Cheers could be heard from the courtyard as another couple successfully cleared the bed of embers and pages rushed forward to brush those that strayed, skittering like fireflies across the stone, back into the pile. As usual, the merriment of Beltane had spilled outside of the Royal Ballroom, as it had all over the city.
Points of light could be spied near and far, beckoning with warmth and merriment and the promise of things yet to come. Between the fires, night seemed to fall darker than ever—all the better to conceal those who crept away. While most sought refuge in their quarters, or depth of the gardens for the bold and impatient, two had journeyed upwards.
"Ah," Numair pointed to the West, "there. See it? The Maiden's Crown."
Daine leaned forward against the wall of the rampart and squinted at the sky before shaking her head. "Not a bit; I never can." Numair chuckled and stood behind her.
"Not at first, magelet." He took her hand in his, lifting it so that he could direct her, "There—upwards of Ganiel's Eye and left of the Minotaur. See that bright one?" When she made a somewhat committal noise he pressed on. "That's the center; now follow my hand and you'll see the base and the eight points."
Daine made a contemplative noise and Numair stepped back, releasing his grip. "Not impressed?"
She laughed, "no, I see it. A crown just seems rather fanciful for a maiden."
"If I'm not mistaken the points represent the stages of life embodied by the Goddess. Maiden, Mother, Crone and all that comes in between."
"It must be exhausting," Daine turned to walk again, skirts brushing against the flagstone behind her, "being so many things at once."
"An observation I've often made myself," he laughed.
"What's the in between?" When he didn't answer she pressed on. "Maiden, mother, and crone: those are three. There are eight points."
Numair drew in a long breath. "I'm not actually sure," he said, sheepishly. Daine stopped, placing a hand on her chest in mock outrage.
"And you call yourself a great mage?" She grinned, a ringlet escaping its pin and falling to frame her face. He nudged her with an elbow, and she staggered dramatically with a sigh and clicked her tongue. "What will Harailt say?"
"I do know another meaning, if my lady will allow me to redeem myself." He bowed, mocking her, and she rolled her eyes.
"Are you implying that what's written in the stars is up for interpretation?" She giggled.
"More or less," he shrugged.
"That's absurd, Numair."
"Do you want to hear it or not?"
"Yes please," she conceded.
"Thanic records refer to it as the Crown of Dragoste."
"I wonder how the Goddess felt about that."
"Don't be too glib, Daine. I might need you to put in a good word with your parents on my behalf if talking about this is considered too heretical."
"Oh, after all the help they needed from us putting Uusoae in her place I think they'll survive."
Numair pinched the bridge of his nose, "talk like that is very much the opposite of what I requested."
"Fine, I'll be good. No promises about winning Da over for you though." She laughed at his groan. "So the Crown of Dragot—"
"Right, that. What do the points mean then?"
"Each point represents a different type of love."
"Eight types of love?" She shot him a sour look. "Odd's Bobs; Isn't love complicated enough?"
He laughed, "If you'll let me finish explaining you may find that their classifications help clarify things, if anything." He could practically feel her roll her eyes as he stopped to lean against the rampart once more. "Come here," he beckoned for her and she complied.
He grasped her hand once more and traced the constellation as he explained. "There's Storge," he landed on the first point.
"What? That doesn't tell me anything," she made a face.
"Patience. It means familial love. Like that you feel for your mother—natural, and instinctual. Next," he moved their joined hands to the next point, "is Philautia, or self-love. The love and care you should express for yourself." He nudged her with his body and she smiled, but sidestepped the remark.
"Ah, I see—it's the different people you can love."
He hesitated, "not entirely; just wait. Here's Agape," he moved their hands in time with his narration, "which means selfless, or unconditional, love, and next is Pragma, enduring love."
She tilted her head and bit her lip, "I don't understand—why would they be their own? I've always loved my Ma, and I always will."
"You understand more than you give yourself credit for, Magelet. They aren't meant to be mutually exclusive; the love you have for someone can take many forms."
"I suppose that makes sense," she bit her lip, "and it makes sense when you think of other people. Jon and Thayet—there's enduring if I've ever seen it. All that weight on their shoulders and you can see they're fair in love. Alanna and George too."
"Ah, excellent example since it brings us to Ludus; playful love!" He smiled at her laugh and carried them on to the next point. "And of course Philia, affectionate love not uncommon between friends. It can often go hand in hand with Ludus." She leaned into him, so slightly and briefly he wondered if he had imagined it.
"Love between friends," she said, finally, and he hesitated. "Reminds me of Evin and Miri."
Numair snorted, "that's a kind way to put it."
"They're lucky they're good at their jobs with all the trouble they get into," she shook her head.
"Glass houses, Daine."
"Numair," she shot him an incredulous look and he shrugged.
