Sample Chapters from
The second book in the
by Deb E. Howell
Copyright © Deb E. Howell 2014. All rights reserved.
The great Syakara—a race blessed with the strength of ten, maybe twenty of their ungifted peers, and speed enough their limbs blurred—locked in fierce battle. A beautiful sight to behold.
The battle between Jonas of Quaver and Karlani of Wherever was not fierce, but no less beautiful in its way. Llew found some delight in militarily-trained Jonas beating down street-learned Karlani. But she found it damned near repulsive to watch the father of her unborn child leading the other woman in slowed break downs of the moves he’d just successfully used against her. They moved together like dancers, then. Like lovers, if Karlani had her way. Or just about anyone else’s way, if one were to ask around. And, from a distance, it was often hard to tell which way Jonas was inclined to go.
It made sense. The only two Syakara known to exist should be together. Should… procreate.
It made sense. Even to Llew. The continued existence of an entire race was far more important than the feelings of one young woman.
But it hurt. In an almost physical way. Almost as if an invisible hand reached from Jonas to Llew and wrapped around her heart, and every time he shared a smile or a laugh with Karlani that hand squeezed and tugged.
Jonas invited the Syakaran woman to use a move he’d just taught her against him. Karlani gave him little respite before taking him up on the offer, tumbling past him in an effort to throw him off balance before returning to attempt the move. But, of course, Jonas was already prepared with a counter move that her feint failed to weaken, and Karlani went tumbling again with less grace this time. The gathered audience chuckled and clapped. So far from Quaver, where the Karan race originated, the attendants of Lord Gaemil Tovias’s court in Rakun, Brurun, appreciated the chance to see the two Syakara in action. For them, watching these two physically superior specimens was nothing short of stunning. For Llew, as the pair came together for Jonas to once again show Karlani how he’d just defeated her, it was pain, and she turned her back.
As a child of the streets of Cheer, on the island nation of Aghacia, Llew hadn’t had time for deep friendships, and certainly not lovers. The one friend she’d allowed close had betrayed her, sending her to the gallows.
But she’d survived. Not initially, no. No one survived a broken neck and suffocation. But Llew, herself, was a rare breed. One of only two Syaenuks known to be alive. The other was her mother, whom she hadn’t seen in some fourteen years, now held captive in Turhmos, somewhere.
While the Karan race had superior speed and strength of muscle, the Aenuk race was able to heal, themselves and others, at an advanced rate. But it came at a price many could not tolerate. Life’s essence couldn’t just be created, it had to come from somewhere: the surrounding vegetation, an animal, or another person. Most Aenuks could only heal non-mortal wounds, while a death blow was still just that. But, just as the Syakaran was to the Karan, the Syaenuk exceeded the abilities of their Aenuk brethren. Syaenuks could come back from death.
Llew had died about four times now, which meant that she had killed. Mostly plants and insects, and a few carrion birds. But there had also been that girl, the one playing in the grass over a hill from where Jonas had placed Llew to recover. Neither of them had known, and they both carried the guilt.
She’d killed her own father, too. That burden Llew carried alone. She hadn’t even been dead, had simply carried a small self-inflicted wound from Jonas’s knife. Such a knife caused wounds an Aenuk could not heal supernaturally from, not even a Syaenuk. And through the lightest of touches, Llew had drained her father’s life as they slept.
Given that the ability to heal, albeit significantly slower, was innate to all, many felt that the give-and-take nature of Aenuk magic just wasn’t worth it. And Llew was inclined to agree. She’d even asked Jonas to take her life once.
The leaders of Turhmos didn’t feel that way. They boosted their armies with Aenuks, able to maim and kill their opponents as they healed themselves and carried on fighting. And they had no need for army medics.
All known Aenuks belonged to Turhmos. All, except Llew, who hadn’t been known to the rest of the world until recently, when she so publicly survived a hanging.
Beyond surviving, Llew had made friends. On the run after her execution, she had been lucky enough to meet not just Jonas but the cousins Alvaro and Cassidy, and Jonas’s captain Aris—though she hesitated to call him friend. She had also met Anya, a well-to-do socialite of Cheer’s—rather minuscule—upper class. From Cheer’s streets, Llew hadn’t expected to find anything in common with the other girl. But as impossible as it had at first seemed, a bond had certainly formed between them.
She left the training pit, a silent guard her shadow, to visit Cassidy now. His cold body, laid out on the cold stone platform in the cold stone crypt, was never too busy to hear Llew’s concerns. Her guard waited outside, allowing her discretion.
She always started with the apologies. Sorry I didn’t wake in the night to check on you. Sorry I couldn’t heal you fully in the first place. But she’d been trying to keep what damage she did to the landscape minimal at the time. Sorry we stopped for the night. We should have kept going.
She offloaded her concerns about Jonas and Karlani, and her frustrations at being so dependent on Jonas to protect her. Now that the world knew she existed, there were several elements that would want her. Want her, or want her dead. Jonas had the power to protect her. But only if Aris let him.
Feeling little better, she left the crypt, crossed the cobbled courtyard—shadowed again—and took the low, sweeping, staircase up to the mansion’s main entrance. Nearly twice as tall as Llew and framed in heavy, dark-stained wood, the glass in the doors was of a quality Llew had never seen anywhere. There was barely a ripple in it. One of the uniformed guards swung a door open for her. It always awed Llew to see such heavy doors pivot so silently and smoothly on their hinges.
