Dethan sent word to Selinda, via Hanit, that she was not to come to him tonight. After he healed enough from his burning he would need to be among the men, readying for the battle to come.
He had no idea it would spark her instant appearance in his headquarters. She walked into the room and every man in there fell over themselves to get to their feet and bow to her with respect.
“General,” she said briskly, “I wish to speak to you alone.”
Dethan raised a brow at that. She was always so afraid of them being seen or suspected of being alone together. And here she was, in front of witnesses, demanding the very same.
“Kyran, take the men to the training yard. Come back to me in an hour. My lady, where is your pagette? Is this not unseemly?”
“She is just outside. With your page, no doubt. I believe they have begun quite a flirtation. This is all seemly, I assure you. The door will remain open and there is a barracks full of men just beyond. I think my honor is … as safe as ever it was.”
That made him smile, but he waited until they were alone in the room before chuckling and coming around the desk to her. She stayed him with a hand and a look, then moved to the door and closed it as far as it would go without the latch actually catching. Then, as soon as they were sealed away as safely as was allowed by propriety, she rushed across the room and into his arms. Taken by surprise, he caught the headlong rush of her body against his and wrapped his arms around her tightly.
“Here now, what’s all this?” he asked, feeling the desperation of her emotion.
“I couldn’t let you go without seeing you,” she said, her words nearly sobbing out of her. “I am trying to be strong. I really am! But there is so much at stake and I fear for my family!”
“Do not be afraid,” he said soothingly. “I told you, I will not let anything happen to them.” He hugged her tightly once more before setting her away from him. He did not want someone to come into the room and catch them embracing. They still needed to be careful until this was all over. He would not be foolish and endanger her any more than he already did by calling her to him at night.
“I am …” She hesitated, unsure if she should tell him or not. But after all, hadn’t he said this was one of the desired outcomes he had hoped for? Still, he was about to go into battle and did not need details clouding his mind. “I am proud to be your woman,” she said softly, her hands reaching to brush across the width of his chest. “I cannot wait until I can be so publicly. I only regret that we cannot have this night together.”
He chuckled at that. “You have come to have quite an appetite,” he teased her.
She flushed and smiled. “It is true. I admit it gladly,” she said. “You have done as you have said and proven yourself an excellent lover. I will be happy to have you to husband, now that I know what I am getting.”
“Well, that is good to know, since I will be winning your hand by the time this is over. But Selinda,” he said, falling suddenly serious, “watch the battle closely. Once you see it turn entirely our way you must go to the fortress and secure your brother and father. Take them somewhere Grannish will not look for them, and make certain they stay there until I can get to your side. Grannish may lash out the minute he realizes he has lost you. However, I believe he has spent so long manipulating things that he will still believe he can find his way around my victory. One thing I can say is that I have not seen him have fits of rage or temper. He is quite in control of himself. He thinks about the overall picture and not satisfying his immediate emotional whims.”
Selinda blanched. She had to tell him! She had to tell him he had it all wrong!
“My lady!” Selinda started and looked over her shoulder to see Hanit standing there, a panicked look on her face. “The jenden is coming this way!”
Dethan saw her pale and he reached to cup her elbow in his hand, afraid for a moment she was going to pass out. He went to support her further, but she pushed herself away and out of his hold.
“I must go. Please …” She looked at him and a world of fear and desire was in her eyes. “Please be safe. I would keep you safe if I could, but … I am not strong enough.”
“I do not need you to keep me safe,” he assured her gently. “And you are strong in your own ways. Now go. Do not let him see you leave. Leave from the rear of the building.”
She nodded and she and Hanit hurried off. The jenden was entering the rooms as Dethan watched from the windows and saw her hurrying away, undetected. There had been something, something in her behavior that had concerned him. Almost as though she had wanted to tell him something but had not had the power or time to do so.
Whatever it was, it would keep, he thought. It would have to. He had many preparations to make.
“General Dethan,” the jenden snapped when Dethan didn’t respond to his address of him right away.
