Book: Cursed by Fire: The Immortal Brothers

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Next: Chapter Eight

CHAPTER

SEVEN

 

The grandina of Hexis had sent all but her closest pagette to bed. She was sitting in the window well, amongst the cushions and pillows that had long ago been placed there for her comfort, staring through the glass. The view from the window was twofold. Its height allowed her to see over the entire city, all the way to the massive wall that surrounded them in a curving arch, each end of the wall built into the impenetrable stone of the mountains at the back of the city. Sheer rock shot up all around the city, with no known passes through for miles, although the nomads had tried time and again to find a way to sneak in from behind. But the mountains were too steep and too wild, and Xaxis, the god of the eight hells, protected them, if in no other way than by deterring those who feared the opening to the eight hells. She had her doubts that Xaxis actually paid attention to Hexis at all. He certainly had never shown himself to the city, not even in the most ancient of lore. That was probably why worship for him had fallen by the wayside over the years. There was habit but no strength behind the city’s respect for the gods. The second benefit to her window was that it directly overlooked the bailey of the fortress, allowing her to see every coming and going through the gates. There was no other entrance to the high-walled fortress, so she knew he would be coming that way.

She didn’t know what she would do once she saw him return. Perhaps she would just take comfort in the knowledge, then go to bed and wait for the morrow to speak with him. However, the more compelling idea was that she would wait for his return and sneak down through the castle to confront him before he retired for the night. She needed to beg him once more to stay and help them. She also needed to make it clear the danger he would be facing if in fact he did stay. She did not want to do this. She was afraid it would put him off the idea of becoming involved in the political machinations of their court, and it would be highly understandable if it did. But she would beg him to her last breath, if necessary, to change his mind. She didn’t even know him, but he was strong and unafraid of Grannish, and she desperately needed someone like that. Someone her father might one day come to respect above Grannish. Someone who might listen to her when she explained the things Grannish did to her.

She had no guarantees that Dethan would be that someone, but it was better than doing nothing at all. And she believed with the last shred of her heart that could potentially trust another that he was worth supporting. That he would speak favorably about her.

Foolish girl, she whispered fiercely into her own mind. A man makes you feel pretty for two seconds of time and you parlay that into a reason to trust? But as small as the hope was, it was her last hope. She had to exploit the opportunity. It was the only choice left to her.

And so she remained fully dressed, looking fixedly out the window, staring so hard her eyes dried out and then burned when she blinked.

“Memsa,” her accented, soft-voiced pagette said, addressing her with the affectionate term her people used to express love and respect. Hanit was from the foreign city of Siccoro, a city far beyond the Syken Desert outside the Hexis walls. She was a sturdy woman in the beginnings of her third decade, at Selinda’s guess. Selinda had never asked her pagette how old she was. Hanit was strangely blond—a sort of silvery blond, the coloring of her people—with grey eyes to complement. She was no great beauty, but she was pretty in her own unique way. “Memsa, if you will not come away from the window, may this one bring you something to eat or drink? This one needs to see to memsa’s comfort.”

“Very well,” Selinda relented. “Something to drink, then, Hanit. But you must not let anyone see you. You must make certain no one knows I am still awake.” She would have denied her pagette entirely, but she knew that to deny her too long would make the pagette highly agitated and stressed. The woman lived to serve her, to see to her every last whim or need, and when she was thwarted from that it seemed to almost physically pain her. They had grown close very quickly in the full turning since Selinda’s former pagette had died. Now Selinda could not imagine her life without her trusted servant.

But Hanit’s agitation was rubbing her own nerves raw. She was anxious enough as it was, going back and forth in her mind about what she must do next. She must somehow convince Dethan to stay in spite of the danger it would present to him.

Oh, but why would he? she thought with dismay. Why would he want to willingly entangle himself in a mess she prayed daily to be delivered from? Many thought she was so fortunate, so lucky to be the grandina, living in comfort and wealth in a big fortress at the very hub of the city, able to look down upon them all in safety and security.

Or so they thought. But they did not have to live every day knowing they were promised to Grannish, a man who clearly despised her. Since she could not think of any slights or arguments prior to their engagement that she might have perpetrated against him, she could only assume it was because he did not want to marry her. Or so she had thought at first. Until one day, before she had truly understood who and what he was, she had pulled him aside into the privacy of the grand’s council chamber.

“My lord Grannish, I wish to speak with you,” she had said hastily, her hands nervously twisting the ends of a long red silken scarf she had been wearing to protect her throat from the chill of the first flush of fall.

“What is it?” he had asked her impatiently once he had checked to make certain none could see or hear them.

