O N THE LONG RIDE back to Imre, Denna and I spoke of a hundred small things. She told me about the cities she had seen: Tinuë, Vartheret, Andenivan. I told her about Ademre and showed her a few pieces of hand-language.
She teased me about my growing fame, and I told her the truth behind the stories. I told her how things had fallen out with the Maer, and she was properly outraged on my behalf.
But there was much we didn’t discuss. Neither of us mentioned how we’d parted ways in Severen. I didn’t know if she had left in anger after our argument, or if she thought I had abandoned her. Any question seemed dangerous. Such a discussion would be uncomfortable at best. At worst it might reignite our previous argument, and that was something I was desperate to avoid.
Denna carried her harp with her, as well as a large traveling trunk. I guessed her song was finished, and she must be performing it. It bothered me that she would play it in Imre, where countless singers and minstrels would hear and carry it out across the world.
Despite this, I said nothing. I knew that would be a hard conversation, and I needed to pick the time for it carefully.
Neither did I mention her patron, though what the Cthaeh had told me preyed on my mind. I thought on it endlessly. Had dreams about it.
Felurian was another matter we didn’t discuss. For all the jokes Denna made about my rescuing bandits and killing virgins, she never mentioned Felurian. She must have heard the song I’d written, as it was much more popular than the other stories she seemed to know so well. But she never mentioned it, and I was not enough of a fool to bring it up myself.
So as we rode there were many things unspoken. The tension built in the air between us as the road jounced away beneath the cart’s wheels. There were gaps and breaks in our conversation, silences that stretched too long, silences that were short but terrifyingly deep.
We were trapped in the middle of one of those silences when we finally arrived in Imre. I dropped her off at the Boar’s Head, where she planned to take rooms. I helped her carry her trunk upstairs, but the silence was even deeper there. So I skirted hastily around it, bid her a fond farewell, and fled without so much as kissing her hand.
* * *
That night I thought of ten thousand things I could have said to her. I lay awake, staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep until the deep, late hours of night.
I woke early, feeling anxious and uneasy. I had breakfast with Simmon and Fela, then went to Adept Sympathy where Fenton beat me handily three duels in a row, setting him in the top rank for the first time since I’d returned to the University.
With no other classes, I bathed and spent long minutes looking through my clothes before deciding on a simple shirt and the green vest Fela said set off my eyes. I worked my shaed into a short cape, then decided not to wear it. I didn’t want Denna thinking of Felurian when I came to call.
Lastly, I slipped Denna’s ring into my vest pocket and set off across the river to Imre.
Once at the Boar’s Head I hardly had a chance to touch the door handle before Denna opened it and stepped out onto the street, handing me a basket lunch.
I was more than slightly surprised. “How did you know. . .?”
She wore a pale blue dress that flattered her and smiled winsomely as she linked arms with me. “Woman’s intuition.”
“Ah,” I said, trying to sound wise. The nearness of her was almost painful. The warmth of her hand on my arm, the smell of her like green leaves and the air before a summer storm. “Do you know where we are bound as well?”
“Only that you will take me there.” When she spoke she turned to face me, and I felt her breath against the side of my neck. “I gladly leave my trust in you.”
I turned to face her, thinking to say one of the clever things I’d thought of last night. But when I met her eyes all words left me. I was lost in wonder, for how long I cannot even guess. For a long moment I was wholly hers. . . .
Denna laughed, jogging me from a reverie that might have stretched a moment or a minute. We made our way out of town, talking as easily as if there had never been a thing between us but sunlight and spring air.
I led her to a place I’d found earlier that spring, a small dell sheltered by the backs of trees. A stream meandered past a greystone that lay lengthwise on the ground, and the sun shone on a field of bright daisies stretching their faces to the sky.
Denna caught her breath when we crested the ridge and saw the carpet of daisies open out in front of her. “I’ve waited a long time to show these flowers how pretty you are,” I said.
That won me an enthusiastic embrace and a kiss burning on my cheek. Both were over before I knew they’d begun. Bemused and grinning, I led the way through the daisies to the greystone near the stream.
I removed my shoes and socks. Denna kicked off her shoes and tied up her skirts, then she ran to the center of the stream until the water rose past her knees.
