King Jonathan decides to cap off a year of catastrophe - Immortals, Carthaki invasion, the near-kidnap of his queen and heirs - by persuading his oldest daughter to renounce her dreams of knighthood. This occurs some time in the period when Queen Thayet is away finishing off the training of the most battle-tested new Riders Tortall will ever see, which means that the Queen, her closest friends, and Numair and Daine along for the ride all find out at roughly the same time, on her Majesty’s return to Corus.
The fallout renders the Palace hideous.
Numair is being besieged by memories of Carthak and would very much like to run off to Sorcerer’s Tower, but he wants to make sure Daine’s settled in with Onua before he leaves. Her newfound control is much stronger than it was, and any sixteen-year-old who can summon a kraken from across the seabed is having no difficulties at all connecting with her power, but she’s still new to Tortall and the atmosphere in Corus is (to put it mildly) thunderous.
Daine is particularly fond of Kally. She also has a native restraint and reserve that will hopefully prevent her from sabotaging Jonathan’s wardrobe and personal items the same way she ruined the Carthaki invaders’ materiel.
Numair crosses his fingers for luck, and takes a flagon of wine and two rough clay cups out into the Palace grounds.
The trainees are celebrating their new status as Riders; Daine is with her friends, hanging onto Miri’s arm, Evin at her shoulder. At sixteen, she’s as old as any of them, and Numair knows Onua had a word with Evin to keep an eye on the amount of cider Daine drinks. Mages can’t overindulge without consequences, unfortunately, and Daine is not used to alcohol. But Daine is occupied, and Onua has the evening off, and Onua, as Daine’s official teacher, wants a quiet informal word with Numair.
Numair supposes he brought this on himself. He disposes himself on his favourite stargazing hillock, the one that’s in a sufficiently obscure part of the business end of the palace that no-one is going to come looking for a famous mage there unless they truly need him, and which overlooks the King’s Own paddock and the green meads that run down to the dark shade of the forest. Daine fell asleep near here and woke to Stormwings, Numair remembers. It seems the least of the strange things she’s done lately, but it’s no less strange for all that.
Of all the sixteen-year-olds in the Eastern Lands to have walked up to Onua’s camp and asked for a job. It savours strongly of destiny.
Numair hears the shadow and the echo of footsteps behind him: Onua and Tahoi. He swoons gracefully onto his back on the grass, flinging a hand over his eyes. “My love, my dearest, I was beginning to think myself abandoned -”
“Did you bring the wine?” Onua cuts in, unaffected.
Numair lets his arm flop onto the grass. “Yes, but it’s probably rough stuff.”
Onua collapses next to him and takes the flagon. “I’ve drunk worse.” He hears the sound of wine glugging into one of the clay cups, and Onua gulping and gasping. “I’ve probably drunk worse. Tahoi, tashk.”
The dog flops down onto his stomach and lies obediently still.
“Lashi hirin,” Onua croons, rubbing the top of his head. “Lashi.”
Numair opens his eyes to look up at the stars, and then sits up and fills his own cup, recorking the flagon. “What did you want to talk about?”
“Daine.” Onua takes a meditative sip of wine.
In the distance, Numair can hear the party, but only in the distance. “What about her?”
“She’s an odd one,” Onua says, but thoughtfully.
“A lot of mages are,” Numair drawls. He’s very used to this, with his power the way it is. People find him strange, unknowable, and he can never figure out what he does that’s so odd until well after the fact. Onua laughs and shoves his shoulder. “You’ll make me spill my wine.”
“Do you no harm,” Onua says roughly, and then falls into a pensive silence for several moments. “She’s a good girl. A good worker. I’d keep her on any day, student or no student.”
“Looking forward to teaching her?” Numair asks, and Onua’s yes is immediate, but it’s not followed by speech, not for a long while.
“There are already things she can do that I can’t,” Onua says finally. “Already risks she runs that I don’t.”
Numair thinks of Daine’s set, bony little face by the sea, as she told the story of a girl who ran with wolves for vengeance. Daine’s magic bleeds into her self in a way Numair has never seen, though it was easy enough to guard against once she told him about it. Perhaps it’s a risk that accompanies wild magic, or perhaps it’s just because she is so powerful. No wonder she’s feared her gifts: Daine is afraid, above all else, of losing her humanity.
Numair summons the faintest of black-and-white glows about his hands, a void in the night. He can sympathise with that.
“What are you playing the nightlight for, Salmalín? My trouble is, I don’t know if I can keep her safe in the teaching as well as the work.”
Numair takes a gulp of wine. “How would you teach a trainee who’s a better rider than you are?”
Onua sighs. “Carefully.”
Numair sinks back onto his elbows, and watches the dark line between the trees and the sky. It’s a perfect autumn night: any colder and it would be too cold, but right now it’s just refreshing, and the wine is heating Numair’s face and core. “There are no true academic experts in wild magic. It’s too poorly documented for that. Likely most cases are unrecognised, except perhaps in small communities.”
“Horse-hearted,” Onua murmurs. Numair raises a toast to her, though he’s not sure she can see it.
“I have some backing in wild magic. Not enough. I have only an interest and my own magic is chiefly academic. There’s nothing I could teach her, bar perhaps some animal anatomy, or some basic principles of theoretical magic that may not even be applicable to wild magic. I don’t have the lived experience of you or Stefan, say, and Stefan’s not nearly as strong as you are, and he only ever applies his magic to horses.” Numair drains his cup and refills it. “And Daine trusts you more than most. That trust is vital. You know her story, she feels safe with you, she respects you. I could find her the only specialist in the world in wild magic - a person who may not exist, though perhaps the Banjiku have elders who would qualify - and they still wouldn’t be able to build the rapport with her that you have.”
