Clef walked through the forest steadily despite the anxious, quivering kind of feeling in his chest which made him want to run - forwards, away, he really didn’t know. His hands were trembling too much to pretend he didn’t know what this was, what Umi had meant by asking him to meet her in this place, so deep in the heart of Eleru that the air was heavy with the seeping power of the place, and walking was the only option.
“There’s a pool,” Umi had said, stood on the threshold of his study and glancing at him through the veil of her hair. “Deep and still, a little column beside it and a tree with branches just budding white flowers cascading over both. Do you know it?”
“It’s one of the old shrines,” Clef had told her, certain where she meant as soon as she mentioned the ‘little column’. “A shrine of elemental water, not just to Selece, though he would class as one linked to it. There are a few ancient places like that, which are so strongly linked to the existence of Cephiro that they will always remain, no matter how many times the land is reborn.”
“Is it abandoned, then?”
“No, not abandoned - forgotten by many, I suppose, but each soul who finds it knows it is sacred. That little column is an altar, to pour libations on. Some people will take water from their home spring and look for the shrine, offer up what they have brought in return for water of the pool to take home and bless their own spring. Others take water from the pool itself and pour it on the altar-stone, asking for a blessing on the prayer they make there.”
Umi nodded, slowly, and seemed to resolve herself on something. “Next week - next time we come to Cephiro. Would you meet me there, that afternoon? Just - you?”
He had taken a sharp breath, one which ached in his lungs while she watched warily from the door. “Just… me?”
“Yes. None of this.” She gestured around at the room, his staff propped in the corner, the work piled on the desk. “Just Clef.”
He knew from her hesitation, her emphasis, what her purpose was. His mind filled with a clear and ringing emptiness, and through it he heard his own voice saying ‘yes’.
Now he walked quietly though not calmly over the mossy ground. He felt like he should be floating without the weight of his mantle on his shoulders, the press of his coronet gone from his head. All the trappings of his role left behind, he was just a lone individual walking to an assignation with one who was never ‘just’ anything.
And… he’d felt foolish for thinking about it, but better a fool who planned for what didn’t come than one who didn’t plan at all, so he’d cast a particular form of protection before he stepped under the trees - a spell he’d not needed for centuries, at least.
(It had been so long since he’d had someone he was interested in being intimate with.)
There was a glint of light on water through the trees, another, then they parted; he halted at the edge of the grove. The pool was deep and dark, but not as still as he remembered it; Umi lay on the mossy bank with her fingertips swirling gently through the water. Even as he came to a halt, she looked up.
She smiled, and there was a calm in her expression that he’d never seen before, a certainty strong enough his own thundering pulse slowed a little. The very air of the grove was calm and steady, here under the high-branching trees of Eleru, dappled light and shade playing across the space between them. The tree whose graceful branches arched over the shrine at its roots and out over the deep water, ends just dipping down to touch the surface here and there, was a different kind entirely to those which stood sentry about the edges of the space. And it truly was coming into bud, something he’d never before witnessed. But his attention was drawn inescapably to the woman below those branches.
Clef took a breath and stepped across the threshold and into the bounds of the shrine itself. He was so intent on the smile Umi wore that it wasn’t until she moved to sit up that he realised her dress was the pale grey drape of a priestess; silver broaches catching it at shoulder and elbow, dark blue sash about her waist. But it wasn’t a surprise; he had already known he was presenting himself as her supplicant.
Who but the highest priestess of water would be at ease stirring the spring which held precedence over all the waters of Cephiro?
“I’ve come as you bid me, myself and no more.” He spoke more to say something than because he had anything to say, but the words came to his tongue like a ritual, like a new-made spell rising from his heart.
“No more, and no less.” Umi stood, still smiling, but came no closer. “Have you come with a prayer to make?”
The folds of cloth draped over her form as she moved and he was suddenly, shockingly certain she wore nothing under it, though the fabric wasn’t quite translucent enough to show if it was true. He swallowed hard as he came to the pool and kneeled at her feet to dip his hands into the coolness of the water. Cupping his hands, he got to his feet; a balancing act he’d not practised in years. He managed without letting too much spill from his fingers, turning and walking three steps to the pillar of old grey stone. The branches of the shrine-tree were full of tiny star-shaped flowers whose petals were still tucked together, but starting to loosen enough the space below was redolent with the scent.
There was a shallow basin in the top of the altar, half full of river-worn pebbles which already gleamed damply. From Umi’s own offering, probably. He studied them as he let the water slide over his fingers to wash them again; there was one for each river and stream in Cephiro. As long as these stones remained, so would those rivers.
His wish, prayer, was beyond him to express in words. But it had been clear in his mind from the moment a month ago when Umi kissed him on the cheek so close to his mouth that her lips just brushed his as she pulled away - and then she had avoided him until last week. But today none of those nerves seemed to be bothering her.
He turned to face her. “Umi…”
“You came.” Her voice was a soft murmur, not quite believing.
