Authors: Jacquelyn Frank
Bound by Sinis a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Ballantine Books Mass Market Original
Copyright Â© 2015 by Jacquelyn Frank
Excerpt fromBound in Darknessby Jacquelyn Frank copyright Â© 2015 by Jacquelyn Frank
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
BALLANTINEand theHOUSEcolophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming bookBound in Darknessby Jacquelyn Frank. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.
Cover design: Caroline Teagle
Cover photograph: Â© Regina Wamba/Ninestock
Glossary and Pronunciations
By Jacquelyn Frank
About the Author
Excerpt fromBound in DarknessGLOSSARY ANDPRONUNCIATIONS
DIATHUS(DIE-AH-THUS):Goddess of the land and oceans. Married to Lothas.
FRAMUN(FRAH-MOON):God of peace and tranquility.
GRIMU(GRIM-OO):God of the eight heavens.
HELLA(HEL-UH):Goddess of fate, fortune, and wisdom. Married to Mordu.
JIKARO(JI-KAR-OH):God of anger and deception.
KITARI(KI-TAR-EE):Queen of the gods. Goddess of life and death.
LOTHAS(LOH-THAS):God of day and night. Married to Diathus.
MERU(MER-ROO):Goddess of hearth, home, and harvest.
MORDU(MOR-DOO):God of hope, love, and dreams. Married to Hella.
SABO(SAH-BOH):God of pain and suffering.
WEYSA(WAY-SUH):Goddess of conflict and war.
XAXIS(ZAK-SIS):God of the eight hells.Places
Jaykun felt the sword puncture the hard leather of his armored vest, the power of its wielder outstanding. The sword went through his vest and entered his heart, cleaving it nearly in two. The shock of it drove him to his knees.
His enemy leaned in with snarling laughter and spit in Jaykun's face.
Jaykun lost his temper.
He surged back up to his feet, startling the man looming over him. He reached for the abandoned hilt of the sword driven into his chest, and with a mighty heave, he yanked it out of his body. He knew he had only minutes before the trauma caught up to him, so he used those minutes wisely.
Finding himself armed with a sword in each hand, he hurled himself at his enemy, who was now weaponless. With an ear-splitting battle cry, he plunged both swords under his enemy's armorâone through the man's neck, the other under his arm and, reciprocating the honor, through his heart.
When this man fell, he did not get up again.
Jaykun's enemy was facedown in the mud and blood only seconds later, having drawn his last breath in this world.
Jaykun threw down the inferior sword the man had used in an attempt to slay him and turned to look back toward the encampment. He began to walk toward it, the seconds ticking by with every pump of his damaged heart. He staggered, but he forced himself to remain on his feet. If he went down into the mud, he would be left there for hours, until the battle was over and one or both of his brothers came to retrieve his body.
Instead he walked off the battlefield, managing somehow to avoid engaging another enemy combatant. He stumbled up the embankmentâthe high ground from where they had launched their offensiveâand lurched toward the command tent. He reached it by sheer force of will, but only just. He stumbled inside, startling his elder brother Dethan, who had been poring over a map of the field and its outlying areasâas well as the prize that lay beyond the battle: the city of Kriza.
“Jaykun!” Dethan cried out, dropping what was in his hands and hurrying to catch Jaykun before his face hit the ground full force. Dethan eased him down to the ground. “Tonkin! Where is my brother Garreth?” he demanded of his page.
“I will fetch him from the battlefield!”
“Have a care. I don't want you injured as well!” Dethan said. He rolled Jaykun onto his back and watched as he gasped for breath and grew pale and cold.
But he would not die. Only a god-made weapon that took off his head, or the gods themselves, could kill him. It had been an ordinary weapon that had pierced Jaykun's chest; that much was obvious. But it had hurt just the same and would continue to do so until Jaykun began to heal.
“It was four on one. I had them allâ¦then a fifth came out of nowhere and plunged the bloody thing in!” Jaykun panted.
“I will get the mem presently,” Dethan said, looking around for a priestess within sight of the tent, who could use her healing gift and hasten Jaykun's healing processes. It would help alleviate the pain more quickly.
But oddly enough, Jaykun wasn't feeling any pain. Just cold. A bone-deep chill that had him shaking.
“You would be better served to have Tonkin fetch a mem rather than Garreth,” Jaykun wheezed.
“I was not thinking,” Dethan confessed. “I will find one at once.”
“No.” Jaykun reached up and grabbed his brother by the armored brace on his forearm. The armor was god made, just as Dethan's sword wasâthe sword that presently was clutched in Jaykun's hand. He wanted to make himself release it. To force himself to relax. But he couldn't seem to accomplish it. He was going numb slowly, which he supposed was better than dealing with pain. “I will be fine.”
“Eventually,” Dethan bit out. “But that will take time and I will not have you suffer in the interim. Next time you are wearing my armor as well as taking my sword!”
“No. I will not have you unprotected. Besides, you know I do not like to wear full armor. It slows me down.”
“By the gods, you are a stubborn man,” Dethan hissed at him. “Will you not let anyone help you?”
Jaykun didn't reply to that. He loved his brothers, but he would not depend on them for anything. It was not that he didn't trust them, but he would not burden them with the trials of his life. They were his to bear and no one else's.
“You! Mem! Come and help my brother!” Dethan called out suddenly to a mem passing by the opening of the tent. She was very young and fair-haired, and since she was a priestess of Weysa, the goddess of conflict and war, she wore armor. It was hardened leather like Jaykun's was, meant to help protect but light enough to move in. Of course leather armor had its flaws, as was exhibited by Jaykun's present condition, but overall it did its job.
The young mem knelt beside Jaykun, her eyes widening when she saw the evidence of where the sword had entered. “Take off his armor,” she instructed Dethan as she drew a satchel from around her neck. She set it on the ground and rummaged inside it as Dethan quickly worked the straps of Jaykun's armor. He pulled the vest away, making Jaykun grit his teeth from a fresh wash of pain, which reminded Jaykun he was indeed injured. Fresh blood pumped freely from the wound Dethan had exposed. The mem's eyes widened again.
It was not common knowledge that Jaykun was an immortal warrior. There were whispers and speculation, some soldiers having taken note of how quickly he healed from injury. Too quickly, even with the help of a mem. But no one knew for certain because the brothers had not wanted to spook their soldiers with talk of them being cursed.
Now it was possible they would have little choice but to address the matter. Or they could swear the mem to silence. Most of the men and mems were more than a little intimidated by the strong and relentlessly war-hungry brothers. Still, the mem was a full witness to Jaykun being alive while wounded in a way that would have killed any other man. Depending on the nature of the mem's personality, she was likely to tell someone eventually. People talked. They simply could not help themselves. It was just in their nature.
The mem put together a poultice and spread it over his open wound. Then she laid hands on him, closed her eyes, and began to recite her healing prayers.
About ten minutes into this healing process their youngest brother, Garreth, arrived at the tent. “What happened?” he asked breathlessly.
Garreth was covered in blood, the red of it staining his god-made armor. There was an enameled picture of the wey flower, the flower of the goddess Weysa, in the center of his breastplate and it was smeared with the congealed fluid.
Garreth was the shortest of the brothers, but he was still quite tall and not more than a hand shy of Dethan, who was by far the tallest of the three. He also had a leaner, more athletic build in comparison to his bigger brothers.
All the brothers were green eyed, although each pair was shaded a bit differently. Each brother also had curly hair, but Dethan's was a chestnut-brown, Garreth's was as black as night, and Jaykun's was a deep golden blond. Dethan was wearing his hair long these days, twisted into two thin braids at his temples with a single long braid down his back. Each braid was tipped with a flame-red feather, a gift from his fire mage wife, so that he might have something to remind him of her. Garreth's hair was shorter and unadorned, curling just around his ears and the nape of his neck. Jaykun's blond locks were of a similar length.
Garreth knelt beside his brother and seemed to check his color.
Jaykun swatted him away. “Stop fussing over me as though I were an old woman who has fallen over her own feet. I will be fine given time. Tell me, is the battle won?”
“We fare very well,” Garreth told him.
“Get back out there and see it through to the end. I want this city.”
Garreth hesitated, not wanting to leave his brother. Oh, he knew Jaykun could not die any more than he could, but he also knew just how painful these injuries could be, immortal or no.
“Do it!” Jaykun barked.
Garreth rose to his feet. “Let's get him into a bed. Give him a cup of wine. Maybe it will improve his disposition.”
He helped Dethan lift their brother from the ground and they carried him over to one of the cots in the command tent. There were three beds in the tent, one for each brotherâthough they saw very little use when the army was in the thick of a battle. The men laid Jaykun out on the bed, and the mem returned to his side and began to pray again. Garreth fetched Jaykun a cup of wine, handed it to him, then moved to the open flap of the tent before Jaykun could lecture him to return to the battle once more.
After their youngest sibling had gone, Jaykun looked to his elder brother. “What is our progress?”
“That is not of your concern. You will focus on healing. Dusk comes soon and Iâ”
“Do not talk of it!” Jaykun snapped sharply. He wanted to push the mem and his brother away, but he was too weak. He hated this. Hated being weak and incapacitated and at the mercy of whoever wanted to force conversation on him. But his brother should know better than to speak of dusk when others not in their circle were present.
“I was not going to say anything. What do you take me for?” Dethan snapped back. “Drink your wine. Garreth is right; you need to improve your disposition.”
Dethan pushed away from his brother and went back to the maps. On the maps were small figures of wood meant to represent troop locations, so he could follow where they had progressed and where they had fallen back. Kriza was a coastal city with a strong armada in its docks. An armada they wanted control of very badly. Fortunately for the brothers, an armada did a city no good on the land, and thus Kriza, for all its tremendous size and population, did not have a well-organized standing army. The men of Kriza were used to working ships in defense of their city. They were used to raids and battles that took place amongst the riggings of a vessel. But fighting in the rocky terrain that surrounded their home was another story.
Jaykun's army was a vast one. It was a compilation of warriors from many different citiesâcities that the brothers had defeated and claimed as their own over the full turnings. Normally Dethan would not be in battle with them. Instead he would be making the rounds of the cities they had previously secured, making certain that the trusted men they had left behind to rule them were still securely in place and were supported if any type of discontent grew.
After all, Dethan was not immortal any longer. He had traded away his immortality for a normal life with the woman he had claimed as his own. The woman Jaykun now called sister. Selinda was the ruler of the city of Hexis and the mother of Dethan's children. She had given him three thus far, all very young, the eldest just four full turnings old. The middle child was half that age and the youngest had been born mere weeks ago. That was partly the reason why Dethan was on the battlefield. He had gone to be by his wife's side for the birth and then come straight to his brothers' location before continuing on his progress through their other holdings.
In the past it had been Dethan who had commanded a great army and taken cities in the name of Weysa, and Jaykun had been his second in command. Now their roles had reversed and Jaykun was the leader of this army, Garreth and Dethan playing second to him in turns.
Because now it was Jaykun's lot in life to win cities in the name of the warrior goddess, and his brothers were free to live and love their beautiful families in all but the summer wanings.
Garreth had a family as well. A beautiful wife and child, and another on the way. Sarielle helped him to rule over their home city of Kith. She was also a wrena,which meant she was soulbound to a mighty wyvern, a dragon-like beast that lived in the caves of the Asdar Mountains. To be soulbound to the creature meant that she could speak into its mind, hear its thoughts, and feel its feelings. To Jaykun, a wyvern would have been an excellent tool for an invading armyâ¦except that every time the wyvern was injured, Jaykun's new sister was injured as well. The reverse also held true. And since Garreth did not want to see his wife come to any harm, they did not use the wyvern to help them advance on their target cities.
To say Jaykun envied his brothers was something of an understatement. Oh, he did not actively seek or desire a family of his ownâthose days were long past himâbut he did envy them their contentedness. Their peace. He had never known a life that was not surrounded by war and strife, and perhaps he would be bored in a life without itâ¦but stillâ¦
“Where is Tonkin?”
“He should be back shortly.”
Tonkin was Dethan's most trusted aide.
He walked into the tent at that very instant. He was very tall, nearly as tall as Dethan, so he had to duck to enter the tent. He was broad shouldered and lean, and he always gave the overall impression of being very easygoing.
“Tonkin, are the supplies stowed?” Dethan asked.
Tonkin took in the tableau inside the tent, his eyes widening only a fraction as he saw Jaykun's injuries and supine position on the cot. Other than that, he acknowledged Jaykun's injuries not at all. It was typical of Tonkin to react very little to things. It was one of the reasons the brothers kept him close. Jaykun did not need someone who grew emotional at the drop of a hat. His brothers used to be steady like thatâ¦before they had fallen in love. Now they could be as emotional as most women were. The juxtaposition of the situation gave him some measure of amusement.
“Yes. All the supplies are well secured. We should have another caravan coming on the morrow, according to the missive I just received.” Tonkin held up the letter he was referring to.
“Sorâ¦you will sleep,” the mem said.
“The hell I will,” Jaykun barked at her.
“You do not have a choice. Your body, however strong and enchanted it might be, will force you to sleep so that you may heal more quickly.”
“I am not enchanted,” Jaykun barked.
“Of course you aren't,” the mem said a bit dryly. “You are merely miraculously able to live after what should have been a death stroke.”
“She's got you there,” Dethan said with a laugh.
Jaykun gave him a rude hand gesture. He turned to the mem. “You'll not be speaking to anyone of miracles or anything else concerning this,” he said threateningly.
“Of course,” she said with a patient smile. “Have good dreams.”
“I am not going to sleep!” But Jaykun found himself suddenly with the desire to do just that. An overwhelming desire. An irresistible one.
He was asleep within minutes.
By the time Jaykun awoke, the battle was over.
And dusk was approaching.
He sat up sharply and pain lanced through him, taking his breath away. Still, he was much better off than he had been. And he had felt much worse before. Much worse.
Garreth and Dethan were both missing from the tent. Tonkin was sitting close by, however. No doubt keeping an eye on him.
“Where are my brothers?” he asked with a groan as he threw his legs over the side of the cot. Tonkin hastened to his feet and reached to help him, but Jaykun fended him off with a raised hand.
“They are helping bring the wounded off the field.”
“And the battle?”
“Won. All that's left now is the city walls to breach. But I don't imagine it will be much of a fight since they sent most of their men into the field.”
“Wise rulers would have held at least some for defending the walls. But in the face of an army as massive as ours, they would have been much better served to open their gates and let us in peacefully. Now there is death on their doorstep and women without husbands and sons. Even some daughters.”
“People think fighting for their way of life is more important than their lives themselves.”
Jaykun straightened to his full height, although it took some doing. His whole body ached, and his chest throbbed painfully. But his heart was beating, and the bleeding had stopped. It was all an improvement over hours earlier.
“Sor, where are you going?” Tonkin asked hesitantly. He knew that questioning Jaykun wasn't a wise idea, but the brothers had told him to keep Jaykun down as long as possible.
“It is almost dusk. I have business elsewhere.”
Tonkin nodded. He had been around the brothers long enough to know what came with dusk. He stepped back and let Jaykun pass.
Jaykun walked out of the tent and into the camp. The whole of it was active, but it was a weary sort of activityâmen coming back from battle, tired and bloodied and some deeply wounded. But their day would not end until darkness forced it upon them. They were good men, dedicated soldiers. Jaykun was completely committed to them, as they were committed to him.
He didn't have time to find his brothers, and there was no reason for him to. They would know where he had gone.
He walked through the camp as quickly as his abused body allowed. He had chosen a spot when they encamped four days earlier. He had gone there every duskâ¦and would go there every dusk following for as long as they would be in the area.
The spot was along a not-too-distant beach. Far enough away from the battlefield and the encampment to ensure he would not be seen. The beach was littered with seals, their large, sleek bodies sprawled out in the late-day sun, catching the last of its light on their shiny fur. Natural jetties bracketed the sheltered cove and they too were full of seals. There were even some morari to be found, their bodies just as sleek, though on a much larger and bewhiskered scale, ivory tusks long and jutting out from beneath their lips.
Jaykun had found a coveâa cave, reallyânot too far down this beach and he headed right for it. The floor of the shale cave was submerged and that was fine. It didn't matter. He waded to the rear of the shallow cave and slowly disrobed, placing all of his clothing on a shale outcropping. Once he was fully nude, he sat down in the water. Upon being seated, the water came up to the bottom of his ribs and lapped there quietly.
From here he watched the sinking sun in the west. When the first touch of dusk came, he began to feel it. Sometimes he thought this was the worst of itâ¦when he went from feeling fully normal toâ¦
It always started in his hands. It felt like a stinging sensation, and then it intensified. He put his hands under the water, as if that might somehow delay what was coming.
It did not.
In the center of his palms his skin began to blacken. Then, like the sharpest burning cinder, the centers of his hands began to glow. That was because theywerecinders. His entire body was burning from the inside out and even the water could not douse the ferocious burn. He began to glow hotly, like a star caught on land, and agony clawed through him again and again. But he gritted his teeth and refused to shout out, even though it took everything that he was to keep from doing so.
The water around him began to steam and boil, hissing as it lapped up against his fiercely burning body. It overtook him completely, every molecule of his body on fire. The water did not help or soothe.
Nothing could help.
This was his punishment and he must see it through, every night from dusk to juquil's hour. There was nothing he could do to change it. He would never be able to change it. He must suffer it alone, far away from anyone who might be accidentally harmed by what he became.
But what he didn't know was that he wasn't alone. Curious eyes were watching him, growing wide as they watched him burn and the water around him bubble.
But Jaykun was far too overwhelmed with his pain to realize it.â
At juquil's hour the burning stopped. His body still glowed like the hottest ember in a fire, but now the water was able to douse that ember. The water was still steaming hot around him, but it was better than the temperature of his body, so he lay down in the water and let it cool and soothe him.
He began to heal almost as soon as the fire was out. Healing was not an instantaneous process, but it would happen quickly. As soon as his vision had healed enough to allow for it, he got up and stumbled and waded out into the colder, deeper water. The salt of it burned even as the cold of it soothed. He could hear the hoarse barking of the seals, even though he could hardly make them out in the darkness.
Slipping into the ocean, swimming into the calm waters of the cove, he let the water cool him completely. The dead, burned skin sloughed off his body, and within an hour freshly healed muscle and pink skin could be seen in odd patches on his flesh. By the time two hours had passed, there was no more blackened skin, only the scarring of the healing burns. Given enough time, that scarring would disappear almost completely as well.
Jaykun swam back to the mouth of the cave and waded into it, looking for his clothes. He was nearly dressed when he thought he heard a splash that was somehow out of place in the rhythmic lapping of the waves. Probably a seal, he thought. But he was on his guard just the same. The last thing he needed was to be ambushed by a stray enemy contingent. Especially since he had foolishly left his weapons behind. He had not been thinking straight when he left the camp, but still, the lapse was inexcusable.
He moved to the shore, stepping around the shale outcroppings with sure footing, the darkness meaning very little to him. He had keener eyesight and senses than most, so he was able to navigate pretty easily. It also helped that the moon was newly full so it shed a fairly bright light upon the beach.
Jaykun stepped from the sand and into the low, scrubby vegetation, picking his way back toward the camp. That was when he heard a shuffle of soundâthe sound of brush being disturbed, but not by him. He turned about in the darkness, his eyes narrowing. He could sense that he wasn't alone.
The shout preceded the launch of dark bodies out of the vegetation. Three men in dark clothing. They had been crouched down low, indiscernible from the shale rocks and long grasses. Moonlight gleamed off a raised sword and Jaykun had to move swiftly to get out of its path. As it was, the tip of it nicked his already abused skin, leaving a thin cut on his cheek in its wake.
That was the last lucky shot they were going to get, he thought with rising temper. But even though his temper began to bubble, his movements were sure and calm, almost rote. He caught the hand wielding that sword and jerked on it, throwing the wielder onto the rapid rise of his knee. His enemy grunted as Jaykun belted the breath out of the man's body, and then Jaykun disarmed him, arming himself in that same fluid movement.
The sword he had acquired was heavy in the pommel, making it poorly balanced, but it was just right for smacking the butt of it into the nose of the second man. The third man rushed in, tackling Jaykun to the rocky sand. Jaykun rolled with the weight of the man until his enemy was beneath him. Jaykun straddled the man's chest and brought the pommel of the sword down hard on his nose, breaking it and stunning him all at once. Then Jaykun jammed the heel of his free palm up under the man's chin, pushing his head back and opening his neck to the swipe of Jaykun's blade.
Blood erupted from the man's cut throat and splashed against Jaykun's clothing. Not that he cared. He was more concerned with the two remaining men, who had since thrown off the effects of his stunning blows and were now rushing him as a single force, tackling him back onto the sand. He felt his shoulder wrench under the impact, but he literally shrugged the sensation of it off. His heavy-bottomed sword, however, went flying from his hand.
He wrestled for control of the situation, trying to throw off the weight of two heavy bodies sitting on his chest and legs. He arched his back hard, twisted every way he could think of, but the fact was, he was wrung out. After being run through the heart and then suffering his nightly torment, there was almost nothing left inside him. Oh, he was immortal, but he felt every single solitary second of that immortality in one way or another. Tonight it was in the injuries he had been forced to sustain. They weakened him, made him vulnerable. And gods help him if by some rare chance one of these men was wielding a god-made weapon. All it would take was a simple beheading by one such weapon and that would be the end of him. Although, sometimesâ¦at some very low timesâ¦he wondered if that wouldn't be for the better. It would certainly end the torment he suffered night after night. But who was to say he would not face an entirely new torment should he end up in the eight hells? At least alive there was some reprieve.
And so he fought. Oh, how he fought. He kicked and snarled, threw the both of them off himself, but they quickly pinned him down again. Still, he did not go down easy. The two men were panting hard as they held him down, their faces battered from where he had managed to punch them, their bodies bruised likewise.
“Stay down,trega!” the one nearest his head snarled at him, calling him what the Krizans called foreigners to their lands. The Krizan on Jaykun's chest was built for sheer brute strength. There was no grace to him, merely muscle and ferocity. His bottom canine teeth, as with all Krizans, tusked up over his upper lip, and they were capped in a silvery metal that gleamed in the moonlight. The Krizans liked to adorn their prominent teeth in all manner of ways, but the warriors preferred to keep them sharp to make the men appear more vicious. A Krizan was not above biting his enemy.
His nose was flat, his nostrils wide. He looked a great deal like one of the morari Jaykun had seen on the jetty. He had on a sealskin hat, the floppy ends of it hanging over his ears.
“So,trega,you fall to Lukan! You are perhaps not so formidable after all!” he said in his guttural, heavily accented voice.
“I presume you are Lukan?” Jaykun said dryly. He had relaxed, saving his strength for an opening when it came.
“Lukan! Greatest of all the mighty Krizan warriors!”
“Your mighty warriors looked more like sleepy women out on that battlefield today,” Jaykun said.
The Krizan roared in outrage, spittle flying from his lips. “The demontregaleaders use sorcery to win their battles! Evil trickery!”
“I hate to break it to you, but we don't have any mages with us at present. The most dangerous things we have along those lines are the mem healers. Not very dangerous at all, I'm afraid.”
“You are a liar,trega! Alltregaare liars and demons!” He hissed past his plump lips. “Now we will disembowel you and cut you into little pieces, painting a picture with you on the beach for the othertregato find in the morning.”
So they didn't realize he was thetregaleader. That was perhaps a good thing, Jaykun thought. Otherwise, they would have tried to kill him immediately, using him as some sort of trophy or whatever it was the Krizans liked to do to the leaders of an enemy force.
“Why don't you all just give up already? We're going to come over your walls tomorrow, whether you like it or not. No one else has to die if you simply open the gates.”
“We would rather die than lettregalike you into our city, where you will kill our children and defile our women.”
“Trust me, we don't want anything to do with your women,” Jaykun said. To be blunt, Krizan women were twice as ugly as their hideous male counterparts.
“Again he lies,” the second warrior said. “Who wouldn't want the beauty of a Krizan warrior woman? Kill him. His words irritate my ears.”
“Yes, do get on with it,” Jaykun said with a sigh.
His blasÃ© tone enraged the Krizan warrior. He balled up his fist and punched it dead-on into Jaykun's face. And it hurt. There was no two ways about it. Krizan warriors were definitely strong, if not exactly bright. Had they been bright, they would have learned how to fight on landâ¦seeing as how they lived on land and not on the ocean.
The Krizan pulled a dagger from his boot and reared back to plunge it into Jaykun's chest.
Oh no. Not that again, Jaykun vowed to himself. He wrenched a hand free somehow, surprising his over-arrogant attackers and reached to catch the downward plunge, his hand grabbing the meaty forearm of the warrior and stopping the dagger dead in the air. The warrior seemed as though he couldn't believe his eyes for a second, couldn't believe that Jaykun had the strength to counteract his strike.
The two struggled for several long moments, the warrior pushing down, Jaykun staving off.
Then the softest little sound slid through the air. Like a musical note, only gentler and more beautiful. The Krizan warriors froze, and to Jaykun's surprise, all the strength behind the dagger was gone. Instead the men were suddenly tripping over themselves to withdraw.
“Prava!”one said to the other, their eyes wide. Both men scrambled off Jaykun, turned, and ran. They were trying to run so fast that they fell more than once.
Jaykun sat up, at a complete loss to explain what had just happened.
Then he heard it again. That soft, lilting note. Like a laugh. The sweetest, most singsongy laugh he'd ever heard.
He got to his feet and peered out into the moonlit darkness. That was when he saw a figure standing there in the moonlight. A woman. She was slight of build, tall but slim. She had long hair that whipped around her body in the ocean breeze. He could not tell what color it was, only that it was dark. It fell all the way to the backs of her knees. It could cover her entire body, he found himself thinking. And a good thing too, for she was completely naked.
She was dark skinnedâagain, an undetermined colorâbut it appeared to be an even and beautiful tone in the moonlight. She had small breasts, curvy hips, and long legs. And though he couldn't make out her features perfectly, he knew she was quite beautiful. Not a Krizan womanâshe was too tall, too lithe, too pretty.
She came closer, increasingly revealing her beauty as she drew to within five feet of him. She was smiling softly, her eyes running down the length of him, no doubt sizing him up just as he was assessing her. She seemedâ¦fascinated. She reached out as if to touch him and he jerked back. Her hand lowered.
“I won't hurt you,” she said, her voice musical and sweet.
“Who are you?” Jaykun demanded of her.
“I saw you. Saw you burn. Saw the waters boil. How did you do that? Why would you do that? Do you enjoy it? Does it not hurt? Do you do that often?”
She barely paused between questions, leaving him a moment to get over the shock of knowing he'd been watched. He supposed it had to happen sometime, but he had not seen anyone in the cave. He could have sworn he was alone.
“Did the Krizan hurt your tongue? Can you not answer? Is the moon not beautiful tonight?” She turned her face up toward it, closed her eyes, and drew in a deep breath. She opened her eyes again and looked at him, and he saw they were a pale, silvery color in the moonlight.
“Who are you?” Jaykun asked again.
“Jileana. Who are you?”
“Jaykun,” he answered in turn. “Where did you come from?”
“From the beach,” she said. “Can you show me how to make the water bubble? I want to learn how to do it.”
“No, I can't, and trust me, you don't want to know how.”
She frowned at him in consternation. “Very well. If you don't wish to share. Let's go back to the beach. It's safer there.”
“I would much rather go back to my encampment.” He eyed her nude state. “You shouldn't be out hereâ¦unprotected.”
“Yes, it is not safe. Men make war.”
“I am one of those men,” he told her baldly.
She took a hesitant step back. “Are you going to make war with me and my family?”
“Iâ¦I don't know who your family is. But I don't make war on just anyone. In fact, I prefer not to make war. When I first go to a city, I see whom it is they worship, then I try to convince them to let mems of my goddess set up temples there. If they refuse, I become moreâ¦forceful in my request.”
“But my family worships Diathus. We have always worshipped Diathus.”
