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Chapter 18: Saviours
Bree – Tarefsa Tithmeseti: Qemassen
If ever there had been a place in Qemassen where Vivaen felt hidden, it was inside the garden maze on the island of Tarefsa Tithmeseti. The small boat she and Aurelius had boarded to reach the shore had been well worth the privacy. Birds made for better company than Semassenqa, and Aurelius had abandoned their only guards at the labyrinth’s entrance.
Bree leaned in and kissed the side of Aurelius’s cheek from atop his lap. “Who did you have to bribe to find time for us here?”
If one thing could be said about Massenqa robes, it was that they allowed for a certain amount of inappropriateness without getting fully undressed. Aurelius was sitting on a stone bench, Bree straddling him, her skirts flowing freely in the wind, exposing her nakedness as she enjoyed his. She kissed him lightly, teasingly, hoping she could convince him to stay awhile longer. Twice in so many days was too seldom. She needed him to be Aurelius for a time, not a king. She needed him to make her forget about Qanmi.
Aurelius grinned at her as he stroked his hands up and down her sides, his fingers tiny pinpricks tickling her skin. “I give orders now, not bribes.”
Bree raised an eyebrow. “You make it sound like you’re in charge. You’re not, you know. It’s you who gets all prettied up for the Ashenqa and parades through the streets pretending to be pious. The power’s in their hands. The moment you forget that you’re in danger.”
Aurelius’s laugh rippled down the labyrinth of trees. “The only one I’m in danger of is you.”
Here it was—Aurelius’s unkillable humour. Bree couldn’t be serious for a moment without it rearing its face.
“How so?” She twisted one of his curls round her finger then let it spring back into place.
Aurelius’s eyes were aglow. “I’m your courtesan, remember? I’m at your mercy. Aurelius eq-Eshmunen, tamed at last!”
Teasing was good. It was safe. It made the ghost of Qanmi’s fondling fade from her flesh like water drying on sun kissed skin. “A tame courtesan isn’t much fun.”
She’d missed this for longer than the length of the war. Ever since they’d been crowned, it seemed as though they’d lost themselves to their titles. Sitting here, skin against skin, his hardness warm between her damp thighs, they could pretend to be those people again: the simple man and the mostly ordinary woman who’d seduced each other in Atlin all that time ago.
Bree parted her lips, words unspoken brimming at her edges. But then she stared into Aurelius’s eyes, beautifully afraid of them, and swallowed her confession. Burying it behind her lust and her longing and her hardness was like submerging in the safety of a warm bath.
“I wish I could take you away,” she said instead.
The lightness of Aurelius’s smile made it obvious he enjoyed her coward’s words as much as if she’d dared to be brave. “That was nearly lovesick of you. Are you sure you’re well? Perhaps I should send for Qirani, so he can examine you thoroughly.”
Bree drew up against him, her breasts grazing his chest. “I thought you might like to do that yourself.”
He didn’t raise to her bait, keeping his hands around her waist. “Might I? I thought I’d done my duty today.”
“That’s your duty I feel between my legs, is it?”
Aurelius’s smile broadened. “Don’t be stupid. That’s my cock.”
A flurry of wings bursting from the trees broke the quiet. Something besides the two of them must be hunting in the labyrinth.
“Then you do love me.” Bree closed her eyes. She scratched her nails slowly over his thigh.
“Or want you, at the very least. An accomplishment.” Aurelius kissed her throat then nipped her skin.
Bree stifled a gasp at the pinch. “Not so much of one. You’ll fuck anything on two legs.”
Aurelius slid his hand down her back and sunk his fingers into her flesh, hefting her ever closer to him. “That’s a very limited view of my accomplishments. Legs are entirely optional.”
Bree pulled back just so she could roll her eyes at him. She didn’t speak though, pulling herself up, so that he was just shy of pushing inside her. She nipped his ear.
I love you, she said silently, wordlessly. And I hate you for it.
She rode him against the bristling leaves of the garden, and when her passion consumed her, she kept her wits sharp enough to whisper another man’s name into his ear and then laugh at his dry glare.
This was how they were—how things should be. But just as the summer had faded, it couldn’t last. When they were done, Bree hung her limp arms over Aurelius’s back. It was nothing at all to sink into thoughtless kisses and pretend she wouldn’t ever have to say goodbye.
