"It's too soon," said Tor, but Aerin could hear the uncertainty of that statement and knew that Tor knew it for the falsehood it was. It was a journey that could not be put off indefinitely, and had probably been put off too long already.
"It's your land," said Aerin. "You should know it."
"It's our land," said Tor, "and we must both go or not at all."
Aerin sniffed and wondered that he even imagined he would be going without her, in this or in anything. Especially in this, though; the new, vast desert was somehow a part of her own misfit menagerie now, something strange and new that Damar needed to accept as its own.
"Must we bring your men with us?"
Tor sighed. "If I don't tell them, they'll only follow," he said. But Aerin had hardly needed an escort even when she was the king's disfavored daughter, and there was little in the city to be afraid of anymore. The people even had smiles for Aerin these days, or if not smiles then slow nods of shared toil and grief. They had forged a common ground that could not be shaken.
"Let them follow, then," said Aerin. "Or better yet, imply we're slipping off to do something they'd not want to witness."
"It's close enough," said Tor, but not in that way, of course.
In truth, though, he only had to say that he and Aerin were taking a short trip out of the city and they were left to go about their business. There were few enough people to take care of things at the castle these days without taking some of them away for a simple afternoon's trip, and after Tor and Aerin had fought at the front of the battle with the Northerners, it was largely supposed that they could take care of themselves.
Talat was restless beneath her, until Aerin gave his mane a friendly tug. "Oh stop that, it's going to be quite dull, you know. All sand and scrub." She did vow, though, to get on him more often, now that they had both recovered, for he might not ever be fit for war again but he was fit for riding, and she missed him dearly when she was cooped up in the castle.
Dgeth was warier of being taken out of the city again, but she was a war horse through and through and never balked. If she became more relaxed when she realised she wasn't carrying Tor into a losing battle again, that was only good sense.
"Don't look now, but I think we're being followed," said Aerin as they neared the gates.
"If you're talking about your army, they've been with us since we left the castle grounds."
"No, not them," said Aerin. Of course they were shadowing them; it was what they did. "The children."
There were only a half dozen of them—though many more were watching their passing from doorways and alleys—but they nearly kept pace with the horses, whose walk on the busy cobbled street was necessarily slow. Perhaps the children were braver than the adults, or perhaps they just had a children's disregard for propriety, which Aerin wholeheartedly encouraged.
When they paused at the gate for a moment, Aerin looked down at the young girl at her flank and smiled. "What's your name?"
"Taela," she said, after attempting a curtsy. Aerin still couldn't imagine herself as someone who ought to be curtsied to, even though as her father's daughter it was something she ought to have gotten used to long ago. She had certainly never mastered the niceties herself.
"Where are your parents?"
After saying it she wanted to bite her tongue, for it was as likely as not that Taela was orphaned with nowhere to go, but to Aerin's relief she pointed back the way they'd come. "Mama's with her sister and the baby," she said, then looked up and met Aerin's eyes. "My Papa died too."
"I'm sorry," said Aerin softly, for she felt she ought to give more sympathy than she received from someone so small and innocent as this, even though her heart clenched at the memory of her father so recently on the pyre.
"Are you going out onto Maur's plain?"
"We are," said Aerin, then Dgeth began moving forward and, after checking with Aerin, Talat began to follow.
Aerin had thought they would leave the children behind at the gates, for the city still seemed unsure of the desert and had barely set foot in it, but it wasn't long before she realized that the children were still keeping pace with them, and kicking a sort of leather ball between them as they went in a game she couldn't fathom the rules of.
They remained at a walk, taking in their surroundings as they travelled out past the fallen monoliths until they could just see them, into the thick, if not the heart, of the new desert plain. It was only then that they dismounted, and truly surveyed their land.
"We should have waited for evening," he said. "It would have been cooler."
"But darker," said Aerin, and though she did not fear the dark, this trip was intended to be in full daylight, where anyone along the king's way could discern their destination and know that the king and presumptive future queen were not afraid of the desert.
Tor, she knew, had been advised to send a hunting party of third and fourth sons—though there were not so many of those as there had once been—as if Maur's skull had splintered into a hundred of the vicious, little creatures that burrowed their way down into the desert plain. But Aerin thought that very unlikely, even before considering the dearth of other life in the desert which surely would have sent starving dragons to encroach on the city walls by now.
"We should not have let them call it Maur's plain."
