Bharia shifted on the stone bench, her skin numb even through the soft leather of her trousers. They’d been seated for half of the hour or more, waiting for the warden to call them to attend him. The antechamber where they waited was as utilitarian as the rest of the Guard’s Keep, containing only that which was necessary—the bench upon which they sat, a portrait of the king and the supplicants who awaited the warden’s pleasure.
Exhaling, she looked down at her hands. She despised waiting. She would rather know her fate. Lacing her fingers, she counted the nicks in her skin, souvenirs from swordplay both practice and malicious, and memorised again the awkward bend of her smallest finger, broken so long ago she could scarce remember it.
They had arrived in Queenstor on the morning tide, making their way to the Guard’s Keep before the sun had lightened the sky. It had been close to a decade since they’d trod the streets of Queenstor and much had changed. Dormiraa was the centre of fashion and Queenstor its jewel, as changeable as the seasons and the Fashion Houses dictated. Despite this, though, the Guard’s Keep remained the same. The traditional home and training grounds of the guardians, Guard’s Keep had been Bharia’s home from the time she had been interred as a young girl until the moment she left as Thalia’s guardian and it, above all else, was unchanging. There as some comfort in that. So much was different, but the Guard’s Keep remained. Upon their arrival at the Keep that morn, they had been ushered to separate rooms to report. Eight years had taken time, so it was only now as the sun set that they were directed to the warden.
A long leg slid into view. Stahg, shifting on the hard bench.
Bharia kept her gaze straight ahead. They had spoken little since their disagreement aboard ship, but then they had always spoken little. It had been she and Thalia in discussion, with Stahg the silent third. Now, though, the silence was different.
Brows drawing, she dug her thumb into the web of flesh between her thumb and forefinger. She was still uncertain what he wanted. She requested help when required, and he was the first she asked, but she was a woman grown, more than capable. She had for all her life relied upon herself and no other, and had been taught time and again such a philosophy was correct.
So aboard ship, she had forced normality. Silence and amiable companionship, and he had allowed it, as he always did, but she found herself wishing he would leap again to challenge, that he would allow emotion to dictate his actions. He was altogether too still, but she had felt his gaze upon her, that calm blue gaze that spoke louder than any challenge.
The door opened and the warden’s page appeared in its frame, her demeanour tranquil. “You are called.”
Bharia stood. Her stomach dropped, and she wavered. Closing her eyes, she swallowed. She was not apprehensive. Perhaps the fish in last eve’s meal had been bad.
A warm hand settled between her shoulder blades. Startled, she whipped her head around but Stahg had already started toward the door, the brief comfort just that.
The Warden’s Chamber was as utilitarian as the antechamber. Most of Queenstor was noise and colour, as befit the fashion centre of the world, but the guardians had never been loud, their role as protector demanding they blend with the background.
The warden himself sat behind his desk, his massive shoulders still straight though his hair was now completely grey. “Guardians. Sit.”
They did as bidden. Back straight, Bharia looked the warden direct and made attempt to ignore the slip of her stomach.
The warden’s expression was expressionless as he regarded them. “You have been away too long, and when you return, you lag behind the princess. Your report was adequate, but I would have you explain.”
Stahg spoke. “Is the princess well?”
The warden gave them a hard look. “She is. She arrived two days ago in the company of the tailor, unharmed.”
Relief flooded Bharia. The frivolous tailor had not abandoned the princess but instead delivered her to her father as was his duty, though perhaps it was something more. She had seen the looks he had given Thalia, and the ones she had given in return.
“Explain,” the warden said.
Nerves ran riot in Bharia’s stomach as Stahg answered. “We were attacked in Dyerston, and separated from the princess. Our plan to meet should this occur failed. Guardian Bharia was injured, and by the time I was able to reach the agreed upon location, the princess and the tailor had already set sail for Queenstor. Guardian Bharia rose from the sick bed earlier than was wise, and we boarded the next ship to Queenstor. We have no explanation for our failure. We allowed the princess to be separated from us.”
Leaning back in his chair, the warden regarded them. Stahg appeared calm but Bharia saw the faint tick in his jaw. As for her, she awaited the warden’s next words with dread leaden upon her.
