There was something wrong with the Shadowhand.
It was subtle; from the outside, the man was as composed and as polished as ever. But Caleb had been spending a lot of time with him, and Caleb was nothing if not observant. He was sharper, more critical than Caleb had ever known Essik to be, and while practicing dunamancy was normally one of Caleb’s favorite activities, the afternoon had made it something of a chore. It was in the way Essik moved: his spellwork was...strained, and his concentration waned. He was irritable, and nothing Caleb could do seemed to help ease the irritability, no matter how flawlessly and fast Caleb learned. They had been at this particular spell for hours, and it was beginning to become a problem that would reach a boiling point soon.
“No no no, you are doing it wrong!” Essik snapped, for the fourth time this afternoon. He ran one hand through his cropped hair and the other along the spellbook, tracing arcane ruins with long fingers. “The pronunciation is el-sol-la-de , not el-sal-la-de , you--”
Caleb snapped back. “I would have done that if you said so earlier instead of just handing me a book written in Undercommon and expecting me to just 'figure it out'--”
“I don’t expect you to just figure it out, I expect you to use your brilliantly gifted mind and--” Essik stopped mid-sentence and rubbed his face with his hand, his eyes scrunched shut. He took a deep breath before speaking again. “I’m sorry. I am being unkind.”
You think? Caleb thought, but didn’t say out loud. Instead, he merely nodded in agreement; Essik had been uncharacteristically unkind towards him all afternoon.
“Perhaps we should take a break. I’ve been pushing you hard, and it’s not your fault. Dunamancy is a difficult school of magic to learn even on the best days, and we’ve been going at it for hours now,” The gentleman moved to sit down on the couch in the library/lab, and he gestured for Caleb to follow.
They sat together in quiet stillness for a moment; Essik stared out of the window, lost in his own thoughts, and Caleb stared at Essik. The other man was tired, Caleb realized, and clearly stressed about something, but what the young wizard couldn’t hazard to guess.
“You have been off all day,” Caleb broke the silence, sitting down next to the drow on the opposite end of the couch. “Is everything alright?”
Essik brushed him off immediately. “It is a personal matter. I should not allow it to interfere with my work.”
“What bothers you so?” Caleb tried again, his curiosity peaked. It wasn’t often that he saw the Shadowhand as raddled as much as he was. Essik stopped, his face scrunched in hesitation, which made Caleb wince in sympathy. “If it’s too personal, you do not have to--”
“No,” the drow shook his head. “I should talk to someone about it. And you are a neutral party, from a different culture. Perhaps you could advise me in ways others could not.”
Caleb bowed his head slightly. “I’ll do my best.”
“Right. I, uh,” the Shadowhand stumbled with his words uncharacteristically, stilling looking not at Caleb but at the dark window, as if it might hold the answer he was looking for. “I’m getting married.”
Oh . That was unexpected. “Congratulations?” He said, hesitantly. The thought of Essik getting married was...unanticipated.
Of course Essik would be getting married, Caleb thought with uneasy queasiness. He was a powerful, beautiful young man, with an important career and a lot of political influence. Of course he would have caught the attention of someone special, somebody young and beautiful, somebody not at all like Caleb.
“It is not my choice,” Essik bit his lip, turning his attention away from the window and looking at Caleb’s face once more. “You know I am--young, right? Not compared to you and your kind, but in elvish terms I am barely grown,” Caleb nodded in agreement. It was difficult to comprehend 200 years old as a young person, but when a species lived to be in the thousands, it was easier to acknowledge. “I’ve accomplished a lot in my short life, which is made even more impressive given that my soul is not consecrated, and this is only my first life. But, ah, my amille , my mother, she, ah, thinks I need to wed. For the good of House Theylas.” The drow shook his head in disagreement. “She’s arranged for me to meet with and betrothed myself to a young woman from Den Olios, and I--I do not wish to.”
“Because you do not like this young woman?” Caleb venture a guess.
“Because I do not like any women,” Essik’s face flushed a darker purple, and he hid his face in his hands. “For a woman who has lived 800 years and three separate lifetimes, you’d think my mother would understand that!”
“Ah,” Caleb winced in sympathy. “Admittedly, I still do not know much about your culture. Is such a thing frowned upon?”
