This was a suicide mission.
Call him a skeptic, but he doubted he’d emerge from this alive – or at least not with all his limbs intact.
It was already debatable whether all his wits were intact.
Why had he agreed to this?
Because he was a sucker for a sob story, he answered himself. Because this was a damsel in distress and his mother had raised him right. Plus – and possibly more importantly – he needed the money. And he was the best qualified person to escort them across his lands – no one knew these mountains and gorges like he did. If anyone could get through this alive, it was him.
Who was he fooling?
He was as hopeless as a mouse going straight into a trap.
The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese, he recited to himself with a bitter sense of irony.
That was usually his motto – not only because it allowed him to be lazy and have others do the dirty work before he breezed in and took over, but because it urged caution and circumspection in dealing with the outside world, which had screwed him over more times than he cared to think of.
Well, now he could throw that motto out the window – or throw himself out of it because he would end up in the same state.
Was this mission really worth dying for?
He looked up at his gonfalons – drab and shabby things, even against the marvelous indigo sky, their emblems too oft mended and their colors drained of their former brilliance; the gonfalon closest even had a hole in a most unfortunate place on the bold knight portrayed on it.
With an inaudible sigh, Jonua looked around at his men.
Their uniforms were torn and faded, their armor dented, their limbs lean and powerful – not an ounce of fat on them; they were sheer muscle.
They were starving.
The horses hadn’t fared much better, well-trained and fiercely obedient but undernourished on the sparse grass of their mountain kingdom and driven too hard in the thin air.
If they survived it, this madness would feed them all for at least a year, affording Jonua the time to recover from the setbacks this bloodsucking world had dealt him one after the other since the day he was born.
He had no choice.
He was a fool to believe he’d ever had one. One did not say no to a king.
Standing next to her father, Sirra watched him come, him and his raggedy army – if a band of twenty men could be called something so lofty.
She could just make him out in the lead as they trudged up the steep slope where she waited. He was even gaunter than his impoverished men, though he possessed an unwavering resolution – so evident in his posture and lacking in theirs. His hair was an unexceptional brown color and straight, without even a hint of a curl, and hung in uneven strands to his shoulders. Knowing of his destitution, she could only guess that he cut it himself. That and the fact that there had been no women around to do it for him.
They had sent their women and children away this past winter – to villages on her father’s land. The haggard, poor, malnourished things had been accepted because everyone knew that winter in the mountains was harsh, and especially during this past one scarcity and privation had hit Lord Jonua’s lands hard.
It was obvious from looking at them that they’d made the right choice. The men had scarcely survived; if they’d had their women to take care of as well…
Sirra glanced at the proud, barrel-chested man standing beside her. “Father, are you sure you—”
“I would only slow him, Daughter,” Lord Irian gently cut her off. “My men are not trained for the rugged mountains you’ll be crossing in your journey to the king; they would be sitting ducks for any ambush. We have been through this before.”
Yes, they’d been through this before, but that didn’t mean she had to like it any more with repetition.
How can you leave Lord Jonua and his pitiful band to face the wolves alone, she deliberated silently. Though her father’s argument was sound – he would slow Lord Jonua down – Sirra couldn’t help but feel that anyone who escorted her on this journey wouldn’t make it out alive.
And she was probably right.
She knew she would survive. No one would harm her…or at least, not enough to kill her. They didn’t want to kill her…only those who protected her.
She straightened her spine as Lord Jonua and his men topped the ridge that divided their lands. It marked an abrupt change in landscape: from low and verdant pastures to rocky, hostile cliffs, as if the gods had cursed the land Lord Jonua lived on.
She could see him meet her father’s eye and nod cordially, a respectful, silent greeting from one lord to another. Then his eyes settled on her. Brown eyes, their color as unexceptional as his hair, but something about them arrested her for a moment, something about how they were grave and honorable and at the same time sardonic, as if he knew his days were numbered and accepted it with a sort of wry cynicism.
His mouth curved into a faint smile that deepened the hollows in his cheeks and emphasized the bleakness in his eyes.
I don’t want you to die, she thought. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
They said she wept jewels, shedding emeralds and other precious stones instead of tears.
As Jonua met her gaze, he decided that her appearance certainly didn’t live up to such an ambitious gift.
Not that she was ugly – by no means. She was rather passably pretty, and something about her solemn gray eyes and perfectly formed, unsmiling mouth caused something to shift inside him, and her hair – some indefinable shade between blond and brown and coiled in a crown of thick braids – inexplicably tempted him to unravel it and watch it tumble down her back.
He shook himself. He had no business thinking such thoughts. After all, he wasn’t here to marry her, but to get her to the king – in spite of the numerous ruthless lords who would be lying in wait in their path waiting to seize her themselves; and there would certainly be enough of those. After all, who wouldn’t want a girl who shed rubies, sapphires, diamonds and emeralds instead of tears?
It was why the king wanted her. He was notorious for extravagance and lavish spending, and his debts had finally caught up with him, the surrounding kingdoms demanding he pay their loans back at once.
