After leaving Selinda in her rooms, Dethan began the task of getting to know his way around. The fortress was heavily populated and extremely busy. Finding himself alone in a hallway was nearly impossible. It was a wonder he had been able to have those few private moments with Selinda. It also concerned him because if he insisted she keep her part of the bargain and come to his rooms every night, it would be easier for her to be seen and potentially get caught. He could have let her out of that part of the agreement, but the fact was this whole venture might endanger her, not just that aspect of it, and he needed her to be there every night if he was going to make any headway in his tasks. And his tasks were monumental.
And now of course there was something else … there was a kiss. A fierce, hotly innocent kiss. She so clearly knew nothing in the way of a man … or in what it meant to be a lover. That she was untouched only solidified this insanity, running rampant through these people, that she was somehow ugly. Were they all blind? Her father was apparently blind, but was everyone else equally blind? The idea was staggering. Like some sort of mass delusion. But he had seen a lot of strange things in a lot of alien cultures in his time as a conqueror so it really ought not to surprise him.
Yet it did.
And that was the least of his worries. The rest of his goal loomed before him at a tremendous incline. But that had never stopped him before, and after learning how to endure under fiery, constant torture, navigating a few hiccups and bumps in this court seemed like child’s play. Or it would be if it were only himself at stake.
No. He shook that thought off. He was a conqueror. Whether the grandina lived or died, whether she wed him or not, he would conquer this city in Weysa’s name one way or another. He had to. He had to give Weysa everything she needed if he ever hoped to find himself in the position of being granted a favor by the goddess. Knowing that every day his brothers suffered as he had suffered drove him to find some way to see to their release from their curse. True, Weysa had risked much to free him, but if she could risk that much for him, then surely she could do so again. She would need good warriors, and if he did well, maybe he could convince her that they were worthy of saving and would only aid her cause.
But first things first. He reached out and stopped a passing page. “Where is the king’s coin handler and who do I speak to about having my rooms relocated?”
“The grand’s coin handler is just down the hall. As for your rooms, that be the head mistress’s duty,” the young boy said with a sniffle. He rubbed the back of his hand under his nose. “She has an office right off the kitchens,” he offered, anticipating Dethan’s next question.
“Very well. Which way to the kitchens?”
After a brief visit to the grand’s coin handler to procure some gold for his pocket—he was happy to hear that the coin handler had been expecting his appearance—he took only one wrong turn before he finally found the kitchens. It was a madhouse of bustling energy and noise. Shouting and good smells filled the air, along with the clattering of copper pans and chopping knives. The head mistress showed up at her office door after only a minute’s wait.
“Change your rooms? What for?” she asked suspiciously.
“Because all the grand’s advisors have rooms on the level below the family and that is where I am to be placed.” It was not a suggestion and he made certain she knew it.
“Well,” she said hesitantly, “I’ve not heard anything about a new advisor.”
That was a lie, he realized. He knew the one thing that flew fast in a household of this size was news and gossip. One was usually true and the other was just as often not. She surely already knew and was hemming and hawing for a reason. He suspected he knew what it was. If he were Grannish and he wanted to keep tabs on what was going on in the house, this was the woman he would use to do it.
“Your awareness of the situation does not change the fact that it needs to be done. I will have suitable rooms by one hour before evening meal.”
“Very well, Sor Dethan,” she said, her whole demeanor changing when he used the tone he would use with any of his lieutenants. “I’ll have it done right away and they’ll be ready by noontide or I’m not head of this household!”
“Well done,” Dethan said gruffly and took his leave.
The next task was to find a page—a trustworthy one. No mean trick in a household full of Grannish’s spies. And as though thinking about him made him appear, there Grannish was. Since they were just outside the kitchens, Dethan knew immediately that he had been followed. The kitchen gangway was not exactly common territory for the jenden of Hexis.
“Ah! So glad I found you,” Grannish said amicably. “I was wondering how you wished to go about implementing this drafting of the commoners.”
“I have a few ideas,” Dethan said vaguely. “But if I need your help, I am certain I’ll be able to find you not too far away.” Dethan moved to go past Grannish, but Grannish stepped into his path.
“I fear we’ve gotten off to a bad start,” he said, his tone still amicable. “I’m not opposed to you. I am merely protective of my city. And believe me when I say we have tried everything we can with the Redoe.”
