It was not quite evening yet, but the sky had that soft purple quality it gets when twilight is waning and darkness is on the way. As he often did, Essek mused that there was something different about this real night sky from the Xhorhassian darkness he’d been so accustomed to – it was richer, deeper, like the difference between looking into a shadowy surface only a few inches deep, and looking at an identical one but knowing that it holds a well that goes down forever.
This particular night sky was the color of magic, thought Essek… or regret.
His knock was soft, difficult to hear even close by, but the door opened quickly, as if the man inside the house had been waiting for it.
“And hello,” said the man, smiling. He had begun greeting Essek this way over their brief, scattered visits this past year, as if they were continuing a conversation only barely interrupted, and the intimacy and humor of it had warmed them both. The man at the door was young, although there were faint lines of care and tiredness around his eyes and mouth. His red hair was disheveled, as if he were used to running his fingers through it while working out some formula or problem, and it tumbled to his neck, glinting in the golden glow of the room behind him.
There was just a fraction of a pause before Essek answered. “Hello again.” His own hair was white and curly, cropped shorter in the fashion of the Bright Queen's court, and it glowed softly even in the shadows above his pointed ears. His skin was the color of the sky above him as the last vestiges of the day’s light faded. Everything about him was precise.
“Come in, my friend.” The red-haired man stepped back a bit to open the door, gesturing to the other man to enter.
Essek hesitated, leaning forward as if his entire body yearned for the warmth and safety of the open door. Then he moved back from the doorway, and from the red-haired man.
“If you do not mind, I must beg your indulgence, Caleb… I do not feel prepared to come inside just yet.”
“Are you all right, Essek?” asked Caleb. He stepped through the door and closed it behind himself, softly. He paused for a moment, taking in the late twilight around them. The night was gentle, the air pleasantly crisp, but with the promise of real cold to follow soon. “What troubles you?”
“What troubles me…” mused Essek. “I must admit that I hardly know how to respond.”
“There is no hurry, my friend,” replied Caleb.
Essek glided away from him, and as always, the unnatural smoothness of the action gave him an odd, eerie grace.
Caleb followed, walking in his more common, human manner, stepping deliberately across the grass to where Essek paused within the nearby clearing. Above them was the twilit sky, and off to the right, the forest was a mass of darkness, an unknowable and looming presence. To Caleb, it felt like the past. He found it curiously comforting.
“I confess that I did not know the hour when I left,” said Essek. “It surprises me to find it so near darkness now.”
“I’m glad you did,” said Caleb. “It’s good to see you. It has been too long.”
“It has,” said Essek. He looked briefly into Caleb’s eyes, as if searching for something there, then he glanced away.
“Will you not tell me how things have been with you?” asked Caleb. “I was concerned for your safety. Your last Sendings troubled me.”
Essek looked away, then back to Caleb, and gave him a small smile that was almost innocent above the pointed chin. As usual in such moments, it was difficult for Caleb to remember that Essek had already outlived him by nearly a century. “Do not concern yourself,” said Essek. “I am well.” He shrugged slightly, and pushed a curling lock of white hair away from his brow. Caleb noticed that his hair was slightly longer than he normally wore it, and therefore evidently would not do his bidding. The lock instantly sprang back across Essek’s forehead, and his irritation gave Caleb a smile that he hid with his hand.
“I am well,” Essek repeated. “But an emissary found me, and I was, as you would say, in a tight spot for a day or two. I had to use everything you and your companions had taught me about how to flee, and how to hide. And even how to fight.” He gestured at his neck, and Caleb leaned forward to look. Sure enough, there was the silvery thread of the scar along Essek’s throat, a slash that curved up the dusky skin and ended behind his right jawline. Caleb reached forward and touched the scar, his long fingers running along the line of the wound with concern, and Essek went quite still. Caleb did not appear to notice—in his usual analytical way, he was focused on the injury itself.
“That is a bad one, my friend,” he said. “And could certainly have been the end of you.”
“Yes,” said Essek. “Although that outcome did not truly concern me. We both know it would be no more than I deserve.” He remained motionless, watching Caleb until the other man dropped his hand, and looked at him. “And after all,” he continued, “that is the risk we carry when we antagonize them, is it not? Violence is a predictable tool in the hands of liars and imperialists.”
