"A priest?" Marcus had said quietly, Anur confirming it in a low voice and Kir took the chance to whisk Mara away from the confrontation, not wanting her to have to see it. He didn't particularly want to see it either, he had been enjoying the seemingly unconditional acceptance this family had offered him and watching it fall hurt even as he'd been braced for it.

He could still recognize the tone, even unable to make out words: Anur placating, trying to soothe, while Marcus' was full of an old, bitter and soured loathing that he recognized in those who had been truly scarred. Someone Marcus had cared about had been burned, had been killed by the priesthood and there was nothing Kir could do to make that right or assure him that he had personally never done such a wretched thing.

Blast, this whole thing had been too good to be true.

"Right! So, Marcus, like I said, Kir Dinesh, good friend who's saved my life," Anur hissed the last at his uncle rather viciously, before continuing cheerily, "Now the introductions are out of the way, why don't we go say hi to the rest of the clan? They're lurking inside I think – ready to ambush us I'm sure."

On one level, Kir really appreciated Anur's ability to cheerfully gloss over things and shove past awkward situations. On another, it was rather frustrating to know that this entire thing was simply going to fester and seethe under the surface the entire time Marcus was here. At least it was only a day or so, Kir thought tiredly, Mara cheerfully tugging him after her to finish building the snow-fort, he could handle a day or so.

By the time that evening rolled around he was very much doubting his ability to handle this for a day or so. It had been just past noon when Marcus had arrived and though Kir had tried to stay out of the man's way as much as possible, and when unable to avoid him, kept the three children around him as a form of defense (and wasn't that twisted, the bitter part of him mused, children defending a child-killer), he couldn't avoid the pointed comments and questions as to his duties. Thankfully, as a chaplain, he had plenty of duties that had nothing to do with witchburnings and internal affairs matters, but Marcus was a master of word-play and knew damn well Kir wasn't innocent.

Was the blood staining his hands so obvious? Was his soul permanently stained, the blood-soaked ash he had grown used to blackening his hands and digging under his nails? Internally he screamed at it all, that the family he had so enjoyed being a part of was no longer happy and welcoming but with an underlying tension ruining their holiday even as they tried to laugh and enjoy their family's presence despite it. He shouldn't have said yes to this, he should have told Anur that he'd spend the night in the Waystation he should have done something to keep this whole mess, fiasco, disaster from happening.

Some gift he was giving.

Jer and Ayla left with the boys to their own home in Lisle proper, Jana taking the opportunity to send Mara off to bed. As soon as the children were gone Kir could feel the animosity skyrocket but he had practice at this, he was good at this if nothing else and simply ignored Marcus' now even more pointed biting questions and comments with bland casualness. As much as it hurt, he could acknowledge that he had heard far worse from his own brotherhood and it was only the unexpected and sudden nature of the entire confrontation that was making it so painful.

In fact, it was all he could do to keep Anur from exploding, kicking him under the table repeatedly to keep his mouth shut. He would not have Anur and his uncle get in a huge argument over him when Marcus was right damn it all. Anur was just more forgiving.

Jana came downstairs from settling Mara and interrupted what had become a standoff with a pointed, "Kir. Help me tend to the horses."

He immediately stood and followed her to the slush room, the duo (because truly, it was Anur and Marcus that had really been glaring at each other) at least having the decency to wait until they were outside and walking towards the stables before erupting into shouts. Kir flinched at the sudden increase in volume, unable to make out the words again but definitely knowing exactly what the topic was, but he only commented, "I hope they don't wake Mara up."

"She sleeps like the dead," Jana assured him, "Which honestly made her comment about you that first morning all the more entertaining. And sound doesn't actually carry very well up the stairs – she probably can't hear much from the room we're sharing anyway."

Kir only sighed and nodded, the horses already tended to and the entire thing a blatant attempt to get him out of the area so they could have out their argument. "I do apologize," he said finally, the pair standing in the snow and watching the forest surrounding the house. "For causing this… unpleasantness."

Jana sighed, "Honestly, there was going to be unpleasantness one way or the other. Anur hasn't been home in four years and written a few sentences a year if that. It's been a… problem. For the family. Having you here has probably made the holiday much easier for all of us, actually. The children love it for one thing, and you gave us all someone to focus on besides Anur and his deplorable letter writing skills."

