1 Coloine (continued)
When he was calmer, he said, without releasing me, “Tell me you love me.” It sounded more like a plea than an order, which made my heart ache for him again.
“I love you,” I said. “And not because you told me to say it. I love you.”
“Tell me I am not useless and a failure.”
“You could never be useless, and you are not a failure.”
“Tell me I still have something to offer this world.”
“Vorantor’s an ass. You may have to save the world over his objections.”
He actually laughed. I had never heard him laugh before. I don’t know if anyone ever has. “Denril hates me,” he said. “I wanted to believe otherwise, but the summoning kathana nearly failed because he tried to take too great a role, thinking it would make him look important in the God-Empress’s eyes, hoping it would lessen me. I had to fight him to keep it under control. And then I made him look like a fool, inventing that shield kathana as easily as breathing, something he knows he could never do.”
“Inventing a kathana on the fly, or breathing?” I said. “Because I know he used to be your friend, but I personally would be just as happy if he forgot how to breathe.”
He laughed again. He’s laughed a lot since that moment, enough that I’ll have to stop emphasizing it. His laugh is deep, and unconstrained, and maybe that’s how he releases emotion and he’d forgotten how, under the stress of the last two years. I love his laugh. I love everything about him. And he loves me.
He loosened his grip enough that we could look at each other. “I cannot wish Denril dead, though I do wish I did not have to walk back into that chamber today and submit to his patronizing scorn,” he said. “I have been too proud, Sesskia, and now I will have to pay for it.”
“You still understand magic better than he does,” I said, “and everyone knows it, and this will pass, and you’ll make Vorantor’s kathana work better than he ever could. And we’ll save the world.”
“Part of it, anyway,” he said, and the bitterness was back in his voice, and I couldn’t think what to say to make it go away. So I took his face in my hands and I kissed him.
I’d never kissed a man before, just my sisters, and my Dad when he was alive, and Cederic’s lips were warm and shaped themselves to mine, and it was the most wonderful feeling I’d ever had. We kissed some more, long, slow kisses that made me forget that I didn’t know what I was doing. Then they were harder, more urgent, and then we were trying to take each other’s clothes off without breaking that delicious, heart-pounding contact, and that’s a lot more difficult than I would have imagined, supposing I’d ever imagined anything like it.
Finally, Cederic removed my breast band, and we stood before each other naked, and I had a moment of intense, self-conscious embarrassment, because my breasts are too small and my hips are too wide, and in general I’ve never been happy with the way my body looks. Then I saw how he looked at me, saw myself through his eyes, and I felt like the most beautiful woman in the world, because to him, I was. And his was the only opinion I cared about.
So, naturally, that’s the moment I chose to blurt out, “I’ve never done this before.”
Both his eyebrows climbed nearly to his hairline. “Never?” he said.
I know there’s nothing wrong with being a twenty-seven-year-old virgin, and really, when have I ever had the chance to develop that degree of closeness with someone, but I felt like running away from his astonished gaze. “No,” I said.
He slid his fingers through my hair to cup the back of my head and kissed me, gently. “Are you ashamed of that?” he said.
“Afraid I’ll be awkward and terrible,” I said.
He smiled, a real, tender smile, and kissed me again, and said, “You could never be awkward and terrible, and I promise to show you the truth of that.”
I won’t write the rest. I could never do it justice, and really, I don’t think I’ll need this book’s help in remembering. It’s enough to say that Cederic was right, and if I thought kissing was wonderful, making love with him was so far beyond that I have no words for it. I cried a little at the end, which worried him, and I had trouble explaining how overwhelmed and happy I was, and how this was the only way I knew to express that emotion. So he kissed those tears away, and then he began kissing the rest of me, and we did it all over again, and it was even better the second time.
Afterward, I lay in the curve of his arm and played with the little dark hairs on his chest. There didn’t seem to be anything to say, and I felt cocooned in the safe space that was our bed, as if there were no oncoming disaster and no Vorantor and no mad God-Empress and no—
“I wonder what Aselfos has planned,” I said.
Cederic craned his head to look down at me. “I would ask where that came from,” he said, “but I have learned that it is better for me not to know the paths your mind takes at times.”
“It was a tortuous road,” I said. “It’s only that I don’t like not knowing what’s coming. And I don’t know how to find out more.”
