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THERE were no gowns in the palace which suited her, so once again Sanura wore a sheet which wound around her body and was held in place by ribbons which wrapped around her midsection. One shoulder was bare, and she was adorned with a few plain gold bracelets and a low-slung girdle constructed of tiny links of gold.
She'd tried so hard to change Alix's plans, but her efforts had not been enough. He was going to kill his own brother, take the throne, and he would never recover from what he'd done. Enough of the old Alix remained to make him miserably heartsick over the choices he was willing to make.
They walked down the winding secret stairs toward the ballroom where the emperor and at least four men who wished Alix dead awaited their arrival. Gently glowing rocks lined the steps, lighting their way. With every step her heart grew heavier. Her mouth was dry and her head spun. She patted the small knife which was hidden in the folds of her makeshift gown, wondering if she would need it-knowing she probably would.
"Don't do this," she said as the final flight of stairs came into view.
"I don't have any choice," Alix answered solemnly.
"You do!" she insisted. She stopped and planted her feet on the stairs, and since she was in front, Alix was forced to stop as well. "All the choices are yours!"
He placed his hands on her waist, where he could hold her without staining his hands with blue. "I am falling off a cliff and the ground's coming up fast. There is no avoiding the ground, Sanura. There is no stopping the fall." He gave her a gentle shove which propelled her onward.
"I can stop it," she said. "You can stop it. I know you feel how wrong this is! You can't convince me that you want to see your brother dead!"
"You're singing for me again," he said. "With every step, every word, you sing just for me. That song makes me question everything."
"Everything but my love," she said. "You don't doubt that at all."
"No, I don't."
"Let them wait," she whispered. "Let them all wait while we run. We can go anywhere, Alix, anywhere at all, and we can have a wonderful life together!"
It was time for complete honesty. It was her only chance. "Unless you murder your brother, yes. If you kill him, we will never be happy again. You think taking all that he has will give you satisfaction, but it won't. It will destroy you."
"You can't know that."
"I can," she whispered.
They reached the narrow doorway that opened in the back corner of the ballroom. Two Tryfynian soldiers, as well as Paki and Kontar, watched the ballroom entrance. Only the emperor saw them enter by way of the hidden pa.s.sage. He was not at all surprised.
"Interesting," Emperor Jahn said as he studied Sanura briefly before turning his eyes to Alix. "We are all here, just as you commanded. I understand you and I have some business to discuss, but why are these other men in attendance? "
If the emperor thought his brother would actually take his life, he did not show it in fear or anger. If he thought his life was in danger, he hid it well; inside and out.
Alix placed his hand at Sanura's back and led her toward the others. The Tryfynians placed their hands on their swords, but they did not dare move in the presence of the emperor. Paki and Kontar held their swords ready, but they, too, hesitated. They were in the presence of the leader of this country, and it was his brother they intended to harm. All were understandably hesitant.
"We'll take care of the easy tasks first," Alix said, walking toward the Tryfynians. "You morons, I did not kill Princess Edlyn. She was an annoying little twit and I won't miss her, but I did not kill her. It was Tari, who did the deed at Vyrn's insistence. I suspect the same person who attempted to have Lady Verity murdered also arranged the princess's murder, as well as arranging the scene to make it look as if Sanura and I were guilty." He glanced back at his brother. "Someone does not wish my brother to marry, or so it appears. Since only one potential bride has arrived, I would suggest that the others have had challenges and accidents, and perhaps even more deaths, along the way." He glared at the Tryfynians. "Besides, if I'd wanted the princess dead, I could have arranged some method of death which would not have pointed directly at me. I'm not an idiot."
The Tryfynians looked suitably humbled. The hands on the grips of their swords fell away as they recognized the truth of Alix's words.
Alix turned to Paki and Kontar, who were both bleary-eyed and very much on guard. "I understand and appreciate that when you tried to kill me, you were only doing your duty, but you must realize that you are no longer in Claennis, and you cannot murder a man for innocently touching a woman."
"Innocently?" Paki said angrily.
"In theory," Alix said, "it doesn't matter. Blue on a man's skin means death, unless he is the one, the only one, who possesses Sanura."
"That is correct."
Alix reached out and raked his hand across Sanura's arm, and then he raked the blue stain from his hand to his chest, which was bare beneath a crimson vest. Sanura was stunned as once again Alix disarmed Paki and Kontar before the guards could react to his defiance. Instead of threatening them with their own weapons, he threw the swords of Claennis across the ballroom, where they skittered and screamed against the stone floor before coming to a stop.
Alix drew his own sword, which sang as it left its sheath. "If you cared at all about protecting Sanura, you would've used those weapons on the men who claimed to own her as if she were a pretty jewel or a strong horse. You would've used those blades to cut out the hearts of women who would rip her insides apart in the name of some d.a.m.ned man's convenience. If you cared for her at all, you would not allow any man to own her!"
