It was a slow time coming, but Dethan could feel Selinda’s trust of him mutating from a trust of necessity—meaning she had no choice—to a genuine trust. An understanding within her that she was safe with him. The proof of it was in the very nature of their lovemaking. It seemed to run a wide gamut of types, from something tender and gentle … to something wild and uncontrollable.
Nothing made that clearer than the night she did not come to him at the appointed hour and did not send Hanit with word. It worried him more than he could possibly have expected from himself. It made him wary of his growing attachment to her, made him aware of how dangerous attachment for either of them could truly be. They did not have the luxury of fanciful feelings.
Not that he was capable of such things. No one had ever been able to accuse him of being the fanciful type. Certainly not if they wanted to keep all their essential appendages.
Dethan was left to assume, then, that Selinda had developed one of her headaches and had simply forgotten to send him word. It worried him, how often she succumbed to these things. It worried him that they were so bad she was crippled by them, unable to move from her room. He would have to discuss with her going to see a mem from one of the healing temples. Or perhaps she did call on mems and these headaches continued in spite of them. Now, that was certainly something to worry about.
Left at odd ends, he had no choice but to go to sleep, letting himself heal once again from his brutal nightly torment.
It was two hours before dawn when he heard the door to his room open. He jolted out of sleep in an instant, flying out of the bed with a dagger in his hand, gained from its hiding place beneath one of his pillows. It was dark and he was poised to strike, barely stopping himself in time when he realized who had entered the room.
“Selinda! For the sake of the gods!” he ejected. “I nearly ran you through! What are you doing skulking about at this hour of the—”
His tirade jerked to a halt when her hands suddenly shot out and caressed him hard up the front of his body, starting at the tautness of his belly and running over the wall of his chest. Her fingers were splayed wide, the touch fast and hungry. She leaned in and he instinctively brought his hands low on her back, catching hold of her as she rested against him. It felt as though she were somehow desperate … or maybe just famished. In any event, her need was overpowering as she dropped her mouth to the skin of his warm chest, her breath exhaling hotly against his nipple.
“Touch me,” she breathed, her lips damp against his skin. She inhaled shakily and kept her lashes lowered so he couldn’t see her eyes, couldn’t fathom what was driving her to come at him out of nowhere like this.
“Has something happened?” he asked her, trying to keep himself above the reactions he was having at the feel of her nearness and her touches.
“No,” she said, finally lifting her lashes and looking up into his eyes. “I only wanted … wanted you.”
“Why did you not come to me earlier?”
“I thought to let you rest. Let you be free of me and my demands of you for a night. Only … I failed. I couldn’t stay away.”
He couldn’t help but smile at that. He drew her forehead to his lips and kissed her, inhaling the fine scent of her. He had missed her. Day after day he could not touch her in public, not like he might have wished to. So that left him only the nights. Nights when he could do whatever he willed … and she always let him.
And here she was, telling him she was just as addicted to the drug of their lovemaking as he was. He caught her head in his hand and fiercely brought her mouth to his. He kissed her fast and hard, deep and wet and needful. Kissed her until they were both drawing hard for breath.
“I do not need to be relieved of you,” he said huskily. “In truth, you are my relief from the pressures of the day.”
“And you mine,” she admitted before lifting onto her toes in order to catch his mouth again.
This time as he kissed her he dragged her up hard against his body. He could then feel the looseness of her clothing and the freedom of the body beneath. She wore only the thinnest of shifts beneath her cloak. It made him tense even as it aroused him to have such free access to her lush young body. She had moved through the castle dressed like this. True, it had only been a short distance, but still … anyone could have come upon her. Could have been able to see through the scant material to the treasures beneath. The idea made him clench his teeth a brief instant … but then she was back to demanding kisses from him, dragging him into the act of paying attention to what was truly important in that moment.
He pulled the tie of her cloak, sending it sheeting back off her shoulders and down to the floor in a pile near her ankles. It left her standing barely dressed in that thin white shift with only delicate touches of lace on it to provide any sort of protection from his devouring eyes.
“You will not come to me dressed like this again,” he said gruffly as he ringed a hand around the back of her neck. “Anyone could have seen you.”
“I … I was careful,” she said. “I’m sorry. If you do not like me like this, of course I won’t—”
“No! I did not say I didn’t like you like this,” he said, giving her a squeeze and a shake as he tried to rein in emotions he couldn’t seem to get control of. He took hold of her hand then and brought it to the thrusting heat of his erection, wrapping her fingers around his naked state. “Tell me again I do not like it.”
