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The Hunt
#31
Quote:<dl>
<dt>Kiaralil Daimon</dt>
<dd> </dd>
</dl>
Laughter, blazingly sincere among the disingenuous prattle of politicians at play, danced forth from the lips of the youngest Daimon sibling. Kiaralil's big eyes were dark only in color, lit brightly from within by a passionate poet's heart, and their sparkle suited her childishly round cheeks. As last-born she would inherit little more than the chance to marry well, which - her mother reminded her regularly - was something she would need to consent to in the all-too-near future. After all, she was also their aging parents' only reasonable hope for grandchildren. Before the end of the next Age, at least.

Impending arranged matrimony or no, Kiara never balked at her station in life. No member of so influential a family could be considered carefree, but compared to the tasks set upon her all-powerful siblings, the young woman led a simple life. She would never even make a respectable merchant; lovely as she was, she shared too much of her father's face and heart to make a formidable opponent in negotiations.

So, because of her lowly station and imperfect face, Kiara could do essentially whatever she wished with her time. Having always delighted in the more creative arts she devoted herself to painting and music, past times she used to inspire beauty and network with those competing for her patronage.

Music was what brought her out this evening, both instrumental and vocal. She sat on the musicians' dais with the rest, testing her wit with her fellows while her long, slender fingers tested strings on her harp. The grand harp suited her; the tall elegance of her body molded well with the large instrument, while her square but feminine jaw mirrored its sturdy but delicate line. The instrument was not her personal favorite but it was the one with which she had the greatest skill. She preferred the piano, if only by a hairsbreadth, but the harp was more suited to her gentle voice, and made for a far lovelier presentation at such events.

Her honey golden dress and the matching gild laid in the creases of her harp complimented her Domani skin, far darker than that of her siblings. Likewise, the tight, perfect ringlets of her hair mirrored the roses carved into the dark red wood. She made for a prettier presentation than she gave herself credit for, but she cared little. She would prance around in a gleeman's cloak as long as she could play.

Despite her elegant appearance Kiara teased good-naturedly along with the rest of the musicians as Pedar so readily handed over his violin to the lovely young woman. Her laugh was as kind and bright as her eyes, and twinkled as surely as if it were a vocal manifestation of the stars' flickering light. She knew what the stripes at the hem of the girl's dress meant, at least in theory. She also knew the touch of an experienced hand on an instrument, even one feigning ignorance.

Kiara wondered how long the girl would toy with Pedar before playing in earnest. Perhaps she would join in, if the music suited her. Or, perhaps she would just watch. Kiara did not know much about Acceptedhood, but what she had heard was all determination and strife. If the girl was happy alone in her music, Kiara would not be the one to take it from her.

But sometimes playing with like-minded players just made the music one so much better. The many notes of the different instruments mingling together to create a far more intricate and complex sound than the one could make alone. She grinned at the other musicians in anticipation of the girl's performance, if for a different reason than the rest.

The girl began to play and Kiara sighed at the melody's loveliness before Yui was suddenly at her ear with quiet instructions on when her brother-King would arrive. The tall maidservant had a few other suggestions as well before she swept back into the growing crowd, to which Kiara once again flashed a childishly gleeful smile. She looked to the other musicians as the girl returned Pedar's violin, and they nodded in understanding and eyed the Accepted, wondering when their cue would come.
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#32
The guard posted outside Daryen's door stiffened to salute but caught himself short when the face that emerged was not the one he'd expected. There was no alarm as his posture relaxed, recognizing a familiar face. The man was one of the king's personal guard, and like his few brothers which were loyal to the House crest sewn into his uniform, likely more so than even to the realm his master served. A guard, not a soldier.

"How does the world find you, Bretton?"

Jai paused, meeting his eye for only a moment before passing on to look left and right as though he might read the tiles for the answer on Daryen's whereabouts.

"A fair deal better than you these days, I hear."

Gruff, but a friendly reply.

"Yeah?"

Jai did not try to imagine how fast the gossip darted these halls. "About that, which way did he go?"


Bret dipped the hand resting on the hilt of a shortsword toward the left. "Almost an hour ago. Have you been in there the whole time? The servants brought in bandages."
This particular guard was used to the convenience of gateways and by his shrug thought little of who came through them. Apparently he was also unconcerned for whomever was wounded within to investigate himself while the king was elsewhere. Or he recognized Jai's voice calling after Yui. Either way, he'd bandaged his own leg in peace.

"For a while, yes."

Jai glanced down the left, considering the paths that would bring him. A serving man bearing towels knuckled an adjacent door while he watched shortly before disappearing inside. Jai wondered who was graced with such a lofty suite next door to the king's. He answered Bret's question instead.

"Stray arrow. Hunting accident, officially."



Bretton, younger and more light at heart than his Captain, opened his palm impatient for the rest of the story. "And unofficially?"


Jai smirked, thanked then bid the guard luck on finding some of the meal they could both smell on the sea air. With one last glance down the left, he strode off toward the right.

He took off, confident in his ability to navigate the corridors and duck under archways; cut across courtyards and pick footsteps across the dancing torchlight. He did. For a while. Of course, someone else knew these passageways.

"Bloody hell."

Jai swung to a halt. "I was trying to avoid you."


"Then don't take my favorite routes."

Daryen strode forward, thoroughly amused, grinning like a bloody imp. Jai meanwhile simply crossed his arms and looked at the man. He was dressed in the most obscene and gaudy outfit he'd yet witnessed, and he'd been there for all the feasts with foreigners, parades for dignitaries, and balls for the rich to last a lifetime. Usually in the back, but there none the less. Today, the man was utterly Domani through and through; worse than that, a majestic one. Gauzy linen hung straight as sails from the cinche at his waste rippling only when the slight breeze swept the pantlegs. Leathery sandals as such he would wear for gatherings on the beach below seemed undisturbed by sand this night. Which was more than Jai's boots could attest. He'd be picking out grains under the seams for weeks now. But most ridiculous was the white silk stretched opaque across his shoulders, falling open full to his knees and held down by the royal weight of golden scrollwork catching the dim fires flickering on the wind around them. Their lamps mirrored in the glints off golden skin. The curves of muscle etched beneath.

He swallowed. "Nice, ah. Whatever you call that. Shirt?"