He wanted to ask Essik, since he apparently didn’t like women, if preferred the company of men, but he didn’t want to assume. For all Caleb knew, the Shadowhand was like Caduceus, and didn’t want to be with anyone, no matter their gender. A small part of Caleb--a part he didn’t like to acknowledge--rather hoped that the Shadowhand did prefer men.
Men like Caleb, even, although that part remained wisely unsaid.
He also wondered if Essik’s face would always be such a delightful shade of dark purple. “It’s not frowned upon. Ah, we are a reincarnation society, right? So sometimes a pair of veru come back the same gender as before, or different. My father, he was a man when he married my mother, but when he was reborn he came back as a woman. She and my mother are no longer together, because they never vowed atemay , but they could be together if they wanted to, yes? It doesn’t matter that they are both women.”
Caleb cocked an eyebrow. “But it matters that you don’t wish to marry a woman?”
Essik sighed. “It--it does. It’s--it’s important for there to be children, yes? Especially in powerful dens, there needs to be heirs, because we reincarnate. Because I am the highest ranking member of my family, I’m considered Den Theylas’s heir, despite being my mother’s youngest child.”
It was starting to make sense to Caleb. “Because you are the Shadowhand.”
“Because I am the Shadowhand,” Essik repeated with a groan, leaning over to place his head in his hands. “I could--I could solve everything if I just stopped being the Shadowhand. My sister Meela would be my mother’s heir then, and Meela is already married with two children.”
That sounded like a terrible solution to Caleb. “But you don’t want to stop being the Shadowhand.”
“I love my job,” Essik agreed, with a pained expression. “What I do is important , to the Dynasty, to the Bright Queen, and to the study of dunamancy. I would hate to leave it.”
The thought was curious, however. “What would you do then, if you weren’t the Shadowhand?”
“I don’t know,” Essik answered honestly. “It wouldn’t be this, though,” he gestured around the room to where he and Caleb had spent most of the afternoon training and studying. A lump began to form in the back of Caleb’s throat at the thought of what Essik was implying: if Essik was no longer the Shadowhand, he would not be the person assigned to watch over and guide the Mighty Nein. Someone else would take his place.
Caleb tried to imagine somebody else in Essik’s role as their guide. In his mind, he pictured someone who would be less kind to their diverse group of adventurers. Someone who might have a problem with the fact that they planted a giant tree on the roof, or someone who would take issue with the fact that Caleb and Beau were humans. Someone who wouldn’t teach him dunamancy, and someone who wouldn’t be nearly as amused as Essik often was at their antics.
Someone less attractive, almost certainly, and that was reason enough for Caleb to protest. “Well, we cannot have that, then.”
“But I don’t know what else to do ,” Essik sighed, his head hung down low. “My mother is the Den Mother for all of Den Theylas. She’s an incredibly powerful Warlock and an uncanny politician. More importantly, she’s very good at getting what she wants, and she’s been trying to arrange a marriage for me for years. I’ve outsmarted her before, but I don’t know...I don’t know how to get out of it, this time.”
Caleb leaned over closer to Essik, so that his knee was barely brushing against Essik’s. “Is there anyone else you could get help from? Would the Bright Queen assist you in any way, if you appealed to her? You serve on her Council--surely that must account for something.”
“The Bright Queen and my mother have been friends since before I was born,” Essik shook his head. “If I went to her with this, she would side with my mother, and then I’d really have no hope. The Bright Queen’s word is law.”
“Could you suggest an alternate partner? Maybe the young lady from Den Olias has a brother?”
“She doesn’t, I’ve already looked. And if my mother is the one doing the arranging, then all she will care about is me having an heirs,” Essik rubbed his wrist with concern. “Which means a--a lady, a wife.”
“Which you don’t want.”
“I prefer men ,” Essik confessed, and Caleb stomach flipped a bit happily. He had assumed, given Essik’s dilemma, but it was still nice to know he and the Shadowhand had that in common. “Sexually. Romantically. I don’t dislike women. But I cannot imagine myself ever being in a relationship with one. At least happily.”
It was a shame, too, because Essik was quite handsome, in Caleb’s opinion. It would be a terrible waste: Essik, with his beautiful smile and sharp chin, trapped in a loveless marriage, forced to spend--however obscenely long it was that drow lived for--with a woman he didn’t know and didn’t love.
