Yeza cleared his throat and said, “Mr. Caleb, could I steal you for a moment?”
Caleb blinked but nodded. “Yes, of course. Excuse me,” he said to the rest of the Mighty Nein. Veth was saying her goodbyes to Luc, who, in his fidgety five-year-old way, refused to stay still. “He thinks if I don’t hug him I’m not allowed to leave,” Veth had thrown over her shoulder, arms outstretched and chasing her son out of the room.
“Be back in a minute!” she’d called. Caleb had been smiling fondly after them, remembering when he was that young, how sensible that very principle had seemed to him. That was when Yeza had coughed quietly to get Caleb’s attention.
Caleb followed Yeza, assuming they’d go to a quieter corner of the room, but Yeza led him down the hall and into the guest bedroom he and Luc had obviously been occupying as of late.
“So,” Yeza said, closing the door behind him. He brought his feet together and his hands behind his back, clearly prepared in whatever it was he was about to say.
“I wanted to thank you again. For….making Veth herself again. I know it was mostly your work that made it possible.”
Caleb ducked his head. Accepting praise was hard enough but accepting it from Veth’s husband was nearly impossible, especially since restoring Veth had been less a favor and more of a duty, both to her and to himself.
Yeza took a breath, paused, sighed. His voice softer, he said, “I see the way she looks at you. She’s not a subtle woman, you know.”
Suddenly, Caleb understood why Yeza had taken him out of the room for this conversation. He held up his hands, nearly defensively. “I assure you that nothing has happened between Veth and myself.”
Guilt churned in Caleb’s gut at the small rush of memories that proved his statement to be entirely false. Thank you for dedicating yourself to me. Warm, dry lips pressed against his, so gently he could hardly feel them. This will be our best trick yet. You’re the second love of my life. I love you too, Veth the Brave.
Yeza shook his head, a hint of a smile on his face. “That’s not what I mean. I meant what I said before. Veth isn’t mine to take or give. She’s her own self, with her own feelings and wants. And….well, we’ve discussed taking other partners before. It’s not entirely uncommon for halflings—dalliances are common, even expected, as long as no children are born outside the married pair.” He took a long pause to look Caleb up and down. “Shouldn’t be a problem with you, I think. Wrong anatomy,” he mused.
“I don’t—I never—” Caleb spluttered. His face, he was sure, was bright red, and that churning in his stomach was growing stronger by the minute.
Yeza smiled disarmingly. It was a simple smile, an honest one. Wanting nothing, expecting nothing in return. That, more than anything else, threw Caleb off balance. “You’re with her more than I am, now. I wouldn’t ask her to give up adventuring, not when there’s so much good you all can do together. I know that you protect her, care for her, love her. I was hoping you would be able to…give her other things she needs, too.”
He stuffed his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels, smiling bashfully. “She’s a bit of a machine, my wife. Truthfully, we almost needed to take up another partner just to keep her sated, when we first got married. But I digress.”
“I don’t,” Caleb started, but there was no way to finish that sentence. Love her? A lie. Desire her? Also a lie. Want this? He didn’t even know how to answer that, himself.
He settled on, “I’m not sure Veth would want to…..to include me in your marriage.”
Yeza raised his bushy eyebrows, clearly doubtful. “Maybe she doesn’t, maybe she does. There’s only one way for us to find out.”
He held out his hand, a thick, tarnished silver bracelet resting in the middle of his palm. “Think about it. If you decide this is something you want, give her this. She will know what it means.”
“What does it mean?” Caleb asked, warily taking it from his hand. It was warm from his skin, clearly old and well-loved. There were etchings in the silver, but the metal had seen so much wear that they were nearly rubbed off.
“She gave it to me to show her interest in a stronger relationship.”
“It’s an engagement ring,” Caleb said flatly, looking at the bracelet intently.
“It’s an invitation,” Yeza corrected. He patted the side of Caleb’s abdomen, the highest he could reach on Caleb’s lanky body, a friendly, non-committal gesture.
“Think about it,” he said. “Think about it and know that I, Veth’s husband, give you permission to love her, in whatever way that means to you and that she agrees to.”
“What about you? What would you get out of this?” Caleb asked. His time with Nott had taught him that sometimes kindness could be given without ulterior motive. But Yeza was not Nott. They hardly knew each other, tied only by their connections to Veth.
Yeza spread his hands. “A happy wife? Security, knowing she’ll be loved and cared for when I’m too far to do it myself? And maybe, if you return with her at the end of this, another bedmate of my own.”
That made Caleb flush again. Yeza’s eyes softened. “Or just another friend,” he added mildly. “That’s all I wanted to say. The rest is left up to you. No matter what you decide, make sure she’s safe, okay?”
Caleb’s hand clenched around the silver bracelet, pressing the nearly-gone etching into his palm. “Of course.”
He slipped the bracelet into his pocket, the one that buttoned shut to ward against Nott’s sticky fingers, and gave Yeza one final nod.
Thinking was something Caleb was used to. He spent hours, days, in silent contemplation. Spells, components, plans, worries. He could spend days in his head and never feel the need to speak. These thoughts, though, they were slippery, difficult to focus on. He’d try to think about Yeza had said or fiddle with the silver bracelet in his pocket and find himself staring at Veth a few moments later, mind blank of anything at all. He spent a considerable amount of time looking at her. Really, it was less noticeable than he thought it would be, to be so fixated on her, but maybe the mortifying truth was that he’d always looked at her that much.