“What I do not like is the possibility that another might see you and like you just as well.”
“Oh. Oh!” she said, finally grasping his meaning. His jealousy. In the dark he saw a sly little smile slip across her lips. “I see,” she said. Then her hands grew active … hungrier … as they coasted over his naked flesh. She stroked his engorged staff with a great deal of intent. Her thumb circled the head of it again and again at the end of each such stroke. He groaned and found himself blindly thrusting into her hand, his own hands gripping at the thin cotton and lace on her body. It took every ounce of willpower he owned to keep from ripping it from her, destroying it in its entirety and, along with it, any possibility of her making it back to her rooms in anything other than her cloak. Again. The idea of her moving naked through the halls of the fortress only enflamed him further.
He gripped her wrist, removing her torturous touch from his body just long enough to strip her of her flimsy clothing, exposing her to the room and his eyes. The fire was not lit and he felt deprived without it. Not that he needed or desired the heat of it, but he needed and desired the sight of her in firelight. Instead he had to make do with his hands, shaping them to the curves and valleys of her body in wide sweeps in order to reconstruct her in his mind, to help him remember the fine softness of her skin, the fullness of her breasts, the lush curves of her hips as they flared out from her narrow waist. She was perfect. In light or in darkness he had never known such erotic perfection or such unmitigated craving as he felt when it came to her.
He suddenly turned her hard about, pulling her back to his chest, dragging her backside into the lee of his hips. The weight of his erection came to rest against her and he pressed forward until he was perfectly nestled against her behind, drawing wetly into the small of her back, where the tip of it touched her. He dragged her hair off her back and over her shoulder, baring the line of her neck and shoulder on the right side to the play of his mouth. Within moments his teeth were scraping along the exposed skin there and he heard her gasp in a small breath. Then he felt her pressing back against him.
No. Rubbing back against him. She was using her body to touch him where her hands were not. Then she thrust her hands between their bodies and used them as well. The fingers and palm of her left hand crawled down his thigh and the fingers and palm of the right cupped the sac beneath his rod and molded the malleable flesh.
Dethan growled against her neck. She was determined to be bold and forthright, and he would not gainsay her. Then he was equally forthright and took the sweet flesh of her breasts into his hands. Oh, how he needed her, needed to feel her like this and more. His craving for her nearly overwhelmed him.
But he denied any emotional aspect to this and focused on the physical. She was utterly delectable and he must have her. Must have her before her wicked hands made an overeager idiot of him. As it was, he could hardly think straight. When, he wondered, had she gained the upper hand in the physicality of their relationship? Oh yes, she had been too quick a study by far for the peace of his mind.
He coasted a hand down the soft plane of her belly until his fingers were crawling through the thatch of curls hiding her wet, heated flesh from him. But he found her easily enough and quickly enough, and she moaned softly as he did. He unerringly found that sensitive button of flesh hiding within her folds and slowly and surely swirled his touch against it. Her moans grew louder, her body active. She stood on the tips of her toes and pressed back into him harder. He persisted—his touch against her clit and her nipple, tugged between his fingers, while she turned her head, reached back and engaged his mouth in a wicked kiss.
She cried out into his mouth, and feeling fevered with lust just from hearing her, he tore his mouth from hers, turned her toward the nearest wall and bent her forward at the waist. He nudged her feet apart, widening her stance, and placed her hand against the wall.
Selinda followed every action willingly. He had shown her much in their time together, and though this was new and strange and unpredictable, she knew he would show her pleasure. He always did. She felt herself becoming open and exposed and knew instantly how he planned to take her. And in the next instant he was, thrusting into her hard from behind, filling her so full she could only gasp for breath. Her knees went weak at the raw pleasure of it, but he was there, holding her, seemingly with ease, seemingly not half as affected as she was.
But that thought was belied a moment later when he released a guttural sound of pleasure, as if he had been waiting so long to be where he now was and had finally found relief.
“I mean to take you hard,” he ground out in warning … or was it promise? She didn’t know and didn’t care. It was more than welcome either way.
He kept to his vow, rushing into her so hard her toes were barely clinging to the floor. She heard his hand hit the stone of the wall above her head and his other gripped her hip. All she could do was brace both hands against the wall as well and let him ride her as if she were a wild mare in need of breaking. All the while pleasure swirled and grew inside her, so much so it was all she could do to keep from crying out too loudly. Even surrounded by stone as they were, she still did not trust they would not be overheard. But instead of hindering her pleasure, the idea of getting caught, as terrifying a prospect as it was, only added to the racing of her heart and the keenness of her nerves.
