Selinda was feeling no effects of a largely sleepless night. Her adrenaline and anxiety were at an all time high. She was hurrying down to the morning meal, her hands locked in laced fingers, palms pressed against each other.
He would expect her answer this morning. She was going to have to choose between certain evil and uncertain possibilities. To an outsider it might have seemed an easy choice; it was anything but. She had been suffering under Grannish for so long with no one to hear her cries and protests … If she got into bed with this warrior, literally and figuratively, what danger would she be beckoning in and who would there be to hear her cry for help? No one heard her now. She was so utterly alone. She had been ever since her elder brothers had died. They had listened to her. When they were alive Grannish had not been cruel to her. He had played the game well, seeming even tempered and charming. What if the even temper she saw in Sor Dethan was just another cover over pure evil?
No. Even when he had been at his kindest she had always known something was off about Grannish. She had sensed it. The sisters at the temple said it was her knowing showing itself, that her knowing was very strong. But they had also said she would wield great power one day. And while the sisters of Kitari seemed to hold little power in their lone temple in the roughest part of the city, some considered them to have great powers. Indeed Selinda had seen them do some amazing things in the name of their queenly goddess. But all the mems in all the various temples seemed to have their own special kinds of gifts.
But the only power Selinda would ever have would be the power of her throne, and right now, as things stood, that meant very little. She was being bartered like a captive slave with no regard for the conditions she was being sold into. All the terms had been negotiated and never once had anyone cared enough to ask her what she wanted.
Selinda took a deep breath, trying to cool the emotions her thoughts were churning up. If she struck this bargain with Dethan, she would regain her power over herself and her crown. At least that was what she hoped. She could simply be throwing herself into the same situation only to find herself still a slave but to a new master.
No. No matter how this unraveled, she was never going to find herself in a position of power. She was still merely a pawn, something for Dethan to use to get what he now wanted. But wasn’t that the whole point of her going to him in the first place? How could she fault him for doing what she was asking him to do? Who could fault him for wanting the power and position marrying her would offer up to him? She would take it for herself if she could manage it.
She should feign illness, she thought in a sudden panic as she neared the doorway leading into the dining chamber. Go back to her rooms and sleep her life away, freeing herself of all choices and potential pain.
No. She would not be ignorant and weak. She had already done enough of that. Today she was taking charge of her life, for better or for worse. And even if she did choose Dethan, there was no possible way he could be physically up to the challenge. He would be lucky if he could even make it down for the morning meal.
The thought froze in the center of her mind as she stepped into the room and saw him, standing at least a full head over everyone else in the room. He was …
Healed. Almost completely. There were still scarred burns on his neck and arms similar to the ones from when she had first met him, but there was nothing else. Nothing to show that last night he had been burned nearly to the bone in some places. It was as though the injuries had never happened at all.
He looked up abruptly, almost as though he had sensed her entering the room. She found herself suddenly afraid that he had the ability to do exactly that. If he had the power to heal in such a way, who knew what other powers he possessed?
His eyes met hers and he arrested her gaze, making her feel like they were alone in spite of the crowd of people between them. He had been standing apart from everyone, leaning back against a wall, looking so dark, silent, and beyond powerful. He had somehow procured a new set of clothes for himself and he looked dominant in the breeches and linen shirt he wore. Over the shirt he wore a finely tooled leather vest.
Considering his station, he should be the least powerful person in the room, yet he commanded it like a warrior chieftain. As he came toward her, her heart hammered in her chest with the power of the strongest of blacksmiths, banging against her ribs so hard she wondered why everyone couldn’t see it. Couldn’t hear it. He came up to her and stood before her. He said nothing, merely looked down into her eyes with expectation on his face.
She swallowed, trying to think about what she should say first to him. He looked at her with this expression like he knew what she was seeing was going to change everything, wipe away her doubts.
And it did, she realized. Not all of them, but the ones about whether or not he was the right choice … the strongest choice. A man made of such breathtaking magic was a man she wanted on her side. It was an advantage against Grannish she could never have dreamed of.
She opened her mouth and only one word came out.
He gave her a little smile, reached to pick up her hand, and placed it on his arm as he turned to lead her into the room.
“My bed. Tonight and every night.”
“Why?” she asked him in a nervous whisper. “In the end I have no choice but to marry you. There is no need for me to, as you say, test you out to find out if you are a sufficient lover.”
“I will make you a contract,” he said, one of those almost grins toying at his lips. “If you find me insufficient as a lover, then you may refuse my suit for your hand.”
She stopped and stared up at him incredulously. “You would do that? What will keep me from denying you your prize at the end if all this succeeds?”
“Because I will know if you are enjoying yourself enough to fulfill our bargain.”
His words made a hot flush sweep across her cheeks and face. She couldn’t meet his eyes again.