He touched the scar with his own fingertips almost unconsciously, as if tracing the echo of Caleb’s touch, then he looked back to Caleb, whose eyes were now on the awakening stars above them. There was no longer any visible trepidation or vulnerability in his face; the drow had mastered himself and his face was calm again—he was once again the untouchable courtier and spy of the Dynasty.
“But yes,” said Essek. “It was what your Jester would call an exciting interlude. Although I am safe and well now, so there is no need for concern.”
“She is your Jester too, now,” said Caleb, smiling. “After all we have been through together, all of us. And there is certainly no question that she loves you, my friend. You will always be one of the Nein.”
“You are right, of course.” Essek smiled, but he looked as if the smile hurt him slightly. “And I care for her too.” He stumbled, ever so slightly, over the word ‘care’ as if it were a trap into which he feared to fall. “I admit that I will never fully understand what made her care for me so, what made her reach out to me as she did. There was much—generosity—to that impulsive first hug of hers. But whatever it was, I am grateful for it.”
“The love of a person like Jester, as I have learned myself, can be a transformative thing,” said Caleb. His voice went into a teasing, excitable approximation of Jester’s, complete with curling Nicodranas accent. “Caleb! I rescued a butterfly today, and brought it to a nearby field and now it is no longer lonely.”
Essek laughed. “Essek!” he said in the same musical, excited imitation. “You Messaged me twice in one day! That means you missed me, you know you did. I think you must be falling in love with me!”
Caleb smiled. “You were too isolated when we found you,” he said. “A mage in a tower, locked behind your carefully crafted gates and barriers. The beauty of a person like Jester is that she is perfectly willing to stand outside and scream until you agree to come out and hug her.”
“Even if,” said Essek, “one is not accustomed to hugs.”
“All the better,” said Caleb with a grin.
Essek shook his head. “ Jester’s friendship will always be a strange and mysterious gift to me, and a precious one.”
“Not just Jester’s friendship, I hope,” said Caleb.
“Of course not,” said Essek. He turned as if to walk away, but stayed where he was, his eyes caught by the beauty of the clearing. The silence was gentle, like the evening around them—the forest, the small, humble house with its gently smoking chimney, the field of turf and clover where they spoke.
“You are troubled, my friend,” said Caleb softly. He put a hand tentatively on the other man’s arm, turning Essek to face him. “Will you not tell me why?”
Essek looked down at his arm, at Caleb’s hand, then into his eyes. He shook his head, as if words were failing him. He caught his breath, then exhaled slowly. As if he had been about to speak, then breathed instead.
Caleb looked at him, and withdrew his hand. “I am sorry,” he said. “I forgot that you prefer not to be touched.” Even in the semi-darkness of twilight, he could see that Essek’s face was filled with quiet pain.
“It is not what you think,” said Essek. “Or rather, it is more complicated. I—I do not disdain all touches, I just…”
“Essek,” Caleb said. His voice was soft, as it almost always was, and the slight Zemnian accent simply accentuated its softness. “We have been through much together, you and I—risked much for each other. You can say anything to me. Surely you know this by now.”
A breeze ruffled Caleb’s hair, and Essek was surprised at the chill it held. Despite the soft night, that wind seemed to hold the possibility of snow. Or perhaps it was simply his own fear, speaking on the world’s touch. Essek met Caleb’s eyes, violet gazing into blue, and then he seemed to shrink slightly, before Caleb realized that all that had happened was that the drow had lowered himself to the ground. Essek was no longer floating above the world; he was standing upon its surface.
“I wonder if you know,” said Essek softly, “the effect that you had upon my world when we met. Your companions, yes, your beautiful, maddening, ridiculous, and wonderful companions, who have become my friends as well. But more than any of them, you. You, yourself.”
“I have thought of this on occasion,” admitted Caleb. “We upended your life. I can only hope that you have ultimately found the trade-off worth it.”
“I am speaking of you, yourself,” said Essek. “Your effect, Caleb. That young and wounded Wizard, who thought that he could present himself in a shabby disguise to hide his light. A young man filled with so much promise and power, so certain of nothing but his own will and purpose. And yet brave enough to face down a queen, an empire, the very forces and fates of this world.”
“I remember that,” Caleb smiled. “I was in awe of you. Your dunamantic powers, your calmness and control. I remember how I envied your coldness.”
The drow gave a short, humorless laugh. “My coldness. I would not wish anyone to envy me my coldness.”
“I did not mean it as a judgment,” said Caleb. “I know there is more to you than that.”
