“I’m here with somebody already,” Jurnia said crisply, shifting sideways to step around him.
“What, that little runt?” He shifted to counter her attempt, snickering. “Is that really a man? I couldn’t tell.” A sly smile remained on his long, ferret-like face.
Jurnia glared. “Yes, that’s a man, you clod. Now move. I don’t have time to waste on you.”
“Oh, you’re a feisty one, aren’t you?” The annoying Weasel leaned closer, and Jurnia wrinkled her nose at the rancid smell of stale sweat and unwashed clothing. It didn’t help that he’d obviously been eating onions as well as drinking; his breath made her eyes water. “I think you need a real man to put you in your place.”
“Did you have a real man put you in your place?” she shot back. “I can’t imagine a real woman would have anything to do with you.” A chuckle went through the growing crowd of onlookers.
“You’ve got quite a mouth on you. Someone needs to teach you a nicer way to use it.” Leaning close, he reached out to grab at the dark-red braid that lay over her shoulder.
There was a soft whispering sound, and then a solid chok. The man stared cross-eyed at a glimmering bar of golden light, then shifted his gaze along the length of it. The radiance faded, revealing the sudden barrier between Weasel and Herald to be the cold steel of an edgeless blade. Amazingly, the point bit deep into the wooden wall.
The outlaw’s gaze continued along the sword’s length to the hand that held it, then up the arm and over the shoulder to the icy stare of gold-lit amber eyes. The springy locks of orange-red hair cast soft shadows over the youthful face, but there was no softness in his expression. It was wholly that of a merciless predator.
Words of gratitude stopped in Jurnia’s throat as she stared at her traveling companion, who was suddenly not silly or harmless-looking at all. Instead, deadly grace and lethal menace cloaked him, making her Avatar senses tingle with alarm.
“She’s mine,” Khuradasu said in frozen tones, his words carrying despite the near-whisper. Though his odd blade remained buried in the wall, no one doubted he could pull it free and cut someone down in the space of a heartbeat.
If it were gentle, peaceful Karavasu, the fellow might have laughed or mocked or turned his swaggering arrogance on the smaller man. But the Weasel was staring into the eyes of the deadliest warrior and assassin alive, and a deep, primitive part of the outlaw’s brain recognized it. He stood paralyzed, as if even the tiniest movement might cause the predator to strike. Unhindered, Jurnia stepped away, brushing her hands over her blouse as if it had gotten dirty just from being close to the man.
“As I said, I’m here with somebody,” she said almost smugly.
The fellow mumbled something that sounded vaguely like an apology and began to back away, as if that relentless stare was a physical force shoving him along. Only when he’d slunk off into the now-fascinated audience did the small man pull the sword’s point out of the wall and re-sheath the weapon with a sort of slow deliberation.
Jurnia finished smoothing her clothes. “I could have handled him, but I’m glad you—”
“Didn’t I tell you not to wander off?” The tone brought her head up sharply; it wasn’t the mild, cheery voice of Karavasu. The golden eyes caught hers, held her startled gaze. They still glimmered with the smoldering flicker of Avatar power.
“I didn’t want to waste time,” she managed, startled. The little swordsman had always immediately reverted to his normal, fluffy-headed self the moment a conflict was resolved—but not this time. “You were making the arrangements at the inn, so I—”
“When I give you an order, I expect it to be obeyed,” he explained in those soft, lethal tones. His cold amber gaze continued to burn into her, unflinching, unyielding.
Outrage lit her green eyes, cutting through the involuntary fascination. “What did you say?”
“I won’t repeat myself.” His hand wrapped around her wrist; she tried to shake his grip off, but his slender fingers might as well have been steel chains. He pulled her toward him with disconcerting ease, slipping his other arm around her waist and pinning her against him, his hand resting with casual familiarity on the top curve of her derriere. Fingertips dented her flesh; his grip was firm but not painful—and unmistakably possessive.
Jurnia suddenly found it difficult to breathe. It wasn’t that his embrace was too tight—it was the fact that he was holding her at all. Her heart began to bang against her ribs; her mouth went dry. Her free hand, which had gone to his shoulder to push him away, curled involuntarily on his collar as he blew lightly on the side of her neck, making the stray wisps of hair that had escaped her braid dance. His lips grazed her flesh, and she shivered.
He bit her suddenly, lightly, not enough to break the skin, then soothed the sting of the nip with a flick of his tongue and a lingering, suckling kiss. Jurnia shuddered, a tiny gasp escaping her; the onlookers began to hoot and comment loudly, and the noise broke the spell. Blinking, startled, the young Raven remembered that they were standing in the middle of this disreputable place in public view of at least two dozen shady characters. The soft blush cresting her cheeks turned into blazing red flags of embarrassment.
Still holding her wrist, the little, orange-haired swordsman broke the kiss and drew his other arm away. He whirled and started for the inn without paying any attention to the catcalls of the audience or even glancing at the young woman in tow. Jurnia’s face was hot, her blood felt like lead, and she desperately wanted to sink into the ground to get away from the leering, laughing crowd. The grip on her arm was unyielding, though surprisingly gentle, and she followed wordlessly in the small man’s wake.
He didn’t release her until they reached the door of the small room; he pushed her firmly inside and finally let go of her wrist. “Stay here,” he instructed in a tone that brooked no dissention. The assassin’s deadly aura still clung to the swordsman’s short, slender form. “I’ll be right back.” The door closed with a sort of wooden finality.
Jurnia sat down slowly on one of the two small beds, her breathing still too quick and her heart pounding. The cloudy mirror over the washstand caught her eye, and she raised a hand to touch the small, distinct impressions on the side of her neck. Her emotions were knotted up inside her, angry embarrassment warring with breathless desire. It was the first time anyone had ever dared touch her in such a bold manner, and the fact that it was the man she’d dreamed about for years . . .
When the door opened again, she jumped, her head whipping around. The redheaded swordsman entered, carrying a tray with a couple of bowls and cups on it; he didn’t look at her as he closed the door with his foot and walked to the table, setting the tray down. She tracked his path across the floor with wide eyes and flinched slightly as he turned. Yet even as he did so, the deadly aura about him suddenly evaporated like dew in bright sun.
“You really ought to eat something, Lady Jurnia,” Karavasu said brightly, his expression back to its usual pleasant empty-headedness. The smile he beamed her way was full of sunshine. It was as if, to him, nothing had just happened between them.
Confusion and desire melted away under the white-hot blowtorch of humiliated fury.
“What did you think you were doing?” she exploded, coming to her feet as if the bed had catapulted her off.
He blinked in confusion. “Ara?”
“You—you touched me like . . . like that! In public! What were you thinking?!”
“Oh.” He gave her another sunny smile. “I did tell you that this was a rough town, Lady Jurnia. I thought you understood that it wouldn’t be very safe for you to go anywhere without me.”
“That gives you no right to—to paw me!”
The smile faltered. He seemed confused, then hurt to realize she was truly upset. “I apologize for embarrassing you, and I trust that I didn’t hurt you with the bite,” he said with absolute sincerity. “But with all those onlookers, I had to do something to make them all believe that you were under my protection. Which you are,” he added softly. “If they spread the word, you should be at least a little bit safer.”
“You didn’t have to do it like that!” she snarled, trying very hard not to dwell on the mention of the bite. Her skin still tingled where he had left the marks of his teeth. “We’re just traveling companions!”
“But if they believe that you’re more, they’ll think twice about trying anything with you. I’m afraid that ‘traveling companion’ isn’t nearly as impressive to people like we’re dealing with here.”
“You had no right—”
“Lady Jurnia,” he interrupted gently, raising a hand to stop her tirade. His amber eyes caught hers, neither the golden flame of the fearsome warrior nor the innocent sunlight of the harmless wanderer, but an intense, open gaze she had not seen before. His voice, too, was neither cold steel nor bubbly cheer, but level and forthright. “As long as you travel with me, I will protect you. To do that, I may have to do things that you don’t like, and while I am sorry to upset you, I will continue do whatever I must in order to keep you safe.”
Under that gaze, Jurnia’s rage dissolved and understanding seeped in to replace it. He was right, of course; a display of possessive strength was possibly the only thing that could have convinced the ruffians in this town to leave her in peace. She knew him well enough by now to know that he was certainly not a boorish chauvinist like the thug who had cornered her, but he had put on the show despite his own gentler instincts. To keep her safe, he would go to any lengths, even act contrary to his own nature. It was hard to stay mad at him with that in mind.
His forthright gaze remained fixed upon her. “If you could, try to be less impulsive in the future. I would never forgive myself if anything should happen to you. And you are in far more danger than you realize.”
A frown of irritation crossed the Kaykolom’s pretty face. She could take care of herself; she certainly wasn’t a child any longer. For a second, her mind played back the sensation of the assassin’s possessive kiss. Even as she shivered, her heart skipping a beat, she ruthlessly shoved the recollection aside. “What do you mean?” she demanded.
“I asked you to set aside the symbols of your office for more than just ‘blending in better with the scum’—a reason which is still valid, by the way. No one here would speak with a Herald, and many of them are desperate enough to make one ‘disappear’ despite their sacred status.
