Niko stepped out of the elevator. He held tightly to River's hand as he left the elevator. Getting separated from River could end in River being thrown back out, or something much worse. He needed to get home as quickly as possible. Without his wings, he wouldn't be treated with the same status he used to enjoy. Now, he was lower in status than a human and his mother's name would grant him only so much protection. He led River through the crowd down the quickest path he knew. A woman spit on him. Her saliva hit against his ankle. Niko winced in disgust, but he had no time to clean himself off. He shut it out. Niko only stared ahead. They walked down a back alley to save time. Before his exile, Niko avoided this area if he could. There were usually many homeless people there most days and nights, begging for food and money. Most were avia who lost trials and had one or both wings cut off. Many families rejected relatives like that. There was no getting out of that once left on the streets, except to be hired as someone's servant or to sell oneself into slavery. The rest were a mix of other outcasts: those born with deformities, whether of the wings or not; the hybrid children of the forbidden union of an avia and a human; and discarded human slaves bought from human and avia traders. Niko's mother always told him people like that would rob him blind if he wasn't careful. Now, walking amongst them as another outcast, he only saw hunger and sadness in their eyes. When he started his journey, he was full of rage and determination. He wanted to show everyone how he had been wrong. Niko knew his life couldn't return to how it was before, but he did not fully grasp that until he walked through that alley. If he cleared his name, he would be left with a decision to make that would determine how he lived the rest of his life. Niko looked up in the distance. His home was in sight, but still so far away. He wanted so badly to fly. For a moment, he swore he felt his wings there, flapping hard to lift him off the ground. There was nothing there to follow his heart's demand. He held tight to River's hand. On the other side of the alley, they were stopped by two guards, one female and one male. The female guard grabbed him by the shoulder. "Excuse me, but this area is forbidden for your kind to be in without an attendant or a band. Show me your bands." The female guard ordered. "I don't have a band. My home is that way. I need to get home." Niko said. The band the woman was speaking of was for slaves and servants. Servants worn a silver band on their left wrist. Slaves wore a bronze one on their left ankle. "Who are you? Have you escaped from somewhere?" She narrowed her eyes at him. "No, I have a right to be here. I'm going home. I am entitled to be here for a month for a retrial." Niko stood his ground. The male guard got behind them. "What is your proof you are not a prisoner or a slave?" She grabbed his wrist and squeezed it tightly. "I am Niko, son of Styx. My home is over there." He pointed with his free hand to a set of domes near the kingdom's edge. "Then why are you not in it? Why are you not being accompanied by a relative, wingless disgrace?" She yanked him forward. "I have just returned from below. My family does not know I am here yet." Niko stumbled forward. River ran to his side to keep him from falling. "Is that so?" The female guard said. "Well, if you truly are who you say you are, you can have your relatives collect you from a cell after we summon them, or you can go wait back in that alley." "You can't do this! I know my rights. I am entitled to wander freely until my retrial. I have thirty days!" Niko tried to free himself from her grasp. The male guard grabbed River's wrist. "This one isn't entitled to anything, for sure. Human. Looks strong. He'll sell for a nice price. We could use some extra money for new weapons." "You cannot do that! He is my guest. I am allowed to bring a guest. I have the same rights as I had before I was exiled!" Niko yelled. The female guard smacked him across the face. "Shut up. If no one knows you're here, it doesn't matter." "You have to summon my mother." Niko said. "We don't technically have to do that. You are entitled to ask that we do, but we do not have to comply." The guard smirked at him. She forced his hand behind his back. A man with one grey wing stopped in front of them. "Master Niko?" Niko looked over at the avia man. He was Dimi, a servant of the family who was born with a wing so poorly formed it needed to be amputated. His parents, wealthy nobles, were ashamed of him and quickly offered him to the family when he was old enough to work at five years old. Dimi was thirty, coming to work for the family the year Niko was born. He was a favored servant by the family for his attentiveness. Niko stared at him with desperation. "Dimi, help me, please. I need to go home." The male guard stopped Dimi from moving forward. "Let me see your band." Dimi held up his wrist and flashed his silver band at the guards. A rainbow gem carved into an upward facing crescent moon and a single pearl above it decorated the center of it, proof of which family employed him. "That man is a member of the family I serve. I will escort him home." "Very well." The female guard said. She grabbed River's arm. "Not this one. He's free to be sold." "No, he is my guest. You cannot sell him!" Niko yelled at her. Dimi looked over at River. "If he is his guest, then he comes with us. My mistress will not be happy if you take one of our family's guests to be sold. That would be a great offense against the family." The guard let him go. She sneered at him. "Go on then. Servants shouldn't loiter when they have tasks to fulfill." "Yes, ma'am." Dimi bowed to her. "This way, Master Niko." Dimi led them through the kingdom to their destination. River exchanged looks with Niko. He motioned asking who Dimi was. "He's a servant of the family." Niko explain, slightly embarrassed. He couldn't place why it bothered him. "Having servants is common here, if you're wealthy." The way River looked at him told him he didn't need to worry over what River was thinking about that. When River looked at him like that, he realized that was what he was embarrassed about. This only made him more embarrassed. Dimi looked back at them. "It's strange seeing you like that. No wings at all. You look almost like a human. How badly did it hurt? I was a baby when they did it to me." "It was the worst physical pain I have ever endured." Niko said. "Is my mother well?" "She's been mourning you since that day. For the first month, she kept her wings clipped." Dimi said. "How long have I been gone?" Niko asked. "Oh, it has been months. The mourning period for the family is over." Dimi turned back to look at River. "Who is he? I didn't expect you'd bring a human back, but I am amazed you made it back at all." "He's a close companion of mine. He's