As Daryen swaggered on, grinning like a bloody hero. Jai fell in step: a literal shadow following the glowing royalty at his side.

"How's the shoulder?"



"You know it bloody hurts. Like everything else. Who kicked the shit out of me when I was out?"



Daryen wisely ignored that last question. "I could still get Liridia to Heal you. Call on you privately? Nobody could know. And you'd look better."


Jai shook his head. "I'd know."
Serious as the grave despite the smirk which followed. "And maybe I like bruises."


"Do you?"

Jai glanced toward the face considering him. Wondering if Daryen took his sarcasm more literally.

He stopped their procession someplace between archways and far set torches with a brief touch on that silk clad arm. It turned toward him, so dark in these side galleries it was hard to make out the planes on his face. For a moment, anger crumbled as he moved in close. "Why did you and Fate do this?"


There was no long moment of silence from Daryen. No pause to consider the proper answer to soothe the aches plaguing good men forced to do monstrous things. Mere calm, steady as waves and wizened with experiences of one who'd seen many. Daryen's arms wrapped his neck, hands squeezing the tension in his muscles. His voice whispered an answer, "Deep down, you live your life by a code. It's your shoreline. It's what guides you home. And trust me. You're always trying to get home. I've found my shore, Jai. Which direction is yours?"


Jai, tentatively sedate, braced for repulsion. He buried his face in Daryen's neck, breathing in the scent of sandalwood and sea, lips touching the skin. His hands snaked under the shirt, caressing warm skin beneath. "Have you ever heard a girl beg for mercy. Wet eyed and clutching at your pant leg like a wounded dog too afraid to reach any higher? And when you offer to melt that infernal collar from her neck, she screeches like she'd been kicked and throws herself across the body of her leash holder. Mercy for her mistress, she begs! Begs that no harm come to the whip which beats her."
He peered into the shadows, seeking to make out the colors which must be surrounding them in the fullness of daylight's gardens. "Just as well. The collars don't melt."
They get dirty though. He pulled his hands away, broke the contact.

"It never bothered you before."

Daryen circled forth, easily swarming the view. Sapphire eyes cloaked monotone in the dim world. "I've seen you, Jai. When you couldn't see yourself. Lost in your frenzy, walking the paths of graveyards as it were, waiting to catch the sight of your own name. Fighting to seize what you want to seize, loathing the thing you love more than your honor. And yes, you love your honor like the sweet taste of wrath on your tongue. Like Saidin itself."
A harrowing flare burned across Daryen's searching face. Considering what dared defy him with mystery, as though by will alone he might uncover the secrets within the most foreign of powers looking back at him.

"Ah, to see the woeful world through your eyes. Drenched down with guilt; heavy dew weighing down the most delicate of petals. It must be a beautiful thing to behold."

Jai felt Daryen's search, as though he might catch some fuller reflection he'd only glimpsed before.

He had no idea how to respond. No idea what he was talking about, really. As usual. "Until one night you whispered talk of madness? I don't care about your plans. I don't ask about them. But the seanchan? Why have I been killing them all this time?"


Daryen, nodded. Affirming as much with a deadly smile. "Wars always have an end. Trust me."


They both turned toward the shuffling of footsteps. Jai swiftly opened up the narrow space between them. The servant, a full lipped girl with bashful eyes whom he recognized as Nelle, curtsied demurely for her Lord and King, though flashed Jai only a brief glance as she approached. She offered numerous apologies for interrupting what was clearly a private moment, but Mistress Yui had her fingers crawling all over the grounds looking for the king, it seemed. And as the scent of glazed meat blew their way, Daryen was reminded nobody could eat more than morsels until he arrived. Of course, the girl had a more polite way of putting it. But the lingering glances cast from her shy manner left a suspicious taste in Jai's mouth.

They parted ways. Officially. Daryen striding toward the light and sounds of merry making. Jai on into the shadows. He emerged on a flagstone patio, taking steps two at a time toward the cliff face and fresh air, confusion sitting like sand heavy in his head. He followed the railing away from the eruptions of music, picking up the pace when the notes suddenly died down. Daryen must have arrived by then. Jai glanced behind but caught nothing but smoke rising from the ebb of lights. Some grand speech no doubt lapped his subjects into his palm. He walked on.

He had not intended to find Nythadri. In fact, for these last minutes he had not thought of her at all. Granted, he'd thought little but how to delay joining the tangles waiting back there. And of a way of eat without being forced to sit at an actual table. A new set of pangs joined the others across his stomach.

"I remember the first time I saw it."

He spoke softly as he approached to not frighten any deep thought. Came up to her side, leaning comfortably as she did, catching the scent of oils from her bath, he wondered what motivated her to seek solitude.

"Looks like the end of the world, doesn't it?"

He looked down to offer an honest smile for the moments before it faded. There was something on the other side. Thoughts for another night.

"The water's warm. Do you want to walk in it?"

He stood up. One word and Jai could see to it she would be but mere footsteps from dipping her toes in the Aryth Ocean.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#33
The bright torches had left her night-blind, and she stared out into pitch black; though even had the view been made resplendent by daylight her gaze would have gone through it. The after-image of flame blazed every time she blinked. Yui’s words were like those flashes of light; ephemeral and transient, impossible to truly scrutinise. The pleasant evening dissuaded her from trying too hard; she would have plenty of time to dwell when they returned her to the Tower. Years, probably.

Years…Light.

To Nythadri, the future had always seemed something dark and hazy; something she was pushed towards a step at a time. When she had thought she was going to lose her sight plans had seemed pointless, for they always ended in the same all-encompassing darkness. Fear of that future made her cling to each day, and to the important things in it, shaping her to something selfish and irresponsible. She’d embraced Farune's dreams in lieu of her own, and built castles from sand; a make-believe, it seemed now, so long after the fact. Music had been the closest thing she’d had to an anchor when she had railed against a fate she had no power to control, but even that had not curbed a powerful recklessness.

Then the Aes Sedai had come. The future had changed. And yet she still lived day by day. Those days had become calculated rather than whimsical, especially since the Farm, but they still arrived one at a time, one after the other. She scorned the monotony, but she also endured it. Becoming Aes Sedai felt like inevitability – failure was certainly not an option – but somehow a future had never coalesced into something tangible. She saw girls every day who had focus and ambition, but when Nythadri tried to narrow herself to a goal every fibre of her rebelled. She was ever marching forward, blind to where the path led; it seemed, sometimes, the only way to fight the instinct to dig her heels in.

