As the shutters lifted for the night, Cormia was very busy.
Sitting cross-legged on the Oriental rug in her bedroom, she was fishing around in a crystal bowl of water, chasing peas. The legumes were hard as pebbles when Fritz brought them to her, but after they soaked for a while, they became soft enough to use.
When she'd captured one, she reached to the left and took a toothpick from a little white box that read, in red English letters, SIMMONS'S TOOTHPICKS, 500 COUNT.
She took the pea and pushed it onto the end of the pick, then took another pea and another pick, and did the same until a right angle was formed. She kept going, creating first a square, and then a three-dimensional box. Satisfied, she bent forward and attached it to one of its brethren, capping off the final corner in a four-sided base structure about five feet in diameter. Now she would go upward, building floors of the latticework.
The picks were all the same, identical slices of wood, and the peas were all alike, round and green. Both reminded her of where she was from. Sameness mattered in the Chosen 's nontemporal Sanctuary. Sameness was the most important thing.
Very little was alike here on this side.
She'd first seen the toothpicks downstairs after the meals, when the Brother Rhage and the Brother Butch would take them out of a slender sliver box as they left the dining room. For no good reason, one evening she'd taken a number of them on her way back to her room. She'd tried putting one in her mouth, but hadn't liked the dry, woody taste. Not sure what else to do with them, she'd laid out the picks on the bedside table and arranged them together so that they formed shapes.
Fritz, the butler, had come in to clean, noticed her machinations, and returned some time later with a bowl of peas soaking in warm water. He'd shown her how to make the system work. Pea between two picks. Then add another section and another and another, and before you knew it you had something worth seeing.
As her designs got bigger and more ambitious, she'd taken to planning out in advance all the angles and the elevations to reduce errors. She'd also started working on the floor so she had more space.
Leaning forward, she checked the drawing she'd done before she'd started, the one she used to guide her. Next layer would decrease in size, as would the one after that. Then she would add a tower.
Color would be good, she thought. But how to work it into the structure?
Ah, color. The liberation of the eye.
Being on this side had its challenges, but one thing she absolutely loved were all the colors. In the Chosen's Sanctuary, everything was white: from the grass to the trees to the temples to the food and drink to the devotional books.
With a wince of guilt, she glanced over to her sacred texts. It was hard to argue that she'd been worshiping the Scribe Virgin at her little cathedral of peas and picks.
Nurturing the self was not the goal of the Chosen. It was a sacrilege.
And the visit earlier from the Chosen's Directrix should have reminded her of that.
Dearest Virgin Scribe, she didn't want to think about that.
Getting up, she waited for her light-headedness to clear, then went to a window. Down below were the tea roses, and she noted each of the bushes, checking for new buds and petals that had dropped, and fresh leaves.
Time was passing. She could tell by the way the plants changed, their cycle of budding lasting three or four days for each bloom.
Yet another thing to get used to. On the Other Side, there was no time. There were rhythms of rituals and eating and baths, but no alternation of day or night, no hourly measure, no change of season. Time and existence were static just as the air was, just as the light was, just as the landscape was.
On this side, she'd had to learn that there were minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and years. Clocks and calendars were used to mark the passings, and she'd figured out how to read them, just as she'd come to understand the cycles of this world and the people in it.
Out on the terrace, a doggen came into view. He had a pair of shears and a large red bucket and he went along the bushes, clipping them into place.
She thought of the rolling white lawns of the Sanctuary. And the unmoving white trees. And the white flowers that were always in bloom. On the Other Side, everything was frozen in its proper place so there was no trimming needed, no mowing, never any change.
Those who breathed the still air were likewise frozen even as they moved, living and yet not living.
Although the Chosen did age, didn't they. And they did die.
She glanced over her shoulder to a bureau that had empty drawers. The scroll the Directrix had come to deliver sat on its glossy top. The Chosen Amalya, as Directrix, was issuer of such birth recognitions and had appeared to complete her duty.
Had Cormia been over on the Other Side, there would have been a ceremony as well. Although not for her, of course. The individual whose birth it was received no special due, as there was no self on the Other Side. Only the whole.
To think for yourself, to think of yourself, was blasphemy.
She'd always been a secret sinner. She'd always had errant ideas and distractions and drives. All of which went nowhere.
Cormia brought her hand up and put it on the windowpane. The glass she stared through was thinner than her pinkie, as clear as air, hardly any barrier at all. She'd wanted to go down to the flowers for quite a while now, but was waiting for... she did not know what.
When she had first come to this place, she'd been racked by sensory overload. There were all kinds of things she didn't recognize, like torches that were plugged into the walls that you had to switch on for light, and machines that did things like wash dishes or keep food cold or create images on a little screen. There were boxes that chimed with every hour, and metal vehicles that carried people around, and things you ran back and forth across floors that whirred and cleaned.
There were more colors here than in all the jewels in the treasury. Smells as well, both good and bad.
