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Hoden, the steward, approached Zoe and Darien, still standing in the kierten. Zoe had a felt a moment of relief that he hadn’t found them quite as entangled as they had been only a moment ago. Then she remembered her—emotionally and physically—exhausted sleep in the hallway of the family wing and realized that the hunti man had already seen worse.

“You will be staying?”

The question was for Darien, but, as Prime and mistress of her grandmother’s house, he spoke to Zoe. She nodded. “Yes.”

“I’ll inform the kitchen.”

Zoe smiled, sure that if Hoden had come upon them when they were...indisposed, he would have had dinner made and bedroom aired for Darien by the time they had come up for air. “Thank you.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

And then he was gone. Zoe turned back to Darien, still and solid as a forest, no more ruffled by the exchange with Hoden than Hoden himself had been. They were hunti men both: utterly reliable, utterly dependable, utterly unflappable, or nearly so. But Zoe remembered what Darien had said about the last few days in Chialto and in the palace. He was run ragged, and even the indefatigable trees of a great forest needed to be replenished. Nothing lasted forever without fuel to keep it going. How long could a forest survive without water?

“Do you wish to rest before dinner?” she asked him. “If I know Hoden, he’s having a room prepared for you as well as setting an extra plate at the table.”

Darien seemed to sag. Again. It was tempting to draw close to his side and bolster him up, as the Marisi had bolstered her on the wild ride from the palace down to the river flats only a week earlier.

And why not? she thought. When she took a step towards him, he seemed to take it as an invitation and drew her close once more. “It’s tempting,” he said against the curve of her skull. He wasn’t so very tall, and she was somewhat tall for a woman, but he was wearing a pair of fine boots and she had on flat leather shoes suitable for indoor use.

Zoe pressed herself close so that Darien had to lift his head to make room for her, or she would have to lay her head on his shoulder. She compromised so that he did not have to stretch so far, and she was not completely on his shoulder. Her free arm went around his waist and snaked up his back. The other still held his hand.

He took a deep breath and seemed to settle against her, but she felt neither pressed nor overwhelmed. She was strong enough to hold him up, to buoy him, if he was willing to sink into her just a little bit.

“But it’s very relaxing here as well.”

“Is it?” Zoe said as she began to sway gently on her feet. She felt Darien look down at her and smiled.

“I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.”


They had eventually settled in another sitting room, one that Zoe had not previously explored. Like the green room, it had a wonderful view of the Marisi, but it seemed to reflect the forested nature of the grounds better. It reminded Zoe of the great river as it ran through the mountains: the lines were clean and sharp, the ornamentation more spare, the colors were the brown and green of a murky, churning river. It was far more masculine than the green room.

“Of course your grandfather was more likely to entertain his guests here than your grandmother was...” Hoden had said in that way he used to inform her of something she should know but didn’t because of her years in exile.

Zoe had smiled solemnly--her maternal grandfather had died before she was born--and said, “I imagine my uncle preferred to use this room as well, when he entertained guests.”

“Yes, madam.”

Zoe’s smile had grown. “Thank you, Hoden.” Sometimes she didn’t know which inheritance she was more grateful for: the house she had loved so dearly as a child, or the steward who kept it.

Now, some time later, she sat at one end of long, deep couch watching Darien watch the river as it gurgled past. Not only was the room more masculine than the green sitting room nearer the kierten, but Zoe thought it appealed to hunti sensibilities. Not for the first time, she wished that she could take Hoden with her back to the capital. She thought her cousin Keeli would approve. And then try to steal him away, impossible though it would be.

“Why are you smiling?”

Zoe’s full attention came back to Darien, who was now watching her instead of the river. Her smile grew. “I was thinking of my cousin.”

“Which one?”

A valid question, as she had been fully reintegrated with both halves of her family, Ardelay and Lalinder, and could be seen in the company of one as much as the other. She and Josetta had been with Keeli the morning of the Incident, but it had been Rhan Ardelay’s arm slung protectively over her shoulder the afternoon of the horrendous announcement that had caused it all.

“Keeli,” she said.

Darien nodded. “A nice girl--woman. All coru.”

“All coru,” Zoe repeated, nodding.

“She’s sharper than others give her credit for.”

“Even a gurgling stream can hide the full strength of its current.”

Darien smiled and huffed, turning his attention back to the river. But with his free hand he reached out for hers. As it always did, Zoe felt her blood leap to analyze Darien’s as it flowed below the surface of his skin. But she knew it already, and so it was more like the tender exploration of a familiar face. Nothing had changed but every dip and curve was worth the review.

She must have said something, or made some sound, because he looked at her again, his normally placid expression pulled and stretched with stress but Zoe thought he was happy nonetheless. Certainly his heartbeat had picked up when he’d touched her. “Your steward is very wise,” he said. “Perhaps the wisest man in the Welce.”

