"Gil!" she squealed in surprised delight, grinning as he winced. Tearing across the room, she pounced on him. Her arms wrapped around his neck, her legs around his waist and her lips fastened onto his with an enthusiasm altogether at odds with the image of the respectable woman.
He tore his mouth away and laughed. "That's quite the welcome, Viera."
She grinned and kissed him again, longer and more lingering, sliding down his length until her feet touched the floor once more. "God, Gil, you're a sight for sore eyes. Is Lianon here too?"
He winked. "Would you give her the same welcome?"
She thought about it. "I might."
"Alas for her, then, she couldn't accompany me. One of our mares is foaling."
Viera pouted. "Pooh. How long are you staying?"
"I head back tomorrow afternoon. Hopefully all the really icky business of equine birth will be done with by then."
"You're welcome to stay here," Viera offered, then blushed. Somehow she had slipped effortlessly into the role of lady of the house, when it wasn't her house, and Gil knew she was no lady.
Aru stepped in and saved her from her own big mouth. "Yes, why don't you stay here?"
"No need. I never gave up my old place."
"It's probably full of vermin after all this time," Viera pointed out.
Gil smiled with half his mouth. "Rat's been living there, keeping the place up for me."
Viera laughed. "What did I tell you--full of vermin."
From the corner of her eye, she could see Aru smile as her buoyant mood finally got to him.
"I was just going to go get some supper," said Gil. "You two want to join me?"
"I have a patient," Aru declined, his smile vanishing. Viera's stomach did a bizarre little flop at the sight.
"Go," she said, laying her hand on Aru's arm, trying to ignore the heat that poured through her palm at the contact. "I'll stay here with Inella."
He stared down at her, his eyes narrowed. Heat flooded her cheeks and she felt a warm pressure building between her legs under his scrutiny. "What about your shopping?"
She drew her hand away, closing her fingers over her palm as if she could hold to the sensation of tingling warmth. "I'll go tomorrow."
"Come on, old man," Gil coaxed. "I promise we won't go to Heffie's."
Aru flashed him a grin. It lit his face, made him so beautiful, Viera's eyes started to sting. Biting back a curse, she blinked the moisture away and forced a smile. "If you could just stop by the hospital and tell Inella's family they can visit. Make sure to give them directions."
"Thanks, love." Gil bent and kissed her cheek. "You look beautiful, Viera," he added softly next to her ear. "The new vocation agrees with you?"
She smiled despite a growing urge to crumple and start bawling like an infant. "Very much," she said truthfully.
He smiled down at her. "I'm glad, love. Really, I am."
She cleared her throat, her fingernails digging into her palms. "You ought to get going, if you want to get a table. Unless you really are planning on going to Heffie's. Always plenty of empty chairs there."
"I'll get my coat," Aru said succinctly.
"So, she's living with you now," Gil said around a mouthful of warm, white bread.
"What?" Aru blurted, caught off guard. On the surface, Gil's eyes were bland and innocent, but Aru knew better. The Emissary had the heightened perceptions of any man who lived by his sword and his wits. "Not exactly. I mean, she still has her own apartment."
"Really?" Gil dragged his crust through the gravy lining his bowl and popped it in his mouth. "How long since she slept there?"
Aru cringed inside, staring at his own barely-touched platter. The food was very good--this was Judith's, after all--but the idea of putting anything in his stomach was vaguely nauseating. The wine was more than adequate, though. Aru lifted his glass and drained it. "I'm not really sure."
Gil made no reply. Aru ventured a glance up to find his friend staring at him, clearly unfooled. Aru sighed and came clean. "Thirty-four days."
Gil's brows shot up. "Has she been entertaining clients in your parlor then?"
"No! That is, I'm not sure she's entertaining clients at all, these days."
Gil grinned and leaned back in his chair. "You old dog!"
It took a moment for Gil's meaning to sink in. When it did, Aru felt his face heat up. "It's nothing like that. She finds the work fulfilling."
"Does she now?" Gil's eyes crinkled at the corners, but the humor in them couldn't lift Aru's mood.
"I thought she did."
Gil frowned, his amusement souring. Leaning forward, he took the bottle and refilled Aru's glass. "What's happened?"
"I don't know. We fought this afternoon."
Aru only sat there, staring out the window at the lengthening shadows of evening, feeling his face fill with heat.
"Ah. You made an overture and she rejected you?"
Aru swallowed. "Not exactly." He turned to look at his friend's well-meaning, sympathetic face. "She wants more than I can give her."
"And what exactly is that?"
Aru reached for his wine. "She wants me to put aside my wife."
Gil was silent for a long moment. "It seems to me that it is your wife who has put you aside."
Aru scowled. "I took a vow before my god to be faithful to her."
"You also swore to live according to your god's laws."
Aru felt his chest tighten with defensive anger. "You would hold me in blame for that?"
Gil bristled, his eyes narrowing. If Aru had not been what he was he might have apologized for his waspish tone, but in truth he had every right to be bitter. They sat glaring at each other for a moment, before Gil's expression softened. "It hardly matters whose fault it was. The Maiden exploited your power without your leave, and used it to kill. And she's lauded for it--it is you who has lost everything, to atone for a sin you didn't commit and could not prevent."
Aru stared at his friend, his throat tight, his eyes stinging. He thought of the Maiden Mira, of what she had done to him nearly twenty years ago, and couldn't hate her. She had saved lives, not just her own and Aru's, but countless others. The very nature of the change she had brought about in him by her heedless actions left him helpless but to forgive her transgression. In any case, he was no longer fit to judge her, or anyone.
"There is no way for me to appeal my sentence, no tribunal of judges to whom I can present my case. Even if there was, it would be no use. Any pardon offered would only be a tacit approval for other Darjhi to allow themselves to be used as I was. I may have been but a sword in the hands of another, but Paldir god is still entitled to cleave that sword in twain."
"Just or not, your god has punished you, Aru," Gil said softly. "How long are you going to punish yourself?"
Aru sat there, looking at Gil's earnest face, feeling his insides cave in like Inella's house had done. Gil didn't understand. He couldn't. It wasn't about punishment. It was simple reality. He lived in dishonor and would not add to it, but even so, dishonor was not his greatest fear. He was Omahru-azhi. Walking dead. His new life had ramifications that would freeze Gil's blood if he knew of them.
"Would you seek solace outside your marriage, Gil?"
Gil's mouth twisted with an unexpected wryness, and he opened his mouth, only to close it once more. Color stole into his cheeks under his beard. "I would never betray Lianon," he said at last. "Tell me, does Zharina also honor your wedding vows?"
"I have no way of knowing."
"Would you expect her to?"
A pat answer leapt to Aru's tongue and withered there. "No," he finally admitted. "But she vowed to be faithful to Aru, a Darjhan. Not to Aru, an Omahru-azhi. I am no longer the man she married. I cannot hold her to her promise."
Gil grinned. "Then neither can she hold you to yours."
Aru stared, beginning to get annoyed. "I hold myself to my vow."
With a groan, Gil put his face in his hands. "So you can never touch a woman again?"
"Not for as long as I live."
Gil laughed. The sound was devoid of humor. "Guess it's just as well that won't be forever anymore."
Against his will, Aru felt his lips turn up at the corners. Shaking off the foulness of his mood, he lifted his glass and drained it in one long swallow. Fixing Gil with a determined glower, he slapped a coin on the table. "This conversation is depressing. Let's go get drunk."
Gil laughed and pushed to his feet. "Sounds like an idea."