I intended to update this a few weeks ago and then had a crisis of confidence and edited and edited and re-read and re-read so much that I can't take it in anymore! Oh, and it's not as long as FF. net says it is - it's handily added on more than 1000 wds to the word count!

The last of the ultra-long chapters (and it is, ultra long), to get everything out the way that needs to be gotten out of the way before the fun starts. A few loose ends to tie up here, a few sub-plots to start there. So enjoy it while it lasts, people! I did try in vain to cut, but my attempt ended when I realised I was adding more in than I was taking out. Also, sorry for the naff chapter title. Knew there was a reason I hadn't started doing those.

Thanks to all those who reviewed, your words are much appreciated (and confidence boosting!). I'm sure I replied to all of you, and if not, apologies, let me know, and I'll do it this time around! (That's my way of saying, more reviews please!)

As always, only the plot is mine. (Almost) everything else belongs to Tamora Pierce.

Chapter 28: Kicking Heels

Life back at the Palace was very much as Daine had hoped it would be. Caught in a whirlwind of training drills, assessing the health of horses, dogs and hawks, being reunited with old friends – human and People alike – and catching up on news from the fronts, she barely had time to think over the following days, let alone contemplate Numair's scurrying off. The few glimpses she did catch of him, he was generally head bent deep in conversation with one mage or other, or talking tactics with various commanders. It was a sudden and unwelcome jump from living almost in one another's pockets in Golden Wood to barely seeing each other and Daine missed him sorely, though she would've been hard-pressed to admit it. Instead, she kept herself occupied.

It wasn't difficult, not when it seemed like parties of warriors were riding in and out almost by the hour. Though there was no sign of the enemy near the capital itself, Port Caynn was besieged from the sea, and there was a constant stream of supplies headed to and from the city. Meanwhile, immortals struck in the vicinity of Corus. Rider groups and Third Company dealt with them, spending, from what Daine could gather, weeks straight in the saddle before those close enough could return to barracks for a day's rest and to replenish supplies whilst others took their place. The weary faces of the Riders in the mess made Daine wonder just how long they – and the country – could withstand this constant stream of attack, though she knew that it was all part of Ozorne's plan: to diminish their supplies and exhaust their fighters before he and the main army landed. She refused to let herself think about what would happen when they did.

Then there was Kaddar. The prince provided key knowledge of the Red Legion, the Emperor's war-mages and Lindhall's networks of conspirators, and much of his time was spent in war council meetings, helping formulate strategy and tactics. When he wasn't, though, Daine became tasked with showing him around the Palace, much as he had done for her.

Their tour began in the Royal Menagerie, where Kaddar was as intrigued by the development of the environments in the various enclosures as he had seemed in Carthak. Though Daine couldn't explain all the magecraft to him, she certainly could introduce him to the animals and explain more about the habitats they were trying to recreate. Then, over the following days, there were the Palace temples to show him, the libraries, and when she had finally dragged him from them with the promise they could return, there was the rest of the Palace to be explored. She led him through all the grand state rooms: the Hall of Crowns, the throne room, the great ballrooms and various reception rooms, the banquet hall. Kaddar seemed unimpressed, and thinking of the grand opulence of his Carthaki home, Daine could see why. Compared to that, even with all its grandeur, the Tortallan Palace seemed positively understated. Nevertheless, she knew which of the two she'd rather live in.

"You might not think it as spectacular as your Imperial Palace –"

"What's left of it," he cut in, grinning.

She stuck her tongue out at him. "– but it does us just as well. Numair says there are remains of a temple that date back to the Old Ones in the catacombs, if you want to see them. You'd have to ask him or mayhap Myles of Olau about them though. He's written a couple of interesting studies on them. I don't really know much."

Kaddar raised his eyebrows. "I haven't read them myself, but I know Sir Myles' work is highly commended. If you've read the papers, then I'm certain you know plenty. Lead on."

Though Kaddar was dressed plainly, with only his ruby eardrop and nose-stud, and heavy silver bracelet as any indication of his wealth and status, it did not stop many of the Tortallans they met on their tours from bowing to him. "I do wish they wouldn't do that," he murmured to her after Daine had introduced him to one group of minor courtiers the following day.

"Wouldn't what? It's this way," she grabbed his arm and towed him in the opposite direction. "If you're wanting to see the training yards before the pages pack up for the day, we'd best move. Perhaps you and Lord Wyldon can trade opinions on female warriors."

The scowl he shot in her direction made her laugh. "Call me 'Your Highness', and bow, I mean."

She looked at him, startled. "Why?"

"He'll have disinherited me by now," he muttered, "and I'm not likely to ever be back in Carthak again to accede to the throne anyway."

She held a door open for him. "I'm no expert on royal protocol," Daine said as she led him through one of the Palace's many mazes of courtyards, "but surely the title's still yours? And how do you know you won't be back?"

The prince shook his head. "The title is mine as long as my Uncle allows it to be so. He chooses what title you have, much as your king does here. The difference is that King Jonathan's not in the habit of disinheriting his heirs. Besides, even if you do win this war –"

"Thank you for your faith, your highness," she told him darkly. "Your optimism inspires me. You'll make a wonderful leader."

