Days grew shorter and snow flurried lightly around the two women as they worked feverishly to restore the cottage. Azhani kept the pace hard and exhausting, assuring Kyrian that they worked so hard because the first true winter storm was right around the corner.
Working together, they first repaired the broken thatching on the roofs of the cabin and shed. Azhani would weave bundles of the thick grasses and Kyrian would climb up into the rafters and tie them down. Slowly, the warrior’s leg regained its strength, and every day, she used the crutch a little less. In the mornings, the women would exercise together, stretching tired muscles and staying limber.
Woven reed mats soon covered the floors and sturdy rope beds had replaced their hastily made pallets. All the rusted hinges and nails on the doors and shutters were stripped and exchanged for new and Arun now had a thick layer of hay in the converted shed.
A table and two chairs sat near the hearth and shelves were built into the walls of the storeroom, making food storage much easier. Brackets were nailed to the walls and small, slow burning oil lanterns installed. At night, instead of being dark and dank, the cottage now glowed cheerfully.
Azhani cut cords of wood and stacked them near the back door while Kyrian made heavy wool curtains, further insulating the home. Feeling inventive, the warrior designed a covered walkway between the house, shed and privy.
When it was finally done, she grinned and said, “Now, no more getting soaked while answering the call of the wild.”
Kyrian laughed, enjoying the unbound nature of Azhani’s spirit.
They could do nothing to shore up the upper floors – there had not been enough gold to cover the cost of the heavy timbers that it would take to restore the floor, so they had strung a rope across the stairs, closing it off for the winter. As they worked, they talked, speaking of the small things that made each of them who they were.
Kyrian told of her years in Y’len and as a traveling stardancer while Azhani spoke of battles she had fought in and of the men and women with whom she had served. Neither talked of Banner Lake or the events that occurred there.
Azhani’s nightmares returned several more times and each time, Kyrian held the warrior, humming soft, wordless lullabies until the warrior drifted back into sleep. Neither woman spoke of these moments, unable to find the words that could define what was happening. It was clear to Azhani that trying to push away the stardancer’s freely offered affection was an exercise in self-denial, and her will power was not that strong.
The warrior rebuilt the gate while the stardancer repaired breaks in the fence line. When the first heavy snows came, blanketing the forest in a thick white coat in less than a candlemark, Kyrian stood outside, just under the eaves and watched it fall in wonder.
To supplement the dried meats they had purchased in Barton, Azhani spent many early morning candlemarks by the stream, chopping holes in the ice and searching for fish. It was a clear morning after the first big snow and she had been lucky enough to catch several of the heavy, sweet trout that the stardancer adored.
Whistling a merry tune, she loped toward the cabin, enjoying the freedom of being able to walk unencumbered for the first time. Kyrian had pronounced her “fit as a hunting cat with all the attendant reflexes” and had told her to burn the crutch. As she rounded the path, she stopped to admire the snow-covered warmth of her home. Smoke curled up from the chimney, Arun’s head hung out the window in the shed and there was a crimson colored spot on the –
Splat! A handful of cold, wet snow smacked the warrior in the face and dribbled down the front of her sweater. Anger erupted, scorching through her veins like lava, and then she heard the bright, infectious laughter of her friend.
Kyrian was on the roof of the cottage, tying the last of the thatch patches in place. Near her right foot, a large chunk of snow was conspicuously missing from the drift blanketing the roof. Azhani’s eyes narrowed as she put down her fish and scooped up a large handful of snow. Gauging the distance, the warrior drew back her arm and aimed, then let the snowball loose and calmly watched as it caught the stardancer square in the backside, sending her sprawling into the slope of the roof.
“Oof!” Kyrian grabbed for a support brace and kept herself from falling through the rushes by the barest of inches. Her foot slipped though and for one, terrifying moment, she felt her body angling inward. This is going to hurt, she thought as she tried to get a stronger hold on the beam.
Azhani watched the stardancer struggle and felt her heart slam down to the ground. Now you’ve done it, you big idiot! You could have killed her! “Hang on, Kyrian!” she called out, running over to the ladder and flinging herself up, two rungs at a time.
Then she was on the roof and reaching for her friend, who was trying to push away from the beam, but her foot kept slipping on a patch of snow. Without pausing to think, Azhani grabbed hold of Kyrian’s belt with both hands, pulling the stardancer close and dropping away from the roof. Tucking the smaller woman’s body against hers, Azhani forced her body around, hitting the ground with a heavy thump.
When the warrior had grabbed her, Kyrian had frozen, but as she was pulled against a warm, strong body, she relaxed, going limp and allowing Azhani’s actions to dictate her movements. When the warrior’s body curled a certain way as they fell, Kyrian molded herself as close as possible to the warrior and closed her eyes, trusting that no harm would come to her.
Now on solid ground, the warrior released her friend, who laughed giddily. “That was fun. Can we do it again?” Kyrian asked impishly.
Azhani blinked several times rapidly, her mouth falling open in shock. “Again? I almost get you killed and you want to do it again?”
The stardancer laughed cheerily. “Oh come on, I wasn’t in any danger. I trust you. You wouldn’t hurt me.” Kyrian put her hands on her hips and looked up at the warrior. Azhani’s face was turning several different colors while her jaw worked soundlessly. Rolling her eyes, she turned away from Azhani, scooped up some snow then turned back and pelted the warrior.
Azhani spluttered as the cold, wet snow hit her in the face again. She looked at Kyrian, who slowly and precisely, stuck her tongue out at her. The warrior made a face and spit again then let a slow, wicked smile shape her lips. She wants to play, warrior, so play with her. A dark, persuasive thought percolated up, sparking the warrior to action.
Reaching for a handful of snow, Azhani leapt for the stardancer, grabbing her by the waist and bearing her down, rubbing the snow into Kyrian’s face with near vicious intent. Just as she was about to add more force to her hand though, she stopped, realizing that Kyrian had wormed icily cold fingers under her sweater and had started to twitch them. The light tickle felt strangely good. She could feel a laugh building inside of her and as much as she fought it, she wanted to let it go and just accept the playfulness of the woman beneath her.
Kyrian wiggled her fingers again, grinning maniacally as she felt the warrior flinch unconsciously. C’mon warrior, let it out. Relax, live a little, laugh, come on, she coaxed silently. Wrinkling her nose up in a goofy smile, she tickled Azhani again. It worked. A tiny chuckle escaped the warrior’s lips. Laughing, Kyrian wiggled her fingers.