the reason I was able to make it back here." Niko held River's hand. River smiled at him. "Hmm, I see, but I don't know if returning was a good idea." Dimi said. He took a key from his side to open the door of the main building of the family's home. "Now, you are the same as me. You'll either be inside, or you'll be sent to be a servant for someone." "I know what awaits me if I clear my name." Niko stared at the silver band on Dimi's wrist. He doubted his family would toss him to another family to be a servant. It was more likely they would keep him lock up inside their home, to wear a gold band. Gold was reserved for men who were undesirable by society but were neither servants nor slaves, fully supported by their birth family. A dark blue band was given for women in his same circumstance. That gold band would be required for him to walk around in public, if he cleared his name. Niko looked at his wrist. Before his exile, he wore so much golden jewelry. He'd always covered himself in gold after his twentieth birthday. Gold marked him as a man, whether that was as a free citizen or a pariah. The beautiful white respectable men wore would be traded out for light grey or a brown clothes. He would be forbidden from wearing any jewelry other than the gold band. Rather than golden sandals, he would wear brown ones. His hair would be cut short above his shoulders, as Dimi's was. His days of partying were over. He would be forbidden from sleeping with anyone with status above him, unless someone requested his company. His right to ask would be limited to any servants or slaves the family had. Alcohol would be absolutely forbidden to him except on the days of funerals. All professions other than servant or slave would be out of his grasp, and he would never be allowed inside of the academy or the library again to study. He would only be able to visit those places to run errands for his family, if given permission. This was what awaited him if he was successful at his retrial. If he failed to clear his name, he would be immediately cast back out of the kingdom. If the judge he faced was less merciful, he may be executed. Niko's legs shaked as he stepped through the front doors. Dimi did not bow to him as he always used to. "I'll bring someone to see you. I believe Mistress Iris is home." "Oh, thank you." Niko sat down. Now, his hands were shaking too. River sat down beside him. He made a few hand gestures to ask Niko if he was alright. Niko nodded. A few minutes later, a woman with rainbow wings fluttered down from the second floor. She had medium brown skin and dark hair. From what River could see, he saw no features in common between Niko and the woman. The woman rushed over to Niko and hugged him. "Niko, you've returned!" She kissed him several times on both of his cheeks. "Oh, your poor, beautiful wings. It must be driving you mad not being able to fly. Don't worry. I'll keep you safe." "Iris, I haven't returned to hide in comfort. I'm here to clear my name." Niko said. He kissed her on the cheek. Iris noticed River there. She recoiled. "A human? Why did you bring a human with you? Is he your servant?'" "He saved me when I was exiled and helped me get here. I owe him everything." Niko said. "Don't tell me you were having fun with humans? That's..." Iris wrinkled her nose. Niko confirmed what she suspected. "It didn't feel any different than usual." "I can't believe it. You really...You have been down there a long time." She looked at him with pity. "It's got nothing to do with that. I simply wanted to." Niko would have shared her pity and shame before his exile. Having slept with River, he found it absurd. Their bodies functioned and looked the same. The only difference between them was in body mass. The pleasure he felt from the act, he thought, was certainly no different than with anyone else. "Next you'll be telling me you've adopted human monogamy." Iris joked. "Maybe I have." Niko said, unashamed. Iris's eyes widened. "Niko...You can't be serious." "What if I am? What does it matter now?" Niko asked. He felt over the necklace Lorn gave him. "I've done a lot of things I wouldn't have before. The world below is nothing like here." "I am sorry, my dearest cousin, that we could not save you from this. None of us knew about the trial until an hour at most before it started. I barely made it there that day. Your poor mother arrived in the middle of your...wings being taken." Iris lowered her head. "When they dragged you away, she had to be restrained. She was screaming and clawing at the guards to get to you." "Did they not inform you the night I was arrested that my trial was the next day?" Niko asked. "We knew that you were arrested and being held until your trial. They wouldn't tell us any more than that until it was nearly time. From the information I've gathered, that was intentional. They didn't want to give us time to build a case for you. They were false charges, and they knew it." Iris said. "Lord Arion wanted you framed for the murder he committed, you specifically." "Why me?" "Arion's been trying to gain power for a while now. He knows he is limited as a man, but he can increase his family's status. His grandmother and mother are both very powerful already, but he wanted to secure more for them. Our family has been on the rise, and he couldn't have that. That's why he targeted you. He couldn't touch any women in our family, so he went after the man within our home with the most social status. Your connection to Prince Nyx alone was enough to be a threat to him." Iris explained. "That night...that man who I saw die was his you mean to tell me he had his own brother assassinated?" Niko's blood went cold. "Yes. He wanted power for his family, but even there, he wanted to eliminate anyone who could stand in his way. His younger brother was always more popular with nobles than he was, for his looks and sweet words." Iris said. "By killing his brother, he took away his power and increased the family's as a whole. By pinning it on you, he took out another man in his way and decreased our status by the associated shame. The fool has been trying to get close to Prince Nyx in your absence, to take your place. He made sure to be at your trial so the public could see his face when you were sentenced. Any relative could have gone in his place." "Is there a reason you have not gone to the courts yet? You didn't have to wait for my return." Niko said. "Gathering that information took time. Prince Nyx wanted to get as much out of that fool as he could before we took him to court. It's a good thing we did, because it doesn't end there. We've got evidence Arion may attempt to call for Nyx's assassination in the near future. A very foolish man indeed." Iris petted her cousin's hair. "Now that you've returned and your time is limited, we'll take him on." "Has Nyx really been helping you all this time?" Niko asked. His face went red