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Spun Sugar

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Trying to make enough sense of his past to describe it to Daine, Numair remembered himself as a naïve youth. Not that he felt older now, but he couldn't think of his younger self and not cringe at the mistakes he had made. At the time his choices had seemed so reasonable, so infallible. Now every certainty he had possessed seemed to crumble. And it had all circled around Varice, in the end. It seemed only right that she would be the first ghost that had returned to haunt him now.

He remembered the night she had come to him, smelling of lemongrass, caramel and musky sweat as she looped her arms around him. He remembered the silken hiss of the satin dress, the way it had slipped so easily from her shoulders and pooled on the floor. He remembered the soft and urgent way she had murmured in his ear, how fiercely the heat had burned between them, and how cold and empty his bed had felt when he woke up alone the next morning.

He had thought it was going to last forever.

The first time he had seen Varice he might as well have been an insect crawling up the wall. She had unveiled some creation at a party in New York. The people gathering around it were making such awed noises that Numair thought it must be a sculpture or a miniature. Some great work of art. But when the crowd finally dispersed a little and he made his way forward, he saw that it was a cake.

Spun sugar swirled around the pastel green edges in flurries of white like snow on springtime buds. When he looked closer, Numair saw that the delicate spiral was made of hundreds of tiny birds, circling the tiered cake in intricate loops as if their soaring dance would never end. The sugar sculpture was fastened to the cake so cleverly that it looked like the birds were flying unaided, and might take off at any second.

Numair held his breath, wondering if he might ruin it if he even stepped too close. He had not yet been at enough gatherings in the notoriously scrupulous New York society to be sure of forgiveness for destroying something so beautiful.

"She uses the gift, of course," a man said broadly nearby, and exhaled a cloud of cigar smoke as Numair looked around. He pointed the cigar at the cake, and his thick eyebrows were raised humorously. "Would be a bit more impressive without magic, I'd say, but I doubt anyone would listen to an old man. I'm not as inclined to cosset the little creature as most of 'em are."

"It's impressive even with magic." Numair replied, and tried not to look too confused when he asked, "Cosset who, sir?"

"Ah, you've not met our Lady Vee!" The man twinkled, and clapped Numair on the shoulder. "Then stay here and talk to me, lad. I'll be far happier talking to someone who's not had their mind, stomach or their heart spirited away. You'll be new then, I take it?"

"Yes, sir." Numair shook the man's outstretched hand politely, noticing how the man's gold cufflinks caught the light far more conspicuously than his own silver ones. He'd sold all of his own gold, of course, but the contrast made him feel an odd pang of loss for a moment. "I'm Miss Angelica's distant cousin, and she's kindly sponsoring me for the season until I get my bearings."

"Bearings? A traveller, are you?" The old man smiled at Numair's swarthy skin. "Well, I hear good things about the society in Italy these days."

"Well, that's the right continent." The man returned, and was rewarded with a deep-bellied bellow of laughter.

"Sorry lad," The man drew an amused lungful of smoke and blew out a ring. "Can't resist prying. It's rare I get a chance to beat the gossips to the news. Miss Angelica's word's good enough for most of this rabble, so I'll let it be good enough for me, too. I'm Greaves. There's a title and a first name in there somewhere too, o' course, but I'm too old to let them take up my valuable time."

"Greaves it is." Numair smiled and shook his hand. "Numair, sir, Salmalin."

"Dear God." Greaves raised watery eyes to the ceiling. "Better hope you never make it to old age, then, with an earful like that."

"I'll just have to pray my youth is exciting enough to make up for it." Numair smiled at the cake. "And full of beautiful things."

"Oh, not this again. Look…" Greaves snapped, and then relented and sighed. Pulling a new cigar from his waistcoat pocket, he held it out to the man and shrugged when he politely declined. Puffing on his old cigar for a few seconds to make it smoulder, he pressed the ends of the two together and stubbed the old end out on a silver ashtray.

"Did you know chocolate is an aphrodisiac?" He asked around a mouthful of rich smoke. Numair shook his head, torn between embarrassment and amusement at the man's informal crassness. Greaves blew a smoke ring and then jabbed the cigar through it suggestively.

"Chocolate… and then there are strawberries, of course! And let's not go in to all that sordid business that we call whipped cream, my lad. Then there's caramel, toffees and those tres jolie petit bonbon our French cousins stuff with praline. Can't woo a woman without cavities! Then there are these cakes, towering over the savouries in a most indelicate manner. Don't you agree, my lad?"

"Agree with what, sir?" Numair looked a little stunned. Greaves coughed back a lungful of smoke.

"I'm saying that's how she does it, boy!" He sniffed at the cake and then nodded appreciatively at the scent of marzipan and icing. "In Venice the courtesans used to seduce the menfolk with their songs and their wit. How poorly mankind has progressed! Men used to dance with our minds! Now the lovely creatures move right past that and assault our more basic appetites, and oh, don't we adore them for it."

"Since I don't know the lady in question," Numair said a little stiffly, "I don't think I could give you a fair answer, sir."

"You will." Greaves didn't seem to notice that he'd caused offence. He took a final drag of his cigar and nodded behind the table. "Here she comes."

She was wearing a silk dress that whispered along the floor as she walked. Although the room was filled with laughter and chatter, the soft sound seemed to trickle through the noise until it captured every ear. It seemed almost indecently intimate, that every movement of the woman's body was so brazenly declared. And yet her face was so open, so bright and friendly, that the thought immediately darted away.

She couldn't be doing it on purpose, any more than it could be her fault that the soft glow of gaslight caught her dress there and there. Such sensuality could not be practiced; it could not be anything but unconscious, because if for a moment her full-lipped smile seemed deliberate then her whole bearing would become too licentious to dare to look at. For decency's sake you would have to look away, and no-one would want to do that.

The dress was green, the same soft shade as the cake, and her neck was adorned with a simple string of seed pearls that rested lightly on the curve of her breasts. As soon as Numair realised he was staring he tore his eyes away, and then blushed at the scornful expression on her face.

"What," she asked Greaves in a distant voice, "is that?"

"My dear, may I introduce Miss Angelica's cousin, who has come all the way from Europe just to be insulted by you tonight?" Greaves' mouth twisted, but Numair couldn't tell if it was distaste or amusement before the older man bowed to kiss the woman's hand. She made a polite moue of disinterest and turned away, swinging her hip a little so the long train of her dress wouldn't tangle around her feet.

"The gentleman with the moustaches is a general, did you know?" She said, almost to herself as she picked absently at the lace on her fan. Her eyes were infantile and stupid when she looked back at Numair, and her voice was utterly false. "Don't you think that's impressive, sir?"

"Any man can grow a moustache." Numair returned automatically, and could have kicked himself. She looked furious for a moment, and then recovered smoothly.

"But not every man can be a general. For example, I don't recall my dear Angelica mentioning any military men in her family."

"We have more sense." He muttered. For all his clumsiness around the woman, he still responded with the same irritable impatience he had for all people who pried into his life. It was one of the most distasteful things about New York, he'd found, and even from a woman who made his heart race he still couldn't let the rudeness go unnoticed.

Varice blinked, and then laughed. It was a low husky sound, utterly unlike the fake voice she spoke with, and it made the hairs on the back of Numair's neck stand up. He winced and tugged at his nose, trying to find refuge in the nervous habit. It didn't work.

"It's got teeth, this puppy of yours." She said to Greaves, and the man sighed as he looked at the flustered young man.

"Vee, my dear, don't you ever get tired of this game?" He puffed at his cigar and ignored her pointedly wafting the smoke away with her fan. "Don't play-act, girl. I've heard you smoke cigarillos."

"Only on special occasions." She murmured. Her voice held a rich, suggestive note that made both men look away. She smiled crookedly for a moment, and then folded up her fan with a decided snap. "Well, if you gentlemen are done admiring my latest masterpiece, I did promise the dear general a closer look…"

"I bet you did." Greaves took a very slow drag from his cigar and then bellowed a sudden laugh at the stark contrast between Varice's narrowed eyes and Numair's wide-eyed stare. "Come on, my young friend, let's go."

That night, even after the last taxicab had rattled its way home over the clattering cobbles, Numair couldn't sleep. He twisted in his bed, willing his mind to empty and his eyes to close. Last night he had been bitter about the lack of coal and menial servants to build up his fire in the night, leaving him to shiver by dying embers. Tonight he was too warm, although when he pushed the faded satin and down duvet back the night air made goosebumps flush across his skin.

He hated it, hated the awareness that made him sensitive to every touch. He hated the way the draughts felt like whispering fingertips on his hypersensitive skin. He hated the slight pressing weight of the duvet against his body. He hated the soft moaning creaks of the settling house. He hated it, because every time he fell asleep his dreams turned all of those things into her. He would see her mocking eyes again, hear her breathy laugh and wish she had spoken his name, so he could hear it on her lips. The soft sheets turned into the peach-softness of her golden skin, and he would wake up burning with fevered desire.

"She won't have you, lad." He remembered Greaves' sympathetic voice, the glass of brandy that he had pressed into his numb hand. "You're not rich enough or powerful enough to tempt her. Better you just accept that now."

Numair groaned and shoved his face into the pillow, wondering if he could smother himself to sleep.

"She's beautiful," he had replied, and then he had corrected himself. "No, she isn't. She's… she's something else."

"Don't do this to yourself. If she knows then she'll torture you. She's like a cat." The older man looked speculatively at him. "Think of it as a hazing ritual. To get into New York's society, one must attend the opera, wear white gloves with a red buttonhole, and meet Lady Vee."

Lady Vee. Even the nickname seemed brazen, as if she had let men strip away the fabric covering her name until only the first letter was there. A letter exposed for the world to see. A name that dripped from the tongue like honey, that took the edges off the sharp Varice and made it into a word to be whispered in the darkness. A name that was wrapped in soft green satin, in layers of fabric so sheer that the curves of it still shone through.

A name that caught the light.

If this is a hazing ritual then I've failed, Numair thought bitterly.

By the next morning, even the servants could tell from his dark shadowed eyes and nervous twitchiness that something was wrong with the young master. By lunchtime, the doddering Miss Angelica had raised rheumy eyes from her embroidery hoop and suggested her cousin see a doctor. By evening, Numair was prepared to admit it himself:

He was hopelessly, senselessly, besotted with Varice.

Chapter Text

"Numair?"

