Chapter 6: Consummation of the Fourth Land
Sahasarel had wondered at the knowing words and looks Nirune used when watching the previous consummations, and he finally asked directly. “Did you sleep with others too before the marriage?”
Caedros had. Tanata had. Only they’d slept with men and not women.
Nirune just looked at him. “Who would want to offend the gods?”
Considering all that happened, it was a reasonable question and a reasonable answer, but it troubled Sahasarel still. “Do you think Caedros and Tanata have offended the gods?”
“Who can say, but the gods.” Nirune let his mouth shift to a sharp sideways smile.
Sahasarel asked him no more.
She found him in the courtyard in the heat of the day and wondered a moment to herself why she had chosen to seek him out, but Eleya knew there was one husband she did not understand. It bothered her. As an oracle, there were always those hard to read, but Nirune had managed to be harder than most, despite offering her the most comfort she had received when he held her gently last night.
“Leave us,” she ordered her maidservant who had followed behind her dutifully. “I do not require a chaperone with my husband.”
The maidservant hesitated less than an instant before disappearing on swift feet. Anessa moved another foot away to lean on a wall just out of hearing range should their voices remain quiet. Eleya had little concern for that. Nirune’s voice was always quiet. It rumbled through her pleasantly but never rose for other ears to take hold of.
“That serving girl is in someone’s pay,” Nirune said suddenly. “You should get rid of her.”
Eleya looked at him in surprise. “The one I just dismissed?”
He tilted his head sideways to look at her and made a small sound of affirmation.
It was the last thing she’d expected him to open with. “I see. Do you know whose pay she’s in?”
“Don’t you have a master of spies?” he asked, mild humor in his voice.
Something cold washed over her. “He was among my relatives.” There was nothing to be done about that.
Nirune understood immediately, a flicker of comprehension on his face. “You need to appoint a new one.”
One of the many tasks Eleya was beginning to realize she had yet to accomplish. She sighed, as she thought over who to ask for help. The Royal Counselors were helpful, but they were not as astute in judging character as they believed. “Is there anyone you trust for the job?”
“We’re not in the plains, my Queen.” His tone implied she should have known this and that he wouldn’t know the eddies of loyalty and trust in her court as he did his own.
She did know. But she already knew that ruling was a burden she could not carry without help. “Could you find someone you would trust?”
There was a long moment of silence, the quiet sound of his breathing. He wasn’t looking at her. He was studying the Guard doing their exercises. “Yes,” he said at last, no uncertainty, no questioning.
Relief welled within her. She nodded as she had when directing the younger novices about. “Then do so.”
“You command like a Queen,” he commented, half complaint.
It made her laugh. “I’ve spent the last few days being told that I do not.” And perhaps it should have bothered her more than it did, but it was hardly her fault she’d learned deportment in the service of the gods and not the service of a country. “We all do our duty,” she said, considering Tanata and Sahasarel and even Caedros, all of whom had always acknowledged they’d never had a choice.
But Nirune looked up sharply, something slipping sideways and cutting through the warm unchanging intensity of his patterns she’d somehow grown used to. She caught her breath as he came closer. She stared up at him evenly, unsure of why she felt the sudden need to do so.
When he touched her, it wasn’t nearly what she’d expected. She’d expected something intimidating, not the gentle way he drew his fingers softly over the line of her hair to tuck back the loose strands. “This,” he said low and close to her, syllables warming the air between them, “isn’t duty.”
Eleya knew there was something there, something she could feel but not name, and for the first time, it was shimmering on the surface, in the spoken, and this is what she had come here for. To know him before she claimed him.
“Then what is it?” she asked.
He only smiled, mouth edging up on one side. “Aren’t my patterns right here?”
“I think you like being mysterious,” she said dryly.
He said nothing for a long moment, fingers still lingering warmly at her temple. At last, he dropped his hand and caught hers with it to draw her down to the bench they’d been standing near.
He spoke as if instructing, as if he’d heard the words from his own father or mother and was now passing them to her. “We are chosen to stand between the humans and the gods, our own country and those around us.”
He frowned. “For you to be chosen, now, over all your house, for Caedros to be chosen and his older sister barred from becoming Princess in the land, something terrible is coming, and I will protect you from it in all ways I can. Can’t you feel that pattern? This is fate.”
It was the unspoken thing everyone in the land could feel. Something was coming or the gods would never have intervened so harshly. And she had been trained to serve them but she wondered sometimes, if she could truly be the strong priest king needed for a time of upheaval. “You believe in fate?” Perhaps it should comfort her, but it did not.
It was a long moment before Nirune whispered, “Who dare fight the gods?” There was story behind such words, one she did not wish to hear.
Eleya shuddered, thinking of all she had lost. “I did not fight the gods.”
“I believe you.” He rose to collect his sword, and she stared at him, suddenly aglow in the sunlight when he stepped out from the shadows.
“You are the prince of the metal,” she realized. A sharpened blade honed to his purpose and with no consideration of whether it was duty or pleasure that drove him.
