Although Stefen, on his way back, avoids the guard station where he and Vanyel had spent time previously, he's still not surprised to be met by border guards a little past Westmark. That's the point of having border guards, after all; to make sure nobody's getting in who shouldn't be. He's only grateful that he hadn't wandered so far off course he'd be met by Tayledras scouts instead.
He doesn't recognize the company at first, had never associated with them closely; it's not until one of them calls, "We found him, Captain! It's him!" that he realizes that Trev and Jisa must have put out an alert to try to find him, and it's not until a severe, brown-haired woman with a familiarly sharp curved nose walks up that he realizes whose company was diverted to his probable path home. She could be a younger Savil, and although he has only met her twice before, he knows her face.
Stef snaps a salute that he immediately realizes is incorrectly done. "Captain Ashkevron," he says. "It looks like I may have caused quite a fuss."
Lissa doesn't respond immediately, looking him over, and he drops his hand under the scrutiny. It's hard to keep up the wall of confidence he's been pretending to have these past nine months. He remembers, at the funeral, that she'd tried to comfort him, and he'd redirected her to her parents instead and snuck out while she was occupied. He's not sure his false confidence will fool her at all.
Whether it does or doesn't, she gives him a thin-lipped smile and snaps him a salute in return—this one, of course, perfect. "Bard Stefen," she says. "We were all a little concerned; nobody was expecting to catch you coming back. It's a bit late for you to continue on your travels tonight, not if you wish to do so safely. But I'll dispatch a messenger to Haven so they can stand down until you can be escorted home."
The connotations are clear, but that's fine. Although he doesn't intend to sneak away again, not now, not with a duty to perform... well, if it'll help reassure anyone, that's fine. Trev and Jisa have had enough loss and fear in their lives of late; it's a shame he's had to add to it and the sooner that can be assuaged, the better.
"That arrangement sounds perfect, Captain," he says firmly. "It's been a long trip already and I'd like a chance to rest."
She seems to relax a little at that, smile becoming more genuine, and turns aside to pass orders to a young guardsman standing at her side, then offers Stef a hand. "Let's get you off that horse and resting up, then. Lady's tits, you must be sore at the pace you'd have had to travel. That's no pilgrimage to take alone, either."
"I think it had to be alone," he says, and accepts her help down gratefully. Another guardswoman leads away his mount and he sighs, stretching stiff legs. "There were some things I needed to settle my head on."
Lissa sighs. "I want to box your ears," she admits. "Giving us all a scare like that. Vanishing on us and you with a broken lifebond—what did you think we'd believe?"
All he can do is shrug. It's not like they'd been wrong about his intentions.
"But instead, I'll offer you a stiff drink," she says, and gives him another wan smile. "What do you say?"
"Perfect," he says. "I'm desperate for a good drink."
"Go ahead and call me Lissa, or Liss," she offers, cracking her neck sharply before starting to pour. The company's been here for a few days and have set up tents, anticipating the poor weather of fall, or so Stef's gathered. "You're Van's love; it feels too damn strange to have you treat me like I'm just the captain."
He leans forward, smiles, takes the cup. "Then you must call me Stef," he says. "Well, if Medren ever wrote you, I'm sure that's how you think of me anyway."
She laughs, loud. "More or less! Him and Van."
"Van wrote you about me?"
"Of course," she says, and sighs, smiling properly now, sitting cross-legged with her own cup. "Didn't he say?"
"Well, I read his incoming mail now and again," Stef admits. "Depended on the day."
"Must have missed it," she says. "He'd start out all proper, 'my friend Bard Stefen' and so on, but halfway through the letter it was Stef this, Stef that."
He can't quite stop the accustomed stab of pain through him, but this time it's not so bad. Nostalgic and wistful, still sore, but he has the hope of seeing Vanyel again if he does well enough. He curls his fingers more tightly around the cup and drinks. "Would you tell me about him?"
