The stars had begun to take their places above the riders, and they approached the weathered sign of the Joyous Mare as it swayed in the twilight. The raucous noise from the tavern within drifted into the growing blanket of night, greeting the pair as they slowed their horses to a walk.
Atop a grey spotted gelding, a thin man regarded the sign and muffled revelry beyond it with a weary smile. “Well, this is it. Are you ready for the introductions, Izraeya?”
The stronger strut of his companion’s bay-colored stallion brought her alongside him, and Izraeya gave an eager nod. “I’m nervous and ready, Dirgten.”
Dirgten returned her nod before they stopped at the hitching posts. Dismounting, he looked to the warm light within the building of wattle and daub. His eyes surveyed its two stories of timbered framework before scrutinizing the old man sitting by the door, confirming him as well out of earshot.
“You needn’t be worried, I’m sure everything will go fine. Hamin won’t turn away a sword-arm sent by Darro in his stead.”
The riding heels of the woman’s boots hit the ground. “I’m more concerned about Lisst… She’s not always the trusting sort.”
Securing his horse, the thin man scratched his short scruffy beard. “If she’s suspicious, follow my lead, nod often, and say little.”
She tied her charger to the post. “You have my word, wizard.”
Dirgten yanked off the green, brimless cap he wore by its limp point… then used it to beat the layers of late summer road-dust off his cloak. Izraeya left him to his task, returning to her horse’s side as Dirgten coughed amid loosed particulates.
Unpinning her riding hood, Izraeya removed and folded it into a saddlebag. She then turned her chestnut face back to find far paler Dirgten emerging from a small cloud of dust. Beaten clean, this cloak now matched the green color of his hat.
Shaking the cap free of dust, he donned it. “Come, I’m thirsty for a pint… and to see old friends.”
The dark skinned Zacian smiled, brushing off her black trousers. “I can’t remember the last time I had a Mare’s Ale…”
Dirgten shook his head. “There’s nothing to remember, because you never have, Izraeya.”
She straightened herself with eyes downcast, then nodded at the wizard.
They stepped upon the creaky planks of the Joyous Mare’s outer veranda and greeted the old man sitting outside the door. With a gap-toothed grin he recognized Dirgten. Standing, he shook the wizard’s hand and nodded to the comely woman that accompanied him. While the elderly doorman eagerly accepted the pair of copper pennies Dirgten placed in his palm, Izraeya opened the tavern door disinterested in their chatter about watching and tending the horses.
The room was full and lively. Smiling and confident, she strode past laughing drunks and crowded tables of gamblers before a beefy red-bearded man rose up from his seat. His broad back loomed like a tower as Izraeya came to a halt behind him. Oblivious to her and waving an empty tankard, he hurled an inebriated ramble towards the table of drinkers as he left.
A purposeful cough from the Zacian turned his gaze to the woman behind him, and he met Izraeya’s annoyed glare from where she looked up at the level of his breastbone.
The big man nodded, sprouting a snaggle-toothed grin as he regarded the muscular hourglass of her figure. Retaining her smile, Izraeya responded with a cocked head and folded bare arms across her jerkin. She watched him step aside with eyes falling to the floor.
His calloused hand drifted close to her backside as she passed him, but he stopped his thick fingers short of pinching it. Having thought the better of his action, he let out a surprised yelp when an iron grip squeezed his own posterior.
Izraeya let go and kept walking. Looking back over her shoulder with a grin, the red-bearded man laughed off his shock before raising an empty tankard in salute.
“Good to see you too, Dohl,” she said under her breath and turning away from him.
The warrioress slapped a fat copper crown down on the bar. Behind the counter, a hairy handed tapster snatched the coin, acknowledging her order with a tired grunt. She watched him walk to the kegs before a serving maid slid beside her and began to collect tankards onto a tray.
Izraeya moved out of her way, leaning her back and elbows on the counter as she looked over the tavern tables and touched her black hair. Her chestnut fingers found it still pulled back into the small square bun above her nape before it fell straight and thick to her shoulders.
“Your hair’s fine dear,” the maid said lifting a tray full of tankards. “Looks difficult, but I like it!”
Izraeya lowered her hand and met the warm eyes upon the woman’s olive toned face. “Thanks, it took a week of practice to get right… but I have a friend that favors the style. I wasn’t sure it would survive today’s ride, though.”
