Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Question of Balance - Chapter 4

Sorry for the delay in putting up a new chapter. My SAD hit me a little harder than usual this winter. Couple that with a consistent Vitamin D deficiency, and I've been a little under the weather for the last couple of months. It's been all I can do to get new pages written, much less blog posts edited..

Also, I finally came up with a title I like! Yay!

I walked across the street when bells at the Temple of the Mother tolled first evening. The one grace was that the rain had stopped, but the thick, heavy air said more was on its way.

Tyra accompanied me, but she had the foresight not to take my arm. Since my trial for Samael DiRoy’s murder last summer, everyone knew I was sighted even if my staff occasionally forgot out of sheer habit. Besides, traffic on the main thoroughfare had died down for the day. Not that it had been as congested as normal between the rain and rest day.

After my encounter with my mother this afternoon, I could understand my wardens insistence that I have an escort in the city.

Goddess, I missed having Luc around from sunrise to sunrise. I could trust him to watch my back.

Was it my own stubbornness that prevented better relations with my staff? They seemed so eager to please. Or were they terrified I would blame them for hiding my predecessor’s instability? To be released from temple service would be the ultimate disgrace.

On the other hand, I couldn’t get myself disgraced no matter how hard I tried.

I was escorted to the chief priest’s private dining room. It hadn’t change a bit since Luc had taken over from Kam, and I said as much to the two men.

Luc laughed. “I wish had the time or inclination to redecorate, but Kam here has been keeping me quite busy. I think he saved his entire workload from last spring for me.”

The elderly priest chuckled. “Running a temple is a young person’s game.”

“And cooking a fine dinner takes an experienced hand,” I remarked.

“Just so, my lady.” Kam took my hand looped it around his arm. The gesture was sheer graciousness, not a suggestion that I was helpless, and he did it every time I came to the Temple of Truth for dinner long before I was condemned to the Orrin temple seat.

“And at the rate he’s going, I won’t fit in my smallclothes by next winter,” Luc grumbled good-naturedly. To Tyra’s shock, he copied Kam and took the warden’s arm in his.

Even after half a year, it was odd to see Luc at the head of chief priest’s private table, instead of Kam. He kept with Kam’s tradition that business was not to be discussed until after the sweets course. Tonight’s specialty was mountain ice mixed with cream and flavored with honey and dried blackberries.

I licked the last bits from my spoon before I said, “You’re right, Luc. You’re going to end up fatter than a bear before hibernation at this rate.

“After the day we’ve had, I told Kam we deserved a treat.” Luc dropped his own spoon into the bowl with a clatter. “I hope your day was more productive than mine.”

“Nothing from any of the duke’s household?”

“Not a damn thing.” He raked his hands through his hair. “In fact, the only quirk was Lady Alessa.”

I sat up straighter. “What do you mean?”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was fighting my spell, but the idea is ridiculous. According to our records, none of the DiMaras have ever shown a flicker of magical ability.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“No.” He speared a piece of cheese from the platter in front of him. “She was one of the last people I questioned, and I could have imagined it.”

A shiver ran up my spine. The last thing I wanted was to drop more trouble in Marco’s lap. Other than Luc, he was the only person who’d ever defended me against an attacker in every sense of the word.

I relayed what Master Healer Devin had said about the attacker having small hands. That story spilled into events at the Temple of Death, and my encounter with my mother.

Luc and I exchanged looks, old habits falling into place. He had the same feeling that we were missing a major piece of this puzzle.

“Maybe we’re looking at this from the wrong angle.” Kam poured more wine into his goblet.

“How so?” I asked.

“It could have been a jealous worshipper who viewed Sister Gretchen as his. When she refused to run away with him, he became enraged. If he couldn’t have her, no one else could.”

I turned to Tyra. “What’s your analysis, Warden?”

She stammered a couple of times before she said, “I’m happy Sister Gretchen wasn’t found in one of our temple’s wine barrels, Justice.”

Kam promptly released the neck of the decanter he was reaching for. “Oh, my.”

The same worry had plagued to me, but I folded my fingers and rested my chin on them. “Why so?”

More stammering. I waited patiently, Little Bear’s assessment of Penelope’s behavior foremost in my mind. If I wanted the Balance staff to trust me, and vice versa, I needed to extend the offer.

“W-w-well, given that Duke Marco swore for your conduct at your own t-t-trial for murder, if the body had been discovered at our temple, people would blame you without evidence, and the duke’s enemies would use it against him.

