People began to gather on the lush banks of the Pontar long before dusk. Feasting and drinking had begun earlier in the day, all the shops in the city shutting down to begin the celebrations just after noon. A steady stream of giddy and excited bodies moved along the grounds, stopping to watch comedic performances penned by students of the academy, to admire the lithe and graceful dancers in eye-catching spring colors as they flitted through the grass. The sounds of music and laughter were all around her. Food smells permeated the air as she passed by vendors selling kebabs stacked with spiced meat of every variety and bright vegetables dripping juices down the skewers, boiled eggs wrapped in sausage and fried in a delightful breaded coating, turkey legs and sweet treats of every variety.
She wasn’t hungry, her stomach was nervous and she couldn’t even think about food, but as she passed a vintner’s stall she realized she could use a drink. Something to calm her nerves, perhaps, and so she twined through the merry crowd, past craftsmen selling hand-braided Maiden dollies made from dried wheat and corn husks, crowns of bright flowers so every maid and maiden could play the fertile May Queen prepared to welcome the Sun King into her arms. She drifted past tournaments of flashing sword and clanging shield, jousting and feats of strength, and as she walked she searched every face in the crowd for Dandelion. She knew that even in a crowd such as that, even when the shadows began darken the world before the fires were lit, she would know his eyes from so very far away because she’d come fully prepared to find him and accept him as he was.
Throughout the day she’d bounced back and forth, the frightened part of her trying to convince her that she wasn’t worthy. He’d been with so many other women. He possessed a gifted tongue, and would likely say anything to win her over if she was his next conquest. He might very well leave her before morning, and then she’d feel like a fool.
She even entertained thoughts of how disappointed her father would be if only he could see her, going straight for a man he’d loathed and despised, a lazy drifter with nothing but flowery words in his head. But her father was nothing like her. He’d lived by a completely different set of rules and she couldn’t allow fear of disappointing a dead man influence her decisions.
People who lived according to their parents’ expectations were some of the most unhappy people in the world, and she didn’t want to live in an unhappy world. She wanted to live by her own rules, to see the world and fall in love with a man who might break her heart.
She would write volumes of work about the way she felt when she looked into his eyes, about how beautiful the pain of a broken heart was, and the world would be a better place for it.
Immersed in an atmosphere designed for love, she thanked the wine vendor for filling her cup, tipped the man generously and was lifting the cup to her lips when she felt a confident hand lower onto her shoulder. From the corner of her eye she saw the colorful leather sleeve of his jacket, and before turning around she quickly swallowed what was in her cup to calm her nerves. She spun to find him standing behind her with an empty cup of his own in one hand and in the other a crown of braided, bright yellow buttercups trailing pink and white ribbons that danced lithely in the gentle breeze.
He lifted it between them, bowing humbly at the waist and lowering his head almost submissively as he declared, “I do not wish to disturb you, oh enchanting Queen of May, but will you grant this devoted servant a boon?”
Nayannah laughed, the nervous energy inside her rising in trembling jolts from her belly into her chest. “What would you ask of me?”
“Only that I might be your champion tonight and all nights to follow.”
He brought the crown up, held it before her until she nodded and then he lowered it into her hair. He dropped both hands to reach for hers, and for a long time they just stood there in front of the wine vendor, holding hands and staring into one another’s eyes as bodies shuffled around them. As the pyres began to come alive in leaping bursts of crackling orange and yellow flame that lined the ever-flowing river banks, whooping cheers echoed through the coming night, as the festivities officially began.
His were the saddest and most beautiful eyes she’d ever seen, eyes that had seen so many things she could barely begin to imagine them, but as she looked into him at that moment she saw something else besides the sorrow. She glimpsed wonder inside him, intrigue and excitement of the most innocent and boyish kind.
And happiness also, as he squeezed her fingers inside his own, leaned forward and said into her ear, “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”
“Afraid?” she wondered. “You?”
“I was terrified you might break my heart,” he confessed, “before I could even give it to you. I worried you might crush it in those dainty hands and walk away from me forever. I don’t want to be alone anymore, you see.” Those last words he said so quietly, as if he were ashamed to confess some weakness none but her knew he possessed.
“You’re not alone,” she told him. “I am with you.”
Nyannah rested her temple against his, grinning as she slowly turned her face until the tip of her nose nuzzled along the smooth skin of his clean-shaven cheek. He smelled of myrrh and roses and jasmine when she breathed him in, but before she could remark on its pleasantness he brought his hand up against the back of her neck, tilted her head just enough that he could see the silhouette of her face as the fires continued to rise and light the night, and then he kissed her for the very first time.
Soft, but firm, it was a slow and lingering kiss at first. With delicate precision he brought her lower lip between his, suckling gently until she gasped with delight, welcoming the taste of him in her mouth. He opened his lips against hers. His curious tongue was tender, but persistent as it passed between her teeth and began to tease her own in darting and delicious strokes.
