After The Realm of the Gods and the death of Ozorne, Daine and Numair move forward with their lives and their relationship. They will face trials and opposition – but the greatest stumbling block may well be their own insecurities.
Four short stories set between The Realms of the Gods and Lingering Ghosts.
These stories take place from late spring to late summer in the year after the events of The Realm of the Gods.
Stumbling Steps – Threshold – Revelations – Declaration
See series Main Page for disclaimers and full warnings.
Sex, mentions of past violence, age difference between romantic partners
Daine and Numair, in love and trying to find their way together, reach a turning point in their relationship – will they go forward, or stumble?
(late spring, the year after the events of The Realm of the Gods)
“There you are.”
Daine looked over her shoulder in the direction of the deep, gentle voice with a smile. “Were you looking for me?”
Numair, her teacher, friend, and love leaned against one of the trees at the edge of the small clearing in the Royal Forest where she lay after conversing with some of her animal friends. He smiled, making her shiver. “Always, sweeting.”
He was so handsome, she thought. Fully six-foot, five-inches, he towered over nearly everyone, especially her own five-foot-four frame, and yet moved with a powerful grace despite his size. Swarthy skin and glossy black hair tied back in a horsetail revealed his southern origins, and his eyes were dark and warm set amid strong features.
Daine loved him with everything she was, and felt the warmth of his love for her to the depth of her soul.
“Now that you’ve found me, what’s next?” she asked, just a little wickedly.
He loved her passionate sensual side even as he was constantly surprised by it. She was so small, yet embodied so many contrasts—soft blue eyes and delicate features paired with a stubborn chin; small curvy frame containing firm, lean muscles, and an innocence that was both endearing and arousing even as it marched alongside a worldliness that came from her having lived through loss, trauma, and a war. Daine was, to his eyes, the most beautiful woman in the world—for all that she was only seventeen.
Therein lay his problem. Not only was he fourteen years older than his love, but she was still an adolescent. He’d loved her for several years, and for the last year she had known of it—and reciprocated. Yet he refused to take the next step, to become her lover in truth because she was so young. He feared, deeply, that she would wake up and find her interest in him a waning infatuation. But when she spoke like this, with a mixture of playfulness and desire, he found it impossible to remember her age.
“I get to look at you, of course.”
She laughed and rolled to her feet, then took two running steps towards him, leaping into his arms. When he caught her, she pressed her lips against her chin. “I love you.”
“I love you too, magelet.”
After the evening meal, which Daine ate in the Rider’s mess hall, she gathered several of her leather-bound texts and went to meet Numair for lessons. The books were precious to her for two reasons, having nothing to do with their cost—they had taught her so much about her friends among the People, allowing her to heal and more; and they were gifts from Numair.
She entered the main Palace and made her way to his rooms on the second floor. Numair, as one of the kingdom’s—no, the world’s —most powerful and talented mages, occupied a set of rooms when at the Palace that included a sitting room, bedchamber and bathing room, a study/library, and a workroom—which was shielded magically and had reinforced walls, floor and ceiling to contain the occasional explosion which resulted form an experiment.
Daine didn’t bother knocking as the door was spelled to allow her entry. “Numair?’
“Here, magelet,” came a muffled reply from though a door to the right, sending Diane into the study, where she found him sprawled in a large armchair, frowning over a large tome. A number of other books, scrolls, and sheaves of papers lay scattered on the desk that was within his arms reach.
“What’s going on?”
“Jon wants to know more about the origins of the various immortal races—a number of the university mages are also working on it—but unfortunately, most of the texts concerning the subject are so old that they can’t be read in the original form, and have to be transcribed and translated. It’s slow going, so I’ve been recruited.”
“Recruited? Or did you volunteer?” she asked with a smile, to which he shrugged with an answering smile. She knew him too well to think that he had been forced into this. “Any luck?” she asked, settling on the footstool near his feet.
“Hmmm—most of it is speculations of other scholars, not fact.”
“You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if even the immortals didn’t know for sure—d’you remember what Rikash told me? That Stormwings were dreamed up by a human who was sickened by war? All he knew for sure was that Stormwings were born of a mortal imagination—everything else was just a myth.”
“Very true—actually, it was hearing that story which got Jon interested in this project. But you do have a point.” He paused, looking up from his book, frowning absently at the ceiling as he did when deep in thought. “Perhaps another of the immortal races would know—it not their own origins, but that of one of the other races,” he mused out loud. “Surely, if some are younger or older than others, some of the immortals would have been aware of the beginning of another species.”
“Well, I’ll be sure to ask, the next time I run into a spidren, if they happened to observe to birth of a race and would they speak slowly while I take notes?”
He blinked in confusion at her sardonic tone, then looked down at her. “Certainly not—I didn’t mean—I was referring to one of the more friendly immortals, Daine.”
“Really? Because when it comes to gaining esoteric facts, you tend to run short on logic.”
“Avoiding spidrens has nothing to do with logic—besides, you’d never get a straight or intelligent answer from them.”
“Probably the main reason you aren’t considering asking them.”
“I was , while musing, thinking about the dragons,” he said firmly, an eyebrow raised, as he ignored the jabs she was merrily taking at his scholarly habits—partly because they were accurate. “I’m sure Diamondflame wouldn’t mind answering a few questions.”
Daine chewed her bottom lip, unknowingly drawing Numair’s thoughts from scholarly pursuits to more worldly ones. “You could be right—when he comes to bring Kitten back next week, you might ask him. Numair?” She noticed where his focus was and smiled slightly. “See something more interesting than dragons?”
“Most definitely,” he groaned, setting his book on the desk with the rest before reaching out to draw her onto his lap. “You have no idea what you do to me,” he murmured, leaning into bite her lip himself.
“Oh, I have an idea,” she managed before they both lost themselves in the taste and touch of the other.
Daine’s hands tangled in Numair’s thick, soft hair, loosening it from its tie, as he drew her tight to his chest, torsos so close that not even air could come between them. She allowed his lips free reign over her mouth, neck and shoulder for a time before she tugged him back to meet her own lips, glorying in the heady taste and feel of his breath, lips, and tongue on her flesh and mouth.
The feel of her, as always, drove him to the brink of madness, and he only barely managed to retain his sanity and control. She was, by turns, shy and demanding, both allowing him freedom to explore her and fighting for dominance. No one, not even in his adolescence, had had such an effect or fueled such passion in him—nor made him feel half as much, in body or heart.
Finally, as he edged closer to snapping the final thread of his control, he managed to draw back slightly, still holding Daine. She had managed to loosen the laces of his shirt, and his own hands had slipped under hers to rest high on her back and ribcage, his thumbs brushing against the underside of her breasts, which he couldn’t seem to stop stroking gently. She shivered slightly as he did so, face and lips pressed against the juncture of his neck and shoulder as she straddled him. Her hand was inside his shirt, against his chest, and her tongue darted out to touch his skin, causing him to shudder.
“We need to stop, Daine,” he managed at a whisper, his breathing still erratic.
He paused at the simple question, as the answer was so complex. He found it nearly impossible to think normally around her in most cases, and in the position they were in, it was twice as difficult—largely due to the fact that most of his blood was a long way from his head.
“Because we’ll go too far if we don’t stop.”
“Numair,” she said calmly, softly, from his shoulder. He wished he could see her face, and yet dreaded having to face those deep blue eyes. “Numair, nothing would be ‘too far’ with you.”
