“You are smiling.”
Bharia’s hand twitched but she resisted the urge to check. Instead, she continued to trace a pattern on Stahg’s bare chest, his skin smooth and warm beneath her cheek.
“What do you have to smile about, guardian?” Stahg’s words contained the barest hint of laughter, and she knew if she were to glance, the smallest of quirks would lift his well-shaped lips.
She, however, kept to making her pattern. “I will have nothing if you do not cease such an inquiry.”
“You must have a reason for your smile.”
Without warning, she attacked. With a snort, he flinched away from her hands, grabbing her tickling fingers in his strong grip. “I concede, I concede. Cease, Bharia.”
Grinning, she did as he begged, settling again to his side. All was quiet, she tracing again her pattern and he stroking her hair.
Black strands slipped through his fingers to pool on his chest. “I never thought to see it down.”
She had never thought they would be together like this, his naked chest beneath her cheek as she listened to the beat of his heart. “I do not often have it loose.”
Making a noise of assent, he wound his hand again through her hair.
For a moment, she watched in silence, the slight tug against her scalp a balm. “It is too long,” she finally said. “I do not know why I keep it so.”
“I like it. Bharia and her braid. It is you.”
“If I cut it, I would still be me.”
“Yes, but no longer would you be Bharia and her braid.”
“And this is so important?”
“No. Tis only…I like your hair.”
She smiled into his chest. “So do I. I have not cut it in all these years and I will not now begin.”
He grunted, smoothing her hair down her back.
The dull light from the lamp by the bed flickered, the groaning generators reminding her of the lateness of the hour. They always groaned so as the servants stirred to work, straining the system as they ran their errands. “I should return to my chamber.”
His arms tightened about her. “Why?”
“Because it is my chamber.” Kissing his chest, she pushed herself from him, swinging her legs out of the bed.
“That is not a reason.”
Pulling her sleep shift over her head, she glanced back. He’d shifted, sitting with his back against his pillow, his gaze watchful.
Gathering her hair, she swiftly began to braid. “I cannot stay here.”
“Because I cannot.” A frown drew her brows. “Why are you questioning this, Stahg?”
“Who have you told, Bharia?”
She blinked at the sudden swerve in conversation. Seemingly relaxed, Stahg leaned against the utilitarian headboard of the bed, but she knew him. She knew he was not. “Told?”
Utterly confused, she flipped her braid over her shoulder. “No one.”
A muscle ticked in his jaw. “No one.” In an explosion of movement, he swung out of the bed. “We have been together these last months, Bharia, and yet you have told no one.”
“I know. I have just said—”
“I know what you said.” Shoving his legs into his trousers, he swore as the fabric became tangled.
Eyes wide with disbelief, she watched him. Never before had she seen him in such a state. Always he was calm, collected, such that she wanted to throw a rock at his head most days. To see him such…It disturbed her to see him such.
Finally winning the war against cloth, he paced the room, running his hands over his hair. The blond strands lying disordered on his brow. “I have not courted anyone with any seriousness and neither have you.”
“We were on tour.”
“No!” The word thundered through the room. She started, every muscle tense.
Visibly restraining himself, he turned to her. Intense blue eyes held her captive. “I had you.”
Breaking their gaze, she said, “We were not together.”
“We may as well have been. Tell me true, were you tempted by any you courted?”
No. She never had been. She’d had Stahg. “And who would I tell, Stahg? Who would be desirous of this knowledge?”
“The guard master. The warden. Your family.” A muscle ticked in his jaw. “Thalia.”
“I do not think we have a need to tell Thalia.” With the number of knowing looks and sly remarks Thalia had thrown their way, it was a certainty she knew.
“But we did not tell her and we have not confirmed.”
“What matter is it that we have not specifically told her? She knows.”
“But you have not told anyone. You have not set them down and said, I am with Stahg.”
Anger began a burn in her. Stalking toward him, she demanded, “And you? Who have you told?”
He didn’t move, staring down at her. “I would tell all. I would tell my mother, my father, my brother and my sisters. I would tell the guard master, the guardians in this house, the warden. I would tell the king. I would tell Thalia. I would tell all, Bharia.”
She could not think. She did not know why she had told no one, only that she had not. Thalia knew without words, and she was not close to her family. The Warden only need be told should they decide to make their bond permanent, and the others in their garrison….She had not seen them for over seven years. Why would she tell them?
