A/N: This is set immediately after The Emperor Mage, and re-writes from that point onwards.
Disclaimer: I remain in awe, and in ownership of little else except my own body parts;-)
Chapter 1: Return
Three days. Three days she had been back on solid ground, and yet her legs still felt like rubber, her stomach still queasy with their ship's unsteady motion. The girl known as Daine sighed, and patted her mare affectionately with one hand as she reached absentmindedly for an apple with the other.
'You wouldn't have liked it much,' she offered. The mare known as Cloud snorted her agreement between bites. That is because I am a creature of the flat plains, not the marshy swamps, the pony cajoled her two-legger. You might have done better to stick where you belong, too.
'Don't scold Cloud,' the girl protested softly. 'It was needful.'
Daine took a deep breath, her mind suddenly so full that she hurt between the ears; she saw crushed bones dying a second death, a palace wing in smoke…She saw Emperor Ozorne's keen, unsettling eyes, and she shuddered, thrusting the image away with all the energy she could muster. Blinking hard, she flexed her fingers, still feeling the ghostly shimmer of a now-returned magic at their tips.
With a shake of her head, Daine turned her attention back to Cloud. 'I did my part, as I must' she told her friend. 'But I am glad to be back.'
You still smell of hot climes, the mare retorted, but was gentler this time, and echoed her reply with an affectionate rub of her nose against Daine's side.
Daine smiled. 'Worry not, a few weeks back in these stables and I'll smell as fresh as a Tortallan herd.' Cloud nipped at her in reply, as Daine turned at the full-throated laugh behind her.
'Still paying your dues, Daine?' Onua moved towards girl and horse, and Daine let herself be wrapped up in a one-armed hug, clasping her K'miri friend tightly around the shoulders. This was not their first reunion since the Carthaki delegates had returned, but somehow it seemed that friends greeted each other now with an earnest affection that had not been so apparent before their departure. Daine hadn't spoken much of her ordeal, but she had a feeling news had reached her Tortallan home, and friends, long before their return. The voyage had certainly afforded her, and, she wagered, her companions, the somewhat dubious freedom of time to examine the events of the past month. Perhaps they were all silently thinking about what they had come so close to losing.
The two women worked quietly together. This was no longer Daine's role, and hadn't been for more than a year, but she could often be found going over the horses in the palace stables, conversing with Cloud and the others, and keeping her former boss company. Now, as Daine combed tired fingers through Cloud's mane, she relished the simple, hands-on work. There were no dead things to bring to life, the girl thought with a wry internal smile, only ear mites, pulled hooves and the occasional tic to confront.
'Hmmm?' Patting Cloud's neck and moving to check the hooves of a nearby war-horse who patiently acquiesced, Daine peered over at her friend. 'Sorry, my mind was many moons away. What did you say?'
'I said I don't pay you to be here, mistress. Your replacement keeps me on my toes and the horses on their hooves. What are you doing here instead of in your little bed, resting up?'
Daine wrinkled her nose. 'Already tired of me, Onua?' Her friend grinned in silent reply, and the younger girl sighed. 'I have been resting, and horse lords know I needed it. But I missed Cloud, and I missed the…'She stopped, searching for the right word. 'Familiarity?' she offered. 'I've been feeling a little lost, truth be told. In here,' she gestured around her, 'this is the 'me' I was even before I came to Tortall, just…me 'n Cloud, and the herd, before I got dragged into wars and magics and delegations.' She smiled wryly. 'Oh, I know I'm a whole different Daine now, but…'
Onua nodded firmly in appreciative understanding. 'We all need to be reminded of our roots. Tahoi and I go and play stick if I need the comfort of my past. And you have roots here now girly, a home it feels good to come back to.'
Daine brightened at this thought. To think, only two years earlier she'd not had a home to ache for, not since Snowsdale. 'I told you years ago you're ours now,' the K'mir continued, her dark eyes dancing as she looked at her younger friend. 'You can't be rid of us so easy, even battling an Emperor Mage and, raising the dead and being kidnapped. What do you take us for?'
Daine shook her head at Onua's dry humour. True, the danger and the heartache seemed almost too far away to be real, though she was sure she had the scars to prove it true.
'Anyway, enough', Onua commanded, seeing the whispers of untold shadows in Daine's expression. 'Tell me of our tall and lanky friend. How is Numair settling in since your return from adventuring?'
Daine idly scratched at the ear of the patient gelding she was grooming, her face thoughtful. 'I don't rightly know,' she admitted, and then grinned. 'I imagine he's drowning under the weight of all that dirty laundry- some of it emotional,' she added wryly.
