That spike came closer until it wasn't a spike no more, just a tall damn tower backlit against the sea like it was the signpost to the end of the world. Kethe, but I was already trying not to think about the stairs.
Grimglass itself was a city, though, and the lighthouse was only a half-mile off from that city, which I figured would suit Felix fine. He'd settled on some kind of noble acceptance of his suffering, but actually wasn't being too much of a shit about it anyway. He always did better when some kind of goal was in front of him, even if it was just a place to end up and some vague idea of what to do there.
And they'd said the lighthouse was full of books, so he probably wasn't thinking much past that anyway.
But I knew Felix more than a little. I figured that without people to socialize with he'd start climbing the walls, and I couldn't trust him not to fall off them. Knowing Kay would be there, and his wife Vanessa too, that was one thing. But of course, Kay wasn't going to be a Warden of empty lands so the city was going to be a real city, and even if it wasn't whatever kind of society Vanessa liked and by extension the kind Felix did, it'd have something for him to throw himself on when he was feeling particularly like throwing himself on things.
Speaking of which, he finally left the Captain's quarters and come out to join me on the deck, watching as our steamboat drew close to Grimglass's dock. We already knew the plan—we get in, then get a ride from the city to the lighthouse—but it felt kinda like a big deal anyway.
He put his hand over mine on the rail. It was warm and soft but for the hard edges of his rings and I pretended not to notice he'd done it, but my stomach gave a little happy flop anyway.
"Home, is it?" he said.
"Guess so," I said.
"You'll want to explore the city," he said, in a tone like he'd been thinking the same thing I was about needing a city but the other way around. "Before or after we get settled in?"
It wasn't Mélusine's Lower City. It could wait; not like I knew anybody down there and needed to catch up or anything.
"After," I said.
He smiled distractedly and nodded. I wondered if he were going to follow up more on that, but he didn't. Just held my hand until we disembarked, then pulled it away like he himself hadn't noticed he was doing it.
We received something of an education as soon as we arrived at the tower, though at that point I would have loved nothing more than to settle into our new rooms and get a good night's sleep in a bed which wasn't rocking nor suspended over rushing water. But the previous caretaker of the lighthouse came out to meet us, and needed to walk us through the place and teach us about checking on the light and being sure to keep it lit and all those other things that would likely be of benefit to us as lighthouse keepers. I didn't pay it much mind; Mildmay had the stony, emotionless look on his face that meant that he was actually quite interested and listening intently, so I left it to him.
My interest had been lost to the caretaker the moment he showed us to the library on the middle floor, the one left by a previous virtuer. I had been given to understand that half of these were his records, half were books he'd taken in for his collection, and half were research materials of various kinds. And if that were too many halves, it was only because of how little organization was in this place.
Supposedly, it was up to me to take care of that.
Soon enough, Mildmay made the caretaker leave and we were alone in the lighthouse. I sat slowly on a bench in the library, leaving enough room for Mildmay to sit next to me; he was favoring his bad leg, and he took the invitation without a word.
We sat in silence for a few moments, and as I inhaled the scent of old books, my heart began to ache. I couldn't bring myself to say anything, not and make him worry about me again, but...
"Smells like Gideon," Mildmay said, into the silence.
A month or two ago, it would have been like a thrown knife. Instead, miraculously, it was simply what Mildmay meant it to be: the truth. It was a relief to feel only that ache, not actual pain, and a relief, too, that Mildmay knew it wouldn't hurt me.
"Old and dusty?" I asked.
He snorted instead of answering.
But I knew what he meant. Gideon who I knew best, who loved books, who surrounded himself by them, was always accompanied with the rustling of paper. Gideon who Mildmay did, seeking out abandoned places to explore. Something about this centuries-old library, papers and books and folios jammed into every corner, combined both those things.
Gideon would have loved this place, I thought. Rather than feeling exiled, he would have blossomed in a place like this, far from the politics of the Bastion in Mélusine. If he were here with us, he'd already be sorting through research with worshipful fingers, a helpless smile on his lips, his eyes as bright as they ever were. If he were here with us, he'd have listened to the lighthouse's caretaker like I didn't, would figure out a plan to tackle organization the way I hadn't yet done, would settle in as if he had found his place the way I wasn't sure I had.
If Gideon were alive to be here with us, we would never have ended up here in the first place.
So I ended up shrugging the comment off. "We can get started on this tomorrow," I said instead. "Let's go find those beds again."
