The Peace of Strength

(This is a snippet from what would be the very first book–chronologically–set in the Larossan world.) 

When his father’s man appeared bearing a summons, Luccasedra rolled out of his blankets, cursing the chill in this horrible place.  He wished the king had never chosen this part of the world, leaving the warmer lands to the Cince Empire’s dominion.  The raw mornings made his scars ache, and his weak knee protested for hours.

He could only wonder what made his father suddenly recall that the last and least of his sons followed in the tail of the army of occupation.

Still, Luccasedra rose and dressed at his father’s command.  Perhaps his father had a personal message for him to carry back home to one of his wives, he mused, and he would have the opportunity to visit his mother.  Or perhaps his father would send him forward with the army of invasion.  Wasting away here in this frigid place, he’d not had the opportunity to win any honors for himself.

He had his servant bring up his horse and settled into the saddle.  The horse’s breath steamed in the chill air, although he’d not been in battle.  It was merely that cold in this place. Luccasedra rode through the encampment and up through the native city, his horse’s hooves clattering on rough cobblestones.  Along his path, soldiers raised their hilts to him, a gesture born of respect to his family rather than personal recognition.  Luccasedra wore his house colors, the burgundy and black robes of the Valaren.  Everyone here in this squalor recognized that.

His father had relocated the command tent.  Now it mounted the highest point in the city, surrounded by houses once belonging to the wealthier natives.  Young by the People’s standards, the city of Noikinos appeared improvised, houses of different size and construction scattered randomly, as if the Larossans had rushed to build in this place just to be near the dwelling of the underground folk.  Here too, his father had elected to begin construction of the king’s fortress, meant to be a stronghold of the People in this foreign land.

Luccasedra reached his father’s tent and left his mount with a black-robed servant.  The Larossan man bowed respectfully, his dark face turned away.  Luccasedra thanked him in his own tongue, which drew a startled, but pleased, smile. It was one if his gifts–he learned languages swiftly.

Luccasedra ducked inside the flap of the tent and waited for his father’s man to introduce him into the inner room.  Voices spoke from within, and after a moment, his father’s man appeared, lifting the flap to allow him into his father’s presence.

He bowed.  “It is good to see you well, father.  How may I serve you?”

The king’s governor sat at a polished mahogany desk, seeming unperturbed by the cold of this country.  He wore garb like that of the locals, a coat that imitated the cut of traditional robes, but shorter.  The austere black highlighted the leanness of his face.  As a young man, he had looked much as Luccasedra appeared now–tall, straight, and handsome in the way of the Valaren, but Luccasedra reflected that his father had aged, worn with the cares of this position.  His black hair had begun to show flecks of gray.

His father rose and embraced him, perhaps a bit more fondly than tradition specified.  “I am pleased you have come,” his father replied.  “I have need of you.”

“You had only to ask, Father.”

He nodded and then gestured for his man to leave.  Another rose and left also, a small Larossan man who’d sat silently in the corner.  That left them alone together, something that Luccasedra could not in all his life recall happening.  An inauspicious beginning, he thought.  His father invited him to sit, and Luccasedra settled carefully in one of the folding chairs, arranging his swords about him.

His father gazed at him a moment, perhaps trying to unsettle him.  “You are aware, son, of the mandate I have from the king,” he began, “to bring the indigenous populace under control.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I flatter myself that I have done well with the Larossans.”

Not flattery.  He had succeeded in getting the locals to cooperate.  If it required his mimicking their dress and ways, Luccasedra could forgive the tactic.  “You have, sir.”

“However, I have another problem, son, and that is where I require your aid.”

Luccasedra wondered what a mere soldier could achieve that a diplomat could not.

When asked, his father frowned.  “You have qualities that your brothers lack.  You have an ease with language.  You are better with people and win them to your side.  I believe your brothers are better at making enemies than friends.  You have your mother’s gift, son.  You draw others to you, and they follow you.  It is that which I need.”

The paean ended there, which prompted Luccasedra to worry.  “So what do you ask of me, then?”

“I wish for you to win over the Family to our side.”

He almost protested before catching his tongue.  He had no right to question his father’s demands, not any longer.  The Family, as the underground folk called themselves, had proven intractable despite concessions from the governor.  “And how do you expect me to accomplish that, Father?”

