He was alone again when he woke. It was earlier, at least. Early enough that if he hadn't remembered Daine coming to bed he would have worried she was still out. He pulled himself upright from where he had bundled the blankets around himself in her absence, and shivered when his feet touched the bare floor. The chill that seemed to pervade everywhere but the hearth urged him to make short work of readying himself for the day and he found himself pausing only when he found a long, brown strand of hair tangled in his own. He pulled at it as he pushed thoughts of her pressed against his chest away.
The sun was barely sweeping over the horizon when the guard let him through the gate and he was thankful for the warm sweet roll Marta had pushed on him. His morning work was considerably quicker than the day before. The exterior wall posed none of the interior's challenges with the only significant notes revolving around the gates. For once, something was going smoothly and was probably the last thing that would.
He was more awake as he returned to the Inn and noticed the flash of copper fire coming from the stables. He peeked into Cloud's stall, showing the pony that he had nothing in his pockets and ignoring her complaint, to see Daine huddled over an arctic fox. The animal still sported its winter coloring, but a streak of muddy-red traveled across its flank. He unlatched the stall as quietly as he could and settled next to her, careful not to disturb her or her charge. Cloud bristled at sharing her space with yet another living thing and he made a mental note to bring her an apple later.
It was amazing how easy she made it look now—gone were the days where she would be drenched with sweat and shaking at the exertion of healing even the smallest injury. Based on the amount of blood he wasn't sure she could have saved this one when she was first exploring her power. He could remember the first of the people she lost and her devastation. She still lost some and it still hurt, he knew, but they were few and far between now.
He heard footsteps outside of the stall, hurried, and the sounds of someone rummaging through a nearby stall. He cocked his head, interest piqued to hear whoever it was muttering under their breath. Numair had a habit of keeping himself company and wasn't one to judge others for doing the same but something seemed off. The voice was too low to make out the words over the sounds of whatever occupied the stranger. Male, though. Gruff. Anxious. He straightened, as if a better posture would improve his hearing and was surprised to find it helped.
"If that snow-swaddled—" the man said something so creatively vulgar that he glanced at Daine to see if it had broken her concentration, but she remained focused on her work. The expletives continued, however, and Numair felt as though something was tugging at the back of his mind. There was something important about what he was hearing but whatever it was danced just out of his grasp. The accent was heavy, but not abnormal for the area. Similar to the others he had heard during dinner the night prior. Not full Scanran, but more stunted than the Common spoken in the south. Something about the rhythm, though...
He leaned his head back against the stall, listening to the mutterings, until he accepted that whatever revelation he had thought was on the horizon was actually miles away. There was a scroll on the transmutative powers of Wyvern scales sitting on his desk back in Corus he felt much the same about. Silence returned as suddenly as it had stopped. A moment passed, followed by a low sigh and the sounds of footsteps retreating. Numair peeked over the stall door but saw no one.
He had just begun to settle in again when the little fox sprang up from Daine's lap, moving in circles as if to appraise itself. She laughed at something and motioned for her charge to calm down.
"I told him he can sleep here until it's dark. Too many here like their winter pelts." She stood, moving so that the fox could settle into the corner. Numair didn't question that she knew he was there, just as she didn't question how he had found her. " You will be good," she pointed at her pony, giving her a knowing look.
"Did you get any sleep?" He rose and followed her from the stall. She closed the door, but didn't latch it.
"Not nearly enough." Her eyes were heavy. "Quicksnow woke me early and it took me longer than I thought. A Polar Owl nearly took his leg clean off, and then he just about bled out trying to make it across the valley. It's a shame I didn't hear him when I was already out."
"It worked out though." He hesitated, before giving in and chiding, "and you do need sleep, occasionally."
"Yes ," she rolled her eyes, looking up at him. "Which I plan to do now. Are you heading back?"
"I am," he motioned to the papers stuffed in his pocket. "I finished my survey and want to update my notes before seeing Helene."
She nodded, stifling a yawn.
