Dancing and Eating and Drinking. And Kissing.

Maerad watched the parade vanish in a flutter of colored fabric and random drums, her heart going with the illusionists and the acrobats. She felt breathless, her heart pounding, her mind racing with the images of the performers. Maerad had never seen such fabulous celebrations, and she had to pause to collect her thoughts, staring out at the ocean. After a minute, Maerad looked up from the waves and joined the rest of the Bards who were talking animatedly. Elenxi saw Maerad watching and laughed when he saw her happily dazed faced.

"Have you never seen a celebration before?" he asked.

Smiling, Maerad said, "Not one."

"Well it's not over yet," Honas cut in, from a row back. "Now, we go down to the gardens to really begin the festivities. Come, Maerad, to the School gardens."

Maerad stood and was about to leave when she remembered Cadvan sitting beside her. He had been watching her during the parade and the short exchange she'd had with Honas, and was highly amused. When she looked to him, he was staring out at the sea, but a faint smile had turned his lips up.

"Cadvan, are you going to the gardens as well?" She didn't know if, as a student, Maerad was expected to stay with her mentor. And, of course, she didn't know many people, so having Cadvan was a sort of fallback.

Cadvan turned to Maerad with an answer, but paused. As the sun caught her, Maerad's eyes seemed to glow blue, or maybe it was just the excitement in her gaze, and her face was flushed flatteringly. Her skin had tanned nicely, and made her hair seem even blacker and healthier. Her slight body was dressed flatteringly and made her look older than she was. Cadvan was startled to find that she actually looked very beautiful.

"Yes," he said after a beat. "I'll join you, if you'll have me."

Honas seemed a mite displeased that Cadvan seemed to be tagging close to Maerad, but didn't think it would matter much when the moon rose. Elenxi saw Honas frown and caught a glimpse of Cadvan's face in the moment he'd been looking up at Maerad. Cadvan had seemed rather taken, and Elenxi found it all very amusing.

"Of course we'll have you," Maerad laughed, and tugged her arm impatiently.

"You're as bad as a child, Maerad," he chuckled affably, and then stood up.

The group of Bards left the Copper Mermaid, joining the fray of people who were swarming the streets. Honas kept up a stream of excited talk as they made their way to the School, explaining about the night ahead. At the entrance to the School, the press of Bards was so much that Maerad had to cling on to Cadvan's arm so as not to lose them.

Cadvan felt a small smile on his lips. She was such a slight and eager thing that Cadvan was reminded strongly of puppy. She was rising up on the tips of her toes to see how long they had to wait, and rolling on her heels. Her smile was glowing.

"Maerad, try to calm yourself," Cadvan said in her ear.

She shot him a frustrated look. "I want to dance."

"What she means is," Elenxi said with twinkling eyes, "that she wants to drink."

"Well that too," Maerad agreed. "But I like dancing, and I want to see the Rite of Renewal."

"It's something to behold," Cadvan said solemnly. "A beautiful thing, indeed. But that isn't until much later. You'll have to fill your time with other things until then."

"Kissing!" crowed a voice from behind them. From the crowd Kabeka pushed her way up to them. "Didn't I tell you there would be kissing?"

Maerad blushed scarlet, and Honas smiled expectantly. It was Cadvan who spoke, his voice, Maerad though, strangely muffled. "I've been to a number of these celebrations and I don't remember any kissing on my part."

Kabeka scowled playfully. "More the reason to start tonight, eh?" She winked at Maerad, and then shot a very provocative look at Elenxi, who returned it. "You're all such prudes."

"I am not!" Maerad said loudly. "Do prudes fight ondrils?"

"The ones who don't kiss men are," Kabeka returned.

"I don't think Cadvan kisses men," she smirked, and then looked up shyly at Cadvan. Had she gone too far?

Cadvan eyed her for a moment. "Than I suppose I am a prude."

They all shared a laugh at Cadvan's expense and then waited for their turn to pass the gates. Once they were in the School, the five of them made their way down the cobblestone roads and into the large, flowering gardens.

It was a maze of hidden paths and little courtyards. Here and there, they might come upon a group of musicians playing together, or a small circle of dancers, or men and women drinking to the health of the new year. The gardens were like a private world, a place that would exist for this night alone, and tomorrow, would be just a collection of plants once more.

Elenxi led them through twists and turns and finally up a set of stone stairs, small vines creeping over the steps. Maerad gasped in pleasure when they topped the steps and she saw the large platform that looked out over the setting sun and the blue ocean. It was a beautiful place, fenced in naturally on all sides by flower beds and sweeping trees. In the center of the platform was a fountain of three mermaids, and about the fountain, musicians playing a lovely song. Along the edges of the platform were arranged tables for one to eat and drink, or to relax after dancing, because, of course, there would be dancing. Most of the platform was given away to the dancers.

