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Question of Faith
Part Two

"I, Cameo of House Mymekon, today in front of my kin and goddess invite Psikaris to bond with me and become a member of my house. I ask Lunis to bless our bonding, to help us prosper and serve the empire with loyalty and honour." He stood in the centre of the arena, the rocky ground firm beneath his feet, and the chill wind in the air only serving to add to the chills running up his spine. He had been here before as a warrior, but it was a completely different feeling this time around.

"In order to prove myself to both the goddess and my people, I accept the ritual challenge of combat. I hope to seek favour with Lunis by showing that I am an Icewalker first, despite the Solarion blood in my veins, and a warrior." His voice, he thought, was steadier than he'd anticipated. There were a lot of people here, more than normal. He had been to a number of bondings, being open to the public, but those had been people from smaller Houses. Luna's presence, located in the royal box, doubtless had added to the spectacle. Would he be able to live up to the expectations?

He turned slowly, staring into the crowd, searching the faces for familiar people and found a few. People he'd grown up with in school, high ranking officials, and people he'd met only once or twice in shops or restaurants. There was a pleasant, if tense, atmosphere and that made him feel better. There was too much resentment over crossbred Lunataks these days. Luna looked bored, he noted, catching her mid-yawn. A priestess began reading his heritage, listing his titles, his exploits, his record in the arena and in ship to ship combat, confirming that his was the superior House.

His heart hammered in his chest as he finally turned towards the dressing room. Only moments ago he had emerged from there, and knew that Psikaris would be making her way from there too. So would her brother. Seconds ticked by as the priestess droned on, and then the door opened.

Psychro adjusted his shirt once more, making sure that it was straight. Mostly it was so that he wouldn't have to look at his sister. She was beautiful, wearing a tight light blue outfit with a simple white fur-trimmed cape. The outfit had obviously been sized at least a month ago, before her body grew to fill it better. She would be horrified if she could see that her every curve was revealed. He knew she was attractive, it was what kept him busy, as he fended off her desperate suitors, it was just rare that she showed it off.

For all the mixture of emotions that were going through the happy couple, Psychro figured his own collection was worse. He had almost been bonded twice before, once it had been love, his first love really, and the second... he was almost ashamed of that one. Carenna of House Blyzzard had been a naive girl, thinking that a promise to bond with her was enough to guarantee he'd stay with her after she slept with him. It had been the day before the ceremony, and he'd decided that if his seduction didn't work that he'd break it off anyway. Memories of that day, the guilt, the joy in her eyes turning from sadness to anger, the heavy drinking he'd done after that.

Bonding ceremonies often led him to drinking after that day, as friends and family went on with their lives, and he always wondered whether he should too. Today also brought a twang of remorse for the prospect of losing the person he was closest to. Deep down he knew he wouldn't, but that didn't stop the thought from presenting itself.

Psikaris patted him on the shoulder, seeing his expression. She felt the same way, he knew. He had always been there for her, and she had that same kernel of fear that he wouldn't be, now that she had Cameo. Their moment was ended when they saw the door open to allow her to exit, and he flashed her his winningest smile. "Knock him dead," he said.

"I think that's your job," she replied, "but don't."

Tug Mug drummed his fingers on his belly, trying to think of what foods Psychro had said would be at the banquet later on. The dinner was restricted, generally, to those closest to the family and Tug Mug had been invited as Psychro's guest. It was the only reason that the graviton was even at the ceremony. Icewalkers just didn't know how to throw a party. When a Graviton got married they effectively walked into a bar and said "Hey! We're getting hitched! Drinks on us!" and the drinking and eating would last for days.

It came from having a goddess that governed warriors and lovers. His people worshipped Gravtas, god of fire and the harvest, and the best way to honour him was with barbecue and beer. Then again, it was probably the nature of the species; if his people worshipped Lunis, he imagined it would be watching mud wrestling and non-stop orgies.

Finally the Myntaello siblings emerged from the tunnel and stepped out into the light of the enclosed arena, and he gave a cheer for Psychro.

"I, Psikaris of House Myntaello, in front of my kin, my queen, and my goddess, accept the offer of Cameo to bond with him and become a member of his House. I also ask Lunis to bless this bonding, to watch over us and our family, and help us serve the empire as she would have us. We are her children and we will do our duty." Psikaris spoke the words, trying not to look too closely at the crowd. Her brain was screaming at her, asking why she was doing this, why she had to do it in front of all these people. Her heart looked at Cameo, at that goofy smile of his, and told the brain to shut up.

"Although, despite my pregnancy, I could best Cameo in single combat," she saw the grin on his face. It was true because he would never be able to raise a hand against her. "I have chosen to give him a reprieve and select a champion to fight in my stead. He will fight to prove to the goddess and my fellow Icewalkers, that the blood that runs through me is pure and that I am worthy of your blessing. My champion is my sire, my brother, and my friend. Psychro of House Myntaello!"

He stepped forward and her earlier swagger wavered. She cared about both men, and now one, or both, of them could be injured. The combat was typically for show, but some got overzealous, and both injuries and fatalities had been known to occur.

The priestessess began to list her accomplishments, causing some embarrassment. Like all Icewalkers she had spent some time in the arena, but she wasn't very good in combat. She'd only won four matches against some forty losses, and one of those victories she suspected her brother of bullying the opponent. Her career as an accomplished mechanic was a little more flattering, as was the mention of her posting in the royal capital, and she managed to smile bravely at the crowd.

"Very well," the priestessess said, moving to present the ceremonial knives that the men would use to fight with. "You have both been recognized as champions and will now engage in one on one combat until first blood is drawn. No powers will be permitted." She stepped back slipping her arms back under the lime green cloak that denoted her office. Then Psikaris and the priestess walked over to where the stone altar was and sat in two seats next to it, while Psychro and Cameo prepared to fight.

The first move was Psychro's. After circling each other for a moment, Psychro feinted left and struck right, his knife coming within a hair of Cameo's hand. He loved fighting, but this was far from his element. The two were as different as could be when it came to it, Psychro was a brawler, normally dealing with drunken rabble in bars and not really using anything that resembled rules. A bar fight was a place where a broken bottle and a kick to the crotch were just as legal as a fist.

Cameo was a soldier, in fact the yellow and black outfit he wore was an homage to his military career. He knew all about tactics, searching for weaknesses and strengths, about saving energy in reserve for when you needed it and not over-exerting yourself. Cameo would know precisely where he was and would be processing all sorts of information about Psychro to use to his advantage.

There were rules to this kind of fight, Psychro thought to himself, but not many. "Psikaris is watching," he said, loudly enough for the other to hear it. "You don't want her to think she's getting a coward, do you?" Cameo's knife clanged off his own, and twisted to narrowly slit Psychro's shirt. The boy was good, an insult like that was good enough to rile even the burliest of bar patrons.

