Birdsong and the growing illumination of the rising sun heralded the start of a new day. Already knowing the assassin would be needed first thing, Kara’s subconscious waited for the signs of morning to drag him from his slumber. For more years than he cared to think, he needed to stir at the break of day; amber eyes slowly opened and confirmed the time.
The violet aura nearby seemed still quiescent. He allowed himself a tender smile as he thought about the truth he’d discovered. Then, carefully, he set the emotion aside. Gathering together his darker, more dangerous traits, he let the mask of the assassin fall into place even as he pushed himself up from the bed. The covers slid off his form and were then tossed aside as he swung his feet to the floor. Silently, he rose to his full height, but then he let a soft groan break the silence as he stretched the kinks out of his muscles.
A walk over to the door revealed that the laundry service had dropped off their clothes. Picking them up, he closed the door again and walked to the area between the beds. Sorting his clothes from hers, he dropped his garments on his bed. Then he carefully laid out the Herald’s clothing over the lump in the bed that was her feet.
Amber eyes flicked to the sleeping woman’s peaceful face. She still held Lopzu in her embrace; how he envied his old toy. Sighing deeply, he used the long exhale to set aside his rather carnal love once more. Grabbing his traveling garb, he walked to the space next to his bed before the nightstand. The sturdy garments were set upon the small table’s surface.
He picked up his sturdy comb and began to work the snarls out of his sunset-hued mane. In little time at all, his hair fell against his back in untangled locks. Setting the comb back down, his nimble fingers then untied the knot at his waist. The sash came free; the thin sleeping robe fell open. Shrugging his shoulders, the ivory-white silk fell to the ground.
He hesitated a moment, but it seemed as if the Herald’s aura remained still and quiet. Letting himself relax, he luxuriously stretched again. It felt good, living to see another day. Like every warrior, he had faced moments where he wondered if he would ever do so again.
Picking up his loincloth, he fastened that in place, hands going through the familiar motions with little thought. His shirt was next; he tugged it around his lean form and pulled his hair free of its silken embrace. Next the loose-fitting pants, and then finally wrapping and tying his golden sash to help keep everything where it belonged.
The comb came back into play as he expertly gathered up his hair into the grip of a hand. A bit of fumbling and twisting of his leather tie and his topknot once more jutted proudly just behind the crest of his head. Ready to face the day, the Lopayzom dropped the comb onto the nightstand and turned to face his traveling companion.
Jurnia had moved, rolling over onto her back, one arm thrown lazily up over her head on the pillow, which was almost hidden from view by the heavy sheet of her dark hair. Lopzu was still snuggled closely against her side with the other arm, but the sheets had shifted enough to confirm that she slept in the nude; he had an unimpeded view of her sleek shoulders and throat and a sizeable expanse of her bosom. Her face was turned toward him, apparently still asleep, her lips parted slightly and a faint blush showing on her cheeks.
There was a good reason for that—she had been awakened when he opened and closed the door, but a wicked curiosity had kept her feigning sleep so that she could watch him. He really had a magnificent body, muscle packed tightly to his seemingly slight frame. Simply out of a sense of fairness, she’d shifted around in bed to let him get a moderate peek in return.
The lusty observations were tempered by a deep swirl of emotion, a case of stomach-butterflies that she had some difficulty keeping from being reflected in her aura. She had been mostly asleep last night when he came into the room, but his soft voice had drawn her closer to wakefulness—close enough that her Herald-trained memory had caught and secured his words for later review.
I love you, Jurnia.
If she’d been more alert, she would have replied—but if she’d been more alert, he might never have spoken at all.
I will protect you to the best of my skill and ability, from every threat—including myself.
She thought that she understood, at least more than she had before. A thousand little things came together in her mind to offer up the answer. He was ashamed of his darker deeds . . . so ashamed, perhaps, that he thought himself utterly unworthy of being loved at all. The task that loomed ahead of her was proving to him that he certainly was worthy of her, and that she wasn’t repulsed or horrified in the slightest by what he had done in his past. A small epiphany came to her even as she thought about it; her idealized vision of Khuradasu had come to be entwined with the vision of the cheerful, gentle man he was now. Last night’s heated dreams had included the warrior’s fierce, hungry gaze, but his hands on her body had been slow and sure and infinitely tender. She wanted him as he was, the real man with all the complexities and flaws that made him human, not the perfect and unattainable fantasy. The trick would be convincing him of it.
His eyes focused on her tempting curves. His face grew warmer while the rest of him began to react in ways that were starting to become quite familiar by now. But this time he understood their source and he was able to push them back into the mental compartment in which they belonged. He deliberately turned his back on her and reached out for his sword. “Lady Jurnia. Lady Jurnia, you really should be waking up now,” he called out, his voice now the sunny tones of his wanderer persona. “If you want to come with me to meet this Sarpom, that is.”
He started toward the door, the sheathed weapon sliding into place against his waist. “I’m going to go see about bringing some breakfast here, so try to drag yourself out of bed.” He paused as he slid open the door, then gave a small chuckle. “I’ll be so very tempted to eat it all if you’re not awake to share.”
Kara stepped through. Then the panel slid shut and he was gone.
Jurnia sighed, sitting up. In the near-absent aura of Khuradasu, she had picked up the beginning of a response to the view she had offered—and then the golden aura had flared again, the playful, harmless fox-totem peering out innocently. She hadn’t realized it was possible to so carefully subdivide one’s emotional reactions, but evidently, Karavasu had turned it into an art form.
So he’s tucked his desire away into “Khuradasu”, has he? she thought as she started getting dressed. He’s so anxious about his own passion that he cages it up along with all his other “uncontrollable” emotions? That’s going to make this difficult.
She stopped, one arm through the sleeve of her blouse, and began to grin. Or else it’s going to make it a lot easier. After all, he has to be Khuradasu quite a bit as long as we’re in this town . . .
By the time Kara returned with breakfast, Jurnia had made both beds—setting Lopzu down on Kara’s pillow—and gotten dressed, but one might have slight trouble identifying her clothing as the same stuff she’d worn the previous day. By tying and pinning and tweaking, she had turned the rather modest outfit into something that didn’t actually show off too much more, but certainly led one to speculate on what remained hidden. There was a fair amount of cleavage showing, her sleeves had been turned back to reveal more of her slender arms than usual, and her pants clung more tightly to her legs. She’d also done some things to her face with cosmetics—a careful application of kohl to draw attention to her vivid eyes, and a reddening of cheeks and lips that suggested she’d recently been kissed quite a bit. She was in the process of plaiting the sides of her hair into sort of a slim coronet of braids, letting the back fall free.
Having slipped back behind the mask of the assassin for the sake of the town”s not-so-reputable public, the moment his eyes drank in the sight of her the poor young Lopayzom swordsman teetered between his two personas; desire and protectiveness welled up in equal measure, clashing for dominance. He could only stand there in front of the still-open door and stare, mouth hanging slack, golden eyes huge, and his fingers turning white where he gripped the tray bearing their breakfast. His golden aura flickered almost crazily, the totem still playful but suddenly sinister and far from harmless.
If he thought her beautiful with her practical traveling clothes and unenhanced visage or with her sleeping innocence in the soft light of spirit-fire, she was downright gorgeous when she was really trying.
The assassin won the spiritual tug-of-war. His jaw tightened as he purposefully strode into the room without making a sound on the reed mats covering the floor. He set the tray down on the foot of his bed. Then, slowly and deliberately, he turned to face her. “Just what do you think you’re doing?” he inquired, soft voice holding a note of steel.
“Putting up my hair,” she answered, a bit startled by the tone of his voice. “Is there something wrong with that?”
“I was expecting you to look as you did yesterday.”
Jurnia stared at him. “And this irritates you, that I look different?”
He shook his head slightly. “That’s not quite it. I mean, I never even knew you could . . . um . . . emphasize so much with that outfit. And I would have thought that ‘keeping a low profile’ meant something.”
She blushed. “Well, it’s a fairly versatile set of clothes.”
“Versatile? For what? Going from ‘don’t you dare touch me, I’m a Herald’ to ‘gods, I want everyone’s hands all over me’?”
The blush turned into red flags of embarrassment and fury. “I am not trying to convey that!”
“That’s what it looks like to me!”
“Nobody’s going to be studying my face, so it’s not very likely that someone might recognize me as the Raven Herald. And it’s not as if I’m showing off everything!”
“You’re showing off enough, especially to this town, which happens to be only a front for the shadow clans to have some interaction with the more decent folk of society. Or have you forgotten I’m going to go meet with a man who ‘rents’ women for sex?”
She began rearranging her blouse slightly to hide a bit more of the view. “Well, I”m supposed to be ‘Khuradasu’s woman’, aren’t I? Won”t people expect to see a glamorous sort of girl hanging off your arm?”
He slapped a hand over his face, taking a deep breath, then lowered his hand as he slowly exhaled. “From what I’ve heard, people would be surprised to see any girl hanging off my arm—living, that is. They’d rather believe I drink the blood and eat the flesh of nice, tender virgins to maintain my unholy sword skills.”
“Then obviously everybody is going to expect that a woman who can catch and hold the attention of the most dangerous assassin alive would have to be a pretty spectacular type herself, right?”
He sighed again, just looking at her. “I wouldn’t know. I don’t get to hear the rumors about me that must circulate among women. I just keep getting this image of having to swat away an entire swarm of drooling cretins instead of maybe one or two willing to risk the wrath of the Demon’s Claw. I also fear drawing attention to yourself will get you recognized by whoever wants to murder His Grace, the Raven.”
“You’re behaving like you can hardly recognize me, and you’ve seen me every day for weeks now,” she pointed out sweetly.
He started to reply, thought better of it, and shut his mouth. The fox-totem still glimmered in his aura, peering reproachfully at her out from behind the shield it used when he put on the mask of the assassin.
Jurnia went back to the braiding. “You were going to say?”
She sensed him withdraw further into the persona; the totem faded out completely, leaving only his spirit energy as a golden corona. “It doesn’t matter. Do as you wish. I’m going to eat now.” He turned his attention to the dishes waiting on the tray and picked up his portion. Though he seemed quite cool and indifferent as he sat on the edge of the bed and dug in, there was also a faint sense of pouting on his part buried deep within.
“Yes, it does matter,” she snapped, her tone edged with hurt. “What would you prefer me to do?”
How can I even begin to explain to her that she’s so beautiful people—especially men—can’t help but notice her? He concentrated on his breakfast for a moment longer; without looking up, he muttered, “I prefer you wore something less remarkable.” For just a flash, the clueless sunshine of the wanderer broke through as he looked at her, giving her a bright, innocent smile. “A burlap sack comes to mind, that it does.”
That made her laugh a little. “I am not wearing a burlap sack. Burlap is itchy.” She gave him a long look. “As you pointed out, we’re supposed to be visiting a man who effectively rents out women for sexual purposes. We’re likely to be hip-deep in half-dressed harlots. I just can’t imagine ‘Khuradasu’s woman’ not making a point of showing off a bit just to make sure everybody knows Khuradasu doesn’t need to go looking elsewhere for . . . entertainment.”
He blinked at her, obviously startled. “I hadn’t thought of it that way. Seemed more to me that only Khuradasu could judge what type of woman he’d want, and people would just accept it. I mean, not many would want to argue with the Demon’s Claw over anything.”
“I’m entirely certain that Khuradasu can judge what type of woman he wants, regardless of what anybody else thinks.” And it would seem that I’m his type after all. “But what we’re really talking about here is female pride.” She finished the braid, tying it off neatly.
“Oh.” He concentrated on his meal again, feeling quite contrite. “That’s something about which I fear I’m ignorant. Do as you must. Just . . . let’s not make my job as your protector harder than it needs to be. Khuradasu brings enough trouble on his own without a pack of dogs ready to challenge him . . .” His voice trailed off while his cheeks pinkened slightly. The rest of the thought—”for the only bitch in heat for miles around”—was far more suited to a warriors’ campfire rather than articulated to the woman he had come to love.
“I’d feel sorrier for the hounds than the Fox, oddly enough.” She grinned faintly as she picked up her breakfast.
“I don’t know . . .” He scooped out the last of the sweet, custard-like rice in his bowl. After swallowing the mouthful, he added, “I rather pity the Fox at the moment.” His amber gaze focused upon her again; desire curled through his awareness, but he gently pushed it away once more. “Please, just be careful. Whoever wants Iryasitru dead may not be averse to depriving him of his Herald as well.”
She nodded solemnly, swallowing a mouthful of rice before answering. “I know. I promise that I won’t wander off or actively do anything to attract unwanted attention.”
“Good.” He visibly relaxed. “A place like this is a far cry from the circles of princely courts, diplomats, politicians, and their dirty games. Perhaps you”re experienced in the ways of politics, but here, you may be out of your element.”
She shook her head wryly. “I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the lowlifes around here aren’t all that different from some of the politicians I’ve encountered, aside from their financial circumstances and personal hygiene standards.”
“There’s one difference.” He rose gracefully, stretching for a moment before setting his used dishes onto the somewhat worn wooden tray. “Here, they’re not afraid to sully their hands.”
“That’s certainly a change. Usually I deal with people who prefer to have other people do the dirty work. I suppose this town is full of those ‘other people’.”
“Yes, it is.” His orange topknot bobbed as he nodded. “As I said, it’s a front for the clans who dwell in the shadows. The more ‘respectable’ families—or families from smaller, less influential clans of the same ilk—of the Mushakom, Sarpom, and Kazaikom establish towns that straddle the law. There are many legitimate businesses here, but also illegal enterprises, and many private homes are safe havens. They do their best to look completely respectable to outsiders passing through or shopping, but for those who move in the shadows . . .”
“You take me to the most interesting places,” she remarked, turning a positively radiant smile on him.
