and that's probably a good thing," Duke Selfaeth said. His smile faltered as the words lingered between them like a fog, and he added quietly, almost to himself, "I hope you won't have to be."
Grim's smile disappeared, too, becoming a frown as his father took another gulp of wine. "I hope so, too," Grim said.
"Well, what did you come to talk to me about?" Duke Selfaeth said, returning to his seat and slumping in it, fixing his son with a renewed grin. Grim had the distinct impression the grin was only for his benefit, for the darkness in his father's eyes seemed as deep as ever.
"I want to make a formal request of the Temple of the Mountain," Grim said.
"I'd like to request a training partner," Grim stated.
Duke Selfaeth sipped his wine, too intrigued by this strange request to fully indulge himself. "You completed your training already. You've mastered all the techniques Fedain are allowed to know."
"That's hardly common knowledge," Grim said. "And besides, having a monk around would be good for other reasons. An extra bodyguard, who won't be expected would be great, don't you think?"
"That doesn't explain why you want to make the request of the Temple specifically. We could simply assign you a plainclothes bodyguard from the military," Duke Selfaeth replied. "I'm not going to judge you for the truth, Grim, so just tell me what's going on."
Grim sighed; he'd expected this. "Do you remember nine months ago, when I met that human boy?"
"Oh no . . ." Duke Selfaeth said, laughing. "Still driven by love, I see. So, you'd like to request him specifically? The Order would find that strange, and probably wouldn't honor that request. Tensions are bad enough in this country, I couldn't insist, either, so we'd be out of luck if the order said 'no'."
"I would prefer the official request for a training partner to come from you, but I will personally deliver it to Grandmaster Valkean and request Prism privately. That way, the suggestion of Prism will come from him," Grim said.
"You're gambling on his generosity," Duke Selfaeth replied. "I know the Grandmaster is fond of you, but are you so sure he'd be willing to do that for you? You can't tell him why, either. Any human, at least in Ultaka, would consider what you're asking to be a perversion."
"I believe he will allow it, if we promise not to interfere with Prism's training," Grim replied. "As long as we meet them partway, I think he'll understand if I, say, explain I would prefer someone my own age?"
Duke Selfaeth nodded, accepting the logic. "As a pardon, he'll be expected to return to the Temple for regular training reviews. His life will be much more difficult in terms of what's required of him. Are you sure you want to put him through that?"
"I'm sure he'll be fine with it," Grim replied.
"You're sure, huh? That's no casual certainty, you really are sure," Duke Selfaeth said, his wine glass halfway to his lips. His eyes narrowed as he lowered the glass. "What aren't you telling me?"
Grim gulped. He'd just let slip a crucial piece of information to his too perceptive father. There was no use lying now. "I . . . I met him in the city two months ago, shortly before you left for Madrith."
"You what!?" Duke Selfaeth roared, slamming his hands on the desk as he rose to his feet. The wine glass shattered, sending shards of glass and splatters of wine flying in several directions. "You sneaked out, at night, by yourself, to meet your human lover? And don't tell me you didn't sneak out, because there's no way you met him with an escort. Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"
Grim shrank into his chair, trying in vain to hide from his father's glare. "It wasn't planned."
"You mean he kidnapped you?" Duke Selfaeth asked.
"No, just that the meeting wasn't planned. I . . . I did the sneaking out myself," Grim said. His father's frantic eyes made him want to crawl behind the cushions in the chair and never come back out. "I'm sorry, Father," he whimpered. Though he'd grown accustomed to resisting his father's ire in the past, this was different. He'd truly disappointed his father here, wounded his trust in ways that would take him years to repair. Grim had stressed his already worn out father to the breaking point.
"I don't believe you!" Duke Selfaeth said. He came out from behind the desk, crouching in front of Grim, fearful eyes shedding tears over an angry scowl. "Do you have any idea how dangerous it is out there right now? A riot in Varino two days ago left over four hundred dead and nearly three thousand injured. Of the four hundred, three hundred and twenty-four were Fedain, who died at a party honoring Varino's magistrate."
"I hadn't heard about that," Grim said weakly.
