11/4--Fixed some of the more egregious errors. I don't know how so many got in!
So, this epilogue is very, very long for an epilogue. But, I thought... if you're reading this, presumably you like reading... so presumably you would like reading more! If I am wrong, then I can only advise not reading it, I suppose!
Also I kind of lied about the no sex scene thing. But I didn't mean to! It just happened. So it was a second-degree lie at least.
Living in Adrian's childhood home had changed things between all of us. The gamekeeper's hut, bigger than any house I'd ever seen, had privacy in a way our little cabin with its leagues of snow never did. The warm backyard included a garden that went on for a dozen stone-throws and even a barn for the horses, if we had had horses. Just looking out my bedroom window, I could see a hundred different hiding spots.
And there were no chances for freezing off toes and fingers. What Sebali assured me was a cool autumn was the warmest summer I'd ever known, and I had spent every moment I could manage outdoors with whoever would come with me.
Most of the time it was Sasha, as eager to lay in the sun as I was, always ready to debate whatever idea I'd learned at the scholar's institute that day or hunt down whatever bear or snake the townspeople wanted taken care of.
Sometimes it was Pit, happy to wander with me until he found every plant in the garden that could give a person rashes. He liked staying indoors now, where Mother was teaching him how to paint.
Sometimes it was Lee. We'd prowl the gardens, and make up names for the flowers we didn't know. It had been great, until that one memorable night we spent together in the soft grasses of the woods.
It had been sweet and pleasant, and nothing like I'd thought. We had both quietly agreed afterwards that we wouldn't again. I loved her truly, and she whispered it to me each morning before breakfast, but I had left my dreams of children together back in the grass, where we realized that our bodies held no real passion for each other. Maybe they would someday. I could always make new dreams when that happened.
But now she was studying with some of the Crowned Jewel's best dressmakers, and didn't usually have time to wander the woods.
And, of course, there was Jade. A little jolt of pain went through my chest just thinking about him. The few times he had managed to get away from his job, he'd been exhausted and irritable. His smiles were replaced with snippy comments, always just short of biting.
The outdoors seemed to calm him just as much as it did me, and if he stayed outside with me long enough his tense look would unravel, and there would be my friend again. If only it could happen as often as I'd like. The sad look in his eyes dragged claws thought my heart, just like he'd said it would.
Even in the hidden pockets of the garden, he didn't kiss me or take my hand any more. Sometimes it looked like he'd start to, and then change his mind. At first it didn't bother me, because realizing I missed kissing had given me a good deal to consider, and I liked having time to figure things out. And I had discovered that if I put my hand over his, or threw an arm around his shoulders, he'd hang on just as tightly, burying his head against my shoulder and smiling.
When that happened, the claws hurt a little less.
So there was always that, and if sometimes I thought it would be nicer to kiss him, I could always find something to distract me. I'd find out soon enough what was wrong, and in the meantime let him work out what was troubling him. We had a whole year. There was time—I could bear it.
But when Sebali asked us to attend a ball at the Crowned Jewel, I agreed right away. The idea grabbed my mind and refused to let go: if I could see Jade at his work, maybe I'd learn what troubled him. When Mother gave me a strange look and Lee set to giggling, though, I realized I might have agreed to more than a bit of spying.
Preparations for the ball was very educational for me: what you wore to balls was apparently important. I'd never had to coordinate the color of my boots to my gloves in the woods before. And city-dwellers must have very tiny fingers, because they made buttons half the size of my thumbnail and expected them to go through little loops even smaller.
"Is everything all right?" Lee asked, trying to twist around in half as if that would help her view her own back. I grinned and grabbed her shoulders, keeping her still.
"Just a few more. We'll only be here another ten years at most, I promise."
She laughed and let me return to my struggling, peering into a brass plate leaning against the wall and tugging at a few escaped curls. "I hope this won't be... well, Jade will be glad to see us, at least."
"If it's a disaster, I fully expect you to save us, as you always do." I replied, making her giggle. We might not have discovered true passion, but just as I had found with Jade, we could now sense each other a thousand times more clearly than before. Because I could feel she needed it, I kissed the bared nape of her neck and added, "You look lovely enough to rescue anyone."
She did. I had learned enough about clothing in the city, seeing nobles in their carriages and sweeping through Lee's shop, to know hers was perfect—none of the glitter and eye-smarting embroidery I'd seen before, just simple gray wool with little pink rosettes around the collar and the swooping sleeves, a touch of my mother's. From what I could make of Lee's excited explanations, Sebali had designed the shape of the dress.
The princess seemed thrilled to cover my Merrilee with gifts and attention. Given the subject, I was more than happy to let her.
"Westar!" Sasha called, bounding in, bright eyed and red cheeked. She was wearing the orange-red color Lee assured me was called coral, bound into a long tunic and loose pants. Sebali had told her that no one else was wearing anything like it this season, and Sasha said that was the way she wanted it, and it was more comfortable besides. She had given into a gold belt and ivory earring drops, and I thought she looked like the best sister a fellow could ask for. "Are you—gads, you aren't even dressed! Lee, you look great, of course. But Wes, I'm supposed to tell you that Adrian's here, and I think he expects you to be ready when you come out."
The prince had visited every few days in the month since our arrival, first to make sure we were settled in, and then that we knew which game to keep and which to cull. Later he came with no more excuses except that he was interested in knowing what I thought about his latest philosophical interest. It was a little embarrassing for me to realize that if Sebali doted upon Lee, Adrian seemed to have done the same with me. But all of us in the family, from Pit to my parents, had fallen a bit in love with the prince, sweet and gentle as he was. It was no longer a mystery to any of us as to why Sebali had.
Since Jade would be working, Adrian had volunteered to accompany us. Given that he liked fuss and crowds as much as I did, I thought this was very kind of him.
The thought of letting him down spurred me into action. Panicking, I started to scramble out of my shirt, throwing my common sense to the winds as the girls giggled. "Help Lee with her buttons," I ordered, trying to remember where the package Sebali had sent for me had gotten to.
I fetched the linen bundle from under a chair and yanked at the strings holding it shut. My musings about what kind of trap the thin rope would make ended when I saw what was inside. I pulled the robe out and could do little more than stare, all my haste fleeing in one big breath. "This is—not very warm," I managed.
"Oh-h," Lee breathed, leaning in close as Sasha squinted over her shoulder, "this trim had to be made by Callendi weavers, and look at the clasps! I'd heard the new shipment came in but I hardly believed I would see it so soon."
I rolled my eyes to the ceiling, but Sasha was too busy smirking to join me at teasing Lee. "Did Jade send it?" she asked, grabbing at the package. "Are those pants see-through?"
