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Authors: Rebecca York

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BOOK: Hero's Welcome
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Tipping his head to one side, he peered at her through a brew-induced haze. “These are good. My compliments to the chef.” His words slightly slurred, he asked, “But what if cooking and cleaning and tending rokam isn’t enough? What if the one-legged man wants you in his bed?”

Her face went white.

“I see. The rules have changed, but I’m still not good enough for you.”

She knitted her hands together in front of her. “I . . . can’t.”

The way she said it made him shudder. “Kasi?”

He put out a hand toward her, but she was already darting out of his reach, fleeing down the hall. He stared after her long after she’d disappeared.

Finally, with a heavy sigh, he made another cup of the strong brew. A shame to waste good nester cakes, he decided, cramming another into his mouth and licking his fingers. Sometime later he found the strength to get up and stagger down the hall to a bed chamber. Fumbling clumsily, he unstrapped his holster and shoved his gun under the pillow.

There was a mirror on the wall, and his reflection took him by surprise: A tall, dark-haired man with broad shoulders, his face too young for the pain-etched grooves in his forehead. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d looked at his own face. It was changed, and not for the better.

Turning quickly, he pulled off his trousers before easing off the prosthetic extension of his ruined leg. Freed of its constraint, the stump throbbed, and he bit back a groan as he flopped onto the bed.

He must have slept. The next thing he knew, he was awake and listening to stealthy feet moving in the darkness. His hand shot to the gun. The intruder was quicker, surer. He heard the weapon clank onto the stand beside the bed.

“It’s all right,” Kasimanda whispered.

Some of the tension went out of him. In the semi-darkness, he could see her only in outline. When he remembered she could see him a lot better, his stomach knotted. “What’re you doing here?” he growled, trying to pull the bedding over the stump of his right leg.

Her hand covered his. “Lie still.”

He felt the mattress shift as she came down beside him. “I’m going to take care of the wound.”

“No.” He tried to slide away, but one of her hands gripped his shoulder, stilling him. When the other hand touched his ruined flesh, he went rigid. “
Don’t
.”

“It’s all right,” she answered, a quaver in her voice. “I understand.”

He uttered a short, humorless laugh. “Yeah? And how in Atherdan’s name could you understand? What have
you
lost?” The instant the words left his mouth, he regretted them. Consumed by pain and humiliation, he’d forgotten what she’d told him only a short time ago, that, indeed, she’d lost everything.

She didn’t reply, only stared at him. He couldn’t hold her gaze, had to look away.

For several more moments, silence hung in the darkness between them. Then her fingers flattened against his hot skin.

“Let me see if this salve works,” she whispered. “I want it to work. I want to give you that. Maybe it’s all I can give you.”

The soft sound of her voice kept him pinned to the bed as her hand glided over his leg, spreading some kind of cream. At first her touch brought him pain, and he clenched his teeth to keep from wrenching away. But in a few moments he felt something else: deep, comforting warmth, radiating through his skin, penetrating all the way to the bone.

Still, as her hand moved lower, toward the place where the energy burst had charred his flesh, he felt cold sweat break out on his forehead.

She kept talking to him in a low voice, words he couldn’t quite catch. Yet they held him. He wanted to close his eyes, to pretend that the darkness hid his mangled body. At the same time, he wanted to turn on a light, so he could see her delicate features. He settled for straining his eyes, watching her bending over him, the long flow of her spectacular Farlian hair, with its rippling waves, curtaining her face.

“Is it doing anything?” she asked, her voice giving away her tension.

“I . . . think so.”

“Good.” The word eased from her lips like a long, satisfied sigh.

He reached toward her, but before his hand could connect with her flesh, she sprang away. For a moment she stood looking down at him, then she turned and ran out of the room.

The next morning, he might have chalked the whole thing up to fevered dreams, except that he could see the orange salve on his leg. He also felt a difference in the wound. The pain was less gnawing.

He limped to the bathroom, using the folding crutch they’d given him in the hospital, and took a quick shower, bracing his back against the curved wall and standing on one leg. When he had carefully dried the stump, he attached the prosthesis and braced for the hot pain that always came when he first put his weight on the damned thing.

