Feasting on Dreams, Volume One: Chapter Two

 
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Soris and I stopped where we were, watching the three human nobles stride into the midst of what should have been a happy gathering.

“Here we are, boys,” said the first. “Time for a little fun.”

He was a big man, even by human standards, broad and red-cheeked, with tawny hair and a narrow moustache and beard. The girls, unaware of their approach, had not moved out of the way, and he reached out, grabbing hold of Nola by the shoulders.

She shrieked, which seemed to make the human laugh. He held her by the scruff of the neck, like a kitten, and slid his large, meaty hand down over her buttocks.

“Let go of me! Stop, please!”

I stiffened. All of a sudden, even the air felt wrong, the way it gets thick and greasy before a storm. I heard Soris’ intake of breath, and then the big human smiled. It was a thoroughly unpleasant, cruel expression, slicing across his face like a knife. Nola had started to cry.

“It’s a party, isn’t it?” he said, raising his voice to his companions, although the hubbub of celebration was already dying down, silence spreading out around this ghastly tableau like water. “Grab a whore and have a good time!”

The three of them laughed, and the man pushed Nola towards one of his cronies, a black-haired human in a blood-red doublet, his features thick and ugly. Her hands up in front of her face, she whimpered even before he grabbed hold of her, his hands all over her hips and waist like she was a tuppenny tavern harlot.

“Savour the hunt, boys,” the first man said, bearing down upon Shianni. “Take this little elven wench here. So young and vulnerable….”

He reached out, ready to grab her the same way he’d abused Nola, but Shianni ducked away.

“Touch me and I’ll gut you, you pig!” she spat.

Perhaps it was not the most sensible thing to say.

Thandon, one of the men whom the hahren had put in charge of helping to organise the festivities—and who I think had harboured a soft spot for Shianni for some time—stepped forward, trying to distract the men.

“My lord,” he began, hands outstretched. “Please, my lord. We’re celebrating weddings here….”

“Silence, worm!”

The human didn’t even break stride. He just reached out and struck Thandon full in the face, dropping him to the ground as if he was nothing more than an insect, a fly to be flicked away.

Shianni let out a curse as the man took hold of her wrist, twisting it sadistically. I began to step forward before I really knew what I was doing, but Soris grabbed my arm.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he whispered urgently. “But maybe we shouldn’t get involved with—”

“Shianni will get herself killed!”

He sighed. “Fine. But let’s try to be diplomatic, shall we?”

“My lord!” I called out, crossing to the centre of the gathering.

I intended to sound firm, unyielding… though I suspect I squeaked like a frightened child. Still, it distracted the human enough for Shianni to break free. He levelled his gaze at me, and it turned my stomach. I had never seen such a spiteful, malicious face.

He was not exactly an ugly creature, but he looked at me as if I was less than nothing, and the expression in his hard, pale green eyes frightened me. Such naked cruelty—and worse. A thin smile curled his lips.

“What’s this? Another lovely one come to keep me company?”

He moved towards me, and every nerve and instinct I possessed urged me to run, but I held my ground. The human drew close—too close, his presence an oppressive, unwanted invasion—and I smelled his scent, all crushed velvet, sweat, and the sticky, unpleasant aroma of foreign oils and perfumes.

I swallowed, fighting the bile rising in my throat.

“L-Let’s just talk this over, shall we?”

That smile became an even less pleasant sneer of contempt. Behind the man, his companions both laughed, and one called out:

“Maybe you should invite it over for dinner!”

I glanced at the one that had spoken and, beyond him, saw Shianni. I’d thought she’d have had the sense to run, to take the girls with her and let this stupid business burn itself out, the way we always did when humans came in here, looking for trouble.

All right, I didn’t recall ever seeing nobles in the alienage before, but there was a first time for everything. They were probably younger sons, I reasoned; the useless whelps of lower gentry, turned out to run loose while their fathers were away, fighting at Ostagar. We’d heard rumours of some kind of conflict down there, though we’d paid them little mind. There were always skirmishes somewhere, after all. Humans didn’t seem designed to live in peace.

No, right there and then, our problems were far more immediate.