Dethan turned to him. “What can I help you with, Jenden?”
“When exactly is this action beginning?”
“Why do you need to know that?” Dethan asked absently, looking back out the window.
“I wish to be on the walls to watch.”
“At dawn,” Dethan said.
“Will you be on the walls as well?”
Dethan frowned and looked at him. “I’m going to be where I should be. On the battleground with my men, a sword in my hand and armor on my back.”
“No, of course you are … I meant where … that is, what is your first move?”
Dethan forced himself to be more present in the moment, putting worries about Selinda aside. “Do you really think I am going to tell you that?”
Grannish demurred. “Now, I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye, but we are for the same cause here,” he said.
“Are we?” Dethan asked coldly. “I am not for the same cause as you are. Your cause is for yourself. It always has been. I can safely say that makes us very much on opposing sides.”
“Very well,” Grannish said, turning a moment to shut the door. “Since we are being so candid … I think you should know I have no intention of allowing the grand to simply hand his daughter over to you. He will, in the end, listen to what I say. He always does. So if you do this, know it is for nothing. Save maybe some compensatory gold. But that is a lot for someone like you.” He all but sneered the last.
“Someone like me? What am I, in your estimation? Let’s, as you say, be candid.”
“A grasper,” Grannish hissed. “An opportunist. Lowborn filth that has somehow managed to talk his way into a high position. If you think I am simply going to hand Selinda over to you without fighting you tooth and nail, then you are underestimating me.”
“Then we are each underestimating the other, aren’t we?” Dethan surmised. “It seems to me that you are seeing quite a lot of yourself in me. You think I am nothing more than filth and I think you are a coward. Let us see who is more correct, shall we? Ride into battle tomorrow … for the sake of your cause.”
Grannish blanched, then recovered himself with a chuckle. “I will not let you bait me into some foolhardy action. I admit my forte is not with the sword. My strengths lie elsewhere. I think I will remain with the grand, tucked safely behind walls, and let the foolhardiness be on your head. Maybe if I’m lucky you’ll die straightaway and put an immediate end to my troubles.” He leaned in with a wicked smile. “But I do hope it takes longer than that. A nice slow death.”
Dethan smiled. “So be it,” he said before moving around his desk to get face-to-face with his enemy. “But let me caution you. If anything happens to Selinda or her family, I will be holding you responsible. You say you do not think much of me and that is fine, but I know you have had me watched and I know they have told you that my strengths do lie with a sword … and I will turn that sword on you if so much as a single hair on their heads is bent.”
“You’ll have to survive through tomorrow first,” Grannish sneered. “And as good as my spies tell me you are, you are still outnumbered and your men have no armor on their backs to protect them.”
“Luckily neither do the Redoe,” Dethan said. “Now, if we are done trading insults and threats, I have a battle to plan.”
Without another word, Grannish turned and left.
Tonkin was at the door in a heartbeat, entering the room.
“What did he want?” Tonkin asked distastefully.
“To wish me well. Do you still have that page at the fortress whom you think you can trust?”
“Blummy. Yes. He’s got no love of Grannish. Grannish had his father killed right in front of him.”
“Tell Blummy he’s to keep Grannish in sight at all times tomorrow. If he thinks something is even the slightest bit crucial for me to know, tell him to come find me. No matter what and no matter where. Think he’s brave enough to wade through the chaos of a battlefield?”
“I think he is. Hard to tell. Half these men here won’t know until they’re out there.”
“True. Go on. Find him and ask him if he’ll do it. From dawn to dusk, he’s to have no other task.”
“And after dusk?”
“The day’s fighting will be long over by then. No one makes war in the dark.” Dethan could not make war in the dark. He would have to be elsewhere come dusk. It was a dangerous limitation, but there was nothing he could do about it.
“Do you think this will be over in a single day?”
