Selinda’s body trembled as if it were a bow and an arrow had just snapped free of it, leaving her empty and without purpose. She was sitting beside Dethan, her father having seated him closer to him at the table that night—to gain comfort from Dethan’s sure presence, she supposed. She was so close to him but felt so far apart from him. She reached for her wineglass, but withdrew her hand quickly when she saw how badly it was shaking. That was when she felt his hand upon her thigh, beneath the table, the warmth and pressure of it penetrating her skirts. He pressed into her, a calming, staying touch.
It worked. This time she was able to reach for her glass. She drained the contents and signaled for more. Despite the reassurance of his touch, she felt as though she could not breathe. How was it that the closer she got to freedom, the more oppressed she felt? It was only a matter of a single night. Just one night. All she had to do was make it through tonight and tomorrow, and then, the gods willing, it would all be over. One way or another, it would all be over. For her. For Grannish. For Dethan. For her people. For all of them.
“Daughter, you are very dull tonight,” her father said to her from what seemed like a great distance. “I think women have little stomach for war,” he said with a chuckle. She looked at him and saw how animated he was. He was excited about this. Of course he would be. It was not his neck on the line. Whatever happened, it would be others spilling their blood.
For the first time she was well and truly ashamed to call him her father.
“Men will die tomorrow, Father,” she said tightly. “I see no cause to celebrate that.”
“Have a little faith, daughter. This is for the good of the city.”
“Since when have you cared for the good of the city?” she snapped at him. “If you had a moment’s care for this city you would run your own affairs! You would not be standing behind a corrupt snake”—she glared at Grannish—“or another general! You would be out on that wall where your men could see you and gain strength from you, leading your people to victory! But you will not do that, will you, Father? But I will do that,” she swore to him. “I will be on the wall, and for whatever good it does, I will make certain the people see me!” She stood up, shoving her chair back. “Sor Dethan, I wish you all the luck tomorrow. There is nothing I would like more than to see you victorious and to become your prize!”
The whole time she said that last bit she was glaring at Grannish. She didn’t give a damn what he did to her when he caught up with her later. She would let everyone know exactly how she felt. And this time if he struck her, she would not hide her bruises. She would shove them beneath her father’s nose and force him to see what he had allowed to happen.
But she heard her father chuckle as she stormed out of the room.
“Women do not understand the way of things,” she heard him say. “They romanticize these things far too much. She does not understand what it takes to run a city, or an army.”
Feeling nauseated, Selinda ran for her rooms. She barely made it there before grabbing the basin and vomiting up all the wine she had imbibed. Hanit, bless her heart, was right beside her, rubbing her back and soothing her with soft sounds and words.
“There, there. ’Tis just the babe kicking up a fuss. Though I must say it was good to see someone speak the truth of things out in the open for a change.” But after a moment she fretted. “Grannish will come after you for it, though.”
“I think he has other worries tonight,” Selinda said, praying she was right. She never knew what would set him off. Usually it was when she dared to show any kind of bravery. It made her sick again to think she might have foolishly endangered herself and her child because she could not control herself.
“Oh, what a fool I am,” she whispered before sinking to the floor on her knees.
“No, my lady. You are very brave,” Hanit told her.
“I do not feel brave, Hanit. I feel the coward. Like my father. Oh gods. That’s what he is, Hanit. A coward. He hides behind others. Let’s another man rule in his stead while he … he fornicates with his mistress and … and … I do not even know what he does! Usually he hunts, but with the Redoe here he cannot even leave the city! If not for the snows, the Redoe would probably stay camped outside and simply claim the farmlands as their own! A city right on top of our city! Dethan is right. The Redoe are only a breath away from taking these walls down and taking Hexis for themselves. We are a weak city led by a weak man. A puppet king with a vicious puppet master’s hand up his ass!”
“My lady!” Hanit gasped. Then she tsked and shook her head. “But you are right. You are only speaking aloud what everyone in this fortress and city knows is the truth. I only fear the reprisals you will face for it.”
“As do I,” Selinda breathed.
Grannish was not angry about Selinda’s little outburst. It actually amused him. She could really be a little spitfire when she wanted to be … for all the good it would do her. Her father didn’t listen to her now any more than he had before. He never would. All that Grannish needed right then was for Dethan to fail … and he had that quite taken care of already.