“Obviously not everything or you would have succeeded. And we have already set the tone for our relationship, Grannish, and it is a tone I like. Also, it isn’t your city. It is the grand, the grandina, and the young grandino’s city. They are the ruling family, and they are the first word and the last word in this city.”
“You will find,” Grannish said, his voice dropping a full octave, “that this is also my city. You will shortly discover that there is nothing in this city that I do not know about. Nothing I do not control. I do so in the name of the ruling family, but the fact remains it is very much my city.”
“I see. Thank you for the warning. Now, let me deliver one of my own. I will be watching over the grandina just as closely as you watch over this city. If she comes to the slightest bit of harm, if she so much as breaks an eyelash, I will come to you to answer for it. You are after all her fiancé and therefore her protector. Are you not?”
“Yes, but …” Grannish spluttered, his face coloring as his temper rose. Good, Dethan thought. He has a temper that he cannot always control. Already that makes him weaker as an opponent. The more he got Grannish to show his temper in front of the grand, the better it would be.
“So much as an eyelash,” Dethan reiterated, leaning in to the man and towering over him by at least a head. Grannish didn’t like this, so he was forced to step back. A retreat. Dethan hoped that set the tone for their entire relationship, but he knew it would not be that easy. He walked away from Grannish, who was silent, probably trying to control his outrage. For the moment, Grannish was keeping his true nature hidden from Dethan. No doubt because he didn’t want Dethan reporting bad behavior to the grand. Not until he was in a better position to denounce Dethan. Dethan was the grand’s new pet pastime and Grannish would have to work to undermine him. Better to do so while touching his hand, smiling to his face, and working with deception behind his back. But they had just drawn their lines with each other and that was the end of it.
For the time being.
Now, to find a trustworthy page.
Dethan found him around noontide. “Tonkin!” he called out when he saw the muddied peasant. Today he was in nothing but a pair of baggy pants, much in the way Tonkin had first found Dethan.
“Well, my friend! Are you come to claim that gossel leg at las—” He broke off, his eyes widening a moment. “More like you could buy me one!” he said, eyeing the mode of Dethan’s dress. “That vest alone … hand-tooled leather, gold embossing in the grooves … Why, that’d be a month’s rent for me!”
“Then you will have it,” Dethan said, shrugging the vest off and handing it to the stunned man. “And a job as well that pays real gold if you want it. Be my page, and all I will want in return is utter and absolute loyalty. There will be food and clothes, new lodgings. Any comfort you need.”
Tonkin took the proffered vest with shaking fingers, as though afraid to touch the fine thing with his muddy hands. “My lord, you must be some kind of night fairy come to give me all my wishes in one fell swoop!”
“I am not your lord,” Dethan said firmly. “I am ‘sor’ to you and others.”
“No, my lord. If you give me all these things, then you will be my lord. And I will be your page. Though before you put me in any clothes, a bath might be in order. And not just a mud bath, no! With water. Imagine that!”
Dethan chuckled. “You shall have it, my friend. Come, let’s get you some clothes. Then that bath while we discuss the details of your duties.”
“Who would think Tonkin Mudskin would be a page in the grand’s fortress! It pays to be kind to a stranger!”
“I suppose it does,” Dethan said. But he made sure his tone was dark when he said, “But you may find this all a curse instead of a blessing before long, so be careful in your adulation. I have powerful enemies in the fortress. To be specific, the jenden. You will become a target as my page. He will try to buy you first, and when he cannot do that he will try to use force to have his will done with us.”
“Well, he can try to buy me all he likes. He won’t succeed. I’ve been on the brink of starving for too long not to know a good thing. And all I need you’ve already offered. Got no family, no desires to have all the things others seem to want to gather. Only thing I ever wanted was my farm back. And peace from the Redoe.”
“Be loyal to me and I will see you have both,” Dethan promised him. “That and a little bit more.”
Tonkin chuckled. “I will be loyal to a fault, my lord. And I ain’t afraid of the jenden. He might be the most powerful man around, but the people know his heart is black as sooted mud. In whispers people talk about the tragedy of it.”
“Of the grandina being forced to marry the likes of him.”
“So … the people are against the marriage?” Dethan found that very intriguing.
“Them that’s not afraid to talk about it. The jenden’s reach is far. That’s what we say. ‘Careful, the jenden’s reach is far.’ But it doesn’t change true feelings, and true feelings are that the grandina is a kind and gentle bird and he’s a black cloud she’s being forced to fly into. If that happens, the jenden will be grand one day, and that’s a downright scary thought.”