He froze—could have sworn he stopped breathing. It was the first time she had said anything openly about finishing what they had started frequently in the last several months, stating what her eyes had told him countless times. All his worries and fears began to recede beneath a combination of love, wonder, and pure desire.
“You—we—Daine, we shouldn’t.”
“Why?” she repeated.
When he didn’t answer, she drew away enough to look him in the eye while remaining entangled in his arms. He had been right to worry about her eyes—they were a stormy blue, faintly glazed with passion, and steady with a determination he had seen more than once and which often lead trouble for the one on the receiving end of the look—him, in this case.
“Numair, I love you; I don’t know how many times I’ve told you so. You always get angry when I doubt that you would want to stay with me, so why do you do the same?”
He blinked at her, opening his mouth to dispute her logic before closing it with a snap. Damnit, she was right.
“You always—hold back—when we do this, and then draw away before distracting us both. Why? Do you not want—”
“You can’t possibly be sitting where you are, right now, and utter that statement honestly,” he said bluntly, flexing his hands slightly, which pressed her even closer to him and the absolute proof that lack of interest was not a problem.
She blushed slightly and trembled, but continued to meet his eyes directly, smothering to brief thought that he could embarrass her into dropping the subject. “Then what is it? Why don’t you—you know, any other man who had a woman in this position wouldn’t be questioninganything , or be making excuses!” she blurted out, angry and frustrated.
“He would if he loved and respected her,” was his reply, equally frustrated and angry, but also very, very firm.
“I know you love me! No one’s ever loved me the way you have—you see me, all of me, know all my faults and still love me not despite of them but because of them. And you were the first person, next to Ouna, who respected me—and even with Ouna, she respected my skill with horses, but in everything else I had to prove myself. But you—I was barely thirteen, and you saw enough in me, respected me enough, to give me learning, and books—and to listen to my opinions and ideas, and let me act on my own. You trusted me when Pirate’s Swoop was attacked, after only a bit of training, to use my magic and help, and everyone else took their cue from you. You’ve given me nothing but respect, and anyone who says differently can say it to one of my arrows!”
Numair drew her back tightly to him, pressing her face to his shoulder. Daine knew her voice had risen and she’d begun to ramble slightly, but she had to make him see—what, exactly, she didn’t know. He always held back, just a bit, trying to be responsible, but also held by his own fears—that if he went too far, did something wrong, she would stop loving him. She had the same fears, and neither of them had mentioned marriage since the day she had killed Ozorne, almost a year ago. But she knew that, if they were going to have any kind of a chance to make this—make them —work, it had to start here, with honesty and openness about their relationship and fears.
“I don’t—I don’t want you to regret anything, sweet,” she heard him murmur into her hair. “Everything we’ve done, that we’ve had together—if it falls to pieces, there’s nothing to regret. But this is something that you might wish to undo, and if ever that happens—well, if loosing you in the first place didn’t kill me, then knowing that you would want to wish away being my lover would .”
“I could never regret anything about what’s between us, Numair,” she said, tightening her arms around him, speaking into his neck, “only whatisn’t between us—and there is no one, not in all the realms, who I would rather have as a lover—as my only lover,” she finished, her voice fading to a whisper as images swirled in her head—memories of what they’d shared mixed with hazy dreams of what could come next.
A large calloused hand tangled gently in her chestnut curls, drawing her face from his neck to where he could meet her gaze with his own dark one. He stared in her eyes for a long moment, measuring something, before his face tightened slightly. Daine opened her mouth to speak, half-dreading whatever decision he seemed to have reached, but he swooped down to catch her lips in a brief, intense kiss before she could voice any of the questions swirling in her head. When he drew back, he rasped out two words, which were half plea, half demand. “Be sure.”
She answered him with a kiss of her own, no less intense than the previous one, holding all the certainty and passion she could muster. Her stomach did a brief flip and she drew back, realizing that Numair had surged to his feet, still holding her, and started across the room.
He kissed her again as he carried her through the study and sitting room and to the door of his bedchamber, before gazing steadily at her as they paused at the threshold. “No regrets, magelet,” he said softly, both asking her and stating his own feelings. She cuddled close to him, supported by his arms and her legs wrapped around his waist, surrounded by his warmth and feeling both their hearts pound where their chests met. Whatever difficulties they might have—not the least of which was the difference in their ages, nor that they would have to reveal themselves to their friends at some point—she knew, absolutely, that she loved him, and she needed no Gift to read the equal measure of his feelings in his eyes. This was right for her, for him.
“No regrets, Numair,” she whispered, and he walked across the threshold, still carrying her, and nudged the door so that it swung shut as they took their next steps forward.
The morning after the night before.
(sequel to ‘Stumbling Steps’, taking place right after)
She stirred quietly, waking, out of long habit, both quickly and without any quick movements. She too often shared a bed with numerous furred companions, and sharp movements would dislodge or injure them; many years of traveling and, more recently, war, had taught her to wake quickly out of necessity, without the luxury of clinging to sleep.
She was warm—far more so than usual, even in the summer. Along her entire length was a warm form which didn’t seem like that of one of her animal friends; not only was it too large, but there was no fur against her skin, and the scent was wrong. No animal had that warm, spicy scent.
Daine’s eyes flew open to find a broad expanse of swarthy skin stretched over lean muscle and bone. She was draped across it, her head resting comfortably in a hollow, and her hand over a rhythmic pulse. Her legs were tangled with another’s, and a long, powerful arm was wrapped tightly around her waist, a warm hand resting on her hip.
Memories rose of the night before. Discussing his newest project from the king; teasing him about his single-minded focus when it came to seeking knowledge; finding herself, quite happily, in his embrace, until he’d drawn back.
Arguing, nudging, and prying until he’d admitted why he always drew back before they became too lost in passion; feeling, knowing that talking about their fears was the only way to get anywhere in their relationship, and that this was only the first on a list of worries they shared—and yet did not discuss; hearing him confess that particular fear.
‘I don’t—I don’t want you to regret anything, sweet…if it falls to pieces…if losing you in the first place didn’t kill me, then knowing that you would want to wish away being my lover would .’
Finally— finally —fulfilling the promise held in so many embraces, so many of the looks between them over the last months; finally seeing in his eyes as that last thread of control frayed, then snapped.
‘No regrets, magelet.’
She turned her head slightly, pressing closer to his chest, and closed her eyes. The air she breathed in was filled with his scent, one that was only his—one she recognized no matter what shape she wore, no matter what state she was in.
Cloth sliding away, baring flesh to the cool night air, candlelight flickering over both of their skins—one pale, the other dusky; a heartbeat’s hesitation, a faint tremble as they went beyond what she knew; sweet kisses paired with murmured words and reassurances in a voice harsh with passion.
Mild aches became known, not true pain but an echo of it—a reminder, if she needed one.
Gentle hands, brief, delicate brushes of fingertips along skin; hesitating, returning, lingering whenever she quivered, learning every inch of her flesh; shuddering as she reached for something unknown at his encouragement; ‘Trust me, magelet—just let go’; climbing, flying as she obeyed.
She shifted her legs slightly, moving closer, so close that there was no room between them for even air to pass, ignoring the twinge she felt; another reminder.
Dark eyes, shinning with desire and love, lust and affection; ‘Daine, are you sure—’, a fierce kiss, silencing the unfinished question; warmth, weight pressing he down into the pillows; a pain—mild, then sharper—and pressure, ‘I’m sorry, sweet,’.
