As the season turned and the year spun along on its axis, a man of Betronett came to Astorre to see a friend he should not have had.
This one wore no disguise – it would have been difficult to hide his height, or his yellow hair, or the distinguished scars fading across one cheek – and had his commander’s permission and blessing. On his first day in the city he visited the market and went to see a play that was being touted, which bore the name of an author he did not know and made him laugh until the end, when he found that there were tears on his face. Afterwards, he headed to a tavern and sat in the corner by the window, with a pie and a mug of local ale.
The tapster, coming to refill it, noticed the playbill on the table. ‘Did sir enjoy the theatre?’
‘It was passable. I liked the part where the love-lorn swain was transformed into – an antelope, was it?’
‘Gazelle,’ said the tapster tenderly.
Emaris looked up at him. It was hard to imagine a less remarkable-looking person: low stature, stooped shoulders, dun-colored hair with the curl brushed out of it, an indifferently symmetrical face. But the eyes were shining.
‘Will you come home with me?’ Savonn Silvertongue asked, and Emaris gathered up his things and followed him, just as he was always doing.
The rooms Savonn led him to were on the third floor of a shop near the playhouse, without much furniture but already feeling full: the parlor housed several musical intruments, a shabby brocade chaise longue and a collection of brightly-coloured cushions on the floor. It reminded Emaris of one of Savonn’s boltholes, until he realised that this was no bolthole at all, but a home. Beyond the curtained doorway would be the bedroom.
‘Where’s your red-headed friend?’ he asked as Savonn poured the wine.
‘Alas, no longer red-headed; there are still too many people who knew us in Astorre. How fortunate,’ he passed the cup to Emaris with a courtly gesture, ‘that I do not bestow my affections solely on looks. He’s out tonight. We are not joined at the hip, you know.’
Emaris looked sceptical. In truth, he was glad he did not have to encounter the man who had been the Empath just yet. Those weeks in Bayarre, he had found Dervain Teraille no longer terrifying, but diffident and snappish by turns: clearly uncertain of how to behave in the life unexpectedly granted to him. Savonn had filled all the silences, quietly glowing with happiness: the two of them never touched before company but moved around each other like planets in orbit, the air shivering between them. It had been only a little painful to watch.
Emaris drank his wine, sprawled on the cushions with Savonn reclining on the chaise above him. The summer nights were already growing cool, here in the mountains, but they made no move to light the stove.
Emaris told him about doings in Cassarah and about his patrol, the prank that Vion and Lomas had recently played on Klemene and the punishment that he had administered for it, which made Savonn laugh. Hiraen, he steered clear of mentioning; he knew that he and Savonn wrote to one another. That subject was still delicate, forgiveness half-healed like a scab: Emaris thought he could already glimpse the shape of the scar that it would leave, one day, but it would not bear prodding.
In exchange, Savonn gave him a new song and a storehouse of Astorre theatre gossip, which seemed to be both more complex and more vicious than any war or blood feud. It reminded him:
‘In your – in the play that I saw,’ Emaris said, craning his neck over his shoulder. ‘The wizard who turns the prince into a beast so he can take over the kingdom.’
‘The evil wizard,’ Savonn concurred.
‘Yes, that’s just it. That’s what everyone calls him. But you feel for him by the end: it’s like he knows he’s playing a set part and can’t do anything to stop it. Like the lines have been written for him, and if he can only escape…’
‘He cares for the prince, in fact,’ Savonn said. ‘But that’s how theatre differs from life.’
‘Because you can escape the plot, or you can’t?’
‘Oh, I don’t know.’ He leaned his chin on the edge of the chaise, his tiredness a pale shadow of how he had looked in those last days, before Bayarre. ‘Because one can hope to track down the author, I suppose, no matter how cunning his pseudonym. But don’t you ever feel it – the urge to change the script?’
‘All the time,’ Emaris sighed, knowing it to be unfair. They had already changed the script so often: it should have been a much more tragic story, given the seeds of revenge and secrecy from which it sprung. One couldn’t possibly ask for more.
‘Well, then,’ Savonn said, and something in his voice was a warning. Run, Emaris expected, or duck. Instead, his hand with its sword and lute-string calluses brushed over Emaris’s cheek, turning him back toward the chaise, where Savonn’s mouth was waiting for him.
It was a soft, lingering kiss, his first, and Emaris was frozen beneath it, like the fable about the statue coming to life in reverse. It was only the third time that Savonn had ever deliberately touched him.
In all the tumult of his feelings, he was aware most strongly of indignation. He and Savonn were now far more to each other than knight and squire, yet that more was still something chivalrous, inchoate and unspoken. To have what they shared, he had had to pack up all his adolescent desires and seal them in a chest deep inside himself, never to be opened. It was unworthy of Savonn now to hammer at the lock.
‘Savonn,’ he said reproachfully, when it was over. ‘This isn’t – it isn’t funny.’
‘I should hope not. One aims for an absence of buskins or socks.’
It was important, as ever, to strike the right tone. ‘And what would your lover think, if you were debauching soldiers in his absence?’
‘That I might consider doing it in his presence.’ He lay back on the chaise, the picture of louche elegance: entirely unconcerned if one did not know him. ‘We are two halves of the same soul, you see. There is no space for jealousy between us, and no more secrets.’