“Become one of them.  I am giving you to them, to do with as they choose.”

Luccasedra stood abruptly, knocking his chair over onto its back.  It was a death sentence.  The army of invasion had brutalized these Family in their search for plunder.  “They will kill me, Father.”

“They will not.  They have accepted this as a necessary step in the path toward normalized relations.  You will start with one, and then worry about the others.”

Luccasedra closed his eyes, knowing what his father meant to say then.  He felt as if his blood had turned to ice in his veins, and his heart to lead.

“I have chosen a wife for you from among them.  She is one of their translators.  You will handle her delicately, do you understand?”

Luccasedra suspected his father worried more for the woman than his own son.  He righted his chair and sat down heavily.  He chose calmness, taking a few deep breaths as he struggled to make sense of the request.

He would not have chosen a native woman for his first wife, but other than the irritation it would cause Lady Ididria, who expected to become his first wife, he could see little harm in it.  And there were advantages to this.  He’d been without a woman since the army had come to this land.  Most women available to the army were unwholesome, leaving the choice of celibacy or the risk of disease.

Luccasedra nodded, acknowledging the wisdom of his father’s plan.  “How long must I stay with her, Father?”

“You do not understand, son.  Their ways are different from ours.  You will stay with her until death.  These people do not take more than one wife or husband, no matter what they can afford.  It is not considered appropriate.”

He’d heard such a thing about the Larossans, although he’d not taken it seriously.  The Larossans appeared to have great numbers of children, possible only when one had multiple partners.  “I hoped to have children, Father,” he protested in a quiet voice.

His father leaned back, looking exceptionally wise.  “The girl you are to marry had nine siblings.”

“Nine?”  One might be lucky to father two children in one’s life.  His father had produced three sons, a prolific feat considering that he only had four wives.  “How is that possible?”

“One at a time, son.  You need not worry that these people lack the ability to reproduce successfully.  You will take this girl as your first and only wife.”

Luccasedra flinched at the finality of his words.  “When, Father?”

“Today.”

He stared at the polished surface of the desk, his mind reeling.  He could not refuse his father’s wishes, but for a moment, he wished he might.  “Will I meet her beforehand, Father?”

“I have arranged for a local priest to perform the ceremony.  You will meet her then.  I suggest you bathe and return here when you have prepared yourself.  My man will take you to my quarters.”

Luccasedra nodded.  “May I ask if she has agreed to this?  Or does this girl know?”

“I have explained to her what is required of her.  Between you, you must find a way to make these people useful.”  In other words, he’d laid the burden of saving them squarely on his son’s shoulders.

“I am your servant, Father.”  Luccasedra bowed and left, not wishing to curse in his father’s presence.

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The water was surprisingly warm and blessedly clean. Luccasedra stayed in the brass tub longer than he should, enjoying the first chance he’d had to bathe in months.  Normally a fastidious person, he’d tolerated the limited cleanliness engendered by conditions in the army.  He scrubbed under his nails, washed his hair out twice, and cleaned his face and shaved, reminding himself to be grateful for this opportunity, even if the impetus for it was not of his choosing.

Deciding he should not keep his father waiting too long, he rose from the water and toweled himself dry, gooseflesh prickling along his skin.  He dressed in a clean pair of trousers his father’s man provided, pulled on a light shirt and robe over it, and donned his House robe over all.  He sat before the mirror hung over his father’s desk, and carefully braided back his dark hair, still damp from its washing.

Luccasedra located his father’s bottle of paint and carefully brushed the hawk motif around his eyes.  He’d noticed his father didn’t wear it, but he would be damned if he went to his own wedding in defiance of custom.

He waited for a time, so prepared.

He could not refuse his father’s demand, not when he had already shamed their House in this life.  For that reason, his father had not flinched at demanding this of him.

He had once been his father’s favorite son, the only child of his favored wife.  Now he’d become the child his father would willingly throw to the wild dogs.  They had not spoken in almost four years.  For a brief moment, Luccasedra had thought his father intended to bestow forgiveness.  He’d been wrong.