"If Jade sent it, it would be green," I said, glaring at her through the material of the robe. The cloth was a woodsy brown, stamped in silver and gold patterns of vines and deer around the cuffs and down the front, with little jade stones sewn in for each eye and leaf. Even I could tell it was beautiful, and a waste on me.
It was also so thin that it would be less embarrassing to go naked altogether. At least then it'd be over and done with.
By the time I pulled it on, dealt with its dozens of little clasps, and hauled on the cream pants beneath it, both girls were giggling helplessly. I was just glad my parents weren't here to see this. I'd never hear the end of it, and that's supposing Mother even let me out of the house.
Since Pit was not of age to come to the party, and likely to dissolve into endless grief that we were all headed off to something he couldn't follow, Sebali had tactfully arranged for the three of them to visit the royal stables that evening. I think my parents were relieved, as Dad's dancing could clear a room, and Mother insisted balls were a youth's game anyway.
There was nothing to be done with my hair, and I had refused any number of bangles or necklaces, because anything we borrowed from anyone here seemed to end up as gifts. "If Lee is buttoned," I said, "let's get this over with."
Our appearances startled a grin out of Adrian when we finally joined him in the front parlor. He set down the little carving of a frog he'd been staring at and said, "I hadn't realized that I would be escorting the three loveliest people attending the ball."
"Shush," Sasha said, beaming, "or your wife won't let you hear the end of it."
"No doubt," he drawled, smiling. We'd been surprised to hear earlier that the princess was not going to be there, and a little nervous. Although we had all seen the Jewel before, we hadn't been back since we delivered Jade home after his weeks away, and there sure hadn't been having a ball at the time. Sebali's wit and presence of mind would have made all of us feel better.
"Please, let us depart if you are ready," he said, "because I've got a friend waiting in the carriage, and I'm afraid that he is not the patient sort."
Since Adrian hardly ever talked about anyone who wasn't one of the few Jewel workers we had met, I couldn't guess who he meant. Lee and Sasha and me exchanged glances, and we rushed out after him. But when we got to the carriage, I had to quickly hide a groan. The tall, strikingly handsome man inside, his grin bright against fire-red curls, wasn't a stranger to me. Adrian introduced him as Lord Sebastian, a royal adviser and diplomat recently returned from abroad.
Sebastian winked at me, then launched immediately into a wildly colorful tale of his imaginary travels, which completely absorbed Lee and Sasha. I was just glad that my sweetheart and sister weren't going to stumble upon him naked. There were better ways to meet people.
The girls took to him well, and were only distracted from his stories when we reached the Crowned Jewel at last. It was taller than the highest pine I'd ever seen, and five times that tree laid upon its side, carved of a dark red marble and trimmed in gold. The lights shining from hundreds of windows—each fine glass, not the hides I was used to—lit the night, and glowing, bobbing spheres marked the edge of the carriage way. When we visited the first time, it had been daylight, and the building had been imposing and grand as the Stag Himself. But at night, you could well believe that numen worked behind its doors.
For visitors that had appointments with the brothel, there was a private door away tucked away behind some gardens; for a ball, everyone used the front doors, so that the whole town could see who they were and, based on Lee's gasps, what they were wearing. The thought of everyone staring at me in my ridiculous outfit made me wish dearly I was back in the woods.
Sasha nudged my side and murmured, "Not exactly like Firefas, is it?"
I shook my head and watched a lady with a dress so long, she needed someone to walk behind her and hold it up, glide through the door. "Not quite."
Lord Sebastian leaned out and murmured something to a woman who had been helping guests out of their carriages, and the next thing I knew we were being led to the more private side gate. I shot a grin at him and he tilted his head towards Adrian. "His highness doesn't like fuss," he said blandly.
"His highness loves fuss," Adrian smiled. He started to make one of his familiar motions, sliding his arms around Sebastian from behind, and then obviously checked himself, straightening the man's jacket instead. I don't think anyone else had noticed. I felt very sorry for them, all of a sudden.
I wondered what it would be like to have to give up everything, even being a man, for the person I loved. I look at Lee, and wondered if I would ever have to.
Sebastian didn't seem to mind it, but when the girls stopped to admire a brilliantly blooming rosebush planted along the path, he reached out and squeezed Adrian's hand.
He let us into the building, and then through a maze of walled gardens and staircases until even my sense of direction was twisted in two. The courtyards had paths of stone, and the staircases landings of marble with beautifully painted murals. I had seen some of the Jewel's art in our first visit, when Jade had introduced us to a wild variety of incredibly beautiful people and more riches than I'd ever see again. Some looked like pieces from the Gladberry museum, images of kings and queens draped in pearls and gold, while others showed things I had not known anyone would paint.
"Guests come here if they run out of ideas," the lord told me with a grin, and I felt my cheeks grow hot. I had forgotten, really, that Sebastian used to be one of the Crowned Jewel's most famous courtesans. The thin cloth I was wearing really should have reminded me earlier. Something this embarrassing had to have been chosen by the princess.
"Ugh," said Sasha, staring with a fascinated glaze. "Really? Upside-down? What if your arms get tired?"
"I believe Jade is expecting our arrival sooner rather than later," Adrian said, lightly pushing us from the murals. He was blushing, and I had to duck my head to hide a smile. It said a lot about the kind of person Sebastian was, that someone so shy and easily embarrassed was willing to marry him. It wasn't just the courtesan who had given up a lot for love.
Sebastian led us up a long staircase, stopped by a closed door at the top, and turned around to look at us. "Just a friendly warning," he said, his voice light as his smile. "Everyone finds these parties overwhelming, the first few times. I want you three to try your hardest not to worry a thing about behaving a certain way, or what anyone is going to think of you. There will be some muttering, no doubt, but even though I've only known you this short ride," I had to cough suddenly, "I have just as little doubt that you will be able to eke out a good time if you have the strength to overcome this."
We all nodded, Sasha eagerly, me less so. But if Jade had survived being dragged to temple to sing along with a townful of people he didn't know, I could be dragged to dance with a hundred judgmental nobles.
The first thing that struck me when Sebastian opened the door wasn't the noise, although there were more people talking than I'd ever hoped to hear, or the light, from more flickering candles than were in my entire village. It was the wonderful, wonderful sight of food, arrayed on a dozen tables right beside us.
Jade had been right about the cook's preferred style—there were blackberry pies shaped like fishes and fruit bright as cardinal feathers carved into the shape of palaces and a hundred other strange things. I didn't care what it looked like, so long as I got to stand by and smell everything.
"Huh," Sasha said, leaning over my shoulder to look at a plate of cheeses. "Look, that one is blue. What do you think it tastes like?"
