Grannish led Selinda into the main dining hall. As usual, it was abustle with noise and activity. Servers abounded, bringing in great trays of foods, their rich smells wafting throughout the room. Courtly guests milled about their chairs, chattering and gossiping about one another, creating a sort of noisy hum in the air.
Grannish had Selinda’s right hand grasped firmly in his own, the twisted pair of them raised elegantly high. When they entered, the room came to immediate attention. Those who had been seated stood at once. Grannish knew it was not for him that this respect was being given but for this mangled little harlot. But soon, one day soon, he would be grand and they would be coming to attention for him. They would be respecting him in this way. The way he deserved to be respected. After all, who was she but the imperfect get of an idiot king? He had no respect for either of them. Especially not this intemperate little girl. She took great delight in setting him down in public, knowing he had to defer to her in all things by law and in the eyes of the masses. But he would make her pay for each and every slight she thought to cast in his direction.
Tonight’s guest, for instance. He had made sure she would be seated next to her muddied guest. Grannish himself would sit across the table as far from the stench of him as was possible, but she would be made to suffer for her folly. Inviting a lowborn to table. The very idea of it was repugnant to him. No doubt it would be to her father too. Grannish would let the grand witness his daughter seated beside a pig of a farmer and he would see for himself why his daughter should not be allowed to make decisions for herself. Then Grannish would be able to exert more control over her. Then he would be able to keep her in her place.
Oh, how he wished he did not need her at all. But his blood was not royal. It was barely even noble. A fact he worked hard to have everyone forget. Only by the grace of his ability to advise the grand had he been able to rise so high in his esteem. High enough for the grand to offer his heir’s hand in marriage. But Grannish wished he could be grand without having to saddle himself with the wretched creature. He would wed someone very different if he had a choice in the matter.
His eyes immediately tracked to Likessa. As always the perfect beauty was surrounded by courtiers, the center of all attentions and affections. A true grandina if there ever was one, in everything but title and blood. She was deserving of the position this carcass now possessed. Beauty like hers should be revered and celebrated. And beyond beauty, she was of perfect grace and manners. Every movement, even the lightest floating of her hand to her dinner fork, was a thing of elegance and refinement. He watched as one of the lords hastened to pull out a chair for Likessa, whom Grannish had seated next to him. At least he would have the joy of her company, even as he enjoyed his fiancée’s humiliation.
Ever the perfect escort, he guided Selinda to her chair, noting that her companion for the evening had yet to arrive. That meant everyone would already be seated by the time he arrived, and that would make him the center of attention and even more of a delightful spectacle. Oh yes, this promised to be quite a diversion.
The grand entered the room and everyone nodded their heads in respect, palms pressed flat against their stomachs. He sat down immediately, barely noticing the crowd around him, as was usual. No, the grand’s attentions were never concerned with the court undercurrents. He had no interest in them unless they ran counter to his desires. Yet he did not consider himself an oblivious man. He trusted his advisor, the jenden, to keep him apprised of any situations that needed his attention, which left him free to pursue other fascinations. Such as hunting and, upon occasion, charming a young woman. He had not strayed from his wife in all his years of marriage, but once he had finished mourning her, he had found himself feeling newly free to enjoy the attentions of the women of his court, and enjoy them he did. But any woman with the idea that she might actually become granda one day was simply deluding herself. The grand had loved only one woman and would forever love her. The man would never choose to follow her with anyone subpar. The grand would never insult her memory in such a way.
But taking a mistress and practically fawning over her at his end of the table, seating her directly to his right, where she could hold and fondle his hand, where she could occasionally lean toward him and draw his attention to her young, healthy breasts, well, that was entirely in the realm of possibilities. Gwynn was a spicy little redhead who barely came up to the grand’s shoulder, but she had all the curves in the world to make up for what she lacked in height. She was also quite beautiful, with her pale, flawless skin, her long elegant neck, and her pretty fey features. But there was calculation in her eyes. Yet another thing the grand could not see. But it was clear to all that she had quite a shrewdness to go with her sparkling wit.
