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"I suppose I won't."
Sanura rested her chin on his chest and draped her arms across his body, making herself more at ease. By now she was quite comfortable using him as her bed, her place to rest at the end of the day. "I want to be your wife, not your mistress. If your brother marries and has children, you will no longer be directly in line for the throne, so the production of babies would be less crucial for us, and I would not have to share you with an empress who will give you children and hate me for loving you."
"You wish to be married to a man without power, without purpose? You would wish me to be nothing?"
"You will never be nothing, love. And you will always have power and purpose." She snuggled deeper. "Now, allow me to finish telling you what I want."
She had bound him to the bed and gone off to accomplish that which should be his, so he should be furious with her, he should deny her all that she wanted. He could not. He had done worse to her in weeks past and still she loved him. "All right," he said with a lack of enthusiasm. "Proceed. "
Sanura wiggled and made herself cozy. Her wiggling made him decidedly uneasy. "We could build a house on the outskirts of the city, a big house for you and me and Mali and..."
"Mali? The demon child?"
"You said you would let me finish." She laughed easily.
This time he just grumbled.
"Mali and others like her," Sanura continued, "other children who need instruction and care and love." She rose slightly to look at him, and though he did not have her gift, he could see the heartache and the hope in her eyes. "Perhaps I cannot bear children, but that does not mean I can't know a mother's love, that I can't give that love to Mali and others who need us. Who need you."
"Why on earth would these demon children..."
"Half-demon," she corrected.
"Fine. Why on earth would these half-demon children need me?"
"Because you understand their struggle," she said. "Because you know what it's like to do battle in your soul every day, just as they do."
"Some of these children you speak of will be beyond saving."
"Some will not," she countered.
"This is a ridiculous conversation," he said gruffly. "What you wish for will never be."
"Perhaps that's true, but you asked me what I wanted, and I told you," Sanura said confidently, unshaken by his response.
What she wanted and what he desired-what he needed-could not live in harmony. Once Jahn was dead and Alix's darkest dreams came true, it was likely that what he and Sanura had found together would wither and die. She would still love him, he knew that, but their love could not flourish as it did in this room.
"Jahn won't be back until the first night of the Summer Festival?"
"That is what I was told."
"I will ask in the morning," he said, still wondering if she was lying to him to buy Jahn more time in this life-to buy them more time in this room.
"Please do so," she said. "You will find that I told you only the truth. Like it or not, we have ten days before you can proceed with your plan. What shall we do while we wait?"
She knew full well how they would spend their time. "We will eat, and sleep, and shake the very walls of this room with s.e.x, and I will dress you in proper gowns and show you off and..."
"Oh!" She jumped up. "I almost forgot. You'd best not show me off until you're emperor and have complete power. The sentinels also told me that Paki and Kontar are here, as well as two angry Tryfynian soldiers who wish to take your head. We'd best spend the next ten days right here."
"Paki and Kontar are in the palace?"
"That is what I was told."
Alix grinned and began to untie the red sash which held the sheet to Sanura's form. If they had ten days, he would not waste a moment. "Will your diligent guards have the blue?"
"I'M not going to change my mind."
Verity stared at the palace straight ahead. In nine days' time, the emperor would choose his bride. She'd been so confident that he'd choose her-and now she would never know.
Laris was being stubborn, a trait she had not known he possessed until he'd asked her, in his own way, to marry him. "You need to take a good look at what you might have if you make another choice."
"There is no other choice," Verity insisted. "I've told you that several times, but you refuse to listen."
"I just don't want you to be sorry you chose me-not now, not in ten years' time."
She smiled. Never. Since they'd been arguing and he'd been winning, she did not reveal the deep certainty of her love. Perhaps later, when he was being more agreeable.
They walked toward the palace, as his family's home was not all that far from Arthes, and she was in no hurry to rush to tell the emperor that she was withdrawing her name from contention. Really, a letter would be sufficient. But Laris had suggested-no, demanded-that she face the life she might've had, that she take a good, hard look at the palace that could be her home if she made another choice. The walk had taken most of the day, and even if they were able to take care of their business at the palace quite efficiently, it would be dark before they got home.
Laris did not know how stubborn she could be, that once she made up her mind, it was well and permanently made.
He held her hand, and frowned as she looked down at her dress. "You might've borrowed a better-fitting dress from one of the girls."
"I like this one," she said, plucking at the green skirt as if it were made of the finest fabric. "You bought it for me." And he liked the brightness of her eyes when she wore the drab color.
"I'll buy better, when I can," he promised.
Verity smiled. In the letter she'd written to her parents to inform them that she was not dead, she'd also asked them to send along her things. Dresses, jewels, shoes, hair-clips. . . she would need them all in her life as a sentinel's wife. Perhaps she and Laris would be poor for a while, but that didn't mean she had to look poor. That certainly didn't mean she had to act poor. Social skills were very important, and her mother had taught her well. With her help, Laris would rise through the ranks in record time.