"Oh it's wonderful!" Maerad exclaimed, clutching tighter to Cadvan's arm.

"It'll be more wonderful once the moon rises," he said, leading her to a table under a gathering of trees. "Then the lanterns in the trees glow like stars."

"Have you been here before?" Maerad asked.

"I've been to Rite of Renewal before, yes," he said shortly, and Maerad thought he was holding something back. Suddenly he smiled dazzlingly. "These gardens can be treacherous though. You never know who you might stumble upon."

"Or what they're doing," Nerilli said, approaching them casually. She greeted them kindly and turned her smile on Maerad. "I swear, in my time here I've walked in on more couples entangled in each other's arms than anywhere else!"

Maerad laughed, but a vision passed in her head of Nerilli and Cadvan together in the gardens, and she frowned. Again, she wondered what stood between Nerilli and Cadvan, and felt a pang of jealously in her belly, but tried to press it down. Cadvan was her friend and mentor, nothing more. Anyway, Honas seemed to be trying to catch her eye, struggling over with a plate of food, so she just nodded and made room for him to sit.

"Look at these dumplings, they're as big as your hands!" Honas said, and he lifted her hand up to his, studying it. "Well, in the dumplings respect, your hands are rather small actually. I mean, compared to mine." Honas lifted his hand and set his palm to hers, measuring the span of their hands. Maerad noted how much longer his fingers were, and how his palm was very hot under her touch.

"Well, of course," she said, smiling. "Girls have smaller hands than boys." When Maerad looked up to Honas, he seemed intent on her face, staring hungrily across at her. Maerad's stomach did a small flip, like she was going to be sick, and she pulled her hand back hastily. "What kind of wine did you bring?"

Cadvan had watched the exchange from Maerad's side, and had been contemplating interfering when Maerad had pulled away, smiling uncertainly. He was trying to keep a close eye on her, he knew how Honas felt, even though Maerad apparently had no idea how men looked when they were attracted to a woman. She seemed completely nonplussed by his advances, if not completely unaware.

He could just remember that day in Innail, months ago it seemed, when Silvia had pulled him aside, desperate to talk to him.

"Silvia, what is it? You know there's another meeting soon, I can't afford to miss one," Cadvan had said as she tugged him purposefully into the private courtyard.

"This is about your new student," Silvia said sharply, and then settled him at a table.

"Maerad? What about her? Is it her lessons?" He didn't think that Maerad would have posed any problems.

"Well, yes and no," Silvia hedged. "There was a small incident with Dernhil today, and she's in something of temper."

"Yes, well-What?" Cadvan looked up sharply. "I thought maybe Indik, but Dernhil?"

Silvia sighed at Cadvan and ran hand through her hair. "Dernhil kissed Maerad."

Cadvan raised his eyebrows but didn't seem surprised. "So? Maerad is a pretty enough girl and Dernhil is a handsome, accomplished Bard. If you think that Maerad and I are having an affair-"

"I don't think she's your lover, Cadvan!" Silvia snapped. "Maerad panicked and punched Dernhil in the eye."

"She hit him?" Cadvan frowned darkly. "I thought perhaps she had better manners than that. Do you want me to speak to her?"

"No, Cadvan, I already have, and I'm not surprised. That's why I want to talk to you, because it's going to pose some problems in your mentorship of her." She gave him a severe look and Cadvan waited, wondering what she meant. "You know Maerad was raised as a slave in a very horrible place."

"I was there, I saw."

"Yes, well, I guess some monster-" Silvia cut off, obviously very mad. "Some man there almost raped her. She's very traumatized over the entire matter, and she wasn't thinking straight."

Cadvan's face darkened and he quickly ran through his memories of the cot. He hadn't seen Maerad being pawed by anyone. "I suppose I could have guessed that after a while."

"Cadvan, I'm telling you this because very soon, it will be just you and her, traveling alone together. I think Maerad is going to have a hard time adjusting to it, and she might be afraid of you."

"I wouldn't hurt her," Cadvan said sharply. "You know that, Silvia."

"I know, but Maerad doesn't. She needs to trust you, Cadvan, and I just think you should know it might be a little harder with her. Especially when she has had such hard treatment at the hands of men." Silvia gave him a sad look. "I'm not saying you're going to hurt her, I'm just saying you're a powerful man and Maerad might be afraid of you."

Cadvan nodded simply, thinking of Maerad's side glances at him. She had seemed a little skittish. "I'll be gentle, and I won't brook the subject with her."

Cadvan looked again at Maerad and Honas. Well, he'd just have to make sure Honas didn't pull Maerad away into the bushes.

As the sun began to set, Maerad sat and watched the dancers, not sure if she had the nerve to join them yet. Honas kept up a steady conversation, dropping compliments here and there, and the food was fantastic. But she was also hyperaware of Nerilli, sitting beside Cadvan, and talking softly to him, staring at him attentively. Cadvan was listening, barely speaking, but still listening all the same. Giving all his attention to Nerilli.