“Magistrate DiCook would claim Orrin’s Temple of Balance was corrupt, and jurisdiction would fall to him. Given his assumption of guilty until proven innocent and his lack of investigative skills, both His Grace and you would be executed.” Her green lashes fluttered with her nervous energy.

“Very good, Warden. My thoughts as well. Which means someone is specifically targeting the duke for scandal—”

“Or it was still a method of killing two quail with the same arrow,” Luc added.

“Katarina,” I said.

“She knows a lot of Gerd’s secrets, and with Marco’s father imprisoned for life for kidnapping and attempted memory alteration, Gerd doesn’t have the nobility completely under her thumb.”

“But most of the local lords aren’t happy with His Grace either,” Tyra offered. At least, the girl no longer stuttered.

“Which brings us back to the original problem.” I fished the vial out of my pocket. “I’m hoping this will help.”

“What’s this?” Luc asked as he took the stoppered glass from my hand. He held the vial up to the nearest oil lamp to examine the contents.

“I’m praying it is skin scrapings from Gretchen’s attacker. Master Devin pointed out all her nails were packed with this substance.”

Luc met my gaze. “That’s assuming the wine didn’t overwhelm his essence.”

“Or hers.” I frowned. “At this point, I’m not ruling anyone or anything out. I know it’s not much to start with, but on the chance, Gretchen tore her attacker’s skin, and he’s still alive.”

“I’ll have to do a little research for this fine of a tracking spell. Otherwise, we may end up finding the grapevines that were the source of the wine. Do you have a problem with me consulting the Wildling chief priest—”

His recitation was interrupted by Tyra yawning, a wide, jaw-cracking one. Blood rushed to her face as she realized what she’d done. “I beg forgiveness, Brothers, Lady Justice.”

“Pish,” Kam said as he waved his hand. “Anthea and Luc are simply more adept at hiding theirs while listening to an old man ramble.”

“Because we’ve had far too much practice,” I said into my cup.

“There’s nothing wrong with my hearing, young lady.” He waggled a finger at me.

“You were meant to hear, old man,” I shot back.

“Well, it’s about time you two experience the other side.”

Luc leaned closer to Tyra. “It’s permissible to laugh at them, Warden. I do all the time.”

“You were on last night’s watch, weren’t you?” I said.

“Yes, m’lady.”

“Go back to the temple and get some sleep.”

“But I can’t leave you—”

“I’ll escort her home, Warden,” Luc said.

Warmth filled me. It had been weeks since we’d had any time alone.

“But—” she tried one more time.

“That’s a direct order, Warden. I don’t need my staff nodding off in the middle of court tomorrow morning.”

She tried to hide her relief as she stood. “Thank you, m’lady. Good eventide, Brothers.”

Once she left, Kam rested his chubby arms on the table service. “Anthea, be careful with Gerd. Don’t take power in this city, her wrath or her ego for granted.”

“She interfered with an investigation.” Damn, now I sounded like the sullen, petulant child.

“If you’re expecting any type of maternal consideration—”

I snorted. “Oh, believe me, I am not.”

“I’m too old and too tired to argue with a mule-headed justice.” He climbed to his feet with a great deal of puffing. “Do something with her before she does something stupid, Luc. Good eventide.”

For an elderly, overweight man, Kam did a remarkable job of stomping out of the dining room in a huff. The door slammed behind him, and the dishes and utensils vibrated in response.

“You’re poking everyone with a stick tonight, Justice.” Luc’s amused tone irritated me.

“This would all be so much easier if I didn’t have half the city playing idiotic games.”

“That means you have to play the game better than anyone else.”

“I can think of games I’d rather play.” I smiled at him.

He was out of his chair and pulling me into his arms before my next heartbeat. Our lips met, and I felt as if I’d been trapped in the Salt Desert for days, and finally taking a sip of fresh, sweet water.

The kiss was far too short. Or so I thought until I realized he pressed me against the wall and my legs were wrapped around his waist.

“Goddess, I miss you,” I whispered.

Luc leaned his forehead against mine. “Not as much as I miss you.” His breath was warm against my skin, reminding of all those mornings he’d woken me with sweet kisses.

His hands slid from my buttocks. “But we can’t. Not here. Not now.”

“When?” I hated that the single word sounded like a sob, that I sounded like a lovestruck fool.

“I don’t know.” He pulled my arms from his neck. “You need to go back before anyone starts rumors. We have enough trouble on our tables, my love.” His words were followed by a light kiss on my neck, the tender spot where I was most sensitive.

