Daine’s Engagement, or the Etiquette of Stealing Kisses
by Jessica (la_belle_dame)
It was five months after the end of the Great War and Numair felt like he’d been writing letters non-stop ever since. Between referencing his extensive library of reparatory magic texts and contacting every professional mage in the known world to aid in the Royal Reconstruction Effort, as Kin Jonathon called it, Numair had sent the poor chambermaid out for fresh paper so often, he wondered that there was any parchment left in the palace.
The war had left significant portions of the countryside drained of energy. Without the natural magic coursing through the soil, the summer crops weren’t coming in and the king feared a potential famine come fall. In the wake of the last battle, everyone found themselves pulling twice their weight. Alanna was overseeing the construction of a refugee camp outside the city walls. George was scrounging all the supplies he could, which was helping a great deal given his…particular circle of friends. The Queen’s Riders had become temporary peacekeepers of the Realm. And Daine…
Numair paused in his writing. Daine. His marvelous little Daine was working her own brand of magic. She used her Gift to orchestrate an animal-based rescue service. Her horses pulled wagons full of survivors and homeless villagers to Alanna’s camp. Her birds scouted isolated hillsides for stranded people in need of supplies. Last week, she got a child out of a crumbling, abandoned barn by coaxing her out with a mess of kittens. Daine was a miracle. She was a revelation. And she was swiftly becoming a serious distraction.
Numair leaned back in his chair and stretched his long legs out in front of him. It sill shook him to think about it. She was a girl, a little slip of a girl half his age. Young. Naïve. Inexperienced. And in love with him. Numair knew he didn’t deserve her, but gods forgive him, he gave thanks everyday for her terrible taste in men.
As he let his thoughts wander away from his half-finished letter to pleasanter thoughts of Daine, he nearly missed the gentle knock on his door. He thumped his chair back into place and began scribbling. “Come,” he boomed in his best all-powerful mage voice. A wispy page struggled to swing the heavy oak door open and shut again. He carried an immaculately rolled scroll, which he deposited in Numair’s outstretched palm.
Numair scanned the formal greeting and the court language, hoping to gleam whatever he needed before discarding the thing and ignoring whatever polite request was included. What he founded, however, was something completely different. “The Emperor’s sending troops?”
“And supplies,” offered the page. He looked just about breathless with the news. “I heard from my sister, who works in the kitchen, that the King didn’t even ask for help. The Emperor’s sending it as a ‘good will’ gesture and his nephew’s coming up in two weeks to meet with Daine.”
“Daine?” Numair cleared his throat and continued writing. “Why Daine?”
The page edged closer and leaned in conspiratorially. “Well, if I may, sir, just think about it. They’re the same age, Daine’s a hero of the Realm. It’d be a powerful alliance. The King’s no fool and neither is the Emperor.” Numair didn’t want to risk speaking, so he dismissed the boy with an imperious wave. The page bowed and hauled the door closed behind him.
Numair tried to clear all thought of Daine married to some pompous, sun-burnt whelp of a boy and spilled ink all over his desk. He jumped up and cursed. He grabbed a towel and tossed it onto the spreading black pool. He raked a hand through his already mussed hair. It was as if the boy had said anything untrue. An alliance between two major powers would be a valuable thing, especially an alliance of marriage. Uniting a royal bloodline and a war hero could ensure peaceful relations for several generations to come. If it wasn’t Daine, Numair would have advised the marriage himself.
But it was Daine.
The worst part was the dawning realization of its inevitability. If not the Emperor’s nephew, then another appropriate nobleman. If not now, then soon. His stomach sank. He was so foolish, to think she could ever be his. The only thing that could prevent her engagement was –
In one swift motion, Numair scooped up the inky cloth off his desk and dropped it in the wastebasket. With a happy flourish, he pulled a fresh sheet of parchment out of a drawer and began to write again.
My dear friend Professor Reed,
I formally request your presence at the Royal Palace as a co-consultant in the Reconstruction Effort. Your expertise would be invaluable to the project. In addition, I humbly ask you to consider acting as an official chaperone during a full ceremonial courtship and engagement. I await your reply.
P.S. It’s my engagement, Lindhall. Write soon.
* * *
“An engagement?” Daine said, contempt dripping from her voice. “Why would I want to read an entire book about engagement protocol? Sounds dry as dust.”
Numair winced. “It is, but it could be useful. You know, for the future.” He sounded like a schoolboy and felt twice as foolish. Daine rolled her eyes at him and returned to her copying exercises. Numair thought it was pure vanity for Daine to adopt Court script, but she was determined to do it. At least he was outside. The weather was warm and fine, and Daine had found a private corner of the practice yard to do her “book work,” as she called it. Numair raised his face to the sweet sunlight. Out of the cool breeze, it really was quite pleasant. Spring, season of renewal, rebirth, young love. And all that entails.