If Dervain was out for the night then, one part of Emaris’s mind supplied, this must have been premeditated. Savonn always had a plan, even if it was likely a terrible plan that would leave casualties in its wake.
In the deepest, most hidden places where he had ever imagined this happening, he had always pictured himself being guided, uncertain and trembling, into Savonn’s arms. Instead, there was only the old annoyance: Savonn, getting them both in over their heads yet again.
Well, he would have to take the consequences. Reaching for his wrist, Emaris used it to pull him down onto the cushions and hold it to the floor above his head, pinning him.
‘Oh gazelle,’ said Savonn, delighted, and then in a voice he had never used before, ‘Emaris.’
Emaris stopped and looked down at him for a long moment: flushed and breathless, like something out of a dream. His desires, clawing out of their chest, made a cacophany: he hardly knew what he wanted to do first, only that he wanted. In the end, he leaned in and pressed his lips to the fine skin at Savonn’s temple and then down, over the line of his jaw to the corner of his mouth. He kept a hard grip on his wrist, though he had no illusions that he could hold Savonn restrained, if Savonn did not wish to be. But the acrobat’s body was pliant beneath his – too perfectly pliant.
‘Savonn,’ Emaris said, lifting his head, ‘if you’re doing this out of – some idea of reward, or debt…’
‘As I said once before, sunflower – in your hearing or not, I can’t remember, though I suppose most things I say are in your hearing one way or another… My bed is not a marketplace. That, Dervain really would object to.’ Savonn’s free hand was on his face again, moving gently over the fading scars. ‘One may wish to give something without it paying a debt, or incurring one.’
‘But why?’ Emaris demanded, hating his own helplessness. He sat back on his heels, trying to get some space to think. ‘Why now?’
Savonn dropped his arm but stayed where he had been put. ‘I’m not blind, naturally. But all the time you knew me, before, I had nothing to give at all. And now I am – brimful, overflowing. Still,’ his mouth twisted, self-mocking, ‘I suppose it was really a spirit of contrarianism, as usual.
‘I had a letter from Iyone, with input, I gather, from your sister. She’d heard about your coming visit, and she wrote urging me to cut you loose – to let you go. Like lancing a wound: hurt in the short term, but the best possible chance for you to forget me, and to find your own happiness elsewhere.’ He paused delicately. ‘Apparently offers have been made?’
Offers had been made, and rejected, for reasons that had nothing – had very little to do with Savonn. He cursed himself for ever confiding in Shandei, the inveterate gossip. It had seemed funny at the time: the idea that he might tumble someone he barely knew in an upstairs room at an inn, after everything he had seen and felt over the last year.
Ignoring his blush, Emaris pressed on. ‘But you decided not to listen? Because you don’t like being dictated to?’
‘Because I couldn’t do it,’ Savonn answered, quiet and devastasting. ‘I’m not a merchant, you see, I’m a thief. Always taking things that don’t belong to me, the brighter and more precious the better.’
There was only one thing Emaris could say to that, and so he said it: like lancing a wound. ‘I do belong to you. Not because you stole me – you tried to force me away often enough. Not on the off chance you’d go to bed with me, or because I haven’t had a better offer. Because I choose to.’ He changed his grip on Savonn’s hand to that their fingers were entwined for an instant, and then let go. ‘I’m not yours to seduce or to send away. I’m just yours.’
It was a relief after all to have it said, and to know that Savonn understood: that he even felt it too, in his way. Many rooms in Savonn’s heart, and a home for him in one of them: not the same, of course, but his own. Any time you wish, for as long as you want.
‘And yet,’ Savonn noted, after a long still moment, ‘the option of seduction remains decidedly—’
He pressed upward, testing, so that Emaris had to shift his weight forward to keep him down, and oh, he noted distantly, Savonn actually liked that: not all of the scandalised way he arched into it was a pretense. He felt singularly ill-equipped to take advantage of this knowledge.
‘Hush a minute,’ he said, and to his surprise, Savonn hushed. Emaris gazed out over his head, considering. Past the chaise longue there was a tall window, held closed by a latch, through it a little balcony where some scraggly pots of herbs grew, and beyond that all the gables of Astorre spilling out over the valley, lit up softly in its cup of mountains.
He had to think like Savonn now, and also like someone who had grown to manhood following after Savonn and loving him, but who did not wish to be subsumed by him, any more than Savonn truly wished to subsume.
He looked down at the man himself, still lying carelessly among the cushions, but his face imperceptibly changed: a curtain drawn between the acts. Emaris tried to imagine leaning in again to kiss him, to pull back that curtain and all the other layers of disguise that Savonn wore with his clothes, to be carried down with him somewhere beyond thought. It felt just as impossible now as it had ever been, even with everything that had been spoken between them.
‘All right,’ he said at last.
Savonn stared up. ‘All right?’
‘All right, you can have your wicked way of me, or however the lady Governor would put it. As long as you want. As long as I want, and he wants. As long…’ Savonn must have felt him tense, in the moment before the spring: he was already rising up on his elbows to follow, laughing, his dyed hair tumbling in his eyes. ‘As long as you can catch me,’ Emaris said, and flung the window open onto the rooftops and the summer night.