Disclaimer: Hmph. By now we gotta all know JatD isn't mine.
Notes: Woot! It's an update! I'm sorry this took a while, but I wrote it in a way that was a little weird for me. And that's because this chapter was written for Le soleil brille pas pour toi, (thank you!) who challenged me to use less narration! Now that I look over it, maybe I didn't really use less narration at all, only added more dialogue, which is sort of cheating. But I really tried to work on it, and it did feel a little uncomfortable, which just goes to show how awful I am at branching out! So, if anyone has any suggestions, please share them, because I really need the practice/challenge!
Going off that, I am not overly fond of this chapter, probably because I fought with it half the time (and had to stop myself from adding in more and more narrating details. Geez, it's like a disease. I had to post it or I would have gone on forever). Please tell me your opinion! I want to know if it even seems different to you guys at all, or if it did seem not as good (or better!). So, as always, please review, because they are my lifeblood and they always make my day! To everyone who reviewed for this past chapter or past many, I love you guys and you are the best. The support is the reason I keep on muddling through this story, which is now over three years old.
Finally, for anyone who doesn't check my chapter status thingy on my profile (or if I forgot to put this up there), this chapter was originally way longer. It had about maybe ten extra pages worth of plot tacked on the end, because I really wanted to get this story rolling again - but it was just too long. Soooo, all my favorite parts were cut to go into the next chapter, which hopefully will be coming your way soon!
Enjoy! (And review.)
The next morning I took my first step in days. The ridiculous onlookers, who had crowded themselves into my room (quite without my consent, of course), gave a raucous cheer.
I glared at them all, but Pepper, Smithy, Gunther, Rake, Jester, my mother and father, as much of Dragon as could fit through the window, the princess, and Sir Ivon (Sir Theodore was consulting with the king on business) were not to be silenced. After a good few minutes of their preposterousness, they finally quieted down again. Taking several more steps, which were reassuringly steady (there really was nothing wrong with my legs, after all), I headed for the door. My supporters began to make noises of encouragement, sending advice my way about the process of walking and all its subtleties.
"I know how to walk, you lot!" I scowled. "Now clear off and let me out the door!"
"Pace yourself, dear…" my mother worried from over my father's shoulder.
"Ach, milady, the lass will be fine!" Ivon declared, clapping my father on his other shoulder as if I were a child taking her very first unsteady stride. Father flinched, the Knight's jovial thump a bit more jovial than had probably been intended.
I rolled my eyes and sidled around Jester to exit the room. It was a moment or two before everyone packed into my tower realized I was no longer in there with them, and then they came spilling out as I walked determinedly along the stone walkway. Dragon's smile as I came around the corner to him was blinding, and the forceful hug I gave his nose would have crushed his nasal cavity if he were not, well, a dragon.
"You look good, Jane," he said softly.
"I feel good," I said, just as quietly, my eyes closed as I felt the gentle warmth of his breath on my bandaged side. "You know what, Lizardlips?"
"I missed Dragon hugs more than I missed training."
"Oh, really? I missed Jane hugs more than I miss the cows when it rains…. They always go inside that little house. Is a bit of rain truly going to harm them?"
"Oh, Dragon," I sighed against his scales, running a hand over the smooth place where jawbone met neck.
"Oh, Jane," Dragon said, and it was a sweet twist of teasing and affection.
I pulled back to smile at him, and he grinned, flashing enough teeth to make even the fiercest barber faint. "Can we go flying yet?" he murmured, his tail twitching excitedly.
I sighed. "I do not think so," I mumbled. "Soon. With only one arm, I am not sure I could hold on well enough."
He nodded, and though his face instantly fell, his voice was a wonderful attempt at cheerful. "I would not want for you to fall again."
"Indeed." I shuddered at the memory of tumbling towards the earth, the sickening green of the treetops beneath me.
"So where are you off to?" he wondered after a moment, giving me an endearing nudge with his oversized nose.
I smiled. "Training, of course!"