The maid left with a wink. “Then he’d better compliment you on it!”
As she watched her walk away, a frothy pair of Mare’s Ale pints were shoved beside Izraeya’s elbow on the counter. Grabbing one in either hand, she turned and scanned the tavern for Hamin or Lisst. Instead, she only spotted Dirgten taking a seat by an empty window-side table and waving her over.
She weaved her way through the noisy activity and handed the wizard a wooden tankard that he raised and clanked against hers.
“To old friends and places!” he said before gulping down a mouthful of sweet ale.
Izraeya nodded and took a swig of her own pint before sitting down beside Dirgten. “They’re not here yet.”
Dirgten’s finger wiped the foam off his scraggly mustache as he gave a satisfied sigh. “I asked them to meet us after sundown, and it’s barely gotten dark.”
The woman took another drink and put her tankard on the worn table. “You’re right. I’m just eager to see… to meet… Oh, I’m just eager!”
“Yes, you are,” Dirgten said watching her down another gulp. “Temper that, and pace your ale! You know what’ll happen if you keep—”
Izraeya rolled her eyes. “—You just won’t let that go, will you!? That Ozmanaic gorzel we had was just more potent than usual. That’s all!”
The limp point of Dirgten’s green cap shook before he had another sip of ale. “If you say so… But a chatty drunk will be harder to introduce.”
Izraeya looked down to her half-empty cup, then frowned before her hand left it on the table.
Dirgten’s thin smile persisted even as Izraeya crossed her arms, leveling a narrow gaze at him. “Cheer up, friend. Things will be better after all this awkwardness is behind us, and- oh!”
Looking to the door, the wizard put his tankard down with a thud and rose from the table. “Hamin, old dog!”
Hamin stood — blond, broad shouldered, and lightly tanned— just past the threshold of the tavern door. Clad in a blue jerkin and tunic, he turned and faced them.
“Dirgten, you fool! So good to see you!” he smiled upon hearing his friend’s cry.
Izraeya shot to her feet and gulped as Dirgten walked forward. The men clasped hands, then muscular Hamin pulled the thin wizard into a hug.
“I hardly recognized you with a beard! I can’t believe it’s been over a year!” the tall man in blue laughed.
Dirgten heard something crunch in the warrior’s steel-trap embrace, but managed to wheeze out a chuckle regardless. “Almost two…”
Hamin released his friend as Izraeya left the table and walked up behind the wizard’s cloak. “I bet you and Darro got into a boatload of misadventures then! Honestly, I never thought you two would stand each other long enough for a treasure hunt in the Principalities!”
The thin man straightened his cap. “We were able to… work out our differences.”
Hamin nodded before Izraeya came to a stop beside Dirgten. The knight-errant’s ice-grey gaze turned and met her dark irises before taking stock of the rest of her.
He extended a hand. “And speaking of treasures from the south… You, beautiful lady, must be one them.”
Her eyes didn’t move from his as she grasped his hand with a delicate tremble and racing pulse. “I’m Izraeya… Darro speaks often of your friendship and adventures…”
“Don’t tell me,” Hamin said looking back to Dirgten. “Darro finally found a woman that suits him!”
The wizard shook his head with a cough overcoming a chuckle. “Izraeya is a bejeweled sword for certain! But no… She’s his first cousin.”
Izraeya’s toes curled within her boots as the knight gently released her hand.
“Oh!” he said turning to find the woman’s smile directed to the floor as she stroked a finger across bound hair. “My apologies, I didn’t see a resemblance beyond a southron descent. There is no other man I’d rather have beside me against the unknown than your cousin, and it’s an honor to meet one of his kin!”
Hamin took a step back and shifted his gaze between Izraeya and Dirgten. “So where is Darro, anyways? I can’t wait to tell that bastard all that’s happened!”
Dirgten sighed before he spoke. “Yes, that. I’m afraid Darro isn’t with us, my friend.”
The blond man’s face became concerned. “What? But, his horse… It’s outside.”
The wizard nodded. “Yes, that’s Kabbalt outside. But he didn’t ride him here, he—”
Hamin’s tanned face became pale as he grasped Dirgten’s shoulder. “Is he well?”
Dirgten patted the muscled arm that rested on him. “Never better! But he remained in Zacia to aid his ailing father and family house on the borderlands.”
