Friday, February 22, 2013

Chapter 31: Betrayal


Sterren dressed quickly and left Reinier upstairs in her bedroom to answer the insistent knocking on her door.

"I'm  sorry for coming by so late," Gaelle apologizes breathlessly, "But it's a matter of urgency. I must ask a favor of you. But first, you must promise, never to breath a word of this anyone."

"Gaelle, I would never betray a confidence," Sterren assures the trembling young woman, "Especially if concerns a matter that requires my healing...?"

Gaelle's pale, freckled skin flushes, "I need...I've heard that there is a appear to be still a virgin when you..." she trails off, too embarrassed to continue.

"I understand," Sterren says. Gaelle's engagement to Treveur Brannon has been long anticipated and finally officially announced, with their wedding set for just a few weeks away. Treveur had been courting Gaelle for as long they were both of age, but he apparently hasn't been the only one, nor will he be the first to share her bed. "But, you do know, not every virgin will bleed the first time. Sometimes, activities like horse riding will..."

"I know," Gaelle interrupts, "But, I want there to be no doubt in Treveur's mind that the child is his."

"You're pregnant, by another man," Sterren realizes.

Gaelle nods. "I hate to ask it of you, but when it comes, you will be midwife, of course. Will you say that the birth came early? So that it might not appear that I had conceived before I first lay with Treveur?"

"And what of the child's father, Gaelle?" Sterren asks, her voice quiet. But not so quiet that Reinier, crouched stealthily on the stairs, listening unbeknownst to the women, cannot hear. "Are you certain he will not make a claim on your child? That he won't speak of your affair?"

"I'm quite certain of that," Gaelle answers.

Sterren raises an eyebrow, "Is he a married man, Gaelle?"

"No!" Gaelle insists, "At least, I don't think so. I suppose he could be," she frowns, thinking. Morvyn had never told her anything about his home or his family, his people or his life. "Sterren, he's of the wilders, from the forest," Gaelle admits reluctantly, "Please, you must never speak of this."

"Truly? A wilder?" Sterren asks, impressed and intrigued. Gaelle was the last person she'd expect to be so adventurous, and she wonders if she could draw that story from the young woman. 

"So, you understand why I must pass this child as Treveur's," Gaelle pleads.

Sterren frowns, "The father may be a wilder, but he's still the child's father," she chides, "You cannot just take that from him."

"What would you have me do?" Gaelle asks, "Go live in the forest and raise my child as a wilder? Or tell Treveur and the world I'm bearing a wilder child? Maybe I would deserve the scorn that would be my lot, but think of the child, Sterren! To be called a wilder's bastard all his life and scorned by his mother's people?"

Sterren's frown grows deeper, but Gaelle's point is well taken. Though she may not approve of the lies they conspire to tell, for the sake of the child, Sterren must go along with Gaelle's deceitful plan. "I will say the birth came early, when it comes," she agrees with a reluctant sigh, "As for the other thing, I can make something for you. Come back tomorrow. I will need first to gather some things. But, you must promise me, that this is the end of your affair. You'll endanger your child and any others you conceive if you continue to see your wilder and risk discovery." 

Gaelle nods, "I know it well," she says, "I promise, I am now and forevermore Treveur's and Treveur's only."

After closing the door behind Gaelle, Sterren turns to head back to her bed, only to find Reinier, dressed, coming down the stairs.

"Where are you going?" she asks playfully, cupping his chin in her hand.

"It is late," Reinier says, "It wouldn't be seemly for me to spend the night."

Sterren laughs, "But it was seemly for you to make love to me all evening?"

"No one saw come here, Sterren, and there's a better chance none will see me leave if I go now rather than at dawn, when the farmers and merchants are all out doing their business."

"You want to marry me, but will not risk being seen as my lover?" Sterren asks.

Reinier pulls her close to him. "I want to marry you, and let all the world see how much I love you," he says, "But unless you agree to that, I may very well be the husband of Agneta Goth in just a few month's time. And I would not have my future wife hear of the lover I had in Avendale while my father was busy arranging our bethrothal."

Sterren cannot argue with his logic, but she cannot help but compare her situation to Gaelle's. I suppose I'm the wilder lover in this affair, she thinks, smiling wryly to herself as she closes the door behind him, the lover he cannot admit to having when he goes to his proper bride. Unless I marry him myself.