"What—about Van? You probably know more than I do," she says. "You were there with him at the end. I wasn't."
He wasn't, but he knows what she means. He was with Van for everything after Savil's death, and the last living soul to see him alive. He can't tell her anything, though. Even with his finished copy of Magic's Price dropped on his bed back at Bardic, that's as close as he ever intends to get to the subject. It gets too messy, too painful, to think about even saying the rest aloud. How cold Vanyel got, how unlike himself except for brief moments where he thought he saw his old love. His arguing with Vanyel leading to a distraction that had him taken by bandits, and how that went. Trying to heal his broken lover, carrying the guilt, until Vanyel realized what was hiding behind his gentle smile and promised him that it would have happened anyway. If not when they fought, when they slept. If not when they slept, then it would have been worse, the subject of their fight: when they were too cold to go on and too exhausted to fight, all three of them would have been taken or killed and then there would have been no recovering at all. Better that he'd picked that fight when he did, Vanyel had said, because it maybe saved their lives. He'd not wanted to cry on Vanyel, not with Vanyel himself still recovering, but he had, and, strangely, the next day, Vanyel had seemed more recovered than before. A Herald to the end, Stef thinks sadly. Helping another had always helped him more than helping himself.
Stefen shakes his head and tries to dismiss the thought. "Not that," he says instead. "You knew him all his life. Van's always been private. Before I met him, I studied everything I could, I learned all the ballads. I know those stories, but it's not like he'd brag about his own life or experiences, and some subjects he just didn't want to touch on. I was fine with it; we were going to live our own story for the rest of our lives, and ...well." He still can't shake the feeling that his own story is already over, but he smiles and sips his drink again. "That's not happening, but I still want to know everything I can. You were the family he was closest to, and he admired you. He was always clear about that."
Sympathetic breath hissing out between her teeth, Lissa ponders him, then drinks as well. "I don't see why not," she says. "It's a bit of a big topic but we'll have plenty of time over the years. Where to start, though...?"
"How about after he first became a Herald?" Stef asks.
She winces a little. "I don't mind," she says. "Though I might skip ahead to when he was actually managing again after his Tylendel's death. ...Mm, it will involve talking about that Tylendel, though. Does that bother you?"
He blinks, almost surprised by the question. "Of course not," he says. "You know, I've always been a bit surprised by how everyone covers up everything to do with him. I didn't want to pry with Van and open old wounds, but even at Bardic, nobody talked about him. Always seemed unfair. He clearly wasn't well, and Vanyel loved him with all his heart. Seems wrong to push that under the table while playing up what a great Herald-Mage Van was. Like his pain and motivation was an inconvenience to a good story."
Grinning at him, Lissa says, "I like you."
"Well, thank you. Had you met Tylendel?"
"No, not that," she says. "There was no way for me to. They hid their relationship right up until after Tylendel died, so..." She shrugs. "No chance. All I ever saw was the impact his death had on Vanyel. I wasn't even able to be angry at him for leaving Van in that state, though. Vanyel loved him too much for that. Van was always a survivor, always looking for a way to live through his pain. Thinking that he couldn't live without Tylendel... all I could do was grieve for him, that he could have something that made him feel like that and lose it."
It hits a little close to home, and he can tell that Lissa's realized it once the words are out of her mouth. They drink in silence for a few moments, Stef avoiding her gaze.
"Anyway," Lissa says briskly. "I won't tell you about his first visit home—I wasn't there for it, that's a story you'll need to ask Radevel. But I will tell you about my first visit to Haven after he got back from training with the Hawkbrothers."
Vanyel hadn't exactly settled well into Haven, I had heard that much when he'd finally, thankfully, started writing me letters again. He was staying with Savil still, since she was the one to be training him, but was preparing for them to move rooms to the palace as soon as they could. Even just being in that suite made him feel depressed, he had admitted, but sleeping in the bed that had been his and 'Lendel's was too much. Still, he was doing better, and if I could get any time to come down he'd be grateful for the company.