“Do you know the secret of stones?” she asked as she reached into the water. The hem of her dress dipped into the stream, but she seemed unconcerned.
“What secret is that?”
She drew up a smooth, dark stone from the stream bed and held it out to me. “Come see.”
I finished cuffing up my pants and made my way into the water. She held up the dripping stone. “If you hold it in your hand and listen to it . . .” She did so, closing her eyes. She stood still for a long moment, her face turned upward, like a flower.
I was drawn to kiss her, but I resisted.
Finally she opened her dark eyes. They smiled at me. “If you listen close enough it will tell you a story.”
“What story did it tell you?” I asked.
“Once there was a boy who came to the water,” Denna said. “This is the story of a girl who came to the water with the boy. They talked and the boy threw the stones as if casting them away from himself. The girl didn’t have any stones, so the boy gave her some. Then she gave herself to the boy, and he cast her away as he would a stone, unmindful of any falling she might feel.”
I was quiet for a moment, not sure if she was done. “It’s a sad stone then?”
She kissed the stone and dropped it, watching as it settled to the sand. “No, not sad. But it was thrown once. It knows the feel of motion. It has trouble staying the way most stones do. It takes the offer that the water makes and moves sometimes.” She looked up at me and gave a guileless smile. “When it moves it thinks about the boy.”
I didn’t know what to make of the story, so I tried to change the subject. “How did you learn to listen to stones?”
“You’d be amazed the things you hear if only you take time to listen.” She gestured to the streambed strewn with stones. “Try it.You never know what you might hear.”
Not sure what game she was playing at, I looked around for a stone, then cuffed up my shirt sleeve and reached into the water.
“Listen,” she prompted earnestly.
Thanks to my studies with Elodin, I had a high tolerance for the ridiculous. I held the stone to my ear and closed my eyes. I wondered if I should pretend to hear a story.
Then I was in the water, wet to the skin and spitting it. I spluttered and struggled to my feet while Denna laughed so hard she doubled over at the waist, barely able to stand.
I moved toward her, but she skipped away with a little shriek that left her laughing even harder. So I held off chasing and made a show of wiping water from my face and arms.
“Give up so easily?” she taunted. “Are you so sudden doused?”
I lowered my hand into the water. “I was hoping to find my stone again,” I said, pretending to look around for it.
Denna laughed, shaking her head. “You’ll not lure me in that easily.”
“I’m serious,” I said. “I wanted to hear the end of its story.”
“What story was that?” she asked teasingly, not coming any closer.
“It was the story of a girl who trifled with a powerful arcanist,” I said. “She mocked him and she scoffed at him. She laughed at him full scornfully. He caught her one day in a brook, and rhyming he did quell her fears. And then the girl forgot to look behind her, and it led to tears.”
I grinned at her and pulled my hand out of the water.
She turned in time for the wave to hit her. It was only as high as her waist, but it was enough to unbalance her. She went under in a swirl of dress and hair and bubbles.
The current carried her to me and I helped her to her feet, laughing.
She came to the surface looking three-days drowned. “Not fair!” she sputtered indignantly. “Not fair!”
“I disagree,” I said. “You’re the fairest water-maid I hope to see today.”
She splashed at me. “Flatter all you like, the truth remains for God to see. You cheated. I used honest trickery.”
She tried to dunk me then, but I was ready for it. We struggled for a while until we were pleasantly breathless. Only then did I realize how close she was. How lovely. How little our wet clothing seemed to separate us.
Denna seemed to realize it at the same time, and we moved a little apart from each other, as if suddenly shy. The wind stirred, reminding us how wet we were. Denna skipped lightly to the shore and stripped away her dress without a moment’s hesitation, tossing it over the greystone to dry. She wore a white shift underneath that clung to her as she made her way back into the water. She gave me a playful push as she passed me by, then crawled atop a smooth black boulder that lay half submerged near the center of the stream.
It was a perfect sunning stone, smooth basalt, dark as her eyes. The whiteness of her skin and the too-revealing shift were a sharp contrast against it, almost too bright to look on. She lay on her back and spread her hair to dry. Its wetness made a pattern against the stone that spelled the name of the wind. She closed her eyes and tipped her face toward the sun. Felurian herself could not have been more lovely, more perfectly at ease.