that he forgot to say the prince's title. "Why would he do that?" "You know he has a soft spot for you. So many of the royal family does. They all find you too handsome to resist. Even the queen fancied you. That was part of why the trial needed to happen so quickly. Not a single member of the royal family was able to make it to the trial. If even one had, it's likely you would have been ruled innocent." She said. Niko's cheeks went a deeper red. "I doubt the queen looked at me like that. None of the royal family other than Nyx ever invited me to stay the night with them." "I think you already know why that is." Iris stood up. She yelled up at the second floor. "Speaking of which, he's here right now. He'll be happy to see you. Servant, bring my guest here." Dimi leaned over the side. "Yes, ma'am." Niko's eyes widened and his heart raced. He wanted to hide. River sensed his anxiousness. He put a hand on Niko's to comfort him. River leaned forward and looked up at Niko, his expression one of concern. Niko shook his head to let River know he was alright. River tightened his grasp on Niko's hand. Above them, a man with jet black wings and matching hair descended down. His skin was a shade darker than Niko's, but much lighter than Iris's. Fine jewelry covered him from head to toe. He did not rush over to them as Iris did. He walked with grace and elegance toward them. "'ve returned..." He said. Niko stood up. He was at a loss for words when his eyes met with the prince's. Niko remembered himself and looked away. "Prince Nyx...I...please, do not look upon me." Nyx put his hand on Niko's chin and gently turned Niko's head to face him. He pressed his forehead against Niko's. "Let me see them, the scars. It's alright." Niko hesitated. It was one thing for River to see them. He wouldn't care. Showing another of his kind was a different matter. Slowly, he took off his cloak and shirt. He heard Iris gasp before he turned to show Nyx his back. Niko felt Nyx's eyes on him. Nyx traced the scars with his fingers. "I am so sorry. I tried speaking with my cousin before the trial began, but he wouldn't listen to me. He scheduled it at a time I could not attend. He'd already promised your sentence to that bratty idiot, and he knows he won't be keeping that position as judge much longer. My mother's already found a new replacement for the woman he's been temporarily replacing. He needed new ties of power, the same as that wicked man who paid him off." "You needn't worry over me, Prince. Someone as important as yourself shouldn't be bothering helping someone like me." Niko said, staring at the floor. "Nonsense. You're my friend." Nyx walked in front of him. Nyx looked over at River. "Who is this human?" "Ah, this is River. He is..." Niko hesitated again before saying the truth. "He is my lover." "Niko, quit joking around. That's ridiculous." Iris snapped at him. "Is this really true?" Nyx asked. Niko looked up at Nyx, expecting to see shame reflected in his eyes. Nyx only looked at him the way he always did, with warmth and distance. "Yes, it is." Nyx turned back to River. He took River's hand and said, "Then, I am very envious of you. Please, take care of my friend." "Prince Nyx, are you really going to accept that so easily?" Iris rolled her eyes. "You're still in love with my cousin, aren't you? You're both nothing but trouble." Niko blushed deeply. He looked over at Nyx. "In love?" Nyx laughed. "Don't worry over that. My friend, let me help you in any way I can." River's mouth hung open. He stood up and ran over to Niko. River grabbed his arm to get his attention, then used his hands to communicate the number twenty. He then pointed to Nyx. Niko's face went a deeper shade of red. He nodded. "Uh...yes. He is the one I mentioned." "How is it you knew what he was asking? All I saw was him move his hands." Iris asked. "I've gotten used to it." Niko said. "River is mute. We communicate like this when we don't have paper." "What did he ask you about me?" Nyx asked. "Um...well, he asked if you were the person I invited as my special guest on my twentieth birthday." Niko explained. "You told him about that night?" Nyx grinned at him. "Not in detail." Niko looked away. He put his cloak and shirt back on. River couldn't stop staring at Nyx. At first, Niko was worried River was upset to see Nyx. When he looked at River's expression more closely, he realized that was the opposite of what was going through River's mind. He laughed under his breath. 'Even you are so shamelessly enamored with his beauty?' Nyx noticed River's reaction as well. He approached River again, this time with a more devilish look on his face. He took River's hand and kissed it. "I know humans prefer to stay with one person at a time, but if you're ever interested in trying something different, let me know. I don't mind sharing Niko with you at night. Or, if you'd like to spend a night alone with me..." River's face went red. He grinned back at Nyx. Niko was amused at the exchange between the two of them. "That might be something." The conversation went no further. Six more people entered the room. Through the front door, two avia women and four servants entered. The woman with lighter skin dropped her bag and ran to Niko. She embraced him so tightly Niko nearly fell over. "Niko!" The woman cried on his shoulder. "Mother..." Niko hugged her back. "My baby, look at what they've done to you!" She felt over his back where Niko's wings once were. "I'll keep you safe now. You'll stay inside and I'll bring you anything you need." "Mother, I have to clear my name first. I can only legally be here for a month if I do not take this matter to the court." Niko said. "Nyx will clear everything up for you." She dried her eyes. Styx stared at River. "Who is this? Did you acquire a servant down there?" "He claims this human is his lover." Iris said, crossing her arms. "Excuse me?" Styx raised an eyebrow. "Niko, that's not funny." "It is the truth." Niko said. "You've been down there too long." She glared at River. "He may stay for now, as a guest, but...Niko, I don't think you are thinking straight." "Sister, he has just arrived. He should lie down." Niko's aunt, Electra, was less moved by seeing him. "Iris, dear, come with me for a while. I have business I need to discuss with you about an upcoming event." Electra left the room without saying anything to Niko. Iris ran after her mother, the ever dutiful daughter. Iris was expected to be the next woman to become head of the family. Electra kept Iris close, watching for any cracks in her public image. Iris's feelings were less important to his aunt. His aunt had always been cold, especially to him. She often told him he didn't know his place, and considered him an embarrassment before his arrest. Her lack of concern hurt, but he let it go. That was how she was. "Your aunt is very stressed from a lot of things." His mother said. "You should go