Chapter 07,  Chapter Section

Chapter 7: V: Vivaen

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Chapter 7: Traitors

Section V

Vivaen – Qemassen: The Palace Gardens

Days ago, when Vivaen had heard Aurelius’s voice approaching Ashtaroth’s chambers from the hallway, all she’d been able to think about was hurting him, cutting him for lying to her, making him seethe with envy at what she could take from him by kissing his brother’s lips. Petty maybe, stupid certainly, but the raw hurt on Aurelius’s face had at least satisfied her that her so-called sailor had felt something, however meagre, for his whore in the Feislands. It’d been worth it.

Well, it had seemed worth it. Now that she was away from both Ashtaroth and Aurelius, hemmed in by the soothing trickle of the fountains in the palace gardens and the shade of the lilacs, her worries flitted inside her chest: Aurelius was a prince and this was his home—surely he could hurt her worse than any damage she might do him? And Ashtaroth—what good was there in causing discord between he and his brother, turning herself into a prize for them to war over? When two merchants fought over a glass vase, inevitably it was the vase that broke, not the merchants. This wasn’t some simple game of seduction to con sailors at Atlin’s docks. Vivaen was in danger here—all the more so now that the palace slaves had decided to start stabbing people.

She raked her fingers through her long black hair, not a slow, calming movement, but anxiously, so that the strands accidentally knotted as she worked her hand through them.

That shifty merchant, Qanmi eq-Sabaal, had provided new slaves for everyone, and hers had brought her to the gardens to sit beneath the trees and do whatever it was women did in Qemassen to idle away their lives. The slaves hovered nearby, standing beneath a different stand of trees to protect themselves from the sun, gossiping as they braided each other’s hair. Which of Shaqarbas’s sons was the most handsome? Whom among the palace guards did they most want to squeeze between their thighs?

Not exactly that last thing. They weren’t honest enough to voice something so lewd aloud.

Vivaen snorted and pulled her legs up onto the bench, scrunching her knees against her chest.

She shouldn’t disparage the women. It was beyond beautiful under the lilacs, with birdsong to accompany her and the scents of countless blossoms filling her lungs. She only wished there was something to do; she wasn’t used to sitting so often and for so long. There was always something to do in Atlin, even if it was only skulking about, as Queen Eaflied had frequently accused her of.

At least skulking had kept her thoughts from turning round and round, shredding her insides like a wheel ringed with spikes. Too much time off her feet let the darkness creep in.

She scuffed her sandal on the stone bench, accidentally catching the thin skirt of her flimsy Massenqa dress. The clothes were another thing entirely: lavish and expensive and graceful. In fact, everything in the palace was lavish, expensive, and graceful. She’d slipped more than a few trinkets from the palace rooms without thinking—though perhaps it was just as well. If her deception were revealed, she’d need coin to escape Eshmunen and Ashtaroth.

“Sese,” said one of the slave women. “The crown prince is approaching.” She’d bowed halfway to the ground.

Vivaen quickly slid her legs off the bench, sitting like a fancy person instead—or how she thought a fancy person should sit. She gripped her knees, forcing a smile as Ashtaroth approached from one of the tree-lined paths.

His strides were quick but clumsy, as though overexcited and at pains to disguise it.

Poor Ashtaroth. He was a grown man, yet all she saw when she looked at him was an overgrown child, inexperienced and naïve. He’d heaped gifts upon her, so many she wasn’t sure where to keep them, and for every day since she’d kissed him he’d sent her a new poem, each more terrible than the last. The slaves would recite them to her, cooing over every word as though a skald’s trained tongue had chosen each one. At least once she could read Massenqa letters, she’d be able to laugh at his verses in private.

“Hello!” Ashtaroth called loudly, waving, as though she might somehow have missed him.

The slaves all eyed him curiously, as though it were them and not Vivaen who were his brides.

She snapped her fingers at them. “You can leave me now.”

The slaves hesitated, before hurrying off to busy themselves with whatever they did when they weren’t stalking her. They probably thought Bree and Ashtaroth planned to take advantage of their privacy to do something considerably more interesting than listen to poetry. Vivaen had no such delusions. The crown prince was shier than a maid.

