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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
Maiden's Breath
The group stared at the large-bellied priest in awe. Isapa, jovial as ever, laughed at their gape-jawed expressions. "What, do you truly think that my eyes and hair are this color because of something I eat? I admit, my eyes may seem a bit brownish in some lights, but they are actually red. As for my hair...why would a balding man dye his hair, anyway? Or his beard for that matter?"

"I cannot grow a beard, though..." Aern said, a bit bemused.

"That is because you are a true-blood." Isapa grinned, a flash of white teeth in a purple sea of whiskers. "The Shwartzian side of my family is several generations watered down. I would say that I am only about one-eighth of your race. So before you even ask me...no, I cannot transform into any sort of beast. Not without eating too much." He laughed again and grabbed his belly. "Sometimes I think this beast at my waist will turn on me one day."

Vyse sighed. As good it was to see somebody in such good spirits, they had no time for playful conversation. "Maybe we can talk about this on the way to the maiden's breath. I hate to seem rude, but Gilder has been poisoned for three days now, and we'd prefer that he lives through this."

"Gilder? Of the Claudia?" Isapa's one bushy brow perked up.

"You know him?"

"Of course I do, Captain Vyse. I met him at that party that the Valuan Emperor had not long ago. Intelligent man, for all his crudeness. Under those goofy glasses and pretty-boy face is a good brain, and a good heart sits in his chest too." He headed down the moss-covered wooden pathways that snaked among the trees. "Come, follow me. It would be a shame to lose a good man such as him."

"Does the plant grow on a nearby island?" Fina asked.

"No, it's several leagues away...about a few hours by boat...although your big metal ship probably will get there in less than an hour. It's not far from the king's private island, actually."

"I still can't believe that you are part Shwartzian." Aern said, still a bit dumbstruck. "I thought that any bloodlines here in the islands would have been watered down so much, that they would be untraceable through the centuries."

"As a rule, we cannot marry outside our tribe. That is why King Ixa'Taka has not taken a bride yet, as to not taint the bloodline any further. He is also of Shwartzian descent."

"He's related to you?" The silvite woman trotted up to fall in stride with Isapa. "Can't say he looks a lot like you."

"Distant cousin is about it, but we are family, yes. We had the same great-great-grandmother. She was half-Shwartzian." He chuckled. "While the king's eyes are more red than mine, his hair is something of a dull dark brown...like most Ixa'Takans. He dyes his hair like many of the Hortekan tribe do. His family keeps the secret of the sacred crop, and has for thousands of years. My family has always done so as well, but as priests, sages or other such wise men. In truth, the Kaen Shwartz tribe has been ruling Ixa'Taka for most of the time since the destruction of the world." He stopped his story when he heard Aern laugh. "Did something I say amuse you?"

"Just your tribe's name. You do know what kaen shwartz means, don't you?"

"Of course: Kaen meaning "wing" and Shwartz meaning "dark" or "black". "Dark Wings" would be the translation into the common Mid-Ocean tongue. I know a smattering of your language, young man...although probably not enough to last ten minutes in the heart of your great city." He winced. "There are not many copies of old Shwartzian texts for me to read in the middle of a jungle."

"Funny," Lani murmured. "but I seemed to have the same problem in the middle of Valua, and in Yafutoma, and also in Glacia..."

"Books do not last the test of time, my dear lady. While they are precious to us, paper can only remain intact if left unhandled and sealed away, otherwise they tear and crumble to dust. But what good are books if we cannot read them?" Isapa had lead them to the dock, and he looked up at the massive metal hull of the Delphinus. "My, what a beast this is up close. It's like standing next to a metal arcwhale."

"I guess I'll take that as a compliment." Vyse said sheepishly. If there was anything he truly loved in the world, it was his ship. "Lani, Aern, why don't you two take Isapa on board? The three of us will go back into town and round up the crew." He sighed. "They won't be happy...we just got here after all; but we can't waste any more time. Gilder needs that cure."