“Besides, being in my bed serves a dual purpose. From what you say, Grannish is expecting a chaste bride. If you are no longer chaste, if there is a possibility that you are about to bear a bastard heir to the throne, it will ruin all his plans far more soundly than anything else I might do.” At her horrified gasp he chuckled. “But rest assured, I have plans far more overt than getting you with child. Let us consider that my secondary plan. My main efforts won’t take as long in any event, and from what you have told me, it would not be above Grannish to find a way to expel the child from your body or kill it once it’s born. And since it will be my child, I am wholly against the idea.”
Selinda didn’t know what to say. He was right, and yet it was all so wrong. What was she doing? This was utter lunacy!
And yet she knew his ideas were very sound. If these were only his secondary plans, she wondered what his main tactics were going to be.
He turned, cleared his throat, and said, “The grandina has arrived.” He did not shout it—he did not need to—and yet everyone in the room heard him and fell into respectful silence. He led her to the head of the table, and immediately the crowd broke apart and headed to their chairs.
Oh, how nice it would be, she thought, to have such power of mere spirit. The ability to command respect without titles or position to back you up. Her power was just a shell. She was powerful over most of her people, and yet powerless where it counted most. Powerless to save her family, powerless to make her father see, powerless to command her own life and do with it what she would.
But none of that disturbed her more than the idea of walking willingly down the stairs from her rooms tonight and into his chambers.
No. She could not risk that long course night after night. She would be seen. It would be reported. And as much as he might like the idea of Grannish hearing about it, she did not. If Grannish thought he was losing his power over her, he would not hesitate to gain it back by any means necessary. She had no wish to be ill again or, worse, to die. She would have to be careful never to take any food in her chambers. She would have to be satisfied with these common meals, where it would be impossible for her to be poisoned without risking poisoning the entire table. Or so she hoped. She did not put it past Grannish to kill others in his quest to get to her.
She barely paid attention as she was led to her seat. Her father entered the room moments later and everyone sat down, Dethan at her right elbow and Grannish boring holes into her from across the table. Gwynn was in her seat to Selinda’s left, a point that had irritated her a great deal when it had first happened. She should have headed the table with her father; instead, his mistress was given a position above her. Yet another way she was made certain of the strength of her father’s respect for her, she thought bitterly.
She caught herself in the thought. No! Her father was being misled and manipulated. By Grannish on the one side and Gwynn on the other. She should not be angry with him for trusting the wrong people.
“Your most honorable, I have reconsidered your offer,” Dethan said baldly after their first course was served. “I will help you with the Redoe. It is in my best interests because I cannot leave without it and because I can always use the gold. Provided the sum is correct.”
“And what sum would you ask of me?” the grand asked. “We are a small city and our coffers suffer from the Redoe.”
“Are you withdrawing your offer, then?” Dethan asked. And Selinda knew a moment of sheer panic. No. That could not happen!
“Father, I would gladly give up half my personal jewels if it will help us to be free of the Redoe. They can easily be replaced once the city is thriving again.”
“Nonsense,” the grand said with a chuckle. “You see my daughter, Sor Dethan? She always jumps in with both feet before thinking of the consequences. It is why she could never be grand in her own standing. She reacts too emotionally.”
“Better that than with no emotional sensitivity at all,” Dethan argued. Her father may not have been aware of it, but that was a dig at him. She was sure of it. She frowned at Dethan, but he wasn’t looking at her. She suspected he wouldn’t much care even if he was.
“True,” the grand agreed. “Very well. Ten thousand gold pieces,” the grand said magnanimously. The sum was tidy and it elicited murmurs of surprise up and down the table.
“A large sum for such a poor city,” Dethan said. It was another dig, Selinda thought. But why should he care if he was getting what he wanted. The gold should have been enough for him. And yet she sensed that his respect for her father was very low indeed and she didn’t know how to feel about that. She prayed she had not released a viper in her father’s house. Then again, she thought as she looked over at Grannish, there was already a viper at her father’s neck, poised to strike at any moment.
“You will be worth your weight in gold if you can achieve what we have been trying to do for nearly five decades. Before then the Redoe were just raiders who came in occasionally and stole from the outlying farms. Now they are two thousand strong and organized like we have never seen before.”
“What else do you know about them?” Dethan asked.
“I’m afraid that’s all we know,” the grand said.
“Have you no intelligence? None at all?” This remark Dethan aimed down the table, toward the general.
“It’s not as though a spy would blend in,” Firru snapped.
“The Redoe are red-skinned,” Selinda whispered to Dethan.
Dethan smiled internally. It pleased him that she wasn’t willing to just sit aside and dry her tears while he took over and fixed the mess of her life. He had not deemed her to be so weak from the ways he had seen her stand up to Grannish in public, all the while knowing she would pay for it later. That reminded him. Tonight he would have to remember to ask her just how far Grannish had gone against her. He suspected he’d made more than a little impression; otherwise, why would Selinda have sought him out?