When he stepped away, I felt as shaky as if I’d been sword training during a severe ground quake. And I wished I’d argued harder that we run away to Cant six months ago.

* * *
The thought of escaping my duties crawled through my mind long after the temple and outbuildings had quieted for the night. But amid the desire to saddle Nassa and gallop south to the border, the mutilated body of Sister Gretchen taunted me. Maybe if Luc could trace who, then we would know why.

Which brought me back full circle to Luc and abandoning the temple again.

I sighed, sat up and punched at the down pillows. I still hadn’t gotten used to the finery afforded my new position. Luc and I had slept on the ground more often than not as we traveled the circuit of villages and towns between Orrin and the mountains. I threw myself back down on the bed.

This whole situation was ridiculous. I was fretting about things I had no control over. Without sleep, I’d be crankier than usual during court tomorrow morning.

The faint scrape of stone on stone cut my self-pity off at the knees. I froze and scanned the room through slitted eyes. My hand reached between the mattress and the bed frame for my dagger.

There. A small section wall to the left of my wardrobe separated from the rest of the blue-green marble. The brilliant yellow of a living being appeared. It stepped through the opening and straightened. A man.

My fingers tightened around the dagger handle. Fool. I could see in the dark. He couldn’t.

Despite the chill in the air, I had kicked up my blankets long before. It was a simple matter of rolling off the bed and crouching on the icy floor.

He crept unerringly to my bedside. This was someone who knew the lay of my chambers or had been in here before. Neither boded well.

When he reached for the spot where my head would have been, I grabbed his collar and yanked. He lost his balance and landed on my mattress with a whoof. The tip of my dagger rested along the pulse point of throat.

The feel of his skin and his scent registered a heartbeat before Luc said, “Is this how you greet all your lovers?”

“You scared the piss out of me,” I hissed. “By our gods, what are you doing here? How did you…” I glanced at the opening he’d slipped through.

“If you put away the dagger, I’ll tell you.”

“I’m glad you find this amusing,” I muttered, but I released him.

He rearranged himself to lie lengthwise on my mattress. I set my weapon on the lamp table and circled the room, laying wards so we wouldn’t be interrupted.

When I returned to the bed, he snagged my hand and pulled me on top of him. My body heated as his hands roamed and his arousal pressed against me.


“Apparently, we are not the first of our temples to have an illegal tryst.”

I waited for him to continue, but it was growing more difficult to think with the things he was doing to me. Finally, I tore my mouth from his. “The secret passage?” I prompted.

“Kam was waiting in my bedchamber when I returned.” His chest rumbled beneath me. “Would you believe he lectured me on taking the edge off your irritability?”

“He didn’t.”

“Um-hmmm…” Luc flipped me so I was underneath him. Little kisses followed the hem of my nightshirt upward.

“That’s rather audacious of him.” A disturbing thought hit me. “Wait a moment. Kam and…Penelope?”

Luc buried his face against my inner thigh to stifle his laughter. “Light, no. Thalia.”

The legendary justice had been Penelope’s predecessor. She died defending the city from a pirate attack nearly a generation ago. Her sacrifice hadn’t been in vain. The battle had broken the marauders power on the Peaceful Sea.

“Incredible,” I whispered. “I didn’t realize Kam had been here that long.”

“Nearly fifty years.”

I wove my fingers through Luc’s hair as he layered more licks and kisses along my skin. “But the tunnel?”

“Was built long before either Thalia or Kam were assigned here. They’re part of the original structures. There’s another tunnel between Light and Father. He believes they were escape routes during the demon wars.” His breath brushed my flesh, shooting prickles all over my body. “Now will you be quiet and let me love you, or do I have to gag you?”

I sighed. “I suppose. If you must for my mental health…”

Thankfully, my wards blocked the rest of the temple from hearing my shrieks as Luc showed me how much he missed me.


Anonymous said...

Yes! Yesyesyesyes!

Thank you for another great chapter!

And Hugs for the SAD - never fun. I'm glad you found a title to love as well. =)



Suzan Harden said...

Thanks, Dee. The unusual cold this winter hasn't helped, but now that it's warmed up a little this week, things are MUCH better!

Anonymous said...

I feel the same. I live in SC and they aren't used to snow here - much less an ice storm! And and earthquake too. Its been a few interesting weeks to say the least!



Suzan Harden said...

Oh, I know. Dee. I used to live in D.C. Snow was not their friend either. I'm counting the days until Spring.

As for the earthquake thing...*shudder* Those are definitely NOT fun!

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