The difference in how Selinda felt by the time she went down to join the others at table was remarkable. Especially considering she ought to be more concerned about the impending encounter come juquil’s hour. But that was some time away and she allowed herself the luxury of not thinking about it.
There was nothing relaxing about their meal. She felt the ominous presence of Grannish seated next to her—he had since switched seats with Dethan, seeing him settled across the table and down a few seats, as was befitting his station. But she felt it was more to make a point. Grannish held all the power in that household and he was making sure she knew it.
Still, she found herself looking over toward Dethan often. He looked haler and heartier than she had remembered from earlier. Had he grown even more muscular? Was such a thing even possible? She could see the massive width of his shoulders under his shirt and, she noticed, the vest he had been wearing earlier was gone, only to have appeared on a page now seated at the servants’ table, which was set aside from the masters’ table. The body servants, personal pages and pagettes, were allowed to dine at the same time as their masters because it made them readily available at all times. The household servants were another matter entirely. Like their masters’ table, the servants’ table was arranged by rank. Hanit sat close to the head of the table and Selinda could see that her pagette’s interest strayed often to the new page. Almost as often as Selinda’s attention drifted to his master.
Was it her mistaking or did he look almost completely free of his burns and scarring? She remembered them being more prominent that morning. They had been nearly bone deep the night previous. None of it should be possible, and yet it was. She wondered if anyone else had taken note of the difference between day and night. Then again, by morning he had appeared mostly healed … though the differences might not be noticed unless one was obsessing over his appearance as she was.
It was still light out, sunset an hour away. The main dining room was dark and shadowed for the most part. It was lit brightly by lamps, but lamps cast shadows and played tricks on the eyes. Perhaps she was seeing it all wrong to begin with.
But she didn’t think so.
Once again Dethan did not make it entirely through the evening meal before he was hastily excusing himself. His page, after some urging by Hanit, immediately followed. Strange. What kind of page needed to be told how to behave?
Dethan had procured horses for himself and his page earlier that day from the stables, but it was only his horse he had made certain was saddled and ready to go half an hour before dusk, giving him thirty minutes to make the ten minute ride to the cavern, which allowed plenty of time for potential holdups or trouble.
He had no intention of telling Tonkin what was about to happen. He had come prepared this time with a cloak, intending that the darkness and the folds of the garment would hide the worst of his punishment’s results from any curious eyes.
“No, Tonkin. Go finish your meal and find your bed in your room adjacent to mine. I will not need you anymore tonight.”
“Are you certain, my lord?”
“Most certain. Good eve and good night.”
He urged his horse onward and headed out of the bailey at a gallop.
Juquil’s hour came too soon, to Selinda’s thinking. She had Hanit clasp a cloak about her shoulders and she pulled the hood up to conceal her face. She had worn dark clothing, one of Hanit’s gowns cinched tighter than the slightly rounder woman wore them. The fineness of her own gowns would be easily recognizable. This way she would pass for any pagette.
She had braided her hair and pinned it decoratively to her head. Then she’d found herself fussing. Primping in other ways. This time she had painted her lips, although in a more subdued fashion than the brilliant sunset colors. She didn’t want to look too eager. Then she’d perfumed herself—not too heavily like some women did, choking anyone in range, but lightly. Sweetly. Using her most delicately scented perfume.
With a touch of lotion to soften her hands, she deemed herself ready and presentable. But just as she was about to go, her stomach sickened with nerves. She reached out and grabbed on to Hanit, in whom she had confided everything.
“My lady, perhaps you should rethink this bargain. If he should get you with child …”
“I believe that is partly his purpose in this,” she said in a soft, heated whisper. “And it is not an idea I am adverse to. I’d rather a bastard child than one of Grannish’s. But the child would be in danger every day of its life as long as Grannish remained in favor. It would need a strong father and protector.”
“Strong or not, nothing can defy poison. Grannish’s favored weapon,” Hanit reminded her with disgust.
“I know. I think the only reason my brother lives is because he is a backup plan. Grannish cannot marry him, but he could control him. Be king by proxy.”
“My lady, that would require your father’s dea—No! He would not dare!”
