The most dangerous thing of all is the thing that comes to you in the form of exactly what you'd been hoping for.
There are endless stories about traveling parties like ours- groups of friends and acquaintances who meet along the way and find themselves wrapped up in circumstances larger- so much larger- than they are, or ever meant to be. I imagine you’ve heard a good number of them.
What no one ever tells about is what comes after all that road dust is washed off. “Happily ever after...” is always left at that.
What makes you think heroes stop being interesting just because they’re taking a break from dulling their blades on evildoers? Ah, well, you should probably be forgiven for thinking that- most Tellers favor the deeds rather than the doers. Myself, I’ve always felt that the right characters make a story- and our lives don’t stop when the pen does.
I remember the day it was all over, when we four stumbled back into town exhausted and covered in endless layers of road dust. Our leathers needed oiling, our weapons were so dull it would have been a miracle if we’d been able to make an unarmored highwayman bleed- (amazing what habits fall away when the danger you’re in by contrast seems no real danger at all.)
There was cheering, though I couldn’t tell you what the crowd shouted. I remember it as a bright, noisy blur compromised by very sore feet. I think most of them had never thought to see us again.
Truthfully, none of us had really thought to return, either- not by the end.
Melly and Corwyn smiled at each other amidst it all, and the look they traded could have stopped the whole world in its tracks.
It certainly made my breath catch.
I took a private room at the nearest inn (on the house on account of heroism- though they made me promise to tell the tale before last bells.) I studied the new scars on my hands as I washed off the dust, and firmly buried what had hit me like a destrier hoof to the face in that moment at the city gates.
I needed a larger flask that night, too.
Blinking myself back to the present, I stop looking at everything but Melly. She’s draped awkwardly across the chaise, her usual easy grace lacking. Her fingers are absently knotting a pattern into the fringe of a thick wool throw I left there last night.
“... you think he’s still angry?” Her voice is small and still. She's not even looking at what her fingers are doing- a complex knot that's rapidly becoming a weave- instead, her wide blue eyes stare unfocused at the flames. On her, it fits all wrong.
“Probably,” I grunt. “You know Corwyn though. Nurses grudges for longer than reasonable just for entertainment value.” I try to pretend I don't hear the bitter edge to my words and take another pull from the flask from my vest pocket. I let the liquor roll on my tongue a moment, and wish I had something to say that would make her feel better.
Something goes out of me as I watch her shoulders slump forward and her head bow. She doesn't cry. But even so... that Melisandre- this woman, of all people-
- I forget that you don't know her.
She saved a lot of people, but that really isn't it. It isn't what defined her, in the end- or in the beginning. Perhaps you would have had to make that journey with all of us to understand, but the Melisandre sitting in front of me is a poor copy. I feel my fingers clench around the worked metal of my flask, and take another drink.
Before I can change my mind, I step forward and put a hand on her shoulder. I half expect her to pull away, but instead she leans into it like a cat. Melly looks back up over her shoulder at me, her hands still for a moment.
"You can't hide here forever," I try to say it gently, but my voice is rougher than I want it to be.
After a long moment, she stands- putting the chaise between us- and turns towards the fireplace. "He's not really angry, you know." She stretches out her palms towards the warmth. "It's as you say, he enjoys a good pout." A small smile crosses her face, but it's like a high cloud caught in a stiff breeze.
I know, at this point, that I am supposed to agree, supposed to say some meaningless soothing platitudes... as if it would help. I have done this a hundred times. Even on the road, when it was obvious where the furtive glances and late night conversations over watch were heading, the two of them could never figure out how to speak plainly to one another. I find myself smiling in spite of it all.
"Go." I put the flask back in its pocket. "Talk to him, Melly. And don't let him run off on some damn fool hunt or some other excuse."
She's silent for a long moment, hands still stretched out to the warmth. "I know..." she finally whispers. Her voice trembles on that for a moment before she shakes her head like a horse with a new bridle.