“Ill news, but I feared worse,” Hamin said, releasing his grip and looking to Izraeya. “Know that your uncle has my sympathy and best friend at his side.”
Her face tightened before Dirgten spoke. “Izraeya comes with Darro’s blessing and in his stead. I’d dare say she’s as skilled as her cousin from the few scraps we’ve had making our way back to Yales.”
Hamin’s eyes didn’t leave Izraeya. “If Darro loaned you his beloved Kabbalt, and you can ride that charger all the way from the Zacian plains to here, then I know all I need to see you fill the gap he leaves in our party.”
“Excellent,” Dirgten grinned behind Hamin as the knight and warrioress exchanged a second, firmer handshake. “Let’s get an ale in your hand, and as soon as our scout and pickpocket arrives—”
“—You won’t have to repeat yourself because she’s already heard most of it,” a freckled brunette said, slipping in from behind Izraeya to join the trio.
Hamin laughed at the startled reactions of Izraeya and Dirgten before watching their surprise ease.
“I’m sure Lisst heard everything, Dirgten,” he said rolling his eyes up to look at the rafters. “She always does!”
Lisst smiled wryly in her beige and grey traveling clothes while handing one of the two pints she carried to Hamin. She then playfully elbowed him in the gut before approaching Izraeya.
“Well, I caught that soppy line about our new treasure of the south at least!” she said, raising a hand to the dark Zacian woman.
Izraeya shook a hand still clad in a leather riding glove before Lisst spoke again. “Welcome to the Company of the Hidden Tower, I’ll like not being the only woman anymore! I suppose Darro has already embarrassed me by telling you all about that time with the giant spider?”
“Yes, several times,” Izraeya said looking to the side and flashing a white smile.
The freckled woman studied the detail of the Zacian’s face between a sip of the Mare’s Ale in her tankard before she winked. “Bastard. He said he’d never tell another soul!”
Lisst returned to the knight’s side. “Hamin, I can’t believe you didn’t notice the resemblance! She’s got those beautiful eyes of his…” Turning, Lisst raised her pint with a nod to Izraeya. “Those gorgeous, dark eyes. I always told Darro they were wasted on him, and would look better gazing out from a woman’s face. And I was right!”
Only Izraeya noticed Dirgten’s arching eyebrow before he stepped in-between the two women. “So good to see you again, Lisst!”
Leaning in, she gave the scruffy wizard a one armed embrace while being mindful of the drink she held. “Dirgten, you old conjurer! Still up to your cheap tricks?”
“Quite,” he said with a fleeting glance at Izraeya.
Dirgten’s uneven whiskers bristled against Lisst’s pale skin as she hugged him. Squinting, she whispered into his ear. “That beard looks awful. Shave it off!”
He withdrew before rubbing a thumb on his hairy cheek. “So… how long have you been lurking around here unnoticed?”
Stepping back, Lisst threw a slow and harmless punch into Hamin’s shoulder. It evoked a laugh from him that prompted Izraeya to fold her arms.
“I had a lovely ride in with Hamin!” she winked. “You were all talking when I entered after him… Come on, let’s sit!”
The quartet took the few steps to the round window-side table and pulled chairs. Dirgten and Izraeya grabbed their tankards and sat-down beside one another with the window at their backs. Then Hamin and Lisst took the seats opposite them.
The Zacian’s discrete glances as Hamin presented a chair to happy-eyed Lisst didn’t escape the wizard’s notice. With an unseen tap of his boot against her shin, he turned Izraeya’s focus and souring expression to himself.
“I’m sure that I recall Darro mentioning Izraeya at least a few times, don’t you Hamin?” Lisst said, missing the quick exchange between the wizard and warrioress.
His eyes on Lisst, the knight’s powerful shoulders shrugged as he sat down. “He might have, but I can only remember the stories he told of his father and brothers. Oh, and the one about the loose bull at his sister’s wedding!”
Izraeya’s expression softened as she looked away from Dirgten and laughed. “That’s a great story! I remember it well.”
They all looked to her before Lisst spoke. “Were you there? Maybe that’s where he mentioned you?”
The Zacian looked into her tankard and swirled its contents. “I was there… but not like Darro was, in the thick of it. We were both children, and I was, oh… just his sister’s youngest attendant.”
She stopped swirling the ale, taking a drink before shaking her head. “I’m sure Darro didn’t ever talk about me, though.”