Selinda looked at her hard. “Wouldn’t he?”
“I … I suppose he would at that. I forgot about his earlier threats.”
“How could you? I never will. I am thinking of them even now as I ready to do this thing.” She took a deep breath. “I am to be off, then,” she said shakily and moved herself out the door.
Once she had left the safety of her rooms, she moved with haste through the fortress, terrified with every minute that she would be seen. Earlier a page—not Dethan’s new one—had been sent to tell her that Dethan’s rooms had been moved. She was grateful for this because it meant she had a shorter distance to go. However, it took her past the rooms of those who would recognize her. Luckily most of them would be safe in their beds by now.
She stopped in front of his door, nervously hoping she had the right rooms. She was about to push in on the handle when a sudden hulking presence came up behind her, covering her hand with his. She squealed a short, crisp sound of panic and jerked about … only to look up into the burned face of the man she was supposed to be meeting. She gasped in horror at the sight and smell of him. He looked even worse than the night before and this close she could smell the burnt flesh on his body; he overwhelmed her with his presence. He hushed her gently, then used her hand to open the door. She hurried into the room and he staggered in behind her. The first thing he did was drop his cloak from his shoulders and skim out of his pants, all the while gritting back sounds of torment. The feel of the clothes must have been agonizing.
Selinda leapt into action, helping him toward his bedchamber and into his bed. He could only bear to sit up on the edge of it, gritting his teeth and breathing hard through them.
“What is this?” she demanded to know. “Why does this keep happening to you?”
He remained stubbornly close-mouthed. With a sound that was a hybrid of frustration and anger at him, she marched back through his sitting room and banged on the door to the opposite suite room, raising the page from his sleep. He came to the door looking grouchy and tired.
“What’s this, then? Can’t a man get some sleep?”
“You are a page,” Selinda reminded him. “You are beholden to your master at any time of the day or night.”
“Well, if I’d known that, I might not have taken the job!”
Selinda stared at him incredulously. “Your master needs you direly and you are complaining about having a job most would kill for in these times?”
That brought him up to his full height, which was not inconsiderable. He rivaled his master in both height and build. He had stood out amongst the prettier page boys that night at supper.
“Right. Sorry, my lady.” Then he seemed to recognize her and his eyes went a little wider. He hastened to bow to her, but she stopped him impatiently.
“Enough of that. Go to the kitchens and fetch me a bottle of hyaita juice, some kettle greed, gloaming goat, and juni beet juice. Do you know where the kitchens are?”
“Found them first thing,” the man said with a pat on his belly and a chuckle. “Will anyone be there? How will I know where all these things are and what they are?”
Selinda sighed with impatience. “You are right and I am sorry. Go find my rooms and fetch my pagette. Tell her what I need and you can go together. Now, be quick about it!”
“Yes, my lady. Right away, and I don’t mind seeing that pretty Hanit again, I do say!” And he was off like a shot before she could say anything further in reprimand. “You could have put a shirt on,” she said to the empty room. No doubt the page was going to shock her conservative Hanit.
She moved back into the bedroom.
“Now, you are going to tell me what is going on right this very instant,” she said sternly to Dethan, her hands on her hips. “And I will not accept any dithering about it. The truth. Right now!”
“It’s a curse,” he said after only a moment in which she was certain he was considering arguing with her. “I’m to be burned, every night, from dusk to juquil’s hour.”
“Oh my sweet merciful gods,” she breathed. That was why he left in the middle of dinner!
“The gods are anything but merciful, I assure you,” he said bitterly. “It is they who have cursed me. And rightfully so. I was a man of much arrogance and am made to suffer for it.”
“And the other part?” she asked.
“What other part?”
“The part where you heal with incredible rapidity.”
He laughed bitterly. “Another part of my curse, although this was self-inflicted. I am immortal. I cannot be killed.”
She gasped with disbelief. “That’s impossible!”
“Oh, it is quite possible, I assure you. I have been burned to the bone, chained in the eight hells, every minute of every day for the past … What is the turning, anyway?”
“The turning? It’s twenty and twenty-two.”
