Ayre of the Last God
(Book III of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY


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L'Valin looked to Aijou as they ate, three days after the message on the stone had been sent. Aijou had been reluctant to discuss how he knew - but L'Valin was certain he was correct. Still, her curiosity was too great, and she simply couldn't let it lie. She had to know.

L'Valin knew he couldn't have picked it out from the minds of anyone near - the range of Aijou's mental abilities seemed to be about a hundred paces or so. More, no one anywhere in the encampment of the besiegers had any idea that the mus might intervene. Indeed, L'Valin had been privy to several conversations over the last few weeks, and from what she could tell, R'Zin, D'Main and T'Zama were convinced the mus would not interfere. And, of course, they had every reason to believe they were right. The mus had spent the last decade fighting the cats - including R'Narr V'Nass and his late son, R'Nalas. It stood to reason that they would prefer to let the cats kill each other, rather than shed their own blood to save one group of cats from another.

Thus, L'Valin knew Aijou had to be in communication with someone - and someone in the lands of the mus, who would be aware of their movements. But how this could be managed, she had no idea. And that lack of knowledge burned at her - she had to know.

*L'Valin T'Masa, do not ask me this. You do not wish to know right now. Later, perhaps, when we are safe - but not now,* Aijou replied to her question, his silent scream a faint whisper in her mind.

'Please...' she thought, looking at Aijou as she squeezed his fore-hoof.

Aijou sighed. *As you wish. I suppose you have to know sooner or later.*

'Know what?' she thought, gazing into his dark eyes.

Aijou was silent for a long moment, gathering his will. *Among my people, when two are close and care for each other deeply, they become heart-bonded , and their words can be heard over a greater distance. Their minds fall into sync.*

'Oh, a similar thing happens among our people, as well - after a few years of being with a mate, you and he tend to think alike, and often know what the other is thinking...' L'Valin thought, then blinked as realization dawned on her. L'Valin was no ordinary she-cat - she was once again a Mentalt, and the powers of her training came to the fore. 'So... You heard because you have someone you are heart-bonded to who is in the lands of the mus, and is aware of their army's movement.'

Aijou nodded.

'And you only heart-bond to someone you love... A mate.'

Aijou nodded again.

"Sss... You... You already have a mate..." L'Valin whispered, her eyes brimming with tears.

*Yes. But this does not mean you cannot stay with me, L'Valin,* Aijou replied, and reached out his arms, drawing her close for a hug.

L'Valin snarled, and pulled herself free of Aijou's arms. "Fsst! I-"I she snapped, then controlled herself. They sat outside her tent, in the open. Anyone could see them, and could hear what she said, should she attract their attention. It would not do to let anyone know what she was thinking, nor would it do to let anyone know that Aijou was more than a mute, sub-intelligent being. No, L'Valin knew she had to control herself. The two of them were still effectively prisoners, and their only weapons against their captors were L'Valin's mind and Aijou's ability to read their thoughts. 'Tell me!' she thought to him sharply, clapping a paw to his thick wrist. 'Do you love me or not?!'

Aijou looked L'Valin over for a long moment before he replied. Gone was the scrawny, wasted she-cat who had begun this journey with him. In her place sat a lean, lithe being who had hardened her muscles walking endless leagues with him, and fruitlessly practicing her hunting skills day after day. L'Valin had restored her health by the careful diet Aijou had fed her along the way, and what she had eaten here in the camp of the T'Mrr. She was thin, yes. Her body had almost no fat to it at all - yet, it was not the skeletal thinness she had when the journey began, but the lean, athletic build of a she-cat who had, indeed, been to the Nine Hells they swear by so often, and returned. She was still scarred, as well - but to Aijou, that meant nothing. To a horse, the body was merely a tool, and mattered little. So long as one was healthy, that was all that was important - scars and other minor disfigurements were nothing. No, to a horse, only the heart and mind truly mattered.

And L'Valin, even now when she was torn by sadness and anger and jealousy, had a beautiful mind.

Aijou searched his feelings, glad for once that L'Valin was used to him having to take a long moment between attempts to speak to her. Naien had said that once the horse-clans were free again, they might resume the old ways... Yet, in his heart, he knew there was only one person he truly loved - Naien.

'Well?!' L'Valin thought to him, her patience finally having expired.

*L'Valin... I care for you deeply. I find your mind lovely and wonderful to behold, and I find that I enjoy your company greatly. Naien, my mate, says that once we are free in the east, we may resume the Old Ways... You could, if you wished, join my herd as one of my mares, L'Valin... And I would be happy to have you, and proud to have been chosen by you.*

L'Valin blinked in surprise. Such a thought had, quite literally, never occurred to her - polygamy was completely unknown to the cats, though it was rumored the mus practiced a limited form of it. After a long moment, L'Valin's sapphire eyes narrowed, and she flicked her tail, casting aside those thoughts. 'You are dodging my question, Aijou. Do you love me or not?'

Aijou sighed. *L'Valin, I respect you, I admire you, and I find I care for you deeply. You are my best friend, L'Valin, and more. But no, L'Valin, I do not love you. I am sorry.*

L'Valin stared for a long moment in silence at Aijou's face. There again was the expression of deep sadness. And suddenly, L'Valin understood.

Aijou could read her mind. Not merely her surface thoughts, but her deep feelings, as well. He had known her feelings from the first moment he laid eyes on her, staggering from catnip and chilled by the rain, dying of slow starvation. His gaze then had been the same as it was now... But it was not a gaze of sadness, or sympathy. And now, the truth laid bare before her, L'Valin finally saw that gaze, and understood what it truly was.

It was pity.

L'Valin lowered her head, hot tears falling from her eyes to land in her lap. A part of L'Valin raged in fury, and wanted to claw his eyes out. Another part of her wept in sorrow, and wished only to lie down someplace quiet and die. Another part of her fumed in jealousy for his unseen love, so far away, who had captured his heart long before L'Valin ever met him.

Finally, L'Valin raised her head, and with a Mentalt's will, she stilled her emotions. Slowly, she rose, and started to turn to walk away.

L'Valin felt Aijou's fore-hoof lash out, and felt the tingling grip of his will pressing her paw into the frog of his fore-hoof. *L'Valin T'Masa... Do not go. I am sorry that I cannot say I love you... But that would be a lie... And I cannot lie to you, L'Valin. I care for you to much to lie to you...* he said, his silent scream a barely-heard whisper echoing in her mind.

L'Valin looked at him over her shoulder, and flicked her tail once. 'I am not going anywhere, Aijou. I will not leave you. Though you do not love me, I love you more than life itself. Aijou, I am not leaving you. I simply need to take a walk. Now release me,' she thought in reply, her mind calm.

Aijou's grip faded, and L'Valin turned and walked away, her face calm and impassive. Aijou sat quietly, staring after her, and marveling at the power, the beauty of her awakened mind - she was now, truly, a Mentalt again. Yet, he had not lied to her - though he cared for her, Aijou found that he did not love her. And yet, she loved him still, even after knowing this.

Aijou sighed, and hung his head, feeling deeply shamed.

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