“The goddess of the land and oceans. That would make sense, coming fromâ¦Well, I assume you are from around here. But everyone should worship Weysa as well. For without conflict there can be no peace, of the mind, the body, or the soul. We must be conflicted from time to time so that we may make the best choices and judgments, making us stronger and more sure.”
Jaykun couldn't believe he was in the saw grass philosophizing with a naked woman, but it didn't stop him from doing so.
“You make a very good point. I shall have you speak to my father one day. He is quite learned and enjoys such debates. My mother as well.” She turned her head suddenly and looked back toward the beach. “I have to go now. Will you come back tomorrow night?” she asked.
“You can be certain of it,” Jaykun said wryly.
“Very well. I will see you then! Goodbye!” She waved at him and hurried off. She was fast, moving sleekly into the darkness. All Jaykun could do was watch the line of her bare body until she disappeared into the cove he had come from. Oddâthere was nothing down that stretch of beach. It was the very reason he had chosen it. Where could she possibly be going?
Jaykun didn't have time to dawdle over the matter. It was late and there was danger of another enemy patrol coming by. Although, he suspected that raggedy band were soldiers who had fled the thick of the battle, waiting for darkness to hide their presence so they could perhaps escape or, as they had done, cause trouble.
Jaykun went back to the encampment without any further molestation, which was a good thing, because he found himself completely preoccupied by the appearance of Jileana. Not just the baffling question of where she had come from but so much more. Why had she been naked? There were dangerous men from both armies encamped just a short distance away. It was madness for her to be out and about at all, never mind in such a vulnerable way.
She had been really quite beautiful. As Jaykun thought about it, he could not recall having seen any woman to compare. All the more reason for her to be more cautious. Beauty could be a curse for a woman, drawing unwanted attention. Dangerous attention. And if he had to confess it, he himself had been incredibly drawn to her. Had she actually touched himâ¦there was no telling what his reaction might have been.
No. Not true. He would not have had any reaction, Jaykun told himself sternly. She was just another woman who happened to be pretty. No more, no less. And he had no place in his life for women, pretty or otherwise.
He made it back to the command tent, the encampment quiet now in comparison to the activity of earlier. When he entered the tent, he found both of his brothers pacing anxiously, still fully dressed in their armor.
“At last!” Dethan cried when he saw Jaykun. “What took you so long?”
“You know why I must go.”
“Yes, of course we do,” Garreth said with a manner of impatience. “But you are usually backâHave you been in a fight?” he asked abruptly.
“That is why I was delayed. I was waylaid on the way back.”
“Oh. I see you made it out in one piece,” Dethan said.
“Don't I always?”
“You know, it is not a given that you will make it back with all your limbs or your head attached. You can still be beheaded by a normal sword and left on the ground, unable to heal until your body parts are reunited.”
“Yes,” Garreth said. “It is very hard to find one's head with one's body when the body cannot see the head for lack of eyes.”
“This is all a moot topic. I am fine,” Jaykun said, impatient with his brothers' worrying. He did not like to be coddled. He was perfectly capable of handling himself in any situation. “If you wish to discuss something, then let us discuss how we will approach the city walls tomorrow.”
“I was thinking we would send a messenger, offer the leaders one last chance to open their gates peacefully to us. Their army, such as it is, has been decimated. Our taking of the city is only a matter of time. Surely they must realize it at this point.”
“They might. It does not follow that they will behave wisely. Would you risk the life of a messenger?”
“Better one life than the lives of many.”
“Yes, but the Krizans are very dishonorable,” Jaykun pointed out. “It is very unlikely they will respect parlay.”
“So we don't try at all?”
“I think not. If they wanted to parlay or surrender, all they had to do was open the gates. They know this. We have already sent messages telling them we will not harm the citizens of the city if they but lay down their weapons. The rest is up to them. We will take this city one way or another, and we will earn the fleet of ships in their harbor. I want those ships. If we are to move on to the Isle of Moroun, and then to Shintu, we will need those ships.”
“It is said Moroun is heavily protected by the goddess Diathus,” Garreth hedged. “If you plan to lay siege to an island that is protected by a god of Xaxis's factionâ¦It is unwise. Especially when we are a more able land army than a seafaring one.”
The gods were at war. There were twelve gods in all, and they had been split into two factions. One was led by the brothers' goddess, the goddess of conflict and war, Weysa. The other was lead by Xaxis, the god of the eight hells. Meddling in the affairs of the gods was never a wise thing for a man to do, but the brothers had sworn to Weysa to do exactly that, for the power of the gods came from the multitude of their worshippers. The more the gods were worshipped, the more powerful they became. Every temple the brothers raised in Weysa's name made her and her faction more powerful. Every city they stole from Xaxis's faction made him and his faction weaker.
The only thing that protected the brothers from the wrath of Xaxis at this point was their goddess's protection. But she would only continue to give that protection if the brothers honored the agreement she had foisted upon them. An agreement they must honor no matter what, else they enrage the goddess and find themselvesâ¦Well, all three brothers had learned firsthand of the vindictive nature of the gods. They would not court it again for any reason.
“One step at a time,” Jaykun said. “I am not certain I will try to take Moroun. First let us take this city. Then we will worry about the next. Now, I don't know about you, but I am weary.” He began to take off his clothes, revealing the scarring and damage done to him earlier. His brothers watched him with troubled eyes for a long moment but then finally began to follow suit. They were each in their cots shortly after, sleeping the troubled sleep of men at war.
It was two days before they finally took the city. Two days and two nights of Jaykun's nightly punishment. And never once did he see the strange beauty again.
Not until the third night, when he left his brothers in charge of the city and went back to the cove. He was watching the setting sun with one eye and picking his way into the cove with the other, so he nearly ran into her as he moved away from the rocks and waded into the water.
She was sitting in the water, the waves lapping at her bare skin, her breasts just barely touching the water's surface. It was daylight now so he could see her clearly. Her skin was not as dark as he had thought it was initially. She was a warm cocoa color, her nipples dark and as large as a gold coin. Her eyes, now plainly visible in sunlight, proved to be an iridescent green and regarded him with open curiosity.
“May I watch you boil the waters?” she asked him.
“It is not a spectator sport,” he said almost irritably. But he couldn't figure out if it was because she didn't understand that what happened to him was involuntary and painful or because his body inexplicably tightened with a curious attraction toward her.
Why did she have to be so damn beautiful? Perhaps if she were less so he would find her more aggravating, find her intrusive to a fault. Because he thought he should be reacting that way, he did so without really feeling the temper of it.
“And yet I have watched you every night. Is it as painful as it looks? You burnâ¦like a star. I can feel the warmth even at a distance.”
“And a distance is where you should stay,” he bit out.
“Butâ¦it is beautiful. A star in the shape of a man.” She stood up and walked toward him. She reached to touch him, but he pulled away.
“It hurts. It is pain beyond anything you can imagine. There is nothing beautiful about it.”
She was undeterred. She moved forward again, her hands coming to rest on his chest. Jaykun felt the coolness of her hands through his tunic. It was compelling, the sensation of her touch somehow alluring to him.
“You are not hot now. Your skin is simply warm. Like any man's would be?”
It was a question and he found that curious. Hell, he found everything about her curious. She was curious in both being and action. She was sloe-eyed, her cheeks full at the apple. She had the gentlest nose and thin little brows that crested in the middle. Her hair was straight, sleek, and shiny. It was wet from her lower back down and overall a perfect sheen of black. There were no lights to her hair, no sign of fairness. It was simply rich and dark.
“That will change very soon. And you shouldn't be near when it does. You will get hurt.”
“I will be careful,” she promised him. “It happens the same every night at dusk?”
“Yes. Every night.”
“It is a long story,” he said evasively.
“Well, I believe there will be time later and you can tell me then. It won't last all night.”
“Only half of it,” he said, his tone scoffing.
“It could last the entire night,” she pointed out. “It is lucky that it is only a short while.”
He supposed she had a point. But then again, she didn't have to suffer every minute of it in excruciating, burning pain as he did. She was watching it from the outside. It still made him uncomfortable to think of her watching him as he lay vulnerable and burning. It was almost likeâ¦like being stripped naked in front of someone he would much rather keep hidden from.
He cast an anxious eye toward the sky again. “You must leave,” he said sharply.
“I will stay,” she persisted. “I will watch as I have done every night these past nights. And then, when you are done, I wish to talk to you for a little while. I have so many questions.”
“What if I do not wish to talk?” he said abruptly. Inside his body he could feel it. Feel it starting. Warming his skin in an all too fleeting sensation of comfort, chasing away any coolness in the air or brought by the waters.
“You will talk,” she said assuredly. “I am sure of it.”
“Leave,” he pressed. Then in a more gentle tone, “Please.”
She smiled at him, backing away and moving to the farthest edge of the cove. Then she sat down on a flat boulder, not in the water, crossing her legs and smiling at him expectantly. And whether he wanted to or not, he was going to put on the show she was expecting. He couldn't decide if that galled him or made him feelâ¦comforted. There was something comforting about knowing he wasn't going to be alone. Oh, she couldn't really be a part of it, butâ¦he wasn't alone.
He slowly began to undress, his eyes never leaving hers as he did this. He was not a shy person. He really did not care if he was naked or clothed in front of strangers. He was that confident in knowing he would never be truly vulnerable in the world, that he would always be able to take care of himself even if all he had were his bare hands. Even those men who had waylaid him the night he had met herâhe was sure he would have prevailed in the end.
But there was something about undressing in front of her that feltâ¦provocative. Feeling her curious eyes on him was almost like feeling her touch against his skin. He tried to shake it off, but that was hard to do when his body was filling with heat at the same time. Soon he would burn. Burn for her eyes to see and watch. Again, it felt intimate. Far too intimate. He was shocked to realize that by the time he was fully naked, he was inexplicably hard. Aroused. Aware.
She took all of this in. All of him in. Her eyes were wide and curious, and she was nibbling a little on her bottom lip. Slowly he sat down in the water, letting the coolness of it wash over his hot body. And for some reason, just before he broiled into cinder and ash, his body burning away in fierce bits and pieces, he thought of how long it had been since he had been intimate with a woman. And then he thought of who that woman had been.
His wife. Casiria. The woman he had once loved with everything he was. She had birthed his sons for him. She had meant everything. But she and his sons were long gone now. He had not had the opportunity to see them grow into men, and he had no way of finding out what kind of men they had become. They were dead. Long dead and forgotten by everyone but him.
The water boiled as though in response to his turmoil, in response to his present pain and the memory of pain. Pain no one would ever understandâ¦pain he had never shared with anyone.
By the time juquil's hour arrived, he felt destroyed in more ways than one, more ways than just the physical. His body was ravaged and burned, brittle and blackened. Almost everything he was had been burned away to the bones. It took some time before his eyes healed enough for him to be able to see her, for his muscles to finally move under his command.
She was close to him, her hands reaching out gently to him, touching his burned flesh.
“I see now. I see the pain of it,” she said. “I could not tell from a distance beforeâ¦but now I see how truly painful this is for you. Can I do something to give you relief?” she asked, her eyes and tone tender and warm.
“Your kindness is enough,” he said. And he meant it. There was something soothing in her nearness.
“Now we can talk until you feel better. Tell me, who are you here in the world of men?”
The question was a curious one, but he answered her. “I am a warrior. But you know this.”
“You are more than a warrior, to be sure. My father is a warrior, but he is also a husband, a father, and a brother. Who are you?”
“I am a brother,” he said. “One of four. Two are with me here, in the city of Kriza.”
“And are they warriors too?”
“Yes. Very strong ones. They are impressive men.”
“And do they burn like you do?”
“One did. It was different for him. It was the flames of hell that burned him. Iâ¦I burn like the sun, from the inside out.”
“You say he did. You mean in the past? But no longer?”
“Yes,” he said, not elaborating further.
But she did not let him get away with that, and he had not expected she would. “Why did he stop?” she asked.
“It is a long story.”
“Why did it start?”
“You ask too many questions,” he said irritably.
“How else am I to know you?”
“What if I don't want you to know me?” he asked of her, his tone hard.
“Nonsense,” she said dismissively. “You wish to know me, and so I must know you.”
“I never said I want to know you.”
“Of course you do,” she said with a lift of her chin. “All men find me curious and compelling. They always wish to know about me and my kind.”
She brushed past the inquiry. “Tell me, have you children? A wife?”
These questions irritated him further, so he almost did not answer. But in the end, he said, “I did once. What of you?”
“Oh, I do not have a wife. Nor do I have children.”
He fought the urge to smile. “And what of a husband?”
She frowned. “There is one who wishes to be my mate, but I do not wish it in return.” Her frowned deepened. “He cannot understand thatâ¦” She trailed off, clearly not meaning to speak aloud on the matter because she looked at him as though in surprise. It was strange because he felt as though she was otherwise open to his questionsâ¦when in fact she had smoothly dodged some of his return inquiries.
“I need to get back to my brothers,” he said, trying not to sound as full of consternation over that fact as he was.
“Your brothers depend on you a great deal? Or is it you who depends on them?” Before he could work up a reaction to the affront, she said, “My brothers do not depend on me at all, but one thinks I should depend on him. But the only one I truly depend on is my father. I am in his care until such time as I take a mate. Then I will be in my mate's care. That is the way of things with my people.”
“You keep saying âmy people' but never tell me who your people are.”
“You have not told me who your people are. Where do you come from?”
“Nowhere. Everywhere. I used to say I was from Barost. It was the city whereâ¦where my wife lived.”
“With your children?”
“What happened to her?”
“She died. Look, I do not wish to talk about her.”
“All right. Where are your children?”
“They are dead too,” he snapped at her, “and an equally taboo topic!”
“I see.” Her mouth drifted into a sad little frown and her exotic eyes went soft with pain. “I did not mean to make you angry. I only wished to know everything about you. I find you so fascinating. I find you different.”
“I am no different from any other man,” he said.
“Other men do not burn like a star.”
Well, she had him there. “Is that all that fascinates you about me?” he asked. “I am not some freak show meant for your entertainment.”
“Believe me,” she assured him in the face of his biting tone, “I find nothing about you to be any more freakish than you might think I am.”
“You do not burn every night.”
“No. But we all have our trials, and we are all different and strange in our own ways. And that's what is so beautiful about most living creatures, don't you think? If everyone were the same, it would be quite boring.”
“Whoareyou?” he asked intensely, reaching to take her head between his hands and boring a stare into her eyes.
“IâI am Jileana. I am daughter to the warrior Creasus. I care for my people's young when they must hunt or farm. I have a brother who is a warrior just like my father. They defend our home from our enemies and I am very proud of them for that. My mother is a great woman with compassion in her soul and a firm hand.
“I love the feel of the warm sun on my body as I lay beneath it, and the coolness of the ocean waters as I swim through them. It is a simple life, the life I lead, but it is a good one.”
Jaykun had to admit it sounded like a good one. Some days he thought he might trade his soul for the joys of a simple lifeâ¦but it only took an instant for him to quell such a notion. There was too much at stake in the life he had to lead, too many people whose fates were dependent on him staying the course.
“I don't have time for this,” he muttered, releasing her and looking for his clothes. “My brothers will be looking for me, and there areâ¦there are more important things than having a discussion with a strange girl in a cave.”
He found his clothing and felt her eyes on him as he dressed. He stole a glance at her and found her gaze to be unabashedly curious, much like she was trying to absorb every movement he made, every inch of his body. The understanding made an unexpected frisson of arousal bleed through his sharp, intense movements. He tried to fight it back, but it was hard to do when his gaze was attracted to the long supple lines of her limbs and the lush curves of her body. She was young and nubile and everything any man would find arousing. Even a man barely healed from his trials of the night.
Angry with his unruly responses and determined not to follow up the feelings with any regrettable behavior, he didn't even bother with his shirt and, bare chested, moved to push past her.
“Can I come with you?” she asked, again with that open curiosity. It was as though she found everything to be new and adventurous. An odd thing considering the land they were in at present was war torn.
Again, unwillingly, his gaze was attracted to her dark, silky flesh.
“Not like that you can't,” he said sharply. “A naked girl in a camp full of soldiers? Even I couldn't stop them ifâ¦ifâ¦” The thoughts that followed were so unpalatable they made Jaykun's stomach churn.
“But if I had clothing?” she said, moving closer to him again. He wished she would stop doing that. Every time she came close, his body tightened up, as though expecting something exciting to happen. It was completely at odds with a mind that wanted nothing to do with her.
“Then you could do whatever you wanted to. I'm not likely to stop you.”
“Very well,” she said, her words soft and whispery as she reached out for his hand. He could have jerked away from her, put distance between them, but he was suddenly paralyzed, curious and hungry for whatever she was going to do next. Her slender fingers touched the back of his hand, stroked over it, running up over the knuckles of his fingers until his grip went unexpectedly lax. Then she was taking his tunic out of his hand.
He was still, simply staring at her as she drew the tunic over her head, letting the size of it swallow her up before it hung in place to below her knees. Even though she was tall and strong looking, she was still quite a bit smaller than he was, especially in the shoulders.
Seeing her in his clothing had a profoundly strange effect on him. It was somehow the most intimate thing he had experienced since he had been released from his personal hell of being chained to a star. Oh, he could have had sex with any one of the women close at hand; the encampment was lousy with females looking to take coin from the soldiers in exchange for it. But he'd had no desire for that kind of intimacy, wanted no sense of making himself vulnerable to another while that person made herself vulnerable to him. Of sharing something with someone. He'd been vulnerable to women in the past and knew now that nothing good could come of it.
The idea of it made him angry and defensive. He reached out for her suddenly, grabbing her by both arms and shaking her roughly. “What do you want from me?” he demanded, shaking her again. The action made her hair slide over her cheek, and she gently brushed it back behind her delicate ear without shrugging off his hold. It communicated how unruffled she was by his rough handling of her and he could not help but feel overwhelming consternation.
“I want to know you better,” she said softly as she looked up into his eyes. “I find you fascinating. Don't you think you are fascinating? Am I not fascinating to you as well?” she asked, those openly curious eyes drifting over his face and chest.
Oh, he felt something about her all right, but he wasn't certain “fascination” was the word for it. Maybe vexation. Consternation.
At this distance he could smell her, the aroma of seawater and something sweeterâ¦sultrierâ¦lifting off her. She was warm and compelling, soft and sensual, beckoning and beautiful.
“Beyond fascination,” he admitted, his voice rough with his overwhelming desire for her. It was so unexpected, so incongruous to the state of his life, that he couldn't hope to control his next actions. He jerked her in close against his body, feeling her weight press against his chest, deepening that strange sense of intimacy between them. Then he crushed his lips against hers, fueling the kiss with his confusion and frustrated need.
At least she had the wherewithal to be surprisedâ¦for a moment. Then she became bright and eager against him, her hands lifting to frame his face, ostensibly to hold him to his task. The open invitation was far more than he could bear, certainly nothing to encourage him to break off and put a stop to his madness.
No. Instead he found her mouth full of warmth and willingness. It was a potent idea, that she was being driven to this just as he was. It made him feel a little better for it, a little less like he was being managed by a practiced, seductive hand. That wasn't to say there was nothing seductive about her. In fact, she was everything compelling and sexually stimulating he could have imagined. He pulled her in, devouring her with hungry lips, opening his mouth over hers and driving his tongue between her lush lips. At first he tasted salt, but that was to be expected since they were still standing in the sea. But the impression was faint and fleeting because the next instant he was tastingher.A sweet and deep flavor. An alluring and compelling taste. She was like honey against a bitter tongue, soothing and dissolving and sweet.
Then there was the feel of her nubile body against his, her whole being radiating how eager she was to be alongside him. His hands left her arms and spread across her back, pulling her in tight, his body soaking in the heat of hers and the way it made him feel. And as he kissed her wildly, for a moment, for just a moment, he forgot about who he was, forgot about the curse that hung over his head, forgot about his responsibilities to his brothers and his goddess. Forgot about Casiria and all the baggage that came with his memories of his wife. And that, above all else, was the most wondrous thing about Jileana.
The moment he realized it, though, the moment he comprehended how easily she had made him forget himself, he thrust her away, leaving them both panting and dazed, her eyes looking as stunned and delighted as he was feeling. Although, he wasn't ready to admit to the delighted part. He was too busy telling himself that it was wrong for him to forget himself like that. That he had to keep focused. So why, then, in the next moment did he seize her again and draw her back into his body, kissing her once more as if his life depended on it? A strange concept, a surreal one, considering he was immortal.
But oh, she was so sweet. So tender in form and function. He had kissed many women in his time, but none had had the combination of sultry innocence he was deriving from Jileana's kisses. She was not practiced and yet she was a natural. She was not cynical; she was wide-eyed with wonder and excitement. He read all of this from her even though she now said not a word and spoke to him only through her kisses and the flight of her body against his.
He found himself regretting that he had not kissed her before she had put on his tunic. To be holding all that bare, succulent skin beneath his hands would have been more than he could imagine.
This time when he moved away from her mouth it was only in increments, just enough to see down into those iridescent green eyes of hers, to see the flush on her dusky cheeks, the wetness of her ripe lips as her breath came in rapid pants.
“Oh my,” she breathed, her hands clutching at his shoulders.
It made him smile, an expression he used very little. He smiled in spite of the clamoring of his mind and the painful arousal of his body. He was not yet fully healed and his pain had been considerable to begin with. Add to it a racing heart, perspiration, and a hardened cock, and it made for a bit of discomfort.
“I suspect you were sent to seduce me,” he said softly. “Perhaps by those who wish to turn my head from my warring course.”
“Well, I certainly do not wish to get in your way, and I doubt I could make you do anything you don't want to do. I do not seek that kind of power over you. Those are the ways of the sirens.”
“Sirens?” he asked. But then he shook his head. It was unimportant. “So if you were not purposely sent to turn my headâ¦what is it you want from me?”
“Only to learn you, to know you. I confess it had not occurred to me to kiss you in order to know you, but I find doing so has given me a great deal of information.”
That made him laugh because he knew exactly how she was feeling.
“So, what do we do now?” he asked. “Do I continue to kiss you?”
“If you like,” she said, her tone eager and delighted. He found himself smiling again.
“And then what? Do I bed you, sea sprite? Take you into the roughness of my camp and the coarseness of my bed?”
“You do not make it sound at all attractive,” she pointed out with some measure of consternation.
“It isn't. A war camp is not a pretty thing.”
“Then stay with me on the beach,” she said invitingly. “It is clean. The sand is soft. It makes for the best of beds.”
“Hmm. Methinks you are a siren after all. You make it sound too damn inviting.”
“Oh, I'm no siren,” she assured him, making a face as if he had suggested something offensive as opposed to the compliment he had intended. “And sleeping on the beach is the most wonderful thing. To sleep under the stars, hearing the sound of the ocean upon the sand. The call of the sea birds as they dive for their supper. They like to eat the kelp whistles. They are the little fish that swim around seaweeds and glow in the dark. It makes the sea light up so prettyâ¦and yet it makes the fish easy prey for the sea birds. So beautiful and so sad at the same time. But that is the way of things. Everything falls prey to something else.”
“This is too true,” he said with a frown. Even her people, wherever she was from, could fall prey to him. They worshipped Diathus. His task was to seed the world with temples to Weysa. To lure more followers to her way so she could grow stronger through their devotion. If they would not be lured by peaceful meansâ¦then he would more firmly demand.
“You would be well advised to make your way clear of me,” he said, his frown darkening.
“My mother says I am not very good at taking the advice of others.”
And just like that, his frown was gone; his dark mood lightened again.
“So,” he said, moving her to his side a little so he could lead them out of the grotto, “what am I to do with you? As much as I would like to, I cannot spend the night on the beach.”
“Why not?” she asked curiously.
“My brothers will be looking for me. Also, we have a newly acquired city and an army that must be managed.”
“I see. Well, I could come with you. I have never seen the city before. I have been told it holds many fascinating things.”
“I'm sure it does. But if you live here, why have you never been to the city before?”
“I've never had a reason,” she said with a simple shrug. “Besides, my brothers would not approve. They are quite overprotective of me. At least they are in my opinion.”
“If I were your brother, I would be protective too. Especially if you make a habit of wandering the beach naked and kissing strange men.”
“Wellâ¦I do not have any clothesâ¦and I do not usually kiss strange men. But most men don't burn like a star. Certainly not and live to tell about it after. You are unique, Jaykun.”
“We are all unique in some way, Jileana,” he said, shrugging the matter off. He wished she had never seen him suffer his torment, but then she might not have been fascinated enough to approach him. He found that idea unpalatable on two levels: one, that she found his curse so enthralling, and two, that he would have regretted not knowing her. Even after such a brief encounter, he knew his life would have been poorer had it never touched hers. Even in the smallest of ways.
They were walking on the sand now, his arm across her back, still holding her to his side as they traveled up the beach.
“I would see this city, if you please. All I ask is for a small place to sleep that is clean. I do not want anything elseâ¦except perhaps to learn more about you.”
“I am not so fascinating,” he said.
“Oh, but you are,” she argued, her eyes light and eager. “Not just because you burn. You are tall and have a very nice shape. I can see you are quite strong. I find I like your face. It is an interesting face. Your eyes are far more somber than they ought to be, but they are a pretty green and glitter like sea glass.”
“Yes. Quite. But not as much when you smile like you are doing now.”
“Well, it is good to know it is not entirely off-putting. Though I confess to cultivating a stern look to keep my men in line.”
“My father leads a great many men and he is quite jovial. Perhaps you are going about it wrong.”
“Perhaps I am,” he said, smiling again in spite of himself. Truth be told, he hadn't felt this light of mood sinceâ¦well, since he had been brought back.
“What is that?” she asked suddenly.
“The thought that takes your smile away so quickly and so thoroughly like that. What is it?”
“It is none of your concern,” he said brusquely, immediately widening the distance between their bodies. But for some inexplicable reason he did not drop his hand away from her back.
“Very well. But I am sad for you because of it. Your smile is quite handsome and should spend more time on your face.” She switched topics quickly and brightly. “Do you think you will let me stay, then?”
He should tell her no. He should put an end to this strange encounter right now. He had far too much to deal with and too much riding on his actions. His daily considerations were life-or-death decisions. It was clear her choices in life were of much lighter importance. But he was glad of that, glad that she was not burdened with the weight of things that would steal the bright, childlike eagerness from her features. He was not so cynical that he would begrudge her her innocent life.
But he found he could not put her off, could not make himself push her aside so he could continue on in his life without the burden of herâ¦whatever that burden may end up being. He found it was a weight he would willingly carryâ¦for the time being. Besides, if she made a nuisance of herself, she was easily disposed of. It wasn't as though she had any power over him. He was in complete command of the situation, just as he always was.
“So tell me, Jileana. Is it my bed you wish to warm tonight?”
Perhaps he'd asked the question to shock her, to sabotage the fragile trust between them. But she seemed to consider the question very carefully.
“All things considered, you would probably make a fine lover. You certainly give very exciting kisses,” she mused aloud, startling a laugh out of him. “But I think I would like to know you a little bit better first. Do you not agree?”
This was territory to be cautious of. Getting to know him better implied a level of intimacy he simply was not of a mind to give, even had the circumstances been ideal.
“Then why would I want to give you a bed?” he asked baldly.
“Because you would like to get to know me better as well,” she explained to him very clearly, as if it were a plainly obvious fact. To his consternation, she was right. He did want to know her better. At the very least, he found her intriguing. He told himself that he simply wanted to learn more about her people, to perhaps contemplate bringing Weysa to their temples. But the truth was, he'd already had goals set out for himself that allowed for no room for deviation. There was no way to add another city to his conquering schedule. Still, perhaps it could be a peaceful integration, something only a few days of negotiation could bring about.
“Very well, then, a clean, safe bed for the night. What you do afterâ¦I suppose that is your own affair. I will not have you underfoot. I have a great deal to accomplish and won't have time to spend with you.”
“What?” he asked.
“You must eat, I am assuming, yes? So I ask a meal of you. Well, how else are we to know each other better? It would be silly for me to stay only to spend no time with you. Since I do not wish to get in your way, we shall spend a meal together.”