The soft voice coaxed him from his memories, and he turned away from the window to see Daine. The sun had risen without him realising it, and he blinked at the dark shadow that he was casting across the room long before he took in the confused expression in her eyes. She had spoken before she was fully awake; now she was studying the bed she was lying on with obvious bewilderment.

"I sleep on the sofa." She insisted it like a single-minded child. He shrugged and looked away again.

"I made an ass of myself last night." He replied, not quite apologising. "And I woke up long before you did."

"Both are obvious." Her tart tone softened. "You were standing so still! What were you thinking of?"

"A woman who I used to love." Numair was surprised at the honesty in his own answer, and laughed ruefully at the answering amazement on Daine's face.

"You sure didn't look happy about it." She finally replied, and pushed back the bedcovers to get up.

"No, don't move." he said, coming to a sudden decision. "Stay there and I'll tell you about it. It'll explain why I... why yesterday I was so..."

She huffed a sigh and folded her arms. "I can listen just as well when I'm stood up,"

"Yes, but…" Numair stopped himself, not quite knowing how to explain what his mind was telling him. Yes, but as soon as you get up your thorns will come back. As soon as you get dressed and pick up that gun every word I tell you will be mocked. As soon as you get up I won't be talking to you anymore, I'll be talking to the Millay Murderer, and I wouldn't tell her a single word…

"Please." He said gently, "I don't want to be the only person with my defences down."

She blinked, reached up to move her tangled hair back from her face, and then stopped the self-conscious gesture. After a long pause she lowered her hand and folded it in her lap, taking a deep breath and then looking up with wide eyes. Her tiny form was dwarfed by the bed, and in her crumpled dress she looked like a unsettlingly expressive china doll. "Alright then."

He thought about telling her the first part of his story, but it didn't really matter. How it had all begun wasn't important. There was only one way to start explaining himself, and he had already said those three bitter words. Still, when he said them again he found himself searching Daine's guileless gaze, looking for some shred of comprehension before he could tell her the rest of it. Three words, and so much he couldn't explain, even to himself: "I loved her."

"Do you still love her?" Daine asked, and there was no accusation in the question. Numair started and laughed. The hollow sound broke the spell, and suddenly he could think of a thousand ways to answer it.

"No." He said, and remembered the way Varice's satin skirts had hissed across the balcony the night before. He began his story with three different words, and they rang with truth: "I loathe her."

After the first few parties when she had rejected him outright, or mocked him in front of her shining society friends, Numair found that Varice softened towards him. It might have been that she was running out of ways to bully him or that she had grown bored with his unflinching forgiveness, but the man privately wondered if Ozorne had told her to back off.

The business that Ozorne had discussed on their first meeting had been simple: a route which the chairmen felt would be better if it was directed across a plateau rather than through a chasm. Numair knew better than to argue, although the rerouting would cost him several hundred dollars in his own investments. The next morning, before his champagne-fuelled hangover had even cleared, he had called in a few clerks and spent hours meticulously planning a new route for the train to take.

"Very good!" Ozorne had declared magnaminaously from across his wide oak desk. His eyes had narrowed. "And now tell me: how much money did you lose?"

"Sir?" Numair had blushed despite himself, and the man had laughed from deep in his belly. It was a friendly sound, but against the opulent office with its lurking army of po-faced clerks it seemed a little bizarre. He slid open a thin draw in his desk and drew out a chequebook. Inside, written out in neat copperplate, was a cheque made out to a Mr. Numair Salmalin. It was for exactly triple the amount that Numair would lose on his stocks from planning the new route. Numair had gaped at it, and then turned the same slack-jawed amazement on his employer. "Sir?"

"They're all doing it. All my surveyors. But any of the others would have argued with me. They would have lost that argument, of course, and then been fired… but you didn't argue. Well done, sir!"

"This was a test?" Numair felt lost, and even more so when a servant beckoned him out of the room and the heavy mahogany doors shut behind him. The cheque felt warm and living in his cold hand.

The only thing he knew for sure was that Ozorne knew that he'd been plying the stock market, and that the chairman didn't care. The man cared more about loyalty than ethics. Numair looked again at the cheque in his hand. He paid it into his bank within the hour, as if it might vanish into pixie dust if he waited too long.

The parties continued, of course, and so did the slightly underhand meetings over cigars and the casual giving of paper money and cheques. The railway marched ever onwards, and Numair was dragged headlong into its luxurious path. The men and women of New York welcomed him with open arms.

For the next few years Numair whirled in a dizzying mess of light and laughter, cabarets and cakes, wine and women, until his few years of poverty were just an embarrassing memory.

"I might have to rename you Dorian," Greaves sighed over a particularly rancid smelling cigar. He propped his head in one hand and held up a pair of opera glasses to squint at his friend across the box. "My youthful friend of mystery! What dark secret arts are you using, my dear? What skeletons lurk in your attic?"

"Skeletons?" Numair laughed, a little irritated, and retorted: "Sounds like I'm more of a Bluebeard than a Dorian."

"You're lamentably well read." The older man sniffed approvingly and slouched back in his plush chair as the overture began. He raised his voice shamelessly over the music. "Well, some great gothic paragon, I think. Purcell would turn his nose up at your character, lad. No damn subtlety."

"He writes operas about fairies." Numair scoffed and then laughed when the next box shushed him. "And of course, it's me who gets told off."

"Of course." Greaves winked at the irritated woman, who blushed and ducked behind her fan. "Scolding you won't threaten their social standing, after all. If you married one of the ones with a title you could gossip in my opera box all you pleased."

Numair shook his head and Greaves stubbed ash into a silver tray with jerky, irritable movements. "Gods, I wish you'd get over that silly chit. You know she's Ozorne's creature. This lovesickness of yours is getting tedious."

"You don't have to live it." Numair replied rather more fervently than he meant to, and flushed in embarrassment before turning to watch the opera. Oberon was pining over Titania, of course, but the soloist's longing eyes wandered to the fairy ballet more than to the soprano's sweating brow. One of the dancing waifs bit her lip as she stepped forward, eyes flicking upwards to Oberon, and her next arabesque was sensuous, lithe under his piercing eyes.

That's an interesting plot twist. Numair thought wryly. He had no interest in watching the silly story through to the end. Standing up, he left the opera box.

It was cooler in the hallway, but it smelled of the stale tobacco ends which had been stubbed out in silver ashtrays all along the corridor before the performance began. Ushers were clearing away the mess, but they knew they had an hour before the interval and so they were taking their time. A couple of them were sorting through the ashtrays for the longer cigar stubs, unpicking the leaves and tipping the tobacco into small satchels.

"I remember doing that." The soft voice was utterly familiar, the gentle tone completely bizarre. Numair blinked and looked around to see that Lady Vee was standing beside him. She smiled a brief greeting and leaned against the wall next to the man, slouching easily even in her tight corset.

"Doing what, miss?" He managed. Varice waved a white-gloved hand at the ushers.

"I was never lucky enough to work in the opera house, mind. I imagine a single cigar end from here would fetch ten times what we got for our fag ends in the gutter. We envied these comfortable cads! But at the end of the day, I guess we all went home with our fingertips stained the same yellow." She shrugged and then one carmine lip curved. "Today, of course, I use a cigarillo holder."

"It's silver, isn't it?" Numair struggled to find something to say. She grinned, and it was a most unladylike expression.

"Platinum, my dear, with ivory detailing! Ozorne had it custom made. He likes things to be just so, and he didn't like me with my yellow fingertips. I wasn't just so either, you see."

"I don't believe you." The man took a deep breath and then words came pouring out unbidden. "I don't think you've ever been anything less than perfect. You… you're divine. You're an angel."

She laughed outright and looked at him sympathetically. "But even the angels were made by a higher being! Thus, as the bible might say, didst the Lord maketh me. And her name was Vicky, but he said unto her 'thou shalt be called Varice'…"

"Stop it. You're teasing me and I don't like it."

"…and he raised her up out of the mire and from amongst the beasts and sailors, and he saw that she was good… very good, my dear. I had a reputation."

"For making up stories?"

"Mm. There were a few happy endings." She conceded with a slight smile, and then her face became more serious. "You really don't believe me, do you?"

"No." He took a calm breath and tugged at his nose. "Logically there's no reason why you'd confide such a thing in me. I know you like to play games with people. You know I'm in love with you, and you probably know a few people who are just waiting to have a good laugh at my expense. Which opera box are they in, Vee?"

"I'm here alone tonight." She murmured. "Because I knew you would be here."

Numair couldn't look at the woman. He couldn't really find the will to move at all. He'd had rich, vibrant dreams where she had said those kinds of words, but in real life they seemed to be hollow. There was nothing in them which he wanted or craved. Oh, there was friendliness and even a little affection, but underneath it all, all he could hear was his own burning distrust.

Varice stepped closer and he could smell the odd over-sweetness of her perfume as it wafted up from her yellow skirts. Numair resisted the urge to push her back, away from him. She made his skin crawl and he flushed at the mortifying mixture of desire and unease which was surely written on his face.

"Isn't Ozorne expecting you?" He croaked. The woman paused and something odd lurked in her eyes.

"It's possible. Do you despise me for it, man-who-loves-me? I don't think you would refuse him any more than I can. We are both his creatures now." She replied cryptically. Just like that the moment was gone. She smiled blankly and moved past him, and without a word of farewell she was gone.

Chapter Text

“Was Varice really in love with you?”

Numair looked up in surprise and snorted derisively. “What? Why don’t you ask me if she was really a streetrat?”

“Because I don’t care about that.” Daine returned with heat. “But if you’re going to be running off with her then I think I should get fair warning.”

“I told you I hate her now.” The man’s voice was sharp.

“So what if you do? That doesn’t mean you don’t love her.”

“How on earth would you know?” It was surprise and not anger that coloured Numair’s tone. The creature that was Daine was not exactly the most worldly of beings. She had spent her whole life on an isolated homestead, and skulking in her stone labyrinth.

Perhaps she had fallen in love with one of her animals, although Numair dismissed that insulting idea as quickly as it had occurred to him. Besides, his question had made her square her shoulders and raise her chin, and he knew for a fact that any frankness that might have been between them was shattering. A slight blush reddened her nose and cheeks, but her reply was fierce.

“You’re not so diff’rent from me, Numair Salmalin. You’re not the only person in the world whose heart ever skipped a beat.”

“Who were you in love with?” He asked, genuinely fascinated. Daine scowled at him and threw the duvet back.

“I’m getting up. You can save your whining mess of a story for someone who feels the same blessed emotions as your holy self, I reckon.”

