Onua whistled, "midwinter. He's a glutton for punishment, isn't he?"
Daine laughed, despite herself, and dropped another bail of hay at her friends feet. "You don't need to tell me twice." She leaned against the stall and turned her head to hide a yawn. The late nights were catching up with her.
Onua stripped off her gloves and sat the remaining bail. She tilted her head, "and how are you doing with all of this silliness?"
Daine slid down the pen wall, sitting hard on the ground with a sigh. Tahoi curled up next to her, resting his head in her lap. "Like my heads all full, all the time. It was a fair weight to be given, all at once and all."
"Was it really that much of a surprise?" Onua was not without sympathy, but was never one to beat around the bush.
She sighed again. Fight enough and you learn to recognize a losing battle when you're in one. "I've known that I've wanted him as more than a friend for a long time," she swallowed, mouth dry. It felt wrong to speak freely about him. "But how he feels about me? I'd never dared to hope."
"Well, I suppose I've always known you're both a little daft."
Daine scowled, but grinned despite herself, "Considering the circumstances I suppose I can't argue that. I just," she shook her head, "you've seen the women he usually dotes on. It's like trading a thoroughbred stallion for a shaggy little mountain pony—don't give me that look, Cloud; you know what I mean." She leaned to look at her pony, who had shoved her head over her stall to cast an offended glare at the woman.
"Now you're really being daft, and I'm not even going to entertain it."
"Look at it this way: we know he has a type, and that you don't necessarily fall into that. We also know that, despite that, the man is very much in love with you. If anything, that should bring you comfort."
Daine twirled a strand of hay between her fingers, pursing her lips. Finally, she spoke, "and if he tires of me?"
"And if you tire of him? And if the sun falls from the sky?" The older woman rolled her eyes, leaning forward with her hands clasped. When Daine didn't respond she continued more quietly, "and if he doesn't? And you don't? And you spend the rest of your days loving one another?"
Daine looked up at her friend but still couldn't find words. They were there, somewhere—buried beneath something that took all of her focus to control. Hope.
"If I were a betting woman—though I'm not, and you have Sarge to thank for that—I'd put my money on the latter."
"He wants so much," her voice was soft and Onua leaned in to hear her. "So many things that I never thought anyone would want, so I've never thought about if they were things I could give."
"Do you know you don't want them?"
"No," she shook her head. "Not when he's a part of the decision, anyway."
"That's a start then. Just work from there," she shrugged. "I can't say I have much in the way to say on how to make it work; Horse Lords know marriage wasn't for me. Perhaps talk to Alanna? She's sacrificed a lot, to be sure, but she's as good example as any to what you'd be signing up for. King's Champion, household, husband, and a pack of kids to boot—"
"Great Mother Goddess, kids." Daine blanched.
Onua laughed, "careful she doesn't hear you, or she might take that as a request."
"Don't even joke. Gods, you think he wants us to have children?"
"I would assume so. Did you talk about it?" Onua asked, bemused.
"No; I suppose in the end there was so much new territory we didn't really talk about the details."
"You might want to change that."
"You're probably right," she sighed. In the light of day, away from the allure of drink, and dancing, and him it was becoming more and more clear as to why he wanted her to take this time. "Imagine, him and I having children—"
"Children?" Thayet stood over them, delicate eyebrows arched in surprise. "Do you have news to share, little one?" She sat next to Daine, tucking behind the stall to avoid attracting attention.
Onua spoke for her, recognizing panic when she saw it. "Our Daine has had something of an offer."
"She's still thinking things over." Onua interjected with a comforting look at Daine. "They've decided to be sensible folk and take some time for her to weigh her options. Until she's made a decision, I think he'd prefer not to attract attention."
"Of course," Thayet nodded, picking up on the situation gracefully. Based on her pleased smile Daine was concerned she had picked up on more than that but if the monarch was content to leave it be, so was she.
"The offer," her words struck in her throat. That's what it was after all—an offer, a shared life. Numair—body and soul. "The offer is still new. I haven't had a chance to wrap my head around it, truth be told."
"Well, you're wise to take your time thinking it over. I'm glad that you're taking such a decision seriously. It's an important decision and," she sighed, smiling kindly, "well, sometimes love isn't all there is to it. Not in the long run. I was very fortunate to make a love-match. I feel badly for the young noblewomen who come to season and don't have that luxury."
Daine laughed, "I hardly have to worry over the obligations of ladies."
Thayet paused, thinking over her words. "No," she started, delicately. "But that doesn't mean you don't have other challenges to bear." Few could speak of her illegitimacy so delicately. "And I don't want to see you settle."
"Oh," she looked up to meet Thayet's caring gaze, "I wouldn't be settling. Not in this realm or any other."