Inside, the solid stone walls and high ceilings were at once both comforting and cold. The solid structure gave her a sense of safety she needed now, but the hardness and straight edges left her hankering for her Spot on the shore of Cheer’s Big River, where rounded stones shifted under her feet and tussocks bowed out of her path as she had made her way for her daily swim. But she was a long way from the streets of Cheer, and as much as she may have wished to return, she couldn’t deny she had landed on her feet. The hallways of marble floors and heavily decorated walls were a shrine to money.
Immense paintings dressed the corridor walls. Great men peered down at her from gilded frames. In most, they were just a head and shoulders, looking upon those below with disdain. Some were full length portraits of one man or another standing proudly beside a prized horse, often wielding a sword, and wearing a heavily medalled uniform. Occasionally, a proud man might stand behind a chair, with a woman cradling a small child seated upon it.
She eased her grumbling belly with a snack from the kitchens before heading out again to visit her horse, Amico, in one of the estate’s large corrals, and then spent the rest of the afternoon reading, or simply staring into space. Jonas was being kept busy, and Anya had a whole new life to settle into, what with learning her duties as the future wife to Lord Tovias. She had a new city, region and country to get her head around. All so much bigger than the rustic Cheer she and Llew had recently departed.
Llew hardly listened to the gossip and planning discussed around the breakfast table the following morning, her thoughts, as was often the case these days, turned inward, silently probing the baby, asking if it was all right, if it thought it could have a happy life with her. No one noticed. She never seemed to be able to get a seat close to her friends, and none of Lord Tovias’s guests seemed interested in getting to know her. She was afraid if they did talk to her, all she could talk about was this baby she knew nothing about anyway, as it seemed to have hijacked most of her thoughts. But neither she nor Jonas were ready for others to know.
Jonas stood by the doorway as she went to leave.
“You’re not eatin’ enough,” he said, lightly tugging her sleeve to move her from the thoroughfare.
“Hello to you, too. Don’t tell me what to do.” They’d hardly spoken in days, and he started with a demand?
“Sorry, I know. I’m workin’ on it. Some time.” His resident scowl settled in place as he spoke to the floor. He made eye contact again to keep telling her what to do. “You got Syakaran strength and speed, now, so you got Syakaran needs. That means more food. Okay?”
As much as she wanted to remain indignant, Llew conceded. “All right. I’ll try and eat more.”
“Jonas.” Aris’s statement sounded flat from outside.
“I gotta go.” At least he looked disappointed.
“Yeah.” Llew did her best to smile. She appreciated that he’d made the effort to speak to her.
“I’ll see you later.” He placed a hand on her shoulder as he moved around her to the door.
“Yeah.” Whenever later meant.
A lot of their conversations went like this now. Stilted. Stunted.
Llew wasn’t blameless in this. After being abducted and used by Jonas’s half-brother Braph as a substitute for her mother, whom Braph would claim to love, Llew sometimes struggled not to see glimpses of Braph in some of Jonas’s expressions. And when that happened, she shut down. Sometimes it was easier if they just didn’t bother.
Jonas slipped out the door. Hisham, Jonas’s best friend and fellow Quaven, gave her shoulder a squeeze as he followed his friend through the door, somewhat unexpectedly, since Hisham still didn’t like Aenuks. And Llew was, once again, left with the urge to speak with Cassidy.
* * *
“Karlani hasn’t said anything more.” Her own voice whispered back at her from the walls. She really was talking to herself. “She went straight and told Aris her nose was broken, but she didn’t even bruise. And like anyone would believe I could do damage to her.” A Syaenuk, with the power to heal defeating a super strong, super fast Syakaran? Impossible. Unless that Syaenuk wielded the Syakaran powers of her unborn child. Not that anyone knew about that. Not yet.
Truth was, Llew had barely touched the other woman. It hadn’t even been a fight. Karlani had simply run into Llew’s fist. Served her right for showing off.
She gazed across Cassidy’s limp form to the rows and columns of concrete drawers and tried not to think too much on their inhabitants. But she couldn’t help wondering, yet again, if they all looked as well-preserved as the recently embalmed Cassidy. Each day her fingers itched to slide one open and see for herself. But the space had such an ancient quality to it she was scared it would crumble if she dared touch anything besides Cassidy, his platform, and the seat for mourners.
This place had a history Llew couldn’t fathom. Her home town of Cheer had existed for perhaps three generations, and was built with no intention of standing through many more. But Lord Gaemil Tovias’s home and all its outbuildings on the hills of Rakun, were built to last. Llew’s own presence there would be fleeting.
A crypt was no place for one to spend great lengths of time, really, and an embalmed body offered little in the way of conversation, but Llew was lonely.
Jonas and Anya. That was it, now. Cassidy was dead. His cousin, Alvaro, hated her for letting him die. And Hisham would always despise her a little bit for what she was.