rest. My poor son. How many steps have you been forced to take to return home?" Niko couldn't answer that himself. His once delicate skin was now dry and scarred. His hands and feet were rough and dirty. It no longer hurt him when he walked for long periods of time. If anything, he found sitting still bothered him. He didn't want to rest. "I need to schedule a date for a retrial." Niko said. Nyx put a hand on his shoulder. "I'll take care of that. I'll be representing you. Your mother is right. Please, go rest." Niko sighed. "Alright." Nyx kissed him on the cheek. "I'll take care of that now. Stay safe, my friend." Nyx left after that. Styx escorted Niko to his bedroom. She opened the door. "We've kept everything as it was. I couldn't bare to see anyone else use this room." "Thank you, Mother. I will rest for now." Niko kissed her cheek. She kissed his cheek back. "If you need anything, call for someone. The world out there may not see you the same, but you are still my son." Styx left to tend to other matters. Niko was alone with River again. When he first set out, he thought being back home would make him happy. His bedroom only saddened him. Niko tried his best to hide his sorrow in front of River. "This is my room." Niko said. River went over to the bed. He took his shoes off and rolled onto it. River spread his legs and arms out, seeing that no part of him could touch the edge. He felt over the silk sheets and soft pillows. "Much nicer than the places we've been sleeping, isn't it?" Niko joined him on the bed. River nodded. He smiled widely. Niko unconsciously smiled back. He kissed River, searching for some familiar comfort. River wrapped his arms around Niko. Niko caressed his face and mouthed "I love you" to him. River returned his voiceless words. Sensing Niko's desire, River slipped one of his legs between Niko's. He rubbed his knee against him. Heat rose in Niko's face at the contact. He undressed River, then himself. River laughed silently as they fooled around on the bed. Fifteen minutes later, Niko found himself in much better spirits. He rested his head on River's chest, listening to the sound of his heartbeat. "I wonder if you'd like the kind of parties I used to hold. This bed would be shared with many, sometimes more than one person at once." Niko said. He ran his fingers down River's chest. River thought about it. He smiled and shrugged. "Not sure, huh? I suppose it must seem like a pretty foreign idea for you." Niko said. River played with his hair. Niko wanted to go again, but he was more exhausted than he realized. He had used up the last of his energy. Niko fell into a deep sleep. Later in the evening, he woke. River was dressed and looking through his top dresser drawer at something with intense curiosity. Niko realized what River must have been looking at. There was only one thing he kept in his top drawer. Niko stumbled out of bed and went over to him to explain. "Ah...those are for..." Niko started to say as River held up a large, shiny dildo. River looked at Niko. He grinned and made a circle with his hand. He put the dildo through the circle. "Well, yes. That's exactly what it's for." Niko couldn't believe River made such a sexual gesture in front of him. He liked it. River picked up another toy. This one was long and the top portion shaped like a vulva, complete with an opening for insertion. River didn't recognized the material it was made out of it, but he understood its purpose quite well. He shot Niko a teasing look. River put it back and opened up the entire drawer. There were other types of objects inside for different types of pleasure, with varying sizes and shapes. River gestured to Niko about the number of items in the drawer, teasing him again. "It's common to have this many, for different guests." Niko said. He was slightly embarrassed by how many there were. He never really looked at the whole drawer like that. Whenever he went digging into it for something, he was looking for a specific item. It was true that most in the kingdom had many toys, but Niko's collection was a little more excessive than most and most of them were bought exclusively for his own pleasure. He didn't bother telling River there was another drawer in the room with the ones he was less fond of. River used his hands to ask Niko which ones were his favorites to play with. Niko went over to the drawer to point them out. Before he could say anything, his mother opened the door. Niko shut the drawer when he saw her. "Have you rested up?" She asked. "Somewhat." He said. "Come down for dinner. You may bring your guest." His mother said. "Oh, and put some clothes on." Niko looked down. He was completely naked. River laughed. Niko opened up his wardrobe to choose appropriate clothing to wear. The clothes he owned were much nicer than what he bought down in the human world, but each piece filled him with sadness. Niko dressed in the human clothes River paid for and went downstairs to eat with his family. Typically, members of the family who were not going to parties or had business to attend to all ate together in a tiered circle. Children and servants that tended to children ate in the inner, lowest portion of the dining area. Above them were teenagers and any servants they wished to attend to them at dinner. The top level was reserved for adults, with the head of the family seated on a slightly raised portion of the floor. The relatives closest to the head of the family sat beside her. Servants adults wanted nearby sat with their respective adult. Anyone who was not being asked to work sat on the floor with the adults, but outside of the circle. Each layer of the circle was covered in soft cushions, sinking down into the center with the most padding. Iris and Styx sat with Electra, with each of their favorite servants sitting nearby. Niko went to join his mother, but Electra stopped him. "What are you doing?" "I...was called down for dinner." Niko said. "Over there. You know the rules. You're not here to tend on anyone, and you've got no wings." She said. Niko looked at his mother and Iris. Iris bit her tongue. His mother looked away. Niko led River over to where the servants sat, sitting down beside Dimi. There were no cushions to sit on in this area, and the food portions were smaller. Dimi fixed them both plates and handed it to them. Niko ate quietly. "I don't see how you can be so close with a human. Isn't it strange?" His mother asked him from halfway across the room. Niko didn't answer her immediately. He had to remind himself what the rules were for those excluded from the circle. He was allowed to talk from there during dinner, but only if someone from within the circle was speaking with him. He said, "I don't find it strange." "We should get this cleared up soon. We can't hold any parties while we're harboring an exiled man." Electra said. "Nyx has arranged for a retrial already. He'll present the case