The queen’s sister, Bryony, has been taken on trust, to join the royal party as it is returns to the Highlands of the Sun. But something is passing between her and King Kottir that could lead to regretable complications . . . Read on
“Could we not pass by Cloud Stone Isle?” I asked, as we prepared to leave East Bounds. I knew from Bregan’s saying that this river, First Water, flowed past there.
“Today,” Uissid Tizarn said, “is the Feast of Birds when such feast grounds are packed with people. They do not need to see a Uissid shining like Sauën. Maybe another day? Perhaps you might ride there? And you’ve pulled up that screen again.”
“It’s only while we’re so close to the Waters. Later, when I know my father isn’t near . . .”
“He isn’t near now,” Uissid Tizarn insisted. “I would feel him. We are like brothers.”
“Aye,” I said, “but you’d find him much changed since those Uissid-days. And no, I don’t ‘ride’. When have I ever had the chance to take horse-skills?”
“Then we must teach you,” he said, and sounded pleased that he might do so. “And then maybe King Kottir will take you there. On horse’s back.”
I looked at King Kottir. Again, our eyes caught. Again, my heart . . . ah, but I felt the heat in my face, certain I was fiercely blushing. I looked away.
He helped me climb into the cart. His hand held mine—hot, burning. He held it longer than was needed just to help to steady me while I climbed up. Then he told Uissid Tizarn that he’d take the cart. He preferred it, he said, to walking alongside it.
“Might I sit on the high seat beside you?” I asked. “I’d rather that. I’ve heard much about this land.” I didn’t mention Bregan as the one who’d told me, I didn’t want to use her name with him. “I would enjoy seeing.”
“I see no reason why not,” King Kottir said.
But Uissid Tizarn wouldn’t have it. “Better to keep her out of sight. The people might believe her the Queen. She looks too much like Bregan.”
“But you wanted the people to believe the Queen is still with me,” King Kottir answered him.
“True,” Uissid Tizarn agreed. “Aye. But Bryony has no swollen belly.”
“It’s beneath my cloak,” I said.
He looked at us, the two of us. He knew; he was no fool, he wasn’t blind. Yet what was there to know? I looked like Bregan and King Kottir was missing her, that’s all, no more. No more—except my heart beat fast and fluttered wildly and jumped just at the thought of him, and I could not deny my belly’s wanting him. In one foolish moment I imagined bedding him. Now let my father have some special purpose for me. For in that one coupling his purpose would be thwarted. The thought of that pleased me enormously. It amused me. Were it possible, might I bring this about? What had he said? “I want you untouched. Even by me.”
The journey to the Highlands took a full day. Despite Uissid Tizarn’s initial objection, I sat high upon the seat beside King Kottir. All day his thigh pressed hard against mine. And it was hot despite the coldness of the day. All day his arm pressed hard against mine. And that, too, was hot. All day we talked and we talked and we talked, and we laughed. But even before we had reached His Indwelling I was craving more of his touches. Even before we had forded First Water we were looking at each other and tasting lips that had not yet touched yet surely must. We both knew it.
Was I betraying my sister? I know I was betraying my father but that felt good. Let him cause me pain, let him pry inside my head and squeeze and burn my brain till there’s nothing left but a hard, charred stone. Let him do what he would to me, I still would want King Kottir’s touch. Besides, wasn’t it all my father’s fault. He should have had his way with me when it was my turn.
We journeyed westward, around the Wetlands, it being too wet at this season to cross them, then turned south. We passed Clan Bukplugn’s hold and for a while followed a stream. Now we almost were there, at the King’s First Hold.
King Kottir guided the oxen up a steep slope and onto the Highlands proper. The track here joined with another, this much wider, much better kept. We turned onto it southward and trundled home, our eyes blinded by Sauën as she sank behind the distant hills, leaving us to travel the rest of the distance in gathering darkness.
It was then, after a check behind us to see where was Truvidir Isbalen—no place to be seen—that King Kottir moved even closer to me. And turned his head to mine. And brought his lips closer. Closer. Closer. How sweet they tasted. Like honey. How soft they were. Like down-filled pillows. How hungry they did make me feel. He pulled away.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
I shook my head: I wasn’t sorry.
“It wasn’t you I kissed,” he said.
But I thought that it was.
“You . . . you are too alike,” he said.
“But we’re not,” I told him though I couldn’t continue and tell him why. Yet, unlike my sister, if I’d had this man beside me as my husband, and true to me, I wouldn’t have hungered for King Kailen. I’d have feasted—aye feasted, every day sacred feasted—upon his flesh. I would have devoured him. I never would have left him alone. I’d have kissed him from his toes up to his nose and his eyes and . . I’d have sat enrapt as he told me his stories as he had told me that day as we travelled along, and, aye, I had sat enrapt in listening to him. I’d have taken hold of his hands and led them to the places that needed his touch. I never would have done him wrong. But Bregan had. And now I must cover for her, and suffer, too.