At least if the girl in question were human, he’d only have to wait less than a tenth of his lifespan.
A surge of brilliance struck through Caleb as an idea slowly began to take form. “What if you were already promised to another?”
That caught Essik’s attention. “How do you mean?”
“Could your mother marry you off if you were already engaged to someone else?” Caleb asked, his knees brushing against Essik’s on the couch.
Essik paused, his mouth frowning. “No--I, no, she couldn’t. Don’t get me wrong, polyamory is a thing here,” Good to know. “But once a bond has been established, no one outside of the bond can decide to extend it, no matter how much influence they may have.”
“Then it’s settled,” Caleb beamed, pleased with his own cleverness. “We’ve got to find you a husband, before your mother finds you a wife.”
Essik smiled at him softly, but it was not the overjoyed ‘ah, Caleb, you are so terribly brilliant’ smile Caleb had hoped it would be. “I wish it were that simple,” Essik shook his head. “But my mother is crafty . She will want to interrogate whoever I’ve chosen to marry, and she would have to approve of the match in order for it to go through. And I have,” he looked outside of the window at the dark day out there, “very little time to find someone.”
Caleb raised an eyebrow at Essik. “Would your mother ever accept a human?”
“You can’t be serious,” Essik breathed, catching on with the finer, unsaid aspects of Caleb’s plan.
“Why not?” Caleb shrugged. “We work well together. Better yet, we can convince the rest of the Nein to collaborate with our story. No one will argue too much with the Heroes of the Dynasty, no?” The red head leaned back on the couch, stretching slightly. “I have no other prospects for the moment. And I live a much shorter lifespan than you.”
“You are serious,” Essik’s eyes grew impossibly wider. “Widogast, that’s insane. ”
“ Why? Lots of reasons!” The drow exclaimed, jumping up from the couch so he could pace the room. “We barely know each other! We’re--we’re from different worlds , two different countries, different cultures, different races--we can’t--we couldn’t possibly convince my mother that we were lovers, much less engaged! I’ve known you less than a month!”
“People do crazy things all the time, especially when they are in love,” Caleb smirked at his teacher. “Haven’t you ever been in love before?”
The Shadowhand turned to glare at him with his arms crossed. “I’m a little less than two hundred years old. What do you think?”
Caleb thought a lot of different things, and could have said as much, but he didn’t. Instead, he stood up and walked closer towards Essik. “It’s just a con, you know? Just a bunch of lies told together, to tell a semi-plausible story.” He stepped even closer towards Essik, until the two of them were face to face. It might’ve just been the atmosphere of their conversation, but Caleb felt taller than Essik for once. “You mean to tell me that you , Essik Theylas, Shadowhand of the Bright Queen, spymaster of the Dynasty , have problems lying?”
Essik flung his arms apart, poking Caleb in the chest. “It’s not my ability to lie that concerns me, Widogast. It’s yours .”
Caleb couldn’t help but chuckle. “Believe it or not, Shadowhand, but I’m quite an experienced con-artist. Nott and I used to run a con similar to this back before we joined up with the rest of the Nein, actually.”
Essik raised an eyebrow. “You and the little goblin girl used to pretend to be married for an extensive period of time?”
“Well, it wasn’t exactly the same,” Caleb blushed, stretching the back of his head. “ I--I, uh, pretended to be her father, actually.”
“Ah. And how did that go?” Essik looked a little impressed, though still a bit skeptical.
“It worked, for a while. Better in some towns than others. Made a decent amount of money at it. Kept us fed and dry. Certainly worked longer than this particular con would need to.”
Essik shook his head, turning away from Caleb and staring down at his feet. For a moment, Caleb had the strangest thought that the man was about to leave , just walk out of the Xhorhouse and never come back. But he didn’t. Instead, he turned back to face Caleb, his expression cold and methodical, as if their conversation was a game, and he needed to think 2000 steps ahead of Caleb in order to win.
“And what, exactly, do you get out of this, Caleb Widogast? I doubt you are willing to help me this much out of the kindness of your heart.”
Caleb shrugged. “I figure the Shadowhand of the Dynasty owing me a favor is a good thing to have.”
“None of that,” Essik snapped, stepping closer to Caleb. “I don’t play those games. Be specific about what you want, or stop wasting my time.”