Azhani couldn’t help it – a full-throated laugh ripped free, echoing across the yard. She grabbed for the stardancer’s squirming fingers but the young woman was quick and managed to get away, jumping up and easily dancing across the snow-covered ground. Giving a clear, “Come and get me” look, Kyrian grinned wickedly and then dashed away.
The warrior gave chase and soon, the two women were racing around the yard, pelting each other with snowballs and laughing merrily. They ended up collapsing in the storage shed on a pile of Arun’s hay, breathing heavily and still sharing muffled giggles whenever they looked at one another. Arun looked on, bemused by his mistresses, but willing to trust that one of them would remember to refill his oat bucket.
“Oh goddess, I haven’t played like that since I was a child,” Kyrian exclaimed, her voice cracking from exertion.
“Here.” Azhani unhitched a wineskin, took a quick swig and tossed it to the stardancer. “I can’t remember ever playing like that, Kyrian. Not even as a child.” The warrior took several long breaths and wondered if Ylera would have enjoyed the snow. She thought perhaps not. Her elven lover had found her delights in cleaner pursuits. Not that Azhani had minded the plays, or the candlemarks spent listening to some bard or another coax beautiful music from an array of instruments. She had even enjoyed the magic shows, though most of the illusions were tomfoolery and sleight of hand, rather than true magic.
Yet being here, with Kyrian, both of them liberally dusted with snow and dirt, lying in a pile of hay, was somehow just as right as dining by a moonlit lake, listening to the ethereal strains of elven harps.
“Ugh, I need a bath,” Kyrian muttered, wrinkling her nose as she caught a whiff of herself.
“If you start the fire, I’ll drag the tub into the storeroom,” Azhani offered softly.
“Done. And, I think tonight I’ll try to work through that bird’s nest you’re wearing – unless it’s some form of obscure warrior penance?” Kyrian teased mildly, pushing up from the ground and then offering a hand out to the warrior.
Azhani twisted her lips wryly and rolled her eyes. “If you consider this a penance, I’d hate to hear what you thought of my clothes when we first met.”
Kyrian blinked innocently. “Clothes? You mean that wasn’t sackcloth and ashes? I’m stunned.” I can’t believe we’re standing here, joking with each other after playing in the snow all day!
Azhani raised both of her dark eyebrows and then stuck her tongue out, mimicking the stardancer’s earlier gesture.
Kyrian’s eyes went wide and she shook her head slowly. “You have utterly amazed me, warrior. I think I like you.”
Clear blue eyes searched a dirt covered face briefly before the warrior softly replied, “I think I like you too, healer.”
“Are we friends now?” Kyrian offered her hand and was gratified when the warrior took it and clasped it gently.
“Yes, we are,” said Azhani, inclining her head in agreement. The warrior’s voice was soft and held a note of disbelieving amazement in it. Smiling brightly, Kyrian squeezed Azhani’s hand tightly, releasing it only when the warrior hesitantly returned the gesture.
Arun looked over at his people and whuffed lightly, reminding them that he had not yet been fed for the evening. Chuckling at the horse’s impatience, Kyrian poured some oats into his feed bucket. Taking it over to him, she gave his ears and mane a good scratch before leaving the shed to go begin heating water for their bath.
“Ouch,” Azhani griped softly as Kyrian tugged on another matt of hair.
“Oh hush. I can’t believe you let it get this bad, Azhani. This is worse than anything I’ve ever seen,” Kyrian said, carefully working the comb through the now tangle free section.
“Maybe I should just shave it all off and start over again,” she groused, sighing heavily and reaching for her mug of tea.
The warrior was seated on the floor in front of the fire while the stardancer sat on the edge of a bed behind her, patiently combing and braiding Azhani’s midnight black hair. Kyrian finished off another small braid and wound a bit of waxed cord around the end and then separated out another hunk of matted hair.
“We’re almost a quarter of the way through, Azhani. Don’t give up so fast. If we get tired tonight, we’ll work on it tomorrow, too.”
Azhani tilted her head to look up at her friend. “I just don’t want to take you away from something more important.”
Raising an eyebrow, Kyrian asked curiously, “What could be more important than making sure you don’t frighten Arun?”
“Funny, healer, very funny,” the warrior growled, tipping her head forward a bit so that Kyrian could get to a particularly nasty bit of snarling.
“So,” Kyrian asked after a while of silent combing, “who took care of your hair as a child? Or did you run around like a wild thing when you were young?”
Azhani looked up and stared at the fire in the hearth, thinking back to when her father had been alive and it had been his patient hands that had carefully combed out her snarls, gently brushing away her tears when the pulling became too much.
The warrior felt her eyes sting and she rubbed at her face to make the feeling go away. “My Dad helped for a while. Then I cut it all off when I went to Y’Syr to study with Master Delaye.”
A low, appreciative whistle ghosted past Azhani’s ear. “I once saw the Master give a performance in Y’len,” Kyrian said, her voice touched with awe. Master Delaye Kelani was one of Y’Syr’s finest swordsmen and only took the best and the brightest to teach the skill of sword mastery. He was a cousin to the royal family, though not part of the line of succession. Having the master as her teacher explained many things about Azhani’s style. “No wonder you’re so good.”
Accepting the stardancer’s honest praise, the warrior inclined her head and allowed the ghost of a smile to play about the corners of her mouth. She was good; Master Delaye would have expected no less of her. The question remained – was she good enough? I will see you bleed rivers, Arris, she promised herself silently.
Kyrian yawned and reached for her mug of tea, now grown cold. “So, will it get any colder now that the snow is well and truly flying? I don’t think I’ve seen it so thick before.”
“It will get colder, yes. That’s what all those furs are for,” Azhani murmured as Kyrian took up another chunk of hair. Feeling decadent as Kyrian’s fingers gently massaged her tender scalp, Azhani closed her eyes, sighing as the stardancer skillfully wove a hank of freshly combed hair into a delicate braid.
In Barton, Azhani had insisted upon buying two large fur blankets as well as several thick felt covers to go on their beds. Amazed by all of the heavy winter gear that the warrior had purchased, Kyrian had stood in momentary awe at the amount of fur and felt that Azhani loaded onto their cart.
“Okay, so, I guess I should get busy on the rest of those curtains, hmm?” teased Kyrian as she nodded toward a pile of heavy wool and canvas that had been another one of the warrior’s buys.
“Yes, actually, now that we’re finished with the roof, we can move on to making the inside a bit more comfortable. Arun’s shed should be fine, and if we notice any leaks, he can be moved into the storeroom. I also want to do some hunting for fresh meat – perhaps I can catch an older buck or a couple of pheasants.”
