The Play's the Thing

by Queen Boadicea

 

 

Hadrian walked as steadily as he could from the inn. Caled had been blessedly silent on the road to Spring Willow. But once they had gotten settled, he'd started on another of his campaigns of vicious verbal attacks on him.

It had started innocently enough. Lio and Gam had begun flirting with a barmaid. But she'd seemed to have eyes only for Hadrian. The brunette's beauty was always startling to anybody coming upon it for the first time. But for the most part women had ignored him. His shyness and Caled, Lio and Gam's comparative boldness in approaching the opposite sex meant that Hadrian was overlooked.

He wasn't interested and tried to signal so by ignoring her obvious advances. He'd never been attracted to women and was still so very shy that sexual attentions of any sort from strangers tended to unsettle him. But the pretty, young girl with the freckles hadn't seemed to care about his apparent indifference. The barmaid had come to their table more frequently than necessary, asking all of the company if there was anything they needed. She had kept her eyes trained on Hadrian, snubbing Caled's attempts to attract her.

The recent events of the afternoon began to replay themselves…

"Is there anything you'd like, sir?" she simpered. She was not much more than 19, her complexion rosy, no doubt from the kitchen fires. Her figure was ample with firm breasts hovering enticingly above swaying hips.

"Eh, Berleen, how about refilling this tankard?" Gam called out, tapping his fingernail against the empty mug meaningfully.

She snagged it deftly from him, poured from the pitcher she was carrying and set it back down in front of him, all without taking her eyes from Hadrian. "Anything for you, sir?

"Uh, nothing. Thank you, miss…" Hadrian flushed as gray eyes with flecks of brown stared avidly at him.

"Berleen. Berleen ne Cosamath. My father's the innkeeper," she added as her smile widened. "Are you certain I can't get you-anything?" she asked, her voice lowering almost to a purr as she leaned forward, letting him get a good view at her tits.

"That wouldn't be a good idea, miss. Hades doesn't do well when he's drunk," Caled drawled. "In fact, he tends to misbehave even when he's sober. Isn't that right, Hades?" He directed the question to Hadrian whose flush had whitened to a ghastly pallor.

"You do plenty of misbehaving of your own, Caled," the sorcerer retorted coldly. "And you make a rather nasty drunk yourself. Then again, drinking might improve your temper. At least you'd be doing something with your mouth besides idle talk."

"I remember doing lots of things with my mouth, Hades. You had no complaints then," Caled shot back. "Too bad I won't be doing any of that with you again."

Berleen's eyes widened as she looked between the smirking blond and sullen black-haired youth sitting at the table. She hadn't thought the burly mercenary-and so she assumed him to be, given the sword strapped to his side and the faint scars she could make out on his arms-would be the type to favor sex with men. However, the dark-haired man scowling at him did seem the sort who'd prefer being with his own sort.

In spite of her attraction to the silver-eyed man, Berleen wasn't about to waste her time on an impossible conquest. The husky blond might be a good substitute. But there was a spiteful undercurrent of tension between the two of them and she had no intention of getting mixed up in it. Bidding farewell to her brief infatuation, she resumed a brisk tone.

"Does anyone else care for anything?" she asked, letting her eyes wander over the table. The red-haired girl shook her head while the elderly man with her waved away the offer. The youth with black hair said nothing, only continued to glare at the blond. The two one-eyed men pulled out a pack of worn playing cards and began a game. The blonde fighter turned away from the fuming beauty and joined the men in their play. Berleen gathered up their empty mugs and plates, gave a final look of lingering regret to the hooded man, and left for the kitchen.

Caled didn't look up from his cards. But Hadrian heard his low comment nonetheless. "Lucky for her I intervened, Hades. She wouldn't have been happy with you, given your inexperience."

Hadrian could hear the insinuation under that. He was supposedly too unknowing in the ways of sex to give anybody pleasure and that included Caled. Since the beginning of their journey, Caled had hinted in one way or the other how little Hadrian had pleased him in bed, how he'd never fallen for the sorcerer even if Hadrian had lost his heart over him. The sorcerer had been an amusing lay for Caled, nothing more.

He hoped his face showed nothing of his hurt. Hadrian had built a thick wall around his heart to keep those barbs from stinging. But silence and indifference didn't deter the mercenary. He would have kept up a steady stream of invective, insult and verbal abuse on the road if Syellen didn't shriek in annoyance at the noise.

Lio grimaced with annoyance. "Funny how his inexperience didn't bother you." He leaned towards Hadrian. "If you want experience, Hadrian, I could show you a few things."

"Leave him alone, Lio, and concentrate on your cards," Gam chided.

"Speak for yourself," Lio retorted. "I wouldn't mind playing if I could win Hadrian for one night." Excitement glinted in his eye at the idea.

Caled stifled the burst of jealousy from this statement. Well, why should he care one way or the other? "That might be an idea. What Hades lacks in skill, he makes up for in enthusiasm. How about it, Hades?" He turned towards Hadrian and frowned. The sorcerer's chair was empty.

"He left," Manix added quietly.

Caled scowled. "And you didn't stop him?"

Lio looked up in alarm and no little anger. "Hadrian's gone? Dammit, Caled! Maybe he wouldn't have left if you hadn't pestered him."

"What am I, his keeper? Hadrian should know better by now. He's only the second most wanted man in Jeynesa," Caled growled.

Manix spoke to forestall an argument. "Hadrian is aware of the dangers of discovery. Since he knows no one in this town, I'm sure he'll keep to himself."

"You're forgetting trouble has a way of finding Hades no matter where he is."

"Then he's no safer here than anywhere else, is he?" Syellen snapped. "Besides, what do you care? You keep going on and on about how much you hate him. Then you get worried when he runs off."

"The geas means that I can't be indifferent about what happens to him, you stupid girl." Caled hated the geas but Caled did admit secretly that he was grateful for it, too. It gave him an excuse to look for Hadrian, to keep him close, without it looking like tenderness or-something else.

He stood from the table when Manix spoke again. "If you are so worried about Hadrian's safety, by all means go and keep an eye on him." Irritation pricked at him when he saw the Elder's sympathetic gaze.

"I'm not looking for him. I was just going to find myself some live entertainment." As if to emphasize the point, he walked towards the stairs, making eye contact with another barmaid. He could feel the Elder's eyes boring into his back and his jaw clenched.

Hadrian had destroyed his home and his friends. Nothing could excuse that atrocity. No matter what Manix implied, he didn't give a shit about him. He hated the man to the depths of his soul and would gladly have killed Hadrian if that damned geas didn't interfere.

Other thoughts followed quickly upon that one: fleeting images of Hadrian's sunny face, shyness that disappeared to show the eager sexuality underneath, bared soft skin, silky hair, plush yielding lips and sweet tenderness. When Hadrian had gone back to Shard's Point, Caled had mourned his loss as he never had anyone else.

That's when he decided to put his stated intentions into action. Berleen hadn't been interested. But there was another female who wasn't so resistant to Caled's charms. A few whispered words and she agreed to meet him after she had a break in her afternoon shift.

Caled furiously stripped off his clothes and threw himself into bed. He glanced down at his cock. The treacherous member had hardened and throbbed against his stomach at the memories of his times with Hadrian. Normally he would have jerked off or forced himself to think about the smell of burned flesh and charred bodies from Rhiad. But he needed another kind of release; the barmaid would believe this was all about her, anyway.

The woman came eventually. She was suitably skilled and entertaining. She had a wonderful mouth, too. But she had to work for Caled couldn't seem to stay hard. She stopped after several moments, letting his flaccid member fall from her mouth. "What's the matter, sweetie? Somethin' on your mind?"

"No. Uh, I had a little too much to drink at dinner. You know how it is. Maybe we could try again later." He fished out a coin from his satchel and pressed it into her hand.

She closed her hand over the coin and smiled. Darmis didn't mind getting money for no work. But she wouldn't have hated letting this man plow her; she thought it might even be a pleasure. He was sturdy and handsome unlike most of the men who came through these parts. "Why don't you sleep it off? If you're feeling better later…" She let her voice trail off suggestively.

"I'll keep you in mind, darlin'." He gave her a roguish smile that slipped off his face the moment the door closed behind her. He fell back on the bed with a disgruntled sigh. Shit, it was the first time he'd been unable to keep it up and he knew the reason. "Damn you, Hadrian," he whispered.

His hand drifted down under the blanket. At the thought of Hadrian, his erection had immediately flared back to aching life. He clenched his hand around his cock. He didn't want to finish this, not while thinking about that monster. But he couldn't help it. Memories of their time in Rhiad pushed into his mind like unwanted invaders. The more he strove to beat them back, the more stubbornly they insisted on plaguing him.

Soft, sweet cries from that tender mouth. The gray eyes flaring to silver. That hot hot hole clenching around his staff. The scent of sex mingling with that of horseflesh and hay. His hand moved faster, the grip firming as the Hadrian of his memories wrapped lean legs around his back and the stuttering gasps rose up into cries that battered at his ears.

Caled groaned and shuddered in bed as his release finally came. It was so hard and violent; he was as exhausted as if Hadrian had actually been with him. The words of Hadrian's farewell whispered to him, his promise of return and the gift of an ebony lock of hair…a lover's gift.

Caled had had many playmates declare their love for him after a few tumbles in the sack. He had never returned the sentiment although he did his best to dismiss his bed partners gently. But Hadrian had been the first to stir his affections that way…

He shut the thought off ruthlessly and rolled over in bed, pounding the rough pillow furiously. There was no way he could feel that for such a monster.

__________

Hadrian trudged determinedly through the streets. He needed to get far away from the mercenary. It had hurt to hear Caled dismiss him so easily; the last thing Hadrian wanted was to be around him when the man came to bed that night. Actually, Hadrian was bedding down with Lio. But it was hard to get a decent night's rest worrying the thief might try groping him in his sleep. He wanted to exhaust himself so that he fell asleep instantly.

He lifted his head to view his surroundings. There had to be something of interest in this small town. To his surprise, he saw a banner waving lazily in the evening air just above the roofs of the nearest buildings. It was purple with two yellow masked faces on it, one smiling and the other frowning.

The streets weren't laid out in straight lines so he had to skirt around various buildings. But the banner remained always in sight, waving merrily as though beckoning him onwards. He rounded the last building, a perfumery by its floral scents, and stopped short in astonishment.

He was at the center of town. Many of the townspeople milled around, pointing at the unusual sight in front of them. A large, gaily striped tent had been erected right in the middle of circular space. Outside he could see various people working, running here and there with buckets of paint, planks of wood and armfuls of rope. A small wooden staircase had been set up leading into the structure.

When it was obvious nothing was happening beyond the carpentry, the crowd grew bored and drifted away. Freed from the fear that someone in the gathering might get a close look at him, Hadrian edged nearer, hoping to peek inside. Then one of the workers saw him and shouted. "Eh, you! We don't open until tomorrow night. So get away from there!"

"Tolias, if you keep talking to people like that, we'll never get any customers." The words came from a large man standing at the opening to the tent. He was easily one of the biggest men Hadrian had ever seen. He must have been at least six feet tall and broad-shouldered with powerful limbs although his flesh sagged in places. Laughing sky blue eyes peered from underneath a shaggy black mop of hair sprinkled here and there with gray.

In spite of his intimidating size, he exuded an easy charm that drew Hadrian in spite of himself. He waved Hadrian over and, after a brief hesitation, the sorcerer approached. The brawny man gazed at him, trying to peer beneath Hadrian's concealing cloak. "I'm sorry about Tolias. When we're setting up for a show, he gets really anxious making sure that everything is in place."

"Don't talk so lightly about it, Jhonn," Tolias groused. "You heard about that accident in Fanaway. You want that to happen to us?"

"Accident?" Hadrian queried, looking from one man to the other.

"A tent wasn't properly secured and it collapsed on the audience. One or two people suffocated under the folds before they could get everyone out. Not that it had anything to do with our troupe," he added hastily. "But it pays to be careful."

