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Untouchable. Part 25

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"It appears you do not know as much about women as you think you do," she argued with a grin. "You have much to learn, husband."

"I expect you will teach me, wife." Alix a.s.sisted her into her saddle, then he hoisted himself into his own. He looked fearsome and content, happy and agitated, determinedand loving. And very blue. She rather liked it, though she knew they would be anything but inconspicuous as they traveled to his surprise.

It was probably not fair to cheat, but she really did not like surprises, and if she looked intently, she could see anything of Alix that she wished to see.

Happiness, love, a hint of turmoil, plans to give Sanura everything she wanted, wondering if he would make a proper father . . .

Mali. They were going to fetch Mali and make her their own. She might be the first of many such children, but only time would tell.

They rode away from the palace at a leisurely pace. Alix did not look back, though Sanura did. Once.

"In just a few days your brother will choose an empress. Do you not wish to stay and see how events will unfold?"

"Not really."

"He might need your help," she argued. "And it isn't as if Mali won't be waiting for us if we are delayed by a few days."

Alix looked at her and sighed. "I will never be able to surprise you."

Sanura grinned. "I hope not. Now, about your brother . . ."

"Jahn will be fine, though I don't envy him his choice and the days to come." Alix's brow wrinkled. "I don't envy him at all. I want nothing he possesses. Nothing at all." He caught her eye and held it with is own. "I have you, and you are worth a thousand kingdoms."

He increased the pace of his horse and so did she, and after a few minutes Sanura was certain that the horses' hooves and the jangle of swords and bracelets and the rustle of leather and cloth created a heartsong that only they could hear.

Turn the page for a preview of the next romance

from Linda Winstead Jones

22 Nights Coming December 2008

from Berkley Sensation!

AMONG the Turis, marriage was a simple thing. A man and woman promised themselves to one another with their actions more than with formal words. There was an exchange of gifts, a simple dance, a kiss, and then it was done. The clan gathered to celebrate their union with food and drink and general merriment.

Bela did not feel particularly merry at the moment. She watched with sullen and openly acknowledged self-pity as her friend Jocylen offered Rab Quentyn a bowl of stew she had made with her own hands. He took it and drank some of the broth, and then he placed a ring of brightly colored spring flowers upon her head. They joined hands, and while simple, slow music played on a single lute filled the night air, they took a turn, skipped in unison, and spun about. Jocylen laughed, and because he was so pleased with her joyous response, Rab laughed, too. They kissed, a joyous cry from families and friends filled the air, and it was done.

Bela did not shout or laugh, but she did move forward to offer Jocylen her congratulations. She wanted her friend to be happy, she truly did, and she knew how very much Jocylen loved Rab. But no one else understood her, no one else knew all her secrets, and now Jocylen would spend her days cooking and making a home, and in short order there would be children to care for and the newlywed would begin to spend her time with other married women who were devoted to their husbands, women who spent their days talking about babies and sewing and how best to cook a tough piece of meat.

Bah! Bela had never cared for any of those things, much to her mother's dismay. She preferred hunting with her brothers to cooking, and she had no intention of taking care of any man. Not ever.

Jocylen smiled at Bela and took her hand. "You dressed well for my special occasion, I see."

Bela glanced down at the plain, drab green gown which draped simply and ended just short of her best sandals, sandals adorned with gemstones from the mountains which surrounded the village of the Turis. Unhappy as she was at the turn of events, she would not attend her beloved friend's marriage ceremony in her usual male-style clothing. Heaven above, she had even washed her hair! "Did you expect any less?" Bela asked, as if her efforts meant nothing.

"With you I never know what to expect," Jocylen responded.

The circlet of gold which adorned Bela's brow was heavier and less comfortable than her usual cloth or leather circlet. Yes, she had gone to great lengths to make herself presentable. Perhaps she was displeased to see her friend marry and join the ranks of the wives of the clan, but she also wanted to see Jocylen happy. Which she was. Blast.

"If he hurts you, I will gut him."

Jocylen's eyes widened. "Rab would never hurt me."

"Well, if he does . . ."

"He won't!" Jocylen rose up on her toes, as she was a good half-foot shorter than Bela, and kissed a reluctant cheek. "Don't worry so, Bela. We will still be friends. Forever, no matter what."

And then Jocylen was whisked away by new relations. Food and drink for all would follow, and then the newlyweds would retire to their home and do what newly wed couples did. Poor Jocylen. Bela had tried to warn her friend, but the warnings had been dismissed. Somehow the new bride expected bliss in her husband's bed.

She'd think differently in short order.

Alert as always, Bela was among the first to hear the quick hoofbeats approaching. She and a number of the men rushed to meet one of a pair of guards who had been posted at the western edge of the village, on this side of the river. Since so many riches had been discovered in the nearby mountains, mountains owned and protected by the Turis, they'd had to take measures to secure the safety of the people.

Some men would do anything for wealth.

