Paths of Desire: Part Three
I am crossing the bridges of sorrow
Empty with yearning and full of tomorrow
The river is high and the bridges are burning
I know I've been hurt but I keep on returning
In your eyes all of the promises
All the lies
Will you keep all the promises
In your eyes
-- October Project
Spring came early to the gentle slopes of South Valendia, warming the long grass as it rustled in breezes from the glittering sea. Far from the North country, it might as well have been a different world, a gentler place than the harsh mountains. In such a place magic had flourished before the days of Saint Iocus. The hillsides had played host to many a country festival, rich with color and fire and music. It was in one of those festivals, the legend went, that the priestess Müllenkamp had danced from dusk to dawn inside a blazing bonfire, not even the edges of her veils singed by the flame. The hallowed hilltop was where the foundations of her temple were laid, and Leá Monde blossomed around it.
Sydney slept through most of it. His cloak over his head, he was dozing in the saddle, leaning back against Ashley for support as Orpheus cantered familiarly down the old sunken road to the ruined city. Ashley didn't begrudge him the rest, knowing the journey tonight would be hard on Sydney. It would be best if he were well rested before facing the shadow of another life.
The road curved downwards toward the sea and Ashley urged Orpheus in the other direction, to the forest on the far side of the city. Had he been alone, Ashley would simply have teleported from the first magic circle inside the wine cellars, but since he had a passenger and the vast labyrinth of sanctum and catacombs were blocked from Leá Monde's last, final quake, there was only one logical entrance to the city. Well, logical for Ashley. Anyone not traveling with the Heir to the Dark might have had a bit of trouble finding his way through the Snowfly Forest.
He would have to leave Orpheus here to wait before long, but the entrance to the forest began with shady broad paths that afforded plenty of room for the gelding. Their passage dislodged a small shower from an aspen tree still wet with last night's rain, and Sydney stirred sleepily.
"Good morning." Ashley let Orpheus examine a bunch of clover that interested him. "How are you feeling?"
"Sore," Sydney mumbled, pulling his cloak off his head. It made his hair stick up. "My arse is never going to forgive me for this."
Ashley chuckled, but managed to smooth it over at Sydney's pained look. "Forgive me. I forget you aren't used to horseback."
"Have we stopped?" Sydney blinked around the small glen of misty trees.
"The path becomes difficult ahead, even for Orpheus. We'll leave him here and continue on foot."
"Thank God." Sydney groaned, swinging one leg over the horse's head and sliding awkwardly to the ground. "Nothing personal, Orpheus."
The horse wurfled understandingly at Sydney's backside before returning to the much more interesting patch of tasty grass by the aspen tree's roots.
Sydney frowned suddenly, and set off determinedly for the far side of the glen.
"Hey, where are you going?" Ashley dismounted with much more grace, and caught Sydney's arm. "It's dangerous here, you know."
Sydney jerked his elbow out of Ashley's hand. "I'd like to find a private bush, if you don't mind."
Ashley blinked. "Er... oh. Well, Don't go far, all right?"
Sydney muttered something that sounded suspiciously like "yes mother," before rustling into a stand of young saplings.
He'll be safe.
Ashley turned around. "I wondered where you were."
Where else would I be but here? The soft grass did not stir under crimson boots, and though the clear blue eyes Ashley could easily see the sky. The only snowflies Ashley had seen in the forest fluttered blissfully around the edges of Grissom's presence, drawn to the Dark as other moths were to flame. I wondered when you would bring him here.
Ashley glanced back at the trees. "You knew he existed?"
Of course. I am dead, you know. The phantom smiled. I envy him.
Ashley frowned. "You do?"
Naturally. But I have penance to serve, and it will be some time before I am reborn. Grissom tilted his head to the green canopy of trees, his face thoughtful. It is not an interminable sentence I face. Besides, he looked back at the former Riskbreaker, transparent eyes narrowing. I provide you a service here, do I not?
"No one has entered, have they?" Ashley asked. From the underbrush was the sound of Sydney swearing at his lacings.
Grissom shook his head, blond hair catching light from a source that was not there. None. All have been confused, and turned back toward the lands of men.