'You haven't seen him?' Onua looked surprised.
Daine shrugged in response, bending down to pick up her things as she waved away the questioning look in her friend's face. 'I'm sure he's had far more important things to do than accompany me to the stables. But…' she cocked her head to each side and stretched, awakening her grumbling muscles before she turned to go. 'I think he's had peace enough by now. I'll go find out how he is.'
With a smile and wave to her friend, and a quick scratch on the nose for Cloud, Daine decided it was time to find her teacher.
Alanna looked up. Recognising the sounds of someone clambering up the stairs two at a time, she was already turned towards the door before smoky curls and large, blue-grey eyes peered in from outside. The knight smiled warmly at the newcomer.
'Daine,' she welcomed, unfolding her limbs from Numair's window seat with a little effort, and extending her arm. The younger woman clasped her hand in a gesture that had become their familiar, affectionate greeting.
'Alanna.' Daine smiled, somewhat quizzically, cocking her head to the side in a silent question.
The Lioness sighed. 'He's in bed still,' she returned with a wry smile, speaking softly. 'I wouldn't be here, except that I've got my Alanna-the-Healer hat on firmly in place, or he wouldn't be resting at all.'
'But-' Daine felt her heart thud in her chest. Shush, she told it, not liking the bodily reminder of how she had felt in Carthak, the time when she thought he was…
Alanna watched in sympathy as the girl absentmindedly placed a hand below her collarbone, as if trying to push something away, inside.
'But I don't understand' the girl intoned, mouth drawn tight with worry. 'I thought he was unhurt. I mean, Ozorne didn't actually touch him, and apart from the voyage back'- Daine was aware of her teacher's propensity to seasickness- 'he seemed alright…'
Alanna reached out and touched the young woman's shoulder reassuringly. 'Daine' she broke in, before her friend worried herself silly. 'Daine, Numair will be fine. He's just exhausted. And, as I'm sure you're aware from your travels together, not good at bed rest unless he has someone standing over to remind him why exactly he shouldn't be up and experimenting with some new magical or intellectual endeavour.'
Daine smiled at that. 'Fair enough,' she agreed. 'Last year I had to threaten him with Cloud, when he wore himself out in Port Cayne. She had him backed against the wall in his bedroll, for all he glared at her to let him up.'
Both women smiled at the image Daine had created as they walked together towards the door. 'You do well by him Daine', Alanna murmured. 'Listen, I'll tell you when he's up and ready, but there's no need to worry.' She paused by the door as the girl began to descend. 'And you, youngling? She called after the retreating figure. 'How are you feeling?'
Daine waved away the concern she heard in Alana's voice. 'I'm fine, tired is all,' she called back over her shoulder.
Alanna sighed and shut the door, making her way back to the window seat before a voice from further inside the room caught her off guard. Warrior reflexes whirled her body round unthinkingly, to see Numair leaned against the doorframe leading to his bedchamber.
'Is she gone?' The mage stood, his face impenetrable, arms folded across his chest.
Alanna paused. For all his careful mask she could read the weariness in her friend's face, see lines of worry etched thinly between nose and mouth. 'Daine? Yes.' She could not keep the surprise from her voice. 'You didn't wish to see her?'
'Not yet.' The voice that replied was soft, a little uneven. Numair stared at his folded arms.
Alanna sighed. Her friend was not likely to reveal more without gentle prodding; she collapsed back into the window seat, making herself comfortable. She patted the space next to her. 'Come here, laddybuck.'
The mage acquiesced, folding himself carefully into the cushioned seat and gazing past his friend to the view outside. From here he could see the courtyard leading to the secondary Palace gardens. Somewhere, he mused briefly, were people wandering in the grounds without a worry in the world.
His friend's voice focused his mind, bringing his gaze back to her. He smiled in silent apology.
'What is it, Numair?' Alanna's violet eyes were quick, exploratory, kind.
The mage returned her gaze for a moment, his own dark eyes hesitant. 'I don't know', he admitted finally. 'Since our return I have been somewhat…panicked.'
'A little, yes,' Numair's lilting baritone was soft, as if he were coaxing it back to life after a long period of silence. That gave Alanna food for thought- her old friend had indeed been quiet in the weeks since the Tortallan ship had returned for their two delegates, lost and then found.
'Isn't that to be expected?' she enquired gently, her own sharper voice softening to match his. 'Numair, for all that your simulacrum caught the brunt of Ozorne's anger, this last month must have been a nightmare for you. I can't imagine how…' She shuddered, not able to vocalise, perhaps even fully comprehend, the extent and depth of her friends feelings regarding a country, a ruler, a home, that had sought to betray him not once but twice.