His scowl was immediate and menacing. "Absolutely not!"
I laughed. "The reading sort of training, Dragon. Not real training, but better than nothing. I am to observe Gunther for a few hours a day and read several books on swordplay and archery and such."
Dragon paused and huffed out a little swirl of smoke, his eyes narrowed. "I suppose that is acceptable…"
"I should hope so! I am tired of doing nothing," I said, giving his scaly nose one last squeeze and turning towards the stairs down into the practice yard. After a moment, he padded along behind me.
"May I assist you, fair Jane?" Jester asked, stepping forward and offering an elbow.
I smiled at him and shook my head. "Thank you, but I will be fine without help, Jester."
He gave me a look, as did my mother from behind him.
"Truly!" I said, raising my eyebrows in a manner I hoped appeared reassuring. "See?" I took the first step down and stood there for a moment to prove how capable I was.
The spectators, including Dragon, still looked a tad suspicious, so I carefully placed my hand on the chilly stone wall and continued to the second and third. When no one protested, I went down the remaining steps, and my feet touched real earth for the first time in a week.
"A little unsteady on that last one, Jane," Jester called, and I heard a few grumbled agreements.
"You are imagining things!" I called, walking over to my designated chair and plopping down. "See? Very reasonable. Just sitting here calmly with my books." I looked around at the packed dirt beneath me, and then frowned. "Maggots, I forgot my books."
"Right here," Gunther murmured, and I glanced up to see him standing right next to me. Clasped in his hand were three books, and silently he passed them to me.
I smiled at him in thanks, and then scowled down at the tomes. "These must be the thinnest three books in the entire knight's library!"
"Sir Ivon picked them for you," Gunther said with a trace of a smile.
"That mollycoddler," I grumbled, glaring at the old leather covers, embossed with uninteresting titles.
For the next few minutes people bustled around and repositioned themselves, Pepper hurrying off to the kitchen to begin preparations for dinner and Smithy taking up his hammer. Sir Ivon found a likely looking bale of hay from which he could pretend to pay attention to Gunther and me whilst actually taking a nap, and Dragon settled in on top of his wall, great green head draped over the side. My mother and father drifted back to their duties, taking the princess with them, assured that I would not be able to do anything mischievous with so many people watching.
"Off to your vegetables?" Jester called at the clack of Rake's shoes.
"They need tending!" Rake exclaimed as he turned the corner, on the way to his garden.
"Seems as if it is just you and me, Jane," Jester said, raising an eyebrow as he flicked a bell and leaned against the wall casually.
I nodded my head at Gunther, who had a not very pleasant expression on his face as he headed for the dummy, the sword in his left hand nearly strangled. "And Gunther, of course."
"Oh yes… Gunther. How could I forget?" Jester muttered.
I flipped open the topmost book, which covered the fundamentals of long-range weapons and arrow fletching. It proved to be dull, as did the next. There was no discussion of actual battles, simply the mechanics and structure of various knightly tools. It seemed a miracle to me that anything so fascinating as a weapon could be reduced to a few dry sentences, when I knew swords could swish through the air like lightning and axes could crash against shields with the force of a stampeding bull.
After my third or fourth sigh and far too much time, Jester spoke. "Something wrong, Jane?"
"Ugh. These books are boring me silly."
"Boring you more silly, you mean?"
I glowered, and he gave an apologetic smile. "Do forgive me, Jane. But you are not the only one with problems — I am afraid my current ballad is turning into a tragic mess."
"Oh? Let me hear it. Perhaps I can help," I said, leaning on the pile of books in my lap and finding them rather comfortable. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Gunther give the dummy wallop after wallop, his face rather sour and his movements more skilled than I could have imagined after barely a week of left-handed training. Watching the mace ball spin around, pushed quicker with each of his jabs, I wondered with a sick feeling if anyone had yet cleaned my blood from its spikes.