“Oo, yeah, I wouldn’t mind making some venison steaks instead of the usual stew, tomorrow,” Kyrian said dreamily, licking her lips thoughtfully. “Oh, and you should check by the river for some of that little purple flower I showed you – should either of us need it, the roots will make a good febrifuge.”
Setting the comb aside, Kyrian stood and stretched, squeaking in pleasure when the bones in her spine shifted and popped.
“You’re louder than a raw recruit on his first scouting mission,” Azhani commented wryly.
Kyrian chuckled and said,” I shouldn’t sit in one place for so long.” Walking to the hearth, she refilled her mug and added a healthy dollop of honey. Azhani lifted an eyebrow at the sweetener and the stardancer shrugged. “It’s not medicine, it doesn’t have to taste icky.”
Azhani laughed and stretched out her legs, gratified when the muscles only gave a mild protest at being pulled. Rising in one fluid motion, the warrior bounced on the balls of her feet, elated to feel some of her old flexibility return. She looked down at her leg and shook it, laughing joyously when the muscles didn’t wobble, but held steady.
“You know, I think it’s finally healed,” she sighed happily. “There’s hardly any pain. Just a bit of an ache is all I feel these days.”
After a few sips of tea, Kyrian set her cup down and nodded at the bed. “Sit down and let me take a look,” she said.
Smiling, Azhani sat on the bed and waited for the stardancer to grab a chair. Gently, she settled her leg in her friend’s lap, chuckling when light fingers tickled the back of her knee. Deftly, Kyrian lifted the leg to Azhani’s breeches, quickly scanning what she saw underneath.
Smooth, dark brown skin slightly marred by thin dark lines of scarring, and muscles that were slightly less developed than those of the left leg, were what she discovered. Laying her hand on the section of bone that had been damaged the worst, Kyrian began to chant the notes that would open her mind to her patient’s energy flows.
Slowly, the image of healthy tissue and bone filled her inner vision. A healthy, brilliantly yellow aura rimmed the warrior’s body. Empathically, the stardancer could sense the dark, harsh gray storms of emotion that haunted Azhani’s nightmares roiling beneath the surface. Sadly, Astariu’s Fire could only heal the hurts of the body. Time and love were the only curatives that could heal the hurts of the soul.
Pushing deeper into the image, Kyrian felt her own aura, the gentle, fuzzy blue energy that limned her entire body, merge with Azhani’s. It was like swimming in feathers, or flying through rain. Then, the sensation was gone, replaced by a clear picture of the stressed areas in the bones and muscle, showing that the warrior had pushed the newly healed tissues to their limits. The hurts were minor though, and would vanish by morning. The leg truly was healed.
A smile brightened Kyrian’s face as she opened her eyes and ran her fingers down Azhani’s leg lightly, singing the closing notes to a healing prayer. The tiny bit of extra energy would chase away the final bits of hurt, allowing the warrior to sleep well.
Looking up into sparkling blue eyes and a smile that caused her heart to stutter briefly, Kyrian licked her lips, whispering hoarsely, “All better now,” and patted Azhani’s leg gently.
“Thank you, healer. You honor me with your gift. May Astariu bless you,” Azhani said formally and then, shyly, added, “I really appreciate all your help, Kyrian. Not many would risk exile to help a traitor such as I.”
“I would be a poor representative of Astariu to not see the person you are, Azhani Rhu’len. Regardless of what the bards say, you are both honorable and trustworthy. Will you please tell me your side of the story? Grant me the gift of your tale and let me be the one to sift the strands of truth from the fabric of lies I have heard.” Kyrian stood and motioned for the warrior to move back to the floor so that she could continue brushing her hair.
Briefly touching the neat cluster of braids that brushed against her left shoulder, Azhani stared at her friend for a long moment. Finally, her hand fell away and she nodded. “You’ve got a gift for untangling things, healer. Perhaps you do deserve the tale.”
Kyrian settled onto the bed, sipping her tea slowly. It was late, and she was tired, but if Azhani were going to finally open up, then she would gladly lose a little sleep to hear the warrior’s story.
“I will tell you some of what I can, healer. It is not an easy tale to hear, and harder to tell,” Azhani finally decided, sitting down on the ground again.
“I will listen to whatever you’re willing to say,” promised Kyrian solemnly as she reached for a thick hank of tangled black hair.
“As all stories should, I start with the beginning, or, at least as much of a beginning as I have been able to piece together. “ Azhani closed her eyes and tipped her head forward, speaking softly, but clearly.
“Two winters ago, I returned to Y’dannyv after leading the Armies to victory over the spawning demons. That much is a part of our history. What has not been as popularized is the fact that the demons were harder than ever to drive back. We were decimated and yet, we prevailed.
Pleased by our victory, King Theodan soon turned his attention back to his first love – peace between Y’dan and Y’Syr. High King Ysradan visited, and the two friends talked long into the night, planning a legacy that would end the squabbling between our kingdoms once and for all.
By order of my king, I attended those discussions, but his son, Prince Arris, did not. Without breaking the confidences of kings, I can tell you that Ysradan’s and Theodan’s greatest wish was peace, both between our kingdoms and for the entirety of the Land. Y’mar has prospered so well under the hand of the High King that he wanted to spread that prosperity to all lands, bringing about an age the likes of which have not been seen on these shores since the Brothers first landed at Y’Syn all those years ago.
Another, deeper reason for peace was the demons. Rising from the bowels of Amyra’s crest, they would come down into the kingdoms and feed, and racial differences did not matter to their bellies. All were prey for the hunting. Our last tangle with the beasts had shown us that we could not stand alone against the monsters – our kingdoms had to be one united front. If we could manage that, perhaps then could we discover where the creatures originated.
My father had long been a visitor to Y’Syr’s towns and cities. Even Theodan had once visited the exotic delights of the elven city of trees, Y’Syria. I went to visit Queen Lyssera, and begged for peace. Lyssera Kelani has sat on the Oaken Throne for over three hundred years. Her wisdom is as great as her heart. Putting aside the centuries of death between our lands, she sent her sister, Ylera, to act as ambassador.
My king and The Ambassador liked each other immediately. Theodan knew Ylera’s half sister, Alynna, and he spoke of her with great affection. Writing the peace treaty did not take long, but getting the nobles on both sides of the border to agree to it, took many months. During that time, Theodan grew desperately ill.
Healers and stardancers came from around Y’myran, but none could track down the source of my king’s malady. Still, he went before the council each day and argued for peace. On the first day of autumn, he got what he had given his life to – the council ratified the treaty. In Y’Syr, Lyssera’s nobles did the same, and as sudden as that, the strife between our lands was over.
