Zaeraiah had dinner that night alone with her father, Lord Jondell. Her mother felt too poorly to join them, as she did most nights now. And, as with most nights, Lord Jondell spent much of the dinnertime discussing the matters of the castle and the adjoining lands with his chief steward, Willem, Korbin’s father.
Zaeraiah ate quietly, lost in her own thoughts. Once, as a young girl, a sudden storm had prevented her and Korbin from coming home from the forest, and they sought shelter in Korbin’s own home. Zaeraiah remembered the bread, soup and laughter that everyone shared—from Korbin’s warm and affectionate mother, Berthe, to his six brothers and sisters. The youngest, little Iola, had only been two at that time.
Willem had the dark red hair and board shoulders that his sons, Korbin and his brothers, had inherited, and even now, no longer in his first youth, he still looked strong and hearty.
He had been Jondell’s companion when they were boys, much like Korbin and Zaeraiah. According to the custom of the realm, Korbin’s children would one day be companions to Zaeraiah’s. And this pattern would be repeated by their children’s children, and so forth. Zaeraiah winced at the thought. She would far prefer to bear Korbin’s children.
Willem, sharp-eyed and solicitous as always, noticed her wince.
“Are you ill, my Lady?” he asked her.
“Not at all, Meister Willem,” she replied. “An unwelcome thought just crossed my mind.”
Lord Jondell turned to her. “No ill thoughts need to bother your head, young lady. Besides, I have a good one that will chase the bad ones away?”
“What is it, Father?”
“As your nineteenth Name Day comes along in less than a fortnight, so will a surprise guest. Your betrothed, Lord Jarrad of Keat will arrive tomorrow, and we have set your wedding for your Name Day as well.”
“Ohhhh….” Zaeraiah breathed out. “So soon?”
Lord Jondell mistook her breathlessness for excitement. “Yes, indeed. Better that it’s soon. And so you will be married by the end of summer.”
Better for whom and what? Zaeraiah wondered.
“But my lady mother is still ill…” she stammered.
A shadow crossed Lord Jondell’s face. “Leave us,” he told Willem and the other table servants abruptly.
“My child,” he told Zaeraiah when they were alone. “Your mother is not getting any better. Dame Hulde told me today that nothing else can be done.”
“The Crone came to me at the keep after she visited your mother. She advised that we set your wedding day while your mother can still arise for a few hours every day. Soon, she may not be able to do so.”
“Father, I cannot leave you and Mother like this. If we have to bury her first…”
Lord Jondell raised his voice, “Do not speak of such things!”
Zaeraiah dropped her eyes instantly. “I’m sorry, Father. I do not want you to lose us both so quickly.”
“It’s the way things are, child. Parents must say goodbye to their children, and children go off on their own. You must give me a grandchild, Zaeraiah. No, you must have two! One for Bast and one for Keat.”
He tried to smile at his daughter, who was obviously distressed. “It’s the way things are,” he repeated gently. He reached across the table and gave her hand a quick squeeze, the only show of affection he gave her these days.
“Now you must get ready for bed, daughter. As I said, young Lord Jarrad comes tomorrow, that should bring you some joy.”
“I have not yet to meet him. I do not know what he is like.”
“I, on the other hand, have seen him several times. You will like him, Zaeraiah. He’s brave and brawny, as a young lord should be. And whatever you need to prepare for the wedding, Dame Oshetta and Dame Biani will assist you with what your mother cannot.”
Lord Jondell rang the bell at his side, a sign for Willem and the other servants to return, and for Zaeraiah to be dismissed.
* * *
Zaeraiah had prepared for bed as usual, and had slipped under the covers of her bed. Even at almost nineteen, her old nurse, Dame Cilva, still came to blow out her candle and wish her a good night.
But after Dame Cilva left, Zaeraiah lay in bed and thought of Korbin, picturing his face in her mind, whispering his name softly. She then pictured the small landing on top of one of the towers at the east wing of the castle, one of the secret hiding places where they had played as children.
After a few minutes she arose and put on her robe, and quietly made her way in the dark, until she made it to the landing.
She waited quietly on a stone step, with only the moonlight as company.
Not long after, she heard footsteps, and turning, saw Korbin.
“You came,” she breathed out.
“You…called…me, somehow?” He sat beside her, and took her hand, and she saw that his face was full of wonder.
“I did. In my mind, I called you to come here.”
“You used your Gift to call me?”
“Yes. I have never done that with anyone before. I didn’t even know I could. But I needed to see you tonight.”
He looked alarmed. “Is everything all right, Raiah?”
She shook her head. “Mother is dying. Unless we get some dragonsblood bloom somehow.”
“Oh Raiah.” Korbin put his arms around her.
“And Jarrad comes tomorrow. We are to be wed on my Name Day. Korbin! I cannot bear this! My heart has never known so much sorrow.”
“I am so sorry about your mother, Raiah. Lady Sonaly has always been good to me.”
“She is good! She is the best person I know. Korbin…”
“I sat here thinking that in two weeks I lose everything! I lose my mother and my father, my home…and…and you! In two weeks everything will change and I will have nothing.”
She was sobbing now, and he tightened his arms around her.
Spent, she pulled away and looked up at him, his face partly hidden in the moonlight.
“How can you be so calm, Korbin? Do I mean so little to you?”
He laughed, a soft sound full of bitterness. “You mean everything to me, Raiah.”
He took her face in his hands so he could look into her eyes. “Everything. But I always knew the day would come when I would have to say goodbye to you. We already had one more year together than we should have, something I thanked the heavens for every night. But I had no illusion that we could stay together forever.”
He kissed her on her forehead, and when she raised her face to him, he kissed her lips, once, then again.
“Raiah. My love, my light. I tried not to fall in love with you for such a long time. But I always knew, from the time I was fourteen, maybe even earlier, that I loved you. And I will always love you. But I am not a Gifted One, and therefore I always also knew one day I would have to say goodbye. And yet in spite of knowing that, my heart is broken, too. But I would not have traded the last year we had together for all the Gifts and riches in this world.”
He was weeping now, and she put her fingers to his face brush away his tears.
They heard the sound of a horn blowing from somewhere on the ground.
“The warning for the fourth watch,” she murmured. Soon all the doors of the castle would be locked.
“We must go.” Korbin stood up, and pulled Zaeraiah to her feet.
“Is this goodbye, Korbin?” She wailed. “This cannot be goodbye!”
He shook her head. “I cannot—will not say goodbye, but we have to go.” He gave her a gentle push toward the stairs, “Go on, Raiah, and I will wait awhile and then go as well. If I get caught…”
“You needn’t say more,” she said, catching what he meant, recognizing yet again the fear that he had to live with, the risks he took to be with her. She stood on tiptoe and kissed him quickly one more time, before disappearing into the night.