for us soon. Then, we can go back to how things were." Iris said. "Can we really?" Niko asked. "It may not be the exact same as before. We'll have to keep you inside, to protect you, but we will care for you." His mother reassured him. "No more parties for me either, huh?" Niko laughed to hide his pain. "You may still keep servants over night." Electra said as a servant fed her. "My options are those we pay. How horrid." Niko said, lowering his head. "Is it really that bad?" Iris asked. "It's not like you're forbidden from having sex." Niko raised his head. He looked directly at his mother. "Am I allowed to help raise my nieces and nephews?" Styx and Iris exchanged looks, then turned to Electra. She turned her nose up at the idea. His mother attempted to soften it for him. "Well, it would be best if they were raised by someone more..." "You are unfit. You are not to interact with any children without supervision." Electra said. That answer hit him the hardest. He'd always been very lax in helping with that, but he did love his nieces and nephews. He liked to watch them play around at dinner from up above them. The older ones and his slightly younger cousins often talked with him at dinner too, asking him advice about all sorts of social situations. From where he was sitting, he couldn't see any of them, much less hear them. All this time, he'd taken that warmth for granted. "A wingless bird in a cage. Is that my future?" Niko asked. "We cannot restore your wings. All we can do now is clear your name. Compared to surviving out there, isn't this better? We can give you anything you want." His mother said. "If it must be that way, we'll let you keep the human too." Electra glared at her. "I didn't agree to that." "Oh, please, sister. Let him." Styx begged her sister. "I'll think about that after the retrial. He has not been cleared of anything. I will not grant him any gifts until he has absolved some of the shame he has inflicted on our family." Electra said. "But Mother, you know Niko is innocent. Prince Nyx and I proved it to you." Iris came to his defense. "It does not matter if he is innocent or not. All that matters is the sentence the judge inflicts. If he fails to clear his name, I won't hesitate to ask for his execution to alleviate our burden." Electra glared at Iris. Iris stood up and ran toward the balcony. "Sit down, girl. Do not disobey me." Electra said. Iris froze. "Sit, or you will not be going to the retrial." Electra raised her voice. Iris stood still for a moment, then went to join her mother's side. Electra pointed to the other side of the circle. "Over there." Iris picked up her plate and sat on the other side of the circle. She did not speak again. Niko realized none of the other adults were talking. Everyone was too afraid to say anything to upset his aunt. He recalled hearing from Iris that night he was arrested, when she visited him at the jail, that none of his other relatives believed he was innocent. Even his own mother, though she may have rushed to the trial and cried over him, did not believe his innocence. The people he thought were his friends would not come visit him, except for Nyx, who had assured him he wouldn't be punished. No one had apologized to him for not believing his words that day. Those in the circle did not look at him. Before the trial, the cell they placed him in with its single, small window, terrified him. He'd never been so alone before. He was always surrounded by family. Though when he turned in for the night, he shared his bed with no one, as was custom, his home was full. The other cells nearby were filled with strange people and loud cries. The metal chains cut into his skin. He never thought he'd feel anything more isolating than that night alone in that cell. Dimi placed a piece of meat on Niko's plate as a silent, small act of kindness. Niko ate it. The taste was bitter in his mouth. After dinner, he returned to his room. River kissed him on the bed, holding him close. He hadn't said a word since his last words to his aunt. Someone came down onto his balcony. Niko got up to see who it was. Nyx stood before him, his jewelry glittering in the moonlight. "You're back." Niko said. Seeing Nyx made the pain inside him burrow deeper. "Yes, I thought I'd inform you about everything as soon as possible." Nyx said. "Are you staying the night?" Niko asked. "I assumed I was welcome to...Am I not?" Nyx asked. He motioned toward River. "Because he's..." "You may stay." Niko said. He led Nyx inside. "It will be tomorrow afternoon. We're going to settle this as quickly as possible." Nyx kissed him on the cheek. "I'll take care of everything." "Thank you." Niko said. "I'll take care of you. Don't worry. He was only able to get away with that because I wasn't there that day." Nyx joined them on the bed. River sat up. He blushed and smiled at Nyx. Nyx smiled back. "You're a very handsome man. What was your name again?" "His name is River." Niko said. "River. That's a lovely name." Nyx said. The tension between River and Nyx filled the room. Niko didn't know what to do with himself. Nyx didn't let up. "River, you are quite handsome. It's a shame you cannot speak. I know your voice would be just as beautiful." River turned away and covered his face to hide the redness in his cheeks. He glanced back at Nyx and mouthed "thank you". "You must be from this region of the world, since you understand us. Does he use our script or can he write at all?" Nyx asked Niko. "He does not know our script, but he can write." Niko said. "Niko was a language scholar when he was at the academy, you know. He speaks the languages of other regions quite well." Nyx said to River. "I don't know if I'd say I can still do it that well..." Niko added. Nyx caressed River's cheek. "You're a lot shorter than me, but I hear your kind are quite heavy. I wonder...would you indulge me a little and let me feel your body?" River looked over at Niko to ask if it was alright with him. Niko nodded. River held up his arm. Nyx felt over his arm. "Such strong man is like this here. Are all your muscles this hard?" River laughed, his mind on something else. Nyx felt over his chest. "Here too. Your body is so strong." River was feeling less inhibition than before. He tugged at Niko's shirt. "What is it?" Niko asked. River gave him a seductive look, then motioned over to Nyx. Niko expected this request was coming from the way the two had interacted all day. He himself had practically encouraged it unintentionally. "I don't mind if you spend a night with him, if that's what you want." River shook his head. He pointed to Nyx, himself, and then to Niko. ", that's what you want." Niko laughed. "I wouldn't mind that either." River wrapped his arms around Niko's neck and kissed him. Niko broke the kiss. He put his hand on Nyx's thigh. "Nyx, River wanted to make an offer to you. Would you like to join us tonight for a little fun