Kara quirked an eyebrow inquiringly. “Is that how you really feel, or is that sarcasm?”
“A little of both. I’ve never seen this side of society.”
“You’re from the nobility. They don’t want you to see this side. The nobles get in the way; their laws strangle their ability to make a living as they wish. Even so, in the shadows, they can be as powerful as any prince.”
“You’re a member of the nobility too, though.”
The mask of the assassin fell into place, his aura taking on a chilling, sinister tone, as his suddenly-cold amber eyes stared at her. “You’re one of the few that know about that. But this is Khuradasu’s realm. This is the world in which the Demon’s Claw belongs.”
Jurnia was probably one of the few people in the world who had no fear of Khuradasu. She met his eyes without hesitation. “No. This is the world in which the Demon’s Claw is able to move freely, recognized and respected by other human predators. You belong wherever you’re happiest being.”
“If that’s the case, then I belong nowhere.” He gestured at her, intending her to hurry along. “We don’t have all morning.”
“That’s a sad thought. Everybody deserves to be happy somewhere.” She applied herself to eating breakfast again.
It was impossible to tell if her words had any effect; nothing showed on his impassive face. He just stood there, silently watching her with those chilled golden eyes.
“Oh. Thank you for lending Lopzu to me,” she said, hoping to defuse the tension in the air, indicating the little stuffed fox that was now sitting on his pillow. “He was good company. He didn’t even snore or grab all the covers.”
It was amusing to see a hardened assassin’s expression shift from a glare to surprise and finally to a half-embarrassed grin. A bit of the wanderer persona returned to his face, softening the harshness of his visage. “You’re welcome.” Kara turned and gently scooped the toy up from off the bed, holding it up and giving it a long look. For some reason, the stuffed fox’s embroidered smile seemed to take on a sly, knowing smirk. I think you enjoyed yourself way too much, Old Man, the Lopayzom swordsman thought sardonically.
Jurnia giggled softly at the change in his expression, watching him pick Lopzu up. “I didn’t hurt him at all, if you’re looking for damage.”
“Ara?” He blinked, turning his startled gaze on her. “Oh, no, I never even thought you’d hurt him. I mean, he lives in the bottom of my bag. Not the least stressful existence he could have, but he’s held up quite well.”
“I’d never have imagined that big bad scary Khuradasu carries around a stuffed toy fox.” She grinned at him. “It’s so cute.”
“Yes, well . . .” He grinned in embarrassment. Looking at the toy again, he could have sworn the thing somehow winked, even though the left eye was long gone. “I suppose that’s just another secret with which I’m going to have to trust in your discretion to keep.” Striding over to his still-open traveling bag, he knelt down.
Jurnia put a hand over her heart, which just drew the eye to the area of bosom exposed by her blouse. “I’ll keep it absolutely secret, I promise.”
For a second, there was no mistaking the spark of hunger that illuminated his eyes. Then it was swept away by one of the wanderer’s cheerful grins, but a tiny shiver—not of fear or cold—ran up Jurnia’s spine. “Good.” Kara turned his attention to the bag while setting the toy on the mat next to him. The travel-worn canvas first swallowed up his arm as he pushed a few items out of the way, and then it practically engulfed his head as he worked on restoring the fox to its usual place. “All right, Old Man. Back home you go,” he muttered softly, a sound that was further muffled by the heavy canvas.
“You can leave him a bit closer to the top of the bag. If you’ll be coming back to the room late, like we discussed, at least he could keep me company.”
Kara froze a moment. Withdrawing his head, he looked up at her. His ponytail was a mess, pushed forward over his head with the silken strands scattered about his bangs and falling haphazardly over his face. Staring up at her, blinking, he pulled the fox back out in his hand and gave it a look that she swore could be one of envy.
“You’d better not laugh at me for wanting a stuffed animal to keep me company,” she warned. “You’re the one who’s carrying it around, after all.”
“All right. You win.” It was hard to tell if he was talking to her or to Lopzu. Grabbing the bag with his free hand, he gave it a jerk to settle its contents back into the bottom. After shaking his head to get the locks of his topknot out of his face, he carefully laid the velvet toy on the very top. “There. He should be easy for you to find tonight.” A few quick twists of the rope, and the bag was lashed closed once more.
Jurnia set her empty bowl down on the tray and took a deep breath to get her fluttery stomach under control. “I guess it’s time to go, isn”t it?”
He rose gracefully, settling Khuradasu’s menace around him like a cloak. “If you’re ready.”
“I’m only going to get less ready the longer we sit here,” she pointed out, clearly nervous, but just as clearly determined to go through with the act.
“Then let’s go.”
It was an interesting change from the usual walk through the towns that they had visited, Jurnia reflected. Normally, Kara was so self-effacing and humble that few people even seemed to notice him as he strolled along, his body language clearly indicating that here was a harmless little fellow of no consequence.
Khuradasu was a different matter. He walked as if he owned the street and the entire town and everybody in it, his head up, eyes constantly moving, pure danger radiating from him with every step. People automatically got out of his way and avoided making eye contact.
Jurnia did not trail along behind him in imitation of the way some of the women on the street followed their men. She walked calmly beside him, loftily ignoring the glances that came her way; she could almost see the ripple as the word spread that Khuradasu really was in town, and that it was a very bad idea to approach him or his woman without extreme caution.
Their destination was a building not far from the center of town. It looked to be nothing more than the house of a moderately wealthy merchant, at first; it was larger and better-maintained than those around it, set back from the street with a small flower garden filling in the space from the gate to the front door. There were, however, certain signs to indicate the place was not quite what it seemed, if one knew what to look for—such as the small lamps on either side of the door, which were stylized lotuses fashioned out of red glass.
Kara walked straight up to the front door and knocked hard enough to make it rattle in its frame. After a few moments, he knocked again; the door was finally by a woman who appeared to be in her middle thirties, mature and yet still quite pretty, though she looked as though she had been awakened out of a sound sleep. Nevertheless, she smiled pleasantly at the slender young man.
“I’m afraid that we”re not open for business at the moment, young sir. You’d be better off coming back this evening.”
“My business is with Markazyu. I understand that he is the owner of this house.”
She fixed Jurnia with a sort of cool, assessing gaze that made the Herald decidedly uneasy, then looked back to Kara. “Ah. If you’ll step inside, I’ll see if the master’s available. May I have your name?”
The effect on the woman was immediate; she stared at him, her eyes widening, before she almost stumbled back a step to admit them into the house.
The entry hall was somewhat dark, the windows heavily draped; the woman closed the door behind them, then went quickly to the end of the hallway and through a door beside the staircase there. Jurnia looked around, morbidly fascinated; this was definitely the first time she’d ever seen the interior of a brothel. It seemed disappointingly normal, until she glanced through the wide, open doorway on the right side of the hall. Though it was deserted at this hour, she could see that the room was decorated—or overdecorated—in red and black accented with fake gold. Thick rugs covered the floor, and low couches and heaps of cushions were placed here and there, veiled with filmy curtains. There were a few shockingly explicit paintings on the walls, and a few equally explicit pieces of sculpture scattered about. Jurnia assumed that that would be the, well, “showroom”, where the ladies of the house would display themselves to the clientele.
The older woman returned a few minutes later. “Master Markazyu will see you at once.” She edged aside to let them pass with several inches of clearance to spare.
The room was obviously set up as an office, occupying one corner at the back of the house. It wasn’t quite as oppressively overdecorated as the “showroom”, but the impression that Jurnia got immediately was that of someone who had more money than good taste. The furniture was all of excellent quality, clean and polished, but the room was definitely overcrowded with art objects. Not all of them were erotic in nature, much to Jurnia’s relief.
The man behind the desk was tall and very thin, with quick, darting eyes and long bony hands. His smile had a nervous edge to it as he rose from his seat. There were two women in the room as well, clothed in brightly patterned gowns, their hair elaborately styled and their makeup perfect even at this hour of the morning; one was attending to a tray of tea, and another was perched on a small chair beside the desk, carefully sorting papers. A flicker of movement at the corner of her eye caught Jurnia”s attention; she turned her head just enough to see what had caused it.
There were three women in the room, not just two. Unlike the others, the third one was sitting in a shadowed corner near one window, almost hidden behind the heavy draperies. As Jurnia took in the details, she saw other differences: this woman’s gown was not colorfully patterned, but was instead a solid, unrelieved black, and her hair was bound into a simple style. Her aura was so dim that Jurnia couldn’t even detect her clan, and her face was unremarkable. She merely sat and watched, her hands folded in her lap. Perhaps she was some kind of secretary, rather than one of the girls-for-hire, though Jurnia would have expected her to be the one going through the paperwork if that were the case.
Golden eyes swept over his surroundings, harsh and slightly narrowed in the assassin’s mask. The walk through the town had allowed him to fully embrace those aspects of himself known to the world as Khuradasu; he instinctively knew all those near him were harmless save the one shielding herself as he himself did. Even so, he had little fear there would be trouble. There wouldn’t be any profit in such for these people, not at the moment. The Lopayzom finally settled his gaze on the somewhat familiar visage of the Sarpom businessman.
Markazyu’s superficial warmness couldn’t hide his fear. The skinny, little man was absolutely the same orange-haired warrior he remembered as the best among the Derkaryan army. Like most people in town, he’d dismissed the rumors—until he saw the confident youth radiating sheer menace. Unlike the others, he’d seen Khuradasu at the time his legend was in the making; now he was staring at that very same man. “So, it truly is you,” Markazyu said, “though I must admit some surprise. After all the rumors concerning your appearances here and there since the end of the war—”
“I have a matter of business to discuss,” Khuradasu interrupted, his quiet voice carrying through the room on its steely tone alone.
“Er, yes, of course,” the dark-haired Sarpom sputtered. Quickly trying to regain his composure, he flicked his serpentine-green gaze to the rather comely woman accompanying the redheaded warrior. “Hmm, not bad. I’ll give you a hundred hiranya for her. She’s got quite a bit of potential. Get her in some good clothing, a bit more makeup, and train her to lose that proud carriage—”
“She’s not for sale,” the assassin said, his tone even more cold. “She’s mine.”
Jurnia glared at the flesh-peddler, but a quick glance sideways at Khuradasu’s face kept her from speaking up in her own defense. The assassin was quite willing and able to do it for her.
Markazyu instantly paled. “My mistake. Well, then, if you’re not selling, perhaps it’s buy—”
“I’ve not yet slaked my thirst with this,” Khuradasu cut the Sarpom’s words off yet again. Reaching out, he wrapped an arm around Jurnia’s waist and tugged the Herald against him. Cold amber eyes narrowed in irritation at the businessman as the assassin continued, “So why should I sip elsewhere?”
The Raven girl leaned against the Fox’s side, folding her hands atop his shoulder and resting her cheek on her interlaced fingers, a smug smile on her pretty face. The girl handling the tea tray had paused to look brazenly at Khuradasu as if he were a delicious sweetmeat, but she returned her attention to the tray as Jurnia focused a burning stare on her, the smile taking on a decidedly razorlike edge.
The warrior noticed but didn’t focus on the flare of feminine auras near him. He continued to glare at the oily flesh merchant.
“Then what brings the legendary assassin here to my humble business?” Markazyu inquired, his confusion evident. “If it’s not buying or selling—”
“You’ve done quite well for yourself since you were peddling camp-followers to the warriors of the Dragon Army,” Khuradasu said. “However, it’s that very past that brings me here. Of all those in the surrounding area, you’re the only one who knows the Demon’s Claw on sight. You alone can verify the truth of my presence here.”
The Sarpom’s serpentine-green eyes widened slightly in understanding. “I see . . . And there is some reason you wish such verification?”
The assassin smiled coolly. “As you said, many have been the ones who have tried to take advantage of my name and reputation since the ending of the Phoenix-Dragon War, even here in far-off Zarya. However, something has come to my attention that I wish to pursue.”
“May I in—”
“No, you may not,” Khuradasu interrupted, his free hand making a short, cutting gesture. “That is my affair. What I wish from you is to let it be known that the Demon’s Claw—the real one—is here in this town and awaiting more information on the contract I’ve heard offered. I’m staying at the Fighting Fish Inn until I hear from the person interested in the having the job done.”
“Well . . . it certainly sounds intriguing,” Markazyu murmured, his expression shifting to a sly one. There must be some way to take advantage of this opportunity. “But what’s in it for me?”
“The sum mentioned has been a substantial amount. I’ll give you a third for your trouble.”
“A third now and I’ll be more than happy—”
“Half now to cover any expenses you may have in spreading the word and the other half if the news pans out to a contact that pleases me,” Khuradasu responded.
“That’s my only offer. I don’t repeat myself.”
The Sarpom inwardly frowned. He risked annoying the most feared assassin living and losing the sure reward offered at the moment. “Very well. I agree. Half of the promised third now and half once you’re satisfied my efforts lead to the information on your job.”
“Good,” the redheaded warrior said. Slipping his arm from around the Kaykolom maiden’s slender middle, Khuradasu reached into the left-hand sleeve pocket of his sturdy traveling shirt. He rummaged around, then swiftly tossed a dark pouch at the businessman.
Markazyu’s long fingers expertly closed around the leather container as he caught it. Tugging open the thong securing it, his eyes widened at the glint of metal within. The expertly-stamped coins were a mix of copper, silver and even gold. The Snake poured them out onto the desk, his fingers scurrying like spiders over the wooden surface as he separated out the various Derkaryan-marked denominations into piles while adding the total in his head. Fifty hiranya, in coins easily passed anywhere . . . “And another fifty?”
“If your efforts gain me the information I need.”
“I’m honored to be of service to a legend such as you,” Markazyu replied, scooping up the money from his desk.