“And it did not occur to you to find a spy of their coloring?” Dethan asked.
The general sputtered, “You know nothing of what you speak! The Redoe are not to be trusted. Not a single one of them! They would simply hand us false information and it would be a waste of our time!”
“Then I see where I am to start,” Dethan said, turning his back on the general. “I will begin immediately. If all goes well, I should have the problem resolved by turntide.”
“Turntide!” the general spluttered, his face turning a mottled red. “Sor, I but live for the time! Then my liege will see what a liar and a deceiver you are! What say you, your most honorable?” General Firru said to the grand. “The Redoe routed by turntide or this … this liar thrown into the dungeons by turntide!”
“Sor Dethan, turntide is only sixty or so sunsets away.”
“I am aware of that,” Dethan said with a respectful nod. “These are your conditions, your most honorable? Because I face them without any fear if they are.”
The grand fiddled with his fork for a long minute as the table awaited his words in near total silence. Everyone had ceased to eat.
“Very well. The Redoe routed by turntide or you will reside in my dungeons until I say otherwise. I do hope you know what you are doing, Sor Dethan, because I would hate to see you in the cold, dark belly of this fortress.”
“Believe me, your most honorable,” Dethan said, “I have been in far worse places.”
“Very well, then. And since you will be working hand in hand with General Firru, you will have the same benefits afforded to him. Your chambers will be moved to the main level of the fortress. You will be given a page of your own.”
“Of my choosing,” Dethan said quickly. “And I would have you leave General Firru to the city watch and me to my own troops. It will work better, since we have such differing opinions.”
“As you like. Although Grannish is much better versed in the workings of this castle and the day-to-day abilities of its staff. You might do well to ask him for a suggestion as to a page.”
“Thank you, but I think not,” he said, the smile he shot the jenden acidic. “I have someone else in mind and I wouldn’t want to put any undue strain on the household by depriving it of a regular servant.”
The grand accepted his answer, completely oblivious to the undertones going on across the table. Or at least it seemed as though he were. Perhaps he was choosing to act ignorant. Either that, and he was as sly as a fox for doing so, or he was truly as blind as his daughter had said he was.
“Very well. So tell me how you plan to tackle this matter.”
“If you would like to know, I will be happy to tell you so … in private and with your promise not to speak of it with anyone else. The success of my plan hinges on secrecy. I do not trust others when it comes to matters of war, and neither should you.” Dethan dulled any sting that might be perceived by his words with a lazy smile.
“Too right,” the grand said after a moment of deciding exactly how he should take the idea of a total stranger of low station telling him what to do. If he had been worth the throne he sat on, he would have taken umbrage, would have at least questioned Dethan. But he did not. He did what Dethan believed was an all too common habit for the grand. He accepted the word of another at face value and left it at that. And this before Dethan had even done anything to prove himself. Dethan’s hand closed into a fist on his thigh. This was why the man’s daughter had been driven to all but sell herself to a total stranger, thinking her lot could not possibly get any worse. Fortunately for Dethan she didn’t really see that things could always get worse. In fact, he was rather an expert in worse.
If he had any say in the matter, he would see that she experienced nothing worse than she already had.
No. Wait. He could make no such promises. If anything, his experiences had taught him that he was not in control of fate, his or anyone else’s. Only the gods could truly do that. The gods had the final say in all things … and the gods were not known for championing mere mortals. They were better known for punishing them. But there were rewards too, weren’t there? There were stories of great people, mortals, who fought through great ordeals and were then rewarded by the gods. It was these stories, however, that had led him to his folly. He had believed that by following in the footsteps of another great mortal he would deserve the same great reward. But while the gods had been impressed by the first mortal to find the youthful waters, they had taken Dethan and his brothers’ actions as an assault. A raping of their goodwill and power. And they had been right to punish the men for their hubris.
But did it have to be for so long and in such a way?
Yes. It did, he realized. Even now, he was fighting the temptation to do the wrong thing, to let himself be distracted from his course. He could not lose sight of his goal. He must win cities for Weysa. To give her power meant an opportunity for her to achieve her ends. And maybe …
He closed his eyes and forced away thoughts of his brothers. His motives needed to be pure and concise. He could not wallow in undue emotion or get mired by others.
Unfortunately by entangling himself in the politics of Hexis he was doing exactly that. But he was in the unique position of being able to conquer a city without need of an army and he would be a fool to pass up that kind of opportunity.
He looked to his left and watched Selinda. There was food on her plate, but she was not eating. She was merely poking at the sausage with the prongs of her fork, stabbing into it again and again very slowly, each puncture allowing the contained grease to bleed out onto her plate until the sausage was swimming in a small lake of its own juices. He could easily imagine her desire to stab that fork into her true enemy, sitting merely a table’s width away from her.