Gaelle's heart leaps to her throat as the sound of steps behind grows more rapid, closing in.

"Hold a moment," the voice says, the northern accent thick and unmistakable, "I would have a word with you."

"With me, my Lord?" Gaelle asks, stopping to face Reinier Landgraab.

"I recognize you," he says, though he does not, truly. The girl he saw entwined in the wilder's arms the night he and his men encountered them by the standing stones could have been anyone, he saw so little of her face. Gaelle's conversation with Sterren revealed her identity, but Reinier would prefer not to betray his lover, and so pretends to recognize her from seeing her with his own eyes, "That night, at the stone circle, I saw you with that wilder."

"You--you attacked us!" Gaelle gasps, understanding.

"We did not attack," Reinier says, "We approached, to question the wilder, But, being a savage, he attacked us, and your wild lover joined his friend. They killed two of my men and left me to die."

"What--what do you want of me?" Gaelle begs, close to sobbing, imagining all kinds of terrible vengeance this northerner could take on her.

"Calm yourself, I won't hurt you," Reinier says gently, "I'm seeking a scout who knows the enchanted forest. I only want to speak with your lover or one of his tribe."

"They keep to themselves, mostly," Gaelle, "I don't think they'd be willing to talk to you, let alone guide you into their forest."

"And that's why I approached you," Reinier says with a false smile, "Tell where you meet with him, and when."

"I will not," Gaelle refuses defiantly, "And, anyway, I will not be meeting him again."

"That is a shame truly," Reinier says, "I counted on your help. Perhaps I should start asking others in your village where it is that you are accustomed to meting with your wilder lover...?"

Gaelle's eyes widen as she understands the threat he's making, "You wouldn't!" she gasps.

"I won't, if you give me what I want. There must be some way you communicate with him, to let him know when you'll be able to meet him..."

"Good morning," Taran greets Sterren as she approaches him working in his garden, "I have some valerian root for you." When Sterren reaches for her purse to pay for his proffered roots, Taran waves a hand in refusal. "It's a gift," he insists, "You've done so much for us. For Elara."

"It was the Lady that cured Elara," Sterren says,  "I cannot take credit for that. And I ask no payment."

"Not payment, then, but an offering. Use it to help others. I insist."

Sterren takes the roots without further argument.

"I came to see how Elara is doing," Sterren says, "She has no fever? Or chills?"

"None at all," Taran says, smiling and obviously pleased with his daughter's condition, "She's as healthy as ever."

"Your aunt has been bragging all overthe village about your impending marriage to the dragon slayer," Taran says, "Is it true, Sterren?"

Sterren frowns. Her uncle Marrec made a huge mistake in telling Gwencalon of Reinier's proposal. Her aunt is incapable of keeping quiet about anything, and she refuses to believe that the proposal has not been accepted, or that Sterren could ever seriously refuse a man like Reinier Landgraab. "I am not betrothed as of yet," she says.

"But you will soon be?"

Sterren bites her lip and sighs, "This is all happening so fast. There is an attraction between us,"she admits, confident that Taran can keep her secrets. "A strong attraction. But, you know how those things can go...I barely know the man. I don't want to mary and then discover he's not what he appeared at first glance."

Taran nods in understanding, "It's not helping that your aunt is pushing for the match, either, I suppose. They'd like to see you married back up into a noble house."

"They would," Sterren says, "But I don't want to leave Avendale, or my service to the Lady. I wish didn't have to decide so soon." She continues, telling Taran the whole story of Reinier's impending arranged marriage.

"I wish I could offer you advice," Taran says.

"I know," Sterren says, touching his arm in gratitude, "And I'm glad to have your confidence and your friendship. Just being able to talk about it has helped me, I think."

Sterren lets Taran get back to his work and spends some time with Elara, making sure the girl has truly recovered and has no signs of illness that her adoring father may have overlooked.

In the woods just outside the village, beyond the Lady's sacred grove, stands a tree, forked in the middle. Whenever Gaelle wished to arrange a meeting with Morvyn in the evening, she would place a scarf scented with her perfume in the crotch of that tree in the morning.

