Selinda watched out the glass window as the first snow of the winter fell. It was a soft snow, full of fat, lazy flakes that had only just now begun to stick to the ground and frost it over in a thin, white blanket. But the skies were heavy and dark and the temperature was dropping and the mems of Jikaro’s temple were predicting the god was sending one of his fiercest storms ever against them.
Good, she thought. It made her feel safer. Contented her that Dethan couldn’t possibly leave her if there was a storm stopping him. And with the winter setting in there was no sane reason to go campaigning around the world looking for cities to defeat. Surely Weysa could understand that.
She turned away from the glass and went to kneel before the beautifully crafted statue of Weysa, the marble smooth and cool, the goddess dressed in full armor with a sword in one hand and a wey flower in the other. The wey flower, named for Weysa, was the flower of peace. Weysa, Dethan had schooled her, was not just the goddess of conflict. She was also the reverse side of that coin, willing to extend peace as readily as she extended her sword. It was that wisdom that powered her husband’s belief, that had shaped the man Dethan was.
He’d had this temple and others like it erected in Weysa’s name, so that the temples of Weysa outnumbered those of any other god. The city had willingly begun to pay homage to the goddess who had sent a great soldier to free them from the tyranny of Grannish and the blight of the Redoe. And even though they lived at the mouth of the hells, they bravely turned their backs on Xaxis at the urging of their grand and granda.
She was granda in her own right upon her father’s death and had not been required to wed Dethan … in the eyes of her people. But she had made a deal with him, had made him a promise, and so she had bound them together, with Mem Josepha presiding, and had given him the power to rule beside her.
Not that she had needed a promise to compel her. For it had become quite clear to her by then that she was very much in love with her husband. She cursed herself for a fool one minute, then reveled in it the next. She knew she was risking her heart as she made love to him, every time trying to silently convey how she felt, but knowing that to speak it aloud would only make it harder for them both when it came time for him to leave.
So every day since this temple had been erected she had come to pray to Weysa. She prayed to her not to take him.
“I am selfish,” she admitted breathily. “I know that I am. He is a magnificent soldier and you need him by your side … but I need him by my side as well. Is it not enough that he suffers the flames every night? Must you deprive him of the small comfort I can give him as well? Are you not satisfied that he has learned his lesson? How can you be so cruel to so good a man? I know he has wronged the gods, but he must be forgiven eventually. Or is there no forgiveness in the hearts of the gods?”
She sighed with frustration, her hand going to her belly as their child turned over aggressively. A son, she thought. A fighter just like his father. At least now she could give birth and he could be there for the first weeks of their child’s life.
And then he would be gone.
She would go to Jikaro’s temple and pray for a long winter. Even though it would be hard on her people … she selfishly could not help herself.
“Please … Can we not find another way? A way to win your cities and yet keep him here with me?” But she knew that was not possible. Unless … “He has brothers,” she said quickly … heatedly. “Each is a warrior in his own right. They could fight for you. Two … three times as fast if you but rescue them. They would take on his burden. I know it. Dethan has told me they meant everything to one another, and I know that in his heart he is driven to obey you in hopes you will somehow free them. Can’t you please … oh sweet merciful goddess …”
Overcome with emotion and a wave of dizziness, she sat back on her heels. She had been praying to Weysa all day, with only short breaks in between. She was fasting, for the mems said it would bring her closer to the goddess. Her husband was at the site where he wished to rebuild the fortress, deep into the protective mountain. He knew that once the snow flew there would be no work done, so he was pushing until the very last moment for as much progress as possible. But like her prayers to Weysa, it would prove to be futile in the face of things.
Selinda struggled to get to her feet, her body ungainly with the child and weak from the rigors of her prayers. One of the mems came forward to help, but it was too late. Blackness swept over her like a fierce tide and she fell to the floor.
“You just left her here?” Dethan demanded, stripping off his gloves and kneeling next to his wife. The mems had panicked when the granda had passed out. Hanit had not been with her, so they had run to a member of her guard and had commanded him to fetch the grand to them right away. Afraid to touch her, they had left her on the cold stone floor. But at least they had rolled her onto her back and put a pillow under her head.