He made a face at her as he followed her through a gateway and into the Palace gardens. "I don't need to be inspiring anymore."

"All the same, I'm glad you believe your uncle can be defeated. What's the point of you spending all that time discussing tactics if you don't think it can be done?" she demanded. "If we all thought like you, we might as well just lay down and let him walk all over us right now." She shook her head, and began to list points on her fingers. "We have mages who are just as well-trained as your uncle's, and we have stronger, better ones, too. We have a king who has magic tied to the very earth he stands on, and what's more, the Dominion Jewel itself. We have a Champion known throughout the world, one of the most highly respected Knights in the Eastern Lands at the head of the King's Own, and an army trained to rival yours in skill if not in number. Our knights and fighters are disciplined and determined – and what's more, we have a sea between your country and ours. And animals too. I'd wager your uncle doesn't have any animals that fight for him."

"All right," he conceded, holding his hands up in surrender. "I believe you." He grinned. "I'd follow you into battle any day."

"Well," she managed, blushing. "You're not meant to be following me." She fell silent as they began down the steep slope to the training yards. Below, they could see the Shang Wildcat and Horse putting the pages through their paces. "Are they even letting you fight?"

Kaddar shrugged, his eyes following the flowing movements of the two Shang warriors. "I wouldn't expect so. I'm too much a risk, amn't I? Too much of a target for them to let me out in the field without protection, and that's just not viable."

Daine leaned on the fence that surrounded the yard. "I don't know," she said, nodding a greeting to Eda Bell, the Wildcat. Her eyes fell on the pages. She had begun fighting for the realm when she was thirteen; some of them were younger than she had been then. "We'll need every fighter and every mage we can get." Thinking of the coming battles, she added absently, "And you just happen to be both."

Something was making her shirt wet, a fact which broke through Daine's doze. Cloud was standing over her, lipping her sleeve.

"Leave off, Cloud," she groaned, pushing the mare's nose away. It had been a long day working with the Rider ponies, and worse, she had received some unsettling news that afternoon which hadn't made her mood any better. Instead of joining the Riders for the evening, Daine had taken a walk along the Royal Forest's edge in attempt to clear her head. When she had taken a seat under the treeline, her exhaustion had quickly overwhelmed her and she had fallen asleep, content with the fresh breeze on her face and the rustles of the forest surrounding her.

You've got company, her pony said instead.

Daine turned her back on the direction her mount was indicating. "Unless it's someone intent on my death, I don't want to know."

If it's someone intent on your death, Cloud replied sharply, I might just let them do it. Anyway, I don't think the Stork-man wants to kill you any time soon. More's the pity.

Daine sighed. The very thought of seeing Numair rose butterflies in her stomach, and if anyone could make her feel better it would be him, but she had the suspicion that he had come to talk and she wasn't sure if she had the energy. She turned to face him, offering the mage a weak smile.

"Anyone would think you'd been hiding from me," she called down the slope to him.

"Hiding from you?" he repeated innocently. "I'm not sure I know what you mean." Daine lifted her head to look at him, her tired eyes squinting in the fading sunlight. As he neared her, the small smile he wore disappeared, concern flickering in his eyes. "Are you all right?"

She let her head fall back against the tree with a sigh. "Long day."

He nodded in understanding as he dug in his pocket. "Here," he produced an apple which he offered to Cloud. The mare snorted as she took it from him.

"If you're trying to buy my pony, you're wasting your time."

He ignored her comment, sitting down roughly beside her. "Are you going to tell me what's made today so tiring?"

"Oh, just work. Alanna's back, did you know? Came in today from the Coastal Hills, not that she's been home. Helping plan the defences in case they land."

He nodded, appearing for once not to notice that she had omitted something fairly large. "I know. She appeared in the Council meeting earlier. Be glad you haven't been asked to one of those yet, by the way. It's a lot of sitting round talking about soldiers and suppliers and resources." He grinned evilly. "Your time will come though," he told her, a wicked glint in his eye. "They want you to enlist some animal spies. Or at least help train the hawks in the mews."

She snorted. "I look forward to it."

"I thought we could have that chat," he said eventually. He rubbed the amber eardrop he wore consciously as his eyes assessed her. "Maybe you're too tired."

"And mayhap you're looking for an excuse to run off and not be seen for days again."

He crooked an eyebrow. "I've been working," he reminded her, "as have you. And it seems to me that whenever I've looked for you, you've had a certain Carthaki prince in tow." Daine rolled her eyes. "I'm merely pointing out that his presence is not conducive to conversation," he told her, the false innocence on his face daring her to rise to his bait.

"What news from the war room?" she asked instead, turning on her side and resting her head on his shoulder. Cloud sniffed derisively and began to wander back to the Rider paddocks, bored of their talk.

Numair shifted uncomfortably as he watched the pony go, his expression growing grim. "None of it good, I'm afraid. We're in for a long summer."

When he fell silent, she questioned, "Is that all you can say?"