Byrnard Pyrl leaped from his horse with a grace Bela admired. "A rider approaches. He wears an imperial uniform and his horse is clad in an imperial soldier's green as well, but of course that doesn't mean he's who he appears to be."

Bela's heart gave a nasty flip at the mention of soldier green. They did not see many soldiers out so far, not since the end of the war with Ciro, but still-her heart and her stomach reacted fiercely.

A handful of men gathered weapons and torches and collected their horses. The would-be intruder would be met and turned away from the village. None but Turis were welcome here. Strangers were not allowed simply to ride into their midst and be accepted.

Bela quickly collected her own sword and ran to her horse, intent on joining the men who would meet the rider. She was not surprised when her brother Tyman ordered her to remain behind with the other women. No one but she would see the glint of humor in his eyes. She looked to her older brother Clyn, who did not have Tyman's sense of humor. He, too, shook his head in denial.

Just because she was dressed like a woman tonight, that didn't mean she had to be treated like one!

A group of six men, her brothers among them, galloped toward the western edge of the village, their torches burning bright long after the men and the animals had vanished from sight. Bela watched those bits of light for a moment, and then she hiked up the skirt of her long gown and leaped into the saddle. Her sword remained close at hand, tucked into the leather sheath which hung from her saddle.

"Belavalari, don't!" a well-dressed and attractive older woman cried, rushing forward from the group of revelers. Bela knew that her mother would very much like to see her only daughter become a wife, as Jocylen had. She wanted to see her daughter among those women who cooked and cleaned and sewed and birthed babies.

"Sorry, Mama, I have to go."

"You do not..."

Bela set her horse into motion before her mother could finish her protest. Her loose hair whipped behind her as she raced from the village, her mare galloping into the darkness, away from the fires which lit the night celebration. For the first time this evening, Bela smiled. She was more warrior than woman, and when it came to protecting these people from intruders, it was as much her duty as it was her brothers'.

MERIN was not surprised to see the riders approaching with force and mistrust; this was a typical Turi greeting. It was for this reason that he had chosen to make the trip alone. He was sure that Valeron would send a chaperone, and perhaps a warrior or two, with his daughter when they left the village for Arthes, but on the initial leg of the journey other travelers would've only slowed him down.

And would've made this initial greeting more difficult. The Turis would not be suspicious of one traveler, especially when he was a soldier with whom many of them had once fought. If Merin had arrived with a contingent of soldiers, that would've been another story entirely.

Merin slowed his horse and held up both hands, so the riders would see that he was unarmed. As they drew close, he was happy to see two familiar faces. Tyman and Clyn, sons of the Turi chieftain, had fought with him for a time, when the threat of Ciro's Own had come near their home. Even though they had not parted on the best of terms-he had wished for an army of Turis to fight with his sentinels well beyond the clan's lands, and they had refused-he trusted them. They were good, if somewhat primal, men.

The chieftain's sons were not happy to see him, but they wouldn't kill him-not right away, in any case. Not unless their sister had said too much after Merin had left their village.

"I bring a message from the emperor," Merin called out. His hands remained visible, even so three of the riders drew their swords. Tyman and Clyn did not draw arms.

"What do you want?" It was the fair-haired Clyn who moved closest to Merin. The elder Haythorne son was extraordinarily large. Clyn was probably Merin's age, or thereabouts. He was a full head taller and was wide in the shoulders. A long blond braid fell over one of those shoulders. His chest and arms were unusually muscled, but those muscles did not impede him in swordplay, as they might with some men. Clyn was an intense and gifted swordsman. In any fight, Merin definitely wanted Clyn on his side.

The big man did not look like an ally at the moment.

"As I said, I have a message..."

Tyman, the more hotheaded brother, rode forward and almost ran into Merin's horse. The animals danced on graceful hooves. Tyman's loose, long hair-reddish brown and wavy like Bela's-danced around his angry face and rigid shoulders. "Give me one reason why I shouldn't kill you here and now."

Judging by the expressions before him, Bela had talked. What had she told her brothers? The truth or her twisted version of the truth? Anything was possible. "One reason?" Merin looked Tyman in the eye. "Kill me, and an entire army will come down on your head. The Turi have many fierce warriors, I will give you that, but Emperor Jahn has you in numbers. Kill me, and they will crush you all."

It was true, and surely they knew that; yet Tyman still gripped the handle of his undrawn sword.

"And if you are killed by a woman?" an unexpectedly soft voice asked.

Merin's head snapped around. He had been so intent on Clyn and Tyman he had not seen or heard the seventh rider arrive. She moved into the light of their torches, the gold circlet across her brow glinting in the firelight, her wild chestnut hair shimmering. Her dress had been hiked up to allow her to ride astride, and so her long, strong legs were exposed to the night air. She simply did not have the reservations that others of her age and gender possessed.

"Lady Belavalari," he said.

She drew her sword, and something on the handle of her weapon caught the light in a strange way. He didn't have time to study the weapon's grip; he was more focused on the blade and the woman who wielded it. She could kill him, and at the moment she looked as if she had killing on her mind.