There was no shrine to the House gods in this chamber, which, in truth, did not surprise him.  His father didn’t believe in the House gods.  Neither did he.  His cousin Torinen had argued that out of him in one of the long winters of his arrest, but Torinen had other beliefs to warm him, inherited from his mother’s people.

Luccasedra knelt down and prostrated himself on the floor, praying to any god who would hear him, any god who would take pity on a child of the People of the Anvara.  He begged to earn his father’s forgiveness.  He prayed that this woman would not be objectionable, or silly, or ugly, and that he would be able to bear her, for he would have no other wife to turn to.  He prayed that he would be fruitful.  The Valaren had always been able to produce children, proof that some deity, if not their own gods, smiled upon his House.  Luccasedra prayed he would not be first to fail in that.

When he had exhausted his pleas, he rose stiffly.  He felt no touch of divine reassurance.  His throat burned, and he clenched his jaw, determined that he would not cry like a child and ruin his paint.  Even if out of favor, he was a son of the Valaren, of the highest families of the People.  He would not shame his father again.

A clap sounded outside the tent wall, and his father’s man entered and waited expectantly.  Luccasedra rose and allowed the servant to guide him back through the maze of the tent to where his father waited.

If the governor noticed his son’s return, he said nothing, so Luccasedra settled on a pillow in the back of the room to await the culmination of his father’s machinations.  He dozed while sitting there, his half-dreams haunted by his very angry mother.  He dreamed briefly of running away, but dismissed the fantasy as his mind came fully awake.

The priest arrived finally, under heavy guard.  Clearly, the man feared being brought among the People, for the Larossans followed some other god, apparently one shared by this Family they so revered.  The priest took a seat when the interpreter bade him, sitting gingerly as though the folding chair might attempt to eat him.

Luccasedra wished calm at the priest, wanting him to settle and not distress anyone further this day.  The priest, his small dark hands shaking, drew a deep breath and closed his eyes.  His fingers fumbled over his prayer book.  Luccasedra wished him calm again, and slowly the jerking movements stilled.

The inner flap opened then and a young woman entered the room, not waiting for an introduction.  Luccasedra’s father did not react with outrage.  He merely watched her come, holding out his hand to beckon her closer.  She bowed to him as a man would.

Luccasedra stared at the pale creature, the first time he’d seen one of her people other than from a distance.  Now he understood why the army of invasion named them termites.  Her skin had the color of a sunrise, with only a faint flush of pink to it.  She had hair so light it looked like ivory, her lashes and brows almost invisible against her skin.

Her hair only brushed her shoulders.  Wigmakers were mad for hair such as hers, a new fashion among the nobility, he’d heard.  Luccasedra supposed that some soldier, wanting to earn a few dinasa, had cut it so.

She was tall and strongly made, like a peasant woman.  He covered his response, thinking her far from what he would have chosen for himself.  He’d always preferred his women small and rounded.

She returned his stare boldly, appearing neither pleased nor displeased by him, as if she’d forgotten how to smile or frown.  The girl wore a black House robe, embroidered to indicate her place in the House of Valaren.  Luccasedra wondered if she knew her robe already proclaimed her status as first wife.

His father gestured for him to come and join them, and the priest stood before them.  His father placed the girl’s gloved hand atop Luccasedra’s.  The Larossan priest began speaking, ironically enough, in his own tongue.

His father must have arranged this ceremony to assure the girl of the legitimacy of their wedding.  After three months in the city, Luccasedra spoke the language well enough to follow the man’s words.  Even so, he found it strange to be contracted in another people’s tongue and wondered if the girl might not feel the same.  The priest droned on for a time, asking finally if each of them agreed to the contract.  Luccasedra replied dutifully when asked.  The girl stared at the floor throughout, as if she did not care.

When the priest came to the end of his words, Luccasedra’s father gestured the man aside, bringing the basin and strips of linen.  He took his knife from its sheath to make the cuts, and Luccasedra held out his left hand.  The girl didn’t offer hers.

“You must take off your glove,” his father explained.

For the first time, Luccasedra saw concern on the girl’s face.  She raised her pale eyes to his father’s, appearing ready to protest, but then tugged off the right glove, hiding it in one of the pockets of her robe.