That brought his attention to Grannish. Grannish was staring hard at Selinda as well, as though he were trying to divine her thoughts for some reason. Dethan knew the very moment she became aware of the jenden’s regard. Her entire body went tense and she dropped her fork to her plate. She forced both her hands into her lap and stared hard at her butchered sausage as if it were the most interesting piece of meat she had ever seen. Dethan decided that he did not like seeing her so afraid. He did not doubt she had cause to be that fearful. But she was braver than she thought. He had seen her stand up to Grannish, had seen her manipulate him in public, where he dared not immediately retaliate or gainsay her. That took courage. Especially knowing the consequences. Grannish was a bully, Dethan surmised. He had a cruel streak—Dethan had seen it when Grannish’s man had been whipping Tonkin. There had been an appetite for the suffering of others in his eyes.
So in what ways was he making Selinda suffer? Dethan wondered. And no sooner had he thought it than a sickened feeling crept low into his gut. The idea of her being under the thumb of someone like Grannish … No wonder she was scrabbling for something, anything, to save herself with.
He had known others like Grannish, and they had earned nothing but his contempt. A man made his way in the world using his intelligence and his skills of battle, compensating with one where he was weak in the other. Yes, it was true that innocents fell in battle alongside those who were not so innocent, but the cities Dethan had taken had been in dire need of taking, in dire need of someone at the helm who could manage them and make them flourish. Very often the innocents that died in the taking of the city were outweighed by those already dying from disease or starvation or any number of other things that a mismanaged city was prone to.
That was exactly what he was facing here. A city so mismanaged it was dying a slow, agonizing death. Perhaps a quicker death with the Redoe outside its walls, sitting and waiting for them to collapse in on themselves. The Redoe were far cleverer than Grannish and the general were giving them credit for. They were whittling away at Hexis more and more each year and their patience was beginning to pay off. They could afford to sit and be patient. They had all the crops they could want at their disposal and no one was challenging them … so why not sit and wait? Dethan’s task was to make it as uncomfortable for the interlopers as possible. But that would require discomfort for those behind the walls as well.
“I should like to go about inspecting your troops later today,” he said to the general.
“What, all together?”
“Yes. All together.”
“The city guard protects the walls and those within the walls. I can’t just call them all together. It would allow for mayhem in the streets.”
“They will be called together and will do so in shifts afterward at least once per day. Otherwise, how do they know what is expected of them, what direction you wish them to take?” He grimaced. “Or is it that you don’t give them any direction at all?”
The general coughed, bits of eggs flying from his lips, his face mottling in fury and indignation. “Your most honorable! I refuse to take such insult from a lowborn piece of—”
“Be warned,” Dethan said quietly, “I do not take kindly to insults.”
He did not raise his voice like the general did. He did not have to, Selinda thought. The entire room quieted in response to his warning because they could all feel the coiled threat that he was, like a serpent ready to strike if he was poked or irritated.
“It is no insult, only truth!” the general hissed, although there was a sudden caution in the lines of his stocky body. “I have been his most honorable’s general for fifteen years! You are hardly old enough to be called a commander, never mind a general. And we still have no proof you are anything but a wastrel off the street, taking advantage of his most honorable’s need and graces.”
“Are you saying the grand is so weak that he would not be able to see through a simple charlatan, if indeed I was one?” Dethan asked archly, one of his dark brows lifting high.
“I …” Firru hesitated, looking away from Dethan to see his liege lord’s expression of interest in his response. “I-I just meant to say …” he stammered.
“Your grand has hired me to find out what is wrong with his army and to use that army to get rid of the Redoe. I can hardly do that if you plan on fighting me every step of the way,” Dethan said. “If indeed there is an army.” He frowned as he thought on that. “A city guard is not an army. The city guard’s focus is to protect the city while your army’s focus should be beyond the walls. Do you have an army?”
The general’s gape-mouthed, wide-eyed silence was telling, even if Selinda didn’t already know the answer. There was no army. Firru had always said that the city guard was more than enough to keep the city safe.
“We have no soldiers and nowhere to find them,” Grannish spoke up, discomfited irritation in the lines of his body. Firru was his man. He couldn’t afford for his man to look bad in front of the grand.
“That is peculiar, for I saw a mass of soldiers in the center of the city square yesterday.”
“There were no soldiers in the city square! The only thing taking place in the square is the fair!” Grannish said.
“Yes, and there were hundreds of healthy men able for battle if properly trained. Many of whom, as I understand it, are idle and starving as their farms are squatted upon outside the walls.”
“Mud farmers? What do mud farmers know about fighting?” Grannish scoffed. He laughed and many at the table laughed with him.
“Not much, I am certain, but it is their farms out there, so they will fight passionately for them. They are strong from backbreaking work, tilling muddy fields. A little training and they could be a force to be reckoned with.”