There were a couple of bedrooms, 'cause I guess the previous lighthouse keepers sometimes had families who stayed with them, but without having to talk about it Felix and I decided to take the same one. It had two narrow twin beds on opposite walls from each other, not quite lined up so there was a walking path between them. If you were sitting up you'd be missing facing each other unless you turned. They looked comfortable enough, though small and undecorated.
Felix didn't actually comment on the beds, but he didn't need to 'cause his nose wrinkled like he'd smelled something bad. We'd both slept in less comfortable places, and if he'd really wanted to be fancy he could have taken the larger bedroom, though, so I didn't say nothing neither, just put my stuff down on one bed and watched as he put his stuff down on the other.
"Well," Felix said, like he needed to keep words in the air but didn't have any plans for them.
I waited to see if more was coming, and sure enough, when I didn't fill the air for him, he found things to say.
"Do you think," Felix said, "that we can be happy here?"
I shrugged. "Sure."
"Lots of places we could be happy," I said, and then shut up because I thought my nose might've gone red.
Felix stared at me like he was seeing a stranger for a moment. Kethe, what a stupid thing to say. Real fucking nice, Milly-Fox. I opened my mouth to do like Felix liked to do and cram it out of the way with more words, but he began to smile at me, so I shut my mouth again.
"No, you're right," he said. "Better to look for the good we can do here than let ourselves think of what might have been. The rest will follow."
That hadn't been what I said, but it was probably close enough, and he was obviously feeling homesick too. I squeezed the better corner of my mouth tight briefly and he lit up like even that much of a smile was a reward. Kind of flustered, I turned away and began to change for bed, and he did the same.
I thought—and I couldn't be sure—that it made him happy whenever I was casual about my body around him, and not because he wanted to get an eyeful, neither. But I knew what he wanted, and he knew that I knew what he wanted and that I didn't want it, and no matter how many times we got naked around each other he seemed nicely surprised that I wasn't acting like a flat with her virtue at stake.
It was an issue of trust, I got that, thanks very much for asking. But he knew how much he'd hurt me with other things before, and he knew how little reason I got to trust him not to be himself, but he never seemed to know how deeply I knew he wouldn't do that to me. Sure, he'd probably make a pass again sometime, since we were locked out here alone together and he wasn't exactly much in the way of finding himself companionship, but he wouldn't do anything. He'd fucking fight off ghosts to keep himself from doing anything.
But no point saying this to him and getting him in a contrary way, so I just finished changing and climbed into my new bed. It was pretty comfortable, though that might've just been me having gotten used to the cots on the steamship.
I blew out the lamp on my bedside table, and watched as Felix did the same. He didn't turn on any witchlights to replace it so I figured he was as ready to sleep as I was.
Despite that, though, he talked into the dark. "Mildmay?"
"Do you think..."
I waited, but he didn't finish. "What is it?"
"Nothing," he said. "Goodnight, Mildmay."
I could chase it, but no point when he'd decided not to say whatever it was. "Night, Felix," I said.
We began work on the library the next day, because there was hardly any reason to have accepted the position of virtuer out here without actually getting things in order. So we ate a breakfast together in the kitchen, then headed to the research floor and sat, again, on the bench, looking at the scattered piles all around the room. It seemed like hardly anything was on the shelves that lined the area, and what little was there mostly had ended up in stacks or shoved on any which way.
"Well," I said, when gloom had begun to descend over us both, "the books are going to be simple enough. We can sort those by either author or subject matter. It's probably simplest to sort by author first so we get everything on the shelves in order, and after, we can catalogue the content under subject as a cross-reference. We have plenty of time, after all."
"Sure," Mildmay said, like it didn't matter to him either way.
I smiled a little, because he was eyeing the books with actual interest, and knowing that he'd started to feel that way made me feel like this wouldn't be a trial for either of us. "But the thing I'm stuck on is the reports. Some are research Virtuer Grace gathered from external sources, and since we likely won't have an author listed on any of those we should sort by subject. But others are written by him, and I'd like to have those together. Without knowing the man nor what he was studying, I'm not sure where to begin."
Mildmay considered the piles for a moment, and then gave me a look like he was trying to avoid stating the obvious and didn't want to make me feel stupid. Cautiously, he said, "Handwriting."