Being Veth was good for her. She was confident, bright, happy. Her flask was tucked into Yasha’s bag and rarely appeared at her request. Even through the tension-filled journey of the Balleater to the meeting point, she smiled and laughed. She sang and danced around when she thought no one was paying attention. Her voice was not the clearest, nor the sweetest, but he loved to hear it. Far more pleasing than the drunken, slurred shanties she used to sing when they were on the road together. She sashayed around, light on her feet as always, and he thought he could predict the patterns her feet could take by the way she shifted her weight. It was a fascinating puzzle to solve while he avoided thinking about Yeza’s proposition. More often than not, he kept a hand on the bracelet.
Caleb knew he was a hopeless romantic. As tightly as he held his feelings to his chest, he developed and cultivated affection easily. Jester, for instance—he’d been a bit in love with her for months. Essek, more recently, but recent developments caused a lump in his throat he couldn’t speak around. Nott, though, Veth—the love he felt for her was infinitely complicated and yet the simplest thing in his life. He couldn’t imagine not loving her, not prizing her. He couldn’t imagine living without her.
He also couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be her lover, not just someone who loved her. But one day, only a few days away from the peace talks, Veth absentmindedly laid a hand on his arm to get his attention. He glanced down at it and the first thought to flash into his mind was that her wrist looked bare. Like he expected something to be there, but that wasn’t.
He pulled out the bracelet, palmed it against his leg to keep it hidden.
“Veth?” he said, aware he was cutting her off mid-sentence. If he didn’t act now, speak now, he might never.
“Yes?” she responded, tilting her head. Her clever eyes scanned his face, apparently finding something worrisome there. She sat down next to him on a wooden crate and took his free hand. “Is something wrong?”
Jerkily, Caleb shook his head, a crooked smile flashing across his face for just a second. He looked down at his lap.
“A long time ago, you said I could have any woman I wanted—that I could sweep any girl off her feet. You also said that I deserved better than you. I disagree with you on both parts, actually. I’m not particularly handsome or charming and I’m certainly not strong enough to sweep anyone off their feet. And you—I would say you’re better than I deserve, but you have managed to beat some self-worth into my thick head, so I won’t. It’s not a matter of deserving or not. I cannot…..cannot imagine any other person better than you.”
He turned his palm up, the bracelet resting in the center. “This is for you,” he finished. It was not the romantic speech she deserved, but it was the best he could give. He finally looked up. Veth’s eyes were wide, confused, maybe a little apprehensive. Even as a goblin, Veth’s eyes had been the most expressive part of her. They told the truth even when her mouth snarled and hissed. Now, they were asking him to hurry up and make his point before she got the wrong idea.
“Your husband…..Yeza gave this to me. To give to you. He said you would know what it means.”
“I do,” Veth said slowly. “But I think I’d like to hear what you think it means.”
She took it from his hands. She traced the worn pattern with a finger for a moment, then dropped it to her lap and looked up at Caleb. “Well?”
“An invitation,” Caleb said. He swallowed, hard. “I am…inviting you. To, to—No, I am not inviting. I am asking. Humbly asking. To love you.”
“However you’ll have me. If you wish, we can stay the same as we are. I will always be your friend, first and foremost. But, if you wish, I would like to be more intimate. Physically and…emotionally, too. Yeza said you are not his to give away, but I think it is important for you to know that he condoned this. He told me about the bracelet and asked me to, hmm, how do I say this? He asked me to love you when he cannot.”
“You just want to be a replacement for Yeza?” Veth asked, turning the bracelet over and over in her hands.
“No,” Caleb said. “Not just. Don’t you just me, Veth, not when you know I would die to keep you safe, sacrifice anything to make you happy. I would have you to love every day, whether here or with your husband in the same bed.”
Veth looked up at him, soft, kind face breaking into a sunny smile. “That’s the answer I was looking for.”
She stood up on the crate, took his face in her hands, and kissed him for the second time in his life. This time, he reciprocated, one hand automatically finding her cheek. She reached down for his other arm and wrapped it around her waist, pressing her body against his.
“The answer is yes,” she told him, resting her forehead against his. He unclasped the bracelet and fastened it around her wrist. It fit so perfectly Caleb was sure it must be enchanted to do so—some corner of his mind was itching to cast Identify on it. The rest of his mind was occupied with Veth’s warm breath against his cheek and the glint of excitement in her eyes.
“Hey,” he said softly. They were close enough together that each word brought their lips into contact, just for a moment. “I want you to know that if this option was available to me when you were still a goblin, I would have taken it. If I thought you would have accepted an offer of intimacy from me, I would have offered.”
“I wouldn’t have taken it, but...I would have wanted it.”
He nodded, words escaping him as they always did at moments of great importance. Instead, he tugged her wrist gently and pulled her from sitting next to him to sitting on his lap. The feel of the frantic beat of her heart matched his own, born less from nerves and more from the press of body against body.
“We have a lot to talk about,” Veth said. “A lot of questions about boundaries and future plans.”
“Yes,” Caleb agreed, speaking on the release of a breath. “But not now.” He lifted her arm and kissed the bracelet, the silken skin of her wrist underneath.
“Soon,” Veth said. “For now, we have some time to make up for.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him down, closer to her, kissing him—an invitation he was happy to return.