A gull’s harsh cry pierced the heavy veil of sleep. Catori’s eyes fluttered, but she still struggled to open them. The sound of a door grounded her a little more; feet tapped across the room and passed her. It pulled her further into consciousness and dragged her through the fog to the light of day until, with great effort, she managed to open her eyes.
She was in bed, in the bedroom she shared with Doran. Soft afternoon light filtered through the curtains drawn over the terrace. They fluttered in the breeze and shafts of sunlight darted across the floor beneath them. A servant stood by a large, carved wooden cradle, and lifted a swaddled newborn into her arms. She turned, froze at the sight of Catori moving, then dipped into a curtsy.
“We’ve been waiting for you to wake, my lady.” She stepped closer to the bed. “Would you like to hold him?”
Catori managed to haul herself into a sitting position. “Yes,” she croaked, and reached for her son. “Please.” Her throat was parched and speaking was a little difficult.
The plaintive note in her voice drove the woman to pass him over as quick as possible. Catori gazed down at her son, at his round little face all scrunched up, at the soft, dark down of his hair. He was swaddled in a cream and gold blanket fringed in a deep, ocean blue—the new Spicer family colors. A slow, blithe smile stole across her face.
“I just had my own,” the servant said. “Lord Spicer asked me to help while you recovered.”
Catori kept her eyes trained on her son. “Thank you for helping,” she whispered. “I only wish I’d been strong enough to do it myself. How long have I been asleep?”
“Almost two days.” The woman gave her a sympathetic look. “It’s not your fault, my lady. Many women don’t survive at all. Those of us that do are made stronger.”
“I don’t feel very strong. I’ve fought brutal battles. I’ve more scars on me than many men, and yet the thing I was made to do I failed.” The reality of it hit Catori as the words left her mouth. She’d almost died in childbirth, like her mother before her. Her heart dropped to her stomach and the smile that crept across her face began to fade.
“But you didn’t fail, my lady. You delivered a healthy boy and lived to watch him grow. He’ll be as strong as your first.”
The baby opened his mouth and let out a wail that steadily rose in volume.
The woman stepped a little closer. “He’s probably hungry. Do you want to feed him, or should I?”
“I’ll do it.” Catori loosened the neckline of her nightgown. “Other ladies might use a wet nurse for their children, but I wasn’t raised a lady. I’ll feed my own son.”
The woman seemed pleased to hear it and she dipped into a curtsy before leaving Catori to nurse her newborn son.
Catori watched as he suckled, entranced by the sight of him. She was blissful when she fed Brenden for the first time and the same awe, the same joy, crept up on her this time, too. She forgot her fatigue and the way her body ached. All she knew was the small child in her arms would want for nothing, not if she could help it.
The door opened again, but Catori didn’t look up until Doran sank down beside her. He wound an arm around her shoulders and she turned her head to smile at him.
“I was worried,” he murmured. “I was there when you lost consciousness.”
Doran cupped his son’s head and stroked his thumb over his skin. “You lost so much blood.” A hint of sadness tinged his words and Catori studied him as he spoke. “For a moment I thought you might die, but I underestimated you for the first time. You’re a fighter in everything you do.”
Something Catori couldn’t quite place lie in his eyes as he met her gaze. She sucked in a breath, and suddenly Doran was kissing her. His lips molded to hers with a tenderness that made her heart flutter. He didn’t release her quickly, either—his soft kisses became fervent, driven by some hidden need.
It was unlike him. Catori was used to his gentle afterthoughts of affection. If she was lucky, his kisses were passionate and paired with the weight of him pinning her into their bed. This was different, and the taste of his relief lingered on his lips. Catori didn’t question his love for her, but his reaction was unlooked for and it warmed her more than any gift or soft word he could give her.
Doran kissed her once more, then released her to gaze down at their son. “He has quite an appetite.”
Catori smiled and leaned into Doran. “He does. Perhaps that’ll extend to more than just food.” She glanced up at him again and her smile widened. “Like his father.”
“And his mother. From flower girl to noble lady.” Doran chuckled and kissed her temple. “I thought of a name.”
Of course he had; Doran thought of everything.
Catori smirked at him. “Do I get a say in this?”
“If you didn’t, I would’ve just told you his name.”
“And what is this name?”
His expression softened, and warm affection lit his eyes. “Torin.”
Catori was wrong—that soft word filled her with as much adoration as his relieved kisses. She thought her heart would burst. It was common for people to weave their names together to name their children, but she hadn’t expected Doran to do so, particularly for his heir.
Doran laughed at the look on her face, making Catori blush. She had to admit, the name he’d chosen pleased her, as did his laughter. She didn’t hear it enough.
“I like the name,” she said, and her smile widened until her cheeks hurt.
“Good.” Doran cupped the infant’s head again. “Torin, then.” They sat in contented silence while he nursed.
Despite the quite moment together, a dark cloud hung in the back of her mind and rumbled its malcontent. Unease crept up her spine—she almost died. She was twenty, with every privilege, the finest healers, yet she barely made it through the birth. What did that say about her? She could wield her swords with deadly precision, but her body rebelled at anything feminine.
The cloud nudged her and nibbled at the edges of her mind despite her best efforts to ignore it. All she wanted was to enjoy the sight of her son and the feel of him in her arms, but she couldn’t shake the idea she wasn’t strong enough for this life. Doran would want more children and cold terror shot down her spine at the thought. What if she died giving birth to her next child? Like mother, like daughter.
For Torin and Doran, she smiled.
A few days passed before Catori gained enough strength to get out of bed and move around unhindered, but the urge to do so hadn’t reached her yet. The amount of work she had to do exhausted her just thinking about it. Coupled with the nagging feeling she wasn’t a good enough mother, wife, or lady—Catori’s confidence was crippled and the desire to even try vanished.