"Why wouldn't he come home in four years?" Kir demanded, waving his hand at the house behind them, raised voices still somewhat audible, "Arguments and all, if I could go home to – if this was what – I would go! I would go home! Write! Something! Not four years with no word!"

"It might be because you can't," Jana pointed out, "Anur knows he can come home, so it doesn't occur to him that one day he might come home and find out it's too late something horrible has happened or something wonderful has happened and he missed it. Taking it for granted, I suppose."

"Well if there is one thing you can count on its that I'll be making him write more than a few sentences," Kir informed her, "A Herald is – it is not a bad thing, to have a Herald in the family. There is no reason he should not communicate."

"Sunpriests aren't, then?" Jana asked after a few moments silence, "Allowed to contact their families, I mean."

"No. No we aren't," Kir replied shortly, arms crossed as he stared at the snow fiercely.

"When did you last see them?"

"I was seven."

He looked up, startled when Jana placed a hand on his arm, a sad look on her face, "I can't imagine how – I can't imagine. Being taken or having a child taken that young. At all, for that matter. As much as Marcus is yelling about the priests hurting us – they hurt you a lot more, don't they? The people of Karse? We at least have a reprieve but… children, taken like that."

He didn't know how to remind her that he was the one kidnapping children now, he was the one burning those young children she was so sad for. Did it make a difference, that he had been one of them once? How could it? How could it possibly matter that he was just the latest in a long line of the same? That didn't change that it was wrong, what he had done, it didn't change that it was murder. It just put it at a horrific societal scale. Condoned slaughter, condoned kidnapping – did authorization make it alright? Did having orders somehow keep him from having moral responsibility? How could it? How could it when he knew deep in his soul, deep in his bones, that what he had done was wrong?

Jana took his silence as acceptance, and the voices in the house had quieted, so she sighed again and patted his arm before turning back, "Come on, Kir. They should have that out of their system and we'll be able to at least enjoy some tea before going to bed."

"I wouldn't count on it," Kir muttered, but followed her nonetheless. It was rather cold, and tea (and sleep, away from Marcus where he could just hide) sounded wonderful.

They stepped into the slush-room and froze, the argument apparently still going on but no longer a screaming, roaring thing, instead made of lowered tones no less vicious and fierce for their lack of volume.

"And how can you justify this? This friendship of yours with some bastard some Sunpriest wretch who sets innocent people on fire as his calling as his religion? Hmm? How can you justify something like that?!" Marcus demanded, fury (and if Kir were honest, hurt confusion) clear in his voice.

"Because he hasn't!" Anur said fiercely.

Kir was never more grateful he hadn't stepped out of the slush-room, listening covertly. Jana had entered with him, but thankfully had been equally reluctant to enter the argument.

Sunlord that Anur could actually believe such a thing. And believe it so deeply that it never even occurred to him the utter impossibility of what he was claiming. Even if Kir had – even if he'd – there was no way. None at all, that he could have risen to a First Order Firestarter, failed prodigy or no, without killing innocents.

His country, his home, was in the grips of a quiet civil war. He had already murdered for his newfound cause, for his certainty that what they were doing, allying with Valdemar, was right. Yet here his Herald was, his friend, claiming with such fervor that he had never killed innocents, not just murdered, but never even killed.

He couldn't stay here any longer.

Jana whispered something but he was already out the door again, coat flapping as he darted for the stables, knowing no one would be venturing to those now, not with the horses tended to already. How could he believe that?

He collapsed to his knees in front of the central hearth, glowing embers radiating heat for the stables but soon to turn to dark coals. He didn't even notice the chill seeping into his bones from the bare floor, whispering desperate prayers to a God he could hardly imagine would consider his wretched words worth listening to.

***===***pagebreak***===***

:Chosen. You need to get out here. Now,: Aelius interrupted the angry silence that had fallen after Anur and Marcus' argument. Short enough a time had passed that Anur was able to shove away from the table and give a curt, "I'm going to see Aelius," with it easily attributed to the argument rather than an urgent summons.

He entere the slush-room to get his boots and coat on, surprised to find Jana struggling back into her own still snow-dusted coat. "Jana?" he asked lowly, guessing she didn't want their uncle to hear she was present just yet by her actions, "What is it?"