"We've managed to suppress the newscasts so far, but it's not an isolated incident, either," Duke Selfaeth said. "Two weeks ago, two Fedain teens were abducted on their way home from school, tortured, and their corpses left hanging on the school grounds for their peers to find in the morning." He shook his head helplessly. "Those two were commoners, and have nothing to do with the political situation, but not even they were safe. They want to kill us, Grim, even the ones who are trying to make things better."
"All the more reason for me to have extra protection."
Grim regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth. He hadn't meant it the way it sounded, like he was trying to dismiss the tragedy and get what he wanted at the same time. He'd intended to agree with his father, but thoughts of Prism had twisted his words into something manipulative, which delivered a blow straight to Duke Selfaeth's soul.
The Duke straightened, his eyes filled with nothing but bitter disappointment. He sat back in his chair, assuming the perfect posture of the nobleman as he eyed the stem of the broken wine glass still sitting on the edge of the desk. "I'll consider your request," he stated and picked up his pen, wiping tiny shards of glass from the page in front of him before he continued to read through it.
"Father, I really think-" Grim said.
"I don't care what you think, Grimfaeth," Duke Selfaeth said icily. "The world does not revolve around you and your desires. The world is not yours to command and bend to your will. You are not safe. None of us are. You need to take responsibility for your actions, and until you learn that, I can't afford to indulge you."
Grim cried, sobs wracking his entire body as he stared at his father, trying to understand how things had become so bad. "Father, I'm sorry!" he wailed.
Duke Selfaeth suppressed a sob, his pen pausing for just a moment before he said, "I have work to do, Grim. Send in my scribe on your way out."
Grim clutched the letter tightly as the car rumbled up the dirt road toward the temple. Two months had passed since his conversation with his father, until he woke to find the letter slipped under his door.
They hadn't spoken since the incident in his father's study. They'd passed each other in the palace halls a few times and shared one awkward meal together before independently deciding to take meals in their rooms. Grim rarely saw Veil, either, as she always attended their father, fulfilling whatever stately duties were required of the Duke and heir.
The tension in his household never seemed to completely go away, though it had dulled. Grim spent all his time in his rooms. His father would have extra security specifically tasked with keeping him inside the palace.
But the letter changed things, albeit slightly. It wasn't Duke Selfaeth's endorsement of Grim's activities, but at least the Duke would allow Grim his chance to help Prism. The Duke had a heart after all.
"Are you going to tell me what this is about, Lord Grim?" Sharis asked, glancing over from the opposite side of the vehicle. His father's conditions required Sharis to attend him everywhere outside the palace, one of the many reasons Grim had chosen to remain indoors.
Grim met Sharis' eyes for just a moment before looking back out the window. "No."
"Okay . . ." Sharis said, drumming his fingers nervously on the door. He exhaled slowly and suggested, "Let's work on your language studies, then."
Grim shook his head. "No."
"Lord Grim, you need to study," Sharis replied. "We shouldn't waste time."
Grim sighed, closing his eyes, wishing cutting off sight would also cut off sound. "I'm too anxious to study. It wouldn't do any good."
"Perhaps some meditation exercises then?" Sharis suggested.
Grim stifled a groan. Sharis wasn't going to remain silent, no matter how many times Grim refused to engage him in conversation. With no hope of silence, a more aggressive approach was in order. "I'm a little surprised you're so willing to talk," Grim said, "You're not particularly fond of the Order of the Mountain."
"As a Priest of the Blood, we certainly have differences of opinion, but not so many as to make us enemies," Sharis said. "The Order does plenty of good in the world."
"Oh, in that case, the reason we're going to the Temple is so I can join them," Grim said, making his face as serious as possible to sell the lie. "This is my father's letter of introduction. It took me awhile to convince him, but since this is what I really want, he couldn't say no."
Sharis balked at Grim's declaration. "What? Have you lost your mind? When did you make this decision?"
"I didn't, but I had to call your bluff," Grim replied testily. "You'd never forgive me for joining the Order. As a human order, you wouldn't consider it proper for a Fedain to join their ranks."
"I respect your personal decisions, Lord Grim," Sharis said, sighing in relief, "But Fedain are supposed to be pacifists, and the Order is violent by nature."
"Yet you're content to be surrounded by soldiers for our protection," Grim said, gesturing to the driver and the woman riding alongside him, both Ultakan soldiers. The soldiers ignored his comment, though they certainly heard it. Not for the first time in his life, Grim wondered what the human military thought about serving the Fedain nobility. Were they really content to serve the Fedain just because the Fedain healed their wounds and sicknesses for free?