A presence moved softly beside her; she did not need to look, since the voice named who it was, breaking her thoughts as gently as a ripple disturbing a reflection. She remembered she had been looking for him, but the reasons drifted through her fingers like sand; unimportant. Talk of Imaad seemed inconsequential compared to the stretch of her own future, and she did not know Jai well enough to presume he would even want her advice. Soon Arad Doman would only be a memory.

“Hm. Though, as with most things, it’s not as it appears.”
She knew as well as he did what lay beyond the ocean; ever more poignant given the pretext upon which this gathering had formed. Ominous though it seemed, the double meaning of his words tickled her humour; maybe it would be the Seanchan that ended their world, and not the Dark One at all. That shouldn’t even be funny. Which, of course, only amused her more; her lips quirked into a faint smirk as she turned her eyes from a view she had not even been watching. The strong profile of masculine features beat picturesque views any day, and he was close enough that it wouldn’t take much to lean against his shoulder. When he smiled it faded like dying light. He was entitled to that, she supposed; for the things he had endured, and for the things he had done. But it didn’t mean she would tolerate it, or pander to that faint melancholy by sharing her own. “Have you been preening all this time? And not even shaved?”
The tease was evident in her voice, dispelling whatever reasons of her own had driven her out here. It occurred to her then that they were alone. The pins at his collar shone bright, catching every bit of light shunned by the pitch black of his uniform; enough to remind her that he was not just a man, but an Asha’man. Better not to dwell too much on the faint heat of his body, the intensity of his gaze, or the natural meander of thoughts sparked by attraction - lest she do something regrettably stupid.

“Tempting.”
She drew the word out like a refusal. It would certainly be the sensible thing to do. Yui or Liridia would notice if she were absent for too long, and it could not be long now before Daryen arrived and the feast began. If it had not already; she hadn't exactly been paying attention. She watched Jai straighten with purpose, like it would only take a word. Observing such instant resolve only rekindled memories of his immediate determination to kill Tamal – and she did not doubt for a second the inevitability of that outcome had others not interfered – but she felt little fear; perhaps because she trusted to the protections of her own gift, but probably because she wanted to believe in the bridges of their friendship. Whether she would live to regret it or not was another matter.

“If your blinding enthusiasm for Daryen's feast is anything to go by, I’d be doing you a favour by saying yes. Right?”
She laughed and straightened, hands trailing from the railing. Her pale eyes glinted amusement, but did not fall short from a measure of understanding. She'd told him she spared no love for the political nature of these events only that morning; he knew she would welcome escape, however brief, as quickly as she imagined he did. In that he had a willing accomplice.
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#34

No wiser words could be spoken. Like most things, the end of the world was not as it appears. Perhaps surprisingly, her wisdom did not spark the catalyst of depression. In truth, there was a strange comfort in the thought. The only certainty in the world was its uncertainty; the only thing to trust was the inevitable. It seemed to amuse Nythadri, such was the twist in her grin. Something of Jai's old amusement caught its scent, a contagion of macabre surfacing to the call of its own kind. The hint of that banished emotion clawed its way back into his cynical smile as he tried to capture her gaze.

It never bothered him before. Daryen's voice crashed the moment like the noise below drowning out the other sounds of night. He waited for the fall of guilt like a heavy cloak to drag down his shoulders. It never came. Because the man was right. There was more, though. He felt Daryen's study even now, contemplating him like seeking the enormity of meaning left on the canvas of a great artist's painting. Jai felt the rousing of what slept behind that canvas begin to stir. He knew then as he did now the answer to Daryen's questions as certain as he knew what waited behind the guilt. But it was a cloak he refused to lift. More than not being bothered by melting flesh from the skulls of their enemies; he enjoyed it. Sating a hunger for victory. Conquering those scripts when the country's greatest minds failed. The taste of metal filling his mouth with every seize of saidin. Throwing fire. Watching brave men flee. Cutting down the more foolish of them screaming ferociously as they ran into the face of death.

Accepting that within worked against him now. What was a solid floor of identity was now a sinking pit of sand: an Asha'man sacrificing to save the world or just another sell-sword going to the highest bidder. And he did not know which would delay death the longest: to struggle for life or let the grains swallow him whole. He enjoyed it because those skulls were enemies. The very civilization that would undo sanity itself if they were allowed the chance. And Daryen wanted to break bread and share his cup with their kind like the last ten years never happened. It sickened him like the stench of decay.

Like stench, cynicism had a way of seeping into everything. Like into his laugh. And he laughed. Tinting any joviality with the color of sarcasm's much needed relief. He scratched his chin and laughed like he'd forgotten how.

He leaned rather fashionably, swept a hand up and down the line of black like some tailor's model, and grinned.

"As a matter of fact, it is a lot of work to keep this up."

A flashed a questioning look. Seeking her assessment before calming the playfulness down to something far more serious. He tilted his chin to catch the flattering light of a distant flame. It wasn't hard to do.

"You think I should go back and shave?"

He held the pose, looking from the corner of his eye.

Light. What if she said yes? He wasn't going to give her the chance to answer. Especially after the answer she did give. Tempting? Yeah. More than a little tempting.

He leaned dramatically close to steal the next few moments. A player of this kind of game in his own right. She smelled like flowers and sunset, whatever that smelled like; it was nice.

"You know, a more honorable man would wait for you to say yes before taking you."

A grin slowly emerged as he searched those startling eyes for the truth he thought he saw.

"A huge favor. Trust me. You can't imagine how huge. It's killing me, actually."

The grin was sincere on every level; of which there was really only one. For once, the words were too. Shocking.

But Jai was nothing if he wasn't good for his word. He receeded for only a moment to brace for the strength to capture saidin and bend it to his will.

"Look over the edge."

It wasn't a suggestion, but no less friendly. Without regret, he turned his attentions from Nythadri to something far more bedeviling and was unable to see through the tangle of channeling if she obeyed. Down there in the distance of night a silver sword sliced the belly of black air. It churned surreal in the shadows and ripped the Pattern a new hole with its razor-sharp edge. In the same instant, salt and sound hit them nearby. A matching doorway opened just behind them.