"Almost," the mage sighed. "At least, out here. We can't know who might be listening in on us, and I have neither the energy nor the inclination to move and cast a spell against eavesdroppers. I've heard from Tkaa though; he wrote to Jon last week. Kitten is fine."

Daine released a sigh that she hadn't known she'd been holding, one knot of tension in her chest loosening, straightening as an anxious burden lifted from her. "Truly?"

He smiled. "Truly. They've been dealing only with wyverns, travelling between forts and towns as they're needed. It's not ideal, but Tkaa's more than capable of looking after Kitten, never mind protecting her. They've seen a lot of action, but she's doing well."

"Thank the Goddess," she whispered reverentially. Though the sun was still above the horizon, gloom hung low in the shelter of the trees, and Daine found it hard to read his face in the dim light. "You wanted to talk?"

The mage exhaled audibly. "Normally I'd say you were too tired, but –"

"But if we carry on at this rate, we might not see each other again for days."

"Precisely." His gaze settled on her face, eyes scrutinizing.

She blushed and looked down at her hands, clenched together in her lap. "I've missed you," she admitted eventually.

He uttered a soft laugh. "I've missed you too, magelet. An inordinate amount." He ran a warm hand down the side of her face, and Daine couldn't help but turn into it, closing her eyes and savouring the sensation that his touch brought. When she looked up and met his gaze, it was warm, but when she offered him a smile, his expression became closed.

His hand fell to his lap. "Daine, I've been thinking."

"Uh oh," she said simply.

"Very droll. I'm serious, Daine."

"Why do I not get the feeling that I'll like what you say?"

"I can't –" he started sharply, before his voice dropped swiftly. "Please, Daine. This is –"

Daine closed her eyes, a heavy weight settling in her gut. Was this it then?

He shifted, turning round so that he could face her as he sat cross-legged, and took her hands in his. It took him a while to begin, and though when he spoke his voice seemed confident, Daine could hear the tremor in it and feel it in his hands as they held hers. "Daine, we're facing a war. Neither of us know what will happen, or how long it will last, or even –" his voice caught on the words "– even if we'll both come out of it unscathed." He gestured roughly in the direction of his leg. "We know what depths Ozorne will plumb to."

"But Numair, I don't care."

He smiled sadly at her. "I know. But we can't guarantee that – that we'll feel the same if – if one of us loses a limb, or –"

Her head shot up, her features shocked. If he was looking for compliments, he was going a funny way about it, she thought. "Do you only think I – that I'm attracted to you just because of looks?"

"No, Daine. But –" The sinking feeling in her gut worsened. "I think, perhaps, that we should wait a while before we – before we let our relationship progress."

"'Wait'?" she frowned. "Till when, exactly?" Her eyes narrowed. "And what do you mean, 'progress'?"

He shrugged uncomfortably. "You're so young, Daine. I want you to be sure."

"I am," she insisted, but he shook his head.

"It's as much for me as it is for you," he admitted, his soft voice low and compelling. "I don't think –" he broke off and heaved a sigh, looking over her head, apparently searching for the words he needed. "If either of us realised in a few months that this was a mistake, I'm not sure I could bear it."

"If I realise, you mean." Daine glared at him. "Do you not think I know my own mind?" she demanded. She thudded her chest with a hand for emphasis, gripping her tunic. "Do you not think I know my own heart? I'm not some flighty court lady!"

"I never thought for a moment that you were," he assured her urgently, catching her hands and holding them tightly.

"Then why say this?" she asked. "I know what I want, Numair. I –"

"Wait," he interrupted hurriedly. "We need to be sure."

Daine rolled her eyes at him. "And I am," she repeated slowly. "I've never been more certain about anything in my life."

"Have you considered what this will entail?"

Daine had daydreamed a lot about what their relationship would be like, and had been doing so for longer than she cared to admit, but something in his tone made her sure he wasn't talking about anything she had considered. "What d'you mean?"

"Daine, when people find out about us – you know what court is like. People will be gossiping about us – you – constantly. Aren't you worried?"

She shrugged. "What is there to worry about? People gossiped about me in Snowsdale, people have gossiped about me since I arrived in Tortall – people have gossiped about us when there was nothing to gossip about! And I've heard plenty of rumours about your affairs, even the ones that don't include me." The gloom was not dark enough to conceal Numair's blush. "They never bothered you before, not that I could see. If we're both happy, why should we care?"

"Can we truly be happy if people are talking about us and undermining us constantly?"

"Aren't you the one who's always telling me that I'm better than all that?" she shot back. At his nod, she added, "So why does it matter now? What damage can it do?" She shook her head and tried to smile. "In any case, they'd probably be so surprised they'd gotten something right for once, they'd all clam up with the shock."

Her attempted joke fell flat. His eyes bored into her, his expression intense. "I don't want you to be hurt." His words reverberated around his chest, deepening his voice, and hung in the space between them.

