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Chapter 20: Conqueror
Bree – Betusha: The Anata Border
Darron held up a coin and whistled. “Server—a jug of wine in the room for when we retire.”
“Milos!” called a deep voice from the counter behind Bree.
Dice rattled across the round wooden table inside the smoky common room of the drinking den. The faces of Bree’s gambling companions followed the roll with the round-eyed look of pigs before a feed.
Nestled on Darron’s lap with his warm, solid chest at her back and the fingers of one of his rough, calloused hands teasing her breast inside her dress, Bree watched the outcome with feigned interest. She was the one, after all, who’d provided the loaded dice.
“Nines!” Darron fumbled to dislodge his hand from Bree’s skin so he could scoop up his winnings. “You’re good luck, girl.” As he grinned and leaned forward, his thick black beard itched against the back of Bree’s neck.
Osen, one of Darron’s caravanners, tsked. “More than luck, I’d say. That sly bitch of yours has a cunning about her.”
“That’s right,” said Darron with a laugh. He scraped the coins across the table and shoveled half of them into his free palm. “But I’m the only one who gets to taste it.”
He pecked Bree on the cheek.
Bree rolled her eyes, but lost in her cups herself, she couldn’t help smiling. Darron wasn’t bad company—none of them were. Not even Osen, the gloomy Feislander, was so bad really. He’d made no secret of the fact he thought Bree was trouble, but he’d slit the throat of the last man who’d tried to grab her. Actions mattered more than words, and Bree was safe with these men for as long as Darron wanted her. A few more months, and she’d carve her own path and make for Ajwata—the furthest she could get from Lorar or Qemassen.
Darron wrapped his arm around her, giving her an affectionate squeeze.
It was a friendly game, for all that she was cheating, and the Betusha drinking den provided a warm atmosphere after three months of travel.
“If it’s me that’s lucky, I should get something for my troubles.” Besides, it was Bree’s wealth Darron had been playing with. She reached for one of the coins.
Darron slapped her hard against the back of her hand.
Bree bolted from his lap, snatched her coin purse from the table, and gave him an even harder slap across the jowls.
The whole table roared with laughter as Bree turned her back on them and marched away in the direction of the stairs leading to the room she’d rented with Darron. She could use some of the promised wine waiting in the room.
As she sidled between tables, she cast a furtive glance to her right toward a cloaked old beggar sitting on a stool.
The slap hadn’t been the only reason she’d left. That man had been watching her all night, shielded from view by a black cowl. He didn’t even try to disguise that he was watching her, neck turning to follow her passage as she made for the stairs. His grip on his cane tightened.
Bree looked him square in the shadows that passed for a face and made the horned gesture with her fingers. Hopefully her fire gave him second thoughts about laying hands on her.
She hopped confidently onto the first of the steps, wishing she felt half so sure as she pretended. With every town they’d passed on the road to Betusha, Bree’s anxiety had only increased. Trying to convince herself she was safe only made the danger feel closer.
She’d been drawing too much attention. Darron and his fellow traders were loud, and while they afforded her some protection against worse types, they weren’t what she’d call smart or careful. Not that they knew who she was—Bree wasn’t fool enough to tell anyone that.
As she mounted the stairs, she loosened the belt at her waist. Her robes were tight these days, no matter what she did, and her skin clammy. She rested her hand on her belly, assessing the swell underneath. It felt bigger than it ought to, four months in.
When she’d first realized she was pregnant, she’d drank every draught she knew to rid herself of the thing, but it clung to life with the stubbornness of its mother. If she wanted it gone now, she needed someone with greater skill.
At least Darron wasn’t foolish enough to think it was his.
Bree frowned. She didn’t know who the father was. That, of everything, was the worst part. She could have lived with it if she’d known it was Aurelius’s, even after everything that had happened, but she didn’t want to bear Qanmi’s child.