“I wanted to make an offer to you that should make you very happy. You see, it is very obvious that you do not like me and that you do not wish to marry me. My father must be pressing you into doing this and I can see how unhappy it has made you. I truly do not wish for you to be unhappy. I am certain you are loath to wake up to this every morning.” She reached a shaking hand to touch her veil where it lay over her scar. “I thought that if we went to him together, as a joined force, and convinced him that we would be much happier otherwise, he would have no choice but to release us from the commitment and find other solutions if indeed he seeks to reward us.”

“Really? Is that what you think we should do?” he asked archly, one thin brow lifting in abject curiosity. Then his hand came out like a shot, grabbing her around her arm and jerking her forward, against his body. “Yes,” he hissed into her shocked face, “it is true I have no desire to wake up to the horrifying visage you bear every morning. In truth the very idea disgusts me to my soul. But as repulsive as you are in the flesh, you are three times more contemptible in your sniveling weakness and your sheer idiocy. You think I want to give up the chance to be grand?” He laughed then, a rolling, overloud sound that echoed off the high ceilings of the chamber. “I have wanted to be grand all my life and now it is here in my grasp.” He looked down at his hands, where they were locked around her, and gave her a shake. “I have known all along what it would take, that it meant I would have to marry in order to achieve it. I have worked and slaved, catered to your father”—the way he said “father” was an utter sneer—“putting up with his moods and maneuvering him away from his ridiculous ideas, all the while keeping other vipers in their place. Truly, it is an exhausting job.” He sighed, as if under the strain of a mighty weight. “And you think I am going to throw it all away because you don’t want to marry me?” He laughed again, this one even more derisive than the first. “As if you have so many options! Even with the opportunity to become grand, your hideousness has put off anyone of decent noble blood. There have been no suitors—not a single one has applied to your father because yes, as you say, they are loath to wake up to your mangled face every morning. I am all you have. So you will shut up and you will be a dutiful wife. I will piss my seed into you and get you with my progeny and try to forgive them for the inferiority of their mother. I will build a dynasty on you and you will take them to breast and see they grow up strong, then I will take them from you before you can warp idiocy into their impressionable little brains. And all the while you will smile and wave to the crowds”—he grabbed her hand at the wrist and waved it, the limp appendage flopping about—“and you will shut up. Maybe if you perform your duties sufficiently I will not kill you once your monthly woman’s blood stops and you can no longer bear me children. And if you think,” he said, his hands tightening on her until she cried out and almost sank to the ground in her pain, “that you will run and cry to your father and tell him all that I have told you, I will deny everything and I will remind him what a flighty, fanciful thing you are, that you merely mistook something I said. And you know what? He will not even care. Oh, he loves you, that much is true, but he does not respect you any more than I do.”

He shoved her away and she went stumbling back, stepping on her long skirt and tumbling to the hard stone floor, skinning both of the palms she put out just in time to protect her face from hitting the stone.

“If I hear one word from your father about this, I promise you, you will not enjoy the consequences. So do yourself a favor and do not even try it.”

She had not heeded him then. She had known in her heart that her father did love her, that he would never marry her to such a cruel and odious man if only he could see the truth of it. She had run and told all.

He had laughed.

“Darling girl,” he had said, patting her fondly on her cheek. “Surely you are mistaking the matter. I know Grannish well and he is an honest and honorable man. I think that you are afraid of your upcoming nuptials and are beginning to make things up in your mind. Grannish is as polite and even tempered a man as I know.”

“Father, please! I am not mistaking anything! Look … look at my hands where they were scraped upon the floor from when he pushed me down!”

Her father barely glanced at her hands, but he frowned and she took it as encouragement. “In a few hours’ time the bruises on my arms will also be visible. Please, Father, do not make me marry him!”

“Daughter,” he said grimly, looking her in the eye, “I trust Grannish with my life and yours. With the lives of all in this kingdom. He has served us very well and deserves to be grand. And you should know … there have been no other suitors, nor are there likely to be any. I love you and therefore find you beautiful, but this”—he reached up and stroked a thumb over the ridged scar on her face—“has kept any other decent man away. I’m sorry to have to be truthful to you. No one else has asked for you.”

“I don’t care,” she said, tears in her eyes. “I will serve as granda alone, and when I die Drakin will become grand and his children his heirs.”

“Your youngest brother is sickly and will not live beyond his maturing years,” her father said grimly. “I have come to face that. If I want my dynasty to continue, I need you to bear children. And before you say it, you know that any child born outside the marriage bed would be constantly called into question.”