"Shame you spoiled her bonding night dream, taking her virginity made her cry," he said, and was startled to find himself immediately on the defensive, as Cameo's strikes became more precise and came at him with greater force.

"You're right," Cameo hissed when the onslaught stopped to allow both men to catch their breaths. "But I've only made her cry once. How about you? How often has she cried in my shoulder because of you?"

The words stung. Psychro knew that Psikaris was upset at his womanizing, his drinking, his brawling, and much more a number of times. He also knew that she had turned to Cameo for comfort at least once or twice. To hear them from her brought guilt, from Cameo... He threw his knife aside and tackled Cameo full on, sending them both crashing to the ground.

They rolled across the hard ground for a while, trading blows, but Cameo's seemed to hit with far greater accuracy. A solid shot to Psychro's jaw sent him reeling, giving Cameo all the time he needed to grab the nearby knife and cut neatly across Psychro's thigh. Blood poured freely from the wound and Cameo held the knife up for all to see. A horn sounded, marking the end of the fight.

Luna applauded the effort. The arena was large, but not so large that most people couldn't get a good vantage of what had transpired. She wasn't sure what conversation had passed between the two men, but had been party to enough macho posturing to guess. It was probably penis size or something of the kind. The fight had only taken about ten minutes, and she knew there would be more fighting after the ceremony was over and the family had left for the banquet. She wouldn't be attending that, she had money riding on a promising young Icewalker in the third match.

Cameo extended his hand for Psychro to take. "Truce?" he asked, watching the other's expression very carefully. In the wild, a wounded animal was the most dangerous of creatures, and the same held true with people. Psychro was bleeding, but his pride was hurt worse. Cameo didn't like stooping to name calling and base insults, and he regretted the remark as soon as he said it.

The other man refused the help, and stood gingerly, making sure that the cut wasn't so deep as to making walking difficult. There was anger there, lurking just below the surface, and it wouldn't take much to bring it out. But Cameo wasn't too worried, Psychro would probably get drunk somewhere and pass out. He'd assign someone to keep an eye on him. He followed Psychro to the altar, where the latter took his place at Psikaris' side.

She was the bigger concern. There was worry in her eyes, knowing her brother better than he did. She touched his arm and whispered something to him. Psychro's body relaxed a little. "The combat is over," the priestess announced, holding up the bloodied knife and placing it on a cloth on the altar. "Now let the merging of blood, bind these two people together forever."

Cameo rolled up his sleeve and extended his arm, shaking. Of all the ceremony, this was something he hated most. Blood from both people would be dripped on the cloth, and then they would take cloth and knife home as a reminder of their union. He watched Psikaris' face as she took the knife in her hands, the weapon looking so unusual there. Their eyes met as the blade sank into his skin. He winced, watching the blood seep out of the wound, and let it drip a few precious drops on to the plain white cloth.

Then it was his turn. If he thought being cut by her had been difficult, having to mar her perfect skin was even harder. He took her hand in his, stroking the inside of her wrist with his thumb while the knife balanced in his other hand. He didn't want to do it, his whole life was to making sure that she would never come to harm; that was his purpose. But ritual demanded, and it wouldn't be complete until he did. It was horrible, the sound of flesh being torn, the sharp squeak she made, the gut-wrenching sight of the knife biting into her forearm and the blood oozing out. "I'm sorry," he said, meaning every word of it. The deed was done and he wanted to hurl the offending weapon back into the forge, to curse it for daring harm his beloved.

"I know. Me too," she replied, holding her arm over the cloth so that the drops stained it as well.

"Then let the goddess bless House Mymekon and its newest member. May they live in peace and serve her well," the priestess said, slowly wrapping the cloth up and handing it to Psikaris.

Cameo watched her as she carefully tucked the bundle under one arm, somehow making even this small gesture seem beautiful. "I love you," he mouthed, taking her free hand in his and guided her towards the locker room. They would shower and change before meeting their friends at their home.

Tug Mug sighed with relief, loosening his belt in anticipation. Psychro would have gone on ahead to open the doors, and the caterers would be ready with the food. Sure, Icewalkers weren't very good at cooking, and one certainly never asked questions about any meat based products they might serve, but there would be ample amounts, and plenty of beer, he hoped.

The crowd was starting to thin already, as those partygoers began to filter out. He had money riding on the second bout, but the prospects of food outweighed the need to make some extra money. He would find out the results later, and then either track down his debtor, or hide from the gentleman he owed to.

Like all Icewalker cities the city of Froston Ridge was built into the mountainside with the more powerful Houses either near the core to keep warm, or near the outside to give them a beautiful sight line. Cameo's was one of the lesser Houses, at least in location, and he wondered whether he would try and upgrade. Either way, it wasn't too hard to find the place. Psychro had obviously had a quick shower and was sitting on a large couch having his leg tended to by a young nurse. Tug Mug caught the other's eye and debated telling Chilla what was going on. He knew that she and Psychro hadn't had their official date yet, but once they were an item he would have to be very careful with his flirtations. Chilla wasn't known to be patient and open-minded, in fact he had heard her threaten seven different kinds of pain on Red Eye if he cheated on her while they were dating.

Then again, maybe since they weren't officially an item yet Psychro could afford to sleep with the hot nurse. Or it was purely co-incidental, which was highly unlikely. No matter, there was food to eat before the happy couple arrived.

The locker room was, predictably, empty. Psychro had obviously had the world's fastest shower leaving them the place to themselves. Many a young and eager couple were said to have consummated their bonding in this room, a thought of naughtiness that both excited and scared Psikaris. It wouldn't happen, she decided. Their first real time together should be done the right way, on a bed when they had plenty of time to explore their relationship. The locker room was co-ed, but there were separate showers and stalls for the more modest Icewalkers.

Setting the covered knife down she picked up her bag that contained her change of clothes and turned around. There he was, standing, staring at her, hesitant and adorable. So he had heard the stories too, then. Her heart pounded, wanting but not wanting. The bag tumbled from her hands without her knowing and her feet moved of their own accord. Their lips touched, a soft sensation, the gentleness that spoke of love with just enough pressure to hint at lust. They had been so chaste for so long that it felt like the floodgates were struggling to hold back the waves of emotion.

"Cameo," she murmured, as he deftly unhooked the cape from around her shoulders.

"I know," he replied. "Not here. Another few hours and we can do this properly."

Relief washed through her, and common sense forced the tide back. They were on the same page, as she had expected. They both wanted sex, but could wait until after the party. "A few hours, but maybe a sneak preview." She was a little shocked to hear the words, and more so to realize they came from her own mouth. The expression on his face indicated that he was likewise surprised, but no less pleased. Before the nerve left her, she peeled off her outfit and let it drop to the floor, exposing herself as she had never been exposed before. Cameo didn't miss a beat and stripped out of his clothes.

