Mysteries of the Amberwoad Vale

Between the endless meetings and meet-and-greets, Lee had been all but completely living within the confines of the council hall in the weeks since her induction ceremony. In her spare time, such that it was, she’d taken to roaming the halls under the guise of acquainting herself with the building and the books it contained – the history of the city, the lineages of the old families, the trade agreements and lawbooks. It wasn’t entirely a lie; to properly play her role as the city’s newest councilwoman, there was a lot she needed to learn. But the things she really needed to know to be able to do the job well she couldn’t learn from any book. It had taken two weeks to locate all the listening devices in the building, to map the radius of their awareness, to discover who had eyes and ears where, to quietly supplement them with her own, to find the holes.

It took her the better part of a month to find a sufficiently large gap: the one spot that no one else knew about, in the wing of the sprawling building where no one ever went, in a remote corner that the guard patrol passed over. It was hardly a crevice in the dilapidated north tower, a space beneath the stairs that ran from the top floor up to the roof. It took three nights of discreet trips to make the little hollow space habitable. She’d cleaned out the cobwebs in the middle of the night; laid out dried lavender to chase away the dank, musty smell of the closed space; smuggled in the stub of a candle, a small pillow, and a thin blanket. But it was worth the effort to have just a moment of solitude. She stripped out of her opulent, courtly dress up on the parapet and stuffed it into in an old barrel, then made her way back down the stairs in her undergarments, a small book clutched to her chest. The third step from the top was already loose, and she pried it off and dropped down into the small stone room, then quickly pulled the wood plank back into place above her head.

She lit the candle with a wave of her hand and pulled the blanket around her shoulders. She’d been reading all day – a stack of books requisitioned from the warlock’s knowledge-emporium-turned-paladin-enclave – sifting through pages trying to reconstruct the city’s forgotten history now that its demise was no longer looming and imminent. The book she’d brought with her tonight, though, was her own: a small, handwritten leather tome of songs and poetry. She unwound the thong that bound the book shut, humming softly under her breath and tracing her fingertip along the cover, unraveling the spell that hid the words inside.

“I’ve been looking for that.”

Her body moved before her mind could react, dropping the book and slipping the dagger out of her bodice as she lunged toward the voice – an invisible spot wedged into the opposite corner of the small stone hideaway, beneath the slanted wall of the stairs. She kicked the candle over in her haste, snuffing it out, but she knew she wouldn’t have been able to see him anyway, even if it weren’t for the sudden darkness; it wasn’t like there was anywhere to hide in this little hole. Her aim was true, though, and she slammed into something solid, could feel the heat of his chest beneath her hand, the bite of her knife pressing into his throat, the slow rumble of a chuckle vibrating through him. If he laughed any harder, it would open an artery.

“God damnit, Rowan.” She didn’t move the blade. She was breathing hard and trembling with adrenaline. The one place. The one place she had to be alone, and he’d fucking found her.

He hummed softly, just a few notes but with a lazy, familiar melody, and the space around them filled with globes of softly glowing light. As soon as the spell was cast, he rematerialized in front of her, perfectly still so as not to provoke, but with a smug smile on his lips that made her want to jam her dagger the rest of the way into his neck. She wiped the blood off her blade on the fabric of his shirt and sat back on her heels, still tense even though there wasn’t really anywhere she could flee. “How did you find me?”

“I didn’t,” he said, and she gave him a flat look. He reached out and she drew back. He looked up at her, that same quiet amusement on his lips, and reached out again. This time she let him take her hand, his callused fingertips trailing down along her palm, brushing the undersides of her fingers, then catching the tip of her ring finger and wiggling it playfully, “I found your ring.”

She sighed and pulled her hand back, hugging it self-consciously to her chest and spinning the little twist of copper wire around on her finger. It was too small, too non-descript, too plain and ordinary for anyone but Rowan to be able to use it to track her by, and only him because he was the one who had made it – because he was the one who wore its twin.

“It’s a bit undignified for a councilwoman, don’t you think?” He asked, holding his hand up to one of the floating orbs of light, making his own smooth copper band glint and shine, “To still be wearing a little scrap of metal some runaway kid stole from a smith’s rubbish heap?” He closed his hand as the globe of light blinked out, then flashed her a smile, his voice whispering through her head: and don’t pretend you still need it to cast the spell.

“Why are you here, Rowan?” She asked aloud, too tired to start playing his games, too.

His expression softened, and he reached into the corner behind him and produced a bottle of wine, holding it up to show her, then out to her in an offering. “Thought you could use some company.”