"Anur!" she cried softly, grabbing his shirt fiercely and staring up at him, "He heard it Anur, he heard all of it I am so sorry I tried to stall but – "

"Where is he?" Anur interrupted.

"He ran for the stables, I think. Did Aelius – ?"

"Yes. Shit. Damn it. Don't expect us back, all right? There's plenty of wood for the night and I can't see him again, not now," Anur growled the last, jerking his head back towards the main body of the house in clear indication of just who he wanted to avoid.

"Right. I'll distract Uncle Marcus," Jana nodded, shucking her coat quickly and hanging it. Anur jammed his feet into his boots and stepped out before his coat was even fully on, wrapping it around himself for the brief walk to the stables, the freshly broken path only barely visible in the porch lamp-light.

He slipped through the door, latching it securely against the cold before turning to Kir, alarmed to hear his murmured prayers, interrupted by what he would swear were choked sobs. Damn Marcus and his prejudice!

"Kir!" he cried, rushing over and crouching next to him, resting a hand on his friend's back and babbling in Karsite, "Gods, I am so sorry Kir, that you had to hear that. Jana was trying to delay you so we could get that argument out of the way without you hearing. He doesn't know you Kir, he doesn't know anything he's just a – "

"Person who can see the truth!" Kir snarled, whipping around to glare at him, Anur scrambling back in shock and jumping to his feet as the embers flared into fresh life, twisting the shadows in Kir's expression into something truly horrifying as the other man rose to his own feet.

"How could you believe that Herald! Did you hear nothing of what I said when I pulled you from the flames? I've burned people, Herald. I've hunted those innocent witches you so pity. What about a Firestarter don't you understand? I didn't get chosen for that order on basis of my looks or tendency towards studies, I didn't get known as a prodigy in the first place without some flame-scorched blood on my hands!"

"Kir those – you explained those, if you hadn't someone else would have and it would have been a slower – "

"And what about Gero!"

"Ge – who?" Anur asked, completely bewildered and alarmed at his friend's utter grief-filled fury.

"Gero! The conscript – the boy I murdered in front of the altar of my God!" Kir screamed at him, tears glistening orange in the now purely Gift-fueled flames. "I murdered him, snapped his neck while he knelt at the altar because he reported evil in my squad!"

"A fanatic then?"

"No!" the flames roared out of the hearth with that declaration, Anur refusing to flinch back from them but it was a mighty struggle as he watched his friend's grief shift to complete rage at his assumption.

"No! Not a fanatic, a believer! He believed what he had been raised as, believed in the Sunpriests, in the Sunlord Vkandis' shepherds! Damn you Herald, Karse isn't divided between fanatics and Valdemaran sympathizers! There are ordinary people, good people, who know nothing more than the things they were raised to see as truths! Raised! For generations upon generations we've been raised to see the White-Demons and the stain of Witach as synonomous! He was scared! He came to me for help! The first time, the first time someone ever comes to me, a Firestarter, genuinely believing that I can help purge true evil from their comrades and I kill him."

Something vanished in Kir with that declaration, the roaring flames crumbling into the hot ash that remained of its natural fuel, Kir himself seeming only barely able to hold himself upright.

The moment the flames subsided so his coat wouldn't catch on fire crossing in front of the hearth, Anur took the two necessary steps and pulled Kir into a fierce hug, the priest quietly sobbing into his shoulder, murmuring broken apologies and admissions of guilt all the while.

:Aelius?: Anur asked softly, resting his head on Kir's, :…I – I don't think I can fix this.:

:It's not something that can be fixed, Chosen.:

When Kir's sobs seemed to have subsided, guilt-stricken murmurs tapering off, Anur shifted and said lowly, "I'm sorry, Kir. For… well I have a lot to apologize for I suppose."

"How could you believe that?" Kir whispered, and Anur winced, knowing that the answer wasn't something for him to be particularly proud of.