“However, it’s come to my attention that someone out there is willing to pay a fortune to find and hire the Demon’s Claw for a hit—”
Jurnia stared at the redheaded swordsman, her expression aghast. “Y-you’re turning mercenary?” she shrieked in outrage. And here she’d been beginning to believe he was something more, never using his sword for his own gain but for the good of others. But if he was ungentlemanly enough to publicly manhandle her like he had, perhaps he really wasn’t the person she had thought he was. He had made her react to him in a way she had never reacted to anyone; knowing the secret adoration of Khuradasu that she had carelessly let slip to him, he had used it against her. She snatched at any reason to stay angry at him. “You’re nothing but a low-down, money-grubbing—”
At her initial howl, Karavasu had jumped, startled. Then as her voice became louder, he’d glanced nervously around and started making all sorts of frantic gestures to get her to calm down and lower her voice. Failing that, he swiftly closed the distance between them and clapped a slender hand over her mouth. “Please, Lady Jurnia, just hear me out!” he begged, once again the gentle fluffhead.
Emerald eyes narrowed as the Kaykolom maiden seriously considered sinking her teeth into the flesh over her mouth. But he seemed so frantic, so sincere in his desire to explain. Nodding her agreement that she’d listen, she stepped back and away from his restraining hand, sinking back down to sit on the edge of the bed again.
Karavasu took a deep breath, then flicked his honey-hued gaze to the Herald. “Khuradasu’s reputation has become so monstrous that most would rather stay far away from him. For someone wanting to find him and hire him to kill someone, and willing to pay the sums I’ve heard through the grapevine . . . well, it indicates a desperation or ruthlessness not often matched. Someone must be deathly serious to do so. I wished to learn the details of the assassination, yes, but not for gold or to carry it out. Rather, I wish to prevent it from happening at all, for if this person doesn’t manage to find the Demon’s Claw, he may settle for someone else.”
“Have you learned anything more about this?”
Karavasu nodded, stray orange wisps of hair floating about his pretty but masculine face. “The intended target is Chieftain Iryasitru of the Kaykolom.”
Jurnia shot back to her feet, her mouth opening, her eyes huge. Karavasu hastily put a hand over her mouth again, muffling the horrified shriek of “What?!” that he had sensed coming. He pressed a finger against his own lips in a universal gesture, shaking his head at her.
She regained some of her self-control and pushed his hand away, her voice a strangled whisper. “Someone wants him dead? Why?”
“That’s what I want to find out. He’s made enemies, but that’s hardly unusual for a clan chief. It’s far rarer that a chieftain makes enemies who are willing to go to the extent of arranging his murder.” He looked at the shocked young Herald. “I want to find out who and why, but it’s very important that you avoid attracting notice. If someone recognizes you as the Chief Herald of the Raven, your life might be in immediate danger as well. At the very least, our quarry might go to ground, and every day spent searching for him increases the risk that Chieftain Iryasitru’s in. The faster we find this enemy, the better.”
She looked him squarely in the face. “You know the first person that comes to mind when one ponders my chief’s enemies.”
If he had looked away from her, there was no telling what she might have done. But his gaze never wavered. “Lord Arjunayazu would not do such a thing,” he said quietly.
“Are you just saying that because he’s your father?”
It seemed as if he flinched slightly. “No. I say it because I know that it’s true.”
“Didn’t he send Khuradasu to carry out any number of assassinations?” she shot back.
“The conflict between Raven and Fox is ended, Jurnia,” he said flatly. “You know that as well as I do. It was ended the day that Lord Arjunayazu brought your mother’s body to be buried, and her murderer to be punished. Your lord and mine are both men of unquestioned honor. No matter what the stories say the Fox are capable of, this is not one of them. That Khuradasu was Lord Arjunayazu’s weapon is true, but he would not order such an assassination now.”
Jurnia writhed inwardly, knowing that he was speaking the truth, but her high temper pushed her onward. “How can I trust your word?” she demanded. “How do I know that you aren’t lying?”
“Because I have nothing to gain and everything to lose by lying,” he responded. “Besides, listen to what your own words acknowledge. Father doesn’t have to buy Khuradasu’s services. He only has to appeal to my sense of loyalty and duty as his son. He only has to order, yet someone out there is willing to give the Demon’s Claw three hundred hiranya . . .
“Second, do you really think Father’s heartless enough to spit on your mother’s memory like that? She did her best to end the conflict on the Kaykolom side, something which cost her very life. If Father went back on his word of a permanent truce, he would be making your mother’s death completely useless.”
Jurnia bit her lip, an obvious sign of her indecision. “He could be trying to hide the fact that Khuradasu really is a Lopayzom by offering money like anybody else would,” she said, wincing at the feebleness of the excuse even as she spoke. At the mention of her mother, she swallowed hard against a sudden lump in her throat. “If all the stories are to be believed, he’d be more than heartless enough to do that. He’s a Lopayzom, after all.”
“Did you ever get to see the two of them together? Did Father seem like the horrible, terrible Lopayzom you’ve heard about, especially in your mother’s presence? Remember, she chose her office over his love.” His amber eyes continued to stare at her, his attitude still somewhere between the frightening assassin and the harmless fluffhead.
“Only for a few minutes,” she muttered, the memory of the visit to the Dragon encampment years ago leaping immediately to mind. “I remember being surprised that nobody else in the entire room seemed aware of what I could see.”
He cocked his head to the side, the topknot of orange silk swinging gently. “And what did you see, Jurnia?”
“A lot of things that I was a little young to understand.” Inevitably, her mind wandered to what it always wandered to when she thought about that day—a magnificent warrior coming to her rescue, illuminated in the colors of flame by the setting sun . . .
With a shake of her head, she banished the memory. “All right. If we assume that it’s not the Silver Fox, who you must admit is the most glaringly obvious suspect, who else could be trying to kill Chieftain Irya?”
A frown crossed his pretty face; his eyes took on a troubled expression. “I don’t know, but intend to find out. However . . . I fear that it’s someone hoping that others will jump to the same conclusion as you did. I know the Kaykolom themselves will certainly assume Father had something do so with it if it happens.”
Jurnia frowned, one hand absently touching her sash where her wooden sword usually resided. “Yes. I don’t think that Irya himself would make that assumption if he gets wind of this, but there are others in the clan who might. But it’s hard to say whether this is being done by someone who wants to finish the annihilation of the Fox, or someone who just wants my chieftain dead.” She hesitated a moment. “Or both, perhaps?”
The diminutive swordsman softly sighed. Turning gracefully on a heel, he clasped his hands behind his back and began slowly pacing in the area at the foot of the narrow beds. “I don’t know. It could be anything at this point. If this is something to do with crushing both clans, then something truly sinister’s at work. The Kaykolom are very influential in Zaryan politics, just as the Lopayzom were—and still are—in Derkaryan. Let’s face it . . . the most simple explanation is that His Grace the Raven has irritated someone to the point of retaliation. He’s not exactly the easiest person with whom to deal.”
Sitting down yet again on the edge of the bed, Jurnia propped her elbows on her knees and looked thoughtfully at the floor. “Of course the Lopayzom are still influential in the East. The only other Fox alive is the Minister of War and one of the Dragon’s closest advisors.” She snorted. “No, he’s not. You wouldn’t believe the fights I’ve had with him. He’s stubborn, arrogant, and absolutely convinced that he’s right about everything.”
It would, perhaps, be unwise to point out that the conflicts between Herald and Chieftain might be due to the fact that they both shared the traits Jurnia had mentioned.
“But despite all of that,” she continued, “he’s a rigidly fair man. Even the people he’s decided against in various cases have to agree that he always gathers all the information he can before he makes any decisions.” She winced suddenly. “The only time he might have jumped ahead,” she added very softly, “was when his sister died. Mother didn’t like to talk about it, but I’ve heard that he went almost completely out of control.”
“Which, believe it or not, I can understand. She was his sister, and the clan into which she was marrying should have protected her. Family is family; there are no ties stronger.”
He abruptly stopped, his gaze swinging back over to look at her. “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting hungry and dinner’s getting cold.” He smiled then, one that had overtones of the vagabond’s sunny grin. Striding over to the table, he picked up one of the bowls. “So . . . I intend to eat and bathe. Should you choose to do so also, you’ve got two options when it comes to the bath. Either you let me assist you, or you let me stand guard outside. Khuradasu jealously guards what’s his, after all . . .”
“Mother had trouble believing that the Lopayzom were really responsible,” Jurnia said slowly, “but Irya refused to listen to her as he normally did.”
Her stomach rumbled faintly, and she started to reach out for one of the bowls as well. His words caused her to nearly drop it instead, her cheeks instantly going hot. “Assist me! You have to be joking! I have no intention of—” She cut herself off with a sudden, heartfelt groan. “Oh, no. Thanks to this little charade, we’ll have to be in the bathhouse at the same time! Everybody’s going to expect that I’ll be helping you with your bath, like a proper little woman.” The last three words came out between clenched teeth.
“Actually . . . as I said, I’ll stand guard outside the door while you take your bath, and you can go first. After that, I can just loudly ‘order’ you to have my bed ready for me, with you in it, and I’ll take my bath while you stay in the room here.” Focusing on the food—a pile of fluffy brown rice smothered with diced chicken breast and slices of sweet red bell peppers, red onions and green onions in a tangy sweet and sour sauce—he took a moment to eat a scoop of his dinner with the slender eating sticks. “Of course, I don’t expect you to really be in my bed when I return . . .”