"It's necessary, Lord Grim," Sharis said.
Grim sighed and returned to the window. "No. It isn't."
"Your father thinks it is."
"Does he?" Grim asked, fixing Sharis with an incredulous glare. "You think you know what my father thinks? I certainly don't. Veil doesn't know, either."
Sharis' blanched at Grim's annoyed tone. "You can at least be assured your father has your best interests at heart."
Grim became conscious again of the paper between his fingers, a carefully constructed letter Grim had read and reread a dozen times so far. It was everything Grim had asked for, a formal request for a training partner from the Temple. But why had it taken his father so long to give it to him?
"Maybe he does," Grim whispered. "But how can I be sure?"
The gates of the Temple wall opened before them a short time later, and Grim stepped out of their vehicle to find Grandmaster Valkean standing there to greet him. A large crowd of initiates training in the eastern yards drew Grim's eye for only a moment. He'd never seen the grounds so full of new recruits, another surprise for the day.
"Good morning, Grim," Valkean said, bowing respectfully to Grim.
Grim made sure to bow much lower to the monk. "Grandmaster Valkean. I'd not expected you to greet me."
Valkean smiled and said, "Your father contacted us a half-hour ago to let us know you'd be coming. While I could've sent a representative, I was under the impression you were here on official business."
"That's correct," Grim said, brandishing the letter in his hand. "I'd like to meet with you in private, if that's all right?"
"Certainly. Come with me," Valkean said, gesturing toward the Temple.
Grim fell into step beside the master but had only gone a few steps when Sharis frantically shouted after him. "Lord Grim!" Grim turned a dark look on him. The tutor continued in a subdued tone, "Do you have need of my counsel?"
"No," Grim said, chuckling. He glanced at Valkean who wore a small smile. "Stay here, Sharis. I'm safe here."
Valkean led Grim through the initiate quarters on the bottom floor, to the stairs at the back. They ascended all the way past the Masters' quarters and the Grandmasters' Office, stopping only when they reached the top floor. Above everything else in the Temple grounds, the meditation balcony held the most marvelous view of Kobinaru and the surrounding countryside. In the far distance, the Dorram stretched endlessly toward the Northern and Eastern horizons.
Grim appreciated the view, waiting for the Grandmaster to speak, out of deference to his station. Valkean let the silence linger for several minutes before breaking it. "You've had a disagreement with your tutor?" he asked.
"I have disagreements with most members of my race these days," Grim admitted. "Everyone but Veil."
"Your father's voice troubled me when I spoke to him," Valkean said, declining to comment on Grim's explanation. "He's under a great deal of stress."
"My father feels I'm being irresponsible," Grim said bitterly.
Valkean turned to Grim, putting his back to the railing separating him from the long drop to the Temple grounds below. "Yet he sent you on official business. May I know the nature of your visit?"
"It's official, yet personal." Grim handed the letter to Valkean and explained, "This is the official request, from my father."
"I see," Valkean said, taking the letter and unfolding it. He read through it, his face expressionless as he considered its contents, then refolded it. "And the personal request?"
"I'd like to select Prism as my training partner," Grim replied, bowing after the words left his mouth, hoping the show of respect would increase his chances.
"He's a pardon, not yet at his full year," Valkean observed. "Normally I would not be able to consider this until after his year is up. Why should I bend the rules for you?"
Grim looked up hopefully. "You'd have an official representative at the Kobinaru court."
"We have seats on the council, and Prism would hardly qualify as an official representative. He's not even a Junior Master," Valkean said. "Is there another reason?"
Grim sucked in his breath. This would be more difficult than he'd anticipated. "You'd have a personal favor from me?" He asked.
"Favors are like bribes, distasteful when used to manipulate," Valkean said, his eyes narrowing.
Grim sighed, risking the most honest answer, and only one he had left. "You'd make me happy?"
"You're in love with him, aren't you?" Valkean replied, a sly smile creasing his face. "That Fedain biology worked against you from the first time you laid eyes on him."