Damn . Caleb had hoped to get by with a favor. A favor could be anything; a favor was negotiable, depending upon what the party in question was asking for.
Well, he’d just have to make due, then. He stepped closer to Essik, until the two gentlemen were face to face, merely breaths apart. “I figure as your husband, I might have access to your spellbook,” Caleb breathed, his face inches from Essik’s own. “You know. What’s mine is yours and all that.”
“Absolutely not,” Essik’s face flushed with what was quickly becoming Caleb’s favorite shade of dark purple. “I have some very powerful, very confidential spells--I could never just give you my spellbook.”
“But you could let me look at the rest,” Caleb gave a counteroffer. “Hide the confidential parts, and let me study at my leisure.”
The drow took a step back away from him, lost in his own thoughts. Caleb could tell he was considering the idea, and he tried not the get too giddy at the prospect.
Conversing with Essik like this was...exhilarating, in a way nothing in his life had been since he had been at the Academy. He had missed this, he realized suddenly. Verbally sparring with someone of equal intelligence was a game he had forgotten he missed.
It reminded him of how he used to talk with Astrid, actually. But that was a thought to analyze at a different time.
“Or you could get married,” Caleb teased, perhaps a bit mean, his thoughts returning from his former flame. He turned away from Essik, running his hand along the table in the center of the room, taking his time as he spoke. He could be terribly patient when he needed to. “You know, if the lady from Den Olios looks anything like the Den Mother Zethris, she’ll be quite beautiful. You’ll have that to work in your favor at leas--”
“The whole book,” Essik interrupted, stretching out his hand for Caleb to take. “Minus the confidential parts. And only while I’m around for you to copy it.”
Caleb grinned, and shook his hand firmly. “It’s a deal, then.”
“And if you blow yourself up with time magic, well, that’s just one less thing for me to worry about,” Essik grimaced, letting go of Caleb’s hand. He turned his back on Caleb, turning towards the table in the center of the room, with spellbooks and scrolls still opened up to various different dunamantic spells. Methodically, Essik began packing up, putting each book and scroll back in it’s case.
“It wouldn’t have to be real, you know,” Caleb offered, his voice quiet as he followed the drow around the room. “The Mighty Nein, we are planning to leave for a bit anyway. Have an errand to run in Nicodranas. You could try and find a legitimate partner while I’m gone, and we could, ah, break up when I return,” Caleb seemed unbothered by the prospect. “Or you said it yourself, that polyamory is a thing here. If you found another whose company you preferred, I would not be opposed. Or we could separate, after a time. When you thought it was safe,” Essik didn’t answer him.
Caleb watched Essik as he meticulously placed several books back into his bag, seemingly intent on ignoring Caleb. “That is a thing here, right? Divorce?” Caleb asked with genuine curiosity. If it wasn’t, perhaps that would be why Essik was so hesitant. “When two married people don’t want to be together anymore, they can separate legally?”
“We call it annulment, but yes, that’s a thing here,” Essik paused his packing momentarily to look back at Caleb. “It’s not terribly common, but it does exist. It--it wouldn’t be out of the question for me to seek an annulment.”
“Then perfect!” Caleb beamed, clapping his hands together. “We get married, you let me copy your spellbook, your mother gives up on finding you the perfect bride, and then we go our separate ways as friends and--”
Essik kissed him.
It was strange, being kissed by Essik. Sure, the drow man was incredibly attractive, but Caleb hadn’t thought to ever do anything about that, beyond a nighttime fantasy or two. What started as a simple press of lips quickly grew more passionate , as Caleb opened his mouth, and Essik opened his. Caleb was pushed with his back up against the table, as Essik had one hand flat against the table and the other crawling across the length of Caleb’s back. Caleb kept his hands pressed in the space between Essik’s neck and jawline, fingers tracing upwards towards white hair and pointed ears.
Essik kissed Caleb the same way lightning came with a storm, sudden and unexpected, a hot surge of energy radiating against Caleb’s skin. Caleb felt like his entire body was on fire; each place the drow kissed or touched left smoldering in its absence.
He didn’t know how long they kissed for. But they had to breathe at some point. Essik pulled away slow, then rested his forehead against Caleb’s own. “Well. That was nice.”
“Were you concerned?” Caleb asked, catching his breath, his back made uncomfortable by the way the table was digging into it, but unwilling to move any farther out of Essik’s embrace.