"Say hello for me," her voice was taking on the telltale sign that she would be asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. They moved across the yard and he could already hear that the Tavern was far more alive than it had been that morning. Looking around he saw that the stables had more tenants than the day before.
"How did last night go?"
"Not bad; I think I've figured some things out. The owls won't be much help—it's about to be mating season and you know owls, they can't be bothered with much else with that on the horizon—"
"I'm not sure that's specific to owls." That earned an exasperated glance, but also a smile.
"Well, the males don't want anything to do with each other right now. No one wants to risk inviting another too close to their territory and the females, well, competition is tight this year. There's a particularly attractive male—flies-like-starlight—that they all have their sights on—"
"Again, this sounds familiar. Remember when that Marquis came to court for the season two years back?"
"The snow leopards are wrapping their season up, but there aren't many of them and they also have large territories—not so different from the owls and they can't fly. They're sneaky though; you'd be amazed how close you could be to one and never even know."
"That's hardly comforting."
"They wouldn't hurt you ." She opened the door and sighed when they stepped into the warmth, unbuttoning her coat and moving out of the doorway. "Anyway, they like the dried meat humans carry with them and they'll give me counts when they raid supplies. Until they start to have their litters, anyway.
"They're pretty good with taking count, being apex predators and all. Now, the snowcocks and the goats—they'll be key. The leopards are so spread out it's hard to get word quickly, and the goats won't talk to them on account of being eaten so often—"
"Can't fault them there." He put a hand out to nudge her, moving her out of the way of a merchant carrying a bundle of thick fabric. It appears a makeshift market had sprung up while they were away.
"The snowcocks will though. THey're, well, cocky and don't feel half so threatened. They've agreed to take the leopard's counts when they come back up into the mountains, and pass them onto the goats. They nest pretty far up for human-spotting, but some of the young ones are feeling like they'd like to prove themselves daring and will fly out when they can. They'll pass on the numbers they get to the goats, the goats will pass them to me, I'll work out the numbers and there you have it!" She exhaled hard and put her hands on her hips.
"Simple," he nearly laughed.
"It should work," she shook her head, mirroring his expression, before noticing the bustle around them. "Oh, I forgot to mention that Marta let's caravans set up here when it's still cold out. You might find some of those charms if you're lucky." Her gaze fell on a table of brightly colored silk as she scanned the wares.
He nodded, noticing her distraction, and moved away. Most of the goods were provisions—coffee from Carthak, dried wax apples from The Yamani Isles—or clothing—one particularly ornate riding cloak of Sirajit design caught his eye and he wondered if Thayer ever had something similar. He noticed some small weapons, hunting daggers mostly, placed between other items and his watchful eye saw one or two bundles being passed surreptitiously under tables. Dreamrose, possible. Dragonsalt, perhaps.
Some luck, at least, was with him and he found an elderly merchant huddled near the fire with a small collection of magical wares, including six utijval charms. He overpaid and the merchant pretended he was sad to see them go at such a discount.
He was surprised to find Daine where he had left her, expecting her to be fast asleep in their rooms by then. She was holding two dressing gown—one red and one blue—of a soft silky material.
"The blue's nice," he leaned closer to her ear when he stepped behind her so that she would be able to hear in the bustle. She didn't jump but looked at him as she set them down.
"You always like the blue."
"Not buying it?"
She laughed, "just to have it covered in animal mess before i'd even put it on? Fine things aren't for the likes of me."
"If you like it, you should buy it." It was a debate they had on a regular basis and so he let it rest at that and watched as she picked up a small grey smock, embroidered with dragons around the hem and motioned for the merchant. She haggled easily and dropped a small pile of coins into the man's palm.
"Kit can have nice things, but you can't?" He couldn't help but smile at the thought of the young dragon in it. Over the last year, Kit had become enamoured with the fashion at court—often choosing to sit in with Thayet at dress fittings. Ever indulging, he and Daine had both purchased a small number of items to keep her satisfied.
