Continuing Tales


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 32 of 69

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The next day Numair was unusually quiet. He excused himself quite soon after breakfast to walk about the grounds by himself. He hadn’t returned to the library by the time Daine finished her lessons with Hazelle, nor did he appear for their evening meal. It was only later when the lamps had been lit and the guests started arriving for another card party when he appeared, looking worn and dishevelled but wearing a polite, glasslike mask that betrayed none of his thoughts.

The guests were the same as the previous evening, having returned for the second hand of the intricate game they’d begun the night before. The mage lurked around the tables for an hour or so, learning the names and faces of the people in the room with the same eerie brightness in his expression. Then he sat down at a table, drew his chair up to the group and smiled when they dealt him in. As the evening drew on he topped up the glass of the man beside him, playing him with wine until the man was quite drunk. He matched him in his cups, and by the time both men staggered up from the table they were both unsteady on their feet.

Hazelle watched them leave, seeing that Numair was walking into the garden with the man who had scared Daine so violently the night before. She was too well-trained to let her suspicions show on her face, but crooked a finger at a servant and whispered in the man’s ear. He nodded, and crossed the room to where Daine was speaking quietly in her own card group. At the servant’s hushed message the girl paled, but Hazelle saw how little her hands shook when she put her cards down, smiled at the guests, and politely excused herself. She walked steadily to the door and walked out into the hallway, fetching her own cloak and gloves. Then she slipped out into the garden and waited just outside the circle of torchlight that lit the entrance.

After a long wait a lone figure walked up to her, and Daine didn’t move as the man leaned against the wall beside her. Numair was breathing raggedly, and his rapid breaths steamed in the frozen night air. He smelled of wine. Daine refused to think any more about the other scents. Not that metallic darkness of blood that clung to him, nor the ragged sharp smell that spoke of snapped pine branches.

“What did you do?” Daine asked in a flat voice. The man didn’t answer, but he showed her his un-gloved hands. In the torchlight the bloodstains looked black against his icy skin. Daine said nothing, but she looked away and stared at the ground.

“We argued over cards.” Numair’s voice was rough. “He’s too much in his cups to remember anything other than that. He’ll think he was caught cheating when he wakes up tomorrow. He’ll think… he’ll know... that he deserved it.”

Daine didn’t say anything, but she took a deep breath and looked up at the icy sky. It was so clear of clouds that the starts were painfully bright.

“This was my fault.” She said finally. “I shouldn’t have told you anything. I should have known you would do this.”

“I had to.”

“No.” She snapped, her voice suddenly sharp. “You didn’t.”

He looked askance at her for a moment, and she ran a hand through her hair fitfully. Her fingertips caught on the bone pin which held her curls up, and she yanked it out in an irritable tangle of curls and pins. When she stared at the intricately carved pin the whirls in it made her feel giddy, and her words came out in a bitter whisper.

“What have you done, Numair? You make me think I should keep things secret from you.”

He didn’t answer, and after a long pause she said, “Numair, you can’t fight every person who I tell you about. How quickly do you think they’d work out who we really are? And I don’t want you to put yourself through this for me. Can’t you understand that? We can’t just… we can’t be like we were before they locked us up. We have to be better than that. There’s a right way to do things, and we have to stick to it!”

“I’m sick of it.” He spat, and there was a furious note in his voice that made her step back. “Daine, I hate it. Why can’t we just leave this cursed place to the demons and live our own lives? Every time I hear Hazelle call you Annette or some official call me Leto I want to curse at them. That’s not who we are, and it’s not the lives we’ve led. We didn’t fight for so long just to spend the rest of our days pretending to be other people around men and women we despise. This game is not going to solve anything for us without taking a hell of a lot more payment first.”

“B…but it’s better.” She whispered.

He laughed hoarsely, the sound coloured by both his own emotions and the wine which still made him slur his words.

“Better? You might think you escaped from the prison when we climbed out of that window but those men still have more power over you than any other free woman in the world. Every man who has the power to make you afraid still has a hold over you, Daine. And I won’t let them have you. Not anymore, Daine. I can’t. I won’t. You’re mine, not theirs.”

This time it was Daine who couldn’t think of an answer, although a thousand thoughts darted through her head at his words. He saw her confusion and leaned back against the wall, stumbling slightly over the stone paving as he moved from the slippery snow onto the gritted surface. Before she could ask him why he was moving he gripped her shoulder, and his hand was painfully tight as he drew her closer.

Daine instinctively gasped and dragged herself away. He hadn’t hurt her but her heart raced. She was almost terrified by the claw-like hand which hardly seemed like it belonged to the man she loved. When he saw her fear he let her go with a hiss and his words became darker, more dangerous. He leaned closer and she took a step back, feeling the rough wall against her back and the warm sourness of alcohol that made him press against her and made him speak in a low possessive growl.

“Tell me everything, Daine. Every secret you tell me about those monsters is another chain I can break, and by Mynoss I will tear through every one of them to keep you. I want to. I can make you free. They should burn for what they did to you.”

“No!” She shrieked, and pressed her hands over her ears. “Stop it! I don’t want that!”