It was the obvious answer, but it didn't really help. "Well... yes, all his work would be in the same hand, but I doubt I'll be able to tell them apart. There are people who analyse that sort of thing, but without bringing one in—"
I blinked. "Can you?"
"Sure. I could tell people's writing apart before I could read." Mildmay said it flatly, without any sort of emotional tone in it. "People hire burglars to steal papers. Contracts and wills and revealing letters, things like that. If I have an example I can match it."
"We don't have—"
"Nah. Don't need it for this." Mildmay hesitated, then went on. "'Cause if he were writing a lot of research but gathering supporting stuff from other people too, the handwriting that appears the most would be his."
I opened my mouth and then closed it slowly. A spike of irritation rose in me, sharp and poisonous, because he did make me feel stupid. But I saw him watching me for that and tried to swallow it, painful as it was. "All right," I said, after a moment. "That's a good point. Do you want to work on the books or on sorting out the handwriting? I'm sure if I'm just looking for the handwriting that appears more often, I could do it too."
I wasn't sure. But I knew Mildmay would prefer the books, something printed and which he might end up wanting to read himself, rather than different people's scattered personal notes. He looked at me as if he knew what I wasn't saying and shrugged a shoulder.
"Reports're fine," he said.
It was probably pretty easy to see right through me. "All right," I said softly.
While I was at it, I just started to sort all the reports by author. It wasn't like I was trying to show off to Felix or nothing, but if I needed to find the handwriting that showed up the most it was just easier to put each new hand in a new pile. Better'n trying to sort by subject, since then I'd have to read the chickenscratch that people wrote in when they weren't lucky enough to get things into print.
Besides, it'd match the rest of Felix's system this way.
Felix was dropping things in piles too, though when I took a look at his piles I realized he was doing it alphabetically. He'd probably break them down into smaller piles after, by author. What it meant was that the room was already quickly filling up with stacks and we were having to work around each other's rows, bending and twisting as our work began to move in toward each other.
It was fucking painful work, though, I don't mind telling you. A lot of crouching and shifting and shuffling around low to the ground as I picked shit up and put it back down and after a couple of hours I realized I'd have to stop or my leg was gonna do no good to nobody, least of all me.
I didn't want to have to say nothing, though, so I rose and tried to stretch it kinda casually but Felix's eyes snapped to me like he hadn't been paying attention to his books in the first place. "Time for a break?" he asked, in a regal tone like he was trying to suggest it instead of getting worried about me but he accidentally turned it into a question by the end anyway.
"We ain't in a hurry, right?" I asked.
"Aren't," he corrected, but in that distracted way where he didn't mean nothing by it. "No, we're not. Stopping for the day, then?"
"I was thinking of going into the city," I said. It was only a half-mile walk to the city border, which'd probably help my leg, and I could catch a ride from there to wherever I wanted to go. Keeping it moving would stop it from stiffening, anyway.
Felix considered me, then smiled sort of hesitantly, like he was expecting some kind of rebuff. "I'd like to go with you," he said.
I didn't want to turn him down, not if he'd take it as rejection. But the parts of the city I wanted to start to tease out weren't ones he'd want to see me walking into any more than he'd like to see me walk into a lion pit. "If you want to," I began.
He cut me off. "Well, I'd like to walk with you to the city, but I was thinking of paying a visit to Kay," he said, smiling charmingly. "Unless you were thinking of going to see him too, we'd have to part ways once we were there. Would that be all right?"
I must be fucking transparent. "Yeah," I said. "That'd be fine. Uh, I mean, I wasn't gonna stop by Kay just yet. Figured I'd give them a little space so soon after their marriage."
"I doubt they'll need it," Felix said. "But I'll let him know you'd like to see him too, and see if I can't arrange a time for you to read to him again."
I didn't need him to do that for me, but he was the one giving his silent blessings to let me do what I wanted in the city, so I shrugged.
"Sure," I said.
I managed to avoid getting lost as the hansom took me directly to the warden's manor, and although I initially had been trying to assess how to account for the cost to Mildmay, Kay immediately reimbursed me upon arrival when I was shown into his room.
"You are a guest, Felix," he said as he sat in one chair in his room and I another. "Would not be seemly, more so in how you asked me for permission to come to Grimglass. You should feel welcome any time; your brother as well."
I find myself blushing a little at the reminder of our talk. "If it's no trouble," I said. "We do enjoy your company and I fear we've not much else in the way of company yet."