The human curled his lip, but my eyes were fixed on Shianni, snatching up a discarded clay bottle… no, surely she wouldn’t be so stupid! I wanted to shout, to tell her not to do it, but everything seemed to happen both so quickly, and in long threads of drawn-out seconds, all at once.

The shem leaned over me, his breath thick with scent and grease.

“Do you have any idea who I am?” he demanded arrogantly.

I opened my mouth, but it was Shianni’s voice that cut through the air.

“Pig!” she yelled.

The human turned, his sneer melting into surprise as she brought the bottle through a wide, graceful arc… and smacked it into the side of his head. It shattered, the noise bright and clean in the abrupt, ominous silence.

For an instant, the human looked startled. He swayed slightly and then, as if he was a puppet whose strings had been cut, he pitched backwards and folded to the ground. Blood welled on his temple, and the sunlight glinted on the shards of glazed pottery.

I’d never heard the alienage so quiet. We all stood there, staring down at the unconscious human, and my heart seemed to pound so hard I was afraid my ribs would break.

This was it. We’d killed one of them—and a nobleman, at that.

We would all hang. We would all… well, I didn’t know what would happen. Someone coughed, and it broke whatever spell had been on us. The dark-haired shem pushed roughly forward.

“Are you insane?” He glared at me. “This is Vaughan Kendells, the arl of Denerim’s son!”

“W-what?” Shianni clasped her hands to her mouth, her eyes wide with terror. “Oh, Maker….”

The other man knelt by his lord’s side. He glanced up and shook his head.

“He’s out cold, Braden.”

I looked from my cousin to the prone body of the arl’s son, and his two furious companions. My mind worked fast, buzzing on the tension and the panic of the moment.

The arl’s son…. This was not good. This was, in fact, so far removed from good that there possibly wasn’t a word for how bad it was.

Still, I reasoned, these two humans hadn’t drawn their blades against us—at least not yet. Like childish bullies, they were afraid and useless without their leader, and Arl Urien himself was out of the city…. Perhaps there was a chance for us here.

I squared my jaw, lifted my head, and met Lord Braden’s cold, dark eyes.

“Take him home,” I said firmly. “If you don’t mention this, we won’t.”

I heard a few intakes of breath from the onlookers, and felt the surge of tension in the air around us. They were outnumbered, the humans knew that, but we were unarmed and afraid. There was no question of our rushing them, no possibility of anything else happening here except them leaving, with whatever attempts at dignity—or perhaps retaliation—that they could muster.

Braden raised his hand, and I flinched, expecting to be hit. He just pointed at me, vague yet still threatening.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve, knife-ears! This’ll go badly for you.”

I said nothing, but I didn’t move. I just stood and watched as the two nobles shouldered the unconscious lordling between them and carried him away, his head and one leg dangling in a way that—in any other setting, any other time—would have been comical.

It took a good few moments before anyone started to breathe again. The crowd seeped back around the departed humans like a wave and, somewhere, somebody started playing that damn fiddle again.

Cold sweat prickled along the length of my spine, and I blinked, trying to make myself believe what had just happened. Shianni let out a long breath.

“Oh, I really messed up this time,” she moaned.

“It’ll be all right,” Soris said, though he didn’t sound at all convinced. “He won’t tell anyone an elven woman took him down.”

“I hope so.” Shianni looked down at herself. Dregs of ale and bits of jug speckled the front of her dress, and she wiped ineffectually at them, apparently not realising she’d cut her hand. “I-I should get cleaned up,” she muttered, and lurched off in the direction of the privies.

I supposed it had been a bit of a shock for all of us.

“Is everybody else all right?” Soris asked, glancing around at the pale, worried faces.

“I think we’re just shaken,” said a girl I hadn’t seen before. “What was that about?”

She wore a long, green dress, demure and well-cut, and she had the prettiest ears I’d ever seen, although the pale brown hair and narrow, pointed face left me in no doubt at all: this had to be Soris’ dying mouse!