"Well, it begins like this —
There once was a lady braver than fire
To be a warrior was her true desire
Well, she adventured, she fought, and she roamed
And finally returned to her lovers back home
One had loved her since the dawn of time,
His love filled with music, poetry and rhyme
To her he offered his songs and his heart
Hoping for her to be struck by Cupid's dart
But the other lover was cruel and cold
A warrior like she, fierce and bold
He gave her nothing but sorrow and pain
Yet she came back to him again and again
Now this lady brave had to choose one of the two
Her heart torn apart, she knew not what to do
So when came the final hour,
She chose —"
Jester paused, halting the lilt of his song at its climax. "I do not know how to finish it."
"It is not a tragic mess at all, Jester, it is lovely," I said with an encouraging grin. "But should it not be obvious —"
"Who she chooses?" Jester eagerly interrupted, his eyes on my face.
I frowned thoughtfully, glancing down at a book on the techniques of left-handed weaponry, pinned open by my elbow. "No, not that. I meant how hard it will be to rhyme with 'hour'. There is 'bower' and 'flower', and 'cower' and 'power' — but none of those really make much sense. If you changed that word, I think it would come together better. It really is beautiful so far, though."
Jester looked strangely disappointed, and his thin fingers tapped the lute strings in an impatient manner. "Whom do you think she should choose?" he persisted after a moment.
"Well, I am not her, Jester," I responded, turning a few pages absentmindedly. "The first lover sounds kind, but there must be a reason she keeps coming back to the other."
Jester looked less than satisfied with my answer, so I smiled up at him and patted his arm. "It is your ballad; it is your decision whom she chooses."
Jester shook his head and opened his mouth to speak, but behind him I could see Gunther pull back his sword, spin it from one hand to the other, and bring it down forcefully upon the dummy. I rose in my seat, my mouth falling open as I shook Jester's shoulder.
"Did you see that?!" I blurted, watching the mace ball arm fall to the ground with a dull thud, disconnected from its cloth host.
I gestured wildly at Gunther. "That was a Parallel Lightning Strike! It is all right here —" I held up the book I had just been skimming and waved it in Jester's face, "see? It requires perfect balance for the sword to pass to the next hand, as it is moving so quickly it could easily chop off fingers if it is ill timed or not in the correct position. Champion job, Gunther!" I yelled to him.
He turned from where he faced the now one-armed dummy, and as he saw me, paused for a moment stony-faced. His eyes flicked between where Jester clutched his lute looking annoyed and where I stood a few steps forward, still holding up the book, my expression one of astonishment. A small, mildly smug smile emerged on his face, and he nodded at me before turning back to his injured foe.
"That was amazing! How did he learn that?" I said aside to Jester, my mind tracing the movement over and over as I continued to stare at Gunther, finally sinking back into my seat.
Jester shrugged. My eyes followed Gunther for a few moments more, and then I returned to my reading, though I could hardly focus on it. I was still replaying the motion in my head, my fingers itching to touch something sharper than a book.
"Do you find it strange how friendly Gunther has been lately?" Jester asked casually after a few minutes.
I shrugged one shoulder distractedly. "I think it is a nice change." Once again bored by the dry descriptions, I glanced up to where Dragon lounged, and grinned. "Look, the great lout is asleep. His snores will rival Sir Ivon's."
Jester nodded absently, as if he had not truly heard, and gazed uncertainly out at Gunther.
The next few days and weeks passed quite similarly, and the reading became even less engaging. I was permitted to walk around and use my left arm, and I took advantage of both mightily by brushing each of the stabled horses until they gleamed. Previously never too fond of me due to my reek of dragonsmoke, the steeds and workhorses decided I was well enough after lavishing so much attention on them. However, when Smithy teased that I would rub their coats bald, I put the brush down and instead took to pacing around the practice yard.
