The Green Hearth herald greeted Ev’rel with a look of pure shock. “You!” he cried in Gelack, registering his visitor’s high rank in the pronoun.
Any other day Ev’rel might have laughed to see the poor man’s dignity so overturned. Today she cared for nothing but getting past him.
Silver Hearth guards hovered uncertainly at her back, unsure of how to take charge of a prisoner so highly ranked. Not long ago, the Gelack Empire had been a toy her father dangled for her pleasure. Now she stood on Fountain Court under guard, seeking mercy at the door of the mentor she used to taunt with proof that she did not need to learn his harsh lessons.
Di Mon, the 103rd liege of Monitum, was her last hope.
Ev’rel shouldered past the disconcerted herald. Di Mon’s errants sprang to attention and drew their swords.
Ev’rel had never feared a sword before. She had hated Di Mon’s fencing lessons, down on Green Wedge below Fountain Court, but ever since Di Mon had told her about life on old Earth and Monatese theories about Okal Rel, she had felt nothing but contempt for the instruments of Sword Law. Now these weapons she thought of as stupid looked horribly lethal.
“Di Mon!” she cried, and humbled herself to beg. “Please! Let me see him!”
Silence fell hard, relieved only by her heaving breath, as the errants studied Ev’rel where she stood before them, trembling and barefoot, her black hair wild about her classic features and her face lit by a rising fever. Dark streaks soaked the front of her nightgown where her swollen breasts had begun to leak hours earlier, the warm milk gone cold enough to chill her.
She stood as still as she could, listening to the trickle of water sounds coming from the ivy-covered walls. The entrance hall was full of plants, some earthly green and the rest the dark turquoise of native life on Di Mon’s homeworld of Monitum. The damp air, with its familiar smells, was a balm to Ev’rel’s lungs.
Di Mon will save me, she thought.
“Take her to Liege Monitum,” Di Mon’s lead errant decided, putting up her weapon. “You can wait here,” she informed the all-male Demish escort.
“Thank you!” Ev’rel gasped, elevating the errant to an equal with the pronoun to express her thanks.
The Monatese woman was not impressed. “This way, Immortality,” she said, and led on.
Ev’rel followed her to the end of the ivy-lined hall and through a set of double doors that the herald held open. Inside was Azure Lounge, the first room of a series called the Throat. She looked about frantically for Di Mon, but the room was empty.
“He’s in Ameron’s old room, in Family Hall,” the errant told her coolly.
Ev’rel nodded. The fever made the gesture feel out of control and exaggerated. She pressed her palm to her face and felt sweat there before hurrying to catch up with the errant. Glimpses of earth artifacts, old pictures and historical memorabilia flashed by her, reminding her that the Monatese valued history over literature; philosophy over hope; and diplomacy over war — all things she had learned from her Monatese mentor.
He is a fair man, she told herself, for courage. He won’t hold past mockery and high spirits against me. He knows I’d never harm my own baby! The very thought of the lost infant heaved a raw sob into her throat.
“Immortality?” The errant stopped to see what was the matter with her.
Ev’rel swayed against a leather chair in the last room of the Throat, called Family Lounge, often used for entertaining intimates. She and Di Mon had taken lessons here. And in his library.
The errant touched her bare arm. “You’re hot,” she said with concern.
Ev’rel shook her head. “Please, take me to him.”
The errant took a knitted shawl from the leather chair and wrapped it about Ev’rel’s shoulders. It must have belonged to some servant or a Sevolite too lowborn to be sensitive, because the patterns in it leaped at Ev’rel with unmitigated simplicity, setting her teeth on edge. Di Mon had always liked to play such tricks on her, to prove to her she had a highborn’s navigational talent: an instinctive ability to discern complex patterns in star-scattered spacescapes while reality skimming through them. Ev’rel hated all such tricks — they made her dizzy. But she clung to the disturbing shawl today as if her life depended on it.
Family Hall intersected the Throat at a right angle. It was the deepest, safest part of Green Hearth, farthest from the spiral stairs that led up to Green Pavilion and the doors on Fountain Court that she had come through to get this far. Ev’rel wanted to feel safe here, but she had learned that all safety on Fountain Court was tentative. Property, here, could be guarded by nothing but swords, under Sword Law, and the social constraints of the Ava’s Oath to which all hearths of Fountain Court must answer. That was the core prerequisite to holding power. Transgressors died, disgraced, for breaking Sword Law. But Ev’rel trusted none of it, not since her father’s murder. Not when the half-brother who took her father from her ruled the empire.
She wanted Di Mon to be her new father, to forgive her everything and to shelter her. The need burned in her as physically as fever.
Seeing the door of the Ameron Room ajar ahead of her, Ev’rel could hold herself back no more. She broke into a run, leaving the errant behind in Family Hall.
Di Mon turned as she burst in. He had been standing in front of a portrait of Ev’rel’s ancestor, Ameron Lor’Vrel of White Hearth. The historical Ava in the painting was a young man dressed in fencing gear who stood reading a book with his sword lying on the table in front of him. The portrait caught him in the act of glancing up, as if to greet a visitor. For some reason, perhaps because Ameron had always been the standard by which Di Mon judged her, Ev’rel’s eyes fixed in mute appeal upon her ancestor.
The young Ameron had gray eyes and a lean, Vrellish build, just like Di Mon himself and all highborns who were racially Vrellish, but the resemblance between Di Mon and his idol ended there. Ameron’s hair was a mop of chestnut brown — the Lorel color — and his sharp features were more pronounced, with a strong nose and a wide forehead.