But she did anyway.
She fed Torin first and he fell asleep at her breast, to her delight and amusement. It was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak day full of tiring work. But the bright spot only grew as she laid Torin down—Anisa knocked on the door and Brenden peeked around her skirts. His eyes widened and he shoved past Anisa to scurry into the room.
Catori dropped to her knees and Brenden darted into her arms to hug her as tight as he could. “Oh, I’ve missed you,” she breathed.
Brenden clung to her. “They said I can’t see you.” His pout permeated his voice, plaintive and worried.
Catori kissed his cheek, then released him enough to cup his face and smile at him. “I know. I’m sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t feel well after the baby was born. But look!” She lifted Brenden into her arms—with some effort, as he seemed to grow bigger every day—and pointed to the cradle. “You have a new little brother.”
Brenden’s eyes widened as he gazed at the baby. “He’s so small.”
“He is. You were that small, too.” Catori kissed his cheek and set him on his feet.
“Oh, he’s adorable.” Anisa came to stand at her side and her expression softened as she gazed at Torin. “Look at him! Oh, Catori, you’re so lucky.”
“She nearly died.” Doran stood in the doorway to his study with a look of disapproval on his face. “You should be letting her rest.”
“I’m fine, Doran.” Catori flashed him as warm a smile as she could muster, made a little easier by the sight of her children. “And anyway, I have work to do.”
Anisa frowned as she looked up from Torin to study Catori. “Can you still have children?”
Dread chilled her to the bone, but Catori nodded. “Yes, I can still have children.”
“I want more baby brothers!” Brenden beamed at her. “And a sister!”
“You heard him.” Anisa grinned at Doran and placed her hands on her wide hips. “Best get on it.”
Doran rolled his eyes. “Anisa, please get out of my bedroom.”
Catori smiled at Brenden. “You should go find your nanny, too. You have your studies and I need to get some work done.” Brenden’s face fell, and the sight tugged at Catori’s heartstrings. She hadn’t spent enough time with her son. “We’ll have lunch together,” she said. “And I’ll be in my study if you need me.” She knelt and kissed his cheek again. They shared another tight embrace and Catori closed her eyes, relishing his hug. “I love you, Brenden,” she whispered.
“Love you, too, Mama.”
Anisa ushered him out of the room, leaving Catori with Doran and a sleeping Torin. Doran crossed the room to stand at her side as she straightened and gazed down at her new son.
Everything would work out. It had to.
Too bad she didn’t believe it.
“Are you sure you can handle working?” The gentle brush of Doran’s fingers at her shoulder drew her gaze. There was worry in his eyes as he studied her. “Tamara can handle the feast if you need more time.”
Catori shook her head. “No. I’m your wife. It’s my responsibility and I’ll get it done.”
Doran wrapped his arms around her and hauled her against his chest, forcing her to tear her eyes from their son. “The feasts are not so important when faced with the loss of you.” He dipped his head and kissed her.
His lips were soft and the kiss sweet, stirring up emotions previously buried beneath the weight of her anxiety. His expression was solemn when the kiss broke, but he lingered and cupped her face. “I told you when I asked you to marry me, and again our first wedding night; I love you, Catori.”
It was a brief glimpse of Doran without his mask. He was relaxed, and his eyes softened as he gazed at her. Catori smiled up at him, more for his benefit, and wrapped her arms around his neck. Doran held her close and buried his face in the crook of her neck.
“I never get tired of hearing you say that.” Catori breathed in his scent, a heady mixture of spice and musk, and sighed. “And I love you, too.”
“I’ll have to say it more often, then.” Doran kissed her again, then released her. “Work if you must, but make use of Tamara and your handmaid. And Anisa, too. There has to be something the woman is good at other than irritating me.” His eyes darted to Torin as the baby fussed. “There’s another cradle in your study. I thought you’d want to keep him close.”
“You know me so well.” Her smile was more genuine as she lifted Torin out of the cradle again. His mouth worked, and he made another tiny sound in his throat, then stilled. “We’ll be fine.”
The cradle Doran mentioned was set up near her desk, as intricately carved as the one in their bedroom, though smaller. She lay him down with a smile, then turned to face Anisa, who waited for her on the lounge.
Anisa was not her usual bubbly fount of laughter and smiles and it didn’t change as she rose from her seat. “Something’s wrong.” Her voice was quiet, so as not to wake Torin, but she wore a worried frown. “I know you, Catori. Better than anyone.”
Catori turned away to cross the room and pour herself a glass of chilled tea. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
Her offhanded tone didn’t fool Anisa. “The look in your eyes when I mentioned more children? It’s the same look you got when we were children and something frightened you.” Her footsteps came near, but Catori refused to turn away from the wall. “You’re afraid of something. But what’s there to be afraid of? What’s going on?”
Damn Anisa and her perception. Catori sighed and left the tea on the serving tray, forgotten, to sit on the lounge. She should’ve known she couldn’t keep her worries to herself. “Promise you won’t tell Doran?”
“Why would I tell Doran anything?” Anisa sat at her side and leaned towards Catori to touch her hand. “You’re my best friend—he’s only the guy you fuck.”
A startled laugh forced its way out of Catori. She’d grown accustomed to nobles and their smooth, subtle ways of referring to lovers and sex. It wasn’t taboo—Mennosi were known for their healthy appetites in all things—but nobles did tend to approach the subject with more finesse than commoners.
The laughter died quickly, though, and Catori’s expression fell. “I’ve faced orcs, taken a sword to my stomach, stared death in the face countless times.” She swallowed hard as her throat constricted and tears began to gather in her eyes. “I watched Bitter die in my arms. I’ve endured so much, and yet… I’m not sure I can have more children.”
