She looked over at him with a guarded suspicion, like he was going to snatch the expensive leatherbound anatomy atlas out of her hand or more likely make a hateful comment about her promiscuous mother. Daine looked back at the book and then back up at him again.
“Yes?” He made sure his tone was level, calm. Like he was talking to a horse with its ears flattened back.
“I like the way you speak.”
“Much too often and for far too long?” He replied.
Daine giggled and all the suspicion slid off of her face. “That too. No, the words you use. Dialect. Verbose. Predilection.”
“You know what all of those mean.”
“True. But when you use ‘em it sounds natural. Like you speak in twenty syllables when three would do but it’s not you putting on a show. How is that?”
“I think that predilection to be verbose--” Her smile was blinding and he spent a brief moment imagining the girl who might’ve been sitting there if her mother had lived -- “Is largely from the many years I spent at University with the kind of people who attend higher education.”
“So I have to find a college that would take me? I only had a couple years of learnin’. Just enough to read and do some numbers and even then none of that well.”
He paused for a moment, drumming his fingers on the counter.
“Honestly, I think you’d be wasted in academia.” At Daine’s scowl he paused to define it for her and then continued. “You have enough motivation and intelligence to learn quickly and well even without the structure of fulltime schooling, which is impressive in and of itself. None of the magic classes would apply. Female university students are rare enough to be challenged ruthlessly by their male counterparts and professors. I think the best way for you to learn would be continuing with me, privately.”
“I can’t afford something like that.” She whispered almost too softly to hear.
Numair actually laughed at that. “I wouldn’t dream of charging you. I’m learning at least as much from you. You’re the most wonderful research opportunity I’ve ever come across and enjoyable company too. You know things about animals for a fact that other researchers spend decades guessing at. If you’re comfortable with it, I could use what we learn together to compile papers and textbooks for other children with your magic and their teachers.”
Her smile was huge as she basked in the compliment, the unprompted statement that anyone preferred her presence to its lack. “I can’t see why I’d object to a thing like that. Anyway, if I wanna learn to talk smarter and have no place at university, I’ve gotta what, read the dictionary?”
She was looking directly at him and he understood that it was crucial that he not laugh now. “You could.” He told her. “But it’s hard to retain vocabulary that way. I’d suggest you continue with your textbooks.”
“I learned a lot of Common from reading stories. Novels. Things of that sort. Do you like them?”
Daine blinked up at him and he briefly dreaded the rapidly approaching day that she’d be pretty and thanked his lucky stars that she would never be beautiful. Hopefully his mere existence would prevent the worst of teenage malehood from calling but it was going to be hard when she discovered those unique ways that romance could hurt.
“I never had any cause to know. We didn’t have no books ‘cept one ‘bout midwifing.”
His smile was huge and thrilled. “What kind of stories do you think you would like? Adventure or romance? Biographies?”
“Let’s start with whatever your favorite is? If it’s okay if I borrow it. I can explain to the shrews and they’d leave it be. Or we could leave it in your room so the rabbits take no notions.” She added quickly.
Immediately he began making a list in his head of his very favorite works, which ones he had copies of in the palace, and which he’d need to send for.
“I honestly cannot think of anything I’d like better. You’re welcome to borrow whatever you like. Always.”
Daine returned from the latrine that winter morning, looking stubbornly at the ground. “We’ll need to stop in the next town.”
The night previous she’d eaten an entire pound of dried meat, apologized repeatedly for eating three meals worth of food in a single sitting and then staggered to sleep like a drunkard.
“Can I ask what for?” Numair spoke carefully.
Her shoulders slumped, hope of not having to offer an explanation gone. “I’ve bled all over my sleep sack. The lining is fur. There’s no washing it out and no matter how nicely I ask the smell will attract the rats. I also need some cotton rags.”
“Are you injured?”
Daine looked up at him for a long moment. He looked back.
“No.” She stretched the syllable out. “I am not.”
“Oh.” He paused for a long moment, feeling a bit stupid. “Of course. Did you bring any extra underthings or breeches?”
She shook her head miserably. Her response was a mutter. “It’s never happened before. I’m sorry.”
“Why has it never happened before?” Her brows pulled together in confusion.
“No, why are you sorry?”
Daine looked at him sideways, like the question was a trap. “Ruining a sleeping sack and my riding breeches. Delaying our arrival by a whole half a day.”
“I suppose what I don’t understand is how any of that is your fault.”
She shrugged in response, in perhaps the most teenaged motion he’d ever seen from her.
“You turned fourteen last month,” He sounded interested. “Were you malnourished in your youth? Or perhaps delayed menarche is common in your family?”
“We did have more’n a few lean winters. And did you just make up that word?”
He grinned at her face, which was now more irritated than embarrassed. “No, I didn’t. But I can define it for you later. Here, you can sit on my extra shirt to spare the saddle.”
Daine looked briefly like she would object but ultimately accepted the shirt without eye contact.
They arrived in town three hours later. He invited Daine to accompany him.
She turned scarlet and gestured at the stain expanding across her thighs. “I can’t.” She barely spoke above a whisper.
“It’s all right. I’m fully capable of going by myself. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
She nodded and leapt down to loosen the saddles.
He returned in the late afternoon and handed her a stack of items. On the top was a large bag of butter toffees and a necklace with a golden charm. Next were a tall stack of rags, undergarments, fresh pants and a new sleeping bag.