“Why?” she demanded to know. “It is my body that has our bloodline within it and a child will be born of that body, married or not! In fact, it is more possible to assure a bloodline from a woman than it is from a man! A woman grows the baby of her blood, expels it from her womb, but no one can ever know who the father truly is, marriage or no! Why, it is said that Lord Harkness has fathered none of his children, that all were gotten by the affairs of his wife! And yet they will inherit his titles and his lands.” She scoffed. “It’s foolish and ridiculous.”

“Be that as it may, if you want a respectful life, you will marry and bear your children legitimately. If you do not like Grannish … well, you must find a way to like him. He does you a great honor by taking you into his arms and his house. Try to remember that.”

“More like it is I who do him the honor,” she said acidly. “He wants nothing more than to be grand.”

“Well, who wouldn’t?” her father asked with a low chuckle. “Everyone wishes to be grand. You cannot hold that against him. Now, give me a hug and a smile. I will talk with Grannish and we will clear the matter up between us.”

“No!” she cried, in a sudden panic.

“Well, then what do you want me to do?” he asked, clearly exasperated.

“I … I just don’t want to marry him,” she said quietly. Dejectedly.

“I’ll speak with Grannish and have him come to you in my presence and reassure you. Now off with you. Go and do those things you women always do to pass the time. I’ll hear no more about this.”

And he had sent her away.

He had been true to his word, calling her into the room with himself and Grannish, and Grannish had smiled and simpered, had said all the right reassuring things, but all the while she had looked in his eyes and she had seen the rage boiling just beneath the surface. So she had meekly accepted his words in front of her father.

And she had feared.

Within hours she had been stricken with sickness, her stomach in flux, with painful cramps, nausea, and vomiting. She had been thoroughly sick, sweating violently one moment, then chilled the next. Was it a coincidence, or was it Grannish’s retribution? She was convinced it was the latter. She had been sick for three days and it had taken seven more before she had been up to her usual health. She had been poisoned. She was sure of it. And suddenly she saw her brother’s illnesses in a whole new light. What if Grannish was poisoning her baby brother in an effort to make certain she was the only heir? What if the illnesses and accidents that had taken the lives of her older siblings had not been accidents? Jorry had been heir first and promised from birth to a beautiful and sweet-natured young woman named Glenna. But Jorry had died while swimming, a strong swimmer somehow drowning in a shallow pool. It was believed he had hit his head on a rock, rendering him unconscious in the water. But what if the strike on his head had been deliberate?

And then Kyna, who became heir after Jorry had died. A strong boy suddenly stricken with illness, taken from the world in less than two days in a vicious, suffering form of death.

Leaving her as the next heir. The first female in line for the throne. The first access to grand available to Grannish. But that did not explain her younger sisters’ deaths by plague. If she so repulsed him, he could easily have had her murdered as well and taken one of her younger sisters to bride. Indeed Arra had been lauded as a great beauty and had been much sought after in spite of her young age. But that beauty had withered and died.

Or maybe Grannish had planned on Selinda’s death but had been waiting until it would not look so obvious on the heels of Kyna’s death … only the plague had taken her sisters naturally, thwarting that possibility.

She would never know the truth unless somehow she got him to confess it to her. Even so, he was perverse enough to admit to it freely, then watch her flail about trying to get her father to listen to her, all the while stroking her father into believing her emotional or even mad. Gods above, perhaps that was his eventual goal. To make everyone think her mad. Selinda shuddered at the thought, knowing that rich or poor, lowborn or highborn, those with madness found true equality in treatment, and it was not a pretty life to lead. Indeed she would wish herself penniless and worse disfigured before she would wish herself to be proved mad. The asylum … it was outside of the city walls, the belief being that madness was contagious. Outside the walls, the asylum was largely undefended. The Redoe sacked it regularly, doing what they willed with the inhabitants and their keepers. And she had heard stories … such horrible stories …

Her thoughts had brought her breathing to panicked levels, her fists clenching so hard that her nails were digging into the soft flesh of her palms. She licked the sweat off her upper lip and stared all the harder out the window. Soon. He would come back soon. He must come back.

Oh my beloved goddess, please let him come back. I ask you for so little, and even this is in relation to the prayers I most frequently send up to you. He is your instrument to aid me. I know it. I see it! I swear to you I will not let this gift go to waste. I will—

Her prayer froze in her head as a body appeared in the light of the bailey. He walked in, his gait off center and almost … staggering. Drunk, she thought bitterly. He had taken some of his gold and gone off to carouse. She should not be shocked; indeed she was not shocked. She knew of men and their fallibility. But it made no difference to her. He had earned his celebrations tonight. She would have thrown a party for him herself had she been able to.