The sheer joy of channeling drove every ache into that sea as sure as a Daryen's bootheel on the invader's throat the night he took the capital. So alive: to hold saidin was to grip his own beating heart and squeeze until it hurt. Beauty and pain; madness and life. That was the power a channeler craved to control. The essence of it.

Concentration shifted from construction to maintenance, he freely flashed a most sinister suggestion. Baiting her with as much temptation as he knew how while stepping through to the other side. She would be able to see him standing in two places, now. The first, so close. She could if she so chose to accept the palm he raised in offering escort. An honest one. One which would close around her hand and pull her away from the monotony of duty and rules and politics into the hungry arms of warm sand and tempting waves. If only for a short time. But while it lasted the only game behind his offer was the one they both thoroughly enjoyed to play. The second, a light-casted reflection waiting small and diminished at the bottom of the cliff. Like she could look into her own future. A blessing few people ever knew.

He held the gate as he held his arm: waiting. And hoping the risk of looking like an idiot should she reject him paid off.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#35

She made quite the show of it. Of course, his arm never waivered in the face of certain rejection while she wove back and forth. A taunting lioness dangling a tempting bait of her own. So long as she paced, he would wait and appreciate the show even if it were the last. Then he caught the hint of her expression blooming in the dark and his confidence exploded. Hers was not the sly smile of a woman ready to turn on her heel. It was only a matter of time before his hand circled her wrist. It was the taunt of a woman wanting to make him work for it. And he had no problems with that.

The only solace when she ceased her languid parade was the closing of his fingers around her palm. Narrow and warm, a woman's skin always reminded him of the ridges cutting across his own. Men laboring over numbers had callouses in their quill fingers and ink up to their knuckles. A soldier's was stamped in the thumb web with the duty of his daily practice; Jai’s were somewhere in between. Remnants of cording dug their permanent trenches in his grip and raw-red nails were scrubbed for whoever waited at the end of the day. Nythadri’s? He was anxious to explore her hand with his; to discover what left their marks at the end of her day.

Safely through, the Gate slammed on their heels. Saidin and sensation with it; slamming their visor across eyes diminished without it. The beach before teemed with life, and dramatic shades of gray-blue was now dulled by moonlight and softly lapping waves. The nuances to her soft skin were snatched away: the bumps of knuckles and hard edge of neatly trimmed nails flattened a dimension. But he did not let go. She was no porcelain doll to crunch between his fingers, though her size seemed delicate enough to not withstand a strong enough vice should one ever descend. He forgot what was lost without the Power when her warmth, supple as virgin leather, heated up his sleeve like palming at campfire.

Dramatic? He looked and found her smiling. And didn't disagree. She was soon enraptured again, this time at the balk of night's wet caress around her ankles as she had the copper flare hovering over sparkling waters. Though she did not realize such was her state. He was grazing the tender tips of her fingers when she slipped regrettably from grasp. The deft, musician's control left a memory of a tingle as he knew again her grazing skin as he had that morning when he called her on it. It fired an image of melodic grace swarming every sense as he imagined she had mastered in everything she did. It swept her forward to taste the sea. She slipped shoes second. Marching unafraid into the unknown. And he stood back to watch.

The moon caught the foam under her feet, whitening it briefly before sliding back. The seeping water pulled at the hem of her skirt, beckoning her to sink fully into its arms. He found himself breathing faster in the anticipation of how she would react to that song. Swallowed a bubble of nerves when she turned to face him. She showed greater restraint to its siren than he the first time he heard it.

It was peaceful, as she said. Though he had no need to confirm. The breeze stirred the sizzle of earlier sunlight still etched on his face and snaked fingers through his hair and under that high collar. The wool welcomed it in. Movement pleasantly disrupting the coat otherwise falling peacefully to the knee as it did the piles of sand shoved laterally from feet bounding toward the water at this same spot not long before. If he moved his toes just so he imagined the feel of sand still inside his boots. It was not unwelcome. And picking it out gave him something to pass the time during down hours in the field.

"Yes."


He nodded as much, usually with something strong to drink. No shame hinted beneath his agreeing smile. Though perhaps did not think of it as hiding, but as capturing moments. It was nice there. Perhaps better places waited on the horizon. Ones farther from Arad Doman. If so, he had yet to find them and little time to seek their solace. He liked this one.

A lazy walk joined her. Though forwards where she inched backwards; and across dry sand where her feet sank their footprints. He crossed his arms thoughtfully and studied the white lamp hanging above. Then followed its rays to where it crowned Nythadri's dark tresses vapory as water misting on rock.

He absorbed her. Not caring if she saw nor comprehended how he considered stepping closer to do more than whisper teases in her ear. His eyes roamed to her collar where a sweltering bead slid so slowly a trail only to disappear under her robes earlier that afternoon. He remembered the musician's neck leaning in when they sat on that couch, trading secrets in full view of other players. The warmth of her proximity. The scent of her hair. The curve of her shoulder.

Then the taste of her determination and concern frosted the memory. She slid from her saddle when he was thrown from his with the haste of one meaning to come to aid. He remembered finding her eyes crystallized with fear soon after. When he landed his silent accusation, she crouched away like it were gravel spitting bloody spots across her face. Frozen in horror when the sword flew into his hands. Why was she not afraid now? He would not fault her if she were.

“I would tell you I'd never harm you. Or any woman, really. But we both know that's a lie."

Nythadri knew his stance on lying. She also knew his stance on conspiracy. Enemies. Honesty; and pride. In one day she knew more about him than most years’ worth of friendships.

He clasped his hands informally behind him as they strolled. So close yet so far apart. She in water, him on earth; one studying north, the other seeking south. It was as fitting together as the sinuous symbol whipping on the Dragon Banner. So fitting, he braced for his flesh to pebble if she took it in mind reach into saidar; he would do likewise with saidin. Like letting go, she’d described it. So opposite of the way he knew to channel. Is that how the Creator intended it? Like composed harmonies?

The search could delay knowing her reaction for only so long. When next he looked, he didn’t know what to expect. Honesty, he hoped. As had been their pattern since first they met.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#36
His answer was blissful simple, and the raw truth of it made her smile. Another woman might have blushed under the suggestion of his gaze, but Nythadri enjoyed the tingle of warmth it sent across her skin. There were no other eyes to watch the show this time, and no listening ears to make the performance of intimacy necessary. She watched him as he watched her, unabashed, curious. Each step back into soft sand was blind, but it didn’t seem to faze her. Her attention was on him. She fell into the moment the same way she fell into saidar.