Jhonn sighed gustily. "Tolias, you are cautious to the point of obsession-even before you heard about that accident. You just use it to excuse acting like you've got a broom up your ass." Jhonn ignored Tolias' spluttered protests to address Hadrian again. "I take it you were coming to see the performance?"

"What performance?"

"Ramario and Essa, the Pirate's Daughter. It's one of our most popular pieces," the man stated with no small pride. When he was met with Hadrian's blank stare, he elaborated. "It's one of our plays. Well, not ours, really. The play's an old one, written centuries ago. But I've been told we do it rather well."

Hadrian blinked. "What's a play?"

Now it was Jhonn's turn to stare. "What's a-? Are you trying to tell me you've never seen a play before?"

Hadrian flushed as Tolias burst into sniggers. "Gawd, he's a green one! Probably from one of those savage places beyond the mountains where they think scrolls is just fancy paper to wipe their asses with!"

The blue-eyed man noted Hadrian's anger as the youth opened his mouth to retort. "Stow it, Tolias. It's not his fault if he's new to all this. Besides, it's always good to introduce people to the arts. Helps drum up business." He beckoned to Hadrian. "What's your name, son?"

"Hades." He hated the nickname Caled had saddled on him. But it was useful for concealing his true identity.

Shrewd blue eyes narrowed as if the man suspected the subterfuge. But he didn't challenge him. "I'm Jhonn ni Stonybrook." Jhonn waved at the tent entrance. "Care to see inside, Hades?"

Tolias frowned. A smallish man with a wiry frame and tousled brown hair, he had the exasperated air of someone constantly beset by idiots who just wouldn't play by the rules. "Jhonn, you know what Anifiel thinks about that. He finds out you're lettin' in people without payin', he's gonna hit the roof."

"Just shut it, Tolias, and stick to banging on the planks. Let me worry about Anifiel, all right?" Jhonn looked at Hadrian again. "Well? Are you coming?"

Curiosity warred with caution. He didn't know these people; what if this was a trap? Still, if these people were up to mischief, they wouldn't advertise their presence with a big, attention-drawing parti-colored tent like this, would they? He decided to trust Jhonn and let the man draw him within the cavernous space.

There was a miniature dais set up near the opening and Jhonn pointed to it. "That's where the ticket taker will be standing. He'll take people's tickets. Tomorrow we'll start selling them to folks all through the day. Then we shut it down to show the performance."

"So this is something people have to pay for?" Hadrian murmured.

"Well, yah!" Jhonn said with raised bushy eyebrows. "Actors have to eat like other people and, for that, they have to be paid. We charge people and then hand out tickets." He fished in a pouch and pulled out what looked like round tokens. They were crudely carved in wood with the two masks were carved on the surface. Each one bore the words "The Rude Mechanicals" underneath the smiling and frowning faces.

"Rude Mechanicals?" The name was odd and didn't seem to have anything to do with playacting.

"That's the name of our little troupe. We come from all walks of life, you see. Few of us started out as actors but somehow we all wound up in the profession. Some are just drawn to the life. Others, because it's a good way to-hide." Did Hadrian imagine it or did the man give him a meaningful stare? Jhonn added, "A customer shows these tickets and we know he's paid to see our show."

"How much are these…tickets?' Hadrian asked in a timid voice.

Jhonn's glance was considering. "Not much. But we can deal with that later." He pointed at the broad, flat floor. The dirt had been tamped down smooth and swept of any debris. It looked remarkably clean. "The audience will stand there and the actors will perform on the stage." He raised his hand to indicate a large circular platform in front of the chairs. Hadrian could see what looked like a large painting of buildings, a hint of lush green fields and a distant seaside draped across the back of the raised area.

"How wondrous," he murmured, his eyes wide with awe. "It looks like you have an entire city up there."

"Tricks with paint and lighting. We can make it look like day or night, depending on the light." He looked at Hadrian's rapt expression and his eyes glinted with humor. "You've really never seen a play before, have you?"

"No. I've led-I mean, my father wouldn't have approved," Hadrian muttered. He'd been secluded for most of his life on one tiny island. But he couldn't say that to this man. There weren't too many islands that had been inhabited by humans. Even a little hint like that might be enough to give away his identity to anyone who knew about the ni Leyanons.

"Didn't care for the acting profession, did he? Many people feel that way. 'A waste of time' 'it's nothing but telling lies in fancy dress' and 'what kind of a profession is that for a grown, healthy man, traveling around from town to town like a beggar?' and so on and so forth. Is that it?" he chuckled.

"Something like that." For Hadrian, the situation was vastly different than what this man imagined. His father would have disapproved of plays simply because they were vulgar amusements performed for the gratification of the gaping masses. The son of the One was supposed to be above such petty pleasures.

Jhonn was about to say something more. Then a man came striding on to the platform. Jhonn held his finger to his lips and drew Hadrian into the shadows at the side of the tent. Hadrian was out of sight of the other person but close enough to make out the details of his form.

Blonde hair, gleaming like polished gold, flowed in a neat braid over his back. He was tall and wide in the shoulders, so much so they seemed to strain the seams of his costume. A broad chest flowed into powerful thighs that flexed with each movement. His face was large with prominent cheekbones, throwing into relief radiant emerald green eyes.

He was handsome, breathtakingly so. In his striking looks, he reminded Hadrian a little of Caled. But while Caled gave the impression of one used to getting his own way, this person looked like a man given to commanding armies.

He was garbed in a tight white shirt covered with black stripes that flowed from side to side, making his physique seem even broader. A purple sleeveless vest trimmed with a gold piping flapped indolently against the shirt. Dark blue pants clung to his thighs as if they'd been molded to the skin. A pair of scuffed black boots ran up to both knees. A shiny sword strapped to his side completed the ensemble.

He stomped back and forth across the stage and Hadrian could see the measured impatience in his stride. He had the air of a predator preparing to pounce on unsuspecting prey. The next moment he stopped and glared to his right. Hadrian shivered. Somehow his stillness was more menacing than his pacing had been.

"Come out here, child. I'm waiting," he growled. His voice held a rasping burr Hadrian didn't recognize.

At his command, a young girl came trudging out. She was tiny, shorter than the blond by at least three heads. She looked to be not much more than 16 and had a sweet face topped by striking red hair bright as a flame. Eyes that seemed to shift from blue to green to gray glared mulishly at him. "I haven't changed my mind, father."

"I see a few days without food haven't been enough to tame that rebellious spirit of yours, have they?" the man sneered.

"I've already told you. I don't want Sonnas. My heart belongs to Ramario!"

"And I've told you, no daughter of mine is going to marry a constable's son! Especially the son of a man who was my sworn enemy when we were but boys! You will have nothing more to do with this Ramario, you understand me?"

Her defiance turned to pleas. "Father, I love him! I have loved him for weeks now. He's sworn to marry me. Won't you even listen-?"

"Enough! Tonight we will put to sea and you will never see this boy again."

"If you do, you'll be sorry," the redhead threatened. "I've given Ramario a map showing the islands where all your treasures are hidden. He'll give it to his father and I hope the two of them hunt you down and throw you into prison!"

The blond's eyes slit. Then he rushed at her and struck her across the cheek. The redhead cried out and fell to the floor, holding her hand to her face.

Hadrian sprang from his hiding place. "Leave her alone!" he roared. The air began to thicken and crackle, the magicks gathering as he prepared to hurl them against this brutal beast of a father.

Jhonn ran after him and grabbed Hadrian in a bear hug. "Easy, lad, easy! They're not hurting each other! It's just part of the play!"

Hadrian found himself being perused by two pairs of eyes, one vastly angered and the other wide with surprise. "What's the matter with him? He acted like he was trying to protect my honor!" the girl said, grinning, as she sprang to her feet apparently unharmed.

"What's the matter with you, Jhonn? We don't let the public in to see us in rehearsals. What were you thinking?" the blond snapped. The man's rough tones had vanished to be replaced by a smooth, cultured accent. The green eyes pierced Hadrian, causing his heart to constrict and then beat madly. The reaction bothered him and his chin lifted in defiance as he determined to ignore it.

"It's nothing to get yourself twisted over, Anifiel. The young man here told me he's never seen a play. I didn't think it would do harm to let him get a little peek at our trade." Jhonn released Hadrian, setting him down on his feet with a thump.

"What? This was all an-act?" The magic winked out like a blown candle and he felt embarrassed for his momentary loss of control. What would Manix think if he knew?

"He's never seen a play? Where has he been living? A cave?" the redhead answered, her eyes crinkling with amusement.

The blond looked less forgiving. "Jhonn, this is unacceptable. We can't just have the public in to see what we're doing. I've told you this before. We want to preserve some of the mystery of our profession, don't we?" he said in exasperation.

The fiery-haired girl spoke up, cutting off any response Jhonn might have made. "So what did you think about our little show, uh…who are you?"

"Hades. Are you all right? It looked like he hit you hard," Hadrian replied. He stepped closer and peered at the girl. The blow had felled her and sounded loud in the stillness. But there wasn't so much as a bruise on her face and he frowned in confusion.

"I'm Finnian. And he didn't really hit me. It's a stage trick. Show him, Ani." The man's lips thinned and he shook his head, crossing his arms in stubborn refusal.

Jhonn waved at the girl. "Come on down, Finnian, and we can show Hades ourselves."

Finnian? That was a strange name for a girl. The redhead jumped from the stage and ran up to Jhonn. This close, Hadrian could see what looked like faint streaks of pink paint on her cheeks and red on her lips. There were also black marks around her eyes, making them seem larger and mysterious. Finnian noticed his inquiring gaze and grinned again.

"Stage makeup. It completes the illusion that I'm a girl. Anifiel and I were doing a final run-through in costume before tomorrow's performance and we have to see that it looks all right."

"Illusion? You're not…?" Hadrian trailed off. He blinked when Finnian laughed, a loud braying guffaw such as no girl ever made.

"Nah! Fooled you, didn't I?" Finnian grinned. "Girls aren't allowed on stage. It's not proper for ladies to be mingling with men and changing their clothes backstage with them. So I play girls in most of the productions 'cause I've still got a high voice. Some of the older men here play women and old crones."

"Come on, Finn. Let's show Hadrian how you get hit," Jhonn pointed out. He brought Finnian in front of Hadrian and positioned himself so that he and the redhead were facing each other. He brought up his nearest hand to Hadrian and mimed hitting Finnian across the face. Hadrian saw Finnian's face turn to the side with the blow but realized that it missed him by a good measure. On the far side of Finnian's body, Jhonn's right hand connected with his left with a loud smack.

"You see?" Jhonn pointed out. "My hand doesn't come anywhere near him. He simply acts like he's been hit and the noise from my hands striking together completes the deception. When we do this swiftly and at a distance from the audience," gesturing at the stage, "it really looks and sounds like a person has been struck. But we can do it safely and at no risk to our actors."

"That's right. I'd never hurt Finnian-even if he hurt me." Anifiel gazed at Finnian with a hooded expression. Finnian rolled his eyes, sighing in annoyance.

Hadrian sensed conflict among these three and he frowned. He was actually enjoying himself for a change and didn't want anything to spoil the mood. He tried to ease the tension. "Actors? Jhonn used that word before. Is that what people who perform in plays are called?" he asked.

Anifiel nodded, breaking eye contact with Finnian to gaze at Hadrian. "We are. You truly are new to all this, aren't you?" This close, Hadrian could see his eyes soften slightly, looking like the sea around Shard's Point during the summer season. That rapid throbbing he'd felt moments ago returned, stronger than before, and Hadrian looked away quickly.

Before he could dwell on the disturbing sensation, Finnian piped up, "I say enough talk. I'm hungry, Ani. When can we eat?"

Jhonn stepped away from Finnian. "I was telling Hades here that I would take him out to get a bit of drink in his belly. I could tell him a little about what it is we do under this tent."