“Be certain to spread the news among your network as swiftly as possible,” Khuradasu said. “And be certain to stress that this is truly the Demon’s Claw, that you’ve seen me during the war.”
“I always aim to please,” the businessman replied, his voice sounding as oily as his look. “Ask those who patronize my humble business. They leave quite . . . satisfied.”
Amber eyes narrowed in renewed annoyance. “I’ll be taking my leave now,” the assassin said, gracefully turning to face the door.
The warrior paused in mid-stride and glanced over his shoulder. “What is it, Markazyu?”
“It’s refreshing to know that even you have interest in such things these days. I assume Ziraisha—”
To those able to sense auras, the warrior’s golden energy flared dangerously. “Enough.”
Markazyu gulped, a chill of pure terror running through him. The single amber eye glaring at him promised a less than swift death.
“Enough, Markazyu,” murmured a quiet, amused female voice. “You have enough problems without making the Demon’s Claw angry at you.”
The Sarpom jerked as if he’d been struck, turning wild-eyed toward the voice. The woman that Jurnia had noticed rose calmly to her feet; judging by Markazyu’s expression, he hadn’t realized that she was there. The two girls also appeared startled, shying away as the woman strolled up to the desk and propped a hip against its edge.
“What—who—” the man sputtered.
“Oh, please,” she sighed. “You should have known that I would eventually hear the rumors of your involvement in the slave trade, Markazyu. You have a great deal of explaining to do.” She nodded pleasantly to Khuradasu. “I might have been sitting here all day waiting for him to say something incriminating. My thanks.”
“And who is it that’s thanking me?” the assassin replied, brows arching slightly.
She smiled. There was a sharp rippling in the air, like a heat-haze above the grass in summertime; when it cleared, she had changed. The black robe was embroidered with rich green thread at the hems, forming a pattern of twining serpents that echoed the image of the great snake that was now visible in the glow of her aura. It was her face that had changed the most, however, and even Jurnia flinched back slightly as recognition struck. Eyes so deeply blue that they were nearly black gazed coolly back at the Fox, and the porcelain smoothness of her skin was broken by the grayish-red scar that slashed from hairline to jaw down the left side of her face. Whatever had dealt the wound had come narrowly close to taking out her eye as well.
“Chieftain Nizaisa,” Markazyu whispered, a look of blind terror coming over his face as he cringed away from her. It was strange for a grown man to appear so frightened by a girl who seemed younger than Jurnia, unless one knew that this girl was far more than she appeared to be.
“The Sarpom chieftain?” Khuradasu said, a flicker of surprise visible on his face. The chief of the Snake clan was rumored to be over a century old, having taken control of the clan in her mid-teens, but she looked no older now than she would have been at that time.
“Is there someone else going around using the title?” Nizaisa inclined her head with a sardonic smile, the left corner of her mouth tweaked by the scar, pulling up enough to show a canine tooth that seemed longer, sharper, and thinner than it should be. “I owe you a small debt, Khuradasu. Markazyu’s been a bad, bad boy, and I could have spent far more time than I wanted to just waiting for confirmation.” She drummed her fingers lightly on the desk. “There are certain formalities expected when one meets a clan chieftain. I know you’ve been scrupulously absent from all courtly circles since the end of the Phoenix’s aggression, but I presume you still remember them.”
The assassin”s amber eyes narrowed again as his startlement faded away. Though absent from his youthful visage, a twinge of uneasiness remained at the Snake Chieftain”s mention of courts. The realm of the nobility wasn’t the circle the Demon’s Claw had traveled within, but rather this shadowy one. Even so . . .
He walked over to the young-seeming woman and held out his right hand, palm side up. “I am honored with the gift of your presence, Your Grace,” he said. True, the Snake were not only a commoner clan but also one of the three major rulers of the shadows, but any chieftain deserved the respect accorded to their station. Though it would certainly confirm his true background, it was far better to deal honestly with one of the three rulers of the shadow world.
Nizaisa smiled, laying her cool-skinned hand on his. It was more wariness than formality or a desire to challenge her that kept his eyes locked with hers as he bowed slightly and kissed her hand. There was a trace of amusement in those ink-blue depths. “I’m pleased to meet you in person, Khuradasu. You’re younger than your reputation suggests.”
He released her hand, the amber eyes still watchful. Shifting his weight onto his right foot, he loosely folded his arms over his chest. “There are many who aren’t quite what they seem in this world.”
“Oh, I’m well aware of that.” Her eyes flicked to Jurnia. It was obvious that she was well aware of the true identity of “Khuradasu’s woman”, but to judge by the flicker of a smile that played over her face, she was highly entertained by the situation.
He narrowed his eyes slightly. “While you have every right to deal with your clansman as you see fit, I’m afraid I can’t allow my request of him to go unfulfilled, Your Grace.”
Her gaze returned to the swordsman, and her tone was calm, almost curious. “Can’t allow?”
“I’ve never been fond of Markazyu, and I’m even less fond of him now,” Khuradasu replied, his gaze steady. “It’s like swallowing bile to add to that man’s fortune, but something I still need to do. The contract being offered for my services is not one I can allow to be unanswered or claimed by someone else hoping to assume my reputation for himself. There’s been far too many willing to use the terror of my name for their own gain.”
“I can see to it that the word of your presence gets out, if you’re truly interested in the offer.” Nizaisa smiled briefly. “I realize that I have only marginal control over back-fence gossip channels, but I’ll do my best.”
Jurnia swallowed an incredulous laugh. If even half the rumors she’d heard were true, the Sarpom information network covered the entire empire and even beyond the borders. Nizaisa’s deliberate understatement was certainly not for the sake of humility.
The warrior too knew the true extent of the information network of the Snake Clan. Closing his eyes for a moment, he bowed slightly while saluting her, left fist resting lightly against his chest. “I am honored at your attention to this matter, Your Grace.” Straightening, he flicked his gaze for a moment to the quivering Markazyu. “Do with him as he deserves, then. I agree to leave my request in your capable hands,” he continued, gaze shifting back to the Sarpom Chieftain. “The stability of Zarya could rest on this contract. By your leave, Your Grace?” Obviously he considered the meeting at an end.
“It’s at least a small step toward repaying you for your help today. Even if you didn’t know you were helping me.” Nizaisa nodded and flicked a hand gracefully toward the door. “May the Goddess watch over you.” She glanced sharply at the two girls, who went pale and scurried out of the room well ahead of the assassin and his companion.
Jurnia was the last one through the door. As she turned to close it, she caught sight of the Snake moving very slowly and casually toward Markazyu.
“Shall we discuss your willful violation of the rules now?” Nizaisa said in a dreadfully quiet voice, her lips peeling back in a humorless grin.
What Jurnia saw as the chieftain smiled was enough to make her go cold. She hastily closed the door and rushed to catch up with Kara, shivering.
The orange-haired warrior retraced his steps through the overdecorated house of pleasure the Sarpom’s illicit fortune had acquired. Having been shown the way over to the office, he easily recalled their path through the building. However, his mind was far from his surroundings. He remained withdrawn, ire simmering within him; first had been the outrageous offer to buy the Raven Herald from him, followed by the reminder of the prostitute that had once been a Derkaryan spy during the war over the Dragonfly lands. Though his pretty face remained impassive, frozen into the assassin’s cold expression, his amber eyes faintly glowed with his internal anger.
He wordlessly pulled open the front door and stepped back into his waiting sandals, flicking his gaze to his companion to see if she was ready to continue through the outlaw town back to their inn. If the pale cast of her face and the haste with which she put her sandals back on were any indication, Jurnia would be more than happy to run through the gates of hell itself to get away from the pleasure house.
A frown twisted down a corner of his mouth at her expression. “Jurnia?” he murmured, gently resting a hand on her shoulder.
“Let’s go,” she said quickly, under her breath, glancing behind her as if expecting to see something horrible following them.
“All right,” he agreed. Stepping off the wooden deck encircling the rich-appearing house, he held out a hand to her, a silent offer to walk with her hand in hand this time around.
If his intention had been to distract her from whatever had frightened her, he succeeded admirably. She smiled almost shyly and put her hand in his, a faint blush touching her cheeks.
His breath caught at her smile, but once again he carefully set aside his feelings for her, not wanting to be distracted. Allowing himself a faint smile, he gave her hand a gentle squeeze, then led her along the stepping stone path to the estate’s front gate.
They were nearly to the gate when a high-pitched scream made Jurnia shudder. The sound was very faint—no doubt the house’s walls had been designed, or redesigned, to muffle noise—but it was just audible to the pair making their exit.
“I think Markazyu wasn’t giving the right answers,” the young Kaykolom whispered.
“It’s Her Grace’s business, not ours,” Khuradasu pointed out quietly, guiding his companion along the dirt street leading through the town.
“She’s got fangs!” Her statement would have been considered an outburst, except that it was delivered in a near-whisper. “I saw them!”
“Ara?” He came to a halt and turned to look at her, confusion on his pretty face. “And you’ve been around how many Avatars in your life?”
“I”m not making it up! I saw them! She’s got fangs!” Jurnia repeated in a rush. Then she scowled at him. “Several. What has that got to do with it?”
“Did I say I thought you were imagining things?” Khuradasu asked, amused. “I certainly believe you. However, some Avatars are more in tune with their totem than others. The Sarpom . . . tend to have more in common with their animal cousins than some other clans.”
“Well, you haven’t got a fluffy tail and I don’t have feathers, so I was hardly expecting to meet anyone who actually had fangs. Fangs! Like dith!” Her words were slightly garbled by her demonstration, which involved pressing her index fingers against her upper lip so that they pointed down past her canines.
A single orange eyebrow lifted over the assassin’s golden eyes. “Do you have any idea how silly you look doing that?” he asked, voice mild.
The word “silly” appeared to have a remarkable power over Jurnia. She glared. “Do you have any idea how much damage could be done to your fearsome reputation if this entire town sees me chasing you down the main street with a big stick?”
“Hrmph.” No sudden nervousness, no wild-eyed fright, no glimmer of the fluff-headed wanderer. Khuradasu merely stared back at her, impassive, unrelenting. “Must I point out to you yet again that your sword had to be left behind?”
“I’ll improvise. The gatepost looks good.” She glanced over her shoulder again, shivering. “Let’s go.”
“The gatepost?” he asked, soft voice again laced with amusement. He began walking again, his short body falling into a surprisingly long-legged, almost gliding stride. “You may be one of the strongest women I’ve had the pleasure to meet, but I don’t think you could rip such a post from the ground, dear Jurnia.”
“Then I’ll kick it in half. Hmph.”
“My my . . . such violence. Somehow I don’t think your mother would have approved,” Khuradasu murmured.
“My mother knew where I got the temper from,” Jurnia muttered.
“Well, well,” called a woman’s voice. Three elaborately clothed women were standing, seemingly at ease, on the corner of the main street and the small side street that Markazyu’s establishment was on. One of the women was giggling behind her hand; the other two were looking toward Khuradasu and Jurnia with assessing, cynical eyes. The one who’d called out added, “Aren’t you a lovely boy? I’ve got a nice mirror in my rooms. You can see everything right from the bed.”
He started to reply to his companion’s words, only to shift his attention to the trio of women at the streetcorner. He spared them the smallest of glances before continuing on along the street toward the Fighting Fish Inn.
“Oh, don’t be hasty,” the woman purred, shifting her weight and cocking a hip, striking a subtle pose. “I’m sure I can give you a good time.”
Jurnia glared. “He’s spoken for.”
“Now, now. Strong men like that want real women, not little girls.” The harlot’s gaze skimmed dismissingly over Jurnia.
The assassin came to an instant stop. His amber eyes glaring at them, he very deliberately snaked an arm around the Kaykolom maiden’s middle and pulled her against his body. “You heard her.”
Jurnia blinked, startled for a moment. Then she deliberately wound one arm about the small man’s shoulders, sliding the other hand very slowly down his chest and dipping just inside his shirt, even as she drew one leg up a few inches, her calf caressing his. She gave the three prostitutes a smug little smile.
A shudder ran through him; despite the tight control he kept on himself while playing the assassin, he couldn’t keep himself from responding to the Raven. “We really shouldn’t be wasting our time here,” he murmured to the dark-haired woman clinging to him.
“They started it. “Little girl” indeed,” she whispered, just before she lightly bit his ear.
The purr deep in his throat was unbidden. He shivered at the sensual nip, his arm tightening around her waist. “I think we’ve made our point . . .”
“Are you sure?” She nuzzled against his neck, rather as he had done to her the previous day.
“Fine then.” Without any more warning than those crisp words, he turned his face to hers. Tilting his head slightly, he captured her lips in a heated kiss.
Jurnia was startled. The tables had been turned; she’d had control while he stood there and tried to keep himself on a short leash, but with one kiss, the man had just turned her into warm butter. She shivered slightly, though not with discomfort.
He made sure to kiss her thoroughly, giving in just a bit to the temptation of her and his desire for her. Then the reality of the situation sank in; he was still the blood-stained assassin and she was still the Raven Herald. Reluctantly he ended his attentions. Turning her loose, he gently took her by the hand again. “We need to go.”
She was wide-eyed and blushing faintly by the time he took her hand. If the three harlots on the corner were an example of the worldly, cynical sort of “woman” that they thought he would prefer, Jurnia certainly lost out; she looked far more like a . . . well, like a virginal maiden who nonetheless possessed a considerable degree of passion.
The virginal maiden appealed far more to him than any jaded, experienced woman. Or rather, this virginal maiden appealed to him; her passion was genuine, not faked—and dedicated to him. That last, though true, made guilt stab through him. Silly girl, to be so enamored of such an unworthy one as I. Shaking aside his thoughts, he slipped back into his long-legged stride.