“Well, how would you know for sure, Hon?” Lisst replied. “I can’t shake the feeling that he did.”
The shadows between the darkening window and the inn’s distant fireplace were dispelled as a lit wick and small oil lamp was placed in the middle of the table.
“I brought you some light,” the serving maid interrupted as the party looked to her. Then she gave a glance of recognition to Izraeya before speaking to Lisst. “And here are the almonds you requested, mame.”
Lisst thanked the young woman as she placed the wooden bowl of uncracked nuts near Hamin. The knight grabbed the beech-wood tongs jutting out of the almonds as Dirgten laid out coins and ordered a meal for the table. The first shell broke with a snap as the maid left their company.
“We’ll sort out when or if Darro mentioned you in time, I’m sure,” Hamin said, offering the nutmeat to Izraeya across the table. “Not that it’s a pressing issue.”
The Zacian smiled at the offering, reaching past the teardrop shape of the clay lap to take it from an outstretched palm. Chewing as Hamin shelled a second almond, Izraeya and the others watched Dirgten dip a hand under his green cloak. It returned holding a worn and over-stuffed leather journal.
“As you didn’t arrive in a king’s carriage, I’ll gamble to say that your venture with Darro was unfruitful?” Hamin said, offering a freshly cracked nut to Lisst.
Dirgten shot Hamin a dour look as he moved his pint and placed the book on the table beside it. “Yes and no.”
“Do tell,” Lisst said before eating the almond she had been given.
The wizard looked away as he untied the straps of his journal and opened it. “We found where the old imperial hoard had once been stashed, but it had long since been looted.” He then grasped the clay ring of the lamp and brought its burning wick closer. “The coins we scavenged were leavings… hardly worth the trouble.”
Elbows on the table, Lisst interwove her fingers and rested her chin atop them. “That’s a pity. You were so sure.”
Dirgten waved the comment away with a frown. “See? It was just as well that you couldn’t join us… Not with two broken legs and an arm between the both of you.”
Hamin cracked another nut, and smiled after Lisst turned her head and eyed it. With unnoticed concern, Izraeya watched as he brought the almond to her lips and spoke while she bit down on the kernel.
“You’re right, but our recovery wasn’t as arduous as it could’ve been.”
“Good to hear,” Dirgten said oblivious to the exchanges around him and flipping through pages of notes. He only looked up from the book at the sound of Izraeya gulping down a hefty swig of ale beside him.
Hamin drew the wizard’s confused glance away from Izraeya with another snap of the nutcracker in his hands. “But you did find, something? ”
Dirgten nodded. “Oh yes. We recovered some parchments with information our predecessors had misjudged in value. They even contained some arcana I’ve been able to study. But most important was this map I discovered…”
Pulling the folded map out from where he had it pressed like a bookmark inside his journal, Dirgten slid it across the table. Hamin picked up the lamp as Lisst removed her gloves.
She carefully unfolded the parchment. Then Hamin held the lamp over Lisst’s shoulder to provide the best possible light as she scrutinized its markings and landmarks.
“I agree with what you said in your letter, Dirgten,” Hamin said looking down at the map. “It does look like the southern Hernspine Mountains.”
Lisst groaned and shook her head tapping on the parchment. “But this can’t be the Rhutt Forest, unless the scale’s all wrong. And half of these quill scratches look like they were done by some drunkard!”
Dirgten grinned at Izraeya before hefting a tankard to his lips. “Now this reminds me of old times.”
The warrioress watched him down a satisfied gulp of sweet ale, then Hamin placed the lamp on the tabletop. “Lisst and I were sold on the expedition as soon as we read your letter,” he said to the wizard. “You can count us in.”
Izraeya and Dirgten rose and offered their pints out to the pair across the table, and the wooden clatter of banged tankards followed.
The wizard took off his cap, nodding gratefully after the party had downed the remainder of their drinks in toast. “Wonderful! How much time will you need to prepare?”
Lisst wound a lock of her brown hair against her finger as she glanced at Hamin. “Well, knowing you, you’ll probably want to leave with the dawn! But I’ll need to study this excuse of a map. You know, compare it with others for at least a few days…”
Dirgten continued to nod, adding a contented squint. “I had assumed as much. We can wait here at the inn… Are your other affairs in order to leave?”
The sheepish looks that came to the pair’s faces amid the babble of the tavern immediately told the wizard they were not.