Anifiel scowled. "Jhonn-"

"I know, I know. No secrets. Honestly, Anifiel, you behave like acting's some holy mystery not fit to share with lowly mortals. If the profession were always treated with such secrecy, no one would ever want to get mixed up with it."

"And it was such a wonderful day when you came to be with our little band, wasn't it?" Steely anger ran under the polite words and the green eyes hardened until they became glittering emeralds.

Finnian edged away from Jhonn and ducked into a small side egress that Hadrian hadn't noticed before. Out of sight of the stage, he shook his head at Anifiel and grinned at Hadrian before disappearing. Jhonn turned to Hadrian. "He'll be out soon enough. He just has to change out of his costume."

"I think I'll join you as well," Anifiel added abruptly.

Jhonn raised his eyebrows. "Keeping an eye on us, Anifiel?" he murmured.

The blond's lips thinned but he didn't answer. For a moment, sharp blue eyes fenced with stony green ones. Then Anifiel retreated after Finnian. Jhonn turned towards Hadrian. "The tent will be shut up until tomorrow. Want to join us, Hades?"

Hadrian hesitated. "If you don't think I'll be in the way…"

Jhonn clapped him on the back. "Not at all! Don't worry about what Anifiel says. I want to let you know more about what we do here." Impulsively Hadrian decided to accept. It would be a welcome change to deal with ordinary magic. And it wasn't as if anyone would miss him…

The redhead appeared only moments later with Anifiel in his wake. Both men had changed into ordinary clothes. Finnian's face was clean, shiny from scrubbing. He ran forward and threw his arms around Jhonn. "I'm glad we met, Hades. This is going to be a great evening!"

Hadrian wasn't so sure. Anifiel's expression had darkened when Finnian had embraced Jhonn. The next instant the scowl disappeared and he took a place by Hadrian's side, a clear attempt to distance himself from the other two. On their way out of the tent, they were joined by the rest of the players, all eager to take a little break before the more difficult task of performing.

The walk was punctuated with loud conversation, whistling, snatches of speeches and songs that Hadrian didn't recognize. The whole crowd seemed to be in a boisterous mood and they talked to each other with the easy familiarity of close friends, even family.

The only one to hold aloof was Anifiel. His eyes kept straying to Jhonn and Finnian when the others couldn't see and Hadrian understood. This man mourned the loss of someone, too.

They wound through the streets and Hadrian feared they might settle on the same place where he and the others were lodged. Fortunately, their impatience to whet their appetites for drink and food led them to the first inn they came across. "The Staggering Bull. I like the sound of that," Tolias grinned.

"Me too," Finnian piped up.

"Careful, Finnian. Don't take too much. You know what drink does to you," Jhonn cautioned. His tender care of his lover (he had gathered that much by now) was moving. Hadrian remembered a time when Caled had been that solicitous about him. A lump rose in his throat and he swallowed hard.

Anifiel sat at Hadrian's side, drinking his glass of ale with cool deliberation. He had ordered a pint for Hadrian and wouldn't listen when the black-haired youth protested. So Hadrian held his tankard in his hand and took careful sips while listening wide-eyed to the others.

"So we tell everybody beforehand absolutely no smoking in the theater…" Metis, a slightly built youth who reminded him of Gam and Lio, stated. "One spark and the whole place could go up like a torch. But this one man put his lit pipe inside of his tunic to hide it. But he gets so caught up in what's happening on stage he forgets it's there. So, right in the middle of Anifiel's big speech, this guy yells and jumps up as if his ass is on fire. Which it is!" Metis began laughing so hard, ale shot out of his nose.

"Ugh. Nice one, Metis." Another young man by the name of Bothall grimaced as he brushed off droplets of ale that had splashed on his worn sleeve. "Anyway, you're not telling the story right."

Bothall leaned towards Hadrian. "The man's pipe had slipped down and fallen into his breeches. So it was his crotch that was on fire not his ass. He starts screaming, dancing around and banging into the other patrons while trying to swat out the burning in his groin. He was more entertaining by far than anything happening on stage! Finally, we managed to douse him with water and get him out of the tent before he burned the place down." The whole company was laughing by now and Hadrian joined them, happy for the first time in months.

"But the show was jinxed!" Finnian crowed, almost choking with hysterical giggles. "No chance of keeping their attention after that. When someone pretended to light a fire on stage, they just roared. The rest of Anifiel's speech fell on deaf ears because the audience kept on laughing in the wrong places."

"Really?" Hadrian turned to Anifiel only to see storm clouds gathering on his forehead. Obviously, having his performance ruined had been anything but amusing to him.

"You're not still upset over that, are you, Anifiel? It was months ago and I'm sure most of the people there have forgotten by now," chided a plump man, his face shining with grease. He had spent most of the time eagerly stuffing himself with thick sausages instead of drinking as the others did.

The green-eyed man forced a smile. "You're right, Braffin. It was months ago. We're in a new town now. So let's just enjoy ourselves tonight." There was a chorus of agreement from the rest of the troupe as they turned back to their food and drink.

Anifiel chose this moment to talk to Hadrian. "I'm sorry, Hades. With all our silly stories, I'm afraid we've neglected you. Who are you and from where do you hail?" He peered at the younger man. "And why don't you take off your cloak and those gloves?"

"I'm cold."

Anifiel glanced at the last few streaks of daylight left outside. "But it's the height of summer. How can you be cold?"

"I'm from southern Jeynesa, the Grace-of-the-Gods. It's much hotter down there and thus it always feels a little chilly to me up north," Hadrian lied. Manix had come up with this story to cover his inclusion with them. He obviously wasn't a mercenary or thief and his shyness was easily apparent even to people meeting him for the first time. Pretending to be a mage-in-training would be the best way to explain his sheltered air and unease with strangers.

Silence fell over the table. Finnian leaned forward in excitement. "Truly? You're from the Tower of the Elders? We thought that bunch never left those hallowed halls! You're a long way from home, aren't you?"

"Well, my Master thought it would be a good idea for me to see something of the outside world," Hadrian fumbled. "He didn't think being closed off from the rest of Jeynesa was very wise. The Elders, I mean we, can't afford to shut ourselves off. What if something momentous happens in the land and we're left ignorant because we didn't keep our eyes and ears opened?" he finished.

"Makes sense," the fat man muttered around a mouthful of bread. There were murmurs of agreement around the table. Hadrian let out a shaky breath. It was the first time he'd really been called to account for himself; he hadn't been certain he would be believed.

His reprieve was short-lived. Anifiel probed him further. "Who is your Master, Hades?"

That was a question with different answers. Gavedon? Caled? Manix? Hadrian took a gulp of his ale to give himself time to respond. But the sudden flood of alcohol went straight to his head and he stared blankly into his tankard. For the life of him, he couldn't remember what he'd been about to say.

"Hades?" The anxious voice dropped into his consciousness and he looked up, blinking to focus his vision. Anifiel's face floated into view and Hadrian smiled goofily.

"You're so handsome. I didn't realize before how much," he murmured, his smile stretching wider until it nearly split his face.

Across the table, Finnian let out a guffaw. "Oh, Ani. I think he's struck with you. Better take advantage before he sobers up."

Anifiel frowned at him. "I'm not about to force myself on anybody, Finnian, especially someone insensible to what he's saying."

"I think what he's saying is very sensible," Jhonn drawled. "You're not bad looking, Anifiel. The boy clearly appreciates that."

Hadrian had been taking in this exchange dimly. But this comment rankled and he scowled. "I-I'm not a boy," he huffed.

"Of course not. Jhonn was just thinking you could easily play a girl," Finnian pointed out with a grin.

Caled had often accused him of being womanish, sneering at Hadrian's prissy hygiene, his shyness at bathing in front of the others and that time-ONCE!-that he'd fainted from the heat. Now an unusual belligerence caused his eyes to narrow. "What's that supposed to mean?" he demanded.

"Ignore him, Hades. Finnian doesn't always talk sense," Anifiel said dismissively. Hadrian tried to rise from the table but Anifiel yanked him down again. The action caused Hadrian's hood to fall off and the conversation stopped, everyone at the table arrested by the ebony hair framing the entrancing pale face and silver eyes.

Hadrian attempted to pull his hood up. But Anifiel's hand arrested him. He grasped Hadrian's chin, preventing the youth from turning away. Green eyes swept in delighted fascination over the flushed features. "No. A swan flying among crows. Such a lovely face. Why hide it?"

"I-I…" Hadrian scrambled for a reason, anything that would sound plausible to the staring men. But the ale was befuddling his senses and making it hard to think. He settled for jerking his chin out of Anifiel's hand and raising his hood again. "I'm shy. I didn't get out much when I was a child and-I'm just shy," he finished feebly.

Hadrian could feel Anifiel's eyes burning a hole in his hood. But he kept his gaze resolutely forward without meeting the other's. The blond turned back to the company and made a remark about the next evening's performance. For a while the others continued to sneak glances at Hadrian. But their leader's persistent comments about costumes, stage movement and swordplay soon had their complete attention.

Hadrian sipped moodily at his beer. Now that the attention was no longer on him, he felt excluded from the conversation and the company. The loneliness that was never far away rose up to choke him. He lifted the tankard again only to find that it was empty and his mouth turned down mournfully.

Anifiel noticed his unhappiness and signaled for another. He waited until this one had been drained as well. Draping an arm casually around Hadrian, he bent and whispered in his ear, "It's getting hot in here, Hades. Let's you and I retire from the others. We can meet up with them again tomorrow."

Hadrian was too tipsy to consider what might lie behind this proposal. He staggered up from the table, Anifiel's arm steadying him. He barely heard the other man make arrangements for a room for the night. It wasn't until he was seated on the bed, the blond pulling off his boots and cloak, that his mind cleared enough to question the proceedings. "Wh-where are we?"

"I've arranged for us to stay here for the evening. You're far too drunk to make it back to the tent unless somebody carried you. And I don't think your pride could stand that. Besides, our lodgings are far too mean and uncomfortable for someone as-sheltered as you." Anifiel smiled, a long slow stretch of his lips that had charmed many an audience.

Hadrian swallowed. That smile, the first true one he'd seen from Anifiel, stunned him completely. The man's face was transformed, enhancing an already undeniable masculine beauty. There was also a smoldering look in those green eyes, one he was very familiar with from having seen it in Caled's. "Anifiel…"

"Mmmm, yes?" Anifiel's voice was distracted. He pulled off Hadrian's shirt and ran his hand over the thin undertunic beneath it. "Very nice," he murmured. Large fingers rubbed over Hadrian's torso, the nipples just visible under the material and the quivering stomach. He clasped Hadrian by the hips and dragged him over his lap.

Hadrian gulped. He could feel a very large length poking him under his buttocks. He was still half dressed but he knew now what Anifiel wanted. "I-I don't think…"

"Then don't think." Anifiel tilted up Hadrian's head and kissed him. The tender suction on his mouth caused Hadrian's feeble protests to die away. The kiss was wonderful, skillful but cautious as if Anifiel were giving him the chance to retreat if he wanted.

That tenderness was his undoing. He could have dealt with cruelty or harshness; it was what he'd known most of his life. But this kindness, when he didn't deserve it, when he longed so for it to come to another, was more than Hadrian could bear. Unbidden, tears began to trickle from beneath his closed eyelids.

Anifiel continued to pull at Hades's mouth. He'd had some vague notion of making Finnian jealous when he retreated with this youth. However, once alone with him, the raven-haired stranger's shyness, vulnerability and undeniable beauty had captured him completely. There had been a stirring in his loins that he hadn't experienced in a long time and he set out to woo this lovely, even if it was only for one night.

But Hades's lips had gone slack beneath his and now he could taste salt in his mouth. Puzzled, Anifiel drew back to see tears streaking Hades's cheeks. "Hades, what is it? What's wrong?" he demanded, alarmed by the grief he could see in the other's face. He knew he wasn't hurting Hades. Had it been too long? His technique couldn't have deteriorated this much!