Selinda hastened to her feet, stumbling when she realized her legs had cramped up from sitting so long in one position. She shrugged off her shawl, bent to look quickly into a mirror, and made certain to arrange her hair so it fell over the left side of her face. Then, feet bare upon the cold stone, she flew out of her rooms and down the back stairwells. She was cautious enough not to be seen, knowing Grannish had spies around every corner, but she had to risk this … or the opportunity would be lost. He might leave if she didn’t do something, and she desperately wanted … no, needed him to stay.

She headed through the back corridors toward the rooms she knew he’d been given. She was just around the corner from it when she saw a light coming in her direction. She ducked into the thick arch of another doorway, squeezing herself into the shadow and cover it provided her. He was wearing a hooded cloak and being led by a page boy.

“Do you need any other assistance, sor?” the boy asked.

“No,” came the rough reply. His voice sounded more harsh than it did drunk, she thought. His words were not slurred but were hoarse. “Go,” he commanded of the boy. She could not see him in the shadows of his cloak, but she could hear the dismissal in his voice. As could the page no doubt because he departed quickly after that, leaving him the lantern he’d used to provide light along the way. Dethan then moved into his rooms and shut the door behind him. Selinda silently crept up to the door.

Dethan barely managed to place the lantern on the rickety little table the room provided before stumbling toward the bed. He should have waited longer, he told himself. Should have let himself heal more. Instead he had crept into town, stolen a cloak, and headed back to the fortress, driven by one thing and one thing only: the idea of a bed. He had not known the comfort of a bed in hundreds of years. Or at least it had felt like hundreds of years. He still did not know how long he had lain chained in torment. He had already seen many strange new things in the world. Building materials alone in the finer parts of town, this fortress included, set things apart. Not all the stone was the harsh gray of unmatched rock hewn from the ground, but there were large matching slabs of it in wondrous colors polished and smooth. There was also the carriage the grandina had traveled in. And the finely tooled tack on the horses.

But none of that mattered to him right then. All he cared about was that the bed was sturdy. Whatever the comfort level, it would be more than he’d had before.

That was when he heard it. The creak of the door on its hinges. Another difference. In his day hinging had been with leather. These were metal and squeaked noisily. He waited until the door shut, pretending he had not heard it. He waited until the person came closer, then, just when the bastard reached out to attack him, he whirled about, grabbed the outstretched arm, and swiftly moved to snap the assailant’s arm in two at the long bone by yanking it hard in a lever of counterforce and the drive of his elbow.

But at the very last instant before his elbow struck down he found himself looking into frightened eyes of stunning teal. Shocked, he stopped himself from further injuring her. As it was, he may have already dislocated her shoulder. He placed a hand on her breastbone and shoved her away from him. She stumbled back, tripping on the hem of her gown, the sound of the fabric tearing filling the room as she struggled to regain her balance.

“What are doing you here?” he demanded roughly of her. “Do you realize I could have ripped your arm off?” He found himself checking to be sure she hadn’t had a weapon after all. She had none that he could see.

“I’m sorry, but I needed to talk with you,” she said in earnest. “I did not mean to startle you, but I was afraid to knock and someone was coming down the hall. I could not afford to be seen.”

“Yes, you would not wish to be seen with one such as me,” he said bitterly.

“It is not my honor I am worried about. Although I am expected to be chaste until my wedding day, I promise you I do not care about that. In fac—”

“Chaste,” he said incredulously. “A woman is expected to be chaste until she is wed?” He scoffed. “I have never heard anything so ridiculous in my life. What has chastity to do with honor? Either you are true or you are not. That is where your honor will lie once you are wed. As for chastity, why would you not want to know if your lover can perform to your satisfaction? You cannot know this unless you try him out to begin with. To be ignorant of that until you are wed and saddled with the man is ludicrous.”

“It does not matter. Women rarely have the choice of the man they are going to marry anyway. Highborn women at least. Sometimes I think it might be better to be poor and without a title. Then one might choose freely about … many things.”

“You only say that because you have never been poor,” he said in a rumble of irritation. “I think the mud farmers of your city would wish otherwise if it meant constant food in their mouths and fine clothes on their backs.”

“Listen to me, I did not come here to argue the merits of being wealthy,” she said with exasperation. “And will you please pull back your hood? I cannot see you!”

Before Dethan could stop her, before he even knew what she was doing, she reached up and shoved back his hood. All it took was one look at him and she released a horrified gasp. She stumbled back, catching herself on the rickety table.

“My gods! What happened to you?”

