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Relyn arrived in Thane’s room just before the ninth bell. She wore the same green dress tunic as before, but her black hair hung free from its braids, falling in dark waves around her shoulders.

It was strange to see Relyn in courtly attire. Then again, she didn’t act stiff or uncomfortable as if she were a wild huntress forced to sit indoors. Instead, she stepped as gracefully as if she were in the forest with her bow.

“I’ll be honest,” Thane said as he poured the wine. “It was Ashara who sent you that note.”

“I know.” Her face broke into a sudden smile. “The boy tried to lie, but he wasn’t very good.”

“Ah.” Thane handed her the glass. “You make a habit of interrogating errand boys, then?”

“The handwriting wasn’t yours either,” she replied. “Whoever wrote it was left-handed.”

“I could have used a scribe.”

She also tried too hard to make it look like yours,” Relyn continued. “Scribes write fast. This was slow and careful.”

Thane raised an eyebrow. “You’ve seen my handwriting?”

“When we passed the border,” she said. “You wrote that note of passage for the Onyx Company.”

Well, so he had.

Relyn’s competence should have been reassuring. She was going to be his wife after all, and he needed capable people for his secret rebellion. Unfortunately, he couldn’t help but imagine her using those same observational skills against him.

“Sorry,” she said after the abrupt silence. “I hope that isn’t weird.”

“Oh no.” Thane waved a dismissive hand. “You are a trained spy. It’s only natural for you to notice things.”

His gaze fell to her fingers which were blessedly free of rings. Still, that was no guarantee that Trelidor wasn’t using her. Their enemy had changed the rules that night at the Clansmeet, and Relyn was in a perfect position to gather information on him.

“I was still glad to get the note,” Relyn said. “I thought about coming here on my own, but I didn’t know if that was inappropriate.”

“I’m sure it’s not.” Thane took a seat on the leather sofa near the fireplace. “But since when has that ever bothered you?”

He’d expected Relyn to take the opposite sofa, but she slid in beside him, close enough that their bodies were touching.

“It’s different in the real world,” Relyn said. “This place is all so ...” she trailed off, twisting her lips as if she’d found another gap in her Reverian vocabulary.

“Contrived?” Thane suggested.

“Contrived.” She took a sip of the wine, humming in appreciation. “Like everyone follows made-up rules, and they will judge us if we don’t play along.”

“That’s more than a feeling,” Thane said. “But you seem to play the part well.”

Relyn leaned forward and examined the food in front of them. In addition to the wine, the kitchen had sent up a platter of cheeses, fruits, and bite-sized sausages. Whoever these late-night cooks were, they were getting a raise.

After a moment, she settled on a cube of bitter white cheese and popped it in her mouth. “This will be the most awkward wedding in Dragonshard’s history, true?”

Even that might have been an understatement. Aside from his sister, nearly all their guests would be enemies or strangers. Thane and Nahlia had killed most of his cousins in the battle. Only Dazen had survived, and that was because he’d been in the air rather than the courtyard.

Thane brought his glass to his lips. “My father always said that happy weddings were for the humans and common folk. That’s the sacrifice we make as rulers.”

Relyn looked away at that.

Damnit. He just referred to her as a sacrifice, didn’t he?”

“Sorry.” Thane winced. “Not the best time for that quote. I didn’t mean to imply we won’t be happy.”

“It’s alright,” Relyn squeezed his arm, and her grip was surprisingly strong for her slender frame. “You just lost your father, and much more. You’re allowed to be unhappy.”

Funny how this came from her rather than Ashara. His sister liked to pretend everything was fine—as if making him laugh would make their problems vanish. Thane respected his sister, of course. Without her willingness to go east as a hostage, they never would have worked out this false-peace. But even if humor was her way of coping, it still rubbed Thane the wrong way sometimes. Neither of them had been close to the late king. Even so, his absence left a gaping hole Thane couldn’t ignore.

He drained the rest of his glass, letting the sweetness linger in his mouth. The silence stretched between them for several long heartbeats.

He should say something ... but what?

Ashara was right about one thing—Thane didn’t know Relyn half as well as he should. Sure, they’d spent time together throughout their journey, but he’d always had more important things on his mind.

He shifted his knee on the sofa, feeling Relyn’s heat and softness beneath the fabric of her tunic. It was all too easy to imagine that skin beneath his hands.

A part of him felt guilty for noticing her now rather than during their journey. As if the fine clothing and makeup were all that mattered. But no ... it wasn’t that he hadn’t been attracted to Relyn before. Kira’s death had kept him from moving on. She’d died because of him, and he got to walk away with no real consequences.

A question kindled inside him then. It was perhaps more bold than wise. Then again, he’d already downed two glasses of wine, so that was expected.

“Have you ever been in love before?” he asked.

“No.” Relyn shook her head, showing no surprise at the question. “But I have...” She made an inarticulate gesture with her fingers.

“...been intimate with other people?” Thane suggested.

She bit her lip and nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” Thane said. “It’s not like I’m coming to you as an untouched maiden.”

Relyn laughed at that. Her voice always went higher when she laughed, just like when she spoke Valaysian.

After a few seconds, she cleared her throat and finished the rest of her glass. “I don’t know how it is in Revera, but that’s what the noblemen in Valaysia prefer.”

“Things aren’t so different here,” Thane began slowly. “As always, the chapels value purity and all that, but I think you’ll find we’re more lenient in the South.”