" She has magic to fix them when she destroys them," she replied dryly, before sighing deeply. "I miss her."
"I do too." It had been a relief to see Daine again, but he couldn't ignore the dragon-shaped hole between them. "But she'll be back in midsummer. Not so long now."
"No," she sighed again and turned towards the stairs. "And I know it's good for her to spend time with other dragons." He knew her enough to know that even though she had long broken the actual habit, she probably wanted to bite her nails.
"But?" He ducked to avoid the low beam as they climbed the stairs.
"But, they'll all be around long after we're dead. Can't she just wait until then?"
"Not much longer now." He reached out to squeeze her hand. She returned the gesture, before pushing their door open. She had barely crossed the threshold when she yawned. He chucked, and prodded her forward.
"You get some sleep; I'll get a fire going before I head back out."
She mumbled her thanks and he got to work on the fire, taking the last of the firewood and making a mental note to request more. He heard her move around the room behind him as he worked—the sound of her heavy coat settling against the hook, the soft splashes of the wash basin as she rinsed her face, the clink of her belt as it hit the floor, and the swish of fabric against skin as she slid into bed.
When the fire burned steadily he turned to find her fast asleep, the curls peeking from the top of the covers the only clue that there was a person underneath the pile of blankets.
He slipped out, careful to close the door quietly, and took his work to the tavern where he was able to secure a small corner table. What it lacked in warmth, it possessed in relative peace. He hadn't realized that afternoon had crept closer until Wart appeared at his side with a bowl of stew and a generous slice of steaming bread that smelled of cloves.
"Thank you," he moved his diagrams aside, motioning to the boy that he could put the meal down. "Oh, we'll be needing some more firewood." He flushed when he realized he had done little to maintain discretion, but if Wart thought anything of it he didn't let on. The boy nodded, and moved away to answer a call for more mead from somewhere across the room.
The last of the ink had dried when Walt returned with the bundle and cleared his bowl. Numair left a silver noble on the table, knowing he overpaid but that Jon preferred it that way. Not enough to appear a braggart but enough to spread a bit of extra coin to the far corners of his realm.
Marta was urging the merchants to pack up for the day and allow her regular patrons room to eat when he spied the cloth merchant from earlier. He paused at the table, gaze falling on a swatch of blue silk draping out from underneath a heavily embroidered tunic.
"How much?" He asked, setting the firewood down.
"Ah, finest embroidery north of The Great Inland sea. For you, sir, two gold crowns." The man smiled, revealing a gold tooth, and Numair scowled.
"Two silvers seems more appropriate."
"Please, sir, this is Mulberry silk from the Bombyx Mandara. So rare, that they can only be found in a single bay deep in the Yamani Isles."
"Bombyx Mandarina , and they can actually be found in most of the nations west of Tortall. Besides, this is Eri silk. Look, you can tell that the threads have been spun together. Mulberry would be much lighter."
Next time he was home he'd have to tell his father that he'd learned something useful from the family trade after all. After some unhappy bartering with the merchant, they settled on three silvers plus an extra to have it wrapped. Numair watched the man set the fabric on the hand-painted paper and stopped in.
"I'll take the red, actually."
Numair added the parcel to his pile and returned was still fast asleep, one foot sticking out from underneath the blankets but otherwise still hidden from view. He stoked the fire, adding another log for good measure, and stacked the rest of the wood next to the hearth.
Taking care to step quietly, he picked up the clothes she had left next to the bed and stacked them neatly atop the dresser. He placed the wrapped parcel on top of them and, thinking better of it, moved it into the drawer before putting it in his own bag and finally returning it to the stacked pile with a sigh. The gesture felt like a mistake, but one that was already half-made. One he wanted to make.
With the diagram rolled in a sheet of wax-paper, he pulled on his coat and ventured into town. Helene's house was easy enough to find—facing the south gate, with a blue door painted with small red and yellow flowers just as Daine had described. He knocked softly on the door and then more firmly when no one answered.
Just when he had begun to think she was out, a voice came from behind him.