after dark?" "I would love to." Nyx kissed Niko on the lips. "You may have to give me some advice. I've never done this with a human." "It's essentially the same, but you'll need to keep our weight and strength differences in mind. River's much stronger than we are, and heavier. I don't suggest being underneath a human." "I see. That makes sense. That's not too limiting." Nyx said. He took hold of River's hand and held it against his face. "I am sure I will not forget this night." Niko's mood improved, if only for the time they touched. This distraction could not dull his pain entirely. River fell asleep afterwards, in between them two of them. "Humans really don't care where they fall asleep, do they?" Nyx commented. "No, they don't. Not like our kind do." Niko said. "He's very handsome. Humans really are so different from us. Look at him." Nyx stared at River's peaceful, sleeping face. "I could never look like that, so at ease and deep in sleep beside another." "He could break me, if he wanted to, but humans are fragile too. We all die easily." Nyx's eyes met with Niko's. "You're going to leave, aren't you? When the retrial is over." "There's no place for me here." "What is it like down below?" "It's dangerous and terrifying, but there's beauty there too." Niko caressed River's face. "You're lucky." "Am I?" "You can escape this. I can't leave here. I can't go with you." Nyx looked down at River. "And he is lucky, for he can keep you." "Nyx..." "I love you. I've been in love with you since the night we met on your twentieth birthday." Nyx laughed at himself, holding in his pain. "I can say that now that you're leaving. That is the only time I could ever say such a thing." Niko held back tears. "And I have loved you since that night, when I saw you there across the room waiting for me and we danced after I put on my golden sandals." "I'm happy for you, that you can have what I cannot." Nyx held his hand. "May you find peace down below, my dearest friend." Nyx rose up from the bed. He dressed himself to move to a guest room. "Will you not sleep here tonight? Just this once, please." Niko pleaded with him. "I cannot." Nyx kissed him. "I'll see you in the morning." Nyx moved to another room. Niko, overcome with sadness again, waited patiently for sleep. He cuddled close to River. There in that contact, he found a small comfort in that moment that nothing in the world around him could take away. Morning came. Niko was used to rising earlier now. He and River were the only two people awake in the house. River was already awake when he woke. He kissed Niko. Niko kissed him back. "Did you enjoy last night?" Niko asked. River grinned. He nodded. Niko laughed. The words Niko exchanged with Nyx came back to him. He cleared his throat. "River, about Nyx...I...should come clean about something..." River listened closely. "I must confess to you. Before I was banished...Nyx and I had a particular type of relationship. Monogamy is heavily looked down upon here, and we don't take lovers or marry. However...I have mentioned some friends frequent each other's beds. I had a relationship like that with Nyx. If we lived somewhere else, we would have been lovers. I still love him dearly, but I only wish to call you my lover." River used his hands to ask Niko a question Niko was already expecting. Niko shook his head. He pointed to River and to himself. Then, he held his hand and kissed him. River pressed his forehead against Niko's. Without a single word or hand gesture, Niko understood that River was worried about him. Niko reassure him he would be alright, fumbling through hand movements he'd watched River use. River spoke back to him with his hands alone, and Niko did the same. It came easier to him than he expected. All throughout their journey, he'd been listened to River speak to him like this that he now understood it like another language. In silence, they exchanged words no one else could understand. Nyx returned a few hours later. He informed Niko the retrial would be in four hours. Niko readied himself, choosing again to stay in his human clothes. He refused to eat breakfast with his family. When he was ready to leave, Niko asked Nyx for a favor. "Nyx, could you escort me to the Temple of the Goddess?" "Yes, of course, but I am surprised. You've never been a religious man." He said. Niko recalled his encounters in the Night Forest and the Abandoned Lands. The world beyond his sight is what got him through that. He thought, perhaps, it could carry him again. "I know, but I...would like to seek guidance there." Nyx took Niko and River to the temple. Few people went there, other than priestesses. Festivals were organized by the temple, but held out in the streets. A priestess greeted them. "What brings you here today, Prince Nyx?" The woman asked. She was nude except for her sandals. Her wings were decorated with large jewels and long chains. Her hair was kept short to further draw attention to her wings and her figure. On her head, she wore a tiara with a round, green-blue crystal in the center. In the shimmering tiara, made of rainbow colored gems, the shape of a bowl sat below the round stone and above them both, with gems the same colors as the bowl shape, were two hands. Niko recognized the imagery as the goddess creating the world. The same imagery was on the end of a necklace she wore, resting between her breasts. On her stomach, the same image was reflected again. The bowl, inked low, just above her pubic hair, took on the form of a crescent moon. The circle that represented the world was etched above that, wings encased within it. Where the hands should be, above the world, were ten falling stars, clustered in two sets. Nyx and Niko bowed to her. River bowed after seeing them bow. Niko said, "I wish to consult the goddess." The priestess led him to another room. "Do you wish to allow them to stay?" Niko nodded. The priestess brought out a bowl and a pitcher of water. She filled the bowl and recited a prayer to purify it. She lit a bundle of herbs and walked in a circle around Niko, waving the smoke around the room. After walking around him three times, she extinguished the flame in the water. She picked up the bowl and approached Niko. "Undress. Present yourself before the goddess in your purest form." The priestess instructed him. Niko removed his clothes. Naked, he knelt before the woman. She poured the water over his body. She raised her arms. "Oh, great goddess, mother of all, this child wishes to reach you." The priestess removed her tiara and placed it on Niko's head. "With your guiding light, show him the way to you." The metal of the tiara burned on his head. He flinched, but stayed down. Niko closed his eyes. He called out to her in his mind. 