Soris laughed nervously. “Oh, it… uh… looks like the arl’s son started drinking too early. Um, well, let’s not let this ruin the day.” He cleared his throat and held out his hand, presenting me to the girl, who smiled delicately. “Uh, Merien, this is Valora, my betrothed.”

I inclined my head, determined not to give in to the sudden urge to laugh. I could see why he was worried. She seemed sweet enough, but that voice…! It was like a little girl’s, all soft and breathless, as if she’d faint at the first winter frost.

“A pleasure to meet you,” I said dutifully. “And welcome to your new home. I wish you happiness here.”

Valora smiled. “Thank you. And, um….”

My gaze slid to the elf who’d stepped forward to join her. He was tall, clad in dark pants and a green blouson, the ivory sleeves criss-crossed with intricate and beautiful embroidery—all far less garish than poor Soris’ clashing ensemble—and he was, indeed, very handsome. Blue eyes, blond hair worn daringly short…. I was embarrassed to find the heat of a blush beginning somewhere in the region of my neck.

“Er. This must be Nelaros,” I said, wishing I didn’t feel quite so awkward.

“A pleasure.” He smiled. “Soris has said much of you. Some of it was even positive.”

At least he didn’t have a dying mouse voice. I glared at my cousin.

“Well, you know….” Soris shrugged. “I just wanted to give him a sporting chance to run. Anyway, I, uh—” He cleared his throat, being extremely careful not to meet my eye. “—I’m sure the two of you have much to discuss. Valora, shall we…?”

The mouse blinked, giggled, and wafted off at his side, leaving Nelaros and I as alone as we were likely to be until this was all over. I found it excruciatingly embarrassing, and I suppose he felt the same, because we shared a smile that bubbled into uncomfortable, tongue-tied laughter.

“So, um… how was the trip from Highever?” I asked.

“Uneventful, thankfully. The trade caravan we accompanied had little of value; I think that kept the bandits away.”

“Ah.”

I racked my brain for something useful to say, but I knew virtually nothing of this man; just that he was the youngest son of a respectable family, and had worked as a smith in Highever, where his father leased a small forge. Desperately, I seized on that.

“Um. I hear you’re a talented smith. Do you, uh, think you’ll want to look for work at one of the forges in the city?”

Nelaros smiled, and I wondered if he was susceptible to flattery, or just pleased that I seemed interested.

“I don’t know. Perhaps. I’m… well, I’m happy to do whatever I need to make a good life here. With you.”

He reached into the pocket of his tunic and took out a small scrap of cloth. Unfolding it carefully, Nelaros revealed a narrow gold band, polished to a low sheen.

“I made this for you,” he said shyly. “I hope it fits.”

I smiled uneasily. It was a pretty shackle, I had to admit, but it brought into focus just how big today was.

“It’s… beautiful,” I said, trying to ignore the somersaults my stomach kept performing.

He pocketed the ring again, and that awful, unwieldy silence threatened to descend once more. I groped for some other gambit, hoping he wouldn’t think me too inquisitive. Nobody wanted a wife who didn’t know when to hold her tongue, after all.

“It, er, must be difficult… starting over in a new place. How have you found Denerim so far?”

Sadness tinged Nelaros’ face. He nearly succeeded in hiding it.

“It was hard to leave Highever, although Denerim itself seems friendlier. Perhaps because it’s so large that humans take less notice of us. I don’t know.”

I wondered just how much he’d seen of the little interlude with Lord Vaughan, but said nothing. Nelaros had made me curious about his home city, though. I wanted to ask more questions, but I was conscious of not wanting to start our marriage with an interrogation. There would be time to talk after the ceremony.

Time for that—and everything else. Oh, Maker’s mercy… I didn’t want to think about it.

“Nervous?” I blurted.

Nelaros looked at me with a curious expression in his eyes. They really were awfully blue.

“I thought I’d stay calm,” he said. “But finally seeing you has made me…. Well, let’s just say I’m not calm.”

He smiled tightly, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was I worse than a dying mouse? A clunky, big-nosed plough horse who antagonised the local nobility and hung around with bottle-wielding drunkards? I glanced away, fiddling with the embroidery on my wristlet. A small end of thread had started to come loose, and I knew I had to resist the temptation to pull it.