“Gods, it has been nearly two hundred full turnings.”
“Two hundred full turnings!” she cried. “You’ve been … But that is … Oh my gods.” She knew it was true. Every last bit of it. She knew it because she could see it in his face.
“I don’t want anyone to know. Not even Tonkin.”
“Someone is eventually bound to notice. I have. And it would be best if your man was by your side for this. Where do you go every night?” Understanding rushed through her. “You go to the mouth. You go back into the hells.”
“Not fully. I can barely make myself cross the threshold of the mouth.”
“I can imagine why.” Sympathy tugged through her.
“Do not feel badly for me. I am not an innocent victim. I am made to suffer because I deserve to suffer.”
“No one deserves this,” she said harshly. “And certainly not two hundred full turnings of it. How did you get out? Did you somehow escape?”
“Weysa set me free. Not entirely, as you see. But she gave me my days back and I am grateful for that.”
“So … you knew that every night you would be weak and injured?”
“Yes,” he said.
Understanding dawned in her eyes and she sagged into a sitting position on the bed beside him. “You knew. You knew you couldn’t touch me in this condition! You made me worry and fret, and all this time …”
He reached out then, snagging her wrist and pulling her eyes to his with the action. “I will not be this injured the whole of the night. I will heal. And you are mine until just before dawn. I promised you that you would be able to test my abilities as a lover and I intend to deliver on that promise.” But the moment he saw the anxiety clawing its way up into her eyes, he eased. “But only when you are ready, my lady. You think little of me if you think I will force myself upon you.”
She cleared her throat and looked down at their connected hands. “And if I never want to … to …?”
“Oh, you will want to. I promise you that.”
“I could easily say I don’t. Whether I mean it or not.”
“You mean you would lie. Somehow I doubt you will do that. You are not the lying sort.”
“How do you know what sort I am?” she asked softly, looking down again. “You barely know me.”
“I know enough. I know enough to know you are honest. That you are strong and brave, that you are a champion of those less fortunate than you are. I know you would have kissed that barbarian had I not stepped forward, because he had been promised a prize and you were willing to live up to that promise however repugnant you found it. Tell me … was that one of Grannish’s ideas?”
She flushed and lowered her lashes, but not before he could see the fire of anger entering her eyes.
“He loves to humiliate me at every opportunity. He probably paid that barbarian to win. It is just the sort of machination he likes to take part in.”
“That sounds a little paranoid,” he mused.
“With good cause,” she muttered.
“No doubt. Tomorrow I am to inspect the city guard and I wish to begin to accept volunteers of additional troops. Conscription will come later.”
“It seems a sound plan,” she said.
“It is, but I was wondering if you could help me garner volunteers. It is one thing for a soldier to ask, quite another for the beautiful grandina of Hexis to ask her people to help her fight off their enemy. The people look up to you. They think good things about you. They want to help you.”
“Well, I don’t know if all that is true. But I will help you. I will do anything you need. Tomorrow I will go to the fair, in the square, and make a public address.”
Just then Hanit and Tonkin arrived back at the rooms.
“Thank you, Tonkin,” Selinda said dismissively. “You may go back to bed and you will speak of this to no one.”
“My lady, I’m not the speaking sort, I can promise you that. Does my lord need me?” Tonkin hedged when he saw Hanit moving into Dethan’s bedroom.
“Not anymore. Good eve and good night.”
“Good night,” the man said, although he didn’t seem to want to go to bed and not be a part of whatever was happening beyond the other door.
Selinda went back into the bedroom, and with Hanit’s help, she once again dressed Dethan’s burns. He was able to sit back in bed in a certain amount of relief, the numbing agent in the herbs she used doing wonders.
He pulled a blanket up to cover himself from the waist down but she stopped him.
“I know the weight of it will be uncomfortable. Do not worry about my discomfiture. It is twice now I have seen you naked. It’s rather becoming a habit.”