“We… will need a fortnight,” Hamin said. “Your missive came too late for us to correspond before your arrival… But your presence is fortuitous! I only wish Darro was here…”
Dirgten’s head stopped bobbing before he leaned forward with a narrowing gaze. “A fortnight is a bit of a delay, Hamin. What’s going on?”
Beside the wizard, Izraeya saw Hamin’s eyes dart to Lisst. Feeling a chill, she watched the knight’s strong arm rise and drape over the shoulders of the brunette beside him.
“We’re getting married.”
“Next week,” Lisst added nuzzling into Hamin’s one armed embrace.
Dirgten drew in a breath, blinking wide eyes. “O-oh…”
“I know, it’s a surprise,” Hamin said. “We didn’t want to become a distraction for the party or from the mission.”
Izraeya stood unnoticed, rigid and wide-eyed as Lisst spoke. “We snuck around, here and there, but then we were left to ourselves after you and Darro left… and, well…”
Dirgten rubbed the back of his short hair, tousling it as the lovers opposite the wizard took on concerned looks at his paling complexion.
“Oh, well… um,” he stammered before looking up with a reaffirming smile and nod. “Congratulations!”
With all the attention still focused on Dirgten, Izraeya lowered herself stiff and unblinking back into her seat. She slowly slid her empty tankard onto the tabletop as the lover’s faces lit up with relief.
“I’m truly sorry if this breaks the fellowship,” Hamin said as his scruffy friend reached out across the table to the betrothed pair.
Dirgten placed his palms on their shoulders and shook his head enthusiastically. “Oh, nonsense and rubbish! You two should have said so years ago! ”
He withdrew as the pair laughed, falling back into his chair a moment later. Scratching his brow, his glance to Izraeya found her stonefaced but finally managing to blink.
Hamin turned away from the animated Dirgten and noticed Izraeya’s blank expression. “This must be terribly awkward for you.”
Snapped out of her thoughts, she looked up to his ice-grey eyes.
“I wish Darro was here,” he continued. “I hoped your cousin would be the best man at my side as Lisst and I are wed… For he truly is. But it seems that I drew false hopes and assumptions from Dirgten’s letter.”
The tall man in blue then looked to the wizard straightening his chair. “But if you wouldn’t mind being a second choice, Dirgten—”
“—Of course!” he answered pulling his seat beside Izraeya and the table’s edge.
Lisst smiled with a clap of her hands, “Alright, but you’ll need to shave-off that thing you think is a beard!”
Her eyes fell to Izraeya next, slowly turning her gaze from Hamin. “I have few friends here, and my sisters can’t make the journey from Hale… I’d be honored if you’d accept to be my attendant maid.”
Izraeya’s mouth opened, but she was unable to find any words.
“That’s a great idea,” Hamin nodded. “Then you’ll have a wedding story for Darro… and hopefully one without any bulls in it!”
She felt all of their eyes upon her as she stammered and glanced at Dirgten’s growing concern.
“I, I’m… not…”
The wizard’s hand slid unseen into hers underneath the table. He squeezed a clammy palm tightly before her shaking fingers found their swordsman’s grip and clamped around his so tightly that Dirgten fought back a wince.
“I- I’d be honored!”
The tavern door was yanked wide and Izraeya stormed into the night. With the heels of her riding boots stomping across the groaning planks of the veranda, she startled the old man sleeping in his chair awake with a snort.
“I said, I need some air! ” she shouted over her shoulder.
Dirgten emerged from the open doorway. “Izraeya, please! We need to talk now that they’re gone!”
She untied her stallion from the hitching post. “There’s nothing to talk about, wizard! ”
The bewildered old man watched cloaked Dirgten scuttle past, headed for the horses. “That’s a lie, and you know it!”
She stepped into a stirrup. “Leave me alone!”
Dirgten met the narrow, hard gaze that said Izraeya could kill a man. But her wet eyes and cheeks spoke something different as she swung about in the saddle. Then Kabbalt reared under his rider’s command, and the thin wizard got out of the horse’s way.
He stood and cursed as the charger galloped away, leaving a trail of dust in the night. Whipping off his cap by its limp point, his hand plunged inside. Withdrawing it with clenched fingers a moment later, his palm opened to toss three glass beads toward the stars as a sharp whistle passed his lips. The beads disappeared into the night, and in the moment of silence that followed he mashed the hat back onto his head.
