At this hour and in such cloudy weather, the west-facing window of the back hall let in only a dull, dead-colored light. The candles Osh had carried in cast a narrow, too-golden glow, and beyond that, the rich saffrons and ochres of the wall were strained to lukewarm beige and taupe and gray.
It scarcely mattered for what he was painting, but he could find no joy in the contemplation of the rest of the work this morning. Perhaps it would seem no more golden at sunset.
His new bedroom had an entire bay of north-facing windows, and there the light was always the same: either pale with sun or dim with cloud. It was a good light for painting.
He had not chosen the room for that reason, however. He had not chosen it at all. It had been meant for Paul and Cat, but Cat had found a more cradle-worthy niche in the northwest room. Osh could advance no argument against so manifest a claim.
There was an argument, however, though he could not bring himself to mention it: Now there stood only a wall between his bed and Flann’s. Now he was so near to her that, excepting headboard and wall, he could have reached his arm back at any hour of the night and laid a hand on her hip. All night long he heard her breathing as if she lay beside him.
And yet she could not have been aware of his presence at all. At least, he thought it unlikely it was for him that she cried. Even last night.
“Ach, you’re still here, Osh,” she said lightly. “I thought everyone had abandoned me and baby.”
“Good morning – ”
He reminded himself he must not call her his darling any longer. He had tried to take too much, and had lost what little he had. Unless…
“You know we do not leave you here alone,” he said.
“I know it, but I just ate my entire breakfast and never once heard you. It’s quiet as a wee mousie you are.”
It seemed she intended to act as if nothing had happened. He intended to let her act however she liked, and pretend he liked it.
He busied himself with the cleaning of his brush. “It is a wise strategy in the house where Cat lives.”
“You know she only plays with you and lets you go,” she teased. “What are you painting now? I thought you’d finished this wall.”
“Now am I only painting the little bugs and little mouse faces peeking here in the leaves.”
“Ach! Who will ever see them in this house of tall elves?”
He stood just as she said “tall elves”.
“Even tall elves start out on hands and knees,” he smiled. “Penedict is almost old enough to play find the little bugs. When Paul was small, he was finding bugs I forgot I ever painted.”
Vash had told him that Sul and Vala were living in those rooms now. There was no going back.
“You should paint some butterflies up in the air for big people to see,” she suggested.
“If you like.”
She stared deeply into the dull saffron sky, leaning close enough to the wall that her face was tinted with a wash of reflected gold. Osh did not paint people, and the elusive beauty of her face reminded him why he dared not. He would not even paint on her: his loveliest flowers across her cheek would only have marred her.
“You wouldn’t be hiding any secret messages in your paintings, would you, Osh?” she asked softly and slyly.
He regretted then that he was not a poet like Sorin or Vash. Even Sorin’s most cryptic poetry was more easily read than what he knew how to express. What could he tell her? “I paint beautiful things because you are beautiful?”
“No little hearts peeking out beneath the leaves?” she whispered.
She was either teasing or not; either cruelly or unconsciously or not at all. He had no way of knowing. Elves knew first and loved later.
“It is a secret message for me only,” he said as a compromise, though even this cost him. “I remember all I am thinking when I paint everything. When I paint this and this and this. And it reminds me.”
He brushed his fingertips over petals that were shaped very like the strokes of hesitant fingertips.
“You couldn’t teach me to read them?” she asked.
What did she want? What did she want? Where among their faces, words, and gestures did men and women hide their secret messages?
Attempting this uncertain, unforeseeable love seemed more frightening than the fledgling’s first leap out of the nest. At least the bird knew there was air to hold him up if only he learned how to use his wings. At least the bird was certain he had wings. Osh did not know how men ever dared to love at all. He thought they must have had hearts that bounced.
“It is a complicated language,” he said. “Today we do only the simple lesson. There is a heart under every leaf and flower. However,” he said sternly, “it does not peek out. That is for saucy mice.”
“I see,” she nodded and smiled.
“Only once do I let it show. Only for a little while.”
She slipped her hand into his and pulled. He was obliged to turn to her, and grateful that she obliged him.
“I have a secret message for you,” she said quickly, “and this morning there are no other ears to hear it. But you mustn’t tell!” she yelped, as if the pain she had sought to outrun had caught up with her.
“I shan’t tell.”
“You mustn’t tell,” she repeated. Now she lifted her head in a defiant gesture that nevertheless did not seem to be intended for him. “I only wish to say one thing. Liadan’s father…”
She dropped her head again, and she clung to his hand as if she needed strength from him.
“It’s dead he is,” she blurted. “He’s never coming back to me.” She gasped as if she tried not to sob. “Coming back… I mean…”
Osh knew this already, and much more than this. He knew only a few phrases of Gaelic, but one of them was “my treasure”. Those few overheard lines had served to explain much inexplicable grief. But he would never let her know that he knew.
“I must be going ahead now,” she said, her strength returning, “and not looking behind me. It’s far from a happy place I’m starting my journey, and I fear it might take me a while to get somewhere.” She laughed awkwardly. “You may walk with me, or await me there. Or – not…”
“I walk with you.”
She tugged her hand free of his, a little roughly, but before he could fear that he had misunderstood, she slipped it and the other around his waist and squeezed him.
“It will be less lonely for both of us, won’t it?” she asked wistfully.
She sighed and stared at his shoulder for a moment. The corners of her mouth dropped into a thoughtful frown.
Osh scarcely knew what was happening to himself as it was, and she was unreadable. Her face was as ever-changing as a cloud.
Just when he was beginning to despair, her eyebrows lifted over a sly stare.
“Was that some sort of elf kiss you gave me last night?”
Osh blushed guiltily. If he had tried to kiss an elf so intimately before their marriage, she would have been outraged. But he had thought Flann would not know.
“You didn’t like?” he whispered.
Now she blushed. “I didn’t say that…” she giggled.
“Oh!” He sighed in relief. “We shall say it was an elf kiss. I try to kiss you without a sound…”
“Ach, of course!” She laughed. “I thought I would have to learn a new style of kissing. You elves kiss like men, too, don’t you?”
“I do not know. I have never kissed a man.”
She laughed delightedly, leaning away from him so that she held herself up by holding tightly to him. “I think you’re clever enough to learn, Osh. Today we shall start with the simple lesson, and another time learn some more.”
He rubbed his cheek anxiously. “I did not shave this morning. I hope I do not scratch you.”
“Scrache!” she corrected, and she kissed him before he could laugh.