She laid her head over his heart, its beat strong and steady, a primal reassurance.
Climbing once more, dark eyes holding hers captive, urging her on without words; hands, no longer quite so gentle, but eagerly sought; skin, slick with sweat, over muscles quivering under her hands; his husky whispers, fading into breathless gasps as he drove her higher, beyond reason, until only the black eternity of his eyes was remained; ‘I love you’.
“I love you.”
He drifted into wakefulness, reluctant to emerge from the restful, uninterrupted sleep that had become a luxury rather than a right. Many times over the last year and a half he had been summoned early in the morning—or even in the middle of the night—usually leading to a packed saddlebag and a journey at the king’s request. To be able to take the time to stir slowly was a privilege.
A warm weight presses against his side and draped over his chest, with silken threads brushing his arm and shoulder, causing a light frown of confusion. His fingers brushed satiny skin where they curved over supple flesh, and a warm, faintly musky scent drifted lightly in his nose.
He froze, turning his head a fraction so he could see where she lay. Her head cradled in the hollow of his shoulder, her chestnut curls spreading out behind her in all directions, engulfing the arm that was wrapped gently around her waist, her own small hand curled directly over his heart, as if claiming it.
It was already hers.
The night returned to him in a brief flood even as he felt her even breath against his throat. The pleasure of having her close, relaxed and teasing within the security of the Palace; desire, ever-present, rising swiftly when he pulled her into his embrace; reaching the end of his control and, of-so-reluctantly, drawing back.
Being brought to a halt by her determined questions, trapped between his worries and insecurities and her impassioned demands, until he’d been forced to air his thoughts to her; having her disperse them with logic and honesty.
No one’s ever loved me the way you have—you see me, all of me, know all my faults and still love me not despite of them but because of them…you saw enough in me, respected me enough, to give me learning, and books…you’ve given me nothing but respect…
His fears, at least those particular ones, being washed away, along with his remaining control, in the flood of her words and the emotion behind them.
‘I could never regret anything about what’s between us, Numair…there is no one, not in all the realms who I would rather have as a lover…as myonly lover.’
His fingers tightened on her hip as he turned his face slightly, brushing his lips against one of the tangled curls that fell across his shoulder, savoring the scent and silky texture of the strands. Her hair embodied all that she was to him; stubborn, soft, vibrant, eye-catching, and irresistible.
A soft sigh in the air as fingers brushed along newly-exposed flesh, their size and swarthy complexion in stark contrast to milky skin; delicate hands with light calluses—small yet so strong—fumbling against his skin as they drew away cloth, driving him to madness even as his voice encouraged; murmurs quiet whispers in a voice that became husky, and then breathless.
He felt her shift slightly, turning her face into his chest, her warm breath causing goose bumps to rise on his arms.
Muscles tightening, straining, as he grasped at fraying control, nearly broken by her moans; ‘Numair…?’; guiding, driving her with hands and lips, touch and voice; needing to please her first, last, always; her whimpered scream raking claws of passion through him, drawing him tighter as she reached greater heights.
He heard her breathing change, knowing she was awake, aware—remembering.
Grey-blue eyes blurred with passion, holding desire and confusion, love and surprise as she flew once more; nails digging into his shoulders, an absent sting, as he finally, finally , made her his; ‘Don’t—stop—don’t you— dare— stop.’
He eased her closer as their legs tangled further, wanting her as close as possible without sharing the same skin; savoring the feel of skin-on-skin.
Breathless sobs echoing in his ears, heard over the pounding of his blood; her pale, slender form arching under his touch, her gaze never leaving him; release clawing at him, stripping away any remnants of restraint, leaving only her—her scent, her touch, and the fathomless blue of her eyes as he fell into their depths accompanied only by her impassioned cries.
Her head moved over his heart, the sight causing a nearly painful lurch within him, and he spoke the only words he could grasp in that moment.
“I love you.”
At his words—low and soft enough that she briefly thought that they were merely an echo of her whirling memories—Daine lifted her head from his chest just enough to met his gaze. Black eyes met blue-grey, lingering for a long moment as the watched each other, searching.
Daine saw concern in his face as he watched her and, along with a deep tenderness in his eyes, she saw a glimmer of the same heat that had burned in him the night before. Nowhere was there unhappiness, or the dissatisfaction she had feared seeing there.
‘No regrets, magelet.’
Numair saw a light blush in her cheeks, but in typical Daine fashion met his stare stubbornly, refusing to look away in embarrassment despite the faintest flicker of her eyes. There was no regret, only steadiness and strength, and the blush fueled not only by embarrassment but memories and lingering passion. He found none of the recriminations or disappointment he had half-expected.
‘No regrets, Numair.’
“Are you alright, magelet?”
Her blush deepened slightly even as the hint of a grin touched her lips. “Do you doubt it?”
He chuckled, but his eyes remained solemn as he stroked a finger down her cheek. “I thought you might be sore—I hurt you.”
…a pain—mild, then sharper—and pressure…
‘I’m sorry, sweet.’
“Odd’s bob’s, Numair, I’m perfectly fine; it’s no different than learning to ride a pony—I’m only a bit sore from muscles I’ve never used before.”
He laughed outright at Daine relating the loss of her virginity to learning to ride. “A pony?” he asked, wickedly.
She scowled at him, turning a bright pink, when his teasing pointed out the implications of her remark—she didn’t spend so much time around soldiers and Riders without hearing a lot of bawdy jokes. He chuckled at her expression until she knocked him breathless, saying, still blushing furiously, “Well, in terms of stamina…”
“Daine!” he managed, shock and laughter warring within him.
“You asked for it.”
Laughter won. When he regained control of himself, Daine was once more curled up on his chest, a smug grin on her face as she looked up at him. “I’ve created a monster.”
“Don’t take all the credit—I managed well enough without your terrible influence.”
He glowered at her teasingly, stroking her hair with one hand. “Enough, magelet—tell me truthfully, are you sore?”
She shrugged; pink staining her cheeks lightly once more as she glanced away. Lovemaking might not make her uncomfortable enough to hide her eyes, but weakness did. “A bit, I suppose, but I’m fine.” She glanced back at him, shyly. “It was worth it.”
‘…there is no one, not in all the realms, who I would rather have as a lover…’
‘Daine, are you sure—’
‘Don’t—stop—don’t you— dare— stop.’
He smiled gently, stroking a thumb along her bottom lip. “Really?”
“Stop fishing, Numair,” was the tart response. “Besides, I’m not the only one who’s sore.” At his blank look, she pointed to his shoulder. Along the back of his upper arm and shoulder, red crescents scored his flesh, perfectly matching Daine’s nails. Only when he noticed them did he feel a slight stinging, and the echo of it in the other arm.
…nails digging into his shoulders, an absent sting…
He smiled at her. “It was worth it,” he returned. At her scowl, he waited.
Patience was not Daine’s strength, and only a moment later she demanded, “Well? Was it?”
…he finally, finally , made her his…
They lay quiet for several minutes, Numair’s hand once returning to her hair, and Daine curling her hand against his collarbone as they savored the moment and each other’s presence.
“Daine…” came a soft voice after a time.
“No doubts, Numair,” she whispered, half firm, half pleading.
‘No regrets, Numair.’
“Never,” was the fierce reply. “That’s not it.”
“I love you.”
‘I love you.’
She sat up, ignoring the faint twinges in the muscles that had been under discussion earlier. She had a brief impression of his confused, concerned face before she leaned down, kissing him, putting all the love she felt into the embrace.