“It’s time to get up anyway.” He replied, pretending not to care. He wouldn’t be able to tell her any more now anyway. His words would never get past her thorns.

It was several hours later when Numair saw her again, and this time she had no idea that she was being watched. He had ventured out onto the hotel balcony, shielding his eyes from the sunlight that stabbed at his still-aching head. Daine had dressed herself in another of her new dresses, and was sitting on a hitching post across the way. The girl was petting a horse – not one of their own, but a dusty looking stallion. The crowded street lay between them, sending noise and dust into the dry air like a solid shield.

As Numair watched, a man reeled out of the nearby bar and sauntered over to the girl. He planted his hands on his hips and tilted his head to one side, mouth moving as he made some jaunty drunken remark. Numair leaned forward, fascinated, wondering what Daine would do. He had never seen her use her thorns on another man.

He waited for her to draw her gun or for the horse to kick at him.

Instead, she looked up at the man from under the brim of her straw hat and smiled. She said something – Numair couldn’t see what, but he heard the man’s answering laugh from across the road. Then Daine jumped down from the rail. She pointed at the horse’s hooves, and said something else.

The man scratched his head and then picked up one of the horse’s feet, blinking blearily at the shoe. Daine patted his shoulder, smiled again and walked back across the road; the man nodded to himself and began to untie the horse. Before he left the balcony to join Daine downstairs Numair saw the man heading in the direction of the town blacksmith.

“You can be charming when you want to be, can’t you?” He greeted her, gesturing outside. Daine raised an eyebrow at him, looking out of the window to see the drunken man ambling past.

“He needs new shoes. My ma taught me a fair few things, you know.” She grinned suddenly and caught at his sleeve. “Numair, I wanted to tell you something! I found something out. About Varice!”

“About her?”

“Yes! Well, it’s not like she’d recognise me. I asked around about the pretty lady.” The last few words were said with a certain amount of distaste, but a wry smile. “People are talkin’ about her a lot.”

“That means they’re not talking about us.” Numair said sternly. “Let’s keep it that way, shall we?”

“Oh, don’t be such a coward. They’re not interested in us.” Daine waved her hand dismissively and led the way to their table. “Don’t you want to know what I found out?”

“Not if you were running around like an idiot...” He retorted, and his voice was a little louder than he meant. A few people looked up and he bit the words off quickly.

“Fine, then I won’t tell you.” Daine matched his volume with a disdainful look at the staring people. She plopped down in her seat with a frustrated huff and folded her arms at his expression of absolute disbelief. “Don’t look at me like that, husband. If you’re going to scold me in front of people then I’ll damn well leave you wanting.”

Numair leaned closer, his voice a hiss under the collective chuckle of the listening people. “I thank all the saints, wife, that you have very few things I desire.”

She looked unimpressed, leaned back in her chair and tore idly at her bread roll. Her voice was perfectly pitched to sound intimate but to carry to all the listeners. “Strong words, my love, but I know you’ll be beggin’ me by the end of the night.”

“I can’t believe you said that!” Numair was torn between embarrassment at the double meaning and laughter at the knowing smirks of the listening crowd. Daine sipped from a glass of water, utterly unconcerned, but her eyes shone with mischief.

“Just apologise, lad.” Some smart-mouth offered, raising his whisky glass in a mocking salute. Numair choked back a reply and took a quick gulp of his own water, trying to hide a rising surge of laughter.

“I think I should let my wife have her own way.” He acceded, and ducked his head in a mocking bow towards Daine. She beamed sweetly at him and offered him a gloved hand for him to kiss in apology. When Numair brushed it with his lips there was a sarcastic round of applause from the crowd, and then they went about their own conversations.

Daine met his eyes for a split second and then her shoulders started shaking with suppressed laughter.

“It’s not funny!” Numair tried to keep a straight face and failed. “Da... Sarah, if someone suspected then...”

“You are so easy to tease!” She gasped, and then buried her face in her hands and started laughing in earnest.

“Heaven help us if we were actually married,” Numair muttered, moving her glass a little further away so she wouldn’t knock it over mid-giggle. “We’d murder each other in a week.”

“I always thought it was more like... a day,” Daine wiped her eyes as she raised her head and tried to keep a straight face at his pained expression, although her lips trembled. “Unless I bribed you with stories about your mistress, then maybe...”

“She’s not my...” Numair realised she was teasing him again and looked away, blushing. “Can’t you just tell me your news without me having to make a fool of myself?”

Daine looked at him archly and said, “Well, she’s bought a load of luggage trunks from Delemar. People are sayin’ she must’ve struck gold out there, but I reckon it’s more... well, there’s a lot can be delivered in a luggage trunk besides air, and if she’s as twisted and money-grabbing as you said...”

“That doesn’t mean she’s a smuggler,” Numair smiled slightly. “But even if they’re just innocent luggage trunks, it still means she’s planning to move on from here.”

“That’s right,” Daine leaned forward a little. “They say she’s packing up her whole place. Every last thing. She’s even auctioning off the furniture! But she’s taking her sweet time about it.”

“That’s lucky for us,” Numair said slowly, and tipped his water glass slowly from side to side. The water slopped against the sides like waves in the ocean. “We can watch her, find out where she’s heading next.”

Daine nodded, and then smiled her thanks at one of the hotel staff as he brought them a crockpot of stew.

After they ate Daine headed out to the stables, greeting Cloud cheerfully and listening to her complaints for a few minutes before taking out a comb and starting to groom her. She looked up in surprise when Numair greeted her, but listened carefully when he explained the thoughts which had been racing around his mind all morning.

Daine had already proven that she could watch Varice more closely than her travelling companion – at least in the literal sense. Since Varice had never met her, Daine could walk right up to the woman and even speak to her without arousing suspicion. That was the point where Numair had stopped planning and started despairing. He thought that the girl would refuse to speak to someone so closely linked to Ozorne, so he was surprised when Daine shook her head, smiling, and suggested other ways that they might find out where Varice was going.

Her plans were simple, direct, and far more effective than the complicated ideas Numair had thought of as he’d crossed the desert.

“Do you know, I think that this might actually work!” He breathed. Daine laughed in her dust-coarsened voice and threw a curry comb at him.

“Dear gods!” She called mockingly, “I think it’s a miracle! Your wife can actually think for herself!”

He dodged the missile and laughed. He knew her well enough now to know when she wasn’t really annoyed. He held his hands up in surrender. “It’s a good plan!”

“You’re damn right it’s a good plan. I have them all the time! I just stop myself from telling my plans to you too often, you know, or you’d get spoiled.”

“And so the bad plans you tell me are...?”

“Diversions.” Daine stuck her tongue out at him and then patted Cloud briskly. “There you go, trouble maker. If you can still feel a burr after all that brushing then you’re imagining it.”

Or you missed it when you were playing with my comb and laughing and acting like I wasn’t even here, stuck here in this dark stable. Cloud whickered. Her voice was a little hurt, and Daine hesitated. Reaching over, she wrapped her arms around the pony’s neck and kissed her grey cheek tenderly. Cloud let herself be cuddled for a moment, and then she started shifting from foot to foot and muttering.

“Cloud wants to move on.” Daine told Numair, still apologetically patting the pony. “If I’m to be following Varice around I’d better start soonish.”

Although she would never have admitted it aloud, Daine had her own reason for following her friend’s old lover. She wasn’t sure if she really believed his story. He had admitted himself that he had been too besotted with the woman to understand clearly what was going on. There had been an odd note in his voice when he spoke to Daine that morning, too. A strange softness banked with a defensive dam had underscored every word, and he had barely been able to meet her eyes.

What did that mean?

The girl kissed Cloud one last time and called out something childish in farewell to her husband.

Daine had an idea. It wasn’t as clever as her plan to follow Varice, It didn’t need to be. it was very easy. She simply lied. She lied about why she was happy to spy. She supposed she should care more about finding out the rest of Numair’s story, but really she volunteered to follow Varice for another reason.

She believed that his strange manner proved that Numair was still in love with Varice. And what better way to find that out than to actually meet the woman face to face?

Chapter Text

"I hear you like beautiful things," Someone said in a bright voice, and held out a hand. Something glinted. "I wondered if you'd be interested in this."

"I don't consort with peddlars…" Varice turned her head archly and then her eyes widened. The person who had spoken was definitely not a peddlar. Where they were dressed in travel stained clothes (rags, she privately thought) this woman wore exquisitely fitted reddish skirts, and her face didn't show a trace of the wily cunning that traders seemed to carry around in their knapsacks. Her soft brown curls were even topped with a hat, pinned at a jaunty enough angle to be shocking but conventional enough in design to be fashionable.

Varice turned away for a moment to compose herself, and then looked back and gestured to the plush-covered stool beside her.

"Thank you," the brown haired woman said easily, and then she hauled herself up onto the high seat with all the grace of a farmer.

Well!

"I apologise, I know we've not been prop'ly introduced," The farmer-lady said, "But it's fair difficult to think of a reason, seein' as there's no way for two ladies without men to get acquainted 'round here."

New money. Husband struck gold. Varice labelled that accent, and then: Didn't she say without men? That's more like… second-hand prospector's money.

"Ma'am, this inn is a respectable…"

"Oh, I know." The odd woman said quickly, and flashed her a smile, "And I guess I know what you're thinkin', too. I won't start off any friendship by telling you you're wrong, ma'am, but… well, you see my problem."

"Indeed I do!" Varice smiled genuinely this time and turned in her seat so she could speak to the other woman properly. "Perhaps we should start with our names, then."

"Sarah." The woman said, and held out a hand. Varice shook it and replied with her own name.

"Oh, I already knew that." Sarah twinkled at her, "Everyone's got that name on their lips. It's why I wanted to meet you."

"And you wanted to show me your beautiful thing." Varice raised an eyebrow towards the woman's hand. Now that she was looking properly, she could see that Sarah wore long white gloves all the way up to the sleeves of her dress. The woman must have been sweltering in the close dusty heat, although looking at her serene cheerful expression it was hard to tell.

"Oh, that?" Sarah looked honestly touched to be asked. She opened her hand, and a small piece of jade caught the light. "Isn't it lovely? I thought it'd break the ice."

Varice held out a hand, and when the girl hesitated about dropping the pendant into her palm she smiled encouragingly and caught the woman's fingertips with her own. Instead of picking up the charm she held Sarah's gloved hand and slowly, gracefully, dipped her head down to see. It was a game she had played so much it was almost second-nature, but it still amused her when the woman shivered a little.

Sweet little thing. She thought, and ran her thumb along the outside of the woman's palm.