“Selinda?” he spoke to her softly, his hand touching her face, checking her breathing, then her throat to feel the rapid beat of her blood. He picked up her hand, chafing at it, trying to revive her. “Did you call a healer?” he barked to the mems.
“No. We waited for you, your most honorable.”
“Foolish women,” he spat at them. “She isn’t made of glass! She is but a woman, not something too fragile to touch! Send for Mem Josepha from Hella’s temple and have her meet me at the fortress.”
Dethan scooped up his wife, her weight heavy in his arms. He adjusted her so that her head rested against his neck and he strode out of the temple. The temple was close to the fortress, thank the gods, so it was not far for him to walk. He arrived with his burden just as Mem Josepha was arriving on horseback. The two met in the fortress’s antechamber and Josepha hurried behind him as he brought Selinda up to their rooms. The moment he had her in bed, the mem was hovering over her, touching her skin, hair, and lips. The mem tsked her tongue.
“She is very malnourished,” she said. “Has she not been eating?”
“I … I have not shared her table these past days because I have worked through at the building site. But before it seemed she was eating constantly.”
“Well, I can tell you she hasn’t had a bite in well over two days … probably more.”
“Hanit!” he roared out, calling the pagette to him with a fury.
“Your most honorable, she is not here,” another pagette spoke up nervously. “Her most honorable gave her the day so she could see her family.”
“Find her! Now! And bring her to me immediately!” he demanded of the pagette.
“Yes, your most honorable. Right away.” She hurried off.
“There’s no sense in blaming Hanit,” the mem scolded him gently. “You should know by now that if Selinda sets her mind to something, she cannot be swayed. Let’s make her a broth, feed her what we can. Some wine and water as well. I will heal her as best I can. For now, she is stable enough and the child is well.”
“But she isn’t awake,” Dethan snapped.
“She will be. We will take care of her,” the mem reassured him. “Come and sit. Pacing will not help matters. But send a page for some broth and wine first.”
“I’ve got it, my lord,” Tonkin said quickly, hurrying to leave the room.
Selinda opened her eyes hours later, surprised to find she was no longer surrounded by stone images of Weysa. She had spent so much time there these past days it had come to feel like home. Instead she was looking up into the worried and tempestuous eyes of her husband.
“Little fool,” he hissed at her, his hands cradling her head and face in loving contradiction. “What did you think to accomplish, other than what you did?”
Selinda burst into tears, sobbing weakly and piteously. “I can’t do it! I can’t let you go!” she sobbed, gripping at his shirt where it lay against his chest. “She cannot take you from us! There has to be a way!”
“There is no other way,” he said gravely.
“How would you know? You haven’t even tried! You make this entire city pray their thanks and worship to her, but you have never once gone to her temples. You would just as soon leave me as not and think nothing of it otherwise! You don’t even care about the fact that your son will grow up without a father!”
“That is untrue!” he snapped at her. Then he quieted. “I do not wish to leave you. I have said so often.”
“No … you have said you have no other choice but to leave me. You never said you did not desire it.”
He frowned. “Then I have been wrong to do so. Selinda, if I have led you to think … I just … I was trying to make it easier on you.”
“Instead it has made me feel unloved and unwanted!”
“Selinda! You cannot believe that I do not want you! I spend every night in your bed!”
“Stop! Your words only hurt my heart. If you do not love me, then say so and be on your way. For I cannot breathe with loving you, and no matter what you say or do you cannot change that now.”
He stared at her, speechless, unable for that moment in time to figure out what he should say … what he should do … what the right course of action should be. He had always been so decisive in his life. A man more of actions than of words. But here he knew only words would suffice. Words he feared speaking because it would only make it harder for them in the future.
“Selinda, if you think I do not love you, then you are so very wrong,” he said softly. “I love you so much that it makes my entire being ache. But … but I am not free to love you, so I thought it would be unkind to tell you so.”
“Dethan, I would much rather have you love me before you leave me than not. My heart would hurt either way.”
