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A Change
The soft fur of the reindeer skin sat in Armande's lap. A small smile played on his lips. Last night had been far more successful than he had imagined. The news was still trickling out. The guests were powerful and rich. They could not be silenced or disappeared so easily. There were still only rumors, obviously grown through exaggeration, but chaos had reigned at the Ball.

And his seeds would find it fertile soil, weeds that would thrive in the cracks, spidering webs that would eventually  shatter Brandon's grip on the empire. They just needed water and time.

He still needed to travel to Rome, but that would be later. The map was what intrigued him. He needed a starting point, a way to sync it up with the real world. The language too was a mystery, though he suspected Valeriya would provide the key.

As if his thoughts had been a summons, she came into the room. His eyes drank her in. So lovely. So fiery. He had let her sleep, her hair a tangled mass that did nothing to diminish her beauty. He rose to greet her with a kiss. "Valeriya, my love."

The man dying of thirst rejoiced at mere drops of water, but given enough drops, he wanted a skein. Soon he wanted the rivers at his fingertips.

Valeriya's thoughts were of a similar form when she finally pulled herself away from a window. The Above was a glorious, joyful thing. She did not know that the warmth of the sun could tickle her skin just so. The radiance of warm cheeks was drips to the dying. 

But hunger churned new pits in her stomach. When she stalked away from the window, it was with a scowl twisted upon her face. The sky was no longer enough. She needed more.

Illarion swept alongside her pace, robes sweeping quietly at his feet. She glared at him. "Why do you still dress as Khylsty of Below, beloved brother?" She pointed at two passing males adorned in pants and t-shirts

Illarion clasped his hands together without replying. She scoffed, knowing the answer he didn't need to provide just by looking at his beautiful face. He was still pale, afraid to venture too long out in the sun, but also of those that stared at the brandings across his forehead and nose. The shape of a cross was forever burned into his face. It was the mark of his awakening. He thought he would never blend in with those of the Above and should remain a recluse.

She loathed the idea. In fact, blending in with the Above was what she wanted most dearly. To not just be here but also to belong. She was absently twisting strands of her hair in her fingers when he finally responded.

They spoke a few more minutes before she departed to find Regus.  He was curled over the map again. Valeriya's scrutiny was flat. They would seek the places on that map and Valeriya would behold the tops of those green towers for herself, finally. If only Armande could figure out where the damn map led.

"Armande. My beloved." There was a possessiveness in her voice as though the barbs of her tongue spat warning of ownership. Her smile promised violence; her eyes twinkled with delight. 

"The one you call Ascendancy suffers as the beast was bid. A strike has been delivered to the heart of him who would call himself tsĭsarĭ of this land. Let us accept the spoils of our victory with a celebration.

"I want to go out."
The Eye of the Khylsty
Armande felt a smile of amusement form on his lips. He loved Valeriya. But in many ways she was still a child- and being the Eye had only made her a spoiled one. However hard her life had been- and he knew it had. Her body was covered in scars from hunts going back to childhood. But even they were dwarfed by those on her back. Awakening had been bought in volumes of blood and gouts of great pain, he knew. Yet still she had been born a princess among the Khylsty. Her time as Eye had only driven that further home.

She would grow up eventually, as they all did. He himself had learned a form of humility, after all, only in the last few weeks. And he was not a child by any stretch of the imagination.

So he merely quirked an eyebrow at her petulant tone, her possessive words. Perhaps more than a tight smile showed. He half expected her to stamp her foot in frustration. If she did, Armande might actually laugh at her. She might try to strike him, then, which might let them wrestle about. It was not without its attraction.

"You wish to go out..." he said, as if this were ominous. He tapped his lip, considering. 26. Living in the Below her entire life. The joy she'd felt exploring the Above was infectious. He did like seeing her smile. She had picked up modern Russian quickly, her hunger and intelligence shining brightly. She had adopted modern ways with rapidity, often using his wallet for hours to explore.

And she was right. Very soon Theiss would contact him with a full report of the results of last night's victory. The Atharim had plants among the wait and security staff, as well as those attendees who had no clue that ultimately he held their strings.

"A celebration IS in order. I have an idea, Valeriya. But as beautiful as you are, perhaps you would enjoy spending some time being pampered and made up as a queen." Maybe there was a hint of tease in his tone. From the Below or not, not a woman lived, in his experience, who would not enjoy a spa. "Then, well, I might surprise you. Perhaps...if you aren't too much a demanding princess."