"I wanted to," he replied quietly, "I… when we first ran into one another, in Hardorn, I didn't have time to process what being a Sunpriest might mean, especially not with Ancar starting the war right afterwards. By the time I had a chance to think on it I was being sent down into Karse undercover and the whole Sunbream Brook fiasco happened and by then I – I didn't want to think that you'd ever done something like that. You saved me, that was all that mattered and thinking that – that there had been others, that you hadn't saved, that you used to be one of those blank-faced acolytes lowering torches I – I just didn't want to believe it. So… I didn't. I guess I told myself that everyone you may have burned was justified, somehow, either by giving them a painless death or – or something. I don't know. I… I didn't think. I guess. I didn't want to."

"It's not true. I never – never – lied about my Order, about what my duty was it – it was one of the few things I could hold to. That at least I would never hide the ash on my hands, pretend I was some innocent pastoral red-robe sent out on an unpleasant duty," Kir shuddered, Anur wincing as he recalled his own confusion at Kir's refusal to set aside the title of Firestarter if Karse should change it's political tune.

They stood in silence for a while, before Anur sighed, realizing a lot of this could have been avoided if he had asked this at the beginning. It was sometimes hard to remember – probably purposefully hard to remember, if he were being honest with himself – that they truly came from what could be considered entirely different worlds.

"Come on, let's sit down," he said, pulling back and calling an unused horse-blanket over, setting it on the ground to provide some insulation before dragging Kir down to sit next to him in front of the hearth. Putting some wood into the embers, he prodded them into low flames himself, figuring asking Kir to firestart right now would be a little tactless.

Settling next to him, making sure to sit so their shoulders were pressed against each other for support, he asked, "So what does it mean, to be a Firestarter?"

"…why ask now?"

"Because I asked Herald Alberich months ago, right after we met, and he said that it was a small, vicious Order isolated from everyone because of your duties, and that it was an honest miracle I had managed to meet you out of all of them," Anur said bluntly, "And I built up my own theories from there, and got a lot wrong. So – I'm asking you. Now."

"A small, vicious Order," Kir repeated softly, before chuckling bitterly, "That is a good description, actually. Small. Vicious. It works."

"You're not," Anur said fiercely, elbowing him, "You're not vicious, Kir. You're not."

"You thought I'd never killed anyone, Herald."

"No, I – okay. I knew you had burned Gifted. I knew that. And I told Marcus you hadn't burned innocents because when he said 'burned innocents', I didn't hear that. I heard how many children did you burn because you could. Because they were there and were convenient. That. That is vicious. Burning kids, just because you have the power too, because your government justifies it. That's vicious. You're not. You – you burned the ones you did because it was obvious – I'm guessing. It was blatant that there was something 'witchy' about them, and if you didn't, someone would. That's what you said, remember? If you didn't someone else would and it wouldn't be fast. It'd be slow, it'd be tarred wood alone, and it'd be agony. And no one would pray for them – well, not the burner, anyway. You would. You do!"

"And Gero?" Kir asked, a dark edge to his question Anur would be a true idiot to not notice.

Anur did notice it, and hesitated in his automatic refutation of Kir's viciousness in that matter. He still didn't think it qualified as vicious, but his assumptions about what had happened had already caused one veritable explosion, so he should probably avoid any more.

"I – I don't know," Anur admitted, "I can't say. I don't know enough about what happened."

"It is not complicated," Kir said flatly, staring at the fire, arms crossed, "He – he came to me after the evening service, and declared he had found wickedness in the unit. He had… heard plots against the Son of Sun, had heard insults and blasphemy offered against the Son of Sun. He'd heard verbal support offered to the White Demons of the north, bitterness against the priesthood and loathing for the Furies. And Sunlord, what could I do? Every word of it was true, I could probably have named exactly who he'd heard each of those things from, if he hadn't simply heard it from everyone. They were all too used to me not caring or even agreeing with them to watch their tongues like most Karsites do."

"So you killed him."

"What else was there?" Kir whispered, hunching in on himself. "What else could I have done?"

Anur was blank. He had no idea. It wasn't a scenario that would really come up as a Herald – to kill someone who'd come to you to confess to overhearing treason you were complicit in. It'd imply a treasonous Herald, and the way Valdemar was structured that was a bit of a contradiction.

:Not quite, Chosen.:

:Aelius?:

:As a Herald of Valdemar, for Valdemar, you are right. It would not come up. But to betray someone's faith in you, because of your faith in a greater cause or truth – that. That can come up as a Herald.:

:…I don't understand.:

A tired sigh echoed in his mind, and Anur was terrified. Aelius had never sounded that tired before, not emotionally exhausted like that. He hated this, hated this whole thing. Kir was hurting, Aelius was suddenly exhausted and damn it all it was his fault for not thinking things through. Again.