Luccasedra hadn’t expected the cut to sting so.  Blood welled into his palm from the shallow cut.  He held his hand over the basin, his blood dripping onto the porcelain.

The girl’s eyes widened. Apparently she hadn’t known this would be part of the ceremony.  Still, after only a brief pause, she held out her hand to his father, flinching when he took it.  He drew the knife carefully across the ball of her palm, opening a line of red against the paleness of her skin.  She hissed under her breath, a weakness Luccasedra a woman should not show.

Blood spilled forth into her palm, trickling over her pale fingers and into the basin–blood the same color as his own.  His father turned her hand and placed it against Luccasedra’s, bringing their palms together.  She gasped, color fleeing from her already ivory skin, but he held her hand firmly, a minatory look upon his face.

Luccasedra wondered what could make her tremble so.  He laced his bloodied fingers with hers, perforce holding her there, while his father bound their hands in the traditional pattern with linen strips.

The girl shivered–a strange reaction to the ritual.  Luccasedra hoped she might not be one of those who fainted at the sight of blood.  Her face turned in his direction, her expression conveying disdain.  “You are touching me,” she said in an accented voice.

He should not be surprised at the accent, but he could not read her tone.

“He does not understand,” his father interjected.

When his father came near, the girl raised her fingers to the governor’s face, an amazing affront.  Luccasedra would never have dared such a thing himself.

“He does not know what you are,” his father repeated.

“Ah,” the girl said then, dropping her hand.

“What do I not know, sir?”

His father’s dark eyes flicked in his direction, warning plain in his look.  He motioned for the priest to leave, and the man hastily departed.  When the tent flap fell, his father placed a hand on their joined ones.  The girl still shook, like the fluttering of leaves in the wind.  Her nostrils flared with her breath.

“She’s special,” his father informed him, with more affection in his voice than he’d ever shown to his son.  “I do not have the time to understand her people’s ways.  I need you to do so for me.  Her place among her people is to work with outsiders.  They call her an Interface.”

Luccasedra glanced sidelong at the girl—at his wife, he corrected himself.  She peered back under white lashes, almost as if she’d caught his thought.  Her eyes, he noticed, were a pale gray, not blue as he’d originally surmised, with just a touch of green in them, wide-set in a smooth, oval face.  “I will do my best, Father.”

“I have given you to them, son.  You will live among them and learn their ways.  She has promised to help you.”  His father took the basin away then to empty its contents into the native soil, leaving the two of them alone, hands imprisoned together in the bloodied linen strips.

What use could he find to make these people necessary to the king that his father had not?  Beyond protecting her, his father would have no way to save her people should the king decide to sell them off.  Many had already gone to the slave markets of the east, fetching good prices, or so he had heard.

Concern crossed her face, a line appearing between the pale brows.  Luccasedra wished her to be at ease, and the expression faded, only to return a second later.

“Do not please do that.”

He stared at her.  “What do you mean?”

“Do not force me to not feel.”

She no longer trembled, he noted, as if she’d grown accustomed to his touch, but his hand had begun to burn–an annoyance.  “What is your name?”

One of her eyebrows lifted.  “Rakel,” she told him.

“Luccasedrion,” he supplied, his title name.

“You are to be called lord?”

“It is my title name. You may call me Lucas, if you wish.”  His friends called him so, a short name only for the closest of allies.  As his first wife, she might be considered such.  She must be, if he was to survive.  He nodded toward their joined hands.  “Do you understand what this means?”

“Yes,” she said softly, “I understand.”  A flush of color suffused her face, painting her cheeks with a pink glow.

His father returned, his man with him.  The servant bowed, and indicated they should follow him from the tent.  Luccasedra turned the girl so they could walk together, and they followed the man to a commandeered house a short distance from his father’s command tent.  The servant showed them to rooms in the far corner of the elegant house, to what had once been some wealthy Larossan man’s bedchambers.

Two witnesses waited for them.  But the girl gasped when she saw the room’s other inhabitants and cast a look of horror at Luccasedra.  For a moment, he thought he could almost feel the edge of her panic, like an unfamiliar taste at the back of his throat.  He’d heard that women sometimes found the presence of the witnesses disturbing.