"I really hope that wasn't itchweed," Sydney muttered, stomping back into the clearing. He stopped short, less than a foot away from where Grissom stood, watching him curiously.
Remarkable, how much he looks the same. You noticed it immediately, did you not?
"Who's there?" Sydney stretched out his hand, eyes flickering around the oddly still forest. He glanced at Ashley for confirmation, eyebrows lowered in intense concentration. "There's someone here, isn't there?" His fingers fluttered just over the transparent rose emblem on Grissom's collar.
"Do you see anyone?" Ashley queried, unsure how much of the Dark remained in Sydney's blood.
He can no more see me than any other mortal can. Grissom held up gloved hands, framing Sydney's face. A pity. It grows lonely in these woods.
Sydney had gone still. Were it not for the rapid motion of his irises, Ashley could swear that the boy and the ghost of the Crimson Knight were looking directly at each other.
"Who's there?" Sydney whispered again, and this time he almost touched Grissom's hair, a moment of understanding moving across his face like the sunlight through leaves. "Why are you sad?"
Grissom pulled away as if burned. I neglect my duties. He bowed, hastily, to Ashley. Call me if you are in need of me. And he was gone, like smoke blown away in the breeze. Somewhere a bird began singing, and the wind came back to the trees.
Sydney hugged himself, shivering. He looked around the clearing as if seeing it for the first time. "What happened in this place?"
Ashley shrugged. "A man died twice."
Sydney stared at the blowing bluebells and the aspen leaves moaning as if in mourning. He crossed his arms tightly, as though warding a chill. "Let's move on, then."
The Snowfly Forest boasted few of the tiny white moths that gave it its name, most of the insects having flown elsewhere once the wellspring of Leá Monde had been drained dry. The paths, however, were as tangled as they had ever been, and Sydney's step was none too sure. He followed doggedly in Ashley's footsteps, uncomplaining, but at the river he stopped short.
"I can't." he said flatly, staring at the rushing grey water. "I'll fall." Sydney had not questioned where they were going, and in his tone there was no self-recrimination or fear, only honesty.
Ashley frowned at the bits of pillar in the river; the closest thing there was to a bridge. Across the chasm was a set of stone steps leading into the city proper, their goal. Sydney was not lying; it was a leap to challenge even a Riskbreaker, as Ashley well remembered. "I'll carry you."
Sydney looked affronted. "Are you mad? You could barely make it alone, much less burdened with me."
Ashley held out his hand. "I can carry us both. You have to trust me."
Sydney considered the water for a long moment, and finally slid his cold hand into Ashley's palm. "I still think you're mad."
Ashley wrapped his arms tightly around Sydney's slight frame, and smiled into the soft pale hair. "I never said otherwise."
The world blurred, there was a tremor of motion in his stomach, and they were standing on the other side.
Sydney lifted his head, blinking astonishment. "What did you do?"
"Quicken." Ashley sounded vaguely smug. "Only good for short distances, but..." He trailed off, as Sydney's cold hands moved up his spine. He had yet to let him go.
"Your skin is warm," Sydney murmured, into Ashley's shoulder. His deft hands found their way beneath Ashley's jerkin, and spread long-fingered and cool over the hidden mark on Ashley's back.
"Do you..." Ashley swallowed. "Are you cold?"
"Mmm." A warm mouth opened and closed over Ashley's throat, and Sydney pressed closer, kisses moving up Ashley's jaw. "Are you offering to warm me up?" One fingertip blindly traced the center line of the rood tattoo.
Ashley shivered. It would be so easy, in the soft damp grass by the river's edge, to press that slender body down to the earth. No small temptation, these days of traveling together, of sleeping side by side by the roadside and in inns, of knowing what Sydney needed. Of knowing how long it had been since he'd felt the arch and shudder of another body in his arms. Sydney's mouth was on his now, and chilled as his hands might be, there was only heat to be found between his lips. But there was a way of doing things, no matter how needy the motion of hips against his.
