The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.
Rija broke off her warning gaze and wrenched open the door. Sem stood there hand raised just about to knock again. His eyes widened. He looked first at Rija then at Sambeth then back again, dropping his hand.
“Good evening, ladies,” he said formally, “I’m looking for a pair of drowned river rats my mother left here to dry out!”
It was impossible not to smile. Rija held out her hand and he brought it lightly to his lips.
“My lady,” his voice was light but Sambeth noticed that his eyes flicked quickly around the room.
Satisfied, he looked at Sambeth holding out an expectant hand. Sambeth pressed her lips together, discomfort plainly writ all over her slim, pale face. She felt that if she entered into this new charade, playing at ladies and gentlemen, then she would be complicit in a deception and it would prevent her from keeping up her prickly guard.
Reluctantly, she offered her own hand saying, “This is not the appropriate attire for me, my lord.”
She intended the title to be archly mocking but he accepted it without a blink, instead searching her face intent upon discovering her meaning.
“We will replace your original clothing as soon as possible, of course,” he said courteously after a slight pause and lifted her hand also to his lips.
It was a common greeting between the highborn but the back of her hand burned and her face flushed.
Why had she blurted out the first thing that entered her head? She blamed it on the discomfort of her apparel and avoided meeting Rija’s eye. She registered the amused curl on Rija’s full lips as her eyes slid past and rested determinedly on the wall behind Sem’s head.
After an awkward moment Sem gave a small shrug and swung around.
“Follow me,” he said over his shoulder, “the family want to meet you.”
Two bright spots of colour remained in Sambeth’s cheeks as Rija gave her a wide-eyed, meaningful stare. Pull yourself together, her look seemed to say. Sambeth raised her chin defiantly and strode after Sem.
After a lengthy walk, Sem paused before a door. Sambeth was breathing deeply from keeping up with his swift pace and getting quite frustrated trying to remember all the doors and twisty corridors in this vast, echoing place. Sem dropped his voice.
“This is the dining hall. We will sit down with my mother, whom you’ve met; my father, Noesh and my two brothers, Jaffith and Ajalon.”
He twisted the handle but paused again, “They are…we are somewhat anxious to know the details of your adventure.”
He flinched slightly as Sambeth gasped his wrist.
“What about Amis?” she asked.
Sem shook his head.
“Amis is in another quarter of Tetrahin with Queen Norea and his own people,” he looked serious, “be ready, it might be tough going in here.”
Without further hesitation he opened the door and led them in.
Beyond Sem, the regal lady they had already met sat on a couch. T’ajar. Beside her, close with fingers entwined intimately with hers, sat a fine figure of a man. Clearly he was older as was she. His hair, black as a raven’s wing was greying at the temples. Fine, dark eyes set deep radiated intense intelligence and something more. The face was noble in its bearing. Sambeth was drawn to him immediately. He had a certain charisma. There was an ache in her soul, a longing. She wanted to speak with him, to know him and yet she was awe-struck and tongue-tied. This must be Noesh.
Two others were in the room. One was dark, his hair falling across his face; the other was big and fair. Both were tall. Clearly, they were surprised at the appearance of their newest guests although they too were dressed for dinner. Sambeth fidgeted at a fold of the sky-blue fabric of her dress, tugging it slightly in annoyance, uncomfortable under their gaze. She wondered if the woman had dressed them up on purpose to make them uncomfortable.
She didn’t know how vivid the blue of her eyes were in the sky blue dress, eyes fringed with dark lashes and how youthful and vulnerable was her thin face and slender throat. The thick, flaxen hair in its braid and falling swathe, seemed too heavy for her head.
The dark man scowled. Sambeth felt his hostility hit her like a physical blow. She flinched away from his hard, penetrating stare.
Her gaze turned to the fair-haired young giant. He had a pleasant smile on his face but she could tell that underneath it he was deadly serious. Her heart began to thump unpleasantly. What were these people going to do with her and poor Rija. Her knees began to shake. Don’t you dare, she glared down at them. They refused to obey.
She glanced across at Rija. She looked as serene as if she were sitting down with old, trusted friends. Sambeth looked at her in disbelief. How does she do it?
T’ajar rose from the couch and beckoned them forward.
“Come in young ladies. I’m pleased the dresses suit you so well. They were mine when I was young, many years ago. As you see, I have no daughters to dress.”
She spoke lightly, almost playfully and was pleasant but Sambeth knew that she, too, was tense and coiled.
T’ajar turned to her husband who had also risen, to introduce him. Sambeth clenched her hands tightly. His gaze when it met hers briefly, was gentle, full of wisdom and enquiry with no hostility. She actually smiled when he held her hand and faltered a shy greeting.
Pull yourself together, Sambeth, she scolded silently. She was shaken at how much she wanted to draw close to Noesh and be enveloped in the warmth of his presence. What on earth was wrong with her, she wondered. In the midst of her puzzlement it came to her. She had a peculiar sensation of safety. As if she could place all her burdens at his feet and embrace peace.
Then Sem was introducing the dark one. Ajalon’s hand gripped hers. A little too firmly. She turned her face to his, meeting his hostile gaze. With sudden resentment she squeezed back hard, the lean muscle on her forearm standing out. A flash of a smile shone in his eyes for a second. Then his glittering, black eyes narrowed and were hard again.
The other brother had greeted Rija first. Her cool manner surprised Jaffith. Where were the desperate, bedraggled females his brother had described? He was unprepared for this gracious creature behaving as though they were meeting at a royal banquet!