Grannish laughed again, but there was an uneasiness in his tone that had not been there a moment ago. “And you will convince them to fight how? They will resent conscription.”
“I disagree. I believe they will readily volunteer. But there is only one way to prove which of us is right.”
“You are correct. I welcome the opportunity to be proved wrong. The aim is what is best for Hexis,” Grannish said, suddenly magnanimous. He leaned back in his chair and smiled at his grand. “That is all we want. You work for gold, but we work for the love and well-being of our city.”
“That remains to be seen,” Dethan said sotto voce. But Selinda heard him well enough. She also felt him. When she would have spoken a moment ago, leapt into the conversation, he had stayed her the way she had tried to stay him the night before, with a hand on her thigh and a gentle, insistent squeeze. She very rarely got to speak her opinion on matters, and in public in front of her father was one of the few venues she had. Sure, she might pay for it later, but at least she was able to openly speak her mind to her father, invest her opinion, and hope it somehow reached him on some level. At the very least it would cause Grannish to dance and bow and scrape a little faster to undo whatever damage she might have done. It was a small victory, if it could be called that, but it still made her feel a little better. But now Dethan was holding her back, trying to control her just as Grannish tried to control her.
No. That wasn’t fair, she thought hastily. He had not proved himself to be anything close to what Grannish was. Only time would tell on that score and on many others. For the moment, she had many other things to be worried about that were far more serious than a missed opportunity to join a conversation.
For instance, the fact that he expected her to come to his bed tonight. The very thought of it had her feeling nauseated. Not that she was repulsed by him—she had to admit he was exceptionally appealing in a rugged sort of way, with his dark hair left free down to his shoulders and curling at the ends and the thick black of his lashes a perfect framework for his clover-green eyes. He was mind-numbingly tall, and that was to say nothing of his well-muscled body. She had seen all of it, but what she had seen had been covered in burns and scarring, dead flesh and ashes. Yet here he was today and she could see the meat in his biceps, the ropey veins running down and over his forearms. His hand on her leg was large and warm, and it was that touch that made her feel small in comparison to him. His palm nearly engulfed the whole of her thigh and she could feel his strength in his fingers. That strength seemed to seek out an unknown and secret part of her, making her highly aware of the imprint of each finger on her thigh and just how close those fingers were to a place where no man had ever touched her before. To a place that seemed to be … craving his touch, as scandalous as that sounded. Almost as if it were calling out to him. Selinda flushed hotly at the wanton sensation, confusion overtaking her as heat burned her cheeks. Was he doing this on purpose? Or was it just her own cravings making it seem so?
She suddenly had the idea that he was measuring how much strength he was using to get his message across … yet not hurt her, as if to say, I have the strength to rip the world to shreds every moment of every day, but at this moment I choose to do otherwise. But was that all he was saying? Was he perhaps asking for more? Here? Surreptitiously but in front of everyone? The idea sent wicked, shocking chills down her spine and a wet heat appeared in secret places.
Selinda swallowed noisily. She wanted to push his hand away, but she found herself ridiculously fearing the skin-to-skin contact. She imagined it might burn her. Why she was suddenly imagining him to be all these dangerous things she could not say, but there it was all the same.
She stood up suddenly, causing a ripple of similar movement to occur down along the table.
“Please sit. I find I am not feeling well.” Although she found she felt better now that the pressure of his touch and all its possible meanings had been lifted. “I am going to rest awhile.”
“I will escort you to your rooms,” Dethan said immediately, talking over a similar offer being delivered by Jenden Grannish.
She couldn’t deny them both, and the hidden command in Grannish’s eyes made her decision for her quickly. “Thank you, Sor Dethan,” she said, lightly placing her hand atop his and letting him lead her away. It was a new experience, having two men vying for her attention, and she found it a horrible position to be in. To think some women actually enjoyed such things! She supposed it might be different were the suitors men one wanted to have the attention of, but one could never really choose these things, could one? Men would do what men wanted to do, as was proved at that moment. The very man she had sought to avoid was right now walking her up to her rooms.
“Thank you for remaining silent just now,” he said to her once they were out of the hearing range of anyone, surprising her greatly. She wasn’t used to being thanked for her behavior … or lack thereof.
“You are … welcome. Why would you not let me speak?” she asked in honest curiosity, amazed to find she was no longer irritated by his silencing of her.
“Although you have not told me the whole of it, I have gathered you pay for your opinion in some way or another at Grannish’s hands. You will be tempting fate enough with your actions these coming weeks. I’ll not have you hurt over this.”
“He won’t hurt me,” she hedged. “He needs me too much. There are no other women for him to wed in this family. He has seen to that.”
“So you truly do believe he murdered your family. I had suspected it was someone, but I did not know who until you put forward Grannish. After all, it is obvious he was the only one left to gain by such a thing.”