She's never going to see Morvyn again, Gaelle knows this, and she knows she's betraying him by placing her scarf here now. But what choice does she have? The dragon slayer threatened to expose her affair, and that would ruin any chance their child would have at happiness or comfort. "I'm doing this for our child," she whispers, though she intends for Morvyn to never even know that he's going to be a father.

Reinier and his men watch, hidden at a safe distance in the brush.

Having betrayed her love, Gaelle flees the scene, taking some comfort in the promise Reinier made, that he would not harm Morvyn, that he only wished to ask his help in getting through the forest to find the dragons that lived there. And, surely, that cannot be such a bad thing? Gaelle reasons. Even the wilders must fear the mighty lizards that share their forests, and should be grateful for the aid of the renowned dragon slayer.

"Now what?" Harald asks, whispering.

"We wait," Reinier says, "Quietly."

Morvyn finds Gaelle's scarf in the usual place, and it is scented with her perfume...but how odd that he didn't pick up the scent until he actually came as close as the tree. Dragons have a keen sense of smell, like all the other predators of the forest, and excellent hearing. But something is dulling Morvyn's senses, the sounds of the forest are not as sharp as they should be, and he can smell nothing over the strong perfume of Gaelle's scarf left in the crotch of the tree. He tries to use his healer's sense to discover what might be wrong with him, some illnes clouding his mind, but finds even hisskill as a healer no longer functions. He's only ever felt anything like once before...

When he remembers the attack he and Talfryn suffered at the hands of the mortals, and the way they had both lost their abilities,it's too late. The mortals have him surrounded.

His senses may be weakened, and he hasn't the magic to transform or use his powers of the mind to confuse his captors, but Morvyn still has his physical strength, and so struggles out of his captor's grasp and elbows him, hard, in the jaw.

But even as the oner who holds him falls away, the other two draw their swords.

Alone and unarmed against three men, weakened by their magic, Morvyn is, after a struggle, subdued and shackled. As the metal is locked around his wrists, his skin tingles, and Morvyn knees nearly buckle beneath him. It's the metal, he realizes, something in the metal they wear, theirweapons, even the chains that bind him, cause this weakness, this loss of magic. And much good that knowledge will do us when they kill, he thinks with chagrin.

"In every country I've visited, there are dragons," Reinier says to his captive, "Dragons who live in enchanted forests where men who enter get lost, find themselves turned around. Forests that men cannot hunt. And wherever these dragons live, I also find savages, like yourself, wild tribes of men who live in these forests without trouble. I've come to believe there is a connection between your kind and the dragons, some service you provide them that causes them to allow you safe passage through their woods. Tell me, savage, what do your people give to these dragons? Your children? Your women?"

Morvyn answers with only a derisive snort, and Reinier backhands him across the jaw with his armored fist.

"You will speak, savage, before I am done with you," Reinier threatens, and gestures to his men.

"We'll take him to my brother's keep in Odet," Reinier says as he leads his men, dragging their captive between them, out of the woods.

They were lying in wait for him, Morvyn thinks, putting up a much resistance as he's able, making them drag him unwillingly through the woods. Could Gaelle have betrayed him? How else would they have known where to wait for him?

"You can't bring--that--here!" Marrec sputters when he sees the captive Reinier's men are dragging up the path to his castle.

"I would not impose on your hospitality with my prisoner," Reinier answers, "I came only to thank you for quartering my men, and take my leave, for now. I must return to Odet for a time, but I still hope for the day when our houses are joined, Lord Avendale."

"What has the wilder done?" Marrec asks.

"You don't need to concern yourself with that," Reinier says, "Please, give my regards to your niece, and tell her I will be back shortly."

"Tell her yourself," Marrec says, nodding his had toward the path, where Sterren approaches.

"Sterren," Reinier calls to her, approaching.

"What is the meaning of this?" she demands, turning to him with an agry glare, "Why is this man bound and imprisoned."

"I'm taking him to my brother's keep in Odet," Reinier explains, "He lives in the forests and knows the habits of the dragons."

"And so you chain him and drag him into your dungeon?" Sterren asks, hervoice rising, "Let him go, Reinier. You have no right to treat him thus, when he's committed no crime."