"It's Chinese, isn't it?" Vee murmured, and drew her head back. Sarah nodded, dazed, and then realised that she was still holding her hand out. She laughed unsteadily and tucked it back into her lap.

"Yes." She shook her head suddenly and babbled. "Well, it was a gift, and I figured you wouldn't have seen one before, and you make beautiful things yourself and I figured you might like to see new things, and like I said I wanted a reason to talk to you, so…"

"Thank you." Varice smiled and the spell was broken. "Thank you for letting me see it, Sarah. I'd be more grateful if you were offering to sell it to me – or better still, gift it to me! But I'm glad you showed me."

"Oh! Yes. Sorry." Sarah grinned ruefully. "I'm not so good at meetin' new people."

"Consider me 'met'." A dainty raised glove and some polite chit-chat followed. Five minutes later they were both talking normally with small glasses of expensive looking wine in front of them.

"There just aren't many women here," Sarah confided after a while, "And you seem like the… the sort of person everyone wants to be friends with. Or, at least…" she covered her mouth with her hand, eyes shocked, and blinked at her empty wine glass.

"At least?" Varice urged her gently, and lowered the girl's hand. "Don't worry, I've heard it all before."

"At least… at least the other men want to be friends." The girl blushed very red, "But it's because you're so pretty, isn't it? How do you do it?"

"Oh, you are sweet!" The other woman laughed and clapped her hands together for a moment. "How old are you, sweetie?"

"Eighteen," Sarah looked mortified. "Did I say something wrong?"

"No, duckling, not at all. I'm laughing at myself." Varice waved for the barman to top up their wine glasses and then she leaned closer. "I can't believe that I mistook a sweet little innocent like you for a prostitute, even for a moment."

"I ain't so innocent," The girl's voice was crude on purpose, and she winked before she added, "My da is a trapper. Struck rich, he did, but we sure lived rough before that."

"Mystery solved." Varice took a sip of her wine and tried not to let her sudden disinterest show on her face. Now that the girl was no longer an enigma she seemed… odd. Boring. Unusual in a place like this, but otherwise not much different from all the new moneyed chits who infested New York like the rats.

Then: "I could be lying," said Sarah.

That was it. Again, enough of a spark of mystery to pique Varice's interest, at least enough to make her order another glass of wine. It seemed to loosen the girl's tongue – and even if she wasn't a mystery, the way that she reddened at even the slightest brush of a gloved fingertip on her cheek was just too adorable to resist.

"What were we saying?" Sarah asked a little unsteadily. Varice's head was perfectly clear, although of course she pretended to be as muddle-headed as the girl.

"Hmm, you were saying how beautiful I was, and how all the men are hopelessly in love with me!"

"S'right." Sarah smiled. "I was wonderin' how you do it. No-one's ever been in love with me. Is it… like, do you have a magic spell?" She wiggled her gloved fingertips mysteriously. "Weeeeeooooo! And your heart is miiiiiiine!"

"I'll pretend you didn't say anything so crude." Varice smirked at her and shook her head. "That would be beneath me, Sarah. It would be beneath any woman!"

"I migh' try it anyway." Sarah hiccoughed and scowled around the room. "F'r the right person."

"You'd fall out of love long before any spell ended, duckling." Varice tried not to laugh. The child was obviously besotted. The whole thing was just too precious to resist! "What's his name?"

Sarah gaped at her, and then she flushed bright red and looked guility at her wine glass. "No-one," she slurred, "You said… it wasn' right to… to… so, you never cast spells on someone? Never? Like, to make them love you past all reason?"

"No." Varice gave up and hooked the wine glass out of the girl's hand. "This is making you unsophisticated, Sarah. What you're talking about is… is not nice."

"Usin' love to get what you want?" Sarah blinked blearily at her but her voice sounded a little less tipsy. "I thought you said all the men were in love with you. An' they're the ones doin' your packin'."

Varice gaped at her for a long minute, and then she stood up without a single word of farewell and strode out. She didn't sway at all.

Daine, on the other hand, struggled to even get out of her chair. She pushed herself up on shaking arms a few times, and then gave up and slumped back into the red velvet depths.

"Nathan," she called out clearly, "I know you're watchin'."

Some of the chatter died down, and then someone peeled out of the shadows. A trappers' robe was slung over his head and shoulders, and if the forbidding shadows of the hood hadn't kept people away then the smell of drying fur certainly had. As much as Varice had claimed this was a respectable inn, they wouldn't turn away any man with an honest day's wages to waste.

He stood beside her for a moment with his arms folded, looking down inscrutably. Daine blinked up at him for a second, and then closed her eyes when the room span.

"You're bein' tall on purpose."

"What did you talk about? What did she say?" Numair asked, arms still folded. Then: "Why did you drink so much? I would have stopped you if I wouldn't have been recognised, but…"

"I'm just drunk. Like, I only got drunk, I didn't get drunk, angry, arrested, sick an' bloody annoying like someone I c'ld mention." Daine held her arms out like a child asking for a hug. "Help me up?"

"Don't touch me," he warned, and even though she rolled her eyes he felt safer for reminding her. He was wrapped from head to foot anyway in the stinking furs, but when he lifted her up and hauled her over one shoulder he felt her shift further away from his exposed ear and was grateful.

She was a little more sober when they got back to their hotel room, and by the time Numair brought her a large glass of water and a piece of dry bread she had managed to unlace her heavy boots and she no longer looked dizzy. She curled up in the sofa where she slept and nibbled on the bread with a sickened expression.

"Remin' me not to drink again." She muttered to herself, "I don' like it. But at least I got on speakin' terms tonight, and I can apologise as an excuse to talk again, so…"

"Will you remember what I say, if I tell you the rest of my story?" He asked suddenly.

Daine nodded.

"First," he bartered, "tell me what she said to you."

"I asked her if she spelled you to love her." Daine shrugged, missing the look that flashed across her friend's face. "She said no. So I reckon it's just you bein' an idiot over a pretty woman and stuff, not nothin' sinister."

"You had to… know that?" He breathed, sitting down on the floor beside the sofa. Daine shot him a scathing look, but the effect was spoiled slightly by a blush.

"I don't know you well enough to… to know why you would love someone." She whispered, embarrassed.

"You know me better than anyone else around here," he said, and surprise made him choke out a laugh. "By god, Daine, that's the truth! Isn't that a sad state of affairs?"

"I dunno." She bit into her bread gloomily. "Didn't think about that."

"You could have asked me." He tugged at her skirts absently. "Next time you have a question, Daine, you ask me whatever you like."

"You ask annoyin' questions back." She kicked at him fitfully and drew her stockinged feet up. "An' you touch me, and that makes me nervous, so I'd rather not ask you without pointin' my gun at you or somethin' first so I know you've got a reason to tell the truth outright."

"If it makes you feel better…" he tried joking, and she threw the bread crust at him crossly.

"You know I'd never be able to shoot you, idiot."

"Oh, your aim's not that bad." He laughed when she clumsily kicked at him again and caught her foot, holding her still. "You're fun when you're drunk, you know. Violent, but fun."

"Hands. Off. Sock." She glared at him, and for some reason Numair decided to hold on to her ankle for a while longer. He encircled it with his long fingers and wondered at the way he could hold her entire ankle so easily in one hand.

"Do you get the snake pattern here, as well?" He tapped her covered ankle with his fingertips. What was that gesture, really? Curious? Teasing? Tender? He didn't bother thinking about the words for it, not really, and in the space of a few fingertips there was no way a drunken girl would know the difference.

She stopped moving and he relaxed a little, which was a mistake. He'd forgotten the worst weapon in Daine's arsenal was her scathing tongue.

"There? Why just there? Aren't you going to ask me if the patterns go everywhere? Now that I'm drunk and the door is locked… where isn't the naughty little boy allowed to touch?"

He let go as if her foot had caught fire.

She was breathing heavily, but a deep blush had covered her cheeks and she looked… odd. Numair couldn't think of a word for that, either. Perhaps she read his confusion correctly, because she covered her face with one hand and her voice was muffled when she said, "Numair, it really really really scares me when people touch me. They could get killed. It scares me when they come near me, even if I hate them… and especially you. It really does. Please, please don't."

"Especially me?" He asked, and she shook her head silently. He filed that comment away for later, wondering if she would ever have admitted it if she were sober. "I'll tell you the rest of the story." He said.

She nodded, still silent, and he continued.

Chapter Text

Varice said that she was in love with him.

She said it outright, as well. That was the strange thing. She whispered those words from behind trembling fingertips or a quivering fan, she drew him into twilight corners of palatial mansions to breathe it in his ear: always the same words. And slowly, hardly daring to trust her, Numair started to believe her.

"Don't betray me," she murmured, brushing against him like a moth as they walked together. "Don't tell anyone," as their fingers met over a single glass of wine, "He can never know," when their fingers meshed and unmeshed in the open intimacy of a dance.

That was why they were there, and that was why they were accepted. They linked arms and no-one questioned them or made comments about their friendship. With any other man, Varice would have raised more eyebrows than Casanova raised skirts, but not with Master Salmalin. They walked together and everyone knew that it was under the steady, careful eye of Ozorne. Everyone knew who owned them. The man who bought Varice's satin dresses paid Salmalin's wages, and never the twain should meet.

It was the ultimate irony. They wooed each other brazenly in public, made love with their eyes and their soft words every night in front of hundreds of watching eyes, and even the scullery maids knew that they were utterly chaste.

The whole thing was a dance, and Numair found his feet following the steps even as his clever mind tried to tell him that something was wrong. For weeks they played out a childish game, and then one night they were dancing together and a footman tapped Numair on the shoulder, bowed apologetically as he led them from the dance floor, and handed Varice a note.

She read it, and her ivory skin slowly went red. She looked up at her dance partner for a second, and her blue eyes were liquid and dark in the gaslight. Fitfully, almost angrily, she pulled down the cuffs of her bronze and black brocaded sleeves and tidied her hair. Then she strode out into the garden.

Numair followed her.

It wasn't hard to track her down. The raised voices were so clear in the still summer night that he could have found them blindfold. He wasn't sure why he did it, but he hung back and listened rather than declaring his presence.

"Oh yes, we both know how much you're my lord and master." Varice was saying, and in her rich voice the words held a certain weight that belied their anger, "But I don't see why…"

"You agreed." That voice was flat, emotionless. Ozorne had none of the passion of his lover, at least not when they were arguing.