"You must have walked right past me," Helene scowled, motioning for him to move out of her way with a shake of her cane.
"I was at the Tavern," she shook her head, pushing open the door and waving for him to follow. She seemed vexed.
He ducked as he entered, and found that he could barely stand without brushing the ceiling even when he was inside.
"Don't bother taking your shoes off," she pulled a chair out from a small table and pointed at it. "Sit. It's making me uncomfortable to try and watch you fit in here."
He laughed and maneuvered around the bundles of herbs hanging from the rafters to dry. "Fact of life for me, I'm afraid. I'm impressed you found a coat that would fit me. Thank you, again. It's been much better than my cloak." He set the scroll on the table and loosened the buttons at his throat. The house was small and cozy—too warm for so many layers.
She eyed him up and down before snorting, "it's supposed to fall at the knee."
"Ah," he faltered and looked down to where the hem rested just beneath his hips and sat down. "Still warm, I assure you."
Helene moved surely around the kitchen, cane set aside, as he unfurled the diagram. She had already laid out the survey documents, and he went to work comparing the two. They were detailed, but outdated by nearly a decade.
"I'm afraid I've neglected these," she said, setting a steaming mug in front of Numair. "I can manage people, but Rorick was always better with records. I've no patience for it."
"No, this is helpful. I've enough to work with as it is, but more details are always better."
"I can tell you that the west wall—here," she pointed, "was rebuilt six years past; frost heaves pushed the footings right out of the ground."
"Was anything put in place to mitigate it moving forward?"
"Irrigation channels here, here, and here," she pointed to several areas on the survey and he marked them on his own records. The spell could cross over the channels, but he needed to ensure he didn't anchor the spell anywhere that water flowed—too many conflicting elements would destabilize the enchantment over time.
He sipped from his mug, pleasantly surprised at the thick, rich sweetness that greeted him.
"Butter tea," she noticed his appraising glance. "I can add some ginger if you'd like some extra kick."
"No, thank you. This is delicious."
A knock at the door interrupted any reply Helene may have had and she excused herself to answer it. He returned to the task at hand, but glanced back at the door when he heard Helene speak to the caller in a low voice. Marta and Helene spoke quickly, the anxiety that had radiated off of the older woman earlier returning in force. Finally, Helene nodded and sighed, placing a hand on the innkeepers arm with a squeeze. Marta left as quickly as she had arrived.
"Is everything alright?" He found that feigned ignorance was often as awkward as nosiness.
She shook her head, reclaiming her seat and drumming her fingers on the table. She looked at him, sizing him up to be sure, before sighing, "I caught one of the merchants selling silkspin to Walt."
"Silkspin?" That was worth putting his quill down.
"Addles the mind. I know caravans traffic all sorts through here—opium, dreamrose, tar vespers. Dragonsalt, particularly from the West. I don't make a scene if all they do is pass through with it, but I don't condone selling to my people. Even then," she shrugged. "Winters are long and people find ways to amuse themselves. We've a handful who enjoy their mead more than it enjoys them. Sometimes other vices, but mostly nothing we can't handle.
"Even when Ljoll started with the vespers for a season she wasn't so far gone. This silkspin, though, it's vicious. I thought the salts were bad, but this takes someone so quickly. Yarlik—a herder who used to pass through here each year—tried it in the spring and could hardly think of anything else by fall. Stole a horse from Jon Havrik to try and sell it for another fix. Died not two years after.
"The rest of it, well, it's all been around forever. I still remember my grandaddy whipping my brother when he caught him and his friends out at the hotsprings one midsummer. This feels like it just appeared out of thin air—"
"That's because it did, essentially." He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.
"Not personally, but I've seen the effects well enough. When it first started circulating it hit the wharf district of Corus pretty hard."
The brothels had been hit the hardest, and any other place where most were looking for an escape. George had enlisted him to help investigate why so many bodies were piling up and Numair had developed a newfound respect for the coroners of the slums. No amount of balsam could cover the stink of death that clung to him those long weeks.