"I would introduce you to the various local lords," Kay said a little dryly, "should I dislike you enough to wish their company on you."
"Do treat it the other way around," I said, smiling although he couldn't see it; doubtless, he could hear it in my voice. "I'm a social disease, and please feel free to use me as such."
That startled a laugh out of Kay that somewhat softened his broad, stubborn face. "If you wish it, I will do so." And then, earnestly, leaning forward in his chair: "How settle you into Grimglass, Felix?"
"I've hardly been here long enough to say," I said, but I found words to describe the lighthouse to him, realizing that he himself had not seen it either. I described the stairs and how Mildmay tackled them in flights, the bedrooms, the use of the light, and last, the library. I could hear the disparaging tone in my voice as I described the state it was left in, but I suspected that some of the wistfulness I had been feeling came through.
I was proven right when Kay said, in that strange gentle way of his, "And does the library stir old memories?"
"Not so very old," I said. I very nearly left it at that, knowing Kay wouldn't press, but surprisingly, I found myself wanting to keep talking. Kay knew more of me together than anyone but Mildmay by the virtue of me having told him as much; something about him drew confidences out of me, and knowing that he'd already heard the worst of me made it feel meaningless to keep other things back. "It's a combination of things, really."
"Oh?" He reached out carefully and took his tea; I hesitated, then did the same.
The cup warmed my hand, and I found myself relaxing. "Right now, it's busy work," I said, mostly to fill the silence while I put my thoughts in order. "But when that's done, I'm not sure what will be next. And perhaps that's fine; I've been living moment by moment for a long time now, but I suppose in Corambis I was starting to plan for the future. Teaching and planning out a curriculum, making a salary and budgeting for the future, coaching Mildmay on how to read... but I don't have a long term plan here. Of course, I think the hopes of the virtuers was that I would find something of the research interesting and pursue it further; I expect I shall, of course."
"But one cannot plan for that," Kay said.
"One cannot," I agreed. I sipped the tea; it was one of those bitter, bracing teas I had become used to here. "And it reminds me of... of my lover."
Kay made a soft sound; I wasn't sure I'd been expected to hear it. He said, "Was a researcher?"
"When he was permitted to be," I said. "Which wasn't often. His homeland was a brutal regime where the materials he had available to him were extremely controlled and he was turned toward military use—" Among other things, I'd realized when we were together, though I had never asked about it and Gideon had never volunteered information. "—and when he came to Marathat, he was unfortunately blocked by several peers from being instated as a wizard of the Mirador. Life was very difficult for him, and he rarely left our rooms. But he continued his studies the best he could; books and papers cheered him more than flowers ever would."
Not that I had brought him flowers; the idea was almost ludicrous. Kay seemed to think so as well, brows creased, clearly thinking of something unsaid before he shook his head and dismissed it. "That is unfortunate."
"It was," I said; it came out more as a correction than agreement, and that hurt a little more than expected. I rushed on. "I love research on my own, you understand, but of course I'll think of the things I'll learn which I could have shared with him. I already felt that way learning new ways of magic out in Corambis. That there are so many things we would have argued about that we will never get the chance to."
His brows lifted again at 'argued', and he smiled. "You do not remember him flawless."
He was flawless, I almost protested, and bit my tongue. "We argued frequently," I said. "Sometimes we even meant it. And we both loved to change each other's minds."
"You enjoy that; the changing of minds," Kay said. "Mildmay indicated you took well to teaching."
I sighed. That was the other thing. "I regret that I am not permitted to teach," I admitted. "Being exiled here with a new job so I could exit the previous one without being fired... well, it was hardly my idea. My... exploits with the Clock of Eclipses..." Suddenly, I didn't want to equivocate any longer. "My prostitution is too well known. It follows me like a dark cloud and declares me unfit for anything but giving pleasure to vulgar men and keeping my absence from the elite and the pure. It returns to me like a bad penny, and I return to it likewise. I could take an oath of chastity and I'd still be known for it."
Kay was making a face, so I plowed on.
"Don't misunderstand me," I said. "I hardly blame them. They don't understand."
"I feared a moment that you did not understand either," Kay said.
I hesitated, then put a hand to my chest. He couldn't see it, but I made the gesture more for my own benefit than his. "No, I do. I've engaged in prostitution, and the worst of wizardry, and other monstrous things—as we've discussed already. But I am not what I have done, I am what I will continue to do going forward. They can only judge me by reputation, and if that shuts me off from others, so be it. Gideon lived through that and still found joy in life; I can do likewise."
