Sitting on horses just inside the gates were Daire and Thal’s daughter Lora. Both of them were scowling at her.
“I didn’t win,” she shouted toward Daire, but she couldn’t hear her own words over the noise. She tried to get down and run to Daire, but the hands on her body held her fast.
By the time they reached the inner wall and Thal’s old stone castle, she was stunned into silence. This really wasn’t happening to her. This was a nightmare.
Thal stood in the doorway, supported by Xante. He lifted one thin hand and gradually the crowd quieted. “Welcome, daughter,” he said. “Your bridegroom waits inside.”
“No!” Jura yelled into the quiet. ‘Cilean won, I—”
Thal’s face showed growing anger but it was Xante who interrupted her. His voice boomed out. “Humility and loyalty are good qualities in a queen.”
The crowd cheered at his words and carried Jura inside the castle, where a priest and Prince Rowan awaited her.
The Englishman stood beaming at her as if he were an idiot while Jura tried to protect herself from the hands fumbling at her body while they lowered her. She was given no time to bathe or change but merely dropped to stand beside the English usurper, and the priest began the wedding ceremony. She wanted to say no to him, wanted to tell him that he had no right to be in her country, but then she looked at the crowd around her. Their blood was up. They had been drinking for three days now and they wanted to see a proper end to their festivities.
The priest was looking at Jura and, slowly, every other eye turned toward her and she swallowed. Now was the moment of decision. If she turned and walked out now, the consequences could be great. The different tribes could say the contest was a farce—and if this man Rowan was to lead them, he could never do so if a woman refused him at the altar. They would laugh at him. She had competed and she had taken a chance of winning.
“Jura,” Rowan said softly from beside her. “Do you want me or not?”
She turned to look at him, and those eyes of his, deep, fathomless blue, seemed to see inside her.
She turned back to the priest. “I will take the man,” she whispered through dry lips.
A deafening cheer went up and Jura heard no more of what the priest said. Rowan turned to her and pulled her into his arms. He whispered something to her but she couldn’t hear him, and when he tried to kiss her, she turned her head away.
Her movement seemed to please the crowd.
“You’ll have to win her, prince or no,” someone called.
Jura used the moment to push away from the man who was now her husband and make her way through the crowd to a side door. The crowd was laughing at her but she didn’t care. She had to get away and find Daire and Cilean and talk to them.
“You’re a fool, Rowan,” Lora shouted at her brother. “There is still time, you can repudiate her. Set her aside now before you go to bed with her.”
Rowan was eating, as he had been doing for the last hour. For the past three days he had watched the games too intently to be able to eat. His one concern had been that Jura win, and he had not been able to eat for worrying that she wouldn’t. “Jura is what I want,” he said, his mouth full.
“Yes, but does she want you? Where is she now? Why did she run away from you? Why aren’t you with your new wife?”
Rowan took a deep drink of ale. “She has to do women’s things, I don’t know what they are. Maybe she wanted to bathe and put on a pretty gown. What do most brides do on their wedding day?”
Lora put her fists to her temples in anguish. Outside they could hear the noise of the revelers. “Rowan,” she said as calmly as she could, “you have always been a sensible man. You have studied hard to learn about Lanconia. You have told me how great your responsibility is toward this country, but now you risk everything and I don’t understand why. You have always been most sensible about women. When that beautiful Lady Jane Whitton visited us last year, every other man could see no farther than her pretty face, but you said she was a viper and you turned out to be right. So why has this Jura bewitched you? She is not as pretty as Lady Jane.”
“Jura is more beautiful than a thousand Lady Janes.” He was looking over a plate of fruit tarts.
“She is not!” Lora shouted. “She is the sister of a man who would like to see you dead. You are taking an enemy into your bed. She could slit your throat at night.”
“Lora, please calm yourself. Here, have a cherry tart.” He looked up at his sister and saw that she was very serious in her anger. “All right,” he said, pushing his chair back. “Perhaps I was a bit hasty, but sometimes a person knows when he is right. I knew from the moment I saw her that she was mine.”
Lora sat down across from him. “What do you know of her? Besides kisses, besides her beauty, what do you know of her?”
“All that I need to know.”
Lora sighed. “Let me tell you of this Jura because I have made it my business to find out about her. She is the loyal, loving sister of a man who wants your throne—and the way to get that is through your death. She had no intention of winning the Honorium today. It was common knowledge among the guardswomen that Jura meant to help Cilean win. If you had looked with open eyes at the match between Jura and Cilean, you would have seen that Cilean was not hit, she fainted. Now she lies in the Women’s Barracks with four broken ribs, and a sprained shoulder. It’s a wonder she was able to stand on her own feet after the wrestling match.”
Rowan was looking at her with a faraway expression and Lora knew she was making no impact on him.
“And then there is her lover,” Lora said softly.