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a shower of autumn leaves

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… but in my heart she will always be sixteen, standing with Ki in a swirl of bright autumn leaves as they declare their union before the people, with all their friends around them.

-- from a document fragment, discovered by the Guardian Nysander, in the easter tower of the Oreska house. (Oracle’s Queen, page 556)

--

Arkoniel had been perfecting the leaf spell for hours. He’d just nearly gotten the swirling pattern right. The dancing autumn leaves tumbled gracefully through the air in a shower of gold, amber and red, fluttering to the ground.

Wythnir squinted in concentration, tilting his head from one side to the other.

“A little more to the left, I think,” Arkoniel declared, settling his hands on his narrow hips. “Alright then, you’ll try it next.”

Wythnir hummed in agreement, then went to fetch more leaves.

--

There was someone in Tharin’s room, and they were crashing about. It was unlikely to be a real threat, but Tharin was Queen Tamír’s man first and a soldier besides, and he took no chances. He settled a hand on his sword as he swung the door open.

Ringtail was sitting just beyond the doorway. He yawned widely in greeting, showing off sharp teeth, as his tail swished from side to side. Beyond him, Tamír was half-obscured by the most elaborate gown Tharin had ever seen.

“Shut the door,” she hissed, fingers scrabbling at buttons and lacings. “And Sakor’s flame – help me out of this blasted thing or give me that sword and I’ll cut it off myself!”

Tharin bit back a chuckle, knowing it would not be appreciated. He shut the door and approached Tamír, squinting to get a better look at the dress’s various ties and clasps. It shone in the golden afternoon light filtering in from the windows, encrusted in jewels and beads. The skirts fanned out and swept the floor, and the fabric of the bodice had been carefully chosen to match Tamír’s eyes.

“That’s quite the gown,” he said, undoing a row of buttons that seemed a likely choice. Tamír sighed, holding her dark hair out of the way. Tharin finished with the buttons then turned around so she could have her privacy. “Sewn for a queen.”

“That must have been the idea,” Tamír grumbled amidst the rustling of fabric and her own muttered curses. “It certainly wasn’t sewn for me -- I asked for something I could run in. I barely made it all the way over here without falling on my face! There, you can turn around now.”

She had thrown on one of his old shirts and a pair of trousers, belted tightly around her still boyishly slim waist. The dress had been tossed unceremoniously over the nearest chair; Ringtail approached it curiously, sniffing here and there before he settled his bulk amidst the ruffles, purring contentedly.

Tamír herself settled crosslegged on the bed, sighing heavily. “That’s better,” she said.

“How did you make it all the way over here?” Tharin asked, settling down across from her. Another cat slunk out from beneath the bed and hopped on top of it, settling within petting range of Tamír. She stroked its back idly, chin propped up on one palm.

“Nari went to find my mother’s hairpins,” she explained, “and I told the seamstress that I simply just needed a bigger mirror to see the back in. Then, once she’d gone, I took the back way here. I figured they would check other rooms before this one.”

“You mean, you figured I would hide you,” Tharin corrected with a knowing smile. Tamír returned it wryly. “Well, you figured right. Have you eaten yet?”

“Before my fitting?” Tamír arched her eyebrows and gave a grim twist of her mouth. Tharin chuckled.

“Alright,” he said, getting up. “You stay hidden in here and I’ll see what I can do about a meal.”

Tamír, sitting in her ancestral home happy and whole with her dark warrior’s braids shining, would probably never know how proud he was of her and all that she’d done, and all he was sure she would do. But some good bread and cheese would probably go a long way towards that.

--

Lytia and the other women in the kitchen sent him away with knowing looks, a none too gentle swat and plenty of bread and cheese wrapped up in a napkin. He tried to follow Tamír’s example and take the quietest path to his rooms, but was thwarted when Nari poked her head out of a doorway and spotted him.

“Tharin!” she said. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen Ki around, have you?”

Her eyes bored into him, as if daring him to speak a lie. He shook his head and hoped she wouldn’t ask any questions about the food he was carting around in the middle of the afternoon.

“I can’t say I have,” he replied. Nari tutted, shaking her head.