Finally, he spoke. “Your explanation is adequate. You shall remain guardians to the princess, but know this could change.”
Next to her, Stahg tensed. “Both of us?”
A great rush of emotion streaked through Bharia. Greater than the relief Thalia was well. Greater than the knowledge they were not to be punished with a lesser assignment. Greater than all, her relief that she would not be parted from Stahg.
“However, know this isn’t my choice,” the warden continued. “The princess has decreed it, and the king has agreed. You will be watched, and closely. You have allowed her separation twice. Do not allow it again.” The warden’s expression hardened. “Other matters have need of discussion. I would have word of the Spindles. Tell me what you heard on the tour.”
Stahg again spoke, his voice holding a lightness only those who knew him well would hear. “They are spoken of in whispers only, but these whispers have become louder with each year that passes. We were ambushed on the road—”
The warden held up a hand. “That is in your report. What is your feeling?”
Stahg glanced at Bharia. Tilting her head slightly, she raised one brow. Stahg knew her thoughts on this. They had discussed the Spindles at length over the years, from the time they were little more than rumour to the attack on the Kings Road.
He read her as if she had spoken. “We do not like it. It is too quiet. They plan something, of that we are certain.”
“Even though you were ambushed?”
“We were two guardians alone. They sent five when they should have sent ten. They were testing us, testing our response. I would wager there have been easily thwarted attacks on the palace?”
The warden levelled his gaze upon them, saying nothing. Finally, he nodded.
“There will be more, and then there will be none. They are planning something.” Stahg shrugged. “They are too quiet.”
The warden shifted his gaze to Bharia. “You agree?”
She nodded sharply.
“I will take this under advisement.” The warden stood. “The princess has commanded you attend her directly upon your arrival. I have detained you long enough.” He looked between them. “You did well, to bring her back in one piece.”
“We didn’t bring her back,” Bharia said.
“So you can speak.” As if to lessen the harsh words, the warden smiled, the expression foreign on his blunt features. “You made it so a pampered royal knew what to do when unavoidably alone. You have succeeded, guardian. Be proud.”
The page appeared at the door, escorting them from the Warden’s Chamber and through the underground passage leading from the keep to the palace. The passage ended in the royal families’ private apartments, and they were quickly ushered to the princess’s chamber.
The door closed behind them with a quiet click. It was a grand room, dominated by a bed made of the pale lumber from Spindlerswood.
In it, asleep, lay Thalia.
Bharia let go a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. She started toward the bed, only to check herself. Thalia looked peaceful, at rest. She appeared unharmed. And Bharia would not have her wake.
A warm hand between her shoulder blades. Stahg’s comfort. “She is well, Bharia.”
Thalia shifted in her sleep, her brow puckered. Bharia bit her lip. Stahg was correct. She appeared well.
“I was concerned.”
Surprise made Bharia glance at him. “You were?”
Gaze shifting from Thalia to her, he said, “She is my charge, too.”
Those blue eyes held hers, the faintest of warmth in their icy depths while his hand moved in the slightest of circles. The air felt thick between them. Her breath stuttered, chest tightening as a heavy pulse began between her thighs.
Slow, his hand rose to cup her cheek, his thumb sweeping the bone. She lost herself in blue, her heart racing, her skin tingling, all of her focus on where he was touching her, the warmth of his hands.
Thalia shifted, opening her eyes to blink blearily at them.
Breaking their gaze, Bharia stepped back, trying to get herself under control. The princess had awoken, and her focus must be on her.
Confusion creased Thalia’s brow. Quickly it cleared and with an excited shriek, she launched herself from the bed, throwing an arm about them each. Stahg awkwardly patted her on the back, but Bharia returned Thalia’s embrace, fiercely glad the princess was again within reach. Then, she started on the admonishments.
Thalia bore it well, grinning all the while. Disentangling himself, Stahg moved to the door, but she could feel his eyes on them…and she could still feel his touch against her skin.
Hand half raised to knock, Bharia hesitated. Perhaps it was better to return to her room.