And that was as long as her horror lasted. The next instant she was near him again, her lithe body and full skirts pressing against him and causing him pain, but at the same time they felt so good that he bit back the sound of agony brewing behind his lips. Her delicate fingers flew near his face, as though she would touch him; yet knowing she would hurt him if she did so, she kept an inch of distance between her fingers and his face.

“By the queen goddess, you must be in agony!” she cried on a fierce whisper. “Come, you must sit.” She tugged at his cloak, urging him toward the bed, and he found he had little choice but to obey her. He had longed for that bed for hours. Had dreamed of it while his body burned over and over again. Had dreamed of her in it with him. But that had been a thought brought on by the madness of pain. Brought on because he had needed anything to keep him from thinking about how badly it hurt.

“This is nothing,” he told her, his voice low and rough. His throat still burned from the fire. And it was nothing. Nothing compared to how it had looked an hour ago.

“Sit!” she commanded in her grandina tone of voice, the one with which she was denied nothing by anyone. He obeyed her once more and sat down on the bed. “Stay here. Take off that cloak. The roughness of it must be killing you.”

She reached out and shoved the cloak from his shoulders, exposing the full horror of his burn-riddled body. His very naked body. He could have stolen clothes, he supposed, but the idea of putting them on was just one pain too many.

“Oh. Well … never mind,” she said, her fair cheeks flushing in the lamplight as her eyes stumbled over his dormant cock. Dormant because it was barely regenerated from being burned to near ashes. Otherwise, just the touch of her pretty blue eyes on him might have given him temptation to rise and greet her. Funny, that thought. It was as though becoming erect was second nature … and it was not. Not any longer. He had not reacted in the ways of a man for much longer than he had been alive originally. He had been thirty summers when he had become immortal and had first been thrust into the hells. He must have been down there nearly ten times that long.

“I’ll be right back,” she said softly to him. “Do not move from this spot. Do you understand me?”

Her tone made a smile twitch upon his lips. “Yes, madam. I am not a child. I can follow a simple command.”

“Good. I will have many more commands of you before the night is through, so it is good you are well versed in heeding them.”

Selinda stepped back from him and with great reluctance turned to the door. She opened it and passed through with stealth, leaving the light behind and using only the lamplight from the kerosene lamps that burned low in the hallway alcoves every thirty feet or so. It made for slow going, but the shadows helped her. She hurried to her rooms first and found Hanit within. Hanit startled at her entrance.

“My goodness, your ladyship gave me a fright!” the older woman said, fanning her cherubic face with her hands.

“Never mind that. I need your help. I need you to run to the kitchen and fetch these things.” The grandina whipped a piece of finely milled stationery from the short shack of it on her desk, wetted her pen, and began to scrawl in a florid script the things she wanted. “Do not let anyone see you if it can be avoided, and under no circumstance is anyone to stop you. If you are challenged, just say these items are for me. That I am not feeling well. Gather these things, then take them to Sor Dethan’s chambers. I will meet you there.”

“Your ladyship!” Hanit gasped. “You cannot go into a man’s rooms unchaperoned! It is not seemly for you to be alone with him. Your honor will be called into question.”

“Good,” Selinda muttered. “Maybe if it is Grannish will no longer want me.” But even as she said it, she knew it wasn’t true. He would merely find a way to punish her for the infraction. “Go! And hurry!” she said to Hanit, shooing her out of the room. Then she rummaged in her closet of fine linens and pulled out two voluminous underskirts, the white fabric soft and limp, without starch to make it straight and crisp. They were among her older underskirts and she scarcely wore them any longer, so they would hardly be missed.

She hurriedly rolled them into a fluffy, rustling ball and then, grabbing a pair of scissors at the last minute, she slipped back into the hallway. Her heart was pounding more than ever, the bundle of white she held negating any effect the shadows might provide since they practically glowed in the dark. But she somehow made it into Dethan’s chambers without being seen. She turned and found that he had not moved so much as an inch, as directed. She dropped the underskirts on the bed and immediately went to work cutting them up into long strips.

“What is that for?” he asked.

“I should think that would be clear. Bandages,” she said at the shake of his head.

“That isn’t necessary,” he told her.

“It is,” she argued. “If you leave the burns open, you are bidding infection to enter them.”

“They will heal. Very soon. I’ll not get an infection.”

“Not if I can help it,” she said. “I have to go to the common bath down the hall for some water,” she said, picking up the chipped porcelain pitcher from a table in the room.

She did not appear to want Dethan’s input, because she was gone a second later. She was back in a flash and came straight to his side. She stopped then, all her energy seeming to still for a long moment as she folded her arms beneath her breasts and drummed her fingers against her arm. She was thrumming with impatience, he realized. Waiting for something, though he knew not what.