I did, of course; took family leave again. Got a warning for it, too, since I'd been down just months earlier, but I remained staunch. He was my little brother, and I'd heard he probably'd got the best potential as a Herald-Mage in the service to Valdemar out of anyone. I had the days off, and if visiting him helped him, it could only help the kingdom, let alone my own sibling. What harm could it do?
The situation in Haven was even more tense than he'd written me about, I was to discover when I arrived. A few questions here and there and half a bottle with Savil had revealed that much. Vanyel had performed amazing, heroic deeds while out recovering and training with the Hawkbrothers; had defeated a colddrake singlehandedly, and very shortly after, had fought off an evil wizard and saved a village that was being terrorized. All this while barely trained. But these stories only had Savil's word to them—and although she was respected, she was an old woman with a soft spot for her family and her trainees, they'd said. There was no proof of his deeds at all.
Beyond that, a large number still blamed him for Tylendel's death, or couldn't fathom the relationship between them, or simply were completely uncomfortable around him after. Before he'd been able to control his powers, as I understood it, he'd projected his feelings all over the Collegium and even out into Haven itself. Not a lot of people were going to be comfortable with a person who'd sent them into a deep, grief-struck depression for what seemed to them to be no reason at all.
But Van was sticking it out. He was living as much for Tylendel as himself, I'd thought; trying to salvage his memory by showing that Tylendel wasn't someone to be misled by a pretty face, to show that even in the act that Tylendel had performed in his grief-madness, he had done some good—that's to say, that Vanyel was a service to the people now. That Tylendel had left that to them. Not a completely healthy way to live, I'd thought, but better than it had been, where he had felt himself nothing, a stain. If he felt he could do some good, he had a reason to live.
Well, Vanyel had been happy to see me, and since I wasn't staying with Savil and her trainees, he came out through the court areas to see me more often. Unsurprisingly, beyond practicing with and continuing to be taught by Savil, he didn't have any friends or anyone to visit, so his free time wasn't terribly occupied with enjoyable things. I did my best to get him out and about and in the public eye so he'd at least be a feature of the place again.
It was while we were on one of these walks through the Heraldic section of the Collegium grounds that we met Randale—or, more precisely, ran into him. It was like one of those comedy plays' hamhanded attempts at romance, Stef—the two of us had rounded a corner and Randale had plowed right into Vanyel. Well, Vanyel was always a slip of a thing and he went right over, and Randale tripped and landed right on top of him! I was no help at all, just laughing at them while the two both stammered out apologies to each other.
"You're Herald Vanyel, aren't you," Randale said a moment later, as he grinned and helped Vanyel up.
"I don't think we've met—?"
"I've heard the stories," Randale said. "Dressed already in whites at your age, lovely black hair, a beautiful boy who looks more like a ghost than a person. You're Vanyel."
Which really did sound like he was making a move on Van, I'd thought, but it turned out that it was just the best description he could come up with at the time, as in his next breath he mentioned that he was on his way to see his girl Shavri but was hoping to talk to Vanyel sometime. Did Van want to come along?
Vanyel being Vanyel, he stammered out something incoherent and awkward: "Oh, no, I mean, I'm just here with my sister, we're walking," which lead to another round of hearty introductions and Randale giving my hand a shake as well.
"All the more reason," Randale had said. "I'll get us lunch."
So that had been that; we'd gone to lunch with Randale and Shavri, and Vanyel was practically glowing by the end of the meal. More than the food, he was hungry for some form of friendship or companionship. It seemed to me like Tylendel had also been his only friend, and on top of his loss, he was desperately lonely. We met with Randale regularly after that, nearly every day, and it was halfway through the week that a situation occurred.