Of course, it was not that easy. Both Ylera and I traveled extensively, visiting the lords of our kingdoms to encourage them to meet and get to know one and other. While we were gone, Theodan grew even sicker, and I rushed home to Y’dannyv to be by his side as the goddess called him on. Before he died, he sent for me.
It was late, and I was engaged in,” here, Azhani’s shoulders tensed and she let out a heavy, pained sigh. “The ambassador and I were engaged in a romantic liaison, when Theodan’s page summoned me. That night, Theodan made me his heir, by writ and under the blessings of Starseeker Meryth Windwalker.”
Kyrian gasped, and drew breath to speak. Goddess... lovers... they were lovers! I have to tell her... I should tell her that Ylera was my friend... oh gods, I can’t... she’ll think I hate her...
“Meryth died in a hunting accident two days after I was made heir. With what has happened since then, I have come to suspect that there was nothing accidental about his death.” She drew in a shuddering breath and surreptitiously brushed away the tears that freely slid down her cheeks.
“Go on.” A warm hand was laid across Azhani’s bare neck. “I’m listening my friend,” Kyrian said softly. Whenever the warrior spoke of the elven ambassador, Kyrian’s heart ached over the pure anguish in Azhani’s words. There was no way that the relationship between Azhani and Ylera was as simple as a “liaison” as the warrior titled it. The love that Azhani felt for Ylera glowed like the sun in every breath the warrior took.
Ylera, my friend, I am so glad you knew this woman. Thank Astariu that you had this love, Kyrian thought, sparing a thought for the woman who had always dreamed of finding love that looked beyond the surface.
Kyrian’s simple declaration of friendship caused fresh tears to well in Azhani’s eyes. Not since Theodan’s last night, when he had held her hand and looked from this world to the next had anyone used those words to describe her.
Drawing in a shuddering breath, Azhani continued. “After Theodan died, I approached the council with the burden of inheritance that had been forced on me. I trusted them to understand and support me, but they did not. Prince Arris, who I had always seen as a rather weak-minded boy, sprouted poisonous fangs.
Somehow, even before his father’s death, he gained the trust of the council and when I came, protesting my claim, he used that trust against me. I-I had gone to visit the lake, to say good-bye to Theodan one last time and while I was gone, Arris had Ylera arrested.” Azhani turned and buried her face into Kyrian’s thigh, sobbing horribly.
The stardancer slid down the edge of the bed and onto the floor, drawing her friend close, rocking her and comforting her.
In between sobs, Azhani said, “She was tortured, oh goddess, Kyrian... what he did to her... I will never in my life forget what he did...” Her lover’s beautiful face... bloodied beyond recognition swam in her vision.
“You loved her,” Kyrian whispered gently. “And she loved you, remember that Azhani. Remember that she died loving you.”
Ylera, you better have loved her back, or I’m going to come to the havens and tickle you silly... Relieved that Azhani had not killed her friend, Kyrian allowed the anger and shock she had felt when she first heard of Ylera’s death to wash over her once more. Originally, she had thought that the princess was one of Azhani’s accusers and to learn differently... well, now she too wanted Arris’ blood. I’m with you now, Azhani. I’m with you until the end of this, and we’ll send Arris to hell together.
Light had begun to peek in through the shuttered windows before Azhani spoke again. “He tortured her and forced her to sign a confession that she and I had been working in secret to overthrow the throne of Y’dan,” Azhani said in a voice devoid of emotion. Abruptly, she pulled away from her friend’s embrace. Knowing that Azhani needed to gather her emotional armor before relating the rest of the tale, Kyrian quietly let her go.
The stardancer stood and began stirring the fire. When a good blaze was going, she wandered over to their stores of food and removed some things, bringing back a bowl full of items to mix while she listened to the warrior speak.
“The story is pretty much what the bards say, after that. I was arrested and confined to the dungeons.” She left out the part where Arris came to gloat, and how she spent the night sobbing over the body of her lover. “On the morning of his coronation, I asked for and was granted the Rite of the Gauntlet, thinking that maybe those that had served with me would see through the king’s lies and support me. Arris was more clever than I gave him credit for, though. After sending my men away, he filled the ranks with new recruits. Men and women who had never eaten or bled with me stood on the field that day, waiting to watch me die. To them, I was nothing more than the painted hero from some ale-soaked glory hound’s ramblings.”
Bleakly, Azhani lifted her head and looked into Kyrian’s face, which was screwed up in concentration as she slowly mixed the ingredients for Azhani’s favorite breakfast.
“It was a slaughter. I lost count after twenty,” her head fell again and a tiny fragment of a sob bubbled out. “I just wanted to get away, to come home, here, where I could be safe and think and...”
In Barton, Azhani had finally heard the toll her defiance of Arris had cost. One hundred and six men and women had fallen beneath her blades, dead or maimed beyond repair. If Kyrian had not been with her, if the warrior had not felt as though she owed a debt of gratitude to the stardancer, she would have opened a vein, giving her life to the goddess, rather than live with that stain of disgrace on her soul one minute longer.
However, Azhani’s honor would never allow her to waste the precious gift that Kyrian had given her. So, now, she would use that gift to exact the cost of those lives from those who had driven her to take them. Arris, and whoever else stood in her way, would fall.
Kyrian looked up from her mixing and shivered at the coldness in Azhani’s demeanor. The warrior had changed again – yet another facet surfacing as her body healed and her mind began to think beyond surviving another day.
“You are safe now,” the stardancer said slowly, getting up to make breakfast. Hanging the pot over the fire, she knelt to stir the cereal slowly, mixing the honey and jelly in with the oats and grains. “And your story makes a whole lot more sense than those I heard from ‘official’ sources, given what I already know of your deeds, Azhani. So, what are you going to do, Warleader?” She turned and fastened dark green eyes on the warrior, pitching her voice sharply and just loud enough to hit Azhani like a verbal slap.
“Do?” Azhani repeated dumbly. “I-“ Did she want to trust the stardancer? Lay out her plans for revenge like so many counters on the war table? No. She could not afford to trust anyone, no matter how innocuous they seemed. “I’m going to go to Y’Syr, and offer my services there. If they don’t want me, I will travel to Y’mar. High King Ysradan knows me and perhaps he will allow me to serve him.”
“But not until winter ends,” Kyrian said, flashing a smile at the warrior. “I will go with you to Y’Syr, to Y’mar, or where ever your quest takes you, I will be at your side.”