He returned it, sweetly at first, their lips clinging lightly, parting, and brushing together again. Soon the kiss deepened, lingering, taking as well as giving, claiming as much as sharing.
“Daine?” he finally managed when they were once again tangled together, arms entwined and hearts racing.
“I’m not going anywhere, Numair,” she told him, fierce and determined rather than gentle and reassuring. “I don’t care about anything else—not what other people think, or about how different we are, or how old you are and how young I am. I don’t care about anything , except that I love you and that I want to be with you; today, tomorrow, forever. I’m not leaving, and I won’t give up on us, Goddess strike me if I lie.”
‘…there’s no one…who I would rather have…my only lover…’
‘No regrets, Numair.’
His mouth claimed hers once more, so intently that it stole her breath in an instant. She stared dazedly at his face, fierce with passion and certainty.
“You’re mine, Daine,” he said, his tone soft in comparison with his intense face, but laced with steel. “You’re everything , and I won’t let you go, not now—not for anything.”
‘No regrets, magelet.’
…only her—her scent, her touch, and the fathomless blue of her eyes…
“I wouldn’t go in any case.”
They stared at each other, breathing rapidly more from emotion than lust, eyes not just searching the other’s gaze, but burning into it almost in a form of branding. Slowly, hesitatingly, the tension eased, expressions softening, even though their declarations lingered in the air and their thoughts. Numair raised a hand, cupping Daine’s cheek in his palm.
“Forever, Daine,” he murmured.
She gripped his fingers in her own. “Whatever happens,” she agreed.
There were no priests, no licenses, none of the trappings that that anyone else would see necessary mark permanence or commitment, but both lovers understood that not words, but vows, had been spoken. Marriage was an inescapable union, bound by chains of law and propriety: true commitment was not made with pen and ink, but in conscious choice of heart and soul. Beyond the bedroom door lay the world, all of its follies and troubles, criticisms and trials, but here they answered only to their own hearts—beyond fear, beyond censure, certain of their feelings and how they chose to express them for the rest of their lives; whatever happened, forever.
The next hurdle arrives… What happens when Daine and Numair’s friends find out?
(midsummer, a few months after the previous stories)
“You’ll catch your death, magelet; come out of there.”
“But it’s beautiful, Numair.”
Her reply was absent and she faced the ocean and the setting sun, though it wasn’t the view that held her captive. In fact, her eyes were closed as she stood, a slightly built young woman, knee-high in cold sea water, her soft lips curved in a delighted smile.
He sighed, both exasperated and amused, from where he watched her. A tall man, fully six foot, five inches, with a swarthy complexion and glossy black hair and strong features, he was a dramatic contrast to his companion. She stood only four inches over five feet, with fair skin and chestnut curls, lovely but not stunning features, and was a good fourteen years younger at a bare seventeen. Her delicate frame held lean muscle and tremendous stamina, and housed a stubborn and loyal heart, and a passionate soul. She had seen and experienced terrors, far beyond her years—experiences matched by the silver strands that shot through his dark mane.
“Magelet, you can listen to them tomorrow,” he said sternly—his stubbornness matching her own.
“The whales will be there tomorrow—and you did say that they’re migrating in this direction, so they’ll be closer still. Come out. Now.”
She turned, scowling at him, warm grey eyes both annoyed and resigned. She recognized that hint of steel in his tone and knew he was going to be difficult. He could be immovable, even in the face of her strong will, particularly when he was concerned for her. It was sweet how he fussed—irritating, but sweet.
Grumbling, more for show than anything, she picked her way through the waves, careful of the rocks hidden beneath the surface, making her way back to the dry beach. One foot still in the water, she paused, savoring the eerie and haunting melody of the whale song, before walking towards her teacher, friend, and lover.
“I haven’t heard whales singing in almost two years, Numair,” she grumbled as she reached him, bending to retrieve her discarded boots. As she straightened, his large hands wrapped around her arms and hauled her against him, capturing her lips a in a soul-searing kiss.
“Was that worth it?” he asked long moments later, his voice husky, both their hearts pounding against each other.
“Well…” she considered, laughing at his scowl even as she pulled him into another kiss. “I s’ppose so,” she finally concluded, still teasing.
“You ‘s’ppose so’, hmmm?” he muttered, eyes glittering as they met hers. The light tone faded, cared away by the sea breeze as she shuddered, trapped in his heated gaze.
“I need to weigh all the facts,” she murmured, eyes locked with his. “Aren’t you the one who says that for results to be conclusive, experiments need to be repeated?”
“Very true—many, many times, for accurate results.” Her boots lay forgotten in the sand as his kisses carried her away far beyond the sounds of the ocean, wind, and whale song.
His back to the rocks behind him, he cradled his love in his lap, where she pressed her cheek to his chest. He savored the indulgence of being able to simply hold her, be with her, without the tensions and worries of daily life.
“I love you,” she said softly. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
He tightened his arms around her, burying his nose in her curls. “You’ll never have to find out, sweet.”
“I wish…” she trailed off
“I know.” He wished the same, though her thoughts went unsaid. They wished that they had more time together, that their were less obstacles in the way of what they shared; they wished that the Immortals War, which they were still cleaning up from, had never happened, and that all the troubles of the kingdom that they were sent out to investigate didn’t exist. They wished for less death and fighting, less bandits and immortals, less bloodshed, and less need for their skills.
They wished, most of all, for peace.
“Things are settling down, magelet—why else would Jon have allowed Thayet, Alanna, you and I the time away from the palace to be here?”
“How long until the next battle, the next war? There’s always more fighting, Numair; always others like Ozorne, who seek power. There’s always more bloodshed.”
Her voice was tight with tears and anger and, underlying both, a soul-deep weariness. The last year and a half had worn down every drop of strength, every reserve they both had, and it was only that exhaustion—not only of the body, but of the mind and spirit, and magic—which would have her, so steady and valiant, voicing her doubts.
“And there will always be moments like this, sweet; bits of peace and solitude, wonders like your whales—and time for us, to be together.”
He felt her take a deep breath, pressing her face into his chest, gathering herself, and he brushed a light kiss on her head, willing some of his own waning strength to her. Wishing he could just take her away where she could rest, recover, and be safe—though she’d be bored mindless inside a month. So would he, for that matter.
“If you didn’t bring me here to listen to the whales, or to canoodle, why did we come here?” she asked, looking up at him, her tone teasing. There were still shadows in her eyes, but some of the brightness that was so much a part of her had returned.
“‘Canoodle’?” he questioned archly. “Didn’t I mention once before what a charming term that is?”
“You can call it anything you like; it doesn’t change what it is.”
“Is that what we were doing?”
“It wasn’t exactly an anatomy lesson.”
“That depends on your definition, I suppose; I certainly learned a great deal.”
“Nothing you didn’t already know.”
“Sometimes re-exploring old territory is as stimulating as uncovering new knowledge.”
She laughed, a full-bodied sound that made her shake slightly in his arms. He grinned down at her charmingly. “What did we come down here for?”
He stood, setting her down on her feet, keeping his arm around her shoulder. “I wanted to be with you, magelet.”
With a smile, one that still held hints of shyness despite a year’s worth of confessions of love, as well as a month of being lovers, she pressed against his side. “Well then, why don’t we go for a walk?”
“Do you think the trainees will be alright tonight?” Thayet, Queen of Tortall, asked absently as she stretched her arms, gazing up at the rising full moon.
