“Have I ever been the object of someone’s attention? The pursued rather than the pursuer? Do you know I honestly can’t say. I’m not certain if I’ve ever fit into either roll. Don’t misunderstand me, each looks to have their own charms and innate appeal, but on the whole I would say that participating in such a dance is simply too much effort directed in too unpromising a direction.
What other option is there? Why I should think that would be obvious. In place of the hunter and the hunted, take the stage as look for a partner whose steps are in tune with your own.
You say you don’t dance? Why of course you do. Every breath is a step through time, every beat of your heart carries you to the unknown land of tomorrow.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame convincing his ‘nephew’ Duke Jeren Greendell to make a nemesis of Duchess Marrin Astrologia.
I had to contend with a weird feeling where I wanted to shift into something and flee with all possible speed, and I also (more strongly?) wanted to stay exactly as I was and close the last little bit of distance between the Idrina and I, and then stay like that forever.
“You…I’m why you…but,” I said, expressing the sum total of my eloquence and poise in that moment. I’ve never claimed to be a great speaker, but this went above and beyond my usual lack of verbal skill. My mind felt like it was scrambled while also drowning in an unknowable yearning.
“I don’t expect anything of you,” Idrina said, thankfully without moving away. “And if you don’t want…”
“I do,” I said. Again, a paragon of clarity and suave communication, which I could forgive myself for given how my blood pressure had shot up high enough to burst solid stone.
And then she laughed at me.
It wasn’t a full laugh.
In fact it wasn’t one anyone else would have caught.
But I did, and she knew it.
Not that she acknowledge that in words. Instead, she raised an eyebrow by the width of an eyelash to encourage me to elaborate.
Yes, that was evil.
And of course if I took too long to respond she’d leave.
And then I’d bite her.
And…and that wasn’t how any of it was going to happen. I wasn’t going to turn this into a brawl. I didn’t know what I was doing or how anything was going to go, but I wasn’t going to hide behind a fake conflict, or treat the moment we’d somehow fallen with anything but the seriousness it deserved.
I drew in a breath that I technically didn’t need and tried to slow my spinning thoughts down to where I could get a handle on at least one of them.
That was easier than I thought it would be. There was a question waiting for me the moment I made the room to think of it.
“Why me?” I asked, desperate and terrified to know the answer. “You chose to stay before you knew what I was, but you knew something wasn’t right with me even then. I’m not a particularly good leader, and I don’t have all that much to offer beside a House name that got the last people who carried its name murdered to extinction.”
“And what do you think I have to offer?” Idrina asked. She might have moved a fraction of an inch closer. And shivered.
Or that might have been my overly eager imagination.
The pain I saw lurking in the shadows of her eyes was all too real though and it twisted my guts up just to think of it. She deserved to know how amazing she was. She deserved for someone, for everyone, to tell her that.
“Yourself,” I said. “More than anyone I’ve ever met, well except perhaps for my Grandmother, you are your own person.”
I saw her breath hitch for a moment and she definitely swayed closer.
“And why would you want that?” she asked, her hands rising a heartbeat closer to me.
There were so many choices I had for answering that.
I could have spoken of her bravery, both in the fights she’d refused to run from and the courage she’d shown in breaking away from her family. They were different sorts of fears and took different sorts of personal resolve, and she wasn’t lacking in any of it.
I could have sung the praises of her strength, citing the evidence she’d already demonstrated to me, and the power I knew she was holding back still.
I could even have waxed poetic about her beauty. It wasn’t something I’d consciously let myself acknowledge, but she was radiant. From her features, to her finely honed muscles, to the depths she kept guarded behind her eyes. What nature had graced her with, Idrina had worked to perfect, not at all for the sake of appearance, but sometimes that comes along for free with the other improvements one strives for.
I could have offered any of those as the reason why I wanted her to stay.
But the truth was I didn’t just want her to stay.
I wanted her.
I had all of zero experience with such things – isolated houses in the woods do not contain particularly large courting pools – but if I was going to court anyone, I knew I wanted it to be her.
And that was mind numbingly terrifying.
Again the split sense of needing to run away and leaving being inconceivable crashed together inside me.
There weren’t a lot of things in the world that could truly injure me. Idrina held the magic to do so though. Not with any spell, all it would take was a single word, or even just a silent gesture. All she had to turn was turn away,
I could deny her that power of course. All I had to do was shut myself off. There was a perfectly safe road forward where I shaped my answer around all of the benefits she could bring to House Riverbond and what my House could do for her.
Except she was worth so much more than that.
She was worth the truth.