“Shut up,” Onua says. “You’ll make me blush.”
Numair refills her cup. “Sweet Onua, I’m sure I can think of more intelligent compliments than that. Look, you’ve not worried about teaching Daine before now. What’s got into you? The atmosphere around here is a bit thick, I know. But royal marital troubles surely have no bearing on your teaching Daine.”
In the quiet, punctuated only by occasional raucous yells from the Riders’ mess hall, the hooting of owls, and the soft movement of the Own’s horses, there are all kinds of things Onua could be thinking about. The elephant seal that had believed Daine to be one of his own kind, only far more powerful; the golden feathers that had fallen from Daine’s hair after she stood between Riders and griffins. The way ospreys had screamed as Daine sobbed, telling the story of the whales that wouldn’t come to Pirate’s Swoop in aid. The baby dragon that curled up in Daine’s arms with ultimate trust. The way the shadows had fallen green over Daine’s face beneath the eaves of the forest as they saw the undine, like Daine herself was part of the forest, kin to the undine she had unconsciously called to.
“Kally spends a lot of time with her,” Onua says. “I think Daine might be planning on teaching her to shoot from horseback. She’s training her on the right skills.”
Princess Kalasin can already shoot, of course. She can shoot very well. It might keep her alive in what is to come, though whichever royal husband she selects - Numair has heard about this condition of Kally’s choice, and also that it placates Queen Thayet not at all - may not appreciate it. Numair’s not impressed by the king’s strategy. It may be that he’s only just realised he can’t afford to gamble with the future of a marriageable princess when war is upon him, but he’s a fool not to have brought it up sooner. “I’m amazed she has time.”
“Daine, or the princess?”
Onua’s silent for a moment, and then she says something in K’miri.
“Didn’t catch that.”
“You weren’t meant to.”
Kally is not Jonathan’s heir, but among the K’miri, she would be Thayet’s. Roald is a Tortallan prince, but Kally bears her martyred grandmother’s name. It’s a different kind of crown.
“We’ve all been talking a lot,” Onua says suddenly, and Numair understands that by that Onua means the other K’miris who live and work around the palace, probably including the queen. Queen Thayet has moved to another wing of the palace, and it seems reasonable to suspect that her friends gather round her there. Numair knows, because it’s impossible not to know when the Lioness is in a towering mood and because the resulting magical currents threw several experiments he was working on wildly out of true, that Alanna expended considerable energy just to speak to the king through the fire (and shout at him), and then to speak to the queen through a different fire (and condole with her).
“About the queen, Daine, or both?” Numair says, and Onua gives him a very sharp smile, but she doesn’t respond straight away.
“Some of us,” she says slowly, “see Daine… differently. We’ve all met the horse-hearted, but what some people say they see in Daine… it’s more than that.”
“The magnitude of her gifts is extraordinary,” Numair agrees.
Onua pauses like she’s trying to decide whether to share something. Numair drinks some more wine and waits for her to choose.
“Queen Thayet,” Onua says, “the first time she saw Daine, she thought for a second she was Chavi West-wind.”
Numair chokes on the wine and coughs. After a moment, he clarifies: “Like Chavi West-wind?”
“I doubt the Lady of the Western Wind is that pale,” Onua says. “But in some lights -”
“You mean she thought Daine was,” Numair says, and can’t complete the sentence.
“Please keep up.”
Numair puts down his cup and lies down on his back, in the vague hope that the world will cease to spin. “Do you believe that?”
There’s an uncertain pause. “I don’t know,” Onua says finally. “Except when the flames of a campfire flicker across her face sometimes, and I see - the face of a forest. Like the hunter of all hunters is sitting across from me.”
“Trick of the light?” Numair suggests, feeling somewhat hollow. He wants to tell himself it’s only a fancy, a story, but Queen Thayet isn’t prone to fancies. She isn’t Gifted, so she can’t see godhood, which is in any case a notoriously slippery thing to identify unless you have really powerful Sight or are Banjiku, who possibly do have really powerful Sight, Numair isn’t sure. But Thayet never makes something out of nothing, any more than Onua does.
“It could be. It could be.”
“Do you think the queen believes it?”
Onua laughs so hard she spills her wine. “Numair, do you really think she’d tell me that?”
“Fair,” Numair says. He shuts his eyes. “I either need much more or much less of this wine. Onua, are these… hypotheses… going to stop you teaching Daine?”
“No,” Onua says. “And I’m not going to treat her any differently for the whispers. Poor girl, burned out of her house at sixteen. Fifteen, even, if she’s sixteen now and she lived out the winter among the wolves. No family left at all. She needs us.”
“Yes,” Numair agrees, “she does.”
Numair’s mind often runs on tracks that make little sense to him or anyone else, and right now he’s thinking of all the old stories of demigods and their mortal mentors. Surely not: not Daine, with her down-to-earth nature and stubborn attempts at being stolid and immovable, her arguments with her pony, her sheer loyalty. She doesn’t have ambition, she’s not seeking a great destiny; she just wants a good job, a home, and the chance to learn, and Tortall will give her as much of that as she can handle in return for her loyal service. It’s the same bargain Numair made, and thus far it’s a good one.