* * *

"Indeed, he does not look too well."

"Yes, but if he were a weaker man, he probably would have died already."

The voices were distant, muzzy...as if Gilder was listening to somebody speak while half-sleeping. He felt beyond feverish, and everything around him seemed...strange. The world was slightly off-key, the light the wrong color, the shapes and sizes of the objects in his cabin not correct. It was as if some otherworldly creature came along and manipulated everything just to specifically torture the blue rogue's exhausted psyche. It was bad enough that his body felt burned out, that it was all he could do to get up to use the bathroom...but the fact that his mind was now effected highly disturbed Gilder.

A brown and purple blur hovered and bounced in front of Gilder's watery eyes, like some sort of demonic balloon. After a few moments of extensive blinking, his vision recovered enough for him to realize that it was the face of a man that hovered at his bedside....a round-faced man with a thick purple beard and balding head.

"Gilder? Can you hear me?" The bearded man peered at him intently. "Hmm...I hope he isn't too far gone."

"I hear you." His voice sounded like a stranger's, drunk on too much loqua. It was much too heavy and slurred to be his own. "I'm not gone yet."

"Hmm, hmm...yes. Not yet, not yet. But Gilder...can you tell me how you feel?" The round face seemed genuinely concerned.

"Like shit." It was the best sum-up he could give.

"Well, I figure you would....yes. But tell me...how do your arms feel? Your head? Does your stomach hurt? That sort of thing."

Gilder struggled to sit up, and felt somebody help him. He glanced over to see who it was, and saw a blurred pale face framed by purple hair. Aern. Normally Gilder would be annoyed by the fact that another man would be touching him in a familiar manner, but he didn't have the energy to complain. "My legs...and arms feel tingly. Hot. I'm hot all over." He swallowed. "My tongue feels huge. Hair's all sweaty. Hurts behind my eyes....hurts in my groin, hurts in my stomach, my back...like I swam for miles." His head nodded forward onto his chest, unable to hold it up for any amount of time. "Mind is tired, too. It hurts to think, everything is weird. The air feels weird. The bed feels funny..." he trailed off, feeling his voice getting weaker in his throat.

"Hush now, son. Save your breath until after we cure you." The bearded man smiled and helped Gilder lay back down again. "Just rest for now."

"Good idea," Gilder mumbled as he began to stray towards sleep again.

"He's delirious." the fat man's voice said, penetrating the warm darkness that Gilder was tumbling towards. "It isn't far away, but making the antivenom takes a good hour or so."

"So I've been taught." came Aern's voice, sounding as if the Cleric was standing at the bottom of a well. "I don't think he'll make it through the day, Isapa. If we don't cure him immediately, he will die."

It seemed that for some reason, that thought should have upset Gilder; perhaps sent him to angry raving, childish weeping, or to any sort of response humans made at the mention of their own impeding death. It didn't phase him, however...it didn't even seem important. Nothing was important to Gilder, not now. All he wanted to do was drift down into the quiet, welcoming darkness of sleep.

* * *

"Pull up there...yes, there." Isapa pointed to a flat strand of stone along the side of the tall island. The island was nothing more than a smallish mountain, only a thousand or so feet high from base to peak, with several waterfalls splashing down the sides. There were many flat spots of land, however, that were dotted with tropical wildflowers.

Vyse pulled the small shoring boat up to where the priest indicated, allowing Aika to moor it to a sturdy bush before shutting down the engines. He watched Isapa clamber out of the vessel with a frown. As highly respected as Isapa may be in Horteka, Vyse viewed him as a bit too eccentric. "You sure it's here?"

"Yes, of course I am. My family has been taking care of these...oh." He became distracted by something he saw on the island, frowning a bit. "Oh, that's not good. I knew I should have come back here more recently."

"What? What is it?" Aika scanned the island in alarm.