How funny though, to think Titrit was in Qemassen, mother to Little Nobody, while Bree might well be saddled with Tirit’s half-brother or sister.
Bree wrinkled her nose.
She hadn’t been able to focus since she’d fled Qemassen.
She hadn’t slept either, which couldn’t help.
Upstairs, in the room Darron had rented for them, Bree lit a small candle from a brazier and set about undressing. She began by emptying her hidden pockets of their treasures—coins and gold jewellry, a fine ivory comb and a collection of small votives from Massenqa temples. She’d made a habit of counting her wealth every time she was sure of some privacy, unwilling to trust that her companions’ fingers were any less sticky than her own.
A few more months and she would be rid of this lot, then she could take what remained of the funds Hima had given her and pay for passage south. There would be more men like Darron, of course, and maybe she was foolish to abandon him, but in Bree’s experience the longer you kept a man around, the more likely he was to get attached. Bree might not hate Darron, but like was a strong word, and she had no desire to become his property. No, someone new would be better, even if he were worse.
She’d never meet a worse type than Aurelius eq-Eshmunen.
Bree’s throat grew tight at the thought of him. She slid her hand into a pocket sewn at her breast, feeling a seductive calm rush through her as her fingers found the familiar shape of Aurelius’s wooden carving. She rubbed along the fracture where a crude mending job had reattached a cracked leg. It was a shattered thing glued haphazardly into something functional.
Just like Bree.
Rumour had reached the caravan that King Aurelius was married now to a true princess—a Semassenqat blessed not only with grace but with wisdom too.
Graceful. Polite. Wise.
Bree was none of those things, but at least she and Titrit shared madness in common, along with their crippling affections for Qemassen’s king. Let Aurelius have Titrit’s madness if it was the Massenqat he so desired.
Jealousy stewed in her at the thought of her lover’s irritatingly handsome face, his lips touching Titrit’s, his hands holding her, his tongue making her squeal. In their rooms at the palace, Aurelius had promised he would always hold her, no matter what happened, no matter how old they grew, no matter if they fought and bickered. What lies men told, to make you feel safe, to gain entry.
The jug of wine Darron had ordered called to her from a small table. Bree grabbed a cup, poured it to the brim, and downed it in two gulps.
Now such things were Titrit’s to worry on, along with a son Bree could only hope Hima had been honest about protecting. If only there was a way to know, for certain, that he was safe.
“I thought it was you.”
Bree jumped at the man’s voice. She leapt onto the bed, kicking the covers from it, ready to scream. She pulled a small dagger from her belt and held it out in front of her.
Bree bared her teeth. “I’ve a man downstairs. His fists are as big around as your head.”
The old man in the hood snorted darkly, and Bree squinted, wishing she’d lit the larger torch on the wall.
She recognized him, she was sure of that now. There was such venom in his voice, such loathing.
“I’m not afraid of your merchant or his friends. My darkest fears have been made real already. I’ve seen my king murdered and usurped, my faithless wife betray me and sell me to thieves. I’ve been set adrift from the only place I’ve ever called home or cared for—an exile unworthy of its broken walls. My prince is lost, my portents dust, my sacrifices rendered pointless. I gave my life for my city, every heqet of myself since I was a child, and because of you, a princess very far from home, I find myself ensnared, a slave to thugs and cheats, dishonoured and discarded.”
She knew him. Oh, she knew him. But why he seemed to think anything that had happened to him had been in any way Bree’s fault, she couldn’t fathom.
“Long-winded and bitter,” Bree hissed, fear twitching along her back.
As if he needed to, the shadowy figure lifted his cowl from his head to reveal the skeletal visage beneath.
Bree kept the knife pointed right at him. She spat his name just as heavy footsteps thudded up the stairs beyond her room. “Samelqo.”
The aged heq-Ashqen inclined his bald head. A heavy slave’s collar glinted around his neck. “My conqueror,” he sneered, “my queen.”