The null hypothesis, he thinks to himself, must still be that Daine is an extraordinarily powerful young wildmage; a fluke, within the human range of normal, just extending it much farther than anyone ever knew. Numair himself has been called some strange things for his abilities. Daine’s are just so unusual that they lead level-headed people to draw strange conclusions.
“I think we finished the flagon,” Onua says beside him.
Lady Maura of Dunlath is much sweeter than her sister, and also considerably more forthright. Even white with anxiety - Daine explained it by producing a garbled version of the law of attainder, which suggests that Lady Maura knows a good deal about her sister’s treason and the uncomfortable position it’s put her in - she has a sturdy outlook and a solid jaw. She’s only twelve, but she’s also friends with an entire pack of wolves, a large number of ogres, and all the castle cats. Her force of character is not in doubt.
Numair’s not sure how you deal with children of this age. He’s always avoided children, unless he’s doing tricks or juggling, and in that case the children usually come to him. He supposes there are parallels with Lady Maura showing up in the rubble of the mages’ workroom, which he is now picking over, trying to see if there are any bits and pieces that might be dangerous. More dangerous than the bloodrain that’s already been dealt with.
Numair thinks about telling her to go away, but she has her jaw set like a mule and she is at least wearing good thick boots. Numair, by contrast, forgot his gloves.
“Sir Alanna says you forgot your gloves,” Lady Maura says, holding up the aforementioned items.
“Oh, thank you, your ladyship.” Numair takes them from her, puts them on, and continues his work.
Lady Maura glances over her shoulder and turns back to look at him, folding her arms. “Have you found anything?”
“No,” Numair answers, crouching down to get a closer look at a bit of carved stone. If he’s remembering Gissa correctly, she was very interested in the Amaran stone relics from her hometown, and the power some of them contained. If this is one, and she boosted it, it might be powerfully malign.
Numair can’t remember a single thing about Amaran stone relics. He was never particularly good at material thaumology. This could just be a chunk of rock.
“Daine’s gone to turn into an eagle and see if she can see anything,” Lady Maura volunteers.
“I hope she remembers to come back,” Numair says, not having forgotten the incident with the dolphins last year. Quieting down her own heart because she couldn’t hear the sea, Mithros preserve him. “Onua will kill me if I don’t bring her back in one piece.”
“I thought Onua was going to kill you because you let her roam with the wolves by herself,” Lady Maura says, and adds “Daine said.”
Numair straightens up. “Onua has a fine grasp of what I can and can’t do. Preventing Daine from doing anything is not within my powers, or she wouldn’t have confronted your sister like that.” Lady Maura flinches. Numair knows, because Raoul told him, that Lady Maura didn’t ask to see her sister until Alanna not only invited her but swore on the heads of her children that Lady Maura’s case for retaining Dunlath wouldn’t be affected by doing so. The meeting between the sisters was a sour one, according to Raoul. Left unspoken is the fact that it will probably be the last. “Can I help you with something, your ladyship?”
“I was just thinking and I wanted to ask you something about Daine. Because I think you know her best.”
Numair, surrounded by the wreckage of a mages’ room he instructed Daine to blow up by any means necessary, blinks. “I - Well, ask away, Lady Maura.”
What on earth could it be? Where does Daine come from, who are Daine’s family, why can she do what she does? Tortall has a lot of questions about Daine, but few have answers known to anyone living. Sarra Beneksra’s insistence on her daughter’s supposed Gift rings strangely these days, given Daine’s obvious and rapidly developing power, but whatever she knew died with her. A strange choice, to keep a girl as old as Daine so ignorant, but perhaps Sarra wanted to protect her. She seems to have been protective.
Lady Maura doesn’t start with an actual question. “She’s really nice,” Lady Maura begins, “and really kind, and really helpful, she helped me braid my hair, look -” It is a vast improvement on the style the girl was wearing before and it doesn’t make her look like a truculent bulldog: bravo, Daine. “She’s like a big sister, only better -” She could hardly fail to be an improvement on Yolane of Dunlath - “and she only ever gets a bit snippy, even when you’re being really, really annoying and you’re doing it on purpose, and she showed me all these things she can do that anyone can do, if they know how, but she also showed me her Gift.”
“It’s called wild magic,” Numair says, wondering if this is the point, even if it’s not a question.
“She said. But sometimes - she turns her ears into a bat’s ears and things, yes, but even when she’s not - listening - it’s like…” Lady Maura trails off, and then takes a deep breath and starts again. “I’ve been out in the woods all my life and no human moves in them like Daine does. She knows them, even though she’s never been here before, and they know her. All the paths and everything, she just knows. And the wolves, she moves like a wolf, the way she holds her head, sometimes I think her face…”
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” Numair says gently, and Lady Maura scowls and grits her teeth.
“I’m not scared. I like her.”
“Good. Daine has unusual abilities, but she’s as human as you or I.” Numair dusts off his hands and glances round the work he hasn’t completed. He wants to finish it before Alanna shows up. Alanna is perfectly capable of assessing hostile mages’ belongings, she just hates the task, and she tends to blow up anything she finds immediately, which means it can’t be studied or traced.
“Do you like stories?” Lady Maura demands, and barrels on before he’s even opened his mouth. “I like stories. My father used to tell me about Miache of Tyra and the Dominion Jewel. Daine reminds me of Miache.”
“Miache was a thief,” Numair says, weakly but indignantly. He knows the story of Zefrem and Miache, of course; any Tyran child does.
Lady Maura stamps one fairly small foot. Glass crunches under that very sensible boot. “Not because she was a thief. Because she was so much bigger than her story.”