“I’ll steal you away,” Aurelius said suddenly, seriously. “At war’s end I’ll come back a conqueror out of the desert, and when I see you I’ll sweep you onto my horse and we’ll dash away to some distant place. You’ll be waiting with all the gold and jewels from the palace coffers, and all the men and women of the city will fall to weeping as they watch us ride away.”
Was he telling the truth? Bree opened her eyes and drew her face away from his.
If what he really wanted was her alone, whoever and whatever they were—paupers or king and queen—then she could tell him about the real Bree. She could tell him about Vivaen and Qanmi. She could tell him about Roe and the Lora, and her great shame.
And he’d still love her anyway.
A fool’s gamble, and Vivaen was no fool.
“What?” he asked.
Bree swallowed. She dug her nails into his shoulders. “You love me, don’t you?”
Concern welled in the furrow at his brow as he searched her face. She could feel his heart beating in his chest, his tense breathing. She’d upset him; his breathing always gave him away.
“I love you.” He licked his lip. “I’ll come back for you. I’ll kill the whole Inda army for you, just to be right here, in this place, with you.”
When he came back.
Bree frowned. “Are you sailing to Lorar? Has there been word from the north?”
Metal clinked sharply against stone—an intrusion into the pretense that Bree and Aurelius could ever be truly alone. It was just the labourers working on the bridges and walkways on the island. Since the earthquakes had started, there’d been concern they might collapse.
Aurelius’s face was far too serious. She wanted his laughter back, because when he looked like this it only meant bad news. “Not north. Qorban will manage that. He’s sent word through Fadil—they’ve rebuffed the Lora attack on Zimrida. The Lora navy’s fled home, and Qorban intends pursuit. If all goes well, we’ll be done with war in a year.”
So they were winning now. Bree wished he’d opened with that. “You can take back the Feislands.”
“Of which I will also be king.” He smiled.
Bree couldn’t return the expression. If Aurelius liberated her people only to name himself their leader, they’d name her for what she was, and prove he had no claim to their lands.
And still, there was something he held back—or else why not tell her of Qorban’s good fortune when they’d been on the boat? “Then where are you going, that you’ve neglected to tell me until now?”
Aurelius’s throat bobbed. At least he felt guilty about whatever he had to say. “West, to meet the Inda in the desert. They’ve sent an army to lay waste to our territories. Most of our people have fled closer to Qemassen, but we can’t afford to lose that farmland, not with the supply train taxed as it is. I might let them break themselves against our walls if we hadn’t beat the Lora back, but with my plan succeeding as it is, we have more to fear from Indas burning our fields than we do from makeshift Lora ships.”
It was so easy to imagine him broken on an Inda sword or run through with a javelin. He’d never seen real war before. Vivaen was more seasoned than he was.
Yet he looked so proud. In his mind he was a warrior-king taking back his mother’s homeland. “You must be the greatest man to ever have lived.”
“Don’t make fun, not when I’m leaving.” Aurelius kissed her.
Bree had to stop herself from asking him not to. What if he came back injured or not at all? What if he returned in a shroud?
“Take me with you,” she blurted. “I’m not useless. I don’t need to stay hidden here. I’d feel better if I could see you. If you see the value of women’s council as you claim to, then you should know my worth.”
Aurelius looked away, feigning interest in the gravel path. “I’ll be back sooner than you think. You have Little Nobody to keep you company.”
A pathetic excuse. Bree’s cheeks grew hot with anger. “You call a squalling babe company? I want you in my bed. I don’t care if you’re a conqueror or a king! I want my lecherous, depraved, idiot of a lover, and I want him alive.”
Bree pulled the remains of her dress about herself.
He had the audacity to glare at her. “I’ll still be all those things when I return, and I’ll still be your husband, too, in case you’d forgotten.”
Bree hadn’t, but when she thought about it, Qanmi’s words returned to her. Aurelius wasn’t married to her. He was married to the dead woman whose body rotted at the bottom of the Helit. “Fine. Go alone, leave me to simper with the rest of the wives. But if you die, I’ll never forgive you, and if the gods agree to take you I’ll pray you’re suffering in the worst hell.”
She pulled off him, her innards cutting as sharp as Lora iron. It hurt to push him away, but he deserved it for the way he only listened to her feelings when it suited him.
Aurelius dressed himself hastily, clasping his belt angrily.