She blushed even harder. “That’s fortunate,” she said tartly. “I’d hate to disappoint you. Ugh, do men really treat women like that?” Balancing the bowl on her knees, she picked briefly at the food as if looking for something to criticize, then took a careful bite. “Adequate,” she sniffed.
“Not always,” the redheaded swordsman said reassuringly. “It’s just . . . this isn’t your world of diplomacy, honor and courtesy. These are the dregs of society, and what they respect and fear is strength.” He took another few bites, his expression remaining thoughtful.
“And there isn’t anybody in this town, probably not in this entire empire, who can match Khuradasu for strength.” The words sounded teasing, but there was a brief dreamy flash in Jurnia’s green eyes that made them seem much more serious.
Her comment amused him. Uttering a rare chuckle, he turned his attention back to her. Then the joy faded, his expression shifting back to seriousness. “Perhaps I’m asking too much of you. You are, after all, a noble maiden among a bunch of shady characters. Perhaps on the morrow you should pack up and head back to the Rookery. Do your duty and warn your chieftain of the possible threat. If nothing else, at least His Grace will be watchful.”
Anyone who had known the young Herald for longer than a week or so could have told Karavasu that the fastest way to get Jurnia to do something was to suggest that she shouldn’t. One could almost see her feathers ruffling. “Are you saying that I’m too weak to handle this situation? Of all the nerve! I’m not going to run off and hide my head under a pillow just because we have to deal with some mannerless ruffians. I’ll send a message to inform Irya of what’s going on, but I’m not scared to stay here.” She glared. “Or are you just trying to get rid of me, Karavasu?”
“Not at all. But you need to understand one thing.” Those golden eyes fixed her with a very honest, straightforward look. “As long as you stay here with me, you’ll either have to stay here in the inn, out of sight and out of harm’s way, or you’ll have to accompany me. If you choose to do so, then you must play the role of ‘Khuradasu’s woman’. I have no qualms about including you in my meetings and investigations, if you can play the role. But it may mean that I may have to do more things that make you uncomfortable and upset. I don’t wish to do so, but it may be unavoidable. Just try to remember I’m playing a role as well.”
Jurnia scowled. “I might see or hear things that you don’t. If someone’s plotting to kill my chieftain, it’s my duty to do whatever I can to prevent it, no matter how uncomfortable I get.” She would have rather died on the spot than admit to even the slightest interest in having him touch her again.
“Then that’s settled.” His attention returned to finishing his meal. “You stay as ‘Khuradasu’s woman’ and together we’ll try to get to the bottom of this. I gather I’ll be guarding the bath chamber’s door for you and you’ll be returning here when you’re done?”
“The last time you walked into a bath chamber that I was in, I threw a chair at your head, remember? I can still do that.” She stabbed at a piece of chicken so ferociously that he almost had to wonder if it had offended her somehow. “Are you sure that it won’t look strange if I don’t help you with your bath?” She felt her cheeks warm up slightly as the memory of Kara casually taking off his shirt in the bathhouse, unaware of her presence, blazed its way across her mind. Admitting that she’d like to help was entirely out of the question, of course. Her pride would take physical form and throttle her if she said such a thing.
“It would be somewhat unusual, yes. You’re right in thinking most people would expect us to bathe together. That stool is precisely the reason why I’m offering an alternative . . . well, that and your anger at the way I ‘pawed’ you not too long ago.” He smiled brightly at her. “I like my head where it’s attached . . . both of them.”
“We want to make this little charade look right, don’t we? You can stand guard outside while I bathe, but if we want it to be as authentic as possible, I should probably be in there with you while you take your bath first.” She was rather proud of the fact that she made it sound like she was being a reluctant victim of circumstance.
He carefully set the now-empty bowl back on the tray. His golden gaze remained on the smooth wood. “‘Authentic as possible’ means we help one another and soak at the same time.”
“Well . . .” She stared intently at a bit of pepper. “We could still take turns, only whoever isn’t washing keeps their face to the wall while the other one’s bathing. Unless there’s someone listening at the door or counting the minutes we’re in there, surely nobody will figure out that we’re not really helping each other bathe?”
“That should work.” Slender fingers rose to the leather thong binding his hair. “Are you almost done eating? We really should make it an early night. There’s someone Khuradasu needs to meet first thing in the morning.”
“Almost done.” She looked at him sharply. “There is? Who?”
“The man’s a Sarpom . . . a purveyor of flesh. The border war of the Dragonfly was a business opportunity he exploited. He hung about on the fringes of the Ruby Dragon Army, providing . . . entertainment for the troops.” Amazingly, a faint blush seemed to color what the Herald could see of Karavasu’s cheeks.
“Regardless, the Snake is someone who’s seen Khuradasu. He can spread the word that the Demon’s Claw is really here and waiting for more information on the proposed job.”
She stared at him, a bite of chicken stopped halfway to her mouth. “And under what circumstances did this Snake see Khuradasu, hm?” she asked sweetly.
Karavasu’s gaze flicked back to the Raven maiden, the rosy tinge still staining his cheeks. “There were a number of men in my unit that thought I should get a bit more . . . experience in the world, so they dragged me over to his ‘shop’. I declined the offers, much to my compatriots’ amusement. He saw me again when a double agent, a prostitute, specifically asked for my protection while she traveled out of the Phoenix lands to a safe house in Derkarya.”
“Oh.” She cleared her throat diplomatically. “So he really would be a good place to start if you want people knowing that the real Khuradasu is interested in that offer.”
“Yes, that’s the general idea. Considering the number of fake ‘Khuradasu’s we’ve encountered, the person interested in hiring him needs to know the real one’s out there.”
Jurnia looked down into her bowl and was slightly surprised to note that it was empty. Her stomach immediately curled into a knot full of butterflies, and her hands shook slightly as she dropped the sticks into the bowl. “I suppose we’d better go get cleaned up, then.”
Something in her voice must have alerted him. The last twist of the thong came loose; sunset-hued hair fell in a silken cascade to cover his back down to his waist. Amber eyes stared at her, concern quite evident in his gaze. “Are you going to be okay, Jurnia? You can always return home on the morrow . . .”
“I’m fine,” she insisted, sounding slightly distracted. She was staring again, almost mesmerized by the effect as his hair settled against his back. She had a sudden urge to bury her hands in the vivid mane, and she clenched her fists tightly at her sides as she rose from her seat. There were times when his physical attractiveness seemed to reach out and hit her squarely between the eyes. The fact that he seemed to have no idea just how good-looking he was completely befuddled her.
He smiled at her reply; his relief seemed genuine. He walked over to her, stray wisps of his now-loose mane floating about him. He stretched out his hand toward her. “If you’ll hand me your bowl, I’ll set the tray out for the staff to collect. There should be towels and night robes in the cupboard over there. If you could grab enough . . . ?”
“O-of course.” She thrust the bowl into his hand and moved quickly to the cupboard. Like everything else in the inn, the towels and robes had obviously started as quality material, but hadn’t been replaced or maintained as well as they could have been. The cloth was clean, just slightly worn and frayed in places. She gathered up two robes and three towels, then glanced over her shoulder. Karavasu had his back to her, and she couldn’t help but stare for a moment at the hair that cloaked him to the waist. Turning back to the cupboard, she pulled a fourth towel off the stack. Her hair was long and thick enough to require its own towel, and his was even longer than hers.
When she turned again, he was already standing by the door with the tray in his hands. His gaze was unexpectedly serious. “I want to tell you again that I have no wish to embarrass or upset you, Lady Jurnia. If you truly intend to go through with this scheme, I hope you will keep that fact in mind no matter what circumstances might require.”
She swallowed hard. “I understand that. I . . . I trust you to be able to handle any situations that we run into.”
Karavasu’s amber eyes softened, and he smiled at her. “I’m glad to hear that, and honored to have your trust in this.” Opening the door, he motioned with his chin for her to move on ahead of him as he paused to shut the door again and set the tray down on the floor.
To reach the bathhouse, they had to pass through the inn’s taproom, which was currently full of carousing males; Jurnia noticed that the patrons were very careful to stay out of their way. Word had apparently gotten around, and everyone was now sizing up the two travelers from a safe distance. Perhaps a few of them might try to test the mettle of the small, slender man, but evidently not right now. There were several loud, ribald comments and some laughter, but nothing that was offensive enough to draw more than a brief, cold stare.
The bath chamber was clean, though again showed signs of wear that had not been properly repaired. The bamboo latticework of the floor needed replacing, or at the very least a fresh application of lacquer to keep it waterproof. The tiles of the firebox were cracked here and there, the benches and stools had not been polished in some time, and the big metal tub had a few dents and scuffs. At least the buckets appeared to be new, or at least newer than the rest of the accoutrements.
Jurnia occupied herself by laying the robes and towels out on the firebox to warm as Karavasu paused to speak briefly with the bath attendant about the laundry service. The sound of the door closing seemed very loud to Jurnia, and she was annoyed to see that her hands were trembling slightly as she unfolded a robe and spread it out on the tiles. When Kara spoke from just behind her, she almost tore a sleeve seam.
“Lady Jurnia,” he said very softly, “I’m afraid that we overlooked a small detail.”
“W-we did? What detail?”
“The attendant is waiting to take our clothes to be laundered.” He paused, giving Jurnia enough time to realize his drift, then emphasized, “Our clothes. We’ll both need to, um, undress or it’s going to look strange.”
