Even the breeze that cut through the courtyard could not waylay the hot, sticky summer air of the Maranese capital. Daine leaned against the banister, surveying the gardens outside of her rooms. Greenery not unlike that of the Royal Totallan gardens spread out in a lush, expertly designed pattern below her but was dotted with exotic flowers she did not recognize and reminded her of how far from home she was.
The lanterns had been dimmed, and the gardens were empty of the strollers who winded their way through the paths and around the large fountain at all other hours. If any lovers were hiding they were doing it well.
She had been in Berat for over a month with the Tortallan delegation. Talks were going well, but with the political climate far more forgiving than it had been with Carthak years prior the trip was also much more leisurely. Talks were spread further out to allow actual time for visits, magical and educational exchanges, and sight-seeing.
She had enjoyed the company of several marvelous new species of animals, marveled at the bright colors of Maranese architecture and dress, and enjoyed some familiar dishes with exotic twists that served as proof of the influence of Sarain to the East. She had proven useful in several small matters during the more magically-inclined talks, and to date had not torn down any important landmarks or started any international incidents (though she still maintained that she ended an international incident, not started it).
It had been a good experience, and one that suddenly left her compelled to see more. With no impending chaos to shape her fate, and no Gods vying for her to act in their stead she felt a lightness when thinking about her future. With her divine influence diminished her life had certainly not become less hectic, but in some ways it had become easier.
Candlelight bloomed from the rooms across the courtyard, flickering and casting shadows out onto the veranda that mirrored her own. She refocused her attention, wondering if Numair would come onto the balcony. She wondered if he could be convinced to travel to Sarain instead of returning with the delegation.
She nearly laughed when she imagined his reaction at her requesting they ride, unplanned, into a country full of warring tribes. She was sure if she found the right arcane motivation he would agree. They could find several species Daine had been hoping to meet, and after so many stories from Alanna she was interested to see the country for herself-though Thayet and Onua may not be pleased with her.
She rested her chin in the palm of her hand, sighing when Numair did not appear. They could always go north and see if they could find the Shang school-it was supposed to be a secret, but she was sure they could track it down with the help of some of her furrier friends. Plus, if they traveled on their own they could return home by way of Tyra and see Numair's family. She knew how he missed them, though she couldn't say she was sure his parents would be thrilled to see the company he still kept. Oh, they had been kind enough but she knew they thought her odd-though to be honest she wasn't sure they didn't find Numair just as odd at times, nor could she blame them for either opinion.
She loved her home, of course, but the past few years had left her feeling restless in a way she couldn't describe. She was content most for the most part, but felt that she yearned for more than content. Daine sighed, knowing she was probably asking too much. She had a good home, amazing and loyal friends, she was secure and in the employ of the King and Queen of Tortall-she had more than she ever dreamed of as a girl from a tiny town in Galla. Perhaps walking the Realms of the Gods at sixteen had set her expectations too high-where do you go from that?
Movement caught her eye as Numair appeared at the door to his balcony. He was talking to himself and she smiled at the old habit. No wonder he could stay pent up in his study for so many hours on end. He always had someone to talk to. If anything, perhaps they could take a trip to the tower in the Fall. It had been over a year, and as she gained status as a notable mage in her own right she was paired with Numair less and less. She often missed his companionship on the road.
She straightened, feeling the stretch in her arms and the flutter of the muslin dressing gown in the breeze. There was a decanter of blackberry wine in her room that she hadn't touched. It occurred to her to take it with her, and knock on his door. Based on his animated chatter with himself he certainly was not tired and she wouldn't mind the company. She was about to turn away when she realized that he already had company.
Roaesia of Fioilt had stepped into view. She was a lesser mage and noble who had been a regular presence during the last few weeks. While her innate power was middling at best, her mind was sharp and it was clear why she had been included. Beyond that she was all strawberry-blonde hair, honeyed words, and creamy skin wrapped in the colorfully embroidered silk and low necklines favored by Maranese women-like some sort of artfully arranged treat just waiting to be savored. Numair had evidently noticed.
Numair had moved to a small table and was pouring liquid from a decanter that looked like the one in her own rooms. Blackberry wine, probably. Roaesia laughed at something he said, just a hint of sound carrying across the gardens. The woman removed the crescent headpiece-a very fashionable one from what Daine had observed-and placed it on a settee, her veil going with it to reveal perfectly curled locks and a smooth expanse of neck.
Her stomach churned, recognizing the signs of someone who intended on getting comfortable. She should look away. She would; any moment now. He had a right to his privacy, and her lingering was surely in violation of that.
Awareness crept over her like ice in her veins. She gripped the railing, willing herself to turn around but could not will her feet to carry her away. And then it was too late. He turned to hand his lover the glass but his eyes met his friends instead.
He stopped, his companion oblivious and still talking as she removed her gloves. His expression was something she had not seen before. Embarrassment would have been expected but this was different. This was more than discomfort. It was anger, or pain, or betrayal, or some chimera of them all. There was a rawness that unsettled her and she broke contact first, dropping her gaze and feeling shame like a sickness in her bones. When she looked back he was drawing the curtains, pausing to cast a final look at her before fully closing the gap and concealing his rooms from view.
She shivered, feeling a chill despite the balminess that still hung in the late-night air. She knew he took women to his bed. It had always irked her. That's what she would have expected to feel now-annoyance, embarrassment, and something she would only ever admit to herself: jealousy. But she felt none of those now. None of them could compete with the thought playing through her mind.
The thought of that man just a few nights ago. The one she had welcomed into her rooms. The one she had offered wine and allowed to become comfortable. The one she had let unlace her bodice. The one who had distracted her long into the night from the beautiful gardens right outside her rooms, or what lay across them.
She hadn't closed the curtains.