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Gone. Rakken was gone. Dead by the hands of Ambrose's comrades; dead because he had tried to defend Ambrose; dead because they had dared to love where they were told love was impossible. Ambrose could not bring himself to care that his own death was only marks away. All that mattered had died with Rakken. Ambrose did not have to die, but he would sooner accept execution than renounce his love for Rakken.

Despair clawed at him, but he was too exhausted to cry again. He wanted it over and done with. Even the gentle warmth of the Goddess pulsing in his chest was not as reassuring as it might once have been. He loved his Goddess, but he loved Rakken more.

Let them burn him.

Ambrose stirred at the jangling of keys followed by the click of a lock being turned, the grating of the door and the tread of booted feet. As the steps inevitably drew closer, Ambrose slowly stood, noting the faint gleam of armor in the weak light of a small torch. He stayed well away from the filthy bars of the cell and stared out at High Paladin Levent, not bothering to hide his hate.

"Ambrose." Levent said his name gently, reassuringly, as though they were old friends. How had Ambrose ever thought him kind? Wise? Why had he ever thought Levent a worthy mentor? He did not deserve to be High Paladin, and Ambrose did not care if the Goddess took offense at the thought. Levent had cut down Rakken, despite begging, pleading, the bidding of the Goddess-

He realized that he still had a few tears left to cry.

"Ambrose," Levent said again. "Please, you are free now. I know you think you and that demon ..." His lip curled. "He had you bespelled, Ambrose. You are free now. Please, just realize it and renounce your false feelings-"

Ambrose did not realize that he had screamed, or moved, until he felt the hot sting of power forcing him back, causing him to crash into the far wall with a pained grunt. Levent opened the cell door, hauled Ambrose to his feet, and embraced him. Ambrose shuddered with revulsion and pulled roughly away, but Levent did not entirely release him. Ambrose did his best to convey all of the hate he felt with his expression. Levent flinched, but stubbornly persisted in saying, "He was just a demon. A vile, deceptive demon. Why-"

"I loved him," Ambrose choked out. "He loved me. There was no black magic, no deception. The Goddess guided me to him, brought him to me, blessed our union-and you took him from me!" He managed to twist free and swung, catching Levent's nose. Levent pinned him to the ground and Ambrose screamed in rage and hate and grief. The Goddess's warmth pulsed in his chest, mingling with the sharp pain of her anguish. They were not behaving as her paladins should, nothing was as it should have been. He and Rakken should have been the start of something new and wonderful. Instead, they were just one more tragedy in a bitter struggle that had lasted far too long.

"Why?" Levent demanded, and the sudden anger and bitterness there drew Ambrose up short. "Why him and not-" He cut himself off with a muttered curse.

Ambrose drew a sharp breath as realization slammed into him. Levent? Had loved ...

That just made it all the worse. Ambrose might have forgiven Levent anything once, but not the awful killing of Rakken. He could not even say he was sorry for not being able to return Levent's feelings.

Any man or woman would have gladly surrendered a limb or two for the chance at Levent's favor. Yet all Ambrose wanted was dark skin, a bare, smooth head riddled with scars left from sword and knife and burns and a body with more of the same. The worst scars had been those on his back, ragged edges where wings had been hacked off. Brutal, awful, cruel-that was the life Rakken had lived as a demon soldier of the Lost North. But then there had been his dark blue eyes; his sweet, hesitant smile; the infuriating smirk that had first goaded Ambrose; and the clawed hands that had shown a gentleness Ambrose had never known.

Gone. Gone forever.

"Renounce him, Ambrose," Levent pleaded. "You're too good a man to waste, to lose to demonic corruption. What of your brethren? What of your sister? I saved you, Ambrose. I can love you better than any-"

Ambrose screamed and threw Levent off, lost once more to blind rage. To hate. "I will never renounce!" He spat the words, flung them, watched with black amusement as Levent recoiled from them. "Rakken was a demon. I loved him. I loved him more than life. More than the Goddess. I will not renounce my love for Rakken. The Goddess blessed us, and I will go to that pyre knowing that She approved of my union with a demon."

"So be it," Levent said coldly and yanked Ambrose to his feet. He hauled him roughly from his cell and threw him at the feet of two paladins waiting just outside. "Bind him," he snapped. "Our brother Ambrose is too far gone to be saved. He must burn else he will become one himself."

"Yes, High Paladin," the paladins chorused quietly, looking miserable, but resigned.

Ambrose did not protest, did not so much as look at them. He did nothing, said nothing, felt nothing-not even when the high priest concluded his prayers and the pyre was lit.

He said nothing at all, even when he smelled his own flesh burning.

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