Reinier pulls Sterren aside, away from his men. "You will not address me in that manner in front of my men," he hisses sharply, grabbing her wrist, "You do not  give me orders, or question mine."

Sterren glares, meeting for the first time the dragon slayer, the warrior, the lord, the man who lives by the sword, behind the gentle, devoted lover he had been to her thus far.

"Would you have me dragged off in chains for defying you?" she asks with a sneer, and Reinier drops her arm.

"That savage can tell us much about dragons, so that I may better defend our people from their kind," he tries to explain.

"He's done nothing to deserve being hauled off in chains," Sterren insists, "You can't do this."

"I can, Sterren, and I will," Reinier says, walking away without allowing further conversation, "He is my captive."

Sterren fumes, but has no power or authority to do anything more than protest against this injustice. She  looks their wilder captive in the eye, sees his proud defiance, and wonders if he's Gaelle's lover, the father of a the child he doesn't know she's conceived.

"How could you let them take him?" Sterren turns her anger on her uncle once Reinier and his men have rode off with their captive.

"How would you propose I stop him?" Marrec asks her in response.

"Are you not the lord of Avendale? Doesn't your authority supercede his?"

"It does, Sterren. But the Landgraabs aren't ones to be defied with impunity, even by the lords of the lands they visit. Look at Odet....who rules there now? If Reinier wants to take a wilder from our forests, it is better for us all that I simply let him. I would not risk war with them over one man, especially not one who doesn't fall under my protection."

Sterren returns to her house in time to prepare for Gaelle's expected visit to her shop.

"I saw Reinier Landgraab with a wilder captive," Sterren tells her, "He's taking him to Odet to question him there. My uncle would do nothing to stop him."

"He promised me he wouldn't hurt him," Gaelle groans.

"The captive he took is your lover, then?" Sterren asks.

"It must be. After I left your house last night, The Lord Landgraab approached me on the street, and said he recognized me. One night when I was with Morvyn, he came on us with his men. There was a fight...I fled, but he must have seen me. And he said he would tell everyone he saw me if I didn't help him get to Morvyn. But he said he just wanted a guide through the enchanted forest, and he swore he wouldn't hurt him. Oh, blessed Lady, what have I done? I only wanted to protect our child..."

"Calm yourself, Gaelle," Sterren advises, stroking the girl's arm, "You did what you thought was right. I will see what I can do to help get him released." Gaelle has behaved foolishly in this, Sterren thinks, but her anger is focused solely on Reinier.

"What can you do?" Gaelle groans.

"Don't concern yourself with that. Be strong, and try to seem cheerful when you go to Treveur tonight. This is out of your hands now."

Before the sun sets, Sterren arrives at the stone circle outside the village, the one that sits atop the tomb of the Lady herself. Or so they say, though in many of the tales the Lady never actually dies, and cannot therefore be buried here or anywhere. 

"I'm looking for Moth," she tells a butterfly who lights upon her hand.

Sterren was never sure if the butterflies she's talked to since childhood actually are Moth, or if they just have some magical way of contacting him, but whenever she's called for him, Moth has appeared.

"I need to speak with you, Moth," she says to the glowing light that flutters about her head.

"Iamhere," he says, his breathless voice rushed, though he never appears to be in any particular hurry.

"Moth, do you know the wilder folk that live in the forest?" she asks. Despite being Moth's friend for as long as she can remember, she knows very little about the fair folk. But the enchanted forest was enchanted by someone, and Sterren can only assume the fair folk are involved, and may have some relation to the wild tribes that hunt there.

"Wilderfolk?" Moth asks, his brows raised, puzzled.

"The human tribes that live in the enchanted forest," Sterren persists, not ready to give it up yet. It may be that Moth truly doesn't know anything about them, but she's also learned from experience that getting through to Moth is often simply a matter of phrasing things so that he might understand. "They often have tattoos on their arms, and they never come into the village."

"Ohhhhh," Moth breathes, his eyes widening in recognition, "Them. Yes, Iknowthem. Youshould stayaway! Theylikeprivacy."

"I do not wish to bother them. But, if you know them...could you tell them that one of their number have been taken captive? He's being taken to Odet by his captor, the one we call the dragon slayer, Lord Reinier Landgraab."

"Dragonslayer?" Moth squeaks, "Thatis notgood! Notgood!" he frowns, "Whatis Odet?"