Lady Sirra was an easy method of enriching one’s coffers: all you had to do was make her cry.
Jonua almost felt sorry for her. While on her father’s land she had been fairly safe, since it was fertile, its people fed well and its soldiers as a result strong enough to fend off invading armies of neighboring lords intent on seizing the lady gem-maker for their own. But then the king’s request had arrived and Lord Irian had clearly had no choice but to surrender his daughter to his liege. Lord Irian’s message to Jonua had been simple but persuasive. An inordinate sum as reward if Jonua delivered Lady Sirra safely to the king…and safely back home, although Jonua thought Lord Irian was sadly fooling himself if he thought the king would ever let such a treasure as Sirra go once he got his covetous paws on her. She was a bottomless source of fortune – literally.
He was wasting time with these worthless musings. None of it would save him.
Dismounting, he greeted the daughter first as protocol required, gifting her with one of his rare smiles, which she didn’t return. Unfazed, he took her hand – and a thunderbolt shot through him – he had no other word to describe the lightning streaking through his entire being and the resounding shuddering that shook the foundations of his soul. Catching sight of her equally stunned expression, he guessed the feeling was mutual.
Shaken, he nonetheless bowed over her trembling hand and pressed a soft kiss to it, the small touch making him unaccountably giddy as if he’d won a prize after a long, grueling tourney. How bizarre!
He straightened and looked down into her gray eyes, realizing they weren’t gray at all, but hazel. Another mediocrity, and yet he felt as if he could stare into them for ages and never get bored. She still didn’t smile, but her lips had parted just slightly in confusion and for an insane moment Jonua found himself longing to—
Lord Irian cleared his throat and Jonua guiltily dropped Lady Sirra’s hand and hastily retreated a pace.
“Well met, Lord Irian,” Jonua saluted him, his voice oddly hoarse and his cheeks oddly hot. Was he blushing?
Lord Irian grunted. “Don’t be sarcastic, son. I know it must gall you – this deadly trek and your infinitesimal chance of survival – but know I sincerely wish you success.”
Jonua had nothing to say to that. What he’d like to do was send Lord Irian and his well-wishes straight to—
The lord unexpectedly dragged Jonua close – too close, as Jonua could smell the trout Lord Irian had recently eaten.
“Seduce my daughter only as a last resort, son,” Lord Irian muttered. “But if circumstances require it, then have at it.”
Still clutching the hand Lord Jonua had kissed, her skin inexplicably tingling from the touch of his lips, Sirra watched her father haul Lord Jonua into a small confidence and wondered what he’d said that had made the younger man’s eyes widen and had brought on a fit of shocked coughing. Good hollows, even the man’s ears had turned red.
Not that she would ever find out. Her father was a master at making her feel like a fifth wheel when he discussed arrangements for anything, especially if it related to her well-being. Her presence was unnecessary and, moreover, unwanted.
She knew he didn’t exclude her out of cruelty – in fact, he saw it as a kindness: he only wanted her to feel safe, sheltered and protected and never to worry a day in her life. He longed to shield her from the constant danger she lived in, as if she wouldn’t think it existed just because she didn’t see what he was doing about it.
He never stopped to think that perhaps she wanted to know what was going on around her, that perhaps not knowing and imagining her own scenarios was worse than the truth.
Her father’s groom was bringing her mare and Lord Jonua protested, calling forth an ill-tempered, snorting brute from his own ranks. Her father relented with alarming submissiveness and withdrew with her mare while Lord Jonua strode over to her, leading the vile-spirited beast. It started rolling its eyes, yanking at the bit and rearing as they approached, its forelegs slashing through the air, but once it got close enough to smell her, its behavior abruptly changed. It quieted, stopped pulling against the reins and lowered its head to sniff at her experimentally, then gently prodded her shoulder and whinnied softly.
“What—” Sirra began, confused.
Jonua shrugged. “Unsolved mystery. Can’t stand men, but loves women. And he’s a fast bastard, which’ll come in useful when…”
He trailed off but Sirra could complete his sentence for him.
When they come for us.
She couldn’t look him in his desolate brown eyes. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Though I know it’s so pathetically inadequate.
Avoiding Lord Jonua’s knowing gaze, she tentatively reached a hand up to stroke the horse’s neck and could have wept at the love and trust she read in the animal’s warm gaze as it nudged her with its nose.
I’ve doomed you, too. I wish I could…
But what do you say to a creature that is going to its death because of you? Sorry was so laughably insufficient, and there was nothing she could promise that would outweigh what was coming.
Lord Jonua stepped close…too close.
“We should leave,” he murmured apologetically. “Say your farewells—”
“I’ve none to say,” she interrupted him firmly, her voice steady. She held his unnervingly steady gaze for a moment, then he nodded and caught her around the waist. For a jarring instant his eyes locked with hers and he froze while she seemed to be leaning toward him, wanting nothing more than to be enfolded in his reassuring embrace—
Madness. How could he reassure her?
It’s alright, I’m quite willing to die for you.
Ha! What man would be so stupid? She jerked back slightly, and as if that were some sort of signal, he recovered from whatever reluctance had made him falter and lifted her into the saddle.