“Thank you,” She reached for the toffees and shoved one into her mouth. “These are my favorite.”
“I know. I’ll ride up ahead a few hundred paces and then wait for you.”
Daine held up the charm for inspection and then turned scarlet. “Oh, I don’t need this. I mean, I’m not doing anything like that.”
He had to choose not to laugh. “I had no intention to make you uncomfortable or make any implications about matters that are, frankly, none of my business. But it’s a lot better to have it and not need it than the other way around. Sometimes it’s difficult to predict when a relationship will take that direction. It’s a gift for you to use or not as you find fit.”
Daine took a breath and then another. “Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome.”
“No, truly. Thank you.”
“Truly you are welcome.” He turned to mount the horse, a sight that not yet failed to cheer Daine.
“I guess I mean to say all the boys I knew growing up would’ve eaten dirt before they would’ve picked up that kind of thing.”
“Hopefully they grow out of it. Failing that, they’ll grow up to be terrible husbands and worse fathers.”
She raised her brow slightly, in surprise. “You’re right, actually.”
“I express so many opinions that it had to happen eventually.”
She smiled at that and waved him off. He was left with the feeling that, just this once, he’d actually said the correct thing at the right time.
Daine had awoken at dawn to see him off. Alanna was packing the horses with a bleary, hostile expression that did not invite niceties. Her hair stuck out in an impressive number of directions and her mutterings were dark.
“I’ll be done in about two weeks.” He hugged her and kissed her forehead.
“Are you still meeting me back at the tower after that?” She asked, muffling against his shoulder.
“I certainly hope so. Thank you for reminding me. I had this made for you.” He released her and then rooted around in a saddlebag and emerged with a key. He pressed it into her hand. “In case you beat us back.”
“What if I lose it?”
He shrugged a single shoulder. “It will only open the doors for you.”
“Thank you,” She held the trinket up to the light, still not beyond being moved and astonished by any small consideration. “I know that’s no small piece of magic.”
“It didn’t take long and it wouldn’t matter if it did. Please be safe.”
“You’d better do the same,” She told him brightly and embraced him briefly. “I’ll miss you.”
Numair smiled hugely at that, knowing that her moments of open affection were few, far between and nearly all reserved for him. “And I you.”
She pressed her forehead into each of the horses and smiled at one of their jokes, whispering to them. Daine bid Alanna a loving farewell and received a civil grumble in response.
At nearly one pm Alanna at last eased into her own. “It’s good to see you making other friends. It’s convenient that you’re always available to do favors or to be a buffer at dinner parties but frankly it’s also a bit depressing.”
“And it’s great to see Daine doing so well. It took long enough and it’s good to see that trust spent on someone so worthy of it.”
“Thank you,” He murmured again, actually meaning it that time. “And you’re right. It is.”
She’d walked in so softly that when she’d woken him, nerves completely unraveled from Carthak, he’d had to dispel the exceptionally violent magic that had leapt to his fingertips.
“Magelet?” He’d recognized her shape even in the nearly complete darkness.
“Sorry to wake you,” She murmured softly. Even her outline looked wary and sad, a snoring Kitten clutched to her chest tightly.
“What’s wrong?” He asked and would swear he could hear her raised her eyebrows in response to an admittedly pretty stupid question.
“Just needed to see you alive n’ well,” Daine replied, in a tone like she was greeting him at the market and he felt something twist. If it’d been her, if he’d spent entire hours believing she was only a body to bury, if he’d received a matter-of-fact declaration that hundreds of witnesses had seen her slow public death, he wouldn’t have been able to let her out of his sight for weeks.
As things were, he still spent all his time trailing after her, parting only for sleep and bathtimes. He’d sat by her bed while she’d slept for days, reading the same lines of the book over and over again. He’d followed her to the deck while she’d chatted with dolphins for hours and to the tiny, damp shelf that functioned as the ship’s library. He’d continued all day, unable to help himself, even when Alanna asked him if his mother had always dreamed he’d grow up to be a shadow, even when a younger sailor matter-of-factly referred to Daine as his wife before making the sign against evil at the pair.
“I’m right here,” He told her, hearing his own voice thick with sleep. He reached out for her hand and she took it, shifting Kit’s weight to the opposite shoulder.
“I apologized to Varice. I’m not sure if anyone told you but I thought she might’ve had something to do with it. I’m sure I terrified her.” Daine sounded her actual age for the moment.
“I think far more damning assumptions could have been excused, considering,” He responded, only a little surprised to find that he couldn’t bring himself to care about the fear of someone he’d once woken up for exclusively.
She motioned him to scoot over on the bed. He slid over but bunks on ships were tiny and they were still crammed hip to hip. He ran a finger over Kit’s spine and the dragonet sighed softly.
“How are you?” He finally asked her, assuming that she would most likely tell him.
“Probably it’ll sound bad, but basically just fine. Can I sleep here for a bit?”
Numair inhaled to tell her it was inappropriate, that he would rather not explain this arrangement to her impressive assortment of powerful allies and that he would really rather skip this round of questioning on whether or not he’d assaulted someone half his age, thanks.
He opened his mouth only to find himself saying, “Sure. Let me get dressed?”
“I’m not sure I have two hours.” The smile and the tension sliding off of her shoulders made it difficult to stop looking at her for a short moment.