His grin under his raised eyebrow indicated he was teasing- and promised potential...and fun.
Valeria circled the room restlessly.  She loved Armande, but he could be absolutely infuriating sometimes. He couldn’t understand the wanderlust that yanked at the base of her spine. She wanted to roam, breathe such cold clean air, and drink the fruits of the Above for her very own. The throne of the Khylsty aimed to root her to the depths of the earth, but no power of man could imprison her another day. She ached to burst free. The walls loomed like caves. A growl escaped her throat as Armande began to dismiss her. She would not be dismissed!

The offer stilled the restlessness for a moment as she deciphered the words. She would not decline the offer of being treated for a queen. 

She sniffed, chin tilted high. The tease did not settle well with the Eye. “Such is the nature of being a queen. The Eye demands. You will obey.” She came closer to where he was seated and tilted his chin toward her as a serpentine smile twisted her lips.
The Eye of the Khylsty
A part of Armande wanted to laugh at her childishness. But he found he did not laugh. A part of Armande wanted to smile as she leaned into the arrogance without shame or self inspection. But he found no smile on his face.

The grin and playfulness in his eye had faded with each word until all that remained was stone, eyes blue ice as cold as the depths of space. He might have learned humility as Regus and Khlysty, but he was no dog to order about; he was no penitant subject happy to have something to do for his betters.

No, Armande found a quiet anger displayed on his face. He stood to full height, he now looking down at her, his grey brows knitted at angles.

His voice was low but iron. "You are the Eye, Valeriya. But by your own words I am the Father Rasputin. I have been reborn and purged of my sin, by your own proclamation. I have earned my destiny and entered the sacred ground of your womb."

He paused and looked at her. "Either you believe that or you do not. If you do not, then you name yourself a liar that used me only to come to the Above. But if you do, if all of that is true, you acknowledge that our relationship is one of equals."

Perhaps there was a touch of anger that laced his words. "I will not be treated as your subject, Valeriya. What I do for you, the things I offer, I do not do or give because you command. Nor will I ever. You will know that now."

He sat down again, looking up at her, plain he would not be moved. "I made you an offer as your consort and lover. You will treat me as such, always. I am not your child. We are equals. If that is not something you can agree to then it is best things end now. And regardless of what you decide, I will give you what money and training you need to roam freely in the Above. I will not hold you hostage to me by keeping you dependent. But if you stay, you stay as my partner and lover. Not as my owner."
Valeria retreated a step as he stood, height drawn over her. She would not release the traps that chained their eyes together, but she held her tongue until he was through.

In the end, she relented as much as she could. The Eye was no beast to upturn her belly for a dominator. His questions pricked as he named her hypocrite. 

"Very well, my love. You speak truth. Father Rasputin is not mine to command and nor are you." Her chin sank to her chest, but Valeriya would never be demure. The heat of carnal lusts blurred with the lusts of the proud. In their shared passion he liked her dominance. The two halves were difficult to reconcile. Her sins were purged and she was awakened. Pride had no place in the Eye of the Khylsty.

But he mocked her princess and queen. Either he saw her for her birthright or he did not. The hypocrisy galled. A queen ruled the land, but she would always defer to the king so long as he lived. It was never the other way around.

She voiced none of these angry thoughts, however. Instead, she was the very model of compliance. 
"I apologize, great one." 
The Eye of the Khylsty
A smile tugged at the cornors of Armande's mouth but he refused to let it show. Her tone was mocking. But she had bent. She had acknowledged his point. It was enough.

Armande found his attempt had failed, slightly. The smile had formed. It would always be a battle with her.

And he would not have it any other way. Honestly.  She was a leopard. She was strong. And he loved strength. If there was a true god, it was that. It drew him. She could never know what he truly felt for her. She would be insufferable, then. 

Dear God, she would. Just thinking of it made him shudder.

He stood again, once more looking down on her. But this time it was not in anger. He loved the way she looked at him. He didn't kiss her. There would be no victory dance.

He smiled at her and brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "You will enjoy this, my love. I promise you."

Armande's glasses and shemagh trapped the heat against his face. The price to pay for being wanted. He would soon begin adorning himself with paints to confuse most facial recognition systems. Brandon was not a fool. The exploits of last night would make any intelligent person suspect he lived. Still it had been worth it.

"A Dream" was written above the storefront. The spa wasn't the best, of course. They had to stay close to home. But it was good enough. He looked at Valeriya as they exited the truck. She would love it.

[[Go to town, woman. You can mod regus too. A bit anyway. He'll be waiting in the lobby. ;-) ]]
Valeriya was skeptical. Amanda offered no details about the unknown awaiting her other than pampering (which she didn't even understand what that word meant) and servants fit for a queen (that she understood).

