rip. Drip. Drip. The waterclock turned another degree, sending a cup full of water trickling to the bowl. One more round and the hour would strike. The same hour on the same day that a month ago had marked her marriage to the duke.
Melli settled herself in the most comfortable chair in the most comfortable room in the house. Even as she drew her feet from the floor, her thumb found its way to her mouth. With her other hand she cradled her belly, and then began to rock back and forth. She was a widow with no black to wear, no body to wrap, no wedding night to remember through the mourning. Not a widow at all by Bren's reckoning.
Oh but they were wrong. All of them; from Lord Baralis to her father, from Traff to Tawl, from the duchess Catherine t-o the lowliest stable boy. Each and every one of them as wrong as they could be.
Back and forth Melli rocked. Back and forth, back and forth, back, back, back.
Back to the wedding day. Back to the chapel. Back to the one single hour she and the duke spent as man and wife.
The smell of incense and flowers accompanied them as they turned from the alter and walked down the aisle. The duke's hand was cool, his grip firm. The chapel doors were drawn back and somewhere bells began to ring. One hundred pairs of eyes were focused upon them, yet Melli saw no one but Tawl. In a church full of people feigning joy, the knight's face seemed too honest by far. He bowed as they passed, and as his face fell into shadow, he gave everything away. Regret, raw and unmistakable, was marked in each feature that he tilted toward the floor.
Quickly, Melli glanced at the duke. He had seen nothing, his eyes looked only ahead.
Through the palace they walked; guards in blue to either side, Tawl's footfalls sounding from behind. Melli felt as if she were dreaming, everything had happened so fast: the courtship, the proposal, the marriage. Too fast. She felt drunk with the sheer speed of events, dizzy with the importance of it all. This was more than a marriage - this was a strategy for peace. The duke loved her, she did not doubt that, but it was a love prompted by expediency: he needed an heir and a wife to provide him with one. The marriage was as good as a treaty. And the wedding night would be ink for the signing.
Melli knew all this, but as she walked toward the duke's chamber it began to matter less and less. Her heavy satin gown rubbed against her breasts. She could feel the effects of the ceremonial wine on her cheeks, on the furrow of her tongue and belly deep within. Such strong fare for a fastening, the priests must distill it themselves. Melli shifted her fingers within the duke's grasp, and he turned to look at her.
"Not long now, my love," he whispered.
The richness of voice made up for the thinness of his lips. His hand now felt a little damp, whether from her sweat or his own no longer mattered. Yes, this was part marriage of convenience, but love and passion were equal partners at the join. Indeed tonight they would reign supreme.
They arrived at their destination within a matter of minutes. The last quarter league had been almost a race, with the duke speeding along the corridors just short of a sprint. Tawl had matched him step for step. Eight men waited at the entrance to the duke's chamber; spears crossed in honor, chivalrous in their averted glances. The double doors were opened and the duke bore Melli forward. As he guided her toward the doorway, Melli looked back. Tawl was gone. Her heart fluttered a tiny warning, but the duke's presence - so solid and reassuring - canceled out her feelings of unease. By the time the door closed behind them, Melli couldn't even remember what she was worried about. Nothing mattered any more.
They were in a small vestibule with a short flight of stairs leading up to the chamber. A matching pair of double doors marked the top. As her foot found the first step, Melli felt the duke's hand on her waist. With a firm grip he guided her round.
"I would kiss my wife on the threshold," he said. His voice was unfamiliar to her: a stranger's voice. Low and guttural, it was thick with something that Melli had no name for. His lips were on hers, pressing so hard she could feel the tooth beneath. His tongue followed after. Thin and dry and tough as old leather, it bore the vestiges of his last meal on its length. Melli's foot hovered above the stÇep a moment longer, and then she brought it to rest against the duke's leg.
Up came her tongue from the bottom of her mouth; back arching inward, arms rising upward, lips pressing forward jaw to jaw. Half mad with newly discovered need, Melli leant against the duke for support.
He pulled away. "Come, my love, I will take you to our marriage bed."
Before the words were out of his mouth, she was pushing them back down with her tongue. The thing inside of her was too strong to be delayed. To be deprived of the duke's body even for an instant was too long. He fought her at first; arms pushing her forward, hand in the small of her back, but she fought back in her new found way. Biting his ears and breathing moist hot breaths on his neck.
"Damn you, Melliandra," he murmured as he drew her close. "You're enough to drive a man insane."
The words excited Melli her more than any kiss. ThroÉwing back her head she offered him her breasts. A sharp intake of breath, and then she found herself lying back against the stairs. One solitary lantern lit the duke from behind. At first she was surprised by his knowledge of her clothing: it didn't seem right that a man deal so deftly with petticoats and underdraws. An instant later she was glad of it. Better a man who knew what he was doing than the fumbling youths at court. The duke didn't bother to unlace her bodice or unfasten the hooks on her skirt, he raised the fabric up around her waist and went to work on the linen below.
The stone steps bit into Melli's back. Consecrated wine ran heavy in her blood, carrying fragments of memory along for the ride: kisses and caresses and touches from the past. Jack, Edrad - Melli stiffened for an instant - and Baralis. A long crooked finger drawn down a back raised with welts. Despite herselßf, Melli's spine arched more.