Tears spilled down her cheeks and her lip began to tremble. Fear gripped her heart and rose unbidden, forcing a ragged breath from her chest. Her body sat clutched in its hands and sent chills down her spine.
“I almost died doing something I was built for. I’m younger than my mother was when she died! How can I try that again? What if next time—”
“Next time will be just fine.” Anisa wound an arm around her shoulders and made a soft hushing sound.
Catori latched onto her friend. There was no skill she could learn to save her from death in childbirth. Her swords would not aid her. Nothing she could do would keep her safe.
Anisa was a spot of safety, though. She let Catori lean against her and ran gentle fingers through her hair. Her voice was soft and soothing. Catori’s sobs didn’t startle her or drive her away; she sat there, a warm, familiar presence, and let Catori cry into her shoulder.
And it felt good. Her fears weren’t something she could share with Doran—he wouldn’t understand. But it needed to come out. Catori was terrified and pretending she wasn’t only strengthened it, until her fears overwhelmed her.
“I feel so out of p-place,” she sobbed. She wiped her eyes and took refuge in Anisa’s arms. “Sorva’s balls, I’m the wife of a high lord! How can I be the kind of wife he needs?” Her tears still ran down her cheeks and Catori took a deep, shuddering breath. “Sure, I can kill a man, but I’m not a noble. I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t even be a good mother—Brenden barely sees me and Torin’s birth nearly killed me.”
Anisa rose and brought Catori a glass of wine instead of the tea she’d poured earlier. “Drink.” She sat back down with a gentle pat on Catori’s shoulder. “How long have you been holding all this in?”
Catori sniffed and dutifully sipped the glass of wine as Anisa wiped tears from her face. Her skin was sticky and her eyes felt as though sand lodged itself beneath her lids, but the oppressive weight had lifted a little.
“Months,” Catori replied. She sipped the wine again and lowered it to her lap. “It got worse when Doran told me about the feasts.”
Anisa clucked her tongue. “This is why I’m here.” She slid her hand into Catori’s and squeezed her fingers. “I agreed to watch Brenden during the war, but I’m here because you need me. You don’t make new friends easily. Well—” she rolled her eyes— “Not female ones, anyway. But men won’t always understand.” Her eyes filled with sympathy and she tucked a loose strand of Catori’s hair behind her ear. “I don’t know nobles. But I know you and I’ll help any way I can.”
Catori set the wine aside and threw her arms around Anisa. Her tears came back, but these were tears of relief, and a little more weight vanished from her shoulders. “I love you so much. I’m so glad you stayed.” Gods, where were all these tears coming from?
“Of course I stayed.” Anisa’s voice was brusque and businesslike, like the mere thought of her leaving was absurd. “I couldn’t leave you surrounded by clueless men, could I? What kind of friend would I be?”
They sat there for a moment longer in silence and held each other. When Catori finished crying again, Anisa wiped away the tear tracks with a smile, then leaned in to press a soft kiss to Catori’s lips.
“Now. Are you going to let me help you with this feast?” Catori nodded and Anisa clapped her hands together. “Wonderful! I’ll get Tamara.”
One week before the harvest feast, Catori ran around the villa in a near constant state of anxiety. This was her very first social gathering on such a large scale and all eyes would be on her and her ability as Doran’s wife. Nothing could go wrong.
But no pressure, or anything.
The flowers from Hagia Sorva arrived that morning, placed in a temporary stasis with a spell to preserve them for the duration of the feast. They were radiant in yellows, oranges, and reds, and Catori handled arranging them in large gold vases with the help of Anisa and Tamara.
Guest rooms were thoroughly cleaned, the beds dressed in the finest linens, and wine placed at the ready on serving carts. Catori decided to kill two tasks at once and oversaw the placement of flowers in each bedroom, which also allowed her a moment to inspect each room—a little obsessively.
Catori’s distracted state was probably why she didn’t hear any noise before she opened the door to the first wing’s master bedroom. She paused half-stooped to pick up a vase of flowers as the door swung open. Slowly she straightened and stepped into the bedroom.
The lustful, feminine moan she’d heard drifted through curtains that hung around the bed. She heard it again, louder and more insistent, this time coupled with the deep groan of a male. No one was supposed to be in that room, not until that night when Lord Delmar arrived.
Shit, the linen.
A surge of anger made her jaw tighten. Catori was not about to let some randy servants ruin everything. She marched across the room and threw back the curtains to find one of the maids sprawled on her stomach while one of the kitchen boys rode her. Their clothing lay scattered over the wide bed.
The girl yelped and the boy scrambled back away from her. He lost his balance and tangled in one of the curtains. It tore as he fell off the bed in a heap of cream linen.
“Lady Spicer!” The girl reached for her dress and held it tight over her breasts, her eyes wide and her hair a mess. She trembled, her chest heaving, but it wasn’t clear if it was from her coupling, or her fear.
The boy disentangled himself from the linen and stood, deflated and just as wide eyed as the girl. “W-we’re sorry,” he stammered. “We thought—we only wanted—”
“I know damn well what you wanted.” Catori snatched their clothing from the bed and tossed it on the floor. If she wasn’t so panicked about the feast, she might’ve found their predicament amusing. “Get up, get dressed, and get out of my home. You’re relieved of your duties, permanently.”
“But—but Lady Spicer, please, let me explain!”
“There’s nothing to explain.” She fixed the girl with the same dangerous look her old commander wielded so well; one of cool anger and unknown consequences. “You fucked. Which would be perfectly fine if it wasn’t here, in this bedroom that I need spotless. Gods, why couldn’t you fuck in the wine cellar like normal people?”
They gawked at her, unsure if she was serious.
Her anger boiled over and her voice rose to match it. “Get out!” she screeched. “Now!” They snagged their clothing and began to dress themselves as they stumbled out of the bedroom with Catori at their heels.