“Speak to me again in a few hours when my vigor … and other things … are restored. In fact, I insist you stay around for that. You will sleep beside me. I would know the feel of your warmth in my bed. Up against me,” he said, reaching to touch a finger to her temple, to the right side of her face, and drawing a line down along it to the very tip of her chin. The touch was so personal, so connecting, that she almost didn’t comprehend the meaning of the words accompanying it. She felt incredibly drawn to him, more so with every passing minute, and she knew it was because he was the better choice presented to her. He had to be, and she had to accept that … and everything that went with it. If these were his demands in order for her to be free of Grannish, then she would submit to them.
“Now come, sit beside me, and let us get to know each other.”
“Gods above,” Hanit said softly, fanning herself with both hands and blinking rapidly. “If his lordship knew what you were doing … gods above.”
“But he will not know,” Dethan said sharply. “If he does, then we know exactly where it has come from, and I promise you I will not take kindly to my lady being put in danger.”
Hanit gasped, then clenched her hands into fists and jammed them onto her hips.
“Oh dear, you are going to regret that,” Selinda muttered quickly.
“Now, you listen here, Sor Baked-and-Roasted, I have been taking care of this girl for a year. Certainly longer than you have. She means the world to me, and I should matter. And who are you exactly? You are no one of any significance.”
“Hanit …” Selinda tried to stop her. “Please forgive her. She’s overprotective—”
“No! I’ll speak my mind, and why shouldn’t I? I don’t like what you’re into, your ladyship. I know I shouldn’t have an opinion on the matter, but I do. I worry this vagabond is going to compromise you and leave your life in ruins … or worse. You heard Grannish today. That man would just as soon kill you if he had another way to get onto the throne!”
“Wait. Grannish came to you today?” Dethan asked harshly, taking Selinda’s chin in his hand and forcing her eyes to his. “What happened?”
“Nothing. It was nothing,” she said, trying to reassure him. Her instinct was to placate the source of anger she was faced with at any cost. Of course she would react that way. It was the only way she knew how to survive, and it sickened Dethan when he thought about it.
“I am not angry with you, Selinda. And Hanit has every right to feel the need to protect you. There is much around you from which you need to be protected. But, Hanit, I promise you I am not one of them. We have honesty between us. I make no claims at romance or play at fanciful emotions and ideals. This is a contract between your mistress and me. I will fulfill my side of it and she hers, and nothing will muddy it up in between. Now, I am pleased to see how loyal you are to your mistress and I hope her trust in you is well justified, but we are all strangers in this room, so you will understand my mistrust … especially when it could mean your mistress will be in danger.”
This speech seemed to mollify Hanit somewhat, for her body relaxed a little from its steadfast, bristling pose.
“I do not care how big or how dangerous you may be. If you hurt her, you will have me to answer to, make no mistake about that!” Hanit reminded him sternly.
“And you have my permission to do so. Now, head back to your mistress’s rooms and make certain no one finds her missing. This will be your task every night.”
“After dressing you, you mean,” Hanit said. “If you will be coming in each night looking like this”—she indicated his burned body—“she will need help dressing your wounds. Then I will head back. And if you do not mind me saying, your man is going to notice something eventually. You either have to tell him yourself and scare the silence into him or risk letting him tittle-tattle it to others in household gossip.”
“You are right,” Dethan said, mollifying her once again. Hanit nodded and then turned with a wide swing of skirts and left the room.
It wasn’t until she shut the door that Selinda felt truly alone with Dethan.
“Now … come and sit and tell me all about you.”
The request still surprised her, and it must have shown on her face, for he chuckled at her.
“Did you think I wouldn’t want to know more details about the woman who will become my wife? And I am certain you have questions as well.”
She nodded silently.
“Well, go on, then. Ask me something. Ask me anything, and for this time tonight I will answer all your questions.”
“Did you have a wife?” she blurted out. “I … I mean before,” she finished more tamely.
“I had two wives,” he said. “Although not at the same time,” he felt the need to add, knowing it was going to be her next question. “Both were very young when they died. After my second wife died there was no need for another.”
“Did you … did you love them?” she asked, knowing she sounded foolish and childish for asking about it. Marriage was rarely about love. It was about gains and land and women used as bargaining chips.