"Distracted." Sydney pulled away with a noise of disappointment, whirling out of Ashley's embrace with a dancer's grace. "All right. We'll get on with your wild hare-hunt, but just so you know," Sydney gestured over his shoulder with one elegant hand. "I get what I want, Riskbreaker."
Ashley shook himself. "What was that?"
Sydney frowned. He was more interested in the runes carved on the stone steps. "I said, I get what I want."
"No. What did you call me?"
Sydney flecked lichen off the worn stone. "Well I said—-" He blinked. "What is a Riskbreaker?"
Ashley squared his shoulders. Just as well he'd held off. At the rate Sydney was going, he wouldn't have long to wait.
"I know where we are."
"Naturally." Ashley pointed to the worn, but still legible street sign. "Rue Bouquet."
"No." Sydney missed the humor entirely, his impatient gesture summing up the street and the empty buildings, the cloudless sky. "I know where we are. This is Leá Monde, isn't it?"
Ashley peered thoughtfully down the street. "It once was. How did you know?"
"The runes." Sydney traced his fingers over the faded carvings. "My grandmother, before she died, told stories of a city built of magic, with incantations scribed into every bit of masonry. "
"They're spellsongs." And Ashley, in his words, heard the echo of another's. You'll likely find them on every den and dovecote in the city.
"I've been here before, haven't I?" Sydney stood up slowly, looking at Ashley and the ruined city as if seeing them for the first time. "Something happened here, with you, and me, and that's why you've brought me here."
Ashley nodded. "You insight has sharpened in your time here." He paused, thoughtfully, as Sydney ran his hands over the walls. Ashley wondered if some of the power was left latent still the streets, or in Sydney.
"Where do we go from here?" Sydney, if he heard Ashley's comment, dismissed it. "Where are you taking me?"
Ashley lifted his arm and pointed to the crumbling spire, visible in the distance. "There. To the great cathedral."
Sydney went still, staring at the shadow the ruined dome made against the sky. "There." he echoed, his voice a whisper. "Yes, there. Of course it would be."
"You recognize it?"
Sydney began walking, his footing sure on the buckled cobblestones. "I've had dreams all my life, Ashley Riot. And you were not the only thing in them."
The cathedral had changed little in the years since Ashley had last been here. More grass had found its way through the cracks in the paving stones, where sunlight afforded it a place to grow. Herbs and ivy ran wild over the exterior walls, but inside it was as cool and shadowy as he remembered, and the ripple of the Dark told him that this place was not, nor would it likely ever be, completely silent.
Sydney had stopped speaking several streets ago. He'd not needed leading since well before then, moving easily through the ruined streets and scowling at the inoperative cloudstones that Ashley coaxed into motion. Sydney no longer needed a guide; he walked Leá Monde as if he'd known her twisting alleys his entire life.
Ashley had taken to keeping a few paces behind him, watching the rise and fall of his quickening breath, the way he would stop and touch the walls, or murmur to the sky. He'd spent a long time in that last chamber of the Temple, where Kali had danced. In the Cathedral, too, he'd stood so long under a patch of sunlight in the ave that Ashley began to grow concerned. Ashley had no sooner reached out than Sydney whirled away, and his shadow swirled around his legs like a ripple of dark fabric; the white daylight struck his arms and made the black silk shine like edged steel.
"Here." Sydney's first words in nearly two hours, spoken as he knelt on the mosaiced floor. His fingers moved over the tiny ceramic tiles as if counting them, tracing the lines that intersected on the floor like some simplified map of the world. "It happened here."
Ashley, who had been fighting to keep the line between reality and memory clear, found it hard to speak. "Here."
Sydney looked up at the dome, where the afternoon sun made long gold stripes across the circular room. There was little enough left of the dome proper. "I went no further than this."
Ashley shook his head. "No. I went on for you."
Sydney stood, his eyes following the pattern on the floor to the dark stain on the pale stones, faded but still visible. "That... that was me." He tilted his head, as if listening. "But I did not die here."
"Not quite." Ashley stepped from the plain stones onto the rood design, and the Dark hummed quietly in his veins as though he had crossed some invisible boundary. His fingers ached to touch Sydney, to confirm the truth of him standing there, but he dared not, watching as Sydney paced slowly around the bloodstain.
