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Ring of Destiny

I have found that (for me) the interactions between characters drives the story far more than any other single factor.  This, again to my way of looking at it, goes beyond simply "character driven", as the reader's assessment of characters must be made from a kaleidoscopic image presented by their interactions with each other and a variety of viewpoints.

Biology is no small factor in these interactions . . .

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Hormonal Interface

Nikki was leaving. Mikhyel noted the fact from behind closed eyelids, as summer-slick hair slid beneath his fingers and warm breath puffed in his ear. Strange how a man could train a half-dozen young horses every year and still have one or two stand out in a lifetime. Ringer had been such a horse; and now Ringer was--

Ringer? Without opening his eyes, Mikhyel disengaged himself from Deymorin's tangled thoughts, gently so as not to alert his brother to his waking presence. They'd earned the right last night to a little peace and isolation this morning. All of them: Deymio, Nikki, four courageous women back in Rhomatum--Temorii, perhaps she, crowned Khoratum's radical dancer and turned fugitive all within an hour, deserved a peaceful morning most of all.

The hard, lean body between his arms stirred in response to his thoughts and he stilled both with a mental kiss, wondering would his mind ever be his own again, wondering if he would want it that way.

Hair indeed slid between his fingers, long and silken, not summer-slick horse-pelt. Shaded, if he cared to open his eyes to look. Deep sable, near black at the roots, fading to palest fawn on the ends. All of it dusted with rainbow highlights. Ley-touched, he'd heard the effect called on the streets of Khoratum. But there it had applied to fruits and vegetables, the occasional flower. Here, the flower was the woman who had captured his heart, a woman who had not only been touched by the ley, but raised by it and for it, a woman who had relinquished her claim on that mystical heritage--who had risked her very life--to save his.

Twice.

She murmured something and stirred again, her scarred and callused fingers wandering aimlessly along his skin beneath his tunic.

Formless thoughts wandered with equal lack of direction--or discretion--through his more thoroughly aroused mind. Yet, she needed sleep. Needed to rest muscles taxed to their limit only hours ago, so before those fingers helped his body gain equal purpose, he disengaged them, drawing her hand gently free of his clothing, and turned his thoughts with equal determination toward those last impressions from Deymorin.

So, their loving aunt Anheliaa had ordered one of Deymorin's horses destroyed. He wished he'd known about that at the time: it was on the order of Anheliaa-induced atrocities in which he'd been able to intercede with fair success over the years. But the question was moot. Anheliaa was dead, taking her cold-blooded whimsy with her.

Dead, and with the one great question her passing had left answered definitively last night: the Rhomatum Web and its associated Syndicate of Satellite Nodes would continue, strong and united, without her--

{You're a fool, Mikhyel dunMheric. . . .}

Only Temorii's weight across his chest prevented his jerking to his feet, only concern for her peaceful rest kept him from screaming denial of that voice that whispered in his head.

Distant. So very faint, but it was Anheliaa.

Would she never leave him alone?

{That doesn't even deserve an answer, darling. You lost Khoratum. How dare you? After all my sacrifice to secure it for the web. . . .}

{And you had no idea the forces you were conjuring, Auntie-dearest.} He stifled the retort. She wasn't real. Couldn't be. Not this time.

{Oh, the lad finally shows some modicum of spirit. Would you had when we were together. What we could have accomplished-- What forces?}

The question bestirred images of Mother in her leythium caves, of her counterpart beneath Rhomatum itself, rising out of a leythium pool, forming out of that energy-filled substance, speaking to his mind with the wisdom gleaned of geologic ages.

Shrill laughter burned his inner ear. {Tamshi! Oh, my darling child, you've snapped at last. . . .}

Temorii shivered and he pulled their single blanket higher, tucked it around her shoulders, doing his best to buffer her mind from the thoughts boiling in his head.