She flew into orgasm and forgot to keep her voice down. She didn’t care. She had never known such pleasure and could not contain herself. But once was not enough for Dethan. He kept on until she came again, filling her again and again in an endless sea of thrusts, his stamina the stuff of legends, until finally she had to beg him for reprieve. With a chuckle, he bent to kiss her shoulder briefly.
“As you wish,” he said, a smile in his voice.
And yet he drove her up once more … one last time, this time losing himself in her even as she was lost around him again.
She was absolutely boneless and exhausted. She couldn’t have held herself up a single moment longer. So it was a good thing he was there to sweep her off her feet and carry her to the bed. He snuggled down under the covers with her, refusing to let so much as an inch of air come between them. And still he touched her, his hands running over her skin again and again.
“Now rest, little juquil,” he said softly against her ear. “I will wake you in an hour and maybe love you once more before I am forced to let you leave me.”
“Mmm,” she said. Then she yawned fiercely. “That sounds nice.”
“Oh, it will be,” he promised her as she drowsed toward sleep all too quickly. She had spent hours so keyed up, in need of him, and now at last there was relief and reprieve, and she was right where she needed to be.
She had never known such happiness.
It frightened her. It scared her to think it might all somehow disappear tomorrow. She didn’t know how exactly, but she feared that unknowing more than anything … even more than she feared Grannish’s fists and temper.
The thought troubled her as she fell asleep.
The days passed quickly after that, each one seeming to fly by … the nights between Dethan and Selinda seeming to fly by even more swiftly. Because of his curse their time as lovers was so very short, but the hours when he was healing allowed for them to learn about each other more thoroughly. She learned that, like her, his mother had died on the cusp of his adulthood and it had profoundly affected the course of his life. In his rage over her death, he had joined an army—any army—so he could kill with impunity, venting his fury on his enemies ruthlessly. Before he knew it, he had moved up in rank, and even though his rage had long ago been spent, he found himself marshaling his own army, conquering city after city in Weysa’s name.
Both his wives he had wed for the same reason: to gain a foothold in the government of their city. It turned out that he was just as willing to conquer in peaceful ways as he was with a strong arm and fist. Selinda thought that showed remarkable intelligence and benevolence. He scoffed at that and said it was more that peaceful ways cost less in both coin and lives.
Dethan worked hard on his army throughout the day, training his recruits and testing the mettle of his new commanders. Some he kept on; others he let go. Kyran remained, having proved himself invaluable as his right arm time and again. Dethan began to trust him more with responsibility and with the plans he was making.
He also rounded up the city guard for practice sessions at the fairgrounds, pitting them against his greener soldiers, only to find out half of them were just as green and untrained. Soon all of them were swinging swords whenever they were not on duty at the walls or in the streets. All the better, Dethan thought. The city guard would be just as important in the skirmish to come as the army would be.
Day after day the Hexis army swelled in numbers. The barracks were raised and found to not be enough to house them all. So more barracks were raised. Soon there was a ring of them entirely around the fairgrounds. When not training, the soldiers were not allowed to be idle. They were assigned to either make rounds with the city guards or help forge weapons. For they were very short on swords, bows and arrows, and long spears. To say nothing of shields. There were large metal sculptures of the ruling monarchs past and present in the center of the fairgrounds and Dethan had them torn down, using the metal to make the weapons they needed. There was not enough to make shields, but they would have to make do. Some of the men found wood and began to make strong wooden shields for themselves. They had four experienced blacksmiths and four apprentices. They in turn began to teach others, or at least use them to help with the simpler work. The forges were going all day long and into the dark hours of night.
Dethan also commandeered every horse worth its weight. Much to the protestations of the wealthy noblemen who owned them. But in a surprising turn it was Grannish who silenced them. And that was another thing. Grannish seemed to have become quite helpful. Dethan of course did not trust his motivations.
It was nearly harvest time before Dethan felt everything was at the ready. But harvest time, he knew, would mean nothing. The majority of the fields stood between the city and the bulk of the Redoe. They would no doubt be destroyed in the battle.
It had been a race. Could he get the army ready before the Redoe could undermine the walls? On his side had been the fact that the city was lying on the bedrock of the mountain behind them. That meant the Redoe had to chisel their way through just about as often as they had to dig their way through. Had he been in command of the Redoe, he would not have even bothered with such a near futile task.