Cassidy’s non-judgemental ears had been a good place to unload her troubles. She was a long way from home and her future was only certain in that it would almost certainly mean captivity or grave danger. Or both. As always, Cassidy offered no advice or alternative perspective. Llew puffed out a sigh. She’d been fretting over the aftermath of her altercation with Karlani for a week. Nothing had happened. It was time to let it go.
“I wonder if Alvaro will come to collect you.”
Inside the estate, she paused before a family portrait, the man standing tall and proud behind his wife smiling down at the tiny infant in her arms. Not for the first time, Llew’s hand went to her own belly and she wondered if one day she would gaze upon her and Jonas’s child with such love, or if the sick feeling, as opposed to the nausea of early pregnancy, would remain. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to have his baby; she just didn’t want to do it alone. But the chances of Jonas being allowed to be a father to her child, their child, were minuscule. Just as minuscule as the child itself. Her belly was still as flat as ever, the only outward evidence of the baby’s existence: the fact that Jonas lived. A fact taken for granted by those who had yet to learn he had died. Aenuks could not heal Kara. Unless the Aenuk carried said Karan’s unborn child, it seemed.
She hastily dropped her hand to her side and turned a weak smile she hoped didn’t look too guilty on Hisham. Slightly darker in complexion than Jonas, Hisham wore his naturally ringleted, shoulder-length black hair tied back in a half ponytail. Quaver had sent a small contingent of soldiers to help shore up Lord Gaemil Tovias’s security, and it seemed those soldiers with Karan heritage experienced certain leniences when it came to uniform. Hair length being one.
As excited as she was to see a familiar face, she was disappointed Jonas wasn’t with him and failed miserably in hiding it, but it only seemed to make him smile. He beckoned Llew to follow him. She gave him a quizzical look, but, with no more than a teasing smile, he had her interest piqued and she followed him to the stable where her horse was already saddled. She didn’t question where he was taking her, since Hisham didn’t seem inclined to enlighten her anyway, and mounted. Then she steered her horse to follow him across the courtyard cobbles, around the fountain, and through the gate.
“Hey!” One of the gate guards pulled them up short. “She isn’t supposed to leave the compound without a full bodyguard. Earl Tovias’s orders.”
Hisham turned his horse, straightening in his saddle, displaying his uniform in full. He wore the same red jacket as the estate guards, but his cuffs were decorated by double gold banding and one shoulder bore a half-cape with the crest of the Syakaran line he was most closely related to embroidered in gold thread. Some sort of long-legged dog.
“Oh. Of course, lieutenant. Carry on, then.” He afforded Hisham a grin before sending them on their way. Hisham had been running exercises with the Earl’s men for the past week. It seemed they liked him well enough, as well as recognised that a single Karan was bodyguard enough. Except, perhaps, against Braph. But Braph was dead. Llew had stuck the mighty big knife in him herself.
She had to tell herself that. She had plunged Jonas’s Syakaran knife into Braph’s gut. Braph had to be dead, even if he had got up and disappeared, with Jonas’s knife. Llew had to cling to the belief that he had got little further than out of their line of sight before collapsing and dying properly, or she would live in a state of constant fear, always looking over her shoulder.
Outside the stone walls, they turned from the road that led to Rakun’s town centre, circumvented the estate and started up the lush green hill behind. The air was crisp with the dry chill of winter, the sky cloudless. Clear of the estate’s walls, Hisham kicked his horse into a brisk canter and Llew followed suit, revelling in the cold air breezing through her hair. It was getting long, the ends touching her jaw and collar. Now that she was safely amongst friends, she didn’t feel the need to trim it. She may have missed her home by Big River, but she didn’t miss the Cheer locals, most of whom saw women as little more than a costly entertainment, which was one reason Llew had taken to being one of the boys.
They crested the hill and Llew adjusted her seat for the downward slope only a little late, narrowly preventing a fall from her saddle. Amico threw his head once to show his contempt before continuing on with the rolling gait into the heart of the valley and up the next hill. He nearly unseated her again when he kicked his heels in the chance to run.
Hisham pulled up on the hill’s rounded peak and waited for her to rein in beside him, letting her take in the view of the meandering river below. She hadn’t seen anything so beautiful in nearly two months.
She beamed a wide smile at Hisham, which he returned with a knowing one of his own. Her freedom had been severely limited lately. She needed this, and he knew it. He also knew where he was taking her, and she was more than a little eager to find out. She was almost certain it had something to do with Jonas. About time, too.
He continued on at a walk, and Llew followed, breathing in the clean smell of fresh water surrounded by greenery—trees, grasses and shrubs, all benefiting from their proximity to the river. It smelled like home.
At the base of the second hill, Hisham turned to lead Llew around a copse of trees sparse enough for her to see the water rushing past on the other side of the trunks, yet dense enough to block out the roar. The trees followed a bend in the river and nearby, in a small clearing just past the apex, Jonas’s horse grazed. Llew looked to Hisham, who returned a cryptic smile, despite any sense of mystery having scarpered. She twisted one way and then the other, trying to locate Jonas himself. Hisham dismounted and took Amico’s bridle while Llew swung from her saddle, then he hobbled her horse beside Jonas’s.
“This is where I depart,” he said. “I think you’ll be wantin’ to walk through right about…” He crouched and pointed through the trees. “There.” Now she knew where to look, she saw the silhouette of a man in a wide-brimmed hat sitting on the bank of the river.