“No, I can’t let you do that, Kyrian,” Azhani said in a deathly calm voice. “I can’t let you tie your life to mine like that.”
“Whether you will or you won’t, makes no difference, Azhani. Arris is evil, and he must be stopped. I cannot be a servant to the goddess and stand by while he poisons everything around him. Beyond that, my oath of friendship would be meaningless if I let you stand alone against him. You will never face the storm alone again - not while I am here.” Kyrian banged the spoon against the pot resoundingly, causing Azhani to jump. “So you can take your noble self-sacrificing self and go jump in the snow!”
Absolutely dumbfounded at the fury and furor in her friend’s attitude, Azhani could only stare, mouth hanging open as Kyrian dished up their breakfast.
“Here, stick something in that mouth before a fly decides it looks like a good cave,” Kyrian said, handing her a bowl of the thick, sweet cereal.
“I... but... Damn it Kyrian, am I ever going to win an argument with you?” Azhani finally sputtered out.
Grinning hugely, the stardancer said, “Sure. You will always win the argument that says it’s your turn to clean out the shed. I’ll be glad to let you win then. Otherwise... you’ve got your work cut out for you, warrior.”
Shaking her head, “Oh no you don’t, healer, you aren’t getting out of your chores this time. It’s your turn to muck out the shed. I did it yesterday. As for coming with me...” She closed her eyes and sighed. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I need you, Kyrian. You’re the only friend I’ve got.”
“Well, I’m not going anywhere, warrior, so don’t you worry. I’ll be right here, always,” Kyrian promised.
After eating their breakfast, they decided to get some sleep and then do their chores. Crawling into their beds, they reached out and joined hands, falling asleep with their fingers loosely laced together.
Arris Theodan, King of Y’dan, was throwing a temper tantrum.
“But I don’t want to bed that ghost-faced witch Elisira, Thyro... I want Azhani!” he shouted petulantly, throwing his mug across the room and smiling in wicked satisfaction as the scholar ducked to avoid being hit. The clay cup shattered as it hit the hearth, sending shards flying in every direction.
“Your majesty, the Lady Elisira is a truly beautiful woman, and she is very well known for her ability to make men... happy,” Porthyros Omal, Arris’ long time friend and companion, said calmly. He scurried to retrieve a new mug from a cupboard and filled it with more of the king’s tea. The lady was no light skirt, but it wouldn’t hurt to appeal to the boy’s sexual appetites. In the months since gaining the throne, Arris had not been lax about spreading his “favors” among those who would have him, and none denied him. None but one, and that one, that hated, awful one, was long since gone. Hopefully the bitch had fattened the wolves. Stirring the tea, the scholar surreptitiously added a special ingredient, one that would make Arris much more tractable.
“She is?” Immediately he was interested. “Has she... been with another man?” he asked indelicately.
“No, my lord, but I have it on good authority that she is yours for the asking.” Oh yes, Councilor Glinholt had all but thrown his daughter at him when he gently inquired as to her availability. The foolish man saw nothing but the power that having his daughter in the king’s bed would bring him, and Porthyros used that to his advantage.
“Well then, perhaps the lady isn’t so distasteful after all. It is so hard to find someone who truly understands what I want,” Arris said as he accepted his mug of tea. “Thank you, good Thyro, for once again teaching me the error of my ways.”
“Anytime, your majesty. I am yours to command,” the scholar said, his watery blue eyes shining zealously.
“Good evening, Porthyros. How goes our little project?” the resonantly deep voice asked.
Porthyros Omal, a small, undistinguished human of middling height and weight, and thinning sandy blond hair, knelt before an ornately carved chair and shuddered delicately. Above him, the man seated in the chair was messily enjoying a dish of bloody, uncooked chicken hearts.
“It goes well, My Lord Kesryn. As you ordered, the Hated One is now friendless and maimed. She will trouble you no more.” Bowing his head deeply, the scholar waited for his master’s reply.
Lord Kesryn Oswyne, dealer in antiquities and rare gems, smiled. The scholar had been a wonderful find. Lord Kesryn Oswyne was an upright man and true pillar of the community, but before he had worn the rich robes and chains of a successful merchant, he had been something else.
Once, he had worn the name of another, and then, he had been a man of the Cabal, an assassin paid by others to steal the lives of their enemies. Kesryn Oswyne had worn other names and other faces, but it was in his guise as Keskyn Nightblade that he had met the toadying little man kneeling before him. He must remember to send a token of his appreciation to the jailor in Y’Tol, thanking him for incarcerating the two men together.
Porthyros Omal had been easy to bend to his will. Bright, but lazy, the plain-faced man had only one goal – to be filthy rich. By preying on this desire, Kesryn had encouraged the man to seek status as a scholar of Astarus. When King Theodan had sent word to the library in Y’mar that he required a tutor for his eight-year-old son, Kesryn acted.
Using his newly developed guise of the Lord Kesryn Oswyne, he convinced the college of academicians to send his candidate, the highly trained Porthyros Omal. The college was grateful to do his bidding, especially after he donated a large sum of gold to their coffers.
Giving the man special instructions, Kesryn paid his scholar with the first of what would become many bags of gold. Porthyros gladly traveled to Y’dan and took up residence in the castle, adapting to the life of nobility with ease.
As soon as he had Arris’ trust, he began instructing him, not just in the lessons that his father, King Theodan, expected, but in other, less savory subjects. As an added insurance of the prince’s cooperation, he began drugging him with krill, a powerful narcotic that was highly addictive. Soon, Arris grew to love his new mentor, and without realizing it, he relied on the man for his nightly cup of “sleeping tea”.
Now that he was king, Arris kept Porthyros close to his side, relying on the amazing network of “spies” that the scholar had built up over the years. Though no such spies existed, Porthyros and Kesryn had worked hard to make it appear so. It was their plans that brought Arris to the granite throne.
“Excellent, my servant. And how is my favorite Kinglet?” The merchant stroked the gemstone tattoo that was the mark of his rank within the merchant’s guild. Scooping up another bite of his favorite snack, he gazed down at the kneeling man, considering whether to reward the sniveling bastard with gold or pain. It had taken Porthyros quite a bit of time to convince the spoiled Arris to give up his dreams of bedding that bitch, Azhani Rhu’len, and Kesryn was displeased.
“Arris is well, my lord. He flourishes and has all but forgotten his affection for the Hated One. His eye, does, as you ordered, turn to the Lady Elisira Glinholt,” Porthyros declared happily.
“Excellent. And the council, how are my favorite group of bickering old men and women?” he asked, taking a sip of a rich Y’Tolan wine.