“Of course. I had to make sure we were compatible in that way,” Essik was teasing him, although it was hard to tell based on how serious his voice sounded. “For all I knew, you were a bad kisser. I couldn’t marry you if you were a bad kisser.”
“Hmm, well,” Caleb grinned, licking his lips where Essik’s had been moments ago. “Glad I passed the test.”
Essik smiled at him, a little coyly, and then kissed Caleb on the forehead. “I would not ask anything of you that you would be unwilling to do.” The drow promised, both of his hands on Caleb’s cheeks. “But my mother has a soft heart. If she thought I genuinely loved someone, she would support me, no matter who they were. We--we would need to convince her that we were in love, though.”
More kisses then. In public, where people could see. Certainly, there were worse things than kissing a handsome man in public. Caleb nodded, and bit his lip at the thought of kissing Essik again. “Ja. I can do that.”
“And--drow society is not always kind to outsiders,” he ran one hand down the side of Caleb’s face. “You would-- I would expect my cousins to be better people, but I cannot promise that they would not be unkind to you. There would be--rumors and gossip, always . My immediate family in particular may not be warm or friendly, especially at first.”
“It is nothing worse than what I have already endured,” Caleb confessed. Given everything he had already lived through, he could handle a few gossiping tongues. “And you are teaching me dunamancy. I feel it is only fair for me to help you given how you have helped me.”
Essik smiled, reaching out and taking Caleb’s hand into his own. “Your hand in marriage, in exchange for dunamacy lessons?”
Caleb rolled his eyes. “Well, when you put it that way--”
“I am being serious,” Essik said softly. “You don’t know how much this means to me. You,” he stopped and squeezed Caleb’s hand. “If this works, you’ll have saved my life.”
Caleb could tell he meant those words. Whether that meant Essik would have ended his own life to avoid a loveless marriage, or if he just meant that his life wouldn’t have been worth living, Caleb couldn’t tell.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Caleb whispered. “I don’t--I am not always the best at realizing what that is at times, but I know this is right. I would want someone to do the same for me, if I were in your shoes.”
Essik kissed him again, softly this time, and he pulled away far quicker than Caleb would have liked. Instead, he took Caleb’s hands and brought them to his lips, kissing both hands, one, and then the other. “You bring me honor by considering me as a partner.”
His words sounded solemn, like those of a vow, but Caleb didn’t know the context beyond that. It felt important, however, so Caleb remained silent, and let Essik speak. “I promise you loyalty, first to my Den, of which you will become a part, then to my Dynasty, and lastly to our line, that it may be prosperous. I promise you hearth and health, for as long as I am able to provide it, and that you may always have a home in Den Theylas, no matter what life you take on next. Above all, I promise to be your partner, in life and in love, through failure, sorrow, triumph, and joy, so long as you should have me as your husband,” Essik’s face glowed slightly. He then took off his cloth belt, and wrapped the fabric tightly around Caleb’s right wrist.
They were quiet for a moment as Caleb admired the newfound cloth bound tightly along his wrist. It was dark in color, like most of the clothes Essik wore, but it was silk, a nice fabric, and there was a recognizable emblem of Den Theylas sewed on it. The wrapping was tight, but not uncomfortable, and in hindsight, Caleb had seen others with their wrists bound like this that he had passed on the street. It’s like a ring, he thought, and felt his cheeks color. “I don’t know what to say.”
“ Yes is the preferred answer, given that this was your idea,” Essik kissed his clothed hand again.
“I imagine the Empire has a slightly different traditional proposal?”
“It’s much simpler,” Caleb felt his face flush. “But, ah, seems less romantic in comparison.”
“What’s it like?” Essik asked with curiosity, and Caleb recognized the gleam of someone who wanted to learn as a kindred spirit.
He knelt down on one knee before Essik, taking the other man’s hand into his own. “Will you marry me?” He asked, fully aware of how red his face was. Essik didn’t seem to mind, as he was still smiling at Caleb.
“Oh, much simpler,” the drow grinned, squeezing Caleb’s hand. “Yes.”
“Traditionally, I’d have a ring, too, but you caught me a bit off-guard.”
“Any ring?” Essik asked, taking one off his fingers and offering it to Caleb, who was still kneeling.