“I am chronically underappreciated. Truly, my lot is suffering.”
“You missed your true calling. The stages of the Eastern Lands are bereft,” She paused then, to savor the feel of the word, “Of your talents.”
He bowed elaborately then, in his nightshirt and she giggled.
“Turn around, please?” She rolled over obediently, staring at the ship’s wall.
He crammed on pants, an undershirt, socks and then a jacket for good measure. She scooted over, Kit in her arms and rested her head very near his shoulder. Daine was asleep within seconds.
He saw her hair spread across his pillow and was mortified to find his body reacting, to the sight, its context or both. Numair wasted a short moment being disgusted with himself then resigned to the indignities of living within a human body.
He slid onto the floor and reached up for her neck, checking that a pulse continued there. She didn’t react to the touch.
Numair made a mental note to never allow her to do this again, or better yet ensure she never had the cause.
A very busy looking man with ink stained fingers approached them in the sitting room at Pirate’s Swoop. He explained that an ‘annoying matter’ now needed tending to and looked down at the trio with refreshing indifference.
Daine looked up from lovingly buffing Kitten’s scales and Numair set down his book. Alanna, who apparently knew the scribe, looked as though the executioner had called upon them instead.
“The report of your death was considered extremely credible and was reported to the Capitol within an hour by scryglass.” He began.
Numair sighed and felt himself pinch his nose. Daine blanched at the mere mention. He saw her take three long, slow breaths to calm down; a technique he’d learned as a younger mage extremely prone to accidental arson.
“So all my books are packed in boxes somewhere?”
“Yes. The terms of your will were also enacted before word of your resurrection could be confirmed. This situation is relatively unprecedented.”
“Relatively?” Alanna tried to conceal the growing amusement in her expression but she didn’t try very hard.
The man continued. “We’ll need to furnish a certificate from a Healer that you’re actually alive as well as a genuine human. Furthermore, we will also require certificates from at least three University certified mages that you are in no way a magical construct.”
Multiple expressions warred on Alanna’s face before amusement won. She reached over and delicately pinched his elbow. “I’m not at all sure I could endorse such a claim.”
“Such a salve in these times, the support of friends.”
Daine cocked her head to the side. “Couldn’t I just sign something?”
“How exactly would that help?” Alanna’s expression softened into confusion.
“He said I have all of Numair’s things. Can’t I just sign something and give them all back?”
“You left her everything?” Alanna’s brows lowered. Numair sighed in anticipation of a chat with her that heavily featured nouns such as “appearances” and “reputation”. He knew that Alanna wasn’t wrong and knew that Daine would box his ears for “weighing the slander of gossips”.
“I updated my will right before we went to Carthak.” He explained, like that answered the question she was asking at all.
“I did the same thing.” Daine continued. At Alanna’s penetrating stare, she had the courage to laugh. “It isn’t anything like what you’re thinking. We just didn’t want to leave behind any complicated questions about Kit. The wrong person might treat her like a pet or an oddity.”
“I know you wouldn’t have let anyone cart her off to a menagerie. If we both died, you were actually slated to be her next caregiver.” Numair soothed. “But it’s a lot easier with legal backing.”
“This is going to get to the entire court.” Alanna hissed. “They’re probably going to assume-”
Daine cut her off. “They already assume any and everything. Last I heard it was that I bed the stallions. It’s fine. No, stop looking at me like that, it really is. It’s nothing new and it’s nothing I can change and now that more than one person in the whole world cares if I live or die it doesn’t mean anything. It just doesn’t.”
The man with the thick packet of court paperwork looked on with intense and sincere indifference, scowl only growing as Numair continued to fail to grasp the massive stack of papers.
“But thank you.” Daine said finally, laying a hand over Alanna’s.
“For what?” The shorter woman actually gaped.
“For getting angry about it. It’s right sweet of you.”
Alanna groaned. “We’ve talked about this. Please don’t thank me for basic human kindness. Please.”
Daine giggled like Alanna had been joking before finally turning to the long-suffering scribe. “Can I just sign all of his things back to him?”
He harrumphed. “I suppose that it could be a sufficient temporizing measure. We’ll still need a Declaration of Life, a form we had to invent for this very occasion.”
Alanna saw Daine mouth “temporizing” at Numair, the question obvious in her eyes. The tall mage had to lean down to mutter a short definition into her ear.
“Fine.” She said to the pair of them, annoyance gone as suddenly as it had arrived, the way her mercurial temper had always been. “Give me those papers. I suppose I qualify as a Healer.”
After the second rambling paragraph, Daine took mercy on him and put down her book. “Numair, what it is, specifically, and in no more than ten words, that you’d like from me?”
“I think it’d be a good idea if I had a focus for you. I spent days in Carthak trying to bootstrap a way to find you. I’m fairly certain that it’s actually impossible.”
“Seems sensible. If you’d had one then it would’ve saved me a lot of tears and Carthak a lot of palace. What do you need from me?”
“A lock of hair would be easiest. But if you’re concerned about the shorter lock we could do a drop of blood on a handkerchief.”
Daine set the novel down and rooted around in her rucksack until she found a worn knife. She handed it to him and then picked a random strand of hair from the side of her head and held it out for him. “Help yourself.”
Numair sliced carefully, angling the blade away from her neck. He caught the tiny lock and did something complicated that made it disappear.
