As he headed for the grand’s governing chamber, Dethan wondered what had gotten into him. He knew how dangerous it could be if he showed partiality to Selinda when they were in public, but it had almost been as though he couldn’t help himself.
No. He could help himself, he thought fiercely. He was not the kind of man who was a slave to his whims or emotions.
Not true. If your brothers are involved …
Yes. Then he was quite capable of rendering emotion. He had always had a bit of a blind spot when it came to his brothers. He had done many a heedless thing in order to see to their well-being. Even now he was struggling through this with the ultimate goal of finding some way to rescue his brothers from their torment. He shuddered when he thought of them suffering as he had done. It would be nothing to him to go back to his place in the hells if it meant freeing one of them instead.
But that was not going to be the way of it and this way he had hopes of freeing all three of them eventually. All he need do was stay focused on winning this city in Weysa’s name. That meant controlling his impulses when it came to the grandina.
He was wise enough to admit that it was not going to be a simple request to make of himself. For all his worldly experience and his iron will, she was an incredible temptation. It must be, he thought, because he had been so long without the comforts of a woman.
But comfort was just the beginning of it, he admitted to himself. As much as her ministrations in the night gave him surcease, it was what happened when he was in his full vitality that most compelled and tempted him. She was so fine a woman, in so many ways. She thought herself weak, but he saw just how strong she was. She was intelligent and caring of her people. And … and she was lush and beautiful and all too alluring. There was something about her, she of the fey, imperfectly beautiful face and slender and strong figure. She carried around a full weight of clothing with ease and grace, and yet there was something inherently sexual in her carriage. It worried him. If Grannish ever got over the flaw of her scars, he might see beyond it and realize just how desirable she was. She was full-breasted, full-hipped, and made for loving. He had seen and felt it all, and yet hadn’t even begun to touch her.
And touch her he would. He would claim her body and, through it, her throne. That was the only reason, he tried to tell himself. She was a means to an end. His desire to protect her was his desire to protect the only avenue of peacefully gaining control of this city. He was not afraid of war, but he had always been wise enough to avoid it whenever possible. A man of intelligence could just as easily defeat a city as a man of war could.
He reached the chamber doors and thundered his fist against the heavy, carved wood. A page opened it, scuttling back quickly afterward. Dethan strode into the chamber and immediately saw the grand … and Grannish by his side.
Of course. Dethan had known it would not be so easy to extract the grand from Grannish’s watchful eye.
“I thought we were meeting in private,” he said immediately to the grand.
“Oh, it’s all right. I trust Grannish with all information.”
“Then we have nothing to talk about,” Dethan said. He gave the grand a short, respectful bow and turned to leave the room.
“Are you afraid of scrutiny?” Grannish called out mockingly.
“Here now, return to me!” the grand commanded.
Dethan had no choice but to stop and turn around. “As you wish,” he said, returning to a position before the grand. “But you will find me silent in the presence of others.”
“I will only relate the information afterward to Grannish, so what difference does it make?” the grand asked almost peevishly.
“All the more reason to keep my own council. You said I could rout the Redoe in whatever way I chose. I will do so. But experience has taught me that sharing my plans of war with too many others can be as good as relating them to the enemy. There are eyes and ears everywhere. If you wish to be rid of the Redoe, then you must trust me.”
“But you do not trust me? Or your grand? I wonder what it is I’ve done to have given you such a low opinion of me.”
“Let’s just say I do not trust anyone and leave it at that,” Dethan said. It took a great deal of restraint not to list Grannish’s crimes right then, but he needed to bide his time. Needed to earn the grand’s good opinion.
“Then what did you wish to discuss with me, if not your plans?”
“My payment,” Dethan said.
“You will have your gold.”
“I have decided gold is not enough. If you want the Redoe routed, then you must pay me the price I ask.”
“And that is?” Grannish asked, his eyes narrowing slightly.
“The grandina. I ask for her hand in mine. I want her to wife.”
“What?” Grannish exploded, lurching forward, his hand going to the pommel of the sword at his waist. “You presumptuous bastard! That is my bride you speak of!”
“And how will you care for her when this city crumbles to dust under the boots of the Redoe? I have had more time to assess the situation. Did you know the Redoe are undermining your walls as we speak?”
“What do you mean?” the grand asked, suddenly alarmed. He sat up straighter in his seat. “Grannish, is this true?”
“No, of course not,” Grannish scoffed. “He is trying to alarm you in order to get what he wants!”