Paki and Kontar backed away from Alix's dark stare.
"Go home," he said calmly. "Sanura is now mine to protect. Be a.s.sured that if any other man ever touches her, I will do what you could not."
The two men looked to Sanura, and she nodded. Kontar made a move as if he intended to retrieve his weapon, but Alix stopped him with a curt, "Leave the swords. You don't deserve them."
Without a word of argument, they backed toward the Tryfynian soldiers and the doorway. Alix shooed them all away with his sword, which caused some alarm among the four men. He dismissed the men and their threats, he ushered them to the door and tossed them out, and then he closed the ballroom door behind them and turned to face his brother.
"Now, on to our business," he said, stepping toward Emperor Jahn with long, purposeful strides.
GETTING rid of those who wished to kill him had been too easy. The Tryfynians were not beyond reason, and he'd barely broken a sweat disarming Paki and Kontar and staking his claim where Sanura was concerned. He looked Jahn in the eye and steeled himself for what was to come. An emperor should expect and be prepared for a.s.sa.s.sination, but Jahn was so trusting, so d.a.m.ned gullible. When he was emperor, he would be more cautious.
Alix's heart climbed into his throat. He should have no second thoughts, no doubts, no qualms about doing what had to be done.
He was so focused on Jahn he did not know what Sanura was intending until she planted herself in front of him, the dagger in her hand pointing to his heart, where he had marked himself with the blue from her skin.
"I can't let you do this," she said softly. "I'm sorry, but I can't."
Alix looked down at Sanura, disappointed and surprised. "You would kill me to save him?" He could disarm her easily, but she'd probably cut him in the process, and she would be hurt. Even now, he did not want that. Even now, he felt obligated to protect her.
"No," she said. "But I would kill you to save you."
"That makes no sense."
Jahn sighed, sounding tired and disgusted. "Cut my brother, and I will kill you," he said forcefully.
"I know," Sanura said in a voice loud enough to be heard by the emperor. "I understand completely."
"I don't," Alix said. "I don't understand this at all." He looked to his brother. "If she does manage to kill me, you will not harm her and you will not imprison her. Do you understand?"
"Not at all," Jahn muttered.
Alix looked down to Sanura, who had not moved. He could see no doubts in her eyes or in her stance.
"I broke you," she whispered. "I've tried to fix you. I've done everything I can think of, and it simply isn't working. I thought love would be enough, I thought I would be enough, but if I'm not... if I'm not enough, then I can't allow you to kill what is left of the man I love by committing this atrocity. You won't survive if you murder your own brother."
"Let him go," Jahn said. "Alix won't hurt me. We've been through too much together. He's my brother, for G.o.d's sake. He's my twin."
"You're a fool," Alix said, looking past Sanura to his brother, ignoring the knife she held to his heart. "I will kill you, if I get the chance. I will take the throne, this palace, everything you possess."
Jahn looked hurt, but was not as shocked as he should've been. Angry, yes, but not surprised. "Do you want the empress I'm supposed to pick?" he asked harshly. "Trust me, you can have her!"
"I don't..." He started to say he didn't need an empress. He had Sanura. But that wasn't entirely true. He would need an empress who could give him children. If they somehow survived this night, if both of them walked away from this, would Sanura stay? After he had done what he intended, would she still love him?
"Yes," she whispered, as once again she had reached inside him and touched his soul.
Tears flowed down her face. Those tears did not mar the perfect blue, they did not wash the cosmetic away, but they did leave tracks there. He knew it hurt her to hold that dagger to his heart; he felt her pain as if it were his own...and something inside him broke. Something inside him fractured and fell away. He moved quickly, grasping Sanura's wrist and pushing the dagger away. He pulled her to him and gasped for breath, holding her because only her touch kept the pain from sending him to his knees.
A sharp, wrenching ache shot through his body, and for the first time he felt physically broken, truly and honestly fractured in body as well as in soul. He could not breathe, and only Sanura kept him from screaming, from literally falling apart. There would be nothing left of him if he gave in to this pain, if he let himself be torn apart.
And then the pain was gone.
Sanura dropped the knife and launched herself upward, wrapping her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck. She laughed as he tried to catch his breath. She laughed and shed tears at the same time. She almost choked on the tears and the laughter, on happiness and relief and love.
She made music such as he had never heard before.
He dropped to his knees with Sanura still in his grasp. She continued to hold on tight.
Jahn walked toward them. "I'm so f.u.c.king confused," he said in a voice that was much more reminiscent of the man he had been before he'd become emperor. "Is this woman yours?"
"No," Alix said. "No one can possess something so bright and beautiful as Sanura. No one can own her. But I am hers, heart and soul. I belong to her in every way possible. "
Sanura drew away and smiled at Alix. Her fingers touched his already marked face. "Your eyes, your beautiful eyes are more light than dark once again."