Pain splintered her thoughts. Her legs had long parted of their own accord, and she felt a tearing between. She wanted to scream, but the duke's tongue was whip-sharp in her mouth and Baralis' image was blade-keen in her mind. The pain seemed to fold in on itself, creating a vacuum that demanded to be filled. Melli's fingers no longer formed fists, they became claws. The corner of the step was a hand upon her spine. The man above no more than a silhouette against the light. Need was the only thing that counted, and everything; wine, pain and memories served to heighten the want.
Too soon it came. Too quickly it was over. Too little to justify the means. Melli's breaths were ragged, irregular. She wanted more.
Something warm and mercury-heavy trickled down the length of her thigh. Her gaze alighted on the ceiling: stone capped with brass. The duke, for he was now himself once more, stood ovÖer her and tore off the fabric at his tunic's cuff.
"Here," he said, handing her the length of heavily embroidered linen. "Clean yourself up. There is a lot of blood." His tone was cold, almost disapproving.
Melli turned away from him and did what she was told. She was ashamed, confused; brought down to earth with a unsettling jolt. Had she done something to displease him?
The blood was not easy to wipe clean. It was dark and fast to dry. Melli had to spit on the cloth to bring it off. As she rubbed away the last of it, the duke spoke up from behind.
"Would that we had waited for the marriage bed. This is not the place to show you love's pleasures."
Melli stood up. Her legs were weak, her senses slow to rally. A dull pain sounded in her side. "You did not enjoy it?" she asked.
The duke came forward and smoothed down her dress. He did not look at her as he said, "It would have been àbetter for you if you were comfortable."
Sensing something close to embarrassment in the duke's voice, Melli stretched out her arm. "Come then, let us try again."
The duke smiled, his first since the wedding. "You bewitch me," he said.
Melli began to ascend the stairs. "I've never been called a witch before, though I was once called a thief."
"You steal men's hearts?"
"No. Their fates." As Melli spoke, a shudder went down her spine. The words were not her own, they belonged to another woman. A woman from the Far South who was an assistant to a flesh trader. "Where I come from we call people like her thieves. Their fates are so strong they bend others into their service. And what they can't bend they steal."
Melli's hand was on the door. The duke was just behind her. She pushed against the brass plate and entered the chambers first. They were in the duke's study. Melli remembered it w ell. Two desks were laid out with food. Cold roast beef, ham and venison, sweetmeats, wafers and pies. The crest of Bren was sculpted in spun sugar.
The duke made his way over to the nearest table and poured them both a cup of wine. For the first time Melli noticed his sword about his waist. Had he worn it through the lovemaking? Surely not.
He held out the cup of wine for her to take. "Let us eat a little to regain our strength," he said, smiling gently.
Melli was by his side in an instant. She took the cup and set it down. With hands shaking, she felt for the hilt of his sword. The duke's eyes flashed a warning. She ignored it, and pulled the sword from its loop. It was heavy, solid, good in the hand. "You won't be needing this," she said, laying it flat upon the desk.
She cut-off his protest with a kiss. "Let us eat later. The food is cold, a little longer will do it no harm." What was started on the stairs needed to be finished - for her at least. It seemed the duke had already taken his pleasure. She clasped at his fingers. "Take me to the bedchamber."
The duke's eyes were a match for his blade. He took hold of her arm, not gently. "Very well," he said. "It seem's I cannot keep my lady waiting." Twisting her arm behind her back, he walked Melli to the bedchamber.
She saw the assassin first. He was at the side of the door, knife up close to his chest. Melli screamed. The duke pushed her forward with one hand and reached for his sword with the other. It wasn't there. He hesitated for only a half-second, but it was more than enough. The assassin was at his throat. His blade was long, his hand was quick. It was over in less than an instant.
Melli screamed and screamed and no one came. Blood soaked the duke's tunic even before his body fell to the floor. The assassin's name came to her: Traff, Baralis' mercenary. After that one last feat of coherence, her mind seemed to give in. She could remember nothing that followed. Except Tawl. The knig ht came and although nothing was, or every would be, all right again, at least he made sure she was safe. Tawl would take care of her always - she didn't need her mind to tell her that. Her heart already knew.
Back and forward Melli rocked. Forward, forward, forward.
The waterclock turned another degree. One month to the minute now. One month a widow, one month in hiding, one month with no blood to show.
There had been more than a wedding that day, there was a union as well. The marriage had been consummated and she was the only person in the Known Lands who knew it. Not for long, though. Melli's hand cradled her belly. The last time blood had flowed between her legs had been on the stairs leading to the duke's chamber. Breaching blood, not menses. There had been nothing since.
A child was growing inside; the duke's child, and if it was a boy, his heir. Melli spread her fingers full-out upon her belly. How would the city of Bren take the news? The answer was quick to come. They would try and discredit her, claim the duke was not the father, or that the child was begot out of wedlock. Lies and slander would be thrown her way - indeed by many she was already counted an accomplice to murder. None of it mattered anymore. The only thing that counted was keeping the new life safe.
In eight months time a baby would be born, and everything: her life, her strength, her very soul, would be directed toward its protection. She had taken the duke's sword and stolen his fate, and this was either penalty or payment.
Melli stood up and put a hand to the waterclock, tipping the liquid from the cone. Prematurely it struck the next hour: Melli wished that all hours would pass so fast. She was impatient for the child to be born.
Ifm it were a girl, then she would take her share of Catherine's wealth. If it were a boy he would have it all.