This was ridiculous. Exhaling forcefully, she knocked.
Stahg opened the door, naked to the waist, his chest rising and falling with quickened breath. Sweat slicked his skin, his musculature defined. She couldn’t help but to run her gaze over him, a lick of heat curling low in her belly.
“Bharia?” Her gaze snapped to his. Colour rode high on his cheeks, his gaze determinedly locked on her eyes. “Are you coming in?”
“Yes, of course.” She slipped past him, noting his chamber was much the same as the one she’d been assigned. Wandering about the room, she allowed her touch to travel over the armchair. He’d pushed it aside, obviously to do some training drills. Her mouth went dry as she recalled sweat-slicked skin.
“What are you wearing?” he said gruffly. He had averted his gaze, staring at something to the side.
She looked down at herself. She was wearing her sleep shift, the thin fabric hitting her mid-thigh and held up by two thin straps at her shoulders, something he’d seen her wear a hundred times before. “It is what I sleep in. You have seen it before.”
“Do you not have a robe?” The colour riding high on his cheeks had darkened to a ruddiness.
Her brows drew. “Why do I need a robe? It is not cold.”
Shaking his head, he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Why are you here?”
Bristling, she said, “If you do not wish me here, I will leave.”
“No, that is not what I said—” He exhaled. “Stay, Bharia.”
An awkward silence rose. Wrapping her arms about her stomach, she drank him in. They could have been separated today. They could have been sent to opposite corners of the world, and she would never see him. They might on occasion cross journeys, at the Guard’s Keep or on the road, but it could have been years between one meet and the next. The thought had made her sick.
So, finally, she admitted what she wanted. She wanted him. Above all, she wanted him at her side, as more than a partner. As partner and lover both.
“I do not like being alone.”
Her words rang through the chamber, too loud and too sudden. Fighting the heat that rose on her cheeks, she raised her chin. “I missed you.”
Annoyance crossed his features. “And this is the reason you have come to my chamber?”
“No.” She took a breath. “We have been together most nights for eight years. It is odd without you present.”
His lips twisted. “So it was because of familiarity.”
“No.” Frustration filled her, at the eloquence she lacked. Enough of this dithering. Squaring her shoulders, she said, “I wish to start a relationship.”
The blood drained from his face. “You do?” he said, his voice hoarse.
Still pale, he rubbed the back of his head. Muscle bulged at his bicep, and drew her gaze like a lodestone. “When do you wish to start this relationship?”
“Now.” Most definitely now.
He nodded, his gaze not quite meeting hers. “And you have found someone?”
What did he— By the maiden, no. No. Aghast, she rushed to say, “Stahg, with you. I wish to start a relationship with you.”
For the longest moment, he stared. Two strides, and he was before her. He cupped her face with his hands, his thumbs brushing her cheek. Lowering his mouth to hers, he kissed her.
Lightening sparked within her, racing to her breasts, her thighs. Unexpectedly soft, his lips whispered over hers. Eyes drifting shut, she tangled her fingers in his hair, allowing him to tease her lips open, feeling his smile as he registered what she had done. It didn’t stop him from taking full advantage and his tongue slid into her, his taste exploding through her as he coaxed her to duel.
One muscled arm wrapped about her waist, drawing her closer as he retreated. She breathed him in, an intoxicating mix of sweat and soap and…Stahg.
A soft nuzzle, another. Her breath grew sharp, such that her chest tightened, her heart pounding in her ears. She couldn’t get enough of his taste, his touch, the feel of him beneath her fingers. She wanted to devour him, but more she wanted this, this languorous sweetness, the slow build and the sense of finally…. Finally…
The edge of the bed pushed against her thighs and she sank onto it, Stahg following her to cover her body with his. Wrapping her legs about him, she moulded her hand to one hard, muscled shoulder, marvelling that she could touch him, that she could finally do so.
With a groan, he pulled back, his forehead against hers.
Their breath mingled, the air electric around them. This would change all between them, and they knew it. Other guardians were lovers as well as partners, but it had never been them. Never been Bharia and Stahg.
“You are certain?” he said against her lips.
“Yes,” she said, and pulled him again to her.