“How about you?” Nelaros asked. “Nervous?”

I looked up at him, into those intensely blue eyes, and tried to imagine that face—those high cheekbones, that strong, straight nose—being the first thing I saw every morning for the rest of my life. It could work, couldn’t it? We could be a good match. I trusted Father enough to think so… I was almost sure of it.

“I….” I should be honest with him, I supposed. Better that than to begin building a life on flattery and sycophancy. But what if who I was wasn’t good enough for him? I didn’t know what to do, so I swallowed my nerves and smiled. “I was until I saw you.”

Nelaros’ face softened. I didn’t know if I’d laid it on too thick, or if he even believed me, but he smiled back, and I supposed that augured well.

“I’ll spend every waking moment learning to make you happy,” he murmured.

No one had ever said anything quite like that to me before. Heat washed through my cheeks, and I looked down at my feet. Behind me, I heard Soris cough gently—perhaps in what he thought might be a subtle kind of way—and the awkwardness returned ten-fold.

Nelaros and I moved a little further apart, and Soris took my arm firmly.

“Come on, cousin,” he muttered. “We should let them get… ready.”

I glanced at him, and saw Valora standing close by his side. She smiled.

“We’ll see you two in a bit,” she said sweetly. “Don’t disappear on us!”

“Or we’ll come find you,” Nelaros added, a weak attempt at a joke.

We chuckled uncomfortably, each one of us probably feeling uneasier than the last, and I was only too glad to let Soris lead me away.

Once we were out of earshot, he exhaled sharply.

“Phew!” He slipped me a sly look. “So, is he everything you hoped for?”

“Soris,” I warned. “I don’t know. He seems nice enough, I guess. It’s just….”

“Well, there’s no turning back now, is there?” Soris smiled ruefully. His expression fell as he looked towards the northern gates of the alienage. “Oh, no. Don’t look now, but we have another problem.”

I followed his gaze, immediately concerned. “What is it?”

“Another human just walked in. Could be one of Vaughan’s, or just a random troublemaker.”

I saw the man my cousin meant, standing out like a flame among the cheerful revellers and shabby buildings. What was it about today, I wondered? Did the Maker have some particular grudge against our just having a simple, trouble-free ceremony?

The human didn’t dress like Vaughan’s cronies, but neither was there anything random about him. He was dark-skinned, his face solemn but not marked by the same arrogance we’d seen on the noblemen. His hair and neatly clipped beard were black, a contrast against his bright armour and surcoat, which shone almost white, and bore symbols I’d never seen before. The pommel of a longsword glinted on his back, and though he didn’t seem in a hurry to cause any trouble, the ill feeling towards his kind hung heavy in the air.

“We should go and talk to him,” I said.

“Really?” Soris looked uncertainly at me. “You don’t think we should…. Oh, forget it. Let’s just do this quickly.”

We crossed the cobbles towards the stranger.

He hadn’t glanced at us once, yet he turned to greet us as we reached him, without any sign of surprise at our approach.

“Good day,” he said, his voice low and clear, and his manners quite unlike those I was used to seeing in a human. He actually inclined his head to me, and looked me full in the face, not through me or to one side, like I was half-invisible. “I understand congratulations are in order for your impending wedding. Both of you, in fact?”

“I… well, yes.” He’d wrong-footed me, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. Before I knew it, I was making my own respectful bow, like a well-trained hound. “Thank you, stranger. But, please… you should go. We would rather avoid any unpleasantness.”

The human did not appear surprised, but he raised his brows.

“What manner of unpleasantness might you be referring to?”

His accent wasn’t local, but I couldn’t place it. I couldn’t identify anything about him enough for my liking. Even his armour didn’t remotely resemble the scuffed, serviceable leather and mail the city guard wore. Delicate patterns, like waves or clouds, chased the bright metal, and it had clearly been made to fit him. Unique, just like the small, burnished hoop he wore in his ear.

He carried more than just the one sword, too. Under his cloak, he was clearly well-armed, and that unsettled me even more than his manners.

“Look.” I tried again. “It’s just that the Alienage really isn’t a good place for humans to be right now. Please….”