"N-nothing's…wrong. No, th-that's not…true. Everything's wrong! Everything!" Hades pushed weakly at him and attempted to stand. "I shouldn't…be here. You shouldn't be…touching me. You'd hate me…if you knew."

"Knew what, Hades?" In spite of Hades's attempts to push him away, Anifiel held him close about the shoulders. He craved a more intimate touch. But he sensed now was not the moment for it.

"I'm a…bad man." A hiccup spoiled the self-condemning words. Hadrian wobbled and then collapsed against Anifiel's chest. The blond hid his smile by resting his chin in Hades's hair. He remembered nights when he'd done this with Finnian and the old anguish briefly clutched at him. He was glad Hades couldn't see his face; it doubtless wore a pain to match his own.

Nevertheless his next words were steady and soothing. "You can't be a bad man, Hades. I've met bad men. They're nothing like you."

"No, they're…not. They haven't…destroyed…a city." The words were slurred; Anifiel was certain he had misheard.

"A city? What, you mean in an army? I won't believe you're a soldier, Hades. You simply don't look it!" Anifiel laughed.

"Not an…army. Just…little ole…me." Those words were followed by a tittering laugh, completely devoid of mirth and hinting at the beginnings of madness.

Anifiel felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. This could have been mere drunkenness talking. But the mention of a destroyed city and Hades's assertion that he alone was responsible stirred something, a memory…

The Rude Mechanicals had made their usual circuit of Jeynesa last year. They had heard talk about one of the seaside cities having been destroyed, burnt to the ground along with all its inhabitants, by an evil sorcerer. They had dismissed the gossip; most of the stories had sounded wildly improbable. Tales of a man flying through the air on the back of a fieran and throwing flames like lightning bolts had been among the least crazed of the rumors.

In spite of the warnings, they had proceeded on their journey. Then they had come to the outskirts of Rhiad and seen the horror for themselves. As far as the eye could see, the city was nothing more than ashes, blackened stone and burnt wood. They could hear the cries of carrion birds that flew up at their approach and then settled down again to continue feasting on whatever flesh they had found. Of human life there hadn't been sight or sound.

It had shaken him to his soul. With barely a word, the entire troupe had turned the horse-drawn cart around and fled from the ruined city. Even if they rebuilt Rhiad in his lifetime, Anifiel silently swore he would never go there again. He knew cursed ground when he saw it.

And now this man claimed he was responsible for such a horror. Could he be…? "Are you-Hadrian ni Leyanon?" he whispered.

Hades only giggled. "You shouldn't say that…name…out loud. Hasn't…anybody told you it's…bad luck? Just say…Scourge of Rhiad. People will…know." He looked up into Anifiel's eyes, sorrow and resignation in his voice. "You hate me now…don't you?"

Anifiel stared into the face resting against his chest. Hades-gods, with that name how could he be anybody else?-was gazing at him steadily. There was neither fear nor anger in his eyes. Indeed, they held nothing at all. But that could easily change in a heartbeat.

Should he run? Rouse the house? Hadrian might be aware enough to wreak havoc if he was provoked. But Anifiel knew well the signs of too much imbibing. If he simply waited, Hadrian would drop into a drunken stupor. Then Anifiel could turn him in without danger.

He started at a touch on his cheek. "You really are…handsome," Hadrian whispered. "Beautiful even. I-I wish you hadn't…found out. I wouldn't…have minded…anything you wanted…to do to…me. It's been so…long. He doesn't…want me. Nobody…does. Why should…they? I destroy…everything I…touch." He gave a hiccupping sob and his eyes filled with tears again.

"You haven't destroyed me," Anifiel answered. Hadrian wasn't dangerous. He would bet his life on it and he hesitated no longer. He bent down, brushing his lips across those wet cheeks. The tip of his tongue swept across the skin, licking off every drop of saltwater.

"Uhhh. Stop…" But Hadrian's protests were feeble. He collapsed back on the bed, watching from beneath hooded eyelids as the other man began undressing.

The man was beautiful, skin bronzed evenly all over and smooth without a single scar to mar its perfection. Powerful muscles flexed in his arms and legs as he pulled off his plain shirt and bent over to remove his boots one by one. He shucked off his trousers and stood up and Hadrian sucked in a breath. His member was…it was of a size in keeping with his husky frame and the sorcerer swallowed. It had been a long time for him. He hoped Anifiel would be careful; it would be too painful for Hadrian if he weren't.

When Anifiel pressed him to the bed, he couldn't think of a single reason why he was protesting this. By the reddened prick jutting out from a nest of tawny hairs, Anifiel obviously wanted him and he was not altogether astonished to realize he returned the feeling. Heat was creeping over his body, following the trail of the man's mouth as he lipped and tongued at Hadrian's throat and chest.

He gasped and jumped at a casual nip at one aching nub. It hadn't hurt exactly and a flare of warmth swiftly followed it. Anifiel's touch was just as forceful as Caled's and just as erotic. However, the thought of the mercenary, in the midst of all this, caused Hadrian to sob and throw an arm over his eyes to hide the renewed tears.

Anifiel saw this and pulled back with a sigh. He may have been a lover. But he was also an actor and a good actor knew the benefit of a well-told story. His lips barely grazed Hadrian's ear as he whispered. "You want this, Hadrian and I'll give it to you. But I know there's more to your grief than the little you've told me. Unburden your heart to me." When Hadrian didn't answer, he asked, "Shall I start?"

He continued to caress the prone youth, not allowing the urgency in Hadrian's flesh to die. "I love Finnian. I have since we first met. We were together for years. But it seems I didn't give him everything he needed. Then Jhonn joined our band of players. The two of them were made for each other, it appears, and I found myself left in the cold.

"But, when I saw you tonight, I wanted you and not merely because you are beautiful. And you are beautiful, Hadrian." When he saw Hadrian tremble, he smiled. "Something tells me no one has said that to you in a while."

"No-o," Hadrian's voice quavered.

"That's a shame. But now it's more than attraction. You feel a longing to match my own and stemming from the same cause, I think. Perhaps we can ease each other's grief. Just a little. Just for tonight."

He tilted his head so he could gauge Hadrian's feelings. The gray eyes were glazed so Anifiel wasn't certain how much of this was penetrating. But he had to know what Hadrian felt. "So let me help you. Why do you shrink from me? Why do you think I would hate you? You've done me no harm and I sense that you would never unless you were greatly pushed to it. So tell me…why?"

It was a bad idea to tell this man anything…wasn't it? It was so hard to think; Hadrian couldn't remember why he had to keep silent, really. Wait, he knew why. Caled wouldn't like it if he spoke to a stranger. But an unusual rebellion nipped at Hadrian. He wanted one night that had nothing to do with that damned mercenary.

He stared into those green eyes and lifted a gloved hand to a smooth cheek.

__________

Hadrian woke up with a start. He glanced around in confusion. Where was the other bed with the mercenary and thief in it? He could see his clothes, newly washed and hung over a clothesline stretched above the fireplace. Since when did they have a fireplace?

He frowned at the hanging clothes, evidence of his nudity. He couldn't remember getting undressed. He couldn't remember being in this place at all. It wasn't the room Caled had chosen, was it? He sat up in the bed and immediately regretted it. The chamber spun and there was a heavy pounding in his head that caused him to groan in pain.

He stood shakily to wash his face with the water in the basin. There was a brackish taste in his mouth. He would have liked to swallow the cool liquid to ease it. But his stomach was queasy; he wasn't sure he could keep down anything. He settled for swilling the water in his mouth to wash out some of the awful taste.

He tried recalling the past evening's events. He had seen…a tent? There had been a large man with an irrepressible redhead. Manix and Syellen? No, this couple had been other people entirely. And there was a fleeting memory of melting green eyes that had seemed to see through him and a tender touch brushing over his skin…

So how did he come to be naked and alone in a strange room? His gloves were gone too and he looked about in a panic before seeing them on the small table with his boots neatly arranged beneath them. That was a relief. Also, his body felt warm and relaxed in a way that he hadn't experienced in a long time. Just what had passed here?

He shook his head in frustration and staggered as a sharp pain stabbed behind his eyes. By the gods, that hurt! He'd only felt like this once before-when he'd let Caled goad him into drinking too much. He had learned he couldn't handle liquor. So why did his head hurt so much?

He put his clothes on slowly since the room still had a tendency to tilt when he moved too quickly. When he yanked on one boot, he stepped on something bulky and hard. Pulling his foot out, he tipped over his footwear. A small packet fell out.

Hadrian opened it and found a paper enclosing wooden round tablets. They bore the legends of the Rude Mechanicals as well as the smiling and frowning masks he could remember now from yesterday. The words on the paper were simple but very telling and he could feel the heat sweep across his face as he read.

"Hades, I don't know how much you remember about last night. But you were wonderful. I just wish we'd had more time together. Who knows what kind of fun we could have? I'd very much like to see you again tonight. Come to the theater with your friends and present your tokens. I'll be waiting. Anifiel."

Last night? Who was Anifiel and what kind of fun did he mean? Hadrian's eyes narrowed as he considered. The packet held six tokens, enough for him and his traveling companions. He must have told this person about the others, then. What else had he said? What else had he done?!? Well, he had woken up undressed and he blushed at the implications of that.

Should he see this Anifiel, if only to clear up this mystery? The paper gave no help one way or another. Making up his mind, he crumpled up the paper and then shredded it into tiny bits. He shoved the pieces into the burnt remnants of the fire, glad to see that they merged indistinguishably from the gray ashes in the fireplace. But he couldn't bring himself to destroy the tokens.

He would find the others and say…what? Well, he would tell them that he'd seen the tent, learned about the play-what was the name of it? He racked his brains but the title eluded him. No matter. It had looked to be entertaining and he'd been curious enough to buy tickets for all of them. He didn't need to lie-much.

He made his way downstairs and learned from the barkeep where he could find the inn where he'd left his friends. While walking, he practiced his story over and over again in his mind until it sounded perfect.

__________

The two thieves looked anxiously at the lone figure sitting on the bed. Caled had woken up alone, Lio and Gam having taken the other bed. He'd expected to find Hadrian curled up beside him. But the sorcerer was still missing. He'd been upset, questioning Lio and Gam and later, over breakfast, Manix and Syellen. Nobody had seen the sorcerer.

Manix had reminded him of the geas binding their lives. As long as Caled was alive, that meant Hadrian lived, too. Caled didn't find that reassuring. Hadrian could be hurt or kidnapped. Even now he could be miles away. When the hours passed and Hadrian didn't return, even the mage had become anxious about his welfare.

Caled had taken Gam and Lio out to look for him. But any description of Hadrian's unique features might be enough to alert his enemies if he was still within city walls. Without giving details of his appearance, the search was a frustrating one. So they'd returned and now Caled spent his time polishing his daggers in grim silence. Gam was about to suggest to Lio that they take another turn around the city when Hadrian strode through the door.

The trio froze. Caled jammed his weapons back into their sheaths and leaped to his feet, crossing to Hadrian in two long strides. So great was his relief, he was about to embrace his errant sorcerer. But he was aware of the presence of the thieves and seized him by the shoulders instead. He shook Hadrian hard so the brunette's head flopped back and forth on his shoulders. "Hades, dammit! Where the fuck have you been? Do you know how worried the others have been over you?"

Hadrian jerked back, trying to break Caled's grip. He grasped his head and grimaced as though in pain. "Stop it, Caled! What's the matter? Your day not complete unless you start out by assaulting me?"

Caled released him though not before giving him a final shake. "I have a right to be upset, Hades. What if you'd gotten killed? I've no wish to die because you got careless with your life!"

Hadrian ran his gloves over his face wearily. "I'm sorry that you were worried, Caled. But I hope this will make it up to you." He reached into his pouch and pulled out the wooden tokens.

Caled glanced at them with disinterest. "Wooden coins?" he sneered. "Gods, Hades, I knew you were naïve. But if you've traded decent goods for wood coins instead of metal ones, I'm giving you a good beating just to get some sense into your head." He leaned closer to Hadrian. "So where were you, Hades? What the hell could have kept you out all night?"

