Jura left the horse she was unloading and went to accompany Brita into the darkness.
“He will not give me to Yaine,” Brita whispered the moment they were out of sight of the others. “He will want a queen beside him while you are—”
“Young and healthy and capable of giving him children,” Jura said tiredly. “You can use your wiles on someone else. If my husband had wanted you, he would have taken you. Can you not see that he wants, above all else, to gain peace for Lanconia?”
Brita was quiet for a moment as if judging her adversary. “To rule all of Lanconia…Even I had not thought on so grand a scale. How does he plan to kill those of us who had power before him?”
“He does not plan to kill anyone as far as I can tell. The man has an irrational distaste for death. He does not even kill the Zernas.”
This bit of news shocked Brita so much that the coaxing little whine dropped from her voice. “He thinks to unite Yaine and me and that there will be no deaths?”
For a moment, Jura felt a kinship with Brita. “He is an Englishman and he has a head made of stone. He also believes God talks to him. I do not understand him at all, but Thal made him king and Rowan has the power until…until—”
“Until someone kills him. He is not long for this world,” Brita said with finality. “It is good I did not marry him.”
She was once again Jura’s enemy. “He did not want to marry you. Now let us get back. Tonight you will be watched, and while my husband hates death and my brother ties women up, I have been wanting to try a new knife trick I have just learned. I will kill you if you try to run.”
Brita did not reply to this as she made her way back to the camp. She sat to one side while the others built a fire and began preparing the simple meal. She watched this Rowan who was called King of Lanconia but was in truth king only of the Irials. He watched Jura constantly and Brita thought him a fool. He had fallen in love with the girl and thus made himself vulnerable. To be in power one must never love. She knew that all too well. Daire’s father had taught her that lesson. She had loved a young man, loved him with all her heart—and Daire’s father had ordered him killed. What had enraged Brita so much was that her husband wasn’t jealous, he was merely teaching her a lesson. When one loved, one was weakened. Brita had learned from that and she had never loved again, not her husband, not her son who was taken from her, no one.
Now she saw how this Rowan’s eyes followed Jura and she saw where his weak point was. He would never accomplish his goal because he was weak.
She looked at the other people in the group. The woman Cilean she dismissed. She was a “good” woman, fair, kind, loving—worthless. The woman Jura had possibilities as a source of conflict. She did not yet know she loved this Rowan and her mind was therefore clearer. And she had no compunction about killing. She had been trained to kill. Brita knew she would have to be on guard against Jura.
Brita looked at her son Daire a long time. He was a handsome young man and she could see some of his father’s physical features in him, but she saw none of his father’s detachment. Nor did Daire seem to have any of his mother’s ambition. Brita did not think she could get her son to join her against this English usurper. No, Daire was as much Irial as he was Vatell.
At last her eyes rested on Geralt, and there she saw what she wanted. He was a man filled with hatred. Brita had to hide a smile when she thought of the simplicity of the boy—for boy was what he was. He had come to Brita on the night of the marriage ceremonies looking rather like a puppy pleading to be liked. He had swaggered a bit and bragged a bit, but he couldn’t conceal his fear of rejection.
At first Brita had been furious that Rowan had presumed to send her this boy as if she were a mare in heat and any stallion would do, and then she had looked at Geralt and seen the lust in his eyes and she had thought perhaps she could get information from him.
She had allowed him to think he seduced her. He was an energetic if unskilled lover, and later Brita realized he needed a mother more than a woman. Geralt began to pour out his heart to her when she cuddled him and made sympathetic little sounds. He told of his hatred for Rowan because Thal had always held Rowan up to Geralt as an example of what he should be.
“And he had never met him!” Geralt had shouted. “He compared me to a boy he had never met. This Rowan was better than I was because of his weak, English mother. But I was the rightful King of Lanconia and I would have been chosen except for…” He had looked away.
“Have some more wine,” Brita had said. “Why was the Englishman chosen over you?”
Brita had listened with some awe when told of St. Helen’s Gate that Rowan had opened.
Geralt had talked to her most of the night until at last he had fallen asleep. B
rita had listened to his talk with only half an ear because she was thinking that if Rowan were dead, this angry young man would become king. How easy it would be to marry this man and be his queen. She would be queen of the Vatells and the Irials, and they could destroy the Zernas and Fearens. The other two tribes, the Poilens and the Ultens, could gradually be forced out of Lanconia, and eventually Brita would be queen of it all.
But the boy had awakened and followed her, killed one of her best guardsmen, and ruined her plans. He had been rather appealing in his anger when he had tied her up. If he had just allowed her to speak, she knew she could have persuaded him to listen to her, but he reacted like a little boy betrayed by his mother. Only this boy was a large, strong man.
He had made the mistake of taking her to Rowan. Damn that Rowan! He may be hardheaded and believe he is connected to God, but he certainly was clever. Brita had meant to find some way to tell her guardsmen she was being taken against her will, but she had allowed her vanity to get in her way. When she returned, she would teach that guard of hers who was old. She smiled in anticipation.
But now she had to do something to get the young Prince Geralt back on her side. If she could find the right words, the two of them could rule Lanconia together. Perhaps they could take old Yaine, or perhaps she could marry Yaine, take the power and fill the land with Vatells, and then dispose of him.
But first she needed help getting rid of Rowan and that pesky Jura. Geralt would have to help her.
Jura woke an hour before dawn, nodded to Cilean who stood watch, and quietly made her way down the steep slope toward the stream at the bottom. She wanted to bathe some of the travel dirt from her body before the day started. She undressed and washed in the dim light, and she had just her tunic on when she heard a noise behind her.
She reached for her knife.
“Please don’t throw it,” said Rowan from the darkness, and she could read his thoughts from the tone of his voice. Immediately her skin began to warm.
She let the knife fall to her side and watched as he slowly rose from his seat on the bank. It was obvious that he had been sitting there for a long while, absolutely silent, as he had watched her bathe. The knowledge of this, for some reason, excited her.
He came toward her slowly, his big body and his dark blond hair reminding her of a story she had once heard from a man who had traveled far south and seen lions. Muscles in his big shoulders moved as he came toward her. His eyes were dark, but what little light there was glinted on them. She could feel her own breath coming deeper as her own muscles seemed to expand.