“Is this not the custom among your people?” he asked.

“No,” she whispered.

He turned to face the elder of the women, a gray-haired matron of perhaps fifty years.  “Leave.”

“Your father requires that…” she began.

“Remind my father he has given me to these people.  This is not one of their customs.  You will leave.”

The woman appeared ready to renew her protest but then inclined her head, gracefully making her way to the door.  The second followed, a frown showing her disapproval.

Luccasedra doubted his father would have the marriage set aside merely because he’d not had proper witnesses.  If nothing else, this mild defiance would ease his way with this girl.  He needed her goodwill.  The key turned in the lock, leaving him alone with her.

“Let me clean this.”  Luccasedra lifted their joined hands and began unwinding the linen.  When finished, he pressed the linen strip to her palm, which still bled.  He bid her to hold it and went in search of clean bandages and a basin.  He found both in an anteroom intended for bathing.  Rakel followed him to a small table, sitting next to him when he gestured for her to do so.

He took the wadded binding from her and temporarily wrapped it around his palm, wanting to look at her cut first.  He lifted her right hand in his and began to clean her bloodied palm with a damp towel. Although for one of his people he was fair-skinned, against her hand his own appeared as brown as the meanest field laborer’s.  “How old are you?”

“Twelve,” she answered softly.

His heart beat in a panicked rhythm.  Surely, that was too young.  His father would not have bound him with a child.

“Twenty,” she amended, a guilty expression flashing across her face.

One who spoke the language poorly might confuse the two words–two and ten rather than two tens. Luccasedra smiled, feeling inordinately relieved.

“How old are you?” she asked in turn, hissing when he caught a tender spot.  The cut showed swollen and reddish about the edges, as if his blood had burned her.

He dabbed at it carefully, not wanting to inflict further pain.  “Twenty-four.  Is this normal?”

“No,” she answered without asking for clarification.  “There is some unusual thing in your blood.”

Luccasedra stilled, offended that she thought him diseased.

“No,” she amended.  “Not sickness.  Only different.”

“How so?”

“I cannot explain.  I feel it.”

How could his blood feel different, since he saw before him the evidence that their bloods flowed the same?  She stretched out her free hand, lightly touching him on the cheek with two fingertips.  Luccasedra instinctively drew away, then stilled under her touch.

“You bathed.  You used the same soap from your father.  You used water out of the wells, not the river.”  Her fingers drifted down to his robe.  “Silk, old and not cleaned for months, stored in…,” she paused.  “Only you wear this.  For a long time.”

Her fingers on his skin reminded him she was his wife now, stirring other thoughts.  She met his eyes.  He felt a strange communion with her, as if she shared his sudden flare of desire.  Her tongue touched her upper lip, and he shut his eyes, thinking it odd he should want her when she was so unlike what he preferred in his women.

She jerked away from his light grasp and rose.

“Rakel?”  Luccasedra wondered at her sudden flight.

“I will bind this,” she told him, her shaking voice betraying hurt feelings.  She picked up a linen pad and crossed to the other side of the room.  She placed the pad over the cut and awkwardly wrapped the linen bandage around her palm.

He came up behind her and reached around to help her secure the end, but she wrested her hand away.  “It is easier if I help,” he said.  “What have I done to offend?”

She glanced over her shoulder at him and then away.  “I know I am not as you like.”

Luccasedra took her hand again.  He’d not said anything of the kind, even if he had thought it.  He opened his mouth to protest.

“I hear it, even when you do not say it.  You want women small and…”  She made a gesture with her free hand to mimic a word she didn’t know. Luccasedra recognized the gesture’s meaning, but not how she knew that of him.  “You are loud,” she said then.  “Everything in your mind is loud.  I hear you thinking…thinking, ‘how does she know?'”

He released her, stepping away.

“And now you are afraid,” she said sadly, fumbling again with the linen strips.

“How do you know?”  He forced himself to take her hand again, tucked the end of the strip neatly through the outside and knotted it.

She didn’t answer.  Luccasedra returned to the table and, after removing the temporary binding from his own palm, began to scrub the blood from between his fingers with the towel.  “How do you know I am afraid?”