“As you have commanded, Valdyss Cathemon no longer holds the left chair. His access to the king has been cut off. The honor to sit at the king’s side now rests with Councilor Glinholt. Arris was pleased by the councilor’s initiative in calling his daughter, Elisira, to Y’dannyv. Because Valdyss’ only daughter is still in swaddling, he cannot offer the same price for Arris’ attention,” Porthyros reported, when his master smiled encouragingly.
The lord laughed wickedly. “Poor, pathetic Cathe. Nothing he does now will succeed in ripping away what is mine!” Lord Oswyne and Lord Cathemon were in a deep battle over mining rights. A tiny coal mine in Y’oro suddenly began producing diamonds, right after Cathemon had sold the property to Kesryn. Since he had paid far less than it was now worth, the councilor had tried to use his position with Theodan to have the sale declared invalid. That would not happen now that he no longer held the place as favored advisor.
Nodding happily, he tossed the pouch of gold at the groveling man’s side. “Excellent my servant. I am pleased with your work. You may go.” Waving his hand, he dismissed the scholar, savoring his triumph.
When Porthyros left, Kesryn rose from his chair and paced the room, staring at the luxuriant finery that he had surrounded himself with over the years. Treasures of Y’myran glittered in every corner. He fingered a tapestry woven by the desert nomads and smiled, recalling the long journey that had brought him so much prestige and honor when he was just a young man. The smile turned vicious as the memories hazed over with blood. The small band of nomads had thought to stop him. His gaze went to the corner, where he could still see the rust red stains where the last man had fallen, clutching at his throat feebly.
Those days were long past, though. When he spilled blood now, it was for a purpose. A dark, evil grin spread across his saturnine face. His Master had shown him the true way. Blood was power and as Kesryn well knew, power was everything.
“You thought you had destroyed me, Rhu’len DaCoure, but you freed me instead,” he whispered, turning to grasp a broken piece of a sword blade. Dried blood still decorated the shard and Kesryn could almost taste the pain that had accompanied the strike that had shattered the blade.
It was nearing time - time to begin the rites that would bring him and his Master, the dreams of the ages. For him, he would have the mantle of Cabal Master, taking it from the wizened ancient who styled himself the, “Old Man”. Then he would be the one to control the secrets of the kingdoms; he would decide who lived and who died.
For his master – the reward would be freedom. The freedom to take whatever he wanted, the Twins be damned. Cold, black eyes narrowed as delightful visions of the future danced in his mind.
One glaring problem jumped out and, as a memory of Y’dan’s former warleader inserted itself into his dreams, Kesryn growled, “All I have to do is make sure Azhani Rhu’len is no longer a threat.”
A cool breeze from Banner Lake chilled the lakeside city of Y’dannyv, forcing the castle woodsmen to work harder to provide enough logs for the king’s fires. Arris Theodan, lord of the realm and master of all he surveyed, leisurely strolled up the blood red carpet that led to the Granite Throne.
“Good morning, Your Highness.” Lady Elisira Glinholt smiled vapidly as King Arris took his place on his throne. He smiled over at her, causing the dark haired girl to blush daintily. Fleetingly, his gaze drifted downward, greedily surveying the creamy white skin exposed by her décolletage.
“Morning, my lady.” He inclined his head politely and then turned to face her father, the Lord High Councilor Derkus Glinholt; his chief advisor. “Ahh, Councilor, a good morning to you, my lord. Tell me, what wonderful news have you to share with me today?”
Behind the throne, Porthyros Omal sat and listened avidly. The king had asked him to keep a low profile, using his well-developed hearing to collect the whispers of the couriers.
Today’s gossip included the rumors of four different cases of adultery, two of suspected graft and one wonderfully shocking tale of murder. None of the speakers or their subjects had anything to do with his master’s objectives, so he quickly forgot them, concentrating on the Lady Elisira and her maidservants.
Strangely, the lady had yet to react to her newly exalted place as Arris’ favorite, but Porthyros had high hopes that she would get over her skittishness soon. The lady’s servants were all agog, however, and quite willing to take his casual references to the king’s attributes.
Smiling nastily, he caught the attention of one of the cow’s flightier maidservants. One day, Elisira would thank him for this, he was certain of it. He would make a queen of her.
The girl flounced up, bending down low so that he could whisper in her ear. She nodded excitedly, easily manipulated by the scholar’s pretty blandishments. When he was finished, she nearly ran back to her mistress, eager to impart the latest gossip about Arris’ supposed affections.
It had been too easy to plant little rumors here and there about the young king’s desire to find a wife. Coupled with the well-known fact of Arris’ preference for dark haired women, and a few words of encouragement from Porthyros, and the Lady Elisira went from being the court wallflower to the center of everyone’s attention.
Now, if only the girl would cooperate and bed the king.
“Of course I’m ready to greet my royal cousin from Y’Nor! Please, show him in!” Arris declared loudly.
Porthyros sneered in distaste. Y’Noran herdsmen stunk worse than a cesspool at high noon in summer. Thank God it was winter! The diminutive man peered around Arris’ throne to watch the self-styled “King” of Y’Nor enter.
Padreg Keelan was a huge bear of a man, with long, braided hair that was the dark brown of rich earth and agate green eyes. His face, like all of his countrymen, was clean-shaven and tanned by long days spent under the sun. The Y’Noran’s clothing was typical of the region – finely cut and tailored leathers that clung to the man’s huge body like a second skin. Each piece was dyed a different shade of green and brown so that when he moved, he appeared to resemble grass waving in the wind. Fantastic designs picked out in careful embroidery rimmed the neck and cuffs of his tunic.
“Hail to thee, King Arris of Y’dan,” the tall man boomed out, his thickly accented voice sounding strangely musical to the ears of the Y’dani courtiers.
“And hail to thee, my Cousin, King Padreg of Y’Nor.” Arris returned the greeting just as heartily, rising from his throne and waiting for the man to draw even with him.
Padreg inclined his head to honor Arris and then the two men clasped arms. “I have brought you a gift, my Cousin. Come, you shall see what it means to be Chief of all the Y’Noran clans!”
Puzzled, but intrigued, Arris glibly followed the herdsman out of the main hall and into the courtyard. Porthyros scurried to follow his king, eager to see what riches the Y’Noran had added to the coffers. Standing on the cobbles, caparisoned in the finest tack, was a beautiful stallion. A black mane and tail highlighted the ochre red of his coat and he was unusually marked by a white star that his forelock just barely covered.