Kay said, "There will be others. If cannot teach at a school, there are still those seeking to learn. As with your apprentice before, Grimglass will have magicians who fear being warlocks, but who desire to use their abilities. Give it time."
"You might be right," I allowed. Then, darkly, "If my aforementioned reputation doesn't drive them away."
"A known reputation is fearful," Kay said. "I have things I will not admit to, for the repercussions to myself and others. Have no desire for harm. But your reputation will weed out those who would not look past it."
"Your soldier years?"
Kay seemed to consider me, eyes searching my area as if he could read something in the darkness there. Then he said simply, "Am violet myself."
The admission surprised me. I usually was able to tell, or at least, have some good guess; my body language teased out flirting and people reacted to that, whether negatively or positively. Kay could not see my body language to react to it, and was a solid, hard-to-read person besides. I had guessed that his relationship with his wife was platonic alone, but I assumed that had been due to the political nature of their union.
Being ganumedes was hardly something smiled upon out here; even had my prostitution not become known, my reputation for desiring men would have likely lost me my job by itself. Beyond that, his recent marriage would become a scandal that would harm Vanessa. She knew; I was sure of that.
"I see," I said. "Thank you for telling me."
"Trust you with it," Kay said simply, and, with an old, guilty habit, I hoped he would not have cause to regret that.
I explored Grimglass the cautious way: by heading into bars and listening and picking out people to talk to for more information. This wasn't Mélusine's Lower City, like I said, so nobody was out for my blood but I didn't know the lay and what gang was out for what other gang and all that. Even if nobody was out to hurt me, nobody was out to help me, neither. Not that I was planning on getting myself into trouble, but anyone who looked at my face knew I was a tough, and anyone who looked at my leg knew I was a crip.
Didn't need to plan in order to get myself in trouble.
But I played it so safe that if Felix were here he might even consider praising me, and when I'd done enough alternating sitting and listening and walking around the safer parts of town, I caught a ride back to the edge of town and then, unexpectedly, the lighthouse itself, the driver offering to take me the rest of the way.
I didn't look the gift horse in the mouth, even if the pity rankled, and by the time Felix got home an hour later, I had food mostly ready for the two of us.
He cheered up when he saw me, or maybe he was just really hungry. "There you are," he said, though, like he didn't expect anything else. "Good day?"
"Yeah," I said.
He didn't ask me to elaborate. "Me too," he said, though, and we ate together.
The next day, we headed back into the library to continue the work, and when I walked in and saw our piles fresh I stopped in the doorway suddenly enough that Felix ran into my back. He grabbed my hips to steady both of us, then let go like they were hot, which I guess he thought they were. "Mildmay? Something wrong?"
"Not wrong," I said, and then stepped aside and gestured in for him to look.
"Too much work? Just because it's all over the floor."
"Not that," I said, and waited for it to dawn.
It did, his skew eyes slowly widening before he turned to look at me again. "A labyrinth," he said.
So I wasn't the only one who saw it. We'd both been making stacks and rows, spreading them throughout the room as we laid down different authors, as we alphabetized, but leaving ourselves room to walk. It had become a whole lot of winding paths with the piles outlining them.
"Kinda shitty labyrinth," I added aloud. "What with us being able to step over the walls and all."
Felix laughed, dispersing the uncanny feeling that had settled over the room, and did exactly that, striding across to the unsorted section by stepping carefully over things instead of walking through the paths we made. "Not much of a labyrinth, no," he agreed. "It's coincidence."
"We believe so much in coincidence," I said, sarcastic.
He inclined his head to me, giving me the point. "Well, perhaps we have some ghosts of our own to work out, then."
By we, he meant himself. But on the other hand, I didn't have anything that wasn't Felix, so it was the same thing.
"Maybe," I agreed.
We worked until lunch, then after lunch, we went back into the city. This time, Felix wasn't going to go see Kay, but go introduce himself to some people who Kay had invited him to meet. Like I'd thought, he had to socialize or he'd lose it. I wondered how well Kay knew any of these people, having just moved here, and had to figure it was actually Vanessa who passed the invitation on.
Since Felix wasn't going, I figured I'd stop by and see if he was free, and if not, I could just do more of what I'd done the day before. He was, and the book I'd carried with me stopped feeling like I was weighing myself down for nothing.