"No one had heard of it because it didn't exist before a few years ago. Not in four-hundred years or so, anyway. The main ingredient is spidren venom."
"Spidren venom?" She made a disgusted face, and he grimaced in sympathy.
"It's distilled with a number of agents, including killer unicorn bile, to denature the venom and increase the hallucinogenic properties."
Helene whistled, "that's a lot of effort to go to to ruin your life."
"And expensive . If processed correctly, the result is highly addictive and most users will die within three years. Five if they're lucky. If it's not prepared correctly, well," he sighed, "they'll die a lot sooner."
"Never thought dragonsalt would look quaint."
"You said Walt was buying?"
She sighed, "he swears he was just looking for something to help him with his skin, and the merchant said it would. Marta says she talked to him and he promised he's never used it before. She believes him, and I believe her. There's a lot of us to keep an eye on him. He's a good lad, but still—"
"You worry; of course." He smiled. "The merchant?"
"Better be in Scanra by now," she scowled. "But enough—what else do you need to know?" She gestured towards the papers.
"Nothing, actually," he shrugged. "This should be plenty to start with. I can start immediately. No, you can keep that," he said when she started to roll up the survey. "I'll give you my copy as well when I'm done. It might come in handy when you're updating your records." That earned a laugh.
He pulled his coat on and thanked her for the tea.
"Ask Marta to make you some; hers is much better. And let me know if you need anything."
He was displeased to find that it was, in fact, colder outside than it had been that morning and so it was extremely disappointing when he passed through the Southern Gate to find that the wind had picked up.
He pressed his palm against the gate pillar, leaving a small trace of his gift—just enough for him to see it. Taking care to keep his strides even and tight to the perimeter wall, he walked sixty paces and repeated the gesture. He focused, not to control his gift but so as not to lose count, and repeated the sequence until he reached the pillar of the north gate.
With his gift marking half the perimeter he turned and walked out across the valley. The wind pushed back at him, forcing him to duck his head into his chest. With some steps he wasn't sure if he moved forward at all as the cold air pushed back at him, urging him to return to that warm room and crawl into bed with—he shook his head and clenched his teeth against the cold.
Finally, he turned, bracing himself to stand against the gale. It wasn't comfortable, but the wind at his back was better than against his face. From this distance he could see the entire settlement.
Each touchpoint glowed, visible only to him. He held out both hands, palms up, towards the town as if it rested in his hands. In his left, small pinpricks of black fire appeared—an exact replica of the touchpoints. Carefully, he folded his palm over to rest on top of his right hand, imprinting the points there and drawing his hand back. In his hands rested a perfect, symmetric circle. Looking up, he saw that the touchpoints now formed a mirror-image as well. His hands fell to his sides, and with it his focus—the anchor points were planned and he could begin laying the spell down immediately.
As his attention to the touchpoints faded, awareness of his surroundings returned. Horns blared from the ramparts. The sound struggled to carry across the blustery lowlands, and the sound wavered as it fought against each gust but the urgency was clear as a bell. He turned, expecting Scanran troops to be marching from the mountains. Instead a white wall was rolling through the valley, like a great cloud sweeping over everything in its path.
Go far enough north and it's never too late for one last storm. He swore and pulled his gloves on as he pushed forward, picking up speed as he tied to beat the squall. The wind was on his side this time. He stumbled several times as he met ground that had been thawing that morning only to suddenly freeze again as the temperature dropped, but managed to keep a steady pace.
The watchmen yelled as he approached, the air already hazy with a thick flurry that was merely a harbinger of what was to come. They opened the gate as little as they could get away with, and he forced himself through and helped the men on the other side secure it behind him.
The gate shuddered as the storm struck it and the wind whistled as it mounted the walls in waves you could see with the bursts of ice and snow that traveled them. The strips of fabric hanging from the windows—all tightly latched now—whipped violently in the gale. By the time he reached the Inn he could barely see across the yard, but could tell that the stable doors had been closed.