“Yes. Before me were my two elder brothers and after me my two younger sisters. Though I suspect he was not responsible for Arra’s and Gia’s deaths. They were taken by plague. Arra was considered the greatest beauty of her time. It was more likely that I was the one in the way of him marrying her … until she died and left him with no option other than to marry something ugly and scarred.” She touched the ridged scarring on her jaw.
Suddenly she felt him grab hold of her. She was dragged into a dark alcove, out of the way of foot traffic, and pressed up against the wall. She gasped, looking up into his fiery green eyes.
“And that is the last time you will refer to yourself as ugly in my presence. You will not even think it and I will know if you do.” He gave her a little shake. “You are one of the most beautiful women I have ever laid eyes upon, and believe me when I say I have seen the most beautiful women in the eight heavens and beyond. You are not the sum of this scar and it is not the only thing on your body worth seeing!”
Then, instead of pushing her away, Dethan drew her closer, his hands opening and closing again on her upper arms, almost as though he was fighting himself for a moment over what he wished to do with her. She found herself pressed to the full length of his body, feeling his strength through the density of her corset and her skirts, as though she were not wearing them at all. The thought made her flush hotly and she knew it colored her face because he smiled a little as he looked down on her. Then he reached for the veil that covered the damaged half of her face and pulled it up and away. She gasped and tried to pull it back into place but he grabbed hold of her wrist and held her tightly until she stopped struggling.
“And this is the last time you will wear one of these while you are in my sight,” he said, pulling the cap completely from her head. It was pinned in place so it dragged at her hair, ruining the delicate chignon it had been sculpted into and Hanit’s hard work. He dropped the cap to the floor, and now that he had started, he finished pulling the rest of the pins free, letting the black mass dump down over her shoulders and back, letting it fill his hungry hands, where he stroked it and fondled it eagerly.
“Y-you don’t understand. I-I have never gone without my veil! Grannish will be very—”
“And,” he said as if she hadn’t spoken, “I think I should like you to wear your hair down as well. It makes the blue of your eyes stand out, and I find I like that. I noticed your eyes from the very first and find them stunning.”
“My eyes are not the first thing most people see when they look at me,” she said, her tone bordering on bitter. She tried to pull free of him but he tightened his hands around her head.
“They are the first thing I saw. And since I am to be your husband one day, I should think my opinion would be the only one that matters to you.”
When he put it like that, she stopped fighting him and relaxed in his hold a little.
“You are only marrying me to get to my father’s throne,” she said in a soft whisper, afraid her words would anger him, daring much by calling him on it. But instead of getting angry with her, he surprised her by chuckling.
“Only? You know very little about men if you think that is the only reason I want you as a wife, when you will warm my bed with this body for the rest of your days.” His hand filtered out of her hair, his large knuckles drawing along the skin from her collarbone to her breast. “But then again, in a world gone mad, where this is considered ugly, I can see how you might be twisted about.” He reached the swell of her breast, where it met the conservative line of her corset, and frowned. “What is this? Why do you bind yourself up in such a way?”
“I-it’s just a corset,” she stammered, her face on fire as he touched her in a way no one had ever touched her before.
“Yes. I gathered this is the fashion, for I saw it on other women at the table. But unlike you, they swelled over the top of theirs, showing off the plumpness of their breasts. And while I find it to be surprisingly bold, I wonder why you are not so daring. In my day no one wore these … corsets. Women left their bodies free. But still, you are bound tighter than most.”
“Some of the women are wearing underbusts,” she explained, “and others are … I just … I’m not allowed to flaunt myself.”
“Yes,” she whispered. “Grannish has forbidden it. I am not even allowed to wear makeup in the court fashion. If at all.”
“I had noticed that too. And while you do not need such embellishments, it wears ill on me that he should prevent you from expressing your looks as other women do or as you might like to. We will have to change this.”
“Oh no!” she cried, sudden panic winging through her. “I cannot! You must not make me! Please! He will become enraged. He will—” She cut herself off and swallowed hard.
“He will what?” Dethan demanded to know, his expression turning thunderous. “What will he do to you?”
“Nothing,” she whispered in a lie. But knowing he would see through it, she hastily added, “Nothing serious. I’m sure I make more out of it than it really is.”
“And I’m sure his attitude and behavior in this matter set the trend for your other interactions with him. It set in motion your need to come to a complete stranger for help, bartering yourself to him freely without knowing a damned thing about him.”
His words made her swallow hard. “It had to be a stranger,” she whispered. “Grannish knows everyone else. Has them all afraid of him or in collusion with his goals. I knew, listening to you at the table, that anyone who understood the first thing about Grannish would never challenge him in such a way. His ego would not tolerate it. It is not just that he believes he’s not wrong; it is that he cannot tolerate a world where he might be deemed as being wrong. I do not think you understand what you are putting yourself into.”