Despite her cheeks turning several shades of purple, she found her eyes poring over his body, the rippling muscles and... "Oh my!" she gasped. She was going to enjoy her bonding night. Reluctantly, the two parted and showered. There would be plenty of time for gawking, and even more time for loving.

"Mmm... Not bad, did you order these from Stalactin?" Psychro's youngest nephew, a lad of about fourteen, asked.

"Only the best for your aunt, Imarin," Psychro replied. The party was in full swing, though the guests of honour were taking their sweet time in coming, he had his suspicions, and most others did too. Everyone from House Myntaello and Mymekon had managed to show up, including a pair of relatives from the Psion half of his family. It was a large group for such a small space, but it was warm and friendly.

Word had been sent to Solaris, to see if there were members of Cameo's other half that were interested, but it didn't look that way. Psychro took a long swig of the beer in his hand and wondered about that. Cameo had never really spoken of his father's side of the family, knowing little himself, and his mother said even less. Psychro got the impression it had been a whirlwind affair that ended in a devastating break up when he found out that Cameo's mother was pregnant. There was a dusty jacket and an old Solarian fighter craft. He had done repairs on the latter for his neighbour a couple of times.

He was well onto his second mug of beer when the door swished open and the happy couple came in. A brief cheer went up, celebrating the bonding. "Did you have a nice shower?" Cameo's mother asked, much to her son's consternation as the true question was obvious.

"Doesn't say very much about him eef he did, they weren't een there long," Tug Mug shouted jovially.

Psychro watched the pair become more and more uncomfortable around the innuendo. It was obvious to his practised eye that nothing much had transpired, he had made his life reading people's emotions and body language, always to his advantage. He also knew Psikaris very well, and could read her better than anyone. As much as he didn't like thinking in that direction, he could tell that she did want to have sex with Cameo and that her desire was being firmly held in check. Ultimately he decided that he should rescue them. "Ladies and gentlemen, a bonding is about more than what two people can do beneath the sheets," he said, striding over to them, the crowd parting easily for him, "it's about commitment, about love, and mostly about the free food and drink. Eat up!" He thrust a beer in Cameo's hand and a glass of water in Psikaris'.

Gradually the crowd took him up on the offer, sampling the various dishes of fine Icewalker delicacies. Weaving back through the crowd, Psychro smelled the aromas of several kinds of meat, bread that had been imported from the Royal moon, various sweets and beers, and even a cheese that he had procured at the last minute from a shop down the street. A caterer refilled his beer and he resumed his hobnobbing with the guests.

Cameo couldn't quite fathom why there were so many people. He knew most of them, but hadn't really expected to see them. Like Borealith, a distant cousin who had moved to a distant mining colony, or his niece Lyka, who was working in a hydroponics lab on the other side of the moon. He didn't consider himself important enough for these people to drop what they were doing and make the trek here.

He winced at the choice of words. He would be making his own trek in two days, and there was tons of work to be done before that could be completed. A last physical for Psikaris to make sure she could do it, packing everything he could, giving last minute directions to Artemyn... Forcefully he tried to put the thoughts out of his head, as he dealt with some relative whose name he didn't know who seemed to think that he would be interested in a conversation on geothermal energy. The babble was making it very hard to concentrate on the good things that were going on. Psikaris seemed to be happy, mingling across the room with the pair of Psion aunts. That was something anyway.

Isilik walked past the closed doors, the dim murmur of the party going on filtering through the rock, an idea percolating in his brain. Attacking Psikaris now would be foolhardy, she was surrounded by friends and family, people who would defend her to the death. But anything could happen on the trek, which he heard she was going on. There was no communication with the outside world, and people died there all the time, no questions asked. He was content to wait, let her have her fun, it would make her agony even sweeter. Chuckling to himself, he went to a nearby bar to plan.

The party had been going for a little over two hours, and Psikaris was feeling quite pleased with herself. She hated, on principle, being the centre of attention and had managed to force herself to enjoy it. This was a rare occasion, she wasn't likely to be bonded ever again, even if Icewalker custom allowed multiple bondmates, so it was a little easier to loosen the reigns. Besides, there were people she hadn't spoken to in years, and it was nice to see some of them again.

There were also those that she had been hoping wouldn't be able to make it, and they were reminding her why as the drinking and singing became louder and worse respectively. Faintly, from the direction of the kitchen, she heard something crash and an "oops!" and decided not to investigate. Psychro had assured her that he would take care of everything, and that she needn't worry about a thing.

Instead she sought Cameo, and saw him leaning against a wall with a smile plastered to his face. Although she had known him for years, she had often been too distracted by other things in her life to study him in depth. Even still, she recognized that look, it was a plea for help bordering on a desire to scream. She threaded her way over to him, grabbing a piece of fruit on the way, and placed it in his hand. The touch jolted him and he managed to smile more friendly at her. "There you are, Evrin. I overheard someone asking how the tunnels in this mountain are formed. I thought you'd like to explain," she said smoothly. Lying wasn't usually in her nature, but it was a necessary evil sometimes.

"Really? Did you catch who? Ah never mind, I'll figure it out." He pushed his glasses up higher on his nose and wandered off to see if he could sort it out. She pitied whomever he managed to corner.

"Thanks, darling. That's the third time he's gotten me," Cameo whispered. "Some of your family is great but there are some..." She nodded understandingly. She felt the same way at times.

As if on cue she heard her brother clear his throat loudly. He was staggeringly drunk, and she knew that once this was over that he would be making his way to the nearest bar. "Okay, everyone. I think it's time we all cleared out. I think Cameo wants to bang my sister, and he can't do it with us all here."

Psikaris turned bright purple while Cameo's hand clenched around the fruit, squeezing the juices everywhere. "Like I said. Then there are some."

He was enormously satisfied. With a collection of containers holding leftovers, Tug Mug rolled into Psychro's home while his host was away getting drunk. It was an impressive haul, jerky of three different sorts, mushrooms, a tub of ice cream, and of course a small keg. Setting his food around his bed he began to dig in, one greasy hand after another dipping into the containers. Across from him the television was tuned to the fight highlights. "What could possibly be better than this?" he thought.

"What a mess," Cameo said, standing in the kitchen. Now that the guests had left, his anger was being fuelled by the state of the home. He counted at least three broken plates, stains of an unidentified sort on the ceiling, discarded food, dishes and even a belt. He didn't want to know about the belt.

"Leave it, Cameo," Psikaris said. "Psychro promised to take care of it tomorrow while we're out."

He snorted. He tolerated Psychro, occasionally he liked the man but in his current mood it was downgraded to tolerate. Between the way his brother in law acted at the party, and the way everyone else had acted, it was annoying. He scrubbed at a stain on the counter, a purple blob that he couldn't identify. Had they even had anything purple at the party? "He's probably already found himself a woman to sleep with and he'll decide that's more important than cleaning up this mess," he snarled, struggling with great difficulty to keep his temper in check. This was Psikaris after all, and she was Psychro's sister.