After I once again refused to decide which lover for Jester's ballad, he stopped working on it, saying with a sigh that it would decide for itself given enough time. With no songs to work on, he found himself much more occupied taking care of the royal children, and was often not there. Most afternoons Gunther, Dragon and I were the only ones in the yard, with Smithy banging away in the corner. I settled into a habit of wandering circles around Gunther as he fought the dummy or Sir Ivon, a bit jealous of his swift improvement at fighting left-handed but also interested to see how it worked. I fired questions at him as I went, wondering how each body part should be positioned or when to use what move.
"Does this irritate you?" I asked one day, trotting around the back of the archery target.
"What?" Gunther wondered, brushing sweat and inky hair from his forehead.
"All these questions."
"A little," he answered, ducking to avoid the dummy's mace, which Smithy had reattached.
"Oh," I said.
"But I understand why." He stabbed the dummy in the spot where a much younger Lavinia had once painted a heart, and straightened. "It is challenging for you to sit and do nothing."
"Is that a question?"
"No. I have known you for a long time, Jane. You have always been terrible at doing nothing."
I glared at him, wishing once again I had the capability to cross my arms. "You are too."
He shrugged lazily, and I thought of all the times I had watched his busy hands tap on a table or fold the corner of a page over and over again. Their quiet drum over my leg, when Smithy had bandaged my side.
"Doing nothing is stupid," I said after a while, frowning at the dusty earth on my shoes. "I could at least cut some vegetables, or organize some reports, or… well, anything. It would not be hard to do more than I am doing."
"You are spending quality time watching a master at work," Gunther said conceitedly, relieving the dummy of the extra fluff and fabric hanging around its stomach with a few quick chops.
"Oh, you are being absurd," I snapped, my good hand on my hip. "If I were only allowed to hold a sword, I am sure I would do equally as well."
Gunther raised an impertinent eyebrow.
"Truly!" I protested, irritation gathering in my voice. "Here, pass me my practice sword."
"I do not think so," Gunther responded warily, glancing down at the wooden sword by his feet.
"I will show you!" I said, striding forward determinedly.
Gunther scowled at me, his eyes narrowing. "That is a terrible idea."
"Well, Sir Theodore is in the library, Dragon is out eating, Smithy is fetching supplies, and Sir Ivon is going to the privy — you know how long that takes. No one will see!" I exclaimed, leaning down for the rough-cut weapon.
Gunther immediately flicked the sword up with his boot, catching it in a single fluid movement and holding it behind his back. "It has nothing to do with who sees, Jane," he uttered exasperatedly as I advanced on him. "The point is you should not even be handling any sort of weapon right now."
I tried to reach around his back and grab for the splintery wood, but he caught my wrist with rough fingers. "For your own good, Jane."
I glared up at him, trying to tug my wrist away from his cage of a hand. "I hate doing things for my own good. Let go!"
"No one cares if you hate it!" he stated hotly. "You cannot always do things for someone else; sometimes you have to do them for yourself. I am only letting go if you promise not to pick up a weapon until your arm is out of its sling."
I shook my head, trying to ignore how the sun found the silver in his eyes. "Absolutely not! What if something happens and I need to defend someone before then? I can hardly promise something like that."
We stood there for a moment, looking stubbornly at each other. I was uncomfortably conscious of how my arm was wrapped halfway around him, and how close our bodies were. It seemed as if we ended up like this strangely often, only a hand's length apart, both breathing far too hard. My heart appeared to be pounding in every part of me except for where it should have been in some odd, nervous rhythm, and I was close enough to see the darker, nearly black smudges within his irises. There was a smear of dirt on his left cheekbone, covering a bit of a flush, and I wanted nothing more than to lift a hand and brush it off with my thumb. I could not help but wonder what he thought of when we were so close.
"Fine," he muttered finally. "I will not ask you to promise that."
"Thank you," I murmured softly, but his grip did not loosen on my wrist.
"I will ask you not to, though," he said gruffly. "If you will not do it for yourself, then find someone else to do it for. I cannot think of anything more ridiculous than having to chase you around like some nursemaid, making sure you are not practicing while injured."
I paused, and my voice was quiet when I replied. "You could just let me hurt myself, you know."