“Anyone who isn’t will wash out tomorrow,” Onua Chamtong said bluntly. “If they can’t hack an overnight exercise without us holding their hands by this point, they’ll never be Riders.”
“Where’s Sarge?” Alanna the Lioness, of Trebond, Olau, and Pirate’s Swoop, Champion of Tortall asked, pushing back her coppery locks from her forehead. “He should have come with us.”
“He wanted to turn in early tonight, since he doesn’t have to ‘run herd on the greenies’.”
The lady knight chuckled. “Well, he deserves it—but I’d rather be out here when I have the spare moments. Jon didn’t have to let any of us accompany the trainees this summer, not with all the messes still being cleaned up. Remind me to kiss your husband when we get back to Corus, Thayet.”
“Ahem,” was the laughing response from the tall, rough-looking man at her side. His nose was long and crooked from breaks, and his warm eyes laughed from his tanned face. Even in the moonlight, which bleached the colors out of everything, affection shone in his gaze.
“I’m right here, lass. Can’t ye wait ‘til I’m out of earshot afore ye talk of kissing someone else?”
“You’d rather I did it behind your back?” she teased.
“I’d rather ye not do it at all, but I suppose that’s too much t’ ask me wife.”
“You could convince me,” she suggested wickedly.
“Alright you two, save that till later, or go back to the keep,” Onua laughed.
Alanna grinned, her smile more suited to a young urchin than a seasoned knight and baroness with several children of her own. George, rogue-turned-noble, chuckled. “A walk in th’ cove was yer idea, Horse Mistress.”
“One you agreed to, Master Cooper.”
“What about Daine and Numair?” Thayet questioned as they reached the steep path to the private cove of Pirate’s Swoop. “Didn’t they want to come?”
“I couldn’t find them; Numair’s likely off somewhere, resting—he might have gone to his tower for the night. Seeing as it is his home, although he hasn’t been there in months.”
“Probably in the woods gossiping with the wildlife—unless she’s shapeshifted somewhere. Besides, I think they both need time to unwind by themselves. Half the reason Jon sent us all on the Riders summer training camp was to recover from the last year—and Numair and Daine have had some of the worst of it.”
Alanna sighed. “You’re right, you know—they’ve spent one week at the Palace for every four on the road since they recovered from the end of the war. They’re in higher demand than the Own, what with all the immortals settling in the human realms. Poor girl looks ready to drop.”
“Numair’s not much better—Jon asked us to hold the summer training at the Swoop so he could send them both along and still be able to reach them in an emergency. He said that Numair’s reserves were down to the dregs. If he’s drawn into a serious mage-duel, he might start drawing on his life-force.”
George hissed as Alanna nodded solemnly. “I’ve only ever seen him so drawn after he’d spent three years hiding from Ozorne—gods curse his black soul. Even the war didn’t take quite so much out of them; it didn’t last long enough.”
“They’re not back at the Palace three days before Jon’s got them off in another direction,” Onua sighed. “Daine told me she doesn’t even bother unpacking anymore. The war drained a lot of our resources, and we’re still cleaning up the mess, but the knights, Own, Riders, and soldiers are pretty much interchangeable—but we’ve only one black robe and one Wildmage, and everyone seems to need them.”
“Mayhap they could stay here once th’ trainees leave,” George mussed aloud. “They’d still be near enough fer Jon t’ summon if there’s need, but far enough away that they can’t be called fer every little thing.”
“I’ll suggest it,” Thayet agreed. “At least until mid-autumn, so they can recover some of their resources. They’ll be no use to anyone if they drop dead of exhaustion.”
The four reached the end of the trail, coming to stand on the rocky beach. The moon lit the cove well enough to see by, but cast deep shadows among the cliff and ragged boulders. The tide was out, giving a reasonable expanse of beach to wander. As they walked past the rocks scattered along the bottom of the cliff, two figures came into view fifty yards away, meandering along the shoreline. While they were out in the moonlight, the cliffs’ shadows hid the newcomers from sight.
“You weren’t the only one with this idea, Onua,” Thayet commented. “It looks like Numair and Daine decided on the beach as well.”
“Not too surprising—Daine was probably looking for whales and dolphins.”
They watched, pleased to see, even in the moonlight, that both mages were relaxed and at ease. Daine walked backwards, facing Numair, gesturing as she spoke. The words were nothing but an indistinct blur over the sound of the waves, but they could hear Numair’s laughter and Daine’s responding giggle.
“Shall we join them?” Alanna asked.
As she did so, Daine stumbled, falling backward. In a flash, Numair’s hand shot, grasping her arm and pulling her towards him. The watchers stared in shock as, instead of steadying and releasing her, Numair drew Daine against his body. Highlighted by the full moon, it was easy to see his arms wrap around her waist—and hers rise to encircle his shoulders. Instead of two distinct forms, there was only one when the mage bent to capture is student’s lips with his own.
“Wha—” Onua managed.
Daine broke from his arms, running several steps, only to spin back and face the mage. Her laughter rang out, and she dodged Numair’s grasp, laughing.
Silver-laced black fire wrapped around her when she turned to run again. Laughing shouts, only one in a few words distinct, followed. “…not fair…magic…cheater…”
The words, and the laughter accompanying them, were silenced when Numair once more scooped Daine into his arms, drawing her into another, lingering kiss.
It took several moments for anyone to gather enough wits to speak. “When the hell did that happen?” Alanna demanded quietly.
Thayet watched with growing amusement. “I’ve no idea—I thought they would be dancing around each other for years.”
“What?” Onua demanded, and Alanna turned to stare at her queen.
“They were half in love with each other when they came back from Carthak, and the last few years cemented it—you mean you didn’t notice?”
“No!” Onua was adamant, but Alanna chewed her lip, remembering Numair’s behavior in Carthak—he hadn’t acted like a teacher looking after a student, but a man protecting a lover. She had thought, later, when his behaviour had been no different than normal, that it had simply overprotectiveness due to being in the country he had once fled, but maybe…
George was watching the moonlit couple calmly. “D’you think they’ll come up fer air soon?” he asked with a chuckle.
“George? Don’t you—” Alanna demanded, not precisely sure what she was asking—only knowing she felt left in the dark, and was very frustrated with her friends.
“Lass, they’re more’n grown, th’ both of ‘em, an’ able t’ make their own choices, especially in this. If they’re happy together, why should it bother ye?”
“Yer just upset at th’ surprise—ye never did like ‘em much.”
Onua said nothing, still staring at the couple, who had broken off the kiss and were still wrapped in each others arms.
“Onua?” Thayet questioned. “What’s wrong.”
“Why didn’t they say anything? Why didn’t Daine tell me?”
George sighed. “They’re both stubborn, Onua, an’ private folk. They deal with their troubles in their own heads, an’ hate askin’ advice on anythin’. Talkin’ about such things—it’s like askin’ fer help, in their minds. And if they’re as tired as ye’ve said, they’ve barely had th’ time to think, much less chat about what’s happened betwixt ‘em.”
Onua frowned, considering, and then sighed. “I suppose—but still—”
“—they should know to trust us by now,” Thayet finished. “We’re certainly not going to criticize them for their choices, but they never seem to remember that.”
“Well,” Alanna fumed, “we’d best remind them.”
