Long ago, blood and anger colored his dreams red every night until the night she came to him.
In his sleep, steel glinted through the haze of crimson, pain flashed. A coppery scent stirred him in his bed, rank bile soured his tongue, and Trenan woke with sweat on his brow and agony tearing through him from an arm no longer there. Every time he awakened, he reached out with a phantom hand, expecting—hoping—for fingers to brush the rough wool blanket or touch his face. But they found nothing because they remained attached to an arm rotting in the bottom of a ditch with the rest of the dead.
“At least the rest of you isn’t down there,” Erral had said with a chuckle one day as he sat beside his bunk, struggling to articulate his appreciation.
Trenan thought lying in the ditch with the dead might be better than losing the arm meant to wield his sword.
What good is a soldier with no hand to hold his weapon?
The one-armed swordsman stared up at the dark ceiling, the muscles in his jaw clenched hard against the throb in his shoulder and the knot clogging his throat. Since the days of his childhood, his life had been based on what that arm could do with a sword. It performed feats others couldn’t, moved in ways and with speed beyond the abilities of but a few men. It took lives, saved lives, helped to put down a rebellion.
But no more. Off it came, a sacrifice to save the king from a blow meant to separate his royal head from his regal body. A more than fair trade in the kingdom’s mind, but a bitter mouthful to a master swordsman left with the wrong arm.
Trenan closed his eyes and inhaled through his nose, filling his lungs to capacity and using the air to squash regret from his chest. Sacrificing himself for the king was expected of him and an honor. But it wasn’t he who’d been sacrificed but his arm, with the rest of him left behind to cope without it.
I’d rather have died.
And they knew it; it was the reason his chambers were devoid of sharp weapons.
The whispered word didn’t startle him, but he was surprised by the timbre of the voice speaking it. The doctor assigned to his bedside like a hairy-chested wet nurse would return soon to touch his forehead to gauge his temperature, or give him more of the acrid herbs to hide a pain that would never leave, but the man charged with caring for him didn’t speak with a woman’s voice.
Trenan dragged his lids open, cocked his head. The woman perched on the chair set beside his bunk was the last person he’d have expected to find.
Her hair, which he’d only ever seen her wear up, hung loose past her shoulders in waves the color of honey tinted with a few drops of blood. Her eyes sparkled with the dim light of the taper flickering in the far corner of the swordsman’s chamber, worry plain in their set. Concern tilted the corners of the full lips of her exquisite mouth.
Trenan scrambled to push himself up on his elbows, forgot he had but one, and tumbled onto his side on the mattress, jarring his wound. He gritted his teeth and pressed his lips together to keep from crying out, but when he found the queen’s hand upon him, he forgot the pain.
“Are you all right?”
He looked into the eyes of the young woman who’d seen the seasons turn eighteen times since her birth and once since she’d become wife to the king. The knot of despair that had choked him dissipated, the pain in his shoulder faded. He nodded.
“Yes, my queen.”
“Ishla,” she said and brushed his cheek with the backs of her fingers. “You poor man.”
She settled back on the edge of the chair, removing her touch from his face, but the feel of it remained with him. He struggled himself up to sitting, the wool blanket falling from his bare chest as he stretched to see past the wife of his friend. Behind her, the chamber lay empty.
“Where is Gollard?” He looked to her face, found her still gazing at him, so diverted his eyes. “Where is the doctor?”
“Do you need him?”
She stood, took a half-step toward the door and stopped, awaiting his reply. He’d have answered at once but, when she stood, he saw she’d chosen not to wear one of the elaborate dresses he’d seen her wear every other time he’d been in her presence. Instead, she wore white bed clothes with sleeve cuffs that clung to her wrists and a hem that brushed her ankles.
“N…no. I’m fine, just wondering where he’d gone.”
Ishla clasped her hands in front of her, lowered her chin to regard her intertwined fingers.
“I had him called away.”
Trenan stared at the young woman. Now her eyes weren’t upon him, he let his gaze linger, saw that the taper burning behind her cast her outline in the fine cloth. Trenan swallowed hard.
“Called away? For what?”
She raised her head, making him slip his gaze back to her face, then gestured toward the side of the bed.
Trenan looked from her to the bed and back, uncertain what she meant, at first. He cleared his throat and nodded.
“Of course, my quee…Ishla.”