Numair opens his mouth and then closes it again. He wonders if they tell the same story about Miache of Tyra here as they do in the city that’s husband to the many seas. Miache, daughter of Kyprioth, trickster daughter of a trickster father, borne on the seas that her progenitor ruled; her true name never spoken aloud because it was a blessing or a curse. Miache just means little one, in the slang of the day. Surely they don’t know that here? Who would speak Tyran dialect in this corner of Tortall?
“Daine is certainly very impressive,” Numair says finally. “No-one knows what the future has in store for any of us, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had a great deal in store for Daine. Maybe that’s what you sense about her. You’re very perceptive, your ladyship.”
“For my age,” Lady Maura says disconsolately, half-sniping.
“No,” Numair says. “Just perceptive.”
He gets back to his work.
“You look awful,” Jonathan observes, sitting back at his desk and eyeballing Numair. Numair is seated, because Jonathan told him to sit down. Jonathan likes people to feel like they’re at their ease with him, Numair has noticed. Occasionally he reminds Numair of Ozorne, if Ozorne had better taste and a moral compass. But Jonathan never envies Numair’s power, if only because he has unusual powers of his own, and knows that envy never hears more than a fraction of the true story.
“I turned Tristan into a tree,” Numair says, “your Majesty.”
“Very impressive,” Jonathan says sincerely, “but not enough to turn you grey, Numair.”
Numair sits upright with a jerk and pats at his head. Jonathan, who has been greying since he laid hands on the Dominion Jewel as a twenty-three-year-old new-made king, rolls his eyes.
“No, Numair, your skin is grey because you look awful.”
“Oh.” Numair lowers his hands, and stares at them. His mouth is dry: he licks his lips. “I knew Tristan before. In Carthak. When he still called himself Denane.” When I still called myself Draper. “We were friends.”
“And now he’s a tree,” Jonathan says, watching Numair shrewdly, and not without sympathy. “What kind of tree?”
“Do you know, Daine asked me that, and I’m still not absolutely sure?” Numair pulls one of the raw black opals Maura gave him from his pocket, and turns it over and over in his hands, vanishing it up his sleeve, disappearing it from palm to palm, retrieving it from behind an ear. Maura turned over all the polished opals to Alanna, and (with Alanna and Numair’s help) selected the finest six and parcelled them up as a gift for the king: Alanna had received it very gravely. Numair doesn’t think that Jonathan will reclaim Dunlath, or that he will object to the raw opals Maura filled Numair’s hands with, or the moss opals she set in Daine’s hair. No use for your kind of Gift but you do look so pretty, Maura said longingly; when Numair left Daine with Onua, Daine was showing off her new pins and earrings with real delight. Maura’s loyalty is fiercely given, and Jonathan needs subjects both loyal and fierce.
No, Numair isn’t worried about Maura. He blinks, and the trunk of the tree he turned Tristan into is before his eyes, the gnarled and knotted wood that might form a face, if you looked at it the right way. Perhaps he could persuade Maura to cut it down - she hates Tristan, and might take the axe to it herself - but would he ever forgive himself if he did?
“Apple,” he says, and in the silence becomes aware that Jonathan was in the middle of a different sentence entirely. “I think it might have been an apple tree. Your Majesty.”
“Mithros, Mynoss and Shakith,” Jonathan says conversationally. “Alanna let you out of her sight in this state?”
“Alanna was too worried about the twelve-year-old living in fear of an attainder and the seventeen-year-old who just taught herself to shapeshift.” Numair rubs his hands over his eyes and sighed. “I am also worried about the seventeen-year-old who just taught herself to shapeshift. Onua’s not very pleased with me.”
Jonathan lays down his pen and blinks at Numair deliberately for several long moments. Then he takes a deep breath and says philosophically: “So long as she doesn’t get stuck. I’m sure Mistress Chamtong has everything under control. Numair, see Duke Baird and go home to Sorcerer’s Tower, will you? You look awful.”
“So long as you don’t tell Alanna on me, your Majesty,” Numair bargains.
“Worse,” Jonathan says darkly. “If you don’t see his Grace, I’ll tattle on you to George. Shoo, Master Salmalín, get out of my sight.”
Numair does see Duke Baird, who gives him a potion to help him sleep and tears several small rhetorical strips off him about his ability to take care of himself. Numair knows how to sleep just fine. He goes out into the market and haggles his way onto a merchant caravan going south to Port Caynn; he can get passage to Pirate’s Swoop from there.
“What makes you think the caravanmaster will accept that as a fare?” the guard demands, sneering at the single silver noble Numair has offered.
“I’m a greatmage,” Numair says, all his attention on getting the sealing wax off the bottle Duke Baird gave him. “I turned the last person who crossed me into a tree. How easy a journey would you like to have? With me on board, you won’t need to lift a finger.”
He wrenches the cork out of the bottle and empties the contents into the gutter. Duke Baird’s very generous, but sleep is not the problem.
Numair makes it home to Sorcerer’s Tower and he sleeps for thirty hours straight, and he doesn’t feel any better. He eats his regular meals and takes strolls along the beach and doesn’t exert himself, and he still keeps seeing Tristan’s face, his once-friendly smile.
He stays up late one night, stargazing on the balcony, and actually dozes there. He’s not sure what instinct wakes him from deep sleep, or why he responds by swinging his telescope wildly around him, but he very quickly realises - the flutter of metal wings, the bad language, and the sheer stench are giveaways - that he’s been accosted by a familiar Stormwing.