He turned to her and smiled. “And you are the daughter of the metal,” he reminded her.
She was, she realized. Her mother had been the princess of that element and served well within it, even if she’d been born from a land traditionally of stone. There was something akin between them. “But I am not the Metal Queen,” she said, still uncertain of what exactly beat within her.
He didn’t answer then. He looked to Tanata, just entering the courtyard, and offered to spar for a little while.
Nirune enjoyed crossing swords with Tanata. Both of them understood the necessity of occupying fully the position you were placed in. Tanata fought grim and worthy in the face of things that made it difficult to serve: a father who did not want him, a role he’d been born for denied him, and the obligation to marry a woman he would never love the way some might think he ought.
Nirune was unconflicted. Some days, he thought there was something wrong with him that no passion burned in his heart for or against the role he was born to fill. No one had ever stood against him taking up the position of First Prince, no one had demanded he remain in the Eastern Plains to rule after his father, and he had no quarrel with the gods.
But the gods had chosen those who had quarrel with them, and Nirune found losing himself in the focus of a battle with Tanata helped ease the way that troubled him. The Eastern Plains had given themselves over to their purpose after his grandfather had angered the gods and brought fear upon their land. The gods had never found reason to harm them under the guidance of Nirune’s father.
He’d taken Nirune out to the fields when he was still a small boy to show him the harvests of the Four Lands. It was the plains that grew their food and delivered it to the cities and mountains and isles.
“You are protector and keeper over the Fourth Land,” his father had told him. “Guard it with your life. You are one among many brothers. The land is only one among four.”
Nirune grunted with the effort of blocking Tanata’s strikes, whirled with the instinct for battle he’d honed against raiders and bandits, felt the pattern trembling there on a distant horizon that he had been born for this now, to protect his husbands and wife against others and against their own selves.
He answered her later, passing in the hallway, before the evening meal and the consummation of the Fourth Land. “Eleya.”
She paused, looking at him with a soft question on a stoic expression that had long ago lost the urge to softness. He wondered sometimes when he looked at her, what did they teach oracles that she so rarely allowed herself to feel anything as deeply as she ought.
It hid her true nature, that neutral aura of service she pulled over her skin like armor every morning. She would serve the Four Lands well, he thought, but it was not for her service that the gods chose her.
“You are the Ice Queen.”
She stared at him, breath caught in her chest, a startled look in her eyes. She opened her mouth as if to say something, and he felt it between them, wondered if it was the patterns oracles spoke of. But she left it unsaid. She closed her mouth, looked thoughtful, and finally nodded. “Thank you, Nirune.” She swept on and he didn’t wait to see her go.
She was starting to feel the act instinctively by the fourth night, and he’d been watching closely. She could tell at first that he was fumbling with the unfamiliarity, but he continued the way he’d seen it until it felt natural, following the trail of pleasure on her body the others had marked before him. He didn’t need her guidance to find her clit or make her tremble and ache, shivering with heat and want. He didn’t waste time with feather light kisses when she preferred to gasp under the hard press of mouth to neck, the nip and scrape of teeth over her jaw and shoulders, the bruising warmth of him marking her below her collarbones and between her breasts.
He let her press him down and ride him, leaned his head lazily back into the pillow with a grin too fierce to be subdued. He was generous with her, hands pressing warm and rough everywhere she put them, thrusting up into her with every clench of her fingers demanding more.
It didn’t last nearly as long as it should or could because they were both impatient, and then she was coming in a haze of desire, distantly aware she only outlasted him by moments. She leaned down to press her face to his shoulder as she panted in the aftermath, dizzy and lightheaded with the intensity of it. He rubbed his fingers gently over her scalp through her hair, and she listened to his own breath move slowly from ragged to even.
The ritual was soothing now. It was Caedros who washed her, his touch gentle through the soft damp cloth, and Tanata who washed Nirune as Sahasarel brought the warm coverlet to press over them both. Eleya caught Caedros’ and Sahasarel’s fingers before they withdraw, her voice caught in her throat and her gaze on Tanata’s, the one she could not reach with her hands. He settled on the edge of the bed beside Nirune, and she tried to put words to this nameless feeling within her.
There were five people here, five of them, and somehow the moment felt intimate and utterly private, as though in only four days they had made a space for themselves with only room for them and room enough to know each other.
“It’s tradition,” she said softly with a glance at Caedros, the one who cared most about that, “for it to be just the two of us tonight. But tomorrow,” she paused, “tomorrow would you stay?”
All of them. Together.
Nirune huffed a small scoffing chuckle. “There isn’t room on the bed.”
He was not a small man and the bed swallowed the two of them. She almost told him so, but Sahasarel spoke first with barely contained eagerness. “I think we could make it work.”
Tanata’s, “If that is what you wish,” overlapped Caedros’ answer, “Certainly, my Queen.”
She tightened her grip reflexively and looked at the northern prince. “Will you never call me Eleya?” she asked.
He stared at her, eyes widening, for a heartbeat’s moment, then his face and voice softened as he breathed, “Eleya.”0