"You say that as if we had a choice," said Aerin, though of course she agreed. They would all be better off if they did not let Maur influence them a moment longer than he already had. But then again, it was important to remember. It was the things that were forgotten that caused them the most trouble.
"Let's hope it's just the fashion for now," he said. "This is our home now. It should not make us think of something we fear."
The land that should have been forest and hills and bodies was instead flat and gritty with a few hardy plants just poking up through the ground, as if uncertain they were in the right place. It was better this than the carnage it had been after the battle, but it was still strange and a little inhospitable.
Though was it really? Better? The work it would have taken to clean and restore the land, to bury their dead, might have prolonged their grief and trauma, but then perhaps this barren land that scorched everything away had enabled them to skip the catharsis of actually confronting their losses, and that might not be the better thing after all.
Though there had been days recently when Aerin would gladly have skipped the wrenching grief of her own losses which had not been so easily burned away.
"I've never seen anything like this before," she said finally, quietly, giving Talat a pat and letting him wander off. He gave her a quick nuzzle and then, Aerin was sure, left on the very important business of keeping an eye on the children.
"Haven't you?" said Tor.
She understood the real question, the wondering if this might be a part of her story that she'd left out of the retelling, but it wasn't time to talk about that yet. She knew he would not ask directly. She had never seen anything like this, but she might have dreamed it once.
She shook her head and smelled the hot air, looking at the distance between where she stood and the mountains.
He nodded, and knelt down to let the sandy ground sift through his fingers, rubbing them together afterwards as though to test the grit. "It's just desert," he said, as if he'd been expecting something more. "It's just stone and sand."
"Good," said Aerin. She wanted no remnant of the evil that had created this left behind. She would lead a very happy life if she never saw its like again. "I rather like sand."
"You would," said Tor, giving her a wry smile. "What will we do with all this?"
"Let it be, for now," said Aerin. "See what happens. See what grows."
Aerin took his hand in hers, the one still rough with sand, and laced their fingers, looking down at them as though seeing something wholly new. It was a wonder, the two of them, even as it was the most obvious thing. It was a wonder that she could go through all she had, and he could go through all he had, and they would come together again and fit as well as they ever had.
No, fit better. For all that they were well matched in rank and temperament from childhood, in experience they were years apart until now.
"People will travel here soon," said Aerin. "They will begin to leave the city and forge new roads to their villages again. This will be a lived-in place one day."
"But it will never be the same."
"No," she said. "It will never be the same."
He squeezed her fingertips, then brought them to his lips and kissed them lightly, and as the children played and as Dgeth pawed at the sandy ground nearby and as Aerin's army prowled the new land, they were able to simply enjoy one another's company without the pressing demands of rule or the pressing grief and trauma of the city. For a few minutes, in the quiet of the desert, they could just be Aerin and Tor, as they had had so few chances to be in their lives.
"I could grow to like the desert," he said at last, when a bit of wind blew a disruptive spray of sand across their legs. "And we can report back now that we can be fairly sure there are no dragons."
"Ha," said Aerin, vindicated. "I knew people were thinking that."
"Was it really such a wild thought, all things considered?" said Tor.
"There's a kind of sense in it," said Aerin, "but only in that we're in strange days and we've not yet settled into them. Anything seems possible."
"They seem to have settled all right," said Tor, motioning to where the children were still playing. The ball travelled differently in the desert than it had on the cobblestones, but then this seemed to be an entirely different game now. It was hard to say.
"Children adapt quickly," said Aerin. "This will be their home soon, and they'll barely remember anything else." If they were lucky, their memories of the war and the dead and carrying water and food and bandages through busy, bloody streets would also fade.
"We might have done their families a disservice today, if they decide that the desert is their new playground," said Tor.
"Oh, I don't know," said Aerin. "At least it's harder to wander out of sight, and there are probably fewer cutthroats."
"I think cutthroats are not one of our city's larger problems at the moment," said Tor.
"No," agreed Aerin. "But if the children are comfortable here, then they will bring their parents, and that can only be a good thing."
"After the wedding we'll have to take a tour of the country," said Tor. "It's a good excuse to make roads, or at least well-travelled paths."
"I'm glad our wedding will be so utilitarian," said Aerin dryly.
"Yes, I'm sure you are," laughed Tor, and swept her up into a kiss that certainly skirted the edges of propriety, especially with children so nearby. "You'll be glad of the fact that we'll be expected to have a royal carriage, where we might actually enjoy the paths we're forging."