She glared up at him with eyes shocked into tears. For a second the eyes which looked back at her were so dark, so black, that she thought she was looking into the eyes of the hawk. She bit back a sob and pressed her hands over her face, not wanting to look at him.

“You’re drunk.” She said shakily, refusing looking up in case she was wrong. She couldn’t bear to see what other demon might be lurking in his veins. She felt sick thinking that she might have caused this… this madness. “Numair, you’re not yourself. You… you’re not…”

She gulped and shook her head wildly. When he drew a breath to retort she raised her hands and shoved him violently away from her. Then she fled.

Daine slept in the kitchen that night, sharing the warm hearth rug with a litter of kittens that the kitchen maids had been cooing over for several days. It was the first night that she’d slept alone for weeks. Despite the warmth of the fire and the comforting bodies of the cats curled around her she woke up several times. Her dreams were haunted by murderous black eyes and every time she awoke she found herself reaching out. Her whole body yearned for comfort from someone who simply wasn’t there.

Despite the nightmares she obstinately stayed in the kitchen for the whole night, refusing to check their link to find out where Numair was or if he had found his own sleep. She must have slept eventually though, because suddenly it was morning and the scullery maid was trying to relight the range as quietly as possible. It was an impossible task with the clumsy iron tools she was wielding in tiny hands. Daine sat up, and the cook patted her on the shoulder sympathetically.

“Lady Hazelle told Thomas to pour a bucket of ice water on ‘is lordship this morning, if you so wished it.” She shaped the words through a crooked-toothed grin and rattled off a tired laugh. “She ain’t got no patience for them as can’t hold their cups, and I guess you’re not best pleased with ‘im neither.”

Daine rubbed her eyes and smiled wanly. “He’ll probably have a headache already. Let’s not make his mood worse.”

“Ahr.” The cook looked subtly disappointed and turned away to fetch a sack of oats. “Want to help me make t’porridge then, lass, since you’re down here? Or are you just the type to play with me kittens and not work, like them maids?”

“No, I’ll help.” Daine found the will to smile and got up, prompting a chorus of petulant mewing.

They had barely gotten the milk warm, and were stirring hard oats into the spiced liquid with a long spoon, when someone cleared their throat behind them. Daine looked around and fumbled the spoon, almost too confused to hold onto it.

“Hullo, magelet.” Numair said quietly. He took the spoon from her clumsy hands and took over stirring. A large bruise was darkening over one of his cheekbones, and although he had tried to hide it under a few strands of hair the effect was rather bedraggled. Daine bit her lip and touched the bruise with cool fingertips. He didn’t flinch at her touch but looked at her silently, waiting for her to speak first.

“Are we bad for each other?” She whispered in the end, her eyes shining with tears. He shook his head impatiently and hugged her, his arms strong around her back.

“Daine,” he let her go and said seriously, “I’m not… I’m not happy with the way things are. I don’t like all the pretending, but I was wrong to take that out on you. In all honestly I don’t think you understand how much better life can be. But I shouldn’t expect you to… to know what it really means to be free.”

“You weren’t free.” She replied. “You were drunk and angry and you did something completely senseless just because it made you feel better.”

He winced. “Well, I prefer doing senseless things than doing nothing at all.”

“And even though I asked you not to, you think I was wrong because… because if I was truly free then I would be fighting those men myself?” She blinked up at him and planted her hands on her hips. “I don’t think that’s right. I choose not to fight them. It’s as much my own free decision as choosing to fight them, and it was you who took that freedom away from me last night, not them.”

He frowned, looked like he was about to say something, and then rubbed his forehead as if it ached.

“Let’s pretend, just for a second, that we were really married. Properly married, Daine. Imagine that. Everyone knows our real names, and they know that I’m your husband and that you‘re my wife. We have everything we ever wanted – everything you ever dreamed of, and everything I thought I’d lost forever. We’re safe and happy and every night we fall asleep together in front of a warm fire in a country where it never gets cold enough to freeze the doors to their frames. Pretend all that, just for a moment, and now let’s say that a man walks in to our home and attacks you. Would you really expect me to just let him walk away without paying for what he did? Of course not. And no-one, no-one, would blame me for breaking the bastard’s nose. They’d know I did it because you’re my wife, and because I love you, and because I want you to be safe.”

“But that’s not what actually happened…” she started. He shook his head, and waved a hand as if he were trying to make her understand.

“No, look… you say we have to keep up the façade, and that it will keep us safe. Why? Because we’re not… what, Daine? We’re miraculously not murderers anymore? Because Hazelle’s twenty guards can protect us from an army of mages? Neither of those things is even close to being true. As long as we keep lying about who we really are we’re not going to be safe. We’re becoming too scared to defend ourselves in case people find out who we really are. That means I… I can’t be Leto if it means you’re going to be at risk. I can’t defend you as him.”

“Who are you going to be, then?” Daine asked, narrowing her eyes. “Because I could have sworn that a few weeks ago you told me that the parts of us who fought people were our enemies. You said that. You can’t just become the Hawk when it suits you. You can’t say that it’s okay that you hurt someone because you did it out of love for me. Last night I was afraid, Numair. You terrified me. And do you know why?”