“Indeed it is. Come. Clothes, bath, and the gossel leg is on me.”
“Well, I won’t complain! Let’s be off!”
Selinda awoke sometime in midafternoon with a blazing headache. She got them sometimes. Horrible, awful headaches during which even the light burned pain into her brain. Usually they coincided with one of her encounters with the jenden or some other time of spiked stress, so it shouldn’t surprise her that she was suffering. Sor Dethan had brought a great deal of stress with him. As well as a great deal of promise. As she fretted about going to his rooms that night, she wondered which she would find there: stress or promise.
She had Hanit pull all the drapes, darkening the room to almost night. She lay back in her bed quietly, trying to shed the pain in her head. There was too much going on for her to spend the day lounging around in bed.
Or maybe this was the better idea. To stay out of the line of fire. She dreaded her next private encounter with Grannish.
And she didn’t have long to wait for it. He came to her rooms, pushing his way past Hanit. She jumped to her feet with a wince as he took in the darkness and sneered at her. “Sick again? Is that why our new general feels the need to protect you? Although I shouldn’t bother to call him a general. I know he has no such qualifications.”
“I do not know what you—”
“Or is there another reason?” Grannish stepped up to her, his very presence beating her back until she butted up against the bed. “I warn you, little princess, do not cross me. You know well enough what I am capable of, and do not think your crown protects you.”
“What will you do?” she railed back at him suddenly, spurred on by recklessness and pain. “You may despise me, but you need me. Until we are properly wed, and even after, you need me.”
A fact he obviously did not care to be reminded of. That was why he raised his arm, ready to backhand her across her face. But something stayed him. For a moment she thought it was her words, that he’d seen the truth of them, that she had suddenly found traction in her ability to deal with him.
Until he smiled. Grannish angry was a force to be reckoned with, but when he smiled … Oh, the terrible things that could happen when he smiled.
“You are, unfortunately, correct,” he said, his arm lowering. “I do need you. And until we are wed, I need your father. But do you know who I do not need?” he asked, leaning farther forward with every word until his hot breath rushed over her ear in a whisper. “Your little brother.”
Selinda’s eyes went wide and she sucked in a shocked breath.
“Yes, oh yes,” he hissed against her ear, his hand coming to caress her now along the scarring at her jaw. “And he is so sickly to begin with. Since more than half the city believes the royal family is cursed, this will just be further proof of it. More tragedy. So sad. That is, until I wed you and put my blood on the throne. Now, there will be a strong bloodline. A worthy one. I see it all, a future I can almost grasp.” He grasped at the empty air in front of her face. “And just like that the curse on your family will be lifted. But until then … until then … Well, there’s no telling what further tragedy might befall them.”
By the time he finished she had fast, fearful tears running down her face and her head was screaming with agonizing pain as she contained her sobs. She knew from experience that he liked to see his female victims cry … to a point. It all depended on his mood, how much he was willing to extract at the time. Apparently her silent tears were enough to satisfy for that moment.
With a satisfied chuckle, he stepped back from her. Hanit didn’t dare come to her side until he was halfway across the room, and as soon as her pagette touched her, she collapsed against her, sliding them down onto the cold stone floor together. She didn’t let out her first heartfelt sob until he was well out of earshot. Then she lay there, her face pressed to a cold tile, her head throbbing with blinding pain.
She was weak, she thought. Weak and utterly useless to her family. All her hopes were pinned on an unproven stranger. She was weak and she was foolish. She was going to end up giving her innocence to Dethan, and he would walk away satisfied, while she was left with … with Grannish.
But if Grannish was all she could look forward to, then she would give herself gladly to another man. At least he seemed … That is, he was not an unhandsome man, she thought. He had many good qualities a woman might enjoy in a lover. Though she was far from being able to judge. Perhaps she should confide in someone better able to judge than she was. Still … that kiss … It had stirred her in ways as nothing had ever done before. Had she not been in so much pain she would have flushed hotly in memory of it. Indeed she did, but there was too much pain to explore the sensation.
She turned onto her back, which Hanit had been stroking soothingly, and looked up at the other woman.
“Yes, my sad little juquil. What can I do for you?”
“Can you fetch me a mem from Hella’s temple?”
“Yes, my juquil, I can get her right away, but only if you promise to get back into bed and rest.”