"I didn't agree to…"

"You'll agree to anything I tell you to agree to." The man replied fiercely, and then there were the sound of retreating footsteps as the chairman strode back through the garden towards the party. Numair held a dull thud and realised that the normally elegant Lady Vee had stamped her heeled foot against the tiled ground like a child.

He stepped into the light, and she saw him. Something odd crossed her face for a second, and then she looked away.

"Sometimes," she said, "I hate him."

"Then why not leave him?" Numair asked just as quietly, taking her hand. She shook her head and a small smile flicked across her face.

"Because sometimes I hate him, and sometimes I don't." She blinked and looked down at their hands. Her tapering fingers tightened in his, and she sighed and rested her head on the man's shoulder. "But tonight I hate him."

Numair drew her closer, telling himself that even if Ozorne returned the man would recognise that his creatures were just comforting each other. There was nothing wrong with that. He was telling himself this story in some detail and definitely not thinking about the warm way Varice's perfume was coiling around them both when he felt slender gloved fingers on his cheek, and she pulled him down and started kissing him.

Dear god, but she was warm in his arms and he could feel the soft whisper of her breath against his skin, and her eyes were shut but he could feel her pulse fluttering in her throat when he ran his fingers down to her shoulders, and her lips parted so sweetly under his, and before he really knew what he was doing his hands were on her back and her hips and she sighed and arched against him and then…

…and then, as suddenly as it had happened, she drew back and her eyes were frightened.

"I didn't think I would want you so much," she whispered, and tears glinted under her long lashes. She pressed closer again, and she was trembling. "Oh god, I do want you. What are we going to do?"

"Tonight," he said roughly, and he felt her nod against his chest. "Come to me tonight. Promise me, Vee."

"I promise." She whispered, and tore herself from his arms.

She kept her promise. He barely let himself hope that she would, but she did.

She came to him that night and gave herself to him willingly, and in the throes of passion it was his name which spilled from her flushed lips, no-one else's. The naïve youth in him saw her ardent skill as a lover and believed it was honest passion. He believed it was love which made her writhe in his arms.

The cynical adult remembered these things. Now he knew that it was nonsense. He no longer believed in such a childish idea as love. His belief in love had seen him awaken the next morning in an empty bed, blinking stupidly at the rumpled sheets beside him. They were they only clue that she had been there at all. Other than that, there was not even a lingering breath of her perfume in the air.

Before he could understand what had happened his door was thrown open with a crash which startled him from his troubled thoughts, and she was there. She had brought others, too: a score of men in grey coats with grey expressions on their colourless faces. She hadn't said a word, and before he could ask the question which jumped to his lips she pointed to the writing desk.

"There." She said, and all of the warmth in her musical voice was gone. "They're in the bureau."

"What are?" He managed to blurt out, and the love of his life shot him a withering glare which made his voice freeze in his throat. He hung back, barely able to understand what was going on as one of the grey men took his arm and another one hauled the dresser open. He dragged out various pieces of junk – pens, stationary embossed with the crest of the hotel – and then let out a cry of triumph and pulled out a brown card envelope.

"What's that?" Numair breathed, unable to step towards it because of the man hauling on his arm. Another grey man laughed sourly.

"If you're going to embezzle so much money, at least have the decency to admit it when you're caught." He spat, and lifted his chin towards the door. Without a word, the grey men dragged Numair away.

"Varice!" He cried hoarsely, and tried to struggle free. "Vee, what are you…what is that… you know I didn't…"

"I don't know anything." She said in a childish voice, standing straight as an arrow beside one of the grey men. Her voice was vulnerable, her eyes were like ice. "I'm just a woman. I don't understand your money business, Numair, I just knew it was wrong."

"But I would never…!" He caught his breath as one of the men yanked him back. "Don't you think Ozorne would…"

Her face changed, and she moved so quickly even the grey men fell away in surprise. Her gloved hand made a ringing sound as she slapped Numair hard across the face, and he tasted copper blood as one of the pearl buttons caught his lip.

"Don't you ever say his name." She hissed. "How dare you? After all he did for you!"

In that second, staring up at her furious beauty, Numair saw the truth. He saw how he'd been deceived, how she had been Ozorne's creature all along. He remembered the way she slid into his bed as sinuously and silently as a cat. He remembered the satchel she had carried with her that night, which had been a perfect size to carry flat papers. Those pearl-trimmed gloves wouldn't leave a single mark on a varnished wooden desk. Those icy eyes would never show a moment's remorse.

She was as incapable of sympathy as she had been of love.

"Was any of it real?" He whispered, feeling his heart shattering in his chest. She glared at him with contempt and turned away.

That was the last time he ever saw her.

She never gave him an answer.

Daine listened in silence.

"That same day they dragged me in front of the law, and he sent me down so quickly I didn't even hear the hammer fall." Numair said, and unfolded his arms to look out of the window. The sun was rising – he'd spoken through the short night, and yet now he had no idea what he had said. The next part of his story was both complicated and simple, and he sped through it rapidly. "There was a huge amount of money that got stolen from the rail contractors. Lots of small investments vanished with it, but one of the main people hit was a government agent who started asking awkward questions. He came to gloat over me in the cells, and I don't think he ever realised how grateful I was to him for that. It's how I found out what crime I'd committed."

His mouth quirked in a wry smile.

"And after that they sent me to the chain gangs, and I started asking some more questions about Ozorne and Varice. Very few people knew his name, but a lot of people had seen the shadows his dealings were casting. People were starting to notice. So he needed a scapegoat – someone important enough to visibly take the fall for tens of thousands of dollars – and I guess I was the chosen one. I don't know if they'd been setting me up for weeks, months or even years, from the first day they met me. Whatever they planned, it worked. I fell into their trap like a blind fool, and they got away with my stolen money safe in their pockets."

Numair finished his story. Daine didn't speak for a very long time.

Numair found that he was holding himself very straight, with every muscle tensed. He found that her opinion… her empathy… really mattered to him. If she turned away from him now he honestly had no idea what he would do.

"Say something," he said eventually, stopping himself from pleading to break her silence. Daine blinked and looked up, her hands uncurling from angry fists.

"No wonder you hate them." She said simply, and then she was silent again for a long time until: "Varice knows how to find Ozorne now, is that right?"

"Right." Numair shrugged and looked out of the window. "He has a whole country worth of train track to hide on, and I'm sure I'm not his only enemy."

"I am, too." Daine whispered it and lay back on the sofa with a frustrated huff of air. "If I can ever prove that he's the same person! It's like he has two faces. Like your Varice, she has two faces too. So they're perfect for each other. You watch her because sooner or later she'll lead us to him. Right? And that's why we've stayed in this town for so long, and why you're watching her in the day and then getting blind drunk at night..."

"I won't do it again." Numair scrubbed his face with one hand and winced at the feeling of stubble. "I wasn't ready for how much I'd remember, nor how much I'd want to forget it all over again."

"You are an idiot." She agreed quietly. He made an unbidden movement at that, poised to finally defend his actions against the girl. When he caught her eyes, though, he was stunned by the empathy in them. She only said a few more words: "Why didn't you tell me all this before, so I could help you?"

"You've already been spying on Varice," he replied in some surprise. "You're already helping."

"Ugh, you know that's not what I meant. If I'd known you were still so torn up I would have… oh, I don't know. Do they sell teddy bears in this town?"

"I'm a grown man, Daine." He said with a trace of laughter. "I haven't owned a teddy in years."

"God, then no wonder you're always so damn miserable." She raised an eyebrow at him and then sighed. "Thank you for telling me, I guess. I'm not sure what else to say."

"You listened," he said, and there was a strange note in his voice when he looked at her. Daine froze, feeling utterly exposed by the frankness in his black eyes. He spoke in a low, wondering voice. "You listened without your thorns, and that was the first time I've ever told anyone about it, and I'm grateful that you listened. Most people wouldn't, I think."

"Yeah, I'm a real saint." Daine rolled her eyes and stood up wearily, looking suddenly embarrassed. "I have to go and see Cloud, Numair."

"Yes." He said, not looking away. "Go."

Chapter Text

They reached the final few days.

Numair knew it as surely as the surly men who carted Varice's furniture into crates outside her house. He no longer bothered to duck away when he saw her in the street. The woman was so taken up with her own preparations that she wouldn't have noticed the cattle dancing a waltz in front of her. Her face was set into a permanent moue of distaste as she flitted from store to store, buying a veil to shield her face from dust in one, a protective overskirt in another. These purchases would have bankrupted a normal family, yet she held up the clothes with an expression of absolute disdain.

Watching her became a matter of course, because by now the whole town was captivated by the rich, beautiful woman and her opulent extravagance. Whenever she left, Daine and Numair would find out within a few minutes whether they were watching her or not.

Relaxing a little, they spent their days in more productive ways. They bought supplies for their own journeys, repairing tack and making sure the horses were well shod as well as breaking down the larger banknotes as discretely as possible and buying food supplies.

Numair spent his time buried in books and staring at his fingertips, watching lazy sparks weave between his fingers as his lips moved in half-formed incantations. Their evenings settled down into a peaceful norm, as they shared any stories they had picked up that day, showed off some new purchase or simply talked. Now that their stories had been told it was as if a lot of their defences had been breached. Daine still hadn't explained how she had taken over the labyrinth from the snakes, and Numair flinched away from discussing his time in prison, but enough had been said that they finally trusted one another.

It was like Numair had said. Daine remembered it despite her hangover. They were the most unlikely companions the fates had ever thrown together, but they had grown close. Whether that was by pure circumstance or something else, the girl didn't know. She was sure of one thing, though. When they parted ways, when their revenge was done, she would miss him.

Daine didn't dare challenge that thought any more than she had to. God knows where it would lead, and didn't she have enough to deal with, without some soft socialite man being a part of it? He might get entirely the wrong idea. So she steeled her stubborn mind and didn't smile when she looked at him, and she didn't look away when he looked straight into her eyes, and she didn't feel a warm glow at the genuine friendliness in his smile… but sometimes she wondered if she should.

After a few nights of Numair's concentrated spell weaving Daine caught him staring at her instead, his gift glimmering over his skin as his dark eyes fixed on her. She blushed at the scrutiny and then tartly asked him what on earth he was trying to do. She said it like that – leaning sarcastically on the word 'trying' and scowling so that the warm glow of her cheeks looked angry rather than flustered.

"I don't 'try', I 'do'." Numair said shortly, and picked up a pen to make some notes in a dog-eared notebook. The girl scoffed quietly.

"Well, you can 'do' without starin' at me, I reckon." She muttered, but she didn't press the point.