She grasped his hands all the tighter, but the mage shook his head and pressed on. "I couldn't bear it if you were scathed because of me. The court gossips could rip your reputation to shreds in seconds, and the conservatives will have a field day, can you imagine? If it's not about your sex, then about our ages, or –"

"Numair," she interrupted seriously, "there's plenty of old conservatives, and I mean old, matched with women the same age I am. It's commonplace, and you know it well. Besides," she added quietly after a moment, bringing her eyes up to meet his coyly, "if it's a question of me being young, they say women mature faster than men anyway."

Numair raised an eyebrow, but for almost the first time in their conversation, there was the merest hint of a smile touching his lips. "I don't think they quite mean by fourteen years though, magelet."

"Nonsense," she retorted. "Anyway, I have common sense enough for the both of us." He chuckled softly. "It's worth a try, isn't it?"

"I don't need much persuasion though," he replied wryly. He was silent for a long moment, his troubled expression resumed. "Daine, are you so sure –"

"Yes!" she exclaimed. Her weariness and the black mood she had been in when he had appeared threatened to overwhelm her. She swallowed, forcing herself to remain calm. "Numair, you said that you – that you'd…"

Gently he freed his hands from hers, and cupped her face, forcing her to raise her gaze to meet his. "Sweet, believe me," he implored her, "there is nothing I want more than for this to be as easy as it ought to be! You have no idea."

"You'd be surprised."

Numair looked away, releasing her. "But it's not as simple as all that."

"You're making excuses," she told him flatly.

"I'm not!" he protested, swinging back round to face her. "I just feel –" he shook his head and closed his eyes, his voice uneven. "We said, the other day, that we didn't want to ruin what we have. We said it would take some getting used to. That still holds true, Daine. I don't want to rush you into anything; I don't want to force you. That is why I think we should – should wait."

"Shouldn't that be my decision to make too?" She shook her head. "And anyhow, Numair, I know you, and I know you won't do any of what you said."

He sounded hollow. "I wish I had your faith in me, magelet."

She sighed with frustration. "Numair –"

He turned away from her, leaning back against the tree, his gaze fixed somewhere across the field. Daine sat back so she could try to get a better look at him, shaping cat eyes for herself. The mage's head hung dejectedly. It was all there in his face; the fear, the concern, the worry. He finally raised her eyes to look into hers, and she recognised what she saw there with remorse. It was that same desolation, that same anguish she had seen in his face so many times in Golden Wood. It was that same self-loathing that had bothered her for so long. Inadequateness. There – she had finally been able to put a name to that emotion she had seen so many times and never quite been able to put a finger on. He didn't think he was good enough for her.

"Numair," she said, her voice harsh, her frustration getting the better of her, "you told me once that age wasn't a barrier for me, remember, when I was treating your leg that first time? Why make it one for me – for us – now? There is no one in this world who I would rather be with, I am certain of it. You've always helped me with everything – chasing off across the country after wolf packs and hurt animals, and training my magic, and even just listening when I needed it – and nobody else has ever given me so much respect or had so much confidence in me. You've given me so much. I don't care about how you look – how you think you look – or how old you are and how young I am, or about rumours and gossip and such, or even the war, I just care about you. What do I have to do to prove it to you?"

That conversation still dominated the mage's thoughts the following afternoon; in particular, the image of Daine's face as she allayed all the reasons he could possibly suggest to delay the progression of their relationship, and the expression she wore as he – somewhat inexplicably even to his own mind – produced more haunted him. Her hurt countenance as he had pressed on despite her efforts plagued him through the council meetings of the morning and well into the afternoon, which found him tucked away in his study, hoping to avoid the attention of anyone by burying his nose in a book. He needn't have bothered though; his eyes skimmed over the text without seeing anything, and in any case it wasn't long past the second afternoon bell that a knock came at his door.

He stilled, hoping that, hidden away in his study as he was, whoever was at the door wouldn't hear him, decide he wasn't in, and leave. After a long moment, the knock came again, louder and more insistent. It wasn't Daine, he knew – the wards had long been spelled to let her in, and unless she had discovered a sudden shy streak, or was still annoyed with him from yesterday – a distinct possibility, he realised with a surge of guilt – she would've come in by now. There was another, longer silence, before the door handle rattled. Even from where he sat, he could hear the familiar curse from outside, and his stomach sank. The owner of the voice pounded the door with a fist.

"Numair Salmalín," came the call, "I know you're in there. Let me in or I'll break the door down myself!"

There was little that could be done to stop a Lioness on the prowl, so with a resigned flick of the hand, he raised the wards on his rooms enough to allow Alanna entry.

"Where are you, mage?" she growled from his small antechamber.

"Through here," he called absently, hoping that he could affect the pretence of study authentically enough; after all, it was largely what he was employed to do.

Though his gaze was focused on the words before him, he could imagine the knight's stance as she stood in the doorway: hands on hips, scowl on face, violet eyes glittering dangerously. He glanced over at her and allowed himself a small smile. Accurate as ever.

"Social or business call?" he asked pleasantly. "There's not some meeting I've forgotten about is there? Or has Jon decided I should be present this afternoon? I thought it was all logistics?"