Zoe felt laughter bubble up within her. Grinning she said, “And why do you say that? Not that I don’t agree.”

“He knew exactly what I needed and how to facilitate that need.”

Zoe’s eyebrows climbed. “Is that so?” She wasn’t used to such roundabout talk from Darien. Perhaps their adventuring had changed him as much as it had her. Perhaps they were already becoming something more together than they had been apart.

“A weary man needs only two things in the midst of his weariness.” Before she could ask what they were, he said, “A peaceful respite from his troubles, and the presence of those he loves.”

So saying, he tugged her closer to his body so that he could wrap his arm around her. Zoe’s body thrilled with the proximity, his blood singing to hers though only their hands met bare skin to bare skin. She molded herself to his side, tempted to do more, but inordinately pleased to be in the presence of someone confident enough in himself to not need more of her than her presence—but who recognized that he needed it completely.

“How could you know so soon that you loved me?” she found herself saying again. She’d asked him before, in the kierten, and he’d produced the sealed promise from the Plaza of Men. It was still a wonder. “I am nothing like before.”

Darien huffed. “You are as stubborn, as inexorable, as sure.”

She glanced up at him. “Those sound like hunti qualities.”

“Or a description of a mighty river determined to make its way to the sea.”

Smiling, she turned her own gaze back to the Marisi beyond the window. “I see why you excel in politics.”

“Only now?”

Now she huffed. “I am reminded then.”

Darien laughed, the sound rumbling through his chest and reverberating in her head. Zoe had a brief moment to wonder if laughter was what made Kayle Dochenza sing—the giddy joy of air bouncing around in its cage to produce such a pleasing sound, much like the colored gasses the Dochenzas produced for festivals. Or if the reverberation spoke to the very bones of Darien’s aunt, Mirti, the hunti prime. More likely it was the torz prime, Taro, who loved laughter most. More than the literal flesh and body involved, laughter was about people...about community. Much as the torz bench at the temple was always overfull, forcibly reminding you of your connection to the world, to people, laughter couldn’t help but remind you of others whether even when you were laughing alone. Zoe remembered many times when she’d stored up something humorous she’d seen or heard in town to tell her father later. Humor, laughter, joy was something to be shared. She already knew that her uncle, as a sweela man and prime, loved intense emotion .

“And what are you thinking of so intently?”

Zoe glanced up at Darien. Her eyebrows went up, all innocence. “Me?”

“Yes, you. I’ve learned to be wary of your silences.”

And now Zoe laughed.

Sooner than she would have guessed, dinner was ready and Hoden was leading them to the small family dining room. Zoe had yet to be share her grandmother’s house with any family other than Keeli, so the room was almost as much a stranger to her as the river room, as Zoe had begun to think of it. Like the river room, it was smaller, darker, more casual and cozy than the formal dining room.

“It’s a shame Keeli and I always took meals in our rooms,” she said as Hoden held her chair for her. Darien stood at his seat in patient attention. “This is of course where only family and close friends would dine,” she said to him, though the words were for her steward.

A small, somewhat confused smile pulled at Darien’s face, but as a man not unexperienced with words unspoken, he didn’t reply.

Hoden, however, said, “You are right, of course, my lady.”

Zoe grinned at him, sure of his approval though his expression did not change.

“Your dinner will be brought out shortly.”

“We can serve ourselves.”

Hoden never looked at Darien, but Zoe felt his disapproval as surely as she’d felt his pleasure. “We are here to serve, and it has been many long years since we have had the privilege.”

“You don’t live to serve, do you?” Zoe asked, more struck by the literal truth of the words than the way her steward had tried to smooth over any potential awkwardness.

“As much as you are a coru woman and Prime, as much as your father was a sweela man and scholar...most of those who stayed, hunti or otherwise, are dedicated to the act of service.”

Zoe thought of Melvin and how thoroughly he enjoyed the process of making shoes. He wasn’t as keen on the business of it as his wife Ilene was, but even that, she knew, brought him some joy. And his son...she had spent more than enough time with Barlow and Jaker to know how deeply their love for the road and its merchandise went. He had told her once that he knew every piece that he had bought, that they were almost like his children. But to feel that way about people?

Before she could say anything, whether in rebuke or wonder, who knew, Darien was nodding. “Yes, my father served the crown faithfully all his life and I could not imagine him ever doing otherwise.”

Then he dared to look down at her, even as he gently pushed her away from his body so that they might stand and go to dinner. “Even your father was a man of service, and when he was barred from it…”

Darien wisely didn’t finish the statement.

“He let all his incredible power of mind run amok?” Zoe said, standing. She smiled, although she herself wasn’t sure if it was a happy one. She’d been back in Chialto for a year, but it seemed that every few months during that year she’d learned something new, and hurtful, about the Navarr Ardelay, a man she’d admired above all others. The only thing Zoe was sure of was that she hadn’t fully come to terms with it.

