After hearing the seer’s message, Iirin finds himself struggling to come to terms with the fact that he’ll soon be leaving the only place that he’s ever called home. Despite how he’s been mistreated in the temple-orphanage because he isn’t a typical demon, the idea of leaving still stings.
Despite owning only a few worn items of clothes and several toys and books from his youth, Iirin was determined to make packing for his new future drag on as long as possible. He lingered over every single step of the process, drifting around his tiny room in the temple-orphanage’s rickety attic and packing at a snail’s paces.
As one of the left behind children in Akkadia’s capitol city, Iirin had precious few possessions to start with and as an older former-foundling, he has had to hide most of them in various places around his room lest Matron take the opportunity to requisition even more of his things.
After opening his wardrobe to pull a faded green tunic out of its dark depths, he let his fingers brush over a tiny ceremonial robe with purple and silver stitching creating wondrous patterns across the soft white fabric. It was the only thing that Iirin had left to remind him of his parents.
Not that there was very much to remember.
“Why I kept that silly thing, I don’t know,” Iirin mused aloud, gaze lingering on the robe he had been dressed in when his parents had left him in a basket at the temple steps twenty years before. He had only been a few hours old, but his parents had at least done that much for him.
From what Iirin had gleaned over the years, they never seemed to regret their choice. They never registered him at the midwife halls or even left an offering under the name they gave him at Dorna’s temple to make penance.
“Maybe I should get rid of it.” Iirin muttered, eyeing the tiny robe with a frown on his face. “It isn’t like I need another reminder of how little I’m wanted.”
Iirin frowned even harder a moment later when he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the dented silver shard mirror propped up next to his wardrobe.
Most of the time, Iirin didn’t mind looking at himself.
He liked looking at the way that his white hair brought out the shimmering silver-green sheen of his eyes and made his skin appear to be an even darker shade of brown. He liked his gangly tallness, the way that he always stood out in a crowd. He even, occasionally, didn’t even mind the fact that much of his body was covered in intricate markings that mystified all of the many healers that Matron had taken him to as a child.
Unfortunately, few people that Iirin had met over the years felt the same.
Iirin was hornless, fangless. A veritable sheep amongst the predators that trickled in and out of the god quarter. Sometimes, he wondered if that was why his parents had chosen to give him up instead of raising him themselves.
Iirin shook his head to clear it of the thought, feeling a mix of loneliness and sadness tighten his chest.
At least being sad is better than worrying about this bonding, Iirin thought to himself as he stared down at the receiving robe with a frown on his face. Maybe being upset about what could have been could keep him grounded, could keep him from becoming attached to the two gods that would inevitably tire of being bonded with a creature like him.
Maybe Iirin shouldn’t keep the receiving robe anymore. It wasn’t as though its presence ever made him feel good about himself.
“No,” Iirin said aloud, frowning as he scratched at the back of his neck. “I need to remember –” How easily a person could be thrown away. How easily he was thrown away.
Before Iirin can give into another set of unwanted emotions, he cut himself off mid-thought, trying so hard to push the thought of his birth parents as far away as he can. He smacked the wardrobe door shut with his free hand a second later when the thoughts ceased to be anything close to comfortable and turned in the direction of his bed.
Stretching out across the bed that he had outgrown years before when he was a mere foundling at the temple, Iirin allowed himself the time to lay back and think. After the whirlwind chaos of the past few days since hearing the seer’s message, getting to relax was a luxury that Iirin wasn’t sure he’d have for much longer. He stared up at the ceiling without registering the twisting chimes hung overhead.
Despite how much Iirin had loved the pieces of glass and shell enough to make several chimes out of them, there was nothing on earth that could remind him of that at that moment.
After years of being unwanted and unnoticed, to have two gods want him to be their link to the mortal world was so much of a shock that days later, he couldn’t wrap his mind around it. He didn’t even know who they were or what they saw in him. All that he knew was that the seer to the gods chose him, him of all the citizens in Anatea, to be their bonded third and consort due to some signs in the sky or some other nonsense.
Iirin didn’t even have a choice or a chance to say that he wasn’t interested.
One minute, he was in the kitchen preparing breakfast in the kitchen and the next, one of the seer’s messengers had told him of his fate. And, thanks to Matron’s intrusion into Iirin’s life and her demand that Iirin return to the kitchen, it wasn’t even as though he’d had a chance to find out more about his future bonded.
After the seer’s messenger had left, Matron had wasted no time yelling her head off about how Iirin had to make a good impression on the two gods that he was supposed to be perfect for.
Yeah, and Iirin had a wonderful childhood.
Iirin scoffed, lifting one arm over his head and stretching his fingers out as if he could touch the ceiling from where he lay.
This would end the way things always did, the way that all of his meetings with prospective parents did back when he was a child and the way that his first fumbling attempts at finding a mate went every time. The two gods would take one look at Iirin’s hideous, hornless self and forget everything that the seer told them.
No one, not even a god, could want someone like him in their family after all.
A knock on his bedroom door startled Iirin out of his bitter thoughts.
He rolled over onto his left side, facing the door. “Yes?”