Hisham was already mounted when she turned back. He gave a small wave, turned and kicked his horse into a full gallop. Llew turned back.
Jonas wouldn’t bring her all the way out here just to tell her he was going to do his duty and be with Karlani, would he? No. Llew was sure he wouldn’t go to all this trouble to give her that news. He wouldn’t do that to her.
Something in her stomach fluttered to think of a romantic getaway. Now all they needed was to leave Karlani and Braph behind them.
She found that her hand had come to rest over her lower belly.
“Time for you to take a step back, too,” she murmured, ran her hands down her dress hoping it was enough for the occasion, and made her way through the trees.
Jonas worked his fingers, rolling the pebbles round his palm. They scraped and chinked, not that he could hear much over the rushing river. He hoped Llew would like the spot he’d chosen. For one, it was hidden behind trees. Perfect for getting away from the rest of the household. For another, someone had once told him the best place to catch fish was at the apex of a bend in the river. Something about the slower current offering the fish somewhere to shelter.
And just downstream was a sloping beach that dropped away to an ideal swimming hole before rejoining the rush.
At least, he hoped it was perfect. Llew was a better judge of fishing spots and swimming holes. Give Jonas a horse or a field of wheat over a river any day. Not that he’d complain at a river flowing by a field of wheat.
His home in Aldia, his childhood home, had a river. Much like this one, but slower. One day, he hoped Llew would see it. More than see it. He often pictured her there, laughing. With their child.
Gods, he hoped she liked this spot.
Something scuffed the stones behind him.
He turned to unfamiliar bare legs beneath the hem of a mid-length winter-weight dress. He craned his head round, sliding up the blue-grey fabric, so plain, with a line of heavy lace a few inches from the bottom and again at the waist and sleeves. Up, up…
Llew never wore dresses.
He jumped up, tossing the pebbles and wrapping his arms around her. “I’ve missed you.” He hugged her slight frame firmly to his, their bodies touching: ear-to-ear, heart-to-heart, thigh-to-thigh. No kiss. All going well, that would come later.
“Yes. Aris has been keeping you busy.” Her voice was distant. Bitter, maybe. She brought her arms up around his waist, though her touch was lighter. She might even have been trying to lean back a little.
Aris had been keeping Jonas busy since he, Hisham and Llew had returned from Turhmos. And it would be naive to think Aris wasn’t trying to keep Jonas and Llew apart. ’Course, now Karlani was on the scene and it was clear Aris was loving that fact. Jonas’s captain had sent the Syakaran woman for several training sessions now, and every time she turned up with her blouse undone several buttons, breasts pushed up by a restrictive bodice, and boots with absurdly impractical heels for fighting. And every time Jonas told her so, and refused to go easy on her just because she had chosen not to come prepared.
He looked her in the eye.
“Which is why I’m here now. I mean it. I missed you.”
“I missed you, too. And I like your hair like that.”
Jonas suppressed a groan and brushed his hand through his hair. He’d worn it somewhere past shoulder-length as long as he could remember. The short look he’d adopted to maintain anonymity in Turhmos wasn’t sticking for him. He felt every breeze across the back of his neck, and it made him look younger. Not something he needed so few years out of adolescence.
It didn’t help that when Llew had brought him back to life, she’d also wiped years of history from his skin. Scars collected from training sessions and true battles alike, obliterated, smoothed to nothing.
“Really,” Llew insisted.
“Yeah, well…” He ran his hand down his stubbly chin. He’d taken to shaving at night so he woke with a light scratchiness, otherwise Gaemil’s men heckled him. Didn’t want to be trained by a boy. Especially one who, by appearances, hadn’t seen a day of real battle in his life.
“It’s your job to catch lunch, and I’m starvin’,” he said, offering her the fishing rod.
She took the rod with a smile, kicked off her shoes and walked sure-footed across the rocks, straight to the outcrop over the river’s apex, and started feeding out the line. And, just like that, she relaxed. She even spared a glancing smile for Jonas. He followed her.
A cool breeze swooped through the valley, billowing Llew’s dress, lifting the hem nearly up to her knees. Distracted by the sight, Jonas put his foot down on a large round rock, nearly rolling his ankle. Only his reflexes kept him upright.
He put himself upwind of her, blocking the bulk of the breeze, and watched her tease the fish with her lure. It was beautiful watching her work. With great patience, she let her hook sit in the water, waiting for the fish to show interest. She wound the reel, quarter-turn by quarter-turn, giving them all one last chance before the weight and hook broke the surface. Then she repeated the dance.
Jonas took the chance to slip his arm across her shoulders.
Funny, really, to think she already carried his child, and yet here he was, afraid to make sudden movements in case he scared her off. One impulsive afternoon didn’t exactly make for promises. And she’d lost a certain easiness since escaping Braph.
She rested her head against him and his heart gave a flip-flop. Settle down, cowboy. You’ve known women before.
“Thank you,” she said.
He returned her gratitude with a simple smile and a squeeze of her shoulder, afraid if he tried to speak she would see, or hear, what she did to him. Oh, great and mighty Jonas the Syakaran brought to his knees by a girl. A clever and resourceful girl. But, still.