“It is unlikely. War is not always won in broad strokes but in small, vicious stabs. If luck is with us and the Redoe are as vulnerable as we hope them to be … then perhaps. But I will not work in hopes, only in cold realities. We do not have a spy from the heart of the Redoe, however much I tried to find one. All I have are observations from the wall.” Dethan frowned thoughtfully. “Much is riding on this. For you and yours and for me and mine.”
“My lord … tell me what to do to help you and I will do it.”
“I know you will, Tonkin. That is why I do not want you by my side tomorrow.”
“My lord!” Tonkin protested.
“I want you to watch over Selinda.”
Tonkin quieted but was still obviously agitated. “Sor Dethan, my place is with you. I am not afraid to fight. Grandina Selinda will have the whole of the fortress guard to protect her!”
“Believe me, Tonkin, she is not safe. There is much you do not understand, much I cannot tell you … but she is not safe.”
“Very well. What do you need of me? Just to watch over her?”
“To protect her from Grannish.”
“Sor, I know he is a cruel man and not to be trusted, but what makes you think he’ll go after the grandina?”
“Because she is to be my prize should we win. Once he feels he has lost her, he will lash out. I have seen you on the training field. You have improved much these past weeks. She would be safe with you … though I’d send a phalanx of men if I could. But we need every man here.”
“That’s the truth of it, to be sure. Sor … why did you ask for the grandina? Is it strictly for the power of marrying the heir of the city … or is it more? Do you … do you have feelings for her? I mean, it wouldn’t be a wonder. She’s a fine woman. Kind. She cares about this city and us lowborns far more than … well, more than anyone else does.”
The edited sentiment was obviously that Grannish and the grand did not have the city’s best interests at heart. Dethan admired Tonkin’s bravery for saying so aloud. But then the man had been outspoken from the very start. Just as Kyran and his men had been. It was a whole different sort of bravery than that which he had seen them display when swords were flying in the training circles.
As for feelings toward the grandina …
Dethan had not asked himself that question on purpose these past weeks. It would not serve him to become sentimental where she was concerned. This must strictly be a business arrangement between them. He had not been brought back above the hells to do something as foolish and time-consuming as fall in love. Weysa would never allow it. He feared for Selinda if Weysa thought for even an instant that she was an impediment to his task.
No. He did not love her. But he did not want to see her risked either. He was putting her directly in the path of danger, just as he had been every night he had asked her to come to him. If he loved her, he would not have asked that of her. He would have protected her.
But he had grown close to her in other respects. He had come to learn who she was. The things that made her such a magnificent creature. For instance, she was not overproud or vainglorious. He had seen many a princess in his time who had been quite full of her own importance and her opinion of herself. His Selinda was far more grounded than that. And, as Tonkin had observed, she worried chiefly for her people’s safety and well-being … even when she should be worried for herself instead. Oh, she feared getting caught by Grannish, coming or going from Dethan’s rooms, but she feared even more Grannish’s effect over her people should he become grand one day.
Then there was her beauty and grace. Over these past weeks he had seen a new sort of confidence bloom within her. More acceptance of her own beauty and power as a woman. And the more she accepted her flaw matter-of-factly, the more others accepted it as well. He had watched her grow more beautiful every day, until the fine lines of her face and the shining curls of her ebony hair swam in his vision every time he closed his eyes. He had grown hungrier and hungrier for her with each passing night. Even now, at that very moment, when it should be the last thing on his mind, he craved her nearly violently.
Realizing Tonkin was still standing there awaiting a reply to his query, he dragged his thoughts away from the memory of her soft curves filling his hands, her long legs wrapping around his hips …
“You are right. She is a fine woman and deserves to be protected from Grannish. That should be reason enough for you. Now go find Kyran and help him see to the organizing of the men. Help him however you can before heading back to the fortress, where you will watch over Selinda.”
“And where will you be, sor?”
“I have something I need to do before this battle begins,” he said.