For a few awkward moments Ashtaroth stood in front of her, thin arms hanging at his side as he sweated in discomfort. Taking pity on him, she waved her arm over the bench in an offer to sit. When he did, he made sure there was so much space between them that not even their clothes touched.

Ashtaroth brushed a strand of his white hair from his eyes. “I went looking for you in your chambers but you weren’t there.”

Vivaen had to look away to hide her smirk. “I was here.” Obviously.

“Yes.” Ashtaroth sounded out of breath.

He really was a sickly sort of man. If he died, would she be passed on to Aurelius? The thought hooked in her throat, and embarrassingly, a thrill travelled up her thighs to the space between them.

Angry with herself, she looked Ashtaroth plain in the face. It was enough to cool her desire.

“Did you have another poem for me?” She managed to swallow the tired sigh that threatened to follow her question.

“No.” Ashtaroth blushed and Vivaen smiled, careful not to let slip how relieved she was. “I wanted to talk to you about something Aurelius said.”

The world went cold and still. For an instant, all Vivaen’s whirling worries vanished and she could think nothing at all. But then the thoughts charged in as one, rattling inside her like Lora riders in hammered metal skirts, their swords drawn, a terrible regiment.

Surely Aurelius wouldn’t have told Ashtaroth that he’d known her? And worse, had Aurelius realized she wasn’t really princess Bree at all and never had been? Had her foolish kiss been so cruel that he would give her up as revenge?

Vivaen bit her lip. She fumbled behind her for a stick, or a twig, or something at least passably sharp with which to stab Ashtaroth if things went badly. Her fingers closed around a small stone.

Ashtaroth frowned, black eyebrows furrowed. “You don’t need to be scared; I understand.” He wrung his hands, a small thing, but enough of a tell that Vivaen knew he wasn’t happy about whatever he knew. “You didn’t know who my brother was and you were tired of waiting for me. It’s all right. We’re not so prudish as that in Qemassen.”

Vivaen might have laughed. She forced a smile that felt more like a snarl, but kept her grip on the small stone. “He told you all that? I’m embarrassed.” She wasn’t embarrassed at all, but what else could she say?

Men often liked it when women claimed embarrassment about sex, especially when the women were their brides. To judge by how Ashtaroth’s smile reached his eyes, he was just the same. Too easy a mark she’d have called him, back in Atlin. If Vivaen had been interested in social climbing, her prince would have been the perfect rope: predictable, swayed by common flattery, free of any guile. But Vivaen wanted no part in such games, and ropes were just as good for hanging.

“He asked me to set you aside, can you imagine? Our marriage has been destined since our births and he thought I’d cast you from me like a serpent.” Ashtaroth laughed. It sounded genuine.

Vivaen’s heart caught in her throat and she shuddered at the intensity of her own reaction. Had Aurelius truly asked that of him? What did it mean if he had? She pictured him, not as he was now, but as he had been when they’d met in the Feislands after they’d spent a night and a morning fucking like hares in spring. There’d been a sadness on his face when they’d parted, something deep as the pit that haunted her in her dreams. The same pit he’d banished from her thoughts. But what matter if he were sad? Sadness was too often an excuse to act rashly, and she wouldn’t let Aurelius’s soft heart swallow hers as mud devoured her in nightmare.

She made herself smile and did her best to suppress the tremor in her voice. “Why did he want you to do that?”

“He claims he loves you.” Ashtaroth shrugged. The words, to him, were nothing like the knife’s tip they were to her. “Aurelius has loved many women, and many women love Aurelius.”

“I thought as much.” Men like Aurelius were always leaving girls to pine for them in Atlin. promising gifts and marriage and love but leaving only false hope. She’d been afraid Aurelius had been one of those, had consigned herself to the fate of so many spurned women before her. It hadn’t been true in the end, yet here she was and she was still unhappy. Aurelius’s confession to his brother did nothing to help Vivaen. All it did was confirm to her what she’d already feared: she’d turned herself from a person to a prize.