"Why don't you find out?" Sebastian asked, grinning as he reached around her to pluck a piece off the tray and hold it in front of her mouth. Sasha gave him a skeptical look, then took it from his hand and popped it into her mouth herself.
"Well?" I asked.
"Um," she replied, dragging the tray closer. "I don't know. I'd better have another one to figure this out for sure."
Lee grabbed my arm, her eyes alight. "Wes," she whispered, "that woman over there is wearing a dress I worked on!"
As I peered through the crowd, it wasn't hard to see that Sebali hadn't been trying to humiliate or poke fun at me when she'd picked out my outfit. The robe wasn't as fancy as some, or as plain as others, just a nice in-between; I was a stoat whose coat was changing with the seasons, not the peacock I'd feared. It made me feel a little better about coming.
I smiled. "It would look better on you," I replied.
"You always say that," she sighed, but she didn't seem too upset.
It turned out that a ball didn't involve much dancing, although there were a good many people doing so, in a space cleared in front of musicians playing instruments I didn't even have names for. Instead, balls seemed to be about the doorway—discussing who had entered and what they were wearing.
It was a good thing I had a lot of practice with feeling out of place. I suspected I'd get some more tonight.
I wasn't the only one, though. When I glanced at Adrian, he smiled crookedly and said, "When in doubt, do what Sebastian tells you. It's always worked for me."
The so-called ambassador was now halfway across the room, laughing about something as he bowed over a lady's gloved hand and teased the man beside her.
"Not what he does, of course," the prince added hastily. "That will assuredly end in ruin."
"Right," I replied.
I tried to imagine what it would be like if I acted like Sebastian for just one night. I'd pick some beautiful lady out of the dozens around us, saunter over and say something incredibly smart. Maybe I'd ask for a dance, and find that I suddenly knew all of the steps, and someday I'd be able to tell the girls back home and they'd all marvel that I'd met a queen in disguise...
"Oh, my. Westar, is it not?"
I turned to see a woman at my side, her smile dazzling under her ivory mask. All of the Crowned Jewel staff wearing white tonight, the women dressed in sleeveless, tightly-wrapped dresses with gold clasps at their collars, and the men with the same material tied only around their waists, like they were living sculptures. After having lived so long with people who lived under many layers of fur and wool, it was difficult to keep from staring at any amount of bare skin. Looking at this incredibly beautiful lady, I suddenly couldn't remember her name, or anyone's name at all, or most importantly how I was supposed to greet her. "
Yes," I managed. "Hi. Er."
"Diamond," she reminded gently, smiling again as she touched a hand to her chest. Everyone here seemed to be named after flowers or stones. Jade had said there was some meaning behind who was who, but it had gone over my head. "I do not think we have had the pleasure of meeting yet. I just had to see the one who is said to have ensnared our brightest member's mind away."
I bit back the first words that rose up, before I remembered what Sebastian said. Taking a breath and throwing caution to the wind again, I said, "I'm very sorry, but I think that's his business."
Rather than being offended, the woman threw back her head and laughed. "Yes, that seems about right. Please do not take me wrong. I am not trying to nose my way through your affairs—well, at least not so much—but you must understand that your life is a strange thought to us, living in the woods under leagues of snow. Perhaps as strange as it may be for you to imagine how we spend our days here." She spread her hand out, gesturing towards the crowd, the music, and the food alike. A good number of the people around us were staring as openly at Diamond as I had been, and I thought it really might be stranger for me than her. "We are all in your debt for your kind rescue—and also for the endless supply of gossip, I'm afraid."
"Gossip?" I repeated, clinging to her least embarrassing statement.
She smiled with a trace of wickedness and tapped a finger against her cheek. "Let us just say... some people's coin stashes would appreciate it if you stayed from his bed at least another month or so." My brows bent in confusion, which she dismissed with an airy wave of her hand. "Also we wish to hear the story of how he did not bathe for three weeks. Even for the Jewel, he can be a peacock."
"More an auk," I said, both because I had thought so earlier and I didn't want to be the only one confused. But the lady only laughed again.
"True enough," she said. Then she lowered her voice and leaned close to me. Even her skin smelled nice, making me think of grass and moonlight. "Forgive my bluntness, but I have been asked by the staff to inquire if any of your group is seeking companionship for the night. Free of charge, of course. There are external revenue sources for these sorts of things."
I had to touch a hand to my forehead to keep my eyes from bugging out. "Er," I managed, "no. Uh, I don't think so. I mean I don't really know."
"Very well," she replied, her lips twitching. "Should any of you change your mind, very nearly everyone here has expressed interest. You all look lovely, by the way. What is the name of the girl in the gray?... Well, never mind that. I really must be getting back to work. Enjoy your evening!" She blew me a kiss, twinkled her fingers, and swept off into the crowd.
"Who was that?" Sasha asked, licking some kind of berry tart off of her fingers as she came over. "And what's got you in a twist?"
"Apparently we're supposed to sleep with any of the courtesans," I said faintly. "At least, that's who I think she meant."
"Huh." My sister swallowed and pursed her lips. "Neat."
I turned to give her a look. "Are you considering it?"
She snorted. "Nah. That'd be really awkward."
"Yeah." I knew what Jade would have said, that we both had less passion together than his littlest finger. It was what Lee and I had found in the grass, that pure affection might not be enough. But the idea laying with someone without passion or affection... I couldn't imagine it.
"Still," Sasha mused, "it's not bad to think about. Look at that guy." She nodded to a fair-headed courtesan across the room, leaned artfully against a marble pillar and smiling coolly at the server offering him a drink. "And they can all do magic, right? Hey, maybe that's how they manage to do the upside-down dealy. Maybe they can just magic everything so it's not awkward."
"Must be," I replied, not really wanting to think about it.
Instead, I scanned the crowd for Jade. There might have been more guests here than lived in three villages, but that didn't mean there were so many I couldn't spot someone with bright green hair.
When I found him, leaning against a table and raising a thin glass to his lips, the sight near took my breath away.
In the Gladberry museum, I had stumbled into a wrong room on accident, where paintings waiting to be hung were all leaned in a pile against the wall. They had looked ordinary, and sad, out of place and unloved. But seeing a painting hung grandly, with candles flickering around it and everyone staring, hushed, was something else altogether.
So it was with Jade. I'd seen him tramping through the woods in our spare furs and thought he was lovely, seen him in our kitchen with a silk shirt and thought he looked strange. But I didn't need to be any great eye of beauty to see that he really did belong here, surrounded by these fine people, wrapped in fine cloths, drinking from a cup worth my whole village.
Among all of the gold-set jewels of the kingdom, he was like a white orchid, so much more alive and precious for it.