Numair hesitated and then spoke again. “The fact that you gave this willingly gives it even more power. Demigoddess or not, I could, theoretically, bid you to do nearly anything. You know that if another conventional mage were to ever ask--”
“I know better than to give it to anyone else.” She patted his hand, clearly eager to return to the novel he’d interrupted. “I know you’d never do me harm. That is not an assumption I am too quick to make.”
Numair smiled and breathed a little easier.
Daine was sprawled supine across his couch, head bent backwards so that she peered at him upside down. Her book lay at her fingertips, momentarily forgotten.
“So I heard something interesting about you and Lady Cordelia.”
Numair blinked for a couple of moments. “What about her could possibly be of any interest to you, Magelet?”
She rolled over onto her stomach, resting her chin on her bridged hands now. “What do you like about her?”
He sighed. “If you spent more time with other seventeen-year-old girls you wouldn’t need to have these conversations with me.”
“Well, I don’t. Instead I spend my evenings with you. So I suppose you will have to endure my interest in your life and happiness.”
Numair opened his mouth, each time shutting it again. The overall effect was most likely fish-like. “I don’t have a counterargument”
Daine grinned hugely. “I was counting on it. So, what is it you like about her? How are things going?”
He steepled his fingers and actually thought about the question and its answers. “She is kind to people who can do nothing for her, polite to servants and extremely beautiful. She is not threatened by your status in my life, or at least has enough sense not to bring it up with me. Most importantly, she isn’t looking to get married for a few more seasons and has so far believed me when I tell her I’m not yet looking for a wife either.”
“Why not what?”
“Why not a wife? Most men your age have one.”
He winced but not much. Her tone was curious and guilless. She hadn’t meant the barb. “What I am hoping,” He told her, “Is that I am going to meet a woman who I will wish to make my wife. Her agreement on this matter would be ideal. I would prefer not to decide it’s time to marry and then try to find someone who’s close enough.”
She hummed at him approvingly. “Sensible of you.”
“This feels one-sided,” He told her finally.
Daine flapped her hand at him, unconcerned. “Ask away, if you’d actually like to know.”
“The Queenscove boy?”
Daine loosed a short laugh. “He’s fourteen, Numair. While it’s impressive enough he finds time to trail after me despite Wyldon’s training schedule, it’s not exactly attractive.”
He inclined his head. “True. He is a bit like a duckling. Then the Oakhurst squire?”
“I was seeing him, for a time.” She told him. “But Cloud didn’t like him.”
“Cloud gets a deciding vote?” He wanted to be incredulous but couldn’t manage it.
“Of course. She’s never been wrong before.” Daine responded. Her grin grew even bigger. “Also, he was clumsy beyond imagining. And I don’t mean dancing.”
He wanted to be appalled but his chuckle betrayed him. “Oh, to be young and inept.”
She smiled happily, pleased to know something about him no one else did, even happier to have made him laugh.
The opening introductions alone took well over twenty minutes. The attendees were mostly mages, along with a few important lords and representatives from every major military branch.
“With news of Ozorne’s execution,” Jon sounded calm and regal as he finally got to the actual point. “I’d like to begin work on barrier repairs. Numair?”
He steepled his fingers for a moment. “The original spells are lost, forever. I don’t believe any search effort could unearth them, though I suppose we’ll need to try anyway. Possibly with enough time I could recreate them. A secondary concern is, of course, that every mage that worked on the original project died. So while I’d be willing to volunteer I can hardly ask anyone else to.”
“What resources would you need to move forward with this project?” Jon’s face was calm and thoughtful, not that it was ever anything else.
“No,” Daine said, bluntly. Even Alanna looked shocked.
“Daine,” Numair started to explain about exceptionally good reasons to die.
She ignored him and addressed Jon directly. “You must know he’s a lot more useful to you alive. And even if you don’t realize that, I hope you can imagine how much you’d miss my services next time invaders come and we both know that it’s never long.”
“Daine,” Numair tried again, “He was only discussing a possibility. An option to be considered. As our Liege Lord and King.”
“Oh, shut up.” Daine muttered at him, eyes rolling nearly to the back of her head. “We all know that if he asks and maybe even if he doesn’t, you’ll do it.”
She turned back to Jon, whom she’d onced blushed to sit before, volume steadily rising.
“I know you saved me. I know you gave me a home and a family when anyone else would’ve killed me for my own good and then buried me with the dogs. But I’ve paid you back tenfold. I’ve crippled armies and killed dozens of folk who didn’t do no wrong to protect your kingdom and your kin and I’d do it all again ‘cept worse and harder. And then you sent him and me into that Carthaki meat grinder with only a prayer and a dice roll that we’d be the ones walking away from the ruins. I said not one word and I did my duty and bloodied my hands all over again until they were dripping.”
“You’ve been playing too much chess, Majesty. Just because he doesn’t value his own life doesn’t make him no pawn. You want a mage to use for spare parts, I expect you to import Hadensra or dig up Ozorne. That’s the last we’ll ever speak of this.”
For a moment the only sound came from the scribe frantically summarizing the interaction.
She turned back to Numair and hissed, the words clearly audible in the completely silent room. “And you. Never again will you give away your life like it’s a book you’ve already read, you absolute dolt. What exactly do you imagine I’d do without you?”
He found himself sputtering an apology. He looked over at Jon, who was watching the pair like they were a reasonably interesting card game.