“I can prove it to you,” Dethan said mildly. “But if you’d rather continue this approach, in which if you pretend it isn’t happening it might go away on its own, then by all means …”
“The Redoe never try to breach the city,” the grand said hesitantly. “They simply take over the fields, and once the crops have matured, they take what they need for their winter stores and then leave for their dwellings!”
“Well, apparently they are tired of feeding off your lands and walking away. They want something more, and an apathetic city waiting to be overrun is a perfect target.”
“Who in the eight hells do you think you are?” Grannish roared, stepping forward again and half drawing his blade, the unmistakable sound of it filling the air.
“I warn you, now,” Dethan said quietly, “if you draw that blade, only one of us will be left standing at the end of it.”
“You aren’t even armed,” Grannish scoffed.
“I will be once I take your blade off you,” Dethan said, again that quiet menace in his words.
“Enough!” the grand said abruptly, lurching out of his seat and stepping between the two men. “Dethan, if what you say is true, if my city truly is on the brink of invasion, then you shall have what you want.”
“Luzien! She is promised to me!” Grannish was tight with his fury. He did not want to sound like a whining, spoiled child being asked to share his favorite toy, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. Everything, every last one of his plans rested on his marrying that gnarled hag. As unpalatable as she was, he would readily take her and all the power that would come with her. How could it be that in the matter of a mere couple of days his entire future, all his power, was under threat? And all because of this one man? This filthy beggar posing as a general? “You cannot simply break a betrothal!”
“Why not?” The grand stopped his progress suddenly and turned so he was barely a pace from Grannish’s face. “If you recall, I am grand here and my word is law. My daughter is mine to do with as I please. Her marriage is to gain as much benefit for this city as is possible. Up until moments ago I thought marrying her to you would be that best benefit. However, if what Sor Dethan says is true, then I am forced to recognize that my faith in your abilities might be overzealous. I never thought I would see the day when I would say that. I have had many people come to me and try to undermine you in their jealousy of your position and power, and I have shut them all out. I have always felt that my faith in you has been well placed, and because of that you have been rewarded handsomely for your services. But if this city is in imminent threat and it has escaped the notice of you or your little pet general, then Sor Dethan must be tempted to stay and fight for our survival, and if Selinda is that temptation, then so be it. Now, Sor Dethan, if you would be so kind as to show me your proof of this …”
“You must change your clothing first, your most honorable.”
That made Luzien hesitate. “Why?” he asked.
“Because I am afraid that to take you onto the walls in such conspicuously wealthy clothing will be like painting a target on you.”
“The Redoe are not known for their archers,” Grannish said dryly. “They do not even wear shoes.”
“Still, I would rather not take the chance.”
“Very well. I will go change. You will both wait here for me.”
Grand Luzien walked away and left the two men alone. Grannish was fuming and Dethan could feel it radiating off him in furious waves of energy, even though he masked it well in outer appearance. Dethan leaned back against a near wall, crossing his arms over his chest, and began to whistle indolently, as if he didn’t have a worry in the world. As if the man standing across from him wasn’t plotting the best way to kill him. And, as Dethan had known it would, Grannish’s control eventually slipped.
“You will not have her,” he hissed at Dethan. “I see your game. You think to have it all. You think you can walk into this city and be this close to being grand in only a day’s time! Well, I have been working toward this for most of my adult life, and I promise you I will not let it go easily, nor will I let it go to some filthy mud farmer. Were you my equal I might find a reason to respect you as competition, but you are not!”
Dethan knew it was all Grannish could do to keep from spitting at Dethan’s feet.
“The problem with that statement,” Dethan said slowly, “is that one would have to presume there is anyone out there you would deem to be your equal. But there is not, is there?”
“No, there isn’t,” Grannish spat.
“Not even the grand?” Dethan asked.
That made Grannish hesitate, and he looked at Dethan suspiciously.
“You think you are so clever,” the jenden said. “You think this will be so easy for you to accomplish. The grand has been my puppet for years. He would not be able to function or govern without me. He knows that. He depends on me and he knows he would be completely exposed without me.”
“I do not doubt it. That makes him weak. Where I come from, a weak ruler is a ruler who needs to be deposed. I conquer cities ruled by weak men, and they deserve to be conquered.”
“You speak words of treason! Ha! The truth of your goals is in your own words! You seek to depose the grand!”