"I still think that's all so silly," said Aerin, "and you know Talat will fuss."
"But we might enjoy some time to ourselves on the journey," said Tor, "and I promise we'll not spend all of it dealing with taxation rolls and proclamations."
"All the more reason we ought to be travelling horseback, where your would hardly be expected to handle paperwork," said Aerin, but in truth she didn't mind the idea of travelling by carriage, at least this one time. Talat would be able to join them without her worrying about the journey being too taxing on his aging body (though Talat, were he able, would surely argue the point).
"It really is unbearably warm," said Tor. "Should we think about going back?"
"And next time we'll know to bring some shade with us," said Aerin, though she could only guess at the next time they would have any time to make a private journey like this, even a short one.
While the children had followed them out into the desert, she could not assume the reverse would be true, for they had found their own fun out on the harsh sands—though to be fair they seemed less harsh the more she was upon them—and might not be as enticed by the return journey. It seemed the responsible thing to gather them up and urge them along.
"Five," she said, counting three times. "Tor, there are only five."
"Children," she said. "There are only five and we began with six. Taela. Where is Taela?"
"I'll keep my eye on these ones, you go find her," said Tor, with his particular brand of calm. He might not have known who Taela was, or how Aerin knew her to be missing, but he would take her at her word and do what needed to be done.
She could not have gone far, but Aerin should have been able to see her given the flat, featureless plain stretching out in all directions from them. She could not, and her heart began beating faster, her panic beginning to rise.
"Taela?" She said, starting off in one direction, then choosing another. "Taela!"
Dgeth had stayed near to Tor but Talat had wandered some distance and Aerin headed for him at nearly a run, for the yerig and the folstza might be the superior hunters, but Talat had the superior height.
She did not need to mount his back, though, for when she arrived it became clear that she had been unable to see Taela because Talat's body had been blocking her view, and Talat had been doing exactly as she had earlier thought him to be doing—watching over the children.
"Taela," she said again, and the little girl looked up and tried to curtsy again, flustered. "You mustn't wander off like that!"
The admonishment certainly meant little, though, when Aerin had been the one to tacitly encourage all of them to wander off into the desert in the first place.
"My lady," she said, pointing to a plant growing from a crack in the rough ground. "For you."
Aerin didn't understand at first, until she crouched down to Taela's height and saw that the plant bore a small, pale wildflower on one of its branches.
"Oh," she said softly, and reached out to touch its fragile petals. "It's lovely."
"You should put it in your hair," said Taela, and reached down to pluck it, but Aerin stayed her hand. "It would look so pretty."
Gone were the days when Aerin could have braided it into her tresses, but perhaps she could tuck it behind her ear. The pink would clash with her flame-dark hair, but she never minded that. It might even start a new fashion, though Aerin doubted her reputation had come so far as that.
"Let's let it grow," she said, "and when we come back, perhaps there will be more of them."
"I've never seen one before," said Taela, still looking at it in wonder.
"No, it's new," agreed Aerin, and wondered what other new things there might be in the weeks and months and years to come.
She took Taela's hand, Taela who had given up all pretence of propriety and clutched hers eagerly, and when she'd lead her back to the rest of the children she grabbed Talat's mane and mounted, for Tor was already astride.
"If you are not yet loved by the court—which, by the way, you may find you are wrong about—you seem to be loved by children," said Tor, looking back as their young followers gathered at their heels again, the ball still in play.
"I like them better anyway," said Aerin.
"Do you, now," said Tor. It was a thought, not a question, but with their wedding not so far away now, perhaps it would be a question soon. She knew what the answer would be, but that was her secret to keep.
The sun began to go down, the air cooling quickly. It was such a relief Aerin almost suggested they stay, but there were children who had been entrusted to their company that they ought to at least see back into the city, if not home.
"We shall have to see if our visit has done any good," said Aerin.
"The people can't stay suspicious of the desert forever."
"Our people," said Tor.
"Hm, perhaps they can't," said Aerin, "but I can assure you they can stay suspicious for a very long time." A very long time.
"It will take time," agreed Tor, his eyes telling her he understood without him having to put voice to it, "but at least something has begun."
Indeed, thought Aerin, as they travelled back along their fledgling trail. A great many somethings were getting ready to begin, and all things considered, it was high time for that.
It was nice, after everything they lost, to have so many somethings to look forward to.