“But you were hoping for that,” he mused, his glittering eyes searching her face. “And you do not believe I will succeed.”
“I did not,” she agreed breathlessly, “until I saw you this morning.” She quickly dared to ask, “Why are you not burned? You are a little, but nowhere near what I saw! You have healed almost completely in comparison to last night!”
“First, I must ask you, will your girl talk of this to anyone? Is she in Grannish’s pocket? It seems to me she would be the best way to keep close eyes on you.”
“No. Hanit has been my servant only a short while, but … but I believe in her. Grannish approached her shortly after my sisters died and threatened her if she did not work for him, then cajoled her by offering her money. She agreed to both but immediately told me. She knew if she had refused she would have been replaced. So we have it worked out that she will tell him only a little. We sometimes invent things to make her believable … but the important things she keeps secret. In a world where I cannot afford to trust, I believe and have total faith in her.”
“Very well. I will accept your estimation of the matter.” But Dethan was not entirely convinced. He realized the risk she would be taking by coming to his rooms each night. But still …
Dethan reached to touch the soft, supple skin of her long throat. He had never seen such a graceful neck that had not been on a goddess. She wore a sheer shawl over her shoulders and tucked into the top of her corset—yet another way of covering herself up. Why would Grannish want to hide her rather than flaunt his ownership of such beauty? Dethan would most certainly be proud of having a lover who—
“Have you been intimate with him?” he asked suddenly, sharply, before he realized he was even going to say it.
“What? No!” She sounded suitably horrified and the expression of disgust on her face convinced him that she had never had any desire toward Grannish, that this wasn’t just some ploy to make him jealous. He had not read her to be that way, but it wouldn’t be the first time he had misjudged a situation.
“He has not forced himself on you?” he asked more gently.
Color crept up her neck, chin, and cheeks. “No. Not yet,” she said softly. “But if he thinks there is a danger of you getting me pregnant before he can—”
“Nicely attempted,” he said with a chuckle, watching her color deepen, “but you will still be coming to my rooms. You must simply be careful so he doesn’t find out. And you will return to your rooms before the household awakens in the morning.”
“If that is what you want, Sor Dethan, then I will honor our agreement.”
“Every night, after juquil’s hour.”
“Very well,” she said.
He studied her for a moment, then touched her chin, using the connection to tip her head back and pull her gaze up to his.
He did not know why, did not fully understand the pull in those teal eyes of hers, but he found himself drawn to her. Found himself studying the softness of her lips. Had he ever seen a mouth so lush? How could she expect him to notice that small patch of burned skin on her lower cheek and jaw when she had such a pretty mouth to look at?
“How did it happen?” he asked, an attempt to thwart himself from the urge to kiss her. He would kiss her. Soon he would kiss her and claim those lush lips as his. He angled her head to the side and studied the scar up close. Upset, her hand immediately fluttered up to cover her cheek. He grabbed hold of it instantly and pulled it away. “The more you try to hide it, the more you try to cover it up, the more you draw attention to it,” he told her sternly. “Now, tell me. How did it happen?”
“My … my sister and I were playing and she pushed me … I fell into the fire and my hair caught fire. Nanny was quick to put it out—it could have been much worse—but the damage was done, and then it became infected and …” She swallowed hard and he saw tears shining in her eyes. That strength he saw in her showed itself, however, as she straightened her spine and met his eyes and refused to shed a single one of those tears. “I learned very young to hide it however I could. It makes people uncomfortable to see it. Please don’t ask me to not wear my veils. I need them—”
“To make other people feel better?” He made a scoffing sound. “Let that be on them. Let them figure out how to deal with it. You are grandina of Hexis. Hold your head high and your face bare and remember that you possess all the power over them. If your father died tomorrow, you would be heir to the throne and would be granda in your own right.”
“Please,” she said softly, “do not speak of my father’s death. I have already lost so much of my family. More than half of it. As it is, I am afraid that as soon as I marry Grannish my father’s life will be in jeopardy.” She reached out and grasped at his shirt above his heart. “Please promise me you will not let that happen.”
“Your marriage or your father’s untimely demise?”
“Both,” she said, and he felt her tremble in his hands.
“My promises will mean nothing to you,” he said gently. “You do not know me, nor do you know my capabilities. All I can do is promise you to do my best to see to it none of that happens. My motives, as you know, are not altruistic or emotional. I will have my gold, will be head of your army, and I will have you to wife. Those are my goals and I rarely fail to achieve a goal. Take from that whatever comfort you can.”
“It gives me a great deal of comfort,” she said, opening her hand against his chest. “More comfort than I have known in turntides. For I believe you can do what you say you can. I would not have thrown my lot in with you otherwise.”