"General Merin," she responded, "I did not think ever to see you again. I did not think you would be so foolish as to come anywhere near the Turis."

Bela was older, leaner of face, more confident than he remembered. The shape of her body was a bit different: softer, a bit rounder, but maybe it was the unexpected dress. No matter what she wore, she was more strength than gentleness.

"I have a . . ."

"Message," she interrupted sharply. "I heard. Are you still a general, or have you been demoted to courier?"

"I am still a general," he said calmly.

"What foolish mission would lead you here, where your life is all but worthless? I would think a general would be smarter, though in my experience you're not known for your vast intelligence."

A couple of the men laughed, but not Bela's brothers.

"I need to speak to your father," Merin said, ignoring her gibes. Was she trying to provoke a fight so she'd have an excuse to cut him down? That was certainly possible.

"First you have to get past me," she said.

He had heard tales of female warriors who'd lived in the past, and he imagined they might've looked very much like this. Bela Haythorne was stubborn, strong, willful, skilled, and fearless. She was in many ways everything Merin had ever wanted in a soldier.

Unfortunately, she was also deceptive, manipulative, and determined to have her own way in every situation, no matter what the cost.

She was very close to him now, and she held her sword steady and thrust forward so that the tip of the blade came near his heart. Not threateningly close, not yet. Again the exposed portion of the grip caught the light from a torch and glinted brightly. Bela's arm did not seem to be strained, as she continued to hold the weapon steady.

"It is your decision, Bela," Tyman said in a low voice. "Kill him, and we will gladly fight the war that follows. You have every right to take his head, and any other part of him that strikes your fancy."

Only one man laughed that time, and the harsh sound was strained and short-lived.

Thanks to the darkness of night and the way she'd narrowed her calculating eyes, he could not see the warm, mossy green he remembered. After all this time he should not remember that particular detail, but he did. Narrowed or not, night or not, he could see the anger and the hurt in her eyes. "Is that what you want, Bela?" he asked. "Do you want my head?"

"Yes," she whispered.

"Then take it." Hands out, defenseless, he looked into her eyes without fear.

For a moment he thought she might take him up on the offer, but eventually the sword fell and she looked to Clyn. "Take General Merin to Papa, let him deliver his message, and when that is done, have him escorted to the other side of the River Hysey." Her gaze returned to him. "Consider my generosity a parting gift, General. If I see you again I will take your head."

BELA spun her horse about and urged the mare to a full run, not looking back, not acknowledging to anyone that her heart was pounding too hard and her mouth was dry.

Tearlach Merin, here after all this time. She'd never admitted to anyone, not even Jocylen, that she'd spent the better part of a year foolishly waiting for him to return. It would have been a ridiculous confession, considering the circ.u.mstances. She'd never admitted to anyone that she dreamed about General Merin now and then. Well, he'd had plenty of time to come back, and he hadn't. Now it was too late. Much too late!

Just when she had her life settled as she pleased, just when she was happy with her lot, he came waltzing back, looking just as pretty as ever with that dark curly hair that did not hang even to his shoulders, and those deep, dark brown eyes and that perfect nose and the lovely full mouth. She knew men did not like to be called pretty, but Tearlach Merin was.

Too bad looks were deceiving.

Bela held on tight and let the horse run free in the night. With every hoofbeat against the ground her worry eased. Merin wouldn't be here for very long. He'd deliver his message and then he'd be gone long before sunup. Maybe this time he'd know better than to come back. It wasn't as if he had returned for her.

And if he had . . .?

Many villagers were standing about, waiting to learn who had come calling at such a late hour. Bela dismounted, withdrew her sword from its sheath, and then, for her mother's benefit, she smoothed her wrinkled skirt and ran the fingers of one hand through her hair. "The man who entered our territory is a messenger from the emperor," she said simply. No reason to tell them all that it was General Merin, come back to taunt her. They'd find out soon enough. "He'll need to speak to Papa before he leaves." She glanced around, but saw no sign of Jocylen. The poor girl had probably already retired, not knowing what awaited her in her marriage bed. Really, women should be told the truth, instead of being fed pretty lies about love and pleasure.

Bela found her mother in the crowd. "I'm exhausted," she said. "It's been such a long day."

Gayene Haythorne narrowed her eyes suspiciously. Bela was never the first to bed. She preferred staying up late and sleeping long past sunrise, when possible. "Are you ill?"

Did heartsick count, Bela wondered. "No, I'm fine." She looked toward the narrow lane that led to Jocylen's new home. "I'm just a bit worried about Jocylen. Poor girl. You know how I feel about marriage, Mama. It is a horrid and unnatural state for women."

"It is not," her mother said genially. They'd had this argument many times, and had finally come to an understanding; they would never agree.

"In any case, I have worried about Jocylen all day, and worrying is exhausting."

"As I well know," Gayene replied, not even attempting to hide her true meaning.

Bela did not respond to that. She had given her mother no reason to worry. Not today.

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Untouchable. Part 25 summary

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