"Welcome, Mildmay," Kay said, taking my hands in his in greeting when I came over so he could. He didn't rise, and I didn't ask him to, just waited for him to let go then laid Jashuki down carefully against an arm rest and sat in the other chair myself. "How are you finding Grimglass?"
Visiting Kay meant I had to keep reminding myself to actually talk, not just shrug. I found my shoulders rising anyway. "It's fine," I said.
"Doesn't sound like you care."
"Nah," I said. "Not really."
For some reason, he seemed to relax. "Dost not miss home?"
"Sure I miss home," I said. Fucking lot of good missing it was going to do, right? "But I'm here now, and so's Felix, so whatever."
I didn't know if he'd get it, but after a moment, he gave me a rueful smile. "Am glad," he said. "Wilt read to me?"
"Sure. I brought a book," I said. I'd taken it off the top of one of Felix's piles, 'cause I figured it sounded like something that might interest Kay since it had to do with military applications of magic.
"Then, if you please," Kay said. He settled back in his chair and he didn't look happy or nothing, any more than I felt happy, but he looked content enough and that was good enough for me.
It took us the better part of a week, ultimately, to finish breaking everything out by author, even though we only worked mornings and then went to the city in afternoons. With it done, I stood and surveyed our work with my hands on my hips while Mildmay pretended his leg wasn't bothering him and I pretended not to notice.
"Well," I said, when no yet-unforeseen stacks or shelves of unordered books presented themselves, "I may as well handle the rest myself. No need to make you get up and down just to put things on shelves."
"I can do it," Mildmay said, stubborn, and I looked at him until his cheeks turned slightly red. "Look, I been getting lots of exercise, and—"
I tilted my chin up a little. "It's just busy work, Mildmay," I said dismissively. "And I want to make sure I have everything how I like it."
"Oh, well, if it ain't going to be your tastes if I do it..."
"That's not what I meant," I began, but saw him grinning at me. "You're winding me up."
"I'm winding you up, yeah."
Huffing, I waved both hands at him. "Go," I said. "Have fun. Are you heading in to see Kay?"
"Nah," he said. "I've got other stuff to do."
He wouldn't want me to ask, even if the desire to was eating me up. It wasn't any of my business, so long as he was keeping safe. "Then go do your 'stuff'."
Mildmay grinned at me again, then headed out.
I'd been right, at least, that it was a one-person job, and doubly right that all the bending and lifting wouldn't be good for him. But it wasn't time-consuming. We'd done the majority of the labor already and, with everything in order, the only thing left was to put it on shelves properly. It only took me a couple of hours, though by the end my arms were hurting and I feared I might develop muscles if I kept it up.
I finished breaking down the labyrinth, and looked on the large room with pride, at the shelves and their bounty. Already, the place was beginning to feel like my own. It wasn't done yet—or rather, the organization was done, but I still only had a bare idea of the contents themselves. Starting tomorrow, I'd take them off the shelf one at a time and start a record of contents to cross-reference.
I'd need notebooks, though, a small number of them to categorize books by subject matter. It was still early in the day, so I headed into the city and purchased some. That hardly took time, so I thought I'd call on Kay again; I had been beginning to worry that we were becoming a nuisance to him, but he had disabused me of the notion firmly. "I do desire your company," he'd said. "Could feel lonely, but expecting you allows me to look forward."
So I went, and he rose to greet me as I was shown into his room. He had clearly been growing more comfortable with it over the course of the week; he was less likely to just sit in his chair and allow us to come to him, and would instead walk around the room himself. It seemed shockingly brave to me, sometimes—I still couldn't stand to have people on my blind side and not know where they were.
"Felix," he said warmly. "Have a seat."
He took my hands in his own, which made it impossible to sit yet even if I'd wanted to, but I clasped his arms in return. "You're in a good mood," I noted.
"Am so," he said. "I received a letter from my brother-in-law, Murtagh. Richard—Vanessa's son, and mine now as well—hast just read to me. You remember his Grace?"
I remembered him in ways that I doubted Kay would appreciate hearing about. "Of course," I said, smiling. "Is he well?"
"Is well," Kay agreed. He seemed to realize he was still holding my arms, and let go of them slowly; the withdrawal was lingering enough that I drew a breath in. His unseeing gaze didn't unfocus from my area as he returned to his own seat. "Rothmarlin is well also. My old holding."
