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Weird Folk

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Onua is the first friend Daine ever makes who's not an animal.

Technically, Daine and Onua are friends before they reach the Tortallan border, but Daine thinks she still counts.

By the time they reach the Drell, Daine already thinks of Onua as a big sister, and is doing her level best to persuade Onua to hire her on for good.

She's okay, is Cloud's verdict. She has horse sense, which is what really matters in life.

Daine giggles and agrees.

***

Thom is, technically, the first friend Daine actually makes in Tortall itself, and he is fair crazy.

Daine is outraged and delighted by turns, and the emotional whiplash leaves her dizzy. Thom, of course, is angling for exactly that off-centeredness, and finds it all amusing.

"Nothing can rein him in," Onua says one day, dark eyes sparkling with mirth. "People have broken themselves trying. Just let him have his fun."

But Daine is not the kind of person who meekly lays down for others, and so she resolves to give as good as she's got.

By the time they reach Corus, the prank war has reached epic proportions, and it takes a royal order to get them to stop.

***

Alanna enchants Daine as soon as she sees her. There is no other word for it.

Daine had heard of Tortall's warrior priestess, of course; everyone has. Alanna is bold and bright and fiery and beautiful, everything Daine knows she's not, and Daine doesn't quite know what to make of her.

It is Alanna who gently takes Daine aside and introduces her to her own magic, who teaches her to meditate, who teaches her to stretch her hearing and her sight out to the whole world. Daine sits at her feet, basks in her presence, and absorbs it all.

It isn't until Alanna shoves Thom in a burbling little creek "for old time's sake" one day when they're nearing Corus that it really clicks for Daine that the older woman is just a person, but it just makes Daine like her more.

***

Numair is fair strange. Not crazy, not like Thom is, but just strange. Domestic, like, which Daine didn't expect, not in a great mage like that. He's also vain, in a cockeyed way, and Daine finds that strangely endearing.

Numair helps Alanna teach her magic, giving her a big book of animal biology when they are back in Corus, and he babbles on to her about all sorts of arcane topics like she's a fellow black robe, and though Daine can't understand more than one word in ten she's deeply touched by his unconscious respect.

He treats her like a child precisely once: when he comes for her in Carthak, in the ruins of the Emperor Mage's palace, after the powers the gods forced on her have slipped their leash and resurrected everything within the palace grounds that still has a body. Numair scoops her up like a little girl, burns the resurrected emperor's corpse to fine ash with bitter anger in his eyes, and carries her all the way back to the docks. He cradles her until she falls asleep against his shoulder, whispering reassurances into her ear, and Daine decides that it's alright, just this once, to be a babe again.

***

Daine is not sure what she expects Alanna's husband to be like, but Sir Francis is not quite what she expected. He's quiet, for one thing.

Daine has come to appreciate silence, in her short time in Tortall. Before, in the silence of the woods, she thought she'd go mad with it, and she thinks she sort of did. At Nond, it's more a restful sort of silence, a peaceful thing, and the grassy meadows are nothing like the bandit-haunted forests of Galla.

She never exchanges very many words with Francis. Sometimes, you don't need to.

***

Marinie of Nond is six years old when Daine meets her. She is a tiny scrap of a thing, without either her mother's sturdiness or her father's height, though Daine supposes she has plenty of time to grow. Daine, who has no idea what to do with children, tries to ignore her.

Marinie is having none of it.

She troops along after Daine, helping Daine care for the Riders' horses with surprising aplomb, though all she really manages to do is lug a couple buckets around.

It's help, I suppose, Daine thinks, observing her duckling.

The girl's flyaway blond hair is sticking out from her head at all angles, making the little noble girl look like a dandelion gone to seed. Daine surveys her, hands on her hips, then unwinds her own headscarf and wraps it around the startled child's head. It is a bright, tattered, sweat-soaked rag that ill matches the girl's well-made play clothes, but at least it'll keep Marinie's hair out of her face.

Later that night, a maid tries to get Marinie to take the scarf off, but with a stubborn jut to her chin that makes her look disturbingly like her mother, Marinie refuses.

Francis just laughs and waves the maid away.

Their friendship is always like that: Daine not quite sure what to do with Marinie, Marinie stubbornly keeping after Daine. It is rock-solid, unshakable, and utterly inexplicable.

***

Nealan of Queenscove is two years younger than Daine, has lived in the royal palace all his life, and is an utter brat.

To her immense surprise, Daine doesn't hate him.

He offers, pompously, to show her around the palace, and Daine is never sure quite why she accepts. Probably just to get him to shut up.

On the tour, though, Neal is quite thorough, full of wicked comments about everyone they pass (even the portraits), and quite diligent about making sure Daine learns all the tips, tricks, and shortcuts that only those who live in the palace would know. It is surprisingly considerate of him, and Daine is forced to reevaluate her opinion of him.

Neal's sharp tongue and affected ennui make him few friends, but Daine is proud to be one of them.

***

Keladry of Mindelan, Tortall's first lady knight, is not, at first, a friend. She is a polite acquaintance, a former sometime student, distant behind her reserved Yamani facade. Daine is in the crowd at Kel's Ordeal, and Daine is one of the people who catches the new knight when she staggers out, but that's only an accident of placement.

It isn't until later, during the Scanran War, when Daine has run herself ragged spying and relaying messages back and forth along the border, that they see each other again. Daine comes to Haven bearing, what else, more missives and damn near falls out of the sky, she is so spent.

A shadow falls across Daine as she lays, naked and too tired to be ashamed, in a little spot right below Haven's walls where nobody looking out is likely to see her. Daine looks up, blinking blearily, as the lady knight strips off her own tunic and pulls it deftly over Daine's head.