Daine wasn’t done. “What good would sorry be if you was just a grave I visited some mornings? How could you be this stupid?”
“I don’t honestly know.”
She scoffed at him and eased back deeper into her seat. “Well, shall we address our sensible-” she fixed him with a vicious glare - “alternatives then?”
Alanna spoke first and even then it took a whole minute. “Well, I met a mage in the Bazhir desert about ten years ago that I think might be able to put us on the right track.”
“What a helpful thought, Alanna,” Daine said, only she made it sound like a death curse. “I’d be more than happy to ask the rattlesnakes where he could be found.”
Numair ultimately decided that it couldn’t be eavesdropping when they were sitting at his table at breakfast and speaking at completely normal volumes.
“Oh, Eren? We aren’t seeing each other anymore. And don’t look sad for me, it’s all right. He didn’t wrong me nor I him. We were only regular for a few weeks, anyway. He’s a sturdy enough fellow and an all right lay. If you wanted to take up with him, that’d be just fine.”
Numair wasted a moment to be horrified at the number of women who’d likely had a similar conversation about him.
Onua laughed at that. “Tempting, youngling, but even with that glowing endorsement I think I’ll pass.”
The younger girl smiled, handed Onua a hardboiled egg from a platter and launched into an analysis of the riding habits of one of this year’s recruits, who seemed constitutionally incapable of holding his spine straight.
“Eren? Isn’t he in his thirties?” Numair wasn’t sure where the words came from or why they were emerging directly from his mouth.
Daine looked profoundly unimpressed by this revelation. “Oh, is he?” She turned back to Onua. “That’d make sense. He could string a few sentences together in conversation and didn’t just directly shove his tongue, among other appendages, into my mouth. That’s a lot more than I’ve come to expect from anyone my own age.”
Onua cackled at that description. “But they do line up to try.”
Daine continued with a shrug. “Sometimes. But I’m never anyone’s first choice. It’s just that there aren’t so many Lady Riders and even fewer Lady Knights. Anyway, he was also spouting something nonsense about wanting kids in the next couple years.”
“Is that what put you off him?” Onua asked.
Daine nodded. “I have a lot more life left to live.”
Onua toasted her with a glass of apple juice. “You and I understand each other perfectly, miss.” She hesitated and then continued speaking. “My former husband once tried to replace my charm with a fake. ”
“I reckon if there’d been a baby you never would’ve got loose.” Daine replied, touching Onua’s hand briefly, offering the contact instead of forcing it.
“There are no heavier chains.” Onua replied, barely stopping herself from touching a scar on her chin.
“May our past lives stay past.” Daine murmured, head bent as in prayer. “Did that put you off the idea forever?”
“Of husbands, definitely. For children, I’m not quite sure yet.”
“There’s plenty time left.” Daine soothed. “For you or for little ones, either.”
Numair felt his mouth open again and words spill forth. “Daine, you don’t think you’d ever like children?”
Daine nibbled thoughtfully on an apricot roll. “I always liked kids, even though most folks back then wouldn’t let me mind their children or even hold the baby.”
He wondered when she would have a single word to say about Snowsdale that didn’t make him want to turn the whole township into a crater.
“Someday, I think I’d love to have a family of blood, not that I’m not pleased as can be with the fair odd one I’ve already got. But I think I’d like the next decade for myself and at least a few years after that for my husband, should such a creature come to be.”
Numair felt himself smile and think that that timeline sounded ideal. She was plenty young. They could have a long stretch as a childless couple, entire years where he wouldn’t need to share her, and still have time for two, or even three, children. He’d always been jealous of people with siblings.
He buttered his own apricot roll and took a huge bite. Numair chewed and swallowed. He replayed the thought he’d just had. He did so again.
The roll fell out of his hand and onto the table.
Daine laughed at him and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stop looking at her. She ran a hand over his arm casually and the contact was exhilarating.
“I’ll get you a coffee. Try and get some sleep tonight, okay?”
He thought that he remembered to thank her but he couldn’t be sure.
Numair briefly wondered if he’d been cursed and had gone as far as looking through several texts on long distance spells before he realized how crazy that was.
He sought her out whenever the opportunity presented itself and often even when it didn’t. He ate every meal possible in the Rider halls and actually began eating three meals a day for this exact purpose. He constantly visited, with some textbook, a question about the long term memory of whales, an update on Kit’s well being or some other flimsy pretext.
After weeks of this, Daine mentioned brightly that she was pleased by the change.
“I guess you’re between projects or whatnot but I usually don’t get to see this much of you unless we’re on the road. It’s been a treat.”
He felt the dopey smile stretch across his face. “It’s mutual.”
Daine kissed his cheek and the blush burned, even under his summer tan.
Numair reflected constantly on fleeting moments of contact. He obsessively worried about the disgust of their friends, the inevitable day she found someone she wanted to be with for longer than six weeks and how strongly he wanted to speak with and touch her all the time.
He often considered whether or not to say anything to anyone, whether or not it was fair to even ask for the attention of someone who’d relied on him so much in the past, whether she would be disgusted by such an offer or, worse, feel obligated to please him at her own expense.
The months went by and no one said a word and one morning he’d realized why. His behavior hadn’t actually visibly changed. He’d always sought out reasons to speak with her, chose Daine’s company over anyone else’s at social events and regularly looked for a book or anecdote or animal that may be of interest to her. He’d been guilless and sincere up until very recently, but quite devoted just the same.