The dark-haired man shrugged. "I picked these up. I thought it might be amusing." He held out the round tokens to the two thieves. "How about it, Lio, Gam? Interested?"

Lio peered closely at the inscriptions on the coins. "The Rude Mechanicals? They're in town? Holy shit, Gam! We haven't seen them in ages!" he exclaimed.

Caled turned around at the excitement in the green-eyed thief's voice. He and Gam were looking over the wooden trinkets. It was clear they weren't the useless things he'd taken them for. But he'd be damned if he showed any interest in whatever nonsense Hadrian had gotten himself involved in.

"You've got six tokens? That's fantastic, Hadrian!" Lio beamed at him. "But it must have been dear. The Rude Mechanicals are the best players I've ever seen. Tokens to see their shows aren't cheap."

Hadrian waved a hand airily. "It doesn't matter," he replied, a slight smile on his features. That smile, more than his tone, caused Caled to shoot him a narrow stare. Hadrian didn't smile, at least not around him he didn't. Where was the gloom that usually hung over him like a cloud over the sun?

Before he could question it, Gam slung his arm around Hadrian's shoulders in a rare gesture of camaraderie. "This is great, Hadrian. While the audience is all caught up with what's happening on stage, we can pick them clean! They'll never know what hit them!"

Hadrian rolled his eyes and burst out laughing. Now even the thieves were startled and they stared at Hadrian as if he'd sprouted horns. "I should have known you'd see it that way, Gam. So let's tell Manix and Syellen and we can see the show later."

"You're not expecting me to join in this little farce, are you, Hades?" Caled said with barely disguised scorn.

Hadrian stared at him coolly. "Of course not. You can stay here and amuse yourself however you like."

He could feel the others staring at him again. It was unlike him to dismiss Caled so easily; they clearly found his behavior a little strange. Before he could think of something to deflect the questions they were bound to ask, Caled spoke up again.

"I'd better come. With his luck, Hades will get into trouble and we may have to fight for our lives." He smirked at Hadrian. "You're not getting rid of me that easily."

Hadrian turned away as if the decision was of no interest to him at all.

__________

After the thieves left, Caled grabbed Hadrian. "That was a nice tale you spun for them, Hades. But don't think I'm such a fool? Just where were you last night?"

"I told you. I bought tickets…"

"To see a play. Very unlike you, Hades, to get caught up in anything to do with other people. You're as delicate and shy as a maiden. And I don't believe getting a few wooden coins would take up an entire night."

The black-haired youth gave the mercenary a stare so chilly Caled could feel frost seeping into his bones. "It was late and I was tired. Frankly, I didn't want to spend another night in bed listening to you paw Lio and Gam."

"Jealous, Hades?" Caled purred.

Hadrian ignored the taunt. "I slept in a doorway all night. And it was dark so, no, I don't know which one," he added quickly. "I'm here now; what does it matter?"

"It doesn't. But, by the gods, you tend to be more trouble than you're worth."

"Worried, Caled?" Hadrian said, mimicking the way Caled had accused him of jealousy.

Caled snorted. "Fuck that. I just hope nobody caught sight of your face, that's all." It mattered greatly to Caled although he would never say so. He had spent a sleepless night worrying about Hades. It rankled to know the sorcerer was not only unharmed but indifferent to his own suffering.

Well, if the fool preferred a cold night propped up in a doorway instead of a comfortable bed that was his problem. But that didn't fit either. Hades wasn't stiff in his movements as he would have been if he'd spent a night outdoors on a hard surface. And the serenity he radiated was baffling.

So where had he really been?

__________

The day couldn't pass quickly enough for Hadrian. He knew Caled was curious about his night. So was he, for that matter. But he sensed Caled really didn't want to dig too hard lest the others think he cared about Hadrian.

His reticence suited Hadrian. For once, his thoughts weren't bound up with the blonde fighter. Bewildering flashes of memory brought glimpses of other faces, of friendly people who had actually seemed to like him. And the one that occupied him the most belonged to a gorgeous face with firm lips, prominent cheekbones, sparkling sea green eyes and light golden hair spilling like white wine down the man's bare shoulders.

He started. Bare shoulders? That held significance. Why would the man's shoulders be bare unless…? Hadrian sighed in frustration as the memory slipped away.

They moved purposefully through the streets, jubilance and excitement running through the conversation. There were masses of people heading in the same direction as they and the sextet blended into the crowd. Gam and Lio pointed to soon-to-be victims. With half-words and grunts, their own private language, they weighed and judged who would be a good mark and who wasn't worth the bother.

The silver-haired mage and his apprentice conversed in low voices. Syellen's higher accents broke through while she told the amused Elder of past productions and various shows she'd seen. She was clearly trying to impress Manix and Hadrian smiled at her transparent efforts.

He glanced at Caled. Hadrian wanted to ask Caled if he'd ever seen a play. But he and the mercenary remained in a closed bubble of silence. The blonde fighter didn't even deign to look at him; he kept sweeping his eyes over the crowd as he assessed possible danger from the playgoers. One glance at the mercenary's preoccupied expression and Hadrian abandoned hope of engaging him in anything like friendly conversation.

"Hadrian, are you well? You look…unhappy," Lio observed as he brushed Hadrian's cheek. Lio was always finding excuses to touch him, something that irked the sorcerer no end.

Hadrian summoned a smile and edged out of reach. "I'm fine. I'm just eager to see the show."

Syellen spoke up, voicing Caled's unspoken suspicions. "That's not like you, Hadrian. Since when are you involved in, well, anything?"

[Since I met people who weren't interested in me for my sorcery.] But Hadrian merely shrugged and replied, "If nothing else, it'll give Gam and Lio a chance to replenish their coin."

The stealing pair beamed and Lio clapped Hadrian on the shoulder. "Hadrian, it's nice to know that you're thinking of us."

"Yah. We'll save some of our takings for you," Gam chimed in.

Hadrian grinned at this promise. Then a strange sound impinged itself on his awareness. It sounded like music and he realized he'd been hearing it for some time now. The travelers rounded the corner and Hadrian heard the gasps and murmurs of appreciation from Syellen and Manix as the tent was revealed. Gam and Lio had seen this before, of course. But they were equally impressed by the magnificent enclosure. Hadrian showed the ticket vendor his tokens and they were waved inside.

The air they had noted was coming from a small group of musicians seated in a circle around the base of the stage. The music he'd heard earlier had been gay and lively, no doubt serving to draw in the crowd. Now it had turned mournful, giving the impression of a funeral march.

They pushed forward to find places close to the stage. Hadrian found it difficult to keep his hood up while the crowd jostled him but he managed. Finally, he was standing near the front with Caled, Manix and Syellen by his side. When he looked about for the thieves, Caled smirked at him. "I saw them disappear into the crowd. I suppose they'll join us when they've satisfied themselves about their haul."

Caled actually found himself curious to see the night's entertainment. He wanted to see what was so special about this to have captured Hadrian's attention. Or maybe it was something else that had drawn the impressionable sorcerer…

A grizzled man strode on to the stage and a groan went up from the audience. He held up his hands in a placating gesture. "No need to worry yerselves, folks. None of the players are sick and the performance will go on as planned. However, there's been a small change to the bill."

When cries of protest rose from the throng, he held up his hands again. "Instead of the tragedy, Ramario and Essa, the Pirate's Daughter, we are showing a different play, one that we've performed to the delights of audiences all over Jeynesa. Tonight you will see Gonzago's Daughter by Athalen ni Whearthon."

The sounds of displeasure died down to be replaced by murmurs of satisfaction and anticipation. The crowd evidently knew this piece. Hadrian glanced at Caled with a question in his eyes. The mercenary shrugged in irritation. "Don't look at me, Hades. I don't know anything about it. I'm not here to see this anyway. I'm just making sure you don't put the rest of us in danger."

Hadrian turned away, glad his hood concealed his expression. Naturally Caled didn't care about him. He only wanted to protect his own hide. Ignoring the sting behind his eyes, he bent all his attention on the performance.

__________

The torches to the side were extinguished except for three to light the stage. The curtain was pulled back and the crowd burst into cries of surprise.

In the left foreground, a flight of stairs led up to an upper story of a house. On that level, cleverly built to hang over part of the stage, a small room with a bed, chair, desk and a night table holding a jug of water and a glass was opened to the audience so they could see the whole interior. The rest of the stage was taken up with an amazing garden of flowers and the hint of a house on the far right of the platform

People began to applaud as a tall figure stepped on to the stage and ascended the stairs. "Anifiel! It's Anifiel!" a woman on Hadrian's left whispered excitedly to her neighbor. "I saw him perform in Twin Rivers. He's sooo handsome!"

"Shhhh!" another audience member hissed.

So this was Anifiel. Hadrian had known it the instant the man appeared. Memory swam over him as he stared at the imposing figure. No longer in pirate gear, Anifiel wore a jacket made of expensive linen. Ruffled sleeves peeked from the cuffs and it was covered with metal buttons down the front. Blue linen breeches fastened with steel buttons graced his legs. He was wearing boots again but these were buffed to a high shine that made them wink in the light.

Then, in the briefest of moments, green eyes lifted and met Hadrian's. Did he imagine it or did a spark light the man's eyes before he turned away? Hadrian swallowed as his heart banged hard in his chest; he wondered that Caled didn't hear it.

A muscle twitched in Caled's jaw. Had that over-sized player winked at Hades? But why would he? Something like jealousy tugged at Caled for a moment before he decided to ignore what he'd just seen. It was probably just his imagination.

A portly woman in a long peasant dress climbed up behind Anifiel. An apron and a tray of food held in her hands signaled that she was a member of the lower classes. But this couldn't be a woman. They weren't allowed to perform on stage, were they? Hadrian vaguely remembered someone having said that to him.

Anifiel looked about the room and nodded reluctantly. "It's not what I'm used to. But it will do while I complete my studies." His accent now was upper class with precise pronunciation; his character was then a man of some means.

"I'm glad you like it, sir. You're lucky to have found it. With all the students in town, there are few places left to lease." She set the tray down on the nightstand.

Anifiel peered out the window. "What is that garden out there? Does it belong to this house?"

An odd look of fear crossed her face. "The gods forbid." At his surprise, she attempted to recover. "It belongs to the house opposite owned by a Master Gonzago. He is a man who works wonders with flowers. Many of the blooms you see grow nowhere else in the land." She shuffled towards the door as if eager to make her escape.

But Anifiel persisted with his questions. "Does he live alone? The garden looks too big for one man to tend."

The woman clenched her hands in her apron. "His daughter, the lady Berenice, helps him with the tending of them."

At this news Anifiel smiled and the women in audience let out sighs of delight. "Daughter? Is she beautiful, this Berenice?"

The woman shrugged uneasily. It was clear the subject was one she didn't care to discuss. "Perhaps. I am no judge of other women's beauty. Now I must tend to the rest of my chores, young sir. When you're finished with the tray, leave it outside the door and I will be along to collect it." She opened the door and closed it decisively behind her

Anifiel was clearly puzzled by her hasty exit. But he wasn't given a chance to think about it. Another figure had entered the stage, walking into the artificial garden.

Hadrian recognized the burly figure. But his altered appearance caused his heart to lurch in terror. Straight, shiny black hair in a single part spilled down to his shoulders. A beard covered his chin and a thin mustache graced a cruel mouth. His skin looked sallow like one who had spent much time studying indoors. Cold eyes without a shadow of warmth flickered over the garden, giving the impression of a brutal king surveying his domain.

This man's eyes were blue not silver. But in every other way he resembled the man Hadrian feared more than any other in the world. It was Gavedon to the life and evidently he wasn't the only one who to notice the likeness. Here and there, angry mutters and hisses were rising from the audience.

"Shit, I don't believe it. Why the hell would they impersonate that monster? Don't they realize what people will think?" Caled growled. A stifled moan caused him to look sharply at his companion. "Hades?"