By this time tomorrow he would have his city safe and securely his again. Dethan would be dead and this time Grannish would insist on being married to the little bitch immediately. He didn’t know why he hadn’t done so sooner. It was his only secure way of ever becoming grand. But it had been a bitter pill, the idea of hooking himself up to that sniveling, scarred whore. The idea of having to fuck her to get his sons on her …
Well, he wouldn’t make that mistake again. Especially now that he knew he could beat her into submission and she was quite adept at hiding it. She would do anything he asked, so long as the well-being of her father and brother could be brought to bear against her.
He considered seeking her out … paying her back for her little display. But the fact of the matter was he was in too good a mood. He might consider it later, as a way of blowing off steam while he waited for darkness to fall.
He walked into the belly of the rearmost part of the city wall, an old rusted gateway that had long been shut off and disregarded by the city guard. And even if the guard were there, he would have seen to it that his men were on watch. The gateway was blocked by a rockslide for the most part, but there was a small gap that allowed for a single man to work his way through with a little effort. Two such men, tall and red-skinned, had done just that as Grannish approached.
“Kru Mods,” he greeted the Redoe equivalent of a general. “Are your men prepared?”
“Yes. They have trained hard and we have made much armor for them. It is heavy and weighs us down. We do not like it.”
“But trust me, it will be for the best,” Grannish said. “It will give you the advantage over these farmers. I just wanted to make sure we are very clear. When you overrun the city you are not to harm the ruling family. The citizens will not follow you willingly if you harm their grand and his family. But once you have put me in charge of the city, we will, as I have said for these past months, all prosper in the end. You will have a city to sack and all the grain and goods you want. Just leave the gold and the government to me when you are through. Am I understood?”
“I do not understand why you help to ruin your own city,” Mods said, his dark eyes judgmental.
“My motivations are my own. Just remember you wouldn’t have gotten this far without me. You are my army. We have been planning this for months. Just because there is an army does not change things. They are nothing but a bunch of inexperienced mud farmers. You will lay waste to them easily.
“This city will be mine again when you are through … and we will have our agreement that every year you will be given a stipend of grain after the harvest. All I need is for you to soundly beat back the army, as you have done so many times in the past, and see to it their leader, General Dethan, is killed. Feel free to do it slowly and painfully,” Grannish said with a smile. “But I want his head by the end of the day.”
“We will do this,” Mods agreed. “With this agreement you will be free to tend your fields and we will not encamp upon them. If you break this agreement, we will return and we will overrun your city again, and this time we will keep it for our own.”
“I have made the agreement and I will abide by it. It benefits us both that I do so. Now remember, they are planning to attack you at dawn. You must attack the city before then, when they least expect it. When they are asleep in their beds. It is unfortunate that you failed to tunnel through to the city walls, but that makes no difference. Knowing when they are going to attack gives you the advantage. The moment they open the gates to release the army, you will attack them from all sides. Keep your forces under the cover of darkness until the very last minute. Do that and you will be victorious, and then you will have the run of the city.”
“And what keeps me from taking the city and keeping it for myself?” Mods asked dangerously, his entire presence, with its inked tattoos and its piercings run though with bone, trying to intimidate.
“Because you don’t know where the gold is and your people have no interest in staying here when the cold comes.”
Mods laughed roughly. “True. You northers are insane, staying in your stone and wood buildings and in the stark white of winter. Too much longer and we would have broken camp already and made for the summer lands.”
“You mean the desert,” Grannish scoffed.
“It’s warm and arid, beautiful and golden. If only we could grow grain there to feed the people … we would never leave.”
“You’ll have your grain. Just do as we agreed and you will have a summer campground any time you like as well.”
“We will do as agreed. We will kill your general. We’ve seen him on the walls … always staring down. We will make him fall from his high perch and onto our waiting spears.”
“Good. Now go. Make ready. I will see you by day’s end tomorrow.”
Grannish watched the leader of the Redoe leave, a smile toying at his lips.
After this, he would have that little cunt to wife and would be grand shortly after. No one would stand in his way.
No one would dare.