“I … I married them for power,” he said predictably. “They were the daughters of two rulers of two different cities I had acquired. My marriages were about establishing a foothold in the regency of each of those cities.”
“Like what you are doing with me,” she said quietly.
“Would you prefer I pretended otherwise?” he asked.
“No,” she said hastily. “Please don’t. I prefer honesty. I prefer to know where I stand.”
“Then you will have honesty. I swear it to you.”
“Do not make me a promise you cannot or will not keep,” she said sternly. “I do not think I could tolerate another deceptive snake of a man in my life.”
“He will not be in your life for long if we have our way.”
“I would like that very much,” she said with great feeling, making him chuckle. Then he reached for her, touching his thumb to her lips, running it gently over them.
“Was this for me?” he asked her, and she knew he meant the color she had painted there. She flushed hotly, but she nodded and looked down at her lap. “I like it very much,” he said, and she found herself looking up at him with surprise before she could quell the reaction. He frowned then. “But you do not usually wear it because you are trying to keep peace with Grannish. Better to keep peace than satisfy a desire for a small indulgence, yes? I think you make many such sacrifices.”
How strange, she thought, that he should notice such a fine detail. And that he should understand why she did not do it normally. “He does not like me to draw attention to …” She lifted her hand and brushed her fingertips over the scar on her jaw.
“I don’t see why. The scar is not so very big. Why does everyone treat you as though half your face were engulfed in it?”
“I … cannot answer that. They just do.”
“A simple accident. I am sorry. I am more sorry that people deem it a reason to find you anything but the beauty you are. And I thought so even before you made me an offer that might make me grand one day.” He said it to cut the brewing thought off at the knees and she had to smile. How was it that he could anticipate the things she wanted to hear and know?
“Do … Have you ever had children?” she asked him.
“I did. And I often wondered what became of them. My two sons. They were ten and fifteen summers when I left them. Hopefully old enough to still become good men after I was lost to them. I think there is little I regret more than that. They should have had a father to raise them. Instead I was off on a fool’s quest. One that ended very badly.”
“I should think so,” she agreed. “And I am glad—or at least I hope—that you have learned something from your errors. I would not wish to lose my husband to such an end.”
“You should know,” he hedged, “that I will be leaving you to rule in my stead once this is established.”
This meaning their marriage.
“What do you mean?” she asked a bit numbly.
“I have a purpose, Selinda. I have a contract with the goddess Weysa. I must go forth and conquer cities in her name. I cannot do so from here.”
“But … to conquer whole cities would take years! How would you be able to … I mean,” she hastily covered a flushing cheek with her fist. “How do you think to have children if you are not here to father them?”
“I hope to leave you pregnant with our first child before I go,” he told her baldly.
She was so upset by his news that she lurched to her feet.
“I-I will go with you!” she blurted out before she could stop herself. “You cannot leave me here with Grannish to win back his favor over my father, if indeed we can ever break my father’s loyalty to him. I would come with you. Then I-I—”
She knew how desperate she sounded. Knew how desperate she must look. He reached out to her, taking her hand in his and pulling her back down beside him on the bed.
“Hush, little one,” he soothed her, touching her on her face again in that reverent way. “I will not leave you until you are safe. And a campaign trail is no place for a woman. Not a delicately bred woman, in any event.”
“I am not delicately bred,” she said stubbornly, though they both knew it was a lie. “I am far tougher than I seem.”
“You would have to be,” he agreed, “in order to face Grannish every day and then dare to throw your lot in with a stranger in a wild effort to undermine him. That takes incredible strength and fortitude. Do not doubt it for a second. But a campaign is rough living. With rough men all about you, doing very rough things. Campaigning is not glamorous, nor is it as full of glory as the bards and recruiters would have you believe. Very often armies are less decimated by one another than they are by living conditions, illness … starvation. Desertion is the highest casualty rate in a poorly run campaign.”
“But you would not run a campaign poorly,” she said with remarkable assuredness.
“Ah no, that I would not,” he said with a chuckle. “But you do not truly know that I would not. You have never seen me proved in battle.”