Daine was hard pressed not to laugh even as tension held her muscles stiff. Unlike their watchers, she and Numair could hear every word being spoken by her friends thanks to the wind carrying their voices. When Onua has been so silent and Alanna had sounded angry, she’d been afraid that by revealing the truth, she would lose the friendship and respect of two of the most important people in her life. Her friends still sounded upset, but not over her and Numair, only about their deception. She blew out a relieved breath against Numair’s shirt.
“Well, magelet? Shall we?”
When he had heard their four friends reach the beach, he’d asked her, quietly, if they should take the opportunity to explain the changes between them. He’d been solemn, a sure sign of nerves, and Daine had made him laugh when she suggested that telling them seemed rather dull—wouldn’t showing them be more effective. A moment later, when she’d tripped, he’d taken her suggestion to heart.
Long months of travel and fighting, of negotiating between immortals and humans, of battling spidrens and Stormwings and bandits, and rebuilding from the destruction of the Immortals War, had worn them both to the bone. The one bright spot in the last year had been each other and exploring what they shared. Even that was fraught with tension, however—not only were they both deeply afraid that the other would come to regret the relationship, but they had hidden it from everyone, including their friends. Daine was common-born, and a bastard to boot—even though her father was actually a god—and Numair was from a higher class, as well as being well-educated, and there was fourteen years between them. Despite that, their relationship might have gone largely unmarked—if they weren’t famous and very much in the public eye.
Both knew, within themselves, that they were wholly committed to the other—it was lingering fears that one day, the other would see something they no longer wanted that haunted them. Still, over the last weeks, those thoughts had surfaced less and less as, in becoming lovers they had begun sharing more of those draining thought. Once spoken, their fears seemed to lose some of their strength, particularly in the face of Daine and Numair’s steady, informal commitment to each other.
“They’re going to kill us,” she murmured.
“I doubt it—though Alanna may maim us slightly—as George said, she dislikes surprises.”
Daine chuckled lightly against Numair’s throat—they had heard all that their friends had said, and George’s cheerful assessment of his wife was highly accurate.
“Alright,” she sighed, humor fleeing, “we’d best get this over with.”
A large, long-fingered hand rose to lift her chin, drawing her eyes to his own. In the moonlight, his velvety brown eyes looked black, but the adoration she had become so accustomed to was still apparent. She could honestly no longer imagine not seeing that love in his eyes everyday—and was finally beginning to believe that she would never have to.
“They’re your friends, Daine—they won’t turn away from you because you had the poor sense as to fall in love with someone inappropriate.”
“You’re not inappropriate, you’re perfect, at least for me—after all, who else is fair mad enough to put up with me?”
He chuckled softly. “No one.”
“You weren’t supposed to agree,” she grumbled, smiling faintly as he brushed a lingering kiss across her forehead. “Let’s go now, before I lose my nerve.”
She took his hand firmly in her own, gripping it for support and solidarity, as they turned towards the cliffs. Onua, Alanna, George, and Thayet watched them with varying degrees of shock and amusement when they saw no surprise at being observed in the lovers’ faces.
“That’s mages for ye,” George declared loudly when the pair was closer. “Never do anythin’ along a straight road when they can take a windin’ one.”
“A great deal like thieves, who never use a door when there’s a window,” Numair told him.
“At least thievery is honest work.”
“That’s a contradiction of terms, George.”
“Doesn’t make it less true, lad. I suppose that just tellin’ us what was in th’ wind was too complicated fer ye.”
“Life would be extremely dull if one took the simplest path all the time.”
“Numair!” a very angry Lioness roared, “will you give a straight answer for once in your gods-cursed life!”
Daine flinched slightly at Alanna’s tone, even knowing it was frustration and not true anger. Numair squeezed her hand in his as he responded mildly:
“Of course, Alanna, as soon as I know what the question is.”
Alanna hissed, long and low, before George wrapped an arm around her waist—as much to calm her as restrain her. “Now, lass, ye’ve got t’ give ‘em a trial before ye hang ‘em—‘tis the king’s law. Let ‘em speak their piece afore you let lose.”
“You’re all mad,” Daine said firmly, gripping Numair’s hand even as she looked up at him, “you included. Goddess bless, it’s not that complicated.”
“What I want to know is how long this,” Thayet waved her hand, indicating the lover’s linked hands, the beach, and all that had gone on there, “has been going on. I thought I was paying rather close attention to you both, but you slipped this past me, so perhaps not.” She smiled at them both. “I am glad though—I thought Numair might pine for several years, while you, Daine, would steadily ignore any hint of you own feelings. This is a pleasant alternative.”
Daine scowled at her queen. “I don’t ignore my feelings—I’m not daft.”
“Just stubborn,” Numair murmured, then raised a brow at her when she glared, daring her to deny it.
“You’re a fine one to talk—and you would have pined for me.”
“Oh, no, I’m sure I would have eventually gone mad enough from loving you to let it slip.”
“‘Mad enough’? What does that make you now?”
Thayet smiled behind her hand while George laughed at them. “Well, ye definitely sound like lovers.”
Daine scowled at him in turn, then chewed her lip slightly. “I’m sorry,” she started, “for not telling you.”
“We’re sorry,” Numair said firmly, rubbing his thumb along her palm as she smiled at him, “but we would likely do it again.”
“Goddess bless, why?” Alanna growled.
“Did you really think you couldn’t tell us?” Onua demanded.
“No!” Daine shouted forcefully. She loved these women—of all her friends, she was only closer to Numair than these two. Onua, who had given her a chance despite her youth and her lies, who had become first her employer, then her friend and mentor, and eventually an older sister, who had brought her to Tortall and opened her life to all that had happened; who had been her first real friend, not only in Tortall, but in her life. And Alanna, who had been a legend come to life, a myth who was flesh and blood, who swore and cursed and was shorter than expected, who made mistakes, and just by being herself had shown Daine that if the Lioness was a normal woman, then an ordinary peasant girl from Galla could make something of herself as well; Alanna had made her see that nobles were human too, and had trusted her—not only with a job or a duty, but with the defense of her home, husband, and children while she fought for her country.
“It wasn’t like that,” she went on in a normal tone. “It just ended up a secret— when we were in the Realm of the Gods, so many things happened, including seeing my family, that when we confessed our feelings, it was just—part of the whole adventure. And then, when we came back, there was the war—and then recovering from the battle—and we didn’t even talk about it for weeks, because it was different when we weren’t in the immortal realms, or about to maybe die in battle, and it seemed more real then—and that made it even more frightening than even the final battle with Ozorne. And we were scared,” she began to ramble. “About what was happening between us, and what might happen, and if it would last. I couldn’t talk about—I thought—it was like a dream,” she whispered, dropping her eyes. “One where you can’t tell if it’s a dream or real, and you want it to be real, more than anything, but you’re afraid it’s not, and you’re afraid you might wake up. I thought, if I talked about it, everything would go away—that I’d wake up in my bed, and none of this would be real. It’d kill me, I swear it, to lose everything from the last year, because I love him so much it hurts, but it’s a good hurt, and I don’t—I can’t—I’m sorry,” she managed, feeling Numair’s arms wrap around her, drawing her back into his warm embrace, tucked against his chest. Tears burned her eyes and throat, and she drew in his special scent—spice and soap and skin—to steady herself. She vaguely heard Thayet murmur something, and felt a large hand that belonged to George on her shoulder, but focused on Numair; his scent, his warmth, his heartbeat.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Numair said quietly, rubbing a hand along her back, stroking her hair as he was wont to do. “Between us we’ve enough fears to drown a village, and enough worries to sail a fleet on. This way, at least, we had privacy to deal with them, without advice or anyone observing us—however well-intentioned they might be. Daine was right—it often felt like a dream, and for quite a while I would wake up in the morning and not know all this was real or not.”