The answer came a minute later when there was a light scratching at the door. Selinda hastened to let in a slightly plump woman, who appeared to be about a decade older than the grandina. Still in her young years, if not in her youth. It made him realize just how young the grandina really was. No more than twenty summers, he reckoned.

“Over here, Hanit,” the grandina beckoned to her.

“No!” he protested, pulling away as if to hide, but there was nowhere for him to go. He was trapped by a pair of women. The truth was the more exposed he was in this state, the more questions there would be later on when he healed. He didn’t exactly know how long it would take for him to completely heal—he had never gotten that far before being burned all over again. It was possible he could heal completely before next sunset. There was no way for him to know. This day would be the first day he would have a chance to learn.

“I trust Hanit completely,” the grandina said, making sure his eyes met hers as she spoke. “And believe me when I say there are very few who can make that claim of me. Now, you must trust me. Let me help you. And, to be fair, know that I will be seeking your help in return.”

That surprised him. Usually people were not so up front about ulterior motives. Especially women, in his experience. They tended to wheedle and manipulate, working the world around them like soft clay. But not this one. No. Everything he had seen of her thus far had been direct and, he sensed, honest.

“And if I told you I do not need your help?” he asked her.

She briefly looked down, watching her own hands as she set out a basin and began to pour liquid into it from a variety of flasks the serving woman had brought with her.

“I would help you anyway. I will ask your help, but it does not follow that you are beholden to me. You have as much right to say no as any man has.”

There was a tone in her voice … not bitterness, but more like … resignation. She was resigned to the fact that the men she knew had power over her. But she was not defeated, he thought. She wanted his help. If she were defeated, she wouldn’t have even bothered to ask.

He relaxed as much as his pained body allowed and let her work on him. She tore hunks of white linen from what he assumed was her own clothing, saturated each piece, and then carefully began to wrap up his limbs in the fabric. The first touched him and he hissed in pain as it stung him, but quickly after that his burns began to feel cooler, then slightly numb.

“The juice of the funi root has anesthetic qualities. It will ease your pain,” she explained to him.

She bent to wrap his left leg and her hair slid forward off her shoulder. It was a thick black snake that coiled in a single large curl at its end. It shone in the lantern light, full of deep, rich darkness and maybe even the faintest touch of brown. It was scented. He could smell the sweet sensuality of it and he racked his brain trying to figure out what the scent was, but he had to concede it was like nothing he could remember. Then again, it had been so long since he had smelled anything other than fire and burning flesh, how was he to even know?

“I am not worth your efforts,” he found himself telling her.

“It is fortunate for you that I disagree,” she said, shifting to begin on his other leg. She touched him high on his inner thigh, a signal to get him to lift his leg so she could wrap it. It felt strange to have her touch him there. To have her touch him anywhere, really, but there it was so close to something almost … sexual. Surely only from his perspective, but he could not help himself. The craving that washed over him so suddenly took his breath away far more thoroughly than the pain he’d been feeling. What is this? he asked himself. I am not a man. Not as defines any free man. So I cannot allow for any feelings of … any feelings at all, never mind those of a sexual nature. And it is clear she has no purposeful intention of engendering them.

“Does that hurt?” she asked him.

“No,” he replied. Not at all. “You have helped me,” he said as she straightened and began to smooth wet fabric over his back. He was nearly mummified at that point. “Now, tell me what I might do for you.”

“I …” She hesitated distinctly. “After I do your back you will lie down and rest. My demands can be made after you are better. Thank you, Hanit. You may go to bed now.”

“But … your ladyship, it’s not—”

“Seemly. Yes, yes,” she said with exasperation. “Honestly, Hanit, the man can barely move from pain, not to mention how we’ve bound him up. I hardly think my honor is under any threat. It is within my duties as mistress of this household to see to the health and well-being of all those under this roof, and that is what I will be doing tonight. Is there anything wrong with that?”

It was clear by her tone that there was to be no argument even if Hanit could come up with one. The grandina had spoken and that was the end of it.

“Of course, grand lady. But you will need help undressing,” she pointed out. “So I will stay awake and wait for you.”

And so Hanit had spoken. She would not allow the grandina to spend the entire night with him even if to do it she had to make Selinda feel guilty for keeping her awake.

“Very well,” her ladyship relented. “I will be up shortly.”

“Of course. Fare well, Sor Dethan,” she said. Then she glided out of the room as quietly as she had entered, moving with surprising stealth for someone so obviously on good terms with good foods.