“Your smell could wake the dead,” Numair snaps, and clicks his fingers to fill the air with light. Rikash Moonsword, revolting as ever, squints and bares his teeth in silent hostility.
“I hoped you were dead,” Moonsword snaps.
“Dream on,” Numair says coldly. “Are you too in search of the life arboreal? I’m specialising in trees at the moment. Although I fear you wouldn’t amount to much more than a shrub -”
“Spare me.” Moonsword lands on the railing at the other end of the balcony and preens himself ostentatiously. The bones in his hair clack together. “Tristan Staghorn was no loss.”
Numair swallows around the lump in his throat.
“Humans are so sentimental for such a vicious species,” Moonsword observes. “You often sit out in the darkness, unprotected? Foolish of you.”
“As you see,” Numair says, letting his Gift flare in the kind of show-off he hasn’t really needed to bother with since he was a teenager, “I’m not exactly helpless.”
“Did you come here to get your feathers singed off?” Numair demands. “Or is this a social call?”
“A chance meeting,” Moonsword says, and if that’s true, Numair will eat his black robe. With mustard. “But since you’re here, I do have a question.”
Numair rolls his eyes, and waves his hand, go on.
Moonsword leans precariously forward. “Do you have any idea what you’re dealing with, or are you as stupid as you look?”
“I’m beautiful,” Numair says dryly. “Please clarify.”
“The Sarrasri girl. That’s no ordinary mage.”
“If you’ve never seen a wildmage before, your ignorance is not my concern.” Numair turns his attention to righting his telescope. He didn’t hit Moonsword, but he did wrench the wretched thing out of true when he swung with it.
Moonsword laughs, bitter and mean. “I thought you knew a thing or two.”
“Your opinions are also not my concern.”
“You don’t feel it?” Moonsword sways on his perch. “You don’t sense it in the air? That metallic tang of otherness?”
“You have your blood-sense mixed up with your brain,” Numair says, bored.
“I know what mortal fear tastes like,” Moonsword hisses. “I know mortal rage. I know power when I see it.”
“This is an incredibly tedious conversation.” Numair resets his telescope to his satisfaction. “Get to the point.”
“That interfering girl is someone you should fear,” Moonsword snaps. “She has more in common with me than you. I don’t know how you dare face her. Do you know it? Does she know it?”
“Daine is not a Stormwing. We shared a camp for more than a month. I would have noticed.”
“You are the greatest fool I have ever met and I cannot believe even a cretin like Tristan Staghorn couldn’t kill you.”
“Fuck off,” Numair barks, and hurls a fireball at Moonsword, who leaps hastily into the air.
“I look forward to shitting on your corpse!” he bawls, from a safe distance away, and flies into the night.
Numair goes indoors and falls asleep with his boots on and the window open, and wakes up cold. Over the next few weeks, he starts to feel a bit better. The next time he sees Daine, he can actually look her in the eye.
Thak City is a wreck - or at least some very specific parts of it are. His Imperial Majesty Kaddar Iliniat, the imperial crown already beginning to wear a groove on his forehead, took the executive decision to move the surviving courtiers to the old palace, which Ozorne's grandfather moved out of to build the ostentatious monstrosity the Tortallans have been stuck in for weeks. It's less secure than Ozorne's palace was, and it's not as fancy. But fancy is not a primary concern when fossils the size of small buildings have come to life and rampaged through the imperial pavilions, destroying most of the structure, and security is relative when the gods have turned their faces towards you.
The old palace, unlike the new, has a prominent chapel to the Graveyard Hag. The new replaced this with an enormous new temple in the main religious quarter which Ozorne didn’t visit. Kaddar makes his observances daily at sunset. Numair keeps a low profile and doesn't join in, out of respect for the fact that under Carthaki law Numair Salmalín is dead, but he does burn a stick of incense to the Hag in the evenings. There's a quiet pavilion that no-one else uses because it overlooks the river, and - on the opposite bank - the haunted, rat-infested ruin of the imperial palace. Numair makes his quiet observances there; nothing ostentatious, just the incense, a few flowers. The night Daine lay sleeping, the power of the goddess washing away from her with the changing sea-tide while Alanna watched over her, Numair went out into the city and juggled and played card tricks until he won enough money to feed the hyenas that had hunted Ozorne fresh meat.
Hyenas are the Graveyard Hag's favourite daughters as rats are her favourite sons; the laughter and the darkness, the hidden and unaccounted-for.
Numair pulls a lightstrike from his pocket, and lights a stick of incense in the usual place. The sunset is painting the Zekoi gold and orange, and at dawn tomorrow they'll set sail. Only now, with the soft noises of southern birds in the trees and the liquid movements of crocodiles in the river below, the sunset and the peace, does Numair regret that. Somewhere in his deepest heart are memories of Carthak that are not evil.
He hears movement behind him, and turns his head to see Varice. She dresses more plainly these days, but the challenges of maintaining the emperor's hospitality and grandeur have changed very little. Here there is more dusting and scrubbing to be done, but there are fewer rats.
"You look very peaceful for a dead man," she says.
Numair sighs. "Varice, I -"
"I know, Arram, but I'm still going to hold the fact that I had to attend your execution over your head until the end of recorded time." She joins him at the balustrade. "The slaves told me you were here."
Numair returns no answer. He just looks out at the river, towards the forgiving sea. In a few weeks he'll be home in Corus and he can debrief Jonathan - no doubt chewing his nails in a kingly sort of way - return Daine to Onua and the Riders, and go back to Sorcerer's Tower, back to his work and chess with George and dry northern air that doesn't weigh him down with history or humidity. He's forgotten how to keep his hair under control in this climate and he has no idea how Daine’s keeping her curls in order.