He gave me a look, as if I had never said anything less intelligent. "Ha. You would not be hurting only yourself, Jane."
I swallowed, my eyes searching his, unsure of how to untangle the ambiguity of his statement. I could feel the warmth of his fingers on the sensitive skin of my wrist, and it seemed as if surely he could feel how fast my pulse was.
Abruptly, from behind the stable doors, I heard the shuffle marking Sir Ivon's footsteps. Gunther dropped both my wrist and the practice sword behind his back in the same instant.
"Squires," Sir Ivon said, nodding at us as he turned the corner.
We dipped our heads in response, and as he thudded up the creaky steps to the knight's quarters, Gunther glanced at me. "Well?" he whispered meaningfully.
"Well what?" I whispered back, heart thumping insistently.
"Will you agree not to practice in any way until your arm is healed?" he muttered, turning his head back to Sir Ivon.
Both our eyes following the stout knight, I let out a soft sigh. "I will never catch up."
"I will help you," he said distractedly, crouching to snatch the wooden sword from the dry ground as he watched the door to the quarters slam shut.
"…You will?" I asked.
He straightened, and it brought him right back where he had been before, only a breath away. "Of course," he said eventually, so close I could feel his words on my cheek. "Practice is boring without you."
"But I am right here," I responded, confused.
He rolled his beautiful eyes. "Yes, grumpy and miserable. I meant when you are actually able to fight."
"Oh." I got a pleasant little tickle inside, thinking of Gunther missing our spars as much as I did. I never would have guessed it would happen for either of us — we both acted as if they were such a chore. However, just as it happened with Dragon flights, only once they were no longer possible did I realize how empty a day felt without them.
"Besides," he smirked, "I need a small amount of competition. If you are not up to it, I will have to train you to have, at the very least, a tiny bit of the talent I possess."
I glared, feeling much less fuzzy on the inside, as if whatever happened when our eyes caught had swiftly had all the air run out of it. "You beef-brain!" I retorted. To emphasize the statement, I shoved him with my good arm, my palm encountering the unyielding muscle of his stomach.
Unfortunately, he did not budge, and instead simply grinned. "You are far too easy to tease, Jane," he said wickedly, poking my good shoulder. "Why did you think I always tried to?"
Sending a scowl up at him, I shrugged. "I was convinced it was because you were a donkey." Are a donkey.
He laughed, and, as always, it surprised me. I tried to figure when exactly he had stopped with those gloating snickers, but had only in my head the deep, rumbling sound he made now. It occurred to me that Gunther had the laugh of a man, and I thought, a touch uncomfortably, of my snorts. I had hoped they were simply a childhood habit, but still, they continued.
"You are only not saying worse because of the truce," Gunther said, his words layered with amusement as he moved away to absently smack the dummy.
I gave him another dark look, because it was true and he knew it, pushing my load of hair out of my face. It was growing far too long to leave blowing around all the time; I was overdue for a date with Pepper's scissors. Tugging at an errant curl, I watched him strike lazily at the dummy, his sword catching the weak rays of a rapidly sinking November sun.
"Well?" he said again, after a while.
I sighed. "You will help me catch up?" I asked. I tried to make it sound as if the question meant nothing — but it left my tongue a bit tentative. I hated asking him for things, even after weeks of people offering me help. My wounds did not hurt at all any longer, not even when I bent or twisted, but it seemed that everyone in the castle loved acting as if they did. Pepper still piled extra food on my plate, giving me a stern look if I protested, and Jester would carry or fetch anything my heart desired, especially if I desired nothing. Gunther was not so ridiculous, and it was only moments when I caught my breath after climbing the stairs, or winced at something jerking my arm, that he mentioned it. But when he did, his voice was concerned, and he would brush the hand clasped to my side or arm as if coaxing it to release its grip. I never said to him how unlike him it was to do such things. I told myself it was because he would not take it well, but, truly, some part of me was secretly worried he would stop doing them if I did.