Kel smiles faintly at Daine's questioning blink. Interpreting it correctly, Kel says, "I have nieces and nephews, you know."

Daine can't help grinning. Kel pulls her to her feet and walks her slowly to the mess hall, supporting her without seeming to. Kel force-feeds her porridge, gets her more clothes (they look suspiciously like Neal's), and chats amiably with Daine in front of the mess hall fireplace until Daine feels human again, and the war returns.

They keep in contact as best they can, after that. Daine thinks, sometimes, that it keeps them both human.

***

The older Bazhir woman is exotic and intimidating behind her crisp veils, at first, but when Alanna shuts the door behind her and the woman is sure there are no men about, Kara strips off her face-veil and reveals herself to be just human.

Alanna serves tea, a smoky Saren blend that makes the Queen cry (which is why Alanna rarely serves it to her), and they sit in companionable silence for a while. Persopolis, despite its bustle, is strangely restful.

Daine thinks it might be an effect of the desert.

"How is the school going?" Alanna asks her sister, and as they set about discussing people and places Daine has no knowledge of, Daine's mind drifts.

She doesn't really know why she's here. The Scanran War is over; Daine should be back in Corus, helping Onua with the Rider ponies. It's Daine's job, it's what she hired on for, and it's the whole reason she stayed in Tortall.

Too bad the king doesn't let me alone for more'n a few weeks, Daine thinks, uncharacteristically bitter. Wild magic is too useful, and too leaky. Daine wishes she never had it, and immediately feels ashamed. She is more People than two-legger, sometimes, and wouldn't give up that kinship for the world.

"Daine?"

Daine jerks out of her reverie to find the two women regarding her solemnly. Alanna puts a hand on her wrist. "What do you think?"

Daine must look confused, because Kara laughs lightly and surveys her with dark, liquid eyes over the rim of her teacup. "I run a school for Bazhir orphans," Kara says. "Alanna tells me you are quite knowledgeable about animals, especially horses; we could use your knowledge."

Daine thinks it over, a bit surprised by the offer. She likes teaching, something that surprised her when Lord Alexander first badgered her into helping with the pages, and she is tired of Corus.

The thought of resigning as Onua's assistant is the only thing that gives her pause, but Daine is a woman grown, and she needs to find her own path. Onua wouldn't begrudge her this.

Besides, the desert is refreshingly empty, even in its city, and yet it is not sterile. The clamor of the People in the back of Daine's brain is far more manageable here, and for the first time, Daine's head feels like it's her own.

Daine looks up into Kara's knowing eyes, and makes her decision. "I'll do it."

Kara flicks back the ends of the green cord that holds her pure white veil atop her head, and smiles. "Welcome to Persopolis, Mistress Veralidaine." She takes both of Daine's hands in her own.

"Daine, please," Daine says, clasping back.

Kara's smile this time is as open and enchanting as her sister's.

***

Daine meets Lady Delia long before she is ever on friendly terms with the woman. The noblewoman takes one long, hard look at Daine, shortly after Daine arrives in Corus, then spins on her heel and stalks off without a word.

The fact that Delia acts exactly how Daine was raised to believe a noble should act towards a commoner does nothing to lessen the sting. Nor does it lessen the sting of all her later snubs, a whole constant string of them, that only ceases when they are not both in the same place. The lady formerly of Eldorne never says a word to her, never lets a flicker of warmth towards her cross her face, and never, ever takes her eyes off her.

Well, Veralidaine Sarrasri, Daine tells herself. It's not like everyone in the world can be expected to like you. But Daine has no idea what she has done to deserve this, and as time goes on it is painfully obvious that it is, in fact, something she has done, because Lady Delia is shockingly kind, in an acidic sort of way, to pretty much everyone else.

It isn't until years later, when Delia sits down, entirely uninvited, at Daine's table in her favorite Persopolis tea house that Daine finds out what it is.

"Your crush was blindingly obvious, my dear," Delia says finally, after a long few minutes where she sat and ordered her tea. Morbid curiosity is the only thing keeping Daine in her seat.

Delia is fixedly regarding her teacup; she is stirring her tea with elegant little swirling motions that Daine finds inexplicably annoying.

It takes a moment for her words to register. "What crush, my lady?" Daine asks.

Delia snorts. "I'm not precisely a lady anymore, Sarrasri, not if you listen to my father. I am referring to your crush on my husband."

Daine freezes. She hasn't thought about that - about him like that - in ages, and at the older woman's words, the memory of those feelings comes flooding back. "I got over that years ago, my lady," she forces out through numb lips.

Delia meets her eyes for the first time during this whole strange encounter. Her grass-green eyes pin Daine down like one of Lindhall's butterflies. "You never got over it," Delia says, "but I thank you for trying."

She takes her leave.

Daine sits there for a long time, until Kara comes to find her, still pinned to her seat by the memory of that knowing stare. She remembers the stories she heard around Corus, about the beautiful daughter of Eldorne who fell for a common man four years her junior and gave up her standing - and her family - to marry him. Neal told it to her as some breathless romance, but Thom and Alanna had both been gravely quiet when they spoke of it, and it isn't until now that Daine fully realizes why.

Numair never spoke of his wife at all, not to Daine. When she was a child, in shameful moments Daine doesn't like to remember, she hoped selfishly that was a hopeful sign. She is abruptly glad she never spoke those thoughts aloud, never openly admitted her crush, because now that she is older, she knows he was trying to be considerate.

Numair loves you so much no one else ever crosses his thoughts, Daine thinks, ruthlessly stifling the upwelling of envy.

They meet each year on the same day, after that, at the same time, in the same teashop, at the same table - Delia is more than capable of pulling rank to get it. They are like oil and water, the two of them, but they spin a fragile friendship nevertheless.

Numair never learns of their meetings.