"The dark is not gone," he said. The shadows remained, not buried as they had once been but also not as strong as they had been in recent weeks.
"It never will be, love." She pushed back a strand of hair that had fallen across his cheek. "That darkness is a part of you, just as it is a part of all others, in some form or another. It doesn't matter whether or not the darkness exists. All that matters is the choices you make when that darkness speaks to you. Listen to your heart, and that darkness which tried to rule you will eventually be so small, no one will ever see it."
"No one but you, I imagine," he said. "You see everything. "
"Especially where you are concerned, Alix, my love."
He wanted to ask her to be his wife, and he would. But not here and not now. That was a question which could wait until later, when they were alone. Instead he said, "I love you, Sanura. I can't survive without you. I don't want to survive without you. Will you have me? Will you sing for my soul forever and keep the darkness small?"
She smiled. "I will."
VERITY cuddled against Laris's fine, naked body. "I like being married," she said. "I like it very much."
"So do I."
Beyond the window of the bedroom they shared for tonight, the same bed she'd slept in for too many nights-but with his sisters for warmth and companionship instead of Laris-a bonfire blazed. His family and friends, her family and friends now, still celebrated the marriage, long after the newlyweds had retired. The fire was not terribly close, but Verity could see the light of it when she turned her head in just the right way. Somewhere out there were music and dancing, but she preferred the intimate dance she had just learned to anything that might exist beyond these walls.
Her wedding night was shaping up quite nicely.
She might've been an emperor's bride, but she could not imagine being any happier than she was at this moment, she could not imagine loving any man more than she loved Laris.
"I would've made a good empress, I'm sure," she said, "but I think I'll make an even better sentinel's wife."
"I have to agree," Laris said. Of course, he had been very agreeable all day, and why shouldn't he be?
She reached for the table by the bed and snagged the lucky talisman she had worn since leaving her old home to come to this new one. She hadn't taken it off until tonight, when she had not wanted anything, no matter how small, to come between her and her husband. "I have a gift for you," she said as she grabbed it.
"That's not fair," Laris said. "I didn't have time to get anything for you."
"There will be lots of time for presents later." Yes, she would have to teach him that she liked presents very much.
Her mother had told her that all husbands, even emperors, had to be trained, but Verity suspected Laris needed less training than most. She slipped the chain over his head. "This will bring you luck in all you do."
He lifted the amber stone which lay against his bare chest and studied it briefly. "I don't much believe in charms and such."
"You'd better believe in this one!" she insisted. "It brought me to you."
He let the stone fall against his chest and lie there. "Then it is already a lucky piece for me." He kissed her very well, as he had often on this night, and she settled her body against his.
Verity had not yet told Laris that he would one day be Minister of Defense, but that time would come soon enough. He was smart, he was loyal, he was dedicated... it was only right that he rise through the ranks.
"It's a lovely gift indeed," she said against his mouth. "You really should repay me in kind. A gift to mark the starting of our life together, an offering to remind me every day that you love me."
"I have nothing to give you," he said. "Not yet. Maybe . . ."
"Maybe a little girl," she said as she ended his protests with a long, wonderful kiss.
UNDER normal circ.u.mstances, the marriage of a prince would require months of planning. It would be a social and political event of great importance.
Sanura counted herself at least a little bit lucky that at the moment nothing was normal.
Knowing that there had been at least one murder and one attempted murder of the bridal candidates, Emperor Jahn had dispatched sentinels to join and a.s.sist the two parties that had not yet been heard from. General Merin had been sent east to collect the daughter of the leader of a powerful clan, and Deputy Minister Bragg had gone south.
Neither of them had returned. One potential empress had arrived at the palace weeks ago, unharmed and without tales of excitement, a fact which put her under immediate suspicion. If she was the one behind the violence, however, she was not a particularly smart strategist.
One of the chosen had actually refused the offer to be presented, so that accounted for all the women.
Because all was not well in the palace, and because Alix refused to wait, they were married in the Imperial Ballroom with a handful of guests in attendance. A distracted and decidedly grumpy emperor and a handful of shocked ministers observed the simple ceremony. The priest who said the words was beyond shocked. Sanura had never before seen a man quite that shade of red.
Alix did enjoy seeing her blue, and though she could not remain forever in that state, he wished her to be painted on their wedding day. He also wished to be able to touch her without worrying about marking himself. The solution was simple enough.
He was blue, too.
Sanura was surprised when Alix led her from the site of the marriage ceremony to the stables, where two horses had been prepared for a trip. The saddlebags were bulging with supplies, and he even carried a small roll-up tent on the back of his horse.
"Where are we going?" she asked as he checked the contents of one saddlebag.
"It's a surprise," he said, casting her a satisfied smile. His eyes were a lovely pale green marked with small slashes of a darker emerald.
"I do not care for surprises," she admitted.
"Every woman likes surprises," he protested.