Caled clasped Hadrian's shoulder and was startled to feel it shake beneath his grasp. "Hades? Gods, you're trembling." Forgetting momentarily his animosity towards Hadrian, Caled ran his hand soothingly up and down the sorcerer's back. "Relax, Hades. It's not really your father. There's a vague resemblance; that's all."

"I-I know," Hadrian whispered. He was regaining his self-control. Of course it wasn't his father. It was one of the other men he'd met last night-what was his name? Jhonn? But why would these people show Gavedon on the stage? Where would they have gotten the idea unless…? He thought of the note that Anifiel had left for him, the unexpected change of plays and panic gripped him. Was all this an elaborate trap laid for him?

The man had wrapped a broad kerchief around his face and pulled thick gloves over his hands. He proceeded to attend to the flowers, keeping them at arm's length as if he feared to get too close. There were many plants that he avoided altogether, careful not to let his heavy robes brush them.

He came to one bush with lush purple flowers that almost seemed to glow like jewels in the light. He stretched out his hand to the blooms but drew it back without touching them. Stepping back several feet, he called out. "Berenice! Berenice! Come here! I need your help."

"Coming, father!" A young girl came running into the garden. A pale, heart-shaped face graced a long neck and slim body. Black hair like midnight flew out behind her. She was dressed in a floor-length purple gown that held the same luster as the potted flowers. He clasped her shoulders in his gloved hands and looked down at her.

Caled's eyes narrowed as he looked between this "girl" and Hades. The boy up there could have been Hades's younger brother. He was shorter than the sorcerer by a few inches and his eyes a shifting greenish-blue rather than his silver. But the gleaming ebony hair, pale skin and shining beauty were a near-perfect match. He also displayed the same air of vulnerability and eagerness to please. What the hell was going on?

The man's words rang out clearly even behind his cloth. "Berenice, I can no longer tend this plant. It has grown too powerful for me to draw near. You must do it."

She smiled eagerly, showing a peculiar pathetic gratitude for this simple task. "Thank you, father!" She threw her arms around the bush, inhaling its scent greedily. "Give me your breath, my sister! I grow faint with such common air." She picked up a pitcher and began pouring it carefully over the blooms, murmuring to the plant all the while as though it were a live person.

Gonzago stepped back, giving both his daughter and the flowers a wide berth. There was a greedy calculation in his eyes while he watched her. It showed pride in his daughter and his creations rather than love and Hadrian shivered at the unhappy memories it conjured.

The next moment Gonzago's eyes glanced up and met those of Anifiel. The young man in the window started and leaped back as if he'd been stung. The older man appeared unmoved as though he'd known all along Anifiel had been watching. Gonzago said nothing of the spying man to his oblivious daughter. Instead, he pulled her from the flowers and brought her into the house.

Anifiel stood motionless and silent after their departure. Whether he was moved by the beauty of the woman he'd just seen or frozen by the icy, blank stare from her father was unclear.

__________

The curtain swept across the stage. The audience began to move restlessly until vendors came through the crowd offering nuts and fruits for sale. A sharp tapping from the stage and the curtain was drawn aside again.

Now it showed a street scene with people milling about on various errands and pursuits. A couple ambled arm in arm as they gazed into each other's eyes, a harried woman haggled over the price of vegetables and a couple of thieves slid through the crowd picking pockets. Hadrian was startled and not a little upset to see that both men wore eye patches.

This play was turning out to be one shock after another. But he confessed to himself that he was curious to know more. What did Anifiel mean by it all? And how did this play end?

Anifiel was wandering through the crowd on stage. He stopped to buy a fresh bouquet of flowers from a street vendor when a voice hailed him. A jovial man in a teacher's robes came running up to him; Hadrian recognized the fat man from yesterday's dinner. He bore long silver hair that peeked from under a crooked hat and black eyes snapped merely at Anifiel.

This went beyond coincidence. These people had been tricked up to resemble him and his companions. But why? What could be the reason behind it?

"Gianti! My young friend! I have not seen you for many a moon now," the gentleman cried as he clapped Gianti on the shoulder.

Gianti. So that was Anifiel's character. Green eyes lit up. "Perano! Is that you?"

"It's Master Perano now," the other man stated, puffing out his chest in pride.

"Truly? Congratulations! What are you teaching?"

"The anatomy and order of the human body. It's a fascinating study, my young friend. I take it you are a student in town?"

Gianti nodded. "You're right. I've taken up literature and philosophy."

Master Perano let out an exaggerated sigh of disappointment. "So I will not be seeing you in my classes? No matter. It is enough to see the son of my old friend again. How is your august father?"

"Quite well. I'll tell him you asked. He'll be glad to hear of you."

"As I am to hear of him." The Master then glanced knowingly at the bouquet in Gianti's hands. "And what is this? A gift for some lovely female, no doubt."

"Ah, no," Gianti replied, embarrassed. "The rooms I've taken are rather cheerless. I was hoping the flowers would brighten them a little."

"That's a pity. A young man like you should have something-lovely to look at." The Professor's leering grin hinted at what "lovely" things Gianti should be seeing.

"Well, the garden in the back of house is very charming. But I'd prefer to have something of beauty closer to hand rather than gazed at from a distance."

"Garden? I don't know of any lodgings for pay that overlook a garden. Whose is it?"

"It belongs to a ni Gonzago, a master of botany. The elder woman who runs the hostel where I lodge seems rather intimidated by him for some reason. Do you know of him?"

"Indeed I do." Perano's lips puckered. His joviality vanished to be replaced by an odd grimness. "I heard about him when I was at university."

"I take it you didn't care for him much," Gianti probed.

Perano waved his hand as though dismissing any concern. "I never met him personally. It was rumors and gossip mostly. There were whispers of-unnatural experiments with plants. Colleagues spoke of tampering with flora to make them more toxic than anything found in nature. But there was nothing solid. The worst said against Gonzago was that he was a purist solely dedicated to his work."

"Is that such a bad thing?" Gianti queried. "Most men allow themselves to be distracted by the love of the flesh so that they accomplish little in their life. Such devotion to one's work should be admired not despised."

"Gods spare us from such 'devotion' as his. If he could manage the feat, I believe Gonzago would break the world into pieces on a slab and pick it apart with his instruments to find out how it worked."

The blood seemed to drain from Hadrian, leaving him cold and faint. Gavedon had shown the same arrogance. Storming a mountain to tear away a Shard of Life, he had become simultaneously shunned and hated by the Elders who saw his work as an abomination. Hadrian shivered and sensed Caled's eyes searching for his in the shadows of his cloak. But he couldn't tear his eyes away from the two men speaking.

"Surely he isn't as terrible as you say. The man must have some human affection in him. He has a daughter. Doesn't that prove he must have known love for womankind, at least? First the girl's mother and then Berenice herself."

Perano grinned, mirth lighting up his eyes again. "Berenice? Ah, so it is the daughter that has captured your attention! She must be beautiful if she has caught your eye!"

Perano's statement obviously puzzled Anifiel. Hadrian marveled at how easily he could follow the man's emotions. He was really good at this. "Must be beautiful? Haven't you seen her?"

"No one has seen her, my friend! Until this moment, I didn't even know her name. I believe you to be the only man in Jeynesa accorded this unique privilege."

"Are you saying her father keeps her shut up? Why? I can't believe she's ill. She looks in the very bloom of health!"

Perano's eyes widened and he let out a raucous laugh. "Bloom of health! Ha! That's a good one! I must remember it!" The two men parted with puzzlement on Gianti's side and hilarity on Perano's.

Gianti continued walking and Hadrian saw how the scene had been changed earlier. It began to rotate slowly while he walked on the moving wooden planks. Gradually, the opened house came into view until it was fully in sight of the audience again. He brought the flowers up to his room. Then he moved to the window again.

The garden remained quiet. Then the young woman reappeared, this time alone. With her bare hands she touched and stroked all the flowers her father had avoided. She ran to the potted bush of purple flora and sank her face in them, breathing deeply for several moments. The gesture was at once intimate and desperate, as if this were the only physical affection she was allowed to indulge.

She looked up. Her eyes caught Gianti's and she started, her hand flying to her mouth. "Oh! Who are you?"

"Don't be afraid, lady. I'm Gianti ni Goscuano. And I know who you are. You are Berenice ne Gonzago. Since you like flowers, I have a gift for you." He held up his bouquet and tossed it down to her.

She smiled prettily at him, her fright gone. "I thank you, kind sir. I would throw up some of my flowers. But I could never reach you."

"Perhaps I could come down. Speaking like this is rather awkward. There must be a way to enter the garden."

She drew back at the suggestion. "No, there is not. We really shouldn't be talking at all." She glanced nervously at her house as she spoke.

"You think your father would disapprove? But I come from an old and respected family. If I could just introduce myself-"

"No!" she shouted, fear contorting her features. Then she composed herself. "Excuse me. I-I am rather shy and not used to strangers." She made to withdraw.

Gianti called her back. "Wait, lady! You forgot my flowers."

She picked them up and curtsied to him. Then a strange alteration came over the blossoms in her hand. The audience murmured in shock as the blooms seemed to droop and wilt. In moments, most of the petals had fallen off. Before they could see more, the girl picked up her skirts and flew out of the garden, her expression flooded with fear and shame.

__________

The curtain swept down and a few of the torches were re-lit. People turned to their neighbors, eagerly discussing what they had seen so far. Hadrian clasped his arms with his hands. His body was shaking so badly he thought he would fly apart. He started as Caled whispered in a harsh rasp that pierced through the surrounding babble.

"All right, Hades. You mind explaining to me what's going on in there? The people up there look very familiar; you can't tell me you didn't notice. You want to tell me how a bunch of traveling strangers know so much about you: your friends, your appearance, your father?" Caled demanded.

He looked steadily at Caled, glad for the concealing darkness. Hadrian had never been a practiced liar. But the fact that he could remember little of the previous night aided his deception. "I don't know. I didn't tell my secrets to any of these people. I just bought tickets to a play that I thought was going to be about pirates. And you heard what that man said before this play started. It's one they've performed all over Jeynesa. Any resemblances can only be coincidences."

"So it would appear," came Manix's even voice.

"Manix, you have to be lying to yourself if you tell me that doesn't look like Gavedon up there!" Caled hissed. "And some of those other people looked suspiciously like all of us, including you!"

"I'm not up there," Syellen pointed out, a trifle sulkily.

"Just so, Syellen. As Hadrian stated, a mere coincidence." Manix tried to look at Hadrian. But he couldn't see him over Caled's greater height. "You might want to calm yourself, Caled, before you attract undue attention."

Caled glared at Hadrian. He pushed back to his place and stared stonily at the stage. He didn't say another word throughout the rest of the play.

__________

Gianti and Berenice were sitting on a stone bench in the garden. It was midday by the angle of the light and the two bent their heads together in heartfelt talk. "How still the air is here! I don't think I've seen an insect or heard a bird since I've come here." He tipped his head towards Berenice. So you really never leave this place?"

"I stay in the house and work in the garden. Father teaches me about the outside world, the walks, plazas, architecture, languages, arts and sciences. I have all I need right here." She swept her hand around her.

"And didn't you ever wish for company other than Gonzago's?" he probed.

Her face clouded and she looked at the many blooms surrounding them. "I have company."

"You mean these plants? But surely it's not the same as human companionship. You must think highly of flowers indeed if you put them on the same level as humans!"

Questioning eyes stared into his. "Have you never heard of people tending their plants and pets as gently as they might any loved one?"

"Yes. But such creatures can be no substitute for human kindness. If I were to fall ill, I shouldn't expect a potted geranium or lapdog to care for me," Gianti argued.

The girl smiled in amusement. "But I am never ill. If I were, I should expect my father to care for me."

"You are fortunate in your health and your father. But why won't he let you leave this place? I've seen you for a week now and you won't leave in my company. Why can't I talk to your father about us? Why do you hide here?"