She watched him spin around and cross to his own horse, mounting smoothly and returning to her so he could appropriate her reins and maneuver her along with him into the center of his raggedy band. The entire group set off at a rapid pace.
Sirra could feel her father’s eyes on her as they navigated the steep downward slope.
She didn’t look back.
Jonua peered around as they descended, though it was a futile endeavor. It was unlikely they would run into trouble here – the terrain was too treacherous and organizing an ambush nearly impossible.
Even so, filing along the ledge two by two made him tense and nervous, especially as he wasn’t fond of heights and his courtier’s manners had prompted him to position Lady Sirra on the safer half next to the cliff face while he took the side with the steep plummet into certain death.
To distract himself, he studied Lady Sirra’s pale, drawn countenance, finding himself more than content to do so despite the obvious anxiety straining her features. Her pallor didn’t seem natural, but engendered by the same guilt and remorse that curled her in on herself and caused her lovely lips to thin with grief.
The part of him that had wanted to blame her for this mess quietly died.
“Is it hard, living with your gift?” He was surprised to hear himself speak, but once the question was spoken he found himself unwilling to let it go.
She cocked her head toward him, her hazel eyes appearing gray once more and measuring him somberly. “I call it a curse,” she stated quietly.
Jonua thought she would leave it at that, but as if the words had been pent up too long, she continued.
“My nursemaids used to pinch me and tuck away the jewels for their families. My tutors extracted vicious punishments for minor infractions so they could steal a few gems for their pension. My personal servants try to suffocate me when dressing me so I spill a few jewels that they can give to their beaus. Even my father’s guards will trip me when he’s not looking or let a pike slip and tap me a bit too hard on the head.”
Jonua’s eyes bulged out. “It’s a miracle you’re still alive.”
Her perfect mouth twisted into a small, tight grimace. “Oh, they would never risk killing me. Too much at stake, you see.”
Jonua’s jaw worked. “Your father allows this abuse?”
She looked away and he had to strain to catch her words they were so soft.
“He encourages it.” She turned back around. “The reprimands for injuring me are too weak to outweigh the benefits of taking the risk. If they are caught, they receive three lashes and it is my father who seizes the stones and reaps the rewards.” She looked down and plucked at the reins. “Not all his wealth stems from good crop turnovers or fancy weaving.”
“Is there no way for you to escape? Have you never thought of marriage?”
A short, caustic laugh escaped her. “I’ve never found a man who could resist the temptation to make me cry.”
“Not a one, in all the 49 kingdoms?”
A bitter smile fleetingly graced her lips, beautiful even in its sorrow. “There was one…only one who I briefly believed cared more for me than for my…curse.”
Jonua’s chest tightened inexplicably. Jealousy? Absurd. “His name?” he ground his teeth as he asked the question and his voice came out deadly, causing the men in front of him to tense in fear. They recognized that tone of voice and knew to be wary of it.
“Tiruan Trionti,” she replied.
The tension left Jonua in a heady rush. “I know of him. You made a lucky escape there. He’ll cause his wife never-ending grief. Even among the male population he’s known as Sir ‘Love thy neighbor, but don’t get caught.’”
The briefest smile curved her mouth, this one a rare expression of pleasure, and Jonua found himself staring at her lips again, willing that fleeting smile back into existence.
“Why have you never married?” she inquired, angling her grave hazel eyes toward him.
It was his turn to laugh. “Who would marry me? A penniless bloke with a crumbling castle in a barren wasteland that kills rather than nurtures?”
She released a nearly inaudible sigh and shook her head. “Such a pity. Women are so materialistic these days.”
“Men, too,” he added, thinking of her father and her father’s dastardly guards. What kind of bastard would even tap a woman with a pike?
She glanced at him contemplatively. “You as well?”
He pressed his lips together grimly. “I’ve more important things to worry about than pretty stones and baubles.”
Sirra almost believed him, despite the evidence she’d seen in her lifetime that no one was immune to the magic mesmerism of precious stones.
He turned his attention to the terrain, since they’d reached the bottom of the cliff and were traversing a deep gorge lined by fallen boulders that could provide excellent cover for any unscrupulous lord preparing to pounce.
Surely they wouldn’t attack so soon? So close to her father’s borders?
But there was an unmistakable tension in Lord Jonua’s men…and in him.
Then, as if he’d communicated a silent order, his men lifted their shields in place as one just as warriors began pouring from behind the boulders, maces, axes and pikes already swinging in deadly arcs through the air.
The place was instantly a bloody battleground. Jonua drew his sword and joined the fray, blade swinging in one hand, a dagger in the other that he flung into the thickest of the battle.
Sirra could only stare at the ferocity of Jonua and his men, their movements swift, spare and lethal, no elegant flourishes, only brutal blows bearing no mercy, leaving split skulls and spewing blood in their wake.
She hunched over her saddle and vomited, then closed her eyes, clutched the saddle horn as if it were her salvation in a crumbling world and prayed for it all to be over. The screams of dying men and horses, the shouts of fear, the howls of triumph, the clanging of metal meeting metal resounded stridently in her ears.