“I doubt my father would have said that what he did for the King warranted him being called a ‘servant of the crown’,” Zoe said before Darien could decide what to say that was both truthful and diplomatic. “But he wasn’t the same after he was banished, either.”

“If I may, madam,” Hoden broke in, “your father may not have considered himself a servant of the crown, but the good of Welce was his highest honor.”

“His second highest,” Zoe said. “No one ever ranked higher in Navarr’s mind than Navarr himself.” But her face smiled and her eyes laughed when she said it.

Though she had only recently learned of the extent of her father’s selfishness, its existence had been no surprise. It…He had defined all her life, even after his death. If she was truly going to be bitter, she’d have been so when they were each other’s best company back in the village.

Hoden graciously conceded the point—he had known Navarr Ardelay personally as well—and left them to their dinner.

Darien was regarding her with curious eyes. Zoe’s smile grew. “Do my words surprise you?”

“Your glib admission more than the words themselves. Your father and mine were friends, remember.”

“Of course I remember. But it seems you’ve forgotten who I am?” she said with brow raised.

His eyes narrowed in thought, then he laughed—a sharp barking sound. Darien passed a hand over his face. “I am very tired.”

The blood in Zoe’s veins leapt for him, though no part of them touched. Expression softer, she turned to the servants who were, in fact, hovering waiting for their signal to begin. She nodded to them.

They were well into their meal before conversation crept in again. Unsurprisingly, Zoe was the instigator, both of the conversation and the ensuing argument.

Though it was a cold meal, the scent of richly scented food wreathed them as she asked, “What would you have done if I wasn’t in fact Prime?”

Darien frowned. “We’ve had this conversation.”

Nodding, Zoe said, “I know we have, but humor me. What would you have done.”

Lowering the fork that had been raised to his lips, Darien exhaled loudly. His free hand waved vaguely over the food. “I don’t know, Zoe. You are Prime. You were always Prime. Of this there was never any doubt.”

“But what if hadn’t been,” she insisted. “What if you had been wrong.”

“We weren’t—“

“But you might have been!” she pressed. “hunti does mean prescient.”

Darien chuffed. “It certainly does not. An elay man might make such a claim...” At her glare, he sighed and deigned to give the question serious consideration. “I suppose I would have done my duty.” He stabbed at his meal.

“Though you loved me.” Zoe believed him. She couldn’t help but believe him, word of a hunti man, but she couldn’t help pressing him. “Even before we had reached Chialto.” At his hesitation, she added, “You said so not even an hour ago.

Brow quirked, he said, “And in the midst of your grief, had you discovered that you loved me in return?”

Zoe scowled. “I was grieving--.”

“So I said.”

“--and I hardly saw you. Or heard you. And what I saw and heard”

“I know.”

“You were just something else to be endured while I determined how I could live without the vibrancy of my father filling it up.”

“I--” Darien faltered. “I didn’t know it then, but it quickly became apparent.”

“I couldn’t have loved you then,” Zoe finished. Face drawn up into a tight, miserable scowl, she was sorry that she had asked the first question if this was the result. “And yet you loved me.”

“Your grief afforded me to observe you with impunity, the lost Lalinder Prime.”

“Or the king’s next young wife.”

“Doubtful...but I will concede the possibility.”

Zoe stabbed at her food unhappily. “Thank you.”

After a long moment of silence, during which they did little but play with their food, Darien set down his fork. “I suppose if we had been wrong, if your grandmother had been wrong about her heir, and you were merely her long lost granddaughter, then the king would have married you and had his five wives to balance his three children.”

“Ah, then I suppose Vernon wouldn’t have needed you to get me with child, would he?”

The words were as hot and bitter as any Zoe had ever uttered in her life, and she regretted them even as they left her mouth. Darien looked as if she had taken a knife to his throat.

“I didn’t--”

“Don’t,” he said, cutting her off quickly. “You did. You meant those words, my beloved sweela-hearted woman.”

Zoe hung her head in shame. He was right. Some part of her had meant them, but she’d never meant to voice them. It no longer pleased her to poke him. She had already found all his weak places, and instead of giving her pleasure they only made her ache for him.

“I won’t deny it.” At his chuff, her head shot up and her eyes narrowed. “Anymore,” she added. “But I didn’t mean to say it. I didn’t...I wasn’t trying to hurt you.”

Breathing heavily, Darien looked up and over her shoulder. “Leave us.”

Zoe started. She had forgotten about the servants. “I said we could fend for ourselves,” she groused.

“If I had known that your lingering jealousy was going to make an appearance, I would have stood with you.”

“I am not jealous!”

“Then where did that question come from?”

“I am not jealous,” Zoe insisted without answering Darien’s question.

“Bitter, then.”

Zoe tried not to react as his words struck true.