"The city had to be destroyed." Sydney knelt where Ashley once had, and it was as if there was a double image of him, one with blade tipped fingers and blood on his lips, struggling to rise, the other whole, desperate to recall.
Sydney was still for a long moment, and when he rose it was in one fluid motion, his cool eyes blazing. "For my Father's sake." Sydney was only walking, but to Ashley it was as if he was part of some elaborate dance, moving in a slow spiral to where Ashley stood, at the intersection of the Rood. "For my own sake." Sydney trailed his fingers over Ashley's chest, frowning at the rood as he circled him. "I was tired. I wanted to sleep. I had hoped to end it differently, Riskbreaker. It was not as I had planned." He passed by Ashley again, and this time Ashley realized that with each circle, quick hands fluttered against his clothing, opening one button at a time until his vest hung open, his shirt pulled free of his belt. The air of the high tower was cool as his shirt was pushed up, Sydney stilling to a halt behind him. He said nothing, hands moving down Ashley's back.
"Your gift." Ashley said, trying not to shiver as he felt Sydney's eyes sweep over the mark. "You understand now, don't you?"
Sydney pulled away, a final half-circle in his dance. One long-fingered hand slipped between fabric and Ashley's skin, pressed flat to Ashley's heart. Sydney was close enough for Ashley to see the three shades of blue that made up his eyes, could feel the soft motion of Sydney's breath against his own lips.
"Ashley Riot." Sydney breathed, and the ghost of one day in this city was made as real as the hands circling his waist, as immediate as the mouth brushing his. "My chosen one."
Memory exploded behind Ashley's closed eyes, the Dark unfurling like a banner with another Sydney's life. A precious sickly child with a burden that spared him, of a father's choice, of a price willingly paid, of one man carefully watched, carefully chosen, of the terrible flaw in a perfect plan, of not recognizing the necessary bond, of love like no pale-tongued court minstrel could even imagine, of magic, rich and dark and heady, found warm in Ashley's mouth as Sydney kissed him now, in this moment. Ashley's mind spun with Sydney's revelation, and it occurred to him that he might never understand the ways the Dark worked, to still be struck so with wonder as any mortal man might be.
It was, Ashley considered, as knowing hands outlined the mark between his shoulders, a blessing for which he was grateful.
For all Sydney's talk of words there were none between them, as skin was exposed to sunlight and Sydney's unmarked back was pressed to the smooth cool emblem of the rood, his hair spilling like a corona, just touching the edges of the russet stain of his own heart's blood. His eyes were open to the unroofed sky and reflected blue like blood still in the vein, hidden and rich. It made perfect sense, Ashley would think, later, when he could say his mind was his own, that Sydney should feel and want and respond to the mark of the Dark on Ashley's back. To have Ashley's body in his own was as close as he could come to again wearing that emblem between his shoulder blades, to feel the pulse of magic inside his own skin. But he would remember then those eyes sliding closed in pleasure and not in death, the tears dampening cold marble and it was not for the Dark that Sydney cried out, any more that it was some supernatural prompting that made Ashley yield and flow into Sydney's straining body. Sydney spoke no words of magic, only Ashley's name.
A simple thing, Ashley's mind told itself. The act is simplicity itself, a common motion of body into body and heat into welcoming heat, a pleasure of simple friction. His world broke open and spilled, and the foundations of Leá Monde trembled again with the movement of geologic plate against faultline, and the city trembled. Simple friction.
And the spell was complete.
"I'm mortal, aren't I?"
It hadn't been much of a fall, more of a slip, and after what Sydney had just been through Ashley wasn't surprised that his footing was unsure. His own hands were shaking as he willed the Dark out of his fingertips, but that might have had more to do with the scare Sydney had given him when he fell than with their lovemaking. "Yes."
Sydney frowned, watching as Ashley passed his hand over the deep gouge the broken flooring had made in his thigh, the wound closing in the wake of his touch. "Then I can die."
Ashley's mouth went tight, and he concentrated on sliding Sydney's boot top back up where it belonged. "Not if I can help it."