Please let it stop, she begged. And yet it went on, and on, and on. She started imagining herself being the only one left alive, Lord Jonua and his men lying around her, dead, their glassy eyes staring, and beyond that, their decapitated, dismembered enemies…
I beg you, Lord Jonua, don’t die, she murmured like a litany to herself. Don’t leave me to the mercy of others who do not even pretend to spurn gems as you do. I beg you, live, live, live…
Then – was it possible? – the sounds – the screams, the shouts, the clanging – seemed to lessen…and then stilled completely.
Who had won? Was she to fall into another’s hands this soon in the game? Terrified that Lord Jonua might have failed, she refused to budge, refused even to crack her eyes a bit…like a child pretending reality would stay the same if only he refused to look at the new one.
“Sirra…ehm, Lady Sirra, are you alright?”
Was it possible?
Her eyes flew open and she saw him standing by her horse, spattered with blood, his sword still clenched in his blood smeared hand.
Witless with relief, she slid off the horse straight into his arms and his sword dropped, forgotten, as she buried her head in his chest and sobbed uncontrollably – but silently, always silently, even now too aware of those wanting to profit from her suffering.
A sapphire, a diamond and two emeralds tumbled from her cheeks against his chest, rolling to the ground. Jonua kicked the dust up to bury the jewels and set his foot firmly over them, but it was too late. She heard his men start to mutter among themselves. That jerked her back to reality.
Forcing herself to stop, she pulled back and flushed with mortification as she realized what she’d done. She never lost control. She was always cool and collected.
Lord Jonua leveled her with penetrating eyes that saw too much. “Even grown men cry after their first battle,” he said softly, then lifted her back into the saddle, retrieved his discarded sword and stalked over to his mount.
Sirra noticed with a sinking sensation that several of his men bent to dig her jewels out of the dirt before they mounted, shoving one another aside and nearly coming to blows when one of them got two.
She tried to ignore the looks the rest of them gave her.
The looks that said, When will you cry again, lady?
Jonua felt the change in his men almost instantly and wished Sirra hadn’t cried…even though when she’d fallen into his arms was a moment he would never forget, even if by some farcical, insane fluke he lived to be a hundred. When he’d wrapped his arms around her shoulders, it had been as if she belonged there and he’d experienced such a rush of protectiveness that he knew he would fight to protect her with his last breath.
And it might well come to that, because the following days were fraught with danger. It was one ambush after the other, even at night. He and his men were battered and wounded and exhausted from lack of sleep, and his men were beginning to wonder why they were risking their lives for a woman who could so easily reward them and yet adamantly refused to weep. Even though her father was paying them generously for risking their necks, they believed payment from her was their due, as well, just because she was capable of it.
But Jonua knew that she could not shed fake tears. Like a man possessed, he took any chance he could to talk to her and she explained that she had often tried to force herself to cry in order to preclude the inevitable pain others would cause her, but only true suffering could produce the tears so many craved.
After that first battle, she had remained serene and composed through everything, merely closing her eyes and pressing her palms flat against her ears during every conflict. Jonua fought not only to keep her with him and to keep her from falling into the hands of the ruthless, immoral lords trying to seize her, but also for the moment when he could limp up to her after the battle, touch her wrist, feel the shock of awareness that made him feel so alive, and look up to meet her wondrous hazel eyes so he could see the immense relief and joy that flared too briefly in her solemn gaze.
Despite his men’s skill, they’d lost five men by the time they could veer from the gorges and enter the hostile mountains where the ambushes would trickle to nothing.
This was the part that should have brought him some relief, a much-needed break from incessant vigilance…but Jonua was quickly coming to realize that this was becoming the most dangerous part, the trickiest to traverse, because without the constant distraction of watching for attack, his men had more time to think of Sirra and the fortune she could provide.
Each day that passed brought louder grumbles, more venomous glares, shorter tempers, more fights.
Only their respect for Jonua kept them in line.
They were setting up camp one evening when Rhine, his tracker, approached him, looking grimmer than usual.
“Think there’s someone lurking out there,” he informed Jonua in a low voice. “Found some signs.”
Jonua grimaced. “Some crazy lord intent on suicide? Doesn’t he know—”
“Not a lord. An assassin. A good one. I nearly missed his marks.”
Jonua’s blood froze in his veins. An assassin could kill them all – the guards, every single one of his men, even Jonua himself, without anyone waking. His throat would be slit and his blood would be pouring out as the assassin spirited Sirra away to someone quite willing to torture her for her tears.
They would have to find the assassin and kill him, meaning silence was of utmost importance…and Jonua and Rhine were the only ones who had a chance of approaching him unobserved. The only ones who had a chance of killing him before he killed them.
Jonua nodded once and cast what he hoped was a reassuring glance at Sirra.
“I’ll be back soon,” he mouthed.
Please don’t let that be a lie, he prayed.
Sirra’s heart sank to her stomach as she watched Jonua follow his tracker from the camp.
He was the only thing that stood between her and his men.