Everything was so different, and so were the people. Where she was from, there were no males, and her sisters were interchangeable: All Chosen wore the same white robe and twisted their hair up in the same way and had a single teardrop pearl around their necks. They all walked and talked in the identical quiet manner and did the same thing at the same time. Here? Chaos. The Brothers and their shellans wore different clothes and they conversed and laughed in separate, identifiable patterns. They liked certain foods, but not others, and some slept late and others didn't sleep at all. Some were funny, some were fierce, some were... beautiful.
One was definitely beautiful.
Bella was beautiful.
Especially in the Primale's eyes.
As the clock started to chime, Cormia tucked her arms in close to her body. Meals were a torture, giving her a taste of what it was going to be like when she and the Primale returned to the Sanctuary.
And he looked upon the faces of her sisters with similar admiration and pleasure.
Talk about change. In the beginning she had been terri fied of the Primale. Now, after five months, she didn't want to share him.
With his mane of multicolored hair, and his yellow eyes, and his silky, low voice, he was a spectacular male in his mating prime. But that wasn't what really compelled her. He was the epitome of all that she knew to be of worth: He was focused always on others, never on himself. At the dinner table, he was the one who inquired after each and every person, following up about injuries and stomach upsets and anxieties large and small. He never demanded any attention for himself. Never drew the conversation to something of his. Was endlessly supportive.
If there was a hard job, he volunteered for it. If there was an errand, he wanted to run it. If Fritz staggered under the weight of a platter, the Primale was the first out of his chair to help. From all that she'd overheard at the table, he was a fighter for the race and a teacher of the trainees and a good, good friend to everyone.
He truly was the proper example of the selfless virtues of the Chosen, the perfect Primale. And somewhere in the seconds and hours and days and months of her stay here, she had veered from the path of duty into the messy forest of choice. She now wanted to be with him. There was no had to, must do, need to.
But she wanted him to herself.
Which made her a heretic.
Next door to her, the gorgeous music the Primale always played when he was in his room cut off. Which meant he was heading down for First Meal.
The sound of a knock on her door made her jump and twirl around. As her robe settled against her legs, she caught the scent of red smoke drifting ino her room.
The Primale had come for her?
She quickly checked her chignon and tucked some of the stray hairs behind her ears. When she opened the door a crack, she stole a glance up into his face before she bowed to him.
Oh, dearest Virgin Scribe... the Primale was too glorious to stare at for long. His eyes were yellow as citrines, his skin a warm golden brown, his long hair a spectacular m¨¦lange of color, from the palest of blond to deep mahogany to warm copper.
He bowed in a short, quick body bob, a formality she knew he disliked. He did it for her, though, because no matter how many times he told her not to be formal, she couldn't stop herself.
"Listen, I've been thinking," he said.
In the hesitation that followed, she worried that the Directrix had been to see him. Everyone in the Sanctuary was waiting for the ceremony to be completed, and all were aware it hadn't been yet. She was beginning to feel an urgency that had nothing to do with her attraction to him. The weight of tradition was growing heavier with each passing day.
He cleared his throat. "We've been here for a while, and I know the transition's been tough. I was thinking you must be a little lonely and that you might like some company."
Cormia brought her hand to her neck. This was good. It was time for them to be together. In the beginning, she hadn't been ready for him. Now she was.
"I really think it would be good for you," he said in his beautiful voice, "to have some company."
She bowed low. "Thank you, your grace. I agree."
"Great. I have someone in mind."
Cormia straightened slowly. Someone?
John Matthew always slept naked.
Well, at least ever since his transition, he slept naked.
It saved on laundry.
With a groan, he reached between his legs and palmed his rock-hard erection. The thing had woken him up as usual, an alarm clock as reliable and stiff off the ground as Big Fucking Ben.
It had a snooze button, too. If he took care of the thing, he could rest another twenty minutes or so before it got up to stuff again. Typically the routine was three times before he left the bed and once more in the shower.
And to think he'd once wished for this.
Focusing on unattractive thoughts didn't help, and though he suspected getting off actually made the drive worse, denying his cock wasn't an option: When he'd backed off a couple months ago as a test pattern, within twelve hours he'd been ready to fuck a tree, he was so horny.
Was there any such thing as anti-Viagra? Cialis Reversailis? Limpicillin?
Rolling onto his back, he shifted one leg out to the side, pushed the covers off his body, and started stroking himself. This was his preferred position, although if he came really hard he curled over onto his right side in the middle of the orgasm.
As a pretrans, he'd always wanted an erection, because he'd figured that getting hard would make him a man. The reality hadn't worked out that way. Sure, with his enormous body and his innate fighting skills and this permarousal he had going on, he was flying the he-man flag and then some on the outside.
Inside, he still felt as small as he'd ever been.
He arched his back and pumped up into his hand with his hips. God... it felt good, though. Every time this felt good... as long as it was his palm doing the pneumatics. The one and only time a female had touched him, his erection had deflated faster than his ego.
So actually, he had his anti-Viagra: another person.
