She knocked softly until he blearily opened the door. She paced in without waiting for an invitation.
Numair briefly considered objecting but the haggard expression on Daine’s face rendered that impossible.
“How could I be so stupid.” The intonation made it clear it wasn’t a question.
“I think it was a Magpie that I healed.” She explained, like that sentence answered any of his questions. “She hadn’t been around me much so she didn’t understand. She didn’t think anything of taking it. It’d be like if you or me walked by an open gate and shut it.”
“The Magpie?” He tried again, blinking his eyes. He should put on pants. . He latched onto this, a necessary task that could be accomplished. “Turn around, please?”
She did as she was bid and continued speaking. “And that was back before Beltane and I just didn’t notice at all. And he probably should’ve asked, should’ve checked but there’s plenty of blame here to go around I think.”
He tied the drawstring and then violently splashed cold water on his face.
“And he stopped seeing me last month as he was getting engaged to this Lady-in-Waiting from Olau. And that suited me just fine. He was pretty enough to look at, a decent amount of fun, and cared enough to make sure I understood about the engagement and all ahead of time but he was daft as a chicken and doesn’t care for books and can’t see horses as something beyond a tool.”
For a moment, it seemed she’d run out of words. He prompted, trying to keep his tone gentle instead of weary. “Magelet, is this about the boy, the Magpie or the horses?”
Mutely, she held up her necklace for him to see. The badger claw. There was a tiny metal ring, warped enough that it was no longer a perfect circle, also tied to the leather strap. A charm had once hung there and now did not.
He swore. She winced and nodded.
“How long, do you know?”
“Six weeks give or take. And I just put it together last night because I’m an embarrassment to midwives’ daughters everywhere.”
She flopped onto his bed and began fussing with a blanket nervously. He sat next to her, careful to maintain a couple feet of distance.
“If you told him I’m sure that he’d do the honorable thing.”
“I don’t want that. We don’t even like each other that much and he’d probably be disowned and Gods, I’m not spending my life with a man who’s only there out of duty. If my husband grows to hate me I’d like it to at least come as a surprise.”
He felt a lot of the tension slide out of his shoulders.
“Those are all very good reasons.” Numair offered softly. “If he lacks the good sense to love you, I’m sure he’s not very clever at all.”
She bumped his shoulder with hers but something that was similar to a smile was on her face. “Flatterer.”
“At your service.” He bowed as extravagantly as he could seated on a mattress. “Alanna could help you take care of it.”
“That did occur to me.” She told him. “And I just do not know.”
“We could also make a discreet arrangement with some couple.”
“What if the baby has my magic?”
“Wild magic is now acknowledged as a normal subspecialty, due almost entirely to your exceptional work in the field. Children with that magic can now get the guidance they need at any major trade center. Or you and I could both be involved as teachers. There are worse options.” He tried to sound mild.
“Oh? Care to name one?” Daine muttered bitterly.
“You marrying him. Or anyone, actually.” Numair looked at the ground. This wasn’t how he wanted to have this conversation. As a matter of fact, he wasn’t supposed to have it at all.
Daine paused, eyes skyward in calculations he could not fathom. “You do know that I wouldn’t wed no one--” She cringed openly and tried again. “Anyone that didn’t want you in my life. Your friendship is very important to me and no husband worth his salt could move me from your side.”
“I do know that. And thank you, truly.”
“There have been times when I’ve been feeling like you haven’t the time for me when you take up with some elegant court lady, but that was never fair to you. You always made sure I still had a place and I know that’s sometimes cost you someone who might’ve been special.”
It’s true that he’d parted ways with more than one lady over a comment made in poor taste about Daine. It helped compound his shame years later when all of those words came true in his consuming interest that rocketed between teenage lust and an unprecedented desire for lifelong commitment, often both, often crushing him.
“It never cost me anyone that would be worth having.” Numair spoke slowly. “But, to be honest, my objection here has nothing to do with anyone but you.”
