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In the dusty confines of one corner of the Charovnikov, away from the book-strewn tables and smoking alembics, two handsomely dressed wizards conferred over a note.

“What’s this? So the Briar is coming?” The Falcon sounded truly astonished.

Solya's eyes flicked up, and Sarkan could almost see the wheels stirring to motion behind them. How to use this knowledge to his advantage, how to woo her back into some unlikely semblance of friendship with the hope that so many years might have dulled her memory. As if Agnieszka ever conveniently forgot any slight to her or hers.

“She is indeed.” Doing little to hide his irritation, the Dragon snatched back the small scroll of rough paper from his colleague, and tucked it into his richly-embroidered coat. He’d only offered it at all to give proof to Solya that Agnieszka hadn’t forgotten her king.

It felt odd to hear her other name on the Falcon’s lips, though.

Sarkan wasn’t sure if she’d whispered it to them out of the Wood, or if she’d chosen it and forgot to tell anyone else and it wriggled itself free. One day he’d been writing, using the midnight ink, lightfast and with flecks of crushed pearl, and the name had simply been there. A sense of relief had crossed over him, followed quickly by a renewed frustration. Why couldn’t she do one simple spell the normal way?

With little subtlety, he had been trying to get her to return to the capital for fifty years to claim it in front of the king. She had the Wood to tend and to purify, though, and could be off wandering for days at a time. Longer, when the days were warm and the air sweet with pollen from the uncorrupted heart-trees. Dangerous but necessary work, and he could think of no good reason to distract her from it which didn’t trace back to his own selfishness.

Even undeclared, the other wizards and witches muttered it between each other, or scratched it onto stiff cream-colored parchment with a reference to her thoughts on bits of asperous magic no one else could penetrate. The Briar—shorthand for Agnieszka of the Wood.

“She visited for the royal weddings, and for the Crown Prince’s nameday, I suppose. That was thirty years ago, Sarkan. Are you certain she’s not gone over to Rosya?”

He suspected the Falcon was only half-joking.

The Dragon bit his tongue on a smug retort, for it really wasn’t anyone’s business but his and Agnieszka’s. In the past fortnight, she’d been warm in his arms, in his bed at his much-improved tower by the Wood, his name on her lips in a rather ecstatic litany. Insatiable, insufferable creature, and if he wished to see her with any regularity it meant the effort of going to her. He needed to monitor the Wood’s progress, too, so it was never merely a social call—though perhaps when he’d winnowed out the last pockets of corruption here...

“No, she was present when I did my most recent survey of the valley around Olshanka. Her apprentice stopped by—Lydka. She’s another strong witch, and has some aptitude for traditional magic. I expect her to be introduced after Siegfried’s coronation.” Agnieszka had expressed to him her profound annoyance at having a student whose magic she had to work around, rather than with; he managed to hold back his laughter long enough for her to blink at him wide-eyed and stomp out of the room muttering cleaning curses.

Pity it took the king’s death to get the Briar within Polnya’s beating heart, again, Sarkan thought. Due to her unwillingness to try to blend into the court or play their conniving game, and of course the events surrounding the previous king’s death, she had no pleasant associations with the capital. She had not stood inside Hall of Wizards since they’d originally tried to give her her name. Convincing her had long been futile, despite the fact that most of those who had vexed her on her first visit were far beyond their prime or even dead.

Except Solya, of course.

Solya whose envy raked him whenever any mention of her flashed across a conversation, like the lightning Agnieszka was so feared for. The Falcon had admitted over drink one night to having mingled his power with hers just the once. He’d never gotten over that extraordinary feeling of having his magic amplified by the wild torrent inside of her. Solya wanted to know that sensation again, but the Briar was far, far out of his reach.

Batting off stirrings of jealousy and possessiveness within himself, Sarkan understood that for her it was not the same with others as it had been between them—and thank goodness for that. The memory of his first intimate workings with her still made him blush like… well not a man considerably younger. Much to his mortification he blushed often and easily at her familiar touch and the merest brush of her magic, and he was nearing two hundred years.