Maerad couldn't help it. She finished her glass of wine and turned to Honas with a dazzling smile. "Do you want to dance?"

Honas looked as though his dreams were coming true. "I'd love to, Maerad."

Maerad jumped up, taking Honas by the hand and pulling him out onto the dance floor. As the drums began to beat, Maerad started swinging her hips. Honas laughed and placed his hands carefully on her hips, smiling uncertainly at her. The two seemed to lose themselves in the music, consumed by the beat. Once in a while, Maerad threw her hands up, laughing, and noticed a strange flutter in her belly whenever Honas looked down at her.

As the first song ended, she looked over to the table to find that Cadvan and Nerilli were joining the dancers, hands clasped.

Maerad's stomach twisted uncomfortably at the sight of them together. She felt a desperate loneliness, like Cadvan was pushing her away. As the next song began, Maerad could see Cadvan and Nerilli twisting around each other like professional dancers, perfectly in sync. They looked so perfect turning together, like they might have been doing it forever. Maerad huffed to herself, and she began to dance closer and closer to Honas.

Somehow, maybe by luck, Cadvan and Nerilli and Maerad and Honas turned closer and closer, until they were circling each other like stars around the sun. Cadvan had been trying to focus on Nerilli's dancing, but it had been hard when he'd seen Honas holding Maerad up against him. After that, Cadvan spent most of his time watching the younger pair, barely thinking about Nerilli. As they began to approach each other, Cadvan prepared to change partners.

Nerilli seemed to sense Cadvan's thoughts and she smiled ruefully. Cadvan's thoughts were obviously on his pretty student. Suddenly, the music changed and she turned swiftly away, bumping casually into Honas.

Cadvan was ready when the beat changed. He backed up two paces, caught Maerad's hand, and pulled her elegantly away. When the music fell back into a normal tempo, Nerilli was holding hands with a very surprised and flustered Honas, and Cadvan had one arm wrapped very snugly around Maerad's waist, twirling her gracefully.

"Cadvan!" Maerad yelped, startled to find herself in his arms. "Where's Nerilli?"

"Dancing with Honas I suppose," he said in an offhand way. It was wonderful, the way Maerad fit perfectly into the circle of his arms, like she was meant to be there. Her small form was pressed against his, and he was extremely aware of every part of Maerad.

"Oh," said Maerad, and she couldn't help but feel the warmth coming off Cadvan's chest. "I thought she'd be dancing with you all night."

"The entire night?" Cadvan seemed surprised.

"Yes, I thought you two were friends," Maerad murmured, looking down.

"You and I are friends," Cadvan said swiftly before he could stop himself. "Does this mean we will be dancing together all night?"

For some reason, this unsettled Maerad. There was a depth of emotion in Cadvan's voice that Maerad didn't recognize, and it set her on edge. She was suddenly very conscious of his arm on her waist, and the powerful pressure of he was using to hold her. Before she could stop herself, Maerad had put a bit of space between them, and was concentrating on her feet, trying not to look up.

"Only as long as you'd like," Maerad said softly, still staring anywhere but into Cadvan's eyes.

"I'll admit that I'm not one for dancing," he answered. They turned about a few times, the force of the spinning bringing Maerad back into the crook of Cadvan's arms. They were near the edge of the platform, where trees created a natural barrier, and Cadvan looked into the candle lighted trees. "Would you care to walk with me, take the evening air?"

Maybe away from the heat, and the dancing, and the passion, Cadvan will be more like himself, Maerad thought. They came to gradual stop as the music ended. "Yes, please. I'd like a break from dancing."

Cadvan knew he shouldn't be doing this. He knew he was being a fool. He knew that he was risking everything he had worked so hard to build with Maerad. But none of it mattered when he looked down into her beautiful glowing eyes. Placing Maerad's hand in the crook of his elbow, Cadvan led her away from the crowds and the watchful eyes.

The walk through the gardens was beautiful. The trees had been hung with candles that glowed in different colors, and the path was alight with starlight. The moon was a huge round orb that hung in the sky, close enough to touch. Stanzas of different music would occasionally drift over to them as the two passed silently through the maze of plants.

"You seem to like dancing," Cadvan said pleasantly. "It suits you."

"Well, I am an unpredictable thing, aren't I?" asked Maerad playfully.

"I always thought so," said Cadvan thoughtfully. "But actually, you are quite a good dancer."

"Well, thank you," Maerad said, blushing slightly. "You and Nerilli look good together." There was a tinge of bitterness in her voice that she hoped Cadvan didn't hear. When Maerad glanced at her, she saw that he had, and her heart fell out of her stomach.

"Do you think so?" he asked, a smile quirking his lip. "There are some who might disagree with you."

