Raiel? Raiel. Wake up.
Stop. You aren't real.
Raiel… please, Raiel.
Something touched his back, and he recoiled. A scream pierced his ears, coming from everywhere at once. A scream, then a sob. Not Ao's voice. The other one. A much more recent scream. But the voice was still Ao's, even as the screams echoed around him.
Stop this! Don't touch me, Ao!
Raiel… Raiel, please.
I'm sorry. Please. Don't touch me.
Raiel… please… please come back, Raiel.
Ao, stop. Gods, Ao. Don't touch me.
Another hand grabbed his shoulder in the blackness. He flinched, but couldn't pull away—he was paralyzed, as he often was in this nightmare. But two hands… two hands were new. Suddenly, they were trailing over him, down his back, then reaching around to pull him close.
Raiel, please. I'm so lonely, Raiel.
I'm sorry, Ao. It was my fault. I was careless. I'm sorry.
Why did you leave?
I… I'm sorry. It was only for the day. I didn't know. I couldn't have. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.
Was it my fault?
Of course not. Of course it wasn't. It was my fault. It was always my fault.
So why won't you come back?
The hands around his waist trailed lower, and he gasped, nearly opening his eyes as they settled on his shaft. It was stiff, he realised with a start, goosebumps running down his arms at the unfamiliar sensation. But the hands did not move further, and her voice was suddenly sad. Heartbroken. Even as the other woman's screams continued.
Raiel… why would you leave? We were so close, Raiel. Do you not want me?
Ao, stop this.
Why, Raiel? Was I not good enough?
Ao. Ao. Please.
Was I not what you wanted?
I'm sorry… I'm sorry, Raiel.
Please. Come back soon. I miss you.
A hand brushed his cheek, and his eyes finally opened. He regretted it instantly. He always did.
Ao's face hung in front of him. Eyes glazed, her skin a dull grey against her beautiful blonde curls. Her expression was blank—her lips slightly parted, her eyes gazing into nothing. Two years later, she looked exactly the same. The same as the day he found her. Her voice continued, even as her lips stood still.
Raiel. I miss you.
I miss you too, Ao.
Come back to me.
I can't. I'm sorry.
I… I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Ao. I can't… follow you. Not now. I'm sorry.
Tears began to well from Ao's dull eyes, dripping down to pool on the invisible bed they laid on. Another first for his nightmare. Even in his dream, he shuddered at the sight. He wanted to look away. But once his eyes opened, they wouldn't shut.
...Will you come soon, then?
Ao… I… I Can't...
At least, as soon as you can?
Please, Raiel? I'm lonely here. I'm so lonely, Raiel…
Raiel's eyes opened to his bedroom window. A pillow was lying halfway over his face, and he pushed it away with a slightly trembling hand. It was morning. No, the afternoon.
He was alone.
He stumbled to his bathroom in barely enough time to vomit into the toilet. He coughed, emptying what little he had eaten the night before into the bowl, along with no small amount of the mucus that had filled his throat for the past week and a half. He gasped, retched again, and nearly collapsed onto the floor.
A dream. It had been a dream. A nightmare. And a familiar one.
He quickly emptied his bladder after his stomach, surprised when his erection wouldn't fade. He was... aroused, he realised. By what, he couldn't possibly fathom. As he considered what to do next, Ao's grey face rose back to his mind, unbid, and he nearly retched again. "Fuck," he hissed, disgusted with himself. He quickly turned to the shower, shuddering as the cold water washed away filth both material and immaterial. He leaned against the wall with a long, gasping sort of sigh, not daring to close his eyes.
What the fuck was wrong with him?
Eventually, he felt clean enough to step out, though guilt still followed him through his bedroom and out into his personal quarters. A kettle of tea had been set out for him, along with a few strawberries. He reheated the tea gratefully, not caring that it was a bit too steeped for his usual tastes. The cold burn of mint was oddly soothing. Eventually, he was relaxed enough to nibble at a berry, which disappeared with its companions as he realised just how hungry he was.
When the kettle was emptied, he added another bag of tea, refilled it, and leaned back into his chair to rest his eyes while it boiled.
He soaked in the sound of gentle flames, a soft hissing sound with the occasional flicker of fire against the pot. It mingled well with the gentle call of seabirds outside of his window; they were moving south, ushered forward by the cold snap that had covered Arista for over a week. He grimaced at the memory of flying home; his scaled feet weren't built to sit on ice. Again, he regretted avoiding the train.