Tamshi, shapeshifter, a creature out of childhood myths but not, as he'd been raised to believe, a creature of fantasy. Mother--self-named, or perhaps a name she'd accepted as her own after generations of human worshippers-- she had indeed been a mother to Temorii after a cave-in killed her grandmother, leaving Temorii herself alone and imprisoned.

Khoratum was lost from the web forever, thanks to the new node forming beneath them. Gone because that Tamshi didn't want to be ruled by such as Anheliaa and her hand-picked Khoratumin ringmaster, Rhyys.

{Khoratum was lost, fool, because of your incompetency and that of all your . . . allies . . . in Rhomatum. In my Tower! How dare you.}

Better them than Anheliaa, and she could haunt his dreams all she liked, she'd never spin the rings again.

{You're a fool, boy . . .}

So she'd told him often enough. The only foolish thing he was doing now was talking to a ghost.

{You should have held the web, darling, and taken Mauritum. Now...what have you but a damaged web?}

{Go . . . play with a lightning bolt, will you, auntie?}

Laughter, weak and fading to nothing. In the distance, a flash, a low rumble of thunder. This time, he did jump, almost half-believing--

But it was only his mind conjuring her memory. His own guilt and fears talking to him, chastising his actions in the words and tone it knew most intimately. And: Taken Mauritum . . . His fears of those final days with his aunt given form, that was all. This voice in his head had none of the substance of Anheliaa's former visitations.

Besides, Deymorin had disposed of Anheliaa's decaying corpse, had buried those physical remains like any deceased animal in the dark areas between the leylines.

He'd had to take them away; the leythium pool had rejected those physical remains as surely as it had left her spirit adrift, leaving her no more than a fading memory in the crystalline web.

And yet...Doubt shivered in the dark corners of his mind. How could he be certain of that? Something had animated those remains, something had manifested itself in his room the night of Anheliaa's immersion in the ley pools. He'd seen creatures form out of the ley, shapeshifting. Thoughts into energy into substance . . . it seemed that what they didn't know about the caves and the leylines that permeated the countryside could, in fact, rise up to haunt them.

Time. He needed time. Time to salvage the Syndicate, yes, but also time to explore those other unknowns--not with the romantic fascination the scholars and dreamers (like Nikki, he thought with loving brotherly forbearance) would bring to it, but with a practical eye to the possibilities...and very real dangers.

But time was a commodity in very short supply for him at the moment. After last night's events, his offices in Rhomatum were going to be swamped with complaints, fears and demands, the contacts he'd spent all spring creating were going to need reassuring, if not complete replacement. They'd won the battle, possibly even the war, but the peace negotiations hadn't even begun.

And those very practical and imminent matters would have to take precedence over the admittedly fascinating ley and all it held.

Mikhyel shifted his arm, easing Temorii higher up on his shoulder. She muttered something unintelligible and dug a fist into his ribs, as if he was a pillow needing realignment. He smiled into the hair that tangled with his beard. Even in sleep, she was singularly self-oriented--rather like the Tamshi who had raised her.

As a Khoratumin ringdancer, such concentration had meant the difference between life and death. She'd stretched her world to include Mikhyel dunMheric and, at least for a time, his wide-flung interests. He had to wonder, now that the impossible had been achieved and they were together in his world, how this fey, mountain-born child would adapt to his City.

A shiver rippled through him as Temorii's chill-fingered touch slid past the folds of his tunic and around his ribs, pushing the fabric aside so that her cheek could pillow against his bare chest.

Hiller clothing, he decided, was far too easily put aside. Proper Rhomatumin dress kept decent layers between lustful bodies, allowed time with each button released and each lace pulled, to reconsider the ramifications of the act about to take place.

He kept his hands still, resisting the temptation to return her caress, kept his thoughts surface as well, wanting her to wake or not of her own will not at his instigation: a small torment, strangely exciting even in its own right.