"It is," came her reply, cool and disconcertingly genial. "This is entirely social."

"Oh, good. Take a seat, and then maybe you can explain why you felt it necessary to dent my door for a visit between friends." He lowered his head as if to return to his reading.

Alanna didn't move. "Have you seen Daine today?"

Her face loomed above him once again, and suddenly the purpose of Alanna's visit became all too apparent. Oh. Feigning calm, he continued staring fixedly at the page. "Have you tried Kaddar? She's never without him these days. He's bound to know."

"You know, there was a time when you only had to look for you to find her."

"Your subtleness has been duly noted, Alanna," he told her evenly.

"I'm not trying to be subtle."

He still refused to look up at his companion, but raised an eyebrow as he skimmed over the words. "There's a surprise."

He heard the typically frustrated sigh. "Numair," she said warningly.

Finally he closed the book, his fingers still – somewhat unnecessarily as he hadn't absorbed any of its contents since he had lifted the book that lunchtime – between the pages. "Your concern is welcomed, Alanna, but I'm not going to tell her." Not yet, anyway.

The knight crossed her arms. "From what she tells me, you already have."

For a long moment he was stunned into silence; Alanna watched him recover with some amusement. "It's not funny," he finally managed.

She chuckled. "Numair, I've watched you and the court ladies for years; none of them have affected you the way that she has."

"And that's all that it'll be."

"You've kissed her. It's not on to kiss a girl and then disappear."

He cursed inwardly. "How much has she told you, exactly?"

Alanna grinned as she moved to sit down. "Enough."

He rolled his eyes. "Has she told anyone else?"

The woman shrugged lightly. "Who Daine tells is her own prerogative."

"Onua." At the knight's nod, he sighed. He had suspected she had probably guessed as much after the other day. He pressed the bridge of his nose with his index finger absently as he thought. "Miri. I bet she's told Miri." Seeing Alanna's blank look, he added, "Fisher. She's in the Webspinners. She was at the training camp at Pirate's Swoop, remember, the first year Daine came here?"

The knight sat forwards. "Numair, the Third Riders were – lost when Legann fell. We haven't heard from them since."

He swore softly, offering a quick prayer to the Goddess for their safety. "Are they – dead?"

"We don't know. There's been no word out of there from anyone – even hedgewitches in the city – since March. At the very least they're prisoners."

He stood abruptly. "Does Daine know? Gods – I need to – I should find her. She'll be –"

"Sit down, Numair. She knows. She found out yesterday."

Complying, he said, "She never said anything when I spoke to her."

"For some strange reason, Numair, she seems to think that you don't want to spend time with her because of conservatives. I didn't quite understand it myself."

Numair swore again. If he had known yesterday – no wonder she had seemed so miserable, before he had even begun speaking to her. He had seen then that something was not right with her, but had easily accepted her admission that she was tired as being the sole problem – too easily. "I never said –"

"Whatever it was that you did or didn't say, Numair, it doesn't mean that that girl isn't thinking it. You told her that you didn't want to start anything with all this hanging over you, fair enough, but that she was too young to know what she really wanted?" Alanna made an exasperated noise. "Daine is just as determined and sure-footed as the day we met her, more so in fact. You need to get over this fear of losing her, Numair, especially now. Stop overanalysing everything and only thinking of the worst."

He sighed. If only it was as easy done as it was said. He wrapped a hand around the wrist that held the invisible locket he'd had made to contain her portrait and lock of hair, feeling the metal dig sharply in to his skin, and covered his face with his other hand. "But –"

"Hush," the knight instructed him. She stood up and began pacing, before returning to stand behind her chair and gripping its back. Numair watched her between his fingers. Alanna studied him for a moment, and then smiled gently, shaking her head. "You look the image of a doomed man, Numair. Relax. It can't possibly be as bad as you think it will be."

Numair snorted. "At least one of us is convinced of that fact."

"And you can stop feeling sorry for yourself too. I won't tolerate it, and you can bet that Daine won't either." She looked at the mage, who still sat with head in hands, and sighed. "Tell me the worst of it then."

He eyed her suspiciously through his digits. "I know you, Alanna. You'll only laugh and ridicule me."

"Charming," she replied tartly, her amused expression belying her annoyed tone. "If I'd known you thought so little of me, I wouldn't have offered. Besides, maybe if I do it, you'll realise exactly how ridiculous this all is."

As it turned out, Alanna was, for the most part, right. Not that he'd tell her anytime soon, Numair thought wryly as he made his way to the Rider buildings. His imagination had fixated on the worse possible outcomes and was letting his insecurities and fears take precedence over everything else as a result, including his overwhelming desire to tell Daine all. This was now combined with an uneasy sense of guilt; Daine would have been tormented enough about her friend's imprisonment – friends', really – and he had done nothing to ease that. He might have told himself that in asking her to wait he was trying to protect her, but he was in reality doing more harm than good.

Sadly Alanna was right about one more thing too; Daine was not one for wallowing in self-pity, and she'd been putting up with his since their escape from Carthak. How much longer would she?