Numair stopped that dangerous train of thought and placed the ancient tome on Daine’s knees. “Eventually you’ll have to know these rituals, Daine, and they can be quite different from country traditions.”
Daine blinked at him. “Why would I need to know this?” There was not a single drop of guile in her voice, but Numair had been tricked by those big innocent eyes before. He cleared his throat to buy time. Daine folded her hands primly in her lap and waited as Numair examined the tops of his shoes.
“You may find,” he said carefully, “that as a veritable celebrity, marriage proposals are quite likely to be a part of your future.”
Daine smiled like a cat, sweet and sly. Before Numair could object, she looped her arms around his neck. Numair mentally ordered his heartbeat to remain steady. “Daine, there’s something I should tell you.”
“Mmm,” Daine hummed, “could you tell me without talking?” Numair gulped and tried rather unsuccessfully to pry Daine’s hands off him. For a small girl, she had managed to twine herself around him like some kind of climbing vine and Numair was fast forgetting why that was a bad thing.
“Daine,” he said again, but her name came out sounding breathy and Daine hummed again into the crook of Numair’s neck. That did it. Numair no longer cared about protocol. A loud throat-clearing rasp from the courtyard entrance stilled his racing thoughts. Numair turned in horror to find Professor Lindhall Reed in full Court dress accompanied by a horde of official-looking pages and scribes. “Numair,” Daine whispered, a tendril of annoyance creeping into her tone. “What are these people doing here?”
“Umm,” Numair began only to be cut off by Lindhall.
“Felicitations, Numair, on your forthcoming nuptials to Mistress Daine. Naturally, given that you’ve requested a ceremonial engagement, there can be no physical contact until after the wedding. Starting now.”
Daine stiffened in Numair’s arms. He had a feeling she was not going to take this well.
“Explain to me again why, without my knowledge, you contracted me into some kind of regulated courtship type thing?”
“When you say it like that—”
“Rule One-” Daine interrupted, hefting Numair’s tome on marriage practices. “The two parties shall remain at least two arms lengths apart at all times.”
“Rule Two-” she continued, fury building in her voice as she paced through the newly vacant practice yard. “The parties shall be monitored at all times by an appropriate chaperone.” Here she gestured violently to the single remaining person in the yard besides the two of them, Professor Reed in full liveried glory. At the moment, Lindhall was tactfully examining his nails.
Numair reached out an open palm toward his irate fiancée and made soft, soothing noises. A little like gentling a horse in his mind. “You don’t understand, darling.”
Daine went an interesting shade of purple. “Understand? Oh, I understand all right. I understand you didn’t trust me enough to ask me. Didn’t consider my feelings on the matter.” In a blur of movement, she smacked Numair soundly around the shoulders while Lindhall looked on mildly.
Numair glared at his mentor. “Shouldn’t you be stopping this?” Lindhall shrugged elegantly and continued cleaning his nails.
Daine snarled, “Worried about your precious proximity rules?”
At that Lindhall finally spoke up. “Any serious breach of protocol will result in the termination of the courtship. Understand that it will be…very unlikely…for the lady in question to enter another courtship again so easily.”
“See?” Numair preened. “This way you’re safe from the Emperor’s wretched nephew!”
“What?!” Daine exclaimed. Numair decided to fill Daine in later. This much at least had worked in Numair’s favor.
“Argh!” Daine cried. “And to think I was going to ask to live with you…”
Numair perked up. “Really? Well then, it’s a good thing we’re getting married.”
Daine smiled sweetly and said, “I absolutely, categorically, and utterly refuse to marry you, Numair.”
He swayed in place as his world crashed down around him. He nodded and tried to find some words to keep up the appearance of a man whose hasn’t been torn out and tossed away. Unable to locate any, Numair pulled his cloak around himself and made for the nearest exit.
The sound of Daine’s voice stopped him. “Excuse me, Professor, but just what would constitute a ‘serious breach’ of proximity?”
Lindhall shifted, clearly uncomfortable. “Well, it would…perhaps…umm.”
Numair felt small hands grip his tunic and spin him around. Daine smirked at Lindhall over Numair’s shoulder. “Something like this?”
Then her mouth was pressed up against his and his teeth clicked when they met hers and it was awkward and fumbling and perfect all at once. Numair dimly heard Lindhall mumbling, “Yes, that would do it,” and departing in a rustle of starched fabric.
Numair wound a strand of Daine’s hair around his finger. “You’re a fallen woman now. There’s not a man here who will have you for his wife.”
Daine giggled, low and girlish. “A fallen woman. I suppose that means I can carry on with roguish, older men?”
Numair tugged on her lock of hair. “And who do you think will be willing to carry on with such a woman?”
Daine smiled her cat’s smile again and whispered, “A man I won’t marry for the rest of my life.”
And she didn’t.