Lora put her hand on Jura’s arm. “I’m not so sure of that.”
They did not hear the approach of Rowan. “You girls look as if you are enjoying yourselves,” Rowan said in that special, superior way that men have when they are amusing themselves at a woman’s expense.
Lora whirled to face him. “Your wife risked her life to win you and you have not so much as played your lute for her,” she spat at her brother. “Yet you played it for that Brita. Look at that harlot! She sits there surrounded by the most handsome men and you court her as if you planned to marry her. You should beg Jura’s forgiveness. Come, Jura, we have work to do.”
Jura allowed herself to be pulled away by Lora and she felt good, oh, very, very good. This Lora carried weapons on her belt too. It was just that the Englishwoman’s weapons weren’t made of steel. Jura looked at Lora with new respect.
By late midday there was a feast spread on long tables in the center courtyard of the village and the atmosphere was one of excitement and laughter. The sense of anticipation was overwhelming. The children, sensing that something was about to happen, were screaming and laughing and chasing each other, and no one paid them any mind except to keep them from falling into caldrons of soup. The Irial adults watched fondly as the young people eyed one another and giggled senselessly if they should happen to touch.
And there was a lot of touching that day. Girls bent over boys so their breasts touched shoulders. Boys reached for things and their elbows “accidentally” came into contact with breasts. Everyone dropped everything so that there was much bending together, or one bending and coming up slowly to look long at the body of another. There was teasing and laughing and playful slaps, and by the time the feast was ready, everyone was warm from more than the sun.
“Are you available?” asked a tall, healthy, extraordinarily handsome young Vatell guard of Jura. “If our queen marries your king, you will be free.” He leaned close to her to whisper and his breath was on her neck. “I can make you forget that Englishman.”
Jura smiled at him, her lips close to his.
But before she could answer, Rowan grabbed her arm and pulled her away. “What are you doing? I thought you were with Lora.”
“And you were with Brita. Have you planned your marriage ceremony?”
He had her by the arm and was pulling her toward her aunt’s house. “We must talk.” Once they were secluded in a room, Rowan turned to her. “I have told Brita I cannot put you aside until after the marriages tonight. God’s teeth, but I hate lying. I will do penance for this. I think I may have a temporary solution to our problems: your brother.”
“Geralt? What has he to do with this?”
“While you have been may-daying and matching one lust-filled wench with an equally lust-filled male, I have been observing. Your brother is taken with Brita. I don’t know if her beauty interests him or her power. For all I know he plans to join with her and slaughter me. No! Don’t protest. It is only conjecture. I want you to tell me if you think he could interest a woman of Brita’s appetites.”
It took Jura a moment to understand what he was asking. “Do you mean, is my brother a man?” she said through closed teeth. “Can he give pleasure to a woman? More than you can,” she half yelled. “He has had many women and none of them have complained.”
Rowan looked shocked. “Jura, what—” he began, then stopped and stared at her. After a moment, he turned away. “For once, let us not fight. I have told Brita I will not bed her tonight but the woman is…persistent. I thought I might do well to supply her with some eager young man.”
“You control too much, Englishman,” Jura said.
He looked back at her. “I can perhaps control a country but I do not think I can control my wife. Tonight there will be a…a strain in the air. There will be many couples in the midst of their wedding nights and Brita will cause trouble if she is not occupied.” He stopped suddenly. “This is my concern. I will go find your brother.”
When he had left the room, Jura sat down heavily on a stool in a darkened corner. What had started off well between them that first meeting by the water, had now turned to this.
She did not look up when the door was opened. “Jura,” Lora said, but Jura did not look up.
Lora looked at the proud Jura slumped in a corner and guilt overwhelmed her. She had not welcomed this woman as Rowan’s wife, had made no effort to understand her Lanconian ways. But while Rowan and Jura had been away, she had spent time with Cilean and she had heard the truth of what had happened at the Honorium. Jura had tried to make it so that Cilean could win, but Cilean had fainted and Jura had won by default.
Lora had sought out Daire and asked him about Geralt and Jura and realized that Jura had reasons to believe Rowan should not be king. Jura knew nothing of how Rowan had trained nearly all his life in order to be a good king.
And Lora had wormed from Cilean the truth about where Rowan and Jura had gone. She had fretted and worried every minute they were gone, angry at Jura for being a burden to Rowan. But then he had returned, both of them safe, and Rowan had even said that Jura helped him. Later Lora had made Rowan tell her how Jura had protected his back.
Lora’s opinion of Jura was beginning to change. And then, of course, there was Phillip’s adoration of Jura. The boy followed her everywhere and Jura never lost patience with his questions, was never curt with him.
Then Rowan had forced Lora to spend the day with her sister-in-law and Lora found herself liking Jura. Jura seemed to have none of the jealousies that the women Lora had known in England did. Jura ignored the way Rowan hovered near Brita, the way he smiled at the woman, even the way he looked at the pretty Vatell and Irial women.
While she and Jura had been matching couples and contriving ways for them to be alone, Lora had thought of matching Rowan and Jura. Of course they were already married, but she had seen no evidence that they shared any secrets or intimacies. They had gone away together as strangers and returned as strangers.
As the day was drawing to a close and the couples were pairing themselves off in preparation for the mass marriages, Lora saw Rowan angrily pull Jura away from the crowd. It was not the gesture of a lover but the act of an angry father with a wayward, defiant child.
Lora’s matchmaking qualities came to the surface. She found Xante and told him to have Rowan’s campaign tent erected five miles down the river, away from everyone else, in a quiet, secluded place. Then Lora had waited until she saw Rowan storming out of the stone house and she had gone to find Jura.
And now her heart went out to this proud woman who looked so dejected and forlorn.
Lora didn’t waste any time. “Come with me,” she ordered.
“What?” Jura asked, blinking.