“Did you drug it?” She asked, taking the bottle from him and habitually checking it for magic, then inspecting the cork and seal for signs of tampering.

“What do you take me for?” He said, playing up his offense. She arched an eyebrow. It had hardly been a month since he’d drugged her and snuck behind her back, reporting on her when she’d come to him for help. Good as his intentions might have been, it had only showed how casual and easy it had become for him to deceive her. When her lips failed to even quirk with amusement, Rowan at least had the good sense to look abashed. “It’s not drugged,” he said, waving for her to hand the bottle back. He pulled a corkscrew seemingly out of thin air and opened the bottle, then took one big swig and then another, demonstratively, before passing it back to her.

“If you’re lying to me again-”

“I’m not.”

She sniffed the bottle and looked up at him skeptically. He hadn’t passed out yet, and while it was entirely possible he’d shown up having already ingested the antidote, or cured himself as soon as he’d tasted the alcohol… well, they had to start trusting each other again somewhere. She took a swallow of the wine. It was sour, the cheap swill they peddled at the Left Hook, but after weeks of sipping sweet, heady southron vintages at banquet tables and in ballrooms, it had the sharp, familiar taste of home. She took another sip before setting the bottle down in front of her, “So this is strictly a social visit?”

“I brought you a present,” he said, pulling a sheaf of paper out from under him and tossing it onto the floor between them. “But it was mostly an excuse to come see you.”

She picked up the stack of paper and started flipping through it. It was a grab bag of notes and transcriptions – snippets of overheard conversations, reports on the movements of her fellow council members, an excerpt from a rare book her mother thought might be relevant to her research, an update from the temple of Ishkar, a page or two about the status of the other members of her group, which had dissolved as quickly and haphazardly as it had formed. She sighed and let the papers drop back to the stone floor with a slap, then rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands, “I think my eyes are going to shrivel up and fall out of my head.”

“I take it the new job is treating you well,” he said wryly, taking another swig of wine.

“I fucking hate it here,” she said, physically exhausted and emotionally drained enough to forget, for a moment, that she was supposed to be cautious around him. That her lifelong friend was also a liar, that he had kept dangerous, hurtful secrets from her. But she was sick of affecting poise and refinement every minute of every day, of having to be perpetually keener and sharper and more alert than everyone around her, always playing the game. Rowan didn’t have room to judge her for being less than court proper, but she wondered whether or not he derided her for letting her guard down around him.

“You didn’t have to say yes,” he said, passing her the wine bottle.

“Yes I did. Someone was going to get this council seat, and if it wasn’t me, it was going to be some fuckass we’d have to spend the next ten years trying to undermine, and then the next asshole after him. Or another fucking dragon.”

Rowan let out a dry laugh, “Pretty sure you already did your part for this city.”

“Might’ve been better if I’d let it burn. Or freeze,” she said, taking a deep swig of the wine. She passed a hand through her hair, brushing the long, dark strands out of her eyes, “I’m out of practice with this bullshit.” She hugged her knees to her chest, setting the bottle aside and rubbing at her eyes again, “I’m not like you, or mom. I don’t… I can’t fake it like you do.” She put her forehead on her knees, hiding her face, because fuck, she wasn’t supposed to trust him, but there wasn’t anyone else left. Ari was gone. Robin would never speak to her again. Rauk had exchanged a few letters with her in the interest of mutual scholarship, but that was all. And Lilli was still in the city, technically second in command of the guard, but drifting further away every day. Lee was alone in a den of wolves, and her only friend was the one with the sharpest teeth. “I just want to go home,” she said, her voice thick and choked.

A moment later, she heard the noise of the Left Hook whispering through her mind, the din of drunken voices and clattering glasses, the roar of the fire and laughter and music. “Stop,” she said, and when it didn’t immediately go away, she sat up and said, “Don’t. I don’t want you in my head.”

The sound faded as though through the distance of a door closing, then disappeared, taking a hint of firelight and warmth with it when it left. There was only one globe of light left floating in the small room, and it cast Rowan’s face in shadow. “Do you want me to leave?”

She should have wanted him to, but couldn’t quite bring herself to tell that particular lie. Because what she really wanted was for things to be like they had been – or rather, to be like she used to think they’d been: no secrets or lies between them, in perfect accord, fighting the good fight. Just the two of them against the world, together. But that thing she’d believed in, the thing she wanted so desperately to have again, had never existed at all.