As everyone settled into their seats, the grandina kept her head down, self-consciously tugging her veil into place and rubbing at her bruised lips. They were a little swollen and red from the jenden’s rough treatment, and her eyes were wet from continually filling with tears, which she fought back. She would not give Grannish the satisfaction. She sat up ramrod straight and looked longingly toward her father. The jenden was on his immediate left and Gwynn was on his immediate right, leaving her at Gwynn’s right, the woman between them. And anyway, she could not tell her father of Grannish’s treatment, for he would not hear it. He would make up some kind of excuse or accuse her of blowing things out of proportion. If she called Grannish out in front of him, it would only anger the jenden more, and the next thing he did would be even crueler. Oh, Grannish would never leave distinctive marks on her. No cuts or bruises she could point to as proof to her father and make the grand honestly question him, but there were other things he could do. And over time Grannish had proved to be quite creative when it came to his cruelties.
She was not in the mood to eat, but a quelling look from Grannish had her reaching for some bread and some meat and cheese. She could make the pretense of eating these things, perhaps feeding them to her father’s hunting dogs, who were seated attentively around the edges of the room. If they saw so much as a crumb drop, they would dart forward to gobble it up, then move back to their places. They were not allowed to beg, but they would sit and drool in anticipation of a guest possibly calling them forward to feed them a treat.
She had just called the wine steward forward to fill her glass when a man entered the far end of the room. She froze in place, putting down her glass before the boy could fill it. She shooed the boy back when he blocked her view of the man.
He was tall. So very tall. He had a square, beautiful jawline, hair as brown and soft looking as a fru’s winter coat, and there were those stunning green eyes. If not for those three things, she would never have recognized him as the mud-caked man of earlier. She would swear on her father’s life that she had never seen shoulders so broad or arms so well muscled. Someone had given him leggings, ones that molded tightly to every well-muscled contour of his legs and snuggled close to … other large portions of his body. If not for the leggings being black, they would have been truly obscene. Selinda found herself swallowing back a strange and unexpected dryness in her throat, her face flushing hot as she thought of what he might look like without those leggings on. She shocked herself. She was not the sort to think such things. In fact, wondering about men was something she simply didn’t indulge in. She had neither the luxury nor the inclination. She had her unhappy life to attend to; there was no room in it for sexual flights of fancy.
Yet her mind was drifting into that particular sky. He wore a tanned leather vest and no shirt, leaving his powerful arms and defined chest and belly bare for all to see. The fact that his arms bore the scars of burns meant very little. It was impossible to notice the scars when there was so much beautiful flesh to see everywhere else.
He looked hard and capable, and Selinda wondered what it would feel like to be held up against such an undeniably powerful and male body. What would it mean to be a woman in that man’s arms? A real woman. One with the luxury to indulge in such a very real sort of man.
Apparently everyone agreed with her stunned surprise at his appearance, for a deadened silence fell over the room, the sound of movement and action ceasing. All were seeing him for the first time, save for Selinda and Grannish, but Grannish looked just as shocked as she must have. Instantly that gave her pleasure. Grannish no doubt had been certain she would be humiliated by the presence of the mud farmer. It would explain why the only chair left empty was the one by her side, instead of one farther down and closer to the end of table where those of lower rank would sit.
One of the dinner stewards brought the tidied-up man to the seat beside her and she watched with obvious amazement as he came to the chair, nodded his head to her, and then sat down as though there was nothing at all unusual about the situation. As though he sat at the table of the grand all the time. If Grannish had been hoping the man would be awkward and out of his element, he was being rudely divested of the notion.
“Sor,” she heard herself saying, marveling within herself that she had found the wherewithal to speak. “I was so rude as to not ask your name earlier. Now I do not know how to address you.”
“My name is Dethan,” he said carefully, almost as though he weren’t sure he wanted to share the information. She found herself feeling honored that he had.
“Sor Dethan, this is my father, Luzien, the grand of Hexis. He welcomes you to his house and table.”
“Indeed I do!” the grand spoke up, surprising Selinda. She had thought him too wrapped up in Gwynn to have even taken notice, but how silly she was to think anyone in that room had not taken notice of Dethan. “My jenden tells me you defeated the city’s champion two years running at the shivov fights!”
“If you wish to call it a shivov match. Where I come from, the shivov is a fight to the death. With real weapons.”