"That's a town, not far to the north of here. Where the two rivers meet," Sterren explains, "Please, if the wilder folk go after him, tell them to be careful. Reinier is dangerous. But tell them he didn't mean any real harm. He just wants to learn more about the dragons."

"Iwill tellthem," Moth promises with a frown, "They willnot behappy."

Sterren nods and thanks the fairy, hoping she's done the right thing. No, she knows it's the right thing. Whatever she feels for Reinier, he had no right to take the wilder. She wishes she could talk to them herself, explain, try to justify what Reinier has done in the name of protecting people from the dragons, plead for mercy on his behalf, but the best she can do is warn them, and hope they can rescue their tribesman without killing his captor. Or all dying in the attempt, she thinks with chagrin. She turns to tell Moth to stop, to forget she said anything, but it's too late, he's already gone.

Moth goes directly to Evenfall, to the room she shares with her dragon lover, Talfryn.

"Sorrysorrysorry," Moth says, not turning around, "Imust speakwithyou."

"This better be important, fairy," Talfryn growls, sitting up on the edge of his bed.

"Sterrentold metotellyou," Moth begins, and is quickly interrupted.

"Who is Sterren?" Talfryn asks.

"She one of my sister's descendants," Evenfall explains, "Moth watches out for them for us."

"Go on," Talfryn nods to Moth, "What did this Sterren tell you that is important enough for you to interrupt us?"

"A man theycall dragonslayer has one of yours. Theyare taking him towhere the tworivers meet," Moth says, "Shesays heis dangerous."

"Dragon slayer?" Talfryn snorts angrily, rising to dress himself, "We'll see about that."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Chapter 30: So That the Lie May Come True

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, Auberon put his heart inside a stone that glowed as bright as the moon, and he gave that stone to a mortal girl, who swallowed it and made it part of herself. For all the years of her life, Auberon's heart beat next to her own, and when it came back to him after her death, it was no longer his heart alone, for a part of the girl remained within it.

"A descendant of your daughter prayed for the life of a child this morning," Auberon says, his voice quiet in the solitude of his room of portal, his secret place where even Tania Summerdream dares not follow. "I gave her the means to cure the illness, and the girl was saved."

The aurora hovering above the heart stone glows with approval. Most of the time, that's all the response Auberon gets for the deeds he does in her name, the little miracles that keep her people's belief in her alive.

Sometimes, the reward is greater, sometimes she comes herself, through the one portal in this room of portals that he may not enter, the portal into the place the mortals call the spirit realm. Auberon went there once, and it nearly killed him. She brought him there, and then she saved him. That's where it all began, when she swallowed his heart, and made him a part of her, and her a part of him.

In the stories her people tell of them, they share an eternal love, and perhaps those stories are what ties Auberon to her still, long after she died her mortal death. Or perhaps it's the stone, where her heart and his still beat, joined together in an unending song. Only Tania has ever asked Auberon why he continues to answer the prayers of the descendants a lover long dead, why he feeds their belief in the lie he created, and Auberon said only, "So that the lie may come true."

There are times when Auberon stops to wonder how deep the lie runs, if even this ghost in his arms is merely his own creation, and not a visitor from the realm of spirit at all, a fantasy bon of his unconscious mind, like the dreams of mortals, who create worlds as they sleep, and yet do not know they created it. He always told her, told Uvie, he makes himself remember her name, long lost to her own kind, fading from the memory of the world even as the stories persist, that real or not made no difference, and so he still believes. And so he gives himself to his ghostly lover, and loves her just as he did his Uvie, so long go.

"The river again," Reinier remarks as their path through the forest leads them back to the river's edge.

Reinier brought his men into the forest in the late morning, as soon as they could get away from Marrec and Gwencalon Avendale's hospitality. Marrec had assured them that the dragons in these parts were less aggressive than those of his native lands, and warned them their hunt might not bear any fruit, that dragons were hardly seen here at all.

"It's the wolves you want to watch out for in that forest," Marrec had confided in a whisper, as though he feared the wolves might hear him talking about them. "They aren't your regular wolves. There's magic in that forest. Be sure to be out of it before night falls."