“I’m sorry, but I have no intention of leaving,” he said firmly.

Beside me, I could feel Soris starting to get panicky, shifting from foot to foot like a child. The last thing any of us wanted was a repeat of what had happened with Vaughan. Word of Shianni’s antics with the bottle were already spreading in whispers, and it wouldn’t take much for somebody else to do something stupid, especially with all the drink flowing today.

I caught myself wishing the damn wedding could have waited, or that it had at least all happened the way it was supposed to. It wasn’t meant to be like this, was it? Rushed and chaotic, and torn through with mistakes and injustice… just like everything else here.

It wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t we even have one day where they left us alone?

I looked up at the human, sharply reminding myself that this was not his fault. Sure, he was a stranger here, but what else was he? A soldier? No. Not dressed like that. No simple guardsman or infantry, and no casual traveller. A knight, then? But why would he be here, now… and why would he refuse to leave?

“Fine,” I said. “Maybe we can compromise.”

The man looked past my shoulder, his seriousness giving way to an expression somewhere between satisfaction and amusement.

“She keeps her composure even when facing down an unknown and armed human. A true gift, wouldn’t you say, Valendrian?”

I turned, and saw our hahren bearing down upon us. His grey hair was braided and a broad smile wreathed his face. He passed between Soris and me and, going at once to the human, shook him warmly by the hand.

“I would say the world has far more use for those who know how to stay their blades. It is good to see you again, my old friend. It has been far too long.”

Confusion left me shy and unsure as to whether I had offended. I bowed to the hahren, and to this human he called friend.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I had no idea….”

“I was hardly forthcoming,” the man said. “And for that I apologise.”

I straightened up and stared. Apologise? To me? He had…?

Perhaps I was dreaming. I risked a glance at Soris, who’d turned pale as moonlight and just stood there, looking between the human and Valendrian as if both were ghosts.

The hahren placed his hand on the man’s shoulder, a gesture of such equality and affection as I’d never seen between elf and human.

“Children,” he said calmly. “May I present Duncan, head of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden.”

I had no wish to let myself be a slack-jawed fool, but I knew I was still staring. I didn’t know what a Grey Warden was, but a leader who commanded anything that stretched over the entire country… this was more than I had ever encountered. I inclined my head.

“Well met, Duncan.”

“And you, dear girl.”

I watched him, fascinated. Soris made a clumsy, perfunctory bow, and the human gave him the same graceful respect. I had never seen anything like it.

We both stood, awkward and uncertain, not sure what to do next. We had not been dismissed—and I, for one, wanted to know more of this stranger—but Valendrian’s next words were not addressed to us.

“But my question remains unanswered. Why are you here, Duncan?”

“The worst has happened.” The human’s expression darkened, and he lowered his voice a little. “A Blight has begun. King Cailan summons the Grey Wardens to Ostagar to fight the darkspawn horde alongside his armies.”

“Yes.” The hahren nodded. “I had heard the news. Still, this is an awkward time—there is to be a wedding. Two, in fact.”

He glanced at us, and I saw from the look in his eye that we were meant to have heard what the human had to say. I didn’t know why. I knew of the fighting at Ostagar, but everything else they spoke of…. It might as well have been Orlesian.

“So I see,” Duncan said. “By all means, attend to your ceremonies. My concerns can wait for now.”

“Very well.” Valendrian nodded, and turned to Soris and me. “Children, treat Duncan as my guest. And, for the Maker’s sake, take your places!”

I looked over towards the platform beneath the vhenadahl. Nelaros and Valora were already up there, along with my father, Shianni, and the other bridesmaids.

No turning back, indeed.

“But….” I began, looking curiously at Duncan. I had so many questions.

He smiled. “Please, do not let me interrupt further. We shall speak more later.”

“Come on, Meri!” Soris tugged at my arm. “We can’t keep them waiting.”

“All right.” I relented, but not without one last look at Duncan.

He inclined his head, and I followed Soris up to the platform. There was a ripple of applause as we ascended the steps—and not a little bit of drunken cheering.