'Great Mother, I have rarely spoken to you. I ask for your forgiveness, and I plead for your guidance. I cannot stay here, but where do I belong? What place is there in this world that will accept me?' In his mind, he saw a bright light. His heart felt warm in its presence. Out of the light, a figure appeared. He saw her only briefly. With long, lovely black hair and skin brown like the earth, she was there as he often imagined she would look. Her dress was made of flowers and ice, and her wings, with great, big feathers, matched her long hair. She touched his face. He couldn't move. Tears fell from his face. "Niko, what's wrong?" He heard Nyx ask him. She vanished from him, and his mind was filled with rain. Then, there was nothing. Niko opened his eyes, still crying. His body shook. "I saw her." "You what?" Nyx asked in disbelief. "The goddess has blessed you with her presence today." The priestess said as she removed the tiara. Niko looked at River. River looked shaken too, as if he had seen a vision himself. Nyx sat down beside Niko. "What did you see?" "The goddess...she has wings made of night, like yours." He wiped his face off. "What did she tell you?" Nyx asked. "I...I know what I need to do." Niko gathered up his clothes. "Let's go. We need to arrive early." Niko dressed himself. Nyx escorted them to the courthouse. When the time came, the courthouse was full of people looking for entertainment and gossip. Two special guests were present this time, the queen herself and the crown princess, invited by Nyx. Though he could never rule, Nyx was the queen's favorite child. If her son wanted something, he got it. The judge at the retrial was the same one who sentenced Niko, Judge Andreas. Andreas was one of the few male judges in the kingdom, largely occupying that position because he was a member of the royal family and the position was only temporarily open while the judge he was filling in for was tending to her newborn. Andreas shot Niko a death glare. He yelled at him. "Niko, son of Styx, you dare come before my court after you have already been banished by me? And you bring a human with you?" "I come before you again because you sentenced wrongly. I did not commit any crime, and I have the evidence to prove it." Niko said. "I am entitled to a retrial within thirty days of returning from exile." "I have no intentions of hearing your case for any longer than legally required. You have two hours, son of Styx." Andreas said. "Present this evidence of yours that you somehow gathered in a day." "But he has not gathered it. I have." Nyx stood in front of Niko. "Judge Andreas, under our laws, all those who serve the court must swear to be unbiased in their choices, weighing all cases fairly and with justice as their singular goal. You took such an oath, did you not?" "All judges must." Andreas said. "And you are aware it is illegal for a judge to accept gifts or money from anyone currently involved in a case the judge is presiding over, correct?" Nyx asked. "Prince Nyx, is this going anywhere? It is your friend who is on trial here, not me." "Oh, but you are, Andreas." Nyx said. "You see, I have evidence here that you accepted a very hefty bribe from Lord Arion the night before Niko's arrest. A letter from Arion himself about the exchange, with the trident seal of his family. One of your servants sent this to me. She sent me quite a lot of interesting things. Arion, you should come down here too. The public needs to hear all about what you two have been conspiring to do. Such as murdering your own brother and pinning it on Styx's eldest son, or how you two were planning on having me assassinated as well. Really, so amateur to use such plain language in a conspiracy like this." Nyx flew up into the air with a bag of letters and handed them to his mother, who was sitting three stories up with Nyx's sister and the counsel of elders. "You have no proof those letters aren't forged. We all know you, Prince, have a very inappropriate relationship with Styx's son. I'd even suggest it's a near human-like one. Have you really stooped so low as to act like that?" Arion flew down to the center of the courtroom. "Look, you've even brought a human with you." "This human helped me travel here." Niko said. "Say what you want. Everyone knows the truth." Arion said. "This was quite a show, Nyx, but this is enough. As a prince, you shouldn't shame your family so. Andreas, I think they've had enough time. This is nonsense." "I quite agree. Niko, son of Styx, I sentence you to de..." "I'm not finished, you treasonous wing-snatcher." Nyx motioned for someone to come down. A man flew from the back of the crowd. "This is the man you paid to have kill your brother, and that you were planning on having kill me." Nyx turned to the man. "What did they ask of you?" "I was to kill Arion's brother that night and leave him in the path Styx's son and the beautiful lady Iris were traveling home through when given the signal. He paid me the night of, and I was to be paid to kill Prince Nyx next week for triple the price." The man said. "This is ridiculous. How dare you accuse me of killing my own brother!" Arion yelled. "Oh, but Arion, do you really expect me to believe you cared about him after how cruelly you spoke about him to me in private? What were the words you used? Oh yes, you called him a 'pretty face with an empty head who wasn't worth the dirt on his sandals'. You complained to me about how he was always getting in your way because he could get into anyone's bed. Your personal lack of skill aside, that does not sound like the words of one who was devastated by their brother's death. Moreover, I have another witness. Your personal servant has told me a lot about your wickedness." Nyx narrowed his eyes at Arion. A wingless woman walked down to join Nyx in the center of the courtroom. Her shoulders shook. "It's alright. You will not be punished for your words today. Speak what you know." Nyx told Arion's servant. "I can confirm that my master was planning on killing Prince Nyx, and that he boasted about having his brother murdered. His words disturbed me, but I was afraid to tell anyone." The woman said. "All of this is nonsense. How do we know you didn't pay these people yourself?" Andreas sneered. "I certainly will not accept those letters as evidence. They must clearly be forged, created solely to protect the prince's little pet. I've heard enough. This retrial has been an embarrassment. Two hours will not be necessary for me to reach my decision. I find Niko, son of Styx, to be as guilty as I found him last time and I sentence him to immediate execution." "You will do no such thing." Nyx said. "I am a judge. My decision has been made." The judge said. "I invoke a higher authority than yours, my mother and the counsel of elders." Nyx crossed his arms. "Mother, my queen and my true master, what is your verdict?" The queen and the crown princess exchanged letters from the bag. She whispered to her daughter, and then to the elders sitting slightly beneath her. Then, she stood up. "Niko, son of Styx, stand before