"I'm glad to hear that," Thayet smiled and Daine was shocked, for what must be the hundredth time, at how the woman could make simple cotton clothes look like finery. "And please don't take offence to this, but I can't picture you playing the role of housewife. Make sure that this man will take you for who you are—even if that comes with a few furry friends."
"A few? " Onua laughed.
Daine scowled at Onua before turning back to their friend, "thank you. I appreciate it."
"Of course; if you ever want to talk more, I'm here." She placed her hand on Daine's and squeezed, "but I think you'll make the right choice. I have a feeling you'll end up exactly where you are supposed to; whatever the outcome of this offer is."
Thayet stood, wiping her breeches.
"Leaving already? I don't get any advice?" Onua teased.
"You," Thayet turned and fixed the K'mir with a stern gaze, "know very well what my advice has been."
"You know, I've always thought Onua and—"
"Stop; both of you." Onua glowered, no longer having fun now that it was at her expense.
"I'm afraid I do need to be heading back. One more thing," she looked down at Daine, and placed her hands on her hips. "I know this isn't my place, and I know your mother was a midwife so you know the facts of it well enough, but sometimes young people can get carried away in these situations—when things are almost settled. I also know that sometimes women not of noble birth feel that the expectations are different for them, but your worth is not less, Daine. Your virtue is yours to cherish. If he is looking for anything from you beyond an answer, remember that you have no further obligation beyond that answer in return for his affections until he has made himself fully obligated to you. Do you understand?"
Daine blinked, taken off guard by the sudden shift. When Thayet inclined her head Daine realized she was supposed to answer and nodded, "of course."
The Queen wished them farewell and disappeared from view before Onua burst out in laughter, "Horse Lords, it's a bit like trying to load cargo when the ship has already sailed, isn't it?"
Daine stood, scowling at the older woman. "I'm taking the rest of the day off," she brushed the straw from her breeches.
"You can't take the day off, you don't work here. I don't even know why you're awake ."
"You could just say thank you."
"Thank you," she grinned. "You're not going to go find him, are you?"
"Liar," Onua muttered, exchanging a look with Tahoi.
Daine didn't go looking for him—not immediately, anyway. Instead, she took a leisurely trip to the bathhouse where she scrubbed off the morning's muck and found two pins hidden in her curls from the night before. An indulgent nap and a late lunch took a good portion of the afternoon, followed by a walk through the woods that ended in an extended effort to extract some mischievous fox kits from a pricker bush they had become stuck in, thus undoing most of her work in the bathhouse.
The sky was turning pink when she emerged from the tree-line. Recruits were bringing in their mounts and she could hear Sarge's booming directions from three pastures away. A familiar figure caught her eye as she drew closer to her room and she watched in amusement as Numair approached the barracks only to turn heel and head back to the palace. The amusing part was that he repeated this several times before noticing her. She smiled at him as he approached, hands shoved in his pockets and shoulders slumped.
"Well, that could have gone better," he muttered when he was close enough to speak without yelling.
"I don't know what you mean," she played coy and was rewarded with a smile in return.
"I've spent the better part of the day trying to think of an excuse to see you, then thinking better of it. The rest of the day was spent trying to figure out what I would say to you so that I appeared composed and charming." He sighed, "so that did not go according to plan."
"You never need an excuse to see me." She turned to walk with him and took sympathy on his self-effacing grin. "I have spent a lot of time doing nothing productive to avoid bothering you, if that makes you feel better."
"It does, actually. And you could never bother me." His smile softened and he looked down at her in a way that made her stomach slip. Fighting the urge to slide her hand into his, she looked away.
"Have you eaten? We could take dinner in my room." She'd rather not have to spend time with anyone else, if she were to be honest.
He hesitated, glancing at the barracks, "we probably shouldn't."
"We've eaten alone plenty of times before," she laughed but sighed when she saw he was serious.
"I know, but things are different now." He ran a hand through his hair, "I think it's best that we keep some boundaries in place. For now, at least." He did seem reluctant and that made her feel better.
"You think we need chaperones?"
"You don't ?"
She crossed her arms over her chest, "I suppose it couldn't hurt. Since you're so intent on staying respectable."
He snorted, "I think we're already a little past staying respectable, magelet. Salvaging some semblance of decency, perhaps."
"Should I fetch for Onua to keep a watchful eye on us?" She couldn't help but tease.
"Let's just plan on spending our time together in public for the time being."
"Public," she clicked her tongue. "Group meals, walks in nature—that sort of thing?"
"Like forest clearings?"
"Daine ," he groaned but she noticed he couldn't help but smile.
She stopped, stepping closer to him. "So you do like thinking about it."