“Sweet … sweet Selinda,” he breathed softly, lifting her knuckles to the press of his lips. “You can never know … My love for you is so strong that … I wish I had known your love before I had made that vainglorious attempt at immortality. I would never have left you then. I would have stayed by your side, in your arms, and been content with nothing more and nothing less.”
“Do you truly mean that?”
Selinda gasped as the powerful words filled the room from all corners. Then, in a bright flash of light, a tall, beautiful woman with hair like midnight and eyes bluer than the sky appeared in the room.
“Weysa,” Dethan breathed, a mixture of fear, awe, and panic filling his features. He fell to the floor, onto his knees, bowing to the goddess … but never once did he let go of his wife’s hand. Selinda tried to move to join her husband on her knees, but the goddess stayed her with a raised hand.
“You have spent enough time on your knees these past days to satisfy me … for now. Remain where you are.” She then looked down at Dethan, took in his strong, healed body and the way it shook in fear of her. “What are you so afraid of? What can we do to you that we have not already done?”
“You … you can take me away from her. Her and my child. At least if I do your bidding I will see them every so often. But if I displease you, you might take them away from me for good.”
“Did you mean what you said? That you would never have gone to the fountain if you had known her love first.”
“I believe that I would … but I was a different man then.”
“Yes. You were. You were selfish and arrogant. But … you had every right to be so. You had defeated many cities in my name. You were unconquerable. But from what you say, this woman has conquered you. Perhaps it would serve me best to kill her and the child so you will have no distractions.”
And just like that Dethan was on his feet, his big body blocking Selinda from Weysa’s view, tension and anger in every line and contour of his body.
“Ah, there he is,” Weysa said before he could speak. “The fierce warrior. The man who conquered nations. And you will do so again. But I will make you a bargain.
“You say you would have gladly given up immortality to be with her? Then do so.” Weysa drew her sword, the ring of the godly metal unlike anything either of them had heard before. “Let me cut off your head.”
“No! No!!” Selinda screamed, throwing herself to her feet and against her husband’s back.
“For there to be redemption, there must first be great sacrifice,” Weysa said, her blue eyes never wavering from Dethan’s. “Our faction must know where Kitari’s loyalties truly lie. If I kill you and she wants us to rescue her, then she will bring you back to life, make you mortal again, and you can live your life here in this little city … campaigning in my name for only the summer months.
“But if she is not on our side, if she does not wish to be rescued from Xaxis’s faction … then you will be dead, back in the eight hells, and there will be no coming back from it this time.”
“No! Dethan, please! I-I will live with you being gone for as long as you must. Do not … no! Do not consider this!” she cried as he stepped forward and pulled away from her a little.
“How sure are you the Kitari wants to be rescued?” he asked Weysa.
“Not very sure at all. That is the point of all this.”
“How will she know …?”
“She will know. She is the goddess of life and death. She will know. Consider yourself a covert sort of message. She cannot overtly communicate with us against Xaxis’s wishes, but in this little way she can show us where her loyalties truly lie. Will you do it?”
“No! He will not!”
“Have you not just spent days on your knees begging me to find some way to keep him with you?” Weysa snapped at Selinda. “This is the only way.” She turned back to Dethan. “Have you the courage? You will be mortal again. A dagger in the ribs will do you in this time around. How long can you be there for your child when your life becomes so fragile?”
“She is right,” Selinda breathed, gripping at him so hard her nails were gouging his skin.
“No. No, Selinda, you are wrong.” He turned to face her, cradling her face in his hands, brushing the rise of her cheek with his thumb. “You cannot ask me to give you and our child the life you so dreaded when I can choose something else.”
“But … what if Kitari is with Xaxis?” she said fearfully. “Then we will have nothing!”
“What you would have is as close to nothing as can be imagined, Selinda. I want better for you and our child.”
“And your brother,” Weysa chimed in.
Dethan whipped around. “What about my brother?”
“Well, I will need someone to replace you as my champion. Both of you have sworn to me your brothers would do so. I will give one of your brothers release from his eternal torment so he can become champion in your stead. Then again, either way I will be releasing one of them because I will need a new champion. So, have you made your choice?”