“ Nein , not quite,” Caleb laughed, putting the gold ring back on Essik’s hand, the mimicry of an actual proposal. “It should be something we pick out together.” He stood up and kissed Essik again, softly and quickly, the way he might’ve if he had actually proposed to someone.
For a moment, he imagined that it was real. That he and Essik had fallen deeply, madly in love, in such a short time that they’d known each other, and decided tonight to promise themselves to each other. He could picture it, easily. The drow shly inviting him to dinner, late one evening after a long day of dunamancy practice. After an evening of witty banter and stimulating intellectual arguments, they’d retire to Essik’s private library, where the Shadowhand would try to impress him with his collection. But for once in his life, Caleb would be more distracted by his partner than he would be the collection of books. They’d kiss then in the library, hesitant at first but growing until the late hour demanded Caleb return to the Xhorhouse, alone but gifted with an overactive imagination and the promise of a second date.
After that, their relationship would move quickly; soft, hesitant kisses exchanged for evenings spent in one another’s bedchambers. When they were exhausted, they’d trade stories and secrets to one another. In his mind, Essik accepted every dark thing Caleb had ever done, and promised to help him figure out the dunamatic magic he needed to achieve his goals.
The Mighty Nein would love him; hell, the Mighty Nein already liked Essik, a lot. He was the first invited guest into their home, and Caleb imagined that it would not take much to invite him into the fold, the way they had done with Yeza. He would get teased, of course; “Cay-leb has a boy-friend~” Jester would sing, and Caleb would blush, but Essik would be beside him, squeezing his hand gently, and it would be worth it.
It just made Caleb wish the fantasy were real , that’s all.
“I suppose the only thing left to do is to tell the family,” Caleb smiled, shaking himself out of his daydream. “Mine and yours.”
“Tomorrow night,” Essik promised, suddenly solemn. “My Den is having a gathering tomorrow night. I--if you would do me the honor of escorting me, I thought we could make the announcement there. And you could meet my family, such as they are.”
“We need to talk more before then,” Caleb agreed, leaning down to lace his fingers with Essik’s. “Get our story straight, decide on what we want to tell them. It will be easier if we go in with a plan.”
“I’d love to,” Essik let go of his hand. “But not right this second. We’re hardly alone right now, darling.”
Caleb hadn’t noticed, but at some point in the past few minutes, Yeza Brenatto had opened the door to the library, and was staring at them sheepishly.
“So, you and Essik are getting married?”
“But not for real?”
“Only...sort of for real?” Caleb shrugged, leaning back against the wall of the War Room. “It’s so Essik doesn’t have to go through with an arranged marriage.”
“Are you in love?” J ester asked, teasingly.
“If anyone asks, yes.” Caleb winked at her, conspiring. “We are trying to make it look convincing.”
“Because Essik’s mother is terrible?” Beau added. “And doesn’t want him to marry a boy?”
“She wants him to have children, yes. Whether she takes issue to him marrying a boy specifically, that I do not know.”
“That’s real shitty of her,” Beau practiced punching her fist into her palm.
Caleb nodded. “I agree. It’s part of why I’m helping him.”
“Do you even like boys?” Fjord asked, with genuine curiosity in his voice. “I’ve never known you to flirt with... hell , anybody, really.”
“I like boys,” Caleb confessed. “And girls. Generally, I like pretty people. I am not terribly picky when it comes to partners.”
“That’s what Molly used to say,” Yasha smiled sadly.
“Well, he was a smart person.” And a pretty one, Caleb thought but didn’t add.
“But you used to have a girlfriend.” Nott accused him.
He didn’t particularly want to talk about Astrid again. “And now I have a boyfriend. Husband. Fiance. Whatever,” Caleb waved them off. “We’re just pretending, anyway.”
“Cause Essik’s mom is a huge homophobe and we’re not about that?” Beau grinned, spinning around in her chair. “I’m into this plan.”
“Your involvement in this plan is minuscule.”
“Still into it.”
“Well, I’m happy for you, Mr. Caleb,” Caduceus smiled into his cup of tea. “I think you and Essik will make each other real happy.”
Caleb frowned at the firbolg. “We, ah, we are only pretending to be a couple, Mr. Clay.”