With a dry laugh that was by no means humourful, he realised he was doing it again. Forcing himself to push down yet another of his fears, he began down the long slope to the training yards. He hated feeling so insecure with her; it crossed his mind to wonder vaguely whether, in another life where Ozorne hadn't permanently scarred him, he would feel so unsure of himself around her. She had been one of his closest friends – his closest friend – for so long, and their months of confinement had, in some ways, only served to grow them closer, but in other respects they were so much further apart than they had been prior to Midwinter. He wanted to fix all those things, to close all those distances that had never been there before, but most of all, he wanted her, and he wanted her to know that.

Before he knew it, lost in contemplations, he was standing at her door, fist raised to chap. Rather unfairly, he thought, before he had the chance to gather himself, the door swung open to reveal Daine. At the sight of her, his grovelling apology died on his lips. She looked – extraordinary – and yet, he couldn't place anything different about her. He released an inward sigh. Love struck.

"Numair." He couldn't tell if she sounded surprised, happy or despondent, but her eyes were fixed firmly on the floor between their feet.

He lifted her chin with a finger, raising her head so that he could meet her gaze. She was trembling under his touch and Numair silently berated himself once more. "May I come in?" he asked softly.

Her eyes narrowed into an expression he regrettably knew all too well. "Won't that mean people might talk? Mayhap one of them conservatives might see us and start talking about us, and all of a sudden, I'll hate you and have no reputation."

"Daine –"

She shook all the harder, though he doubted he would have known had he not been in contact with her; her apparent nerves were not given away by her defiant tone nor by the hands that were balled into fists at her sides. "Or, maybe, I'll be appalled by how your leg looks, even though it's me that's been looking after it – you – all these months, or perhaps –"

"Daine –"

"– I'll become all fickle, like one of those court ladies you like. Maybe then you'll think I'm old enough."

"You of all people know perfectly well that –"

"Or –"

In attempt to silence her, he pressed a large finger to her lips and pushed her back into her room. "May I come in?" he repeated. Mutely, she held her arm open to usher him inside. When he closed the door behind him, he turned around to find that she was watching him impassively, one eyebrow arched.

"I am the biggest of all fools, magelet." He offered her a rueful smile, which was met with scepticism. "Forgive me?"

"That depends." She folded her arms, fixing him with a glare. "Are you going to produce more of those excuses and pass them off as protecting me?"

He hesitated, wanting to defend his motives, and then sighed. "No. No more excuses. And as for my fears –"

"We both have those," she put in impatiently. "It doesn't mean we shouldn't try, though. We just have to go through them together."

He smiled weakly. "Of course." Then his smile widened in relief, and he glanced down before looking back up at her. "Forgive me?"

"If you stopped calling yourself a fool, that might help."

"I –" About to speak, he fell silent at her raised eyebrow. Then he snorted, shaking his head. "I've heard it enough, these past months."

Daine's head lowered sadly, and she sighed in despair. "No, Numair. Only from yourself. At least, you're not a fool in the way you think." She raised her eyes, meeting his gaze with a mischievous glint. "That's not to say you aren't, though."

"Thanks ever so."

"I mean it, though. You have to stop this –" she waved her hands in attempt to express her thoughts clearly and then tailed off, before looking into his eyes, hers a turbulent mixture of frustration, hope, fear and desperation that was painful for him to see.

He couldn't help it; he pulled her into him, holding her tightly against his chest. Tilting her face upwards, he kissed her deeply, hoping that it would convey his feelings better than his fumbling explanations ever could. "I will, Daine," he promised when he finally released her, pressing his lips to her hair.

She tried to push back, but unwilling to release her even a little, he merely shifted his arms slightly, allowing her to turn her head so that she could speak. "You don't even know what I'm asking."

He smiled wryly, closing his eyes as he buried his face in her hair. "But I do." Oh, but I do.

They were being called one by one.

The previous day, letters requesting individual meetings with those few of King Jonathan and Queen Thayet's mages and fighters who had not yet received their war duties had begun to be delivered. Numair's had arrived that morning, and sought to meet with him the following afternoon. Disconcertingly, Daine had received no such note yet. Neither of them discussed it as they walked through the Palace gardens late that night under an ominously cloudy sky. There was still time yet, Numair thought determinedly. It would be foolish for Jonathan and his strategists to divide their talents, and in any case, he wouldn't try, not after all they'd been put through. Numair didn't even like to contemplate what it would be like if they were separated, nor the increasingly nagging feeling that they would be. It simply was not an option.

He pushed the grim thoughts from his mind. Though neither he nor Daine had been directly involved in the war as yet, it felt as though their lives had been consumed by it since their return to the Palace, with both of them involved in planning meetings, and Daine spending much of her time gathering animals to spy and examining and healing those who had returned. Two weeks ago they would have given anything to be out of Golden Wood and helping. Now, he mused wryly, he would have given anything to escape the duty for a day or two. He dreaded to think how he would feel after a few months.