And to think, he wanted to spend his time with me. I couldn't help my grin, foolish as I might have looked. It struck me that I looked nice, and he looked nicer times all the stars in five skies, and maybe these ball things weren't so bad after all if he was going to attend them wearing nothing more than a prettily draped sheet.
Jade hadn't spotted me yet, so I decided I would go over to make my hellos. This was easier said than done with all of the tables and people milling around. Halfway there, someone snaked an arm around my waist: Sebastian, I found when I turn around to gawk at him.
Though in a much different way from Jade, this close, Sebastian was so pretty it was almost painful to look at him. It was very clear to me why some people might come to the Jewel just to look at people from a safe distance and never dream of inviting them to bed. It would be like courting an angel. What if you had to pass gas, or something terribly awkward?
"A word of advice," the man murmured. "At the Jewel, you let the courtesan come to you. I wouldn't fear for a moment that Jade does not know you've arrived, but removing oneself from the presence of nobles can be a time-consuming business. Mind you," he added, his wondrous bright eyes starting to dance, "if I kissed you, he'd be here in an instant. He'd be denying a jealous streak up and down as he did so, but I think it would work."
"Ah, no thank you," I replied politely, trying to wrap my head around the idea of kissing a supposedly strange man with so many people around. "I don't think he'd like that very much."
Sebastian sighed grandly and flicked his hand towards the air. "Oh, but you miss the point. Besides, he has been an ass of late."
His tone was light, but he wore a rare frown. "Do you think he regrets dragging us along with him?" I asked. I tried to make it sound as a joke, but it was a tricky thing, remembering Jade's tired eyes and near-perpetual scowl.
"Mm." His face softened at once. "Not a chance. I do believe that he's seeing trouble where none exists, though. He always has had his slips of confidence."
"Trouble?" I asked, wondering if I could move out of his grasp without causing offense. The links of Sebastian's bracelet were stabbing my back through the thin robe.
"There are some things of which I should not speak," he murmured, "but one is too obnoxious to be politely omitted. He's been distinctly cold to my prince lately."
"How could anyone be mad at Adrian?" I couldn't imagine it.
"That's 'your highness' to you, peasant," he said in a suddenly lighter tone, tweaking my nose. I barely held back a sneeze as his sleeve ticked me. "Come now, aren't you supposed to be the brilliant scholar? Three guesses."
"No one said I was brilliant," I protested. "And his highness is not a university course. I don't have any guesses." When Sebastian raised a brow, reminding me too much of Jade to make me lose face in front of him, I tried, "He doesn't like that A—his highness has more time to visit than he does?"
"Not quite," he said. Something had caught his eye across the dance floor, and he patted my arm quickly and said, "If you think on it, I'm sure it will come to you. I was joking about Adrian's title, by the way; he'd simply die if he heard you say that. Now, I must beg my leave. Remember what I told you about courtesans and don't try any of the wine unless you want to upset the staff's betting pool—it's been doctored with an aphrodisiac." He drifted away then, leaving me to glare after his direction. I hated it when I didn't know the answer to something.
Jade was still at his table and, despite what Sebastian had said, didn't seem likely to leave soon. I did a quick glance-around, found an open bench, and sat down. It put me in a good spot to watch the crowd, but that didn't much catch my interest. Like a cat who had found a flickering sun-spot, all I wanted to watch was Jade.
He was talking to a girl of about my age, copper skinned with dark curls bound back in a green ribbon. I wondered if the ribbon was what had caught my friend's eye. She was very pretty, but so was every lady here. She also smiled a lot, and every now and again Jade would smile back. I tried to remember if happiness was something he had said he looked for in women, but all I could remember now was that he liked loyalty. What did loyalty mean to a courtesan? I wish I had asked him.
He reached out to brush his fingers across her cheek, making the girl smile. She lifted an olive from a bowl on the table and held it to his lips, and his tongue brushed against her fingers when he took it. Was that what Sebastian had meant my sister to do? Why?
The room seemed very warm. Part of my mind was saying this was jealousy, but no, that had been Sebali falling off a horse into Jade's arms. This was nothing like that. All I could think of was Jade in the woods, his eyes aglow as he kissed me, and that did not make sense.
The girl rose to her feet, and Jade let her take his hand as she drew him, laughing, towards the same staircase we had walked up. My palms were wet, and as I wiped them absently against the robe I thought about how much I wanted it to be me holding that hand. Or maybe his other, free hand; I wasn't picky. The urge to touch anything was stronger than anything I'd felt in my life.
Then it all came together in a rush, and I realized what it was: desire. Incredibly embarrassing, because it surely was a horrible thing to feel desire about some other two people. Maybe there was something wrong with me. Maybe the reason I'd been without desire all my life just because I hadn't seen other people at it, but that was wrong, because I'd spied with the village kids on enough lovers before.
Maybe if I got to keep watching Jade and his guest, I'd figure it out. It wasn't impossible, actually. Some of the rooms had been set up to let just such a thing happen—that is, watch one of the courtesans go about their business with someone else. It was a very, very strange thought, but it was turning out that desire was just as strange, because it also sounded like a good idea.
I wanted to follow Jade, and I wanted to know about sex, and I didn't think there would be a better chance for me to find out. And no one had to know, really. I looked around the room and took a deep breath. It wasn't like I wanted to stay around and compare everyone's dresses, after all, and I was sure some of that roasted fowl would be left when I returned. I could just take a quick peek.
I trailed a distance behind, so lost in thought I didn't notice Sasha until she poked my side with her finger. "Did we lose you?" she asked.
"Huh?" I jumped. "Oh, nope. I'm going to go see if they have a, a, whatever they have instead of a pit." It was as good an excuse as any for wandering around. I just hoped the manager I had heard so many stories about didn't execute trespassers. "If I'm not back by sunrise, assume I've been taken by pirates."
"I'll rescue you, no fear," my sister replied, clasping a hand to my shoulder. To my surprise, she left it there a moment, her gaze drifting away in a rare shyness. "Hey, Wes, do you think I could ask someone to dance?"
"Sure," I said. Jade and the girl had disappeared down the staircase, and I didn't think I'd find them again if I wasn't quick. I kissed her cheek and said, "Just make sure their outfit is nicely tailored, or Lee will never let you hear the end of it."
Sasha giggled, seeming more at ease. I patted her hand, trying to take strength as well as give it, and ducked through the door we had entered.
There was one bad result of the Crowned Jewel being run by magic—lamps that had lit for Sebastian, or been lit by him, I never could tell, did not light for me. I had to edge my way down the stairs in the dark, grateful that my night vision was good.