“You don’t love him, do you?” Ashtaroth’s strange yellow eyes kept her captive, and she breathed out roughly. Words had a magic all their own; what would it mean to deny Aurelius when she’d thought of barely anything else for the past few days?

“Of course not.” She swallowed. “How could I, when I have you?”

Ashtaroth started at what was all but a declaration from her. Did he think she could love him after a few shallow conversations? What a fool. A fool, and she was moored to him.

A cloud rolled over them, casting the paths, fountains, and trees in a sheet of grey.

If she were to be a pawn and a prize, she needed allies besides Queen Eaflied. But how to gamble? Ashtaroth was sick enough that it seemed common wisdom he would die, while if she threw herself at Aurelius’s feet and Ashtaroth survived, she might be killed for her disloyalty. She had no ties to King Eshmunen, who seemed to ignore her with the same enthusiasm that he ignored everyone and everything else. The elderly high priest and Princess Himalit were said to rule the city, but with the one recovering from a grievous injury and the other stripped of her position as shipmaster, could anyone truly be said to reign in Qemassen?

Better to place her trust in those close to the throne but whose asses would never touch it: Qanmi, who wasn’t so different from the merchants and thieves Vivaen had called allies back in Atlin; the various ambassadors and petty princes that filled the palace halls.

As if summoned by Vivaen’s thoughts, Ashtaroth’s eldest sister emerged onto the path, in time for the cloud to pass them and sunlight to catch on the mannish metal glinting at her waist. She stormed toward them, a lion prowling. There was no making friends with this one, that Vivaen had sensed the day she’d stepped onto the throne room floor for the first time. To Himalit et-Moniqa, Vivaen was a stumbling block, a womb on legs whose offspring would steal the seat she hoped to take for her own sons. That Ashtaroth couldn’t see what his sister was really after by supporting him was only another reason he would probably end up dead, sick or not. Unless he had someone to help him.

And Vivaen couldn’t help him if he ran his mouth off and told Himalit that Vivaen had fucked their brother.

She shot Ashtaroth an anxious glare, whispering to him fiercely. “You mustn’t tell anyone about what happened between me and Aurelius, do you understand? It was a mistake, but I’ve made it, and who knows what they would do to us if they knew.” Us. Yes, she should make it an us.

Ashtaroth nodded emphatically. He laid his hand on hers, tentative.

As Himalit approached, Vivaen held her head high, letting the stone she’d clutched fall to the ground. She didn’t speak, unsure of how to greet her future sister. In her tight-fitting clothes, Himalit looked all the more a man.

“I see you two are becoming fast friends.” Himalit’s tone was so flat as to be indecipherable. “It’s somewhat of a relief to find you don’t evacuate yourself every time you’re visited by my brother.”

The scene in the throne room. Was Himalit really so concerned with that? But then, everything here was about how things looked or seemed.

“Be nice Hima.” Ashtaroth patted the bench beside him. “Sit with us.”

Himalit seemed perplexed by the suggestion, but did as she was told.

Vivaen shuffled nearer to Ashtaroth to accommodate Himalit, doing her best to maintain her composure beneath the princess’s withering stare. She had no idea what to say, now that Himalit was no longer heq-Damirat. But then, perhaps the demotion was an opening.

“I’m sorry about the loss of your seat,” said Vivaen, oozing sympathy, or oozing something anyway. “You were the heq-Damirat, isn’t that right?”

Himalit didn’t react at all, but then, she was already wound tight as a garrote. She sat with her legs crossed, her hands clasped in front of her knees. She flicked her fingers as though whether or not she held any official title was meaningless. “It won’t last. They need me too much. I’m the backbone of this city—Qorban is competent, but he’s no leader.”

Ashtaroth shifted beside Vivaen. “That’s Titrit’s husband,” Ashtaroth explained to her, and to his credit, Vivaen had forgotten. Half her mornings were taken up memorizing the names and relationships of strangers.

“Isn’t it dangerous to put someone so inexperienced in charge of the navy while war’s brewing?” Vivaen asked. The question was simply to give them something to discuss, but the defense of Qemassen should worry her. She lived here now, and even if she didn’t, she had a stake in seeing Lorar lose.

