Dethan followed the coach and four in the mud, but he didn’t really need to. As with many cities, the castle fortress was at its center. However, this was poor planning, in his opinion, because the city was situated up against a mountainous section of land. It would have been wiser to build the castle fortress into the mountainside, giving it the high ground and letting the city in its entirety act as a buffer against any invaders. However, the entrance to the eight hells was located on that rock mountain face and the city had been built a more comforting distance away from it. Hexis had no doubt been built so the idea of the mouth of the hells being at the city’s back would quell any raiders trying to commandeer it.
After all, who really wanted ownership to a mouth of the hells? The city had probably once been ruled by barbarians, worshippers of Xaxis. But it was clear the rulers, from what Dethan had seen, were not of that hulking, warmongering, crude bent. If Selinda was an example of the leadership here, it was elegant, refined, and had impeccable manners.
It was exactly the kind of leadership and the kind of city he would have attacked and overthrown in his time. Perhaps this would be his first target once he had his wealth and an army. Then that would make the royal family—make Selinda—his captive.
He jolted. It was horrifyingly, outstandingly shocking to his whole system and psyche when the very idea of it made him hard with anticipation and excitement, his cock drawing tight to nearly full attention. Why would such a thing—why would anything—excite him? The physical needs of his body had long ago been burned out of him, and even before then he had not found delicate women at all appealing. To be honest, he had been a little bit afraid of them. Afraid of hurting them.
Then again, she wasn’t exactly delicate. She had stood up to the jenden with a quiet sort of ferocity. She was very well acquainted with her own power, and perhaps that was what he found appealing.
And then there was her beauty. She was well formed, a tall woman with an unbelievably erect posture. She had been wearing something, some sort of restrictive garment that had pulled her waist in tightly, making it narrow and small yet allowing the swell of her hips to curve freely, provocatively. He wondered what the point of such a garment was. Maybe she had a deformity of the spine that required the garment to keep her from slouching forward.
No. He noticed other women wearing similar garments as they traveled into the finer parts of the city, the part where the mud was less because there was a series of grated holes in the streets that appeared to allow water to run off rather than sit in the dirt and be churned into mud. The runoff no doubt let out into the poorer sections of town, he thought with a shake of his head. He had never seen the point of allowing one part of a city to fall into disrepair and poverty while another part flourished with wealth and fine things. The poor of one’s city were just as needed as the wealthy when war broke out, and they had to have reason and loyalty in order to fight their best. Burdening them only defeated their desire to defend their home. That made for bad soldiering. And one must always be prepared to use the members of the city for war. It was the only way to be certain the city remained properly defended.
The fact was the grandina’s beauty had captured his fancy, and it was a distraction he could not afford. At the same time … it was good to feel alive again. He had been so dead, burned again and again into a rotten carcass, and this was so different. So much like life again. Even if that life was conditional. But Weysa was watching him. He was certain of it, and she would not be kind if she thought he was being distracted from the purpose she had freed him for. If he wanted to remain free from the fires of the eight hells, he would pay homage to Weysa and no other.
It was this thinking that allowed his desires to wane long before they had reached the fortress. Fortress. He laughed to himself. It was hardly that. Open gates, people milling about so thickly inside and outside the low walls that the gates couldn’t possibly be shut in a hurry if necessary. It appeared that anyone would be able to walk right up to the house of the political seat, just as he was now doing.
He waited in the courtyard as the grandina alighted, her escort helping her down from the carriage. She immediately turned to one of the attendants standing nearby and reached to draw Dethan closer with an inviting hand gesture.
“Page,” she said to the attendant. “This man will be my guest. See to it he is washed, properly clothed, and brought immediately to the dinner table.” She turned to Dethan, raising a brow. “I am assuming this is what you would like. If you prefer to come to table as you are, you will still be welcome.”
“No, Grandina,” he said. “I accept your generous hospitality.”
Dethan saw her smile, and with a nod, she turned to go. The jenden reached to take her hand and lead her inside, but she withdrew from him, the rebuff marked. To say he was not pleased with the rejection was an understatement, but he seemed to stiffly keep his composure and moved away from the grandina as she entered her home.
“Follow me,” the page said.