“Real happy,” Caduceus repeated, and with such seriousness that Caleb wondered if he spoke the truth, or if he knew something about the future that Caleb didn’t.
Yeza raised his hand in the air like a well-trained student, unlike the rest of the Mighty Nein who had talked all at once all over each other. “Mr. Caleb, sorry, but I have a question. Wouldn’t it be better for Mr. Essik to marry both Lady Olios and yourself? You said polyamory was a thing,” he shot a look that Caleb didn’t follow towards Nott. “Wouldn’t that solve the problem better? Then his mother wouldn’t be angry.”
“I believe that he doesn’t want to do that, so we’re not going to. But it’s a good suggestion if everything goes to shit.”
“Follow up question,” Beau raised her hand, mimicking Yeza. “Is Lady Olios hot, and can Essik introduce me to her?”
Caleb sighed. “ Beauregard.”
He didn’t get the chance to chastise her further. There was a knock on the door that then opened, revealing a slightly flustered Essik. “Sorry. I know I said I was leaving, and I am , but I had a thought,” he smiled at Caleb warmly, and walked over and kissed his cheek. “Hi babe.”
Caleb winced. “ Nein . I hate it.”
“Honey?” Essik tried instead while Jester cooed at them.
“Alright. No pet names,” Essik shrugged. “I just wanted to know, do you happen to have a cloth of some sort? Something with your family’s sigil on it? It should really have your den’s emblem on it, but I was under the impression the Empire didn’t really have Dens like the Dynasty does.”
“Ah,” Caleb looked down at his Essik’s bare wrist. “For your wrist, I assume.”
Essik raised an eyebrow. “To show that I am promised to another, yes.”
“I thought we weren’t meeting your family until tomorrow night.”
“We aren’t. But I thought wearing a band now would start the rumors going at least.”
Caleb didn’t look up from the floor, feeling his cheeks burn red, as they had so often in the drow’s presence. “I, uh, I do not have a family, Essik. So I do not have any sort of cloth with my family’s insignia on it. I don’t--”
“He has a clan, though,” Fjord interrupted him unexpectedly, standing tall. “ Us . The Mighty Nein. Would that work?”
Caleb felt a surge of pride rush up into his chest. He may not have a family anymore, but he had the Nein, and that was--that was something.
Essik raised a curious eyebrow. “Do you have a cloth with the Nein’s insignia on it?”
The seven individuals (plus Yeza) who made up the the Mighty Nein all shared a look. “Not right now,” Yasha spoke first. “But I can sew.”
That was a little unexpected, but the barbarian was full of many hidden talents.
“So can I!” Jester added.
“Excellent!” Essik beamed. “It doesn’t have to be large. About yea big. You can use mine as an example,” he held up Caleb’s wrist to show the band off, his thumb placing emphasis on the emblem of Den Theylas. “The important part is that people will see it and recognize that I’m being courted by a member of your Den.”
Jester and Yasha shared a look. “We can come up with something, Caleb!” Jester offered excitedly. “That way Essik has something to wear to show off the fact that he loves you and totally wants to be your husband and that you guys are going to get married and adopt like, all of the babies, and--”
Caleb held his hand up to cover his eyes. “Jester, there can be no dicks on it.”
(“What.” Essik asked with disbelief, his eyes going from his pretend fiance to Jester and back again. “ What?”)
The tiefling immediately deflated, collapsing back into her chair with a pout and her arms crossed. “Not even a little one? Just a teeney tiny little dick?” She tried to bargain, her fingers almost pressed together in simulation of the size. Caleb shook his head no, and she huffed in response. “What could we even use as a symbol for the great Den Mighty Nein if not a tiny dick?”
Essik nearly collapsed on the floor, he was laughing so hard. “A tiny dick!” He laughed, his face a dark purple. “How scandalous! Truly, I’m marrying up in this world.”
Caleb scowled, his face still pink, and shoved his pretend fiance towards the door. “Go away. Go, do your job or something. Make enough money to support me and our nine adopted children.”
“ Nein ,” Essik howled, still laughing even as Caleb closed the door to the War Room behind him. (Or maybe it was “ Nine???” like the Shadowhand couldn’t possibly imagine his and Caleb’s imaginary union resulting in nine adopted children. It didn’t make a difference to Caleb.)
