Despite the fact that Autumn was creeping steadily towards its end, sunlight shone brightly and the ocean breeze supplied a steady stream of warm air.
"Here," Numair returned to her and passed her a small morsel, taking care not to drop it.
It was lighter than the bread she was used to in the north, and felt warm in her hand. Only when she brought it close to her face did the smell of warm meal overpower the briny air of the harbor. "What's it called again?" She took a bite, pleased with the flavor as it crumbled in her mouth.
"Arepa." He mumbled, his mouth stuffed full. He sighed and closed his eyes as he savored the flavor.
She swallowed, "I should remember that. You talk about them all the time."
"It's a crime that they aren't popular elsewhere." He finished off the last of his and she could tell he was already regretting not getting another.
"Perhaps it's good we stopped then," she glanced at him from the corner of her eye as she tore her remaining arepa and handed him half. He took it without thought, shaking his head as his eyes darkened.
"We're needed at home."
"And we will get there." She tried to meet his gaze; ease his agitation. It came and went quicker than the tide since they'd left Carthak. Not so long ago, she supposed, but it felt like a lifetime ago.
"We could get horses; ride north. Along the Great Road South" He shoved his hands in his pocket, moving closer to her to avoid a lumper straining against his load in the heat.
"The ship will be here and back to Corus before we could even make it through the desert."
He sighed, "you did say you'd like to see it."
"And I would, someday. But you're right and we're needed now. Sometimes the quickest route takes a bit of patience."
He scoffed. "Fine thing when you're lecturing me about patience."
She shook her head, but was pleased he was at least trying to jest. With their departure from Carthak being so far from what had been planned the ship that carried them was not equipped to make the entire journey home, and they'd had no choice but to wait in Pearlmouth for one that could.
"A couple days and we'll be on our way. I thought you'd be glad to give your sea legs a break—wobbly as they are and such." He made a discontent sound, but did not respond. "And think: that's much more time in which to eat arepos."
"Arepas," he corrected automatically and cracked a smile. "And that is a silver lining. In fact, I think I will eat nothing but arepas until we do leave."
She laughed, "you'll have to let out your breeches if you're not careful."
"Good; If I'm too fat to ride a horse perhaps they'll leave me be with my books for a while."
"I wouldn't count on that." She'd seen more than one poor mount whose rider didn't want to admit they needed a larger horse.
He gestured for her to veer to the left and take a flight of cobblestone stairs that would lead them closer to the water. So close to the docks and the salt in the air was mixed with that of economy—sweat, and fish, and sea-beaten timber.
"I suppose I'm just anxious." He spoke quietly despite the clamor of the wharf. "I fear that the end of this journey will be the beginning of a much longer trial."
Gulls wound overhead, asking her to help them retrieve their fish from the men who were so unreasonable. You've managed this long, you'll manage now. They're just trying to feed as well; the process is just a little less direct with humans . She severed the link when they began calling her some rather unpleasant names; gulls were always a rowdy bunch.
She shifted back to the conversation at hand and realized how much she had missed talking to him freely. He understood the gaps in their conversations where the people inserted themselves in a way few others did, and she never felt pressure to rush through either world she straddled. In turn, she didn't press when he became fixated on some mundane detail that others would pass over.
"There's probably truth to that. Oz—" she felt his expression and stopped short. Dust was still settling and of the many things George had taught her one was never to practice a loose tongue in tavern's, docks, or brothels. She had decided never to ask about the latter. "He is surely not done with us, and even outside that things feel," she paused and shook her head, " tenuous . I don't know how to explain it."
"I understand what you mean, though." He guided her closer to the wall supporting the upper road as a man pushing a cart teaming with fish yelled at them to make way.
"Gods, all this unknown ahead of us and I don't even have the least inkling about what to say when I see Their Majesties." She paled. She'd run over her words at least a hundred times and they still all seemed so insufficient in explaining what had happened. She had been about to ask for his advice when she realized he was laughing. "It's not funny!"
"Of course not," he shook his head, collecting himself, but couldn't contain his grin. "Except for all I can think about is us sitting in front of him a month ago, promising to be on our best behaviors, and then him getting word of what we've done." He laughed loudly, drawing gazes from the men working around them, and she followed despite her attempts not to.