"My congratulations on the simulacrum," Varice says, and adds with bite: "It was very realistic. Do they behead people so often in Tortall that you have studied the phenomenon at length?"
"No. I learned that in Carthak."
Varice closes her mouth with a snap. Her hands, folded on the balustrade, are trembling.
"Did he threaten you?" Numair asks. "After the cake, with the rats?" Ozorne could blame anyone but himself for anything, and he had - has, considering his transformation - no trusted friends. Even so longstanding a vassal as Varice was not safe. She may be safe with Kaddar, but Numair doubts she will have learned to feel it so soon.
There's a telling pause. "Yes. No. No more than usual." Varice looks away, upriver towards the university. "But I didn't come to talk to you about that."
For a moment, Numair's mind is totally blank. And then he thinks, suddenly, of all the offers more and less oblique that Daine has received since she arrived in the Carthaki court. Daine is loyal, and not easily swayed; more than that, after her experiences at Pirate's Swoop, she fears and mistrusts Carthaki motives. Politics is also not her specialty. So while Duke Gareth catalogues hints that Daine would be a welcome ornament to the University, that Kaddar looks on her with great favour, that Ozorne is minded to offer her lands and position if she will only stay and tend his birds, Daine has noticed only the most obvious. She pays the few she does notice very little mind.
Daine likes Kaddar; he admires her. Numair knows a full-blown case of puppy love when he sees one. Furthermore, Daine has been the instrument of the Graveyard Hag, and Kaddar needs to placate his patron goddess. Honouring her vessel might be a good way to do it. Numair doesn't know what Kaddar might offer Daine, or consider it acceptable to offer, but Daine likes and trusts him. She is ill-equipped for the kind of machinations she'll have to deal with, and she would be the ideal soft target to strike at a new emperor -
"I will not bear any part in persuading Daine to remain here," he snaps, before he's entirely completed his train of thought.
Varice rolls her eyes. "No. I know. It's been tried. Lindhall warned me that Sir Alanna all but maimed a few contenders. I'm not a fool, Arram. And I wouldn't wish life here on that girl. She's such a sweetheart."
"As opposed to you," Numair jokes, and for a moment Varice's face lightens and she nearly laughs. But then she turns to solemnity again.
"I'm not trying to steal your student."
"Good," Numair says. He flicks a crumb of something off one broad sleeve. He's stopped wearing his black robe; he doesn't think people need reminding of his status any more. "You saw what happened last time she was separated from her friends, and it's not as if his Imperial Majesty has another palace going spare."
Varice's brow creases. "Don’t joke about that."
"She's not my student, in any case. She's apprenticed to the horsemistress of the Queen's Riders, who's the only wildmage we have who can even remotely match her. Onua put her under my guardianship for the interim because I know the university here." And she's going to kill me when she finds out what we've been up to. "Daine's a sensible girl, but much better in a straight fight than in a mages' duel."
Varice shudders. "I'm not sure even our red robes would be willing to try their luck."
"She can be intimidating," Numair concedes, and Varice lets out a hiccupping noise and laughs until she nearly has hysterics. "Should I fetch you a glass of water?"
Varice shakes her head, but she's still sobbing and laughing, wiping tears from her eyes and all but ruining careful makeup. Numair moves to go anyway, and she grabs his wrist.
"No, it's- no, I'm fine, I promise." Numair stops, and Varice lets go of his wrist and presses her hands into the stone balustrade, breathing slowly and consciously. She closes her eyes and turns her face into the fresh air off the river, the night-time breeze from the sea.
Numair can't think what could possibly have made her panic so. Daine is on an unusual plane as a mage, certainly, but the difference between her and Numair is largely of kind rather than degree. That may change as her powers develop - she's still barely eighteen, another reason not to leave her alone in the Imperial court, and another reason why those functionaries who chose to suggest there might be an opening for Emperor Kaddar's personal companion have not known a moment's good luck since - but at this present moment, Daine shouldn't shock Varice, who has never feared Numair. Numair looks back on himself as a student and is vaguely alarmed by his own poor control and naïveté, but Varice was never afraid of him. Daine is a dutiful young woman, too, and she took Duke Gareth's instructions not to draw attention to herself very seriously; she’s far less dramatic than Numair was. Such minor transgressions as the incident with the marmoset, or the conversation she had with the crocodiles that persuaded them to leave a fallen sailor to swim, hardly merit the name. Varice wasn't even close enough to see the fixed look on her face as she spoke to the crocodiles, or the faint reptilian gleam in her eyes. Such things have never troubled Numair, because they are so quickly replaced by guileless, stubborn, determinedly decent Daine. And as far as Numair knows, all Varice has personally seen of Daine’s power is her relationship with Kitten the dragon, or the flutter of swift jewelled wings and joy and Daine's delighted whistling as Ozorne's birds flocked around her. The pretty aspects of Daine's gift don't frighten people, they entrance them. Numair would have been less surprised if Varice, like some court ladies in Tortall, had tried to train a pet to her hand so that it seemed as if it adored her, the same way all living things were drawn to Daine. The only one who had any success with that was the eldest Cavall girl, and she simply is that good with dogs.
Numair has done much worse than love living creatures and be loved by them in return. He thinks, fleetingly, of an apple tree in Dunlath that bears sour fruit, and of other things, less easy to speak of. He’s tired of Carthak and tired of this conversation, but still a certain indignation simmers. How dare Varice fear Daine, and treat him like a beloved friend? Daine is no less human than he is. She deserves kindness, and to be treated with the compassion and respect she offers everyone around her.