“Do you,” said Essek. And yet it was not quite a question. “I am not entirely sure it is something I know myself.”
“Then allow me to know it for you,” said Caleb.
“No!” said Essek, and he stepped back, away from the other man. “I do not deserve such understanding. I do not deserve friendship, or companionship, or…”
He stopped, and Caleb waited for several seconds, then spoke. “What were you going to say?”
“It does not matter,” said Essek. “I was simply going to observe that I do not deserve happiness. I do not deserve companionship or love. I even wonder if I am right to evade those who pursue me. I acted coldly, once upon a time. I wished for knowledge, and damned the world. And I cannot atone for the lives that were lost because of that arrogant and needful wish, no matter how hard I try.”
“These thoughts are not worthy of you!” said Caleb. “What has happened to bring you to this?”
“You happened,” said Essek.
Caleb drew breath to speak, then remained silent, watching him.
Essek drew away from Caleb and walked gracefully into the center of the clearing, his eyes sweeping around its edges and to the bordering forest as if seeking some kind of salvation or answer there.
“I have been thinking back,” he said. “Not to the dreadful battles or even to our moments in Aeor, but to those early moments of companionship, of magic and discovery. And to one moment in particular that haunts me.”
“I cannot guess the moment you speak of,” Caleb smiled. “But you showed me a new world,” he said. “I had never done magic with someone of your ability before, or not—not with so much joy, so much delight in the pure learning.”
“I think it would be safe to say that there was a spark, perhaps, between us in those early beginnings,” said Essek. “Of curiosity, and of trust.”
“Yes,” said Caleb. “There was.”
“And then of course you learned who I really was—what I really was,” said Essek. “What I was capable of. That so much of our early friendship had been under false pretenses, as I watched you and your friends, reported on your movements. As I betrayed you for my own ambitions.”
“That was a long time ago,” said Caleb. “We’ve talked about this. At some point you must forgive yourself.”
“You misunderstand me,” said Essek. “I do not wish to forgive myself. I do not wish to change a single moment of my betrayal, or to take back a single lie I told to you, because each betrayal and each lie brought me to your side. Because each of those things brought me with you in the fight against the ancient city and the Nonagon. Because each of those things brought me to your side on so many days, and once again this evening.”
“I understand you, my friend,” said Caleb. “I think.”
“Do you?” asked Essek. “I am not sure you do.”
“I cannot pretend to understand why you are in pain,” said Caleb. “I wish you would tell me what has brought this mood upon you, when I am simply so glad that you are safe and sound.”
Essek turned in a slow circle then faced Caleb again, his cloak arcing out slightly as he did so, like wings.
“Do you know what I keep remembering?” asked Essek. “The moment when you reached out to me, back in The Lotusden. It had been a trying day, and you touched my arm, attempting to calm my irritation.”
“Yes,” said Caleb. “And you pulled away. I realized that I had overstepped.”
“I did pull away,” said Essek. “Your gesture, it—it surprised me. I had not been prepared for it. I am… I am careful about such things.”
“I know this about you now,” said Caleb. “I was sorry at the time to have made you so uncomfortable.”
“Caleb,” said Essek. “It did not startle me because I was uncomfortable.” He took a deep breath. “It startled me because I was—because I was comfortable.”
Caleb’s eyes met his in surprise, and then he nodded, and there was a ghost of a smile around his mouth. “I know what you mean, my friend. I do.”
“And that is why I find myself in a quandary of sorts,” said Essek.
“Then will you finally tell me?” asked Caleb. “I will give you what comfort I can.”
“I have thought about that moment, and about the moment when you touched your forehead to mine in the battle, to the moment when you embraced me as I departed the forest home of your friend… I have thought of these moments increasingly through the past few years of our friendship, of our many meetings, our travels together back to Aeor…”
Essek stepped toward Caleb, then paused a few paces away, as if he could not bring himself to come any closer.
“Essek, tell me what you want,” said Caleb. “Surely you know by now that I will provide it, if I can.”
“Even though I was your betrayer, once upon a time?”
“You have been my savior and companion far more often in the time since,” said Caleb. “As far as I am concerned, we need never address it again. If it is redemption you have sought, you have certainly achieved it many times over at this point.”