He struggled with the door, nearly falling into the Tavern, and shivered in the sudden relief that accompanied the jarring calm within. The kind of chill that only sunk in when one felt warmth again began to settle and he felt his teeth chatter.
"Oh, good. You're the last of them, then—these things come on so fast I fret until everyone's under my roof," Marta passed him, carrying a tray of steaming mugs. The Tavern was quiet; he assumed anyone who was not staying there was tucked safely in their own homes. "I've already sent a hot meal and mead up to your rooms. Go on and get warm. Daine's up there already." She patted his arm, snowflakes falling him sheathes from his coat. He thanked her and brushed off what snow he could. Thick rugs had been piled near the door and they squished beneath his boots with the other guests cast-offs.
Daine was awake when he entered and smiled when she saw him.
"You're back. I was starting to worry," she started to stand from her nest of blankets in front of the fire but he waved her off.
"Nearly got caught in it." He kicked off his boots and stripped off his jacket, realizing how damp he was when it peeled away from his skin.
"I laid out clothes for you," she motioned behind the screen before turning away again.
He nodded and moved closer to the fire—seeking just a little warmth before he changed. He felt something skitter over his foot, and looked down to see a family of root voles had taken up residence near their hearth.
"Taking in refugees?" He smirked.
"Just little ones," she smiled up at him, feeding a vole a small piece of carrot from her plate. Her hair was sleep-mussed and half-pulled from her face. She was wrapped in blankets from the waist-down, but otherwise clad only in her shift and the deep red of the silken dressing gown. His gaze traveled to where the garment threatened to fall from her shoulder and he felt a shiver travel down his spine. He searched for something to say but his mouth was dry and he moved away instead.
She had left a towel, sleep breeches, loincloth, and a soft, linen shirt behind the screen for him. The water in the wash-basin had been warmed. He made short work of pulling himself together and was already feeling more human, if not a particularly warm one, when he reemerged.
He joined Daine, sitting cross-legged in front of the fire, and she pushed a tray towards him. His stomach growled loudly enough to garner a laugh from both of them.
"I got caught in a storm a month back or so; spent three days as house-guest to a family of foxes up near the pass."
"You didn't tell me that." He frowned.
"By the time I could write I was safe and warm. No point worrying you."
"Still," he shook his head and tore a small piece of bread to give to a particularly round vole that had waddled over to him. The vole sniffed it, clutching at Numair's fingers, before snatching the morsel and skittering back to his friends. Numair shivered and Daine shooed the rest of the voles away with one final offering.
"Here, take this." She unfurled one of her blankets and passed it to him. He shook his head, but she insisted, "I'm getting too warm anyway. Take it."
He accepted, settling it around himself. It was still warm and immediately waylaid the worst of his shaking. They ate in a contented silence. Numair ate quickly, thankful for the generous servings Marta had provided, and watched the voles pile on top of one another for what looked like a very satisfying nap.
With the worst of his hunger pains subsided, he turned to ask her about her day and fumbled with his spoon, dropping an onion into the bowl with a soft splash. He wiped up the mess and tried not to look at her. How her hair tumbled from its pinning, or how the robe had finally slid from one shoulder and threatened to take the shift with it, or how without the blanket one leg was exposed up to where the shift bunched around her thigh. How the firelight flickered over her skin. How she was close enough that he could reach out—
He swallowed, realizing that despite his best efforts he was staring. When he looked up she was returning his gaze with an unfamiliar expression. Unfamiliar with her, at least. With another woman, in another place, another time he would have known it. It was knowing, and intent. On another woman it would be the final step in an invitation. On her, though, it was a mystery. It had to be.
He felt himself blush and looked away, taking a deep drink from his mead. It was still warm, for which he was thankful. He thought he heard her sigh but his mind was clearly intent on playing tricks on him.
"Did you get some rest?" He asked when he felt he could speak without betraying himself.