Dethan had searched the ranks of the Redoe time and again for their commander. They lived in tents made of waxed fabrics, most of them pieced together like quilts. No doubt the remnants of old clothing. It seemed the nomadic Redoe used everything they had wherever they could in order to live and survive. But that meant no demarcation of rank, no real banners or other symbols to indicate who was in charge. He watched the activity closely. He could tell from what he was seeing that they were preparing for action. It was only a matter of days before they attacked the city, in his opinion.
It was time to take advantage of the situation … before the Redoe were actually ready. The citizens of Hexis would never realize just how close to being overrun they were, but the grand had been kept more than apprised of it. His gratitude toward Dethan had grown exponentially with every passing day. Dethan had quietly cultivated that gratitude into an all-out sense of trust. Luzien had thanked the gods for Dethan on more than one occasion, and had also made his disapproval toward Grannish and his former general more than clear when it came to matters of the Redoe.
Those were the days Selinda dreaded. For on those days Grannish would come to take his resulting temper out on her. He had made it a regular habit, releasing his fury on her and getting a perverse pleasure from it as well. That much was very clear. His threats against her family deepened the closer Dethan got to her father.
Mem Josepha became a regular visitor because of this. She would heal a desperate Selinda. Dethan could not know. Not under any circumstances. Not until after the action against the Redoe … after he had completely won her father’s trust and could then prove Grannish to be the violent, deceptive man that he was. It would do no good for Dethan to find out now. There was no sense in both of them feeling helpless to do anything about it.
The mem’s visits had another purpose. Josepha came to help Selinda exercise her mage ability too, helping her to gain some kind of control over the fire and its connection to her emotions. The progress was slow, sometimes seemingly insignificant. The only time she could reproduce the large flame, it seemed, was when she became irritated or outright angry. Luckily she had not accidentally set fire to anything during the mem’s teachings. Josepha said this was because Selinda had had so much practice controlling her emotions and suppressing them, which allowed her to control and suppress the flame. In fact, that skill was probably why it was so hard for her to access the fire. She did not know how to let go of it, just as she did not know how to give her emotions free rein.
All the while she came to Dethan most nights. They were by far the best moments of her days. The only time she avoided him was after Grannish took his fists to her. She was too afraid he might discover the truth. Thankfully he never questioned her or complained about it. He simply took it in stride and took Hanit’s excuses at face value.
Dethan walked into the fortress and went in search of the grand. He strode into the grand’s offices and found him, as usual, in conference with Grannish. There were scrolls of information lying all about them and Dethan wondered about it. He wondered just how difficult it would be to take over the reins of this government. Grannish was so deep into it, his roots reaching far and wide. The damage could be unfathomable. But he would not worry about that. If he had to tear it all apart and rebuild it from the ground up, it wouldn’t be the first time and it wouldn’t be insurmountable. In fact, he would prefer doing things from scratch. It would help him get a better handle on the workings of the city.
“Your most honorable,” he greeted Luzien, as usual ignoring Grannish. “Your army is ready for action.”
“Finally,” Grannish said. “It has taken you nearly two wanings of the moon to get them ready.”
“Armies are not built overnight, or easily. Even with the time taken, it is not enough. But they have heart and we are out of time.”
“You mean you are out of time,” Grannish said, just this shy of snide. “The agreement was you had until turntide. It is nearly upon us.”
“I am aware of the time,” Dethan said coldly. “It grows very, very short.”
Grannish was no fool. He heard the undercurrent in those words. It was a threat. It made him bristle, but he forced himself to remain calm.
“So we are to action, then. You will give me reports,” the grand commanded.
“Will you not watch from the walls?” Dethan asked.
Luzien looked appalled. “And risk the leader of the city to some stray arrow? That would be most unwise.”
“I see,” Dethan said. And he did. Not only was Selinda’s father a blind puppet, he was a coward as well. “We will begin at dawn.”
“At dawn, then. Good luck, Sor Dethan.”
“Thank you. I look forward to victory.” He looked directly at Grannish. “And my prize.”
Selinda was pacing her rooms anxiously, her hands clasping tightly and then releasing, over and over again. The news of the next morning’s action had filtered down to her relatively quickly. Grannish was not the only one with household servants loyal to him. In fact, she had relied on those connections more over the past weeks.
When the door opened and the mem walked in, she hurried over to her.
“Mem, please … He goes to fight the Redoe in the morning. You must teach me how to help him! I am a magess! What if they have one of their own? What if their numbers prove too much?”
“He?” the mem asked, one fine-lined brow rising.