The clothing he--mostly--wore, while his customary black, was rich with embroidery in ley-touched thread. Her gift, that clothing, and it echoed, in color and design, the dance-costume in which she'd competed only hours ago. Competed, and won: the radical dancer's coronet, which Mikhyel himself had placed on her head, glinted in the early morning sunlight, a flash of polished silver beyond a moss-covered rock, a small fortune cast aside without a second thought as she'd come into his arms hours earlier.

A subdued glint in the golden morning light, streaked with stains and finger smears that dulled the shine. Blood, he thought in a moment's panic. But:

If the blood was hers, the wound was minor. He'd sense anything else, as he was aware of her exhaustion and the ache in the small of her back. Still, if not hers, then whose--

Pure sensory pleasure flooded through him, his confounding with hers despite his efforts, and he closed his eyes to the multi-colored motes lighting the air around them and lost himself in those responses at once so natural and yet foreign to his nature after a lifetime of--

{You're thinking too much again, Khy.} The words filled his head along with a scent of cinnamon and cloves as a Temorii-shaped shadow eclipsed the world.

Copyright 1997 Jane S. Fancher

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Hard Heads Meet

"How bad is he?" Deymorin asked.

"He's lost a great deal of blood." Blunt fingers moved quickly, efficiently, placing neat stitches. "But he's strong as a Tavernese fighting bull. He'll survive."

The surgeon gathered his instruments and blood-stained towels into a steel bowl, then drew a sheet over Ganfrion, followed it with a blanket. Alcohol, blood-loss, exhaustion . . . a normal man would likely sleep for hours now.

"I want to speak with him." Deymorin headed for the door. "Send for me the moment he--"

"Then drop your balls there, dunMheric." Ganfrion's own irreverent growl interrupted him. "He's awake now."

A normal man . . . Deymorin turned to face alcohol-hazed eyes. Deep-set. Dark brown. Without a hint of betraying Tamshirin glow.

Which meant exactly nothing: Mother's eyes didn't always glow in her human-shaped appearances, and Ganfrion was not a normal man under the best of conditions.

"If you don't stop staring, the good doctor will talk." Ganfrion gave a grunt and struggled to push himself upright. The surgeon pressed him back.

"Lie still, Captain, at least until you're a more presentable shade of green."

Captain. The highest rank Ganfrion had achieved in his checkered career, a rank Deymorin himself, in a moment of weakness, had restored.

Another grunt, a second attempt to rise, and Deymorin grinned tightly across a suggestively raised fist. "Wiggle so much as a fingertip, unfriend, and I'll send you right back to dreamland."

Unfriend. Unsubtle reminder of unfinished business between them. The lines deepened in Ganfrion's scarred face, but he nevertheless sank back into the pillows, apparent obedience that might have been acquiescence--or might simply have been the sudden tremors that threatened to split the meat from his bones.

>The surgeon picked up a second blanket, but Deymorin took it from him and jerked his head toward the doorflap.

"Guards?" the surgeon asked.

The last thing Deymorin wanted was witnesses to the interview about to take place. Still...

He raised a suggestive brow at Ganfrion.

"Rings, man, what're you worried about? I can hardly lift my head."

"Truth?" Deymorin asked.

Ganfrion shrugged. "Place your bets."

"Planning on going anywhere?"

"Not immediately."

"Planning on attacking me again?"

"Only if you annoy me--again."

Deymorin shook his head at the surgeon, who nodded and slipped out the door, closing it firmly behind him, leaving him alone at last with Mikhyel's bodyguard in what was likely the most secure building in the camp. For the following handful of moments, the two of them sized each other like fencers across the length of a salle runway. Then:

"Want your blanket?"

"Not particularly."

>Deymorin dropped it at the foot of the cot.

"Since when did the Rhomandi turn nurse-maid?"

"Since my brother's prize ferret decided to spill blood and rumor all over the camp. What the hell were you thinking of?"

"Men's lives." The scar that pulled Ganfrion's upper lip into a permanent sneer deepened. "Lying, adulterous, baby-faced generals, and their silver-tongued brothers."

"I . . . see."

"I don't pull my punches, Rhomandi."

"I see that as well."