Dethan was moving through the halls of the fortress at a fast pace. The sword at his side was swinging with the speed of his stride, and his breath was coming swiftly. His chest was tight with a feeling he could not identify. All he knew was that things did not feel right and they would not feel right until …
He found her in her sewing lounge. He had found her there so many times, sitting serenely stitching, Hanit and other ladies surrounding her as they held soft conversations. Only she was not sitting peacefully now. She was pacing anxiously back and forth, her hands tightly gripped in front of her. Hanit was watching her mistress with an equally anxious expression on her features. Otherwise, they were alone.
She stopped suddenly, almost as if she had sensed his nearness, and looked up to see him. Heedlessly they hurried toward each other, and before he could stop himself from the recklessness of it, he was kissing her, devouring the sweet, hot taste of her. It was as though he had just come home, the battle already won. Only the desperation in their connection made it clear they were dancing in the swing of a sword, the cut of it heading straight for them.
He devoured her as a man in a vast desert might devour a drink of water. His hands locked around her ribs and dragged her tightly up against the lean of his body. He felt her fingers crawling through his hair. Yes, he thought fiercely. This is what I need. I cannot go into battle without this.
The feeling was so unlike him that it took him by surprise, but it did not stop him in his quest to conquer her. Recklessly he dismissed all his surroundings, dismissed Hanit’s presence, and sought the laces that held her tightly bound in her corset.
“No!” she cried then. She pulled away but grabbed his hand and hastily led him to the storage room directly connected to the salon. “Hanit, watch for us please.”
“Yes, my lady,” Hanit said reassuringly.
Selinda pushed through the door and pulled him into the small, dark room. There were no candles and no windows, but the moment she shut the door there was utter privacy. The instant she was secure in that, she dragged his hand to her body, using it to stroke herself from waist to breasts and then to the ties laced tightly between them. He pulled at the bow just as their mouths crashed together once more. Her tongue was strong and sweet in his mouth, and the fever in her blood was radiating from her so strongly that he could feel the heat of her body.
Then her hands were at the ties of his breeches, one pulling them free and the other cupping his erect shaft through the fabric. The feel of her hand had to be straight out of one of the eight heavens, he thought heatedly. And as soon as she was able to push his pants down below his hips, she did, her hands and nails dragging up his bare backside before leaving him so she could gather up her skirts. He had barely loosened her corset enough to give him access to her breasts and he cursed the conservative line of the thing. But he could not be worried about that, because he was catching her bare legs in his hands and helping her wrap them around his hips. The feel of her thighs around him was just what he had needed, the feel of the moist heat of her most intimate flesh even more so.
She slid her pussy up along the length of his cock with the clenching of strong thigh muscles and he had to slam her back against the closed door because it made his knees go so suddenly weak with pleasure. She had learned much these past weeks, during their nightly assignations, not the least of which was how strongly the feel of the wet heat of her drove him instantly mad.
He hastily reached between their bodies to grab hold of himself, then brought his erect flesh right to the cusp of her body. He hesitated only long enough to hear her sibilant “Yes!” before thrusting himself hard inside her.
It was not pretty or sweet, this coming together. It was hot and dirty and it needed to be exactly that. She gasped when he thrust hard and to the hilt inside her. Her fingers and nails dug into his shoulders; her teeth scored his bottom lip.
“Yes,” she breathed into his mouth. She kissed him madly, thoroughly, then once again said, “Yes!”
He growled low in his throat, unable to help the animalistic sound. She was so hot and wanting, so hungry and needful. He wanted nothing more than to fill that need, so he thrust deeply into her again. Then again. Then again. Soon he was driving so hard into her so quickly that her whole body shook. She was pulling herself forward, her mouth leaving his so she could bite at the fabric of his shirt at his shoulder. He quickly realized it was to keep herself from crying out with her pleasure. That left him with nothing to focus on save the feel of her tight, wet body around him. With incredible speed he felt himself reaching a razor’s edge, the sharpness of it cutting deep. He gritted his teeth to keep from shouting out as his orgasm ripped through him.