Selinda stilled. She had not meant to give herself away, but in her panic she had said the wrong thing.
“I only meant … General Dethan. He fights for us and so must I. You must teach me how to help him.”
“I cannot teach you what you want in so little time. It takes years to become a practiced magess. Certainly to become one of use in a war. No, I am afraid you must be like the rest of us and wait and pray and hope. Perhaps if we pray to the goddess—”
“No! Prayer is as good as doing nothing!” Selinda snapped, pacing back and forth again.
“Prayer to the gods cannot hurt and it may actually help.”
Yes, but which gods? They were at war with one another. And she would not call forth their attention. Not after knowing what they did to Dethan night after night.
“The gods are cruel,” she whispered.
“Some are, it is true,” the mem agreed, surprising Selinda. “Come, child, stop your pacing. You are making me dizzy.”
The mem reached out in a rare moment of contact, surprising Selinda. She caught her by the wrist and pulled her to a stop.
“You must realize that we cannot—” The mem broke off, her eyes going suddenly wide. “You are with child!”
Cold shock and fear slammed into Selinda. “I am not!” she cried, jerking her hand away from the mem. “Th-that’s impossible! You know I am chaste!”
“I know it is expected of you,” the mem said calmly. “But if you are with child, then I also know it is not true.”
“Stop saying that!” Selinda leapt for her dressing table, snatching the trimming blade off the table and rushing at the mem with it, holding it under her throat. The mem leaned back a little, to avoid the bite of the blade, but she did not recoil from it. “Say it again and I will cut your throat!”
“And then you will be with child and a murderess,” Josepha said.
In the face of her fearless calm, Selinda’s fingers went lax and the blade dropped to the floor. She collapsed to her knees and her eyes filled with tears.
“Do not mistake me,” Selinda said fast and soft. “I am glad of it. Truly glad of it. But to speak a word of it would mean the death of not only my child but me and all the ruling family. You must not say anything!”
“I have known for two wanings that you are a magess. Has it gotten back to you that I have said anything of it?”
Selinda shook her head.
“Then know you can trust me.”
“I do not have the luxury of trust. Not as long as Grannish lives.”
“I can see why that would be. But Grannish does not own me, however much he has tried.”
“He’s tried?” Selinda asked with surprise. Then she rethought the emotion. “Of course he has,” she said with a sigh. “How is it that you were able to turn him away?”
“Because he holds no power over me. I am beholden to no one but my goddess. Luckily the other mems are of like mind and they did not pressure me otherwise. I am here to help you, my lady, however you need me to. Now, touch my hand again and let me see your child.”
Selinda slowly placed her hand in the mem’s. Josepha closed her eyes and concentrated. “It is a healthy child. Have no fear of that. Nearly a full two wanings old. You will start to show soon. Have you felt any sickness? Weakness?” She opened her eyes and looked at Selinda, who shook her head. “It is going easy for you, then. Good. You must be careful, though. The beatings you suffer could easily dislodge the child.”
Selinda felt cold dread enter her soul. It was one thing to think she was the only one to suffer, but this changed everything.
“Oh gods,” she breathed. “He must win. He must! I will not be safe until he does.”
“So the father is the general, then?” the mem surmised wisely.
“Please, I beg of you … My life’s in your hands. This information will mean my death if—”
“I can only reassure you so much, my lady. Besides, even if I were a spy, it would already be over, now wouldn’t it? Unless you are willing to kill me, the minute I walk out that door I would report to Grannish.”
Selinda swallowed. “What else do you see?” she asked. “Do you know if it’s …”
“A boy,” the mem said with a laugh. “It will be a son. Firstborn of the grandina of Hexis and a fine young prince if ever there was, yes? You and your fierce general will see to that. I have heard much of this man. He has the respect of the people.” The mem leaned in and whispered, “They want him to win so he will have your hand and not Grannish.”
“They want their lands back,” Selinda said quietly.
“That as well. But the people love you and despise Grannish. Is it any wonder they wish you to be with the general instead?”
“A son,” Selinda said, a sudden soft smile running over her lips. “I will give him a son.”
“Yes. But the beatings must stop, Grandina.”
“After the battle … they will, one way or another.” Her tone was fatalistic.
“It is clear you do not have much faith in your man.” The mem tsked.
“I have faith in him, but I know Grannish. I know this will all get worse before it will get better. I know I may be as good as dead right now.”
“Do not spend your time expecting the worst. If you do so, it will be easier for your expectations to come true. Now, let us focus on other things. Let us practice your magery and discuss what you will name your son.”