“Oh, Raven,” she whispered, her face feeling hotter than the firebox.
“I’ll turn my back,” he said hastily, “just as we agreed.”
“All . . . all right,” she managed. Standing her ground, she heard the slight creak of the bamboo latticework, then the soft rustle of cloth. Intense curiosity made her turn her head just enough that she could see him out of the corner of her eye, if she strained a little.
The tunic came off first. His torso was as she remembered it—lean and wiry, marked here and there with thin scars, tightly plaited muscle rippling subtly beneath smooth, fair skin. The pants came off next, leaving him only in a breechclout, which went immediately after. Jurnia snapped her gaze back to the wall, blushing furiously, and remembered that she was supposed to be undressing as well. Her fingers were unusually clumsy as she went about the business, and she had to fumble with the ribbon that tied the end of her braid far more than she ever had before.
“Can you toss your clothes over here?” Kara asked cautiously. “I’ll pass them out to the attendant.”
From the sound that ensued, her attempt to toss her clothing over her shoulder to land near his feet wasn’t very successful. It seemed more like she’d wound up throwing her garments over his head by accident, but he didn’t utter any complaint. He muttered a few curt words to the attendant as he opened the door and passed the bundle of clothes out.
There was an awkward silence as they stood on opposite sides of the room and stared at their respective walls. Finally, Kara cleared his throat. “Uh . . . do you want to wash first?”
“No, you can go first.”
“I can wait.”
“Really. It’s fine. Go ahead.”
“Are you sure?”
“I don’t mind waiting if you want to go first.”
“Take. Your. Bath.”
She heard him pick up the buckets and fill them from the tub, then wet himself down. There was a brief silence.
“Problem?” she inquired as calmly as possible.
“Er . . . the soap is on your side of the room,” he pointed out.
“Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t see it.” She looked around, then finally spotted the jar sitting on the bench near the firebox. She picked it up and another awkward silence ensued as they both tried to figure out how to transfer possession of the soap jar from her to him, since they had their backs turned to each other.
“Um,” Karavasu said, unhelpfully.
“Ah,” Jurnia agreed.
“Maybe you could put a towel or a robe around you, close your eyes, and turn around, and then I can take the jar? Or you could back up a few steps and put the jar down, and then I’ll back up to get it. After you move again, that is,” he added hastily.
“It’s not very heavy,” she said thoughtfully. “I bet that if I back up a little and you back up a little, I can pass it to you behind our backs.”
“We might wind up dropping it. My hands are wet now.”
“Oh. Well, let’s try your second idea, then.” She shuffled backward a few steps and crouched down, setting the jar off to one side. “I’m right in front of the door. Just so you know where the soap is.”
She shuffled back to her place in front of the firebox. There was a creaking of the lattice again as Karavasu retrieved the jar. “That worked fine.”
She listened to the faint sounds as he soaped himself up, and tried frantically not to let her imagination conjure up pictures to go along with the sounds. There was a slightly extended pause, and he grumbled faintly.
“What’s wrong?” she demanded.
“Uh . . . it’s my hair,” he muttered. “It’s a lot to work with.”
“Mine’s like that too.” She stared at the wall for another few moments. This is stupid, she thought almost wildly. It’s not as if we aren’t both rational adults who have definitely bathed in mixed company before. Just because he’s . . . who he is doesn’t make this any different. He isn’t actually interested in me, and it’s rude of me to make all this so complicated. He’s really trying to be kind and keep me safe by playing this out.
“To hell with this,” she said forcefully.
“Ara?” Karavasu sounded baffled.
“We’re both grownups. It’s dumb to be so skittish about this. Want me to help you with your hair?”
“Um.” Interestingly, the swordsman’s voice sounded as if he were strangling.
Jurnia decided enough was enough. Whirling around, she fixed her emerald gaze on the back of Karavasu’s head. At the moment, the diminutive warrior was leaning slightly forward, his delicate hands rubbing the sudsy liquid into the pile of water-darkened red hair. With an outward confidence at odds with the lightheaded, fluttery feeling within, she crossed the distance between them. Keeping her focus rigidly on merely helping soap up that magnificent mane of sunset silk, she batted his hands away even as she threaded her fingers into his hair.
The Lopayzom froze, his golden aura flickering with astonishment and uncertainty. “W-what are you doing, Lady Jurnia?” he burbled, his voice clearly in the tones of the gentle wanderer.
“What does it look like?” she snapped. “I’m helping you wash your hair. You’ve missed a lot of it with the soap, so far.” Emerald eyes closed to mere slits as she got down to business, her fingertips massaging his scalp. Even so, some part of her couldn’t remain detached; it noted with pure pleasure just how soft his hair truly was.
Karavasu clenched his eyes shut even tighter. Mouth going dry, he swallowed hard while suppressing a shiver. It had been bad enough trying to keep his mind from thinking about what sight would greet him had he chosen to turn around; it seemed as if every fiber of his being was aware of her proximity in a state of undress. He’d done his best to bat away the stray thoughts of it being her hands rubbing the lightly-scented liquid soap over his water-slicked skin instead of his own hands. The vagabond was supposed to be completely harmless, after all . . .
But he wasn’t truly the wanderer, just as he wasn’t truly the Demon’s Claw. He was simply a young man who had been finding the Raven Herald increasingly fascinating the longer she stayed in his company. She had all the beauty of her mother, but held a fire that seemed as irresistible as a moth found a candle’s flame. The Fox inhaled deeply; a whiff of her jasmine perfume lingered in his nose. And his body began to react in a very predictable, very masculine manner.
Panic spiked through him while he felt his face become overly warm. He’d managed to keep his growing attraction a secret from her; the wanderer wasn’t supposed to be interested in anything like that, since that too could be viewed as a threat. But now everything was exposed. There was no way he could hide the stirring of blood he felt as she smoothed his lathered hair up off his back, and at this point, even thinking of being suddenly dipped in ice-cold water wasn’t going to help much.
“Since I’m already here,” Jurnia murmured, a smile on her face. He was being so nice, quiet and cooperative; she really appreciated that. Feeling a bit more comfortable in his presence, her mind still focused on the business of getting clean, the emboldened maiden took out another scoop of the barely passable soap. “I’ll just take care of the spots you can’t reach.”
She ran her hand down the gracefully muscled plane of his back, spreading the soap across his skin, which was every bit as smooth as it looked. The sleek, cleanly defined muscle underneath felt as tense as a bowstring, and she couldn’t help but wonder if he was simply that well-toned, or if she’d been wrong about a lack of interest on his part. In the spirit of experimentation, she ran her nails over the scars on one shoulder, and was rewarded with a distinct twitch and a very faint, sharp intake of breath. With an Avatar’s eye, she watched the ripple of the sunlight aura that emanated from him.
Jurnia had definitely been wrong about a lack of interest.
A surge of confidence flowed through her; the balance of power had just changed. Perhaps he didn’t realize that he was capable of distracting her completely without even an effort on his part, but now she knew that he wasn’t unaware of her as a woman. She wasn’t sure why he hadn’t shown any real sign of interest, but maybe that was due to the fact that she’d made it clear that she was in charge of the situation between them. He could reduce her to a puddle of quivering awareness in a matter of seconds, and now she suddenly knew that the attraction wasn’t as one-sided as she had thought.
Jurnia hated to be powerless in any situation. A lack of control, an inability to direct events as she desired—it frightened her, made her doubt herself, often stirring up a frustrated rage as she sought to cover up her own weakness with a burst of hot temper. Most of her outbursts toward poor Karavasu had their roots in that fear and doubt as she struggled with her undeniable attraction to him. Thanks to her idiotic babbling, he already knew how she felt about Khuradasu, and that had given him power over her that she had been unable to counter.
Until now, that is.
Her painful self-consciousness faded, and she briskly scrubbed his back. “I think that we ought to find a merchant with some good soap and start carrying our own. Towels and robes too, maybe. Some of the inns we’ve stopped at just didn’t match a very good standard.”
“They’ve suited me just fine,” the little swordsman murmured while concentrating on keeping his breath steady. Granted, the sudden image of him carrying enormous bundles of traveling goods slung from a pole perched across his shoulders went a long way to deflating his interest in the Herald as a woman. What was it Father said? “You can never travel light or fast with a woman in the group.”
“I think that’ll do,” Jurnia said, her voice sparkling with her new-found power. Stepping back, she allowed herself a moment to frankly admire him. However, she quickly found herself becoming heated and breathless the longer she stared. Determined to remain in control of herself, she set the jar of soap down on the lattice floor. Picking up one of the wooden buckets, she dipped it into the heated water of the bath. “I’ll pour. You scrub,” she ordered as she approached him once again. She raised the filled bucket up over his head and tipped it.
Kara did as he was told, briskly scrubbing his fingers through his hair and wishing that the bath water was cold for once. It might have actually helped with his reaction to her. As it was, the hot water only felt rather stimulating. He gritted his teeth and started mentally reviewing some of the more boring lectures he’d endured while picking up an education at the Dragon Palace. That turned out to be less than helpful, because he’d eventually started noticing that his playmate and fellow student Divaksina was developing in some interesting ways as time passed. Come to think of it, Diva and Jurnia had some things in common—such as a monumental temper, though Diva had been somewhat more difficult to rouse to anger. They were both impressive when they got fired up, though. That thought immediately veered down the path of envisioning Jurnia on the warpath, her green eyes sparking with temper, and went even farther to speculate on how she’d look if she were roused in other ways. He stifled a groan.