Only something important could have drawn him away, she told herself. Stop being such a ninny.
Inhaling deeply, she fought for an ounce of serenity even as she saw Jonua’s grinning men rising from where they sat.
She pretended she didn’t see them gathering around her, even though her breath came in difficult little spurts.
Nothing is wrong. Jonua will be back before you know it.
It was so easy to lie to oneself and yet, ironically, impossible to believe it.
“Come on, lady. Cry for us,” one urged her, nudging her none too gently in the shoulder.
She caught herself on the edge of the rock she sat on and stared stonily ahead.
Jonua, come back.
“Got me a sick wife and six babes. You gonna let ‘em starve, lady?” another put in, bending over to thrust his bearded, irate face into hers. A gust of rotten breath puffed across her cheeks.
She averted her head, breathing through her mouth.
Someone grabbed her arm, hauling her to her feet. She futilely tried to dislodge his grip.
“My sweetheart left me for a man livin’ on your father’s land. Said I cain’t give her a good life. A few gems would win her back right quick. Come now, lady, weep for us.”
“No,” she refused in a firm, dignified voice. She would not give them the satisfaction of bullying her. Her father was paying them. Let that be enough.
The man holding her shook her until her teeth clacked. “You think we’re not worth your tears, lady? Think we’re worthless curs not good enough to lick your feet?”
“You are certainly acting like curs now,” she declared coldly.
Someone backhanded her.
She flew into the dirt and someone fell to his knees beside her to brush his hand frantically against the ground, then sat back, disappointed. “Nothing,” he uttered to the others. “Not a drop.”
She glared up at them, dry-eyed, nearly daring them to try and make her cry.
Someone dragged her up again. Another fist struck her down.
Anger kept her from tears and she bit her lip against the pain. Another two men went sifting like dogs through the dirt.
“Nothing,” they muttered to the others, and Sirra felt a momentary rush of victory as she met their blatantly hostile glowers. She would not let them make her weep. Too many in her life had subjected her to torments in hopes that she would cry them a fortune, and to some extent, she had become inured to pain and was resolved not to give in.
This time she climbed to her feet by herself, feeling her face throb where they’d struck her. “I will not give you what you want,” she vowed softly. “You will have to kill me first.”
One of Jonua’s largest men stepped forth. “It may well come to that, lady, but not until we’ve got our pockets filled.” He bent close to catch her chin. “And you should know now that not a one of us will mourn your demise.”
“Then have at it,” she challenged him fiercely – and foolishly.
She would not cave. She would not relent. She would not cry.
But these men weren’t pampered servants or doughy aristocrats or even well-fed palace guards, but hardened warriors molded by a harsh land and rendered nearly inhuman by bitterness and loss. They knew forms of torture she could never have imagined.
In moments she felt the jewels tumbling down her cheeks and wished she were already dead.
Jonua realized something wasn’t right when he noticed there was something shifty about Rhine’s demeanor and he didn’t seem to be paying much attention to where he was going.
It was enough to make him stop.
Rhine’s look as he glanced at his lord confirmed it.
Guilt. Just a bit of fear.
“There is no assassin, is there,” Jonua stated, very quietly, then spun around.
Rhine stepped in front of Jonua and the sibilant hiss of his sword sliding from its scabbard rent the silence of the rocky terrain around them.
“I can’t allow you to go back, my lord,” he stated apologetically.
“You bastard,” snarled Jonua and lunged before his sword was even fully unsheathed.
The fight was short and furious – and Jonua left his tracker bleeding to death on the ground. He ran as he’d never run before in his life, bursting into the camp to see his men clustered around her, shouting and calling encouragement. Some were on the ground crawling around gathering up what he knew must be jewels.
“What are you doing?” he snarled, shoving them away from her and pulling her against him, his vision going red when he saw the blood running down her temples and nose. He turned to his men, shaking with rage, wanting to lash them all within an inch of their life. “What have you become that you make a woman suffer for – worthless stones?” Disgusted, he kicked several of the fallen jewels into the campfire.
A few of his men leapt forward to try to dig the stones from the flames, jerking back when the licking tendrils burned them.
“Get some food ready,” he ordered irately. “And bring me some water.”
Turning his back on them, fully aware that one might try to stab him in the back, he wrapped his arm around Sirra and led her over to a rock, sitting her on it and accepting the water pouch someone handed him. Bending over, he carefully washed the blood from her face, amazed at how calm she seemed to be. Anger raged through his veins. How could they – his own men, men he had trained and men who had trained him, men he had trusted and respected – how could they have done this?
He didn’t insult her by asking if she was alright. Peering into her hazel eyes – eyes that had seen too much pain – he merely said, “I’m sorry.”
She smiled – a smile he found infinitely heartbreaking. “Ironic. I wanted to say the same thing to you.”
He stared at her, uncomprehending.
“You have lost men in the battles to save me,” she pointed out. “And now I’ve caused a rift between you and them.”
“It was their choice to raise their hands against you,” Jonua asserted in a voice full of contempt and fury, wanting to spit on them, or crack their necks. “It’s a choice I can never forgive them for.”