The hand that still clutched hers disentangled its fingers and slid along the curve of her waist to draw her body closer. She brought her own hands up to cup his face, holding him to that kiss until the breathlessness of it nearly overwhelmed her. Squeaking just a little when both of his arms came around her and he lifted her even closer still, he began to back away through the crowd. Her feet dangling above the earth, he never took his eyes from hers as he escaped with her into the shadows just beyond the pyres, carrying her that way until he stumbled clumsily over his own feet and they fell together laughing in the gentle carpet of grass that lined the hillside.
He took off his coat, stealing a kiss from her her as he stripped it away from his shoulders. He dragged it down the length of his arms and then spread it on the ground between them. He rolled her in to rest atop it before falling in above her and staring so intently into her eyes. Perched upon his elbow, eyes flitting across each and every feature of her face, it was as if he was memorizing the details so he might never forget that moment.
“I can’t wait to show you the world,” he told her, tilting his face down and tickling the tip of her nose with his. The hair that hung across his forehead tickled her too, making her grin. “Vizima,” he kissed her. “Lyria.” Another kiss. “Dol Blathanna.” Again he touched his lips to hers. “Touissaint… Maybe not Touissaint. I’ve been banned from there, you know, some misunderstanding better left undiscussed, but I’ll show you every wonder there is to see,” he promised, “take you everywhere I’ve ever been, and maybe we’ll find a few places I haven’t been and we’ll explore them for the first time together. We’ll make love beneath every star this world has ever seen.”
She lifted upward to kiss him back, silencing him and tangling her fingers into the curls that drifted past his collar. Drawing him in deeper, she slid her leg along his thigh and his body fell into hers, the bones of his hips colliding with her own as he crushed her with his eager weight.
The distant thunder of fireworks rumbled and then burst in a shower of stars somewhere near the academy, but close enough that when she turned her head she saw them disappearing as the dwindling embers trailed back to earth with tails of smoke behind them.
Warm breath rushed across her neck as she stretched and arched her body to accommodate his trailing kisses. Kneading hand cupped the mound of her breast, squeezing gently and sparking such desire inside her she looped her leg across the back of his thigh and pressed herself harder against him. She felt the fervent rise of his want for her, the touch of it even through their clothes made her feel warm and scared and so inspired. She’d never wanted anyone the way she wanted him in that moment. It went deeper than want. It was need. She needed him, all of him.
“Nyan,” he whispered, tongue darting out to caress her ear before he drew it nibbling between his gentle teeth. “Teach me, Nyan,” he breathed against the damp skin, sending an army of electrifying chills rippling through her. “Teach me to be a better lover. Make me a better man.”
She gripped his shoulder, dug her fingertips into the muscle as she stole his lips and surged upward in a dominating maneuver that put him on his back in the grass with a delighted laugh that lifted her spirits so high she felt as if she sored among the exploding pyrotechnics that burst among the stars. Edging her leg across his waist, she positioned herself in his lap and he rose up to meet her again, cradling her against him, holding her close as they tilted their eyes toward the wonder and beauty that burst across the sky above them in showers of color.
It was a long time before they finally made love. Hours, it seemed, passed while they explored each other, came to know every inch of tender, ticklish flesh, the very places to touch with lips to make the other sigh and beg for mercy. The last golden hint of dusk finally disappearing from the horizon as the sorcery of fireworks continued to blaze frequently across the sky, he made slow descent to join his body with hers for the first of many times to come.
Every movement precise, purposely drawn out as he lifted his head back and stared into her soul while two became one.
Nyannah gasped. Dandelion dipped his head inward, swallowed the sound of her surprise inside himself and then he reached down to grip the flesh of her thigh in his squeezing hand. He drew that leg upward, tilted her hips just right and touched parts of her no other man had ever reached before as they found perfect rhythm together.
So many exploding stars, she thought, so much inspiration in his touch. A thousand unwritten ballads played through her mind, songs of love on the verge of discovery, volumes of poetry on the makings of a better man, the claiming of a woman’s heart and the gentle hands that would keep it safe until his body drew last breath and his spirit left the cruel and heartless world they would make a better place together.
Nothing in her life had ever felt the way he felt inside her, and even after he spent himself, he did not withdraw. He lingered until he became soft, stroked adoring fingers through her sweaty hair and placed precise and loving kisses on her cheeks.
And then he sang to her, a song about the color of her eyes, which reminded him of the sea after a storm. A sea he’d take a boat through, a storm he’d brave to win her trust and her heart…
It made her want him again, and he rose eagerly to the occasion, filling her once more with bliss and wonder and such hope she wanted to share the way he made her feel with the world.