“Ooh, Soris!” Valora simpered. “There you are. I was afraid you’d run off.”

My cousin and I exchanged brief glances.

“No,” Soris assured his mouse. “I’m here, and with Nelaros’ blushing bride in tow.”

I shot him a dirty look, but took my place beside my betrothed. Nelaros smiled awkwardly at me.

“You look… radiant,” he murmured, and I gave him an uncertain smile.

“It looks like everyone’s ready,” Soris observed.

“Good luck,” I said.

He gave me a sickly grin. “You too, cousin.”

Valendrian had mounted the platform, and now he stepped forward, his hands raised as he called for quiet from the gathered sea of onlookers. I glanced across at my father, calmed and heartened by the look of quiet affection and approval on his face. I felt a light pressure on the fingertips of my right hand and, as I looked down, I realised it was Nelaros. The corner of his mouth curled a little as I squeezed back.

Maybe it would be all right after all.

“Friends and family,” the hahren began, “today we celebrate not only this joining, but also our bonds of kin and kind. We are a free people, but that was not always so. Andraste, the Maker’s prophet, freed us from the bonds of slavery. As our community grows, remember that our strength lies in commitment to tradition and to each other.”

There was a general rumble of approval from the crowd, and Mother Boann came forward to join the hahren. He bowed to her, and we understood that the vows were to begin. Shianni caught my eye, and grinned.

“Thank you, Valendrian,” the priest said. “Now, let us begin. In the name of the Maker, who brought us this world, and in whose name we say the Chant of Light, I—”

She stopped abruptly, her gaze fixed on some disruption in the crowd, and my gut tightened. This wasn’t the time for someone to pass out drunk, throw up, or start a fight… but that didn’t seem to be the kind of commotion the revered mother was facing.

“My lord?” Mother Boann’s voice was clear, but she couldn’t hide the concern in her tone. “This is… an unexpected surprise.”

I didn’t want to look, too afraid of what I knew I would see.

The arl’s son was back, and very much conscious.

He’d brought friends with him, too—a whole pack of guards, the city badge on their shields. Vaughan and his two compatriots strode through the gathered press of people, bodies parting in front of them like stalks of grass bowing before a wheel, and they barged their way up onto the platform.

“Sorry to interrupt, Mother,” Vaughan said, his words dripping with scorn, “but I’m having a party… and we’re dreadfully short of female guests.”

The priest stood between him and the four of us, her outrage palpable. The two other lordlings moved behind him, crossing to take up positions, one at the back of our little group, and the other beside Valendrian and my father… two old, vulnerable men.

“My lord,” Mother Boann protested. “This is a wedding!”

I watched her stand there, facing down the supercilious noble, the shoulders of her red-and-gold Chantry robe shaking ever so slightly. From where I stood, I had a horribly clear view of Vaughan’s face as he looked coldly at the woman. There was no mistaking the determination in his expression—or the butterfly stitches patching the cut on his brow.

He was here to settle a score.

“Ha!” He loosed a burst of obnoxious laughter. “If you want to dress up your pets and play tea parties, that’s your business. But don’t pretend this is a proper wedding.”

The silence that spilled out around those words was taut and sharp, stretched thin enough to shatter with the slightest blow. I could barely breathe. I was so furious, my whole body clenching with hatred of this human and—what was worse—hatred for the fear I felt.

That was the crux of it. No matter how contemptible his behaviour now, Vaughan was untouchable.

We all knew that, and the awareness of it permeated the air like a foul stench. He was a lord, a nobleman… the arl’s son. He strutted across our scruffy little platform like a peacock, and he knew we could do nothing.

“Now,” he said, his rich, lazy drawl oozing around us, echoing off the stonework and making my skin crawl, “we’re here for a good time, aren’t we, boys?”

The one I knew as Lord Braden, standing behind Nola and Arith, peeled his fat lips back into a rubbery smile.

“That’s right,” he said. “Just a good time with the ladies, that’s all.”