“You think I should be afraid?”
She said it somewhere between a question and a statement, but it was clearly free from the expectation of an answer. The lap of waves filled the silence before she spoke again, as he kept his distance and she kept hers; though her own restraint did not have much to do with fear. She was not without caution; his words re-sparked the image of a man enthralled to madness, and the memory tightened in her chest. Eyes consumed by desperate accusation; the expression that had sent her stumbling back into the flesh of her horse. A sword clutched in the hands that had held hers so gently. The blood that would have spilled if not for Daryen’s intervention.

But there had been a plea amidst that insanity, like the last gulp of air afforded a drowning man. It did not make him stable. It did not make him any less dangerous. And it certainly did not make her trust him. Perhaps that was a part of his appeal, though. She had been wandering Caemlyn’s lamp lit streets at night since she was fifteen, revelling in the thrill. The cold hand of fear had never stopped her from anything, even after Tashir’s murder. But these were feelings too intricate to express, and her initial reaction was impassive – not coldly so, as might have been her usual characteristic, but like she was searching him for truth as surely as he was searching her.

“You want to know why I followed you through the Gate? You can call it foolish whim if you want. I’ve been locked in a Tower the past five years.”
The curve of her smile marked the sarcasm laced with her words, and she might have left it at that. He had all the pieces to make the picture; her opinion on sins, her opinion on living. But he had offered her honesty, and she valued that. His gaze searched her reaction like he cared to see beyond the icy front of cynicism, only she was hesitant to abandon the wry derision that blanketed her as thoroughly as his black uniform shrouded him. It was not so simple as fear or no fear. He had not even asked a question, but he looked for an answer - for a reaction beyond her customary nonchalance. She was more content not to overly examine the reasons. And now he made her wonder.

“I lied.”
She used the word purposefully, aware of how it might incite a reaction. Perhaps she was testing him, playing with fire for the sake of it; else making a point of her indifference to the danger he presented, even if it ended badly for her; an ironic sort of honesty. The piercing paleness of her eyes never left his, and her backward footsteps ceased. It was difficult to read his expression in the dark, and that was the only indication she had of his stability. The serious expression did not last more than a few heartbeats before the coy smile replaced it, a reckless sense of humour black as his Asha'man uniform. She could not help but jab lightly at his sensitivities, even as she suspected they were tied to a deep inner conflict – even knowing it might push him further than she intended. “About your hands. People have myriad facets. You think I just see a soldier?”


Killer was one facet, but they lived in a world where it was necessary; and in any Age it was inevitable. He might even enjoy it, for all she cared. But he was also a man of precision, minute detail. Logic, reason - even if that reason twisted in knots. Beneath the jaded smirks there were boyish smiles; and beneath the wry quips there was raw honesty. Did his volatility mean she couldn’t enjoy his company? “He goaded you into that, anyway. Imaad, I mean. It was his intention to watch you fall in front of everyone.”
She didn’t elaborate on how she had pieced that together, just spoke it as fact. Jai had been unconscious when she had defended him against the merchant. Her face softened, lightly shrugging away her own words. So she couldn't quite explain, but she was here of her own will; was that a good enough answer in itself? Others had been warning her away from Jai all day; she didn't need him to join in too.

Subconscious steps had brought her forward; or maybe he had moved; introspection had made her ignorant to the whims of her body. His face was cast by silver moonlight, but she lingered no more than an arm’s length away when she realised how close he was. Five years,”
she repeated, “And countless more to come, probably. Arad-bloody-Doman. How long until I’m this close to the Aryth again?”
If he remembered anything of what she had said about living, he might translate the sudden mischievousness to her aspect; coquettish smile, sparkling eyes. He had teased her in a roomful of people, and used her presence to frustrate Nisele. With Aes Sedai breathing down her neck and Yui’s watchful eye, he’d had the advantage for most of their playful banter. But shadows and moonlight made her bold, Daryen’s feast and the authority it contained only distant lights on the horizon. And she was only going for a swim. Footsteps took her backwards once again, this time towards the lapping waves, and she unlaced the fastenings on her dress.

“Be a gentleman, yes?”
Absorbing his initial reaction with a wicked grin, she didn’t pause to see if he would watch. Accepted shifts weren’t designed to be alluring, and she was only teasing. The sea rushed passed her knees, her waist; the currents beneath the surface colder than she might have anticipated, but she was laughing anyway as she submerged to the shoulder, spray tickling her face, black hair spread out on the foamy surface like ink. She felt more refreshed than she had in a long time.
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#37

His question was serious as a headwound, and her answer made light of the red halo. Light. A quiet chuckle shrugged the rest of the weight from his shoulders. He left it dead in the sand behind; and walked on.

He hadn't thought to wonder why she followed; though five years was quite the stint in one place. Jai would go stir crazy in such a lock down. As to what pulled her through the gate, he thought it was his boyish good looks, witty charm, and the uniform, of course. If he were walking around with a walking target on his back, he planned on taking every advantage. Struting around in a swaggering death shroud was the cherry on top. All black: mystery. The Dragon's swordarm: identity; pride. It was a hard look to resist. Suggesting as much, his brows curled buckets of playful mirth her way.

She went quiet for a while and Jai turned his face toward the freedom stretching behind her silhouette. He wondered, not for the first time, where his greatfathers found peace, and if he'd earned the same luxury. The blight was not kind regarding slow times. Light blasted peace. They fought hard, loved fast, and died well. One in particular loved so completely he abandoned kin and country for the love of his life waiting in Tar Valon. Jai found himself lazily fingering the fresh cording on Asad's hilt as tenderly as he had Nythadri's fingertips. His greatfather's old memory pulsed in there like the song of his bloodslicked fingers were permanently embossed down to the tang core.

From that state: relaxed and thoughtfully flirting with mirth, he was shielded from the sting of her proclamation like body armor. The hit vibrated chest to fingertips, but he had nothing but curiosity to express and no answer to make of her graven face.