Arris’ jaw dropped. “Cousin! This is a horse truly fit for a king!” Inside, he seethed, for if this horse was the one that Padreg offered, then surely, the Y’noran king’s own mount would be even more spectacular. The young man decided right then that he would have Thyro keep a close eye on the visiting king. Perhaps he too, would fall under the laws of Y’dan, and then Arris could claim the man’s mount for his own.
“He’s a handsome lad, isn’t he?” Padreg crowed, patting the horse’s flank lovingly. “Come, saddle up, Cousin. Let us wander your fine countryside.”
Lord High Councilor Glinholt, who had accompanied his king to the courtyard, clapped his hands imperiously, and quickly, a unit of guards rushed off to the stables. In minutes, the two kings were mounted.
I was right. His mount is far finer! Arris thought jealously as he surreptitiously stole glances at Padreg’s horse, a butternut yellow mare with a pale beige mane and tail. She had a sweet gait that kept her positioned right next to Arris’ new stallion, who he had privately decided to call Tyr.
Joining them were the scholar Porthyros and Councilor Glinholt’s daughter, Elisira. The horses gamely trotted through the wooded area that bordered Y’dannyv, and Padreg seemed to delight in examining the icicle covered trees and the piles of snow that bordered the roadside.
Guardsmen fanned out on either side of the noble party, creating a protective barrier between the king and whatever dangers lurked in the tame forest. Porthyros rode toward the back of the group, cocking his head and listening to the scuttling of the small woodland creatures whose rest had been disturbed.
The sky was clear today, lacking the heavy gray clouds that had unleashed several inches of snow on the countryside for the last week. Out in the harbor, the scholar could see the Y’Noran king’s ships with their gray and black pennants snapping gaily in the breeze.
There was a harsh chill in the air that felt startling against the skins of the nobles, who were not used to being in the open. However, the Y’Noran seemed to be quite at ease, laughing and pointing at a startled jackrabbit loping down the road.
The Lady Elisira kept the scholar entertained with brainless comments about the countryside, their beloved king and the obnoxiously loud visiting monarch. Porthyros looked to their escort and shared a secret smile with the pretty young woman shadowing his horse. Elisira continued to prattle on while his mind provided the intoxicating memory of his previous evening.
“I’ve not seen so many trees as you share with fair Y’Syr,” Padreg said excitedly, gesturing to the massive oaks they rode under. “It is a marvel of the Twins’ creation, is it not?”
Arris smiled tightly. “It is,” he agreed. Theology was not one of the king’s stronger subjects. His eyes flicked around to his escort, landing on the Lady Elisira. “Ah, my lady, it is good of you to join us, but the cold has chafed you. Perhaps we should be returning to warm halls and fine mead?”
Elisira tittered vapidly. “Oh Your Highness, only if you wish,” she demurred, blushing and batting her eyelashes coyly.
Arris preened, enjoying the fawning prattle. He would enjoy bedding her – she entertained him.
Lady Elisira Glinholt looked around the drab woods and sighed. It was cold, her butt was sore and the bottom of her right foot itched badly. She wondered if she could get away with kicking Porthyros, who had attached himself to her like a leech. The sandy-haired scholar’s watery blue gaze had always made her shiver. It was as though he had decided that she was a particularly tasty looking dessert. Now that Arris was king, the scholar was insufferable, finding every excuse to insinuate himself into her life.
However, her dear, dear father held the intellectual in great regard and so kicking him in a fit of pique would not do. She considered kicking the king, but she dismissed that thought almost as soon as it came, not wishing to end up being the entertainment of the afternoon court. Elisira wished that Azhani was still here. The bright warleader and her beautiful lover, Ylera Kelani had at least kept life from being duller than a soldier’s boots around the castle.
Unfortunately, Azhani was now exiled, declared an Oathbreaker and forbidden from entering the kingdom again, and Ylera, the beautiful elven ambassador, was dead. The official word, of course, was that Azhani had slain the ambassador when she had revealed the warleader’s plot to overthrow Arris’ throne, but Elisira knew better. She knew the evil that lurked in the heart of Y’dan’s king, and it chilled her to the bone.
A tiny sigh escaped her lips as she rubbed her icy cheeks. The one rather nice side benefit to parading along in this little charade of a “pleasure ride” was that she got to spend time with that most intriguing man from Y’Nor. Elisira was no fool – she knew that maybe a total of six people within Y’dannyv recognized her true personality, and fortunately, they were all good friends, sworn to keeping her secret. Only one other knew of her intense dislike for her family and the masks she had to wear every day to survive, and that person was long gone, possibly even dead.
My friend, I pray to Astariu for your safety. May whatever road you travel be smooth and clear. Elisira spared a prayer for Azhani’s safety and then added one of her own. And may I soon follow that road! Sweet goddess, what I wouldn’t give for a man such as Padreg and to be swept off my feet! His eyes... so intelligent... I bet he would love talking about the patterns of the stars and arguing the reasons behind the Twins’ teachings.
She studied the plainsman covertly and sighed, turning her gaze toward Y’dannyv. I hate this city, I hate this kingdom and I most assuredly hate that man! Clear blue eyes slid sideways to glare briefly at the scholar, who was nattering about the virtues of a certain plant that only grew in the region around Y’dannyv.
Clanleader Padreg, the otherwise titled King of Y’Nor, listened to the weasel-faced man with half an ear. His true interest lay in the direction of the sweet-faced young woman who had chosen to forsake the warmth of the castle for the chill of the winter’s day.
Tall, well featured, with a strong face and body, she acted as though she was nothing more than a piece of baggage, but Padreg was a horseman, and he knew another excellent rider when he saw one. Lady Elisira Glinholt sat a horse like a woman born and bred to the plains, and that intrigued him. For a delicate flower of Arris’ court, the lady had the strength to easily control a rather nervous dapple-gray stallion. He was surprised, intrigued and spurred to investigate the lady further.
Padreg Keelan enjoyed a good puzzle, and if it included the covert inspection of a beautiful woman, well then, who was he to refuse Astarus’ gift? He looked over at the lady in question and was pleasantly surprised to see her glance his way. Their eyes met for a bare instant, but in that breath, Padreg felt his heart expand to fill his chest. Wind on the plains! She’s the one!
The Y’Noran’s thought vanished as soon as it came, but the feeling stayed with him, confusing him with its astonishing intensity. Ancient shamans, wise in the ways of the animal totems that guided his people, often spoke of korethku, the soul’s perfect mate, but he had never given credence to the tales before. Glancing again toward the lady, and feeling the way his lungs fought to breathe, he began to believe.