Selinda was tired of pretending to enjoy the jenden’s company, so as soon as they were out of the general public eye, she withdrew from the attentions of her intended. It sickened her every time she thought of herself being bonded for the rest of her life to that grasping, twisted man. She was not deluded as to what kind of man the jenden was. The trouble was her father was completely fooled by the jenden and would hear nothing against him, not even from his own daughter. She had tried on countless occasions to open her father’s eyes, to make him see that all the jenden wanted was her father’s seat on the throne of Hexis. She did not underestimate the avarice that motivated Grannish. She feared for her father. Feared that shortly after she was forced to wed Grannish some horrible accident might befall her father, just as it had befallen her brothers and sisters. She had not always been heir. Now she was and wished for all the world that she wasn’t. She wished her brother Jorry was still alive. He had been so strong and so assured. He would never have allowed his sister to be sold to a man like Grannish.
But Jorry was gone now and her father thought he was securing his city by pledging her to Grannish.
She moved quickly through the halls of the fortress, heading directly toward her rooms. Her days had been reduced to the untenable boredom of being waited on and kowtowed to by a man she despised. All of it a display when she knew, could feel in her soul, that he hated her almost as much as she hated him. He was cruel and there was something wrong inside him. And for the life of her, she could not understand why a man as bright as her father was could not see it for himself.
She sailed into her rooms and her pagettes came out of the woodwork like busy little bees, divesting her of her walking dress and bringing a tub of water for her to wash her hands and feet in, scrubbing away the mud of the city. The pagettes took her clothes away and would do the same with them, making them clean again for the next time she would wear them. Meanwhile, they brought in the fresh dress she requested and redressed her long, curling hair into a less severe upswept style that left a waterfall of curls tumbling down her back. She did not like to wear any part of her hair down when in the city. It seemed to just accumulate mud and dirt when it was left that way. But now that they would be within the confines of the fortress, she could wear it freely.
She also changed into an evening corset, a more formal corset that was longer, smoothing the lines of her body into a very correct and straight silhouette. The dress came next, a dove-gray velveteen that dropped straight to the ground, without the typical leather mud guarding that trimmed the bottom of all her day and walking gowns. She held out her hands and they were gloved. She arched her neck and it was bejeweled with a stunning minx-fire necklace, the red of it, it was said, redder than the deepest fires of the eight hells. Her teal-blue hat was replaced by one of gray, the veil on it longer than that on the previous one, the stiff netting covering the entire left side of her face. She had grown quite used to seeing the world through the threads of a veil and would probably feel naked without it. It might be considered silly, she supposed. Everyone knew what was hiding beneath the camouflage. Everyone knew she was burned and scarred, and ugly because of it.
But … but that man. That strange and strong man who had defeated the brute in the shivov fight, who had taken a purse but not the humiliating kiss that Grannish had offered as a prize … In spite of his rejecting the kiss, he had somehow made her feel as though she were … beautiful.
He had no courtly manners, had no grasping desires. And if she allowed herself to think it, it was possible he had joined the shivov fight … for her. Simply so she would not have to kiss a pig of a man.
“Foolish girl.” She tsked to her reflection. “Romanticizing a man covered in mud.”
But he had not been just any man. He was big, as tall as any man she’d ever seen, towering above them all. He’d had tremendous muscle definition underneath all that mud plastered to his skin. She found herself eager to see what was underneath the crust of it. As it was, two things had stood out to her. One, that he had eyes as green as the greenest clover in the fields. She had never seen such a green on a person before. Her people, they were dark of hair and dark of eye. She was one of the few in the city with eyes of blue, and she had them only because her mother had come from a land apart from this one. But her mother was dead. Her eldest brother, also blue of eye, was dead. Now only she remained, her youngest brother dark-eyed like their father, and if the trend continued, he too would soon be dead. It seemed she was cursed with fine health, she thought fatalistically.
The other thing she found startling about the man were his burns. She had never met anyone of such strength and vitality before, and somehow it was as though his burns did not even exist for him. He had not let them hinder him. She couldn’t tell just how extensive his burning had been—she hoped to see more clearly once he was divested of all that mud—but somehow … with those eyes and that full head of dark hair, he was still amazingly handsome. More so than Grannish, that was certain. Grannish had a narrow sort of pinched look about him, as though he were constantly smelling something that was a little bit off.
Then again, compared to Grannish she would find anyone to be more handsome, possibly even that pig at the shivov fights. Her vision was colored by contempt for the jenden. Whether it was deserved or not, whether it was fair or not, she hardly even knew anymore. The whole business had made her weary and endlessly unhappy. She had come to realize her future was a bleak one unless something extraordinary happened. The future was bleak for them all unless something extraordinary happened.