I found a door by feel and pushed it open. There was a courtyard on the other side, filled with moonlight, and I studied it, trying to figure out if this was one we had passed on the way in. I decided it wasn't. Each of the Jewel courtyards were surrounded by dozens of doors that went to the business rooms or who-knows what else, and decorated with sculptures or fountains or any other number of things. Unfortunately, there was no way for me to tell which doorway, if any of these, Jade had gone through. Flower-covered archways led to still more courtyards, and if I was lucky, I'd be able to find the pair still walking through one instead.
This courtyard had a fountain with a statue of a prancing horse, and trees with broad, flat leaves that shone silver in the moonlight. I tried my best to memorize it, picked an archway at random, and went through.
It was soon obvious that this was a terrible way to travel through the building. The third courtyard I reached made me think I had gone back to the beginning, until I noticed that this horse statue was prancing with its other legs lifted.
At least the night was warm, and wandering around lost in the dark made my desire cool some. It also cleared my mind enough to make me realize Sebastian's riddle after all. Adrian had once taken away Jade's dearest friend, and he thought it might be happening again. How silly, for a thousand reasons. If this kingdom didn't want their prince to marry a man, they certainly weren't going to be happy if he tried to marry two of them. Jade should know better than that.
Somewhere around the tenth one, I found myself on a pathway suspended above an earlier courtyard filled with decorative rocks, which was doubly impressive because I hadn't gone up a slope or climbed any stairs. When I finished crossing the bridge I was back on level ground again, this time in front of a horse whose head I reckoned was a little lower than the other's had been. Wherever Jade and the girl had gone, I wasn't going to find them—I was going to count myself lucky if I could even find the courtyard I started at. Maybe someday they'd find my body laying on the back of a horse turned slightly to the north-west.
I didn't know how many courtyards I had passed when a gentle chiming sound made me freeze and whip around. A gap in a previously solid wall had swung open, darkness on the other side. It was a magical brothel, so I didn't doubt that what I sought was waiting there for me. Even so, my feet rooted to the ground like an ivy. What had seemed so necessary a moment ago seemed incredibly stupid now.
I was afraid, and I didn't know why. It probably was desire, though. If seeing Jade touch someone made me do something as stupid as run through a brothel at night with no plan other than to stop my palms from itching, what could it make me do if, the Stag forbid, I was the one doing the touching?
I sent a brief prayer to the Emperor that I was doing the right thing. At the very least, if saying hello to a courtesan at work was a terrible social slip, then I couldn't imagine what bursting into a room was. Then I took a shaky breath and stepped in.
The gap led to a bench that faced some kind of a material even more see-through than my pants, and the most amazing room I'd ever seen. I didn't even have words for all of the kinds of furniture and wall hangings and luxuries in there, all lit with the same sourceless glow of the Crowned Jewelt. Even the things I could name—pillows, rugs, blankets—most of them seemed to be made of silk or satin, unbelievable uses for such materials, and the rugs were thrown on the floor where anyone could step on them. Lee would have married me in an instant, passion or no, for the curtains on one wall, sewn with a thousand tiny pearls.
And all of this was nothing compared to the people on the pillows. The girl was naked now, all but for the remains of her skirts twisted around her legs, and I hoped fervently she wouldn't be offended about someone else seeing her this way. She seemed pleased enough that Jade did.
Her rowan hair was fanned out across the pillows now, draped over Jade's arms. He was running his fingers down her bare sides, and he was kissing her lovely lips... I had to all but throw myself down onto the bench, my hands clenched in my lap.
I'd heard lust was a tightness in the chest or nethers. No one had ever said that it could burn in the lips, as my lips burned when they kissed. I'd never imagining that the desire to kiss could cause a pain sharp as fire.
No one had said it could make muscles ache, as mine ached when the girl dug her fingers into Jade's arms. Nor fingers ache, as they did when my friend cupped her breasts in his hands, light as butterfly wings. What was the point of the way my hands cried out to bear that weight, feel a texture as choosy as that particular skin? What good did it do? But the desire to run into the room, or do anything that might let me put even the smallest amount of these feelings out of their misery, was beyond belief.
The few times I'd seen people having sex before, it had been a quick affair, a few kisses before the whole back-and-forth part. Jade and the girl seemed in no hurry to get to anything. There were kisses all over, not just on the mouth, and licking, which I thought was odd until the ache in my mouth convinced me that only my mind thought so. She leaned up to bite Jade on the collarbone—No, I wanted to tell her, he doesn't like pain!—but he only laughed in a breathy way that made my own breath catch in my throat.
He kissed his way down her stomach, then spread her thighs apart with his hands. I couldn't tell what he was doing from the angle they were at, but I could make some guesses based on which parts of me ached. The girl seemed pleased enough about it. Maybe I'd ask him to tell me about it later, so that I'd know. I wanted to know everything now.
Then, to my surprise, the girl sat up and began putting on her clothes, and Jade rearranged the sash around his waist and helped her with her jewelery. It all seemed to have happened so fast, although when I glanced at the ceiling—Sebali had told us how to tell the time by the shades of the flowers painted there—more than an hour had passed. I was disappointed that they had never gotten to the back-and-forth part. I had been wondering if that would be different from what I had known, too, my and Lee's clumsy fumbling in the grass.
She left, and I felt a cool breeze as the gap in the wall swung open again. I stared at it, wondering how I was supposed to go back to the ball when all of my skin was burning with desire. I had to touch someone or, oh god, kiss them, or I was going to die.
Something made me glance back into the room. Jade had not left, like I thought, but was laying back against the pillows and staring upwards at the ceiling like it had some answer he hunted for. His expression—I swallowed and rose to my feet. I'd seen that look far too many times now, the sad set of his mouth, the tired, half-hooded eyes. Desirous or not, I couldn't leave him alone when he was sad.
The door was unlocked now, and after a moment's fumbling while I figured out work the latch, I stepped inside his room. I took a moment to tug the door behind me, then looked up--and froze. Jade was not just searching the ceiling; he also had an arm slid down the front of his wrap. He stopped mid-stroke when he saw me, staring my way with a look of startled horror. "West?" he croaked.
I tried to hide the fact I was blushing by scratching my nose, figuring that a courtesan would think it was stupid to be embarrassed by facts of nature. "Sorry. I should have knocked," I said. "Um. Oh, yeah, it is me." I winced and shut up.
"Right." He hadn't moved a muscle, except for faint shifts of breathing, and even that was debatable.
Figuring he might need a second, I studied the rest of the room, the parts I couldn't see from the side room. I couldn't tell at all where I had been sitting; there was just blank wall and a gold-framed painting there, and a large carving of a wolf by someone who'd obviously never seen a wolf before. It was such a strange place, filled with things that were wonderful and useless all at once.
"You look beautiful," Jade murmured, and suddenly the room didn't seem very interesting.