Lost to him due to his part in the rebellion. I tried not to wince, since he didn't seem to mind the reminder of it. "That must be a relief."
"An enormous one," Kay said. "I doubted Cecil's ability. Yet it goes on and prospers. For the best, perchance."
I didn't ask who Cecil was. It didn't really matter. "I should write home myself," I said. "There are at least a few people who are likely to want to hear from me, if only to know I've survived."
"You must," he agreed easily. "Wilt send your letter with mine if you finish in a half-week; they will go separate ways from Bernatha, but may well get on the road together."
"I'll do that," I said. A silence stretched briefly between us and I thought again about that lingering touch. "Kay..."
I had imagined it. Or, I had not imagined it, but I had not been intended to notice it. I was perhaps making it up entirely because I knew now that Kay was ganumedes; I might only recently have become aware of how easily I wished to seduce any man who was even potentially available if I liked them at all, but I was aware of it. It was a problem, something I couldn't turn off.
But I was lonely, and Kay was lonely too, and even if I had an actual problem, it didn't necessarily have to be one. Not seduction, not toxic, not an attempt to punish myself. I found, thinking it through, that I wasn't attracted to the idea that making a pass at Kay would ruin the friendship we'd found. Normally I would be; normally I'd nearly be compelled to proposition him out of the sense of risk.
Rather, I thought he would just decline it and make no issue if he weren't interested. I found myself thinking, too, that if he did reject me I would no longer desire to keep pushing it with him. Though I wondered if I'd still feel that way if he did reject me.
"Do you want to make love?" I asked.
He was silent another long moment, though there was no rejection on his face, just consideration. "Is pity?" he asked, finally.
I couldn't stop myself from snorting. "What do I have to pity you for?"
"And you don't think you love me."
"Powers, no. My apologies," I said. "I view you as a friend."
"Then, just desire?"
"Yes," I said. "Just desire."
Kay rose, and for a moment I thought I was to be dismissed, and found no offense in me at the idea whatsoever, but he walked steadily over to his bed and sat down on it. "No harm in desire," he said.
My breath caught. He wasn't beautiful, but there was something calming about him that made him easy to look at. I rose myself, because he'd left enough room to his side to be an invitation, and came over. He'd left the room on what would be my right, which wasn't the most comfortable idea, but fair was fair. Besides, he didn't know I was half-blind; if he did, he would likely have offered me the consideration he himself couldn't take.
I sat beside him, and turned my head so I could still see him. Between us, his hand found mine.
"I haven't done this since the incident in Bernatha," I said, not because I wanted to say it but because, even if there was no love between us, there was honesty. "I'm sorry in advance if I find myself... incapable."
Which was a gentle way to describe the kind of panic I'd had now and again even before Bernatha, but in the case that I did throw Kay off me and flee across the room, he'd know what I meant regardless. I hadn't had sex since then, though, and needed to be prepared. Even when I'd gotten into the steamship captain's room, I'd left things at kissing. He'd sworn at me and called me a pricktease when he left to dock the ship. At least Kay would not be likely to do the same.
He took the warning in stride, with no pity on his face but just an understanding sympathy. Nor did he apologize. "I have not since being blinded," he replied. "Wilt have to rely on you to tell me if you are incapable, as cannot read your face. And wilt have to rely on touch alone to do the deed."
"A shame you can't see how beautiful I am," I said lightly, leaning in. "I assure you, it's generally what makes my terrible personality worth the trouble."
Kay snorted and took my face in his hands, feeling the sharp lines of my cheekbones, the planes of my jaw. "Have had no trouble," he said, and kissed me.
We made love tentatively, carefully, feeling each other out. I took him in my mouth to get him hard, and he stroked my hair lightly, holding it back from my face, not pressing my head or demanding much. It was something I might ask for someday, I thought, and hoped perhaps he and his brother-in-law were not too disalike. But it wasn't something I'd ask for yet regardless. The memories were too fresh, and some time to reacquaint myself with tenderness wouldn't go amiss.
But after a while and before he finished, he gently pulled me back and said, "I have a lotion for sore muscles; wilt fetch, if you wish to take or be taken?"
It was generous of him to make an open offer, to allow me to be the one to choose which I'd prefer, and deal with my circumstances in that way. I swallowed around the sudden emptiness in my mouth, and followed his gesture to a drawer in his desk, filled with various personal care items. The lotion, when I poured some out, seemed viscous enough, and I expected he'd used similar before.