She grunted in agreement, "probably too much." She shifted, drawing her leg back under a remaining blanket. "I lost some time—I'll need to catch up."
"You're not going back out?" He glanced at the shutters, which were rattling loudly against the wind whistling outside.
"No," she shook her head, "we'll be lucky to get out tomorrow. The day after, perhaps."
He sighed, leaning back to support himself on his arms. "I'll admit, I was hoping to be further along."
"You and me both, but things," she waved, vaguely, "move slowly here. It's hard to explain."
"Slowly until they don't." Sieges had a habit of sweeping in just as swiftly as squalls, and they both knew it.
"The people are all hunkered in to weather the storm. If the Scanrans aren't, well, that would actually work in our favor. Not even the toughest northerner can withstand more than the people here."
"And so we get to pause; just for a moment."
"I've missed you." She caught him by surprise and he looked at her. Despite their reunion, it had felt like ships passing in the night the last couple days. The storm was a gift, perhaps. What they lose in time to work, they could gain in one another. The calm before the storm. Or the eye, perhaps. It was always so hard to tell how far in you are while you're in it. Truth be told, he wasn't sure if the danger lay more in the impending war, or what he felt alone in this room with her.
"I missed you too." Sometimes it was best to just let the storm pass; weather what you could and let the rest fall away.
The hour grew late quickly and the rattling of the shutters against onslaught outside remained steady. He passed on what news he had of their friends back home—Their Majesties efforts to balance the morale of the capitol while preparing for a conflict they had worked so long to avoid, Lindhall taking over Numair's classes (and his concern that the pages liked him better), and his own work that was mostly waylaid at this point. Daine had her own news—Maura was doing well and overjoyed to have Tkaa wintering in Dunlath. Brokefang was doing well; he and Cloud were both proof that Daine's influence increased more than intelligence. They didn't dwell on it. Kaddar was quite taken with Kalasin, now that they had grown on one another anyway. He rolled his eyes when she mentioned the Emperor and she ignored it.
Daine had produced a deck of cards shortly after the candle clock had burned out. They let it, content with the firelight. She rummaged through her things as Numair pretended not to watch her or the way her form appeared and disappeared beneath the red silk as she moved—like a desert mirage to a man dying of thirst. She didn't crawl back under the covers, folding her legs under her instead. She hadn't been modest around him in a long time; too many shape-changes and too little patience on her part allowing for such formalities. He usually chided her, passed her a cloak or turned his back. In the glow of the fire, tucked away in that small, far corner of the realm, though, he said nothing and dealt them each a hand.
When he excused himself for a privy break he found a tray of butter tea waiting for them just outside the door, steam still rising from the mugs. A reminder that while their hosts were discreet, they were also watchful. She thanked him when he handed her a mug and he sat on the sofa, stretching his legs out in front of him. His was plain, while hers clearly had spices added. Knowledgeable as well as watchful. Innkeepers were some of George's favorite little birds.
"I will say," she swallowed and licked her lips, "they know their cozy comforts here."
"I've never had this before. Did you have it in Snowsdale?"
"No," she looked back at him, craning her neck and curls glowing from the fire behind her. "We had glogg. It's a sort of mulled wine with spices, and sometimes raisins and almonds—if we could get them. Ma said it would be a bad influence on me, but Gran-da said she was projecting and let me share his on special occasions."
He laughed, "in Tyra they have sangria. It's served cold, but it's wine with fresh fruits and sugar. Mattan got so drunk off of it at Carnival he woke up the following morning on a gondola."
"If you had said anyone but Mattan I'm not sure I would have believed you."
"Ah, yes. The most troublesome of the Draper's." He conceded when she shot him an incredulous look. "Different types of trouble, I suppose. Besides, I'm not a Draper anymore."
"And your mother will never let you hear the end of it."
"Don't remind me." He was forced to raise his arm when she crawled up to the couch, and settled in next to him. He wondered if she could feel his heart beating when she rested against his chest. He had to clear his throat when he tried to speak. "She's been asking for me to visit. I'm not sure when i'll be able to now."