Alanna tugged her earlobe. “I understand—Goddess knows what kind of worries I went through when I fell in love—and I certainly didn’t lay my heart and fears bare to anyone.” Daine turned her head to smile at Alanna, and met Onua’s thoughtful eyes.
“You didn’t want to jinx it,” Onua murmured, understanding in her tone.
“Exactly,” Daine exclaimed, turning in Numair’s arms, her back pressing against his chest. “And I thought, maybe, if we started talking about it and people knew, then Numair would look at me through their eyes—and not like what he saw.”
He growled slightly, squeezing her lightly. “Don’t be ridiculous, sweet.”
She smiled at him faintly. “Not anymore—well, mostly. Besides, you were scared of the same thing.” He leaned down to kiss her forehead gently—agreeing with her, and reassuring her that he was overcoming that fear.
“I just wish you hadn’t felt you couldn’t talk to me,” Onua sighed, her tone more like her normal one. “You do realize that you’ll have to tell us everything that happened, in detail, before we forgive you.”
Alanna grinned as Daine blushed and Numair groaned. George chuckled, and commented slyly, “Startin’ with how Daine’s shirt came t’ be inside out.”
Daine looked down at herself and blushed furiously while Thayet and Onua laughed. Alanna pursed her lips and glared sternly at both lovers. “Really, you two, the cove?”
“I seem t’ recall, darlin’, a time or two when—”
“Not another word, George Cooper.”
“I thought you two looked very relaxed when we came down here,” Thayet managed.
“Thayet!” Daine gasped, then looked up at Numair, elbowing him. “This is your fault—you should have said something.”
Numair looked down at her, a light blush on his cheekbones, and, much to Daine’s embarrassment and the whole party’s amusement, said dryly,
“Magelet, I wasn’t paying attention to your clothes.”
Daine and Numair make a declaration about their relationship to the world. Damn the consequences.
(late summer; a few months after ‘Revelations’)
She ran her hand along the surface of her trunk, noticing that her fingers trembled ever-so-slightly against the polished brass and wood. Beside the trunk there were several smaller chests and boxes, containing all her worldly goods. And they were here .
Her stomach was jumping she’d if she’d swallowed a frog—or a dozen. Fear, happiness, worry, joy, nerves, anticipation—all that and more tangled inside her. So she did what she always did when her nerves were upset or her thoughts jumbled, and put her hands to work.
He stood in the doorway watching her, a mass of conflicting emotions; fears, worries, joy, satisfaction. There was a wave of amazement, and just a touch of primal possessiveness, as he watched her tuck her belongings among his own, laying clothes in drawers and chests alongside his. He’d never thought of himself as possessive—had never thought of himself in a lot of ways—before her. But then, his life seemed to be divided thusly; Before and After her.
She left her traveling packs, bedroll, camping gear, and winter clothes in her own trunk, and then stood back, trying to think where she should leave it. Even with shaking hands it hadn’t taken her long to set all her things aright, as she didn’t have much. Compared to six years ago the amount of belongings was amazing, but she’d never been one to collect things. Most of her nonessentials had been gifts from her friends, including the stack of books she’d set aside to take into the comfortable study.
“There’s space in the dressing room for the trunk,” came the pleasing tenor she’d become accustomed but never immune to. “You know I never use it.”
She turned to find him leaning on the doorframe, hands tuck into the wide sleeves of his mage’s robe—black, as only seven people in the world were entitled to. She was about to smile at him when she saw his eyes—the velvet brown darkened nearly to black by desire, and something else. The nerves in her stomach smoothed out, to be replaced by heat moving up her neck. Something in that expression he wore, his face tight and eyes hot, stirred her blood and blended with the mix of fears and anticipation she’d felt all afternoon.
“Alright then,” she murmured, unable to tear her gaze from his, “that’s fine.” She made no move towards the trunk or dressing room, only barely aware of what they were supposedly discussing.
Blue-grey and deep brown eyes met and held, measuring, appraising. Each gaze held happiness and concern, worry and peace. Desire inexplicably built, crackling in the air like a building summer thunderstorm.
The storm broke suddenly within him, sending him upright from his casual pose. Two striding steps brought him to her, his hands locking firmly around her upper arms, not hard enough to bruise, but enough to surprise her.
Her eyes never left his.
He didn’t know what he was doing or why, only that he needed her like food, water, air. She’d been in his heart for as long as he could remember, unable to recall what it was like not to love her. For months she’d been in his arms, his bed; now she was here, permanently—friend, partner, lover. He needed to revel in it. She was the breath, bone, blood of him, and he craved her like life.
His kiss held heat and warmth, flame and ember, love and a kind of fury. There was no room between their bodies for even a breeze to pass through, flesh separated only by thin cloth which was no barrier for the heat between them. She was awash with feeling, beyond thought, as he molded her to him, as if trying to absorb her; devour her.
Even the thin linen of her shirt was too much; he needed her . Tugging at laces and cloth, he urged her back towards the bed. The feel of her hands on him, returning his caresses, pulling at his own clothes, sent him beyond the last edge of reason.
Flames licked her skin, his passion and her own, ignited in a primal response to the storm within him. She urged him on, gasping as their mouths were wrenched apart when she fell backwards onto the bed— their bed. He was lover, beloved, mate, and his scent, taste, and touch called to something within her. He came down on top of her, their now-bare torsos meeting, and she welcomed him, pulling him closer to her as his mouth moved down her neck and shoulders, tasting and nipping at her flesh.
Her taste drove him mad, driving him to seek more, hands roaming over sweat-dewed flesh. Her skin was supple, stretched over soft curves and firm muscle. Her strength beckoned, calling out his own—she was an equal, a mate, and he needed to match himself to her. Even as he took command, dominating, she did as well, matching his desires—and more, allowing him dominance, the ultimate act of strength and trust.
Deaf and blind to all but him, she didn’t realize that they were both bare until she felt skin slide over skin along every inch of her body. Somehow, he’d undressed them both—or perhaps she had; she could no longer remember. His hand, large and strong, slid over her, seeking every sensitive place, every shadow and curve of flesh that he’d learned pleased her. He exploited the knowledge, ruthlessly, leaving her breathless, gasping—begging. But she asked for more, and soon demanded it, her own hands moving over dampened flesh, glorying in taunt muscle and bone, seeking his strength and basking in the knowledge that she , and she alone, could match him or make him weak.
He found her hands, blindly, capturing her wrists and pinning them beside her head. He felt her arch beneath him, seeking freedom, fulfillment, but refused to release her. She was his, and he needed to prove it to himself, to her. Logic and reason, thought and control, had been stripped away, leaving only possession. He explored her throat, shoulders, and breasts—vulnerable, open to him—leaving his own mark with lips, teeth, and tongue. He heard her breathless moans and raised his head to look at her—and was lost.
Eyes met again—blue-grey ones holding storms, deep brown seeming black with passion. There was no lust in either, only desire: to claim, to hold, to posses and be possessed in return. Gazes remained locked as his hands slipped from her wrists to her hands, fingers entwining firmly. He shifted, and she opened for him, accepting and demanding at the same time.