"Where were we? Ah yes," he guided her hand to fall to the next point, "Mania. Obsessive love."
"Ozorne." It came out a whisper and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end to hear the name fall from her lips. He didn't turn his head to look at her, but could practically feel her own surprise to have summoned him into this space. Long dead, and the Emperor Mage still managed to haunt the quiet spaces of the world. He would have been so proud.
"I want to argue that what he felt wasn't love, but," he faltered. There were mysteries in life he wasn't sure he would ever unravel; wasn't sure if he wanted to. She squeezed his fingers, leaning into him to offer comfort where her words failed her.
"What's the next one?"
He paused, his thumb stroking her hand as he moved to settle on the last point. "Eros."
She turned so that her head faced towards him but did not pull her hand from his grip. "Which is?"
He licked his lips, suddenly aware of how close they were and how far away everyone else in the world seemed. "Romantic love, or sexual." Her hand felt hot in his own, burning against the cool May air. He did not move, refused to look down and meet her gaze.
"Are you blushing, Master Mage?"
"Trick of the light, to be sure." He released her hand and stepped away as she laughed and fell in step with his pace.
"It is Beltane; to think you'd be shocked over a little mention of canoodling."
"I didn't say a thing about canoodling as you are so fond of calling it."
"What would you prefer I call it?"
"I'd prefer you call it nothing, to be frank."
"Very well, so if those are the eight types of love then you and I," she turned with her hands behind her back so she faced him as they walked. "Storge and Philia?" She stumbled over the words but grinned at him. "Are you blushing again?"
He shook his head, dismissing the comment, but grinned despite himself."Certainly those. Agape, too." He dropped his gaze, "at least on my end."
"Ah, last week you wouldn't share your sweet roll with me and this week you're selfless are you?" She teased.
"I meant unconditional."
She stopped laughing, but her smile stayed put. She turned so that she walked next to him once, close enough that he could feel her sleeve brush against his own. "I think we're fair forgetting one," she paused, looking out over the palace grounds where several more fires had sprouted up around the barracks.
"Yes?" His left wrist felt heavy, the chain of the focus suddenly glaring to him and he glanced to ensure it was still concealed.
"Always," she crossed her arms, shivering as a breeze swept across the rampart. He reached over and pulled her into a half-hug, pressing a kiss against her curls. Even if he had wanted to speak, his throat felt thick. They came to a stop where the path split; turning left would wrap back around the courtyard, while following the winding stairs would bring down to the outer grounds.
"Now, Eros," she pulled away, raising an eyebrow as she glanced at him.
"Why do I feel like I'm about to be teased, and badly?" He groaned.
"It's Beltane, Numair." She used her arms to leverage herself so sit on the edge of the wall, a habit of hers that always made his stomach drop.
"And?" He scuffed his boot against the flagstone.
"And you've taken two turns of the rampart with your student instead of entertaining any of the many women who would like nothing more than to be jumping over some embers with you." She smirked as he scoffed.
"I challenge you to tell me one time you've seen me jump over any embers." He reached out and tugged at her sleeve when she laughed, arching her back so that she looked even closer to falling. She followed his lead and let herself fall back to the ground.
"Maybe not, but you can't tell me half those out tonight aren't looking to celebrate in spirit, if not for the want of babies."
"I can't say I fault your assessment, but it's neither here nor there in my case." He shook his head, motioning for her to follow the left path. She made a disbelieving noise as she brushed past him.
"Trying to imply you're too distinguished for such pursuits? You're giving yourself fair more credit for discretion than you deserve, you know."
Numair trailed a few paces behind her, shaking his head and wondering what he had done to be on the receiving end of such a conversation. "You're unusually attentive tonight—did Sarge convince you to play King's Folly?" He pinched the bridge of his nose, remembering his own encounter with his old friend, a bottle of whiskey, and a number of questionable decisions years earlier.
She laughed, deflecting. It did not lessen his concern. "Worried I'll learn too much about you?" She winked at him over her shoulder, curls as full of mischief as her smile.
He shook his head. "If anyone's breaking hearts it'll be you throwing looks like that around. If you think I was being pursued tonight, I don't think you were paying enough attention to the men flocking around you."
She scoffed, " so you're ferrying me around to protect my honor?" He hesitated and for too long, he realized, when she spun on her heel to face him. "Numair, no. We talked about this. Many times."
"And as I've said before I don't think it's untoward that I want to look out for you. Not all young men have good intentions. In fact, I'd argue that most do not."
"And as I've said, if you have concerns about anyone in particular you are more than welcome to express them to me in private—not to them in public, don't think I've forgotten Kaddar. Outside of that who I choose to go to bed with is my decision; whether we jump over embers first or not." She fixed him with a look he knew too well, and he tried not to dwell on the fact that her previous statements of 'when' she chose to bed someone had turned to 'who'.