Reinier Landgraab has no fear of wolves, regular or otherwise, nor is he afraid of the dangers nightfall may bring. But he may have no choice but to be out of the forest long before the sun sets, for every step they take deeper into the woods leads them back out again to this river at the forest's edge.

"Enchantment," Reinier says, "The forest itself keeps turning us around. We'll never get any further in on our own."

"We could find a guide?" Harald suggests.

"I doubt anyone in the village has ever braved these woods," Reinier says, "But, there are wild tribes who live in this forest. The same as the wild tribes who live in our forests at home, barbarians with tattooed arms, at home in places where creatures of magic live."

"You don't think we could get one of them to guide us into the forest?' Geeraad asks.

"No," Reinier shakes his head, "They have no love for our kind. But, that night I was attacked here, we saw one of those wild men with a village girl. If we could find her, we could make her take us to her wild lover..."

"You're sure it was a village girl?"

"She was wearing silks, yes," Reinier says, "And when we attacked the men, she fled toward the village, not the forest."

"Did you get a good look at her?"

"Unfortunately, no," Reinier answers, "She had red hair, and her dress suggested she was of the merchant class. Wealthy enough, but not noble."

"Good luck finding a girl in this village who isn't a redhead," Geeraard complains.

"We're more likely to meet up with the local lasses in the tavern than out here in the woods," Harald says brightly.

"She wasn't a bar wench," Reinier points out, but has to agree that they are getting nowhere out in the wilds.

"I'm beginning to think you enjoy making me look a fool," Treveur says, "All the village are waiting for us to announce a marriage day, and wondering why you are keeping me waiting."

"Do you care so much what the villagers say?" Gaelle answers with a teasing laugh.

"No, I don't," Treveur says, "But I do want to marry you. How long will you make me wait?"

Gaelle closes her eyes and sighs. Before Morvyn, Treveur Brannon was all she thought about. Her wild lover may have turned her heart, but Gaelle's head knows well where she belongs. She can no more bring Morvyn into the village as a husband than she could go and live with him in the forests. Not that he asked either of her, she reminds herself. Treveur is the sole heir of a large and prosperous farm, her parents and his both look forward to their match. And he was always kind to her, generous with his gifts, tender in his affections.

"I told my mother this morning to begin making the preparations for our wedding," Gaelle says,finding a sort of relief in saying it, making it real. Her future is here, with this man, and it's time for her to stop pretending anything else, "We'll be married before summer's end."

"You've made me the happiest of men," Treveur enthuses.

"Sterren!" Gwencalon calls out to her niece as she returns from Taran's house, "I have such news! Oh, such happy news!"

"I must speak with my uncle," Sterren says, making up any excuse to get away from gossiping with her aunt, "Has the Lord Landgraab returned from his hunt?" she asks hopefully before turning away. That's the real reason she's stopped at her uncle's before going back to her own house in the village, her desire to see him, speak with him, again.

"That's what I want to tell you!" Gwencalon rises to block Sterren from leaving, "Reinier Landgraab asked your uncle for your hand this morning! I knew he liked you, I saw it in the way he looked at you. But I hardly expected him to act so soon."

Sterren hadn't expected it at all, though she'd spent the night with him. "He asked my uncle for my hand?" she asks, confused, "He said nothing to me..."

"Well, that's their custom, where he's from," Gwencalon explains, "Your uncle explained that, and the young lord will be proposing to you himself as soon as he's back, I'm sure. He asked your uncle not to speak of it to you, though, so you must act surprised when he asks."

"That's an odd custom, asking a girl's a uncle for her hand," Sterren frowns.

"So what if it is?" Gwencalon asks, "We have some time before the men return from their hunt. Let me help you dress in something fitting to be proposed to in, and we can make plans for your wedding dress, and the feat. Oh, it will be such a grand feast!"

"You are getting ahead of yourself, Aunt," Sterren says, "He has not yet made his proposal, nor have I accepted it."

"He made his intentions clear to your uncle, in his eyes, it was a proposal," Gwencaloon says, "And you would not be such a fool as to reject a man like Reinier Landgraab. Come inside, now, so that we can curl your hair."

"Forgive me, aunt, but I must go back to the village now," Sterren says, backing away from her aunt's attempts to groom her.