"I hope whoever wrote him that letter explained how needful it all was," she wiped a tear from her eye when she could speak again.
"That poor messenger," he shook his head and kicked at a pebble in his path. "Personally, I think you should just tell them what you told me. It's the most reasonable explanation I've ever heard for a coup, at least."
"Which was?" She cocked her head. If anything she'd spent a fair amount of time trying to avoid having to explain herself.
"That you lost your temper ." He was practically in hysterics at his own quip and she rolled her eyes. It was good to see him laugh, though, and she let him be. Good to see that he still could laugh. She spied a cart ahead and steered them towards it as he collected himself. A brief exchange later and she was handing him a small pile of arepa's, keeping one for herself, as he thanked her.
"Spots won't appreciate it, but I certainly do." He rolled one up and put the entire thing in his mouth.
"Oh, he'll put you through your paces. You'll be lanky again in no time." In truth between the sea voyages and Carthak—cuisine and international crises alike—she didn't like how thin he looked.
"I've missed these." He pulled a piece off of another. "I used to practically live off of them."
They continued onward, moving away from the main docks and into a stretch of coast dominated by sturdy, stone buildings across from smaller fishing boats. It smelled different too. The smell of hearty cooking wafted from an Inn but underneath it something foul lingered—piss and decay. She slowed, thinking that it may be best if they turned back but he seemed unconcerned.
The men working here were less hurried and more than a few of them seemed to have time to spare; some huddled in small groups and a few games of dice were being concealed behind bodies and poorly at that. She met the gaze of one, a ruddy-faced man with straw-colored hair, whose gaze lingered on her. She shivered when he drew his eyes down her body in a way that left no question as to what he was thinking but didn't mention it to Numair. She didn't think he would like it.
"Regardless of what comes it will be a relief to be home again. I'd already had enough of Carthak for a lifetime, and now I've had enough for two." He offered her his last arepa and she declined with a motion to show that she was full.
"It wasn't all bad," she shrugged. "We made new friends—people and humans."
"Not with any of the Imperial Advisors, that's for sure," he muttered.
She elbowed him and laughed, " Lindhall . I'm fair glad he decided to return with us."
Numair grinned at that. "You and me both, magelet. It will be good to have him around."
"And Kaddar said he would write." She thought they had left things on fair good terms considering she destroyed his palace. Numair's expression soured at the mention of the young, soon-to-be Emperor.
"Is that really necessary?"
"I think you'd like him if you gave him a chance. Lindhall does."
"He's so," he searched for a term, "showy. Always covered in trinkets." He toyed with the amber drop hanging from his earlobe.
A sly smile spread over her face. "I think they make him dress that way. Like when Jon has to wear that cape he hates? The one with the tassels? When he has his way I think Carthak will see a much more human side to their ruler." She watched him from the corner of her eye, "his rooms were simple enough, anyway."
He stopped dead in his tracks and faced her fast enough she was a little concerned about whiplash. She struggled to keep her composure at his reaction—eyes nearly popping out of his head as he sputtered. The vein on his temple that became prominent when he was particularly vexed pulsed under his swarthy complexion. With what appeared to be great self-control he took a deep breath and steadied himself. She'd seen him use less focus performing magical feats some would consider legend.
He cleared his throat, "I'm sorry. You caught me off guard." He spoke carefully, as if each word he selected might be a trap. "Of course I understand that you're getting older, and I respect your decision to choose who you bed —" the last word came out strangled and he had to clear his throat again. He opened his mouth to speak, floundering, when her laughter cut him short. He drew back, eyeing her warily.
"I'm sorry," she struggled through giggles, "that was mean, but too easy. Nothing happened between Kaddar and me. I assure you I've never seen his rooms."
He sighed, shaking his head. "You're going to give me grey hairs."
"If overthrowing an empire didn't do it, I fail to see how talking of me canoodling would."
"Don't jest." He sounded tired. A group of men huddled around a card game looked up at them as they approached, turning away just as quickly when they saw they weren't their taskmasters.