He thought on it a moment. It really wasn't much to ask for. And she was right; he would have to eat at some point.
“Very well,” he said.
“For three days.”
“Now, wait a minuteâ”
“One meal a day for three days. It is very little to ask of you. And I promise not to interfere in your day otherwise. Not unless you wish me to.”
He thought about it for a long minute, part of him crying out that this was a bad idea all around. The sensible part of his brain knew he did not need distractions of any kind. But another part of his brain found her to be engaging in a way he simply did not experience in his life. It was impossible to turn his back on her offer.
“One meal. Three days. Otherwise, I'm not to be bothered by you.”
“I promise,” she swore, her hand over her heart. Seeing her slender fingers against the beige of his tunic made him frown.
“But you have no clothing.” His frown deepened. “Why is it you have no clothing? It is not safe for a naked woman to walk the beach.”
“Oh, I am perfectly safe,” she assured him. “And my people have little use for clothing.”
“Your entire people do not wear clothes? Where is this place you come from?”
“It is not far,” she said. Jaykun was well aware she was being vague on purpose, but he did not press at that moment. In truth, it mattered little. Although, from a conqueror's perspective, it would be very easy to fight a people who hadn't the sense to wear clothes. Then again, she'd said she had never been to the city before, so it was unlikely her people were worth his time if they didn't have a city of their own.
“Tomorrow, after our midday meal, I will take you to the shops for clothing,” he said.
“But that is not part of our agreement,” she pointed out.
“I shall make an exception this once.”
“But how do you know thatIwish to make the exception?”
That took him aback. She was right. He had not even bothered to ask if she wanted new clothesâ¦or if she wanted to spend more time with him than just what a meal allowed for. For some reason the thought that she might not want to spend the time with him put him out. He couldn't explain why; it just did.
“Do not worry,” she said after a moment, patting him kindly on his arm. “I will accept this time.”
“Wellâ¦thank you,” he said awkwardly. Mainly because she continually shifted the world beneath him and he couldn't seem to get traction with her. He couldn't decide if he was perturbed or delighted. It had been quite awhile since he had been entertained by something in the world.
And just like that, he was looking forward to his meals for the next three days.
Finding somewhere to install Jileana was harder than it had appeared on the surface. The brothers were newly installed in the city center, in a castle that overlooked the massive harbor. The chaos of descending on the city had died down to a dull roar, but the men of their army were not entirely organized as they settled in for the night. People had grabbed beds or floors wherever they could. The men were high from their victory and many were still up, drinking and reveling by the fires all throughout the city and in the castle.
The brothers of course had the choice of where they would stay. Jaykun had had first pick and had installed himself in the finia's rooms. The finia, the ruler of the city, had found herself relocated to the lower rooms for the time being, under guard. The finia's rooms were vast, tended to by servants. Fresh linens had been put on the bed, a fire built in the front room, the sitting room, and the bedroom itself. In a rear room was a plumbed bath, tiled in silver-and-white tiles. A room beyond the bath was where the servants, two young women, slept.
The bed was a large affair, decorated with a sheer royal-purple curtain and laid with blankets and a coverlet of rich red, and a multitude of pillows in shades of purples and reds. The fabrics alternated between velvets and silks. It was just shy of looking like it belonged in a high-end brothel. The bed was large enough for three men of Jaykun's size and build, and he wondered how the squat finia had managed to not get lost within it.
Jaykun walked throughout the castle with Jileana, searching for a place to install her, until he gave up trying to find somewhere safe and quiet, and brought her to his rooms.
“You can sleep in this bed,” he said. “I will find my brothers and bunk with one of them. At least this way I will know you are safe.”
“No,” Jileana said with a shaking of her dark head. “I won't kick you out of your own bed.”
“It's hardly mine to begin with,” he argued, giving her a little push toward it.
“This bed is very big and I am not used toâ¦Well, there is plenty of space, is there not?”
Jaykun hesitated. His eyes fell on her body of their own accord, sliding down over her voluptuous shape from head to toe. The sleek fall of her midnight hair curved around her equally sleek body. The idea of having her in bed beside him was far too appealing, fraught with temptation and complication. The memory of what it was like to kiss her rode him hard and he knew how dangerous it would be.
“I don't think that's the wisest idea,” he said with a negating shake of his head. He moved to withdraw from her before the desire that seeped through him compelled him to draw her in once again. He was floored by how overwhelming the feeling was. It filled him with a sense of disquiet. He didn't like the idea of being unable to control his own actions. He wasn't sure he wanted to be near the source of those feelings.
“Come,” she said, her iridescent green eyes soft and beckoning as she held out an inviting hand. “Come with me. I promise I will not bite you while you sleep.”
“I'm rather more concerned with me possibly nibbling on you,” he answered baldly as he let her take his hand.
“Would that be so bad?” she asked, invitation oozing out of her body.
“I haven't quite decided,” he said as he let himself be pulled toward the bed.
“It is such a strange thing, the way you let so much noise into your head,” she observed with genuine curiosity in her voice. “You feel strongly about something, and yet you force yourself to resist those feelings. Why? What is so wrong about what you are feeling?”
“Nothing,” he said with a sigh, scrubbing his hand across his weary face. “I don't know. It's been a long day.”
“I'm sure it has been. Especially considering the way you like to end your days.”
“I like nothing about the way I end my days. You speak as though I had a choice in the matter.”
“And you don't?”
“No,” he said shortly. “I don't.”
She looked at him then with soft, curious eyesâan expression he was realizing was very natural to her. She seemed to view the world as one great curiosity. He wished he could see the world through her perspective. As it was, his view was far more jaded.
“I think you have had enough hardship for one day,” she said then, finishing their progress toward the bed. She climbed up onto it, kneeling as she pulled him after her. Giving in to her lure, he paused a moment, withdrawing from her long enough to rid himself of his boots. As he did so, she came up close against his back, her hands shaping the contours of his shoulders and arms in long, relaxing strokes. In spite of himself, he felt his body going lax beneath her massaging hands.
Fine, he thought. If she was looking for a night of physical comfort, he would not deny her or himself. It wasn't exactly a rare occurrence for a woman to want him. However, it was a rare occurrence for him to want her in return. But who could blame him for seeking out comfort wherever he could find it? His was a cursed existence, a forced slavery and penance. He should take advantage of these opportunities much more often than he did. It was, after all, the only kindness he could find outside his brothers' love for him.
When she ran her hands down the length of his bare back, he closed his eyes and reveled in the sensation. Her hands were like magic on his skin, livening up nerves he thought deadened by his nightly torture. As she ran over unhealed patches of his skin, she seemed to think nothing of it, let it faze her not at all. In fact, it seemed as though very little fazed her. After all, she had taken the sight of him burning to cinders almost in stride. A fact he should be questioning, but he found himself unable to do so as his body reacted with a surprising amount of pleasure.
“Do you do this often?” he asked, almost with the goal of turning himself off to her. “Climb into bed with strange men?”
“Not at all. You would be the first. Earlier I thought we might take a little time to know one another, but there is so little time to be had, I now realize it would be foolish to waste it. Besides, it seems you need it more than others might.”
“So this is an act of pity?” he asked harshly.
“Again, not at all. I find you very appealing. Your body has many nice shapes. Your skin is warm. Much warmer than my own. See?” She held out her arm beneath his nose and he obliged her by stroking a slow hand up along her forearm. She was right. She was much cooler than he was. But that made the feel of her no less appealing. She was soft and smooth, supple to the touch, yet clearly quite strong for a woman. He liked that. He had no stomach for weak women. His brothers' wives struck him as physically genteelâalthough he gave them credit for being much stronger in their personalities and backbones. He could understand what had drawn each brother respectively to each woman, knowing his brothers as he did. Still, like him, his brothers had been greatly altered by the punishments they had endured. It was a wonder he even knew them at all anymore.
Jileana moved around his body, slowly throwing a leg across his lap until she was astride his thighs. Cool she may be on her extraneous limbs, but here, where her bottom rested against him, she was hot and beckoning. Of their own accord, his hands ran down the length of her torso, under her arms, down her sides, and on until he was gripping her hips in his hands.
“Would you give me comfort, Jileana?” he asked in a whisper as he looked into those bottomless, iridescent eyes.
“That and more,” she promised him. “Mmm, I like the way you feel,” she said with obvious pleasure as she curved her spine and pressed her chest to his. He could feel the weight of her full breasts between them, and a searing flash of aroused awareness bolted through his body. In all of an instant, his clothesâwhat little there were of themâfelt confining and cumbersome. He was overwhelmed with a craving to be skin-to-skin with her. To feel all that sweetly supple skin against his ownâ¦Yes, that was a comfort he wanted very much indeed.
With purpose, his fingers slipped beneath the hem of the tunic she wore, the bulky fabric hanging heavy on her small frameâsmall in comparison to the body it had been tailored for, in any event. He found himself wondering how he had gotten to that point. His only goal for the day had been to take a city and make it his own. To own the city that owned the armada he so desperately needed in order to progress onward, in order to fulfill his bargain with the warrior goddess. A bargain he must fulfill lest she become angry and turn her displeasure on him or his brothers. His brothers had, for the most part, been released from their duties to Weysa, but that could easily change. They were all fodder for the gods' mercurial moods and wishes. There was no guarantee of anything when it came to the whims of the gods.
But now he was here, finding solace in a warm, shapely body, and he couldn't make himself turn away from her. He did not even want to, he thought as his hands filled with bare flesh. When he saw her naked the first time, he had wondered what all that sleek flesh would feel like, and now he was discovering the answer. It was an answer that had his body hardening with need and craving.
He exhaled a long, slow breath, almost as though he had been holding on to his breath for hours. It was possible he had been. After all, he did not need to breathe to live. But it was a strange and unrealistic thought, clearly without basis in fact. Without breath he could not speak, and it seemed he had yet to stop talking with her. In fact, he had not exchanged so many words with someone other than his brothers or his generals in a very long time.
“I like the way you feel as well,” he said, the words coming out of him like a growl.
“Then we shall spend quite a bit of time feeling each other,” she promised him with confidence. It made him chuckle.
“You'll get no arguments from me,” he said.
“I like that you are furry,” she said with a smile as she raked gentle fingers through the hair at the center of his chest.
“I like that you are not,” he replied, making her laugh. It was a light, musical sound. As musical as the rest of her voice. Yes, he thought. That was the perfect term for it. Soft and melodic. And just as compelling as the mischievous smile that spread across her lush lips. Lips that hovered barely an inch above his own.
“I think I'm going to kiss you,” he said roughly as his hands closed tightly around her hips, his fingers sinking into the soft flesh of her buttocks. “And then I'm fairly certain I'm going to fuck you.”
“Is that what you call it?” she asked lightly. “Fucking? Hmm. I like it. It's a fun word. Hard and to the point.”
“I'll show you hard and to the point,” he said hoarsely as he spun them about until her back hit the bedding and he was looming over her. He felt her legs lock around his waist and he grew harder from finding himself entrapped by those long, beautiful legs.
Unable to resist a moment longer, he covered her mouth with his own, kissing her with savagery and an intensity he had not realized he was capable of. Her mouth was lush and deep, and he explored every corner of it as fiercely as he could. His tongue tangled with hers, and the depth of the link made his head spin and buzz with need and arousal. It seemed the more he kissed her, the more ferocious that need became.
Meanwhile, her hands kept busy on his skin. Her fingertips danced, her palms stroked. She was touching him everywhere she could find bare skin. Her touch coasted down his back, burrowed beneath the waist of his pants, her fingers gripping at his backside and dragging his hips forward into the lee of her thighs.
“Mmm,” she purred as his sex rubbed up hard against hers, where he was still clothed and she was decidedly not. “Is this where the fucking begins?”
“It's already begun,” he assured her as he lifted away from her just long enough to strip his tunic from her body. He took a moment, his breaths coming hard, to look down on her. Yes, he decided. This was a good place for her to be. Beneath him in his bed. His lust for her was almost blindingâ¦almost a little frightening. But he excused his fervor. He was long overdue for this. He gave little thought to the idea that he felt much more strongly about this than he should be feeling for a casual toss of a random wench.
But she was nothing to him, he reassured himself. Nothing more than a much-needed moment of pleasure. He gave himself over to that as he let his mouth slide along her sweet skin, her slightly salty flavor streaking across his tongue as it glided down the length of her breastbone. He shaped her right breast in his hand, kneading the flesh of it almost desperately. He needed her on such a visceral level. Escape. Yes. He needed escape and she was going to provide it.
“Yes,” she encouraged him with a sibilants,as though she could divine his thoughts. Her fingers crawled through his hair, her hands embracing his head as he drew his mouth to the tip of her breast. He opened his mouth against her obligingly, his tongue darting out to taste her rigid nipple. He closed his mouth over her at last and sucked her deep inside. She gasped, her back arching up off the bed. In truth, she did that frequentlyâcurved her body up into his again and again, as if she longed to connect with him for every second possible.
As he pulled at her with his mouth, he let his touch travel below her waist and between her splayed thighs. When he touched her intimately, he found her to be incredibly wet and slick; it was so inviting that he felt like he was strangling with the need to connect with her. But he would not rid himself of his clothing and be free to just take her. He didn't want this to be over that quickly. He felt they both needed more than the quick, unfeeling coupling he kept trying to relegate the encounter to, and in spite of his body, he found himself giving in to those desires. He wanted her to feel pleasure, wanted her to get just as much out of the encounter as he hoped to get. Thankfully she seemed hot and willing and wild enough to feel anything he needed her to feel.
Then her fingers were pulling at the fastenings of his pants, freeing him to her touch as her hand delved beyond and her fingers wrapped around his thick and straining cock. He surged up into her hand, felt the glory of her fingers stroking the length and breadth of him, felt him pulsing to her touch. It was blindingly blissful, everything he could want and more. Almost too much. He surged into her touch again and again with blind thrusts of his hips, all the while seeking out her clitoris with his fingers. He wanted her to feel the same beautiful pleasure he was feeling. But it seemed as though he couldn't focus beyond the feel of her touch on him. Her stroke was erotic without feeling practiced. She was simply seeking and learning, chasing down his every sound of pleasure, repeating herself each time she elicited an uncontrolled response from him. Before he knew it, she had pushed his pants down below his hips, wrapped her legs tightly around him, and jerked their hips into a perfect connection that allowed his cock to slide through the infinite heat and moisture of her sex. He was but a single thrust away from being inside her.
“Slow,” he ground out. “Great gods, you're a hot little thing. Slow down before Iâ”
“Hush,” she breathed against his ear. “Hush and just take me.”
Honestly, he couldn't have resisted the temptation even if he'd tried. It was too much and he was in too much need. He gave her what she was begging for, sliding through her wet heat one last time before looking into her eyes and entering her with a hard thrust. She gasped, long and loud, then released the breath in a lusty groan. Her nails dug into his backside, her hands helping him in his second thrust, the thrust that seated him most firmly inside her.
“There, now. Now who is burning as hot as a star, hmm?” he asked her.
“Is it me?” she asked him, making him laugh.
“Yes, it is you.”
“Oh, good. For a moment I couldn't tell. You are so hot you are burning me from the inside.”
Her words enflamed him. He thrust into her again and again, his mouth crashing onto hers as he devoured her every way he could think of. She overwhelmed him, rocked him to his core, clawed pleasure out of him seemingly from the bottom of his forsaken soul. The feeling was unexpected and disturbing, almost disturbing enough to make him withdraw from her. But the lock of her legs and the escalating fever of her body made that impossible. He began to drive into her in earnest, working himself up, telling himself this was no more than a selfish pleasure. Her reactions meant nothing. His reactions meant nothing. None of it had any deeper meaning than the simple physicality of the joining.
“Gods above,” he swore fiercely as the need to orgasm tore through him. Yes, he thought. He was going to take his pleasure and that would be the end of it. The end of her. The end of them.
And yet he couldn't seem to make himself take that pleasure without making certain she was right there with him. Why should it matter to him? Why should he care? he asked himself. She had given herself up to this thing with no promises from him. He owed her nothing.
But there was something about hearing her pleasured cries in his ear that was too compelling by far. It would not be right unless he took her over the edge with him. It simply would not do.
He thrust into her grasping body, listening to her pleasure ramp upward in the air around them. He staved off his need to come until she threw back her head, throat arching up toward him, and shouted in exultation. He surged into her once again and let blinding pleasure sweep through him. He came hard and fast, the clutch of her body around him more than any sane man could bear.
Gasping for breath, he collapsed upon her body, too weak with release to give a care to his weight against her. She was sturdy enough, he thought dazedly. She could bear up until he got his legs under him once more.
Still, after a moment he rolled onto his back and then stared at the colorful bed curtains where they attached to the ceiling as he felt her snuggle up against his body under his right arm. He was growing cold quickly and concerned she was as well. He used the last of his energy to draw the covers up over them before he did something he never, ever didâ¦He fell asleep within trusting reach of a total stranger.
Jaykun awoke to a sudden weight against his chest. His eyes flew open to see the point of a bladed weapon trembling just beyond the ends of his lashes. On the other end of the weapon was a woman. The only things keeping that blade from penetrating his eye and entering his brain were the strong hands of the other woman lying against his body.
Jileana shoved the woman back with all of her strength, her lithe body coming up off the bed in the same movement. The woman, a total stranger but clearly from Kriza, went sprawling back onto the floor. Jileana was on her like a flash, her naked body straddling the other woman, her hands never losing control of the attacker's dagger hand. With sure and amazing strength, she turned the dagger onto the Krizan woman and plunged it hard into her chest before Jaykun could even get to his feet.
“Low beast,” the Krizan woman gurgled out. “Vile thing. You will die.” Then she spit blood into Jileana's face before taking a last shuddering breath.
“Good gods,” Jaykun gusted out, his eyes wide as he absorbed the enormity of what Jileana had just done for him. His heart was pounding in his chest as he watched her wipe the blood off her face and get to her feet. And somehow, inexplicably, he thought he'd never seen a more beautiful woman in his life. It was possible it was the adrenaline and gratitude of the moment, but he didn't think so. She was a sight to behold, standing naked over her kill.
“Iâ¦th-thank you,” he managed to say, if somewhat shakily.
“I'm sorry it came so close,” she said with a sigh. “I normally don't sleep that soundly.”
“Me either,” Jaykun said, his awe still present in his tone.“Never.”
It was true. He should have heard the woman the moment she entered the room. He was in what was easily hostile territory and should have been sleeping with one eye open.
“My brothers!” The thought hit him like lightning. He jerked his pants into place as he ran from the room. It stood to reason that if Krizans were going to make an attempt on his life, they would do the same to his brothers. He burst into the common dining hall on his way to his brothers' rooms and pulled up short when he saw them both sitting there, calmly breaking their fast. Two sets of eyes that matched his own went wide at his wild entrance.
“Good morning, brother,” Dethan said, looking a little bemused.
“Y-you're bothâ¦What are you eating?” he demanded of them. Poison. It could be poison.
“Some fruitsâ¦meatsâ¦as you see.”
“There was an assassin in my chambers just now. How do you know that isn't befouled?” Jaykun demanded of them.
Alarm crossed his siblings' features.
“An assassin?” Garreth demanded. “Worry not about the food. We aren't foolish. Our own cook provided the meal.”
“Thank the gods,” Jaykun said on a relieved exhalation. “Thank the gods.”
“Jaykun, where is the assassâ” Dethan broke off, his eyes going wide once more as Jileana entered the dining hall wearing nothing more than Jaykun's tunic. That she wasn't Krizan was immediately obvious to his brother, and but while she might look completely harmless and unarmed, Jaykun had just claimed there had been a killer in his rooms. Dethan surged to his feet as if to cut her off before she reached Jaykun's exposed back.
“No. It's all right,” Jaykun said quickly once he realized to where Dethan's attention had gone. “It wasn't her. She'sâ¦sheâ¦ummâ¦she stopped the attack. She killed the assassin.”
Shocked once again and for the third time in as many minutes, Dethan eyed Jileana. The idea of her going up against a dangerous killer had to be ludicrous to an outsider.
“Was it a Krizan assassin?” Garreth asked, as doubtful as Dethan felt.
“A Krizan woman,” Jaykun informed.
Both brothers eyed Jileana skeptically once more. She smiled at them and waved, completely baffling them.
“Hi. I'm Jileana. I'm not an assassin. I'm just having a sexual exchange with Jaykun.”
Garreth choked and Dethan grinned.
“Is that so? And you areâ¦?” Dethan said leadingly.
“Hoping to repeat the process,” she said brightly.
Garreth choked again and began coughing over his laughter.
“Jileana,” Jaykun said, determined not to blush like a young boy caught doing something wrongâ¦even though that was exactly what he felt like. “These are my brothers, Dethan,” he said, indicating the larger of the two, “and Garreth.”
“You are much smaller than your brothers,” she observed of Garreth.
“Yes, I am,” Garreth said with a grin.
“Your brother Jaykun is very large,” she observed again. “He also has an excellent skill in all I have needed him for thus far. I imagine you are both equally skilled individuals. Although, I should warn you now that I am not interested in sexual congress with either of you. Not that you should be insulted. You are both fine-looking warriors. But I would prefer to remain with Jaykun as far as that is concerned. I'm hungry. May I have some fruit?”
All three brothers were gaping at her so she picked up a piece of fruit and pointed to it, repeating very carefully, “May I have this?”
Dethan snapped out of his disbelief first. “O-of course,” he said.
“Thank you.” She went to the table, sat down just to the side of where Garreth had been eating, crossed her legs, and began to peel her fruit. “I don't consider this our one meal, Jaykun,” she said, reminding him of their bargain. “I am thinking the midday meal is the one you are required to attend. It will be easier and less rushed than the evening meal.”
“Less rushed?” Garreth asked as he picked up his cup.
“Yes. Before he has to burn like a star.”
Unfortunately, Garreth was drinking at the moment she said this, so he sputtered and coughed. “She knows about that?” he wheezed, looking around the room hastily to see who was there to overhear her. The room was empty of all save the four of them.
“Well, of course. I've watched him these past four nights.”
“Of course,” Dethan said. Clearly he was disturbed that she had this intimate information about his brother. “Midday meal?” he asked, arching a brow at Jaykun.
Jaykun had not prepared himself to answer his brothers' questions about Jileana. In fact, some part of his brain had thought he could keep them completely ignorant of her existence. Now he saw just how foolish that idea had beenâ¦even more so now that she was standing there in front of them.
“Jileana is visiting the city for three days. I told her I would have a meal with her once every day while she visited.”
Dethan frowned at that. “Jaykun, we have a great deal to accomplish before winter sets in. Garreth and I return to our wives soon and you need to have the harbor secured for the winter.”
“I know what my responsibilities are,” Jaykun snapped. “But it just so happens that eating is one of those things I will be doing regardless of the constraints on my time, so I don't foresee it interfering.”
Jaykun had changed his tone in such a way that the brothers knew arguing further would risk his wrathâsomething neither of them welcomed and both had learned to avoid. The truth of it was that Jaykun was more than capable of seeing to his responsibilities and didn't need his brothers making attempts to corral him, even if Dethan was the eldest of the three and by right of birth seemed to think he had the management of his brothers as his responsibility.
Dethan was concerned. Women, whatever their use or function, were a distraction and a potential powder keg. He should know. He was at present tightly entwined around the finger of a beautiful, good-hearted woman whom he had only intended to marry as a means of getting himself a kingdom and an army. He had given up his immortality for her, now had three children by her, and couldn't imagine living a day on this planet without her. It was hard enough being required to campaign away from her in the summer months, but he knew he could have a much worse fate.
He could have Jaykun's fate. Jaykun now carried the burden of the brothers' pact with the goddess Weysa. She had forgiven Dethan and Garreth of that duty, save for the summer months in Dethan's case. Garreth was simply there to assist them as needed as he fulfilled his own agenda for the god of love, Mordu, who required Garreth to open temples in his name and garner him followers just as Garreth's brothers were doing for Weysa. Weysa had made way for the two brothers, but it was clear she would not be so forgiving a third time. No, their only hope for rescuing Maxumâtheir fourth brotherâfrom unending torment was Jaykun. If Jaykun performed well, he might earn a boon from the gods. Or if they covered enough of the planet, listening to tales of the gods, maybe they could find Maxum themselves, just as they had found the Fount of Immortality that had started all of thisâthe fountain from which they drank and subsequently earned the wrath of the gods for their presumption.
So the complication of another woman in their midst was most unwelcome. In fact, it was quite dangerous. They could do nothing to anger the mercurial Weysaâ¦and Jaykun dividing his attentions might do exactly that.
“She is but a woman to warm my bed,” Jaykun muttered. “Or would you deny me even that pleasure?” he asked of Dethan.
“No. Of course not,” Dethan said, his chest growing tight in empathy. His brother suffered so much. If this woman gave Jaykun even a moment's solace, Dethan could not deny him that. Still, Dethan couldn't keep his tongue from saying, “As long as that is all it is.”
“For the love of the gods!” Jaykun burst out angrily. “I'm not going to marry the girl! And so what if I did? I know my duty and where it lies. I know the responsibility that weighs on me! My back is breaking from the weight of it!”
Jaykun turned and stormed back to his bedroom, leaving Jileana alone with his brothers. Completely unfazed, she was enthusiastically eating food from the display in front of her. Dethan and Garreth could only watch with bemusement as she gathered food to her and stuffed it into her mouth. She made pleasured sounds and clearly took an almost erotic satisfaction in the foodâ¦if her moans of delight were anything to judge by.
“Food is so delicious, don't you think?” she asked them. “I don't get to eat these kinds of things where I'm from. I especially like the fruit.”
“You don't look like you're starving,” Dethan observed. Although she was eating like a starving woman, she had a full, healthy shape.
“Oh no, of course not. I get plenty to eat. I only meant the kinds of food I eat are very different. You eat such a variety of foods. It's very nice. If you're not going to eat thatâ¦?” she said, pointing to the toast by Dethan's wrist.
“Oh. Help yourself,” he said, handing it to her.
“It's crunchy,” she noted after taking a curious nibble of it. “Is it fresh?”
“It's toast. We hold it over the fire to make it crunchy on purpose,” Dethan said. He gave her a quizzical look. “Haven't you ever had toast before?”
“Never! How fascinating! You simply apply heat to it and it tastes different.”
“That's true of most food,” Garreth pointed out with amusement.
“We don't use fire to cook food where I am from. We prefer our food fresh and unmolested. But I like this just fine. My brother told me about cooking and I didn't believe him, but now I see we really must start cooking where I come fromâ¦if it is at all possible.”
“And where is it you come from that they don't cook their food?” Dethan asked.
“It's not farâ¦and yet it is.”
“That isn't an answer,” Dethan said.
“Isn't it? You asked a question and I replied. Thusly, it is an answer.”
“Yes, but that isn't a real answer!”
“Well, it isn't a fake one,” Jileana countered.
“Stop it this instant!” Jaykun said sharply as he reentered the room. He was fully clothed, looking tall and strong and confident as he tugged on a pair of gloves. He was dressed in a black tunic with seams of gold, the emblem of their family crest emblazoned across his chest. It was the image of four serpents coming together from four different corners of the crest, their heads making up the four sides of a square. Each serpent was of a different color and design.
“We weren't doing anything,” Dethan protested.
“You were grilling her for information. She is my guest, not a prisoner or a potential source of information.” Jaykun reached out a hand toward Jileana. She took it eagerly, and after pausing to stuff another piece of toast into her mouth and grabbing up one of the fruits, she let him guide her down from the table. “My lady, I believe I promised you an outing.”
“Did you?” she asked through a mouthful of food.
“For clothing,” he reminded her.
“Oh! You don't have to do that. I'm fine with thisâor I can go without it.”
Jaykun felt the stares of his brothers as he turned his back on them. “No. That is not wise,” he said to Jileana. He was still angry with his brothers, but in spite of it, her openness and innocence made him smile gently at her. She honestly saw no trouble in the idea of running around naked. If this were true of all of her people, he didn't imagine they would be hard to defeat in battleâ¦not if they went into the battle stark naked and unprotected.