"When we can, we should go for Carnival. You've always wanted to go, right?"
"We?" He looked down at her when she didn't reply right away. For the first time in a long time she looked unsure.
"Oh, if you wanted company of course," she bit her lip and took a sip of her tea.
He tightened his grip on her shoulder, "from you , always. Although Carnival might be a bad influence—"
"Always so worried about bad influences and me." She turned to look up at him, chin tilted and brows knitted. From this position it would be so easy to lean down and—he looked away with a strangled laugh.
"Has it occurred to you that I might be worried about bad influences for myself ?"
"Please," it was her turn to laugh. "You're so unflappable."
"There's no need to mock me."
"I'm not ," she stifled a yawn and he shook his head, raising his arm and nudging her to sit up.
"Time for bed, I think. Let's not lose any of the rest you caught up on."
She sighed but stood, stretching her arms out behind her. "I suppose you're right." She picked up the blankets from the floor while he cleaned up their dishes and left them outside their door. She was arranging the bed while he washed up, but when he turned around she was rolling up one of her shirts to shove under the shutters.
"Here," he moved to help her, pushing the shutters upward while she shoved the fabric underneath the gap. They were both shivering by the time they were done, but the shutters rattling had mostly ceased.
"Thanks," she turned to him, wrapping her arms around herself against the cold. He was about to turn away when she spoke again, "for the robe, too." Her voice was low.
He swallowed, "you're welcome. I told you, you should have nice things." He was blocking the dwindling light from the hearth, and the shadows crept around them. He reached out, running a finger along the silk at her collarbone. He felt the goosebumps that rose up on her skin against his knuckles. She must be cold. "It looks good on you."
Blue looked good on her but red was...dangerous. He shouldn't have bought it and now he was thinking of other mistakes he wanted to make.
She stepped closer. The rattling had stopped, the firelight faded, and everything else followed—falling away.. It didn't matter if they were on a hillside with leaves crunching beneath their feet, or a stable with the wind whipping them, or in a dark corner draped in silk. These moments seemed to creep up; strip everything else away. Everything besides her and an opportunity. A gift. A mistake. A promise. A ruin. He knew this moment, but not what to call it. The tilt of her chin. The scant distance between them. The pull in his belly. But there it was—the thought that always followed. Was that moment for both of them, or was he in it alone? If he wasn't, was that worse? Surely.
He pushed a curl back behind her ear, and kissed her forehead. "Let's get some sleep."
She smiled and looked down, letting her hand linger on his arm as she walked by him. He removed his shirt and breeches—deciding to land somewhere between the lines he'd already crossed and the ones he wanted to—and crawled into bed as she washed up.
The cold pushed back against the dying fire with a vengeance and he thought to add another log to the fire but she beat him to it. He watched her, propped up on one elbow, as she tended to the hearth. Her hair was unpinned and the red pooled on the ground behind her as she knelt. When she was done she hurried back to the bed, bare feet pattering against the floor. He should have thought to turn away as she shed the robe, but she did it quickly and didn't seem to mind the audience.
She shivered under the blankets and he pulled them up over both of their shoulders, reaching out for her before he could think better of it.
"Turn around," he murmured. There was surprise—just a flash—in her expression but she complied. He wrapped his arms around her and she allowed him to pull her close so that their bodies pressed together. "To keep warm," he added. A pitiful afterthought.
She murmured a response he didn't catch. Her curls smelled like sandalwood which he thought was odd, until he realized it was from his soap. He wasn't sure if it was coming from him, or if she had used it. Wasn't sure where one of them began and the other ended. Wasn't sure he wanted to again. He pulled her closer, pressing his face into her curls and she sighed, covering his hands with her own.
Sleep pulled at him surprisingly fast. The boon of a long, taxing day. She shifted, turning her head back towards him and rubbing her cheek against his nose.
"Stop that, it's distracting," he murmured. His heart wasn't in it.
"From what?" Her voice was thick with sleep but she stopped.