She rested her head again, leaving the hook to float.
He wanted to kiss her. Usually it was him with the girls clambering to get their turn. How did this sorta thing go again? Maybe if he asked?
He turned his head to speak against her hair.
“Llew—” He cleared his throat. Crazy to be so nervous, but there he was. “Llewella.” Her full name, the one few knew her by anymore, might make her feel special. She didn’t react and he wasn’t sure she’d heard him, so he said it again. “Llewella.” A little louder this time. He craned his head a bit more, moving his mouth closer to her ear. “Llewella.”
“Don’t,” she said.
Jonas pulled back. Of course, only her parents had called her that. And her ma was still held captive somewhere in Turhmos, and she’d just killed her own pa in a botched rescue attempt.
“Braph called me that,” she murmured.
Even worse. He boiled with that sickening combination of pity for Llew and rage at his half-brother. No point being angry at a dead man, though.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Not your fault,” she said.
That all too familiar awkwardness returned. He kept his arm across her shoulders, but just lightly, unsure if she still wanted it there and equally unsure that if he removed it she might think it was because he didn’t want to leave it there.
It was a little bit thrilling, this uncertainty, and he had a feeling that was half the draw. There weren’t many women would make him work so hard. Well, Jonas wasn’t afraid of a little work.
He let his arm fall from her shoulders and caught her around the waist, pulling her against him.
“Not your fault, either.”
She grinned back and he stole that kiss.
They stood, just smiling at each other, until Llew started giggling.
Jonas let his head fall back in exasperation.
“You did it again.” He pulled his arm from her waist, though he did let his hand brush her ass on the way past. “Why do you do that?”
“What?” Llew returned her attention to the fishing, drawing her line back in, her lips still hooked up in suppressed laughter.
“Spoil it,” he said. “When you should just let it be.”
Llew shrugged and flung the line out again, sending out concentric waves.
Jonas watched her for a long time, but she didn’t look back, seemingly singularly focused on her task.
Llew: the least romantic female he knew.
He couldn’t blame her, he supposed. Her ma hadn’t been around to teach her what to expect and, far as Jonas knew, her pa had drunk away most of their years together. Not much learning for a girl there.
Then again, there hadn’t been much learning for a boy in Jonas’s situation, either.
The idea of learning together was mighty exciting.
He returned his arm to her shoulders.
“Aris ain’t talked of Quaver lately. Reckon we could be here another week, yet.”
Still, Llew didn’t look too happy.
“It’ll be all right.” He believed it and hoped saying so would be enough for her.
Llew remained silent, absently drawing her line in again, until it came up out of the water, once again empty.
Jonas’s stomach was starting to ache. He’d spent most of the morning preparing this outing, and he hadn’t stopped to snack. And if there was one downside to being Syakaran, it was the cost of keeping fed. Actually, that wasn’t much of a downside, especially at Gaemil’s where the kitchens churned out delicious experimental treats by the cartload. He reckoned they enjoyed having Karan guests as much as the Quaven soldiers enjoyed staying.
The fish were there, they just weren’t biting.
Llew’d had little trouble catching meals on the road in Aghacia. Especially when Jonas put his Syakaran speed to good use snatching bugs for her to use as bait.
“Need me to catch one o’ those critters again?”
“That would help,” she said. “Don’t know where you’ll find any around here, though.” She peered around at the rocky beach.
Ah, a challenge.
Jonas stepped back from her, holding up one finger. One moment. Then he dashed across the rocks, through the trees to where the grassy meadow met the needle-fall. He pulled up short. Several tiny creatures scurried from his feet. He watched. A grass blade shuddered, and… snatched!
He was back before she’d had a chance to react to his departure, and presented the bait with a smile. Contagious, because she couldn’t suppress her own.
“Cheat.” She snapped her elbow out at him, but he snaked around the strike.
They stood in silence, waiting for something to bite. Llew relaxed, leaning back into Jonas, and he looped his hands around her waist, letting them rest over her belly, just above his baby.
Llew proved to be too relaxed when the rod slipped from her fingers and skittered along the outcrop’s edge. She flung out an arm to grab it, missed. Jonas lunged, caught it just before it toppled into the water, and rolled onto his back, brandishing the rod like a prize for Llew to take over drawing in their lunch. She couldn’t stop laughing. Better than watching her worry about her future.
They cooked the fish over a low fire Jonas had prepared earlier and drank wine from Gaemil’s cellar.
“This is wonderful.” Llew swallowed her last bite. Her gaze drifted to the water, turning wistful. “Thank you,” she said. “I miss my home.”
Stretched out on the picnic blanket, propped on one elbow, Jonas fidgeted with a twig and chewed his lip. Against the backdrop of her fears, he would do anything to make Llew’s life happy. “You know you can’t go back, right?”
Llew nodded, though it looked like she was holding back tears.
“I ain’t gonna lie…” He tried a comforting hand on her knee. “Braph would’ve found you eventually, whether you left Cheer or not. I’m real glad you found us. And I wanted you to know I think…” Gods, this was hard. “I think you’re special. And I hope… I hope you can make a new home with me.” He didn’t say ‘In Aldia’. One step at a time. Aldia was a long way from Cheer. Deep inside Quaver.
“Well, what choice do I have?”