“Let me get the ends for you,” Jurnia offered, dipping another half-bucket out of the tub. “My hair tends to hold the suds because it’s so thick . . . I think yours does that because it’s so long.”
“Yes,” he managed to say, since it was easier than arguing with her.
A few minutes later, she plunked the bucket down. “All done. Can you help me with my hair, too?”
“Uh . . . sure.” He waited a moment. “Can I turn around?”
There was a note in her voice that made him immediately wary. He carefully turned his head to glance over his shoulder, saw innocently wide green eyes and a glimpse of delightfully feminine attributes, and almost strained his neck whipping his face back to the front. “Could you turn your back?” he blurted.
“Hmm? Why?” She sounded so unconcerned that it was hard to believe this was the same girl who’d been blushing and stammering at the very idea of sharing a bath chamber with him at all. She dipped a bucketful of water out of the tub.
“I thought we agreed to keep this as . . . as polite as possible.”
“We’re both adults,” she reminded him cheerfully. There was a splashing sound as she wet herself down with the first bucket.
I am aware of that, he thought. I am so very aware of that. I’m so aware that I am suffering acute physical discomfort. “It’s not appropriate for me to look.”
“You already saw most of it when you walked in on me in the bath before, remember?”
Is she giggling? “That was accidental. This isn’t.”
“Oh, it’s all right. I promise not to hit you with a stool this time.”
If he persisted like this, she might start wondering if she would see something that would embarrass him. In sheer desperation, he cast about for the best way to get past the awkward moment, and grasped the first notion that came to mind. He turned his head again, just enough to be sure that she could see the flash of golden fire in his eyes, and it was Khuradasu’s voice that snapped, “Turn around, Jurnia.”
There was a brief little gasp, a faintly audible gulp, and then the creak of the latticework as she turned her back. With a silent sigh of relief, he picked up the second bucket and turned around.
This wasn’t much of an improvement. He was completely unable to keep his gaze above neck level. Even her back was attractive—smooth and sleek, her torso narrowing to a slim waist that flared out into very womanly hips and a delightful behind before tapering into long, graceful legs. Her mother had been somewhat taller and more slender, almost ethereal. Jurnia’s build looked stockier by comparison; she had broader shoulders and hips, but that only emphasized her figure. The first time he’d ever seen her, she’d been in the coltish stage, mostly composed of legs and elbows. The rest of her had definitely caught up.
She was scrubbing herself down with the soap. “Now, if we were carrying our own supplies, I’d have a washcloth. Remind me to look for bath linens in the next big town we visit.”
“I’ll do that,” he said by reflex, as he wasn’t really hearing what she was saying; if he had listened to what he was saying, he might have known why she shivered at the innocuous words. Spoken in the silk-and-steel whisper of Khuradasu, they took on a new dimension. There were little streams of soap bubbles trailing down her sides and legs, and his eyes were drawn to the tiny movements. It didn’t help when she started lathering her hair and more bubble streaks rolled down her back.
Jurnia wasn’t certain why he was still in assassin-mode, as it were. Maybe I’m really annoying him, she thought with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. But I saw how his aura reacted. Maybe it’s not annoyance—maybe he’s really having trouble with his self-control? That thought was rather cheerful.
“Are you going to help with my hair or not?” she demanded.
Her demanding tone struck him like fingernails against a chalkboard. Too late he realized his mistake in giving freedom to his darker self only to avoid embarrassing himself and sparing her something improper to see. The assassin within held all that was dangerous—including that very primal, masculine drive to dominate and procreate. Now loose, his awareness of her surged alarmingly. Frightened by the strength of unfamiliar emotions, the diminutive swordsman masked his fear with a better-understood feeling: anger.
“I give the orders, Herald,” he growled. Even so, the cold, quiet voice wasn’t harsh. There was a tense pause as she felt his presence come nearer, the golden aura hard to read and the Fox totem strangely absent. His warm breath tickled against a spot where neck and shoulder met. “However, I did promise to help. As long as you behave, I’ll assist you. But if you continue to act as if you wish to play with fire . . .” He left his words hanging there in the humid atmosphere of the bathhouse.
“Play with fire?” she inquired as innocently as possible, shivering slightly at the brush of his breath against her skin. “I want to get clean, that’s all.”
A soft growl of exasperation sounded deep in his throat. “Fine then,” he snarled, stooping down to scoop out a handful of the soap. He straightened to his full height and flicked his hand. The soft goop splatted against the back of her head.
The Kaykolom maiden blinked, astonished. Did he just do what I think he did? she wondered. Before she could recover and give him a piece of her mind—dangerous assassin or not—his fingers were threading through the water-slick strands of her red-black hair. The cool soap warmed up between the contact of her scalp and his firm but gentle hands. She could still sense his domineering attitude in his golden aura and the way he massaged the soap into her thick mane, but there was something reassuring in the way he kept his strength in check.
Sensing that it might be unwise to irritate him, Jurnia kept her mouth shut. Given that she’d seen the cheerful vagabond absorb insults, taunts, and other provocations that would have moved most proud men to action if not outright violence, it seemed strange that he would be behaving this way. Turning the thoughts over in her mind, an insight dawned on her; he might be the dreaded assassin, but he was also very young—hardly any older than she was. It was hard at times to look through the fearsome mask of the assassin, or even the endearingly silly wanderer, but she was coming to realize that he was far more complex than she could have imagined.
The Lopayzom started to relax a little as seconds ticked past and the Herald remained passive and quiet under his hands. Focusing more strictly on his task, he reined in his unruly emotions until he felt that his self-control had been reestablished—though there was one particular part of him that was certainly still thinking for itself. As he started to work on her back, he remembered exactly how she’d touched him. Partly for revenge and partly because he was curious, he stroked his fingers down her back as she’d done to him. The faintest of satisfied smiles illuminated his pretty face at the quiver that went through her.
Jurnia’s skin had the texture of stretched silk, and he could feel the strength in her. She had never been trained as a warrior the way he had, so did not have the hard-muscled body of a fighter, but neither did she have a courtier’s pampered softness. She was warm and vibrant and wonderfully smooth beneath his palms, making him almost painfully aware of the calluses that marred his hands. She deserved to be touched by some gentle, harmless poet or artist who had never wielded anything more dramatic than a brush or a pen, not by a blood-drenched murderer like him . . . but he couldn’t seem to make himself stop.
He recalled the dreamy glow in her emerald eyes as she spoke so admiringly of Khuradasu, the mighty warrior who had saved her from a dreadful fate at the hands of lawless men. Listening to her, he wanted to believe that the Khuradasu she had enshrined in her memory was the real one—a figure of legendary nobility, not an assassin who had killed unarmed and unsuspecting men—but he knew better. He was a murderer, plain and simple, ultimately no better than the men who would have done as they pleased with her before cutting her throat and throwing her away like a meaningless trinket. He began to ruthlessly remind himself of all the deaths that were on his conscience.
Then the damnable woman sighed, a soft quivery sound, and he realized that he was massaging her shoulders as gently as a lover with the same hands that had killed so many. He might have snatched his hands away, but she was leaning back against the contact as if openly demonstrating that she didn’t think his mere touch could somehow contaminate her. Besides the fanciful notion that she really did have such faith in him, there was the practical reason that pulling away would probably make her fall flat on her bottom. Not only would that be rude, it would probably earn him an ear-blistering tirade.
For a moment, he was tempted to let her drop. The scolding would at least distract him from the acutely uncomfortable notion that he was wrong about his own nature.
The urge dissipated swiftly, kicked aside by something else. Jurnia could get hurt if she fell onto the latticework like that. And the bamboo was in poor enough repair that such a sudden jolt might actually cause some of the slats to crack or splinter. Kara refused to risk causing her harm for some stupid, selfish reason.
He also refused to dwell on the fact that his train of thought only supported the idea that he had an innately noble nature.
“Are you ready to rinse off now?” he inquired, carefully taking his hands away after making sure she was steady on her feet.
“I suppose so.” Jurnia opened her eyes, more than slightly disappointed that he’d stopped. He was somewhat talented at massage, it seemed. Between the two of them, rinsing the suds off the young Raven didn’t take long, though her hair required extra attention as usual. She flipped the heavy mane forward, her chin resting on her chest, and held her breath while Kara sluiced another half-bucket of water over the back of her head. Straightening up, she snapped her head back, flinging her hair behind her again.
Kara let out a startled yelp, and the bucket bounced on the latticework. Alarmed, without thinking about modesty at all, Jurnia turned around. He had both hands lifted to his face, covering his eyes. “Are you all right? What happened?” She winced. “Oh no, did I catch you in the face with my hair?”
“Yes.” The slightly reproachful word was somewhat muffled by his hands. “Right in the eyes, mostly. I’ll be fine, though.”
Jurnia didn’t answer right away, mostly because she was staring. If she’d had any lingering questions about whether the young swordsman was attracted to her, they had just been answered. His body appeared to be totally incapable of prevarication on the subject.
She whipped around to stare at the wall again, but the image of his nude body seemed to be branded into her eyeballs. “I’m sorry about that. Are you sure you’ll be all right?”
