“You little slut!”
Grannish backhanded her with complete violence, throwing all his weight into the strike. Selinda flew back, her body slamming into her dressing vanity. As much as she had come to expect the worst of Grannish, she had not been expecting this. Grannish had laid hands on her before, but always in small, concealable ways. Ways that she couldn’t point to in order to show her father his true nature. But this time … She could feel the instant swelling over her eye, her eyes smarting and her nose stinging. Before she could gather herself back onto her feet he was on her again, punching her dead in the face once more.
He was a storm of rage. She could feel it vibrating off him. And even though his beating was terrible, she could tell he was holding back. She fought him when he went to grab her by the front of her dress, trying to shove him off her, but he was far too strong. Grannish was not some simpering fop of a statesman. No, he was in his physical prime, strong from his horsemanship and swordsmanship and gods knew what else he did to keep himself fit.
He lifted his fist as if to strike her again, his body bowstring-taut and shaking as he in turn shook her. If this was him curtailing his rage, she thought fearfully, then gods help her if he ever really let loose on her or anyone else. Dethan included.
“What have you done?” Grannish demanded of her. “I know you’ve done something to make him want you. What is it? Surely it isn’t the way you’ve been going about unveiled, displaying this hideousness to all and sundry! Have you spread these flaccid thighs for him?”
His fist changed direction so he could shove his hand up her skirts. She fought him, trying to push and kick him away as she felt his touch on her inner thighs.
“That’s it, isn’t it? Even now his seed is festering inside you, isn’t it?”
“No! I am innocent!” It was the only thing that came to her mind in her blind panic.
“Don’t you lie to me, whore!” he spat in her face. “Here, then, let me be the judge of how innocent you are. If you are, then we’ll make it my seed inside you. If I can’t be grand through you, then my son can be! He might be illegitimate, but he will still be the son of the grandina!”
“No! I swear to you, no! I’ve done nothing!” She kicked at him, smacking him, fighting him any way she could. Then she connected somewhere it counted because he fell back with a grunt. He crumpled to the floor, and as she gasped for breath and straightened up, she saw him nursing a hand between his legs. Shaking, she stood up tall over him, sniffling and wiping her hand under her nose. It came away streaked in blood.
She wanted to kick him again, but she was not stupid. She knew he would recover eventually, and then he would make her pay. Somehow, in some way that was most important to her, he would make her pay.
“Hanit!” she cried out.
“Yes, my lady. What is it?” Hanit said, bustling into the room. The woman froze in place halfway across the room from Selinda when she finally took in what she was seeing and it registered on her. “Here now, what’s this?” she demanded to know. And in true Hanit style, she threw herself between Selinda and Grannish. “How dare you lay hands on my mistress!” she blustered.
“Oh, do shut up,” Grannish seethed as he staggered to his feet. “This isn’t over,” he promised Selinda. But his progress toward the door told her that it was over. For now. “You’ll pay for this. He can’t protect you, and you know I will make you pay.”
“Yes,” Selinda said wearily. “I know. I know you believe that is true. But you also know things are different now. He has made things different. I have done nothing to deserve it, but I am under his protection now. My father may not listen to me, but what do you think Dethan will do when I come to him looking like this?” She indicated her battered face.
Grannish changed direction and came back toward her with all speed, growling deep in his throat with rage. Hanit, bless her brave heart, threw herself in front of Selinda, using her body as a shield to protect her. It kept Grannish at a small distance, but not very much of one.
“You will remain in your rooms tonight and tomorrow … until you can hide your face under your whore’s paint. If you show your face to him or your father before then, I will kill your brother. Do you understand me?”
Fear clutched at Selinda’s heart. No. Not fear. Terror. For she knew he would think nothing of carrying through on his threat.
“I understand,” she whispered.
“Good. Now, I have to figure out how to get your new champion to fail at his attempt to quash the Redoe invasion. As disgusting to me as it is, your hand in marriage is the one thing I have striven for these past years and I will not be denied it! You had better hope he does not succeed, because the very instant I believe I have lost you to him, I will destroy you and your entire family! And do not think for a moment that I will not do it!”
Selinda swallowed. “I have every faith that you will make good on your threats,” she said quietly.
“Good. Then we understand each other. Do not let me catch you encouraging him, Selinda. And gods help you if I catch you in his bed. And you know I will know. I know everything that goes on in this castle. Nothing escapes me.”