The sneer eased. The man's entire face relaxed. "And I was a fool. Can't even claim it was the drink. I know too much and not enough. It's not a feeling I relish, and I let my anger rule my tongue. For that--" He drew himself up, stiff-backed and proper in his respect, despite the pillows and the bandages and lying flat on his back. "For that, Commander, I deserve whatever sentence you throw at me."

"Don't dodge well either, do you?" Deymorin asked. "Take it right on the jaw and stand your ground?"

"When I've been a fool. Have to set the lesson."

"Just don't let it knock you out of the fight."

"Hasn't yet."

And there was the greatest truth yet spoken in this tent. This Ganfrion had a strange integrity, an even stranger pride, but he'd lived by those self-imposed rules and never backed down. A lesser man would have been broken long since.

"So, you tell me: why aren't you dead? That one in the side should have taken you down."

"It did." Ganfrion's scarred upper lip twisted again, this time in what might have been intended as a smile. "I didn't stay down."

"My brother said he left you in Khoratum last night about to be gutted by a small army of Rhyys' guardsmen."

That won him a glower and a one-sided shrug. A look gathered about Ganfrion's eyes that might be suspicion and might be fear--and was most likely a bit of both. "Don't be ridiculous. This camp's a good two days' ride out of Khoratum."

"Thought maybe you knew a shortcut."

"Don't bait me, Rhomandi. I passed out in the gods-be-damned Khoratum maze, convinced I'd never see another dawn or drink another drop, and woke up on your back doorstep, fireworks blazing overhead, and a flask in my hand that filled fast as I could empty it. --Dammit, help me up! I'll not lie on my back like some mewling, subservient pup."

Deymorin didn't stop him, now the surgeon was gone, and shoved the blanket in behind to hold him upright.

"I don't know how I got here. I don't even know where 'here' is or if I'm really still alive."

Ganfrion wore a ring on his left hand. It was undersized, even for his smallest finger. He twisted it around the middle joint, then pulled it free with a painful effort and balanced it in one palm, then the other, a flash of silver and gold that Deymorin recognized with a shock: the Rhomandi crest, a filagree of silver rings overlaid with a golden spiderweb. He bore its twin on his own hand.

He'd had no idea the tangle between this man and his brother went that deep.

"When?" he asked, pointedly.

"Last night, if you're telling me the truth. He gave me this and an order to get out alive if I could."

"I see you managed to obey."

"Did I?"

"Mikhyel is pleased, I'm sure."

"Is he? Are you?" The ring paused in its hand to hand journey, then arced across to Deymorin.

Deymorin caught it, along with the implication. GorMikhyel, Ganfrion was, at least for the moment, meaning Mikhyel trusted him absolutely, meaning Mikhyel assumed all responsibility for his life and his actions.

More importantly it meant that Mikhyel Rhomandi--or, in Mikhyel's absense, the Rhomandi himself--owed gorMikhyel an explanation. As head of clan, he owed this man everything or nothing.

He told Ganfrion the truth, or the implicit agreement between Ganfrion and Mikhyel was at an end. It was Ganfrion's right. No oaths had been taken or witnessed, only a grand gesture on Mikhyel's part.

A gesture Mikhyel, in all likelihood, had never expected to have to honor.

Of course, once he'd acknowledged that tie, once he had extended to Ganfrion the information he demanded, as head of clan, he still had every right to sever the connection--by ordering Ganfrion's death . . . or rather, by taking it himself. Tradition gave him no other options.

Ganfrion was willing to accept the oath, or so his actions implied, but was challenging the integrity of the offer. Ganfrion was saying that if that offer was regretted, now was the time to end it. And he was setting his price damned high.

"My brother is no military man," Deymorin said, "but he has his own honor."

"Damned right he has, and I'll not have him trapped by that honor--or his damnable pride. As you say: he's no military man. Worse, he's a lawyer and that gods be damned ring is about as compatible with his laws as the lightning is with the ley. I doubt he knows his options."