The palace was impressive, but it also looked cold and stern and devoid of the laughter she had experienced at Laris's family home. She had no doubts about her decision, not as she presented herself to the guard at the gate, a guard who allowed her to enter only because she was with a fellow sentinel; not as she prepared herself to meet with Minster Calvyno. She had quite a few things to tell him!
She and Laris waited in a small, finely furnished room which was intended for greeting visitors to the palace. There were a number of comfortable-looking chairs, not that either she or Laris wished to sit. They had walked for quite some time, but she was much too anxious to sit! On one wall there was a portrait of a man she supposed to be the emperor. He was handsome enough, but he was no Laris.
In short time Minister Calvyno arrived, appearing tired and more than a little put-upon. He had dark circles under his eyes and looked as if he could use some sleep, but that was not her problem.
"I am Lady Verity of Mirham," she said, presenting herself with all the dignity she could muster, ghastly green dress aside.
The old man sighed. "Your trickery is wasted on me, young woman." He took in her appearance with disdain, actually wrinkling his ma.s.sive nose. "Lady Verity is dead."
Verity was not intimidated, as he'd obviously intended. "No, I am not dead, Minister Calvyno, but that is no thanks to the man you sent to collect me. Gregor Wallis himself tried to have me killed, with the a.s.sistance of a traitorous sentinel named Cavan. If not for the interference of this fine and brave sentinel"-she pointed an insistent finger toward Laris-"I would've perished in the river, been dragged down and bashed against the rocks."
"This is ridiculous," Calvyno muttered. "Lady Verity was killed in a horrible accident, and..."
Her patience disappeared. It felt as if what was left just flew out of the top of her head. Good heavens, someone had tried to murder her, and this man was being no help at all! "Was the body recovered? No, it was not. Because there was no body." She placed her hands on her hips in a pose of defiance. "I escaped death, thanks to Laris, and then we overheard those awful men talking about giving something irritating to my mare, b.u.t.tercup, to make her bolt, and we ran for our very lives." She nodded her head decisively. "And by the way, when b.u.t.tercup is recovered, I demand that she be delivered to me immediately. If what those horrid men gave b.u.t.tercup damaged her in any way, heads will roll."
Calvyno turned to Laris. His eyes looked more tired than they had just moments ago. "Is any of this true?"
"All of it, sir," Laris said, calling upon a very official and sentinel-like voice. "Deputy Wallis and Cavan conspired to murder Lady Verity. Wallis also mentioned that he had been hired by someone to see the murder done. Once I understood the situation, I thought it best to deliver Lady Verity myself. I did not know whom we could trust, so it seemed best to trust no one."
Verity felt a surge of pride. She had never heard Laris sound so commanding and fearsome.
Minister Calvyno, who had been dismissive of her, listened intently as Laris explained all that had happened. Well, he explained most, leaving out their most private matters. Some things were none of his business, after all. He conducted himself very well, not at all intimidated by the highly placed minister.
Though Verity had seen Laris in his official capacity during the early days of their travels, until someone had tried to kill her, he had not been called upon to act in any truly sentinel-like way. He was a very good sentinel, she imagined. Quiet and thoughtful, determined and smart, dedicated and more handsome than all the other sentinels.
A brilliant thought occurred to her as she watched and listened to the two men. She had not turned her back on her destiny to be the wife of a great man who came from humble beginnings. Not at all. Mavise and her mother, and even she, had been wrong about who that great man would be, but other than that, all was as it should be.
Yes, Laris would make a fine Minister of Defense one day.
Once Laris had convinced the annoying Minister Calvyno of the truth, the tired man moved to the nearest chair and sat. Hard. "I can't believe this. Deputy Wallis seemed so upset when he delivered the news of your...death."
Verity put her hands on her hips. "He's here? In the palace? "
"I'm afraid so."
Verity pointed a firm finger at the minister. "I want that horrible man tossed into in your deepest, darkest dungeon. You do have a dungeon, don't you?"
"Of sorts," Calvyno admitted.
"Put him there, and never let him out."
Calvyno regained his composure and stood with a tired sigh. "Done. Now, let me see you to your quarters. The emperor will be most pleased to hear that you are not deceased. He's not in residence at the moment, but..."
"I'm not staying here," Verity said. "And I'm not going to marry your emperor."
She had planned a more gracious way of delivering the news, but was much too agitated to remember it all. "I'm sure he's a very nice man, but I have my own very nice man now, and I don't need another. Do you have a priest about?" She turned to look at Laris and smile. Now he would believe that she had no intention of changing her mind. The wedding, and the wedding night, could proceed. "We could get married here. Now." And if that could be arranged, perhaps they would take the minister up on his offer of a room for the night. It was the least he could do, considering the circ.u.mstances which had brought her here.
Laris smiled at her. "You're still willing to give all this up?" He looked about the lavishly furnished room.
"Yes. I don't change my mind, Laris. Not about important things."
"You changed your mind about being empress."
"That's not important," she said.
"One moment," Calvyno said. "You're declining the offer to possibly be empress so that you might marry this sentinel?"