"If you say you will not practice until your arm is healed, yes." He ran a dirty hand through his hair, still poking the dummy's shoulder so it continued to spin listlessly.
"Fine," I answered, my mouth twisting a little. I knew it was practical, but I could still picture how clumsy I would be in a month or so when the cast came off. "I will not practice."
"Champion," he said, increasing the speed of the dummy's rotations with harder and harder jabs as I picked at a loose string of canvas on my cast. "I doubt you will need much help, though. You always pick sword techniques up quickly."
I paused at the praise, glancing at him in the fading light. It still surprised me, but it was becoming easier to take it breezily, as if it was perfectly normal for both of us to be kind to each other. It was not so far from normal now, truth be told. Gunther sat with us at meals, laughed with us on occasion, even helped if Pepper wheedled enough. However, Jester and him still constantly disagreed, and frequently glared at each other across the table. That, I still did not understand, as Smithy and him appeared to be getting along rather well, and even Rake gave him cautious smiles. I could hardly believe I had ever doubted this truce.
"As you do, with archery," I said to him as lightly as I could, my eyes following the dummy's gyrations.
"Well." His voice was casual as he broke the poor thing's twine seam with a flick of his blade. "Once the cast is off, I could give you an archery lesson."
"Truly?" I questioned, looking away from where the fluff begin to migrate out of the gap, and up at him. It was getting too dark to be fighting, and his face was clothed in shadow.
He nodded, moving away from his holey opponent and taking a swig from a water pitcher set on a nearby barrel. "I know it has always bothered you that it does not come as naturally as fighting with a sword."
"How did you know that?" I wondered, reaching for the same pitcher and sipping.
His brow furrowed as he took the water jug back and swallowed half its volume in one gulp. "Jane, we have spent nearly every day together for more than five years. What did you expect, that I would be an unobservant clod?"
I opened my mouth, and then closed it again.
"Obviously so," he muttered, finishing the water and placing the clay pitcher back on the barrel.
I scowled, feeling vaguely guilty. "Well, I never wanted to expect anything from you," I replied grumpily, taking a roll from next to the empty jug and nibbling on it.
"Because you thought I would disappoint you." His mouth quirked bitterly.
"I simply — tried not to. That way, I would not be disappointed, but I would also be surprised if you did something, well —"
"Right? For once?" His voice was cynical as he too grabbed a roll.
I glowered at my stale bread, then at him. The truce by no means meant it was always laughter and sunshine between us. After all, I was still me, and he was still Gunther, and we would never get along perfectly.
"Then what have you noticed about me, Jane?" he asked, watching me, his fingers picking little holes in the bread. "You had the same amount of time I did."
I huffed out an irritated breath. "I do not think you actually want me to say."
"Humor me," he said carelessly, tossing his slightly mangled roll and catching it.
I was sure we had already had a similar conversation, one in which I tiptoed around my thoughts of him, but his eyes were scrutinizing on my face as he waited for me to speak. "Well… what I have already said. You have a wall to hide everything real behind."
Gunther shook his head. "No, those are conclusions. What are your observations?"
There was a pause.
"You favor your right side," I said, swallowing a bite of bread.
"And?" he asked.
"You have a hard time separating false distractions from true ones," I continued, squinting over his shoulder. After a moment, he turned to look as well, and I smiled. "You are naturally talented as an archer, but you focus on it too much. Your skill with the sword pays the price, and your work with the dagger even more so." I ripped off part of the roll's crust, balling it up in my fist. "You always pay attention to something coming at your face before something heading towards your more vital areas." I threw the small, yeasty sphere at him, and it hit right where his heart was. "But your footwork is impressive." I stepped forward, and he immediately countered my movement. "You are not as quick as I am," I slipped past to stand behind him, "though quick enough. How are my observations?"
He turned to face me, raising an eyebrow. "I was thinking you would refuse to respond. I should have known better."
I grinned, tilting my head. "Truce or not, I will always love putting you in your place, Gunther Breech."
