It's early. I groan and roll over, reaching for Sactaren, but my hand slides across an empty sheet. A cold, empty sheet. Blinking into the soft golden glow of an oil lamp, I raise my head and glance around the room. Sactaren is standing at his chest of drawers, stuffing clothes into a knapsack. He's dressed in dark gray suede trousers and a loose, sky blue tunic, his shoulder-length white hair pulled back and pinned with a pair of black combs. Oh, Maele, is he beautiful.
"Going somewhere?" I ask, pushing myself into a sitting position. His pale eyes dart over to me and then return to his task.
"I didn't mean to wake you," he says. "Go back to sleep. I have a mage's conference to attend."
"Again?" I ask, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
"Yeah, again," Sactaren says, sounding tired. "The Council hosts a conference every month."
"Could - could I come with you?" I ask. A mage's conference sounds like the last place I want to be, but he and I need to talk. He shakes his head.
"You're not an acknowledge mage," he says, "and we're not allowed to bring guests this time. Maybe next month."
"Next month," I say quietly. He shoulders his bag and steps around the end of the bed, one hand absently catching at the smooth, ash bedpost.
"Besides, somebody needs to run the shop. What would the villagers do if they couldn't relieve their hangovers, especially this morning?" He chuckles and heads for the door. "I'll be home late tomorrow, maybe even after midnight, so don't wait up for me." I throw back the covers and slip out of bed, glancing around the floor for my pants. "You don't have to get up," Sactaren says, pausing in the doorway, his eyes moving over my body as I pull my pants up. The front of my trousers is stiff with semen, so I don't bother buttoning them. I won't wear them any longer than I have to.
"I wanted to walk you out," I say.
"You don't have to," he says, "I know the way." I hesitate, biting the inside of my lip, and he gives me a crooked grin. I force a smile and shake my head. I hate this.
"I'd like to," I say, crossing the room. "Besides, I ought to make sure Khas hasn't invited every kholdra on the mountain into my room."
"Which reminds me," Sactaren says, holding the door as I follow him out into the cluttered workshop, "I was wondering if you would be willing to teach me the kholdra language. It occurred to me a few days ago that it might prove useful to be able to communicate with them."
"Of course," I say, taking a step toward the stairs. He heads toward the other side of the room, however, and leans down to peer through the glass tank housing the Cheyn Viper. "How is it?" All I can see is sand, a few rocks, a stick, and a shallow dish of water.
"Settling in nicely, I believe. She's buried herself in the sand."
"She?" He glances at me and nods.
"I think so. Females tend to be larger than males, and this is one of the largest Cheyns I've ever heard of." He straightens up and adjusts the strap of his bag. "She'll be fine until I get back; you don't even need to touch her cage." I nod. I wasn't planning on it. "Feed the draklings and the fish, schedule any appointments for next week, if you don't know something ask--"
"I know, Naeven," I say softly, "I remember." He walks toward me and sighs.
"I hate these damn things," he says. "Be glad you don't have attend yet."
"Yet?" I repeat as I lead the way down the spiral staircase.
"You do want to be acknowledged by the Council, don't you?"
"I ... I suppose so," I say. "I haven't really thought about it." I reach the store room and wait for him to step out of the stairwell. "What would I have to do? Is there a test or something?" His boot heels click on the stone floor as we head down the hall.
"Yeah, but the test isn't that hard. It's the paperwork that takes forever. You have to record your areas of specialization, your color, your element, your totem, the type of wood you chose for your esael --"
"What's a totem?" I ask. I know the rest, except maybe my areas. I think we decided animals and healing were two of them.
"A totem," Sactaren says as we step out into the courtyard, "is an animal representation of your spirit and personality. A lot of people gain wisdom and strength from their totems."
"And how do I find out what my totem is?" I ask, wrapping my arms around my body. It's a little chilly, with the stars glittering high above and the wind whipping up from off the sea.
"You call it," he says, "and then you feed power into it until it becomes visible. Feed enough power into it, and it will become physical, as well." He stops outside the dark stable door and glances at me. "That's how mages duel; our totems battle so we don't risk injuring each other."
"If you don't get hurt in duels," I say as I reach up and brush my fingertips down his cheek, "then how did you get so many scars?" My fingers trail along his jaw, playing over the soft, rough texture of his skin. His eyebrows lift a fraction, and then he turns away from me.
"Not in duels. Qito, bakrani Raem," he calls into the stable.
"Raem?" I ask, tucking my hands in my pockets and trying to pretend like it didn't hurt to have him pull away from me. "Not Lucifer?" He shakes his head.