"You may rest assured, I do."

"I'm counting on it. If you want me dead, Rhomandi, I die now." And by that statement, the man convinced Deymorin that he was truly dealing with Ganfrion and not some Tamshirin imposter.

Everything . . . or nothing. The very essence of the man described in the reports he'd read.

Deymorin closed his hand around the ring.

"You should ask Mikhyel."

"Then go get him," Ganfrion challenged him.

As if possessed with a life of its own, the ring warmed in his hand--and that was as much of his smooth-talking middle brother Deymorin cared to have involved in this conversation.

"Do you know what this ring is?" Deymorin asked.

"I can guess. Rhomandi crest, NeoDarian design. Matches the one you're wearing. I also suspect that by rights only you should be wearing it. The one Mikhyel gave me is new. I'd wager the one your baby brother wears is just as new, for all he had the original for a time--he was Princeps for about a month, wasn't he? --I'd say, you three had problems and needed some sort of symbol to remind yourselves you were a team. I'd say this ring business is a recent development. The man who signed my Sparingate commitment papers had no such ring. The man who hired me did. So what else do you want to know? The cause of the split? The terms of reconciliation? The original--that's the one you should be wearing, but aren't--that one's got to be old. Unless I miss my bet, a Mauritumin priest was wearing it when last it saw the light of day, and he got it off your baby brother . . . oh, months ago, since none of you were wearing it back in the crypt. --How'm I doing?"

Observant, clever at putting bits of fact together, but he'd known that for a long time. Ganfrion's value as a ferret was never in question.

"The rings are my promise to my brothers. My promise that we're partners. My promise that I'll not use my authority arbitrarily, that they will be privy to my decisions and have every right at all times to question those decisions."

"Foolish of you."

"You think so?"

"Foolish and inefficient. You're a fairly clever man. Certainly more clever than Anheliaa or your father before her. What they did, you could manage. Probably do a better job. One absolute ruler is far more efficient than a committee. Particularly a committee of brothers who have not agreed on any policy in their entire adult lives."

"My brothers' loyalty and trust are too important to me to risk for the sake of efficiency."

"Mikhyel gorDeymorin. Has quite a ring. Wonder how he likes it?"

"It's not like that."

"No?"

He swallowed the retort that rose like bile. The man baited him, had a knack for placing him on the defensive. He didn't like the feeling--liked even less the suspicion that part of Ganfrion's appeal for Mikhyel was his ability to do just that. He and Mikhyel had spent their lives baiting one another; without doubt, Mikhyel knew the effect Ganfrion had on him.

Damn you, brother.

But he settled to make peace with the man. "All right, crypt-bait, honesty. Let's say you've got me to rights on the ring's purpose. That means I'm responsible for my brother's actions. I'm empowered to act for him in this matter. I can answer those questions of yours, but first, I'll damn well understand why he gave you that ring."

"Because your brother's a sentimental fool who had no concept of the arena he'd entered. He's a man who spent his entire adult life making rules that good people don't need and bad people don't give shit about, and then condemning those ill-mannered asses to a life he can't even imagine. He found the real world, Rhomandi, and didn't know what to do with it."

"You think you've got him bagged, skinned and on display, don't you?"

"I think he's a man who puts himself on display by his own ignorance. He's a damned martyr and doesn't even realize it. He's lived by rules and thrown himself on the flames of hypocrisy to protect others for so long, he hasn't any damned notion of his own true place or his own value."

"We're working on it," Deymorin remarked sourly.

The dark-eyed glance betrayed surprise.

"You don't trust me much, do you?" Deymorin asked.

"Does it matter?"

"Not necessarily. But it would help. Do you trust Mikhyel?"

Ganfrion dipped his head toward the hidden ring.

"That says I have to, doesn't it?"

"Not necessarily. Says he trusts you. Entirely different."

"Ah. Distinctions only the nobility would recognize."

"Not in my experience."

"Prove it."

Copyright 1977 Jane S. Fancher
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