Judging from the dreamy little smile that curved her soft lips—very soft; he had recent firsthand knowledge of exactly how soft they were—Jurnia would disagree with his estimation of his own worth, or lack thereof. She followed him without demurral, ignoring the giggles of the prostitutes and one ribald comment that was made about the small man’s obvious eagerness.
The remainder of the day passed in what could only be considered an awkward silence. Having kept to wandering for nearly two years, Kara was unused to staying cooped up in a room with a very tempting young woman. He carried little in his traveling pack with which to amuse himself; he more or less had just drifted along the roads, passing the time by walking aimlessly and thinking. In lieu of that, he simply sat crosslegged on the bed and meditated, withdrawing into himself and his thoughts.
That is, when Jurnia would let him. She apparently didn’t like silence much, so much of the day was spent in small bursts of small talk about nothing with long pauses in between. Finally unable to take it any longer, Kara had left the inn again to wander the town. Of course, his Kaykolom shadow tagged along. As she so adroitly pointed out, it wouldn’t seem right for Khuradasu to leave his woman behind.
At least the Shadow Clan town boasted a large market. Food stalls, clothing vendors, mass-printed woodcarvings—including some very explicitly amorous ones—pottery, and household goods of all sorts were to be found, reminding him of the markets in some of the largest towns. And what wasn’t obviously out in the open could probably be found with a bit of effort, he was sure. Still, there were too many merchants to peruse through them all in one day. For that he was grateful; to hang out and window-shop would give him something to do as he waited for word on the assassination job. And markets were good places to overhear nice bits of news and rumor both.
He had drifted from stall to stall, ignoring the various looks he got from the vendors and patrons alike. The Demon’s Claw being present seemed to be the news of the day; that’s all he heard about before people would go quiet and stare at him as he approached. Though he kept the mantle of the assassin wrapped about himself, inwardly he was sad and frustrated both. Seems as if the rumors about Khuradasu get wilder every month . . . That more and more people associated himself with the Demon’s Claw boded well for capturing the information he needed on the proposed assassination even if it grated on his nerves.
But once again, the Raven Herald changed his plans by taking matters into her own hands.
Jurnia had seemed mostly unaffected by his brooding silence, but when she realized he’d meant to only look and not actually shop at the fascinatingly large market, she huffed and darted away. Suddenly he went from a menacing assassin aimlessly wandering to look at what was for sale to a harried bodyguard chasing after a woman determined to stock up on supplies.
It was a good thing that the previous day’s display of protective possessiveness had already spread through the town, because the young Raven was definitely showing just a bit more money than Kara would have liked. Any normal pickpocket or street thief would be apt to avoid choosing Khuradasu’s woman as a victim; only a more determined and hardened sort would do so. That blessing had a certain edge on it, obviously—she might go untouched by the less bold thieves, but if someone did decide that her purse was worth the effort, she would be in that much more danger.
Apparently oblivious to this fact, Jurnia flitted through the market with her stone-faced companion. He continued to follow where she led, an ever-present and very visible deterrent to casual theft—though as her purchases piled up in his arms, he had to wonder if some bold thief would try to take advantage of his increasingly hampered state. Since some of the things she bought were relatively fragile, he dreaded the idea of having to drop them all to the ground just to draw his sword. At least the merchants seemed less eager to haggle extensively with Khuradasu’s golden gaze burning a hole through the air next to their ear.
Long years of discipline helped to keep him from yawning visibly or keeling over from boredom as Jurnia took her sweet time with her shopping. It was a testament to his status as a fearsome legend that nobody seemed inclined to laugh at the sight of him trailing after the girl with her parcels stacked in his arms. Indeed, eyes were beginning to turn to Jurnia herself as people wondered just what kind of woman could hold the dreadful Demon’s Claw in such a semblance of docility. The plain fact was that, dread assassin of legend or not, it would have been discourteous to make her carry things. That still didn’t make him like the job, especially after her purchases threatened to obstruct his field of view.
She looked thoughtfully at the packages as they stopped for a moment. “Soap, towels, robes, washcloths . . . have I forgotten anything?”
“A five-piece set of bed linens, perhaps,” the little swordsman muttered.
With magnificent aplomb, she ignored that remark. “I think we both need new sandals. Mine are getting worn out, and yours don’t look much better. Didn’t we pass a shoemaker back there?”
“My shoes are fine. It’s getting dark.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to have an extra set nevertheless. I think it was around this corner.”
“Didn’t we agree that we’d go back to the inn when it got dark?”
“Oh, this won’t take long,” she said breezily.
Of course it won’t, he thought sarcastically, trudging after her as she went off down the street, his expression anything but happy.
He was right. First she had to see, apparently, every single pair of shoes the shoemaker had. Then she had to hold a long discussion over the merits of various materials, which digressed into the local weather over the current year and how it affected the sources of those materials. Then she started talking about decoration.
Kara began to wonder how women ever got anything done.
Finally, however, her shopping was complete, including a new pair of sandals for himself. Her earlier purchases still held in his arms—arms that were really beginning to ache, though he bore it with the stoic silence of his training—Kara had been forced to lift one foot then another to try on various sizes in a manner much like a horse was. The only good thing about the frustrating ordeal was the touch of Jurnia’s fingers on his ankles through his clothing—and even that brought about its own discomfort. It was getting hard to ignore the tempting maiden.
Deep twilight stained the sky dark blue when the two of them left the cobbler’s shop. Stars glimmered faintly high above, but along the streets, the cheerful glow of torches lit the way. Though many of the market stalls were shut for the night, Jurnia noted that a number of others remained open.
Almost as if he sensed her hesitation and her curiosity, Khuradasu’s voice cut through the air. “No. No more.”
“It’s dark and I want dinner. And I want to be rid of these things.”
“If there’s more you think you’re missing, we can come back tomorrow.”
Glancing at him, she blinked. So intent was she on making their traveling more comfortable, she hadn’t really looked at her brooding companion in a while. Containers and boxes were piled up almost past his head in his capable embrace; a single amber eye glared out at her from a gap he’d managed to keep between items. Stifling a gasp and feeling her cheeks pinken, she raised a hand to her lips. Before he could assume she meant to argue more—rather than laugh her head off at the unintentionally funny picture he presented—she quickly said, “Yes, tomorrow will be fine.” Dropping her hand, she quickly spun on a heel and began walking fast toward the Fighting Fish Inn.
Muttering under his breath, Kara started after her. Though he kept his gaze on her through the makeshift peephole, he remained on the alert for anyone willing to cause trouble. Luckily, no one wanted to try this evening; they returned to their inn with no incident.
He sighed with utter relief the moment they were back in their room and the sliding door had been shut. Kneeling down next to the bed Jurnia had claimed, he finally released his hold on all the stuff she’d bought. The parcels tumbled over the bed’s surface as Kara stretched the kinks out of his muscles. Standing, he said, “You can sort through all that while I go fetch dinner and bring it here. Once I’m done eating, I’ll go out to the taverns . . . like we planned.”
She made a muffled little noise, and he whipped around, startled to see her leaning heavily back against the wall next to the door with her face buried in her hands. Is she crying? What’s wrong? Did something hurt her? “Jurnia?” he said, sudden worry roughening his voice and making him unaware that he’d used her name without the honorific as he reached out to gently take hold of her trembling shoulders.
“I’m sorry . . .” mumbled the young woman, her voice shaking. Alarm sparked in his eyes, and he slipped his hands down to catch hold of hers.
“What are you sorry for?” he asked carefully, feeling awkward and unbalanced. Dealing with a crying, apparently guilt-stricken woman hadn’t been covered in his training, and certainly wasn’t something he was experienced with. On impulse, he tugged her away from the wall and wrapped his arms around her, one hand stroking down her back in a soothing rhythm. “Are you afraid that I’m angry with you? I’m not, I swear. Did you forget something or lose something in the market?”
She curled her fingers into the front of his shirt, making odd little hiccuping sounds. His stomach twisted, and he searched frantically through his memory in an attempt to figure out what had upset her. “Jurnia? Please don’t cry . . . what can I do to make you feel better? Please tell me . . .”
She lifted her head from his shoulder; he winced momentarily, then stared. She didn’t look sad or upset at all. The eyes that he’d expected to see dimmed with some kind of pain were sparkling emerald-bright and her cheeks were quite pink.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped out, laughter bubbling up between her words. “But you looked so funny!”
He just continued to stare at her, amber eyes huge. It took long moments for the truth to strike him: that she wasn’t hurt but rather was doing her best to not laugh at him. The moment it did, his dumbfounded expression shifted to indignant outrage. He turned loose of her and stepped back. Hands loosely clawing the air in a gesture of exasperation, he growled, “And here I was thinking you’d hurt yourself or some other tragedy. Women!”
She sagged back against the wall, one hand still lightly gripping his shirt, the other arm banded across her stomach, which was aching from the restraint she’d exerted. Her head fell back with a muffled clunk as it hit the wood paneling, and she started laughing helplessly. It wasn’t some delicate, maidenly tittering or annoying giggle; it was a full-blown laugh, rolling up in long peals from deep in her belly and filling the room, a strong, healthy, and damnably infectious sound. She laughed so hard that her face flushed red, tears streaking her cheeks.
Part of him wanted to stay angry at her. After all, he happened to be the butt of the joke. But her laughter was infectious and she was so clearly amused. Kara couldn’t help but faintly smile and then softly chuckle himself. Shaking his head slightly, he stretched his arms again and turned toward the door. “I really should be fetching dinner. I don’t know about you, but I’m very hungry.”
Jurnia caught hold of his shirt more firmly, pulling him closer as the howls of laughter faded into spasmodic giggles. Her free arm slid over his shoulder, her head coming to rest on the other shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she managed again. “I don’t mean to make you angry, or make you think that I’m poking fun at you. You just looked so funny with one eye peeking out among all those boxes!” She started giggling again, releasing his shirt so that she could slip the other arm around him. “Everybody else was so scared of you that they wouldn’t have dared to think it was funny at all, but I couldn’t help it . . .”
“Well . . .” He really should be slipping from her grasp and be on his way, but he couldn’t help but hesitate. It felt too nice to cast it immediately away. “I have to admit on further reflection that I had to be an amusing sight. Boxes up to here—” he raised his hand to indicate the level Jurnia’s purchases had acquired, “and me stuck with this little tunnel to peer through. Well, maybe some of the really wild rumors about the Demon’s Claw will calm down once it gets around he makes a very good pack horse as well.”
“You put up with an awful lot from me,” she murmured, her warm breath brushing against his ear. “Carrying all of those things, then having me laugh at you . . . but you aren’t shouting or stomping off. Most men wouldn’t be so sweet.”
“I’m not most men,” he responded, amber eyes closing as her breath made a shiver run down his spine.
“I know. Oh, how I know.” She turned her head, her lips moving feather-light over the pulse point in the side of his neck, her eyes slipping closed as she breathed his warm scent, tinged with dust and sweat from the day outside. He softly sighed, unaware of tilting his head to further bare his throat to her soft lips. All he truly knew was it was a blissful moment, a happy stillness in a life that had been full of loneliness, doubt, and violence ever since he had become determined to live according to his principles.
He might not have been aware of the small motion, but she certainly was. Taking it as a silent invitation, Jurnia laid a slow, lazy path of butterfly kisses down the side of his neck from ear to collarbone, following the quickened throb of blood beneath his skin. Finding her way blocked by his shirt, she nudged the fabric aside with her chin and bit his shoulder lightly—hardly more than a grazing touch of her teeth—before pressing her lips to the sleek muscle. Her tongue flicked against his skin for a heart-stopping instant, tasting him curiously.
He softly moaned deep in his throat, but her grazing nip abruptly bright him back to reality. That was the Raven Herald kissing him, a woman too noble to treat with dishonor and a personality too unsullied to touch—especially with bloodstained hands. He gasped, his small, lithe body tensing up as he grasped for self-control and fought against his feelings. I can’t let this continue, he chided himself, angry at giving in to his less-than-pure impulses. “No,” he said, voice firm and full of Khuradasu’s menace. “This isn’t right,” he added, pulling away from her and swiftly heading for the door.
She froze when he went rigid in her arms, afraid that she had done something wrong, hurt him somehow with that tiny nibble. As he pulled away, his strength seeming to brush aside her hold as if it were nothing at all, a sick, wrenching feeling went through her as sharply as a knife. His rejection was almost a physical pain, and she gasped as if he really had wounded her.
Jurnia’s usual reaction to emotional hurt was to get mad. But now, when she needed it, the anger wouldn’t come. It felt as if she had been thrust from a warm room into a winter blizzard, the sense of safety and shared desire snatched away—and it had been shared desire, not merely her own. She was certain of it.
“Why not?” she said in a voice that wanted to be a fiery, angry snap, and was instead a breathless, broken sound.
He stopped at the door, his hand on the frame ready to pull it aside. He bowed his head for a moment, then red hair slid lower on his back as he glanced upward again. “Because you’re the Raven Herald and I’m nothing but a bloodstained assassin,” he answered, his voice low so that no eavesdropping ears could hear. The door slid open with a scraping sound.
Then he was gone. However, he would have to return soon. It wouldn”t be like him to leave her there alone with nothing to eat.
He didn’t even look at her, and that added to the hurt. On one level, she recognized the meaning of what he said. He wasn’t rejecting her as much as trying to reject his own reaction to her. He didn’t feel that he was worthy of her, and so he had pulled away.
On another level, she only felt the humiliating rejection. Numbly, she pushed away from the wall and made the few steps to her bed, sinking down onto the edge of it. Almost by reflex, she reached out and picked up the toy fox, hugging it tightly against her with both arms. It was a very poor second to the way it had felt to hold him.