At first,he assumed these feelings would pass, that one day it wouldn’t matter to him whether or not she hugged him in greeting. But a season passed and then another and his desires remained insistent, unchanged, consuming; the possibility of her his last thought of the evening and the first one as he woke.
For her nineteenth birthday he took her to a fair that was in town to the East. He’d been petty and small and made sure that their trip there would require a full morning’s ride, three complete hours of her undivided attention and company. He’d arranged for Lindhall to take Kit for the day.
Daine had agreed cheerfully, seeming genuinely touched at all of the effort and excited at the concept of a fair that wasn’t for selling livestock once he’d explained it.
For hours they’d had a lovely time. She would grab his arm to show him a mage who made shiny paper fold itself into elaborate shapes that moved in an elaborate choreography. She was completely charmed by a massive tray of purple dumplings folded to look like rabbits. Daine nibbled on one at his insistence and slid the remainder down to a grateful dog.
He’d laughed and taught her how to get rid of it so that no one would ever know, trying to ignore how lovely it was to have an excuse to clasp her hands in his own, to show her how to contort her fingers.
She’d cheered when she’d finally made a small rock disappear from her hand entirely, in such a way that no one but him would have ever known how she’d done it.
Numair leaned forward to kiss her forehead and rest a hand where her neck and shoulder met. He wrapped his other arm around her waist and embraced her to him, trying and failing not to enjoy the contact too much.
He took a moment to pack away the naked adoration he knew was on his face before he tried to speak again.
Daine looked up at him, nearly perfect happiness on her face, smile huge and proud, untroubled by his nearness and relaxed in his embrace.
Then her expression dropped, eyes growing huge and damp in moments, mouth tightening into a thin line.
“Oh, no.” She whispered.
Numair followed her gaze and swore. He saw his future and understood immediately that it included spending an entire six months of personal expenses on this wretched dancing bear. Her fur was mangy and her ears and haunches were dense with scar tissue. More than half of her ribs could be counted by the casual observer.
Daine started to walk towards the animal like a moth drawn to a light. He reached out a hand to her shoulder to stall her.
“Daine, do we have a place for it? Somewhere it could stay and convalesce?”
She barely managed to tear her gaze away. “Yes, that part would be simple enough. I could heal her up and put memories of how to be wild straight into her and after that bad fire there’s open territory North of Corus. But there’s no way he’ll give her to me.”
He paused and wondered for a second whether or not he’d still do this if he didn’t want so desperately to bed her. The bear made a soft, eerie child-like cry at the mere sight of Daine and he felt something strained and delicate twist.
Numair walked over with her and bluntly asked the proprietor how much he wanted for the bear.
The man had cunning eyes under a badly scarred brow and casually named a truly outrageous sum.
Numair agreed, knowing that he’d lost the negotiation the moment the man had seen Daine’s face, and rooted around in his bag for a paper. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her blanche.
“I don’t have that much money. I don’t even have a quarter of it. I could pay you back but it’d take me years.”
“Call it a birthday present.” He told her casually and began neatly writing a letter of credit, finally pressing in a seal that would declare it legitimate to any banker.
“You already got me a birthday present,” Daine whispered, genuine despair in her tone. “And you could buy five warhorses with what he’s asking.”
“I could,” Numair agreed mildly and returned to the man and the wretched animal. “We’ll need a bill of sale, please.”
The man smiled hugely and began to prepare the requested paper.
“You can’t do this,” She tried again, with the mortification of someone who’d grown up not knowing what a Gold Crown looked like.
“Daine. I can. I just did. If I can’t do something like this for someone like you then what would even be the point of money? And anyway if any of your patients could pay you’d have been able to do it yourself.”
“Thank you,” She finally whispered, grabbing his cloak. “Thank you.”
She said it like he’d pulled her out of a burning house.
“Happy birthday,” He told her, keeping his tone light. “I suppose we’ll head back after you’ve healed him.”
“Yes. Please. Thank you. I had a lovely day.” She was sobbing now, the first time he’d seen her cry earnestly in years. She dripped snot and tears and her face as puffy and red.
“I really did. It was such a nice birthday.” Every few words she needed another moment to lose a hiccuping sob.
Numair held her until she finally stopped with a deep gasp. When she finally stepped away, there remained a smear of snot and tears, smeared across his shirt chest. Daine was already draped across the wretched animal like a rug on the floor, whispering soothing truths, running her hands through its ragged fur.
He knew then that he loved her and that that verb left far more questions than it answered.
Numair felt his heart actually leap in his chest when the knock on the door turned out to be hers. He invited her in, reminding himself not to stare for too long. She seemed wrung out and tired and kept her eyes firmly on the floor.
“Do you have a moment to talk?”
“For you, always.” Numair replied and then hated himself a little for not just being able to say yes.
“Promise me that you aren’t going to laugh.” Daine pulled both of her hands into a fist and then forced them to relax again. She took a deep breath and outside of his window a sparrow screamed at its romantic rival.
“I can do that.” Numair assured her, sparing a moment to pray that she was not going to request guidance for some other romance. He invited her to sit and she threw herself down in the chair opposite him gracelessly, like her own legs could no longer hold up her own weight.