:Can you relay this? To the Sunpriest?:

:Of course.:

:Good. Tell him this - :

"Aelius says that – that the situation isn't one that would come up much as a Herald. Not as my type of Herald – my type? What does that – fine, fine. To betray personal ideals and morals for a cause greater than oneself, no matter how just or right a cause, is something that never goes away. The guilt at any such betrayal is lingering, to have killed, to have murdered, someone who trusted you? It never truly leaves, in my – ah, his – experience. Everyone has their own method of coping with guilt, of penance, and he does not know what would be best for you. All he can say is that letting it fester in silence makes it worse."

"And on my note, don't do something reckless and potentially life-threatening as some form of penance," Anur hastily added, easily seeing how avoiding 'festering in silence' could end in self-immolation if the guilty grief became too much.

"…That, was a very enlightening conversation," Kir murmured, and Anur agreed, but right now was not the time to think about what sort of Companion secrets Aelius implied or revealed with that statement, because he needed to make sure Kir was going to be all right, at least eventually.

And questioning Karse hadn't worked, because damn it all, Kir was right. He was right, to say that what he had done was wrong. But so much of that was situational – so much of that was because of the sanctioned evil his countrymen and he had been raised to think was right and just. When Anur considered that, it seemed a miracle that a detectable number of people ended up questioning the Sunpriests claims on witchcraft and Heralds.

Hell, the people in Hardorn blamed Valdemar for the war right now! The majority of them were only just catching on to the fact that Ancar was in the wrong, that he was doing something wrong to their land and their people, if at all! And that was after years of alliance! To go against centuries of hatred and loathing, spread across an entire society and institutions of it? It would be hard. It would be terrifying.

"You're the bravest person I know," Anur blurted, and restrained the urge to slap himself. Seriously, that was what he opened with?

Kir seemed to shake off some of his black mood to stare at him in bemusement, "What?"

Anur mentally sighed, he'd have to run with it.

"Like you said, Karsites, you're raised believing in the evil of the White Demons, in the evil of the Gifted, that they're stained by Witach. Generation upon generation passes those beliefs down and it's hard to think past that. To admit that everyone you know is wrong. And not just wrong, but commiting moral crimes, or at least being complicit to those crimes.

"And you didn't – it wasn't some epiphany for you, I don't think. I mean – I'm just guessing for you, but the other pro-Valdemaran Karsites I've met? Which number… few. But some through you as well? Alberich, Asher – that Captain of yours, even the Sergeant? They had some crisis, some pivotal moment. Alberich was found to have a witch-power, and he was condemned even though he only ever tried to serve Karse. He also had Kantor and a Companion – you can't betray that, Kir. Even if it took him a while to really believe it, you can't doubt, truly, that Companions are forces for good. It – I can't explain. It's impossible, with words, if you don't just – if you don't have one, I guess.

"Moving on. Asher – same thing. He was found with a Gift, and tried to turn to his priests, and burned for it. And, yes, I suspect his Gift is at least partially Foresight and he may have had some inkling that you were coming, but it was scary, it was someone trying to murder him and that is a definite crisis point.

"That Captain? Your unit, his men, were starving and Sunhame was the direct cause! The Sergeant? Apparently knew Alberich – and that was really bizarre to hear, let me say – and was loyal to him, and thought it was wrong that he was burned. Crisis points, again.

"You – the position you hold, in the priesthood, it's one of power. Of prestige. There is no reason, beyond your own personal morals and your own guts for you to have considered going against Sunhame's system. There was no defining crisis for you. Okay, you didn't like the screams so you burned witches faster than everyone else. That doesn't mean you had to start doubting that witches were really witches, were really evil. It doesn't mean you had to really think about why you were burning them, about whether or not they were really evil. You just had to consider that even witches deserved some mercy.

"So yeah, I think you're brave. All the people I know, who've changed a belief system like that – that's brave. That's courage. But situations forced them to face it, events made them question what was going on. You – I don't think you had that. It wasn't a requirement for your survival to question what was really evil about witches and Heralds. I mean, really, it would probably have been better for your odds on surviving if you hadn't questioned it, had taken that firestarting prodigy label and ran with it.

