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The Sound of Two Hearts Beating

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He married Sabr because Aeriel told him to, not because he loved her. Sabr knew this, but married him despite that fact. Sabr said his lack of feeling for her was fine, since he would learn to love her, now that his heart was once again his own.

Irrylath agreed, shutting his eyes and hoping his was telling the truth. In the silence, he could hear the sound of his heart pumping blood through his veins. The rhythm sounded unfamiliar, even though it had been three daymonths since the Witch had been slain. He was plagued by dreams, and hoped that Sabr's presence might blunt the hardest edge of them.

Instead, her presence merely underscored the fact Aeriel wasn't there anymore. He dreamed of his past wives, all fourteen of them, and remembered stealing their souls. Lust for the White Witch no longer was his prime torment; instead, he remembered the evil that had made him his vessel, and the deeds he had done with his lead-coated heart.

Irrylath awakened from the dreams, but could not explain the pain he was remembering. Sabr was not, could not be, his confidant as Aeriel had been.

The only comfort he had was the memory of her, the wife he'd never wanted. Aeriel had used his heart as her own for two years. Surely none of the Witch's taint would have been able to survive Aeriel's essential goodness. Pressing his hand to his chest, he reminded himself over and over again that she had saved him.

Somehow that never gave him true peace. Had he not made a promise to Avarclon to rule from Tour-of-Kings, he would have sloughed off his mantle of royalty to search for Aeriel. He knew he had abused her love for him, and wondered if there was anything he could do to make amends. But his life was not his own, and he could not do as he wished.

So instead of longing for what he could not have, Irrylath threw himself into the work of creating a kingdom. There was much to be done, to clean up after over a decade of neglect. Talb the Mage returned to serve him, as he'd served the former king, and Irrylath came to rely on the duarough more than anyone. (Aeriel, he couldn't help remembering, had trusted Talb, too).

Irrylath knew his duty, and did it well. Two years later, Sabr gave birth to his first son. She handed him the child with a proud smile on her face, proud that she had finally given Irrylath something Aeriel couldn't compete with. He took a long moment, staring into his son's eyes. He whispered a name – Errol – and handed the babe back to his wife.

Then he went outside to stand on the roof of Tour-of-Kings, and let himself weep. The tears ran down his face, falling to the dry earth like the new phenomenon of rain, a quiet miracle. He wept because he could not love his wife the way he did his son; he wept because he was so badly traumatized that he wasn't fit to be called a father; he wept because even though he once again owned a heart, it had been irrevocably broken by the one woman who loved him through all his suffering.

The Avarclon met him that night, his presence unbidden but very welcome. The reincarnated starhorse offered a shoulder to Irrylath, who buried his face among the horse's wings as he continued to grieve. The feeling of feathers reminded him of the wings he had once born, which he and Aeriel had converted into a sail. Always, always, his grief returned to Aeriel.

The Avarclon was quiet as Irrylath indulges in his sorrow, only stepping away when the king's tears have dried. "I loved you, once," the Avarclon said. "It was the love that I bore for you that made your betrayal so much greater."

Irrylath still remembered those innocent times, when he'd ridden upon the back of the winged steed as a child. "I know I can never beg your forgiveness often enough," he admitted, and worked on drawing himself back together. "I remember the promise I gave you; my life is yours."

The horse sighed, which sounded like a cross between a whinny and a human groan. "And I thank you for that. You have done much to restore your honor. But the love I once bore you makes me unhappy to see what you've become."

Irrylath stiffened. "What else would you have of me?"

"I would have you rediscover joy," the Warhorse said. "And while I wish it would be here, in Avaric, I am not so foolish to believe that you will ever be happy without Aeriel."

The sound of her name set his heart racing. No one had spoken of her to him since she had left, off to seek out the remnants of Ravenna's wisdom. "I do not deserve to live a happy life," he admitted softly. "The sins upon my soul are too great."

"Would she say that?" the starhorse countered.

"Why are you speaking to me like this?" he demanded, unable to stop the feeling of heart-wrenching grief from shaking his thoughts. "Does it delight you to torment me?"

"Ravenna did not create the lons with the capacity for cruelty," the Avarclon said. "That was an unwelcome wisdom your race gifted us with." Irrylath opened his mouth to offer another apology, to pile upon the hundreds he had already spent, but the Avarclon stomped his foot, indicating he wasn't done speaking. "But Aeriel gifted us with renewed hearts, and in that I have learned compassion. Such troublesome creatures, you humans."

Irrylath braced himself, unsure where this conversation would end. He couldn't think of anything to say.

"When Errol comes of age, and is able to rule in your stead, I will release you from the vow you made to me," the starhorse said softly.

And for a second, Irrylath's heart stopped beating, before he was suffused by emotion. Hope, Irrylath realized, was almost as wonderful as love.

(Sixteen years later, Irrylath sets out for NuRavenna. He doesn't know where it is located – no living man does – but he is determined to find it. He wants to see Aerial again, and beg for her forgiveness. He had been too young, too stupid, to understand what a great treasure he'd possessed when Aerial had given him her heart.

Irrylath is not worthy of her, but she will love him anyway because that's her nature... and Irrylath is remains selfish enough to want her. This time, he will offer his own heart to her. He knows his much-abused heart is not a treasure, but in Aeriel's hands, everything becomes hallowed. Irrylath will give her his heart as only a romantic gesture, because Aeriel already owns it.)