The Above bristled with activity. There were so many people, Valeriya wondered how they all fit. Armande told her they lived in huge towers built like mighty fortresses, and Valeriya quivered to stand at the base of one and peer toward the heavens. The highness of the towers petrified her. People were not meant to dwell in the sky. She opted to remain firmly on the ground and not look up anymore.

The building Armande took her to sparkled like water. In fact, an entire wall of water rippled with glossy sheen that reminded her of glistening caves of the Below. Wetness and warmth welcomed them into a shining, white room. A woman waited there dressed all in white clothing so tight, Valeriya thought the clothes were glued to her skin. She tried to pluck at the woman's sleeve when she frowned and snatched her wrist away. A glance from Armande, who said something in the language of the English, and the woman gushed with apologies wrapped with the mother tongue.

Vale nodded approvingly. When asked her name, Vale replied proudly. "I am Valeriya, Eye of the Khy-" but she interrupted herself. She had no second name to follow the first. Armande had one. Even Father Rasputin had a Family name. She thought quickly and amended her answer. "I am Valeriya Khylsty."  The woman accepted it unquestioningly, and Valeriya pondered the significance of the moment. Did nobody remember the great church of the Khylysts? 

She parted from Armande in the company of the woman who was introduced as Evelina. A series of questions followed that Valeriya did not comprehend in the least. She simply said yes to them all and trusted Armande that this was the pampering befitting a queen.
The Eye of the Khylsty
The smell of incense competed with the tinkling of the water and the soft music. Armande rather enjoyed this. Not the lobby of the spa, of course. Though he had paused and considered getting a massage himself. Despite his supplement and hormonal regimen, there was no question he was getting older. Still good, but definitely older, especially in the morning when his muscles and joints were stiff from sleep. He chuckled to himself. Or when Vale had been especially amorous. She left more than soreness. Her nails were sharp, her bite strong.

But he did enjoy the impeding surprise for her. She wanted to be queen, to be honored as such. She would find that, here. An indulgence, but life was not always about warfare.

It was odd, this change that had slowly come over him the past few months. He'd been a warrior his entire life. And for the last 20 years at least, had contented himself with a solitary and intellectual existence. Passion still ruled him, but it was the fire of the struggle, the battle for the safety of the entire world. The enemies too numerous and his people a fractured whole. By Pope Gregory's design. The Church needed control. Cells rather than a monolithic structure.

The Atharim were far older than the Church, with traditions and descendants on every continent. Those who'd held his office before had worked to bring them under their control- or to stamp them out. The pogroms and purges of indigenous peoples usually had Atharim influence at their core. It was not the route he would have taken. No, not at all. He couldn't begin to imagine the amount of knowledge that had been lost.

Zealots!, he thought disgustedly. It was Alexandria all over again, religion the cover these Atharim used to stomp out the others. Australia. The Americas. Siberia. Africa. Those Reguses had been fools. Di Inferi disgusted him, but they had been weeds that had grown in the soil those fools had created.

So much lost that should have been his by right.

He realized he had clenched his fists and relaxed. Over and done. He allowed the scent to wash over him, let the water fall lull his mind to quiet.

Yes, a massage might be nice, he thought as he stood and went to the desk. There was still tension in his shoulders.
Valeriya wrapped her body in a white robe softer than the downy fur of an oni’s underbelly. She quickly adapted to many of the ways of the Above: sinks and showers, soaps and more. This place was a spa. Like some sort of heaven on earth she never knew existed.

They had her lay upon cushions. Women wrapped in robes offered delights that melted upon the tongue. Sweetness burst like the sunshine.

Modesty did not keep Valeriya covered. Though the woman that introduced herself with such a foreign sounding name that Valeriya was sure she would not be able to pronounce it, attempted to drape her repeatedly. When robe was pulled down, the woman gasped and hesitated to touch the scars crossing her skin.

Tentatively, afraid, the woman grazed fingerpads along the leathery hide that was the Eye of the Khylsty. Scents burst in her nose. Fingers dug deep to the bone. She winced at the sharpness, a hiss erupted from her lips. The flash of green eyes threatened care. The masseuse apologized before continuing.

The things she saw, the things they did to her, she would never be able to accurately describe. Oils, warmth, water and rest. They washed her hair while she sat upon a throne. They painted her face with colors and lines, tinted her lips pink.

When she returned to the lobby, the sun had moved across the sky and a hunger rumbled in her stomach.
The Eye of the Khylsty

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