Himalit looked Vivaen up and down, as though there might be a slight of some kind hidden in Vivaen’s words.

“I don’t make a habit of hiring inexperienced captains,” she said, clipped. “But he isn’t me, it’s true. And every time a new face appears in Qemassen—some man who wants to throw his weight around—it seems I have to prove myself once again.

Himalit glanced down one of the paths, like she was imagining someone specific, though Vivaen was the only newcomer to the court as far as she knew. “They’re willing to use my expertise as long as they don’t have to acknowledge me, and gods forbid Samelqo should go whining to my father about my decisions. Cocksuckers, all of them.”

She grinned, and for a moment Vivaen thought she might stop talking, but she continued, seemingly content to amuse herself.

“And the merchants—the tamqaru—they think they should run the dockyard. They clog up my harbour with useless wares. Qanmi’s the worst of all—have you met him? Always leaving shipments laying about. The last was flowers―flowers, hundreds of them. What on earth does he need flowers for? He’s courting Djana; I suppose she’ll have to deal with it. She’s doing better now, at least. I’m not sure why she was bedridden in the first place; Hiram and Reshith were cut up and shaved and they were running around making terrors of themselves the next day.”

Himalit cast Vivaen a sidelong glance. “I’m surprised you had to ask about my position. As I understand it, men from all around know about Hima of Qemassen. They say I run my father’s court, don’t they? I hear they call me the witch-queen of Qemassen.” She laughed. “Is that true?”

Vivaen took her time answering, hoping she wouldn’t have to, unsure if Himalit wanted a reply or if she would continue her rant. But the princess raised a judging eyebrow, awaiting a response.

What people actually called Himalit was the bitch-queen of Qemassen, but Vivaen guessed an honest answer wouldn’t endear her to the princess. She settled for the kind of honesty that avoided answering the question entirely. “Some people say so, but ordinary men in the Feislands couldn’t tell you where Qemassen was, let alone the names of her kings.”

Himalit grunted. It wasn’t a pleasant sound, and there was a darkness in her eyes. “She’s clever, Ashtaroth, I’ll give you that, though what kind of queen she’ll make we’ll have to see.” She watched Vivaen all the while, though she’d addressed Ashtaroth.

Vivaen fought a scowl. She shouldn’t have to prove herself to this woman, but then, it was very clear Himalit saw Vivaen as competition for control over her brother. Would Himalit have preferred the real Bree? Someone who hadn’t even spoken the language would have been far more pliant, and the real Bree would have suited Ashtaroth well—they had much in common.

“We’ll see,” said Vivaen, “but for now I’m content to be a queen in waiting.”

Ashtaroth inhaled audibly, and perhaps Vivaen’s comment had been brash, but the mixture of surprise and displeasure on Himalit’s face was worth it.

“I didn’t realize you’d already married my brother,” said Hima, looking eerily pleased with herself.

This one really would be queen if she could, and she’d climb over the bodies of anyone in the way.

Vivaen had made a mistake.

Himalit uncrossed her legs and stood up, turning to face Ashtaroth and ignoring Vivaen as though she’d never been there. It was difficult to tell if that meant Vivaen had won or not. If she had, she suspected it was a temporary victory. She’d made an enemy of Himalit et-Moniqa simply by having a mind of her own.

Himalit cocked her head in the direction of the heq-Ashqen’s tower. “The old vulture is looking for you, Ashtaroth.” She seemed anxious to leave. Had Vivaen bothered her more than it seemed?

Ashtaroth sat up straighter. “Samelqo?”

He really did have a knack for asking the obvious.

Himalit rolled her shoulder, as though to work out an ache. “He said it was about what you’d seen.”

Ashtaroth jerked to his feet, inclined his head to Vivaen very suddenly, and started to turn. But then, as Vivaen blinked at him in confusion, he shoved his hands into a purse at his waist and fumbled around for something. “I really should go,” he blurted. “I asked to speak with the heq-Ashqen about something important.” He stretched his arm out, handing Vivaen a wrinkled piece of papyrus. “But I wrote something for you. Tell me what you think tomorrow.”