“And where is it you come from?” Luzien asked.
There was a slight hesitation. “I was born in Toren.”
“Toren! That is at the very southern edge of the Black Continent! That is very far from here. Two deserts and an ocean away. The Grinder Mountains stand in between as well. How is it you come so far over such treacherous territory?”
“Just traveling the continent, sor,” Dethan said.
“ ‘My lord,’ ” Selinda corrected him gently. “Here men of rank are referred to as lords or your lordship. Men without titles are sors.”
“Women of no rank are called ‘sora’; women of rank are ‘lady’ or ‘my lady’ or ‘her ladyship,’ ” she informed with a smile. She felt everyone’s riveted interest at their end of the table and she nervously tugged her veil into place, though it had not moved an inch. He reached out and took her hand, pulling it away from the nervous gesture. The whole table audibly drew in its breath. It was not allowed for anyone to touch a member of the royal family without his or her express permission. She could have been utterly offended, could have called him out on it, could have—
“Do not do that,” Dethan scolded her with a grim frown. “There is nothing for you to hide, unless you seek to hide your beauty from this table of unsuspecting men, lest they all fall in love with their grandina.”
The idea was so ludicrous that she laughed out loud in a startled burst. The entire table tittered in response. She flushed at that, knowing it was mocking, just as his words must be mocking her. But it had not felt as though he were being cruel. The words had felt … serious.
“Is there some reason you should not believe me?” he asked, divining her thoughts.
“You mean other than the fact that you are the only one who thinks so?” she asked in a low voice, a touch of temper to the words. She was being embarrassed … She was being paid attention to and she did not like it. She withdrew her hand from his, dropping it into her lap. He frowned but did not press the matter.
“It is a wonder you were able to come here at all, what with the Redoe. You certainly will not be leaving anytime soon unless you know of any tricks that we do not,” the grand said.
This brought a stiffness to Dethan’s spine, his whole body tense and taut as a bowstring. “Redoe?” he asked slowly. Carefully. As if he needed to make himself perfectly clear.
“Yes. The enemy at our walls. The Redoe have always been a thorn in our side, but with this latest siege, they are proving to be heartier and more serious than ever before.”
“The city is under siege?” he asked. Again, very carefully.
“Why, yes. How can you be here and not know that?” Selinda asked him, genuine curiosity in her features.
“I have only … just arrived.”
“But surely you passed the Redoe at the gates of the city. They have been camped there for ages.”
“I came from … the other direction.”
“The other … You mean the Death Mountains?” The jenden scoffed. “No one comes in from the Death Mountains. He is a liar.”
Dethan shot the jenden a look. He did not take kindly to being called a liar, but he did not press the matter. Mainly because in a way it was a lie. He had come from that direction, but not necessarily from the mountains themselves.
“You are very brave and a warrior besides. Perhaps a skilled fighter such as yourself has an idea of how to fight back these Redoe,” the grand said.
Dethan frowned. “I would begin by not having a fair in the middle of a war,” he said darkly.
The entire table went quiet.
“But the harvest fair is a tradition,” the grand argued. “We always …”
“And apparently the Redoe laying siege is a tradition as well. If you want to be free of your enemy, you must defeat them once and for all. And defeat them soundly to relieve any other enemies of the notion you are weak and vulnerable. You might start by moving the heart of your city to the plateau at the leading edge of the Death Mountains. It would give you the high ground and leave you naturally defended on three sides. A good sound wall on the fourth will make it nearly impossible for the fortress to be penetrated. I would create a series of walls …” He stood and reached to the center of the table, grabbed up a candle and blew it out, then turned it upside down. He used the softened, colored wax to draw on the white linen tablecloth a rough sketch of the city. It was a circle, with the mountains on one side, the city wall on the other, and the city between. “A wall here, here, and here,” he said, bisecting the city and then splitting those halves in half again, “and you will buffer the entire city. Should your enemy breach one of the walls, you could pull the inhabitants and resources of the city behind the next wall … and then the next. This will exhaust the enemy’s energy and supplies as they try to get at you again and again. If you must be on the defensive, make certain you have a defense in the first place.”