“I seek to put the strongest ruler at the helm of this city. The grand might yet redeem himself if he is willing to open his eyes and begin ruling for himself, rather than relying entirely on another to do the hard work. But look at it this way, Grannish,” Dethan said with a smile. “You will finally be able to relax. You will not have so many duties and responsibilities. It must be so very taxing on you.”
“Shut up,” Grannish said with a growl, his hand gripping at his sword again. “You know nothing of my duties. You know nothing of what it takes to rule a city such as this!”
“Oh now, there you are wrong,” Dethan said, again that quiet strength in his softly spoken words. “I know what it takes to run a city such as this … and several more besides.” Again, that smile. “But if you play nice, perhaps there will be a few things for you to do when all is said and done. After all, you will still be a noble. You still have your wealth. And if that is not enough, there are many other cities out there with many more opportunities for you to advance yourself.”
“This is my city,” Grannish hissed. “And I will see you dead before I will hand it over to you willingly!”
“Good. Then we understand each other,” Dethan said. He rested his head back against the wall and once again began to whistle softly.
“Can you see the long rows of canvas there and there, your most honorable?” Dethan said, pointing out the canvas.
“They are tents,” Grannish scoffed.
“They are too long and too narrow to be tents. But they are enough to shield the city from seeing what is being done beyond them. But if you walk twenty paces farther down the wall, you will be able to see mounds of dirt hidden behind the canvas. The Redoe are tunneling beneath the ground, heading for your walls. When they get to them, they will simply dig beneath them until the weight of the wall causes it to collapse. Once the wall is breached, it will be impossible to keep out the raiding parties. This wall is the only thing protecting you right now. Look at the Redoe’s numbers. With no standing army and a weak city guard, the Redoe will have this city in less than a day after the walls fall.”
“By the gods,” the grand whispered, all the color leaching out of his face. “Grannish! Why didn’t you know about this?”
“I … I depend on General Firru to tell me these things!” Grannish sputtered.
“And yet he has not. I seem to recall you telling me Firru was the best man for the job! You pushed quite hard for it as I recall.” Luzien cleared his throat and looked at Dethan. “Very well. I’ll meet your terms. You defeat the Redoe and banish them for good from my doors, and you shall have my daughter as payment.”
“I will not let you down, your most honorable. I have been watching the Redoe and I can see where they are weak. It seems to me they are only being so bold because no one has forced them to behave for many years. But that will change now. However, I do need to have gold in order to gird your new army”—Grannish scoffed at that—“and it seems your coin handler is under the impression that I am not to be trusted with large sums of coin. Now, I realize you do not yet know me well, so I do not ask the coin be put in my hand. However, can we not work with the smithies and builders and such in a way in which the coin handler can pay them directly?”
“Of course! I have already given orders that you are not to be curtailed. I do not understand what the problem is.”
“Your most honorable,” Grannish said, “I told the coin handler to have a care for your coin. I simply did not wish to see you robbed by a man we knew nothing about!”
“Well, you can see now that he is what he says he is,” the grand snapped. “Give him his gold, give him his head, and let us be free of this Redoe pestilence for good and all!”
The grand shoved the telescope he’d been using to look at the Redoe into Grannish’s chest, then stormed past him and down the tower steps that led to the top of the city wall.
“It seems to me,” Dethan said to Grannish, “that you might be more grateful. After all, it is your city I am saving.”
Grannish merely hissed at him and stormed off in his grand’s wake. Dethan watched him go for a minute. Tonkin stepped up to him.
“He’s rightly furious just about now, I’m thinking,” Tonkin said with a low chuckle.
“Aye, that he is,” Dethan said. But he was not amused. He was looking at the darkening sky. “Come, let’s attend the eventide meal. Then I have somewhere to be.”
“Sor … my lord, where is it that you go at night? And why was the grandina in your bedchamber last night?”
Dethan turned to Tonkin, one dark brow lifting higher than the other. “So curious all of a sudden?”
“Well … I didn’t mean …” Tonkin stammered. “I mean your business is your business, and I’ll shut up and not ask you again, my lord.”
“No, it’s all right, Tonkin. You can ask anything you wish. But I might not answer.”
“I require your loyalty, Tonkin,” Dethan pressed on him. “The grandina would be in a great deal of danger if it was known she came to my chambers at night. I will not have her harmed, and if anything you do causes her to be harmed, I promise you I will find out about it and I will seek retribution for it. Am I making myself entirely clear here?”
Tonkin swallowed noisily and nodded. “You can trust me, sor.”
“We will discover that as we go, I suppose. You need only know to keep quiet … no matter what you see. Now come. Dinner awaits.”