Let him stew if he wanted. It would hurt less when he left if they were angry.
But when he’d finished, his shoulders slouched, and he reached for her. He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her forehead. “Dream of me, and I’ll dream of you, and if there’s any justice, and if you’re right about the gods, then I’ll hold you in my arms every night.”
It was no good. “When you’re not there, all I have are nightmares.” She made a mask of her face, forcing her weaknesses underground. “But I’ll try.”
“Will you walk back with me?”
She wanted to. She wanted to so badly. But having committed herself to rage, she couldn’t give in now. If she did, she was certain she’d cry, and she wasn’t going to let him see how he hurt her.
She pulled away. “I think I’ll stay here awhile. It’s restful.”
His face fell. “I’ll notify one of the crews on the beaches to wait for you.”
Aurelius lingered as though waiting for her to say something more, but Bree took the coward’s path and pretended she didn’t notice, turning from him to admire the stonework on the bench where they’d lain together.
“Goodbye then,” Aurelius said plainly. “I love you. Like a madman robbed of reason.”
As the crunch of his footsteps grew further and further from her, the warmth of his body leaked out of her and into the air.
Once she’d lost the sound of his footsteps, she collapsed back down on the bench. She gripped its edge like she might fall off.
“You look like a crow sitting like that.”
Bree leaped up, fists clenched. Her heart hammered in her skull.
Titrit stood in front of her.
Could Titrit have passed Aurelius as he left? No—there was a narrow passage carved into one of the bushes. How long had she been hiding there? She must have followed them to the island, or else caught word of their trip and anticipated their arrival.
“What are you doing here?” Bree poured all the venom she could into the question. “Were you watching us?”
Titrit’s cold expression oozed smugness.
Bree wanted to hit her.
“From the looks of things, there wasn’t much to see. One commoner whore’s the same as another in the end. He’ll be bored of you in a year, whether or not my father keeps his promise.”
Bree narrowed her eyes. “I’ve given Qanmi what he asked.”
Titrit’s eyes were as still as dead things in her narrow skull. “Perhaps he was disappointed. Aurelius may fuck anything with two legs, but my father is more discerning.”
So she’d been listening at least that long, and more than that, she wanted Bree to know it.
“You’re absolutely right,” Bree snapped. “It’s very important to Qanmi that the women he brings to his bed have no desire to be there.”
Titrit’s whole body tensed. It was as if Bree could see every hair on her arms standing at attention. Bree’s words must have wounded her.
Titrit cast a furtive look behind her—the act of one used to being spied on, or used to spying. “Aurelius is too precious a thing for you. He’s too good, too rare.”
Bree scoffed. “Then take him from me. He’s a man like any other, easy enough to lead astray”
Titrit’s eyes welled. She balled her bony hands into fists and clutched one of them at her breast. “He was to be my husband. All this would have been different. Just one beautiful thing in my life, amongst all the filth laid at my feet.”
The unevenness of Titrit’s expression and the shrill entitlement in her voice were as good a warning as Bree had ever received.
It was time to go.
Bree gave Titrit a wide berth and started down the avenue of sculpted bushes.
Fast as a hawk, Titrit darted in front of her, nearly knocking Bree off her feet. She slapped Bree hard across the face and grabbed her by her shoulders.
“You’re mad,” Bree spat, pushing Titrit away. She wasn’t afraid to get rough; the streets of Atlin had taught her a thing or two about taking care of herself.
“If I’m mad it’s you who’s made me that way.” Her eyes were so round it seemed Bree might fall into them and never find the bottom.
“We’ve barely met. Let me alone.” Bree marched briskly toward the right turn that led to the exit of the maze.
Damn Aurelius for having left the guards behind.
Then again, she’d learned that more than a few of them were on Qanmi’s payroll.
Titrit’s sandals kicked up rocks behind her. “I could have had you!” she screeched at Bree’s retreating back. “Remember that when you’re safe in his arms! You’re lucky I didn’t choose you—I should have chosen you! I’ll see a sword through you yet, whatever Father says! I’m not so good a girl as that.”
Bree didn’t turn around, and Titrit didn’t pursue her further. Fast on her feet, Bree ran the rest of the way to the entrance of the maze, not stopping even when she met the two guards stationed there.
What had Titrit meant by she could have had her?
Panting, Bree all but tumbled down the steep stairs leading to the docks.