"Thanks," I said, too startled to say more until I dragged my manners back. "So do you. I mean, handsome. Er. But you're always handsome, of course, if that's even the right word for it. Tonight, maybe ethereal." One of the scholars was very fond of that word, but I didn't think I had understood it until now. "Like... like nothing else," I finished softly.
We stared in silence for another minute. I swallowed, wondering if there had ever been a time so tense between us, even that first night in our kitchen. If neither of us said anything, then we'd probably stay like this the entire night until a rescue team lead by Sasha and Sebastian yanked us into life again. But I could also feel that if one of us said the wrong thing, this could burst into so many painful pieces.
Jade made a soft noise and held out his nearest hand to me, a silent offer I could take or leave. I'd done the same to him in our attic, inviting him into my family, and he'd turned me down.
Now he invited me to his bed. As I walked forward and bound my fingers with his, I wasn't sure that I was making the right decision. Well, my mind wasn't sure. My body thought it was a fine idea.
It was strange to see him in a mask that showed him off well; the pale silk made his skin that much more striking, his eyes and hair as vibrant as the rising sun. I didn't even think about asking him to remove it; I didn't mind.
He met me halfway, sitting up as I crouched down onto the pillows. He also untangled his other hand and shoved it behind his back, as if I wouldn't notice.
I bit back a smile, and leaned forward and kissed him, lightly, hoping that I could. It was such a relief to finally do so again after these painful weeks, and maybe all this meant he still wanted me—but that was something to ask later. I could smell the perfume the girl had been wearing, and wasn't that a strange thought. Maybe there would be someone after me who could tell my scent on him.
Drawing on what I had learned in the woods I pressed in a little harder, and wondered if I could stay long enough so that each part of him would have some trace I was here.
"You might put me in mind of a nighttime fancy," Jade murmured against my mouth, trailing his fingers down the side of my face, "were it untrue that stubble could be felt in such."
"Why would I be a dream?" I asked, dizzy against the joy in each touch. What idiot could have forgotten the happiness in kissing?
"You, dressed as a courtier, coming to me in one of our rooms?" He laughed softly. "A passing fancy at best."
"Right," I grinned. "And if I had a beard, would that be even more real?" His hand had slid to cradle my neck, then pressed against my back. I could feel his touch through the thin material of my robe, which suddenly made much more sense now.
"Like water in the ocean." he murmured. "Don't take such water in the cup of your heart, though. The curve of your usual tides are enough for me. West." I ached when he pulled his head away. "For what—speaking very plainly—did you come here? I can't..." It was strange to see him at a loss for words, making a face and looking anywhere but me. "I need you to say."
I might someday become educated, but I'd never be really good at speaking. "Um, well. I sort of followed you, because I wanted to say hello..." Well, no, that was a lie and this wasn't the place for it. "But really because I just..." Any true words seemed awkward and clumsy. "I'd like to sleep with you," I blurted out. "I mean, in a bonk sort of way—sorry, I forgot you don't like that word—I mean, sex. Only if you want to, of course. We could just kiss if you don't. Or sleep, o—or play cards, or anything. Can I stay? Please say I can. Um."
Jade was snorting quietly at my awkwardness, but his gaze was so warm and amused I couldn't mind. "I could be like Sebastian," he murmured, drawing me close enough to hear his heartbeat, "and swear off sex until wedding bells ring."
I could only imagine my expression. "Wedding?"
His head dropped to my shoulder as he laughed, whole body quivering with it. "Come here," he ordered, and suddenly he was down against the pillows again and I was braced on top of him, a hand on either side. I froze, staring, afraid that I would crush him somehow if I moved, even as he twined his arms around my waist to pull me down. Eventually I found that I could lie atop him lightly, and he didn't seem to mind or be harmed by it.
And what a feeling that was. Through my thin clothing, and his near nakedness, I could feel all of him: bits I'd never even thought of as important, like the bottom of his ribs or his knees, suddenly seemed so precious and there in a way I'd never noticed before. I wasn't stupid, I knew that it would feel nice when our hips came together—he was so hard it made me shiver—but I hadn't expected everything else. I kissed what skin my mouth was beside, his cheek, his nose, because I had to or go insane from desire.
"As your voice has filled my head so often," he murmured, "like the sweetest canned plums of autumn, we have time." His fingers were running through my hair, and I wasn't sure I ever wanted him to stop. He ran his tongue along the edge of my ear, somewhere I never would have thought of and certainly never imagined to feel so nice. "Even if you are a dream, I want to make every piece of you sing an endless litany of passion," he murmured into it.
"Okay," I said helplessly. "But first, would it be okay if I touched you? Anywhere. Because otherwise... well, I just really want to."
"Peaches and cream for me," he said. His tone was light, but the purr in his voice had gone too quickly. I wasn't sure what I had done wrong. Wanting to show him that it wasn't that I didn't want him or some such nonsense, I spread my hands across his chest.
I wished that I knew more words to describe how he felt. I knew a thousand details of winter, frost, and snow, but nothing for the heat of his skin; I knew about wool and old fur, but not this soft thing that fluttered with each breath.
But I did know all about following paths, so that's what I did, trailing my fingers down the natural curves of his chest, down the center, across the slight marks of ribs, around the landscape of muscles. I traveled the slopes of his sides, the flat plane of his stomach, climbed back up again to the ridges of his shoulders.
He watched my hands as they moved, though whether as a trespasser or welcome guest, I couldn't tell. He'd take in a sharp breath now and then, and I thought he might be holding in laughter at ticklish spots. Then I ran a finger up the hill of his nipple and he made a low note in his throat that stopped me.
It make my hips jump, and I could feel my heart briefly roar. I had just discovered something better than making Jade laugh.
"Do you like that?" I asked, doing it again to see what he'd do in response. He breathed in his response and nodded, his eyes dropping shut. I would have thought that only girls would like their chests touched, but only because I'd never given it any thought at all. Shyly, I dropped my head and kissed the spot. He didn't seem to have feelings about that either way, but when, after a moment's thought, I licked it instead, he hissed and dug his fingers into my shoulders.
It struck me that in the woods, Jade had made lots of noises when we were kissing—noises that seemed more exciting in memory than I thought at the time—but he was quiet now, and had been with the girl, too. Wondering if maybe he thought I didn't want him to talk, I did it again and said, "What does that feel like?"
"What?" Jade rasped, opening his eyes a crack.
"This," I said, and remembering how he had seemed to like it earlier, gently bit down.
"Fuck." I wasn't sure if he had any other thoughts on it, until he murmured, "Waterfalls. You fall through the spray, but instead of rocks below it's a sweet wine that flows in to fill every piece of you."