She held her bandaged hand cradled in the other, pale hands standing out against the black of her robe.  Her hair glowed like an aura about her head.  “What you feel, I feel.  If I touch you, I hear what you think.”

He kept his eyes lowered.  His cut looked clean, unlike the irritation hers showed.  “Come sit down, please.”

Luccasedra waited for her compliance.  Eventually she came and sat at the table again, tying off his bandage when he held out his hand.  Words failed him, for he had no idea where to begin with his questions.

“When I am touching, I hear people’s thinking,” she said in her soft voice.

Her bare fingers cradled his bandaged hand.  Luccasedra kept his hand there, forcing himself not to break the contact.  He had no choice but to trust her.  The gloves, he surmised.  She wore gloves to limit contact with others, to keep from falling into their thoughts.

“No,” she said then.  “I am careful.  I sense a thing in my hands.”

The meaning of that eluded him, and he frowned, frustrated they could not communicate better between them.  He glanced at her pale fingertips against his, recalling her words about his father’s soap.

“When I touch something that is yours, I know it is yours.  Now I know your blood; I know your skin.  It is difficult to learn a new person.”

Her earlier trembling took on a different meaning, but it had passed now.  “Does my touch hurt you?” he asked.

“I can bear it,” she whispered.

Hardly reassuring.  He took her unbandaged hand in his across the table.  “Rakel, do you understand what has been asked of you?  If you are truly to be my wife, then you must know that I will touch you.”

Her pale eyes looked huge.  “Yes.”

“I wish to know…”

“Yes,” she said when he paused, unable to verbalize his concerns.  “My hands are most sensitive, and my feet, and my face.”

Her feet?  His mind brought forward the humorous image of her stepping on other’s feet, trying to read their thoughts through their toes.  Luccasedra reached out his bandaged hand and brushed the tips of his fingers against her cheek, curious.  She drew a sharp breath, but didn’t pull away.  He ran one finger along her lower lip.  Her eyes closed.

“Your mouth?” he asked.

“My lips and my tongue,” she replied, a faint trembling resurfacing now.

The words sent an unexpected surge of desire through him, dredging up all manner of inappropriate thoughts.  She drew a shuddering breath.  He realized his feelings must have leaked over to her, triggering her response.  He calmed himself, not wishing to force her into anything she didn’t truly want.

At that, she shook her head.  She stood, came around the edge of the table and sat, unexpectedly, in his lap.  Not certain how she wanted him to react, he settled his arms about her waist.  She was tall enough that, sitting so, he had to look up at her.  He met her eyes, wondering what she could be thinking.  She leaned down and brushed her lips across his, withdrawing immediately as if stung.

“An experiment?” he asked curiously.

She laid her bandaged fingers against his cheek and then kissed him again.  He kept his arms loosely about her, not wanting to alarm her.  She touched the tip of her tongue to his lips, and pulled away, the same startled expression on her face.

He felt far warmer than he had in weeks.  “Rakel?  Are you certain you want this?”

She nodded, and he slipped his bandaged hand around her neck, pulling her close.  He tasted her lips with his tongue and, when she gasped, sealed her mouth with his own, slipping his tongue into her warmth.  She tasted of mint.

For a moment, he felt her panic almost as if it were his own.  He let her loose, and she shuddered.

Her face wore a determined expression, though, like one who must take a medicine, but dislikes the taste of it.  Apparently, she’d decided it was best to get this over with.  No matter how little that flattered him, her determination impressed him.

She leaned back, her eyes focusing on his face.  “You are very beautiful, Lucas,” she told him.

Luccasedra laughed softly, thinking he should have said those words, not her.

“You do not think I am beautiful.”  Her soft voice hinted at her disappointment.

He wondered then if she were considered beautiful by her own people.  He cupped her face, his fingers brown against her fair skin.  Her wide-set eyes stared into his, the pale lashes masking them as she blushed under his scrutiny.  If they did not consider her beautiful, he thought, then surely, they must admire her courage in contracting such a marriage.  “I have not yet decided,” he whispered.

The gray eyes opened again, and she smiled, the first time he’d seen her do so.  She had a pretty smile.  Luccasedra leaned up to kiss her, and she came to him, sighing into his mouth when he pulled her close.

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