But now was not the time to rehash his bad past. His cock was getting ready to go off; he could tell by the numbness. Right before he came the thing went dull for a couple of strokes, and that was what was happening now as his hand moved up and down the wet shaft.
Oh, yeah... here it comes... The tension in his balls tightened into a twisted cable and his hips rocked uncontrollably and his lips parted so he could pant easier... and as if all that wasn't enough, his brain anted into the action.
No... fuck... no, not her again, please not¡ª
Shit, too late. In the midst of the swirling sex, his mind latched onto the one thing that was guaranteed to make him multiple it: a leather-clad female with a man's haircut and shoulders tight as a prizefighter's.
On a soundless bark of air, John flipped onto his side and started to come. The orgasm went on and on as he fantasized about the two of them having sex in one of the bathrooms at the club she was head of security for. And as long as the images shot around his brain, his body wouldn't stop releasing. He could literally keep it up for ten minutes straight until he was covered with what came out of his cock and his sheets were totally wet.
He tried to corral his thoughts, tried to get a rein on things... but failed. He just kept coming, his hand stroking, his heart pounding, his breath choked in his throat as he pictured the two of them together. Good thing he'd been born without a voice box or the Brotherhood's whole mansion would know exactly what he was doing over and over and over again.
Things quieted down only after he forcibly removed his hand from his cock. As his body slowed its roll, he lay in a limp heap, breathing into his pillow, sweat and other stuff drying on his skin.
Nice wake-up call. Nice little exercise sesh. Nice way to kill some time. But ultimately hollow.
For no particular reason, his eyes wandered and settled on the bedside table. If he were to open the drawer, which he never did, he would find two things: a bloodred box about the size of a fist and an old leather diary. Inside the box was a heavy gold signet ring bearing the crest of his lineage as the son of the Black Dagger warrior Darius, son of Marklon. The antique journal contained his father's private thoughts from a two-year period of his life. Also given as a gift.
John had never put on the ring and he had never read the entries.
There were a lot of reasons, but the main one for shutting both away was that the male he considered his father was not Darius. It was another Brother. A Brother who had been MIA for eight months now.
If he was going to wear any ring, it would be one with Tohrment, son of Hharm's crest on it. As a way to honor the male who had meant so much to him in such a short time.
But that wasn't happening. Tohr was likely dead, no matter what Wrath said, and in any event had never been his father.
Not wanting to sink into a mood, John pushed himself up off the mattress and lurched into the bathroom. The shower helped focus him, and so did getting dressed.
The trainee class wasn't meeting tonight, so he was going to log some more hours down in the office and then meet up with Qhuinn and Blay. He was hoping there was a lot of paperwork to do. He wasn't looking forward to seeing his best friends tonight.
The three of them were going across town to the...God, to the mall.
It was Qhuinn's idea. As most of them were. According to the guy, John's wardrobe needed a style injection.
John looked down at his Levi's and his white Hanes T-shirt. The only flash he sported was his running shoes: a pair of Nike Air Maxes in black. And even they weren't very flashy.
Maybe Qhuinn had a point that John was a fashion victim, but come on. Who did he have to impress?
The word that popped into his head had him cursing and rearranging himself: Xhex.
Someone knocked on his door. "John? You there?"
John quickly tucked in the T-shirt and wondered why Phury would be seeking him out. He'd been keeping up with his studies and doing well on the hand-to-hand. Maybe it was about the work he did in the office?
John opened the door. Hi, he signed in American Sign Language.
"Hey. How's you?" John nodded and then frowned as the Brother switched into ASL. I was wondering if you might do me a favor.
Cormia is...well, she's had some challenges being on this side. I think it would be great if she had someone to spend a little time with, you know... someone who's tight in the head and low-key. Uncomplicated. So, do you think you could do the honors? Just talk to her or take her around the house or... whatever. I'd do it but...
It's complicated, John finished in his head.
It's complicated, Phury signed.
An image of the silent blond Chosen popped into John's mind. He'd watched Cormia and Phury studiously not look at each other for the past few months, and had wondered¡ª like everyone else, no doubt¡ªwhether they'd sealed the deal.
John didn't think so. They were far, far too awkward still.
Would you mind, Phury signed. I figure she must have questions or... I don't know, things to talk about.
Truthfully, the Chosen didn't seem as if she wanted to be hung out with. She always kept her head down at meals and never said a thing while she ate only food that was white. But if Phury asked, how could John say no? The Brother always helped him on his fighting stances and answered questions outside of the classroom and was the type of person you wanted to do nice things for because he was kind to everyone.
Sure, John replied. I'd be happy to.
Thanks. Phury clapped him on the shoulder with satisfaction, like he'd plugged a hole. I'll tell her to meet you in the library after First Meal.
John looked down at what he was wearing. He wasn't sure the jeans routine was fancy enough, but his closet was only stuffed with more of the same.
Maybe it was a good thing he and his boys were malling it. And too bad they hadn't gone already.