The sigh of deep relief escaped when her facade melted. Twice in minutes she'd pulled the helm over his eyes and he'd done little but lay back and let her play. Of course, when the ending went well for him, he would let her toy with whatever she wanted all night long. Then she slapped the visor down a little farther and the question of his hands echoed in the bowl of such a sound fortification. What else was there to see? Blinded to the world except her movements, he could do little but hold excited breath and feel for where her tongue would next roam.

It came, something of a surprise in her revelation about Imaad's motives.

"Him, then?"



He frowned. Pieced together the memories stringing this light-blasted day together. The newly discovered name filled in the spaces Jai and Antony wrote with motive. Suaya wanted him away from Daryen. Why? So Jai would stop screaming logic and sense in the man's face? He shook his head; the answer elusive. He could feel something else buzzing the air, but like some invisible biteme in the dark, couldn't see what it was. It ended with him absently rubbing the back of his neck. Tension ripped through the cords of sore flesh beneath: blows from the physical day, not compulsions raining down from an anxious grip.

"Made it easy on him, didn't I?"

What a turned up world. Nobles, games, suspicion, power, lust. "Give me a quill or a target, Nythadri. Light, I'd fletch arrows for lordlings all day. Over this madness. Burn them."
His arm slid from his neck, seeking the caress of the sword again. Though for far less honorable reasons than before. The lie to himself painted war on his face as clearly as his intent for Nythadri when he closed some of the distance between them. Should the day dawn that the Black Tower had him creeping into cribs to carve sleeping babes inside out, he'd never give up the pins. Or the Power. Asad coughed from the grave, and his namesake stifled the sound with wads of justification. The world was different now.

Sand, sponged with seeping water, hardened with every step as he sank less and less into its clay-baked surface closer to active water. And Nythadri. Thoughts of hatred and conspiracy flew to the far edge of his voice. Softer for their distance.

"I decoded my own death note, today. You can imagine how that puts a man on edge."



Honesty, yes. Unlike the disdain blackening the previous, obvious lie. But more also an explanation. He wanted her respect, and found it hard to earn when an angel witnessed your sins. Even so black-tipped a liberal creature as Nythadri's wings dragged her down from heavenly heights.

Although the admission could get him a spot on the traitor's tree. At least the view would be nice.

Distracted, he breathed her words like smoke curling whispers on the wind. One stretch separated her shoulders from his grasp. Every muscle begged his logic to go closer.

"Five years. That's quite the stint."

He swallowed. A knot twisted his stomach as he stood his ground; ready to catch her if she leaped forward.

Instead, she eased back. Slow as the hand that tugged the robe ever so slowly from her shoulders.

"No thanks."

His was not the expression of a gentleman. It was base hunger. And more than willing to endulge a performer her natural urge for an audience.

Facing him all the while, even as she slowly sank into deeper waters, she held his eyes captive until the last of his strength dissolved. Melting smoothly as the ties of her robe slipped their knots to her deft fingers, his eyes fell to the throes of gravity. Hair kissed her bared shoulders first, then the slender arms sliding free. His eyes trailed the line painfully downward to where a gentle breeze off the water fluttered the slip around her waist. By the time the robe puddled at her ankles, the image of her shift ending around willowy thighs was blazoned forever in memory.

The scene shocked a galvanic current through a heartache waning on the steady hand of consistency. She pulled the first band and finished him off as though her's were the first feminine skin to fill the hungry eyes of his summertime youth. He knew, every time he thought of Nythadri in the days to come, this was how he'd think of her. He felt alive. And wanted her, so much it hurt.

And meant to go after her. Even if she were but a curve of robes whipping in the winds across the desert laying between them. He'd walk to her horizon until she was his.

"I just this cleaned these."

He called, loudly enough she could hear the half-jest over the waves splashing around her ears. No limb, no helpful rock awaited. Just sand to welcome his things left forgotten by hers. There was no nervous fumbling at buckles: but a practiced hand freed the black leather belt first. The sand caught the lacquered sheathe with a soft thud, joined by their leather brothers. Boots were toed off next. Finely stitched, dyed well, and soled to buttery comfort he smiled at the sand wafting inside so valuable a thing. After this, there would be plenty to fill out the long hours marching toward Shayol Ghul besides picking out sand in their seams. The wool opened and his skin gulped the free air with every passing button slipped free. He let the wind undress the coat and shirt from his arms which spread it like a blanket across the sand. Then went the laces he'd dedicated so much time to securing. He kicked the pants away like a broken chain and stretched arms high overhead in not but small clothes and a smile. Clear as rain to her view, he wandered toward the water with less desperation to jump in than he had mere hours ago.

The water's arms were just as welcoming as before. Warm, but relieving in a different way from washing blood, filth and sweat away. The bandage circling his thigh softened and he was suddenly aware of salt etching inside the wound again. He'd just cleaned that out as well.

Reunited, he made no pretense at keeping his distance this time and came close enough to trail a guiding hand across her shoulder, down her arm and beckon her to follow.

"Come on."



He smiled. Charming any fear that might keep her from following.

The hard pack under foot gave way as he pushed against the foamy break waters, backing beyond their violence cresting around his head until they emerged on the other side. The grin did not drop. There were gentler breaks, violent as children are sparring with sticks in the morning. It was a seductively easy threshold to cross and once on the other side, peace descended like a dove. The shore underneath was shallow enough to touch even at the height of wide, flat waves.

He grinned, playfully warning Nythadri that she not go far. Then gulped some air, bent knee and sat under. The wave went overhead, washing like a watery hat. Moments later he came up fisting a wad of cloth heavy with drips and stood tall. Failing to suppress a rather unmanly laugh for the tickle of water rolling up and down between waist and chest with the passing wave and subsequent trough. He chucked his smallclothes hard toward shore and watching them sail until out of sight. He had no idea if they made it or not. And didn't care either way.

He laughed, looking for Nythadri. The ends of her hair stuck to her skin like ink. Begging to be freed from their captivity, Jai obliged as a willing accomplice hungry to join their bold spirit by splaying fingers across her shoulders and brushing the slick strands behind her neck.

The laughter fell to something decidedly distinct from light-hearted innocence.

"Five years?"

Only darkness shows you the light.


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#38
Decoded? His choice of word filed itself away for later; she was too distracted to contemplate it now, but it added an immediate dimension to her perspective of him; shifted it to a picture that made sudden sense, layering reason where before there had been blank spots in place of motive. It framed his paranoia. A man taught to seek conspiracies in the shadows and make meanings of them; but in the written form, not necessarily in the unpredictable duplicity of people. Otherwise he would have seen through Imaad.