She alighted on the edge of the mattress close enough Trenan felt her warmth. Her perfume filled his nose—not a cologne she’d put on, but the smell of her hair, the scent of her skin. Apprehension stirred in the swordsman’s chest, excitement, confusion.
Why is she here?
“I’ve come to thank you for saving the king, Trenan.”
It might have surprised him that she read his thoughts, but what else might he have been thinking? Trenan shifted away, trying to quell his excited discomfort.
“There’s no need. The king has conveyed his appreciation with the best surgeons the kingdom can offer and his promise to take care of me as long as I need.”
The words were Erral’s, but this marked the first time Trenan had spoken them aloud. They tasted of vinegar on his tongue, but the queen’s sweetness was enough to overpower the bitter morsel.
Ishla wiggled nearer, closing the distance he’d created, her lithe body making little impression on the mattress. His eyes strayed from hers, fell to her curves beneath the bed clothes before returning to find a smile beginning on her lips.
“That is Erral’s way of thanking you, not mine. And I suspect his method may be more hurtful than fulfilling.”
She lifted a hand and touched her palm to his cheek. Trenan nearly jerked away out of sense of duty to king and kingdom but didn’t for fear of offending the queen. And because he liked the way her warm flesh felt against his.
Ishla moved closer and leaned in, leaving a hand’s-breadth between the tips of their noses. Her breath touched his lips, her gaze found its way inside him.
“It is my thanks I bring tonight.”
“Won’t be back until morning.”
“Who else knows you had him called away?”
She shook her head. “A queen can be discreet.”
Trenan licked his lips, resisted the urge to close the space between them. A plethora of furtive smiles returned to his memory. From the first time he’d seen his friend’s wife—the queen of the kingdom—they’d been there, finding their way to her lips whenever their eyes met. As much as he wanted them to be for him, about him, he’d convinced himself her nature and her youth brought them forth, convinced himself the tingle-inspiring smiles and gentle blushes weren’t meant for him.
Now he didn’t know if he should be elated he’d been wrong, or fearful.
His gaze slipped form her eyes to her mouth. He imagined his lips pressing against hers, their tongues finding each other, until the king’s angry visage intruded on his thoughts.
“Is your friend,” she finished for him. “And my husband, but he isn’t here. There is you and me, and no one else knows I’m here.”
Her hand left his face, fell to rest on his upper chest. The tight thrill swirling beneath his ribs expanded, flowing into his stomach, lower, stirring other things. Ishla held his gaze but moved no more, staring into his eyes with her lips parted, her head tilted.
This is wrong.
Trenan’s mind continued to resist even as he leaned forward and their mouths came together.
Ishla ran the tip of her finger along the swordsman’s breast bone, tracing a line through the cooling perspiration. The ache in Trenan’s shoulder he’d forgotten as the queen expressed her appreciation crept back as though someone pressed the tip of a stick into his wound.
The queen peered at him and he held her gaze. Though neither spoke, words swam through his mind—things to say, plans never to be executed, the vision of an impossible life. He thought he saw the same shining in her eyes, hidden behind a mix of nurturing care and sadness.
After a moment, the breathtaking young woman climbed off him, her weight lifting from his hips as another palpable one settled into his chest.
“I must go before I am missed,” she said, one corner of her mouth lifting in a lopsided smile.
She bent and retrieved her nightgown from the floor. Trenan watched as she shook it out, revelling in the way her muscles moved beneath her porcelain skin, the tremor shaking her breasts. She stretched her arms toward the ceiling and slipped her hands into the sleeves, let the nightshirt fall around her like the curtain falling at the end of a masterful play.
A performance Trenan never wanted to end.
The gown fell into place and she smoothed the front with her palms. The swordsman reached out, a jolt of pain shooting along the right side of his chest, and grasped her wrist, coaxed her back toward the bed.
“When will I see you again?”
She looked at him, the smile still on her face, but he watched the sliver of sadness in her eyes overtake it. The queen said nothing in response; she didn’t need to. He’d already known the answer before his lips spoke the words—this was a dangerous game they shouldn’t play again.
Dangerous, but worth the risk.
Ishla leaned over and put her lips to his, the passion and longing of their earlier kisses usurped by regret, mourning. The touch lingered, and he thought to grab her, pull her to him, but the moment passed and she moved away. Trenan released his hold on her wrist and watched her stride across the room to the chamber door.
She let herself out without a backward glance.