"The rope bridge to the appropriate cliff has broken. And a fat man like me can't climb."

"That's all right, I can get to it." Aern was already removing his cloak. "Is it that cliff there, the one next to that larger waterfall?"

"Yes. You plan on transforming?"

"Of course I do, but I'd rather do it where nobody can watch me. I'd prefer privacy." He strode off into the trees that sat at the foot of the mountain, unbuttoning his shirt as he went.

"Aern doesn't like being seen naked." Aika said blandly in response to Isapa's quizzical look. "I don't think he minds in Mi...uh...in his other form, but he's touchy about undressing in front of us."

"Mivarae." Isapa corrected. "And I can understand his modesty. He comes from a very proud and formal race of people." He looked up to the trees. "Ah, here he comes."

The sleek gray creature emerged from the copse of greenery, and gathered himself up, bunching his leg muscles. Leaping into the air, he flapped a bit ponderously, not a small creature to begin with, and made his way to the cliff that was sprinkled with tiny white dots. They watched as he moved about the obviously terraformed cliff, stooping to pick handfuls of the crop that Isapa's family had tended to for so many generations. After a few minutes, he swooped down, and handed his gatherings to Fina, who glanced at the tiny white flowers and feathery leaves briefly before putting them in a bag they brought specifically for that purpose.

"They smell lovely." she marveled. "They're so little, so I'd never think that they would give off such a strong smell."

Aern made no comment, but ran back to the group of trees in a strange four-legged lope to transform and get dressed. It was like watching an ape run...an ape with white fur, long tail, wings and features that were definately not simian.

"I know he's our friend, but I still haven't gotten used to him." Vyse commented. "There are just some things that make us humans feel funny, I guess."

"He's a bit strange to me, too, and don't forget that I'm not defined as the same kind of human as you are." Fina said. "I'm a Silvite, remember?"

"Yeah, but to me...you're just Fina. No matter what world either of our ancestors came from, we're still alike, and still friends." He smiled at her. "Right?"

For some reason, she blushed. "Thank you, Vyse...although I realize that now. For a long while, I felt alienated."

"Is that why you do not have the tattoos of womanhood?" Isapa asked. "You did not want to seem more different?"

Fina blushed a shade darker. "Umm, no...that's not it. I had planned, but..." She hesitated.

"But what?" the priest pressed.

"But..." She put her hands to her cheeks, setting her eyes on the ground. "I'm still a virgin. I haven't...y'know, so I'm not a woman yet...not by Silvite tradition."

"Oh, I didn't mean to pry, young lady. I just thought..." Isapa shook his head. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to embarass you. I just had figured that you had found yourself a man. You are quite beautiful, after all."

"I guess, but I'm not like other Silvites." She shook her head, setting her earrings to jangling. "I won't sleep with a man just to be considered a woman, and then go looking for a husband after the fact...that seems rather backwards to me. I like the Mid-Oceaner tradition, of waiting until you find the right person." She cleared her throat. "It seems a bit more decent to me."

Vyse patted her on the back to ease her discomfort, and began to say something supportive. "There's nothing wrong with--" He stopped short when Aern hurried back out to meet them. "We can talk about this later. We have a friend to cure...right Aern?"

The Shwartzian nodded, making his way to the boat. "Right. I have a life to save."

* * *

The world spun, even when it was doused in darkness. The lights were shut off in the cabin, his eyes were shut as well, and yet it felt as if he was on a carosel that spun far too quickly. If he had anything left in his stomach, Gilder would have been sick. After so many hours of dry heaves, his stomach was as empty as his mind. He just couldn't think, couldn't bring himself to understand what was happening. His venom-muddled brain attempted to make sense of the spinning, and of the way the lights suddenly turned on, but he couldn't make head or tails of it. It was all so confusing, not to mention terrifying.