“Because you excite me. Because everything I’ve seen of you makes me want to see more. Because I think I’ve admired you since the first time we met, and everything you’ve said and done since then has just made that feeling grow,” I said.
If she wanted to destroy me, this was her chance. I was done lying to myself about where my thoughts went every time I so much as glanced at her.
“I…I…” she said without breathing, making me think I had perhaps been a bit more open than she’d been expecting. “I’m going to kiss you now, if you’ll let me?” she asked.
I didn’t let her.
I didn’t want to wait that long.
We were inches apart so I let the gap between us close and drowned myself in the sensation of her.
With no experience to compare to, maybe I wasn’t qualified to say that it was the best kiss ever, but it was definitely one I was never going to forget.
Normally there’s a little bit of effort that goes into keeping my body in the proper form, but as I lost myself in rapture of Idrina’s lips and arms and warmth, I found myself both turning completely to jelly inside while also being absolutely and completely present and embodied in every one of my cells. There was no need for even a hint of magic. This body that was sharing a kiss with her, was the only place and the only form I ever wanted to be in.
If we’d been halfway intelligent, we would have known the standing on a random street corner maybe two minutes away from where a whole pile of cadets were nursing severe beatings was not the safest thing in the world.
We are, in fact, brilliant, so we were well aware of that particular reality, but as far as I knew, neither one of us cared.
I heard the footsteps rushing towards us.
I knew it wasn’t a good sound.
But again, I didn’t care. I was lost.
Now, in hindsight, I may have overreacted to being found.
In my defense though, it was a really really good kiss.
“Idrina Ironbriar, you are…” was as far as the Imperial Guard managed to get.
I knew what was coming next. She knew what was coming next. From how she squeezed me closer it was clear that she didn’t care either.
I think we both really needed that kiss.
Then I heard the sound of magic suppression manacles clank against each other.
The image of the jail cell I’d been chained in until Doxle freed me shot through my mind, except instead of me bound arm, leg, and neck, it was Idrina.
As I said, I’m willing to admit that I may have overreacted to that.
And I feel that it is an important point to consider that no one was brutally murdered, or even permanently injured. Yes, I am considering that if a limb can be reattached it is not a permanent injury. Also any internal organ which is returned to the inside of the body before someone bleeds out is barely an injury at all.
Really, the whole mess was on them.
I mean metaphorically, in addition to literally.
If they’d approached us in a manner befitting a bunch of House Guards approaching the Head of another House and her Chief Military advisor (or whatever Idrina wanted to be), then the problem we’d have had would have merely been one of sharp words being exchanged.
It also would have lasted long enough to leave a solid set of memories rather than the red blur of rage clouded images I managed to retain from the whole thing.
The one which sticks out the most clearly to me is, obviously, how it all ended.
I don’t know how I wound up hanging from the spire of the building we’d been near. I also don’t precisely remember when I grabbed the leader of Imperial Guards, or why exactly I dragged him to the top of the building.
I do however recall screaming at him “WHICH HOUSE TRESPASSES AGAINST ME! WHICH ONE!” more than a few times and at an admittedly unreasonable volume.
Not to blame the nearly-departed, but if he’d just answered the question, I suspect he wouldn’t have needed quite the degree of magical restoration as he wound up requiring.
“They were from Grayfall,” Idrina said, appearing beside me standing on a spear she’d embedded into the wall.
“Oh,” I said, changing back to my human form.
Okay, yes, I did in fact drop the leader of the Imperial Guard patrol at that point.
No, it wasn’t a short fall.
Yes, he could have died, but the point is that he didn’t.
“We should probably go,” Idrina said.
“That seems wise. Do we have any special cleanup to do?”
“No. There’s another squad inbound. They’ll have a healer with them.”
“Good. We should probably find Jalaren to make our visit here official,” I said, remembering that we did need to establish a solid cover story for why we’d come to a school we were expelled from and left a trail of patients in need of critical care in our wake.
“So. That was…” Idrina started to say and came up short.
“Intense?” I suggested.
“Yeah. I didn’t know…”
“I didn’t either.”
“Is it going to cause any problems?”
“They’re worth it if so. A thousand times worth it.”
“Just to be clear, we are talking about the kiss?”
“Yes. Yes! I…” Had about a thousand things I wanted to say and they all wanted to be said at once.
Idrina answered my lack of eloquence with a nod.
We had a lot to talk about.
But we also had a lot left to do.
More than ever I was committed to the plan we’d come up with.
There was no chance that I was going to have anything like a life, normal or otherwise, until the issue with the Great Houses was resolved, and I wanted a life now that I had someone to share it with.