Dethan dropped the candle onto the table, sat back down, and began to grab food off the serving plates in front of him. He ate as though he had not had a meal in decades. He savored it all, ate it all. And all the while he seemed completely oblivious to the fact that he was being stared at.
“I say …” the grand said after several minutes. “Were you … How do you, a simple mud farmer, know how to do something like that?”
“Who said I was a mud farmer?” Dethan asked, his brow lifting. The grand looked at his jenden acidly.
“You are not a mud farmer?”
“No, your lordship.”
“Then … what are you?”
“My trade you mean? I am a general. I once commanded a great army.”
Grannish scoffed. “You barely had clothes on your back and you expect us to believe—”
“I do not expect you to believe anything, nor do I care if you do. I do care if you call me a liar once more, Jenden Grannish, so I would use caution if I were you.”
The jenden paled and grew angry all in the same breath. Selinda opened her mouth to say something to diffuse the situation but she was disrupted when Gwynn suddenly leaned toward her, her buxom chest nearly dumping into Selinda’s lap as she leaned eagerly toward Dethan.
“So you are used to commanding leagues of men? Are they all as powerful as you?” She practically oozed the word “powerful,” leading everyone to believe she meant something else entirely.
“Yes, but I have been on my own for some time,” he said carefully. “I have taken a sabbatical for some years. I will be returning to Toren as soon as possible, though. I must lead my armies once more.”
“Armies?” Selinda asked, marking the plural.
He seemed to catch himself. “I misspoke. I will lead one army. One is enough.”
Selinda believed him. She believed without a doubt that all it would take was one army for this man to conquer worlds. Apparently her father did as well.
“You must advise my general of the army. Perhaps your ideas can end this conflict with the Redoe.”
There was a choked sound from down the table. Firru, a relatively short, stockily built man with a curling, grizzled beard and no moustache, clearly took offense at the idea of a stranger giving him military advice.
“Your most honorable,” Firru sputtered, “the matter is clearly in hand. We are weeks away from a solution. You know the Redoe. They will tire of this nonsense outside the walls and they will retire to their nomad tents, content to have stolen a few supplies for the winter days. The temperature will soon drop and they will be gone.”
“Only to return again next spring,” Selinda said with a scoffing sound. “And again. And again. Until one day they finally make it beyond the walls and win the city for themselves.”
“I will never let that day come,” Jenden Grannish said.
It was clear to Dethan that Selinda wanted to say something, something very bitter tasting, but for some reason she bit her tongue and backed down from the jenden’s claim. It was also clear, however, that she had no faith in his abilities to back up that claim. So if she outranked him, if she did not believe him, why would she not call him out on it? Dethan wondered. She had seemed so strong earlier. So able to take control of a situation. But now she was deferring. Now she was hiding behind her veil as if she were something to be ashamed of.
“And what will you do to stop them?” Dethan queried, his tone hard and dark. He didn’t like what he was seeing. He liked what he was feeling even less. None of this should matter to him. None of it did matter to him, he insisted in his own head. “Because once they get beyond the walls, the end of your city follows quickly after, and no doubt your lives.”
The observation cast a grim pall down the length of the table.
“Well,” Gwynn said brightly, “I daresay this isn’t the topic for proper dinner conversation. You’ve put us all off our meals. Come, tell us a funny little story to chase away this doom and gloom.”
“Why tell a different story when this one is already so humorous,” Dethan said, his frown anything but amused. “You sit here dining, joking, going to the fair, posturing, and preening, and all the while the beasts outside are whittling away at your defenses. I have hardly heard of anything funnier.” Dethan moved to get to his feet, disgusted with the lot of them. “I’ll take my leave before your barbarians make it to the dinner table,” he said.
“No!” To everyone’s shock, the grandina came out of her seat and grabbed on to his arm. She leaned so much of her weight into her grasp that his biceps bulged to a heftily rounded mass of muscle. “Please do not give up on us. We are not as ignorant as we seem. Surely we are not as unworthy. Please, I beg of you to stay.”
“Selinda!” Grannish snapped, his tone appalled and his expression aghast. “A grandina does not beg anything from such common filth!”