She reached out, placing a hand on one broad shoulder, and squeezing gently. 'It must have been terrifying, having to prepare yourself so for the possibility of Ozorne's anger. And then for it to be realised…'Alanna shook her head. She had not known about the weeks of work that had gone into Numair's simulacrum, the creation of what was effectively a doll to experience his own death; and had she done, she might have questioned his presence on the trip, official pardon or no. The mage had clearly anticipated the Emperor's brutality, but she was not sure that the rest of them had.
The mage tugged at his nose with long fingers. 'We all protect ourselves against a future we can only fear, against any possible…uncertainty,' he replied finally. 'It's what we were trained to do. You're a knight, Alanna. A warrior. You know that.'
'Perhaps,' the Lioness agreed. 'We all walk into our own battles, whatever they may be, armed as best we can. Still…' She paused, thinking for a moment of the young woman he had just carefully evaded. 'You weren't just fighting for your own life this time', she added deliberately. A pause. She made his eyes meet hers again. 'It must have been difficult having someone make you vulnerable again.'
Numair sighed. 'Of course I was vulnerable in Ozorne's presence,' he began. 'I knew that, I…'
'Not Ozorne,' Alanna cut in. 'I meant Daine.'
That had caught him out. She heard the hiss of breath against clenched teeth.
'Daine?' Numair's voice caught in his throat as he brought his eyes abruptly to Alanna's own. In them, she could see flickers of pain against the shadows he obscured even from her gaze.
And then they were gone. Recovering, Numair presented a face of perfect blankness. 'I'm not sure what you mean.'
Alanna snorted. 'Oh, are you not?' The mage was examining his fingernails with what seemed like great intellectual curiosity, and would not look at her. Alanna was quiet a moment. For all his frustrating evasions, she didn't want to expose her friend, only help him. 'Numair.' She reached out, placing her palm over one broad wrist, wondering at the heat she could feel there.
'You almost lost her,' the knight spoke gently. 'Goddess knows we all felt it, but I know how worried you were.'
'Don't, Alanna please…don't.' Thumb and finger were pressed tightly over the bridge of his nose, his eyes momentarily squeezed shut. 'Don't you know how awful I feel, knowing that it was I who almost brought her to grief? That it was my unpardonable idiocy…'
'Numair.' She let just a little vocal sharpness return. 'It's endearing, this quality of yours, trying to bring the world to rights, but you cannot blame yourself, surely.'
'Can I not?' He looked at her now, dark eyes wide and open in their frenetic urgency; his voice was rasping, and threaded with disgust. 'Alanna, did she tell you that I went to Ozorne in search of her?' Her silence was all the answer he needed. The mage laughed, bitterly. 'I all but advertised her as a most attractive potential victim. Of course I must give her credit, she was much more sensible than I was, though to all intents and purposes I was supposed to be her teacher. She took care of herself most adequately, though it was no thanks to me…' Numair had to stop in order to take deep breaths, the words tumbling from him in agitated fury. 'Don't you see, Alanna? It's not that she has made me vulnerable, but that I have made her so! Mithros…'
'Oh, Numair.' Alanna sighed. 'You are her teacher, not her saviour. No one expects you to…'
'I do.' he cut in abruptly, before she could finish. 'I expect myself to look after her.'
'And you do.' The Lioness smiled. 'You have, and you did, and you will. I agree, you were foolhardy to speak to Ozorne as you did'- Numair was rolling his eyes at the ceiling in frustrated agreement- 'but we all have weaknesses, Numair.'
'But she shouldn't be my…' He stopped, abruptly, not sure how to finish that thought, as crimson bled through his olive-skinned cheeks.
Alanna sighed. 'You care about her,' she offered gently. 'Is that such a bad thing? You would die for her.' There was silence, Numair's agreement even if he would not verbalise it. 'And I wager she would die for you…'
'Which is exactly what I cannot bear, Alanna!' the mage hissed. 'She almost did die for me, foolish chit, she…' He broke off, reaching a large hand up to cover his mouth as if he did not dare allow the words to run away with him.
When he regained control, Numair leaned forward in his seat, elbows on knees, gripping hands tightly together in support. 'Alanna, I swore to myself, if no one else, that I would protect her. You don't know what she came from, what she has lived through…' He shook his head. 'I let her down. I failed her.'
When he turned to her again, Alanna was breathless, wondering at the threat of tears behind his dark and complicated eyes. She could not remember if she had seen him cry before, had not been sure that he had it in him. This was interesting. This would be something she would ponder at home, with George, when they all had the time to think and breathe again.