His flu was finally fading, at least. His nose was still draining every drop of fluid from his body, but at least his fevers had stopped, and the flu's aches and pains were slowly being replaced with his more usual ones: a sore back from hunching over his desk and lab, and sore eyes from staring at papers and texts for hours at a time. He didn't know how Kaitel was always so damned cheery—his brother never complained of a sore back, anyway. Maybe there was a proper way to read he'd never learned. Who knew.
He wasn't getting enough sleep, in any case. That certainly wasn't helping anything.
He opened his eyes, turning to look out of the window. He studied the vines growing over his balcony, doing his best to keep Ao's face from appearing again.
His regular nightmares had been unusually frequent. It was to be expected, he supposed—the woman at Saitel's manor had been Ao's spitting image. Even if he hadn't poisoned her, the nightmares would have probably returned. He winced at the memory of her voice in his nightmare, and shuddered at the thought of Ao's voice screaming in his room not long ago.
He jumped at the kettle's whistle, thinking for a panicked moment that it was a scream once again. But, thankfully, it was only the kettle. "You nearly killed me," he accused. "Have a bit of tact." It couldn't defend itself. Rightfully so, he thought.
He shut off the boiler with a wave of his hand before combing his hands once again through his hair. It was a nervous habit that he had picked up from Sentel years earlier, and one he had struggled to shake. A lump rose to his throat as he pulled his hands back and saw two strands of hair threaded between his fingers. They flashed gold before turning to dust, burned instantly around his hands as he shook the ashes away with disgust.
He quickly pleated his hair, then cast a long but familiar spell over the tight braid. His hair flashed gold with magic, tightening the braid further and tucking stray hairs into place before flashing gold again. His hair was sealed safely; the routine's completion gave him a deep sort of relief.
He dressed comfortably but simply; a light blue shirt over dark deerskin pants. His ever-present black gloves and thick signet ring were last, and the feeling of having his hands covered brought him no small amount of comfort. They weren't comfortable, persay, but they were reassuring and familiar. Having his hands bare anywhere outside of his quarters gave him anxiety. And after his gathering at Sentel's… well. He wasn't going to be leaving his gloves anytime soon.
He poured his last cup of tea, bringing the cup with him as he left for the kitchen. He checked twice that his door had indeed been locked before continuing.
He paused as he passed in front of his open study, frowning at the two scrolls he knew sat on his desk inside.
One was an announcement of his cousin's marriage. He had been surprised to receive it, but sent out a quick letter of congratulations. She was only a few years older than Sentel, after all—definitely young to be mated for a female. But she was mated, and she she was, undoubtedly, happy. As he wondered how she was enjoying her new life, he wondered—not for the first time—when his turn would come.
His heart ached uncomfortably in his chest, and he scowled as he looked down. "I'll have none of that," he said aloud, glaring at his chest. "Shut up." His chest didn't answer, and so he kept walking.
Or, he tried to keep walking before sighing deeply and turning back to his study. He'd been home for three days. He couldn't put it off any longer.
He unrolled the second scroll with both a deep wince and a faint smile. It was a message from his mother, sent the same day Tayel had told her about his incident at Sentel's manor. Her tone was gentle. Too gentle, as if she was afraid to push him away. She didn't mention the incident at all, and he couldn't decide if that was a relief or not. But her message was clear: she was worried, she loved him, and she wanted to see him.
His heart ached again, now with homesickness as he traced her signature. It was huge, looping, and graceful, shining gold no matter how he held the paper.
He missed her, he realized. He missed her too much.
A lump rose to his throat and he swallowed it. What could he do? She was across the continent. Much farther than Sentel's home—a hard flight in the cold, sick or not.
There was a much faster train, though… a newer rail designed for only passengers. It would take him most of the way if he transferred in Chimney Falls. A two week journey across Arista could, theoretically, be cut to just under a week.
A week, though...
He winced at the thought of taking a train for such a long journey. He had told his brothers that he disliked the close quarters on trains, but that was only a half truth. His primary fear of trains came from the fact that he was trapped. He was trapped with other people inside a metal crate for days at a time. And if anything at all went wrong, there was no way to make an antidote. Not on a moving train in the middle of nowhere.
But he couldn't ask her to come to his home. Not with his father as he was. It would be cruel of him to separate his mother from her mate, unconscious or not.
He gave another small sigh at that, stroking his braid. His father… he wished his father would wake soon. It had been four years. Raiel missed his presence, and he was sure his mother missed him even more dearly.
He stared at the scroll in his hands for quite a while, debating.
By the time he'd made his decision, his tea was cold, and he had to pull a cord under his desk to have another cup delivered. By the time his assistant arrived with a kettle and a tray of toast with cheese, he was almost finished drafting two sendings and a third, physical letter to his uncle.
"Good morning, my Lord! Or afternoon I should say."