A trio of torch-like globes floated down from above, illuming Dirgten in a cool blue-white light as he untied his grey spotted gelding. They circled around the wizard as he hastily struggled onto his mount and grabbed the reins.
“You!” he said pointing to an orb. “Follow that horse and stay with it!”
With a flash of acknowledgement, the glowing ball darted off in pursuit of Izraeya. Dirgten then forked his fingers at the remaining pair of globes bringing his horse around. “You two! Red light and stay with me!”
Cool blue-white illumination shifted to red behind his shoulders before a slap of the reins urged the wizard’s horse forward. Dashing away, he left the old man still sitting on the porch of the tavern, scratching his head.
Dirgten’s gelding couldn’t match the speed of a full tilt charger, but the torch-like light that bobbed alongside Izraeya’s horse never escaped his sight no mater how far behind he fell. Choking on the road-dust left in her wake, he finally gained upon the light in the dark as the short chase came to an end.
With a clatter of hooves his grey horse came to a stop beside Kabbalt, bereft of his mistress. Dirgten left the saddle as soon as he could tug on the reins. “Woah, Flax. You’ve done well.”
The red orbs hovered behind the wizard as he looked to the woods beside the road and grasped Kabbalt’s dangling reins. Leading the horses under a tree on the roadside, he tossed their reins onto a low branch over tall grass.
“Xanusha!” he commanded before the leather straps affixed themselves with neat knots.
Dirgten then snapped his fingers and summoned the blue-white orb drifting above Kabbalt with a waggling digit. “Alright, which way did she go?”
The light swooped down, entering the woods with the wizard only a few paces behind. It didn’t take long for the sound of sobbing to reach his ears, or to enter the clearing where Izraeya sat upon a boulder.
“Damn you and your magic!” she said, head buried in her palms. “Is this what you wanted to see?!”
Dirgten pointed to a spot in-between them and the glowing spheres hovered into an orbit around it. “I wanted to see my friend safe. If I had only known—”
“—That I am so weak? Look at me!”
He watched Izraeya lift a tear-streaked face. “Tears are a sign of pain, not weakness. Those must have been some of the hardest hours for any soul to bear… It took great strength for you to endure them like you did.”
She sniffed running a bare forearm across her eyes. “I suppose. But they must think me very odd…”
“Perhaps,” the wizard shrugged taking a step closer. “But we’re adventurers; we’re odd as a rule. And your composure didn’t waver so badly as to be, suspicious.”
Fingers clenched over her face again. “I would never seek to undo the gift you helped to give me… no, never! For the first time in my life I feel at home in my own skin!”
He reached the boulder where Izraeya wept, then slowly sat beside her. “That is fortunate, because if we tried it would kill you.”
Her covered face nodded. “I know, and I don’t want to… But so much has gone wrong since that moment, Dirgten!”
The wizard raised an arm to lay it across Izraeya’s shoulders, but hesitated as she sobbed. “I knew soon after you trusted me with your painful secret and longing that this was about more than Hamin.”
Izraeya’s tearful eyes rose from the cradle of her hands. “Yes, but I love him all the same. I’ll love him still as I stand as maid to his bride!”
Dirgten’s hand withdrew, then scratched his bearded chin. “Nothing is as complicated as affairs of the heart, but I fear that love will turn into envy, Izraeya.”
The Zacian turned a saddened, heavy gaze to the scruffy man beside her. Lips quivering as they searched for the strength to speak, she instead reached out and embraced her friend.
“I’m sorry! You’d think I’d have had my fill with all the sorrow I caused my family, and not do the same amongst my friends!”
The wizard folded comforting arms over Izraeya as she cried into the folds of his cloak. “You never willingly brought any pain, my friend. Absolve yourself from that.”
She shook her head in the ruffles of his clothing. “No, it was stupid of me to concoct this whole scheme! What was I thinking, Dirgten? I spent a lifetime trapped and hiding a soul that never matched my flesh. But no sooner had we found the miracle that at last made me whole and happy… than I decided to pretend I was someone I wasn’t again!”
The thin man in green sighed above the square bun of hair resting on Izraeya’s nape. “And that blame isn’t yours alone to bear. Because if I recollect correctly, I was quite active in the conspiracy.”
Her strong arms hugged him tighter. “Only because you’re a better friend than I deserve.”