"Well, I don't see why. You're both Bards, you're both smart and brave, both very gifted." Maerad shrugged as they entered a small courtyard with a single fountain bubbling softly in the middle.

"Hmm," Cadvan mused, wanting very much to grab Maerad and kiss her. "Well, that line of logic isn't the best. I mean, you're a smart, brave, gifted Bard but people don't suggest that we're lovers."

Lovers? Maerad gulped. "In Innail they did," she reminded him.

"True." Cadvan led her to the fountain and paused before it, still holding her. He looked up at it, keeping his eyes, though not his thoughts, off her delicate beautiful face. "But still, you'll admit that simply because two people are alike doesn't mean they're suited for each other."

Maerad couldn't see where this line of conversation was going, but she felt uncomfortable. She was sure Cadvan was speaking of Nerilli. "No, it doesn't. I just thought you and Nerilli were close."

This brought Cadvan up short. Was it that obvious that he had once had an affair with Nerilli? And Maerad, she seemed strange sour about the whole thing. "Would it surprise you if I said we were once?"

"Not really," snapped Maerad.

Cadvan raised an eyebrow in absolute surprise. "Maerad," he said incredulously, "are you…jealous?"

"What?" Maerad rounded on Cadvan, snatching her hand back from his arm. "No. Of-of course I'm not jealous of her! She's my friend, and you're my mentor! Why would I be jealous?"

"I don't know," Cadvan said simply, staring at her. "Why would you?"

Before Maerad could stop herself, words poured out, no doubt drawn by Cadvan's truthtelling Gift. "It's just that I have so few friends to begin with, and you're the only person I ever know, so maybe I feel left out sometimes. It doesn't help that you're spending so much time with her, and she's smart and pretty and powerful!" Maerad gasped, clamping a hand over her mouth. She looked at Cadvan with wide, startled eyes. "Stop it! Stop using your Gift to make me speak."

"I didn't make you, Maerad," Cadvan said pleadingly, stepping closer to her, hands out. "And I'm sorry if I've made you feel left out."

"Well, I guess you're forgiven. Now, I'm going back to the dance floor," replied Maerad stiffly. She meant to pass Cadvan with a cold shoulder, barely looking back at him, but Cadvan was in some form of confused shock.

All he saw was Maerad's passionate eyes, her perfect face, her beautiful form drifting by, and he reached out and grabbed her. Before she could so much as scream, Cadvan gathered her up and pressed his lips against hers.

Maerad was absolutely, utterly lost. She felt Cadvan's arms around her, his body pressing against hers, and for a moment, her nightmares assailed her. She remembered a man breathing down her neck, his hands grasping at her body, the terrible weight of him, and she started to shake in Cadvan's arms.

This isn't happening, this isn't happing this isn't happening thisisn'thappening. Maerad was trying to force the nightmares away, trying to make the darkness go, but she couldn't. She snaked around in Cadvan's arms, and pressed against his chest with her hands.

Cadvan felt her squirming, and knew she was in a panic. He loosened his hold on her, giving her the space she needed to breathe. All Cadvan could think was how stupid he had been, how horrible he had treated her. What kind of friend was he so bring back her worst nightmares?

She was shaking terribly. "Maerad…I'm so sorry…"

Maerad, still in his arms, was breathing hard. Thoughts were racing through her head, images of Cadvan, his smile and grimace. The way he laughed, the tones of his warm voice. How he rode his horse, always sure and solid in her world. He wasn't going to hurt her, he wasn't going to hurt her.

He won't hurt me, Maerad thought firmly.

"Please, Maerad, if you could forgive me…" Cadvan was looking at her desperately, with her eyes clamped shut, shivering. He was about to release her. "I understand. If you don't want to talk to me-"

"Wait!" Maerad snatched the front of Cadvan's shirt and pulled herself against him. She looked up at him, at his dark eyes, and smiled faintly. "I-I'm not mad. Just shocked. I didn't think you'd-well, I didn't think you'd want me like this."

Cadvan laughed softly, drawing her up to him. "How could I want you any other way, Maerad? You're perfect like this, in every way, and that's how I want you." He paused, tightening his grip and tilting her chin up. "That is, of course, if you want me."

Maerad's heart skipped a beat. How could he be uncertain? He was obviously a man that any woman would want. "Well, I did choose you as my private mentor, didn't I?" She rose on her toes, and Cadvan kissed her, very firmly. It was a long kiss, full of emotions Maerad had long repressed, and feelings she was just beginning to understand. Cadvan tightened his grip on her, trying to memorize every inch of her body. They were pushed together, giving and taking equally, feeling and being felt at once. Neither wanted more than the other was giving. It was a meeting of perfectly balanced desires. After a long time, Maerad pulled away and stared up at Cadvan's very blue eyes.

"Imagine the rumors that will go around now."