Sydney blew at his hair impatiently. "You can't keep me alive forever. I will age."
"I know," Ashley murmured, smoothing the tear in Sydney's trousers.
"You'll find me again, won't you?" Sydney's hand slipped into Ashley's hair, the touch full of promises, of memory. "My Riskbreaker?" A smile was hovering in the corners of Sydney's mouth, and they were tangled fiercely together again, Ashley pressing his face to Sydney's throat, his lips on Sydney's pulse.
"I will find you." He breathed, crushing Sydney to him. "I will always find you."
Sydney exhaled into Ashley's hair. "You damn well better. You don't want me to come looking for you."
Ashley pulled away, arching an eyebrow. "Are you threatening me?"
Sydney wound pale hands around Ashley's neck, the dangerous smile narrowing his eyes. "It wouldn't be the first time, Ashley Riot. Or the last."
Sunset was staining the mist pink when Orpheus emerged from the Snowfly Forest. He had sniffed suspiciously at Sydney before letting him mount, as though one man had left and another had come back.
"Now where?" Sydney asked, as the fireflies began to rise in slow, blinking waves from the long grass by the roadside.
Ashley shrugged. "I've not a plan in mind. Where do you want to go?"
Sydney tilted his head to the sunset, the light making his pale hair shine gold. "That way?" he pointed along the southern coast road, the opposite direction from where they'd come. "I've never been to Valnain. And-—" he lowered his arm, leaning back against Ashley. "The Graylands lie between here and the capital, don't they? I'd like to see my brother."
Ashley urged Orpheus to the coast road, where the horse broke into a canter, grateful for open highway once more.
Sydney shrugged. "Whatever I want. After all, you've already had twenty years to yourself... don't you think it's my turn?"
Ashley laughed, kicking Orpheus up to a half-gallop, and the spires of Leá Monde soon vanished into the twilight behind them.
"Tell me again why you dragged me to this."
"Because my defendant didn't need the tickets, what with that whole sex scandal problem." Grissom lifted two glasses of champagne from a passing tray, and gave one to his reluctant date. "He didn't think public appearances were a good idea."
Ashley made a face at his glass. "This stuff is terrible."
"For the love of God, Riot, are you totally socially inept? I'd have thought you were more used to these functions, with all the museum work you do these days. Just drink it and smile. Ah! Mrs. LeSait! So nice to see you!" Grissom leaned back to Ashley. "Besides, I hear the violinist they've got is really something."
Ashley quietly poured his champagne into a nearby potted plant. "I know nothing about classical music, Grissom, except that I was around when most of it was written. And I hate wearing a tux."
"Obviously," Grissom said through his teeth, smiling at someone across the room. "You look like you're at a funeral. As the corpse. And from what you've told me, I should have rights to that."
"I should never have told you who you were." Ashley folded his arms, eyeing the passing array of sequined evening gowns. "You've given me nothing but hell over it ever since. It was six hundred years ago, Grissom."
The reincarnated Crimson Knight smiled innocently over his champagne glass in a way to make juries swoon. "Yes, and I'm not through with you yet. Besides, who would you sleep with while you wait for your darling prince to come?"
Ashley was really going to really let Grissom have it for that, six centuries having done nothing to make the man less obnoxious. Ashley had no sooner opened his mouth than the lights dimmed to clear the lobby.
"You can berate me later," Grissom said, tapping Ashley in the chest as they went upstairs. "But if you want me to go to that hockey game with you next week, even though gods know I'd much rather go to the ballet, then you're going to sit though this politely. And no rude comments about the composer."
Ashley snorted. "It's not my fault I happened to have a room above that opera writer two hundred years ago. And he did have lousy friends, and he still owes me 200 valins."
"You're not likely to get them back now," Grissom said, settling into his seat in the box. "As if you need them."
"It's the principle of the thing," Ashley began, but Grissom was ignoring him, polishing the lenses on his opera glasses.
"What?" Ashley sat up, blinking around the darkened box. "Did you-—"
"Honestly, Riot. It's about to start." Grissom was right; a smattering of applause became a full ripple of sound as the curtain rose.