For now, she seemed content to be buffeted by the waves as they crashed against her shoulders and sprayed over her head. The night might have made it frightening, like being lost in a crowd of faceless bodies jostling and bumping and pulling her out further from shore. But she found it easy to let go when the thrill of it quickened her pulse, made her unapologetically mirthful. Her playfulness sparked from his expression, from his words. His jesting protests only earned a shrug, if he could even see the slender rise and fall of shining white shoulders amidst the dark waters.

She watched him shed the black, an appreciative glimmer to her eye. Apparently she had met her match in this game of bluff and tease; the line of restraint was getting distant, and her inclination to respect it even more so. Her gaze followed every item of dropped clothing before returning to the revealed contours of his body. She smirked, and considered how far removed he was from the man who had touched hand from hilt to heart for a loose tongue only that morning. Malkieri sword or no, if she had any notion of him being northern in more than ancestry that impression dissolved to dust.

She watched too as the sea flooded to meet him, unabashedly absorbing every piece of him before he fell beneath the Aryth’s caress. She was laughing as she hadn’t laughed in a long time, like the duty of five years had taken flight from the recklessness of youth. The respite was welcome, her accomplice even more so. He made short work of closing the distance, and turned her with a hand against her shoulder, trailing playfully down her arm to pull her onwards.

Nythadri pushed unafraid through the breaking waves until they calmed wide and rolling, pausing as her feet found purchase to wipe the water from her face. Salt tanged sharp on her lips. When she looked at Jai his grin was errant, like he fizzed with the kind of life he had that morning denied was his due. The tease was on her lips, but he escaped beneath the surface before she could speak. Though not as promiscuous as her reputation suggested, neither was she prudish. He won no blushes as he chucked his smallclothes back to shore, only a laugh at his brazen mischievousness. Water flattened his hair, ran rivulets down his shoulders and chest. His laugh was infectious. So easy to forget that there should be two pins shining at his neck in place of glittering drops of water.

When he came closer, her hands moved behind her back. If she hadn’t trusted her desire to touch him before, she certainly didn’t now. All Tower children knew control. In the Arches, a novice faced her fears; but more than that, and worse, the test required a woman to walk away from the things she loved and desired most. Nythadri missed the physical company of a man almost as much as she missed the freedom of music, but there was no glowing arch in the horizon behind his head, just the memory of rules she had already seriously circumvented. Tempting wasn’t the word.

“Is a very long time,”
she agreed, voice breathy from the intimacy of his touch against her skin. Somewhere distant, Imaad’s warnings rang like bells. She ignored them. If she sank into Jai now, she did not think she’d find him unwilling. Her heart beat fiercely, the rise and fall of her chest pronounced amidst the lapping waters. Tingling skin urged her to submit to the visceral, imagining the heat of his kiss, the eagerness of his touch. His look promised a passion that threatened to tip the scales of reason, and she was not resistant to the seduction.

Only the ring prevented her acting on the fantasies that stole breath from her lungs.

He had little to lose in this game, while she might lose everything. If caught. No-one would see them from the cliff or even the beach in this pitch darkness, but their abandoned clothes marked a scandalous path to the water. Accepted didn’t get sent to the Farm twice, and the ephemeral attentions of an Asha’man would be little solace if it saw her expelled from her home. Warning beat heavy with her heartbeat, but the fact it was forbidden only drew her closer, moth to flame. Her fingers trailed a path down his ribs, the delicate touch of one accustom to the nuance of pressure. She was mindful of the bruising, and used knowledge of it to subdue the ache of desire into something she could tenuously control. Pale eyes never left his, and she might have wavered in that moment. But the caress returned upwards before it strayed too far, with a gently ticklish speed that suggested she was trying to make him shudder.

“Wicked man. You know I can’t.”
Only even as she’d whispered the words she'd gotten closer. Ever a creature of defiance, she couldn’t bring herself to be the one to pull away. Her hands had stilled from wandering, though they still rested on the taut flesh of his chest. She could feel his own heart beat within, human as she. Rimmed by sinful dark lashes, the gaze she sent upwards contained no small measure of challenge; she dared him to action, no mistaking the sly curve of her smirk. Something of that look doubted his nerve, but inwardly it was bluff. Either way, she won.
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#39

Once her finger sparked his ribs he grew deaf to the meaning underlying just how long five years stretched for her.

An ever growing grin happily invited her closer, beckoning with every rise of her chest to shrug off the restraints from her yoked shoulders until she was practically frozen with the anticipation.

He wasn’t.

"Sure you can."

On the same breath his lips found hers without giving her the chance to think about it. She was as easy to encircle as his imagination mused all day. And he kissed her gently as exploring glass. Not as some fragment of perceived deilcacy. Certainly not in honor. Nythadri proved more than once the potential for a less than fragile composition. But he was mindful of the slender neck he pulled inward. Desiring with the firm hand to soothe forever any fear from surfacing ever again. And to exaggerate the delay of anticipation; to trap attempts at half-hearted escape from otherwise unyielding arms; escalate what she felt.

His heart raced with relief when she melted under him. As though feeling the permission for more, intensity soon took over. The need to feel that watery shift pressed as a firm new skin thrilled him. If only to imagine the feel of its coming absence. He turned into a slave of her merciless taunts, along ribs and chasing his back, praying silently that she not stop there.

For what she saw in his hands. For the way she slid from the saddle. For her trust. For her wit and charm. For the way her sinful lashes rimmed her striking eyes. For the banter on her lips and the curl to her hair. Light, those curls could finish him. He lost the seconds, lost the stars and forgot the way the water lapped around their bodies. If only for another moment to seek the rest of what he did not know about her; absorb that mirage in the desert he could never quite visualize but wanted so badly to find.

With the help of his guiding hand tangling her hair, she tilted her head toward those pinpricking white glimmers smiling from above and Jai pressed his lips beneath her ear. Pulled her in with the small of her back and was first firmly aware of the drenched shift completely flush against him. Then the spare curves of everything underneath. It stole his breath.

"Take saidar."



He paused from the pleasant attentions to her neck to wind a whisper in her ear. It was not a suggestion.