"So, I ever get asked, what was the bravest thing I ever saw someone do? It would be you, telling me it was too cold to fight, and trusting that a person you'd always thought of as a demon, as an incarnation of evil would hold to a truce."

Kir was staring at him now, and Aelius' silence echoed in his own mind, while Anur sat there, just waiting for someone to say something, because he had definitely said enough.

"I – I'm not – it – well blast, Herald, I don't know what to say to that," Kir managed, a rueful smile appearing on his face.

Anur echoed it, weight lifting off his shoulders as he realized that something he or Aelius had said had managed to at least get Kir thinking beyond what he'd had to do. He didn't know how to help Kir get past the guilt he would guess he'd carry all his life, but reminding him of all the good he had done, of how much he had to risk to get to this point? That had to help a bit.

It probably also helped that he'd never met this Gero, or anyone from Kir's circle besides Kir and the complicit group of 62nd members from the supply train this summer, but damn it. He'd rather have this Gero dead and Kir alive and kicking than the other way around any day, innocent or not, as un-Heraldic as that was.

"Well, don't tell me there was some defining crisis point, because then my theory falls to pieces," Anur replied dryly, startling an actual chuckle out of Kir and nearly grinning because of it.

"There… wasn't. There was the moment I realized I hated the screams – it drove me to consent to train as a Firestarter. But the realization that the people I was training to burn weren't actually witches in the old sense of the word, in the true sense of the word – that took time. I think," Kir chuckled wryly, "I think it was actually the story of Ari and the Witach that did it. We were told that story all the time as Firestarter candidates. And I just kept comparing the God-King's power, his utter wretchedness and actual evil to the witch-stained of today and it just didn't match. And somehow, by the time I became a true acolyte, I doubted there were any truly evil witches on the pyres at all. By the time I was ordained I was certain."

"Ha! Idolization confirmed!" Anur cheered, Kir snorting and shaking his head.

"Can't say I ever thought I'd be admired for my heresy."

They sat in silence for another long while, but it was an easy one, not strained with misunderstandings piled on top of one another.

"We don't have to go back inside, do we?" Kir asked finally, and Anur shook his head violently at the idea. "Oh no, I told Jana not to expect us back. We have horse-blankets, plenty of wood, and our coats. If we really get cold, Aelius can get over here and serve as a heat-source. We are definitely not going back in there, technically correct or not."

Kir shook his head, flopping back so he was stretched out on the ground, one arm twisted to pillow his head, the other hand resting on his stomach, "Virtuous pillar of justice, unwilling to fess up to being wrong? I am shocked. Truly shocked."

"I'm not," Anur said abruptly, wincing and actually burying his face in his hands this time. Really? They had just gotten the mood lightened and he was going to bring it down?

The silence stretched, no longer easy, and Kir finally reached up and tugged Anur down so he was stretched out on the blanket too, the two of them staring up at the stable ceiling. "Not what?" he finally asked, "A virtuous pillar of justice?"

"Yeah," Anur said quietly, unwilling to break the more light-hearted mood they'd reached but unwilling to refuse Kir answers after his own confessions. "I – I've made just as many mistakes, nowhere near as many reasons," he said the last bitterly, "I was just – a trusting idiot. I guess."

:Oh, Chosen…:

"I make friends easily right? I mean, there're jokes about it, amongst my yearmates. There were, anyway. They would say I could make friends with a rock. And I just about did – not a rock, that'd be weird, but I had people I called friends all over the palace, Haven – everywhere I went I tried to get a friend out of it."

"That's not a bad thing," Kir said softly.

"It is when you're blind to a friend's faults," Anur said darkly, "If she even was a friend, the bitch. A lot of the nobility– it's a matter of pride, to have a Herald friend. So we learn pretty quickly that a lot of the time we're friends with them only as much as they want that status, and I knew that, but she seemed different. It wasn't anything romantic, she told me that straight out, which was really unusual and honest and – so we were friends. When I had a chance, I'd search her out and we'd wander around the palace, chat, hang out with each other's groups – her group didn't like me much. I wasn't a politically powerful Herald, with no ambitions for higher office, so they didn't see the point. So she hung out with my group."