With a nod towards the rest of the room, alchemists and mathematicians working quietly at their studies nearby, Solya reminded him that she did no favors for herself by standing apart from their number. “We should probably take this opportunity to make certain some of the others have a chance to meet Agnieszka. Particularly the contingent from Rosya. I am always asked when I am abroad if she’s truly so terrible as the stories say,” he chuckled, and stopped and brushed at his sleeve when he noticed Sarkan smiling at him fit to chill the room.

“Let her mourn. The king was like to her own family, visiting her for counsel as often as he did. She’s lost too many of them in the past few years. Agnieszka will meet with whom she wishes and no more.” He’d never felt the sharpness of the passing of time quite the way she did, having so few roots of his own. With no family, and few profound connections among those who bore up the newest generation then withered beneath it, meant he had less to lose. Perhaps one day she’d take her losses in stride, but still tightly bound to her community she had not yet reached any wizardly pinnacle of detachment.

The Falcon inclined his head. “You are right in that much—I look forward to seeing her. You can’t keep her to yourself forever, Dragon.”

He could try.

Agnieszka arrived on a horse cart the next day with her young apprentice, as expected, her magic having sped the journey considerably and perhaps keeping the weather at bay. The autumnal storm that had been threatening all morning broke right after he’d swept down to the courtyard to collect them and they were well within the palace halls. Her clothes, as ever, were dark homespun underneath her sturdy wool coat with its carved bone toggles. Caught up in tight braids, her hair had already started to unravel a lock at a time, as it usually did within an hour of her putting it up. The strands framed her face to look less severe instead of bedraggled as it often had when her magic was fully wild. Sarkan wanted to kiss her very badly.

And then, while regarding her fondly, Sarkan caught Agnieszka doing that incredibly annoying thing with her magic where she’d mentally tie up and bite off the end of a spell like the end of a thread, rather than close it with a succinct syllable. At least he knew a bit more of what he was looking at, even if he couldn’t replicate it himself. It never stopped getting under his skin, though.

“I imagine you’ll want to see Kasia. She’s keeping vigil in the chapel with the Crown Prince until the ceremony tomorrow, however,” he said. Kasia hadn’t precisely slowed in aging like a wizard would, but she wasn’t mortal any longer, either. Barring disaster, or her choosing to return to the Wood, she might outlive them all. “In the meantime, expect a number of invitations—you’ve been missed.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. I don’t suppose you could take Lydka around in my stead?” She gave an exasperated sidelong look at her high-spirited apprentice. The girl had known the king not at all, and would need to be kept occupied lest she find the worst sort of trouble. It might try his patience, but there was little he wouldn’t do for Agnieszka.

Lydka, who moments before had been staring in wonder at the vaulted ceilings, took a wheedling tone. “Oh please, my Lord Dragon. I wish it were under better circumstances, but I’ve wanted to see the Charovnikov and meet the Sword and the Falcon for so long.” A foolish girl, but one who acted predictably, and would do well to complete her studies in a more cosmopolitan setting.

Keeping his expression placid and cool, he nodded. “After the funeral. Let’s get the two of you settled, and we can talk more of it over supper.”

Agnieszka muttered her agreement, tired and sad, and not a little resigned. She gave him a small smile that spoke of her relief to know he had no intention of letting the wolves of the court cross her threshold, nor harm her young protegee.

Having petitioned the steward before her arrival, he’d acquired them adjoining rooms, which were fine, but not as large or opulent as his usual quarters. Such an arrangement would allow her her own space if she wanted it, and access to him if she didn’t. Lydka followed them so she would know where they were staying, and then a servant led her down the hall to her room. It crossed his mind that this would be one such occasion when it might have been good to have a proper house of his own in the city where he could host guests; he had the immediate counter thought though, that if he was going to be so removed from the palace he might as well move back to the tower, permanently.

After they’d dined and drank, and visited with a few courtiers, including the queen and the king’s sister, the Dragon and the Briar left eager young Lydka in the care of the Sword and slipped away.