“It is a rare man indeed who does not fall prey to the desire for riches and security. It is a desire that can blacken even the purest of hearts.”
“You’re more forgiving than I am, then.”
“No. Just more experienced.” She glanced surreptitiously at his men, who had congregated on the other side of the fire like a gang of conspirators. “I’ve seen the sweetest become the vilest, and the sickness does not leave them until they’re taken from temptation.”
Jonua glanced over at his men. Restless, staring, plotting.
They were getting ugly. The entire party was starting to reek of mutiny.
It was only a matter of time before their greed won out.
And that time was running out.
Sirra woke that night with Jonua hovering over her.
“Peace,” he murmured, “I mean you no harm.”
“Get up as soundlessly as you can,” he instructed quietly, “We’re leaving.”
“Leaving? Has someone—”
“We go alone, you and I.”
A silence. Then: “Without your men?”
A soft, scathing rasp of a laugh. “My men? They are no longer loyal to me, but pay obeisance to their own avarice.”
“But won’t your tracker find us?” She hadn’t seen him return with Jonua, but perhaps he had come back after she’d gone to sleep.
“No. He’ll not find us.”
And though he didn’t say it, she almost heard him think, He won’t track anything ever again.
“Come.” He gently took her arm and helped her to her feet, gathering up her cape and draping it around her shoulders before leading her into the misty night.
They stepped over his slumbering men and she marveled that they didn’t wake.
“Sleeping potion,” Jonua murmured in her ear. “But even so, best not to tempt fate.”
And so they left the camp silently and began an eerie trek through the foggy night. A heavy white shroud encompassed them, making it impossible for Sirra to see further than her outstretched arm. Jonua had only to take two steps away and he would be lost in the mist.
She pressed closer to him as damp tendrils of hair swung softly across her cheeks and his arm slid around with the ease of one who felt he had a right to it. Sirra looked up at him.
He was so beautiful. She couldn’t get out of her head the way he’d pushed through his men and how he’d spurned the jewels that she’d shed. Jewels she knew he so desperately needed.
Perhaps he had been right when he said he cared naught for shiny baubles.
And now he’d left his men behind and was spiriting her off into the night alone, risking his life to keep his men from hurting her again, because she was sure they would follow, and if they found them, it would pit the lord against his men.
“Where are we going?” she whispered, unwilling to break the pall of silence settling around them.
“Blicken’s Peak. No one will find us there…or almost no one.”
She didn’t question his words and stumbled alongside him through the night, reveling in his nearness and the warmth of his body. She had probably never been in greater danger than she was now, with the king surely getting impatient for her arrival, the thwarted lords trying to find new places to ambush them and Jonua’s own men turning on them, but never had she felt so safe. She almost wished she and Jonua could vanish into the mountains…though she knew that would be suicide come winter.
And she could never ask him to walk away from his responsibility to his people.
Even so, when they finally reached the peak and he wrapped her in his cape, lying down close behind her to keep her warm, she pretended that they’d eloped and left the world and its evil greed far behind.
Jonua watched her as she slept. Her hazel eyes closed, her somber mouth relaxed and almost curved in a smile. He’d seen her smile so rarely that he wished he were an artist so he could capture it forever on canvas.
She didn’t know it, but he’d been having his men circle back around for a week now, unable to bring himself to deliver her to the king. They should have arrived last week and the king would be suspicious, wondering if Jonua hadn’t absconded with his treasure.
Jonua nearly laughed at the thought. Who would have even thought that he was thinking of doing just that? But not because he desired her jeweled tears, but because he desired her.
He loved her.
He couldn’t bear the thought of surrendering her to the king, especially now that he’d seen what his own men – men he had never seen be cruel before – were capable of when temptation warped their minds. The king was a harsh man and not always a fair one or a patient one. He would have no qualms at torturing Sirra to get the riches he wanted from her. And Sirra, determined, brave Sirra, would endure until she broke.
Jonua was tempted just to take her and disappear with her. They could disguise themselves, slink off into oblivion, find a nice cottage in the middle of the forest in one of the fertile lands…
And throw his own lands into chaos. Make themselves the brunt of the king’s wrath. Be hunted for the rest of their lives.
Was it worth it?
Yes, he answered himself unwaveringly, unhesitatingly.
But how could he subject Sirra to such a life? She deserved better.
He pressed himself closer to her, inhaling her scent, savoring the feel of her in his arms and the giddiness flowing in his veins, holding her as if tomorrow might take everything away.
“Sirra, wake up! It’s the king. He’s found us.”
Sirra’s eyes flew open to meet Jonua’s wondrous brown eyes, now desolate and remorseful. She fought to clear her sleep-muddled mind. Hadn’t he said…
“I thought you said no one could find us here?”
He gave a small, rueful shrug and a cynical smile. “Almost no one. But my cousin has evidently betrayed me and become the king’s tracker, because they’ve definitely found us.”
Sirra looked around at the empty cave questioningly and he laughed softly, but there was a lingering, acerbic trace of bitterness in it. “They’re coming up the mountain still.”