Her hair tickled his arm as she nodded her head beside him. The thunder rumbled outside, and the rain pattered against the window. The flames ebbed in the hearth, but Thane reached out with his senses and encouraged them to climb toward the higher logs.

“I hope it wasn’t somebody I know,” Thane jested as he went to take another drink.

“Actually,” she said, “my first time was with Elias Raider.”

What?” Thane’s glass missed his mouth, and he nearly spilled it on his tunic. “Elias?”

“It was years ago,” she explained quickly, “back when I first came to Whitecliff.”

Thane tried to imagine the two of them together, then found that he couldn’t. “Elias Raider,” he repeated, ever the soul of wit.

“Sorry,” Relyn said again. “It didn’t last long, though. He was too nice for my taste, and too pretty.”

Thane chuckled at that. “You don’t have to tell me all this if you don’t—”

“I want to,” she replied at once. “There were so many secrets between us before. I wanted to start fresh.”

Thane chewed on that for a moment. “Does Nahlia know?”

Relyn nodded. “Ciena Raider might have slipped it out.”

“I take it she didn’t approve?” Thane’s only interactions with Ciena had been her trial and subsequent interrogation. Judging by the stories he’d heard, she must have mellowed out in the recent months.

“She called me a whore. Several times, I think.”

“Harsh,” Thane said.

“I might have deserved it,” Relyn said. “I was with two more boys after him, too. Both of them were other students in Whitecliff. I regretted it later, of course. I was always searching for something, but never found it.”

Acceptance, Thane thought. She’d turned against her family and left a void in their place. Guilt and grief were a painful combination Thane knew all too well.

“She was too harsh,” he repeated. “You’ve made mistakes, but I don’t think less of you for them. Besides, you’ll find the southern chapels are less critical than their northern cousins. You could say we’re more concerned about the future than the past.”

That earned him a small smile.

“And you?” Relyn asked after a brief pause. “You loved Kira, true?”

“I did,” Thane said, “but I never even told her. The days passed in a blur back then.” He stared down at his wineglass, and its thin rim glowed in the firelight. “In the spirit of honesty, there was one other woman before Kira. It was four years ago, shortly before I left to fight the Templars on the Black Steppes.”

“Who was she?”

“One of the noble’s daughters in Dragonshard. I didn’t love her, but I was going off to war, and I didn’t want to be the only one of my officers who had never been with a woman.”

Thane drained his glass again. Relyn was leaning her shoulder against his, so he didn’t reach for the bottle. “It seems like a stupid reason in hindsight. And it certainly wasn’t fair to her.”

“No more silly than my reasons,” Relyn said. “And it’s only unfair if you pretended it was something it wasn’t.”

Thane hummed in consideration. “Regardless, she wasn’t nearly as lovely as you.”

Relyn smiled and broke his gaze. It seemed like more of a reaction than the comment warranted. Then again ... was that the first time he’d ever complimented her?

Thane took the opportunity to lean forward and grab the bottle. He split the last bit between their two glasses.

“So,” he said, “have you been to a Reverian wedding? I’ve heard they’re different in Valaysia.”

“More than one,” she said. “Whitecliff was a small place, so everyone went to the weddings. It wasn’t so different from the ones back home. Only, in Valaysia, we sit on cushions rather than stand.”

“That’s because Valaysian weddings are twice as long,” Thane noted. “We don’t do those gifts, purifications, or prayer rituals.”

“And I was surprised to see you don’t kiss in front of people,” she continued. “But then, that’s a relief for us since we have no practice together.”

Thane turned to face her. “No, that’s just the Northerners. We always kiss here in Dragonshard.”

“What?” Relyn’s eyes went suddenly round. “Really?”

Thane shrugged. “Like I said, we’re more lenient down here.”

“No one told me that.”

“They probably assumed you already knew,” Thane said.

“Oh.”

It might have been Thane’s imagination, but he could have sworn her shoulder grew warmer against his.

“You make a good point though,” he said slowly. “Maybe we should practice. At least once.”

“We should,” Relyn agreed. She met Thane’s eyes but looked away again. “It got warm in here,” she blurted out.

She was right. Between the wine and their shared body heat, the hearth’s fire was almost overwhelming. Thane reached out mentally and absorbed the flame, leaving a few glowing embers behind. Darkness shrouded the room, and the only light came from the blue haze outside the windows.

Relyn shifted forward on the sofa, and Thane pivoted his head until they were only inches apart. Raindrops continued pattering against the window, and his heart beat like a war drum. His eyes scanned every detail of her face in the faint light. Almond-shaped eyes—uncertain but eager. A small nose, and a thin mouth. Most Reverians idealized full lips, but in that moment, it was the classic ideals that seemed inadequate.

He put his arm around her, running his fingers through her cool hair and warm bare shoulders. Finally, he closed his eyes and kissed her. Slowly and gently. He tasted hints of fruit on her soft lips, mingled with the scents of perfume on her neck. He wanted more, but he forced himself to resist.

Before Thane could pull away, Relyn wrapped her own arms around Thane’s neck and pulled him closer. She had a forcefulness to her movements—a roughness and strength that Kira had lacked.

Her body arched into his, and Thane ran his hands down her back, tracing lines of hard muscle, then the softness of her hips.

Their lips broke apart, then found each other again. Thane closed his eyes and time ceased to matter.

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David Musk

Bio: Hey everyone. I'm a web developer and fantasy writer from Grand Rapids, MI.

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