He took his hand back, busied it with the twig he still held.
What choice did she have? With the kinds of enemies she had, she needed someone like Jonas backing her up. Only, there wasn’t anyone else like Jonas. Not much of a choice at all.
“Sorry, I did it again. Spoilt it. I meant… I’m glad I found you, too.” She managed a tiny smile. Appreciated no matter how reluctant.
“Doesn’t hurt to be realistic,” said Jonas.
They nodded agreement to each other, their gazes each sliding to the stones beneath them. Llew picked at one of the last remaining flakes of fish.
“My ma’s still there,” she said after a while, her voice trailing off.
He put his hand back on her knee. “We’ll get her back. She’s alive, far as we know,” he said. “But there ain’t much point doin’ somethin’ that could get you both killed. We’ll come up with a plan. Might not get the chance till we’re back in Quaver, but we’ll think o’ somethin’ keeps you both free.”
Llew nodded. After her own efforts to save her pa, she’d be spooked about any plans to go after her ma.
She picked up a stone and threw it into the water.
“This is really lovely.”
“It ain’t over yet.”
Eager to keep her focused on the present, Jonas pushed himself up and dug through the picnic basket for the muslin wrapped-bundle. He peeled back the layers to reveal the treat.
“What is it?”
“Chocolate. Gaemil imports it from Tairak. I found it when we stayed here on our way to Cheer. Try it.”
Llew took a piece, dubious. She placed it between her teeth, watching Jonas like she expected him to tell her he was playing a prank. She worked it around her mouth. Slowly, a smile appeared and Jonas found himself mirroring her.
Yes. He knew.
She put the rest in her mouth. “Wow…”
They sat a while longer, watching the rushing water and savouring the sweet. He let Llew have most of it.
“You want to swim?” he asked as she chewed through the last piece.
“Doesn’t Aris expect you back?”
Jonas shrugged. “Hisham won’t tell him where I am.” One person in all the world Jonas could count on, Hisham was it.
“You rebel,” Llew said with a sly twist to her lips.
“Thought you might like it.” He gave her the grin that worked on all the ladies. Boyish, some called it. Not something he’d pull out for the troops, anyway.
Llew’s eyes flared, and then she looked like she was going to be sick. She looked away.
Ah, shit. He’d done it again; reminded her of Braph. But before he could say anything, she leaped up and pulled her dress over her head. Jonas followed her lead, unbuttoning his shirt as swiftly as the fiddly things allowed. But Llew had her breeches off and was in the water before he had his belt unbuckled. She skipped, squealing, into the swimming hole. The water must’ve been cold. Naked, he splashed in after her. Yep, cold.
Reaching her, he pulled her down, soaking her completely. Not to be an ass, he went down with her and they re-emerged, Llew clinging to him, holding a thin layer of heat between them, and laughing. So good to hear.
He sought and found her lips. She tasted good. Even better, she kissed him back.
A rumbled neigh and the chink of horseshoes on river stones sounded over the river’s white noise. They both froze and turned to the intruder. Jonas pulled Llew into him, giving her some cover.
An apologetic Hisham sat astride his horse, the animal blowing thick clouds of steam in the cold air.
“Sorry, brother. He threatened my Karan rations.” Hisham almost looked ashamed to admit it, but the man did like his food.
Past his friend, through the trees, the legs of a pair of horses trotted through the long meadow grass.
“Shit.” Jonas had little else to say.
Hisham grimaced and turned his horse, presenting his back to them.
“Sorry,” Jonas muttered to Llew and released her. She just shrugged.
They both made their way back to shore, scrambling to pull their clothes over wet bodies before Aris showed up.
Jonas managed to get his trousers done up as Aris emerged through the thin line of trees. Bringing her unmistakable curves and dark, wavy hair, Karlani rode behind.
Aris walked his horse across the stones, reined in and sat for several moments, letting his obvious disapproval do his talking. The older man had perfected the art of combining parental and military control over the years; quick to remind Jonas that his heritage and his fame gave him no free passes. When Jonas fired up, Aris cooled him down. When Jonas bolted for trouble, Aris held a tight rein. Only Aris could bring together the soothing calm of a mother, the stern pride of a father and the hard-line captain into one package. Even his body reflected this in his straight bearing and slightly portly tummy.
Only Aris knew Jonas better than Jonas knew himself.
Jonas was almost driven to apologise without his greying captain uttering a word.
Karlani brought her horse alongside Aris’s, her appreciative glance making Jonas pull his shirt on and button up in a hurry. The Syakaran woman looked past him and glared full hatred at Llew, her dark eyes even darker under a furrowed brow. Jonas took the half step required to block that line of sight.
“Enough.” Aris spoke just loud enough to be heard over the background babble and roar of the river. “Hisham. Take Llew back to Gaemil’s.”
Jonas went to protest, but Aris levelled a no-nonsense look at him and Karlani moved her horse a couple of steps closer, like a menacing bodyguard. Like Jonas would’ve only weeks earlier.
No harm done letting Aris send Llew back to the mansion. Their afternoon was over anyway.
He nodded to Hisham, as if his friend had been waiting on his okay. The Karan lieutenant was already following the order, and Llew, thankfully, wasn’t protesting.