"Cameo..." her voice trailed off as she stepped closer to him, turning him around to meet her gaze. Pointedly she looked down, and he realized the top two buttons of her shirt were undone, revealing ample cleavage.

He swallowed hard, the dish rag slipping from his hands as his eyes were glued to her chest. "Then again, maybe Psychro has the right idea," he said, picking her up in his arms and carrying her towards the bedroom, the one place the party had not spilled.

Was that a tooth? Psychro was scarcely aware of what had happened. He'd been heading to the bathroom at the bar, an errand he wished he had taken care of before coming here, and nearly collided with a gentleman coming out. He wasn't aware that the man in question followed him in until his face was bouncing off the wall. He staggered to the side and tried to focus his bleary eyes on the attacker; short, Icewalker, white hair... that wasn't helping. A nose that looked out of joint, one eyebrow curiously shorter than the other...

"Isilik?" Psychro asked, trying to stand. He mentally cursed the alcohol for being so delicious and for having such an affect on his equilibrium.

"Oh good, you do recognize me," the other man said, kicking Psychro in the stomach. A wave of nausea accompanied the pain and vomit flowed over the floor. Psychro couldn't remember much about the guy and wished he did. He had been a fling of Psikaris', and she'd complained that she was having trouble ending it.

Her big brother ended it alright, telling him in no uncertain terms that there would be blood and broken bones if he set foot near 'Karis again. A broken nose served to drive the point home when Isilik tried the "she's a big girl, she can make her own choices" card. She'd made her choice, alright, she had told her brother, knowing that he would end it.

Isilik punched him in the jaw and blocked Psychro's feeble attempts to fight back. "Pathetic, that's what you are. And now I'm going to do what I've dreamed of doing for a long time."

He had dreamed of this day, sometimes more vividly than others. While Psikaris was eager, she was also more than willing to let her more experienced lover take control while she wrestled with her modesty. She watched him carefully, studying, and thankfully was a quick learner, discovering what the effects of her touch was, and where it was most effective.

Cameo groaned softly as her fingers tripped lightly over his biceps and rewarded her ministrations with a series of kisses along her neck. He wasn't sure if it was some kind of record or not, but no sooner had he closed and locked the bedroom door than Psikaris was beneath the covers of the bed and her clothes were on the floor. The best part was how all the senses seemed to work together to make the experience even more incredible. The sweet taste of her lips, the feel of the tiny goose bumps on her skin, the womanly scent that filled the air, the sight of every inch of her body, and the oohing sounds that told him he was doing something right.

She tugged on his hair, bringing his mouth back up to her hungry lips tongue dancing and intertwining with his own. He had no idea how he was going to hold out with this woman, his every desire being to thrust into her. But he knew that this was not about him. This wasn't technically about her either. It was about them. Together. If one wasn't satisfied then it was a failure on his part. Their initial moments had been spent fondling and caressing, discovering the pleasures that the other's body had to offer, but he was closing in on his breaking point so he tried to speed things along, sliding down her body and burying his face between her legs.

Psychro gasped for air as Isilik released his head. "Did that sober you up?" the jilted lover asked. Psychro's face was drenched from the sink that he had filled with water and he could see that the water was tainted red from his blood.

"She'll never be yours," Psychro spat, trying to turn his head and settling on spitting on the floor instead.

"I don't want her. Not alive anyway. And I don't want you alive either." Another punch, this one causing him to roll towards the far wall. He couldn't stand, his muscles ached and the adrenaline wasn't doing enough to counter the alcohol. Isilik began to laugh, walking to a hatch and opening it. Psychro recognized it, and his addled brain told him exactly what was about to happen. In most Icewalker cities, solid waste was dumped into a central processing area, where slave labour converted the faecal matter into usable compost. The chutes were designed wide enough that, theoretically, a slave could crawl into one and break up a jam. He was grateful it was a job he didn't have. "But I don't care if you live or not. It's time to treat you like the shit you are."

Moments later Psychro, through sheer luck more than anything else, managed to land on a large pile of organic waste without breaking his neck. The impact was more than enough to cause him to black out momentarily.

Psikaris was clutching at him with a death grip, sharp nails scoring wounds in his flesh. He grunted in time with his thrusts and felt a surge of relief as she moaned his name, her hands releasing slightly. A little later he finally collapsed on top of her, thoroughly exhausted.

Ah, the food coma. There was nothing quite like it in Tug Mug's book. Leftover containers were strewn about, and the empty keg had somehow rolled across the floor. He patted his ample belly with relief and slowly settled into a pleasant sleep.

It was morning on the Ice Moon, the sun was shining brightly through a window near the ceiling, casting a pale glow over Luna's room. Only the finest for House Neijin's guests. Despite this, Luna was bored. She had already done the little administrative work she needed to do, had watched the news reports for anything new and it was barely after breakfast. Her shuttle wasn't even scheduled for departure until the early afternoon, which meant more agonizing hours hanging around this place.

One of the first things she had to do, she decided firmly, was make some sort of announcement about her future. The news had had the audacity to air a report on the lack of heirs, and who the likeliest candidates for the throne were should she die unexpectedly. Luna didn't know if she should be insulted to find out just how pathetic the options were.

The two prime candidates were Tycho and Aristarchus. Tycho was currently governing Third Earth on her behalf but clearly didn't want the power, in fact he had forfeited his claim to the throne as soon as she arrived back on the moons. There was some question as to whether this would remove him as a possibility entirely or if it would only last as long as there weren't better successors. Aristarchus, meanwhile, was languishing in a Control Force prison for trying to kill Mandora. He hadn't come to trial yet, but there was enough evidence to suggest that the book would be thrown at him.

What she needed to do was establish what her plans were and then ban all further discussion. But then, what was she going to do? She didn't really want a husband, even if she had loved Piscaar at the time. And even if a suitable mate was found, she couldn't risk bearing the child herself. Mumm-Rana's curse had rendered the possibility fatal, the damned sorceress. Had that been part of her plan? Had the undead priestess realized that the royal line would be damaged without a queen who could give birth? Of course, there was the option of genetically engineering a baby, DNA culled from both her and another noble. The public would be split, but it seemed the best way. Regardless, one way or another, conversation on the matter had to stop.

Psikaris stared at the ceiling in the darkness of his bedroom. Like many of the lower Houses, she didn't have much natural sunlight in her home. Shafts and mirrors reflected some, but it tended to be weak and so they relied on artificial lighting instead and their natural night vision. Her home, the two words sounded so odd to her mind. This was her bed now, just as this room was hers. Yesterday, neither of those statements had been true.