He smiled as well, the corner of his mouth inching up a bit darkly. "Of course." He took an unseemly-sized mouthful of roll, finishing it off all at once.
"In five years you must have noticed more than my lack of skill with archery," I mentioned after a moment. "What else was there?" This conversation seemed to be heading down a slightly dangerous route, as we were both rather prideful and discussing flaws is often a bad idea in that case, but I had to admit I was beginning to enjoy it anyways. Sometimes talking with Gunther felt easy and pleasant, but occasionally it felt we were dancing on the edge of a knife between teasing and insults. However, despite that, I was coming to relish speaking with him either way.
Gunther swallowed his bread, eyes catching mine as he began to speak. "You are quick, as you said." He reached for me, and I instantly shifted back, his hands encountering only air. "And your footwork has always been good." He took a step towards me, and, as if we were dancing, I matched his steps in the opposite direction. "I had to work to be able to move like that," he confessed. Darting forward, he plucked me off the ground, as one grabs children or particularly light brides, his arms tight. "But you are not nearly so strong as a boy, and you never will be," he whispered into my ear with a quick rush of warm breath, depositing me a meter or so away from where I had started. I gave him a dirty look while attempting to fix the mussed tangle of curls that had fallen in my eyes, trying to ignore my racing heart. "Your skill as a swordsman is damaged by your inability to fight with heavier weapons," he continued, brushing stray hairs from his face, gray eyes gleaming in the last light of the sunset. "You could never wield a mace or axe with the amount of force necessary." I glanced up at him as he walked forward once more, his steps the beginning movements of a popular dance, one of the first Kippernian children ever learned. Unconsciously I followed his tread, and he bowed as I curtsied. He smiled faintly. "Your archery is atrocious most days, though I have seen it decent. You let it depend too much on your perception of how far away the target is, and not enough on visualizing where the arrow should go." We both moved back, dipped, and went towards each other again, circling in the falling dark. "You have a tendency to go on the defensive, perhaps because it requires less brute force—" automatically I raised my hand as we both stepped with our left feet, and his palm came to meet mine, "—though it may be because you do not like to make the killing move. You would rather get your opponent in a position to yield." We turned around and around each other, hand resting against hand, my eyes glued to his. "I never could figure out which reason it was," he said. "Perhaps both." His palm was warm and sure on mine as my feet moved with his through the steps. Our circles tightened, until I was close enough to see, even in the near darkness, that same dirt smear on his cheekbone from before, close enough to see myself reflected in his eyes, to feel the warmth of his body in the first pinch of night air. I noticed how fluttery my breath was, strange and fast and shallow, and then —
"You loonies!" Dragon's roar was boisterous as he crashed into the wall. "There is not even any music! Short-life dancing confuses me to no end."
I moved back, my heart beating wildly, a thousand confusing sentences on my tongue, and smiled awkwardly at Gunther. "I should go," I murmured, fingers still held in his. "My mother wanted me to join her and Father for supper tonight." My words came out throaty and slightly nervous, and his skin suddenly seemed the warmest thing in the world to me.
He nodded, stepping away as both our hands dropped. I immediately clenched mine at my side, a touch of his heat held inside.
"Have a nice evening," he said, sounding husky, looking down at me.
"You too," I replied softly.
He nodded once again, his eyes implacably dark, and I turned to walk up the stairs to my tower. My footsteps were not entirely steady, and I felt as if I had missed some important moment — I could not decide if that was for better or worse. After all, how often had I told Pepper courtship was practically impossible for me? Squirehood for a girl was tentative enough without it.
But the thud of my heart would not listen to reason.
Halfway up the steps, my feet paused. "I will remember that archery lesson," I called down to Gunther.
He waved a hand at me, but I could not see his face in the gathering dark. I stared down for a second before continuing up, noticing my left hand was filthy, as his had been from practice. I glanced at it, curling my fingers with a hint of an irrepressible smile. I knew I needed to change out of my practice tunic and brush my hair, but I was hardly able to focus on the thought.