Jonas watched Hisham lead Llew back through the trees, then he turned back to Aris.
“So,” said Aris, “this is what you’ve been doing instead of running the training exercises with Gaemil’s staff.”
“I’ve run exercises every day since I got back from Turhmos. I needed a break. Nobody can work the schedule I’ve been keepin’ without a rest.”
Aris grinned. “I should have you arrested on the spot. It is Quaven army policy that a soldier take leave only at the say so of a superior officer. You may be Quaver’s hero, Lieutenant, but you are still my bitch.” Aris’s smile turned ugly, doggish, before transitioning to something approaching sympathetic. “And we both know why, don’t we?”
Jonas nodded. The hot-blooded Syakaran needed a firm hand, lest he make monumental mistakes in the blink of someone else’s eye. And Jonas had made mistakes.
“Need I remind you, that you owe Quaver a Syakaran male child to lead the next generation of soldiers?” Aris waved a hand at Karlani
Jonas stared flatly at Karlani. The woman looked like the cat that’s left a rat at the front door, all sensual pride.
“That you owe Quaver their next hero?” Aris pushed.
Jonas thought back on all those nights he’d come home to his late wife, Kierra, when she believed he’d been off doing as Aris asked—whether or not it was true that time. He thought back to those nights of her sobbing over dinner, of her crying herself to sleep. He’d hated it. Hated himself for doing it. But he hadn’t known how to stop it. Could he stop it now? For Llew?
Karlani helped. The thought of that woman boasting to Llew made Jonas feel ill. Never mind the part he’d have to play.
“Well?” Aris said. “Do I need to remind you that only Syakaran women have Syakaran sons?”
“What would a Syaenuk have?” Jonas found he’d said it out loud. What would Llew have?
“Nothing. Llew will have nothing, not with you.”
“But what if she did?”
Aris narrowed his eyes, but Jonas returned only open curiosity.
“Like I said, probably nothing. Or some inferior hybrid. Like a mule.”
“Mules are kinda useful,” Jonas murmured, still trying to get his head around the possibilities.
“Mules don’t lead armies. They bring up the wagons at the rear.”
What would Llew have? An Aenuk? A Karan? Or something else entirely?
“Don’t waste our time even thinking on. Your country needs you to be a soldier, not some over-sexed young buck off gallivanting with the enemy!”
“Llew is Aenuk. She’s about as far from our ally as it gets. And it’s time you acted like it.”
“She ain’t like other Aenuks.”
“You think the crowd that made their way across Quaver to kill your folks was like other Aenuks? Them folks passed for normal. We still don’t know where they crossed the border, and Aldia’s a long ways across Quaver, from any direction. They didn’t raise a single eyebrow.”
Fifteen years and the wound was still raw. Jonas felt very small, standing before the two riders. Like the seven year old he’d been when his parents were murdered.
“We’ve let Llew closer to you than any Aenuk should get. I think it’s time we start behavin’ like we remember what she is, and what she can do. That… girl has the power to kill you with a touch. She could syphon your life from you faster’n you can draw breath, let alone a knife. And, yes, I’m talkin’ about you, not just anyone. You.”
But she’d saved his life. The only reason they hadn’t told Aris was because it would mean telling him Llew already carried his child. They hadn’t had time to come to grips with it themselves, let alone deal with what Aris would have to say.
“I’ve been tellin’ you since the day we found out what she was that girl would bring trouble. Are you going to listen this time?”
Out of arguments, Jonas nodded.
“It’s a big change for him, Llew.” Anya turned another page of the book laid out on the table in front of her.
The table stood at the centre of the estate’s library, a huge room, three mezzanine levels tall, walls packed with row after row of books.
“I’ve done a lot of reading about Quaver, and they’re all taught to hate Aenuks from a very young age. That’s what Aris has known all his life. That’s a very long time.” She pressed her lips together. “I suppose he’s not that old. Still, it’s a long time to hold a belief. Hard to shift.” She returned her attention to the book, running a finger down the page, on the lookout for something of interest. “Now, Karlani might be a problem. It’s well-documented that Syakaran male children have only ever been born to Syakaran mothers. So, it makes sense for Jonas to, ah, spend time with Karlani.” Her finger continued down the page, then jumped to the top of the next.
Llew didn’t need to hear this. What was best for Quaver certainly wasn’t best for her. Whose business was it who Jonas… spent time with, anyway?
Anya paused in her search, resting a sympathy-laden gaze on Llew.
“It’s what happens, Llew. I always knew my husband would be chosen for me. The gods know there wasn’t anyone suitable in Cheer. I got lucky, I guess.”
That was a surprise to hear. When they’d first arrived in Rakun, Anya hadn’t exactly been overjoyed at the age gap between herself and her intended. Sure, she’d known Gaemil was older, but after travelling several weeks with Jonas, Alvaro, and Cassidy—three men only a handful of years her senior and of some physical appeal—meeting the somewhat portly, somewhat balding thirty-something lord had come as a bit of a shock for Anya, to say the least.
Anya smiled as if she’d been reading Llew’s thoughts.
“I don’t suppose you’ve looked at him the way I do. Especially not with your head already turned.” The sympathy returned and she placed a hand over Llew’s. “I’m sure once Jonas has done what he needs to do, Aris will be much more lenient about the two of you.”