She refused to dwell on that just then. She had found a diversion in this man and she was determined to use it to its fullest extent. She needed some activity, some excitement for her mind. Even if it was just an exercise in curiosity, it was a distraction from the painful responsibilities of her life.
“Hanit, color my lips. I wish for them to stand out.”
Hanit stood and blinked for a moment, looking as though she were unsure she had heard her mistress correctly. That made some sense of course. Hanit had been trained to play down anything and everything that might draw attention to her mistress’s face. Selinda could not have explained the desire even if the pagette had found the voice to question it. Instead Hanit went in search of a coloring pot and brush, appearing with them shortly and proceeding to paint her mistress’s lips the colors of the setting sun, from blue to lavender to violet. Selinda’s mouth glistened with color.
“A beautiful job,” Selinda complimented Hanit with more than a little wonder in her voice. “I did not know you could do this.”
“You never asked before, grand lady,” Hanit said in a low, deferential tone. Hanit was relatively new to Selinda’s rooms. The pagette had replaced an old and dear friend who had fallen ill and died in the summer plagues a full turning of the seasons past. The curse of this wet city was its plagues. No one could get dry, it seemed, and illness festered in the wet, muddy mess. Even in summer, when the sun baked the mud and made it hard, all it took was a single day of rain for everything to be wet again. Then illness would come in the wake of it.
Selinda did not want to think of death when she was looking at her sun-streaked lips. She wanted for once to act as though there were no troubles in her world. That she was not ugly and burned. That she was not going to marry a vile little worm. That her city might not last long enough for her to inherit.
No. Tonight, all she wanted to think about was a stranger. A man. Someone … different. That was it. He was somehow just … different. Maybe tonight at dinner she would be able to figure out just what that difference was. And then later, after the sun dropped and let night reign, maybe she would speak with him or play games with him or find some way for him to further entertain her. Maybe if he was truly interesting she could convince her father to let him stay on in the castle for a day or two. Not for long. Just … for a little while.
Eager now, she arose from her dressing bench and hurried to the door of her rooms. The pagette opened it as she approached, and Selinda came up short when she saw Jenden Grannish standing in the doorway. For all his leanness of form, he had a presence to him that could not be ignored, no matter how hard she might try. It was like a malevolent cloud that darkened her days and nights constantly, one that would not move away no matter how hard she tried to escape it.
“My dear,” he greeted. Then he drew himself up short, his dark eyes narrowing on her with a frightening ferocity. He reached out, his hand like a sudden viper around her arm, his strength unmistakable as he jerked her closer to himself. “What is this?” he hissed into her face. With his free hand, his thumb smeared across her colored lips. “Are you mad? You paint yourself like a brightly colored whore?”
She gasped and tried to push him away before he ruined Hanit’s lovely work. “The highest ladies in this court wear similar!” she protested.
“The highest ladies of this court are not monstrously scarred. I would think you would avoid drawing attention to the fact that you are.”
“Stop it,” she cried as he continued to smear his fingers over her lips.
“Off! Remove it this instant! I’ll not have my future bride parading herself around as though she had some sort of beauty to be proud of. Accept what you are, Selinda. Just as I must do my duty as asked by my grand. I have promised to wed you in spite of your deformities, but I will not have you drawing attention to them and making a laughingstock of yourself!”
The whole of his palm smeared across her lips, bruising the flesh both outside and inside, where the sharpness of her teeth cut into the tender skin he was mashing against them. The color, she could feel, was not just being wiped away. He was streaking it over her skin. But when his hand touched the scar at her jaw, she cried out and struck him away, shoving at him with all her strength as tears of shame burned in her eyes. She fought to keep herself from crying, however, unwilling to give him the satisfaction.
“Very well, I will wash it off!” she spat out.
“I have half a mind to drag you to table looking as you are, like a painted, grisly little doll. Your father would be humiliated and the court would laugh to see such a disgusting sight. But I will spare your father the shame of it. Wash up. I am impatient to go to table. I want to see them seat the stinking, mangled mud farmer at your side. The two of you should make quite a pair.”
Tears hovering in her eyes, Selinda shrugged him off one last time and went back into her room, where Hanit, bless her kind soul, was ready with a damp cloth to help her wash the sunset away from her lips.