She felt stiff and sore from the experience, a not unwelcome feeling either. Their first time together had been clumsy and fuelled by alcohol and fatigue. They had enjoyed it, but she only dimly remembered it. This? This was different. Cameo was so patient, so gentle, so... unlike the way her brother had cautioned. How many times had he told her that her needs would be secondary to the man's. Even he himself fell victim to this mindset. Oh sure, he prided himself on making a woman orgasm every time, but that just seemed to boost his own pleasure and stroke his ego. Cameo wasn't like that. He had seemed to be determined that she enjoy the night more than he did, and she looked forward to more nights like that.

Carefully rolling onto her side she could just faintly make out where he was sleeping and she immediately pictured him as he'd looked when the lights were still on. She was sorely tempted to rouse him for more, but decided that it was a busy day. Trying not to disturb him, she turned on the light and started for the door.

"Where you going?" he asked, apparently more awake than she'd realized. He sounded tired though and she felt a little bad for having bothered him.

"I'm going to go let Psychro know we're up. And that we'll be leaving shortly if he wants to come over and clean up," she replied.

"You might want to put some clothes on, then," Cameo smiled. He was staring, but she didn't mind. She was more concerned that she hadn't noticed. How many times had she slept in her clothes and gone straight to work upon waking. She knew she could be scatterbrained, but this was a new one. She decided to blame Cameo for being too good and scrambled to change.

Psychro wasn't home. The news that he'd been in an altercation and had been found in the waste retrieval pile hit her like a ton of bricks. Tug Mug claimed he'd tried knocking on the door when someone came by with the news, but they hadn't answered. As she sprinted down the halls she tried to recall whether they had heard anything or not. It was hard to remember. A million other thoughts ran through her. How had it happened? Was he all right? Should they postpone their trip?

Should she have told Cameo before bolting? Probably, but he would presume her to be chatting with her brother and might go to find her. Tug Mug would explain what had happened and the rest would sort itself out.

The trip to the hospital didn't take long. There was one major facility in the mountain located near the upper surface. It had its own hangar area and was efficiently run, from her experience. She considered herself fortunate to have only needed it a few times, mostly small cuts and burns from working too closely to a machine. Her personal physician was nearby too, which would be handy depending on how long she spent talking to Psychro.

An orderly seemed to be expecting her as she entered. "Ah, Psikaris, Cameo called and warned me you were on the way," the young man said, flicking a strand of hair from his eyes. "You don't remember me, do you? Icewin? Cameo's third cousin on his mother's side?" Vague recollections bubbled beneath the surface of her subconscious mind, but nothing that jumped out. Presumably he had been at the party, though she couldn't place him.

"How's Psychro?" she asked, following him down a tunnel. She didn't want to be impolite to the man, but was anxious to see her brother.

"He's stable. He took a nasty beating, but nothing permanent. He certainly won't be hitting on the nurses for a little while," Icewin replied. "I should warn you that we've given him three baths and he still smells of sewage."

She suppressed a grin. That would grate on him. Psychro was all about image, how people saw him. He didn't care about how he looked physically except where it pertained to how others might perceive it, especially since his looks were what got him his women.

The gravity of the situation hit her again when they arrived at his room and Icewin opened the door. Psychro lay sleeping on a bed, the blanket draped about his waist. His face and chest were covered in the marks of a fight; a pattern of bruises giving him the appearance of a work of art. His hair had been shaved off again, which was a pity since he liked it long and had only recently been growing it back out, and there was still a definite odour in the air. She took a seat next to him, not seeing Icewin leave, and gently took his hand in hers. "Chro, what have you done to yourself this time?" she murmured.

It hurt to see him like this. He'd been in many fights in his time, winning about as many as he lost, but she hadn't expected it today. Was it her fault? Was he so upset at 'losing' her that he'd done this? He had been drunk when he'd left, when she and Cameo had both thought nasty thoughts about him. She dismissed the kernel of guilt that formed, knowing that it was impossible the goddess would answer that kind of prayer.

He was afraid of losing her to Cameo, just as seeing him like this made her worry that she would lose him. It wasn't the first time the thought had crossed her mind that he wouldn't be coming home one day, he had made enough enemies through his philandering including multiple attempts on his life, that it was only a matter of time. Was that what this was? Another ex out for revenge?

"Wasn't an ex of mine," he said, startling her. She wondered if she'd been thinking out loud again. "Was one of yours. Isilik."

The name sent a shiver down her spine. The way he'd always been undressing her with his eyes, trying to get her to put out for him. She wasn't sure why they'd dated so long, maybe it was because they'd had such brilliant conversations when it was about spaceship designs and the like; things she was interested in.

Through stops and starts, fighting off the pain medication and an overall sense of weariness, Psychro explained what had happened. At some point during the telling, Cameo showed up, quietly supporting his new family. When he was done, Psychro lay back, "I'm not going to ask you to give up the trek, I'm not that stupid, but be careful. If we can find him, I'll keep an eye on Isilik. You're too vulnerable out there, and a dirt bag like him might take advantage."

"You're not still planning on coming with us, are you? In your condition?" Cameo asked.

"Better this condition than finding out the two of you are in worse. You've seen me in worse shape than this."

"He's right. We'll put the word out, have security looking for him. We've got a bunch of other errands we need to take care of, but we'll be by later to see you," Psikaris said, standing. As they left the room, she hoped that Isilik wouldn't come back to finish the job.

A search of Isilik's home revealed that the man had left shortly after disposing of Psychro, and a security camera by the main entrance to the city confirmed it. He had been travelling on a land runner, a small crescent shaped vehicle that moved very quickly along the snowy terrain. A minor storm had swept through, making further tracking difficult, and it was eventually called off on necessity, which was not comforting news to Cameo and Psikaris.

Psychro wasn't entirely sure where Cameo had gotten to, and wasn't terribly concerned. Isilik wasn't likely to come back, so for now the pair were safe. Psikaris had stopped in briefly just to make sure he was okay after her doctor's appointment and seemed pleased with the results. She showed him the detailed scan of her womb and pointed at the tiny babies that were just starting to form. Psychro liked the concept of children, someone to carry his name on for generations to come, and it was fun to try making one. He thought that being an uncle would be even more fun.

The children were the problem, though. The doctor in question didn't think any troubles would arise as long as their trek was short, the goddess looked out for pregnant women after all. Psikaris would probably tire a little quicker, and maybe feel nauseous, but she prescribed some medication that should help.

His own doctor released him a few hours after Psikaris' first visit in the morning, and he was relieved. There was plenty of work for him to do too, including arming himself with the best equipment he could get his hands on. If Isilik was going to try and interfere, then Psychro had to beat him to the punch.

The hangar was a bustle of activity. This wasn't the largest city on the moon, but it was one of the more important ones. The Froston Ridge was near several iron and copper mines, and most of the owners used the city to shuttle their goods abroad. It was on one of these mining ships that Cameo planned to take to reach the distant city of White Fang where the trek traditionally began. Making the place even more hectic was the departure of Luna's ship and her escort. Originally Cameo had intended to be part of that, going as far as the Royal Moon, but other circumstances had changed those plans.