"No one was in my rooms either." She was the picture of innocence, studying the masonry of the wall they passed with her hands clasped behind her back. "Which is more than I can say for some of us ." She glanced at him and was pleased to see the hint of a blush creeping up his neck.
"Ah," it was the sigh of someone who had been expecting something. "I suppose you would like me to tell you about that. About her."
"Yes." Her statement was matter-of-fact. She never saw much use in beating around the bush as so many did. "But not now. Perhaps when some time has passed. I think you're still sorting some things out."
"That's a simple way of putting it." He didn't elaborate, but was focused on their path ahead. His eyes ran over the buildings they passed—moving across them as if searching for something.
She settled into a comfortable silence. Below them sea lions lazed in the sun, asking her if she would join them. Next time, perhaps . She pushed away the thoughts of the rats—teeming around them, but unseen. They were unpleasant no matter where she met them, but after Carthak she couldn't push away the sight of them swarming over the ruins. Or the feel of pulling their magic from them to fuel her rage. So much power...
"I do understand, by the way." He was quiet, but pulled her from her thoughts nonetheless.
"Understand what?" Shadows fell over them as they passed under a walkway. She could feel the temperature drop in the shade and the sounds of the wharf fell away, muffled against the damp stone.
"That you're getting older, and that you're more than capable of taking care of yourself." He sighed. "That you have the right to choose who you take to—who you choose as a lover without interference."
She nodded, opening her mouth and closing it as she considered her words. She was still fair vexed at how he had acted on the barge and did not want it to become a habit of his. A shout permeated the air and they turned their heads in time to see the group of seamen scatter as a large, burly man overturned their game. Numair pulled her to the side as the men hurried through the tunnel, in a rush to return to their work—or at least look like it.
They exchanged a smile and he backed away. They moved forward into the sunlight once more.
"I haven't, you know." She elaborated when it was clear he didn't understand. "I haven't bedded anyone."
"Oh ," he exclaimed, softly. She knew him well enough to know he was working hard to control his expression. "You don't have to defend yourself, Daine. I don't want you to feel that I would judge you if you had." He was earnest, catching her eye to make sure she heard him. "And ultimately, it's not my business. You don't have to tell me."
"I know. I may not," she shrugged and hesitated before continuing, "but I might. And I'd like it if that wasn't strange for us, if I wanted to." Somehow, verbalizing that wish felt more vulnerable than telling him she'd never been with a man.
He pulled her into a half hug, over before she could respond, and smiled softly. "So would I, magelet." She looked down, touched by the sincerity in his voice. When she raised her head she noticed that some of the men from before were watching them and talking amongst themselves. She met their gaze and most looked away, but one smiled back to reveal several gold teeth. Numair, who hadn't noticed, continued to speak and she turned her attention back to her tall friend.
"I'd like us to be able to share anything, really. That's why I brought you here." She had to strain to hear him and it took a moment for the words to sync in. When they did, she realized that they had stopped. Daine turned, confused.
The path was the same as it had been—stone buildings in various states of disrepair stood in a row opposite the rolling waves. Shutters showed the wear of countless sun-bleached hours and coastal storms.
"I don't understand." She bit her lip, trying to see what he was trying to show her.
"This is where I used to live. When I first came to Tortall." He wasn't looking at her.
She turned back to the building nearest to them, but as she turned she saw it. Opposite of where they stood a small alley sat between two buildings. The cobblestone was damp and moss grew in the crevices where the ground met the stone wall behind it. It was small, but deep and dark enough for someone to sink into the shadows.
"You lived here ." It wasn't a question.
"Or Arram died here." It was barely more than a whisper but she heard it clearly enough. Daine turned to look at him but felt her lip quiver and looked away again. Instead, she reached out and took his hand in her own. Neither spoke.
If she had had any doubts about what she had done they were erased at the thought of Numair—her friend, the person who had accepted her wholly—huddled in on himself in that dark corner. The only regret was that she hadn't been able to finish it. She should have killed him. She would. Daine gripped his hand more firmly and felt him respond.