Varice takes a deep breath and scrubs her eyesockets with the palms of her hands.
"You'll ruin your facepaint, unless your eyeliner is better than mine."
"Do you ever," Varice says, muffled, "think of anything but your face?"
"Sometimes my hair. Occasionally my jewellery."
Varice snorts. "Arram, be serious. Daine is a lovely girl. She couldn't be sweeter if she tried, or better-natured, or more willing to assume the best of everyone, and I can see she is very careful of her gifts, and - she doesn't know, does she?"
"Don't act stupid when you aren't, my dear. Daine carried a goddess's power for weeks. And she isn't dead. You know what that means. Everyone knows what that means."
"Her magic protects her," Numair says, "even as Alanna's has protected her, when the Goddess speaks through her. You’re a scholar, Varice, come on."
"It's not the same thing at all," Varice says. Her knuckles whiten on the balustrade. "You know it's not the same thing at all. She brought the dead to life and stripped Ozorne’s palace with them, Arram, and we are not speaking of the recently dead. Lindhall has an archaeopteryx sitting on his shoulder, for Mithros' sake!"
"The Graveyard Hag worked through her. She-"
"I'm not here to argue with you. This isn't a debate. I'm just telling you, Arram. Be careful. Please, be careful."
An unsettled silence falls between them. The sky has turned to purple, and on the balustrade, Numair's stick of incense is burning out.
The Graveyard Hag kept Daine alive, Numair tells himself. A capricious gesture of thanks from a capricious goddess. That's all it is. No mortal could bear even a small part of godhood otherwise.
He escorts Varice back to her rooms. They bump into Daine and Kaddar on the way; Daine, followed by Alanna at her most fluffed up and overprotective, appears to be experimenting with Zek, to see how many hidden ways there are into and out of Kaddar's new quarters. Varice claims to be overcome by tiredness, and Numair takes her back to her rooms and leaves her at her door. She cups his cheek and smiles wearily at him; their kiss is that of old friends, the lover's fire long gone.
"Be careful," she says again.
"I know," he replies.
The next day, shipboard and midmorning, Numair can't find Daine and has to track her down to the bow of the ship, where she's laughing with the wind in her face and a strange fluidity to her stance, even though she’s as human as ever. A quick glance over the rail establishes that she is in fact conversing with a pod of dolphins; so far so normal, for Daine.
She turns to Numair after a minute, and says, as if they have been talking all along: "Ships this size are much better for bow-riding." There's a bubbling, chirping tone to her voice that isn't usually there. "I'm sorry about you and Varice. Couldn't she come with you to Tortall?"
"What?" says Numair, taken off guard, and then: "Oh. No. It's not like that, really." He thinks of Varice, pinching and snapping at him for the sight of his dead false body, and then conversely of Varice, and her tense steady voice, you know what that means.
Neither of those are things he can explain to Daine. He searches for words, and says: "It's hard to part with old friends, sometimes."
Daine covers his hand with hers on the rail, and says warmly: "I'm sorry, either way."
Her kindness is so human, Numair thinks, and then a fragment of a childhood hymn to Oinomi Wavewalker creeps into his head, the compassion that is Divine.
He blames his shiver on the wind.
The Immortals War, which has bubbled under for so long and has now burst out in full flame, reminds Numair of a volcano. They appear to be in the phase of rolling magma, pyroclastic flows, ash clouds and other disasters that Numair recalls only vaguely from lectures he wasn’t paying close attention to. In any case, Numair finds strategy meetings bear a marked resemblance to a group of scholars standing on the edge of a volcano watching it erupt at them: there is little to be done but observe and wait for the large chunks of flaming rock to arrive.
“You look jaundiced,” George remarks, sticking his hands into his pockets.
“I do not,” Numair retorts, but he glances at his reflection in Alanna’s scrying mirror on the table anyway. Tired, somewhat sallow because of that perhaps, but not jaundiced.
“Got your attention, though.” George nods across the room at Alanna, who looks like she wants to throw something out of a window, preferably Glaisdan of Haryse, who is droning unforgivably. Alanna doesn’t enjoy strategy. She’s a straightforward thinker and if she can simply blow a problem up or stab it she will.
Unfortunately, Immortals don’t seem to work like that. They take everything the Mortal Realms have to give, and then some. Fireballs are only energy, which can be reused. Normal invasion routes do not apply. Tried and tested tactics do not apply, unless they do. Rules of warfare certainly do not apply, under any circumstances.
Alanna rolls her eyes and grimaces, then paces round the room to Daine. There’s a cluster of young knights and mages around Daine, only some of whom are listening to Daine predict the appearance of the next Immortals. She has an uncanny gift for it, and when she explains how she does it it makes sense, except that nobody else can replicate it, or repeat her explanation. And yet she is right every time. Numair’s working with her to try to make it make sense, and also to respond to the many incursions; it pulls her away from her beloved Riders and their even more beloved ponies but Daine seems to consider it her duty. She is utterly dedicated to Tortall, and her value is such that Sir Gary once suggested idly that the Dominion Jewel had drawn her to Tortall, as it had drawn Tortall’s queen, Alanna, and Numair himself.
Alanna hip-checks one of the knights who isn’t actually paying attention to Daine’s words out of the way, and elbows a mage who keeps patronising Daine aside so that Alanna can stand closer and ask questions. Daine’s patience and politeness prevents her from cutting them off at the knees as often as they deserve, but Alanna is always ready to overcompensate there. Some things never change.