Evie appeared at the entrance to the first wing as they hurried passed, half-dressed and fearful, and bolted for the door. She gaped at them, then turned to Catori. “My lady?”
“Get the master room fixed up,” Catori snapped. “New linen, the best quality we can find, and fix the damn curtain that boor tore down.” She sighed and ran a hand back through her hair.
“Yes, my lady. Uh—”
Catori rounded on her in fury. “What?”
Evie took a step back. “Lord Kirislan and his family arrived in Port Town.” She swallowed hard and her eyes swam with unshed tears. “They’re making their way to the villa and you’re needed to greet them.”
Catori’s shoulders drooped and the color drained from her face. “Lord Kirislan,” she whispered. “Of—of course. Right. I’m sorry, Evie, I didn’t mean to snap. You’re a wonder.” She sighed and started for the stairs. “Get someone to handle the mess, then meet me in my bedroom, please. Send someone to inform Lord Spicer and fetch Eustine.”
“Right away, Lady Spicer.”
Catori hurried up the stairs as quick as she could. She had a vague recollection of Lord Kirislan. He’d fought in the Sanguinem war, though all she knew of him was his stiff, proper demeanor and his dedication to his religion. He’d been made Lord Protector of the church after the war.
The anger Catori felt from catching the two servants melted away with one more thing to worry over. Once in her bedroom, she had to drag herself to her wardrobe to find a better suited dress.
Evie returned as Catori lined her eyes with a bit of kohl and she set about pinning Catori’s curls atop her head. The light, woody scent of wardwood rose around Catori and clung to her skin. A pair of gold and citrine earrings and a matching pendant shaped like a sunburst served as the final touch.
“You’re beautiful, my lady.”
“Not bad for a quick job.” Catori sighed and climbed to her feet. “Now to meet the damn lord.”
Eustine reached the landing at the same time she did and Catori let out a relieved breath. “Oh, thank the gods you’re here. Do we have any rooms available? Lord Kirislan arrived. First wing is off-limits until the debacle I walked in on is resolved.”
“I’d heard.” Eustine shook his head. “You’re kinder than Lord Spicer would be. Is it just Lord Kirislan?”
“No, his family, too.”
“Right.” Eustine drummed his fingers on the banister, then nodded. “They can be put in the rooms readied for Lord Masqosi. I’ll have another wing made up.”
“You’re a godsend and I could kiss you for this.” Catori flashed a smile, then headed down the staircase.
Catori took up a spot in the center of the foyer beside a small circular table, topped with an arrangement of flowers she’d made herself. She adjusted a few stems, then twitched her beige skirts into place. Sweat dampened her palms and Catori wiped them on her thighs to dry them; it wasn’t as effective as she hoped. She froze as soon as the door began to open.
Lord Kirislan was an intimidating man, though not so much in build. He was middle-aged with a slender figure and pointed features, and he dressed in rich, spotless clothing in traditional Mennosi style. One of his arms, rendered a useless husk in the Sanguinem war, was pinned to his formal tunic. A glove embroidered with gold thread covered his withered hand.
On his other arm was a lovely woman as tall and sharp as Lord Kirislan, with raven hair and a slender neck. She had a sternness in her eyes that made Catori uneasy and looked to be about the same age as Lord Kirislan; probably his wife.
Behind them came three people in various ages close to Catori’s. A younger version of Lord Kirislan held his head high, his shoulders squared. A young woman stood at his side, barely of age, with eyes that drooped from boredom. At their rear stood a Templar in shining golden armor, with the same piercing eyes as the rest of the family, though a sight more at ease.
Catori inclined her head to them as a show of respect, but was careful not to show too much deference. “Lord Kirislan, what an honor it is to welcome you to my home.” When she raised her head again, she’d managed to fix her polite smile in place and though her insides felt like jelly, at least her hands had stopped their trembling.
“Ah.” Lord Kirislan glanced over her in brief assessment. “You must be Lord Spicer’s new wife.” A tiny frown creased his brow. “You look familiar.”
“I served as one of Lord Spicer’s officers in Sanguinem, and as his personal guard. We met briefly before the final battle.”
“Of course.” He gave her a tight-lipped smile and took her hand to kiss the back of her fingers. Catori hoped he didn’t notice her damp palms. “A pleasure to see you again. Please, allow me to introduce my wife, Lady Domele Kirislan.”
The incline of Lady Kirislan’s head was almost imperceptible, and her chin rose a little higher as she gazed down at Catori.
“Domele, this is—”
“Lady Catori Spicer,” Catori finished. She doubted Lord Kirislan remembered her name. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you, my lady.”
Lady Kirislan looked as though she’d rather eat dung than interact with Catori, but she forced a tight-lipped smile much like her husband’s and nodded. “The pleasure is mine.”
“And these are my children.” Lord Kirislan gestured behind him. “My heir, Talus. My second born and a fine Templar, Nasim. And my youngest, my daughter Isolde.” They each bowed low—or in the case of Lady Isolde, curtsied—to Catori.
“You honor my husband with your presence.” Catori’s face hurt a little from keeping her smile in place and unwavering. “And myself, as well. Please, come in and be at ease.” She gestured to the atrium and Lord Kirislan stepped up to her side with his wife in his wake. “I’ve had rooms prepared for you should you wish to freshen up and tonight, we’ll feast in your honor.”
Catori pleaded with herself, the universe, the gods, anything and everything, to please ensure she didn’t trip on her dress.
“May I ask, where is Lord Spicer? I’d hoped to meet with him.” Lord Kirislan spared her a curious look; one brow arched upwards in question while the rest of his face remained aloof.