She did cry, just a little bit, biting her lip nearly hard enough to break the skin in an effort to stifle the tears. How can I make him see that what he used to do doesn’t define who he really is? I think I could talk myself blue, and it would all just bounce off that armor of self-loathing he’s got wrapped around himself. But now he doesn’t even want me to touch him . . . A tear fell on Lopzu’s nose. If I can’t use words or touch to make him understand, what can I use?
Persevere, but go slowly. The voice that answered sounded like it could have been Kara’s, but amazingly, it seemed to have as its source the well-worn but well-loved stuffed animal. He does want you to touch him, but he’s afraid both of his feelings and his reaction to your touch. He’s Arjunayazu”s son. Honor is something very important to him. One just can’t go around treating a noblewoman and a Herald like a common tart.
How do I go slowly? she demanded without speaking aloud. I’m only human, too. What am I supposed to do, brush my hand against his now and then with a meaningful look when what I want to do is . . . The thought trailed off in a swirl of heated images that tumbled through her mind too quickly for fine detail. It did prove that Jurnia had read a few books that her mother most certainly wouldn’t have given her. I wouldn’t have believed that anything in the world could frighten him. He’s been in battle, how could something like this scare him so much? She answered herself in the next instant. Because it’s something he can’t fight with a sword?
Well, not with the weapon he carries thrust through his sash. His other sword is another matter entirely. The silly little toy seemed to somehow grin. However, yes, that sums it up. For a lad raised to believe his life would be short and violent, steeped in death, things that have to do with life are frightening, even though he truly wants to live.
Jurnia blinked, taken aback, and blushed furiously. Then she felt stupid for being embarrassed by something she was imagining—surely it was only her imagination—being said to her by a stuffed toy, of all the ridiculous things. How do I get someone to stop being afraid of something that’s not even a physical threat? He . . . he keeps acting like he’s something horrible and tainted, but I don’t see him that way!
It doesn’t matter, really, what you see. It’s what he sees of himself. And right now that’s both a vicious killer who doesn’t deserve any shred of happiness and the one sworn to protect you. And what he did just now was protect you from both him and yourself.
Short of hitting him over the head until my arm gets tired, the stick breaks, or he gets a concussion, how am I supposed to make him change his mind and realize he’s not horrible? She held the little toy up to eye level and gave it a sharp look. And don’t try giving me any sugary advice about how I should just wait passively for him to come around. I’m not a passive person, and I’m very bad at being patient, so if you had an answer like that in mind, fuzzy, you’d better come up with something else.
He’s right. You are a scary woman. The toy stared back with its single embroidered eye. As I said, continue the pursuit, but go slow. If he runs like he did just now, it means only that it got too intense for him and he’s afraid of losing control. Believe me, he wants you, beautiful. He just doesn’t think he should have you. Give him time to recover his control, then try again. I’m sure you’ll get further along each time. But the biggest thing to keep in mind is . . . The voice stopped; the toy looked almost like it was grinning at her, teasingly.
Even if he runs, he’ll come back, won’t he? The tone wasn’t scary in that moment; she sounded far more like a child afraid of being abandoned.
She blushed again at the compliment, and again felt rather silly. Her embarrassment burned away instantly under the sharply focused attention that she trained on the toy. What? What should I keep in mind?
He loves you and wants to protect you. Right now, he sees himself as a threat to you. But should he ever realize losing him will hurt you more than anything else, he’ll fall all over himself to keep you safe from that. And yes, Jurnia . . . he will always come back. Even if we let him have his way and see you happily married off to someone else, he would remain around, doing what he can to protect you.
But we’re not gonna let him have his way, now are we?
She gritted her teeth. Look. I have been telling everybody in earshot for the past five years that I’m not going to marry anybody but Khuradasu. That hasn’t changed since I met him and got to know him the way he is now. My mother couldn’t talk me out of it, my father couldn’t talk me out of it, none of my friends could talk me out of it, and there will be an eclipse in the Court of Heaven itself before I let the man himself talk me out of it. We’re definitely not letting him have his way.
She blinked and stared at the toy, her mind finally focusing. We? We? I’m really not just talking to myself after all, am I?
The toy just grinned back at her in apparently amused silence just as the door to the room scraped open.
Kara walked into the room, hands full of a tray almost overflowing with food-laden dishes. Head bowed, his long bangs hiding his eyes, he knelt down near Jurnia and set the tray on the floor. Still silent, he returned to the door and closed it. He remained standing there, as if he were waiting for her to claim what she wanted of dinner first.
She started violently as the door opened, and looked downright guilty to be caught having a staring contest with a child’s toy. Despite his rejection, the sight of him still hit her like a fist in the stomach, the desire heating her skin from the inside out. She coughed a few times, delicately. “I, uh, was just noticing that Lopzu could use a little mending,” she announced to both cover the embarrassing scene and clamp a lid on her reaction. Setting the toy down, she slid off the bed to investigate dinner. It was a surprising assortment, and after a moment, she started picking out small portions of various dishes and assembling them on an empty plate.
“Did you scare the kitchen into giving us a little of everything?” she asked teasingly, her voice just a fraction more cheerful than necessary.
“There are times being Khuradasu has a positive side. Apparently the staff were as amused as you were about my lugging around so many things, and decided I needed to keep my strength up.” He frowned, walking over and picking up Lopzu, looking for any immediate damage to the toy. Though it would be embarrassing to admit, the thought of the stuffed animal getting too old and no longer being there bothered him.
She watched him. It was impossible for her not to watch him as he moved so close to her, near enough that she could have reached out and touched him; the hand holding the eating sticks trembled slightly. “There’s no hurry,” she murmured reassuringly. “He’s holding up well, and I wouldn’t do anything to hurt him.” I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you, either.
“Silly, isn”t it?” he murmured, kneeling down and putting the toy back on Jurnia’s bed. “Someone like me worried about a toy. It’s not like another one couldn’t be made.” Sighing deeply, he sat down next to the Herald and picked up one of the remaining dishes and a pair of the eating sticks.
Next to her. Not on the other side of the room, or even across the tray from her. It seemed as if the velvet fox was right—Kara had returned to her despite leaving in a hurry.
“But it wouldn’t be the same one,” she pointed out reasonably. “There’s a little raven doll in my room back at the Rookery that Iryasitru gave me for my third birthday. If it were a real raven, the poor thing would be stone dead after everything that toy’s gone through, but getting a new one just wouldn’t feel right.”
The clenched-up feeling in her middle relaxed a little as he sat down beside her. If he wasn’t going to mention the “incident”, she certainly wasn’t. The thought of losing the camaraderie between them panicked her almost as much as the idea of losing the deeper feelings. She would have hated herself if her impulsive advances had put a cold distance between them.
Her hand stopped in midair, halfway between her mouth and the plate, bits of rice almost falling in her lap as that realization hit home. Somehow, over the course of their travels together, he had become far more than the object of her desire, both her unrealistic expectations and the newer acceptance. He had become her friend, and she didn”t want to lose that.
He softly chuckled. The image of a little Jurnia giving a toy raven an enthusiastic child’s hug was just too cute for words. “I wonder . . . Do we all do that? Give our children huggable dolls of our totems?”
“Well, it’d hardly be practical to give them live versions, would it? I bet the totems like having little copies of themselves cuddled by their clan’s children.” She paused and shot a glance at Lopzu, a glint of suspicion in her eyes. And maybe not just children, either.
The velvet fox seemed to give the Herald a lecherous grin in response. Silly, that, since really its features were embroidered and immobile.
Kara laughed, a rare sound from him. He was genuinely amused. “I can just see a little you trying to hug a screeching, squawking raven, black feathers flying all over the place and an absolutely disgusted look in its eyes.”
Stories of the mischief-making Fox Spirit didn’t just mention his irrepressible sense of humor, but a certain amorous playfulness as well. Quite a few of the stories told about how Lopayzu had become enamored of this mortal woman or that heavenly court lady. Of course, in some of them, he nobly resisted his lusty interest and helped a more appropriate—if less romantically adept—suitor win the lady’s affections instead.
I always liked those stories best, she thought caustically at the toy.
The image that Kara brought to mind made her giggle. “Well, ravens do have a certain dignity to maintain. I can just see a little you trying to keep a thrashing fox from escaping under the furniture, yiping and flailing its legs and tail around in a cloud of fur.”
The toy just seemed to grin more. Thought I was helping a romantically inept someone. Just look at him! Think beating him over the head with your Herald’s sword will give him a clue? Hardly. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the perks of the job . . .
The red-haired swordsman grinned and shook his head. “I’d have to catch the fox first, and they’re notoriously slippery,” he responded before eating more.
“Are they ever,” she agreed darkly, directing a warning glower out of the corner of her eye at the innocuous little stuffed animal.
It would have been easy to slip into the companionable silence that they’d shared before, if she hadn’t been so keenly aware of him. Impulsively, she glanced at his plate, then reached over with her sticks and nimbly swiped a bit of fried rice off it, popping it neatly into her mouth.
“Hey! That was mine!” Kara yelped in dismay, amber eyes watching the morsel’s track until it disappeared into her mouth. The faint pout on his face matched the sense Jurnia now got from the velvet fox perched on her bed.
She withdrew the sticks from between her lips in a rather sensual manner, and grinned at him. “Oh, that wasn’t very nice of me, was it? Here, let me make it up to you.” Rather than letting him filch anything in return, she used her own sticks to proffer a bite of rice off her dish.
He started to say something about greedy ravens, then blinked at her. The expression of surprise on his youthful face was absolutely adorable, but it quickly shifted to a faint smile. His eyes closed halfway as he leaned forward and took the offered gift.
“We’re not all greedy,” she informed him in her haughtiest tone—as she stole a piece of diced beef off his plate. She took her time about eating the tidbit, green eyes glinting wickedly at him.
He blinked at her in surprise again. I’m sure I didn’t say that out loud. Then he swallowed hard as he watched her eat. He couldn’t help but bring to mind the little nip she”d given him earlier, and his cheeks blushed faintly pink.
Jurnia had heard all the stereotypes of her clan before; the “greedy raven” line was bound to come up sooner or later. Judging from the look on his face, she”d guessed correctly that it was indeed about to turn up.
Aware of his gaze on her mouth, she deliberately licked at the end of one stick, as if to catch a tiny bit of food before it fell off. Her expression so determinedly innocent that it had to look fake, she offered him a bite of beef from her dish to make up for the theft.
He’d be hurt knowing that she knew he’d fallen into the stereotype trap—but he was far too distracted by what she was doing to even think along those lines. Unaware of his action, he subtly licked his own lips in reaction to her attention to the well-sanded bamboo stick. At the offer, he closed his eyes with the softest of sighs while leaning forward again to claim the offer. This time though, he lightly sucked on the end of the sticks before pulling back, his face looking a bit more flushed.
Unaware of her own movement, Jurnia was leaning slightly forward, her gaze fixed on his mouth in a reverse of the previous situation. She caught her breath quietly, heat blazing through her again, a faint blush rising on her cheeks. Kara would have to be deliberately obtuse to avoid realizing that she was just as affected as he was by the subtle game. Whether or not he would be relieved to know that the feelings were mutual was another story.
“See?” Jurnia murmured, sounding ever so faintly breathless. “Ravens can be generous, too.”
His half-lidded eyes scanned lower, settling on a point most decidedly under her face. “Yes, indeed they can . . .”
The gleam in his golden eyes made her shiver, suddenly aware that she hadn’t readjusted her clothing to a more demure arrangement. She was at a sudden loss for something to say, something to do; she certainly didn’t want to make a mistake and send him shrieking out of the room at top speed again.
Well, not “again”, really. He hadn’t been running and screaming earlier. But she was afraid that if she did something and he rejected her—and his own reaction—as he had before, she would start crying, and the last thing she wanted to do was make him feel guilty. It would only give him another reason, no matter how flimsy, to hate himself and to think he was unworthy of her. As ridiculous as it might seem, she darted an almost frantic glance toward the cute stuffed fox sitting so innocently on the bed, as if to plead for advice. The velvet fox remained silent, watchful.
Kara set the eating sticks in his hand down, the movement gentle. A different hunger impinged itself on his awareness, one that he couldn’t honorably satiate. He reached out, taking Jurnia’s hand in his. He raised it to his lips, kissing the back of it. “I really should be going to the bars,” he murmured against her soft skin. “We keep this up and it’ll be far too late for a bath for either one of us.”
Her fingers curled around his, turning what would have been a perfectly normal gesture of courtesy into something more personal. “I’m . . . I’m sorry that I . . . upset you earlier, Kara,” she said very softly. She offered no excuse, however, and it was obvious that she was only sorry for upsetting him, not for making that subtle, sensual advance in the first place.
He turned his golden gaze to stare up at her over the linked hands against his mouth. “I’m sorry I was so abrupt. It was rather rude of me.” He brushed his lips against the back of her hand again before straightening up and firmly pushing her hand back to rest in her lap. “Try to understand. You’re still young and still enamored with a fantasy that never existed. One day you’ll find a real love, one befitting you and your station. I would be a poor guardian indeed if I took advantage of your young heart’s crush.”
A hint of temper flickered in her eyes. “Of all the nerve. I’m still young? You’re only two years older than I am, not twenty years older. ‘You’re still young’, he says,” she said disgustedly, apparently to Lopzu. “If you’d stop being so dense, you’d realize that I have found someone befitting me and my station.” The emerald gaze burned into his; he might have tried to deliberately misunderstand and ask who this marvelous person was, but the thought of playing the clueless vagabond while that gaze pinned him seemed to verge on the suicidal.
Kara frowned. “I’m not the one for you,” he said simply. “The only things I’m good at are death, destruction and murder.” With a sigh, he pushed himself up from the floor and rose to his full height.
