“So you traded your own hunger for that of the Urdai, and you took all our work, all the fruits of our learning and labors, for yourselves—the dams and canals, the great temples, the palace, even these gardens. You Sazars have no skills or knowledge to make such things, so you had to steal them from us. You didn’t even have writing until you began using ours.”
He flinched slightly, his pride clearly stung by her contemptuous words. “We do have skills and knowledge of our own.”
“Making swords,” she said. “And breeding and training warhorses. Nothing like this.” She indicated the Jewel with a broad gesture of her arm. “You could never make something like this. Even now, you depend on Urdai slaves to maintain the gardens.”
“Not entirely.” Eruz stopped beside one of the low trees with thick hand-shaped leaves—a nariyi, it was called—and plucked a tightly-curled bud from it. “We have skills besides those of warfare.” He looked intently at the nariyi bud, then whispered a few words and blew lightly on the bud. Slowly, the green sepals unwound from around the five thick white petals, which unfolded into a bowl-shaped blossom. The flower’s sweet, rich scent filled the air. “Here,” Eruz said. He took Rashali’s hand and placed the flower in it. “We worship Kuz more than the Urdai do, and he has given us a number of gifts.”
If she hadn’t seen it for herself, she never would have believed it. She looked up at him, her hand still in his, at a loss for words to respond to the wonder he had shown her. “That—that was—”
He bent his head down and covered her mouth with his.
She stiffened in shock, then all her strength seemed to flee and her legs gave way beneath her. He wrapped an arm around her, holding her up against his chest. Deep inside her body, a flame she had thought extinguished months ago came to life. Her lips parted beneath his, seemingly of their own accord, and he deepened the kiss. Time lost its measure, and the kiss went on until a small voice interrupted them.
They broke apart, breathing hard. Mizalilu stood beside Eruz, tugging at the leg of his trousers. The child repeated her demand. “She wants a flower, too,” Eruz said. He picked another bud and made it bloom, then gave her the opened flower and spoke to her. Mizalilu ran back towards the palace, carrying the flower with awed delight.
“Lucie, you have to decide now. What will you do?” His voice was quiet but firm.
“I can’t go with you. Don’t you understand that? I’m to be married in six weeks!”
“If we traveled quickly, you could be back here by then.”
Lucie gave a despairing laugh. She was tired of trying to explain herself to him—and to herself. “And do you think Estefan would still want me then? He’s already jealous, and that was just because I was talking to you. What do you think he would do if I disappeared with you for a month and a half? A broken engagement would be the least of my problems!”
“Has he threatened you?” A dangerous edge entered his voice.
It would be too humiliating to admit that she was afraid of her own fiancé. “No, he’s just very angry. But don’t you see? If I leave with you, I would be cutting myself off from my family and friends, I would have no home to come back to, no one who cared about me. No one would want me. My life would be over.”
She tried to turn away, but Sevry caught her arm and she couldn’t pull free. “Lucie—”
“Don’t you understand what you’re asking of me? What I would have to give up? What I’d lose?”
“I know, Lucie. Believe me, I know what it’s like to lose everything.” She looked up at him, and caught her breath at the genuine sorrow and compassion on his face. “Fate, the gods, history, other people’s decisions can all leave our lives in ruins, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “I wish your family wouldn’t choose to deal so harshly with you. I wish their love and concern for you was more steadfast. If I could—” He stopped speaking and stepped closer to her. She was powerless to move away. His free hand brushed her cheek, as though he was trying to comfort her, then moved to the back of her head, tangling in her hair. He tilted her face up towards his, and his mouth pressed down on hers.
A sense of unreality mixed with absolute rightness shocked through Lucie. This was what she had longed for; this was how it was supposed to be between her and the man from her visions. Her arms went around him, and he embraced her in return. She leaned into the warmth of his body and pressed herself more eagerly into the kiss. His mouth worked hungrily against hers, his tongue brushing at her lips, tasting her, then exploring more deeply as she parted her lips for him.
And then it seemed there was only one breath, one heartbeat, one body between them. Heat bloomed deep inside her belly, and she felt herself melting against him; she was his, she would go anywhere, do anything, give up anything--
No. She pushed him away and slapped his face so hard she felt the sting all the way up her arm. “I can’t!” She turned and ran from him, fighting to hold back her tears until she was safely away.
And then the last voice she wanted to hear called out, “Sarya! Sarya dyr-Rusac!”
Panicked, she tried to push her way through the crowd towards the Masters’ offices, but Adan caught her by the arm and spun her around to face him. “Where have you been? You left without a word to me or anyone –”
“I didn’t realize I needed your permission to leave.” She tried pull away from him, but his grip on her arm tightened.
“I didn’t know where you were or what had become of you,” he said. “I didn’t even know if you were alive or dead!”
Around them, people were stopping to stare. Sarya tried to turn away from Adan, but he moved with her, giving her no choice but to keep looking at him. “I just need to speak to the Council of Masters about something,” she said, “and then I’ll be off again.”
“Why not? You said yourself I don’t belong –”
“Damn it, Sarya!” He pulled her against him and pressed his mouth to hers.
Sarya’s legs nearly went out from under her in shock, but he caught her behind her back with his other hand and held her securely. His mouth was warm and hungry against hers; his upper lip and chin were scratchy with late-afternoon whiskers. She told herself she should push him away instead of melting against him while he kissed her as though he were starving and she was his banquet, but she was too busy melting and couldn’t do it. Laughter and whistles came from the crowd around them. “You show her who’s in charge, Muari!” someone called out.
Adan finally let her come up for air. She stood gasping, her knees wobbly and her heart racing, torn between slapping him and dying from embarrassment and – Great Creator God, what a fool she was – wishing the kiss hadn’t ended.
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