She hadn't argued nearly as much in the past few weeks, and for good reason. Daine spent a good deal of her time with Zhao and her Chinese friends, but she didn't tell Numair much about them. Her friends were outcasts, and they attracted attention whenever they crossed the street. Numair was paranoid enough about her asking simple questions in the town. If he found out that Daine was getting caught up in the petty squabbles and racial fights which broke out every few days he would be furious.

So Daine kept her secrets, and Numair his, and they both watched Varice as closely as they dared, and in that way a few weeks passed.

"Daine," Numair said one night, tugging at his nose in the way he always did when he was thinking, "Can you come here for a moment? I want to test something."

The girl looked up from beside the fireplace, her expression distracted as she fought with one of the knots that held her corset closed. "What?" she asked distantly, and then shook her head. "I'm about to go to bed. Whatever it is can wait until morning, can't it?"

"I'll help you with that." The man indicated her corset impatiently. "Just give me a minute in exchange, will you?"

"Fine, fine." Daine rolled her eyes and stood up, hands on hips. "What is it – do you need a bedtime story or somethi…"

The words were cut off with a gasp when the man pulled a lethal looking knife out of his boot. Not paying any heed to her reaction, Numair pressed the edge of the blade into the soft palm of his hand. Bright blood caught the light as he drew it neatly across, and then he dropped the knife, reached up, and seized Daine's snake-striped hand.

"Stop!" she shrieked, snapping out of her frozen horror and trying to wrench her hand away. He held on grimly and she bit back a sob. "What are you doing?"

"I want to see if I'll die." He said, "Stop squirming."

"Let go of me, you idiot!" she shuddered as blood ran across her fingers, dripping onto the floor. "Oh god, Numair, your hand…"

"…is protected by my gift." He said gently, and smiled when her eyes widened. He didn't let go of her hand, but apart from that ruthless grip he looked honestly touched by her reaction. "You really are scared for me, aren't you?"

"How would I explain a dead body?" She whispered, and then her legs shook and she fell forward, catching herself against the table with her free hand.

"Does it hurt you?" Numair asked, catching at her elbow to help her regain her balance. She shook her head.

"N… no… it makes me dizzy. Tired."

"I think that's because you're not controlling it." He still refused to loosen his grip on her hand, but he gestured for her to sit down next to him. She dragged her legs over the wooden seat groggily.

"Fine, so I'm not controlling it. I told you that. You don't have to keep reminding me."

"Tell it to stop flowing out of you." He looked at her levelly, ignoring her scoff. "No, really. At the moment it's fighting against my shield."

"Fighting?" She looked horrified and started dragging on his hand again. "Will it break through?"

Not a chance. He thought, feeling the poisonous magic flowing neatly around his immovable barrier. The poison was stronger than he thought it would be, and he'd had to reinforce his shield already to be safe – but now the shield was finished Daine's magic had absolutely no way to break through.

"It might." He lied aloud and stubbornly tightened his grip on her hand. "You should try to stop it."

Daine frowned and bit her lip, resting her forehead on their linked hands. To Numair's surprise she began to meditate. It was a clumsy, half-remembered attempt, but it was far more than he thought she would know how to do. She managed to push her awareness into her core for a split second, and he felt her magic waver. Then she cried out and her hand constricted in his grip. The magic came flooding back, as strong as ever.

"Well done," he murmured, honestly surprised at how much she had managed. She looked up with tired, red-rimmed eyes and glared at him scornfully, so he shook his head. "No, I mean it. I'm proud of you. For your first try…"

"It's not my first try." She interrupted. "Ma was a mage. When you told me it was my magic making the stripes I decided to do this by myself. I've been trying. I just can't do it. But you didn't have to scare me to death to make me want to try. I thought you were going to die!"

Numair flinched. He honestly hadn't meant to scare her, and he hadn't had a clue she'd been struggling with her magic alone. He'd been so caught up with trying to think of a spell that he'd never even asked Daine what she thought might work. He'd simply retreated into his own head.

When he reddened and looked away from her Daine realised that for herself.

"You are an idiot." She said wearily.

"I'll help you from now on. Teach you." He mumbled, and then gave her a rueful grin. "Not tonight, though. You'll get a headache. Tonight I just wanted to test my shielding spell. I'm sorry I didn't tell you but I didn't know how you would react, and since your magic is tied up in your emotions, I… well, I'm sorry for scaring you."

She nodded. Now that her panic had faded her magic wasn't surging out of her as wildly, and the calmer she got the less ill she felt. Numair watched the girl curiously as she looked down at their joined hands.

Daine's expression grew a little odd. "How long does this test take, Numair?"

"Why?" He joked, looking up at the clock. "Do you want me to let go?"

He looked back around, and to his surprise a deep flush had spread over the girl's cheeks, even creeping down her neck. Her voice was soft and embarrassed.

"N…no. Not really. Your skin feels nice," Daine said, and the blush deepened. "I'm so sorry. That sounded odd but I… this is the first time I've safely touched another person since…"

"I understand." He interrupted her softly. "It's okay."

She looked at him with wide eyes. "You don't. How could you possibly understand this? How it feels to be able to touch someone after eight years?"

"No," he echoed. "You're right. I can't possibly imagine that." He smiled, trying to take some of the seriousness away from the conversation. "Technically, though, you've yet to touch anyone. I'm the one who touched you."

She reached out and hesitantly pressed her other hand on top of his knuckles, feeling the blood drying under her palm. "There." She said with a glimmer of mischief. "Now we're even."

He tweaked her nose, amused, and then laughed when she reached up and mimicked him. "It's not a competition, Daine!"

"Why not?" She asked pertly, and grinned with a kind of giddy euphoria. "Oh I see, because you know I'd win. There's far more of you than there is of me: you're so lanky! So you'd run out of things to touch long before I would."

"I don't think I'd mind losing a game like that." He was looking at the clock again and he said it without thinking, but then he realised what he'd admitted. He nearly pulled his hand away when her eyes widened but she shook her head and held on tighter. Her small fingers were warm as they nestled across his palm.

"Then… why not?" She asked. Her voice was almost a whisper. He didn't answer, and she persisted, "You wouldn't make it so I can touch, just to tell me I can't – would you?"

"That is absolutely and definitely not why I did this." He told her a little sharply. She met his eyes levelly, and then looked pointedly at their linked hands.

"Fine. If that's true then let go." An irritated note crept into her voice when he hesitated. "Let go, Numair!"

He didn't move. "No."

She laughed shortly, not meeting his eyes. "No." She mimicked, "Cute prank, Numair. Did you want to see if I would fall for it? If I would make a fool of myself? I'm not ashamed of what I want. If you don't want me to touch you then let go of me, take your stupid spell away and stop torturing me with things I can't have. If that's not what you want…"

"I'm not trying to be cruel. I don't know what I want." He interrupted her quietly. He looked down at their hands and gently ran his thumb across her palm, tracing the faint line of red that ran diagonally to her smallest finger.

Daine's heart fluttered – he could feel it pulsing in her hand. Her fingertips shook as she raised her other hand and carefully, fearfully, touched one fingertip to his cheek. She traced along the line of his cheek upwards, feeling the curving whorls of his ear and then moving her hand into his hair. Numair froze, barely even breathing, as she followed his parting down to the softer hair at the back of his neck. He watched her fascinated expression with a growing feeling of pity.

"You really can't remember, can you?" He asked. She shook her head. He bit his lip and asked, "Not even your family? Can't you remember them touching you?"

"No," she looked away at that, and her answer was brutally honest. "I forced myself to forget. I had to. I was jealous, because other people can touch each other so easily, I hated them. It twisted me up inside."

She pressed a fist to her stomach and then drew a shaking breath, seeing the yellow and red pattern on the hand. "So I made myself forget. I can't think about touching people. It makes me feel…I'm always so frightened, Numair. I'm not scared of bandits or famine or tornados or things I should be scared of. But things like… like making friends or meeting new people or having a family… they terrify me. And I know I can't have them. I never will. I'd never manage to even have a friend without hurting them one day. I know that. But knowing that doesn't stop me from wanting them."

Daine's words were so vulnerable, so raw, that Numair found he couldn't answer. This was a girl whose last fragment of tenderness had killed her own mother, and whose eyes were full of wretched fear even as she hesitated, longing but too scared even to touch another person's hand.

That is absolutely not why I did this. He remembered his own words and hated them.

He wrapped his arms around Daine without thinking, drawing her close and holding her tight. She gasped and stiffened in his arms, but he kept her close until she relaxed and rested her head on his shoulder. Then he yielded a little, moving an arm from around her back to stroke her hair.

He wondered what it felt like to her, because touching her soft curls seemed almost indecent to him. It was like creeping into a church and embracing the priceless, sacred statues – a species of ardent sacrilege. He was thinking this with a rising feeling of guilt when Daine made a soft noise and nestled closer to him, innocently overwhelmed by even the simple sensation of being hugged.

Numair dismissed his fleeting shame. He let her absorb the feeling and tried to tell himself that he wasn't taking advantage of her. He wasn't sure if he felt more pity or affection for the strange, untouched girl who hid behind Daine's prickly mask. If she knew he felt sorry for her Daine would never forgive him, but if he admitted he felt anything more than that…

…even if he only confessed it to himself, it would be an utter betrayal of the trust they had built up over the weeks.

"I swear to you," Numair whispered intensely, "I will find a way to help you. I swear it."

The girl's shoulders shook, and he thought she was crying until she looked up. Even though her eyes were reddened with tears, there was a slight smile playing on her face. It was obvious that she didn't believe a word of it. He wondered what she was thinking.

"That's what you said about my corset." She pointed out archly, and pressed her cheek to his for a moment. "You haven't kept your word on that, so..."

Numair faked an exasperated sigh and let her go, hoping that she didn't realise that he was pushing her away because her thoughtlessly affectionate action had made him shiver. He gestured for her to turn so he could see the knots in the dim firelight. She obliged him with a smile and started gently following the hairs on his arm with her left hand.

"It's hard to concentrate when you're doing that." He informed her. She pulled a face at him and took her hand away, sitting still for a moment with one leg jiggling impatiently. Then she started tracing the shape of his knee instead. Numair glared at her and moved his leg away.

"You don't untie knots with your knees." She told him tartly, and then looked a little bored. "I know what it feels like to touch fabric, though."

"Believe it or not, my lack of concentration is not anatomically dictated." Numair finally managed to find the trailing end of a knot and tugged it through one of the corset eyes. "Can't you find something else to do, Daine?"