I rubbed a little into myself, then came over to him with the rest, pressing it into his open hand. "Take me, then; it really is my preference," I said, and tried not to feel bitter that I had never done this with the man I loved instead of so many I didn't.
My advance preparation wasn't wasted, but wasn't necessary, either; he opened me up with broad, careful fingers, then lay back, tugging at my hips. He wanted me on top, riding him; I suspected this, too, was a kindness as much as a desire of his.
I straddled him, let him slide deep with a shudder of pleasure, and began to move.
And I didn't find myself incapable at any moment, not when I twisted and gasped and came across his chest when he gave my nipples a surprisingly sharp pinch as he pounded into me, and not when he shuddered not long after and came inside me.
Not when, as we both caught our breaths, he ran a fond hand along my side and said, "Was fine?"
"Yes," I said, and put warmth into his voice so he'd understand my intentions. I didn't get off him just yet, just enjoyed the feeling of being full without the urgency of sex. "It was fine."
Felix came back late with that hazy, smug look in his eyes that told me what he'd been up to, but also with a big stack of notebooks that I eyed dubiously. "What's that for?"
"Cataloguing," he said. "How was your day?"
I shrugged a shoulder. "Fine," I said. "Here." I held out to him the book I'd bought, one that Gideon had owned but Felix hadn't been able to take with him.
It was worth it; he lit up like I'd set him on fire. "This is Benson's Archaic Practices? —Oh, Mildmay, really? Thank you. I wasn't sure I'd find it again, I—"
I shrugged like I was uncomfortable instead of like my insides had turned to jelly. "Ain't nothing," I muttered.
"It isn't anything," he corrected, but was already flipping through it. "Really, though, thank you. This is wonderful, and very considerate."
It wasn't helping the jelly problem. I cleared my throat. "Also, I met a girl who worked in the bookstore."
"Oh?" He sounded considerably less interested in that. "Good for you."
"Nah," I said. "She recognized me. Us. The hair and the scar. Asked about my hocus brother."
"Is that so..."
"Says she's been reading everything she can look through about magic in the store," I said. "But wanted to know if the new lighthouse virtuer was looking for a student. Didn't give her an answer either way but said I'd mention her to you."
I didn't mention that I'd been the one to ask her about her interest and draw her out of her stammering into explaining, and that was just as well 'cause Felix was already looking at me like I'd offered him the whole damn world in my hands and I felt like I was going to die somehow. Fuck me sideways 'til I cry, I thought. Doing nice things for him always made me feel real small, somehow, but in a good way.
"Oh," Felix said. "I mean, I'll have to meet her first, but—"
"Yeah, whenever," I said. I got to my feet in a hurry. "I'm hungry, gonna go cook something."
Felix seemed to shake himself. "Yes, of course," he said. "Please do. Did you see the library?"
"Huh? Oh yeah," I said. It was the first place I'd looked when I came back. "Everything looks like it's in its place."
I wrote a letter to Mehitabel, and told her about Corambis, and about getting exiled from it, and generally caught her up on everything that wasn't absolutely horrible. I asked Mildmay if he wanted to add anything, but he just shrugged, and said to say hi, so I just added that note in the postscript.
And then, impulsively, in a second postscript I asked if she would deliver the enclosed note to Shannon, and I wrote him as well:
Thank you for taking careof my rings. I am wearing them and keeping the chain in safety. It did its job keeping everything together, and I appreciate the kindness after the fact, though I rejected it at the time. I know you had little reason, and I apologize for that, and appreciate your action the more for it. I hope you are well,
Mehitabel would give it to him; I'd seen the two of them become, bizarrely, fast friends before I had been exiled from the Mirador. She would probably read it first, but I thought that perhaps for the first time in years, there was nothing so offensive in what I had to say that Shannon shouldn't see it. He would likely think that I'd lost my mind again when he read my apology, but let him.
And I felt that perhaps I shouldn't be so quick to throw away the people who had been important to me. I would never see him again, nor Mehitabel, nor so many other people, but leaving things open and raw and painful for all of us was no way to settle my old debts.
I folded the note inside the letter to Mehitabel, and sealed both inside an envelope, and put it to the side. I considered sending it with Mildmay the next time he went to read to Kay, but I thought that might give Kay the impression I didn't want to see him again. No, I would take it to him myself.
That settled, I went to join Mildmay for dinner.