But that was neither here nor there. She had no concern who knew. “Then tell all. It is of no issue.”
“It is of issue!” he roared. “You will allow me in your bed, but you will not allow me any further. We are not partners, Bharia. I am merely someone you fuck.”
She sucked in a breath. She had never heard him swear. Never. And to reduce them to such a term… “We are not. You are not.”
“What else am I to think? You will tell none of us, and you leave before dawn.”
She didn’t know what to say. A pressure began in her chest, one that strangled. He could not believe such things. She did not think of him such. She did not. “You know you are not that. You know.”
“Do not tell me what I know.”
A faint thread of annoyance wound through her at his words. She grabbed at it, any emotion preferable to this ache in her chest. “Now you are being petulant.”
“Am I?” Stepping forward, he broadened his chest and bent his neck, looming over her.
Crossing her arms, she glared up at him. “Do not think to intimidate me, Stahg. You will not favour the results.”
His shoulders slumped. Anger bled from his features until his expression held nothing at all. “Go, then.”
“I am tired, Bharia,” he said, with a finality she had never heard from him before.
What could she say to that? She left, painfully aware of his eyes upon her back. Upon reaching her chamber, she sank to her bed and placed her head in her hands.
What had just happened? It was incredible, this emotion from Stahg. He was always taciturn and stern, never displaying a hint of feeling or thought. Through the years, she had learned to read him through the twitch of a brow or a flicker of a lid, but that was a colleague and a guardian. As a lover, she had to learn all over again and he…he did not make it simple.
They had slipped from friends to lovers with no other changes besides they spent most nights in each other’s beds. She had not thought any further than that. She loved him, that was never in doubt. She had these last seven years and she would until she took her last breath. But Stahg…. She had no idea how he felt.
Lying back on the bed, she stared at the ceiling and could not sleep.
Laughter and music spilled from the ballroom, those who had already greeted the king and returned princess enjoying the festivities. The receiving line stretched into the distance of the Great Hall, a colourful array of gowns and finery as fare as the eye could see.
From her position behind Thalia, Bharia kept watch. The princess greeted her guests, only the faintest pull of her smile indicating her fatigue and only those who knew Thalia well would recognise the signs of strain.
Stahg kept watch also, the mouth she knew to be mobile in the right circumstances set into a grim line his pale skin and ice blond hair a shocking contrast to the black of the formal guardian uniform. The guardian uniform might be thought plain at first glance, but intricate embroidery adorned the breast and sleeves, proclaiming their rank and their story within the league. The great broadsword strapped to his back wore a new sheath, the formal scabbard made of black leather and carved with intricate patterns telling the legend of his sword. Her own daggers adorned her hips and her boots, also encased in formal scabbards and telling their own tale.
Stahg and she had not spoken about aught by their work these three days past, and she had slept in her own bed…or what little sleep her wretchedness would allow her. This distance with Stahg hurt, as nothing had before. Never had there been a chill between them, and she did not know how to make it stop.
“The tailor,” Stahg murmured, the first words he had spoken direct to her this evening.
She followed his regard and found the tailor, far down the receiving line with his gaze locked on Thalia. Much had passed between tailor and princess, though Thalia would not speak of it. “I see him.”
They watched in silence a moment, the tailor coming closer as the line advanced.
Thalia greeted the guests, but judging by the wild look in her eyes, she would be pushed over the edge by the tailor.“She will run.”
“Yes. The antechamber besides the ballroom?”
“I would think so.”
Stahg inclined his head slightly in agreement. “I will check.”
“You do that.” She couldn’t stop the tartness in her tone.
The faintest hint of frustration crossed his expression before he left silently to ensure the princess’s safety.
Pushing any feelings regarding Stahg to one side, Bharia returned to her charge. The tailor stood three deep from Thalia, his eyes burning as he watched her. The precise moment Thalia saw him was documented by the sudden tensing of her shoulders. The tailor advanced and abruptly Thalia abandoned her guests. Shocked gasps and whispers abounded as the tailor followed her.
So did Bharia.
Thalia stormed into the antechamber besides the ballroom, the tailor close behind, slamming the door closed as he passed the threshold. At the end of the hall, Stahg stood guard. Bharia raised her brows and he nodded sharply, indicating none were near and it was safe for the tailor and Thalia to determine what was between them.