She was thoughtful for a long time, and then he felt warm fingers brushing slowly down the side of his shirt. He froze, and she slid her hand smoothly under the fabric and traced the outline of his ribs.

"Daine…" he rasped. "That's not what I meant!"

"You're making a pig's ear of those knots," she said archly, but something in her eyes challenged him. "I had to find something to take up the time."

He bit his tongue and returned to the knots. She moved her hand higher, always moving so slowly that her questioning fingers felt like the gentlest caress. Numair shut his eyes for a prayerful moment and wished his own fingers would stop shaking.

"Daine," he whispered, and looked at her beseechingly. She shook her head, but he didn't know what she meant until she looked up and her eyes were bright with unshed tears.

"I'm sorry." She muttered, and drew away. "I just wanted… this isn't fair on you at all. I'll stop."

Numair knew two things then with absolute clarity. He looked at the tears shining in her eyes and knew that he couldn't let her go. Leaning forward he raised her chin and kissed her. He meant it to be chaste, simple, to reassure her and stop her from crying. She made a soft sound and her hands tangled in his hair, and he found himself kissing her the way a man kisses a woman. He drew her irresistibly towards him, tasting the odd sweetness of her mouth and hearing her breath catch before she pulled away and stared at him. She looked wide-eyed and breathless, utterly desirable and unutterably sad.

"Is this what you want?" He asked.

"Yes. I want to touch you... I want you. But I… I don't think I love you." Daine's voice shook, and for the first time she looked like she might move away. Her fingers trembled for a moment against his chest. "Is that… does that matter?"

He kissed the end of her nose, his eyes dark and unreadable. The second part of his newfound clarity didn't believe her for a second. "You don't love me," he asked, "Or you can't?"

She bit her lip. "Can't, then. I can't love you. Tell me if you want to stop this."

He didn't answer. Instead, he cupped her chin in one hand and moved her head to one side so he could kiss her neck. She shivered and held him closer. He let himself smile ruefully then, and only because he knew she couldn't see him.

He lied.

The lie was rather sardonic, because ten minutes ago he wouldn't have known he was lying: "I suppose I can't love you either, then."

"Because you're in love with Varice?" She asked, and he cut off the vile words with a second, rougher kiss.

"No. Not that."

His answer didn't explain anything, but she didn't press him for more.

Daine clumsily pushed his shirt off his shoulders and moved down his body, her fingers whispering slowly against his skin. Eyes shut, she traced the soft pliancy of flesh, the slight edges of his ribs and the hard give of muscle. She ran her fingertips through the wiry hair on his chest, and when he hissed between his teeth she looked fascinated at his response. Ducking her head down she nuzzled against him, inhaling his scent. Numair shivered at the feeling of her warm breath against his skin.

"Daine," he croaked, "Please don't."

"Does it feel different?" She asked curiously. Looking up, she suddenly looked a little scared. "Does it hurt?"

"God, no." He managed, "But…"

"Then don't tell me to stop." Relief was clear in her voice, and she scoffed slightly against his skin. "Honestly, Numair…"

"That's not why I said that." He retorted, and caught her around the waist before she could think of an answer. Holding her still, he slowly unlaced the last part of her corset and pulled it away, dropping it heedlessly on the floor. Taking his time, he unfastened the top three buttons of her blouse and then kissed the exposed line of her shoulder, breathing in deeply to memorise the scent of her warm skin. She inhaled sharply and he slid his hand inside her shirt, loving the way her heart pounded under his hand.

"Numair," she sighed. He shook his head and kissed her again.

"You see?" He replied breathlessly. "This is why I asked you to stop."

"Don't stop." She pleaded, and curved against his caressing hand. For long, delicious minutes Numair obeyed, but then he abruptly moved his hands away. Daine made an odd noise and then laughed as he picked her up, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. When he carried her to the bed she didn't let go but pulled him down with her, not letting him let go or break their contact for a single second.

"I'm not going to run away, you know." He whispered, half-laughing, and she shook her head.

"If you had a single moment to think about this, you might change your mind." She informed him in a tart voice, and then lay slowly back so that he had to lie above her. He paused, frowning, and cupped her chin with one long-fingered hand.

"Do you think I'm not thinking clearly?" He asked her. She smiled and nodded and he drew back a little. "Daine… sweetheart: no. I wouldn't just take advantage of you because of how you're feeling right now. That's not why I… Don't you know that I…"

"Hush." She pulled him down and kissed him, and there was something eternally sad in her eyes. "Please, please don't say that. Don't tell me anything. Just… just let it be enough for us to touch each other without all of the words. It doesn't have to mean anything. It can't mean anything."

"But…" he started, and then choked off the words in a groan when she lowered her hands, sliding them down his spine and drawing him closer as she raised her hips under his.

He forgot what he was going to say in the soft sound of her ragged breathing, the feel of her racing heartbeat. He pushed her skirt up impatiently and ran hands along the insides of her thighs. She whimpered and moved her legs apart, drawing him into her with almost violent need. Their bodies fit so naturally together. Words had no place in that.

"Sweetling," he echoed her moan of pleasure. She shook her head at the endearment and caught his lip between her teeth, silencing him a second time even as her hands urged him on.

It was coarse and graceless and crude but neither of them cared. Daine's quietness was uncanny: a wordless tide of silence which shattered into gasping, broken cries when she started shuddering around him. He buried his head in her shoulder and found his own release in her helpless shivering, thrusting into her willing body until he peaked in a coarse, frantic rush of heated movement.

Daine sank her fingers into his back and sobbed something out, and before the final savage surge of passion tore his world away from him Numair thought he heard her cry out...

Chapter Text

Numair woke up early the next morning in an empty bed. It took him a few befuddled moments to see that Daine was curled up in the chair by the fire, head pillowed on her hand as she slept. He guessed correctly that even though she knew she could touch him, she was still too nervous of her magic to risk sleeping beside a vulnerable human being. Numair might have told her that the spell he had cast would last until he deliberately destroyed it, but something stopped him.

He woke her up by sitting beside her and drawing her into his lap, letting her cuddle closer and sharing in her artless pleasure at even that chaste touch. They made love as the sun rose, gently moving together in the high-backed chair under the soft cover of a shared blanket.

“Daine,” Numair said quietly, stroking her hair back from her temple. “Can I ask you something?”

She ran her fingers along his jawline, eyes closed as she memorised the feeling of coarse stubble, and didn’t answer. Numair sighed and held her a little closer, wishing that her obstinate mind was as yielding as her lithe body.

“Daine,” he tried again, “What do we do now?”

“Eat breakfast.” She said, opening her eyes. She raised an eyebrow at his expression. “Unless you had other plans?”

“I didn’t mean that.” He retorted. She shrugged, and he felt a flicker of frustration. “Daine, you know what I’m asking.”

“I know it, yes,” she answered serenely, but there was steel in her grey eyes. Catching sight of his expression, she huffed a sigh and stood up, utterly unconcerned about her nakedness as she crossed the room. Despite his annoyance Numair felt desire burning for her, for the gentle swell of her hips and breasts and for the exotic beauty of the stripes which met in the small of her back, He tore his eyes away, hating the way that his breath caught in his throat, hating the fact that he couldn’t hide his hunger from her.

“It didn’t mean anything.” Daine said flatly, and shrugged her blouse on. “I told you that last night.”

“Saying that doesn’t make it true.” He had to stop himself from raising his voice, but the irritation in his words was obvious.

The girl paused mid-button and picked up her dress from the floor. Her response was careful, or perhaps she was just indifferent. Numair was too flustered to tell.

“You’re angry. Are you sorry that it happened?” She asked.

He shook his head, but couldn’t meet her eyes. “Of course I’m not sorry it happened. I’m just sorry it happened the way that it did. It doesn’t reflect particularly well on either of us.”

Daine turned away from him for a moment to wriggle into her skirt, and then drew the corseted bodice up over her blouse.

“It couldn’t have happened any other way.” She said finally, “And it really doesn’t mean anything that it did. If you want to argue then I guess that just means it shouldn’t happen again.”

Numair bit off his retort, feeling irritation pooling with his desire for this damned woman in the twisting depths of his stomach. He waited until she finished dressing before he replied, erroneously hoping that once she was decent he would stop wanting her so badly. She knotted her corset and then ran her hands down her frame to smooth the fabric, eyes challenging him.

She was beautiful. He loathed her for it.

“Fine.” He said through gritted teeth. “Have it your way.”

“I plan to.” She crossed the room and kissed his cheek, and then lingered there. “And your way, too. I’ll give you whatever you want, Numair, as long as you don’t want to talk about it. Please, it’s the only thing I’ll ask.” She smiled wanly and spread her hands. “Don’t be angry at me for not wanting to complicate this.”

“It’s already complicated.” He snapped, and she turned away with a closed-off expression.

“Then we’ll stop.” She repeated, and left the room.

When the door clicked closed behind her Daine slumped against the wall, her careful poise suddenly gone. She pressed a fist into her stomach fiercely and screwed her eyes shut, willing herself not to make a sound as she fought off the urge to cry.

It’s too late for that. She thought bitterly, remembering how she’d fought to be silent the night before. I’m sure he heard me.

It had only been one word, one single syllable, but as soon as it had forced its way from her lips she knew she had betrayed herself. It was that same word which she had stopped Numair from saying, and the same word which she forbade him from talking about now.

I’m being so horrible to him. She knew it for a fact, and another sob choked her for a moment. If I just told him the truth then he would understand. He wouldn’t look so hurt…

“Miss?” A voice broke her from her thoughts, and she opened her eyes with a start. One of the hotel’s other patron’s grinned at her, revealing a missing tooth. “Are you alright, miss?”

“Y…yes. Thank you.” She whispered, and smiled crookedly. “I guess I’m not feeling well.”

The man raised a bushy eyebrow and then looked her up and down. “Giv’n the kind of noise you two was serenadin’ us with last night, I ‘spect you might well be feeling poorly of the mornin’s.”

“Oh, go to hell.” She snapped, blushing so red that she was sure her face was glowing. “You can just mind your own...”

“Sarah.” Numair said her false name quite softly, but it was enough to make her blanch. He rested his hand on her shoulder briefly, fingers brushing her neck enough to make her still sensitive skin shiver.

“It’s alright, sweetling. I’m sorry, sir,” he raised his voice to speak to the man, “we had an argument and I think my wife came out here to be alone. Whatever you said, I’m sure you didn’t mean to upset her.”