"Ah, Mio. Thank you." He gratefully took a poured cup of honeyed tea. "You're just in time. Here, bring these two sendings down to the post office in a bit. And this letter, once I'm finished with it." He handed the young man his two sendings before he continued to write.
"Sendings, hm? What's all the rush?" Mio scratched his dark scruffy beard with a dark hand, flipping the papers over to look for their addresses. "Huh. Your brother and your mum, then?"
"Yes. And this one is for uncle. I technically need to announce my departures to him, after all… but there's no need to spend extra on a sending, now is there?" They shared a knowing smile—there was little love between them for Raiel's uncle. "He'll know in a few days in any case." He put down his pen and reluctantly removed a glove to sign the letter with his finger—the gold sparks hadn't faded before the glove was returned. The letter was folded crisply into a pre-addressed envelope. It, too, was sealed with a shower of gold sparks as he pressed his signet ring into red wax.
His assistant took the letter, unusually quiet. "Something wrong, Mio?" He shook his head, standing a bit straighter.
"Beg your pardon, sir. It's not my job to pry is all."
"And when has ever stopped you?" Raiel took a slice of cheese toast with a smile. "It's not your job to bring me toast with my tea, either, but I appreciate it nonetheless."
He grinned at that. "Nice cheese, though." Raiel took a bite and had to agree. "I'm just surprised is all. Travelling twice in a month. It's unlike you. And to your mum's, too! Quite a bit away, eh?"
"It is, and I meant to talk to you about that."
Raiel paused, not sure how to phrase his question without appearing as afraid and desperate for company as he felt. "I was wondering if... you'd accompany me on the trip? We'd go by train, of course," he added quickly. "The passenger line."
He couldn't see Mio's face, but his shocked silence spoke volumes. "Oh, yes, of course, sir!" He laughed merrily. "Wow, the train even! Has this flu killed you after all?"
Raiel made a face around his toast. "Perhaps. But I expect to be well by the time we reach our destination in a week's time. You'll have to deal with all my normal bitterness by then, I'm afraid."
He blinked. "A week's time? When were you planning to leave?"
"Tomorrow evening," he said easily, standing with a stretch. "Before I decide that this is a horrible and impulsive idea, and talk myself out of it. Is that time enough to prepare for my absence?"
"I-yes, my Lord. I suppose so. I'll... tell the staff and send a notice to the town hall. Governess won't be happy, but she never is I reckon."
"Good to hear. I'm trusting you to make arrangements while I try to book us a car. It's short notice, but hopefully there will be one left for us to nab. I'll pay extra if need be."
"A full car? Oh. Ahh, alright then." He clearly understood Raiel's reasoning. Mio had been working for him for nearly six years, after all. "Full car it is. If I might be so bold, I'd ask you to not pack a full car's worth of luggage, at least, my Lord.
"Ha! You jest, but it will be a long and cold trip. The west coast is colder than the east—pack warmly."
"Of course, my Lord. I'm looking forward to the trip already! Never met your mum in person. A goddess incarnate if Tayel's to be believed."
Raiel couldn't help but smile. "An saint, more like. You'll like her."
"Hm… but will she like me 's the question?"
Raiel laughed. "She likes everyone, and that's why she's a damn saint." He finished his toast, licking his gloved thumb with a rasped tongue. "Now. If you'll excuse me, I need to book us quite a few train tickets."
"Of course, my Lord. We'll have supper ready by the time you're back."
"Good to hear." He fastened his black travel cloak around his neck, and began to pull his braid into a low bun; it was safer to keep it from flying about in public. "May I ask what's on the menu?"
"Apple chutney from the Mar Orchards, with some fresh brioche on the way. We had planned to roast a duck, but… if you'd like to bring another gull home instead, I can tell Cook to wait."
Raiel growled, but it was more of an annoyed sound than a guttural warning. "I'll have you roast over a fire," he grumbled, but he couldn't help but smile as he said it.
"The gull was good," he said more loudly, closing his wallet with a snap as he stepped outside. "My late compliments to the chef."
This is the last chapter of the first batch of chapters. I'm planning on posting several at once whenever I reach a point where the story becomes solid. You know, so I'm not going back and rewriting entire chapters to add more detail or take it out or move it around... This is as much of the story as I'm satisfied with now. I hope that you'll enjoy more in the upcoming weeks! Until then, if you have the time, I always appreciate reviews/comments. They're an author's bread and butter, after all. Let me know what you like, what you don't, and if there's anything you're looking forward to. I'm making it a point to respond to all of my comments, as well. Feedback feedback. If you will.
I'll plan on giving you a new batch of chapters in a few weeks. Until then, yall~