Her face scrunched up again, like it did back when she first had to memorize all the bones of the wrist and he quietly grimaced at the reminder that he’d known her since she was a child. “So just what do you object to?”
“You could marry me.” He told her, simultaneously deeply embarrassed and so relieved that she’d come to him first, that he’d at least had the chance. He then shrugged a shoulder, a forcibly casual action. “We’d never have to tell anyone why if you didn’t want to.”
“Oh,” Daine looked up at him and grabbed one of his hands. “No. I can’t let you do that.”
He carefully extracted his fingers from her grip and then forced himself to ask. “Can I ask why not?”
“You can’t give up all that for me.”
“What do you think I’ll be giving up, precisely?”
Daine laughed at that. It wasn’t a happy sound. “Oh, Horse Lords. Where to begin? A wife you wanted to marry. Children of your own, and you’ve told me you’d like some. Sex with someone you find beautiful. I’m not elegant or buxom and I never will be. I could give you leave to pursue whomever you saw fit in your private time but folks would think less of you for it. One day you’d meet someone you wanted to be permanent but I’d still be there. Maybe you’d even come to hate me for it.”
“That wouldn’t happen.”
“Probably not at first.”
“It’s-” He corrected his tone to something more neutral. “It’s possible that I know myself and can reliably promise that wouldn’t happen.”
“If you say so. Even then, there remains the issue of this accursed infant. I can’t ask you to raise one that isn’t even yours. And if someone has to marry me out of duty, then it probably ought to at least be my lover.”
He sat quietly and considered. “I don’t believe the issue of paternity would bother me. Alanna and Myles shared a profound bond without a drop of blood in common. My Gift brought you into my life, for which I’ll be eternally grateful. However, had I not had it, I probably would never have taken a life nor been driven from my home. A child without any reasonable expectation of acquiring such power might enjoy a simpler existence.”
“That’s a very progressive view of the matter,” Daine sounded exhausted. “Though the fact that you’d even consider marrying me is proof enough of your liberal ideals.”
“You don’t seriously believe I find the circumstances of your birth relevant in this or any matter.” He was proud to hear his tone sound concerned and friendly.
“I’d be a fool not to.”
“The idea that there’s a connection between the marital status of your parents and your suitability as a wife is inane and arbitrary.”
She actually scoffed at him. “That’s sweet and all. But you can’t change the rest of the world for me. You can help me just fine as a friend. That’s plenty. That’s more than enough and more than I would’ve asked. This isn’t buying me a book that’s too expensive for Beltane or letting the wolf pups chew up your gloves. This is the rest of your life. Decades, most like.”
“This isn’t the conversation that I meant to have.” He spoke slowly, like each word was another rotting plank on a bridge, like at any moment his foot could fly through. “But I do think it’s important that if you refuse, which is of course your right, that you not do it on my account.”
“You can’t give me the rest of your life because I have the sense of a duckling.” Daine finally sounded annoyed now, instead of touched.
“That would be true.” He said.
“So that’s settled then.” Daine stared down at the golden ring on the necklace again with open loathing.
“My preference on the matter.” Numair started to speak and then tried again.. He swallowed air twice and had to stop himself from biting his fingernails for the first time in decades. He forced his hands back down to his sides. Numair found he could not look at her, could not face whatever pity may be displayed there. “I am offering to marry you because I want to. I would be willing to do so as an arrangement. That being said, I would greatly prefer that it be a love-match.” The words were huge and more honest than he’d ever planned on being in the coming decade but also very out of his mouth and gone.
She stared at him slack-jawed, the exactly same way she’d looked at the ocean more than eight years ago. “You’re proposing.”
He winced at that. “Admittedly, I would have preferred a more traditional trajectory.”
“You’ve been told what a wedding is? And that a marriage often follows?” The only emotion clear on her face was abject, complete shock.
“I understand exactly what I’m saying.” He replied softly. “I don’t want you to feel obligated. I meant it when I said it could be in name only. Or you can take some time and think about it. Or you can say no right now and I’ll never mention it again. No matter what I’ll help you in any way you’ll accept.”