“I think it would be much better if you had clothing,” he said with a careful smile.
“If you think so,” she said, her enthusiasm for his input amusing. “I shall defer to your judgment on this.”
“Very well, let's go shopping. I am told that it is a favored pastime for most women.”
“Well, if it is a favored pastime for most of your women, then I most certainly have to take part in it,” Jileana said eagerly.
Jaykun held out his arm and she took it. In her excitement, she squeezed him. It was like that the entire time they walked from the castle to the middle of the city, where there was a great bazaar in place. The bazaar was busy overall, but almost all the vendors were severely lacking in selections. The siege on the city had taken a massive toll on the businesses. But now that the siege was over, things should return to normal.
As it was, Jaykun did not venture out to the bazaar without an armed escort. He was of course not worried for himself, but Jileana was a stranger to these people just as much as he was and they might mistake her for a member of the invading forces, which might put her in danger. He would not have her harmed. The very idea of it turned his stomach sour. He told himself it was a concern he would feel for anyone he deemed vulnerable, but in truth, the feeling ran a bit deeper than that. He didn't know why and he didn't care to acknowledge or examine it.
So they were accompanied by guards as they walked through the bazaar. It seemed the only vendors who had not been too greatly affected by the war were the clothing and household goods vendors. They had their wares on ready display, the vendors themselves tidying up in the aftermath of the war. The booth Jaykun and Jileana approached was manned by a Krizan woman and her two small children. The children took one look at Jaykun and went darting behind the protection of their mother's skirts.
“Will you service us?” Jaykun asked directly. “This woman needs clothing.”
The Krizan woman took one look at Jileana and her already large eyes went wide. “B-but sh-she'sâ¦” the woman stammered.
“Will you service us?” Jaykun demanded. “I have gold and I know the business in this city has suffered. Are you so rich that you can afford to be prejudiced against us?”
“No, my lord,” she said at last, turning her attention on him. “I-I will give you whatever you need. Th-thank you, my lord, for choosing my shop. I-I need to feed my children and we have had so little to eat since the siege began.”
“I am sorry you have gone hungry,” he said sincerely. “But that is over with now. The battle is over, and you and your people will be treated as fairly as you treat us in return.”
“Yes, my lord,” she said with a weak smile. “That is much appreciated. Nowâ¦how can I help the young w-woman?”
“Whatever the latest in fashion is for a Krizan woman should be fine.”
“Oh, I like this!” Jileana said suddenly, dashing over to a mannequin with a dress of orange silk crepe on it. She fondled the fabric. “Oh! It feels so nice!”
“That is silk, my lady. The finest there is,” the shopkeeper said with a wan smile. She cautiously approached Jileana, her eyes shifting back to Jaykun often as she moved. It was to be expected, this kind of fear. He was one of the conquerors, after all. They had no idea what to expect from him. The one thing in his favor was that he had not allowed his men to pillage the city, stripping it of every valuable thing they could find. He paid his men well enough in gold and gave them opportunities to fight. He saw no purpose in raping a village once he conquered it. It would take much longer to get it back on its feet if he allowed that to happen. Besides, a slaughter of women and children and other nonmilitant types did no one any good.
“I love how it feels,” Jileana said. Then another brightly colored dress, this one in brilliant purple, caught her eye. Krizan women were not the prettiest women on the planet, but they seemed to like colorful fineryâplumage to make up for what their looks hindered. The dresses would fall to mid calf on a Krizan woman, but on Jileana, who was much taller, they would come to about her knee. There was something about the idea of being able to see her knees, perhaps flashes of her thighs, that made Jaykun go instantly hard for her. The reaction took him completely by surprise. Jileana was ignorant, laughing and coaxing the shopkeeper into relaxing. How was it she could do this to him? Make him forget where he was? Make him lose control over his body? He was a man in command of an empowered destiny. He held the lives of thousands of people in his hands. He controlled others; others did not control him.
Jileana then pulled the tunic up over her head in full view of the entire bazaar and let it fall to the ground. The shopkeeper gasped and Jaykun lunged forward, grabbing up the tunic and crowding her body, hiding her from view as best he could. Oblivious, Jileana was wriggling into the dress, letting it fall into place, all the while with a huge, bright smile on her face.
“Are you out of your mind?” he barked down at her. “Have you no shame?”
“About what?” she asked, genuinely clueless as to the source of his agitation.
“You can't just strip in public, Jileana!”
“Of course I can. I just did it. Weren't you watching?”
“I was! As was everyone else!”
“They've all seen a naked body before, silly. They have one of their own.”
She moved over to a long looking glass and viewed herself in the purple dress. Jaykun had to admit she wore it well. He had been right about it hitting just at the knees. The skirt was made of dozens of hanging kerchiefs, each falling freely from the waistband of the dress so that when Jileana moved, if she kicked her leg out far enough, they fell away completely and left her leg bared to mid thigh or a little higher. It was indecent in Jaykun's opinion.
“I'll take this one,” she said of course. “I do not have money, but we can barter for it. I could perhaps clean your home for you or watch your children. Perhaps I can teach them to read or write. I am a very good teacher. Or perhapsâ”
“I have gold,” Jaykun said with a sigh. “I said I would buy it.”
“Then I will owe you something in trade,” Jileana said with a smile. “Have you small children in need of teaching? Or perhaps you do not know how to read.”
“I know how to read!” Jaykun said. “Several languages!”
“Oh, that is good,” she said with a smile. “But I am certain we will figure something out.”
Jaykun released a pained sigh. “It's not necessary. I don't expect repayment.”
“Don't be silly. I am eating your food, sleeping in your bed, and now wearing your clothing. Or course there is repayment. Perhaps I could entertain you? You seem to like me naked, so I could strip and thenâ”
“It is a gift!” he said in a moment of inspiration before she could finish that thought aloud. Then again, he was incredibly curious as to where that thought would've ended up.
“A gift?” she asked, one of her arched brows lifting high. “But I have no gift to trade. Gifts are always exchanged. One gift for one gift. At least this is the way of my people.”
“A gift means you don't have to trade. You get a gift for no reason at all and expect nothing in return.”
“How odd,” she said, her eyes drifting over him from head to toe as she took in the measure of the concept. She smiled enigmatically then. “Very well, I accept your gift for no reason at all.”
“But this isn't the whole of my gift,” he said hastily. “The dressâ¦Well, you require undergarments and perhaps a nightgown.”
“What is a nightgown?” she asked curiously.
“You wear it to bed.”
She laughed. “Don't be silly. I'll be in your bed. It seems ridiculous to dress up when you will only be undressing me for sex a short while later.”
The shopkeeper gasped and fumbled behind her skirts as if she would cover the ears of her small children. It was a fruitless attempt since it was too late already and they had four ears between them and she had only the two hands.
Jaykun couldn't argue the point. It was the truth. He was already beginning to obsess about the next time he would be able to get the shameless wench into his bed. His lust for her was extraordinary and it only seemed to be growing. He had never experienced such an instant attraction. Usually he had to work up to the idea of taking a woman into his bed. This had come so easily for him. So heatedly. It should have burned itself out after one coupling. Something that burned this hot and fast should die an equally quick death, should it not?
Yes. It would, he thought. She would only be there for three days and nights. It was more than enough time for this to burn out. In fact, he rather doubted he would want her beyond the second night. He ought to have her out of his system good and proper by then.
It was justâ¦one coupling wasn't enough. It had been such a hurried affair. Something he had not had the proper amount of time to enjoy. Nor had he properly seen to her enjoyment. He was not a selfish lover. Not as a rule. He took his pleasure by giving pleasure to his partner. And the idea of making her writhe beneath him, of hearing her cry out, was an idea worth exploring.
To his shock, he was hard once again; just the thought of having her was able to give him sufficient stimulation. It simply amazed him.
“Very well,” he said, pausing to clear the roughness from his voice. “Another dress, then. Perhaps something a bit more conservative.”
They found a second dress, but Jaykun would've hardly called it conservative. It had a sweetheart neckline, and the laces at the back of the gown pulled the waist in and accentuated the plumpness of Jileana's breasts until he felt that was all he could see of her. Those full, ripe breastsâ¦
“Good gods, I've become a lecher,” he muttered under his breath. It didn't help that she eschewed any sort of undergarment, insisting that the dresses were confining enough, thank you very much. If she must be clothed, then she must, but she wasn't going to strangle herself in clothing. Or so she said.
Once he had paid for both dresses, she led the way back toward the castle. She did, however, stop every two seconds to marvel over everything she saw. Like a child, she was attracted to bright colors, things that blew in the breeze, things that made noise or entertained. She spent a good half hour in a toy booth, playing with each and every children's toy she got her hands on. He ought to have hurried her alongâhe was wasting crucial time with herâbut he didn't have the heart to interrupt her pleasure. The truth was, she was a pleasure to watch. Her long, loose hair blew in the ocean breezes that came in off the water. The sun danced on her warm, dark skin and her shiny lips. Every time she smiled she flashed brilliant white teeth, and every time she laughed it was absolutely infectious. Every Krizan they encountered was guarded and nearly hostile at first, but by the time she left a booth, she seemed to have warmed them to her considerably.
“I should make you my ambassador,” he mused a bit later as they left the bazaar and headed up toward the castle. “You have that kind of charm about you, the kind that puts all parties instantly at ease.”
“Oh, I don't think that would be wise. The Krizans have no more trust for my people than they do for yours. And with good reason. The Krizans have long sought a means of getting to my people's home to destroy us.”
“Really? And where is your people's home?”
She smiled and took his hand in hers. “Come. I will show you.”
She pulled him after her so quickly he had to run to keep up with her. She took him into the castle and then ran all around it, taking every flight of stairs she could find. She didn't know the castle any better than he did, but she knew she wanted to go up. Eventually they burst out onto the castle's battlements. She pulled him to the ocean-facing side and pointed off toward the horizon.
“There,” she said, pointing to a dark gathering of storm clouds. It was clear that a violent storm was out in that part of the ocean.
“Where the storm is?” he asked as he peered over at it. He could see nothing. But if he looked to the left, he could see the small speck that was his next target, the Isle of Moroun. His eventual goal was to cross the ocean and head to the next continent, his newly acquired armada in tow, but first he would conquer Moroun.
“Yes. It is called Serenmitazahmiktubarinaty.”
“Say that again?” he said with an astounded laugh.
“You can call it Serenity if you cannot say the full of it. Serenmitazahmiktubarinaty is unique, the most beautiful island you would ever know. You'll never find its like anywhere else.”
“And yet we seem to have much more here than there. I can tell by your reactions to so many things.”
“What you have here isdifferentâ¦not more. I could show you things in my world I expect would have you just as wide with wonder as I find myself to be in your world.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps I should go to your world, meet with your leaders. We could discuss erecting temples to Weysa.”
“And if we do not agree you will try to conquer us?”
“Perhaps,” he said honestly.
“You would fail.”
“Do you have an army? An armada?”
“Serenity protects itself from outsiders like you. We have no need for anything else as far as that is concerned. However, my father is leader of our legion. The legion protects us against our other enemies. Enemies far different from you.”
“Let's just say you should be glad the world of men holds no appeal for them.”
“World of men? Is there any other kind of world?” he asked, a bit confused.
“Of course there is. You are well traveled; surely you have learned that there are many worlds out there.”
“You mean races, civilizations. Yes. There are many. But in the end, we are all human. We all have two legs, two arms. We all have males and females, and we all make children and make war upon one another. Your land and people are no different.”
“True, there are many similarities. But there are just as many dissimilarities.”
“If your world is so protected, so distant, how is it you come to be here?”
She gave him an enigmatic little smile. “There are ways if you know them. There are special times. And believe me when I tell you, my father would be very angry if he knew where I was right now. So too would my brothers. But I will worry about that when I return three days from now.” Her smile broadened. “Perhaps by then you will want to come with me. You cannot bring your army but you can come yourself. And maybe you can go before the empress of our people and perhaps she will erect a temple to your goddess. But I do not see many of our people worshipping your goddess. We worship the goddess of the land and oceans because that is what is known to us. Diathus protects her children, keeps us healthy and safe. We know no other gods.”
“You know of them.”
“Of course we do. But we are Diathus's children.” She gave him a bright smile. “Now come. I believe it is time for our meal. Then I must let you go to your brothers so you can carry on with your business of the day. I have already monopolized your morning.”
She was right. She had. The entire morning had gone by and he had not even realized it. His brothers were probably beside themselves wondering what had become of him. Still, they were more than capable of functioning without him and he was sure they had plenty to do, taking over this city and making it their own. So too did he. But he had promised her one meal a day and he was a man of his word.
He entered the main dining hall where the brothers' personal chefs were already laying out a meal for Jaykun and his chief aides. His brothers were there as well and suddenly he had the urge to take a more private meal with her. She would find herself lost amongst all these men. Amongst all the tasks and discussions that would no doubt be overshadowing the meal. Tomorrow he would see things done differently, but for now, he had no choice but to let it happen. As it was, his brothers would be champing at the bit for him to get on with the day's considerable business.
The looks they shot him as he entered the hall revealed as much. But he didn't really care. In his mind the morning had been well spent. Actually, it had been a really good morning, an easy one. And he had not enjoyed such for a very long time. His life was one of long, hard campaigns, one after another, eyes always set on the next goal. That morning his goals had been simple, not pressing or weighty. He realized he was grateful to her for it. It would notâcouldnotâlast of course, but it had been nice while it had been happening. He only wished he had appreciated it more.
He sat down at the head of the table, a position given to him by his brothers in deference to his rank over them. Dethan may be the eldest, but this was Jaykun's army and they wanted everyone to know it. The next available seat at the table was several places down on the left and Jaykun frowned. He hardly thought his promise of a meal with her consisted of her being out of comfortable speaking distance.
“Would everyone be so kind as to shift down,” he asked of those on the left. They all paused their conversations and actions as if they had been suddenly caught in amber. Then, slowly, everyone on the left, including his brother Garreth, stood up and shifted down one seat. Luckily, Garreth did so without verbal comment, but his discontent was obvious. What it boiled down to, however, was that Jaykun's word was law and it must be respected and obeyedâ¦and his brothers must be the first to set the example or there would be discontent and chaos in the ranks.
Jaykun held Jileana's chair for her as she sat. Once she was in front of her plate, he took his own seat, and realizing how hungry he was, he began to pile food onto his plate. However, neither him nor his brothers could keep up with Jileana. She was voracious, taking one of everything and then some. She didn't overstuff her mouth but instead seemed to savor every single bite.
“Oh, this is all so good! What do you call this? And this? Oh, and what about this?”
“We call it food. Do they starve you where you are from?”
She looked at Garreth and smiled in the face of his acerbic tone. “Hardly that. As I have said, it is different. I should like to bring knowledge of some of these things back with me. Can you tell me how this is made?” She held out a piece of bread.
“It's just bread. You've no bread?”
“No. And this is so warm and fluffy. It all but melts in my mouth. And yet it is chewy. Isn't it delightful?”
“Thrilling,” Garreth said with a sigh.
If he'd been closer, Jaykun would have kicked his brother under the table. But the truth was, Garreth was tired and missing his wife and child. He wanted to go home to them, and the longer it took Jaykun to get entrenched in this city, the longer Garreth and Dethan would stay by his side. Winter was coming and it would take several weeks overland at best before they got home. With ships, the time could be made considerably shorter. However, the ships in the harbor were run by Krizan crews, crews that were not to be trusted if this morning's incident was anything to go by. And most of the men who had crewed those ships had died in the battle.
As if Dethan were reading his mind, Dethan said, “Only half the armada is in dock. The other half is in the harbor or missing. We need to fetch the escaping ships.”
“They shouldn't get too far,” Garreth said. “They must have nothing but the barest of crews. I say we send several ships to run them down one by one. Bring them back to the harbor.”
“First we need to know how many we are talking about,” Jaykun said.
“Honestly, I thought there would be more missing,” Garreth mused.
“They simply didn't have the manpower to sail them after throwing all their men at us. Poor planning on the part of their ruler,” Jaykun said.
“The whole battle was executed poorly. This city should have lasted indefinitely in a siege against us. They had the ocean at their backs and could constantly resupply, keep from starving, and yet the shops are all but bare, the bazaar skin and bones,” Jaykun reported. “It shouldn't take too long to get it back into shape, but still, what was going on here? How had the finia thought to stand against us or save her people from us? How could such a poor leader be in such a powerful position?”
“How can you ask that? You have seen it yourselves time and again. These titles are inherited, not earned. The people follow a bloodline, not a leader. It's laughable.”
Garreth chuckled. “So says the man whose wife inherited her title and city,” he teased Dethan.
“Be that as it may,” Dethan said, grinning good-naturedly, “when it came down to it, the stronger leader prevailed. My wife is very powerful in her own right and in her love for her people. With me at her side, our city will not fall to any invading forces.”
“But you are not at her side,” Garreth pointed out quietly. “A battle could be won and lost while we are here so far away from our homes.”
“Easy, brother,” Jaykun soothed Garreth. “You'll be home soon enough. Within the next month. I guarantee it. With ships at our disposal, we'll cut the journey in half for Dethan and take at least a week off for you as well. I'll have you back at my sisters' sides before first frost. I vow this to you.”
“Then let us get to business,” Garreth said impatiently. “You're wasting timeâ¦allowing distraction.” Garreth didn't have to look at Jileana. They both knew who and what he was talking about.
“Enough!” Jaykun barked, making his younger brother jump in his own skin. “I do not need you to remind me of my duties and responsibilities. The gods give me reminder enough every day at dusk!”
“Garreth didn't meanâ” Dethan began.
“Then what did he mean?” Jaykun snapped. “That I am not to have even the smallest pleasure? A fraction of a moment where war and duty does not consume me?” Both brothers fell silent. They were being selfish and they knew it. They were not by nature selfish men, but they were missing their families and the strain of it was starting to wear on them.
“Don't worry,” Jileana spoke up with a bright smile. “I shall see to it that you have a great deal of pleasure in order to balance out your duties. And I will restrict our mating to the night so it won't interfere with your daily duties.”
Jaykun had been considering taking a drink of wine and was suddenly glad he had not done so. He might have choked on it. Or he might have thought he was in his cups and hearing her wrongly. But the truth of it was, she meant every word and had absolutely no compunctions about announcing those words in public. He heard chuckles rippling down the table and he actually had to will himself not to blush in front of his men. Did the woman have no shame?
That was his second thought, however. His first thought was immediately picturing her as he had seen her the night before: long, sleek limbs; bare, beautiful skin; and emitting sensual sounds of pleasure. The idea of seeing her thus once again was more than a little appealing.
Actually, the craving for it was overwhelming. She was such a passionate creature in everything she did, so direct and voracious for everything she could possibly experience. He had never known anyone like her. He appreciated her honesty, her candor. She did not play games. She said exactly what was on her mind, expressed her desires and wishes the moment she knew what they were. The idea of having a woman like that in his bed was arousing to the extreme. She did not waste time being coy or demurring; she devoured her pleasure just as she devoured her food, savoring every bite and gorging herself on each flavor to be had.
She shot him a look that practically set the air to sizzling. She craved him just as he craved her, he realized. Oh, thank the gods! The idea that she had all the power between them was more than a little disquieting. But the fact that she had desire for him meant that he had at least some kind of power too.
Jaykun jumped in his seat when he felt a hand brush up the length of his inner thigh beneath the table. It was a brief touch, one that felt more reassuring than it did seductive. Just the same, the heat that ripped through him was overwhelming and suddenly he craved things far beyond the meal in front of him.
“Jileana, I prefer we not discuss these things in public,” he said tightly. He could control this, he told himself firmly. He was the master of his own fate and in command of everything around him. He could easily control his passions for a simple woman.
“Why not?” she asked with her usual openness. “I thought you would want your brothers to be reassured that our sexual meetings would not interfere with your daily responsibilities.”
Dethan chuckled. “I feel reassured,” he said with a great deal of mirth in his tone.
Jaykun was overwhelmed with the urge to smack him on the back of his head. Both he and Garreth were enjoying his discomfiture far too much.
“I'm not sure I do,” Garreth said with a grin. “Just how often are we talking about here? Once a night? Twice? The man has to get his sleep.”
“I thought perhapsâ”
“Do not answer him!” Jaykun cut her off sharply even though he was damned curious as to what the answer would be. The idea of having her once was overwhelming enough, but twice? More? As often as he could gorge himself on her? The idea was beyond appealing. “Both of you stop,” he warned them harshly, “or you'll find yourself battling me back in the practice ring.”
“Oh! Please don't stop,” Jileana said eagerly to his brothers. “I should like to see that. I watch my father and brothers practice all the time. It is a fine way of seeing the warrior in a man.” She slid Jaykun a hot little look. “I would very much like to see the warrior in you. I find the idea most stimulating.”
“Oh, I think that could be arranged,” Dethan said with a snicker as he ignored his brother's deadly glare. “Maybe we can knock some sense into him in the process.”
“Which of you will it be?” she asked eagerly. “You are much larger than Jaykun is, and you are much smaller,” she said to first Dethan, then Garreth. “A smaller man is usually faster. A larger man often has more power. Perhaps I should like to see you both. Not together of course, because that would be unfair, but each individually.”
“You know, I really would appreciate it if you all stopped making plans for me without consulting me.”
Jileana turned a warm, beautiful smile on him and he felt his temper dissolve away instantly. It was a reaction that simply floored him.
“Oh, of course we aren't making plans without you. You are sitting right here. If you had any arguments, you would certainly bring them up, just as you are right now. So which is it you prefer? Your larger brother or your smaller one?”
“It doesn't matter because I can beat them both,” Jaykun muttered.
“Ha! Not likely!” Dethan scoffed.
“Hardly,” Garreth chimed in.
“I can and I will. First you, little man,” he said to Garreth. “An easy fight to warm me up. Then you, you lumbering ass. Maybe if I put you both in your places you'll stop bothering me!”
“Wonderful! When shall we do it? After this meal?” Jileana asked.
“Why wait?” Jaykun said, surging to his feet.
“Easy, brother,” Dethan said with a chuckle, reaching to grab Jaykun's forearm and pull him back down into his chair. “You have promised the lady a meal and so you shall give it to her. Practice can wait until later. We will arrange it for an hour before supper, two hours before dusk. This way we can get some other work done first and have time to digest our meals.”
“That makes every bit of sense,” Jileana agreed. “Where will it be?”
“There is a practice ring to the east of the castle. The men have already been using it. We'll meet there at the appointed time.”
“Very well,” Jaykun muttered as he pulled his chair back up to his plate. His brothers were right. The meal he had promised Jileana ought to come first.
The rest of the meal seemed to pass in something of a fog for him. He was trying to figure out exactly how she had managed to get exactly what she wanted out of him every single time so far. She didn't seem to ask for anything, and yet he found himself performing to her pleasure. Sex, shopping, eating, and now fighting. All done for her pleasure. The understanding bemused him. It occupied his mind quite frequently throughout the rest of the afternoon.
After the meal, she had dutifully drifted out of his reach, going off to do who knew what, who knew where. It had concerned him a little. She seemed to have a knack for doing and saying things that might cause trouble, so he had been concerned about leaving her to her own devices. Especially in a castle full of a hostile species. She had made it clear to all and sundry that she shared a place of intimacy with him. It wasn't so far-fetched an idea that someone might try to hurt her as a means of sending a message to him.
It was thoughts like this that kept him listening to his brothers with only half his attention.
Jileana was sitting in the stands that ringed half the practice circle. They were wooden and rough, and rose up only to about six levels, but it was enough to afford each person a good view of the arena. The stands were crowded save for the seats on either side of her. It seemed no one wanted to sit too close to her. No one Krizan, that is. Which was to be expected, really. However, it was only a short length of time before a couple of Jaykun's men, two of the men who had been seated at the table for lunch earlier, filled in the places beside her.
In the practice circle, Jaykun was giving his sword several test swings. He was stripped down to his bare chest and a pair of breeches, his pants tucked into his knee-high black leather boots. The snug material of those pants clung to every thick muscle in his legs and Jileana found herself staring at them with increasing covetousness. His bare chest and arms were nothing to sneeze at either. She had never seen a man with so many well-developed muscles; her people tended to be sleeker and leaner. His skin was tanned and smooth, nearly flawless now that he'd had an entire day to heal from his trial of the night before. It seemed that his body healed to a certain point of perfection. Each night she had watched him burn away until he was nothing but a skeleton, and by the time the next night approached he looked as though it had never happened.
Magic. It was some kind of magic. He said it was the curse of the gods and she believed him. Only the touch of the gods could make this happen to a man. She found herself wondering exactly what a man had to do to cause a god to exact such a vicious sort of vengeance on him. Her father and brothers would have wanted her to put as much distance between him and herself as possible, probably for fear of attracting the attention of an angry god toward her. But they had always been overprotective. To her mind, that made no sense. Surely a god wouldn't become angry with her just for being near someone they had cursed. Would a god be so capricious?
Then again, the legends of the gods told all kinds of stories about their volatile tempers. They were more apt to take vengeance on a mortal than they were to bless or gift that mortal, if the stories attributed to them were to be believed.
And even in her distant world, she thought she'd heard the story of immortal brothers cursed by the gods. The story of four men who had found and stolen the gifts of the Fount of Immortality without truly earning the blessing from the gods. In their rage the gods had cursed each brother to a torment worse than any imaginable: one brother cast into the pits of hell; another chained to that very mountain, doomed to freeze again and again; and the third chained to a star.
Bright as a star. He burned as bright as a star. Somehow he had been released from the star and yet still suffered as though he were still chained to it.
She wondered about the fourth brother. The legend had never been specific about the fourth brother's torment, only that the god Sabo had been in charge of the reckoning and that it was an unspeakable torment just like his siblings suffered.
And yet three of the four immortal brothers must have been sitting at luncheon with her today. How amazing that she was touching such an unbelievable legend.
And how sad. How sad she was for Jaykun, that he must suffer so. Did his brothers still suffer as he did? How had they come to be free? There was a story there and she craved the hearing of it.
But it would come in its own time, she realized, trying to force patience on herself. Jaykun would reveal himself to her just as slowly, no doubt, as she would reveal herself to him. They both had their stories, both had their mysteries. Both would tell their tales as they got to know each other better.
And she truly did want to know him better. She could not say exactly why she found him so compelling, why she had immediately allowed herself to be drawn in by him and his world, only that these were the most exciting moments of her life thus far. She was tired of her sheltered existence. Running away, in her opinion, was the best thing she had ever done. Oh, she knew she would have no choice but to go back in three days' time, but at least she could say she had done this, that she had come away from her protected world and done something exciting and different and new. And who knew? Maybe she would do it again someday. But the odds were that there would be no Jaykun at that time. He no doubt would have moved on by then. Never looking back.
Well, she would look back. She would make these three days into something so wonderful that she could look back on them with awe and delight. And so far she was succeeding famously. She had eaten wonderful food, had shopped for beautiful things, and had acquired a fine lover. A lover, she realized, she had only just begun to sample. And as he entered the ring and faced off with his youngest brother, her heart pounded with excitement at the very thought. Jaykun must suffer his nightly torment at dusk, but afterwardâ¦afterward he would be hers to do with as she pleased.
Garreth was faster than Jaykunâit was trueâbut it quickly became obvious that he was outmatched. Jaykun moved with sleek grace but also a thunderous power that beat Garreth back over and over again. In the end, he simply wore the smaller man out with his unrelenting barrage of sword strokes.
Garreth yielded. Jileana cheered Jaykun loudly, clapping her hands and whooping with victorious delight as if she had been the one to personally win the battle. She saw Jaykun grin and he saluted her with his sword. Jileana heard the men beside her chuckling, but she didn't care. Jaykun had won! Couldn't they see how magnificent he was?
“He is a fine warrior,” she said aloud and to no one in particular.
“He is the best there is. Closely rivaled by his eldest brother,” the man seated on her right said. “But Dethan is fresh and Jaykun has just done battle. I doubt he can withstand Dethan's attack.”