"Tonight, I want to attract attention. Appearance is everything when dealing with mages, and a unicorn stallion is more impressive than a vampire." I jump as an angry squeal rips through the dark courtyard. Lucifer. Sactaren shakes his head. "He takes everything so personally," he says with a crooked grin. "Actually, I think the only thing that trumps a unicorn is a dragon, but it's almost impossible to convince a dragon to let you ride it. Very proud creatures."
"What about Jak'zae?" I ask. "Isn't a shival--"
"How do you know about Jak'zae?" Sactaren asks, taking half a step toward me. I stiffen, reflex only, but I think he notices. He gets that little line between his eyebrows that isn't quite a frown, but means the same thing. "I gave Qito specific instructions not to let anyone in the stables." That would explain why he keeps throwing me out.
"I'm sorry," I say. "I didn't know I wasn't allowed in there." Sactaren sighs.
"It's fine, it's just ... No one can ever find out about Jak'zae, okay? Keeping a shival is a crime punishable by death. If anyone knew, she and I would both be killed." I swallow hard.
"I had no idea. I won't tell anyone, I promise." He shakes his head.
"I'm not worried about it. I kept meaning to show you around myself, but I never found the time ... " He trails off, his eyes distant as he stares off toward the dark stable door. A gust of wind blows through the courtyard and I shiver in the silence, hesitant to call him back from wherever he's gone. Suddenly, his attention snaps back to me. "I know, I'll take you to Kray Glen when I get back. And the red beach of Daron. You won't find sand like that anywhere; darker than blood - grains of garnet and onyx as far as you can see ..." He trails off as I raise one hand and brush a wayward wisp of white hair out of his face. He can't tell me that there's nothing more to this than lust.
I shouldn't have hesitated, I shouldn't have thought about it. I should have just said, Yes, I love you, and then later worried about whether it was true or not. Then he wouldn't have had to lie, he wouldn't have had to pretend like lust and physical pleasure was all he wanted. I can see it in his eyes, in the slivers of crimson that dance through that blue sky, I can see the longing in them, longing for more than sex.
I lean forward and kiss him, torn between tenderness and passion, between love and lust. I want him to know what he means to me, but I cannot say it in a kiss. The gentle flame is lost in the blazing inferno. Breathless, I pull back, my hand cupping his cheek as I stare down at the flagstones between our feet. Please, Maele, help me find the words to tell him how I feel.
"Naeven," I say, raising my eyes to meet his, "I--"
"There's blue in your eyes," he says, cutting me off. His hand touches my chin and I tilt my head back slightly. "I don't think I've ever seen it before." He looks at me out of the corner of his eye. "Something's different about you, something's changed ... You've accepted who you are, you've accepted that you're a mage." I look back down at the stones.
"I ... I don't think so. I accepted that I was a mage the afternoon I got my esael. I think it's because--" Raem comes dancing out of the stable, saddled and bridled, his long, black horn gleaming in the starlight. Sactaren turns away from me and catches hold of the unicorn's reins.
"Qito, ritik ek Lark di hadhiko," he says, and Qito leans through the stable door, his eyes reflecting milky green in the faint light. He looks at me, then nods and disappears. "I told him you were allowed in the stable now," Sactaren says. "Maybe you can talk to Lucifer, find out where he's from, how old he is, who created him--" Another angry squeal echoes around us, making Raem snort and shy away from the stable door. Sactaren shrugs. "Maybe not, but anything you can find out would be helpful. I hate not knowing anything about him."
"I - I do know one thing," I say. I hesitate, waiting for Lucifer to protest, but he remains quiet, so I continue. "He's sad. I've never felt anything like it; a hollow ache, like a wound that won't heal ..."
"Some wounds never do," Sactaren says quietly. He clears his throat. "You're going to have to watch those eyes when you're around other people," he says as he swings up into the saddle. "Any intense emotion will make them flare up." He looks down at me for a moment, his expression thoughtful. And troubled. I take a bracing breath.
"Naeven, I need to talk to you about last night, about what was said, and what wasn't." I can barely see him by the starlight, but I think he closes his eyes. After a moment, he pulls Raem's head around, turning him toward the gate.
"I have to go, Lark," he says. "The Council doesn't like it if you're late. We'll talk later, okay?" I open my mouth, hesitate. How hard would it be to just say I love you, right here, right now? "Lark, don't," he says, and I close my mouth with a snap. "If you're about to say any one of the hundred things I think you might be about to say, please don't. I can't afford to be distracted right now." Silently, I nod. He nudges Raem in the ribs and they head across the courtyard, the clatter of Raem's hooves echoing from the stone walls. "We'll talk when I get back, I promise," he calls back as they slip out into the night and disappear. I listen to the fading hoof beats until the darkness holds nothing but silence, and then I head back into the castle. I'm cold.