Voices entered the room as well, taunting him, torturing him with their odd, distorted tones. He clutched at the bedsheets that were soaked with his sweat and weakly screamed at them, crying out in horror and loathing, hoping to drive them off. He was weeping, he knew it, but didn't care...he was afraid.

Something reached out and touched his hand, but when he looked around to see what it was, he could only see a whirling mass of colors. Tentatively touching it with his numbed fingers, he realized it was somebody's hand. He sobbed, asking the unseen person to make the hurt go away, make the colors and spinning light stop, to make his torture end. Was it his mother? No, not her...she was gone, long gone. He was alone now, alone in a bizzare world of abstract shapes, spinning dizzily while the tinny sound of uncomprehensable voices floated in the heavy, surreal air.

A voice, more clear than the other ones, came to him, talking to him softly. Somehow, the room shifted beneath Gilder so he wasn't laying on his side anymore. It spun queasily until hands grabbed him, steadying him, holding him down against the bed in a sitting position. The room stopped spinning, the light done twirling in front of his eyes. The kind voice spoke again, still soothing, and something was held to his mouth. What was this? It smelled...sweet. A cup. A cup of something that smelled like purfume...or tea, maybe? Did he even remember what tea smelled like? A few drops slipped into his parched mouth, and suddenly thirst took over, and he drank the warm, sweet-smelling liquid instinctively. He could feel its warmth rushing through his veins, different than the burning sensation that had numbed his body to the bone. The room stilled a bit, the air felt less heavy, and the voices no longer seemed belligerant.

He felt himself slide down to lay on his back...no, somebody was helping him. The same voice spoke to him...a male voice. Was it familiar? He didn't care, this unseen helper had made the torture end, and now was telling him to sleep in the same gentle tones. He smiled; it was as if this man knew exactly what Gilder wanted. The demons of color and light and sound fell away, and the blue rogue slipped into the silent solice of sleep.

* * *

When Aern stepped into the meeting room, a chorus of voices suddenly assailed him. He held his hands up a bit wearily. "Please...please, calm down you three."

The three blue rogues uttered apologies, and then turned their eyes to him again. It was Vyse who spoke, though. "So...how is he?"

"I just administered the antivenom to him...but it takes a while. Even if he is recovering, he will sleep for quite a bit." He sighed and rubbed at his eyes with a hand. "I just hope that I remembered how to do it correctly. I'm young, so..."

"You're tired..." Aika said in concern. "You should sit down and have a break. Why don't you sit here with us? Urala made us some coffee and pastries..."

The scarlet-eyed man smiled wanly. "Thank you, but no. As part of a Cleric's oath, my patient's well being always goes before my own. Until I am ready to drop dead from exhaustion, I'll keep an eye on him." He eyed the almond turnovers, and snagged one anyway. "I take that back. I'll eat one of these, then see about asking Urala to prepare something easy for Gilder to eat. Lani and Isapa are with him right now, so there's no reason why I can't take a brief meal and a nap." He took a bite of the pastry, nodded his thanks, and exited the meeting room in the quiet manner he always had.

Fina couldn't help but laugh a bit. "He's like you, Vyse."

"How so?" He looked at her over the rim of his coffee mug.

"Well...he's very persistant, and a bit stubborn as well. He just won't give up."

"And that's a bad trait?" One of his dark eyebrows shot up.

She laughed again. "No, not at all, right Aika?"

Aika nodded. "Right. Vyse and Aern share a lot of the same good traits, I think. You do too, Fina...you're a good person. I really thought so after what you said to Isapa this afternoon, about tattoos and virginity and stuff."

"Oh, um...thank you." She cast her green eyes down to the tabletop. "I know it's a Mid-Oceaner tradition, but many people don't follow it. I just thought that other people my age might think me to be kind of um...a loser.”

Aika shook her head. "No, I don't think you're a loser. I think you're very wise...some people jump into things without knowing what it's all about." She folded her hands neatly in front of her, staring at the opposite wall. "I'm speaking from personal experience."