Now, Randale wasn't yet the Heir—that was his father. But he was still close to the line of succession, obviously, and with Queen Elspeth not getting any younger, he was under a lot of pressure. If his father died, he was next in line—and if Randale himself died, his father would be pretty distracted, enough for perhaps another assassination to occur and muck with succession entirely. Anyway, at one of these lunches, one of the chefs tasted Randale's food for quality before serving it, and died.
Immediately there was a huge panic. Randale's father wanted to have had him locked away for safety, but Randale wanted nothing to do with it. It was partly due to Shavri, and wanting to be able to see her, but partly due to his need to continue training. The fact that he was so close to the succession meant that he needed to be a full and proper Herald as soon as possible, though of course he hoped nothing would happen to his father. But that's royal duty for you.
However, Shavri herself fell under suspicion. Certain factions were already suspicious of how close she'd gotten to Randale, since she'd gone after him initially. We managed to avoid suspicion ourselves after some initial questioning, but there were people who wanted to believe it was Shavri. Since she was training as a Healer as well as a Herald, she had access to all sorts of herbs, and as she'd been on the scene, she'd had the opportunity to try to slip some of those into the meal. We tried to point out that it'd have been easier to poison the meal rather than the pot, but while we'd asked for the same things as Randale, she'd asked for a different dish which only brought more suspicion on her.
And Vanyel was furious about it.
Absolutely furious. Enraged. This was the love of Randale's life, and people were assuming she poisoned him? I thought Vanyel was going to lose his head over it, and didn't really understand why until he just casually mentioned that they were lifebonded. Casually! He'd seen it with his Mage-Sight, he'd said, which completely went over my head, but it sure meant something to others. Well, that got Shavri cleared soon enough, but Vanyel was still deeply offended over it, not to mention just in general being angry about the attempted poisoning of his new friend. There was some talk that if Shavri hadn't done it then maybe it was an error by the cook—knocked something into the pot, or grabbed the wrong herbs, but nobody actually believed that. The court was doing an official investigation, of course, but Vanyel couldn't leave it at that.
So the two of us started our own investigation. Now, it's funny, but for some reason, guards won't admit to their own higher-ups if they've been bribed, but a bribable guard can be bribed again. Even at that age, I'd spent significant time among the guard, you know, and knew the ins and outs. I'd already been spending time with the court guard while there, because like calls to like. It gave me a good opportunity. I worked up to things slowly, I found the weaker links, the people of more flexible morality, and did so from the inside. And then I narrowed our suspects down.
And when I'd done so, Vanyel pounced. It seems he'd recently been insisting on learning the details of how to use Truth-Spells, and he made good use of them. We found the guard who'd let someone pass, got the details, found the suspect, and passed those details on to the official investigation.
They weren't very happy with us, come to think of it, but you know who was pleased with our initiative? Randale. And his father. And his grandmother.
So that all went well for us, and while I doubt it solved all of Vanyel's problems at Haven, it certainly helped establish a new reputation for him.
"So that's how they met," Stefen says. Lissa's opening a second bottle now, and half of the first sits warm inside him; he feels light-headed and a little more light-hearted than he's felt for a while. "I was going to ask sometime, but it never seemed like the right time, not with Randale dying, and then..."
He shrugs helplessly. Lissa is the only named survivor from that story, and he's sure she knows it as well.
"You two had hardly any time together at all, did you?" she asks softly.
"Mm. Not so much. Van's a Herald, after all." He hears the present tense slip out of his lips, and doesn't correct it, just moves on. "Randale was always sending him places, so even after he and I got together, he'd be gone for months... then, after he came back, the thing with Savil and the others... Only a few months. We really only had a few months together properly."
He can feel his mood starting to slip again, forces a smile on his face and holds his cup out for a refill. "An amazing story, though! It seems like wherever Van went, he'd end up saving the country. Did you ever help him with that any other times?"
"Plenty," Lissa says promptly. She raises her cup, as if to Vanyel's successes; Stef does the same. "Most of them I can't talk about in too much detail, not to you."
"Why not me?"