God, I hope the critics don't tear me limb from limb.
"He's awfully young, isn't he?" Grissom lowered his glasses only to have the small binoculars snatched from his hands.
"Give me those," Ashley said belatedly, leaning over the edge of the box.
If Montego plays over my credenza again I'll slaughter him.
"This isn't a hockey game, Riot, sit down."
Ashley ignored him, trying to focus on the young man striding across the stage, violin in hand.
You're no knight, are you?
The violinist stumbled, just barely, and tilted his face to the sea of people in the concert hall. The Dark stirred with one chord of confusion, stronger than any of the flat presences filling the concert hall, drowning out even Grissom's unique signal.
What the hell was that? Biggest concert of my life, and I'm hearing voices...
"What's the performer's name, Grissom?" Ashley gave up on the opera glasses and tossed them in Grissom's lap, drawing on the Dark to get a better image of the young man's face. The noise of the crowd dimmed, he heard Grissom fumbling in his program.
"Damnable concert programs, they never list the—-" he stopped, and Ashley, focusing on the Dark, felt rather than heard Grissom's surprise. "It's not, is it? Riot?"
The violinist did not introduce himself, lifting his instrument to his chin before he'd quite made it to the podium, the first notes of the sonata floating ghostly and thin over the hushed audience. He moved, playing, to the front of the stage, body arching to the music, as if in his own dance.
A city, a memory, images borne on the music. Ashley was not the only one ensorcelled, the audience listened with rapt faces, some strange magic of strings and fingers and the resistance between the two drawing them in, and the Dark hummed harmony in Ashley's veins.
It's never felt like this...
Ashley smiled, his eyes on the violinist, his mind filled with music. Oh yes it has, Sydney. You just don't remember.
He didn't miss a note. If anything, the music became sweeter, edged with sorrow like steel-sharp fingertips. The audience was weeping; the critic from the Times had forgotten the pencil in her hand.
Who are you?
Notes shifted though the air like sunlight over stained glass and old stone, nostalgic and sad, a memory of places and hearts loved and lost. The orchestra playing behind was a forgotten thing, merely window dressing.
Play for me, Sydney.
It's you, isn't it?
The music changed from grief to joy so fast that the audience had no time to be shocked, the movement as simple and in retrospect as obvious as a bird vaulting into flight. Ashley had already left the box, was moving down the stairs. Grissom didn't try to stop him; he just shook his head and settled back in his seat. Ah well, he probably wasn't obligated to that hockey game anymore, and maybe his secretary would finally agree to let him take her out to dinner. He wondered if Sam liked ballet.
The stagehands did not question Ashley as he walked though restricted areas, the Dark shielding him with illusion. Ashley found the dressing room easily enough, little more than a closet with a hastily markered name scribbled on printer-paper and taped to the door. The lock yielded to his hand at a murmured word.
There was only one bouquet of flowers, from the concert sponsor. Battered suitcase, open violin case, and scattered sheet music with familiar scrawl in the margins. The mirror, less than half an hour ago, had held Sydney's reflection in it. Ashley put one hand to the cool glass, and spun time backwards inside it. He watched the violinist arriving, irritated at the badly planned transportation from the airport, his hair in disarray and wet with rain. Sydney flung off his shirt and headed to the shower, and in the glass his back was reflected, emblazoned with a right side up rood in the thin, delicate lines of tattoo. Ashley took his hand away, and the past faded, leaving only his own face in the mirror, the same as it had been for centuries. He pulled the still-damp towel from the only chair in the room and breathed in a scent he'd not held in his lungs for two decades, his eyes closing. Outside, he could hear the music arching to a climax, the startled silence of the audience, and then the roar of applause. Folding the towel in his hands, he sat down next to the flowers, and waited for the concert to be over.
I have traveled the paths of desire
Gathering flowers and carrying fire
Raising a grave to the reasons behind me
Looking for strength as you live to remind me
I'm drawn to you
I'm caught in you
In your eyes all of the promises
All the lies
Will you keep all of the promises
In your eyes