“A few months ago Onua told me something. Well, I guess the first person to bring up the possibility was actually Ozorne but I didn’t put much stock in his opinion at the time and I don’t see how him being dead changes that.
“Anyway, I assumed Onua didn’t know what she was talking about because these days no one knows you like I do. But then Alanna said exactly the same last week, like it was a fact, like it was the most obvious thing in the whole world and I know you two have been close for a long time. And Alanna is older than me and very clever and none too prone to flights of fancy or comforting lies.”
“And I figured.” She took a deep breath again and the chittering sparrows in the yard went totally dead silent. “I figured a while ago it was better to ask you myself than to try to keep moving forward without all the information. Today I finally worked up to it. And I hope it’s easier to move on and go back to when I was happy being your best friend when I can hear from your own mouth that you aren’t interested, that you flirt with basically everyone and that you love me but only like family. It’d be better than spending so much of my time and spare thoughts wondering.”
“Daine,” He reached out a single hand to grasp hers but she only permitted it for a moment. He tried to stare into her eyes but she kept her gaze firmly on the ground, arms wrapped tightly around her midsection. She rose to her feet and began pacing.
“Please let me finish. I don’t think you can imagine how much it cost to even say that much. I just wanted to make sure you know that there’s no world where I leave you. I may need a few weeks of space to be embarrassed and awkward but that’s all. You can say no and I’ll learn to swallow these feelings and we can go back to the way things were. We can go on working and studying and eating together like we always have. You’re my best friend and that’s so much more than I ever thought I’d have. Everything I do is more fun if I can do it with you. You preferring someone beautiful or sophisticated or your own age could never change any of that.”
Numair took a deep breath and then another and the moment, so desperately desired, still felt unlikely, even false. No matter how he contorted the wonderful words and sentences she’d been forming, he couldn’t find any rejection or even hesitation or doubt.
Numair noticed that her brow became increasingly furrowed with every second he stayed silent.
Daine stopped mid-stride. She sucked in a deep breath like she’d been struck and her shoulders hunched forward.
“No, no, I most certainly didn’t mean it like that. I’m only apologizing for needing a moment to find the words.”
“It’s all right,” Daine told him, tone and affect both flat. He knew from the set of her jaw that she would never permit herself to cry now but would be doing so later, when she thought he couldn’t hear.
“No, it isn’t.” He began again, feeling his heart pound in his chest. “Everything you’re saying is exactly what I want to hear.”
“It is?” She’d turned to face him now. He watched her brow lower in suspicion. “Which part?”
“Are you positive this is something that you want? That this is a choice you’re making selfishly, for your own happiness and not for mine?”
“Wanting you to myself isn’t a choice at all.” She replied, sounding confused now instead of broken. Daine let the silence stretch on further. “Numair? Are you all right?”
Numair blinked for a long moment, struggling to capture the thread of a single thought among dozens. “Much better than that, actually.”
He stood up and rested his hand against her neck, stroking her collarbone with his thumb, forcing himself to give her time to recoil or refuse, utterly distracted by the idea that he’d been given permission to touch her without some excuse. She held completely still. Her expression was familiar to him for all that he’d never seen it on her face before. He tilted her chin up to kiss her and she gasped, opening her mouth, her hand warm against his face.
Numair gathered her to him, running his fingers under the hem of her shirt, over her side and back. Her skin was soft and warm and the hand tracing his ribcage was trembling. She wrapped her arms around his neck and he pulled her even closer, pressing her entire body into his.
Beautiful minutes passed untroubled by a single second of rational thought. When he came back into himself, his shirt was on the ground and she was untying his belt. He was kissing her frantically, her lips and neck, probably gripping her hips too tightly. The way she’d balled her fists into his hair and the noises she was making were absolutely not encouraging restraint.
He forced himself to pull back slightly. “Is it okay--”
“Yes.” She tried to tug him back down.
“I’d like to make sure-”
Daine sighed loudly. “I understand what’s happening right now. I’m saying yes. I want this. Sit down, please. It’d be a lot easier to kiss you.”
Numair moved to obey, pulling her with him and trying to remember how to touch someone gently. She tugged off her shirt and breeches before straddling his lap and this was actually happening, right now. He heard a gasping breath and realized it was his own.
“What do you like?” He asked when he could remember how to breath.
“You, mostly.” She sounded a bit dazed.
He smiled and hugged her for a moment, hard.
Numair asked her again. Then she told him.
“Was,” The verb seemed to momentarily defeat her. He stopped playing with her hair so that he could sit up and look at her. Daine had yet another expression that he’d never seen before, whose meaning he couldn’t fathom. “Was that everything you wanted?”
“Out of a sexual encounter or out of you?”
“Let’s go with both.” She spoke slowly, choosing each syllable with care.
“I’m sorry,” He said again and she tensed up completely, like she was expecting to be struck. “I haven’t been clear at all, have I? Obviously, I had a wonderful evening and would prefer any relationship going forward to have a sexual component. More essentially, though, I am very interested in courting you publicly.”
“You don’t have to court me if you don’t want to.” Her tone was flat and careful. “We could work out another arrangement.”
He found the words spilling out, unplanned and clumsy. “I do want to, though. Badly. Court you, I mean. I want any claim on your time and attention that you’ll give me and a status in your life that grants me leave to visit or touch you without some flimsy excuse. I would like to stop trying not to call attention to how completely smitten I am, which apparently I was terrible at anyway.”