“Well, now I gotta sew a little dick on there,” Jester argued, leaning back dangerously in her chair, her arms still crossed sourly. “I’ve never seen him laugh before.”
Neither had Caleb. But he was eager to see it again.
“Are you sure about this, Caleb?” Yasha asked, questioning. “Marriage is a big deal. I know you can separate whenever you want,” she brushed her hand aside, like she didn’t quite believe what Caleb had told her. “But it’s still a big commitment. And it’s a big thing, living with someone. You really get to know them, the good and the bad.”
“I live with you all currently,” Caleb argued. “It hasn’t changed much.”
“It’s different, when you share a bedroom. And a bed,” Yasha continued. “I don’t think you are taking this seriously enough.”
“And I think all of you are underestimating what a boon it would be to have the Shadowhand’s favor,” Caleb glared a bit, leaning over the War Table. “We have been wanting to ally ourselves with the Krynn. This is just another way of doing that.”
Without speaking, Nott stood up and crawled onto the table. She walked across the War Room table, bare goblin feet trending on oak wood, until she stood face to face with Caleb. By standing on the table and with him leaning over, she was eye level with him in a way she normally wasn’t.
She took his face into her hands, and cradled it gently. “Caleb. You deserve to marry for love , sweetheart. Not political favor.”
“It’s sweet that you think anyone could ever love me, given what I’ve done,” he rested his forehead against hers.
“Caleb ,” She admonished, pulling away from him. “ I love you. Everyone here,” she gestured around to the others seated at the table. “Loves you. What makes you think that there isn’t someone out there who could love you, too? Romantically even?”
He pulled away from her further. “Nott. I’m going to marry Essik. I’m sorry if you disapprove--”
“On the contrary,” Nott interrupted him. “I like Essik. I like Essik for you, even. He’s a good boy who has supported us when we’ve needed him to. He’s smart, he’s handsome, he’s loyal. He’s everything I could ever want for you. But,” she reached out for him again. “You don’t love him, Caleb. And you deserve to have someone who loves you, like I love Yeza,” she looked back at her husband, who was smiling at her, full of pride.
“Nott has a point, Caleb,” Jester added, her voice a little sad and a little soft. “You should marry for love. In every book I’ve ever read, love is like, the greatest thing that’s out there, and Nott just made me really sad thinking that you don’t think you deserve to be loved? How could you?”
“Hang on just a second,” Fjord shook his head, a confused look on his face. “What are we even talking about love for, anyway? Caleb’s a grown man, and it’s his decision. He does Essik a solid by marrying him, and gets to learn fancy drow magic and we get in even better with the Bright Queen? I’m not seeing a downside.” Fjord rested his elbows on the table. “Maybe Caleb and Essik don’t love each other, but Essik doesn’t love this drow girl, either, and it’s not fair to make him have to get married to her if Caleb backs out of this.”
“Bingo,” Beau threw her thumb towards Fjord. “Essik’s been good to us. Better than we expected. We should help him if we can. I’m on team marry-the-pretty-drow-boy”
“I was too, until Nott started talking about how he should marry for love and stuff!” Jester argued.
“Regardless,” Caduceus stood up, scooting his chair back, towering over everyone at the table, including Nott who was still standing on the table. “It’s Caleb’s decision, ultimately. And we’ll support you, no matter what you decide.” He walked over to where Caleb was standing, and squeezed his shoulder firmly.
“I have already agreed to this,” Caleb held out his banded wrist for everyone to see, the symbol of his engagement to Essik on display. “I’m going to follow through with it.”
“Good for you,” Caduceus patted his shoulder again. “We leave for Nicodranas in five days. Do you think you’ll still be able to join us?”
“I should,” Caleb removed Caduceus’s hand from his shoulder. “I already told Essik that that was our plan.”
“Excellent!” Caduceus grinned. “I need more tea.”
With that, the large firbolg left the room, and one by one, the Mighty Nein followed, until only Caleb and Nott were still in the War Room.
“Nott---” He shook his head. “It likely won’t be forever. Either I’ll find someone, or more likely, Essik will, and we’ll separate. This is just one way I can help him and further my goals, all at once.”
“I know,” Nott said sadly, and patted his cheek again. “I just hope you don’t get your heart broken in the process.”
You could not break what you did not have, Caleb didn’t say. But he followed her out of the room regardless.