Ev’rel felt no blessing in her ancestor’s inquisitive stare. She fixed upon Di Mon, instead, who stared back at her, very much alive if unnaturally still. He had not expected to see her. He was not pleased about it, but he was not indifferent, either. She could see how it hurt him to see her like this.
Ev’rel would have given anything in that moment to force her way into his life. To seize a role, with him, in which she felt secure. On the heels of that longing, she suffered a pang of desire like a knife stabbing her.
“Ev’rel,” Di Mon breathed, his tone encouraging her certainty of his concern.
She threw herself at his feet in a gush of tears and words. “Don’t let them!” she begged, clutching at his legs. “Don’t help them send me away into exile! You know I’m innocent! I loved Amel!”
Gently, he guided her up and sat down beside her on the bed. “You’re feverish,” he said, and touched her breast, sending lances of pain and passion through her. But his intent was clinical. “Milk fever,” he concluded, and rose, “I’ll fetch Sarilous.”
“No!” she cried, rearing up to grasp him about the waist.
He tolerated the familiarity, touching her hair in an awkward attempt to be comforting.
“I loved Amel,” she wept, indulging in her honest grief. “My beautiful, crystal-eyed baby.”
“I know,” he said curtly.
She clambered onto her knees, afraid to take her hands off him. His male smell was intoxicating. He had tried to explain that to her, as well. How she could never really be a Demish princess when her mother had been a Pureblood Vrellish warrior. She had to come to terms with her Vrellish nature, he’d always said. Learn to fight. Always he spoke about fighting, never the desire that was now consuming her.
“Then … you know,” she floundered, trying to reconcile his tone and words. “You know I didn’t do it!”
“Do what?” he said, his voice dry and bitter. “Order your gorarelpul, Arous, to hide Amel? And be careful — do not try to lie to me.”
She clutched harder, tears cascading down her fever-spotted cheeks. “Yes! But to protect him from Delm!” she wailed.
“Maybe that was your reason,” Di Mon said, still implacable, “maybe not. Delm says it was because you wanted to avoid a genotyping that would prove Amel was not his son, but Arous’s. We will never know now. Amel is lost and could be dying as we speak, and Arous is conveniently dead.”
Ev’rel gave a cry, stabbed to the heart by his cruel words. She pressed herself to him, hugging him and wanting him in every way. “No, no, no,” she wept.
He pulled her from him with force and struggled to make her lie down, saying things about the fever and threatening to fetch his gorarelpul medic, Sarilous. But she did not want that kind of help. She wanted him. And fever had not sapped her Pureblood strength.
“Don’t hate me!” she begged. “I didn’t give Arous the overdose of Rush! It was Delm! I swear! I swear!”
His very resistance excited her. Their struggle became violent, but she — despite his efforts — was untrained. He struck her in the ribs. The pain snapped something emotional inside of her. She fought back with wild strength, as if she could solve everything by getting him down, beneath her, and having what she wanted.
She fastened her mouth on his, tasting blood, and for a heady instant she felt as if she’d tapped into a passion equally denied and violent. Then a sharp knee heaved her up, a hard hand slammed across her mouth, and her strength became useless against a genius for body physics that she had never mastered.
She came to herself on the floor, at his feet, staring up at him breathless and humbled.
“You are not guilty of all Delm accuses you of, perhaps,” Di Mon ground out at her. “But Amel was Arous’s child. You hated Delm. So you used a sla sex drug on a conscience-bonded commoner — on Arous — a man your stupid father let you take from the Gorarelpul College for no better reason than his good looks. Did your father know that you were disappointed when Arous proved to be impotent due to pain training? Did you even care that Arous was a brilliant student, slated to become a college father? Did anything matter to you except his body, Ev’rel?”
“I didn’t—” she started, and gulped as he yanked her to her feet.
“Kill him?” he finished. “No, but you gave Delm the idea. You made it possible for him to implicate you with your slaka’s corpse. He knew that using Rush would implicate you when I investigated.”
His grip bit into her upper arms, making her gasp.
“You are Vrellish inside, oh yes!” he said. “But in the wrong way! Did I never teach you man-rape is a crime even in Red Reach, Ev’rel! When I taught you Green Hearth’s history, of the commoner-Sevolite alliance that defined its origins, did I fail to make it clear that the humans we call commoners are not toys to be used for a Sevolite’s dishonorable pleasures! Should I have made that an explicit part of the curriculum!”
He shoved her away from him.
She staggered back, bumping into the bed behind her. Ameron’s portrait looked down at her over Di Mon’s shoulder, the two of them united in a supernatural blow of condemnation.
“You disgust me,” Di Mon told her. “If you were not the empire’s last female Pureblood, I would see you slain, not exiled.”
“You!” she groped for anger to sustain herself, panting with injured pride and indignation. “You would condemn me, when you voted with the rest of them to bind me to a ten-child contract with Delm — the brother I hate — the brother who had our father slain!”
He wavered then. “I am not proud of my part in that, Ev’rel. I could not blame you, as a person, if you chose to thwart the empire’s need for heirs and bared the door to Delm. But what you did with Arous — it was sla, Ev’rel. Wrong and obscene. Think about that in your exile and learn to be a Vrellish woman in a more wholesome way!”
“If I do,” she begged, stinging from the lash of his anger, “would you forgive me? C-could we start over?”
“I will fetch you a medic,” he said coolly. Then he turned and walked away from her.
Hopeless desperation tried to swallow her and failed. Outraged pride and a pilot’s will vomited her back to face the exile awaiting her.
“I enjoyed Arous!” She shrieked at Di Mon’s retreating back. “I enjoyed the fact he hated pleasing me!”
He didn’t give her the satisfaction of a flinch, but he slammed the door behind him hard enough to jar the portrait of her venerated ancestor.