“Quiet!” she hissed at him, that defiant fire Dethan had seen earlier rearing its head with a vengeance. It raced over her features beneath the veil, causing every muscle in her body to stiffen. It was as though it took every ounce of the energy in her body to stand up to that man. Because it obviously cost her so much, Dethan let himself be detained. He looked through the crosshatching of her veil down into her eyes, their vivid teal so full of her desperation. It was such a powerful thing. She made it a powerful thing. As though her entire life hinged on him staying. Him. A stranger of no fame and no fortune, only the words on his lips to recommend him, and yet she was willing to throw weight behind him. “He has spoken more truth in these past minutes than has been spoken at this table in years,” she said fiercely. “Father, if you do not see the wisdom of his words, then … then … then you are not the grand I thought you were.”
“Sit down!” Grannish spat out, leaping to his feet and leaning across the table as though he wanted to grab hold of the grandina and shove her into her seat. “You are making a spectacle of yourself!” For some reason this made the redhead on Selinda’s left snort out a laugh, as if to say, What do you expect from her.
“Daughter, he is a stranger,” the grand said, but it was with a thoughtful gleam in his eyes. His daughter seized hold of the hope to be found in that fleeting expression.
“Perhaps we need a stranger to look at this from the outside. Perhaps we have been sitting in the middle of it for so long that we no longer can think of a new way of dealing with the situation.”
“Selinda. Please.” The grand gestured to her chair, and after a moment with her jaw set in resistance, she slowly regained her seat. A pointed look from the grand put Grannish back in his seat as well. “It will do none of us any good to become hot tempered about this business. If we tear one another to shreds, it will make it all the easier for the Redoe to pick over our remains. Sor, if you would be so kind as to confer with my general on the morrow, perhaps you can lend insight to—”
“No. I cannot.”
The grand’s last word hung suspended on his lips even as his eyes widened a little at the understanding that he had been both interrupted and denied.
“You cannot?” the grand echoed.
“I have pressing business and have no time to waste,” Dethan explained, though he did not know why he was making excuses. He had never done so before. He saw a thing, wanted a thing, and he took that thing. He did all of this with little regard for the collateral damage it would cause. And even now, he saw no reason to be concerned with any other details … save one.
He did not know why, but the undercurrent to the way the grandina was being treated, to the way she was regarded with so little respect, irritated him. Perhaps it was because where he came from women were strong and powerful. They had to be to give birth to sons and then send them off to be trained as warriors. There had also been those women who had become warriors themselves, standing shoulder to shoulder with the sons of other women, all of whom looked up to them, knowing just how hard they had had to work in order to be considered the equal of a man, often being tested twice as hard as the men simply because they bore breasts and bore children. Some men thought this made them weaker. Dethan knew better. It made them lighter. Made them faster. Made them more cunning than their male counterparts. They compensated in wits for what they were short of in strength.
Dethan saw these strengths in the grandina. And yet he saw weakness in her as well. He saw vulnerability. Why that should matter to him, he did not know. It simply … did. Perhaps, he thought, it was a test. Perhaps his commitment to his goal was being tested by this distraction. Or perhaps she was a test of his honor. Had he learned humility and respect as he had burned in the hells? Had he learned to think of others before himself? Weysa was the guardian of women.
No. He would think himself into circles trying to figure out the wishes and whims of the gods. He had been given a clear assignment and he must stick to that plan.
But perhaps gaining the grand’s respect could secure him an advantage. Perhaps it could also secure him resources. Both of which, he thought with an internal grimace, he was apparently going to need if he was going to get past the Redoe.
“Your most honorable,” Grannish began in protest, “it is not worth your time to deal with the disrespect of this mud farmer. Allow me to purge him from this fortress entirely and—”
“It would require all your substandard army to achieve such a thing if I do not wish to go,” Dethan said softly. Dangerously.
Then the strangest thing happened. The grandina’s hand, which had dropped beneath the tablecloth, reached to lie atop his thigh. She very gently squeezed the muscles of his legs. It was a message of some sort, though he could not understand if she was warning him to tread carefully or supporting him in delight for his strength in standing up to Grannish.
