Hope you guys enjoy the new chapter!
By Meyari McFarland
Chapter Twenty-Two: Ynes in Private
“You’re starting to sunburn,” Jinhai said about half an hour later.
“Oh damn,” Cadfael grumbled as he checked his arms and saw that Jinhai was correct. “All right. I’m heading inside where the sun can’t burn me.”
“Have a servant tell us if the argument is over,” Jinhai said.
Cadfael nodded, grinning at Jinhai’s wary, frustrated expression. The boys were too busy running around playing tag to object when Cadfael quietly headed for the door to the harem. Azizi and Dankov both waved, Dankov sporting an expression that suggested that he thought Cadfael was immensely brave to set foot inside right now.
When he opened the door there was no shouting echoing through the hallways. That was a relief. Cadfael made his way back towards his rooms to get his embroidery, taking the back corridors and side routes that he’d only just begun to learn. Twice he got lost and had to ask a servant or slave which way to go. They didn’t seem at all surprised by Cadfael’s sheepish explanation that he was avoiding the fight.
Eventually he poked his head into the main hallway that led to his rooms. At the least, he could sit in the window and look outside even if his skin wasn’t up to the intensity of the sunshine here. It seemed likely that the boys would want to come and hear stories of Aingeal later, after they’d run off the energy from their candied muji fruit. Cadfael rather hoped that things would have calmed down enough by then that Macario and Hamid would join them. Well, Macario, certainly; Cadfael wasn’t at all sure he wanted to see just how upset Hamid was by the women of the household descending on him in force. Father always hated it when that happened to him back home, and Cadfael was sure that it was no better here than there.
To his surprise, Hamid stormed past Cadfael when he was almost to the door to his rooms. His face was ruddy with suppressed rage. For a moment Cadfael thought about following him and trying to smooth the waters, but it would be far too soon for that. Instead he screwed up his courage and hurried towards the exit. Up ahead, Cadfael saw Ynes and her sisters leaving the men’s quarters.
“Ynes!” Cadfael called only to wish desperately that he’d kept his mouth shut. He squirmed as she jerked to a stop and then smiled at him. “I wanted to ask you a couple more questions if you have the time to spare? It’s… not important, really. Just… personal things.”
“Ah,” Ynes hesitated, looked at her sisters who shrugged and smiled, and then nodded. “I suppose so. Got a meeting in a couple of hours, but I’m mostly ready for it.”
“Good,” Cadfael said with enough relief that Raisa, Efia and Faiza grinned at him. He pointed at the most public and open of the rooms by the entrance, face prickling with another blush. “Meeting room?”
Ynes nodded. She went first, sprawling on one of the couches before sitting up and rubbing her face with both hands. Cadfael looked at her and then closed the door all the way even though he knew that he should leave it open. Propriety alone demanded that they have some level of chaperonage but Cadfael thought that maybe the open grills set high in the wall that let air flow through the room would be enough for now. Ynes certainly looked as though she could do with a bit of privacy.
Hamid and Macario had been quite firm about that point when they’d explained the purpose of the ‘meeting’ rooms; they were used for courting and for sex. This particular one was more for courtship than actual intercourse but the expectation was still there. Despite the expectation that couples used them for sex, Cadfael didn’t really want anyone to watch his interactions with Ynes. She didn’t seem to notice that the door was shut instead of ajar, watching Cadfael with a covertly hungry expression as he curled up on the cushions just out of touching range.
“What’s wrong?” Ynes asked in Aingealese.
“What did you say to Hamid?” Cadfael asked. He raised one hand when Ynes opened her mouth in automatic protest. “I’m the one who said something to you about the tension between Macario and Hamid. My being here has caused a lot of trouble between the two of them. I feel responsible for his anger. I um, passed him on the way here.”
“Ah. Well, we… made it clear that we wanted Macario to be happy and if having a lover made him happy then that was okay,” Ynes said. “We also made it very clear that Macario is the head of the harem, not Hamid. I know, I know, it’s their side of the house to run as they choose but this power struggle between them has gotten absurd. When Hamid took over from my great-uncle it was a clear break. One day he had no power and the next he had it all. It’s better that way.”
“They said that it was a transition,” Cadfael murmured unhappily. He wasn’t ready to touch the lover comment yet. “What will Hamid do now?”