Selinda nodded and gave Hanit a little smile. Hanit always called her her little juquil when their class differences didn’t seem to matter. The juquil was a beautiful shining black bird that only sang at night. That was why it was known as juquil’s hour … the high point of the night when the juquil began to sing. It was always perceived as a sad little bird because its song seemed so lonesome. Selinda liked moments like these, when it didn’t matter that she was grandina and Hanit was just her servant. Although she didn’t care for the things that had to happen to make moments like these come about. Her head pounding, she let Hanit help her into bed, and then Hanit went in search of a Hella priestess.
“My lady,” came a murmuring voice through the miasma of a pained sleep some time later. Selinda cracked open her eyes and saw a mem sitting beside her on the bed.
“Oh, Mem, my head,” she said, closing her eyes again.
“Come, look at me.” Selinda did, taking in the visage of a strong, beautiful woman, about Hanit’s age, with a straight tail of hair falling down from where it had been pulled up to the top of her head, and it was every color of brown in the spectrum. It shone and was among the most beautiful hair in their world, Selinda thought, matched by her equally beautiful brown eyes. They would have been pure gold, only they had just enough brown in them to keep them from being so. She was wearing her priestess’s shawl over her shoulders, the corners knotted together just above her breasts. Selinda knew that on the back of the shawl was the symbol of Hella, a circle with three stars in its center: one for fate, one for fortune, and one for healing. A very powerful sign and very much deserved by the goddess of fate.
“My lady, what can I do for you?” the mem asked quietly.
“My head hurts. I can barely open my eyes.” Selinda knew the mems of Hella were healers, some astoundingly so. But she had never met this mem before. She hoped the woman was of significant enough talent. She must have been, in order to be sent to care for the grandina. “Are you new …?” she said, trailing off.
“I have only just arrived … just before the Redoe set in. My name is Josepha.”
“Why would you come here, to our little city with all its troubles?” Selinda asked curiously.
The mem laughed at that, a warm, enriched sound. “I did not know what troubles the city had when I came. But I am certain if I had known I would have come all the faster. I must go where I am needed, not where I wish to. Hella guided me here. Maybe she guided me to you and you to me, and that is our fate. Although those who are faithful seem to be faithful to Xaxis in this city. If not for our healing, there would not even be a temple to Hella here, I think.”
“No one really worships the gods anymore. There is little faith.”
“And yet you have faith in us?” the mem asked with amusement touching her lips.
“I have faith in your ability to heal,” Selinda said, returning the other woman’s smile.
“This is very true. I am a great healer … and portender. Perhaps, once we give you relief, I might read your runes?”
“I do not think I will need you to do that,” Selinda said with a sigh. “I already know my future.”
“No future is truly known, Grandina. Not by us. All we can know is what we should do in order to shape that future.”
“I never know how to shape my future,” Selinda said with a frown. “It just seems to … happen to me.”
“Well, we shall have to fix that,” the mem said with another smile. “But first, your headache.” The mem sat forward and enclosed Selinda’s head in her hands. She hushed a soothing sound, her sweetly scented breath spilling over Selinda’s face.
“Now, tell me why you think you have this headache.”
“I have … There is much stress in my life,” she said vaguely. She certainly wasn’t about to trust a stranger with details. True, the mem was new to the city and probably had not slid into Grannish’s grasp as yet, but once he knew the mem had visited Selinda, that would all change. And he would know. He always knew.
A studied, almost pained look crossed the mem’s lovely face, and then she closed her eyes. “I do not think this is from what you think it is from,” she said quietly, the concentration on her face deepening. “There is something inside you … something building up that needs release. If you do not release it, the pressure becomes too much and the headache comes.”
“Something? Like what?”
“I wish I could tell you,” she said, opening her eyes and sitting back. “I’m not certain I can help you,” she said, biting a full lower lip. “Perhaps if I read your runes I will get a clearer picture. Do you mind?” she asked, jiggling the bag of runes hanging from a pretty braided belt low on her hips.
“Go ahead,” Selinda said with a pained sigh. “For whatever good it will do.”
“Now, my lady.” The woman tsked like a scolding mother. “You must not be that way. You need to open your soul to the runes or they will not work.”
“All right,” Selinda agreed. Her headache seemed to be lifting just by the mem’s presence, and at the very least the runes would distract her from the mangling pain.
“Now, lie back completely. No pillow. There now. Perfect.” She opened the bag and dumped all the runes out on Selinda’s belly. “Now, do not look at them, but one by one pick up a rune when I ask for it. Start with the first one.”