I moved toward the shore as well and stripped off my sodden shirt and vest. I had to be content with my wet pants, as I had nothing else to wear. “What does that stone tell you?” I asked to fill the silence as I laid my shirt next to her dress on the greystone.
She ran one hand over the smooth surface of the stone and spoke without opening her eyes. “This one is telling me what it is like to live in the water, but not be a fish.” She stretched like a cat. “Bring the basket over here, would you?”
I fetched the basket and waded out toward her, moving slowly so as not to splash. She lay perfect and still, as if asleep. But as I watched her mouth curved into a smile. “You’re quiet.” She said. “But I can smell you standing there.”
“Nothing bad I hope.”
She shook her head gently, still not opening her eyes. “You smell like dried flowers. Like strange spice smoldering, close to catching flame.”
“Like river water too, if I have any guess.”
She stretched again and smiled an easy smile, showing the perfect whiteness of her teeth, the perfect pinkness of her lips. She shifted her position on the rock slightly. Almost as if she were making room for me. Almost. I thought of joining her. The stone was large enough for two if they were willing to lie close. . . .
“Yes,” Denna said.
“Yes to what?” I asked.
“Your question,” she said, tilting her face toward me, her eyes still closed. “You’re about to ask me a question.” She adjusted her position slightly on the stone. “The answer is yes.”
How was I to take that? What should I ask for? A kiss? More? How much was too much to ask? Was this a test? I knew asking too much would only drive her away.
“I was wondering if you would move over a little,” I said gently.
“Yes.” She shifted again, making more space beside her. Then she opened her eyes, and they went wide at the sight of me standing shirtless above her. She glanced down and relaxed when she saw my pants.
I laughed, but her wide-eyed look of shock pushed me back into caution. I set the basket in the place I had thought to take myself. “What thought was that, my lady?”
She colored a bit, embarrassed. “I didn’t think you were the sort to bring a girl her lunch while you were running stark.” She gave a little shrug, looked at the basket, at me. “But I like you this way. My own bare-chested slave.” She closed her eyes again. “Feed me strawberries.”
I was happy to oblige, and so we passed the afternoon.
* * *
Lunch was long gone and the sun had dried us. For the first time since our fight in Severen, I felt things were right between us. The silences no longer lay around us like holes in the road. I knew it had just been a matter of waiting patiently until the tension passed.
As the afternoon slowly slid by, I knew this was the right time to bring up the subject I had been biting my tongue over for so long. I could see the dull green of old bruises on her upper arms, the remnant of a raised welt on her back. There was a scar on her leg above her knee, new enough that the red of it showed through the white of her shift.
All I needed to do was ask about them. If I phrased things carefully, she’d admit they were from her patron. From there it would be a simple thing to draw her out. To convince her she deserved better. That whatever he was offering her was not worth this abuse.
And for the first time in my life, I was in a position to offer her a way out. With Alveron’s line of credit and my work in the Fishery, money would never be a problem for me. For the first time in my life, I was wealthy. I could give her a way to escape. . . .
“What happened to your back?” Denna asked softly, interrupting my train of thought. She was still reclining on her stone, I was leaning against it, my feet in the water.
“What?” I asked, unconsciously turning a foolish half-circle.
“You’re scarred all along your back,” she said gently. I felt one of her cool hands touch my sun-warm skin, tracing a line. “I could hardly tell they were scars at first. They’re pretty.” She traced another line down my back. “It looks like some giant-child mistook you for a piece of paper and practiced his letters on you with a silver pen.”
She took her hand away, and I turned to face her. “How did you get them?” she asked.
“I caused some trouble at the University,” I said somewhat sheepishly.
“They whipped you?” she said, incredulous.
“Twice,” I said.
“And you stay there?” she asked as if she still couldn’t believe it. “After they did this to you?”
I shrugged it away. “There are worse things than whipping,” I said. “There’s nowhere else I can learn the things they teach here. When I want a thing it takes more than a little blood to . . .”
It was only then I realized what I was saying. The masters whipped me. Her patron beat her. And we both stayed. How could I convince her my situation was different? How could I convince her to leave?