“Oh, yes, we’ve just left a trail of gruesome bodies a mile wide behind us as we’ve traveled through the empire,” she shot back, rising to her knees. “Dozens of burning villages! Lands laid waste as far as the eye can see!” She snorted in a manner that was more reminiscent of an Azvom than a Kaykolom. “You’re so far down in that hole of misery you’ve dug for yourself that I wonder if you can even see daylight from the bottom of it. Do me the courtesy of assuming that I can make my own choices and judge what’s best for myself, Karavasu!” She glared at him, but it wasn’t exactly anger in her eyes—more like frustration. “Before you drag out the subject of my station again, by the way, allow me to remind you that you’re a chieftain’s son, with every possibility of becoming a clan-chief yourself someday. Unless you’re going to suggest the insane notion that I consider Princes Nethratu, Hiranya, and Baysitu as potential suitors, I couldn’t get a better match as far as social class goes. True?”
“True, but in name only, however. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m estranged from my father and my clan. I’m nothing more than an assassin turned vagabond. I can’t offer you anything you deserve.”
“What you are is so incredibly stubborn that mules could take lessons,” she fired back, conveniently ignoring the fact that she was hardly a tractable creature herself. Rising to her feet, she put her hands on her hips. Her very shapely hips, which went perfectly with her peach-like bottom, all of it tying into those legs—she was distracting without realizing it, as he’d privately lamented that morning. “Don’t I get any say in what I ‘deserve’?”
You don’t know any better. You’ve spent all this time pining after the Demon’s Claw. He bit back his words, glaring at her. In high dander, she was just as appealing—maybe moreso, since anger hinted at the type of reaction she’d have under the influence of certain other passions. How he wanted to crush her to him and kiss the anger from her, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t proper or honorable. Instead, he just stared at her, hands balled into fists at his side and subtly turning pale from the force of his grip.
“In case it escaped your attention,” she said scathingly, “I’m not a child. I’m an adult and I can make my own decisions. If you don’t—” She had to catch her breath a moment, trying to keep her voice from quivering with her next words; they hurt just to think about, and hurt more to speak. “If you don’t want me, that’s your choice. I can’t make you feel anything for me. But don’t you dare, don’t you dare, push me away and claim it’s for my own good!” She was breathing hard, color high in her cheeks, her eyes blazing with far more than simple anger. She just knew that she was completely destroying her own sketchy plans and hopes, but her temper had always been her bane. Her chieftain would have understood; his own temper was just as fierce. Iryasitru had had much more time and experience to learn how to control it, to make it serve him rather than the other way around, to unleash it when the time was right and hold it in when it would only cause harm.
“But it is,” he said, catching the pain in her eyes. He winced; it felt like someone had stabbed a knife through his own heart. Unbidden, he reached out toward her with a hand. “Don’t you understand? I only want what’s best for you.”
Without hesitation, she caught his hand in her own, holding on tightly. She was at the emotional height; in a few seconds, temper would shatter into tears, and she knew, she knew, that letting him see her cry would only make things worse. Desperate to avoid the seemingly inevitable disaster, she did the only thing she could think of.
Still clasping his hand, she took a long stride forward and kissed him. Though the word “kiss” seemed too soft and sweet to describe it—the emotional typhoon that would have dissolved into tears translated itself instead into a surge of passion. There was hardly anything sweet and soft and poetic about it. It was scorchingly hot and dizzyingly hard, a fire that threatened to leap out of control like a lightning-struck forest conflagration. Though the best way to curb such a blaze was, as most country folk knew, to create a firebreak, to meet the raging flames with flames of one’s own, controlled and directed rather than running wild.
“Armph!” His yelp of surprise was quickly muffled, his other hand coming up to almost but not quite embrace her. For a moment he remained rigidly startled; soon enough her passionate flame fanned his own desire and he melted against her, pulling her into a strong but sheltering embrace. He answered her kiss, responding to the desperate need he sensed within her, then broke it to nip down on her neck in heated warning. Holding her tight against his wiry form, he murmured, “Jurnia, Jurnia . . . Isn’t this why we decided it was a good idea to take our baths separately? Don’t you remember that agreement?” He nuzzled against her neck, shuddering as he fought for control. “Never, never think I don’t feel anything for you.”
There was a brief, horrible moment where she felt him tense and unyielding against her, as he’d been before breaking away from her earlier. When the moment passed and his arms encircled her, a rush of relief made her briefly lightheaded. His response was everything she wanted, though she could sense that he was trying to keep himself in check. Letting him lose control would damage him somehow; that knowledge was the only reason that she allowed him to break the near-savage kiss, and she shuddered as his lips trailed down her throat.
“I remember,” she whispered, breathing as hard as if she’d run a mile, her hands clenching against his back. “This is the real reason. It had nothing to do with impropriety or some stupid fear that you’d do something to hurt or shame me . . .”
He hugged her tight again, almost crushing her to him. Then he let her go, intending to step back, but she whimpered and tried to keep him from going. “Shh. Trust me, just for a moment.” Feeling her nod slightly after a breathless hesitation, he stepped back then. “Look at me, Jurnia. Please.”
She opened her eyes, which glowed faintly violet for a moment. He’d seen her fairly worked up before, but not to such an extent that her spirit energy showed itself to normal vision. She swallowed hard, trying to consciously slow her breathing before she wound up doing something stupid, like passing out from hyperventilation. On the downhill slide from the emotional summit, she felt almost exhausted. “I’m looking.”
She opened her eyes, which glowed faintly violet for a moment. He’d seen her fairly worked up before, but not to such an extent that her spirit energy showed itself to normal vision. She swallowed hard, trying to consciously slow her breathing before she wound up doing something stupid, like passing out from hyperventilation. On the downhill slide from the emotional summit, she felt almost exhausted. “I’m looking.”
The man standing before her swept his hands out to either side in a gesture of openness. The amber eyes staring back at her were not the clueless and innocent ones of the wanderer nor were they the cold menacing ones of the Demon’s Claw. For one of the few times ever, the real Karavasu stared back at her, longing and pleading both in his expression. “I’m not ready. Not yet. Last night, I dreamed of my touch leaving streaks of my victims’ blood on you. That’s why I woke up and needed to go outside.”
For once, Jurnia was at a loss for words. No wonder he’d snatched his hand away from her as though she would burn him—no. As if he would burn her. She swallowed heavily and tried to smile, lifting her hands and turning them over to inspect both sides. “I don’t seem to be covered with gore.”
He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling for a moment, then stared back at her. “Just give me some time. I’m not used to any of this myself.” He sighed and gestured toward the door. “And I really should be going so that you can take your bath and get settled.”
It took a great deal of self-control for her to nod, silently acknowledging his need. “Mm. I suppose the taverns will be filling up by now.” Her eyes flashed back to his face, worry showing clearly in the verdant depths. “You’ll be careful?” It was half question, half royal command.
His smile was genuine, lighting up his pretty face. “I promise. I have no intention of depriving you of your protector. I will return to you.” The smile lingered as his eyes swept over her with a frank appreciation. “Thank you. You are most generous, Jurnia.”
He turned then, walking over to the door. This time, he stopped to smile back at her. “Just set the tray out in the hall. The staff will pick it up.” Then he was gone, the door scraping softly closed.
She smiled in return, though the expression was tinged with a hint of anxiety at letting him out of her sight. “I’ll be waiting.”
As the door whispered shut behind him, she flopped down on his bed rather than her own, which was still littered with her purchases. “At least he’s just using my name instead of tacking the title onto the front of it,” she remarked to the ceiling.
For now. Give him long enough and it’ll be “Lady Jurnia” again . . .
She made a face. Something to look forward to. How nice. She rolled onto her side and looked at the little stuffed toy. I thought I was making a catastrophe out of all this, but it seems to have worked out. She sounded downright smug.
He’s nothing but a moth to your flame, you know. I don’t blame him. You’re quite snuggable. The toy seemed to smirk back.
Jurnia stared for a long moment. You really are who I think you might be, aren’t you.
Well, who would I be? Kaykolu? Hardly. That uptight, brooding feather-duster . . .
She glared. Don’t you say that about my clan’s totem, you . . . you skirt-chasing chicken thief!
The voice in her head softly chuckled—again a sound very much like Kara would make. You really should put everything you bought away and take a bath. He’s going to expect you to be in bed when he gets back, you know. There was a pause. Did you really have to buy it all at once?
It was probably a good thing for the Celestial Court that Jurnia had never entertained ambitions of entering the priesthood. One could almost imagine gentle, prayerful entreaties turning into full-throated and impatient demands.
I was going to do that, she answered loftily, sitting up. She actually had to think about the question. Probably not, but it was all so convenient. Why make several trips when I could get everything in one pass?
Well, you’re probably going to be here a few days. You could have spared the poor boy by doing a little here and there, you know.
He didn’t complain, so I thought he didn’t mind.
Khuradasu? Complain? Really now . . . The voice chuckled again, very amused. I like that. That’s a good one, Herald.
Uh? What’s so funny?
Nothing, nothing . . . With a final chuckle that faded out, the velvet toy became merely a childhood treasure—for now, at least.
He was the only one not having fun. Not that that was new to Kara, in all honesty, but this time he actually dwelt upon the lack of gaiety. While normally inclined to sit and watch in brooding silence, content to remain aloof with his thoughts, thoughts of the Raven Herald continued to prey upon his mind. For the first time in a long while, he was sorely tempted to drink himself silly. Maybe then her image would fade and leave him in peace.
But the lesson learned long ago, about how alcohol led to a complete and utter lack of control, was not one easily unlearned. Unable to force himself to indulge, Kara ended up sipping moderately—as always—and wishing in the bottom of his heart he had the courage to have remained with Jurnia. But that would have lead to . . . improper things, he reminded himself. Of course, some of those “things” quickly intruded on his thoughts, leaving him feeling flushed and his groin aching. Stop that! She’s not for you!
Growling deep in his throat, Kara filled the little saucer-like cup in his hand with another mouthful of the gently warmed rice wine. He quickly tossed the drink down; amber eyes faintly glowed with ire and unrequited passion as he scanned the other patrons of the tavern while he swallowed the wine.
He really didn’t want to be here. He wanted to be with the woman he loved, content to be in her presence while ensuring she remained unharmed. This wasn’t a safe town, even for those familiar with the shadows of society. Recalling that she had done a lot of shopping and carelessly flashed a lot of money around, he felt his gut clench. Enough people by now probably knew he was Khuradasu. Anyone bold enough to try would only have to see him here, alone, to realize “his woman” was somewhere else, unguarded.
I can’t stay here. He gracefully rose from the seating cushion, fishing his money pouch out of one of his sleeve pockets. The loud voices and laughter paused a moment as he counted out more than enough coin to cover the small flask of wine and the scantily-clad, rather buxom service of the serving wench. Aware of the slight drop in surrounding noise, Kara gave the other patrons a very chilling, “Don’t mess with me,” stare. Most flinched and looked away as the slender swordsman hurried to the front door, but Kara had seen enough. While the men were apparently smirking at how thoroughly ravished Khuradasu’s woman was soon going to be, the women were scowling jealously because they hadn’t been the one to leave such a sexily dangerous man in such obvious lust. Kara couldn’t help but find his observation darkly amusing. If only they knew the truth . . .
The cool night air felt good against his flushed skin. He moved as silently as a ghost, his long stride eating up the distance. He had fully intended to stay out until midnight, wandering from tavern to tavern to have a drink here and there while listening for interesting news and gossip and waiting for the contact to find him. Midnight would have given Jurnia plenty of time to take a bath and settle in for the night, though after what had passed between them, he wouldn’t be surprised at all if she was just lying there, waiting.
Instead, he was hurrying back after perhaps an hour or two, having visited only a single tavern. Still, it should be enough, and I don’t feel comfortable being this far away from her.
The moment he stepped into the enclosed yard of the Fighting Fish Inn, he paused and cast outward with his Avatar senses. Jurnia’s aura was there; all seemed well with her. Deeply relieved, Kara allowed himself to relax just a bit. Truth be told, he was rather weary. A nice hot bath and then sleeping in a bed sounded like perfect remedies to the tiredness he’d been pushing aside for a while.
A faint smile lingered on his pretty face as he made his way through the inn. He headed straight for the bathhouse, glad to sense Jurnia’s violet aura elsewhere. Mindful of other patrons, he knocked on the wooden frame of the door; receiving no answer—and there was no sense of another aura in there—he stepped inside and took a deep breath of the steamy air.
Shutting the door almost completely closed, he expertly stripped out of his clothing. While his sheathed sword was lovingly propped against the wall, his garb was dropped outside for the laundry service to pick up. Once the door was completely closed, he concentrated on scrubbing himself down.
Memory and desire, however, intruded upon even that simple task. Eyes shut, it was easy to imagine the Kaykolom maiden’s hands being the ones running over his skin, lathering it up. He shuddered, the heated thoughts fanning the ember of passion back into a flame that warmed his blood. Suppressing a groan, his movements shifted from impersonal scrubbing to obvious caressing as he imagined how Jurnia would touch him. His manhood once more rock hard and aching, he started guiltily as the bathhouse door scraped open.
It was only the laundry servant leaving a robe and towels behind. Kara let out the breath he was holding, relieved to watch the door be pulled completely shut again. Turning his back to the door, he tried to will his desires away.
It wasn’t happening. More and more his mind teased him with the memory of her touch. making the ache between his legs grow worse. I can’t return to her like this, he softly groaned. There was only one solution to his problem—or rather, only one honorable one. Since she was off limits, and not only did he have little liking for buying the services of a protitute but he also knew doing so would deeply offend the Raven Herald, that left him with his usual answer for those times the purely physical need got to be too much to just bear.