“I must’ve heard you say a hundred times that you don’t think of me that way.” She spoke hesitantly.
Numair felt a blush creep up his cheeks. “Historically, that was accurate. For some time now, however, that has been a lie. Of increasingly grand proportions.”
Encouraged by her small smile, he swallowed his embarrassment and continued.
“I had a lot of reasons for not approaching you. None of them involved a lack of enthusiasm. I didn’t want to gamble your comfort with me and our very close friendship, which is what I treasure most in this life. I was also very cowardly and not willing to embrace the possibility of a rejection, even for something I wanted this badly. I was and remain very interested in having you as a romantic partner to whatever extent you’re open to and for as long as you'll have me.”
She took a long, probing look at his face. When she spoke again it was with genuine wonder.
“You actually meant all that.”
He could see the tension ease out of her shoulders as she finally relaxed, laying her head on a pillow. She released a long breath and grabbed his hand in her own, holding it between them. “All right. A courtship seems like a good place to start. We can discuss longer term things in a few seasons, if this doesn’t end in tears.”
He leaned over to kiss her more gently. “I would love that.”
“Will you stay here tonight?”
She smiled again and wound herself tighter into his blanket. “I think that sounds lovely.”
“We could be in the library right now.” He eyed the bow with wary suspicion.
Daine was already smiling in anticipation of the evening. “You said I could choose what we did tonight.”
“I say a lot of things. I believe the exact adverb applied was ‘constantly’.”
She laughed outright and adjusted the guard on his arm. “Someone really observant must’ve told you that.”
“One of your numerous virtues, I’m sure. Nevertheless, I can’t recall any such arrangement.”
“You had your mind on other matters.” She briefly dipped her fingers into his waistband and leaned her forehead into his shoulder before returning to her task, the smile on her face simultaneously mocking and full of sexual promise.
Daine let go of him. She strung the bow with an easy, practiced movement. She tested the pull, humming appreciatively at the intimidating, baritone thwap.
She pulled it back and casually shot three bullseyes. She then declared the balance “Good enough, for our purposes” handing it back to him.
Daine was a good teacher and he wondered how he’d missed that. She patiently adjusted and then readjusted his form and was always looking for the tiny things he did correctly to comment on. She seemed genuinely thrilled at any amount of success and cheered unironically when he finally managed to strike the actual target.
Daine seemed happy and at ease and he felt a sentence he was forming trail off as he stared. "I didn't..."
“Hm?” She was cheerfully yanking deeply embedded arrows out of the target, humming a popular ballad about Keladry of Mindelan loudly and completely off-key.
“I didn’t know this would mean that much to you.”
“I really haven’t had the chance since I stopped hunting and obviously I have much better ways to kill in whatever Godsforsaken war is around the corner. But it’s fun. I’m good at it and it’s nice to get outside without any responsibilities. My Granda teaching me and taking me out to practice were some of the happiest days I had as a kid. I still miss him some. He loved me exactly the way I was. It didn’t bother him none that I had no Da and no Gift.”
“Will you teach our children that same way?”
She cocked her head to the side and looked up, thinking. “Only if they’re interested. It doesn’t seem right to push them into being any particular thing or even at all like either one of us. It’s a shame that they won’t have any grandparents, but I reckon they’ll have Aunts and Cousins enough to make up for it.”
He nodded, noting that his face had begun to tire from smiling. “That seems like exactly the right way to think about it.”
Daine pulled him down into a brief, hard kiss. She pulled away, clearly listening to something.
She smiled even brighter and hugged Alanna in greeting as she approached the pair on the range.
Alanna greeted them civilly and then fired off a very quick series of excellent shots. Daine volunteered to fetch them, encouraging Alanna to “rest her ancient bones” and dodging the swat that followed.
Alanna clapped him on the shoulder, for all that she had to fully extend her arm to do so. “Look at you. This is a testament to what years of embarrassingly public pining can accomplish.”
“I don’t recall mentioning anything to you.”
She chuckled at that and gently prodded at his ribs. “You really underestimate palace gossip and my own Goddess-granted sense.”
“No threatening speech about power dynamics or commentary about our relative ages?”
Alanna shrugged and picked up a smaller, recurve bow. She tested the tension and began inspecting the arrow. “If I thought you needed to hear it there wouldn’t be anything to talk about.”
“That’s the highest compliment I can think of. Thank you.”
“Besides, you’ve both had little enough happiness in your lives. I can’t imagine who’d begrudge you finding some wherever you could get it.”
“Oh, I can.”
“I mean it. I’ve never seen her actually act her age before. And she’s owed more than a few carefree years. And I know you’d do anything to make sure she gets them.”
“Thank you. You’ve been a good friend to me for a lot of years. I’m not sure how I would’ve gotten by without you.”
Alanna chuckled at that. “That’s true but nice to hear just the same.”
Her and Daine shot arrows until their backs were soaked with sweat and their fingertips were utterly raw, laughing loudly, each singing the bawdy versions of ballads about the other. Numair joined in shooting sometimes, slower and more clumsy, more likely to take a layer of skin off of his arm than move any projectile towards a quarry. They cheered and jeered at each other and laughed until their sides hurt. During Alanna's rounds Daine wound wander over, leaning into him while he rested a hand against her hip or stroked her neck. He took a brief moment to wonder just how he'd gotten so lucky.