"Your legendary perception never ceases to amaze me," Grim replied, matching Valkean's smile. Concealing anything from the Grandmaster would only lead to distrust, and so he admitted to everything. "It goes beyond biology now. Initially, lust compelled me. I pulled him out into that parade as a mating dance, looking for any excuse to keep him in full proximity, but by the end I saw him differently. I wanted his mind, his story, his experience. Since nothing escapes your notice here, I'm sure you know he sneaked into Kobinaru four months ago."
"And he met with you," Valkean said, nodding. "Master Vinh suspected as much, but Prism never admitted to it. If he had, Master Vinh would've been lenient."
Grim's smile fell, and his pleading eyes locked with Valkean's. "I love him, Grandmaster. I don't want him to be alone."
Valkean sighed, turning back to the view. He spoke softly, but each word carried weight as if carefully selected. "Prism is a complicated boy. Sixteen, like you, and approaching full manhood at a rapid pace. Right now, he wants to be a monk, but he also wants something different. He wants a life full of adventure and meaning. Monks can have that, certainly, but I don't think it would fulfill him." He sighed and stared at the letter, then turned back to Grim, nodding resolutely. "I'll submit your official request before the council, and I will advise the council that a boy your age and comparable size would make the most appropriate choice. Prism would be the only logical conclusion."
"Thank you, Grandmaster," Grim said, bowing low.
"It may not work out the way you hope," Valkean warned. "Your request will be subjected to the will of the Masters. Not all will see wisdom in this, especially as I certainly cannot petition them on grounds of true love." He chuckled wryly and rolled his eyes, a peculiar act for the normally reserved monk. "The reason most of these men became monks was to escape what they considered perverse attractions. If they knew the purpose of your request, it would work against you."
"I knew that. It's why I came to you," Grim said.
Valkean's eyebrows raised, but he regarded Grim with nothing but amused curiosity. "Oh? You knew I held no such self-loathing?"
"During my training here, I once asked you why you became a monk," Grim said. "You told me you considered the enlightenment of one's true self the only cause worth pursuing with all your energy. For you, that meant being a monk, because serving the people and achieving self-discipline and physical health had filled you the same way sexual desire filled most boys. You were born to be a monk. Because of that lesson, I've always felt I could trust you with my true self, because I knew you respect the individual."
"A mountain is built of smaller mountains," Valkean said thoughtfully. "We are strong by supporting each other. We all rise together, or we all fall together." He shook his head and went on, "It is no use to criticize a boulder for being a boulder, nor a tree for being a tree. Both can be a home for those who accept their positive qualities instead of focusing on the obstacles they may represent."
Grim sighed. "I wish more people understood that."
"If you met Prism again four months ago, why are you only coming to me now?" Valkean asked. "If you waited this long, you might as well have waited another month for Prism's first year to arrive, then he could've met you at his leisure. I suppose you needed a reason for him to enter the palace, but why wait so long?"
"I came as soon as I could," Grim replied, his smile tightening. "My Father didn't give me official permission until this morning."
Valkean considered that statement for a moment, then moved toward the steps leading to the level below them. "Come with me, Grim."
Grim followed, letting Valkean lead him into his office, where he put Grim's letter on his desk, then stooped to open a locked chest on the other side of the room. He fished through the contents for a moment until returning with another letter.
"Your father is not an obstacle to overcome, Grim. He sent me a letter two months ago, telling me you might arrive and request Prism as a personal training partner. He included an official letter of request to present to the council should you arrive," Valkean explained, handing the letter to Grim. "He knows you better than you think," he added with a smile. "I've kept the first letter safe in case you arrived, but I think you can have it now. A token of your father's love, even if he did hope you'd learn a little responsibility in the meantime."
Grim stared at the letter in his hand, trying to comprehend the scope of his father's action, but couldn't wrap his head around it. "Why is it so difficult to communicate with him? Why can't I understand him?"
"Why's are easy to answer, if you're honest with yourself," Valkean said. "I suggest you return to the palace. I'll convene the Masters as soon as possible, but this matter may not be resolved immediately."
Grim bowed again, his lowest of the day. "Thank you, Grandmaster Valkean."
Valkean returned the bow, bending just as far as Grim. Respect filled his eyes when he straightened and addressed Grim again. "Lord Grim, today you proved yourself worthy of your station. Learn from your father. He can teach you things you don't know about yourself."
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