But it wasn’t either of those things that mattered to him. What mattered was the way it felt. It felt like … like … like something he had not felt in so long he was afraid to even consider it. Did her warm, strong hand on his thigh actually make him feel … aroused? As a woman arouses a man? It could not be, he thought with all due haste. It should not be. His body was not his own to give. It was not allowed to feel the heat that bled insidiously up the inside of his thigh and into the seat of his groin.
Was this on purpose? he asked himself next. Was it her design to arouse him, to use feminine lures on him in order to win him over? He wanted to reach out and grab her hand, shove it back into her lap, but he did not. He let it linger there, let himself feel the illicit pleasure it gave him, even though he knew with every fiber of his being that he should not.
“Now, Grannish,” the grand chastened with an amused tone in his voice. “This man is still a guest. My daughter has invited him and we will respect that invitation.”
“Something she should not have done,” Grannish hissed.
“I did not need or want your permission,” the grandina said, barely leashing the contempt in her voice.
“Allow me,” the grand said over the exchange, “to implore you to stay. It will be your decision and it will be difficult for you to leave anyway. Perhaps if you can help us, if you can help resolve the issue with the Redoe, it will make it easier for you to be on your way. And I say to you now, if you have success at this thing, then you will be appropriately compensated.”
“Gold?” Dethan asked with sudden interest.
“A great deal of gold if you are instrumental in the resolution to this problem.”
“I see,” Dethan said. “I will consider your offer and give you an answer at dawntide.” Although a heavy part of him thought he might not even be here come morning. But this problem with the Redoe meant he would need a few more days to figure his way around them. One thing he knew from all his time laying siege to cities was that there was always a way for sneaking in and out of a city. There was always some enterprising individual willing to slip beyond the walls to get supplies, which were then sold on the black market or for an exorbitant sum. All Dethan needed to do was find such people.
“Meanwhile,” the grandina hastened to add, “you will stay here tonight. In comfort. As a guest.”
“That is not necessary or an appealing idea,” Grannish said, his disdain even more evident.
“I agree with my daughter. A night of comfort and hospitality may sway you to help us.”
“A night of the discomforts of war would more effectively persuade me,” Dethan said. “Nothing compels action more than being faced with discomfort.” He found them all too comfortable for a city that was supposedly under siege.
“Are you declining our hospitality, then?” the grand asked, amusement in his eyes.
“No, of course he isn’t,” the grandina said hastily. “You would not insult us, surely,” she said to Dethan pointedly.
“No. I will not insult you. I will thank you for your comfort. First … I must go elsewhere. I will return shortly after the juquil’s hour. Only … I do not wish to return too late and disturb the household.”
“No matter,” Selinda said dismissively. “There is always someone on guard. We will notify them to expect you, that is all.”
Selinda looked down when Dethan took hold of her hand and moved it back into her lap. She flushed hotly as she was removed from touching all that hot, virile muscle. She had not realized she had left it there all this while. There had been something very comfortable about being in contact with him, and yet very disturbing. He had such strength and energy about him. She had felt that strength in the muscles of his leg, had felt them moving and flexing with his tension. It was a tactile experience that left her strangely hot and uncomfortable.
She should have been more cautious. He could very well have gotten the wrong idea. She could easily see how he might. It was very forward of her to have done such a thing. But she had been desperate that he not alienate her father and that he not leave. She didn’t fully understand why, but she felt a desperation within herself that he could not leave. And she had learned long ago, from listening to the words of the magesses, that feelings as strong as that one were not to be ignored. The magical women of the gods had, over the years, encouraged her to heed those feelings. And heeding them had served Selinda well over time. She was not about to change her habits now.
The rest of the meal passed with little contribution to the conversation from their guest. She noticed that he kept looking out the window, and with every passing minute, he seemed to grow tenser and more agitated, though only someone paying close attention might notice it.
“I must go,” he said suddenly, lurching to his feet, his chair scraping hard across the stone flooring.
“Surely not. You haven’t—”
“I must go,” he said even more harshly, setting down all remaining protest from her. She silenced and nodded, fighting the urge to come to tears. She knew … knew very well that she was going to pay dearly for standing up to Grannish. Somehow she thought that if Dethan stayed, maybe his presence would delay the inevitable. Or at least lend her strength. But with a deflating sigh, she knew that wasn’t to be.