“You are wrong. He will win,” she said with all the confidence in the worldâthis in spite of the fact she knew nothing of Dethan's fighting style or strengths and little of Jaykun's. All she knew was what she wanted. She wanted him to win. She wanted him to be victorious. Not that she didn't like his brothersâit was clear they were fine men, if a bit too serious. She simply wanted victory. A victory to be celebrated.
Dethan was a powerful fighter. His overhand barrages sent echoes of metal ringing hard through the air as Jaykun parried every blow. His body flexed beneath each contact, straining to shove his brother off him each time. Ever wily, he made certain half of Dethan's strikes never found a sticking point to begin with. These moves made her cheer some more, as loudly as she could. She wanted him to know she was in his corner, that she was by his side in spirit if not in body.
Her faith was rewarded. Jaykun turned swiftly, and suddenly Dethan hit the ground face-first, his sword flying from his hand. Jaykun put the point of his sword to his brother's neck and Dethan laughed. He could hardly be heard over the woman shouting wildly from the risers across the way.
“You have me, brother,” Dethan said, holding up his hands in submission.
“I do indeed,” Jaykun said, holding a hand out to his brother and helping him to his feet. Both men were covered in sweat and dirt, and both were breathing hard with their exertions. Dethan bent to fetch his sword and looked over at Jileana, who was fumbling her way out of the crowd of people seated around her.
“You've made someone very happy,” Dethan said with a chuckle.
“How can you tell?” Jaykun asked with amusement.
“Whatever have you done to inspire such fast loyalty, I wonder,” Dethan baited.
“Hush,” Jaykun scolded, smacking his brother's leg with the flat of his blade.
Jileana was across the ring and launching herself into his arms in the next instant. She was a projectile of black, flying hair and loud, delighted excitement.
“You've done it!” she exclaimed. “It was wonderful!”
“I am glad you thought so. I could not tell,” he teased her.
“I know I promised to do so only at night,” she said breathlessly, “but I would very much like to have sex with you right now!”
Dethan burst into laughter and Jaykun felt his neck flushing red. On the other hand, his body was instantly reacting to the suggestion. He jerked her up close and tight to his body and caught her audacious mouth with his own. He kissed her until she was breathing as hard as he was and his blood was singeing with a heat that had nothing to do with his exertions of just minutes ago.
“Well, it's all right with me,” Dethan said, still laughing. “How about you, Garreth?”
“Shut up,” Jaykun warned before his youngest sibling could chime in. He tossed his blade to Dethan and grabbed hold of Jileana. He swung her up off her feet, into his arms, and carried her from the practice ring into the castle. At the first shadowed hall he could find, he backed her up against a wall and pressed his body along the front of hers.
“You have to stop doing that,” he growled against her ear.
“Doing what?” she asked, her soft breaths panting into his hair as he nuzzled her hotly.
“Talking about sex.”
“But it was the truth. Do you not prefer when I tell the truth?”
“I do prefer it, though I take exception to you telling it in front of my brothers. At least the parts about sex. It is unseemly to speak thusly in front of other men.”
“Unseemly? Oh. I do not wish to be unseemly. Do I?”
His hands shaped around her waist, feeling the sleek curves of her sides. The truth was, if she were seemly, she very likely would not be letting him touch her like this. Last night he had mistaken her for a camp follower or a woman who might sell her sexual favors for a betterment of her lifeâ¦but he had long since come to realize that was not the case. Jileana was merely forthright and honest about her desires. She knew her mind and knew it quickly. Somehow he had been lucky enough to gain her favor and she had not wasted time with seemly behaviors. Yes, he decided, this was much better than all the courting nonsense he didn't have the time or the inclination for.
His inclination was for the full, warm flesh of a willing woman in his hands and that was exactly what he had. His hand traveled up to her breast and he heard her breath catch.
“Actually, now that I am thinking on it, I rather like you unseemly.”
She sighed in exasperation. “You are confusing me. I want to do what you wish me to do. Tell me what it is you would like me to change.”
He looked down into her iridescent green eyes. “Nothing,” he whispered on a soft breath. “Nothing at all. You are perfect as you are. Forgive me. I am merelyâ¦I am not used to a woman who speaks her mind so clearly.”
“Women of your people do not speak their minds?”
“No. They play games. They like to tease and make promises they don't intend to fulfill.”
“Well, I like to tease,” she said slyly, “but I intend to fulfill every promise I make to you. Else I will not make it.”
“Good. I like that,” he said heatedly. “Gods above, you smell good. And feel good. And if memory serves, you taste good as well.”
“Why rely on memory? I am here now. Taste me.”
He groaned softly and caught her up in his hands, pulling her up onto her toes as his mouth descended onto hers. Her lips were plush and wet, warm and oh so willing. She opened her mouth to him, inviting him in deep with her tongue. With a deeply indrawn breath, he devoured her, took her with every ounce of intensity he could muster. He kissed her until she was moaning with pleasure, reveling in the feel and taste of him. Her hands climbed his arms and neck and reached into his hair. She gripped at him, her grasp fevered and passionate. His hands came to her breasts, feeling the plumpness of them through the depth of that sweetheart neckline. But the dress was laced in back and frustrated his efforts. He fumbled at her back for the laces and she made a sound of frustration.
“Too many clothes,” she panted.
He couldn't have agreed more. As soon as the laces were free he pulled away from her mouth and lowered his lips to the swells of her breasts. She smelled so good, the scent of soft femininity and sweet musk. She reminded him of a kelp flower, a particularly fragrant blossom that grew in ocean inlets, around docks and jetties and other relatively still places in the ocean.
He drew the neckline of her dress down, baring both of her breasts to the nipple. By all rights he should be taking her to the privacy of his chambers, but he couldn't seem to make himself stop. He couldn't keep himself from filling his mouth with one of the sweet, pointed tips. He sucked on her until she gasped from the pressure. Suddenly his hands were under her skirt, grabbing her thighs and hoisting her up the wall so he would not have to bend to reach her. The next he knew, a pair of strong, lithe thighs were locking around him, dragging him in tight. He could feel the heat of her, beckoning to him, reminding him she had nothing on beneath the dressâ¦nothing but warm and willing flesh. She moaned in his ear as he shifted from one breast to the next.
“I wish to be having sex with you now,” she breathed into his ear. It made a laugh burst out of him and he left her breasts to meet her eyes.
“I thought that was what we were doing,” he said, his hand continuing to stroke and fondle her.
“No, I mean I wish for you to be inside me,” she explained, wriggling down the wall a little, her hands diving past her bunched up skirts and beyond the waist of his pants. His belly contracted at the sudden feel of her against his bare skin, but his cock leapt eagerly for the touch of her hand. He groaned soulfully as she wrapped her fingers around him with one hand and struggled to work his clothing open with the other. He tried to help her, but they only got in each other's way and he could barely focus as she stroked him from root to tip again and again until he thought he would embarrass himself by the time she got him free. But at last she did, and after that she wasted no time pulling him in toward her, using the vise of her legs to bring him in tight, using her hand to guide him straight to the open warmth of her waiting body. Then between his own thrusting hips and her reaching body, they brought him inside her in a single crash of movement. She cried out loudly and he didn't bother to hush her. He wasn't exactly being quiet himself. He had shouted out at the moment their bodies met, the pleasure of it too much to contain inside him. There was no explaining how it felt to be surrounded by her. It was like a stunning, living sensation that shot through all of his nerve endings at once.
He looked into her eyes and began to thrust into her in rhythmic, hard bursts. He had never seen such pretty eyes before. Their iridescent color was something unique, and they were framed by lashes as lush as the feel of her body around him. She was so warm and wet it was driving him mad. The speed of his thrusts and the violence of them increased. He liked to see the way her body shimmered at the impacts, liked to hear the grunts and cries that erupted from her. He wanted to make her scream out. Yes, even as exposed as they were, potential witnesses or even enemies all around them, he wanted her to cry out, give away their location, let everyone know that he was the one giving pleasure to her.
His hands fumbled past her skirts until he was gripping her by her bare backside, jerking her forward onto him with every thrust. Fire raced through his veins, warning him that he would not last much longer. But he would not have that until he had made her find her full pleasure.
What he didn't know was that Jileana was closer to spinning away with pleasure than he could have imagined. She had felt it from the first thrust, her body designed for passion and so eager to accept it. She was fighting herself to make the act last longer than it might have otherwise. She didn't want it to be over too soon, to be forced to come apart from himâ¦to leave him behind. She liked being together with himâ¦really liked it. If she had her way, it would never end.
But it had to end. She knew it. She let herself give over to it. She threw her head back and cried out, her entire body tensing as pure fire washed over her again and again.
Jaykun felt her come around him and it blinded him with ferocious pleasure. He surged up into her, plunging into her one last time, and then let the pleasure of it overtake him. He came with a roar so savage it would have frightened away any of his foes had they heard him. Actually, Jileana was quite convinced they couldn't have helped but hear him. Hear them both.
Jaykun's knees gave out and they collapsed to the floor together, their bodies still connected. Jaykun had landed on his knees, Jileana's backside resting on his thighs. Her long legs were settled loosely around him, her skirts bunched up between them as they both panted hard for breath.
“Oh, that was veryâ¦”
“Yes,” he said breathlessly.
“Well, we shouldâ¦”
“Definitely,” he said.
“In a minute,” she said.
“Yes. In a minute.” Jaykun touched his forehead to hers. “You make me forget myself.”
“You make me remember all kinds of things, including myself. I had forgotten things could feel like this. In fact, I don't think I've ever felt like this before.”
That brought Jaykun up short. He drew his head back and met her eyes. “Jileana, I think I should be clear,” he said, tension filling his voice. “I've no space for a woman in my life. My curse makes it so that I will never be free to feel anything for a woman. Nothing will come of thisâ¦no relationship.”
She looked at him a long moment, then tossed back her head and laughed. “Of course not, you silly man! Oh my, as if I ever could! No, no. We can certainly feel much between us. Yes, we can be free to do that. But there is no permanence to this relationship in the least.”
Her statements took him aback. The fact that she found the idea of having a lasting relationship with him amusing rather irritated him. It shouldn't of course. He should be glad she understood this was only for the short term. He should feel relieved. Instead he felt put out.
The feeling bothered him. Everything about her bothered him. He stood up in a surge of movement, setting her on her feet and then quickly redressing himself. She took the opportunity to tuck her breasts back into her dress and he tried to ignore the pang of regret it caused. He realized that, if it was completely up to him, he would prefer to have her naked at all times.
A dangerous thought, that. She too would prefer to be naked, if he read her right. Not for lustful reasons, but just because she seemed to dislike clothing. If she had even an inkling of what his thoughts were, she might take to running around the castle completely nude.
Then he would definitely get nothing done, he thought honestly. As much as he had weighing on him, he would spend the next few days obsessing in his lust for her.
And sheâ¦Would she feel just as obsessed? She acted so passionately and then seemed so dispassionate.
But of course that was what he wanted, he told himself. He wanted no entanglements. She was actually quite perfect for his needs. He would vent some much-needed lust upon her and then send her on her way. They would enjoy themselves together for these three days and then he would see to it she was gone. He had a lot of other things to focus on. First of which was getting the army established in the city well enough that his brothers could return to their homes for the winter. Then he would spend the winter preparing his men and seeing to it the armada was readied. They would manage the city, make it their own, then leave in the spring with the Krizan armada and an army swelled with any Krizan soldiers who remained willing to fight for coin. With every city they took, his army grew larger and larger, until now it was nearly invincible. With these ships they could finally leave the continent and bring the word of Weysa to even more foreign lands. It was more than he could have asked for.
So, yes, he would take a few days to enjoy himself with her. Just a few. After that he would send her on her way.
“Besides,” she said, “I have to leave here in three days' time and am not likely to come back for quite some time. I imagine you will be gone by then, moving on to your next conquest.”
“Iâ¦Y-yes, I will,” he said, surprised she was thinking along the same lines he was.
“Very good, then.” She reached out and patted his arm. “Now you go find your brothers or whatever it is you have to do. I thought I might go to the kitchens.”
“You are hungry?” he asked. “Dinner will be ready shortly.”
“Ah. You eat early, before the sun sets. Of course. That would make sense. No, I am just curious about the place where all that delicious food is made. I think I should like to watch.”
“Oh. I see. Wellâ¦enjoy yourself.”
She smiled brightly at him. “Oh, I intend to!”
“But you will eat with us, yes?” he asked her, suddenly needing to know when he would see her next.
“Would you like me to?” she asked. It wasn't a coy remark, merely an openly curious one.
“Of course. You should eat with the rest of us.”
“Because the bargain we made was only for one meal a day.”
“D-don't you want to eat with meâerâus?” He was starting to stammer like a fool, he realized. Damn it, what was wrong with him all of a sudden?
“Of course I do! Thank you for inviting me! I do so love your food when in good company.”
“Well, I certainly wouldn't starve you.”
“Of course not. I would simply eat in the kitchens if it came down to it.” She smiled softly at him then, reaching to touch light fingers across his left pectoral muscle. “But I am going to be much happier eating with you. I enjoy you as much as I enjoy the food.”
“I should hope so,” he said with a chuckle. “It wouldn't say much for me otherwise. How about from this point on you share all of your meals with me? I meanâ¦if that is what you would like.” It suddenly occurred to him that she might want to be elsewhere. She really didn't seem to need his company.
The understanding flummoxed him. He should be glad she was so independent. And he was. It was important that she be so. He would not have been attracted to her in the least had she been the needy, clingy sort. Nothing would have turned him off quicker than that. But at the same time her complete lack of need for him rankled somehow. He couldn't explain it. Especially when knowing he should be feeling otherwise.
“Okay, I'll be going now,” she said, bouncing up onto her toes to give him a quick kiss on his cheek. Then, with a flounce of flying dark hair, she was off and away, disappearing around a quick turn in the hall.
Jaykun slowly headed in the other direction, finishing redressing his appearance as he went. He barely made it to the next turn before he came up against his brothers, both standing shoulder-to-shoulder and barring his way. He huffed with frustration.
“What is it?” he demanded of them.
“We are concerned about this girl,” Dethan said. “Exactly where did she come from? What is her purpose here? Why has she attached herself to you?”
“Don't you find it a tad coincidental that she has chosen to bed the man who has conquered her city?” Garreth said.
“This isn't her city,” Jaykun said, pushing past them.
“Well, not by the look of her,” Garreth conceded. “She's not Krizanâthat much is clear. But there are no other cities for a great many leaguesâ¦”
“She's from an island and a city calledâ¦Serenity.” He wasn't about to attempt to say the real name of Jileana's home city. His brother's wouldn't have been able to absorb it any better than he had.
“Serenity? What island? The only island within a day's sailing is Moroun. Perhaps she is a spy from Moroun. They have no doubt heard of our advancement toward Kriza and realized they are next in our path once we gain use of the Krizan armada.”
“There is another isleâ¦Moroun is northeast; her home is to the southeast.”
“Another isle? I saw nothing from the battlements yesterday when I was up there,” Dethan said.
“Perhaps it was too far for you to see. I could not see it either because of the storms in the distance.”
Garreth scoffed and grabbed hold of Jaykun's arm, dragging him to a stop. “And yet you believe her?”
“I have no reason not to,” Jaykun bit out.
“You have every reason not to!” Garreth said. “We are in enemy territory. You would be mad to relax your guard for even a moment! It seems to me that someone around here is thinking with his body parts far too distant from his brain. He's letting a sweet piece turn his head andâ!”
Garreth was cut off when a solid blow connected with his jaw. The youngest brother staggered until his back hit a wall. Stunned, he rubbed his aching jaw and stared hard at his brother.
“What the fuck was that for?” Garreth demanded to know.
“Iâ¦” Jaykun's body was full of tension and outrage, but for the life of him he couldn't understand what had driven him to strike his own brother. “Justâ¦just stop questioning me about this. I trust her.”
“How in the eight hells can you trust her? She's a total gods-damned stranger!” Dethan barked.
“Because she saved my life!” Jaykun bit back.
The announcement seemed to startle the brothers.
“That's right,” Jaykun said. “That assassin this morning? She was this close to running a dagger through my eye. But Jileana stopped her. It was a remarkable feat of strength, really, and fast reflexes at that. I've never seen anything more beautiful in my life.”
“But Jayâ¦you couldn't have been killed. You're immortal.”
“I can be killed, brothers,” he reminded them both. “A god-made weapon, remember? And anyway, how was she to know that? How was she to know for certain?”
That sobered the entire trio of brothers and they stood quietly for several moments as they absorbed the impact of the understanding. Even Jaykun found himself inspecting the reason why he had come to trust her so quickly. But if he were going to be honest, he would have to admit to his brothers that he had extended trust even before the incident that morning. He had extended trust the moment he allowed himself to fall asleep in bed with her, something he never did. He had neverânot once since his release from his curse, which had allowed him to live somewhat free once moreâfallen asleep beside a woman. Women were to be briefly used to satisfy carnal needs, and he had not done even that since his resurrection into the world. He did not in any way relax his guardâ¦especially not enough to sleep with a woman.
But Jileanaâ¦She was different. She was brilliant and amusing and sensual and passionate and, yes, trustworthy. He wouldn't explain it any more than he already had. Just thinking about her and all of her qualities had him obsessing about the moment he would get to see her againâ¦a desire so strong he was afraid to examine it.
“I don't wish to discuss this any further,” he said, turning his back on his brothers and walking away. It seemed of late that everything in his life was filled with Jileana. It was disturbing. But he comforted himself with the knowledge that she was his to do with as he pleased for three days, and then he would gladly send her on her way. There was nothing wrong in indulging himself for a short while, was there? Surely Weysa would not begrudge him this small comfort.
It did seem, however, that his brothers would. They hurried past him and blocked his way again.
“Jaykun, you're not seeing this clearly,” Dethan argued. He was hoping that Jaykun would hear him and listen to his advice as he had always done throughout their relationship. Jaykun had always acceded to Dethan because he had always been under Dethan's command or simply because Dethan was the eldest brother.
“I see it all too clearly,” Jaykun said. “I see that my two brothers are afraid of a single woman. Dethan, she cannot hurt me even if she wanted to. Even if she is a spy, what good would it do her? Moroun already knows we are coming. It is obvious where we are heading. Once we begin to make peaceful overtures of negotiation, it will be clear to them what we want and what we will do if they don't peacefully agree to build temples in Weysa's name. So if she is a spy, then let her be a spy. It will do Moroun no good. In the meantime, I will be able to enjoy her the way a woman should be enjoyed.”
“But wouldn't you rather know if she is playing you, brother? If she isâ¦faking it all?” Garreth asked carefully, not wishing to get punched in the face again.
Jaykun smiled. Truly, deep down smiled. “Trust me, brother,” he said with amusement in his eyes. “There is no way that woman is faking her pleasure. Now, enough of this. We have more important things to manage at the moment.”
Jaykun pushed past them once more and headed down the passageway.
But as the topic finally moved away from Jileana, he found himself obsessed with a niggling doubt. Faking it? Could she be faking it? Could she be playing him? Was it possible she was expertly managing him in order to spy on him and his brothers? His instincts said no, believed that everything about her was exactly what it seemed to be. But his brain had been cursed by his brothers' thoughts and words, and now he found himself calling everything into question.
What ifâ¦what if she was getting close to him just to find a way to kill him? What if she was spying on behalf of her people? How could he find out the truth? What would he do if he discovered this to be true?
He had no answers for any of it, and it left him completely disturbed.
All throughout dinner, Jileana got the feeling that Jaykun was heavily preoccupied. He spoke very little to anyone who tried to engage him, and after two attempts to draw him into conversation, she stopped trying. She would not force him to be social with her if that was not what he wished. She was simply content to be spending time with him no matter what his mood. She had never found anyone so fascinating and enjoyable before. Of course a lot of that had to do with how different he was, how alien he was to her in comparison to her own people. Everything about him was a new and fascinating experience.
And, she had to admit, their couplings were quite erotic and satisfying. Oh yesâ¦She hoped he felt more social later on, because she would like very much to be able to communicate her passion for him. She had never known such a craving for a male before. Perhaps it was because she had never mated with a man not of her race before; the newness and differentness fascinated her, making more out of it than it was.
But she didn't really think so. That might have been true in the beginning, but any curiosities ought to have been satisfied with a single mating. There would have been no need for another.
But she wanted another. And another. Andâ¦wellâ¦as many as she could possibly cram into three days. She was certain of that. She didn't examine the craving too deeply. She had come there specifically to indulge herself in every new experience her time could afford her, and so far she had not been disappointed in the least. Oh, there would be penance to pay when she got back home, and she supposed she should be worried about it, worried about her parents' displeasure over her actions, but she was having far too much fun.
So she spent the meal enjoying all the new foods and tastes, discovering what she liked and what she didn't like, and tried not to worry about anything at all. Besides, worrying did little good. Things would be what they were going to be; worrying about them really served no purpose.
After dinner, Jaykun left without saying much of anything to her. This didn't bother her either because she knew where he was headed eventually. He really didn't seem to have much choice in the matter. She didn't know all the particulars of what happened to him every night, but she knew it was a lonely business and she refused to see him suffer it alone if she could at all help it. True, she could not share his burden or his painâshe couldn't even hope to comprehend itâbut she could be there with him when it began and be waiting for him when it ended. So, shortly before dusk, she left the city, walked down the beach to the cove, and found him there, slowly stripping off his clothing and leaving it in a neat pile at a safe distance from where he usually sat. He looked up in surprise at her approach, not having heard her until the moment before she reached out to touch him.
“Why are you here?” he asked and she detected a note of suspicion in the query.
“Because you wish me to be,” she said.
“I expressed no such wish,” he said.
“I did not say you expressed the wish, only that you have the desire.”
“How would you know what I desire?” he asked, his tone quiet.
“Any person with a heart would know that being alone through this makes it all the more painful.”
“It is painful for me to know you are watching,” he argued.
“Perhaps. Perhaps because you are caring more about me than about yourself. But I would prefer we care more about you than me for these hours to come. You deserve that much, if not more. I cannot give you relief during this, but I can be here for you immediately after. Please. Allow me to do this,” she said to him, her voice soft and pleading.
Jaykun reached out to her, touched his hand to her face, his thumb curving up over the apple of her cheek. She had such a beautiful face, such an open expression. It was hard to imagine her being duplicitous. Especially in the face of all she was saying. Still, he would be very vulnerable during these next hours. It was a vulnerability he wasn't sure he wanted to share with anyone. Not even with his brothers, who had suffered similar tortures in their turn.
And yet he had shared it with her these past nights and she was right. Having her here had somehow made it a little easier to bear.
“Very well. Stay if you must.”
“I must,” she said, reaching to catch the wrist of the hand touching her face and holding him still long enough to turn her head and press a kiss into the center of his palm.
He dropped his hand away and finished undressing. She reached for the laces of her dress and in a quick movement stripped it off her back. She folded it awkwardly, more rolling it up into a ball than anything, and placed the dress on top of his clothing. He looked at her in surprise, then let his eyes run over her naked skin, his thoughts turning instantly carnal. It was shocking to him. Usually by this time of day he was completely obsessed with what was about to happen. But nowâ¦now all he could think about was how damned delectable she looked. How with every movement she seemed to be telling a sensual story to him. Everything about her beckoned to every part of him. He let his eyes stroke down over her full breasts, her lean flank, and her curvy hipâ¦on to the never-ending length of her legs. She was unbearably beautiful. She had to know that, had to know she was tempting him every second of every day. Was this all part of her design? Was it what she had been told to do by someone from Serenity? Did they wish to know if they were next on his list of conquests?
But no. He hadn't even known Serenity existed until she had told him about it. If her people were trying to avoid him, it would be foolish to send someone to point them out to him.
No, he realized with sudden clarity. She was not a spy.
“Come here,” he commanded her, beckoning her forward with a sweep of his fingers. She smiled slyly and slid her bare body up against his, the feel of her warm skin almost an erotic torture because he knew he could not have her. In truth, she shouldn't be standing this close to him. As he kept one eye trained on the sinking sun at the horizon, most of his awareness turned inward so he would know the instant he began to burn.
He slowly walked them into the water, choosing his spot, and sitting down with her.
“You will move away the instant I tell you to. No arguments?” he asked of her.
“I do not wish to be burned. I am not foolish.”
“Good,” he said. Then he cupped her face between his hands, his thumbs shaping the lushness of her lips. “I will not kiss you for fear it will be too distracting, because I do lose my focus whenever I kiss you.”
She smiled beneath his thumbs. “I lose focus as well in some ways. In othersâ¦I feel as though I have never been so keen in my life.”
Jaykun appreciated the thought. “I merely wish to look at you. To touch you. Not to arouse you or us, but simply to appreciate the beauty of you. I see so little in the way of beauty in my war camps. Let me just look at you, Jileana.”
“All right,” she whispered.
And for the next ten minutes she did exactly that: let him look his fill, let him trace over every one of her curves, every inch of soft loveliness she had to offer him. The appreciation was completely nonsexual, although he was aroused the entire time.
“Next time,” she said softly, “I will appreciate you.”
“Next time,” he agreed. Then he drew in a sharp breath. “Go! Now!”
She didn't hesitate. She scrambled back away from him and made it to a safe distance just in time to feel the incredible burst of heat as he exploded into hot, burning light, blinding her before she lifted a hand to guard her eyes. She wondered that he didn't cry out. The pain must have been excruciating. And she knew it was meant to be. He was meant to suffer through this entire torment. She didn't know why exactly, didn't fully understand, but she would. She would see to it he explained every part of what he suffered.
â¦she watched him burn.â
Jaykun's body sizzled in the ocean water, juquil's hour having brought his torment to a halt. But he was nothing more than burned bones and charred flesh at that first moment of release. Then he felt someone gathering him close, holding his pain-riddled body, and rocking him gently. He could not see or hear, both eyes and ears having been burned away, but he felt it. Somehow, through all of his pain, he felt it. As he lay there and healed, he felt her holding him. When his ears healed enough, he realized she was singing to him. Her voice was haunting and beautiful, the tone like nothing he'd ever heard before. She was singing some sort of lullaby to him, he realized. Soft and sweet:
The night brings us close,
Holding you dear.
The night brings us close;
The water is clear.
The night brings us close;
Let's see what you hear.
It was as though the song helped him heal faster, he thought. Well, it healed his soul, in any event. She healed his soul. Having her there, hearing her voice, it settled him and made everything easier somehow.
When he had healed enough, he realized he was lying with his head on her breast and she was holding him up out of the water. Aware of his weight and how exhausting that must be for her, he quickly sat up and leaned away from her.
“Shh. All is well,” she soothed him.
“Iâ¦I know. Are you all right?” he asked, his voice a hoarse rasp as his vocal cords continued to heal.
“I am fine. It is not me you should be worrying about but yourself. Here, now. Rest and let me sing.”
She pulled him back to her breast and he did exactly that. He relaxed and rested and listened to her sing until all of his skin had regrown, replacing the burns with red scars. Now he could feel the stroking of her hand over his shoulder, down his arm, down his back, all the way to his hip, always in the same direction, as if she were soothing a cat, taming it in her lap.
This time when he sat up and leaned away she didn't stop him. He turned his gaze on her. She was lit by the fullness of the moon, her skin silvery in the dark. He felt as if he had never been as intimate with a woman as he was that night, in those hours. And he had loved his wife a great deal. Had been utterly devoted to her. His brothers had teased him for being besotted and had warned him it would make him blind to her flaws. But he hadn't cared. Right up until the moment she had proved them right, he hadn't cared.
But this intimacy was something beyond that foolish, young love. He didn't fancy himself in love with Jileana of course. He would never be that ridiculous over a woman again. But this intimacy meant far more than the foolishness of love imagined.
He grabbed hold of her suddenly, slinging her into his lap until she was astride his thighs, her lithe, naked body pressed close to his, her mouth but a scant inch away from his as his hand thrust into her partially wet hair.
“What do you want of me?” he asked her fiercely, his hands gripping her tight.