Dethan turned back to Selinda. “Selinda, my deepest love, if there is a way of saving one of my brothers …”
“Do you love your brothers more than me?” she wept.
“That is not the issue here and you know it.”
“Do I? I cannot bear the thought of losing you. That has been my agony all along.”
“I must do this. I must try.”
She brought their joined hands to her lips, sobbing against his knuckles, her tears falling down the back of his hand. “It is because I love you that I know this already. It’s just … I am afraid.”
“So am I,” he said. “Now kiss me before I go.”
She sobbed once more before lurching up to his lips, kissing him as best she could when she could barely breathe. What if this is the last time? The very last time?
He pulled away from her just when she felt the salt of his tears touch her cheek. Then he pushed his way out of her grasp, stepped away, and turned to face his goddess.
“Must it be done here? I don’t wish her to see …”
“It must. But it will be bloodless. Once the blade goes through you, you will simply disappear.”
“Good,” he said. “Then do it. And quickly before I shame myself and lose my nerve.”
“So be it.”
Faster than light, Weysa’s blade sang out, cutting his head from his shoulders. In a bright flash of light, his head and body both disappeared before his head could part even two inches from his neck.
“Oh sweet merciful goddess, please!” Selinda crumpled to the ground, passing out cold from the shock.
“Selinda. Selinda …”
Selinda swam up from the darkness, afraid to leave it because she could still hear his voice calling her name, and when she woke she knew it would be gone. Cut away by the edge of a goddess’s blade.
Her eyes snapped open, and to her shock, she found herself staring into beloved green eyes. A beloved face. A beloved pair of hands stroking her shoulders and arms.
He chuckled when she flung herself against him, grasping at his back and shoulders in desperation.
“God of dreams, Mordu, please. If this is just a dream, then do not allow me to waken!”
“It is not a dream. Come and kiss your mortal husband,” Dethan said.
She did so in an instant, kissing him as though it would be their last time, and she vowed it would be thus every time from then on. When she came away from him she looked around the room and saw Weysa still standing there, bold and beautiful in her gleaming armor.
“Kitari is with us,” she observed with satisfaction. “I had thought so and now we have proof. I thank you for your sacrifice, Dethan.”
“No. It is I who thank you. You have given me a gift beyond measure.” He looked back at his wife and kissed her once again.
“You may keep your god-made armor. It will no doubt save your life each summer as you wage battle in my name. The curse of fire is of course lifted. You have come far, Dethan. And now, one last gift …”
In a flash of light Weysa disappeared and a large man-size object fell to the floor with a smack in her wake. Dethan flew from his wife’s side and over to the object, which looked like a large chunk of ice.
“Garreth! It’s Garreth!” Dethan said, touching his frozen brother and hissing as his warmer hands nearly stuck to the ice. “Tonkin! Hanit! Come quickly!”
The two came hurrying over and Selinda slid out of her bed to join them.
“My youngest brother,” Dethan said as he and Tonkin slid his brother toward the fire to warm him. “But why would she pick him? He has never led any armies. He has only ever seen me and followed me. I … I would have thought she would have chosen Maxum or Jaykun.”
“She is a goddess,” Selinda said bitterly. “She has her own reasons.”
Dethan turned to her, reaching to touch a now cold hand to hers. “That goddess has just given me everything I could ever ask for.”
“Except your other two brothers,” she said.
“Except that,” he agreed. “But otherwise … I am the happiest man alive.”
“Alive,” she breathed then, running her hands over him. “You’re alive. And … we will grow old together.”
“That will be my every endeavor,” he promised her.
“Good,” she said. “Because your son and I will need you. Now, let us tend to your brother.”
“Not you. You go back to bed,” he ordered her sternly. “You will eat something and then, when he is warmed, you will meet my brother. For now … let me help my brother as I could not help him in all these full turnings past.”
Selinda turned to do as he bade but stopped when she saw a pile of metal on the floor. She quickly realized it was armor.
And there, on the breastplate, was etched the beautiful petals of the wey flower.