“Any closer to figuring out that lass’s latest party trick?” George enquires.
Numair shakes his head. It’s getting tense and stuffy in Castle Legann; he heaves open a shutter and door and steps out onto a broad balcony, guarded by archers who look out to sea, and breathes in the clean clear air of the late afternoon. Here at least he feels like he can catch his breath.
George follows him.
“No,” Numair says. “It seems to shift every time. She can’t articulate how she’s doing it, but she is. She tries very hard, but we can’t seem to come up with a set of consistent criteria, and the models we run at the university are always several miles off Daine’s predictions.” He sighs. “Daine’s predictions are more accurate.”
George grunts, and rubs his chin. “Magic,” he says, and they step out of the way as an archer patrols past them.
“I wonder,” Numair says, thinking of all the things he’s half-known and never been sure of, all the things he’s seen in the twilight that have then been wiped away by the sight of Daine in the daylight, strong and sturdy at twenty but still as prone to breaking bones, getting her feet stood on by irritable horses, and barking her shins on the furniture as any human being. Onua, who declared Daine’s apprenticeship as a wildmage complete at nineteen and promptly rehired her as Assistant Horsemistress, has never referred again to the things she confided to Numair after the Siege of Pirate’s Swoop, and Numair has never dared to bring them up. Daine’s just so solid and normal and he quite frequently has to remind her to change into a clean shirt before she goes to talk to generals. Not that she’s unhygienic: merely unafraid of a little muck. Or a lot of muck, depending on the animal.
“What’re you wonderin’ about?”
There’s no-one in immediate earshot and Numair’s fingers are itching. He leans on the rail of the balcony. “George.”
“I know that tone of voice.” George is both weary and resigned. “Spit it out.”
“You have very powerful Sight,” Numair says, and when George says nothing he persists: “You could see, for instance, godhood on someone.”
“I can see the god-touched,” George says, warily.
“Of course you can. I imagine you know your wife when she’s standing in front of you, and I won’t inconvenience you by mentioning your own little issue.” George both talks and doesn’t talk about Kyprioth; you have to be listening very carefully at the right time and be aware of certain context clues. Tyra’s a sea city and Kyprioth is a sea god, so Numair learned those clues growing up, and what he’s learned from George is that Kyprioth is the kind of divine patron you respond to by yelling and throwing small items of furniture. “That’s not what I’m asking you about.”
George turns his back to the sea and looks back into the room through the open shutters. They should for safety be closed, but it is bloody hot. From here, they have a clear sight of Alanna - shorter than everyone else - her violet eyes intent on Daine. Numair doesn’t think it’s only his imagination that makes Daine stand out slightly, somehow drawn in lines that are more real, on a scale that’s too vivid. He thinks, uneasily, of Lady Maura of Dunlath. Because she was so much bigger than her story.
For a second, Daine’s sudden burst of laughter sounds like the wild cry of the sea kites on the wind.
“There are some questions I don’t ask,” George says finally. “There are some prayers I don’t make. But I’m a man who’s learned when to keep to himself.”
“That’s not very comforting, George,” Numair complains.
George claps him on the shoulder. “Lad, it wasn’t meant to be.”
Fighting the chaos monsters is the first time Numair believes - really, truly believes - that he is going to die, and when he hears Daine gasp with shock and sees her go thin and stretched in the world the only thing he can think to do is grab her hand and bend all his will on following. It's difficult, because whatever is grasping Daine wants to rip her from his grip, and Numair isn't having that. Not Daine, with her bright eyes and quick wits, her endless supply of gentleness and magnificent disregard of dirt and exhaustion. Daine is needed and beloved and Tortall can't win this war without her, Numair can't keep fighting without her, he hasn't the skills or the gifts to counter these Immortals without her complementary brilliance -
Numair tumbles through some barrier, Daine's hand still clasped in his, and they roll to a helpless stop on a gentle grassy slope. Daine's language begins with odd's bobs! and gets progressively more military as they fall to a halt, and eventually she sits up, nursing one presumably sprained wrist. She sits up directly on Numair's stomach, driving the last of the air out of his lungs.
"Who in all the Nine bloody Realms are you?" Daine says, which leads Numair to conclude that whatever's casting a shadow over them is not a tree.
"Get off, magelet," he croaks. Daine moves, but doesn't apologise, which is sufficiently unlike her that Numair forces himself upright to face whatever new disaster the day has brought them.
The man is not a man at all. Numair can tell by the antlers, and the strange green trace to his skin that echoes the way the light sometimes falls across Daine's paler face beneath the eaves of the Royal Forest, and also, when he focuses, the absolute blinding divinity of him.
"Ow," Numair says. Daine says nothing at all. Her face is the colour of pearly bone, and her eyes have gone moss-coloured and wild and unknowable, and there's something in her expression that isn't the Daine he knows at all. Around them all the colours are just a bit too bright, the weather just a little too perfect, the air thick with power.
Numair really ought to be frightened.
"I suppose I have no excuse for not realising," he says, shading his eyes. Either he's in shock or he's resigned himself remarkably quickly to having a demigoddess for a colleague. Or both.
"You were not invited," the god says, glaring at him.
"Well, excuse us," Daine snaps. "You've gone and broken my wrist!"
"Oh no," Numair sighs, and then bites his tongue. He didn’t mean to speak aloud; he must be concussed. "Er, Daine -"
"Is that any way to speak to your father?" the god demands, and all hell immediately breaks loose.