Climbing to her feet and wrapping her cape tightly around her, Sirra walked over to the cliff edge, peering down at the small group of armored men and horses filing along the treacherous ledge. If she squinted, she could see the glint of sunlight on the gold crown of the rider in front.
“How much time do we have?” she asked, her features composed and her words calm. Panicking had never served her well.
“Two, three hours at the most.”
“Is there no way out of here where they won’t catch us?”
He hesitated. “Yes, but they’ll pass our camp and know we were here recently. They’ll know we saw them and recognized them. Our fleeing now would signify open rebellion against the king.”
Which meant, Sirra knew, that Jonua would lose his lands – the lands he had nearly died to make prosper. It would make him a fugitive on the run from his liege’s wrath, a fox hounded from its den and persecuted the remainder of its days.
His face hardened and he bent down to start gathering together their bedding and supplies. Sirra’s hand on his shoulder halted him in his tracks.
“It’s not worth it,” she stated softly. “I’m not worth it.”
He discarded the bedding to step close and take her face between her hands. “To me you are worth losing it all—”
“There is a way to break the curse,” she broke in softly. “Then I will be useless to the king.”
“Tell me how,” he rasped.
“Make love to me,” she whispered.
Not a trace of hesitation or regret shone in his brown eyes, only fierce gratification and anticipation. His head was already lowering for the first kiss.
Afterwards Jonua lay half in shock, half in bliss. He’d never imagined it could be so…
No words came to mind to express it. He and Sirra had entered into a state of ecstasy mingled with what he could only describe as advanced harmony – some kind of superior uniting of the souls, as if everything inside them was in perfect accord…and would be in perfect accord forever.
If only this haven could close itself against the king, the world, and its greed and shelter them forever, Jonua thought he might be happy.
But that was the coward’s way out. He must face what he had done. Must face the king and admit openly that he had destroyed Sirra’s curse…gift, he corrected himself. The king considered it a gift and would not be happy that Jonua had spoiled it.
But Jonua would never regret it. He smiled at her as she lay on her side facing him and she smiled back, a radiant, brilliant smile that struck him to his core. She reached out a hand and brushed back his straight, unruly hair.
“Do you think it worked?” she asked, making Jonua choke.
“Something certainly worked,” he joked.
Sighing happily, she flipped over onto her back. “Such a lovely way to break a curse, wasn’t it? I should have done this long ago.”
Jonua choked with laughter. “Did you ever consider that maybe other men aren’t as skilful at breaking curses as I am?”
She laughed, a carefree, joyous sound that made Jonua realize with a tightening of his heart that she’d completely forgotten about the king.
“Don’t be foolish. I would have searched the world for one such as you – one who would kick my jewels into the fire without a blink of regret!” she cried out delighted to the ceiling. “And if you’d run, I would have hunted you down like a dog,” she decided, sliding her hazel eyes toward him and smiling mischievously.
He dropped a kiss on her irresistible lips, intending it to be a short one but too aroused to let it stay short. And only after breaking her curse a second time (“just to be safe and make sure it worked” he had informed her in a sage tone that had elicited another round of her rare laughter), he finally made himself stand up and help her dress before they would have to stand before their sovereign and explain how they’d doomed him to ruin.
They met the king standing side by side, Jonua’s arm firmly round Sirra’s shoulders and both their heads lifted defiantly.
Catching sight of the king’s formidable face and stature for the first time, Sirra pressed herself closer to Jonua. He was dark and menacing, a bearded giant with a bad temper and debts he needed to pay.
The king took in the tender scene with a thunderous glower. Nodding to his men, he pointed at Jonua.
Jonua didn’t move, didn’t fight, but Sirra did. Screaming, she flew at the soldiers, biting and clawing tooth and nail, but another two stepped forth and detained her.
Eyeing her with interest, the king began a slow circle of her. She felt his gaze travel insultingly up and down her entire body.
“Hardly an impressive package for such an extraordinary gift,” he remarked with a faint curl of his lip. “In fact, you’re distressingly ordinary, my dear.”
“And you’re distressingly poor, my king,” she shot back angrily.
Her head snapped back from the force of his strike, but Sirra straightened again to look him straight in his terrifying visage. She remained stubbornly dry-eyed.
“I see you’ve become accustomed to…pain,” the king drew the word out as if savoring the taste of it.
“Let Jonua go,” Sirra commanded, her voice shaking with rage.
“Jonua, is it?” the king didn’t even spare a glance at him, merely ordered, “Kill him.”
“No!” Sirra ripped her arms from the guards holding her and threw herself at the king’s feet, kissing them profusely as her shoulders shook with heart-wrenching sobs. “No! Please, sire, I beg you on bended knee! Please spare him!” She felt dampness on her cheeks, surprised at the unusual sensation.
The king’s hand dug into her hair and dragged it back. She could feel the tears streaming down her cheeks and dripping off her jaw while the king looked down at her strangely. He reached down a hand and wiped away a tear.
A tear, not a jewel.
“You must love him indeed to have thrown away such a gift,” he said roughly, wiping his finger on his tunic as if he found her tear loathsome.