“Your bet is well placed, my lady,” he said with a cocky smile on his lips. Oh, it felt good to smile again. To enjoy the company of another. Of a woman. Dethan had to admit he found the idea of marrying her more than a little appealing. He took in a breath and enjoyed the clean, floral scent of her. He pulled long waves of her ebony hair into his hand, brought it closer to his nose, and breathed even deeper of her scent.
“Oh, how I’ve missed this,” he said, his words low and fierce.
He regained himself, letting her hair filter through his fingers and back onto her shoulder and breast.
“I have not been … I have not been close to a woman in a very long time. I look forward to your company tonight.”
She flushed a deep pink and looked down at his chest. They were standing too close together for her gaze to touch the floor. She went suddenly stiff in his hands and against his body.
“Wh-what if I do not wish to … to test you. To experience … you.”
He chuckled at her, unable to help himself. “Oh, you will want to,” he assured her. “But I will not force you, if that is what you mean. I will not have to force you. I assure you all will come very naturally.”
“I just don’t see how I could ever willingly …” She had begun to pull hard for breath and he could feel the upset in her with every fiber of his soul.
“Enough,” he said, lifting his fingers to her left cheek and brushing his thumb over her bottom lip. “You will like whatever we do,” he said on a low, compelling whisper, his head dropping until his mouth was but a breath away from hers. Her eyes were wide, her breath heaving out of her. There was so much fear in her that he could practically taste it. And he simply would not have her that way. Unlike Grannish, he did not need to control her. There were better ways of winning loyalty from someone other than fear and intimidation.
Dethan swept his mouth down onto hers in a sudden rush, his hands around her arms tightening as though he feared she would escape. But she was too stunned to make any attempt at it. So few had dared to kiss her … and those who had tried had been resoundingly rebuffed. Mostly because they were horribly unpalatable or horridly inappropriate. So, outside of her family members, she had never been kissed before. She had never known the astounding feel of a strong male mouth rushing up against her own.
The kiss was followed by the feel of that strong male body going tight with strength and tension. His heat all along the front of her body was overwhelming and it radiated his barely leashed power into her. And yet his mouth was soft … strong but soft. He slid his hands up from her arms and cradled her head between them, tilting her chin up so that she met with him better, so that she meshed more perfectly.
She did not know it or think it, but she was a natural when it came to kissing. She thought she didn’t know what to do, but instinctively she did, and that made the kiss almost painful in its perfection. She tasted so good that Dethan growled low in his throat, pulled her mouth up tighter to his, and then licked her between her lips.
She was startled by the introduction of his tongue. She had seen others kiss in such ways, but seeing it and doing it were two very different things. It somehow seemed far more intimate than what had just transpired had felt. Her heart was clamoring in her chest from the riot of emotions and worries stampeding through her.
“Enough!” he said on a low rumbling huff as he gave her a little shake. “Your taste tempts me and I will have the whole of it.” His mouth sealed to hers again and this time he thrust his tongue past her teeth. She was prepared to hate it, prepared to be repulsed … but she was shocked to find she liked his taste as well, and the way he tangled their tongues together was so very hot and erotic to her. Illicit. Temptingly forbidden.
As she absorbed all this, she went completely boneless against him. The softening of her body only heightened her awareness of the hardness of his. He stood strong and dominant, feet braced apart, and his mouth devoured her in demanding sweeps of his tongue.
“There’s a sweet girl,” he breathed against her lips. “Ah, you have a fine flavor and I can feel the heat buried inside you.” He drew back and looked down into her eyes. “Yes, you’ll do very nicely,” he assured her. “And then some.”
She thought she should be offended, but she wasn’t. She was panting hard for breath and trying not to slide to the floor in a weak little pile of flesh that seemed to be suddenly absent any bone.
He seemed to understand her dilemma, because he slid his hand down to her back and used the press of his body to jog her more upright.
“Come, let us bring you to your rooms where you can lie down. I think you need some sleep.”
“But …” She looked genuinely puzzled.
“Unless there was something more you wanted?” he asked suggestively.
Another blush flamed across her cheeks and she fell all over herself to blurt out, “No!”
He threw back his head and laughed at her. But it wasn’t a mocking laugh or even a patronizing one. She knew the sound of those all too well. It was the laugh of someone who was honestly amused. She was so used to everything in the court being measured or manipulated, she couldn’t remember the last time she had experienced such genuine, unfiltered emotion.
“Come, sweet silk,” he said, running his fingertips down the left side of her face before taking her hand and pulling her back into the hall. “Show me to your rooms so I will know the way.”
The very idea of him knowing where her rooms were and what he might use that knowledge for had her breath quickening in her lungs and her heart racing all over again. Only this time she was pretty sure it wasn’t fear she was feeling at the prospect of meeting him in the dark of night. She didn’t exactly know how to define it, but there it was just the same. She hesitated only a moment but then realized he could easily find someone else to show him the way if he so chose.
She stepped forward and led the way.