Chapter 36: Promises Made.

  Guile did not go far before he turned a corner and nearly ran right into Slayd. The boy jumped and backed up a few steps, muttering a quiet apology.
   Guile frowned. “What are you doing awake?”
   His charge shrugged and toed the ground. “I couldn’t sleep. My mind won’t stop running around in circles.”
   “That will remedy itself soon enough, if you would stay in bed. You look exhausted, Slayd.”
   He shuffled and nodded. “I am.”
   Guile took Slayd by the wrist and led him back in the direction of his room. “Then it shouldn’t be as difficult as you’re making it out to be.”
   Slayd sighed to himself as he followed his guardian, but they hadn’t gone far before he pulled him to a stop. “Wait, Guile.”
   “What is it?”
   Perplexed eyes turned up to stare at Guile. “What is wrong? I thought you would be happy. I’m on the path that I am supposed to be on, I’m going to resurrect our master, and I’ve done everything you have wanted me to do ever since you pulled me from the Temple of Mirrors. What more do you want from me? Why aren’t you happy?”
   Guile grunted to himself, and stared at Slayd for a long time. His expression seemed to change from carefully blank to immeasurably irritated and then back to unreadable. When he spoke, his voice was thick with weariness. “Slayd, in all your years and in what little memory you have regained, have you ever, even once, known me to be genuinely happy? Aside from occasional moments of peace, have I not always been restless, discontented, always on edge? Why would that change now?”
   Slayd shifted from one foot to the other and stared at the ground. “I didn’t mean to make you mad…”
   “I’m not angry.”
   “You sound angry.”
   “You are mistaken.” He scowled and turned to push open the door to Slayd’s room.
   He turned back again. “What, Slayd?”
   “Why is that, Guile?” His voice was quiet, and his eyes gazed at his guardian curiously. “Why haven’t you ever been happy? Is it because of me?”
   Guile blinked his empty eye sockets, and Slayd had the distinct impression that he must have just said something ridiculous. But the scowl softened on his face, and he reached out a hand to touch Slayd’s cheek. “That is something I should not tell you, Heir of Moroloth. You have too many Important Things you should be thinking about, and you do not need something of little consequence distracting your thoughts. But no, it is not because of you.”
   “I want to know, Guile. I cannot be content if you are never happy. Whether I want it to or not, your mood affects me. Quite a lot.”
   Guile sighed and shook his head. “Another time, Slayd. I do not trust secrets to these walls.”
   “You will tell me, though?”
   There was a long pause from Guile, and he furrowed his brow. He looked as if he were fighting with himself about what answer he should give, and he rubbed his forehead irritably. At length, he slowly nodded. “I will tell you, Slayd. But only when I am certain there are no ears listening aside from your own.”
   “I will hold you to that, you know.”
   Guile grunted unenthusiastically. “It is a promise, Slayd. Now go to bed. You need your rest.”
   Slayd nodded and slipped through the door. Guile closed it behind him and turned to lean against its frame. He pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. “Why do I make such promises…”
   Guile shook his head and turned from the door to slip again through the corridors of the castle. He wandered through crumbling halls and past long-disused rooms, unsure of what drew him along, down steep stairs and deep into the interior of the ruins. He slowed when he found himself in a long, dim hall, lit only by glowing blue orbs that lined the walls. Even in this dim light the pale flowers grew, climbing in through cracks in the walls and ceiling, adorning the broken stone.
   He ran his bony hand over the smooth stone, smiling a little at the chill that met his fingers.
   “What brings you down this far, guardian?”
   Guile glanced down the hall, and found Lady Bird’s slight form in the shadow. Her voice had wavered a little, but with what emotion, he couldn’t tell. He shrugged. “I haven’t the slightest idea, my lady. Something…”
   “Something draws you.”
   “I suppose you could say that. It has been a long time since I have been here.”
   She nodded and made a slight curtsy with the hem of her robe. “If it would please you, the Beetle King was hoping you would come.”
   He sighed. “Naturally. Lead on.”
   A small smile lit her face. “There is no need. He sits at the end of the hall.” She bowed again and slipped past Guile, following the blue orbs back to the upper parts of the castle.
   Guile shrugged to himself and made his way to the end of the hall, where the light was far dimmer. He would have been groping in the dark, if it weren’t for a single point of light that marked the burning end of an incense stick.
   It took a moment for his sight to adjust, but when it did he found himself standing at the foot of a dais, upon which sat the Beetle King. He was sitting cross-legged, rigidly erect and appeared to be as catatonic as he had been when they had first arrived in his kingdom.
   Guile leaned against the dais, slipping his fingers through the thin trail of smoke that filtered up from the burning incense. “Your niece told me you were hoping I’d come here.”
   “Indeed.” The Beetle King stirred and leaned forward to dowse the ember between his fingers. They were plunged into total darkness for only a moment, before dim blue orbs flickered to life on either side of the dais. They hardly gave off any light at all, serving only to deepen the shadows around them. “Our conversation was interrupted. I intended to finish it.”