Sarkan wasn’t sure if she would come to his bed that night, for exhaustion had left Agnieszka’s eyes dull and her mouth a grim line, the king’s wine only exacerbating the effect. The little door between their rooms was unbarred, however, and as he closed his journal and settled himself against down pillows, she appeared in her linen shift and fell in beside him without any grace. Curling around the pleasing warmth of her, he drew the coverlet up, and fully expected her to fall right to sleep.

“We shouldn’t have left that little imp. She’ll get into trouble,” she grumbled and turned to face him, eyes glimmering from the faint bluish magelight he’d left floating above the nightstand.

He pulled her closer and kissed her mouth and then her forehead. “She’ll be fine. Alosha knows how to deal with upstart witches.”

Agnieszka snorted, laughing. “I’d prefer she live through the night.”

“You wouldn’t mind if your imp found another teacher though.”

“No.”

“It can be arranged. But I sense you have another motive.” He arched an eyebrow at her, for they both knew perfectly well that she wanted him to take over the girl’s instruction. With a preference toward him staying in the valley for longer than a week or two at a time to do so.

“Don’t tell me you haven’t been considering it.” Her grin had more to do with their legs twining together than the conversation, for the backs of her knees were quite ticklish and he meant to distract her.

“At the moment, no,” he said, and kissed her again. She didn’t release him this time, instead dragging him deeper into it. Her hands slid under his nightshirt, and he pulled her over on top of him, hiking up her gown until her hips were bared. She tugged it the rest of the way off, over her head, leaving him overdressed, though that was resolved easily enough.

“Are we keeping this simple tonight?” Sarkan gathered her hands in his between them, and pressed a kiss against one of her wrists and then the other, as the question hung in the air. No magic, no teasing or testing or games between them, though such things could be enjoyable when they were both well-rested and feeling more spirited.

“Yes, simple. I just need you close. Very, very close.” She drew him into the rush of her grief for a bare second, the emotion overwhelming everything else inside of her, and he reeled back to recover, gasping.

“Careful then,” he said.

She gave a grunt of acknowledgement and settled onto him. Joining their bodies had become so comfortable and familiar, he seldom cared to remember there had been a time when he could not make love to Agnieszka. Sitting up, so he could embrace her more fully and pepper with kisses what parts of her he could reach, they rocked against each other, setting a gentle rhythm. Gentleness which only lasted for as long as it took to waken a point of pleasure within her, after which she grinned and pulled him over atop her. Goading him on with her hips, and his name, she drove him to match a pace that would bring her to her peak quickly. Simple indeed.

Agnieszka never could completely contain the wash of pleasure from her release, just as she could not bite back her voice. Even if she’d said no magic, he felt the touch of it just above her skin like a rising prickling wave of euphoric light, and was almost immediately tipped over into his own. They carried each others bliss a little longer, slowing only when the intensity of it glimmered out.

“Thank you,” she breathed, both of them still panting. Sarkan shifted so that his full weight wasn’t on her, but they remained joined, one of her legs looped over his hip, and he nuzzled into her neck.

“Sleep now, Agnieszka,” he whispered. He was more than glad to divert her for even a short time from the suffocating pain she’d been carrying. The matter deserved more attention, but it would have to wait until morning.

Sarkan woke to her drawing with a fingertip some manner of protective charm across his torso—which he didn’t mind, though it would only last until he needed to do any kind of powerful attunement and his own magic burned it off of him. Better to bind such wishes into garments or weapons. She felt him stir, and stopped, then wound the charm off into the sigil for health as he pulled her into his arms.

“That’s not necessary,” he groused, combing her tangled hair back with his fingers. He’d caught her doing it before, and the result was always the same.

“Hush. It’s the least I can do if you insist on staying so far away from me. I’ve waited long enough, we’ve watched two generations pass. There will always be some corruption lurking in the capital, Sarkan. Always, even after both of us are dust. Let the Falcon or the Phoenix play watchdog for a while. Marry me, Sarkan.”

“I—yes, but—” It took a second too long for his mind to catch up with his mouth, and by then he was drowning in her kiss.

"Are you certain?" she asked after they'd come up for air. Crouching over him she wore a grin so beatifically bright, it would have been a crime to try to deny her.

“Impossible woman. Yes, Agnieszka, yes.”