I suck in a breath in surprise. A small figure is flickering behind the flames, bright and thin and quick. It twirls out onto the hearth, stretching tiny, sparking arms towards Melly's outstretched fingers, before turning its focus on me and striking an entreating pose.
"Could you talk to him for me?" she says, her features filling in the expression the little faeling would wear if it had that much detail.
Exasperation- and yes, affection- fills me. It has been a long time since I have seen her speak with the fae. I let out the breath I've been holding in a rush as the living flame dances closer to the hearth's edge. I try to stop myself from reaching out.
She laughs, and for a moment it's that wild giggle I remember from so many exhilarating moments, a smile curving her lips. Then she shakes her head at me.
"Vance," she chides, "you worry too much." The faeling vanishes with a puff of smoke and embers, and a wave of her hand.
I feel my jaw set, and force myself to relax. Melisandre forgets that what she does isn't as natural as breathing.
She sobers and studies my face for a long moment, her dark brown curls made temporarily russet in the firelight. "And I've overstayed my welcome."
Guilt tightens my chest, and I can feel my face flush. "No. No." I sigh and rub my hands over my face. "It's not that. I just..." I hesitate, not sure I really want to get into this conversation at such a late hour and with so much drink in me. "We always do this," I say as gently as possible. "You and Corwyn always do this."
Just like that, the misery rushes back into her features. This time, I feel the guilt settling in my stomach. "I'm sorry," she says softly. "I shouldn't have-" she trails off. Then she's turning for the door, grabbing her cloak.
"No." I say it too loudly and she freezes. "No," I repeat more softly. "I'll talk to him."
She smiles at me from the closing door, and something in me eases.
I don't look too closely at that feeling. The room seems dimmer now she's gone, but that suits me. I flip open the shutter and watch her leave, making sure she turns the corner to the lane that leads to the more respectable part of this district without incident. (Laughable, since Melly is more use in a fight than just about anyone I know. Old habits die hard.)
I turn back to my rooms, and realize how different it all is. Melly and Corwyn living in a manor on the square. Ari, a Rigger, with his own shop! Me, living here. I gave up a lot to leave town with Corwyn after the promise of fortune, and something better than fortune - a story. (A story about a slip of a girl, though I didn't know that at the time.) Fae know I had no need of coin at the time, coming from my family.
Ah, and that slip of a girl.
Where do I start with Melly? Melisandre. Plain, until she speaks. Inwardly unconfident, until she realized she had the power of an entire world at her fingertips. Unassuming, unless you know first hand how dangerous she really is.
Oh, make no mistake. We four know better than anyone save the evil we went up against just how dangerous she can be. If the city knew, they might not have cheered so loudly when she walked through the gates.
Lucky then, for them, that power is contained by the most intelligent woman I have ever met.
Intelligence, unfortunately, isn't the same as knowing. Melly can describe every detail of a master painting, but completely miss the feeling the artist means to convey. She doesn't see people, not like I or other Tellers do- or even as well as most people walking down the street. Melly's too busy seeing something else- the fae in everything.
She'd walk right into an ambush because she was too busy noticing a thunderstorm on the horizon.
She didn't start out that way. She started out as a precocious girl of fifteen who didn't know when to keep her mouth shut. She was focused, sharp- almost uncannily so- and in some ways that hasn't changed. Her focus has just shifted. The memory of the day I met her still makes me smile. In over her head, but then, she always was- it seems to be her natural state. Unlike most of us, she's comfortable there.
Until, of course, she's got to navigate about matters of the heart- and then she's begging for a rope. Or my timely intervention.
The story has been worth it. I have standing as a Teller now, and at Court if I wish it. Funds are no trouble either- but I found after living with nothing but a cloak between me and the sky for so long, anything more elaborate than some nice rooms above some quiet shop rub me the wrong way.
And in truth, on a night like tonight, I am restless even here.