She snorts inelegantly. "Bard," she says. "Some of these aren't stories to bandy around."
"Oh, come on," he coaxes. "You know I'm not one to dramatize his life."
"Aren't you," she says, grinning at him with a sharp eye.
"I just want to hear! Cross my heart." He fails to find his heart with a weaving hand. He might be going too fast, he thinks, for how little food he's eaten in these past... well, months. "How about you tell me one but scrub any details from it that I could run with? That'll fix it, right?"
"Hmm... well, perhaps..."
I'm sure you remember how things were after Tashir became king of both Baires and Lineas, then annexed them into Valdemar. While some welcomed it, others—many others— did not. Vedric had gotten the Lineans all worked up to accept him, and did so against Valdemar; even if he hadn't, the disruption of the royal family followed by putting a child-puppet king on the throne who immediately lowered his own rank and handed over both countries to Valdemar with a hastily-written contract ensuring it might stay that way... it's not like they could outright start a civil war, not easily, not given the size of both countries compared to Valdemar. But it wasn't really a popular move. Supported enough to pass, but not popular.
Since my Company had been stationed on the border for a while and knew how things were around there best, Randale had us disguise ourselves as a mercenary band and head into town to keep close tabs on things. Revolutions start in taverns, you know, people rubbing shoulders with drink loosening their tongues, and mercenaries always find themselves there.
That said, we didn't go alone.
Of course, Randale had some official Herald dispatches—ambassadors, Tashir's teachers, and so on, but he needed to make sure a Herald, preferably a Herald-Mage, was there in the thick to keep a finger on the pulse of things. Well, it so happened that Van was supposed to be off his feet and recuperating from that near-fatal injury he took; it was simple business to publicly extend his recovery time and sent him back out into the field in disguise. Vanyel let his facial hair grow—not sure if you've had the chance to see, but that was always a mistake on him. Always grew in patchy. Huge blow to his ego. Anyway, he grew out the ugliest patchy goatee you'd ever seen, dressed in leathers, and joined us as the crew's two-penny minstrel, Valsham. We passed him off as "Captain Lynne"'s lover so we'd have an excuse to room together and catch up on intel; nobody was going to expect Vanyel with a lady even if his disguise weren't so convincing. Poor Yfandes was covered in muck for the duration and had to stay with our rented nags; I'm not sure which of them felt more hard-done-by with their disguises.
Sometimes "Valsham" joined us for drinks, and sometimes he played taverns to listen for information and get us to a good place to wander over to for the next night. We heard plenty of talk but not much direction until one night we overheard something significant.
Now, the Lineans hated magic, and the Bairnes folk did not, and you know how things were with a war between them. But they were forced to unite. So we overheard a group talking—why not fight fire with fire? They get some Herald-Mage to put some Herald on the throne and make Lineas part of a mage-driven country, why not bring in some mages from Bairnes and assassinate Tashir? Sure, without any direct descendants, it would revert to the crown regardless, but they'd already been annexed, and if they wanted to start a revolution, getting rid of Tashir so quickly would be the first step.
We chose not to act immediately. If they were going to do this, we needed all parties present. Instead, Vanyel came up with a fantastic idea: if they wanted an army, they could hire mercenaries, and who are we but mercenaries who had overheard their plan?
It went off perfectly.They paid us good coin to sit in on their meetings, listen to their plans, and not only get the names of the mages they hired but the rendezvous point to start the assassination attempt. We showed up, guarded all the entrances so nobody could get in or out without our say-so, and in walks Vanyel, cleanly-shaven and in his whites.
It was over without any fuss or bother and nobody outside the wiser. And I trust it'll stay that way.
"Cross my heart," Stef says again, and manages, this time, to get a little nearer to where his heart should be. His cup is empty again; Lissa refills it.
"Well, that's more or less how it went. Obviously we were stationed in and around there for a while, but Vanyel was recalled for more active duty after things stabilized a little," she says.