“Lord Spicer will be here shortly. He’ll be eager to meet with you, I expect.” Where was Doran? She’d had someone send a messenger to him, hadn’t she? Never mind—she’d have to go it alone until he turned up. “If you’d prefer to wait for him, I’d be honored if you joined me in the garden for a midday meal.”
“That will suit,” Lord Kirislan said. “My children can freshen themselves and Domele and I will join you.”
Thank the gods for Evie. She’d set servants at the ready throughout the entrance and all Catori had to do was beckon to one. “See Lord Kirislan’s children to their rooms in the second wing, please. The master is reserved for Lord and Lady Kirislan.”
“Yes, my lady.” The servant dipped into a curtsy and led Lord Kirislan’s children down a long corridor to the right.
Catori paused to order food brought out in a low voice, then smiled at her guests. “Please, this way.”
Sunlight streamed through thick cream pillars and spilled across the peristyle floors. Across the atrium was a terrace that wrapped around the villa and overlooked the garden. Catori led them to a plush lounge facing the garden pathways, with a round table in its midst.
“Sit, please. Be comfortable.” They did so, and Catori sank down beside Lord Kirislan a polite distance away. “Would you like something to drink? Spiced wine, perhaps, or some chilled tea to cool the heat of travel?”
“Spiced wine,” Lord Kirislan said. “Quite a fine blend.”
“The wine will suffice,” Lady Kirislan agreed.
Catori nodded and gestured to another servant—Evie deserved a raise at this point, the servants were everywhere and poised for action. The servant dipped into a curtsy, then scurried off to procure the wine. She turned back to her guests and ignored the ache in her cheeks.
“May I ask, what brings you north, my lord?”
“Nothe,” he replied. “My wife prefers the sea air this time of year, away from the bustle of the city. We’d thought to spend a month in the water gardens.”
“Oh, that sounds wonderful!” Catori’s smile became a little less painful as it widened—the water gardens intrigued her. Nothe sat a little north of the Spicer villa and despite her interest, she’d had no reason to visit yet. It was known for its sprawling villas and luxury—a veritable pleasure town for nobility. “I’ve never been to Nothe. Is it very beautiful?”
“It is stunning.” Lady Kirislan eyed Catori down the length of her nose and lifted her chin. “There’s little of note on the journey north, but it is worth it to see such splendor, such delicate beauty dedicated to Soma’s waters. Too few fear the might of the gods, particularly Soma. Do you worship, Lady Spicer?” Judging by the tiny smile in the corners of her mouth, Lady Kirislan expected her hostess to stammer and admit she wasn’t religious.
Lady Kirislan was right in her expectations—Catori no longer worshiped the gods, not since Bitter’s death. But that wasn’t what either of her guests wanted to hear and it would do no good to admit it. Catori straightened and nodded. “I do. I was taught to respect and worship the gods, to offer them praise at the turn of every season, and to fear their wrath.” It wasn’t entirely a lie, either. Her sister, Bria, taught her those things.
Lord Kirislan nodded in approval. “That is admirable. Not many hold the gods in high esteem these days—ah! Lord Spicer.”
They rose to greet Doran as he strode through the peristyle with a warm, polite smile in place. He offered his arm to Lord Kirislan, who grasped it in greeting. “Lord Kirislan,” Doran said. “It is an honor to have you in my home.”
Introductions were made, pleasantries exchanged, and the servant appeared with the wine and began to pour glasses for everyone. Catori perched at Doran’s side this time and sipped her wine, hoping the heady alcohol would ease her nerves. The formal demeanor of Lord Kirislan made her uneasy and his wife was worse—her haughty gaze made Catori want to lower her eyes as any commoner might when faced with nobility.
Platters of food were set out for their meal and Lord Kirislan gave Doran a faint smile as he reached for an olive. “Your wife is very gracious. It is hard to believe she served as your personal guard; she cleans up quite well. And she’s informed us she worships, as any fine Mennosi should.”
Doran nodded and slid his hand into Catori’s. “She is quite dedicated.” He conveniently left off what she was dedicated to and Catori smiled. His fingers squeezed hers, like he was trying to comfort her. “I count myself lucky she agreed to marry me.”
Lady Kirislan’s mouth twitched, as though she were trying to smile and couldn’t bring herself to do so. “Your household is in fine shape. I quite like your décor.” It was as close to a compliment as the woman was willing to give.
Catori lowered her gaze, as though demure. “You are both far too kind.”
Lady Kirislan set her wine aside with another tight-lipped smile. “Please, excuse me. I am not very hungry. I should devote some time to my prayers, instead.”
“Of course.” Lord Kirislan nodded to his wife, then turned back to Doran.
“By all means.” Catori gestured for the servant again, all smiles and secret relief. “Show Lady Kirislan to the master room in the second wing. Be sure she’s made comfortable and has everything she needs.”
“Yes, my lady.” The servant curtsied, then led Lady Kirislan away.
It was easier to relax once she was gone. Lord Kirislan seemed indifferent towards Catori, enough to allow her to sit at Doran’s side and eat while the two men talked. It was idle chatter for the most part and Catori knew it was for her benefit, to ease her into their conversation.
When she’d eaten her fill and enough time had passed, Catori broke in with a smile. “I should excuse myself, I’ve a baby to feed.”
Doran smiled at her. “Ever the loving mother.” He leaned over to kiss her cheek. “We won’t keep you.”
Catori smiled and inclined her head to Lord Kirislan. “Please, let me know if you need anything at all. I’m happy to see you and your family well looked after during your stay.”
“Ah—speaking of. Catori, a moment.” She remained seated at Doran’s side and waited while Doran smiled and took her hand again. “Lord Kirislan, would you honor us by staying for our harvest feast?”
Catori’s heart dropped, but she managed to at least look pleased. “Oh, that’s a wonderful idea! You must stay, it would be such an honor.”