They wandered aimlessly through the gardens, his companion pausing now and then to greet the animals who flocked to her, talking of everything but the war, before they found themselves in a secluded alcove. Perfumed Yamani flowers surrounded them, filling the cool night air with their scent. In a former life, he would probably have made some comment about the flowers not matching her beauty and various other inane flatteries, but not with Daine, and especially not now.

Instead, they spoke of nothing in particular, of friends and acquaintances, books and scholars, skirting round the issues they faced. There was one, however, that Numair felt he had to help her confront. "Your parents," he said suddenly into the night. Daine stiffened beside him. "It's Beltane in a week. You promised me that you'd think about it."

"I still am," she said defensively.

"I know you're upset, Daine, but perhaps – have you thought that something might be preventing them from coming through?"

"They're gods, Numair," she scoffed. "What could possibly hold them back?"

Even as she said it, Numair knew she didn't fully believe it. "They're minor gods," he agreed. "And you said yourself, the gods have rules."

"If the Graveyard Hag had to follow them in her own country, imagine what they'd have to do," she thought aloud.


She turned to him with an annoyed scowl. "How do you do that?" she demanded. He offered her a lopsided smile and slid an arm around her shoulders. She relaxed into his hold, her head resting against his chest, but Numair could feel the nervous thrill of tension that ran through her. "But still though – not even the slightest hint from them that they know where I am. Nothing to let me know that my Ma's still – well, not alive, but not dead either. And nothing from him at all. Just the Badger, and he's never told me a thing about them, not really."

He took a moment to consider his words, wondering how he could impress this on her. "Daine, listen to me. You've said yourself that there might be rules that have stopped them from visiting you; we've talked before about the fact that your mother might not have wanted to scare you by trying to contact you. Can you imagine how you'd have felt if you thought you were hearing the voices of the dead, or receiving images of them? You'd have been convinced you were going mad, and I'm not so sure that I'd have been able to dissuade you of that again with those thoughts in your head. It was hard enough work the first time, and sometimes I'm not so sure you weren't right." It drew the outraged squeak of laughter that he had hoped for, and he smiled winningly at her before pressing on, his voice growing serious once more. "We can't know any of their reasons for the way they've acted, but I hope you've learnt enough from me that you know when to ask for the answers; ask them.

"If you don't ask, then think of what you could be missing," he exhorted her. "I know you've always wanted to find out who your father is, I know how much you've missed your mother, I've watched you dealing with your grief – and you have a unique chance to see her again. If you don't – if you refuse that opportunity then you have to consider why. I know you're upset, and I know you're annoyed with them, but if you refused to meet her, you'd be doing it to gall her more than anything, and that's not you, magelet. Don't cut off your nose to spite your face."

She scowled, raising her head to examine his features; disconcertingly, her gaze settled on his nose. "That would take some effort for you, but you seem to manage it enough."


She sighed loudly, moving in her seat; for a moment, Numair feared that she'd push away from him, but instead she curled in closer to his body, wrapping her arms around him. "I know. And I want to, it's just –" she broke off, lowering her head. After a moment of silence, he tilted her face upwards with a gentle thumb, though she refused to meet his gaze, her eyes sliding from his in attempt to conceal the pain that Numair could see so evidently. "But why, Numair? Why – what if –" She trailed off, clearly unable to find a way to express herself properly.

Oh sweetling, he thought sadly, lifting her into his lap so she could bury her face in his shoulder. I wish I had the answers you need.

When Numair came back to his rooms after his War Council meeting, Daine was waiting for him. She watched him pace around his small private living room, picking up pieces of parchment or books and then dropping them down heavily, running a hand through his hair with frustration and muttering angrily. After watching him prowl around for nearly quarter of a bell finally she attempted to break through his black disposition.

"When are we leaving?"

The mage span on his heel, not looking at her. "We are not."

"I'm sorry?"

"We aren't leaving. Not together, anyway."

She sprang to her feet. "What?"

Still pacing, he glanced at her. "That is exactly what I said, magelet."

"Why not?"

"Apparently our talents are put to better use separated. I'm going to the south, to deal with the Imperial mages." He sighed, reining his temper in as he spoke and admitting quietly, "It's also rumoured to be where Ozorne and Hadensra are. And – you're going north, from what I've heard so far. You're to be employed in 'the detection of enemy forces in mountainous ground.'"

"Where all the immortal trouble is," she said absently.

Numair nodded and continued. "Your destination isn't settled yet, but the party riding north isn't leaving for a while yet."

"And those going south?"

Numair's pacing faltered for a moment, before continuing. He wouldn't look at her. "Tomorrow," he said in a strangled voice.


He murmured his confirmation.

"Did you try telling them that we couldn't?"

"Yes," he said sharply. "Several times." He caught sight of her face and sighed, rubbing a hand across his chin, rasping against a day's worth of stubble. "I'm sorry magelet. I've tried, I really have."

Weakly, she asked, "Did you tell them why?"

"Yes, Daine, I did." Finally he came over to her, enveloping her hands in his large ones. "I explained to Jon after the meeting had ended, but he said nothing could be done. He's going south with us, and he said he and Thayet were in the same boat." He smiled slightly. "Or not, as the case may be." The mage gave another irritated sigh. "I wish there was something more that I could do, but I've tried every argument I can think of."