He was disappointed in himself. He was unable to fulfill his duty to Luna, and now his duty to protect Psikaris was being threatened at a very crucial moment in their lives. But then, maybe Isilik had a part to play in the trek, he thought suddenly, heading towards the captain of the ship. The whole purpose was to test the couple, see if they were worthy as warriors and as lovers, to test their faith in each other and the goddess. Maybe every trek had an Isilik. That was a strange possibility.

"Hey there," the captain said, extending a hand to him. "My crew's just loading the copper in the hopper." He laughed at his own joke, "we'll be ready to leave first thing after lunch. You going to need help bringing your bags down? I can send a man."

"No thanks, we're not bringing much. Well, maybe Psychro is, but I'm sure we can manage," Cameo replied. They chatted for a while before going their separate ways. With that errand out of the way he checked his list. Only one more thing of significance, check in on Artemyn before they lost all radio contact.

"We're doing what?" Tug Mug asked.

"We're getting a ship. Something small, something fast," Psychro replied.

The Graviton repressed the urge to make a dirty joke, mostly because he could pick up on Psychro's mood. The hybrid Lunatak was in a state of high anxiety and was itching for a fight. Tug Mug had already heard the full story of what had happened with Isilik, so he had been somewhat prepared. "This ees your moon," he reminded him, "I can fly a lot of sheeps, but getting one ees your job. Eet's a shame Red Eye eesn't around."

"Yeah. A Darkling would be handy. I don't think there are any around. I'll check around though. Thanks."

Tug Mug shook his head as Psychro took off. He felt bad for the Psion/Ice Lunatak. He didn't have siblings of his own, not that he knew of, and had never known anyone he was as protective of as Psychro was of Psikaris. But Tug Mug had dealt with people with vendettas, and knew that the more obsessed the stalker was, the more dangerous they became. Attacking Psychro was bold, divulging his plans to kill Psikaris and Cameo took enormous guts, and Tug Mug knew a lot about guts.

It was a little odd, when he thought about it. He didn't have many friends, but he found himself liking Psychro. The man could drink like a Graviton and slept around like a Graviton, he practically was a Graviton in all but shape; maybe that's what he liked in Psychro. Either way, Tug Mug thought of himself as loyal to his friends, and a little jaunt through the Ice Moon surface wouldn't be too bad from the warmth of a ship.

She looked so peaceful in the pale light of their home. Cameo had finished his business with Artemyn, including a report on Luna's progress, and had returned home to find his bondmate asleep on the couch, a book in her lap. She was the vision of beauty, he thought, finding himself watching her breathe. He was hopelessly in love, he thought to himself. She made breathing beautiful, the sound of her heart beating was music to his ears, and he was certain that if he had x-ray vision that he would find the way she digested attractive.

He tore his eyes away from her and saw that someone had come by and done some cleaning. Probably one of the other members of House Myntaello. He felt a pang of guilt over that. When his mother had stepped down as sire of the House he had inherited the position, but he never liked seeing his family as his underlings. Technically, he could order people to do all his housework, but where was the point in that? He was trying to change the old ways, push for equality for all. Heck, just his rank within the army was proof that things were changing. He snorted, crossbreeds were supposed to be the lowest of the low, scum of the moons, but he had risen above that.

The snort must have been louder than he'd thought. Psikaris stirred and stared blearily at him. "I think my doctor was jealous of you. She poked and prodded at me more than you did last night," she said with a faint smile. It was infectious and he returned it as he settled on the couch pulling her close to him.

"Everything okay?" he asked.

"Yeah. Everything's normal. She thinks I'll be fine for the trek. We are going to be fine, aren't we? I mean, with Isilik and all?" her body tensed, so he held her a little tighter.

"We will. Isilik can try whatever he wants. He caught Psychro off-guard and intoxicated, we won't be, and I know I can take him. Besides, Psychro and Tug Mug will be looking out for him too. They may be forbidden to help us, but they can stop him." He looked to the book. "Ice Moon survival guide? You're doing research?"

"Of course. What we learned in school isn't going to be enough. You should read it too, you know."

"That's one of the many things I love about you, 'Karis, you're always prepared. See? We have nothing to worry about. In fact, why don't I make us some dinner and you can teach me some of the finer points. Then tonight, I can teach you a few things," he said, squeezing her hand and getting up.

"Sounds like a plan," she replied.

All things considered the results of his hunt were successful, Psychro thought to himself as he returned to his home. The only Darkling on the moon at present was a grizzled man who had spent the last twelve years in an Icewalker dungeon, meaning he would be of no use to him. The man's possessions, however, were still in storage and the warden had been more than eager to assist such an influential House as Mymekon. Psychro had never used the infrared goggles, but he'd spent the last forty minutes on the way home with them on, and thought he had a pretty good idea of how well they worked.

An Icewalker's body temperature was low to begin with, a natural adaptation to help them survive the freezing cold, but the moon was colder and they appeared as lighter blue against the darker blue of the surroundings. His own body was warmer, as would Psikaris and Cameo, since he was only half Icewalker, and Tug Mug would be even more vibrant. Perhaps the most advantageous part would be that Isilik was travelling by vehicle, one who's engine would be a nice red to his eyes. Finally he reached his home and took off the goggles. Tug Mug was out getting food no doubt, so he had the place to himself. He spared a few minutes to do some last minute packing.

"With fire," Psikaris said, sitting in her chair. She and Cameo had been quizzing each other during most of the preparation for dinner. "Name edible things we might encounter."

Cameo set the dishes on the table. He wasn't the world's best cook, but he knew how to improvise. He had managed to make a decent stew out of the little food that they had in their home. The trek typically took a few weeks, so there hadn't been much point in stocking the pantry. "There's the natural wildlife, we'll probably want to avoid the larger predators and stick to the smaller game. Once we reach Lunis Lake there's fish that we can catch. Other than that we might find some mushrooms and other fungus in caves, although we probably won't be venturing deep enough in any we find, and there's some lichen and other small plants if we hunt for them. How do we deal with polar bears?"

"Talk about worst case scenario. Okay, well they've got tough hide, which means our laser weapons would need to be set high. Blades would work too, but I'm certainly not quick enough to avoid being shredded. They're agile, but not quick, and they usually give up easily if their prey runs away. All in all, I think we keep out of their way if we see one and shoot it with everything we've got. Which reminds me, did you remember to pack a repair kit?" she asked, taking a mouthful of stew. She noted, with some surprise, that he had the added black water beans that he had imported from the Darkling Moon. They added a spicy flavour, which wasn't unwelcomed.

"Yes. I gave you the better one, just in case we're separated," he replied, touching on one of her concerns of the trek. No one said anything about what to expect, mostly due to social stigma, but also because every one was different. She had heard from someone that they had bonded three times, and each time their trek had posed unique challenges specific to that relationship. It was conceivable that there would be a point where one would be apart from the other, ignoring that the death of one was also a distinct possibility.