Left alone, Selinda helped him to lie down and then wet the remainder of the fabric and slowly laid it over his chest. She gently smoothed the white linen over the large pectoral muscle on the right side of his chest. She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, worrying at it a little as she tried to decide what to do next. Any plans she’d had regarding him had just been dashed to the ground and broken into bits. In this shape, what good could he possibly do her? But then again … she only needed him for his mind. His body may not be sound, but it was his intelligence and his cunning she needed most, and his words at dinner tonight had proven him to have an abundance of both. But like this, how could she expect him to protect himself against the machinations of an animal like Grannish?

“Go on. Say it. Tell me what you need,” he said.

She met his eyes with surprise. Then she sat back with a sigh. “It’s just that … I had very much hoped … But of course it is foolish to put your hopes in one place. And for that place to be a stranger as well … It makes me a very foolhardy woman.”

“Probably,” he agreed. “But let us begin to look at the problem before we assume its conclusion. You are skipping steps.”

“Very well. My father is under the sway of an evil, odious man and I need someone to make him see his judgment in this matter is not sound.” Dethan watched her deflate a little with another sigh. “He is not a stupid man, my father. And he is not a bad one. He is merely a blind one.” She looked at him then, earnestness in her eyes. “But if you help us to win this war, it will be a chink in the wall of his perceived perfection.”

“I take it we are talking of Grannish. Or perhaps the general?”

She scoffed. “The general is merely one of Grannish’s many well-placed lackeys. Grannish has his hooks dug deeply and all around. Never trust anyone. Never speak in public places of things you do not wish him to hear because it will be reported to him.”

“And this is why you give your trust so sparingly.”

She couldn’t seem to help herself from wringing her hands together, Dethan noticed. She was at a very high point of anxiety. He could smell the fear on her. And the determination.

“Yes. You must see … Grannish is running our city into the ground. It begins with the Redoe, but it doesn’t end with them. The siege is starting to take its toll. The poor are beginning to starve and the wealthy are hoarding whatever they can. They stock up all they can before the Redoe come back in the summers. Every year the farmers outside the walls plant their fields and every year the Redoe make off with about half the produce. It’s gotten so that we are feeding them more than we are feeding ourselves. Please, I’m begging you to stay. Help us stand against the Redoe. Help us be rid of them once and for all and show my father that Grannish is not an expert in everything. True, Grannish has insulated himself and will let the general take more than enough of the fall for it, but the general was appointed by Grannish, and if we prove it a crucial poor decision …” She trailed off, her eyes searching his face frantically for signs he would agree with her and help her.

“And what do I get in return?” he asked.

Her pretty eyes widened slightly. “My f-father will pay you gold.”

“Your father has already offered that to me for routing the Redoe. You are asking for something else entirely.”

“I-I was hoping my kindness tonight and my loyalty into the future would be—”

“I told you I did not need, nor did I request, your assistance tonight. It does not follow that it is not appreciated, however. I am far more comfortable and it has made me grateful for the reprieve from the pain. But that does not parlay into a reason for sticking my neck out. And I will be sticking my neck out. Grannish isn’t the sort to sit by and let the house he has so carefully constructed fall down around his ears. He will retaliate. But you already know that, don’t you? You experience it firsthand every day.”

Again that widening of her eyes. “Yes, it is true. All of it,” she confessed quickly. “And more. It will be very dangerous, and I will not lie to you about that.” Which impressed him. She could have struggled to pretty the whole thing up in order to make things more appealing to him, but she did not. Again that honesty. A rare trait. One that could and probably did make her a target. She swallowed then and rose to her feet. She stood almost regally, ever the grandina, save for the fact that she was trembling and her eyes were bright with unshed, frustrated tears. “I have nothing to give you. What do you want from me? Tell me and it is yours.”

He was quiet for a long minute.

“You will warm my bed for as long as I am here.”

“What?”

What? he asked himself in shock. Where in the eight hells had that come from?

“Those are my terms,” he said, digging the hole even deeper with impetus. But the more he spoke, the more the idea developed in his brain. “You will sleep at my side every night.”

“Sleep? Only … sleep?”

“No. Not only.” Dethan knew this was the very last thing he should be doing. He had an agenda to satisfy and bedding the grandina of Hexis was not chief among his tasks.

Then again … what was gold when there might be a city to be had? Perhaps the first city to be conquered should be Hexis. If he could find a way to rule over Hexis, not only would he be giving a city to Weysa, he would be taking one away from Xaxis. It would be a dual blow to the enemies of Weysa’s faction, making her stronger and them weaker. Yes. If he could rout Grannish and put himself in his stead, put the heir of the city in his bed and in his hands, then he could win the city without raising an army. Then it could serve as a base of operations as he defeated others … like the Redoe. Two peoples to be converted right within his grasp. All he need do was negotiate the pitfalls of a court and government completely controlled by Lord Grannish.