“I’ll be fine,” he repeated. “Would you like to soak in the tub first, or shall I?”
“I’m tired enough that I think I’d just like to go get some sleep, actually,” she answered hastily, wringing her hair out with both hands. “If we need to be up early to meet this Snake, it’s probably best if we’re both thoroughly rested.” She pulled one of the now-warm towels off the firebox and wrapped it snugly around herself, then started briskly rubbing the second towel through her hair.
“That’s true,” he conceded, the vagabond’s sunny voice betraying no hint at all of the stinging pain in his eyes. “If you would pass me a towel?”
The Kaykolom gulped, emerald gaze resting on the other pair of threadbare linens. If he was still temporarily blinded, then just tossing them over her shoulder wouldn’t guarantee he’d easily find them. She’d have to look at him again.
Steeling her resolve, Jurnia snatched up the towels and whirled around. The poor Lopayzom was still slightly bent over, hands rubbing at his eyes underneath the dripping curtain of his shaggy hair. “Here.” She tossed the other pair of towels at him, her verdant gaze drifting down the length of him almost of its own accord. “I figured that if my hair’s enough trouble to warrant a spare towel, yours is probably the same way,” she absently added while noting that his most mysterious part seemed to be quite a bit less . . . rampant at the moment. Blushing furiously again, Jurnia swiftly turned her back on him and resumed drying herself off.
One towel landed on the poorly-maintained latticework floor. The other, however, draped itself inelegantly over Kara’s head. Mumbling some words of thanks, the little swordsman got busy with the business at hand. By the time he was done with his hair, Jurnia was already wrapped up in one of the robes, holding the other one out to him with her eyes firmly closed. She still looked rather flushed.
Belting the robe and securing his scabbard on one hip, Kara gathered up the towels and slid the door open, dropping the damp cloths into the basket outside. He caught a glimpse of one of the inn servants, loitering just down the hall, and one hand went automatically to his sword. He reached out and caught Jurnia’s hand, tugging her along with him; she might have protested, except that she spotted the servant as well and remembered the role she was supposed to be playing. They passed the man without a second glance.
“I don’t want to go through the taproom in just a robe!” Jurnia whispered frantically. Kara nodded slightly and looked around. Spotting the back staircase, he inclined his head toward it, and was almost towed along in Jurnia’s wake as she started up.
Getting back to the room was uneventful, and Jurnia seemed extremely relieved once they were inside. She fished around in her pack and located her comb; sitting down on one bed, she began running the comb through the damp strands of her garnet-red hair. “I’m glad that’s over with,” she muttered.
“You realize we’ll probably have to do the same thing tomorrow night, and every other night that we stay in this town?”
The comb stopped halfway down a lock of hair. Jurnia’s eyes shot up to meet his gaze, and what he saw in those vivid emerald eyes, in the violet ripple of her aura, dazed him.
“We have to do it again tomorrow night? Every night until we leave?” she said in a voice that hovered on the edge of panic.
He busied himself with looking for his own comb, glad for the excuse to look away. “It would look strange if we didn’t.” He paused thoughtfully, comb in hand. “Though once I make contact with the Sarpom, I could probably spend the evenings in the taverns. You could excuse yourself to bathe and retire to the room early every night.”
“Are you sure that wouldn’t rouse suspicion?”
“I can always tell anybody who’s curious that I like it when you’re cleaned up and waiting in bed for me every night,” he suggested, and waited to see if she would clout him over the head.
Surprisingly, she didn’t. “I suppose that would be a logical excuse,” she said slowly.
“We’ll do that, then.” Settling onto the other small bed, he began combing his hair. It was a relief to be able to keep his eyes on that task. He’d seen a whirl of conflicting emotions in the young Herald, and felt as though he’d violated her privacy. Knowing that she adored Khuradasu had been uncomfortable enough; her reactions in the bath chamber had hinted rather strongly that she was very much attracted to him whether or not he was the magnificent warrior of her memory. Intelligent as she was, she may have seen through his oblivious act and realized he was not as safe and uninterested as he seemed. The thought of sharing the bath chamber with him again, perhaps several nights in a row, had caused a surge of both desire and dread. He could hardly condemn her for her reaction, since he’d been feeling much the same way. For years, everything that threatened his rigid self-control had been consigned to the darker side of his soul, the part that was “Khuradasu”—anger, hatred, passion of any sort, the urge to dominate and lead others. Now this slip of a girl had arrived in his life, upsetting the delicate balance he’d created within himself. That he’d been unable to restore equilibrium frightened him.
An awkward silence grew between them as Herald and wandering swordsman each concentrated on smoothing out their respective manes. The last tangle coming loose, Kara set his comb down on the nightstand next to the still-empty bed. He pulled his sword free of the night robe’s tie and carefully propped it against the wall next to the head of the bed. Flipping down the covers, he slid into the bed still clad in the thin robe, still-drying hair lying heavily against the pillow.
“You’re not going to let—”
“No. Doesn’t bother me,” he murmured, his voice somewhere between the steel of the assassin and the sunlight of the vagabond.
“Your hair’s going to be all knotted up in the morning,” she warned.
“Then I’ll comb it out again. Good night, Lady Jurnia. Don’t forget to blow out the lamps.” He raised up a moment on an elbow to do just that to the small oil lamp cheerfully burning away on the nightstand next to him, then settled back down under the covers.
Once more they stood nude in the steamy atmosphere of the bathhouse, his lean body turned away from her while she faced him. Once again she insisted it was all right for him to turn around, to see her frank admiration of him even as his own would be revealed to her. But once more he let control of the assassin within slip and coolly ordered her to turn around. This time, however, the motive had changed. This time he wasn’t protecting a secret so much as delaying its revelation. He wanted to surprise her.
Again she gulped, suddenly wary of the assassin’s menace, and did as she was told. Again she started to busy herself with lathering up every square inch of her enchanting form. This time, however, her spell didn’t keep him rooted there, amber eyes sweeping over her enticing backside. This time, the assassin allowed himself to cross the distance between them while she obliviously, innocently scrubbed herself. He ached for her; he needed to touch her or go completely mad.
Sword-calloused hands gently grabbed her shoulders. She started, tensing under his gentle grasp, freezing in place. Ignoring her nervous inquiry as to his intentions, he proceeded to slowly, deliberately demonstrate to her what was on his mind. She relaxed under his gentle massage; she quivered and sighed, inching back against him as he became increasingly bolder in his caresses.
In little time at all, she was locked in a passionate embrace. He held her tight, left hand spread flat against her well-toned abdomen, right hand cupping one of her breasts. The feminine curves of her buttocks pressed against his hard shaft, but she didn’t flinch or pull away. She had always admired the warrior, and her need now was as intense as his own. He groaned and shuddered, determined to hold back and take his time. He lowered his head to gently nip at and kiss the curve of her delicate neck where it met her shoulder.
Then it came. Its cloying, coppery scent filled his nostrils instead of the jasmine and feminine essence of the Herald. Its salty taste made him suddenly gag, yanking him from his heated desire. Amber eyes flew open to see crimson streaks marring the smooth, alabaster perfection of her body, tracing the paths his blood-stained hands had dared make on her. Passion fled in the face of horrified understanding; mind numb, he reached out and slid an index finger along one of Jurnia’s shoulder blades. The caress marked her with more blood, the streak of crimson meeting his gaze in silent accusation. He involuntarily stepped back, nausea sweeping over him as he realized he’d defiled her through his selfishness and lack of control.
Jurnia whirled around to face him, wet hair swirling out. Confusion, frustrated desire and hurt filled her gorgeous emerald eyes. He could only stare back at her, ill at heart at what his touch had done. He should have known better. He should have remained in control. He wasn’t worthy of touching anyone so much purer of soul with his bloodstained hands. She followed his horrified gaze, glancing down at her nude form.
Then she screamed.
Karavasu bolted to a sitting position with a hoarse shout, the scream still echoing in his mind as he clawed his way out of the horrifying dream. Hands clenching fistfuls of the blankets piled up at his waist, he stared sightlessly into the darkened room. He gasped for breath as his heart continued to pound against his ribs. The scent and taste of blood lingered, fading only when he had finally become fully awake.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, willing himself to calm down. Bowing his head, he continued to focus on his breathing; falling back on his training, he imagined himself inhaling peaceful energy while exhaling the fear and dread that had overwhelmed him. Moments passed before he lifted his head and opened his eyes, once again master of himself, in time to feel a feather-light touch on one hand. Startled, mind still focused on regaining tranquility, he swung his gaze to the source of the touch.
The room wasn’t nearly as dark as it had been when he first opened his eyes. It was dimly illuminated by a soft, rippling glow that had its source in Jurnia. Trailing the bedsheet like a long gown, she knelt on the floor between the beds, one hand on his where it lay on the crumpled edge of the blankets, the other wreathed in a soundlessly dancing lavender flame conjured to push back the edges of the oppressive darkness. Surrounded by the thick waves of her sleep-tousled hair, her face seemed paler than usual. Her green eyes were enormous in the soft light, full of concern. The flickering light flattered her, emphasizing the fine bone structure of her face and casting deep, fascinating shadows in the valley of her cleavage, which was just visible above the haphazardly wrapped sheet.
The sight was so beautiful, it made his heart ache. The vivid dream’s images returned, crowding him again with desire and horror at defiling her with his tainted touch. Yet he couldn’t make himself look away.