A visceral breath quickly followed as he delved himself into the Power's fury. Dangerously near to being overwhelmed with the sensation, he strained to control being ripped under the tide of Saidin. Everything exploded to life in that instance. Every pebble of skin under her pulling hands yearned for another pass. Every forgotten ache exploded with sensitivity when nails trailed their vicious tunnels. Every muscle she found flexed beneath her vibrating touch. All the more malevolent when she played his movements with the rapturing pressures of a musician's command. The bruises yielded. He yielded; flinching a thrill across his stomach at her unafraid exploration. Across skin marred with the proud scars she traced and over humanity's blued beauty.

Fighting the urge to drown in such sweet waters, he feverishly returned every taunting stroke. Ribs. Waist. Hips. Tempered only by the contrast of conquering and submitting to the torment of being conquered. He barely held back gripping her to pain while saidin erupted with violent passion. To not devour her until there was nothing left but fire and light. Light. It was overpowering.

Designs formed fast in his head. Fueled by her unabashed teasing at his waist and legs leaving a shudder against her hungry lips. Of peeling away her filmy shift. Of lifting her from the sea floor and carrying her smoothly from the water. Of having every intention to buffer her back from the sand with the coat still blanketed somewhere out there. And so remain tangled in skin until neither could stand to hold back a moment longer. He lifted her thigh to wrap around his waist meaning to execute exactly that.

Melting, quiet and slick as ice, she peeled skillfully from his arms instead. Such was his surprise, those plans plainly decorated a panting, curious, playful expression. He thought at first she meant to give a teasing chase by floating back into the arms of seawater and so make him follow. To blaze the vein of jealousy for the sea's fortune.

Something to her expression, glowing hot as the copper sun with Saidin roaring full clarity stopped movements forward. Still now but for the panting in his chest. A slow, sharp thought piercing his gut: torn was plain on her face as those designs were on his.

The memory of her last words plucked what thread of honor remained on the edge of his control.

"You can't?"

Breathlessly wondering now what she had meant.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#40
Resting on the razor edge of risk, she hadn’t expected him to truly cross the final line. Even as she brazenly dared a man who had proven his tenuous self-control to act, he took her by surprise. But she fell into those gentle persuasions willingly; brief reward for the day’s tease, the thrill of the taste of him blanking out the whispered warnings that she should end this before it began. His kiss was slow, explorative; the pressure of his hands firm yet gentle, relished like sunlight after winter. Her mind grew quiet, a blissful peace she savoured, and the soothing lap of waters, whisper of breath and rhythm of heart-beat became a world unto its own. She never doubted her own self-control, but somewhere in that moment restraint began to slip – and she never even noticed the slow build of momentum before it consumed her. She had intended to pull away, but desire burned reason to distant memory, and when he pressed for more she yielded. More than that she pushed up on her toes, trusting the circle of his arms and flat of his chest to keep her balanced as she drew him closer, fatally aware of how she flirted with the danger of losing herself completely. And not caring.

She was neither ignorant nor innocent of where this path led, but his touch chased away the sense of an Accepted and left the passions of a woman. The press of his body against her own sparked something primal. And his lips at her neck finished her. He traced fire across her body, raging intense when she surrendered to saidar’s flame and any hope at control. Lost to the fervour, alive, she explored his body like it was hers to own, delighting in every tremble elicited by palm and fingertips and lips. Saidar revealed everything; the contours of muscle, the texture of scarring. She was merciless until distracted by the slide of his grip, pleasure rippling in waves, magnified. Barely any space between them and it was still too much. Feeling shivered too intense; the travel of his hands, the delicacy of her shift layered tantalisingly thin between them.

Then his hand grazed her thigh. Torn between the thrill of complicity and realisation of a precipice, she fell back.

The waters felt cruelly cool without his heat. Even as she slipped away her body yearned to reunite to his touch, less than an arm-span away. But the serpent ring held her like an anchor. What little breath was left to her refused to coalesce into words, and for long moments she only looked at him - caught in the aftermath of a moment she had lost herself to entirely, and still enraptured of its grasp. The desire written plain on his face did not make it any easier to speak, nor the urges of her own body to draw him closer and erase her hesitation. She wanted him, and she made no secret of it.

“You can’t?”


The faintest shake of her head. It had never occurred to her that he might not know the rules the Tower bound around its women. That he had never realised how Liridia’s every disapproving look at their flirtatious banter was a black mark against Nythadri’s name, not just displeasure at youthful affections. Worse, was the knowledge that she had led him forwards thinking he was aware of the boundaries that edged their game. And that he might hate her for it. She could lie to herself; deny that his opinion had any sway over her, but letting go so thoroughly separated her from the comforting apathy that allowed her to shrug such things off. Lies found no purchase. She cared, and she was desperate for him not to see that she did.

Two choices then; to ice her expression to something impenetrable and drive rejection like a dagger, or to let him see her wavering vulnerabilities and suffer the cost of honesty. And it was rare, so rare, for her to be off balance. The reckless part of her wished he would bridge the gap and take the choice away; soften her with kiss and caress until she forgot everything but him. Light how the desire ached. But she was torn by the consequences that lay out on a black horizon. She had to force herself to remember the things she might lose, only the future fluttered on deceptively ephemeral wings. She’d never been good at walking away.

“Five years, Jai.”
The gentle emphasis did not leave much room for misinterpretation. Not fear, not shyness, just the cold hard snap of rules – and the faintest hint of surprised question, to discover if he had truly not known. “They don’t exactly hand out heartleaf to Accepted.”
There was something of her customary bleak humour there, but not much. She was not a bastion for Tower rules – she would never have stepped through his Gate is she were - but pragmatism was a line even she was hesitant to cross when all the consequences rested on her shoulders. Light. If she touched him now she wondered if he would recoil. The memory of Imaad’s acid tightened in her chest; the words he had spat the seconds before she had slapped him. She had never dealt well with rejection, and cushioned herself for its blow. Saidar circled her still, though only because she could not bear to lose heat and light at the same time. Anger, frustration, hostility? She didn’t know what to expect from him, but neither did she baulk from his reaction. Her pale eyes were piercing, striking in moonlight. Translucent honesty, if he cared to look. So much more she could say to make him understand, but she had never been one to cower behind the defence of words. Even at risk of misinterpretation. He would either understand, or he wouldn’t.
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