Clef shook his head. “You asked me to,” he said, and it was all the explanation he had, all the explanation he needed.
Umi stepped forward then, no more hesitations, and slid damp fingers over his neck and into his hair as she leant in to kiss him.
Her lips were soft, and Clef pressed into the touch as though it were inevitable; perhaps it was. He caught hold of her sash to steady himself, more than a little lightheaded as she pulled them flush together. Every breath he took was full of the incense-like scent from the tree, and his skin tingled slightly as one drop of water ran down from Umi’s hand to trace his neck and soak into the collar of his shirt. Umi pulled back, eyes dark, and traced that line unerringly with her tongue. Clef shook, and she pulled them both gently down to kneel on the soft ground, mouthing at his neck, the line of his jaw. He let his head fall back, and saw one of the flowers above burst open; then Umi made her way back to his mouth, and he closed his eyes to concentrate on returning the kiss.
Nipping at her lower lip, he let his hands slide slowly, reverentially, about her waist. And as soon as his arms were around her he had to pull her in as tight as he could, breath catching in his throat.
Umi laughed, the sound joyful, and he kissed his way down her neck and across her collarbone, gathered her hair up in careful hands so he could lick across her shoulder and pause to scrape his teeth over the curve where her shoulder met her neck. A moan caught in her throat, and then she tipped him down onto the moss.
They kissed like that for long dizzying minutes, Umi sat across his hips and savouring every press of lips to skin as she bent over him, her hair cascading about them and getting in the way more than once. The third time, she sat up with a sigh and gathered it, starting a quick and messy braid while Clef laughed. But his laughter stilled into something else before her elegant fingers finished their work. He ran his hands up her legs, sliding under the light cloth of her robes.
“Why did you ask me here?” He asked, and her fingers stilled on the last twists. There was as much power mantled over her shoulders in this place as usually sat on his own. “You could have come to me in the Castle, asked me to come with you to earth. Anything. But you asked me here. Why?”
She took a breath, and finished looping the end of her hair around in a knot which might even hold it for a little time. “Because here… there’s a certainty here which is greater than I am, and I… wanted to share that certainty, when I asked you.”
He smiled up at her. “You haven’t asked me anything, Umi.”
“Yes I have,” Umi said, and grinned at him. “And you know so.”
He did know. A blessing on their meeting and their future, on their union, here in this place - priestess-witnessed, this was a sanctifying and a remaking and a beginning washed clean of the weight of their pasts. And by coming, by stepping into the grove with her, he had answered her question - did he want to share this with her?
Yes. With all his heart.
He reached up and slid a hand around her neck, pulled her laughing down to him and kissed her more urgently, open-mouthed, until they were both gasping. Clef twisted, and Umi let him turn them until she was the one cushioned on the moss with Clef cradled between her legs. Now as they kissed, they rocked together. Her legs slid up and up until she had hooked her knees about his back, curling into him. The cloth of her robes slid down to gather between their hips, and he reached with shaking hands to grasp it and pull it up, out of the way, even as her hands were tugging his top from his trousers and fumbling with the fastenings on them both.
She tried to push his trousers down as soon as they loosened, but he caught her hand and kissed her mouth, her neck, and slid his other hand between them. He pulled back to watch her face as he pressed between her folds, until he brushed a fingertip against a nub which made her shudder violently against him, eyes gone wide. She whispered his name, bit her lip - he pressed again, made small circles there with increasing pressure until she was bucking up into the touch and clinging with arms and legs both. Moving carefully, he slid his fingers lower into the slick heat, and pressed in - just one finger, slowly. Umi thumped back against the ground and arched into him. And then he crooked that finger inside her, pulled it back. She jolted against him, heels digging into his back as she tried to pull him closer.
So he did it again, and again, his own heartrate increasing as he watched the flush spread across her face and down her neck, across her chest. Added a second finger, sliding in easily, and curled over her to press his mouth to hers - not even a kiss so much as breathing together.
When she said his name again, a demand, he slid fingers out and let her draw him closer, moving slowly as he could, trembling all over as he pressed into the slick heat of her.
For a moment, they both stilled, staring at each other in something like shared awe; then she wrapped her arms more firmly about his shoulders and urged him on.
It could have been minutes, it could have been hours; they found a rhythm together, lost it - found another, slow and building and inexorable. He gasped prayers into her mouth, let her take them from him; let her take everything he had, until the entire world seemed to shudder with them and she flung her head back and cried out, pulling him tighter - pulling him over with her.
Some time later, he pulled out as gently as he could - Umi gasped again as they separated, and then laughed; he pressed a kiss to that laugh, then lay beside her on the cool ground, looking up to the sky. But none of it was visible anymore - the entire world was canopied by delicate white, the tree above them now in full blossom.
He reached for Umi’s hand and held it, lacing their fingers together and staring up in wonder. That, he supposed, was as clear a blessing as anyone could wish for.