The mem called for a rune and then took it from Selinda’s fingers. In the end, there were six runes. The first she laid on Selinda’s forehead. “The mind,” she said. Then her chest. “The heart.” Then her solar plexus. “The soul,” she said. Then one on each wrist. “The past and the present.” And the last she placed just above Selinda’s pubic bone, above her womb. “The future,” she said. Then she scooped up the remaining runes, put them back into her bag, and with a concentrated frown began to study the six runes.
“You are a victim. To your life,” she said. “But you are not to blame, so do not think that you are. You have made every effort to shape the future to the better. In fact, recently you have taken a great step toward the future. Very recently.”
“Is it … is it the right choice, this step?”
“Hmm. Perhaps it is. Or perhaps it is not about right or wrong. It is about better or worse. You will not have made anything worse,” she said.
“Encouraging,” Selinda said wryly. She would have rolled her eyes if she weren’t afraid of it hurting her head.
The mem chuckled. “Now, now. Sometimes that is the best kind of future. One that does not get worse.”
She had a point. Right now Selinda would settle for things not getting any worse. After Grannish’s threats today, things could very easily get worse.
“What else do you see?”
“Well, it is the soul and mind and heart runes that have me most intrigued. This heart rune, it is the symbol for fire and light. And the mind rune is a very powerful rune. But the soul rune is blocked. It is as though … as though what you really are is being kept inside. Yes! I have seen this combination before! It was in a young man who used to have these terrible chest pains … like your head pains … and it turned out that he was a latent mage! He needed to tap into his power and release it. Once he did, he never had pain again. Does magery run in your family?” she asked quickly, seeming to grow very excited.
“No! And everyone knows you have to have a mage bloodline in order to be a mage!” Selinda sat up, shoving the runes off her body. “What trickery is this?” she demanded to know. “Did Grannish send you? Is this his idea of a joke?”
“No! Your ladyship, no! I promise you this is no joke,” she said imploringly, holding out a calming hand. “I would not joke about something so serious. A magess who does not use her gifts is a waste of an important talent, but it is also highly dangerous to her. Please … I beg you to listen to me. If you do not believe me, then at least try to do something … try to use your magery on something.”
“Like what?” Selinda asked suspiciously.
“Well … here!” Mem Josepha hurried to the table nearby and poured water from the pitcher into a crystal glass. “Water. It is as pure an element as you can find, and in some way every mage has the ability to bend water to their will. Take the glass in your hands and focus on it. Concentrate all the pain in your head into this glass of water.”
Feeling foolish, Selinda did as the mem said. Of course she didn’t believe she was a magess for even a second, but she would entertain the mem.
As expected, nothing happened. The glass of still water just remained a glass of still water.
“Well done,” the mem said with satisfaction.
“Well done?” Selinda asked incredulously. “I didn’t do anything!”
“Nothing?” the mem asked archly.
“No! Nothing! And this isn’t funny anymore.”
“How does your head feel?” the mem asked persistently.
“It feels …” Better. Significantly so, Selinda realized with surprise.
“You see? You were able to release some of your power after all!”
“But the water didn’t do anything,” Selinda said with confusion.
“And you expected to go from nothing to casting fire or ice in the blink of an eye?” Mem Josepha chuckled. “Dearest, you did not walk without crawling first and you did not crawl until you learned to roll over.”
“Do not be so familiar with me,” Selinda snapped. She didn’t believe this. Not any of it. And she certainly had more important things to worry about. It was already coming around to the evening meal, and soon it would be juquil’s hour and she would be required to go to her new lover’s bed. “Thank you for your services. You are dismissed. Hanit, see her out,” she said shortly.
“Very well, my lady,” the mem said graciously, gathering her runes back into her bag and giving Selinda a respectful bow. “If you need me further, you may call on me any time, day or night, and I will come to you. And my lady?”
“Yes?” Selinda sighed in a cross between irritation and exasperation.
“I am yours,” she said. “I am true to only one other person above you and that is my goddess. You need never fear my loyalty. Serving you serves my goddess and that means everything to me.”
The statement of devotion did much to soften Selinda’s irritation toward the other woman. She wasn’t sure she believed her, but just hearing the statement made her feel better.
“Very well. Good night to you, Mem. Hanit will see you paid.”
“Thank you, your ladyship.”
With another bow, the priestess slipped out of Selinda’s rooms.