   Guile shook his head. “There is nothing to finish. Do as you will. But I’d rather my master be resurrected before you return my eyes to me. He will want to know.”
   Sirrhas nodded. “That is expected.”
   “Is that all you wanted to speak to me about?”
   His characteristic thin smile. “Do you wish to avoid my presence, Guile?”
   He scowled and pulled himself up to sit on the edge of the dais. “Of course I do. You make me damn uncomfortable, Beetle King. But say whatever it is you want to say.”
   Sirrhas trailed his fingertips over Guile’s knee. “Such has always been the way of things. Perhaps that will never change. But perhaps it will.”
   Guile grunted and his scowl deepened. “And what makes you think I want to change?”
   The fingertips on his knee went from caress to firm grip in an instant, pulling Guile off the dais and into a hard embrace. “Because you desire many things, Guile, and the things that you desire the most are the ones that seem far too elusive. Perhaps you will discover that there are other sources of comfort in this world with which to soothe your bitterness.”
   Guile twisted in the Beetle King’s grip, but sighed. “You are lord of death, Sirrhas. It doesn’t suit you to talk of such things.”
   Sirrhas ran a hand over his back, drawing shivers up his spine. “Yet I speak of them anyway. One never knows how one will change over time.”
   “Be wary, Beetle King. You seem to think that there is time enough for change. There may not be.”
   “You speak of the Burning Grounds.”
   Guile fell silent, a single nod his only reply.
   “I made my pledge of fealty to Moroloth centuries ago, Guile. I have known him far longer than you have even been in service to him. Do not doubt that I will carry out my promises.”
   “I don’t doubt that you will.”
   “Then what troubles you?”
   He shook his head and shut his empty eye sockets. “Surely you know that will happen when he awakens. Whatever dreams of a better world Moroloth may have, the reality is that in order to achieve it there will be great pain and great sorrow inflicted on the people of Dehalen. What he dreams of may come to pass – it may not. But their blood is guaranteed to flow.”
   Sirrhas nodded slowly. “I know this. It is a deep sacrifice, a heavy price to pay.”
   “It is not limited to the common people, Sirrhas. The vows you made call out for your own blood as well.”
   “You speak of things I already know. Why does that cause you concern?”
   Guile felt the light pressure of the fingers against his back begin to trail into the feathers on his shoulders, and he squirmed. “I do not return whatever facsimile of affection you may have, Beetle King.”
   “And yet you crave it. I hardly think it matters who it is from.”
   Guile snarled and dug his claws into Sirrhas’ chest. “I am not that weak, Beetle King.”
   Sirrhas ignored the pain. “It is not a weakness to need such things, Guile.” His hands slipped down to gently grip Guile’s waist, and he leaned in close to nuzzle his jawline. “You always try so hard to resist what others offer you, yet I can hear it in your voice that you need and desire the very things you try to avoid.”
   Guile swallowed hard and shook his head, his palms flattening against Sirrhas’ bare chest. “I fail to see what you’re imagining, Beetle King - ”
   “Then why do you press closer to me?”
   Guile didn’t answer. It was becoming difficult enough to keep his heartbeat even, and his face burned. He found himself grateful for the deep shadows surrounding them.
   Sirrhas brushed his lips against the sensitive skin on his neck, and Guile let out a slow, shaky breath. He sighed and drew his arms over Sirrhas’ shoulders, leaning into the other man’s embrace. A long moment of silence passed between them, broken only by the muted sound of soft breathing and skin brushing against skin.
   “…Seal yourself away, Beetle King.” Guile’s voice sounded loud and grating in the quiet of the hall.
   “Seal yourself away, and save yourself from the suffering that will soon come to this world. Allow no one entrance to your realm save the souls of the dead.”
   The dim orbs of light grew a fraction brighter, casting their blue glow over the hall. “Why do you suddenly ask so much of me?”
   Guile rested the side of his forehead on the Beetle King’s chest, carefully avoiding eye contact. “Promise me.”
   Sirrhas frowned and tilted Guile’s head up to see his face, but Guile pulled away from his embrace. He backed up a few steps and leaned his back against the dais, crossing his arms and staring at the floor. “Make a promise to me, that you will not throw away your life to whatever doom my master would send you to. For if you follow the Lich King to the Burning Grounds, you will surely die. And without you, this kingdom will perish. Dehalen needs the realm of the Beetle King, or the dead will have no portal through which they can enter the halls of Satarin.”
   “I cannot do that so easily, Guile.”
   “Yes you can. You are my Lord’s one and only equal in all this world, vows of fealty or no. If you tell him, he will understand. You know he will. It would not break your pledge to do so.”
   The hard smile returned. “Something tells me that it is not concern for the dead that motivates you. Why such a sudden request?”
   Guile shrugged. “Think what you will, Beetle King. Promise me.”
   Sirrhas rested a hand on his shoulder. “I know not what causes you to be concerned, but I cannot refuse you, Guile. You have my promise.”


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