As the sun begins to set, Reinierturns p at her door, alone. "I left my men at the tavern," he says, "I're angry with me," he changes the subject mid sentence when he notices the scowl on her face.

"I had to learn of your intention to marry me from my aunt," Sterren says, her voice cold and sharp.

Reinier frowns to hear that Marrec broke his word and told his wife about their discussion. "I meant no disrespect, Sterren," he explains, "I did not know your custom was so different from my own."

Sterren moves aside so he can enter her house. "If you had told me you wanted to marry me, I could have told you what our customs were and avoided this mess," she says.

"I told you I would speak to your uncle; any girl in my country would have understood from that that I meant to make a proposal. I was wrong to assume you would take my meaning, but, truly, I believed you'd understood my intent before you left me this morning."

Sterren pouts, unable to argue the point further. It was a misunderstanding of culture, and not something she should hold against him.

Reinier sees her anger break, and moves in swiftly to take her hands in his, "I cannot undo my mistake. But, I am sorry for it. And I ask you now, will you be my wife, Sterren?"

"Reinier, we've only known each other for one day, we can't possibly decide something like this so soon," Sterren says.

Stung by her rejection, even as softly spoken as it was, Reinier answers rashly, "You only knew me for one day before you took me into your bed!"

Sterren turns from him, her ire rising again, "And you of course have never gone to bed with a woman you had no intention of marrying?"

"Of course I have," Reinier admits, "Women of common birth..." he trails off as he realizes what he's saying.

"Then add me to your list of baseborn conquests and be done with me," Sterren shouts.

"Sterren, please, I didn't mean..." Reinier takes a deep breath, and steps closer to her, to start his plea over again.

"Sterren, this is not about class or land or money, it's not about who we've been with before we met, it's about you and me. I knew, while I watched you bandaging my hands, that I would love you. And you can tell me, or yourself, that all I am to you is a night's pleasure, but I know it isn't true, because I see the love your bear me in your eyes. Look into your heart Sterren, accept my love and be my wife."

"Reinier," she sighs his name, "I cannot deny, there's a strong attraction between us, and even in the short time since we've met, I do find that I care for you, very much..."

Reinier pulls her close to press his lips to her neck. "And I do...very much...enjoy your company..." she gasps between kisses.

"I am offering you my company for the rest of our lives, Sterren," he whispers, nuzzling her ear.

"I'm afraid I cannot think past the pleasure your company could bring right now," she giggles, leading him by the hand to her bedroom.

"You have still avoided answering my proposal," Reinier says, stroking her hair after they've made love on the rug by her fireplace.

"Because I don't like feeling rushed into this, Reinier. I don't want to refuse you outright; we do have feelings for each other. But it's too soon to say if those feelings are deep enough to last and sustain a marriage."

"Nothing would please me more than to court you for as long and as fervently as you would like, my dear heart, but I do not have the luxury of time. I must marry you soon, or not at all."

"What? Why?" Sterren asks, lifting herself up to look him in the eye.

"My father wishes me to marry Agneta Goth, and is already bargaining with her father over dowry and bride prices."

"And you cannot simply refuse to be sold off like property?"

"Refuse to do my father's will?" Reinier's eyes widen, "No, I cannot. I am a younger son, Sterren, and I am my father's to do with as he likes. But even he cannot cast asunder a marriage made under the eye of the Watcher. If I married you, he could not force me to marry another."

"And so you've been courting me just to get out of this unwanted marriage?" Sterren asks, her voice sharpening.

"No, in truth I was content enough with my father's choice. Agneta Goth is beautiful, and intelligent. There is no love between us, or even any interest, but I know my duty and was willing enough to carry it out. And then I met you, fell in love with you, and the thought of marrying the Goth princess is a torture to my mind. I'll have you, and no other."

"I'd be a good husband to you," Reinier promises softly after her silence goes on too long.

"I'm sure you would," she sighs, caressing his chest, feeling a little selfish about refusing to help him out of a marriage she knows she would resent being forced into, were she in his place. "I'm just not ready for this, that we're ready. How long do you have before it's too late?"

"By summer's end, my father and the Goths will have come to terms for an engagement that would bring shame on my family if I refused or ran off with another bride."

"Then, let me take this time to think on it, before I give you my answer," Sterren says