Ninian's knees barely waited until the door closed before they collapsed, sitting her down hard on the cot behind her. She was still here, and he was going to let her stay. And not only stay, but teach her!
She drew a shaky breath and released it slowly. She had done it. She had gathered up her courage—it had taken every scrap—and stood before him, had braved his enchanter's eyes, and now her future lay before her. A future she had dreamed, but never allowed herself to believe in. Until this moment.
The bare mattress gave a soft crackle as she lay back against it. There was no pillow, but her cloak would do. She had expected to be sleeping under the stars, or at best in the stables, so to have a bed at all, out of the night damps, was next door to a miracle. He had promised that his servant Mora would make the room ready for her tomorrow, but tonight she would not have traded this bare and dusty room above his workshop for all the gold in the king's treasury.
He was a puzzle, though. When she had first seen Merlin at the shrine, he had seemed to her like one of the gods themselves. Even from a distance she could see that it was almost as if he wore a mantle of light, shining brightly in contrast to the poor, drab mortals around him. And then the night at the lake when the secret whispers drew her out under the stars and she could almost touch the magic, he had called her name. There was a low mist on the ground about his horse's knees, but she had seen him clearly, seen the glitter of his eyes, and heard the way his voice seemed to come from both him and the air around him. He had offered her, that night of mystery, a gift she knew she could never accept.
But she had accepted it.
And she had stood before him tonight, looked into his face, and seen the fire he had called to light the lamp.
She sat up and felt in the dark for her pack of possessions. She dumped her things beside the cot and draped the blanket she had wrapped the bundle in around her shoulders to stop the shivering.
And yet…he was not the god, or the demigod, she had worshiped from afar. He was a man, whose hands had trembled as he crushed the hyssop. He was a man, kind and even gentle—thus far. A man who, at long last, understood and yes, lived her own unspoken longing for the things of power.
If she had been born a man, she would not have to resort to this subterfuge. But as she had stood before him tonight, she had felt firsthand the force of his quiet, determined strength. She had sensed the deep pain he had endured and accepted, and glimpsed, fleetingly, a strange, unnamed joy. She had seen in the flesh the way he held himself, tall and slender; the thick streaks of gray that softened the black of his hair; the lines around those eyes that seemed to see straight through one and beyond; the long, agile fingers of his hands, prince's hands…
A man, but such a man, not to be trifled with. Not be deceived.
Ninian untied her boots and pulled them off, and lay down wide-eyed, waiting for dawn.
The mornings came later these autumn days, but at the first hint of sunrise Ninian went down to the kitchen, torn between a desire to see him and a desire to avoid him.
The girl Mora, about her own age, was there, kneading dough. She looked up at Ninian's footfalls. "The master said I was to make you breakfast. He said your name was Nin—" In the middle of a curtsey, the girl froze, staring, then turned abruptly back to her bread.
Ninian waited a moment before taking up a knife and beginning to pare an apple from a basket on the table. "What is he like?" she asked softly, eyes on her work.
Mora hesitated for a long minute, eyeing Ninian warily, before she spoke. "Well, Ninian, he's quiet. He doesn't talk much. He grows his herbs and prepares them. He reads his books. He'll sit quietly, now and again, and you think he's asleep or just thinking maybe, but he's not. He's off somewhere, somewhere else, where no one can follow. He plays his harp and sings too, fit to make you weep. The poor people come, sometimes, and he heals them and their animals too. You'd think there would be nobles and great people coming to see him, but no, not many—only the King. And no women," Mora added with a sidelong look. "Never any women."
"Which is why," Ninian said, carefully slicing out a core, "I must come to him like this if I am to learn from him. If I can be like him—half of what he is, a quarter, a tenth!—I shall be satisfied."
Mora punched the dough down, folded it, and punched it again. "He's been good to me. Treats me like a granddaughter, when he ever thinks of me. I won't see him harmed," she said gruffly.
"I would not—could not harm him." Ninian's hair was still long enough to cover her cheeks as she leaned over to pick up another apple.
"Ah. So that's the way of it," Mora said.
"Yes," said Ninian huskily.
"I see." Mora's voice had softened, and there was a wealth of pity in the words.