“It’s me,” Matah called, her voice full of warmth. “May I come in?”
Matah didn’t wait for Iirin to answer. She never had when he was a child in her care, and he knew she wouldn’t start now. The doors hinges creaked when she pushed it open, the sound almost louder than the tinkling of the bells woven into the thick mass of the blue braid hanging nearly all the way down to her knees.
Iirin squeezed his eyes shut so that he didn’t have to look at the older demon’s face or see what he knew would be a softly sympathetic look on her face.
The closest thing that Iirin had to a mother, Matah was everything to Iirin. That he had to leave her so that two poorly adjusted gods could feel balanced made Iirin want to yell or throw things or scream.
“The carriage will be around for you in a few hours and you haven’t packed, haven’t gone downstairs to bathe,” Matah said from her vantage point just inside the bedroom. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that you were stalling.”
Without needing to look up, Iirin could hear gentle amusement in Matah’s rich voice and he scowled even harder.
“I don’t want this, Matah,” Iirin confessed in a fast rush of whispered words. “I don’t want to get my hopes up again only for them to turn me down because of this.”
Without rolling over or sitting up, Iirin stretched out one arm so that Matah could see the pale markings on his dark brown skin. “If the people that live in Anatea find me disgusting normally, how long will it take two gods to feel the same way?”
Matah crossed the floor, sitting down on one end of Iirin’s narrow bed and sliding the palm of one soft hand over his side. She was one of the few people that touched Iirin on a regular basis, and just that gentle brush of skin against skin made Iirin relax into his worn mattress.
“They’re gods, Iirin,” Matah murmured. “They aren’t like us. They’ll see you for what you really are.”
Bitterly, Iirin shook his head. “A freak that shouldn’t be allowed to breed?”
“Who said that to you?” Matah barked out, the words harsh.
Iirin shook his head again.
“No one under this roof, I swear,” he breathed. “But that’s what they all think isn’t it? If I were human or a shifter, this would be fine, but Matah, my own mother didn’t want me because I wasn’t a good enough demon. Why would anyone else?”
Matah frowned, her thin purple lips tightening with her sadness. The hand on Iirin’s side moved up to his shoulder, gripping tightly before Matah pulled Iirin up to a seated position beside her.
“If I thought for a moment that those two gods would hurt you, Iirin, I wouldn’t let you leave the temple.” Matah’s voice was like steel wrapped in satin, the undercurrent of her anger thrumming throughout. “I hate that that no one thought to give you a choice about your own fate, but I swear to you, Iirin, I think this could be good for you.”
“But I haven’t met them yet,” Iirin said, his voice perilously close to being a wail. “If I haven’t met them, how could you –”
Matah’s answering smile was sharp and smug, white teeth flashing against scale-speckled blue skin.
“I’ve lived in this quarter for two hundred years, dear. When I overheard Matron talking about the two Tals, I went right to their temple and gave them a good talking to,” she said. “I know that Matron doesn’t have your best interests at heart, but I do.”
Iirin frowned. “She hates me.”
Instead of lying to Iirin, Mata reached out and covered his right knee with one hand, squeezing gently until Iirin sighed and slumped slightly against her side.
“What matters most is that I love you enough to let those two gods know what they could expect if they so much as blinked at you funny. You’re important to me and I just know, don’t ask me how, that you will be important to those two.”
“You threatened a god for me?” Iirin said, blinking rapidly at Matah.
She smiled. “Two gods at that,” she says, looking proud of her self.
“And you weren’t killed?”
Matah gave Iirin a narrow eyed look that made him blush and duck his head.
“Obviously not,” she said in a droll tone. “I think that they were happy to know that you had someone out there that cares for you.”
Iirin blew out a shaky breath of air. “I don’t want to leave you,” he said.
“I know you don’t,” she said, tucking Iirin against her left side. “But this is better than Matron coming up with some way to kick you out without my knowledge. This way, we’re still in the god quarter and I can come visit you.” She paused to tuck a lock of Iirin’s silver hair behind one ear. “And you will always be welcome in the temple-orphanage.”
“Not if Matron has anything to say about it,” Iirin said bitterly.
Matah’s lips peeled back from her teeth in a frustrated snarl.
“Matron had best remember her oath before the gods themselves come down and make her pay for her cruelty. She pledged to be Matron for all that needed her, not just the ones that would fetch a high bride price. That’s not the point of what we do or why we run the temple-orphanage.”
“Why weren’t you ever Matron?” Iirin asked.
“I felt as if I could do better as myself than as someone who had to follow rules or make up her own,” Matah said in return. “Matron is too busy to care about the children we take in. I can’t remember the last time she took one of our foundlings into her arms to comfort them.”
Iirin shuddered. “Thankfully, she was too busy trying to put me out of the temple to try touching me.”
Matah growled through her clenched teeth. “I will never forgive her for the way she treated you.”
“It’s alright,” Iirin insisted. “I’ll be free of her after today. That’s what’s important.” He pushed up from the bed, getting up with as graceful a motion as he can and then held out a hand for Matah to take. “Come on, Matah. Help me pack and I’ll go to the baths without complaining once.”