'You did not fail her, Numair.' She paused. 'Though perhaps you will, if you allow your fears now to push her away.' She could see him flinch at this. Alanna thought of the various souls she had vowed to protect since becoming a knight, even before then. She thought of the helplessness she had felt, her own fear of failure...
'Numair, you have found, you have made a relationship of great importance.' She nudged him gently with her right elbow. 'Be glad that you have someone you can be hell-bent on saving, I know many men who don't have that.' The mage nodded, though she could see the confusion still swimming over his features. 'It is terrifying, I know that,' she admitted. 'You know I would die for Jon…'
At that, he coloured again, looking away. 'That's different, Alanna, you and Jon were lovers, Daine and I-'
'I don't mean as a lover, Numair. I mean as a warrior. As a comrade. As one who vowed to protect him.' At that she gave a half-smile. 'We protectors have a difficult path to tread sometimes.'
The girl they were discussing was, at that moment, on all fours in the small former store-room she was happy to call home. Ground-floor doors and window were flung open to admit her animal friends as she scrambled through accumulating piles of clothes and half-opened packs all around her. Kitten was somewhere just outside; Daine could occasionally hear the soft inquisitive croak of her dragonet examining the many wonders of the world.
Putting her dirty things to rights felt something like getting her mind together, the girl realised with satisfaction. It was the superficial version of the 'housekeeping'- she knocked on her skull at the memory of Numair's term for cleaning up her magic those years ago- that had saved her. And it felt good, she realised with an internal giggle. If Ma could see me now. She felt…grounded. That made Daine smirk. 'I'm not sure I'll be all that grounded for long' she remarked to the sparrow who was visiting, observing her from his perch on the windowsill. She was already considering which bird-form would take her fantasy later for her first flight back in Tortall. 'But there you go…'
At the knock on her door, Daine turned her head in expectation. Numair, she thought with a smile and pleasant warmth. She pictured him ducking his head to enter her doorway with more grace than should be afforded to a man of his size, sighing, as he always did.
'Come on in then,' she called out brightly, 'I was beginning to think…' She stopped abruptly, her face colouring as the door opened to reveal a young, brown-haired man with a broad open face and hazel eyes. A smattering of freckles rested under the slight blush.
At that, Daine remembered herself and stood, extricating feet and limbs from the piles of clothes around her. She brushed hands down the front of her breeches and stepped forward. 'Well, yes,' she began hesitantly. 'Or the Daine bit at least,' she continued with a hesitant smile. 'I'm not a Lady though...'
The young man returned with his own generous smile, and stood a little more at ease. 'Daine, then.' He paused. 'I'm sorry…perhaps you thought I was someone else.'
'Oh, yes, well….how silly of me, imagining I should know who stands on the other side of the door! I don't get many visitors, truth be told.' Was that true? she wondered. Perhaps not, but Daine was not sure that she could explain to this young man why exactly she had been so sure that it had been her teacher, finally coming to find her. Not sure that she knew herself, in fact.
Daine pushed these thoughts away. Her errant Numair she would have to deal with another time.
Looking up, startled, Daine realised that the young man was gazing at her in expectation, and she had been standing there in unhelpful silence. She blushed- what a pair they made, all fair-skinned and revealing. 'I'm sorry,' she offered. 'I'm not all here.' She half-smiled an apology as well.
'Not at all, Lady Daine.' The man smiled as she opened her mouth to correct him, and then thought better of it. 'My name is Perin.'
Perin, Daine thought. It had a nice, rounded sound, she thought, when he spoke it with his gently accented Common. 'Perin…?'
He bowed at her, half-formerly and half in jest, making her smile. 'A Palace clerk, m'aam. At your service.'
'At my service, indeed.' The girl smiled, deciding not to stand on ceremony; she flopped back down, this time onto the corner of the bed. 'And what can I do for you, Perin?'
Perin relayed the message and then, with a further hasty but carefully executed bow, left her to her thoughts. Daine stared at the now-closed door, eyes thoughtful. So, she thought. It had come to this. Already.
Perin's message had come from the King.
Daine eased herself to her feet and tugged absentmindedly at her slightly dishevelled hair. She never felt ready for these important gatherings. Not that it mattered now.
But we've only just returned, an inner voice wailed, how can there already be something needful of late-night Royal meetings?
Well, practical Daine replied. You won't know until you go.
After all, Tortall was her home, and she had a job to do.
A/N: I would love to know what you think: do tell, and I will be a happy English bunny...
A/N: I would love to know what you think: do tell, and I will be a happy English bunny...