So there had been a poem.

Vivaen smiled kindly at her betrothed before he hurried off with his sister.

She laid the papyrus on the bench beside her and waited in silence until Ashtaroth and Hima were out of sight before getting up and heading along an alternate route back to the palace. The web of passages that pretended at being a garden didn’t take their time swallowing Vivaen whole, but as she scurried down the maze of hedges, paths, and trees, she kept her ears perked for the voices of her slaves as they searched for her.

She’d had barely a moment to herself since she’d arrived. And besides, slaves weren’t slaves here, so much as they were jailers and spies. At least, she supposed, if these new women were spies, it was obvious whose coins lined their pockets. Before, they might have belonged to anyone, Himalit included. Now they so obviously belonged to Qanmi eq-Sabaal she wasn’t sure it was even spying.

Eventually, Vivaen arrived at a purple door leading back into the palace complex, though as she opened it, it led only to a new labyrinth, this one composed of stairs and stone and endless corridors.

After a series of twists and turns that seemed only to lead in a circle, she bent down over a window-ledge to look out at one of the many square courtyards that seemed to spontaneously appear throughout the building, searching for some indication of where she was.

In the courtyard below, two boys were splashing in a pool at the centre of the small garden. Both were bald—they must be Himalit et-Moniqa’s sons, the ones who’d been injured. It seemed good luck that their lives had been spared during the slave attack, though good luck for some typically meant bad luck for another.

Vivaen pulled away from the window. It was all too obvious which side the coin fell on where her fortunes were concerned. Not too far into future Bree would be expected to bear children, Ashtaroth’s children, and heirs to the throne of a country Vivaen didn’t know or understand.

Ill at ease, she stalked away from the sound of childish playing. Her loose, colourful skirts rustled at her ankles, her feet aching in her soft Massenqa slippers, so flat against the floor, as though no one here were ever in a hurry to get anywhere.

In a moment of spontaneity, she hopped one-footed and pulled one slipper from her foot, then the next. As she plodded along, her feet still ached, but at least they weren’t so sweaty and constrained.

But then again, where was she so eager to get to? If she returned to her rooms, today would be just like yesterday. Her slaves would find her, and then it would be endless baths, over-rich food, and more gossip. How did they even have anything to gossip about when they were all so new to the palace?

She could sit with Eaflied, but what on earth would they discuss?

As she rounded a bend she came upon a table set against one of the walls, beautiful ornaments resting upon it, and more golden fruit like the apple Ashtaroth had gifted her.

Vivaen stopped in front of it, fighting her immediate instinct to grab what she could and shove it inside her dress somehow. In Atlin, she’d had not only a weakness for such things, but a need. Now, Ashtaroth had trinkets and baubles brought to without her even asking.

Torchlight glinted off a jewelled pear, casting a hundred different colours across the wall. Every bead covering the pear’s surface seemed to contain a smaller version of the whole. She hovered her hand over it, looked left and right to see if anyone was watching, then clasped it in her palm.

A man’s singing voice startled her and she snapped her hand away, letting the fruit roll back inside its golden dish.

The man was singing in Massenqa, a beautifully human instrument, but when she turned to find the source, there was no one in the hallway.

She started walking toward the sound, slower this time, peering past open doors as the voice echoed through the empty palace hallways. The music came from everywhere and nowhere at once, and it was familiar too. With every note, she smelled the woody, sweaty, ale-soaked walls of the meadhall where she’d met her sailor. She heard the roar of laughter from guests, and the melodic rhythm of his voice as he plucked his strange, stringed instrument to the amusement of everyone in the room.

Everyone but Vivaen, who’d seen through him straight away.

Turning another corner revealed the end of the passage—an open door, perfectly framing a seated figure.

Aurelius.

He sat side-on between two latticed windows. Light filtered past thin silk curtains onto the ground to either side of him, dim and lovely. He continued his song for a time, until he noticed her, and cut off his singing mid-note.