Matah’s answering smile was soft. “If only you could keep such a promise, little one.”
The baths always emptied out when Iirin came downstairs to use them.
Even the now-grown foundlings that Iirin used to bathe when they were babies tended to shy away from him in the baths, leaping out of the water and rushing for their towels as though they were afraid of being in the same room as him. The younger children were better about it, greeting him with smiles and damp hugs before the older foundlings could catch and scold them, but in general, the baths often cleared out quickly when Iirin came down to use them.
Iirin’s last day at the temple-orphanage was no exception. Within moments, every one of the bathers took up their things and slipped off, leaving Iirin alone in the massive baths that were all but underground aside from a few windows that allowed in weak rays of sunlight during the day.
“It’s not like I’m contagious,” Iirin muttered angrily, speaking to the back of one of the older girls — a yellow skinned succubus with a single spiral horn at her forehead — as she urged two of the little ones ahead of her. The way that the children looked at him, all because he had those damned patterns on his skin, made Iirin feel like raging.
But he pushed the anger down as he walked to the pool on the far side of the baths that he always used. This wasn’t the time or the place for that kind of temper and if Matron ever heard that he was anything but proper in the baths, she would have his head, soon to be god-bonded or otherwise.
The water from the baths was scalding hot, but Iirin barely did more than hiss at the temperature as he sank all the way up to his neck. This was to be the first part of the purification process, making sure that he was as clean as one could get in the public baths underneath the temple-orphanage.
Everything else would happen once he was at the temple compound that his future bonded had on the outskirts of the god quarter. If they didn’t find him wanting and send him back to Matron’s less than loving arms, that is.
Iirin ducked underneath the water and then came up with water streaming through his loose hair and down his face in lieu of the tears that Iirin wasn’t sure that he would ever release.
It wasn’t that he didn’t believe Matah about her feelings, but that in all his life, he had never found anyone willing to overlook the mildest of his perceived defects. If prospective parents and mates couldn’t look past him being a hornless concubus, then how could two gods ever be comfortable with the whole of him?
For all that Matah swore up and down that he would be fine, that the gods were different from mortals, Iirin couldn’t believe it.
Just in case Matah was wrong about them and about his future.
Despite the fact that few people aside from Matah cared for Iirin in the temple-orphanage, the courtyard was still full of foundlings when he came down from the room that was once his to greet the carriage that came for him. After all, every single one of the children loved a good show.
Dressed in his best tunic and a pair of leggings that were considered threadbare at best, Iirin forced himself to hold his head up high as he passed through the crowd of gawkers. Hugging a few of the wee ones that rushed towards him, Iirin managed to hold back his tears. Aside from those children and a handful of the older foundlings that waved at him, Iirin was alone in the crowd.
Matron was at the forefront of the crowd with the other caretakers, but Iirin had no eyes for her or them. Instead, he looked at Matah standing in front of the carriage and as he came closer to her and his impending future, pressure of tears grew stronger.
The hug that Matah enfolded Iirin in left him breathless as tears streamed down his face.
In that moment, Iirin didn’t know how he was going to force himself to live a life apart from the closest thing to a mother he had ever known. He clutched Matah to him, shuddery sobs pushing out from his throat as he clung to her like a child even though he was nearly a foot taller than her in height.
She pulled back first, cupping his face in smooth hands as she offered him a smile that seemed fragile.
“Take care, son of my heart,” she said. “You will always be welcome here.” She pulled him down until he had to bend his knees and then pressed a quick kiss against his forehead. “Now go, we wouldn’t want to keep your future mates waiting.”
Matah passed Iirin off to the djinn driver of the carriage. Still crying, Iirin could hardly see where he was going or what he was doing, but it didn’t matter. He was leaving everything he knew behind. He was allowed a little sobbing for that.
“Take care of him,” Matah said in a sharp tone as the dark-skinned demon helped Iirin into the carriage. “And let your masters know that if they hurt him, I will have plenty to say.” Matah swept off after that, shoulders stiff in a way that let Iirin know that he wasn’t the only one moved by the fact that they would be separate for the first time in his entire life.
Once inside the sumptuous carriage, Iirin dared to glance out the window. The sight of all of his foundlings standing and watching him leave the home that they all shared made his chest pulse with heat. He covered his mouth with his left hand in order to stifle another sob but he managed to wave at the crowd of people clustered around the courtyard.
When over half the crowd waved back at him, it took everything in Iirin to keep from bursting in to even more tears.
“Sit back,” the driver of the carriage called from overhead. “The masters would be most displeased if anything happened to you on the way to their temple.”
The driver clicked his tongue once, loud enough that Iirin could hear the sound clearly, and the massive goats at the head of the carriage took off at a pace that left Iirin reeling, fingers clutching at the sides of the carriage as scenery sped by them at a great blur.
Iirin scowled, feeling his stomach bubble both in response to his nerves and the breakneck pace of the carriage as it careened through the street. At least, if Iirin vomited in the carriage, he could pass it off as mere motion sickness from the speed of their travel rather than admitting to the nausea brought about by his fear.