Nine weeks ago
Her mission kept Teresa from investigating her father’s ideas about Casidhe, but the notion never seemed far from her mind. Indeed, the duelist’s alleged affection for her lurked in every thought she had about him, and that made it harder to concentrate on her assignment. Fortunately, it was nothing serious – a con artist who’d riled one mark too many, posing as a magician to discourage pursuit – easily tracked down, arrested, and left to the Bann for his punishment.
After five days on the road, she returned to Lothering, made her report, and went past her house without stopping. She arrived at the gymnasium near sunset, the eastern sky swelling with summer rain clouds. She saw Casidhe in the field, teaching an older man how to feint, and she stopped to watch.
The student lunged too far. Teresa felt proud to realize it so quickly; Casidhe asked him to hold that pose. He moved behind the student, placing his hands on his shoulders to guide him into the proper position. Teresa felt a sudden urge to have Casidhe all to herself, to have his hands on her body…
She snapped from that fantasy when Casidhe called her name. He took his payment from the student and walked over, the smile on his face different from the one she was used to seeing. Or was she seeing it from a new perspective, now?
“Teresa,” Casidhe said again. “How’re you feeling? All right?”
“Fine,” she replied. “I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Well, after you missed three lessons I started to worry. Your father told me you’d left Lothering on business, and I know how dangerous travel can be.”
“I appreciate your concern, but I’m all right. In fact, your training came in handy.” The charlatan’s bodyguard never stood a chance, really. Teresa hoped to leave it at that; Casidhe wouldn’t understand or approve of the things she did…
“Glad to hear it.” Looking over his shoulder at the setting sun, Casidhe said “We’re about out of daylight, but I could give you a quick lesson if you’re game.”
“No,” she said, “I just got back to town, and I’m tired.” Casidhe’s elation seemed to give her a second wind, but she wasn’t up to sparring.
“Just as well; so’m I.” Casidhe snapped his sword back into its scabbard. “So where are you off to now? Going home?”
“No! No, I’m not that tired. You know, I am quite thirsty, though. I’d like a beer. I’d like to get a beer. With you.”
“I know a place,” Casidhe said.
As he led her around the block, the clouds burst into a sudden storm, and they started to run. Casidhe was laughing by the time he reached the Blue Bottle’s door, but he managed to get it open in time for Teresa to dash inside. The barman greeted Casidhe warmly, and in mere moments Teresa held a stein full of very good beer.
“I’ve never been in here,” she said. The raucous crowd forced her to raise her voice, but at least she wasn’t shouting. “I’ve passed it by a hundred times.”
“Bakrum’s great,” Caisdhe replied, pointing at the barman. “He takes good care of the place. I work here nights, keeping the peace in exchange for room and board. Are you hungry?”
He’s a bouncer? Teresa thought. In this place? Not that it was a bad place; Casidhe just seemed better than this.
Teresa didn’t hear Casidhe’s question, so he asked again. She shook her head, and Casidhe raised his tankard. “Here’s to you,” he said, clanking his drink against hers.
She lost track of time as they talked and drank. Casidhe was witty and charming company, but he seemed very careful not to flirt with her. Father must be mad, Teresa thought. Either that, or Casidhe’s never tried to bed a woman before. She was having a good time, though, so she didn’t press the issue.
As the night wound down, the inn’s common room started to thin out. As much as Casidhe liked to talk, he was much better at listening. Teresa found herself saying things she never expected to tell him – to tell anyone – and he seemed to know exactly what to say, what to ask. But when Teresa tried to ask the same questions of Casidhe, his answers carried no substance, no truth. She still had no idea who in the Fade this man was – or what his interest in her was.
“So tell me,” she finally said. “why are you here?”
“I work here.”
“I mean in Lothering. Teaching dueling and bouncing.”
“I’m not fond of starvation,” he replied, a hint of steel in his voice, “and I never learned to farm.”
