Chapter 5: The Second and Third Lands
Tanata rose early most mornings, except on the rare annual holidays he’d always been granted leave for. He’d been trained in the Guard since he was a young boy, newly arrived from the mountains. One didn’t laze around in bed or in the courtyard. Too young to fight, there were errands to run, messages to carry, armor and weapons to polish and care for. Too old to scramble about, there was training and light duty shifts until the day there was the strength to stand in the Guard.
He tried not to think about the night ahead of him, even knowing that this gentle reprieve in the mornings when he could remain in his old life, would soon be gone. Right now, he still looked like a bodyguard with his dark fitted leather armor and short hair cut same as anyone else. People hadn’t seen him hold audiences, nor stand in the Court of the Heart, so they did not know his change in station.
He breathed deep of the morning breezes, in, out, hoping for serenity to return to his steps within his chosen duty as it always had.
That’s where Nirune found him, studying him with an intensity that made Tanata think of the sun beating down from the sky, inescapable and palpable. He was all angles and sharp lines, sturdy where Sahasarel was fine-featured, hair longer than Tanata’s but short in the manner of those of the middle lands. With his quiet manner, he should have been invisible; instead he stood out for reasons inexplicable.
“Come, spar,” Tanata said, in lieu of a proper greeting.
It was easier than asking Nirune what it was he saw when he studied them so closely, saying nothing at all. It was easy to understand Caedros, who radiated grief and anger in the wake of the loss of his line. It was easier still to understand Sahasarel who had been so sheltered in the hope of shepherding him alive to this day that he resembled nothing more than an eager young recruit, blind to the pain waiting in the life ahead.
Nirune was silent yet present in a way that didn’t quite speak of the watchfulness of the Guard or of holding vigil, and Tanata did not find understanding nearly so simple.
Nirune looked at him for a moment, seeming almost puzzled, then took up a training sword from its place among the equipment and breathed in properly as if he’d been trained to this from his thirtieth season or sooner. Perhaps he had.
His stance was solid and when Tanata circled him warily, Nirune moved with him.
They sparred. It was a revelation, that he and Nirune could be so in tune with each other. Neither won nor lost, they simply brought steel against steel, blade against blade, pitting body and strength and strategy against the other to find a perfect equal. It brought warm pleasure in Tanata’s heart, something that felt natural and right in the middle of everything that didn’t.
When he pulled back from the fight, he found he was grinning. When he looked at Nirune’s face, he found his pleasure mirrored there.
The second night, Eleya was more sensitive to the presence of her husbands, sharp nervousness in her throat when she realized who she would be consummating with, and yet the familiarity of having already braved the bed once for such purposes made it seem an easier task than the first time.
Right before Caedros gently tugged on the shoulder of her gown, and she remembered the feel of him inside her even as he removed her clothes. The slide of cloth felt heavy and significant, and it didn’t matter that she told herself, it was Tanata she would be with tonight and Tanata had no real interest in her body, the other three had shown interest and being naked before them no longer felt innocent.
Sahasarel withdrew with Tanata’s clothes right as Caedros let her go. They joined Nirune near the fire where they’d started the evening last night.
Tanata looked very dutiful, and Eleya felt very dutiful because she couldn’t imagine any other reason to be sleeping with a man so visibly unattracted to her.
“My Queen.” He was looking at her with a questioning expression on his face, as if he could feel her reluctance to go on.
It was Caedros who spoke up first. “You could try rubbing off most of the way if you want to make it quick.”
Rubbing off. Eleya felt herself flush and only worse when she saw the interested look on Nirune’s face.
“It’s not difficult,” Nirune commented, humor underlying his voice.
“Of course not.” She said the words as if she meant them and tried to remember what Caedros had liked before he redirected her to a proper joining.
It was quick and efficient, Tanata largely taking over using the oil and bringing himself to an aroused state. She rode him, but as he held her, he looked over her shoulder toward their husbands, and it was enough when she felt him shudder and spill inside her without seeking her own pleasure from the experience.
It was Sahasarel and Nirune that washed them and Caedros that pulled the blanket over their bed.
“I’ve had worse,” Tanata said quietly when they’d gone.
She could not help but laugh softly under her breath.
It was both easier and harder with Sahasarel. He was eager and curious and Eleya let him try all the things he’d watched and all the things he’d apparently read.
“There are books about this?” She stared at him bewildered.
There was definitely snickering from someone near the fire. She almost glared at them, but the effect was somewhat ruined by her sudden gasp at Sahasarel’s tongue entering her. She lay back and let him pleasure her, since he seemed to want to do it, and certainly she had few complaints.
“I’m getting far more cleaning up than the rest of you,” Eleya noted as Nirune ran the cloth over her skin. While each received care, she was the one constant in their bed.
For the first time since this began, it bothered her.
“You’re the Queen,” Sahasarel pointed out lightly.
“This is one marriage. Four lands and one heart.” Words that belonged to the royal marriage and the royal house. “It is not good to receive too much service from others.” Words she’d kept all her life.
“The Queen receives the service of all,” Tanata reminded her.
“And the Queen also serves all,” Nirune said. “You will not serve less now that you are no longer devoted to the gods.”
She stared, taken aback. Is that what they thought? “You cannot take back what has been given to the gods. Would they destroy all of the Four Lands for my sake and not just my House?” Real fear burned beneath her skin.
Caedros’ head came up sharply, gaze meeting hers.
“I can’t—” She shuddered and turned her head, forcing herself to still, back straight. “I’m sorry.” She was the Queen. It was her duty to be the strength, not to take her strength from others.