“Nothing,” she assured him.
“I don't believe you. You must want something.”
“Only the pleasure of your company for two more days,” she said.
And suddenly he was afraid that two more days wasn't going to be enough. The thought blindsided him, scared him. He pushed it down by kissing her hard and punishingly. She took the heated abuse, absorbing it and his confusion. He felt her wet fingers against his throat and he broke the kiss, gasping for his breath.
“Then you shall have it,” he said.â
Braxia, the finia of Kriza, was fuming in her lowly bedchamber. She paced the floor, back and forth, the beads of the belt hanging from her waist clacking together with her every step, her weighty skirts rustling, and her slippered feet scuffing the dusty floor.
“Look! Look what I am reduced to! Sleeping in thisâ¦thisâ¦hovel! While that barbarian sleeps in my bed! My luxurious sheets! My back is in agony for sleeping on this rock in this room they have banished me to. The barbarians don't even have the courtesy to give me a place of honor at their table as a defeated but worthy opponent. And now one of their leaders has killed my most trusted maidservant, Sorna! She served me faithfully for years. But at least she gave her life in honor of her mistress. If only she had gotten close enough to kill him!”
“She may well have,” Wizol, the city fortunary said, “but he was not sleeping alone last nightâ¦an unexpected occurrence.” Wizol had been ejected from his place in the vaults of Kriza, his ledgers and the city's gold commandeered by the barbarian men. Now he was forced to watch as they pawed through his figures and fondled the coinage he had been responsible for, the greedy pigs that they were. No doubt they would strip the coffers bare.
The truth was, no one was really certain what the invaders were going to do next. Surprisingly, there had been no raping of the women, no mass destruction or pillaging. They had taken the city in an organized, if violent, manner but had kept their kills limited to those who had taken up arms against them, leaving the innocent alone. There was something to be said for that. At least the barbarian leaders had some control over their men. But that control had been Kriza's downfall. That and the fact that Krizans were used to fighting their battles on the sea. They had been so busy looking for enemies approaching from the ocean that they had turned their backs to the real danger.
“What I should have done was pack my armada full and abandon the city. Why did I not think of that? But at least some of our ships were able to escape.”
“They will hunt them down, mistress. Their plans to do so were overheard earlier today.”
“Tell me something of the whore the barbarian leader took to his bed last night,” Braxia mused to the fortunary. “Perhaps we can enlist her to kill him. Given enough coin she might kill him while in the vulnerable throes of rutting.”
“What gold? They have taken it all.”
“Besides, she is not a whore. She isprava!” the finia's maid Bela said shyly.
“Apravasleeps in my bed?” Braxia demanded shrilly.
“Yes, oh glorious mistress,” the Bela said, bowing deferentially to the finia. The finia liked it when people bowed to her. She never grew tired of it. It was well known that the best way to mollify her when her temper was up was to bow deferentially in front of her and to stay that way until she gave you leave to rise.
“Yes, yes,” Braxia said impatiently, gesturing the maid out of the bow. “They truly are barbarians,” she whispered in awe of the levels the invaders would sink to. “Thepravaare animals, beasts even lower than these barbarians!”
“That they should consort with one only shows the measure of their depravity!” Wizol said. He was incredibly nervous. If he were caught there conspiring with his ruler, no doubt he would be slaughtered on the spot. So far the invaders had not killed any of the servants or advisors they had come across, merely relieved them of their duties. But that would very likely not be the case if those advisors were found conspiring to kill them. As it was, the guards knew he was there and would likely report his visit to the barbarians.
“Look, it is clear what must be done,” Braxia said. “There are three brothers in charge of this army. Kill the brothers and the army dies with them. Without leaders they will fall into chaos. We must do this before they have a chance to gain a true foothold. Then we can get messages to the ships in our fleet that managed to get away and have them attack from the ocean!”
“Attack our own city? But we've escaped with so little damage thus far,” Wizol said.
“They will not be expecting this. It is our only choice. But we must kill these brothers. What about poisoning?” Braxia asked.
“They have their own army of cooks preparing their food. Like everything else, they have taken over the kitchens. Perhaps we could manage something, but a Krizan servant now stands out amongst all these ugly alien invaders,” Wizol informed her.
“Then we must use assassins. Surely the brothers can be caught alone in some shadow, the perfect time to slip a dagger between their ribs!”
“Perhapsâ¦perhaps thepravacould be bought after all?” Wizol suggested. “We don't know what motivates them, really. Only thatâ”
“They cannot be trusted,” Braxia said fiercely. “They are dangerous and deadly. Come to think of it, perhaps we should just bide our time. Thepravahas no doubt affixed herself to the barbarian leader. It is only a matter of time before she lures him to his death. It is what they do. They cannot help themselves.”
“Yes. A sound plan,” Wizol said. “But it might be better for us to take direct action. Now, how shall we go about it?” The fortunary was anxious about being caught conspiring, but he was more anxious about being left to the whims of the barbarian brothers.
“Find a way! Get ahold of some poison, perhaps, something harsh and violent, and seek an opportunity to get it into their food. If you can do that, then all of our troubles will be over. They all eat together, the entire table full of advisors and generals and the brothers as well. Yes?”
“Yes, great and beauteous mistress,” the maid said with a bow. “Thepravaas well.”
Pleased, Braxia smiled. “Good. This is our plan. We will wait for the opportunity to present itself!”
“Yes, magnificent mistress,” Wizol said with a low bow. “It will be done.”
Braxia turned a glaring eye on her room; the small bed and the little desk and chair were the only furnishings within it. If all went well, she would be back in her luxurious apartment within only a few days. And to her mind, it wouldn't be soon enough. She had to succeed at this. She simply could not bear the idea of living a life of obscurity, a life of peasantry. She was finia, the grandest being in all of Kriza, ruler of all and commander of its great armada. These barbarians would be made to recognize that if it was the last thing she ever did.
Of course she was grateful to the gods that they had not killed her thus far. It was a good sign in the greater scheme of things. But she would not tolerate this disrespect, being made to live in such squalid conditions, to not even be given the courtesy of dining in the great hall with them.
No. It was very appropriate that all the barbarians should choke and die on their food. At least she could be assured of her own safety, that their rudeness would in the end protect her from sharing the same fate she planned for them.
Still, it would have been a great pleasure to sit at that table and watch them die one by one in front of her very eyes.
Yes. She would have liked that very much.â
The full moon made it very easy to see their way back up the beach to the city. The city wall extended all the way across the beach and into the water, and there was a beach gate in both the north and south ends of the wall. Jaykun and Jileana approached the city via the south gate. The wall and its gates were now manned and guarded by Jaykun's men. The gatesâwhat remained of them and the wall after Jaykun's offensive on the cityâwere closed after dusk to all comers. The only exception to that order was Jaykun.
Once they were past the wall, they walked along the beach to the docks and then walked the wooden planks to the nearest ship. Krizan ships were massive monsters, made for carrying a great force of men. They were not built for speed, so it was possible to outrun a Krizan ship if the winds were in one's favor, but it would take a skilled captain to do so. But once a Krizan ship latched on to its target, the large raiding party was brutal. Krizans were not known for their mercy on the high seas. Quite the opposite.
“They look so beastly,” Jileana remarked.
“They are. But that is exactly what I need. A fleet of beasts that can carry a great force of men over the waters.”
“These ships don't seem as though they could carry your entire army,” Jileana said doubtfully.
“That is because a third of the ships have gone missing. But we will get them back. We will crew these remaining ships and spend the winter chasing down what rogue ships we can find. Once spring comes, we will be ready to move on.”
“Are you certain you can find them?”
“It is hard to miss a ship that looks like this,” he remarked. Jileana thought he had a point. If not by the size of the thing, it would be known by its brightly painted colors. Each ship was festooned with all kinds of colors on its carved railings and the spires of its masts. On some of the ships, the decks were painted; on others, the sides were decorated. Each had a style all its own. The ships were unafraid of being seen and it showed.
“You are right,” she said with a chuckle.
“Odds are, the ships were poorly crewed and poorly supplied. That means we will find most of them in ports either in Moroun or at some other nearby harbor. Perhaps even your island.”
“Oh no. Not my island. You can't get there by ship.”
“Every island can be gotten to by ship,” Jaykun said with a laugh.
“Not my island. I promise you that.”
“Why not your island?”
“Remember the storms that kept you from seeing it?”
“Well, they are always there. They are violent and dangerous, and no ship can make it through them.”
“That'sâ¦I've never heard of such a thing before. Surely the storms aren't there all the time. They must let up every so often.”
“They are there all the time,” she assured him.
He didn't believe her. If that were the case, how would she have gotten off the island and onto these shores? He found himself bothered by the fib. Then he rethought the feeling. He could understand her wanting to discourage the idea of traveling to her island. He was, after all, an invader in command of a great armyâ¦one that now included an armada. She was trying to protect her home from him. For some reason that disturbed him. Why should it bother him? It was his job as an invader to seize cities in Weysa's name and he gave no quarter when it came to that. He should be planning to get to her island after he attacked Moroun. He would of course try peaceful methods first; he wasn't a barbarian, after all. Just like he would with Moroun, he would send an envoy to the rulers of her island, requesting that temples be raised in Weysa's name. The only condition was that on the island there had to be more temples to Weysa than there were to any one of the other gods. If they refusedâ¦wellâ¦that was when war broke out. From what he had gathered from Jileana, her people worshipped Diathus. It sounded as though Diathus was worshipped to the exclusion of all other gods. Since Diathus was in the faction that warred against Weysa's faction of gods, to take worshippers away from Diathus and gain them for Weysa helped their cause twofold.
But he wasn't focused on anything other than Moroun at the moment. He could send envoys to Serenity at the same time perhaps and then decide in which direction to go. But the idea sat ill with him for some reason. He found himself not wishing to upset her by planning to attack her people. Perhaps he was being selfish too, because he didn't want to disrupt the rest of their time together, or perhaps he truly didn't want to hurt her in any way. The thoughts sat uncomfortably in him. He was a calculating man, a man who was forced to make cold decisions in the name of his cause. It disturbed him to think he was losing that ability just because of a pretty woman.
Two more days, he reminded himself. She would only be influencing him for two more days. Then he would return to his clear-cut way of thinking and decide what to do as far as her island home was concerned. Until then, he would put it out of his mind and not let it come between them.
“Well,” he said at last, “I will take your word for it for now.”
“Come,” she said, taking up his hand. “Come to bed with me,” she invited, walking backward, away from him and toward the castle, pulling him along with her. The invitation gave him a fierce thrill of pleasure and excitement. He followed her all too willingly. By the eight hells, she could have been leading him to his death and he didn't think he would care. His vision narrowed completely at the idea of frolicking in bed with her for the next few hours. By all rights he should be getting some sleep and preparing for the big day ahead of him, preparing to face the mountain of work that needed to be done before his brothers could safely leave him. But all he could think of was that he would gladly face a day with no sleep if it meant a night of being ensconced within her.
He followed her to his fate. Once he was in his bedroom with her, she sat him on the bed and moved a short distance away from him. Slowly she undid the laces of her dress and then wriggled out of it, baring inch after inch of luscious skin to his eyes. Soon she was standing naked before him, her dress in a neglected pile on the floor. He was glad of it. He should never have dressed her in the first place. She was too beautiful in her natural state and such beauty should never be hidden away. And yet he knew that if she remained naked as he had found her, he would never get anything done. He simply would keep her in this room, locked away where no one else could see her and covet her beauty for themselves, and where he could make thorough use of her, satiating the rampant passions she so easily inspired within him.
As he watched her approach him, he marveled at her and his reactions to her. Had he ever been so hot for a woman before?
He closed the answer off before it could disrupt what he was feeling right then. He didn't want to taint the moment.
And yetâ¦he had to be wary. He had to be cautious or he might find himselfâ
No, he told himself. This was different. This time he was not blindly in love with the object of his lust. She did not and would not have the power over him that Casiria had had.
“Now it's your turn. Don't you simply suffocate in all those clothes?”
He chuckled awkwardly. He wanted to focus solely on her, but these other things kept intruding, these thoughts of Casiria. Why he should think of her at a time like this was beyond him.
Or is it?an insidious voice within him asked.
He shoved all of that aside with a hard mental push and forced himself to focus on the woman approaching him. In the end, it wasn't that hard to do. He had never seen anything so lovely in his entire life. Not even Casiria could compare. And anyway, Casiria was long dead and this woman was very much vital and alive. But on the surface of it, he was glad Jileana was leaving him in two days. It might be dangerous for her to linger any longer than that.
She came to him, reaching out for his hands and pulling him up from the bed. She turned him and gave him a little push until he was at what she deemed was an optimal distance, then threw herself down onto the bed with a flounce of long limbs and ripe breasts. She leaned back on her elbows and raised an expectant brow.
Feeling suddenly on display, he felt awkward again. He shouldn't. He was a man with a destiny, a warrior through and through who had no one to answer to save an all-powerful goddess. He had just cut a swath through an army of men and had seized hold of a foreign city. These were not the actions of a weak or awkward man.
Frustrated with himself, he shrugged out of the vest he was wearing with some measure of violence. Then, with equal temper, he stripped his shirt from his back, leaving himself bare chested before her.
“Very nice,” she said lasciviously, her mouth curving into a devilish smile.
Now he was determined to teach the saucy wench a lesson or two, so there was impetus to his actions as he kicked off his boots and stripped away his leggings. He was naked then and he paused to display his fine masculine muscles before stepping forward to reach for her. But she held up a staying hand.
“Not yet,” she commanded. “I want only to look at you for a moment. Youâ¦you are so fine, you see,” she explained with a smile. “The men where I come from are so slight. They are sleek and nimble and fast, but none are as big as you are. Nor do they have so many muscles. None so well developed, anyway. I find I like to look at you. I never thought I would like such a big man, but I find myself thoroughly fascinatedâ¦and thoroughly delighted.”
“So I am just to stand here while you look your fill?”
“Well, you could sing if you like.”
“Sing? I do not sing.”
“Why not? Your voice is so deep and rich. You must make an excellent singer. We have a great deal of singing where I am from. Everyone sings. Although, it is probably not the same kind of singing you might engage in. There has been no music here so far that I have experienced. I would like to hear some.”
“Then tomorrow I will hire a minstrel to sing at the late day meal. I will not be singing for you.”
“What about dancing? Surely you dance. All men dance.”
“Why not?” she asked again.
“Warriors fight; they do not dance.”
“No warriors dance?”
His jaw clenched. “Not all. Some do. I do not.”
“That is so sad.”
“How so?” he asked irritably.
“You do not sing. You do not dance. You fight and kill and suffer a terrible torment night after nightâ¦It seems there is no joy in you to bring you balance. Song and dance are expressions of joy. If you do not express joy in these ways, I am forced to wonder in what ways you do express joyâ¦or if there is even any joy to express at all.”
He was silent a long moment. He looked away from her. She was so fresh and innocent, so eager to see the beauty in the world. He longed for the days of romanticism and naÃ¯vetÃ© he had once enjoyed, but they were long gone, torn away by the bitter truths of life.
“The moments I spend in your body are the closest thing I have to joy,” he said, his tone hard and factual. There was no danger of her romanticizing the words.
Just the same, she smiled at him, pleased in some way with him. She shifted, rising up onto her knees on the bed and holding out her arms to him. Glad to stop being on display, he stepped toward her, let her arms wrap around his back, and reveled in the feel of her bare body pressing against his chest and belly.
She touched her mouth to his in the gentlest and barest of kisses before pulling back to engage his eyes with her own. “If this is how you feel and express joy, Jaykun, then I am glad to give it to you. I will gladly give you joy at every possible moment. Of course I will try not to interfere in your day too much, but whenever you would like to have sex, you merely need to ask and I will be delighted to oblige you.”
Jaykun couldn't help but chuckle at her. “Are you certain about that? What if I decided to lock you away with me for the next two days, coming out only to suffer my penance each night?”
“Oh, could we?” she asked, lighting up and suddenly eager. “Wouldn't your brothers disapprove?”
“Who gives a damn what my brothers approve of?” he bit out. “If I want to indulge myself in you, then I will damn well do so.”
“And so you should. Life cannot be all about war and killing and moving from city to city, bringing death and destruction. There must be time, however brief, to indulge in pleasures or passions. Surely your goddess would agree with that.”
“You know something, she probably would. She is the goddess of conflict, but she is known for her passionate ways. Perhaps it is the nature of her highly volatile temperament, but in tales she is fierce and demanding of her bed partners. She knows her mind and her desires and does whatever she must to see them satisfied.”
“There, nowâ¦you see? She would understand such passion in you so long as it did not interfere with her need of you. But from what you've told me, as I understand it, you are done campaigning for the winter. You will not be moving on until spring. There is time for you to breathe a little. To look on joy and feel it and express it in kind.”
She reached to engage his mouth with her own, wrapping him up in a drugging series of kisses until his head was spinning and heat was blooming all throughout his body.
When he was next able to, he said, “It would be unfair. My brothers cannot go home to their wives until matters in this city are settled, and those matters will not be settled if I am in my bedchamber with you.”
“But your brothers will be going home to spend months finding joy with their wives and families. All you are asking for is two days.”
He drew back a little and looked at her, looked at the sweet, pretty shape of her face and features as he digested her practical observations. He tried to see ulterior motives in her, tried to figure out why she would push him into this for her own gain, but he simply couldn't figure it out. It made no logical sense for her to want to lock herself away with him. Not unless she was some kind of agent for his enemies, looking to distract him from something important. But that idea also made no sense and could not hold up under scrutiny. If she were there to deter him in some way, she would have let that assassin kill him that morning and be done with him. No. It seemed there were no ulterior motives here that he could see.
“What do you want of me?” he asked her in a sudden, fierce whisper. “What is it that you hope to achieve here? Tell me the truth!”
“Of course I will tell you the truth. I do not lie.”
“And if you did lie you would tell me so?” he asked with amusement.
She laughed at herself. “True. It is a claim that can only be proved with actions or inactions. So let me say this: I merely seek enjoyment. My own and now yours as well. That was my whole purpose in coming here. To enjoy myself. I had no idea what form this enjoyment would take, but I see now that it is you. You are the key to my pleasure. I will take advantage of you for it.”
He reached to stroke his knuckles down the right side of her face, letting them follow the shape and curve of it. Her skin was so soft. And he knew it tasted sweet.
“Then I shall let you do so,” he said after a moment.
She tilted her head, her eyes widening slightly with surprise. “Do you mean that? Do you meanâ¦?”
“That I will lock you away with me for the next two days? Yes. Yes, I will. I will get much aggravation for it from my brothers, but as it stands right now, I would like to drown myself within you. It will end and you will leave in two days, but until thenâ¦”
“Oh, Jaykun!” she said with delight shining from every inch of her. “Thank you! Thank you so much!”
He grabbed her then and threw her down onto her back on the bed, following to land on top of her.
“You may not be thanking me come this time tomorrow,” he growled at her. “You may be begging for a reprieve!”
“If I had money, I would bet against you.”
“I will stake you. One Krizan gold sovereign. If you win, you get two gold sovereigns. If I winâ¦”
“I will be in your debt. I think that would be a clever bet for youâ¦if you were going to win. But you are not. I will enjoy my gold sovereigns.”
“Then I have some work to do if I am going to win my bet!”
She squealed with delight when he moved down her body with a suddenly voracious mouth. He went straight down her breastbone, paused to maul a nipple with his lips and tongue, then moved down to her belly, where he kissed and licked and kissed and licked her. As his mouth traveled down, his hands paved the way before him, stroking and petting her, lifting her up to his mouth, pushing her thighs apart so he could settle between them. His broad shoulders brushed the insides of her knees even as his lips brushed down below her navel.
Dizzy from his attack and at a loss as to what else to do with her fingersâsince he was, for the most part, presently out of her reachâshe buried them in his hair. As though she were the one guiding him rather than she being at his mercy. She was still laughing and gasping at every touch of his mouth and hands, unable to contain the sheer delight she experienced at finding him being playful with her.
Then delight turned to blinding and absolute pleasure as his mouth slid downward, his tongue plowing through the wet feminine folds of the most intimate location on her body. Having him there swept all of her emotions into a maelstrom of delight. His tongue darted and swirled, sought to give her the best of pleasures. She found if she made the slightest encouraging sound, he hummed with answering pleasure. Soon she was throwing her head back and moaning, fierce waves of heated pleasure rolling through her body until she was dizzy with it. How had they gone from simple conversation to this amount of blinding gratification so quickly? she wondered. Had there ever been anything so delightful ever conceived? She thought not.
She burst into orgasm a moment later, her whole body locking up with the sheer force of her pleasure.
“Again,” he growled against her. And he repeated his symphony of torturous delight until she called out a second time, every muscle in her body tightening with climax. Then she relaxed with a gusting exhalation, her limbs heavy and unable to move. She was afraid he would once more say “again,” but he moved up her body and kissed her with deep, feverish need. All the while, her fingers still gripped his hair and she wondered if she had tried to rip it from his head at one point. She couldn't recall.
“I would like to do that to you,” she murmured. But it was clear she wasn't ready to do anything of the sort right then.
“You will be more than welcome. But right now I think I'm going to take my time exploring you. I seemed to have rushed past it all.”
“Oh, but I can't move,” she said.
“I'll move you if you need to be moved,” he said with amusement.
“Oh. Well, thank you very much.”
“You're welcome,” he said on a chuckle.
He then did as promised, took his time exploring what had to be every inch of her body. He spent, it seemed, an inordinate amount of time on her breasts aloneâ¦teasing them, toying with them, fondling and sucking and teething until she was hypersensitive to even the slightest touch of his breath upon her. Then he examined each of her limbs with equal care and fascination, his tongue, teeth, and lips tasting every inch of her as he turned her body to and fro as his desires demanded.
Eventually his ministrations had so aroused her that she was chafing with need and energy, all languor forgotten. She pushed at him, rolling him onto his back. She threw a leg astride him, her hot core pressed against him, open and waiting to be plundered by himâ¦or so he thought. She moved away almost as quickly as she had arrived, much to his momentary consternation. But then she was kissing her way down his body, exploring every nook and cranny there was to be found, all the while working her way down and down and down. By the time her breath fell against his raging hard shaft he was all but begging for it. He longed for her, longed to be inside her, but he was also feeling far too much enjoyment simply watching her have her way to want to rush it all to an end. Then her tongue darted out and laved the head of his cock boldly and an explosion of brilliant pleasure sang through him. His left hand reached into the thick mass of her dark hair and he found himself guiding her, holding her to him as if she were planning to escape. But nothing could have been further from her mind. She took him in hand, guided him into her waiting and willing mouth. With a single strong suck of sensation, she took him in deep.
Blinded by lust and need, he thrust up against her palate, letting her take as much as she could manage. He tried to be gentle, but it was impossible with the way she was making him feel. Jileana seemed to savor the taste of him, as she toyed with him inside her mouth, her hand stroked the remaining length of him right to the root. Her fingers crawled through the curling hairs she found there, and then she molded and cupped the pliable sac below that root. Jaykun moaned loudly, his fingers crushing her hair violently as molten heat and ready need took hold of him.
“Come here!” he commanded as he dragged her from her torturing ministrations. “I will have you this very instant!”
“You are very pushy,” she remarked with a laugh. But she settled astride him once more and took hold of him to guide him up and into her body in a single mutual thrust. She rode him like that in a steady series of sways and thrusts, her proud young body rising up from him so gloriously it took his breath away. He could hardly bear to look at herâthat was how beautiful she was. It was almost frighteningâ¦certainly humbling.
She was extraordinaryâthere was no doubt about thatâand he still hadn't fathomed why she had chosen to enjoy herself with him. It wasn't that he thought so little of himself; it was that he was thinking so much of her. He should have been frightened by that. If he had any sense in his head, he would thrust her away right that very instant and protect himself from any further influence she might have over him. But he did not do that. Instead he let her ride him until he was unable to see straight, until the curls of desire wending through him lashed tightly around him, holding him fast and hard to her. When he came it was with astounding violence, his pleasure torn up from the deepest part of him. She tensed hard around him, her orgasm just as violent and just as deep. She then fell onto him, a boneless, gasping weight, a weight he enjoyed far too much.
Then he forced himself to speak aloud the one thing that was most important between them.
“Two days,” she agreed.
And then they fell asleep.
“All right, someone has to say something,” Garreth said when he and Dethan found themselves eating without their brother for the second meal of the day. Neither had to wonder where Jaykun was or what he was doing. Although the castle was made of stone, the doors were not and sound traveled far too well along the corridors of the living quarters. Their brother's marathon sexual escapade was being announced far and wide.
Not that they really begrudged him his slice of happiness. The gods knew Jaykun saw so little of it. But there were things to be done, and on a more selfish bent, it made the brothers miss their wives even more than usual.
“This has been a hard campaign,” Dethan said with a sigh. “I long to see my newest child.”
“Children are well and good, but I miss the comfort of Sarielle's embrace. And every day he wastes in other pursuits is a day longer I am away from her,” Garreth grumbled.
“Hush, now. This is our lot. We spend the summers on the campaign trail, as we agreed with Weysa and Mordu, helping our brother, and in exchange we get to have our loves and our children all the rest of the year. I am endlessly grateful for the time I have with Selinda. I can remember what it was like, not that long ago, when I had to face the same fate Jaykun now suffersâtortured night after night, beholden to my goddess all the seasons' turnings. My children would have had a stranger for a father, one they knew only in the winters. No. I will not bemoan my lot. Nor will I begrudge him what little happiness he can find. I tried that with you and it only caused us trouble.”
“Butâ¦he must stay focused,” Garreth said with agitation. “It is only by keeping focus that we can hope to find what we wish to know! We have been scouring this continent, taking over city after city, exploring the tales of the gods known to each tribeâonly in this way can we hope to discover Maxum's prison. Gods know Sabo will not give away the location. He may have let slip that Maxum was buried in soil, but he will never tell us where. We must try to find him.”
“And do what if we find him? Dig for him? Only Sabo knows how far down into the ground our brother is. Only Sabo will release him. We are better off trying to make amends to Sabo.”
“We cannot do that as long as he is part of the faction that wars against Weysa. Even so, even if there were no war, Sabo thrives on the pain and suffering of others. Why would he wish to bring an end to ours?” Garreth asked.
“I do not know.” Dethan released a pained sigh. “I am a mortal man fighting in a war between gods at the side of my immortal brothers. I am the most fragile warrior here yet still I fight. I will do anything in hopes that we will one day be granted the boon of our last brother's freedom. Until then, we search for his location in tale and story. Somewhere in the annals of stories and histories of some race on the face of this planet is the clue to our brother's whereabouts. To that end, today I am going to seek out the library and the Krizan scholars, provided they have any. These are a coarse people. Education is not high amongst their charms. Let Jaykun spend himself on this woman for a day. There are other things to be done without him.”
“Very well. Then I shall occupy myself in a like manner. I will continue to manage the details of this household, making certain we are firmly settled and dealing with the matters of prisoners and malcontents. This government will need to be rebuilt. I realize Jaykun has the whole of the winter to do so, but I want to make a good start before you and I must leave.”
“Agreed. So we will meet back here for supper?” Dethan said.
“We can exchange our progress over the meal. Perhaps our brother might join us.”
“He has to eat sometime,” Dethan said with a chuckle.â
Jaykun used his tongue to fish the jogu berry out of Jileana's navel and she giggled at the sensation. Her laughter threatened to disrupt the remaining fruits he had perched all about her body. He was eating each berry and each slice of melon or fruit meat directly off her skin, then licking away any juice left behind. It was a titillating gameâ¦but it also tickled and his playfulness made her laugh.
“My dish shakes and trembles about,” he noted with a chuckle. “How am I to finish my meal when it threatens to spill onto the bedclothes?”
“Better still, when is it my turn to eat? I am hungry.” But it was clear from the heated look in her eyes that she was not speaking about the state of her stomach.
With a sudden growl he swept the remaining fruit off her body, sending it hither and thither so he could crush his mouth to hers and pin her body beneath him. She eagerly opened her thighs around his hips, her legs locking together across his muscular buttocks, which flexed hard as he drove himself into her.