Denna looked at me curiously, her head tilted to the side. “What happens when you want a thing?”
I shrugged. “I was just saying I’m not easily chased away.”
“I’ve heard that about you,” Denna said, giving me a knowing look. “A lot of girls in Imre say you’re not easily chaste.” She sat upright and began to slide toward the edge of the stone. Her white shift twisted and slid slowly up her legs as she moved.
I was about to comment on her scar, hoping I might still bring the conversation around to her patron when I noticed Denna had stopped moving and was watching me as I stared at her bare legs.
“What do they say, exactly?” I asked, more for something to say than from any curiosity.
She shrugged. “Some think you’re trying to decimate Imre’s female population.” She edged closer to the lip of the stone. Her shift shifted distractingly.
“Decimate would imply one in ten,” I said, trying to turn it into a joke. “That’s slightly ambitious even for me.”
“How reassuring,” she said. “Do you bring all of them h—” She made a little gasp as she slipped down the side of the stone. She caught herself just as I was reaching out to help her.
“Bring them what?” I asked.
“Roses, fool,” she said sharply. “Or have you turned that page already?”
“Would you like me to carry you?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. But before I could reach for her, she slid the rest of the way into the water, her shift gathering to a scandalous height before she slipped free into the stream. The water rose to her knee, just dampening the hem.
We made our way back to the greystone and silently worked our way into our now-dry clothes. Denna fretted at the wetness at the hem of her shift.
“You know, I could have carried you,” I said softly.
Denna pressed the back of her hand to her forehead. “Another seven words, I swoon.” She fanned herself with her other hand. “What should a woman do?”
“Love me.” I had intended to say it in my best flippant tone. Teasing. Making a joke of it. But I made the mistake of looking into her eyes as I spoke. They distracted me, and when the words left my mouth, they ended up sounding nothing at all the way I had intended.
For a fleet second she held my eyes with intent tenderness. Then a rueful smile quirked up the corner of her mouth. “Oh no,” she said. “Not that trap for me. I’ll not be one of the many.”
I clenched my teeth, stuck somewhere between confusion, embarrassment, and fear. I’d been too bold and made a mess of things, just as I’d always feared. When had the conversation managed to run away from me?
“I beg your pardon?” I said stupidly.
“You should.” Denna straightened her clothes, moving with an uncharacteristic stiffness, and ran her hands through her hair, twisting it into a thick plait. Her fingers knitted the strands together and for a second I could read it, clear as day: “Don’t speak to me.”
I might be thick, but even I can read a sign that obvious. I closed my mouth, biting off the next thing I’d been about to say.
Then Denna saw me eyeing her hair and pulled her hands away self-consciously without tying off the braid. Her hair quickly spun free to fall loose around her shoulders. She brought her hands in front of her and twisted one of her rings nervously.
“Hold a moment,” I said. “I’d almost forgotten.” I reached into the inner pocket of my vest. “I have a present for you.”
Her mouth made a thin line as she looked at my outstretched hand. “You too?” she asked. “I honestly thought you were different.”
“I hope I am,” I said, and opened my hand. I’d polished it, and the sun caught the edges of the pale blue stone.
“Oh!” Denna’s hands went to her mouth, her eyes suddenly brimming. “Is it really?” She reached out with both hands to take it.
“It is,” I said.
She turned it over in her hands, then removed one of her other rings and slid it onto her finger. “It is,” she said in amazement, a few tears spilling over. “How did you ever. . .?”
“I got it from Ambrose,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, and I felt the silence loom up between us again.
“It wasn’t much trouble,” I said. “I’m just sorry it took so long.”
“I can’t thank you enough for this.” Denna reached out and took my hand between hers.
You would think that would have helped. That a gift and clasped hands would make things right between us. But the silence was back now, stronger than before. Thick enough that you could spread it on your bread and eat it. There are some silences that even words cannot drive away. And while Denna was touching my hand, she wasn’t holding it. There is a world of difference.
Denna looked up at the sky. “The weather’s turning,” she said. “We should probably head back before it rains.”
I nodded and we left. Clouds cast their shadows across the field behind us as we went.