He recognised in Sambeth, a distaste for shallow show. Her firm handshake amused him. He smiled at her and glanced to see how Ajalon was faring with the cool, dark-haired one. Ajalon’s stunned, almost frightened expression made everyone in the room falter. They stopped speaking to gaze at him in surprised wonder.
He took Rija’s hand with just the tips of his fingers.
“Princess,” he bowed over her hand bringing it almost to his lips.
Even though Sambeth already knew Rija’s identity, Ajalon’s startled amazement made it more real.
“Whaaaat!” she heard Sem exclaim under his breath beside her.
As for Rija she was white to the lips.
“Why do you say that?” she cried snatching away her hand as if his fingers burned.
Ajalon shrugged his shoulders, “I’ve made it my business to find out everything that goes on in Arca since they came.”
Rija was recovering her colour. She rubbed the tips of her fingers murmuring, “No one has called me ‘Princess’ for years. Not since that day.”
Loud blows sounded at the door.
“Who dares–?” T’ajar began and the loud knocking sounded again.
Ajalon loped to the door and wrenched it open.
“What do you mean by such an intrusion?” he began indignantly but was thrust aside.
A tall, woman strode past, clad in brown leather and a flowing crimson mantle. Knives bristled in her belt and a sword hung strapped to her back. A finely wrought golden circlet rested on her brow and heavy gold armlets proclaimed her high status. Close behind stood Amis and several tough, burly men. The entourage swept to a halt in front of Noesh and T’ajar.
It took Sambeth a moment to recognise her as the woman that had visited their chambers earlier.
“Welcome, Queen Norea,” Noesh said quietly.
The woman’s gaze swept around the room and fastened upon Rija and Sambeth.
“These are the two?” she flung the question over her shoulder to Amis but it was purely rhetorical. Ignoring Sem and his other cousins, Amis nodded.
“Noesh, I am informed that you’ve admitted two highly suspicious individuals within your walls,” Queen Norea said in tones of ice.
“Yes, sister-in-law and I believe these are my walls,” the words could have been sharp but Noesh couched them in the mildest of tones.
“Well, if you ask me, you’ve been foolish. Very foolish,” she said heavily.
She stepped closer to Sambeth. Reaching out she took a tendril of her hair and examined it with her fingertips. Sambeth stared and alarm held her immobile. Amis watched her from his mother’s side.
“Ah, that is where we’ve fallen into crossed purposes,” Noesh was gently ironic, “you see, Norea, I don’t recall asking you.”
Ouch, Sambeth thought, that will sting.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Rija take a step back to put space between herself and one of the queen’s men but he leaned closer and took a firm hold of her stiff arm. He seemed quite mesmerised by the vision of gold before him.
Sambeth glanced around quickly. The other Bashani men had fanned out from their leader. Sambeth noticed that they were each standing by a person belonging to Noesh’s household. Queen Norea, with her bodyguard, drew close to T’ajar and Noesh. Sem glared eye to eye with another. Jaffith and Ajalon with two others. Sambeth gasped as Amis gripped her arm.
His eyes bored into hers. She stared back, frightened but determined. He gazed over at his mother.
“What is the meaning of this?” Noesh demanded.
“I wonder if you are fit to keep Tetrahin and its people safe, brother-in-law,” Queen Norea drawled.
“Take your hands off those young women,” Noesh was pale with fury but Queen Norea’s men ignored his command.
Sambeth began to tug on her arm without looking at Amis.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said under his breath.
She gazed at him with wide eyes, “Your mother is a hostile queen.”
He met her eyes briefly and looked back at his mother.
“Don’t worry,” he repeated.
Trying to be surreptitious, Sambeth gave a quick, practiced twist with her arm and wrist. It broke Amis’s hold. In the same move she stepped quickly back. Amis started toward her, changed his mind and stayed where he was.
Queen Norea, still eye-to-eye with Noesh, gave a tinkling laugh.
“I don’t think so, Noesh. I think I’ll take them with us. I’m told that somebody of significant importance will pay a lot of money to retrieve them.”
Her voice changed to caressing tones, “I will reunite them.”
“Norea, you couldn’t be so heartless,” T’ajar protested, her eyes pleading with her sister, “they are just young, innocent girls.”
Queen Norea laughed again but this time it was harsh and grating.
“Innocent, sister? No one is.”
The door flew open again. Several, heavily armed men rushed in.
“Are you safe, Lord Noesh?” their leader called.
The atmosphere in the room changed immediately. After a short pause, Noesh answered quietly.
“Yes, Jared. The queen was deciding whether or not to share dinner with us.”
Queen Norea’s face had darkened and she drew herself up to her full height.
“We will leave first thing in the morning,” she said coldly. Her eyes flickered from Noesh to T’ajar, “I must return to my lands and Amis will complete his journey to Arca.”
“Don’t send him alone,” Noesh said, “the city is full of violence.”
Her mouth curled in mockery, “My allies there will make sure he is looked after royally.”
Noesh inclined his head politely, “Please eat with us, Norea. We can discuss your plans and concerns further.”
“I’ve eaten,” she said curtly.
She nodded to Amis and the other man holding Rija, turned on her heel and strode out.
Her men followed her.
“Amis!” Sem called.
He began to walk toward his cousin but Queen Norea’s men stood in his way.
“I’m sorry, Sem,” Amis’s voice was clipped.
His grey eyes met Sambeth’s briefly and with a final loaded glance at his cousin, turned to follow his leader out the door.
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