"I am well aware that you are capable of making your own choices, and you are well aware that does not erase my concern for your well-being. We've agreed to this stalemate before. Now, if you're done with your lecture, perhaps you'll let me finish and tell you that I've missed your company of late and thought my evening would be most pleasant if I spent it with you." He crossed his arms, looking down at her. She tried to give him an appraising look but the effect was somewhat lacking considering the pleased smile she couldn't fight.
"Well, that's alright I suppose."
"I might take it back if you keep accusing me of things though," he shrugged. She nudged him, leaning her weight into him as they resumed their stroll.
"So the short of it is no one's caught your eye?"
He glanced at her, navigating unfamiliar waters, before sighing and looking up at the starlit sky. "I'm not currently involved with anyone, no." They rounded another corner, cheers becoming louder and the orange glow of firelight lighting Daine's face. "Is there someone waiting for you tonight?" He asked, quietly. "I promise I won't scare them off," he added when she did not answer.
"Oh," she looked at him, away from a couple cutting through the gardens below, and smiled, "no one. Not tonight."
They walked in silence for a stretch, moving from the starlit dark to where the rampart was bathed in light and sparks danced in the air above the courtyard below. Daine leaned against the wall, clasping her hands in front of her. Numair settled next to her as they watched couples traverse the glowing bed below, one by one.
"Do you want to?" She asked, motioning to a couple engrossed in a passionate kiss after making their jump.
He paused, half-turning to her. Her gaze followed the couple, firelight reflected against the familiar blue-grey. "Do what?"
She motioned towards the fire. "Get married. Babies."
He leaned forward, steepling his fingers as he studied her. More cheers erupted below before he turned his attention back towards the festivities. "Yes; I do. I always have, actually."
"Why haven't you?" She sighed, propping her head on her hands as she turned towards him. "I'm sorry, that came out before I thought it through."
"That's alright," he shrugged, "I suppose I always just assumed it would happen. I assumed a lot of things would just happen."
"Among other things," he gave a rueful smile. "And then they didn't, and there were other priorities. I do want those things but I want them with someone," he paused, searching for the word, "exceptional."
She nodded but didn't speak.
"I'm sure you're wondering how I could still be single, when my standards are so reasonable," he laughed.
"Not at all, you deserve someone exceptional." She wasn't laughing.
"So do you." He moved, as if to reach out and touch her face but didn't. She didn't notice, however, as she had turned back to the spectacle before them with a shrug. "You can be avoidant all you want, but you'll be married and squired away from me before long."
"You don't give yourself enough credit."
"I meant that they could take me away from you; even if anyone was crazy enough to court me in earnest they'd have to know we're a package deal." She tapped his leg with her foot and winked as he fought to conceal a pleased smile.
"I like how you say that like no one courts you," he sidestepped her flattery, and raised an eyebrow in her direction.
"You know what I mean. In an," she waved her hand, searching for the word, "honest way. Not a dalliance."
He studied her, trying to sort out what he was seeing. "It had never seemed to bother you before."
"Oh," she laughed, turning back to him, "it hasn't. Don't start fretting about me. Some of my swains have been nice enough, but no one I'd be interested in marrying even if it were an option."
"If it were an option?"
"Numair," she tilted her head and fixed him with the same look as when he burned dinner.
"No one marries a bastard."
"That is demonstrably false."
"No one respectable."
He snorted. "You don't even like respectable people. I challenge you to name me a single one of your friends who could be considered respectable by the average person." He was pleased to receive a laugh in response. "And I don't understand why you think no one worth having would want to ask for your hand."
She sighed and shrugged again, "It's what I grew up hearing."
"You know very well what I think of the people you grew up with," he grumbled, "but on that note I doubt they would have considered anything you've accomplished would have been possible. So I don't think I would put any stock in their visions for you anymore."
"I suppose you're right." She stood on her tiptoe, leaning over the wall to get a better view of a young man who came dangerously close to taking a tumble into the coals. With disaster averted she dropped to her heels, keeping a grasp on the wall as she leaned back and stretched her arms. "It's just nothing I thought of as a possibility, so it's not something I imagine when I look forward."
"What do you see?" He tugged at the hem of his left sleeve.
"So inquisitive tonight," she was looking towards the sky, "but I suppose I started it. I see you," she shrugged, "Kit, Cloud, Onua. The people. The friends I've made and the homes I've settled—I want to keep protecting them."
"Well, you can count on me at least." He ran his thumb over the focus chain in small circles, wondering why he couldn't help tempt fate with their conversations.
"Until you marry. I'm not sure of many ladies who would be keen on sharing your tower with me and my ragtag group of furry friends." She smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes.