“Why do you linger here, coru woman, Lalinder Prime?” Darien said, speaking gently though the pain of her words were still etched on his face. “Will you truly sit and stagnate here, caught between the eddies of your father’s machinations and the king’s desperate gamble? They are both dead, or as good as. You are no longer a pawn to either. As you yourself have already proved so spectacularly.”

Exhaling slowly, Darien seemed to sink in on himself and Zoe was reminded again of how exquisitely tired he really was. She reached across the space to touch his hand, to apologize for her lingering immaturity and fear...her bitterness, but at the touch of her fingertips he drew his hand away. He pushed himself away from the table and made to stand.

Wishing she had her mother’s cloak to metaphorically draw around herself. “That’s it, then? I’ve finally gone too far?”

He laughed. He actually laughed at her. “I have been more deeply insulted by those I have known far longer, but loved far less. No, Zoe Ardelay Lalinder, you have not gone too far, but I must admit that this hunti man is not properly equipped to do battle with a coru woman who possesses a sweela heart.”

“Annova always claims I have such a thing,” Zoe said, speaking carefully, not quite trusting that she her carelessness hadn’t done irreparable damage to her newfound love. “The other women down by the river agreed with her. And when I wondered aloud what it such a thing could mean, one of the women said ‘steam.’”

Standing now, Darien chuckled. “I had always thought that there is more wisdom to be had on the banks of the Marisi than in the palace halls, and now I see it to be true.”

Darien approached her, looking as worn as he had when he first approached her in the kierten hours ago. Zoe tried to loosen the tension of her shoulders before he reached her, but found that she could not. His hand touched her and he stopped moving completely. No blood seemed to leap this time, and his heart was measured and steady. He was so still for so long, Zoe could not help but look up at him. “I speak truly, Zoe, I love you as I did the day I swore that promise in the Plaza of Men. More. And I will love until the bones of the earth break and are turned to dust. Word of hunti man. But you have hurt me, and I cannot do battle with you tonight.”

He slid his hand down her arm, past her sleeve and to her hand until their fingers tangled, bending over double to do so. Zoe found herself wordlessly raising head to his, but he did not kiss her. Instead he closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to hers, their noses brushing. “Good night.”

Zoe was waiting for Darien in the kierten in the morning. She wore his pin on her shoulder where it stood out in sharp relief against the hot sweela colors she had chosen for the day. His smile said he approved.

He took her hands when she was near enough, but before he could say anything, whether “good morning” or “so you’ve come to see me off after all”, Zoe spoke. “I apologize for last night. I spoke out of careless immaturity. I did not truly mean to hurt you.”

She felt his heart race a little when he said, “Is that why you were absent from breakfast this morning?” but she couldn’t guess the exact cause.

Frowning, she said, “I couldn’t sleep. I ate breakfast hours ago.”

Darien’s smile grew. “Good. It makes my heart glad to not have suffered alone.”

“Didn’t you sleep?” He looked rested.

“I did. Possibly the longest stretch of sleep I’ve had in the last few months since it became apparent that Vernon was going down. That you felt some of the pain your words caused me makes my heart light. Perhaps for the first and only time ever, I have won an argument against the great Lalinder Prime.”

Zoe made as if to pull her arms out of Darien’s grip, but even in jest he would not let her go. “Well if you insist on loving me still...”

“I do.”

“Then I suppose I shall have to learn to live with it.”

“You shall,” Darien said, grinning. He drew her close. Speaking softly, he said, “Sometimes what is needed to get water flowing again is a boulder or a large section of wood to break up the stagnating currents and encourage a new flow.”

“So I have witnessed. And I have heard that there are some forests that only thrive when utterly and completely submerged in water.”

“So I have witnessed.”

Zoe looked up into Darien’s eyes, so close now. “I’m sorry that I still do not fully and completely trust you, no matter the reasons.”

“And I am sorry that I have contributed to those reasons. But we’ll have time to learn. Won’t we?”

“Until the oceans and the rivers run dry.”

“And the bones of the earth are turned to dust.”

Zoe wrapped her arms around Darien’s neck as he wrapped his around her waist, and kissed him deeply.

It was some time before they parted, hearts thudding in their chests. “When will I see you again?” Darien asked though Zoe was sure he knew the answer.

Still, she said, “When Barlow and Jaker bring the girls back. We’ll probably let them rest here one night before coming down to join you and their mothers in the palace.”

Darien nodded. Then, without another word, he withdrew from her and strode out of the house to his waiting elaymotive. He did not look back, but Zoe was neither worried nor offended. She knew that if head he wouldn’t be able to take the long trek down the mountain to all the trouble that awaited him there. This way was better. And she would see him again. Soon.

Watching Darien putter and puff out of the courtyard to the road beyond, Zoe could not help but wish that the rest of her family would come back quickly.