He held me more tightly. “Your safety has been uppermost in my thoughts since we arrived here,” he said. “The God-Empress’s interest in you is dangerous, and your nighttime wanderings put you at risk of drawing her wrath, should she learn where you have been and what you have seen.”
“I’m at risk every time she summons me,” I said. “And it also bothers me to know that Vorantor has a secret plan that we don’t know about. I think I should investigate it.”
He sighed. “Is there any point to me forbidding it?” he said.
“None. And don’t think you can get away with threatening to withhold sexual favors, because I know you won’t be able to stick to that threat,” I said, poking him in the stomach.
He captured my hand and brought it to his lips. “I would never dream of doing that,” he said, “when I could entice you to do what I want by promising sexual favors instead.” So that was the end of that conversation.
Later, when I lay atop him trying to remember how to breathe properly, he wrapped his arms around me and said, “I had no idea, when I woke this morning, that this is how my day would end, humiliated by my former friend and then lying with you in your bed. It seems unreal, except that you are so wonderfully tangible.”
“As are you,” I said, and I rolled over to nestle against him once more. He turned out the light, and we lay like that for a while, not speaking, and I was drifting off to sleep when he said, “I dream about you, you know. About this. I have dreamed of you so many times. You have been my foundation, even though you did not know it. My foundation, and my surety in the dark times.”
It sent a chill through me, not of fear but of joy, that I might mean so much to anyone when I have been alone and disregarded for so long. And because he had opened himself to me, I wanted to do the same for him. So I told him what I swore I would never tell anyone, though as I write this it occurs to me that this was inevitable, because from the beginning, even when I hated him, I have always told Cederic Aleynten everything.
I told him about the man at the fishery who never stopped watching me.
About the day he forced me into an alley in the warren behind the docks and knocked me to the ground, and tore my trousers and my undershorts down while he choked me with his other hand.
How he forced my legs apart, and I flailed at him and tried to scream, not that anyone would have come to my rescue.
How knowing that sparked something deep inside me, and I worked my first pouvra without knowing what I was doing and he burned from the inside out, burned to ash that filled my mouth and splintered bone that rattled down around me.
I was sixteen, and I had killed a man in a way that could mean my death if anyone knew about it. And even with the horror and the disgust at myself and the terror at what he had almost done, I knew I could not stop learning magic, because it was all I had in the world.
I told him all of this, and he held me and listened in the intent way he does, and said nothing for several seconds after I finished. Finally, he said, “If that is what it takes to make a mage in your world, I am surprised that there are any of you.”
“There have to be others,” I said, “and I doubt most of them have been nearly raped. But there are other terrors that can make you fight for your life, or for your identity.”
“True,” he said, and held me closer. “My instinct is to protect you from all harm,” he said. “But that instinct is wrong. You would not be who you are if you were not willing to risk yourself. Even so—allow me a little fear on your behalf, please.”
“It makes me feel loved, that you want to protect me, and even more loved that you know you can’t,” I said.
We lay together, not speaking, until I finally did fall asleep. When I woke about two hours ago, he was gone.
I’m ashamed to admit that my first reaction was fear, followed closely by embarrassment that I’d misunderstood, that he’d only said those things because they were what I wanted to hear, that he didn’t love me. I have no idea why I was so insecure. It was completely ridiculous.
I hadn’t quite convinced myself to stop being stupid when he knocked, and entered without an invitation. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but it isn’t safe for me to be seen loitering outside your door.” Then he looked at my face, and smiled at me with wry amusement. “You thought I’d left,” he said.
“Because you left,” I said.
He came to take my hand and squeeze it. “No one can know what we are to each other,” he said. “If the God-Empress discovers it, she will use one of us to threaten or manipulate the other. So I could not be seen coming out of your room this morning. I shouldn’t even be here now, but after you fell asleep, I went back to my room and lay awake in my cold bed cursing the God-Empress for keeping me from you, when you should have woken to find me next to you. And I had to risk coming now, so you would not misunderstand me. I would have stayed, if not for that danger, you understand?”
He sounded so urgent that I nodded, even though I didn’t understand why it was so important to him. He kissed me, then left as soundlessly as he’d arrived. So I’ve been writing for two hours, and it’s time for breakfast now, and I’m trying to work out a way to ask Audryn if there’s some significance to waking up with someone I should know about. But mostly, I still feel like I’m flying.