"And – okay. There was this pair of friends, Dirk and Kris, in my year. We hung out pretty often, being at similar levels in classes and everything. Kris – he was like the definition of attractive. Dirk is – well. He's not. And him being with Kris all the time just sort of emphasized that 'not'. So he was used to being passed over by girls, by everyone, because Kris was just better looking. None of us really liked it, but what could you do?"

"But Delilah, she – she clearly found Kris attractive. Who wouldn't? But she went out of her way to talk to Dirk, to firt with Dirk. And Dirk wasn't an idiot, we'd seen that sort of thing before, but she kept it up, she sought him out alone and – I mean, we're talking nearly seven moons here – they're seeing each other and really seem serious about it."

"Ah frost it," Kir muttered, clearly seeing this was not going to end well given the set up of the whole story.

"Then one evening he's going to meet with her and overhears her talking at Kris, laughing about how Dirk actually thought she'd be interested in him when Kris was there. She just wanted Kris to acknowledge her and she knew the best way to do that was to get in with Dirk."

"Dirk he – something broke. With that. And he – he nearly killed himself. He tried, he actually tried and he had Ahrodie in his mind screaming about it. To do that – to be that broken, gods Kir it was awful."

"And she thanked me. She wrote me a thankful letter for getting her in and giving her that chance, even if it hadn't worked out. She didn't even think what she'd done was wrong! Worse, Kris found me reading it and completely freaked out at me, justified, but – he really thought I'd go along with something like that. That I'd betray a brother like that."

"He apologized, later, he was just furious and hurt and lashed out, but it hurt, that he'd think that. And a lot of my group didn't – didn't really trust my friends after that, trust my judgement after that. So… when the chance came up to choose my assignment, I asked for border-Herald, because it meant I'd be the only one and not too many Heralds, even on circuit, would come by."

"So. Not a virtuous pillar of justice. Sorry to drop that on you like that."

The silence fell again, and Anur would admit this time that he was nervous, waiting for Kir's reaction. He doubted it would be anything extreme, his guilt would be nothing compared to Kir's, but he was still worried about his friend's reaction.

He wasn't expecting a chuckle.

"Kir?"

"Quite the pair, we are," Kir said, "Isolated even from those we should call brother, willfully or not. If I meet this Kris, I shall break his nose."

"Ah… he's dead. Ancar – um. He was killed, by Ancar, when he was an envoy during the coup."

"Then I shall wait until my own death, and before Vkandis judges my soul, I will ask to speak with this Herald, and break his nose then, so that sin too can be weighed. How would that night in Hardorn have ended, Herald, if either of us were even slightly less willing to take the chance on the other being less evil than we thought? You say it was I who was brave, but I was not the one whose brothers and sisters had been murdered by those of my order for centuries.

"You speak of your willingness to make friends, to trust, as if it is a great sin, something to be ashamed of. It is not. It sounds like that girl – Delilah? – she did everything to get you to trust her. Seven moons with this Dirk, and probably equally long building your friendship? She would make a fantastic spy with that sort of dedication redirected," Kir muttered the last, Anur snorting at the idea and Kir continued, "If you hadn't been willing to extend that truce, I would not have offered it myself. I would have lit some straw on fire, thrown it at you, and bolted, if I didn't actually set you alight in full. I was not the only brave one there, Herald. Do not think that your willingness to extend that truce, to extend that friendship, even for one night, was insignificant in any way."

"So are we both agreeing to stop wallowing, then?" Anur asked after a few moments, continuing hastily, "Not that I don't want you to talk to me, if you feel overwhelmed or guilty or anything, please do, but… um… it won't be the focal point of our days?"

Kir chuckled wearily, "I will try, Herald."

"Okay. Good. I'm glad."

Silence fell again, comfortable again, and Anur started to drift into sleep before a thought suddenly occurred to him.

"Kir?"

His friend sighed, "Yes, Herald?"

"I'm not apologizing to Marcus."

Kir laughed softly, saying, "He can believe what he likes, I don't care. He's not my shield-brother."

If Anur weren't so close to sleeping, he'd make a bigger deal about that admission, he really would. But he wouldn't forget it, so it could wait until tomorrow morning. But he could at least acknowledge it.

"Good night, brother."

"Good night."