It was a fine line that they walked in their packing. Bring too much and they would be burdened, slowing their progress, bring too little and something would be forgotten. That was said to be where faith in the goddess came in to play. She would provide for her children in their time of need, whatever that meant. It seemed like that was just asking for trouble, like they were ordering the goddess to make up for their inadequacies. A real goddess wouldn't help those people out of spite, and yet having no faith in the goddess to be there might likewise be construed as insulting.

"Your turn," Cameo prompted, startling her. She realized that she'd been staring absently at her near empty bowl of stew for at least a minute.

"Right. What's the best thing to do if we do get separated?"

"First of all, make sure that my own situation is safe. Once that's established, call out for you, look for any obvious indication of where you might be, and if all else fails backtrack. Staying put is often the best strategy. What are ways to keep warm at night?" He finished his bowl and pushed it in.

She thought for a moment. Realistically there were different answers depending on specific scenarios, but he was meaning in more of a general way. "Build a shelter to get out of the wind. Stay dry. Build a fire if it's safe. Snuggle together to keep body heat," she said at length.

"Very good." She saw mischief in his eyes and knew the words he was about to say before he said them. "But I think maybe we should practice that one before we go to bed." She considered pointing out the inefficiency in being naked where keeping warm was concerned but memories surfaced of his gentle, if persistent, kisses bubbled up and she found she didn't care. Happily she followed him into the bedroom.

The cave he had chosen to take shelter in had once been the home to a trio of wolves. Hunting had obviously been scarce for the creatures, because Isilik found them weak and easy prey to his blaster. He didn't like killing them, like many Icewalkers he respected the savage animals who survived out here, but he needed their den near the base of White Fang, somewhere that he would see Psikaris from. They also provided him with a little nourishment to go along with the food he'd brought with him. He didn't dare go into the city, that would be inviting recognition.

He wondered idly if Psychro had survived through his fall, and what condition he was in now. Either way it was payback for the abuse that the 'protective brother' had wrought upon him. Isilik hoped for a disfigurement, at least. He hunkered down and waited.

The ride from the Froston Ridge to White Fang was the matter of an hour, a trip that Cameo spent sitting close to Psikaris and trying to let her faint perfume overwhelm the stench of raw copper filtering through the hold. These trips weren't the most elegant or dignified, but they served their purpose. Psychro and Tug Mug were flying separately, in a ship that Psychro had been tinkering with in the family garage for a few years; it was in good shape, and seemed to be keeping up with them.

Cameo wasn't sure on the legalities of this. He and Psikaris were supposed to make the journey to the far side of Lunis Lake, where her holiest of temples was, on their own. Psychro was going to be with them, but not with them, as he and Tug Mug looked for Isilik. Did that count as cheating, or would Lunis take that into account when preparing their trek.

Finally, through a window, they saw the massive mountain surrounded by nothing but barren ground. It looked as formidable as the name suggested, and he had to remind himself that it was a perfectly normal geological formation. The trading ship banked and slowly lowered to a hangar near the surface. "We're here," he said to Psikaris, stating the obvious to try and relieve the tension he felt. "This time tomorrow we'll be out there somewhere."

There was a priest waiting for them when they disembarked, wearing a heavy coat over top the traditional lime green and white outfit. While the other passengers and crew went about their business, either making their way into the city or unloading freight, the newly bonded couple were guided to the summit and into an antechamber.

He could feel the raw power in this room, in the green padded chairs, in the banners of the powerful Houses, in the very rock itself. Cameo believed in the goddess, all Icewalkers did to some degree, but he'd never felt her presence like he did here. There was an aura, weighing his soul, judging him, seeing if he deserved the woman at his side. He wanted to draw both his sabre and his gun, fight to prove his worth, to scream a battle cry. It was a very strange feeling and he didn't think he liked it. A jolt of horror went through him. Was Psikaris going through the same thing? He hoped not, and wanted to hold her, protect her from Lunis' touch. He wasn't even aware of moving until he realized that he was laying on the ground.

Psikaris was stunned momentarily. There was a warm presence in the room, like a loving mother. She felt the motherly being chide her for her weaknesses while still offering comfort. Psikaris, as she had explained to her brother, believed in Lunis, just not to the extent that most did. She had confidence in herself and science, and felt too much was put on Lunis' influence. Suddenly Cameo was falling and she moved quickly to catch him before he was hurt.

"Don't worry," a woman's voice said. "This place has that effect on some people." Psikaris saw that the door from the antechamber into the high priestess' office was open. The head of the religion was always a woman, something to denote the goddess' role as protecting mothers as well as warriors. She padded over to where Cameo sat, her sandals slapping lightly on the rock floor, and touched his shoulder. Instantly Psikaris could see the haze pass from her bond mate's eyes. "Please, come with me. I will try and explain all that is required of you."

The high priestess' office was circular, with a clear window along one side that showed the vast countryside. The floor was covered in animal hides and felt incredibly warm. There were weapons of every sort adorning the wall, mingling with the bookshelves, and a large fresco showing a pregnant warrior and her son fighting an army of Mutants. It was, in short, what Psikaris would have expected. The priestess led them to a pair of chairs facing her desk and tapped a few keys on her keyboard. "Cameo and Psikaris of House Mymekon, I feel Lunis smiling on you. I am Snoeya, and it is my duty to prepare you for the journey ahead. It will be long and test your resolve, and you may find that your love and faith are not strong enough. However, if you are successful you will that your bond can never be broken by anyone."

Psikaris knew the statistics, and also that the high priestess was exaggerating the truth. Divorces weren't common, but they happened.

"One of those. A doubter. I pray that your doubt does not lead you astray," Snoeya said, piercing the Icewalker/Psion woman. "Doubt can be helpful, but doubt in the goddess can also be dangerous. And yet, I sense that you don't doubt Cameo. A good thing. He seems to be a good man, full of love and courage, perhaps too concerned for others, but a good man."

"How do you know these things?" Cameo asked.

"Experience, mostly. Everyone who goes on the trek must come before me. I have seen fools and cowards, people who are arrogant enough to believe they are entitled to Lunis' blessing, and many more. Most of them don't learn the error of their ways in time. But I've often found the humble, the confident, and the loving to be the most likely to succeed. Lunis also speaks to me, showing me what my eyes do not see. She is powerful, but loving and does not want to see her children fail."

"Then why?" Psikaris began.

"It is the way of the moon. To thin the herd, to cull the weak from the strong, to make our empire strong. She does not like seeing any of her children die, but knows it must happen, and I agree. You will rest here for the day and, in the morning, dine with me. Once that is done, you will head in that direction," Snoeya pointed out the window. "That way lies Lunis Lake. The goddess will guide you if it pleases her. When you have arrived, a ship will collect you and bring you back here."