“I’ve seen the seasons pass nearly fifteen times,” Dansil mumbled under his breath as he stalked through the castle halls. “I’ll be a man soon enough; bitch can’t tell me what to do.”
His cheek still stung in precisely the shape of his mother’s hand, but her punishments didn’t hurt like they did in his youth. Then, they’d caused him more than physical pain; it was as though she’d struck his soul.
But if something gets beaten enough times, it toughens.
He came to a corner and slowed his pace, peeked around before continuing. Getting caught wandering the halls wouldn’t get him killed, but none of the king’s men would be impressed should they discover him. Even with the red haze of anger at his mother hanging around him, he knew better than to be careless—he’d crept these halls enough times.
Dansil followed the hall and went up the next staircase, avoiding the routes the guards followed when patrolling in the evening. At the top of the stairs, he paused a second time, checking both ways along the corridor. Thick carpet in a shade of deep red covered the floor in both directions; portraits of people he neither recognized nor cared to recognize lined the walls.
On a whim, he took a right and maintained a slow but steady pace, the muscles in his thighs tight and ready to hie him away should one of the many doors lining the hall open and a visiting noble step out. He figured none would this late at night, but better ready than caught.
The end of the hall intersected another; here he stopped again and found himself rewarded for his care. Halfway along the corridor, a door opened. A woman clothed in white bedclothes emerged, the wall sconces behind her illuminating the outline of her body through the cloth.
Dansil sucked a sharp breath at the sight and his hand darted to his groin. The woman stood for a short time, hand on the door’s handle, her head hung. Her long hair caressed her arms and shoulders, the light highlighted the shape of her breasts, the curve at the small of her back. After a moment, she raised her head, glanced along the hall away from where Dansil peered around the corner, then swivelled her head toward him. The young man faded back from the corner before she saw him, a silent curse on his lips.
He waited, breath held, resisting the urge to peep around the corner again. If he did, and she was walking away, the wall sconce’s light might shine between her legs, outlining the most secret of places. But if she headed toward him, he’d be discovered.
The whisper of footsteps padding on the rug interrupted his thought.
She’s coming this way.
No time to hurry back the way he’d come; if he tried, she’d see him, even if she didn’t turn his direction. Lips squeezed hard together, he pressed himself against the wall and hoped she’d continue straight along the corridor.
A moment later, she passed by and Dansil saw her face. His eyes widened and his grip on his half-swollen man thing released.
As she hurried down the corridor, Dansil stepped out from his hiding spot to watch her go, forgetting the possibility she might glance back and see him. She didn’t and, instead of admiring the swing of her hips, the shape of her body hidden beneath the bedclothes, the young man wondered why she’d be out alone at this time of night. When she disappeared around the far corner, he peered back toward the door she’d exited.
The curiosity was too much for Dansil. He crept along the corridor in the direction from which the queen had come, his hand extended and fingertips dragging along the rough stone wall. Every door appeared the same as the others, but he’d noted the one from which she’d emerged: the third on the left. A moment later, he stood in front of the plain wood slab, staring at the handle. After a quick survey of the empty hall, he leaned close, pressed his ear to the door, but heard no sounds within.
Excited saliva filled his mouth. He swallowed hard, raised his hand and rapped his knuckles against the wood.
The knock garnered no immediate response so Dansil assumed the chamber empty until a man’s voice spoke a single word.
The curiosity burning in his brain tingled into his chest and along his limbs. The hand he still held raised after knocking fell to the door handle, gripped it. He didn’t recognize the voice or know who might reside within, but was aware he shouldn’t enter any room in the castle without invitation. He also knew no invitation would come if he waited for one, and he’d never discover who the door concealed.
Dansil set his jaw and pushed the door open.
A musky odor filled the air in the room, one he recognized from the occasions when his mother came home with a man and sent him off to his chambers. The furnishings were sparse and a man lay upon a bed to the left, one shoulder wrapped with a pink-tinged bandage where his arm was missing. The tender expression on his face went stony when he spied the lad.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“Beg your pardon, m’lord swordsman. Wrong chamber.”
Dansil backed out of the room and closed the door behind him, a wicked grin creeping onto his lips as he went. The door clicked shut; he hurried away along the hall lest the man rise and come after him.
Trenan and the queen. The king’s friend and his wife. Together.
He rounded the corner and hastened to the staircase, the path of his future falling into view.
Sometimes, one unexpected turn of events can change a boy’s life.