It wasn’t quite so bad.

He started down the hall, then, on second thought, stopped and went back. Standing in front of the mirror, he ran his hand over the dark stubble that covered his cheeks. He had intended to leave it. Instead he slathered hair-dissolving foam on the nascent beard and washed it away. The foam left his cheeks smooth and undisguised, forcing him to acknowledge the weight he’d lost. He looked lean and hungry and, in his own eyes, angry.

He tried to lighten his expression, to erase the frown, to make his lips curve upward in a smile. When he realized his attempts to rearrange his features only made things worse, he grimaced and turned away.

Kasimanda wasn’t in the galley. But there was a plate of grain cakes on a warming square. And real coffee. Maybe the residents of the house had left it in long-term storage, he thought as he breathed in the wonderful aroma, then poured some into the delicate ceramic mug she’d set on the table for him.

Her grain cakes melted in his mouth, like the ones his mother had made, and he realized that she must have used a Dorre recipe. He wanted to tell her how good they were, but she didn’t appear when he called her name.

“You don’t have to leave,” he said more loudly, hoping his voice conveyed a note of apology for his insensitivity of the night before. “You can stay here as long as you want.”

No answer.

Half disappointed, half relieved, he went back to the power center and spent the morning on repairs. When the sun had reached its zenith and begun its slow fall toward the horizon, he headed outside to inspect the farm machinery. He wasn’t going to look for her, he told himself as he limped his way to the large barn, where the equipment was kept.

After satisfying himself that the riding scour and harvester were in working order, he returned to the galley, where he found she’d put away most of the supplies he’d brought and prepared another Dorre-style meal. Like the fairy people in a children’s story, he thought with a low laugh. An unseen helper.

Stomping down the hall, he began opening doors. In a wing off to the left, he found the small chamber where it appeared she had been sleeping. The bed was narrow, the storage bay small. Servant’s quarters.

Why in the name of Far— He stopped himself, realizing suddenly how insulting the curse would be if he slipped and said it aloud in front of Kasi: his people defiling the name of hers.

He started over.

Why in the name of hell was she sleeping in here? She could have the master bed chamber for all he cared. He opened the storage bay. There were only a few tunics, all of them clean but made of cheap cloth. Wasn’t there anything better in the house, he wondered as he fingered the coarse fabric, imagining it next to her soft skin. With a curse, he turned and stamped away.

He worked outside for the rest of the day. By evening, his leg was throbbing. Back in his room, as he pulled off his clothes and removed the prosthesis, he decided he could use some more of that orange stuff.

Would she come to him again? Or was one good look at his mangled leg enough, he wondered as he lay with his eyes half closed, too keyed up to sleep. An enormous sense of relief swept over him when the door finally glided open.

“Was your leg better today?” she asked softly as she tiptoed toward the bed.

“Yes.”

“I’m so glad.” In her voice was a hint of the music he’d always loved.

“I think more of that salve would help,” he admitted in low, rough tones.

In one quick motion, she perched lightly beside him. He wanted to feel her touch. Still, he flinched when her fingers made contact with the leg. Teeth gritted, he ordered himself to relax as she began to soothe the magic salve over his poisoned flesh. Again there was warmth and sweet relief.

In the darkness, he began to talk, his tone flat and devoid of emotion. “I was on a mission to secure a farm house. There was a Farlian hiding inside. He burned my leg. I put a hole in his chest.”

Her hand stilled, then started again.

“I killed a lot of your people.”

“Are you bragging or asking for my forgiveness?” she asked, a little hitch in her voice.

He might have tossed out a cynical answer. Instead he gave her honesty. “Neither. I just . . . I just needed to say it. I’m not sure I’m fit company for anyone. I feel . . . uncivilized.”

“The men you killed were uncivilized, too,” she answered. “They would have killed you if you hadn’t killed them first.”

He made a low sound in his throat. “I started out as an idealistic boy fighting for my people’s freedom. I didn’t know what war was going to be like. I didn’t know how it felt to look into a man’s eyes and kill him.”