“I don’t know,” Ynes said with not one shred of sympathy. “That’s up to him. He won’t be making any more decisions for the harem though. Macario wasn’t terribly happy about being overruled by us but he was less happy about having Hamid undercut his authority. What’s done is done. They would have been perfectly free to handle things their way if they’d kept the peace between the two of them. Once their battles start affecting how the whole house runs it’s over. We have too many battles to fight and too many enemies to allow that sort of thing in our own house.”
Cadfael nodded, smoothing his pants over his legs. Ynes reached out and gently hooked one finger under his chin so that he would raise his face. Once he had, she raised an eyebrow as if she’d only just noticed something. She chuckled, tapping her own nose.
“You’re sunburned,” Ynes said.
“I knew I should have worn that hat when we went out in the garden,” Cadfael complained. “Now my nose is going to peel.”
“It’s not too bad yet,” Ynes said, grinning. “I doubt that it will make a difference to Macario if your nose is burnt. He likes you too much for that.”
“But you like me too,” Cadfael commented and then spluttered a laugh because Ynes bolted to her feet as if expecting someone to charge in to interrupt them only to stop and stare at the decidedly closed door. “I know, I know. I don’t want to be interrupted, Ynes. They’re all aware that Aingeal doesn’t value male virginity as you do here.”
Ynes groaned as she sat back down, pulling her axe off and setting it in her lap so that she could play with the handle and covers over the blades. He could see her attempting to marshal her thoughts so Cadfael waited quietly. After all, he had his own thoughts to gather together. This was the first time in his entire life that he’d had two people actually interested in him. Certainly there had been a few meetings that his mother had arranged where Cadfael had met young women, and in one highly embarrassing and memorable case a young man, that she thought would be good matches. They’d gone horribly. Cadfael had been furious that he needed the intervention. The other parties always looking him over as if Mother had sold them a complete bill of goods about his so-called better qualities and now that they had the actual merchandise, they were certain that they’d been cheated.
For the first time ever, Cadfael felt like he fit in somewhere. He liked Ntombi. The boys, while overly energetic, were adorable and fun. Life in the harem made him feel safe and sheltered rather than trapped. Macario was brilliant and fascinating. Jinhai was wonderful and loved most of the things that Cadfael loved like books and embroidery and tea. Azizi and Dankov had started asking Cadfael for advice on how to handle the kids. Granted, Hamid seemed to disapprove, but it wasn’t that he disapproved of Cadfael himself. He thought that it was inappropriate for Macario and Cadfael to begin a more carnal relationship than the friendship they’d shared so far. Hamid seemed to reluctantly like Cadfael himself.
Better still, Macario apparently found Cadfael sexy and appealing. That was enough to make Cadfael’s head swim as if he were back on board ship. He’d never had anyone view him as sexually attractive before. Even Ula had taken convincing. The harassment he’d gotten back home had always seemed to have more to do with the sheer fact that he was a small, vulnerable male than with his actual appearance.
But now Ynes seemed to like him, too. How she had enough information about Cadfael to have an opinion of him Cadfael still didn’t know, but the regard was nice. He chuckled, drawing Ynes’ eyes off her axe and back to his face. She grinned sheepishly and then laughed as she relaxed back onto the cushions.
“That, right there, is part of why I like you, Caddie,” Ynes said in her near-perfect Aingealese.
“What?” Cadfael asked.
“You think!” Ynes said, waving one hand at the rest of the world or maybe just Ntombi. “I can see the thoughts ticking by behind your eyes. The Ladies and all the Goddesses know that every single damned male I’m introduced to here has as little brain in his head as those stupid fish in the gardens. You know, the ones with the huge eyes that swim right up to you?”
“That’s because they’re tame, Ynes,” Cadfael laughed.
“Exactly,” Ynes said, suddenly so serious that it made the breath catch in his chest. She stared at Cadfael, her eyes intense and somehow hopeless. “You’re not tame, Caddie. You’re fierce. You’re strong. You’re wild and dangerous with that brilliant mind of yours, despite being little enough that I could carry you around on one arm. I like that. No, honestly, I love that. It’s why I like your sister so much. I never wanted a husband because all that’s available to me is men who have lived their whole lives in the harem. They never go out, never learn new things, just work and read the same books and play the same games. You’re not like that.”
Cadfael’s blush was like a living thing, covering his entire face, creeping up his scalp and then down his neck and across his chest like a prickly wave of heat. He squirmed as Ynes talked, her voice getting gentler by the end. It took him three tries and one awkward cough to clear his throat before he could answer her.
“I love the harem, Ynes,” Cadfael admitted, making a face at how strangled his voice came out. Two more coughs made him feel as though he could talk properly. “I love feeling safe and the harem is very safe, very secure.”