“I know,” she said softly.
Dethan waited a full hour in his chambers before coming to the conclusion that Selinda was not coming. He was surprised when he found himself disappointed with her. She had shown reluctance earlier, but he had thought he had made his wishes clear to her. He had thought she wanted to come just as much as he wanted her to be there. Something had passed between them …
Dethan shrugged that off. There was no space for fanciful notions. This was a business arrangement, not an emotional one. One had value; the other did not.
So why did he feel his disappointment so strongly? It was almost as though it were a physical pang.
Nonsense, he told himself harshly. He was a warlord, not some simpering young lad with sonnets and notions of love running loose in his head. No, he was stronger and harder than that. And anyway, he didn’t know her well enough to even consider …
But he had thought her to be a woman of her word. She didn’t have much in the way of power, but she held dominion over her personal honor and actions. To break a promise and then not even send word of the why of it, it seemed beneath her somehow.
No sooner had he had the thought than there was a light scratching at his door. He went to it.
“Who?” he asked.
“Hanit, Sor Dethan.”
He opened the door for her and she scuttled inside. He shut the door behind her.
“Please forgive me, I meant to come sooner,” Hanit said in a fast, heated whisper. “But Grannish has put a boy in the hall to watch the comings and goings to your rooms.”
“Then how did you …?”
“Oh,” she said, grinning like a contented cat, “well, young Bibby, as is his name, has a weak spot for the kitchen wenches. One in particular. A good girl who don’t mind doing me a favor.”
“Clever Hanit,” Dethan said with a chuckle. “Grannish thinks he has total dominion over all things, but he underestimates you … and your mistress. And about your mistress. I assume you are here to tell me she won’t be making it?”
“Well … no, she won’t,” Hanit said. “But believe me when I say she is sorry for it.”
“What’s wrong? Why won’t she come? Why did she not come to dinner?”
Here Hanit hesitated. It was clear she wanted to say more than what she did. “She’s not feeling well.”
“She seemed fine earlier,” he said, narrowing his eyes on her.
“And she was fine … but this came on her suddenly. A headache. She gets these fiercely bad headaches. The mem says it’s because she has magic inside her, but if you ask me I think she’s just trying to make my mistress feel better.”
“Magic is very powerful and not something to be taken lightly. It is a blessing from the gods. Laying false claim to it risks angering the gods,” Dethan said with a frown.
“Which is exactly what I said,” Hanit said with a snort of air through her nose.
“I will speak with her about it on the morrow,” he said.
“Well,” Hanit hedged, “these headaches … They can last for days sometimes. Ask anyone. They have put my mistress to bed quite a bit since she was in her first blush.”
“Then maybe there is something to what the mem says after all,” Dethan mused. “It is said that a magess is born at her first blush. As soon as she bleeds the first time.”
“Perhaps,” Hanit said. “But I’ll not be hanging my hat on the notion.”
“Very well. Send me word when she is feeling better.”
“I will, sor. You can depend on it.”
He saw her out and then stood at the door thinking a moment.
So Grannish had a boy in the hall. That meant he would have to be more careful with his comings and goings. The cloak he used would hide the burned state of his body, but he would need to be careful just the same. He wondered briefly if Selinda was actually ill or if this was a ruse to keep her out of his bed. Then he discarded the bulk of the idea. She was more straightforward than that in his estimation. She would have fought with him rather than hide from him … wouldn’t she?
No. He didn’t know why he trusted her so easily and so quickly. He wasn’t exactly known for his ability to trust, but he believed he had her measure and she would not play games with him. He had been unrelenting, it was true, but she had not balked with any great passion. In fact, she had seemed resigned to her course, a course she herself had chosen.
He would look in on her in the morning if she didn’t come down to morning meal.
“Mem! Oh, Mem!”
It was early the next day when Selinda fell into the other woman’s arms, and for the first time since Grannish had beaten her she dissolved into tears of both weakness and relief. She was angry with herself for her cowering behavior but could not help it. She was so alone. She had Hanit, but the poor pagette was just as afraid of Grannish as Selinda was. Standing up to him had taken just about all the courage Hanit had. But the mem. The mem did not even know Grannish, so she had no cause to fear him.
“Shh,” the mem said softly, holding on to Selinda and petting her hair, letting her have her cry and rocking her with comfort. “Poor little princess,” she said soothingly. “If only people knew what troubles you endured.”