“You know what I mean. A man like you could find a better job anywhere. But you hang around teaching me – teaching people like me.”
“You’ve learned a great deal in the last three weeks, haven’t you? And how can reach your full potential without my help? I’m responsible for you, now, just as I’m responsible for all my students.”
“But that’s just it. My full potential is nothing like yours. How can you ever be what you’re… what you’re meant to be, doing what you’re doing?”
He spent a few long seconds draining his tankard. When he was done, he said, “I spent my entire childhood trying to be what I’m meant to be, and as many years trying to deny it.” He was drunk, or close to it, but his voice rang more soberly than she’d ever heard it before. “Right now, I just want to be happy. And I want to help people. And I am.”
“That’s something,” Teresa sighed. She felt like she was a few inches outside of her own body. Was she drunk too? “It’s just… if I had your talent, I’d want to do something with it. It seems like a waste.”
Casidhe already had another drink in hand, and Teresa wondered if he’d heard what she said. ‘I don’t want a different job, Teresa. I don’t want to be anywhere else… doesn’t matter where I go, I’ll never have another student as pretty as you.”
There it was. Teresa couldn’t hide her reaction, and she knew that Casidhe already regretted saying it. Still, she couldn’t just let it go. “You think I’m pretty?” she asked, trying to sound sweet.
“I’m sorry,” he said at once, “if I’ve made you uncomfortable. You aren’t that sort of woman, and I shouldn’t think of you that way.”
“What way? What sort of woman, exactly?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, waving his free hand in her direction. “You shouldn’t care what someone like me thinks. I understand if you don’t think much of me… or if your father doesn’t approve…”
“Casidhe, do you think I’m pretty?”
He seemed unable to answer, and the look in his eyes belonged on a rabbit about to bolt. Before he could flee – before Teresa knew what she was doing – she leaned forward and kissed his lips.
The sensation was disappointing; Casidhe didn’t protest, but he didn’t participate, either. How dare you not react? she wondered. That’s a good kiss, Casidhe! Wake up, Fade take you!
He gently pulled away from her, looked her right in the eyes, and said “Yes” before kissing her again. There was the sensation she’d expected – but more intense than she’d imagined, like she’d skipped surrender and simply fallen into him. She felt his hand on the back of her neck, felt cracks spread through the dams that held back her passions. Then she almost fell off her barstool, but Casidhe caught her, asking if she was all right.
“Fine,” she said. “Just tired.” And drunk, she thought. “I should lie down.”
“My bed is just upstairs,” he said, an unspoken promise in his cool, green eyes.
“Then take me to bed, Casidhe.” I may be drunk, but I still know what I want.
She suddenly found herself in his arms,whisked up the stairs and into a small, dark room. He laid her on a bed before turning to close the door, and waiting for his return seemed an eternity to her. But at last, he came to her side and helped her out of her clothes. She reached to undress him, but he was already naked. Teresa had time to wonder How in the Fade did he do that? before his hands found her skin and all connection with rational thought was severed.
- – - – -
Casidhe looked down at Teresa, sleeping peacefully in his arms.
Maker, he thought, I haven’t prayed to you since Father died. Truth is, I haven’t had much to say. But this is the first time in all my life I’ve ever felt your presence, so I wanted to talk about it. So here goes.
I know this is your doing, because I never could have found someone this wonderful on my own. He stroked her lovely hair; she moaned softly and pressed her cheek against his naked chest. And there’s no chance that she’d fall for someone like me unless you willed it so. Question is, why?
Did you decide I’ve been alone long enough? Did you want me to find someone who believes in you, to show me how to forgive you? Or are you planning to take her away from me and see what I do then?
Now you and I, we’ve had our differences, but you can’t deny that I’ve never asked you for anything. So you know what it means for me to come to you like this. I’ll do anything you say, but I ask you – I beg of you…
Don’t let her wake up tomorrow and decide this was a mistake.