“I am here to tell you… I am here because I must tell you…” and Essek’s courage failed, and his eyes fell from Caleb’s. Then he breathed deeply, and raised his chin to look the other wizard in the eye. “Caleb Widogast, we have been friends and companions, but I wish to ask you if there is any chance you seek for more.” He took another shaky breath. “To ask you if…”
Caleb’s eyes met his, and he smiled, his entire face relaxing in a way he did not often allow himself. The joy there made him look suddenly, impossibly handsome (something he knew Caleb disliked) and even more human than before, Essek thought, if that were possible. “To ask me if I care for you,” Caleb said quietly. “To ask me if what I feel for you goes beyond the bounds of friendship, yes?”
“Yes,” said Essek.
There was a moment or two of silence in which Essek listened to his heartbeats, and then Caleb smiled again. “And that is my answer as well,” said Caleb. He closed the distance between them and waited, looking intensely at the other man.
“What answer?” asked Essek.
“Yes,” said Caleb softly. “My answer is yes.”
Essek looked at him, and his own face was softer, more vulnerable than Caleb had ever seen it. “Yes?”
“Yes,” said Caleb.
“I see,” said Essek.
And yet he was motionless, as if frozen by magic, or simple fear. He took a moment to still his own heart, and therefore he missed the quiet affection on the other man’s face, the knowledge that made him wait in patience.
“Now I have a question for you, Shadowhand,” said Caleb.
“You have but to ask it,” said Essek.
“Do you wish for me to touch you?” He was no longer smiling, and his eyes had darkened.
Essek nodded. “Yes,” he said in a low voice. “Yes, I wish for you to touch me.” He sighed. Caleb leaned toward him, then touched him, smoothing the silvery hair from his brow, then bringing his warm, rough hand to the back of Essek’s neck as he leaned close. “I am sorry I am not better at this,” Essek said. “I—”
Caleb kissed him then, his lips gentle. Essek’s mouth as it received the kiss was soft, his lips as cool as a cantrip of snowflakes and then warming under Caleb’s insistent ones. Such relief in this simple contact, in this joining of breath and touch. No more holding himself back, no more yearning for that electricity of connection; it was here. Everything he had wanted and been afraid to admit to himself—everything he had been afraid to ask for. All at once, as if some barrier had been broken within him, Essek relaxed, all hesitance gone as he put his arms around Caleb, pulling him roughly closer.
“You taste like magic,” murmured Caleb.
“And you taste like fate,” said Essek, and he smiled as he pulled back, both of them panting slightly.
“Or time,” teased Caleb.
“Perhaps a bit of both.” Essek leaned forward to kiss him again, enjoying the decadent ease of it, the familiarity already to this soft, silken exploration, and most of all, the gift of this new awareness of Caleb in the give and take of touch. Caleb’s hands were in his hair, pulling him closer, and he gave in to it again, to the almost dizzying sense of delicious intensity above a world that felt very far below them now.
They drew apart again, and Caleb’s look was mischievous.
“I have to say,” he said. “I prefer you this way, Shadowhand.”
Essek’s mouth curved in a slightly mocking smile. “Then I am happy to oblige.”
“Come,” said Caleb, and he gently pulled Essek to accompany him until, walking a few short paces, they were once more upon the threshold before the little house.
Essek paused. Not far away from them came the rustle of wings, and the hoot of an owl on the hunt. The breeze ruffled Caleb’s hair, which even in the darkness glinted red. He sighed.
“Essek,” he said. “Night has fallen. I would kiss you beneath the stars forever, but the wind grows chilly.”
“Then tell me what you wish to do now,” said Essek.
“Essek Thelyss,” said Caleb. “Will you come inside with me now?” His face was solemn, and suddenly he looked very young to Essek—young, and for the first time, a bit unsure.
“Is that what you wish me to do?” asked Essek, and Caleb smiled.
“I believe you know quite well that it is,” said Caleb. “Come inside with me. Be with me.” He opened the door to the house, and the golden light from within streamed out upon them both. Even from here, Essek could smell the smoke of the fire, the faint scents of soup and baking bread, and the minty, herbal scents of plants and potions.
“Come inside,” said Caleb. “We have waited long enough.”
The wind shifted beneath the stars, heralding snow, and perhaps danger yet to come. Not far away, an owl spoke, lonely—not hunting but questioning, and another owl answered.
“We have indeed,” said Essek. “Yes.” And he followed the wizard into the house. “We have waited long enough.”
The sky was the color of secrets—of those not kept, but given freely. As Essek followed Caleb inside, the door of the little house closed behind him with the faintest touch of magic, leaving the night, the wind, the secrets, and the stars... outside.