What was he thinking, staring at her? His expression was inscrutable, and she was caught between the desire to run both to and away from him. She’d made an enemy of Himalit by trying to do her duty by Ashtaroth—perhaps the answer sat right here, though it stung to admit it.

But that wasn’t even all of it. A stupid desired needled at her. Desire, when it came to Aurelius, was indistinguishable from irritation.

She wouldn’t let him get the better of her.

Vivaen clutched her slippers all the tighter and continued walking as though she’d planned to visit him all along. She stepped inside, taking in the room without paying much attention to Aurelius himself.

Beautiful fabrics in every imaginable hue, colour, and pattern decorated the bed, the curtains, the pillows. Tall, high windows started midway up the walls, some of them shielded with intricate wooden shutters carved into images of fruit trees and exotic birds. Leaves and branches coiled against the shutters from outside, their tendrils creeping inwards, not entirely barred, as though Aurelius were growing a garden inside the palace itself. A ledge rested below the window, covered with carved wooden animals: elephants, wildcats, creatures stranger still.

It was a relatively small room, though to judge by the bed Aurelius had pushed against the wall beneath the window, it was in this tiny chamber where he spent his time. Two doors led left and right on either side of the chamber, both closed.

Satisfied that she’d taken the measure of the space, Vivaen turned her attention on him. “Was that you singing? It sounded like a cat in heat.”

Aurelius raised one of his perfect black eyebrows, but he smirked at her in good humour as he did. “If you’re looking to make a friend at court, there are better ways of doing it.”

Vivaen snorted. “Better than insulting them? To judge by how you lied to me, I thought you Massenqa took insults as compliments.”

Aurelius’s smile faded. He narrowed his eyes almost imperceptibly before his smile returned.

Vivaen stepped further into the room and closed the door. She’d rather not be seen here, if here was where she was determined to be. She looked back at him, and instead of trading barbs, she changed the topic. “What was it? The song.”

Aurelius sighed, flopping his arm over the back of his chair. “An Inda song. You wouldn’t know it.”

He seemed very confident about what she did and didn’t know. Just as well. It was better to be underestimated.

Vivaen strolled to the window. She slid two fingers past the carved shutters and the vines fighting for space between them. She could see the palace gardens from here—a perfect view of the bench where she’d been sitting. Had Aurelius been watching her? Who else did he watch from his windows?

“I didn’t know there was a difference between Massenqa and Inda words.” She leaned back against the window and caught herself staring at him—she’d have to teach herself not to.

“There are differences.” He paused, narrowing his eyes at her. “Why are you here, princess? Why come to me and not your lover?”

Vivaen scoffed. She clasped her hands behind her back, fiddling with one of the rings on her fingers. “Sourness doesn’t suit you.”

She plucked one of the carved wooden animals from the ledge—a monkey made of cypress. It was seated, holding a piece of fruit to its mouth. She replaced the monkey on the shelf, choosing instead a stylized cat with a fish in its mouth. She admired it in silence for what seemed ages before finally speaking. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”

Sometimes, parts of her turned traitor and spoke the truth.

Aurelius shook his head. “But you lied to me all the same; you knew you’d be gone by the time I returned to Atlin, married to a much grander prize than some foreign sailor.”

Vivaen bristled, putting the cat down as she read Aurelius’s face for signs of a foothold, some sympathy, anything.

Unkindness seemed her only option. She hated herself for it. “You act as though we promised each other anything. You can’t expect me to believe a Massenqa prince ever meant to come back and marry a Feislanda bitch. And I’ve heard how they talk about you.”

“Heard about me?” Aurelius scowled, handsome face distorted. “Heard that I’m a lecher, no doubt. As I recall you were glad to accommodate my lechery the last time we met.”

Vivaen stalked across the room, toward a door she had no intention of opening. “A night of fun. And if you remember, it wasn’t your cock I wanted, it was your purse.”

It was too easy being cruel to Aurelius.

He stood up, his chair scraping the floor. “A princess who’s also a thief? So why did you come back with me when I caught you?”

“A pretty face is a pretty face,” Vivaen spat. “You should know all about that.”