Chief Truvidir Markenys was fluttering around like an injured bird by the time we arrived at the King’s Hold.
“Where have you been?” he said. “Everyone already here but you and Isbalen. I was about to send some men to look for you. King Kottir, you should know better. There are those who wouldn’t hesitate to kill you if they found you alone. What happened to the men who were supposed to guard you? I’ll have them whipped!”
“Hush up,” King Kottir told him. “I’m here and safe. I took a wrong turn somewhere west of the Highlands.”
So he had intended for us to be alone? That delighted.
“I’m giving Bryony the Queen’s Chamber,” Chief Truvidir Markenys said. “Queen Bregan never had the use of it preferring to . . .” he’d been about to say ‘preferring to bed with you’ but he’d thought better of it. It might be how he’d speak with others, but it wasn’t respectful to speak so to King Kottir.
King Kottir laughed at him.
Chief Truvidir Markenys turned to me. “That chamber hasn’t been used since Queen Yoisea moved out. I’ve had a woman go in and make sure all is properly ordered. You’ll be comfortable there.”
I shrugged, I didn’t care. I’d been all day travelling; I’d have slept anywhere.
“Let me show you,” he said, and began leading the way.
“I’ll show her,” King Kottir said. “You must be as tired as any.”
I was aware of what King Kottir was doing to Chief Truvidir Markenys—coercing, directing. It both amused and excited me. I wondered . . . .? I hadn’t dared to delve into King Kottir’s head. I didn’t want to see how much he cared for Bregan and how he ached for her. But also it was from respect of him, the same as I’d be with any other. My father delved, he probed inside heads all the time; we sisters didn’t like it. Yet, I was curious. Why was he trying to be rid of Chief Truvidir Markenys?—apart from the obvious, that Markenys was a most annoying man. And so I allowed my thoughts to enter his head. But barely. Briefly.
“I am not Bregan,” I told him at what I found.
By now he’d led me into the King’s House. Someone had lit a fire there. Its warmth and glow was welcome. But I was surprised by the size of the chamber.
“It’s mine,” he said, “the King’s. It’s for the feasts: the King’s Feasts. But sometimes guests sleep here. That big chair? That’s where I sit when I’m being King here. Come with me,” he said urgently, almost a whisper.
He led me around it, to where heavy weavings hung at the back of the chair. He pulled aside the central hanging. There was a door.
“The King’s Stores,” he said. “When I’m not here the Regiment keeps a guard on it. When I am here they stay outside and guard those outer doors. This . . .” he pulled aside another hanging, to the right of the first, and revealed a second door. “This is the King’s family’s chamber. That’s where I live with my wife. This . . .” he pulled aside a third hanging, to the left of the first. There was yet another door. “This is the Queen’s Chamber. While you’re here, this chamber is yours.”
I looked at the doors, how close they were. How one might pass from one chamber to the other yet remain hidden behind the curtains. King Kottir need not have shown me all this.
He pushed open the door and held it wide while I squeezed past him. He stole a kiss as I went by. He should not have done that; now I was all a’jitter. He closed the door behind us.
“I’ve never been in this chamber,” he said though he barely looked about it. He folded me into his arms. I had the briefest memory of being a child in my father’s cart and feeling safe because of the deep fur holding me.
He turned me around so I faced him.
“You don’t have to tell me that my wife isn’t true to me,” he said, pain plain in his eyes. “I know that. I’ve known it since before we were wed. But I’m a Brictan and so is she, and he is not. So he will die while I remain. She’s my Queen—Bryony, you understand this? And while we both live I am hers, and she is mine. But you . . .? You are something other.”
“I too am Brictan,” I said.
But he shook his head as if denying. “This hunger . . . you’re wrong, it’s not for her. It’s for you.”
And I, too, was hungry, and so we feasted. Nay, rather we gorged ourselves on each other’s flesh. Oh, but that night was over too soon—too soon. And yet by early morning’s light, so exhausted, we slept, me encircled in his arms, he holding me.
My thoughts, on waking, ran wild. They tumbled, stumbled, chased one another. They’d not be quiet. I would live six thousand years, so Bregan had told me. If I could but repeat what had just been on every night of those six thousand years, it would not be enough. I never could say ‘no more’ to him. I wanted more and more and more. Even eternity would not be enough.
But it wasn’t to be and, my father’s daughter, I knew it.
Passion, cohesive, divisive, now has claimed both sisters, both kings . . . and away to the East, King Ithen prepares to destroy King Kottir’s lands. And the more blood shed the better. It will fed his swords. And he’ll send the slain as gifts to Uät. Can it be prevented? Must this be the way the Empire ends? Next episode, The Rate of Exchange