Jurnia had been snapped immediately to wakefulness by his shout. By the time she’d ignited the spirit-flame, he had already closed his eyes again and begun what she could easily recognize as a calming exercise. She had hesitated to touch him and risk breaking his concentration, but her concern for him had finally overwhelmed the cooler-headed, more sensible urge to leave him in peace.
“Are you all right?” she whispered, her fingers curling tentatively around his. “I heard you cry out.”
The tightening of her grip and her soft voice broke the spell holding him. His amber gaze flicked to where her hand rested against his, and he half-expected to see the smears of his victims’ blood marking her skin. Suddenly lightheaded, each breath felt like a struggle. Her presence at the moment only reinforced the hold the dream had on his soul. “I . . .” he began, pulling his hand from her grasp. “I need some air,” he managed to say while flinging the covers aside. Before she could even blink, he was on his feet, his back to her as he refastened the tie around his waist.
“You’re going out?” Her voice trembled a little. When he glanced over his shoulder, she was sitting on her bed, her now-free hand clutching the sheet at her breast. The pale light didn’t conceal the faint shadow of fear in her eyes, and for a moment, he felt his soul withering with shame. Yet she wasn’t afraid of him; it seemed he wasn’t the only one whose sleep was far from peaceful tonight. “I thought you weren’t going to leave me by myself as long as we’re here, at least until it’s been established that it’s a bad idea for anybody to infringe on Khuradasu’s ‘claim’.”
He paused, senses casting outward. No threatening auras were near; all that impinged upon the stillness were the somewhat distant sounds of drunken revelers well on their way to passing out. “Everyone else is asleep or stinking drunk,” he said in reassurance, slender hand reaching for his sword. “There’s no threat—”
“I don’t want to be alone,” she said in a tiny, quivering voice, sounding almost childlike.
His hand fell back to his side. He glanced at her again; the unease still lingering in her eyes only increased the dizziness. Yet, in counterbalance, something else welled up within him, a protectiveness that was every bit as strong as the images from the dream. He had to have some space from her to think, but he suddenly was loath to leave her alone.
Slowly, deliberately, he walked over to the sturdy canvas bag that held his traveling gear and the other few possessions he had in his wandering life. Crouching down, he untied the knot of the sturdy, rough-textured rope that lashed shut the bag’s neck. Pulling the travel-worn and -stained container open, he dug down into its depths. For a moment, the sight of him doing so took on rather ridiculous overtones as he all but stuffed his shaggy-haired head into the bag. Then his voice gave a soft cry of victory.
He straightened up, leaving his canvas container to lie there as an open, shapeless mass as he crossed the careworn reed mats of the floor. Stopping next to the Herald’s bed, he crouched down so that his amber eyes were nearly level with hers. “This is Lopzu. He’s been with me since I was very little. I really need to take a walk and think, but I don’t want to leave you alone either,” he said, expression unreadable. “He’ll keep you company, and I promise I’ll be back soon.”
The little swordsman set something carefully in her lap, then rose. Reaching over his bed, he picked up the edgeless sword by its cherrywood sheath. As he walked to the room’s sliding door, he slipped the weapon between his slim waist and the sleeping robe’s sash. Then he was gone.
Emerald eyes stayed focused on the redheaded warrior until the closing door cut him from her view. Whatever he had given to her was soft, comfortingly so, she noted as her fingers curled over it. Looking down at it in the illumination of her spirit-flame, she blinked in surprise.
It was a child’s toy, a stuffed animal apparently lovingly hand-made and just as lovingly treasured over the years. Orange-red velvet formed the body, though the fabric was faded in places and nearly threadbare in others, but what remained of the dye reminded her of the hue of Kara’s hair. It was a fox, the four legs and tail somehow jointed so that they could rotate around a point of connection to the body. On the pointed muzzle, the remains of a black nose made from embroidery thread were present; one embroidered eye had also gone the way of the nose, but the remaining orb was golden-brown in hue. Muzzle, chest, belly, and the tip of the tail were a white velvet now greyed by wear and time, and pink velvet made the interior of the still-pert ears.
Jurnia couldn’t help but utter a soft “aww” at the cuteness of the toy, and at the notion that a grown man was still carrying around a treasured childhood possession. She carefully petted the fuzzy little thing, then picked it up for closer examination. This was not a master-crafted rich child’s toy, but something made with very personal care and love. For the first time, she wondered just what it had been like for him, growing up as the adopted son of the only other Lopayzom in the world.
She had never wanted for love and attention, her mother’s only daughter, cherished and cosseted in the heart of the Kaykolom dominion. Though she was born out of wedlock, it had been plain for all to see that she was definitely a pure-blooded Raven, not the result of some unprofessional dalliance outside the clan. She had been raised with the chieftain’s brood and various fosterlings inside the palace, allowed to run wild and do as she pleased, as long as she paid attention to her lessons.
A faint smile flickered across her face as she recalled the first time she had argued with Iryasitru. It had no doubt been entertaining for the observers as a seven-year-old girl engaged in a spirited shouting match with the leader of the clan over some minor point of contention. The secret of her paternity, disclosed to her by her mother, had never crossed her lips, but the presence of it in her mind had given the quarrels a whole new level of meaning for her. Perhaps for him as well, for surely Iryasitru recognized the echoes of himself in his unacknowledged daughter.
Extinguishing the light, she lay down again, rearranging the covers, and hugged the little stuffed fox against her. Strangely, she did feel better for having it, the worn velvet soft and supple as flesh under her fingers. The restless, aching need that had come surging to the forefront of her awareness when Kara woke from his nightmare faded slowly. For a moment, he had stared at her with an intense hunger that made her breath hitch in her throat, and then his gaze had dropped to her hand with dread darkening the honey-gold eyes. She wasn’t sure what he had expected to see, but evidently he hadn’t seen it; the dread had faded, but a strange tension remained in him.
“What would you tell me about him if you could speak, Lopzu?” she murmured whimsically to the toy, petting it gently. “What kind of secrets has he told you?”
Lopzu, of course, didn’t reply. Giggling softly at her own silliness, she cuddled the little fox, laying her head down and hoping that she’d be able to fall back to sleep.
The small, slender form moved like a ghost through the shadows; not even the faintest sound of his bare feet were heard on the inn’s well-used floor. Tiny twin stars of amber glowed just under shaggy bangs of sleep-tousled red hair. He didn’t bother conjuring up spirit-flame to light his way. Falling back on his skills and who he truly was, he moved in the darkness as if he were a part of it.
Take care of her, Lopzu, he silently said. I just need enough time to sort this out. Perhaps it was silly of him, an assassin and warrior now full grown, to be “speaking” to a child’s toy, but even now on some level, something within him believed the humble stuffed animal housed the spirit of Lopayzu, the Fox Spirit himself.
He stepped out into the garden-like courtyard of the inn. The night air still held the bitter chill of winter; its briskness cut through the thin sleeping robe wrapped around his lean, gracefully muscular form. He welcomed the sensation as he shivered; breathing deeply of the chilled air helped clear the dizziness.
Some sense of calm returned. Inhaling deeply again, he lifted his head and gazed up at the stars brightly twinkling in the clear blue-black of the night. The sight was awe-inspiring, beautiful. He was thankful to have lived long enough to see it.
And yet it paled in comparison to the memory of Jurnia illuminated by her lavender spirit-flame, or to the glimpses of her in the bath.
Slowly, he chastised himself as the thoughts that demanded attention began making themselves known to him once more. Foremost, of course, was the very tempting Raven Herald and his growing desire for her. Lowering his head, he walked further out into the overgrown courtyard, mulling on his feelings regarding her.
He wanted her in the simple, straightforward way that a man wanted a woman; of that, there was no doubt. Yet he’d felt desire before—even lust—and neither one had so dominated his self-control in the past. Though strong emotions, he’d been able to subdue them before.
Not this time, however. He needed her in a way that he didn’t quite understand and with a depth that frightened him. No one had ever made him feel this way, not even Ziraisha. Though she had initiated him into the secrets of what occurred between men and women, she hadn’t quite touched his heart.
Jurnia, on the other hand . . .
He halted and glanced around. Discovering he stood at the base of some ancient, sheltering tree, the stars peeking through here and there in the blackness of the limbs, he faintly smiled and sat down against the old giant’s base. He pulled his sword free, resting it against his shoulder; not only was it more comfortable to sit in that manner, he would also be prepared to spring to action should some threat materialize.
The mere thought of anything hurting his dark-haired traveling companion made his hackles rise; he didn’t need to see his reflection to know that such a line of thought would make his spirit energy glow within his eyes. He would do all he could to protect her.
The fierceness of his emotion startled him. Staring at the ground, he tried to understand why it surged within him as strongly as his need for her. He’d always tried to do as he was taught, to use his skills to protect those weaker than him. Despite his adoptive father’s desire to turn him into a weapon of vengeance easily disposed once the deed was done, Arjuna was too much the chieftain and swordsmaster to neglect ingraining into his son the duties of the noble class. The Lopayzom sword-art was, first and foremost, a tool to defend the weaker members of the clan against all who would threaten them.
It was only natural then for Kara to want to protect the Kaykolom maiden. Though strong-willed, talented, and imbued with the sacred status of a Herald, the world was far from an ideal place and sometimes a warrior’s skill and strength was needed to keep one such as her safe. Yet even this desire held a dimension he little understood because he had never felt quite like this before.