“I wish I didn’t have to at all,” she said, and he could feel the fervor behind her words. He didn’t fool himself into thinking her recalcitrance had anything to do with him. She was afraid for herself and for her family. Even for her people. All these things would come well before a damned former general with no army, no future, and very few prospects at present. In fact, it was probably very unfair of him to saddle her, young and beautiful as she was, with someone as damned as he was. For all he knew, tomorrow Weysa would come find him and drag him back down into the eight hells, where he would burn and rot once more.
The thought made his skin, formerly burning hot, go ice-cold. He made himself laugh as a way of shedding the terror that might otherwise paralyze him. He couldn’t afford to let fear get under his skin. It was his fearlessness, he believed, that had made him the general he was.
It had also gotten him into the position of being damned. Perhaps there was a better way of dealing with the world, but if there was, he was not aware of it. So … courage, purposefulness, and ruthlessness would have to be enough. They were all he had to offer her, and considering her circumstances, it would have to be enough for her as well.
“Come, lie down beside me and sleep for a while,” he invited her, moving aside to make space for her, though she would have to climb over him to get to that space. He could have moved in the other direction, but for some perverse reason he did not. He enjoyed the color that flamed across her face.
Selinda’s panic rose higher when he reached out and patted the bed beside him, asking her to join him once more. She must have looked stricken, because he chuckled and reached to touch that finger to her face again, the touch so soothing and disarming.
“I cannot make a nuisance of myself for a few hours yet. I want you to lie here and sleep. I do not expect for you to attend to me all night. I’m not a sick child, and besides, your weariness come the morning would start to tell. You must not appear to be anything different than you were before.”
“All right,” she said with caution. She slowly, gingerly began to climb over him.
“No. Not like that.”
“Oh! Am I hurting you?” she asked with hasty worry.
“No. I meant you should take off your dress.”
“But I—” She gasped.
“I will redress you myself. And you may leave on your undergarments. I assume you have some.”
“Why, yes, an undergown. But it … it is plain and unattractive. Surely you do not wish to see it.”
“I wish for you to sleep beside me. You cannot do that if you are laced tightly in a corset. The purpose of this fashion is clear, but the practicality of it falls very short. I only want you to be comfortable, little juquil.”
Her face registered surprise. “That is what Hanit calls me.”
“Rightly so. The juquil is an extraordinarily beautiful bird. Yet it is fearful and mistrusting. It is said that a man who can tame a juquil can tame the world. I used to keep juquils as pets, taming them into my hand.”
“Really?” She was duly impressed by that. It took a sensitive, patient person to do such a thing. Something he was proving to be in spades.
“Do not be so impressed. I did it to prove I could tame the world. Highly selfish intents, I promise you. Now, let’s be on with it.”
She stood up from the bed and moved amusingly out of his reach. She didn’t yet realize he was already well enough to move freely. He could lunge for her if he wished to and there would be nothing she could do to stop him. The thought made him frown. It also made him realize just how reckless it had been for her to strike this bargain, just how desperate she had been.
She began by unlacing her sleeves. They were long and went from the edge of her shoulder to the seat of her palm. He had noticed the daring bareness of her shoulders when she’d doffed her cape earlier. He had no doubt she would never have worn such a dress publicly for fear of inciting Grannish. But it stood to reason that if she had a gown like it hidden away, then she had defied her harsh master yet again, in another small way. And yet she did not think herself strong. It was very clear to him that there was a steely spirit within her, but it was on the verge of breaking. Grannish would have her completely if Dethan did not achieve his promise to help her. The idea sat very sickly in his stomach.
She next pulled the ties of her dress until it had dropped to the floor.
“Do you need help?” he asked at that point.
She shook her head and reached back for the bow of her laced-up stays, pulling it free. She pushed on her chest, then pulled, doing so several times until the corset began to loosen and finally she could draw it over her head. But first she hesitated and then shyly turned away from him. He was just about to tease her when he realized this was the very first time, no doubt, that she had ever disrobed in front of a man. He needed to be kinder to her. He was taking her far outside what she normally felt comfortable doing and he would be patient with her as she found her footing in the situation.