“Well, then.” The man muttered, his own face flaming. As soon as he traipsed away down the hallway Daine rounded on Numair, her eyes furious.

“Are you following me?” She demanded.

“Hardly. There aren’t a lot of places to go around here. Besides, I’m hungry.” He said dryly, not taking his hand away from her shoulder. “Are you quite finished yelling at poor old men?”

“He said...” Daine bit off the accusing words unsaid and shrugged off his hand.. “That poor old man you’re defending said I was carryin’.”

“Carrin’?”

“Ugh. Carrying. A baby, you idiot! He heard us last night and decided to stick his nose in where it’s not wanted.”

“Well...” Numair hesitated, and then a very odd look crossed his face when he realised how close to tears the girl looked. It wasn’t embarrassment, either. There was something else in her pale expression which said the old man’s casual words had cut her far deeper than a vicious insult could.

Numair tucked his hands into his pockets and shook his head. “It’s a reasonable enough question. I should’ve said something myself, but I’m guessing this will be another one of the things that I’m forbidden to even think about near you, correct?”

She met his gaze unapologetically. “You know as well as I do that we only have a few more weeks together to play this revenge thing out. By the time anything else might happen we’ll be dead or gone our separate ways, and we both know it. Whatever happens after that will be by my choice, so it really doesn’t concern you what I think about it.”

“Well haven’t you just got the whole world planned out.” He muttered, and stepped past her to head down the stairs. “But when you want to rejoin reality, Daine, do let me know.”

“Your reality isn’t mine.” She said flatly. “That’s what I’m tryin’ to tell you.”

He stopped, one long hand resting on the wooden stair rail, and without looking up he said, “I love you.”

Daine flinched and the man continued without a trace of sympathy. “No. I will say it all I want, Daine, because in my reality it’s the truth. And it’s true enough that I’m willing to let you keep your secrets. But you should know that if I think you’re going to hurt yourself with this foolishness, I will stop this stupid game once and for all.”

Chapter Text

"Varice is leaving!"

It was a few weeks later, and Daine burst back into their room barely ten minutes after she had left for breakfast, her curls mussed with dust. "Numair, she's going! I went to say good morning to Cloud and Emmie and all the stable-hands were gone and they're loading her stuff into the stagecoach…"

"Finally!" Numair grinned as he put down his razor and started throwing his few belongings into a bag. They had been so organised in their packing that it only took a few minutes to empty the hotel room, but it still felt like an age. At the end of it both of them found that after their rush they hesitated to leave. The room was hot and close, but had been almost like a home for the months they had stayed in the town.

"Come on," Numair squeezed the girl's shoulder for a moment and hauled the satchels onto his shoulder as Daine collected their saddlebags. "You load up the horses, sweet, and I'll pay the bill."

"I told you not to call me that." Daine muttered, but today she said it without any rancour. They were both too excited to fall into one of their familiar arguments, but she plain refused to let the word sneak past.

"We'll be back among your fellow cacti soon, sweet." He replied in a cheerful sing-song, and hurried down the stairs. Daine slammed the door shut after him and headed down the other staircase.

By the time she had loaded up both Cloud and Emmie, both the mounts were bristling with the same excited energy that ran through their human owners' veins. Daine patted them soothingly, resting her forehead against their soft necks in turn and trying to show them how to breathe evenly. It was difficult. Her heart was pounding too.

"Ssh, ssh, my loves." She murmured, eyes squeezed tightly shut. "We're just movin' on. It's not such a big adventure. It's not the end of the world. Things aren't going to… to change."

(What made her hesitate? Fear? Excitement? It quickened her breath and made her eyelashes flutter, and Cloud snorted awkwardly and shifted from foot to foot, muttering something about …

...and as always you're not packing enough oats, but if you are plannin' on feeding us then pack them on that other lazy nag's saddle, thank you kindly, and while I'm on the subject…)

Daine tried to let the words wash through her mind like water. The analogy was useless; she was too unsettled herself, and it if was really water then her restlessness made it froth and foam until it threatened to spill over.

The man in the golden waistcoat was waiting, and Varice was leading them to him. In so few words it was simple. It was easy.

There were more words, though. Daine still wasn't at all sure that she wanted to confront the man. She understood all the reasons why she was meant to, and on the whole she agreed with Numair. It was better for them to confront Ozorne on their own terms and in their own time. The more his railway grew, the stronger his defences would be. In a few more years he would be untouchable. But right now, sitting in his luxurious private train like a land baron surveying his domain, he was smug and complacent. He wouldn't be expecting them. He would be surprised or even shocked when they appeared.

Daine wanted to see that shock. She thought that if she saw it, the face in her nightmares might be warped into the same shape. She figured that if anything could banish the bad dreams, it would be that small victory.

Other than that, she really didn't know what she wanted from Ozorne. But she did know what Numair wanted, and it was that knowledge which made her hands tremble as she gently buckled a leading rein to Emmie's halter.

Numair wanted to kill him. He wanted to stand before the man in cold blood, draw cold iron, and fire blistering slugs one after the other. He wanted to carry on with his revenge until he could look straight into Ozorne's cold dead eyes.

Oh, he would never admit something like that out loud. When they had actually spoken about what they were going to do, they rarely got any further than how they were going to board the train and overpower any guards. But Daine knew. She recognised death in the man's eyes as plainly as she could recognise happiness or hunger or desire.

Every night Numair's hands clenched and unclenched in his sleep. If he fell asleep holding onto her Daine learned that she must quickly wriggle free, or else spend the next morning arguing with him about the red fingerprints he had no memory of bruising into her skin. He spoke in his sleep, too: a low, dark mumble which had been too soft for Daine to overhear from the sofa, but which chilled her blood when he whispered it into her ear.

"I don't sleep at all," she told him one morning, terse as she dunked a piece of bread into an under-boiled egg. "If I had half the sense of a bobcat I'd hit you over the head with the bedpan and have done with it."

"You're warming to me," he poured her a fresh cup of coffee, flatly unapologetic. "At least you don't threaten me with the shotgun anymore."

"The shotgun's loud, and I just want a bit of peace and quiet." She toppled her eggcup over petulantly and watched the half-jellied, half-raw yolk pooling out around her spoon with a sickened expression. Numair sighed and stood up, taking her plate away and coming back a few minutes later with two bowls of oatmeal. He planted Daine's share in front of her without a word.

"I can't help dreaming." He said flatly. "No more than you can, and you've should know that you've woken me up, too."

"Then you go ahead and yell at me tomorrow, and I'll bring you breakfast." She waved a spoon at him mockingly and then dunked it into a jar of molasses. "We'll take it in turns to be grumpy. And to apologise to each other for being noisy, selfish, sheet-hogging, scary sleep thieves."

He smiled wanly. "I might not remember all those words by tomorrow. Would you even want an apology you'd just scolded out of me, sweetheart?"

"You say their names, you know." Daine was irked by the endearment, however ironically he'd said it. Her curiosity sounded more like an accusation when she carried on: "His name most often, which is fair odd! You'd think you'd be callin' out your lover's name more than his… especially if he was just your boss."

He stood up abruptly and picked up his barely touched food. "Drop it, Daine."

"Why should I?" She picked up her coffee, feigning disinterest. "When you'll be whisperin' the truth of it in my ear next time I'm trying to sleep?"

"It's none of your business." He snapped, and stalked away.

And now, Daine thought, they were setting out - heading towards those same two people who haunted Numair's nightmares - and she still didn't know the true story.

There had to be more. There just had to be. If he had been whispering Varice's name she would have understood, because even when she was caught up in the man's embrace Daine still found herself wondering… wondering…

Utterly unable to find a name for the wordless pleasure which captivated them both, fascinated by the hedonistic darkness of passion which burned in her lover's gaze, the naïve part of Daine's mind couldn't convince her that she was the one who had inspired it. She knew that she wasn't at all like the sensual women in the brothels or the graceful ladies in books, and she had never heard a story where the frog married the handsome prince at the end.

She wasn't even pretty – people used words like 'tanned' or 'strong' or 'short' to her face and other words to her back. Even Numair had never said he thought she was worth looking at. They never talked about things like that at all. Instead, they argued constantly and even made love as if they were fighting.

That wasn't love. That didn't even come close. It didn't hold a candle to the way he'd spoken about Lady Vee.

Whatever Numair told her, Daine told herself, he wasn't in love with her. Sometimes she even thought that he hated her. There was a strange resentment between them which Daine unabashedly nurtured, for reasons she couldn't even admit to herself. She mocked him for his affections as often as she welcomed them, and as often as he pulled her into his arms he scowled and shoved her away.

Afterwards, he would apologise and try to be tender, raining kisses onto her face and stroking her hair and fussing over her as if she were a fragile doll he had hurled to the ground instead of an adult woman. Getting no response from the heartless creature, his own eyes would grow distant and his fingers would still.

If she ever longed to return his love, it was in those slow, quiet moments when she knew she was hurting him most. But she couldn't bear to, and so she would sigh as if she were bored, or turn in his arms and kiss him until the heat of their passion ignited. At least in the raging bitterness of sex she could comfort him.

Daine wasn't surprised, then, that he hated her for it. She hated herself. It seemed perfectly reasonable to her to believe he still loved the other woman. Honestly, given the alternatives she gave him she would have understood if he declared his love for Emmie.

But Ozorne? That name made her pause. Why was it that Ozorne's name that Numair cried out in his sleep?

"Are you ready?" Numair asked, startling her from her thoughts. She jumped guility and nodded, too flustered to meet his eyes. The man frowned and took Emmie's rein from her.

"It'll be alright," he said, the words short. Daine laughed and planted her hands on her hips.

"Who says I was worryin'?"

"You were 'worryin'' about something. I assumed it was something worth fretting over. I gave you the benefit of the doubt." He shrugged and led the pony out the stable. Daine caught him up after a few strides and they fell into step, then when they cleared the outskirts of the town they mounted up and started following the stagecoach tracks. It was easy going. For the present, at least, it seemed that Varice had ordered her driver to keep to the main roads.

"The horses are skittish," Numair said, after a few miles of wrestling with Emmie's bit. The horse looked a few steps away from planting her hooves into the dirt and sending him flying. Daine silently asked her not to ("I know it's tempting, but...") and beckoned the placid Cloud to walk beside them.

"They're excited... or maybe nervous." She explained. "They think that from now on, everything is going to change. I told them not to worry."

Numair looked sidelong at her, and then he kicked Emmie ahead and drew away from her.

"But they're right." He called back. "It is."

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