Her lips trembled. "You are too cruel, Gianti. I have known you but a week, as you say, but you insist on questioning me in this harsh manner. My father is so strict with me; it's not my fault if I can't leave here. It is unfair of you to harass me about something I can't change."

Gianti was alarmed to see tears gather in her eyes. "Forgive me, Berenice. I've no wish to see you cry. Please dry your eyes." He brushed at her cheeks with her fingers.

Her eyes looked up to his, wide to see him so close. For a breathless moment, the possibility of a kiss hung in the air. Then she shrank back. "No, you mustn't kiss me."

"Forgive me. I meant no…"

"I must go now," she said flatly as she rose.

Gianti stood in alarm, obviously worried that he might have offended. Searching for an excuse to detain her, he said, "You said a week ago that you would give me some of your blossoms. Let me have one from this bush." He reached out towards the purple blooms.

"NO!" Her voice rose in a scream as she grabbed his wrist and dragged him from the flowers. "You mustn't touch that bush. Never, never touch it, Gianti!"

"But why? I see you fondle it all the time. Why can't I?"

"I-I can't explain. But you must keep away from it. If you see any plant in this garden that you don't recognize, stay well away. Ask me if you aren't sure which ones you may touch."

"If I must ask you, that means I must return," Anifiel said teasingly and yet with hope. "So I may see you again?"

She hesitated. Then she nodded and glanced at the house again as though fearing her father might appear. Berenice disappeared, casting him fond fleeting looks all the while.

The stage lighting dimmed so that artificial night descended. The audience could see Gianti tossing and turning in his bed. Berenice and Gonzago appeared briefly, wild laughter breaking from them as they hugged, caressed and kissed each other. Gianti flung up his arms and cried out and Hadrian realized he was watching the man dream. Evil thoughts of Berenice and her father were tormenting him. How well Hadrian knew such nightmares.

The light dimmed and brightened. Then Gianti awoke to find Perano sitting on his bed. "P-Perano?" he said hoarsely.

Perano frowned. Without a hat, abundant silver hair spilled over his shoulders; it was difficult for Hadrian to see anyone but a concerned Manix sitting on that bed. "Gianti, I have been worried about you. I inquired of your teachers and they say you haven't been to school in three days."

Gianti's eyes widened and he struggled to sit up. "Three days? But…it can't be!" his voice rasped and he clasped his throat, surprised at its hoarseness.

"It is indeed. Have you been lying here ill the whole while?" Perano's shrewd gaze flicked to the shuttered windows and back. "Or have you been entertaining yourself elsewhere?"

"That's none of your affair. I'm not taking your classes," Gianti replied sullenly.

"Yet you are the son of a dear friend and I cannot stand by idly and watch his son come to ruin over a creature like Gonzago's daughter."

"Have a care how you speak of her, old man," Gianti snapped. "I love that girl and intend to marry her."

"Eh? And are these the marks of love?" Perano's hand shot out and he twisted Giant's arm for all could see. The audience let out a collective gasp. There, in plain sight on Gianti's wrist, were the black marks of a finger and thumb. Gianti stared at them in shock before his expression closed in stubbornness again.

Perano dropped his hand. "My young friend, you are in a terrible snare and I hope that I have come in time to extricate you from it." He leaned back, eying Gianti grimly. "Has the lady told you who her mother was? Why she never leaves that garden? Why her father keeps such a close watch upon her? Why you are the first and only man to see her?"

"These things don't matter to me. She is a woman of angelic sweetness. The fact that no other man has been with her cannot sully her in my eyes. Just the contrary."

"Ah, but she is not a woman at all, not as you and I count women. She is the product of her father's experiments as much as any of those hellish blooms within his garden."

"You lie!!"

Perano barreled on, paying no heed to Gianti's rising fury. "I told you Gonzago experimented with plants. But it went far beyond what was rational, natural or sane. He had the notion of creating a new race of people, one resistant to disease, infirmity and old age, one that could live as long as mighty oaks do. He wanted his handiwork to be the mother of that new race. Yet once created she was so poisonous in nature even he could not approach her. So instead of making her his wife, he named her his daughter."

"No! This is madness! I refuse to believe it!" Gianti struggled to rise. But Perano easily held him down and he ceased his struggles in exhaustion.

"Believe it. She is a flower ten times more venomous than any snake, capable of killing everything she touches. Look at your arm if you need proof. For the sake of your life, it is best that you break off relations with her at once." When Gianti didn't reply, Perano's face softened. "Perhaps it need not come to that if you are as fond of her as you claim." He fished inside his coat and brought out a little vial. A reddish liquid sloshed around in it.

"W-what is that?" Gianti asked.

"It is an antidote to the toxins that lie within Berenice and that are now in your system as well. Let the two of you drink this and you will cured."

Gianti stared at the vial. It was clear he was hesitant. But he grasped the bottle and set it on his nightstand. "I don't say I believe this story."

Perano shrugged. "I don't ask for belief. Merely acceptance. Do as I say, young Gianti, and you may yet live a long and happy life."

He left the room and Gianti shakily dressed. When a knock came at the door, he let in his landlady in. She carried in a tray with a bowl on it and a small bouquet of flowers. She chattered, "I was worried about you, sir. That's why I called your friend to see you. He suggested that you be given broth to build up your strength."

"And the flowers?" Gianti pointed.

She glanced at them and smiled. "Well, you seem to have a fondness for them. So I bought a posy from a vendor. You may add the cost of it to your monthly bill."

"Thank you." He picked up the bouquet and held it to his nose. He smiled giddily. "Why, these are wonderful. What a strong scent!"

The woman smiled at his obvious pleasure. Then puzzlement, shock and horror creased her features. "Oh may the gods protect me!" she cried.

In Gianti's hand, the bouquet was withering, its petals dropping off one by one just as the bouquet he had thrown to Berenice had done. He gave a choked gasp and flung the blighted flowers to the far corners of the room. The woman staggered away, her mouth and eyes stretched with horror as she made a gesture of protection against him. "Get out! Get out of my house!"

"No, madam! Wait! This, this is-that man who just left, he's a doctor. He's going to cure me! This won't last, I swear to you!" The woman wouldn't listen. She fumbled for the doorknob and slammed the door behind her. He heard her screaming through the door that she would summon the constable to throw him out if he refused to leave.

He gathered together his belongings. He shuddered as he looked at the wasted bunch of twigs that had been a vibrant bouquet only moments before. Then a voice called to him. Hadrian started; he hadn't even noticed that Berenice had returned to the stage. "Gianti! Gianti! Where are you?"

Gianti came to the window, his face white and taut as iron. Berenice froze, concern crossing her features. "I am here, Berenice."

Moments later, he stood in the garden, staring down at the anxious girl. "Gianti? What is wrong? Why are your eyes so cold?"

Instead of answering her, Gianti smiled, a bitter expression that didn't reach his eyes. "Berenice, how old are you?"

"Old? I am 17."

"And have you spent all your life here with your father?"

"Yes."

"Never seeing the outside world?"

"No."

"Never having any friends or other company than Gonzago?"

"No. Gianti, I don't understand. I thought you knew all this before."

He looked at her without speaking. The silence stretched out between them, creating an unbridgeable expanse. The girl seemed to shrivel under his frigid stare. When he spoke again, his voice was so light he might have been talking of the weather. "Seventeen years is a long time to be by yourself with only one old man for company. Were you very lonely, Berenice?"

Her hands twisted in the folds of her dress. "Yes. I was lonely but I didn't know it. Then you came to me, so kind, so gentle. You spoke of so many things, treating me as if I were a mere woman instead of a-"

"MONSTER!" Gianti roared. He grabbed her by the shoulders and flung her to the ground. Everyone gasped as he leaned over her and started shouting horrible things at her. He called her vile and filthy names, vicious words that caused Hadrian to shudder. She shrank away, staring at him with almost the same shock and horror as the landlady had shown.

"So you brought me into it, made me a…thing as evil as yourself! Now you're the only one my breath and touch won't kill. Oh, gods, I wish that they could!"

She rose from the ground, cringing like she expected a blow. "It is true. I am the monster you call me. My father's experiments made me a thing-unfit for human love." Her body shook as she hugged herself. "But you can be free of me any time you wish. Just leave the garden and forget you ever knew a Berenice."

"Still playing the innocent? Then take this-a gift from precious Berenice!" He stalked over to her, menace in his every movement. Her face went pale; she knew what he intended.

"No, Gianti, please! For the sake of your life. You must not kiss me!" He seized her again and pressed his lips against hers. It held nothing of affection; it was more like a desperate assault. Then he pulled away and stared forlornly into her eyes.

When he did not fall, terrible understanding leapt into her eyes. "Oh, Gianti! I'm so sorry. It wasn't I, never! I never wanted this! I only meant to hold you for a while…and then let you go. I was so lonely!" She fell into his arms sobbing.

The scene blurred before Hadrian's eyes. At some point he had forgotten this was only a story, that none of this was real. Here was the history of his life, raw and unadorned: the isolation, the joy of Caled's attentions and affection; the wretched pain when he knew that affection was gone forever; the sorrow at knowing his lover hated him, the author of his misery-and the horror of having Life wither at his touch.

"Hadrian?" The name didn't register. Caled hadn't called him that in a long time. Surely this name, spoken in that familiar voice, was only a memory. Hadrian didn't respond only continued to watch, frozen, as the rest of his life unfolded.

Gianti stood holding Berenice, murmuring brokenly into her hair. Then he started. "I almost forgot. The antidote…" He searched in his pocket and drew out the vial Perano had given him. "Berenice, this will cure us. We need only drink a little and we can leave this fatal place!"

"Antidote?" Berenice stared at it. She grasped the bottle and pulled out the stopper. "Let me drink first."

"Berenice-"

She stopped his protest with another kiss. "I have lived with this longer than you. Once you see that it works, then you may drink." She tipped up the bottle and took a sip. A small trickle dripped over the corner of her lip, giving the look of blood falling from her mouth.

"My daughter!" Gianti stiffened and rose to his feet. Gonzago was there, staring greedily at them both. "How fare you and your bridegroom?"

"Bridegroom?" Gianti gasped.

"Just so. When I saw you in your window, looking down upon my daughter, I thought it time to grant her one of her dearest wishes. I created her to be a thing apart from ordinary women. But I had discovered that plants have male and female organs and need each other to reproduce, even as animals do. So I sought to procure her a mate. And here you are." He smiled, an expression meant as welcome but conveying only the hunger of a ravening beast.

"You shouldn't have done that, father," she whispered. "Gianti didn't want to be shut away from the world any more than I. You made me so miserable."

"Miserable? To be a thing above common clay? To be as terrible as you are beautiful?" he said with something that might have passed for gentleness in another. "But you need be miserable no longer. I have found a perfect match to yourself. You two may live here together, the garden sustaining and bringing life to you both."

Caled shuddered. There was madness in those words spoken so calmly. Was Gavedon like this, he wondered? Had he twisted Hadrian as this stage father had done his daughter?

Beside Gianti, Berenice gave a broken cry and slumped off the bench where she had been sitting. "Berenice? Berenice!" Gianti cried as he fell to his knees beside her. "What is it? The antidote?"

"Antidote? What antidote?" Gonzago roared. "What have you done?! Poison was her life!"

Gianti stared at him and then at the girl lying on the ground. "Berenice. You knew this. Why did you drink?" he whispered.

"Gianti, those words of hatred you spoke were more deadly than any poison. Weren't you the more terrible of us both?" Her whole body quivered in a rippling spasm. Then she was still. Gianti swept her into his arms and began to weep.

The stage darkened, gloom and nightfall falling upon it. The actors vanished from sight as the curtain fell. There was a breathless silence. Then the crowd erupted in wild cheers and applause. Caled turned to Hadrian. But the sorcerer was gone.

"Dammit! Why can't he stay put?" Caled cursed. When Manix and Syellen turned to him, he snapped at them. "Search the crowd. The little fool has taken off again."

"If that is so, he can't have gone far," Manix said. He took Syellen and Caled sought out Gam and Lio to find Hadrian.