She’d confronted her mother about the secrets, spent three days in a locked room learning as much as she had clearance, now, to know. Catching up on a decade of miscommunication and misunderstanding, reconciling and preparing herself for the task ahead. But she’d hardly spoken to Rowan at all since that night in the sewers, when Ari’s wisp had intervened and given Lee one last taste of just how little Rowan trusted her. And that was it. Trust. “I want to be able to trust you again,” she blurted out. Rowan went still, alert and catlike, and Lee wiped angrily at her eyes, “I’m sick of you lying to me and keeping things from me. If you’re going to throw me in this pit of fucking snakes, the least you can do is be honest with me. You aren’t protecting me by keeping me out of the loop. You never were.”

“No more secrets,” Rowan said quietly. “Not anymore. I promise.”

“And I don’t believe you,” she said levelly. “I have absolutely no reason to.”

“Aurelia,” he said, his voice soft and intimate and weighty with seriousness, making her name sound like music. He only called her that when it was important.

She gave a quick shake of her head. Didn’t want to hear it, whatever it was.

He moved, leaning forward on his knees and cupping her face gently with his hand. She froze beneath his touch, because he’d never…

The words of a pale goddess whispered through her head, the brush of a dark feather against the back of her mind: A boy who was saved from shame and death has always looked on… afraid to touch. But even confronted with proof of the divine – with solid evidence that the dream had been prophetic and true – that part, at least, she’d still resolutely rejected, because Rowan had never, ever…

…and then he kissed her. His lips were chapped and his mouth tasted faintly of cheap wine and tobacco. He was warm and coarse and yielding, and for a moment, Lee felt herself starting, maybe, to believe. The last of the magical lights winked out, and Rowan tipped his head to one side, breathing a sigh against her mouth and slowly parting his lips against hers. When his hand found her hip and he started to draw her toward him, Lee’s senses came back to her in a rush, because she knew too well this thing that he did. She kicked him in the kneecap, hard. He let out a grunt of pain and pitched forward, knocking her backwards as his leg went out from under him. She recovered before he did, flipping him onto his back and putting her dagger to the nick she’d already sliced in his throat, “I’m not one of your fucking patsies, Rowan. You can’t fix this by making me fawn over you.”

He let out a humorless laugh, his voice tight with pain, “I can’t imagine you fawning over anyone, Aurelia.”

She frowned. “What the fuck, Rowan? Why are you doing this? Why would you-?”

“Because I’m in love with you.”

Her blood froze and her face went hot. She suddenly wished she’d bothered to learn his stupid light spell, just so she could see his face, though it wasn’t like she’d ever been able to catch a lie in his expression before. She pressed the knife more firmly against his neck, “I’ll fucking put you back on the most wanted list. I’ll go to the captain of the guard myself and tell him about your favorite bolt ho-”

He pulled her down and kissed her again.

This time, when she pulled out of his grasp, she was crying, her dagger fallen somewhere on the floor and forgotten. “You’ve been lying to me since we were kids,” she wheezed. “Why. Why are you doing this?”

“Goddamnit, Lee.” He made a gruff, angry sound and shifted beneath her. A moment later, her candle flickered to life, still on its side on the floor, and Rowan pressed something into her hand. “I taught you the spell, so fucking use it already.”

She looked down and found a single copper coin resting on the center of her palm. For a moment, she was bewildered; when she realized what he was getting at, she drew back in alarm. The night before her induction into the council, he’d stayed up with her for hours in a quiet corner of the Left Hook, teaching her to use her magic to dip down into the thoughts of the people around her, to push deeper and read the minds of anyone in a room, using the coin as a focus. She’d never even considered turning the spell back on him, and the realization made her burn. Even at her most cautious, even knowing better, she still didn’t have it in her to distrust him completely. Out loud, she said, “If you know I’m doing it, you can still lie with your thoughts.”

He sighed, running a hand back through his hair and looking up at her from the floor, “Then get up and I’ll leave, and I won’t make any more social calls.”