“You’ve seen what I look like.” It sounded like she was reciting a list of his criminal charges.
Numair waited for her to continue and she didn’t. “Of course. You’ve grown up to be quite pretty.”
She made a noise between a scoff and a hiss and spoke next in a tone he’d never heard before. “And I’m never going to look like any lady you’ve ever been with.”
“It would be quite strange if you did.” His smile invited her to join in on the joke but she refused to meet his gaze.
“You know what I mean.” Tears were now collecting in the corners of her eyes. He placed a hand on her shoulder and she shook it off angrily.
“Daine, truly, I don’t.”
She buried the heels of her hands into her eyes and then took a deep breath. “You have a type. And it’s blond and extremely pretty and curvy and graceful and soft-handed. Every single woman you’ve ever pursued was all of those things.”
“When I was younger, yes, perhaps I suffered from a lack of imagination.” Numair agreed. She glared at him and several deep breaths. “Daine. You are a lovely young woman.”
“Not to you!” She’d shot back, voice rising.
“Especially to me.”
She continued as though she hadn’t heard him. “And, as will become painfully obvious in the coming year, I am not a virgin.” She gestured at her abdomen with an aggressive, choppy motion.
He blinked slowly for a beat, unable to fathom just why Daine was shouting personal facts at him. “Nor am I. Does that fact of my life give you pause?”
“No.” The words emerged through gritted teeth.
“I know you was,” Daine paused and swallowed an irritated scream. “Were. I know you were born common like me but with a Gift like yours you could easily marry into one of the greater noble families. Maybe even a royal one”
“Probably.” He allowed and she glared at him. Numair had imagined many ways this conversation could go wrong. Most of these hypothetical disasters involved raucous laughter, soft cloying pity, or even active disgust. The thread of the conversation was not one he could follow. She was far more upset than she’d been when she arrived and he could come up with no sensible explanation as to why. Daine continued to glare at him, face becoming puffy and red with the effort of not crying. He spoke again. “Why would I possibly want more power? I’ve already got far more than I’m comfortable with.”
Her stare did not waver. Numair spoke again, now sure that every possible utterance was equally wrong. “Magelet. I never intended to make you so upset.”
“I know.” Her mutter was barely audible.
“It’s been a strange night, especially for you I’m sure. Is it all right if I hug you?”
She nodded mutely and slid nearer to him. He wrapped his arms around her, settling one hand on her back and the second in her hair. Daine buried her nose in his neck and shifted until she was sitting on his lap. He held perfectly still until she’d settled, curled between his knees and buried her face into his neck.
“This is something you’ve decided you wanted in the last hour? To be wedded to me?” The words were muffled but unfortunately completely understandable.
He froze from stroking her hair. The lacerating embarrassment that concern and confusion had displaced settled back on him and he closed his eyes under the familiar weight. “Not in the last hour, no.”
“How long, then?” Her tone was softer now.
Numair shrugged. “Years.”
“I didn’t know that.” Her voice sounded normal now. Even curious. “Why didn’t you just tell me?”
“You’re my favorite person and dearest friend.” He replied, feeling pleasantly cleansed from such honesty following a thousand days of its opposite.
“I always will be.”
“Presumptuous, yet true. It felt like too much to gamble when I couldn’t fathom why you’d say yes.”
Daine laid a palm flat against his chest. “Your heartbeat is fast.”
“Hardly surprising, considering your proximity.”
“You could’ve just said something. You didn’t need to be offering me a way out for me to accept you.” She kissed his neck, gently and then his jaw. That fact rendered thought, let alone speech, temporarily impossible.
“Sweetling,” He started to speak and had no idea how to finish the sentence. “You aren’t obligated.”
“I’m not,” she agreed cheerfully. “Just willing.” He considered for a long moment and decided that this probably was not a wonderfully detailed dream.
Numair took a deep breath and she stilled to listen. “Please. I need you to be absolutely sure.”
Daine waited until he met his eyes. “I'm absolutely positive. And I don’t need time to think about it.”