"Too bad you couldn't have some time to sit and drink and really chat together as yourselves," Stefen sighs, "instead of as Lynne and Valsham."
"Not that time," Lissa says, smiling down at her drink wistfully. "Plenty of other times, though. Just like you and me now."
Stef laughs softly. "Without so much talking about Van, I'm sure, as you and I are doing."
"You'd be surprised. I could get him to talk about himself now and then. In fact—do you remember when I met you the first time?"
Of course he does. It was right after Van had started to successfully heal from the leechblade wound. Withen had written Lissa, and she'd taken family leave and come out. By the time she arrived, Vanyel was awake and somewhat able to move around again but still tired easily and it was strongly suggested he stay in bed.
Stefen wonders how he'd looked to her then. A skinny Bard, barely eighteen, exhausted beyond all capacity from pouring his energy into Vanyel to keep him alive, skittish and in shock and hollow-eyed, staring at her wordlessly when she barged in, introducing herself and immediately grilling Vanyel, who met it with tired but good-natured responses.
Probably not too differently than he looks now, he thinks a little wryly. Still skinny, barely nineteen this time, and exhausted.
"Well, a few days later he came down to our camp and drank with us."
"I'm very sure that wasn't recommended," Stef says with good humor.
"I'm sure it wasn't either, but he certainly enjoyed it," Lissa says, grinning at him. "Why, didn't he tell you?"
"He just said he wanted to talk with you about a few things," Stef said. "Drinking, huh. And did he talk work?"
"Other than confirming that no strangers had encroached on our bivouac and the attempt had seemed a pretty one-shot deal, no," Lissa says. "We talked a little about him getting Mother and Father out of there, and if I'd be safe, and so on, and then we drank and talked about boys."
"What?" Stefen says, laughing.
"Well, boy," Lissa says.
This isn't really a story, mind you, not like the other ones. There's no adventure to this, unless you count getting Van up and down from the stone we were using as a table while stiff from his injury and significantly drunk!
No, I just asked him about you, of course. Like I said, he'd mentioned you in letters before—his friend, but only a friend as far as he'd said. Now, Van was always fairly discreet regardless, but I'd occasionally heard things from him, you know, 'spent the night with a nice guardsman', or so on. Very occasionally, poor Van.
Even if it hadn't been family knowledge that you two had lifebonded—you know, I do think that you were the only thing that saved his life there, and I believe Father to this day feels he owes you a debt. You saved Mother and Vanyel all at once despite being completely out of your league. Well, he was the one who told me that you were lifebonded, Father did, that Vanyel almost died but your lifebond got him through it, before I even went in there. But even if I hadn't known about the lifebond, I'd have realized what was going on between you two the first time I stepped into the room. The way you were sitting at his bedside, the energy between you two... not to mention how clearly Father had set you up in the room together. But I was sure that you hadn't been together the last time he wrote me! So I pried into things a little.
The way he talked about you, Stef... I'd never seen him so happy. Swear on my life. Even worried about the situation, he opened up like a damned flower blossoming. Now, I never saw him with his Tylendel, like I said, so I can't compare. I only saw him before he was sent to Haven, miserable, and coping with things in his life after Tylendel died, also miserable. When he talked about you, though, he glowed. Smart, and clever, kind, forgiving, loving—he'd never talked about anyone like that before either. He said lots of other things about you, too: stubborn and willful and the most unshakeable person he'd ever met.
I bet he didn't say half these things to you, or at least not all at once. He was gushing; it was almost overwhelming even secondhand. You'd have been bright red had he tried and he'd have shut up. I hope he got it across to you in bits and pieces, though.
He said, and this has stuck with me, that he felt like he'd truly found a partner in his life. That he hadn't felt anything like that before. That he'd loved Tylendel, and would never compare Tylendel unfavorably to you or vice versa, but that their relationship was simply different. Vanyel, back then, was young and inexperienced and had never received anyone's love before except mine; lifebonding like that became, he said, a bit of a dependance. He regretted it, you know. I think he feels like his dependence led to Tylendel's death. If he'd known when to speak up, how to speak up, that maybe things would have changed, even if Tylendel would have been angry with him.