She lifted moist eyes from his cloak and left his embrace. Watching her sniff and wipe slowing tears as she sat beside him, Dirgten removed his cap and rummaged around inside it.
“Xeneelk,” he said removing a clean white handkerchief pinched in his fingers.
Izraeya shook her head as he offered it to her, smiling as she snatched it and blew her nose. “You know some novelty like this, but can’t hurl a fireball?”
Dirgten slipped his hat back on with a wiry smile. “You’re welcome.”
She wadded up the cloth and dabbed her eyes. “I’ll never forget how you stood at my side when Father disowned me, Dirgten. How you stepped in as my brothers stripped me bare and cast me out…”
Izraeya reached out and touched his scraggly beard. “…How they slashed your throat for making me, unnatural.”
“The scar reminds me of the brave friend that saved my life that night after losing her family. Perhaps I should display it more prominently.”
Placing hands upon her lap, Izraeya looked to the swirling orbs that lit the clearing like a campfire. “I’ll let go of that which isn’t fated to me. They’re happy, and Lisst can have the life I wanted with Hamin. Together, their joys will drown out my regrets.”
“They are lighter without the secret they carried, aren’t they, Izraeya?”
She faced the wizard. “And that’s why I’ll end my masquerade when next we meet. They deserve to know who I was… who I wanted to be, and who I am now.”
Dirgten raised a brow. “You’ll tell them, everything? ”
Izraeya took a breath. “I’ll trust only you with how I felt about Hamin. No good will come from sharing that with them. But otherwise, yes, I’ll tell them everything.”
“It might be awkward for a time. But they won’t reject you, I’m sure of it.”
Smiling at the thought, she looked to the trees. “I hope you won’t judge me if I keep up the pretense that I’m Darro’s cousin to others. No one else really needs to know, and—”
“—It’s less complicated,” Dirgten said with a firm nod.
“By a great degree,” Izraeya said sliding off the boulder. She turned and offered the wizard a hand down, then noticed that it still held the wadded, wet handkerchief.
He plucked it from her fingers as the soft soles of his boots touched the ground. “If this evening is any indicator, I suspect your friendship with Lisst will only deepen.”
“I hope you’re right… I have so many questions, and things I could learn.”
Dirgten closed his hands around the moist and crumpled white cloth he held. “Fellowship flows and ebbs, expressing a spectrum of love, my friend. If it is lasting, it changes with and around you.”
He opened his hands and the handkerchief had become an intricate series of folds imitating a blooming flower. It was as stiff as parchment when Izraeya picked it up gently and smiling.
“Oh, now I like this spell, Dirgten,” she said inspecting the simulacrum closely. Then Izraeya cocked her head and squinted at the wizard. “It isn’t… stiff with my snot, is it?”
He shook his head and they laughed. Then with a snap of his fingers, Dirgten summoned the glowing orbs to them from where they hovered at the center of the clearing.
“Back to the Joyous Mare? ” Izraeya asked, watching the lights orbit about their ankles.
He nodded, and the Zacian matched his pace admiring the white flower she held behind him. “Thank you, Dirgten.”
“You know,” he said looking back. “There is a man from whom you needn’t hide any of your secrets.”
She looked up from the flower. “Because he’s a good friend that already knows them.”
“Yes, and he isn’t afraid to see if that fellowship can grow into the love you desire… He’s tired of bearing his own secrets too, you see.”
“Dirgten!” Izraeya gasped behind the wizard, bringing him to a flinching halt.
He dared not move or look back in the long, cold seconds that followed. Then her hand slipped into his and gripped it tightly.
“I know I’m a far second to Hamin…” he said afraid to glance at her.
The toes of Izraeya’s boots arched up before her lips pecked Dirgten’s cheek. “I’m such a fool. All that time together, all my talk of Hamin, and all of the help you gave me bearing such a secret… I don’t know what to say.”
Dirgten opened a flinching eye, and found a soft gaze upon him. “Yes, perhaps?”
Her eyes were happy as they bobbed in a nod. “I never dreamed that I’d be courted by a wizard, but I’m honored to be courted by you.”
Izraeya watched Dirgten straighten, his face blooming into a smile. “Even if to simply see where it might lead?”
She grasped his other hand and together they held the white flower. “Oh Yes. And right now it leads back to the inn… and a long night of talking by the fire.”
Copyright © 2016 by Jason H. Abbott, All Rights Reserved.