The girl saw him flinch and bit the inside of her cheek, feeling horrible but having to finish her sentence. However hurtful it was, it was true. “I was terrified that I would lose you forever. That you would become that monster and I would never see you again – and for what? A bit of petty revenge?”

She laughed harshly and turned away. “Nothing is worth that to me, Numair. If you don’t know that then… then we really must be bad for each other. Because nothing the officials ever did to me could hurt me more than you throwing your life away like that.”

He looked like he was going to retort, but then he bit his lip and turned away abruptly. Taking the earthen jug to the kitchen meltwater barrel and drawing up another load of water clearly gave him time to calm his thoughts, although his eyes were still seething when he returned. He poured the icy water into the oats which hissed as they cooled. In their argument neither of the mages had noticed the bottom layer of porridge burning to the pot.

Daine hesitantly took his unresisting hand. “I don’t think we’ll ever agree on this. But it’s done, isn’t it? We can't take it back. And I guess you wouldn't want to. So… so we won’t say anything else about it.” The girl told him, and then she looked very unsure of herself. “Un… unless it happens again. But it won’t. Not like that.” She looked up at him, and for a moment her eyes were pleading. “Will it, Numair?”

He looked at her for a long time, his expression inscrutable, and then he looked down into the porridge pot. “I won’t say another word about it, sweetheart.”

It wasn’t quite the answer Daine had wanted, and neither of them managed anything close to either an apology, but for the present it felt like enough.

It wasn’t. It was not nearly enough, and both of them knew it deep down. But it was only a few weeks later, after it was too late to take their silence back, that either of them thought back bitterly to that morning when they had pretended to understand. They had kissed each other so sweetly while they treated one another’s darkest secrets like passing whims. Neither of them could have guessed exactly how far their resolve would be tested in the months to come.

The next weeks passed much as they had before.

Once they were used to the idea that any of the gathered officials could be in on Orsille’s plans it was easier to pretend to enjoy themselves. They could laugh at the jokes and dance with them without their hands curling into nervous fists. Daine was constantly amazed that none of the officials recognised her. She never even noticed them looking at her curiously. After a while she saw the way that the men’s eyes flitted over their servants’ faces without recognition and understood a little better: as a slave she had been less than nothing to these people, so they had no need to remember anything about her. As a lady – as an apparent heiress – they even noticed when the maids parted her hair on the opposite side.

There was a tense atmosphere at every party, whether it was a dance or a banquet or a night of card games. It was as if everyone were holding their breath. They all knew they were watching each other, but it was as Alanna had said: because the Tortallans had made no counter to the assassins, the officials had no idea what they should do next. After a month of increasingly friendly parties the knight was having to go into the garden and curse loudly at the trees for a few hours in the morning, needing something to break the tension.

Daine and Numair didn’t need to curse at the trees, because they had each other. As soon as the last guest had left and they had shared what they found out with Hazelle and Alanna, they excused themselves. As soon as they locked the door of their room it was as if Leto and Annette had simply ceased to exist, and all the plots and conspiracies were unimportant. Instead of finding out dark secrets, they found out about each other, with loving, artless fascination.

Sometimes, exhausted from the evening’s work, they shared stories, hopes and secrets. They often spoke in soft voices until dawn, falling asleep with linked arms like innocent children. Not so innocent were the nights when their heartbeats raced and they tore at each other’s’ clothes, barely letting the door lock behind them before they surrendered to mindless passion.

Then there were the nights when the guests went home early and they lay down in each other’s embrace, content just to be held closely and speaking without the need for words. Those nights were gentler, as they learnt each other’s bodies as intimately as they knew each other’s thoughts. Every morning, Daine woke up and remembered anew that she was loved, and that the arms that held her belonged to the man she adored, and every morning she marvelled at how happy it was possible for two people to be.

Alanna teased them mercilessly, of course, when she joined them every morning to practice meditation. Daine stopped blushing after the first week, realising that the barbed comments hid the fact that the knight was genuinely happy for them.

The woman was so fascinated by the way their magic was entwined that she often forgot to practice her own meditation, watching instead the way that they could wander in and out of each other’s magic with ease and use their own gift to strengthen the other. After the successful illusion spell, Numair had suggested that they each practice casting magic with the other’s help, until both of them could work on quite complex magic without being afraid that their wild natures would escape.

“It’s almost like being normal again,” Numair said, smiling when he quickly lit the fire, extinguished it with a snap of his fingers, and then relit it in liquid flames which glowed with bronze and black sparks. Daine grinned and didn’t answer, caught up with greeting the flock of cats that she had called to her from every corner of the house and grounds with one strong burst of her own magic. The kittens that had slept by the hearth had grown up, and the last memories of their argument had faded alongside their babyish mews.

The days were peaceful, the nights were wondrous, and if Daine had thought like a slave for a single moment she would have realised that things were too good to last. Each day was shadowed only by the evenings they spent with the officials, in air that was now so thick it felt like molasses. After nearly three months, when the snow was almost melting and the passes were nearly clear enough to march through, the officials finally made a move. In a few heartbeats the simple happiness fled from their lives.


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 32 of 69

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