Lady Elisira flashed a brief smile at Padreg and then turned her eyes forward. Her heart was pounding and her breath came in slight gasps, as though she had just spent the morning trying to break every practice pell in the guardsmen’s barracks. It was very odd and she wasn’t quite ready to look again into Padreg’s eyes. It was far too easy to see forever written in the solid green depths.
King Arris was totally ignorant of the goings on around him, having spent the last several minutes planning out exactly how he would seduce and ravish Elisira, claiming her maidenhood for his own. He didn’t really wish to marry the useless cow, but it would be high sport to spoil her for anyone but the oldest codger’s pleasure.
The group had finished their circuit and was returning to the front gates of Castle Y’dan when both Padreg and Arris spoke at once.
“My lady Elisira –“ Arris turned and crooned smoothly.
“My lady –“ Padreg boomed.
Elisira didn’t know whether to laugh or be annoyed. She focused on each man in turn and waited.
“Please, my Cousin, you are the visitor, you should go first,” Arris said through clenched teeth, his voice betraying no hint of his annoyance.
“Nay, Cousin, it is you who should take precedence, as this is your home,” Padreg countered just as smoothly.
Ah, so the bumpkin understands courtly politics better than we had assumed, Porthyros thought as he watched the two men silently duel over which would speak to the lady first. His bet was on Arris, who never let things like propriety and social niceties stand in the way of what he wanted, and the teacher, who had known Arris for a long time, recognized the look of acquisitive glee that had washed over the young king’s face as he stole looks at the daughter of his favorite advisor.
Excellent. Porthyros’ smile of satisfaction trickled across his thin lips. Master will be so pleased. The smile grew as he envisioned many more of the small bags filled with gold joining the one he had received just a few days prior to the Y’Noran king’s arrival.
“My lady, would you do me the kind pleasure of joining me for lunch?” Arris leaned toward the young woman, who was fluttering her eyelashes appealingly. She’s mine, he thought, in triumph.
“Oh, Your Highness! I should be so very honored to sup with you! Of course, I will join you.” She turned and flashed a sweet smile at the visiting monarch. “Will our friend from the East be joining us? I should think that he would be delighted to partake of your excellent chef’s midday cuisine.” Corner me alone in a room with you? Not hardly, King Loose-breeches! The servant girls do talk to me, you know!
Arris barely kept himself from snarling. Invite that oafish churl to eat with me? The king felt his ears redden with impatience. This was not the way he had envisioned it. He would tender the most generous offer and Elisira, of course pleased at his attention, would nearly swoon at the honor of dining with her handsome king.
“My lady, I’m certain that King Padreg has matters of his own that he must attend to,” Porthyros interrupted smoothly, drawing even with Arris’ mount to forestall the youth from making any grievous mistakes.
Padreg, who was about to answer the veiled invitation, closed his mouth and sighed. “Aye, Master Porthyros, you remind me of my duties. You are truly a dedicated scholar and manservant. I’ve an instructor at home who would like you, I think.” He looked at the stable boy who had rushed up to assist him as he dismounted. “Go easy on her lad, she’s taken a stone, I reckon.”
The burly man knelt by his mare’s front leg and coaxed her to lift it, poking at the shoe with the tip of a small knife. “As I thought. She’s packed tight.” He rose and stroked his horse’s nose. The beautiful mare gently lipped his fingers, causing the man to laugh. “I’m sure they have some carrots for you, you big baby!” He gave her one last pat and watched as the boy carefully led her away to the stable.
Turning to face Arris and Elisira, he said, “My lord, my lady, I would gladly join you for supper, but my duty to my people calls me away. It is my hope that I will be able to join you for the evening meal instead. The gods be with you.” He gave a little bow and jogged off in the direction of the stables.
Arris’ face twisted into a facsimile of a pleasant grin. “My lady, would you allow me?” He leapt nimbly from his horse and ambled over to her, holding up his hand solicitously.
Elisira’s clear blue eyes watched Padreg briefly as he vanished into the stables then flicked to Arris’ waiting hand. Sighing softly, she allowed her king to assist her and then tucked her arm into his.
“I believe I should be truly honored to dine with you, Your Highness,” she murmured blandly as Arris’ grip tightened around her arm.
The garden was silent, stripped bare of its usual brilliance by winter’s chill. Elisira was still drawn to its sheltered spaces though, for it lay within the center of Y’dannoch castle and was the one place where no one would expect her to be.
Dressed warmly in a heavy fur cloak, the young noblewoman sat, picking leaves from the cool marble surface of the empty fountain. King Arris’ efforts at bedding her had not ceased and she had spent nearly every night for the past week avoiding his thinly veiled hints.
The time would come when his hints would be commands, and Elisira knew her father well enough to know that he would not deny his king what he wanted, even if the object desired was his only daughter. She sighed unhappily. Why couldn’t Arris be more like Padreg? Then she would have no trouble at all opening her heart to him.
Padreg Keelan, chief of the clans of Y’Nor... he was a man worth loving. Was there ever a time when she did not long to laugh at his wryly-clever jokes? Did there ever dawn a day when she did not seek his gentle company?
That was why she was here, now, in the empty garden. He was to meet her, to share a picnic lunch away from the prying eyes of the court and its gossips. Elisira sighed, damning the loose-lipped bunch of toadies to the lowest of hells. They had noticed Padreg’s eyes following her, and had not been silent about it.
Oh, the talking to she had received from her father, warning her about the dangers of barbarians! Elisira snorted in disgust. The barbarian in this castle wore a crown all right, but it was not one made of braided leather.
The slight clunk of a closing door made her look up and peer across the garden. Stepping out of the shadows, cloaked in a heavy leather tunic, was Padreg. He carried a basket and a thick, beautifully patterned blanket, and as he approached Elisira, his gaze roamed the garden, seeking hidden ears.
“Good day to you, my lady,” he called out softly as he took long strides to reach her.
“And to you, my lord,” Elisira replied, smiling brightly.
She rose and went to him, brushing a light kiss across his clean-shaven cheek. Yet another reason to like this man, she thought, lingering a bit longer than was proper. He shaves. Arris, like his father before him, had taken to wearing a beard, thinking it made him look manly. Elisira thought it made him look unkempt.
Padreg joyfully accepted Elisira’s embrace and then spread out the blanket, covering the cold marble bench she had been seated on.
“I hope you are hungry, my lady, for the bounty of your city is endless!” he said, opening the basket and removing covered dishes.
Quietly, they ate. Afterward, they put their heads together and spent the rest of their time arguing over the duty of a noble to his people.