Warf had never been the type to cry, not really. It wasn't that he though he shouldn't cry, only that he couldn't. Crying had never helped anything, and over the years he'd simply stopped doing it.
Until the night his wife had died, taken by an illness no one survived. He'd smiled and sung lullabies and talked about the children and kept her smiling until she simply wasn't there anymore. Then he'd held her body close and sobbed his eyes out, until they were so red and raw he couldn't keep them open. When he was done he'd cleaned his face and gone to tell his children their mother was dead and kept his eyes dry while they cried.
That was a little more than two years ago. He hadn't cried once since, not even at her funeral. By then, he'd been too wrung out by the grief, and too terrified of the future.
But he definitely cried now as his name rang out across the pavilion and people screamed and cheered and whistled for him. As the crier announced that he was a champion of the tournament and would be marrying Lord Marian, second son of the Earl of Bellowen.
He cried because he would never again have to worry about his children going hungry. Because his beautiful wife, Fates grant her a glorious new life, could rest in peace knowing her children would be well. Because he would be able to give then proper schooling, good futures, would never have to worry they might end up on the streets, whoring or begging or dead.
Warf swallowed and wiped away his tears as a small, beautiful, elegant man climbed the stage and approached him. Lord Marian was so short, Wart felt like a lumbering giant. His hair was unfashionably short, but just long enough to show the red-gold color of it, with gold-toned brown skin, small elegant features. There was a smudge of what might have been ink on the left side of his jaw, like he'd rested his fingers there briefly while pondering something. Warf felt huge and looming and ugly beside him, but there was nothing he could do about that. Hopefully Marian wouldn't be completely repulsed by him—or at least would be polite about it, and not punish his children for their father's failings.
"It's an honor to meet you," Marian said softly, taking both of Warf's hands—his big, calloused, scarred, overworked and knobly hands—in his small, soft beautiful ones, and then they were led from the stage so the tournament could continue on to those who would be marrying into the duchies. "I hope we will get on well together." His smile seemed sincere, but did not quite banish the sadness that shadowed his pale blue eyes. What made him look so sad?
But it was not a question Warf could ask then, if ever, so he only smiled shyly in return, heart pounding in his ears and throat as he said, "I hope so, too, my lord."
Marian scoffed. "I am your tourney prize, and we're to be married, no need of formality. My name is Marian, and I would be honored to have you call me so." That sweet, sad smile again, this time with a hint of shyness that Warf never would have expected from such a beautiful, seemingly confident man. "I have a minor gift for you." He laughed, more of that shyness coming forward. "Well, I have many gifts, actually, but the majority of them are for your children. This one is for you." He pulled a small velvet box from a pocket of his jacket and presented it.
Warf hated that his hands trembled slightly as he took the box and opened it—and he nearly started crying again to see the beautiful ring inside. It was a simple thing, of gleaming gold and three small stones, two slightly smaller than the one in the middle, but achingly lovely. Far too fine for his fat, ugly fingers. The stones were the color of an early spring sky, or a robin's egg he'd seen once on a rare trip out of the city as a boy, before his parents died and everything went so wrong. Warf swallowed. "It's stunning. What—what are the stones? I'm ashamed I don't know."
"Why be ashamed? I doubt the fancy jeweler who made this knows even half the things you know, and I didn't know what it was until I went in a jewelry shop for the first time. It's called blue topaz; they represent love and affection. I do not presume, but… well, several of my ancestors come from the tournament, and it's an honor to be able to continue the tradition. I would like us to be happy together, and help my family and the kingdom." He frowned at where Warf still held the ring. "Does it fit?"
Warf fumbled with the delicate little ring, bracing for the moment when it wouldn't fit—but it slid on perfectly, resting on his finger like it had been made just for him. And it didn't look stupid or out of place the way he'd feared it would. He looked up and smiled. "Thank you. I wish I had a suitable gift to match."
Marian scoffed and moved to stand beside Warf, looping his arm through Warf's and shyly smiling again. "I am hoping we will all five of us be a family. What could possibly be better than that? Certainly not a trifling ring."
If the man was, for reasons beyond Warf's comprehension, seeking to win his approval and affection, putting his children first and showing such a sincere-seeming interest in them was the best possible way to go about it. "They are beyond excited, my—" Warf stopped, shook his head. "I cannot imagine they will do anything but adore you. And your house, and food, and whatever toys that can wheedle out of you." He winked.
Laughing, Marian tugged lightly on his arm. "Come, shall we go find a meal somewhere and get to know one another? There's to be a grand banquet once the royal champion is declared, but for now we are left to our own devices."
"I wouldn't mind food, though I should let the children know I've won. They wanted to come, but it's too crowded and there was no one to keep an eye on them."
"Then we shall go at once so you can tell them the good news. I made certain rooms were prepared should you want to move into my home tonight."
Warf stumbled to a stop, stared at him. "That is… exceedingly generous of you. I feel you are ten steps ahead of me on this matter."
That beautiful face flushed. "I admit I have been looking forward to whatever the tournament brought me. I am not my father and brother, with days largely spent in leisure, or my sister, who loves to make the social rounds and gives lectures at the academy from time to time. But we can discuss all this at dinner, come. Where do you live?"
"East End, Fisher Street." He and Rath were always commiserating on how much fun it wasn't to live on streets that came with such terrible smells. But neither of them could afford the nicer streets on the West End. He was lucky he'd been able to find anything at all that could accommodate him, three children, and still be affordable.
He and Leana had been saving to buy a proper home, but after her death that dream had swiftly vanished.
"It doesn't smell great," he warned.
Marian made that scoffing noise again. "I assure you, I've smelled Fisher Street—and worse. I travel all over the kingdom acquiring works of art. Let me assure you that nothing strips a man of his arrogance and superiority like tumbling off his horse, rolling down a hill, and coming to a stop in a pig pen. I smelled like Fates alone know what, and I swear I couldn't get rid of the stench for two weeks." He winked, and Warf laughed, hope and wary happiness curling through him like the first rush of standing in front of a fire after a cold day.
Maybe, just maybe, this would work after all. Maybe he could dare to believe in this opportunity, this chance for a new life he'd fairly won.
He smiled briefly, thinking of Rath, one of his oldest and dearest friends for all they did not often cross paths anymore.
They were stopped several times on their way out of the tournament grounds, but Warf found it hard to complain about being the center of so much happy attention. Still, he wasn't sorry when they were finally alone, walking back to the city at a leisurely pace. Marian's arm still rested comfortably curled through his, stirring an old ache; the last time someone had walked with him so had been his wife. Leana had been more like Warf: big, loud, rough-hewn and street-hardened. She could knock a man flat with one swing, drink everyone they knew under the table, and be up the next morning singing hymns while she kneaded dough for the week's bread and got breakfast on the table.
"You seem pensive. I bet all of this is a bit much to take in," Marian said, then blanched. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I simply mean, life is probably changing significantly for you—oh, never mind, I sound terrible no matter how I try to say it."
Warf laughed, loud and long. "You're not wrong. I work the docks. My greatest skill is moving barrels of ale. I—" He looked away, shame flooding him. "I can't even read. I can write my name, but only because my late wife taught me that much." He took a deep breath and let it out on a sigh. "I hope all this means my children will do far better than I did."
"You're the one who has ensured they will; I would say you're doing the best any parent can," Marian said. "I have a lot to learn from you on that point. The most I take care of is a couple of falcons, which I suspect is a far cry from raising children." He winked, and Warf's shamed eased enough he could smile again.