“I did not,” Jura said, and her voice was strained as if she were repressing tears. “I met him twice by accident and once he tricked me into meeting him. I never wanted to see him. You know how I’ve always hated him. He does not belong in Lanconia. Geralt should be king. He has no right—”
“It seems he has every right now,” Daire spat at her. “He has the right to touch you, to hold you. Is that why you trained so hard, competed so hard? So you could win him and share his bed? Does your lust rule your head as well as your body? Will you pant after him day and night and forget about your people? Will you betray us because of your lust?”
“No!” Jura screamed. “I am no traitor. I do not lust after him.” She was lying and she knew it, but she couldn’t bear to lose this man who had been her friend for so many years. He used to hide her and lie to Thal about her whereabouts when Thal was angry with her. “He attacks me. I have never invited his touch.”
“Ha! Will you say that tonight when he beds you?”
“I wish to God I did not have to bed him,” Jura said.
“You shall have your wish,” Rowan said, his voice full of controlled fury as he stepped from the shadows and into the moonlight. He drew his sword. “And you,” he said to Daire, “shall die for touching my wife.”
Daire drew his own sword.
“No!” Jura screamed, and threw herself on Rowan. “Do not hurt him. I will do whatever you want.”
Rowan snarled at her. “I want nothing from you.” He pushed her aside as if she were an annoying insect, and Jura landed a couple of feet away in the damp grass.
She watched the men circle one another and wished for a way to stop them. She drew her knife, planning to step between them when a big hand clamped onto her shoulder and made her remain seated. She looked up to see Xante.
Quite calmly, Xante stepped between the men, facing Rowan. “You have the right to take this man’s life, my lord,” Xante said, “but I beg that you do not. Today he lost his betrothed and he has lost her abruptly and publicly.”
“There is more to it than that,” Rowan snapped. “Out of my way.”
“No, sire, there is not,” Xante said, not moving. “There is no treachery. Merely two hot young bucks fighting over a female.”
Quite suddenly Rowan became aware of what he was doing. He was acting like Feilan always feared he would. He was behaving like an emotional Englishman and not a Lanconian. At all costs he must control himself. The scar on the back of his leg twitched and hurt almost as much as it had the day his tutor had branded him. He straightened and sheathed his sword. “You are right, Xante. Daire, the woman is yours. I will not force myself on her. Take her.”
The three of them did not move as Rowan turned back toward his horse.
Xante recovered first. “She is your wife, my lord. You cannot discard her so easily. The people would be so angered they—”
“Damn the people!” Rowan shouted. “The woman hates me. I cannot take a wife like that. Tell the people that the last match was not fair. I will marry Cilean. Tell them anything.”
“And I will be the first to escort you to the border,” Xante bellowed. “You do not come here with your English ways and spit on us. You wanted the woman; you wanted the Honorium, and now, by God, you will choose England or Lanconia. Either your English ways or our Lanconian ways. You discard the woman and you lose the kingship.”
Rowan knew what he was saying was true. But to live with a woman who hated him. A woman who found his touch foul and disgusting. A woman who prayed she wouldn’t have to bed him.
Rowan clenched his teeth. “I will take her but, before God, I’ll not touch her until she begs me to do so.”
Before another word could be spoken, the sound of horses interrupted them. It was Geralt, his dark face almost invisible in the dim moonlight.
Geralt glared at Rowan. “Our father is dead,” he said, and reined his horse away and rode back to Escalon.
Rowan did not look at any of the people around him but made his way back to his horse. He was king now. King of a people who didn’t want him; husband of a woman who didn’t want him.
JURA LEANED AGAINST a tree, her ribs heaving from her run. It had been a week since Thal’s death and, except for the burial ceremony, she had not left the women’s field. Over Thal’s deep grave she had looked up to see the man who was her husband glaring at her, but he had quickly turned away.
Turned away, she thought with anger, that’s how everyone was reacting to her. The guardswomen looked at her with hooded eyes and their whispering stopped when she approached. Three days after the Honorium the trainees stopped obeying her. Onora, a high-tempered, vain girl who dreamed of commanding the guard and who had fought very hard to win Rowan, had sneered at Jura with contempt and said that she had been discarded by the king, so why should they give her their respect? Jura had been faced with ten young recruits, each staring at her with defiance.
Her impulse had been to pull a knife on Onora but Jura was not stupid enough to pit herself against ten strong women. With as much dignity as she could muster, she had turned and left the field.
There seemed to be no one on her side. The guardswomen believed she had lied about not wanting to win and had deliberately knocked Cilean down. As for Cilean, she lay in her chamber, her body slowly healing, and refused to see Jura.
Now, as Jura leaned against the tree, she knew she hated this Rowan who called himself king.
Her anger was so great that at first she didn’t hear the approaching footsteps. The man was almost upon her before she drew her knife. It was one of the English knights who had accompanied her enemy from England.