That wasn’t helping. Anya seemed to sense that, as her reassuring smile faltered.
“I mean…” Anya sat back. “You know what? To hell with what I mean.” Her cheeks coloured. “How does he know you and Jonas wouldn’t make perfect babies? What does anyone know? There simply hasn’t been a case of a Syakaran and Syaenuk, ah, marrying before. Nothing I’ve read, anyway.” She leaned forward again, wide-eyed and eager. “Gosh. You could have anything!”
Llew lowered her gaze, resisting the urge to place a protective hand over her baby. It didn’t need to hear everyone’s speculation over what it might or might not be. It just needed to get born, preferably free and preferably with a pa. Actually, Llew had known plenty of fatherless children, even more parentless altogether, and they’d mostly managed all right. It was Llew who needed her child’s pa. She wasn’t sure she could do this on her own.
She blew out a breath. Admitting honest truth, even just to herself, wasn’t easy.
“Of course, I suppose it could be like how you can’t heal him,” Anya continued, off in her own trail of thoughts. “Perhaps you can’t even have children together.”
Llew looked up, keeping all expression from her face. Jonas had said the same, right before he realised what she was telling him. But Anya didn’t have the benefit of knowing Llew had healed Jonas, had brought him back to life, and could do so because she carried his baby. But she couldn’t tell Anya. Not yet. She didn’t know if the news would stop at Anya, and sure wasn’t ready for Aris to know.
“I’m sure there are plenty of happy childless couples out there,” Anya was saying. “But Aris is right. Jonas is Quaver’s future, and if you can’t give him Syakaran children, then…” Anya stopped, pressed fingers to her lips, then gaped at Llew, all wide-eyed shock. “I’m sorry, Llew. I was thinking aloud. Just thoughts. No harm done, right?”
Llew gave her a weak smile. Speculation that she and Jonas may not be able to conceive was an argument already lost.
“Forgive me, Llew,” Anya pleaded. “I grew up believing people fell in love despite being married, rather than getting married for love. Forgive me?”
“Of course.” Anya was only saying what everyone else would be thinking. Better to hear it from a friendly source.
“Good. Now, we just need to find out something useful about Aenuks, or better yet, Syaenuks, like you.” Anya looked down at her book, flipped a couple of pages, then looked back up at Llew. “It would have been nice to have parents to learn from. But the next best thing is books. We’ll find something.” She patted Llew’s arm.
Resting her head in her palm, Llew attempted to return her attention to her own book. She needed to learn about her power. If nothing else, it would provide a good distraction. The fact remained, she was little more than a passenger in her own body as things currently stood. Her power flowed through her, with or without her say so. She’d managed a measure of control when she’d brought Jonas and Cassidy back to life without fully restoring their health, in an effort not to leave too much death behind them. But she’d needed Hisham’s help to stick to that plan, Anya was so sure there would be something in Gaemil’s library. He certainly had enough books.
Llew puffed out a hefty sigh and let her eyes move down one page and the next. The words blurred together. So many words.
“You’ve not spoken of your time in Turhmos,” Anya said.
“And I won’t.” Keeping head in hand, Llew swivelled in her seat so her arm blocked Anya’s view.
Flown—yes, flown—into Turhmos by Braph with his magic device powered by Aenuk blood, Llew had few positive memories of the country. In his “home”, lined with copper piping that tinkled with the sound of running water, Braph had enslaved her. First for her blood, which he collected via blood-sucking mechanical spiders. Second for her body, which he had used as a substitute for her mother, whom Llew was to replace. The only good thing that had come from being there had been finding out that her father hadn’t abandoned her five years prior, but had instead been kidnapped himself after trying to lead Braph astray the first time he had located Llew. For five years, her father had been providing Braph’s supply of Aenuk blood. But it wasn’t enough for Braph. He’d still craved the power of the Syaenuk blood he had been able to drain from Llew’s ma. And so he had sought Llew again.
Llew had managed to escape Braph’s home, accidentally killed her father, and allowed Cassidy to die. The whole journey, adventure, whatever one might want to call it had left her feeling like a failure. And still a little dirty, like she couldn’t wash Braph’s touch from her skin.
She didn’t want to think about what had happened in Turhmos. She most definitely didn’t want to talk about it.
“I’m here if you ever need to.”
Llew shot up from her chair, slammed her book closed and let her scowl tell Anya what she thought about talking. Over dramatic? Perhaps. But clear.
Anya looked mildly uncomfortable about returning Llew’s gaze, but otherwise she simply returned kindness. But now Llew had made a spectacle, she couldn’t just sit down and pretend nothing had happened.
“I—I’m getting a headache. I’m just going to have a lie down.”
“Of course. You should relax. I’ll have a bath sent to your room.”
Llew left the library unable to decide whether to accept or decline Anya’s offer. It grated to think of Anya trying to understand what being in Turhmos had been like for Llew. No matter how much Anya wanted to help, Llew would rather protect her friend from the knowledge of the things that had happened to her.
She paused under the family portrait again. The woman looked so happy. Llew had seen pictures of mothers before and they always seemed happy. Maybe something happened when you had a child. Maybe it would all work out.