“First Tamír, now Ki,” he said. “I swear, they’re as bad as each other. It’s a lucky thing they’re marrying each other – I don’t know who else would have either of them!”

“The young queen of Skala and a handsome warrior like Ki?” said Tharin. “I imagine there might be some takers.”

Nari fixed him with a dark look and then disappeared back the way she’d come, no doubt in search of Ki. Tharin hurried on his way, then stopped and backtracked. There were a pair of boots sticking out from behind a tapestry. Sighing, he pulled it aside and found Ki, shamefaced and dusty.

“Don’t turn me in, Tharin,” he said in a harsh whisper. “I’m begging you! I don’t know what she wants to stuff me in, but I think it had feathers!”

“All right,” Tharin allowed. He already had the one, he thought with a wry smile, what was the harm in hiding the other? “Come with me.”

--

Somehow, in the little time he’d been gone, Tamír had acquired both another cat, a stack of writing materials, and Baldus. The little page grinned at Tharin when he entered, and his eyes lit up when he caught sight of Ki skulking behind him.

So did Tamír’s, once she glanced up. She hastily stashed away whatever it was she’d been sketching, sitting up with her smile gone soft and wide.

It was hard to remember, but Tharin was fairly sure he’d worn that look around Rhius when they’d been that age. He shook his head with a smile and reflected that perhaps he should have tried harder to brave the kitchen’s wrath – at this rate they weren’t going to have enough bread to go around.

“Tharin rescued me,” Ki said, coming forward before catching sight of the dress still lying abandoned. First the corner of his mouth twitched and then he started to laugh in earnest. Tamír gave him a dark look.

“Don’t make fun,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “I know what they intend to put you in, and I’ve never seen so much dead poultry off of a dinner table before.”

The smile fell from Ki’s face. He sat down on the bed opposite of Tamír, mindful of the cats that lay between them. Somewhere in the middle their hands met, fingers tangling together. Tharin watched them from his corner of the room; it was times like these when the shadows fled from Tamír’s face, and it seemed to him at last that it was real, that all her ghosts had left for good.

It was a bittersweet thought. Sometimes Tharin felt like the ghosts had taken the quiet child he’d carted around on his shoulders all those years ago with them and left this strange brave warrior in his place. The solemn depths in her eyes, though, and the careful set of her jaw – that remained familiar.

“You don’t think it’s too late to run away, do you?” she asked Ki in a low whisper.

“I don’t think we’d make it past the gates, sorry to say,” Ki replied.

“We could fight our way past,” said Tamír. She held her head up high and gave Ki her best warrior look. He echoed it bravely.

“We could try,” he agreed. “Against armies, I would bet on us every time. Against Nari, though? That’s a different kettle of fish.”

There was a sound from just beyond the windows, a great howling like a sudden windstorm, and the afternoon light was obscured by a sudden multicolored jumble of leaves.

“Or,” Tharin said, distributing the food, “your wizard and his boy out there will kill us all first, and you won’t have to worry about any of that.”

--

Arkoniel picked the leaves from his own hair first, and then plucked a few from Wythnir’s hair. The boy was busy wringing his hands.

“I’m sorry,” he said in a terribly small voice. “It wasn’t supposed to do that.”

“It’s all right,” Arkoniel said, twirling a leaf behind his fingers. “Sometimes spells get away from us. We’re just lucky it was a relatively harmless one like this, and that no one was hurt.”

Wythnir nodded, still looking miserable. Arkoniel sighed internally and closed a hand over the boy’s shoulder, squeezing lightly. They had ducked aside when the leaves had started attacking like an angry flock of birds, and from his vantage point Arkoniel could see through the window of what he thought might be Tharin’s room.

He spotted two heads with familiar braids, bent close together, and bit back a slight smile. He was sure they both had other duties to attend today.

“Ah well,” he said to himself. “There’s no harm in it.”

“No harm?” Wythnir repeated, looking up at him with curious eyes. Arkoniel shook his head.

“I think we had probably best clean these leaves up,” he said, and his smile widened when Wythnir nodded enthusiastically. He spared one more look over his shoulder towards the window and chuckled a little to himself before he followed his student back out into the courtyard.