“Catori’s worked hard to perfect Hagia’s feast.” Doran was good, drawing attention to the possible religious aspect of the feast. Catori needed to remember that. “I can think of no greater guest than the newly appointed Lord Protector of the Church.”
Lord Kirislan straightened in his seat, like a preening bird puffing its chest. “One can hardly turn down such an invitation. It would be my pleasure.”
“Splendid!” Catori hated that word; it sounded so fake. “Ah, it’s too perfect, I’m so happy you’ve joined us.” Her lashes fluttered, and she tilted her head as she gazed at Lord Kirislan—a little flirty, but it had the desired effect. Lord Kirislan swallowed hard and a tiny smile appeared. Doran’s fingers tightened on her own, but she turned the look on him next and shifted closer. “I’ll make all the accommodations. Lord Kirislan and his family will have nothing short of the best.” She kissed Doran’s cheek and rose. “Now, I really must feed Torin.”
“Of course, we’ve kept you too long.” Doran released her hand finally.
Catori inclined her head to Lord Kirislan once more, then left to hurry up the stairs. She hadn’t been lying—it was time to feed Torin and her breasts ached from milk.
Without talk to focus on, her apprehension began to creep back in. Having Lord Kirislan and his family stay for the feast was no less an honor than they’d said and Catori was sure Doran sought him as an ally. It was one more thing for her to worry over. Tamara and the head cook could hammer out most of the details for the impromptu feast that night, but the harvest feast was what worried Catori. Embarrassing herself and her husband in front of Lord Kirislan was unacceptable. Catori needed to strive for a new level of perfection and she had only days to do it.
The day of the feast dawned bright and despite her desire to lie in bed all day and pretend nothing was happening, Catori dragged herself to her feet. Nothing more had gone wrong as far as Catori knew, but she had a feeling Anisa and Tamara were running around behind her back to make sure of it. She let them, warmed by their support.
That was only part of her job, though. She also had to present herself well, so she spent the day readying herself for the feast. Her morning was spent bathing, ensuring she was freshly groomed and manicured, before she took her midday meal with Doran. In the afternoon she checked in with Tamara and Eustine to be sure everything was in order before retreating to her bedroom to prepare for the evening with Evie’s help.
That night, the Spicer villa was livelier than it had ever been before. Candlelight lit its halls with a soft, golden glow and music drifted through fluttering silk curtains. Flowers adorned every room and their scent filled the air. A large, harvest moon hung in the sky overhead, and the garden, terrace, and atrium were filled with people enjoying the view over the ocean. Laughter was abundant, and the wine flowed as free as a young maid’s hair.
The peak of her anxiety took place at the start of the night and she was grateful for Doran’s presence at her side. The guests all arrived within the past week, but as they joined the feast it was customary for both husband and wife to greet them. From there, they mingled with their guests, sipped at wine, and sampled some foods from a long table laden with them. She and Doran went their separate ways to entertain their guests and Catori drank two glasses of wine to ease her nerves—to no avail.
Catori made her way through the guests with a bright smile plastered across her face. She murmured greetings to every guest she passed, pausing now and then to join them and ensure they were enjoying themselves.
Internally, she screamed.
Catori paused to speak to Ser Leford Lemon—Brenden’s uncle—and Lord Mantell, who stood with his cousin Lady Cecilia Mantell, a pretty young woman in a deep burgundy dress. Her hair was black as night and her skin pale as the face of the moon. Her beauty rivaled Anisa’s.
“Lady Spicer, you’re radiant!” Lady Cecilia sidled close to inspect Catori’s dress.
“You’re very kind, Lady Cecilia.” The compliment made Catori smile—she’d dressed in a brilliant, deep orange dress with a plunging neckline and no back, trimmed in red and gold. Rubies dripped from her ears and her hair was piled atop her head, decorated with golden clips shaped into delicate flowers. She hadn’t worn anything quite so expensive since her wedding.
“Kind!” Lady Cecilia laughed. “Not at all. Sorva himself would ravish you, no doubt. You certainly look ready to worship at his altar!” Again, she laughed and her fingers brushed Catori’s arm. “I envy your skin, too. Such a beautiful golden color. Already benefiting from Sorva’s kisses,” she sighed. “Is there some product you use to bring it out?”
Catori flushed from the lady’s words; the idea a god would want to couple with her was ridiculous, even one so lascivious as Sorva. She smiled through the heat in her cheeks and hoped no one noticed. “No,” Catori replied. “Only some oils.”
“May I ask which?”
“Wardwood. With lavender.”
Lord Mantell chuckled. “The scent of my home follows in your wake, Lady Spicer. I’d wondered where it came from.”
“I don’t wear wardwood,” Lady Cecilia said. “It’s abundant in my home, so there’s no need for me to smell like it, too. I prefer the perfumes of Najaat. Such exotic flowers!” She smiled at Catori and again touched her arm. “It suits you wonderfully. Have you ever been to Wardwood, Lady Spicer?”
Catori’s smile slipped. “I have,” she said. “I was Lord Arik Mercer’s captain in the auxiliary and fought to break the siege at the Gate in the orc war.” Wait, should she have mentioned that? Lord Mantell’s uncle died in that very battle. Her heart dropped and her smile all but vanished.
But Lord Mantell’s interest kindled. “So that was you! I’d heard his captain was female, but we never had a chance to meet.”
“There was no need,” she said, and forced her smile back into place. “And there was much to do.”
“I’m glad you’ve risen so high,” he said. “You did a superb job as captain and from what I hear, even greater in Sanguinem. Lord Spicer must like his women feisty.”
There was no hiding her blush that time. Leford laughed outright. “I do believe we’ve embarrassed her!”
“Hardly,” she said, and managed a wicked smile. “Only remembering my wedding night. Is it warm, or just me?”