"Huh." Humming happily, I kissed my way down the paths I had tread. It made a difference—he made different sounds than he had under my hands, or moved in ways he hadn't before—and I wished I had noticed where he'd kissed the girl, or licked, or touched. I wanted to learn it all someday, what was best. School seemed a waste, that they didn't teach me this thing that was so important.
"How still must I stay?" he asked, gasping as I planted a kiss above his belly button--I'd already found that he didn't like it licked.
My head jerked up with my heart. "Not at all!" I wondered where he'd gotten confused, we who could usually understand each other so well.
He immediately took my face in his long, dark fingers and kissed me, his whole body curling around mine from below. His legs had slid through the folds of his wrap and rose, bare, at my sides.
I didn't know that sex could be about feeling safe and protected, and I hoped that Jade felt I too was protecting him. I was. I would.
"This is not my area of experience," he muttered. From the plainness of speech, this bothered him. "Promise me, kid—promise me that even just once more you'll let me do this, some other night, and I swear I will not rest until the every depth is mined for any hidden gems of information. Please."
My heart was beating so quickly, and with so much joy I had to wind my fingers in his hair to stop their shaking. "Okay," I agreed helplessly. "What should I do now?"
His fingers flew down the clasps of my robe. "What you most desire."
He had me stripped in a shorter time than I would have believed. Even though little had changed, really, because Jade's wrap was still tied, being naked with him was different than anything else. My skin felt alive in a way I'd never noticed before, and every bit of it wanted to touch him at once. "How do I tell?" I asked as I tried to do just that, wrapping my arms around him and burying my head against his neck.
Jade gave a tiny, startled laugh that I didn't think I'd heard from him before. "How many hours I've let slide down the slopes of time these weeks," he mused, not answering. "It was all I could do to keep from touching you, thinking you wanted your peace."
I stopped to stare at him, amazed. "Why'd you think that?"
"Exact reasons fell out of my mind."
It took me too long to realize he was still, and seemed to be waiting, carefully, for something to happen. Perhaps those who live with desire all the time can ignore it. But no; now that I was paying attention—like the middle of the hunt, every sense primed for the exact sound of a deer's step—I could feel his parts twitching against my stomach and the little trembles in every breath he took. I thought it was just more likely his self control was that good.
"Jade," I muttered, "this might not be your area of experience, but I really have no idea."
A smile tugged his lips. "That, some little bird may have chirped. Roll over on your side."
I did so, already missing the feel of him. There seemed no good place to put my arm as he turned to face me. But it did seem more equal, balanced. And when he kissed me, and pressed his whole front up against mine, I decided this was just fine.
"You still have your wrap on," I pointed out when I could bring myself to move my mouth away.
"Well," he muttered, bending his head to kiss a trail down my neck that made me shiver again, "my oceans of will have been battered by three beautiful storms already tonight, and your sun evaporates what remains. A barrier is—necessary."
I wasn't entirely sure what he meant. Deciding that he might still feel touch through the cloth like I had with my robes, I ran my hands down the back of his thighs and just about burst with joy when he groaned and pressed even more tightly against me. I'd done something right.
Some touches Jade didn't seem to tire of, and he reacted the same each time, sometimes a quick whine in his voice if I moved quickly, or a breathy gasp if slow.
When I tried running my fingers in a long circle, brushing them between his legs, Jade grabbed my arm and ground out, "Stop, please, I beg of you."
"Sorry," I gasped, moving my hands away quickly and trying not to be overwhelmed by the worry and embarrassment that flooded me. "I—sorry, I thought you liked it."
He tilted his head to look at me again, his eyes wide and dark, his breath coming in soft gasps. "Like the stars love the sky," he murmured. "But this is going to be very quick if you continue. You have no idea how much I've wanted you, how long I've had to fight this. It's—difficult." Since I had lasted all of ten second against desire, this filled me with admiration.
Still, it was puzzling. "I thought you liked women," I said, nuzzling against his hair. Not to mention, I thought I liked women too. And I still did, I decided, but there were some things not worth considering. "I'm not, uh, very womanly."
"Your regard is worth many mountains above the valleys of appearance," he muttered against my neck. "You l... you said you loved me, and this," he brushed his fingers across my chest, "is the only language I speak with clarity enough to reply."
Jade hadn't mentioned love one way or another since that morning in the woods, and I was surprised to hear it now. It wasn't like I heard the word a lot, since it was so obvious in my family that none of us said it much. I didn't mind that Jade hadn't said anything about it, not when he would drag himself to our house, near fall asleep in his rice, then take a break from his sniping comments to smile at me just as bright as a bluebird's wings.
But maybe he didn't know that. "Nah," I said, reaching up to enclose his fingers in mine. "You say things just fine."
He made a soft growling noise and glared at my collarbone, his face flushed. "I just want to, okay?"
"Okay," I agreed easily. "Me, too."
"Yes, but." Jade slid one hand into my hair, making me hum in contentment. "You hand out trust like bruised apples during fall harvest, and reap golden fields of forgiveness into any beggar's hands. I choreograph the steps of the social dance, spotlighting the stars of my choice. But you come here as if you wore the courtesan's mask, and I... know what it is to be chosen, now. Do you have any idea what you've given me?"
He had been lulling me into a sleepy snare with his words; when his other hand closed around my parts, the trap snapped and I just about jumped a handspan into the air. It was like using a tongue in kissing, terribly strange at first—certainly different from my own hand—and then, as the seconds changed color overhead, not such a bad thing after all.
"Uh," I stammered, "am I supposed to be doing anything?"
Jade had been watching my face carefully, and when I relaxed he smiled a little. "Let me think," he purred. He traced a trail with his thumb in a way that tickled and then made me go very still. It was amazing, all these things I didn't know about my own body. "No?"
He pressed down, and I gasped.
I'd like to think that if someone was watching us from the other room—not that I wanted that at all!—they probably would have been very bored by this. Certainly there wasn't any showy movements or grand sweeping kisses like Jade had done with the girl earlier. It was just his hand, moving up and down in slow, gentle strokes, melting the bones in my body. I couldn't have wanted more.
But best of all, he was watching me with the same wild joy he had when we'd first kissed. At first I found his close regard almost embarrassing, but it quickly became the focus of my world. I realized something important, after I had to stifle a whimper of pleasure, and he immediately bit down on his lip. He—world class courtesan—liked knowing that I was happy.
We were probably the same in that. I'd far rather have been the one touching him in this way, making him feel this good. But if this was a way I could achieve it...
To test out my theory, I purposely did not quiet a cry when his thumb flicked against that spot at the tip that felt so good. Jade shivered, his breath starting to come in soft pants. Yes, I though, this, and groaned when his hand sped up. It wasn't something I was forcing or faking, just no longer holding back.