I think he carried that with him. When we'd talk about our various love affairs, there was a part of himself that he always held separate from them. Sometimes I think he'd been afraid that if he fell in love again, it wouldn't just be disrespectful to Tylendel's memory, it would also put himself at risk. Not like he'd ever known himself in love except in that obedient, devoted way. Other times, I think he was afraid to receive that from someone else, and have it go sour for them. He was so powerful and so beautiful and so compelling, Stef, and he couldn't say that with a straight face, not without laughing at himself after, but it was true. Stubborn, too, and full of himself sometimes, and wilful, and preachy. Lord and Lady, could that man preach. I think he knew that imbalance would be there when he'd let himself be with someone, and that someone else could become as dependent on him and his approval, and that Van could easily step on that without even meaning to.
But with you, he felt it was different. He still had his flaws, but he didn't think he'd ever push them too far with you, that if he started to crush you he felt like he'd notice it. And he didn't think you wouldn't stand up for yourself. He was... he was completely excited by that. He cried a little into his drink, and said that he damn well knew that you'd argue with him if he started pushing you too far. That you'd push back. Because you saw him as a person, not as great Herald-Mage Vanyel, and knew he was flawed. Even if his charisma or power affected you, you'd shrug it off. Even if he got on his high horse, he'd come down from it when he realized he hurt you, and if he didn't, you'd call him on it. That you'd already done so, even before the relationship started. That even while you were trying to get with him, you didn't compromise your own comfort. When Jisa and Treven got married, you stood staunchly against his disapproval and anger about your involvement, and just continued being his friend and confidante without letting it get to you, until he bent and accepted it.
He believed he found an equal in you, Stef, and he was terrified of losing you. He really wanted to do whatever he could to be with you, and believed you could, and would, be someone who could live up to—I'm sorry. Sorry.
Stef's crying; can feel hot tears leaking down his face. He shakes his head, trying to reassure her, can't find words past the hollow ache in his throat.
"Lady's tits," Lissa mutters. "Listen to me going on about this as if it's not twisting a knife in you, lad."
"No," he manages finally. "I'm glad. It's good to cry like this. Thank you."
She purses her lips at him. "You need to get some rest," she says eventually. "You can take my bed; I'll bunk elsewhere tonight."
"I'm telling you to," she says firmly. "There will be other times to tell stories. Go lie down. You'll have to wake up early to be escorted back to Haven, anyway. We get up with the sun."
He gets his shaking lips to make a smile. "Will I see you again before we head out?"
"You'll see me as you do, Stef; I'm your escort."
Stef lets her take the cup from his hand, lead him over to her bedroll, help him down. "But you're the Captain."
"And your sister by marriage, or as close to it as you could come," she says firmly. "This is a family affair and I'm getting you back to Haven safely. Goodnight, Stef. Tomorrow, as we ride, I'll tell you about the time we turned back an invasion in Hardorn with the use of a tavern brawl to cover up our interfering in an allied country's affairs."
"Can I sing about that one?" he asks, dreamily.
"No, that's secret too. Go to sleep."
She kisses his forehead and withdraws from the tent, snuffing the candle as she goes. Stefen's exhausted, but it doesn't keep him from crying more anyway. He lies awake, thinking of so many years of Vanyel's life he's never touched, so many he won't be able to—and then sleeps, and dreams of years to come, dreams of seeing Vanyel again, dreams of the forest, of the spirit of Vanyel smiling at him there, waiting for him, counting on him. A partner, he dreams; someone who can live up to what Vanyel needs from an equal. He dreams of tomorrow, of riding with Lissa, of learning Vanyel even better than he already has.
Tomorrow will be another day.