Verity grinned widely. "Yes, I am. As soon as possible. I'm tired of sharing a bed with his sisters." She leaned in and whispered, "He has three of them, and they're all elbows and heels."
Laris took her wrist and attempted to lead her from the room, but she stopped him and turned once more to Minister Calvyno. "I should like to wait here until you inform me that Wallis and his lackey are in that dungeon, locked away for good. I won't have some hired murderer ruining my wedding day."
"It will be done, m'lady," Calvyno said. "As soon as possible."
Verity gave him her finest smile. "That would be now."
ACCORDING to the gossip from those few servants who knew Alix had returned and was hiding in his suite of rooms, the palace was in chaos. A potential bride who was believed to be dead had shown up alive and well, and now the deputy minister who had been sent to collect her was in the Level Twelve prison, along with the sentinel he had hired to a.s.sist him. Not only that, the woman in question had left the palace in the company of a lowly sentinel, choosing him over the chance to be empress. As they'd left the palace, the couple had been arguing about the date of their wedding. The bride wished to be married immediately; the groom wanted two or three days to plan a proper wedding ceremony.
The Tryfynian soldiers who were still searching for Alix remained resolute in their duty, even though it was now thought that whoever had tried to have Lady Verity killed might've also had a hand in the princess's death. One murder was a horrible tragedy. Two were a conspiracy.
Six messengers had left here months or weeks ago to collect potential brides. In just a few days Jahn was to make his choice, but thus far only one of the chosen women had arrived. From all Alix had heard, she was not at all suitable. If Princess Edlyn had been murdered and someone had attempted to do the same to Lady Verity, then was it possible the others had been killed as well?
To make matters worse, someone had stolen a valuable box from the visitors from Claennis, who spent their days and nights drinking, eating, and womanizing-all to excess. Alix had smiled widely as the servant who'd brought last night's meal had shared that gossip.
Taking the box while Paki and Kontar slept had been too easy. If they'd awakened, he might've killed them, but they'd snored on as he took what he wanted, and he'd left them to their dreams. He'd heard they'd raised h.e.l.l the following morning.
No wonder Jahn had disappeared.
Alix swept a bit of blue on Sanura's back, stroking the bristles of the soft brush against her skin, watching as the remarkable powder colored her flesh, as the cosmetic became a part of her. Now no one but he would touch her. He would be the one who killed any man who dared to caress the forbidden blue. She was his.
"Many men in this part of the world don't like the blue," Sanura said as he continued his work. "I have felt revulsion and confusion and even intense dislike from the men who do not understand. I never felt anything like that from you." She turned her head and smiled at him. Her face was alreadyblue. She'd applied the cosmetic to her face herself, but had allowed him the pleasure of taking care of the ch.o.r.e over most of the rest of her body. They'd started late in the morning, and it had taken most of the day. They might've hurried through the process, but he enjoyed taking his time... he enjoyed every step of the transformation . . . he enjoyed stopping often to love her. "I felt your surprise at first," she said, "but you never made me feel unwanted or disliked." Her eyes looked into him, in that way she had. "Why now, Alix? Why do I wear the blue now?"
"Because it is time," he said gently. "Jahn is back."
Her smile disappeared. "Not yet! He can't be. There are several days..."
"He was seen last night, love, by one of the servants who keeps the secret of our residence."
"You can't be sure that's true. It could be just another rumor."
"She delivered food to him, just as she has been delivering to us." He searched her eyes for the truth. Had Sanura lied to him? Had she conspired against him? "Jahn either returned early or else he's been playing the same game we have, hiding from those who would make his days . . . unpleasant. "
"You wish me to be blue when I meet the emperor?"
"Of course, love. There is no use denying who and what we are. I fought that within myself for so many years, and it's a waste. You are a woman of the Agnese, a gifted treasure, a very special possession. And you're mine."
He knew what he had to do, and had already set the plans into motion. "We have an appointment, Sanura. We have an appointment with the emperor, with your keepers, and with the Tryfynian guards who think I killed their princess."
"One right after the other? All of them tonight? That's madness. You can't . . ."
"I will not confront them one after another. We will meet them all at midnight, in the ballroom on Level Nine."
"Midnight is just a few hours away, Alix." He heard the fear in her voice, the fear that was more for him than for Jahn.
"Yes, I know."
With every day that pa.s.sed, he was less and less sure about his plan. They'd been here for days, and every time Sanura said she loved him, every time they came together in his bed, every time she laughed or stroked his hair or looked into his soul, he grew less and less sure. Another day, and he might lose his determination. Another day, and he might give it all up for a woman.
Last night, as she'd slept, he'd been quite sure that the sound of her breathing and the murmurs of dreams and the crinkle of sheets as she moved made music. The music was for the man he had once been, not for the man he had become. It was for a man who did not have the heart or the nerve to take what was his, a man who had lived in shadows far too long.
Yes, midnight was an appropriate hour. It was time to leave the sanctuary of this room and this bed, time to build the life he so desperately wanted. No one was going to give him what he wanted; he would have to take it.
Either Jahn would die or Alix himself would. There could be no turning back.