“You were different.” Aurelius moved toward her, and Vivaen back away, bumping against a low table, knocking a bronze vase to the floor. His face was so close to hers—his body.

Like this, they were almost of a height. “I’m different now because your brother wants me.”

He’d told Ashtaroth he loved her. He’d asked Ashtaroth to set her aside. Vivaen grit her teeth and balled her hands into fists. What was she doing here? Why had she really come? Throwing her lot in with Aurelius was arguably far more dangerous than wrestling Himalit for control of Ashtaroth. She might have mended that bridge. By coming here, she was burning all others.

And she could see the fire glowing in Aurelius’s brown eyes.

“I was coming back for you,” he said.

Could that be true? “Fine words, but that’s all they are.”

Aurelius laughed bitterly. “You think I’m a monster, but it’s you who chose this life over me.”

“I didn’t choose! I’ve never had a choice.” The honesty clogged her throat, choking her. Tears sprang to her eyes. “I looked for you. When we came to the city I looked for you at the docks. When I saw you on the throne, and I realized you were one of them, I thought you must have been him; you had to be. You gave me his name.” Bree rubbed her eyes. “Why did you give me his name?”

Aurelius reached for her, and against all sense Bree welcomed the embrace, clinging to him like a madwoman as he stroked her hair. She dug her nails into his back, seeking out the rents she’d made the last time she’d touched him. They’d vanished to the wind, the same as he had.

“It was what came to mind.” Amusement crept back into Aurelius’s voice as he spoke the words against her cheek. “I thought you’d think my real name false, because it’s a Lora name.”

“It’s a stupid name,” she blubbered into his neck.

“Then we’ll run away and I’ll change it.”

She bit her lip, tasting blood. They’d do terrible things to her if they caught her, and then they’d do them to Aurelius. She squeezed her eyes shut tighter. It was too easy to conjure images of Aurelius in pain, Aurelius tortured. Bad things happened to people she loved, didn’t he know that?

So she shoved him. The temptation was too great when they were together, so they’d have to be apart.

Aurelius remained in front of her. “I could find us a ship; it would be simple.”

Vivaen scratched her nails along her arm. “I can’t, I have to marry Ashtaroth or the Lora will take the Feislands.” Her tears were drying, logic returning to her. He was staring at her like she was made of ice, like she was a frost giant from the stories. Aurelius approached her as though to touch her again and she feinted away. If she had to be ice she would be, and she knew if he touched her she’d melt to nothing.

She slipped past him, toward the chair where he’d been sitting. It had been like he was waiting for her to hear him, but no, it was only that his father had confined him to his rooms and he’d needed fresh air.

He stepped up behind her.

She made a face, feeling witchy and vile. “I don’t love you.” Not one of her best lies.

Aurelius laughed. “Maybe not, but you love him even less.”

“You’re relentless and annoying.”

“And handsome, and witty, and rich.” He crept up against her, his hands on her shoulders, his touch gentle.

“You won’t be rich if we run,” she pointed out. She turned to face him, to stop him from holding her—yes, that was exactly what she was doing.

Aurelius kissed her and she let him swallow her, her own lips rolling hungry against his, her clothes an unhappy barrier between the warm press of their bodies.

It was too demanding of the world to ask her not to touch him, or let him touch her as he seemed keen to do.

He smiled a smile she could feel against her skin. “Then you’ll have to make do with my wit and good looks then.”

She pulled back and smiled herself, teasing. She liked to tease him. “And your foolishness, and your arrogance. Your overconfidence . . . .”

Aurelius took a step forward till she fell into the chair where he’d been sitting. He knelt before her and she gripped his shoulders, her fingers tracing the ridges of his back beneath his clothing, her body welling with sensation.

“Then I’ll just have to prove myself, won’t I?” He grinned his swindler’s grin, the smile reaching his eyes. He slipped his hand beneath her dress, deft fingers tugging at fabric that only kept its shape by the grace of the folds and tucks her slaves had made. The dress came loose, falling to her waist, and he leaned up, kissing her nipple, her side, her thighs.

Vivaen arched her back against the chair as he kissed the space between them.

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