“You did what you had to do. And your people
are
free.”

“And yours?”

“We’ve paid the price for years of conceit and presumption.”

Her answer shocked him. “That’s what you believe?”

She sighed, a sad sound in the darkness. “When I think about it, I understand that when we raised the price of rokam oil too high, our buyers on Kodon Prime made a business decision to ally themselves with the Dorre and back them in a war against us.” She sighed again. “But mostly I try not to think about it. I try just to survive, one day at a time.”

She said it with such heart-wrenching simplicity that he struggled to draw a full breath. Her next words only added to the crushing feeling in his chest.

“Link, you’re a man whose body and soul were injured by circumstances beyond your control. A man with the strength to heal the parts that can be healed.”

“How do you know?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.

“Because you had the courage to tell me your doubts. Because you let me put my hands here.” In the darkness, she lightly touched the stump of his leg. “There are things inside all of us that we find frightening. It’s how we deal with the fear that counts.”

When had she grown up, he wondered. Where had she gained this kind of wisdom?

“Doesn’t it change the way you feel about me when I tell you I killed Farlian men?” he demanded.

“I never saw things in terms of Farlians verses Dorre. Our races evolved differently, because my ancestors came from Earth much longer ago than yours and adapted to a new environment that changed us. So my skin is very pale, and my eyes see better at night than yours. But those physical differences are superficial. Our hopes and needs and feelings are alike. We’re all still people, and in all ways that matter, we’re the same.”

“Then why did you stop me that night, when you knew I was going to kiss you?” He blurted out the question, then immediately regretted it.

He thought she wasn’t going to answer when she rose and took a step away from the bed. Then she began to speak in a low, rapid voice. “Because I knew my father was standing in the doorway, waiting for me to come in from the garden. And despite his liberal leanings, he would have killed you if you’d put your hand on his high-born daughter.”

Before Link could respond, she turned and fled the room.

He lay for long hours in the darkness, remembering each word of the midnight encounter, each touch of her hands on his flesh. He especially remembered that she’d been motivated by a desire to protect him from her father, not revulsion for him, when she’d refused his kiss all those years ago.

Sometime in the early hours of the morning, slumber finally took him.

Despite the short sleep, he woke feeling better than he had in months, as if a giant weight had been lifted off his body. He knew it was Kasimanda’s doing. She was the first person he’d told how he felt— about the war, about his leg, about anything at all. Maybe it was because he’d known her longer than anyone still living. Maybe it was the gentle way she had about her. Whatever the reason, he felt he could talk to her, share himself with her. And with the talking and sharing had come a kind of freedom.

He wanted to tell her, but she had disappeared again. Anguish grabbed him when he considered that she might have fled the estate. Then he reminded himself that she’d said she had nowhere else to go.

He ate the food she had left for him, then headed outside. With the riding scour, he began to clear away rocks that had washed down from the nearby mountain with the season’s rains. No one had tended the field since the war had started, and there was a lot of debris.

While he worked, he thought about Kasimanda. Kasi, he had called her when they were young. Things had changed abruptly when they’d grown into awkward adolescents. And more recently, changed again— in ways he was afraid to imagine. They both had been ground up and spit out by the war.

He sighed. On Laster of Renfarel’s estate, where he and Kasi had grown up, Farlian and Dorre children had played together as near-equals— until they began to mature and were suddenly cautioned to remember their places in society.

Those places had changed, though. The Dorre, in waging war against their oppressors, had stood the world on its head, creating chaos in the process: cities renamed, rulers reduced to humiliation, civilians murdered. Families, like Kasi’s, torn apart. Men, like him, maimed.

With a grimace, Link centered his mind on the task of clearing rocks. When the sun dipped low over the hills, he returned to the house and revived himself in a long cool shower. After eating the dinner Kasi had left him, he flopped into bed. But rather than lying down, he propped his back against a mound of pillows and left a small lamp burning in the corner of the room—as if he were expecting company. Then, as the silent minutes dragged by, his tension mounted along with the throbbing in his leg.

BOOK: Hero's Welcome
11.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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