“But they do not. No one does.”
“Now, that’s not true. There is one who knows. One who can help you.”
That made Selinda’s tears stop almost abruptly. With a sniff and the repression of some last sobs, she sat up straighter and looked at the mem. Josepha was such a beautiful woman, she realized. Not a grand beauty, a woman of splendor like those in the court, but a smooth, mature beauty. A strong one. She was still in her prime, her shining black hair falling perfectly straight and loose down to her backside. She was broad shouldered for a woman but not gone to fat in any way. Actually the strength in her hands and arms told Selinda she was not a soft woman.
“What do you know?” Selinda asked warily.
“Only as much as you do. There is someone close to you who will be able to help you one day. All is not lost for you. You may yet prevail against … those who hurt you.” The mem raised cool, gentle fingers to touch the horrible swelling around Selinda’s eye. “You need me to heal you, yes? To hide this injury?”
“Yes,” Selinda whispered.
“I will do it. And then we will practice your magic.”
Selinda frowned, but before she could shake her head, the mem touched her chin to prevent it.
“I see things beyond what others see and I believe you know this. Let me show you what I see. What can it hurt to try?” she asked.
“It can give me hope where there should be none,” Selinda said bitterly.
“Ah, but you already have hope,” the mem said gently. “Otherwise, you would have given up entirely.”
Selinda sighed. “I do not think I wish you to be wise just now. Perhaps I wish to wallow in my own misery.”
“You speak many untruths today,” the mem said with a chuckle. “For if you wished to wallow you would not have called me to you at all. You wish to be healed so you can go about your day.”
“Yes. I do. And it must be hidden,” Selinda said, touching her battered face.
“Though I know not why,” Hanit said acidly. “I say you should tell Sor Dethan what Grannish has done to you.”
“To what end?” Selinda asked in a snap of temper. “What if he sees and thinks the risk to me and mine is too great and then stops his efforts altogether? Then that means I will be forced to Grannish’s bed. And we both know his unkindnesses will not stop at the bedroom door.”
“Unkindnesses,” Hanit echoed with a snort. “That’s an understatement if ever there was one. And this makes no sense. He would stop helping you because of Grannish’s cruelty only to send you into marriage with him?”
“He would not risk my life and the lives of my family! I would not want him to! Better I suffer as Grannish’s wife than see my father and brother dead! It could be worse,” Selinda said fatalistically. “It can always get worse when it comes to Grannish.”
Hanit could not argue that point so she remained quiet. Selinda was grateful for it. She simply wanted some peace. Just a moment. Even if it was an illusion.
“Now, let’s see to your injuries,” the mem said kindly, helping Selinda to lie back in her bed.
It took only half an hour for the mem to finish her work. When she was through, it was clear the effort had taken energy. And in spite of it, when Selinda looked in the mirror, only the worst of it had been cured. There was still much discoloration. But the swelling was gone. At least she could cover what remained with Hanit’s clever paintwork.
“Now,” the mem said. “Time to practice, my little magess.”
“I wish you wouldn’t call me that,” Selinda said in a hard tone. “I am not a magess.”
“And you never will be with that attitude. At least try before you dismiss me altogether. And I mean an honest effort,” the mem said with a stern look.
“Very well. I will try. What do you wish me to do?”
“Let us see if we can discover what sort of magess you are. Last time we used water. This time we will use fire.”
The mem rose from the bed and retrieved a candle from a nearby table. She struck a match and lit the wick.
“But fire is the most powerful magic there is. I do not think—”
“You said you would try,” the mem scolded her.
“Very well,” Selinda said with a sigh.
“Fire comes from Xaxis, its creator. As I understand it, it is natural to those born in this region, for they have been guardians of the eight hells from before time was time. You are of the ruling class and so your blood runs deep in fire.”
“The fire of the eight hells can be a curse,” Selinda said, thinking of Dethan and how he suffered night after night … how he had suffered for ages. “Xaxis is the cruelest of the gods.”
“Some say Sabo is, for he thrives on the pain and suffering of others. Sabo and Xaxis have always competed with each other for the crown of cruelty. Xaxis would be proud to hear you say so.”
“The others are little better,” Selinda said, thinking of the way Weysa had cursed Dethan.
“Have a care. The gods hear what we say.”
“Most folk don’t even believe in the gods anymore.”
