Title: In Retreat
Author: player of Lazaryth
He shifted, unbending one leg and stretching it out along the polished oak floor. The pain the action generated was agonizing and lingered half a minute before beginning to ebb. Still, he folded the leg back under him and stretched the other, then bent forward to relieve his back, wincing. It was only his third day in retreat; he planned to do four more.
He guessed it was still hours before noon. A bright shaft of light angled past the drapes and illuminated a spot on the wall, motes dancing through its length though there'd been no motion in the room for hours before he stretched.
He listened. Silence. While he considered the motes of dust, he heard the faint cracking of the floorboards as someone made their way along the upstairs hallway and down into the lounge. People were waking, getting breakfast. No one disturbed him in the meditation room, where he'd sat vigil since Restday night.
He'd fallen asleep some hours before, sitting there on his mat. This time, he'd dreamed in Sylvan: the dream where he needed to attend his sister's wedding but no one would grant him a furlough, and he stood with his hands on the bars and his belly knotted with anxiety, trying to catch someone's attention -
His stomach growled. He needed to eat, but dreaded having to make polite talk with the other house members. Standing slowly, he hobbled to the hallway and down the stairs, slipping through the kitchens to grab a bright Mestanir apple and making his way out through the silver gate. By the time he got to the town square, his joints were beginning to loosen. The day was fresh with recent rain, masking the undertone of rot. He took a look at the morning crowd of healers and hunters. Normally he wasn't awake at this hour; the faces were largely unfamiliar to him.
Out of habit, he began to scan the crowd. His eyes automatically sought cues to mood - posture, expression, gestures - as well as general openness and, most importantly, whether someone was also observing him. In a moment he'd identified three women who were promising: a barely-grown redhead restocking herbs, a trim warrior maid who eyed him sidelong, and a perfectly coiffured noblewoman in a gold-edged gown worth half a million silvers.
Taking a quick glance to ensure that his own, equally-costly outfit wasn't rumpled, he wandered toward the noble, coming to stand beside her and affect an interest in the square. Always the fairest first.
"Your hair comb's askew," he said casually. "It's gone off to the side." Tear down the haughty, build up the meek.
Though her glance to him was irked, she quickly reached a hand up to her hair, feeling. She adjusted the comb and started to turn away from him.
"That's a Vischery gown," he said to her, indicating her dress with a motion of his head. "Taking a bit of a risk wearing it here, aren't we?" He let his lips part in a slow grin, unveiling teeth he well knew to be even and white and perfect.
He could see her bristle. "And what if I do? Should anything happen, I can buy another."
"Mhm," he said, teasingly. He tried to hand her his half-eaten apple, seeing if she'd take it by reflex, but she didn't. Shrugging, he walked away. Never overstay your welcome. He'd see her again someday, and would know by her very first, untamed reaction whether he'd more rankled or intrigued her.
He strode past the warrior, carefully ignoring her, and knelt to join the girl with her bundle of herbs at the bin. "Let me help you with that." He leaned in to grab a handful of desiccated wolifrew and flashed her a warm, genuine smile, then let his eyes drop. She returned his smile automatically then dropped her gaze as well.
"That's a lot of work," he murmured. "Do you do this every day?"
She nodded, the freckles on her furrowed brow so perfect it pained him. "I can't do very much to help the town," she said softly. "But I can do this."
He waited until she looked up again, holding her gaze a beat longer than politeness required, then rested a hand on her shoulder as he rose. "Maybe I'll see you here tomorrow, then." He gave another warm smile. "You're doing a good thing."
To the warrior - now smirking at him - he gave a last appraising look, then departed, seeds planted. He'd done it all in scarcely two minutes without having formed the intention to do so. His half-eaten apple hit the bottom of a barrel.
The meditation room was dim after the outdoor light. With a sinking feeling in his belly, he let himself down onto the mat, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. Anything. Anything.
He turned his lean forearms to let his hands fall palms-up on his thighs, as if the additional gesture of supplication could coax an answer. After ten minutes, fifteen, he found himself drifting to sleep once more. Suddenly he had the sense of tuberose in his nostrils, and started.