There were no words. Eyes held an unspoken conversation, deeper than speech, all thoughts and feelings open, hearts and minds exposed even as bodies moved in an ageless dance.
This is real
Don’t ever leave
Stay with me
Mine—body, heart, soul
Yes, and you are mine
Body, heart, soul
Bodies, hands, hearts entwined, they sought and found the stars—while finding eternity in each other’s eyes.
Ragged breathing and galloping heartbeats were the only sounds in the bedchamber. They lay in twisted sheets as the sweat dried from their cooling bodies, limbs tangled together as they were both reluctant to separate. As they caught their breath, it was minds that began to race instead.
Even as she savored his weight over her where he remained half-sprawled on her, she thought back over the last candlemark. She remembered little but sensations, heat, and a wild passion that had scattered her wits and left her nothing but instinct. And his eyes—the depthless pool of his gaze, which had held the same passion and mirrored the possession she had felt.
“Where,” she mused aloud, “did that come from?” She didn’t ask what it was, since she already recognized the truth in herself.
Possessing. Claiming. Mating.
“I don’t know,” he returned, his voice still husky, his breath washing over the sensitive skin of her neck, causing shivers to touch her skin. She wasn’t all that surprised—any earthquake had aftershocks, and what’d they’d just shared certainly had had the force of one.
“I saw you in here and I just…” he trailed off, his hand shifting to her soft curls, tangling in them as he remembered and sought words. Only in this, in his feelings for her, did his ability to express himself, to analyze and explain, fail him.
It rarely bothered him.
“I’ve been here plenty of times—I sleep here half of the time, at least since May,” she puzzled.
“Not like this, sweet,” he murmured softly.
No, not like this. Each time before, they had been lovers. Deeply in love, yes, partners and friends and companions—but she had still had her own bed, her own room, despite how little she actually used them. This was different, and it shook something inside him, made it stir and wake.
It was woken something in her as well.
She was quiet for a minute, fingers drifting over his back as she thought. “You’ve a possessive streak. I forget sometimes—you hide it well—but it is there.”
“Only with you.”
It was the same for her—only he brought out her territorial senses. Despite her temper, despite her birth and the nature of her gifts, she was ruled by human thought and logic, with a strong dose of practicality mixed in. The primal emotions that had gripped her were something no one else in all the realms could bring to her.
“It was like—”
“Claiming,” he finished.
“Mating,” she murmured.
Many animals, they both knew, mated for life.
Eventually, her sense of humor returned, as well as her pleasure with the day’s events. The—interval—they’d shared wasn’t disturbing, just surprising. As she adjusted, the shock wore off and she giggled.
“Who could imagine that such a scholarly man could be so—so wild ? No one’d believe it!”
“They won’t disbelieve it either,” he growled, shifting to glare at her, “because they’ll never hear anything about it. Correct?”
“I wasn’t going to shout it from the bell tower,” she chuckled. “I was just thinking of the expressions on some folk’s faces.”
“Thinking is all you’d better do. You’ve a perverse nature sweet; you enjoy tormenting me.” Since it was true, she only laughed again.
He shifted, moving his weight from her. For all her strength, he was twice her size and she would certainly be feeling his weight by now. As he lifted himself from her, he glanced down—and froze.
She felt his sudden tension and opened her eyes to find him half over her, supported on his hands. His face was pale, his swarthy skin blanched and drawn tight as his eyes darkened with shock.
“What’s wrong? Are you alright? Are you sick?” She wanted, instinctively, to reach for a weapon, but their tangled legs held her trapped. “Love?”
“Mithros, Mynoss, and Shakith,” he whispered. “Gods, sweet, I’m sorry.”
“What?” Now she was confused as well as worried. “Damnit, you’re scaring me—you know I hate that! What’s wrong ?”
“I hurt you.”
The harshly whispered words had the impact of a lightning strike in the room, leaving stillness and silence in their wake. She blinked once, slowly. “What?”
Long fingers reached out to hover above her collarbone, then skim down to her breast. He didn’t touch her skin, and his fingers trembled.
She looked down at her own skin, following the trail of his hand, seeing the red marks that were left there. Light abrasions and the small red bruises from love bites stood out against her pale skin, as well as one or two darker marks from more—enthusiastic—love bites. Above her collarbone, the faint impression of teeth marks remained, and light bruises the size of finger marks were forming at her hips and wrists, perfectly matching his grip.
She laughed wryly. “Huh, I didn’t feel a thing.”
“I’m so sorry, sweet.”
The pained tone had her gaze snapping back to his face. He looked drawn and guilty as his eyes lingered on the marks of his passion.
Honestly, she loved this man, but sometimes his sense of honor—not a bad thing, by any means—made her wish she could shake him.
“You didn’t hurt me at all. It’s just—”
“Look at yourself!”
Self-directed anger burned through him, firing his eyes. His inner gaze blinded him to the matching flames in hers.
She shoved him hard, twisting as she did so. He ended up on his back, with her straddling his hips, glaring down at him.
“Now you listen to me, you daft, stubborn man. You didn’t hurt me, and you haven’t—now or ever—done anything to me that I didn’t want—and didn’t return, in equal measure. Take a look at yourself ,” she added hotly, poking a finger at the love bites on his own collarbone, and then the crescent-shaped marks on his arms and shoulders left by her nails. “You’ve bloody furrows on your back as well; I think we’d best call it even.”
He opened his mouth to argue, to explain that it was different, that it was her flesh that he’d marked in some mad need to prove she was his, but closed it again when she scowled at him. They glared at each other for a moment before he sighed, rolling to his side and gathering her close to nuzzle at her neck—gently kissing the marks there.
“Stubborn woman,” he muttered, knowing it was that, in part, that made her his equal and match. She had shared whatever passions had driven him, accepted the need to mark her—and had done her own marking. How could you treat a woman like crystal when it was her strength that you loved?
“I have to be, to put up with you—anyone else’d kill you,” she grumbled in return, wrapping her arms around his neck.
They lay close for a while, simply holding each other and yet deriving a different but equal pleasure to what came from lovemaking. Eventually he stirred. “I forgot something.”
She let him go, watching as he stood, swarthy skin gleaming in the pale candlelight. The last light of the dusk had long ago faded. She nearly giggled at his bemused expression when he searched for his clothes—tangled, scattered, and tossed about the room. He finally found his robe half under the bed and drew something from one of the deep pockets. She pushed tangled locks from her face as he sat beside her.
“What do you think?”
She accepted the long brass rectangle, hearing and understanding the deeper meaning of the question as she examined it. Finally, she looked up at him.
“A little more subtle than crying it from the bell tower.”
“But with the same purpose.”
“Quite a declaration.”
“We don’t have to do it, sweet.”
Her fingers traced over the brass, unknowingly following the same path that his had hours earlier, when he’d first received it. After a moment she smiled—not an amused grin, but a slow, peaceful expression of acceptance and joy. She handed the brass length back to him.
“Have to? No. Want to? Yes. Let’s put it up.”
“Ah,” he began, looking slightly sheepish. “I…”
“Go ahead,” she laughed. He smiled, and they both understood why he wanted to do it himself. Once again, claiming.
He drew on his robe as he left the bedchamber. With his Gift it was the work of moments to set the brass plate in the door beneath the one already present. He took another moment to look, to absorb the sight and its implication, before returning to her, warm and waiting in bed.Their bed.
In the low light of the corridor, brass gleamed dully against wood, and two elegantly scripted named stood out in relief, there for anyone to see.