Her own father had ignorantly refused to see the abuse she suffered at Grannish’s hands. What led her to believe a total stranger would make any difference? But she never knew when or how Grannish’s retributions would come. Sometimes he would simply ignore the slights she could never seem to keep herself from delivering. Other times he stored them up and found ways to pay her back when she was least expecting it. In fact, that was his favorite torment. To wait until she thought she was free of punishment. To wait for when she was most relaxed. It was because of this that she endeavored to never let her guard down. Yet somehow he always managed it. He seemed to know the very moment she began to enjoy herself. Almost as though he were a carrion bird, sitting high on a branch, watching and waiting for when it would be best to pick the meat from her bones.
If only she could convince her father of his poison. She had given up almost all hope of ever doing so. Until tonight. It suddenly occurred to her that the only way her father might begin to see Grannish’s flaws would be if someone else came along and did his job better than he did. Someone like Dethan.
There had been others in the past. Other up-and-comers who might have contested Grannish’s power, but they had all met terrible ends: transferred into dangerous positions of ambassadorship or abjectly humiliated or even … death under mysterious circumstances. By encouraging Dethan to stay and play this role, she knew she was painting a target on his back, and at the first opportunity she needed to warn him of that fact. But now he was going and she would not see him again until morning … unless she waited up for him until the juquil’s hour when he returned. She needed to catch him alone as soon as possible. She knew the look in Grannish’s eyes all too well.
She hastened to stand as he moved away, something that was highly inappropriate. It was a sign of respect for someone to stand when others were leaving, and looking down the table, she saw only a few had stood—those of no real rank and therefore equal to their guest. Had her father stood, all would rise … just as they soon did after she had risen to her feet unthinkingly. Realizing what she had done, she awkwardly held out her hand to her guest.
“We look forward to your return,” she said quietly, trying to sound measured and not as desperate as parts of her were truly feeling.
Dethan looked at her offered hand for a moment, finding himself feeling gauche and unsure. Clearly she was expecting him to do something. To show her some sign of respect. But not being from Hexis, he did not know what it was.
Evidently she understood his dilemma, and with a smile she leaned in and whispered to him, “Take my hand and kiss the center of my palm.”
Finding himself grateful for her assistance and irritated with himself for even bothering with such trivialities, he took her hand and brought it hastily to his lips. He kissed her hand so quickly that the only thing he took away from it was the scent of a soft, seductively sweet perfume. It almost compelled him to linger, but he had no time. The sun was setting and he had no idea when the curse would begin. As soon as the sun touched the horizon? Halfway set? Once it was fully below? He had no idea. All he did know was that he had to make it through the city and back up into the mouth of the eight hells before it took place. He could not allow anyone else to be harmed, and he knew he could not allow anyone else to see him suffer. One, because they would know he was cursed and it would make a target of him. He did not need any undue attention. He needed to be on his way with little or no disturbance. And two, because his shame was absolute. It was bad enough that he must face the humiliating lesson at the hands of the gods, worse still for it to be witnessed. The one blessing all these decades was that his punishments had been suffered in solitude.
And as he looked down into the fair teal-blue of her eyes, the blue silkflower the only thing comparable in his estimation, he knew he never wanted those eyes to look on him in abject horror or disgust. He may deserve both and more, but from her … He would have her be ignorant of who and what he really was for as long as it may be allowed. Yes. He would take a small pleasure for himself in the idea that at least someone in the world who had touched him thought better than ill of him.
But he also saw hope in her eyes. A desperate sort of hope. He knew he should squash it, crush it under the grinding of his boot heel. It was better for her if she put no faith in him. He had nothing to offer her. He was no source of hope for her. She was looking in the wrong direction and with the wrong eyes.
He turned away from her and quickly made his way from the room.
“Selinda, do sit down!” Grannish snapped out to her. Then he must have realized what he sounded like and plastered a small smile on his lips. “I mean only to say these others are waiting until you do before resuming their meals.”
“Yes,” she said absently, slowly lowering herself back into her seat. Why, she asked herself, do I feel as though my survival just walked out that door?
That was the feeling that would keep her awake and awaiting his return at the juquil’s hour. She would pray. Pray to her god for his safe return.
She would pray to Kitari.