Lin’arik still held her sword. She pulled his heavier sword out of the floor and held it out to him. For a long moment, they faced each other, her hand under his on his sword, and his under hers on her sword. A strange electric tingle went through her before he let go. She stepped back holding her own sword. She felt frozen. How did the Forge room get so cold so fast?
“Shall we go and get rid of this blood?” Lin’arik asked her.
“What just happened?” she said back.
He glanced at the bloodstained wall. The prisoners had also vanished. “A chance for me to speak with my brother. I had to know he did this by choice, not some misguided sense of loyalty, or pressure from The Order.”
Jezren looked away from him. “And? Did he give his life by choice?” Could she live with it if Din’arik had been ordered to save her? Punishment for taking a student as a lover?
“I think, Jez, you know the answer to that.”
Jezren drew in a dissatisfied breath. She hated that answer. It always implied that the person asking already knew the answer, but was too stupid to see it–hell, why would a person ask in the first place if they already possessed the answer?
“The blood then,” she said.
He nodded and led the way to the shower rooms. Earth remained one of the few worlds that separated male and female. None of the order halls did. Already nude, it didn’t matter much anyway. She stood under the showerhead with Lin’arik across the drain gutter doing the same. He kept his eyes locked on her, his gaze moving up and down her body–making her want the segregation of male and female faculties of her home world. Had Din’arik told him about her stupidity from the night before? Or was he only curious what his brother had seen in a human, with a body that looked nothing like their own kind?
She sudsed her body, cringing when the soap got in the wounds on her shoulder the ones on her hands. Lin’arik stood behind her. His hands rubbing soap onto her back. She stepped away from him, turned, and glared. He tilted his head toward her in a gesture of puzzlement. Human’s also had this thing about washing themselves.
Turning, she let him rub soap onto her back. His talons lightly brushed her–his hands strong yet as gentle as Din’arik’s had been. Her muscles began to relax–her mind taking her to Din’arik and this same room. Students had filled it, laughing, casting glances at each other–other races, they had never seen unclothed. The instructors had come in, and the room went silent. Din’arik, who only a short time before had announced she was ready for her final test, had picked up a bottle of soap and started washing her as his brother did now.
Others did the same with each other, talking–friends, and the concept of this world’s modesty. People washed each other, what was wrong with that? One of the human instructors had scolded her, told her Din’arik shouldn’t be touching her. He showed too much interest in her. Jezren denied it. Mouthed off to the instructor, telling him that if they intended to fight on other worlds, they needed to accept other cultures. Acceptance, he’d said, was one thing, getting turned on by an alien was another. Jezren denied anything more than acceptance of alien ways.
But the instructor had been right. Din’arik’s touch did excite her.
She moved away from Lin’arik, almost slipping on the wet tiles. “Lin’arik, thank you, but I don’t think touching is a good idea. You look far too much like your brother.”
He studied her with his purple eyes intent on her face. “The point of coming here a year after is to celebrate what was good about the person. To reflect on their life and their choice.”
“He shouldn’t have given his life for me,” she said. The water ran over her, washing away blood and soap. She wished it could have carried away her guilt, her sorrow.
“Any man worth his manhood would give his life for the woman he loved. I could not respect any man if he chose otherwise. A man does not simply claim love of a woman to have use of her body–and to make a woman his wife, an outsider . . . that, Jez, is not simple lust.”
Jezren turned off the water and stood with her back turned to him. He sounded like Din’arik as well–his voice, his words, his unwavering sense of right and wrong. She pulled a towel off a rack near the benches along one wall and wrapped herself in it. Sitting on the slatted wood of the nearest seat, she pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes.
“I made a stupid mistake. It should have cost me, not him.” If only she could pull back the taunts and the threats. Realized the idiot thief and his ragbag partner were really warriors. Ignored the slurs they spat at her over Din’arik. She could let anything slide off her–always did, but that night, the words about him being a demon–words about her being the devil’s slut, had set her off.
“In hindsight, everything we choose could be viewed as stupid, unless, of course, it turns out to be exactly what we wanted.” When he brushed a clump of wet hair away from her face, she didn’t flinch back from him. “And I think, Jez, it has hurt you more than enough. Time to let the hurt go.”
“I miss him.” An understatement. No words could express how she felt about his being gone. The lingering touch of his soul made it worse–emphasized the reality that she could never touch him again, never sit speaking to him as she now did with his brother.
Lin’arik pulled her against him in a quick movement. His strong arms went around her, and one of his wings tilted toward her, protection, intimacy, a host of things she recognized but didn’t pull back from. He put his bald head against her hair. His breath brushed across her ear, his voice whisper soft, filled with desire, touched her soul.
“Perhaps this night, you could close your eyes and be with me . . . be with Din’arik. I wouldn’t mind.”
Jezren clung to him. Temptation made her nerves sing. She’d let the blue-man tempt her on much less than Lin’arik offered her. His offer would let her shut her eyes and truly touch Din’arik–in the dark, there would be little to tell them apart. She didn’t doubt his brother would be much the same sort of lover.