His gaze changed, becoming heated, when she closed the distance between them and when he spoke the sound was low, "oh, yes ."
A heated moment passed before he stepped back, shaking his head as if to clear it, "You'll be the death of me; was that even a question?"
She shrugged, "I have a lot of questions."
"You do?" He looked surprised. "And?" He pushed when she didn't elaborate, nudging her to walk again.
"Yes, but I haven't thought of them all yet." She sighed, "that sounded stupid—"
"No," he laughed, "that makes sense actually. Why don't you start with the ones you have thought of."
"Do you want children?" She blurted it out before she thought better of it.
He blinked, obviously surprised, but found his footing with a chuckle, "I was expecting you to start smaller, magelet, but yes; I do."
"I see," she wrung her hands together.
He noticed, stopping again, and reaching out to stop her. "Do you not?"
"I don't know, I—" she faltered and he stepped closer.
"I'm sorry; that wasn't supposed to be an accusation. I do want children. With you, quite specifically, but I don't want it to be a source of anxiety for you. I was worried about this—"
"No," she interjected before he could become too silly for words, "it's not too much. It's just that all of this—marriage, children—is new to me. I'd never considered them options and now they are and I'm not quite sure what to think."
"That's more than understandable," he said, softly, and dropped his hand away from hers.
"I want to be very clear, though, that it's not you I'm not sure about."
"And I want to be very clear that I would very much like to have children with you, but if you don't want to be a mother you—just you—would be more than enough for me."
"I wouldn't want you to give up something like that for me."
"It's not something I would give up if I didn't feel I could be happy without it. Besides, if we get into the conversation of sacrifices we would be making for one another I fear it may never end." His tone was light but when she looked at him she could tell the thought troubled him. Perhaps this was progress enough for the day.
"You never said if you'd eaten. Join me in the mess hall?"
"Sounds perfect," he smiled and looked up above them, where a family of robins nested. "For what it's worth, I think you'd be a brilliant mother."
He had reached the point of being too silly for words after all, so she didn't answer but found it hard to control her pleased smile. They took another turn of the pasture. She noticed that he kept his distance, hands in his pockets. Gone were any affectionate habits that she had become accustomed to. She felt their absence like an ache but, she would admit, it was nice to have their conversation return to some normalcy—his work, the people, their friends. For all of the excitement and butterflies of the past several weeks it was this normalcy that reminded her of how she had fallen in love with him in the first place. It was so easy to do, in the end. Like falling asleep; you don't know it happened until it's too late.
The mess hall wasn't crowded by the time they showed up and Daine offered an apology to Maeve, the head server, who notoriously loathed latecomers. Onua and Sarge were there—preparing to corral the riders for their evening classes—and the four of them passed the time until the recruits started filtering in. They looked tired, but cleaner than they had when Daine had seen them in the pastures earlier that day.
Onua happily allowed Numair to take over instructing them in meditation. He asked Daine to help—positioning her in front of the class as an example in posture as he outlined the basics. She was centering herself when she felt him sit next to her. She fought the urge to peek at him, knowing they were on display for all the recruits. He didn't touch her but she could feel him nonetheless.
Focusing on her breathing, she tried to bring her thoughts back under control. It had been years since she'd struggled with focusing herself this much. She finally found a rhythm that was good enough, if not ideal, and couldn't help but notice that his breathing sounded different too. He was usually relaxed when he meditated—his breath coming in languid waves like the ocean tide. It sounded too controlled now. Too deliberate. She barely stopped herself from smiling and fought to center herself once again.
Not a candlemark later and the recruit were shooed away, several having been woken up, by Onua and Sarge as they herded their charges back to their rooms. Daine and Numair slipped out the exterior door, a habit formed long-ago in the interest of both fresh air and avoiding Sarge's bellows.
They reached the fork in the path. Normally, Numair would escort her back to her rooms but he stopped at the fork and hesitated.
"I should be heading back," he said softly and not without regret.
"So soon?" She crossed her arms. It had gotten chilly while they were inside.
He sighed, "if I walk you back to your room I will very much want to kiss you goodnight."
"You keep saying these things as if they are problems."
He chuckled, but shook his head, "I think it would be better not to play with fire."
"It's a good thing you only want to kiss me in doorways then," she teased, knowing how much he loved a challenge. She saw him hesitate—saw the conflict and the heat in his eyes—and realized she was being unfair. Stepping back, she groaned, "I suppose you're being reasonable though. Goodnight, Numair."
"Goodnight, Daine," he lingered a moment. Not reaching for her, just looking at her with the same expression he wore when he was trying to memorize something. And then he turned, and she was watching him retreat to the castle.