Scene set up: King Orix escorts his Vhalgenn to her quarters, and remains with her while she bathes. Reared together, there is no modesty between them and at one time, their intimacy as well as being battle companions was legendary. Until, that is, the new queen moved in and kicked the Vhalgenn back to the battlefield. Alone.
In what had once been my own room, Orix stripped off my torn doublet and shirt and bit into his lip when he saw the multitude of bruises I'd gained in battle. He brushed his fingers across blue marks on my left shoulder and arm.
"You know me." I laughed, to hide the effect his touch had on me. "Never could be a lady."
I kicked off my boots and dropped my pants before stepping into the copper tub. The steaming water rose around me as I slid down, letting it cover my head. I sat up and scrubbed my hands across my face, then back through my short hair.
Black and tight with curls, it was nothing like my sovereign's wheat colored mane. His fell around his face and onto his shoulders in a splendor of barbaric waves. He might have been an animal, some beast half-tamed, still unruly. His shirt lay open at the throat, with unnumbered ropes of gold gleaming against the curly blond hair of his chest. It was a king's way, wearing jewels in wartime. It might prove to be all a man had if… I shook my head to clear it. This was not the way to think.
He stooped beside the tub and trailed his fingers through the water. "What's wrong?"
I forced a smile. "Just tired." I picked up the soap, reached for the backbrush and punished my skin with its scratchy bristles while he talked.
He told me about his wife, Dahr of Kellindahr, She Whom I Hated With All My Soul and described the help her people had sent in recent days. We'd seen little of their help at the front and I told him.
"I know, Raik." He looked somber. "I wanted it that way. I didn't want her people, my people now, to think I'd married her only for the military advantage we'd gain."
Realizing I stared, I forced a blink. "Why else would you tie yourself to her?"
Eighty years of broken truces, bartered hostages and skirmishes on either side of our mutual borders had been ended by their marriage. Now, a common enemy demanded unity for any of us to survive.
"I know that sounded double-faced, but…"
"Double-faced!" I threw the brush into the water, spraying him. "Orix, if I thought you'd married that witch for love, I'd…" When his head bowed, I bit into my lower lip. After a struggle, I managed to speak without venom. "I swore I wouldn't make war between her and me. You've enough battles to fight. You don't need mine, too."
I got to my feet and stepped out, into the thick robe Orix held for me. Fatigue fluttered at my mind and tongue and I only muttered thanks. His hands supported me when I stumbled. I tied the waist and followed him to the matching chairs where we used to sit in the evenings. The fire crackled and popped. Homesickness gnawed my heart, especially when faithful old Cyken greeted me.
His unfeigned affection and fatherly embrace brought tears to my eyes. He set out a meal of bread, cheese and wine and served me first, against all custom. Orix merely watched, amusement touching his mouth and eyes. Before he left, Cyken reminded me twice to call if I needed anything. Orix stood and went to the fire, hands held out to the flames.
"There's enough for four people." I broke off a hunk of crusty black bread. "Come share."
He returned, nibbling while I gulped, but said little. At last, hunger satisfied and body clean, I leaned back in the chair and lifted a goblet, watching the fire through the deep red wine.
"I'm sorry," I said. "You know. About Dahr. I didn't mean to hurt. You mean more to me than anyone alive."
He reached across and took my hand briefly; fingers interlaced, then folded his hands across his waist and stared into the fire.
"I need her Raik. As much as I needed you."
Needed? I choked back words that anguish hurried to mind. I was as much his chattel as any of his horses. If one person could own another, then I was his, given to him at birth. Why should it hurt if he treated me as such?
"She's in danger of losing the baby."
"Again?" There had been a miscarriage four months after their marriage. "What's wrong this time?" I poured more wine.
"Some woman thing. Her doctors fuss around her bed all day. It's been weeks and she still has to stay on her back. I can't really even see her. All her doctors are from Kellindahr. I don't think she trusts ours."
"This child is crucial, Orix. You need an heir to both lands. If it helps for her to have her own people around her, so much the better."
"Aye." He rambled on about a rallying point and the Kellindahrii people's love for their queen, while I mused over how much time would be lost begetting another heir. It struck me that if Dahr was abed she hadn't met Orix's needs. My throat tightened when I thought of him sleeping alone. I dared not look at the over-sized bed we'd so often shared. Nor did I look straight at him, afraid my rampant feelings would show. There was a war to finish. I'd been foolish to bring the dispatch. Being this close to him…
I flung myself out of the chair and stalked, stiff legged and sore, over to the fireplace and leaned my head against the mantle. Let him go! He's the king. You're a soldier. He'll never be yours. Don't lose your heart over him. Don't do it. Not again.
"I'm sorry," he said, standing. "You're exhausted and here I am prating about my needs." He pulled my hand to his mouth and pressed the palm against his lips.
I pulled my hands away and tucked them behind me.
"What is it, Vhalgenn? What's wrong?"
"Raik? What is it?" I knew that tone too well: command. My thoughts skittered.
"Hands," I said.
He leaned closer. "How's that again?"
I felt my cheeks burning. "Hands."
"Hands." He said the word as if it were another language.
"It's nothing, Orix." I stuffed both hands into the pockets of my robe, but immediately knew from his eyes that he had understood.
He held out both his hands. "Give them to me."
I shook my head.
I obeyed, fretting.
Taking great pains to scrutinize my hands and nails and fingers, he turned them over, one at a time.
Soldier's hands. Nails bitten or broken off and dirty, even after a bath. Cuticles ragged. Callused palms. The knuckles reddened and chapped. Rough skin overall. The hands of a woman, true, but the hands of a lady like his queen? Never.
"I love you, Vhalgenn." He set the tip of a finger beneath my chin and lifted my face when I tried to turn away. "And your hands. Why do they bother you so much?"
"Because they'll never be pretty like hers." I pressed my lips shut, hating my own mouth for telling him such a ridiculous truth.
His fingers went under my chin, turning my face up to his. "You're more than pretty, Vhalgenn, you're magnificent." He brushed fingertips across my lips.
I held my breath.
"Do you know, she's never once sat in front of the fire with me and talked?"
It had been our nightly ritual. "Never?"
"Never." His hands brushed my hair back from my face. "I've learned to get along with her, Vhalgenn, but I never had to learn anything with you. It all came naturally. We grew up with one another. You were my partner in everything I did. My lover, my sister, my sparring partner, my best friend. My everything."
I lifted my head to look up at him. As I did, his mouth came down on mine. A feverish chill coursed through me at his touch. I'd wanted his mouth from the moment I saw him on that throne. Orix could not help but be languid and sultry and hot. I felt desire emanating from him like heat from an oven with its door ajar. It scorched my face and I drew in a shallow breath, afraid of being burnt.
Resisting him was something I had never done, except in play. He thought I meant it that way now and made as if to pressure me, until he saw my eyes were brimming.
"Please, Orix. Don't." I pushed myself away from him. "I can't."
He frowned, confused. For him, life was simple. A need? Fulfill it. Thirsty? Drink. Hungry? Eat.
"Half the palace must know I'm here. Do you think Dahr will let this go unnoticed? She'll have someone in here to check on me before the night's through and I won't be thrown out again, Orix. I couldn't bear it."
"Vhalgenn, I promise. She'll never know."
"No!" I moved away from him. "She's no fool. She's your queen and deserves more than a husband who sleeps with someone else. She's risking her life to have your child. The least you can do is be faithful."