Why the difference? I’ve desired others before, wanted to protect others even at the risk of my own life, yet never before have those feelings escaped my self-control and scattered my focus. Nor have I been frightened by what I’ve felt in the past. All of it merely tools to harness and use as I try to make some feeble amends to the ones I’ve brutally slaughtered.
But this consumes me, slips through my grasp, upsets my control. I fear loosing the assassin . . . not because I’d hurt Jurnia—by all that’s holy, I could never intentionally do that—but because I fear what the world will become with that force of darkness and chaos able to run rampant.
Once more he fell back on his training, taking a number of deep breaths. The chill bite of the air again cleared his thoughts. He ignored the shivers that ran through him as his body sought to maintain its temperature in the cold night.
The fear is there because I face something unknown. Knowledge and understanding are the keys to control. I know I’m missing some piece of the puzzle . . .
Again his pleasant dream turned nightmare imposed its images upon his soul. Why had he conjured up the sight of his hands leaving bloodstains where he’d touched her skin? Because . . . because I want to protect her, even from myself. Because I want to keep her safe from all the sordid evil in the world. She’s so young and pure of heart even if she travels among the cynical circles of Court politics. It would hurt to see her lose that brightness, to become sullied if I had the power to prevent it.
He started. Amber eyes flew open as his mind focused on a thought. It would hurt? He blinked. Never before had he felt like this. Yes, there had been sadness, disappointment, and regret in his past in regards to failing to protect someone weaker than himself. But real emotional pain only came from falling short of his own expectations or those of his father. He loved his father very much, and tried hard to please him, to win his father’s love and respect for himself.
Love . . .
The word sat in his thoughts for a heartbeat; his breath caught in his throat as suddenly things fell into place and it all became clear. It had to be; no other explanation would so perfectly fit. Fear gave way to understanding, but the knowledge also left behind a new sort of nervousness.
I’ve fallen in love with her. My desire, my need, my protectiveness . . . it all makes sense now. But . . . I’m not worthy of her. My soul’s too stained while she clings to the fantasy of a warrior that never truly was. She’s still too young to understand the reality of what she claims to want. My love’s no good for her . . .
The thought of her soul becoming marred by association with someone as steeped in spilled blood as him made his heart ache. He shivered in the cold, hand tightening its grip on his weapon’s sheath. No, the best I can do is to love her from afar, to protect her as long as she remains in my company and then worship her memory when she moves on to the happy life she deserves.
He elegantly rose to his feet. Clenching his jaws against his body’s attempt to chatter his teeth in response to the early spring’s chill, he swiftly realized he needed to return to Jurnia and the warmth of their room. In this town of lowlifes and bandits, he truly didn’t like the thought of her being out of his company; even a silly, leftover, childhood belief in a stuffed fox being an avatar of Lopayzu wouldn’t be enough to actually protect her. He would feel much better snuggled under the covers of his bed, the feel of her presence close at hand.
He didn’t bother slipping his sword back under the sash tied around his waist. He carried it in his left hand as he once again moved through the night like a ghost. In moments he was back at his room; casting about for danger, he sensed all was well. He then took a deep breath and opened the door.
He didn’t allow himself to look at his newfound love, not just yet. Not until after he’d pulled the sliding panel closed behind him and taken a step into the room did he let his gaze lift from the floor. Though he could see well enough to get by in even near total darkness—his ability to read auras helped quite a bit with that—he wanted to truly see her for a moment. A flicker of thought brought into existence a floating sphere of golden spirit-flame. Still shivering from the cold, he stood there and drank in the sight of her.
The cool lavender light had given Jurnia an almost sculptural beauty. His golden flame made her no less beautiful, but it had a far warmer effect, as flattering as candlelight. Sparks of red and gold glowed richly in her dark hair; her skin was gilded, sketched out by highlights and shadows. She lay on her side, half-curled, and his treasured toy was clasped against her with both arms, her chin brushing the top of the little fox’s head. She looked as innocent as a child, but the hints of her feminine curves under the blankets as well as the mature beauty of her face emphasized that this certainly was no little girl. Even in sleep, even seen with physical eyes, the sense of her Avatar power was there at the edge of awareness, but her spiritual strength only enhanced the seeming fragility of her form.
She needed protection. She was too inexperienced in so many ways, too headstrong and overconfident by far. Her status as a Herald was a valuable shield, but no safeguard against everything that might threaten her.
“But I can be your shield,” Kara murmured, gaze still lingering over the woman he loved. He spoke to the darkness, telling it thoughts that he didn’t have the courage, yet, to say to her. Had she been awake, he would never have dared; he was too far beneath her to have the right to tell her such things. “I can keep you safe from everything, for as long as the spirits allow me the gift of your presence.”
His golden gaze settled on the familiar form of Lopzu. He couldn’t help but smile as he walked over to the side of the maiden’s bed. It was so cute, seeing her holding the toy like that. His smile widened as he recognized a twinge of jealousy. “Silly of me, to begrudge you your place, Lopzu,” he whispered while crouching down near her. His sword, still clutched in his left hand, acted as a staff against which he leaned.
Once more he contented himself to watching the flickering light of his spirit-flame illuminate Jurnia’s features. “So beautiful. You’re easily the most fascinating person I’ve journeyed with in my entire life. I’m sorry for losing my temper in the bath tonight. It’s just . . . I was frightened. You’ve brought out things in me I didn’t think were possible. Anger, aggression . . . warriors are trained to use those emotions, control them, harness them for a better good. It was easier to lose my temper and work with that then to flounder about unfocused.
“But don’t ever think you need fear me. I could never intentionally hurt you. No, I would instead stand between you and anything that would do you harm.”
He gently sighed, giving in to the temptation to touch her. This night, magical now because he finally understood, would soon be gone—and with it would be the return to the masks he must show the world. This moment would have to be enough, a small glimpse into the happiness forever denied him because of his bloody deeds. Hoping his skin had warmed up enough to not disturb her, he lightly cupped her cheek with his right hand. His thumb lightly brushed against her petal-soft lips. “I love you, Jurnia. How or why it happened, I don’t really know. Ironic that, considering our clans and our parents. And I promise you, I will protect you to the best of my skill and ability, from every threat—including myself.”
His attention turned to the stuffed animal; even with her asleep, his admission made him feel shy, embarrassed, and the familiar toy helped steady his nerves. “And you,” he murmured to the time-worn fox, “good job watching over her, Lopzu. But time to go home now.”
He reached out to reclaim the toy, and hesitated as he realized that the easiest grip he could get on it would result in him having the back of his hand against her breasts. That certainly didn’t seem appropriate, especially not while she was asleep, unaware of his actions. After a few moments, he figured out an alternative and tried to pull Lopzu away. A tiny frown flickered over her face, disturbing the serenity of her expression, and her arms tightened around the little fox. He was trying very hard not to wake her, but attempting to extract Lopzu was very clearly not going to be a simple job.
The next several minutes became an exercise in futility. Every time he thought he was about to accomplish his goal, Jurnia scowled in her sleep and shifted or tightened her grip to foil him. He paused a few times and looked at her suspiciously, thinking that nobody could be this obstreperous if they weren’t awake, but she really did seem to be asleep. He smiled ruefully; having seen how resolute she could be when she was awake, it didn’t seem quite so strange that she was unusually stubborn while sleeping, too. He finally took a deep breath and slipped his hand between Jurnia’s front and the fuzzy little fox, trying to gently pry the toy out of her grip.
She shifted her arms; for a moment, he thought he’d succeeded. Then she clamped her grip again, efficiently trapping his hand against her. Acutely aware of the warm, soft, resilient flesh against the back of his hand, his eyes went huge and he began to silently panic.
Awake, she might have been outraged, but he saw a sweet, happy little smile curve her soft lips. She let out a tiny sigh and snuggled Lopzu—and his hand—tightly against her. She made a faint sound, a coherent word that he was close enough to hear, uttered in a tone of absolute contentment.
“Kara . . .”
The dizziness returned, only this time because he was so very aware of how warm and soft she felt, the delicate scent of her and the quite physical aspects of being in love with someone. Not only that, but the sound of his real name—not the mythical Demon’s Claw—had been uttered by her. No, I must have imagined that. She only really wants Khuradasu.
Shaking his head, he fought the impulse to yank his hand away as if it had touched fire. His gaze flicked down to the toy; he absolutely refused to let his mind dwell on what lay hidden behind the stuffed fox. “Well, Old Man, guess you get to keep your comfy bed,” he whispered to the plush animal. Slowly, carefully, he extracted his hand from Jurnia’s grasp, muttering, “Not that I blame you for wanting to stay.”
Though the damnably tempting maiden tried to keep him trapped—or so his exasperated mind accused—he worked himself free and quickly rose. Lest she leap out of bed and grab him, dragging him back down to snuggle under the covers with her, he swiftly clambered over his own bed. Feeling safely out of range, he propped his sword against the wall once more. The golden spirit-flame winked out of existence while he got settled under the covers.
On the morrow would come the meeting with the Sarpom. He would once again have to bring to the fore all that was dangerous about him, to show that mask to the world. But for now, he was only himself, still somewhat in awe at the miracle of being able to love.
“Good night, beloved,” he murmured to the darkness as his amber eyes closed.