Moments later they were standing there, clutched tightly to each other, panting so hard for breath that the sound of it filled the small room. After a long moment she said “Thank you” on a soft, breathy whisper.
He chuckled. “I think it is I who should be thanking you,” he said.
“Then we are both grateful,” she said. She slowly released the clenching of her thighs and he slid free of her body as she dropped her feet to the floor. He did not want to leave her, felt bereft when he did, but he realized, as she did, that to dally with her any longer than they already had would be utter madness.
She smoothed down her skirts and then adjusted herself a little before retying the bow of her corset strings. He pulled up his pants and did likewise.
“I’m sorry,” he said then. “I had not intended to use you so brusquely.” He reached to smooth back a strand of her hair that their vigorous lovemaking had caused to come free of her tightly wound design.
“No. Please,” she said, grabbing up his hand in both of hers, “don’t apologize for giving me something I needed so badly just now.”
“Did you?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she breathed. They were still in the dark, still barely able to see each other, but he felt as if he could see her so clearly just then.
“I needed you,” he said softly. “Once I saw you, I realized that I needed you.” Then, realizing what he sounded like, realizing it might make her think things … apply emotions to this thing between them that he did not have the luxury to spend, he said, “It is the best way to send a man off to war.” He tried to lighten the mood with a chuckle.
She did not laugh. Instead her grip on his hand tightened. “You must come back to me,” she said fiercely. “I couldn’t …” She seemed to check herself before saying, “The future of my people rests solely on your shoulders. I pray it is not too heavy a burden for you to carry. Strong as you are, it is too much to ask of anyone. I am sorry I had to ask it of you.”
He frowned. “Then you are sorry we have begun this?” You are sorry for having chosen me? he thought.
“No. Even if I were, it would be too late to change it. But no, I am not sorry. Not for any of it,” she said to him, making sure he was looking directly into her eyes in spite of the darkness they had since adjusted to. “Most certainly not for you. Choosing you was the wisest action I ever took.”
“It was a daring choice. But you had no other options,” he pointed out, wanting to make himself see that in the cold light of reason, but flinching away from it. However calculated this had been at the beginning, they had both found a measure of solace in each other. Of that he was certain.
“There is always an option. I could have accepted my fate and married Grannish willingly.”
“That isn’t a choice. That was a dictate handed down to you by”—he bit his tongue to keep from insulting her father—“others. At least this was truly your choice. I shall endeavor to be worth your faith in me, my lady,” he said, bringing their clasped hands up so he could kiss her fingers.
Just then there was a hurried rap at the door.
“My lady!” Hanit whispered urgently.
Selinda hesitated, then said quickly, “Fight well, my lord. I will be awaiting you.” Then she leapt up to kiss him hotly … starkly … before hurrying to swing herself out of his reach and out the door.
Selinda rushed out of the salon after Hanit did a quick inspection of her to make sure she was fit to be seen. She and her pagette made their way down the corridor at a rapid clip until Hanit chuckled, drawing her attention.
“Hanit,” she admonished, trying not to smile and failing miserably.
“Did you tell him? About the babe?” Hanit asked.
“No. I’ll not burden him with it. He must have no distractions if he is to win. I will not be the reason that he fails.”
“I think it would take more than news of impending fatherhood to make him fail,” Hanit said with a tsk.
“That may be, but I will feel better this way. There will be plenty of time later …” She trailed off. What if there was no time later? What if he died? He was able to heal from extraordinary wounds, but what if he was beheaded? She had heard tales of men who could take the head of another man with one blow. There were no guarantees he would come back to her. He could be captured. He could be tortured. He could—
“Now, now,” Hanit scolded, gathering Selinda’s hands in hers. That was when Selinda realized she had stopped. “Don’t go fretting about him, my lady. He’s a strong man. Strong as ever I saw. And he has his wits as well. You’re right. There will be plenty of time to tell him later. Come along, now. Let’s get you ready for the eventide meal.”
Selinda nodded and followed Hanit’s lead, but the rush of pleasure from moments earlier was now gone.