“You love it because you know what it is to be unsafe, Caddie,” Ynes murmured, so much affection, perhaps true love in her eyes. “This is a sanctuary for you, right?”
Cadfael nodded, thoroughly embarrassed because not only were his cheeks responding to Ynes’ attention and gentle tone, his body was too. Ynes seemed to notice it. She leaned back again, chuckling and shaking her head in dismay at the two of them. They sat in silence for a long moment before Cadfael moved close enough to put his hand on Ynes’ elbow. It made her go so still that she seemed like a sculpture of a beautiful woman rather than the real thing.
“I need time to get used to women before I get comfortable with them,” Cadfael said. “I don’t… know you well enough that I’d be able to do much with you. And I don’t know that we’ll have enough time for me to get over my nervousness around women.”
“Cadfael, we yelled at Uncle Hamid for blocking you and Macario,” Ynes said so wryly that it hurt to hear. “I’m not expecting anything from you. Just the opposite, frankly. You’re young. I like you a lot, and I’d love to have time to learn more about you, but it’s not necessary. You have so much more potential of something with Macario during your visit.”
“So?” Cadfael asked, jutting his chin out a little bit.
“So what?” Ynes asked with a surprised frown.
“Why does it make a difference if Macario is interested in me?” Cadfael asked. Ynes reared back as if to yell. “No, don’t! I’m serious. Macario’s not allowed a proper relationship with marriage and all that entails. You are. I’m going to go home again in a couple of weeks. There’s no time for courtship on either side, you or Macario, but both of you keep pushing me in each other’s direction. You push me towards Macario and Macario pushes me at you. It’s ridiculous. Why should you ignore your wants and desires any more than Macario should ignore his?”
Ynes groaned and pulled Cadfael into her lap for a surprise hug that made him bristle. She laughed at how stiff he was, setting him back down on the cushions by her side as soon as he shoved at her shoulders. Once again, his response seemed to delight her rather than annoy her. Cadfael smoothed his clothes while glaring at Ynes more because he really hadn’t wanted her to feel his erection than anything else. The hug itself had been moderately nice.
“Tradition demands Macario be alone his whole life, Cadfael,” Ynes said, still grinning at him despite the sadness in her eyes. “None of my sisters nor I are going to insist the Macario or the boys follow those traditions. If he falls in love then we’ll find a way to make it work no matter what the rest of the country says about it.”
“What about you?” Cadfael asked. “What happens to you?”
“I’ll be fine.” Ynes tried to shrug it off with a casual smile but that faded as Cadfael crossed his arms over his chest and glared at her. “Okay, fine, so I’ll probably pout like your obnoxious brother Aravel. Is he like that at home?”
“No, not at all and don’t try to change the subject on me,” Cadfael said. He snorted at her decidedly unrepentant grin. “I could actually marry you, Ynes.”
“If Annie wouldn’t break my jaw and all my ribs for asking,” Ynes countered.
She seemed half serious about it, telling Cadfael that he had to sit Anwyn down for a serious discussion of what she’d been telling Ynes about him and what the family expected of him here. Cadfael sighed and squirmed until he was more comfortable on the cushions. Ynes was large enough that they dipped dramatically under her, making Cadfael feel like he was sliding downhill as he sat next to her. She laughed under her breath as he braced himself against her thigh with one knee, patting his leg fondly.
“Cadfael, seriously now,” Ynes said. Joy and regret and hope mixed together with laughter in her eyes. “Do your job and enjoy yourself while you’re here. There’s thirty-some days before you leave. Don’t try and fix us all. We’ll muddle through one way or the other. Just… be happy, okay?”
Cadfael nodded as he allowed himself a wry smile. “I’m not used to being happy but… all right. I suppose there’s time to work out what needs to be done.”
“That’s the spirit!” Ynes said as she scooped up her axe and stood. “Come on. I better leave before everyone decides that you’ve just fathered my first child.”
“Oh, lovely,” Cadfael drawled sarcastically. “Just what I want to deal with: more gossip.”
Ynes’ booming laugh filled the room and then the hallway as she opened the door. Cadfael chuckled to himself. He really did have to spend some time thinking and work out exactly what he wanted. Cadfael could see a potential future here in Ntombi, but he wasn’t sure if he was brave enough or strong enough to take what he wanted despite what people both here and back home would say.
NOTE: You can find explanations of the various prefixes and suffixes, as well as a sorta-dictionary, sorta-story on Ntombi over here.
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