There was nothing there. The motes whirled in the light.
He straightened his posture and breathed in deeply. Ivas. I'm here. I'll await your wishes patiently, as long as it takes.
But after another half minute of silence he sank, letting his head down into his hands, and groaned.
There were no answers. What was he doing here? His heart seized in pain as a single fire-bright memory came back to him unbidden, exactly as poignant in distance it as it had been mundane when it occurred.
He reached into his satchel to retrieve an envelope, withdrawing the paper inside. The letters seemed to swim before his eyes. Sighing, he refolded and returned it and instead drew out a flower. It was one of his favorites, the intricacies of its petals so like the many layers of those he'd learned he had a weakness for. He twined it in his hair. Better to look good than do good, especially where sacrifice is required.
They echoed in his head, all the rules he'd made for himself, all of which he'd by now broken - except that one. And by Ivas's grace, he'd never have to break it. The blight plaguing the Landing seemed not to favor adventurers, those whose pockets were deep enough to furnish unspoiled food and potent magic. And his little vulnerabilities were secure: the one gone East, the other strong as adamantine, able to stand up to any threat. Or at least, so far as he knew.
As the day bled into afternoon it was his most recently broken rule that taunted him, refusing to quit his head. Always leave before the bell strikes three. He pondered his mistakes. It still vexed him, this uncertainty about whether his damnable affections stemmed directly from his lapses in procedure, or were a new test gifted by his Mistress - and thus, hypothetically, a thing to be embraced. But if so, the test came with serious travails, and he was no Mularosian.
Either way, he decided, best to hew as closely to procedure as possible from here on out. He settled in, trying to quiet his mind and open completely to Her presence; to let all of his own desires go, even the most compelling.
The floorboards snapped and creaked again faintly in the hall as someone else made their way across the landing. After that it was quiet. When night came he began to drift off, the palliative of sleep eventually overcoming the misery in his knees and back. He dreamed.
There was a bend in a river not far from one of the places he'd lived back home, where a spring of hot water mixed with the cold of the river. A few inches of snow blanketed the black rocks. He was shucking off his clothes and dropping in, then reaching his hand back to someone on the bank, the sense of anticipation so thick and sweet it was palpable -
He woke. It was pitch black. He was knotted with cramp, thirsty, groggy and crabby. He rubbed his eyes but the blackness remained impenetrable. Out in the night, thunder rumbled. Soon they'd be dying out there, without him. For a moment his vigil felt like cowardice, but then he remembered just how much bravery it had taken to speak those three words.
Ivas, he pleaded again. If you show me which direction to go, I'll go. But to surrender my freedom to this unforeseen capacity to love, be torn to pieces by attachments without even knowing whether it pleases you.. or whether it's only a product of my mistakes..
A swift flash of lightning illuminated the stark walls. Then another boom of thunder shook the room and made the windows rattle in their frames. He shifted, wincing when the movement prompted his pain to crest. The thunder kept him awake for several hours, until finally the storm dwindled to a patter of rain against the panes, and again he drifted into a thin sleep.
He had the sensation of running through the cool night, lungs heaving and arms pumping, the old mad joy in his legs as he pounded down a sandy track. Whether he was chasing or being chased was unclear; there were both excitement and fear in each breath. He came to a dark stretch of sand and spun around, looking for an enemy to fight. Nothing. Coming to a halt, he remembered the meditation and quickly knelt on the sand as he had on his mat. But as time passed he struggled to recall why it was so important that he sit and wait and, heavy with exhaustion, he stretched out and closed his eyes.
The sleep that followed was deep. Only hours later, as his eyelids began to flutter, did the dreams return: a light snow in Icemule; the pool in Ivas's temple; a precarious slope near the top of Melgorehn's Reach - all suffused with a viscous sense of loss. One last image claimed him before his consciousness returned to the stark little room: a vivid impression of waking in predawn light, sand in his hair and salt in his eyelashes, alone, to look blearily out on leaden surf as it pummeled an empty shore.
His first thought on stirring was to to tell her, think to her, but stopped himself. Nothing in the world could ever be so uninteresting as another man's dreams.