"Then, you...?"

The redhead made a rueful face. "Once...and I’d rather not talk about it. Let’s just say that I made a mistake, and leave it at that.” She coughed, a bit embarassed, and then smiled a bit. “Trust me though, you’re a good girl, at least by Mid-Oceaner standards. Right Vyse?”

“Right. Although, you never told us about this tattoo thing. What do the other tattoos you have mean? You never told us.” He spread his hands with an apologetic smile. “I’m just curious.”

“Oh, well…I suppose I never told the two of you because you never asked.” Fina swirled the coffee around in her mug. “When Silvites are born, they receive a tattoo that is in old Silvite runes, of their name. The females get it on their forheads, and the males over their heart.” She pointed at the mark on her forhead with a slender finger. “This doesn’t exactly say “Fina”, but it would be said more like “Faena”. I modified my name a bit, so I could speak it and write it in the common language. “Faena” means “love” in old Silvite.”

“What does “Ramirez” mean?” Aika asked, curious.

“It’s not simple like mine. His name in old Silvite would be more like “Rah Mae Res”, which means “The Sun’s Child”. “Res” was what Silvites called the sun.” She traced something on the tabletop with her finger, a somewhat circular pattern. “His naming tattoo looked like this, sort of like a sun with a smaller circle inside it.”

“Now wait a minute, if only women get tattoos on their forheads, then why did some of the Elders in the Great Silver Shrine have tattoos on their heads?” Vyse frowned. “I’m confused.”

“That’s because they were married. When a Silvite marries, they put their partner’s tattoo on their body. For instance, if I was to be married, I would have my husband’s tattoo placed over my heart. He would have mine placed on his forhead. It’s a symbol of joining and bonding that lasts forever, even more than the wedding rings island-dwellers use.” She smiled. “A wedding ring can be removed, if somebody wants to try adultry. Tattoos aren’t removed as easily, so Silvite marraiges are usually for life.” She sighed. “More like were. If I’m the last of my race, then I doubt I will be married in the traditional fashion.”

“Um, do you want to be? Because we can do whatever you want for you when you’re married.” Aika grinned. “That’s what friends are for.”

Fina blushed. “Well, that’s if I’m getting married….and that’s a big if. But no, I think I would prefer to live as a Mid-Oceaner. I already told Isapa that I did not want to go through the whole womanhood ceremony, so I do not want to go through the pre-marital ceremony either. Silvite ceremonies are very formal, and very long.” She wrinkled her nose. “Not to mention boring.”

“Sounds like going to church.” Vyse grunted. Then he laughed. “But you’re a Silvite, and you’re saying that all these ceremonies are formal and boring? When we first met you, you were all about formality. I think you’ve been around us too much, Fina.”

The Silvite smiled. “I don’t mind if you’ve rubbed off on me. And there is no such thing as “being around us too much”. Always remember that.”

***

Breathing in deeply, Gilder marveled at how well he could do so. It seemed that not too long ago, every breath was an effort, every heaving of his chest made his insides burn like fire. Now, he felt as if he could stand on deck and shout the alphabet backwards. Well, almost; his legs still felt a bit rubbery, and he figured that just trying to walk around would be a major effort on his part. He had no idea how long he had been sleeping, but he knew that it was enough to let him feel somewhat better.

He opened his eyes and looked around his cabin. Everything seemed in the norm, from the small round window to the metal walls. Lani sat on a chair at his bedside, reading a book. Gilder somehow knew that he would find her here, doing just that. It’s what she had done the whole time Vyse was knocked unconcious, and it was what she did for Gilder up until the point where he had gotten a bit too friendly. He was somewhat glad to see her there despite that, but also somewhat remorseful for what he had done, even if it was caused by the venom.

Almost as if she felt his eyes on her, Lani glanced up from her book. “Ah, good. You’re awake.” She set her book aside. “Are you hungry?”