“I shall feed you thusly, then,” he said, his voice low and rough, coming through clenched teeth. “Feed you until you burst with fullness.”
“Oh yes!” she cried out, pulling him down to her mouth so she could kiss him for all she was worth. Then she pushed him away, shoved him almost completely off herself, forcing him to roll onto his back, where she straddled him and immediately took him back into her welcoming body.
“Pushy little minx,” he said as his hands clamped down hard on her hips and began to help her grind against him, to help her sheathe him in brutal, demanding need. She felt amazing. Miraculous even. He doubted he could ever tire of her. Each time they connected brought him new knowledge of her, made him marvel at how open she was and how unashamed she was about her appetites. Even now, as they played and fought and tangled themselves up in passion, he found himself wanting her ever more strongly, as opposed to feeling content and satiated. Perhaps it was because he knew his time with her was limited, because he knew he had to jam into two days everything he possibly could.
He pushed aside the feeling of dread that accompanied that thought. He had made a bargain with herâwith himselfâand he would hold to it. Whatever the cost, he would hold fast. But facing that made him angry for some reason and he took it out on her with a punishing, lurching thrust upward that met the downward crash of her imprisoned pelvis. Her spine curved, her hair was thrown back, and her green eyes glowed with fiery passion and the determination to meet his punishment with every bit of matching fervor.
As he struck her across her sweetest spot she began to cry out in an increasing crescendo of moans. Hearing her reach for pleasure was enough to drive him mad, enough to make him raw with need. It wasn't long before his voice joined hers, the chorus reaching a breaking point roughly and quickly. It frustrated him in a wayâthat she could drive him into a fever so quickly and so easily. It made him forget himself, made him forget every promise he'd made to take her more slowly, to savor every inch and every moment of her. But the nature of their relationship made slowing down almost impossible. They were racing against time. He had so little time and so much he wanted to force into it. He would savor in retrospect; later he would take things out and replay them more slowly. For now, he wanted her rough and hard.
She came first, with a scream of pleasure that cascaded into smaller shouts. He exploded with a roar of his own, feeling as though his very soul were pulsing and jetting out of him and into her with his final thrust. She collapsed upon his chest, her breasts crushed between them, her breaths panting hard and wild and loud against the side of his neck and shoulder. He thrilled to hear it, longed to hear it go on forever.
No. Not forever.
Just two more days. Only that. Nothing more.
Dremu skulked his way toward the kitchens. No one paid him any mind except to maybe shove him out of the way. But it was something he was used to. He was considered to be lower than the lowest of his kind. If half-breeds could be called his kind. He was the misshapen product of an unfaithful Krizan woman and, it was rumored, a gypsy man who had traveled with the minstrel caravans. Oh, his mother had been properly wed to a Krizan manâa good, solid farmer from the hardland farms just beyond the Krizan city walls. But when Dremu was born, it had been more than clear that she had been faithless. His teeth were straight and even, all within his mouth instead of tusking up over his upper lip as a purebred Krizan's would. They were so small he could not even cap them in gold or gems. His skin was a sallow sort of tan color, nothing like the typical ruddy Krizan complexion. And he was of an unhealthy, lean sort of build, lacking the true beautiful bulk of his people.
He was a half-breed and it showed. His mother had died for her faithlessness, as per the laws of Kriza, and he had been left on the beach, exposed to the elements, squalling and vulnerable. Then he had been retrieved by a couple so desperate for a child that they had been willing to overlook his ugliness and mixed birth.
So at the very least he had grown up loved by his adoptive parents.
But he had grown up hated by everyone else in the city. They called him atregahalf-breed. Kicked dirt at him and spat at his feet. The idea of him ever being accepted by a Krizan woman was ludicrous, so he lived alone now that his parents were dead. He bunked in stables or dark places where he would not be noticed too easily. He worked in the shadows doing whatever he could, whatever they would let him do.
But today histregaappearance would serve him well. He gripped the small leather pouch in his hands for all he was worth, scurrying like a rat toward the food in the kitchens. All he needed was the right moment. A single right moment. Then he would be given, for the first time in his life, one gold coin in trade for his day's work. He had been promised it by the finia's fortunary. One gold coin that would allow him to finally leave this horrid city where he was so thoroughly rejected day after day. He could afford to leave, could go onto the road where travelers from different lands were found all the time. His differences would be expected there, not questioned. He didn't know what he would do exactly, but at least he would be able to find work or earn his way in fair trade. It couldn't be worse than this life. Nothing could be worse than this life in Kriza.
He had of course toyed with another idea. Perhaps he could join thetregaarmy. Perhaps his looks would go unremarked in a group of men and women who all looked so different from one another. He had never seen such a mix of races before, so many different types. Skin of blue, eyes of yellow, hair of green. This one looked one way and that one another. He would blend right in with such a noise of races. But for all that he could be one of them, thetregafrightened him. They were a warring lot, made to kill others. He wasn't able to lift a sword, so what could he possibly do in an army?
It left him little choice, really. He could take his chances trying to find something to do in thetregaarmy or he could be loyal to his people, earn his gold coin, and be on his way.
Even though his people had never been loyal to him.
Dremu ducked into an alcove just outside the kitchens, pressing his back against the wall and breathing hard in a panic. He shouldn't do this. He had never killed anyone before. He didn't have it in him! He clutched the leather pouch so hard his nails dug into the soft skin of it. He needed that gold coin. Desperately needed it. Needed it more than he had needed anything in his scraping, needy existence. One gold coin for the price ofâ¦death.
He glanced into the kitchens. They were abustle with preparations for the evening meal, loud and boisterous cooks singing as they worked. All Krizans had been banished from the kitchens; onlytregawere allowed. It was why he was the only one who could do this thing.
He loosened the drawstring of the pouch and peeked at the white powder inside. He was careful not to get any of it on himself. If he should accidentally ingest it, he would be dead within seconds. One sure way of ending his quandary as to what to do with his life. He looked around for something he imagined everyone would be eating. He needed to slay as many with one blow as was possible. As soon as one fell, the others would know and would stop eating. But the most important thing was to get the leaders. That was his goal: to kill thetregaleaders as directed by the fortunary. The fortunary had even been so kind as to provide the poison.
Kill them or join them.
In the end, it was the guarantee of that gold coin that made the choice for him. Thetregahad made no such offer and likely wouldn't even if he went to them and exposed the poisoning attempt. They were, after all, barbariansâ¦weren't they?
No. He must have his gold. Then he could run away or evenâ¦even join the army anyway! How would they ever know it was him? If he snuck in and out fast enough, if he escaped unseen, how would they ever find out?
They wouldn't. They simply wouldn't.
With a deep breath, he moved quickly into the kitchens.
Soup. A pot of soup. It was the first thing he saw that he knew he could dissolve the powder in unseen. He walked up to it, looked furtively left and right, waited until no one was paying any attention, then dumped the white powder within it. He hastily stirred it in using a large wooden spoon he found nearby. Now all he could do was hope no one tasted the soup before it was served. But he had done his part. All they had to do was die. One or all, the fortunary said. Whatever he could manage. One death at that table or all. One death would earn him the coinâ¦All would earn him more, he had said.
More! Imagine more than a single gold coin! It was more than he could ever hope for!
He hastened away from the pot of soup before someone could see him there. He found a shadow to hide in just outside the kitchens and kept his eyes glued to that pot of soup. He now had to keep someone from tasting it before it was served. That was all he had to do. So he sat in the corner and he prayed to Hella, the goddess of fate and fortune, that she would be with him this night.â
Dethan sat back in his chair at the dinner table and exchanged a look with his brother, who was seated across the table from him.
“I don't think he's coming,” he said with a chuckle.
“Coming is not his problem,” Garreth quipped dryly.
Dethan laughed aloud at that. “Let us eat without him,” he said as a bowl of soup was placed in front of him. “No reason we should starve just because he prefers to. Unlike my two brothers, I must eat to survive.”
“Tch,” Garreth scolded. It was not widely known that the brothers were immortal. Nor was it widely known what Jaykun suffered each night. There were rumors and such, to be sure, but that was amongst the troops, not amongst their enemies.
Dethan ignored his brother's admonishment and picked up his spoon. “I was in the library most of the day and you wouldn't believe the stories I found. Most of them are in Krizan so I could not read them for myself, but the scholars were surprisingly helpful about the local legends. There wasâ”
“Good evening, brothers!”
Garreth and Dethan looked up at the jovial greeting. Jaykun entered the room and clapped Garreth on the back as he passed by him. He flung himself into his chair at the head of the table and beckoned to Jileana so she might sit beside him.
“Good evening, brother,” Dethan greeted in return, a grin on his lips. “We didn't think to see you.”
“Ah. Well. I find I am famished!”
“Is it any wonder?” Garreth muttered.
A servant put two more bowls of soup on the table in front of Jaykun and Jileana. As was the common manner, no one ate until the most senior of the group began to eat first. Now that Jaykun was here, that fell to him. He picked up his spoon and so did Jileana.
Jileana, unaware of the fact that she was supposed to wait, scooped up a spoonful of soup and brought it to her lips. She was starving, having eaten nothing but fruit for the whole of the day.
But the very instant the soup's aroma hit her nostrils she blanched and cried out.
“Cogzinia! Don't eat it! It's poison!” She grabbed Jaykun's bowl and threw the hot soup onto the floor.
“What in the eight hells?! Jileana!” Jaykun protested.
But Jileana had leapt onto the table and was shoving the bowls of hot soup away from whomever she could reach.
“It's cogzinia! It's a shellfish from the ocean that's pure poison! Why are you eating this? Surely you don't mean to eat this!”
“Jileana!” Jaykun reached for her and dragged her down from the top of the table. “It's all right!”
“No, it's not!” she shouted into his face.
“I mean it's all right, we won't eat it. Here, now! Be calm!” He caught her face between his hands and was shocked to see how stricken she looked. He had never seen her so upset. She had always been so calmâ¦unflappable. For something to upset her, he knew it must be true.
“How do you know what it is?” he asked her gently.
“I can smell it. Can't you smell it?”
“No. We can't.” Jaykun looked at Dethan and sudden panic rose up in him. “Did you eat any, Dethan?” Garreth and he were immune, but Dethanâ¦
“I was about to when you arrived. But no,” he assured, “I did not eat any.”
“Thanks be to the gods,” Jaykun exhaled. “Any of you others?” All the generals shook their heads and were grateful they had observed common courtesies. They all turned an appreciative eye on their leader's woman. “We are very fortunate, then. I thought our people were in charge of the kitchens.”
“They are. Someone must have gotten past them,” Dethan said.
“From now on, brother, you do not eat until we have tasted your food first,” Jaykun said to Dethan. “We will get to the bottom of this. I will not have this.”
“We need control of this city,” Garreth said darkly. “It's time we settled some things here.”
“We will,” Jaykun agreed. “The people must learn that their lives will be made better by our arrival, not worse and not more troubled. We will begin to make proclamations the day after tomorrow. We will spend tomorrow drawing them up.”
“It will be good to have you with us again, brother,” Dethan said, amusement touching his tone. His heart was still racing as he thought of how close he had just come to making his wife a widow, his children fatherless. The idea sickened him. Yes, his brothers would care for his family as if they were their own, but he did not want Selinda to suffer the loss of him. He knew exactly what it would do to her. As strong as she was, she would find it difficult to survive without him.
He owed a debt to this woman who had latched on to his brother. “Jileana, you have the gratitude of my wife, my children, and myself,” he said to her gravely.
“I am grateful. So grateful,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “When I think of what might have happenedâ¦”
“Hush. All is well now,” Jaykun soothed. “Let us find something safe to eat. Some fruits and cheeses perhaps. Cured meats. I will eat first, then you will share my plate. I'll not have you harmed in any way. You have saved the life of my dearest brother and have become precious to me because of it. Come. Sit beside me while this is all cleared away.”
“Very well,” she said, letting him sit her back down in her chair beside him. “Very well.”
The table was cleared and reset, this time with foods deemed safer. The meal went long as everyone ate more cautiously. But Jileana sensed no other poisons in the foods brought to her. Eventually she began to relax and found herself cautiously enjoying Jaykun's company once more.
Jaykun was feeling the guilt of his unbridled day. He had responsibilities and he had ignored them all day. He could not afford to do so a second time, as much as he was craving another day in bed and in Jileana's body. He would have to be satisfied with having her for the night. As it stood, dusk was fast approaching and they would barely have time to make it to the cove.
They left the table and traveled on horseback this time, sharing a saddle as they raced the beast down the beach in order to beat the setting sun. Jaykun barely had time to tether the animal and strip off his clothes before his curse was searing through him and scorching him with blinding agony. He had known such pleasure all day that, in contrast, his torment seemed to be especially brutal.
When it was over he shuddered with the pain of it, crying out through clenched teeth as the salt from the ocean waters penetrated his raw flesh. Jileana gathered him close again, drawing him gently into her lap as she softly began to sing to him once more.
“Damn her! Damn thatpravabitch to the eight hells and let her burn!” the finia raged. “Damn thattregawhelp! He will get nothing from me for his failure! You should have known better than to trust a half-breed whelp!” Braxia glared at the fortunary. “And now there will never be another chance to get at them that way. They will be especially cautious. We must do something before they get further entrenched in my kingdom!”
“Then that only leaves us the choice of a slip blade,” Wizol said, making certain to bow low to her. In her present state of temper it was wisest to remember his deference. It wasn't beyond her to beat a servant within an inch of his or her life. Luckily, he was needed.
“Then do it!” she screeched. “Do it, do it, do it!” She swung out and cuffed him hard on the head. “Send thattregawhelp to do the job and tell him if he fails me this time it will mean his life!”
“Surely you don't mean to send him to do it,” Wizol ventured, making certain he remained in a low bow. “This requires an expert hand, beauteous one.”
“Then find me one! Now! Meanwhile, thattregahalf-breed can redeem himself by killing theprava.She dares to sleep in my bed and defies our plans to win back our kingdom? She is an abomination, plain and simple, and she should be killed. Make sure the boy understands. Kill thepravabitch and he will have his gold coin.”
“Yes, mistress,” Wizol said in a quiver of words. Then he picked himself up off the floor and scurried out of the room.â
Dremu met up with Wizol shortly after the fortunary left the finia's rooms. Wizol relayed the new orders and left Dremu shaking in indecision. He did not know what to do. He was in danger either way. If he disappointed the finia, he was certain he would meet his death. If thetregawere to discover what he had tried to do, he would be killed for certain. The invader brothers were ruthless soldiers, killers to be sure. There would be no forgiveness there. Dremu was afraid he had made the wrong choice when he chose to poison the brothers. He should simply have joined their army. He was not a soldier, not a killer, but surely there was something a willing man like him could have done.
Again he faced an impossible choice, if he did as the finia asked, he would become a killer. He had no future otherwise. But how would he kill thepravafemale? She had already foiled his last attempt and she was a creature of mystery to Dremu. It was said thepravahad great mystical powers. How was he supposed to get close enough to her to kill her? And how does one kill aprava?
Dremu scurried into the first dark hiding spot he could findâan alcove full of brooms and buckets. He crouched down into a quivering ball of flesh, curled into himself, and closed his eyes. He needed to think and to sleep. No one should bother him here. No one should be able to see him behind the brooms. He would sleep and he would think.
Oh sweet gods, was he actually going to do this terrible thing? Was he going to kill a woman? And how would he do so without alerting the brother she bedded with? Oh, by the gods, there had to be a better way. There had to be!
Despite his upset, the exhausted Dremu finally found it within himself to fall asleep.â
Jileana was well loved.
Her physical body was, in any event. She was lying in bed, her limbs languorous and exhausted, her eyes trained on the magnificent body of her lover as he went about getting dressed.
“Must you leave?” she asked, trying not to sound too demanding of him. She recognized he wasn't the type of man who would care to have a woman make demands of him that he wasn't readily willing to give in to.
He smiled though, his gaze sliding over her naked body as it lay on display in his bed. She was on her stomach, a pillow pulled up under her cheek, her fanny exposed, and her crossed ankles lifting up toward her backside and then dropping back down onto the bed, lifting and dropping as she bent her knees rhythmically.
“I want little more than to stay in bed with you on our last day together, but I cannot risk letting my responsibilities slide. I must spend this day with my brothers, coming up with the proclamations that will put this city at ease and hopefully settle the matter enough to dissuade any more attempts on our lives.”
“Proclamations will not make the Krizans love you.”
“No. But it is a start. And over time they will come to appreciate my rule. I hear the finia was something of a tyrant.”
“Indeed she was. I have heard many tales that would shock and appall you.”
“Nothing shocks me any longer.” He frowned. “You would think they would be more grateful, then.”
“Change is not easy. And you are right; they have no idea what your intentions are. For all they know you will be worse than their former leader.” She lifted her head from the pillow. “How will you begin to engender trust?”
“I don't know. It is different for every city. Usually in a city run by tyranny it is best to hold open days of hearing disputes and begin to make fair and equitable solutions to common troubles. Word of these things will spread and eventually the people will come to realize they will be dealt with fairly.”
Jileana smiled. “That is a brilliant maneuver! I am most impressed.”
He chuckled as he belted his trousers. “Hopefully the Krizans will be just as easy to impress as you are.”
“I have every faith that they will come to love you.” She smiled as she turned, rolling over slowly onto her back as she ran an inviting hand up from her hip to her waist to her ribs and eventually to embrace her breast. “They will feel just as stimulated by your attentions as I am. They will know what a very good man you are.”
Jaykun growled. “Stop that,” he scolded as he snatched up his shirt. “I must go to my brothers and you know it makes me mad with lust when I see your hands on your own body.”
“Do I?” she asked archly. “I don't know what you mean.”
“Jileana,” he warned.
“All you have to do is get dressed and leave. I am not stopping you.”
But she was stopping him and she knew she was. He was overwhelmed by his lust for her in a way he had never experienced before. With Casiria it had been about love and devotion more than it had been about lust. In truth, Casiria had not enjoyed bed sport as much as Jaykun might have wanted her to. Oh, they had had their intimacies, but never had it reached this level of insatiability.
Jaykun pushed the comparison aside with irritation. Why did he keep comparing Jileana to Casiria? They were nothing alike. Casiria had been fair, blond, blue-eyed, and pretty. Jileana was a dark, sultry beauty nearly half a foot taller than his diminutive Casiria had been. Jileana was strong and vital; Casiria had been fragile and delicate. He had treasured Casiria and protected her at every turn. With Jileana, it felt as though she were the one doing the protecting. She had certainly saved everyone at the dinner table from terrible deaths last night. When he thought of how she had scrambled down the table, tipping over bowls of soup, he knew Casiria would never have made such a spectacle of herself. She had been a lady, demure and modest, everything opposite of the bold Jileana.
Casiria also would never have lain naked in bed trying to tempt him back into it by touching her skin as Jileana was now doing. He watched as she pinched her nipple, pulled on it a little, tempting him with the memory of how she felt under his touch. She was so hot, her skin the softest and smoothest he'd ever felt. He found himself quite addicted to the feel of it.
Then her free hand came into play. It began at her other breast, then slowly progressed down the length of her torso until her fingers were scraping through the curls on her mound and then slipping between her nether lips. She gasped softly at the sensation and her eyes rolled closed.
“Go on,” she breathed. “Be on your way if you must. I have plenty to keep me occupied without you.”
Jaykun was rooted to the spot, his cock hard and throbbing since the moment he'd first seen her touching her own skin. He could hear his pulse in his ears, and his hands had halted in the action of putting his shirt on. Now all he could do was watch raptly as she touched herself, her long body sliding restlessly amongst the bed linens, every curve curving, every arch arching. Her hair was a dark cloud beneath her head; her lips flushed red as sounds of welcoming pleasure moaned from between them. He ejected a sound of frustration as his body locked with tension and outright craving.
Damn her anyway! He should be tired of the tempting little witch by now! Instead it seemed his need for her expanded exponentially. Every time he had her, he had to have her again. It was too much. It was frightening. He could not afford to lose himself like this with a woman. Not now, not ever again. And not just because of the pact with his goddess, Weysa, who expected him to devote himself completely to her, but because he had learned the lesson long ago, that to lose oneself to one's passions was a dangerous, deadly road. A painful one he had no intention of ever walking down again.
And yetâ¦and yet he could not seem to make himself turn around and walk away from her. She just looked too delicious lying there pleasuring herself. He simply could not abandon all the promise filling the room just as her increasing moans were filling it.
“Damn you, you wicked little wench,” he hissed, his hands suddenly stripping his shirt from his body. He threw it down with no little violence, then unfastened his belt as he stormed up to the side of the bed. She reached out, placed a foot in the center of his chest, and stayed him from getting into the bed with her.
“I did not say you were invited,” she said breathlessly.
“It's my bed,” he pointed out gruffly. “And I claim everything that lies within it.”
“Hmm. I suppose that is your right, after all.” She lowered her foot and smiled at him with knowing victory. “Aren't your brothers awaiting you?” she asked.
“They will wait a little longer.”
“Don't press me, woman. I do not like to be managed.”
“I think you like it more than you think,” she said, reaching to fondle the rock-hard flesh between his legs. “Yes, I'd say you like it a great deal.”
“Hot little bitch,” he hissed. “You toy with danger when you toy with me.”
“Then I must enjoy danger,” she said, “for I love nothing more, it seems, than to toy with you.”
“So it would appear,” he ground out as he pushed himself into her touch. To feel her touching him while she still touched herself was beyond pleasurable. The teasing war of their words only added to his gratification.
“Enough!” he snapped out after a minute of letting her touch him. “Iwillhave you, then Iwillleave you.”
“Of course,” she murmured breathlessly. “As you wish.”
“Damn right asIwish. It is because I wish it, not because you wish it.”
“Of course,” she said, her hand sliding down the front of his trousers.
“Gods damn you, Jileana!” he ground out as he surged into her caresses again and again and again. Then suddenly he barked out a sound of frustration, grabbed hold of her by both shoulders, and gave her a hard shake. “You do not control me!”
“I would not want to control you,” she assured him.
“You could have fooled me,” he said fiercely.
She tilted her head and looked at him with genuine, softening surprise. “You mistake me, then. All I want is to give you pleasure, to make you happy. If this does not make you happy, then I will stop immediately.”
And stop she did, withdrawing from him quickly.
Feeling instantly bereft, he hastened to keep her from leaving him. “No! I didn't meanâ¦I didn't mean you didn't please me. Onlyâ¦only that perhaps you please me far too much at times.”
“Is there such a thing as too much pleasure? There are so many hard and harsh things we have to live with every day. Can we not live happily with pleasure as a means of counteracting all that hardness?”
Bemused, he smiled at her. “I never thought of it like that before.” It was an idealistic attitude, one very much in keeping with the woman he had begun to understand. She was right. Their time together was growing short. What harm was there in giving in to his impulses when they did indeed give him some much-needed pleasure?
He didn't need to argue with himself a moment longer. He simply grabbed hold of her, pushed his mouth onto hers, and kissed her with all the ferocity he could muster.
“Very well. We will have this your way,” he said roughly. “But after this Iwillgo to my brothers.”
“Yes. I know,” she said.
“Swear to me now you will do nothing to interfere with that further.”
“Nothing at all,” she vowed.
“Ah, damn youâ¦I don't believe you for a second.”
“And so you shouldn't.” She laughed. “For I am most untrustworthy when it comes to this.”
“So be it. A contest of wills, then.”
“Ah. A challenge.”
“Well then, you should knowâ¦so far you are losing.”
“And yet somehow losing feels very much like winning.” He chuckled.â
After Jaykun finally managed to join his brothers, they got a great deal of work done. Unfortunately, his brothers caught him daydreaming about long silken limbs and mysterious green eyes on more than one occasion and they had fun taking turns teasing him.
“So I suppose we won't see you for several more days now,” Dethan said as he pushed back from the table and stretched. They had been working the entire day, and for men of action, sitting for hours on end was never a preferred activity.
“No,” Jaykun said with a slow shake of his head. “She leaves tonight.”
His brothers exchanged looks across the table.
“So you needn't fear me losing sight of my purpose,” he barked out further. “I know that's what you've been thinking behind my back.”
“Not at all,” Garrett denied. “We would never begrudge you any happiness. There is no law in this that says you cannot have a woman by your side. It's just thatâ¦Well, war camps are not safe places. You would not want your woman to follow the camp. That means leaving her behind for all but the winter months. It is an untenable situation and weâ”
“Stop. It doesn't matter. She will be gone and that's that,” Jaykun said, holding up a hand to fend off any further words from his brothers.
“It doesn't have to be. If you care for the girlâ”
“I feel nothing for her,” Jaykun said harshly. “We have enjoyed our time together and that is the end of it.” He stood up and pushed away from the table and the eyes of his brothers. He turned and walked out of the room, his gait swift and determined.
No, he told himself, he felt nothing for the girl. She was delightful, yes, pleasurable to be sure. But there were no actual feelings to be had. After three days? That was a ridiculous concept. People did not form attachments over three days' time.
Or at least they shouldn't. He had fallen in love with Casiria on sight. He had known nothing about her and yet fancied himself in love immediately. It was pure proof that he had been both young and foolish. Only the young made such fantasies in their minds. The young, who had no experience in the ways of the world. Jaykun had faced many hard truths since then.
No. Wait. It was wrong to say he felt nothing for her. Of course he felt something. She was an incredible woman with a wonderful personality. Beyond the sex, she had always been a delight, with bright humor and gentle wisdom. To say he was untouched by her was a lie.
But she must go, he told himself sternly. She was too much of a distraction. He would get nothing done if she remained close by.
And yetâ¦these past hours had proven that she would not escape his thoughts so quickly. His mind had turned to her again and again. Who was to say that distraction would stop just because she was gone? Perhapsâ¦perhaps he needed her to stay a short while longer. Long enough for him to work her free of his system. Surely he would grow bored of her after a while. The passion would run its course and that would be the end of it. If she left so soon, it was possible he would simply find himself obsessing about that which was gone.
No. He was in control of this, in control of his thoughts and desires. He wasâ¦
He thought back to the way she had been just hours earlier, lying in his bed with her hands on her own body, filling his head and body with fast, searing heat. Who was he kidding, he thought painfully. She was under his skin. Utterly and completely. He had sworn no woman would ever be able to do so after Casiria, but here she was just the same. He was not in love with herâ¦No, there he drew the line. He would never love another woman. But this woman was too uncommon to simply let her slide out of his life without at least trying to figure out how to manage these passions. Either that or he should let her go, bear the brunt of whatever came to be, and move on with his life.
That was as unpalatable as the poisoned soup would have been. He did not want to think of it. But he should force it on himself. He should take the bitterness in and let this passion die.
Damn her and her wicked eyes, her bountiful body, her searing, passionate nature. Damn her. He couldn't do it. He couldn't let her leave. He looked at the sky through a nearby window and knew the evening meal was almost upon them. He had to find her and speak to her before then. He would ask her to stay. Just a few days more. Just long enough toâ¦toâ¦to whatever. To figure this all out. To work it through. Three days simply wasn't enough time.
And now that he realized he was going to ask her to stay, he grew excited. His pace picked up as he headed for his rooms, hoping she was there. Yes. Just a few more days. That was all he needed.
He burst into his rooms and found her asleep in the bed. Dead asleep. She didn't even stir at his exuberant entrance. It made him chuckle. For all of her seductive ways, she was just as worn out by their lovemaking as he was. Perhaps it was because they had been trying to cram so much into so little time. Perhaps with a relaxed atmosphere things would calm down and be quieter.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and reached out to touch her bare back. Her skin was cool, the days having grown steadily cooler and the nights following suit. Winter would be upon them soon. Perhaps he could have her for the winter. Just until he had to move his army onward. Yes. That was a fine idea. Surely by the time winter was over he would have grown tired of her.
“Jileana,” he whispered into her ear. “Wake up.” He gave her a nudging shake. She made a complaining sound and weakly tried to push him away. “Come, now. It's time for dinner and we must talk.”