Her embarrassment lay in Lord Mantell’s praise of her, not her husband’s taste in women, so she was pleased when the three laughed at her jest. She’d taken a chance with it, unsure of their reaction—Leford she knew would find it amusing, but Lord Mantell and his cousin were harder to place. At least talk turned from the wars, though.
Catori grinned, emboldened. “I see my husband now,” she murmured. “If you’ll excuse me, I should make sure he’s well satisfied. With the feast, of course,” she added. She winked and set them to laughing again.
Leford drew her close for a brief embrace before she left them. “Bitter would be proud of you,” he whispered. “Lords speak of your accomplishments with admiration.” He smiled and kissed her temple. “You’ve risen high, just as he knew you would. And you host a damn fine party.”
His words sent warm affection sinking into her skin and she smiled. “Thank you,” she said. “Part of me still wishes this was hosted at Castle Lemon.”
Leford nodded. “Part of me does, too.” He took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze, then released her.
Doran stood at the opposite end of the peristyle, deep in conversation. Lord Kirislan stood at his side with his son, Talus, and four lords she’d met a few times since coming to the villa. All were vassal lords, and all worked for the Sun and Seas Company, the trade company that oversaw Doran’s business ventures. It was a clever way for Doran to keep an army at the ready without officially having an army.
Doran smiled as she approached. “The lady of the hour.” He held his hand out to her and Catori slipped her own in his to let him draw her in for a sweet kiss. “You’ve outdone yourself, Catori.”
“A splendid party.” Lord Masqosi nodded to punctuate his sentence, though he gazed down his aquiline nose at her. She still hadn’t figured out if he was haughty, or if the look was a product of his height.
The others murmured their agreement. Catori’s practiced smile fit into place as she leaned into Doran’s side. “I’m so glad you’re enjoying yourselves.”
“Immensely.” Lord Delmar’s smile was a little freer than Lord Masqosi’s. “Quite a gathering!”
Lord Kirislan nodded. “Your attention to detail is remarkable. It seems you have thought of everything. Tonight has been quite an enjoyable surprise.” Despite his praise, Lord Kirislan didn’t look as though he were enjoying himself. He didn’t look irritated either, which Catori chalked up to a win.
Doran kept her close against his side. “Catori has been working tirelessly. She’s determined to make this feast the highlight of the year.”
Lord Talus smiled at Catori, far warmer than his father. “I think she has succeeded. I cannot name a gathering I’ve enjoyed more, or even as much.”
Catori’s cheeks flushed again. “You’re all far too kind.” So many men heaping praise on her for a party made her a little uncomfortable, and Lord Talus’ gaze was a sight more penetrating that she liked. She bore it with as much grace as she could muster.
As the music faded, Doran shifted to face her and drew her against his chest. “Would you like to dance? You’ve worked so hard, you should enjoy yourself as well.”
“Oh, I couldn’t!” Catori shook her head at once. She couldn’t dance, not yet. She’d only begun learning noble dances recently and she wasn’t comfortable enough to attempt one in public. “I couldn’t take you away from our guests. It would be rude.”
“Nonsense.” Doran raised her hand to his lips. “A single dance would do no harm.”
Lord Delmar grinned at them. “By all means. I’d like to sample more of this fine food. Have your dance! Our talk can wait.”
“If your husband is needed elsewhere, I’d be happy to ensure you enjoy a dance.” Lord Talus’ smile was polite, his expression pleasant, but the offer still made Catori nervous. “Such marvelous work deserves a moment to savor.”
“I can be spared.” Doran’s smile remained in place as he steered Catori away.
Damn it. With no real reason to protest, Catori let Doran lead her onto the terrace beneath the moonlight. “You know I can’t dance,” she hissed.
“You can dance. We danced at our wedding.” Doran’s smirk broadened. “I wanted a moment alone with you, though. How are you holding up?” His fingers brushed her cheek as they reached the terrace and he pulled her against him. The soft strains of some eerie instrument drifted through the air and Doran guided her seamlessly through the first steps.
“I’m fine.” The feel of his hands sliding along her waist and up her bare back were a little distracting. “Honestly, we could’ve spoken anywhere but during a dance. I don’t—I don’t even know this one!” Catori gasped as he whirled her around, setting the world to spinning, before the heat of him pressed against her back.
“You don’t need to know it.” His voice was a soft whisper in her ear and his breath fanned over her bare skin, sending chills down her spine. His hands danced along her sides and every touch sparked a fire in its wake. He guided her into every sinuous step and her body responded to his touch in a way that seemed to please him. “I know the dance. And I know how to make you move. That’s what this dance is about.” Her world spun again until she was faced with him; tall and broad with smoldering eyes. “It’s a lovers’ dance. It’s about intimacy, and trusting your partner to know you.”
“No one knows me better,” she breathed. “But really—what did you want to talk to me about?”
“Just what I said.” He dipped his head and clutched her close. His breath feathered her neck and drove her head back. “You’ve been tense all week,” he whispered, and his lips grazed her neck. “I wanted to make sure you aren’t going mad.” He smiled as he pulled back and tipped her chin up.
“I’ve been going mad for months,” she said. “And I get the feeling you just wanted to dance.”
His eyes glittered and his smile turned smug. “It’s a break from monotony, a little intimacy we’ve recently lacked. And we’re the only dancers, so I can speak freely without us needing to leave the party. I don’t mind laying on the part of doting husband.” He winked at her and Catori gaped at him—he was teasing her.
“Who are you and what have you done with my husband?”
Doran chuckled, warm and rich. He swept her around the cleared terrace and guided her body through the dance. Lightning shot down her spine with every touch and melted her anxiety. She trembled from such an intimate dance displayed for all their guests, even the retainers that loitered in the garden. Everyone present watched them. They saw the brush of his lips against her neck, his hands sliding over her bare back, the way he guided her hips against his.