Taking position at the door, she trained her gaze forward. Stahg took place on the opposite side, his arms crossed across his broad chest. “We need to talk.”
Surprise whipped her gaze to him. “Talk? Of what?”
Incredulity filled her. “Now?”
“Not now. Tonight.”
“Then why mention it? We are working.”
He exhaled sharply.
She knew that sound. “Don’t be irritated with me. You are the one who thought it a good idea to bring this up now.”
Again silence, but his hands tightened on his biceps. “I am simply saying we need to talk.”
“Yes. Ensuring it is something we talk about now and distract us from Thalia.”
“That was not my intention.”
“And yet, the result.”
He exhaled again. “Do not suggest I am derelict in my duty.”
“This is distraction from Thalia—”
“We are already distracted!” Closing his eyes, he swallowed. Tone lowered, he said, “I think of little else and it must be resolved, Bharia.
A lump rose in her throat. She wanted it resolved also. She wanted to be back in his arms, lying in bed with him, his fingers slipping through her hair as she drew a pattern on his chest.
A flash of something in the corner of her eye, a colour that didn’t belong.
“What is it?” Stahg said, the anger dropping from his voice as training took over.
“There is something…” Another flash of colour that didn’t belong. Of a sudden, screams spilled from the ballroom.
Bharia drew her daggers. Beside her, Stahg armed himself, the great broadsword deadly in his grip.
Pounding footsteps, too many to count.
Widening her stance, Bharia waited.
Attackers poured into the hallway, brandishing sword and shield. A man with clothing marking him a potion master threw a black sphere. It broke at Bharia’s feet with a flash, a strange black smoke emerging.
Coughing, she fell back, her daggers at the ready. Through the smoke, a form rushed her, and another, and she felled both, her eyes stinging from the smoke.
“Stahg! The door!” She didn’t know where he was, if he heard her, if he was hurt, if he was dea…. No. She wouldn’t think such.
Slowly, she moved backwards, desperate to find the door herself to protect Thalia, but she couldn’t see anything. Warrior’s blood, she couldn’t see.
Out of the smoke, a glint of steel and then another, and another, and another. Five rushed her, their swords held as if they knew how to handle them. She slashed, disarming one and sending him to the ground. Another slash and another fell, the clang of the woman’s sword dull as she and it hit the ground.
Grimly, Bharia faced the three that remained, her daggers held before her. A glance amongst them and then in unison they rushed her.
Training took control and she whirled and dipped, blocking each attack and feinting her own. A bright burn of pain bloomed in her side, but she shoved it aside, focussing only on felling those before her. One, and then another, and there was only one remaining—
The blast of an explosion shoved her from her feet. Heat scoured her back and then the ground broke her fall. She screamed, pain overwhelming her. Smoke teased her nose, and then blinded her, and all she could think was Thalia. Was Thalia well? Where–
Oh gods. Where was Stahg?
She dragged herself up by her arms. Those who had attacked lay about her, most without life. Where was Stahg? She couldn’t force herself to her feet, couldn’t get any higher than she was.
A warm hand cupped her cheek. She looked up and Stahg crouched next to her, some indefinable emotion moulding his features. “Bharia,” he breathed and then his lips brushed hers.
She curled her hand around his, gratitude and relief making her weak. “Stahg.” For a moment she allowed herself this before duty returned. “Stahg. Where is Thalia?”
Briefly, his forehead touched hers before he pulled back. “She is injured and with the healers.”
“I do not know how badly.”
“And the attackers?”
“Subdued. They were Spindles, Bharia.”
She nodded. She had thought as much.
His gaze ran over her. “You require a healer also.”
“We should go to Thalia.”
“Others are with her, and you have need of a healer yourself.”
“You should be with her.”
“I will be. Once you are safe.”
His thumb brushed her cheek. “The quicker you allow me to take you to a healer, the quicker I’ll return to her.”
A great wave of exhaustion flooded her, quickly followed by pain. Closing her eyes, she nodded.
Arms around her, Stahg cradled her to him as he rose. She was not a small woman but he held her with ease.
She had something she had to tell him. She had to tell him how she felt. He had to know… “Stahg.”
“Shh.” Lips brushed her forehead.
“It can wait, Bharia.”
It couldn’t. It couldn’t wait, but she was so tired…