It didn’t sound like a threat – more like a vow, or maybe a concession. She closed her hand around the coin and looked down at him. He just met her eyes, resigned, and she gave him a small nod, then called up her magic and pushed. There was always resistance when her mind pierced into someone else’s thoughts, like the slow weight of a dull blade breaching flesh. With Rowan, though, there was almost none, his mind so familiar from years of telepathic communication that it was like sliding into warm bathwater, easy and inviting. On the surface, there was a shimmer of hopefulness that was reflected in the way he was looking up at her, a whisper of worry because he’d felt how easy it had been for her, too, and a soft murmuring mantra: beautiful so beautiful gonna kill me don’t care worth it worth her lips so soft so

She pushed deeper, driving past the thoughts at the forefront of his consciousness, and he didn’t even try to resist her, just closed his eyes and sucked in a breath and let her in, and the next level down she found the fluttering anxiousness replaced with…

…dread. Cold, aching, petrifying fear. She tilted her head, not comprehending, and pushed, listening. lose her gonna lose her you fucked up and you’re gonna lose her she’s already gone you’re a coward fucking chicken shit liar so beautiful won’t trust you won’t listen shouldn’t listen chicken shit should have told her so angry just didn’t want her angry now it’s your fault alone gonna be alone she was all that ever mattered and you fucked up fucked her up she’s alone hates you won’t trust you gone gonna lose her so unhappy so scared all your fault if you’d just told her should have told her should have

They both gasped, gulping in air as the spell ended, and Lee dropped the coin.

For a long moment, they just stared at each other. Then Rowan asked, his voice tight and strained, “You still think I’m lying?”

“No,” she said, “now I just think you’re an idiot.”

“Great,” he said. “Thanks.”

“No more lies,” she said.

Rowan gave a small nod.

“And no more secrets.”

“You wanna read my mind again?” he said irritably.

She patted around on the floor until she found the coin, then held it up, “I’m fucking keeping this.”

“If you’re hurting for money-”

She slapped his chest, making him grunt. “I’m going to hang it around my neck, so you remember. If you lie to me, I’ll know.”

“I’m not going to lie to you anymore, Aurelia.”

This time, the way he said it – weary and remorseful – made it feel true.

“Promise me.”

“I promise.”

“Say it again.”

He sighed, “I’m not going to-”

“My name.”

He paused, suddenly looking less brow-beaten and more bewildered, “What?”

“Say my name again.”

The crease in his brow relaxed, his so-blue eyes roaming over her face, and when he said it, his voice was music, “Aurelia.”

She leaned down and kissed him, soft and tentative, just a gentle press of lips, but the lingering melody of her name made his mouth taste sweeter. He put his arms around her, hesitant and cautious, his touch so light it was barely there, like he was afraid spikes might erupt from her skin at any moment, or that his fingertips might find the point of a hidden dagger.

She closed her eyes and rested her forehead against his, murmuring quietly, “I missed you.”

“I’ve missed you, too,” he said, coiling his arms a little more surely around her shoulders.

When he started carding his fingertips gently through her hair, she shifted against him, laying down on top of him and resting her head on his chest, ear pressed to his heart, the top of her head tucked beneath his chin. After a moment, she curled her hands in his shirt and asked quietly, “Will you sing for me?”

“Anything in particular?” he asked quietly, smoothing a hand slowly down along her back. She shook her head. “…something from the book?” She hesitated, then gave a small nod. “Might be a little rusty,” he said, and she could hear the hint of a smile on his lips, “since you stole my notes, and all.” She elbowed him in the gut, but it was halfhearted, his little oof too exaggerated to be genuine.

He drew in a breath, but before he could start singing, Lee said, “If you cast a sleeping spell on me – any spell on me – I’ll hunt you down and flush you out myself.”

Rowan let out a low, rumbling chuckle, “At least you can be sure I’m not charming you, since you keep hitting me.” She elbowed him again, gently, and he reached up and pressed a hand to her ear, holding her head against his chest. Instead of singing, he started to hum, a low, soothing vibration in his chest punctuated by the steady beating of his heart. Then his voice started whispering through her mind, harmonizing with the melody, singing an old, old lullaby, from before his music had gained the touch of magic, when it really was still just the two of them.

And there was nothing mystical about the drowsiness that settled over her, just the slow, familiar pull of his voice and the comforting warmth of his body.
~
When she woke, it was dark again, and they were curled together uncomfortably on the hard floor, which wasn’t quite wide or long enough for them to lie side by side. Rowan was curled up against her and snoring softly, face pressed into her side and arms wrapped around her thighs. She ran her fingers through his hair, brushing it away from his face and gazing idly up at the underside of the stairs. There was a faint light coming through the small cracks in the wood, and for a moment she thought they must have slept through the night. Then the light grew brighter, and she realized it was… blue?

A little luminous puff popped into existence in the air above her head. A wisp. She found herself marveling at it. There was no way to know for sure if it was Ari’s – they all looked more or less the same – but for it to be here, now… She reached up and held her finger out to it, whispered softly into its consciousness is she okay?

She got back impressions. Friendship. Contentment. Understanding.

Lee found herself blinking back tears. I’m so sorry.