"Psikaris is pregnant. Should we be concerned?" Cameo asked.

"Only if the children are not yours," a smile touched Snoeya's face as she said it, and neither bond mate noticed that she had pluralized the word. "As you already suspect, Lunis will help. The trek is about the bond between lovers, not about the children. You will doubtless forget that she is pregnant at all until you reach the end."

"And if we aren't worthy. How will our families know? Will Lunis tell you that too?"

"She will, though I hope that doesn't happen. It is a part of my duties that I dislike most." She turned to Psikaris, "I feel that your brother has yet a part to play in this game. I... I cannot tell you more, regretfully, though this will be as much a test of his faith as it is yours."

They spoke for almost an hour, asking and answering questions covering all aspects of what lay ahead. Only Lunis herself knew exactly what she had in mind, and the answers on past treks were vague. When they were satisfied, Snoeya led them to another room on the same level, near the antechamber, where her guests traditionally stayed. Their bags were already there, and an acolyte stood ready to guide them where needed.

This was very much a different city from Froston Ridge, Psychro thought as he walked methodically down the streets. He examined every face as they passed, looking for Isilik. Word had been sent ahead to the local authorities, but he didn't have much faith in them. If there was one thing he knew about the Icewalker people it was that they didn't have a very high crime rate. Individual Houses often took care of smaller infractions on their own members, and the larger ones were usually heinous enough that the Houses in charge could draw on the populace for assistance. They were a noble people, people who lived on honour. Sure, there were reasons for police forces; non-Icewalkers for one thing, and he'd been sent to a drunk tank or two in his time, but the police were small in numbers and weren't kept busy enough.

As if to prove him wrong, an officer walked by, holding a picture and stopped to ask a few people if they'd seen Isilik. The city of White Fang was a holy site first and foremost, unlike every other city it was run by the high priestess instead of a powerful House. This leant it a different atmosphere, in some ways a better one.

He and Tug Mug were walking down the main tunnel, passing branches that marked the homes of the few Houses that lived here, most of them smaller ones. There were shops and restaurants, and even a shrine to the other Lunar gods. The city felt like you were constantly being watched, and with this being the centre of the faith that was entirely possible. Psychro recalled one girlfriend, Zorcha from House Chilloi, had wanted to come here to experience a kind of voyeurism from the goddess. He thought it was tempting fate and they'd ended it shortly after.

"Eet's almost dinner time," Tug Mug noted, probably feeling a little uncomfortable with all the extra attention he was getting. There weren't many non-Icewalkers in the city, so he stood out like a sore thumb.

"It's always almost time to eat," Psychro said with none of his usual wit. He wasn't in the mood to eat, not with that man out there. About the only benefit was that he would get to confirm that Psikaris was currently safe.

If the situation wasn't so dire, he might have found it funny. How many times had his life been threatened? How many angry relatives had come looking for him after his supposed defilement of their sister or daughter. Dozens at least. He'd never really been afraid, but one mad man made a bold claim to hurt Psikaris and he exploded with rage. There was an irony there that he didn't like the look of. "Come on then," he said at length, "let's go find the love birds."

Luna yawned, stretching her little limbs as much as she could. There was one drawback with the Moons of Plundarr, it was rarely the same time of day on all of them. Froston Ridge was the perfect example. Right now they were mid afternoon while in the Royal capital it was morning. The brief jaunt to the Ice Moon, or to any of the other moons, threw off her sleep schedule. Artemyn had left a report on everything that had happened while she was away, and it was all boring. At least it had been helpful in catching up on sleep. The man might be brilliant and ambitious, but his writing needed a lot of improvement. Still, she couldn't be too hard on him. How was one expected to make the arrival of lumber from the Darkling Moon sound exciting?

"A test of my faith?" Psychro asked. It had taken them the better part of an hour to find a place to eat that wasn't crowded. Their waiter had calmly explained that the arrival of trading ships, in addition to the regular population, often meant an influx of people hitting the eateries before the ships continued on their way.

"That's what she said," Psikaris replied. She and Cameo had explained what had happened in Snoeya's office once they were seated.

He wasn't thrilled to hear that he was being tried as well. They were the ones going on the trek, not him, and he probably never would. At least, he didn't think he would. If the right woman came along, well, all bets were off. Still, it seemed unfair to put him in this kind of position, almost cruel of Lunis. But then, he'd always been intrigued by his relationship with the goddess. He'd only had the two children, though only one had been carried to term, and he'd never contracted anything. Maybe she just wanted to see if he was worthy of the favours she was bestowing on him.

Or maybe this was somehow a part of Psikaris' trek. People often speculated that others were brought in to the trial to test the bonded mates, either willingly or unknowingly he couldn't tell. Maybe it was designed to distract his sister from the other dangers around her if she suspected that he might be in danger. It was certainly something to ponder. "At least it sounds like she's confident in your return," he said at last, drinking a glass of wine that he'd bought for this occasion.

"She probably says that to all couples," Tug Mug smirked. Psychro shot the Graviton a death glare. The way he saw things was that confidence was important for Cameo and Psikaris to survive, and the way the rotund Lunatak had phrased it suggested that their odds weren't as good as they seemed.

Tug Mug was probably also right. Snoeya's job would be to prepare the couple without bias. In all likelihood she personalized her comments to some degree, but they were still generic. What would she say to him, Psychro wondered suddenly. Would she mention his role?

"That may be," Cameo said, squeezing Psikaris' hand, "but I think she's being honest with us. She genuinely wants people to succeed, and believes that we will be in the majority."

Psikaris finished chewing on a piece of some rodent. "Besides, we have to look at it that way. We are Icewalkers, sort of, and we don't give up. If we go out there expecting to lose, then we might as well not bother taking the trek. We can't let the dangers out there, including Isilik, to scare us off."

"Speaking of which, did you two hear anything about him?" Cameo asked.

"Nothing yet. But if he shows up, the White Fang authorities will grab him," Psychro said.

Still huddled in his cave, Isilik watched the sun dip below the horizon. Night came on fast, and the moon became bitterly cold in the dark. He was fortunate that he had brought along several heavy cloaks to keep warm, and the small fire near the back of the cave blazed nicely, sending the smell of roasted meat to him. He had eaten as much of the dead wolves as he could, knowing that the remains would be too big and bulky to carry with him, even with his snowmobile it would be too much. He would let some cook near the fire so that he had something to eat in the morning for breakfast.

"Enjoy your sleep, Psikaris, it may be your last," he whispered, the wind snatching his words and scattering the sound as soon as it left the cave. Quietly, he hunkered down at the back, and waited.

Cameo wrapped an arm around Psikaris' mid-section. They were exhausted from the travel, and numbed with fear for the coming days. Thoughts of intimacy surfaced but were overpowered by the need to save their energy. This trek would either be the start of a new life together, or be the end of their lives altogether.

On to Question of Faith - part three
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