She opened an eye then and looked at him. She groaned and rolled over, away from him. “No. Don't wanna talk. Don't wanna eat. Wanna sleep.”
“Come on. Up you go!” He reached out and smacked her backside hard.
She yelped and sat up, her entire body bristling. “Ow! Hey! That's not fair! First you wear me out with your unending appetite for sex, then you wake me up.”
“Umâ¦the unending appetite for sex was you,” he pointed out.
“What?” She seemed to think about it. “Oh. Right. Sorry.”
“Don't be sorry,” he said with a chuckle. “I like your unending appetite for sex.”
“Yes, I seem to recall that,” she said with a grin.
“Jileanaâ¦I want you to stay. At least for a little while. I find three days to be woefully insufficient when it comes to learning about you. Iâ¦I should like to get to know you better.”
Her iridescent eyes brightened and she smiled. “You would?”
He smiled back. “I would.”
“Oh, that's so nice,” she said. “But I can't stay.”
“Youâ¦” Jaykun was taken aback. It had not occurred to him that she might not want or be able to stay. He hadn't realized that their three-day timetable might be restricted for a reason on her part. “But surely you can put off whatever business you have for a few more days,” he found himself saying. “Or perhaps you can come back when you are done.”
“No. It's nothing like that.” She gave him a wan smile. “I must go home. You see, I wasn't supposed to come at all. My family is probably wondering what happened to me. Or they may have figured it out and are likely quite cross with me. Either way, I must return home.”
“Well, maybe if you go home and tell them where you are, surely then you could come back andâ”
“No. My family is not very understanding about these things. You see, where I come from a daughter does not leave her father's house until she is bonded with her husband. I may be rebellious enough to leave for seven days, but any more than that would be disrespectful to my father. And hurtful. I would not do that to him.” She brightened then. “But you could come with me. I know you would like it in Serenity. And it would give you the opportunity to discuss with our leader the possibility of erecting some temples in Weysa's name. That is, after all, your purpose, is it not? You did say you first would try peaceful methods over war. I do not know how successful you will be, but it would not hurt to try.”
“No, you are right. It would not hurt to try.”
But if he failed, then what? Then he would make war on Serenity and Jileana's people? He found the idea surprisingly distasteful. He scoffed at himself. A warlord who did not want to make war? What was wrong with him?
He didn't want to admit it, but the idea of going with her to Serenity and spending more time with her under the guise of diplomacy was more than appealing. He could do two things at once. His brothers could manage without him for a little while, couldn't they? Just a few days?
“Very well. I shall come with you as an ambassador in Weysa's name. My brothers can manage here for a little while. Can you give me a day to prepare?”
“No. It must be tonight. Tonight or a moon from now. That is your choice.”
“A moon from now? Why are you pressuring me so? I do not understand what one day has to do with anything!”
“You will once I show you the way to my people. Please. Tonight or a moon from now?”
“I see. You have a ship leaving tonight,” he murmured.
He couldn't wait for a moon from now. His brothers would be gone by then and there would be no one to manage the city while he went on an ambassadorial mission. He did not like to be so pressured; it was probably very unwise of him to allow it. There was no time to prepare.
“I would need to get a guard together. I cannot go to a foreign court with merely the clothes on my back and no one to protect me.”
She laughed at that. “Jaykun, you do not need protecting. You are immortal.”
“What? H-how did you knowâ¦?” he stammered.
“You burn yet do not die. I therefore guess you to be immortal. Am I wrong?”
“No. You are not wrong,” he said, relenting. “Iamcursed. Iamimmortal. And I will suffer that curse until the end of time. That is the way of it.”
“Very well. So you are immortal and do not need protecting.”
“Immortality does not protect me from imprisonment.”
“Jaykun, you have my word. No harm will come to you. You will be a free man in our court. We have guests very rarely, but when we do, we treat them well. It is an exceptional thing, to be extended an invitation to Serenity. I hope you appreciate it as such.”
“And you are certain your court would welcome me?”
“As certain as I can be. Comeâ¦come with me. I would like for you to meet my mother and father. I think you would enjoy meeting them and they would enjoy you as well. You are an intelligent man and my mother does appreciate someone handsome to look at.”
That made him chuckle. “And does this mean I get to stay in your bed? Or will the rules change once we are in your home?”
“Well, some rules will certainly change, but being in my bed will be, I'm afraid, a requirement of your visit.”
He laughed at that. “Very well, then. Let me discuss it with my brothers and pack some belongings. Then I will make my first diplomatic mission to Serenity.”
“The first of many, I hope. We worship Diathus almost exclusively, but it is perhaps unwise not to appreciate all the gods. We should not give insult through neglect.”
“Even if you raise just a few temples in Weysa's name, I think I can be satisfied.”
“You will have to be. War on Serenity is impossible. Diplomacy is your only option. But I should like to give you the opportunity.”
“War is impossible? How so?”
“You could never get your army to Serenity. There is but one way there and it is heavily guarded.”
“It is an island and I now have an armada.”
She laughed at him. “Your armada will mean nothing. Serenity is impenetrable. The storms, remember? You will see. You had best hurry. Dusk is approaching.”
He smiled at her, then called for a servant.
It was very nearly suppertime. Jileana had packed her second dress with Jaykun's belongings. She had grown to like it very much and she didn't have the heart to leave it behind. Besides, she might need it again somedayâ¦provided it lasted long enough for her to use it again.
Once that was packed, she wandered around the castle for one last look at everything. She had much to tell everyone once she got home and she didn't want to forget a single detail. From the crotchety old cook who baked the bread she loved so much to the way the wind felt as she stood on the battlements of the castle. She was up there now, walking slowly around so she could see everything in all directions, including the stormy clouds that hid Serenity from sight.
She heard a sound behind her and, startled, swung about. The body that lunged at her was built as she was built, about the same height and weight. But because she was taken off guard, when he plowed into her, he sent her sprawling backward. He followed her every inch of the way down, then clambered up onto her body, straddling her. His hand swung upward through the air. Dazed from striking her head, she barely registered the knife in his hand. He stabbed down.
But just before the weapon would have pierced the flesh of her breast, the man drew it back. That was when she registered that he was shaking like a leaf andâ¦crying.
“Please don'tâ” she began hesitantly.
“Shut up!” he yelled into her face. “I have to kill you! It's my only choice!”
“No. It isn't,” she said calmly, soothingly. She could tell this manâthis boy, reallyâwas no killer. He was perhaps desperate enough to killâit was written on every ounce of his bodyâbut he was no stone-cold killer. This boy would be torn by tremendous guilt for the rest of his life if he succeeded in killing her tonight. Not that he could anymore. He had lost his advantage of surprise and she could easily overpower him and take the knife.
“What do you know about it,prava?” he spat. “You don't even belong here!”
“Perhaps not. But you don't belong here with a knife in your hand.”
“You don't understand!” he shouted into her face. “I am atregahalf-breed in a city of people who take one look at me and spit in my face. I make my living shoveling dung or digging ditches or scrubbing the sewage pipes. I am dirty all the time, starving all the time, lacking for a bed all the time! I need this gold piece! I need it to get out of here!”
“There are easier ways of getting gold,” she said gently. Gingerly.
“Not in this city! Not for me! Not fortrega!”
“But don't you see? The city isn't going to be run by Krizans any longer. Thetregahave come and will rule this city for many years to come.Tregawill infiltrate every part of it, live here, and build businesses here. Businesses that will need strong, hard workers. You will no longer be an outsider. You will be a part of the new order and the old will be brought down.”
“Butâ¦” He hesitated and looked around himself nervously. Then he gripped the knife tighter and drew it higher. “You don't know what you're talking about! Just shut up!”
“Can I at least know the name of the man who is going to kill me?” she asked in a calm and strong tone.
“What for?” he asked.
“Where I come from, knowing the name of our killer allows us to forgive him so we might enter the heavens with a light heart and no malice. If we hold those feelings into our death, we risk becoming a shade, doomed to walk the world, haunting it for eternity. Though I feel no malice toward you at the moment, I want to be certain my heart and soul are cleared.
“Iâ¦” He swallowed. “Dremu. My name is Dremu.”
“Dremu, you don't have to do this. There are better ways. Dremu, I promise you. I can find an alternate solution for you.”
“Sure.” He scoffed. “You say that only because I'm going to kill you!”
“You aren't going to kill me. If you were, you would have done so already.”
“I am too! You justâ¦Stop talking to me!”
Jileana suddenly moved, one hand snatching the wrist of the hand holding the knife, the rest of her strong body bucking him off her, over her head, and hard onto his back. She leapt after him, his wrist twisting until he cried out and dropped the knife. The knife was in her hand an instant later and then it was she straddling his body and holding the knifepoint to the top of his throat. He swallowed hard beneath the blade, his eyes wide and wild, panic in every inch of his body.
“Now you listen very carefully,” Jileana said. “Are you listening?”
He gave a ginger little nod, aware of the knife tip that was just shy of breaking his skin.
“There are better ways to earn gold and I am going to prove it to you. In fact, you don't need gold at all to make your way in the world, live comfortably, and eat and have a bath whenever it pleases you. Besides, you are no killer, Dremu. You know it as well as I do.”
“B-but if I fail, the finia will beat me or order my death. I cannot stay here! She will find a way to punish me for failing to do as she demands!”
“Ah. So it is the finia who is behind this. Thank you. I was wondering who it might be. It was so clearly not your own idea. Tell me, Dremu, what do you know of my people?”
“Only that you are to be feared, that you are deadly and dangerous and that I should run in the other direction if I ever lay eyes on one of you.”
“Hmm. Then you know we are powerful and we are able to do things no one else can, yes?”
“Then will you believe me when I say I have the power to make your life better?”
He swallowed again, nervous and confused. Dremu couldn't understand why she had not killed him the moment she got the advantage of him. He couldn't understand how she was talking about giving him what was, for all intents and purposes, a reward. For that is what it would be. A life as described by her was all he had ever wanted, so it would be the ultimate reward from his perspective. Why? Why would she give that to him after what he had just tried to do to her?
“I do not believe you, but I am willing to put myself in your hands and to see what comes of it. After all, it's clear you have the upper hand and can do what you wish with me. You would be within your rights to have me killed to answer for my crimes against you.”
“No one is going to die tonight. Not you and not me. But you will learn to liveâ¦and to trust. Now come.” She pushed off him and gained her feet. She held out her hand to him and helped him up.
“What is this?”
Jileana whirled about at the sound of Jaykun's demanding voice, quickly hiding the knife behind her back and standing between Dremu and Jaykun. “Jaykun! What are you doing up here?” she asked with a bright smile.
“Looking for you,” he said with a frown. “And here I find you with this boy?”
“Oh! You mean Dremu?” She laughed, hoping she didn't sound nervous. Clearly Jaykun had seen her sitting astride Dremu. Now he was angry and distrusting. He wasâ¦jealous. Yes, that was it! The temper in his tone and the aggressive tension in his bodyâ¦He was jealous! “Dremu and I have just met. He was telling me something very interesting about the finia. He claims it is she who has been behind the attempts made on your lives.”
“And how does he know this?” Jaykun asked.
“Heâ¦he overheard someone talking in the halls,” Jileana lied with an inward wince. She was not a very good liar, but she did not want Jaykun to punish Dremu.
“The fortunary,” Dremu piped up meekly.
Jaykun absorbed this with stony silence for a moment. “Very well. We'll handle the finia.”
“Dremu will be coming with us tonight,” Jileana added hastily. “I am in need of a good servant and he was wanting a change of scenery.”
“Oh. I see,” Jaykun said slowly.
“Are you ready? We should be leaving as soon as possible for Serenity,” she said.
She heard Dremu inhale sharply and then another of those nervous gulps.
“Are we not going to eat first?”
“There isn't time to eat, travel, and get you somewhere where you canâ¦before dusk,” she said, moving past Jaykun briskly, hiding the knife in the folds of her skirt as she did.
Jaykun appreciated her discretion, that she wasn't going to tell everyone she met about his curse. He narrowed his eyes on Dremu and felt doubt swirling around inside him. He could have sworn she had been astride him, a position that was not easily achieved if they had just bumped into each other. It had seemed more blatantly sexual to him. Why else would sheâ¦?
He caught himself in the thought and the emotion accompanying it. What did it matter to him what she may or may not have been doing sexually? They had no commitment to each other, no ties. If she wanted to fuck his entire army, it should make no difference to him.
But damn, it did make a difference to him, he thought as he followed her back into the castle and down the stairs. At the very least she could wait until such time as they were done with each other.
But she was such a free spirit, going wherever she wanted to go from one moment to the next. It was one of the parts of her personality that drew him so inexorably toward her. But he found he was not of a mind to share her with anyone. The whole point of him going on this trip so precipitously was so he could spend more time with her.
The thought made him stop in his tracks. Wait. No, he thought. He was going to Serenity as an ambassador, in order to begin negotiations for erecting temples in Weysa's name. That was the main reason for going. He was not going just to be with a woman. He was not leaving a newly conquered cityâwhich needed him to take the reins of it desperatelyâin his brothers' hands at such a crucial time just so he couldâ
“Jaykun? Is something amiss?”
He blinked and realized Jileana and Dremu were looking at him curiously. That was when he realized he had come to a halt.
“No. Nothing,” he muttered, pushing past them and moving on.
“I-I-I don't w-want to go to Serenity,” Dremu whispered to Jileana. It was clear he was terrified by the thought.
“Either you come to Serenity,” she whispered back, “or I tell him you tried to kill me. It is your choice. Previously you said you had no choice but to kill me. Well, now you have choices. Live with me or die by him. Which do you choose?”
Dremu gave her a look. “Live of course,” he said. “Who would choose to die? Butâ¦Serenity? I have heard storiesâ¦”
“Most of which are probably lies or exaggerations. Don't worry. It is a very nice place. You will learn to love it.”
“But how will I be able toâ?”
“Trust me,” she said softly, reaching to squeeze his forearm. “You are under my protection and guidance. All will be well.”
Dremu took a deep breath and nodded.
“Jaykun, Dremu can carry any belongings you wish to bring with you. He will act as servant for you.”
“I have my own servants. I will bring one of them.”
She moved up to him and put a hand on his arm to draw him to a stop. “Dremu and no others.”
“Why?” he demanded to know.
“Passage to Serenity is limited and I must choose very carefully who to bring. You and Dremu may come; all others must stay.”
Jaykun didn't like it. Why was she suddenly taking an interest in this person she had just met? It didn't make any sense to him.
But the fact was that the passage to Serenity was controlled by her, and as a visiting dignitary, he had to be the one to accede to whatever Serenity's customs wereâ¦for now. That might change later if he found the people of Serenity intractable about building the temples he requested. But he did not wish to consider the ramifications of their potential refusal. Not at present, in any event. He had more than enough on his plate as it was. He would have put this trip off if not for the limitations on their travel. He chose to ignore the voice in his brain that whispered he could have just as easily done this in the springtime as now.
“Very well. Have it your way,” he muttered to her. Then he led the way to his rooms. Sitting on the floor was a small trunk. He pointed to it.
“Take that, boy. You will be in charge of my belongings. If anything happens to them, it will be your head. Understood?”
“Yes, my lord,” he said, and with all haste he went to fetch the trunk, lifting it with a small amount of difficulty but managing without complaint in the end.
Jaykun turned to Jileana. “I need to say goodbye to my brothers and manage this news about the finia. Shall I meet you at the docks?”
“No. Not the docks,” she said with a shake of her dark head. “The cove.”
“The ship is anchored near the cove? Why does it not just come to the docks?”
“All will be explained. Just meet me at the cove.”
“Very well, then,” he said, reaching to ring her about the back of her neck with one strong, demanding hand. He jerked her close and seized her mouth with his, laying claim to her in front of the other male, making certain Dremu knew who owned her affections at that time. He tried not to examine the proprietary impulse too closely as he let her go slowly, taking in the smile she gave him and feeling the better for it.
Then he took his leave of her and headed for his brothers in the dining hall, the servant following steadily behind him.
“Well, brothers, I am off. Do I look the diplomat?” he asked, indicating himself and the finer than usual clothing he was wearing.
“Every inch,” Dethan said.
“Jaykun, I must protest again,” Garreth said. “Now is not the time for you to leave.”
“No, it is not ideal,” he agreed. “But if I do not go now, I will not be able to until the summer when you return, and by then I hope to be laying siege to Moroun or perhaps one of the cities on the far continent. No. Now is the better choice.”
“Methinks you are thinking more with other parts of your body than with your brain,” Garreth said with a frown.
“Enough!” Jaykun said, slamming a fist down on the table. “I will not listen to you and your half-conjured ideas as to my motivations in this. Justâ¦just manage this city for the next few days. That is all I ask. Please.”
“You know we will,” Dethan said soothingly. “Whatever your reasoning, we are here for you, willing to do whatever is necessary. Now be off with you. All is in good hands here. You can be assured of that.”
“Thank you, Dethan,” Jaykun said with a sigh. “Garreth, forgive my temper.”
“You do not like to be questioned. You never did. Which is no doubt why I always questioned you,” Garreth said with a chuckle.
“No doubt,” Jaykun agreed, smiling. “See you in a few days, brothers! Try not to foul up my city in the meanwhile.” He turned toward the door, caught sight of Dremu, and belated remembered to tell his brothers about the finia. “Oh, and you should know that it is the finia behind the attempts on our lives.”
“How do you know this?” Dethan demanded.
“This boy overheard the fortunary giving commands,” he said, nodding to Dremu.
“I thought the finia was under guard,” Garreth said.
“I allowed her limited visitors,” Dethan said. “I thought the fortunary would be harmless enough. It isn't as though he were her vizier or her head of guard. I see now my error.”
“It is not our way to imprison the leaders of the cities we conquer,” Jaykun said. “They are usually harmless enough without gold or armies or advisors.”
“Usually. Perhaps we have been too lax with our methods,” said Garreth.
“It has worked for us in the past,” Dethan said. “The finia is the exception, not the rule.”
“Very well. The finia's life is forfeit. And the fortunary will fare no better. Are we agreed?” Jaykun said.
“We are agreed,” Dethan said. “Now you best get going. You need to be on that island before dusk.”
“I am well aware,” Jaykun said dryly.
“And no dallying on the ship! This is a diplomatic mission! Some comportment please!”
Jaykun rolled his eyes and turned his back on their laughter, heading out of the castle and toward the cove.
The sun was quite low in the sky by the time Jaykun and Dremu reached the cove and it was making Jaykun nervous. There was no way, he thought, that they would make it to Serenity in the hour before dusk and also be able to find a safe place for his curse to come upon him. The island was just too far, and given the wind of the moment, they wouldn't travel fast enough. The last thing he needed was to be on a wooden ship when the curse struck. It would immediately be burned to cinders and ash.
He would simply have to tell Jileana that they could not leave until after juquil's hour. She would not like itâfor some reason she was in a desperate hurryâbut there was nothing to be done about it.
As they approached the cove, he peered out over the water in search of a ship. There were none to be found anywhere on the horizon. No dingy was rowed in and waiting for them. All he could see were the rocks of the jetty and a colony of seals and morari sunning themselves atop them.
As he entered the cove, he saw Jileana standing there waiting. She was completely naked, holding her dress folded in her hands. Jaykun sucked in his breath at the sight of her. He had truly never seen anything so beautiful in his life. Her skin was warm and dark, her long hair streaming down her back in a silky black cape. He balked at her nudity, however, in front of this other man. He walked up to her, shielding her from the servant. But luckily for him the boy had averted his gaze and was nervously trying not to look at her. Good, he thought. He didn't want this Dremu to look at her. He didn't want anyone to look at her when she was like this.
But she walked around his shielding body and presented her dress to the boy. “Put this in the trunk as well,” she said.
Dremu hastened to do as she asked, dropping the trunk on the sand, opening it, and shoving the dress inside.
“You are not going like this, are you?” Jaykun demanded.
“We do not wear much in the way of clothing in Serenity. It is too confining and drags us down. You may want to remove your clothing as well.”
“I will not! I'm not going to present myself naked in a foreign court!”
“As you wish,” she said simply. “Dremu?”
“N-no, my lady. I-I am fine like this.”
“Very well, then,” she said breezily before Jaykun could work himself up over her inviting a servant to get naked with her. “Let's go!”
Then she ran into the water.
Jaykun just stood there and stared after her, at a total loss. Where in the eight hells was she going? Did she expect them to swim all the way to Serenity?
“Come on!” she called out gaily.
“Jileana, what in the eight hells are you doing?!” Jaykun shouted out to her.
“It's here. Under the jetty. Come on!”
Underthe jetty? Jaykun wasn't sure he had heard her right. But sure enough, she dived downward.
That was when he began to realize there was a lot more to this than had been immediately apparent to him. Things began to click: Finding her naked on the beach. The way she had said he couldn't get to Serenity by ship. The way she had treated everything like a new and wondrous experienceâ¦as if she had never experienced the world before. The fact that there had always seemed to be something a littleâ¦otherworldly about her.
He suddenly began to strip down, disrobing faster than he ever had before in his life, throwing his clothing and boots at the hapless servant, who stood quivering at the water's edge with his trunk.
The instant Jaykun was naked, his heart racing with a combination of fear and excitement, he plunged into the water and chased after her. When he reached the place where she had dived down, she popped back up, her hair slicked back and a laughing smile on her face. The water was cold but not frigid and he felt very exposed being naked with her.
“What are you?” he demanded of her.
She smiled again. “The Krizans call usprava.But that is a derogatory name. You would probably call us selkies. These are all my people.” She indicated the seals diving from on the rocks, entering the water and swimming down beneath the jetty. “Look. See?”
She dived under the water and he watched as she swam around him, her long woman's body suddenly changing shape into that of a sleek seal. She surfaced again croaking out a happy sound, dived back under the water, circled him again, then came up as the woman he had come to know.
“Beneath the water, built into the jetty, is the portal to my home. To Serenity. You have to swim down and through it. Come on, Dremu!” she shouted out.
Dremu stood uncertainly at the water's edge, holding the trunk in his quaking hands.
“B-but the trunk, my lady!”
“It will be as nothing in the water,” she said.
Then she lifted a hand, rotated it in a circular motion, and the trunk became light as a feather in Dremu's hands. Stunned by this magic, and swept along in the current his life had been caught up in, he found himself splashing into the water. He had to follow. He had to. He was finally going on an adventure, an adventure no one else would ever be able to lay claim to.Hisadventure. It was an amazing thingâ¦It was better than gold.
Jileana waited until Dremu and the trunk had joined them.
“You will be able to see the portal straight away. It glows. Just follow me through it!”
She dived down and the men had only two choices: follow or go back to shore. Of course, each for their own reasons, they chose to follow her.
Jaykun felt as though his life had suddenly become completely surreal. He should really give this some thought. He shouldn't merely jump in without thinking of the consequences. But, he realized, that was exactly what he had been doing ever since he first met Jileana. Jumping in with both feet and letting himself be swept away with hardly a thought to the consequences. It was probably because his life was so written out for him already. He had a role to play and no choice but to play it. He was slave to the whims of a goddess. At least in this small thing he was able to make a free choice, to choose to go or not to go. Oh, he had cloaked it in the cape of diplomacy, telling himself it was still in Weysa's best interest, but in the endâ¦in the end, it had been about what he wanted. And what he wanted was her: Jileana. He didn't know how long he wanted her, but he wanted her now to the exclusion of all else.
He gave the briefest thought to his brothers. But he pushed that concern aside as well and dived down beneath the blue waters.
The water was not crystal clear, not like he had seen in his travels along the southern continents, but it was still clear enough for him to make her out as her sleek body dived down and swam along the rocks. The rocks turned to coral almost immediately as they swam downward, and it was only a short distance before he made out the glow of the portal. Excitement coursing through every last one of his veins, he swam down along the peach-and-russet-colored coral, swam through a school of little fishes, and then came to a halt in front of an archway of rock and coral that glowed blue along its edges, each end of the arch rooted in sand on the ocean floor. As he watched, several seals swam through the portal, disappearing in a bright flash of light. He could see them swimming away on the other side.
In fact, on the other side the water was a completely different color. Or rather, it was much clearer. The coral was a different color as well. It was red and tan. Schools of brilliantly colored fish were darting around, disappearing from view when they should have just been showing up around the other side of the archway. Jaykun was curious as to what the portal looked like from the back, but he had been holding his breath for quite a while and his lungs were beginning to ache. True, he could not die from drowning, but it would not be a pleasant sensation to drown over and over again. Besides, Dremu was not so fortunate.
Almost without thought for them, Jileana swam through the portal in a brilliant flash. Then she stopped and waved them onward. Figuring he had only two choices, to go forward or to go back, he decided to go where the most appeal lay. He swam through the portal.
It was the strangest sensationâ¦almost like touching lightning. Only not as violent as he imagined that would be. Also, the temperature in the water was radically different from one side of the archway to the other. It was much warmer on this side. The moment he crossed through, he saw Jileana dart upward, her body moving so fast it was amazing. He followed her readily, very much in need of taking a breath. He only spared a glance backward to see the servant swimming through the archway, the trunk dragging behind him in one hand. Everything within it should be wet, ruined, and heavy, but the servant was pulling it along as if it weighed nothing at all.
He and Jileana broke the surface of the water together and drew in breath. She waited for Dremu to surface. He did, spluttering and gasping. She laughed with delight.
“You did it! You both made it! Wonderful! Look! There's Serenmitazahmiktubarinaty! My home!”
She pointed to a sheer cliff only a short distance away. The inlet was like nothing Jaykun had ever seen before. It was a city constructed of fossilized coral, honeycombs and caves leading from surface to surface, level to level, from high at the top of the cliff to down at the water. Even from a distance he could see people climbing up the cliff walls in order to go from one level to the next or, in some cases, simply leaping off and diving with hurtling speed into the water below.
Jileana began to swim toward the coral city, her streamlined body moving fast. It was clear she was happy and eager to get home. The trunk was floating in the water, the servant clinging to it desperately, as if his life depended on it. Jaykun had to give him credit for his bravery. There weren't many men who would jump into a situation like this unprepared and unarmed. He still couldn't believe he had done so himself. But if he hadn't, he wouldn't be seeing all he was seeing, experiencing all he was experiencingâ¦and he wouldn't have traded this moment away for anything. He had never felt so alive, so brave and daring, so strong in the face of his fear of the unknown.
“Come along, little fellow. We best be following her,” he called to the servant. “Can you manage with that?”
“Y-y-yes, my lord!”
“Very good! Our adventure awaits!”
Jaykun took off after Jileana. She was like a fish, darting from one place to the next, until they reached the clear blue-green waters of the inlet and were only a few feet away from the place where the coral cliffs met the water. That was when he saw that the caves and cubbies continued below the water's surface and the water was teaming with people deep down, beyond where he could see. The coral beneath the water was not fossilized, dead and dry; it became a living, breathing jungle of life that teemed from its every pore.
And every last one of the population was either naked or wearing the briefest bit of clothing to cover their sex. The women were all bare breasted, the men bare chested.
Jileana swam to the nearest cave and led the men inside. There were shelves immediately to the left and right, and Jileana hauled herself out of the water and onto a shelf. Jaykun followed suit. Then he looked around to see about half a dozen eyes staring at him in surprise.
“Jaykun, these are my people.” She introduced them with a wave of her hand. “This is Kino,” she said, pointing to a darkly tanned, leathery looking older woman. “Kino has been serving my family for generations. Dremu, you will stay here with her and she will help you get our belongings to the upper level where I live.”
“Oh, mistress,” Kino said, tsking hard. “Your fadder be sorely mad wid you. You know he don't like da idea of you goin' to da Overworld. No, mistress, not at all. He told you no go, but you go anyway. He be hoppin' mad.”
“I figured as much,” Jileana said with a sigh. “But I will deal with that later. First we must see my mother.”
“She no much happier wid you dan your fadder is,” Kino said with a raspy little chuckle. “You done steamed quite a lotta people, you done.”