She wanted to tell him she would end it, and that he would never have to fear Ozorne again, but to even speak his name in this place felt cruel. Numair had told her of his time when he first came to Pearlmouth. Half dead. Running. Scared and broken. I used to practically live off them ; the words came back to her and she paled. He'd been so casual she hadn't thought to put it together that he wasn't jesting.
She thought she had understood how damaged he was back then, but now it occurred to her that he still was. Parts of him anyway. And what wasn't would still never be as it was. She wondered if that's why he understood her. Was dying alone in an alley so different than dying alone in the mountains?
She leaned into him, keeping his hand tight in her own. "I don't know what to say."
"You've said plenty." He sounded relieved. "I just wanted you to see it."
"Thank you." She let another moment pass, and far off bells began to chime the hour. She pulled away and inhaled. If he heard how close to tears she was he didn't comment.
"Let's head back. I think it's time I put this behind me." He gazed down the alley, expression unreadable, before turning away and facing the shore. When the sunlight hit his face he took a deep breath and she thought, for a moment, that he looked lighter. Not free of burden, to be sure, but perhaps he was bearing just a little less of the past than before. In time, perhaps she could carry more for him.
Daine smiled. She wasn't sure how to explain how proud of him she was, or fully understand why , so she didn't. "More arepas?"
He grinned, "yes ."
As they turned, Daine saw that the men were still watching them. Some were laughing as they eyed her; most looked away but the one with gold teeth pushed himself up from where he leaned against a post.
"'Oy, I know you!" His voice carried more than was necessary to cover the distance between them. The man next to him shushed him, and dropped his head, but was pushed away.
Numair turned, surprised, and shook his head, "you must be mistaken, sir." He closed the distance between them with his hands in his pockets. He was being polite, but she recognized when he was on guard. "I haven't been here in a long time, and she never has."
"You're that black robe—the fancy one works for the King—and you're the Wildmage," he leaned around Numair and jerked his chin in Daine's direction before turning to spit on the ground. "We've heard about you. Whole docks buzzing that we've important visitors."
"Ah," Numair smiled, politely enough. "Then you do know us. We'd appreciate it if you didn't perpetuate the gossip—we're just trying to enjoy a quiet afternoon as we pass through." Daine moved to stand next to him, noticing the twitch in his arm. She was sure he wanted to stand between them, but had little patience for his silliness.
"Oh, a little late I'm afraid. Everyone's heard all about the both of you," he grinned, teeth glinting, " especially her. Didn't realize how pretty she was; the stories are much more interesting now." His eyes lingered on her chest and Numair bristled.
"If you'll excuse us," he didn't wait for a reply and turned, tugging Daine's sleeve as he went. She followed, wanting trouble no more than he did.
"Tell me—does she fuck wild?" The man called out to them and Numair wheeled around so quickly she hadn't even realized he'd gone before his fist struck the man square in the jaw. The man yelled and stumbled, blood spattering across the ground along with a glint of gold, as Numair drew his fist back once more.
"Numair," she grabbed his arm and pulled him back, feeling the anger that was coursing through him. She'd seen him lose his temper before but it was usually all black fire, and focus. This was rage through and through. Rage that coiled in him like a snake and made him forget a lifetime of learning his gift so that he could attack with fists. She knew that rage. She pulled against him and he let her, turning his back on the frightened men.
The man struggled to his feet, spitting blood onto the ground. She wheeled, keeping a firm grip on Numair's arm, and fixed the man with a challenging gaze. "You're a seaman, right? Must be frightening—all those stories of whales capsizing ships." He blanched and stepped back, understanding the threat. So he had heard of her.
She prodded Numair forward and they walked quickly until they reached the main docks. Daine pulled him to the side and made him show her his hand. She hissed to see it swelling all ready.
"Alanna can fix it," he shrugged.
"You'll have to explain it to her."
She sighed and released his hand as she searched him. "Are you okay?"
To his credit he paused to think about his response. With a half smile he said, "Not entirely, but I will be. Are you?"
"I've been worse. But not all the way, no. I hear time helps."
"It does; and good company too." He tweaked her nose, drawing a smile in response.
"Well, then I suppose it's fitting we still have the rest of the afternoon together."
"It's a start."