I reached out for him helplessly, needing to touch something. I grabbed the first part of him I could, the back of his sensitive legs. Jade shouted, arching his back, and suddenly my chest was wet. My mind started fizzing with such bubbling joy that I had to turn my head into the pillow and grin for a bit.
I'd made him come just by being happy. He did love me, after all.
"That was," I smiled, but was cut off by Jade jerking suddenly to his feet.
He crossed the room in three quick strides and, in front of my shocked gaze, tore off his mask and threw it to the ground. He replaced it with his hands, burying his face in them. "Don't. Say. Anything," he bit out.
I shut my open mouth and tried to figure out what I was supposed to do, if I couldn't speak. But there was Sebastian's advice from earlier, so I swallowed, and finished, "Wonderful."
He edged his hands aside enough to glare over his shoulder; his gaze was furious but also wet, and my heart plummeted in my chest, heavy with claw marks. "I should have never," he snapped, then hesitated and seemed to change his mind. "I shouldn't," he said with a little less force, "I didn't..." His hands dropped as he turned his head away again, nudging the mask on the ground half-heartedly with a bare foot. "I should have none of this," he muttered.
"Oh," I replied, hesitantly. My fingers, searching for something to do, were smoothing the discarded fabric of the robe I'd been wearing, so I said, "If you stay over there, we're both going to get cold."
"I won't be reduced to simple body heat," he growled, sounding genuinely angry. I knew him well enough now to know that he was probably just lashing out at whatever opportunity came near, so I swallowed down an automatic apology.
"Okay," I whispered, "I won't then."
He'd wrapped his arms loosely around himself, and the contrast between his muscular back and that helpless gesture made my heart ache. But I didn't have a clue what to do or say. I watched him and wondered what I always did in these kinds of situations: where was Lee when I needed her most?
Hopefully not in the other room.
Still, she'd be able to know in an instant what I had done wrong, or Jade, and just the right thing to say to put it right. Or she'd send Sasha to tell me what it was, my sister who'd asked me if she could ask someone to dance as if I'd say no. Even Pit would be able to show off one of his little toys and say it demanded Jade to be happy again. Dad might cook something good enough to win him over, and Mother, well, she'd probably make us some packs and send us out in the woods again.
But I was just me. A hundred foolish comments ran through my mind, each worse than the last, until I stumbled across something that made sense. "I love you," I said. "Whatever is wrong, it will be okay. I'm sorry you're upset."
"Whatever is wrong," Jade muttered, running a hand through his hair, but without the bitterness of before. He turned around at last, every line of his body and plane of his face uneasy. "I... may have been foolish," he said, shifting his weight from foot to foot. "Maybe the world would not bend in uncertain limbo if I were to soft-shoe to the starting position?"
I patted the pillows beside me in reply, and after a moment he hesitantly sat down at my side again. Without his mask, he was so lovely that it almost hurt to look at him, but I kept my eyes on his face. "Please don't be too angry," I said, "but I really don't know what happened there."
Jade snorted and glared at an opposite wall, his shoulders starting to edge upwards. "No self-respecting courtesan would ever float their own butterfly dreams before someone else's," he muttered.
"Oh," I blinked. "Why wouldn't that be their, er, dream? The customer's, I mean, or whatever. Don't they like seeing all of you be happy?"
His gaze flicked back to me again. "No," he said. "Not especially."
Even with my limited experience, I knew that I couldn't be alone in liking that, especially with another person to prove it sitting in the same room. On the other hand, I wasn't planning to purchase an hour with a Crowned Jewel courtesan. Unless I had already, of course. Only by biting down on my tongue hard enough to see stars and draw an odd look from Jade stopped me from asking about that—even I could smell dangerous territory that obvious.
"I thought it was good," I said when I could speak safely again. "I mean, not the part where it upsets you. The rest. I... nothing is better than seeing you happy."
"Happy is an odd word for it," he murmured, "but I think some dim star of comprehension has risen." He studied the pattern embroidered on one of the pillows for a long while, then said quietly, "We could try again, if you'd like."
"I'd like," I said, starting to grin, "but only when you're feeling better."
"What?" His voice rose, and I hand to nudge aside his wrist as he reached between my legs again. "It's no cruise through an ocean storm to steer this way."
No amount of desire would make me agree. "Later," I promised. "After you've danced with me."
He kissed me, sweet as peaches on the branch, beautiful as deer on the shores of a sunset lake.
I never could recall more than flashes of the rest of that night, after Jade replaced his mask and I got dressed again. The candles flickering on every table on the roof. Sebastian navigating me through a table of delicacies, demonstrating how to crack open a prawn's shell. Taking Lee's hand on the dance floor and trying desperately to follow the steps, two left, one right, and spin. Sasha, laughing and teasing a group of young pouting lords.
And Jade always at my back or side or front, grinning with the bright aura of energy that had fled these weeks. He joked with his coworkers, or bantered with their guests, but never far from where I was dragged by the others. More than a few of the dancers approached him, eyes and gestures darting to the stairs, but he would smile and shake his head. Though I should have felt terrifically embarrassed, no doubt I was grinning as much as he did.
I saw him once approach Adrian and say a few words; the prince had smiled and kissed his forehead like he had in the woods, forgiveness granted if it were even needed.
Sebastian spoiled the moment by kissing me, too, but Sasha beat him off before Jade got the chance.
And then the sky was turning from midnight black to smoky morning gray, and Jade had taken my hand and myself to some little green-painted room. Sometimes I felt terrible for letting the details be flooded away with emotion, an avalanche of love and heat muffling every word and image, but almost all of that morning was lost to me.
I remembered the rough scratch of wall at my back, and the way my wrists had gotten caught by his fingers, and the soft, perfect noise he'd made when he pressed his bared chest to mine.
The rest—I didn't know. I would think sometimes I had remembered a detail, only to realize later it was some other time, some different day. There were other times and other days, some good, some bad. There were still days when he would visit, so exhausted he'd fall asleep at the dinner table, or break down weeping in the private circle of my arms about some fault he let others see. There were days when I'd proved myself an ignorant fool at school and only his teasing could make me smile again.
I couldn't tell you which of those days had been good, or which bad.
Someday, probably, he would say that he loved me. But I liked it more than all the stars in five skies when he'd crack open his exhausted eyes, glance at me, and smile with his whole heart. Clear as any winding metaphor, that was a language that I could understand.
A/n: I had a heck of a time finishing this story, because all I could think was, "What will I write now?!" On that front, the winners of the contest are Qui and Zethoa, who should expect to be contacted within a few days about details, so I can get more things to write!
This story has a picture! Since FP doesn't allow external links, search for "Jade and Westar" on Deviantart.