He dipped his hand into the liquid soap; lathering up his hands very well, he walked over to the bench next to where he’d left his sword propped. Sitting down, he leaned back against the sturdy wooden post forming part of the bathhouse wall. Tilting his head back and closing his eyes, he curled a hand around his aching erection. His strokes began slow, hand traveling down his full length and then back up only to repeat the movement. He groaned softly as the ache began to be soothed, but somewhere in the back of his mind he fervently wished it was Jurnia’s hand on him. Just thinking about what it must be like with her liquid heat surrounding him made his breath catch in his throat and his eyes squeeze shut more tightly. Heart pounding, breath ragged, his hand stroked increasingly faster. She would certainly be responsive, writhing and moaning with every thrust until the sweet, torturous tension finally exploded—
He gasped and stiffened, voice making a soft, strangled sound as his climax took him by surprise, responding to the imagined one in his mind. Head thrown back and spine arched, he thrust hard against his fist a number of times while silently keening. Then it was over, leaving him breathless and utterly drained. Kara reclined limply against the wooden post for a long moment, waiting for the physical effects to subside.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was some measure of relief. Groaning softly, he finally forced himself to get up. He needed to rinse off, and soaking in the tub sounded very inviting. Stumbling over to the tub, he frowned as he noticed his hand shaking as he picked up one of the rinse buckets. It’s been a very long day, that it has . . .
Three times he poured water over himself, being sure to wash off every trace of soap and other fluids from his lean form. Letting the bucket clatter noisily to the bamboo lattice floor, he then grabbed one of the stools and tossed it in. Amber eyes clouded with weariness watched as the three-legged seat sank to the bottom. He then climbed in, sighing in pure bliss as the hot water engulfed him. Perched upon the stool, he leaned back against the side of the tub and closed his eyes.
Jurnia turned over, opening her eyes. Her gaze went automatically to the other bed, and she frowned in worry to see it unoccupied. She hugged the little stuffed fox against her chest; she wanted to believe that the most elemental Fox would give her some kind of warning if Kara was in trouble, but perhaps his attention was elsewhere. He was somewhat infamous for that kind of thing.
It had taken her a little while to sort through her purchases. Some of them had been for Kara, though perhaps he’d been too distracted by glaring or looking ominous to notice. A couple pairs of new socks, a comb that wasn’t missing a third of its teeth—these, she’d placed on the end of his bed. Having new towels, a washcloth, good soap, and a thick, comfortable robe had made her bath almost enjoyable. Although she had found her mind wandering to envision Kara being there, his hands gliding over her skin, trailing through her hair, slipping down to—
Kara might have been shocked into a semi-permanent daze if he knew that the bench he’d sat on had been occupied not more than an hour ago by the young Herald, who had been releasing her own tension just as he had done, albeit with logically different mechanics.
Rising from the bed, she went to the window and opened the shutters, looking thoughtfully up at the sky. The moon was a mere crescent, a thin sliver of light; by tomorrow night, it would be gone, the Goddess’s little sister using her mirror to attend to her own vanity rather than her elder sibling’s. For now, though, it shone softly in the blue-black sky, telling Jurnia that it was much earlier than she’d expected.
She was getting genuinely worried. True, he’d only been following their agreement and doing the logical thing to hopefully gather some information while giving her time to clean up in privacy, but she wondered suddenly just how late he planned to stay out.
What if something happens to him? she fretted silently, pacing across the small room. What if he gets into a fight and has to kill someone? What if someone manages to hurt him? A dark, ominous glint entered the green eyes. What if he gets a little too drunk and some harlot entices him into spending some time in her bed? Some blue-eyed blonde with more breast than brain, leaning over to give him a good view, leading him to some room that smells like a yard full of rutting goats and peeling the clothes off his gorgeous body. In the fury of battle, there had been few warriors who might have the sort of homicidal look that Jurnia had in her eyes right now.
Stopping in the middle of the room, fists clenching at her sides, she sent her awareness outward in an angry burst. The intangible wave swept out in an expanding ring, sensing and dismissing the lesser presences nearby. Her seeking was successful, however. She could sense Kara’s golden energy nearby—in the bathhouse, actually. She let out a quiet sigh of relief, glad to know that he was there. Clearly he’d followed their plan, staying out to let her have some time alone, then returning.
Of course he followed the agreement, she assured herself complacently as she climbed into bed again, ignoring her earlier worry. That’s the sort of man he is. She carefully arranged herself just so, ensuring that her face was framed neatly by her hair and that Kara would get a nice glimpse of breast and thigh. Let him see a sample of what he was missing—maybe that would help him get over his shyness.
Fifteen minutes later, she was sitting up in bed again, scowling. What’s taking him so long? Ingrate!
Rising once more, she wrapped and tied her robe tightly around herself, picking up the second robe and two towels before stalking out into the hallway and heading for the bathhouse, using the route that led down the back stairs just as she had when going for her own bath. She passed one of the servants, who flattened himself against the wall to stay well out of her way. Not wanting to have his ears or something more important chopped off, he didn’t want to give even the slightest impression of deliberately venturing too close to Khuradasu’s woman.
She considered knocking, but assured herself blithely that it would risk ruining the masquerade. Instead, she slid the door open, stepped in, and closed it behind herself as if she had every right to be there.
Kara had his back to her, leaning against the side of the tub with his wet hair drip-drying over the edge of it. She would have expected him to jump, or already be looking toward the door because he’d sensed the approach or heard the door open, but instead he wasn’t moving at all. Perhaps he was meditating. She padded over to the stove and laid the towels and robe out on the warming surface, then went over to the tub. Leaning over to look at his face, she jumped in surprise when he let out a soft little snore.
He was sound asleep.
After a moment of irritated anger that he’d dozed right off so casually while she was waiting and worrying upstairs, Jurnia couldn’t help but smile. He looked so cute when he was asleep, peaceful, almost childlike. There was an innocence to him that belied his fearsome reputation; she could see so plainly that no matter how many deaths he had caused, his spirit was still pure, unmarred by any of the ugliness she had glimpsed in other people before. There was no festering spiteful hate, no delight in murder, no greed or selfishness, no evil in him. He was one of the exceedingly few people who were truly good inside, and no amount of slaying in battle or professional assassinations could change that.
She could see it so clearly. Why couldn’t he? What sort of blinders did he wear, shutting out the awareness of his own innate virtue in favor of focusing on the darker deeds he had done?
What could make a man like this hate himself so much?
He must be truly exhausted. She would have expected him to wake up by now, with her so near, watching him. Unless—a little warm thrill went through her—unless he recognized her presence even in his sleep, and knew that she was no threat. Perhaps she was even something soothing to him. A smile brightened her face at the thought, then faded as she studied the quiet glow of his aura.
His arms were still aching from carrying all of her purchases for most of the day. The muscles were sore and tired. He was more highly conditioned than most people, but even the greatest warriors couldn’t swing a sword at top performance for hours on end, and this hadn’t even been the stretching exercise of weapon practice. It was her fault that his arms hurt, and both an awareness of how important it was for him to be at his best as well as the desire to make it up to him had her kneeling down beside the tub and taking his left arm very gently between her hands.
She took her time, not wanting to hurt him or wake him. She’d rubbed down horses after long riding excursions at the Rookery, and she fell without thinking into a similar rhythm, kneading the places where she felt knots and using long, firm, gentle strokes to sweep down the length of the muscle. The hot water of the tub had helped relax the cramps, and Jurnia massaged carefully from the wrist upward, working her way up to a strong, soothing shoulder rub before her hands traveled down the other arm.
Kara purred softly, shifting just a bit as Jurnia worked her way up his right arm. Emerald eyes flicked to him; worried she’d somehow awakened him, she studied his face but boldly continued the massage. He remained asleep, golden aura almost as quiescent as before, but a true smile graced his thin lips.
She smiled in return, though she knew he couldn’t see it. It didn’t matter, really. What mattered was that here, in this little moment, she was able to give him some measure of happiness—and he was essentially helpless to reject it. Feeling a sort of inner peace, Jurnia turned her focus back on working the last of the kinks from his muscles.
He certainly was fascinating to touch, the quiet strength in his arms different from her own softer but more enduring build. His water-soaked skin was as velvety as her own despite the faint scars that criss-crossed his upper arms and shoulders. That so many of them were thin, the skin healed smoothly, bore silent testimony to his agility and speed—both of which she’d seen long ago on a battlefield and more recently traveling with him.
Something in his aura shifted slightly as she kneaded his shoulder with her fingertips. Glancing at his face, this time she saw his golden eyes staring back at her from under his long lashes. Though his gaze was still clouded over with the fog of sleep, her breath caught in her throat as she realized he was truly looking at her.
“Jurnia,” he whispered. His left arm came up, the slender fingers threading through her deep-red silken locks at the back of her head. Cupping the curve of her skull with his grasp, he tugged her closer to him. The resulting kiss was soothing, warm and inviting.
Sadly, it was also a product of his nearly somnolent state. She could tell the exact moment he woke up and realized he was no longer dreaming; his golden aura flared to life with a sense of guilt and trepidation coloring it. Though the fingers of his restraining hand stiffened against the back of her head, he had the courtesy to not just stop and push her away. Instead, he let the kiss linger before gently breaking it. Resting his forehead against hers, he gently sighed. “You shouldn’t be here,” he quietly said, though no tone of accusation turned his words into either a cutting barb or a dire warning.
Jurnia didn’t pull away, her hands resuming the kneading that they had been occupied with before his sleepy kiss. “I was worried. You were in here and quiet for so long that I thought something might have happened.”
“Sorry,” he murmured, the apology genuine. “It wasn’t my intention to worry you. I was just too tired, I guess.” His eyes flickered closed as he allowed himself to submit to her contact. “I certainly wasn’t meaning to sleep in here, that’s for sure.”
“You’re lucky I came out here,” she asserted. “You were in serious danger of turning into a big red prune.”
“And you don’t think that would be an improvement?”
“Khuradasu the Fierce is one thing. It would be hard to make people take Khuradasu the Human Raisin seriously.”
He softly chuckled at that. The mental image was just too ridiculous to not laugh.
Her soft giggle echoed his amusement. “See? You know I’m right.” She was holding his hand now, her thumb rubbing a slow, firm circle in the center of his palm, her fingers sliding down the back of his forearm as far as they could reach to work at the muscles there.
“Mmm.” He arched his spine, working a few kinks out of his low back gained from sitting in the tub for so long as he had. “You’re good at that,” he murmured while settling back down on the bath stool. The ends of the long locks around his face floated in the steaming water like rusty seaweed.
“Your arms were awfully worn out, weren’t they?” she murmured. “You could have said something. I wouldn’t have minded you putting everything down for a few minutes to stretch.” Her eyes followed the slow, swirling drift of his hair.
“It’s all right. Though had I known how much shopping you had in mind, I probably would have said something. I kept thinking ‘All right, she only wants one more thing,’ and only one more thing didn’t seem much at all.”
“When it started piling up past your chin, that might have been a good time to mention it.” Her fingers began working their way up his arm.
“I’ll keep that in mind for next time.” He couldn’t stifle a purr of contentment. Turning his head toward her and opening his eyes again, he raised an eyebrow in inquiry. “How many times are you going to work that arm over anyway?”
“Until it doesn’t ache any more, of course.”
“It actually doesn’t. The hot water’s helped quite a lot. But I am going to turn into a prune if I stay here.”
“Are you sure you feel better?” Her hands reached his shoulders and began to knead, strongly but soothingly. She had a remarkable grip for a girl, though perhaps it wasn’t that remarkable when one considered that she’d had training in swordplay.
“I feel better.” But that feels even more “better”. Mmm.
It was quiet in the bathhouse for a few minutes, a warm and comfortable silence. Jurnia felt a simple sense of deep contentment, happy just to be there with him, touching him, melting the tension of his stressed muscles. Her cheek rested lightly against the side of his head, not minding the dampness of his hair. The inn’s soap had no fragrance added to it at all, and the faint, waxy smell did nothing to cover his own unique scent. She could easily get used to that.
“Jurnia . . . I really should get out of here and go to bed. I need enough rest to keep up the masquerade as Khuradasu and be alert to root out this threat to the Raven Chieftain.”
Her hands stilled immediately. If there was anything that was bound to focus her attention to the exclusion of nearly everything else, it was the suggestion that the lord of the Kaykolom might be in danger. Kara had been slightly surprised by the strength of her feelings on the matter; it seemed like more than a clanswoman’s loyalty, or even a Herald’s degree of devotion.
An unpleasant thought etched its way across his mind. Were they lovers? It was far from unheard of for a Herald and a clan-chief to develop a more personal relationship, but the thought made his stomach clench with a startling surge of possessive jealousy. It faded quickly as a more rational thought intruded. She was far, far too young for Iryasitru, who surely wasn’t such a lecherous creature as to seduce a girl half his age—and besides, unless Kara had become totally inept at reading other people, Jurnia’s determination to be faithful to her dreams of Khuradasu was genuine.
Still the thought left a very bad taste in his mouth. Grimacing, he straightened up. “He’s very important to you, isn’t he?”
“Yes,” she said, very quietly. “He’s done more for me than most clan-chiefs would do. He saw to it that I was educated along with his heirs, and that I was looked after even when my mother was gone on business. He’s . . .” Her throat closed up, instinctively swallowing the words, hiding the secret as her hands clenched unconsciously on the swordsman’s shoulders. “He’s a good man. I know that you probably see it differently, and you’ve got every right to, but I’ve seen him when he thought nobody was looking. He might hate the Lopayzom for what happened to his sister, but I think he hates himself just as much for what he did to them.”
“Oh?” Genuinely curious, he shifted slightly to stare at her. “What did you see that made you think that?”