“A bit.” He sat up, and then smiled when he realized he could do so without getting dizzy. “I don’t remember too much from the past few days…except in the middle of the worst of it, somebody’s voice spoke to me, and told me it was going to be all right.”

“Aern.” Lani went to a tray that obviously had been brought in not too long ago, and spooned up a bowl of soup that was still warm from the larger crock that sat on the tray. “I watched him administer you the antidote.” The lines in her face suddenly became hard. “You were delirious. Isapa and I tried to talk to you, but you wouldn’t listen…you screamed at us, and flailed your arms for all you were worth.”

“I was frightened, as much as I hate to admit it. Everything was so messed up, I couldn’t understand.”

“Yes, well…Aern came over, and it was strange. He just…touched you. He spoke to you quietly, like he would to a crying child, and grabbed your arms. When he did that, you stopped your ranting. You even sat still while he gave you the antivenom.” She shook her head as she walked over and offered him the bowl. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Usually when people are that far into delirium, they believe that everything is harmful to them.”

The tall blue rogue sighed, accepting the soup. “So I was crying for mommy, but to Aern?” He laughed humorlessly. “That’s embarassing.”

“I wouldn’t be embarassed, Gilder. I would be grateful for being alive. Isapa and I believed that you were too far gone, but we didn’t say too much against Aern’s judgement. He believed that he could save you, and save you he did.”

Spooning soup into his mouth, he nodded gratefully. He suddenly realized that he was famished. “Where is Aern? I need to thank him.”

“Sleeping. We made him go to bed, after making him eat a real meal. He hadn’t slept since you were poisoned, aside of a catnap he had yesterday. He really hadn’t eaten too much either, probably because he was anxious.” She shook her head. “For somebody so young, he really is serious about being a healer.”

“How long was I poisoned?” Gilder asked between spoonfuls of soup.

“About two and a half days, but then Aern wanted to make sure you were on the mend. This is the third night since you were poisoned; you’ve been sleeping ever since he treated you.”

“Damn.” He shook his head, smiling. “That skinny guy gave it his all, just so I’d make it okay? I don’t even know him that well, too. I really should find some way to thank him. Damn.” He said again. Then his smile faded as he noticed the bitemark on his lower lip, and he set the soup bowl aside. “Lani, I need to thank you too.”

She shrugged. “I’m a doctor. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”

“No…I don’t only want to thank you.” Gilder lowered his face a moment, frowning. “I tried to do a horribly thing to you, Lani…a really despicable thing. I would never do that if I was sane, or whole, or myself.” He raised his face to look at her, sincerity in his brown eyes. “Please, don’t think I would ever do that. Not for a minute. I hate what I tried to do, hate that I came so damn close. I would never hurt a woman, never in a million years.”

The Yafutoman woman looked at him from where she was seated, her black eyes understanding. “I know you wouldn’t, Gilder. You’re a Blue Rogue, you live by a code.” She reached out and patted his hand kindly. “I know that even if you weren’t a Blue Rogue, that you would never do such a thing anyway. I’m not sure how I know, but I do. You have a good soul.”

“So you forgive me? Please tell me you do…if you can’t yet, I will do anything to make it up to you. Just name it. Please. Anything. Anything so I can hear you say “I forgive you”.”

She smiled. “I forgive you. You weren’t yourself, we both know it.” Her eyes flickered skywards in mock-annoyance. “Although I haven’t entirely forgiven you for all the flirting and attempts to get me into bed.”

“That, I can’t help. I’m a hound at heart, Lani; a hound, but one with the soul of a gentleman. I may be a wolf with women, but only so I can treat each one like a queen.”

Lani gave his hand a squeeze. “Do you know what? Even though I haven’t known you long, I believe every word of that statement.”

“Does that mean--?”

She sat back in her chair and picked up her book, answering his question before he could finish it. “Don’t get your hopes up.”

He smiled sheepishly, and picked up his soup again. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”