“But you do.”
“Yes, I do.” How could she not after seeing what Dethan suffered? What she couldn’t understand was how he could be so accepting of his fate. Perhaps he had deserved to be punished for reaching too far and trying to force the hands of the gods, but after ages of suffering, why must he still be tormented?
“Look into your heart,” the mem said softly to her. “Focus on the flame.”
“What am I trying to do? Put it out?”
“No. It takes far more skill to draw fire back than it does to thrust fire out. Drawing fire back into yourself can burn you, scorch your soul, if you are not careful. For now, try to make the flame burn brighter.”
Selinda tried, but nothing happened. The taunting little flame just flickered and danced in its own way.
“Do not give up,” the mem encouraged her.
But after ten minutes of trying, Selinda began to feel foolish. “This isn’t working,” Selinda huffed.
“You must give it time—”
“I have given it time!” Selinda snapped.
“So impatient and so like a child. You are a mature woman who has borne many trials! Surely a simple flame is not going to defeat you!”
“Go to the hells!” Selinda spat.
And the candle belched a large flame upward, setting both women back with gasps.
“There!” the mem cried in triumph. “I knew it would be fire!”
“But I … I didn’t do anything! I wasn’t even trying.” She narrowed her eyes on the mem. “Is this some sort of trickery?”
“No, my sweet lady. Your fire is directly tied to your most passionate emotions. Anger. Lust. Fear. All are aspects of Xaxis and all are a part of his flame. What you must do is channel those emotions into the flame. Try it again. Think of something that angers you and focus on the flame.”
It was not hard to come up with something that filled her with rage. All she needed to do was think of the impotence of her situation with Grannish and she was filled with the emotion. She gathered the whole of it up and pushed it at the flame.
The explosion was massive. Flame bellowed from above the candle, singeing Selinda’s clothes and catching fire to the edge of the mem’s cloak. The mem cried out, whipping the cloak off her shoulders and throwing it to the ground. She stomped at the flames and Hanit grabbed a pitcher full of water and doused the burning fabric with it.
All three women were breathing hard, staring at the smoldering cloak in their shock. The mem looked back at the candle and saw it was nothing more than a puddle of melted, burning wax. All she could think was that she was glad she hadn’t been holding it in her hands. As it was, the table was scorched all around it. She looked at the grandina.
“Grandina, this is … What you have inside you is a very great power.”
“A very dangerous power,” Selinda said, still breathing hard. “We are lucky I didn’t harm you!”
Josepha could see the fear in the girl’s eyes. It was so raw she could almost taste it on her. She did not blame her in the least. This had been very unexpected.
“You must not fear your magic,” she said in earnest, reaching to cover the grandina’s hands with her own, encouraging her to look into her eyes. “You must realize this magic has been trapped inside you all these years with no outlet, and you with no way to measure or control it. You have a store of it inside you that now needs only to be vented regularly. To be exercised as one might exercise a horse for riding. It must be broken first. Tamed. And then all that power can be at the rider’s command. You will command this, my lady. You just need time.”
“And what if I burn you or Hanit in the process? Or burn the city to the ground?”
The mem leaned back a little and chuckled. “You think very much of your power. One large flame a long time in coming does not mean you can level a city. But it is true that we must be cautious. And perhaps I am not the best choice of teachers. We can apply to the temple of Xaxis for a mem or magess there.”
“No! No one else!” Selinda said urgently. “It will be you or no one. I … I don’t trust anyone else. And anyway”—she touched the melted puddle of wax, feeling the burn of it on her fingertips—“we have no fire magesses here in Hexis. I would know if we did. Grannish would have used a fire mage as a weapon long ago if there had been one.” Then she heard her own words and swallowed. “My gods. If he knew about this … Hanit, he would never let me go. He would … never let me go.”
“He’s not likely to let you go in any event,” Hanit said pointedly. “We’ll just have to see if … Well, the gods may yet intervene.”
“Forgive me, Hanit, but I will not place my life in the hands of—” She stopped then. If anything, her life these past days should tell her not to think lightly of the gods and their power. After all, had they not, after a fashion, sent her Dethan? Then there was the mem and her guidance. And now this power inside her. “But perhaps you are right. It will all be as the gods will it to be.”
“So it will be.”
“So it will be,” Hanit echoed the mem.
“So it will be,” Selinda said with a sigh.