me. We have made our judgement." She said. Niko stood directly in front of the queen. At three floors above him, he couldn't make out her expression. "We have found you innocent and return to you your citizenship." The queen motioned to her servant to carry something down to Niko. The servant, once she reached Niko, opened up a metal box. Inside it was a golden band with Niko's family crest on it. The servant placed it on Niko's wrist. "The golden band upon your hand signifies your exiled has ended and you have been returned to your family." Niko bowed to the queen. "Thank you." "As for you, Judge Andreas, Lord Arion...To the western most lands, we banish you, and your wings will be taken, so that you may never know the joy of flight ever again." "What?! No, this is a mistake! I am the one who was wronged! My brother was murdered!" Arion shouted. "By you, clearly. Now, be quiet or I'll change your sentence to death." The queen sat back down. "Take their wings immediately." Guards rushed to grab Arion and Andreas. Neither put up a fight, terrified of what the queen might do to them if they did. The ax was brought out, less sharpened than when Niko received his sentence. The two men were forced to their knees. Arion's wings were spread out so that they could be cut at the base. Arion cried and quivered in fear. The crowd cheered on the guards. Niko felt like he was living that day all over again. He wanted to scream. Niko threw himself to the ground and begged the queen. "Wait...I wish to invoke mercy for those who have wronged me. I would like to change the punishment." "We will consider your suggestion." She said. "Let them keep their wings in their banishment." Niko said. "The exile is punishment enough. Please, do not take their flight from them." "We cannot grant that. If they return here, they may disguise themselves. Their wings must be taken to show their wickedness." The queen raised her arm. "The goddess applauds the merciful, but she also demands punishment for the wicked. Severe their wings." Down went the ax on the left wing. The crowd erupted in a frenzy. Niko cried as the wing slouched against the ground when it was half severed from Arion's trembling body. Arion's clothes were drenched through with blood. River walked over to him to comfort him. Nyx did the same. He covered them in his wings and made the three of them vanish, being one of the few who still retained that ancient trait of their kind. Under that invisibility, Niko was spared from risking shaming his family in any way by crying. Arion's wings were gone in ten blows in total. They left him to bleed on the ground while they went to work on Andreas's wings. His took longer, totally fourteen between both wings. Before the second wing was completely severed, Andreas had stopped moving. He had died by the eleventh cut. An attempt was made to revive him, but he was gone. His body was carried off to the temple. Arion barely clung to life. He had lost so much blood. Niko left the protection of Nyx's wings to speak to the man who had caused him so much pain. He undid his sash and pressed it against the wounds on Arion's back. "Why?" Arion asked. "Hell awaits you. I have seen it, but you cannot return here at all. Forgive me." Niko wiped blood off Arion's face. "Tell did you survive?" Arion asked. Niko looked over at River, who was walking over to him. "That human cared for me. Pray you are as lucky as I was." Arion was unconscious within seconds. The guards took him to be bandages and taken away from the kingdom. The golden band on Niko's wrist cut into his skin. After the trial, Niko returned home. He refused to speak to his mother or his aunt. Niko sorted through his possession, looking for what he wanted to keep most. He ended up with very few things in his bag. Everything brought him pain. He took a single piece of jewelry, a ring his grandmother gave him when he was a child that no longer fit his hands. He added it to the necklace Lorn gave him. None of his clothes suited him anymore. He was content with the ones he was already wearing. A few gifts from Nyx were put in the bag. He took the knife his grandmother gave him to protect himself with at night. A small trinket box from Iris went into the bag. That was all he took with him. Niko walked with River to the front door. Iris stopped him. "Where are you going?" "I'm leaving this place." He said. "But you've been cleared." She said. "I don't belong in this world anymore. Look at me. I have no wings, and I have no place." "Our family can keep you safe. You'll have everything you need." "I'll be nothing more than a broken bird in an elegant cage. The sky is no longer my domain. And so, I must go to where I belong." Niko walked past her to open the door. "You intend to live as a human?" She asked. "Look at me. Really look at me. What do you see standing before you?" "Is it because of that man?" Iris asked. Niko did not answer her. He opened the door. "Wait." Iris pulled out a white feather from her sash. "Take this with you. I washed it clean. Take it, and remember me." "You should come down some time. It's really not that bad..." Niko accepted the feather. "Maybe I really have been down there too long, but this suffocating me." "Are you saying humans live in paradise? I find that hard to believe." She said. "No, they don't. Most I met weren't anything impressive at all. But being down there...I saw a different side of myself, because of him. I think it's something you can only find when you meet someone who is the opposite of yourself." Niko gazed at River, who was waiting for him now on the other side of the doorway. "Something happened when we met, something that cannot be undone." "Niko..." "I'll be alright." Niko hugged her. "I've made peace with myself." "Goodbye, Niko." She hugged him back and kissed him on the cheek. "Goodbye, Iris." He kissed her back, and pulled away. Iris watched him go, unable to move from that doorway. At the edge of Niko's family's property, Nyx waited for the two of them. Nyx took them to the elevator. There, he said his goodbyes to Niko. "I will miss you, my friend." Nyx held his hand. "Take care of yourself down there. And River, please, keep loving him." River nodded. He hugged Nyx and kissed him. Niko kissed Nyx goodbye, then he took River's hand and walked into the elevator. As it descended, Niko said his final words to his old friend. "I love you." "I love you too. Goodbye." Nyx soon disappeared from sight as the elevator went down the mountain. Niko cried. He questioned why he bothered coming back at all. There, in that lonely space, he accepted he had deluded himself into thinking he still had a place to belong to, that things really could go back to how they were before, and that he would feel some satisfaction in punishing those who harmed him. All he left with was pain. River held him the entire ride down.
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