Her eyes weren’t focused on him; they were gazing into the distance, seeing another place and time. “Irya doesn’t cry. He’s never shown strong emotion of any kind in public, and he’s reserved even when he’s in private with his family. Mother told me once that he used to be much more . . . open when he was younger. More easily angered, quicker to forgive. ‘Living on the outside of his skin’ was how she put it. After he received the report that the last Lopayzom village had been destroyed, he locked himself up in a room for most of a week. When he came out, Mother said, he was like a totally different person—the way he is now.” Her hands had slipped from Kara’s shoulders to sink into his damp hair, and her fingers curled tight to hold a double fistful of water-darkened flame without pulling at his head. “He still has that last report. He keeps it in the locked drawer of his desk. When I was little, I liked to sneak into his library and read until I fell asleep in the corner, and I did that one time. He woke me up when he came in, but he didn’t see me. He just had one candle, and he didn’t light any of the lamps. I was going to say something, but I . . . saw the look on his face—it was the only time I’ve ever really been afraid around him.” She took a deep breath. “He went straight to his desk and opened that drawer and took out the report. It’s just one page of parchment, really, and it’s a little discolored and wrinkled like it’s been crumpled up and smoothed out a lot. I watched him read it, just like he must have done a hundred times over the years, and I will never, never forget his face.” The words came out in a rough whisper; she wasn’t sure that she could describe what she had seen in Iryasitru’s eyes that long-ago night.
Perhaps . . . perhaps he never expected to achieve his goal? Kara wondered, throat tight with emotion. That same incident had seen not only the end of his true family, but the start of own life as it now was. The feud had always been something more abstract to him, a background to the tapestry of his existence. For Arjuna and Irya and those older, the wounds had to run very deep indeed. “Truth be told . . . I’m almost comforted by what you just said.”
“He didn’t say anything or make a sound. But I’ve never seen anybody who looked so much like they wanted to cry or scream or do something to get whatever they were feeling out of them.” Her gaze focused on Kara, finally, and although the Raven Chieftain might not cry, there were tears glinting in his Herald’s eyes. “Comforted?”
“Yes . . . news of the virtual extinguishment of a clan should never be shrugged off lightly. Had he not been moved at all . . .” Kara let his voice drift off, but his aura turned faintly menacing.
“Do you know why the Kaykolom have gotten so powerful in the last twenty years, Kara?”
“Because people are terrified of Iryasitru. I’ve seen it in court. In the entirety of recent memory, he is the only clan leader who has ever dared to seek and virtually achieve the utter destruction of another clan. When emissaries from other clans see him, so calm and reserved, it’s like I can hear what they’re thinking. ‘This is the man who is responsible for eradicating the Fox, the greatest swordsmen of the empire, and he’s so cold-blooded that surely he’d crush any other clan that makes itself inconvenient.’ They don’t know him!” Her voice rose without her realizing it. “They don’t know who he really is, they just know what he did and they’re afraid he’ll do it again!”
“Can you really blame them for thinking that, Jurnia?” Yes, this did go much deeper than clansman for chieftain or even Herald to chieftain. But he just knew there had never been anything . . . improper between the icy Raven Chieftain and his current Chief Herald.
She drew in a deep, shuddering breath. “No,” she said finally, in a very small voice. “I can’t. But I can’t forget the look on his face, either. Every time I look at him and he’s so calm and blank, I see it all over again and it makes me . . . it makes me hurt.” Her forehead rested against the nape of his neck, her hands stroking through his hair as if petting a small animal. “Mother said once that he’ll pay for the rest of his life for the mistakes he made. First because he was impulsive and wild with grief, and later because he was so proud and stubborn that he refused to make it stop.”
“It’s funny . . .” He twisted around, responding to the pain in her aura and her admission of hurt. He gathered her in his arms as best he could, perched in the tub as he was, and lightly stroked her head with a hand. His skin was warm both with his own lifeforce and the heat of the water and he smelled clean. “I can’t bring myself to hate him, especially knowing now that he probably makes himself suffer for his sins. I never really understood why he would want to kill me, especially when I was much younger—though I can understand anyone wanting to kill me now, considering what I’ve become. But even as a child, though I was scared of him, I never hated him. I just wished he would stop trying to hurt Father and me.”
Jurnia pressed herself against him, grateful for the warmth and the gentle comfort he offered. “Mother and I were there when he got the letter from the Tiger. You couldn’t have figured out what he was feeling from his expression, but his eyes . . .” She shivered. “It was like someone had just given him a rope to pull himself up over the brink of a chasm. I didn’t quite understand it then, but now I think that he was desperate for someone, anyone, with enough authority to step in and make it stop.” She gave a choked little half-sob, half-chuckle. “I was too young back then to really understand the politics. I kept wondering why no one protected the Fox. I argued with Iryasitru for hours once I started learning what our clan had been doing. I just couldn’t understand then that if any of the greater powers had moved to intervene, the empire could have been torn apart.”
She shuddered again, clinging to him. “An entire generation of Kaykolom has been taught that the Lopayzom were evil, sadistic murderers—heartless monsters of the worst kind—but I could never believe it.” Her hands moved gently over his chest, one palm coming to rest over his left pectoral. “And now I know for certain that it’s not true,” she whispered. “You’re not some horrible nightmare. You’re as real and human as I am, and you have a heart just like anyone else.” Her lips touched his skin, pressing a soft kiss over the strong, soothing beat of his heart.
“Jurnia . . .” His eyes fluttered closed as he stifled a groan. But I am like that, a monster, he tried to say, but the words remained caught in his throat. Here and now, with the Kaykolom maiden’s lips pressed against where his heart pounded strongly in his chest, the words seemed somehow false and hollow. He’d never been able to make himself hate the man responsible for the deaths of his family and kin; he’d even been among the Raven in the town outside the gates of the Rookery and not suddenly exploded in a fury of slaughter—even though that had long been the fate chosen for him by his adopted father. Her shout from earlier came back to him, mocking his insistence that all he knew was how to end lives. He hadn’t ended anyone’s life in a long time, and far more were sleeping happily now thanks to his intervention.
He sighed deeply, holding her against him. Raw desire threatened to flare to life; at least he’d been able to quell the more physical aspect of his atraction.
“Kara?” Her voice was so innocently, genuinely sweet, unlike the sugary, lilting tone that bordered on pure sarcasm which she tended to use right before she bit someone’s head off.
He gave her a hug, then gently tried disentangling himself from her. “I really need to be getting to bed. We both need our sleep. I don’t want to be drowsy or unalert while trying to counter this threat to Iryasitru.” His golden eyes bored into her. “Please, let me concentrate on this task. When your chieftain’s safe . . . then I’ll consider all you’ve offered me. But I can’t afford to be distracted, not on something this important.” Especially not when it’s obviously so important to you.
One of her hands had wandered lightly down his chest in idle exploration, rapidly approaching very dangerous territory. She traced the ripple of his abdomen with the pad of her thumb, intrigued by the way his muscles tightened with the touch. His words, though, made her stop; she opened her eyes and very nearly glared at him as she stood up. “You are the most frustrating man I have ever met, and I’m even comparing you against Iryasitru, who I’ve argued with since I was old enough to string a sentence together. You certainly know how to make me pay attention to business, even when I don’t want to.” She stalked over to the firebox and picked up the robe, then paused and muttered something that put a definite dent in her image as a refined young lady of the upper class. Kara had heard that word from soldiers and dockworkers, not educated young women.
He stared at her, involuntarily wincing at the harsh word. “Jurnia . . .”
She fixed him with a baleful green stare. “This is not fair. I have finally met a man I want to marry, and it turns out that he’s the only person alive who can actually make me behave.”
There was something intrinsically hysterical about Jurnia’s disgruntled tone and downright sulky expression. Since her mother’s death, there had been no one who could actually change her course once she’d set upon it; even Iryasitru—often to his disgust—had to rely on her loyalty and sense of duty to get her to follow his instructions. It seemed absolutely outrageous that this small, slender young man with the innocent wide eyes and the unruly mop of sunset-bright hair could stop her dead in her tracks with only a few words.
What he was going to say died in his throat simply because he found her wording somewhat amusing. “A man? A man?” he asked, voice hinting that she’d just confirmed for him that he was right, there was more than one man out there for her.
She put her nose in the air and spoke with her haughtiest tone. “Yes, a man, as in a singular and unique specimen of the species, distinguished from the generally unappealing and totally unsuitable masses. If you like I could rephrase myself and say the man, but then I might have to change the whole statement to ‘the man I am going to drown in the bathtub if he doesn’t get up and dry off so we can get some sleep’.”
He grinned at her, a decidedly foxy expression as he leaned his chin on the crossed arms propped against the edge of the tub. He needed to confess to her, to let her know that once the danger to her chieftain was past, he was serious about considering what she wanted from him. “I love you,” he murmured, golden eyes staring up at her.
He couldn’t have found anything more likely to completely dispel her irritation as well as most of her capability for coherent thought. Her mouth opened a little, then closed again, and her eyes shone with so much emotion that she hardly needed to speak. Dropping the robe back on the warming surface, she crossed the distance between them in what seemed like one long step, sinking to her knees with total disregard for the alarming creak and pop of the old latticework.
“Kara,” she whispered, the most beautiful smile he’d ever seen lighting up her face and illuminating her vivid green eyes.
He smiled back at her, drinking in the gorgeous sight of how happy his words had made her. This was the sort of intoxication he could stomach; her joy made him feel a pleasurable sort of giddiness. “I love you,” he repeated, wanting her to be certain that he truly meant it.
She reached out to touch his face, a sort of sweet wonder in her eyes, then leaned close.
There was a sharp rapping on the door. “Hello? Is someone in there? Other people would like to bathe, too!”
Jurnia’s expression threatened to freeze the water.
Kara jumped nearly out of the bath. Water splashed alarmingly over the sides. Before the Herald could even get a glimpse of his naked, wiry form, the Lopayzom was by the warmer and yanking on the robe without bothering to properly dry himself. Even so, the voice he called out with was full of Khuradasu’s menace. “You’ll have it soon enough.”
Jurnia blinked, surprised. He definitely could move fast when he wanted to. Still, she chased after him to grab one of the towels and wrap it around the dripping length of his hair. Noticing that his athletic bound out of the tub had splashed water all over the lap of her robe, she rolled her eyes heavenward in resignation.
There was a moment of silence, and the slightly drunken, obnoxious voice sounded stone cold sober and meek. “Take your time, no offense meant.”
“None taken,” Khuradasu growled, eyes closing as Jurnia engulfed his long mane in one of the towels. Perhaps the Herald would feel better about her damp robe soon enough; the dampness of his skin was beginning to seep through his own robe, molding the cloth to his sleek, gracefully muscular form. “We really should relinquish the bath,” he softly murmured, reaching out toward his waiting sword.
That certainly held her attention, the sight of the thin, absorbent cloth clinging to his body. She forgot what she was doing for a moment, then blinked at his words and finished wringing the water out of his hair. “You’re probably right,” she agreed reluctantly, picking up the second towel and tossing it over her shoulder, then waiting for him to finish composing himself.
“Hmm.” He glanced down at himself, frowning slightly. “Looks like the back stairs for me as well tonight. I don’t think marching through the common room is appropriate like this.” Swinging his sword up to rest the sheathed blade against his shoulder, he tugged open the door with his free hand.
The man outside was standing well off to one side, carefully keeping his hands in view and avoiding eye contact, clearly doing his absolute best to be as unoffensive as possible. Still, he certainly couldn’t help but glance at Jurnia—the young Raven was definitely eye-catching—though he immediately went pale and stared fixedly at some point up near the roof.
Kara shot the drunkard a withering look, protectiveness and a bit of possessiveness welling up in him. Seeing the man obviously minding his own business, he smiled in self-satisfaction. “Good man,” he growled, casually striding down the hallway like he owned the place.
Jurnia glided along just beside and slightly behind him, an arch little smile on her lips, doing her best to look like a woman who knew she was under the protection of the most fearsome man alive.
This wasn’t difficult, since that was exactly what Jurnia really was, but trying to convey it in a subtle manner was harder than she had expected.
They reached the room with no incident; Jurnia let out a quiet breath and turned to look at him as he shut the door. “You need to dry your hair, you know.”
“Ara?” He shot her a quizzical look, hand reaching up to thread his fingers through his water-darkened locks. “It didn’t dry enough while I was sleeping?”
“You got some of it soaked again when you shot out of the tub as if a crocodile had just bitten you on the behind.” She proffered the towel.
“Well, it was something of a rude wake-up call,” he agreed, taking the towel from the Herald. He tossed the thick cloth over his head and began vigorously rubbing it. “Certainly not as pleasant as the first one I got,” his voice said out from under the towel.
She blushed a little. “How are your arms feeling?”
“Good as new. You’re certainly full of pleasant surprises, aren’t you?”
“I try not to be dull and uninteresting.”
He lowered the towel and shook his head. From under his wildly tousled hair, he gave her a fox-sly smile. “So far, you’ve been anything but.”
She caught her breath; at the moment, he looked far from harmless, his wild hair shadowing his face, amber eyes gleaming. “Well, good,” she mumbled lamely.
His smile faltered. Looking at her with concern now, he tilted his head slightly. “Something wrong?”
“You look different with your hair like that,” she said, wincing inwardly at the inanity of the remark.
“Oh?” The wicked smile returned faintly. He started to head for the table next to his bed then noted the items cluttering the foot of the comfortable piece of furniture. Noting the comb there, he bent over and picked it up. Holding it up, he gave her a look that was every bit an “ara?” as if he’d uttered the little sound.
“Your other comb wasn’t in very good shape,” she pointed out.
“Thank you.” He smiled, then turned his attention to working the snarls out of his long mane.