The music built into one long, solitary note that wavered above their heads, suspended in the stars. Doran dipped her and her body arched in response. As the note petered out, he straightened and righted her with one swift motion, sending her into a peal of laughter.
Her laughter was cut off as Doran drew her in for a deep kiss. His fingers slid along her neck and his lips coaxed hers apart to taste her mouth. The soft stroke of his tongue against hers made her shiver. He tasted of spiced wine and agonizing desire.
Heat sparked in her cheeks and settled in her belly, warming her from the inside out. The realization that her husband craved her hit her like a thunderbolt and left her sizzling in his hands. There was an intensity to Doran she’d always recognized, but he was so quiet and occasionally distant, and with her pregnancy she forgot he had the same desires as any other person. What’s more, she’d forgotten she could be the center of those desires.
Despite the heat of his kiss, it was brief, and Doran smiled as he released her. “Thank you for the dance,” he whispered—so at odds with the kiss he’d just given her. He wore a wide smile on his face and there was light in his eyes; he was a different person, more engaging, with cool confidence and a warm laugh. She’d rarely seen him smile like that before.
Applause drew their attention and Doran swept her through the gathered crowd. Right—it was for show. Doran couldn’t be his usual quiet self when there were so many people around he needed to impress. She didn’t think his kisses were entirely meant for show, but the dance certainly was. Doran was parading her and making sure everyone saw them together, saw how enamored he was with her. It helped cement the idea of loyalty and devotion.
She also looked damn good; more than once she’d caught a few lingering looks and Lord Talus seemed to appreciate her a little more than he should.
Doran’s hand at her waist guided her to the center of the atrium, where he drew the attention of everyone present. People crowded forward to hear him speak until they stood in the center of a large crowd.
“My wife and I would like to thank you for joining us for Hagia’s feast.” Doran’s voice rang out through the atrium and bounced off the marble pillars. “Lady Spicer has worked hard to ensure our first grand feast as husband and wife is an occasion to be remembered. I think it’s safe to say she’s succeeded.” His words were met with enthusiastic applause and Catori flushed. “I’m a little ahead of myself,” Doran went on. “We’ve yet to sample the actual feast.”
He swept his hand to the left, towards a large dining hall where the warm glow of candlelight spilled into the peristyle. Food was laid out on large golden trays and the sight of so much food, coupled with Doran’s little speech, was enough to send more cheers through their guests. Catori let Doran take her hand to guide her into the room and their guests followed.
“You’re good,” she murmured.
He smiled and kissed her cheek as she sank into her seat—more prominent than the others and equal to Doran’s despite the discrepancy in their titles. “I can handle nobles,” he whispered. “I know what they like. You’ll learn it, too.” He took his seat beside her and reached for her hand to curl his fingers over hers. “I apologize if my kisses caught you off-guard. I didn’t think you’d mind—you’re the affectionate one, after all.”
“Steal as many as you’d like,” she purred.
He chuckled—another deep, rich sound that warmed her insides—and brushed a strand of hair from her face. “Perhaps later tonight, if you’re not too tired.”
Her eyes lit up and an impish grin crawled across her face. She liked playful Doran. “Is that a challenge? Because I accept.”
Doran never ceased to surprise her, even after almost ten years of knowing each other. He flashed a grin as wicked as hers, stole another quick kiss, then gestured to the food. “Eat, Tori.” His low growl sent heat sweeping through her. “You’ll need your strength.”
Catori had to admit, the feast was better than she thought it would be. She half expected the villa to catch fire just to spite her. But her anxieties vanished in the wake of her dance with Doran—probably due to her surprise and mild arousal—and she began to relax. With Doran at her side, her insecurities were easier to manage. She could rely on him to guide the conversation if necessary.
Catori was almost done with her food, laughing at something Lady Cecilia said, when a servant bent to whisper in her ear. At once she set her wine aside and leaned towards Doran. “I’ll be back in a little while. Torin’s awake and hungry.” Doran nodded and kissed her cheek, and Catori rose with a bright smile.
She was forced to slow as she navigated the long tables to reach the door and her steps faltered at a portion of overheard conversation.
“—won’t be in charge for long, gods know his cousin’s gonna be after ‘is crown.”
“Fuck ‘em all! Ol’ King Cougher’s lucky he managed to get his ancient prick workin’ long enough to make a kid, sickly or no.” There was laughter at the man’s words; then, “Let ‘em wipe each other out. Sataar’s better off without southern management.”
Several pairs of eyes looked up at Catori as she passed, and purely by instinct she smiled and winked. “Evening, gentlemen.” Her voice was a low purr as she resorted to old habits more out of nervousness than anything else.
Fuck it. Let the knights whisper about the high lord’s flirtatious wife. No one would believe them, not after the dance they’d witnessed earlier.
Catori knew exactly what she’d heard and hoped they were merely rumors. Old King Cougher referred to King Mylar, who had a persistent cough and a single son rumored to be sickly. The king had a nephew by the Archduke as well, though the Archduke died in the Sanguinem war. Catori hadn’t been fond of the man and if his son was anything like his father, the boy may do exactly what they said.
Such talk wasn’t treasonous, but King Mylar wouldn’t like it either way, particularly with the sentiment of Sataar not needing support of southern Mennos. What king wants to hear his son might be deposed and his country severed in two?
Catori brushed aside thoughts of politics as she entered the nursery to relieve Elise for a short time. Torin’s distressed squalling didn’t stop until he was presented with her breast. She sat in her wicker chair and watched as he suckled, his little hands curled against her skin. Dark eyes stared up at her and she smiled.
“You won’t need to worry about all those politics,” she murmured. “At least, no king’s seat for you, Torin. You won’t need it anyway. You’ll have everything you could ever want.”