A gift? She nearly laughed caustically but stopped herself in time. “I do,” she responded simply. “I love him more than my own life. If you must spill blood, spill mine.”
“No!” Jonua yelled and struggled so fiercely against his detainers that two more stepped in to subdue him. “Kill me!” he pleaded. “I beg you, sire, spare her.”
The king untangled his hand from Sirra’s hair and shoved her to the ground. Glancing over at Jonua, he shook his head. “I cannot kill you – who else would rule these despicable badlands? You will live.”
“But you just ordered your men—”
The king waved him to silence and jerked a disdainful chin at where Sirra was climbing unsteadily to her feet. “How else was I to make her cry so quickly?”
Jonua fell silent, his face pale and despairing.
“She is useless to me now…but I will not anger her father by sentencing her to the death she deserves. I’ve no desire to turn a rich ally into a foe – and war is so damnably costly.” He turned to Sirra and she trembled inwardly at the coldness emanating from his demeanor. “You have made your choice, Lady Sirra, and you will live and die by it. As punishment, you will never return to your father’s prosperous lands. You will live out your life by Lord Jonua’s side in this barren wasteland. If you step foot off his lands, my men will know of it and you will not escape so easily next time.”
“Easy?” Jonua exploded. “Sire, the winters here—”
“As I have decreed,” the king interrupted him curtly, “so it shall be.”
And he motioned to his men, who released Jonua, shoved him to the rocky ground, and returned to their mounts.
Sirra raced to his side and threw herself into his arms before he’d even fully climbed to his feet. “Jonua, my love, my life!” she rained kisses across his beloved face. “We’re free! We’re finally free!”
Jonua hadn’t the heart to tell her that her choice would be her death. The king had withdrawn any sporadic support he might have previously offered and forbade Lord Irian to pay Jonua a single shilling at risk of confiscation of his lands and exile. Jonua had no money to buy any food stores or supplies for the coming winter, or to pay for men to man the mines to try to wreak out some income from the sale of silver, gold and diamonds, no money to pay for men to hunt the mountain goats for milk or stringy, tasteless meat, no money to pay for those to care for the scarce pastureland and the sheep and cows that grazed there, no money even to repair the shelters for those cows and sheep, meaning they would likely not last the winter, either.
This winter might well be the one to kill them all.
And Sirra, unused to such hardship, pampered and coddled and protected, would suffer the crippling destitution alongside him.
And so his exultation at having won her and saved her from the curse that had made her the target of so much torment was tempered with the bittersweet certainty that their days of happiness were numbered.
She couldn’t have chosen a worse savior than him, and yet he knew he would never be able to convince her of it. She loved him more deeply than he could ever have imagined had he not experienced it himself. After they had rejoined his men and he’d forced them to apologize to her, she forgave them. When they arrived at his crumbling castle, she was enchanted with its towers and raggedy pennants. She loved his mangy cats, his threadbare blankets, his holey canopies, his surly servants, the way his doors were all half hanging off their hinges and the shutters wouldn’t stay latched but slapped and banged in the night like eerie ghosts – she loved everything about his home, and everyone slowly began to love her back. Yes, she had come from a land of plenty and yes, she had destroyed the gift that would have magically lifted them from their poverty, but she was now one of them, here to stay and share in their misery.
The only thing she had trouble with was the cook’s awful culinary creations – not that the man had much to work with in regard to quality ingredients – but Jonua had to promise Sirra that he’d find another cook even though he despaired of being able to lure anyone even remotely talented to this isolated mountain fortress and feared he might have to start cooking himself to please her.
Then one day she called him into their chamber, her face aglow and, although she was thinner, her entire body was taut with some sort of potent elation. He’d never seen her so girlishly giggly – fairly glowing with bliss, and it struck him anew how dearly he loved her.
He couldn’t believe this extraordinary creature belonged to him.
“Jonua, you’re going to love this! This is simply rich!” she cried. “You won’t believe it. Your terrible cook sent up another god-awful meal—”
“I can believe that,” he put in dryly.
She laughed and he couldn’t help but stare. How had he ever thought her merely pretty? She was exquisitely beautiful.
“Not that. This time he sent up something particularly odious – it was abominable!”
She was in such a good mood because his cook’s debatable talents had degenerated? Did this mean he could call off the impossible search for a new one?
“It was so dreadful that I spit it out. Watch this!” And she spat – only instead of spittle, an emerald, a ruby and a sapphire came tumbling off her tongue.
When Jonua straightened his spine and stared agape, she spat again, this time expunging two diamonds, catching them and holding them out to him. He glanced at them then looked back into her lovely, captivating face – how could jewels compare to her?
Laughing gaily, she tossed the diamonds into the air. They hung a moment, glittering and suspended in a sunbeam. “And no one must know about this but us because a lady never, ever spits in public!” Sirra beamed and kissed Jonua’s incredulous face. “Jonua love, don’t you understand?” She took his shoulders and shook him. “I think your money problems are over!”
Sonya Lano |
This was a suicide mission.