"They aren't all furry; sometimes I find scales. A whole snakeskin in the pantry once," he laughed, picturing the women he usually dallied with making such a discovery. "And they would also have to understand that we are a package deal, as you put it. It's your home too."
She reached out, placing a hand over his. "You're always fiddling with that wrist. Now I know how my biting my nails must have vexed you."
"Bad habit," he mumbled and looked away.
"And I do know I could be married, if that were my goal." She turned away, expression unreadable in the shadows cast across the rampart. He followed her lead, trailing behind her as they walked.
"Have—" he faltered. "Has someone asked you?" He felt uneasy at the thought that she could be receiving such offers and he had been none the wiser.
"Oh," she laughed, "Goddess no. But Thayet and Jon offered to arrange a match for me."
"What?" He sped up to walk beside her, somewhere between outraged and amused.
"I'm serious," she shook her head. "Just after Midwinter, actually. I think it was more Jon's idea, to be honest. Thayet didn't seem quite as enthusiastic."
"For how progressive he is, our King does have some very traditional ideas."
"He meant well, I'm sure. Mentioned there were several eligible lesser nobles and Knights who would be at court for the season."
He was laughing in earnest now, "I'm sorry but I'm having some difficulty imagining you at court for the season."
"It would be a disaster."
"What did you say?"
"That I was offended, of course." She crossed her arms, nodding. "Ozone offered to make me a Countess, and here Jon was talking of lesser nobles," her facade crumbled as a grin broke out and Numair laughed, the sound carrying across the courtyard.
"I take it you will not be making your debut, then? Shame, you do clean up nice when you want to."
She stuck her tongue out at him. "No fine gowns this season, Master Mage. You'll just have to be satisfied with my usual horse dung."
"And yet I don't think you'll struggle to attract more than your fair share of attention."
"You're too silly for words tonight." She moved closer to him, looping her hand through the crook of his arm. "Besides, I like my life and to live it I need to be untethered. I would need someone who understood that, and I would never want to trap someone else. I'm not sure it's about marriage for me so much as—" she trailed off, looking out across the grounds.
She sighed, "love, I suppose."
"You say that as if you're the first one who wants to match for the sake of love."
"No, I know. I just," she faltered, "I don't want love for the sake of love. I want real love. I just don't want to settle; unless it were someone I loved as much as—" she stopped suddenly, blushing. She shook her head, "It would just need to feel fair significant."
"And it hasn't?"
"With any of my pursuers?" she laughed and shook her head. "Hardly." Silence fell over them as they moved into the shadows once more, coming into focus as their eyes adjusted. Daine leaned her head against his shoulder and he let her, not caring to dwell on what it would look like to any prying eyes.
"Storge, Philautia, Agape, Pragma, Ludus, Philia, Mania," Dragoste glinted in the Western sky as she murmured. "Eros."
He smiled. "You've always been an excellent student."
She didn't respond right away, and when she did it was quiet. "Varice—"
He sighed, "certainly not Pragma, in the end."
"Eros," she said, as if remarking on something distasteful.
"Yes." He pinched the bridge of his nose with his free hand, and ran it through his hair. "At the time, honestly, it was everything. Looking back though—" he shook his head. "It was many things. Passionate, certainly. Affectionate, yes. Even playful. It was all-consuming back then, and I wouldn't be who I am now without her. But it was consuming; it wasn't selfless and, in the end, it came with conditions."
Daine squeezed his arm, hand gripping his arm through his sleeve. A small act, and one greatly appreciated. "And since?"
He turned the question over in his mind, choosing words carefully before he spoke. "A long road to Philautia. To love myself; or try to."
"Now that sounds more like familiar territory." She stopped, turning to hug him fully. He responded and rested his head against her curls. When they pulled apart he saw that they had come to the crossroads once more. She backed away, but kept her hand in his.
"It's getting late." He followed her gaze to see that, for the first time that night, there were fewer fires than before.
"Probably time for an old man like me to crawl into bed," he smiled, despite himself as she rolled her eyes.
"There are still coals burning; you have plenty of time left to wile away your hours," she grinned suggestively and he groaned, pulling his hand away and shoving it in his pocket.
"Trying to throw suspicion off of yourself, magelet?" She scoffed at his teasing and turned to take the stairs leading down. "I was serious before when I said that I saw how they look at you."
She paused and looked back at him, hand poised on the banister. "And how is that?"
"Like you're exceptional."
She turned away, half sunk into shadows and half lit by far-away firelight, before looking back at him with an unreadable expression. "Happy Beltane, Numair."
For a quiet moment he was left alone on the rampart, until another celebratory cheer roused him. He sighed, and continued back along the rampart and towards his own rooms.