"But surely if the north is where the immortal trouble is they need mages?"

"They already have them, sweetling. The City of the Gods, remember?" He traced soft fingers across her cheek and down the side of her face. "Mages are spread across the northern border. In the south, the trouble is with troops and enemy mages. That's where I'm needed most."

"There must be immortals in the south."

"There are," the mage sighed, "just not as many as on the northern border." He attempted a smile. "There is one particular immortal in the north though, remember?"

Daine's heart lifted, albeit briefly. "Kitten," she breathed. Numair nodded, his fingers entangling themselves in her hair.

"Someone needs to be with her, Daine, and we both know that it must be you. If I can't be with her, I'd at least feel a little better knowing that you were." He shook his head in despair and, not for the first time, Daine had a flash of how much he missed the dragonet. "We're lucky that either of us will be going where she is at all."

She nodded and then paused, frowning. "But if she and Tkaa are on the move, who's to say I will be?"

Numair shook his head. "Jonathan swore to me that you'd be together."

"When? Just now?"

"No." The mage blushed. "He wrote to me not long after we were told that she was headed north. I was so caught up in – everything, really, that I must've forgotten to tell you."

The young woman uttered a dry laugh. "Typical. It's odd though, don't you think, that he didn't write to me to tell me that."

Numair lifted an eyebrow, the corners of his mouth quirking. "That's probably because you're not in the habit of writing letters to berate him on his war plans."

She laughed truly this time. "As if you know about war strategies and tactics!"

"I'll have you know, I'd been reading rather a lot of Emry of Haryse that week." Daine fixed him with a raised brow, struggling to contain her laughter. "I had," he told her innocently. "Anyway, I knew you wouldn't tell him honestly what you thought, and one of us had to."

"And I suppose you couldn't have gotten him to swear that we'd not be separated then?"

His expression was forlorn. "If I'd known – Daine, of course I would have. I never even contemplated the possibility. If I had – I'm sorry. I promised you that I'd be with you."

She took his hands in hers, squeezing them tightly. "It's not as if either of us have any control over it," she told him matter-of-factly. "Sometimes it's not practical for us to always be together, much as neither of us like it. We're only being sent where we're needed most, and it's always been like that for us. That's why we're here, after all."

A small smile touched his lips. "You are as sensible as ever, magelet. Thank you."

"At least one of us is." She paused and frowned. "Though who's going to look after you?" Daine swallowed, forcing down the burning lump in her throat and tried smiling bravely. "Perhaps I could sneak off with you anyway. I could change myself into a mouse and stow away in your bed roll, and only come out in your tent."

Numair raised his eyebrows. "As interesting as that sounds, and even though I'd be more than willing to try that, Daine, I'm not sure it's the best of ideas." He pulled her closer. "More than willing, though," he said, his voice warm.

Daine giggled, before letting her smile fade. "What are we going to do?"

Numair sighed, his face becoming grim once more. "I don't know, magelet." He wrapped one arm around her shoulder, pulling her into his body. "We might just have to manage, though."

"I don't like it," she whispered, her voice small.

"I don't either," he assured her, his arm tightening. "But as you said, we've little choice in the matter, and even if we did, I would still want to head south, and you'd still want to go north for Kitten." He led her to a seat and sat down, pulling her down beside him. Instantly she curled into his side, lowering her head and tucking it into the crook of his neck in order to hide her face from him. Numair's arms slipped around her and he rested his chin on the top of her head. "It makes sense," he admitted eventually with reluctance. "I need to go south, if that's where the worst of the mage trouble is."

"And I'd need to go north, even if Kitten wasn't there," she added miserably. This reasoning didn't stop dread pricking at her skull and filling her with cool nerves. "Only…" she trailed off.

Numair leaned back and shifted his grip on her, forcing her to meet his gaze. He scrutinised her face closely for a long moment, before pressing a gentle and reassuring kiss to her lips.

"Will you be all right?" he asked softly. Daine's face stiffened, and Numair had to bite back his amused expression. He had known she wouldn't answer him that. Her eyes revealed more to him than the rest of her defiant expression, and Numair thought he knew exactly how she felt. "I came across some scrolls I thought you might be interested in last night, magelet. I was planning to give them to you tomorrow but it seems we won't have the chance now, and – I was intending on doing some more reading tonight. You'd be more than welcome to join me, if you're interested in them."

Some of the nervousness in her eyes lessened as her body visibly relaxed. "Always," she replied, offering him a brave smile.

He touched a thumb to her chin and smiled back as her expression became genuine. "Tonight, then," he murmured, desperately forcing down the increasing suspicion that it would be the last night they spent together huddled over a book. They would have more nights together, he was determined. It wouldn't be over before it had begun.

Miri being Daine's unsettling news. ;) Poor Daine. In fact, never mind that, poor Miri. Don't worry, there's much more to come about her. Now, very unsubtly, like Alanna, I'm asking for reviews!