Friendship. Acceptance. Joy.

Where is she?

A pause. Busy. Important. Another pause. Lonely.

Lee chewed her lip. Will she hear me if I go to the temple?

Friendship. Excitement. Friendship.

The wisp bounced and turned like it was being called. Before it could leave, Lee said out loud, “Tell her I miss her.” And then, poof, it was gone. A blue light beyond the stairs, then nothing.

“Tell her what?” Rowan mumbled sleepily.

“Nothing,” she said quietly. “Go back to sleep.”
~
The next time they woke, it was well past dawn, and they both cast invisibility on themselves before pushing up the loose stair. Rowan climbed out first, and when Lee heard him heft himself up onto the next higher step, she reached up out of habit. Even without being able to see each other, their hands connected easily, and Rowan gripped Lee’s forearm and lifted her easily up and out of the small hidey hole. They set the step back carefully and made their way quietly up to the roof. Lee retrieved her dress from the barrel and donned it, then whispered to where she could feel Rowan looming at her back, Want to follow me out?

I should find my own exit. Wouldn’t want to cause a scandal if you’re caught sneaking me out first thing in the morning.

Lee stifled a laugh. I doubt anyone would be surprised. It took some doing to get the price taken off your head.

Still. The new councilwoman shouldn’t be starting her first term with a kept man.

Is that what you are now?

That depends. She could hear the grin in his voice, even if she couldn’t see it. Are you planning on keeping me?

She turned around and hit him in the ribs with the side of her hand, a perfectly-aimed chop that was rewarded with a little wheezing huff of air.

How do you DO that? You can’t even see me!

You think too loud. Rowan breathed out a wry laugh, and Lee took a step forward and pressed her hand to his chest, leaning lightly into him. You know, Lucian Archibald is already making noises about a political marriage, and Jean Sadanas has been encouraging me to meet his youngest son.

Generally council seats are passed on to family members. Rowan’s voice was flat and neutral, even in her head. You’re an imbalance in the system. I’m sure there are plenty of people anxious to use you to boost their status or solidify their power base.

If you could convince people that you’re respectable enough to court me, I wouldn’t have to worry about it. When Rowan didn’t immediately respond, Lee tapped him gently on the chest with the flat of her hand. I’m hosting a fundraiser next week to raise money to help rebuild the lower ward. Might be a good place for a person to start fixing their public image.

When he still didn’t say anything, she gave him another gentle pat, then turned to start heading down the stairs. Before she got far, Rowan reached out and grabbed her wrist (he missed, barely catching her by the fingertips) to stop her. Are you asking me to marry you?

I’m telling you I’m not sure how long I’m going to be able to stay unwed, and wondering how you feel about that. She slid her hand into his, hooking their fingers together. It would be easier, and maybe more beneficial to the cause for me to marry someone else, but I’d much rather have you at my side than a snake in my bed. You’re better at this than I am, and I wouldn’t have to sleep with one eye open. When that failed to elicit a response, she added, Besides, we already have the matching rings.

They’re just scrap metal.

No, they’re not. She said it as firmly and resolutely as she could, punctuating it by squeezing Rowan’s hand. They’re a promise we made to each other.

To protect the city.

To protect each other. When he didn’t respond, she lifted his hand to her lips and pressed a kiss to his knuckles. Just think about it. She let his hand slip out of hers, then headed silently back down the deserted staircase, navigating around the servants moving through the halls, then back into the room where she was supposed to have spent the night. She closed the door behind her and leaned against it, dropping her veil and letting out a sigh.
~
That afternoon, when she’d finished her morning paperwork, she took a trip to the temple of Ishkar. Many of the regular patrons of the temple had abandoned it when their god had fallen silent, so the vast building was mostly empty when Lee arrived and knelt down in front of one of the altars, silently lighting one of the candles and bowing her head. “If I’m wrong about this,” she whispered, “I’m going to be really embarrassed. But Ari-” She stopped, cleared her throat, “Ariana Stormborn, it’s your humble servant, Aurelia Leigh.”
~
On the way home, she stopped by a jeweler’s shop. It was simple enough to enchant the plain copper coin to look old and valuable, though the tale she told about its history and significance meant it wound up mounted in a delicate filigree rather than simply punctured and attached to a chain. As soon as the necklace was finished, she put it on; the decorated one cent piece sat perfectly in the hollow of her throat.
~
That evening, there was mail waiting for her in her office – a pile of RSVPs for the fundraiser for the lower ward. At the top of the stack was one signed flamboyantly in gilded ink: Rowan Strider.

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