And it would start with the woman standing before him.

“What you truly want, besides what you have already mentioned, is an escape from your impending marriage to Grannish. Is that not correct?”

She was shaking hard, her eyes brimming with unshed tears. She gripped her hands within each other so hard the skin had gone white with interrupted circulation.

“That does not mean I will shame myself or my father by … by becoming a kickskirt to the type of man who would ask such a thing from an innocent woman!”

“See now, again you are speaking as though sex with a man is something you should be ashamed of. This is an attitude I disagree with. I will have you test me as a lover. I will have you certain that it is I you want in your bed. I of course will also be judging you. You will be my reward in this endeavor, as valuable as any sack of gold. With you comes a great city and all its wealth and forces.”

“A-and if I do not please you? Will you not take me anyway? Grannish says he will force himself to tolerate my deformities in order to get what he wants. Would you not do the same?”

“I want a wife. A lover and a helpmate. A ruler and a caregiver. If you cannot give me these things, then there are other ways of seizing this city that will not include saddling myself with an incompatible wife. But it will not come to that, I think. I will destroy Grannish for you utterly, leaving you free to marry whomever you choose, and should I please you, you will choose me.”

Shock finally stilled her shaking body as she absorbed the full impact of what he was saying. “You mean … you don’t wish to treat me dishonorably? You … you want to wed me?”

“I want to wed the heir to this kingdom. I will not romanticize it for you. This is a transaction. I will take Grannish’s place in this house and this city. It will satisfy both our needs.”

“But I thought you wanted to leave,” she whispered.

He smiled gently. “I have been tempted to do otherwise,” he said to her. “I will ask only two things of you: your utter loyalty to me and that you will be true. Any children you birth will be mine and no one else’s. I will not tolerate being made a cuckold.”

“You …” Selinda was absolutely floored. She had never thought something like this would come of her visit with him. Her desperation was profound and she would do anything … anything to spare her father, her city, and herself from Grannish. There was nothing she would not do. But … here was a wild card. She knew nothing about him. How was she to know if he was any better than Grannish? She could literally be getting into bed with an even worse sort of tyrant.

If that was possible. No, she told herself, Grannish was the worst. There was no conceiving anything more vile. And she knew he was capable of much more. Once he was wed to her … the only thing holding him back would be her father’s life.

Goddesses above, no! Oh, how easily Grannish had poisoned her; it would be just as easy for him to do the same to her father!

“If he feels things are slipping out of his grasp, then he will lash out,” she whispered to him, hearing the fear in her own voice. “My father and I are protected because right now he needs us, but my young brother a-and most of all you will be in the gravest of danger. I already suspect him of—”

“Killing off your older siblings in order to manipulate his way onto the throne.”

She blinked, staring at him. “How did you know that? You’re a stranger. You said yourself that you know nothing of our ways and politics …”

“Sometimes,” he said in the quietest but strongest of tones, “an outsider can see things more clearly than those who are in the mix.”

She was still for a very long minute, turning his proposal over in her mind. Then she absently lifted her hand to the burn on the line of her jaw. She looked over his burned and mummified body. “How can you accomplish any of this in the state you are in?”

“You will simply have to invest trust in me when I tell you I will be more than able. But think on it. Go to Hanit. When we come face-to-face in the morning, you will see what you need to in order to have more faith in me. Me and the goddess I worship. She will bring you the solution you need in the form of this man before you. It is up to you to accept Weysa’s gift.”

“Weysa? The goddess of war,” she said. Then she nodded. “I will think on it and provide you with an answer in the morning.”

With that, she moved away from the bed and toward the door. Before opening it, she turned back to him and said, “I’m not sure if you are my salvation or my destruction, Sor Dethan. But I am sure you are one or the other and you are about to change my life. I can only pray it will be for the better.”

“If you pray, pray to Weysa. You will need her strength and skill to help you through what is to come.”

“Of course you would say that. You are a warrior.” She nodded to him. “You pray to your god and I will pray to mine. With two such resources, perhaps we will find what we need.”

She slipped through the doorway, shutting the door in total silence in her wake.

Dethan remained there for a while, looking at the door in the flickering lantern light. Then he exhaled a sigh and let his body sink into relaxation. As he lay there, knowing the fire was not going to come for him for another whole day, he felt tears of relief pricking at his eyes. It didn’t matter that he was still in a significant amount of pain. It was nothing compared to the worst he had suffered. This was pure luxury and he dared, for just a moment, to sink into it.

And for the first time in an untold number of ages, he knew the peace and beauty of sleep.

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Next: Chapter Eight