But she was startled by Nirune settling his hand at her hip, holding her with a light touch and drawing her face up to his. “It is right that you speak of these things with us and not your servants.”
Caedros stared, stood, and went to stand by the window, looking out. Firelight flickered in dance across his back.
“You are the bedrock of your lands,” she whispered. “It is your place to be the strength for them.” Not for me.
“Who better for you to be human with than with the princes who are your husbands and who rule beside you?” Nirune persisted. His hand was gentle on her face, but he spoke with all the authority as if he were the oracle and she the seeker.
“Why are the gods so cruel even to you?” Caedros asked suddenly. His gaze seemed to burn into her. “To do this to you and to take all of our families, your house and my line?”
She understood his pain, but she could not agree with it, even now. “Because we have demanded they care for and secure our lands, and for this they assume we are willing to pay the cost of that.”
“But my sister? She had nothing to do with the succession.” Frustration furrowed his brows and cracked his voice. “Why?”
She could feel it there, shimmering in the cold and silence beyond, sigils warming without burning. Not yet. “Do you want me to dance as oracle for you?”
His eyes widened, horror dawning in his face. “No.” He shook his head. “Let their cold words speak through any mouth but yours.”
She could not blame him, even as she released the patterns of gathering power. It was bad enough he saw her and saw the gods, let her not speak an answer concerning his heart that he would be unwilling to hear.
“I am sorry,” she said. Not because she could have helped him, but because she could not. No one could have changed what the gods had decided to do.
Sahasarel could usually be found in the library, when he wasn’t climbing to inadvisable heights in his insatiable desire to explore. Caedros had always preferred to retreat to libraries when he wanted to be alone, burying himself in work or study or even a pleasant hour’s respite with the literature and poetry of his own land, but Sahasarel had put paid to that idea, and Caedros couldn’t even resent it due to his irrepressibly cheerful nature.
Where Tanata’s acceptance of what the gods had willed for him made Caedros avoid conversation, Sahasarel was simply too eager and pleased with all of them for Caedros to resent him for petty reasons or just ones.
“I take it you’re discovering more exciting things,” Caedros offered as he dropped into one of the plush library chairs with a slim volume of mountain poetry. He wouldn’t get any work done punctuated by Sahasarel’s frequent exclamations of delight, nor was it really his duty to accomplish real work until the marriage with the Queen had been fully consummated. For a few days anyway, he could try to drown out the bite of grief gnawing at his throat and stomach with pleasant verses or companionship.
Sahasarel’s dark head popped up over the teetering pile of books he’d been perusing. “There are some books on shipbuilding I never saw in the Isles.”
Caedros hmmed thoughtfully. “I don’t know I’d trust them more.”
“Perhaps not, but—” Sahasarel went on for a little bit longer, things Caedros knew nothing about and could barely understand, but he understood the excitement gleaming in Sahasarel’s dark eyes, and the way his hands moved enthusiastically in tune with his words.
Sahasarel’s gaze had caught on the book in Caedros’ hands. Not an obscure collection nor a happy one. “May I ask something personal?”
It made Caedros want to laugh. They had been thrown into a state of personal the moment each drank from the marriage cup and vowed themselves to the land. “Why not?” he asked wearily, barely even thinking of who it was that was asking.
But Sahasarel didn’t seem to take it personal. He came to stand near the chair Caedros had occupied, teeth worrying nervously at his lip. It made Caedros think of his sister smacking small hands away from bad habits unbecoming of princes. No biting one’s lips or nails or scratching an itch in the Principal Court. It struck him with too sharp a pang for such a small irrelevant thing.
“Did you ever cry for them?”
Caedros caught his breath. Such a strange, sharp question. “Why would you ask that?”
Sahasarel flushed red beneath the long fall of his dark hair, and Caedros dug his hands into the arms of his chair in lieu of clenching fists, another habit his sister had never had patience for.
“I’m not curious about grieving customs,” Sahasarel said quietly, and for the first time since Caedros had met the young prince, he seemed serious, like a man and not an overeager puppy. “Unless you want me to join you in any. You should have been given time to grieve.”
It was a sentimental thought, one not suited for royalty. Caedros just gave him a sideways look. “Who has time for tears?” There had been Plague, coronation, marriage, one on top of the other, a rapid change in the hands of power that there would be no vacuum for enemies to occupy.
But Sahasarel bit his lip again. “I do. It is not right that those we love should go unmourned.” He looked rueful as he added, “I hope someone cries for me when I am gone.”
Caedros blinked at him, then stared. “Who wouldn’t?”
Sahasarel was well liked by all, even those who complained of his incessant and troublesome curiosity.
“I was always the son that would leave,” Sahasarel said frankly. “My family will not be there when I die, nor will they miss what they already do not have.”
For a moment, Caedros wondered if Eleya mourned all those she’d never had. He reached out and tucked his fingers under Sahasarel’s jaw to draw him closer. He watched Sahasarel’s eyes grow wide and pulled him down and close enough to kiss him softly, a small startled sound drawn from Sahasarel’s throat.
“I’ll cry for you when you’re gone,” Caedros said. “I’ll miss you.”
He leaned his head against Sahasarel’s shoulder and sighed, finding it not unwelcome when Sahasarel reached up his arm to wrap around his shoulders and settled against the arm of the chair to hold Caedros better.
“I do miss them,” Caedros said quietly. “I cried for my sister.” It left him feeling hollow inside, cold in places that used to be warm. “I miss her all the time.”
It was warm in Sahasarel’s embrace, and he let himself feel it without the need for more words.0