Their nasty, greasy laughter pooled in the unnatural silence. Beside me, Nelaros’ breathing was shallow and rapid, and his fingers folded more firmly around my hand, though his face stayed blank. I recognised the signs; he was not unused to abuse from humans, and it touched me that he shifted his weight a little, angling his body in front of mine. It was a gesture of protection I had not expected from him.

I glanced at Soris. His face was drained of all colour, and beads of sweat stood out on his brow. He didn’t meet my eye. None of them would… but that was what we did when the shems picked a fight.

Fair enough, it wasn’t usually like this. Not nobles, and not on our own turf. It normally happened in the market, or down by the docks late on a Friday night. It always started in some casual, off-the-cuff kind of way: just an insult thrown, a shove here or there…. It was to be expected, and our reactions were well-trained, filtering down through the generations.

If you couldn’t run, you stopped, stood still, and you took it in silence. Anything else just made it worse.

But Vaughan didn’t seem content with just throwing his weight around. He paraded in front of us, his eyes everywhere, that cold green gaze running over our bodies as if he was assessing horseflesh. I felt sick.

“Let’s take those two.” He nodded at Nola and Arith, and waved one hand nonchalantly in Valora’s direction. “The one in the tight dress… and where’s the bitch that bottled me?”

I held my breath. Take us? Take us where? This would not end well. A little roughing up and groping in the street was one thing, but…. The other human moved from standing guard over the hahren, and grabbed Shianni by the arm.

“Over here, Lord Vaughan!”

I prayed she’d have the sense to keep her mouth shut, but my cousin’s nature was as fiery as her hair. She squirmed, kicking out at the man’s legs.

“Let me go, you stuffed-shirt son-of-a—”

All she earned for her trouble was a slap, and Vaughan chuckled.

“Oh, I’ll enjoy taming her….”

Instinctively, I started to move towards Shianni, which was stupid. At once, Vaughan turned and fixed me with that reptilian gaze. He raised his sandy brows.

“And see the pretty bride…!”

He began to head for me, and I could see how much the bastard was enjoying ratcheting up the tension on what should have been a day of celebration… just waiting for someone to throw the first stone, hurl the first catcall of abuse. It would be all the excuse he needed, and then it would be our blood on the cobbles.

Nelaros’ grip on my hand tightened, and he moved closer to me.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered. “I won’t let them take you.”

I looked at my betrothed, not sure whether he was brave or an idiot. Shianni was still writhing in the other shem’s grip.

I couldn’t let this happen. Not today.

“No.” I pulled my hand away, unwilling to let Nelaros make this any more dangerous. “Just get out of here. Run!”

He shook his head and, for a moment, our gazes locked. Brave, I decided. Not a fool.

There was no time for anyone to run, though. Vaughan drew closer, pulling the same trick on me that he had before—using his height and bulk to try and intimidate, the unwelcome closeness of his presence a threatening weapon. Gritting my teeth, I stood my ground. I met his gaze, and did not falter, hoping against futile hope that he believed I was not afraid of him.

“Ah, yes,” Vaughan sneered, reaching out a hand as if—in some horrible parody of affection—to touch my hair. “Such a well-formed little thing….”

“You villains!” Nelaros snapped.

Vaughan laughed softly. There was no mirth in it.

“Oh, that’s quite enough. I’m sure we all want to avoid any further, um, unpleasantness?”

His breath grazed my face, full of rich man’s wine, oils and spices. It still seemed so horribly quiet. The alienage was never this quiet. I could hear the bustle of the market square seeping in from beyond the walls, birds flapping in the high branches of the vhenadahl… and Nola, weeping again.

Anger blistered within me. Years of rage, bottled up and held back, because everyone knew we shouldn’t make trouble, shouldn’t draw attention to ourselves.

Memories of Mother filtered through my head, and I found my voice, when I should have stayed quiet.

“You have no right! Let them go, you bastard!”

The arl’s son gave a shallow, contemptuous laugh.

“Ha! Look, this one has spirit! Oh, but we’re going to have some fun….”

He rocked back on his heels, still smirking at me. The dark-haired human, Lord Braden, stepped forward and, before I saw it coming, struck me across the face with the back of his hand.

White-hot pain shot through my jaw, I fell, and the world turned black.

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