Caled had been shaken to the core by what he'd seen onstage. In spite of Hadrian's earlier assertion that this was a mere fiction, he couldn't help but wonder how much truth lay in this. If Hadrian were half as affected as he, there was no telling what he might do.

__________

Hadrian had found that secret passageway that he'd seen Finnian dart through the previous day. He was enclosed in darkness immediately but that didn't bother him. He could smell dust, paint, newly cut wood and the thick scent of sweat and powder. He came out of a small tunnel and found himself in the open air just behind the tent. There was a man standing guard who relaxed when he saw him.

"Finnian? Didn't expect you so soon. Anifiel should be along in a bit." He nodded toward a narrow lean-to and Hadrian's jaw set. This man believed him to be Finnian. That showed how deliberately the resemblance had been created. Without a word, he stalked to the door and flung it open.

The room was empty; evidently he'd gotten there before any of the actors. He strode around the tiny space, wondering how long it would be before the others appeared. And what would he say to them? How much did any of them know about the parallels between an innocent show and his wretched life?

Just as he was beginning to regret his rash action, Anifiel opened the door. He viewed Hadrian with a warm smile as if he'd been expecting him. "Hadrian. I'm glad to see you again. How did you like the show?"

"Show?!" Hadrian hissed. "Why would you do something like that? Were you trying to hurt me?"

"No, Hadrian, no." Anifiel crossed the small space in one stride. He reached out to Hadrian only to have the other man flinch away. Anifiel stood still, watching the other man carefully. "I wanted to show you that I understood."

"Understood? What would you understand of my life? It was just fodder for a story to you," Hadrian spat, trembling with emotion.

"Perhaps I haven't experienced what you have. But you showed me that such things aren't always fantasies for the masses."

"So you thought to trot out my friends, me and my life to amuse others? What kind of person-?" Hadrian stopped short. Who was he to cast blame? No matter what Anifiel had done, it was nothing compared to the wanton destruction of a city and the murder of its inhabitants. The remembrance of his own crimes caused the anger to leave Hadrian suddenly, leaving him spent and deeply tired.

The other man only continued to watch him silently. Anifiel had learned to gauge people's emotions very well; the only time his discernment had failed him was with Finnian. But he could see the sadness and guilt welling in those eyes and he took a chance. He stepped close to Hadrian and clasped one arm. "Hadrian, I wouldn't hurt you like that. I could never do that to someone I cared about."

Wide silver eyes lifted to his. "Cared about? But…we don't even know each other! It was just-"

"-One night. Yes, I know. But you spilled so many of your secrets to me; it was like you needed to let someone in on your life. I felt as if I'd known you forever after that. Maybe I was presumptuous in thinking so. Was I?"

Hadrian glanced up at him in confusion. "Last night…" He shook his head. "I don't remember any of it. I was drinking with your friends. Then I woke up naked." The question hung unspoken in the air.

Anifiel smiled at his nervousness. "Nothing happened between us. At least, not much. Would you like to hear?" he teased.

Hadrian gulped. He wasn't sure he wanted to know. But curiosity seized him. It was frustrating not to know just what he had done with this striking man.

Anifiel sensed his surrender. He pulled Hadrian to a small chair in front of a table. He sat and pulled the sorcerer on his lap so that Hadrian straddled his hips. Hadrian froze. "The others. Won't they…?"

"This is my personal space. No one will disturb us. I know it's not much but, as the leader of the troupe, I'm accorded some privileges." When Hadrian relaxed, he said, "I wanted you to tell me about your life. But before you could say anything, you vomited all over your clothes," he smirked. "So I had to remove them, wash them and hang them to dry."

Hadrian blushed furiously. "I did? That's not very romantic," he muttered.

Anifiel laughed. "No, it wasn't. But you had had too much to drink. You apologized and I understood." He brushed his fingers across the front of Hadrian's tunic. "You were shy at being naked. So I stripped to make you feel more comfortable."

Lean fingers were sweeping around his nipple. Hadrian wanted to tell him to stop. But the touch felt so good. "T-then what happened?"

"You reached out to touch me. I was surprised; I thought you too bashful to make the first move." Anifiel shifted so that Hadrian rocked against his hips. The sorcerer trembled at the bold move. Then Anifiel swept his hand under Hadrian's tunic. Long fingers pinched the bare nub as the blonde player stared at him intently.

"You ran your hands over me. I sensed a certain hesitancy as though you feared displeasing me. In spite of your boldness, I had the feeling you hadn't much experience. I kissed you to put you at ease. Like this." He wound one hand in the black hair and brought Hadrian's head down.

The passionate kiss took Hadrian completely by surprise. He squeaked and then moaned as expert lips pulled at his own. He'd thought Caled well versed in the art of kissing. But of course he couldn't be the only one in the world who knew the fine skills of lovemaking. And this kiss felt novel and familiar both at once…

The fingers pinching Hadrian's nipple stopped and swept in fiery trails down his belly. Hadrian moaned again and his body arched as the hand cupped and ground at his crotch.

He should stop this. He was being intimate with a stranger! Never mind that he'd done it already; it was still wrong to give himself to someone he barely knew. But how well had he known Caled before they'd made love? The question surfaced and fell away as defiance and need streaked through him.

When the hand at his groin slipped into his breeches, Hadrian gasped. "T-then…what did…we do? Oh gods!" he whimpered as a warm hand curled around his shaft.

"I caressed, stroked you and sucked on your shaft until you spilled in my mouth," Anifiel panted. Green eyes flared as if the memory were arousing him even now. He was bucking up under Hadrian, his face flushed. He and Anifiel were still fully clad. But this was rousing them both to a fever pitch. Hadrian couldn't pretend this was an innocent encounter.

Anifiel stopped a moment to grab a rough towel and spread it between his thighs and Hadrian's. Then he resumed stroking up and down the pulsing length. His hand clenched and unclenched in a practiced grip and he rubbed his thumb over the weeping head. Hadrian's body shivered, his crisis fast approaching. His gloved hands came up to wind around Anifiel's neck, drawing the man closer. "D-don't stop!" he begged when the touch slowed slightly.

"I won't, sweet Hadrian." The hand twisted and Anifiel kissed Hadrian again, swallowing his cries as the sorcerer came all over the rough towel. When he'd regained control Hadrian shrank away, trembling hands tying his breeches shut. "Hadrian, don't be embarrassed. You enjoyed more than this last night."

"I was drunk," Hadrian mumbled, shamefaced.

"You were. But you were also unhappy. After your release, you started weeping. You kept saying you shouldn't have done that with me. Then you mentioned Caled." Hadrian stiffened but wouldn't meet Anifiel's eyes. "I held you close and stroked your back to calm you. You told me everything about your life-even how much Caled meant to you."

There was silence after that. Then Hadrian lifted his chin defiantly. "What will you do now? Will you summon the watch?"

Those remarkable eyes flashed in reproach. "If that was what I intended, I could have called them last night while you slept. Instead I'd hoped to draw you here…to show that you needn't be alone. Here is someone who cares for you, Hadrian. Perhaps in time we may come to be more to each other." Emerald eyes held silver ones. "Stay with me, Hadrian," he whispered.

An offer and it was a tempting one. The players were from all walks of life, yet they accepted each other as a family. Well, he already had that with Manix, Syellen and-the others…didn't he? But they never forgot what a menace he was. And it hurt so much to meet with Caled's scorn and indifference every day. Anifiel desired him and hadn't betrayed him or turned away when he learned who Hadrian was. Where else in Jeynesa would he find such acceptance?

But was this proposal sincerely meant? "What can I be to you besides your…? I mean, I can't act."

"I don't see that. You must have some skills of deception if you've managed to elude notice and capture all this while," Anifiel stated with a smirk.

"I have people protecting me," Hadrian pointed out.

"The thieves, mage, his apprentice and a killer for hire? They seem not so much friends as reluctant allies."

"There is a reason for our alliance, Anifiel." Hadrian drew a shaky breath. "If I told you everything-and your play tonight shows that I did-then you know I can't stay. My father must be stopped."

Anifiel clutched him protectively about the waist. "So you said. Hadrian, it pains me to know you head into such danger. Leave it for those Elders of yours! This is their responsibility, isn't it? Let them deal with your father!"

"I can't," Hadrian whispered. "It's my responsibility. Because I helped him." The implication behind those words, the terrible danger held in this beauty on his lap, hung in the air. Hadrian stared at Anifiel sadly.

"You don't know me, Anifiel, not truly. We have spent only one night together. If I remembered it, it might have made the difference for me. Remember it for the both of us-and let me go."

The brawny arm around his waist didn't loosen and Hadrian wondered if he would have to fight for his freedom. Then Anifiel released him slowly. "Go then," he rasped, his face tight with repressed emotion. "But if you ever find what you're searching for, Hadrian, come and find me. I'll be watching for you."

"I know." Hadrian was surprised how much it hurt to pull away from Anifiel's warmth and possessive hold. It had been sweet to have someone treat him with a lover's kindness even if only for a little while. "I won't forget you," he whispered and he meant it.

He wanted to say more. He yearned to speak of longing and desire, the possibility of love. But it would grieve them both too much. Before he could leave, however, Anifiel rushed to him with a speed that was almost frightening. He grasped Hadrian and pressed his lips hard brutally against the sorcerer's.

There was more than passion in this violent embrace. Desperation, need and possession were in these firm lips, in the arms wrapped around him. Without thinking, Hadrian returned the fierce hold and grabbed Anifiel with equal desperation. Their bodies swayed together; both men were in danger of being pitched to the floor. Then they parted, staring into each other's eyes.

Hadrian gave one last glance to the figure silhouetted against the light and eased quietly from the room. Outside, it was so dark; he had trouble orienting himself. He wished he'd asked Anifiel for a torch to help light his way home. But lights glimmered here and there from various windows and he thought he might find his way back to his lodging. The next moment, a hand flew out of the darkness and grabbed him.

"Fuck, Hades! How often are you going to run off like this? Do you like being a constant source of worry? If nothing else, you might want to think what would happen to me if you got yourself killed in one of these idiotic side trips of yours!"

Hadrian winced at Caled's painful grip on his arm. "Let go of me, Caled! I'm not some child who needs to be coddled all the time. I was in no danger, either yesterday or tonight. So get your hands off me!" he spat.

"I will not, at least not until we're back at the inn. You've got some explaining to do, Hades. Or are you going to tell me you fell asleep in a doorway again?" Caled sneered. He set up a punishing pace as he dragged Hadrian along the darkening streets.

"I was talking to one of the players," Hadrian muttered crossly.

Caled paused minutely as he stared at Hadrian's face. It was difficult to see Hadrian's expression in the darkness. "You did? Why? And why didn't you tell me or Manix before you took off?"

Hadrian peered at him, at an equal loss to make out the mercenary's face. "I didn't think of it. I wasn't gone that long, was I?"

"No, you weren't," Caled grunted. "Good thing, otherwise the Elder would have worried himself sick over you."

Hadrian privately thought that Caled might have done some worrying himself. But he wasn't in the mood to prod him about it. Caled was also silent for several moments. Then he asked gruffly, "And what did you have to say to this player?"

It was the sorcerer's turn to be mute. Then he whispered, "I wanted to ask him if he thought the love between Gianti and Berenice had ever really existed. He said he didn't know. He was only an actor."

Hadrian's tone was flat and remote. Caled was certain he was hiding something; such a short conversation couldn't have held him for the time he was gone. But the play had unsettled him. The parallels with Hadrian's life, both the little he'd guessed at and the parts Manix had gleaned, were disturbing.

If he wanted to know the truth, now was the time to ask. But his anger just now and Hadrian's usual iciness made him hesitate. The questioned hovered in the air. Then the moment was gone.

For the first time since he had reunited with Caled, Hadrian was unaware of the mercenary. In his mind was a fall of golden hair, a frame much more powerful than the assassin's and despairing green eyes that would haunt his dreams for many nights to come.

 

THE END

 

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