And yet he could not let the moment simply slip by, unnoticed and unremarked upon. Not only was it her first time disrobing for a man, it was her first time disrobing for him. There would not be another and he would not let it slip past unappreciated.
“Turn back to me,” he said, his voice rasping lower upon the request.
She went very still and turned her cheek toward him. He could see the high color brush across it.
“Please … I cannot.”
“You can and you will,” he urged her gently. “I wish to see what will come to me in my part of this bargain. And I wish for you to see the appreciation in my eyes when I do.”
Her hesitation lasted a good long minute as she thought about his request. Then slowly, bravely, she turned back toward him. He could see the tautness of the bone corset, the ice-blue color of it and satin material seeming somehow decadent on her finely shaped body. She had plump, pretty breasts and they were obviously at the edge of the corset, even though it was somewhat conservative. There was no hiding such delights. Men may try, but other men could always see the charms of a woman if they really wanted to. All it took was a decent imagination.
At last she slowly pulled the corset over her head. This left her in a thin chemise and a lighter underskirt, which was meant to add body and fullness to the skirt of her dress. It was still as heavy as the dress itself and it made him wonder exactly how much weight in clothing she must wear all day.
But an instant later all such thoughts flew away. An instant later he realized the chemise was near to sheer and he could see the dark tips of her nipples through it. His mouth went dry and his healing body grew tense. He tried to will himself into relaxing because there was a measure of pain involved, but he could not be convinced.
She was erotic and lovely even without trying, and he realized he wanted her. Wanted her in a way he had not wanted a woman for over two centuries.
He saw her hesitate in her disrobing, her finger toying with the bow at the back waist of those skirts.
“Do you mean I should …?” she hedged.
“Does this chemise reach your knees?” he asked, somehow managing to sound unaffected. He had no desire to scare her away. Not when he was dying to see more of her. To feel her … even if it was just the feel of her weight and her warmth next to him in his bed.
“It reaches my ankles.”
“Then, yes, I mean you should take off all but the chemise.”
Her face colored again, something he was realizing he found delightful about her. She was so innocent, so delicately bred. No, he thought, she is not the sort of woman who would do well in a battle camp. Not that he would ever even want her there, he thought with haste.
Selinda swallowed hard before pulling the ties to her underskirt. Her heart was pounding so hard she was surprised he could not hear it. Or maybe he could but he just didn’t care about her nervousness and fear. Did he not even realize what she was risking by doing this? Everything was on the line at that moment. Everything.
And yet all she could worry about was if he would find her ugly. She wasn’t even wearing one of her prettier shifts. It was plain with no lace. Plain and thin, she realized as the cold of the room hit the warm fabric, making her feel just how exposed she was. Foolish girl, she thought. She had known it was possible he would see her in her underclothing. Why had she not thought to wear something prettier?
She felt his eyes on her and she dared to look at him. As mottled and burned as his face was, she could easily read the expression in his eyes. He craved the sight of her. He was waiting for more. And suddenly she felt as though she were standing fully naked in front of him. Her breasts grew heavy and felt obvious. Her belly grew taut with anticipation. Or was it fear? She didn’t know. She had nothing to compare this experience to.
The moment her skirts hit the ground she hastened to the bed, crawled over him, and burrowed like a frantic little drivet beneath the cover on the bed. Although Dethan was quite certain she would not enjoy the idea of him equating her to a small, burrowing rodent, so he would adhere to thinking of her as a beautiful, wary juquil.
“Now relax and sleep,” he said, even though both relaxation and sleep were far out of his own realm. “I will wake you before dawn so you can return to your rooms.”
She couldn’t hide the surprise on her face. She was so certain that he would do his worst to her. She probably didn’t even remember the last time a male was kind to her. And, yes, he included her father in that. A man who would not listen to the fears of his daughter, who would not take her reports of abuse seriously, was very unkind indeed.
“You said … that I should … that I would …”
“Try me out?” he offered, chuckling when she gave him a shy nod. “Aye, and that you will. But not tonight. Now sleep. I will watch over you.”
She snuggled down deeper under the covers, and he could see she was comforted by that idea. And as he watched her, slowly, surely, she finally drifted into sleep.